I am, most decidedly, not a wearer of scents. I am the kind that runs through the perfume section of the department store holding my breath, the kind that finds cologne abhorrent, the kind that can't even use scented lotions. And yet, the emotional potential of the sense of smell, and the vivid language that describes it, draws me in.
As Diane Ackerman says in A Natural History of the Senses, "To begin to understand the gorgeous fever that is consciousness, we must try to understand the senses and what they can tell us about the ravishing world we have the privilege to inhabit." And so, a treatise on perfume.
The delightfully macabre German novel "Perfume: Story of a Murderer", which then became a captivating film, was endlessly fascinating to me. The tale is not for the weak-hearted; filled with gruesome descriptions and disturbing cruelty, it nonetheless features some of the most stunning passages I've ever read. I couldn't imagine how such a strange book could translate well to the screen, but director Tom Twyker brought it to vibrant life in all its bizarre glory.
The last issue of Coilhouse magazine had an interview with Christopher Brosius, who runs Brooklyn scent gallery CB I Hate Perfume, and has been called "the Willy Wonka of Perfume." The CB Manifesto sums up my feelings on perfume perfectly: "A lazy and inelegant concession to fashionable ego / Too often a substitute for true allure and style / An arrogant slap in the face from across the room..." Brosius escapes such trespass by creating the purest of accords, the most elemental single-note scents, that he combines to make his concoctions.
And then there's the sheer beauty of For Strange Women ~ almost enough to tempt me into giving scent-wearing another chance. Like Brosius, Jill McKeever is a different kind of perfume-maker ~ independent, innovative, and terribly strange. Scents like "Sweet Androgyny" and "Decadence and Debauchery", her breathtaking imagery, and packaging that hearkens back to an Edwardian apothecary are all incredibly appealing to me. Absinthe Lip Balm, enough said.
In her Kansas City lab, Jill uses natural essential oils and plant absolutes to fragrance her goods and tinctures ~ which include lip balms, bath salts, and perfume oils. She "combines antiquated styles with pagan sensibilities" to make her lavish potions, and describes how the different scents blend like harmonies to create the music of the perfume.
I am also intrigued by the quirkiness of alt perfume house Black Phoenix Alchemy Labs, with their Neil-Gaiman-novel-themed collections and full moon open houses. Perfumer Elizabeth Moriarty, who was (so fittingly) trained by a Voodoo practitioner in New Orleans, certainly has a nose for the odd and enticing. In an LA Weekly article, she says she loves “using scent for atmospheric purposes, for triggering Proustian memories and for inspiring emotion. Scent is such an underrated sense, and perfumery is such an underrated art.”
I am most pleased that there are perfume-makers out there looking at scent in a new way. When done right, a scent can evoke a feeling, a location, a time, a person... and transport us instantly back to that emotional place via our most basic chemistry. So what aromatically moves you?