Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Cheap Class

Let's get one thing straight - I have never bought or worn perfume.  I always chalked perfume up to one of those girly-girl things, which I was never good at - I was the girl who had never bought make-up before she was 18, and then only because my younger sister said I couldn't go to college without it and I made her pick it out. So the reason I signed up for a walking tour/class on "niche perfume houses in Paris" through an anglophone organization here in Paris was because a) it was the cheapest class offered and b) it was offered on a day when I have my nanny. 

With no expectations, I could not have had a better time.  It turns out perfume is actually interesting!  These "artisan" perfumers are dedicating their lives to creating scents evocative of emotions, seasons, memories, places, in much the same way that artists paint or fashion designers create a new line.  And part of why perfume always intimidated me is because I believed you had to find your one, signature scent, which clearly I had NO chance of doing.  But as it turns out, you are totally allowed to have multiple perfumes and perfume, if stored correctly, never goes bad. 

The first stop on the tour was Divine, a small shop on Rue Scribe that offers just 6 or 7 scents for women and 4 for men.  Divine was started by a perfumer in Dinard, Brittany.  With just one man creating all of the scents, even though each is distinct, they all seem related.  We were a bit awkward on this first stop, a group of six American strangers sniffing perfumes.  As the afternoon progressed, though, we developed a camaraderie, with one of us suggesting that someone else might like this scent, and so on.  Obviously I headed up the let's-all-be-friends-so-I'll-act-like-the-peppy-American-camp-counselor approach.  It totally worked, so I'm owning it.

Montale was our second stop, which was completely different from Divine - think Angelina versus Jennifer.  Montale's perfumes are all inspired by Middle Eastern scents, in particular oud.  Which is some kind of Arabian wood or something.  I did really like this quote that I found while trying to google "oud": A renowned Arab Caliph once said “If I were a merchant, I would only trade in Oud perfume, so that if I did not make a profit, I would have profited from its sensational scent”.   I love the romanticism of it, as if smelling something wonderful would put dinner on the table.
You see how this Angelina compared with Jen above, right?
Montale is apparently huge with tourists from Dubai.  And also Russians, according to the Montale employee who spoke with us, who in particular love their "Chocolate" scent. Which seriously smells like chocolate, so none of us could figure out why anyone would really want to wear it.  Gotta love those Russians for living on the edge like that.  

One of the great ironies about how much I loved my perfume tour was that I have a terrible sense of smell.  Seriously.  Last week there was a piece of rotting fruit in a bag next to my desk that I sit at every day, and I didn't even notice until one night Mr. Oil said, "um, I think something really smells over there?"   But my olfactory nerves seemed to perk up on the tour, and it was fun to use a sense other than my taste buds to explore Paris. 

However much fun I was having, I was not prepared for how much I would simply fall in love with Jovoy, our final stop.  Francois, the founder and owner of the store, spent an hour chatting with us about perfume, the shop, and his story, and he was utterly charming and funny in a very fast-talking-Gerard-Depardieu-without-the-big-shnoz kinda way.  Here's the story.  Jovoy was an old perfume brand that had died out. Francois decided to revive the line, and open up a shop that pays homage to niche perfumers.  So Jovoy, in addition to have their own small line, holds over 600 scents from 35 different perfumers who are all considered "niche".  So if you walk in here looking for Chanel No. 5 or Diorella, it's not clear what kind of reception you'll get.  If you walk in here and you say, "I like scents similar to Chanel No. 5, what can you show me?", then it's a whole other ball game. 

The most fascinating aspect of this store for me were the perfumes that had been recreated to mirror scents used by famous people from the past - notably Queen Mary, Napoleon, and Josephine (Napoleon's wife, of course).  While most of these historical scents don't blend well with our 21st century noses, these is something singular about experiencing the smells of a different age.  We can see what people wore, we can eat what they ate (if we wanted to eat mutton leg, or whatever), we can imagine all sorts of things, but the smells seem harder to experience.  One perfume we were shown had to be the most foul smelling thing - literally smelled like a latrine.  I don't know why you would market such a thing but it was actually fun to stand in a fancy store surrounded by expensive perfumes and smell a toilet.   The Queen Mary perfume was actually the perfume she wore to her betrothal, and Francois had us smell that, followed by smelling the perfume that Kate Middleton wore to her wedding to Prince William.  Queen Mary's perfume was very heavy and intense (though they did have to cover up for their lack of bathing, right?) whereas Kate's was, of course, perfectly elegant and subtle.  

I don't know that I'll ever be a regular perfume wearer.  But I have much more appreciation for the idea of what a scent can be, and how you can use perfume to have fun, or lighten your mood, or make you think of summertime.  Hooray for picking the cheap class!

PS Don't keep your perfume in the bathroom. It should be kept somewhere dark and relatively cool, like a cupboard or a closet. Then it will last forever. And then one day your grandkids can say, "Hey, Grandma, why do you smell like a toilet?"  And you can say, "I went perfume-shopping in Paris..."