Sweet Smell of Excess

By Hesselgren, Sophia | The Spectator, November 5, 2005 | Go to article overview

Sweet Smell of Excess


Hesselgren, Sophia, The Spectator


The nose apologises: he has a cold. 'And for me, losing my smell is like . . .' -- his arms hover in front of him -- '. . . being blind. Blind!' We are gathered in the first-floor salon of the Lalique shop on Sloane Street in London, 20 'spray and pray' perfume counter girls (and guys) and I. We are here to be infused with the spirit of the new Lalique fragrance, Le Parfum, one of the autumn's big perfume launches.

Roja Dove, haute perfumer with a hiphop frontman's line in bling, is the man doing the infusing. He is bedecked with gold: chunky flashing rings, heavy chains, a white shirt festooned with gold hundredsand-thousands and overblown flower shapes. As a medical research student at Cambridge, he bombarded the venerated house of Guerlain with 'thousands' of letters asking if he could train with them.

Robert Guerlain eventually acceded, seeing that such determination would be better harnessed within his company than outside it, and Roja remained with Guerlain for 19 years. Now he is a freelance 'professeur des parfums', with his very own haute perfumerie at the Urban Retreat in Harrods and a client list that is as closely guarded as a state secret.

Roja (pronounced Roger) introduces the new product, one that he firmly believes will become a classic. The bottle is glass, simple and square -- these are supposedly the most difficult to manufacture, given that they have to be flawless -- with a replica of the 'Masque de Femme' by René Lalique in the top. It comes in a very smart red and black box, which Roja opens with a flourish. 'And sitting inside like a jewel, you have the bottle nestling, ' he says in an almost-French accent, and points out the silk barbichette wound around the top.

Behind me, I hear an intake of breath.

'Beautiful!' says Mandy from Scentsations in Troon. 'Beautiful.' Fragrance is a strange and complex beast in that, with one whiff, it can transport you to a different time and place: the musty medical smell that reminds you of rooting around your grandmother's attic, say, or the sticky floral aroma that conjures up an adolescent summer spent doing GCSEs drenched in Impulse and fear. You don't get that buying a pair of shoes. As Roja says, 'Fragrance acts like a cat burglar -- it picks the lock that unleashes memories.' It works on the most primitive part of the brain.

The word perfume comes from the Latin per (through) and fumare (to smoke). It describes, originally, how man, once he'd become civilised enough to stop sacrificing his fellow man/animal, communicated with his god or gods. He burnt gum resins:

frankincense, myrrh, benzoin. And with the aromatic smoke that ascended went his prayers.

Now, of course, perfume is a multi-billionpound industry that has less to do with communicating with gods and more to do with communicating with the opposite (or, indeed, same) sex. 'Marketing bullshit' is how Roja describes it, which is itself quite a good line in marketing. Multinational companies such as L'Oréal (whose perfume sales in the first six months of this year came to .7.163 billion), Procter and Gamble and Coty (which bought Unilever in March for $800 million) between them release eaux de toilette numbering well into the hundreds every year.

A common tactic is to launch a fragrance on the back of any celebrity -- and I use the word loosely -- willing to sell their name.

The bandwagon is heaving: David and Victoria Beckham, Sarah Jessica Parker, Shania Twain, Donald Trump all have an 'eau de moi', as does Sir Cliff Richard. His fragrance for women is called 'Miss You Nights', which makes for some fairly traumatic mental images, at least in my head.

These marketing-driven fragrances mean that customers end up buying a plastic -- or, if the star is sufficiently A-list, glass -- bottle with a synthetic frangipani/vanillasmelling substance for quite a lot more than it costs to produce. (Vanilla, incidentally, is a psychogenic aphrodisiac, meaning that whether it is consumed or sniffed the effect it has on the nervous system is one of intense pleasure; vanilla tincture made from the sweated seed pods of orchids in, for instance, Réunion island takes 18 months to two years to produce. …

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