Perfume – And The Fallen Angel Of Our Senses

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I love, love, love perfume – don’t you? From a teenager, my dressing table’s been cluttered with a joyous array of bottles: Miss Dior, Eau Sauvage, Chanel No. 22 (I prefer this little known ‘relative’ to No. 5), Hermès Calèche, Illuminium Indian Oudh, Bottega Veneta, Viktor & Rolf Flowerbomb, YSL Rive Gauche – oh, I could go on (and on and on) with the guided tour. Ever since my dad (who travelled a lot) started bringing me back bottles from Duty Free to assuage his guilt after trips abroad (guilt trips in the true sense), I’ve adored fragrance for the way it can shift our mood, make us smile, make people remember us – and even maybe help make people fall in love with us…

But I agree really strongly with Helen Keller, famously blind and deaf, who commented: smell is ‘the fallen angel of our senses’. (Her own nose was so acute that she could even sense impending rain). Basically, your sense of smell is a seven-stone weakling. (So was mine). But it doesn’t have to be that way. I’ve had the pleasure of spending time with some of the greatest noses on the planet, the Arnold Schwarzeneggers of the fragrance world. In an aromatic haze of flowers, roots, grasses, primitive animal scents, essential oils and nature-identical lab-created essences, they can discern – and, what’s more, remember – thousands of different aromas.

Once upon a time, of course, our noses were fantastically useful. They warned us of approaching sabre-toothed tigers, helped us locate ripe berries – and led us to the perfect mate, his personal signature aroma mingling with that of the mammoth pelt nonchalantly draped over one shoulder. But over the millennia, as we have evolved, smell has become the least necessary of our senses. Sure, our noses still warn us of danger. (Think burning chip pans or North Sea gas). And behind the scenes, our sense of smell still plays a vital – but largely unacknowledged – role in our lives. When we are asleep, smell is the only sense that remains wide awake. It helps babies bond with mothers and is the reason why lovers can pick out their partner’s worn t-shirt from a pile of anonymous unwashed smalls. Without smell, our sense of taste all but disappears. But by neglecting our noses – placing smell way down the list of vital senses after sight, hearing, even touch – we are, in reality, not fully, completely, skin-tinglingly alive…

So: just a few days ago, I launched what I hope will become a go-to destination for perfume-lovers called The Perfume Society (www.perfumesociety.org). Much, much more than a website (packed as it is with information for perfume-lovers!), it’s an actual organisation that people can join to receive sample boxes of perfume, accompanied by ‘smelling notes’ that help exercise that sense of smell, so helping to turbo-charge our pleasure in life itself. And my real mission, I guess, is to help people improve their sense of smell – which in turn, turbo-charges our pleasure in life itself (not least because the nose and the sense of taste are so closely linked that when you exercise your nose, it boosts the sense of taste, too.)

Some years ago, I devised a workout which I like to think of as Jane Fonda For Noses. It’s fun. It’s hugely pleasurable. It involves lots of smelling, some closing of eyes, some writing. And it’s a bit like sport: at first, you can only run 100 yards. Before long, you can effortlessly clock up two or three miles. And finally, some people can run a marathon, and you find that you start to be able to smell things from further away, and make out nuances, and get little whiffs of gorgeousness as you wander through the day. I taught the workshop at Alain de Botton’s School of Life a couple of years ago (where it was hugely well-received), and we’re reviving it for subscribers to The Perfume Society: a complimentary session (including the requisite goodie bag!), at which our subscribers will learn the tricks and the simple, enjoyable exercise which I learned from three great noses: Jean Patou’s Jean Kerléo, Jacques Cavallier (whose first perfume for Louis Vuitton is hotly anticipated), and Estée Lauder’s Karyn Khoury. I feel rather as if it’s my (enjoyable) duty to pass on what I’ve learned! We’re hosting these workshops around the country. Maybe see you there…? (The first one’s in London on 7th June, FYI.)

How can I be sure the workout works? Simple. As my former couch potato of a nose rapidly turned into a veritable Mo Farah, I found that the distance from which I could sense strangers’ perfumes lengthened: from two feet to as much as twelve, maybe even more. The ability to smell, you see, is a use-it-or-lose-it phenomenon. Perfume practice makes perfect. (As Ms. Fonda would say: ‘work’ those nostrils’). And taking time to smell not only the roses but your lover’s neck – and the spray starch, come to that – is a glorious, life-enhancing idea thing to do.

Or, to put it another way: if you want to up life’s pleasure quotient – just follow your nose.

My Top 10 Fragrance Tips

  1. Try to shop for fragance in the morning, when your nose is still fresh.
  2. I believe the best way to enjoy the fragrance you wear yourself is to change it – at least seasonally. Otherwise it becomes ‘part of the furniture’ and while others can smell it, it fades into the background for you. Changing it frequently keeps the nose on its toes!
  3. Don’t wear fragrance in the sun. I like to spray a ribbon and tie it round my wrist, in summer, or spray clothing itself (having first spritzed a tissue to ensure the ‘juice’ doesn’t stain).
  4. Keep fragrances out of sunlight and away from heat, to keep them at their optimum – best of all, in the dark (your lingerie drawer is perfect!)
  5. Fragrance ‘clings’ better to well-moisturised skin; apply an unfragranced body lotion to wrists and neck (though ideally, all over!), first.
  6. When out perfume-shopping, spritz spills/blotters first, and don’t try more than three on the body at any one time.
  7. Don’t make snap judgments about perfume (which is why Duty Free’s a questionable shopping destination for perfume-seekers). You need to allow at least four hours for the base notes to emerge, as these are what you’ll live with.
  8. Don’t ever buy a fragrance because it smells great on someone else. You are always, always advised to try it on your own skin before making a decision; everyone’s chemistry is different.
  9. One of the nicest ways to enjoy fragrance that I know is to spray the inside of your handbag with it!
  10. Use fragrance to calm yourself. Spray, breathe… Breathe again. A great reminder to breathe deeply, which is so brilliant for de-stressing.

And enjoy…!

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