Something to sniff at

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There is something ineluctable and ineffable about fragrance. You know it the minute you scent it. It tickles, teases, tantalizes and maybe even traps the nostrils. But what is it that entices or repels? How to describe the experience? By the time you do – poof – it may be gone.

We at WAG couldn’t do a Flower Power issue without a discussion of perfume and for that we needed a nose. Fortunately, Tania Sanchez graciously agreed to answer our questions.

Sanchez is a perfume collector who has written hundreds of reviews on perfume websites. She is the author with biophysicist Luca Turin of “Perfumes: The Guide” (Viking, 2008), a bible of fragrance.

It is not a book for the weak of ego. Like the Lord, it giveth and taketh away, awarding stars – or not – to a host of scents and describing those grades in the most, well, perfumed prose.

Here’s Turin on Chanel’s Chance, a floral oriental: “… Avoid this one, unless you’re dating Piltdown Man.”

Ah, but here’s Sanchez on that Chanel classic, No. 5, a powdery floral: “… It is an ideally proportioned wonder, all of a piece, smooth to the touch and solid as marble, with no sharp edges and no extraneous fur trimming, a monument of perfect structure and texture. And some people think perfume is not an art.” No wonder it’s one of the book’s best florals. (See list.)

Why does perfume have such a mystique?

Sanchez:“I am not sure what is meant by mystique. Most perfume companies enjoy manufacturing unnecessary mystery by trying hard never to tell you the truth about who makes perfume, out of what and how. If you mean something more like romance or thrill, I suppose it is because it is a bit forward to smell each other to see if we like it, like dogs meeting in the park.”

Can you tell our readers a little about what goes into making a great fragrance?

“Sure. Much of it is like the making of a non-great fragrance: A client, who wants to sell you and me a perfume, hires a perfumer, usually but not always via a composition firm, which employs the perfumers and sells the oil to clients. The perfumer has a brief, which is a description of what sort of fragrance the client wants. There is generally an evaluator working with the perfumer, to give feedback over many trials.

“Now, most perfumes these days are deliberate copies of existing perfumes. They analyze whatever worked last time and do the same again. And perfumers are expected to do this in a matter of weeks or months if they’re lucky, whereas perfumers once had the luxury of years to come up with something great and new. They are also given a budget just slightly higher, if that, than the budget for the scent of fabric softener. For a fragrance to have even a shot at greatness, the perfumer needs a willing client with taste, good creative direction, time and budget, and then add talent, luck and ideas.”

I’ve heard it said that perfume reacts with your body chemistry and therefore not every fragrance is for every woman. How should a woman or a man go about selecting a signature scent?

“I’ve heard that, too, but the effects of skin chemistry are drastically overstated. A small number of people do have wacky skin chemistry, but the majority of us wearing Chanel No. 5 are going to smell like Chanel No. 5, not pickles or sardines. As for signature scents, you just wear something you love to smell and hope the people around you don’t mind too horribly. Finding that is the problem and why we wrote a book. Remember this: Don’t buy anything until you’ve worn it for a few hours, since perfumes are designed to change most drastically in the first 15 minutes or so and then more as the day goes on. Perfumes made on the cheap (their actual sticker price may be high or low) will smell great in the first few minutes and then collapse into hideous funk. This goes for men and women.”

You are going to a remote (but fabulous) resort yet can only bring one carry-on and thus one scent with you. What would it be?

“I don’t want to say and risk competing with your readers for my next bottle!”

The 10 Best Florals (According to “Perfumes: The Guide”)

• Amouage Gold (Amouge) huge floral – Luca Turin writes: “…This perfume is about texture rather than structure, a hundred flying carpets of scent overlapping each other. It’s as if Joy had eloped with Scheherazade for a thousand and one nights of illicit fun.”

• Beyond Paradise (Estée Lauder) symphonic floral – Turin again: “… hits to perfection the dappled, fresh light of early morning shining on the sort of impossible garden that Swedenborg would have seen in visions and described in detail. Not sure about Beyond, but definitely Paradise.”

• Chamade (Guerlain) powdery floral – Turin: “… The modern Chamade still smells great but gets to the point much faster and has a slight flatness I have noticed in recent Jicky versions, something milkier and more sedate in the vanillic background. Nevertheless, a masterpiece.”

• Joy parfum (Jean Patou) symphonic floral – Turin: “… Joy does not smell of rose, jasmine, ylang or tuberose. It just smells huge, luscious and utterly wonderful.”

• No. 5 (Chanel) – See introduction.

• Odalisque (Parfums de Nicolaï) fresh chypre – Turin: “… It’s as if the perfumer had skillfully shaved off material from a classic chypre accord until a marmoreal light shone through it. A unique, underrated marvel and great on a man as well.”

• Osmanthe Yunnan (Hermès) milky tea – Tania Sanchez writes: “… Osmanthe Yunnan is beautiful from start to finish, distinctive, impossible to improve, unforgettable, unpretentious and the best of (Jean-Claude) Elléna’s work for Hermès so far.”

• Private Collection Tuberose Gardenia (Estée Lauder) real gardenia – Turin: “… The gardenia effect does not (and cannot) stretch to the drydown. … While it lasts, however, this is one of the prettiest tunes your nose has ever heard.”

• Promesse de l’Aube (Parfums MDCI) peach rose – Turin: “This is a homage to the fifties, done in the lithe, modern, apricot-fuzz manner of 31 Rue Cambon, which it predates by several years. Superb.”

• Rive Gauche (Yves Saint Laurent) reference rose – Turin: “Probably the best floral aldehydic of all time. … I have no idea why YSL messed with it. … Try the new, but if you really prefer the old, it will be available for years to come on eBay and other websites.”

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