Monday, 13 September 2010

The Perfume Diaries at Harrods

A few days ago, Madame Persolaise and I had a leisurely wander around the Perfume Diaries exhibition on the 4th floor of Harrods. There is a great deal I could write about the two hours we spent there, but in the interests of brevity, I shall have to restrain myself to just a few thoughts and observations. In a nutshell: it is without doubt a must-see. If you consider yourself to be a perfume fan and you're going to be in the London area between now and the beginning of October, you absolutely need to make your way to Knightsbridge.

My recommendation isn't entirely unreserved. For a start, the punctuation and composition of the prose that accompanies the artefacts is quite appalling in a few cases. I'd also suggest that insufficient attention has been paid to masculine fragrances, although I appreciate that the history of perfume revolves largely around scents created for women. I would also have enjoyed a few more opportunities actually to smell some of the creations on display, but I suppose this might have created a logistical headache for the organisers. But these are relatively minor quibbles and did not detract from what turned out to be a thoroughly illuminating experience.

The exhibit basically follows the same structure as curator Roja Dove's book, The Essence Of Perfume: after a brief explanation of fragrance creation and raw materials, the visitor is guided, decade by decade, through a history of scent. The rarity of some of the bottles on display is nothing short of astonishing and must surely mark some sort of milestone as far as UK-based perfume exhibitions are concerned. There are two bottles created by Guerlain exclusively for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, containing two different scents that were designed to complement each other. There is a highly collectable - and rather hideous! - dog-shaped bottle made by Christian Dior for a fragrance which he used to give to his friends. There are also several old Coty bottles on display, including the Holy Grail itself, the much sought-after Chypre.

Questionable prose notwithstanding, I enjoyed reading the blurbs that provided a summary of each of the decades: on the one hand they proved the old adage that plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, and on the other, they were helpful in placing the development of perfume within the context of other art forms.

Other personal highlights included seeing the original packaging for an 1840s Guerlain soap, featuring the official authentication of the French government in order to distinguish it from the counterfeits which were apparently in high circulation at the time. I was also impressed by the bottle for an exclusive Thierry Wasser creation called Abeille De Guerlain, designed, appropriately enough, like a giant bee, with massive, bevelled wings. Apparently, only 46 bottles of this new scent have been made and each one costs more than 10,000 euros. Chanel No. 5 is given pride of place in one area of the exhibit with a fascinating line-up of all the scent's bottle designs, from its birth to the present day. The original flacon still seems shockingly minimalist by today's standards, so one can only imagine the impact it must have had when it was first sold.

It was encouraging to see that the exhibition concludes with the assertion that the future of the industry belongs to niche perfumers: a cabinet containing creations from the likes of Ormonde Jayne and The Different Company is covered in quotations expressing the idea that knowledgeable consumers are now choosing to turn away from the celebrity, market-research driven ethos that defined much of the mainstream fragrance output of the last two decades. Perhaps this was a somewhat incongruous statement to read in the setting of Harrods, but I took it as a sign that the event's organisers have made a genuine attempt to cater to the needs of a wide range of visitors, and judging from the fact that Madame Persolaise - who is by no means a perfume fanatic - enjoyed the two hours as much as I did, I would say they succeeded quite admirably.

[Unfortunately, visitors are not allowed to take pictures of any of the exhibits, but please click on this link to be taken to a Basenotes article which contains quite a few photos.]


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