Friday, January 8, 2016

"Perfume Is Such An Irrelevant Thing" - An Audience With Luca Turin At The Perfume Society [part 1]


I know, I know, it's a new year and I should be looking forward. But living in the past doesn't always have to be a sin, so I'd like to begin my posts for 2016 by turning back to an afternoon in October when Luca Turin - you don't really need me to tell you who he is, do you? - popped into London's Les Senteurs and spent some time chatting to members of The Perfume Society, which had organised the get-together. Various scent-related topics were covered. Several perfumes were sniffed. Controversies were stirred with good humour: at one point, Turin claimed that awarding 5 stars to Secretions Magnifiques in the influential A-Z Guide he wrote with Tania Sanchez may have been "a lapse of judgement"! What follows is a record of his responses to some of the questions posed by the Society's Jo Fairley, as well as members of the audience. Enjoy!

Remind us how you got into writing about perfume. Had you always been interested in it?

Luca Turin: My interest in perfume is nothing special. Perfumery is a big industry, so someone must like it. But my peculiarity was that it was easy for me to translate perfume into words. I don't know why that should be, but for me it's easy. As I always say, for me a perfume is not a smell. It's a message in a bottle. I think that's a very important distinction. People always think of perfume as a sort of refined form of a smell. No. Rose oil is a smell. And when it is beautiful, it is sublime. Perfume, when good, is a message written by a perfumer to the person who is smelling the perfume. In principle, it should be decipherable. After all, it's a human who made it, for another human. There's some question as to whether humans are still doing it at Givaudan, or whether the robots have taken over...

People always talk about perfume and memory, as if perfume had a privileged access to memory. I don't believe that to be true. Everything has a privileged access to memory. If you see a face or hear a tune or the timbre of a voice, it can trigger very powerful memories. The weird thing about perfumes, which is different from the other senses, is that there's no relationship of similarity. With faces, if you see the sister or the brother of someone you once loved, you will get the shock of memory, because there's a resemblance. In perfumes, there's no resemblance. It's either Ma Griffe, or it damn well is not. Therefore, that makes the shock of recognition much more rare. And that's why it hits you.

You wrote your first book of reviews in French, right?

LT: Don't ever publish a book in France. They are totally cynical. They couldn't care less about quality. The British love books; the French pretend to love books. I went to some guy who was choosing manuscripts for, I think, probably the s***tiest publisher in France. The reason this publisher published books was that they were a major printer and binder. But they couldn't go to book shows unless they had a publishing house. Their publishing house was a complete pretext. When I'd done 20 or 30 reviews, this guy said to me, "You seem... genuine." In France it's completely lethal to be genuine. And they published my little book. It's described as a best seller, but of course, being the only perfume guide, it's got to be the best seller. Even if it had sold 3 copies, it would have been the bestseller. I think they sold a few hundred. And in the industry, it gave me the reputation of being the most recondite dandy. This was the very beginning of perfume writing. And then the Internet happened, and the rest is everybody's history.

What do you think of perfume writing on the Internet today? Do you think things have gone too far in terms of the number of perfume blogs?

LT: There's no such thing as too far. There's plenty of stuff you don't want to read, but the more, the merrier. When it comes to opinion, I hope there will be ten times as much on the Internet. I'm not saying I'm gong to to read them, but it's fantastic to me. For me, what the Internet does is that it gives you the mean and the range of an opinion. You can poll. And that's very interesting.

But what about knowing which opinions are right and which ones are wrong?

LT: There's plenty of right and wrong when it comes to political opinions. But thank God, perfume is such an irrelevant thing, that you can practically do no harm with it.

What do you think of the fact that there seem to be more self-taught perfumers around today?

LT: I think it's an unfair competition because the perfumers in the great perfume houses have access to materials that nobody can get hold of. They have access to technical back up that other people can only dream of. They have access to robots that can do a hundred compositions for testing in as many minutes. So, it's David and Goliath, really. And considering that, it's amazing that artisan perfumers can do good stuff. And it also makes you think that, perhaps, the big perfume houses have lost their way. If it was 1955, Roure Bertrand Dupont versus artisan perfumers, the latter wouldn't be able to win, because the former were working in the same way as today's artisans, but with more knowledge, more recipe books, more technical back up. But now, mainstream perfumery is, generally speaking, so crap, that you can be a contender. I don't think you could have gone up against Edmond Roudnitska and done better. But now you can, because the big houses have scandalously lost their way.

The one thing that I don't like about artisan perfumery is that, unfortunately, because of the access they have to materials, they often seem to be circling around the same area, in terms of olfaction. Amidst all the dross of commercial perfumery, there are some really surprising, different, weird, interesting accords that can only be done if you have access to novel aromachemicals. There's no mystery there. Look at the work of Christophe Laudamiel, for example. For about 10 years, he composed accords for IFF. They would give him a new material and he had to think up a use for it - not a finished fragrance - just to show what you could do with this new material. And when you went to the IFF stand at the big perfumery exhibitions, every single thing was done by him. He's a genius. He can't finish a fragrance to save his life, but he can start a hundred that no-one else could do. That kind of stuff you can only really do in a large fragrance company, when you have 5000 materials, plus the chemists feeding you all the latest. This being said, what they do with it most of the time isn't worth doing.

What are your thoughts on Chanel at the moment?

LT: Lately, they've been doing a really good job. They're an outlier point in perfumery, because they are weirdly obsessed with keeping things quite good, and they also do s**t perfumes. People always talk about diluting the brand and how you have to be careful. Chanel somehow manage to have a bulkhead between utter trivia - like Bleu, which is just garbage - and really great fragrances. And somehow, it doesn't seem to damage them. But I know that the quality control in the really good fragrances is obsessional. For example, when it comes to Cristalle, they've recently sourced a new galbanum. And Cristalle is as good as it's ever been.

Are Chanel, Dior, Guerlain and the rest of them really so concerned about quality?

LT: With Chanel, believe the hype. Guerlain is opaque. It's a weird company. It's very French. There is a tradition at Guerlain; I think there is a spirit of the place that carries on. Unfortunately, the top level of Guerlain, Sylvaine Delacourte etc... I'd better not start saying anything about them. It breaks my heart. [pauses] But I will say this. Guerlain has always been vulgar. This is something that people don't quite appreciate. When I first moved to Paris as a student, my landlady, who was very classy, said to me, "There are two perfumers worth a damn in Paris. Guerlain and Caron. And Guerlain is for cocottes," meaning kept women. So it should be remembered that Guerlain was never classy. It was always trashy. So in that respect, Sylvaine Delacourte is continuing the tradition. And you can print that.

In The Emperor Of Scent, Chandler Burr mentions that you and John Stephen made a perfume for Fragonard. Do you think there'll ever be any more fragrances made by you?

LT: No, and thank God, because I was absolutely awful as an evaluator. I like perfume too much; I tend to like everything. But we had a fantastic time with John Stephen. He's a great perfumer. And he's also a pilot. So when Fragonard in Grasse commissioned this thing, we flew with a drum of the oil from Shoreham-On-Sea to Cannes Mandelieu airport together. We arrive in Cannes and the customs man comes up to their airplane and says, "What's that?" So we said, "Perfume." And he said, "What's the matter? Is it faulty? Are you bringing it back??"

Are you concerned about the large number of launches these days?


LT: Well, most of those launches are fairly low-profile. The big launches are expensive affairs. But I'd say that about 90% of the 1400 launches are small potatoes. It's sort of frustrating to think that there might be something really great in there. I remember when we were reviewing perfumes for the book, we got an enormous box from Dali Perfumes. They've done... I don't know... 120 or something, and I was going, "Oh God!" But there were 2 or 3 really good ones in there. From the standpoint of somebody who's interested in fragrance, 1400 launches is the stuff of nightmares. But at the same time, really, 95% will be crap. What's peculiar is that the big ones are crap. When you have that kind of money and clout, you should be able to do something really good. I think the problem is art direction. There are very few good perfume art directors around. And the people who hire them in fashion houses are visual people, not smell people. So there's a mismatch.

---
In part 2, find out what Turin has to say about Frederic Malle, Amouage, Tauer... and what kind of scents men should wear. Click here to read it.

Turin's latest book, Folio Columns 2003-2014, a collection of articles he wrote for NZZ Folio, is available now from Amazon; click on its title for more info. And to check out the perfume reviews he writes for Style Arabia, please click here.


Persolaise

40 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. What did Holmes once say to Watson when the latter accused him of not showing much sympathy for a client's plight? "He doesn't come to me for sympathy," or something along those lines.

      We don't come to you for diplomacy, Dr T. We come to you for what you consistently offer: a concrete opinion, expressed with conviction.

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  2. absolutely brilliant ! Thanks Persolaise. I had a damned good chuckle re Guerlain ! Still love my Guerlain though.
    Oh Mr Turin ..first class honesty and v appreciated.
    Anyway I am v happy to hear that I can believe the hype re. Chanel. I intend on trying Misia again .The first time I tried it ..it was v green on me and not that powdery violet everyone was talking about.

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    1. Mimi, thanks for stopping by. You know, vulgarity is an underrated quality ;-) And there are plenty of modern Guerlains I enjoy.

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    2. I agree: vulgarity can be great. Witness for example Maurice Roucel's superb Insolence EDP.

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    3. Ah, that's a wonderful one. I think the last vulgar fragrance I loved was Kurkdjian's Absolue Pour Le Soir. Mind you, is it vulgar or dirty? Are they one and the same thing? Discuss...

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    4. Persolaise ... Cuir Beluga ... my fave of the moment. 3 unsolicited compliments in 3 weeks and I am on bottle no 2 !

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    5. Mimi... wow, CB counts as vulgar for you? But it's so quiet :-) What on earth must you think of Amarige?? :-D

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    6. Persolaise ..not at all. I love Guerlain!! CB is v quiet I agree .... I have Amarige ..it is radioactive stuff ( love it though ) ..bought it when I was jet lagged in Singapore ;D

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    7. Buying Amarige while jet lagged. Now, there's a definition of bravery for you :-)

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  3. Replies
    1. Jessica, thank you... but I really don't think I deserve any accolades in this case :-)

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  4. So interesting! I was gulping this interview down like a piece of cake. I like his stories very much and I'm looking forward to the second part. Thank you very much.

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    1. Neva, thanks for stopping by. I hope it was a suitably vulgar cake!

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  5. I don't care if it's vulgar as long as it tastes/smells good to me :-)

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  6. I love this man - political correctness be damned! If I'm smelling vulgar or dirty when I wear any of my Guerlains then more power to me! Thanks for this great post and I look forward to the next installment!

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    1. SallyM, thanks for stopping by. And you just keep enjoying your Guerlains! :-)

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  7. that was such a fun read.i wish his book lived in real book land..i like to hold things : )can't wait for part 2..thanking you kindly.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for your kind words. The book is also available in paperback.

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    2. Flowergirlbee, thanks for stopping by. And yes, if you look on Amazon, you should find an option to buy a paperback.

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    3. that is great news : ) i think i will try to get my local library to buy it..i have been slowly getting them to build up there perfume section.

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    4. Good luck! Let us know how you get on :-)

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  8. great interview and perspective...however, certainly believe Christophe can (and has) finished fragrances.

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    Replies
    1. His Scent for Theo Fennell was wonderful, wasn't it? Such a shame they discontinued it.

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    2. And my beloved S-ex for S-Perfumes! (Two five-stars fragrances, according to Mr. Turin, so I'm sure LT was either being flippant, or perhaps, referring to Laudamiel during his early period.)

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    3. Ah yes, Erin, another fascinating composition.

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  9. You are correct and I misspoke, unfairly to him. What I mean is that he is best at discovering new accords.

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  10. Just checked on the databases and it turns out he has done a mere 57, so my apologies. Speak in haste, repent at leisure. I must add that some of the frags, or more exactly fragrance sketches, included in the "Perfume" movie box illustrate his genius beautifully. The accord of Salon Rouge is the only fragrance I have ever smelled that actually scared me.

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    Replies
    1. You mentioned the Salon Rouge at the Perfume Society event. Sounds quite incredible.

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    2. Let's not forget his work for Humiecki and Graef too. Skarb and Multiple rouge in particular are something to behold.

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    3. great interview. I could listen to LT talk all day.

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    4. Thank you :-) I'm afraid I'm not familiar with those scents you mention.

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  11. Ah, you answered, Dr. Turin... and it is you. It will teach me to not scan responses hastily, as I misread and thought your initial comment was from (frangrance blogger) Lucas. Thanks for your clarification. The interview was wonderful and I'm really looking forward to Part 2.

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  12. I can't agree more with Mr. Turin about Christophe Laudamiel. I've tried most of his work for Humiecki&Graef and this is really amazing perfumery, totally modern accords, completely new aromas, fascinating, astonishing and at the same time so wearable! I wish F.Malle gave him a job for his line. :)

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for stopping by. Yes, he's a perfumer to watch. As for Malle... who knows what might happen...

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  13. Ha, I love this interview! But I have a question! What is it about Guerlain frags that are considered "vulgar" ? And why would Caron be for the wife, and not the mistress? I have some Narcisse Noir that makes me just as happy as L'H B, and it smells so much sexier to me, and a bit dirty.

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    1. Larkin, thanks for your comment. I'm sure there are plenty of mistress-worthy Carons out there. Don't forget, this was just the view of one landlady :-)

      Personally, I've always liked the idea of a wife who smells like a mistress...

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  14. I really mean my question though! I know that it was a cultural idiom that Guerlain was for the mistress, Caron for the wife... indicating that Caron is more... proper? staid? boring? classy? I don't understand this idea's Why, and would love some opinion and elaboration on it! :)

    (love your blog!)

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    Replies
    1. Larkin, first of all, thanks very much indeed for your kind words about my blog.

      If Luca is still reading these comments, he might want to elaborate on his landlady's assertions. But my view is that this may be a case of a transitory opinion somehow becoming preserved in aspic.

      If you go through Caron's back catalogue, you'll find a few scandalous and near-scandalous creations. If you have a peek at Guerlain's, you'll come across a significant number of dainty wallflowers. But maybe, at a time when the opinion-formers were doing their thing, Caron was seen as the classier of the two outfits... and the tag stuck.

      Soon after Guerlain released Shalimar (which really did ruffle a few well-groomed feathers) Caron gave us Bellodgia. Was that seen as a classy composition, especially in relation to the Guerlain? I don't know.

      Mind you, the whole classy/slutty debate is a sinkhole of subjectivity. For instance, where do you stand on Joan Collins, circa Dynasty? She was seen as the epitome of class by some people :-)

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