No event involving Luca Turin would have been complete without a sniff of some perfume. So once both speaker and audience were warmed up, Jo Fairley of The Perfume Society began spraying blotters with a few, pre-selected scents. Needless to say, they all elicited strong reactions, as you'll discover below. First up was Heeley's Sel Marin...
LT: Heeley is a good firm. He does rather stylish things. It is, in a sense, what Penhaligon's should be, in my estimation. But Penhaligon's went hideously chemical some time back. I don't think this is a superlatively great fragrance, but it's nice to have a complicated, light fragrance with a marine note which is not calone-heavy. It's not going to move mountains, but it's a good smell. The salty thing is hard to get right. Salt has not much smell, so how you get a salty effect is kind of mysterious.
[Next was Knize Ten.]
LT: Knize is a boring gentlemen's outfitters in Vienna that sells very tweedy stuff. In the 1920s they did this thing, which was composed by the dream team of François Coty, Vincent Roubert and Ernest Beaux. You can't get better than that. And in my opinion, it still is, in many ways, the reference leather. It's the great-grandfather of all the leathers. And what I like about it is that it's transparent. I like leathers, so I would wear this, although I don't actually wear anything.
Why don't you wear anything?
LT: Okay, what I'm going to say will upset some people, but I think guys should smell of 'clean', and only close up. I think it's okay to have a sillage if you happen to be an oriental satrap, but if you're just a normal dude, keep it quiet. This is not an absolute rule, but I feel uncomfortable when I know that other people can smell me before I get there or after I've left. A perfume should be like an aura. It should follow you very, very closely.
[Next perfume: L'Air Du Desert Marocain from Tauer.]
LT: Leather fragrances are, in essence, a search for bitterness, which is a vastly under-appreciated taste. Almost every liqueur that was bitter 50 years ago is now cloyingly sweet. They've added sugar to everything. This perfume is a modern interpretation of the leather theme. It has lots of other things, but in my mind, it still has the same general direction as Knize Ten. More ambery. More complicated. It really is an amazing composition. It goes on forever. And it's done by a guy who never went to perfume school. There's hope for all of us. Andy Tauer is a case of somebody who would not have been able to run a viable business 20 years ago. And he richly deserves to run a viable business. I think this is a classic on a par with Shalimar.
[Next perfume: Oud Velvet Mood from Maison Francis Kurkdjian.]
LT: This is good stuff. I don't think it's a great fragrance, but what I like about it is that it exemplifies the fact that you can use oud like patchouli. Oud does the same job as patchouli, in a more complicated way. And also, in my opinion, oud has replaced cigarettes. Remember the days when people smoked? It was wonderful. So many fragrances smell better, in my opinion, against a background of fag ends and smoke. In a way, oud is concentrated ash tray absolute. Triple-distilled fag end.
[Next up: Portrait Of A Lady from Frederic Malle.]
LT: Dominique Ropion is a genius, in the manner of Ernest Daltroff, the guy who founded Caron. In other words, he is a genius at achieving a peculiar effect in perfumery, which is the cancellation of equally huge and opposite things. Instead of building a perfume with small things, he builds it with gigantic materials, that somehow don't feel gigantic when he assembles them. Okay, he committed Amarige. Nobody's perfect. But even Amarige is interesting. His fragrances have a power, a clarity, a structure which is always monumental. Portrait is what he did when given high formula cost and free rein, I assume, by Frederic Malle. It's a very classical fragrance. It has a lot of musk. It's an expensive, animalic musk; muscone, I believe. And musks, by the way, have become exceedingly shrill. All the way to detail, this thing works. Ropion is a supreme technical perfumer. Every transition of his perfumes makes sense. When you smell this on skin, there's never a point when you think, 'Uh oh, this is going wrong.'
What do you think of Malle's contribution to perfumery?
LT: To be perfectly honest, I'm not impressed. I think with his clout, with the star crew that he assembled, he could have done better. He didn't get a single 5-star in our guide, because they're all good, unquestionably, but they're not art directed with the degree of adventurousness and fanaticism that you need. He could've done better. There's no masterpiece. They are good fragrances, but in my opinion, there isn't a single Frederic Malle that's a keeper. I'm a little disappointed. But that's just my point of view. Acknowledging the perfumers is unquestionably a big deal, and he was one of the first to do it. And he had a great designer design his stores. He did a very thorough overall job. But there's nothing in the collection that blows my mind. Michel Roudnitska's Noir Epices is very good, and Fléchier's Une Rose is a very interesting idea, because he uses a material which scares the bejesus out of all perfumers called Karanal. It's a monster woody-amber. And Fléchier managed to put together a killer woody-amber together with a rose and make it plausible. It's an incredible technical achievement.
[Next: Salome from Papillon.]
LT: Salome in my opinion exemplifies both the good and the bad of artisan perfumery. There's a ton of civet. It smells kind of urinous. In a sense, it's everything that's missing in Light Blue, so to speak. It's a counterweight, artistically. It's: 'I'm so sick and tired of these squeaky clean, fruity florals, let's concentrate into a fragrance everything that's not in mainstream perfumery'. It's a little bit like Piero Manzoni's Merda D'Artista. But it's a useful corrective, and it's actually well composed. If you come back to it after a few hours, the civet has gone and what you have is a big, hefty, expensive, beautiful floral oriental, with good quality jasmine and a big-ass rose. I like this, but it's clearly an artistic reaction to a prevailing trend, rather than a completely autonomous creation. But it's nice to have something like this. [sniffs and chuckles] It really is quite disgusting! Honestly, on a first date, you'd think, 'Woah! Does she work at London Zoo? And if so, has she been hugging the giraffe?'
[Next up: Anubis from Papillon.]
LT: This is a tendency in fragrance which I would describe as medicinal, which I like very much. This contains a ton of guaiacol. It's phenolic. And it's also vanillic, because the bottom half of the vanilla molecule is guaiacol. I find these things like disinfectants for the soul. It makes me feel like breathing it in. It's not a million miles away from L'Air Du Desert Marocain. But because it's less floral, it's less complicated. Really good piece of work.
[Next: Futur from Robert Piguet.]
LT: When I lived in Nice in the 80s, there used to be a perfumery in Monaco run by a crazy old woman who, I suspect, must have been, at some point, an expensive prostitute. She was in her 80s. She was dolled up to the nines. She had the filthiest language. Her perfumery was really like an iceberg. The emerged part was all modern stuff, but if you knew the password, then underneath were these amazing galleries. Whenever a company went bust, she bought their whole stock. But you had to pass an unpleasant personality test with her. Behind her, on shelves inaccessible to the hand, were bottles like Chypre by Coty and legendary stuff like that. So you would say, 'Could I have that bottle?' And she would say, 'What bottle?' And you'd say, 'That bottle.' And she'd say, 'There's no bottle there.' I mean, she was really insane. The first time I went there, she said, 'Young man, I bet you don't even know what the top note of Caron's Bellodgia is.' And I said, 'Yes, it's carnation.' So she opened the drawer and said, 'I will not sell you Chypre. But I will sell you this.' And 'this' happened to be Futur. And when Aurelien Guichard started reconstituting Futur for the new owner of Piguet, they sent me 20 testers and asked me which one was closest to the real thing, because they didn't have it. And I chose what, to my nose, was the closest thing, and that's the current version of Futur. The original was made by Germaine Cellier, who was a tough cookie and a great perfumer. Futur is, in a way, similar to Vent Vert - which she also made - because it has a monster note of galbanum, like cut grass on steroids. Then underneath is a beautiful, but still bitter, floral structure. It has cheekbones. It's a fabulous fragrance.
[Next perfume: Ubar from Amouage.]
LT: Ubar feels like a spaceship that's landing on you. Christopher Chong is one of the great art directors of perfumery. He knows what he wants, which is very rare. And he can get it. In my opinion, what's interesting about his approach to fragrance is that he's exploring a different area: very, very complex orientals, with notes that are unfamiliar. This has a sweetness which is weird. It's unidentifiable. I like very much the fact that you don't know which fruit you're eating. It's really remarkable. As far as I understand it, he has fastened onto two old perfumers at Robertet, and he bosses them around. He's a real art director. I don't think Frederic Malle does that. Every author needs an editor. And I think Chong is a fantastic editor. These fragrances are humongous, weird, mysterious, of endless complexity and richness. They're not shy, but they're not meant to be. I think this is actually one of the great fragrances of the last twenty years. It's like you're being let into a mansion and into rooms that haven't been opened for years, and they have a smell which you don't understand. It really is a beautiful fragrance.
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.