Smell is the only sense without its own real vocabulary. It steals words from the rest of the body. Warm. Bright. Quiet. These are the words that evoke the feeling a scent gives, and we kind of understand each other when we use these stolen words – we’re co-conspirators in the theft.
But the fragrance industry, well it has a whole language full of notes and hearts and openings, throws and accords. Once you open that door you realize that in the world of the fragrance obsessed, you know nothing.
Lucky old me was invited to some press showings at Libertine Parfumerie recently, ’twas a kid in a candy store type situation that I tried to play cool. The lovely Nick Smart gifted me with a little something from niche house Juliette Has A Gun – a chin-stroking, boundary-pushing, genre-bending creation from fragrance aristocrat Romano Ricci. It just so happens that Ricci and I are twinsies in one respect at least, in that we share a favourite fragrance note. It’s the oceanic but earthy, golden yet cool, intimate, sexy, warm but somehow remote note of ambergris. The weird, beautiful gift from the sea, synthesized by chemists into a tame and tangible molecule called ambroxan. Ambroxan is another knob to tweak when tuning the tastes of the fickle fragrance market. It is a tool used to carry, ground, lengthen and soften all the pretty things we like in a perfume. A way to juggle all the layers and juxtapositions that make fragrances so fascinating and make them stick. And there are some stunning constructions that use ambroxan as a foundation.
Ricci chooses not to bury that single note under a tower of sparkly things – there are no scent accords in Not A Perfume, hence the name. It’s just ambroxan in a bottle. It’s not even original – Eccentric Molecules did the same thing a few years ago and there’s been plenty of raised eyebrows at the unoriginal arrogance of diluting a chemical in alcohol and whacking a sale sticker on it, particularly in a world where the artful but obvious jenga-like structure of a perfume marks its pedigree.
So here’s a confession. While I love those ‘architectural’ fragrances, am totally and utterly seduced by the narrative that a scent can create, I don’t wear perfume on a daily basis. I’m too easily pushed off track, distracted, sometimes even nauseated by a scent that I adored an hour ago. But this single, fascinating (to me) note of Ambroxan does not have such an effect. It’s like my skin (cliché alert) but better. It hums along beside me with comforting familiarity, no twists or dips or sudden souring. It’s almost completely linear, with just a rhythmic oscillation.
Of course there’s not any great skill required to bottle a chemical. The skill is in the choosing, of this particular molecule and not another – a deliberate and confident choice to present one simple thing. In a world clamoring with competing stimulus, that simple thing becomes lovely, and valuable. And did I mention sexy?