The Perfume House – A Love Story
Article by Donna Hathaway
Part Two – The Stories
(NOTE: Part One of this article can be found at Aromascope – please read it first as background for this piece.)
In the world of fine fragrances, there are many stories; about the essences that go into their creation, about the great houses and gifted perfumers that make them, and about the people whose lives are touched when they discover the beauty and artistry of truly great perfumes. The sense of smell is sadly undervalued in today’s world, but in the distant past of our species we depended on it for our very lives, and it is the sense most associated with memory. Just catching the slightest aroma of something from our childhood, or related to a vivid life experience that we had, will catapult us back to that time and place like nothing else. Music has a similar effect for many people, but scent is a visceral, intensely personal experience that hits our emotions and “gets us where we live.”
During the many years that I have been a customer and ardent fan of The Perfume House and its owners, I have been privileged to hear some wonderful stories about the world of fragrance. The following examples are only a few of the many that have been told, to me and to others. I think one of the reasons I am so captivated by them is that it is one of the areas of life that shows humanity at its finest, the apex of beauty, culture and civilization, so far removed from the violence and discord that we are constantly being bombarded with both in our real lives and in popular forms of entertainment. It is a refuge for us the way fine art or music can be, a celebration of what people can accomplish if they turn their energy toward creativity and life-affirming pursuits instead of descending into brutishness and willful ignorance. It is also a celebration of the finest that Nature has to offer us, and reminds us that we must care for our world so that it will continue to yield such lovely and precious things for our enjoyment.
One of the first stories that The Perfume House was a part of was the introduction of the Jean Patou Ma Collection of classic fragrances soon after the shop opened. Jean de Mouy, the chairman of Jean Patou, came to town for the grand presentation. Now these were all scents from the Golden Age of French perfumery and the glory days of the Patou house, when they were known as one of the very finest fashion houses in the world. (The house still created couture gowns until their last in-house designer, Christian Lacroix, left to start his own label in 1987, but outside of France they are better known for Joy perfume than anything else.) The print ads for their perfumes back in the early decades of the twentieth century reflected the fashions of the times. The Tsefalas’ artistically talented daughter created large standing posters for all twelve of the fragrances, each one a conceptual re-creation of the original magazine advertisement at the time of each fragrance’s original release, and each featuring a life-size figure of a woman wearing an ensemble in the colors and style of the ad. Needless to say, the gentleman from the House of Patou was favorably impressed.
Since then, The Perfume House has been chosen at least thirty-six times for premiering a fragrance or line, either a world premiere or the first time presented in North America. When the Amouage line was introduced to our shores, the Sultan of Oman left his own country for the first time since becoming his nation’s leader. A thoughtful man of culture, refinement and intelligence, he said that he wanted to experience just once the greatest perfume shop in the world. The store was also chosen to present the House of Rancé fragrances Joséphine and Le Vainqueur (“The Conqueror”), which were recently reintroduced using 200-year old essential oils and made according to the original formulas as specified by the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte himself, to be worn only by him and his Empress, and now available for the world to enjoy. (Chris told me there is only a few years’ supply of the vintage oils remaining, after which the perfumes must be made with modern materials.) These two Rancé scents are of the highest quality, and they have a romantic little secret: Napoleon had his perfumer create two perfumes that would complement each other perfectly, and that when the couple was together, a third fragrance as created that only they could smell. You see, the third scent was not the result of simply being in the same room together – it was only when they made love and their bodies were entwined that the two perfumes melded into a third and magical aroma.
One of the highlights of the store’s exclusive releases was in 1991 for Caron’s Parfum Sacré, so called because it contains a triad of traditionally sacred essences – rose, frankincense and myrrh. It is the first and only perfume allowed by the French Perfume Council to have the word “sacred” in its name. It is now considered to be the greatest memory perfume of all time, for if one has ever been in a church or cathedral anywhere in the world, they have smelled the incense ingredients in this perfume, and the rose is an archetypal Damask of rare quality. In 1940, the formula for this perfume was finalized, using only the most precious materials, and the oils were put in barrels to age for fifty years. If they passed this test and were still perfect after that time, the perfume would be released and given a very high quality ranking. They did, and it was, but not right away; by tradition it had to remain in France for a year. The perfume was then accorded the honor of being named one of the ten greatest of all time in French perfumery. When The Perfume House finally obtained a preview bottle, it was only for testing, as it could not yet be sold. On the day of the official release, at 2:00 on a Friday afternoon, there was a mob scene at the store as customers lined up for it, and traffic tied up the neighborhood. This was all by word of mouth and by notifying existing customers of the impending release. As you can see, there is a good reason why the store needs no advertising budget. (Chris still has that original tester bottle on display. It came over on a plane with the president of Caron, who purchased a separate first class seat for the carefully wrapped and precious package.)
The Caron story is romantic and evocative; others have humor or pathos. One of my very favorite ones is the best illustration I have ever heard of the idea of “unclear on the concept.” One warm summer day a man came into the store and asked Chris if he would like to buy some “ambergris.” Since this is a rare and costly ingredient (and setting aside the fact that perfume shops only sell perfume, they do not make it on the premises), Chris was quite taken aback, as the man was disheveled and dressed in dirty clothes. He stepped outside to satisfy his curiosity and was greeted by a most ghastly odor. The man had found pieces of a dead whale on the beach, and for some reason thought of the only thing he thought he knew about perfume, that ambergris from whales was used to make it. In the back of his pickup truck, parked right in front of the store, rotting chunks of whale blubber were rapidly festering in the hot sun and covered in flies. I laughed so hard I cried over that one.
Then there are the stories that touch the heart. A great stage actress who had won a Tony Award on Broadway had to retire due to a chronic illness. She and her husband lived in San Francisco. The husband asked Chris if he could purchase a very rare bottle of a discontinued scent for her birthday, a fragrance that had a special meaning for her in connection with her award-winning stage role. She was very happily surprised when she opened her present that year. About two months later, the city of San Francisco had a major earthquake, and her china and crystal collection was destroyed, including the perfume bottle. Her husband begged Chris to find another one, though it was virtually impossible. He did find one at last – but it was not delivered immediately. He held it until her next birthday, so it would be even more of a surprise for her.
Many famous people have visited the store, from the greatest perfume “noses” to famous authors to actors to diplomats to heads of state. Many have become friends or loyal customers, usually both. Even the most well known celebrities can be touched by something as simple as smelling a truly fine fragrance and appreciating its beauty. Several famous people have recently said the very same thing to Chris when trying the Private Reserve rose perfume: “My life will never be the same!” And indeed it never is, for any of us who cross paths with Chris and his enchanted shop. Perfume is so profoundly personal, and each one has special meaning to the wearer. I was going to ask Chris for a list of his favorites for this article – he said that would mean nothing to other people, as they are different for everyone, and besides, if he did not like them they would not be in his shop – he likes them all! Each one with its own story, each one unique and special, from a simple, inexpensive floral eau de toilette made from English bluebells to a flacon of pure perfume encased in Baccarat crystal and costing over a thousand dollars, every scent means something to someone
Just wandering around the store looking at the array of beautiful atomizers and the sheer number of perfumes (about 1,600 for women now, and 800 for men) fires up the perfume lover’s imagination, for here are things once thought long lost, or rare things never even dreamed of. There are vintage scents in their original packaging, many of which were once sold in the shop but have gone out of production and are too precious to sell. Others are from the owners’ private collection of rarities and are truly antiques. Some are familiar to many: Indiscret by Lucien Lelong, Shocking by Schiaparelli, Fidji by Guy Laroche, and Carven’s Ma Griffe. Others reach even further back in time – Crepe de Chine by Millot, Nuit de Longchamp by Lubin, Fantasque by d’Orsay, and of course the real Coty originals such as Masumi, Emeraude and L’Origan, from long before the sad decline of the great Coty house into drugstore oblivion. (Vintage Rochas Femme, one of the true fragrance masterpieces, is locked away in a glass cabinet, but the shop carries the full Rochas line, and Femme is still around, though it has been reformulated.) There are even perfumes named Demona and Demonette, by Lola Beer, now lost to obscurity. (One wonders just how “dangerous” these two smelled; was it more or less so than Guy Laroche’s Clandestine?)
One very special story happened just this year. One evening, as Chris and Christina were closing up the shop for the night, a man appeared at the door. He asked only what time the store opened the next day. Chris told him ten o’clock, and at five minutes after the hour the next morning five people came in, three men and two women. One of them was the man from the previous night. They said they had made a special trip to see the shop. Further inquiries revealed that they were Russian opera stars, in the U.S. for their annual concert engagements in San Francisco and New York, one night only in each city. They had been told back in Russia that the only place to go to find the Russian perfumes made for the Czars was here. (See my description of these in Part One.) He told them that they were not for sale, but they said that was fine, they just wanted to see and smell them. In fact, they had made a VERY special trip to Portland – instead of the transatlantic route they usually took, this time they had gone the trans-Siberian Pacific way and landed in Seattle and then hopped a flight to Portland, after which they had driven their rental car back and forth from their hotel to the Perfume house five times to make sure they would not get lost the next day! Needless to say, Chris was very happy to show them the Russian rarities, and they each bought something to take home as well.
When it was time for them to go, they said they wanted to do something special to show their appreciation. Chris was afraid they would miss the only plane to San Francisco and told them they had to hurry. But they were determined, and told him they wanted to give him a gift “from the heart.” They formed a semi-circle around him, and then they began to sing. Mind you, these were the finest voices in Russia. Then a most wondrous thing happened – a ringing sound began and soon was joined by another, until high, lovely bell-like tones were echoing all around the room. (Chris said, “ I thought maybe I had been drinking the perfume instead of smelling it!”) What was happening here? Over the years, the owners have collected a number of fine Fabergé crystal eggs, which are placed in various nooks and glass display cabinets throughout the store. The pure notes and perfect vibrato of the singing caused the high quality crystal in the eggs to vibrate in response, and they continued to do so for about twenty minutes after the music stopped. The singers knew this would happen, and they smiled at the pleasure they had given back. Next time, they are going to arrange to come a day earlier so they can spend more time at the shop.
The stories will go on, and so does The Perfume House, already the subject of many written stories and which is now is in the midst of yet another exclusive introduction to the North American market – soon it will be the only American source of the full Montale line, which is famous for its perfumes containing the rare and precious Arabian oud or aoud (agar wood) essence. As of this writing they have twelve of the perfumes, and two more arrive every two weeks. (In the typical French fashion of maintaining an air of mystery - they never let the store know in advance which two they are getting, just that they will arrive on the regular schedule.) This will continue until they have all thirty-six current Montale offerings, probably around Christmas. No more trying to figure out what time it is in Paris – you won’t have to call there anymore! I know this will come as very good news to many perfumistas. If you come to the store, you can now enjoy the luxury of comparing Montale Vanille Absolu to Serge Lutens Un Bois Vanille before you buy – the two displays are side by side. Now, that’s what I call a perfume shop!
For those of you who cannot wait any longer, here is the list of the twelve Montales that are available as of this writing. Blue Amber, Oud Queen Roses, Wood & Spices, Sweet Oriental Dream, White Musk, Aoud Roses Petals, Vanille Absolu, Greyland, Patchouli Leaves, Soleil de Capri, White Aoud, and Chypre Vanille. By the time you read this there may be two more added, but don’t ask which two, as that is a secret to everyone except Montale, and they aren’t telling. That’s just another mystery, another intriguing story in the world of perfume.
To visit The Perfume House on the Web: www.theperfumehouse.com
(Final note: Any factual errors contained in either part of this article are fully the responsibility of the author, as I have relied on my own memories for part of it, and everyone knows that time can cast events in a golden haze of altered realities and nostalgia, to which I am ridiculously prone.)
Image source: Patou Colony bottle, Guerlain L’Heure Bleue bottle, Elizabeth Arden Cyclamen bottle & Caron tester bottle set from fine arts auction site ragoarts.com