Links to the original articles on "NZZ Folio" are included in each post. Source: NZZ Folio.

Please visit "Perfumes - The A-Z Guide" by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez

December 1, 2003

"Lui pour Elle" By Luca Turin

"Lui pour Elle" By Luca Turin

The first time I understood that perfume might require courage was when a family friend, a tall, handsome woman with an aquiline profile, short blonde hair, high colour on her cheekbones, a rasping voice and piercing blue eyes breezed into our Paris flat. I was nine, she was thirty-two, she wore tweeds and Guerlain’s Vetiver for men. I fell in love. This was 1962, and at the time her behaviour (though sadly not towards me) was on the edge of scandal. We have since mercifully got used to many things. Amazons, like successful businessmen, no longer have to wear suits to work. But we still say as much by our dislikes as by our likes. Masculine perfumes come in handy, because most are refusals made smell: absolutely not this, not that, no flowers, no Barbie Pink, no come-hither cloud, and above all no laughter. In short, the stuff Easter Island statues would wear if they ever shaved.

So many taboos, so little time: now that the words "smart" and "gorgeous" have got used to being spoken in the same breath, what can a woman do? First of all, remember the Russian cure for hiccups: "run three times round the house without thinking of the word wolf ". Do as it says, banish all virile thoughts, slip into a full-length silk faille[2] dress the colour of a rare beetle and go pick the most cross-combed, stoic-in-the-face-of-good-news fragrance you can find. A good place to start might be Yves Saint Laurent’s Rive Gauche pour Homme in its elegantly funereal striped aluminium bottle. This is a classic fern, a distant descendant of Paul Parquet’s 1881 Fougère Royale, and there are many others ranging from Klein’s 1981 Calvin, recently reissued, to Martin Heidenreich’s sublime 1979 Azzaro pour Homme. Keep it a secret: these matt-black stealth fragrances will get you though enemy defences before they’ve had time to sound the alarm.

You should by now be feeling ready for riskier missions. Fancy turning the tables on for good, stealing the guy’s career plan and enjoying the view from a corner office ? Take his fragrance as well, one of those sultry confections for Italians in open white shirts. Maurice Roucel’s brilliantly concise Lapidus pour Homme, Gucci’s cod-mystical incense-laden Pour Homme, or Caron’s ever-wonderful and underrated No.3 (formerly Troisième Homme) will get you noticed. But if after all these adventures you want to settle down with an invisible companion for life, then try my favourite: Yohji Homme, composed by Patou perfumer Jean-Michel Duriez. But step on the gas, they’re discontinuing it when stocks run out.

November 1, 2003

"Yes, but which?" By Luca Turin

"Yes, but which?" By Luca Turin

In the remote past, when high heels ruined parquet floors and women were full of little secrets, they didn’t so much choose a perfume as marry it. For the lucky ones, life was simple: a two-ounce bottle of Joy would last longer than the average lover, there were only three or four fragrance firms to worry about and everyone else appeared to be wearing Violettes de Toulouse. As for men, they asked their barber and walked home with Aqua Velva. Things have since got more interesting: there are now 400 new fragrance launches a year, and even the duty-free at Khabarovsk Airport tries to sell you things named after celebrities you’ve never heard of. Until recently, walking across the ground floor of a department store meant fending off painted creatures armed with sprays, furies in a fragrant circle of Hell. Then came Sephora, a chain of stores where you can smell in your own time, and everything became easy again. Everything, that is, except choosing.

Fortunately, the human talent for classification has not been idle. The great German firm of Haarmann & Reimer, now renamed after merging with their arch-rivals across the street in Holzminden, produces a wonderful genealogy poster of fragrance which they will send to anyone who asks nicely. The vertical axis is time, starting with Fougère Royale in 1881, the horizontal is a spectrum of fragrances from floral to leather. That, of course, is the hard bit, because nobody agrees where things fit. The taxonomy committee of the Société Technique des Parfumeurs de France spends agreeable hours each month in arcane discussions on the subject. Press releases are full of new phyla: oceanic florals etc.

Fortunately, this field has found its Linnaeus in Michael Edwards. A perfume lover of rare and erudite passion, he has developed the only classification scheme that actually works, and put together a superb book available at You can even try his classification on the Web before shelling out. How does it work ? Suppose your mother judiciously wore K by Krizia in 1981. Look it up in the index, you will find that it belongs in the "Soft Florals" of which Chanel No 5 is the Urduft. Once you have landed on that page, you find that it sits in the "Crisp" column, one of four ranging from Fresh to Rich. Each contains dozens of perfumes with date of creation. Study this for a while and you can confidently stride into your local perfumery to demand Royalissime by Prince Henri d’Orléans before settling reluctantly for the (vastly superior) White Linen.

October 1, 2003

"The romantic genie and his bottle" By Luca Turin

"The romantic genie and his bottle" By Luca Turin

Some forms of beauty are forever destined to remain minority interests: for example, stand among the crowd in front of Michelangelo’s David and marvel at the veins on his large, idle white hands. Then turn 90 degrees right and look at Cellini’s Perseus, ignored, remote, aloof from the messy job just done (taking out Medusa). Now ask yourself: If, as is likely, David wears Eau Sauvage, what rare, somber fluid sits on Perseus’ bathroom shelf ?

Every child is at some point a small Perseus, and this infatuation with the dark and the lonely is for most people an acute condition, best caught early in life like mumps, and which seldom recurs. For some, however, it lasts long enough to require a matching fragrance. Those who read the Count of Monte Cristo through tears at age 50 want something to sprinkle on their stubble before setting out into a dark and stormy night. But what ?

Let me be blunt: the list is not long. We can rule out the merely melancholy: sadness has its uses, but tends towards inaction. A properly romantic perfume should incite to adventure. Wait for autumn to come, remember Radiguet’s "Le Diable au Corps" and pay a visit to Serge Lutens’ enchanted shop in the Jardins du Palais Royal. Once there, boldly demand Bois de Violette. This miraculous fragrance, a love story in a bottle, is a variation on Shiseido’s Féminité Du Bois and restores the synthetic violet of methyl ionone to its rightful place as the most poetic molecule ever made.

More virile ? Walk up among the fallen leaves to 34 Avenue Montaigne, enter the glittering Caron shop and ask for Tabac Blond, the archetypal leather fragrance. Leathers are romantic in every respect, far too much so for the average fragrance firm, every one of them a heroic commercial failure. Find Tabac Blond too sweet ? Go to the phone booth outside the Petit Palais and phone Knize & Co in Vienna at +43 1 51 22 11 90. They sell gentlemen’s apparel (Arnold Schoenberg used to dress there, conservatively one assumes) and since 1934 have been steadily making Knize Ten, as fine clean, joyful a leather as it is possible to make. More luxurious ? Double back towards Chanel in Rue Cambon and buy the greatest leather of them all, Cuir de Russie. Spray it inside your sleeves, step into the Isotta Fraschini (or maybe just a Peugeot taxi) and speed towards the expectant future.

September 1, 2003

"The Fall of the House of Guerlain" By Luca Turin

"The Fall of the House of Guerlain" By Luca Turin

The new Guerlain has arrived. This happens only every few years, and is always an event. When I was a kid every launch would subtly alter your life: you could not walk down a Paris street and remain unaware for long that a new shape was in the air. The thrill, these days, is somewhat different: when, some years ago, the Guerlain family sold the family silver to LVMH (the Microsoft of fragrance), Guerlain jumped off the skyscraper nine decades of genius had built. Its been falling in slow motion ever since, and a crowd of perfume lovers has slowly gathered to watch it crash.

First came the ludicrous Champs Elysées, a fragrance so trite, so meretricious that even the androids at LVMH must have felt pangs of conscience. Fortunately, helped by inept advertising, it failed. Then Mahora, a tropical confection, not only monumentally vulgar (no bad thing in itself), but also utterly humourless. Now, after a decent interval during which Guerlain produced several skilled but unambitious fragrances, among which the excellent Shalimar Lite, comes the "big" one.

It is called L’Instant and, for the first time in the firm’s history, is openly composed by an outside perfumer, Maurice Roucel. He is one of the greats, responsible for such masterpieces as Tocade, 24 Faubourg and Envy. Nevertheless, I wager even he felt awed at the prospect of carving his name on Guerlain’s monument. Rumour had it that France’s greatest perfume house was going to redeem itself with cost-no-object raw materials and show the world that the last five years had been a mere lapse of judgment.

Regrettably, the fall continues. From topnote to drydown L’Instant zips past known territory, from Dune to j’Adore via Allure. To be sure, the ingredients are exquisite. Roucel’s signature, magnolia leaf essence, provides a novel, quiet woody-lemony background to an excellent jasmine and ylang chord. The drydown is solid as a rock, rich and powdery. The musks smell unusually expensive: spray l’Instant on the back of your hand before dinner, and lick it when the fruit salad comes. In the Grand Manner, the perfume smells different from the eau de parfum, darker and richer.

And yet…the fragrance is less than the sum of its parts, and smells as if Roucel’s talent was diluted by a committee. It is like the idle rich at play: money and skill marshalled to provide a featureless fog of luxury, beauty without brains, plush without purpose. The ground is coming up fast. Will Guerlain survive ?

August 1, 2003

"Desert island soap" By Luca Turin

"Desert island soap" by Luca Turin

The contents of our luggage say a lot about our skill in the art of living. A thorough customs inspection should not, for example, reveal signs of anxiety: ventilated war-photographer vests with too many pockets, toiletry bags filled with antibiotics. As usual, elegance consists in remaining oneself while being ready for anything. Fitzroy Maclean, the real-life James Bond who died a few years ago, always carried with him on his travels a tube of anchovy paste. He explained that in his experience one could always locate some alcohol and a crust of bread: his tube made it a party. This sort of discernment has much to do with small luxuries: too luxurious and they cease to be fun, too small and they cease to be rare. When it comes to perfume, the choices of the faraway traveller are few. Carrying proper bottles is foolish. They will break when the bag is thrown from the airplane hold, and look ridiculous in a shabby hotel. Decanting the fragrance into plastic sprays is messy. Using a cheap perfumed deodorant sends the wrong message. No, the solution is much simpler: all the great perfume houses make soaps.

In domestic use, they are part of a "line", as sad as excessive colour coordination. On the road, they turn out to be surprisingly good company. Like other modestly priced pleasures such as fat paperbacks and short taxi rides, soaps can make one feel irrationally happy. Soap is the very stuff of progress, responsible for more saved lives than penicillin. It is also a wonder of early nanotechnology: no visible moving parts, just teeming billions of clever molecules that broker a peace between the dirt on your hands and the rust-coloured water that comes out of the tap. Luxury soaps come in neat plastic shells that shut tightly when you decide to move on. Which one is best? If it exists, buy the soap version of whatever you’re wearing.

My favorite was Guerlain’s Mitsouko., Composed in 1919 by Jacques Guerlain in reply to Coty’s earlier (and now extinct) Chypre, the fragrance shimmered with the muted glow of candied fruit, a Tiffany lamp made scent. When experienced in a faraway place, it would touch you like a Brahms concert heard on BBC shortwave. Guerlain’s new MBA-powered owners “rationalised” the range when they took over, and out went the soaps. Modernising Guerlain is like rewriting La Bohème to take into account medical progress since Puccini. It didn’t work, and the soaps will be back in time for next year’s travels. Mitsouko is the true desert island soap, about as much of the “long nineteenth century” as anyone can carry without running into excess baggage.

July 1, 2003

"Blue Stratos" By Luca Turin

"Blue Stratos" by Luca Turin

To any sentient male born before 1960, being told that Blue Stratos is in production is like finding out that 1975 Alfa Giulia Coupés are still made in Moldavia, cost € 1200 new, are available in Positano Yellow and Amaranth, and can be ordered on the Web. The first reaction is awestruck joy and disbelief, the second intense suspicion: can such a monument of obsolete grace have survived all these years without being tampered with ? Only last week, unaware of this resurrection, out of my wife’s earshot, I was discussing with a friend the defining smells of our early lives: Old Spice until 1965, Pino Silvestre till Brut came along, then Agua Brava and Blue Stratos before Eau Sauvage set in. Old Spice was always a bit too boring, Pino Silvestre too much like pine-scented cleaner, Brut never the same again after the ban on Musk Ambrette, Agua Brava a mite aspirational and Eau Sauvage too horribly refined. But the one that really hit the spot came in a plain bristol blue bottle with a white gull diagonally across it and lower-case Helvetica lettering: blue stratos.

There was something about Blue Stratos that didn’t belong to the soapy, tuneless "after shave" idea, something childlike, halfway between talcum powder and vanilla sugar. You smelled it a few times on others and wondered what it was. It made you want more, like a little riff that turns a simple tune into a big hit. Later that night I was tempted to do a bit of dynamite fishing on Google to see which macerated relics of the past would float to the surface. Put in "Blue Stratos" between quotes to avoid secondhand Lancias, wait .11 seconds and there it is: The very same stuff, available from!

An interview with Tim Foley, CEO, explains that the giant Procter and Gamble bought Stratos from Shulton, then "rationalised" its products. In the perfume industry, as in ancient Sparta, that means shooting the old and the lame. Blue Stratos came up for sale. Foley borrowed money from everyone and bought the whole thing for the price of a semidetached three-bedroom house in Far North London. The sample came in the mail this morning, and I opened it with trepidation. Would it work ? Perfumes are tricky creatures, the smallest change is like a typo in a password: nothing happens. Ten minutes later, the Doors of Memory had opened wide. Blue Stratos is risen.