I have a bottle of Chanel No 5 that was bought in Paris in 1972. The bottle belonged to my girlfriend’s step-great-grandmother, a lady who lived to be 104. She was an aristocratic Japanese woman who still wore a kimono, in the correct manner, up until the end of her life in a nursing home outside Tokyo. That bottle is now in my (gorgeous, stylish) north London bedroom.
It has been fashionable to seek vintage perfume. It is argued the older perfumes contain ingredients with a uniquely dramatic and sensual presence, usually civet and musk. These are no longer used in the majority of modern fragrances because they are either illegal or it is considered distasteful to use animal products. Synthetic nitromusks have also gone, once greatly loved by perfumers, now considered a carcinogen. But the differences between that old bottle of Chanel and a new bottle of No 5 parfum are not that remarkable. The vintage is missing the sparkling top notes. And perhaps they aged away. This actually makes the vintage less feminine (in perfume terms). And while the vintage offered an interesting, “decayed” note, this could also be down to the bottle’s age. But there is no shortage of animalic or tangy facets to the modern perfume. I also noticed a line of something dry, like tobacco. Which also had a feral cast.
Real musk, I have read, is a complex scent. The aspects are sweet, dry, creamy, powdery, rich, spicy and leathery. Real musk can smell like a clean, warm animal. And it will radiate outwards from there. But I have never seen or sampled real musk. I have also read that nitromusks may be powdery and sweaty. I have sampled civet. A London-based “niche” perfumer once reached into a dark wooden box and produced a dull lump of something about the size of a pea. “Scraped from the anal gland,” he explained. Really? “Perineal, if you prefer.”
It had a potent but not unpleasant smell. Sweet and raw, with a hint of putrefaction. I couldn’t say with certainty that, “Oh yes, I can smell civet in such and such vintage perfume.” But I can pick out a feeling that is naked or slightly pornographic. It is always deep in the mix and reveals itself, usually, for just a moment. And while I cannot assess the muskiness of Frédéric Malle’s Musc Ravageur, I can definitely say it opens with lavender and bergamot. And while more familiar citrus oils such as lemon or grapefruit are airy or glassy, bergamot has a thicker, more sensual presence. Bergamot can be sticky like a honeycomb dripping with its own syrup. I do not see a musk deer from Tibet or Kashmir taking mammal steps in this perfume. Instead, a great cloud of vanilla arrives and brings a thick and resinous wood. And while the wood does not actually smell of naked skin, there is a feeling to it that is flayed or fleshy. But despite its name, the perfume is not aggressive. This is a slave’s fragrance, where a soft white cloud surrenders to the bark and balsam. Like a sweet mist bowing to an ancient wooden phallus.
Are trees sexy? I know almost nothing of dryads, the nymphs of oak trees from Greek mythology. And only a little of Daphne, who is turned into a tree to escape the wild lusts of Apollo. That story was retold 2,000 years later in Ezra Pound’s poem A Girl. In Pound’s version she can feel herself turning into a tree…
“The branches grow out of me, like arms.”
Perfume loves wood. And wood yields perfume. The oil of the cedar can project an impression of taut hide and produce an image of skin. Wood oils, resins and balsams have aspects that are creamy, sweet, smoky, bitter, dark, dry, astringent and light. Even sheer. In his classic travel book A Journey to Ladakh, Andrew Harvey visits a rinpoche (a perfected being, an enlightened teacher) in a Buddhist monastery. The locals, he notices, burn benzoin (a wood balsam) to perfume the streets. And the monks gather branches to brew tea over a fire. “Soon the sound of crackling wood,” writes Harvey, “mingled with the mantras and the laughter of the young monks.” He is taken with the scent of the fire. “The wood the monks had used for the fire was eucalyptus, the sweet harsh smell was filling the room…”
There are perfumes that speak of nature and perfumes that belong to the city. Holly Golightly loved Tiffany’s for “that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets”. There are perfumes that love cold glass, clean metal and post-shower hygiene. But Chanel’s Sycomore opens with a nature that is heath, field and cave. And perhaps the notes come from a grass, but the effect is gold sunlight through leaves. You will struggle to find a flower in Sycomore. What follows is a resinous darkness that some compare to hashish. It is a rubbery, eldritch and fetish-y layer. And while the perfume is dark if you get close to the skin, from a distance it sparkles like dew. Chanel said the ingredients include vetiver, sandalwood, cypress and pink pepper. But deep in the dark wood, I sensed moist earth and damp, delicate flesh. It has been described, correctly, as a “darkly sexy” perfume and ends with a round, grassy sweetness, like the most expensive Japanese tea.
As a symbol, the ocean can stand for immersion, love, rebirth, sex and death. I always liked a scene in a book by Stephen Spender in which he made love to a freckled girl on a beach in the 1930s. Or maybe they were on the edge of one of the German lakes, but in my mind it was always the sea. The sea is a sexy note in perfume, an enduring poetic image. So Creed’s Aventus is sexy not because of its famous creamy pineapple note but the way the perfume ends with a salty, marine tang. That lingers. And when the orange, patchouli and jasmine of Creed’s Néroli Sauvage fade, the same marine note emerges to ebb from muted salt to traces of the perfume that preceded it. It moves like soft waves and suggests tanned skin, the salt of the sea drying on warm, sleeping bodies. It is postcoital.
Baudelaire said certain perfumes are “corrupt”. Amber, he declared, incense, musk, benzoin (a tree balsam). They have the power “to expand into infinity”. He mentioned an “ecstasy” of the senses.
I would love to play down Baudelaire but perhaps he is correct. It is the nature of perfumes that they contain facets that could be described as fleshy, musky, sleazy, warm, tangy, creamy, dreamy, powdery. There are many words and nuances. And many perfumes. The prosaic-sounding Allure Homme Sport Eau Extrême by Chanel has a ripe fruit that oozes sticky, sweet essence. Some critics have said “melon” but there is more than a hint of corruption. The perfume’s drydown is a creamy sigh of luxury that is outrageously sensual. Some have wondered whether its creator, Chanel’s former head perfumer Jacques Polge, at the end of a long career, hid a final, almost erotic masterpiece under a quiet, plain little title. But perfume will play with the senses. Perfume enjoys that shadowy part of the mind where memories, images and fetishes exist in a half-light of mist and forgetting. And while I doubt writer Raymond Chandler was the greatest lover of all time, his Philip Marlowe is given one great line on the play between perfume and arousal. Perhaps the writer could have been more forensic on the actual notes, but he is dryer than Baudelaire. And more lustful. To Chandler, then. From The Little Sister. His great, creased, violent, unshaven, romantic lug of a detective is with a woman…
“You have been drinking,” she said slowly.
“Only Chanel ‘No 5’, and kisses, and the pale glow of lovely legs, and the mocking invitation in deep blue eyes. Innocent things like that.”
Artwork ‘Blue Boxers’ by David Lock, courtesy Holly Johnson collection. Taken from Issue 51 of 10 Men – GENTLE, SENSUAL, FANTASY – is on newsstands now.