Currently reading : An Interview with a perfume archivist on scent, sex and the body
Perfume is the personification of our inner desires invested physically into a small vial, conjured up by the foraging and coalescing of ingredients from the ordinary to the bizarre. Each scent reacts with a different body in a different way, making the wearing of even the most common scents a personalised experience. The idea of the scent is compelling; the variety and obscurity of the range available is overwhelming, one must scavenge to find the smell that suits, and we could never understand the potion like (and highly intellectual) conjuring that happens in order to make the scent of the un-natural or the intangible.
The application and adoption of perfume is ritualistic and pleasurable; the purpose of scent has been known to be something other than just covering up foul odours since Eastern Antiquity. On application, we expect a scent to act for us, to physicalise the body into a sexual, powerful, present state. We expect the perfume to do what we dare not to challenge or to say.
James Craven is a perfume archivist at Les Senteurs, an independent London perfumery of niche and specialist scents that offers a service that seeks to find the perfume that belongs to each individual. James’ knowledge of scent is astounding and he’s able to embody the scents before you’ve smelt them with enigmatic narratives richly evocative of their (often profound) components. Following on from a conversation he had at Central St Martins School of Art with Judith Watt, we interviewed James on scent, the body and the perversity of people’s desires.
Inevitable with its coexistence with the body and the preoccupation with scent and sex, perfume advertising is inscribed as something ever sensual. Smell itself cannot be visualised, so the advertisements act as an embodiment of how the perfume provokes a body to act, usually into a state of seduction and orgasmic, convulsing sexual desire. To accompany James’ interview are some of the most erotic and controversial perfume advertisements from the twentieth century.
Where did your obsession with scent begin and how did you become a perfume archivist?
The power, mystery and talismanic power of smell always drew me; I like to schlepp around amulets of all sorts (photos, cards and mascots), so the idea of a smell contained in a phial was therefore irresistible to me as a small child. I remember being much taken by the smell of household products/food/plants/FLIT/people/houses/furniture/ coal/tobacco/ soot/ gas/ chickens / creosote/ my grandfather’s oil paints and turps/ scrambled egg and runner beans.
My father was a vet with his surgery at home so in infancy my nose was saturated by pungent and singular medical/animal smells – both parents were very aware of smell and scent so (perhaps unusually) it was something much talked about and discussed.
I started as a perfume archivist at Les Senteurs in ’98 after many years at Harrods selling and learning perfumes. It is by no means a finite job – one continues to learn and expand continually. Part of my job is to remember scents on behalf of others and to interpret scents – or, rather, to empower my clients to interpret them for themselves.
What are the most common requests that you receive from your clients; the smells themselves but also what they desire a specific scent to do for them?
The most common requests are for individual ingredients – a rose scent, an incense smell, “the smells of a flower shop as you walk in the door”, the smell of Les Senteurs, “something sexy” and inevitably, an infallible aphrodisiac. People want a perfume to make them feel and appear irresistibly sexy and desirable or to feel poised and relaxed. They want a cure-all, a heal-all, a quick fix, a spell, an enhancement, a dream.
Perfumes have long being cast to aphrodisiac, and their advertising is evident of this, but can the aphrodisiac actually exist, can it be characterised?
Florals such as tuberose, jasmine, gardenia and rose are considered an aphrodisiac, as is vanilla and celery. Of all these, the strange fleshy enveloping narcotic smell of tuberose is probably the most notorious. I think they can work (as an aromatherapist would bear out) to arouse sensuality but principally by giving a great sense of well-being and confidence to the wearer – this empowerment makes her or him very attractive and seductive to others.
You speak quite often of the animalistic; how is something so primal and grotesque invested in the perfumes?
Well, the best known animalic oils are musk, civet, castoreum and ambergris.
They are all very ancient and not usually part of the western perfume repertoire nowadays in their natural form, the animal rights lobby have outlawed them. They have been used for thousands of years in Asia and Europe and give great depth to a scent: they are fixatives – literally fixing a perfume on the skin as well as providing a catalyst for the reaction of other ingredients.
They are all derived from the digestive, reproductive and anal glands of the creature: beavers, sperm wales, wild cats, deer. Smelled in concentration they are (as you would expect) foul – very greatly diluted they add sexiness, sensuality, warmth, depth and passion to a fragrance.
Nowadays synthetic substitutes are generally used in Western perfumery and these can be of a very high quality indeed, undetectable in smell and effect from the real thing.
These animalic oils whether natural or reproduced synthetically are also traditionally regarded as great aphrodisiacs – probably because they are associated with physical attraction and readiness to mate and fecundity in the animal kingdom. Wearing them brings out the beast in humankind, too – they remind us of the beast in Man. It’s my belief that their use must ultimately derive from the worship of totemic animals/animal-headed gods of the ancient civilisations of Egypt, India and Mesopotamia. Primitive magical perfumes to turn man into god.
In your talk at St Martins, you spoke about the scents that sought to enhance the presence of clothes such as leather and furs. How did scent create the primal body?
In the early part of the 20th century these were often the sort of scents worn with furs and leather to enhance the animal image – fur and leather provided the animal texture and the oils added the smell. Until very late – post WW2 – most people wore scent not on their own skin but on their garments. So an animal scent would enhance animal fabrics and materials.
Revillon was a leading French fur company which launched Detchemar in the 1950’s – this was a rosy aldehydic perfume which emphasised the silkiness of fur but which had discreet “dirty” notes in its base. It plays a key role in the novel and movie of Rosemary’s Baby, which is very interesting to me and demonstrates that both Ira Levin and Roman Polanski had an innate understanding of the power of perfume.
What is the smell of sex, if it exists in any form?
We sell a brand here – Etat Libre d’Orange – which is famous for its provocative and daring scents. The most outrageous is Secretions Magnifiques – the smell of saliva, semen, blood and other bodily fluids.
Huitieme Art’s Poudre de Riz is said by its creator Pierre Guillaume to be the smell of “vigorous sexual activity” (he used one short word in fact). Both these scents intrigue the visitor and sell quite well…
What are the more perverse requests that you have received, those that unveil our deepest and most secluded primal desires?
There are the more specialised and abstruse with some examples being that of ‘underwear’, ‘hot cricketers’ sweaters’ and ‘grubby sheets’.
As for the most unusual, a man came in the other day and enquired if we had a scent reminiscent of the female sexual organs..
To what extent can these bizarre scents be conjured up into something physically tangible and are they truly evocative of the scents requested?
Ambergris from the bowels of the whale (collected from the sea – no whale is touched or harmed!) can be knickery. Liz Moores of Papillon Parfums is using an oil named hyraceum which comes from the cape hyrax aka the rock hyrax or rock badger. In fact it is extracted from the fossilised droppings of this little African creature.
There is a certain kind of floral fragrance blend which to me (and many others) that has in its depths a certain likeness to warm damp wool of a cricketer’s sweatr… white flowers such as jasmine, ylang ylang, tuberose which when blended with musks and mosses can suggest hot sweaters as they develop. Vetiver (green and bitter and earthy) and grapefruit can hint at perspiration.
I remember a certain gardenia scent Odalisque by Nicolai (with a great deal of musk and ylang) which used to satisfy the sheets request and often the knickers, too. True musk is obtained from the hind quarters of Asian musk deer and even nowadays high quality synthetic used will convey this quality – same is true of civet – a urine sort of a smell. Francis Kurkdjian’s Cologne/ Absolue Pour Le Soir has a lot of civet and greatly appeals to the seekers of grubbiness.
Do you feel like you’re beholding an archive of people’s inner desires through tailoring their individual scents, especially with the more absurd and questionably grotesque or fetishistic requests?
I do feel like that, very much like a priest/psychologist/hairdresser – people are extremely trusting and confiding in revealing their most intimate desires, secrets, and motivations to a perfume archivist. To find a perfume that fits like a glove, that smells as though it is not worn but is emanating from a client’s own pores and skin is a grand thing.
Maybe because the sense of smell is so psychotropic and powerful and at the same time so mysterious and so little understood, so intangible and subjective, it is invested (quite rightly!) with almost magical properties, as is the Wizard who can interpret its riddles.
The more people reveal themselves the more easily and accurately (generally speaking) I can prescribe for them. On the other hand, I also find I often work best and most accurately doing “cold readings” – instinctively reacting to the aura/body language of a customer as he enters the shop and then working on impulse. However, because this is so rapid a process the client may feel cheated of a more arcane and interactive experience; people like to preserve their own inner essential mysteries for a little longer.