Friday, 12 April 2013

Someone elses shit: "Royal Fern" - An Excert from The Secret of Scent - Adventures in Perfume and the Science of Smell by Luca Turin

This is my favorite passage from this wonderful book and I shall dutifully transcribe this scene:

"Some say Fougère Royale is to fragrance what Kandinsky's first abstract gouache of 1910 is to painting: a turning point. What made Fougère Royale so special in 1881? It made used of a freshly minted synthetic ingredient called coumarin. To be sure, coumarin was contained in many natural products available to Parquet. But to have it pure, and cheap, allowed him to use a big dose and to get a different effect altogether. I am sitting across the desk of the osmothècaire waiting to be summoned down to the cold room to smell Fougère Royale. At last he appears, and we trundle down a flight of stairs and along a corridor to the cold room, where row upon row of unprepossessing, opaque aluminum bottles of different sizes are stored. The whole affair looks mundane until you read the labels: Émeraude, Iris Gris, Ambre Antique. It is like being taken to a corner of a zoo and allowed a glimpse of sabre-toothed tigers. The assistant finds the small bottle of Fougère Royale, dips two smelling strips, hands me one and keeps the other for himself. He's smelled it a hundred times, but I have noticed professionals go through this little sharing ritual. Is it because fragrance memory is so figurative, and they welcome a reminder? Is it a small stolen pleasure? Whatever, it has the feel of a brief communion, a quick pipe of peace inhaled in the presence of something great.

Here it is at last, under my nose. The Fougère dynasty has spawned vast numbers of familiar fragrances, almost all masculine, notably Brut, Azzaro Homme and the elusive Canoë. All are angular, soapy and quite unabashed. I imagined the founder of the line to possess those virtues in undiluted abundance. It makes the surprise even greater when  Fougère Royale starts the way some Bruckner Symphonies do, with a muted pianissimo of strings, giving and impression of tremendous ease and quiet power. It does smell of courmarin, to be sure, but it is also fresh, clean austere, almost bitter. This is the reference smell of scrubbed bathrooms, suggestive of black and white tiles, clean slightly damp towels, a freshly shaven daddy. But wait! There's a funny thing in there, something not altogether pleasant. It's a touch of natural civet, stuff that comes from the rear end of an Asian cat and smells like it does. Suddenly I understand: we're in a bathroom! The idea here is shit, and what's more, someone elses shit, that faint shock of slightly repellant intimacy you get when you go to the loo at someones dinner party and smell the air. Small wonder Fougère Royale was such a ssuccess. At a distance, he who wears it is everyone's favourite son-in-law; up close, a bit of an animal."

1 comment:

  1. isn't that a great passage. i love the description of the bathroom, black and white tiles and clean slightly damp towels. and alien shit. i'm glad you finally found the book. i thought you'd like it.