Suzanne's Perfume Journal

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So I will close this review by recalling a scene which appears near the end of Salzman’s book, when he is getting ready to leave China after his long stay there, and a student comes to him to ask if he would take on yet another student (his relative), a young woman who is a doctor attending a conference in Changsha. Overwhelmed with similar requests, Salzman tries to say no but ends up agreeing to meet this girl who “was always the leader of her class and was even the head of the Communist Youth League in her school.” When the knock comes on his door later that evening, he is surprised to find himself staring into the face of a petite and very beautiful girl, not much older than himself, who goes by the name Little Mi. Little Mi has already seen much in life—her education was in pediatrics, but as punishment for the rumor that she is studying Western literature in her spare time, she is sent, not to the hospital she hoped to work at, but to a family planning clinic where her work involves assisting doctors with abortions. Her English is

Last Spring, before I met up with her in Paris, my friend Ines sent me a package of fragrances she decanted: among them, the original Costes eau de toilette—the signature fragrance of the famous Hôtel Costes in Paris, which is where she had purchased it on an earlier trip (at the boutique just off the entrance to the hotel). Its inclusion made me feel particularly happy, as if Ines was sending me a message in the form of a perfume, and the fact that it was created by one of my favorite perfumers, Olivia Giacobetti, made it all the more special. As I anticipated, the perfume smelled wonderfully unique. Think of red hot spices encapsulated in a rosewater ice cube, and then imagine what it would smell like if the ice cube didn’t melt but instead sublimed, like dry ice. Costes is a vaporous rose scent that is both hot and icy cool: its sublime nature is what makes it unique … and also what makes it problematic in terms of loving it. This beautiful vapor evaporated so quickly in the late spring and summer heat, its wear time of only one to two hours made it an easy scent to walk away from—or so I thought.

Last week, while working on a review of Jean-Claude Ellena’s book, The Diary of a Nose, and contemplating his diaphanous style, I decided to revisit Giacobetti’s Costes. The result this time was a total click, and while one might rightly attribute it to my being in a more receptive mindset (as I was under the persuasion of Ellena’s lovely writing), I think what is equally true is that Costes is better suited to cool weather wearing, and especially to the steady crispness of winter air. On a February day, when all of my activities are low-key ones, Costes dances lightly on the skin for hours.

When it first hits the skin, however, Costes’ scent is hard to grasp: the closet thing I can reconcile it to is a dilute, cologne-like smell of balsam fir trees. Then it warms, and the aroma of rose seems to arise out of nowhere, punctuated by the heat of cinnamon-and clove-like spice that sends up an olfactory taste of the well-known candy “Red Hots.” Even so, it’s only a taste, as Costes exhales that candied name with sotto voce breathiness. Any further thoughts of balminess are banished by a meet-up with the frostiness of lavender and the eucalyptus-like smell of bay laurel—and there is enough white musk diffusing this icy-hot affair that the overall vibe of the perfume is cool and gliding.

While I can easily grasp the connection between Costes, the fragrance, and Costes, the hotel—the emphasis on rose, the color red (which is how the scent’s spice notes translate) and perhaps even the ‘cool’ factor they both share—wearing Costes makes me remember a passage from a favorite book. It is one of many small vignettes from Mark Salzman’s Iron & Silk, about his experiences in China in 1982, when he went there to teach English to the faculty and students of a medical college in Changsha. Why I feel compelled to include it here, who knows? I think it’s because the red spiciness of Costes smells Asian to me—and because Giacobetti’s style reminds me of Jean-Claude Ellena’s style—and between the two, Asian themes are on my mind.

Costes by Costes: Joy Ride

February 5, 2013:

Costes eau de toilette has notes of lavender, bay laurel, coriander, white pepper, rose, incense, woods and light musk.  It can be purchased from the boutique at the Hôtel Costes in Paris (where Giacobetti’s IUNX line of fragrances is carried), as well as online from LuckyScent.com, where a  50-ml (atomizer) bottle is $80 and a 100-ml atomizer bottle is $135.  (There is also a 125-ml splash bottle that I wouldn’t recommend, as this fragrance definitely benefits from being sprayed.)


Photo of Costes hotel banner and lights is from Weddingguideasia.com; image of Mark Salzman's book Iron & Silk is from Wikipedia.org; Costes bottle image is from LuckyScent.com.

already good; the only thing she really wants from Salzman is to borrow some books because she loves to read. After the two end up talking about books late into the second evening of her visit and she misses the last bus to the hospital where she is staying, Salzman decides to put her on the back of his bicycle and pedal her there, first camouflaging himself in clothes that make him appear Chinese.

As they ride through the pot-hole ridden streets of Changsha in the frigid air of winter, Little Mi hangs onto Salzman and tentatively rests her head against his back. And when the two of them reach the steep hill they must climb and then descend before they are at the hospital, they hop off the bike and have one final conversation. Little Mi asks him if he will return to live with his parents when he goes back to America, and when he tells her no, she is surprised and envious, revealing that Chinese parents expect their children to live and take care of them forever: she cannot marry or move away unless hers decide to let her go. They talk about dreams and she asks him if he is a sad or happy man, to which he responds that he is sometimes both, but mostly someone who worries a lot. Upon hearing this, she scolds him, telling him that he is a fool not to be happy “when so many people depend on it.” And when he asks her what that means, she answers that her relative has informed her of how Salzman is viewed with great importance at the school, because his lectures make everyone laugh and the thought of him traveling about the world and making friends everywhere makes them feel happy.

“You should always be that way: it makes sad people happy. Isn’t that important?” she asks him. And then, at the top of the hill, knowing it is the last time she will see him, she asks him to do one last thing: to coast down the hill with her on the back of the bike—“fast! No brakes!”


***


That, in essence, is what Costes smells like—and what I will remember the next time I wear it, cold weather or not.