Suzanne's Perfume Journal

Over the course of my life I have received four or five bottles of perfume as gifts, most of them from men who knew me well and who presented me these perfumes with such love and kindness in their hearts, I really did feel an appreciative thrill when I received them. It always surprised me, though, how their selections seemed to run opposite my tastes; not that they could have known what my tastes in fragrance were: I never articulated them, and in the case of these earliest gifts, I’m not sure I had even defined them for myself.
My father was the first man to buy me fragrance; I was around fourteen at the time, and for Christmas he gave me a gift set of Estee Lauder Cinnabar (my two sisters received White Linen and Aliage). He watched me open it and dab its clove-heavy scent on my wrists, and when I smiled my appreciation back to him, he said, “I thought you’d like it—it suits your personality.”  I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant, but felt flattered that he considered me grown up enough to wear a scent that smelled sophisticated beyond my years—even if, secretly, I did not care for it. To my teenage nose, it smelled suffocatingly spicy, and though I tried to love it, it did not take long before the “sophisticated” of my original assessment was replaced with “old.”  Of course, I never told my lovely father that I didn’t actually care for Cinnabar, but instead led him to believe that I was hoarding the fragrance for special occasions—even though I’ve never been able to hoard anything (I was never good at parceling out sweets or chewing gum, like my sisters, who could make them last for weeks). My Cinnabar gift set lasted through my college years, and eventually I used the remainder of it up by putting a few drops in the washing machine every time I did laundry.

After college, when I was making my own way in the world and could hardly afford perfume, I received my second Christmas-gift bottle of fragrance, this one from a boyfriend I’d been seeing for several months. I remember how excited I was, fingering the wrapping paper and knowing it was perfume (an easy guess from the size and shape of the box) and then I tore it open to find ... Opium. YSL Opium, the only fragrance on the planet to bear such a striking resemblance to the Estee Lauder Cinnabar that had previously taken me a full seven years to use up. A fragrance possibly even more spicy than Cinnabar!  “I loooove this stuff,” my boyfriend told me, adding, “It really seems like you.”  “Like my personality?” I said, knowing he probably wasn’t referring to my WASPy, blue-eyed looks. “Yeah,” he said as he took the bottle from my hand and gently sprayed some on my neck.

I’m not sure why a good many of the men in my life have pegged me as the Oriental-spicy type, because I always imagined someone with that personality to be at least a little bit vampish, which I’m not. I do have a voyeuristic fascination with vamps and vixens, not to mention the Orient itself, so maybe I was putting out some energy that signaled those gifts to me. At any rate, the point I’m really trying to get to is this: after spending most of my teens and early twenties trying to use up these bottles of killer spice perfumes—spices that, it seemed to me, just as easily could have found a home in a Szechuan wok—it was a good long time before I would consider an Oriental fragrance again. Sometime in my late twenties, I bought a bottle of Lancôme Magie Noire for my mother that I thought was beyond wonderful—on her, not me. For myself, it would take a decade of living through the wretched, mass-market aquatic fragrances of the 1990s before I realized that it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to smell something on the likes of Cinnabar again. Something dark and sizzling, but with a lot less clove.

Ask and you shall receive, said the genie in the bottle that is Perfume, in all her many guises and incarnations. In 2005, I discovered the perfume blogs and the vast treasure of shared perfume knowledge, as rich as all the treasures of the Orient itself. In a short time, I acquired bottles of Donna Karan Black Cashmere, Montale Black Aoud, and Jean Desprez Bal a Versailles. Still, I mostly tiptoed around the orientals, and today, after three years of collecting, they comprise only a small part of my perfume cupboard. It’s usually the floral-orientals that get the purchasing nod from me, or the gourmand-orientals. And in terms of the latter, I favor those with Indian spices—the cardamom, cumin, saffron numbers that smell like warm bodies—over those with the red-hot smell of cinnamon, ginger and cloves. (There are exceptions, of course, one of them being Aroma M Geisha Rouge, which I’m likely to buy soon). I find that nutmeg is yummy, but pepper is iffy: It can go either way in the love-it, hate-it camp.

But the formulation that takes an Oriental from good to really great, in my opinion, is a bit of leather and a bent towards the Chypre direction. Case in point: Guerlain Parure, which is the oriental I think I could wear into my dotage, if only it weren’t discontinued and almost impossible to find these days. Parure was created by Jean-Paul Guerlain in 1975, and it takes its name from a jeweler’s term referring to a matched set of jewelry: a matching necklace, bracelet and earrings, for example. The fragrance is as elegant and old-worldly charming as its name: this is an oriental that smells, like all orientals, dark and complex, only you won’t find any vampishness here. This is the smell of ravishing, raven-haired beauty on display, but at the same time, contained. What it reminds me of most—and I am working from distant memory here, so I hope that memory hasn’t failed me—is of how Clinique Aromatics Elixir could have smelled if the perfumer had exercised a great deal of restraint. Guerlain Parure is an intricate aroma of spiced plums lying on a deep bed of soft, suede leather and oakmoss, with a tickle of lilac and rose. If I had received this gorgeously-restrained oriental as a gift way back when, I might be on my third or fourth bottle by now, with none of it ending up in the wash water. But as it is, I am happy to have a small decant of this incredible scent, which I will wear with regularity until every last drop is gone.

Besides which, I have a feeling that a person cannot really appreciate a great perfume until they have lived a bit; perhaps until, like me, they have arrived at middle age. I’m still thankful for those gifts of spicy orientals that I received as a girl. I may not have been ready for them, but I think they prepared me for this new perfume love that I’ve found.

December 1, 2008

The Path that Led to Guerlain Parure

Guerlain Parure is discontinued, but those with the money and inclination to own a bottle of the vintage jus can hunt for bottles on eBay, which is where I found the above photo of a bottle of Parure in the parfum concentration. Be prepared to pay an arm and a leg!

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