Perfumed Letters

Reading the scent trail of fragrance and words

Luca Turin and The Art of Perfume


Friday night I attended Luca Turin’s “Art of Fragrance” presentation, hosted by the Smithsonian Associates, and La Maison Française in Washington D.C.  Patricia de Nicolaï, perfumer, co- founder of the impressive Parfums de Nicolaï line, and director of the Osmothèque in Versailles, was also on hand for discussion and book signing, along with Turin’s co-author, and partner in perfume, Tania Sanchez.

I think of Luca Turin as a romantic iconoclast, a polymath with discriminating taste, and pretentions to curmudgeonliness. An engaging speaker, he showed all the wit and eloquence one would expect from the co-author of the lovingly acerbic  Perfumes: A-Z Guide Turin opened his talk by dispelling the myth of perfume as an aphrodisiac, and deflating the notion of scent’s special relationship to memory, cleverly deducing that we have cause and effect mixed up: what we can learn from Combray is not that the smell of those little madeleine cakes trigger memories, but that because of their legendary role in the book, they make us think of Marcel Proust. The point was well made, and hilariously punctuated with a slide showing an arrow pointing from a  photo of a madeleine toward one of Proust.

 Having read The Secret of Scent , and  Chandler Burr’s The Emporer of Scent, I was already familiar with many of Turin’s views on smell culture, odor reception, and perfumery. Still, it was a treat to hear him voice his perfume mantras with his smooth timbre and easy, elegantly inflected English. The combined softness and precision of his consonants serve as gentle reminders of his native tongue (French), and hint at life travels leading from Beirut to London to Nice to the US, with many stops and returns along the way. Yet because he does not quite have an accent, one gets the sense that he is from another time, not another place.
Part interactive history of perfumery (complete with samples), part computer-animated biochemistry, the talk was, despite Turin’s claims to crankiness, a love letter to the art of fragrance. He described excellent perfumes as having a distinct presence, as even being loud, or better yet,  “legible.” He invited us to linger on the continuously changing landscape of of good fragrance, to experience the unfolding of perfumes within a perfume.  Turin noted that the reason science doesn’t study smell very much is that there is no disease tie-in: anosmia is not considered inconvenient enough to merit much concern (see Bonnie Blodgett’s Remembering Scent for a first-hand account on this topic). In response to a question regarding changes in classic perfume compositions, Turin pointed out that the European Union (EU) places severe  restrictions on any perfume elements deemed allergenic, regardless of how mild or rare the reaction. If  a medication causes your hair to fall out, that’s tolerated as long as other symptoms are abetted. But, perfumes, considered non essential,  may be dismantled if an ingredient gave three people a rash ten years ago.


DH explains biophysics over
a hearts of palm salad after
the event.

Thanks to an engaging slide show (and a little discussion with DH after the presentation), I have finally grasped the shape theory/vibration theory debate, and I am happy to say I fully understand the fruit fly experiment.

Tania Sanchez and Patricia de Nicolaï were invited on stage for the rather brief question and answer. My only regret is that I would like to have heard Sanchez speak at greater length. Because we were sitting right behind all three, I got to eavesdrop and chat a bit with them before the talk, but I confess,  I am very shy in the face of celebrity, so any attempts at conversation came from Turin and Sanchez, not from me. Luca Turin did give me a refreshing towel by Bulgari (still packaged, of course), which he joked about using as a dramatic prop in his talk.

The event was followed by a reception that included various tables set up for sampling some of The Guide’s  five-star perfumes. Bloomingdales provided a gift bag with several large sample bottles. I’m enjoying my Chanel No 5 Eau Première  as write. To my great dismay, there were no Parfums de Nicolaï on hand for sampling or purchase.
I left with two goodie-bags (DH gave me his),  a fresh and autographed copy of The Guide,  and the scratch-and-sniff Once upon a time…perfumes (by Annick Le Guérer).  Now if only there were a scratch and sniff Combray.

Let me leave you with a fun fact: Turin says Tide Mountain Spring with Bleach Alternative is a fabulous chypre. I’m off to the grocery store.
Combray 2009


All photos © CherylQuimby

10 thoughts on “Luca Turin and The Art of Perfume

  1. So that was you behind us ! Thank you for the write-up, delighted you enjoyed the evening !

    Luca (& Tania)

  2. Yes, that was me, the doe in headlights.
    A terrific evening.
    Thanks so much for reading my post!

  3. Great post, Cheryl! Thanks for sharing! I have already read Turin's and Burr's book. It seems that another book is waiting for me…:-))

  4. Thanks so much for this, Cheryl – it really gives a great flavor of the presentation. Looking forward to the NST “book club” on the Blodgett book, which I have now bought but not read.

  5. Hi, Pitbull Friend! I”m looking forward to the book club, too. Something new for me. See you there!

  6. What an absolute pleasure to read your post! I must admit I’m a tad envious as I would love to hear/see Turin and Sanchez present on this topic. Thank you for bringing us along!

    And fortunately I need some new detergent, but why is Tide so darned expensive? (okay after I wrote that I’m thinking “TIDE is expensive? Why are you complaining about Tide when perfume is expensive?” Isn’t it interesting to see what we are willing and not willing to pay ‘more’ for?)

  7. Thank so much and apologies, too. I was trying to dig up my very fist post (yes, this is it!) and in so doing discovered all the tags were jumbled and categories dropped in the move from Blogger to WordPress. My patient followers have received an unnecessary update. Wish WP would allow another way of editing.

    And, yes, I frequently catch myself being inexplicably frugal about some things and not *others.* Wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more.

    Congratulations on the Bloody Frida Anniversary!

  8. I’m glad you read and commented. It’s good to see that a post can still be relevant after some time.

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