Perfumed Letters

Reading the scent trail of fragrance and words

Post Cards from Paris


Whether during down-time moments of aimless wandering or on serendipitous detours from charted commutes, chance encounters with perfume have been abundant during the last few weeks in Paris. Of course it has much to do with being in the heart of a large city that welcomes a regular influx of tourists with (at least temporarily) loose purse strings. Still, perfume is a French cultural phenomenon worthy of an essay in Roland Barthes’ Mythologies. Perfume can be an idea. Or part of an ideological system. It exists (sniffed or not) as a physical object to be handled, and as a carefully staged object of desire. Physical flânerie makes my mind wander, then linger on my ambivalent attitude about shopping and the acquisition of “stuff”;  on the relative nature of luxury; on the luxury of time that has allowed me this flânerie. And on how blogging offers me a sort of writers’ flânerie. A license to associate and digress and parenthisize. To not fret about where I end up. To use incomplete sentences.

Because I’m here primarily to work, I have made a concerted effort to stay focused, which means to  not schedule in visits at all of my favorite perfume shrines. But in Paris the siren song of perfume penetrates the air at every turn, lilting from the scarves of passersby, cajoling from the walls of the metro, beckoning from bus stops on every corner.

A few weeks ago, halfway through a walk to the Place des Vosges for a coffee date, I started to play a little “I Spy” game. The challenge: to clock the frequency of fragrance lures by photographing every visual reference to perfume along my path. I soon had to give up, so numerous were the stops, so rainy the afternoon. It goes something like this:
Sadly, I had no time to stop in at Les Filles de la vanille
Drive by photo (but I’ve been here before,
and will return)
Through  the window of a cab
How did this end up in my hand?

On the way to buy opera tickets
Had never heard of this. Wish I could have tried it
(Reinaldo Alverez, Eau de noces)
Technically not flânerie:
I took the RER to the Osmothèque  and had an appointment.

On the way to a wedding.
If you are really in a hurry, and you don’t mind the rain, you
can make a surgical perfume strike outside Galeries Lafayette.
On the way to consult archives: Sephora in the iconic Samaritaine building
OK, busted. I had to revisit the scented columns.
Caught in the act: scent columns/tubes
at Frédéric Malle
Lutens Eau froide window

More refuge from the rain, but we skipped the perfume at
Hôtel Costes and went straight to the kir  and fizz (see next)

The photos above were gleaned from a few walks, when I just happened to have a camera. See what I mean?

Here are a few perfumed postcards from a part-time flâneuse who did veer off the plotted course now and then to chat and sample some fragrances:

charming little perfume sampler

On the way to an exhibit, I popped into Guerlain, where La Petite Robe Noire is still  heavy marketed. The fragrance has too much licorice for me, but I am charmed by Guerlain’s clever use of the little dress label as a vehicle for scent testing. I don’t quite understand what Nancy Sinatra or  “These Boots are made for Walking” (featured in the TV ads) have to do with the scent or its concept, but I’m not complaining. “Summer Wine” (the Nancy Sinatra/Lee Hazlewood duet) was the yummy if incongruous musical backdrop to my selective sniffing in the boutique. I wonder if they ever play my favorite,  “Some Velvet Morning.”  It’s another not-so-little-black-dress sort of song (to say the least). If you haven’t heard it, I recommend that you drop everything and listen  right now.
At the end of a run along the Seine and through the Tuileries with DH and a dear friend, it struck me that we would be going right past the les Salons du Palais Royal Shiseido, one of my favorite spaces, with its signature plush yet minimalist decor, and carefully staged interaction with clients. None of us looked too disheveled, and given our accelerating pain-au-chocolat intake and declining fitness level, we had not exactly worked up an athletic sweat. On cue, the sales associate materialized (as if from nowhere) when we walked in, and escorted us to the door at the end of our visit. I noticed that when the shop filled, she rang a tiny bell to summon more consultants waiting in the wings. The thorough, friendly consultation began with detailed descriptions of the scents on pre-soacked testers, followed by an invitation to spritz our skin. I left wearing Bas de soie, Fourreau noir, Boxeuses and Jeux de peau, an intense, buttered-toast cousin of l’Artisan parfmeur’s equally strange and wonderful  Bois farine.  But my heart belongs to Chergui.
At the Bon Marché: a perfume department so massive you may need a restorative couch break.
Cutting through the Bon Marché to minimize exposure to rain (have I mentioned the month-long monsoon?), I wended towards a Miller Harris display and could not resist trying the Bon Marché exclusive, Note de peau. Already a fan of the raunchier l’Air de rien, I was immediately smitten. Lots of lavender and citrus in the top notes. Perhaps you have seen (in their prime!) the old posters that played on a joining of summer-of-love naughtiness with Earth-Shoe earnest environmentalism: “Save water. Shower with a friend”  Note de peau is like Jicky and l’Air de rein sharing a shower, which sounds both clean and dirty, but ends up mostly clean. A new favorite.

At the Dior Collection Privée counter, the SA stands at the helm of a touch screen giving an animated history of each perfume and its ingredients, in the customer’s language of choice. Bois d’argent was my favorite:  an understated, cool, gentle blend of  iris, incense and  patchouli, with a whisper of almond (cf. dosage of vermouth in a dry martini).  For me, Bois d’argent  recalls the mood of Iris poudre  and even l‘Eau d’hiver. 

Just a warning: If you happen to be dropping off your husband at Roissybus (Place de l’Opéra) you will practically trip over Galeries Lafayette, which carries a lot of perfumes that you (no, I) thought of as boutique exclusives, including the soon-to-be-discontinued Iris ganache (another one I file under “strange and wonderful”). There I also discovered that I’m quite fond of YSL’s re-released Nu edp. I miss the original hockey puck  poudrier  flacon, but the list of accords printed on the new bottle is a nice touch.

Familiar red facade

Antonio de Figueiredo
In a café that offered shelter from the cold and rain (have I mentioned the rain?), I glanced over my demitasse and through the short-term, weather-proof plastic window, where I noticed a vaguely familiar red facade. It turned out to be Marie Antoinette, a boutique I’d read about but never visited. What followed was a  lively conversation with proprietor Antonio de Figueriedowho shared memories and photos of  Mona di Orio. He also patiently sprayed and discussed dozens of scents from his array of hard-to-find lines. I lingered on the flacon for Andy Tauer’s Miriam, appreciating the fragrance’s gorgeous bottle and fetching classic vibe. Mona di Orio’s Les Nombres d’Or Vanille was a heady surprise for this sometimes vanilla-phobe.  My coup de coeur: Idole edp (Lubin): lush, boozy, sparkly, spicy, herbal amber; assertive but not pushy.
The highly photogenic Jovoy space
Whether at the grands magasins and  larger  chains (BHV, GL, Printemps, Bon Marché, Sephora), the house boutiques  (Lubin, Frédéric Malle, État libre d’Orange, Guerlainl’Artisan parfumeur…the list goes on), and at the specialty shops Marie Antoinette, Sens unique, Jovoy….the list goes on), proprietors and sales associates are consistently patient, well informed, and averse to the hard sell. They (and other sniffers in the shops) seem to like talking about perfume as much as I do. Paris has a reputation for being unfriendly. I believe that’s a leftover stereotype from another time–a topic worthy in itself of a blog entry (in fact, Tim Unwin at Another Abbey Road has recently written about this Parisian Paradox). I’m reminded in Paris that perfume sleuthing, more often than not a solitary and bookish pleasure when I’m at home, becomes highly social —affiliative–in select virtual and geographical environments that welcome peripatetic (and chatty) scent lovers.
Inside the BHV

10 thoughts on “Post Cards from Paris

  1. You make me yearn for Paris! Wonderful post. (and I totally agree about the robe noir testers)

  2. Thanks so much and I'm glad you enjoyed that whirlwind post. I'm back home, a little jet lagged, feeling time-and placeless, and wishing Paris streets were outside my door–rain and all!

  3. Wonderful, Cheryl! And thanks for the mention! BTW, I love that incidental link between blogging and flânerie…

  4. Thanks, Tim! Had some long talks with friends about just what you were saying in your blog piece. And that link you mention has been on my mind quite a bit these days (related to a course and an article I'm working on).

  5. As I was looking through your pictures I remembered the joke from the iron curtain times:
    Two Soviet men meet. One of them says: “Oh, how I want to go to Paris again!” The other one replies in astonishment: “You’ve been to Paris?!” The first one says: “No. but I wanted to go there before!”

    How I want to go to Paris again! 😉

  6. I’m perusing your blog today, can you tell? I’m lemming the Miller Harris Note de peau – L’Air de Rien is one of my ab fab fragrances.

  7. Please, keep perusing. Strolling around blogs is a fine MO. It’s difficult to keep up daily (for me at least) most of the time. I think you will love Note de Peau. It’s a very close cousin of l’Air de rien.

  8. Hey! I realize this is sort of off-topic but I needed to ask.
    Does managing a well-established blog such as yours take a large amount of work?
    I’m completely new to operating a blog but I do write in my diary on a daily basis.

    I’d like to start a blog so I will be able to
    share my own experience and views online. Please let me
    know if you have any kind of recommendations or tips for brand new aspiring bloggers.

    • Hi, Juliet! If you are already writing on a daily basis, it will be easy for you to maintain a blog. For me (as you can tell) the main problem is being able to post regularly. My work requires that I read and write in other ways days, evening, weekends, vacation–so I cannot prioritize blogging. The technical part is easy, though, and I enjoy interacting this way. My advice is that you go for it!

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