Perfumed Letters

Reading the scent trail of fragrance and words

Getting Your Hands Dirty in Grasse: Cambouis by Parfums Gaglewski


Last summer I spent a week in a modest village tucked just outside of Grasse, home of Fragonard, Galimard and Molinard.  I hit most of the perfume city’s main attractions, and  spent even more time exploring the rest of Grasse’s winding streets. As is my wont these days, I strolled without a Perfume Plan, yet with due vigilance. As I was returning from one of my favorites, Eau de Cassis, an elegant little shop with an open door caught my attention.
Inside I met two friendly German fragrance lovers in the company of independent perfumer Didier Gaglewski who was performing a patient sniff and chat demonstration of his line. DH and I joined in. Speaking a blend of French and fractured German (that would be mine), the five of us sampled nearly all of  the fragrances for men and women, from the dewy floral Aria to the the grande dame, Rêve de soie.
Gaglewski’s packaged perfumes line his display shelves like hard-bound books. The bottles themselves are lush. So lush, in fact, that it took me a moment to realize that one of  the flacons appeared to be a can of motor oil with an atomizer:

Cambouis  (or dirty, used vehicle oil, axle grease) is Gaglewski’s playful ode to traditional masculinity. On first inhalation, I blurted an expletive. Cambouis  opens with a blast of birch tar or juniper tar or something with a similarly medicinal, nostril-singing punch, as bracing as a whiff of gasoline in the morning. The initial sting is softened by  green herbal (think basil) notes, on a drydown of smoke, squealing tires, and sea breeze. “Built upon slightly hydrocarbonic and burned notes, this uncommon fragrance is also refined, fresh, and dynamic,” says the ad copy.  Cambouis made me think of  another conceptual perfume (that I have yet to try), Pétroleum (Histoires de parfum). Each petrol-inspired confection plays with a provocative interpretation of materials. By joining the idea of oil to elegant notes of rose and oud, Pétroleum’s  clean, swanky, modern image suggests a disconcerting connection between wealth, “Black Gold” from the wells, and high-end perfume:  it makes me ponder the deeper cost of luxury goods–a topic Dana Thomas brought to light in her book, Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Luster.  The more whimsical Cambouis brings the elegance of perfume to everyday sludge for the manly man who likes to get his hands dirty, literally or not (mettre les mains dans le cambouis). The  whole gritty, sweaty-tee-shirt, oil-under-the-car presentation lampoons predictable perfume blends and traditional fragrance gender roles.

Cambouis has a sense of humor, but Didier Gaglewski takes his craft seriously. Be sure to visit the Parfums Gaglewski shop on 12 rue de l’Oratoire to sample his creations and to learn more about  his approach to artisanal perfumery. You will be treated to a warm welcome and plenty of new fragrances to sample.

Screen shot 2013-03-27 at 9.13.39 PM
A few favorite lines from a favorite film
Screen shots from one of the best films ever,  Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964).
Photos my own.

10 thoughts on “Getting Your Hands Dirty in Grasse: Cambouis by Parfums Gaglewski

  1. Dear Letter Writer
    As a child, The Dandy was overtaken with joy at the smell of petrol. He wonders know whether this scent might be the perfume to rekindle that love affair.
    And of course Les Parapluies de Cherbourg. The only film, of which I know, to end with a scene of utter poignancy and yet ambivalence in an Esso garage. A masterpiece.
    I think though I might have chosen Roland Cassard too, being Genevieve.
    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Garage

  2. Wonderful experience!

    • Hi, Natalie! I’m a horrible shopper (and in fact enlist my sister to alert me to clothing and shoes she thinks I should buy) but I love “shopping” for perfumes when it involves conversation, testing….especially with the perfumer himself or herself.

      I should add that the woman working at Eau de Cassis was wonderful, too.

  3. Consider my curiosity piqued, for which I must thank your descriptive talents. What a fascinating scent, and what creative and appropriate packaging to go with it!

    • Thanks for stopping by, Meg!

      I’d like to do a sample giveaway for this one–in fact I was holding off on posting for just that reason–but can’t add the logistics of mailing to my schedule just yet. I’ll keep you posted. You have to try it!

  4. That totally looks like motor oil, and I speak as someone who has carried out research projects for lubricant manufacturers! And as for “bringing the elegance of perfume to everyday sludge” – that is hilarious. I admire the perfumer for his wonderful sense of whimsy.

    When I am abroad I often stroll “without a Perfume Plan, yet with due vigilance” – it is an excellent recipe for serendipitous discoveries.

  5. I just stumbled upon your delightful blog whilst trying to find out why my Carolina Allspice bush had no fragrance. Although I didn’t find an answer to that, I had fun reading several of your posts.

    How does someone sample a large number of fragrances without overdosing the nose? And what are the mechanics of sampling? A drop on piece of paper? Just sniffing the bottle?

  6. Thank you for your kind words, Virginia! I keep meaning to look into the mysterious aroma production of the Carolina Allspice. I’m a disgraceful gardener. Everything is on auto-pilot. This year the buds are rather bland. I don’t know why, some seasons, the Allspice bathes the entire garden in fruity sweetness.

    As for the mechanics of sampling, I find it a matter of personal preference and tolerance. I can smell quit a few perfumes at a pop and still distinguish. I have friends who burn out after 3-4. The department stores use coffee beans as olfactive palate cleansers, but once you’ve overdosed, that won’t help. There are die- hard paper-tes-strip-only advocates, and dogged defenders of sampling on it on the skin (a must, I think, if the intention is to wear the perfume. I like run through the entire battery of surfaces; start with the cap, a little on a test strip (they go by all sorts of names, including touches), then if I’m interested, I test on my skin. I test up to four at a time. The important thing for me is to wear the sample for quite a while. Salespeople recommend 20 minutes. I go much longer, b/c perfumes shift and morph, some disappear entirely, some start playing in a whole new key as the day goes on.

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