Scents of Place

I’m reading a book about terroir at the moment.*

As you may know, terroir is mostly a wine term (although it can refer to coffee, tea, chocolate and tomatoes as well). In a narrow sense terroir refers to how the taste of a wine will be influenced by the climate, soil, rainfall, and aspect of the region or vineyard in which the grapes are grown. Sometimes, apparently, terroir can differ even within a single vineyard, meaning that the grapes grown in one part of it may produce a wine superior to that produced in another.

Some people see a broader meaning as well in the concept of terroir. They define it the soul of a place, an expression of its history, culture and communal memory. It something to be preserved and cherished. The idea appeals to people nervous about globalisation, who search for uniqueness and authenticity in the products they consume.

But what about terroir in perfume? Does it exist? Should it?

There many perfumes suggestive of exotic or remote locales, often conjured out of the romantic imagination of a perfumer who has never been near the exotic east (or wherever.) Shalimar, Opium, Coco, Dune … You know what I mean. And damnit, how many fragrances are there based on the idea of the Mediterranean? Too many to count.

But there are independent perfumers, or perfumers working for niche brands, who do travel to places to explore new scents and materials and then transform them into perfume. Bertrand Duchafour is an obvious example (Traversee au Bosphore, Dzongkha, Fleure de Liane, all for L’Artisan; and no doubt there are many others). Jean Claude Ellena famously travelled to Egypt searching for inspiration for his Un Jardin sur le Nil for Hermes. Sandrine Videault spent time on the south Pacific island of Wallis before she created Manoumalia for LesNez. However, these are travel scents and the perfumer is essentially bringing us a ‘report’ on his or her sensory impressions.

What I’d like is a perfumer to tell me the story of their own place, somewhere they know well and which holds meaning and memories for them. Closer to this idea is the collaboration between Duchafour and Neela Vermiere, especially the contemporary evocation, Bombay Bling. Marc-Antoine Corticchiato describes in perfume a memory of his parents’ orange orchard in Morroco in his Azemour les Orangers for Parfum d’Empire. Ellen Covey (Olympic Orchids) has a ‘Scents of Place’ line based on places she has lived in or visited (although it is not clear which is which). Interestingly, some of these are based on American places – the Pacific Northwest, Arizona, and the American South – which is unusual. Often we are taken to remote deserts and jungles … the Mediterranean … north African souks … Italian holiday destinations … the Mediterranean …

But speaking of America, there is of course Bond No 9 and its huge run of perfumes ‘making scents of New York’. Interestingly, Bond does not tell us who the perfumers are. Who is the nose behind Gramercy Park, for instance? Have they lived in that neighbourhood? What is the relationship between the perfume, perfumer, place, and materials? Very little, I’d say.

The ultimate ‘scent of place’, a perfume actually based on a terroir, would use locally sourced raw materials. Then I could smell the earth, the plants, the air and the sun of the place. I would love it if the citrus oils in Azemour les Orangers were sourced from somewhere close to the actual orange grove that the perfumer is recalling for us, but I don’t suppose they are. (Although the orange flower is said to be ‘African’ orange flower, so maybe … ?) In reality many niche perfumers, especially natural perfumers, seek the best quality materials possible and that means searching all over the world. They also often need to make adjustments when a certain material becomes unobtainable.

So maybe my idea of perfume terroir in not feasible. What say you? Any thoughts?

*Jonathan Nossiter, Liquid Memory: Why Wine Matters (New York, 2009)

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22 thoughts on “Scents of Place

  1. I am familiar with the scents of the Olympic Rainforest, with those Arizona as well as the Carolinas and can say from my own experience that Ellen Covey’s American Scents of Place really are evocative of the terroir of those locations. I haven’t lived in or visited the Siam Proun, Gujarat or Salamanca but find that those perfumes stand on their own for me without a memory of the specific locations.

    I believe that creating a realistic scent of a specific place has as much to do with the skill of the perfumer as with the very real terroir of each natural component of the scent and the suggestive name of the product. Recreating a scent terroir (of a specific orange grove, for example) is of course feasible, bearing in mind that the exact scent can change from moment to moment. An interesting challenge would be to use the top, middle and base notes of a fragrance to represent the scent terroir AS it changes throughout a given day in a defined season of the year.

    1. Yes, that would be great. Certainly in warm or hot places the rising and setting of the sun makes a difference to the scents of the earth and the plants. As do the arrival and departure of rain! Lovely idea.

  2. I agree with Gail that creating a scent terroir has to be more of a general impression than a literal distillation given that the scent of a place changes continuously and specific scents blend together in the mind to produce an impression of a place that may actually incorporate multiple “micro-terroirs”. Incidentally, I have lived in all of the Scents of Place locations except Arizona, but have visited there frequently. Thanks for an interesting post!

    1. Ellen, I’m so glad that you commented here! When Anne-Marie and I were discussing this idea over the last weeks, you were one of the first names that came up, for both of us. You are embodying terroir, and we love you for it.<3

      1. Hi Ellen, Yes, you were the only perfumer I could think of who is addressing the ‘scent of place’ in the way I was thinking of! But yes, a scent of place has to be generalised somewhat. I think it’s the idea of it though, that pleases me. I feel like I’m getting direct access to the perfumer’s lived experience …

  3. This was very timely for me… I just read Octavian Coifan’s post about a perfume/aromatherapy line based on First Nations traditions (http://1000fragrances.blogspot.com/2013/01/invocation.html). I must say I’m currently contemplating a blind buy of the line’s scent Miwah which is a collaboration between founder Blue Eagle and Michel Roudnitska. (http://www.invocation.ca/en/aromatherapie-html/miwah–apn-miwa-15-ml_group). To me, a true terroir-based perfume is something like what the Invocation line is doing… Many of the “themed place” perfumes, to me, are just a further exercise in Orientalism… There’s a dissertation to be written about this. Clearly many of the great early-20th century perfumes – Mitsuoko, Shalimar, Chypre (to some extent) – were inflected through the Orientalist themes that were prevalent in Western European art at that time. One of the things that bothers me about current niche perfumery and perfume writing today is that many perfume brands and perfume writers recycle/regurgitate these Orientalist tropes without any apparent idea of what they are doing. I could name some names about who I think is really bad about it but I won’t. I mean, it makes sense that we would turn to these great perfumes as inspiration. But we aren’t thinking critically about them or the [imperial] cultural context they were created in. We continue to sexualize/fetishize/objectify non-Western cultures, particularly those of the Middle East, East Asia, and the Pacific Islands. It’s really disturbing to me that we can’t move beyond these themes and begin to critique them. That’s why I appreciate the work of indie perfumers and people from these marginalized countries who are trying to contribute to perfume/olfactory culture in a positive way, drawing on their own received cultural knowledge.

    Don’t get me wrong: I have no inherent problem with perfumes inspired by the rich cultures of the Middle East, East Asia, and the Pacific Islands, even with perfumes like that being composed by Westerners. There is a way it could be done that wouldn’t bother me. But I’d say 90% of the major Western perfumes I see inspired by these places are falling into the same old Orientalist tropes. This is part of why why indie perfumes and the incorporation of indie perfume culture into the discussion are so important.

    1. Many thanks Susan, I share your unease and you summarize how I have been feeling about these issues for some time. On the one hand, perfume is partly about imagination and fantasy, and in a sense I have no problem with a perfumer invoking an sense of place based on his or her imagination of it. But on the other, I agree that there is still an element of Orientalism at work in the objectification of non-western cultures.

      A low point for me was Guerlain’s ads for Mahora/Mayotte, when an image of the massive Australian desert formation Uluru (formerly Ayres Rock) was grafted on to an idea about a scent from an island in the Indian ocean. (http://m.iphotoscrap.com/m.scrap.view.php?q=Mahora+%26+Elsa+Benitez&ap=0&df=1 ) Did they think no-one would notice, or care, about the disdain for both cultures? (Uluru is sacred to the Anagi people of central Australia.) It was no sadness to me that the perfume flopped.

      Maybe my thoughts about perfume and terroir maybe aren’t about a desire for a literal interpretation a place, but are an expression of my hope that a perfume about a place will be produced sustainable, ethically and respectfully. I’m not sure. I need to do more thinking, obviously!

      Many thanks for the links to info about Invocation. I’m going to enjoy having a good look.

      1. I tag along with you and Susan’s comments, as this is how I feel about it as well. I find orientalist themes in art and literature fascinating because of how problematic they are, and it surprises me that we in western cultures don’t seem to discuss this part of our history very much (more so in Australia, I think). So the perfumes that channel the same mindset can be beautiful, can be things I will wear (as obviously I do wear many – Shalimar and Borneo 1834 come to mind), and can even evoke a sort of guilty nostalgia for an era I didn’t live in, but will always make me a little uneasy.

        To make a scent with terroir, would the perfumer be treading ground that would look in the future like an exploitation rather than a distillation of the place? I’m not sure, but it does seem that using locally sourced materials would be a helpful start.

        1. Yes, I think so too. And working with local or indigenous people is important, as the Invocation project (links above shows). There are practical difficulties in this scent ‘terroir’ business, I do realise that. Perhaps all I’m saying is that I am attracted to the work of perfumers and companies who seems to have thought through the relationships they have with the land and the people that supply their materials. (And I mean ‘land’ in the sense of both raw materials and culture.) There does seem to be a greater interest in this. Even Guerlain has a ‘social and environmental commitment’ statement on its website, tho’ it is pretty generalised.

    2. Susan, thanks so much for including that link; somehow I missed that post on Octavian’s blog. Being Canadian myself, I admit to a little patriotism now and then ;), so I’m especially intrigued by this idea. I’m not one to blind-buy, but for something that unique, and also affordable, I’m seriously considering it.

  4. When it comes to perfumes, I’m more of a consumer than an art appreciator: if a perfume smells great to my nose I do not really care if it’s authentic to the idea behind its name. Yes, probably I would question those cases where, in my opinion, it’s a complete misnomer (Coco Noir, I don’t want even to look at you!) but in general I will be OK with most names.

    As to the perfumes’ appelations… Why not? Guerlain’s London, Moscow, Tokio, Scents of Departure series… Do they really smell of those cities? Well… Everything is in the eye nose of the beholder.

    1. Yes, I know where you are coming from. If you love something, wear it. I agree, and I’m sure I will continue to do so. Perfume is about pleasing yourself! And yet, where I can explore new ideas, or places I can’t visit, and spend my perfume dollar ethically, well, I try to.

      Unfortunately I have not liked any of that DKNY Pure series, based on ethically produced materials. I was prepared to open my wallet for one of them. But if I don’t like something, I’m not gonna buy it!

  5. On speaking of terroir and perfume the first perfumes that popped into my head were Orcas and Rainforest by Ayala Moriel. Those two fragrances are very evocative of the West Coast of Canada. As you’ve said, I do question the feasability of creating perfume from only locally sourced materials. Given the growing climate in Canada the perfume would most likely be of the woody/coniferous variety and quite possibly devoid of top notes.

    1. Yes, perfume is not like wine: it is made of many materials. But the two perfumes you mention sound wonderful. I especially like it that specific places are mentioned in connection with both perfumes, not just any forest or seashore. Thanks for mentioning them.

    2. Thinking the same thing myself, Melis, about the limited locally sourced materials; at least we have the black hemlock that’s sourced here and used in OJ Woman and SSS’s Forest. And shame on me for not having tried any of Ayala’s scents yet.

      I sometimes get a chuckle when other perfumistas talk about trying to find a perfume that most closely resembles a favorite flower they grew up with, because being this far north, I’ve never encountered gardenia, or jasmine, or mimosa, or wisteria, or anything of the sort in real life. Lilac though, I know my lilac…. 🙂

      1. Dionne, I often lament the lack of flowers here. The only time I have smelled gardenia was at a local greenhouse a few years back. I hear you on the lilac, lol! You should definitely try some of Ayala’s work. I have enjoyed everything I tried from her.

        1. Me too on gardenia. I’ve always lived in places too cold for them. I count myself lucky to have smelled frangipani last year for the first time since I was about age nine.

  6. Your post is timely, as I was just reading an interview with Lyn Harris from The Daily Telegraph in which she says: “I don’t have to go to an exotic place. That’s not me, or the reality of the perfumer’s life day to day. I love London, I can look out of my kitchen window and I see all the trees and I watch them change over the seasons…. or the rains as it comes down on Primrose Hill”. I remember that the perfume collection that seemed to me to have the most contrived sense of place was that one from Molton Brown – Navigations through Scent. So I guess I don’t need too much of a terroir type story, though sometimes it really hits the spot, as in L’Air du Desert Marocain!

    1. I love Marocain but many times I wish I could go to Morocco to compare it to the smell of the wind in the real place. 🙂

      That interview with Lyn Harris sounds most interesting. I love that she is honest about being content in her own place. It also makes me wonder again how much of the exotic scents coming out of even some niche houses are driven by market imperatives. Every house, every fragrance company, is looking for its own angle, its own set of back-stories, and all of them jostling for our attention and our money.

  7. I’m not sure the idea of teroir would work literally for perfumery, in terms of locally sourced materials, although it’s an interesting idea. But I’m like you, Anne-Marie, having a perfumer create something from their personal experience or collaborating with someone who does, like your example of Neela Vermeire, adds a level that is really interesting. We perfumistas do like our backstories.

    A twist on this idea of teroir is when the perfume’s backstory IS about where ingredients are sourced. As you know, I’m a fan of the 7 Virtues line, and the fact that the orange blossom and other ingredients are sourced so local farmers in these regions can have a livelihood is more than icing, it’s like the egg in the cake for me.

    1. I’m so glad you mentioned 7 Virtues. It tends to slip my mind because I can’t buy the products where I live. I so wish they were! The orange blossom sounds fabulous. Well, they all do, but I love orange blossom and love reading about it.

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