One of the great harbingers of Christmas is a sudden spike in fragrance advertising. Images promoting eaux de toilette are an important and, for me at least, much loved part of the year-round adscape, but at this season the assault on our olfactory nerves is stepped up, with many firms seeing 50 percent or more of their business done at the end of the year.
Every now and again a big-budget advertisement with the production values of an Academy Award winner streaks across our screens. I remember being terribly impressed the first time I saw Baz Luhrmann's film for Chanel No. 5 starring a couture-clad Nicole Kidman in Paris. Chanel also produced Joe Wright's "Coco Mademoiselle" with kittenish Keira Knightley, who later worked with the director on "Atonement." And next year I look forward to "Amélie" director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's new film for No. 5 starring French sex bomb Audrey Tautou.
I love perfume and all its pageantry, which has taken a product intended to mask the quotidian odors of the human body and elevated it to the luxury pantheon. A reductionist view is that perfume has us smelling like someone else instead of ourselves; and it seems that this proposition is hugely successful. Personally I would not want to smell like footballer David Beckham (especially when he comes off the pitch) but it would seem that enough men do to make the idea of a David Beckham cologne viable.
In the more old-fashioned corners of British society, "perfume" is a dirty word; polite usage requires the term "scent." I am sure there is a sound etymological reason for this, but the conspiracy theorist in me sees a subtle plot to keep the proles in their place. Perfume is for the masses; just spray or dab this on, runs the subtext, and you will experience the world of glamour portrayed in advertisements.
When it comes to the theater of fragrance, there is a wonderful character called Roja Dove, who bills himself as the world's sole "professeur de parfums." Dove has created a little rococo grotto at Harrods, which is a great place to try perfumes you will hardly see anywhere else: La Voce by Renee Fleming, MDCI, and an interesting, all-natural South African brand called Frazer Parfums. Dove recognizes that buying a luxury product as evanescent as a fragrance is as much about maintaining a compelling sense of narrative as anything.
There is of course an artisanal side to perfume, especially the further up the quality pyramid you go. It is here that the "noses"—men like the legendary Edmond Roudnitska, who created perfumes for Dior and others—emerge. Sophisticated consumers will be seduced by the knowledge that the fragrance they are splashing on has been blended by an individual of taste. At Chanel, which keeps its own fields of roses and jasmine in Grasse, the nose is Jacques Polge, a man who manages to combine an air of smoldering charm with the intellect of a scientist. Only the third nose to have worked at Chanel, Polge is responsible for Coco, Chance, Allure and Egoiste, among others.
For fragrance snobs lineal descent is plotted with the kind of avid interest that racehorse breeders take in bloodstock lines. And when it comes to sweet-smelling lineage, Olivier Creed, who is the sixth generation to head up his family's firm, is tough to beat. Since James Henry Creed introduced Royal English Leather in the 18th century, each generation of Creeds has epitomized the suave man of the world. But it is only since the turn of the century that the brand has really taken off.
I still love Creed, but when it became too successful for my snobbish taste, I started experimenting with Caron. I love the shops in Paris, where one's refills can be drawn off from glass samovars known as fontaines into small decanterlike bottles or glass flasks. Caron maintains that its 1934 Pour un Homme—think lavender and vanilla—was the first fragrance intended solely for men. However, my favorite is a slightly peppery scent called Coup de Fouet, or Whiplash, dating from the 1950s, which I pretentiously dab on the inside of my watch straps.
Another find is Ormonde Jayne, a tiny shop just off London's Old Bond Street owned by a petite woman of impeccable taste called Linda Pilkington. Her signature scents are things like Ta'if—named after a rose grown in Saudi Arabia —and Champaka, a fragrance evoking a small wildflower from India. These exotic essences are set in olfactory context: the hint of dates and orange blossom found in her bottles of Ta'if signify the rose growers' favored foods. By the same token, Basmati rice and tea are found in the background of Champaka. And clearly she has a dark view of men: hemlock is at the woody heart of her delicious fragrance Ormonde Man. "There isn't a perfume house in the world that has a perfume with hemlock as an ingredient!" says Pilkington. The perfect gift for distinguished ladykillers.