I had the pleasure of meeting Denyse at the American Library in Paris' fascinating Passion Panel on perfume, wine and cheese with Robert Camuto (wine) and Sister Noella Marcellina (cheese). It was a remarkably delightful and informative discussion, due to a successful blend of knowledge, wit and an unusual level of articulateness. I was particularly struck by Denyse's passion for scent (her refrigerator is full of perfumes!) and her surgeon-like precision in speaking about something which for me had always been invisible and elusive. Language, she explained, is essential. "The more you learn to put words to your perceptions, the finer your appreciation will become."
Denyse Beaulieu writes Grain de Musc, a bilingual blog on perfume, and teaches "Understanding Fragrance" at the London College of Fashion. She has published numerous books and articles in English and in French, including Sex Game Book, a cultural history of sexuality (Éditions Assouline) and Les Musées, Le Patrimoine (Documentation Française) and L’Enfant vers l’art (Autrement). Most recently she inspired Bertrand Duchaufour, a reknown perfumer, to create a new scent based on a recollection of a romantic encounter.
Writers on Writing
a talk with Denyse Beaulieu, author of The Perfume Lover
Laurel Zuckerman: Denyse, you write so beautifully about perfumes, such a remarkable blend of precision and sensuality. How did you learn to write?
Denyse Beaulieu: I’ve never had any creative writing training. I’ve just always written. And I started getting paid for it very early on, at 16, when I published my first pieces in a couple of Montreal music magazines during the punk era. I wasn’t even old enough to go into the clubs where the gigs were happening! A far cry from perfume, I know, but the point was being able to write about something I was passionate about. Perfume gave me a new field to explore with that same adolescent energy – and all I’ve learned in the meantime, after 25 years in Paris.
LZ: In your book you talk about the importance of finding a common language with the perfume expert. Can you tell us more about it? What is the role of words, of language, in creating a scent?
DB: One of the reasons I started writing about perfume was that it’s just so difficult, really. That was the whole challenge! The part of our brain that identifies smells evolved such a long time before our cortex that the two have a pretty hard time connecting. Perfumers are trained in matching words with smells because they have to memorize thousands of them and categorize them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll all perceive the same materials in the same way. They have developed conventions so they can discuss projects. But there are various classifications of raw materials and they’re not identical. So you can imagine how tricky it can be to communicate with someone who’s got no formal training.
Say you want something that smells green. Which type of green? Fresh-mown lawn? Milky fruity fig leaf? Granny Smith apple? Tart, metallic rhubarb? Cat-pee-like box tree? You try to zero in on the most accurate real-world referent; to put adjectives to the noun, as it were. But you’re limited by what the person in front of you knows. I remember struggling with 20-something American fashion students when I was showing them vanilla absolute, because they’d never smelled cigars, so they couldn’t recognize that facet…
What’s magical though is that as soon as the accurate word is said, you smell the thing. I was smelling daffodils with a friend today, and she picked up freshly-sliced button mushrooms. I leaned in to sniff, and boom! Mushrooms jumped out.
Associating words or images with each other can also lead to olfactory connections. If I say orange blossom, I might think of orange trees in full bloom buzzing with nectar-drunk bees, which will lead me to honey, but also to wax. Bees wax is often associated with incense because of the candles in churches. And there you’ve got some of the major notes of Séville à l’aube, the perfume whose development is one of the narrative threads of The Perfume Lover.
LZ: For a wearer of perfume, does mastering the language heighten appreciation of the scent? If so, how?
DB: I think it does, because the more you learn to put words to your perceptions, the finer your appreciation will become: it’s as though you were expanding your object, connecting it in richer, more complex ways with your life, with the world… The beauty of the fragrance will speak to you more deeply; you’ll be able to weave more stories around it. By putting words to smells, you’re also cultivating a neglected sense and opening yourself up to a new dimension in the world.
LZ: You explore the connection between perfume and sensuality. What elements do you think are at work? The working of the scent? Other secret ingredients? Or perhaps the message vehiculed by the act of wearing perfume, i.e. the assumption that a person wears perfume in order to seduce and is therefore open to seduction?...
DB: Perfumes, in a way, are our subconscious. Because they’re invisible, they give us the impression that whatever message they’re putting out won’t be perceived. One of those messages, of course, is seduction: for time immemorial, scent has been used in erotic rituals. But it’s not just a matter of getting dolled up for a date. There are some notes in perfumes that subtly conjure the beast under the velvet, because they connect with human smells. Jasmine, for instance. In The Perfume Lover, I explore why our skins love it so much. It turns out we produce very similar and sometimes identical chemicals than those produced by flowers. Let’s not forget flowers are sexual organs! The intoxicating fragrances they produce to attract insects may not work on humans in quite the same way, but there must be a reason why their beauty makes us swoon…
LZ: Perfume and poison, you point out, are historically linked. Could you tell us more? Is that still the case today?
DB: For centuries, people thought epidemics were caused by bad smells, and could therefore be repelled by good ones. Perfume was an invisible armor against the Reaper. I believe that there is still a trace memory of this in our culture. That some part of us may seek certain smells for healing or protection. But in Ancient Greece, the word pharmakon meant both poison and medicine, so that the healing virtues of perfume can reverse themselves: that, too, is in our memories. But today it translates into paranoia about “chemicals” in perfumes. Of course it’s much easier to attack perfume, which is perceived as dispensable and futile, even deceptive since it is an instrument of seduction, than to take on the corporate behemoths that are merrily disrupting our environment. That said, I do believe certain perfume notes are toxic… from an aesthetic point of view!
LZ: When will the perfume your story inspired become available? Are you still involved in the project?
DB: Séville à l’aube will be launched by L’Artisan Parfumeur in July 2012. The perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour and I will be doing joint events in London to promote the book and the fragrance, and again in October when the book comes out in France. Apart from that, my involvement with the project ended when the creative process did, since it was Bertrand himself who invited me into it.
DB: Bertrand was my muse for the book! And I’m currently working on other scents, this time more formally, as a creative director.
LZ: We learn all kinds of interesting things (public baths were shut down for three centuries!) How did you research this book?
DB: I’m not a historian, so I based myself on many books, mainly The Foul and the Fragrant by Alain Corbin, The Gardens of Adonis by Marcel Détienne and Le Parfum des origines à nos jours by Annick Le Guérer. Élisabeth de Feydeau’s Le Parfum: Histoire, Anthologie, Dictionnaire hadn’t been published yet when I was writing but I interviewed her. I also drew on the erudition of Octavian Coifan, the author of the blog 1000 Fragrances, who has done a lot of research on primary sources, is a fount of knowledge and generous about sharing it.
LZ: How do you work? Do you have a special regimen or schedule you follow?
DB: Every waking hour I can spare until the damn thing is done, basically. Though for The Perfume Lover, the pace of the writing was conditioned by my sessions with Bertrand Duchaufour while we were developing the fragrance. When we didn’t see each other, I wrote about other things. The chapters have been pretty much kept in that order, since it was the evolution of the perfume that conjured themes and recollections.
LZ: What’s your favorite spot in Paris for drinks?
DB : Le Nemours, right at the entrance of the Palais Royal, a proper old-style French café, is where I give most of my appointments. Otherwise, I tend to end up in the English bar of the Westin on the rue de Castiglione, mostly because it’s central, quiet, and untouched by trendiness. A place to talk, not to be seen.
LZ: What’s your next project?
DB: I’m still working on the French translation of The Perfume Lover, which I’m doing myself. I’d love to explore raw materials next. I’m boning up on chemistry right now. The strange thing is, the more I know about the world of scent, the more magical and mysterious it becomes…
Bilingual, Denyse Beaulieu is a Paris-based fragrance writer and industry consultant who established herself as one of the foremost bloggers in the field with Grain de Musc. She has learned the principles of perfume composition with the help of some of the profession’s most prestigious noses.
Her expertise has been acknowledged by at the London College of Fashion where she teaches an intensive “Understanding Fragrance” course and the Société Française des Parfumeurs where she is lecturer. She was born in Canada, where she first started as a writer by covering the punk rock scene for local magazines, and moved to Paris 25 years ago to do her Ph.D. at the Université Paris VII on the Marquis de Sade.