July 24, 2005


The unbearable lightness of scent
Can you really intellectualise the essence of a light perfume? The American author Chandler Burr reckons he knows what is at the heart of a summer fragrance

A few weeks ago, I surprised Jo Malone — which, frankly, surprised me — by telling her that, in my opinion, the central aspect of her scent is the quality of light. “Hmm,” she said. “I’ve never thought about it as such ...” Isn’t it clear? Her genius is not weightlessness — it is weight that floats and hovers in the air. It is solidity shot through with light. The classic Hermès scents, for example, are thick, palpable textures like rich, opaque silks; Malone’s are slabs of luminescence that bring to mind new materials such as translucent concrete, glass gravel or fibre optics.

The oddest thing about this lovely quality is the degree to which it is disdained. Say “light scent”, or eau fraîche (ie wonderful citrus freshness), and people often think such perfumes are somehow “less”: less complex than fragrances that contain spicy, amber scents, or heavy perfumes such as Guerlain Shalimar (from £26 for 30ml); less serious even. All of which couldn’t be further from the truth.

I commented on this perception to the perfumer Thierry Wasser, who created Dior Addict and then the lighter Addict Eau Fraîche. He shot me a look and said: “Are you kidding?” No. Seriously, people think that. “They’re both perfumes!” he said, his eyebrows raised high. “Why would a fresh scent be ‘less’?” Well, you know, summer version, people think it is not as deep. “Why,” he asked, “would summer be less thoughtful than winter?” He added, pointedly: “I made Addict in two and a half months. It took me a year to create Addict Eau Fraîche.”

Traditional eau fraîche was eau de Cologne, a mix of bergamot, lemon, orange and maybe some lavender or rosemary oil, originally made in Cologne in the 1700s. It was meant to be reapplied frequently because it just didn’t last. Why? Engineering problems. Heavy naturals such as dark roses, which have the scent density of lead, and castoreum, a musky secretion from a beaver’s anal glands, hang around. In the same way, the great, powerful, heavy synthetics such as orcanox, a molecule that gives a woody, amber note, stick around, too.

But the light citrus, floral and fruit notes? “The more citrus a scent has, the trickier it is to create,” says the perfumer René Morgenthaler, “because there is no real, fresh citrus note that lasts, aside from a nice synthetic called citral.” Citrus generally gives a lovely explosive top, then departs the scene; even petit grain, the essence of orange or lemon leaves, tires after a while and stops punching.

Now, Morgenthaler and others are rewriting the rules. The perfume sorcerer Jean-Claude Ellena has contradicted three centuries of tradition and (as far as I can tell) the laws of chemistry by crafting Bigarade for Frédéric Malle. Bigarade is the smell of a person in a summer thunder storm. They are showered and clean, but it is hot, so we can smell their body, neck, clean armpits and the lovely, complex smells of summer clinging to the skin. We also realise it has just rained (violently), and that the person is standing in a puddle of fresh rainwater scented with asphalt, flower petals and grass. Above them is a hint of ozone from the just-disappeared lightning. A bigarade is a very sour Spanish orange, and this is a fresh, citrus perfume with the power of a jet. It is the artistic equivalent of anything that Chanel could throw at you.

Then there is the New York-based niche house of Bond No 9, with a citrus that it should be a religious obligation to own. The house is recreating New York’s neighbourhoods in bottled liquid. Little Italy, created by Francis Camail, is the scent of an Italian-American guy on a clear New York morning, jangling his car keys as he passes a man selling fresh oranges. A hint of taxi exhaust. Tony Soprano in a terrific mood. Morgenthaler has also made Hamptons. You can smell the sea, the farms, potato fields (a wonderful scent of earth), horses and cis-3-hexanol, a synthetic that smells like cut grass. It is incredibly fresh, but not eau fraîche. It lasts. It asserts itself. And, by God, it smells.

Back to Jo Malone. Think about her Amber & Lavender Cologne, Grapefruit Cologne, French Lime Blossom. I was talking to her about the glass-roof sensation that I feel when I smell her work. She cocked her head for an instant, and pulled out a small bottle. “I’m not going to tell you its name,” she said. “It’s our next launch. You tell me whether you find your glass roof.” She sprayed it on my arm and sat back.

I bring my arm to my nose, and start to think: wait ...

What is light? This perfume is the scent of the darkness that inhabits the corners of paintings by the Dutch masters. Think of Rubens’s self-portrait. The rich, luscious dark that surrounds the illuminated head, the bright white collar floating in the warm blackness. Rubens’s dark is not the cold heaviness of the void. It is the deep warmth of all that is there, but is simply unseen. That is this scent (called Pomegranate Noir; available from October). What is amazing about this fragrance is that it is at once utterly different from Malone’s bright work and, yet, characteristically massless. Jo Malone, the queen of light, has created a weightless scent.

Chandler Burr is the author of The Emperor of Scent (Arrow £7.99)

Addict, £24.50 for 20ml, and Addict Eau Fraîche, £30 for 50ml, both by Dior. Bigarade, from £62, by Frédéric Malle; 020 7730 2322. Little Italy and Hamptons (from mid-August), £77 for 50ml each, both by Bond No 9, from Harvey Nichols; 020 7235 5000. Amber & Lavender, Grapefruit, and French Lime Blossom Colognes, from £30 for 30ml each, all by Jo Malone; 020 7720 0202

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