One Woman’s Scent Obsession
Perfume Passionista Julie Carney poses with part of her 300-bottle perfume collection.
Most people are familiar with Chanel No. 5, the most popular fragrance in the world, branded by such celebrities as Catherine Deneuve, Marilyn Monroe (who famously claimed it was all she wore to bed), Giselle Bünchen, and even Brad Pitt.
The perfume was created in 1921, from Coco Chanel’s desire to create a scent like no other—something daring but elegant. She commissioned Ernest Beaux, a well-known parfumier, to develop the scent. The legend goes that he spilled an ungodly amount of aldehydes (a synthetic element) into the version he was working on. A week later, Chanel invited friends to dinner, sprayed the room with the new scent, and was besieged by urgent requests. Almost a hundred years later, Chanel No. 5 is still the best-selling fragrance in the world. A mistake, gone very, very right.
Perfume isn’t for everyone, but many of us have one or two fragrances we use on special occasions, or a signature scent we wear every day.
“Perfume Passionistas” are another story altogether. One discovers this upon reading blogs like Now Smell This, Bois de Jasmin, and Fragrantica. These bloggers are human encyclopedias of perfumes, knowing the difference between Egyptian Rose, Musk Rose, Bulgarian Rose, and French Rose, and whether a fragrance has “good sillage”(lasting power).
Passionistas attend events like Sniffapalooza at Bergdorf Goodman in Manhattan, where they sample-sniff and rate new perfumes presented by select vendors. There are fragrant goody bags and a raffle for the motherlode of all perfume baskets. There is also the opportunity to rub elbows with the industry elite over lunch and a glass of wine.
Vintage perfume is the Holy Grail for any serious passionista. Starting in the 70s, fragrance houses were obliged to reformulate many perfumes in order to adhere to new federal guidelines. So the Shalimar your mom wore in the 60s isn’t the same as the one you’ll get at Macy’s now. Find a miniature bottle of Rocha’s original Femme, or an unopened vintage bottle of Mitsouko by Guerlain, and you’ve hit the fragrance jackpot. That little gem could be worth thousands of dollars on Ebay. The Osmothèque in Versailles is the only perfume archive in the world, preserving over 3,200 perfumes, 400 of which are no longer available anywhere.
I am a perfume passionista. I fell in love with fragrance in 1974, when I tried my first few drops of Chanel No. 5. and morphed (in my own mind anyway) from an awkward teenager into a sophisticated woman. Suddenly I understood the power of the olfactory system. Scent is the most powerful conductor of memory, able to make one feel something unfelt ten minutes ago, or to create a subtle aura that makes heads turn—or turn away, if it’s overdone.
Falling down the rabbit hole of perfume passion was thrilling. I’ve enjoyed five Sniffapaloozas, three trips to Paris, and endless sniffings at department stores and boutiques. I’ve concocted my own perfume, and purchased a scent that smells like my father’s old leather chair. I’ve read blogs, counseled friends, and even given away a bottle of perfume that turned out to be worth $1,000 before I knew what I was doing, (Donna Karan’s Chaos which looks like an icy leaning Tower of Pisa.)
Yardley’s English Lavender was my teenage favorite, smelling more like a drawer sachet than a perfume. But it was soft and sweet, and my boyfriend liked it. Through college and my early working days, I adored Charlie by Revlon, a powerful floral-oriental scent that mirrored the over-the-top 80s. The branding was all about smart, independent, working women. You could smell the faint lemon, peach, and jasmine of Charlie wafting through every major company in New York, as young women descended on their careers with determination and oversize shoulder pads. As I moved into my successful 30s I sought more sophisticated scents and favored Boucheron for at least three years, which is equivalent to a hundred in perfume-passion years. Creed Fleurissimo was another favorite, and not just because Grace Kelly wore it on her wedding day. In recent years, niche perfumes from places like L’Artisan (Le Chasse Aux Papillon is one to try), and Frederick Malle (Portrait of a Lady) are more interesting to me, and my signature scent is from Hermés.
Like a wine collector, there is always something new for me to examine, dissect, evaluate and, finally, to add or discard as an imposter. My collection now runs to triple digits and it’s almost impossible to get into. But, boy, the auditions are sense-ational!
Passing the Smell Test
Perfume should be stored in a dark, cool place. Even though some bottles are works of art, keep it under wraps. If stored properly, a bottle of real perfume can last for years. The formula may change but the heart and bottom notes will remain true for a very long time.
Romantic, light and slightly sweet. Most popular category. La Vie est Belle by Lancome, Flower by Kenzo, Marc Jacobs by Marc Jacobs.
Lively, energetic, usually daytime scent and sometimes unisex. Jo Malone Grapefruit, Eau de Cartier, Escentric Molecules 01 or 02, Atelier Orange Sanguine, Clinique Happy
Warm, rich, sultry, and long-lasting. Bond No.9 Chinatown, Opium by YSL, Eau de Merveilles by Hermes, Isvaraya by Indult
The strongest, purest, and longest lasting (eight hours)
Eau de Parfum
Softer, lasts well (five hours)
Eau de Toilette
Lighter fragrance (three to five hours)
Eau de Cologne
Lightest, (two hours)