Thursday, March 28, 2013

Following My Mother's Scent

Read the published version of Charlotte Canelli's column in the March 29, 2013 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

In 1960, I was 8 years old I had my first love affair with perfume. An older family friend had an impressive blue bottle of Evening in Paris on her dresser top. I’m not sure if my infatuation was with the lusty shape or the deep cobalt blue of the bottle. When these friends moved away to Paris months later, I was presented with the near-empty bottle. I hoarded that treasure for years.

When I was 12 years old, I walked the half-mile to the neighborhood drugstore and spent my complete month’s allowance on a bottle of the year’s popular cologne. It was an excessive but poignant Christmas present for my mother and I purchased it weeks in advance, painstakingly carrying it home and leaving it wrapped and unattended on a bookshelf. I impatiently anticipated the holiday.

My younger brother, just 4 years old, couldn’t resist the attraction. One late afternoon I came across the present on my bedroom floor, its bottle shattered, its box unwrapped. Heaven Scent by Helena Rubenstein spilled carelessly on the floorboards, trickling into the crevices of the hardwood.

My eyes and upper cheeks stung as the salty tears mixed with the spirits in the drops of cologne. (The added alcohol solution makes it more a cologne than a perfume). That intoxicating smell pervaded my room for days and months later. My allowance was spent; I couldn’t afford to replace the bottle. Years later the scent brought fresh tears to my eyes.

My mother passed away at the very young age of 49. When I catch the scent of her handkerchiefs tucked away in dresser drawers, suggestion of her later favored colognes, White Linen and Chloe, can take me to my knees.

How powerful are the memories that arrive with the senses.

This snowy season’s publication of “Perfume Lover: A Personal History of Scent “ (2013) by Denyse Beaulieu examines the stirring fascination of scent. The book is the writer’s own history with perfume and her preoccupation with it. She eventually found a home in Paris where she could focus fully on a career as fragrance writer. She also chronicles the fantastic experience of originating her own scent with an experienced parfumer. (Or one educated and trained in the creation of fragrance compositions.)

Nose, in the vernacular of the fragrance world, can be described as someone with a superior sense of smell for odor notes. Fragrance experts are much like wine connoisseurs. Ingredients in perfumes are kept secret but experienced “noses” can often identify even the faintest of components.

“Diary of a Nose: A Year in the Life of a Parfumeur” (2013) by Jean-Claude Rizzoli explains the amazing gifts of Jean-Claude Ellena, a “nose” for the famous house of Herm├Ęs. The book describes the art form of a scent from its impulse (a moment in time or a place, perhaps) through the unique and personal experience that lingers long after the encounter.

Luca Turin, originally a biophysicist from Lebanon, is one of the best-known experts in fragrance in the world. He has co-written “Perfumes: the Guide” (2008) and “Perfumes: A to Z” (2009) with Tania Sanchez, reviewing more than a thousand commercial perfumes. He has been writing about fragrances since he was a teenager and he currently lives nearby in Somerville, working at MIT where he is perfecting an “electronic nose.” His is the author of “The Secret of Scent: Adventures in Perfume and the Science of Smell” (2006).

Chandler Burr chronicles Luca Turin’s relationship with perfume in “The Emperor of Scent: A Story of Perfume, Obsession and the Last Mystery of the Senses” (2002). In another book, “The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York (2007), Chandler Burr investigates the behind-the-scenes financial and olfactory complexities of the perfume industry. He focuses on two scents – one developed by Jean-Claude Ellena and another by Sarah Jessica Parker.

Three more books chronicle the odysseys of those obsessed with scent. “The Scent Trail: How One Woman’s Quest for the Perfect Perfume Took Her Around the World” (2007) by Celia Lyttelton describes Lyttelton's passion evolving into her own signature perfume. “Coming to My Senses: A Story of Perfume, Pleasure and An Unlikely Bride” (2012) by Alyssa Harad guides us through the memoir of a soon-to-be bride who surrenders to a new-found obsession with perfume. It very nearly derails her wedding.

"Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume" (2004) by Mandy Aftel composes the story of the progression of perfume from the spice trade routes to modern-day recipes that are included in the book.

A discussion including books about perfume wouldn’t be nearly complete without mention of the remarkable, resourceful Coco Chanel or her famous scent (and clothing designs.) Two books that attempt the story are “The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World’s Most Famous Perfume” (2010) by Tilar J. Mazzeo and the controversial “Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life” (2011) by Lisa Chaney. Coco Chanel died in 1971 at the age of eighty-seven, but the legend has not.

If these books awakened your senses, visit the library’s website and the link to the Minuteman Library Network to put one of them on hold. You may also call 781-769-0200 and speak to a librarian who will place the request for you.