In my email exchanges with Amy Yang from Luilei for the Valentine’s Day perfume suggestions, she wrote something that I’ve been thinking about ever since: “I love fragrance. And I don't consider myself a junkie as a junkie does not exercise restraint or discretion.” Then she used the word “curate” to describe how she selects her fragrances. I wondered, what does it mean to curate a perfume collection?
To answer this question, I called a friend who is a curator in a nationally respected art museum. (She is shy about having her name on the internet.) She said that the elements of curating are stewardship, research, intrinsic and relational value, theme, and schmoozing. Let’s take them on one by one and see how they apply to perfume:
Stewardship: To be a curator, you must be a good steward of your works of art. For perfume lovers, that means we need to store our perfume out of light, with a stable temperature, and keep air out of the bottle to the extent we can. Perfume can last decades if it’s well cared for, although some perfumes seem to age better than others.
Research: A curator knows the works in her collection. She understands the artist who created them, the social and cultural history surrounding the work, and the history of the ownership of the work. For someone who loves perfume, that means knowing a little about the history of the perfume and about the nose who created it. I like this part. For me, a huge part of the pleasure of a scent is its story. Because I’ve read a little about Maurice Roucel, I like Musc Ravageur, which he created for Frédéric Malle, even better.
Intrinsic and Relational Value: A work of art is interesting and inspiring for what it is, but another layer of interest is added when you consider what one work of art means next to another work from the collection. What I get from translating this concept to perfume is that a scent means more to your collection if it highlights differences from or similarities to other scents you own. For instance, Chanel Cuir de Russie and Le Labo Iris 39 might be interesting in the same collection because they highlight different aspects of iris — one soigné and refined and the other still elegant, but earthy.
Theme: Often a curator prepares a special selection of her work for an exhibition. When she does, she needs a theme. For a perfume lover, you are the theme. Cranky, loving, hard at work, celebratory, too tired even for t.v. — all these are part of you and your theme. If a perfume conflicts with who you are, it’s time to put it up for swap.
Schmoozing: Last but not least, an important job of a curator is to nurture possible donors of works of art and to build strong relationships with other curators so that she can borrow work or share research. For perfume, I think that means to keep a steady supply of samples and information coming through by cultivating sales associates and building relationships with other perfume lovers. It means sharing samples of your scents with other perfume lovers, too.
What happens if you have a bottle of perfume that doesn’t fall in with your curated collection? In my case, that would be Balenciaga Rumba, a sultry fruit-bomb that makes too much noise for the scents around her and, truthfully, is probably better suited to Cher than to me. But — and I think Cher would agree — it’s the occasional off note that makes the song true. Rumba stays.
Note: image via Parfum de Pub.