Last week the editor of Culture magazine, a periodical devoted to cheese, asked me to write a feature about a coming issue's centerfold cheese. (Instead of a naked lady, Culture features a photo of a cheese in the center of each issue, often with a slice removed to make your mouth water at its unctuous interior.) I jumped on the opportunity. Besides the money, it meant I'd get to travel to Oregon's Rogue River valley and spend the night in a restored Airstream, then pass the next day helping to milk Nigerian dwarf goats — for real! — and learn about the craft of making artisan goat cheese.
The problem was this: besides being an enthusiastic cheese consumer, I don't know the first thing about making cheese. I bought an issue of the magazine to get my feet wet and waded into a world of rennet, cure times, culture, and curds. The reviews of cheeses mention balance, texture, and accompanying food and wine. Then, at once, I knew I could do it. Thanks to perfume, I can examine quality, structure, and suitability. I may not yet know the technicalities of making cheese, but my enthusiasm for perfume has given me the ability to fully appreciate a whole menu of sensory experiences.
Thanks to perfume, now when I taste Tempranillo, I notice its acidic top and how it balances its leathery base, with the middle filled with ripe fruit and straw. Almost like a bright Parfums Grès Cabochard. Looking at someone beautifully dressed, I see the piquant top note (maybe electric blue toenails or a tattoo of chartreuse-vined morning glories or a glittering necklace or a throwaway, tattered scarf tied around an expensive handbag) with a complementary heart (could be almost any outfit, from a long, silk chiffon dress patterned with peonies to a crisp suit) and a solid base tying it all together (sepia tones, similar weight in fabrics, or an underlying mood be it romantic, powerful, edgy, or bohemian.)
As I read a story, taste soup, look at a painting, hear a song on the radio, the principles of perfume appreciation apply. Maybe they're the principles of appreciating any art, or maybe they're simply the gift of paying attention.
First is balance. Does the perfume feel whole, encompassing a full shape that changes over time but stimulates a wide spectrum of your senses? Does it stretch from the sharp to the mellow, all the while feeling in accord? A perfume, like an artful dinner entrée or a memorable painting, leaves the impression of a whole once you've experienced it. You feel a full spectrum, but the parts all harmonize. For examples, look at the classics: Guerlain Shalimar takes us from lemon to civet in a vanillic ride that is thrilling and exotic but all of a piece. Patou Joy extrait takes from the natural pairing of jasmine and wet rose and flanks them with a dark, civety base and a neroli-bright flash of an opening.
Does it feel natural? Is the combination pleasing? Maybe this is obvious, but unlike a speedo with an Armani blazer, or milk and gin, whatever it is you're experiencing needs to go together well and feel intentional.
Does it surprise? Something that is beautifully balanced and almost obvious in its combination but fails to surprise on some level can bore. Imagine wearing a pants suit and a string of pearls. Nice and proper for a business meeting, but predictable and dowdy. So many perfumes are like that. Now, take that freshly pressed pants suit and add a silk chiffon blouse from the early 1960s with an apricot, pink, and mint print of palm trees and harem girls on it. Do your hair in a messy updo and add wickedly high heels. It works and surprises at the same time. This is style. In perfume this is the daring that separates the run-of-the-mill fruit and patchouli or floral woody musk from the memorable risk that ultimately created Thierry Mugler Angel and Chanel No. 5. I think it is also part of the beauty of L'Artisan Parfumeur Nuit de Tubéreuse. It balances beautifully, but is still an original.
Being a perfume amateur gives more than the gift of smelling good. I think in appreciating perfume I can appreciate so much more of what crosses my path. Have you noticed your appreciation of perfume affecting how you experience the rest of your life?