Sunday, 26 February 2012
Talk By Pierre Guillaume At Les Senteurs: Learning The Specifics Of Parfumerie Générale - Part 1
The talk at Les Senteurs' new store in Seymour Place was scheduled for 6.30pm last Thursday. I had arranged to meet Katie Puckrik earlier that afternoon, an unseasonably warm one that she had clearly brought over from LA with her, one-woman-catalyst for climate change that she is. I almost regretted wearing my "good coat", but figured it might get chilly later, and that I might need recourse to its sample-scoring powers at the Burberry Beauty counter in Harrods the following day (I never made it).
I caught up with Katie in her former stomping ground in north London, where she lived for 16 years till the late 90s. We poked around some vintage clothes and antique shops and ambled through a street market, when our noses simultaneously detected the unmistakable scent of oud - burning oud, we reckoned. Try as we might, we couldn't locate the origin of this beguiling incense smell. The finger of suspicion was briefly pointed at the gaping mouth of a stuffed toy donkey and the golden cupola of a pink mosque-shaped clock, but neither of these items turned out to be the covert incense burner of my imaginings.
The next port of call was a large antiques market, where Katie's eye was drawn to vintage jewellery and lampshades, while I "fondled and replaced" some 30s gin glasses and cast longing looks at any artefact shaped like a pineapple (of which there were a surprising number - none of them portable or in my price range).
At Les Senteurs, after drinks and general milling around ("circulation générale"?), we were ushered downstairs to a white basement area with seating for about 20-30. I had no idea there was a downstairs to Les Senteurs! Pierre Guillaume was already standing in position by a table on which was displayed the Huitième Art range, the opaque white ceramic bottles perfectly coordinating with the décor.
So how good looking is he in person, then?
Answer - very. However, his striking good looks are actually more approachable than I expected from the posed studio portraits you see of him on blogs. He looks like the most handsome boy in your class at school rather than Gillette Man or that supermodel in the boat in the D & G Light Blue ad.
Comfortably off the scale, I would say. His strong French accent and occasional quaint turns of phrase or pronunciation (for example, "cooker" for "chef", "peer" for "pear", and "hurt" for "heart") only served to endear him further to his audience.
"Talkative" vs "stable & linear" scents
Pierre Guillaume (whose name - along with that of his company - I will henceforth shorten to PG except for specific punning references that may follow) started off by explaining the difference in conception behind the main PG range and the newer Huitième Art scents. He described the former as "talkative", because they tell a story, they evoke particular scent associations and memories in people's minds (with a picture, a face, a work of art etc); he drew an analogy with Proust's Madeleine episode in the novel "A La Recherche du Temps Perdu". In other words everyone's associations will be different.
By contrast, the Huitième Art range is more "stable" and "regular" - these are scents that can be enjoyed because they smell nice, basically. They are linear, but in a good way ie they do not have a shorter formulation just because their appeal is more straightforward. PG also likened the Huitième Art range to "classical plates of the menu" like Boeuf Bourgignon, as opposed to more avant-garde concoctions such as - he plucked a random example out of the air - "Fish & Licorice". Just as a good chef is judged by how well they can make these classic dishes, so PG invites scrutiny of his artistry in these less complicated compositions.
But while the Huitième range may not be "talkative" in its conception ie linked to memory as such, it does have the special characteristic of exceptionally realistic notes: for example the pear note in Ciel d'Airain, the dewy blackcurrant note in Aube Pashmina, or the immortelle note in Fareb. (Scent strips were passed around to illustrate all the perfumes discussed.)
To take the case of Ciel d'Airain, its pear note was created by a combination of conventional aromachemicals and a very natural realistic extraction (created using phyto-perfumery technology) which casts a "natural shadow" over the chemicals. It was supplied by a company called Greentech, and rejoices in the jolly name of a "Fruitogreen".
(NB I couldn't help thinking that Pierre Guillaume's own name is pearilously close to "Poire Guillaume" or Williams Pear).
FAREB: we learnt that the name Fareb is in fact an acronym (in French at least): F for "fresh", A for "aromatic", R for "resinous", E for "spicy" and B for "woody". We all had a chuckle at this.
NAIVIRIS: "You are naive to think it is just about iris." For the iris used in this scent is in fact African red orris from the fruit of the kigelia africans tree: "it is an olfactory molecule from the skin of the fruit - like orris, but with spicy as a bonus". This offbeat iris note is combined with zebra wood, which has woody and animalic facets.
Whimsical images and chimeras
Moving on to the latest release, Myrrhiad, PG likened its heart accord to two lovers: a relatively new ingredient from Robertet - a complex "discoloured tea note absolute" - and myrrh. Together they are entwined on a bed of two vanillas, surrounded by a mist - or perhaps a canopy - of licorice. Interestingly, the licorice note is not actually in the composition, but is an olfactory impression or chimera that arises naturally during the scent's development. Another example PG gave us was the illusory note of "banana wood" in Felanilla, due to the fruity aspect of one of the saffron ingredients, Ethyl Safranate.
We were also given an advance preview - or presniff - of "Polywood", the code name for the upcoming addition to the Huitième Art line. It showcases no fewer than EIGHT different woody notes: four regular ones and four new ones. I asked PG if any perfumer had ever put more woody notes in a scent than this latest launch, and he said he couldn't say for sure, but thought he might be the first to use poplar wood absolute at least. The full cast list of this "Polywood blockbuster" is as follows:
papyrus wood (aka nagamota oil)
incense wood (cedar wood oil + olibanum = "bois d'incens")
Pierre Guillaume's favourite musk
Mangue Métisse, which includes notes of frangipani, tea and the white part of the bark of a mango tree, and which PG likened to an "exotic flower with exotic sugar inside", also contains a macrocyclic musk similar to the one used to great effect in Narciso Rodriguez for Her. Egyptian in origin, PG described it as "velvety smooth, linear and powerful", and declared it to be his favourite musk. (It also features in Sucre d'Ebène.) While we are on this subject, my favourite quote of the night, although I cannot remember the exact context (who needs context?) is: "I had not any more musks in my organ."
I was so stunned at the sight of PG spraying Coze on his wrist and licking it off again, that as with the musk quote, I have completely forgotten what that was all about. I jotted down his instructions: "Do it quickly, with a dry tongue", and the fact that it tasted a bit like wine (I think), but the original objective behind the demonstration - other than to raise the blood pressure of 110% of the audience at a conservative guess - escapes me. So if Bee or Katie or anyone else who attended the talk could explain the scientific principle behind this supremely sensual stunt, that would be great!
To be continued in Part 2...
Photos of a kigelia africana fruit tree and a chimera via Wikimedia Commons, photo of clock from simplyislam.com, photo of Alfie's market from anothermag.com, other photos my own