Sunday 26 February 2012

Talk By Pierre Guillaume At Les Senteurs: Learning The Specifics Of Parfumerie Générale - Part 1

Pierre Guillaume and I have the same iPhone. No really, we do - we both have the white one - I mean, what are the chances of that? : - ) The other impressive thing about Pierre Guillaume's iPhone is that it doesn't have a cover! Yes, his phone goes "commando" and lives tucked in the inside pocket of his jacket. I find that remarkable - I wouldn't liken it exactly to jumping out of a plane without a parachute, which would suggest a reckless disregard for safety - rather, I think his coverless phone simply tells us that he takes great care of it, and I for one was impressed.

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).

Before heading to the talk we had a sit down supper of fish and chips in a nearby diner, that had been considerably gentrified since Katie's last visit. The designer vinegar bottle had an Alessi look about it, the ketchup came in a white ramekin with a spoon, and the mushy peas had clearly never seen the inside of a can. Even Katie's cod had a jaunty flicky up tail to it, but it may just have been of athletic build.


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.

And how charming is he on the charming-o-meter?

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.

Capturing the "non-talkative" notes

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).

Whimsical titles

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.

A "Polywood blockbuster": the new Huitième Art release

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:

poplar absolute
papyrus wood (aka nagamota oil)
incense wood (cedar wood oil + olibanum = "bois d'incens")
oakmoss absolute

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."

The incredible Coze licking demonstration

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, photo of Alfie's market from, other photos my own


Ines said...

Oh, I am so jealous!
You got to hear PG talk in person while watching him?!
Now I wonder what will Katie say about the experience... So I can be a bit more jealous. ;)

teecake said...

Like Ines I too am jealous. Sounds a perfect day out! Eagerly waiting part 2..

The Candy Perfume Boy said...

I honestly don't know whether I'm more jealous of the fact that you got to meet PG or the fact that you hang out with Katie Puckrik!

I'm very much looking forward to part 2!

Vanessa said...

Hi Ines,

You are quite right that it was surreal to look at PG *and* hear him talk - I am so used to just gazing at thost studio portraits with which we are all familiar. It may also explain why I didn't sleep a wink that night!

Vanessa said...

Hi teecake,

It is a shame you live quite a long way from London, as the Perfume Lovers events are all great fun, with or without a "celebunose" present.

Maybe check out the future programme of events if you are ever in the smoke?

Vanessa said...

Hi Candy Perfume Boy,

It was lovely meeting Katie again too. She asked some very interesting questions at the talk (though I can't decipher my notes as to the specifics). With any luck there may be a post about the event over on KP Smells, as it would be interesting to get her take on the night.

Asali said...

That sounds like a wonderful day, although slightly envious, again with your post I feel transported, as if I'd been there myself :-)
Can't wait for PG2

Carol said...

I'm loving this - cannot wait until part deux!

Vanessa said...

Hi Asali,

Well, I am happy if I can conjure up a feeling of what the day was like. : - )

The event was certainly packed, and I spotted several people sitting on the stairs - including one or two of the staff of Les Senteurs.

Vanessa said...

Hi Bloody Frida,

I shall get cracking with Part 2 later today. I am still in my pyjamas, would you believe...yesterday was a write off due to a bad head so I am a bit behind with all things blog related!

Alnysie said...

Hahaha! I loved this, thank you! Like many others, I hate the bottles and haven't been able to like any of the three Huitième Art I tested, but I have a bottle of Praliné de Santal and I'm hoping to like at least another one of his PG line! I like knowing the difference in conception between the two lines. Looking forward for part 2!

Vanessa said...

Hi Alnysie,

I have got your name right this time... : - )

I agree that the bottles in either range aren't the most prepossessing I have seen, but there are a good handful of the main PG line I love and would happily own in addition to the two I already do.

The Huitieme Art range doesn't exert such a visceral pull for me - perhaps precisely because of this difference in conception between the original narrative/"talkative" line and the newer, more linear one.

That said, I was very taken with Naviris and Mangue Metisse this time round, and MM in particular may be growing into a lemming of main range proportions!

Who knew I might ever wish to smell of mango?

Cymbaline said...

I'm curious as to whether smelling and discussing perfumes in that intimate setting and with the actual 'nose' led you to like or want to purchase any from the PG line that you didn't particularly like before. It seems to me it would be very helpful in understanding and appreciating a perfume and training the sense of smell.

I too am looking forward to your next post and exploring PG's perfumes at Les Senteurs is going on the 'things to do in London' list!

Natalie said...

How fantastic this sounds! Thanks once again for taking the time to fill us absent PG fans in on the talk and the meet up. I can't wait for Part 2!

MM is my favorite I have tried so far of the Huitieme Art line, and I understand your initial "mango, really?" reaction. But yet it works so well.

Vanessa said...

Hi Cymbaline,

You raise a very good point about how the deconstruction of each scent, its inspiration and ingredients, which PG systematically did for most of the Huitieme Art range at least - plus one or two of the regular line - might make them more accessible and help us to appreciate them.

I'd like to revisit Ambre Cerulean for example, whose far drydown was lovely on the blotter, but whose opening had put me off when I first tried it on my own in store.

Actually, I would go so far as to say that there may have been another factor at work, namely that the personal contact with PG may have disposed us to like his work because his charm rubbed off on it, basically! I think there may be something in this theory, and that in the space of an evening I went from a partial fan to a major one - or certainly to someone on a mission to find more scents of his to fall for...

Vanessa said...

Hi Natalie,

Part 2 will be along soon, I hope. I have sketched it out - I just have to write it, hehe.

Glad to meet another born again Mangue Metisse fan. Well, in my case I always liked it, but this time I think I would want to wear it, which wasn't the case on my first trial.

Bee said...

Ah Pierre - so charming and an accent so entrancing it was a teeny bit difficult to follow at times! I believe the point of tasting Coze was to 'feel' the flavour of chilli pepper, chocolate and coffee. He did say you 'have the peppers in your throat'. And it was probably the most sensual display I have ever encountered at a perfume event and I'm sorry I did not try it - it did smell delicious!

Olfactoria's Travels said...

I am amazed at your quality of reporting, I would not remember a single word from the whole evening after witnessing the Coze incident.
Thank, you, thank you, thank you for sharing that.
Sweet dreams everyone... ;)

Vanessa said...

Hi Bee,

P's accent was entrancing, and it is true that it was a wee bit difficult to follow sometimes. But it definitely added to his already immense charm.

Thanks so much for explaining the primary purpose of the Coze licking stunt. I am surprised not to have clocked the vivid phrase: "have the peppers in your throat" - I would have thought that might have stuck in my mind. : - )

Vanessa said...

Hi Olfactoria,

Well, it remains to be seen what I can make of my scribbled notes from the rest of the talk. Part 2 may be "pearilously" short!

But I am happy to have made you a little hot and bothered from this great distance... : - ) And it is perhaps no coincidence that PG has the Fire Exit sign right over his head!

Unknown said...

Hi Vanessa,

Lovely post again, as usual. It's ridiculous how many of these events I've missed given I live just 5 minutes (WALK) away from Les Senteurs! But by the time I'd gotten round to knowing about PG coming down the tickets had already been snapped up :(

Really looking forward to attending something now...

Vanessa said...

Hi Joshua,

Thanks for your kind comment, and sorry you were pipped on the ticket front. As the Perfume Lovers events gain popularity, I can see people needing to book pretty much as soon as the next one is announced. There may be a few spots left at the Leather one in March, and then Katie Puckrik is giving a talk in April!

Tara said...

V, after I read about the licking incident the rest of the post went out of my mind and I had to re-read it in order to leave a comment! However, all I can say is I will try MM next time I'm at Les Senteurs on your recommendation and thanks for the "Ploywood" scoop.

Vanessa said...

Hi tara,

Haha - I can quite see how that might happen. I am only sorry I was not quick enough off the mark with my camera to capture PG in mid-lick. The shot above was taken just after the key moment, and probably shows him explaining about the peppers in his throat which Bee filled us in on.

mals86 said...

Enjoyable recounting of what I'm sure was a delightful afternoon! (I'm actually grinding my teeth in pure envy...)

Like everyone else, I'm looking forward to Part the Second.

Vanessa said...

Hi mals86,

Thanks - it was fun from end-to-end, though my overexcited brain did pay for it over the weekend...

It is a shame that our virtual community isn't physically closer!

ScentScelf said...

I must say, it is difficult for me to conjure a stronger diptych than "'hurt' for h-e-a-r-t" against the licking of the wrist.

But I shall endeavor to persevere in proceeding to things more specifically perfume...

...such as the intriguing simple summary of the PG line as "story scents" and the Haunty Em line as simple presentations of "smells nice." (Sorry, my beyond awful French leads me to pronounce Huitieme Art as either that we're not in Oz anymore mishmash -- running around with my dog yelling and looking for "Haunty Em, Haunty Em!!" -- or occasionally as Hatey M. Which is prounced "hatey" as in "waity Katie" plus "M" as in the Lorre character running around with a not so scarlet letter.

But I digress...

...only to land smack dab in your Poire Guillaume. Bwa ha ha.

I need to lay hands upon a sample of Myrrhiad. Having acquired a small amount of the new Guerlain myrrhe, and finding it well cooked in the style of the Guerlain cooker (see, I am paying attention here), I am curious to see how myrrhe is treated in the Pear's kitchen.

(It is at this point I become puckish and say "You started it!" Then go back and capitalize the adjective so as to nod to your companion that day.)

Anyway, I enjoyed your account quite a bit, and am looking forward to further tales. Told tales, not curiously turned fish tails. Though if there be cod, bring it on.


lovethescents said...

SO jealous! Mostly jealous of KP for being lucky enough to spend a day with you and PG <3

Vanessa said...

Hi ScentScelf,

With such a natural affinity for word play, you should be the 10th person in the PG company, in charge of whimsical scent names. You might need to sharpen up your French pronunciation, but you have all the creative credentials for sure.

And you might well like Myrrhiad if you like licorice, whether real or chimera, as in the present case!

More tales coming up soon! My computer went on a go slow tonight and I had to wait 30 seconds every 30 seconds for the cursor to unfreeze, so it has taken 8 hours to write what should have taken 2-3, and I am still not there yet!

Vanessa said...

Hi lovethescents,

LOL re the sweet and unexpected twist in your are a wag and a true friend!

lady jane grey said...

I hope they will change "polywood" into something more appealing. It sounds plane off-putting (to me).

Vanessa said...

Hi lady jane grey,

"Plane off-putting" is genius!

: - )