BY TRISTA EDWARDS
In Patrick Suskind’s novel 1985 Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, the protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, is born in 1738 Paris with an extraordinary sense of smell that allows him to distinguish the subtle differences between an immeasurable about of scents. His innate ability drives him to become a perfumer, which eventually leads him down a dark path of murder to capture human scents of certain young women he "lovingly" covets.
Not too far into the start of the novel Grenouille remarks, "Odors have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will. The persuasive power of an odor cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it." His first victim smells of sea breeze, apricot, and water lilies. He has to have her—her natural scent. Her essence.
It is truly a captivating novel albeit horrifying in many regards. This book, or rather the above-mentioned quote that I recently found I had scribbled in an old journal, floated back into mind as I read a less disturbing and more celebratory study on perfume—Perfume: A Century of Scents by Lizzie Ostrom who also goes by the moniker Odette Toilette on her blog by the same name. Ostrom’s book takes the reader on a journey of the most tantalizing perfumes from 1900 to 1999 and features a dozen from each decade. The ultimate question the book asks is what story does each scent tell?
Ostrom writes: "This is the thing about perfume: it won’t sit still for the photographer, be locked down or captured in a single image. For most of us, a particular fragrance will always offer much more than smell—it will summon a mirage of something or someone we thought was lost and the sudden, surprising revival of exactly what is was to feel like us, all those years ago when life was different. Back then: when we wore that old, wonderful favourite."
The sentiment echoes that of Suskind’s Grenouille. (With less sinister intent, of course.) There is no remedy for the spell of fragrance. To me the most haunting aspect of scent is not the conjuring of someone else but of a former self—the ghost of you. I recently stumbled on a box of tiny perfume bottles that I collected as a child. As I pulled them out and dusted them off, I suddenly became overwhelmed with emotion. At first it was holding the bottles, seeing their colors and shapes and arranging them on my dresser that made me remember the little girl that did the very same thing decades ago. It was when I popped the tops off, however, to inhale the lingering fragrances inside that made the tears well up in my eyes. I was that little girl again. The scent transported me and I was reminded of that time when life was different, when I was different.
For a few brief moments, I was that child again. I was obsessed with the beauty of the bottles, the "grown-up" aesthetic of wearing perfume, the femininity of the fragrances.
I could still spend hours ogling the splendor of perfume bottles and lounging among the aroma of their intoxicating fragrances all day as easily as I did as a carefee girl.
What scent takes you back?
Here are just a few of 100 scents highlighted in Ostrom’s book that I found to be the most alluring, magical, seductive, and dare I say, supernatural. Most listed here are still in production. Next time you are at the cosmetics counter take some time to indulge in these fragrances.
Lancôme's Magie Noire (1978) - The Wiccan Perfume
"It certainly lives up to its name, being a dark, smoky chipper, all incense and autumn mulch, to at all sweet. Were this drinkable like wine, it would be highly tannic. It is one of the most grown-up perfumes around (without being old-ladyish) and stands alongside Opium as a dark spirit of the [the 70s] decade."
Chanel's No. 19 (1971) - The Ineffable Perfume
"No. 19 was released in 1971, just after Gabrielle Chanel's death, and was the first perfume for the company following a sixteen-year hiatus. [...] The latest fragrance had been Gabrielle's personal scent and was named after the date of her birthday, the 19th of August. Gabrielle was obsessed with numerology, and from a cursory look at the symbolism of 19 you could infer that 1 stands for new beginnings and 9 endings, the number holds within itself two different identities."
L. T. Piver's Pompeia (1907) - The Hoodoo Perfume
"Pompeia, because of its local availability, [in the Mississippi Delta] became one of the principle 'spiritual colognes' of hoodoo. By the middle of the century L.T. River had suffered a decline in fortunes and change in ownership and Pompeia then became available from botanic magic stores in a cheaper reformulation of the original as well as in 'lotion' form."
Robert Piguet's Fracas (1948) - The Noir Perfume
"In crime fiction fragrance is often the thing that gives the perpertrator away, a piece of evidence persistently wafting about the scene - like the broken shard of a congac glass left clumsily by the culprit - and almost imperceptible. Specifcally in film noir, time and again scent gets assiocaited with misdemeanors. 'How could I have known that murder can smell like honeysuckle?' laments a guilty insurance salesman in 1944's Double Indemnity, referring to the perfume of his co-conspirator and lover."
Clinique's Aromatics Elixir (1971) - The Holistic Perfume
"This potpourri of a perfume has patchouli as its star (of course), together with a rose heart and a crown of herbs, including chamomile and sage (for a Scarborough Fair moment). Aromatics Elixir projects like a diva hitting a key change."
Christian Dior's Poison (1985) - The Pollutant Perfume
"Poison is a burning, psychotropic pastille of tuberose, this time with ripe plums and incenses so as to like something from a sacrificial rite, all swooning flowers and braziers. It's wonderfully in your face with its bling, as though Liberace has come straight off the table from his latest facelift in a sequined operating gown, ready to play is white piano even as the anesthetic wears off."
Isabey's Gardenia (1924) - The Woozy Perfume
"Gardenia perfumes were often marketed to the young deb or sophiscated newlywed, though their swoon-inducing qualities made the flower a neat literary leitmotif for a darker taste in sexual infatuation."
Trista Edwards is a poet, land mermaid, light witch, horror enthusiast, creatrix, traveler, and dog lover. She is also the curator and editor of the anthology, Till The Tide: An Anthology of Mermaid Poetry (Sundress Publications, 2015). She is currently working on her first full-length poetry collection but until then you can read her poems at The Journal, Quail Bell Magazine, 32 Poems, The Adroit Journal, Sou’wester, Queen Mob's Tea House, and more. She writes about travel, ghosts, and poetry on her blog, Marvel + Moon. Trista is a contributing editor at Luna Luna Magazine.