The sentence often pops up between industry people discussing a new product or one under development.
“It’s an odor, not a perfume” basically means that there is no bridge between the scent and the skin. This was, for instance, the criterion for setting apart Frédéric Malle’s alcoholic perfumes from his line of home fragrances, several of which are very realistic soliflores based on headspace captures. As there was no need to tweak the structure of the “natural” fragrance of gardenia, lily or lily-of-the-valley in order to stress (or incorporate) the elements that would weld the composition to the skin, the perfumers were able to achieve much more vivid naturalistic effects. To compose an original, successful soliflore for alcoholic perfumery would have required a considerable amount of extra work in order to give off the same natural effect without resorting to traditional “perfume-y” notes.
“It’s an odor, not a perfume” can also mean that a composition ventures so far outside the usual codes of perfumery that it does not actually register as perfume. I’ve heard it said of Cartier’s La Treizième Heure and of Serge Lutens’s Filles en Aiguilles, for instance, though both products are attractive to many people and thus do get some wear. More recently, it’s been said about that utterly strange mineral/animal hybrid, Byredo’s M/M Ink .
Clearly, what separates an “odor” from a perfume is often a matter of where one’s personal cursor is set. I once wrote a piece called “Why would I want to smell like a place?”… Since then, many new loves have made me eat my words – but after all, as Baudelaire wrote, two rights that should’ve been enshrined in the Droits de l’Homme are “the right to contradict oneself and the right to leave”. Still, while I am utterly mad about Olivia Giacobetti's Iunx line, for instance, there are several I’d want to live in rather than put on my skin: a completely personal viewpoint and one I wouldn’t waste my breath defending…
Nevertheless, there are some materials and accords that are more skin-loving than others, and not only the obviously animalic ones. White flowers are usually thought to echo human smells through indoles, and this is accurate, but the trick to me lies in the fruity-milky-oily effects of their lactones, which are actually reminiscent of unwashed hair and skin. Peach lactone (aldehyde C14) and coconut lactone (aldehyde C18) also work a charm. As does anything that’s a bit fatty-oily, as a matter of fact: the waxy facets of aliphatic aldehydes, the buttery facets of orris butter (myristic acid, which it shares with carrot seed oil, coconut oil and nutmeg oil). Or costus, which smells of dirty hair and mutton (a reconstitution is now used since it is banned).
Some materials have slightly sweaty aspects that work well with skin too: outside of the obvious cumin, you’ll find it in sandalwood (along with milky-smoky facets) and I get it from vetiver. Several resins and balsams also produce those effects: incense, myrrh, tolu, styrax…
In fact, there is a whole cornucopia of materials – though thanks to IFRA, their number is decreasing yearly – that can wed perfume to our flesh. It’s all a matter of how to use them, and then, of how we ourselves perceive them when they become part of our skin – other notes may disrupt those effects, make them feel foreign to us, or too far off from what perfume is meant to smell like. Again, a matter of personal settings.
The woman who gave us the template for what perfume is meant to smell like, the savvy Gabrielle Chanel, probably got it right when she famously said -- though the quote is quite probably apocryphal, but who care? -- “A woman is meant to smell like a woman, not like a rose.” Unless you tweak that rose to make it grow out of our skin.
Mirroring the beauties of nature is not enough: the perfumer’s artifice is essential. Which is why, however beautiful a headspace capture is, it’ll never be what you spray on…
On to you now: what distinguishes an odor from a perfume for you? And what are your most efficient skin-loving notes?
Illustration by Irving Penn