Thursday, 9 May 2013

On perfume

One spring afternoon thirty-five years ago I was floundering alone along the rue de la Trinité in Paris when I suddenly became aware of an extraordinary fragrance. It set my nerves jangling, my head spinning, my pulse racing. Looking around, I saw a small dark-haired woman in a fur coat walking towards Odéon. I was nineteen, she perhaps in her late forties, and intimidatingly chic. In a moment of uncharacteristic bravado I trotted after her and in stammering schoolboy French (it's got worse since then) asked her what in the name of God it was that made her smell like that (a pretty accurate translation of my gauche interrogation). She shrugged and said 'Mais . . . c'est Vol de nuitbien sûr,' and walked away, haughtily I expect. I hope I made her day, because she certainly made mine. I continued my walk along the street in the cool shadow of the grey mass of the great church, rendered light-headed by the gorgeous sense-enhancing aftermath of her passing.

Later that week in the (now closed) department store Samaritaine I tracked down the perfume. Faced with a sceptical and brightly-enamelled assistant I somehow blagged a sample, dabbing it self-consciously on my left wrist. I walked out of the store, smelling like a high class tart, crossed the Pont Neuf and walked eastwards along the Quai de l'Horloge. It was like being in the company of a vapourous spirit guide. I could still catch a wistful trace of the fragrance in my hotel room the following morning. Vol de Nuit has remained my favourite perfume ever since. Here's the bottle:

The creation of Jacques Guerlain, it was launched in 1933 and named after Antoine Saint Exupery's novel Night Flight (an account of the early days of aviation from the author of Le petit prince). The chunky bottle represents a rapidly spinning aircraft propeller and is a lovely example of 30s modernism. The top notes (and I had to look this up) are bergamot, galbanum and petit grain; below that jasmine, daffodil and spices; the base combines earthy woodsy notes of iris, vanilla. It's the most alluring and complex aroma, or succession of aromas,  you can possibly imagine.
Legend has it that the perfume was concocted for, or at least worn by, professional courtesans flying overnight from Paris to North Africa between the wars. Imagine that. It has a fabulous sillage which lasts for hours.
Sillage - pronounced see-yage - is a wonderful word for a wonderful thing: the scented trail left by the wearer of a fragrance. It translates more or less as 'wake' in English - as in the vapourous trace left in the sky by an aeroplane. The wearer makes her mark on the room, on the street, on the air, on the world, by activating the most elaborately complex creation of the parfumier's art using only the heat of her body. 

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