On a recent weeklong visit to Paris, I inhaled and sniffed more fragrances than I might throughout the year in Toronto. It was heavenly overstimulation for my nose, much like the city's decadent pastries indulge the stomach.
For better or worse, Parisians take great pride in wearing fragrance. Walk down any street and most of the passersby leave some type of sillage, the ineffable trail of scent. Perfume boutiques are as plentiful as lingerie and chocolate shops, especially in the shopping pockets of Le Marais and St-Germain-des-Pres.
Because fragrance is so ubiquitous in France, niche perfumeries thrive when they develop a unique olfactory identity. But the creative process doesn't end with the juice. In fact, it continues well past the name and bottle design. As I hopped from shop to shop and wandered department-store floors, I was struck by the variety of ways these brands present their scents.
In particular, many had bid adieu to the paper blotter. In its place, I discovered gauze stuffed in a cup (at L'Artisan Parfumeur), extra-long cotton swabs (Nasomatto), scented feathers (Nez a Nez) and funnels lined in paper (Histoires de Parfums).
The most distinctive blotter alternative can be found at the Iunx (pronounced yoonks) boutique, which is nestled into a corner of the Hôtel Costes on rue Saint-Honoré. There, a series of wall-mounted glass, steel and aluminum tubes - or "scent machines" - emit an amber glow and release the perfume when they sense a face in close range. It's akin to smelling robotic roses in a futuristic flower garden.
At the other end of novelty, Lost Marc'h, a line inspired by Brittany, soaks small pieces of driftwood in its scents (Beautyphica.com, a new Canadian beauty site, just began selling the line).Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the fragrances evoke the sea.
The question I am still trying to answer, though, is whether these diverse delivery methods are a matter of experiential one-upmanship or whether some materials actually transmit scent better than others.
Denyse Beaulieu, the Paris-based author of fragrance blog Grain de Musc, says that paper is a "poor substitute" for the skin when sampling fragrances. "Technologically interesting systems are the way forward," she says by phone. "It's about experiencing different brand environments in a more intimate way."
Beaulieu, who is working on her first fragrance book, cites additional alternatives, from paper fans at Guerlain to Frederic Malle's fragrance chambers; both effectively use air to distribute the scent. She calls the cotton swabs a gimmick - too small a surface area to serve any benefit.
But even the materials that better absorb a fragrance (Chanel's porous ceramic wands are designed to capture top, middle and base notes) still lack the heat that brings a scent to life.
At Iunx, the three principal designers (perfumer Olivia Giacobetti, her artist father Francis and Fabienne Conte-Sévigné) envisioned a cerebral rather than commercial project. To that end, the scent machines - variously described as trumpets and organs - represent "a way of developing the pleasure of smelling and bring a sense of discovering the perfume at its source," according to the brand literature. "This unique system allows a pause between each perfume and generates the rhythm of an olfactory tasting." Also, it's very cool.
Back on this side of the pond, paper blotters are still de rigueur, although I have seen strips of ribbon at the Narciso Rodriguez counter. This gives the impression of a luxury item and feels nice between the fingers but, unfortunately, I've found that the perfume quickly gets lost in the fabric.
Noor, Toronto's go-to destination for niche scents, sticks to paper with one exception: Frapin, a small scent collection from the famous Cognac company. The fragrances are sprayed onto wisps of tissue paper that are swirled into the bottom of a curvy red tumbler so that people can sniff the boozy notes in much the same way they'd sip the brandy. "It carries through the theme of pedigree," Noor co-owner Nahla Saad says. "It's not like a tiny blotter that you smell with one nostril."
Parfums Delrae, another brand available at Noor, offers a larger card format that affords enough surface area to print information about the line (clever marketing when not a household name). Plus, it can also be fanned in front of the nose.
If there is any takeaway message here, it's that our senses are never acting in isolation. While paper is by no means passé, there's something special about a brand that goes that extra step to build an experience around its fragrance. It lingers in the memory, long after the scent has disappeared.Report Typo/Error