I rubbed my eyes, surprised to read a perfume review that, uncharacteristically, could be described as actual literature. I read the words again.
Odalisque's superbly judged floral accord of jasmine and iris, both abstract and very stable, allied to a saline note of oakmoss, initially feels delicate, but in use is both sturdy and radiant. It is as if the perfumer had skillfully shaved off material from a classic chypre accord until a marmoreal light shone through it.
I took a sharp intake of breath and reached for the phone to call my publisher. "I've found our perfume critic. His name is Luca Turin. Apparently, he's a biophysicist? I think he's living somewhere in Greece. This man is a genius."
I've always stayed an arm's length away from perfume. It wasn't until the late nineties that I started thinking about fragrances, and by that time, the industry was already increasingly filled with celebrity perfumes. Meanwhile, the "classic" perfumes by Dior, Saint Laurent, et al. were unabashedly being marketed as tools of seduction. In Yves Saint Laurent's advertisement for the Opium fragrance in 2000, a porcelain-skinned Sophie Dahl, legs open, wearing nothing but strappy sandals and jewels, offered herself on an altar of black satin sheets. The image, shot by Steven Meisel, went ’round the world, won an award, and infuriated feminists. It all felt so obvious.
I wondered what Luca Turin, a man who loves perfume thought about all of that. But it's not his love of perfume that interests me, but rather his manner of communicating about fragrance that I find intoxicating. Luca Turin can read perfume—and its intrinsic message—better than anyone.
"Perfume is decidedly not about two things: It isn't about memory, and it isn't about sex. Perfume is about beauty and intellect," Luca begins. "A perfume is a message in a bottle—not a smell—and the message is written by the perfumer and read by the person who smells it."
"Bear in mind, I have been off the radar screen for several years [five, to be precise]. Part of the reason I felt like I had to, you know, get away from it for a while was the tremendously depressing impression that perfumery was a field of ruins," Luca explains. But, according to him, sex and celebrity marketing only occupied a cramped cabin in an already sinking ship. Over the years, perfumers have also had to adapt molecules and replace perfume ingredients in order to keep up with evolving laws related to an upsurge in concern about allergens.
"On the one hand, the great classics were being systematically destroyed—for no good reason. And on the other hand, the new creations—with notable exceptions, of course—were cut-and-paste compositions that imitate the competition. It all converged into a sort of blah nothingness. It just so happened that when we wrote that guide [Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez], it was the end of an era."
Looking back, Luca tells me that he believes that this was a correct assessment. "The niche houses have come up with some rather wonderful things. I get the impression that people like Andy Tauer, Neela Vermeire, Slumber House—I am pretty sure that if a lot of aficionados are talking about [these outfits], then something must be there. It's not all a disaster, but when you see the great classics…I mean the history of perfume—as an art—has almost been entirely wiped out. We re-smelled them [the classic perfumes] after three years. So many things have been completely buggered."
I share with Luca that it's difficult for me to imagine this golden era, that it's akin to him describing colors that I will never lay eyes on.
"Good, because at least you won't suffer! Even by the time I got into perfume, in the early seventies, the Guerlains were not what they were originally. In order to prevent allergies in five people, regulations have fucked up one of the great arts! Tania and I decided that civilization had ended, that we had created a proper epitaph with the guide, and that it was time to move on and think about other things."
This article has been excerpted from a longer interview that will be published on Style.com/Arabia this weekend. "Message in a Bottle," Luca Turin's bimonthly column of perfume reviews for Style.com/Arabia, will launch in August.