( October 2003)

Early one bright Tuesday morning, a bus filled with energetic women twisted up the winding road above Cannes, on the French Riviera. We’d joined a tour, to make our personal perfumes.
The deep voice of our guide said, “In the second century B.C. the Romans found reedy marsheS here, filled with mosquitoes.  There on the hill above the old town they built the Castrom Cannois, the castle of the canes, thus our city’s name.”  I yawned and sat up to look.
As we rose higher into the foothills of the Alpes Maritimes, we glimpsed the blue Mediterranean in the distance.  Here, the clear, brilliant light and voluptuous flowers had inspired the great Impressionist painters.
Our guide said, “We are passing the village of Mougins, where Picasso spent his last 15 years.  At the Moulin de Mougins, during the film festival, Elizabeth Taylor holds her annual party.  I was still sleepy and open to anything the young man wanted to tell us.
“From the twelfth century the hill town of Grasse was a place of glove makers.  In the fifteenth, this area was part of Italy.  Catherine di Medici was offended by the stink of the leather tanneries and suggested some sweeter smelling activity.  The townspeople took her seriously, first making perfumed gloves.  By the 18th Century, they had built a new prosperity based on flower and herbal essences.  Today Grasse is the perfume capital of the world.  Three perfumeries dominate — Molinard, Fragonard and Galimard.  The region’s growers cultivate plants with excellent aromas.”
In Grasse, our chatty group in colorful vacation clothing glimbed off the bus and trouped though Galimard’s sparkling showroom, where ornate crystal bottles glinted under starry halogen spotlights.  I followed the others into Le Studio des Fragrances.

Open to the public, this is the only place in France where an ordinary mortal has access to hundreds of scents and, with the guidance of an expert, can create a personal perfume. The showroom, studio, factory and small perfume museum in nearby Eze-Village are open all year.  (The personal perfume creation process takes about two hours and costs 34 Euros.)
Like dutiful science students, we sat on stools. The sparkling laboratory glassware on a smooth black workbench took me back to high school chemistry, where I’d singed my hair on the Bunsen burner and could never balance a reaction equation.  Had I consented to relive that horror?
Our professor of aromas would be Monsieur Morelle, aka Le Nez (luh NAY).  Though that nose looked entirely normal from across the room, it is but one of fewer than a thousand worldwide that qualifies its owner as a master perfumer.  Fewer than fifty perfumers alive today are true “Noses,” with the creativity and originality to launch trends.  All have apprenticed in Grasse, birthplace of the worldwide perfume industry.
Le Nez was explaining the theory. “A perfume has three parts — the top, middle and base notes.”  The top or peak is the scent you detect first. It must be fresh and pleasant but is gone in fifteen minutes to two hours. The middle or heart lingers for at least four hours.  It gives the perfume its character and style.  In a masculine scent the heart will be woody or green.  Women prefer fruit and floral aromas.  The base, fond or foundation essence is a fixer to link together the parts and join with the natural scent of the skin.  This should be strong and moody, what is left at the end of the day.”
It was a lot to take in, but we were here not for a lecture but to complete a project. “Now, let us begin.”  We students glanced at each other and waited for clues on how to approach an imposing selection of scent concentrates.  Within reach we each had more than a hundred small brown bottles, with mystery labels.
Kristi, Monsieur Morelle’s pretty assistant, appeared at my side.  She said to the group, “First, we will develop the fond layer.”  I relaxed a bit and let her help me choose my favorites.
Sniffing each, I grew as delighted as a child with the wonder and novelty. “I’m in a new universe of the senses,” I told the woman beside me.
“Exactly.  It’s like exploring a realm we never knew existed.”  She sniffed a small bottle and set it aside with a satisfied smile.  “You know, scent arouses the most primitive and ancient of the brain’s sensual capacities.”  That resonated with something I’d read.
For my fond I chose ambriene, santal, ambre orientale and vanille — all powerfully lush, sharp, deep aromas that were both familiar and strange.  We don’t have enough words for scents.  While we added selected flower and fruits scents, happy chatter filled the room as people tried to express their feelings.
“It makes me hungry.”
“That one smells like my dentist.”
“Oh, I could get passionate about doing this.”
“Such richness.  I never imagined it possible.”
I think of myself as challenged when it comes to the sense of smell, but here I felt some primitive instincts surging into awareness.  Professionals say the right aromas will put us into a state of grace so that we feel a divine well-being at the core of our life.  In this lab, surrounded by intense and marvelous odors, that was easy to believe.
I added to my tall graduated cylinder five milliliters of Muguet de Mai, plus five each of Fleurs de Jacinthe and Fleuri Ylang.  The curved meniscus measured 60 milliliters at this point.
“Now, the complex phase begins,”  pretty Kristi said. “We will choose two more, each judged in combination with what you have, to add the perfect heart to your base.”
In this phase, I discovered scents so heavenly I felt my heart flutter with pure ecstasy. If only we had more time, I kept thinking as I reached for one little bottle after another, just for the surprise of what it held.  “Now,” Kristi said, “We select three more for freshness, to create the peak.”
A woman in a lab coat appeared at my side, clutching clipboard and pen.  “I must have a name for your perfume.”
“I have not yet made it.  How can I name it?  Please come back to me.”  She looked annoyed but moved on.  Too much attitude.  I added Rose Petal and Muguet with little thought for how they mixed with what I already had.
Kristi appeared beside me and we talked.  She said she’d been in training seven years.   Her first year was impossibly frustrating.  “One day, at last, I sniffed and recognized what was in it — such a joyful moment.  But it takes decades to be a real nose.” I suspected it would take several lifetimes for me.
The woman to my left sucked in a deep whiff.  “Hmmm.  I’d like this on ice, with a twist of lemon.”
Kristi must have guessed I had no natural ability.  She suggested that Fruits de Cassis and Accord Fruite’ might be the perfect final touch for my creation.  I gladly followed her nose, not trusting my own.
The clipboard woman stood beside me again.  “You have the name ready now?”
“No, I’m sorry.  Let me think a moment.”
“No.  I must have the name now.”  Did I imagine it or had she stamped her foot with impatience?  “Give me a name, or I will call it by your own name.”
Horrified by that idea, I said,  “Please.  I need a moment more.”  I squeezed my eyes shut and sent my inner poet on a five-second treasure hunt.  She came back with “Queen of the Sea.”  I rejected it outright, but time was up.  The woman wrote it down without comment.  What an uninspired name, I thought, in a world of fantastic and romantic perfumes with soaring, glamorous names.
Le Nez had advice for us as we topped off our 100 milliliter cylinders.  “Wait to use your perfume.  It must mix and settle like a good wine.  Keep it ten to fourteen days in a cool dark place.”
Krisit laughed and added, “But it’s not like wine.  You don’t have to wait years.”  She came by again and sniffed my final result.  “This is excellent.  Truly very nice.”  She sounded nearly as surprised as I was that the result was any good at all.
We moved to rows of chairs.  After a short film on harvesting rosemary, lavender and thyme and distilling them to extract the essential oils, we each received our labeled bottle and soon passed them around.  “I hope my teenaged daughter likes this,” said the woman who’d wanted hers on ice with a twist.
I sniffed a dozen lovely perfumes, each new in the world, never known before in all the years since Parfumerie Galimard was founded in 1747 by Jean Paul Galimard, Lord of Seranon and friend of the poet Goethe.
As they had once done for the kings courtiers of France, Galimard’s heirs would keep each of our formulas on record so that in the future we might reorder, or perhaps select personally scented products such as body cream or bubble bath.
Monsieur Morelle handed out our diplomas with a handshake for each of us.  I could not help staring at his nose.  Even up close, it looked normal — not at all suspect.  Kristi reminded us that ten more years of this and some of us would become real experts.
Well, some of us.  She looked at me with a complicit smile.  We’d worked together on this one.  No matter that I have no talent.  Queen of the Sea would never be sold in a crystal bottle, but I rather liked my unique personal perfume.


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