Published: May 2009
By Christine Shea
For perfumers, travel memories are imprinted in their minds and their noses. Five fragrance creators reveal their most cherished places, and why certain scents linger forever.
Ask any perfumer about her favorite destination, and she's likely to soliloquize on the subtleties of fragrances in Europe's rose varietals, or the pungent scent of fresh-cut cedar from her grandfather's woodshop. Noses, as they're called in their trade, take a romantic and eccentric approach to travel. Instead of snapping photos, they log location-specific memories into a scrapbook of scents. It beats a slide show any day. Here, five perfumers name the best-smelling spots in the world.
FRédéRIC MALLE Parisian fragrance creator Frédéric Malle, nephew of the late director Louis Malle, collaborates with renowned perfumers to craft his Éditions de Parfums. "I guess I'm expected to talk about far-off places," he says. "But I spent my childhood summers at Pine Island Camp in Maine, and I find the seashore and the flowers that grow there very inspiring." Malle's fragrances have attracted a sophisticated crowd to his store on Paris's Rue de Grenelle and his fragrance "chambers" at Barneys New York.
Signature Scent: For his Lys Méditerranée, Malle evoked the crisp, fresh air of Whitehead Island, Maine, then sweetened it with orange blossom, night-blooming jasmine, and lily.
Early Influence: "When I was in boarding school in Pontoise, France, there was purple lilac on the grounds. I remember feeling totally free with my friends there. I will always, always love that smell." For Malle, there's much joy associated with travel and its collateral memories. His Vétiver Extraordinaire scent reminds him of the forests in the north of France where his grandparents lived. Woodsy, amber chimney smoke recalls the untainted air in Megève, where his family had a winter house.
Favorite Place: Despite his love of America (he notices every scent, including the ones outside JFK airport in Queens, New York), Malle is still a proud Frenchman. Now that the doughy smell of baking baguettes has been eclipsed by diesel exhaust ("It has altered the aroma of Paris," he sniffs), Biarritz is his most cherished fragrant spot. "From the beach and the forest next to it, you can breathe in the heat, the yellow broom flowers, the wood from the pine trees," Malle says. "The scent is so strong, it almost seems to vibrate."
CAMILLE GOUTAL When your mother creates a fragrance in your name, based on the ivy-covered garden where you played as a girl, the template for a lifetime of aromatic impressions is set in place early on. Such is the case for Camille Goutal, the legendary Parisian perfumer Annick Goutal's 27-year-old daughter, who joined the company's creative team when her mother died of breast cancer in 1999. Ten years ago, Annick blended a cologne for her husband that reproduced the sand dunes on the ële de Ré, off the western coast of France, and a business was born. Now the younger Goutal is blending her own delicate and transporting aromas.
Signature Scents: So far, Le Muguet (lily of the valley), La Violette (inspired by the nosegays of violets, once sold on the street in Paris, that her mother loved), Le Chèvrefeuille (honeysuckle), and the jasmine-tinged Quel Amour! are four fragrances Goutal has helped to invent.
Early Influence: Camille's grandfather's house in Aix-en-Provence holds the most powerful triggers. "The scents of dust and stone remind me of family summers in the south of France," she says. "It used to get so hot that we'd go indoors to cool off, tracking in mud and dust and making puddles of water on the cold stone floor. The smell of my aunts' perfume still lingers in the air."
Favorite Place: "I'm fond of tropical climates, because they have different flowers," Goutal says. "I'd like to create a fragrance that conveys southeast Asia—the heat, sensuality, and mystery."
SAGE MACHADO If the West Coast had a distinctive air, perfume-oil purveyor and jewelry designer Sage Machado would bottle it. Her one-of-a-kind necklaces and bracelets made of semi-precious stones are standard accessories for L.A. starlets who appreciate Sage's feminine, bohemian aesthetic. Her earthy oils (sold at Bergdorf Goodman) conjure up the overgrown gardens of old Hollywood Hills bungalows or incense wafting from a Malibu beach house.
Signature Scents: Machado has a knack for fusing familiar elements with exotic accents. Her perfume oil Garnet is a blend of Moroccan red rose, watermelon, blackberry, and Tunisian amber. Peridot combines fresh lime from Mexico with cucumber, fig, and freesia. "I think of fragrances in terms of color," Machado says. "For my Amethyst fragrance, I used notes from purple flowers like lilac, African violet, and iris root."
Early Influence: "I grew up near the beach, in Hawaii and California," Machado says. "So the smell of your hair after you've been swimming in the ocean and it's dried in the sun always makes me feel like I'm home." Shopping at the Sunday farmers' market on Hollywood Boulevard is a weekly ritual for Machado, and the scents of fresh produce—lemons, lavender, and, of course, sage—have found their way into her 11 oils.
Favorite Place: Machado gravitates to the ocean. But her most cherished destinations are the plumeria and hibiscus gardens on Kauai; Playa del Carmen, Mexico; and Italy. Absorbing the rich culture of Rome from the Spanish Steps, seeing the endless sunflower fields from the train between Florence and Venice, and appreciating Italian men all left strong impressions on the California girl when she visited last year. "From the architecture to the people, the trip couldn't have been more inspirational," Machado says. "I couldn't get enough of the ancient pottery, the textiles, and the African markets."
LYN HARRIS Sampling the scents created by Lyn Harris, the English perfumer for London-based Miller Harris Fragrances, (sold here at Barneys New York) is like walking through the wildflower patches of Scotland and the fig-tree orchards along the Mediterranean. Each has had a distinct influence on the perfumes she blends.
Signature Scent: Figue Amere reimagines the ambience of Es Cubells, Ibiza, where Harris once rented a villa, by blending green figs with sea moss and angelica and adding amber and vanilla. "These unusual fields of fig trees grew on the sea cliffs of Ibiza," she says. "The air was still, but it was filled with powerful smells."
Early Influence: Harris learned to appreciate nature during trips to her grandparents' farm in the Scottish Highlands. "I got my passion for fragrance from the wildflowers and the vegetable garden," she says. From her carpenter grandfather, she also learned to love the musky smell of wood.
Favorite Place: Like all perfumers, Harris is reminded why she chose her profession every time she goes to Grasse, the French town that has long been the industry's center. Never does she visit without spending hours in the traditional, family-owned perfume distilleries. Nor does she pass up a night at La Bastide St.-Antoine hotel, with its vibrant gardens and Provençal allure. But even wandering through her hometown can conjure up forgotten olfactory moments. "A writer might walk down the street and a story will come into her head," she says. "For me, life is fragrance, and certain scents—just walking down a London street, sometimes—will remind me of a place from long ago. "
LEV GLAZMAN AND ALINA ROYTBERG The stories told by Russian-born Lev Glazman always sound compelling. Maybe it's the accent, which dominates his speech despite his 19 years in Boston. No one can make a tale about flowers blowing into his breakfast sound as momentous as Glazman, the co-creator (along with his wife, Alina Roytberg) of Fresh cosmetics, a bath, skin-care, and makeup line (sold at Fresh stores in Boston and New York) known for its clean-smelling products.
Signature Scent: "It was late May or early June and I was sitting at La Bastide St.-Antoine café in Grasse, drinking tea," says Glazman, who also cherishes his stays (and meals) at Les Muscadins in Mougins. "And these linden blossoms blew right into my cup. The scent and flavor were so overwhelming, I had to take more petals from the tree and put them into my tea." Linden, one of Fresh's original "single-note fragances," was envisioned that morning.
Early Influence: Glazman loves to spin tales about the apple trees at his grandfather's house outside St. Petersburg, the spice markets where he shopped when he lived in Israel, and the scent of bergamot carried on Italy's coastal breezes.
Favorite Place: The villages of Umbria have cast a spell on Glazman. "It must be the air and the earth in Italy that makes everything so fragrant and intense," he says. A summer spent near the Red Sea also left a lasting impression, and made its way into his Cucumber Baie fragrance. "Your senses are keener when you travel," says Glazman. "You observe things more than you would in a familiar environment. You're filled with emotion, and you want to take it all in."
The fragrance industry began in the 16th century in this village on the Côte d'Azur, still the perfume capital of the world.
La Bastide St.-Antoine Chef Jacques Chibois presides over this 18th-century farmhouse and restaurant on the western outskirts of town. Doubles from $196; dinner for two $210 33-4/93-70-94-94; www.jacques-chibois.com
Les Muscadins On a hill overlooking the Bay of Cannes, in Mougins, 10 minutes from Grasse. The staff is as attentive as the chef, Jérôme Rousseaux, is creative. Doubles from $180; dinner for two $117 33-4/92-28-28-28; www.lesmuscadins.com
International Perfume Museum Displays show perfume-making techniques and detail the industry's complex history. Closed in November
Parfumerie Galimard Learn to distinguish between top, middle, and base notes in a two-hour workshop ($33) taught at the Studio des Fragrances; then create your own signature scent in the lab. 33-4/93-09-20-00; www.galimard.com —Jaime L. Gross