"The Perfume Museum" By Luca Turin
Why are some Arts taken seriously, and others left unmolested? Consider it took photography a century to earn the finery of respect: books, museums, collectors, auctions, reviews, university jobs. It was initially deemed “too easy” as compared to painting, but when people began to accumulate snapshots they slowly realized that good ones seldom happen by accident. If one minimally defines Art as something that is both difficult and beautiful, perfumery qualifies. Seriousness is another matter. Perfumery is not a hobby, so nobody understands quite how tricky it is. Evolution is a great perfumer (Gardenias!), and many assume perfumers just imitate nature. Add to that the fact that perfume is now as transient as fashion, and all the conditions are met for low esteem. A good indication is the scarcity of perfume museums. Most (Paris has one, Grasse several) are concerned with bottles, and end in a shop. There the punters can relieve their frustration of having bought nothing (and smelled nothing) for the previous half-hour by gorging on multicoloured soaps to give to relatives and other people they don’t like. The main Grasse museum used to let visitors look at a perfumer at work behind glass, like some panda. Like pandas, the poor man usually took refuge in the back room.
The exception is the Versailles Osmothèque, created in 1990 by the French Society of Perfumers to serve as an archive of past creations. It houses a miraculous 334 disappeared fragrances ranging from celebrities like Coty’s 1911 Le Styx to obscure masterpieces like Nicky Verfaillies’s 1980 Grain De Sable. What is it like to visit? Well, for a start it’s not really a museum, but a refrigerated room in a basement of the ISIPCA perfume school. Can visitors smell everything ? No: Only members of the French Society of Perfumers can visit individually and ask to smell specific fragrances. Public group visits are allowed, during which a selection is shown accompanied by an interesting lecture on the history of perfumery. Can one buy the stuff ? Of course not. The whole operation runs on a shoestring budget and rests entirely on voluntary work. At a recent perfumer’s congress, I visited the modest stand of the Osmothèque tucked away in a corner. Several thousand perfumers attended, but only a handful came to smell their own history. It is amazing that the memory of an industry that is the glory of France commands so little funding. If they had 1% of the budget of Pierre Boulez’ IRCAM, things would be very different. An idea: put post-serialist nonentities in a refrigerated basement in Versailles, and open a perfume museum opposite the Centre Pompidou.