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August 1, 2008

"Jasmin et Cigarette" By Luca Turin

"Jasmin et Cigarette" By Luca Turin

Sitting at the bus stop one sunny, quiet morning three weeks ago, I noticed an elderly lady next to me, far too crisply dressed for the shabby neighborhood and smoking a cigarette held very close to the tips of her fingers , her hand arched beyond flat, as in fifties ads. She was wearing a houndstooth jacket and a sweet, powdery, grown-up perfume which could have been the old Dioressence. A breeze suddenly mixed the plume from her cigarette with the fragrance and made me realize how much I missed smoke in public places. Now it is gone, we can see that smoke was the speech of smell, exhaled with every word. It was the olfactory equivalent of a group conversation which you could chose to listen to or treat as noise. It said you were in company, and could speak (or wear perfume) frankly to someone next to you without being overheard. Walk into a pub these days and the clear air feels oddly silent. Any smell of food or fragrance stands naked and precise, like a medical photograph.

Filtering out detail softens the edges of things and focuses our mind on structure, on melody, on the essential. They pipe white noise into open-plan offices so that people do not feel exposed. Painters stand back and blink when looking at a work in progress. The tinkle of glasses in jazz clubs never got in the way of the music. But it was more than that. Some fragrances from that period seem to have been designed with smoke in mind to be mixed at the time of use, one half of some ambient gin and tonic. It was as if the composed smell needed an audience: perfume supplied the music, smoke the crowd noises. This mysterious love affair between speech and music is what sends a shiver down your spine when in a movie the soundtrack fades into a conversation.

It is perhaps no accident that some of the greatest perfumers alive are dedicated smokers. You can see them in the street in the fragrance district of midtown Manhattan, smelling strips in one hand, cigarette in the other, watching a crew dig up the road. I have always believed that smoke helped their art. To be sure, nobody is going to much miss emphysema and lung cancer, and the ritual post-coital cigarette must be on its way out (what replaces it?). But the surest sign of a new era comes from a young perfumer working for Etat Libre d’Orange, Antoine Maisondieu. He has composed a fragrance that addresses the problem: Jasmin et Cigarette.

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