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September 1, 2007

"Calone" By Luca Turin

"Calone" By Luca Turin

In August 1966, chemists at the drug giant Pfizer filed a patent for a strange molecule that looked like a tranquilizer (distantly related to Valium) and smelled like nothing on earth, or “melon” as they prosaically described it. Pfizer had bought the venerable Grasse firm of Camilli Albert Laloue two years earlier, so they handed the beast over to their perfumed friends who christened it Calone after the firm’s initials. There it slept for twenty years, while the patent ran out. Then in 1989 perfumer Yves Tanguy understood that the time for watery notes had come and composed New West. Within three years Escape, Kenzo Homme and Eau d’Issey had put Calone at the forefront of perfumery, where it still is. I received an exceptionally pure sample from an Italian manufacturer yesterday. Open the cardboard box, and you smell it already. Open the plastic bag containing the sealed plastic bottle, and you smell it still, but no stronger. Open the bottle, and everyone on the block smells it, but still quiet. This is the olfactory equivalent of a rumour, a whisper that spreads far and wide without ever being spoken out loud. What does it smell of ? No matter: what matters is that it is distance-independent, like light through a transparent medium, like a deity seeing through perfume’s soul.

Synchronicity: I called Mark Buxton, a Symrise perfumer who did many Comme des Garçons fragrances and, almost alone, created the new aesthetic of transparent woody florals that everyone is imitating. I asked him how it all started. He said “Calone”. He hated the smell but loved the effect, that quiet, penetrating radiance. He composed Jacomo’s superbly transparent Anthracite Homme in 1990, and spent the best part of the ‘nineties trying to achieve a midnight version of Calone’s metallic sheen using clear, salubrious, woody-smoky notes and dark flowers. Buxton does not like opaque florals, does not think fragrance has a sex, and clearly has a romantic ideal of perfume: like a revelation, a fragrance should be at once disturbing and self-evident. Rei Kawakubo of CdG picked his composition saying that it was “like a drug: I want more”. Strangely, the Ravel to Buxton’s Debussy works on the same floor: Bertrand Duchaufour, author of Timbuktu and the other great exponent of the Night Sky school. I asked Buxton whether there had been mutual influence. He dismissed this politely, and explained that, in aesthetics as in engineering, problems sometimes have only one solution: they both found it.