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September 1, 2009

"In search of a lost smell" By Luca Turin

"In search of a lost smell" By Luca Turin

The French have a wonderful phrase for disturbing ideas that recur at long, random intervals and catch you unprepared each time: serpent de mer, sea monster. Monsters can be good news, as in Dino Buzzati’s short story about the colombre, a giant shark that relentlessly follows a sea captain. The captain, certain the shark wants to kill him, manages to elude the beast for a lifetime. At last, near death, he decides to face the monster.

The colombre explains that what he wanted all along was to award him the Pearl of the Seas, which brings riches and love to its owner. The monster disappears forever into the depths; the captain dies. Some years ago, helped by the Genie in the Google, I embarked on a monster-clearing operation of my own. I tracked down a girl I had met once three decades earlier (no Pearl), obtained recordings of longed-for pieces of music (Pearl: Schumann’s Konzertstück for four horns), had a ring made to replace a lost one (lost the second too). Not surprisingly given my interests, there were instances of unfinished perfume business. One was getting hold of Nombre Noir. After years of waiting, two full bottles arrived independently the same day. The other serpent was, more mysteriously, an accord I first encountered in an unmarked, cork-stoppered aluminum bottle my stepfather brought back from India forty years ago.

The smell was properly archangelical, at once searingly bright and darkly fresh, and seemed to swirl too fast for the mind to follow. The bottle was lost, that accord never surfaced again, and I could find nothing similar while snooping around in India or the Middle East. The first clue came from a near-empty bottle of Jean Carles’ Elle...Elle... found in a flea market. In the brief interval between buying it and the bottle being accidentally upended and emptied by an enthusiastic cleaner, I caught several fleeting glimpses of the Indian Deva but could not figure out what it was made of. Years later, I was asked to oversee a fragrance and decided to model it on Elle...Elle.... The great perfumer Guy Robert kindly agreed to help. Elle...Elle...? Easy: he phoned Jean Carles’ son, Marcel, and asked him for the formula. The two main materials were rose and chamomile; I rushed back to Fragonard and asked the lab to weigh me a chromatic series.

There is a proportion at which the heavy sweetness of both materials, instead of adding up, magically cancels out and the perfumery equivalent of the biblical pillar of flame surges up before you. I smelled it endlessly until there was nothing left to understand. The monster still follows me, now smaller and friendlier. It recently reappeared in the form of a rose and chamomile shampoo made by EO. I now habitually shower in the company of a medium-sized creature of light.

Luca Turin works at the MIT; he lives in Boston.

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