Did you hear the one
about the parosmic who went to the perfume museum?*
A trip to the Osmotheque perfume museum in Versailles seemed
like a dream come true when I’d booked it through Odette Toilette in April 2014. Billed as an opportunity to smell
classic fragrances dating back as far as the 1800’s (in faithfully recreated
“original” formulations), plus an opportunity to talk through the history of
those fragrances with master perfumer Thomas Fontaine of Jean Patou, it was a
trip genuinely not to be missed. I
booked gladly, and forgot all about it for the best part of the year.
Come November, and the time to travel however, the trip seemed
more like a cruel joke put out by the universe. Having lost my sense of
smell completely in the meantime, only to have it partially recover (then further
discover that all smells were now completely distorted; being both disgusting and nauseating), a trip to a perfume museum under the circumstances seemed
rather perverse, not to mention slightly masochistic. Who would want to put themselves through
Turns out, I would.
On the Eurostar over to Paris, my travelling companions were sweetly amused when they found
out my predicament: “Everything smells
like poo? Really? Why on earth are you coming?” I had
answers for the first and second of those questions (“yes”, and “yes, I know, you couldn’t
make it up, even it you wanted to”), but a clear handle on the third proved
elusive. One of the reasons was
that I’d paid for the trip already, dammit!
Plus, there was the fact that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity
for a perfume nerdling like myself. A lot of my friends were going and I
wanted to see them, and share in the experience with them. And finally (probably
the most likely): I’m stubborn, and I HATE the situation I’ve found myself in,
so I was blummin’ well going to show my nose who is boss, for once.
A lunch at the Palais de Tokyo before the museum visit proved parosmia-challenging,
consisting of giant chunks of raw radish with butter and bread, followed by
fish (noticeably delicious) in a bacon sauce which proved in the end to be too inedibly
creamy and slimy-feeling for me to finish off. But there was tapioca with slices of
mango for pudding, and I could eat some of that, and as you might expect, the wine was good. Very good. Not as good as gin would have been, but I digress. However, in a hugely amusing
twist (for me), it actually turned out I was far better served by my food than
my “olfie”*** colleagues who had ordered the “chicken in caramel sauce”, which
turned out to be a far more literal dish than anticipated. Chicken in runny, buttery, sugary caramel. So for once I got to watch
others being completely off-put by their meals in a way that felt both amusing,
and, in its way, oddly comforting. Schadenfreude, perhaps? Anyway.
“Possibly”, I thought, “today might not be entirely what I am expecting”.
And so it proved to be, in a variety of ways.
The Osmotheque is oddly situated in what appears to be a
residential street, and Versailles itself feels far more “surburban” than
I anticipated. I guess after spending time
in Serge Luten’s rather monastic Morrocan-themed private rooms in his Palais Royal salon (again a surprise after the gorgeously insanely-lit deep-purple intergalactically baroque
shop-floor) and, having experienced the
marble and gilt splendour of Guerlain’s spa on the Champs Elysees firsthand,
then having felt my heart flutter in the beautifully “frou-frou” (not to mention marabou!)
stores of Caron around Paris, I was expecting the world’s only “perfume museum”
to be a little less, well … less of an unassuming office block with an attached canteen, let’s
put it that way. I think I was expecting
more of a temple. A monument. An eden. Something with glitter, at the very least. Paris tends to have
that effect on me! Admittedly, I never expect things to be merely “normal” in
the City of Lights.
What is clear from the Osmotheque’s décor is that perfume is
a serious, not-at-all frivolous business in France, and it was made clear from the
outset of our day that maintaining the history of the perfume industry is also a serious
undertaking. Thomas Fontaine, who led
our discussion on fragrance, also takes his perfume seriously. French perfumers, with a few gloriously
eccentric exceptions generally do, in my (brief!) experience. Thomas, who is a charming, handsome, and
entertaining gatekeeper of scent, treated us to a brief background into
the history of the Osmotheque itself, then rattled off some entertaining
statistics and “facts” about olfaction and fragrance, before taking us through
a guided sniff of 30 or so fragrances through the ages. (I’ll discuss why the “facts” in the “facts
about olfaction” part of that sentence is in inverted commas in a later post –
it is too big a digression to go into here).
We started with fragrances from 1880 and worked our way forwards to
(almost) the present day.
Beginning with Lubin
and Eau de Lubin, alongside Vinaigre des 4 Voleurs as examples of
the earliest, and entirely natural, fragrances, we quickly moved onto two unabashed
classics, Fougere Royal by Houbigant and Jicky by Guerlain as
synthetics became important in the making of perfumes. Each fragrance was presented with a little
history of the notes, the perfumer, the perfume house presenting the fragrance,
and a notation of why the perfumes were important, or just noteworthy in
themselves. Also included in our “tour
of fragrance” were original formulations of Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue, Chypre
from Coty – so influential an entire
category of fragrance is named after it to this day – Tabac Blond by Caron, the original Arpege by Lanvin, Shocking
by Schiaparelli, and Joy by Jean
Going through the fragrances one by one, and learning more
about each one’s tiny place in history was fascinating, even when (as I’d
feared), I couldn’t smell much. And, it turned out that much of the little that
I could smell at times was indeed parosmically distorted.
The alcohol that dilutes many fragrances has a salty, metallic, oddly
savoury scent to me, completely masking any ingredients, and this was compounded by the sweetness of many
fragrances also causing a strange flatly-stale vanillic effect, so many
of the fragrances we sampled simply smelled of salty, savoury, vanilla, in a way strangely reminiscent
of bacon-flavoured candyfloss after a night on the Southern Comfort, if you can
imagine such a thing. Headache inducing,
and slightly stomach-churning, but not too
terrible. But then, violets happened.
Specifically, Vera Violetta
by Roger et Gallet happened. I realised
that what I could smell wasn’t a booze-soaked gastroenteritis-plagued pig who’d been rolling in icing
sugar, like the previous fragrances, but actual, real and undistorted violets. This
was the first thing I’d either smelled at all, never mind “correctly” in over
six months. Do you know what smelling
something undistorted is like after six months of either smelling nothing or
only smelling sewage for more than half a year?
Well, whatever you’re imagining now, you’re wrong, let us put it that
way. That first, ever-so-faint, and
rather prickly smell of violet was probably the most beautiful thing I’ve ever
had near my nose, and will probably remain the most beautiful thing I’ve had
near my nose for a long time yet to come.
There were tears, and for the first time (but not the last, it turns
out) since losing my sense of smell, they were happy tears. No parma violet has ever smelled so sweet, not will ever do so.
Other revelations followed, with pointy and fresh citrus in
Jean Patou’s 1000, and Rochas Moustache Concentree, and with more violetty ionones turning up in L’Heure
Bleue, and Bourjois Soir de Paris,
it was a revelation that not only were there things that smelled “right” to me,
but things that smelled “good”. This, coming along at a point where I genuinely
thought I was having to resign myself to never smelling anything “nice” ever
again, was a turning point for me. I hadn’t realised just how dark, and
unfulfilled, a life either without smell
entirely, or a life with only bad things to smell had been until then. Violets were a sweet revelation, but a
bittersweet one beneath the initial happy reveal.
I also found that I was smelling even non-violet or citrus
fragrances much better at the end of the session than at the beginning, which
was another revelation. From what was
genuinely one of the darkest points of my life, a tiny, purple light had started
to beckon, and, unbeautiful though it may be in its own right, the Osmotheque now
gains landmark status in the heart of this parosmic perfume writer at least. All in all, if you can smell (and, as it turns
out, even if you think you can’t) and have an interest in perfume, then a trip
to the Osmotheque is probably the most magical experience, comprising theatre,
history, and, of course, perfume, that you
can have in an office block in the Paris suburbs. I urge you to go. But if you can’t get to Paris then Odette Toilette is bringing the Osmotheque to London in May, and I’ll be there once more, parosmia be
All I need now is a violet and citrus perfume of my very
own. There’s one on the way, it turns
out, thanks to an astonishingly talented (and incredibly generous) friend, but that is very much a story for another day …
* How did she smell?**
*** An “olfie” is how dysosmics sometimes describe a person
who can smell “normally”.
Note: This piece was first published in a slightly different form on The Parosmia Diaries at: http://parosmiadiaries.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/a-parosmic-at-anosmotheque.html reproduced here by permission of the shared author.
Many thanks must go to Jo Fairley for the horrifically fabulous pun in the title, and for much more besides.