Few things are as good at evoking memories as smells. But imagine someone decided your most-cherished memory contained allergens that had to be banned? Your grandfather’s eau de cologne. Your mother’s favourite perfume. Reformulated, or in some cases, taken off the shelves altogether.
Well, you needn’t despair. In France, where perfume is practically a religion, there is a copyright library of smells. The Osmothèque, in Versailles, is entitled to ask for the formula of every new fragrance marketed in France. And it has all the old ones, too. That’s important because no one’s immune from EU regulations. One of the key ingredients in Chanel No 5 is citral, now subject to restrictions because it can cause skin reactions. Likewise, the oakmoss in Guerlain’s classic Mitsouko. Perfumers perform fancy footwork to keep them smelling roughly the same, but for the originals, you have to go to the Osmothèque.
These olfactory madeleines are tended to by noses from the great perfume houses, many of whom give up their time voluntarily. You can visit, but it’s by appointment only. Occasionally, however, they let some of their bottles out into the world, to be sniffed (not tried on the skin – those allergens) under highly controlled conditions.
The history of fragrance is similar to the history of art, but backwards and slightly rearranged. For a long time, it was all about photo-realism: reconstructions of natural smells, such as lily of the valley or rose. Then perfumers went conceptual. Nowhere in nature does vanilla find it self cosying up to lavender with a chaser of civet pheromone, as with the monumental Jicky by Guerlain (1889). Or there’s Houbigant’s Fougere Royal – “Royal Fern” (1882), which doesn’t smell of ferns (because ferns don’t smell). Instead it’s a combination of lavender and coumarin, a chemical extracted from tonka beans. But Le Jardin de Mon Curé by Guerlain (1895) is a work of pure impressionism: a conjuring up of the garden of a country priest, with flowers, herbs and something feral lurking in the undergrowth.
You can still buy Chanel’s Cuir de Russie, or Russian leather, a floral with just the merest tang of something smoky in the background. But if you’re after the far-blunter, rougher Guerlain version, the Osmothèque is your only option. The huge dose of birch tar (meant to bring to mind soldiers’ boots), would never make it past the regulators now – in high concentrations, it’s a possible carcinogen.
So, should Britain establish its own smell vault? Our perfume industry is minuscule compared to France’s, but, judging by the enthusiasm of those present, it would have a devoted clientele. They collect sounds as well as books at the British Library in St Pancras, so why not smells? Imagine a darkened gallery where, at the touch of a button, you could call forth your dad’s original-formula Old Spice. The name Osmothèque is taken: they could call it the Odouroom.
David attended The Osmothèque Comes to London, an event hosted by Odette Toilette and The Perfume Society
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010