Style

Waxing Lyrical

Diptyque’s approach to fragrance places an emphasis on natural ingredients and personal responses. The Journal pays a visit to find its perfect scent and learn why “memory is the perfume of the soul”

“It’s wood-smoky. It’s a tip of my tongue smell; I know it. Sandalwood?” “It’s more sour to me than sandalwood.”

“It’s quite hefty, like a whisky.”

“It’s oud. And this one?”

“Oh, is this sandalwood?”

“It’s amber. It’s lighter than sandalwood but still in that smoky place. You wouldn’t be tempted to wear it? It’s not as earthy when it burns. I find it quite light and clean.”

Daniel Dutton is my scent dresser. We are in Diptyque’s flagship London store and I am having my first ever ‘scent fitting’, which means he is making me smell things and say what I think of them. He wafts, I smell. Repeat. The aim is to find a perfume that matches my scent preferences, along with some fragrant candles for the home.

He offers gentle prompts: “Do we like our home to smell fresh, like this?” For my part, I am reaching, somewhat hopelessly, for ever-more creative descriptions for these smells. The teacher’s pet in me wants to get the name of the scent correct, but that’s not the point, Daniel reassures me, obscuring the label as he thrusts a scented candle toward my nose.

“It’s light, cottony?” I suggest. “It’s our iconic Baies candle, with blackberries, and Bulgarian rose,” says Daniel, kindly offering no visible sign that he doubts my nasal prowess, despite the mounting evidence. “The way you describe a scent is always personal, because you have to borrow a lexicon from the way you describe other senses,” says Daniel. “So, the way you describe the smell is the way something tastes or looks or feels, like ‘fresh’ or ‘fruity’ or ‘sweet’. There is no distinct vocabulary for smell and that’s why someone might decide what they think they like and then, through this process, discover they really want something different.”

During the game of smelling and articulating, I detect hemp, lemongrass, greenhouse tomatoes, tangerines and the smell of a cake baking. None of which feature on the scents’ labels. I don’t even guess the vanilla candle correctly; instead, I liken it to baby powder. Lilies are “great aunts, funerals, underwear drawers”. We both agree that opopanax, a rare tree resin, smells like Coca Cola.

“There are no wrong answers,” Daniel says as a I wrinkle my nose at a whiff of vetiver root, “the more unique your descriptions, the easier it is to understand your tastes.”

Scent is, of course, a very personal thing. Although it is conveyed through external stimuli, it is more susceptible to association and memory than any other sense. For example, I associate the smell of sulphur, which most people describe as rotten eggs, with natural hot springs and mud baths.

In a new book, The Smell of Fresh Rain, about the history, chemistry and psychology of smell, the author Barney Shaw writes: “If our sense of smell is a blank slate at birth, that explains why it is such a variable sense from person to person. Each of us learns the meaning of smell from experience, and our experiences are different.”

Fabienne Mauny, the president of Diptyque, echoes this sentiment. She quotes the 19th century French novelist George Sand. “She said, ‘Le souvenir est le parfum de l’âme’, meaning ‘memory is the perfume of the soul’,” then adds, somewhat enigmatically, “all of Diptyque’s creative spirit is in this sentence.”

From a young age, Fabienne was attracted to scent and its ability to create a mystique around a person. Her grandmother used to wear Chanel N°5 and she thought she looked like Marilyn Monroe. “She was a very seductive woman!” she jokes.

After training with some of the finest ‘noses’ in the business, Fabienne first visited Diptyque’s original store, on Boulevard St Germain, in 1992. “I walked in and I fell in love with Eau Lente and the Musc candle… the brand was so unique and creative, and I was very sensitive both to the olfactive and aesthetic aspects of Diptyque. Since Diptyque composed its first eau de toilette [in 1961] it has been a contemporary fragrance creator—a pioneer, pursuing artistic and olfactory creativity, free from traditional gender codes or cultural boundaries.”

Joining the team in 2007 “was a chance to go back to the ingredients and the know-how, to tell an olfactory story,” she says. “For me, perfume is a way to collaborate with creative people and express an emotion or aesthetic vision.”

The scent fitting is one aspect of that drive to explore a scented universe and find stories within it. The store increasingly sees brides-to-be coming in for scent fittings in order to match a perfume to their floral arrangements, or to create a scent that feels bespoke. The idea is they can spritz the perfume on their wedding day and then again in the years to come, to remind them of it.

When sensory overload kicks in, Daniel advises me to take a sip of water, “or you can just smell the back of your hand. It’s the only thing you don’t have a memory store for, so that will reset and kind of cleanse the palate and you can start again.”

When the scent fitting is over, Daniel presents me with a bottle of Diptyque’s eau de toilette, named Tam Dao. The bottle features an exquisite ink drawing of little elephants. “The drawings are a very important part of the creative process,” Fabienne tells me. “In a way, they are the visual illustration of the olfactive memory.” Tam Dao is named after a national park with a beautiful mountain range in northern Vietnam. “Yves Coueslant, one of Diptyque’s three founders, grew up in Vietnam and he had this vivid memory of going to the national park with his parents as a small boy and seeing elephants for the first time,” says Daniel. “So it’s a mix of sandalwood, rosewood, cyprus. This eau de toilette has the woody, softer side you seem to like, the cyprus keeps it fresh so that it’s not just with sandalwood on its own, which makes it smokier.”

Central to Diptyque’s appeal is its emphasis on natural essences. “Most of the perfumes are created with a huge quantity of natural raw ingredients,” says Fabienne. Kate Grenville’s new book The Case Against Fragrance, which explores perfume allergies, says most perfumes—expensive, cheap or in-between—contain chemicals that might not even be disclosed on the label. She notes that one in three people in the US report health problems that can be traced back to fragrance, including headaches, skin allergies and respiratory problems. Thanks to Diptyque’s approach, there’s less chance of this happening with these perfumes.

However, for Fabienne, that’s a happy byproduct. Her argument for natural ingredients is based on their power to fire the imagination. “Ingredients are like colours, and we will play with them to create the perfect landscape,” she says.

The search for rare and exotic fragrances has taken people to strange places. Ambergris, a prized ingredient, is produced in the intestines of a sperm whale, and oud is made from a resin produced by the agar tree when it is under attack from a certain mould. Such is the demand for the timber of oud-producing species that they have been put on the list of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, and it is now illegal to cut or harvest these trees in India and some south-east Asian countries, which might go some way to explain the hefty price tag.

Surprisingly, the scent fitting has shown me that I love rose, which I previously thought of as heavy and cloying. “We are so used to smelling it artificially, we don’t recognise it when it is presented to us as a natural scent,” explains Daniel. “Diptyque’s Roses candle is natural and has a blend of different roses that stops it becoming overly sweet.”

He draws my attention to the label, which features scattered letters spelling ‘Roses’. “Desmond Knox- Leet, one of our founders, spent time at Bletchley House during World War II and he decided to jumble up the lettering on the label, to disguise what is in there or, at least, to make it not immediately recognisable, so that your first experience of the scent is with your nose not your eyes. Where possible, the lettering is staggered on the labels of the candles to mimic the natural elements, so with the rose, it’s around in a spiral, like layered petals.”

For the home, Daniel tries a few combinations to go with the rose candle. There’s Oyédo, which to me has a citrus or yuzu scent. “Edo is the old name for Tokyo city,” says Daniel. “It’s got green mandarin, white cedar and thyme, a creamy herbal citrus.” Then he tries the rose with amber, which, though I enjoy them both on their own, suddenly creates a sour smell for me when the two are combined. “Combining scents is like combining colour on a colour wheel. I try to get either really similar scents that mirror closely together, or ones that really contrast.” Eventually we settle on a Roses and an Oud candle from the range. Daniel suggests burning both together, which is a heady smell I love.

“As we move into more autumnal weather,” advises Fabienne, “we see an increase in more homely, comforting scents like Opoponax, Santal, Feu de Bois and Patchouli. All of these are also fantastic to combine with a floral scent such as Roses or Jasmine, to have a truly indulgent, comforting fragrance.”

To road test your chosen scent for the skin, Diptyque now gives a small sample of the perfume or eau de toilette with every purchase, so you can wear it for a couple of days to make sure you love it before opening the full-size bottle.

“It’s really important to wear the eau de toilette or eau de parfum for a day or two before making a commitment,” says Fabienne. “Some raw ingredients, especially the spicy and woody ones, reveal themselves on the skin in a surprising way.”

He’s right. On my skin, the Tam Dao takes on a new character after a few hours. I reek of expensive leather upholstery, oiled oak, the waxy tang of boot polish and warm musk. I am camphoraceous and creamy. In essence: a new car smell, mingled with a background scent of earthy, lush forests. It contains a darker, unisex note than when I first tried it but retains the initial fresh scent that first attracted me to it. It’s not for everyone, but that’s the point of the scent fitting. It smells like me.