Close to the Skin
These last few weeks of experimenting with various perfume oils from North Africa, the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula, India and Southeast Asia, have been something of an education in a different school of perfumery. The word that comes to mind when I apply so many of them is, each time, “private.” Especially among the more classical school of Middle- and Far Eastern perfumes, the natural substances used do not announce themselves. Rather, they invite the senses (smell and taste) which have been granted permission to experience them. They are profound vehicles of sensuality. For a New Yorker who is always on the go, they aren’t the first scents I reach for in the morning. Beneath a jacket, shirt and tie, they would be hidden, wasted. But like a fine wine, they ask to be contemplated in private. Like a lover. Or like a good book cradled in the palms before sleep. They engage our passions, our imagination, our deepest dreams.
In the regions these scents come from they are regarded as remedies with extraordinary powers. Aromatherapy, as we know it, has derived much of its practice from these previously unsystematized ideas. Most important among the effects is a sense of equilibrium and balance in our lives. There is little sense here of a second-skin or shell or mask or protective layer. Instead, there is a mimicry of sorts. The odor of the human body itself is worked up and considered part of the “blend” created when a few drops of the oil are applied to the pulse points. The body is mimicked by the scent, the scent is mimicked by the body.
A quartet of notes come to mind. There are variations but fundamentally they are: rose, jasmine, musk and amber. The middle two are sweet-sensual-animalic; the first and last, warm-cool, herbaceous- fruity, and savoury-spicy. In regions where the cuisine can be notoriously hot (spiced) for reasons of food-spoilage, the body’s natural scent is simply and subtly enhanced. Short of some of the ouds from India, Laos and Cambodia, there is no Asian equivalent of Old Spice or, for that matter, any quality-scent that is so spicy and strong that it obscures its wearer.
Interesting, too, were the many fragrances which were comprised of substances bordering on contraband in the United States, like Tonkin musk and ambergris. While I could be awed by the etherealness of their qualities, I was happy that modern chemistry had done a better-than-decent job of recreating them.
But the greatest lesson of all was that good things come in small packages; for, by and large, perfume oils come in quantities of 3–12mL, reminding us all that luxury comes not with pomp and circumstance but in a still, small whisper across the skin.