Beijing, 3 August 2014

I’m very boring when it comes to using after-shaves, eaux de cologne, or similar perfumes. I use none. I don’t even like to use perfumed soaps. I prefer to smell of nothing. Very boring.

This dislike of perfumes extends to perfumes on others. For instance, I wince and move rapidly out of the way if I happen, on the street or in a corridor, to find myself walking into the scented wash following a heavily perfumed person. And I always stare disapprovingly at scented people if I find myself with them in elevators or other enclosed spaces from which I cannot escape.

As you can imagine, this scentophobia of mine, if I can call it that, is the despair of my wife. Whenever we are taking an international flight she always makes a bee-line for the perfumery section of the Duty Free shop, where she will try a spray of this and a squirt of that. She always asks me my opinion, and like any good husband I always take a sniff and murmur something unintelligible. She sighs and asks out loud why she bothers. Indeed, why does she bother? I suppose hope springs eternal.

But actually, once, just once, she tried a perfume, she asked me my opinion, I dutifully sniffed … and I blinked. I liked it! I actually liked it! It had a lemony-sort of scent which my nose really found quite attractive. Terribly pleased by this exciting development, my wife promptly purchased the perfume in question and has been using it ever since. Since my readers are no doubt on the edge of their seats by now, wondering what perfume it was, I am glad to announce that it was Chance Eau Fraîche, by Chanel.

Chanel Chance Eau FraicheI’m not sure that its use filled my wife with quite as much delirious happiness as this young lady is showing, but it did put a spring in her step and a twinkle in her eye. It also allowed me to close my eyes and go “mmm-aaah” whenever she gave herself a spray.

man smelling perfume-2

All was well until the perfume began to run out. A replacement became an impelling necessity. An inspection of shops in Beijing showed that prices were ridiculously high here, so I was given the task – gladly taken on, since I liked the perfume – of getting a new bottle on my upcoming trip to Europe. Which I did, in the Duty Free shop at Vienna airport. I triumphantly presented it to my wife upon my arrival. She ceremoniously opened the packaging, fished out the bottle, and gave herself a spray.

OMG, not the same! We sniffed, we conferred, we checked the packaging (I could have got the wrong product, it wouldn’t have been the first time), we compared it to the remaining dregs in the old bottle … No doubt about it, something was different. But what?

I went off in a frenzy of searching on the internet, starting with Chanel perfumes’ own website. Allow me to quote the blurb about Chance Eau Fraîche which I found there

A vibrant incarnation of the unexpected fragrance, now takes on a sparkling freshness. The unexpected floral bursts with a lightness and zest as notes of Citrus, Water Hyacinth and Jasmine Absolute are highlighted and energized with woody notes of Amber, Patchouli and Fresh Vetiver.

I must say, I thought I had reached the maximum levels of BS in descriptions of wines, which I commented on in an earlier post, but the BS written about perfumes beats them all. In any event, this description didn’t help me in figuring out what was wrong.

Another site, after breathlessly quoting the Chanel site blurb almost word for word, added this:

Top Notes: Citron, Water Hyacinth
Middle Notes: Jasmine Absolute, White Musk
Base Notes: Vetiver, Amber, Patchouli, Teak

What was this stuff about notes? A bit more research on my part taught me that there is such a thing as a fragrance pyramid, which looks like this:


This chart explains what all these notes mean (BTW, middle notes are also called heart notes, and top notes head notes), but it’s rather scholastic, the sort of thing a teacher would put on the board at school. Here’s a more colourful version of the same pyramid

olfactive pyramid-2Coming back to our problem with Chance Eau Fraîche, something must have happened to the top notes, because we smell the difference immediately. My wife thinks the Chanel people have cut back on the citron note. I think it’s something else – have they fiddled with the water hyacinth note? I wouldn’t be able to say because I have no idea what water hyacinth smells like. The closest I’ve come to the plant is clumps of it floating past the window on the Chao Phraya River last week in Bangkok.

water hyacinths 001

In fact, I only know it as a horribly invasive species, which has more or less choked Lake Victoria in Africa to death. But it has a beautiful flower

Water Hyacinth Flowerwhich, it seems, was the reason it was taken away from its original homeland in South America and spread the world over.

But now that I’ve learned this stuff about notes, I shall have to sneak up on my wife some 10-15 minutes after she has applied the perfume and see if I can smell the middle notes, jasmine absolute and white musk – which are what, exactly?

Well jasmine I know, and I know that my wife loves it. But there are a bewildering number of jasmine species, several of which are used for fragrances, so completely randomly I’ve chosen a picture of the flower from jasminum multiflorum to represent the species.

jasmineAs for this word “absolute”, I have learned that some flowers, jasmine being one of them, are too delicate to have their oils extracted through distillation. Instead, they are extracted with solvents or through enfleurage, a process where the petals are pressed or stirred into fats.

I think I would recognize jasmine if I smell it on my wife, but I’ve no idea what white musk would smell like. I have this idea that it would be very penetrating as a smell – “animalic”, as they put it in that second fragrance pyramid I give above. Come to think of it, I don’t even really know what musk is, or at least I didn’t until I read up for this post. Now I know a bit more. For starters, white musk is the name given to synthetic musk. For economic, and I would hope ethical, reasons, musk is no longer taken from its natural source, which is a gland of the male musk deer (I had vaguely thought it came from civet cats, don’t know why).

musk deer

Nice looking creatures, although what strange fangs they have! The famous musk gland lies in a sac located between the poor animal’s genitals and its navel. Presumably, you had to kill the animal to get to this gland.

So that does the middle notes. After three-four hours, I can sneak up on my wife again and try to detect the base notes. And here again, I have to confess to much ignorance. I know what amber and teak are, although I have difficulties in understanding what essential oils could be extracted from them, but what, I asked myself, are vetiver and patchouli?

They are both plants, it turns out, which come from India or thereabouts. Vetiver is a grass, related to sorghum.

vetiverThe essential oil used in perfumes comes from its roots.

vetiver roots

The oil is described as smelling “warm and dry, and conveying earthy, woody, leather, balsamic and smoky notes”. I’m not sure how exactly that would register in my nose; I guess I will see.

As for patchouli, it is a bushy herb of the mint family with small, pale purple flowers.

patchouli plantIf you thought like I did that the essential oil comes from the flowers, you would be wrong. It comes from a distillation of the plant’s leaves. It seems that it has a heavy and strong scent, so I guess I will recognize it when I take that surreptitious sniff at my wife’s neck.

As for amber, I quickly understood that we were not talking about real amber. Instead, the word is used to loosely describe a fragrance that is “warm, musky, rich and honey-like”, and also “somewhat oriental and earthy”. Like everything nowadays, it can be made completely synthetically. But I prefer to believe that the master perfumer who created Chance Eau Fraîche, Jacques Polge, used natural resins. In that case, the basis of the “amber” in my wife’s perfume will probably be labdanum, which comes from a species of rockrose found in the Mediterranean. The shrub has a lovely flower


but actually what is used in perfumes is the plant’s resin, which is usually extracted by boiling the leaves and twigs. To this can be added benzoin resin (obtained from the bark of several species of trees in the genus Styrax), copal (another type of tree resin), Dammara resin (from the kauri or dammar trees), vanilla, cloves and who knows what else. Labdanum’s fragrance is described as “animalic, sweet, woody, ambergris, dry musk, or leathery” and “very rich, complex and tenacious”. OK, let’s see what my nose tells me.

And teak? I guess that will be a woody smell …

Right, it’s time to go sniffing around my wife.


Chanel Chance Eau Fraiche: [in
Man smelling perfume: [in
Fragrance Pyramid: [in
Fragrance pyramid-2: [in
Water hyacinth on the Chao Phraya River: my photo
Water hyacinth flower: [in
Jasmine flower: [in
Musk deer: [in
Vetiver: [in
Vetiver roots: growth2.JPG [in
Patchouli: [in
Labdanum flower: [in

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I like writing, but I’ve spent most of my life writing about things that don’t particularly interest me. Finally, as I neared the age of 60, I decided to change that. I wanted to write about things that interested me. What really interests me is beauty. So I’ve focused this blog on beautiful things. I could be writing about a formally beautiful object in a museum. But it could also be something sitting quietly on a shelf. Or it could be just a fleeting view that's caught my eye, or a momentary splash of colour-on-colour at the turn of the road. Or it could be a piece of music I've just heard. Or a piece of poetry. Or food. And I’m sure I’ve missed things. But I’ll also write about interesting things that I hear or read about. Isn't there a beauty about things pleasing to the mind? I started just writing, but my wife quickly persuaded me to include photos. I tried it and I liked it. So my posts are now a mix of words and pictures, most of which I find on the internet. What else about me? When I first started this blog, my wife and I lived in Beijing where I was head of the regional office of the UN Agency I worked for. So at the beginning I wrote a lot about things Chinese. Then we moved to Bangkok, where again I headed up my Agency's regional office. So for a period I wrote about Thailand and South-East Asia more generally. But we had lived in Austria for many years before moving to China, and anyway we both come from Europe my wife is Italian while I'm half English, half French - so I often write about things European. Now I'm retired and we've moved back to Europe, so I suppose I will be writing a lot more about the Old Continent, interspersed with posts we have gone to visit. What else? We have two grown children, who had already left the nest when we moved to China, but they still figure from time to time in my posts. I’ll let my readers figure out more about me from reading what I've written. As these readers will discover, I really like trees. So I chose a tree - an apple tree, painted by the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt - as my gravatar. And I chose Abellio as my name because he is the Celtic God of the apple tree. I hope you enjoy my posts. Klimt/big/Apple Tree I.jpg

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