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September 5, 2012

Worldly Scents

Intrepid fragrance explorer Courtney Dunlop uncovers the history of how culture informs what smells good to us.

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TO GET AN IDEA OF HOW POWERFUL fragrance can be, look no further than Empress Josephine, who, legend has it, doused her rooms in her signature musk after Napoleon decided to leave her for the Archduchess of Austria. A note with serious staying power, it lingered long after Josephine departed the premises, ensuring that her ex would be reminded of her every time he stepped foot into her abandoned chambers. Evidently, revenge is a dish best served heavily scented.

That such a tale originates in France should come as no surprise, since, as French-Armenian fragrance maker Francis Kurkdjian puts it, "Perfume is as much a part of the culture as food and wine; it's a part of life." French tradition involves taking young girls of 12 or 13 to shop for their very first perfume—Kurkdjian remembers his sister's first bottle of Anaïs Anaïs by Cacharel—and they grow up learning how to dab perfume on their pulse points: the neck, the wrists, behind the knees. Later in life, the ritual becomes "part of seduction," explains Kurkdjian. "It's very intimate."

The French aren't afraid of their dark, spicy statement scents (think Guerlain Shalimar and Chanel No. 5), but as you move across southern Europe, Mediterranean freshness is de rigueur. Citrus and neroli are typical of the region, which has historically served as a melting pot—the early days of Eastern spice traders and exotic travelers left a permanent mark on the fragrance culture. Take an island known for its fragrant orange blossom fields: As Sicily was invaded by the Romans and Arabs, cultures collided and their tastes intertwined over time, explains Sumit Bhasin, global leader of innovation for P&G Prestige, who helped create Dolce & Gabbana's latest scent, Pour Femme, a neroli-and-sandalwood-infused concoction that embodies the sweet and spicy notes of the area.

In the Middle East, fragrance is so ingrained in the culture—the Persians were the first to use distillation to extract oils from flowers—that residents rarely go a day without it. Fragrance is often considered a spiritual way to anoint yourself before prayer, but it's also a personal statement: Many women wear strong perfume all over as a way to symbolize arrival, which is perhaps telling in areas where burkas are the local uniform. "You almost greet people with how you smell," says Bhasin. Where smoldering incense and fragrant teas are ubiquitous, strong wood notes are popular—earthy vetiver, sensual oud—and there's a love of layering. Kurkdjian explains that women will apply a strong, woodsy base from a local perfumer, then layer flowery European perfumes on top. The technique is prevalent in India, too, where base notes like sandalwood and patchouli, used for centuries in religious and beautifying ceremonies, are mixed with sensual floral notes like jasmine.

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