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Denyse Beaulieu: a history of perfume making in Paris

Perfume writer and Paris icon Denyse Beaulieu talks about fragrance fads and the cliché of uniqueness

by

Paris Editor

“I was always a bit of a rebel, and a different body shape to most women here,” says Denyse Beaulieu, her long silvery mane shimmering in the morning light that falls over the Jardin du Palais Royal, one of her favourite places in Paris. It’s the disparity in women’s body shapes that in part led her to question the composition of femininity and perfume was an element of the answer. “It was a potion that made you feel grown up, and it’s funny because today it’s the opposite. Women’s perfume is drenched in glucose; they wear perfume to feel young. Everyone’s wearing Black Opium (Yves Saint Laurent) or La Vie Est Belle (Lancôme).”

Denyse-Beaulieu-portraitPortrait of Denyse Beaulieu, courtesy of the writer

Born in Montreal, Canada, Denyse moved to Paris in the 1980s to study literature at the Sorbonne and never left. Twenty years later, she launched Grain de Musc, a beautifully written bilingual blog unveiling the cryptic world of perfume. Denyse also writes for a number of magazines, she’s created her own scent Séville à l’Aube (Seville at sunrise) in collaboration with Bertrand Duchaufour, one of the few remaining artisan perfumers in Paris, and as well as being the French hand of E.L. James’ Fifity Shades of Grey, she’s written her own book, The Perfume Lover: a Personal History of Scent (Parfums - Une Histoire Intime), a non-fiction narrative of a perfume-lover’s story through scent.

DenyseBeaulieuA Personal History of Scent: the Perfume Lover by Denyse Beaulieu, cover image courtesy of Harper Collins Publishers

First inspired by Lucas Turin’s Parfums: Le Guide, Denyse began translating the complexity of scents into words. “Writing about perfume is very complex and was still a subculture then. Perfume was seen as something feminine and futile, deceptive, and commercial.”

Palais-Royal-Serge-Lutens---crédits-photos-Deidi-Von-SchaewenSerge Lutens boutique at the Jardin du Palais Royal, photo courtesy of Deidi Von Schaewen

Now a tool of seduction, perfume is rooted in prehistoric rituals as incense offered to the gods. “It was the only substance that was seen as pure enough to rise to the heavens. People also believed that the fragrance repelled evil and illness. Scents were seen as protective, like rosemary sprigs against the plague in fifteenth-century Paris.”

Liquides-bar 0169Liquides Bar

Moreover, perfume had great value as it could be carried easily and traded in small doses and it wasn’t until the 18th century, with the rise of the bourgeoisie, that it was seen as a reflection of identity. “Life’s pleasures were taken seriously and suddenly things that were seen as futile and feminine became important. It led to a flourishing perfume industry where scent was synonymous with culture and personality.”

Bertrand-DuchaufourBertrand Duchaufour, photo courtesy of L'Artisan Parfumeur

Today, perfumers bank on our desire to own a fragrance that we think will emphasise certain aspects of our personality by offering bespoke perfumes, which Denyse Beaulieu sees as a marketing ploy. “Why would you go for a bespoke perfume when there’s so much choice out there already? What would you ask for? Something you already know,” she says. “There are about 1,500 scents that are created each year across the world of which 300 or 400 come out of Paris. So there’s no real need for bespoke perfumes.”

JOVOYJOVOY boutique

Perfumes are composed of different layers of scent, which touch on familiar grounds that are specific to each culture. “Perfume is created for the masses, playing on the collective memory. The truth is that most perfumers just put their twist on the bestsellers already out there, and there’s rarely anything truly original – that’s why believing that perfume is personal, that it’s intimate, is a cliché.”

Four quick questions for Denyse Beaulieu
Where you would shop for perfume in Paris:
“Niche perfume boutiques with knowledgeable staff like at Nose perfume bar, where they ask you to fill in a questionnaire to help find the right scent for you, is a great place to go. I also like the Liquides, Jovoy, and Sens Unique as well as L’Artisan Parfumeur.”

A perfume you would like to bring back:
Iris Gris by Jacque Fath, which is no longer being made as the ingredients are too expensive. I actually found a fresh batch at a flea market once!”

The scent you can’t stand:
La Vie Est Belle vexes me deeply.”

The scent you’re wearing right now:
“Azzedine Alaïa’s eponymous perfume.”

To read more by Denyse Beaulieu, visit graindemusc.blogspot.it; her book Parfums - Une histoire intime is available at amazon.com

1 Sens Unique
2 L'Artisan Parfumeur
3 Liquides
4 Jovoy
5 Jardin du Palais Royal
6 Nose perfume bar