Will anyone ever replace the great Clara Rockmore?

Yesterday morning I sprayed several perfumes on scent strips but nothing moved me enough to want to spray one on my skin for the day.  I think I’ve got sniffer’s block.  And so when nothing seems to inspire I take the week off… but I wanted to share a couple of ideas with you regarding perfume description… which is largely a matter of citing great references.

Until the day that readers can click on a button and get a whiff of the perfume coming out of their speakers, perfume description will remain a challenge of finding the perfect reference.  Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez’s landmark book, Perfumes : The Guide, speaks clearly to the reader because their references are excellent.  Describing the seamless character of Chanel No. 5 as a Brancusi sculpture is nothing short of genius.  When I read the reference, I understood immediately.  Although made up of jasmine, rose, ylang ylang and sandalwood, No. 5 smells like none of these raw materials from topnote to drydown.  No. 5 smells like something different… a combination of all four.  This seamless quality is what sets this masterpiece apart from so many other abstract florals and the nod to Brancusi summed it up perfectly.

I’m not saying that listing notes is not important… we’ll never get away from it.  Sometimes listing the notes is the quickest way to get an idea across.  For instance, when I say “this is basically a rose scent” or “the drydown is an animalic leather”, most of you reading this post will get a good idea of what the perfume smells like.  But what a perfume projects or symbolizes is something different.  Octavian Coifan from 1000 fragrances recently said “We do not want just the illusion of a flower but its soul. Not just the sketch of a new original idea but its full expression through perfume.”  The idea blew me away.  It’s brilliant!  That’s why references are important because you’ll never be able to describe the soul of a flower by listing its notes.  It can’t happen.

Another way to describe a perfume is by referring to other perfumes.  I would love to do more of this but you need a very big collection of perfumes or it won’t work.  Referring to the same 20 or 30 scents gets tiresome very quickly.  Dane and his friends over at PeredePierre are masters at referencing other perfumes.  I’m always amazed at their knowledge and their recall.  I’m not there yet but when I do, I bet my posts will be better for it.

And so… when I just can’t write another perfume review, I go to museums… I listen to music… I read other blogs… but I stay away from the perfume counter.  This past week, I saw the Otto Dix show at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and on Saturday night I saw Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux… one of the best operas I’ve ever seen.  Both were inspirational.  And I hope both will provide a new set of references which I can use in future posts.

And, of course… I obsess.  For instance… this has been on my mind for months.  Will the great thereminist Clara Rockmore ever be replaced?  Isn’t she incredible?  Also very inspirational.  Enjoy!


Top image : Sleeping Muse (1910) by Constantin Brancusi

Leave a comment


  1. Richard Townson

     /  November 15, 2010

    Who knew the Theremin could be so beautiful. Thanks for the link.

    As always an educational and inspirational delight.

    • To me, the theremin sounds like a cross between the violin and the human voice. I almost bought one once but the salesperson told me flat out that it would be a miracle if I ever learned to get a tune out of it. At $1000, I passed. But it’s amazing what Clara Rockmore was able to do with it.

  2. What a strange instrument. It has a spooky sound to me, but it would be shame if it was never heard from again.

    I like the comparison of art and perfume, it works well. It would be fun to work backwards one day – choose some art and find perfume to match. Like Malevich White on White = Serge Lutens L’eau 🙂

    • Diana Vreeland said that when she was editor of Vogue they would sometimes mention the name of the perfume that the model was wearing. At first, she thought it was ridiculous… what difference does it make? But soon after, she got it. Adding the sense of smell to art work enhances the work. Nice association, by the way!

  3. Isabelle

     /  November 16, 2010

    Dear Normand,

    Your words are right on about the Theremin being “a cross between the violin and the human voice”.

    Thank you for expanding the world of perfumes to the arts. It seems to make much sense to access fragrances through emotions art forms bring out.

    • Hi Isabelle!
      It really is impossible to disassociate perfume from the era it was created in… and what else was going on at the time in the arts. Glad you enjoyed my post.

  4. The more you smell, the easier it is to compare!

    I get sniffer’s-block all the time. But then, for no apparent reason, my interest is piqued by some (usually) old, dusty perfume no one has smelled in decades and the game is back on.

    My current obsession is Rive Gauche, and in general the abstract aldehydic floral. Veers off slightly from your chypre-obsession, but still within the same general scheme. I suggest you start tracking down some oldies from the likes of Leonard and Jacomo. 🙂

    • Hi Dane! I’m also attracted by the older perfumes. They’re the ones that usually get me back to writing. Today, a friend told me that she had an opened bottle of Pretexte by Lanvin (!) and a vintage, unopened bottle of Joy by Jean Patou. Imagine! I’m like you… it’s the older perfumes that pique my curiosityand give me the courage to go on. Thanks for the advice.


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