As we browse the perfume counters, spritzing our wrists with the latest creations, what is it, we may ponder, about the power of fragrance that unlocks our imaginations and captivates our senses? Why is it that certain smells connect to the parts of the brain that govern emotion and memory, like remembering the perfume one’s mother wore?
Some of these olfactory mysteries are unravelled in Paris, the capital of perfume, where Le Grand Musée du Parfum opened last month.
Located in a mansion on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, in what was formerly Christian Lacroix’s haute couture house, this is the first independent museum dedicated to the art of fragrance.
One wonders why no one has thought of doing this before, given that France is still the world leader for perfume – fragrance and cosmetics are France’s third biggest export.
Not surprising, then, for the museum director and co-founder Guillaume de Maussion to remark: “If the world is going to have a definitive perfume museum, it’s going to be in Paris.”
The pioneering museum is the vision of de Maussion, an entrepreneur, with support and expertise from the French perfume industry.
In some respects it is advances in modern exhibition design that bring to life this multi-sensory journey through the history and science of scent and perfume making.
It features a host of high-tech graphic, video and sound installations making the experience imaginative, entertaining and educational – for how can you have a museum dedicated to perfume without being able to sniff some of the ingredients; given the rarity of these raw materials, spritzing the room with pure rose absolue would be both costly and overwhelming.
There are interactive installations where bronze electronic spheres in cradles have been designed to emit a puff of one of the 25 iconic base ingredients like violet absolue, orange blossom or patchouli when held to the nose, and then a recorded description when held to the ear, in your chosen language.
Another tree-shaped installation provides the scent of rose absolute from the central branch and then whiffs of famous branded rose-scented perfumes from the radial branches. These offer an insight on the art of perfume making with videos of famous “le nez” (nose), as perfumers are called, such as Jean-Claude Ellena of Hermès Parfums, describing the process.
The olfactory journey, however, starts in antiquity. The word comes from the Latin per fumum “by” or “through smoke”, implying an effervescent, ethereal value.
The first fragrance ever created by man, in ancient Egypt, was kyphi a pungent woody compound (which the visitor can smell) used by Ancient Egyptians to invoke the gods.
Many of the earliest ingredients were sourced on the Arab Peninsula and the Horn of Africa, such as myrrh and oliban and used in sacred rituals. Various exhibits document perfume’s history, its uses and virtues through to modern perfumery. For instance, there’s an elegant Parisian arcade featuring a perfumery and vitrines that make the connection between perfume and haute couture.
Another exhibit is the Seducers’ Gallery, a cheeky and entertaining way of showing famous figures who used scent to woo, such as Mark Anthony, Louis XIV, Casanova and Napoleon, who it is said used 40 litres of cologne a month on average and would drink a few drops before going into battle. Their images are depicted in pop-art portraits with Cleopatra displaying a striking resemblance to Elizabeth Taylor.
Adding to the sensory immersion is a Garden of Scents, an astonishing artistic installation of trumpet-like white sculptures that are in fact diffusers blasting out various evocative smells such as cinnamon, fire smoke and even Coca-Cola for visitors to identify. It is here we learn the importance of the sense of smell in day-to-day life, and also discover its extraordinary emotional power.
The museum, de Maussion says, is designed to be a “hymn to perfume” and the high-tech whistles and bells reach their zenith in the Lab with the Perfume Organ. It is a multi-sensory musical installation “an organ of smell” that fills the room with light and sound evoking each of the lower, middle and upper fragrance notes “le nez” uses to compose his perfume.
State-of-the-art technology means that visitors can record the fragrance accents they like on an electronic card as they tour the museum, and in the museum’s grand concept store at the end there are interactive stations, which will list the branded perfumes containing these accents to purchase on the spot.
So no more getting lost in Duty Free before the flight home trying to find the perfume you like. The museum has done the homework for you.
• Le Grand Musée du Parfum, 73 Rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré, Paris 75008, www.grandmuseeduparfum.fr Entrance costs €14.50 (Dh56)
Our London correspondent travelled to Paris at the invitation of Eurostar