So what’s in your bottle of perfume?
I recently spent a week on West 57th Street at the modern, light-filled perfumery school of the Swiss company Givaudan, the world’s largest perfume maker. There were five of us: a marketer for Abercrombie & Fitch, a consultant to the perfume industry, a cosmetics executive, the owner of a niche perfume house and me. We were there to study raw materials: Bulgarian rose, incense and synthetics like cis-3 hexenyl salicyate, which smells like freshly cut grass.
Givaudan makes raw materials and employs the perfumers who use them in the fragrances you buy at Saks and Sephora. Our teacher was the perfumer Jean Guichard, the head of a real Grassoise family (Grasse, in the south of France, is the traditional capital of perfume), with scents like Deci-Delà for Nina Ricci to his credit. He is also the father of a perfumer; Aurelian, his son, created Chinatown for Bond No. 9. Guichard lectured us about materials from “see-trousse” to “leh-zah” (citrus, leather), but we really got interested when he started talking about how his father used to test civet in the 1960s in Grasse.
“What’s civet?” someone asked.
We had been working our way through some surprising things: Peruvian balsam, which smells more like a vanilla milkshake than wood, and African incense, which smells like ancient desert dust. Guichard dipped the little white blotters and handed out para-crésol, an intoxicating aroma of horse manure plus rubber. Indoles, we learned, are molecules that smell like a trucker’s unwashed armpit. They also smell like jasmine because jasmine is heavily indolic. They also smell like rotting corpses because dead bodies generate indoles when they decompose. Then Guichard handed us a blotter, crossed his arms and sat back. We leaned in for a smell.
The owner of the perfume house immediately shouted, “Whoa!” The industry consultant yelled, “Ohmygod!” as if a grenade had exploded nearby. The Abercrombie woman jumped up and crouched at the door like a cornered animal. I think I actually ducked.
“This is civet!” Guichard announced. Civet is a fundamental French perfume material, a historic girder of the industry and the quintessential scent of France. It happens to come, Guichard said pleasantly, “from the anal gland of the civet cat.”
The consultant stared at him. “What?” she said.
“Well, a sexual gland,” said an amused Guichard, who then hit a button on his computer. The large plasma screen behind him showed us a picture of civets. They look like house cats who’ve been painted to look like zebras. He explained that the perfume material from the anal gland is found in both males and females. And it smells — quite simply — like anus.
“This is in perfume?” asked the marketer doubtfully.
“Absolutely,” said Guichard. “My father was testing it. They were using small blotters, and they were scooping out the cream —”
“It’s a cream?”
“Yes, and my father was tasting it. Rolled the cream around in his mouth.”
Dead silence. People stared at their blotters, which were emitting the strong, persistent smell of dirty underwear.
“And then he was going home and kees my mother,” Guichard added, grinning. He made a kissing motion.
“Well!” said the marketer brightly. “Perfume made of butt cream!”
Did your father, I asked, um, brush his teeth after?
“No,” Guichard said, smiling. “He” — he made a pumping motion before his mouth — “smoke a cigarette.”
Sometimes, he said, the civet is cut.
We looked at him uncertainly. Cut?
“Mixed with other materials.” He motioned to his nose and added, “For the smell.”
Uh, like what?
“Banana peels. Butter. Beeswax. Hair.”
What? “The excrement of ... children?” said the perfume-house owner, not sure if she’d heard correctly.
“Yes,” Guichard said blithely, as if this were the most normal thing. “Zebu grease,” he added.
We looked at one another. Zebu grease. Could this possibly be for real? Guichard didn’t look as if he were kidding. He hit another key, and a list of adulterants (“adjonctions fréquentes,” it said) came up on the screen: “graisses de zébu, beurre, huiles, miel, cire d’abeille, bananes pilées, excréments d’enfants, sable, poils, etc.” The consultant, baffled, said, “These children, uh ...,” and then stopped, as if she didn’t want to know. At which point Guichard sunnily suggested that we break for lunch.
Since civet is hugely powerful and long-lasting (cats use the odor to mark their territory), and since these are qualities valued by perfumers, it’s not surprising that civet is one of the fundamentals of French perfume. What is surprising is that it’s used today, in this era filled with antiseptic smells. One is sometimes hard pressed to call some of the lighter-than-air, sugar-free, zero-calorie, barely-there fragrances like Issey Miyake’s l’Eau d’Issey or Calvin Klein’s cK One “perfumes.” Helium seems like their central ingredient. Civet, on the other hand, can’t be held closer than six inches from your nose. Yet not only do the prewar classics like Chanel No. 5 and Shalimar have civet in them, but it’s also in such recent scents as Musc Ravageur.
Talk to any perfumer, even American ones, and they’ll say that civet, used in tiny quantities, breathes astonishing life into perfumes, giving them weight and depth. Civet is like adding whole cream to soups or sauces: what could make you gag taken straight up and raw becomes, when underpinning the greater mix, golden and sensual.
The French can tolerate civetlike scents by the gallon. Kouros, an Yves Saint Laurent fragrance for men that’s perpetually on the best-seller list in France, is almost pure animal. It hits you like Wladimir Klitschko’s right hook and smells like his boxing shorts after 10 rounds. That is the polite way to put it. (It’s helped along by the addition of clove, which contains eugenol, a molecule that neutralizes the smell of sweat.)
One of the more astonishing civet scents on the market today is Rose Poivrée, from the French niche house the Different Company. This is a rose absolute — rose absolute, F.Y.I., doesn’t smell like “rose”; it’s dark and musty. Its perfumer, Jean-Claude Ellena, resisted prettifying the rose and instead doused it with an animalic breath. Pungent with decay, Rose Poivrée is unsettling and gorgeous, the perfume that Satan’s wife would wear to an opening at MoMA.
We got back from lunch, and Guichard handed us our next raw material. Like civet, this was a natural — blackcurrant bud absolute. “This is actually the distilled leaf buds,” he said, “not the fruit. And it is one of the most famous materials for having a certain, shall we say, interesting character.”
“What’s that?” asked the consultant.
“It smells like blackcurrant fruit,” he said, “but it also smells like kaht-pees.”
And it does.