Books

'Perfume: In Search of Your Signature Scent': Up the distinguished nose of an olfactory detective

by Kaori Shoji

Contributing Writer

Neil Chapman is not a perfumer by profession but a passion for scents has taken him all over the world and incited him to write a “scent atlas,” as he describes it, in the form of a gorgeous, 288-page guidebook.

Perfume: In Search of Your Signature Scent, by Neil Chapman.
288 pages
HARDIE GRANT LONDON, Nonfiction.

In “Perfume,” he makes a pitch that’s hard to resist: “… Just like wearing your finest outfit or shoes, your signature perfume can make you feel invincible.” He continues later, “All the major civilizations of world history have had exquisitely developed perfume cultures. … The desire to smell beautiful led the citizens of the ancient world to go to extraordinary lengths.”

“Perfume” can be overwhelming to the casual reader — though Chapman’s writing style is consistently witty and engaging, there’s an avalanche of information that may take months to properly sort through. The reader is helped by a table of contents that categorizes scent groups (“Gourmand” and “Spices” are especially intriguing) and a glossary in the back should anyone get lost in the deep forest of scents. Above all, “Perfume” is an invitation to switch on your olfactory senses and revel in a relatively lesser known sensory pleasure.

Sure, commercial perfumes are available at every duty-free boutique in airports all over the world, but Chapman stresses that their very ubiquitousness has done no great favors to the world of scent. “Smell is no longer valued as it once was,” he writes. “Life exists before a computer or television screen, a bombardment of visual and cerebral stimuli that is ceaseless — exciting perhaps, but numbing, too. We are cut off from our most primal sense.”

Japanese scents or, more specifically, incense, receive special mention in the chapter titled “Meditative.” Chapman writes that, unlike tea, calligraphy, archery and other traditional arts, “kōdō” (the “way of scent”) has all but faded away from public consciousness.

“An obscure and esoteric art, kōdō does persist in pockets of Japan, however, and I was lucky once to be invited to an incense ceremony,” Chapman writes in “Perfume.” A hilarious and deeply intriguing incident followed and, once Chapman and his friend were released from the elaborate ritual, they collapsed into laughter. “Yet the scent in the room as precious perfumed materials gave off their spirit, was extraordinary.”

On a day when the air was heavy with moisture, even as the sun scorched the pavements in Tokyo, Chapman takes me on a brief tour of some of his favorite scent shops. First, the back story: He arrived in Japan (“on a whim!”) some 20 years ago. “I didn’t know anything about Japan or Japanese culture,” says Chapman, who had been teaching at an international language school in London.

“But I had a particular affinity with my Japanese students, and they all told me that I would enjoy myself here. I also wanted to part ways with my 25-year-old self. I had an idea that I could start with a clean slate.” But the slate wasn’t quite as clean as he had imagined. “For three months, I couldn’t take the pollution and the lack of greenery. I was really beginning to regret my decision.”

Things changed the minute Chapman visited Kamakura. “It was plum blossom season, and the air smelled absolutely stunning,” he recalls. Chapman knew a good thing when he smelled it, and he moved to Kamakura shortly after. He still resides there, near the famed Meigetsuin temple. For Chapman, Kamakura remains a treasure trove of scents and, he says, “In the summer it’s so jungle-y. I can smell the soil, the humidity rising from the shrubs, various forest life, the pillars of the old temples. This particular combination of smells is, to me, what the Japanese summer is all about.”

Chapman had always been attracted to scents, and they are almost always the defining factor of his emotions, memories and the details that make up everyday life. “It’s a way of transcending death,” he says, as well as a way of enhancing life. “I carry my mother’s perfume around with me, though she’s still alive. The scent brings me closer to her, and bridges the physical distance. Perfume … is much more subtle, mysterious and evocative than anything on a duty-free counter.”

During the course of researching his book, Chapman discovered J-Scent, an indie perfume maker that specializes in Japan-themed perfumes. “At one point I was wearing something called ‘Sumo Wrestler,'” he says with a smile. “I know what sumo wrestlers generally smell like, which is to say they smell gorgeous. It’s the combination of sweat and the camellia oil in their hair. This particular perfume captures the ambience of the sumo world, without trying to reproduce the exact same effect artificially, which wouldn’t have worked.”

J-Scent has a place on Chapman’s highly recommended list, alongside scents from Comme des Garcons: a blazing icon of Japanese fashion. “Comme des Garcons perfumes are interesting because they’re so anti-fashion — similar to its clothing,” he says. His recommendation is a perfume called “Avignon” which is redolent of churches, prayer books and the ritual of mass. “The scent is also sexy, but in a repressed, religious kind of way.”

Forgive the banality of the question, but does Chapman have a favorite scent? “My holy grail of scents is probably vintage ‘Chanel No. 19,'” he says. But, as he stresses, the path of scents is a never-ending journey. “Why do people care so much about what they look like, instead of what they smell like? I want to change that, and increase scent literacy. I find it quite challenging to pursue and describe something so fleeting.”

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