Scented Letters

I went in search of the ink. As a writer, I was naturally beguiled by the idea of a perfume that was supposed to have the scent of ink on skin, from a company called Byredo. Gil said he’d give me a bottle for an early anniversary present, so we ended up at Barney’s, the department store on Madison Avenue, a glitzy place to shop but the only location that stocks the stuff in the United States.

It’s actually called M/Mink, I discovered.


M/Mink, along with the rest of a line of unorthodox scents developed by a tattoo-covered Swedish basketball player turned fragrance entrepreneur (!) named Ben Gorham, “is given a clear identity and reason of being.”


M/Mink came about in partnership with parfumiers Michael Amzalag and Mathias Augustyniak of M/M (Paris) and features such ingredients as patchouli leaf, clover honey and amber. At the counter, the clerk sprayed some M/Mink on a paper wand. I inhaled, Gil inhaled, and we shook our heads. Somehow chemical. Not right for me.

I love scent. A few years ago Maud and I visited Grasse, in southern France, whose thousands of acres of flower fields make it an ideal perfume manufacturing spot. Jasmine, rose, lavender, orange flower, and tuberose are all harvested nearby. We spent a morning at Parfumerie Galimard, which began making perfume in 1747. It actually started out providing the king with olive oil, pomades and perfumes to scent the all-important fashion accessory, the leather glove, also a historic local industry. At Galimard today, if you don’t want to purchase their Rencontre or Ma Faute, you can sit in a cubicle and be guided by a “nose” (a professional parfumier) in creating your very own scent, with the assistance of eye droppers and beakers and over 127 “notes.”

galimard workshop cu

Smells, to you. Combine the top note (peak note), the middle note (heart note) and the base note  (fond note) in the proper architecture and you get a bottle of your own to name. I came up with Plus Plus (English translation: More More). Maud’s “brand” was Bel Ete (Beautiful Summer). And it was a beautiful summer. Maud and I agree that becoming a temporary nose was one of our most enjoyable experiences. Ever.

Plus Plus

They kept my number on file in case I ever need a refill. But it gave me respect for the noses behind wonderful places like Penhaligon’s (British, also venerable, est. 1870) because it turns out you can’t just throw in some honeysuckle and some green grass and have it all turn out alright.

For a horrific nose-based thriller, try Patrick Susskind’s Perfume. The counter personnel at Barney’s would love it.


This blog post is brought to you by smell-o-vision. Today, Gil and I sniffed the other perfumes in the Byredo line, in rapid succession. Baudelaire was tasty (juniper berry, black pepper, hyacinth, leather). Pulp, a little too pulpy (bergamot, cardamom, red apple, peach flower). We tried others for good measure – Palermo and Gypsy Water were contenders – and ventured outside the line to small colored bottles of essential oils that would have cost a fortune. We learned that the salesman had a sister who rescued endangered birds. The saleswoman had suffered an acrimonious divorce in Iran.

Flowery, spicy, powdery. Figgy. Just like Chanel. Our noses were swimming.

They sprayed the scent on my fingertips. On the backs of my hands. A cup of coffee beans was proffered to cleanse my nasal palate. We were advised to take a stroll around the store to clear our heads. And we did. I do anything someone tells me when they treat me like Cleopatra.

Jean with Perfume Stick

You get along so well, said the saleswoman, rapidly waving a wand to get the perfume just dry enough to sniff. He’s so agreeable! she said to me. And he was, was Gil.

It was rather warm in there, and I realized one of the first scents I’d tried was the finest. Bal D’Afrique, which combines African marigolds with violet, jasmin petals and cyclamen in an elixir you’d almost like to drink.

Gorham accompanies each bottle with a funny little story line. The one for Bal D’Afrique goes: “The noble faces of tall and straight-backed chieftains and princes greet us, the guests. The red dirt floor, covered by the exotic furs of big game, resonates with the stomps of the bejeweled dancers…” I can’t finish, I’m laughing too hard.

We followed our noses out to the street, where my wrists and throat were now armed against the delightfully dirty New York air.

Bal D'Afrique box




Filed under Fashion, History, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, Writing

5 responses to “Scented Letters


    4711: Not sure about its availability in department stores, any more. I get the 27 ounce bottles from It’s listed *For Men* … but I’ve used it for decades (at least thirty years).

  2. I don’t find mountain air and perfume antithetical. Good fragrances are made of distilled natural things, after all.

  3. I had a glamorous French friend who wore Guerlain. I still remember her face cream ritual of a morning. And 4711 sounds fascinating. Can you get it in the average department store?

  4. Lori

    For me, there is nothing more intoxicating than mountain air. I can’t get enough of it.
    As to mountains, I refer not to the silly, half-high things some easterners call mountains. I’m talking mountains that occasionally blow up and change the landscape. Mountains so high that on their slopes trees dwindle and disappear at the tree line. Glaciers flow down, never-ending rivers of ice, and waterfalls freeze in winter.
    On their slopes there are scents that cannot be captured in a bottle. However, if I ever find a bottled perfume like that I will buy it.
    I have heard those from New York say, “Your air here smells funny. Sometimes it even stinks.”
    I may come to visit your huge cities someday. Until then I would rather live in the stinky West.


    IMPERIALE COLOGNE by GUERLAIN: The very scent created by pierre-francois-pascal guerlain in 1893 that lead to his appointment as purveyor of fine fragrances to the emperor Napoleon iii . Eau imperiale is a robust citrus blend, finishing with rosemary and lavender. Note the imperial bee of napoleon’s crest still featured on the bottle of this timeless fragrance.
    ALTERNATIVELY, ALSO: 4711: (BIG bottles)

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