'Smells are like quicksilver': James Craven of Les Senteurs Perfumery
James Craven is a Fragrance Archivist at Les Senteurs, the UK’s first niche fragrance boutique founded in London in 1984. James' unique fragrance expertise spans all eras, and he writes widely on smells, perfume, memory and memoir. As a pioneering niche fragrance boutique, Les Senteurs has introduced to the UK brands such as Diptyque, Frederic Malle, Byredo and Annick Goutal and continues to showcase some of the most innovative independent brands. Les Senteurs has always advocated the ‘slow’ selling of fragrance, giving customers the time and opportunity to learn about perfume. This educational spirit is still at the heart of the business. Here, James talks to us about smells, history, memory and perfume shopping.
What is your favourite era for fragrance?
I am fascinated by a time outside my own experience and that’s the interwar years, roughly 1919-1939. Fragrances worn by my grandparents' generation: tantalisingly close, but just out of reach. They are all gone now, reformulated or ruined, but still vivid in folk memory. So much experimentation was going on then, so many prototypes were established. But I think I must also nominate - as a second choice - the perfumes of today, when the sky is the limit. Whilst so much is produced, there is also some groundbreaking and beautiful work.
Tell us about Les Senteurs’ approach. How do you find a way to a person’s fragrance heart?
No 1) The way the palmists operate: the instantaneous 'cold reading'. It's a combination of so many intangible factors - an instantaneous first impression of a customer, and a 'feeling’. My first choice in this case will usually be my best. But, the customer may feel short-changed because it has all been so quick. Sometimes I'll camouflage my method by proposing a couple of other scents too. They rarely work. Funny isn't it? Call it magic!
No 2) Listening to every word the clients say or don't say. Sometimes you need to find out what is lacking in a person's life, or what he needs to shed. Over-analysing ingredients can be counter-productive. Those terrible recitatives: "bergamot, pink pepper, Texas grapefruit and manda-RIN”. For most people, what does it really matter? It can all be beside the point. It’s better to concentrate on the feel, the character, the colour or sound of a scent.
Who are your favourite people to ‘perfume dress’?
I love lively sparky people who come to the shop prepared to enter into the spirit of the thing: people who have given the matter a little time, thought and imagination. Actual knowledge is beside the point: indeed it can get in the way. Like Hamlet, "the readiness is all".
You have a colourful way of talking about fragrance, memory and memoir. How do you think writing relates to fragrance when we are always being told that fragrance is impossible to describe?
I try to write about smells rather than perfumes - to paraphrase Mlle Chanel: "Everyone writes about perfumes". I examine the effects and scope of scents, rather than the technicalities of individual fragrances. I like to be as broad as possible in scope - from white mice to 'White Shoulders'; sardines to sacking. I also aim to analyse the effect of smells upon memory. My own past and that of others influences me hugely, probably far too much.
I am told too I have synaesthesia - a word I cannot spell. I think it was an interview in Vogue magazine that first remarked on this: and then people came to look at me warily from the shop doorway as though I were something in the Zoo. I certainly experience scent as an adventure in colours. A perfume's initial greeting to me is invariably in terms of its imagined hue: majestically purple, pearly oyster grey or passionately crimson. Fragrances are all about fleeting, intangible, contradictory sensations and emotions. But, one can capture the manifestations of those emotions in writing. One must be quick though. Smells and emotions are like quicksilver.
How do you think the approach to selling fragrance has changed over the years?
Performance has always been key in selling luxury products and an effective performance does not imply any falsity or lack of engagement. Rather the reverse! A retail performance is ‘the lie that tells the truth’. You must heighten the experience of the customer and lay on a little enchantment. 'I sell glamour. It's my stock in trade" - Marlene Dietrich.
You must also have empathy with his customer. What I deplore is the increasing detachment of assistants from the customer, and the horror of the self-service check out till. The counter should be a bridge, not a barrier. If you're not careful there then follows a breaking of the spell – a meeting is revealed as a mere mercenary transaction. You have to let the customer know this is the beginning of the relationship, not the end.
If you could go back in time to a particular period and shop for a fragrance when would it be?
Of course, it has to be guaranteed that you would have perfect health and ample funds. I think my preferred period would be to have been born around 1840. I admire the style, leisure and comfortable ugliness of High Victoriana. Anaesthetics and running hot water were starting to come in, with plenty of good hymns to sing, and lots of interesting scent available - such as the fabulous Grossmith range, then leading the British market. And of course Houbigant's Fougere Royale - 'the first all-synthetic perfume!'
But as for shopping, have you seen the old Margaret Lockwood movie The Wicked Lady? 1945. It's set in England, around 1670. There's a tiny scene in this film where the eponymous wicked lady goes shopping for poison in a dark little shop. The boutique is full of "powders", make-up, aphrodisiacs, spells, scent and much implied nastiness. Perfume in a totally different context: great fun.
You wrote an article 'The Wearing of the Green' on the resurgence of green scents in niche fragrance. It won a Jasmine Award in March 2017, partly because it was written the year before and predicted green as the ‘colour of the year’. What did you discover?
I realised and felt that there was a great deal of green in the air. Green perfumes usually come to the fore in the aftermath of difficult times: those eaux de toilette and colognes popular after the Napoleonic Wars had distant successors in the sea of green perfumes of the West in the years after the Second World War. Carven's Ma Griffe, Vent Vert by Balmain, Green Water by Jacques Fath. It could be claimed that Germaine Cellier's iconic Bandit for Robert Piguet - a perverse verdigris leather launched in 1944 - started the trend. But whereas Bandit was louche and perverse, the pure floral greens were wholesome and liberating to wear. And rich with symbolism, too: embodying a youthful crispness and rebirth after the claustrophobia of conflict.
Today, green fragrance is equally escapist, offering an idealised alternative experience in our sterile, threatening and threatened world. The apparent naivety of a green fragrance fosters the illusion that it is somehow more honest and artisanal: an authentic link with a simpler pristine past.
Green scents with their leafy, sappy, grassy notes also suggest naturalness. And nowadays everyone wants – or think they want - a naturalness in everything. It's a revival of that craze we saw in the late eighteenth century: play-pretend hermitages, farmyards, dairies. Everyone going into raptures over nature, weeping with easy emotion to display sensitivity, and (like the Princesse de Lamballe) fainting at the sight of a lobster. Nowadays we demonstrate our sensitivity with allergies, intolerances and dietary observances.
And then look what happened 230 years ago. The French Revolution came along, Napoleon tore Europe apart and the Princesse de Lamballe was butchered in the street. Too much fake naturalness is a bad sign. I have found that when confronted with a 100% natural organic scent, most people will say "please! Show me a bit of artifice!"
Niche fragrance is the fastest growing section of the fragrance market. What do you think will happen?
Niche is now the norm, so it is bound to mutate into something else. We shall find out more and more about the sense of smell and its effects on the brain. The anti-perfume trend might take swell increasingly, but I doubt it will take hold since we are all animals and smell is such a fundamental phenomenon and urge. How exciting to stick around long enough to find out!
Visit Les Senteurs at 2 Seymour Place, London, W1H 7NA or 71 Elizabeth Street, London, SW1W 9PJ