Shah Rukh Khan’s perfume precedes him.
An interview a couple of years ago—a large part of it conducted between shots at Ramoji Film City—involved waiting in the actor’s trailer between 9pm and 3am. I was prone to drowning in my Kindle in the long intervals but what worked every time, signalling his return, was the fern, orange, vetiver, amber and musk in the air that would waft in 10 seconds before he did. Every time Khan left the trailer, a spot dada would spritz the air around him with his signature perfume Tiger Eyes, fashioned by French perfume brand Jeanne Arthes in 2005. It was as if to reinforce his aura, one bottled and marketed to fans around the world.
I remain baffled by the business of celebrity signature perfumes. Antonio Banderas, for instance, has more than seven. Is each supposed to epitomize him? More importantly, can a signature perfume epitomize anyone? And must one go about sharing or adopting them? Unless you’re Steve Jobs, or trying to distil his dogma, you don’t dress the same every day. Then why should you wear the same perfume?
The marketing of perfumes and cigarettes has a surprising lot in common. They ride on identifying the ideal brand ambassador because taste is difficult to translate visually. So they work on transposing the qualities of the ambassador, the sophistication of Catherine Deneuve or the swagger of the Marlboro man, on the product. Someone who worked in the marketing division of a leading tobacco company told me he quit his job because the mandate to “target the consumer young” disturbed him once he fathered a child; it is the idea that once the brand turns you, ideally when you’re young, they have you hooked for life. Perfume brand communication seems to work in similar ways. The idea of a signature fragrance is reinforced till you think you must have one, if you care about that sort of thing. I did, and I tried like many others in my early 20s to adopt Chanel No.5. It was clichéd but seemed right because of all the one-liners that cloud its image. I gave up pretty fast, realizing it was not crafted to be worn in our climatic conditions or by those on a spice-rich diet.
We seem to be drawn to the idea of pinning down the idea of a personal essence. Even the smell of wet earth or petrichor, a word I always imagined would have its linguistic roots in earth and water, alludes to capturing the essence of God. Writing in the Nature journal in 1964, two Australian researchers, Isabel Joy Bear and Richard Grenfell Thomas, coined the compound word petrichor from the Greek words petra, meaning rock, and ikhor, meaning the blood of the Gods.
I find perfumer Gérald Ghislain particularly fascinating in this context. I first came across Ghislain’s research when he was the perfume consultant for a collateral event in Milan during the World Expo in 2015. Eight contemporary design studios were invited to imagine defunct luxury perfume brands as sensory pavilions. Studios such as Nendo, Dimore Studio and Jaime Hayon’s interpreted fragrances as light, lifestyle, sound, silence. But more interesting than the orchestration of this exceptional exhibition was what Ghislain was developing then: an incomplete perfume.
This Is Not A Blue Bottle comes in a metallic cobalt flacon with no branding or signage. “You make the perfume, and the perfume makes you,” Ghislain told me. While every perfume changes with its wearer, this is a unisex perfume especially designed to “create” itself on your skin. It is yours alone.
Ghislain has been interested in the essence of historic characters in the past—from writers George Sand and Colette, to Giacomo Casanova himself. He has also created olfactory odes to the Olympia music hall and Moulin Rouge. But after going through two not-blue bottles, I came upon Ghislain’s masterstroke. His opera range is a suite of five fragrances inspired by divas: 1831 (Bellini’s Norma), 1875 (Bizet’s Carmen), 1890 (Tchaikovsky’s Queen Of Spades), 1904 (Puccini’s Madama Butterfly), 1926 (also, Puccini’s Princess Turandot).
Currently, mine is 1875. Headstrong, marked by saffron and frankincense. I have done wicked things to get my supply: tricked Parisian hotel staff to accept packages before my arrival, called friends I haven’t spoken to in years to ferry these across in time. I blame it on Carmen.
The writer tweets as @aninditaghose