David Holzer spends a heady hour in a niche upmarket parfumerie in Budapest, but is first reminded how we can too often take the sense of smell for granted.
An hour or so before I walked into Madison, the niche perfume specialist shop on Andrássy út, I was talking with a friend of mine. She happened to mention that she had lost her sense of smell for two years. It wasn’t much fun, she said. She lost weight because she couldn’t appreciate how food smelled. A whole aspect of her sensual life disappeared.
I mention this because, like you perhaps, I have always taken perfume to be an indulgence. But there’s rather more to it than that.
In recent years, the cost of designer perfume has fallen considerably. This has led some fashion houses to push price and exclusivity ever higher. Consumers have responded with delight and haute parfumerie has become the fastest growing part of the enormously valuable fragrance industry.
So, what’s the difference between a niche perfume and your mass-market fragrance – apart from the cost, of course? The answer comes down to the way in which ingredients are used, whether raw or synthetic. Niche perfumes use ingredients to make their perfume compositions more interesting or avant-garde, never simply to save money.
Despite having a mother and grandfather in the perfume industry, Frédéric Malle initially resisted following in their nose-steps. But in 2000 he accepted his olfactory destiny and opened his first shop.
Reacting to the rise of marketing-led fragrances that were suffocating the perfume industry, Malle became what he calls a “perfume publisher”. He placed the emphasis on the highly skilled perfumers who created the fragrances, not celebrities who simply lent their name.
Calling his company Editions de Parfums, Malle put the name of the perfumer on the label, as if they were the author of a book. Naturally, you can find the stars of the Editions range at Madison.
When I wandered into Madison, it felt at first like stepping back in time. Original wooden shelving dating back to when the store was first built as a pharmacy in the late 1800s is immaculately preserved. Máté Dávid, head of communications for Madison Budapest told me that people who remember the old days still come into the store to indulge in nostalgia.
But, after spending some time in the store, I realized that Madison wasn’t just slavishly recreating an ambience of traditional luxury. Something different was going on.
Madison was founded by Madeleine Florescu, a Romanian who worked in the beauty industry in New York for almost 20 years. After communism ended in Romania, Florescu returned home. Needing to find something to do, “I picked the easy option: perfumes,” she said, “Not any kind of perfumes, however, but the most special, hard to find, fragrance houses with personality, authenticity and a great story to tell.”
Florescu opened Madison in Budapest in 2011, picking Andrássy út because of its huge walking traffic. The store’s customers are split equally between tourists and Hungarian VIPs. As Dávid explained, “Foreigners know the brands from abroad. For Hungarian VIPs, price is very important. They want to buy quality and excellence in a knowledgeable, welcoming environment.”
I asked Dávid if he could introduce me to the best-selling fragrances at Madison. “Rose of No Man’s Land” was developed as a collaboration between supermodel Freja Beha Erichsen and Byredo. A portion of the sale of each bottle goes to Médecins Sans Frontières or Doctors Without Borders. Apparently, the perfume is centered around “the delicate petals of a Turkish rose, both strikingly lush and softly sweet”.
“Portrait of a Lady”, created by Dominique Ropion for Malle, is “a baroque, sumptuous and symphonic perfume that required hundreds of trials to balance such an expressive formula”.
Ropion also created “The Night” for Malle. This ode to the Middle East is described as “the most precious perfume on the market, born from that sacred moment when the heat of the day subsides and constellations appear in the sky”.
Oud is one of the most expensive perfume ingredients in the world and is the main element in “The Night”. When the wood of the tropical Agar tree is infected with a certain kind of mold it produces the precious resin called oud. That explains the EUR 700 price tag, then.
“The Night” is, unsurprisingly, designed to appeal to a Middle Eastern audience. “Arab men are our most fascinating customers,” Dávid said. “They’re more adventurous. To a European nose, “The Night” smells almost frighteningly intense.”
It certainly does. Like “Black Afgano Nasomotto” for men and women. This smells exactly as you think it would. A bit too much.
After a fascinating hour spent with Dávid at Madison, I strolled out onto Andrássy út. My head was reeling from the gorgeous but somewhat unnerving array of fragrances I’d inhaled. Dávid had explained that, according to the latest scientific studies, scent molecules vibrate in a certain way that resonates with particular neural connections. No wonder my mind was somewhat pleasantly scrambled.
After all, as Patrick Süskind writes in “Perfume”: “Odors have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will. The persuasive power of an odor cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it.”
I thought of my friend who’d lost her sense of smell, and gave thanks for my nose.