Have you ever read Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer? If so, then apart from being creeped out by the grotesque protagonist Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, and having contemplated what kind of twisted state of mind Süskind must have been in when he thought up that scene, you will most likely have developed a heightened appreciation of the art of perfumery.
The novel follows Grenouille, a social misfit equipped with the most highly-attuned nez ever known to man, as he discovers the delicacy and complexity of creating perfume. The painstaking process of pressing thousands of rose petals to create a single vial of essence, the intricate art of extracting fragrance from flowers embalmed in wax, the composition, almost musical, of twelve “notes” per fragrance, crowned by a thirteenth star note: these practises are beautifully described in the book, to the point where you almost feel you can smell what you are reading.
If any of this sounds intriguing to you, then the musée du parfum will be too.
Right near the beautiful Opéra Garnier, setting of The Phantom of the Opera, in a townhouse designed by one of Garnier’s students, the Museum of Perfume is a quiet delight. The first couple of rooms are devoted to various artefacts and utensils associated with the history of perfume making: pretty perfume vials and bottles and cauldron-like vats. However, the best part of the museum is its more interactive rooms: look out for the selection of wax essences you can smell and try to guess at. Another highlight is the original orgue à parfum, or perfume organ, the master parfumeur’s ultimate tool, which allows you to layer the infamous thirteen-note perfume, much like you would a song.
The museum is actually owned by the parfumerie Fragonard, whose boutiques can be found throughout the city, so there is a retail aspect: on the basement floor, you can compose your own perfume from their base essences and have it prepared for you on-the-spot. It sounds magical, but in reality the place smells confusing and overpowering. In any case, after learning about the orgue à parfum, I preferred to leave the composition to the experts.
It’s free to enter, there are several free guided tours a day and it’s also open on Mondays, making it one of the most accessible museums in the city. Just refrain from bringing your camera (photography is forbidden) and perhaps focus on creating memories through smell rather than sight.
Short of travelling all the way to Provence’s parfumerie mecca, Grasse, where perfume is literally sprayed from miniature pipes strung across laneways onto wanderers below, this museum should be enough to immerse you in the world of perfume.