Some people remember a destination by what they see, some by what they hear. For me, it's what I smell. From the sweet aroma of mangoes in Thailand to the dank scent of the New York City subway (less than desirable odors are not a negative mark on a city – they actually remind me of all the pleasant parts as well), I often stop several times a day in my daily life to close my eyes and pretend I'm breathing in a city's most prominent bouquet.
For Paris, I breathe in femininity. I realize that's not the usual thing to say, as other dominant scents like yeasty fresh baked baguettes or lightly roasted sidewalk crepes might have you think of Paris more. But for me, the entire city is like a well groomed woman. I often refer to Pont Alexandre as “Look at HER beautiful golden adornments” or Sainte-Chapelle as ” HER stained glass windows leave me spellbound”. And the best way I know how to capture the essence of a woman long after I leave Paris is to literally take the whiff of the woman, namely her perfume, home with me.
Perfume shopping in Paris is always a treat. Even though many of the brands available in Paris are also available elsewhere, there is something utterly ladylike about strolling through the heavenly perfumeries. For a very special outing, why not try a perfume that you may have never heard of but has been in production since the early 1900s? While perusing the endless perfume counters at Galeries Lafayette is fun, my actual favorite place to purchase scent is from a gem of shop called Detaille, located at 10 rue St Lazare in the 9th arrondissement.
The fascinating story of Detaille begins in the first few years of the 1900s. Countess de Presle was one of the first to purchase an automobile and she felt due to high speed and lack of a windshield, her skin had become too dry. She consulted her chemist friend Marcellin Berthelot who devised a hydrating cream which was then dubbed Baume Automobile. This began the production of high quality products and in 1905 the store Detaille was born, named after the Countess' husband and brother of painter Edouard Detaille.
As you enter Detaille, you are stepping back in time to the remnants of the Belle Époque period. Wooden floors and shelving make for a cozy shopping experience, a far cry from bright lights of modern shops. There are five main perfumes beginning with 1905, a fragrance named after the year of the store's inception. As one of its most popular scents, the flowery essence has touches of violet and black currant that blossom into rosé, jasmine and ylang ylang. The remaining four perfumes have sing-song names such as Alizee, Sheliane, Sofia and Dolcia. With labels like these it will be difficult to resist the clove, vanilla, orange, coriander, peach blossom, white cedar and green apple notes. You simply can't go wrong with any choice of these unique perfumes and you won't find them anywhere else in the city. And lest you think the store only sells perfumes, there are room fragrances, skin care products and light toilettes as well. The men shouldn't feel neglected; there is a nice selection to keep Monsieur smelling sweet too!
But perhaps why Detaille will always be my favorite perfumerie is for a deeply personal reason. It was the last bottle of perfume I gave to my mother before she passed away in 2012. She was always wide eyed when I brought her fragrance from Paris, and a bottle of the 1905 was her last. Before she passed, she only used a little of the bottle. I took the bottle back into my possession and it proudly sits on my dresser. Everyday I gaze at my Detaille, put a little on, and conjure up warm memories of my Mom.
As Detaille states in their literature: Perfume is the memory, the childhood or remembrance of those we met, loved and sometimes forgot. But I hope you won't forget to stop by the store on your next visit to Paris and start creating your own warm memories at first spritz.
Robyn Webb is an award winning cookbook author, nutritionist and culinary instructor in Alexandria, VA. She needs much more than the smell of the Virginia state flower, the dogwood, to keep her happy.
(Photos courtesy of Verity)