Perfume has always intrigued me. And not just for the lilting effect it has when a deftly scented woman draws close. More than that, I've always wondered how difficult it is to create a perfume, and what kind of nose skills one would need. And surely there are parallels to making perfume and tasting wine, since I often find the greatest wines to be defined more by their aromas than their flavors.
So when I was put in touch with Carlos Huber, I smelled a good opportunity to learn a little something,
Huber, 32, is a Mexico-born architect with a specialization in historical preservation. A year and a half ago he launched his own company, Arquiste, to create a boutique line of perfumes. Huber's desire was to create perfumes that tell a story, rather than simply create a brand, and his approach is gaining recognition within the perfume industry. Huber thinks a perfume should tell the story of a time and place, not unlike the kind of story that a great wine can tell.
"In the court of Versailles, people laundered their shirts with rose water, and the orangery [came to prominence]," said Huber. "I researched how aromatic oils and other botanicals were shipped and brought into contact with each other and moved through different cultures and I wanted to create a scent that invoked that confluence."
"After all, a perfume is something from the earth, in the same way that wine is. There is maceration and maturation during the process of making perfume, just as with wine," said Huber, who also got turned onto wine while living in Bilbao, Spain, for a short time. "People grow things and there are cultures behind what they do. When you create something beautiful you can see it invoke something in other people. It's sensuous," Huber said. "To take something from the earth and then see it being digested by the senses, it's very poetic."
As we smelled our way through the component parts and then finished blends of Huber's various perfumes, I asked him wine-related questions. First off, how much leeway does a perfumer have in describing scents. A wine journalist can say they smell cherries or currants, but no one analyzes the organoleptic compounds in the wine to see how accurate the wine writer is. And one person's cherry aroma might be another person's red currant. Consistency is important, but there's a built-in leeway for the wine writer. Is there the same kind of leeway for a perfumer?
"There is some leeway, sure," said Huber. "Gardenia oil can't be extracted in a natural way so we have to create a composition that invokes a gardenia. So in that case the skill of the perfumer comes into play. There are families of scents—woody, floral, fruit—that are basic and absolute and most people agree on them. But as you refine those families to specific scents, then there is subjectivity. After all, perfume is not natural. It's created by a person. So there has to be leeway in that creative process."
I found it interesting that Huber referred to the process as "unnatural," even though some of the components in perfumes are natural extracts. Are there perfumes that are more natural, or made with only natural ingredients? Would purists consider perfumes made with synthetic substances to automatically be lower in quality?
"Yes, there actually is a group of people who refuse to use any synthetics in their perfumes. But you know, some synthetics are better than the natural substance in my opinion," said Huber. "Some synthetics are non-allergenic, for example, which is a benefit for some people. In addition, you're not extracting—and thus exhausting—some natural resources that might be particularly precious or rare. And if you only use natural extracts, your end product may not be consistent, or you may not be able to deliver it often. Let's say one particular extract you use comes from a particular source or origin, and they have a bad crop or run out one year. It's nice to have pure jasmine extract to work with, but you can't always get it at the quality you want. Quality is quality. And there are good and bad quality synthetics, just as there are good and bad quality natural extracts."
But how does one learn perfumes? The same way one learns wines apparently. By tasting (or in this case smelling) and then developing a lexicon or vocabulary with which to describe what your sense are telling you.
"I worked with a perfumer who told me never to describe an aroma specifically, but rather to describe it in terms of what it made me think of. That process helped me learn, rather than trying to peg specifics," said Huber.
When it comes to creating his line, Huber draws on historical references. Huber did a thesis project on a historic convent in Mexico City that was renowned for the pastries the nuns would sell to the public. In walking through the old landmark building to develop his restoration plan, Huber smelled the chalk, clay and exposed wood beams, among other things. That inspiration led to Anima Dulcis, a perfume that uses elements such as cocoa absolute (it smells liked hazelnut oil, with a spirity eau de vie note), clove (medicinal), sesame (blanched, dusty and papery) and cumin (cilantro, with a spiky, dramatic note). Combined, the perfume takes on a more masculine feel (Huber considers all his scents to be unisex), with orange clove, cedar and balsam wood notes not unlike a freshly warm pastry.
The exercise in blending individual components into a more complex blend is an easy-to-see but no less dramatic parallel with winemaking. It shows in every perfume in Huber's line, perhaps most in his Flor y Canto, Huber's hommage to a flower celebration from the Aztec culture. Two natural extracts are at opposite ends of the aroma spectrum—tuberose shows a powdered porcini note; marigold a peppery, almost acidic and bitter side. Two synthetics, gernyl acetone and acetyl pyrazine are equally pungent in their way, the acetone showing a lifted, varnish hint along with spiky pear and lime notes, while the pyrazine smells like a just-warmed taco shell. The final blend, though, is remarkably floral and elegant, decidedly feminine, with no angles and soft hints of roses and other flowers.
"On their own, some components might seem spiky or harsh, but as a blend, they work together. Components push each other—the acetone pushes the tuberose to a more floral note for example," said Huber.
In describing a wine, I might say lemon zest, lemon curd or lemon pulp to invoke the feel of the wine, but wine hits the tongue as well as the nose. I catch myself describing some of the aromas in more tactile terms: spiky, soft, acidic. I asked Huber if I was wrong to think of aroma as texture.
"Not at all," he said. "I always think of aromas as textures as well. There is the overall experience of the perfume, same as with wine. Some perfumes are linear and they are the same at the end as they are at the beginning. Others move up and down and are more dramatic. Perfume making is building a composition or structure, and it should invoke feel as much as it delivers a scent."
Perhaps my favorite scent of Huber's lineup was Boutonnière No. 7, which he described as his desire to deliver the most masculine floral scent he could think of.
"A boutonnière on a man's lapel is such a wonderful image," said Huber. "And to think how common boutonnières were at one time, and how there would have been competition among people to show them off. How would a room have smelled with a gathering of people where the men were wearing them?"
The perfume was right up my alley—with its lavender, mandarin, bergamot and honeysuckle notes, my description of it could have been mistaken for a wine. The aroma left me longing for a glass of a deliciously pure, crisp Chenin Blanc. And perhaps delivered emphatic proof that scent, more than flavor, is the most powerful aspect of a great wine.