What Makes a Perfume a Masterpiece, According to a Veteran Scent Blogger
Scents are among the most powerful, and the most personal, sensory triggers. Because the olfactory nerve connects directly to areas of the brain that are responsible for processing memory and emotion, aromas activate our individual constellation of associations. Neil Chapman, author of the 2019 book Perfume: In Search of Your Signature Scent, deeply understands the connections between smells and feelings. A driven, self-taught student of fragrance and its history since childhood who describes scent as “the soundtrack of his life,” Chapman has carved out a distinct niche in the landscape of perfume writing. On his 10-year-old blog, The Black Narcissus—a captivating combination of technical and historical analysis of scents, pop cultural musings, and personal memoir—he illuminates the myriad facets of scent and its powers, revealing his encyclopedic knowledge of the subject along the way.
We recently reached Chapman at his home in Kamakura, Japan, and asked him about the factors behind his approach to writing about smell, the ingredients that make a scent a masterpiece, and perfume as a way of building connections with others.
One of the fascinating aspects of your blog is how you make perfume history accessible and engaging. Why is thinking and writing about these scents—some of which are no longer available—important to you?
I like to flit chronologically with perfume, reviewing new releases alongside classics or obscurities from bygone eras, because for me, and I think for the reader as well, it’s more stimulating that way. A lot of current mainstream perfumery is either pleasing and functional—simply a nice smell you spray on before going out to give you odor confidence. Otherwise, especially in more avant-garde, niche worlds, it’s more about performance—a provocation along the lines of, “I smell like a bonfire, or a skunk, or a bowl of popcorn” that’s sometimes just hipster weirdness for weirdness’s sake. Both modes of perfuming can be fun in many ways. But ultimately, for me, most of these products can’t compare to the carefully crafted and often superior masterpieces from perfumery’s golden age, which were years, even decades, in the making, crafted by true artists, and often bottled in incredibly beautiful flacons and elaborate packaging that made the entire process of taking the precious elixir from its box like a magic ritual.
When you take out the exquisite original Guerlain Vol de Nuit from 1933, for example, from its zebra-print velvet case, which is housed within a gold outer box, remove the glass stopper, and apply it to your skin, it is a real experience—all of the aesthetic steps leading up to the intense and very real pleasure of wearing the perfume itself—and one that is multifaceted, nonlinear, and develops gradually over time throughout its duration on the skin like a story. It’s more psychologically complex and multilayered, unlike many current fragrances, which are more about a quick flash of pizzazz at the beginning, and then bland out into something generic.
It’s nice for people to be made aware of just what is out there still, in terms of perfumed perfection, because our culture is visual, and has a far less developed olfactory appreciation. Even if a perfume comes from another era or age, it’s often less dated than you might imagine—and high-quality perfumes deteriorate far less quickly than is commonly believed. You can easily rock up to a party wearing a perfume like Narcisse Noir (1911) from Caron, and smell incredibly edgy.
Your writing style mixes memoir and reportage with more technical evaluations of scent and perfume. What draws you to this writing style? What do you think it offers your readers?
There are different approaches available for writing about fragrance. You can review or critique an olfactory composition in the way a food critic looks at gastronomy: by analyzing a particular dish’s components and proportions, and the overall effect they have on pleasure from a more objective angle for the purpose of enticing the consumer. Some of the best perfume websites give precisely what the perfume-curious are looking for in this regard: an in-depth description of the perfume’s concept and the notes used, what a scent literally smells like and how it develops on the skin, the inspirations of the perfumer who created it, what the best situations are for wearing the perfume in, and so on. Quite straightforward.
On the other hand, I am definitely a person who experiences everything very intensely in general, and find that I’m able to convey my daily life through the emotional portal of scent as it relates to me personally on a day-to-day basis, including what is going on around me in my life, specifically here in Japan, and in the world at any given time. In these more autobiographical stories, perfume is like a portal that leads to other things—real life refracted through the prism of scent. I find many people are often more drawn to these living memoir pieces—and the more vulnerable and honest, the better. Sometimes I don’t hold back in a way that is probably unfashionable, but it can be more gratifying because you can always relate to another person who is giving an honest account of how they are doing in their life.
It has obviously been quite a difficult few years for so many, and while some people want escapism into beauty, they also want to connect with others through shared opinions on perfumes but also on politics, war, and everything else. Sometimes The Black Narcissus is more like a counseling or mutual support group of very interesting, intuitive perfume lovers who often say that, because it is like a safe space of like-minded people who can discuss a wide variety of topics, they find it something of a refuge or haven.
What draws you to a particular perfume? How do you decide what to add to your collection?
I was into perfume from a very young age, so the perfumes I have lived through personally I perhaps have an encyclopedic knowledge of, to a certain extent. But in recent years, no one on earth could possibly keep abreast of every fragrance release out there, as there have just been so many. You could put a room full of perfumistas together now, and they could all be spouting off about things that only they know. It is that overwhelming.
What draws me to a particular perfume is when there’s something about it I can’t entirely grasp. I tend to go for the enigmatic and the unobvious. At the same time, I also like simple beauty. So if something contains the ingredients and templates I tend to go for—white floral, vetiver, vanillic powder, a good citrus —I either receive it in the post and am very happy, or I seek it out and buy it.
In terms of vintage finds, I usually can’t resist old classics in no-longer-available, visually stimulating boxes. You can't beat it. L'Air du Temps, for example—the perfume of Clarice in The Silence of the Lambs, which Hannibal Lecter detects on her and mocks when she visits him in his jail cell—is a musky, old-fashioned, carnation-crisp spiced aldehyde that is truly beautiful, but smells ridiculous on me. And yet, it’s one of the most successful perfumes in all history. Therefore, if I find a specimen that I think might be pristine, I can’t resist adding it to the hall of chambers.
What do you think engaging with scents can teach us?
That the sense of smell is massively undervalued. We smell things, but cannot classify them in the way we can the stimuli for the other senses. So in some ways a lot of people are almost afraid of smell.
By developing an appreciation for how perfume works, how it mingles with human skin, and the incredible effects it can have on other people, you become more attuned to them as a whole. This generates empathy and “skinship” between you and them. For me, it’s a real gift that someone can be so associated with, and encapsulated in a scent, that in some ways, they can live forever.