scents and sensibility

It is a brave man - or a foolish one - who gives perfume for Christmas. Unless they have Barbara Gunnell as their guide
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Indy Lifestyle Online
There are good smells and bad smells, and a lot of the latter around at Christmas. Perfume is the Christmas present of last resort. You spend a bomb. The recipient thinks it smells like one. It needn't be so. Perfume (scent if you're aristocratic, a snob, or over 50) is a great present - as long as you apply the taste and intelligence to buying it that you would to buying a scarf, say, or a bottle of wine.

The prevailing myth about perfume is that it's a matter of individual preference. It really isn't. Modern perfumery has produced some chemical miracles and some stinkers. Scent used to be expensive because its basic ingredients were rare, flowers gathered at dawn, resins only from deepest Peru, or unspeakable animal secretions. Now, and animal-lovers can be grateful, many aromas are synthesised in the laboratory, with varying degrees of success. The product is just as expensive but we pay for "concepts" - androgynous adolescent, chiffon by the sea-shore, Arabian harem - rather than following our noses. In fact, most of us have forgotten how to use our noses.

It's too late to start training your out-of-condition odour receptors, so here are some unsubstantiated dogmas and shamelessly partisan tips on giving perfume at Christmas.

Those androgynous citrics and nose-stinging ozonics of the past few years are out, giving way to warmer and softer floral-based scents. By the end of next year it will be as ridiculous to smell of lemons and oysters as it is now to smell of melons, dew-berries, mangos and bananas (whose surge of popularity at the beginning of the 1990s was completely contemporaneous with a laboratory breakthrough in synthesising fruit smells). So no CK1, Eau d'Issey, Sunflowers, Cool Water, or Dune. That ozone smell, which gives meaning to the expression "it gets right up my nose", was created, not for perfume but for washing powder, to give it an elusive fresh-air quality. Better to take a brisk walk by the seashore on a windy day.

Of this year's floral launches, Chanel's Allure (pounds 32 for 50ml ) is the one that people keep nicking from the sample drawer. It is soft and floral, with a hint of peach. Second comes Yohji Yamamoto's Yohji (pounds 40 for 50ml eau de toilette) in its minimalist test tube that doubles as a spirit level (really). There's a hint of Eau d'Issey's "sock in the jaw" quality but it improves enormously after the top notes have evaporated and the ylang ylang and vanilla develop.

Some perfumes never went out of fashion. Chanel No 5 (pounds 36.50 for 50ml) is the classic perfume that taxi drivers will comment on and reminds men of their mothers. Warn recipients of this: it may or may not be desirable. Here's what to say when you hand it over. The first bottle of Chanel No 5 may have been an accident. Commissioned in 1921 by Coco Chanel with the brief that "a woman should not smell of roses", a young perfumer, Ernest Beaux, is said to have accidentally tipped a large amount of the chemical, aldehyde, into the mix. This unprecedentedly generous use of a chemical whose purpose was to intensify other fragrances, made it unusual indeed, supplying a "fizzy" note that many subsequent fashion houses have imitated. Note: aldehyde is cheaper than roses.

One-upmanship is always appealing so try perfumes from the independent Paris-based Annick Goutal. Her Eau d'Hadrien is said to be both Madonna's and the Princess of Wales's favourite splash. Available from Liberty and Harvey Nichols: 100ml, pounds 54:

Since this is a Republican newspaper we prefer Goutal's Eau de Camille, with its warmer, more sensual aroma. Price as above.

Even more exclusive is a perfume that you will have to travel to Paris to buy. Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier is to be found at 34 bis, rue de Grenelle, producing, among others, one of the most exquisite scents that has ever wafted my way. Soie Rouge is a bouquet of carnations and jasmine. Why, you might ask, doesn't this master perfumer and glovemaker have a name? It's a long story, so for a really exclusive perfume gift, offer a trip to Paris to visit the no-name perfumer and find out. For the rest of us, he plans a London launch next year. You heard it here first.

Most "perfume" is now bought as eau de toilette. The traditional bijou bottle of pure perfume sold in fractions of fluid ounces is fast disappearing but it makes a far more luxurious present. Joy, launched in 1930 as "the costliest perfume in the world", is an extravagant concoction of rose and jasmine (two of the costliest essences in the perfumer's palette) from Grasse. Its early marketing targeted notions of "taste and refinement". This undersells it since in our unscientific sniffings it had the greatest "aaaah - that's gorgeous" factor. The smallest flacon of perfume, a fifth of an ounce, costs pounds 79 but it is lovely. Coco Chanel found it "prudish" but at the time it was giving her sexy No 5 competition.

The perfume I want is the original Balmain Vent Vert, created in 1945 by Germaine Cellier, one of the few woman perfumers of her time. It is green and sharp, as the name implies, but completely idiosyncratic, with spring flowers, galbanum (a resin) and, apparently, basil and sage. Something so perfect should not have been meddled with but Vent Vert was re-marketed in 1991. Its successor is pleasant enough, but altogether sweeter and more ordinary (50 ml EDT pounds 27). The company wickedly claims it is the same great perfume. I would even swap a bottle of Patou's Joy for an original Vent Vert.

Don't buy the marketing notion that perfumes are about sex. This is nonsense as Napoleon, who messaged Josephine not to wash when he was returning to see her, clearly understood. Perfume is pure hedonistic pleasure for the wearer.

With the exception of Annick Goutal perfumes and Soie Rouge the items listed should all be available this Christmas from major department stores.