Pay Dirt: Claude Montana Parfum de Peau (vintage)
Parfum de Peau ("skin scent") is an extraordinary piece of 1980s perfumery, but I think we need to start off by talking about that bottle, which is genius, surely in anybody's top-ten list of the greatest perfume flacons of all time. It even feels beautiful, an endlessly changing whirl of velvety frosted glass: it wants to be fondled. (The surface texture is of a piece with the shape: imagine how dreadful it would be in clear glass!) It was devised by Serge Mansau, and even for him, the creator of such dazzling bottles as those for Rochas Alchimie, Dior Dolce Vita, and the revamped Idole de Lubin, it's a standout.
Its inspiration is said to be a stroboscopic photograph of a sycamore seed helicoptering its way to the ground, and it does evoke that sense of captured motion. But it also makes me think of two other things. It looks like a strand of DNA, and, as you can see from the photo at the top, it resembles an extremely abstracted torso of a woman, who I assume is dancing with joy, her arms twined sinuously over her head, from the sheer ecstasy of wearing something so gorgeous and amazing as Parfum de Peau.
Patrick Süskind's 1985 novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, required reading for anyone who loves scents, contains a sequence at the end of chapter 31 in which Grenouille, the murderer of the title, a man who has the world's greatest nose but no scent to call his own, creates a perfumery base that smells like a human being:
There was a little pile of cat shit behind the threshold of the door leading out to the courtyard, still rather fresh. He took a half teaspoon of it and placed it together with several drops of vinegar and finely ground salt in a mixing bottle. Under the worktable he found a thumbnail-sized piece of cheese, apparently from one of Runel’s lunches. It was already quite old, had begun to decompose, and gave off a biting, pungent odor. From the lid of a sardine tub that stood at the back of the shop, he scratched off a rancid, fishy something-or-other, mixed it with rotten egg and castoreum, ammonia, nutmeg, horn shavings, and singed pork rind, finely ground. To this he added a relatively large amount of civet, mixed these ghastly ingredients with alcohol, let it digest, and filtered it into a second bottle. The bilge smelled revolting. Its stink was putrid, like a sewer, and if you fanned its vapor just once to mix it with fresh air, it was as if you were standing in Paris on a hot summer day, at the comer of the rue aux Fers and the rue de la Lingerie, where the odors from Les Halles, the Cimetiere des Innocents, and the overcrowded tenements converged.
Grenouille then dilutes this stench and uses it as a base for a conventional perfume, which, when he wears it, creates the illusion that he is a normal person with a normal, which is to say revolting, odour.
It is hard to escape the notion that perfume Jean Guichard read Süskind's novel before starting in on Parfum de Peau. That fragrance's raunchiness, which threads its way through the entire scent and cannot be contained even by the rose-and-carnation floral middle, is an unembarrassed profusion of all the animal scents — civet, castoreum, ambergris, leather, and musk — supplemented with, of course, oakmoss and patchouli, both marvellously earthy, as well as a sizeable dose of that honey note from phenylacetic acid that some people read as urinous. This human-as-dirty-animal quality is the entire point of the scent, and it is profoundly sexual.
Parfum de Peau sounds like kind of a hell-brew, and I know that for some people it is: I had to get rid of my bottle not long after buying it, because Jim objected, not because he thought it was gross but because it caused him actual olfactory pain. (He's put up with a lot from me scent-wise in the last quarter century: if he really hates something, I'll just ditch it with no questions asked.) But if you are not bound to the modern conception of a fragrance as a way to prove to the world that you are clean, if you are open to the very old idea that a scent can be something erotic, a prelude to things to come, then vintage Parfum de Peau is something to treasure.
The scent is still being marketed, but, and it pains me to have to keep repeating this, it has been reformulated. The real thing is worth hunting down, and you will know it's the real thing because the cobalt-blue box will have Montana's scrawl across the front, as in the image above: the remake has a sketch of the bottle in bright yellow-orange, and maybe it's good in its own way but it cannot possibly have anywhere near the quantity of animalic notes that it used to, which is just another way of saying that it is no longer Parfum de Peau.