Scents and sensibilities

For Coco Chanel, No 5 was the smell of a woman; for Julie Burchill, it is the smell of rich mothers.

The British do use perfume, but only occasionally, and then in moderation. When my grandmother died, I discovered a litre bottle of Chanel No 5, bought in Paris in the 1930s and left unopened in her cellar. She had no use for such a large bottle, and so, for 60 years, the perfume was left to evaporate through the stopper. This British puritanical streak runs deep. Although we have a suspicion of high-flown theory, the best British art, design and architecture lies broadly within the modernist mainstream, because modernism champions puritanical virtues such as boldness, clarity and simplicity - virtues we already possess. We find it much harder to appreciate eroticism, sensuality and luxury, the extravagant qualities that perfumers bring to their art.

Perhaps because of this bias against extravagance, we have no real language to appreciate perfume as perfume. It is far easier to treat it as a commodity - even as a con trick pulled on the consumer. There was a kind of glee behind recent reports that the laboratories hired to create synthetic beef-flavoured sprays for McDonald's fries also manufacture perfumes for American fashion houses. And it is often remarked that the role of the couture catwalk show is to sell not clothes but perfume, as though the symbiosis between fashion and perfume is illegitimate, and that selling perfume is somehow shameful.

In fact, fashion houses began to develop their own perfumes relatively recently. The first to carry the name of a couturier was Chanel No 5, in 1921. Chanel No 5 also has the distinction of being the first fragrance to use synthetic aromas in high concentrations, of a kind known as aldehydes, which amplify other scents by giving them a lift and sparkle. If there is something essentially unmodern about perfume, Chanel No 5 could be seen to mark a revolution, because it introduced modern conceptions of manufacture and marketing. But even this would be an exaggeration. Chanel No 5 might have used synthetic aromas more liberally than previous perfumes, but Jacques Guerlain had used an aldehyde two years earlier in his scent Mitsouko; and his uncle Aime Guerlain had enthusiastically embraced other synthetics a generation before - in Jicky, for instance, created in 1889.

Rather, if Chanel No 5 exemplifies anything, it is continuity. Although the perfume was selected by Coco Chanel (and named after her lucky number), it was created by Ernest Beaux, a Russian perfumer who had learnt his art working for the House of Rallet before moving to Coty in Grasse during the revolution. Jacques Polges, just the second director of perfume at Chanel since Beaux's death, recently said: "Though his world and ours are totally different, there are still things that are the same, most particularly the artistry. We must help people to feel and appreciate this dimension."

Conservative art and literary critics often posit the idea of an apostolic tradition, exemplified by a canon. This tradition actually exists among perfumers. The House of Guerlain, for example, was founded in the early 19th century by Pierre-Francois-Pascal Guerlain, and a descendant, Patricia de Nicolai, now has her own successful house in London. The House of Creed is even more stable. Founded in London in 1760, it relocated to Paris in the 1850s, and remains family-owned today. One can as easily wear Fleurs de Bulgarie, created by Henry Creed in 1845, as Neroli Sauvage, created by Olivier Creed in 1994.

It is remarkable that so many classic perfumes still exist. All the perfumes named above are easily available: in what other field is it possible to use the exact same product as Queen Victoria (Fleurs de Bulgarie), Colette (Jicky), Diaghilev (Mitsouko), Marilyn Monroe (Chanel No 5) or me (Neroli Sauvage)? And with these perfumes, you are not buying a reproduction or an approximation. It really is the same perfume.

The perfumer's tradition is long. New techniques such as gas chromatography, which is used to analyse "headspace" (the air around a living flower), are used alongside distillation processes that have not changed since the Arabs developed them. Some ingredients, too, are as old as civilisation. Frankincense is a balsam (or gum resin), myrrh an extract of a root, and while the young Christ may have appreciated them, neither is close to being the most valuable perfume ingredient. Balsam of Mecca, for instance, is worth twice its weight in silver because (rather confusingly) it grows only in Syria on two plantations, one of four acres, the other considerably smaller.

The mostly excellent perfume writer Susan Irvine recommends that, with perfume, "less is sexier". She is wrong. It takes much more perfume to create an effective vapour trail, or "sillage", than one might imagine. And it needs to be renewed frequently. The rule, in perfume as in other things, ought to be bling-bling. The ostentatious display of luxury and sensuality was beyond my grandmother's generation, but we ought not be so easily discouraged.

It is odd that perfume is treated with suspicion even by those who regard themselves as aesthetes or connoisseurs in other fields. It may be that the language of modernity precludes a language that could appreciate fragrance. The key problem of modernity was representation. The solution was to produce works that did not depend upon their relation to other things, but created a sense of their own integrity and necessity. Perfumers have never faced this problem, because perfume does not refer to anything: it is only a smell and nothing else. In a phrase that existentialist philosophers used, perfume is the thing-in-itself.

A perfume is always a coup de foudre, a surprise. It is immediately sensual, a synthetic and created element that acts directly on the senses in a material way. One could argue that all art aspires to the condition of perfume - aside from magical realism, which aspires to the condition of the perfume advert. All the great perfumes have stories attached to them. This is not coincidence; perfume is the engine oil of our imaginations. Our libidinous bodies react to perfume by producing ideas, fancies and stories.

Those writers most interested in perfume always present themselves as slaves to their sensuality, and so helpless before perfumes. All are writers with links to the decadent movement - for instance, Oscar Wilde, who wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray that musk "troubled the brain" and violets "woke the memory of dead romances"; or J K Huysmans, who describes an orgy of aromatherapy in Against Nature using perfume-spraying machines that pummel the senses. Proust presented himself as wholly enslaved to involuntary memories and wrote that perfume is "that last and best reserve of the past, the one which when all our tears have run dry, can make us cry again". Yet, beyond this enslavement to the material and sensual, each of these writers posits a new kind of freedom. Perfume stokes the imagination, but the ideas created transcend their source, and the novels they produce are the proof of this.

In perfume, we can find the philosopher's holy grail, a sinuous link between materialism and free will. It creates romance, but the contours of that romance are left to the imagination. For Coco, Chanel No 5 was the smell of a woman; for Julie Burchill, it is the smell of rich mothers; for Susan Irvine, it is the smell of fur and hand-embroidered knickers. But for Ernest Beaux, its creator, Chanel No 5 was the snowy landscape of his birth which recalls, for me, the words of Mikhail Bakunin: "Even in Russia, that vast and snow-covered kingdom, a storm is brewing."

Nicholas Blincoe is the co-editor of All Hail the New Puritans (Fourth Estate, £6.99)

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, In the line of fire