The Perfume House: A Love Story. Part 1 – The Fragrances

July 31st, 2007

By Donna Hathaway

This is a story about one special place, which was made possible by some very special people. It is an unassuming little shop to the untrained eye, housed in a whimsical older building on a busy street, easy to pass on the way to bigger and brighter things. But if one takes the time to linger for a moment and peer inside, a world unto itself will be revealed, a magical kingdom evoking the Old World of charm and elegance, of beauty appreciated and great care taken. It is the world of The Perfume House and its owners, the delightful gentleman Chris Tsefalas and his lovely wife Christina. Others have told their story in many different ways, but this is my personal tribute to what this place has meant to me over the years.

When I say that Mr. Tsefalas is a Gentleman I mean that in the truest sense of the word. He is courtly, charming, warm, gregarious, and the most civilized human being I have ever met in my life. He spent a lifetime learning from the great perfumers of the world before deciding to open his own perfume shop so he could share his love for perfume with others. He was trained by the finest masters and is himself a Nose with a capital “N”, a title bestowed only upon those few who must pass a rigorous test to acquire it. (Can you recite all the major notes of any perfume, even one you have never smelled before, before the droplets sprayed in the air hit the floor? He can.)

The Perfume House in Portland, Oregon opened its doors in the early 1980s. I luckily discovered it very quickly due to the chance reading of a story in the newspaper. My sister and I were curious, so we went down there to see what all the excitement was about, as the story had made it sound quite intriguing, and we both liked fragrance anyway. Well, the upshot of it was that we spent about five hours there the first day, and received a head-spinning education in fine perfumery. I have returned there often over the years, and I never leave without learning something new about the art and history of perfume. (Chris is also a master storyteller, and he can weave a romantic perfume tale like no one else.) I learned of great houses and obscure essences, of near-mythical rare perfumes and great standards of the perfumer’s art. Knowing virtually nothing about perfume except that I adored it, I allowed myself to be guided toward that which would suit me best. I remember that one of my very first purchases was a lovely Fragonard. (Who knows much about this house in the U.S.? It is one of the great French houses of the highest quality, but they do not spend their capital on advertising.)

Sometimes it is best to simply place yourself in the hands of an expert who knows much more than you ever will, and in this case I was glad to do it. I discovered Quartz by Molyneux and Annick Goutal Gardenia Passion, and the Jean LaPorte line; I found that the Caron Muguet de Bonheur was exponentially better than any other Muguet fragrance I had ever smelled, and that the fragrances from the House of Caron and I got along very well indeed. (The Perfume House is the only West Coast source of the unsurpassed Caron face powders; famous Hollywood makeup artists order it from the shop when nothing else will do.) There is a Caron “shrine” in the store that includes several of the crystal urns like the ones in the Paris Caron boutique. Almost any Caron perfume in commerce today can be had here, either from stock or by special order. All things Caron are cherished here, as the house represents quality at the very highest level. On a recent visit there was a small tester vial of 2003’s Tubèreuse, which is one of the exclusive urn perfumes available only in the Caron boutiques. I thought I would faint with sheer pleasure when I smelled it. It is sublimely radiant yet quiet, the conceptual opposite of the better-known Fracas by Piguet, and lacking the stemmy greenness of Frederic Malle’s wonderful Carnal Flower with that one’s chilly opening notes. It is the tuberose equivalent my other favorite Caron soliflore, Muguet de Bonheur; refined, serene and opulent without being overly lush. If the store does not start carrying this one soon I will need a ticket to Paris.

Most of all I found the perfume house I loved the best: Jean Patou. When the store first opened, one of the big introductions was the release of the Jean Patou Ma Collection, a reissue of twelve Patou perfumes from the past as a celebration of the house. Not only was the twelve-bottle miniature coffret with a story booklet available, but all twelve were also sold in large single bottles. Of course everyone knows about Joy and 1000, the twin flagships of Patou and deservedly so; what they do not know is how many fine perfumes came out of the house and have been discontinued. I fell in love with most of them right away; the deep, woody Normandie, named after an ocean liner, the bright and effervescent Cocktail, the saucy Caline, the languorous Colony with its pineapple decadence, the heartbreakingly lovely Momênt Suprème, and the stunningly romantic floral Amour Amour. But for me, one stood apart from all the others, and does so to this day; Vacances from 1936, brought back to life once more in all its breathtaking green beauty. Just a short time ago Chris told me it is considered by many to be the finest Green Floral of all time, and I cannot agree more. This ethereal fantasy of hyacinth, lilac and mimosa with fresh grassy notes is the epitome of simplicity yet is sophisticated as well, and it is a memory perfume that can evoke a deep emotional response for many. Alas, this is gone now, as are the others that briefly reappeared in that perfume Brigadoon and soon went away again. I can only console myself with the knowledge that newer Patou masterpieces such as the wonderfully intense Sublime are also of the very best quality available today.

Over the years I have experienced some very special fragrances that I never bought, but I was glad for the experience. Some were out of the range of my budget, such as JAR Golconda in one of its very few appearances outside a JAR boutique. I will never forget its stunning clove-carnation power. Then there is the amazing floral Amouage Gold for women, the first release of the House of Amouage. My sister fell hopelessly in love with this one, a truly great fragrance imbued with rare and precious Silver Frankincense, and she wants no other. I have to agree that it is one of the best things I have ever smelled though my favorite of the line was the sadly discontinued chypre Ubar, which is no longer made due to the difficulty in procuring the best ingredients for it; the house’s standards are very high. Other perfumes were too rare and not for sale, such as vintage Rochas Femme, or wonderful but not really my style, such as Schiaparelli Shocking, but at least I got to smell them at the time. I cannot remember everything about the hundreds I have tried, except that I loved them all. Even those I would not wear myself I was taught to appreciate for their own qualities, as works of highest achievement by the perfumers who made them.

There is a secret treasure trove as well – the Private Reserve, a collection of alcohol-free pure perfumes made by the finest noses in France, and available only by appointment. Once you have bought one of them you may order any of the line directly from France as long as you do it within one year of the first purchase. I have tried only two of these and I cannot even begin to tell you how good they are. There are five soliflores (rose, jasmine, muguet, gardenia and tuberose) and the rest are masterful blends. I have experienced the rose and tuberose, and if I could go without food or rent to buy these I would gladly do so. (I am almost afraid to try the others!) Because there is no alcohol, they are very stable and do not change like more diluted formulations do. I recently brought home some cotton soaked with the Private Reserve tuberose essence and put it on my bedside table to scent my room. Two weeks later, it still smelled exactly the same as it did straight out of the bottle. I will leave it there until it fades, which should take a long time.

Of all the rarities, one of the most memorable was the release of several perfumes once exclusive to the Czars of Russia; manufactured in France, they were of the highest quality and could not be bought by ordinary Russians. The original formulas were not lost in the Russian Revolution, as they were in France, and they were briefly re-created in a limited edition some years ago. I do not recall the names of all of them, but two have stayed with me to this day. Anna Karenina was an indescribably romantic floral, unique in that it was composed of dried flowers instead of fresh. That sounds odd I know, but it was rich and powerful and made me think of a heavy silk brocade curtain at an opera house. The other one was a name I could not spell or pronounce but translated as something like “Russian Fantasy.” As soon as I smelled it, I was transported to a verdant forest surrounded by songbirds and murmuring waters. It was an out-of-body experience. This was the one I bought, but of course it is no longer available. If I close my eyes I can still remember how it made me feel. This was truly perfume as Art, and I owe it all to one man’s dream.

COMING SOON: Part Two: The Stories, to be published over at the Perfume-Smellin’ Things blog next week, so please visit!

Image source: adclassix.com, vintageads4u.com, ebay.com, amouage.com

Entry Filed under: Uncategorized

19 Comments

  • 1. Maria B.  |  August 1st, 2007 at 12:56 am

    What a wonderful pefume palace! To think that I visited Portland frequently on business in the mid-1980s and I didn’t know about the Perfume House. I think I’ll suggest Portland to my husband as our next vacation destination. “You must see the Columbia River Gorge, and they have great clams!” (At least, they did when I visited.) I would like to worship at the Caron shrine.

  • 2. Elle  |  August 1st, 2007 at 6:27 am

    Sounds like more than reason enough to get my derriere to the west coast for a visit – a dream destination for perfumistas.

  • 3. Judith  |  August 1st, 2007 at 6:59 am

    Wonderful! I have a number of friends in Portland; now, I have even more reason to visit!

  • 4. Louise  |  August 1st, 2007 at 7:25 am

    Ah, my home town! Who knew that such a treasure (besides my family) lives there? I must add The Perfume House onto my Thanksgiving visit.

  • 5. Suzanne  |  August 1st, 2007 at 7:38 am

    De-lurking to say that I always look forward to your posts. Your writing is like perfume itself: soft and yet complex, with a magical woven quality that makes me feel as if I’ve journeyed with you somewhere, whether you are writing about a single perfume or, as in this case, recounting a much broader experience. I look forward to reading Part Two of The Perfume House.

  • 6. tmp00  |  August 1st, 2007 at 11:19 am

    as if Powell’s wasn’t reason enough to blow six months rent…

    How I wish I knew this was there the last time I went through Portland!

  • 7. Teri  |  August 1st, 2007 at 11:40 am

    In a world that has museums aplenty for the most esoteric of items, I’ve often thought there should be a perfume museum where the public could go to experience fragrances too exclusive or too long gone from this world to be available to us in the course of our daily lives. This lovely and special place sounds like the next best thing.

  • 8. Twibbet  |  August 1st, 2007 at 11:49 am

    I was so happy to learn of the Perfume House’s existence in time for a recent trip to Portland! My husband and I spent a couple of happy hours in there with my latest must-sniff list.

    I learned that Caron is not as evil as I thought, that Jil Sander #4 is like wearing sunshine but is not quite me, and that I might possibly need to pick up a bottle of Piver Cuir de Russie next time I’m in the area. We will definitely be back to smell some of the lovely things mentioned in your post!

  • 9. nikki c  |  August 1st, 2007 at 12:31 pm

    Debra,
    That was a wonderful piece. You’ve really captured the magic of Chris and The Perfume House. I’m so honored to live here so I can visit every couple of months (when my budget allows– it’s impossible for me to go there and not buy anything!). Every time I step in there I’m truly in heaven, and it’s good to know I’m not alone! ;) Hope to see you there someday!
    -Nicole

  • 10. stacy  |  August 1st, 2007 at 2:29 pm

    I just visited this place for the first time a couple months ago when I took a perfume class in Portland. After reading so much and sniffing so many mail-ordered samples it was mind-blowing to have the run of a place where I could handle actual Lutens bottles, see all the Carons, try the whole Montale line… I announced that I was a fiend and a student and they indulged me in my smellfest. Highly recommended!

  • 11. greeneyes  |  August 1st, 2007 at 9:31 pm

    Donna, just one more reason for me to be jealous of people who live in Portland! Not fair that you have Powell’s and The Perfume House. This was a lovely post!

  • 12. Ina  |  August 1st, 2007 at 10:21 pm

    Donna, thank you for transporting me to the magical world of Perfume House! I really hope to visit it some day.

  • 13. Flora  |  August 1st, 2007 at 11:27 pm

    Hello Everyone,

    Thank you for all your kind words! It is indeed a treasure of a place and I feel privileged fo get the chance to share my love for it with others. (Thanks Ina!!)

    Maria, Elle, Judith, Louise – It is definitely worth a trip for the faithful perfumista. Just don’t expect to drop in for a few minutes and leave with the one thing you came for. That is not going to happen. You will find yourself dazed and transported, not knowing where the hours went since you first walked in the door.

    Suzanne, thank you so much, that may be one of the top 10 nicest things anyone has ever said to me! :-D

    Nicle, perhaps we have met there and we did not know it….

    Stacy, you have my attention – perfume class in Portland??WhatWhereWhen? Do tell!

    tmp00 & greeneyes – tell me about it! I work near Powell’s, so you can imagine the rigorous self-descipline I must endure. Well, not ALL the time. ;-)

    Twibbet, I am so glad you found it! Admit it – you can’t stop thinking about it now, can you? You just can’t wait to go back!

    Ina, I hope you can visit someday. Until then, their website does have a “virtual tour” with color photos of the interior, including the Caron “shrine.” You can see immediately that it is old-fashioned in the best sense, with a feeling of old European elegance.

    Hugs to all!

    Donna

  • 14. stacy  |  August 2nd, 2007 at 5:32 pm

    Donna,

    Miriam Vareldzis, who worked for a time in the fine fragrance division of IFF in NYC, gave this olfactory workshop a couple times. She now lives in Portland. Here’s her description of the workshop: “It is an informational, intensive morning of smelling over 40 individual notes, discussing olfactive categories, the meaning of notes and evaporation rates and the language of perfumery. We also smell some classic market samples (perfumes).” She’s very knowledgeable and had some good stories. It was great to get together with other smell geeks. My favorite part was smelling single notes–especially oakmoss! You can contact her at mir@40notes.com.

  • 15. CindyN  |  August 2nd, 2007 at 9:10 pm

    Donna,
    I visited the Perfume House a couple of years ago–having read about it on Scentzilla’s blog. The next time I was in Portland, I dragged DH (in the rain) to witness my sniffathon. It was fabulous.
    The house itself, the knowledge displayed by the staff and their patience with multiple sniffies, and generous nature made my visit. I’m dying to go back again. Next time I will make an appt for the Private Reserve–what a treat. Thanks for an excellent article and reminding me of a joyous day.
    CindyN

  • 16. Flora  |  August 3rd, 2007 at 12:55 am

    Stacy, thank you! I look forward to taking a workshop; someday soon, I hope. It sounds like a lot of fun, and would just love to smell straight oakmoss – heaven!

  • 17. Flora  |  August 3rd, 2007 at 12:58 am

    Cindy, It’s my favorite place to go, rain or shine!

    The Private reserve showings are held at a pre-appointed time, I think they wait until a certain number of people are signed up – you could e-mail or call them to see when the next showing is – it is done in small groups.

  • 18. Joyce  |  August 4th, 2007 at 4:01 pm

    Gracious!!! What have I missed??

    Married in Portland – check
    Birthed 2 kids in Portland – check
    They know me by name at Powell’s – check
    Visited The Perfume House – hanging my head in shame – no

    Next time we visit friends and family…I’ll be taking up residence there..you can be sure!! Thanks for a wonderful introduction to what must be a little bit of perfume heaven!
    Fragrant hugs,
    Joyce

  • 19. Flora  |  August 4th, 2007 at 10:24 pm

    Hi Joyce,

    Don’t worry – it will be worth the wait!

    As for “taking up residence” there, I have threatened to do just that many times. ;-)

    Hugs back!


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