Tapping the wellsprings of memory and emotion.
BY LANCE SPARKS
This is the story of a profound love — an overweening passion — wrapped in a profound perfume, a transcendent scent that reaches across centuries. The tale weaves passions between persons, passions for the gifts of Nature, passions for the arcane recesses of knowledge. At the center of this tale stands a mage, a gentle man of sweetest nature whose purpose it is to mediate between the mystic domain of scent and the mundane present.
|PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY BACKUS|
Chris Tsefalas, 80-ish, exudes an Old World grace in appearance and bearing. He wears a gray tweed jacket over a white shirt accented by a dark-red silk tie, black slacks, black wing-tips. His hair is a wispy white crescent but his dark eyes flash to match his quick smile as he recalls convoluted narratives that comprise perfume's history, from its darkest origins in the embalming of pharaohs to its latest chapters that might mark the completion of centuries-long projects. He knows, too, as much as anybody, how the sense of smell taps into labyrinthine wellsprings of human memory and emotion. He is world-renowned among masters of this ancient craft all the world's twenty great perfumers have visited but in his own domain he is the soul of courtesy to all who enter, especially to those who express a desire to know more.
For 23 years, Chris Tsefalas has operated with his wife, Christine, Portland's fabled Perfume House, at 3328 SE Hawthorne. The exterior, like its owner, is modestly elegant, black wood-frame front marked Perfume House in gold lettering, but the interior is a treasure trove of the world's distinguished perfumes (no synthetics allowed it's educational to note just which designer scents are NOT there), over 800 women's scents, over 200 men's . The names constitute a roll-call of perfume royalty: Chanel, Patou, Caron, Lalique, Lanvin, Scaparelli, Amouage
When the esteemed perfume house of Rancé sought a venue for the introduction of their most remarkable creation in 200 years, they chose, not New York or Paris, but Portland's Perfume House. The two perfumes that Rancé brought to market are named Napoleon (also Le Vainquere, the conqueror) and Joséphine (his lover/wife/empress), and theirs is a typical perfume epic. In a tiny alcove, the store's apse, Chris Tsefalas leans against a glass case bearing shelves of jewel-like bottles. His voice is subtle, but his eloquent hands conjure the saga; they rise, parting the air, opening an unseen curtain, then come together, fingers tented, touching just the tip of that noble nose, instrument of Chris's art. The tale:
For the most part, historians portray Napoleon Bonaparte as vaingloriously addicted to power and conquest, a brutal militarist, destroyer of armies, scourge of nations. True enough, but he was also passionate about the natural world, trees, flowers, gardens, their colors, textures and aromas. Before his coronation as emperor of France in 1804, Napoleon approached master perfumer Francois Rancé and commissioned him to create two distinctive scents, one for himself, another for his "incomparable Josephine" — and for no other person — but each so crafted that if both emperor and empress were in the same room, her scent would dominate, but if the two lovers came together, the two perfumes would merge, to create a third scent unlike any other. Napoleon chose the ingredients for each perfume, drawing upon his rich stock of personal experience. Rancé completed his task for the coronation. Says Chris: "On the steps outside of Notre Dame were a thousand people or more, there to watch them go into the church, but when they were walking up the steps, there was Rancé, on pillows. He had the fragrances completed, unknown to Napoleon, and they sprayed him and her, on their way into the church, and they smelled it for the first time, and from that moment on the only fragrances they used were the two, until they died."
The rest is history — marriage dissolved, nation and throne lost, exile and death — until one of Rancé's descendants, Jeanne Sandra, discovered two casks containing the remnants of the original Napoleonic perfumes, still sealed and perfectly preserved. The House of Rancé bottled the remains and released them to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the coronation. When these rare and precious few are gone, a new batch will be made, but never again can there be more of the original.
Napoleon's scent, "Le Vainquere," is marked in its top notes by citruses (grapefruit, bergamot, Italian mandarin), with accents of melon and ginger; the middle is floral (lavender, jasmine); and the base is primarily sandalwood, vetiver, musk. Joséphine's is distinctly floral, topped by May rose, middle notes floral and fruity, the base woodsy (esp. sandalwood). Hundreds of other components were part of the blends, a formula known only by the perfumer and undetectable to uninitiates. But when the two fragrances join, some alchemical synthesis occurs that defies description, but compels memory: "So this is a love affair. Two fragrances, the vapors of these, combine to make a third. It was a love affair that never ended."
Chris Tsefalas is a font of certain lore, but he knows "Nothing is for everybody in perfume." Each person must choose — or not — to enter this realm. "It's not about money," he says. "Every fragrance is a memory."