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You Smell Like a Million Butts

In the end, it was Human Existence that just about did me in. But it wasn't a philosophical crisis -- it was just a perfume smelling at the offices of IFF -- International Flavors and Fragrances, Inc., in New York.

The 15 scents I sampled are IFF's "olfactory interpretation" of Patrick Suskind's novel Perfume, which is the basis for the new movie. It is the story of Grenouille, an obsessed and gifted perfumer in 18th century France who discovers that he himself has no scent. In his effort to create an alluring perfume that he could wear, Grenouille becomes a murderer.

One imagines the perfumers of IFF were more restrained in obtaining their ingredients.

The final products, created by Christophe Laudamiel and Christoph Hornetz, are a stunning and at times frightening example of perfume as art. They're about smelling in its purest sense and about evoking a time or a place through fragrance.

Thierry Mugler, famous for his sweet perfume, Angel, has released the set: 14 crystal bottles holding a quarter ounce each and one bottle of half an ounce. They nest in a red velveteen box.

I won't attempt to summarize them all. Reading 15 descriptions would be as exhausting as smelling them! Let me also say that I smelled these perfumes on paper scent strips, not on skin. You'll see why.

The perfumes include:

Baby -- Creamy, milky, sweetly sour, a blend of 25 ingredients. Inspired by the smell of a freshly washed (thank goodness) infant.

Paris 1738 -- Could also be called Times Square, January 1, 11 a.m. Smells of cheese and feet, and a general state of being unwashed. Ingredients include essence of seaweed and a modern synthetic molecule that smells like dirty hair. Paris 1738 lingers in the room like an unwanted, rather smelly guest. It certainly evokes a time and a place when perfume was used to rescue delicate noses from the stench of the streets. Handle with care.

Virgin No. 1 -- Named for Grenouille's first victim, a beautiful young Parisian plum seller. According to IFF, for this scent, scientists analyzed and chemically reconstructed the scent of a virgin's belly button. At this time, I cannot comment on the realism of that element, but the other listed notes of yellow plums and milk (seems like goat's milk) are evident.

Atelier Grimal -- Named for the Tannery where anti-hero Grenouille works, it smells of old, creased leather with a dab of animal and a smidge of noxious chemicals.

Human Existence -- Like Paris 1738 with a jaunty dash of incontinence. There's an element of scared animal. It's foul, it's sad and it takes you places you don't want to go.

There are more pleasant scents in the box, like Sea, a melony fresh take on an ocean breeze, and Noblesse, a blend of rare flower aromas that smells expensive because it is. But those aren't the ones that will change your nose's outlook on life.

The fantasy scents are available in limited numbers from an online service in the U.S. The pricetag is $700. That may sound preposterous. Then again, they're already sold out in Europe.

Susan Stone sniffs discerningly in Berlin, where she is a freelance correspondent.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Susan Stone
Susan Stone is a contributing reporter/producer for NPR based in Berlin, Germany. Before relocating to Germany for a Robert Bosch Foundation Fellowship in 2005, she was a producer, editor, reporter and director at NPR’s headquarters in Washington for 10 years. Most recently, Stone was a producer and director for the weekend editions of NPR's award-winning news magazine All Things Considered, where she created a signature monthly music feature for the show.