At first glance, it looked like a particularly busy Saturday at Noor, a specialty fragrance boutique in Toronto's Yorkville district. But there were signs that something unique was under way: (1) A mouthwatering spread of sweets – from ladyfingers to baklava – atop the counter where customers usually pay. (2) An ongoing exchange of introductions as people trickled in. (3) The frequent exclamation of "Oh, so nice to finally meet you!" when names were shared. (4) The showing off and sniffing of perfume bottles and tiny sample vials (known as decants) that people brought from their personal collections. And (5) The intense conversations about scent that would have been familiar to anyone who has listened to oenophiles mull over wine.
If not obvious by now, this was a gathering of fragrance enthusiasts – the third official (although unapologetically informal) Scent Meet-up, held in late November, in Toronto. The idea to bring noses together is hardly new, of course; there's even a website, New York-based Sniffapolooza.com, dedicated to creating these sorts of get-togethers. Indeed, the Internet is often the first point of contact for fragrance fanatics who typically create blogs or participate in forums such as Basenotes to satisfy their insatiable love of scent. It was on Basenotes that Toronto aficionado Daniel Joffe posted his idea for an inaugural Toronto meet-up last year, having first approached Noor's Nahla Saad and Frederico Campos to see if they would like to play host.
"It's great to get all these keyboard junkies out and meeting," he said between a discussion about Bandit, the circa 1940s fragrance from fashion designer Robert Piguet that had been discontinued and then reformulated. Campos had brought out the bottle plus additional Piguet scents (with names like Visa and Fracas) for everyone to try.
"The great thing is that it's happened organically," said Saad, who opened Noor with Campos four years ago.
"I went to meet people," said Gwen Dunant, who pens a blog called Perfumeniche with her friend Margot Adam. "I love seeing everyone's enthusiasm and hearing them ask questions."
"We're a small but enthusiastic group," noted Krista Janicki, whose blog is called Scent of the Day. For the meet-up, she had brought her samples, all catalogued and sealed in Ziploc bags.
To hear the topics discussed – a perfumer's curriculum vitae, how to identify benzoin (a tree resin that is a good stand in for cream soda), favourite fougères (fern-like scents) – is to realize how much minutiae there is to fragrance culture and how much of it relies on its own vocabulary.
Which might explain why they're occasionally – and affectionately – referred to as perfume geeks. After all, the biggest difference between them and comic-book collectors is the guarantee that they will smell good. Joke!
More seriously, the community may have grown online, where members trade information and opinions, but it really benefits from the occasional face-to-face. After all, people can post comments ad infinitum on the gutsiness of Traversée de Bosphore (the newest addition to the highly respected L'Artisan Parfumeur line), but the reality is that the conversation is at its best only when all parties can experience a scent in person and simultaneously.
When Campos declared that a certain scent "smells like Helene Curtis hairspray," for instance, we were sharing that moment with him, whether we agreed or not (and we did).
"It's a nice community," he said by phone after the event. "They're very informed and some of them are very opinionated, but it's all pretty friendly."
Many of the participants made purchases that day, said Campos (it helped that Noor had just received a delivery of Heeley, a coveted niche line). But he was adamant that no one should feel any pressure to shop while attending the meet-up.
Dunant and Adam brought a stack of sheets featuring an outline of a hand and forearm they created to help remind people which scent they had applied where (such as back of hand, wrist, elbow). There were a few oohs and aahs as we all realized how useful these would be.
As the afternoon wore on, the counter space was strewn with samples "like fallen soldiers," joked Campos. When I said my goodbyes, there were people still chatting and sniffing with gusto. I know I was feeling a pleasant buzz: I just couldn't figure out whether it was from the fragrances or from making some like-minded new friends.