Photos: Michael Donath
1. The Blind Tasting | Khamsin by Pour Toujours
We confronted Cristina Steingräber with a mystery perfume in a neutral, opaque vaporizer. Only afterwards did we reveal the name of the scent. Follow Cristina on her journey into scent …
She is beautiful, very beautiful …
For me, this perfume is above all slow. A “fast” perfume gets one’s thoughts racing while this one here prods me into thoughtfulness. I feel like I’m on a sofa in front of an open fire, with a blanket I can snuggle up in. It’s a very familiar picture since at my parents’ homes in Portugal and the North of Germany, there is often a fire burning — in Schleswig-Holstein the whole winter, on the Atlantic coast only when it gets really cold: so, familiar surroundings, deceleration, absolute relaxation and a lovely, cozy, comfortable home in the winter season.
The person who wears this perfume is very clear in my mind’s eye. She is a woman in her prime and completely at ease, sitting on the sofa and enjoying the fire. She is tall and slender and has grey hair, which she doesn’t dye. She has no need to, for she is beautiful, very beautiful. She is dressed in dark brown and grey tones, perhaps in a warm cardigan, but there is nothing rustic about it. I imagine it is made of silk and wool — very classy and very elegant, just like this perfume. Yes, this is an elegant perfume. It also suggests strength — this woman doesn’t allow anyone to boss her about.
The woman is happy and feels fine. She does exactly as she likes in all respects, which is why she is so at peace with herself. She has come a long way — she used to lead an entirely different life. She was a very prolific business woman who worked hard and gained appreciable influence. The woman I am thinking of had a brilliant career. And she always did exactly as she pleased.
Nowadays she no longer works, but occupies herself with literature. And she writes herself, with great perseverance and at her own pace. There is no hurrying her. Her novels are not pure fiction but rooted, rather, in reality, often historical. Which book is she currently working on? She won’t say, as we don’t yet know each other too well. Yet I would imagine she is writing about people. I think she is French. She is a city person but likes to drive out to the countryside to write.
She reads a lot, at the moment the work of Thomas Piketty, for example, which relates to her professional past. Franzen fascinates her. But she has no time for Houellebecq. He is too explicit for her and she finds that his language lacks finesse — is simply not sophisticated enough. She likes to listen to classical music while she writes. She also listens to rock music: classical or rock, and nothing in-between.
It seems to me it would feel quite delicious to have her around, to spend time with her, to talk and sit with her by an open fire. The discreet scent of her perfume — a counterpoint to this rat-race world — would calm me and slow me down most agreeably.
2. The Interview
What is Cristina Steingräber’s earliest scent memory? What is the significance of fragrance in her life? Which are her personal Top 3 perfumes? Find the answers below!
Scent has a tactile dimension.
HS: What is your favorite odor?
CS: Sea spray — the Baltic Sea, salt and seaweed. I don’t actually know whether one can smell salt … Perhaps it’s not a particularly attractive odor, but I find it simply fantastic. It reminds me of what I love above all else: being by the sea in a storm or when it’s blowing a gale.
HS: Was perfume worn in your family circle?
CS: Yes, but not often. My father uses Knize Ten. He is calm and attentive — and has always worn a full beard. I find the scent suits him well.
HS: It’s a very masculine scent.
CS: My mother still wears a perfume by Jil Sander. Which was also my first perfume, because I always used to swipe a dab [laughs].
HS: And which was the first perfume you ever bought for yourself?
CS: Classique by Jean Paul Gaultier. That was in the late 80s. I lived in Paris at the time and I found the scent very cutting-edge and metropolitan. I was also involved in the fashion scene a little and I occasionally ran into Jean Paul Gaultier. I saw him as a major influence on the period.
HS: Gaultier was spectacular, a Gesamtkunstwerk.
CS: And he was simply there — it wasn’t any big deal at the time. But I did at some point stop wearing his clothes. They are no longer my thing. I do still have an unspeakable pair of square shoes in the cellar at home — and Classique still stands on my bathroom shelf.
HS: Do you ever wear it these days?
CS: No. But I do sometimes take a whiff of it, which brings back some wonderful memories.
HS: What followed Classique?
CS: I wore Classique for fifteen or twenty years and then Clive Christian’s 1872, although the flacon in that case took some getting used to. I think it is pretty awful, given that crown. But I find the scent just wonderful and even identify with it strongly nowadays.
HS: Do you notice whether people are wearing perfume? And, if so, do you generally recognize it?
CS: And how! If someone’s wearing a perfume I don’t like I can’t stand having him or her around — I am unable to ignore an overpowering scent.
HS: Do you think you wouldn’t like the person even if she or he were not wearing it? After all, the scent speaks of a personal choice.
CS: Yes, that’s true, but it’s something I’ve never thought about conclusively. Yet, for example, when a woman is wearing an overly heavy, sweet scent, I always wonder how she can stand it. In some cases it practically knocks one out. It’s always annoying to find myself in a restaurant beside someone who is so heavily perfumed that I cannot taste my food.
HS: We must speak about books too, for books are your world, and they too have an odor.
CS: It’s such a cliché to say, “I love the smell of books.” I personally always take a good look at whoever is saying it and wonder how much he or she actually has to do with them. For books can also smell incredibly bad. There are certain colors that smell really abominable. But of course there are also books that smell so good, one cannot resist picking them up and taking a look inside. Consequently, scent in this case has a tactile dimension.
HS: What sort of smell is there when a new book arrives from the printer’s?
CS: I adore that moment when I open the book for the very first time. The paper, the color, the linen, the glue used — I love the smell of it all.
HS: Something one has worked on for a very long time is ready and lying before one — a very exciting moment?
CS: Absolutely. But if the book smells too strongly, one also has a little shock: Is it really ready now, or possibly still so damp that the color will smudge?
HS: The papers used in the past were not acid-free and ultimately crumbled, giving rise to a very peculiar sweetish smell …
CS: That’s true. One you find above all in old novels — a smell that transports one to another realm.
HS: Regardless of the content? Or do only romantic novels smell sweet?
CS: Of course not. But romantic novels smell better than everything else.
HS: Thank you!