Walking through the woods yesterday and seeing some wild narcissus, I thought we should go and visit Zuisenji (literally ‘Narcissus Temple’), a famous Buddhist place of worship and contemplation originating in the fourteenth century set in the hillside that for some reason I have never been to, with its swathes of fragrant narcissi laid out in the grounds.
When we got there, however, it turned out, disappointingly, that we had missed them.
The place itself though was anything but a disappointment, as you can see.
Beautifully situated in a sun-filled corner of Kamakura it was exquisitely tranquil and pretty, with magnolia in bloom and the first flowering cherry trees of the season.
It was quite a long walk there from our house, though, and we were quite exhausted. After a tempura lunch in a restaurant in the century of the city we caught possibly my favourite temple, the relatively ramshackle and nondescript Todaiji, tucked down a side road but a place where I always feel strangely emotional and at home. The garden is more unkempt, it is certainly less ‘magnificent’ and dramatic, but to catch it at dusk, just fifteen minutes before it closed, with its cherry trees and tilting sunlight, was really intimate and beautiful.
There was also narcissus.
Now what perfume shall I have her wear today?
Dad has been given a bottle of Eau Sauvage Extreme; with mum we are either going with Nocturnes, Nina parfum (original); Ma Griffe; White Linen (perfume), Oscar (parfum) or No 22 (vintage).
It is a gorgeous sunny day, and we are going to walk through the woods to Kamakura. I look forward to the scent of light, leaves, damp earth, plum blossom, and a trail of beautiful perfume.
The narcissus in my garden are now blooming, and jonquils and daffodils are also on show along the street.
I thought I would repost this……
Vol De Nuit, a masterpiece from 1933 that is still in production, is perhaps the house of Guerlain’s most difficult, troubling, and mysterious perfume. Of the handful of still extant creations by Jacques Guerlain, it is this scent – Night Flight – based on a delicate and poetic novel by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, that is the most unreachable and impenetrable of his perfumes: strange, distant, opaque. Where the heart of Après L’Ondée, from 1906 – wistful, exquisite, a sigh of melancholic longing in its heliotrope and violet-touched rain-drop transparency, does wear its heart on its sleeves (and is all the more vulnerable and beautiful for it), and L’Heure Bleue (1912) a delectable confectioner’s joy suffused with more melancholic, crepuscular consciousness, is never really afraid to emote, Vol De Nuit is held back; shadowy, and wary. Where we are quite sure of Mitsouko’s mossed, woodland austerity, its almost grave and ceremonious beauty, or the unmistakeably voluptuous, volatile immediacy of Shalimar – released in the heady hedonism of the roaring twenties and destined for bare-shouldered odalisques, we will find no such sureties with Vol De Nuit. Her very essence, her intentions, are concealed. This is a perfume that that resists interpretation. It is pure enigma.
Yet mysteries are there to be solved; at the very least explored. And when we look deeper into the background of this perfume, at the circumstances that shaped its creation, the cultural and artistic influences that inspired Jacques Guerlain to try and capture these ideas in scent, we find that although the secrets of Vol De Nuit can never be completely prised apart (and we surely wouldn’t want them to be), a fuller understanding of the perfume’s story does further enhance the pleasure of wearing a scent that is, for myself and many other aficionados, quite simply one of the most beautiful ever made.
Vol De Nuit was released at a very dark time in world history. Storm clouds of fascism were rising, presaging the unimaginable horrors that were soon to besiege Europe and the rest of the world. It was the year that Hitler came to power; that the Reichstag was burned down; that the first concentration camps were opened in East Europe. It was also the Great Depression: the entire continent was in economic crisis, and Parisians were literally freezing to death in the streets in one of the coldest winters in memory. Although just three years earlier in 1929, Jean Patou had released the decadently floracious Joy, the ‘most expensive perfume ever’, the mood was now very different, darker, more ruminative. Vol De Nuit somehow embodies this smell of thoughtful, bitter, uncertainty; of compression; of something internalized and foreboding.
It is also, despite all this, a perfume of celebration, and herein lies the beauty of its contradictions. 1933 was the year that an aeroplane first flew over the peaks of Mount Everest, that flight truly captured the world’s imagination, and the perfume itself was named after the novel written by Jacques Guerlain’s close friend and confidant, Antoine de Saint Exupery : a dashing, brave, almost reckless romantic who was one of the first masters of aeronautics, flying multiple missions for Aeropostale France, as well as quite dangerous sorties for the resistance during World War II. He was also an aristocrat, a womanizer, bon viveur, and writer, author of the one of the most popular books ever written in France, Le Petit Prince, as well as several other novels, often centred on the thrills and dangers of aviation.
I recently came across an old and battered English version of this book in a second hand bookshop, and was quite fascinated, as I was reading it, to discover some of the parallels between the novel, with its ambiguities, strange depths, and poetical insights – and its translation, by Jacques Guerlain, the following year, into perfume. This is a lonely story; pilots, wrenched from the comforts of their domestic lives, manning their aircraft through the dangers of the skies, at night, often without sufficient flight instruments to guarantee safety, something that was considered overly dangerous by many and that had only recently been attempted for the first time:
“This man must enter the inmost heart of night, that clothed darkness”, we hear of the main protagonist, as he flies over the mountain ranges of Patagonia, Brazil, and Uruguay, carrying the post of an entire continent, and the hopes of an enterprise, on his shoulders.
The narrative centres on two main characters, Rivière and Fabien. The former is the man responsible for coordinating his pilots and ensuring the prompt punctuality of his deliveries. He is a serious and duty-bound man, hard-working yet sensitive, quite keenly aware of his guilt in pushing his aviators into dangerous situations even when he knows the risks. The latter is the young and fearless pilot, just married, who leaves his wife behind in Buenos Aires, and, traversing the vast swathes of land beneath him, subsumed in the dark cradle of night, is tragically caught in a cyclone that leads him, eventually, to an almost mythical death among the stars, beautifully described by Saint Exupery in ways that bring to mind the sun-dazzled demise of Icarus.
At the beginning of the novel, however, Fabien is full of hope. We feel the interior of the plane, its shell, ‘the mystery of metal turned to living flesh’, as he ‘lets his neck sink back into the leather padding and feel into the deeply meditative mood of flight, mellow with inexplicable hopes’. Where Caron’s En Avion, a precursor to Vol De Nuit, deftly takes the cool leather smell of the cockpit’s interior and its wooden dashboard rather more literally in its arid, violet-flecked propriety, Vol De Nuit encapsulates this ‘mellow, inexplicable hopefulness’ more effectively, perhaps, with its soft, caressing basenotes of orris, tonka bean, ambergris, leather, benzoin and vanilla: a beautiful, enveloping, aura of pulverized starlight that lets us fully imagine the gloriously new sensation of drifting almost effortlessly, and timelessly, above the clouds.
In early advertisements for Vol De Nuit, though, the scent is billed as a ‘perfume of mystery and adventure’. Saint Exupery manned flights over Africa, particularly Dakar and the Congo, and some of this exoticism is captured in the famous zebra print of the felt-lined inner box the perfume is packaged in, the bottle itself made in the form of a plane’s propeller. The intrepid masculinity of this golden new age of flight, the propulsion, the fearlessness, is also an essential part of Vol De Nuit’s androgyny and its sense of potential dangers, as this perfume, at least at the beginning, is anything but easy. In fact its ‘difficult’ nature, its jolie-laide, unbeautiful, almost acrid juxtapositions in the initial stages (which cede, eventually, to that hypnotic veil of milky light that enfathoms the scent once it is fully developed), nevertheless do make the composition quite unapproachable and formidable in some ways when you first apply it. She is geared up, this pilot: adrenalized, and certainly not to be trifled with.
The olfactive key to this sense of unease, of diffident untouchability, comes from the sharp, almost anti-intuitive clash of bitter green galbanum resin; pungent jonquil absolute, and the piercing, almost musty, scent of petitgrain, pimento and sage, laid elegantly alongside the classic Guerlain citric artillery of bergamot, lemon and orange. Resolutely not beckoning and un-come-thither (in the Shalimar mould), at this stage the perfume is quite assertive and spiky, undercut by a smouldering, growling cinnamon note that suggests daredevils, autonomy, and self-reliance. This is very much the colder side of the perfume, though, both tonally and emotionally, because, as we will find out later, Vol De Nuit is very much a study in contrasts.
Where Jacques Guerlain’s other classic perfumes have a smooth, luxuriant, yet delicate pliancy, Vol De Nuit is fierce (on the surface): solitary. The pilots that we meet in the novel spend many hours, from dawn until dusk flying in hazardous conditions and varying visibility, the cold steel carapace of their planes the only barrier between themselves and the freezing elements, the sky, the winds, and the wintry Andes that loom up from below:
“A snow-bound stillness brooded on the ranges. The winter snow had brought its peace to all this vastness. Only sheer peaks that, flying at twenty thousand feet, you almost graze, straight falling cloaks of stone, an ominous tranquillity. As far as the eye could see, all was at peace. Peaceful, yes, but tense with some dark potency. Dusk began to mingle with the air, rising and hovering, a veil above the snow”.
In presuming that Jacques Guerlain did in fact read the novel that his creation is nominally based on, as a great lover of Vol De Nuit it was fascinating for me to read of these vast, lonely landscapes that make perfect sense in the context of the perfume; the elemental space that surrounds the aircraft also mirroring the inital distancing effect that the perfume effortlessly achieves in its cool, earlier stages. The taut, barbed greenness, the bitter taste of woods, and the unsweetened spice that keep any potential admirers at arm’s length.
Both the novel and the perfume begin with this vital sense of audacity; a yearning for something unexplored; the embracing of adversity. The deeper thrill of this perfume, for me however, definitely derives from the eventual softening, in the later stages of the scent’s progression, when the heart of the perfume is revealed: the soft, dream-like, velveted and sensual embrace of the nocturnal. Vol De Nuit, as its name would suggest, is very much a night perfume. As the notes develop gradually on the skin, a kind of unclasping occurs. The tension relents, and a vanillic veil is slowly drawn over the tableau, tinged with ambergris, the Guerlinade base, and costus, the warm and heart-rending human smell of a lover’s hair and skin. At this point there are few perfumes I can think of that are more elusive, drifting, and compellingly, mysteriously erotic. Leaving allusions to the novel aside for a moment, the perfume itself seems to be taking to the air, hovering almost spectrally about its wearer: a woman shivering in fur, crossing the street, on an icy, winter evening. Externally, the moonlight and stars weave webs of diamond clarity as her breath steams the black night air, but as she clutches her perfume-tinged coat close to her and the plush, furred base notes of Vol De Nuit surround her illicitly like a pale-lit halo, it invites the person smelling these perturbing sensations to come closer, in a push-pull, warning/invitation that is invisibly exhilarating. We sense the purring determination in the perfume’s outer reaches, but also the emotion; a powdery, embered sexuality like the soft, glowing light coming from beneath a bedroom door at night.
It is for this reason that Vol De Nuit is definitely a perfume that one could become obsessed by, with its impenetrability, its provocation of the desire to know more, especially if it were linked indelibly in one’s mind to a lover. No matter how many times you smell it, this quality remains, this ineffable obscurity, and is the one of the reasons, I think, why it is so beloved (vintage Vol De Nuit parfum is something of a holy grail for many perfume lovers). It was also the subject of a short story by writer Takashi Akoda, Night Flight, a tragic tale of a grief-stricken man who was possessed by, and literally haunted by the perfume of his deceased lover, a woman whose fragrance came to his room mournfully, yet rapturously every night like a ghost, both soothing and tormenting, that “got its name not from flight, but because a fragrance can become stronger in the darkness. It almost seemed to float on the air….”
Which is surely a feat of perfumery technique not to be taken lightly. Vol De Nuit is a brooding and simmering olfactory presence, a homage to men and women who lived on the steel of their nerves and their sense of adventure, a perfume of its time but also one that is timeless. Presciently, Saint Exupery himself was to have a fate that was eerily similar to Fabien, the pilot whose plane falls into the sea at the end of the novel, as he tries in vain to steer his way out of this ‘shoreless night, leading to no anchorage’ and eventual oblivion. We sense what is going to happen, as the novel progresses. Yet the author keeps us in exquisite suspense right up until the end. We know that the odds are terrifically stacked up against Fabien, as he battles the elements and tries to keep the plane surging back up into the sky; that the fuel in the engine will soon run out, and that he is surrounded, on all sides and as far as the eye can see, by destructive storms. Yet there is still a great beauty in it all. Despite the imminent peril, we feel the vastness of existence; of human solitude; of love, as he remembers his wife who is waiting anxiously for him in their bedroom at home, the great and overwhelming beauty of the night sky. The young pilot, who could have been Saint Exupery, Amelia Earheart, or any of the pioneers of that uncertain time when a night flight could easily mean death, has, despite these tragic vagaries of fate, nevertheless lived. He has risen above: is on top of the world, literally, and, like the gracious denouement of the perfume and its spellbinding, mystical introspection, has reached some kind of bliss.
“He climbed, and it grew easier to correct the plunges, for the stars gave him his bearings. Their pale magnet drew him up. After that long and bitter quest for light, for nothing in the world would he forgo the frailest gleam.
And now a wonder seized him: dazzled by that brightness, he had to keep his eyes closed for some seconds. He had never dreamt that the night clouds could dazzle thus. But the full moon, and all the constellations, were changing them, now, to waves of light”.
BOTANICA OSCURA: : : THREE GREEN NATURAL PERFUMES by PARFUMS LALUN : : PHENOMENE VERTE + BLANCHE DE BOIS (20I2) + PHENOMENE VERTE II (20I4)
I love a green scent, and am ever intrigued by naturals. Always there is that extra element of stimulation knowing that every constituent of a perfume has been extracted from a living plant along with its life force; even more so when you know that many of those essences were procured from the perfumer’s very own garden. The creator of these three Lalun fragrances, Maggie Mahboubian, is a California-based perfumer of Persian origin who has a very interesting philosophy regarding perfume: a former architect, she seems to combine a very intellectual yet spiritual approach, with one that is instinctual and extremely grounded in nature. The majority of the ingredients used in her perfumes are gathered in her ‘bio-dynamic West Hollywood garden’ or else ethically wildcrafted by herself from pristine sources in the Hudson Valley, the extracts ‘potentized through daily succussion and vortex stirring while macerating and solar/lunar infused from moon to moon’.
As with the chef who suffuses each dish with love, I have the distinct impression that there is a great deal of spirit and thoughtfulness behind this brand, a fiercely ethical ideology that might have the potential to appear overly earnest and ‘Earth Motherish’ to the more urban chic types among us until you realize that these perfumes actually smell sexy. Very: stemming, perhaps in part, from Ms Mahboubian’s well researched Iranian heritage of plant alchemy, with its potions and elixirs all grounded in concentrated attars and ‘araks’ (distillates), base formulae that give the perfumes very rich, sensual bases that contrast quite clearly with the more homely ‘aromatherapist’ blends we are used to smelling in health food shops that, while relaxing and therapeutic, from an olfactory standpoint, often don’t quite hit the mark.
is a warm and enveloping green perfume founded on a dense, herb-tinged labdanum and vetiver accord and an unusual opening accord of green artemisia, bay leaf, rosemary, thyme, and a pronounced note of yarrow, an unusual essential oil I have come across in herbal apothecaries that I must say I am not usually drawn to. Like the smells of hops, marijuana, valerian and the like, it has that bitter oiled immortelle odour that, while physiognomically relaxing to the nervous system, doesn’t appeal to me aesthetically. I smell witches and wicca; hairy, dark interiors and mystery; the unknown esoterica of the ages and the profound and godly wisdom inherent in plants. Yet I also feel a connection to my own Anglo-Saxon roots with such scents; smells that repel and attract me in equal measure on a deeper, subcutaneous level.
While vivid at first, the yarrow note in the perfume soon quietly subsides to a more measured petitgrain and jasmine touched amber/vetiver accord that flirts with the taste of Chartreuse; a memory of Guerlain Djedi; as I then disappear, willingly, into the welcoming foliage of an ancient English garden.
All is now smooth calm and verdurous concealment: I take refuge here.
BLANCHE DE BOIS
is a more exciting and kinetic perfume than Phenomène Verte, with its warm and harmonious solidity: where the latter maintains its song on the the mid-chords on the piano, the former straddles three or four octaves, ranging from a very sultry base accord of beeswax, mushroom, patchouli, cocoa, vanilla-tonka and nootka (a kind of wild rose), contrasted starkly with a swelty, blanketed white floral heart, and a searing green opening salvo of galbanum, clary sage, bergamot and grapefruit.
The inspiration behind this perfume comes from the treatise ‘Language Of Flowers’ by philosopher Georges Bataille, in which the clichés of floral innocence and chastity are deconstructed and turned on their heads, and their more rotten and sordid hearts revealed. Taking this theme, Mahboubian uses gardenia flowers from her own garden (“tragic white florals just past their prime”) to crown a creamy gardenia enfleurage doused with jasmine grandiflorum, ylang ylang and prominent white lavender, though in truth these flowers are somewhat lost in the bristling, minted fougère of the whole – troubling and arresting – with a sense of real immediacy.
Still, nestled in their bitter green bowers, these ‘tragic flowers’ do radiate, somehow, from inside (reminding me in brief, androgynous flashes of both Estée Lauder’s Private Collection and Ralph Lauren’s Polo as well as more current mossy entanglements such as Gorilla Perfumes’ Dirty and Angela Flanders’ Precious One). But where with Phenomène Verte I feel above ground, safe, if still soil-aware, in comparison, Blanche De Bois feels almost evil, dangerous, as if I were Eurydice being dragged into the underworld. This is a fine perfume that pulsates within itself like a poison; potent; leery; and damned erotic.
PHENOMENE VERTE II
is a very different creature to the above perfumes, which I see as linked somehow, a yin and yang in the Midnight Garden Of Good and Evil, swaying and breathing silently in the undergrowth to the soundtrack of Stravinsky’s Orpheus.
Phenomène Verte II is a green jasmine sandalwood, a combination of essences that always puts one in mind of Guerlain’s Samsara and Creed’s Jasmine Imperatrice Eugenie, that voluptuous combination of wood and floral that can’t help but emote the smouldering odalisque. Here, a very smooth and deep, vintage aged sandalwood is cradled in attars of Monsoon Rose, Sambac Jasmine and Vetiver (with the sandalwood note very much predominating), made even more sexual, and tactile, with a touch of animalic hyraceum (or African Stone) and ornamented with homegrown orris and tinctures of Jasmine Polyanthum, Milkweed, and Mahmadi rose. Although correctly described as a ‘creamy dark floral’, ultimately this perfume is all about the starring player, that sandalwood, a central note that draws all the others into itself and subsumes them: a natural sandalwood perfume for those who are bored of cop-out ‘santals’ and want the real thing. Like all the scents I am describing today, this perfume has a vivid sense of integrity; of purpose; and of life.
The sun has finally come out today, it is warm and might even get up to around seventy degrees: I have the windows open, and a Hawaiian friend is coming down to the house (we are going to write some songs, something we have been promising to do for a long time).
The guest bedroom is ready for him, and I suddenly felt like giving it a couple of sprays of Songes, one of the loveliest perfumes ever made (and to take him back, perhaps, to Hawaii). It smells as wonderful as ever; makes me glad to be alive.