Monthly Archives: April 2012

Summer Flowers: Iris

The price of quality iris root being what it is, it is inevitable that niche brands have all been coming up with showcase irises in recent years. Much of current mainstream perfumery is vulgarizing trash, and the cool, powdered elegance of this material presents the perfect opportunity to make an obvious differentiation – iris is aloof and removed. The flowers themselves are even regal: at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo are the famous imperial iris gardens, which flower in late June, guarding the emperor and his wife – tradition has it they ward off evil spirits.

While many irises are almost odourless, some of the purple, white or yellow flowers have a rich, almost oily, deep violet smell hard to imagine in perfume. In fact the scent of iris is not obtained from the flowers but the roots – a labour-intensive process that takes around eight years, from planting the flowers to obtaining the oil. Three years after the bulbs have been planted, the roots are harvested, washed, and sun-dried on lattice trays (the famous Florentine ‘iris saunas’), after which they are dehydrated for about five years. When deemed ready, the bulbs are ground down and macerated in cold water before being steam distilled. Finally, orris butter, one of the most expensive and coveted essences in perfume, is produced, and ready to be made into scent.

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Aubepine-Acacia (Creed)

AUBEPINE-ACACIA/ CREED (1965)

The lemon mimosa. For an entirely different take on the mimosa tree, there is always Aubépine Acacia from the Creed Private Collection series (typically very atypical scents that are as unusual as they are expensive). Les Senteurs, which is one of the only places to stock this scent, describes it as ‘a return to a more gracious age’, the ‘scent of country hedges enhanced with powdery acacias and mimosa’, and the scent is a refreshing alternative to more traditional, powdery mimosas. Starting with a very sharp, citric and green chord of lemon, bergamot, pine and galbanum, the perfume gradually reveals the warm, almond-milk caress of hawthorn flowers and mimosa over hay and ambergris. Fresh, distinctive, and ideal on either sex.

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Mimosaique (Parfums Nicolaï)

MIMOSAIQUE / PARFUMS NICOLAI (1992)

It has been a pleasure getting acquainted with the Nicolai collection: clear, well made perfumes not to think about, just wear (there are no ‘concepts’). Mimosaïque is a delicious, honeyish mimosa – a short, somewhat room freshener-like top note soon cedes to a very real, fluffed up mimosa that is rather gorgeous. Underlying it is a rich, powdery, vanilla base (the perfumer, Patricia de Nicolai is the granddaughter of Pierre Guerlain, let’s not forget), so bear this in mind if you were hoping for a lighter mimosa scent.

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Farnesiana (Caron)

FARNESIANA/ CARON (1947)

This obscure mimosa-vanilla from the house of Caron couldn’t be more different from Champs Elysées and its hard Parisian mademoiselle pretentions. Where the Guerlain mimosa is all about the city and perfect appearances, Farnesiana is a sweet, emotive, maternal refuge from all harshness and external pressure: a perfume to nuzzle, cradle; regress with. The blend gets its name from the latin name for mimosa (Acasiosa Farnesiana), the flower at the heart of  this scent. And the mimosa note in Farnesiana is perhaps the most perfect of all mimosas, the absolute essence of the flowers. Place just a drop of this  elixir on your skin and the heart-rending, powdery mimosa blossoms smile only briefly though before being subsumed in a very edible note of almonds and the roundest, gentlest, but slightly smoky, vanilla.  This is not a ‘gourmand’ though (despite its intimations of cherry bakewells)  – it is far too eccentric. Somehow Farnésiana is not in the least seductive – it is rather a lovely, melancholic escape from all that; the self as confection, a perfume to wear when alone. Despite its deliciousness, a strangely cold perfume.

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Champs Elysées (Guerlain)

CHAMPS ELYSEES/ GUERLAIN (1996)

Impervious chic glassiness; a cold, aloof beauty somewhat anomalous in the Guerlain lineup – no powdered gourmand tones, no hint of odalisque here. Champs Elysées came out in the mid nineties as part of a mini neo-classical trend; along with Cartier’s So Pretty and their American equivalents, Estee Lauder‘s Pleasures and White Linen Breeze, it heralded a new, rain-clear floralcy; well-mannered to a fault; prim, upright, petals-and-leaves for the lady. Champs Elysées is the best of this type; a perfectly balanced mimosa-floral that gleams with the tonic green of spring; sharp, penetrating blackcurrant leaves and buddleia, over a clarified, wistful mimosa, sharp, green rose, and almond blossom/ hibiscus;  a very unique perfume that I recommend if you want to smell classical, in control, but feminine –  its sexual impermeability is strangely enticing. A lady at a Japanese department store told me that although this perfume attracts fewer buyers now than it once did, those that wear it will wear it for life. By now probably deserving of classic status.

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Dans Tes Bras by Frederic Malle Editions de Parfum

Like a skunk pissing in a violet, this bizarre salt-floral-musk is seemingly an intellectual exercise from master perfumer Maurice Roucel (creator of cult sensation Musc Ravageur), and like that fragrance it is a fusion of traditional, romantic ingredients and notes of sweaty warm skin. Dans Tes Bras (‘In Your Arms’) smells extremely synthetic, odd, but riveting: once the sour, mushroomy endocrines of the ‘violets’ fade, you are left with a very personal smell that is unforgettable.

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VIOLETTE PRECIEUSE de CARON

 

 

 

 

 

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November 1992.

 

 

I was twenty one and had been living in Rome for a month, looking in vain for a job, and staying in the cheapest hotel I could find – a garish, pink-painted pensione near the infamous Stazione Termine. One muggy afternoon, hot, bored, and mildy depressed – but too lazy to look for work – I decided just to hop on a train and see where it took me. I was idling on the Linea B, looking at the stations to come, when I saw ‘Piramide.’

 

 

 

 

I got off. As I turned the corner from the station, there it was: a two thousand year old pyramid – the last thing that St Paul is supposed to have seen before he was crucified. It was embedded in the tall, thick-stoned walls of a sealed off garden, which seemed closed to visitors but on closer inspection turned out to be the Protestant cemetery of Testaccio: grave, still  and somnolent in the cool shade of trees.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I eventually found the entrance.

 

 

 

 

You rang a bell, and an old attendant, taking his time to get to the door, let you in. A place of serenity – lush and dark, where cats basked on the stones in the afternoon light. A place where your soul could stop and breathe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walking down a path, I suddenly saw before me a sign: ‘Here lies Shelley’s heart.’ Then, to the left, another that said, to my astonishment, ‘This way to Keats….’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My own heart beating, I wandered in the direction of John Keats’ tombstone, and as I stood before it in amazement (I had no idea he was buried there and had not long before been doing his poetry at school, which I had adored), somehow the clouds had cleared and rays of watery autumn light filtered down through the leaves, illuminating his grave. Alone in this far off corner; smothered in violets.

 

 

 

 

 

I cried. The violets were not quite yet in bloom but the leaves were flourishing, there, in a dark, oily green that I imagined were imbued with (but soothed), the bitterness that Keats is said to have felt before his death. It was as if they were protecting him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Caron Violette Précieuse is like those leaves. It is tender and poetic, with a central note of strange, bitter violet leaf. The flowers are there (and iris, muguet, vetiver), but quiet;  as if cowering in woodland rain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Muguet de Bonheur (Caron)

MUGUET DE BONHEUR/ CARON (1952)

Despite all the praise (justifiably) heaped on Diorissimo, it is probably one of the last perfumes on earth I would wear myself. It is often said, among the perfume cognoscenti, that men can wear almost anything except tuberose. Wrong: I carry off that flower with aplomb. But I would never wear a muguet – unless it were Caron’s lovely Muguet de Bonheur. Though many fragrance lovers don’t rate it as highly as others of the type (this is not a straight rendition of the flowers, and probably why I like it more), this creamy, savon muguet, with its light strokes of lilac and rose, is a polished escape, light as breeze.

Fantastic on warm spring days by the sea (along the promenade, in Yokohama’s Yamashita park).

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