Yesterday we looked at the bizarre, if highly memorable, Arabie by Mr Lutens and his magician/alchemist/sidekick Christopher Sheldrake, an innovative blend in which the desserts and spices of the Middle East were whipped up into an impossibly smooth and sultry, if for me indigestible, perfume.
I love spices: they reel me in, especially now that we are living in the days of the anodyne and the measured in perfume, where to smell merely pleasant, clean or worst of all, unthreateningly conformist, is the order of the day. (How often do you trail behind a person on the street wearing a gorgeously spicy scent? That sensation in your brain and stomach when your limbic system is momentarily thrown off course and the instinctual drives kick in and, like a blinkered horse, you forget your surroundings and all you can think about is that scent and its associations…..?)
The perfumes of Mandy Aftel, which I have only recently had the chance to smell for the first time, are composed entirely of natural essences, and they deliver a kick to me physically; involuntarily, somewhere between the groin and the heart (though I felt something in my upper legs for some reason upon sampling the new Oud Luban extrait recently; it literally had my muscles twitching….) Intellectually I wasn’t entirely sure about its curious blending of blood orange oils and the extraordinarily dirty and suggestive essential oil of oud and the Indian essence Choya Ral, but at the same time it was so feral that while my mental protective mechanisms went pitifully into place, my body rebelled as I sat there in the dark watching a film, and it got me quite frankly aroused……)
I have not yet written much about aromatherapy on this site as I am concentrating more on perfume, but for me the two go hand in hand in daily life, and I have been intimately involved with aromatherapeutic oils for at least twenty years (and seen a miracle or two in that time as well). Let’s just say I am a believer.
Where essential oils are like medicines for me, indispensable for my sense of well-being and feeling of a therapeutic connection with nature (the souls of plants!) perfumes are my hedonistic side; aesthetic and sensual pleasure, shameless artefacts of beauty that are ephemeral, invisible, to be consumed in a way that makes them unique and enjoyably guilt-ridden.
Having these two separate sides of myself fused – the medicinal and the purely fragrant and luxuriant – is an odd sensation for me, because on the whole I do view them quite differently. I realize, obviously, that most perfumes contain natural oils and so will also have some physiological effect on the organism, but this is very different from the way a bath of rosemary, geranium and peppermint makes my heart beat like a drum, or the way marjoram oil at night soothes my spirits like the anaesthetic waters of Lethe; or how a candlelit bath of vetiver sends me to a slow-breathing netherworld of the deepest, most earth-centred tranquillity.
Can natural perfumes find a pleasing in-between? Be subtle and complex enough to please the senses aesthetically while delivering the physiological goods? I have already written some favourable reviews of the all-natural, and very delicate, scents by Frazer Parfums (which see), and judging from Oud Luban and Parfum de Maroc, which is a very excellent rose/spice fragrance, Ms Aftel really does manage to stride the bridge between the two worlds extremely effectively.
Going back for a moment to what I was saying about encountering people that are doused attractively in spice, aside Duncan’s mother Daphne and her clouds of Opium and Jacomo’s Parfum Rare, and my friend Georgia who wears Caron’s Poivre exquisitely with its fiery, moody, blend of pepper and cloves, the spice scent that springs to mind the most in this conversation is the original perfume by Comme De Garçons, that groundbreaking spice blend based on perfumer Mark Buxton’s memories of the Moroccan souk. It is a great scent, but too many fashionistas and art people were wearing it at the time of its launch (1994) whether it suited them or not, and when a person chooses a perfume for ‘the wrong reasons’, especially with something as distinctive as this clovey, cinnamon balsam-laden thing, in my opinion the perfume can just sit on the skin unwantedly and smell wrong.
Comme des Garçons was a very dense perfume that contained every spice under the sun over incense: it smelled mainly natural and was originally made for CDG founder Rei Kawakubo as an mood-enhancing elixir to steel the nerves, yet allow you to relax in its warm aura, all the while in the full realisation that you were wearing something emphatically cool. It was the perfume that brought spices, and the edible, back into the fold when the trends in perfumery were going in the opposite, more anorexic, directions of Eau D’Issey and CK One, and for that we must be grateful.
I mention this perfume because it was what Aftelier’s Parfum De Maroc vaguely reminded me of the first time I tried it on (after all, both scents are based on the same specific geographic location, the Moroccan spice market). But where in the CDG souk-fest the spices and other elements feel pressed together and fused in the laboratory, Parfum De Maroc allows for no such artificially induced compression and bursts from its bottle unsuppressed, natural essences of a very sensual Turkish rose absolute layered over a prominent base accord of cardamom and myrrh essential oil ( an essence I have used in face creams and whose odour I know intimately), all swirling, diffusively and suggestively, while a captivatingly spicy accord of galangal ( a more fiery relative of ginger ), black pepper, saffron and nutmeg lower your defences as they choreograph themselves around the soaring red rose – surely the star of the show. It is a scent that needs red, orange, gold, rich fabrics, and a person with a warmer heart than mine to wear effectively: it is gorgeous, but on me I find the perfume almost torrid, the untamed nature of the pure essential oils used, particularly the myrrh, almost intimidatingly rich and heart-filling (Parfum De Maroc would work amazingly as a grief or shock-absorber….it is the perfect antidote to cold of all kinds….)
Still, if I wasn’t quite comfortable wearing this heady perfume on myself I still had an urge to keep smelling it for some reason, and so I then committed what might be seen as something of a perfumista sin …
Like other essential oils, which I sometimes evaporate in oil burners placed in different parts of the house, I decided to try ‘burning’ Parfum De Maroc, just to see, letting its Arab vapours fill the entire house with its florid coils of quietly pulsating heat, and I must tell you that the smell, as it slowly made its way around corners and into each room as I caught its poignant, exotic warmth, practically made me swoon.