On the way to my Japanese lesson in Kamakura yesterday, I had a bit of extra time and so I quickly popped into an antique shop down a side street which I know has a large selection of vintage perfumes at usually reasonable-ish prices. The selection there might not change from week to week, from month to month even ( I have a mental inventory of whatever is currently in there at any given time), but then, out of the blue, there will be a sudden influx of precious, sometimes unbelievable, things you snap up with a flutter and a heartbeat (if there is still any money in your wallet left), and spend your whole Japanese lesson dreaming of what they will smell like when you get them home.
Yesterday was one of those days. I was completely thrilled, as my eyes quickly scoured the shelves, to find a vintage extrait of Paco Rabanne’s Calandre in its iconic sixties bottle, and as well as that, the rare and wonderful Parfum D’Hermès, full, in exquisite, perfect condition, each the equivalent of only fifteen dollars.
Now this is what I call a perfume. Refashioned as Rouge d’Hermès in 2000 (the parfum of which I also managed to snap up at a fleamarket), I was amazed to find that this extrait is even more beautiful. A less gauzy, powdered madame than its successor, Parfum d’Hermès is bright-eyed and utterly radiant: classic, assured, and beautifully balanced with floral notes of Bulgarian rose, hyacinth and jasmine immersed in a theatrical shimmer of myrrh and amber-infused aldehydes, spices and musk-tinged cedarwood – a Chamade-like semi-oriental that dries down eventually to a very ‘forbidden’, resinous, animalic finish. More so even than Rouge, which smelled familiar to me when it came out yet shocking with its uncontemporary, almost rudely human end notes, this final accord is sensual, perturbing, but a fittingly bodied conclusion to such a fully realized beauty as this. From the green, relucent burst of aldehydic hyacinths, to the powdered, elegant, skin-caressing conclusion, Parfum d’Hermès is a work of art – the flawless creation of perfumer Akiko Kamei, who seems to have only made three perfumes (this, Rouge, and Rouge Eau Delicate) all modulations on the same theme: Chamade. Like an obsessed artist lost in a hall of mirrors, she seems to have been compelled to try and recreate, or even improve upon, Guerlain’s monumental classic by strengthening it, embolstering that perfume’s innate vulnerability by enwrapping it in the finest red satins and silks, by corsetting her up with help from the fierce petites mains from her atelier, by taking her from her private, self-absorbed chambers to the extroversion of the opera house.
Also in the shop, new additions, were the tantalizing pure parfums of Guerlain’s Samsara and Sublime de Patou, perfumes I always felt were so rich and vulgar they defied belief (lipoid, loud-mouthed sandalwoods with sillages that even the most ample diva might shy away from), yet I find myself wanting them anyway. There is something so essential about an extract, an extrait, a parfum : the secret concentration, the essence, the heart of the perfume. They are like talismans to me in their potent, 7.5ml flacons, even when I am not necessarily a fan of the perfume in question. I can’t help wanting to collect them, to possess them.