The work of Tammy Frazer, a South African perfumer who works exclusively with locally sourced, sustainable aromatic materials, is impressive. While the names of the perfumes in the nine ‘chapters’ of the collection, each based on a particular combination of natural ingredients discovered on her travels, might not evoke poetic insights (‘Coffee and Orange’: ‘Mint and Patchouli’ and so on), the lack of pretentiouness also makes a refreshing change in the concept-overheavy current climate. Besides, some of the scents themselves are really quite beautiful: strange, poignant and peculiar creations that work on you slowly and emotively with their gentle fusions of time and place. This is a stimulating, delicate poetry of captured plant essences that produces an olfactory timbre very different from that of mainstream of perfumery or even of niche, and while it might be considered unfashionable among scent cognoscenti of the Chandler Burr School Of Thought to express any preference for the natural over the synthetic, I myself know intuitively, as I have stated elsewhere recently, that plants contain a ‘life force’ that is surely lost in any laboratory reconsitution of natural aromatics : my senses prickle to these scents. Somehow they evince a definite air of aliveness, an extra dimension that touches the emotions in unexpected ways, even where they occasionally lack the alchemic prowess and full range of expression available to perfumers using the full laboratory palette.
If there is a problem with Frazer Parfums it is the price: raw ingredients of this quality don’t come cheap, and when the perfumes are then housed in hand-carved wooden boxes (Frazer supports the African Blackwood Conservation Project) some of the scents in the collection make a very extravagant purchase, particularly when they lack a decent duration on the skin (Ruby Grapefruit and Frankincense, which is lovely, but disappears far too quickly, doesn’t seem worth the price – about 300 pounds). Others in the collection do seem worth it to me, particularly Corsica Everlasting, which is one of the most distinctive, even provocative, scents I have smelled in a very long while.
CHAPTER 7 : ROSE AND TUBEROSE
Whether it was due to the voluptuous natural content or not I’m not sure (the lack of a chemically stamped fixative to keep all in place?), I had two entirely different experiences with this volatile blend of luscious flower essences. The second was the morning after, over coffee, when I put some on my skin and enjoyed a pleasant, very Moroccan rose otto scent that smelled exactly as you would expect an ‘undulating absolute of tuberose and honeyed rose’ to smell, except that the tuberose had disappeared and it smelled just like a high quality natural perfume from Neal’s Yard. A very fine rose, but nothing more.
The night before was an entirely different affair. I was in bed, and fumbling sleepily out to the bag of samples on the dresser next to my bed I came across ‘Rose and Tuberose’. At this point I knew nothing about Frazer so really was testing blind, apart from my preconceptions that those flowers, despite their lexical similarities, are like chalk and cheese and couldn’t possibly work together as leading co-divas( I felt the same about rose and orange blossom in Les Parfums de Rosine’s Rosa Flamenca, which I didn’t really like). Yes: rose is so prim, or can be, and tuberose so thick, creamy and exotic that I couldn’t possibly imagine how they could be melded convincingly.
But then I tried it. And for a few, long seconds, had a pure, heady bout of synaesthesia.
Like a split screen by Brian De Palma, two perfectly equal blocks of hard, quivering jelly, sliced precisely in half (like the Siamese twins in his phantasmagorical ‘Sisters’), gelled together and rose up, giant, before my eyes; one red, one pink, more salivating than a Rothko. Doubles: the Turkish delight of the rose jam melting through the intoxicating flesh of the tuberose at the centre, vibrating out some kind of ecstacy that rolled through my synapses and down through my nervous system. A hallucinatory diptych that had me reeling elatedly down the stairs for my notebook.
It was a serendipitous high that couldn’t last: the excited psychobabble of the natural molecules sliding behind the scenery has none of the predictable stability we can trust in from synthetics, and as events progressed in their own haphazard way I was soon merely left with a soft cherry rose that was nonetheless pleasingly baroque.
It was very mysterious. Two entirely different effects: two different scents. I do not know what this means exactly, but clearly, the perfume has something going on inside it that is well worth exploring if you love florals: on me, on the first night at least, it was nothing short of a drug.
CHAPTER 8 : OAKMOSS AND VIOLET LEAF
And so to the lawns. Ordinarily I would run a mile from a perfume with this name. I have a good few chypres in my collection that I do treasure, but I am a touch bored with the whole Mitsouko/Pour Monsieur shebang, that smudgy, diffident chic. Violet leaf, which seems to appear in almost every men’s release, also usually leaves me cold with its bitter green snoot, its attempt to jazz up uninspired woody acrids such as Green Irish Tweed. However, there have been some scents that use oakmoss in a softer, more day-infused, indeed more mossy context, such as Penhaligon’s English Fern, which I always thought was rather lovely in that classic tweedy gentleman tradition: a scent that let some soul shine through as you lounged about with your lover and your picnic basket in some private forest clearing.
Chapter 8 in Frazer’s fragrant novel moves this story further, taking the idea of the fern, and of oak trees and the fuzzy light of Autumnal days and love, to other heights that I wasn’t expecting. It comes on sharp and very herbaceous, with lavender and possibly clary sage, a minty, leafy opening that verges on the precarious edge of unwearability but which soon reaches a deeply touching elegance: the beautiful, almost ghostly presence of a heart: pure and good and palpitating.
The oakmoss itself avoids all the bergamot/patchouli/labdanum clichés and really comes into its own with the light-grey velvet, felty church-mouse texture of a well-worn jacket hanging on the back of a door. As it develops, the scent takes on softer, more yearning tones, with intimations of sea-weed and sage, a clay-like powdered quality, as though you were in a cabin by the sea, gazing out onto the waves deep in thought before turning back to look at the face of your still-sleeping lover.
CHAPTER 2: YLANG AND NARCISSE
A very different perfume is Ylang and Narcisse, which was inspired by a trip by the perfumer to Madagascar, a place I am yearning to visit more than any other, as much for my desperate desire to see the vanilla pod harvest in the flesh, to watch ylang ylang extra being distilled live in the jungle, as to experience the curious blend of cultures and strange wildlife. Founded on a sandy, dry note of vetiver and salty katrafy wood, a material indigenous to South Africa, this is a captivating scent of measured abandon, a curious mélange that opens up as gradually as dawn. Frazer tells us that ‘sensual tropical oily and light ylang paired with the dense wild crafted narcissus intensify the zest and spice’, yet the scent has none of the erotic clamour we would usually associate with these flowers. Ylang and Narcisse is rather an understated scent that takes time to reveal its depths, but when this happens it is fascinating. As with the aforementioned Rose and Tuberose, I was immediately visited with photographic renderings of images and sensations that flooded the brain, taking me away from my immediate surroundings to a plush, green landscape of petals and green mists.
Stepping on the spongiform grass as the steam rises beyond, a woman in a pressed, white cotton dress walks out onto a humid African morning. The air hovers with scent, the sweet lime and bitter orange zest, the oil of black pepper, mingling uneasily with the clandestinely feral flowers that have been cleverly filtered through with light, to a shimmering backdrop of trees…
Ylang Narcisse is a difficult perfume, to be sure, and one in which the elements never entirely coagulate to form something graspable. It is also, however, a perfume that truly breathes, and of the four I am describing here, is the one with the most tangible vitality.
CHAPTER 4: CORSICA EVERLASTING
The star of the collection for me, though, has to be Corsica Everlasting, a creation that blurs the lines between perfume, the culinary, and medicine so effectively that it comes on as something of a shock. ‘Curry!’ you think as the warming, rubefacient notes of cumin and thyme meet your nose, before the central note of immortelle – a honeyed, haylike, almost yeast-touched smell of big funky yellow, comes to the fore and stays until the seemingly neverending drydown.
Famed for its rejuvenating properties and ability to calm the distressed and the phobic, immortelle is an unusual choice for a key note, but Frazer’s instincts and feel for the potential of plant extracts play out beautifully here in a blend that really draws you in.
Is this perfume? It is. And not the first time that curry has been used in a scent. Diptyque’s L’Autre (1973) one of the most brilliantly weird and unconfomist scents ever created, was even more curried and cumined, with the frank caraway stench of hairy unwashed pits (though it seems, unfortunately, to have been censored recently; ‘cleaned up’ for the new Diptyque reissues: it is now much less ‘hippie’).
Corsica Everlasting is less wilfully difficult: less concentrated on being an outsider, ‘the other’, which was obviously Diptyque’s intention. Rather, it has a confidence, an inner glow – this perfume contains the soul of something: a tawny, aromatic richness, the male kiss of blankets.
There is, however, an initially perturbing and bitter undertone that I find troubling, and on me, the perfume is unthinkable. As much as it intrigues me, the only spice I can carry off convincingly is clove, or the tiniest soupçon of cinnamon, and the bizarre smell of everlasting would never work on my skin. However, the perfume’s palpable solar energy hooked me so entirely that I asked Duncan to wear it last week on a day out in Yokohama, and it was beautiful. The scents that suit him best are offbeat, spiced aromatics such as L’Eau Du Navigateur, Parfums d’Empire’s Eau de Gloire (strangely enough, also Corisca-inspired, though in this case, an attempt to reconstruct the beloved colognes of Napoleon), and Czech & Speake’s glorious tobacco-tinged Cuba. And Corsica Everlasting seemed to fit in well with this genre of understated, herb-caressed heat.
Throughout the day, every time I came close to the aura of his skin mingled with the Corsica, I got an instant spike of warmth in the heart. While in some ways the scent seems almost overly simplistic in its one-note barnyard sweater, it also has a three-dimensionality, a pastoral calm that made me think of big, drying, droopy holed seed heads in the late afternoon as the last rays of sun touch fronds of mountain grasses: that moment when a beautiful day has closed and the night is set to descend.
The strangeness and surprise of the scent never left though – that thin, fine line between fragrance and food that the perfume keeps treading, right up until the last, deep, note of smooth, lingering garam masala.