It doesn’t feel like it has been this long at all.
June seventeenth: twenty years today.
Oops : bird in my champagne glass…
A lovely, witty tuberose that has equal proportions of fresh tea rose for balanace, Acqua Di Tuberosa, available only in minature, is a giddily cheerful, sweet summer scent, perfect for someone who veers towards the frivolous; at a garden party, glass of bubbly in hand, laughing, to a sunny, glittering backdrop of birdsong.
Yesterday I wrote about the wonderful experience that is the Shinagawa flea market in Tokyo, and I forgot to mention one of the scents that I once found there….
And I was thinking. Are these vintage classics that I am so excited to find in their original incarnations mere museum pieces; dusty relics that smell so dated they become laughable?
Or can classic perfumes still be sexy? Can they appeal in the modern age?
It would seem so. One Sunday, a few years ago, our dinner guests, Penny and Terry, sampled the myriad delights of the perfume cabinet and its latest acquisitions. And despite all the goods on offer, the perfume that got the unanimous wow was, to my total amazement, an old, pre-formulation edition of that timeless classic, Femme. Neither of these two is old-fashioned in their tastes (Terri goes for fresh, modern tuberose and wears…
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There is something quite brazen about calling a posh girl’s rose scent ‘Sloane Rose’, a perfume bafflingly described by its perfumers as ‘resolutely out of time’.
Perhaps she is. Stealing outside at her friend Rosine’s estate; pinching blooms; self-aware and cannily barefoot in the dawn. A delicate, blackberry-dewed rose, with succulent petals and a strawberry creamed wink in the underglow, as the lights in the house remain off and she revels for the moment in the freedom and privilege she was born into:
An effect, light and rather pleasing ma petite choux fleur, produced by rose of manila, orange; Scandinavian violet; a touch of cedar; and Chenaï jasmine sambac.
With its crisp opening, as the orange and the jasmine clasp the stems of this fresh morning English rose, the scent is simple, fruity and…
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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.
‘Like blood, sweat, sperm, saliva, Sécretions Magnifiques is as real as an olfactory coitus that sends one into raptures – to the pinnacle of sensual pleasure; that extraordinary and unique moment when desire triumphs over reason. A subversive, disturbing perfume. It’s love or hate at first sight.’
(Etat Libre d’Orange).
I was always hoping to like this legendary, infamous, perfume, or at least appreciate what I imagined would be its primal power.
As it turned out, it is probably one of the most disgusting smells I’ve ever experienced; engineered, it seems, to push all my buttons in the worst way possible.
These secretions are not just vile……..but upsetting.
The amusing thing is the way the perfume is engineered. In the first five to ten seconds you get a fresh floral musk-like aroma and wonder what the fuss is about.
Then it happens: a metallic, and very artificial, blood, adrenaline/semen accord that smells like an alien life form doing a reproductive experiment on human subjects. A penetrating, fishy smells that repels on a very deep level and you can’t scrub off. And if it so much as graces the nasal cilia….(I have tried this on test subjects for fun, and one – a newly wed young father, was traumatized, rushing off to the bathroom for regular scrubbing as if someone had just come in his eye.)
What’s clever here is that there is a recalibration of the repulse-attractometer after fifteen minutes or so, as something quite compulsively fascinating about the sillage, painfully loveable, enters the equation: poignant, human (and in infinitesimally small doses), really quite attractive.
Like a cautious young animal, you stay out of the smell’s immediate reach, but hover on the fringes of its airspace: intrigued; just to make sure of the conclusion to which you think you have come.
The nineteenth century French novelist Stendhal, upon visiting Florence for the first time, was apparently so overcome with the beauty of the city – of the duomo, the Uffizi, and in particular the ceiling frescoes by Giotto in the Basilica Santa Croce, that it made him ill: faint, dizzy, heart palpitating, this writer of delicate disposition was physically and psychically overwhelmed to the point of neurasthenia.
He was apparently also not alone, as this ‘aesthetic paralysis,’ or sense of the organism being unable to cope with extreme beauty, gave rise to a recognized medical condition: The Stendhal Syndrome, or hyperkulturemia.
I had never heard of this strange phenomenon until I saw a 1997 film with the same title by Italian horror master Dario Argento : a brutally beautiful film whose main protagonist (played by Argento’s own daughter, Asia) is an art student succumbing to the same fate as she ambles through the Uffizi galleries; whose vision becomes blurred and tunnelled in the presence of the Fra Lippo Lippis and the Botticellis before she collapses, hits her head, and is followed home by a cruel and clever German sadist who capitalizes on her amnesia.
I won’t go into the rest of the film – it certainly makes uncomfortable viewing, even if the cinematography and mise en scène are exquisitely beautiful, as is usually the case with Argento: I also won’t begin to make ridiculous claims that a perfume has given me similar reactions: I have never collapsed, wept, or vomited because of the sheer beauty of a scent (what a dreadful scenario that would create if perfumistas were given to such hysteria – imagine Milano Esxence, or Sniffapalooza, the fainted and unconscious being fanned by sobbing perfume lovers undone by the beauty of a rose or a lilac, ambulances on standby; paramedics ready with vials of Paris Hilton as antidotes..)
I will, however, say quite truthfully that I did have a quite extreme reaction to a perfume, Tubéreuse Capricieuse by Histoires De Parfums to be precise, that most definitely, when I smelled it in London last year and was compelled to buy it, did have echoes of this most poetic of afflictions and left me reeling.
A singularly strange and affecting composition, this is a perfume that has not been much written about, and even my own bottle has been hidden in its box behind a mirror for almost a year; a scent I treasure but am almost afraid of: I hardly wear it, because it mesmerizes me too much.
It was last August, and I was in South London to visit yet another friend, after an insanely busy social whirl of seeing this person and that, and I had scheduled things ( a boiling hot, atypical summer’s day ) so that I could spend some time, finally, alone at Rouiller White, a perfume emporium that stocked the Vaniglia del Madagascar by SS Annunziata I was so eager to try. I had just been paid, the ATM actually worked with my Japanese bank card, and I had that bubbling magma feeling of excitement you get when you know you are about to discover some interesting new perfumes and are in the financial position to possibly buy them as well.
When I actually found Rouillier White I didn’t go in immediately, but went past a couple of times for some reason, steeling myself, but then suddenly there I was, exposed to scores of perfumes I had never had the chance to smell, and was basically in heaven. There were several things I was quite interested in, but I had to get the vanilla, and also bought Duncan a bottle of Czech & Speake Cuba, as well as a whole load of the shops’s delightful essential oils, in 50 ml charmingly designed bottles that I knew in terms of Japan prices were a real bargain.
I had spent enough, though, going way over budget, and while the wonderful shop assistants were packaging up my things and putting together a huge load of samples for me, I decided to go and have a beer at a nearby pub, to gather myself and daydream over a pint, and then come back to excitedly grab my loot.
I have never been a coffee-bean type sniffer. I am inexhaustible and can do it pretty much all day as long there is sufficient nasal space there for me to do so, and therefore just before leaving for the pub I decided to smell just a few more, see what the Histoires De Parfums range was like (in a nutshell – extremely high quality I would say), rich, powdery, odd and emotive scents that smell contemporary yet have depth.
But what is this?
Suddenly, all background noise fades, the clamour of all the hundreds of perfumes dissipates, and I find myself zooming down some kind of time tunnel to a library; the poignant smell of caressed paper; of something so pure and emotional it brings tears to my eyes. Literally. I well up from the sheer sentiment and aesthetic pleasure, alone in my space, a Stendhalian reaction of sorts, and take a look at the bottle.
What was this one again?
‘Tuberose’? It doesn’t smell anything like tuberose, at least not to me. And ‘Capricieuse’? It is anything but capricious. I find it grave, austere, and utterly compelling. Like travelling alone back in time through history, to some moment I cannot place, a powerful, and almost hurtful, sense of déjà vu.
I tell the woman in the shop that even though I absolutely can’t afford it, there is no way I can leave the shop without this perfume, as it is both familiar (conjuring up amorphous memories of childhood and university as well; the blissful isolation of solitary book immersion), and really quite unique, in essence a full-bodied Florentine iris/suede, with saffron and tuberose tints that makes it both sensual and rarified; removed, but passionate. Close, and loveable, but also torturously piercing to my emotions for reasons I cannot place.
I go to the pub, and as the alcohol sears through my body, the power this perfume has over me only increases. I sit there in a dream-like state, the sun shining on the pavement outside as passersby go about the day, and I am sat there, my face glued to my arm, inhaling ravenously, unable to stop smelling it.
Yes, I realize quickly, it is all about that iris, a note I always find melancholic in any case, from Après L’Ondée to Hermès Iris to Iris Silver Mist; that dusty, root-laden religiosity; the smell of fresh air over desolate fields, the most royal and noble of essences. And the top note of this perfume, bright and innocently clear, is HEAVENLY to me, a white cloud of carroty iris powder over suede, vague intimations of ylang ylang and tuberose, perhaps (but not the tuberose we are familiar with, not mentholated or pink and naughty, but white-petalled, introverted, dignified….)
Soon, the suede, beautifully done, takes prominence, along with saffron (another note that always sends me slightly doolally),with a light dust of cacao and spice, and that is pretty much what you get, the perfume gradually tapering off on the skin without a great deal of progression or change ( I must admit I was slightly disappointed by the dry down for this reason.)
And yet. The perfume is so strange and hypnotic to me that I don’t mind. I have only worn it out once, but I have to say that it immediately had the same discombobulating effect that it had in the shop and was somewhat disturbing for that reason. I found myself exhilarated to an almost alarming degree, overly fascinated by my smell in a way that bordered on narcissism.
I could never wear this on a day where any concentration was required, where I had to think about anything else at all. Of all the perfumes in my collection, I think it is Tubéreuse Capricieuse that has the power to make me temporarily lose my mind, that holds me in a emotional vortex; a trance.
I will admit that I am somewhat vain.
Though I virtually never go clothes shopping, don’t ‘work out’, and usually cut my hair myself, one thing I do care about, aside how I smell, obviously, is skin.
Though middle age may be encroaching (or has already encroached), and I can accept the realities of ‘ageing’ to a large degree (and I have to say that being 43 is way more enjoyable than I ever would have possibly imagined), I nevertheless see no reason why I should dry up like a crinkled, Clint Eastwood husk if I can help it, at least not yet; and like the Egyptians, and their rituals of mummification, I will continue to try to preserve this doomed, disintegrating epidermis as long as is humanly possible.
I have always been one of those morbidly attracted to moisture. In fact, I am a confirmed dehydrophobe (Duncan has even suggested hypnotherapy), but I won’t go into too much of that now, suffice it to say that there is a lot of water and herb tea (rooibos or lemongrass) by my bed at night, and that when the earthquake hit two years ago, and I clung to the walls, I thanked the heavens that I happened to be clutching a bottle of iced Japanese green tea in my hand: being trapped under rubble without water and slowly drying to a parched death is genuinely far more terrifying to me than pain or the more simple loss of my life).
Moisturizing creams are essential. And by and large, I prefer to (semi) make my own, because, in essence, they are better. Using a cheapish, generic unscented skin milk by Shiseido, I add small amounts of quality essential oils, depending on my mood (palmarosa, geranium, ylang ylang, lavender, frankincense or myrrh being some of the essences that suit my skin best), though the crown of skin-loving oils, by far the most effective and most naturally luxuriant, will always go to neroli.
Ah…..neroli. Just that word…
Brian Eno even once made a whole album about this essence, ‘Neroli’, the most relaxing ambient soundtrack I know, somnolent to the point of coma : perhaps this is why I don’t seem to review neroli or orange blossom perfumes so often, because much as I love the scent of orange blossom flowers in the flesh (one of nature’s headiest, most erotic savours), for me the extracted essence is more a medicine, a face ointment, not a perfume; a cooling, soothing nerve tonic and rejuvenating skin-cell balm that worn at night has an immediately dream-like, sedative effect – the next day I usually wake up more bright-skinned, refreshed. The stuff is gorgeous, and over the years friends that have stayed at the house have often taken a shine to ‘my neroli’: as a result I have often ended up shipping bottles of the stuff to various people at their request (but don’t get any ideas…) It isn’t cheap: essential oils are very expensive here in Japan for some reason (about three times the cost of those in England, which is why I always really stock up when I go back), and a 1ml tiny bottle of pure neroli will usually set you back about 3000-5000 yen (fifty dollars).
The Black Narcissus is primarily a perfume-worshipping oasis, but as those perfumes, at least in theory, are comprised mainly of essential oils, I would like today to take a look at one single, high quality, essential oil just for a change.
Can essential oils be reviewed? I never have before, but I do know that the quality, timbre, and sensation of aromatherapeutic essential oils, not to mention the smell, vary greatly from company to company, depending on the source, the ethos, the harvest of any particular year, how mass produced (ie adulterated) they are, and the essential integrity of the aromatherapy house in question.
The more you use essential oils- in my case, at least twenty years – the deeper you go, know which company’s oils are purest and most effective. You find your favourites. My own most used oil would probably have to be marjoram, but only, onlyonly Maggie Tisserand’s, a sweet marjoram from Spain that is like my missing link and I find healing and invigorating simultaneously. There is simply nothing else like it.
For invigoration and morning zest I sometimes use rosemary, geranium, ylang ylang, black pepper or cardamom in the bath (instantaneous results guaranteed), but at night, Maggie Tisserand’s sweet Spanish marjoram is the only thing I can be sure will take me from my overstimulated state (from teaching til late or writing posts on here), to sleep – it is basically my sleeping drug, a haven; herbaceous, strong, but warming, almost balsamic, and I absolutely cannot live without it.
As for Eden Botanicals, some samples of which were sent me by the lovely Brie of Fragrant Man and Australian Perfume Junkies, who makes her own bespoke perfumes using essential oils – you should smell the tobacco amber she has done for Birgit from Olfactoria – all I can say is wow. And express my deep frustration that I have no access to these natural beauties on a regular basis.
The lime ( I love a good lime) is by miles the best lime I have ever smelled, and in a blink of an eye it went straight into a bottle of Harry Lehmann Laguna cologne, which, nice though it is, had a slightly dissatisfying top note – a problem rectified exquisitely by this zinging citron vert; the orange so dazzlingly gorgeous that I would buy it by the litre if I could and just spray it all over the house for the sheer hell of it; unfortunately I was testing Atelier Cologne’s Orange Sanguine on the other hand at the time, and the Eden blasted it instantly into a banal nothingness of uppity New York musk; the orange I was experiencing on my other wrist so vivacious, so alive that my interest in the other wilted immediately.
In contrast, Petitgrain Sur Fleurs (is that not the most beautiful name?) smelled wrong, horribly, on the skin at first as it is just too unrectified, too brutally real, as if the entire spirit of the bitter orange tree – the petitgrain leaf oil, the twigs, and the orange blossom flowers had not been ‘extracted’ or distilled or hexaned or coldpressed, but lifted directly, the soul of the tree intact, a diffusion, or transfusion even, and in concentration on the skin all was too heady, nature’s chemicals colliding, evaporating all over the shop ( I was never a huge fan of petitgrain oil anyway – it is one of the oils that give me headaches, along with basil, cinnamon leaf and aniseed).
This is no ordinary petitgrain oil however, and it wasn’t intended for direct use as a perfume on the skin anyway. Here, there is none of that sharpness, that needle-in-eye citricity, of certain petitgrains; no, this is the tree, as I said, petitgrain sur fleurs, as its name suggests, a beautiful expression of freshly opening neroli with a slightly harsher backdrop of bark, and leafy, verdant chlorophyll, and suspended, as it was last night, in a bottle of Shiseido’s simple skin milk; diluted, or rather allowed to breathe and reshuffle itself into its new surroundings it bloomed, beautifully, and is definitely the best bitter orange tree oil I have ever experienced.
I wouldn’t put this on every night ( I have strange intuitions about essential oils – I always know, somehow, which ones are right to use, which ones aren’t, and at what time), but last night, exhausted from work, I felt like Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream; assuaged, alone in nature and coroneted in green-leaved orange flowers.
I have to say I didn’t look so bad this morning, either….
Forests, as David Lynch once said, are full of mystery. They never fully reveal their depths. And some perfumes, such as Ormonde Jayne, with its compelling central note of black spruce absolute, or Rochas’ peaty, dank and powerfully erotic Mystère, draw you into these shadows with their air of brooding, impenetrable chic.
But forests are also hale, alive; and scents made with the essences of evergreens – pine, spruce, fir – can be very revitalizing. The medicinal, almost antiseptic power of coniferous notes can be found in their purest form in Patyka’s Boisé, an organic perfume with an exhilarating pulmonary charge. Radox-like pine scents such as Knize Forest or Silvester by Geo F Trumper are familiar and welcoming in their classical, masculine structure, while more abstract, conceptual interpretations of forest life and its dreams exist in scents such as Serge Lutens’ pine, ginger and frankincense-filled Fille en Aiguilles.
For those less interested in a sylvan-inspired ‘perfume’, but who instead want a more holographic rendition of the forest, there is also Demeter’s Christmas Tree or Giant Sequoia; CB I Hate Perfume’s The Fir Tree; or Wild Hunt, which seeks to capture not only the trees of the forest but also ‘torn leaves, crushed twigs, old leaves, fallen branches…’
BOISE / PATYKA
E.M Forster’s ‘Maurice’ originally ended with the exiled Edwardian lovers living in homoerotic bliss as exiled woodcutters. Boisé, a rough, sharp perfume from organic perfumer Patkya, for me perfectly conjures up this fantasy: a small, well-loved wood cabin nestled tightly in an immense, dark green forest. Mint-laden, powerful essences of fir and pine (harsh in their fresh-felled newness) segue slowly to a dry, vetiver and cedarwood base that captures well the turpentinic breeze of the natural, breathing forest.
EPICEA / CREED (1965)
A sharp intake of pine, then the cones: dense: shut hedgehog-tight. Resins, and the sap of Russian pine cones are at the heart of this scent, rather than the usual brisk of the needles. Accentuated with spices, leather, and dry citrus notes, the accord in Epicéa is warm, subtle, and very sensual. While in some ways the scent is underwhelming compared to the majestic throw of much of Creed’s more recent ‘moneyed extrovert’ range, this deceptively simple perfume has a calm, decided beauty that is ideal for the silent rugged type.
MANDRAGORE POUPRE / ANNICK GOUTAL (2009)
A movement in the undergrowth: the blinking glow of a creature looking back…
With Mandragore Pourpre, (‘purple mandrake’) the house of Goutal veered off in a new direction: that of the velvet-clad goth girl. This perfume, which seemed to tie in well with the seemingly ever-popular teenage fad for all things dark and vampiric, is a peculiar, sharp and very natural forest scent of myrtle, rosemary and mint, with a contrasting aniseed and powdery heliotrope finish. Dark, rooty patchouli, incense and black pepper absolute form the drydown, which has a bewitching, poisonous, feel. Somewhat confused in its initial stages, the scent eventually settles into a convincing Stevie Nicks of belladonna, bitter nettles and twilight winklepickers.
FILLE EN AIGUILLES / SERGE LUTENS (2009)
‘Girl on pins’: ‘Girl in high heels’: Mr Lutens’ eau de parfum haute concentration is a conundrum. Like an enveloping blanket of woods, spice, and ashen frankincense crystals, the perfume begins with a daring blast of pine up top that endures to the end of the scent through various stages of gourmand, gingery warmth. It is an unusual and delicious scent that is as pastoral as it is urban: a stilettoed secretary, impeccably turned out, striding exuberantly across a needle-strewn forest floor.
GIVE ME CLARITY
Vetiver is my antidote.
Sometimes, after all the coconut-vanilla baccanalia of the night before, the lunging sweetness, I need a pointed clarity; a virile freshness. The length of a leaf; a clarified root….nature, in other words – a walk in the trees to refresh the lungs and head.
A good vetiver is a point of dignity. A no-nonsense striation of elegance in the plant world; less golden and voluptuous than sandalwood; more reserved and discreet than its fuzzy, soil libating sister patchouli.
For me it is also one of the few aromatic materials that almost do not necessitate a perfumer. Where rose or jasmine essential oils smell woozy and unfettered in their raw state and require dilution and embellishment before their setting in the jeweller’s ring, a good vetiver oil I can dab on neat. Once the initial cursory roughness dissipates…
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