Impermanence, up for an artisan category nomination at the upcoming 2020 Art & Olfaction awards, is a perfume with a name for the times. Like everyone around the world, I have been thinking a lot about how much the coronavirus situation has changed, and will continue to change, people’s lives; shaping their choice of career (how lucky D and I are to be in education, relatively unscathed compared to so many other industries), how they travel, interact, have relationships…..so much has been upended. We started 2020 wishing each other good luck for the new decade, and within weeks were plunged into profound anxiety and uncertainty. Who could have predicted it all (except the epidemiologists?) The impermanent nature of everything – the insecurity, the swift severing of ‘now’ from ‘before’, in a moment, was profoundly revealed – or highlighted, depending on your own previous philosophy of life: we feel more mortal, vulnerable, but at the same time , if we are lucky, happy to be alive.
Christele Jacquemin is a French photographer/ visual artist who makes natural perfumes based on her experiences of travel; Impermanence was apparently inspired by the artist’s residence in the village of Jin Ze, a suburb of Shanghai, where she spent a month walking around contentedly, along the canals, photographing an unfamiliar ancient place, preserved from tourism, where everything was new and stimulating to the senses; that sense of ‘harmony and tranquillity’ I also yearn for again when you forget yourself for a while; visit a new place with a totally different culture that lets you see things through a momentarily ‘enlightening’ prism; I had very similar feelings when we spent a day on the outskirts of Phnom Penh in Cambodia in 2018 visiting some ancient ruins, and then spent the afternoon wandering around a vast deserted temple complex by the river, smelling strange looking tropical flowers and the hot, dry air – the soft swaying reeds by the water. I don’t think I could have been happier.
Such happiness is always transitory, of course – and is based on your own projections onto a place, not its reality. You always go back home (if you even can at this time….) to face what is ‘real’, and so Ms Jacquemin set about recreating the sensations of positivity and tranquillity she had felt while at the village in a perfume that is uplifting, gentle, and pensive. I quite like it: rosemary, a note that is underused in my opinion, is here distilled cleanly to be very green and pure, without the rough,harsh ‘milkiness’ it can sometimes exhibit, combined with blue ginger, hinoki leaves and citric freshness of bergamot (which, linked to the vetiver in the base, briefly reminded me of my beloved Caron Eau Fraiche, a perfume that always makes me smile in summer) before ceding to a very pure rose absolute enveloped in the geranium/lemongrass related note of palmarosa – also a material not often featured in perfumes (I have made great skin preparations with this essential oil; it has an incredibly positive energy to it that lifts the spirits, and rejuvenates the skin) – over a light touch of vetiver and maté tea.
As with many natural perfumes, when I smell this, I feel that sense sharpening relaxation of the autonomic system I have when I walk into my favourite aromatherapy shop in Tokyo, Tree Of Life – a place with a wonderful selection of essential oils of every description; some obscure and ultra expensive: distilled flower oils like broom and osmanthus, natural tuberose, violet, varieties of Japanese tree wood oils I have never heard of, whole ranges of lavenders from across the globe, with diffusers and mists of mint and geranium and rose hissing quietly into the surrounding air (rose otto, rose absolute, always at the heart of it all, as it is in this perfume; always rose, for some reason…………… is the rose the centre of the universe?) It is an unusual combination of notes that is perhaps too cheerful, ultimately, to capture the more wistful and sad concept of impermanence, at least as I see it; the Japanese fatalistic attitude of ‘oh well, it’s my time’, the cherry blossoms being blown from the boughs by the rain and the winds when they have only just bloomed, short lived, like the young samurai ready to die at any moment with the sword, while the stubborn Englishman clings to life like the dying rose with its thorns on the stem – a metaphor that can be seen in reality through my own attitude in categorically refusing to go in to work during the worst part of this crisis while my compatriots went into the headquarters unquestioningly everyday, prepared for sacrifice, come what may – but I think that this subtle composition will still definitely find its own unique place in my collection. I can imagine picking this up at certain moments; when at home, in a simpler, more serene mood; mind uncluttered, ready to get on with my day.