It struck me yesterday that I have not properly understood the fundamental shifts not only in what contemporary niche perfume is, but also what its wearer actually wants. For at least a hundred years or more, a perfumer worked in secrecy (the creators of fragrances were not usually known by the public, but hidden behind the perfume’s enigmatic name – in some ways the be all and end all of a scent aside how it smelled – as well as the image , aura and cachet of the perfume house representing it). You were asked what you were wearing: ‘Ysatis’: the sound of the (deliberately meaningless) word designed to evoke the gorgeousness of the contents that you applied to your neck and your wrists in a ritualistic moment of pleasure; a luxuriant elixir.. The goal was usually seduction: of yourself – in the sheer decadence of the act of wearing a dense and multilayered olfactory mystery that unfurled on your person for your own distillation of self, but also in the hope that this deliberately immutable – but always changing – perfume would lock into the synapses of another person’s senses and make you at the very least intriguing – but hopefully irresistible.
Perfume as scintillant, as stimulator and seductor strikes me as being a very yang energy ; even when the perfume is folded within itself and subdued in some way in perfumes such as En Avion, Apres L’Ondée, Anaïs Anaïs. You were presenting that scented creation on your person like a ready made work of art; invisible, impossible to deconstruct (but you also didn’t want it to be deconstructed: the thought had never occurred to you, as the interlocking ingredients of the contents had been demurred, a secret formula locked in the dungeoned vaults of Yves Saint Laurent that only the heads of the company had any access to : the point was, the perfume spoke for itself).
If the fundamental energy of the old standard perfume wearing was yang (expansive, energetic, light-filled), despite the simultaneous incorporation also of yin (soothing, calm, mysterious, the dark), leading to the ideal creating of an overall mystical symphony of contrasting elements – think Worth’s incredible Je Reviens in its vintage incarnation, with its jubilantly erotic freshly plucked wild narcissus, jasmine, iris crystals and blue aldehydes in the top structure ceding to a profoundly melancholic conclusion of incense, sandalwood and violet: a perfume of this pedigree – the creation of a genius – was multi-faceted and compelling. The smell of the perfume absorbed you, in the way that it absorbed others : a form of sensory hypnosis; an act of aesthetic defiance, almost, as a way of transcending the banality of the ordinary by tinting the very air around you with your skin, ornated and osmosed with the heart of your perfume. From some angles, though, this could be thought of as an act of aggression.
A lot of the contemporary niche perfumes that I have been smelling recently seem extraordinarily yin in their reticence, a quiet withdrawal from the world (quite understandable given the circumstances of the current world we live in, which are enough to make even the sanest person go crazy): perhaps adorning oneself in overtly audacious, sex-magnet perfumery just seems slightly passé: as not quite ‘reading the air’. There is much more of a desire, among perfumers and their customers, it would seem, for more quiet, subtle, clarified, mineralic, aerated wisps of wood-tinged greenery and hints of forest smoke, for scents that don’t draw attention to your person but which instead allow you, the wearer, to slightly stand back in an aesthetic negation of reality : a fleeing to nature; to escape from the all-enveloping hyper capitalistic vulgarity of the times; the mind-altering noise and commodification of ourselves into politicized factions, screaming at our screens, alienated from our own societies.
In these weird, uncomely realms, cacophonies of sweet glandular ‘grand event’ perfume perhaps feel less appropriate to some people than they might once have. A one- name juggernaut, ‘Poison’, for instance, feels gauche, out of step. Intrusive. Therefore, gone – at least in the independent, ‘alternative’ world of perfumery – are the monoliths like Beautiful: Obsession. Instead, there is a more symbiotic relationship between the perfume consumer and the concept creator now: you are not left to dream, but encouraged to actively partake in the story, the origin of the ingredients, the poetics and the instigated backstories of sometimes very talented copy writers who conjure what you will be smelling in your head before you have even smelled it : a precise visualization of exactly what you are supposed to be taking from this line of perfumes – be it the Shinto mystical purity of the Di Ser range from Hokkaido, very Japanese in its inspiration, and execution, in beautifully esoteric and unpolluted perfumes like Sasora, Keman, and Kyara (1200 dollars a bottle: the perfume contains a rare liquid extract of the highest level kyara wood used in Japanese incense) – light and spectral – and fleeting – perfumes that exist more in the territory of psycharomatherapy than that of mate-chasing or in conforming to the latest street fashion.
Like the world itself, many of these perfume ranges have become more localized – less internationally minded, focusing more on capturing the sights and sounds and smells and atmospheres of particular places; location-specific perfumes that move far away from the eros-abstract locus of the perfumes in the old style, to more gentle evocations of indigenous flora and fauna. Union, a British perfumery with several very interesting perfumes such as Gothic Bluebell in its repertory that uses locally sourced plant ingredients, had already given us Quince & Mint (lovely) and Holy Thistle – a fruit green scent based on Scottish thematics, but apparently, Kingdom Scotland is the first fully Scottish perfumery to ever exist (really?I was quite surprisd to hear this), focusing on capturing ‘stories, experiences, and the dramatic contrasts at the heart of a land that enthralls the imagination’.
I have only been up to Scotland a handful of times, but always loved the feeling of difference as you crossed the border into what was both the same, and yet a completely different country. Quite rightly, I always felt like I was a stranger. The journey up by train from London to Edinburgh is a fascinating one to behold: I did it alone, one September, with a good book and a seat by the window; a six hour trip that allowed me to watch the countryside gradually getting less verdant and leafy, streams and oak trees and farmers’ fields (in the Midlands, where I am from) and slowly but steadily more dramatic and fierce as you passed through the north of England and the lake district and into the hills and mountains of Scotland, heathered rocks; crags, and great swathes of purples, browns, and mossy greens, raining and sunlit intermittent; the sky on the day I was there brooding and magnificent, the clouds moving rapidly. Edinburgh itself was a Gothic masterpiece of a city whose beauty amazed me, even if I ultimately preferred Glasgow, where I went on a couple of occasions to stay with friends, one who lived next to the Botanical Gardens and was lead flute in the Orchestra of Scottish Opera. I do remember the lochs we visited in her car: vast expanses of pure and unspoilt nature that stretched out as far as the eye could see, the peaks’ reflections in the water alive with some ancient beauty I couldn’t quite relate to ( I am not a mountain person) but which nevertheless have always stayed with me. It is a terrain that would naturally inspire fierce passion.
Portal, the first perfume I tried by Kingdom, and an apposite way to enter into this territory is a ‘transporting herbaceous and woody scent. A gateway to the ancient Caledonian forests of Scotland. Invitingly fresh and outdoor – an escape to a sylvan wonderland’.
These are the notes:
Top : Herbaceous Botanicals and Bergamot
Heart: Verdant Flora
Base: Vetiver and Scots Pine.
Green and reposeful, I quite liked this one, though something about it irked D for some reason, to the point of great irritation. I found
it momentarily pleasing, refreshing – though it does quickly form itself into one accord – quite aloof; green, unsweet -a scent that you will either take to, or you will not. A little similar in some ways to Sisley’s Eau D’Ikar, I prefer the latter for its more emphatic, muscular greenish rasp.
‘A scent inspired by metamorphic rock, spectacularly woven into the unique and beautiful geology of Scotland. Complex and rich, with an intense transformation on the skin.
Top : Black Pepper and Tobacco
Heart: Incense, Minerals, Islay Malt and Rose Absolute
Base: Amber Resin and Leather
It almost goes without saying that any range of perfumes from Scotland should contain one scent that is centered on Scotch. Although this is no longer a new idea – there are a vast quantity of whiskey/ tobacco/ leather perfumes available on the market (often too vanillic and malty and nauseating for me personally), Metamorphic is a more civil and aerated take on this genre that is successful because of the rose absolute at the centre of the perfume and the mineralic facets there to represent the geological theme at its heart that lift the scent into different atmospherics – more outside than Glaswegian bar. While some might be yearning for some more sexy, whiskered gruffness in this scent – it also works for its refined balance: you are not drinking this whisky neat.
Botanica, Kingdom’s latest release this year in conjuction with the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh, is a ‘vibrant, passionate and woody-green-floral oriental perfume. Inspired by the adventurous Scottish plant hunters of the past, present and future, this is biodiversity in a bottle. Expertly crafted to celebrate 350 prolific years of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.
Top Notes: Spiced Plum Blossoms, Fresh Pink Pepper, Lush Blackcurrant Stem & Bud, Green Botanicals and Pine Needle
Heart Notes: Exotic White Florals, Lily, Ginger Lily, Jasmin, Wild Herbaceous Vegetation, Sweet Myrrh, Frankincense
Base Notes: Warming Sandalwood, Patchouli, Cedarwood, Vetiver, White Musk, Amber
As you can imagine from the list of notes, this one is a bit busy, and is probably an attempt by the company to take the perfumes away from the very introverted, almost dourly unadorned feeling that the other perfumes in the range seem to give off (for me, a feeling of withdrawal from society, even loneliness, but perhaps this is the idea; just you and nature in the forest). Botanical, on the other hand, is a far more exuberant creation, a swirl of positive freshness, more feminine, and it kind of works – more akin to the synthesis of carnal materials used to create the kind of Saturday night perfumes used for putting on the charm that I was discussing at the beginning of this piece. Rather than salmon fishing on your lonesome, this is more suitable for partner-hunting on a busy night down the Royal Mile.
By far my favourite of the Kingdom Scotland range, and perhaps perversely of me to admit, also by far the most muted and removed of the four perfumes I have tried, is Albaura, a gossamer powdered fougère that settles lightly on the skin like the breath of a ghost. Perfect for the kind of cardigan you invest in for autumn and winter and which you might wear for the rest of your life if you look after it properly – a fashion piece whose cost you don’t disclose, but you know looks perfect on you and becomes like your second skin, like most people who fall in love with niche perfumes of this nature, I was pulled in and seduced by the basic story.
‘A fragrance in tribute to the Scottish botanist and Arctic explorer, Isobel Wylie Hutchison: iindependent in spirit, with a bold purity and beauty, Albaura captures the freshness of snow and ice blended with berries and botanicals’.
Top : Iced Botanicals
Heart: Arctic Poppy
Base: Atlas Cedar, Ambergris; Rock Moss.