Guest post by Duncan
It is something of an eternity since I contributed to the Black Narcissus blogspot and indeed my scent wardrobe is quite a bit different from a decade back, when it was largely suave aromatics, like Sartorial. What, you may wonder, brings me to these parts? Well, I was fortunate, a couple of days ago, to be able to stand in for the Black Narcissus at a Google Meet with the France-based, British perfumer, James Heeley, and a small group of Japanese perfume people. Neil suggested I write up the experience, so here I am again!
I was quite keen to hear what James Heeley had to say about his new fig launch, Athenean, because I am fond of fig scents, which I always associate with L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Premier Figuier from back in the mid 90s, around the time I became more scent-literate (after meeting Neil, obviously), and because I am a big fan of two perfumes in Mr Heeley’s range: Sel Marin (Eau de Parfum), which is a great summer perfume and Phoenicia (Extrait de Parfum), which is a wonderfully warm woody incense with precisely the right sprinkling/rendering of Middle Eastern notes – a touch of oud, dates, dried raisins and so on. These days I love velvety, musky blends – refreshing and salty ozonics in summer and warm spectral incense perfumes in winter, so Sel Marin and Phoenicia are a perfect fit for my seasonal aesthetic. Other scents which I frequent in the hot and the cold are Nebbia Spessa, which has a beautiful cloudy cerebral quality – I feel like I am head in the clouds wearing it – and Comme Des Garçons 2 (AKA Beads), which I find to be a seamless ancient-modern blend: enveloping, warming and intriguing. With my penchant for salt, white musk, and incense, I’m pretty well placed to like many of the scents in the Heeley range.
FYI – although I am sure you already know (or maybe you don’t?) – the Black Narcissus is head-over-heels in love with joyous Jasmine OD (Extrait de Parfum) formerly Bubblegum Chic and the spiced, camphorous Esprit du Tigre (Eau de Parfum), which is surely an auspicious odour for our année of the tiger 2022 (it was definitely the scent of January in our Kita Kamakura abode as N liberally doused the kitchen, seemingly all over, with it!! …but that is another story). See his mention of the latter here.
Aside from the scents themselves, which are intriguing and characterful, but also contemporary and uncluttered – there’s an unmuddied clarity to them – Heeley products have a pleasingly crisp design and the bottles themselves have an appealing heft to them – they are pleasurable to hold. (More on the topic of packaging shortly.)
The Google Meet was just an hour long, but in that time, lots of ground was covered – we certainly put the translator through his paces. Firstly, Mr James Heeley, convivial and deeply passionate about his craft, presented his new perfume, Athenean, which is actually a reworking of his brand’s inaugural scent, Figuier, from 2004. He explained that he wanted to remake his sharper, greener original with a more well-rounded and sophisticated version that incorporated the fruity, leafy, milky and woody elements associated with the scent of figs, foregrounding the milky wood sap to a greater degree. The perfume’s name, Athenean, recalls the strong association of figs with Greece and with the Greek myth of Sykeus, a rebel giant, who was turned into a fig tree by his mother, Gaia, Goddess of the Earth, to protect him from Zeus’ anger. The perfume is spelled Athenean with an ‘e’ – as opposed to Athenian (ie. resident of Athens) – for aesthetic reasons.
One participant asked if there was any thematic connection with the pandemic and James said that this hadn’t been a consideration; rather, he linked the fig’s mythical association with Gaia to current ecological concerns, mentioning that packaging has long been a challenge and concern, and that his brand continues to make efforts to be more sustainable – to do “a new take on luxury” – given that the contemporary cult of luxury, with its extravagant wrapping and ribboning, is anything but sustainable. I wanted to ask him what form this could take, but unfortunately I was beaten by the clock. I am reminded of Body Shop recyclable containers from my 80s childhood. Could the luxury scent future look more like that? Reusable flacons and in-store pump action? Denuded and ribbonless? Or will we continue to fiddle while Rome burns? It’s a very important question to be asking.
Describing the composition of Athenean, the perfumer said that it was rather like a painting of a tree in that it was a rendering of fig without containing any actual fig extract – of course, this is fairly standard in perfumery where notes which cannot be extracted ‘naturally’, or are allergens, or of protected species, are constructed from ‘natural’ extracts and/or synthetics. (Mr Heeley pointed out that the yuzu in Heeley’s Note de Yuzu, is concocted from lemon and mandarin). In Athenean, the fruity facets of fig were rendered with melon notes. We talked about this, as for me, the middle melon section of the perfume is quite disconcerting compared with the more obviously (to my mind) green fig-like beginning and gentler woody, milky ending. For some reason the melon note is rather odd on my skin, although I sensed a particular pulpiness in it. James explained that he could have gone in a more honeyed direction – that of the mature fruit (personally, I am glad he didn’t, as I have an aversion to honey notes! ask N!) but he instead chose to focus on the tree itself – leaves, fruit, bark, and sap, choosing melon to add wateriness. I had a bowl of dried figs from China to hand to nibble on, so pulled one apart and smelled the rich seeded flesh – a delicious sweetmeat – definitely distinct from the impression of Athenean, which is more about the fig tree au naturel.
Following on from this, I noted that L’Amandière (Extrait de Parfum) also has a counter-intuitive element of moist greenness, not something ordinarily associated with the generally confectionery palate of almond scents. James noted that L’Amandière refers to a person who harvests the almonds and that it was indeed his intention to capture the green almond (rather than Bakewell tart – he didn’t use the words Bakewell tart, by the way).
One of the other attendees asked about the notes themselves, drawing attention to the ‘white tea’ note in Athenean. This led to an interesting discussion on how perfume notes are described. James said that the tea note was not specifically ‘white tea’ (as in tea which is not rolled or oxidized) but a combination of tea and white musk, which he liked to render as ‘white tea’. Without this insight we’d be none the wiser, which made me realise how enlightening it is to speak with the perfumer and how when speaking of notes it is possible to be way off the mark! He further explained that rather than give a full list of perfume ingredients in the blurb, he preferred terms which gave an impression or image of the scent. He also talked about ‘bridging’ notes, of which tea is a good example – notes which help to connect the other ingredients into a pleasing blend or harmony. In Athenean, he wanted to give the woody notes more prominence without overwhelming the blend. For him perfume is alchemy and as he said, “You don’t need a hammer to crack a nut.” I’m very much with him on that one – if you end up smelling like a wood chipping in a carpentry workshop, it’s a big fail, but that is just my personal taste. With wood and smoke, I prefer well-blended to stark because then interesting narratives can begin on the skin, whereas those po-faced turpentinic one-note wonders flatten out sourly on my rind and fill me with bile and bitterness.
We also touched on gender and perfume, as he prefers unisex scents to overtly feminine or masculine ones. Given this, I feel the feminine and masculine suggestions that accompany each scent on the Heeley website are rather stereotypical and redundant. For Athenean: ’♂ Tanned, dressed all in white, sandals, no sunglasses ♀ Fashion girls out to lunch. Roquette salad and spring water.’ Is she only permitted to eat leaves and sip on mineral water? I should add that the Heeley perfume blurb is, by the high falutin and nonsensical standards of much beauty PR, succinct and informative, and I know these recommendations are only intended as chic hints, not to be taken too seriously, but…
There was another question about the salty and milky aspect of Athenean, which James again linked to wanting to conjure the wood sap of the fig tree and remake his original fig scent. Milky and salty notes definitely add a contemporary vibe to olfactory proceedings and these aspects, everyone agreed, were an interesting addition to Figuier.
After a few more comments, the hour was up and with an almost comical count down, we abruptly timed-out! I wish we’d had more time to delve further, especially with regard to the luxury packaging issue, but I was also curious about Mr Heeley’s inspirations and process, and his eureka moments, and would have liked to have heard more about the other scents, too – for example, the wonderful violet leather, Cuir Pleine Fleur – but anyway, this formed an excellent introduction to his work and to Athenean itself and I was delighted to have had the chance to join.
Wearing Athenean, I snacked on a Greek/French/Chinese/Japanese repast: figs, dates, and baguette dipped in yuzu hummus; then enjoyed a bottle of Chinon rosé with N on his return.