Of all the British perfumers – Penhaligons, Czech & Speake, Floris, Jo Malone, Angela Flanders, among others, it is Miller Harris, founded in 2000, that is perhaps the most consistent, both in terms of integrity, texture, and overall theme, yet also the most daring. Although I only have a couple of the house’s fragrances in my collection (Citron Citron, a tight and acerbic lemon, and the almost wilfully strange, sharp and contrapuntal Terre De Bois), this is a house that in my view has always combined a very appealing ‘English flower garden’ aesthetic with something harder, yet diffident, at its heart. From the uncompromised ferocity of Feuilles De Tabac, to the nonchalant pink feather boas of Noix De Tubereuse, the purple hippy Figue Amere or the melancholically rain-imbued La Pluie, you always sense in a Miller Harris perfume that there are more complex emotions lurking beneath ( I think this is the problem with many niche perfumes: where all the pizazz and luxe is very glinting and surface, emotionally, the scents are often dead inside). Base notes with Miller Harris are always rich and high quality and very contrasting with the more ethereal middle and top notes – there is a summer garden seriousness that belies the airy-fairy, raspberry trifle la la la.
It seems now though that Lyn Harris, always the sole perfumer for Miller Harris, has now left her original perfume house and started a brand new venture in London, the quite mysterious sounding ‘Perfumer H’. This new venture has a more stripped down and singular aesthetic – quite zen, almost, in terms of the shop surroundings and the bottle design – and currently just five perfumes that correspond to the classic fragrance classifications of citrus, floral, wood, oriental and fougere, a collection that will be refreshed bi-annually (though perfumes in the back catalogue will be still available for purchase).
They are all very good (reviews of the rest of the collection will come later) but I unhesitatingly first went straight for the Heliotrope, a powdery, anisic, almondy flower scent I am always drawn to – we even once had some actual heliotrope plants, faithfully true to the smell I was expecting from the perfumes I knew, if rather faint, in our old garden, until we discovered that the flowers are actually dangerous cat killers – highly toxic to those keen-eyed, fluffed up beasts – so that was that; but in any case, I often tend to enjoy floral confections that contain this note. Heliotrope forms an important part of the odour profiles of such classics as Guerlain’s Apres L’Ondee and L’Heure Bleue, as well as the gorgeous Loulou by Cacharel; soliflores are uncommon, but I did once consider buying LT Piver’s Heliotrope Blanc (though I feared I may have just ended smelling like a fat, lacy courtesan so I desisted in the end). Also Etro, who never shy away from unfashionable notes – smell their pure, Ouzo-ish aniseed Anice for an example – do a nice, powdery and sweet heliotrope that while cossettingly powdery and comforting to the nerves, is nevertheless a bit high on the caster sugar.
With her own Heliotrope (the ‘oriental’ in the current collection), Perfumer H is more cautious about overegging her almond pudding and instead goes for diaphanous and clear: the top accord of this perfume is delectable, floaty as an eggshell, closely dusted as sugared almonds, angelic: yet with the sense of waters still flowing below (it is quite floral and citric simultaneously), the vanillic bonbons of the base notes caressed by a prominent neroli/orange blossom note that I personally find a touch regretful as I just want the almonds: give me almonds, give me arsenic! give me cyanide! Almond blossom was always a smell that made me go almost delirious when I was at university, down by the river; its scent – so piercing and pure, both pensive and ecstatic – was the ultimate heralding of the English spring and the death of winter, and in Cambridge the gardens and the river at this time were so beautiful you could die – I would be doolally, and beside myself, skipping about like a March hare scavenging armfuls of tulips, but even at this age, now, even the presentiment of those vernal sensations still make me excited and happy to be alive.
This heliotrope scent brings back some of those memories. Of that delirious carefreeness. A calm and unfussed deliciousness. If the idea of a light, downy, orange blossom heliotrope tickles your fancy, therefore, I would highly recommend trying it. As the perfume settles on the skin, the heliotrope flowers nuzzle and fall asleep gently in their natural eiderdown, the orange flowers gone; the vanilla and powdered musks just right: not too sweet but not too thin, either – addictive but innocent: simple but not stupid.
I leave you with a nicely played rendition of Scott Joplin’s ‘Heliotrope Bouquet’: