I found it, finally, in Paris. I’d read about it months beforehand, my heart simultaneously skipping and sinking as I read through the notes and the ever-hyperbolic PR spin (it sounded wonderful/I knew I had to find this, inevitably Far Away Land exclusive.) Having just left the hushed purple womb of Serge Lutens Palais Royale – a shop like no other, beautifully suffused in pomegranate, shadows and stars like an empyrean antechamber – and leaving the lesser interested party dangling his feet in the mossy fountain in the Galeries de Valois, I spun off towards Maison Francis Kurkdjian. The day was hot and sticky and the crowds swarmed and bumped along like glistening dodgems as I veered along the Rue de Rivoli. Maison Francis Kurkdjian’s tiny boutique, cool, conservative with a carefully spare urbanity – was when I found it, a little entirely deserted oasis.
Released in 2014 to celebrate the 120th anniversary of the GUM department store in Moscow, and inevitably exclusive to that shop save for MFK’s miniature flagship in Paris, Ciel de Gum is a warm, spiced floral amber. The top notes present a somewhat deceptively transparent accord of pink pepper and cinnamon. These fiery spices are painted here with the trademark effervescence of the perfumer; rather than burn and tickle, they sparkle and glint as if seen through a kaleidoscope’s refracted sunlight. Soon though, these melt into a fuzzy, sepia jasmine and the same wash of loukhoum-like rosewater that suffuses the delectable Cologne Pour le Soir from the same line. The jasmine here, spun and spiced with cinnamon reminds me of the furry indolic Egyptian variety of The Different Company’s Jasmin de Nuit. The rose though is quite subservient, playing very much a supporting, sweetening role. Once the basenotes, a baroque recline of velvety amber, a scuff of leather and a blurry glaze of vanilla arrive the effect is that of being buried, suddenly swallowed, within the heaving chest of a hugging Aunt – a whoosh of warmth and skin and draped fabric. It’s thick and chewy, enveloping and decadent, familiar and yet somehow exotic. It is a closet of comfort, redolent of fur stoles and pain d’epices, as golden as the domes of St. Petersburg. There is a faintly tarry nuance that joins the comfort blanket of amber – specks of tobacco leaf and liquor, a warming nip of something sweet and strong clasped with frostbitten hands. Inside that glazed vanillic cocoon, there is a hint of fireplace, a dusting of coal perhaps, bringing to my mind snow melting on dark kindling and glowing tinder from the hearth. It smells like the place between battered boots, stamped icily on the doormat, and the toasty snug of heavy coats.
Although it is undoubtedly vanillic, this is not a gourmand perfume. Rather its sweetness pays a homage to the lush balsamic Orientals of the past – Fendi’s Theorema, Coco, perhaps even a little Obsession. It has the same fudgy texture as Musc Ravageur, although the indoles lent by the jasmine here in no way combine to resemble the kitty tummy animalics of the Malle. The honey-and-hide quality also reminds me of the toothsome, musky nectar in Centerpiece extrait from 4160s Tuesdays.
Though this perfume, coloured like a lit Christingle, is certainly enveloping and rich (smoldering perhaps even), it has been made with the lightness of touch characteristic of Kurkdjian. There is plenty of air here between the notes, and it’s carefully steered away from anything sweatily overwhelming. This is the drama of Russian Orthodox liturgy refracted through a very contemporary Parisian lens. Despite its warmth, it is in some ways a nostalgic perfume: a bathetic tribute to the luster and pageantry of a Tsarist past. This edge of melancholia amid the grandeur of luxuriant balsams and comfort strikes me as a fitting scented token of the heirlooms of bounty and theatricality, personified (it seems from photos: I’ve never been there) by the grand and gilded GUM store.
Whilst I’d fired myself towards Maison Francis Kurkdjian specifically to find this particular perfume, once there the assistant introduced another, perhaps for me at least, even lovelier scent. Eyes wide and excited, she told me she’d been offered a bottle to have as her own (I know, right…) She’d tussled between Ciel de Gum (‘so beautiful for winter’) and the new Oud Silk Mood. The Silk won: ‘so sexy! So fabulous for the nights!’ ..I hadn’t even heard of it to be honest. Actually I probably wouldn’t have bothered seeking it out given that I wasn’t taken with the Oud trio (Oud’s Cashmere, Silk and Velvet) of a couple of years ago, all three of which were heavy handed and abrasive on my own skin – a whirligig carnival of industrial solvent and hot oily metal with a pulse of pure filth.
This is different. Again playing with texture and the evocation of fabric, this is an altogether more feminine scent (though not girly, and the distinction is always important!) Taking the recently revived idea of a lipstick accord (seen in Malle’s Lipstick Rose, Chanel Misia, Guerlain French Kiss) – a combination of rose, violet and sweet powder – and blending that dainty, quite French association with the rich jamminess of an Arabian rose perfume, this is truly a gem. A ruby wrap of a perfume, the opening is heady with a crimson confiture of rose and sweet violets conjuring skin swaddled in burgundy. This burnt muscovado sugar and dark rose is full bodied and throaty, a vibrant ‘come hither’ shower of lush petals. It definitely has a boudoir and bodice feel to it, referring again to the playful, cheeky feminity of lipsticky perfumes.
But as this elixir like potion warms on the skin, a smoky baritone curls up through it and anchors the macaroon-flecked florals to a ballast of chocolaty amber, peppery oud and dry woods. The auburn thrum of benzoin and treacle-like labdanum sing a sonorous baseline with the oud, whose woody and smoky facets are teased out leaving behind the funk and rot it can imbue. The whole thing is blurred with a dusting of rich vanilla, which serves not to make it edible but to bind and blend. It wears like a radiant shroud, soft and lovely, with a wonderful ruby like interplay of light and dark. A decadent, dark loukhoum oud, as sexy, and as fabulous for the nights as promised.
While the rose-oud thing is obviously nothing new, and for many of us has reached total saturation point, I think this one is worth seeking out. It’s a beautiful perfume, combining sensuality with wearability and showcasing Kurkdjian’s masterly treatment of florals under a Middle Eastern gaze. While much of the MFK line could be classed as having an almost android perfectionism – attractive, beautiful even, but all so conservative and hermetic – these two perfumes represent the most interesting releases since Absolute/Cologne Pour le Soir. As with other scents from the brand, they exhibit the gingerly constructed compositions and the steady hand of a craftsman with an innate feel for his materials. But while that same precision in other fragrances can augment too streamlined (sterile, even) a feel, here it is bolstered by a more forthright voluptuousness. Both these perfumes are expansive and vivacious, but also possess the lush and fleshy oriental feel of the best of Kurdjian’s work.