Last summer, on a warm night in Paris my boyfriend (editor’s note: The Narcissus’ younger brother) and I sat at a little candlelit table outside a brasserie. The embers of the hot day stretched into the night and the air was close and languid, the sky above us hung with fairy lights. As we sat there, buoyed by wine and holiday thrill (it was his first trip to Paris, and I’ve always loved it) a man approached us clutching garlands of jasmine. As in many European capitals at the height of the tourist season (and probably elsewhere too) this happens quite a bit in Paris. Men approach you with armfuls of roses or jasmine flowers and offer (or pester) you – or more typically your boyfriend! – To buy them for a couple of Euro. Normally I have to say that I’m not swayed by it – it seems a little cheesy somehow (particularly the overpriced, always flat scented roses encased in their little plastic cones) but on this particular night, on seeing our reluctance and perhaps recognising the hour (it was already late) our seller, instead of fading back into the night put the flowers under my boyfriends nose. ‘Just smell them, I promise you won’t be able to resist the perfume. They come from Madurai.’
I’ve rarely seen a person visibly swoon, but as Greg smelt the jasmine something about him melted, his eyes glazed and the words ‘Oh my god’ left his lips, and then ‘that’s outrageous.’ The little garland was 5 Euro. He bought it immediately, knowing it couldn’t last longer than a few hours but needing to possess even momentarily, a slice of this pure, unadulterated beauty. The scent of that little, unprepossessing lei was utterly intoxicating. Bewildering even. Smelling it, the outside world rushed to a remove and the space between us was filled, suddenly, thrillingly with invisible gold. I know how hyperbolic it sounds, but those flowers were truly a tumble into a dreamlike state: so potently honeyed and lush, brimming with exotic, liquorous nectar. So beautiful! We kept that little ever-wilting bundle for months afterwards, smelling it occasionally as it faded inevitably into crunchy sepia potpourri. Even in its demise its dying puffs were a reverie against the grunt of London outside.
Like anthomaniac vampires clawing desperately for the next fix of indole, we’ve since been trying to find a true perfume replica. It should be something with depth and body, with the decadent gilt of honey and a waxy tang that hits you incandescently with a swish and swoon. Not too polite or watery (personally I’ve never really got on with scrubbed up Febreeze jasmines – too mannered and dull) but not necessarily a hairy backed monster either. Slightly Oriental perhaps, and bolstered by little touches of this and that here and there. But essentially: that smell, trapped in amber, mummified. An Empress jasmine. While Greg has taken to wearing the strident A La Nuit (even to work – how wonderful), my closest findings so far have been the divine Amouage Jasmine Attar (a gorgeous, truly catnippy elixir) and Dorin Jasmin Fullah (slightly ‘browner’ – redolent of the Syrian sands, indolic and more classic somehow, but nevertheless a real beauty.) Indult Isvaraya has the ‘right’ sort of jasmine buried inside it, but here it is braided with mothy patchouli and a dry umami plum so that it becomes coiled, sylvan and ritualistic. I love it actually, but for this purpose it doesn’t fit.
Treasure hunting through the shops the other day I came across a little bottle in smart grey glass. The modest olive green label houses only two words, in a small elegant font: Madagascan Jasmine. Can there be a more alluring name for a perfume? Yes, admittedly it’s purely descriptive and there are no hyperbolic allegories flounced overhead, promising nymphean powers of attraction and magnetic allure. But for me at least, within those two words lies a world of romance, of intrigue, of complicit and yielding seduction: thick, verdant groves and steamy exotic air hanging heavy with the scent of starry little flowers.
Created by perfumer Michel Roudnitska for the Sydney based florist Grandiflora, this perfume is in essence a soliflore study of the Stephanotis Floribunda variety of jasmine, commonly found in the heady climes of Madagascar and often used in bridal bouquets. A greener variety of the genus than the more commonly used (in perfume) jasmine sambac, this plant is a spindly climber with tough stems and large constellations of small starry flowers that orbit the axil of every waxy leaf. Like an Impressionist painter working en plein air, Roudnitska worked from a plant on his desk crafting drafts, honing roughs, studying every nuance of the living flower. He has created something really remarkable.
This perfume moves in small, delicate circles between clear, raw verdancy and honeyed flowers, by turns snappy and crisp and sweetly sultry. Aloe ooze slips coolly from fibrous stems mimicking the chilled verdure of a florist’s fridge. Then the botanical blast ebbs as the nectar of the flowers rises up, their pregnant stamens lolling heavily with pollen. It is neither squeaky clean nor furrily indolic, but almost alchemically, entirely natural – and living. It drifts from the bottle the way a photograph develops in a dark room: from blankness, ghostly forms begin to swirl in dark waters until like an apparition they solidify in front of you.
While this is a true soliflore, its finery and deftness of touch renders it much more than simply a study. There really is something reaffirming about it. This is jasmine caught in a butterfly net and bottled gingerly, preciously for posterity. It feels encapsulated. When I smell it, I feel pulled down into a portal: here is the damp darkness of the forest, its steamy floors and strange cacophony of unrecognised sounds and songs. Here is the rich fruity soil and the flutter-by hummingbird dancing with the flowers. Here is a little box of Madagascar on my desk, a jar of titillating primordial nectar. It manages to feel both ancient and essential in its evocations of nature, and as a perfume, entirely modern thanks to its linearity and minimalism.
It isn’t my Empress Jasmine (it’s no where near close enough to the sultry/slutty Queen of Sheba border, and slightly too green at times for me – but this is just a personal thing. My skin often does awful, industrial solvent things to green perfumes.) However, this perfume is so exceptionally beautiful in its own right that I felt compelled to own it – even if I only ever use it as a little magic carpet for my nose. It is an otherworldly lullaby, a paean to the astounding, humbling, unfathomable beauty of the earth – transient and long, long lived; fragile and resilient; spiritual in it’s awesome design and synchronicity.
Roudnitska recommends the perfume for yoga. I’d agree that there is a great deal of meditation within it, and a sense of the devout somehow. When the built up, smokily urbanised, terror pocked world we live in seems in tumult, when pandemonium abounds and your heart feels heavy from the evil lunacy that leaches from every news report, it can be a small balm to be thrust back into the beauty of nature. The heartbreaks of reality aren’t diminished, but a little balance is restored in your soul. To be reminded that somewhere out there, beyond the mayhem, flowers are perfuming the jungles of the tropics. Untouched, unseen and doing it anyway just as they always have. That the world is still beautiful and how lucky we are to share it for a little while.