A strange thing has happened to me. I have gone off vanilla. And although I think I can trace the moment this happened (and some of you were there with me), it still kind of shocks me, having spent the most beautiful holiday of my life two summer ago on a vanilla plantation in Java, swooning with vanilla suffocation in the upstairs drying room as the beans gave off their woozy, heady smell, gazing at awe at the vines; and more than half a lifetime of being swathed in vanilla-based, sweet and orientalic perfumes. (me sneaking out at dawn with a shaky iPhone, to take a short video of the exquisite environs of our little cabin (Duncan is curled up asleep inside) : Durian fruit, coffee trees, and papaya – which you can’t see – but most of all snaking vanilla vines climbing up trees; workers in fields, and me in a state of in-the-moment bliss)
I think that the Vanilla Talk I gave at Perfume Lovers London last spring just probably took me (and the collected audience) somehow over the edge (“I’m in a vanilla coma” said one attendee”), like a heroin user blowing his synapses with his final hit, or an alcoholic teetering over his own mental brink with his final bottle of Dewars. There was so much vanilla, what with my preparations and selections leading up to the event, to sampling and appraising various different parfums vanillés ad nauseam, to reading up on tons of vanillic historical and agricultural facts, that by the time the night was over and the air was replete, claustrophobed, and stinking with sweet, sticky perfumes that were being sprayed left right and centre during the talk itself (along with the savouring and appreciation of different vanilla bean varietals: Tongan, Tahitian, Indonesian, Indian…) and all the spraying of samples into little vials for people to take their vanilla fix home, that the sheer sensory overload, not to mention the volume of nervous terror that had preceded my first ever public speaking (I think it is probably more this, actually: that connection, in my subconscious: although I really got into my stride and eventually enjoyed it, meeting people and letting my passions show, my natural extrovert coming to the fore, before everyone arrived I was possibly more nervous than I ever have been in my entire life and was practically ready to hurl myself from the window. If Helen hadn’t been there to sort me out I think I might have). Perhaps this sheer adrenaline overdrive, anxiety, all compressed within the potent, deep brown sweetness of vanilla, was the catalyst that took my feelings for this beautiful substance from love and ease to quease.
I haven’t been able to wear it since.
A perfume such as Maria Candida Gentile’s Noir Tropical, then, which I discovered at a trendy Shibuya shop along with four or five of the Arquiste range yesterday as we walked in a sun-filled daze after a hedonistic night in Shinjuku, just isn’t quite right for my current sickly-averse mindset, even if a deeper part of my brain stem is still instinctly drawn towards anything with the word ‘tropical’ in it (I was imagining some kind of dark, pineapple-permeated fug). In fact, this is a very well made, natural-bean scent with a pronounced sweet and tipsy rum and sugar cane note running underneath a sublimated almond interior, wafting for hours on the skin, with some vague similarities to Vanille Absolument/Havana Vanille by L’Artisan Parfumeur only more organic; rich; densely packed. There is definitely a sweating, hidden- histories-of-the-southern-seas aspect to this scent I can imagine enjoying this on someone else, but for the reasons I have already explained above, I just can’t go there at the moment.
Some perfumes, particularly of the classical, ‘Golden Age’ school, are complex, gradated and layered, almost like symphonies or chamber works with different movements and emotions concealed within themselves only to be released, delicately, at a later hour. The modern niche aesthetic is often more of an ‘instant hit’ – what you see is what you get- even when the ingredients are of the highest quality. A Rothko block of dense colour rather than an dappling Impressionist painting: a potion or elixir, an accomplice. And although I sometimes miss the great pointillist balance of classical perfumery (the pure genius involved in controlling such a panoply in a way to make it sing), I also just enjoy a really good smell, if you know what you mean; a dot of deeply concentrated scent that you can just put on your skin, live with , and enjoy as it accompanies you throughout your day.
Loree Rodkin’s Gothic II and Farmacia Annunziata’s Cara are of this breed – rich, pleasing smells that will work if you like unadorned gourmand simplicity. Though the word gothic usually signifies something shadowed, sinister, vehement, Gothic II is anything but: it is homely, comforting, trustworthy, and easy. A deep patchouli heart (with both Indian and Tunisian essences,) is fused with rich Madagascar vanilla in the familiar, blocked, manner, although the addition of nag champa, incense and cloves produces a more overall effect of honey, an effect that continues for a long time on the skin until the patchouli and vanilla again come to the fore. What is good about this scent is that there are no rough or unpleasant edges detracting from the core theme, which, though a touch unimaginative and simplistic for me, is nerve-numbing, consoling, and potentially addictive.
Cara is much lighter: a mere trifle, really, but if you like your almond and vanilla mixed together in one blend, this works nicely as a very light and airy-sweet mood enhancer, with a talcum caramel heart and fresher, almost sport-fragrance top notes that give the perfume an ethereal edge. It is hard to imagine a more unthreatening perfume (which isn’t necessarily a recommendation), but there is also a reassuring familiarity about it, a play-doh, vanillic halo that I can imagine swirling around someone in a clean eddy of light, veiled, childlike innocence (which is).
L’Histoire Charnelle (‘a carnal history’) is another sweetened patchouli perfume, albeit with an unusual twist: a fruited, spiced, coconut aureole up top that to me on first smell smelled as though it had been buried in turmeric. There is an extremely dusty quality about this perfume (something I always associate with that spice), possibly the combination of nutmeg and cinnamon (and pear, of all things), alongside the tangerine and bergamot that, all combined, I find slightly offputting, even as I am tempted to smell deeper. Eventually, as the fizzy bristle of the top accord subsides, the coconut/vanilla/tonka theme then becomes more apparent and solidified, with the very lingering, resonant patchouli beneath consistenly making itself known and apparent. This is quite a sexy, unusual scent I would say, and it could make a good signature scent for a woman or man who wants to remains outside the loop, though I am not ultimately sure whether the perfumer, Hubert Maes himself, has all the disparate notes within the blend sufficiently sewn together.
The same cannot be said of Anima Dulcis, a perfume that caused quite a stir when it came out three years ago when the new perfume house of Arquiste was launched by founder Carlos Huber. I immediately liked the range when I smelled them then in London at the Harrods Haute Parfumerie, particularly Fleur De Louis and Flor Y Canto as I just love well made, entrancing florals, but Anima Dulcis (‘soul of sweetness’) is also a very well-executed scent that quite appeals to me- a rich, deep, but appealing spice-chocolate perfume with a curious and unusual concept attached: a seventeenth century convent in Mexico (The Royal Convent Of Jesus Maria), the nuns absorbed in the preparation of of chilli-infused chocolate drink in the hallowed halls, strirring and chatting amongs themselves as they wait for the head sister, the only nun who can finish it (the recipe is secret). Like all the perfumes I am discussing today, this is another vanilla-centred scent with a strong patchouli facet, but here, there is much more heft, the main theme being a very brooding and hypnotic natural cocoa absolute, infused with cinnamon and chililes a la Mexicana ( I also always drink strong, thick,hot chocolate with vanilla bean and red chillies – I love it on a hot winter’s night). This idea is translated here very well into perfumery – everything is harmony. Though not as distinctive or odd as I was perhaps expecting it to be given the chilli idea – this is an eminently wearable perfume – Anima Dulcis strikes me almost as being a kind of next generation Opium: tightened, no way as leopard-printed and satin-scarved as that seventies classic, but still, sultry, dense and magnetic, and with floral orientalized reverberations of that orange-licked spice (It also quite reminded me of Histoire De Parfums George Sand).
I found myself going back to my wrist again and again as we headed home towards the station, the spot where I had applied the perfume a source of continuing dark, exotic scent: the level of sweetness just right, the vanilla – that beauteous, brain-altering substance – not dominating, here, lolling somewhere softly condensed down deep side within the blend, undulating, but still kept quite comfortably in check.