A Dance Through A Heart

- a review of Serge Lutens’ ‘Santal Majuscule

In perfumery, the term ‘base notes’ describes those essences and accords that remain on your skin long after the rest of the magic carpet ride has passed on, the ones that are so fundamental, so rich, so ubiquitous that to conceive of a perfume without them is pointless. Each of them contain entire olfactory universes, ever-unfolding stories, songs and words that evolve and change and breathe with such a life of their own, it’s no surprise at all they are counted among the oldest, most beloved and most sacred of all perfumery materials. One of them is so adored, it’s literally been loved and extracted to near extinction, loved…and adulterated, counterfeited and passed off as itself, when in fact it is nothing of the kind.

Sandalwood. The very name is all you need to conjure up images of intricately carved keepsake boxes, of simple prayer beads and elaborate furnishings, the red paste of chandan used in Hindu ritual, of sacred incense and treasured soaps to scent drawers and cupboards, and above all, the incredibly intricate, complex fragrance of the oil itself, sweet, floral, fruity and dense, creamy, vegetal, musty, moody and woody, it has a subtle animal pulse on skin like nothing else on Earth, simultaneously earthy…and numinous.

Now Serge Lutens, no stranger to the marvels of sandalwood with Santal Blanc and Santal de Mysore, has once again retold the tale of sandalwood, only this time, the story is both ancient as time like all the best stories, as sandalwood itself, and so modern and new and surprising I wonder  – not for the last time – how can this be a tale in perfume I never breathed before?

As a base note, as a fixative, I’ve loved sandalwood for its ability to add a Baroque dimension to so many perfumes, perfumes I’ve worn and loved for decades. On its own in the spotlight, I’ve been too much a survivor of a 1960s childhood best described as ‘Bohemian’ to love it for its own sake, or else, the very word sandalwood came to be associated with so many overpowering scent memories of ‘de trop’.

Too much, too Indian, too heady, too Oriental…too many cheap imitations and adulterations of real Mysore sandalwood or else always united with its once ubiquitous best friend… patchouli.

Yet for all that, the world turns, perceptions change and even I.

This is 2012 after all, here is Santal Majuscule, sandalwood ‘writ large in capital letters’ and it is, after all, a Lutens. What stories would it tell, would I get a magic carpet ride, would the world tilt on its axis?

The short answer is…you wouldn’t believe me if I told you, yes to all of the above, and then again…yet meanwhile, I can’t forget…

Which is no way to describe it as well as it deserves.

It begins as…almost a cliché, an Arabian mukhallat attar of sandalwood – Australian sandalwood, I’ve read, but no one able to remember the mythical glories of Mysore sandalwood will feel remotely cheated – and rose. Not just any rose, this is a rose of a deep, dark, velvety hue. The wood itself is smooth as satin, not milky or creamy as I would expect but instead honeyed and warm without once dancing into gourmand territory.

Yet dance Santal Majuscule certainly does, dancing through the rose, through the heart of the wood, the dream, the myth that sandalwood has become, and as it moves and bends and twirls on my skin, now almost touching a bitter sotto voce note of cocoa, next sashaying through a spicy cloud of cinnamon, then flirting with a rich but never cloying note of honey – orange blossom honey, says my biased nose that detects another floral note, my favorite honey – but always around that central focal point of sandalwood and rose.

Around and around it moves as it transpires, breathing new life and new moves and a new light into a story and a glorious dream of sandalwood as old as all the best tales are, as new as today, as this moment, this very breath, this word and this letter, written with a capital L.

It seems a bit strange to write of a perfume that it dances on my skin. Yet that is precisely what Santal Majuscule does. Not an elegantly contrived ballet so much as something far more spontaneous and kinetic, as elegant and ornate as the russet-hued Erté illustration I chose, as genuine as only a true myth can be. It is still, yet it moves in that stillness, moves through a sandalwood dream, delights in the luminous clouds of honey and spice, trailing its legends of rose behind.

Many, many hours later, when I have decided that sandalwood will never be the same and even I have changed and moved as I breathed it, I am left with a wink and a whispered growl in the twilight, wrapped up warm in the sable pelt of an otherworldly, numinous animal. Maybe it’s the soul that hides in the heart of the wood, the soul that wrote the story, the soul that writes these words?

‘Obey my silences, not my commands’, states the Latin in the picture below, and this closet Classicist bends the Latin as only Latin can bend to say it can also mean…

‘Do as I do and not as I say.’

Move with this fabled wood and follow the story it tells. Dance through a heart that is lit from within and write out the words with a capital L!

Notes: Australian sandalwood, honey, cocoa, cinnamon, Arabian rose attar 

Santal Majuscule is available for European customers directly from the Serge Lutens website, and from Luckyscent.

Images: Above: Romain de Tirtoff, a.k.a. Erté

Below: Santal Majuscule, reproduced here with the permission of Serge Lutens.

 

The Great Escape

- a review of Parfums Micallef’s ‘Ylang in Gold’

As you bask in the Sauternes-tinted light of a a perfect September day when all of nature overflows, as apples glow their ruddy hues among the dark green leaves and plums sparkle amethyst in fruit bowls and on trees, I have some disquieting news for you. Before you know it, these beautiful Indian summer days will give way to the winds, the rain, the dark and the looming chills of winter, and the very idea of sunshine, of heat, of flowers, the perfumes of fruit and all that make living and breathing so effortless and easy…will seem nothing so much as a feverish dream.

It is usually in November that my fantasy life kicks into high gear and makes me dream impossible dreams. Dreams extending stories I want to write, dreams I want to make real, and last but never least in this cool, Nordic clime… the most heart-rending dreams of all – dreams of making that Great Escape to a tropical beach, where the waters beckon in impossible blues, where trade winds rustle in the coconut fronds, where flowers bloom in incredible hues and perfume the air softer than silk, and the only footprints on the pearl gold borders of sand and sea are the footprints I want to see.

In other words, those interminable months between November and March are when I miss the sun, the heat and the green the most, and if I can’t get a one-way ticket to the Seychelles, Hawaii or Mauritius, I can at least breathe in those tropical airs on my skin through a tropical perfume, the perfect antidote to that dread November darkness.

Lo and behold, I found it too, all in a moment of looking the other way, an instant when ‘tropical’ and ‘beautiful’ were the last things on my mind.

The very luxe perfume house of Martine Micallef, based in Grasse but with a stunning boutique in Cannes, has been on my radar for some time, being mentioned every so often on the perfume boards and Facebook groups I participate in. Martine Micallef – both a perfumer and a painter – has gained a loyal cult following both for her exquisite and extensive line of perfumes and for the stunning, handcrafted works of art that contain them. So when the rumors and the posts about her new release, Ylang in Gold, made the rounds, I was – as always – curious to try it, while my inner cynic whispered right along with my bank account…

It can’t be that good. It just can’t.

Save me, someone, anyone, because…ah, no!

It is.

This is Martine Micallef’s ode to that sunshine-bright tropical bloom named in its native tongue “Flower of Flowers”. Ylang ylang adds its lush, sensuous, fragrant colors to the heart notes of many, many perfumes, including not a few classics everyone knows. It can be a little heady, fruity, unmistakeably exotic in feel, but give it a chance to shine in that perfumed spotlight, and it can steal not just the show, but your heart.

A Comores ylang flower

The most surprising thing about Ylang in Gold – which is nothing short of a very big surprise – is it contains no ylang ylang at all. Instead, an accord of mint, magnolia and lily of the valley somehow by some serious sleight-of-hand fools the mind and the nose into thinking that very heretical thought…this is as delicious, as seductive as ylang ever gets!

This is a perfume that will twist and turn and pirouette in surprising ways on the skin for hours on end, and the first surprise is the bright, herbal, slightly bitter burst of its lemon-yellow-green opening. This was not what I anticipated from something called Ylang, and as my readers well know, I like surprises, in life as in perfume.

But this is no mere ‘perfume’. In only a few minutes, that flower of flowers – the ylang that is anything but itself – dances out its ethereal pas-de-ballet in a perfectly en point blend – I can smell rose, the nutty green lily of the valley, the magnolia – that all somehow manage to convey a new and dazzling self as shimmering and effervescent as the 24K gold flakes in the bottle, adding a decadent, luxurious, nacré Midas touch of their own as you apply. (It is also possible to buy the perfume without the gold)

Coconut – which can go either good or bad on me and sometimes be a deal-breaker – is never far behind, and in this seamlessly orchestrated blend I can close my eyes and find hints of banana (although only a hint), the sweet vanilla of the base pinned well away from anything resembling ‘gourmand’ or ‘dessert’ by the musk and the moss. Ylang in Gold evolves sweet, but never cloying, as creamy and luscious as all the most luxurious coconuts are, right off the palm…

I’m no stranger to tropical perfumes, and know no more perfect time to wear them than right when the dreary dregs of autumn and winter threaten to drag me beneath the withered leaves, when I want and I need to laugh in winter’s despite and remember those dreams of sunshine and heat, improbable blues and impossible blooms. Once upon a time, when this woman was no island, the glory that was Fidji was one such instant getaway. More recently, Carnal Flower and Bombay Bling have captured my imagination and taken me far, far away from all that is mundane, drab and dull, as they surely always will.

Now, I have Ylang in Gold, very similar in mood and feel although otherwise nothing like them – think happy, think joyous, think as bright and as smooth as the sand beneath your feet, as soft and as plush as a tropical flower, as compelling as any fevered November dreams of…The Great Escape.

Am I there yet?

Notes: Tangerine, geranium, sage, rosemary, Artemisia, ylang, rose, sandalwood, lily of the valley, magnolia, mint, coconut, vanilla, moss, musk.

Parfums Micallef Ylang in Gold is available from First in Fragrance and in 39 countries worldwide.

Disclosure: A sample was provided for review by Parfums Micallef, with thanks to Sandrine. Image of the bottle used by permission.

Soft as Sin

THE DEVILSCENT PROJECT X

THE DEVILSCENT PROJECT X

- a review of Skye Botanical’s ‘Dev’ massage bar

One moment, my apartment will be quiet, nothing more than the sounds of the street outside, the hum of the fridge in the kitchen, Janice Divacat’s occasional whimper in her sleep, and only the tap-tap-tap of my laptop as I wrestle with the chimerae of the virtual page, the sometime metallic clang of the spoon in my glass of Earl Grey. I never know when he’ll come (or if he does), but I always know he’ll leave in the blink of an eye at the precise moment I look away.

That night as I went to bed, I wondered whether Dev would make an appearance, if he might have something to say about this sage-tinted wonder I had slathered on my skin after a long, luxurious bath and wafted in my wake, wondered if he would weave his way into a dream as he so often does. Sometimes, he’s a glimpse over my shoulder, seen out of the corner of my eye as a Cheshire Cat grin that wavers in the air as substantial as smoke, as wishes, as all dreams must be, and other times as concrete and as tangible as the reality of the keyboard beneath my fingers trying to make all those fervent dreams just as solid, and just as touchable.

The thing is, I never know.

So that night I woke with a start at some nameless hour in the dark. The cobwebs from a jumbled dream still clung to my mind, a dream of people I knew and places, too, a dream where he appeared and kept to himself, glowering with a stiff set to his shoulders, aloof and alone behind the aviator shades. When I had a chance, I reached out and asked like an idiot: “Are you all right?”

He never answered. He shrugged me off and disappeared behind a concealed door. As I opened it and saw a concrete service stairwell heading down, I was surprised awake.

Dev was up against the wall at the foot of my bed, with Hairy Krishna on his back plastered up against his leg, belly fur glinting silver sparks in the moonlight almost as loud as his purr.

“Miss me?” he said with a soon-to-be-famous grin.

“Umm…I’m not sure. You’ve been gone a long time.” I rubbed my eyes and tried not to think about that perfume in the air that surrounded me like the gossamer shreds of a dream. It was so incredibly distracting. It was the scent of trouble, just waiting to happen.

“How can I be a muse if I can’t make things happen for you? Trust me, baby, if you got used to having me around for too long, it would get old. So… I wandered out in the world and…made things happen.”

“That you did.” I decided to let it slide. “So…what do you think? Does the idea of being ‘flagellated by euphoric hops, dangerous damiana and stinging nettles’ do anything for you?” I referred to the very tongue-in-cheek description I received with my little sackcloth bag of wonder, stuffed full of herbs and a decadently perfumed green massage bar at least as devious as its description.

“Depends on who’s cracking those nettles!” he laughed. “I really, really like the concept, though. Perfume on the pulse points. Sure. That’s all fine and good. But why stop there? Why not be dangerous all over, from…” he leaned forward, right beside me in the dark, and dangerous was at least as good a word as any for how I felt that moment as he breathed into my ear, “your neck all the way down to your toes?” As he moved away, I could see a twinkle in his eyes, even in the dark.

This perfume was trouble, no question about it, with stinging nettles and without them.

“I’m not sure I’m awake enough to have this kind of salacious conversation. I’ve got other places to put those, if you want to be salacious.”

“True. It’s not entirely fair.” Dev shrugged, and as he did, Hairy Krishna rolled over with a whimper and jumped off the bed with an irritated swish of his tail as he headed for a midnight snack and a chance to sneak up on Janice Divacat, his other favorite midnight activity.

“You know,” he went on after a while, “I think one of the most interesting things is how your perfumers took the same brief, the same ingredient – labdanum – and the same characters – Lilith and me – and did such vastly different things with them. Monica’s…here’s the feral Dev, the wild one, the sylvan Dev, the Pan in the forest, lurking behind an Arcadian bush to trap a lucky nymph…”

“Or just one unlucky nymphomaniac in the concrete jungle. The bush is optional.” I countered. Maybe I was awake enough to have salacious conversations?

“You’re such a comedian,” he deadpanned. I knew precisely where to locate the origins of that brand of sarcasm on the map. “Hush. I’m writing your review.”

“You are?” This was news to me. “If I had known you were coming, I would have baked brownies.”

There was an ominous flash from the other end of my bed.

“I’m not finished. Sharp, biting, very, very green…what is that? Peppermint, pepper, basil, orange – whatever it is, it shocks you aware and even…” he laughed again. “Awake! So you did. I thought that would never happen. Aroused, even. In far more ways than even I can count!”

“I was dreaming about you.”

“That wasn’t me. That was your cousin Id. He’s crabby because he thinks you’ve ignored him for too long.”

“I knew I wore this to bed for a reason.” What I didn’t tell Dev was my reason was a hope to have precisely this conversation, but I would never, ever admit it.

“On we go…this is outrageously complex stuff. It’s masculine, but not macho, teetering on the brink of floral but never quite falling all the way in, spicy, but nothing in the slightest like those other spicy Devs. Did I say it was green? Not Da-Glo green like Ellen’s Lilith, not those elegant dark green undertones of Neil’s first mod, but…it reminds me of something…”

With those words, Dev slid off the bed and rummaged around in my perfume cabinet. On one side – the left, of course – the Devilscents glowed their ominous ambers in the dark. “Ah! Here they are…” And he hauled out the little (green) velvet bag from Esscentual Alchemy.

“This is where things get fascinating,” he said after sniffing back and forth between my arm and the vials in their velvet bag. “See, Amanda put heartbreak into her Devs – at least, they broke my heart, and you know, they still do, with that punch of fir. Monica, on the other hand, has a different plan here…this sylvan Dev is the one you’re only too happy to follow into the dark, you really don’t give a good goddamn about the consequences, you’re too curious to find out what happens next and what happens next is…well, we all know what that is.”

I leaned back against the wall and watched his shadow in the moonlight from the window by the bed. “That sacred firelight of labdanum and frankincense,” I went on as I caught his train of thought like I had so often before, “the embers of patchouli and spice and cedar that glow in the dark like all the best secrets and unforgettable as all the most glorious transgressions…”

“Burning on your skin in the firelight,” he breathed into my ear again, “That skin as soft and as silken as all the best sins must be, the sins you always want to remember…”

I didn’t move. The room was at least fifteen degrees warmer than it was when I went to bed. Firelight and heat, sylvan secrets and silky sin…A very warm hand that slipped and slid up that velvet-soft trail of sylvan bonfires on my skin…

“As soft…” his voice was a low, baritone growl right by a very particular spot just below my ear… “as sin itself…”

I blinked, tried to grasp some gossamer threads of composure, and as I did, I caught a flash of silvery moonlight, that haunting, dangerous, green perfume called Dev, called Trouble, called perdition and much else besides…

But he was gone. All he left behind was that scent and skin, as soft as sin itself.

Notes: Pink pepper, peppermint, lemon, coriander, marjoram, blood orange, petitgrain, basil, fir absolute, tuberose absolute, geranium absolute, lavender absolute, clary sage absolute, strawberry furanone, labdanum, cocoa butter, frankincense, cedarwood, patchouli CO2, benzoin, cinnamon, beeswax, Javanol (synthetic sandalwood)

Original image: Orcatek Photography Workshops

Find Skye Botanical’s deviously delicious Dev massage bar here. It is also available as an eau de parfum by request. With profound thanks to Monica Miller of Skye Botanicals. Without whom …;-)