The Hidden Art

- Is it… the art of perfume or perfume as art?

Whiling away a dismal Sunday November afternoon can be a most perilous undertaking. For one thing, I have been known to wade my way through all the internecine happenings on blogs, magazines and online newspapers I might have missed out on during the week. For another, this sudden surfeit of information overload has been known to cause something much, much more dangerous to my mind.

It makes me think. Watch out, world!

No kidding, there I was in my usual Sunday demeanor of microwaveable death-warmed-over beneath several layers of ratty wool and a cozy cloud of a favorite perfume, when my Facebook newsfeed alerted me to an item that somehow had managed to pass me by.

Chandler Burr, perfume writer and author of ‘The Perfect Scent’ as well as curator of Olfactory Art at New York’s Museum of Art and Design, has created an exhibition called The Art of Scent, the first major exhibition to highlight perfume as an artistic medium of expression in its own right, and to focus on how perfumes have evolved since the 1889 ground-breaking game changer that was the addition of synthetic coumarin in Houbigant’s Fougère Royale and Guerlain’s Jicky, the latter included in the exhibition itself.

You will find no iconic bottles, no advertising, nothing to distract you from the experience of the perfume itself, inhaled through specially designed snifters created expressly for this exhibition. In other words, not unlike Burr’s recent OpenSky experiment, where decants could be bought in plain bottles of the scents he chose to include, devoid of all marketing mystique.

But is it art? How can it be in an age that provides so many opportunities for redefining sensory artistic expression that relatively few exhibitions have focused on that most atavistic, primitive sense of all – our sense of smell?

After all, scents travel that little-understood information highway from our nasal receptors straight to our memories, emotions and associations, and completely bypasses that neocortical off ramp to language – just like another and not unrelated art form – music. And while no one will argue that an artist isn’t equally artistic in whichever medium he or she chooses whether it’s paint, Carrara marble or decomposing pork carcasses, the idea that perfume is every bit as valid as an expressive medium raises a few eyebrows among many non-perfumistas, simply for being such an unorthodox idea – or is that for turning a much-needed spotlight on the least-understood of all our senses?

Can it be that perfume straddles that great divide between ‘artistic medium’ and ‘artisanal product’, being not enough of one and too much of the other? In which case, perhaps it’s a good thing Mr. Burr chose that loaded headline-grabber for his exhibition…The Art of Scent, for no other reason that it brings us – the audience – to question and maybe even to redefine what we name ‘art’.

I haven’t seen the exhibition, so I can’t say anything you can’t already read in the press release. What riled me up and made me think, however, was Alyssa Harad’s take on Chandler Burr’s intiative, since her excellent blog post echoed many of the thoughts that ran through my own overheated Sunday afternoon mind, and Denyse Beaulieu’s own blog post did not much more to prevent me chewing on my nails.

I’m in no position to argue whether or not perfume is an art form in its own right and with its own merits – and limitations. For one, you could say I have a vested interest.

I’m a perfume writer, and perfume happens to be one of my own personal passions. To me, perfume is a means of artistic expression as valid, as rich, as rewarding, as challenging and as complex as any painting, sculpture or piece of music. To my fellow perfumoholic friends and acquaintances, I rattle off the names of famous perfumes and perfumers as easily as I can reference works by Titian, Gentileschi, or Alexander Calder. These liquid epics and novels, these allegorical redolent poems and metaphorical operas in magic, however, all exhibit a few characteristics in common no painting or sculpture can claim.

For one, I take issue with the general perception of ‘art’ (you insert your own definitions here) as a mode of creative expression that exists in a vacuum, outside any context or touch points with our ‘real’ lives. Art as a means of cultural expression  – in the sense of being ‘fine art’ – often ends up on private hands and out of reach to the general public or in the museums and art galleries who can afford to lend or buy them whereupon they exhibit them as ‘works of art’ to accentuate whatever statements the museum – or the curator – is trying to make. Art to me is something much more inclusive and dare I write it – quotidian. It is whatever enriches your life, makes you appreciate beauty, makes your personal horizons wider and maybe takes you somewhere out of yourself and into a place you would otherwise never know.

Perfume, on the other hand, is a democratic, inclusive art form. It is an instant mode of transport and mood elevator available for the price of a bottle for anyone who can afford to buy it. You can and often do take it with you anywhere and everywhere you go. It exists in a physical, concrete form in the bottle as a chemical concoction of ingredients both ‘natural’ and/or synthetic, yes – but the true story, the true art, is written on your skin every time you wear it, and no two wearings will ever be entirely alike, depending on such factors as your genetic makeup, your diet, your very mood, weather and so on.

You may have been seduced to buy it by the story of its inspiration, by the aesthetic considerations and heritage of the perfume house behind it, but as any perfumista and not a few perfumers know, the ‘story’ is nothing but a marketing ploy to lure you in, and the real story – and my own test criterion of a truly ‘artistic’ perfume – is what happens in that sublimely seductive, intimate space above your skin where it blooms. Not in whatever abstract or elusive inspirations the perfumer/creative director chooses to share with the world to sell the juice.

You may buy into the perfumer’s aesthetic, but the real reason you buy it and love it as you do is what it does to you and for you – in other words, how that perfume sings in its infinite variety…to you alone. Your family and friends, your colleagues and even total strangers can define or explain you by your choices in clothing, hair, and general demeanor – but that hidden art form, that art that may trail behind you and explicate you when you’ve left – that is the true art…of perfume.

In other words – also as Alyssa Harad stated – perfume art is ephemeral art. It exists only in the moments it breathes its wonders on your skin and invents new, untold stories of you, of its materials, of its very existence and the spaces the perfumer chose to give expression.

Even the very language we use to evoke that art form somehow lacks the ability to crack through the fourth wall and open the doors for our readers to perceive it. Which is why the best perfume writers have a large reference frame of history, literature, art and last, but not least, music to call upon. It’s no accident at all that perfumes are often described in notes, whatever Chandler Burr might argue to the contrary.

I applaud Chandler Burr’s decision to create an exhibition around the Art of Scent. I can appreciate his endeavor to create a neutral, association-free space in which to approach it anew, from another, more radical and perhaps more abstractly intellectual, unbiased angle. The question is, if perfume is an art form, is there such a thing as a lack of bias?

And yet. And yet. I look to my little sea grass basket full of wonders, signed by the perfume world’s Titians and Caravaggios, Francis Bacons and Lucian Freuds and Magrittes, the Afteliers, the Jacques and Aimé and Jean-Paul Guerlains, the Dawn Spencer Hurwitzes, the McElroy/Karls, the Tauers, the Kerns, the Lutens/Sheldrakes and the Duchaufours, the Chong/?s,  the Shoens, the Orchids and the Harts and the Morrises too, and I shake my head at such marvelous ideas and laugh and laugh.

Perfume is indeed a form of art, a medium of artistic expression, a story unfolding its unique and ephemeral pages. And as it does, as we who love its art as we do, redefine those stories each in our own individual ways, every time we wear it and every time we breathe it.

Caravaggio’s works should have been so lucky.

For an entirely different take, I can highly recommend Legerdenez.

With thanks to Legerdenez, Lucy Raubertas, Alyssa Harad and Denyse Beaulieu.

Image: ‘La Dame et Le Licorn’, ‘Smell’, late fifteenth century Flemish tapestry, from the Musée du Moyen-Age, Cluny, Paris

A Waft of Woe

- Flotsam & jetsam, gratitude & anticipation 

The image above perfectly sums up the week I’ve just finished, although ‘lovely’ isn’t the word I’d choose…

Let me start by saying I’m fully aware that the frequency of posts (and no shortage of Way Overdue Reviews) has been sporadic these past couple of months. Ladies and gentlemen – I’ve had about two months of Mondays in that overrated dimension called ‘real life’.

Major changes and massive preoccupations have done everything they could to tear me away from what I’ve really wanted to do more than anything, and that was – for that matter, still emphatically is – to write. Three old-school spiral-bound notebooks – the kind that demand démodé pens or pencils and my own brand of schizoid Linear C handwriting – go where I do in case the Next Great Idea pops up out of the blue – three notebooks of three different writing projects that I plan to feed, water and grow into books. Although one of them you might know about, the other two are super-secret, and one of them involves – yes, you guessed it! – that nebulous, shape-shifting subject of…perfume.

My own collection – which seems to propagate like bacteria as soon as I look the other way – is packed away in acres of bubble wrap, electrical tape, bubblepak envelopes and cardboard boxes within a suitcase. My new (cute if tiny) apartment is being renovated from scratch, and until I can move in a few weeks from now, there they remain, whispering their secrets and haunting my dreams.

Meanwhile, life gets in the way…and this became patently clear this past week, when I’ve been glued to social media and the New York Times, frantic for all my extended family and friends in the Northeast US which received a sucker punch of its own named Sandy. I’m thrilled to say that they made it through in one piece, although not without consequences no one ever could have wished for. Sitting in my own cozy corner of Europe, snuggled up against the chill of winter watching the devastation wrought by the storm has broken my heart in several places, but if anything at all gives me hope, it’s that ‘we’ll be damned if we let this get us down’ attitude displayed by so many of those affected despite their devastating losses. If that’s not an inspiration and an attitude to emulate, what is?

The idea that I could ever inspire anyone at all blows me completely away. When it comes from two fellow perfume writers (and forces of nature in their own right!) I admire as much as the divalicious Perfume Pharmer and Portia of Australian Perfume Junkies, I have to puncture my ego, just in case!

Monica of the Perfume Pharmer – who has literally saved my own crocodile hide this year with her African Gold shea butter – interviewed me in a timeline format on Perfume Pharmer. If you ever wondered why I’m a bit strange, I blame my first babysitter…

Some time ago in a perfume exchange, I sent the fab Portia some Devilscent samples I thought she should have the chance to try. These perfumes are so outside anything in niche perfumery these days, I thought it could be interesting to find her take on them. That’s what we fumeheads do – spread the joys of our discoveries! Yesterday, she returned the favor by reviewing Olympic Orchids’ Dev no. 2 and Lil on the Perfume Posse, and interviewing yours truly on her own blog, Australian Perfume Junkies. (My own reviews are here and there.) I feel so privileged to have met and connected with so many hugely inspiring people through my perfume writing – and Monica and Portia are two of my own inspirations, so thank YOU, ladies! Reviews of two more Devilscents will follow…and more are coming in other venues, which is all I’m able to say for now. Stay tuned!

Two months ago, thanks to the kind of serendipitous networking that never happens except when it does, the book that inspired the Devilscent Project landed on an editor’s desk when I least expected – or was prepared for! – it. Although it wasn’t a natural fit for the publisher, I received the kind of feedback any aspiring writer would gladly kill for – and received several road maps for the final edit. So when I’m finally settled in my new digs, I’m going to buckle down and polish Quantum Demonology to a high and glossy patent leather sheen – when I’m not noodling with the super-secret perfume book and another project that isn’t perfume-related but something much more controversial. When a fellow writer throws down a gauntlet, issues a challenge and dares me to kick away a few boundaries, anything can – and likely will! – happen. “Your mission, should you choose to accept it…” And just like that, I did. Be afraid…

Anticipation is one of my most favorite emotions. There are four remaining Devilscent reviews, and I feel a pang in my heart just thinking about them. Opus Oils’ contribution, the mind-blowing Babylon Noir arrived right before my move, and on this side of the Atlantic, it’s caused quite the sensation among my adventurous-minded girl friends. Two more of Neil Morris’ showstoppers have yet to be reviewed, and my one regret is not just that I only have four DSP posts to go, but that until I move, I also don’t have the time or space to write about them, and it’s killing me – not softly!

I’m anticipating not a few wonders in the weeks to come, including Aftelier’s new Wild Rose (anything Mandy does is grounds for Major Anticipation), Serge Lutens’ Une Voix Noire, and yet more wonders from one of my newest discoveries, Juan M. Perez of Exotic Island Aromas and a few more novelties I should have written about months ago – some from another of my Primeval Forces that had me hauling out the hyperbole – they’re that good!

Most of all, I’m anticipating the simple joys of my own space, my own place under the eaves, and banging away until the cows come home without other distractions than Hairy Krishna. I’m looking forward to unpacking my perfumes and samples and wearing them all.  I’m looking forward to blasting the neighbors with vintage punk, classic metal and the new release from another favorite band. (I wore their last release to shreds!). I look forward to the day life returns to mostly normal for my self-selected family of friends in New York and New Jersey. I look forward to all those fragrant epiphanies I know lie in wait and…since I broke my little finger yesterday, I look forward to the day I can remove the splint and move my hand around without yelping! And last, but never least, I look forward to the day I can write about it all – so you, dear readers, can read all about it!

Falling Forward

 - an ode to my favorite fragrant Fall thrills

Autumn is one of my favorite times of the year. A little melancholy, slightly tinged with regrets for what might have been and what should have been done, autumn has also proven itself to be the season of cataclysmic change this year, a change so drastic, it’s been all I can do to hang on by the skin of my teeth and know…that all I can do is to go with the flow and give myself over…to evolution and the knowledge that from here on, life can only get more exciting.

And I can give myself over to the many pleasures of falling forward…into autumn, into the incendiary glow of golden-leafed trees, ruby-hued leaves, and the intoxicating sharp scent of burning wood fireplaces and bonfires, the smell of mushrooms and cepes sprouting up overnight, the sound and scent of apples falling to the ground, that looming breath of steel and stone that lurks beneath the colors and the chills in the air. Wrapping my chilly, wintry self into favorite woolen sweaters, and wrapping favorite scarves and mufflers around my neck, inhaling that palimpsest of perfumes worsted in the wool.

Autumn is also an excuse for hauling out the heavy, heady perfumes with which to slay the unsuspecting world – the ones I wear as I would wear cashmere, the ones that comfort and console me on rainy days and Thursdays, the ones I wear like scented armor, and all the ones I love…

Below, you’ll find some of my favorite autumn fumes, the ones that contain October  and November in their essence, the ones that trail behind me like the ghosts of autumns past as well as harbinger angels of the future possibilities that lie ahead, waiting for when life returns and all is green again.

L’Artisan Parfumeur – Seville à l’Aube

It’s generally agreed that Bertrand Duchaufour is one of the greatest perfumed geniuses alive today. His work has ruined me several times over this year, when I was introduced to Neela Vermeire’s breathtaking perfume odes to her native India and all three of them shot to the top of my Most Worn of the year list. Next came an introduction to L’Artisan’s Dzongkha – one haunting, numinous iris – and Sienne L’Hiver, no less haunting and evocative. They all broke my heart. But when I read of Duchaufour’s collaboration with one of my own inspirations, Denyse Beaulieu of Grain de Musc, and heard the fated words ‘orange’ and ‘blossom’, I was had at the first syllable. Oh! So imagine my anticipation when I moved in on a split of Seville à L’Aube blind (this very rarely happens any longer), and all it took to tip me over the edge was one fatal sniff…My full review will be up in a few weeks, but this mesmerizing blend of orange blossom, lavender and incense is …flawless.

Amouage – Memoir Woman

Something about autumn brings out my inner Goth, which is to say, that part of me that appreciates seriously depressed-mode music, rainy days, and lots of witchy black velvet. While I wouldn’t be so bold as to say Memoir Woman is Goth per se, I will say that it is a moody, magnificent, haunting perfume of a kind that tends to stick in the mind long after it wears off. I didn’t like it much at first, but I couldn’t stop sniffing. It reminded me of a advertising tagline I once cooked up for a story I wrote: “Haunted. What he will be.” Haunting, unforgettable, there is nothing quite like it and nothing quite like a love that grows and grows to haunt you.  As it has. As I have been. As I remain.

Serge Lutens – De Profundis

Some claimed that dear Uncle Serge had somehow lost his marbles when De Profundis was released, and I have no idea what mushrooms they nibbled, because De Profundis – inspired by the treatise by Oscar Wilde, death and funereal chrysanthemums – is simultaneously green, cool and impossible to forget. Incense, chrysanthemum and a mesmerizing icy green-tinged, tear-stained violet chill all add up to ‘spellbinding’ in my book, but if any Lutens is perfect for that delicious melancholy that pervades October Sunday afternoons, it’s this one.

Aftelier – Cepes and Tuberose

My first introduction to the fabled perfumes of Aftelier was Mandy Aftel’s justly famous and unorthodox Cepes and Tuberose, which is earthy, floral, spicy, heady bottled magic – or else a horror story of mildewed mushroom and airy tuberose. There is truly nothing at all else quite like it, and you either adore it or hate it. I have since that fatal introduction loved it so much, a mini of the parfum goes where I go and a dab often wafts as I breathe no matter what else I wear. It smells golden to me – golden as the maple leaves that now are turning red to bloom in midair and dance their leafy sigh into the ground.

Neela Vermeire – Trayee

Whether it’s the blaze of color or the sudden shock of chill in the air, there is something numinous about autumn, something that reminds you of the passage of time and the ephemerality of all life. When that sudden pang of mortality hits me with the delicate slap of a falling leaf, I often reach for Trayee, a swirling, whirling, spicy Mahabarata epic in a bottle, wit its fiery, feisty cardamom, a wink or two of sacred bhang, smoke, incense and samsara. In no time, my spirits lift and my mood improves, and I dream such faraway dreams of other times and other, sacred spaces.

A Trinity of Ambers

Autumn is also the perfect time for ambers…those glorious, heady, drop-dead sexy golden potions I once hated and now love with a fury that teeters on obsession. Three in particular hold pride of place in my amber-tinted Pantheon, and I’m not even sure I can bear to know there will be others in their wake. The Great Khadine, Serge Lutens’ Ambre Sultan, with its opening green bite and its sumptuous drydown, whispers its secrets in my ear, while Amouage’s Opus VI speaks its twisting, turning, ever-evolving tongues of wood flickering in firelight, and when I stand still and listen to the beat of my heart in the moonlight, Neil Morris’ Rumi trills its transcendental tale of another kind of sweet-scented magic.

Labdanum dreams

The ongoing Devilscent Project has completely changed my life around in more ways than one. I could talk about these unbelievable perfumes until the cows came home to roost, but the one note the Devil insisted upon to his perfumers was labdanum, a whole fragrant universe unto itself, and one of the oldest perfumery materials in the world. When life has been known to grind me down, Olympic Orchids’ spare, pensive Dev #4, which puts a magnificent labdanum in the spotlight, centers me as nothing else will, so even I can envision such luscious, labdanum things come true. As I do, I’m often taken back to a midnight moment in time, and when I am, another spicier, darker, more ominous labdanum-tinged marvel wafts forward, and that is Neil Morris’ Midnight at the Crossroads Café.

Olivier Durbano – Black Tourmaline

One reviewer on Fragrantica stated that Olivier Durbano’s Black Tourmaline was ‘for real men only’. This is absolute nonsense. For Black Tourmaline is a stunning mélange of leather and the darkest, deepest, smokiest incense you can imagine, and I’ve received many, many compliments when I’ve worn it, despite being nothing masculine in the slightest, not even in a tux. It’s as otherworldly as a fog-drenched November morning and as warming as a firelight glow at night, and when it goes, it will be missed, like November, like firelight, like a ghostly wisp of cloud bearing down to kiss the earth one last and final time.

More than any other season, autumn sings to me of time passing, of moments as fleeting as the bloom of glowing leaves dancing in a deep blue sky. When Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’ seems to match the tasty tristesse of a rainy afternoon, and when the smoky thrills of firelight and flame warm the soul through.

What are your autumn favorites? Or just…your favorite things about autumn? I’d love to hear about them!

With many thanks to…Andrea, Amy, Ruth, Christopher, Mandy, Ellen, JoAnne, Neil and Christos. 

Clarimonde Revisited

- At the crossroads of narrative, perfume and prose 

One of the greatest joys and highest privileges in my time as a perfume blogger has been the opportunity to participate in what I can only describe as …magic.

Instead of wrestling with concepts and angles, wondering how to write about any given perfume, the concept is already a given. Instead of wrangling ghosts in solitude, I could write away to my heart’s content, happy knowing that other bloggers wrote as I did, that perfumers felt as I do. As we did, as even I did, we each in our own ways created something that became larger, lusher and far more lustrous than any of us or our readers could have anticipated.

This was – and still is – known as The Clarimonde Project, named for the 1836 Théophile Gautier story La Morte Amoureuse, or as it was known when it was translated in 1907, simply – Clarimonde. The haunting, evocative story of the young priest Romuald who was destined for the seminary and had never known any other love than God’s, and how it all fell away in an instant the moment he looked up at his ordination and saw the celebrated courtesan Clarimonde and in an instant, all he knew and loved and believed fell away…or did it? Did he dream of his other, alternate life as Clarimonde’s beloved, or was it only too real and his old life as a priest of God the dream? Was Clarimonde simply a woman of incandescent beauty, or was she as Romuald’s abbot claimed, the vilest form of monster, renounced as vile as the sins Romuald surely  - or maybe – committed with her? Just as Romuald’s fevered prose, the story shapeshifts and changes each time you read it or listen to Joy Chan’s spellbinding reading of the story.

The Clarimonde Project is the brainchild of my dear friend and fellow blogger Lucy of Indieperfumes, and has since grown to involve not just some truly haunting perfumes, but also a Pinterest page and the inspiration for a masquerade ball and a three-day event at MiN New York to start on October 25th. Tickets to the event can be found here.

But it began…with the story, which can be read online here, or enjoyed as an audio file read by Joy Chan at this link, which is highly recommended.

It continued with bespoke perfumes, lipstains, and a dream pillow created by Monica Miller of Perfume Pharmer, Mandy Aftel of Aftelier, Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, Ayala Moriel Sender and the House of Cherry Bomb by Maria McElroy of Aroma M and Alexis Karl by Scents By Alexis.

So it evolved…into some of the best perfume writing to be found anywhere by some of the very best perfume writers in the blogosphere.

For the story of Romuald and Clarimonde – courtesan, woman, Woman or supernatural aberration – grew into other stories and other words, all of them a surrender…to the beauty of Gautier’s story and to the beauty of the perfumes that story inspired.

Of all my many, many words in my two years writing about perfume, I can say for myself that I have never written as I did for Clarimonde before or since. To this day, they all remain my very best perfume writing, just as the privilege to participate in something so special, so haunting and so magical is an honor I will cherish –  always. 

The Clarimonde Project on the Alembicated Genie:

Sangre – perfume and lipstains by Monica Miller: Blood and Kisses

Aftelier PerfumesOud Luban: The Sanctity of Solace

House of Cherry Bomb’s Immortal Mine: A Philter Perilous

Ayala Moriel Sender’s ‘Clarimonde’: Dreaming Venetian

Dawn Spencer Hurwitz‘ ‘Paradise Lost’: Reclaiming Eternity

The Perfume Pharmer’s reviews of
Oud Luban
Immortal Mine
Ayala Moriel’s Clarimonde
Dawn Spencer Hurwitz’ Paradise Lost

Jade Dressler

Deana Sidney’s (LostPastRemembered) post on Clarimonde, vampire lore and the perils of perfumed port

Scent Hive
Part One
Part Two
Part Three

Indieperfumes’ reviews of
Sangre
Oud Luban
Immortal Mine
Ayala Moriel’s Clarimonde
Dawn Spencer Hurwitz’ Paradise Lost

Beth of PerfumeSmellin Things: The Clarimonde Project:

The Clarimonde Project on WordPress

Clarimonde on Pinterest

Image: ‘Barbaric Red’ – via the Clarimonde Pinterest page, pinned from Hoop Skirts & Corsets

Afloat in a Chocolate Sea

-       a review of Aftelier Perfumes’ ‘Cacao’

Close your eyes and think of all the wonders Europe never knew until Hernán Cortés conquered the Aztecs.

Tomatoes, chiles, peppers. These are all fine, all good, but more marvels waited to slay the unsuspecting in the verdant jungles of the Yucatàn, and of them all, two in particular would have a lasting impact on the European culinary landscape. These nearly five hundred years later, both are so ubiquitous by now they’ve become bywords for opposite ends of a spectrum…one unassuming if pretty pale green orchid, whose fermented seed pods fired all our imaginations and that is vanilla, and the seeds of a small jungle tree that ignited passions, restored the mind, gave strength and stamina and was used as both currency and luxury tax. Say the word, and I can guarantee a whole onslaught of images in your mind…silky, smooth, sweet, sinful, and nearly impossible to resist…

Chocolate.

Where would we be without this delicious marvel of the mouth? One story of the conquest of the Aztec declares that Moctezuma drank fifty cups of xocoatl – a bitter, frothy drink of cacao, chiles and vanilla – a day, but then again, he also had 300 concubines. Surely, they drank xocoatl, too?

Here’s what I know – botanist Carl von Linné was surely giving himself away when he invented the name for the cacao tree. He called it Theobroma. The food of the Gods. Von Linné was (also) a lifelong, dedicated chocoholic.

Some of us are addicted to chocolate in its many forms – or simply chocolate in any form.

But to wear in perfume? Once upon a time, I would have said…not so much.

Nothing against dessert, it’s just I’d rather eat it than wear it, and when I’ve worn it, I’ve found myself wanting to eat it.

So it was until friend and fellow perfume blogger Carrie of Eyeliner On A Cat sent me a decant of Guerlain’s magnificent Spiritueuse Double Vanille. Arguably one of the greatest vanilla perfumes ever created.

When next she murmured…iris and white chocolate, I had to own that one, too. Since then I’ve adored chocolate notes in perfumes, so long as they’re a) not combined with patchouli overdoses (Angel, here’s looking at you) or b) and done with all respect to the divine cocoa bean.

Carrie’s nudge sent this perfumoholic over the edge!

Chocolate is never just…chocolate. It can be amazingly complex, floral, fruity, and densely aromatic – if not outright narcotic in a way that no other food item quite is, yet if anyone at all could turn that complexity of aroma into perfume, it would be Mandy Aftel, who has a spectacular talent for defining ‘aroma’ in new, daringly delicious ways.

Cacao is nothing if not…delicious. For the alcohol base for this perfume, she macerated cocoa beans specially selected by master chocolate maker Steve DeVries with a floral Tahitian vanilla for a full year.

Just the alcohol base for this perfume, and already this chocoholic is drooling on her keyboard.

Cacao is a marvel of a perfume, not only for the dedication to craftsmanship and the concept of chocolate that waiting a full year for an alcohol base implies, but also for the way it opens with a bright, trumpeting, clarion call of citrus – blood orange and pink grapefruit, say the notes – which isn’t what I expected from something called ‘Cacao’.

I expected a full, dark, silky chocolate kiss, and what I got was a wake-up call. Hello!

Citrus and chocolate are old, familiar friends, but Cacao has yet more surprises in store, because some time later, the real surprise – and the real genius of Cacao – kicks in for reasons I shall presently explain.

I don’t know precisely what kind of cocoa beans were used for that alcohol base. The three varieties of cocoa bean, Criollo, Forastero and Trinitario, which is a hybrid of the first two, have very different flavor profiles. Most of the chocolate consumed today is Forastero cocoa, but truly dedicated chocoholics have a preference for Criollo chocolate for its ethereal, flowery nuances, and these are precisely what Mandy chose to highlight with the inspired addition of jasmine sambac and grandiflorum, elevating an already lush and sensual  blend into the plush and downright decadent stratosphere of chocoholic gourmand heaven, and if that’s not genius, I don’t know what is. For all I know about jasmine (which is quite a bit by now), this combination of jasmine + chocolate was invented in some alternate universe where Willy Wonka’s Oompa Loompas sang into the blend in flawless harmony…‘What an inspired idea that is!’

As those glorious blooms fade into the twilight, the coup de foudre comes forward to take my breath away… the opulent, flowery wonder of Tahitian vanilla, those fatal, fragrant cocoa beans and somewhere along the way, my definition of ‘chocolate’ and my concept of ‘gourmand’ has once again been rattled to bedrock in all the best ways, and by Golly, I would so wear this to unnerve a fellow chocoholic, and by Golly, the guy wouldn’t stand an almond’s chance in a chocolate bath!

Cacao brought out the voodoo of Carrie’s inner child, and it brought out that gluttonous chocolate-loving side I usually try to forget. “All you need is love,” said Charles M. Schulz, before he went on “But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.”

Thanks to Mandy Aftel’s ‘Cacao’, it hurts even less, when this former gourmand-averse perfume writer wants nothing more than to swim this perfectly executed marvel and float in a fruity, flowery Xocoatl sea, where all the most delicious, decadent dreams always come true!

Aftelier’s ‘Cacao’ is available in parfum and eau de parfum from the Aftelier website. Steve DeVries chocolate wonders can be explored here.

Disclaimer: A sample of Cacao eau de parfum was provided for review by Mandy Aftel.

The Ghosts that Time Breathed In

-  a review of Aftelier Perfumes’ Sepia

In this overlooked corner of the old world, with it history dating back at least to Neolithic times, where the past can be seen in both buildings and landscapes, river valleys, stone dolmens and peat bogs, there’s no shortage of ghosts. Dolmens crowning hills or appearing in a beechwood glade, medieval castles fallen to ruins by a lake, the eerie, numinous presences haunting a peat bog on a midsummer midnight while the elderflowers exude their magical siren song of summer…there are plenty of ghosts if you know where to look.

But ghost towns, the abandoned ruins of towns left entirely behind, are something Europeans tend to tear down, plow over and rebuild, unless they’re kept for memorial purposes our ravaged history only wishes we could forget.

Yet in the US, and particularly in the Southwest, ghost towns abound, echoing what was once a gloried past in a brief and fleeting instant, when they teemed with life and dreams and hopes that maybe this time, maybe even you could get lucky, maybe even you could strike it rich and realize a dream before the veins ran out and the river ran dry.

I’ve seen a few ghost towns in my time in the US, deserted under a blazing sun and a searing blue sky, the tumbleweeds bouncing down the empty street in the wind that sweeps the past away but leaves the shell of it behind, where the coyotes sing their songs at night of dreams dead and abandoned to fade like the buildings that contained them, oh, so many years ago.

The ghost towns of the California Gold Rush of 1848 were also the inspiration for Mandy Aftel’s latest collaboration with Laurie Erickson of Sonoma Scent Studios on Nathan Branch’s blog, and here we have the result, Aftelier’s Sepia, her ode to the ravages of time and the beauty of decay found in those empty shells of life, dreams and hopes.

One of my favorite things about Mandy’ work is how it continues to surprise me, continues to evolve, and continues to reject all the obvious choices to expand upon and challenge our perceptions of both beauty and of perfume, for her perfumes are nothing if not surprising, unique and more often than not, uniquely resistant to analysis, but they are also always uniquely and surprisingly beautiful. Sepia is no exception.

How many times have you encountered a perfume that begins both light and dark? That sounds like such a contradiction, like some conjuring trick that can’t be done. Yet I tell you, it can and it has, because Sepia starts with a sunshine burst of citrus, that fragrant clarion call to awaken your perceptions and at the same time, the blood cedarwood adds its own brand of some dark and diaphanous wash of ink, damping down the sunshine, deepening the story to come, almost, as Lucy of Indieperfumes also noted in her review, as if it evolves in reverse, bringing forth hints of the base that recede like shadows beneath sunlight, shifting and changing.

Time never does stand still and neither does Sepia, emanating its many tales in a multi-hued and many-layered middle of lotus and jasmine, strawberry and cocoa and coffee that manage to elegantly sidestep any associations you might have of gourmand, all of them combined instead giving me one olfactory childhood association in particular that to me is uniquely American and that I have never, ever encountered before in perfume, one that exudes a distant, faraway memory of time more than almost anything else I know – and that is…sassafras. Not the taste of it – root beer will be the very last thing on your mind with Sepia – but the scent and ‘feel’ of it, with its floral high notes and earthy, unusual base, the coffee and cocoa added in such delicate amounts they never detract from the opulent jasmine or the otherworldly lotus, the strawberry somehow bridging that impossible leap between flowers and coffee, smoothing the path that lies ahead for the richer, darker base to bloom, flowering tobacco and spiky, woody oud, earthy labdanum and cepes anchoring it all somehow back to Earth and back in time, all wrapped around a golden base of ambergris that expands and enriches this ode to time and decay and evokes the sepia tints of long-ago and near forgotten daguerrotypes of lovers and sinners, losers and winners, memories of time, of space and of place. When thousands of dreamers with nothing to lose left everything they knew in search of a golden dream that was there for the taking and the daring, just waiting for discovery in the mountain streams of a state that even today seems more dream than reality.

I can breathe in Sepia and see it happening as I breathe, breathe it as I dream. I’m standing on that deserted street in that ghost of a town, seeing the sun-seared, time-blasted wood of the derelict houses that once sheltered those long-ago dreams of fortune and fame, hearing the wind whistle its way through them as the tumbleweeds dance and bounce. As I do, as I inhale and even I dream, I can sense how the color slowly seeps back into the landscape like a developing old-fashioned color photograph before my eyes, growing richer and deeper. Before long, echoes of sound are added, the shouts of lost voices, the whinny of horses and the rumble of carts through the dusty streets, of prospectors and miners returning with everything or nothing, gold dust and nuggets burning holes in their imaginations and their pockets or else scorching their broken dreams to cinders and ashes, charlatans and women lurking in the shady confines of the saloons and parlors, waiting to realize their own hopes and dreams in that flood of possibilities and gold in the hills. I can breathe Sepia and remember…all the ghosts that Time breathed in and soon forgot.

Yet no life is ever forgotten. All the ghosts of that forgotten town lay in waiting to be found and bottled by a perfumer who told their many tales and sent them on to a dreamer half the world away, who breathed it in and breathed them back to life and all of it entire contained in a perfume… called Sepia.

Notes:

Top: Blood cedarwood, yellow mandarin, pink grapefruit

Heart: Pink lotus, strawberry, jasmine grandiflorum, cocoa, coffee

Base: Flowering tobacco, oud, indole, ambergris, cepes, labdanum 

Sepia is available as both eau de parfum and pure perfume from the Aftelier website, where samples are also available.

Disclosure: A sample of Sepia was sent to me for review by Mandy Aftel.

Follow the process behind the evolution of Sepia and Laurie Erickson’s ‘Forest Walk’ on Nathan Branch’s blog series ‘Letters To A Fellow Perfumer’ here:

Part 1part 2part 3part 4part 5

Photo from Bodie, California.

The Surprise at the Top of the Shop

-   a review of Aftelier Perfumes‘Parfum de Maroc’

One of my recent obsessions this past spring has been Moroccan cuisine. This explains why I stood in front of an enormous spice rack on a busy day at one of my favorite local shops in town, a Lebanese market that stocks everything from addictive fresh-baked mahmoul cookies, baklava and orange flower water to nigella seeds, cherimoya fruit and bunches of fresh peppermint for tea. I had just bought not one, but three coffee grinders, one of which I would dedicate as a spice mill, and this Saturday morning, I had a mission: to make my own Ras al Hanout, the spice mixture that jazzes some of my favorite foods.

Which was precisely when I ran into a friend of mine, who works as a translator of Arabic and English. He cast a glance into my basket. Couscous, peppermint, Italian parsley, cilantro, those addictive mahmoul cookies, lemons, whole allspice, dried chiles, black and green cardamom pods, Ceylon cinnamon sticks, coriander seeds, almonds. “Ah!” he said. “You’re making your own Ras al Hanout! Don’t forget the rose petals!” He tossed a packet into my basket and gave me a conspiratorial grin. “That’s the secret, you know. Too many people forget. Do you know what it means?” “The top of the shop,” I answered. “Because that’s where the best spices are kept?” That made him laugh. “Only in Morocco. Everywhere else, it means a mortuary! You know, because they put you…on the top of the shop?” He winked. “But never mind…watch out for those mahmoul cookies. Roast your spices! And remember the rose petals! They make all the difference!” Whereupon he frogmarched me to the cash register and the very amused Lebanese he attacked with a torrent of Arabic and laughter concluding in a thirty percent discount on the contents of my basket.

The very top of the shop is also where you’ll find Aftelier’s equally delicious Parfum de Maroc, inspired by a journey to Morocco and that eponymous, addictive spice blend. No worries…this is most emphatically a perfume, and like all the very best perfumes, the kind of fragrant transport-in-a-bottle that enlightens the mind, enlivens the soul and exhales its own brand of exotic sunshine on your skin.

My own limited experience with Morocco goes no further than Casablanca, and the sensory shock of the market in color, sound and perfume under a blazing August sun I never quite forgot, and just as another perfume took me there in a sniff and a heartbeat, so does this one, although this is nothing like it.

The heat, the whirl and swirl of another culture living at a different, hotter pitch and timbre, all the striking, scorching color and fiery, feisty spice are all there right at the outset of Parfum de Maroc. A heady punch of ginger and its distant cousin galangal zaps your senses awake, followed by an exuberant orange, a mellow pepper and glowing over all like the Moroccan sun, a vibrant saffron smoldering its own kind of fire around the edges, which proves that spice is indeed…very, very nice. But Parfum de Maroc is no gourmand, does not have any edible associations, and as I’ve come to expect with Mandy Aftel’s creations, just as that delectable, spicy top accord fades, a most wondrous thing occurs.

Normally, when rose is immersed in a perfume, I know what to expect. It can be green, spiky, untamed, erotic, musky, lemony…even (here comes that word again!) spicy. Still – a rose is a rose is a…you get the idea.

Until I said that happy hello to Parfum de Maroc, I had never met a rose that hid so well behind its spice and light, flirty teases of jasmine, of nutmeg, a puff or two of dusky, dark cinnamon, and before I know it, the biggest surprise of all. It’s raining…dried rose petals! Nothing like fresh roses, these petals are earthy, warm, slightly dusty, underlining their inspiration and exuding their own kind of heat, glimpsed out of the corner of your olfactory eye in that faraway medina as if falling behind an ornate pierced woody screen of spice and cinnamon, a breath of jasmine caught from far away weaving its own ribbon of heaven into the mix. As those petals fade after a long while, the twilight descends. The blinding light and searing spice, the flowers that catch you by surprise, and the final curtain between night and day, cardamom and myrrh and rich, dark labdanum.

Where do all these fragrant colors begin, what could be said to describe Parfum de Maroc? It’s a tapestry woven to a memory of heat, color, light and perfume, it’s a vacation in a bottle, and it’s an exhilarating, happy aura to wrap around yourself on mundane, rainy days, when life conspires against you and you need that reminder – just like the spice blend, just like this perfume, you, too, belong only…at the top of the shop!

Notes: Bitter orange, fresh ginger, galangal, saffron, black pepper, nutmeg, jasmine, rose, cinnamon, cardamom, myrrh, labdanum.

Parfum de Maroc is available as a 1/4 oz. perfume and as an Eau de Parfum from the Aftelier website.

Disclosure: A sample was provided for review by Mandy Aftel.

Image: Peter Hammer, Redbubble. Used by permission.