Category Archives: Maria McElroy & Alexis Karl

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

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

A Harrowing Beauty

THE DEVILSCENT PROJECT  VIII

-  a review of House of Cherry Bomb’s ‘Lilith’ 

What makes villains so fascinating? Is it that they’re more often than not expressing something, doing or instigating something we ourselves would never dare? Don’t we all have that secret part of us that wants to be thoroughly, utterly b-a-d, just once, just to say we did?

I wonder what I might have been trying to say when Lilith appeared out of nowhere and made her presence known in no uncertain terms.

I wasn’t looking for her. I rather suspect she might have been looking for me…

Once we got to know each other, I felt a bit bad that maybe I hadn’t treated her entirely fairly. Maybe, as I told a friend recently, she was the quintessence of every she-dog I’d ever encountered – and I’ve known a few.

Maybe…she had it coming.

The principle. Darling.

And yet…even villains need a little compassion, a few lighter shades of gray in the mix, lest they become too predictable, too inhuman for a reader to relate to. The tragedy of Lilith in Quantum Demonology is the tragedy of so many women…the tragedy of making the wrong choice, of choosing the wrong guy, and then coming to terms with your own bitter disappointment – in yourself, which is always hardest to swallow.

So Lilith made a few bad choices, choices with consequences she could never have imagined, and I like to think that’s what makes her relatable even as the antagonist – throughout her long, long history with Dev, she paid a very high price for never daring to face that disappointment.

Instead, she chose to let the rest of the world pay for what she couldn’t face, and became Lilith, Queen of the Succubi, the ultimate female nightmare…and what would such a fabled, alluring creature be in a perfume? How would her character and her glamour be expressed and explored?

Where Ellen Covey painted her portrait in poison Da-Glo green, Maria McElroy and Alexis Karl of the House of Cherry Bomb chose to tell a very different story, one that glows equally vibrant but in an alternate key.

Make no mistake – this is lethal stuff. Maria and Alexis know far too much about blending the essential oil of danger with fever concrete and lust absolute, and this Lilith is no exception.

The Queen of the Succubi rules this perfume, that’s obvious from its shocking, unnerving beginnings all the way to…but I’m getting ahead of myself, and this will not do.

Floral and heady, leathery and earthy, with musky undertones and something else, something that smelled – poisonous, even tainted. It was very erotic and so domineering it cracked an olfactory whip at my nose.

 – From Quantum Demonology, ‘Latte with Lilith’

I will begin, as all stories should and perfume reviews, too.

With …the beginning.

Here she comes, black as night and blinding bright, making her presence felt with what I can only describe as a floral bouquet of carnivorous, rapacious blooms.

Beware the Polianthes.

She is out to devour you, get you as only she can when she gangs up with her equally heady, indolic ladies-in-waiting who lurk just behind her, wearing their sweetest smiles and their satin skins…the orange blossom breathing beautiful, the jasmine sighing a singular delicious promise she will never, ever keep.

Does this sound familiar, sound like something you might have breathed or loved before? Does it read as the well-beloved contents of a bottle you might even own?

I, who have survived this mortal peril in a perfume will tell you this for your own good:

You haven’t.

For no familiarity has ever graced these blooms that grew, were fed and were watered by the river Lethe, exuding their fatal majesty beneath a starless sky in Hell.  Breathe this perfume all the way in, and you will forget yourself as you breathe, forget you have ever known any other kind of splendor, forget all you ever were and everything you are. Forget the velvet-soft caress of those glowing moonlit petals, even as they slide across your skin and your soul and entwine themselves around you, you are far too transported to notice, even as they tighten, even as this sweet, honeyed breath threatens to stifle your own.

You will be lost, you will be doomed, and you won’t, you don’t, you are incapable of even thinking about the peril of your fate.

But there is more to Lilith than this, and as she tells this story you have never breathed before, she shifts in a stealthy, eerie segue to something equally sweet and even green, with heavy and heady intimations of musk that deepen and darken as she evolves, tinted ever blacker but never less than heavenly – or infernal, depending on your point of view. She growls her last on your skin hours and hours later with a bitter drydown that brands itself into your awareness and haunts those fevered dreams you can never admit in daylight to anyone at all.

I can guess what you’re thinking. Hyperbole, an overactive imagination, perhaps a glass of wine too many?

No. I am as sober as the empty page. It’s just …this perfume, you see, that takes away all common sense and all inhibition and haunts everyone it devours in its path.

I even like to believe that the silk scarf I forgot on my one date of the year, a scarf as saturated with Lilith as the rest of me that night to remember, will haunt the dreams of the one who kept it… forever.

You don’t mess with the Queen of the Succubi.

The House of Cherry Bomb’s ‘Lilith’ came with a sealed-wax admonition on scorched parchment paper:

“The secrets of the Succubi are bound in blood. The contents of this vial shall not be known to mankind. As sealed by Lilith.”

I’ve warned you. Will you listen? Or will you, too fall prey to the harrowing beauty – of Lilith?

With my deepest thanks and immortal gratitude to Maria McElroy and Alexis Karl.

Alexis has also been inspired by my Lilith to write this haunting song:

“Lilith – Live” (YouTube)

Image: Nadja Auermann photographed by Richard Avedon, 1995

Sweet Damnation

THE DEVILSCENT PROJECT IV

-  A review of Cherry Bomb Killer Perfumes’ submission ‘Dev’ for the Devilscent Project

We humans like to believe that we have codified, catalogued and categorized everything. Everything we think and feel and believe can be boiled down to the chemical soup of hormones, every original thought somehow classified by identifying which areas in our brains fire up in a particular sequence, and some day, even our most primal, quintessential selves will probably be defined by some biochemical equation that all adds up to – human.

Unless you happen to be an incurable romantic like me. I take my own perverse delight in knowing that not all that equates me can be so neatly defined, in proving I still have mysteries to decode.

Including the enigma of precisely what it is that sparks that phenomenon called ‘lust’. Lust as I define it isn’t passion (that comes later if you’re lucky), certainly not love (that comes later if you’re very, very lucky), and not quite the more polite term ‘desire’ either. What provides that spark-out-of-the-blue that makes you look again, that sets your imagination free, that catches on those half-overgrown train tracks of your thoughts and makes you wonder…what would it feel like, what would it be like, would he, should you…

You get the idea. My own idea about that particular ignition point would be this:

It may start with the eyes, but the nose…knows.

I suspect that idea played at the back of my mind that fated Friday night I plugged myself into my iPod and wrote the first chapter of what would become “Quantum Demonology”, and wove into my storyline an idea about a perfume so dangerous, so delectable, so sinfully sexy and seductive, only the Devil could ever wear it.

Since the Devilscent Project began, these nine perfume renditions of Devilscent have all shown me different aspects and interpretations of Dev in his many guises and moods, some haunting and haunted, some as bittersweet as all the best and most fatal love affairs, some fevered and erotic, all of them heartbreaking. Even the one on my skin as I type these words, but this Dev really does put the ‘dev’ in devious and defines that singular, insidious creature that lurks within us all and goes by a four-letter word…lust.

Maria McElroy and Alexis Karl of Cherry Bomb Killer Perfumes are no strangers to perfumed perdition, as they proved beyond all doubt when they participated in the Clarimonde Project last year with their ‘Immortal Mine’. I was convinced I would very likely never sniff anything quite so dangerous again.

Wrong.

I love it when that happens!

If Immortal Mine were the phantom of perfumed perdition, then this Dev is so downright incendiary, I’m surprised the contents of my little skull bottle don’t just burst into flames. Wearing it, I almost wish I would.

This is not anyone’s usual idea of that pop-culture creature of temptation. This Dev is damnation-in-a-bottle, lasciviously liquid like all the very best of love potions, as illicit and as delicious as sin, but you are helpless to resist it and wouldn’t want to even try. You know he’s a rotter. Your heart will be broken. There will be tears.

You don’t care. It will be worth it, if only in hindsight, if only to know that one instant, you knew precisely what it means to… burn.

Like all fatal fallen angels, he begins with sweet. I don’t have a list of notes – Dev came with a sealed-wax stamp and the words:

By Satanic decree. The essences of this elixir are not to be divulged to mortals. As sealed by Dev.

So I’ll wager the soul Saint Augustine claimed I don’t have and say…cocoa, a dark, decadent chocolate teardrop that sears away any leftover inhibitions and second thoughts and better judgments. What woman in her right mind could possibly resist chocolate? But chocolate is only the first of many veils and the first of many of Dev’s most dangerous disguises. Before long, an opulent, seamless floral note insinuates itself, orange blossom, rose, a heady jasmine, a touch of tuberose?

You were helpless to resist the chocolate, and the next thing you know, you are an equally hapless victim of all these flattering, flowery words. Breathe it all in and believe it, believe it will be beautiful, believe it will be worth it, believe that you’re worthy…

Believe.

Because as you do, you’re reeling on your feet, you’re so dizzy, so delirious with all these potent promises and perfumed wonders, you could almost fail to notice after a long, long while what other secrets this Dev contains, multitudes of layers unfolding like the pages of an arcane book, blooming in slow-motion like the very human and infinitely complex character he also is.

Vade Intro Satanas – let him all the way in now, now you’ve been lured to your fate by the temptation of chocolate, next you’re swooning in that heady, floral embrace with all its heavenly intimations and promises, and here comes that night-black, animal doom…labdanum and myrrh, frankincense and oud, dragon’s blood with their blast of heat and hellfire, and yet somehow above and behind it all, that sweet promise of chocolate that never quite fades away.

I could say it of this perfume, too – it lasts, it lingers, it seems to go on forever and even when it’s gone, even after days, in some midnight moment it will steal into your consciousness to haunt you, and you can breathe it in all over again and discover facets you might have overlooked before, be surprised as you rarely are, and you will never, ever forget it.

This Dev is a creature of magic both occult and very, very dark. Not black, not any preconceived caricature of ‘evil’, but something – or Someone – so much more than the sum of parts, something whole and entire, masculine and virile that constantly defies any definition of ‘black’ or ‘white’. Sinful and taboo, deliriously and deliciously verboten, he glows in those subterranean spaces where all desire is born and all lust begins and all inhibitions are silenced. The only way to know is to go, the only way to see is to dare, and he throws down the gauntlet in a challenge you want to resist so badly, but you can’t and you don’t and you won’t.

I had an idea in my mind when I first conjured up the Devil’s scent, an idea that has been manifested through the funhouse mirror of my brief and my story, and above all by the many and varied inspirations the perfumers have chosen to follow. Each of these Devils are very different, each have their own stories to tell and their own brand of perdition to exude, and above all else, each and every one of them so much more than I could have imagined, and so much more than I think I did imagine. Sniffing Maria and Alexis’ ‘Dev’, I am blown away (again!) by their interpretation, and so incredibly privileged they chose to share it with me.

Like the Dev in my story, this perfume is thoroughly damned. Like my protagonist, I sold my own soul for the one dream I have left. But this dream is no fiction, and this perfume is no dream, but a fervent wish I sent out into the Universe that was returned a thousand-fold. It is nothing I have any kind of reference for, nothing like anything else I’ve ever encountered, but then again…the best kind of perdition never is, is it?

See much more on the Devilscent Project and Quantum Demonology on our Facebook Page. or on the Perfume Pharmer’s overview page.

Find the astounding creations of Maria McElroy and Alexis Karl at House of Cherry Bomb. Maria is also the mastermind behind the beauties of Aroma M Geisha Perfumes.

Final words: Alexis Karl has informed me that they have future plans to launch ‘Dev’ as a masculine companion to Immortal Mine. Stay tuned for details!

Images: ‘Lust’, by Kaaaay at Deviant Art. Photo of Maria and Alexis’ ‘Dev’, my iPhone.

Primeval Forces of Perfume

In Quantum Demonology, there is a term for what the protagonist calls…primeval forces, a phrase that refers to those musical epiphanies that are above superstardom and even above musical gods on an altogether different plane of existence. The ones she can’t live without, ever. The ones who never leave her iPod playlists. Ever.

But I have them in perfume terms, too. And a recent Skype conversation with one of them brought the concept up again. Which made me think, something this particular august personage does quite well. So what creates such paragons of fragrant epiphanies – what does it take to elevate illustrious perfumers and creative directors into my nosebleed stratosphere? Who are they? And why do they loom so important – on my person, in my cabinet, in my perfume subconscious? Read on, and I’ll tell you.

Understand that once upon a time, although I used – and likely abused – a wide range of perfumes starting at age 14, I did not always have such a visceral, emotional connection with perfumes. I operated on the time-honored French principle of “Ça sent beau”… “It smells…good!”, and so long as it worked on my mood, my manner or my nefarious plans, often horizontal, then all was well, until…

Until I began reading about perfume on a scale I never had before. In those days, it was olfaction by proxy, since I couldn’t afford any, but at least I could educate myself, and so I did, right up to the moment I read about a certain Paris-based perfume house, whose perfumes were described as ‘bottled emotions’. For whatever reasons, that idea stuck in my receptive mind. How did you…bottle emotion? And which ones? What did they smell like? Would they be different than the ones I already knew and loved, if no longer owned?

If I only knew what I know now.

Since becoming a perfume blogger in earnest, I’ve discovered that emotions could indeed be bottled – good, bad, even horror! (Secretions Magnifiques, here’s looking at you!). My tastes have evolved to such an extent that I love all sorts of perfumes – greens, chypres, opulent Orientals, knock ‘em dead florals, woods, gourmands, ouds…you name them, I’ll love them. There’s still room for improvement – musk is a note I struggle with – but I’m all for…fragrant transport to …elsewhere and otherwise, to new horizons and time travel, too!

Primeval Forces, however, elevate themselves above the rest. These creations are the ones I will wear without fail and with total surrender, the ones that suck me into a vortex of wonder, the ones I never hope to be without again, the ones that define not just this perfume writer, but this woman – and this soul. Which takes a lot more than simply…smelling good!

1) In every peerless work of art, so say the discerning, there is a hint of..strange, some oddity that catches the eye, the ear, or the nose. True beauty will always be unusual, always make you pause and take another look, another sniff, another snag that catches on the cogwheels of your imagination and sends it down a new and unexplored path. So that whiff of…strange that compels you to breathe deeper, that stops you cold and fires your imagination, would be my first criterion.

2) Every artistic creation – or collaboration, and some of my Primeval Forces are – contains some detectable droplet of the minds that conceived it. You could say that there’s an invisible ribbon in these bottles that goes straight from the creator(s) to that secret, bedrock location in my soul that was waiting for this reminder to shoot towards the light of awareness. I have to sense the heartbeat(s) behind it, which could explain why I tend to gravitate towards the niche and independent lines these days. They rarely disappoint me.

3) All my Primeval Forces excel at transport and the unexpected…they surprise me, they show me wonders, they make me cry, they take me places I’ve never known before, and as they do, my world is somehow larger, richer and far more colorful for it. Some kind of seismic perspective shift occurs, and how I define ‘perfume’ will never be the same.

4) Last, but not least…inspiration! When the time comes to sift through my impressions and turn them into expression, do I find myself tearing my hair out, grappling with metaphor and simile, trying to say something new, trying to expand – if not explode – my limitations as a writer? If that’s the case, I know I’m on to something spectacular. The less control I have over my own creative process, the better the end result. The perfumes that remove that illusory ‘control’ and just write my review for me – these are the ones I know I won’t be able to live without!

5) Each of these houses and perfumers march to their very own and distinctive beat. This means they can be as ground-breaking and as creative as they please, and so they are. Each has their own style and signature, and each of them make only their own rules.

So here they are – my fragrant Primeval Forces. There is no hierarchy here, no order of preference – these perfumers and houses are all laws unto themselves, continuing to take my breath away and explaining in liquid and essence, why I love to live and live to sniff!

Parfums Serge Lutens/Serge Lutens & Christopher Sheldrake

When I first read about Serge Lutens perfumes, I had this cold chill of intuition…there was something there, some secrets I needed to know. Not many understand quite so well the compelling beauty of strange and spectacular, of redefining by deconstructing. When I finally had the opportunity to try them, my world view changed…forever. I’ve been amazed ever since and I remain amazed every time I wear a Lutens, for familiarity does not take away that thrill of discovery and epiphany. I haven’t loved all of them, and in a few cases not at all, but of those I fell for – nearly twenty at last count! – I’ll love them for as long as I live.

Aftelier Perfumes/Mandy Aftel

Encountering the marvels of Mandy Aftel was one of the happiest ‘coincidences’ of my life. Mandy’s perfumes are nearly impossible to categorize, which qualifies her right there, but that’s only where she begins to pull those rabbits out of her hat. Strangely beautiful, beautifully strange, earthy, shockingly sensuous and opulent or ethereal as dancing moonbeams, she always surprises me and never compromises on her artistic vision. I have yet to encounter an Aftelier that hasn’t blown me away. They compel me and inspire me and fortify me in ways very few other perfumes do, so much that I usually have one drop of an Aftelier somewhere on me regardless of whatever else I wear, just because it’s the final cross on this T!

DSH Perfumes/Dawn Spencer Hurwitz

Right when I thought I was fast becoming my own living anachronism, mourning the death of Immortal Green Chypres, along came hope in a bottle in the form of a sample sent by Lucy of Indieperfumes. That sample was Vert pour Madame, and repercussions could be detected as far away as Buenos Aires at least. Dawn’s epic range and vision don’t stop there. Her knowledge of perfumes through history is unparalleled, her recreations and her own creations are…peerless, and just as Mandy, she knows just how to pull the rug from under my feet and expectations and swipe me sideways in all the best ways. I’ve yet to meet a DSH creation I couldn’t instantly fall for with a vengeance. As indeed I have! She’s simply…THAT…great!

Amouage Perfumes

Luxury in this day and age has become such an overused, over-hyped word. Ridiculously overpriced, average perfumes sold on pretentious PR copy are not how I define it. My perfume budget is so low, it’s a joke, yet I’m not laughing. I was laughing the day I caught myself ordering two fated (and outrageously expensive) samples of Amouage with the thought that I would be impervious to the hype, I would simply let these two speak for themselves, and despite many warnings from the Greek chorus of my fellow perfume bloggers (who knew precisely what I was in for), I was convinced Amouage couldn’t possibly be that stupendous. Famous last words, for heaven help me – they are. Every single one of them! Since the arrival of Creative Director Christopher Chong, Amouage has made perfumes so plush, unique and persuasive (if not addictive!), that all I can do is shrug at my own bloody-mindedness and surrender to their charms. In the case of Amouage, I’m so easy, it’s ridiculous. Or I am!

Opus Oils/Kedra Hart

Opus Oils, to my line of thinking, should be a smash success if there were any justice in this world. Because Kedra Hart makes perfume – always in danger of being just a little precious and high-minded – f-u-n. That might make you think they couldn’t be complex, tell stories, or take your breath away. Not so. Look past the tongue-in-cheek vintage-inspired copy (not that I’m complaining) and you will find perfumes as stellar as any others on my Primeval list, as rich and as surprising and evolving. As I work my way through my samples of Kedra’s creations, my FB wish list is getting ever longer. That they are all so easy to wear and to love can take away the fact that they are so masterfully constructed, with a sleight-of-hand that makes the very difficult look so very artless – always the sign of a true, dedicated, epically talented artist!

Neil Morris Fragrances/Neil Morris

Neil is a recent addition to my Primeval list, although I’ve been aware of him for quite some time. My introduction to Neil’s art was through a Vault collection perfume, and it literally wiped me off the floor in a swoon. But distracted as I am by all the details of my quotidian life, even I can feel that cold chill brush of intuition that sings… “Here we go – again!” For since that fatal discovery, thank all the perfume Gods!, Neil and his titanic talents have joined the Devilscent Project, and what a revelation they both have been! No neophyte to the Dark Arts of perfumery, he has reduced me to tears with his mods, because…by golly, he gets it! All of it – the light, the dark, the joy and the tragedy of my story. Our common fragrant journey has only just begun, but I am so grateful to have such a talent to explore,l and so privileged to have so many wonders to anticipate.

Olympic Orchids/Ellen Covey

If my (mis)education as a perfumoholic began with reading perfume blogs and evolved with the discovery of Serge Lutens, then it was surely cemented (or I was doomed!) when I discovered Olympic Orchids. Ellen Covey and her scents – orchid-inspired and otherwise – have done so very much to educate me and astonish me as well as delight me. She was my first indie perfumer, and has since been a perpetual surprise. Her orchid perfumes are spot-on, true to life and utterly spectacular (just ask the head gardener of the Orchid House at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Copenhagen, when I came to visit as the cattleyas bloomed, perfumes in tow), and the rest of her range is no less magnificent. But then – since this is the trouble we both like to make when we can! – we cooked up the Devilscent Project…and neither of us will ever quite be the same. The four Devils she conjured – and the synchronicity of their creation in her perfumes and my words – have shifted some major ground in my world, which has yet another reason for never quite… being the same!

Maria McElroy & Alexis Karl, Cherry Bomb Killer Perfume

Trouble always awaits when you’re sent eight samples of a new line and you can’t say one bad thing about any of them, only that you want…one of everything, pronto! This happened last summer when I was introduced to Aroma M and the lovely Maria McElroy, but little did I know the epiphanies that awaited when she joined forces with her Cherry Bomb Killer Perfumes partner Alexis Karl of Scents by Alexis fame for the Clarimonde Project and their Immortal Mine, nor what I would be inspired to write because of it. (There’s another kind of novel in that story/review just begging to be written!). These two have the kind of spectacular creative synergy between them I can only marvel at, marvel and be grateful I’m privileged to write about it. Coming soon are my reviews of their contributions for the Devilscent Project, and if perfumes are perilous – as I’ve always fervently believed – then this Devil and this Lilith, Queen of the Succubi – are surely proscribed by a top-secret Papal bull!

Neela Vermeire Creations/Neela Vermeire & Bertrand Duchaufour

Even in niche perfumery, there’s no shortage of hype – or launches. I’m well aware of all the lines I have yet to discover, or the one I’m dying to. So it takes more than PR machinery, a luxury label and ditto price tag to convince this perfume writer. It takes…that ribbon, that soul connection, that Aha! moment. When everyone started talking in hyper-excited tones about a new trio of perfumes unlike anything at all else around the time of the Elements NY exhibition, a line inspired by memories of that storied sub-continent of dreams that is India, my nose pricked up. When my sample set arrived on a gray day of forever goodbyes, I wondered whether it might be a sign of new beginnings. It was. For the trilogy and evolving stories that swirl and eddy within Trayee, Mohur and Bombay Bling are indeed those singular, vivid and personal narratives in perfume we all say we want to sniff and all too rarely do. All three reached out, grabbed my heart in fated, fabled, fragrant hugs and wouldn’t let me go. Their intricate, many-faceted wonders are there to stay!

Tauer Perfumes/Andy Tauer

When it comes to Andy Tauer, I usually joke I want to parade him down Fifth Avenue in a sedan chair with an adoring crowd throwing rose petals. I doubt this would ever happen – or even that the very modest Andy would stand for it! – but it says something of the impact he has – or the seismic potential of his perfumes. They are sometimes challenging and always unusual, and have done so much to reinvent my own perfume vernacular, no matter what the context or the materials. Whether rose – and no one does roses quite like Andy – incense, lavender or amber, or just the olfactory bomb that is Orange Star, I’ve had to really push my words to describe them and the places they took me to, and that, too is another kind of genius and another unique talent for which I can never thank him enough!

Primeval Forces are personal epiphanies, the ones you can’t live without and wouldn’t want to try. The ones you can find on yourself when all you want to do is feel that sigh of perfection in a world that all too often is anything but.

Do you have Primeval Forces, too?

Best of the Best 2011 – Perfumes and Perfumers

If anyone had told me what kind of year I would have just three hundred and sixty four days ago, I wouldn’t have believed it. I would have believed it even less if I had known what magic carpet rides I would encounter, what places I would go, or what marvels I would breathe.

This has been an impossible list, impossible because there have just been so many discoveries and so many perfumes, perfumers and fellow bloggers I would have loved to have on my list, but if I wrote about them all – and surely, I’ve tried? – we’d be here until next year.

Instead, I’ve split my best of the best into three – this one, to celebrate the perfumes and perfumers I was introduced to in this momentous year, second, to celebrate my favorite reading material/avoidance actions/friends and facilitators, and third, a tribute to the ones I wore with a passion and loved with a fury. The perfumes I mention in this post have been without exception released this year, which meant omitting others that were released previously, but they’ll receive their own mention in Part Three. It also means that in spite of other important releases issued, I’ve only mentioned those I’ve had the opportunity to try.

Indie Love!

My heart belongs to the indie perfumers of the world. With a few notable exceptions, the idea of handling a perfume bottle that has been touched by the hands that made it, the mind that conceived it, the perfumer who wrote me, wrapped it up and sent it to me, Ms. No One In Particular, makes it that much more…special.

All the indie perfumers who have made it to my Best of list put the ‘mano’ in the Italian phrase ‘fatto à mano’, made by hand, made with love, care and ‘ àl ‘onore della m’arte ’ – “in honor of my art”, an art that mainstream releases all too often ignore in their mercilessly commercialized hunt for the Next Big Thing.

It is a dedication I have rarely found until this past year, a dedication I had all but given up on ever finding again. When you support the indies, you support the artists themselves instead of filling the already overstuffed coffers of Sanofi, Proctor&Gamble, LVMH…

Support your indie perfumers, and you support a commitment to quality and artistic vision that even the Fragrance Foundation itself has now acknowledged with a category all its own. For a reason – the indies are…that good! They do it without much advertising, but only simple editorial write-up (if they’re lucky to get it), reputation/word of mouth and a little help from the blogosphere.

The Perfumers

This was the year I discovered the staggering creativity of American artisanal perfumery. Granted, I had a lot of help to point me in that direction, but geez, Louise…the scope, the breadth, their sheer jawdropping, sleight-of-hand artistry…

Each has their own personal signature, that singular touch and aesthetic vocabulary that makes them instantly recognizable.

This being my own year of Great Epiphanies, I’ve decided that rather than single out one of them, I’ve put them all up on the Number One spot. Ladies – you have all won my heart and undying loyalty to my dying day, and I can’t ever imagine a perfumed life without any of you!

Mandy Aftel, Aftelier Perfumes

The early morning I found an email from Mandy Aftel in my inbox redefined that lovely Yiddish word…’plotz’. Yes, I did. I had read reviews, I had perused her website, I had some intimations of what to expect…so I thought. Nothing could have prepared me for the olfactory shock treatment my Jacobsens’s organ had in store. Mandy’s perfumes redefine sensual shock treatment. Mandy had an amazingly creative year – with Haute Claire in her collaboration with Liz Zorn, with Oud Luban for the Clarimonde Project, and with Secret Garden, her tribute to the classic florals of yore in collaboration with Dawn Spencer Hurwitz. Heaven help me, I love them all. Mandy herself has been a constant encouragement and inspiration for me this past year, and for that, I love her, too!

Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, Parfums de Beaux Arts

Where does Dawn Spencer Hurwitz quit? I mean…where does she quit? First, she blew my mind with Vert pour Madame, a throwback to my most favorite ever perfume family, the green floral chypre, and next, she created the Cities of Splendor collection in a unique collaboration with the Denver Art Museum, and then…she gave us Pandora, her staggering ode to Mousse de Saxe, and to top it off, she also gave us Paradise Lost for the Clarimonde Project. Not one I couldn’t love, not one I couldn’t rhapsodize about until the cows came home, not one misstep. Dawn’s perfumes will surely be the death of my borrowed credit card. Or me, whichever comes first.

Maria McElroy, Aroma M

Maria is someone who somehow manages to bridge the gap between the time-honored art of Japanese perfumery and thoroughly modern Western scented sensibilities. Her Geisha perfume line of eaux de parfums and perfume oils is incredibly diverse and heart-rendingly beautiful, and therapeutical, too! She outdid even herself when she gave us Geisha Amber Rouge, a thick, heady, all-out outrageously opulent take on her famous Geisha Rouge (another favorite of mine), but she also created Immortal Mine for the Clarimonde Project with Alexis Karl, with whom she makes Cherry Bomb Killer Perfumes. Maria has become very dear to me and she is as lovely in person as her breathtaking perfumes.

Kedra Hart, Opus Oils

I have reasons to suspect that Kedra Hart conjures up an imp for every perfume she makes, because in every Opus Oil perfume I’ve ever tried, it sneaks out and makes me write things or imagine things I never dreamed I could. Mischief and mayhem, time travel and Tiger, and I never know where I’ll end up, but it will certainly… be so much fun, I have to do it again. And again. Kedra, too has had a banner year…with her soliflore collection of good-time gals Les Bohemes, with her Wild Child that won the Patchouli Summer of Love award (and put the POW! in patchouli), with Starfucker for her house model, Tiger the Tempter, and with her latest amazing creation, the world’s first perfume for anosmics, Eau Pear Tingle, which I can’t wait to try. Had I but known that perfumed perdition could be so much fun…and I suspect, there will be…many more imps to come! And a Tiger. And other hazards to my sanity…

Honorable Mention:

No slight is intended to either Liz Zorn of Soivohle/Acoustijuice or Neil Morris, except to say I have been thrilled beyond measure and compare to explore two more lines I had never had the opportunity to try. Expect to see reviews of both Liz Zorn and more Neil Morris in the coming year!

Best Mainstream Niche:

The three that made it to this part of my list are both made by houses that hold a special place in my heart – Amouage and Serge Lutens. What’s worse is that I’ve only reviewed one of them, which will be amended shortly. My opinion is definitely in the minority, but I don’t care – they are each of them the reason I love what I do.

Vitriol d’Oeillet, Serge Lutens & Christopher Sheldrake

Serge Lutens released Jeux de Peau, Vitriol d’Oeillet and De Profundiis this year, and much as I liked Jeux de Peau with its burnt toast, melted butter and delicious sandalwood drydown, I loved Vitriol so much, I arranged for a decant…and drained it. I’m no stranger to the old-fashioned splendors of carnation, but not many carnations have surprised me so consistently as this one, from its pepper punch opening to its silky-smooth drydown and its hourglass shaped development.

Honour Man & Honour Woman, Nathalie Feisthauer, Alexandra Carlin, Violaine Collas with Christopher Chong, Amouage

One thing to love about Amouage is how their perfumes tell two sides to the same story from a masculine and a feminine perspective. Inspired by the final act of ‘Madame Butterfly’ as a filial tribute, they both represent something new – the resinous, black pepper explosion of Honour Man, and the love letter to the big, white floral feminine that is Honour Woman. Both beautifully rendered, both surprising, both stunning. As for the ex who drained my sample of Honour Man to the last drop…he can buy his own!

Favorite Indie Trend:

Once upon a time, I gave up hope that anyone, anywhere would ever love the Green Fiends of yore as much as I did. Was I ever…wrong! I came to discover the marvels of Puredistance Antonia, Aftelier’s breathtaking conciliation of galbanum and ylang ylang, Haute Claire, and Dawn Spencer Hurwitz’ Vert pour Madame and Pandora. Green is the color of hope, and all of these give me just that. If I were to look into a magic mirror and predict what might lie ahead, that rediscovery of green would be one trend, but more importantly, I believe that indie perfumers are rediscovering the inherent challenges and thrills of the all-out, opulent florals…as we saw with Aftelier’s Secret Garden, or the opulent Oriental, such as Aroma M Geisha Amber Rouge.

Worst Mainstream Launch of the Year:

Chanel no. 19 Poudré

I had such high hopes for this one, was so excited to try it, and was so unbelievably let down. What on Earth were Chanel thinking when they decided to give Chanel no. 19 a makeover? Yes, it’s difficult, yes, it’s different, and yes…it’s an icon for a reason. So they took my beloved no. 19, which I’ve worn for almost thirty years without fail, filleted it, flattened it, and added an overdose of baby powder to make it more palatable for the mainstream consumers who might be intimidated by the original. I was hoping for a no. 19 Eau Premiere. What I got was a pale, wan, semi-starved seventeen-year-old who photographs well but is very vague in person. Me, I’ll take intimidation any day of any year.

Worst Advertising Idea, Ever:

Nothing against the lovely Natalie Portman, you understand, but I am…in an outrage of epic proportions when I see that Dior has now dropped the ‘Cherie’ from Miss Dior Cherie and is now promoting it as simply Miss Dior. Now, an entire generation will equate this hot, synthetic strawberry mess with the perfume that made Dior famous. This is superbad in the worst possible way.

Best Mainstream Launch:

Bottega Veneta

Color me surprised. When a fashion brand best known for its hyper-luxe gloves and woven-leather handbags launched its own eponymous perfume, I had no expectations whatsoever. So I was in the perfect place to be taken aback by the restrained, elegant and very ladylike Bottega Veneta, which is nowhere so restrained it’s boring, but also so consistently well-made, it’s easy to love, even for this cranky leather fan. I might even buy it, so long as I get a handbag, too.

Coolest Fusion of Fumes and Phrases:

When Lucy of Indieperfumes asked me to participate in the Clarimonde Project in time for Halloween, thrilled was not the word to describe my reaction. A vampire story unlike any other, an immersion into the netherworld of dark and light, faith and passion – what wasn’t to love about that idea? Seven bloggers, six perfumers, one story and a kind of synergy I have a hard time describing, but some kind of magic occurred along the way, something very special was created in both perfumes and words, and in several compelling ways, I’m not quite what I was that day I wrote her back to say I’d love to be a part of it. Monica Miller of Perfume Pharmer, Mandy Aftel, Ayala Moriel, Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, Maria McElroy and Alexis Karl all rose spectacularly to the challenge of being inspired by Théophile Gautier’s 1836 story, and it was all this blogger at least could do to hope I was up for doing each of their creations the justice they deserved. Certainly, Monica, Trish of ScentHive, Lucy, Beth of PerfumeSmellin’ Things, Jade Dressler, Deana Sidney of LostPastRemembered and I pulled no punches each in our own ways to dive into the vials and wrest their interpretations of the story from them. All  – the words and the perfumes – happily coalesced into a special kind of magic I will always feel proud to have been a part of.

Most Dangerous Perfume of the Year:

Maria McElroy and Alexis Karl, Immortal Mine for the Clarimonde Project

I have reasons to suspect that on occasion, not even the perfumers involved in creating a perfume are entirely aware of just what genie they’re unleashing upon an unsuspecting world. The term ‘mortal peril’ is a bit of a cliché in perfume terms, but in the case of Immortal Mine, take my word for it – it’s no cliché here! I broke that dripping, blood-red wax seal and my blood immediately ran icy cold and scorching hot. Even now, I get goosebumps just thinking about it. Magic, mojo, that blood of a slayed Wyvern, the soil from an unmarked grave…whatever else they put into Immortal Mine, it is, hands down, the most dangerous thing I’ve smelled all year, and likely ever in my life. They will have to wrest this one from my cold, dead hands if they can…or bury me with it, so I can haunt my descendants!

Stay tuned tomorrow for Part Two – and more favorites of the year! And tell me, what were your best and worst of 2011?

Image: The Coronation crown of King Christian V of Denmark, made in 1670-71 by goldsmith Paul Kurtz in Copenhagen. This is the crown depicted on all DK coins and it is known as ‘The Crown of Absolute Sovereignty’. Image from the Royal Danish Collections at Rosenborg Castle, Copenhagen.

A Philter Perilous

THE CLARIMONDE PROJECT

- a tale and a review of Maria McElroy and Alexis Karl’s ‘Immortal Mine’, inspired by ‘La Morte Amoureuse’ by Théophile Gautier

Such sadness in our village when Curé Romuald passed away and finally found his peace with God. You must understand how important he was, this gentle man, who seemed to live all his life under some impenetrable, black pall of melancholy and we never knew its cause, can perhaps even say, now that he is gone, that we knew him not at all.

So many of us had never known another curé, never known of a time when he had not somehow been present to comfort our ill, to ease our poor, to speed the dying onward to their heavenly reward, there to name a new soul into his flock, or to bless the union of some of us, in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer.

I had myself been one of them, welcomed into his congregation as a babe, recited my dutiful Hail Marys at First Communion, been blessed by those heartrending eyes the day I wed my Pierre, only to bury him with our infant son a mere year later on a desolate winter day of wind and snow.

That day, I stood by the newly dug graves of both my loves, and I wept my bitter tears of loss, and that day, Curé Romuald offered me a purpose and a reason to drag my unwilling soul through the sorry remainder of my life, rather than hurl myself, my hate and my fury at God for my loss onto Pierre’s simple pinewood coffin and never rise again. It was not to be, said Curé Romuald, for God has his reasons we mortals could never know, and there he was without a housekeeper, and I without a home, a husband, a babe in my arms.

It came to pass that I, the widow Séverine, came to the presbytery and never truly left it since.

In all our years together, Curé tended his parish and his duties as our shepherd, and in all our years, he took very great pains to ensure all propriety was observed. He taught me my letters and to read in Latin as well, and when I had become certain enough of my new skill, I would often read to him from those few books he collected, stories from the greater world outside our village or fantastical tales of angels and demons, epics of lost empires, mellifluous poems that flowed like rivers of words, singing their songs of good and of evil.

I remained in this humble presbytery these ten years on, ten years of tending a man so utterly unassuming, so modest, he gave his small stipend to his parishioners rather than use it for himself. I cooked his meals, I darned his vestments as well as his socks, and on those long winter nights that stretched before us as endless as eternity itself, I would read to him those tales, those stories, and all the while, I never knew, never knew…

The Abbé would surely make some small provision for his belongings, so it came to pass that I sorted through his trunk of clothes, the black wool serge worn to a shiny finish, the countless darns of his shirts beginning to fray with age and use and laundering. I set them aside for the rag merchant, unless the Abbé wanted them returned, but surely, they were far too worn for that?

Strange, one of his coats was rather heavier than it should be, and as I unfolded it, I discovered a large box, made of some foreign, fragrant wood and exquisitely carved in a phantasmagorical, vine-like pattern on all sides, a pattern that seemed to play tricks on my eyes as I looked, one moment losing that flowery, fluid vine, and the next, there it would be, nearly vibrant and alive on that strange box, with neither lock nor key to open it.

Ten years of thorough house cleaning and tidying and laundering had made me believe he had no secrets for his housekeeper, yet this box I had never seen before. I pulled at the lid and it came off with a long-forgotten sigh and a whiff of perfumed wood.

Nestled inside was a length of dark red velvet, so sumptuous, so outrageously opulent in these poor surroundings, so rich, it glowed in the afternoon sun through the window like the ruby-tinted pelt of some otherworldly animal. I ran my fingers over it and they tingled with a newborn pleasure as I did. The velvet, too, seemed almost to breathe beneath my fingers, and nearly powerless to stop myself, I pushed the velvet aside and saw what it concealed, what secrets the box had kept all these many years.

A sheaf of papers written in the Curé’s hand, but with an intensity to the blackness of the lines and the haste with which his pen had formed the letters on the page I had never seen before.

If I could yet say I would come to regret that moment in time when my life changed so utterly and forever, there might yet be some redemption for my soul, but I had buried it with my husband and my son. I did what any woman would do. I sat down on that narrow bed, and I read the story on those fevered pages.

All these years, the Curé and I had shared this roof, and I had never guessed at the length and the breadth and the scope of the passion and the torment contained within those words. Yet they explained so much of his unrelenting melancholy state, his utter desolation at losing God and gaining a knowledge he had been better off without, a knowledge of pleasures and palaces, a knowledge of a woman – or a beloved monstrosity named Clarimonde.

Underneath them a flash of gold sparkled, a locket that contained a painted portrait of a woman, an eerie, strange beauty with hair much the same shade as my own, and below, a philter of clear glass, sealed with a blood red wax seal that dripped down its sides, stamped with a ‘C’. It was an oil of some kind, some sacred relic for a rite I could not imagine, a shade of dark amber no less magnificent than the velvet that concealed it.  I opened it.

It was a perfume. I had no knowledge of such grand and costly things, owned none of my own apart from the Marseilles soap I used in the household over the Curé’s insistence that lye soap cost rather less. Yet I inhaled it, then with a compulsion I could neither comprehend nor articulate I applied a precious drop to my skin, and as it warmed to my skin and I breathed, I felt my heart and soul expand and my blood roil dizzying in my veins, I felt my heart beat in my chest as I had not these ten years past, I felt as I could imagine my poor Curé at the day of his ordination as he gazed upon Clarimonde, when all he knew and thought burned to cinders before his eyes, when all his old self fell away.

All my old life of these ten years past was torched in a moment in a roaring conflagration by this perfume that bloomed upon my skin. Was this her perfume, or was this her captured soul that once had lived and beat and flamed undying for my Curé in his youth?

In this philter made of glass were all the secrets of all women throughout time, women who loved and lived and laughed, women who dared dangerous, sinful, decadent things. The glories of the entire world were captured in its amber depths, orange blossom and jasmine in foreign garb, spices that sang their many different songs of a burning Oriental heat, herbs that now would grow fragrant forever more, precious, dark woods from mythical trees thought only to exist in fairy tales, a dragon’s kiss and a unicorn’s heart and all of it entire, all of it the sum of a desire which could scorch to ash in an instant.

This perfume exhaled that danger, that ruby-hued desire and its epic depth and everlasting dark, it whispered its secrets on my skin even as my old self, my half-dead self and all my half-lived life went up in flames. I rocked half-moaning on the Curé’s bed as I learned all I never knew in a single breath, as I knew what I would now be compelled to do, as I breathed in that long-lost soul of that unknown face in the locket.

This little philter in my hand and its contents on my skin could compel the world entire to do my bidding, and not one soul would realize the perils of that compulsion, would comprehend this magic to my hand, invisible, yet compelling, tangible yet untouchable, a cousin to the grief I still felt for my poor Curé. This philter contained a magic so perilous yet so masterful only a woman would know to harness its infinite power.

A woman had worn it. Very well, a woman would wear it still. As I carefully closed the philter and wrapped it carefully in the velvet in its costly box with the papers and closed it, I knew what task I had before me.

Clarimonde had died and the Curé had died with her, tormented all his life by what he knew. What I knew was that now, my time of mourning was over, my losses behind me like all my other, careworn life.

I should go to Paris, once the Curé’s affairs were settled, I thought. I thought many things as I went about my tasks in the days that followed, thought of a future I could now believe in thanks to a captured love in a small glass philter.

A man had lost eternity, all for a woman. He was gone, yet I remained, and I would go out into the world, and claim my own eternity back, all thanks to a philter most perilous, and the soul it contained, and sorrow could touch me nevermore.

Notes for ‘Immortal Mine’: Soil from an unmarked grave. One single drop of blood from a slayed Wyvern, the sweet elixor of dying jasmine and fading neroli. Amber found in ancient tombs of civilizations lost. Longing. Essence of smoke from the funeral pyre. A cut of material from Bela Lugosi’s cape, the dust from a bat’s wing. Wood resins gathered from the Forest of the Dead, myrrh scraped from the cliffs of the Dark Realm. Precious ouds unearthed from burning desert sands. Wax dripping from balck, white and pink candles, ashes of a Phoenix, words froma dead poet’s mouth. Rare herbs found in a cathedral’s forgotten garden. Desire.

‘Immortal Mine’ was made exclusively for the Clarimonde Project and is available in two sizes from Indie Scents and also from the House of Cherry Bomb /Aroma M studio in Brooklyn.

Disclosure: Sample was sent to me by Maria McElroy and Alexis Karl for review.

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

Jade Dressler

Deana Sidney’s 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 Gehring’s post for Perfume Smellin’ Things:

The Clarimonde Project

Painting: ‘Portrait of a young woman’ by Henry Fuseli, 1781. Photo: my iPhone.