Category Archives: perfume review

La Dame aux Camélias

camille2

- a review of aroma M Camellia Perfume

Very nearly every moment of our everyday lives, we are surrounded by functional fragrances. Items we use every day are scented, from cosmetics to detergents both personal and quotidian, from dish soap to body washes and hair care products.

Once in a blue moon, it happens one of these seemingly everyday fragrances is so good, so euphoria-inducing and mood-improving, I for one catch myself wishing they could be made into a perfume I could wear. If that proves impossible, I simply do the obvious if I can… wear it as perfume.

This was emphatically the case last year, when perfumer Maria McElroy of cult favorites aroma M perfumes and House of Cherry Bomb successfully ventured into cosmetics with her Camellia Oil line of hair, facial and body oils.

Not only do each and every one of them rank as among the best, most luxurious and effective products I’ve ever applied to my face, hair and body, they also contain the same fragrance, a celestial blend of jasmine, gardenia, neroli, geranium and rose, all anchored by a heartstopping, glorious frankincense that isn’t smoky in the slightest, but instead sparkles with all its luscious, shimmering lemony-earthy-green facets. If that weren’t enough, they also contain camellia oil, the beauty secret of tsubaki-abura that has kept Kyoto’s geisha beautiful for centuries.

It goes without saying I used up almost all my samples to the last drop for both reasons – they were simply that good!

Maria’s background as an aromatherapist was evident in the fragrance she created for her Camellia Oils. Who better than an aromatherapist would know the lure of luxurious self-pampering doesn’t end with how effective a product is, but also how it makes us feel when we anticipate its pleasures? In this case, mirror-finish, satin-smooth, healthy hair, and likewise glowing, velvet-soft skin from top to toe, and last but never least its transporting, heavenly fragrance?

After the many deserved accolades from beauty blogs, perfume writers and editorials and countless requests from her customers, she took the obvious next step and made a dedicated perfume available as both a high-concentration eau de parfum and a perfume oil like her other perfumes from the Geisha line.

So here it is on my desk in both versions – the eau de parfum and the perfume oil (a form of perfume I’m certainly addicted to, because it never overwhelms and lasts and lasts).

A lot can be inferred about my anticipation by my reaction the day I received it. Dear readers, I tore into that envelope with alacrity.

This was one of those occasions when I simply knew by hope, instinct or experience that it would not simply be good. It would be – so I hoped – at least as beautiful as the products that inspired it.

My hopes were not wrong.

In nature, for all their definite visual appeal (which even Coco Chanel incorporated into her aesthetic), camellias have no discernible scent. But if I were ever given goddess-like powers to decide what hitherto unscented blooms would smell like, I’d waste not a moment’s hesitation in decreeing:

camellia2

As for camellia, let it be this…

Camellia Perfume is a sibling of another perfume Maria created in collaboration with her House of Cherry Bomb colleague Alexis Karl. That perfume is Lil (for the Devilscent Project), an outrageously opulent floral bombshell, but Mademoiselle Camellia is nowhere so outrageous yet every bit as floral.

Instead, she seduces less by her presence but by her charming and seamless floral bouquet of classy, classic blooms; jasmine, neroli, gardenia, rose and geranium, which gives them all a viridian, fresh daytime edge, a flowery deep breath to invigorate and inspire you. The gardenia note in particular is slanted sparkling green by the geranium and does all it can to make those flowers sing.

Sing they certainly do from top notes to finish some long time later, but they also have an orchestra of luscious frankincense to accompany them. And such a virtuoso performance it is, too.

Frankincense, used for its fragrance for at least the past 5000 years, can veer in several directions in a perfume. With labdanum (another ancient perfume ingredient) for instance, it can be smoky, sensual and lascivious, yet here, it has been used as my most favorite frankincense type of all: the pure scent of the boswellia resin itself. Frankincense as it is used in perfume comes in three different varieties, each with its own olfactory profile. I’m not aware of what type of frankincense Maria used, but from the way it appears in Camellia Perfume, I’m going to wager my most favorite kind: Silver Omani, with its glorious piercing, pure lemon-meringue pine aroma, wrapping up those beautiful blooms with a bright, satin plume of happy, not at all a bad way to characterize the perfume itself, either.

As I’ve worn it these past few weeks, I came to discover Camellia perfume has a singular effect on my mood. In a September filled with not a few trials and tribulations, either of these versions has performed wonders in taking me to a happier, calmer place.

I said it before, I’ll say it again.

This is a perfume full of joy.

You now have no excuse for playing Camille or even paying homage to her real-life inspiration, the 19th-century courtesan Marie Duplessis.

But do spread a little happiness where and when you can, by paying your homage to this new and utterly delicious…

Dame aux Camélias.

Aroma M Camellia Perfume is available directly from the aroma M website as a high-concentration eau de parfum or as a pure perfume oil in a bottle that pays its own homage to yet another camellia lover.

Notes: Neroli, jasmine, gardenia, geranium, rose, frankincense.

Photo: Greta Garbo in the 1936 MGM George Cukor classic Camille. I like to think she’s sniffing this perfume. Duotone creation by me.

Disclosure: Samples of Camellia Perfume were sent by Maria McElroy. I’m not worthy.

Perfume Botox

kim-novak-ralph-crane-shoot-1958-1 – When perfumes become holographic

In the life and times of a perfume writer of a certain age in an era where perfumes are launched (and sometimes relaunched) at breakneck speed, it makes a certain kind of sense to stay away from heartbreak.

The heartbreak of venturing into the Brave Old World of vintage perfumes, that is. I leave that to my justly celebrated colleague and friend Barbara Herman of Yesterday’s Perfume, author of the likewise celebrated Scent and Subversion, who has jogged my own memory of perfumed glories past we used to wear more times than I can count, bless her.

But memory and perfume are so intimately entwined and so mutually evocative, even hardnosed post-punk cynics diehard optimist romantics such as I can sometimes be caught unaware. Especially concerning those beauties we wore once upon a storied time when we were less cynical, less heartbroken and perhaps far less inhibited by what we now know of perfumes and their history, never mind the way those perfumes have defined and underlined our own.

This was brought home to me in more ways than one when I received an anonymous package recently. It had no identifying marks or a sender’s address on it, even, and at the time I wasn’t expecting anything from anyone.

As soon as I opened it, however, I knew. The package came from my sister, and inside, to my own huge surprise, was a bottle of the current version of one perfume that really has defined me in ways great and small since the early Eighties – Lancôme’s 1978 Magie Noir.

I first encountered Magie Noir in late 1978 as part of a fashion spread in a Danish women’s magazine. The name alone was enough to get my attention, but at a very naïve fifteen, I was nowhere yet woman enough to wear it, I quickly discovered when I tried it. Those amber colored depths contained some arcane, occult secrets of womanhood I wasn’t mature enough or sophisticated enough to understand.

When it next made an appearance in my life five years later, I still wasn’t sure. My boyfriend at the time presented me with a huge bottle of the eau de toilette as The Perfume He Wanted Me To Wear, so I did, not least for the effect it had on him. Somehow, I still didn’t feel I was quite glamorous enough, beautiful enough, seductive enough, tall enough or even woman enough to wear it, but if it made him happy…

Throughout the Eighties and well beyond, Magie Noir followed me as a permanent part of my collection. It trailed in my wake on nights on the town, alternated with another 1980s witchy brew, Paloma Picasso’s Mon Parfum, it stayed on mornings after, it followed me on those occasions I had definite ulterior motives.

Even today these all too many years later, it remains the single most complimented perfume I have ever owned. I have yet to meet a man it hasn’t swiped sideways in a swoon. I even wore it at my wedding in 2000, a great, whopping cloud of it, because my husband insisted it was his favorite out of the five I owned at the time.

The marriage didn’t last, but Magie Noir did!

When in 2008, I located a bottle of the original formulation at an online discounter at an outrageously cheap price, I wasted no time at all in wishing for a bottle for my birthday. I still have that bottle today, doled out in tiny sprays, because once it’s gone – it’s gone.

Yet my sister remembered when a DK retailer had a nostalgia campaign recently and brought back modern versions of some of the greatest perfume successes of the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, perfumes that usually are nowhere available anywhere here. She even sent a text message to make sure: “Didn’t you used to wear Magie Noir?” “Hell, yes!”

A few days later, I received that current formulation. (Thank you, Sis!) And…

At some point, I caught myself thinking Lancôme should have just given up the ghost of former glory and called it Magie Blanche. Because unlike the original there is nothing in the slightest morally ambiguous about this version.

It’s a lot of things, most of them very good, but it’s emphatically not the original, and in this IFRA-compliant age, how could it be?

If the original is a rosy patchouli-flecked castoreum-laden, mossy witches’ brew with green fangs worthy of the three ladies in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, if not Lady Macbeth herself, this modern reformulation is not unlike seeing Lady Macbeth as a holograph of her former, witchy, manipulative, evil self.

She has, as they say, had some work done.

So this rainy, humdrum Sunday afternoon, I sit with the goddess Hecate – the original formulation – on my left wrist and the ‘rejuvenated’ Madame Macbeth on my right. How do they compare?

Well, they don’t.

If Hecate works her witchery best after dark and preferably after midnight with emphatic ulterior man-eating motives, Madame Macbeth much prefers the safety of daylight and the solace of the familiar. She is airier, lighter and infinitely fresher, to appeal to a younger audience, maybe? Certainly, if you were allowed to wear perfume to the office/workplace, no one would be offended by her presence. Her fangs have been replaced with perfectly aligned dazzling movie-star white caps, or to put it another way, more bergamot and less of that ensorcelling, eerie will-o’-the-wisp earthy-green galbanum.

Hecate, whose fangs are long and green with only a tinge of sunny bergamot and a distinct galbanum, makes no such efforts to conform to any other rules than her own. That animal growl that so defines her is present right from the start. Kneel in her presence, you hapless mortals! A goddess walks among you. For the love of all things atavistic and primeval, appreciate her. Or beware the consequences!

Because this goddess on the far side of midnight conceals a rich, deep, burgundy hued rosy heart (Bulgarian rose, if my memory serves me correctly) to lure any all-too willing victims even further into her passion play, down and down and down into the dark fur-lined abyss of castoreum and oakmoss where secrets are revealed and truths are made apparent and skins are peeled away and made irrelevant yet souls may taste immortality if they’re deemed worthy of such transcendent pleasures.

Madame Macbeth’s heart hides nothing more edifying than a dewy, fresh pink rose wrapped in a few casual patchouli leaves and an approximation of oakmoss almost as an afterthought. No feral creature growls down below. If she existed as a woman, you’d stare at her still-beautiful face and wonder:

“What the hell happened to you?”

The perfume equivalent of extensive plastic surgery, that’s what. Hecate’s witchy soul has had her forehead Botoxed, her cheeks and compelling facial lines packed with Restylane and her porcelain skin resurfaced with IPL. That heart of splendid dark has been liposuctioned out of existence. Her character retains just enough of its former beauty to remind you of what she once was and made her into a hologram. You can inhale what she is and sense what she was, yet what she was is now forever gone and far away, and what is left doesn’t stick around for long. I could easily wear – indeed, I have – this Madame for any occasion at all, and it’s still good enough that I will.

Meanwhile, Hecate laughs from the depths of her black abyss. “You had a goddess among you,” she seems to say, “yet you forgot what you had.”

As if.

With thanks to my sister Stephanie for the memories old and new. And also Barbara Herman, for sharing the mutual nostalgia. 

Photo of Kim Novak by Ralph Crane in ‘Bell, Book and Candle’ (1958). In this movie at least, as close as any human can get to being the great goddess Hecate.

A Dandy in the Dirt

WilliamBurroughs2

- a review of Jardins d’Ècrivains Junky

For all we prefer to think we live in an age that obsesses about hedonism as an aspirational lifestyle, the fact is nonetheless that as a society, we in the West are really obsessed… with control. Control of our bodies in terms of diet and exercise, endless self-recrimination/neurosis if we don’t measure up to the advertised ideal, control of our runaway minds and impertinent, inopportune thoughts, only now we call it the ultra-hip mindfulness, control of our careers and the circumstances of our very lives as an admonition and precaution in the hopes we may keep the nefarious demons of change and chaos that threaten us on the edges at arms’ length – or else.

Chaos, lack of control, dancing on the knife edge with those demons either figuratively or literally – all these things are best left to trained professionals who know how to embrace them, so we think in our manic panic control freak mode as we whirl through our chaotic times narrowly avoiding demonic roadblocks of yet more chaos.

You know them: the outcasts, the dreamers and dancers, the poets and painters and madcap musicians and artistes and wannabes and maniacal writers who need to make sense of this chaos in any way they can to explain it to the rest of us – or die trying.

If anyone could embody that dance on the knife’s edge, of dueling with Dionysus and divine madness in ways both great and ruinous, it would surely be William Burroughs, the author of the book and the inspiration behind the French company Jardins d’Écrivains latest perfume, Junky.

William Burroughs – prophet of the Beat generation, inspiration for countless imitators, and famous for his no-holds-barred and often harrowing prose – has always seemed a bit of a paradox to me. On the one hand, he was a Social Register aristocrat with a sharp eye for all its failings, and on the other, he personified la vie dans la boue in the best of his brutally honest books, describing the low lives and human detritus that surrounded him with an acerbic pen honed by his acute observations of both their human failings and certainly his own, and nowhere more so than in his first book, Junky.

Reading Junky today reminds me quite a lot of Thomas de Quincy’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater in its exposé of the perils and unearthly pleasures of addiction, but I suspect Burroughs’ intentions were very different from de Quincy’s, even if they both were addicted to two different versions of the same drug, laudanum (which is opium resin in an alcohol solution) and heroin (super-refined opium, super-potent, and one of the most addictive substances known to science). Whereas de Quincy gave us a Gothic Technicolor extravaganza of opiate visions complete with all the literary flourishes of his age, Burroughs gave us a very modern horror story complete with all the trimmings in incredibly spare and brutally honest prose. Personal tragedy, the ravage of its effects, the constant, incessant hustle for the next fix and the one after that, and the next, the agony of being without…

It seems like an odd premise for a perfume of all things, for all that both I and most of my readership are hopelessly addicted to perfume’s countless charms.

Yet Jardins d’Écrivains (the Garden of Writers, a name that had me at hello), a French perfume house which also makes other beautifully composed, luxurious writer-inspired perfumes, candles and bath products, has proven that they don’t take the obvious route with their perfumes. You’ll find no easy shortcuts or clichés in their entire lineup. I first encountered their line at Pitti Fragranze last year, and was certainly more than impressed enough to tell myself to get back to them when I could pay them more attention.

Lo and behold, here is Junky, and for a long time, there was something about it I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around until I realized two things: one, the paradox of William Burroughs himself, and two, the underlying meta-message of his book; that this singular horror could happen to anyone, even a man born at the apex of society with a silver spoon in his mouth – a very radical and highly loaded political premise in the early Fifties when it was first published.

To say that Junky begins green – and I do mean g-r-e-e-n - is an understatement. Green is another way to have me at hello – galbanum lovers, unite! Except that’s nowhere near the whole story, since a distinctive subversive heart beats beneath it – a cannabis accord that is unlike any other I’ve tried in a perfume (a few!). While it won’t get you arrested by either the FBI or the TSA, it’s very much present and unmistakable for anything else.

Yes, I inhaled! And more than once!

Before you know it, a seductive, seamless floral aura begins to bloom on the edges of your awareness. It begins as an indistinct blend, but gradually, it grows and grows and flowers on the skin in a slightly surreal way. Violet, iris and gardenia, says the notes list, yet I’ll wager that that list is missing another, less floral aspect of violet apart from alpha-ionone that accentuates the green theme in Junky – violet leaf, because I detect a lot of violet leaf on my skin. Since violet leaf is one of my favorite notes, this is no bad thing. The iris adds a dab of intellectual distance and irony fragrantly related to Burroughs’ own, whereas the gardenia – just a touch – turns up the volume on all three notes and meanwhile, somewhere in the background that pulse of cannabis beats beneath and betwixt the blooms. As they evolve, it gets harder to tell them apart and harder still not to ask the question: why hasn’t this been done before? And where is it all going, and what does it all mean? Not to mention: why do I feel dizzy?

For one thing, it means green from top to base notes. Those flowers are perceived through a green filter – first by the cannabis hello at the start, followed by those surreal flowers and then by a base that brings it to a final rest of cashmeran – making it soft and fluffy as any opiate dream. I get hints of incense, cedar and juniper, a shot of invigorating moss, a final wave of those intoxicating florals and some 6-7 hours later, a last laugh of that bittersweet cannabis before it vanishes to that Netherworld where such wonders lie in wait for us to discover them.

And the paradox?

The paradox is Burroughs’ own. He is always identified with the Beat Generation he did so much to define, and yet, for all its louche intellectualism and rejection of society’s norms, he also somehow stayed impeccably true to his own upbringing by being meticulous with his appearance to the point of being considered (by Allen Ginsberg not least) something of a dandy and that’s another aspect of this Junky. For all its surprises, Junky is a supremely delineated and exceedingly elegant perfume, just as Burroughs always remained the elegantier of the Beat Generation, somehow transcending the tragic and harrowing circumstances of his life, his unique perspectives, his work and his addictions through his equally meticulous prose.

This Junky, then, is not so much the how of Burroughs’ book, nor even the what, but the why. Why is always the question – and here, it’s a flawless green and perilous floral beauty of an ideal high I’ve found myself craving at different times this past hot summer.

Because anyone can become addicted to Junky’s charms, Even a dandy dwelling in the dirt.

Notes: Cannabis, palisander, rosewood, galbanum, violet, iris, gardenia, cashmeran, cedar, vetiver, incense, juniper, moss, myrtle.

Jardins d’Ècrivains Junky is available from First in Fragrance, Twisted Lily and directly from their website.

With my most profound thanks to Val the Cookie Queen, who does what she can to facilitate my own perfume addiction, bless her subversive heart.

Image of William Burroughs by Harold Chapman, The Beat Hotel, Paris, 1955. Photoshop modification by me.

A Fabulous Four

pink_green_and_blue_floral_cupcakes – some thoughts on a fourth blogoversary and the evolution of a perfume writer.

Around the time my first novel Quantum Demonology was published last winter, I was PMed on Facebook by someone I consider a friend even though we have yet to meet in person. You can bet your perfume budget on some sunshiney day, we certainly will. This is someone many people would consider famous and justly celebrated for that thing he does, so much even I once upon a time completely freaked out he deigned to converse with nobody, nonentity me.

“How does it feel,” he asked me, “to be famous?”

<insert discombobulated Elmer Fudd moment here>

I told him I wasn’t entirely there just yet. (True.)

“But when they make it into a movie…” he blithely continued.

And when they do…

You see, as John Lennon once (famously) said, life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.

On August 2nd, 2010, I was dueling the first draft of the very long, very last chapter of my book to the death – or at least to where I could type THE END. Meanwhile, it was a hot summer night and the household was asleep, except for one insomniac writer wannabe nearing the last of her third glass of wine in her Hemingway search for inspiration.

Ya know, I remember I thought that night, I could start a perfume blog. What was the worst thing that could happen?

Well, I could become a better writer, maybe.

Bashful Beginnings

Four or five years before, I began my own descent into the perfumed maelstrom by lurking in the shadows on those perfume and beauty blogs I found particularly inspiring; Indie Perfumes, Perfume Shrine, Yesterday’s Perfume, the Non Blonde,  and of course Perfume Posse. They all wrote about perfumes I had never heard of from brands I never knew, in compelling, illuminating ways that almost made them tangible for someone who at the time had no perfume at all, but I could almost reach out through the computer screen and sniff them, almost wonder what it must be like to own and enjoy such evocative essences.

It was perfume by proxy – a highly refined form of torture – but it taught me a lot I didn’t know and cemented much I already did. Somehow, it also satisfied an aesthetic itch/need I wasn’t aware I had – a craving for beauty my own quotidian life at the time could never fulfill. Which also explains why I then proceeded to wish for perfume on all birthdays and Christmases so I could find out what all the fuss was about.

And in August of 2010, that’s where I began – with the five bottles in my perfume cabinet. My first ever review was of the vintage version of Balmain’s Ivoire, and I was idiot enough to think I was simply writing in much the same style as all those other bloggers and with some semblance of the same structure I had absorbed by observation and five years of perfume blog reading.

Which was so very wrong in so many ways!

Seismic Shifts

By December that same year, I approached the end of my rope and my undistinguished career as a perfume blogger – I owned no more perfumes to review. Samples in Denmark were unheard of in those days (which still holds true in some places to this day, especially with Estée Lauder), I couldn’t even afford to buy samples and then what would I do? I made stealth undercover visits to local perfume stores and hosed myself down with tester bottles before I rushed back home to review them. (True story!)

Yet by that time, two scented seismic shifts occurred, both of them paramount to the perfume writer I would later become.

The first of these was biting the bullet and sending off an email request for les petits livres, those fragrant booklets full of wax samples of the perfumes of Serge Lutens. I had been reading about/dreaming about Serge Lutens’ perfumes for seven years, and that intensity of curiosity will kill you…

If any one brand paved the way for the epiphanies to come and taught me to recalibrate my nose by several thousand degrees, it would be Serge Lutens. They were the outright weirdest ‘perfumes’ I had ever encountered in my life. Yet I couldn’t stop sniffing no matter how I tried.

Until that ordinary day the penny dropped, and I got them, got what they were trying to say in essence and absolute, understood them to bedrock and bone marrow…

<spoiler alert>

It’s no coincidence all the perfumes the protagonist of Quantum Demonology wears (and even gives away) are Lutens/Sheldrake creations. To this day and until the day I die, I’ll be an acolyte of the diabolical temple to Oncles Serge and Christopher at the Palais Royal in Paris.

The second seismic shift I owe to Ellen Covey of Olympic Orchids. Just as les oncles paved the way for niche perfumery, Ellen opened my nose and Jacobsen’s organ to US indie perfumery, and nothing was ever quite the same again.

You see, Ellen’s astonishing perfumes made me without question into the perfume writer I am today.

Something in those sample vials she first sent me caused me to pull out words and descriptions and phrases I never even knew I contained. For this reason and not a few more, Ellen has her own niche in my perfume Pantheon, and there she stays to this day, because she, too, has evolved and grown into a creator of some truly spectacular perfumes. But best and by far greatest of all, we’ve also become friends and mutual fan clubs.

A Seminal Year

In 2011, Scent Less Sensibilities (the first incarnation of my perfume blog) exploded. Literally. Suddenly, a solitary (and rather lonely) voice in the cyberspace void was heard, was read, was getting noticed… all at the same time my personal life was also – literally – falling apart. Perfume reviewing became my refuge and my escape, and never in my life had the mailman been so eagerly anticipated, because in finally stuffing my perpetual self-doubts where they belonged and pouring out my liquid passions on the virtual page, I found a warm welcome into the blogging community. Thanks to the support, encouragement and astonishing generous care packages of Lucy, Carrie, Dee, Suzanne, Olfactoria, Ines of AllIAmARedhead, Joanne, Portia and many more, I wrote about marvels I never knew.

‘Wrote’, I type these three and a half years later, but what was I truly doing besides attempting to capture the intangible, make it breathe and come alive as best I could for the reader? Even then, there were quite a few perfume blogs, and even then, I had an urge to be distinctive, to do things differently, to push my limits and my words as far and as hard as they could go.

So I ordered the few samples of a few niche houses that caught my imagination, and waited to see what transpired.

In Search of Epiphany

If all good things come in threes, then my third fragrant epiphany was plonking down what was then an insane amount of money – 22€ – on two samples of a line I wanted to knock down to size.

To this day, those two samples remain among the best money I’ve ever spent on perfume in my life.

You see, around the time I had that Zinfandel flash of inspiration to write about perfume, I was beginning to despair of the whole business of perfume. Once upon a time, we could be knocked off our feet in department stores by fragrances to inspire us, seduce us, transport us to otherwise and elsewhere. Why wasn’t that happening any more?

On a dismal, gray winter’s day, I sprayed one of those expensive samples. And was instantly so overcome, I had to sit down.

I had not sniffed – never mind sprayed – something so exquisite, so complex, so huge, so refined and so opulent in decades.

I remember I spluttered a few (highly profane) words I can’t repeat on a perfume blog. I had not one idea in Hades how I’d find the words to write about it. That night, I sat down in front of my computer intending to do my best straight-up review.

Instead and to my own complete surprise, I wrote a story, because with certain perfumes and on certain occasions, a story will do so very much to convey the mood, the emotions, the ambience, the transport and the evolution of a perfume far better than a ‘this is what it smells like’ review. Nothing against those reviews in the slightest, but with me, the storyteller overrules the perfume blogger, which was how I began to even write in the first place a long, long time ago.

This was how I began to write about Amouage. By now, I’ve written almost 400 reviews since of brands both great and small, known and less so, and three years on, ten of those story reviews have been Amouages. Few other brands’ creations grasp my imagination quite so tightly and no other brand is so impossible to review, because sweet Saint Mary Magdalene, where in the multiverse do I start to convey those teeming, seething multitudes of meaning?

Almost four years on, that’s a question I still can’t answer. But by Golly, I’ll die trying!

Great Collaborations

You might have noticed that generally, the Genie doesn’t guest blog or have guest bloggers. Not because I’m opposed to the idea you understand, but partly because I’m a raging megalomaniac writer who wants to hog all the glory for myself and partly for lack of invitations.

Nevertheless, 2011 was also the year I was offered three chances to collaborate elsewhere: as a guest blogger for Penhaligon’s Adventures in Scent, as a participant in a unique and fertile crossroads of literature and perfume called the Clarimonde Project and as a fellow instigator of a perfume project of my own.

Part of my research for the Penhaligon’s guest blog involved an incredible story of a solo journey down the Nile in 1870, when respectable ladies of a certain class simply didn’t do that sort of scandalous, adventurous thing. Even so, I suspect Penhaligon’s was not quite prepared for having their perfumes turned into characters or an irreverent 1890s story of a runaway bride in two installments.

But dear readers, why should writing about perfume always be so high-minded and serious? Channeling Agatha Christie (although I wasn’t aware of it and didn’t read her at the time) was a lot of fun.

The Clarimonde Project was a very different matter – equally as much fun, not least for indulging in all my inherent Gothic inclinations and minuscule talent for emulating 19th-century violet prose, but more importantly because I really had to up the ante on my words, since those staggering perfumes inspired by Théophile Gautier’s 1837 story of a priest and a vampire were journeys into night and shade compelling in their haunting beauty. And not once, but twice, I was compelled to continue Gautier’s story from two different perspectives – one told by his housekeeper, the other the protagonist’s dying thoughts. Even today, I count those two stories as some of the finest writing I’ve ever done. Anywhere.

Speaking of fun…

At one point in 2011, Ellen Covey threw down the gauntlet and double-dared me into another perfume project – the Devilscent Project. Only this time, the inspiration came from my own twisted mind.

My novel and my perfume blog are forever intertwined. Without one, the other would not exist, and my own existence at least would be much diminished for it. To drum up a little interest in Quantum Demonology, Ellen suggested we create a project around the story, and to create perfumes for the titanic antagonist Lilith, Queen of the Succubi, and even for the Devil himself as they’re both described in the book. I’m still not sure I was or even am entirely worthy of the perfumes and incense that followed by Ellen, by Neil Morris, by Maria McElroy and Alexis Karl of House of Cherry Bomb, Amanda Feeley of Esscentual Alchemy, Monica Miller, Kedra Hart of Opus Oils and Katlyn Breene of Mermade Magickal Arts. The world lacks no end of fragrances marketed as ‘dangerously erotic’ or with a bad-boy, rock’n’roll aesthetic. All too often, none of them truly are.

All the perfumes for the Devilscent Project should be banned by Papal bull, whether you choose to accentuate the d in ‘danger’ or capitalize the e in ‘erotic’.

All Good Things

Once upon a storied time, I heard myself saying that all good things have come into my life because of perfume. Only afterwards did I realize just how true that off-the-cuff statement actually was.

Because it is nothing more nor less than the absolute truth.

All good things have come into my life because of perfume.

Without writing about perfume, I would never have become a published novelist. Without perfume, I would never have decided to throw all caution to the wind and define myself simply as a writer.

Without perfume, I would never have forged the friendships, the fellowship or the connections I cherish every single day. And last, but never least, despite being technically unemployed for the past five years (although I have more or less ‘worked’ full-time in various projects to earn my unemployment stipend) and despite being so destitute I can count the amount of full bottles I’ve been able to afford to buy these past four years on one hand, I’ve never felt richer, happier or smelled more fabulous in my entire life.

At one point in Quantum Demonology, the protagonist states the following:

Why did I become a writer? Simple. I sucked at everything else.

True story, for her and for the woman who created her from bits and pieces of her own self, as artists always do.

Then again, that’s not the whole truth.

Because thanks to perfume, I came to envision a new kind of future for the woman I’ve become these past four years, a future I chose, a future I conjured from the aether and channeled from essence and absolute. As I did, as I sniffed and marveled (and sometimes scrubbed), I sent out a grateful thank you to the wind, for being so incredibly privileged to experience something so beautiful and write about it too, to share my experience with my readers and above all else, to conjure friendships with likeminded souls who share my inclinations and my passion, who read what I write, and whose astonishing generosity I dearly wish I could have reciprocated, but unfortunately still can’t.

Yet for four years, I’ve paid my friends and my readers back the only way I can – with my words.

To be honest, I have no idea where I’ll be four years from now, although I rather doubt it will be here.

But here’s what I do know: it can never happen without you, my friends, my readers and my (dangerous!) facilitators.

Thank YOU for these past four fabulous years.

Are you up for four more?

With special thanks to Lucy, Ellen, Neela, Portia, Val, Maria, Alexis, Maggie, Monica, Kedra, Katlyn, Mandy, Christopher, Vero, Andy, Shelley, Dawn, Neil, Ida, Thomas, Persolaise, Barbara, Elena, Gaia, Carrie, Dee, JoAnne, Suzanne, Ines, Caro, Ruth the Perfume Dragon, Tami and of course, Carlos. And the countless thousands I surely forgot to mention! 

A Sunrise and A Soft Goodbye

shanghaijourney

One Last Sunrise

– a story and a review of Amouage Journey

The Peace Hotel, The Bund, Shanghai, late July 1937

He could never remember afterwards how long he stood at the French doors watching the sky above the Bund and over the China Sea bloom from its dark midnight blue to the paler, opalescent, star-flecked hues of gold and violet of impending sunrise. This would be his final sunrise in Shanghai, the last time he would stand by this balcony with this view of a future he could scarcely have imagined on the mean, narrow alleys of Kowloon where everything began so long ago.

How could he have known in that other life, when all he had been was the second son of a simple woodcarver from an endless line of artisans, Cantonese who came to Kowloon hoping to find better, richer, more prosperous lives than their hallowed ancestors?

Look at me now, Father, he thought to himself as the sky above the Bund grew ever lighter, look at me now with my flawlessly tailored suit and my movie star haircut in Shanghai’s most elegant hotel, watch me walk out the door of this hotel suite with my expensive suitcases, watch me as I walk up the gangplank to the SS Aurora with my first-class passage to Valparaiso and onward to Buenos Aires and Montevideo, see me as I leave this old and tired and uncertain world behind with my new name and my new life shining all its unknown and very modern promise in front of me.

He had come so very far from his old Wong Tai Sin of Kowloon self, today would go farther still, for today would be the day he left his old self and old Shanghai behind. Already, rumors and not so idle talk flowered in the teahouses behind Nanjing Road, already people pointed their fingers and their fears towards the Japanese in Manchuria, and it was time to leave his past and his cares behind him while he still could.

Big Earned Du would kill him as mercilessly as only he knew if he ever discovered how his affable, mild-mannered ‘left-hand-man’ had been skimming a quarter-inch off the books of four of his night clubs on Nanjing Road for over three years. If he knew how Left Hand Man scrubbed his loot and his conscience as sparkling squeaky-clean as any Chinese laundry at the baccarat tables of a very private gambling club in the French concession, a club not even the renowned Du Yuesheng, who ruled all of Shanghai and most of its vices with an iron hand in a silken glove would ever dream existed. He wouldn’t know about the many deposits to an account at the American Express offices or the other accounts at Rothschild’s Bank, have no inkling of the thousands of American dollars sewn into the lining of his steamer trunk as a safety measure.

Above and beyond all things else, Big Eared Du would never, ever know about his left hand man’s reasons or rhyme, or just how much the favorite torch singer of Ciro’s nightclub had been responsible for it all. She was the one who cooked up the plan along with her friend, she showed him how to cover his tracks, she taught him to feign Eastern inscrutability as his weapon to hide what his own, darker netherworld of Shanghai should never, ever know.

Or was it rather… that even an woodcarver’s son from Kowloon could leap free of all conventions and expectations, could come at the world roaring like the dragon of his birth year with all his Oriental fire, spice and essence?

Was it that a man like himself, so underestimated, overlooked and unappreciated could throw all tradition, convention and propriety to the wind for a woman who would have made his prim and proper family recoil in horror?

She was a thoroughly modern, audacious blonde South American contralto who sang Cole Porter and George Gershwin for the smart set at Ciro’s. She was the toast of Shanghai and a favorite of his boss, and yet – in a town that knew every secret and every vice everyone wanted to conceal, not even the boss suspected she belonged to his left-hand-man, although it would be far truer to say this: Big Eared Du’s left-hand-man belonged to her.

He had seen enough Hollywood movies to know that a man such as he, a woodcarver’s son from the wrong part of Hong Kong, Chinese to his core despite the Western clothes and his Clark Gable hair cut, would never be a hero, would never get the girl, never be anything else but a cardboard villain in a celluloid cliché of a Shanghai that was its own kind of outrageous fiction everywhere else but here.

Today, he was about to disprove all of them. He got the girl. He had the getaway. He had the promise of a new life ahead under the new name printed on his impeccably British passport, a passport that opened all the doors not even Big Eared Du could knock down.

He stepped out into the first rays of the rising sun. As he breathed in the morning, he breathed in his old self, the Bund and even Shanghai deep into his lungs and pores one last time in this one last sunrise, to say his bold goodbye to all he had been and a bolder hello to all he would become.

The bold, green bite of bergamot and a hint of the orange blossom perfumes she so loved all wrapped up tight within a dim sum totality of Shanghai spice and fire, the waft of burning incense and juniper berries from a passing temple on his way, the rich scent of tobacco from his cigarette case, a faraway musky bitter smell of leather as a portent of what lay ahead on another side of the world where Du would never think to look.

It was too late for regrets and second thoughts. He breathed everything in with all it promised this one last sunrise, held it deep within his heart, his senses and his lungs before he exhaled it back out over the Bund and the city, right before he made a wish on his birth dragon that whatever his future in a faraway land might hold, it would be a journey and a new beginning to a life the left-hand-man would never have dared imagine.

Yet a life the John Lee of his new passport – audacious, modern, a cosmopolitan man of the future – in his Uruguayan exile would never once have a single cause to regret.

TheBund1935

Notes for Amouage Journey Man: Bergamot, Szechuan pepper, cardamom, neroli, juniper, incense, geraniol, tobacco leaves, tonka bean, cypriol, leather, musk.

 

hudie

A Soft Goodbye

The French Concession, later that morning

“Are you sure you’ve packed everything you want to bring?”

She turned away from her view of the tree-lined boulevard toward the voice and the question.

One of China’s most illustrious faces laughed back at her as she indicated all the self-evident chaos of impending departure.

“Well, my clothes, obviously, jewelry, silks, presents for my brother and his wife, a few mementos… I’ve arranged with Lin to have the opium bed, the screen and the cabinet shipped tomorrow, but of course, I’ll be gone by then.”

It was time to close the chapter on her five years in Shanghai.

Five years as a runaway bride from an arranged marriage and a daring escape with her dowry to keep her, only in Shanghai, a purloined dowry and a pretty face was never enough for anything she ever wanted to do.

In Shanghai, what you were and what you had mattered far less than who you knew.

Yet luck had surely been on her side that night four years ago when China’s reigning celluloid Butterfly paid a visit to Ciro’s and introduced herself simply as Hu. That night, a burgeoning friendship was born between the chanteuse with her broken, halting Shanghainese and the celebrated movie star, a friendship that weathered all the storms two women with such vastly different backgrounds could create between them.

Even so, before the movie star, before the nightclub singer, before their respective histories even, they were simply two women and two instant friends, no more and never less.

She came to Hu and poured out her heart when she found herself eyeing the dashing stranger at Ciro’s who came every night with Du and eyed her right back, she told her friend everything there was to tell of seeming chance meetings on Nanjing Road and later clandestine dinners on her Sundays off in humble Nanshi restaurants where Du was never welcomed and she was not known, where no one would think to look and fewer would care to question the presence of the courteous, immaculate Chinese gentleman and the laughing blonde chanteuse.

She had never been one to give her heart away lightly, always kept her distance with a smile when those audaciously modern Shanghai dandies tried to dazzle her with promises as florid and enticing as their extravagant backstage bouquets.

Her left hand man was far more bold for being so discreet, for surprising her with the other, secret Shanghai she had come to know and to love through him.

One hot August night he presented her with a small, delicate sprig of blooming osmanthus and told her to breathe it in, all the way in, when somehow, all she loved about this mythical, mad city of contradictions and mysteries and sins both real and imagined came wrapped around this glowing little flower the hue of a Shanghai sunset.

This was their secret, this sweetly scented flower that laughed its fruity, honeyed path through the teeming streets of Nanshi, past the spice merchants shops and the unexpected surprise of a jasmine bursting out of its pot on an apothecary’s counter and sharp, sunshine puffs of mimosa, when the whispers of a lacquered cedarwood cigarette box told her sotto voce what depths he contained, when that little sprig of osmanthus stole her last objections and her heart away and never gave them back.

She told Hu everything, told her own celluloid story of a romance that could never happen, should never happen, and Hu, as all true time-honored friends would do, began with her help to weave a story of how to make it possible, how to make it happen, how to make her own love-struck movie so infinitely much more real than any flickering black and white dream in the dark.

Away from all of this, away from Shanghai, over the oceans and far away back home to Montevideo, away from her best friend and an uncertain future that loomed like a storm cloud over the western horizon in Manchuria, but how uncertain could her future ever be going home with the man she loved, a man who gave her his priceless gift of a sprig of Shanghai osmanthus?

“Oh, Hu…” she turned away from the balcony with a pang in her heart, knowing this would be a farewell, and who knew when they would see each other again in these precarious times?

“Do you think?”

Hu laughed outright, a laugh that all of China loved, laughed to see the question in her best friend’s face.

“Do I think you will escape, do I think our mad plan will succeed, do I think you’ll get away with it?” and four years of secrets shared laughed their own champagne bubbles beneath her words, “In Shanghai, everything is possible!” Hu walked to the balcony and reached out. She plucked a small sprig of osmanthus from the bush that bloomed in its porcelain pot on the balcony and tucked it firmly into her friend’s lapel beneath a jade brooch.

“I don’t believe. I know! It’s time to go – your ship sails in an hour!”

They hugged with all their history between them, hugged as hard as best friends would, before Hu marched her to the door and said:

“Now go with the Gods, darling. Go home – and say your soft goodbye to Shanghai.”

AmouageJourney

Notes for Amouage Journey Woman: Apricot, osmanthus, nutmeg, cardamom, jasmine sambac, mimosa, honey, cedar, tobacco, saffron, vanilla, cypriol, musk.

Created by Alberto Morillas and Pierre Negrin in collaboration with Amouage Creative Director Christopher Chong. .

Amouage Journey Man and Woman is available from Luckyscent, First in Fragrance and directly from the Amouage e-store.

Image of Amouage Journey courtesy of Amouage. Used by permission.

Much invaluable research came via The Chinese Mirror and the Ling Long Magazine archives of Columbia University.

Disclosure: My samples were provided courtesy of Amouage. I thank the Very August Personage from the bottom of my storyteller’s heart for making this review so incredibly hard to write yet such an endless joy to research.

Also thanks to Ms. Hare, who kicked/shamed/double-dared me to finish it. Or else.

Jamais Une Fougère

dyingfern -  on the perils of perfume writing

Whether justified or not, I consider myself an extremely privileged perfume writer. Not only am I lucky to have a plethora of dear and generous friends who send me wonders and marvels I might otherwise not know, I have also – rightly or wrongly – managed to make connections with perfumers and perfume houses over the past 3+ years who bear me in mind when new perfumes are released. I doubt it’s simply because of the free press they get, but because they maybe? hopefully? appreciate the idiosyncratic perspective I apply. Or so my vanity tells me.

As for me, I take this as the supreme compliment it surely is. Not only do I have something to look forward to in my mailbox besides bills, I also more often than not look forward to sinking my verbose teeth in these wonders. Because writing about perfume IS a privilege – and how else can I justify my own obsession, if not for the readers who want to know what I’ll write about next?

The thing is, I never know what will happen.

Sometimes, I’ve been borne away on a storied tide of inspiration.

And sometimes…

This post concerns one of those other times.

Usually, I much prefer to write about perfumes that move me and take me places. I prefer to write positive reviews because even if it’s something I would never personally wear, I can at least show the courtesy to attempt to move out of my comfort zone and grasp the concept, the idea of a given perfume.

But every once in a blue moon I encounter something so bad, so terrible, so poorly executed I either hurl myself into a hot Jacuzzi of seething sarcasm or else repress the overpowering urge to throw in the towel and stick to writing Gothic erotica.

Not that long ago, I received a sample of a perfume from an indie perfumer who to the best of my knowledge and research has never been the benefactor of ‘free’ blogger attention. That fact is not the reason I won’t divulge the name or the link. If anything, this blog and the one preceding it have proven my worth and my love of indie perfumery. If perfume bores you these days, I dare say you’re looking in a lot of wrong locations – there is far, far more to perfumery than ‘designer’ or ‘niche’.

What yanked the beard on my personal goat was this: The perfume sample was quite simply one of the shoddiest, shabbiest-made ‘perfumes’ I’ve ever encountered.

How can a perfume be shabby? Simple – it falls apart on impact. Literally.

Believe it or not, perfumes are emphatically engineered. Built from the base notes up, they suspend their materials in mid-air; sometimes, it’s a symphony or a full-blown Met opera production extravaganza in three acts, sometimes a sonata, an impromptu or an etude. Hot messes happen too, and that’s fine so long as they’re unapologetic. So wrong in so many ways can be so very, very right. (Guerlain Insolence, here’s looking at you!)

Well, this particular ‘perfume’ is a sweltering mess of epic proportion. I’ll explain why in a moment, but bear with me.

My happiest moments in reviewing a perfume occur when I’m able to grasp something of the mind behind it. It’s not ‘terroir’, it’s not the overall gist, it’s a fragrant intimation of the soul who conjured it from the depths of his/her creativity – that metaphorical great, cosmic grid all true artists have access to and draw their inspirations from. It’s my obligation to that soul which compels me to write a review and to be as fair and as thorough as I can.

In retrospect, the reviews that have made me happiest to write are the ones where the soul of the perfumer or Creative Director wafted out and pulled at my heartstrings and I feel that I not only grasped the concept, I nailed it.

Or in this instance, nailed it to the Perfume Wall of Shame.

Because this perfume-that-shall-remain-nameless has no soul at all. No whiff of premeditation, no coherence, no personality, and so far as I can determine, it seems to be made by someone who doesn’t even like perfume.

I’ll let that last subclause sink in for a moment.

How in the name of sacred Saint Mary Magdalene – patron saint of perfumes – can anyone claim to make perfumes if they don’t like them – to wear, to sniff, to compose?

(*Bangs head in frustration on laptop keyboard. Deep breath.*)

Ok, then. Supposedly, this is a fougère, that fabled family of perfumes that heralded the advent of modern perfumery as we know it today. I’m no stranger to fougères and love quite a few, whether the amber-carnation-y wonder that is the modern Fougère Royale by Houbigant, vintage Guerlain Jicky, Geoffrey Beene’s Grey Flannel, the fougère-ish, hyper-green, über-plush silk velvet density of Oriza L. Legrand’s Chypre Mousse, the flawlessly sparkling DSH Perfumes’ Passport à Paris or even that Amouage heartbreak-in-a-bottle called Memoir Man.

Well, for about five minutes, it’s true enough.

Ceci est une fougère, biensûr!

All the usual suspects are present and accounted for; lavender, carnation, tonka bean, oakmoss. For about five minutes, I’m quite content among the ferns and flowers. Next, without even the benefit of a shark fin on the horizon, I’m dumped into the sea with the chum wearing this horror story that wants to eat me alive and drag me down to the very depths of the damned below.

I would have thought that with the notes list, it would be impossible to go wrong: tonka bean, oakmoss, lavender, carnation, clary sage, clover.

My mistake. I’ve been spoiled/ruined by all the great things I’ve written about.

One thing I’ve learned since I began to write about perfume is that its greatness or lack thereof stands or falls on its base notes. This is where the engineering, the underpinnings of perfume construction show themselves most clearly.

This is where this ‘perfume’ falls completely apart without even the benefit of scaffolding. And where the anonymous ‘perfumer’ shows a) a lack of coherence b) a lack of understanding just what ‘makes’ a perfume not to mention c) infinitely worse – a lack of even caring.

This lack of consideration takes ‘lax’ to a whole new level of audacity. Instead, it stinks, and not in a good way. The base is bitter, shrill, and obliterates everything that made the first five minutes tolerable.

With just a little more work – and a lot more care – this could have been a perfectly passable perfume. Not ground-breaking, not revolutionary, not edgy – but perfectly acceptable nonetheless.

As it is now, I’m running to apply rubbing alcohol, dish soap and whatever else I can think of to scrub it off with a Brillo pad. (I did that, actually.)

Those sharks will have to live without their teeth in my hide.

More to the point, I won’t deign to give this <cough> creation the publicity I very much doubt it deserves. No names, no links, no anything.

Because this particular ‘fern’ died of a broken, disillusioned heart a long, long time ago. It never did receive a decent burial.

But one thing it does deserve is an epitaph:

To misquote René Magritte…

Ceci n’est fut jamais une fougère.

With thanks to the friend who inspired this review.

The Might of a Rose


–  a tale and a review of Neela Vermeire Créations Mohur Extrait

mohur2

Lahore, India – November 1627

So it had come to this. All her plans, her hopes and her dreams had come to nothing, reduced to ashes by her own brother’s betrayal. Shahryar had lost everything.

The power, the glory and might of the Mughal and all that was India would now pass to Shah Jahan, who had hated her from the moment sixteen years ago she wed Jahangir, who loathed the way she always favored his far more sensible brother Shahryar.

She had gambled everything on Shahryar, and so she too had lost all the power and influence she had acquired these past sixteen tumultuous years. Even her beloved was no more. Then again, perhaps she had lost him long ago to the lures of wine and opium.

Nur Jahan wrapped her shawl around her in the slight chill of this November evening, looked up from the missive in her hand and gazed unseeing at the intricate winding vines and flowers inlaid in the walls of her quarters.

“Majesty…” Akbar, her faithful retainer for several years, interrupted her reverie. “Asaf Khan has proposed that you retire to a palace here in Lahore with your rank and your privileges intact.”

“Has he now?” Nur Jahan had to laugh. “All my privileges, except the one that matters most, which he knows all too well.” She shrugged and knew with the ease of one who had reigned India in deed if not in name for many years that she would never show just how much her brother’s betrayal burned, never show her sorrow for fear Shah Jahan would have yet another weapon to use against her. One he would never hesitate to use.

“And yet, Majesty, would it be so terrible to have the time to dedicate to your interests? Your poetry, your music, your gardens and your perfumes? All without the distractions of rule, of court intrigue and the endless lines of petitioners at the jharoka receptions? You would no longer rule, it is true, but…” Not even Akbar was audacious enough to finish his own thought.

“There are many kinds of power and might, Akbar,” she snapped. At this late hour of the night, her voice showed the slightest hint of strain, as if everything transpired – the Emperor’s capture and death, Shah Jahan’s blatant refusal to obey her command at Kabul and this war of Jahangir’s succession – had somehow caught up with her.

“The power of poetry, the strength we gain from the music we love, the might of a perfect rose…”

NVCROSE

There was a thought. Nur Jahan stared again at the letter and saw not the black curves, dots and lines upon lines of doom and defeat, but instead the green leaves and dawn-pink petals of a fragrant rose, diamond droplets of dew glistening in the morning light in its silken folds. Such a rose as Jahangir had given her at Nowruz, the New Year so long ago, when she was no Nur Jahan but merely a widow and a disgraced diwan’s daughter named Mehr-un-Nissa.

What would it be, she wondered, to prove just what power a rose such as that could conceal, to leave as her epitaph not the just the Empress but the very woman she had been?

Very well, she thought. Let Shah Jahan have the Empire. Let him take it and rule it and ruin it with his extravagant ways and vaunting ambition.

She, once Empress of all India, would find her solace and her sustenance in her poetry, in her gardens and her charities, and in the perfumes she so loved, to dedicate her days and nights to the pursuit of a beauty so flawless, it could be none other than her own.

And so it came to be in the years that followed her exile from rule that she strove to capture all her myriad selves in her roses and in the perfumes those roses made, to somehow wrap up her essence as the epitaph she would choose to leave behind. It should contain the sharp, spicy scent of cardamom and coriander and pepper, to recall the laughing, lighthearted girl she once was so long ago in faraway Kandahar, perhaps with the jasmines she remembered blooming in the courtyard, and hints of the almond sweetmeats and pastries Jahangir once so loved to feed her. A dusting, like the powdered sugar on loukhoum, of the violets presented to her by those comical English in their outlandish garb, and a cool, purple touch of the elegant iris root from that remote land called Florence its ambassador had presented her with. It should contain the sharp tang of leather as well in happy memory of tiger hunts in the hillsides and the iron might she once wielded in a silken, fragrant glove, and the sacred, haunting trails of sandalwood, patchouli and oud that defined India as perhaps few other essences did. A sweet, luscious finish, as much as if to say that the Mehr-Un-Nissa she once was and the Nur Jahan she became were after all, one woman first, last and foremost.

All of these, the flowers and the herbs, the spices and sacred woods intricately embroidered onto the heart of a singular flower to prove the power of a woman such as Nur Jahan, and the might of her rose.

On a December day of chill and fog, when the Empress who once was Nur Jahan breathed her last, Akbar, an old man himself by this time, took her secret note and anointed it with that mighty rose perfume before he set it alight with a taper to release her story and her essence upon the wind for another to find and to remember… a woman once known to all as… the Light of the World.

7-Playing-Sitar-in-the-Shalimar-Gardens_-Lahore_-Pakistan_-1981

The Shalimar Gardens, Lahore, June 1947

On this sunny day, Edwina Mountbatten wasn’t sure what broke her heart the most, that she would soon say farewell to this wonder that was India, or that she had been fortunate enough to at least experience it and attempt to grasp and encompass all it was and now soon would become. Soon, these marvelous gardens would not even be Indian, but belong to a nation to be called Pakistan.

“It seems,” she said to her friend Jahawarlal Nehru as they walked, “such a pity and yet, such a necessity, that this will be another nation born of India’s ashes.”

“There is no other way, Edwina, as you well know.”

The sunlight danced in the fountains and the mannered geometry and the blaze of flowers should surely soothe any melancholy hearts and make any spirit soar to stroll amid such beauty on a day like today, when the roses bloomed their promise of a new era and a new future.

He sensed her pensive mood as they walked, as he so often did, and bent forward to pluck a perfect rose he presented to her with a flourish and a smile.

“Did you know,” he began, “there is a story about this variety of rose?”

Edwina laughed. “I do so love your stories. You have so many!”

“One of my many pleasures,” he murmured. “Ah, but this story… is a story of the fabled Nur Jahan.”

“She was quite a woman, I gather.”

“Indeed so, and quite extraordinarily talented, so I’ve been told. They say that when Asaf Khan ‘retired’ her, she dedicated her life to poetry, to charity and to perfumes.”

“Perfumes! Only in India…” Edwina buried her nose in the rose. It was like no other rose –certainly, no English rose – she had ever known, lush, deep, both majestic and piercing in its scent.

“You forget, in India, perfume is definition, devotion and adornment all in one. Something for you to think about, perhaps? Or at least consider…” he went on with another smile as they strolled onward, a precious stolen hour of serenity amid the separation talks. “And so the story goes about a perfume Nur Jahan made, and such a perfume they say it was. They say it was all her essence and all of the world, not merely India, wrapped around the might of a rose.”

“The might of a rose. I must say that phrase has a certain… power to it.”

“Well, she was am Empress, after all.”

“But of course.” Edwina breathed in her rose. It made her own British roses seem so indistinct and pallid in comparison. “But what about it? Did someone ever find the formula? I do like the idea of such a perfume.”

Nehru watched the diamond droplets of water flash above the fountain in the sunlight and refract in the air above the pool. As he thought, as Edwina walked beside him with this extraordinary rose in her hand, she thought with a pang that she might never see this fabled garden and its beauty again.

“How does it go, this tale of Nur Jahan’s mythical perfume… Ah! Well then, they say that when she died, her retainer burned the formula and released it into the wind for another to find in time. Remember, this was not simply a perfume, not just a scent to wear, but the very quintessence of an Empress of India. So it would be powerful and immensely rich, as she surely was, it would contain all her majesty and all her secrets. Not something you’d buy in Paris, perhaps. Power and majesty are not to be trifled with.”

“Something of which I suspect Her Majesty was well aware.”

Edwina tried to open up her heart, her soul, her very pores to drink it all in… the gardens, the sunlight, the company of her extraordinary friend and this extraordinary story of a perfume that sparked a longing in her heart to know it, to wear it, to breathe it, to be remembered by its presence.

“Certainly! Nur Jahan ruled an empire, let’s not forget. With an iron hand, I might add.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever encountered such a perfume that would say all those things to the world.”

“Ah, my friend, neither have I, and I am Indian, after all.”

“But that is such an extraordinary story! Power and majesty all contained in a vial of scent.”

“Sometimes,” Nehru’s thrilling voice trailed off as he looked into the distance, “it is better to take the sword than to surrender, fail or run away.”

“And should that sword be a rose?” Again, Edwina inhaled deeply from the rose in her hand. To her, it seemed as if this were so much more than a simple flower and so infinitely much more than a mere ‘rose’.

They walked on a while in the comfortable silence of friends. And then, Nehru looked at Edwina and at the rose in her hand.

“Remember…and this is something I can well imagine Nur Jahan saying herself…

‘Never underestimate the might of a rose.’

photo 3

____________________GIVEAWAY!___________________

Neela has offered to give away one ceramic perfume disk (for scenting drawers & closets) and a 10 ml decant of Mohur Extrait to one lucky reader in either the EU or the US, and a sample of Mohur Extrait to the two runners-up who comment on this post by midnight CET on Wednesday, May 21st. Mohur Extrait is a must-try even for those who don’t like rose – this is NOT your usual rose! Make sure to like Neela Vermeire Créations on Facebook and follow her on Twitter.  The winners of the giveaway will be drawn by random.org and announced here on TAG on Thursday, May 22nd. THIS GIVEAWAY IS NOW CLOSED.

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Notes: Cardamom, coriander, ambrette seeds, carrot seeds, pepper, elemi, iris, jasmine, rose, violet, almond, leather, sandalwood, amber, patchouli, oud, benzoin, vanilla and tonka bean.

Neela Vermeire Créations Mohur Extrait is currently only available as a limited edition directly from the NVC website for customers in the EU. For US customers, contact Neela Vermeire Creations at info@neelavermeire.com.

Mohur Extrait was created by Neela Vermeire in collaboration with perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour.

Disclosure: A sample of Mohur Extrait was provided by Neela Vermeire. The story and review are my own, but the historical context, people and events mentioned are as accurate as research allowed.

Painting: “Bani Thani”, by Rajasthani artist Gopal Khetanchi, with the addition of a 17th-century rose by yours truly.

Photo from the Shalimar Gardens, Lahore by Roland & Sabrina Michaud.

Rose petal photo from the flower market of Bangalore and presentation of Mohur Extrait bottle by Neela Vermeire. Used by permission.