Category Archives: Serge Lutens

Spelling Eternity

laviergedefer

-  a review of Parfums Serge Lutens’ La Vierge de Fer

When rumors began to circulate some months back about a new Serge Lutens perfume named after a medieval torture device (I’ll be getting back to that one), you can imagine that a discussion ensued on a perfume forum I frequent as to what that name might imply in olfactory terms – or not. Never mind we legions of Serge Lutens acolytes will always be insatiably curious about the next launch, certainly curious enough to feed the rumor mills and grease the wheels of our own olfactory imaginations.

But a medieval torture device?

Some stated flat out they would rather drop dead than wear anything so euphoniously named simply for the associations that came with it, while others among us have many fond memories of a rock band bearing that name’s English translation and were already flashing the horns in anticipation, all allegories of the Inquisition or indeed our mortal souls be damned.

So let me start there. The Iron Maiden as it exists in the public imagination today was a hoax. No historical evidence suggests it even existed until 1793 when the German philosopher Johann Phillipp Siebenkees became inspired by a reference in St. Augustine’s ‘The City of God’ to invent a particularly chilling example of manifest human cruelty. The most famous, known as the Iron Maiden of Nuremburg, can be dated no earlier than 1802 and would have been patently counterproductive as a torture device.

Meanwhile, the diabolical duo of M. Lutens and Mr. Sheldrake pulled out the rug under all our fragrant and/or morbid phantasms with La Vierge de Fer and in the process confounded us all. Again.

Knowing something of Serge Lutens’ propensity for audacious and inventive florals, I could have half-expected something at least as outré as its name, but also – experience is a witch – I know enough by now to expect the unexpected, which was precisely what I got.

La Vierge de Fer is indeed a floral, indeed a novel interpretation of a lily, but this lily bears no resemblance to Un Lys. Forget all you know about lilies and take a walk on a wintry path where gothic flowers bloom, as it begins to bloom in a huge, frilly, feminine pouf of aldehydes as blinding white and frigid as snow.

The lily grabs those aldehydes in moments and keeps them close by as a demure lily of the valley sidles in between them, but both the lily and the lily of the valley are immaculately scrubbed clean of all their earthier memories, suspended in an endless aldehydic mid-air somersault like flying floral trapeze artistes, and the safety net of arctic incense, a touch of chilly vanilla and white musk waits an infinite space below as they swing back and forth between the perpetual lily, lily of the valley in a morally ambiguous aldehydic love triangle. Where aldehydes are usually used as top notes, here they’re present front, center and nearly all the way to the basenotes some long hours later, as cold and nearly as bleak as a frosty December night before they give way to the no less chilly, steely incense, vanilla and metallic white musk at the base.

After multiple wearings this past fall, I’m still not sure whether this is a perfume, a benediction of light or a curse along the lines of that Chinese proverb: ‘may you live in interesting times.’ I suspect it may be all three at once, but bear with me…

According to the enigmatic press release, La Vierge de Fer was partly inspired by Joan of Arc, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and even memories of M. Lutens’ mother. Yet I sense an artistic theme in many of Serge Lutens’ latest releases that not only runs counter to our usual expectations of former fragrant and etiolated Oriental bombast, but also makes sense in terms of further explicating a personal aesthetic. I was reminded of M. Lutens’ own photographed demoiselles, those pale, sublime, elegantly articulated creatures of perfection which seem to exist in an alternate, timeless universe that keeps the rest of us mere mortals at a distinct, chilly and intimidating distance even as we are helpless to surrender to their bewitching spell. Even as we wonder whether their peerless complexions and enchanting eyes are masks concealing another kind of prison.

So I wonder at La Vierge de Fer and the other recent releases that have also highlighted florals in new and compelling ways: La Fille de Berlin, which was the tale of a thorny rose, Vitriol d’Œillet, the fiery carnation with teeth, Bas de Soie with its cool, restrained hyacinth or De Profundis with its intimations of impending mortality and chill frissons of chrysanthemum, violet and incense. All are far removed from the usual olfactory tropes of ‘floral’, and all are usually recreated in plush, dense fashions, except somehow, M. Lutens and Mr, Sheldrake have lately created florals as diaphanous as chiffon even as they are no less plush than before.

Make no mistake – La Vierge de Fer is a stunning, beautiful perfume. I find it not at all boring or linear. Although I do suspect those blinding, vivid aldehydes are not entirely benign…

And I’m reminded of a favorite fairy tale, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen in the depths of La Vierge de Fer. Where a little boy named Kai is afflicted with a splint of a goblin mirror only to see the ugly in the world, and is abducted by the beautiful Snow Queen to the far, far North, where he sits at a frozen lake trying to assemble a puzzle to spell the word ‘eternity’ to achieve his freedom.

In the fairy tale, he only succeeded when his childhood friend Gerda after endless tribulations found him by the lake and melted the splinter in his heart with her tears, and the puzzle spelled eternity as they left the realm of the Snow Queen and returned to the world, and it was no longer winter, but glorious summer.

And at long last, the lilies are in bloom beneath an infinite blue sky, spelling out that chilling, endless word…

Eternity.

Notes: (my own impressions) Aldehydes, lily, lily of the valley, incense, vanilla, white musk.

La Vierge de Fer is an exclusive eau de parfum available as a 75 ml bell jar from the Palais Royal in Paris, from the Serge Lutens website for EU customers and from Barneys NY.

With profound thanks to Jack for the opportunity.

Photo: Detail from Alexander McQueen’s Haute Couture presentation, Autumn-Winter 2008.

A Rose of a Manifold Stripe

striperose

- a review of Serge Lutens‘La Fille de Berlin’

So rich in facets and form, so varied in color and so infinitely complex the perfumes that lingers within its velvety folds, it’s no wonder the rose has so many names, and so many smell so sweet. Some roses imbue the ambience of a summer day when they sing on the skin and other roses emote in alto, moonlit voices of alto, starlit dreams.

By any other name it might well smell as sweet (as not all roses do), and yet somehow, I feel that simple syllable ‘rose’ is much too simple and much too short to encompass all the many stories a rose can tell on the skin. Or is it that such a short, euphonious name for such a beloved flower contains at least as many stories, dreams and associations as the petals we can count?

Now, we have another rose, another tale, another song a rose can sing in all its dulcet hues, a rose with a new, untold story all its own … La Fille de Berlin, the Girl from Berlin.

Supposedly, La Fille de Berlin was inspired by that golden cultural renaissance of Berlin during the Weimar Republic, when everything bloomed – the arts, literature, the architecture and even the people to such an extent that 1920s Berlin today is a byword for a certain exuberance of mind and spirit that danced on the edge of decadence, and only too often fell all the way in with a defiant, Berlinerisch laugh.

But let M. Lutens tell the story:

She’s a rose with thorns, don’t mess with her. She’s a girl who goes to extremes. When she can, she soothes, and when she wants …!

Such a girl isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when I consider all things ‘rose’, yet I’ve dived into enough roses – and a few Lutens perfumes – to know I should expect the unexpected and brace myself for this story of a girl from Berlin.

Having never tried those other, famous roses, Sa Majesté La Rose or Rose de Nuit, I’ll take La Fille de Berlin on her own terms, thorns and all, such being the price you gladly pay a rose…

She is no ordinary rose, no common cliché of ruby red, sunlit yellow or moonlight white, she is a rose of variegated hue, striped in folds of crimson and cream, reality …and dream.

The dream is all a rose, and the reality is a luscious, luminous rose in a photogenic pose. It breathes a husky, sweet, innocently raspberry-tinged song which tells me a violet is laughing in the mix somewhere. A violet without a hint of powder or lipstick, a violet that coaxes on this lovely rose to other places, places that crave the fire and heat of peppers pink and black and determination, places that demand instead of asking nicely, places unexpected.

Surely, I never did expect what happened next, for inside this glowing daydream of a rose lie her thorns and her backbone, with an icy-metallic twist. Not iron, not any obvious kiss of steel or stone, but altogether lighter, tighter and thoroughly new, titanium thorns you never thought to see through those rose-tinted glasses, a faraway taste of blood and kisses, the price you willingly pay for knowing this girl and this rose.

Ah, but she has so many stories, so many tales, and even this one is still evolving, still opening up its petals to bloom as you watch and you breathe, still reeling with the surprise of those thorns and that determination.

Now you know her secrets and you know to keep them well, for now she shows her softer, muskier self, now this rose will all her pleasures prove with her animal, feline purr, she’ll kiss and laugh the pain away to make you forget those fatal thorns, make you forget all you thought you knew in one blinding bright surprise, make you forget there ever was any other rose or any other girl than one unforgettable, indelible girl from Berlin.

When she wants…watch out!

With such a story and such an inspiration, the obvious association would be that most fatale of femmes, Marlene Dietrich as Lola-Lola in ‘The Blue Angel’, as she entices her ardent admirers ever onward to despair and ruin.

camilla horn2
Camilla Horn in 1927, hot off her breakthrough success as Gretchen in F.W. Murnau’s ‘Faust’

My impression is another one, another – regrettably forgotten – girl who came to Berlin and claimed it for her own, a girl who went on to fame and fortune, but a girl who somehow embodied not just all the allure of all ‘les filles de Berlin’, but also her many charms and her underlying innocence as Gretchen in F.W. Murnau’s ‘Faust’ (one of my own favorite movies), and that is Camilla Horn.

She is all of a piece as Gretchen, with all the hope and innocence of her kind – but with all that titanium will and determination.  All the many beauties of a rose of manifold stripe, all the seductive secrets of this…Girl From Berlin.

So long as you remember – she rocks …and she shocks! 

 _________________________________________

Longevity is outstanding, and although this slants toward the feminine, this would be devastating on the right kind of man.

Notes: Rose, pink pepper, violet, black pepper, musk.

La Fille de Berlin is available from the Serge Lutens website for EU customers, and from Luckyscent and Barneys NY in the US.

Baudelairean Blooms


woodviolet – a review of Parfums Serge Lutens’ ‘Bois de Violette’

Among the many blooms adored by perfumers and perfumistas alike – the regal lilies, the imperious irises, the fatal tuberoses, sensuous jasmines, opulent orange blossoms and that Empress of them all, the rose – one tiny, unassuming spring flower stands half-concealed among this distinguished bouquet, not doing much to call attention to itself, unless it is to confer its own sweetly green air of innocence and youth, so charming yet so modest. Or else it reminds us of dear, departed grandmothers and aunts and their fondness for posies and pastilles, candied petals on chocolate cakes and tiny, mauve soaps languishing in a porcelain dish you never dared to use, stamped with ‘Savon Violette’.

There’s a vintage if not old-fashioned aura around the humble violet, something that smacks of nostalgia, bygone eras, scented with a tinge of melancholy and the ephemerality of time. Marry the violet to rose in certain proportions and you get the fragrance and flavor of lipstick, pair it with its companion violet leaf, and you have an approximation of spring-in-a-bottle, all exuberant greens and bashful blooms playing peekaboo among the greenery. Many of those violets are lovely, sugary, as sweet and as substantial as fleeting promises you just know will never be fulfilled.

All the same, something haunts me about violet, something that tugs insistent on the edges of my mind and gives me an urge to bury my face in a tiny bunch of violets in a woodland glade, something that makes me want to grasp that ethereal perfume and bite it…

Which means I’m no fan of those sweet, restrained, grandmotherly violets. I like my violets with a Gothic edge, their dulcet melody of early spring tempered with an alto counterpoint. In other words – a violet that surprises me.

Here is Serge Lutens’ Bois de Violette, and as any reader of this blog knows, any Serge Lutens perfume is nothing if not surprising.

Bois de Violette and I did not get along the first few times we said hello. A glorious violet, so said the reviews I read, so I felt more than a little cheated when I smelled the ashen cedar tones of pencil shavings, and nary one violet beneath my nose.

It was a red flag in front of this Bull! When all I wanted to do, just as in the story of Ferdinand the Bull, was to sit in a sunlit spring field and smell the flowers.

Some time ago, a perfumista friend asked me if there were anything I would like to try from her extensive collection, and when Bois de Violette came up in the conversation, I jumped at the chance to finally grasp these elusive blooms and banish the pencil shavings to the cedar box they surely belonged in.

Many have stated that Bois de Violette is the sister scent of Feminité du Bois, and it isn’t hard to see the family resemblance in their structure, or indeed to recognize the jazzy riffs of improvisation over a familiar theme of cedar – and surprises. For all her heritage, Bois de Violette is not another Feminité du Bois and has none of her sister’s plummy, Bourgogne-tinted depths.

Instead, she sings in a different, higher register, and begins her own violet revolution by conjuring forth a fairy forest in emerald tones of green, and somewhere in the background, an intimation of shadows with that pine-cedar accord that never remains too far away. This may be a forest, and fairies may dwell here, it seems to say, but secrets and ghosts lie somewhere just beyond. Heed them well.

Except you won’t, for next thing you know, the fairies arrive, which is to say, the very violets that give Bois de Violette its name, and those memories of old-fashioned, old-school, grandmotherly violets are banished forevermore to that cedar box of mementos they surely belong in.

These violets have other, wilder stories to tell, stories with sweetly worded phrases of twilit purple dreams and candied hexameter breaths of leather and anise that grow darker as the shadows deepen and the violets sing their siren songs of dark green cedar, and you listen enchanted as they fade, and the cedar steps forward again to remind you – the hour is getting very late, and not all that grows in this forest is what it seems, and not all that breathes is as entirely benign as those fairies that sang away the hours on your skin.

In this enchanted forest of Faërie lurks a Big, Bold, Cedar Wolf, and it just might bite if you’re not careful…

Bois de Violette won’t overwhelm your surroundings as you wear it. It stays close to you, but never strays.

Instead, this is what you would choose to wear for your own pensive pleasure, whenever the mood for a little needed introspection with just a touch of joy grabs you, when the melancholy grays of endless rainy afternoons are almost more than you can bear, and you want a peerless, perfumed reminder that some day, spring shall return again, and light and life as well, hidden in a woodland glade to catch you unaware.

As for me, with my predilection for the Gothic in les violettes, I find that Bois de Violette is a liquid bloom that Baudelaire would surely appreciate, if indeed he wasn’t referring to them when he wrote:

Charme profond, magique, dont nous grise

Dans le présent le passé restauré!

Ainsi l’aimant sur un corps adore

Du souvenir cueille la fleur exquise.

Or in a freer translation I couldn’t improve if I tried:

It’s by such charms that Nevermore

Intoxicates us in the Now –

As lovers to remembrance bow

Over the bodies they adore.

Parfums Serge Lutens ‘Bois de Violette’ is available at Luckyscent and directly from the Parfums Serge Lutens website.

Quote from Charles Baudelaire’s ‘Un Fantôme’ (1861), translated by Roy Campbell 1953, courtesy of Fleurs Du Mal.

With thanks to two perfume angels who made such Baudelairean blooms – and words! – possible.

The Hidden Art

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

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

It makes me think. Watch out, world!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caravaggio’s works should have been so lucky.

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

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

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

A Waft of Woe

- Flotsam & jetsam, gratitude & anticipation 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Falling Forward

 – an ode to my favorite fragrant Fall thrills

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

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

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

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

L’Artisan Parfumeur – Seville à l’Aube

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

Amouage – Memoir Woman

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

Serge Lutens – De Profundis

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

Aftelier – Cepes and Tuberose

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

Neela Vermeire – Trayee

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

A Trinity of Ambers

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

Labdanum dreams

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

Olivier Durbano – Black Tourmaline

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

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

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

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

A Dance Through A Heart

- a review of Serge Lutens’ ‘Santal Majuscule

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Do as I do and not as I say.’

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

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

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

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

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