Heartsongs for a Heritage

  – a review of Neela Vermeire Créations

Far away from where I type these words lies a land that has fired and inspired Western minds for over two thousand years. A land so vast, so diverse, so rich, so teeming with life and history it seems to exist somewhere in the Occidental mind between legend and reality, in time and yet somehow above it, only fitting after all for a culture that also gave the world the concept of ‘the eternal now’. Conquering armies have marched across its plains and deserts, through its jungles and mountains in search of its riches and spices, writers and adventurers took its ideas and concepts back to an incredulous Europe, who thought they surely exaggerated, only those Europeans who did come found the stories they were told, the books they had read were far too simple to even begin to describe the world-within-this-world that was, that is and that always has been…

India.

For all I know myself about ancient history and even India’s history, for all my future plans to visit Kerala and Tamil Nadu just to start, for all my favorite Indian-born writers, I’m yet another gobsmacked European trying to wrap my mind around all it was and even is today. When I first began sketching out ideas for my review, I did a brainstorming association exercise first, writing down every adjective or noun that came to mind with the one noun that was India. I counted fifty-five before I had to actually think about the next one, such is the scale of its scope on my imagination.

When the perfumosphere first began to exude rumors of the new niche brand Neela Vermeire Creations shortly before Elements NY, which is where I first read of them on The CandyPerfumeBoy, those first intimations of intrigue and wafts of (imagined) wonders pricked at my relentless curiosity and my nose began to dream in an instant of all this trio of perfumes could evoke and all they might contain.

When Indian-born Neela Vermeire, who is trained in social sciences and has worked as a lawyer, decided to create her own tributes to her Indian childhood, she worked for over a year with Bertrand Duchaufour to pay homage to three aspects of India – the ancient past of the Vedic era of legend, lore and faith with Trayee – the glorious era of the Moghal Empire and the British Raj with Mohur – and the modern, exuberant India of today with Bombay Bling.

Just as friends who traveled to India have said time after time … ‘It was nothing like I thought it would be’, they turned out to be nothing like anything my paltry imagination could conjure.

Trayee is a tribute to the Vedic era, that time of legend contained in the Vedas, in the many stories of the Mahabharata and the tales of that far distant beginning when the world began, the sacred texts of the Vedas with their hymns, their prayers and their songs. Trayee is the perfume of spirit and devotion, the scent of Indian temples with their spices and their prayers ascending to the Gods in a cloud of color and all the holy fragrances of faith. It starts with a bright, uplifting opening of ginger and cinnamon, with an underlying pine-lemon slightly animalic undertone I suspect is the blackcurrant, but as it evolves a wisp of sacred incense, cardamom and jasmine sambac (one of my most favorite notes) peek out and dance their own devotion on my skin and I become my own cliché – transported elsewhere and otherwise to where that seamless blend of spice and wood, oudh and oakmoss somehow manage to weave my many fragmented selves into a prayer all my own. Like not a few Duchaufour creations I’ve tried, the list of notes – complex as they are – read several shades of ‘how-is-this-possible?’, but the evolution is flawless – from that first heady rush of spice all the way through to the rich, earthy, woody drydown breathing its many shades of ‘divine’. I would characterize Trayee as a uniquely transcendental perfume, transporting me to where ritual may be complicated yet true faith is very simple, and for truly evoking that sense of sanctity and history, a perfumed prayer all its own, and those are as rare as unicorns and as precious as any Indian rubies!

Notes for Trayee: Top: Blue ginger from Madagascar, elemi oil, cinnamon bark, ganja effects, blackcurrant absolute, basil Heart: Jasmine sambac absolute, Egyptian jasmine absolute, cardamom absolute, clove, saffron, sandalwood Base: Javanese vetiver, Haitian vetiver, incense, Mysore sandalwood oil, patchouli, myrrh, vanilla, cedar, amber notes, oudh palao from Laos, oakmoss 

Mohur – named for the most valuable gold coin India made until 1918 -  is another facet to the many-hued jewel that is India, a tribute to the glorious, opulent era of the Moghul Empire and the British Raj and to one woman in particular who shaped the Moghul era like perhaps no woman before or since. Her name became Nur Jahan, meaning ‘The Light of the World’, and when she arrived at the court of the Emperor Shah Jahangar in 1607 as a widow, it took no time at all for him to decide that she should become his wife number twenty, and still less when – so their many love stories go – he never touched wives 1 through 19 ever again. Noor Jahan ruled as the unquestioned power behind the throne for over twenty years before a palace revolt exiled her. She devoted the remainder of her days to the art of perfume making.

I can well imagine, if Mohur is anything to go by, that it could have been one of the very perfumes Nur Jahan could have made for herself, or – as I think the intention was here – to create the quintessence of …rose, but not just any rose. Just as Trayee, it begins with a spicy, fiery kick, this time of cardamom and coriander, intimations of musky ambrette and carrot and that incandescent black pepper and before you know it, that fatal, flawless beauty, a veritable Maharani of rose unfurls in slow-motion beneath your nose, defying every rosy perfume cliché you think you know to define something larger than life yet as intricate as any inlaid jewels on a marble Moghul-era façade, with a suggestion of richly tooled leather and a gossamer-fine embroidered veil of violet and orris. A veil that slowly slips to the floor to reveal all this rose’s darkest secrets of wood and oud in sparkling shades of light and dark, patchouli and amber, before it vanishes in a rosy dream with a last sweet sigh of goodbye and vanilla, benzoin and tonka bean. I grasp at the words here, desperately thumbing through thesaurus and dictionary trying to find some description that does it justice, before I realize I’ve written it already.

A Maharani…of rose.

Notes for Mohur: Top: Cardamom absolute, coriander seed oil, ambrette seed, carrot, black pepper, elemi oil Heart: Turkish rose oil, Moroccan rose absolute, 11% rose accords, jasmine accord, orris, aubepin flower, almond milk notes, violet flower and orris, leather vitessence Base: Sandalwood, amber, white woods, patchouli, oudh palao from Laos, Siam benzoin, vanilla, tonka bean

It’s all too easy to overlook the modern India when you’re sideswiped by 5000+ years of history and heritage. Yet modern India doesn’t live in the past or for the future but in the ever-evolving ‘now’ with all the endless exuberance and energy a young population can bring. This is Neela’s wink to the India of today, with the over-the-top glamour of Bollywood dream factories to the streets of south Mumbai and the hectic, glitzy nightclubs where beautiful Bollywood film stars dance the night away with instant stock market millionaires. I came to discover during my research, for instance, that there is a very ritzy nightclub in Mumbai called…Bling!

If you read the notes and reach for the smelling salts or your running shoes to run a mile the other way, dear reader, let me say this is not your deathly ubiquitous fruity-floral generic joke, this is instead a bubbly, happy, day-glo colored perfumed dream that zaps you awake in all the best, most joyous ways, so effervescent, you won’t dare a peep of protest but simply surrender, just as I did, to that intriguing tropical blend of green mango and lychee, with the blackcurrant, cardamom, cistus and cumin adding their own sultry midnight heat. As it develops, the florals – a heady, glorious mix of floral notes that include jasmine sambac, ylang ylang, tuberose, frangipani and gardenia – bloom and sing and dance, and it’s all you can do not to dance a little Busby Berkeley/Bollywood number of your own. Just…roll with it, feel as young and as carefree as you dare, dance the night away and watch the sun rise along with your hopes and your optimism, sense all the colors of life on your skin bloom. A plush drydown of patchouli and tobacco and sandalwood will set you gently down again and make you think in possibilities you thought were too old and jaded to envision – but you weren’t! Life is the eternal ‘now’. Live it!

Notes for Bombay Bling: Top: Mango, lychee, blackcurrant, cardamom, cumin, cistus, rose accord, Turkish rose Heart:  jasmine sambac absolute, Madagascar ylang ylang, white floral accord of tuberose, frangipani, gardenia Base: Patchouli, tobacco, white woods, sandalwood, cedar, vanilla

As a perfume writer, I’m no stranger to the hyperbole of press releases and sometimes hysterically overwrought copy not even I could cook up. I tear my hair out every time I try to express the intangible and describe the perfumes I have the supreme luck to experience. Many have been marvels. Some have made their own way into my perfume cabinet and into my heartstrings and because I’m a hapless if hopeful romantic – in spite of all my life has taught me – there they remain, arguing amongst themselves like the harem of any Moghul emperor… ‘which one will her Majesty pick today?’ ‘Me!’ ‘Me!’ ‘Me!’

This can make anyone a little – or more than a little… jaded. With thousands of new releases a year, with the constant clamor of ‘New!’ ‘Astounding!’ and hyper-luxurious price tags, there’s no lack of wafting wolves out to eat my money or feed my fragrant addictions.

Yet the kind of fragrant transport, the storied genies, the ghosts of a distant past and all the dimensions of teeming, swirling, dancing multitudes of color and life and spice contained in just three sample vials from a brand new line have utterly, completely taken my breath and certainly my words away. I could have said – as my friend Olfactoria once famously did: ‘Great juice! Go buy it!’

Instead, I will say that  each of these extraordinary jeweled juices that travel through time and place have a heartbeat of heritage and an exuberant future ahead.

Life is the eternal ‘now’. Live it!

Neela Vermeire Creations is available at Luckyscent, Jovoy Paris, Parfümerie Osswald in Zürich, Sündhaft München, and directly from Neela Vermeire’s website, where sample sets are also sold.

Images: Vedic artwork of the Shiva in his aspect as Dakshinamurthy, guru and teacher of all knowledge & the Next and Last Incarnation of Lord Vishnu from vedic-art.weebly.com

Image of Nur Jahan: exoticindia.fr

The garden of Diwan-i-Am, Fatehpur Sikri, Uttar Pradesh from gordonbrentingram.ca

Indian Bride, worldstylo.blogspot.com

Photo of the Mumbai skyline known as ‘The Queen’s Necklace’, classygal.wordpress.com

Disclosure: Samples were sent to me for review by Neela Vermeire