Fleur Moderne

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-       a review of DSH PerfumesVers la Violette from the Passport to Paris Collection

Pity the humble violet. Today, violet perfumes as they were originally made have a slight bashful whiff of Miss Havisham and Victoriana, of simplicity, humility and faithfulness, as if, in other words, the perfumes made from this modest but heavenly scented flower have somehow been imbued by default with all the loaded trappings of Proust’s notorious madeleine – offering nostalgia in a bottle.

It’s hard to imagine in these anything goes days, but once upon a time in the decadent, alluring Belle Èpoque era of Paris with its equally alluring swirling, whirling, dizzying lines and mysterious femmes fatales, with its Symbolist poetry, Pointillist paintings and louche air, back in the day when all the world was perched on the brink of momentous change, that shy little violet ruled supreme in the perfume world. Ladies of distinction and easy virtue alike were so enamoured of its sweetly fragrant, verdant spring air that violet perfumes were in effect the perfume bestsellers of their day.

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No matter what these mesdames and demoiselles of the Belle Èpoque might have thought to the contrary, those beloved, sweetly romantic violet perfumes did not in fact contain a single bloom, but another newly synthesized aromatic component that had recently arrived for the perfumer’s organ – ionone (alpha- and beta-ionone, to be precise). Coumarin may get all the justly celebrated press for Houbigant’s Fougère Royal and Guerlain’s equally revolutionary Jicky, but ionone was just as important, not least for the enormous bouquet of violet soliflore perfumes that began to bloom in liquid at around the same time.

Let those dandies and Des Esseintes-wannabes wear their narcotic ambers and tuberoses, their oh-so fashionable fougères, those ladies seemed to say.

‘Give me la violette and my heart shall always be an eternal Spring.’

I’m not sure about the previous statement, but it is a fact universally proven on this blog and elsewhere – I love violets. The flowers themselves are my favorite part of spring, candied violets do wonders in tandem with dark chocolate (never more so than in that great Baudelaire poem of violet, aroma M’s delicious Geisha Violet), and not a few other violet perfumes have also stolen my own fickle heart – Tom Ford’s Black Violet, Sonoma Scent Studio’s Forest Walk, the neon violet of Guerlain’s Insolence and perhaps my favorite of them all, Serge Lutens’ Bois de Violette. I also once managed to imbibe violet (violet liqueur is a thing) in the form of a virulent purple concoction known as Parfait Amour since hope springs eternal, but I didn’t find it there…

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Yet somewhere in those curvilinear, asymmetrical lines of perfume, in the vibrant Pointillist paintings of Hippolyte Petitjean and the overall arc of the Denver Art Museum’s Passport to Paris exhibition now on show, perfumer Dawn Spencer Hurwitz managed to reinvent this now classic perfume trope, le parfum violette, and make it new into something that feels not at all out of place or step with the 21st century.

Her inspiration came from Hippolyte Petitjean’s painting Village from 1893. I’m not sure it’s the painting above, since Google Images was not cooperating, but if Dawn were somehow hoping to translate that hazy, sun-drenched landscape painting into a perfume, she certainly succeeded.

For Vers la Violette is never less than violet, and nevertheless as state-of-the-art modern as this day, this moment, this instant I type away on a machine not even Jules Verne could have imagined. Just as I think I can say with some justification the august Aimé Guerlain could never have imagined anything like Vers la Violette, but if anyone could understand it as something more and more audacious than the mere sum of its parts, surely he would.

In my opinion, no one in perfumery today on either side of the Atlantic can touch Dawn Spencer Hurwitz’ innate and slightly uncanny understanding of the historical context of perfumes. Whether recreating some of the fragrances of ancient Egypt or reinterpreting a comprehensive work of fashion as she did for her YSL retrospective, she not only manages to convey precisely what those pivotal perfumes meant and how they were perceived in their time, but also to refine them and improve them, and with Vers la Violette, she gives the world a violet to make the heart sing and the mind dream of purple haze over a country field, of spring and future possibilities.

Except somehow in this pale gold liquid filigree, an urban heart beats beneath it all which gives it an edge on the violet competition and takes it far away from any nostalgic memories of bashful blooms on a forest floor.

Make no mistake – Vers la Violette is also a pun – on ‘vert’, and green is precisely how it starts to sing. I detect bergamot, galbanum and lemon certainly, along with a quite a lot of violet leaf, but there’s nothing at all bashful about this purple flower. She sings a little softly underneath the orange blossom, the rose and the iris to begin with, which makes this about very much more and more multi-dimensional than simply ‘violet’, but when she finally enters the spotlight, she stays. And stays. Winding her delicate vines around that ethereal floral heart and on through a mossy, soft suede drydown with a hint of hot summer concrete splashed by a passing purple-violet thundercloud.

As much as I like violet notes, and violet leaves, and violet leaf perfumes with their grassy-green optimism, it’s this suede-y, violet-flavored wet steamy concrete thing that slays me. It takes a bit more than the mere name ‘violet’ to make me sit up and pay attention to what I’m sniffing, so I’m partial to the unusual, and Vers la Violette, for all its fabled historical associations with ionone, with violets, and with Les Femmes Modernes of Belle Èpoque Paris, is a most unusual violet. I’ve consistently called it ‘she’, but Vers la Violette is easily, breezily unisex and more modern and certainly more elegant than any mere blushing bloom could ever be.

I’m not quite sure how many more ways I can say I love it – most deeply and sincerely – except that sample vial is going fast, for give me a violet, give me this violet and I shall remain forever young…

Notes (from Fragrantica): Galbanum, bergamot, lemon, violet leaf absolute, cyclamen, orange flower absolute, ionone, orris CO2 extract, Bulgarian rose, wood violet, Mysore sandalwood, oakmoss, labdanum, suede, civet.

Disclosure: A sample was provided for review by Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, for which I thank her from the bottom of my hugely grateful heart. 

A Myth Beyond Time

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- a review of Esscentual Alchemy’s reinterpretation of Guerlain’s Djedi

Among perfumistas, certain things are a given. You will always want more  – or different – than you have at any given time, and if you possibly can, get your perfumed paws on that elusive unicorn creature…the very rare, the super-exclusive, the myth. Some perfumes are precisely so rare, so mythical, so elevated into the stratosphere of near-unattainable that to simply own a sample is to elevate you by extension.

Few are more rare than Jacques Guerlain’s Djedi, if you can even find it at all. Created by Jacques Guerlain in 1926 at the very height of the Egyptian craze that followed in the 1920s after Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamon’s tomb in 1922, it is named for a fabled magician in a story of Khufu first mentioned in the Westcar Papyrus. And all the reviews I’ve ever read have mentioned just how haunting, how strange, how utterly removed from  the usual Guerlain vanilla patisserie sensibilities Djedi is, it might as well have been made by someone else entirely.

I’ve never tried Djedi that I can recall, so I’m not able to say. As serendipity would have it, it so happens I have the next best and far more obtainable thing…and that is Amanda Feeley of Esscentual Alchemy’s recreation/reinvention of this famous, strange oddity, and if Amanda’s version is anything at all like the original, all diehard perfumistas and lovers of vintage perfumes should take note, sit up and pay attention…

This is no mere ‘perfume’, no simple spin on a famous fragrance. Amanda Feeley has shown herself an eminently talented perfumer and participated in many group perfume projects including my own Devilscent Project. Lately, Amanda gave herself the creative challenge of recreating – or reinventing – some of those most beloved classics of yore, the ones we can no longer find, the ones we diehards dream about obtaining if only we could find them. When she told me about her work with Djedi, I couldn’t sit still, haunted by the specter of what I had read and thought about the original. Excited was not the word. Chypre! Animalic! Strange! Odd! I bounced around the living room, much to my former roommate’s delight, although she never did understand precisely what it was about this myth that had me bouncing off the walls…

Djedi! It was almost too good to be true…

So now I have it and wear it. Sacred Isis, this is stunning stuff.

It opens with a bitter, eerie, ghostly rose, if roses somehow had the ability to rise at a midnight hour from some underground crypt to haunt you. Haunt you it certainly does, growing ever more bitter-green by the moment as what must be vetiver (I didn’t get a list of notes) and oakmoss kick off their dust and emerge from their dry linen wrappings in all their timeless glory far more eloquently than Boris Karloff ever managed.

Bitter, yes, green, oh yes, dry as timeless desert sands, but so seamless, so elegantly restrained, as a luxurious, dark leather note emerges, I battle both my preconceptions and my meager attempts to find the words to express what I smell and no less what I feel, for as surely as I live and breathe, they really don’t make these marvels any longer. One layer, one moment at a time, Amanda’s Djedi breathes its mystery, patchouli (a definite vintage-feel patchouli), musk and civet adding their own feral growls to its power, giving the whole an edge, a force (yes, I said that!) of its own that skirts just this side of intimidation – precisely what I love most of all about chypres – that underlying breath of steel to fortify my spine. The drydown arrives after over an hour to remind me of other, later, famous chypres with their own razor edges and feline purrs, that fabulous leather/patchouli accord persisting for hours to follow on my skin.

I read in the reviews of Guerlain’s Djedi I could find that it was a perfume of sorrow and bitter mourning. Jacques Guerlain had somehow managed to add more than a little heartbreak into his creation. This version of Djedi has that characteristic in common with it, this is not something you would want to wear for a carefree, casual, happy-go-lucky day.  This is a perfume of perservering in the face of all adversity, of donning your armor and claiming your true power, of cloaking yourself in a myth beyond time to soldier on through your own challenges, no matter how small – or large. Djedi the magician of the original story had the power to bring the dead back to life, severed heads or no, and this Djedi too has that undercurrent of secret power behind it, to bring you back from whatever brinks you might have found yourself upon,to stand protected and secure when the time comes to roar those demons in the face.

Amanda Feeley’s Djedi will probably make most mainstream perfume consumers run for the hills. If you dislike leather, if you hate animalic perfumes, head straight for the nearest Nile crocodile and do not pass Go. It does have that emphatic vintage feel missing from most perfumes today, which is not to say it isn’t every bit as relevant or as wondrous as anything in the superlative best of indie perfumery today.

On the other hand, if you’re anything like me and many, many perfumeoholics I know, start a petition to have this made as soon as you can. Guerlain’s Djedi may be lost forevermore, thanks to IFRA restrictions, a tendency to play to the lowest common denominators and commercial interests, but thank all the Gods of time and timeless Egypt, we have Esscentual Alchemy and Amanda Feeley to restore our hopes that artistry really does exist, and even unobtainable, mythical perfumes can be resurrected or reinvented from beyond time, and when they are and you can wear them, you too shall rise like a Phoenix to burn again, burning through all those myths of life itself and even of your life, too – all those myths beyond time.

I didn’t receive a list of notes for Esscentual Alchemy’s ‘Djedi’, but Helg of Perfume Shrine gives the notes of Guerlain’s Djedi as: Rose, vetiver, musk, oakmoss, leather, civet and patchouli.

For reviews of the fabled Guerlian Djedi, I highly recommend Perfume Shrine’s, Dimitri’s of Sorcery of Scent, and Yesterday’s Perfume.

Esscentual Alchemy’s all-natural perfumes can be found here. Read the original story of Khufu & The Magician here.

Disclosure: A sample was made for review by Amanda Feeley of Esscentual Alchemy. For which I thank her from the bottom of my chypre/leather/oakmoss/vintage loving heart.