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.

Two-Faced T


- On the strange things skin can do to perfume…

Yesterday, on the night of a full Cancer Moon, something exceedingly strange happened, something possibly explained by Moon Magic, but I’m not too sure because this sort of thing has happened before.

I’ve been suffering from a slight case of writer’s block, not anything debilitating, but enough to stare into space and the wall behind my laptop thinking…I should do…something.

So in a fit of pique, I reached for the large Southwestern gourd, carved, stained and embellished by a member of the Zuni pueblo tribe of New Mexico, that contains a selection of my samples and decants. This has been known to do wonders for my writing, and at other times the precise opposite. I never know, but on a night like yesterday, I’d take my chances.

Since yesterday was a fairly light day, perfume-wise, I thought I’d see what I’d spontaneously reach for to try again.

Into my hot little hands fell…Mandarine Mandarin and Bois de Violette by Serge Lutens.

It’s no secret I sold a fair chunk of my olfactory soul to Uncle Serge. It’s likewise not a secret that sometimes Lutens perfumes can be shape-shifting creatures that take you on journeys you never expected, to places you never knew or even wanted to know. Rather like a lot of the music I love.

Ambre Sultan is the perfect example of that, but there’s a topic for another blog post.

I’ve tried both of them before, and sat firmly on the fence of ‘maybe/maybe not.’ The last time I tried Mandarine Mandarin, the celery seed note bloomed to such an extent, it drowned out all the other notes and threatened to eat me alive, unless I gnawed off my arm first. This was supposedly an Oriental, a luscious, complex mandarin/candied orange/Lapsang Souchong/amber blend that on paper at least sounded like something I should love to death, but that day, the celery seed was out to eat me, and that did not make me happy.

Which, after all, is partly the reason I wear perfume to begin with.

Alors, then – no. Never. Not even in my nightmares, and trust me, with the book I’m writing, they’re plenty bad enough.

On to Bois de Violette. Now, I do like violets, and I love violet candies and candied violets, but the bottled variety, not so much. From reviews and raves, I gathered this was a different, not-that-kind of violet, so I was looking forward to it. Violet paired with Atlas cedar, it couldn’t be too bad. So I thought before applying.

It promptly dropped me into a gargantuan pencil box of very expensive art pencils – and stayed there. Violet???? What violet? This should have been titled Bois de Viol, because it was…rape by pencil shavings, enough to fuel the Ècole des Beaux Arts and several sketch artists for at least ten years. Yikes! I used kitty litter that smelled better than this! I’ve used cedar shavings on my rose geranium that smelled exactly the same.

Something was very wrong with these pictures. These were not the mind-blowers I had come to expect. I put them away in their Pueblo gourd and forgot about them.

Until a full moon night, a night I couldn’t write, and they flew into my hand as if propelled unseen by Uncle Serge, whispering in the ether…

“Really. You should try them. You’ll see.”

Two perfumes. Two wrists. On the left, Mandarine Mandarin, Bois de Violette on the right.

I waited the prerequisite five minutes, staring into my wall, wondering if I’d want to shoot myself.

Well, I do. For other reasons than I expected.

Mandarine Mandarin, that celery-seed arm-eating gargoyle, was on her best behavior last night. Holy Orange Blossom, this was glorious stuff. Mandarin zest and candied mandarin, orange blossom and black tea and… hello, lover, where have you been? Can I marry you, or should I just settle for embalming when I leave Planet Earth?

Opulent and rich and heady, my favorite kind of smoky citrus scent, the kind that slays the unsuspecting. Yes, I need that at my age. Whatever it takes. Take me. Please. Not like its sibling, Fleurs d’Oranger, which to my untrained nose is bottled sunshine-y days, this is an evening perfume that sends out certain messages of expensive dinners at Lapérouse in Paris, in one of the cabinets particuliers, champagne included and fireworks likewise.

I really need to get a life. Or else a less dangerous imagination.

On to Bois de Violette. Last night, there was no pencil box in sight, only the pensive, slightly melancholy yet flirtatious air of wood violets talking, not whispering, from a cedar-forest floor. I caught myself thinking this would be perfect for a Pisces kind of girl, someone sweet and cuddly and but with hidden depths you could never guess. BdV would be perfect for those days you should be concentrating on Serious Things, like splitting atoms or infinitives, just not so serious you want the world to forget you’re a girl after all, or forget yourself in all that serious cedar. Make no mistake, this is very woody in the best way, yet the violet sweetens it just enough to push it over the frilly edge of feminine, at least on my skin.

I had a bad case of perfume schizophrenia on my arms last night. Just call me Two-Faced T. Whether it was hormones, mood or the phase of the Moon, I didn’t know what to expect except the unexpected.

Be careful what you wish for. You will get it! Such as – a cure for writer’s block!

Have you had any surprises on your skin? Perfumes that turned traitor, right when you thought it was love eternal and everlasting, or else Demons of the Dark that hid their angelic side underneath, only to spring it upon you unaware?

Mandarine Mandarin and Bois de Violette are in the Salon-exclusive line of Salons Shiseido at Palais Royale, although Bois de Violette is also in the export line available at Luckyscent, Aedes and Barneys NY, Samples and decants can be bought from The Perfumed Court.

Image: Yours truly, seriously mangled.