La Dame aux Camélias

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- 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:

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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.

Symphonies For A Devil

THE DEVILSCENT PROJECT XV

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 – In which a muse has the last (many) words

It is a newborn August morning some time before sunrise in an old part of Europe, a morning where a thick, low blanket of mist shrouds the late summer landscape and the beech forests with its veil of Otherworld, when all the city is hushed and quiet, when drops of dew condense on the raspberries blushing on bushes and every scent is amplified, exuding late summer promises of harvest and sunshine.

You call her the Genie, I call her something else, but the Genie sleeps this instant with Hairy Krishna snuggled close by her side, sleeps away that morning mist as she dreams of all those shiny balls she has to juggle these days, balls marked Possibilities and Probabilities once labeled nothing more than lower-case italic ‘hopes’,  ‘far-fetched fantasy’ and ‘you wish, sucker’.

So I slipped in through the cracks in the windows as I sometimes do, pulled the duvet a little higher over her in the cool air and brushed her hair away from her face to keep her sleeping, shushed a drowsy cat back to slumber with a sigh and a show of orange belly fur, opened up Cassius Dio and Word, and began to type this post.

It seems such a long, long time ago this project came into being almost as an afterthought, seems in hindsight destiny had a plan when she reviewed the complex yet atavistic, numinous airs of Andy Tauer’s Incense Extrème. Which caused Ellen – the Genie’s friend and first indie perfumer who is more important than she knows – to see the hook, take the bait and throw down the gauntlet:

To create the Devil’s scent.

As time flew by and the project grew, other collaborators in diabolical mayhem joined the fray, collaborators far more noted than the Genie, all of them united in this arcane, audacious project; to conjure my quintessence, to tell my story and all the tale of Lilith, too, and to tell the world of an unknown writer who so dearly wanted to set it alight with her words:

I have this story…

Of an unknown writer with a dream to sell the Devil in absolute and essence and accord and the Devil’s sales pitch too, to do what none had dared before for all of their outrageous, copy-written claims to notoriety.

I sometimes wondered. Would they succeed? Could all my temptations and my perils be contained in a perfume, would new ground be broken in defining Evil Incarnate in ephemeral, fleeting ways? All this time later, would the Devil’s scents be both definition and declaration of nefarious intent?

In that limitless, occult space between the keyboard and my fingers, I find the answer.

Yes.

And would those fellow writers conjure new tales or new interpretations of an old, timeless story of desire, declaration and definition, of dreams both old and new?

Once again, I hesitate not at all as I type.

Yes.

Because as it happens with all artists everywhere through time, it happened with this one, this writer so adept – as all writers are wont to do – at tying herself and her prose into knots. That woman asleep with her cat is no longer the wannabe who sat down one Friday night out of boredom to write what she thought would be a Faustian pastiche with a twist. As she continued the story and dredged up old and carefully concealed secrets of her own, as she aired out the skeletons and the demons buried in that limbic bonfire that fuels all creativity, she couldn’t know what Muses know, and this Devil, too. Her story would never simply be a story, worthless throwaway prose tossed into the stormy void of cyberspace, but another kind of story with a wider appeal she never could have guessed, and would have consequences she never could have imagined.

Yet the perfumers of the Devilscent Project knew it and the writers, too. Knew this would be a different kind of project with a different hue and pitch and challenge, knew as I have always known and never doubted:

This Could Be Really Big.

So the Genie made a beautiful brief and sent it out with a prayer and hopes for an epiphany or two, and somewhere in her bone marrow, in the starry void above her, in that aether where all probabilities are born, destiny whispered sotto voce:

Be careful what you wish for. You will get it.

I’m the Devil. I should know the truth of that one.

As a unifying theme, she chose one of the oldest, most numinous of perfumery materials, that black, sticky, richly redolent resin we know as labdanum. Labdanum has ominously animal shades and facets which rarely sparkle on their own as transcendent as they did here, and that, too, set this project apart. She chose another primeval, ancient material to use as well – frankincense with all its celestial air. Heaven and Earth combined could, I whispered in her ear, be devilishly delicious together, a perfect olfactory metaphor for a dream, a dare, an infernal and eternal love story with a twist…

We dreamed so many dreams as we waited and we wished in those long nights as all muses and their chosen artists do, lost in a reverie we made of these imaginary fragrant symphonies for a Devil and this Devil’s nemesis, Lilith, Queen of the Succubi.

For much as I love to steal the show and chew the scenery, it wasn’t  – and isn’t! – all about me. Lilith – part female warrior, part comedy and tragedy both, all of evil and all her own – made such an impression and such a connection with her readers it should have come as no surprise at all she also inspired my perfumers.

As serendipity would have it, one of them also happened to be a singer and composer who felt compelled to create music for her. Which only proves that old adage:

Be careful what you wish for. You will get it. 

The wheel of artistic inspiration goes around and around, ever perpetuating, ever inspiring, ever returning, ever … eternal.

So eight perfumers read the brief (and later the book) and set to work, all with the same brief and the same inspiration, but the perfumes they made were so very, very different and yet… the name was the same.

Call me Dev

The sassy protagonist of Quantum Demonology dubbed me Dev, well after I had insinuated my very best and most charming self into her soul (and other harrowing locations) in several devious ways, so it made perfect sense that all my perfumers chose to do the same. But then, something most passing strange happened, yet another sign of synchronicity, of all the participants of the Devilscent Project being on the precise same page and with many of the same preoccupations.

Whether I liked it or not, whether it was the Genie’s intention or not, all my perfumers took one entity – me – and refracted and illuminated it through their different prisms. Each of these perfumes explicated and enlarged me in ways I could not have known, each of them in their own way is another facet of her Devil, not evil so much as its embodiment and scapegoat, not malevolent so much as morally ambivalent, not antithesis so much as complement.

My mouthpiece took her own inspirations from Marlowe, Milton and Goethe, but Milton resonated truest and deepest.

Amanda Feeley of Esscentual Alchemy caught something of my tragedy (and shades of John Milton’s Lucifer) in her work, caught that thread of vulnerability and coaxed it out of fir and resin, and ended by spinning in the Nornes’ shining silver yarn, as if to say not even Evil Incarnate would be above – or below – redemption.

Maria McElroy and Alexis Karl of House of Cherry Bomb caught another carefully concealed theme to the tale and brought it out in essence and absolute. That L’Homme Fatal so adored by the Gothic mind was invoked with the decadent sins of chocolate, fig, oud and resins, as sweetly seductive as willful perdition, as perilous and as damning for both acolytes and dreamers.

Ellen Covey captured another thread in the warp and weft, captured it, ran it through a Marshall amp, a bank of distortion pedals and a whole lot of reverb before she cranked everything up to eleven, but no rock star ever got this lucky, not even on tour. For Ellen’s Devs were rock’n’roll personified, every heady fantasy anyone has ever projected on any guy with a microphone or a guitar, every transgression and rebellion you ever dreamed of instigating, every taboo you wanted to break and every emotion you wanted to feel. But just as Amanda Feeley and later Neil Morris, Ellen – who developed her contributions as she read the book – also somehow managed to wrap all my many shades and hues into her creations as the story unfolded…from the bad-boy erotic promises of the beginning through the torrid affair, the heartbreak and the soul-stopping labdanum surrender to the inevitable end. None of them bore any resemblance to her previous work, and I suspect all four showed a side to Ellen’s olfactory vernacular not even she could have guessed. The Genie has often used Ellen’s Dev #4 to center and comfort herself after a bad day, and it never fails to do the trick.

Monica Miller, bless her heart of dark, went off on an entirely different tangent, and delivered her Green Man massage bar, a decadent (and delightfully twisted) viridian treat in sackcloth and stinging nettles. This Green Man was a fierce, pungent, emerald green kick to the senses in several devious ways. So much so, that when a little liquid decant arrived some time later, it was immediately stolen right from under the Genie’s nose by Super Mario Sr’s Gemini sleight of hand! She never saw it again, but smelled it often. I should call it…The Wild One. It’s ‘gonna keep on swinging, baby, it’s a real wild child…’

More mischief was afoot when Katlyn Breene of Mermade Magickal Arts (creatrix/purveyor of some of the finest, purest incense filthy lucre can buy) was persuaded to join the devilry and jumped in with glee, aided by some very goatish labdanum resin. Should you ever wish to discover how a plush, decadent den of sacred iniquity smells, Katlyn’s Mephisto incense was an easy way to find out – or to simply create that dizzying, delirious ambience. I just need the Genie to remember to order more charcoal tablets. She doesn’t get to be dizzy or delirious nearly enough these days. Something must be done about that. She’s so sweet when she’s delirious.

There we would have remained, and that was plenty spectacular enough, but then, a rock star of the indie perfume world was persuaded to join. Fragrant mayhem ensued when Neil Morris of his eponymous brand decided to climb aboard the crazy train of the Devilscent Project.

I had never heard of his work, but the Genie certainly had, and indeed by sheer serendipity encountered Rumi from his Vault collection, which shot in an instant to that elevated stratosphere of forever beloved perfumes, very fitting for a tribute to one of her favorite poets.

As with all my perfumers, as with this entire project even, Neil experienced an instant connection with the concept and an instant inspiration, too as he delved in deep (also with an inordinate amount of diabolical glee) to uncover my secrets and paint them in new and unnerving olfactory hues. In that way all synchronicity unfolds, he, too, devised an evolution in his contributions, a sultry, erotic passion play in three acts that contained the slow, deep burn of the beginning, the bonfires of the middle, and the unholy conflagration of that inevitable end. Just as Amanda’s and Ellen’s contributions, these three Devs are definition and declaration, storyline, subtext and meta-message writ bold and large in essence, absolute and accord. That would have been enough to surpass the Genie’s own wildest dreams and far more than enough to encourage all my own, but then, Neil chose to really pull the rug out from under both our feet.

For Neil also chose to bottle up the beginning, to capture it in liquid gold filigree and create a perfume such as none ever quite were caught before. He took the entire first chapter – the ambience, the setting, the blues, the candlelight, the November night, the mulled wine, the mood, the chemistry and that underlying pulse of dark, danger and desire and called it ‘Midnight at the Crossroads Café’.

I remember the night she finally summoned the nerve to unwrap the envelope that arrived that afternoon, remember how she waited until Super Mario Jr. was asleep and the house was quiet, the cats settled, the day finally put to rest. I remember her happy, delicious laugh as she read Neil’s card, remember her as she sprayed her wrist and the air about her, and then I remember how she cried.

Great Implications

What are the odds of this happening, if you think about it? An unknown writer wannabe writes one story. It grows, as stories do, into a book. The writing expands to perfume, the perfume writer is born, a project conceived, and some long time later, a celebrated perfumer is inspired to create that story of one moment in time when all possibilities were open, where anything could happen, where everything, everything changes and destiny starts its inexorable turn. That ‘Midnight’ is also one hellishly stunning perfume – like all the Devilscents are – is just more fuel for her fire, and more tears for her Kleenex.

Let me assure you though, those tears were happy ones. Sometimes, it does happen that dreams come true.

You who breathe and live for fragrant epiphanies, you who read – and write! about perfume, you who have certain expectations of what perfume is, how it’s defined, what it can do to you, your mood, your own definitions and desires – you can’t begin to imagine just how different, how unusual all of these perfumes are. There are no simple categories of ‘Oriental’, ‘Chypre’, ‘Floral’ at play here, no handy ways to contain them, no familiar frames of reference they refer to. Just as my own self, just as the protagonist at one point in the story tells it, they are. I am.

I’m the Devil. Surely, you expected no less?

Many have in many ways sought to capture me, capture something of that Miltonian tragedy and epic. The world has no lack of perfumes that say ‘devilish’, ‘desire’, ‘danger’ in their copy or their name.

Each and every one of this Devil’s, this project’s scents will change how such dangers – and desires – are perceived. A classic rock song once demanded sympathy for the Devil.

That Guy wasn’t trying hard enough.

For everything I am, for everything I’ve been, done, dreamed and desired has been wrapped up here in these…

Symphonies for a Devil.

I’ll have to go soon. Krishna is awake and wondering about his breakfast, one eye open as he creeps up higher on the sleeping form in the bed. In a moment, he’ll begin to purr and lick her face, and she’ll wake up. I want to surprise her. But I’ll be back to tell the tales of Lilith, and all the awesome words this project has inspired.

A very special thank you to Lucy of Indieperfumes, whose friendship, encouragement and faith in this project has meant everything to the Genie, and to Chayaruchama, who has encouraged, befriended and believed no less.

With my immortal gratitude to Ellen Covey, Amanda Feeley, Maria McElroy and Alexis Karl, Neil Morris of Neil Morris Fragrances, Monica Miller, Katlyn Breene and Kedra Hart. I chose you well!

Amanda Feeley’s contributions are available from Esscentual Alchemy, Ellen Covey’s at Olympic Orchids, Monica Miller’s ‘Green Man’ EdP from her Etsy site. Neil Morris’ through his Vault Collection. House of Cherry Bomb’s ‘Dev’ and ‘Lilith’ available by special request.

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Save the Genie and keep her writing! Find out more here.

The Best of 2012 – Perfumes and Perfumers

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 – Perfumes and perfumers

It’s that time of the year again when I have the agonizing task of determining the best perfumes of 2012. What did I love, what did I loathe? What did we write and what did I wear?

Just as last year, my Best of list will be in three (long) parts. First, the perfumes and perfumers that – and who – blew my mind in so many different ways. This list is limited to those I’ve actually tried and/or reviewed. I can’t keep up any longer, and I’m not sure what irritates me most – that so many perfumes were launched, or that no matter how I try, I just can’t try them all, darn it! Next comes an ode to the words, the friends and the facilitators who did so much to improve upon what I otherwise consider an annus horribilis of my own, and last, but not least, my personal list of what I wore and adored this year.

The more I’ve written about perfume, the more I’ve discovered the truth of that maxim – it doesn’t get any easier. If anything, quite the reverse. What does get easier is determining the duds from the dudes (and dudettes), the spectacular from the super-bad. As the saying goes – experience is a witch! ;-)

Meanwhile, I have three fervent pleas.

Dear EU. You have a problem. Several powerful political lobbies and the IFRA wish to strengthen the substance ban and add far more natural substances used in perfumery for fear of allergic reactions. You also have a billion-euro industry of unparalleled history and heritage who depend on those very substances to make their money and so employ growers, suppliers and the thousands who work in the worldwide perfume industry. Here’s your problem. Do you give in to the political pressure – and lose all those thousands of jobs and billions of euros that pay your salary? Or do you wise up to an irrefutable fact – the people who might react are not the people who wear perfume. I hope for the best – and try to quell that tiny smidge that makes me fear for the worst…

Dear perfume houses – niche, indie and otherwise. Please. For the love of contraband oakmoss – no more oud ANYTHING, OK? Enough is enough. Let those poor, overharvested aquilaria trees just grow for a change, and get back to me in about 30 years.

One more thing. I do hope you’re listening. If you’re going to call something ‘Noir’, make sure it emphatically IS…Noir. (This doesn’t apply to Tom Ford, who knows better.) Instead, I got saddled with Chanel’s Coco Noir. I had such high hopes. Once again, they were dashed to smithereens. Note to Jacques Polge – next time, call it Chanel Greige.

Here are my fragrant epiphanies of 2012 – the best and the worst of what this year had to offer.

Best New Line:

Although technically launched at the very end of last year, the trio of carefully curated perfumes from Neela Vermeire Creations has taken the perfume world by storm this year – for a very good reason. Orchestrated with perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour, her fragrant odes to her native India past and present – Trayee, a numinous song of the distant past and sacred ceremony, the luminous Moghul rose that is Mohur, and the Bollywood extravaganza of exuberance that is Bombay Bling  – an homage to India’s dynamic, fast-moving present and future – are all richly complex, ever-evolving, multi-layered and textured tapestries, a bit like the mood rings I wore as a teenager, since I never quite know what magic carpet rides they will provide this time or what stories will follow, except they will be as fabulous, as colorful and as kaleidoscopic as India surely is and ever was.

Best Discovery:

Sometimes, I suspect that Fate/Destiny/Kismet has plans for me. I rarely enter draws or competitions, but one competition I did enter was a Facebook competition from Roman luxury retailer Campomarzio70 for a chance to try vero profumo’s newest launch, and vero profumo was at the very top of my Dying to Try list and has been for years. Lo and behold, I was one of the lucky ones, and lo and behold – not only did I receive a sample of Mito, I also received samples of both the extraits and eaux de parfums of Vero Kern’s line. I’ll have more to say about vero profumo, but I’m thoroughly, utterly delighted to state that they were all of them everything I could have hoped for and so very much more.

Theme songs

1. The War of the Roses

2012 was a year of some spectacular roses, not simply variations on a theme but roses reinvented and made into new, improved versions of themselves, and this year brought me three breathtaking roses – and one I have yet to review, but I’ll be getting back to that one. My personal 2012 Trinity of Rose – I can’t choose between them and wouldn’t dare to try – consists of the decadent, mossy, silk-velvet Ballets Rouges by Olympic Orchids, Aftelier’s joyously delicious Wild Roses and Neela Vermeire Creations opulent, majestic Mohur. The war referred to in the heading is simply the one that goes on in my mind deciding which one to wear!

2. The Color Of My Hopes

This diehard green-floral fan was thoroughly delighted to see that she wasn’t the only one who loved her greens and wore them, too. The most original take on that particular theme was definitely vero profumo’s Mito, which is my Green of the Year. But another new line’s highly original spin on that well-loved riff deserves singling out, and that is the Green Feral Thang that is Kerosene’s aptly named Creature. Alas, I loved that tiny sample so much I have nothing left to review it with.

3. The Chypre Continuum

Despite whatever the IFRA might say to the contrary, three stellar chypres were launched this year that bear no resemblance to those wan, pathetic, patchouli-laden wannabes called ‘chypres’ in mainstream perfumery. These three are far, far above and way beyond them all. Two I’ve already reviewed, Amouage’s Beloved and the effervescent Parfums d’Empire’s Azemours L’Oranger, the last of the three came to me fairly recently thanks to a perfume angel. MDCI’s Chypre Palatin – yes, expect to see a review soon – is a blatant, deliriously great gauntlet thrown in the face of all who would do away with those dark, earthy, mossy depths so many of us love – and wear with no ill effects whatsoever.

4. Perfume stories

Two tales involving perfume have become a huge part of my own personal scent trail in 2012, and I say this in all humility since one of those stories was my own. The one that wasn’t (which I have yet to read) was L’Artisan Parfumeur’s showstopping Seville à l’Aube, created by Bertrand Duchaufour (I swear, the man was everywhere this year!) in collaboration with Denyse Beaulieu of Grain de Musc for her book ‘The Perfume Lover’. Once that fatal word ‘orange blossom’ began to be thrown around as the rumors grew before its launch, I swept in like a hawk on the hunt and acquired a decant of Seville à l’Aube blind – and never in the history of this perfume blogger did the level of perfume drop so fast in a decant, not for lack of alternatives. This blend of rose-tinted memory and glorious orange blossom, beeswax, a most unusual lavender and thick, dancing swirls of incense is, in a word, flawless. Rumor has it that Denyse and Bertrand have plans for an extrait version called ‘Duende’. I pale to contemplate what it might be like. When that decant goes, I will cry. Buckets. Streams. Rivers!

About that other one…Once upon a time, I concocted a story out of boredom that I wrote all the way to the day I wrote ‘The End’ – and have rewritten several times since. Thanks to my partner-in-crime, Ellen Covey of Olympic Orchids, the Devilscent Project was resurrected as a group project involving some of the very best bloggers in the blogosphere – and the very best indie perfumers in the US. Neil Morris, no stranger to danger and a monumentally talented perfumer, joined the project and then proceeded to blow my poor proboscis to smithereens by bottling up the first chapter of the tale – and calling it Midnight at the Crossroads Café. All the elements of that first chapter are contained within its depths: the smoky, late-night café, the chill of looming winter, the cinnamon and spices wafting from the mulled wine, the remnants of an evening to remember, the danger, the desire, the Devil, the deal…There’s nothing at all on Planet Perfume quite like it. I cried my immensely flattered, floored, grateful tears the day it arrived and many times since whenever I wear it.

Speaking of invoking my inner Drama Queen…one august personage loves nothing more than to induce apoplexy at the post office, apoplexy that means a large, smoking trail of blackest profanity, a not-at-all clandestine spray because I can’t bloody help myself and eff-what-they-think, followed by that unfortunate I-so-have-to-sit-down-now moment. Christopher Chong has had not just an awful lot on his plate this year, he also has that on his conscience! As well as…

Best Post Office Apoplexy – and my Amber of the Year:

Amouage Opus VI. If anything redefined amber as something new and audacious, surely it was Opus VI. Dry, smoky, woody, complex and raspy, it’s extraordinary and yet a definite Amouage, and that’s precisely how I like my ambers – and my Amouages. Meanwhile, I’ve received funny looks at that post office ever since. They probably think I’m getting controlled substances in the mail. I am. And it’s all HIS fault!

Finest WTF moments:

Amouage Interlude Man & Woman

But Beloved wasn’t enough for this Perfume Torquemada. Opus VI wasn’t enough. Then came the coups-de-grace that were Interlude Man and Woman, and my doom was as total as my confusion, since I came by necessity to discover that the labels has been switched on my samples. Interlude Woman was Interlude Man, and vice versa. Or his vice was my versa. Or something. Whatever the case, these two bottled odes to the cacophony and chaos of modern life – and the deep, deep breaths we take in order to cope with them – were astonishing. And nearly impossible to review, since I barely knew where to start. Even now, even today, I wrestle with those obstinate genies who refuse to give anything away, yet insist all the same… “We haff vays to make you talk…” Oh, yes. In tongues long dead and likely forgotten, but talk, I do! The problem, as my readers are surely aware, is shutting up!

That other Christopher (Sheldrake) whose work I so adore – and the devious if not diabolical Creative Director he works in tandem with, M. Lutens  – was no slouch this year, either. Parfums Serge Lutens gave us…

My Favorite Bottled Air Conditioning:

The Serge Lutens line known as L’Eaux tend to be a bit divisive. I happen to like the original L’Eau, (a decided minority), but ‘like’ turned to love when L’Eau Froide arrived in February during an epic spell of freezing weather. It since became a summer staple on those (rare) hot summer days with its unique combination of rosemary/pine/eucalyptus and chilly Somali incense. No matter where I went or what I did, I was – literally – Cool, Calm and (very) Collected. If there were two words that encapsulate all L’Eau Froide is to me, they would be Chill and Out.

Got Wood?

Sandalwood? If we’re talking the fabled Mysore sandalwood, the answer is probably not. Over-harvested to near-extinction, adulterated and even counterfeited, the real Mysore sandalwood is nearly impossible to come by any longer. Australian sandalwood, however – a different species of tree and a different fragrance – is not. Frankly, I don’t mind too much, since the arrival of Santal Majuscule – using that Australian sandalwood – will likely completely make you forget you even miss the real thing, with its spicy cocoa-rosy ribbons wrapped around a rich, creamy sandalwood heart. Obey my commands if not my deeds, ye sandalwood lovers. Try it!

Most Dangerous/Sexy Perfumes of 2012, Masculine:

Anything named Dev, from Esscentual Alchemy, Neil Morris Fragrances, House of Cherry Bomb, Olympic Orchids or the Perfume Pharmer. Trust me. I know.

Most Dangerous/Sexy Perfumes of 2012, Feminine:

Anything named Lil or Lilith from Neil Morris Fragrances, House of Cherry Bomb, Olympic Orchids, and certainly Babylon Noir from Opus Oils, too. Trust me. I know.

Tropical Escape Hatch

Another line that was new to me (if not to the rest of Planet Perfume) was Micallef, and my shameless self-promotion on Facebook and Twitter meant that a sample package arrived in the mail one sunshiney day – with one broken vial, but I won’t hold that against them. There will be more reviews of Micallef to follow – but for now, let’s just say that whenever the winter blahs blow too hard, I now have the tropical escape hatch that is their beautiful Ylang in Gold. Just knowing it’s there glowing in my cabinet tends to make the snow, the rain, the wind somehow easier to bear.

Disappointment, Guaranteed!

It was a spectacular campaign. It was a no less spectacular premise. Even the bottle was, well…spectacular. What wasn’t quite so spectacular were the contents of Lady Gaga’s ‘Fame’. I wish I could say that might have been the whole idea – you’ve been had by a concept – but alas, that might be asking for more meta than even Lady Gaga could supply. Likewise, the much-anticipated ‘Truth or Dare’ by Madonna was a monumental…letdown. I’ll give celebufumes a chance, but throwing Fracas into the cotton candy-machine and calling this fluffy-bunny over-sugared Da-Glo pink tuberose ‘Truth or Dare’ is neither truthful nor particularly daring. C’mon, Madge. We had expectations. Until we didn’t. Sic transit…For one, I never in my wildest flu-ish phantasmagorias expected to write ‘fluffy bunny’ about a tuberose. ‘Nuff said!

From the overthought Unintentional Hilarity Department:

Brad Pitt for Chanel no. 5 could have really rearranged everyone’s mental furniture. It did, but in ways not even the marketing department of Chanel could have anticipated. We were howling with laughter…over the pretension of it all. Since Brad Pitt as a rule doesn’t make me laugh and neither does Chanel these days, that’s…something, just not what Chanel might have been hoping for.

Dear readers, you have all been so patient, so forgiving of all the verbiage. But wait! There’s more! For this year, I hand the baton of Truly And Epically Spectacular Perfumers to…a collective united by a project that took them places and made them create perfumes as perfumes might never have been created before, and an individual that means I’ll likely cook my goose most thoroughly. Since I’m not afraid of controversy – or flying bottles of Britney Spears Circus Fantasy – I’ll plow in regardless.

Perfumers of 2012 – Collective

The perfumers of the Devilscent Project as a whole claim one half of the Perfumer’s Prize. I had no idea one snowbound weekend in January preparing the brief, just what would lie in store or what marvels would be created. But in essence and absolute, Amanda Feeley of Esscentual Alchemy, Neil Morris of Neil Morris Fragrances, Ellen Covey of Olympic Orchids, Monica Miller of Perfume Pharmer, Katlyn Breene of Mermade Magickal Incense Maria McElroy and Alexis Karl of House of Cherry Bomb and Kedra Hart of Opus Oils threw away all the rules and the book they were written in, too – and made my Faustian tale of desires, dreams, love, rock’n’roll and redemption into something brand-new and most wondrous strange – strange for being impossible to classify, wondrous for being, well, some of the sultriest, sexiest, most salaciously hair-raising, inhibition-killing, zipper-popping, bodice-ripping perfumes ever made – anywhere, so long as you parked your preconceptions by the wayside and followed them down the rabbit hole, the Chelsea Hotel, a street in Ditmas Park – or that midnight café.  I’ll have much more to say about them – I have four reviews to go and a wrap-up post, but for now and for always, the technical skills and all-out sinfulness of all the Devilscent Project’s seventeen scents are staggering testaments to a maxim I learned while writing the book – that inspiration is everything, and so long as you dare to follow where it takes you, anything can happen, and sometimes, miracles, too.

Independent Perfumer of 2012

I’ve been writing this post off and on in my head since October, thinking about what should make my list and who I should single out for praise. Yet no matter which ways I sliced or diced it, my mind kept coming back to a man with a stunning string of massive successes just this year alone, and he’s given us perfumistas so many epiphanies in so many bottles for quite some time.

Therefore, I’m going to court controversy and hand it to… Bertrand Duchaufour. For his work with Neela Vermeire Creations, for his work with L’Artisan Parfumeur and Denyse Beaulieu, for the breathtaking Chypre Palatin and for never, ever falling back on a formula and repeating his own artistic predilections. Like all the best of any art in any genre, a Duchaufour is always recognizable, yet always surprising.

Having said that, one of his artistic collaborations blew up in his face and all over the blogosphere as well as perfume boards – namely, his creation of a line of perfumes for Gulnara Karamova, the daughter of Uzbekistan’s dictator, who apparently has plans to become either a fashion designer or a pop star with a celebufume of her own. The problem isn’t that she at least had the supreme good taste to go for the best – the problem, of course, is whether an artist is ethically responsible for the questionable actions of his patrons.

Never mind we mortals will likely never even see these perfumes in our part of the world. The rest of Planet Perfume learned about it via an article in the UK newspaper The Independent, which was picked up by a number of perfume blogs. Next we knew, all hell broke loose as so many rushed to deride the ubiquitous M. Duchaufour, his works and his choice of collaborators. People swore never to buy another of his perfumes again. People threw out entire, costly bottles. Planet Perfume felt somehow betrayed in its illusions of the beautiful world of perfume, when the fact is – it’s every bit as dirty, as filthy, as infested and as cutthroat as any other business these days. And much as it pains me to say it – it IS…a business, for all we prefer or hope to believe otherwise.

It was an interesting debate, not least for what it never really said. If M. Duchaufour were to lose his professional reputation over his trip to Uzbekistan (one commenter stated his career was over, which is a tad over-dramatic) – one of the most severely repressed countries in the world – shouldn’t it by rights follow that the august fashion houses of Dior, Chanel, Balenciaga, Balmain, Dolce & Gabbana et al. should surely be shunned/boycotted, too, for clothing Miss Karamova? After all, it is the precise same problem.

Or – if the questionable ethics of patrons really were the point, then how do you explain the Italian Renaissance – financed by a whole bunch of emphatically and epically questionable so-called ‘nobles’ in Florence, Milan, and Rome? Do we now boycott the Mona Lisa since Leonardo Da Vinci was employed by Cesare Borgia (no Snow White!) at one point in his illustrious career? Would Da Vinci be responsible for what Cesare Borgia and the Papal armies did to Italy? He did make several lethal war-machines, after all…

Or do we simply say…even artists are people, too, and people do like to eat and support themselves and their families as best they can. So artists will go where the money is and hope for a creative challenge if they’re lucky, and the rest is…what it is. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

Here’s what I believe. Anyone can make mistakes. If they’re smart – as I definitely suspect M. Duchaufour is – they’ll learn from them and…move on. As I suspect he will, and hopefully, his legions of enlightened fans will follow. The art supersedes the artist, and the art Duchaufour has created and unleashed upon the world this year alone has done so very much to improve upon my world and my life.

As for the artist – I also have reasons to believe he still has a few aces up his sleeve, and is just waiting to unleash them upon an eager world. Here’s hoping! Bertrand Duchaufour, this was your year. You do have a few more left, yes?

So many perfumes – and so little time! What were your favorites of 2012? What trends did you love – or hate – and what do you hope lies in store for 2013?

Stay tuned for Part Two of the Best of 2013 – in friends, in phrases and in facilitators…

Note: This blog expresses my own independent opinions and views and I am never compensated for any reviews or review lists.

A Harrowing Beauty

THE DEVILSCENT PROJECT  VIII

-  a review of House of Cherry Bomb’s ‘Lilith’ 

What makes villains so fascinating? Is it that they’re more often than not expressing something, doing or instigating something we ourselves would never dare? Don’t we all have that secret part of us that wants to be thoroughly, utterly b-a-d, just once, just to say we did?

I wonder what I might have been trying to say when Lilith appeared out of nowhere and made her presence known in no uncertain terms.

I wasn’t looking for her. I rather suspect she might have been looking for me…

Once we got to know each other, I felt a bit bad that maybe I hadn’t treated her entirely fairly. Maybe, as I told a friend recently, she was the quintessence of every she-dog I’d ever encountered – and I’ve known a few.

Maybe…she had it coming.

The principle. Darling.

And yet…even villains need a little compassion, a few lighter shades of gray in the mix, lest they become too predictable, too inhuman for a reader to relate to. The tragedy of Lilith in Quantum Demonology is the tragedy of so many women…the tragedy of making the wrong choice, of choosing the wrong guy, and then coming to terms with your own bitter disappointment – in yourself, which is always hardest to swallow.

So Lilith made a few bad choices, choices with consequences she could never have imagined, and I like to think that’s what makes her relatable even as the antagonist – throughout her long, long history with Dev, she paid a very high price for never daring to face that disappointment.

Instead, she chose to let the rest of the world pay for what she couldn’t face, and became Lilith, Queen of the Succubi, the ultimate female nightmare…and what would such a fabled, alluring creature be in a perfume? How would her character and her glamour be expressed and explored?

Where Ellen Covey painted her portrait in poison Da-Glo green, Maria McElroy and Alexis Karl of the House of Cherry Bomb chose to tell a very different story, one that glows equally vibrant but in an alternate key.

Make no mistake – this is lethal stuff. Maria and Alexis know far too much about blending the essential oil of danger with fever concrete and lust absolute, and this Lilith is no exception.

The Queen of the Succubi rules this perfume, that’s obvious from its shocking, unnerving beginnings all the way to…but I’m getting ahead of myself, and this will not do.

Floral and heady, leathery and earthy, with musky undertones and something else, something that smelled – poisonous, even tainted. It was very erotic and so domineering it cracked an olfactory whip at my nose.

 – From Quantum Demonology, ‘Latte with Lilith’

I will begin, as all stories should and perfume reviews, too.

With …the beginning.

Here she comes, black as night and blinding bright, making her presence felt with what I can only describe as a floral bouquet of carnivorous, rapacious blooms.

Beware the Polianthes.

She is out to devour you, get you as only she can when she gangs up with her equally heady, indolic ladies-in-waiting who lurk just behind her, wearing their sweetest smiles and their satin skins…the orange blossom breathing beautiful, the jasmine sighing a singular delicious promise she will never, ever keep.

Does this sound familiar, sound like something you might have breathed or loved before? Does it read as the well-beloved contents of a bottle you might even own?

I, who have survived this mortal peril in a perfume will tell you this for your own good:

You haven’t.

For no familiarity has ever graced these blooms that grew, were fed and were watered by the river Lethe, exuding their fatal majesty beneath a starless sky in Hell.  Breathe this perfume all the way in, and you will forget yourself as you breathe, forget you have ever known any other kind of splendor, forget all you ever were and everything you are. Forget the velvet-soft caress of those glowing moonlit petals, even as they slide across your skin and your soul and entwine themselves around you, you are far too transported to notice, even as they tighten, even as this sweet, honeyed breath threatens to stifle your own.

You will be lost, you will be doomed, and you won’t, you don’t, you are incapable of even thinking about the peril of your fate.

But there is more to Lilith than this, and as she tells this story you have never breathed before, she shifts in a stealthy, eerie segue to something equally sweet and even green, with heavy and heady intimations of musk that deepen and darken as she evolves, tinted ever blacker but never less than heavenly – or infernal, depending on your point of view. She growls her last on your skin hours and hours later with a bitter drydown that brands itself into your awareness and haunts those fevered dreams you can never admit in daylight to anyone at all.

I can guess what you’re thinking. Hyperbole, an overactive imagination, perhaps a glass of wine too many?

No. I am as sober as the empty page. It’s just …this perfume, you see, that takes away all common sense and all inhibition and haunts everyone it devours in its path.

I even like to believe that the silk scarf I forgot on my one date of the year, a scarf as saturated with Lilith as the rest of me that night to remember, will haunt the dreams of the one who kept it… forever.

You don’t mess with the Queen of the Succubi.

The House of Cherry Bomb’s ‘Lilith’ came with a sealed-wax admonition on scorched parchment paper:

“The secrets of the Succubi are bound in blood. The contents of this vial shall not be known to mankind. As sealed by Lilith.”

I’ve warned you. Will you listen? Or will you, too fall prey to the harrowing beauty – of Lilith?

With my deepest thanks and immortal gratitude to Maria McElroy and Alexis Karl.

Alexis has also been inspired by my Lilith to write this haunting song:

“Lilith – Live” (YouTube)

Image: Nadja Auermann photographed by Richard Avedon, 1995

Sweet Damnation

THE DEVILSCENT PROJECT IV

-  A review of Cherry Bomb Killer Perfumes’ submission ‘Dev’ for the Devilscent Project

We humans like to believe that we have codified, catalogued and categorized everything. Everything we think and feel and believe can be boiled down to the chemical soup of hormones, every original thought somehow classified by identifying which areas in our brains fire up in a particular sequence, and some day, even our most primal, quintessential selves will probably be defined by some biochemical equation that all adds up to – human.

Unless you happen to be an incurable romantic like me. I take my own perverse delight in knowing that not all that equates me can be so neatly defined, in proving I still have mysteries to decode.

Including the enigma of precisely what it is that sparks that phenomenon called ‘lust’. Lust as I define it isn’t passion (that comes later if you’re lucky), certainly not love (that comes later if you’re very, very lucky), and not quite the more polite term ‘desire’ either. What provides that spark-out-of-the-blue that makes you look again, that sets your imagination free, that catches on those half-overgrown train tracks of your thoughts and makes you wonder…what would it feel like, what would it be like, would he, should you…

You get the idea. My own idea about that particular ignition point would be this:

It may start with the eyes, but the nose…knows.

I suspect that idea played at the back of my mind that fated Friday night I plugged myself into my iPod and wrote the first chapter of what would become “Quantum Demonology”, and wove into my storyline an idea about a perfume so dangerous, so delectable, so sinfully sexy and seductive, only the Devil could ever wear it.

Since the Devilscent Project began, these nine perfume renditions of Devilscent have all shown me different aspects and interpretations of Dev in his many guises and moods, some haunting and haunted, some as bittersweet as all the best and most fatal love affairs, some fevered and erotic, all of them heartbreaking. Even the one on my skin as I type these words, but this Dev really does put the ‘dev’ in devious and defines that singular, insidious creature that lurks within us all and goes by a four-letter word…lust.

Maria McElroy and Alexis Karl of Cherry Bomb Killer Perfumes are no strangers to perfumed perdition, as they proved beyond all doubt when they participated in the Clarimonde Project last year with their ‘Immortal Mine’. I was convinced I would very likely never sniff anything quite so dangerous again.

Wrong.

I love it when that happens!

If Immortal Mine were the phantom of perfumed perdition, then this Dev is so downright incendiary, I’m surprised the contents of my little skull bottle don’t just burst into flames. Wearing it, I almost wish I would.

This is not anyone’s usual idea of that pop-culture creature of temptation. This Dev is damnation-in-a-bottle, lasciviously liquid like all the very best of love potions, as illicit and as delicious as sin, but you are helpless to resist it and wouldn’t want to even try. You know he’s a rotter. Your heart will be broken. There will be tears.

You don’t care. It will be worth it, if only in hindsight, if only to know that one instant, you knew precisely what it means to… burn.

Like all fatal fallen angels, he begins with sweet. I don’t have a list of notes – Dev came with a sealed-wax stamp and the words:

By Satanic decree. The essences of this elixir are not to be divulged to mortals. As sealed by Dev.

So I’ll wager the soul Saint Augustine claimed I don’t have and say…cocoa, a dark, decadent chocolate teardrop that sears away any leftover inhibitions and second thoughts and better judgments. What woman in her right mind could possibly resist chocolate? But chocolate is only the first of many veils and the first of many of Dev’s most dangerous disguises. Before long, an opulent, seamless floral note insinuates itself, orange blossom, rose, a heady jasmine, a touch of tuberose?

You were helpless to resist the chocolate, and the next thing you know, you are an equally hapless victim of all these flattering, flowery words. Breathe it all in and believe it, believe it will be beautiful, believe it will be worth it, believe that you’re worthy…

Believe.

Because as you do, you’re reeling on your feet, you’re so dizzy, so delirious with all these potent promises and perfumed wonders, you could almost fail to notice after a long, long while what other secrets this Dev contains, multitudes of layers unfolding like the pages of an arcane book, blooming in slow-motion like the very human and infinitely complex character he also is.

Vade Intro Satanas – let him all the way in now, now you’ve been lured to your fate by the temptation of chocolate, next you’re swooning in that heady, floral embrace with all its heavenly intimations and promises, and here comes that night-black, animal doom…labdanum and myrrh, frankincense and oud, dragon’s blood with their blast of heat and hellfire, and yet somehow above and behind it all, that sweet promise of chocolate that never quite fades away.

I could say it of this perfume, too – it lasts, it lingers, it seems to go on forever and even when it’s gone, even after days, in some midnight moment it will steal into your consciousness to haunt you, and you can breathe it in all over again and discover facets you might have overlooked before, be surprised as you rarely are, and you will never, ever forget it.

This Dev is a creature of magic both occult and very, very dark. Not black, not any preconceived caricature of ‘evil’, but something – or Someone – so much more than the sum of parts, something whole and entire, masculine and virile that constantly defies any definition of ‘black’ or ‘white’. Sinful and taboo, deliriously and deliciously verboten, he glows in those subterranean spaces where all desire is born and all lust begins and all inhibitions are silenced. The only way to know is to go, the only way to see is to dare, and he throws down the gauntlet in a challenge you want to resist so badly, but you can’t and you don’t and you won’t.

I had an idea in my mind when I first conjured up the Devil’s scent, an idea that has been manifested through the funhouse mirror of my brief and my story, and above all by the many and varied inspirations the perfumers have chosen to follow. Each of these Devils are very different, each have their own stories to tell and their own brand of perdition to exude, and above all else, each and every one of them so much more than I could have imagined, and so much more than I think I did imagine. Sniffing Maria and Alexis’ ‘Dev’, I am blown away (again!) by their interpretation, and so incredibly privileged they chose to share it with me.

Like the Dev in my story, this perfume is thoroughly damned. Like my protagonist, I sold my own soul for the one dream I have left. But this dream is no fiction, and this perfume is no dream, but a fervent wish I sent out into the Universe that was returned a thousand-fold. It is nothing I have any kind of reference for, nothing like anything else I’ve ever encountered, but then again…the best kind of perdition never is, is it?

See much more on the Devilscent Project and Quantum Demonology on our Facebook Page. or on the Perfume Pharmer’s overview page.

Find the astounding creations of Maria McElroy and Alexis Karl at House of Cherry Bomb. Maria is also the mastermind behind the beauties of Aroma M Geisha Perfumes.

Final words: Alexis Karl has informed me that they have future plans to launch ‘Dev’ as a masculine companion to Immortal Mine. Stay tuned for details!

Images: ‘Lust’, by Kaaaay at Deviant Art. Photo of Maria and Alexis’ ‘Dev’, my iPhone.

Best of the Best 2011 – Perfumes and Perfumers

If anyone had told me what kind of year I would have just three hundred and sixty four days ago, I wouldn’t have believed it. I would have believed it even less if I had known what magic carpet rides I would encounter, what places I would go, or what marvels I would breathe.

This has been an impossible list, impossible because there have just been so many discoveries and so many perfumes, perfumers and fellow bloggers I would have loved to have on my list, but if I wrote about them all – and surely, I’ve tried? – we’d be here until next year.

Instead, I’ve split my best of the best into three – this one, to celebrate the perfumes and perfumers I was introduced to in this momentous year, second, to celebrate my favorite reading material/avoidance actions/friends and facilitators, and third, a tribute to the ones I wore with a passion and loved with a fury. The perfumes I mention in this post have been without exception released this year, which meant omitting others that were released previously, but they’ll receive their own mention in Part Three. It also means that in spite of other important releases issued, I’ve only mentioned those I’ve had the opportunity to try.

Indie Love!

My heart belongs to the indie perfumers of the world. With a few notable exceptions, the idea of handling a perfume bottle that has been touched by the hands that made it, the mind that conceived it, the perfumer who wrote me, wrapped it up and sent it to me, Ms. No One In Particular, makes it that much more…special.

All the indie perfumers who have made it to my Best of list put the ‘mano’ in the Italian phrase ‘fatto à mano’, made by hand, made with love, care and ‘ àl ‘onore della m’arte ’ – “in honor of my art”, an art that mainstream releases all too often ignore in their mercilessly commercialized hunt for the Next Big Thing.

It is a dedication I have rarely found until this past year, a dedication I had all but given up on ever finding again. When you support the indies, you support the artists themselves instead of filling the already overstuffed coffers of Sanofi, Proctor&Gamble, LVMH…

Support your indie perfumers, and you support a commitment to quality and artistic vision that even the Fragrance Foundation itself has now acknowledged with a category all its own. For a reason – the indies are…that good! They do it without much advertising, but only simple editorial write-up (if they’re lucky to get it), reputation/word of mouth and a little help from the blogosphere.

The Perfumers

This was the year I discovered the staggering creativity of American artisanal perfumery. Granted, I had a lot of help to point me in that direction, but geez, Louise…the scope, the breadth, their sheer jawdropping, sleight-of-hand artistry…

Each has their own personal signature, that singular touch and aesthetic vocabulary that makes them instantly recognizable.

This being my own year of Great Epiphanies, I’ve decided that rather than single out one of them, I’ve put them all up on the Number One spot. Ladies – you have all won my heart and undying loyalty to my dying day, and I can’t ever imagine a perfumed life without any of you!

Mandy Aftel, Aftelier Perfumes

The early morning I found an email from Mandy Aftel in my inbox redefined that lovely Yiddish word…’plotz’. Yes, I did. I had read reviews, I had perused her website, I had some intimations of what to expect…so I thought. Nothing could have prepared me for the olfactory shock treatment my Jacobsens’s organ had in store. Mandy’s perfumes redefine sensual shock treatment. Mandy had an amazingly creative year – with Haute Claire in her collaboration with Liz Zorn, with Oud Luban for the Clarimonde Project, and with Secret Garden, her tribute to the classic florals of yore in collaboration with Dawn Spencer Hurwitz. Heaven help me, I love them all. Mandy herself has been a constant encouragement and inspiration for me this past year, and for that, I love her, too!

Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, Parfums de Beaux Arts

Where does Dawn Spencer Hurwitz quit? I mean…where does she quit? First, she blew my mind with Vert pour Madame, a throwback to my most favorite ever perfume family, the green floral chypre, and next, she created the Cities of Splendor collection in a unique collaboration with the Denver Art Museum, and then…she gave us Pandora, her staggering ode to Mousse de Saxe, and to top it off, she also gave us Paradise Lost for the Clarimonde Project. Not one I couldn’t love, not one I couldn’t rhapsodize about until the cows came home, not one misstep. Dawn’s perfumes will surely be the death of my borrowed credit card. Or me, whichever comes first.

Maria McElroy, Aroma M

Maria is someone who somehow manages to bridge the gap between the time-honored art of Japanese perfumery and thoroughly modern Western scented sensibilities. Her Geisha perfume line of eaux de parfums and perfume oils is incredibly diverse and heart-rendingly beautiful, and therapeutical, too! She outdid even herself when she gave us Geisha Amber Rouge, a thick, heady, all-out outrageously opulent take on her famous Geisha Rouge (another favorite of mine), but she also created Immortal Mine for the Clarimonde Project with Alexis Karl, with whom she makes Cherry Bomb Killer Perfumes. Maria has become very dear to me and she is as lovely in person as her breathtaking perfumes.

Kedra Hart, Opus Oils

I have reasons to suspect that Kedra Hart conjures up an imp for every perfume she makes, because in every Opus Oil perfume I’ve ever tried, it sneaks out and makes me write things or imagine things I never dreamed I could. Mischief and mayhem, time travel and Tiger, and I never know where I’ll end up, but it will certainly… be so much fun, I have to do it again. And again. Kedra, too has had a banner year…with her soliflore collection of good-time gals Les Bohemes, with her Wild Child that won the Patchouli Summer of Love award (and put the POW! in patchouli), with Starfucker for her house model, Tiger the Tempter, and with her latest amazing creation, the world’s first perfume for anosmics, Eau Pear Tingle, which I can’t wait to try. Had I but known that perfumed perdition could be so much fun…and I suspect, there will be…many more imps to come! And a Tiger. And other hazards to my sanity…

Honorable Mention:

No slight is intended to either Liz Zorn of Soivohle/Acoustijuice or Neil Morris, except to say I have been thrilled beyond measure and compare to explore two more lines I had never had the opportunity to try. Expect to see reviews of both Liz Zorn and more Neil Morris in the coming year!

Best Mainstream Niche:

The three that made it to this part of my list are both made by houses that hold a special place in my heart – Amouage and Serge Lutens. What’s worse is that I’ve only reviewed one of them, which will be amended shortly. My opinion is definitely in the minority, but I don’t care – they are each of them the reason I love what I do.

Vitriol d’Oeillet, Serge Lutens & Christopher Sheldrake

Serge Lutens released Jeux de Peau, Vitriol d’Oeillet and De Profundiis this year, and much as I liked Jeux de Peau with its burnt toast, melted butter and delicious sandalwood drydown, I loved Vitriol so much, I arranged for a decant…and drained it. I’m no stranger to the old-fashioned splendors of carnation, but not many carnations have surprised me so consistently as this one, from its pepper punch opening to its silky-smooth drydown and its hourglass shaped development.

Honour Man & Honour Woman, Nathalie Feisthauer, Alexandra Carlin, Violaine Collas with Christopher Chong, Amouage

One thing to love about Amouage is how their perfumes tell two sides to the same story from a masculine and a feminine perspective. Inspired by the final act of ‘Madame Butterfly’ as a filial tribute, they both represent something new – the resinous, black pepper explosion of Honour Man, and the love letter to the big, white floral feminine that is Honour Woman. Both beautifully rendered, both surprising, both stunning. As for the ex who drained my sample of Honour Man to the last drop…he can buy his own!

Favorite Indie Trend:

Once upon a time, I gave up hope that anyone, anywhere would ever love the Green Fiends of yore as much as I did. Was I ever…wrong! I came to discover the marvels of Puredistance Antonia, Aftelier’s breathtaking conciliation of galbanum and ylang ylang, Haute Claire, and Dawn Spencer Hurwitz’ Vert pour Madame and Pandora. Green is the color of hope, and all of these give me just that. If I were to look into a magic mirror and predict what might lie ahead, that rediscovery of green would be one trend, but more importantly, I believe that indie perfumers are rediscovering the inherent challenges and thrills of the all-out, opulent florals…as we saw with Aftelier’s Secret Garden, or the opulent Oriental, such as Aroma M Geisha Amber Rouge.

Worst Mainstream Launch of the Year:

Chanel no. 19 Poudré

I had such high hopes for this one, was so excited to try it, and was so unbelievably let down. What on Earth were Chanel thinking when they decided to give Chanel no. 19 a makeover? Yes, it’s difficult, yes, it’s different, and yes…it’s an icon for a reason. So they took my beloved no. 19, which I’ve worn for almost thirty years without fail, filleted it, flattened it, and added an overdose of baby powder to make it more palatable for the mainstream consumers who might be intimidated by the original. I was hoping for a no. 19 Eau Premiere. What I got was a pale, wan, semi-starved seventeen-year-old who photographs well but is very vague in person. Me, I’ll take intimidation any day of any year.

Worst Advertising Idea, Ever:

Nothing against the lovely Natalie Portman, you understand, but I am…in an outrage of epic proportions when I see that Dior has now dropped the ‘Cherie’ from Miss Dior Cherie and is now promoting it as simply Miss Dior. Now, an entire generation will equate this hot, synthetic strawberry mess with the perfume that made Dior famous. This is superbad in the worst possible way.

Best Mainstream Launch:

Bottega Veneta

Color me surprised. When a fashion brand best known for its hyper-luxe gloves and woven-leather handbags launched its own eponymous perfume, I had no expectations whatsoever. So I was in the perfect place to be taken aback by the restrained, elegant and very ladylike Bottega Veneta, which is nowhere so restrained it’s boring, but also so consistently well-made, it’s easy to love, even for this cranky leather fan. I might even buy it, so long as I get a handbag, too.

Coolest Fusion of Fumes and Phrases:

When Lucy of Indieperfumes asked me to participate in the Clarimonde Project in time for Halloween, thrilled was not the word to describe my reaction. A vampire story unlike any other, an immersion into the netherworld of dark and light, faith and passion – what wasn’t to love about that idea? Seven bloggers, six perfumers, one story and a kind of synergy I have a hard time describing, but some kind of magic occurred along the way, something very special was created in both perfumes and words, and in several compelling ways, I’m not quite what I was that day I wrote her back to say I’d love to be a part of it. Monica Miller of Perfume Pharmer, Mandy Aftel, Ayala Moriel, Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, Maria McElroy and Alexis Karl all rose spectacularly to the challenge of being inspired by Théophile Gautier’s 1836 story, and it was all this blogger at least could do to hope I was up for doing each of their creations the justice they deserved. Certainly, Monica, Trish of ScentHive, Lucy, Beth of PerfumeSmellin’ Things, Jade Dressler, Deana Sidney of LostPastRemembered and I pulled no punches each in our own ways to dive into the vials and wrest their interpretations of the story from them. All  – the words and the perfumes – happily coalesced into a special kind of magic I will always feel proud to have been a part of.

Most Dangerous Perfume of the Year:

Maria McElroy and Alexis Karl, Immortal Mine for the Clarimonde Project

I have reasons to suspect that on occasion, not even the perfumers involved in creating a perfume are entirely aware of just what genie they’re unleashing upon an unsuspecting world. The term ‘mortal peril’ is a bit of a cliché in perfume terms, but in the case of Immortal Mine, take my word for it – it’s no cliché here! I broke that dripping, blood-red wax seal and my blood immediately ran icy cold and scorching hot. Even now, I get goosebumps just thinking about it. Magic, mojo, that blood of a slayed Wyvern, the soil from an unmarked grave…whatever else they put into Immortal Mine, it is, hands down, the most dangerous thing I’ve smelled all year, and likely ever in my life. They will have to wrest this one from my cold, dead hands if they can…or bury me with it, so I can haunt my descendants!

Stay tuned tomorrow for Part Two – and more favorites of the year! And tell me, what were your best and worst of 2011?

Image: The Coronation crown of King Christian V of Denmark, made in 1670-71 by goldsmith Paul Kurtz in Copenhagen. This is the crown depicted on all DK coins and it is known as ‘The Crown of Absolute Sovereignty’. Image from the Royal Danish Collections at Rosenborg Castle, Copenhagen.

Benjamin-Constant-L'Imperatrice_Theodora_au_Colisée

Sailing Through Byzantium

-  a tale of the Empress Theodora  – and a review of Aroma M’s Geisha Amber Rouge

Today is the day the world shall truly be mine. Today is the day I shall be crowned Empress, today is the day I never thought would happen, the day everyone but Justinian so fervently prayed would never arrive.

Today, the world shall be ours.

I can hear them outside these doors in the Palace, see it in the eyes of my slaves and waiting-women as I’ve seen it on the faces of my detractors…Euphemia, most vehement of them all, not more than an ambitious temple priestess in her day, opposed our liaison, opposed our marriage with all the weight of law behind her, and all to no avail. Procopius, that sniveling little chronicler with his ink-stained hands and his all-seeing, snake-like eyes, lurking in the shadows behind his patron Belisarius’ broad and faithful back. Euphemia is gone, Justin is dead, and Justinian and I remain behind, today to be crowned and rule this world of Rome and of Byzantium.

Today, that world is ours.

I have come so far since I danced with my sisters as a child for the Blues at the Hippodrome, come farther still since the geese ate their supper on my naked form, come farther and climbed higher than even I could guess the day I decided to abandon my old trade and my old ways, and one day came to entertain one well-dressed stranger with my stories as I spun my wool and linen in the sun.

Now, that world awaits me on the other side of two bronze doors, this moment countless courtiers cool their heels in the corridor. At the cathedral, the Archbishop’s acolytes are preparing the oils to anoint us, the resins for the censers, the rose petals for the roaring crowds. On my bed lies the gold-embroidered silk brocade robe, the thousands of pearls to adorn my neck beside it, and just as surely as any beast of burden is yoked to a plow, this jewel-studded collar will yoke me for my lifespan to this all-devouring many-headed monster of multitudes known as …Byzantium.

Let them wait a little longer as I linger with my old familiar self some precious moments more, as I bid my last farewell to Theodora, child mascot of the Blues, Theodora, toast of the Hippodrome in my diaphanous robes, Theodora, celebrated Constantinople courtesan…Theodora, common whore.

“Kyria…” a slave dressed in the livery of the Imperial Court calls me to attention with a small box in her hands, an ornate gilt wooden box, perfectly fit for an Empress of Byzantium. “This has arrived from Just…” She corrects herself, blushing a pretty shade of pink as she recalls, “The Augustus, for you. It has been proved safe…”

Yet another peril it will not do to forget, to trust no one, to try nothing new until all danger is disproven.

Inside the box, wrapped in precious silk, I find another priceless treasure, a small glowing vial of carved amber that sparkles all the fiery gold of sun through my window, and in the vial, a perfume oil, a perfume such as the old Theodora would never own or even know, so costly is this vial, so rare this blend of essences.

Let them wait. The Empress shall arrive soon enough. But this woman needs a few precious moments more to breathe in this fragrant glimpse of her new and august self.

I inhale my husband’s gift, a perfume for this day of all the days of a life I never could have hoped or dreamed before that day he came to me. No flowers for this all-too mortal rose, no lilies for this lady, but only all the spice and fire, heat and blood that he and I would know alone, have known in this very room.

Captured in its amber cage are all the spices of faraway Cathay and fabled India and likely places farther still, spices that saw all the wonders of that long and storied road that ends here this day at this center of the only world I shall ever know. Yet spice alone is only half the song it sings and less than half the road this perfume travels in my mind as I breathe deeper. Heat, yes, the blaze of a Syrian sun riding the endless blue above, the cool and sacred secrets of the balsams of Tyre are woven into the vial, the darker, deeper mysteries of myrrh and frankincense pulsing their heathen heartbeat prayers beneath, prayers so primeval no God will acknowledge them and no mortal can ignore them.

This perfume is me in sum and total, all my questions answered and all my hopes fulfilled and all my deepest dreams come true. I shall be proclaimed Empress today, I shall be anointed, I shall co-rule this world, and yet…

He knows me well, my Emperor, knows that even this day, the woman underneath the silks and brocade, buried in her pearls and gold must be appeased if the Empress is to rule, and so he gave me this…and captured all my secret selves and that one heated secret we share in a carved and costly amber vial.

I shall wear this perfumed secret beneath my robes of gold, my jeweled yoke, my ropes of pearls. I shal wear this costly blend, this my secret self, this fragrant song on my skin as I pass through the bronze doors and into my new self and on through all my life ahead.

I shall wear this as I sail through Byzantium on this day of days, as proud as any ship that salutes from the Bosporus, I shall wear this…sailing through Byzantium, this day the world shall become mine.

Aroma M Geisha Amber Rouge is available in a roll-on perfume oil from the Aroma M website.

Painting: Benjamin Jean Joseph Constant, ‘L’Imperatrice Theodora au Colisée’