Tag Archives: Serge Lutens

The Very Best of 2013 – Worn and Adorned

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-  Being the True Confessions of an Alembicated Genie

Oh, to be a perfume writer, you readers might think and sigh with envy, to sit at your leisure and wax poetic on the wafting wonders of the world. Imagine such a thing – to be able to translate concepts and PR releases, to read eaux and extraits as well and as easily as any bestselling novel.

Well, I hate to burst any soapy aldehyde-scented bubbles here, but the simple fact is… being a perfume writer/blogger is about on a par with being a writer of erotica – both are equally hard to do and for very nearly the same reasons. You are trying to translate the untranslatable into prose.

As a perfume writer, you are trying to capture the Muse as she flies from your skin to your nasal receptors and on to your pathetically limited (and verbally challenged) brain, trying to find a metaphor you haven’t already flogged to death five reviews ago.

When I left for Pitti Fragranze, I thought I would fly home on wings of incandescent inspirational sillage, fired up on all my jets with all the Things I Sniffed At Last and all the stories I would tell my readers. Wow, was I surprised when I came home and the very idea of wearing any perfume at all made me turn green, and as for writing about it… fuggeddaboutit! I had no other choice but to simply live out a few weeks scent-free to recalibrate my nose and my mind.

Sometimes, by Golly, you just want to enjoy a perfume without any attempts at analysis, storyline or opinion and for no other reason than it smells good to you. It enhances your mood, it floats your boat, it turns you on to other headspaces and mind places. What follows below is a collection of perfumes and adornments that did just that. Many have yet to be reviewed and to be honest only some of them will be, not for lack of will or interest, but simply because it’s just been that kind of year and this one could be worse…

Perfectly Simple and Simply Perfect

Serge Lutens – Encens et Lavande (Serge Lutens/Christopher Sheldrake)

The word ‘linear’ in perfumese is often used in a derogatory way, meaning a scent that doesn’t develop much from the initial spray all the way to the far drydown. But any artist will tell you that  ‘linear’ or ‘perfectly simple’ can be hardest of all to pull off successfully, and ‘simple’ nowhere implies a lack of complexity, meaning or context. When life ground me to a fine powder, when I was about ready to call it a day and a half, Serge Lutens’ haunting interpretation of incense – a thick, delicious fog of it – wrapped around a searing purple heart of lavender always, always made me breathe deeper and easier. It is exactly what it says on the bottle – incense and lavender. No more and no less and that’s already more than I deserve.

April Aromatics – Rose L’Orange (Tanja Bochnig)

April Aromatics’ owner and perfumer Tanja Bochnig took a very bright idea and made it even brighter and better than the sum of its parts. I love rose. I love orange blossom. Put the two together as effortlessly and as artlessly as Tanja did, and this is sunshine, love and laughter in a bottle, the happy, uninhibited belly laugh of a very happy baby, the thrilled giggle of the girl I never outgrew (and never will). It has made me smile more than I can tell this past year and still does today.

The Thinking Woman’s Incense

L’Artisan Parfumeur – Dzongkha (Bertrand Duchaufour)

A very dear friend gifted me a bottle of Dzongkha for my birthday last year – a great whopping 100 ml of it no less – and not exactly being short on perfume, I had the inspired idea to use it as a decadent (decidedly non-Buddhist) room spray, simply for the way it made me slow down and think. Dzongkha was sprayed onto the Tibetan prayer flag, the carpet, the bedding, the lightbulbs, and in an instant, I could just be… and think, contemplate and ponder without dashing madly around the racetracks in my mind. A wanton, wild extravagance, you might think, but oh, so worth it!

Liquid Courage

Neela Vermeire Creations – Trayee (Neela Vermeire/Bertrand Duchaufour)

In my younger days, whenever I needed a little fragrant fortification, I wore chypres to add a little titanium to my backbone. Unless I just gave in and poured Chanel no. 19 all over myself. Not any longer, since I came to discover that Trayee – a transcendent wonder of sandalwood, incense, oud, spice, bhang and fire is all I need to straighten my spine, face the world and take it on.

The Sweetest of Sins

Guerlain – Shalemur (Shalimar Ode à la Vanille Sur La Route de Madagascar/Thierry Wasser)

This is arguably the world’s sexiest lemur. Or the most utterly debauched yet fluffiest of vanilla/iris/lemon/tonka bean cupcakes, I’m not sure which. Whatever else it is, Shalemur has adorned my person quite often this past fall, because all sins should smell as sweet or should that be – all sweets should waft such sins? Sometimes, girls just want to get in trouble…

And speaking of trouble…

From the Swipe ‘Em Sideways Department

I have a separate section in my cabinet for Scents of Seduction. These are the ones that have definite ulterior motives, and they succeeded quite a bit more than I ever expected this past year.

Amouage – Jubilation 25 (Lucas Sieuzac)

My scent twin sent me a sample of Jubilation 25 (now known as Jubilation Woman) some (long) time ago with the ominous words: “If this isn’t you, then I’m a …” (Never, Suzanne!) It was an Amouage, so I set it aside for fear of the consequences, only to rediscover it this past summer and be blown to smithereens by its fruity-chypre glories. I wore it on a day when I sorely needed to feel as fabulous as possible, and succeeded beyond all imagining when a dashing rock-star poet commented on it. I can’t repeat what he said, but let’s just say there were… consequences. Always the best kind!

vero profumo – Rubj extrait (Vero Kern)

Another very dear friend gifted me with a treasure, this a small bottle of Rubj extrait, and somewhere in a peerless paradise, the white floral angels sang as down below a different kind of devil danced a tune or two of hot summer nights on velvet moonlit lawns. That devil was Rubj. I wear her – not wisely, but I suspect that’s the whole idea. I’m certain Vero Kern would approve.

And speaking of seduction…

Wafting Down The Rabbit Hole

The Devilscents

I’m not sure what to tell people when I say I rewrote an entire novel in just over a month. They give me strange looks and step slightly sideways as if they expect me to breathe fire and speak in tongues any second. What I can say is without a certain arsenal of perfumes, I rather doubt I could have. Just as I write everything to a set playlist, when I fell down the rabbit hole of my own story and its strange and eerie places as writers are wont to do, I needed all the help I could get to stay there, and what better help than the perfumes my story inspired? The ouroboros of inspiration goes around and around… I wrote a story, created the Devilscent Project, perfumes were made, sent and reviewed, and when the time came to knock a sorry mess into something fit for publication, I donned Olympic Orchids’ Lil, Dev #2 & 4, Neil MorrisDev #3 & Lilith, and House of Cherry Bomb’s Dev and Lil during the course of that month and waded into the verbal fray, metaphorical sword in hand. I’m proud to say I did it, proud to state it is now the book I wanted to write (but was unable to at the time, for which I thank the readers of TAG – you’ve taught me so much!), and ecstatic to know that the perfumes and the dear perfumers who rose so beautifully to that infernal occasion made the book that much better! True story. Ask Dev.

Done In By Splendor

It inevitably happens I have what I call Wayne’s World moments – moments I want to kowtow to the floor in front of the perfumer and yell at the top of my lungs: ‘I’m not worthy!’ Many friends have unwittingly sent me a few of these, and others – one I call Evil Incarnate, and I’m not entirely joking – sent these marvels knowing full well I’d freak. These count among my biggest freak-out instances.

Amouage – Epic Woman Extrait (Christopher Chong/Daniel Maurel)

Ah, Epic… how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Twelve sprays on a freezing cold night nearly asphyxiated a rock star (plus everyone else in Scandinavia and most of Northern Europe that night) but did I care? No, and he hugged me goodbye anyway. If I thought the eau de parfum was perdition, I wasn’t at all prepared for the extrait. Swoon.

Krigler – Topaze Imperiale 13

The marvelous thing about Krigler’s Topaze Imperiale 13  – a flawless amber – is that it seems by some strange sleight-of-hand to be constructed upside down, beginning with a decadent sandalwood/patchouli/labdanum and then glowing in the dark with rose, oud, vanilla and orange blossom. In other words, it’s many things I love wrapped up in something that smells like a few handy million after taxes and expenses. I really don’t understand why it doesn’t get more love because by Golly, I’d love it to death and beyond.

Oriza L. Legrand – Chypre Mousse

Once a year these past two years, a perfume will alight out of the blue aether into a world that I suspect is not entirely prepared for it. Last year, MDCI’s Chypre Palatin blew all our socks off, and shortly before New Year’s, this apparition really blew my mind. You see, I cut my perfume teeth on chypres, and I never apply the term lightly – chypres oblige. As Chypre Mousse did by being improbably lush, velvety plush, loaded with thickly applied, musty oakmoss to the max (or whatever accords were used to approximate it) and a definite vintage heritage that ensures there is nothing at all like it, and nothing at all you can compare it to. I know my chypres. Trust me on this one.

Best Comeback Moment

Aftelier  – Cuir de Gardenia (Mandy Aftel)

Dear darling Mandy, you have been very much missed. Rumor has it there is a book underway (I don’t know if it’s true, but wouldn’t that be grand?), but then, you gifted the world with this outrageously sensual out-of-body bombshell of a perfume, and my poor heart has fluttered ever since. I will have much more to say about it, but for now, I can certainly say this much: I’m not worthy!

Score for The Memories

A great tip, a finished manuscript and money in my PayPal account is a dangerous combination. Especially when it involves two of my all-time favorite perfumes in a perfectly preserved vintage incarnation. With a few exceptions, I tend to stay away from vintage perfumes, unless I really, truly, absolutely adored them to death back in the day. For no better reason than this – not only do I live in the niche-free Empty Quarter of Northern Europe, it’s also vintage free, at least where I live. Surely kismet played its fragrant hand on the day I encountered two absolute (vintage) loves. And bought them.

Grès – Cabochard (Bernard Chant)

My mother had a thing for pulpy 70s paperbacks, which was how I first learned about Cabochard in an Irving Stone novel called ‘The Fan Club’ at an impressionable age. Not that many years later, I came across Cabochard in a Copenhagen department store, remembered the book, and bought it. It took me a while to come around to this sexy, slinky leathery green chypre, but come around I did – I was never without a bottle of it again for almost twenty years. When it was gone, I missed it sorely– for the memories, for its slinky-sexy Kim Novak-in-Vertigo vibe, for everything I felt I was when I wore it. So the day I found a vintage version, I bought it pronto and found it to be everything I remembered and loved. In other words, perfect for all the Hitchcock moments I anticipate.

Dior – Dioressence (Guy Robert)

My first Dior was the original Miss Dior, but no Dior quite grabbed me as the louche, bohemian and more than a little risqué Dioressence. Part green, part dirty, part dark and all feline, it wafted behind a short, busty punk in a blue Mohawk through several years of thrills and spills and can now work its green, feline magic on a short, busty blonde all over again. One can never be too louche past a certain age…

The Devil In The Details

I loathe narcissism, but I approve of vanity. (Diana Vreeland)

Sequestered behind my screen, I can pretend all I like I am everything I ever was, but as events no doubt will prove in the year to come, I can’t hide there any longer. This past year, the Genie ventured into beauty products, and although my main focus here will always be perfume, beauty is as beauty does and leopard print pjs will never do for public appearances. I was never more grateful for upgrading my image than when two spectacularly talented perfumers also ventured into skin and haircare…

 aroma M Camellia Oils

Perfumer Maria McElroy of aroma M ventured into haircare and skincare this past year with her Camellia oils (for hair, for the face and a delicious bath and body oil). I have this to say about them all – they are heavenly fragrant, highly effective and utter bliss to use. I’ll take ten of each to go, please.

Aftelier Ancient Resins Body Oil & Jasmine Facial Oil

With Aftelier, you know it will be good. Actually, it will be so good, you’ll be doomed – or spoiled for life – to revel in these wonders and know your face, your skin, your nose and your very soul will thank you for them forever.

Underrated Gratitude

Everything, so claimed James Burke once upon a time, is connected. Nowhere was this truer than when I encountered an issue  – vanity or narcissism, take your pick – and asked one of my Beauty Swamis about concealer. If I have a day I look better than usual, I can thank Gaia the Non Blonde, because she has never steered me wrong, starting with…

Ellis Faas – Concealer & Hot Lips

There are few things cooler than finding a perfect product that does exactly what it says it will, performs impeccably, and makes you feel well, perfect. Thanks to the Non Blonde, I bought a concealer to start, followed by two shades of Hot Lips – a lip stain of a different kind – and wow, what a difference! I’ll never need an excuse not to act my shoe size ever again.

Nars – Pressed Light Reflecting Setting Powder

It was a Nightmare Scenario. My first professional photo shoot at a time in my life I looked (and felt) about thirty years older than my already advanced age. I was mid-deadline (and nearly dead on my feet) and terrified I’d look like microwaved death soup on my dust jacket. A bit of research and a long Skype conversation with my awesome publisher (who knows these things matter!) landed this indispensible item in my mailbox the day before the shoot. It impressed the makeup artist and the photographer impressed me (and quite a few other people) no end with the results.

Dear Non Blonde. Thank you. Signed, a Blonde.

And as I look through my notes for these Best Of posts, somewhere in the borderlands between beauty and vanity, between fragrance and fragrant, connections and people, I think that in my own evolution as a perfume writer, as a writer and perhaps most of all as a woman these past three-plus years, maybe this is the greatest of all year-end wrap-ups and the greatest of all gifts – to know that somewhere out there on the other side of your screen, is a frothing, seething lot of truly inspiring people who believe as you do in the importance of capturing beauty – or the Muse – as she flies. And above all else,  in passing its wisdom on.

Here’s to the thrills and spills that lie ahead in 2014!

With profound thanks to Ida, Lucy, Ruth, Gaia, Tami, Tamsin, Claudia, Maria, Ellen, Neil, Alexis, Mandy and all those friends I feel so blessed to have in my life. 

Spelling Eternity

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

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

But a medieval torture device?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eternity.

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

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

With profound thanks to Jack for the opportunity.

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

A Gothic Grimoire

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-  The Genie’s Guide to the Supernaturally Sublime

Something about October, the dance of glowing leaves in the wind, the shift in mood from the exuberance of spring and the dolce far niente of summer to a tinge of delicious melancholy, the very perfume of the air itself, with its first hints of looming winter and quietude, the mushroom scent of a forest floor after the rain, the sharp tang of fallen apples and the sudden epiphany of wood smoke in the air – all of these combined add up to what is without question one of my favorite times of the year.

If I were to put an epithet that somehow sums up all of October, it would surely be ‘Gothic’.

These days, Gothic conjures up associations of horror, darkness and menace, if not an entire subculture I once upon a storied time did my own small part to define the first time it surfaced in the zeitgeist of the mid-Eighties. While I may have outgrown my predilection for acres of black eyeliner and ditto lipstick, certain elements of that era have stuck with me ever since – a taste for melodramatic literature written at an operatic pitch of intensity, music, and a certain nineteenth-century feel and line in clothing. Although I still own an outsize amount of very black clothes, one indispensible item more than any other brings out that inspired state of being that consists of equal parts preternatural frisson, high drama, twinges of mortality, and the delectable, unbearable, existential darkness of being.

Perfume.

But what in all that chthonic murk constitutes a Gothic… perfume?

It goes without saying that all the happy-go-lucky flirty florals and fruity wonders we adore so much in high summer no longer cut it.

For a perfume to be deemed Gothic requires a few non-negotiable elements. First of all – that all-important question, my own pop-culture criterion:

Would Morticia Addams wear it?

If it is too light, too young, too obvious, too fleeting, the answer is likely a resounding ‘no’. Anything that doesn’t reduce our own resident Gomez Addams (should we have one) to a helpless pile of smoking ectoplasm need not apply. Speaking of ectoplasm…

All Gothic perfumes must by necessity contain an element of the numinous or the supernatural about them. It could be a question of composition, of overall texture, of unusual fragrant elements in mutual tension, but if it doesn’t give you a superstitious shiver down your spine and you can’t even explain why, what’s the point?

Since the Gothic mood and mindset is dark, intense, and brooding, the perfume must somehow convey all of these things. Therefore, Gothic perfumes are often very plush, with a lot of basenotes that may often include frankincense, labdanum, oud, patchouli, sandalwood, oakmoss, castoreum, civet, musk, leather and other wonders of that fertile alchemical undergrowth that provokes all our darkest, most secret, subconscious desires.

Last but never least, if you can answer an affirmative ‘yes!’ to the question…

Would you wear this to a graveside Halloween party?

Then you’ve found your very own Gothic perfume!

What follows below are my own personal decidedly Gothic favorites, arranged from vintage (and therefore, sadly, the current versions are reformulated beyond recognition and merit) to currently available.

Vintage Glories

Magie Noir – Lancôme

This 1978 classic by Gerard Goupy was a harbinger to come of those opulent Eighties orientals. It is also without question one of the witchiest perfumes ever made. I’ve worn it off and on since 1983, and it remains the single most complimented perfume I own, even today. In fact, I’ve never met a man who didn’t tilt backwards for this one, such is the Circe spell it weaves, turning any modern Odysseus into a slavering hog whether they want it or not. Although still in production, it’s not even a wan, pale echo of its former glory.

Narcisse Noir – Caron

Sometimes, I wonder at the fragrant bombshells I wore in my wanton youth, wonder I even dared to wear them. This great immortal classic, beloved of both Norma Desmond and Anaïs Nin, more than any other delineated my long-ago Goth days. It slew several wannabe latter-day Baudelaires I knew by taking a perfumery trope – orange blossom – and turning it completely inside out. Orange blossom is usually a joyous, summery, sunshine bloom. Ernest Daltroff’s 1912 classic inverts all those expectations and turns them inside out by being a dark, smoky, slinky animal of midnight and divine delirium. Narcisse Noir is still available, although it has irrevocably changed from its inky, slinky, seductive self to a prim Park Avenue mistress in palest dove gray.

Parlous Blooms

If ever an entire perfume house’s resident aesthetic somehow encapsulates all that is Gothic with a decadent French twist, it would surely be Serge Lutens. I doubt it’s an accident it is one of my all-time favorite perfume houses for precisely that reason. Best of all, Serge Lutens has – aided by resident alchymist Christopher Sheldrake and before him Maurice Roucel – subverted several classic florals into new, unnerving territory by making them eerie, and not just through their inscrutable press copy or their names, but throughout their very souls. Iris Silver Mist will send chills of otherworldly orris down your spine, Tubereuse Criminelle shall disturb you to your depths in all its heady jolie laide beauty, Sarrasins might sink its feral feline jasmine fangs into your nose and De Profundis exude its own cold kiss of mortality down your neck, but you will not forget them – nor will anyone who gets close enough to sniff.

Numinous Numbers

Certain perfumes are more than a little… numinous. Meaning they convey a hint or a whole ruined abbey of emotion, legend, ghosts of stories past and premonitions to come. They range from the transcendental to the uncanny, which is precisely why they’re so beloved.

Trayee & Ashoka – Neela Vermeire Crèations

It may seem a bit of a stretch to call Neela Vermeire’s Trayee and Ashoka ‘gothic’ when perhaps the first word that comes to mind is ‘exotic’, but think again – if we take the word to mean transporting in an emotionally compelling, numinous sense, then they both do precisely that in two different, very complex and nearly supernatural ways. Trayee with its sacred incense, oud and sandalwood, Ashoka with its sudden, shocking shift from deepest dark to luminous light – either is perfect for that lingering trail of sanctity we all aspire to leave behind us – or the samsara we all hope to achieve.

Rouge Avignon – Phaedon

Rouge Avignon, inspired by the Papal palace at Avignon, embodies the very best of Gothic sensibilities in its very DNA. Rose, incense, smoke, dark, deep woods – it is its own unholy witchy brew of blackest red and reddest black, the shade of a drop of blood, of power and of carefully concealed secrets, too.

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Mad, Bad and Dangerous To Know or… Les Hommes Fatales

Lady Caroline Lamb may well have had all sorts of personal reasons to describe George Gordon, Lord Byron as all of the above, but certain masculine-tinged perfumes will haunt me to my grave if not devastate me into a swoon, whether they’re worn by short, dark and interesting exemplars of the male gender or by tall, fair, rockstar poets in aviator shades fueled by Friday night and Pinot Grigio.

Baudelaire – Byredo

No fan of the Gothic can avoid a fatal predilection for the poetry of Charles Baudelaire. While I somehow doubt Byredo’s Baudelaire would be worn by its namesake, who did indeed have a great affinity for perfume, there’s no question in my demented mind it does full justice to the spirit of his words…erotic, evocative, subversive, and more than a little perilous to short, busty writers with (oversized) nitroglycerin imaginations. Poets beware!

1740 Marquis de Sade – Histoires de Parfums

This thick, heady, delirious leather/spicy/immortelle bombshell of a perfume was inspired by that greatest libertine of them all – or so the notorious Marquis liked to see himself. I say it’s much too good for his ghost, but absolutely grand for modern-day libertines out to slay the unsuspecting with everything they’ve got. So long as they’re careful never to promise more than they’re capable of delivering. I also say 1740 is everything any hopelessly romantic, Gothic-leaning female could wish to inhale, although the consequences of doing just that might be harrowing. My lips are sealed in scarlet ink. To paraphrase Tennessee Williams, things occur in the dark of night that make anything happening in daylight seem… all right.

A Haunted History

Perfume, I heard myself saying some time ago, is every bit as legitimate a way of telling a story as a painting, a sculpture, a film, a novel. Few perfumes tell quite such a timeless story as the most haunting pair I know…

Memoir Man/Woman – Amouage

The great thing about Amouage paired perfumes is the way both the feminine and the masculine versions reflect two sides of the same story, and here, it’s that eternal epic love story of a tempestuous heaven and a mutual melodrama heartbreak. Either of them have utterly ruined me for life for other so-called ‘bottled love stories’, since so far as I’m concerned, this one is unbeatable. Certainly, it’s unforgettable. As all the best love stories – and worst heartbreaks! – always are.

Les Femmes Fatales

Ladies – you’ve been waiting for these. These perfumes are the dragon-slayers and pale-faced Succubi of the perfume world, the pearlescent vampires, the Liliths, Ligeias and Morellas and the Annabel Lees, the transgressions, the most ebony of carnal sins and ultimate, bottled evils, the justifications for terrible, heart-rending beauty and bone-chilling emanations.  If you think about it – what is Ulalume compared to all of those? Edgar? Anyone?

Midnight At The Crossroads Café – Neil Morris

Gothic literature has been such a mainstay of popular fiction for so long, it’s increasingly hard to imagine anything new could ever be done with it. Unless you happen to be that justly famous Boston treasure, perfumer Neil Morris, who took an unknown writer’s opening chapter and turned it into a upgraded Gothic perfume novella for the twenty-first century without overlooking any single essential: a witching hour, a vulnerable woman, a glass of mulled wine, an empty café and the distinct, supernatural thrill of the definitely dangerous and dangerously erotic Devil himself. It can be classified as a chypre, but this is unlike any chypre you think you know – this is as good as fragrant perdition gets. Take it from me. I know.

Immortal Mine – House of Cherry Bomb

Two years ago (and how it could be two years I’m still not sure), I had the great good fortune to participate in the Clarimonde Project, a cross-media collaboration of perfumers and writers to explore in prose and perfume one of the earliest and most unusual vampire stories ever – Thèophile Gautier’s 1836 La Morte Amoureuse. House of Cherry Bomb’s Immortal Mine is one of the superlative finest and supremely Gothic perfumes money can buy. It’s as deep and impenetrable as Nietzsche’s abyss, as black and vast as a winter hour before dawn, as licentious as any celebrated courtesan and as haunting (if not daunting) as Gautier’s story and his creation both.

Babylon Noir – Opus Oils

Hundreds of perfumes claim to be noir. Most of them barely qualify as wannabe noir, if that much. Babylon Noir, created by perfumer Kedra Hart of Opus Oils for the Devilscent Project, is such an audacious, outrageous, luscious feline carnivore of a perfume, it makes vintage Narcisse Noir (no slouch in the darkness department) blanc in comparison. Equally suitable for vampires and aspiring Liliths, it will slay anyone it touches, guaranteed, because darkness gets no blacker nor more alluring. Wear it to any Halloween party and watch the competition turn orange in envy.

Ormonde Woman – Ormonde Jayne London

Some very long time ago, when I was still fairly new to niche perfumery, I won a sample of Ormonde Woman on another perfume blog. That it was a green and witchy creature, I already knew from the review, but I wasn’t at all prepared for my own reaction. It was without question the most terrifying perfume I had ever encountered in my life, so much so, it was the original inspiration for Lilith’s perfume. Not for being repellent (which it wasn’t) nor even poisonous (although there was that hemlock absolute…) but precisely because it was such a feral thing of the forest. It took me a good long time (and very many perfumes) to come around to Ormonde Woman, but now I have another wafting weapon at my disposal to put the capital B in bewitching.

Lil – Olympic Orchids

Still with me on this fragrant descent into the heart of October darkness? In which case, you’re in for a very big surprise, because Olympic Orchids’ Lil – also created for the Devilscent Project – is not dark in the slightest. Ellen Covey happily took every Gothic trope and cliché in perfumery and subverted them into an absolutely terrifying – and horribly beautiful – perfume of sharp, piercing, eerie green light, as if she had somehow managed to capture a will-o’-the-wisp in a perfume bottle that will haunt (and taunt) your surroundings for a very long time. Wimps and wannabes need not apply.

The Moody, Magnificent Monster

Opus VII – Amouage

I’m a bit at a loss to describe Opus VII (although I’ve certainly tried) and its effects, but basically, this is a huge, shape-shifting beast of Faërie that takes oud, black leather, cypriol, fenugreek and galbanum and provides them all with the most delirious fangs  – or pangs! – you could never have imagined. You can wear it ten times and encounter ten different stories. You will catch a waft and think you have managed to parse its depths to your satisfaction. Ten minutes later, you’ll catch another and wonder what you were thinking. Then hours later, the only thing you can be sure of is one literal wild ride – or wild hunt through the undergrowth? – that surely explains every Dionysian mystery rite from antiquity to the present. Or does it? Only its sillage knows…

In short, if you seek the unusual, the preternatural thrill, the mysteries and the magic of a most magical time of year, these perfumes will be honored to send eerie shivers down your spine.

Because every day should be Halloween!

At least in October.

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Serge Lutens perfumes are available from Luckyscent and for European customers, directly from the Serge Lutens website. Trayee and Ashoka are available at Luckyscent and from Neela Vermeire Crèations. Rouge Avignon is available directly from Phaedon. Baudelaire is available from Luckyscent and First in Fragrance. Histoires de Parfums 1740 is at Luckyscent and First in Fragrance. Amouage Memoir Man & Woman can be found at Luckyscent and First in Fragrance. Neil Morris’ Midnight is available through his Vault collection of perfumes by request. House of Cherry Bomb’s Immortal Mine is available at Indie Scents. Opus Oils’ Babylon Noir is available directly from the Opus Oils website, Ormonde Woman from Ormonde Jayne London, Lil directly from Olympic Orchids. Amouage Opus VII is available from Luckyscent, First in Fragrance and directly from the Amouage website.

With thanks to the reader who inspired the post…;)

Illustrations: Franz von Stuck, Die Sünde, 1893 and Lucifer, 1890.

Three Faces of Iris

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-  a tale – and reviews! – of Xerjoff Irisss, DSH Perfumes’ Iridum and Serge Lutens’ Iris Silver Mist

At Florals Inc., the board of directors were thrown into a bit of a panic when Blue Lotus went missing and was nowhere to be found.

So Rose, the chairman of the board, had no choice but to create an opening for another floral, and with the help of the other directors, notably her close friends Jasmine, Tuberose and Orange Blossom, decided to accept applications from three irises to decide who would be worthy of a place with Florals Inc. One of the three might certainly qualify for a spot on the board and all its appurtenant thrills, and if it were exceptional enough, maybe another. Yet three irises were at least one too many.

”Yes, girls,” Rose adjusted her reading glasses and peered down the length of the gleaming mahogany table, ”I’m well aware this will be a very hard decision. Nevertheless, we need to make one. So Jasmine, please inform the others of our chosen candidates.”

As Jasmine rustled through her somewhat disorganized notes, Tuberose discreetly checked her text messages, Magnolia looked out the window at a New York September morning and Lily powdered her already flawless stamens, fully prepared to be thoroughly bored.

After an interminable wait, Jasmine sighed out several moonlit promises and pushed a button on the table in front of her. In an instant, a 3-D holographic representation of a dark, luminously iridescent iris shimmered above its mahogany reflection and exuded its scent. In an instant, everyone sat up to attention.

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“Candidate number one,” Jasmine’s sultry voice carried through the quiet boardroom, “is DSH Perfumes’ Iridum, part of Dawn Spencer Hurwitz’ New Kingdom collection.”

“Oooooooh,” cooed Orange Blossom, “this one’s not your ordinary orris.”

“Not at all,” agreed Rose. “For one thing, she’s much spicier, warmer and not a little feistier than they’re usually made, isn’t she? Quite romantic, too – all that cool earthy depth heated by all those Oriental spicy fires. Very West meets East. Antony and Cleopatra. Maybe with a slight intellectual suggestion of Caesar. This is an iris, after all.”

“Ah,” Magnolia exhaled a definite Southern breath, “but y’all, this iris is a smoky, slinky, sensuous iris. Not so earthy, but still whispering all her earthly pleasures.”

“It’s that deft touch of…” Carnation piped in, “sweet wood and resin, and is that saffron I smell, too? With the orris?”

“Genius.” breathed Heliotrope.

“A most excellent counterpoint to the spice.” Jasmine added her own ten scents. “And what I like so much about her is how perfectly she balances between her woody and her spicy selves, always remaining true to her idea but also somehow redefining it. Myrrh. Frankincense. They do me in, every time. She’s a new kingdom of iris, all right. She gives everything away, but you never know her secrets.”

“Those are always so much fun!” Orange Blossom laughed. “Seriously, ladies…isn’t that always the problem with iris? All that gravitas, all that heartbreak and melancholy. Puleeeze. Finally, an iris with all of its mystery intact, but also a bit of a smile tucked in its beard somewhere.”

“About time!” Tuberose put down her phone and leaned forward. “This iris is a stunner if you ask me, not that you did, and I should know, right ladies?”

“Yes….” groaned the entire board of directors in unison.

“So…then…” Rose eyed the others.

“We can’t decide just yet,” Jasmine felt obligated to point out. “For one thing, we still have two more candidates.”

“That we do.” Rose pushed the button, and the darkly shimmering iris that was Iridum disappeared with a spicy balsam sigh.

There was a slight pause as they all readjusted their focus and Jasmine rustled her notes.

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“Our next candidate is Xerjoff Irisss.” Jasmine pushed the button, and a showgirl iris sparkled forth, all earthy, rooty sass and class.

“Goodness, y’all,” Magnolia peered closer, “have the Ziegfeld Follies been resurrected as an iris?”

“Is that iris wearing vintage Lacroix?” Tuberose gurgled, hiccupped and then laughed, and everyone but Rose laughed with her.

“Now, ladies, please. Compose yourselves. We’re here to decide who gets to be on our board.” Rose glared around the room, and with a few muffled giggles, the laughter stopped.

Jasmine cleared her throat. “OK. No question about it – it’s an iris. It’s a lush, plush, thickly brocaded iris in petits mains embroidered couture. She’s floral to a very demanding degree. Yet there’s something that doesn’t quite add up somewhere, a piece of her puzzle missing.”

Lily gave the showgirl a very intent look. “I’ll tell you what she is.” Her silky alto voice slid easily across the table. “She’s the Second Wife Iris. You know, he’s made his pile and ditched the helpmeet first wife like all successful men do, and then he went out and landed himself this one, the younger, showier upgrade. She’s got a lot to prove, and like all younger models, she’s a bit… insecure?”

“That’s it!” exclaimed Jasmine. “It’s not that she isn’t beautiful, or lusciously floral, or even stunning in her own right. She is. My goodness. So why aren’t we completely bowled over?”

“Obvious.” Tuberose could cut any floral down to size, which wasn’t difficult if you were Tuberose. “Because she balances on the brink of just a little too much. You know that saying. Wear everything you think you need, and then remove that one thing to make your perfect impression. This iris doesn’t know that. So she piles on absolutely everything and adds five more things, just in case.”

“In other words,” Rose murmured, “she tries too hard and oversells her idea. Oh, I’m sure she’ll be quite convincing for those who are easily impressed or into maximalism,” she looked pointedly at Tuberose, “but I’m not one of those. I’m quite impressed with how she remains true to herself, though – this iris isn’t a quitter. She stays from top to base, all through her hyperfloral heart and well into the sweetly incensed drydown. And that’s my dilemma in a nutshell. She’s absolutely perfect, b-u-t…”

“But.” Jasmine pushed the button, and the showgirl vanished. Now, she had a beatific smile on her lovely white face.

1280px-Inside-iris-blue-flower-macro_-_West_Virginia_-_ForestWander

As the last candidate shimmered forth into focus above the mahogany, a collective sigh circled the room. She was monumental, perfectly delineated, made by an absolute master of the craft.

“You devil, Jasmine,” Rose breathed happily, “you saved her for last.”

“Indeed I did,” Jasmine’s grin held no regrets. “This, ladies, is Parfums Serge Lutens fabled Iris Silver Mist. You’ve heard the stories. Who hasn’t? Well, here she is in all her splendor.”

Every flower in the room reacted this time with a long drawn out “Oooooh!”

“I feel like my heart is breaking,” sniffed Magnolia. “And I didn’t even know I had one to break.”

“Someone’s changed the calendar.” Orange Blossom had a faraway look in her eyes. “This is early spring, when the first shoots show up to remind us all spring will come again.”

“Nonsense.” Lily chimed in. “This is both the promise and the deliverance of iris. She knows how to keep her promises. Do you feel it – that verdant galbanum-bitter bite? Can you sense that hint of spice and fire – the one Iridum ran with and Irisss completely bypassed – burning just below it?”

“Hard to believe anything could burn in that orris chill,” Tuberose smirked. “And yet it does…freezes you to immobility, that an orris could be this much, this dizzying, this…what’s that word I’m looking for? Ephemeral?”

“Ghostly, eerie, Gothic – I’d say they all apply here,” Rose sighed for all of them.

“She’s a shapeshifter all right.” Jasmine looked at her notes and then at the iris that twirled her endless facets in the room. “Here, that chilly spring you mentioned, Orange Blossom, there that faraway wisp of woods and spice and fire, Lily, and somewhere entwined – is there any other word that fits? – around and through them all, somehow both the warp and the weave of her, is the orris. There’s no pyramid here at all, it’s all one eerie merrygoround…”

“And such a one.” Heliotrope looked as if she were about to swoon.

“She’s deathly intimidating.” For once, even Tuberose sounded humble.

“Only for being so wantonly perfect,” Rose went on. “Yes, that’s it! This iris defines herself in the spaces of her contradictions – she’s flawless and she knows it, but she contains a memento mori in her depths, both describing her time and her space and yet somehow, just to one side of it, just outside of it…”

“Poetry! From you, Rose?” Tuberose had located her attitude. “In case I weren’t impressed before, I certainly am now!”

“Shall I continue?” Rose asked with a twinkle in her eye. “We could go on for hours, ladies, and no mistake. But…”

“Precisely! But!” Jasmine leafed through her notes. “Now, I have to say it, she won’t be for just everyone, or anyone, come to that. I detect a definite hint of parsnip. She’ll have her detractors.”

“The wimps.” Tuberose waved dismissively. “Yes, she certainly will. Some will hate her and some will love her. I don’t think she’ll care, either way.”

“Why should she?” Orange Blossom. “If you’re that perfect, you’re beyond such paltry pettiness.”

“Or simply just beyond…” Rose stood up for the first time and pressed another button, this time to her secretary Marigold just outside the boardroom.

“Are we agreed then, ladies?”

“Yes!” they all declared with alacrity.

“Marigold, send them in, please.”

The three iris candidates walked in through the open door. Iridum, with her darkly seductive shimmer of spice, Irisss in her gold and purple finery, and Iris Silver Mist, tall and majestic, all standing a little uncertainly by the door as they looked around the hallowed boardroom of Florals, Inc.

“Ladies,” Rose began, “please understand this was an exceedingly difficult decision to make. We’ve decided to make room for two of you, which unfortunately means one of you will be rejected. This doesn’t mean you’re not worthy, it simply means we had priorities we were uncertain you could fulfill.”

Jasmine gathered up her notes. “Irisss, thank you so much for applying at Florals, Inc. But I regret to say that you were not chosen for the Board of Directors.”

Irisss looked stricken. One silvery tear made its way down her perfectly made up face. As she dug desperately for a tissue in her handbag, an elegant arm reached out and held on to hers and Irisss looked up at Iris Silver Mist, her question on her face.

“Madame,” Iris Silver Mist murmured, “a word of advice, yes? It is not necessary to try quite so hard.”

Irisss turned away with a rustle of silk brocade and nearly ran out of the boardroom, as the board gathered around Iridum and Iris Silver Mist.

“It gives me a great deal of pride,” Rose tried to regain some dignity in the happy noise, “to welcome both you Iridum and you, Iris Silver Mist to Florals, Inc.”

Just this once, not even Tuberose protested.

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Notes for DSH Perfumes Iridum (EdT): Bulgarian rose, cardamom, cinnamon, cognac, frankincense, beeswax, calamus, gaiac wood, myrrh, orris, saffron and tolu balsam

Perfumer: Dawn Spencer Hurwitz

Iridum is available directly from DSH Perfumes’ website.

Notes for Xerjoff XJ Irisss (EdP): Bergamot, carrot seed, carnation, iris, rose, jasmine, ylang ylang, violet leaves, vetiver, cedar, benzoin, musk, incense

Perfumer: Jacques Fiori.

Xerjoff XJ Irisss is available from Luckyscent, Parfums Raffy and First in Fragrance.

Notes for Serge Lutens’ Iris Silver Mist (EdP): Galbanum, orris, cedar, sandalwood, clove, vetiver, musk, Chinese benzoin, incense, white amber

Perfumer: Maurice Roucel

Iris Silver Mist is a Palais Royal exclusive and is available for European customers directly from the Serge Lutens website and from Barneys New York.

With my profound gratitude to Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, Memory of Scent and Tami for the opportunity.

In Pantherine Ink

junglepanther

 – a review of Serge Lutens’ Sarrasins

Once a creature of fable lived, old stories tell, and some say it was a very large, most fearsome cat, and some say it was an animal of another kind, but all of them agree it emanated a most singular and exceptional perfume, so sweet, so utterly delicious no animal save the dragon was ever able to resist it (why that was, they never tell), and all who encountered it were only compelled by that scent to follow it where it went.

Other tales say it was sacred to the god Dionysus, and whispered the incredible, that he rode it to his rites, so that all who breathed in the aura of his mount would follow deeper into the forest, and return with tales of divine madness and sublime mayhem, inspired by the perfume exuded by this being they called… panther.

I’ve wondered what that panther’s scent might be, wondered as I’ve sniffed and breathed and marveled through the many perfumes I’ve met whether this one or that would pass for a fabled panther’s emanations. So many were too dark or too light, promised everything yet delivered not nearly enough. I thought I would never find it.

I forgot that cardinal rule, you see – you never find such wonders so much as they find you.

Until that fabled night I came home to a fragrant letter from a friend and fellow writer to find a little vial of panther’s ink labelled simply… Sarrasins.

Jasmine is one of the Big White Divas of perfumery, that potent trio of orange blossom, tuberose, and jasmine, blooming its almost wanton, lascivious scent only at night, a scent that spans the range from fruity to floral coloratura soprano all the way to …horse stables. It takes no prisoners, leaves no one indifferent to its presence or able to ignore it. It dances well with rose and orange blossom and even with a great deal of care with the feral tuberose, but sweetest of all to my own mind is when jasmine is allowed to take center stage on her own and unfold in all her moonlit glories.

This far north, it’s much too cold for a jasmine to grow outside the greenhouse as it does elsewhere, and what most of my compatriots know as ‘jasmine’ is really mock orange or philadelphus which blooms at Midsummer and wafts a felicitous blend of verdant jasmine and orange blossom combined, yet it is no jasmine, has none of those indolic, heady, licentious threads that lead our minds down other garden paths and gives the epithet it has in both India and all over the Middle East – ‘the perfume of love.’

Would this Saracen secret in its tiny spray vial be that fabled panther’s aura, would I find an arcane epiphany inside its inky, Oriental purple-black depths?

An admonition was written on the vial. ‘DO NOT SPRAY!’ In capital letters, as if my faraway friend would not be held accountable for any fatal consequences if I did.

Naturally that only meant I had to spray, was indeed compelled to spray, all consequences be as doomed as I surely would.

Let M. Lutens tell the tale of Sarrasins:

Applied at night in a Moorish silence, it barely touches the skin before it starts to resonate, like a ritual conducted in gilded surroundings.

I sprayed that first night and many times since in a Nordic quietude, but resonate, it certainly does.

Sarrasins is no perfume of light and sunshine to my nose. Instead, it rushes out to greet you with a metaphorical bruise, purple on the skin, as if writing with calligraphy flourishes and indelible, unforgettable ink:

This is no ordinary jasmine.

Indeed, how could these Saracens be otherwise with this fruity, fragrant grape juice bruise that marks you so painlessly and far too late, too late before it vanishes before your eyes and yet…the deed is done, that bruise was there. As it disappears into a full moon midnight, you have been marked with a jasmine.

Such a one, and such a wonder, it unfolds a little at a time and all across its hours. The accumulated light and sweetness of the midday sun is here released only after dark, and heady, lush indolic pleasures, too. As it sings and blooms, it becomes airier, lighter and ethereal as the radiant shimmer on a moth’s wings, caught in the act of drinking in its floral secrets. The fruity bruise of the beginning becomes sweeter, denser and even more intoxicating, making you that moonlit moth, resonating from soul to heart and bloom to bloom with all the promise and portent jasmine is and maybe should be. The notes say carnation, yet my nose says osmanthus, a honeyed, silk organza overlay of sunshine memory that blows so softly away in the breeze, but the hour is too late, your doom is so close, your initiation from neophyte to zealous acolyte of that dark, complex heart of jasmine is nearly complete.

This ominous night is not over yet, the rite is not finished, there is one secret still to be revealed and one midnight-black candle yet to burn.

What I sense is no relation to any myths or fairy tales the notes deceive me with, but a texture between black glove leather, suede and thick-piled velvet all combined. This is an animal purr at a baritone pitch and timbre that tells that long ago story of a fabled beast they called the panther, rarely seen unless in fleeting glimpses in the forests in elegant, louche repose belying all its feral strength, scarcely known except as legend. A legend believed only by the credulous, the dreamers, the poets and the writers of impossible tales of improbable perfumes who are compelled by alchemical wiles, an occult sleight of hand and… a jasmine.

If ever a perfume could somehow embody that panther’s scent, a perfume to compel all who encounters it to follow where it leads, to glimpse into that secret midnight bloom and that gilded hidden knowledge, that writes its arcane soul on your skin in pantherine ink, surely, it would be a purple black and painless perfumed bruise known as …Sarrasins.

Sarrasins, created in 2007 by Serge Lutens and Christopher Sheldrake, is available for European customers as a Palais Royal exclusive bell jar, and at Barneys NY.

Notes: jasmine, carnation, woods, musk, coumarin, patchouli.

With love,  thanks and eternal gratitude to Christos of Memory of Scent for the initiation, and to Ruth for sealing my doom –  with a jasmine.

Stupid Cupid

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 – or…the Genie’s antidote to Valentine’s Day Disease

Close your eyes and imagine, say, Fifth Avenue in New York in mid-February. Imagine that today of all days, there’s no insane traffic, only a frenzied crowd awaiting the arrival of countless city dignitaries, Mayor Bloomberg and likely moguls such as The Donald himself, running bare as babies or in goatskin loincloths down Fifth Avenue in a haze of ticker-tape and confetti with whips in their hands. Women and girls rush forward with their hands held out for a lash or two to assure they’ll never need fertility clinics, hormone treatments or anesthetics during childbirth ever again.

Romance? What romance?

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Lupercalia, arguably the origins of Valentine’s Day, although that is still a matter of some debate in academic circles. Replace Fifth Avenue with the Palatine Hill of first-century Rome, if that makes you feel better.

Of all the hyper-commercialized holidays on Planet Earth – never mind Planet Perfume – Valentine’s Day is the one I detest the most, and not just because a) I’m single b) will get nary one Valentine, box of chocolates or red silk teddy never mind c) an actual date because d) I’m a post-punk diehard cynic of a certain age wondering if Restylane will somehow galvanize romance back in my life. (Doubtful).

No, the reason I take such umbrage with this whoopee cushion-shaped holiday is the underlying assumption that romance is or should be dead the other 364 days of the year.

If that’s the philosophy of anyone who wants to survive a first date with yours truly, we’ll never get past that first cup of coffee before I invent a fictional friend’s domestic disaster that requires my immediate assistance and PDQ out the door, never to return.

You see, I’m such a hapless romantic, I believe in romance every day of every year. (I’m a former Goth, surely you expected no less?) I believe that if you truly have a heart’s desire, let it all out in every way you can, say it in every way you can, and say it on any other day but that wretched February 14th that comes built in with all sorts of fraught emotion and expectations. That’s just me.

Yet you, dear reader, have other and more delicate sensibilities, since you are only too aware that if you don’t do something, have something planned for that date, you are so dead. You are so dead, you’d make mummies look animated. You need help. You need a suggestion, a roadmap, anything at all…

You need a perfume that spells romance with a capital R, or caring with a capital C, or even, dare I write it, the infamous four-letter L word. Your choice as to whether it ends in an ‘e’ or a ‘t’…

But where to start? What to do? And that biggest heartbreak of them all…what to wear?

No worries, darling. The Genie goes where even Cupid fears to tread, and in no time at all, you’ll actually be looking forward…to red velvet whoopee cushions, cheesy greeting cards, chocolate covered cherries and champagne.

First of all, contrary to whatever La Perla might have you believe…

1) Don’t buy lingerie for Valentine’s Day. If you get the size wrong, you’re so doomed, and not the way you hoped for, either. Save that for some humdrum Wednesday, when your darling least expects it (and you know what size to get), where it might have better consequences than even you could imagine.

2) Chocolate is always, always good, unless you have one of those rare creatures who don’t care for it, in which case, you likely don’t read this blog. Buy the very best you can obtain. Handmade, Belgian (or handmade Belgian)…truffles, what-have-you. Make sure to have it beautifully wrapped (presentation IS half the battle) and kept cool.

3) Roses…OK, I’m not about to argue with the appeal of a dozen long-stemmed, red roses (hopefully, the fragrant kind), but be a little original here. Six tiny, adorable baby cacti might be just as effective. Three perfect red cattleya orchids, one for each heartfelt word? Two dozen adorable violets? The flawless Casablanca Lily that ate Manhattan? Thirteen tuberose blooms? Just be sure to get them from a proper florist, and not from the checkout line at your local supermarket. As I said – presentation is half the battle.

4) If your own pathetic attempts at poetry fail you and Hallmark fails you, too – buy a plain, cream-colored card with an envelope at a stationery store, ally yourself with the Web, and go hunt for the words of Pablo Neruda, Rumi, Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Verlaine or even Lord Byron, if you’re that way inclined. If she/he’s a diehard cynic, you can’t possibly go wrong with Baudelaire. Ever. And if you do, then you deserve better.

5) Unless you have an idea of what your Valentine likes/loves – and that might not always be the case – don’t buy perfume. Honest. Just don’t. I have formerly been the owner of a few perfumes bought by well-meaning sweethearts I later came to dislike. But say…you do want to make that particular gesture of appreciation, only you don’t know where to start. You just want your Valentine to be the sexiest-smelling s/he can be. May I recommend the stellar Discovery Set from Ormonde Jayne. Whether a woman of mystery or a L’Homme Fatal, there’s sure to be a fragrant treasure for every taste, and it’s exquisitely presented. Perhaps s/he is a true cosmopolitan with a taste for sublime, fragrant adventure? Neela Vermeire Creations’ Discover Your India Set is a likewise beautifully presented passage to India in all its most opulent glory.

6) If your human whoopee cushion is artistic, I hereby point you to Jardins d’Écrivains, a French company who took famous writers as their inspiration for scented candles to write/create by. Tickle their inner Colette, tease out the closet Kipling or bring along the Baroness Blixen and write up a Serengeti lion hunt of your own…

Which brings us back to you and that agony of indecision. What, oh what to wear?

I’ll go on a few blanket assumptions here and say that Valentine’s dates tend to fall in one of four categories. Great Expectations, Twenty Tones of Torrid, Folie-à-deux and Surely, You Jest? Therefore, from the top…

Great Expectations

The worst thing you can do at this particular stage of affaires is to try too hard. But, oh! The possibilities! The butterflies! The 1001 Sighs of What-if! Which is not to say you can’t waft fabulosity and romance at one and the same time. And romance to many people means red as in…rose. Swipe that sweetheart off the floor in a rosy swoon with Aftelier’s Wild Roses, DSH Perfumes’ American Beauty, Olympic Orchids’ Ballets Rouges, Etat Libre d’Orange’s Eau de Protection, Amouage Lyric (M/W) or Neela Vermeire’s Mohur.

Twenty Tones of Torrid

With any luck, we know this one. At this stage it matters less what you wear than how quickly you can take it off. The beauty of perfume is…it stays! ;) This is when those super-sexy scents have their moments. Take them by surprise with the magnificent Ambre Sultan by Serge Lutens, Opus Oils’ Dirty Sexy Wilde, Aftelier’s Secret Garden, Histoires de Parfum’s 1740, Amouage Memoir (M/W), Aroma M’s Geisha Noire, House of Cherry Bomb’s Immortal Mine (bottled sin!), Francis Kurkdjian’s Absolue Pour le Soir (ditto) or if you prefer a tumble on the wilder sides after midnight, Olympic Orchids’ Dev no. 2.

Folie-á-Deux

So you’ve made it this far, and have slightly less to prove. Does that mean an end to the rolling r of romance? Of course not! Now, you can cuddle up in blissful, mutual appreciation by taking it to the next level of l-o-v-e…with the incredible, edible Spiritueuse Double Vanille or Tonka Imperiale by Guerlain, Amouage Beloved, Esscentual Alchemy’s Moon Valley or Serge Lutens’ Santal Majuscule, and have an evening to remember as perfect as the two of you together surely are.

Surely, You Jest?

Oh, dear. Familiarity has set in. Or romantic rot. Or something. Therefore, it’s the perfect time to galvanize that human sofa pillow (or whoopee cushion) back to life and other four-letter L-words. This day of all days is not the time to be too edgy, unless that’s what it will take. If that means wrapping yourself in bacon in front of ESPN or finding alternative uses for Nutella, then who am I to argue? On the other hand, attitude is very much in the ambience you create. If you feel sexy, chances are, you act that way, too. So go ahead. You can’t go wrong with the classics. Dig out that half-hidden bottle of Piguet’s Bandit you were saving for a rainy day. That day has arrived n-o-w. Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Get out of that sofa pillow rut and into another kind with Skye Botanical’s ‘Strawberry Passion’, or break out your inner rock star with Opus Oils’ M’Eau Joe no. 3 and prove that romance – rock’n’roll and otherwise – isn’t dead, and Stupid Cupid has nothing at all on you!

As for me, I’ve given up on Valentine’s Day. Whoopie cushions, cheesy cards, wilted roses and all. But I’ll never give up…on romance!

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.