Vanilla Thrills

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– reviews of Aedes de Venustas’ Cierge de Lune & aroma M’s Vanilla Hinoki

Pity this orchid the Aztecs called tlilxochitl. Once upon a time ca. 1840, its fruit was a byword for all that was exotic, prohibitively expensive, New World and marvelously, epically fragrant like few other plants on Earth. Five hundred years after Hernan Cortés introduced it to Europe, it’s been reduced to a synonym for conventional, boring, safe, mainstream, middle-of-the-road and/or mundane. An awful letdown for one of the world’s two most labor-intensive and expensive spices, for tlilxochitl we know today as one of the world’s most well-beloved aromas – vanilla.

For a perfume lover, vanilla is its own kind of thrill. Vanilla has been used as a base note in perfumes since 1889 when Aimé Guerlain had the bright idea to add it (as the newly available vanillin) to Jicky in 1889, and ever since, vanilla has elevated untold thousands of perfumes, whether to add a touch of its own sultry heat and sweetness, to enhance or soften other, louder notes, or – this happens too – to amp up perfumery candy-floss basenotes to eleven. The aroma of vanilla – whether vanillin or vanilla bean – also has a remarkable effect on the human brain – it enhances all other sensory experiences. Those Aztecs were on to more than they perhaps knew, when they added those fermented and dried orchid pods to xocolatl, which was served as an aphrodisiac.

My own angle on vanilla came with a bang ten years ago, when I worked as a pastry chef apprentice in the town’s most prestigious bakery. There, I learned about the different vanillas and their uses; the deep, leathery incense tones of Madagascan Bourbon vanilla, the woody, spicy, almost dark-chocolatey tones of Mexican vanilla, and the floral-fruity perfume of Tahitian vanilla.

But I was a vanilla fan way before, as witnessed by my (then) appalled husband in an Albuquerque supermarket when I had a dedicated Euro-cook’s total meltdown over the barbaric and ubiquitous – to my purist mind – custom of selling vanilla extract, proudly proclaiming ‘with real vanilla’. In Denmark, vanilla existed for a large part of my life in one of only two available forms – as Madagascar Bourbon vanilla beans, sold in glass lab tubes two at a time and as a proprietary brand of vanilla sugar in distinctive packaging, the same brand that sold the vanilla beans in tubes, and made with the same vanilla. The ‘real vanilla’ in that Albuquerque supermarket was vanillin made from lignin or wood pulp, not vanilla beans. Most so-called ‘vanilla’ aroma is vanillin of the wood-pulp or the castoreum variety, which also provides the natural aromas of strawberry, raspberry and, umm … castoreum. I wanted real vanilla beans, darn it, not what I considered ‘that McCormick travesty of vanilla’, since I knew well before I ever became a writer, whether love or vanilla, there’s no substitute for the Real Deal.

Vanilla has thrilled me no end as both flavoring and fragrance, in that gold standard vanilla, Guerlain’s Spiritueuse Double Vanille, the limited edition Shalimar Ode à la Vanille Sur La Route de Madagascar that you may know by the name Shalemur, Mona di Orio’s Vanille or Téo Cabanel’s famous Alahine, to name but four stellar vanillas.

Now, I have two more vanilla thrills to add to the list, two very different vanilla-centric perfumes that are as far removed from anything dessert as you can imagine – aroma M’s new release, Vanilla Hinoki, and Aedes de Venustas’ new Cierge de Lune.

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The Queen of the Night

My grandmother, like green-thumbed grandmothers everywhere, had a spidery, spiky and not at all prepossessing plant in a very fancy ceramic pot in her bedroom window. This plant, a vaguely cactus-looking creature, was tended and coddled like a particularly fractious baby – watered with special plant food, repotted with succulent-friendly soil into another fancy ceramic pot once a year, and kept warm in cold weather. I believe she once told me she even chatted to it. What I know for a definite fact is this: she called it the Queen of the Night, not after Mozart’s famous ditto from his opera The Magic Flute, but after that magical event that happened on one single night of the year, when that frankly fugly plant bloomed into a drop-dead beautiful and drop-dead scented white flower that paid for all her dedicated care with its perfume. For years, she would watch for signs of its impending bloom, take pictures, and call to edify me with her description of ‘the best vanilla-y perfume in the world’. One year, I happened by complete coincidence to be there at the perfect time, and finally saw what all her fuss was about. The flower as well as its perfume really was all that, we both agreed, and I would never again complain about the time I had to spend dusting the volutes and crannies of that Art Nouveau flowerpot.

With its 2016 release Cierge de Lune, the New York perfume house of Aedes de Venustas brought me back to that night with my grandmother in an instant, and straight to that incredible, indelible bloom.

Cierge de Lune – which is the French name of Selenicereus Grandiflorus – translates as ‘Moon altar candle’, and if there’s any more mellifluous name for that flower in French or Latin, I’m not aware of it. Created with perfumer Fabrice Pellegrin, it sings beautifully both on its own terms and within the overall evolving arc of Aedes de Venustas’ perfume releases, all of which hold a special place in my personal olfactory dreamscape, and two of which I have literally loved beyond all hope of reviewing, because they’re now …gone, loved, worn, inhaled, thoroughly enjoyed and disappeared. I hope to curb my enthusiasm some day, but I might have to buy at least four bottles first.

A common theme of all the Aedes de Venustas perfumes is a singular sleight-of-hand effect: somehow, they all manage to be highly complex perfumes of a kind you’d expect in dense, plush sillage bombs and yet, their texture – and their sillage – is as sheer as silk chiffon. In other words, they’re all complex enough to satisfy any sophisticate’s perfume itch, but never so loud or obvious as to overwhelm your surroundings.

If you like your vanilla thrill to be a chewy, gourmand, wearable pastry cream, this is emphatically not that vanilla. On the other hand, if you too have a memory of that indelible flower – once seen and sniffed, never forgot – then Cierge de Lune will surely make your vanilla-loving synapses sing. It comes incredibly close to my own fond memory of cereus, from the subtle but immediately apparent vanilla – a special dense, woody, leathery and incense-y Madagascan variety – to the bright kick of pink pepper. Black pepper is in there too from the outset to the finish line, and adds its own earthy, slightly ashy, mineral chiaroscuro to the vanilla. If that were all, I’d be perfectly content.

It isn’t. For in minutes, just like the flower itself, it unfurls, opens and …blooms. There’s no other way to state it. A buttery, warm ylang ylang and the expansive feel of hedione underscore the vanilla and give it a distinct floral aura, if not any flower I’ve had the pleasure to meet before. A very sultry flower, I might add, fully able to carry that name, Queen of the Night, with all its associations of a magic flute, two star-crossed lovers and a fabled, fiendishly difficult coloratura F6 over high C. When the show is nearly over and the curtain comes down on this one night of glory, what we’re left with is a sultry, intelligent, superbly unisex whisper of amber, leather, black pepper and that breath-taking, woody vanilla, wrapped up in a flower you can never quite forget. It lasted the better part of eight hours with just two sprays, and elicited scores of compliments wherever it went.

 

 

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The Geiko’s Thrill

You may have heard of the vanillas of Madagascar, Réunion, Mexico or Polynesia, each with their own olfactory profiles. But did you know that Morocco – for centuries a prized source location of many things grand and aromatic – grows it, too?

Neither did I, until Maria McElroy of Aroma M chose a very rare (and most unusual) Moroccan vanilla for her latest Aroma M release, Vanilla Hinoki. Five years in the making, here is another vanilla nothing at all like the vanillas you think you might know.

Maria’s inspiration was that unique Japanese institution of the onsen, the hot springs baths often – as in the image above – associated with inns in the mountains, and also hinoki wood, used to build everything from palaces, Noh theaters, shrines, temples and bathtubs. Hinoki has a very particular fragrant profile; at once lemony and pine-y with incense undertones, and its remarkable pairing with the Moroccan vanilla she used is nothing short of inspired.

Inspired, because of that vanilla to start. This vanilla is thick, woody, smoky and not at all sweet – indeed, it’s arguably one of the woodiest vanillas I’ve encountered in a perfume. Another rabbit from Maria MacElroy’s mischievous hat was the fact it took me a few minutes to even register the vanilla at all, since Vanilla Hinoki starts with something of an olfactory shock. A sunshine-bright bergamot and spice kick to the senses – maybe the olfactory equivalent of that shock of heat you get when lowering yourself into one of those very hot onsen tubs? – kicks me awake and aware, but in no time at all, the green-herbal-woody-piney heart takes over and leaves me incapable of coherent thought beyond several deep breaths and a far less articulate if no less heartfelt ‘Aahhh!’

Ah as in … this is truly stellar stuff. That vanilla may be woody and smoky, but it’s been polished to a sparkling, effervescent fare-thee-well and behaves itself beautifully with the other star of the show, the hinoki, which makes those herbs do everything they’re supposed to; wind you down, relax you, and make you contemplate the brocaded Zen intricacies of existence. In a leisurely fashion to be sure, because who can be rushed when surrounded by such twilight beauty?

But wait! Once the drydown arrives – and all aroma M Geisha perfumes take time to develop and appreciate – it’s yet another, sultrier story, with sexy, smexy (yes!) leather, cedar and patchouli notes, in the event someone else should come close enough to appreciate it.

All of Aroma M’s Geisha perfumes exist in some highly evocative, creative space between the subtle Japanese olfactory aesthetic and Western perfumery traditions, but Vanilla Hinoki especially strikes me as more Japanese than Western. It owns a certain restraint, a very subtle delicacy and light polish rarely found in new perfumes today, yet it never seems alien or foreign to this Western nose, just evocative, contemplative and perfectly all its own creation.

I can imagine a geiko – a fully-fledged, mature geisha – taking it with her on her next sanity-restoring trip to an onsen, for her own private pleasure. Somewhere between the clean, fragrant mountain air, the heat of the onsen, the quietude of the Japanese countryside, she too will discover … there’s nothing at all ‘vanilla’ about Vanilla Hinoki.

The day I received Vanilla Hinoki, I presented my wrist to the Dude after a few hours to ask his opinion. ‘Do I need this?” I asked.

“It smells Japanese. In a good way. Oh. And yes. Yes, you do.”

One of my own favorite things about the aroma M Geisha line is the fact they come in both a roll-on perfume oil and as a spray eau de parfum. Both have amazing longevity on their own, but if all that Zen restraint is a bit much to ask, I can only recommend you get them both in your choice of perfume. Apply the eau de parfum, and then add perfume oil on your pulse points. You may not slay your surroundings with your sillage, yet you will be magically, wondrously, deliciously fragrant for the better part of 24 hours. Which is a thrill I have no problems at all announcing in public!

 

Notes for Cierge de Lune: Madagascan vanilla, pink pepper, black pepper, ylang ylang, Ambroxan.

Notes for Vanilla Hinoki: Bergamot, clove, cardamom, nutmeg, Moroccan vanilla, hinoki, cedar leaf, lavender, leather, patchouli, amyris, cedar wood.

Aedes de Venustas Cierge de Lune is available as 3.4 oz./100 ml eau de parfum at First in Fragrance, at Aedes de Venustas online and in their Greenwich Village store.

Aroma M Vanilla Hinoki is available as 50 ml eau de parfum and as a roll-on perfume oil  at Indiescents, Luckyscent, the Aroma M studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn and directly from the Aroma M website.

Disclosure: Samples of Cierge de Lune and Vanilla Hinoki were provided for review by Olivier Le Didroux of Beauty Entreprise and Maria McElroy of Aroma M. With thanks to them both for their faith – and their patience. I am never compensated or paid for reviews, and the opinions of the Alembicated Genie are entirely and always my own.

Image of vanilla orchid and night-blooming cereus, Wikimedia Commons. Image of Tsurunoyu Onsen, Akita Prefecture, Japan.

Vintage Divinity

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– a review of vintage Balmain Jolie Madame

Once upon a storied time in the early Nineties, I found myself by happy accident in a very exclusive consignment shop in Copenhagen. So expensive was this shop, in fact, there was nothing I could afford at the time, something I came to rue that moment I located a stupendous 1950s strapless black velvet cocktail dress that might have actually fitted yours truly, nothing to sneeze at if you’re in the category of Really Serious Cleavage.

Then, as I checked the lining, I saw the label – Atelier Balmain.

The dress was haute couture, made to measure for some fortunate lady who cared enough to look her superlative best, even if she were – like me to this day – short, short-waisted and stacked.

Yet the genius of that fairly simple dress, or 1950s haute couture itself for that matter, lay not so much in its outer glory – that super-plush silk velvet! The heavy silk satin lining! The peerless workmanship! – but in its inner construction, for this was a dress with everything built in, shapewear and brassiere included, with cunning and surprising nips, tucks, seams and folds to conceal any multitude of sins and accentuate that thing the French did so well, once upon a time; la ligne. The Line! Say what you will about modern fashion and its love of ectomorph bodies – one common theme of the fashions of the 1930s to 1950s was precisely that they looked great on many different body types.

The shop owner was having a slow day. She offered that I could try it on. Lo and behold, it fit me like a glove, which was the first eye-opener, and the second was the way I looked in that dress. For this, dear readers, was THE dress, that much-vaunted LBD you could take anywhere; a fancy dinner party, the theater, or a Very Important White-Hot Date. It would not have looked at all out of place in any of those locations, not in 1992 and certainly not in 2016. I was instantly five inches taller, 15 pounds lighter and my girls had not been so prominently or lusciously displayed since my mid-Eighties Goth days of partying in not much else but net skirts, knee-length Doc Martens, a veiled fascinator, a black satin Merry Widow and a few metric tons of sooty eyeliner.

I never did buy that dress, for all I wanted to so badly, but I also never forgot it.

A Balmain haute couture cocktail dress, 1953

A Balmain haute couture cocktail dress, 1953

Last week, I was reminded of that dress and that moment – through a perfume. Not just any perfume, but one of those famous vintage glories any perfumista really should sniff, if only to determine the many reasons why its creatrix Germaine Cellier is one of the 20th-century’s greatest noses.

Nothing at all ‘petite’ about the mains who embroidered this!

Nothing at all ‘petite’ about the mains who embroidered this!

 

The perfume was an adorable mini of vintage Balmain Jolie Madame (in, I’m guessing, the extrait), Bakelite cap included, a kind offer from a perfumista friend, and I was over the moon for another and highly personal reason.

Jolie Madame was the first perfume I can remember my late mother wore, so much so I always remembered that glorious sillage, even if I didn’t know the name for many, many years. Yet I remembered the way her sheared beaver fur coat – a 1950s ‘swinger’ coat in a leopard print my present self would have loved to death and beyond – would smell when I was collected at the babysitter’s after parties and I was wrapped up half-asleep in that coat.

This was, so concluded my three-year-old self, what a lady should smell like. What it contained, I couldn’t know at the time, but in rural Virginia in the 1960s, I knew enough to know that most of my playmates’ mothers didn’t wear expensive French perfume every day and my mother did, yet another thing that set her apart.

This was another moment that brought me back in a heartbeat as soon as I’d applied two smidges of Jolie Madame. While I can’t honestly say this is precisely as I remembered it, given that memory is fifty years old this year, I can say this:

Vintage Jolie Madame, dear readers, is heartstopping stuff.

To my own surprise, it checked very many of my own favorite boxes: it was a very green leather chypre, it had one of the superlative best leather notes in perfumery and a violet/floral note to die for, and last but never, ever least: it was a Cellier, damn it.

Let me begin, as this should have begun, with the big one: I own bottles of vintage Bandit and Fracas, and now this mini, the third in my private Mlle. Cellier Perfumer Hall of Fame trifecta. (The Vent Vert tetralogy can’t be too far behind.)

Just as you can sniff something of the creator’s/originator’s DNA in ALL truly spectacular perfumes, or at least I believe so, Jolie Madame could not be anything but a Cellier creation. Green in the opening like Vent Vert, a feline leather and feminine floral bouquet that somehow all adds up to ‘violet and leather’ purring away in perfect harmony in the heart and base, and a mossy, bossy and exceedingly smexy drydown somewhat akin to Bandit some long, long time later.

It’s a tad disheartening to stoop to modern slang for this writer who specializes in 19th-century purple prose, but the best description of the one common element of all the three Celliers I’ve tried so far is ‘smexy’, meaning smart and sexy. You might argue her use of perfume ‘bases/accords’ (according to Luca Turin) instead of raw materials is questionable, whereas I would argue that is precisely what makes them so stunning: each and every Germaine Cellier perfume is nearly impossible to pick apart, much like those complex ladies who lunched in the 1950s. And just as they were – any Cellier adds up to so much more than the sum of its parts.

Jolie Madame – Beautiful Lady – is no exception.

She is the perfect embodiment of the bien élévée, well-mannered 1950s woman, not a hair out of place, stocking seams dead-straight, fetching hat, chic flannel suit and shoes, gloves and matching handbag included.

Feminine, despite the rather severe cut of her form-fitting suit as the violet blooms to sing its tale, a violet born and bred not in Parma with all its sweet connotations nor Toulouse, which is sweeter still, but only in Paris, a violet that knows to flirt with that bad-gal leather just right, just enough to charm rather than titillate, and how could you not be charmed by a violet? What are you – heartless?

Of course not. You are simply a very intelligent, immaculately put together woman, from the angle of your hat to the shade of your lipstick. Any one of these details – the limited but elegant makeup, the gleam of your jewelry, the violet leather of your gloves, the line of your handbag and even your shoes has been carefully considered as a flourish to accentuate rather than advertise, to stand on its own, and sometime in a magic hour between midnight and dawn, to fall away like the pearls that slither from your neck to the floor in the moonlight.

Dovima with elephants, by Richard Avedon, 1955. Her dress was designed by a very young assistant to Monsieur Dior named Yves Saint Laurent

Dovima with elephants, by Richard Avedon, 1955. Her dress was designed by a very young assistant to Monsieur Dior named Yves Saint Laurent

(The divine Dovima, in other words, only this time without the elephants. Jolie is all too short a word for the multitudes she contains, and Madame?

“Oh, please.” I seem to hear her say. “I am a woman. Mademoiselle sounds so… adolescent after a certain age, don’t you think?”

Indeed I do. Because when the drydown arrives to dazzle, I begin to understand something about why my late mother might have chosen Jolie Madame to define herself, and something about that prototypical Parisian femme du bon famille those tailored-to-within-an-inch-of-their-sillage 1950s perfumes, as well as the current perfumes they have inspired.

Leather, tobacco, vetiver, cedar, patchouli, oakmoss and musk, states the notes list, which is a bit like saying the Mona Lisa was painted in sepia hues. On my skin, I smell the leather, the oakmoss, a whiff of the green, grassy violet leaf, and lo and behold, the drydown sent me off to locate that vintage Bandit to confirm what I suspect is present in this vintage incarnation of Jolie Madame: those uncanny, glorious (and now banned) nitro musks that growl beneath the basenotes, giving a rather different, animalic and not at all prissy spin on such a tailored perfume.

Just as I can marvel at my own audacity aged fourteen in choosing the rather naughty Jicky for my first perfume, I can wonder that my mother chose Jolie Madame. I suspect like all twenty-one-year-olds, she wanted to define herself in better, more glamorous terms, to set herself aside and apart from the common run of 1960s housewife, to show her fragrant story just enough not to give the game away. She never did.

Jolie Madame is still in rather limited production, reformulated, revised and rewritten for an IFRA-compliant age. I haven’t tried it, so I’m unable to compare the modern version with the vintage.

What I can say is this: I really need to hunt down a vintage bottle of just about any incarnation I can find. It will be neither easy nor cheap (one vintage bottle I saw sells for 198$), but such is the price of divinity, and the echo of Pierre Balmain’s famous words:

Always dress women in the right look for the right moment.

Just don’t forget this perfume, and that moment will always be right.

With special thanks to Dagmar for the mini that made this review possible.

Notes: Artemisia, coriander, gardenia, neroli, bergamot, petitgrain, cloves, tuberose, narcissus, orris, jasmine, rose, orange blossom, violet leaf, lilac, leather, patchouli, musk, coconut, civet, oakmoss, vetiver, cedar and tobacco.

Photo of Dovima in violet by Edwin Blumenfield via My Vintage Vogue. Dovima with elephants by Richard Alvedon, 1955. Balmain haute couture dress, 1953 via Balmain.

 

The Space I Take

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– on the Genie’s overlong absence, perfume writing, and real life roadblocks

Ladies, gentlemen and fragrant entities –

It’s been far too long. I have in the past six months removed myself from social media to a greater or lesser extent due to work issues (my first major freelance assignment, now completed) and life issues, and somewhere along the way, perfume fell by the wayside in the sense that I for good or for ill didn’t and couldn’t … write about it. I’ll be getting back to that one.

Future Music

A new novel will, Dev willing, find its way into the world of publication in two languages this year, Danish and English. It will be a prequel to Quantum Demonology, with a very different narrator and a very different story.

In publishing, there’s a phenomenon called The Follow-Up Act. In layman’s terms, the Difficult/Impossible Second Novel. Since Quantum Demonology was in a sense handed to me on a platter of id and dissociation, what this means is the second book in the series (which in terms of story arc is actually the first, and makes QD the third) has caused me more grief than I ever knew existed. This time, the stakes are higher. This time, I have something to prove, which always gets a writer in trouble, and this time, some aspirations of achieving what I hoped for with the first, thanks to a Danish publisher who could be a soul brother in terms of common inspirations, idols and predilections. Not to mention being a Capricorn with plans for world literary horror domination, quite a few connections and an epic talent pool of writers to urge that outcome along.

Sibling rivalry also plays its part. My beloved sister is a journalist, an often incisive columnist for one of Denmark’s largest women’s magazines and a published novelist. I’ll be damned and dipped in tar and feathers before I let her have that last distinction on her own, because why should she have all the fun? Luckily, she agrees. We write nothing alike and each have our own literary preoccupations, but by Golly, we’re going for it. Because we can, bolstering each other’s porcelain egos and talents with sisterly bubble wrap as we go. It’s what these two sisters do.

Fragrant Epiphanies

All along, perfume wafts in my wake. New releases have made my heart sing in ways I never thought it could by their sheer virtuosity, and other possible ones that just might also set the heartstrings quivering. I bought two hotly coveted perfumes in the past few months, one Estée Lauder’s Private Collection Tuberose Gardenia, and the other L’Artisan Parfumeur’s genius Seville à L’Aube. Next on my list is another favorite FBW, perfectly appropriate for the spring exploding forth everywhere around me as I type: Hermès 24 Faubourg. I’ve ripped through three decants and every single sample I have, which tells me it’s love. But having just upgraded my shoe collection, that’s not happening just yet, no matter how much I wish for it. And more indie perfumes for my FBW list: Envoyage Perfumes’ astonishing floral symphony, Fiore di Bellagio, Olympic Orchids’ White Cattleya, DSH Perfumes’ Giverny in Bloom and Fleuriste, Neela Vermeire Crèations Pichola, Aedes de Venustas’ Oeillet Bengale, Iris Nazarena, Palissandre d’Or, Cierge de Lune and.

And.

The perfumes I’ve loved in my absence: my arguable HG, that intransigent, unapologetic bad-gal masterpiece that is vintage Robert Piguet Bandit. It has the effect of a hydrogen pulse bomb on the Dude. Should I ever doubt the towering genius that was Germaine Cellier or the delicate touch of Aurelien Guichard who reorchestrated it beautifully in 2007 to comply with modern IFRA standards, it takes just one sniff. I dare not contemplate what would happen if I ever encounter vintage Balmain Jolie Madame, or Vent Vert. I. Shall. Be. Toast. Bandit in the modern eau de parfum is on my FBW shortlist, if only so I can spray with abandon and let the world think what it will of that perfect, naughty, borderline disgusting/wrong note of cold ashtray.

Amouage’s Sunshine Man knocked the gender-bender out of the ballpark for me and has rapidly become my Favorite Masculine/Schmasculine Stupid-Happy-Delirious Perfume of All Time. It’s a lavender-almond cookie with an electrifying jolt of Curaçao/Cointreau/Grand Marnier that somehow all adds up to making me feel, well, deliciously delirious, maybe? It also has salubrious/salacious effects on the Dude, who loves it on me and nowhere else.

Aedes de Venustas’ Palissandre d’Or, a silky-smoothly burnished spicy wood unisex wonder, is as transparent and as glowing as maroon silk chiffon, and has become something I crave very badly, which does not bode at all well for my wallet.

The Case Against TAG

Yet something I’ve also found myself doing with increasing frequency lately is pondering that space I take in the blogosphere, the state of the perfume industry and the hair-raising amount of new releases, new brands, and new brands of headache to consider, and what – if any – role I should try to fulfill.

I’ve been writing about perfume for almost six years, as part of the – let’s call it – second wave of perfume bloggers that began somewhere around 2010. In that time, I’ve seen the social media landscape around blogging in general and perhaps perfume blogging in particular change in ways that emphatically do not appeal to my comfort zone. That sweet-smelling (?!) world has become so much nastier, no matter what I do to convince myself otherwise. Some of my mainstays from those early days are still very much around and are as awe-inspiring as they’ve ever been. A few more have had to quit the blogosphere due to real-life issues, and I miss their particular voice and perspectives on this thing called perfume.

All of these things somehow all add up that soup of contemplation I’ve been stewing in for so long, and in the past year or so, a few things more have given me long, hard pauses for thought.

I began to write about perfume for two big reasons. First and most importantly, to become a better writer. At the time I began my first perfume blog on Blogspot, I was heading toward the finish line of my novel Quantum Demonology, and thought it might do me good as a writer to find an outlet for all those girlie sensibilities the hard-boiled QD protagonist would have mocked to infinity and beyond.

I dare say that YOU – if you’re reading this – have forced me to up the ante and succeed in ways I could never have imagined that August night in 2010 I cooked up the idea to become a perfume writer.

Thank you. For bearing with my idiosyncracies and predilections, and for being with me this far.

On that note …

I’ve also been the victim of trolling on more than one occasion in the past year or so in particular. I’ve received more or less “anonymous” emails blasting me with vitriol and undiluted verbal hydrochloric acid for daring to redefine perfume writing on my own terms and in my own way, for not knowing enough about my subject matter, for shoddy, slapdash research into my subject matter (FWIW, some of those reviews required over a full month of research to write with any degree of credulity), and a blatant inability to locate even the most “obvious” notes in the perfumes I’ve reviewed. Some of these mails have gone so far as to state I should just STFU already ‘if you can’t write like ‘normal’ perfume bloggers!’

There IS such a thing, and I didn’t know?

O.M.G.

I realize an entire segment of online entities out there take great pride in destroying reputations, credibility and what in social media has been dubbed ROI, or Reach of Influence, on the mistaken assumption that our entire self-worth rests solely on the opinion of such human pondscum.

As a perfume blogger, I could not have cared less. There is no shortage of blogs out there to read or to watch on YouTube, and no shortage of compelling perspectives and quality prose. I link to the best of them.

But as a writer, I was devastated nearly into giving up the ghost altogether, and that conclusion almost did me in. If I can’t write, if I am silenced into nonentity or figuratively ball-gagged into shutting up, then just kill me now.

I do not, and have never that I’m aware, ‘write about’ perfume. I write to express my impressions or to communicate the experience said perfume gave me. You may beg to disagree, and that’s perfectly all right. Should I sometimes – as indeed has happened – be inspired by a particular perfume so stellar I feel compelled to write my review as a story and you take offense at that, then by all means unsubscribe and read something else. My perspective is a novel writer’s and storyteller’s perspective, and I can’t and won’t change that, not even to shut up the trolls who take offence at my approach or indeed anything else about me.

But with the arrival of more and more and more and more …. blogs, vlogs and the general proliferation of the perfume community, I have had to question what I as a perfume writer can contribute to the conversation.

As I stated before, the conversations we’re having about perfume have changed. Likewise, the relationships between brands and perfume bloggers has also changed. I was shocked to learn that at Pitti Fragranze last year, some bloggers walked around with price lists for reviews, which was somewhere around the point where my own brain imploded.

Call me old-fashioned. But a paid review in my book = no credibility whatsoever as a reviewer. In any size, shape or form.

I began with a passion – my own passion for perfume, and my passion for verbiage. That passion is not, nor will it ever be for sale. I couldn’t live with myself if it were. You may choose to believe me when I say that a rave is a rave because I think something is great/stellar/incredible, or you may take issue with the – indisputable – fact that certain brands on TAG always get raves. For one simple reason, and I state this with my hand on my heart and swear on my cat’s fur: because they’re always that great. Emphatically not as a compliment to a brand that provided me with a sample free of charge.

But more than anything, I’ve thought about that space I take, thought to utilize it better and more, thought to do whatever I could to entertain, or illuminate, or sometimes even confuse/bemuse my readers, and that has happened, too.

No one is renumerating my time or my efforts in trying to find the words to match my nonverbal impressions of a perfume.

More to the point, no one cares. Or do they? If you’ve read this far, do you?

Let me know in the comments! And let’s continue the conversation – about perfumery, about the blogosphere, and about… that space we take.

Illustration: yours truly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

STFU

STFU

– something on brands, bloggers, dedication and not shutting up

Two days ago, which was Sunday in my part of the world, life was grand. All was good. Or it would be, as soon as I replenished that pan of blondies that had somehow vanished between Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning.

So I thought, until I opened up Facebook and discovered an all-too-real horror story to strike terror, outrage and sorrow in the hearts of many, many perfumistas and any perfume bloggers.

Horror Story

Our most treasured resource on all things fragrantly Guerlain, the blog Monsieur Guerlain as well as the Monsieur Guerlain Facebook page and Twitter account was gone, shut down without warning, explanation or recourse by Guerlain PR.

For the few who are unaware, Monsieur Guerlain was a blog devoted to the house of Guerlain, created, maintained and impeccably researched by a lifelong fan of the brand. Whether you were looking for information on reformulations, differing editions of a perfume, or simply the historical context of, say, that white unicorn of vintage perfumes, Djedi, Monsieur Guerlain delivered the goods with a clarity and precision that only underscored his love of one of the world’s most justifiably beloved and renowned perfume houses.

Like many others, I, too, have had a lifelong love of several Guerlains ever since that first visit as a teenager to the Champs-Élysées flagship store that ended with my first perfumed self-definition – Jicky.

I have reviewed Guerlain perfumes I’ve loved, liked or loathed, and never in a New York minute ever considered that my somewhat snarky/underwhelmed opinions on new releases in particular might have unwanted – or unwarranted – consequences.

To have such an event happen to you must be doubly devastating coming from a brand you have done nothing but promote and gild with your encyclopedic knowledge. My sympathies here are solely on the side of Monsieur Guerlain.

Silence is golden, but…

But stop for a moment and think about the bigger implications here. Guerlain – owned, as we’re all well aware, by that corporate juggernaut monster known as LVMH – is adopting non-negotiable bully tactics without recourse to silence a blogger who has given them nothing but the superlative best kind of complimentary and free-to-Guerlain PR.

Seriously?

No matter what degree of awareness the general public has of the name Guerlain, the bottom line is this: Guerlain is a purveyor of products. Whether it’s a lipstick (and this brand makes some nice ones) or a perfume, these are all of them ‘luxury goods’, things that would not make a whit’s difference in the event of a zombie apocalypse, although you might enjoy it more should it happen.

So …these products, some of them with well over a century of prestigious perfume behind them and some released just last week (limited editions, darling) are then sent out into the world. One person – who just so not so coincidentally happens to ardently adore all things Guerlain – decides to spend his free time, his cash resources and his creative capital creating original content at his own initiative and does this for years. Content that gains a loyal following on social media, gets quoted, content far more entertaining and informative than any Guerlain sales assistant I’ve ever met? Content (and this is important, people) Guerlain can then take and transfer into bottom lines and numbers in the black, and everyone knows that’s where the money is.

More’s the pity that in this day and age, it’s never just about the money but the reputation, and that lies with followers, readers, subscribers and backlinks. Could there be an issue with Mr. Guerlain’s followers, subscribers, readers, in that they aren’t controlled by the Guerlain PR department? Even though that blogger celebrates precisely all things perfume and Guerlain?

Was their copyright infringed or their trademark impinged by an article on, say, the creation of Djedi, or the history of Mitsuko? This was not material made available or controlled by Guerlain, so perhaps?

To the PR mavens of Guerlain – I have some rather unsettling news for you. Welcome to the twenty-first century, the two-way street and the archaic bully tactics. Taking away someone’s virtual entire online identity and labor of love does not equal a great PR moment, and with all you’ve been through PR-wise since the turn of the century, one would think you’d be aware of it by now.

You do not own your own brand on social media. Your fans do. It would behoove you to remember this, but seeing as you’re owned by LVMH, who own all the legal sharks any rapacious corporate monster could wish for, that degree of humility is not bloody likely.

Furthermore, in shutting down Monsieur Guerlain in such ratty fashion, instead of showing a bit of class and at least giving some kind of justification, never mind some credence to a blogger who loves your brand, you dare assume you will have control over the consequences.

Any dubious bloggers (that would be me) should just quake in their cheap (non-LVMH name) boots for fear of retaliation.

OMG… we’ll be taken down!

Do we have the right to remain silent in the event we disagree? And if we dare disagree, does that imply possible/probable legal consequences? In which case, why aren’t LVMH targeting those ‘impartial’ fashion bloggers (!) who savage the fashions of LVMH brands yet still get invited to their runway presentations?

All our online identities, social media, Twitter accounts, blogs we maintain at not a little expense and time etc. etc – are now up for grabs should we ever dare state (as opposed to whisper sotto voce) what’s staring us in the face at Sephoras and department stores worldwide?

Everyone’s a critic

For instance, and I speak only on my own behalf, that most new Guerlain releases seem to be made by a marketing committee hell-bent at whatever cost on catering to either sugar-addicted, angora-brained teenyboppers or newly minted gazillionaires with way more money than discernment.

Given that the house perfumer of Guerlain is Thierry Wasser, that seems to me a spectacular waste of talent, not to mention a waste of opportunity to redeem yourself for slipshod reformulations of the truly breath-taking, beauteous perfumes that planted you in that public consciousness to begin with, and where you bloomed so fragrantly for so long.

A friend of mine in the know with the duds and the deeds to prove it once said that true luxury is always inclusive. Think about an alternate scenario for a moment.

What if Guerlain – and by extension, its parent brand LVMH – had decided to embrace this extra exposure? Taken him into the fold, included him, celebrated a fan who has many fans of his own? Would that have been so detrimental to their overall image, or subtracted from their luster? ?

I suspect a lot of indie perfumers would disagree since so many of them have been doing just that with both success and increasing public awareness as a result.

Yet, what about perfume bloggers? Those of us who write about many brands, those of us who are non-commercial, those who do what we do for nothing more than love of our subject, so dear to our souls – the very perfumes we write about.

Why go after a fan and take away all he’s built in a keystroke, when you could have turned this into a PR coup with just a tad more finesse?

I can’t answer these questions, but I can tell you what I’ve done. I’ve written to the PR person listed on the Guerlain website to protest the closing of Monsieur Guerlain’s blog and Facebook page.

Feel free to do the same: irousseau@guerlain.fr.

Please share this post with anyone or everyone who loves perfume, perfume writing and the delicate arts of celebrating beauty. Share the image below on Instagram. Tweet. Spread the word.

The only thing we shouldn’t do is…

STFU.

 

bringmrguerlainback

 

L’Incasta Diva

callasbyhirschfeld

– a review of Amouage Opus IX

Whether by accident or (infernal) design, I grew up in an opera-mad household. Family Christmas traditions included (among other things) at least one viewing of Milos Foreman’s Amadeus (because Wolfgang was the household god) and if my mother the histrionically addicted opera buff could get tickets for it, an Xmas ticket to another Christmas tradition at the Royal Theatre of Copenhagen – a performance of Carl Nielsen’s Maskarade. One year, the ticket gods conspired to send Maman, her mother and both her daughters to see ‘Maskarade’, and my sister laughed as the orchestra struck up the overture and my giddy anticipation was painted all over my face.

Since I’m also the only one of my family to play a musical instrument (classical flute, violin and viola) and I did not run away screaming for my first live opera performance (Monteverdi’s Poppaea, not exactly entry level stuff), she hauled me to many, many others throughout the years, on the stage of the Royal Theatre (too many to count) as well as opera cinema – Carmen, Zeffirelli’s La Traviata, Bergman’s indelible The Magic Flute, and (my all-time favorite opera and opera film) Joseph Losey’s Don Giovanni. Her one hesitation was hauling me to a one-time only performance of Wagner’s Parzifalbecause Wagner!”, and six hours of bum-numbed, utter flabbergasted stupefaction later, I still wasn’t sure I’d ever forgive her.

All of this is by way of saying that a) I’m no stranger to opera, live OR recorded and b) opera is the plural of ‘opus’ not to mention c) when you initiate your first-born into the opera lovers’ club, be prepared for the consequences.

Among them was our shared propensity for arguing about opera divas. Maman, you see, was a diehard Maria Callas fangal, and I… was not so much. So she would bludgeon me with ‘Casta Diva’ (from Bellini’s Norma), and I’d bash her right back with Kiri Te Kanawa’s Arabella. Or when I really wanted to get her goat: Renée Fleming.

This elicited one of two responses. Either I’d get frozen in the headlights of a Scorpio Glare (trust me, it’s a Thing) before a lecture on how altos (that would be me) never did see the point of sopranos out of spite since all the best female opera parts are always, always written for sopranos (true), or else, she’d haul out her trump card:

La Traviata.

You don’t argue with Maria Callas’ interpretation of Violetta. You. Just. Don’t.

Apparently, neither did Christopher Chong of Amouage when he cited La Divina Callas’ Violetta as his inspiration for the latest in the Opus line of Amouage perfumes , Opus IX.

My experiences with the perfumes of the Opus line have been a bit like singing a blonde bimbo version of Wagner’s Parzifal: I know I’m looking for something but I’m never sure what it is, and I’m always asking all the wrong questions and looking in all the wrong places. Opus V was an instant love, and so was VI. VII has to be my most confounding moment in my five years as a perfume writer, and VIII was… I’m still not sure. The Jasmine That Ate Manhattan?

Here and now, we have one of the most famous voices and characters on Earth, bottled. So how does it smell? Does it conjure up images of divinity, sublime musicality and all the fabulous ferocity and staggering beauty Maria Callas called her own?

Well, I’ll begin with the big one: Opus IX belongs to what I call The Brunette School of Perfume, meaning it will likely do wonders for the hordes of jasmine-fanatic brunettes out there.

Ms. Hare – a brunette, a Leo and rabid Amouage fangal – borrowed it for nefarious purposes and was quite pleased with wafting a fantastically fragrant, flawless honey-sweet jasmine sambac F over C# along with the not at all sotto voce animal growls of those nefarious purposes.

Try as I may, I can’t argue with skin chemistry, and you, dear reader, know as well as I do that genetics, diet, temperature and mood all have their parts to play in how to make a perfume sing on the stage of your skin no matter what the press release copy/libretto wants you to believe. My theory of what I’ve come to call the Brunette School of Perfume is this: certain types of grandiloquent Oriental perfumes smell infinitely better on brunettes.

Yours truly – a pale, buxom, vertically challenged dishwater blonde Taurus – tends to pull perfumes in a greener, more bitter direction, which goes a long way towards explaining my lifelong love of green floral chypres and fougères.

Opus IX is no chypre (In my demented imagination, if chypres sang they’d be altos out of spite!), but a great, grand, 24-karat whopper of an Oriental Diva with a scintillating Capital D.

Camellia is listed as a note and a reference to Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias which in turn inspired the plot of La Traviata, but so far as I’m aware almost all camellias are scentless. Not something you could ever say about jasmine sambac, which in this instance is dusted with pepper, a slightly powdery puff of an imaginary fragrant camellia and curled around a woody, fiery and sweetly leather-flecked heart.

Don’t be fooled. This jasmine can s-i-n-g, hitting that fabled F over C smack bang on those bright, pulsing quarter-note dots of beeswax and ambergris.

Maria_Callas_(La_Traviata)_2

Ecce La Diva

Ecce La Diva.

If you’re looking for the kind of drop dead glamourie that sweeps up its audience in a swoon, this is emphatically it. I’ve never smelled anything like it, and after this I don’t know why I’d even bother. The opening reminds me of those famous lines from Shelley’s Ozymandias, but with a twist:

Sniff on this art, ye mighty, and despair.

And then comes a slinky, silky feline on not-at-all stealthy paws and begins to purr, growl and roar right along with the jasmine in a duet to the death where neither will back down an inch. Ever.

The notes listing has ambergris (quite apparent) and civet, and I’ll come right out and say it: if you dislike civet, this will not change your mind. Civet happens to be one of my two most favorite animalic notes, but I’ve never, ever met a civet base note quite so lascivious? Lecherous? Licentious? as this one. This jungle cat is on the prowl looking for a decidedly different kind of carnal dinner for a fantasy blue movie rated a whole lot more than triple X.

Which is where Opus IX remains on this bathetic blonde for well over 24 hours. It’s the jasmine that gobbled up Manhattan before devouring Milano, Venice, Paris and London, until the civet jungle cat challenged her to a duelduet where they’ll both go down in fragrant flames – or crimes – of passion that might explicate the faint whiff of melancholy I detected in the far drydown.

Violetta expires – ah! The tragedy! – in the third act of La Traviata, right when all possibilities are opened up, when Alfredo returns, ‘Gran Dio … morir si giovane’, ‘Great God, to die so young…’, and just as the tragic Violetta, La Diva Callas, too, left this world far too soon, leaving behind, as all great artists do, a legacy of superlative musicality, a voice unlike any before or since and drop-dead, deathly intimidating glamour on top.

Some long, long time later came a perfume fully worthy of everything Maria Callas was and all she did – called Opus IX.

But somewhere between Maria Callas, my operatic memories and Opus IX, I have an urge to call it something else. A spin on another of her immortal arias, and with all due apologies for mangling the beautiful Italian language.

I’d call it ‘L’Incasta Diva’. ‘The Unchaste Goddess’.

Gaze upon her work, ye mighty, and despair.

Amouage Opus IX is available from First in Fragrance, Luckyscent and directly from the Amouage website.

www_amouage_opus_ix_01

Notes: Camellia, jasmine, black pepper, gaiac wood, leather, beeswax, vetiver, ambergris and civet.

Disclaimer: A sample of Opus IX was sent by Amouage for review. With thanks to the Very August Personage. And the ghost of a diva.

Illustrations: Caricature of Maria Callas by Al Hirschfeld, 1958. Photo of Maria Callas in the Royal Opera House 1958 production of La Traviata. Photo of the Library Collection Opus IX, Amouage. Used by permission.

Lessons in Liquid & Solid

liquidgold

– some thoughts a bit past the Genie’s fifth blogoversary

Once upon a storied time when I still had a few illusions left, I sat one (very) hot, humid late night in August after my third or maybe fourth glass of wine and thought a very heretical thought.

Ya know…

I said out loud although I was alone in the room,

I could always start a perfume blog. What’s the worst thing that could happen? I could learn to become a better writer, what the hey.

At that particular time in my life, I had all of five bottles of perfume in my cabinet. Two vintage bottles of Balmain Ivoire and Lancôme’s Magie Noire respectively, a bottle of Antica Farmacista’s Mandarine Bourbon, Chanel no. 19 in eau de parfum and a bottle of Jacomo’s Silences. And that was it, the sum total of my less-than-spectacular perfume collection. In short order, I registered a blog with Blogspot and thought no more about it until the next morning when I saw my notebook by my desk and my hastily scrawled notes – and remembered.

Just as I recently realized with a jolt… that was five years ago!

Yet even then, I couldn’t (wouldn’t?) take it seriously. Because really – what were the odds? Yes, I had been a lifelong perfume lover/aficionado (all my mother’s fault, just like my coloring, my (lack of) height and my Aries Moon impatience). I had been reading perfume blogs since around 2006 – Perfume Shrine, Grain de Musc, the Perfume Posse, Indieperfumes, Perfume Project NW – as an exercise in aesthetic and olfactory masochism of a most peculiar kind. In those days, you see, I had no perfume at all, so all I could do as I read was dream of all those tantalizing names; Tauer, Kern, Lutens, Malle, Aftelier…. and wonder at the perfumes they created. Along the way, I learned a lot. But reading perfume blogs and maintaining your own are two very different things.

So I began by imitating/plagiarizing those blogs I loved to read. So I thought. Only to find that not even perfume gets a (bad) writer down, and I had a voice that would o-u-t no matter what I did right from the start.

Since then, it’s been one wild ride… into the unknown, into places and on to connections I never knew my pathetic perfume writing could reach or I could ever attain.

The Big Fat Why

Not so long ago, I was asked a pertinent question by my employer, who had no use for my writing skills whatsoever yet recognized a Looney Tune when he saw one.

‘Why the hell do you write about perfume?’

I had no time to think of a well-considered answer, and if I did, I might have answered differently. Instead, I blurted “Because it’s the only thing I’ve ever done that got any kind of reaction.”

Which is not entirely true. Yet this much certainly is: Writing about perfume has made things possible in my life I could never, never, ever have imagined that Zinfandel-sozzled summer night and given me something I sorely needed at the time, the confidence to Go For It. As a writer, as a woman, as a fabulous nobody who just possibly might have something worthwhile to say and have the chutzpah to chase it where it took her.

In these past five years, I’ve tried to do just that. I’ve smelled olfactory marvels that have rearranged my mental furniture for good, and I’ve smelled stellar fumes from people not even you have ever heard of, as well as funktastic stink bombs from favorite perfumers. I’ve torn my hair out in front of my laptop trying to find the ‘right’ words to convey my impressions, and I’ve thrown out the rule book of perfume writing and written story reviews when the mood – or the perfume! – struck me, since I believe that narratives can speak volumes about a perfume a straight-up review never could.

It was my party and I could write if I wanted to…

Ch-ch-c-hanges

Since I first began five years ago, perfume blogs have exploded. There are now more blogs to read, to follow or to watch than ever before. Vlogging on YouTube is now a thing, and some do this horribly and others are marvels of both personality and talent. In the bad old days, which would be four short years ago, I spent a good two hours a day reading my way through my favorite blogs from some of my favorite writers, commented if and when I could, and a few scant hours later, I’d be burning the midnight oil writing my own reviews.

These days I’ve reached the conclusion that no matter what I do, I can’t keep up. I’m still not sure whether this is a good or a bad thing, but from my other writing, I’m guessing it’s a good thing. For one thing, it keeps me focused on the essentials, instead of mindless lemming-chasing the Next New Thing.

Then again, we all have opinions, and they all stink!

These days, my own perceptions of perfume and certainly my tastes have changed to an alarming degree. Had you told me five years ago that I would love ambers with a fury and certain no-holds-barred opulent orientals with a fanaticism that borders on neurosis, I wouldn’t have believed you. Perfumes I originally loathed I now love, and others I really liked at certain times I can’t stand in a five-mile radius. Given that my first instinct five years ago was to love everything I encountered on principle, this, too, is a kind of progress.

Niche – Schmiche

Five years ago, being a niche perfume company held a certain magical cachet; a promise of the new, the different, the non-commercial, the artistic, the road less traveled in perfume and with a price tag to match.

Here we are five years later, and the term ‘niche’ has become such a commonplace, throwaway phrase in perfumery as to become virtually meaningless, and whatever prestige the term once conveyed has been watered down to something so safe I’m positive the IFRA approves. Even perfumistas get confused about the difference between ‘niche’ and ‘indie’. My own definition – which has helped me sleep at night – was formulated over the course of a long conversation with a perfumista friend and is as simple as it is informative about the true state of ‘niche’:

$$$$$. Which is to say… Money. No more, no less.

In other words, a company is niche if it has financial backing from other sources, and indie if there’s no financial backing at all. Tom Ford, Serge Lutens, By Kilian, Roja Dove etc. etc…. are niche.

Amouage, Tauer Perfumes, Neela Vermeire Crèations, vero profumo, Papillon Perfumes, Aftelier, DSH Perfumes, Opus Oils, Olympic Orchid Perfumes… to name just a few of my own dearly beloved names, are indie.

It’s that simple, people. Anything else is more marketingese intended to bamboozle the masses and impress the gullible. Which is really all you need to know, because what matters – all associations of luxury, exclusivity and artistry aside – is the juice.

These days, there’s no shortage of niche perfume houses out to part us fools with our money. Niche has become Really Big Business, and even masstige and designer houses have been forced by necessity and maybe a few pithy perfume blog posts to sit up and pay attention, because trends start here – and in indie perfumery, too.

After all this time, the rest of the world is catching up, and even Chanel and Dior now have exclusive ‘niche’ lines in their collections with higher price tags and a bit more thought put into their creations, or so it seems to me.

Free Lunch? Anyone?

Since 2011, I’ve been in the utterly shameless self-promotion business. I’ve tagged every single brand I’ve ever reviewed everywhere I could on social media, regardless of whether I received any kind of response or not. In most cases, this has landed me on the maps of several storied companies who now send me samples of new work for review, and before I shoot myself in the mouth here, let me say this:

I’m so grateful, it’s pathetic.

I’m not one of those bloggers – and they’re everywhere in the blogosphere, no matter what the subject matter – who takes such things for granted. Yet I’m only too aware this is a definite two-way street and as for that free lunch… fuggedaboutit!

Because who doesn’t want a great review?

Perfume brands need PR and a bit of buzz, and blog owners and writers like followers and being ‘in on the know’ of Hot New Releases. Some blog owners are invited to opulent launches (with swag bags) and other fragrant happenings, and others, myself included, are invited only to ponder the true meaning behind the abbreviated letters F and U for not being important enough.

If we are, we’re treated with a certain amount of condescension for daring to write about perfume despite our lack of training/knowledge/sub-par Klout scores. Or else – and this has happened to me, too – being castigated for our own <ahem> idiosyncratic perspectives.

Since I experienced Pitti Fragranze in 2013 and the scales really fell from my eyes about the perfume industry, I’ve learned the hard way not to pay attention to those.

Life is just too darn short for that amount of aggravation. Yet gratitude alone does not a review write, and I have enough stuffed steamer trunks of guilt trip over my backlog for several lifetimes.

Courtesy, politesse, gentilezza

My late beloved stepfather, a first-generation American of impeccable Maltese and Sicilian ancestry, once said courtesy is under-rated. Both my stepfather and my mother instilled an acute degree of courtesy somewhere in my epigenetic DNA: At least you can be charming. If that’s impossible, you should be pleasant as well as polite. Should that prove too hard, remove yourself from the situation before it escalates.

To the best of my knowledge and with relatively few exceptions on TAG at least, I’ve tried (and sometimes failed – that damn Aries Moon!) to live by those words. I save the majority of my snark for a few trusted friends.

Oh. Yes.

Sometimes, I’ve also been carried away by a sense of despair over the lack of imagination a perfume can provide, and a few of those times, I’ve let rip. Sarcasm can be so cathartic, if I think it’s justified. Having said that, most of the time I’ve at least tried to understand the concept of a perfume, even if I could never wear it and even, which has also happened, when I hated it.

Which was only polite, after all.

The Great, the Bad and the Ugly

The Great

Of all the things I love about perfume besides chronic indecision on what to put on in the morning (or evening!), my absolute and essential favorite thing about it is without question or quarter the people involved.

I’ve said it before and I’ll likely say it again:

Perfume people are the best people in the world.

In fact, I can say almost without exaggeration that without generosity of the international perfume community, this financially challenged blogger, relatively speaking, would not be blogging at all. (More on that in a bit.) I have no perfumery stores selling anything other than designer wares nearby, I can only rarely afford to send for sample sets of the type of perfumes I would like to write about, and although Copenhagen has really upped the ante since I began writing about perfume, Copenhagen is not London, Paris or even Stockholm.

My own journey down this odiferous rabbit hole began with a super-generous sample pack from a particular favorite fragrant friend of mine, namely the all-round awesomely talented Ellen Covey of Olympic Orchids and Perfume Project NW.

In late 2010, Ellen and her luscious orchid-inspired works were almost occult (she’s since become an indie superstar, and deservedly so), but if anyone at all ‘made’ me a perfume writer, it would be Ellen. Those samples arrived right at the time I had almost given up hope of ever sniffing a fragrant epiphany again, and those small sample vials were stuffed with epiphanies. They ignited my imagination in ways I had never quite encountered before, and have been setting me alight ever since. One of my greatest fragrant treasures is a base note olfactionary Ellen was sweet enough to make for me in the very early days of the Devilscent Project.

I’ve used that olfactionary for nearly all my reviews since.

Ever since, the connections, the emails, the Facebook PMs, the Skype conversations, the letters, the postcards, the… OMG, the way my relationship with the contents of my mailbox has changed!… the people!!!

Have done so very much to enrich, improve and elevate my humdrum existence to where I can not just imagine but create a future, when at the time I began my perfume writing I was beginning to feel that any ‘future’ at all was a highly dubious prospect.

I count myself immensely lucky to have perfumista friends – some of them bloggers, some of them not – as dear to me as family, and some I even consider relations in all but blood. I have standing invitations on five continents. For a former jaded misanthrope living in the left armpit of northwestern Europe with very few local social ties and in 2011/2012, a totally unraveling life, this means so very much more than I have the words to say.

Simply put, I found my tribe, and just how epic is that?

The Bad

Maybe it’s because I have too much myself (as my mother would have said), but one thing about Planet Perfume grinds me to a fine and dusty powder – the general lack of imagination among many so-called ‘perfumers’. That fug I encountered in Florence – the pervasive smell of eau de niche or should that be eau de nihilism? – has not grown smaller these past two years. The brands that completely blow me away are the brands that have consistently blown me away nearly from the beginning, and new epiphanies are getting harder to find. Starting with…

Oud. Enough of the ‘oud’. I have HAD it with oud, and oud wannabes. Just stop. Thank you.

Jasmine sambac as a note (there are one or two exceptions) hates me, and it’s mutual. I’ll take grandiflorum any day…

Over-priced perfume lines. Since I can’t afford any of it, unless a fellow perfumista friend makes me an offer I can’t refuse, I have my own bs price limit set somewhere in the general vicinity of around 400€. Even then, if I did have that kind of disposable income, I’d think again before I hit the ‘Buy Now’ button. If I did, I’d certainly expect an out-of-body experience, an Exorcist moment where my head rotates 360 degrees and I can’t even think. My sorrow to say, this hasn’t happened. Sometimes, a luxe price tag is just too damn much to pay. Besides, with all the incredible talent floating around in the indie world, why would I?

The Ugly

Five years of perfume writing will inevitably land you the occasional WTF moment. One of those was an email from a peeved reader who was mightily irritated I wasn’t a ‘usual’ perfume blog. Err… was I holding a gun to this person’s head muttering ‘read this or die’? No. I can laugh about it now – in no small part thanks to all the encouragement I received when I went public on Facebook with it, but that day, I was more than a little upset.

It never ceases to amaze me just how snarky and cut-throat competitive some bloggers can be, not just in their reviews but in person. If relevancy is measured in hit counters, media PR, being invited to the ‘right’ launches, free samples, bottles galore and blog stats, then I am a dismal, abject failure and should just slink away and die already. Five years on, rumors of my demise have been grossly exaggerated. I’ll never forget one moment in Florence, at a taxi stand with a celebrated perfume rockstar, laughing and talking, when one likewise celebrated blogger walked up in search of a taxi and frantically had to rearrange her mental furniture that someone so famous and distinctive was having a grand time deigning to speak with fabulous nobody me. The rockstar and I laughed all the way to a Centro Storico café, and have laughed about it several times since.

The less I can say about the over 1500 new releases in 2015 alone, the better. When does it end? Does it ever?

Honorable Mention

The problem with being a semi-cynical post-punk catastrophe is never, ever taking anything at face value. After I had reviewed Amouage’s Fate as two separate story reviews, I received a Twitter DM from a certain Luca Turin. It took not a little convincing on his part to tell me that yes, this was Luca Turin himself. He didn’t say so, but from our conversation – prompted by Amouage’s RTs of my reviews, bless ‘em – I gathered he was neither impressed, entertained nor amused by my verbal prowess. Dear readers, I felt as if I had arrived!😉

I do get feedback on my reviews from the perfumers and brands I’ve reviewed, and mostly, it’s been illuminating, constructive and encouraging. But one of those emails in particular was so lovely, so wonderful and so important to me (since I had dreamed of these perfumes for years) I had it printed (I don’t own a printer) and framed. It now hangs on the wall in my bedroom and is among the first things I see every morning.

Those are the moments when beauty is its own reward.

Future Music

The astute reader – and those who follow TAG on Facebook and elsewhere – will have noticed that my blog posts have become fewer and farther between in this past year. It was partly despair on ever clearing my backlog, partly a huge workload, partly a severe crisis of confidence I’d ever write anything at all worth reading after the debacledisaster of publishing my first novel, but more than anything else, it was this:

Why? I’d happily promote the brands and the names I believe in, but it would never amount to anything anyway, and there’s lots of new blogs out there who do it miles better than me and even several old ones I read in awe, and is free PR even worth the free samples and… Argh. I suck. I should just pack it in. Instead of being a fabulous nobody, I should just drop the ‘fabulous’. Nobodies don’t have to review perfumes, don’t have snark-breathing dragons on their case about when the review will be up, and. And. I suck.

It was – I swear on my Serges – truly that awful.

Then, three things happened in fairly short order, but first, let me explain…

In the five years I’ve been writing about perfumes, I’ve been the lucky recipient of an unholy amount of packages, letters and boxes. Most of them come with personal notes, postcards and letters attached. I have kept every single one of those notes and letters, and on the dormer wall next to my desk in my living room I have a Wall of Fame (illustrated below) with a selection of those notes, letters and postcards. (I’m trying to find a way to organize and display all of them.) There’s no hierarchy and no order, but each and every one – from brands, from bloggers, from friends, from perfumers and my fragrant ‘family’ in New York – is there to remind me of one important priority:

I would never have had them if not for perfume, and if not for my writing about said perfume. Maybe I need to be reminded that somewhere in cyberspace (on WordPress), there’s a blog that made a difference to a curious reader, or to a perfumer who was thrilled I ‘got’ them right or outraged I got it wrong.

A portion of the TAG Wall of Fame

The TAG Wall of Fame

Maybe I need to be reminded that I have made a difference?

Not so long ago, that was precisely what happened. A diehard perfumista, a very dear friend and long-term reader/fan of TAG PMed me on Facebook to ask what was up. I told him the Reader’s Digest version of what you’ve just read.

I was floored to even hear from him (I haven’t been much on Facebook, either), flabbergasted he’d asked and completely blown away when he said:

It would be an awful shame to lose your unique voice.

Which was when I glanced up at that Wall of Fame, at all the ‘Love you!s’, ‘Stay fab!”s Best Wishes, Big Hugs and xoxoxos, from rockstar brands and rockstar perfume people and fellow bloggers and friends and…

Broke down and cried. Deep down in that black and cynical heart I call my own, I knew he was right. I knew that writing about perfume has given me so much more than I could ever have imagined in my wildest, wine-soaked fantasies one August night five years ago. Some of my superlative best writing has been about perfume, since it has given me the perfect place to plant my passion for history, literature and art. In one handy liquid package – perfume. That has to mean something.

Also, this past summer, I’ve fallen in love for the first time in fifteen years. Madly and mutually and I haven’t had this much fun since… well, fifteen years ago. So I’ve allowed myself this summer idyll of dolce far niente. The niente is still very dolce (with no end in sight), but this is not how perfumes get reviewed on TAG.

Which is why I’m slowly but surely edging back in with a few things from my backlog and a few screaming hot new releases. Stay tuned.

Once upon a time, I said that all good things in my life have come through perfume. It seems a few more good things are still to come.

Thank you ALL – readers, friends, bloggers, brands and fragrant family – for sticking around long enough to see it happen.

I❤ you all!

_________________________________________________________

Correction: The first published version of this post stated erroneously that Amouage was a (my definition) niche house. Amouage – one of my most favorite brands of all time – is an indie luxury brand. The text has been amended to reflect this, and I stand corrected. 

 

 

A Devil, of a Dude

THE DEVILSCENT PROJECT XVI

devscent

– what happens when a dude meets the (liquid) Devil

Dear readers,

It’s that witchy hour of darkness right before the birds herald the sunrise, when even in the city that quietude sighs, breathes and all the world is cool and still, when a starless, dark sky hovers on the purple-cobalt blue edge of enlightenment, and very few creatures stir in the shadows.

This is when I slither in and insinuate myself between the empty spaces on a shadowy sidewalk, when I wind my way up the stairs to the Genie’s garret and expect to find a woman dreaming beneath her Fleurs d’Orangers scented feathers, guarded by a fat, jealous, orange-yellow cat.

This summer night, wafts of elderflower and night-scented stock wend their way in through the windows open to the courtyard below, Janice Divacat mewls in her sleep, and Hairy Krishna sighs in his own, rolls over on his back and snuggles closer to the Genie.

Only this night, she no longer sleeps alone with just her cats to guard her. This time, this night, something tall, hirsute, dark-haired and emphatically male has wrapped himself around her other side to keep the dragons and chimaeras from her dreams.

I call him the Dude. He has other names and other avatars, treads his path carefully around chimaeras and dragons of his own and others’ making, but… he’s definitely a dude. The Dude.

He and the Genie go back, as they say, not because they have a history – although they do – but because they have seen each other through disasters and miracles and laughed and cried and talked as they did, and all the while, a friendship was cemented and a connection maintained, and sometimes, being all in one to a writer is even too big a burden for this muse to bear, so I nudged a few things along in a few right directions, just to get that party started.

It was either that or hang the ‘crazy cat lady’ sign on the door, and between you and me, that would be a shame. She was already in mortal danger of blowing away like a desiccated Rose of Jericho in a hard desert wind, of losing her hopes for the future and her future dreams of glory, and her far more secret dreams, the ones she never tells anyone but me.

For contrary to what you might believe, the Genie is not all self-motivated and self-directed, but thrives on feedback and external energy sources and again between you and me, she’s suffered from an appalling, all-encompassing lack of faith in her ability to ever write anything meaningful again after her dreadful experience with publication.

She needs other people to kick her and prod her and galvanize her into action, so I located a friend who’s had a monumental crush on her for years, and instead of seeing a great and truly platonic friend, one night she looked up and saw the human equivalent of a gourmet chocolate truffle (and a decidedly Plutonic Scorpio, because she has a thing for those), saw past her own objections and dilemmas, and thought…

Why not?

They’re both there to heal each other, and while I can’t tell you whether or not it will last since that’s not the point, I can tell you in no uncertain terms that neither of them will be quite the same for it, and that, too is my reward for pushing a few obstacles out of the way to make something happen, something good, something… that might well lead to new stories, new reviews, new books for new audiences in new locations.

Which is my whole raison d’être in a nutshell.

So lately, the Genie’s garret has sounded more like a pigeon coop in spring, just with twice the amount of billing, cooing and telepathic Scorpio stares. There’s no talking to either of them these days. It would be fair to say they’re not even in the same galactic neighborhood as the rest of us.

But a Muse has gotta do what a Muse has gotta…. etc., and one evening, the Genie realized that for the first time in her life, she had the perfect excuse to bombard a dude with perfume. Not just any old perfume but Devilscents, just to sit back and admire the fireworks. To hear what he would say and what he thought about them, to discover whether her perfumers as well as her brief had managed to capture lust, love and redemption in liquid filigree, essence and absolutes.

To make sure he parked his preconceptions by the wayside, she even took the precaution of blindfolding him, so he wouldn’t be distracted.

What follows below is an abbreviated version of the running commentary on five Devilscents, five because eighteen were made and a dude can only handle so much at one time. Other posts could follow if her backlog doesn’t get in the way, but my job – if I have one – is to inspire, sit back and admire all the fireworks I’ve instigated.

All four of these perfumes have been reviewed by the Genie (you’ll find the titles linked to the relevant posts), yet these aren’t her reviews but the Dude’s.

The Elegant Dev – Neil Morris Fragrances Dev #3

“If this is Dev, then he’s a slick bastard.”

“So slick, he slides up walls.”

“No, I mean… this is the urbane Dev, the metropolitan Dev, the guy all those women say they want, but secretly aren’t sure they can handle. Hmm… it smells dangerous, swellegant, dead-sexy… no, make that smexy – I like smart AND sexy – and expensive and like a whole lot of heartbreak in there, somewhere.”

“Hers, maybe?”

“No. His. Who’s to say even the Devil’s heart can’t be broken? How would you know? I mean… he’s the Devil, for crying out loud. Everyone suspects he doesn’t have a heart, since he’s Evil Incarnate, but what if he does? And she breaks it?”

“Milton said he did. But you don’t know how it ends.”

Yet. But this perfume is a great start. Very expensive, very deadly, very alluring sins all wrapped up in one literal helluva perfume. I’d wear it, but I’m not sure it wouldn’t wear me. Maybe that’s the point. Find me at the bar exuding testicular ‘tude. Call me Damien. I promise to text you the next morning. With something so twisted, you can never, ever tell a soul.”

“I promise I’ll be grateful.”

“No, you won’t. But you won’t forget it, either.”

The Hungry Dev – House of Cherry Bomb Dev

“Caramel and chocolate and wow, heat! An awful lot of heat. Hand over the chocolate and no one gets hurt. It’s making me crave chocolate. And things that remind me of chocolate but aren’t precisely… edible. I smell hunger. I smell rock’n’roll. More danger. A dangerous hunger, maybe? It could be a hunger for food, or the other kind. Wait. Screw the food. This is definitely the other kind.”

“The other kind?”

“You know. The kind that makes you bite and scratch and want to tattoo yourself all over someone else’s skin. That kind. The kind that makes you lose control of everything, anything, the kind that changes history and everything you thought you knew. The kind that burns it all to the ground, the kind that burns you to the ground. Once you’re all ashes and embers, there you are – ashes and embers. Done for. Ruined. Spoiled for anything else. Except these embers never die. So long as you hand over all the chocolate, just in case. For as long as you crave that burn. Which you will. Forever.”

The Fiery Dev – Olympic Orchids Dev #2

“<unrepeatable language>. WHAT is THAT? That’s just… wrong! That’s just so wrong and so … wrong, and holy <bleep>, is it scary! Eeeeep. Give me a minute here. Geez. There should be laws. Has this perfume been banned by Pope Francis yet? He totally should. And the UN. Not to mention NATO. This perfume is a biohazard. Meaning it’s hazardous to any female who sniffs it. I don’t even want to know how you can have this in your perfume cabinet without encasing it in lead.”

“That would be a bit counter-productive.”

“True. For one thing, I’d never get a decant. You’re giving me some, right? I mean, I’ve got to test-drive this on a receptive audience.”

“That was last night.”

“The Devil made me do it.”

“No, he didn’t. You made you do it. Or we made us do it, same thing.”

“Not true. This perfume did. O…………K. I’ll behave, I promise. Actually, I promise to do everything this perfume promises. It’s white hot, fire and brimstone, off-the-charts erotic stuff. Lethal stuff – hell, they all are. But this… this kills it for me. I’ve never, ever smelled anything like it. I kind of hope I never will. On anyone else who isn’t me. Or Dev.”

“In which case, I can’t be held responsible for the consequences.”

“Great! We’ll send out for pizza and live horizontal lives.”

“I have to write, you know.”

“I’ll buy you a Dictaphone. And a secretary to transcribe. But you’re not allowed to leave. It’s that kind of perfume.

The Anticipation Will Kill Me – Neil Morris Fragrances Midnight at the Crossroads Café.

“Man. This is… something else. This is… what anticipation smells like. It smells like how those old blues records you play sound. Like this is something mere mortals never know, and probably couldn’t handle if they did. It’s dark and spicy and it’s delicious, and just maybe they’re the same thing, but you’re hooked into it, you can’t leave and don’t want to, because that road up ahead says “Perdition Avenue”, and you’re like… yupp, that’s where I’m going, because that’s where all the fun is. Redemption, schmedemption. There’s no such thing anyway. So go ahead. Follow the magic footprints right down to the crossroads of Perdition Avenue and Jeopardy Lane, sit down, drink the wine and live, whydoncha?”

“So whydoncha?”

“Because I like it when the anticipation will kill me. It always does. And because no matter what I anticipate, reality always trumps it. But that whole idea… you know it will be gruesome, you know it will be terrible, you know it in your bones even… and you do it anyway, because hey… you can’t not.”

“Which was the general idea.”

“No. That’s the reality of these perfumes you ended up with.”

The Melancholy Dev – Olympic Orchids Dev #4

“Ah. Man. More heartbreak. This is an aftermath perfume… the ‘it’s all over now’ scent. It’s grounding and sort of comforting, but there’s a lot of tears in there somewhere. Tears the color of India ink. It’s sort of moody and introverted and introspective and ummm… melancholy? Yeah! That’s it! It wants to be Dev #2, but of course, you can’t go back, you never can, so we end up at heartbreak. I say that if these perfumes are anything to go by, Dev did have a heart, and it was broken. Only he’s too cool and too proud to ever admit it, so he sulks inside this green-black cloud. I’ll tell you this – it’s some cloud! Bring your own thunderstorm. Or just your own tornado. Brace yourself for the consequences.”

“That C word again.”

“Not my favorite one. It’s a dark, dense, twisted forest of a perfume. Like bottled Mirkwood. With added heartbreak.”

“Is that all?”

“That’s all. And that’s enough. It’s already much more than I deserve.”

“Deserving had nothing to do with it.”

“No, but you did.”

I’d better go. The sun is just up, and pretty soon, the Genie will be getting ready for her day before she wakes him up for his own with a cup of coffee, and they’ll waltz through their week, surviving on sunbeams, suggestions and highly salacious text messages, like all twenty-first century lovers everywhere, like all those stories throughout time, borne on the heated scents I inspired through all those likewise infernally inspired perfumers called the Devilscents.

Dev.

Neil Morris Fragrances Dev #3 and Midnight at the Crossroads Café are available by special request through the Neil Morris website’s Vault Collection. Olympic Orchids’ Dev #2 and #4 are available through the Olympic Orchids’ website. House of Cherry Bomb’s Dev is available at the House of Cherry Bomb studio in Bushwick, and by special request.

With thanks to the Dude. Who said that was so much fun, they really should do that again…