A Numinous Light

– a review of Olympia Orchids’ ‘Kyphi’

A while ago, I commented on Doc Elly’s blog, Perfume Project NW, on what constitutes “art”, prompted by the heated debates on many blogs over Juliette Has a Gun’s launch of ‘Not A Perfume’. For doing so, Doc Elly was generous enough to send me a bunch of samples, and despite the deluge of international Christmas mail, it arrived today. There was a lot of goodwill and no fewer goodies in that box, goodies which will be reviewed here over the next few weeks, and that, dear readers, is a definite promise!

Meanwhile chez Maison Tarleisio, I had a dead-curious six-year-old and a no less curious cat – the fiendish ginger Hairy Krishna – all over the box. The boy was disappointed it was full of “girlie stuff” (“Eww!”), and the cat wanted to eat the Styrofoam packing peanuts and chew the bubble wrap, before trying to plant his not inconsiderable backside inside the box, which he did – and promptly got stuck. As the cat took off with a cardboard box attached to his posterior, the kid took off after the cat, and at long last I had a chance to study the contents. One of them in particular caught my eye – her recreation of “Kyphi”, the Greek name for an incense and perfume formula that the Egyptians called Kapet.

Given I’m the kind of ancient history and/or ancient perfume nutcase who reads Dioscurides and Theophrastus for fun, this was quite possibly the Best Belated Christmas Present ever.

In his “Travels”, Plutarch mentions that three types of incense were burned in Egyptian temples – frankincense at dawn, myrrh at midday, and kyphi at dusk. Kyphi was also used as a medicine and a perfume. The earliest extant recipe – and there are a few – dates to 1500 B.C.E. Kyphi recipes contain mastic, pine resin (or wood) camel grass, mint, sweet flag and cinnamon among them, and all recipes feature some variety of wine, raisins and honey.

Well, dear readers, it was time to take the plunge…and delve into the riddle that is “Kyphi”.

So I did, and in nothing flat, a drab, frosty and foggy late-December day disappeared in a flash, along with drooping Christmas decorations, a cat in a cardboard box and the boy trying to catch him.

Do you believe in ghosts, or in the ghostly auras the past can leave behind in certain locations? The centuries-old atmosphere of an old, old European church, the very walls breathing in devotion, exhaling calm. There is a very particular atmosphere associated with such places – not just churches, but stone circles and nemetons and even – coming from one of the world’s leading bog body locations – bogs and marshes and forest groves, a definite delineation of sacred space apart, of other…otherworldy, otherwise, non-mundane.

The Romans, not the least superstitious people in history, had a term reserved for that which is so sacred, it can’t be contained in an image or a statue or indeed anything manmade. The especially revered was called “numen”, which gives us our present word of numinous – that which inspires devotion and awe and an uneasy tinge of fear of the supernatural.

I visited one such numinous place, a place so powerful, it hit my consciousness like a bell being rung loud and clear, the stones, the thyme growing in clumps between the rocks, the very mountain – Mount Parnassus – behind me emanating sacred space. That was Delphi, famous for its oracle, its prophetess, famous as the location where the god Apollo slayed the monster Pytho and established his temple. With one spray of an atomizer, I was back there in an instant, standing at the spot in the Temple of Apollo above the crevasse in the rocks where the Pythia inhaled nebulous fumes and proclaimed her oracles to the listening priesthood who interpreted them for the pilgrims.

Doc Elly’s “Kyphi” smells like nothing else I have ever tried, and I’m getting slightly jaded by now. Not like “perfume”, not like incense, not like anything earthly, which makes it a howling success right there. It is time travel in an atomizer, taking me back to a different time and a different world, a world where there was less of a disconnect between the human and the divine, a world less sanitized and deodorized, when scent was the original hotline to the Gods and the original sacrifice. There is frankincense in there, certainly, and I’m guessing myrrh which adds a contemplative air, and something that reminds me of fresh laurel leaves – galbanum? A touch of pine or cedar? Cinnamon too, I think, but forget everything you know about cinnamon and pomanders – this is a dry, airy cinnamon that hints of desert and sand and time. Above all else, forget everything you know about perfume categories – this is not floral, not green, not resinous (although that likely comes closest) or aquatic. If I had to put a label on it, I’d say it smells human in the best sense of the word – toiling below time, but aspiring to the stars above. It put me in touch with memories I had all but forgotten, a place I remembered and times I surely never did, but there is some ancient soul memory in that little bottle, some golden, shimmering thread linking me to the best of my aspirations and abilities.

If this version of “Kyphi” had another name, it should be “Namaste”, which just to mix metaphors translates from Sanskrit as “I salute the divine within you”, and so it did.

In a mundane world that sometimes threatens to smother me in the ordinary and everyday, that is no small feat. Just as I treasured the trip through the warp and weft of time and space, I shall treasure this little bottle – for saluting what I had evidently forgotten.

Wow. Doc Elly blew me away and blew my mind today, and that happens not nearly enough any more. Such a talent should be appreciated, but don’t take my word for it. Get thee posthaste to Olympic Orchids, dear readers, and try them for yourselves! You won’t regret it, that I can promise you.

I shall be reviewing more of Doc Elly’s perfumes later – watch this space!

Image: Lord Frederick Leighton, ‘The Spirit Of the Summit’ (1894)

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly – of 2010

Time for the nostalgia fit that is…the end is nigh! The end of 2010, the end of another year, yet another drip down the hourglass of the days of our lives. You will see it on virtually every other blog, the best, the worst, the fantabulous and the craptacular lists of things we loved, things we hated and things we hated to love and loved to hate.

Since this is me and I am nothing if not different, I decided to veer off in a different direction. Below, you’ll find my own list of things I loved and loathed in 2010, why I loved – or loathed – them, and what I’ll be looking forward to in 2011. Tomorrow is another day, as Scarlett O’Hara used to say, Saturday is another year, and when all is said and done, hope springs eternal and what lies ahead can only be an improvement on all I left behind.

The Best Reason To Be A Perfumoholic For Life:
The joy of new discoveries. Good, bad, terrible or indifferent, there’s always something New! Improved! Spectacular! Or…spectacularly over-hyped to be discovered, another blog that makes me think, laugh and try to track something down from my remote corner of BFE Planet Earth, another scent, another perfume, another way to slay the unsuspecting! How can that be bad?

The Worst Reason It Sucks To Be A Perfumoholic:
So many bottles, so little cash. So many difficult choices. The entire Amouage line, which I’m dying to try and haven’t…yet. On the upside, maybe that’s a good thing? Would there be anything worse than to fall in love – requited, if I’m lucky – and then not be able to afford it?

Best New Launch of 2010:
It was love at first sniff. The kind that made me slightly uneasy, the kind I’m not sure I should do, the kind of woman I’m not sure I am, but I don’t care, I don’t care, I want to throw all caution to the winds of fortune and fling myself right in the hurricane center path that is…Boxeuses, by Serge Lutens. The Serge Lutens line is no stranger to the Sex in a Bottle concept (which is another blog right there!), but Boxeuses is so totally, utterly not me. Yet it is. Totally. Utterly. Me. In leather and lace, being ever so nicely naughty…Some day, these plummy, smoky, leathery lady combatants will be mine. I shall henceforth leave a wake of devastating femme fatalities in my wake. Gentlemen, take note. Or take cover, your choice! I pack a punch, it will be fatal and resistance WILL be…futile!

Most Over-Hyped Launch of 2010:
Here’s something I don’t understand. You are a designer with a certain reputation for…iconoclasm, let’s say. In the clothes you once designed, in the perfumes that you launched, including the one that spawned a million imitators and created whole new trends in perfume. They love ‘em or they loathe ‘em, but they are not…indifferent. Or if they are, they certainly don’t blog about them! So then…time for the next surprise to spring upon an unsuspecting world – time to define…woman, bottled. Good luck with that one. They’re still digging for the last guy who tried. You then settle down with your perfumer (Fabrice Pellegrin) and you come up with…“Womanity”. The name is great, the bottle amazing in its sheer H.R. Giger-esque weirdness, but a name like that delivers certain expectations, expectations the juice alas did not deliver. What surprised me most is that it was so unisex. I could well imagine this on a whole slew of exes – the clean-cut, not-too outré gentlemen I used to go for. Sweet, citrusy fig. Salt/Caviar. It coulda been a contender, yet I am not…contented. For shame, Monsieur Mugler. Back to the drawing board for you. Now. Woman is spelled f-e-m-a-l-e. Write it down one hundred times on the blackboard. And start over. You gave us Angel. And Alien. You can do better. Prove it!

Most Unintentionally Hilarious Perfume Ad:
Marc Jacobs ‘Bang’.
Dude, I get it. You’re hot. Tattoos and all, and I like tats. You are not, however, channeling the immortal Yves Saint Laurent in that ad. He did it first – and also, I have to say, best, by applying a certain modicum of restraint and his own slightly geeky allure. On the other hand, who says it never pays to advertise? And with a name like ‘Bang’…I’d wipe the smirk off my face, but it refuses to budge…

Worst Flanker In Existence, As Well As A Terrible Idea, Terribly Executed:
YSL Parisienne. If the world had never known the violet-rose splendor that was ‘Paris’, this would not have been quite so painful. Alas, we did. Alas, it was. The murder/reformulation of the original ‘Paris’ was quite bad enough, but ‘Parisienne’ added insult to injury and rubbed salt in it, too.

Best Perfume Note I (Re)Discovered:
Incense. Oh, how I love thee. ‘Magie Noire’ was my gateway drug into all things smoky and fiery, but thankfully, it didn’t stop there. Andy Tauer’s ‘Incense Extreme’, Via del Profumo’s ‘Mecca Balsam’, CDG ‘Zagorsk’ and ‘Avignon’, Lutens’ ‘Encens et Lavande’ or just a few smoldering nuggets of real Omani divinity, spreading peace and contemplation and goodwill towards humanity – there’s no such thing as too much incense. It didn’t help I wrote a Faustian tale and gave the Devil an incense-heavy, heady scent which totally ruined my protagonist – for life. And that scent has yet to be created. So, darling Andy, I have this idea…

Most Overdone Perfume Notes:
Anything berry-fruity aligned with anything patchouli. I. Am. Not. A. Twenty/Teenie Demographic. I. Am. A. Woman. Damn. It. Read. This. Roar. Why do perfumers – most of them at any rate – appreciate us so little, when we have loved you so long? And….Ambroxan. Skin. Amber. Floral. All in one handy combo that’s added to everything and clean musk, and makes me want to hurl bricks at glass facades, starting with Juliette Has A Gun. JHAG gave me the dearly beloved dark red-velvet Goth rose that is ‘Lady Vengeance’, so ‘Not A Perfume’ happened because…why? It’s ‘Not A Perfume’ I’d ever buy.

Best Idea In The Perfume World, Ever:
Outlaw perfumes! All-natural, all artisanal perfumes created with the kind of dedication, love and care that perfumers used to have, but in this day and age of marketing brief, sadly no longer do. (For one, it doesn’t pay.) An extended middle finger (bear with me and my shady past as a punk, please) to IFRA regulations and restrictions. Sock it to me with oakmoss, people! I promise to claim full responsibility for any adverse effects, but I suspect only my credit card will break out in hives – or my bank manager.

Best Reason To Become A Perfume Blogger:
I have opinions and I’m not afraid to write about them. I have a lot to learn and I’m not afraid to learn. I love new discoveries, new words, new worlds, new connections and new friends with a common passion. How can that be bad? It gets even better. Dimitri of ‘Sorcery of Scent’ was courteous enough to tell me where to go for niche in my perfume desert. Bless you, Dimitri – and bless you, my fellow perfumistas, bloggers and readers! – for proving the thrills, the spills and the perils of living dangerously – through our noses!

Here’s to the many discoveries we have yet to try, to ponder, to discuss and to argue about – in 2011!

Gender Benders

Or how to be dangerous without really trying!

The Greek philosopher Theophrastus, in his ‘Enquiry Into Plants’, once categorically stated that floral-heady perfumes worked best for men, accentuating their masculinity, whereas heavier scents, such as spikenard, malabathrum and incense, worked best for a woman, an idea that these 2,500 years later seems to run counter to everything we take for granted in the world of perfume. Which only goes to prove just how much things have and haven’t changed since then. I’ve known plenty of men, some hypermasculine exemplars among them, who loved nothing more than, say, a lethal dose of ‘Shalimar’, and likewise, ladies who couldn’t get heady, heavy or potent enough.

Subversion, any former punk and present iconoclast will tell you, can be a wonderful thing. If by subverting certain preconceptions, as mildly or as wildly as you please, you can turn your world ever so slightly on its axis, if you can make your surroundings question their assumptions, then how can that possibly be bad?

Stick around the perfumed world long enough, and somewhere in the course of your passion, you will inevitably eye the other side of the gender divide of the perfume counter and wonder what things happen there.

Once upon a time, it was considered ever-so-slightly daring for a woman to wear a traditionally ‘masculine’ perfume. If it happened, it happened on the sly, admitted sotto voce, like the time I asked my then-teenaged sister what she was wearing, and she whispered ‘Obsession for Men.’ How scandalous! How brave! How…delicious!

Delicious, to immerse yourself in the world of fougères and woods, green and spices, to disconcert your environment that expected something floral and frilly and feminine. Just as white tie and tails – or Yves Saint Laurent’s famous ‘le smoking’ – turned a traditionally masculine concept completely on its head and accentuated sexy femininity, so can ‘masculine’ scents present a double threat – an aura that should be a butch testimony to testosterone, and instead is a testimony to female.

These days, of course, it doesn’t matter any more. In all fairness, as one famous perfumer said, the only difference between men’s and women’s perfumes is – and has always been – the ‘Pour Homme’ printed on the label. Several lines make no distinction at all, and I don’t see why you should, either.

So, ladies – spray away. Go ahead. Live a little dangerously.You know you want to!

In my own perfumed life history, I’ve loved not a few masculines – loved them enough to wear them, to gift them to boyfriends, to have fun by experiencing everything they had to offer, and in so doing to come a little closer to what I love. Below follows a few of my favorites. Some are classics, some are divisive – all of them are devastating – on either gender!

The Classics
These are the Big Ones, the ones you can’t get around, the classics that have been filched from bathroom cabinets everywhere nearly since the launch date – they’re that good.

Eau Sauvage (Dior)
It may remind you of your father, it may remind you of Classic Cologne with capital Cs, but Edmond Routnitska’s Eau Sauvage was a groundbreaking scent for a reason. On women, this is Class with Sass.

Vetiver (Guerlain)
If you love Green Fiends, the kind of viridian perfumed statements that brook no arguments and take no prisoners, then Guerlain’s ‘Vetiver’ is for you. It was, in fact, my own gateway into masculines, and much later, Guerlain took note and created ‘Vetiver Pour Elle’. Surely, that was unnecessary. The original is perfect just as it is.

Mouchoir de Monsieur (Guerlain)
One of my two very first proper perfume purchases was ‘Jicky’, a ground-breaking revolution in a bottle. A fougére but not, a floral but not, a slightly leathery, elusive animal, it lives somewhere in between the spaces of its contradictions, just like its sibling, ‘Mouchoir de Monsieur’. Whereas Jicky is somewhat naughty and impetuous, ‘Mouchoir’ is rather more well-behaved. Which doesn’t mean it’s not just as naughty, in a good way.

The Subversives

L’Anarchiste (Caron)
You expect something unusual from a perfume called The Anarchist. Something Piotr Kropotkin would have worn. This is orange and spice and all things nice, and the most anarchistic thing about it is its name, for turning your expectations on their heads. Another way to circumvent convention, maybe?

M7 (Yves Saint Laurent)
I have a problem with oudh. Shoot me for my lack of perfumista sophistication if you must, but something about oudh gives me a headache. Unless, like here, it’s wrapped in the kind of woody rosemary-vetiver that sands down most of the medicinal edges to a smooth, glossy finish. On a man, this is devastating. On a woman, this is a definite threat. Wear wisely, or bear the consequences! 😉

The Modern Yet Timeless
Dior Homme (Dior)
Iris – in fact, orris root – can go in one of two directions to my nose. Either it nosedives into a hairspray vibe that turns my stomach no matter what I do (Prada’s ‘Infusion d’Iris), or it is stupendously, staggeringly beautiful in a way few other floral notes can capture. I love a few iris-laden perfumes, and of them all, Dior Homme is at the very top tier of that list. Why they call it ‘Homme’, I don’t know. Chilly – as iris often is – elegant, and timeless. And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better…Dior gave us-

Dior Homme Intense (Dior)
Dior Homme Intense is the dressed up for living dangerously sibling of Homme. I once managed to shock my (virtually shockproof) sister by drenching myself in this. This is heavier, an evening scent, if you will, with a definitely sweeter, smokier vanilla-cocoa vibe. I can only be grateful I have yet to meet it on an attractive man, because I’d eat him if he wore this. As it is, I can only just refrain from gnawing my own arm. Just.

Chêne (Serge Lutens)
Serge Lutens dispenses with gender labels altogether, and rightly so. Who cares? Wear what you love, but certain perfumes of his line tend to skew in either a feminine or a masculine direction, and certain others can read either way. I would never have guessed in a zillion years that I would fall so hard for a perfume, I’d write it into my novel, yet I did. A perfume named for a wood – oak – in all its sappy, smoky, slightly boozy manifestations, it is sexy on either gender. Perfect for days you feel the need for invisible armor. Wearing ‘Chêne’, I can handle anything. Anything at all.

Encens et Lavande (Serge Lutens)
Perfume names can be slightly misleading, to say the least. Yet ‘Encens et Lavande’ is perfectly named – incense and lavender. No more, no less, no need to gild this lily any further. It seems so simple and is incredibly complex, it is contemplative and it is comforting. Great on a guy, great on a gal, just plain…genius, any way you try it.

Traditional ‘masculine’ perfumes are often just as good – and in some cases better – on women, just as ladies in tuxes can be devastastingly feminine and more than slightly subversive. Marlene Dietrich in her white tie and tails could never be mistaken for anyone but Marlene Dietrich – beautiful, strong, slightly disconcerting yet still a Woman with a capital W, putting the ‘fatale’ in ‘femme’!

That’s at least part of the idea, right? 😉

Photo: Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg’s ‘Morocco’ (Paramount, 1930).

The Madonna of the Pinks

– A review of Caron’s Bellodgia
Soliflores can be tricky propositions, especially for those of us with short attention spans. Either too linear or too literal, too fleeting – or too much. If like me you have a penchant for certain odiferous blooms – in my case, lilies, roses, lilacs, wisteria, carnations, orange blossom to name but a few, it stands to reason that some days, you simply want to take that joy with you, hopefully without being bored halfway through the day.

Not so long ago, I went on an Oscar – as in Wilde – binge, and naturally enough, carnations popped up. But have you noticed something? Those rarified, ostentatious hothouse blooms have lost their scent these days. Even those glorious dark red carnations – surely a visual statement of no small order – don’t have much more than a fleeting, peppery note, nothing like the rich and heady flowers of Oscar’s day.

Failing the Real Thing, I next went on a mission to locate The Ultimate Bottled Carnation. Sadly, Floris’ ‘Malmaison’ has been discontinued, and good luck finding any – you’ll need it. Next up, I found Comme des Garçons Red Series 2 ‘Carnation’ – and thank you, Dimitri, for telling me where to locate it in my remote perfume desert. I spent an afternoon with it, and I’m telling you, if any perfume should be titled ‘Red’, or more likely, ‘Red Hot’, this is it. Wheee! Pepper and clove and Cinnamon with a capital C, this stuff puts the ‘carnal’ in carnation. Carnal or venal, I’m not sure which, but not for me. It nosedived into the pepper pot on my skin in a way I probably wasn’t sophisticated enough to appreciate, or maybe it was a question of time. The bottom line was…no.

I tried to locate Etro’s ‘Dianthus’, and just like with ‘Malmaison’, had rotten, lousy luck. It has also been discontinued.

Nina Ricci’s ‘L’Air du Temps’ – a classic for a reason – was another perfume that highlights carnation, and again – not for me. Almost anything my mother wore is by default out of the running. It just felt…wrong, like a four-year-old getting into Mommy’s lipstick and stilettos. I just wasn’t…woman enough!

Which was when I found Caron’s ‘Bellodgia’. Created in 1927 by Ernest Daltroff, it is considered one of the world’s finest carnations, created to evoke the town of Bellagio by Lake Como, ‘carnations soaked in sunshine’.

I took a deep breath, crossed my eyes and toes and wished for a birthday bottle of the eau de parfum.

Reading about a perfume and trying to evoke it in your olfactory imagination only gets you so far. It is…perfume by proxy, and nothing can quite prepare you for The Real Deal. Which explains the Try Before You Buy ethos of perfumoholics like myself, unless, also like me, you like surprises!

Therefore, it was with some trepidation I opened that birthday package, crossed my fingers and – sprayed. Yowza! What was that slightly…weird thing going on, that thing that said…PERFUME, BABY! The old-fashioned kind, the kind they don’t make like this any more, but right before I was ready to swallow my disappointment…it was National Carnation Day chez Maison Tarleisio, and the most opulent, heady, dizzying, erm, incarnation of well, pinks – of carnation and clove and thick, sweet vanilla, underscored by what to my nose smelled like rose, but according to the notes is actually lily-of-the-valley and jasmine – bloomed and radiated and emanated in all directions.

This was the carnation to slay all carnations, this was stupendously beautiful and viciously addictive. This carnation was a loyal soul – it never strayed and stuck like duct tape to my perfume-eating skin, finally drying down to a soft, powdery, mossy vanilla-clove-musk finish that on me reminds me of sandalwood, but sweeter, with a vanilla edge that is not at all gourmand but definitely edible. So good, I nearly wanted to eat my arm, or sub-contract the job to someone else who would. Nothing funereal about it in the slightest, but very much a living, breathing, emanating joy.

I’ve worn this at the height of summer, and I’ve worn this on icy, windy, snowy days and it behaves differently according to the weather. Heat amps up the floral notes, but on cold days, this is snuggly, vicuña comfort in a bottle. My five-year-old adores it. When I wear it, he can’t get close enough, so long as it’s on my lap and he can bury his nose in my neck. He likes most things I wear, but of them all, Bellodgia is his favorite. Eau de Maman, if you ask him. That is all, and for a five-year-old, that’s enough.

I haven’t had the opportunity to try this in parfum – vintage or reformulated – so I’m not in any position to say how much it’s been altered/ruined by reformulation. I’ve also read that in the newer eau de parfum, there is a green tea note, but I don’t get that at all. What I do get is a soliflore that holds my attention throughout the day, that is much admired by my surroundings for being in an entirely alternate universe from the usual perfumes of today, and that I have grown to love far more than I ever expected.

If Bellodgia were a painting, it would be the Raphael-attributed ‘Madonna of the Pinks’, for being so true to the scent of pinks, with their spicy, fiery heart, and if it were a Tarot Card, it would be the Major Arcana card called The Empress – the essence of motherly womanhood, caring, compassionate, comforting.

As it is, it’s what carnations are supposed to be, but sadly, no longer are. It is also what perfumes should be, and all too often, rarely are.

Image: The Raphael-attributed ‘Madonna of the Pinks’, National Gallery, London
Image of vintage Bellodgia parfum: Il Mondo di Odore

Notes according to Fragrantica:
Top notes: Carnation
Heart notes: Jasmine, lily of the valley
Base notes: Musk, clove and vanilla

Cloves But No Cigar

– A review of the reformulated ‘Coco de Chanel’

‘Tis a perilous business to venture into your local perfume store these days, perilous not because I might be tempted beyond endurance, but because I’m too afraid I’ll have hysterics over all the murder victims lurking on the shelves. Too many of my all time top-ten perfumes have been changed beyond recognition, indeed beyond repair in some cases, and sometimes, the thought makes me want to cry.

The other day I passed by one local store, and decided to bypass each and every one of the umpteen new releases and flanker editions that were even more boring than the originals. I did spray a few on paper I had somehow missed, to see if I had missed out. Among them Mugler’s ‘Womanity’ and ‘Alien’, which were neither so bad I wanted to run screaming out of the store, nor so good I was tempted. Of the two, I liked ‘Alien’ better, but man – the sillage! The sillage explains the name – surely this is intergalactic jasmine sambac sillage? This stuff could be used as an Ultimate Weapon of Mass Destruction. My eyes water just thinking about it.

Yves Saint Laurent Paris – the change apparent from the color scheme on the box – was once one of the most glorious rose-violet olfactory creations ever to grace yours truly – and loyal fans by the millions. No more. Now, ‘Paris’ is an anemic, wan shadow of her rosy-purple self, suitable only for tweenies with no discrimination, not even worthy of the name. No rose, less violet. Don’t even get me started on the abomination called ‘Parisienne’. Surely, Monsieur Saint Laurent is rolling in his grave? He would never have put his venerable name on that.

There was a rare bottle of Miss Dior of so many memories, not another version of ‘Miss Dior Chérie’, but plain and simple ‘Miss Dior’. My very first grown-up bottle of perfume. I tried to stop myself, really, I did. Resistance was futile. It would end in tears. I sprayed some on paper. Ah, the pain of it! They killed ‘Miss Dior’ and never bothered with a burial, but left her for the wolves of reformulation to rot in ignominy. Oh, the shame of it!

Somehow, I managed to compose myself, if barely. There were tears hiding just beneath the surface, but One. Must. Stay Calm.

On I sidled along the shelves, nope, not interested inn anything Boss Orange, or anything Cacharel. I had reached Chanel, and geez, how many ‘Chance’s can a customer stand? Chanel, one of the last independent major-league perfume houses on Planet Earth, should know better. I know I do – ‘you’re-SO-not-our-demographic, dahling’.

No. I know too much, I’m too old and too jaded. Past no. 19, known and loved to this day, and I don’t need another right now, the one I have at home is still going strong.

Which was when I saw it, when I had that Epiphany Moment. Making no fuss of itself, and looking nearly exactly the same as of yore, back in the day when neither fashions nor perfumes could have shoulders that were wide enough, sillage that was potent – enough. In those days, I wore it and some close cousins to give me that courage life had yet to teach me. So I told myself at the time, at least, but the simple fact was, I had a boyfriend at the time who liked Loud and Proud on me, and I did my best to oblige – with Paloma Picasso, YSL Paris, Cabochard, Magie Noire – and Coco de Chanel. All of them representing Liquid Courage, and none of them suited for blushing violets of any stripe.

Coco de Chanel was a constant companion and eternal favorite, a gloriously opulent Oriental that was the epitome of Classy-Sexy-Dame, a perfume even my notoriously fickle mother liked on me. That the sillage also slayed several boyfriends throughout the Eighties and early Nineties was only a bonus side effect.

Feeling like the last of the living Ostrogoths that day last week in the perfume shop, I decided to give it a go on my skin, to see if it could make me cry. I reached for the Eau de Parfum.

From that first and only blast it was apparent that it had been changed, certainly in the top notes. The peach is less obvious, the orange and mandarin not quite so noticeable and rich.

I told myself I wouldn’t cry. So I walked away and out the door and on to the other errands of my day.

Ten minutes later, that classic rosy Chanel note, this one accentuated with clove, cinnamon and orange blossom, bloomed forth and…took me away, to the woman I once was, before I lost most of my illusions. Cloves! Clover! It was all…still there, and not merely figments of my imagination.

Oh, yes! This was Coco all right, this wasn’t damaged beyond hope or repair, this was…seriously, why didn’t I own a bottle any more?

But Coco truly came into her own in the dry-down, when the labdanum, the opoponax, the sandalwood, amber and vanilla came to call. This was the eau de parfum, with more focus on those base notes, and they seemed to my uneducated nose to be as thick and as opulent as always.

Certainly, she was tenacious as always. Coco stayed – and stayed – and stayed. Forty-eight hours later, it was still definitely discernible on my jacket, even to my roommate, who has the olfactory abilities of a wooly mammoth with a bad head cold.

If Coco were a Tarot Card, she would be…the Major Arcana card called ‘Strength’. For courage, for determination, for tenacity, for daring to wrestle the lions of life unscathed and unafraid, bold and beautiful and strong.

Just like another kind of woman I want to be. Coco goes on my to-die-for list. Maybe as a belated Xmas present – from the young woman I once was to the woman I am now.

Notes according to Fragrantica:
Top notes: Coriander, pomegranate blossom, mandarin orange, peach, jasmine and bulgarian rose
Middle notes: mimosa, cloves, orange blossom, clover and rose
Base notes are labdanum, amber, sandalwood, tonka bean, opoponax, civet and vanilla.

Photo: Vanessa Paradis as the face of Coco de Chanel 1992, from chanelwiki.com