The Courtesan, the Conjuror and the Cynic

– a review (and a tale) of Amouage “Ubar”

She would always come to his shop on the perfumer’s row in the late afternoon, when the worst heat of the day had dissipated to a shimmering golden haze above the streets and the ships in the harbor, when every sensation, every sound and every scent seemed to linger just a little longer than usual, when fine black lines delineated the shapes around the tools of his trade – the mortars, the oils and flasks and jars, the smaller boxes that held his secret treasures; resins and woods, precious myrrh and the white-gold tears of frankincense he hoarded and kept only for those trusted customers who paid promptly and in cash.

Like most everyone here in Alexandria, she obviously came from somewhere else. Her name he never learned, although he knew enough to see her for what she was, with her expensive shawls, the gleaming silks and linens dyed deep and vibrant colors, all the better to set off her remarkable amber-gold hair and that pale, milky skin that told tales of another, colder climate on the far northern edge of the sunlit world he knew.

She came accompanied only by a girl, so like her she could only be her daughter, and in all the many months he spent with her, the daughter would simply sit with a bit of embroidery in her lap listening, or else observing every item close by, the tiny cauldrons bubbling over the fire, his chopping boards and knives, the flower essences and bunches of herbs hanging in profusion on the walls, so heady in the summer heat customers had been known to grow dizzy and faint.

“I have an assignment for you,” the woman said that first afternoon. “I want you to make me a perfume. I will pay you well.” A fat and heavy purse of coins clanked on his counter top. “Consider this an advance.” She stood back and assessed him, as if to judge whether this were a task he were worthy of.

“Lady, I have many perfumes in my shop…the Susinon of one thousand lilies that Cleopatra herself perfumed her sails with these two hundred years ago, the Megaleion, I have the finest items from Callimarchos’ shop in Athens, I have Panathenaean, I have Royal Parthian perfumes, even, straight from the courts of the Parthian king…”

She did not let him finish. “No.” Such finality, such determination in that small and simple word. “I said,” she lifted an elegant hand and the gold of her bangles gleamed and flashed in an errant sunbeam from the door. “I want you to make me a perfume. For me. Not to sell to your customers or to smell on the whores in the harbor brothels…” her nose wrinkled in fastidious distaste. “A perfume just for me.”

“Then, dear lady, I shall need to know something of you first. What scents you like and dislike, where you might be challenged,, and what…”

Again, she did not let him finish. “I will come to your shop in the afternoons and tell you…stories. And when I am done, you will make a perfume just for me.” She inclined her head, and the pale and silent girl preceded her out into the street, already bustling after the afternoon’s siesta.
For years after, he would remember how he had stood that moment, transfixed in the sunbeams off the floor, wondering where to start. A perfume, just for her.

True to her word, she would come in the afternoons and tell of her adventures, of dancing for the Emperor at his palace in Rome so far away, of sunlit mornings on a rose-covered terrace in Rhodes, of the dust and heat of a faraway fabled city that grew rich off the trade in frankincense and the long and perilous journey she had undertaken once to India with a merchant who could not bear to be without her company. She told of the unexpected pleasure of finding patches of those tiny, bell-shaped flowers that she loved on cool, misty mornings in a shady forest. She told him of heartbreak and unexpected joy, tragedy and laughter, all the pains and pleasures of a life lived to the fullest extent of all her many passions.

For almost a year he toiled with her perfume, conjuring the memory of her life in his essences and oils, the animal hints of sensuality, the flowers and the fruity bite of the lemons that grew in his secret garden in the Delta. He chopped and brewed, he macerated and stored and applied every trick of this ancient land that he knew. He tried to capture the jeweled gleam of her hair, a double-spiraled errant curl at the base of her neck, the glint of a rosy ruby in a comb, the flash of wit he saw in her eyes. No question but she knew to enchant, and as she enthralled him with her stories, he enchanted the brew in his cauldron, committing the formula to memory and a secret, buried scroll.

Until the day came when he was done, and could do no more. He dreaded her visit, knowing he would now never see her again, or her silent, smiling daughter. He had been paid handsomely for his toil, and yet no payment was enough for the simple song of her voice, a silver tinkle of laughter as she remembered a detail, a place or a caress. This creation was his masterpiece. There was nothing throughout the Empire or far beyond even remotely like it.

“It is finished,” he forced himself to say when she came that afternoon. “There is nothing more I can do, nothing more I can add.”

She pulled at the stopper and inhaled deeply. Her eyes closed and for an instant, she seemed to swoon on her feet. Then, in a sudden shocking movement, she unfastened a brooch on her shoulder and pricked a fingertip. Two crimson drops, a dark, rosy red against the pallor of her skin, glistened in a sunbeam before they vanished into the vial.

“Now,” she said with that same stubborn finality he had heard that first afternoon, “now it is finished.” As she said the words, she fell to the floor as if she had fainted, and her daughter grabbed her and held her. She was dead.

He was speechless. “One thing only she left me,” her daughter said after a while. She took the golden vial from her mother and lifted it up. “She left me this.”

It was his masterpiece, his perfume, the memory of this storyteller in a bottle.

Down through the centuries swirled the memory of that woman and that perfume, through her daughter and her many descendants after her, until a damp and foggy day in a town on the edge of the old world found it again, the world the perfumer had known so many centuries ago.

This long-descended daughter was also a storyteller. In the warp and weft of her tales, she twisted yarns and fables, passions and music, and sometimes her memories of scents and sensations. She was convinced she had heard it all and tried it all, she had broken hearts on two continents and many countries, and there was little left to surprise her, not much to take her breath, her speech or even her words away.

Until a tiny bottle was opened, a tiny spray applied to her skin, and a ruby drop of blood-red rose, of a lemon grove in the Delta and a bouquet of lily-of-the-valley, of a memory of a woman and a life well-lived and well loved, a woman like herself, wrenched at her heart and made her cry that such a surfeit of beauty could exist and such powerful emotions could be felt.

Even by the cynic she thought she was.


Notes: Bergamot, lemon, lily-of-the-valley, rose Damascena, jasmine, civet, vanilla.

Amouage Ubar can be bought in many locations, including Luckyscent and First In Fragrance and Alla Violetta Boutique, although you might be required to take out a second mortgage on your house, take a second job or pawn your children if all else fails. Trust me, I’m thinking about it.

Image: Sir Frederik Leighton, Solitude (1901)

A Dream that Time Forgot

-a review of Olympic Orchid’s “Siam Proun”

There is something in the term “Oriental” that tickles the imagination, a sense of ancient history and timelessness. In perfume, an oriental denotes something spicy and opulent, a dream of far-away lands and old, sensuous secrets hiding within the depths of a perfume bottle, something ever-so-slightly decadent, even a touch forbidden, which only makes it that much more alluring.

My own relationship with the oriental category has not always been an easy one. With the exception of Lancôme’s “Magie Noire”, I’ve tended to avoid them. I just wasn’t sure I was that kind of woman, or else just woman enough to add that potent weapon to my arsenal. So over the course of my life I gravitated toward other categories, the greens and chypres and verdant florals I still love to this day.

Caught in the all-pervasive miasma of a dismal winter and the blahs that follow, I decided a few days ago to do something about it, and set about rearranging my bookcases. In the course of doing just that, I came across a dream journal I kept ten years ago.

In the dream, I stood at a gatehouse at Angkor Wat, that recapturing of creation laid out in Khmer stone, both ruin and reality. Until the next moment, it wasn’t, and it lay before me, still standing in that gatehouse, not as it is now, a tourist attraction and World Heritage site, but as it was during, say, the reign of Jayavarman VII, surrounded by priests and officials and courtiers, and the Mount Meru in stone I saw before me was opening up to me, some test I had passed, some deed I had done had gained me access to this place both sacred and profound. Needless to say, as I walked on flower-garlanded feet down that processional path lit by torches, I woke up…

But the dream remained and refused to budge, so I wrote it down and forgot about it, only to be reminded the instant I opened my tiny vial of Olympic Orchids’Siam Proun”…

Siam Proun is an Oriental in the true sense of the word – a mystery wrapped in the fragrant secrets of spice and incense. It’s at once both contemplative and evocative, serene and slightly disturbing. Just like the mood in my long-ago dream, it smells both sacred and profound, and just like my dream, it evokes a unique history in its notes – a time that lay waiting to be rediscovered. It is not sweet, but heady, spicy and floral, less a composition of parts than all of a piece and entire – one mood, one time, one place and one place in time. Is there patchouli and sandalwood in there, incense, Doc Elly’s signature spice, a touch of jungle flowers hiding in the green? Yes, and a time capsule too, of a dream of the East, an idea of the Orient, a frame-freeze of history and splendor I all but forgot until it wafted out of a vial on fragrant, flower-garland feet along the path to Mount Meru where the world began, a frieze of beautiful temple dancers, dancing for the glory of Vishnu just above the milky ocean.

On my everyday excursions to places like perfume stores and the stores that smell perfumes, I don’t often come across time travel in bottles, never mind the kind of time travel I might even be persuaded to wear.

But this little-genie in-a-bottle is precisely that, a long procession of dancers, weaving through time and place and history in their gleaming silks, on those flower-garland feet, and if that’s not a cure for the dismal winter blahs, then what is?

It wears unisex, although I’d hate to encounter any man who wore this. Resistance would be futile. In no time at all, I’d be dancing quite a few measures of my own!

I want a bottle. Yesterday. Just so I can be reminded of history and beauty and far-off, exotic places past, and faraway, exotic pleasures present – and future.

Image: Temple carving from Bayon, Cambodia, 13th century.

Overture, Allegro, Andante

– a review of Doc Elly’s experiments with Golden Cattleyas

A while ago, Doc Elly talked about one of her orchid varieties, the Golden Cattleya, and how the scent of them changed as they bloomed – from heady and indolic to fruity-floral in the best and original sense of the word. So when she offered samples of her experiments with her Golden Cattleya orchids, which apparently have a distinctive scent reminiscent of orange, I jumped at the chance. I grew up in Florida surrounded by orange trees everywhere, so naturally, I’m a sucker for all scents orange.

It’s such a privilege to participate in a perfume experiment. Armed with nothing better than my nose and few preconceptions, I’ll never know where I’ll end up or what wonders I might find, and in no small part to Doc Elly’s creations and her excellent blog, I know quite a bit more about both perfume and scented orchids than I ever did. I have been taken to wild and wondrous places and times and known emotions I’ve all but forgotten. Now, I had a chance to dip my proboscis into something on the ground floor as it were, and with one of my all-time favorite notes – in perfume as well as life, and how cool is that?

There were three samples, labeled GC1, GC2 and GC3, each with a different focus of the Golden Cattleya’s evolution and with a different accent. I sampled each of them on Canson Arches watercolor paper and my skin at different times in the past two weeks, before I was ill and once I felt better.

One thing is apparent almost immediately – just as there is a Guerlainade, a Tauerade or even a Lutens/Sheldrake-ade, Doc Elly, too, has her own unique signature in each of her experiments, a distinct imprint of herself in the perfumes she makes. Even in the prosaic sample bottles labeled GC1, 2 and 3, I can tell almost immediately – these are her creations.

In each of the three, you’d be hard-pressed to tell these are different interpretations of the same orchid right out of the vial. Since I learned that orchids evolve as they bloom, I wonder if evolution has a serious sense of mischief. Orange blossom on the tree may be orange blossom from top to bottom and start to finish, a rose on the bush is a rose is a rose is a poem by Gertrude Stein, but orchids are full-blown symphonies with top notes as they begin to bloom, heart notes as they open further, and a final blast of scent before the end.

GC1 – we can call it The Overture. This is the heady, indolic phase of the bloom, represented by a definite civet note. I detect orange blossom as well as neroli and a touch of orange zest, something that reminds me of tea rose, jasmine, a little spice I suspect is nutmeg or mace, and finally that animalic whiff of civet softened by a bit of vanilla. There are certain aspects as it develops on my skin that bring my near-forgotten bottle of Narcisse Noir to mind, but in only a few minutes, it loses some of its oomph and becomes less sexpot and more classic in its construction. This stuff has some serious sillage, I found out when I sprayed a small amount and the kids in my son’s kindergarten class gave me strange looks, nostrils flaring. This is bold and slightly audacious.

GC2The Allegro. This is one happy orange, the orange-you-glad-to-meet me that dances out of the vial on a vivid colored trail of orange blossom, zest and lots of lovely vanilla, but thanks to another touch of spice and sass, never ventures anywhere near Creamsicle territory. The spice is sweeter and softer than in GC1, which makes me think of mace as well as cinnamon, but just the faintest whisper. I sense the evolution of the orchid in this Stage Two, and GC 2 strikes me as more accessible and less in your face – I can see this develop into a bestseller with just a little more vanilla. All joy, all sweetness and the glow of orange light blooming off the skin. Orange I glad I tried it? You bet! GC 2 would be perfect for those gloomy, gray, dismal winter days when you simply want to be the Compleat Pollyanna optimist and dance out the door in winter’s despite, carrying your own beam of sunshine with you.

GC3The Andante. This is the third stage of the Golden Cattleya, and thanks to a potent dose of sandalwood and incense, this one contains its own memento mori. This is the final blast of glory, the swan song of an orchid, and even though the notes are darker and deeper, there are echoes and chords of stages 1 and 2. GC 3 has a gravitas to it, notes in a minor but never diminished key that are no less beautiful for their dusting of Cattleya blues. The orange blossom and zest of the beginning is underpinned and teased out by that sandalwood and incense, and is there myrrh in there too, hiding behind that feather-brush of nutmeg? I ran this by my (platonic) Scorpio friend a few days ago, and he almost ate my arm. As it dries down, it turns toward a luscious orange chocolate, bittersweet and delicious. While I very much liked all three of them right out of the vial, this Andante stole my heart. There is beauty here, and a twinge of regret, but more than anything, an underlying song of glories past and present – and an intimation that “we’re not gone until you forget!” Memento mori – “but you won’t, will you?” Of the three, this one strikes me as the most polished.

GC 1 and 3 could be worn by either gender, whereas GC 2 has a definite feminine vibe, at least to my nose. If I had any preconceptions, I would have expected to swoon over GC 2 – since I love orange and vanilla notes, separately and together. But to my own surprise, GC 3 stole the show and my heart, and Doc Elly, if you ever make any full bottles of this, let me know.

I’m doing what I can to spread the word!


In a final aside, thank you – ALL of you, for all your well-wishing when I was so wretched with cold/walking pneumonia. Can I just say that your wishes did at least as much as the antibiotics? It’s good to be back! ☺

Image: Doc Elly’s Golden Cattleyas. No other image I found did them or these scents so much justice! 😉