For that Perfectly Pretty Day


– a review of Illuminum ‘White Gardenia Petals’

A little girl plans it in her head for years and years. That perfect, perfect day where she gets to star in her own movie of being the eternally adored center of attention, surrounded by her fawning family and friends, lavished with presents chosen from a carefully compiled list and registered at all the right stores, wearing her ultimate whipped-cream-and-meringue fantasy of silk and lace.

Her wedding day. Somewhere is a groom of course, like all Prince Charming fantasies, but he’s nearly incidental. After all, on this perfect day, this perfect fantasy is all about her!

Somewhere and somehow, that little girl grows up, outgrows her Barbies and mostly her Disneyfied fantasies about that perfect, perfect day. Prince Charming may evolve into Charming Only After That Third Bottle of Champagne, or devolve not just into a frog, but an entirely new sub-species of amphibian loudmouth.

Unless she never does outgrow the Disney brain damage, in which case, she may well turn into Bridezilla.

Not all that long ago, Catherine Middleton slayed cake-eating viewers and hopeless romantics all over the planet on that perfect day she became the Duchess of Cambridge, perfectly composed, perfectly attired in a stunning Sarah Barton wedding dress for Alexander McQueen. I didn’t watch the wedding itself (mea culpa!) since I had a deadline and other preoccupations. I saw pictures and sent the radiant bride and bashful groom only my very best well wishes.

This being the perfumosphere, of course, it was a matter of minutes before every perfume blogger on Planet Earth was asking…

“What perfume did she wear?”

The dress was British, so we all mentioned our favorite British perfume houses and suitable-for-wedding perfumes…Ormonde Jayne, Penhaligon’s, the newly resurrected Grossmith, who went one step further and re-orchestrated ‘Betrothal’.

She wore ‘Illuminum White Gardenia Petals’, by perfumer Michael Boadi of Boadicea the Victorious fame, we learned, and soon, we were all scrambling for a sample.

Here it is on my desk as I type, and I can tell you this… it is indeed perfectly…well, the word ‘bridal’ does come to my cynical mind. It is soft, sweet, and very, very white. I do not, at any stage in its development, smell anything like gardenia.

Instead, what I sense is…something I might call first plastic doll, then ‘tropical accord’ that quickly fades away and cedes center stage to lily of the valley and jasmine without so much as a whisper of indole.

This is where my inner cynic shows her true colors. No gardenia, with that undertone of skank and Roquefort, and a jasmine that has been sent packing to reform school to learn proper, ladylike behavior, to sit up straight, mind her p’s and q’s, speak only in well-rounded vowels and never, ever, ever make a public scandal.

It’s perfectly demure, perfectly appropriate and I must say it, pretty in white. I could see why this would be a good choice on a day when over one billion people on Earth are parked in front of TVs with champagne and cake and all-out British mayhem to stare at you and take apart every element of your wedding. It’s not the kind of perfume to call attention to itself, it’s not old-fashioned but rather very modern in a clean, white manner, and somewhere well before that pianissimo, indistinct amber wood drydown, I’m well and thoroughly…bored.

I wouldn’t mind this on someone as elegant as the Duchess, in fact, I wouldn’t mind it at all on anyone else but me. There is not one jarring note, nothing except a smooth, white, floral seamless blend that reminds me of nothing so much as scented feminine hygiene products.

That alone should make it huge in Japan.

Meanwhile, I sit here and contemplate…weddings. I wore vintage Magie Noir to my own almost eleven years ago, a hastily arranged affair orchestrated by the mother-in-law-Zilla in her living room, where the bride wore a black suit and sandals one size too big with five-inch heels, so I wouldn’t look too embarrassing beside the 6’ 6” groom.

Now, that part of my own life is over, and in the highly unlikely event I ever say ‘I do’ again, I wouldn’t wear Magie Noir, and I could never wear white. I would want something rich and complex and even indolic. Say, Serge Lutens’ ‘Fleurs d’Oranger’ for instance, which does have wedding associations but is not demure in the slightest. Amouage ‘Ubar’ is another complicated joyride I might consider, or Ormonde Jayne’s ‘Frangipani’, perfect for a barefoot ceremony on a Hawaiian beach with your feet in the surf.

But in my own perfect world, saying ‘I do!’ to someone as idiosyncratic, complex and iconoclastic as myself, I’d choose something else. I’d want something to reflect the complicated woman I am now and the challenges we would meet. I would honor, cherish, respect and love – if never obey! – and I would wear Aftelier’s ‘Cepes and Tuberose’. It suits my sensibilities in a way White Gardenia Petals doesn’t. I’m not tall enough, thin enough, young enough, idealistic enough or nearly pretty enough to wear it, but I’ll bet plenty of women will.

Illuminum White Gardenia Petals should be a smash success. And huge in Japan!

A big fragrant hug to Thomas, who made it possible!

Notes according to Luckyscent: Lily, white gardenia, muguet, jasmine, amber wood.

Illuminum White Gardenia Petals is available in the US at Luckyscent, and at Roullier White in Europe.

The Union of Heaven and Earth


– a review of Aftelier Perfumes ‘Cepes and Tuberose’

Serendipity and miracles have been known to happen. When I say that this blog was one such serendipitous idea that occurred one late, late night during my summer vacation last year after the third glass of wine and staring off into space, I had no idea what wonders would happen, what connections I could make, or what sensual journey I would embark upon, but I can tell you this – I am no longer that woman who had that seemingly hare-brained idea, no longer that writer who had found her voice and wanted to sing it all out as loudly as she could.

The writer has grown stronger, the woman has grown bolder, walks taller, talks back – all thanks to perfume. So many wonders have I met upon my long, winding road, so many marvels have I seen, and as my universe expanded and my tastes grew broader, I reached out and found readers, found those scented miracles, and somehow, some way, through some alchemical process I didn’t even fully understand, found the words to convey what those scents made me feel.

Because that’s what perfume boils down to for me…a bottled mood or emotion, a liquid glimpse of joy, caught as it flies in one fleeting, breathless instant, and one very mortal woman is no longer what she was the moment before but something…other, something different and richer and better.

Even with all of this, I wasn’t quite prepared for yet more serendipity. To she who gives much shall be given, say the Vanatru, and so there was. Marvels I wouldn’t be able to try otherwise were sent to me, connections were made that did so very much to restore my faith in friendships with common passions, and all along came the words, trying to grasp at the ephemeral and visceral art of…perfume.

Being a child of the Sixties and Seventies, natural perfumery to my mind brought up associations of cheap patchouli and badly made essential oil blends that never did impress me much.

Yet once upon a time not even that long ago, all perfumes were natural. Someone, somewhere, had picked those flowers, let them breathe their last sighs in tallow or oil, distilled their essences in alembics to drops of divinity a man or a woman could wear. Louis XIV’s glittering, decadent court was known as The (naturally) Perfumed Court, and courtiers swooned on hot summer days when the tuberose hedges bloomed at the Grand Trianon so extravagantly, even Madame de Montespan complained.

So you can imagine my excitement when one of my Great Facilitators, Lucy of Indieperfumes, with no doubt a few devious ideas of her own, introduced one of the very best natural perfumers on Planet Earth to my humble, subterranean blog, and one bleary-eyed morning, I woke up to an email from Mandy Aftel of Aftelier Perfumes, asking if I would like to try some of her creations?

I promptly plotzed (sometimes, only Yiddish will do!) all over my keyboard. Oh, would I…

I had read of her collaboration with Andy Tauer (in my personal Pantheon of Greats) on linden blossom, I knew she was rightly nominated for FiFi Awards on both sides of the Atlantic, I had heard…things about this perfumer extraordinaire, and I couldn’t wait.

Now, I sit with my tea, my iPod, a few Q-tips for application and my little bottle of Cepes and Tuberose, and I’m…speechless. Speechless with admiration, astonished and with the kind of cold, numinous chill up my nose and down my spine I don’t often experience in everyday life.

Cepes and Tuberose reminds me of what I’m likely to forget – that in natural perfumes, you are dealing with…soul. The kind of soul never found in any clinical lab of formulae notebooks and abstract concoctions of abstruse concepts. Someone, somewhere, tended these flowers, herbs and woods, someone harvested them when the time was precisely right, someone cared enough to encapsulate the soul of these plants, the sunlight off the leaves, the scent of a rain shower, that marriage of sunlight and sustenance, moonbeam and mineral, heaven and earth.

I can honestly say I have never known anything like it.

Porcini, with their meaty texture and earthy, multilayered aroma can seem like a strange ingredient in a perfume, never mind allied with that diva of all flowers – the heady, sensuous tuberose, once deemed so dangerous by prim Victorian ladies, they actually forbade their daughters to smell it, lest they get… ‘ideas.’ The kind of ideas where the glories of the great British Empire was the very last thing on your mind – or your mother!

Take my word for it, Cepes and Tuberose is indeed very full of precisely those ideas that made those mothers nervous for their daughters. I read of leather and old books, I’ve read all sorts of contradictory opinions, but I get something else entirely…I get myrrh and autumn and spice, I sense cinnamon and pepper and cardamom and mushroom. It is sweet but not gourmand in the slightest, it is breathtaking, and then the diva tuberose makes her entrance, but this is no flowered sledgehammer, this tuberose plays just nice enough with everything else, not dominating but dancing in tandem with yet more wonders…a suggestion of incense and labdanum, a dream of patchouli unlike any other patchouli I’ve met. It’s so seamless, it’s hard to pick apart and dissect. So strange, it shouldn’t work and yet it does, so primal, only one association comes to mind – one very important in my world.

Once, says the Voluspa, there was a great war between Vanaheim, home to the gods of earth and sea and magic, and Asgard, home to the gods of air. A truce was called, the war ceased, and the Vanir took their place of honor among the Aesir. So it came to be that one goddess won the right to claim first pick of the fallen warriors of the battlefield, and that was Freya, embodiment of all desire and sensual pleasures and also – equally important – of magic so potent and arcane, only Odin of all the Aesir had the courage to learn it.

I can well imagine that when Freya dons her falcon cloak and ventures out into Midgard, she would surely wear Cepes and Tuberose. Primal and earthy, animal yet divine, and always with that fateful magic to her hand, the secrets of seidr and all of heaven and earth itself wrapped in the scented air just above the feathers in her cloak.

It is not for the faint of heart, not for the timid or unassuming. There is a mighty soul in that little bottle, a soul unlike any other, with a magic…like no other. It fades away slowly to a whisper, fades back to that earthy, carnal porcini, before it’s gone.

Desire and magic, secrets and all sensual pleasures, the power of the earth aligned with the might of the sky, all of it contained in one tiny bottle sparkling gold in the light on my desk, gold as the amber you can sometimes still find on the beaches here. It’s magic and mojo, sacred and earthy, and one of the most unapologetic, sensual perfumes I’ve had the privilege to smell.

What is magic but another tool to my hand? What is this perfume but a magic that I can wear?

What happened when Heaven joined with Earth? This perfume, and this magic.

Cepes and Tuberose is available from the Aftelier website.

Disclosure: My sample of Cepes and Tuberose was provided for review by Mandy Aftel of Aftelier Perfumes. For which I can’t thank her enough, but I tried.

Invisible Armor


– a review of Serge Lutens’ ‘Chêne’

The problem with being a certified perfumoholic is how it can spill over in unexpected ways into other aspects of life and associations that don’t have too much to do with perfume and more to do with what that particular scent and mood represents.

Once upon a time not too long ago, I wrote a nothing little short story that grew legs in no time and kept on walking, before it hopped, skipped, ran and evolved into a full-blown novel that wasn’t at all what even I expected. These were before the days of perfume blogging, before the days of friends on several sides of three oceans and help for desperate situations. These were the days when I debated with myself for weeks before I finally gathered up the courage to send an email to a perfume house so impossibly refined and indubitably sophisticated, I agonized over a French dictionary and my own oxidized French for three whole nights before I just gave up the ghost and wrote them in English.

Time to email Parfums Serge Lutens and request the famous Petit Livre des Parfums. I was some sort of grownup now, and I was getting awfully peeved at reading so many purple-prosed reviews of Lutens perfumes on perfume blogs and not having a clue. Nothing could be that good. I was too old to be that intimidated.

In no time, I received a nice, fat, fragrant envelope and a nicely signed card that I still own today, and braced myself for this Brave New World ahead. I knew that this was…a moment from which I could never turn back, and my olfactory universe would never be quite the same again.

One in particular caught my attention out of the many that I felt I must some day own, or else die with a severe sense of deprivation. As a perfume, it checked all the right boxes. Green, smoky, both ephemeral and earthy, it was like nothing else I had ever smelled, and evoked an emotion I had never felt before. It made me feel stronger, walk taller, it made me feel…invincible.

Chêne. A liquid ode to the mighty oak tree in all its aspects – the green of the leaves, the smell of sap, the sweet, vanilla-tinged fragrance of its wood. It was…love at first sniff.

It wasn’t long before a large decant found its way into my greedy little hands and Chêne found its way onto my green-craving skin. I never suspected I would enjoy feeling quite so much like Joan of Arc at the moment she walks into the French camp and demands a horse and an audience with the French king. Suddenly, I was Boudicca and Hippolyta and the living embodiment of every female warrior who ever breathed, and there would be no tragic ending here, no chink in this armor. I would never be punished for my transgression in thinking I was equal to anything or anyone, and I would not be intimidated…ever again.

Back to those ever-colder, ever-darker November nights not so long ago, wrestling with the Devil and a few demons of my own making, trawling the murky depths of my subconscious for a story I didn’t even know I needed to tell. Over the next few months, perfume too began weaving its seductive trail through the storyline…as the description of a mood or invocation of an atmosphere, as a bribe, or as a foreshadowing of events to come.

Above them all stood Chêne, my protagonist’s favorite. At her first meeting with a prestigious New York literary agent, she reflects…

I wiped my sweaty palms on my skirt, pulled at my suede boots and tried to forget a bra strap was slowly but surely sliding down my left shoulder. I should have worn something else besides Chêne, something safe and innocuous and familiar, but Chêne was my invisible armor.


And at a much later point in the story, after triumph and tragedy, the Devil, no longer what even he once was, decides to pay a visit and remembers:

Skin like silk, a perfumed promise of deliverance, that low, feline growl at the back of her throat, that green and sappy, sweet and smoky trail of Chêne at the back of her neck that drove me mad.


It’s no coincidence at all that the three perfumes my protagonist specifically describes as wearing at different times in the story are all Lutens/Sheldrake creations, nor that when the Devil takes a four-year vacation, he leaves with a bell jar of Chêne, one reminder of that latter-day Joan of Arc who stole the heart he didn’t think he had.

Herbal and green, Chêne starts as a surprise and ends as an aria to all the glories of the wood it celebrates. Cedar and thyme and a deliciously boozy rum dance out into the air off my skin. Instead of slouching, I stand up straighter. When first the birch and next what must be immortelle arrive, I’m talking back, I feel safe and protected and somehow invincible. Life can throw me whatever surprises it likes. Nothing will occur that I can’t handle. My invisible armor sparkles in the sunlight that bounces off the leaves.

Many hours later, the rum, birch, immortelle and sap give way to a furry tonka bean and smoky, burning wood, the scent of a bonfire flaming on a Midsummer’s Eve beneath the boughs, but this is no heretic burning at any stake for her hubris at challenging the status quo, this is a celebration of life and every living creature that breathes and loves. The eerie, earthy, aroma of sap and all that grows, the scent of the oak itself, sacred to Jupiter, and an intimation to be aware that not all that rustles in the undergrowth may be benign. Some creatures may bite, some may sting and all of them are hungry for that taste of green, effervescent life.

If ever a perfume smells…atavistic, this would be it. Proud and pagan, unapologetic and primeval, this is the quintessence of Wood, quintessence of Oak, a sophisticated ode to all that grows just below our ability to articulate it.

Nevertheless, we can grasp it, we can understand it, we can look up in awe at that majestic, sacred tree …and feel its essence in our bones and in that ancient part of our memories that hides just beyond our words.

Wearing Chêne, I can go out into the world and meet…literary agents, editors, Very Important People of any stripe, and present them with the Ten Most Important Reasons I Should Be Heard, and more to the point – knowing that I will be. I’m a latter-day Joan of Arc, although I won’t burn at any stake for my hubris and my own choice of divinity might be unorthodox. Yet I can accomplish whatever I choose with whomever I meet.

Now, Your Majesty, I shall need a horse and a sword. Where did you say those cowardly, lily-livered Anglais were hiding?

Notes according to Basenotes:
Sap, cedar crystals, black thyme, silver birch, rum, beeswax, oak, undergrowth note, tonka.

Chêne is available in the export line of Serge Lutens perfumes, available at Luckyscent, Aedes, and at Barneys NY. It is also available from the Serge Lutens website.

Image of Joan of Arc from Wikimedia Commons

Vertesimilitude


– a review of Parfum des Beaux Arts ‘Vert Pour Madame’

‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here’ was once engraved above the gates of Hades. Forget you lived, forget who you were, drown yourself in the waters of Lethe, for you are…no more. You most beloved of all my adored fragrance families, you who gave me confidence at an age when I sorely needed it, you whose memory alone I can conjure from a moment and a fleeting glimpse of past joys and frayed hopes hanging by one mortal, gossamer thread…you are, alas, no more, and shall be mourned…forever more.

Excuse me while I mop my bitter tears with the last remains of my Kleenex box, but you don’t understand…I loved it so, I still do, and I always, always will.

Famous last words. Watch me eat them one at a time.

Once, when women were womanly and weren’t afraid to show it, when individuality was prized and perfumes had taglines like ‘Not for self-effacing women’, Green…was Queen. These were the days of take-no-prisoners green chypres and the spine-enhancing attitudes they conveyed on their wearers, these were the days when galbanum and hyacinth boogied down and dirty with oakmoss, civet and labdanum, and you might not have wafted insipid, non-descript ‘flower’ in your wake so much as a healthy dose of…

‘I’m me. Deal with it!’

It all began just after World War Two when Germaine Cellier created the greatest green of all time, Balmain’s ‘Vent Vert’. Created to confer hope and new beginnings after the war, it was clearly ahead of its time, and yet, it was one of the bestsellers of its day, so much that it was quickly followed in the next few decades by many more immortal greens. Miss Dior, Coriandre, Ma Griffe, Dioressence, Silences…it makes for a long list of late, great spectacular perfumes.

I was born to a perfume-mad mother who had certain priorities right. “Never,” she told me at the door to the Guerlain flagship store on the Champs Elysèes on a sunny afternoon in May 1977, “underestimate the importance of two things…a really good bra and…a really good perfume!”

Those were heady words for a fourteen-year-old, but not so heady I didn’t have certain priorities of my own. Above all else, now I had entered that parallel universe of perfume, to choose something that wasn’t…anything my mother ever wore. So I walked out of Guerlain with a bottle of Jicky parfum – which does indeed have a definite green vibe, or should I say, it did – and a few days later, I walked out of Dior on Avenue Montaigne with Miss Dior. I chose what I loved, what she didn’t wear, what I felt was a reflection of my own, individual self, and that emerging chrysalis was…green as the leaves on the blooming chestnuts along the Seine, green as the très chic woman I saw on the Pont Neuf in chartreuse panne velvet harem pants, an YSL peasant top and a killer pair of shoes, wafting a cloud of Rive Gauche.

In the (too many) years that followed, I wore and loved them all by the bucketful…Dioressence, Rive Gauche, Ma Griffe, Coriandre, Chanel no. 19, even Vent Vert, and took it entirely for granted that they would always be there to center my hara and convey their particular brand of courage…to face life and whatever it threw at me as well as I dared.

Until one day not so long ago, when I realized with a shock that…they were gone. What happened? Miss Dior and Dioressence survived Clash concerts and political demonstrations, parties where I danced till dawn and kept on dancing through the sunrise over the Copenhagen harbor, secret trysts in elderflower bushes in public parks and narrow escapes and negotiating pay rises with a boss who would much rather flirt, trailing silk scarves and more often than not…that indomitable, indubitable scent trace of … green.

It made me sad those green beauties got harder and harder to find, and somewhere along the line, I moved on though life, on to other perfumes and other grown-up joys of womanhood. Yet there was always that haunting, telltale whiff of galbanum and hyacinth that would appear and disappear whenever I remembered what self-confidence and self-esteem smelled like…

Green.

Not so long ago, right when I had defiantly parked my despair by the gates of Hades, I discovered one such green bottled hope – Puredistance Antonia. But once a long, long time ago, there was a green for every mood…and where did they all go?

I wasn’t alone, I came to find out. We ladies of a certain age and definite associations mourned our loss, counted our blessings and hoarded our vintages for those days when we needed a little extra titanium in our spines and our attitudes.

Meanwhile, Dawn Spencer Hurwitz of Parfums des Beaux Arts decided to do something about it. So she created ‘Vert Pour Madame’.

When I opened that little vial, I had a moment only someone who remembers the movie “Wayne’s World’ would understand. In the movie, the two hapless heroes are confronted with a musical Primeval Force – Alice Cooper – and exclaim (before kowtowing before the bemused Alice):

‘We’re not worthy!’

This is precisely how I feel about Vert Pour Madame. But instead of genuflecting before Ms. Spencer Hurwitz, I want to get to my knees and …thank her. Vert Pour Madame is a much more forgiving and not so intimidating green floral as some I used to love and wear. All the same, it takes my breath away.

It pushes all the buttons I loved my greens to push…galbanum and bergamot, for centering my hara and making me sit up straighter. Hyacinth, for that effortless, deathless cool. A seamless, stunning bouquet of orris and jasmine, neroli and ylang ylang, muguet and rose and all that spells perfection, and it doesn’t stop there. Is there oakmoss in there? Really? Oakmoss? Something soft and mossy and right before I’m swooning with pleasure…it’s…no…it can’t be…it’s…oh, yes! Yes! It’s civet!

It’s glorious. It’s perfection. I have now died and gone to an immortal green heaven, where nothing can ever faze me again and I shall never eat humble pie ever again and my spine shall never rust. I’ll be cool, calm, collected and as effortlessly beautiful as Evelyn Tripp on the cover of Charm magazine in 1959, who captures the vibe of Vert Pour Madame flawlessly.

Vert Pour Madame is a perfumed poem to all those green-floral-chypres so many of us loved, and just as they were, it’s timeless.

It’s the Madame I want to be, the Madame I aspired to as a teenager, the woman I hoped I would become, and the woman I sometimes can even hope my life has made me.

And just like a green scent sibling I once caught a whiff of on the Pont Neuf…not for self-effacing women.

I’m me. Deal with it!

Notes: Aldehydes, bergamot, cassis, galbanum, hyacinth, white peach, jonquil, Moroccan rose, muguet, neroli, orris, sambac jasmine, violet leaf absolute, ylang ylang, Atlas cedarwood, Australian sandalwood, cistus absolute, civet, patchouli, moss, musk, tonka bean, Virginia cedar

Vert Pour Madame is available from the Parfums des Beaux Arts website.

I heart Lucy of Indieperfumes, who made it possible! And Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, who made it! Because we’re worthy! ☺

Original image of Evelyn Tripp, cover of Charm magazine, June 1959 – MyVintageVogue