Cleo Through The Cataracts


– a review of Parfums des Beaux Arts’ ‘Susinon – 1000 Lilies’

As an ancient history nutcase – I originally planned out my life as a Bronze Age archaeologist and Minoan fresco conservator – I sometimes think the strangest things. Such as…

Two thousand years ago, what must it have been like to be considered the embodiment of a god? Not just God’s representative of a nation – as was the case until fairly recently in European history, but an actual living, breathing, walking god or goddess?

These days we have supermodels and movie stars, but we also have paparazzi to tear that illusion down.

Not so in Cleopatra’s day. To the people of Egypt, she was the living Isis, the great Mother Goddess of all Egypt, and such a role meant she had certain obligations to fulfill – such as…provide the spectacle her people expected of her.

We may laugh when we watch – as I recently did – the 1963 extravaganza ‘Cleopatra’, and her unforgettable entrance into Rome – the dancing girls tossing flower petals, the slaves, and that mind-boggling gilded sphinx Elizabeth Taylor perched on surrounded by thousands of extras, but one thing the movie got right – the spectacle. This was not the sole survivor of a murderous Greek royal dynasty, this was not a mere client-Queen of Rome, this was…Isis herself, descended to Earth to gobsmack the Romans in a way they never quite forgot.

Two thousand years later, the phenomenal Dawn Spencer Hurwitz recreated several ancient Egyptian perfumes in a collaboration with the Denver Art Museum entitled ‘Secrets of Egypt’. This ancient history nutcase was so intrigued by that idea, I wished for one of them for my birthday unsniffed, and that was ‘Susinon – 1000 Lilies’, which was used to perfume the sails of Cleopatra’s barge as she sailed down the Nile, as well as many Greeks and Egyptians, too. I thought that if it were suitable for Cleopatra’s sails, it would be good enough for me.

The problem with being a lily perfume lover is that so many of them are not about lily at all, but lily-of-the-valley. Nothing against lily-of-the-valley. Lilies – big, opulent, ostentatious, super-fragrant Madonna or Easter lilies, are my most favorite flowers. At certain times of the year, the tip of my nose is always stained yellow-gold, I love them so much.

Unfortunately, Easter lily soliflores can be very hard to find. Penhaligon’s gave us the supremely elegant, utterly lovely ‘Lily and Spice’. Serge Lutens gave us ‘Un Lys’, but whether it was my sample or my nose, it smells like stargazer lily to me, and lovely as it is, it’s no Easter lily. Donna Karan’s ‘Gold’ is one of the best things to ever happen to Casablanca lilies, just not my lilies.

1000 Lilies is, I am ecstatic to say, all about Easter lily, Easter lilies of the best, most opulent, spiciest kind, the kind I’ve been looking for all these years. It starts out with a soft, spicy kick to the senses, cardamom, cinnamon and what Dawn lists as ‘fragrant wine accord’ in a nod to the original Egyptian recipe of soaking the spices and gums in wine before adding the ‘1000 lilies’. You will not walk about wafting eau-de-Bordeaux, this I can promise you. Not more than a few minutes after that initial spicy spark, the merest whisper of galbanum and the peekaboo ylang ylang, ‘the beautiful one comes’…the lily, the epitome of lily, the lily I so wanted all those other blooms to be yet somehow never were.

This lily sings with a clarion call as clear and as vivid as the trumpets of its flowers, even with the many seamless notes that all add up to lily, with that hint of saffron and the rose otto, and the gossamer, honeyed drydown of sandalwood, myrrh and sweet flag.

1000 Lilies is, in several words, the perfect Easter lily. It has that same fragrant kick you get when you bury your nose in a flowery trumpet and luckily none of the pollen that is so hard to wash off. It is a natural perfume, so it will wear close to the skin, but lasts surprisingly well all the same. I’ve sprayed it on my hair in the morning and caught lily tangles by bedtime.

So I sit, not for the first time and I dearly hope not the last, and thank the goddess Bast, who ruled the making of perfumes in Egypt, that we have Dawn Spencer Hurwitz.

She gave all of us green chypre fan guys and gals the verdant wonders of Vert pour Madame, and now, she gave this lily lover the lily I’ve been missing all these years, and what is more – caught my imagination in a Cleopatra moment of my own.

I can sniff and dream myself away now, dream of a time over two thousand years ago and imagine I’m Cleopatra as I sail down the Nile with my dashing older Roman general, and show him the wonders that are Egypt. I can wave one languorous hand towards the shore, lined with my people who wave as we sail on towards the cataracts, warned by the scent of my sails that always precedes me, wafting Goddess-like fumes across the river that gleams molten gold in the westering afternoon sun.

Suddenly, there is a shout from the shore, and in my perfumed daydream, I can hear the language that was ancient as time when Rome was still a village full of warriors, and in one of those moments that happen only in Egypt, time stands still and I hear the words…

‘The beautiful one comes!’

I blink, and I’m back in a heartbeat in the whirling, swirling 21st century, and I am no Cleopatra, but only myself, wrapped in the perfumed clarion trumpet call of 1000 Lilies, sailing towards the cataracts of my life…

Notes
Top: Cardamom seed, cinnamon bark, fragrant wine accord, galbanum
Heart: Kenya lily, narcissus absolute, orris root, pink lotus, saffron absolute, Turkish rose otto, ylang ylang
Base: Australian sandalwood, honey, myrrh gum, sweet flag

‘Susinon – 1000 Lilies is available from Parfums des Beaux Arts.

Image: watchmojo.com, from the 1963 20th Century Fox production of ‘Cleopatra’.

12 thoughts on “Cleo Through The Cataracts

  1. This sounds like a scent I would fall in love with and I hope will be able to try. Your description is beautiful, as always you create the world for us to step into and transport us with you on the magical journey…:0)

  2. Hazel – Dawn also sells samples for not a lot of money, and I can't recommend them enough! Try this one! Really, you should! Ah, well, that magical journey would never happen if I didn't have a barge – or a bottle – to take me there! 🙂

  3. Frida…thank you for that! As I'm sure you know, flattery gets you everywhere! 🙂

    I did indeed find MY lily – with Penhaligon's Lily and Spice a close second, and lilies really don't get much better than this!

    I like hollyhocks! And I like cornflowers – which also have no scent of their own . simply for that incendiary blue…

  4. I love reading your evocative reviews, you are a wonderful wordsmith. They are truly transient. I love Oriental lilies, I think these are known as Casablanca's to you. Ylang ylang always reminds me of Orientals (I have 10 stems a friend gave me flowering right now). What we call easter lilies don't smell, they are red. Do you know the botanical name?

  5. Indeed I do, Sharryn, the lilies I so love are also known as Madonna lilies (a name I avoided for obvious reasons! 😉 ) or simply…Lilium Candidum. I do love all lilies, but these are my favorites!

    Thank you for the compliments!

  6. Oh yes! This is a true love for me too – I was stunned and amazed by the beauty of 1,000 Lilies! I just love your post, I was carried away completely. I was obsessed with Cleopatra at one point in my life, I guess it never really went away.

    Lilies are my favorite flowers too, and I love these green, cool lily scents as much as the lush, heavy ones, maybe even more. This one is just so right, I need look no further for that ideal lily perfume.

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