One Journey Down the (Sample) Vials

–       a review of Alyssa Harad’s book ‘Coming To My Senses’

Look around Amazon, your local bookstores, leaf through your favorite magazines, and you will discover that the rarified world of perfume is becoming a hot topic in both fiction and non-fiction. There’s Denyse Beaulieu’s ‘The Perfume Lover’ that describes both a night to remember and the development of a perfume to capture it, M.J. Rose’s ‘The Book of Lost Perfumes’, Denise Hamilton’s novel ‘Damage Control’ (that features some famous perfumes in its story line), and that’s not even counting the books of Frédéric Malle and Jean Claude Ellena who also have their own stories to tell.

Once upon a time, books such as Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez’ ‘Perfumes – the Guide’ and Chandler Burr’s ‘The Emperor of Scent’ were sizzling topics on the perfume boards and blogs, adding to that endlessly fascinating conversation on perfume – how to describe it, how to codify it, how to…understand that most personal and subjective of all art forms.

Even this lowly perfume writer/blogger/nonentity has been approached by three superstars of the perfume world at different times, encouraging me, egging me on and tickling my ego vanity vaunting literary ambition by stating…

“You should really write a book!”

They are all three of them people I respect with something akin to star-struck awe, but I have to say it – let me get in print first with this other thing (which is in a sense also, go figure, connected to…perfume) before I wrestle that fearsome, fragrant beast.

What I am about to say will likely have my perfumista license revoked, my credibility in smoking ruins and my carcass shot at dawn, and yet say it, I must: I have all of three perfume books, not counting a edutainment tome on the use of perfume in Ayurveda (you never know!). I have never read ‘Perfumes – the Guide’ except in excerpt, or Chandler Burr, or Jean Claude Ellena, Roja Dove, Michael Edwards or any other of those Great and Good Indispensibles.

First, since English language bookstores are as rare as unicorns in my part of the world, second, because books about perfume in those stores are unicorns with gilded horns and hooves. They don’t exist. I don’t own a credit card and my PayPal account is my (ludicrous) perfume budget. I can buy perfume. Or I can buy books. For the time being, I buy perfume.

Such was this bathetic state of affairs, until serendipity – and my own debatable notoriety as a perfume writer –  landed me a copy of Alyssa Harad’s ‘Coming To My Senses’.

I didn’t read it at all. I ate it in two days.

I’ve known about Alyssa for quite some time, had been reading her on Perfume Smellin’ Things, had the occasional Twitter exchange. Several phone conversations with my friends in the US mentioned her. So of course I would read it and in one overly enthusiastic moment I even agreed to review it.

Q.E.D.

I’ll say it right out: This is an incredibly charming book. If that sounds like the worst sort of backhanded compliment, I can assure you – it’s not.

In ‘Coming To My Senses’ Alyssa – self-professed feminist academic Geek Gal, describes her own personal journey of self-discovery as it happened through…perfume, from playing with essential oils and attending workshops with an entity known as the Curator all the way through her education as a perfumista – discovering the perfume blogs, acquiring samples hoarded like the guilty treasures they surely are, and opening her perception not just to her sense of smell, but to an entirely new way of perceiving all of life through her senses. We follow her – the world’s most unlikely bride – through planning for her wedding, excursions to New York, her entire journey to…become something better, someone ‘other’, someone somehow richer than she was before, and it all happened through that intangible/tangible, sensory medium of…perfume.

We meet the sneers and semi-embarrassed reactions to her new, all-consuming vice, and how it also becomes a calling card, a way of connecting with others in a way she could never have anticipated.

After reading it, I was totally floored. Floored not because our trajectories as perfume writers were so different, but more than anything because of all the similarities, even despite living on separate continents, cultures and countries.

What I loved most about the book is what I would call…relatability.

Most of the perfume books I’ve read reviews of have tended to lay down the laws of doom – in effect, the writer is saying “This is what I know, and I know infinitely better than you.”

Perfume is a uniquely subjective experience, so I rather doubt the validity of that statement –the books that are full of them, and the writers who are full of themselves.

Alyssa’s book has none of those stentorian, professorial airs. She comes across as entirely likeable, relatable and even endearing – cue an epic meltdown brought on by that ominous phrase ‘foundation garment’. Most of all, this is a book that’s entirely approachable even if you don’t know about perfume. I can practically guarantee – after finishing this story, you will be curious, intrigued, and if you already love perfume, maybe most of all relieved…that somewhere out there is someone else with a similar passion – and she’s every bit as human and as fallible as you!

Alyssa Harad, ‘Coming To My Senses’, is available at major bookstores and at Amazon. Alyssa is also giving a presentation today at the Artisan Fragrance Salon in San Francisco, and another in Brooklyn on July 19th.

Disclosure: A copy of ‘Coming To My Senses’ was made available by Viking.

Photo: my iPhone

A Harrowing Beauty

THE DEVILSCENT PROJECT  VIII

–  a review of House of Cherry Bomb’s ‘Lilith’ 

What makes villains so fascinating? Is it that they’re more often than not expressing something, doing or instigating something we ourselves would never dare? Don’t we all have that secret part of us that wants to be thoroughly, utterly b-a-d, just once, just to say we did?

I wonder what I might have been trying to say when Lilith appeared out of nowhere and made her presence known in no uncertain terms.

I wasn’t looking for her. I rather suspect she might have been looking for me…

Once we got to know each other, I felt a bit bad that maybe I hadn’t treated her entirely fairly. Maybe, as I told a friend recently, she was the quintessence of every she-dog I’d ever encountered – and I’ve known a few.

Maybe…she had it coming.

The principle. Darling.

And yet…even villains need a little compassion, a few lighter shades of gray in the mix, lest they become too predictable, too inhuman for a reader to relate to. The tragedy of Lilith in Quantum Demonology is the tragedy of so many women…the tragedy of making the wrong choice, of choosing the wrong guy, and then coming to terms with your own bitter disappointment – in yourself, which is always hardest to swallow.

So Lilith made a few bad choices, choices with consequences she could never have imagined, and I like to think that’s what makes her relatable even as the antagonist – throughout her long, long history with Dev, she paid a very high price for never daring to face that disappointment.

Instead, she chose to let the rest of the world pay for what she couldn’t face, and became Lilith, Queen of the Succubi, the ultimate female nightmare…and what would such a fabled, alluring creature be in a perfume? How would her character and her glamour be expressed and explored?

Where Ellen Covey painted her portrait in poison Da-Glo green, Maria McElroy and Alexis Karl of the House of Cherry Bomb chose to tell a very different story, one that glows equally vibrant but in an alternate key.

Make no mistake – this is lethal stuff. Maria and Alexis know far too much about blending the essential oil of danger with fever concrete and lust absolute, and this Lilith is no exception.

The Queen of the Succubi rules this perfume, that’s obvious from its shocking, unnerving beginnings all the way to…but I’m getting ahead of myself, and this will not do.

Floral and heady, leathery and earthy, with musky undertones and something else, something that smelled – poisonous, even tainted. It was very erotic and so domineering it cracked an olfactory whip at my nose.

 – From Quantum Demonology, ‘Latte with Lilith’

I will begin, as all stories should and perfume reviews, too.

With …the beginning.

Here she comes, black as night and blinding bright, making her presence felt with what I can only describe as a floral bouquet of carnivorous, rapacious blooms.

Beware the Polianthes.

She is out to devour you, get you as only she can when she gangs up with her equally heady, indolic ladies-in-waiting who lurk just behind her, wearing their sweetest smiles and their satin skins…the orange blossom breathing beautiful, the jasmine sighing a singular delicious promise she will never, ever keep.

Does this sound familiar, sound like something you might have breathed or loved before? Does it read as the well-beloved contents of a bottle you might even own?

I, who have survived this mortal peril in a perfume will tell you this for your own good:

You haven’t.

For no familiarity has ever graced these blooms that grew, were fed and were watered by the river Lethe, exuding their fatal majesty beneath a starless sky in Hell.  Breathe this perfume all the way in, and you will forget yourself as you breathe, forget you have ever known any other kind of splendor, forget all you ever were and everything you are. Forget the velvet-soft caress of those glowing moonlit petals, even as they slide across your skin and your soul and entwine themselves around you, you are far too transported to notice, even as they tighten, even as this sweet, honeyed breath threatens to stifle your own.

You will be lost, you will be doomed, and you won’t, you don’t, you are incapable of even thinking about the peril of your fate.

But there is more to Lilith than this, and as she tells this story you have never breathed before, she shifts in a stealthy, eerie segue to something equally sweet and even green, with heavy and heady intimations of musk that deepen and darken as she evolves, tinted ever blacker but never less than heavenly – or infernal, depending on your point of view. She growls her last on your skin hours and hours later with a bitter drydown that brands itself into your awareness and haunts those fevered dreams you can never admit in daylight to anyone at all.

I can guess what you’re thinking. Hyperbole, an overactive imagination, perhaps a glass of wine too many?

No. I am as sober as the empty page. It’s just …this perfume, you see, that takes away all common sense and all inhibition and haunts everyone it devours in its path.

I even like to believe that the silk scarf I forgot on my one date of the year, a scarf as saturated with Lilith as the rest of me that night to remember, will haunt the dreams of the one who kept it… forever.

You don’t mess with the Queen of the Succubi.

The House of Cherry Bomb’s ‘Lilith’ came with a sealed-wax admonition on scorched parchment paper:

“The secrets of the Succubi are bound in blood. The contents of this vial shall not be known to mankind. As sealed by Lilith.”

I’ve warned you. Will you listen? Or will you, too fall prey to the harrowing beauty – of Lilith?

With my deepest thanks and immortal gratitude to Maria McElroy and Alexis Karl.

Alexis has also been inspired by my Lilith to write this haunting song:

“Lilith – Live” (YouTube)

Image: Nadja Auermann photographed by Richard Avedon, 1995

Et In Elysium Ego

From the gardens of the Villa d'Este at Tivoli

–       a review of Vero Profumo’s ‘Mito’

Gardens have inspired famous paintings, music and certainly perfumes, catching that interplay of light and shadow, the fragrance of grass and flower and moment into a time capsule that can take us back in a sniff and a heartbeat. Taking us back to where nothing exists except an ideal ‘now’ and even an ideal self we can savor and remember long after the garden has faded, the petals dropped, and time has marched onward, as time always does.

One such garden is the Villa d’Este garden in Tivoli outside Rome, that wonder of Renaissance engineering and Roman ideals, with its many fountains and waterworks, statues and groves, and just as Liszt was inspired to make music and painters were inspired to paint its mannered, symmetrical lines, now Vero Kern of vero profumo has created ‘Mito’, a liquid ode to the timeless miracle of the Villa d’Este in green and white.

Say that magic word: green, and you will have my attention at ‘Hello!’ Those many green chypres and florals and fougères that have run like a verdant, fragrant river throughout my life have perhaps defined me as no other perfume families have. Some are no more, some are reformulated, and some are a memory as fleeting as a flawless summer day. I thought, until a few short days day, that I knew what could be done and what could be said about ‘green’, and the rest were simply variations on a theme, like improvisations on a Chopin ètude, and ‘green’ would surely hold no more surprises?

Along came the epiphany that was ‘Mito’ and the phenomenon that is Swiss perfumer Vero Kern, and yet again, my continents have shifted and my perspectives changed and what I define as ‘green’ and ‘white’ will never quite be the same again.

vero profumo has been at the very top of my Try Before I Die list for quite some time, ever since a dear friend rhapsodized about Rubj in a recent phone conversation. What she didn’t know – and I didn’t tell – was that I’ve been stalking the vero profumo website for quite some time, dreaming my romantic dreams of some day calling those fragrant wonders my own.

Everyone said it…Vero’s creations were unusual, unique, artlessly spinning stories around classical perfumery phrases and inventing them anew, so you can imagine …my curiosity simmered away for years. A few short weeks ago, I was gathering up the courage to order samples because I could stand it no longer, I simply had to know, to sniff, and to dream them for myself…

So serendipity and Fate landed a sample set of all of vero profumo in my lap and a sensual seismic tremor rearranged my synapses and all I thought I knew about perfume, about olfactory evolution, about breathing in the beauties of a captured moment in time…a flower, a song, a famous garden high in the Lazio hills…

Here I have Mito, now it breathes on my skin, and everything I imagined I once knew about ‘green’, about ‘white’ and about artistry have once again been redefined.

Vero explained in a recent interview with Extrait that she wanted to create a perfume in green and white as a ode to that revelation of beauty the Villa d’Este was when she discovered it.

Forget what you think you might know about ‘green’, forget the list of notes, forget all all your preconceived categories of ‘floral’ and ‘chypre’. Mito is all of these and none of these, it is at once heartbreakingly beautiful and yet eccentric, just unnerving enough to keep you on your toes.

I could tell you the list of notes, I could tell you I can smell all of them. I could tell you I’m thinking about throwing the entire concept of top-heart-base completely out the window. I could tell you all of this, and it wouldn’t be enough.

Mito is a whirling, laughing, living waltz of a perfume, dancing through all the colors of its notes, the exuberant, sunshine bright of citrus, the shady depths of galbanum and cypress and moss, and above all, that vibrant verve of magnolia, champaca, cool hyacinth and a touch of ethereal jasmine. The magnolias – both grandiflorum and white – are the stars of this, weightlessly suspended in midair by the high, cool hyacinth and anchored by the basso profondo of cypress and moss, but these are no watery, aquatic magnolias, these are indeed grand, opulent, magnificent blooms that sparkle on my skin from that initial burst of laughter all the way to the twilit drydown many, many hours later.

What myth does Mito refer to, what story does it tell? To me, it dances a dream of a perfect moment in a flawless day, of simply…being entirely present, where nothing exists but the interplay of green shade and sunlight sparkling like a thousand airborne diamonds through the fountains, where the symmetry of Renaissance lines and Roman statuary draw the eye up and around to discover a new vista, a hitherto unknown perspective that catches you unaware and takes your breath away and makes you laugh with the pure joy of being alive to appreciate it. It is the myth of perfect nature in perfect harmony, and it is the reality of one moment in time, when that diamond sunlight shimmer makes you think only happy thoughts…

Et in Elysium Ego. But this is no ideal, and I am every inch and every breath entirely alive, laughing underneath that Lazio sun, dreaming the stories that I can hope some day will become…myths …as real and as vibrant as Vero’s Mito.

vero profumo Mito will be available in September.

Notes: Citrus blend, magnolia grandiflora, white magnolia, champaca, jasmine, galbanum, hyacinth, cypress blend, moss.

With special thanks to the immensely inspiring and encouraging Vero Kern herself, and to Campomarzio70.

Illustration of Vero and Mito taken from the Mito press release. Diego Comi photography, design by Sofo Berdzenishvili.