The Ghosts that Time Breathed In

–  a review of Aftelier Perfumes’ Sepia

In this overlooked corner of the old world, with it history dating back at least to Neolithic times, where the past can be seen in both buildings and landscapes, river valleys, stone dolmens and peat bogs, there’s no shortage of ghosts. Dolmens crowning hills or appearing in a beechwood glade, medieval castles fallen to ruins by a lake, the eerie, numinous presences haunting a peat bog on a midsummer midnight while the elderflowers exude their magical siren song of summer…there are plenty of ghosts if you know where to look.

But ghost towns, the abandoned ruins of towns left entirely behind, are something Europeans tend to tear down, plow over and rebuild, unless they’re kept for memorial purposes our ravaged history only wishes we could forget.

Yet in the US, and particularly in the Southwest, ghost towns abound, echoing what was once a gloried past in a brief and fleeting instant, when they teemed with life and dreams and hopes that maybe this time, maybe even you could get lucky, maybe even you could strike it rich and realize a dream before the veins ran out and the river ran dry.

I’ve seen a few ghost towns in my time in the US, deserted under a blazing sun and a searing blue sky, the tumbleweeds bouncing down the empty street in the wind that sweeps the past away but leaves the shell of it behind, where the coyotes sing their songs at night of dreams dead and abandoned to fade like the buildings that contained them, oh, so many years ago.

The ghost towns of the California Gold Rush of 1848 were also the inspiration for Mandy Aftel’s latest collaboration with Laurie Erickson of Sonoma Scent Studios on Nathan Branch’s blog, and here we have the result, Aftelier’s Sepia, her ode to the ravages of time and the beauty of decay found in those empty shells of life, dreams and hopes.

One of my favorite things about Mandy’ work is how it continues to surprise me, continues to evolve, and continues to reject all the obvious choices to expand upon and challenge our perceptions of both beauty and of perfume, for her perfumes are nothing if not surprising, unique and more often than not, uniquely resistant to analysis, but they are also always uniquely and surprisingly beautiful. Sepia is no exception.

How many times have you encountered a perfume that begins both light and dark? That sounds like such a contradiction, like some conjuring trick that can’t be done. Yet I tell you, it can and it has, because Sepia starts with a sunshine burst of citrus, that fragrant clarion call to awaken your perceptions and at the same time, the blood cedarwood adds its own brand of some dark and diaphanous wash of ink, damping down the sunshine, deepening the story to come, almost, as Lucy of Indieperfumes also noted in her review, as if it evolves in reverse, bringing forth hints of the base that recede like shadows beneath sunlight, shifting and changing.

Time never does stand still and neither does Sepia, emanating its many tales in a multi-hued and many-layered middle of lotus and jasmine, strawberry and cocoa and coffee that manage to elegantly sidestep any associations you might have of gourmand, all of them combined instead giving me one olfactory childhood association in particular that to me is uniquely American and that I have never, ever encountered before in perfume, one that exudes a distant, faraway memory of time more than almost anything else I know – and that is…sassafras. Not the taste of it – root beer will be the very last thing on your mind with Sepia – but the scent and ‘feel’ of it, with its floral high notes and earthy, unusual base, the coffee and cocoa added in such delicate amounts they never detract from the opulent jasmine or the otherworldly lotus, the strawberry somehow bridging that impossible leap between flowers and coffee, smoothing the path that lies ahead for the richer, darker base to bloom, flowering tobacco and spiky, woody oud, earthy labdanum and cepes anchoring it all somehow back to Earth and back in time, all wrapped around a golden base of ambergris that expands and enriches this ode to time and decay and evokes the sepia tints of long-ago and near forgotten daguerrotypes of lovers and sinners, losers and winners, memories of time, of space and of place. When thousands of dreamers with nothing to lose left everything they knew in search of a golden dream that was there for the taking and the daring, just waiting for discovery in the mountain streams of a state that even today seems more dream than reality.

I can breathe in Sepia and see it happening as I breathe, breathe it as I dream. I’m standing on that deserted street in that ghost of a town, seeing the sun-seared, time-blasted wood of the derelict houses that once sheltered those long-ago dreams of fortune and fame, hearing the wind whistle its way through them as the tumbleweeds dance and bounce. As I do, as I inhale and even I dream, I can sense how the color slowly seeps back into the landscape like a developing old-fashioned color photograph before my eyes, growing richer and deeper. Before long, echoes of sound are added, the shouts of lost voices, the whinny of horses and the rumble of carts through the dusty streets, of prospectors and miners returning with everything or nothing, gold dust and nuggets burning holes in their imaginations and their pockets or else scorching their broken dreams to cinders and ashes, charlatans and women lurking in the shady confines of the saloons and parlors, waiting to realize their own hopes and dreams in that flood of possibilities and gold in the hills. I can breathe Sepia and remember…all the ghosts that Time breathed in and soon forgot.

Yet no life is ever forgotten. All the ghosts of that forgotten town lay in waiting to be found and bottled by a perfumer who told their many tales and sent them on to a dreamer half the world away, who breathed it in and breathed them back to life and all of it entire contained in a perfume… called Sepia.

Notes:

Top: Blood cedarwood, yellow mandarin, pink grapefruit

Heart: Pink lotus, strawberry, jasmine grandiflorum, cocoa, coffee

Base: Flowering tobacco, oud, indole, ambergris, cepes, labdanum 

Sepia is available as both eau de parfum and pure perfume from the Aftelier website, where samples are also available.

Disclosure: A sample of Sepia was sent to me for review by Mandy Aftel.

Follow the process behind the evolution of Sepia and Laurie Erickson’s ‘Forest Walk’ on Nathan Branch’s blog series ‘Letters To A Fellow Perfumer’ here:

Part 1part 2part 3part 4part 5

Photo from Bodie, California.

The Surprise at the Top of the Shop

–   a review of Aftelier Perfumes‘Parfum de Maroc’

One of my recent obsessions this past spring has been Moroccan cuisine. This explains why I stood in front of an enormous spice rack on a busy day at one of my favorite local shops in town, a Lebanese market that stocks everything from addictive fresh-baked mahmoul cookies, baklava and orange flower water to nigella seeds, cherimoya fruit and bunches of fresh peppermint for tea. I had just bought not one, but three coffee grinders, one of which I would dedicate as a spice mill, and this Saturday morning, I had a mission: to make my own Ras al Hanout, the spice mixture that jazzes some of my favorite foods.

Which was precisely when I ran into a friend of mine, who works as a translator of Arabic and English. He cast a glance into my basket. Couscous, peppermint, Italian parsley, cilantro, those addictive mahmoul cookies, lemons, whole allspice, dried chiles, black and green cardamom pods, Ceylon cinnamon sticks, coriander seeds, almonds. “Ah!” he said. “You’re making your own Ras al Hanout! Don’t forget the rose petals!” He tossed a packet into my basket and gave me a conspiratorial grin. “That’s the secret, you know. Too many people forget. Do you know what it means?” “The top of the shop,” I answered. “Because that’s where the best spices are kept?” That made him laugh. “Only in Morocco. Everywhere else, it means a mortuary! You know, because they put you…on the top of the shop?” He winked. “But never mind…watch out for those mahmoul cookies. Roast your spices! And remember the rose petals! They make all the difference!” Whereupon he frogmarched me to the cash register and the very amused Lebanese he attacked with a torrent of Arabic and laughter concluding in a thirty percent discount on the contents of my basket.

The very top of the shop is also where you’ll find Aftelier’s equally delicious Parfum de Maroc, inspired by a journey to Morocco and that eponymous, addictive spice blend. No worries…this is most emphatically a perfume, and like all the very best perfumes, the kind of fragrant transport-in-a-bottle that enlightens the mind, enlivens the soul and exhales its own brand of exotic sunshine on your skin.

My own limited experience with Morocco goes no further than Casablanca, and the sensory shock of the market in color, sound and perfume under a blazing August sun I never quite forgot, and just as another perfume took me there in a sniff and a heartbeat, so does this one, although this is nothing like it.

The heat, the whirl and swirl of another culture living at a different, hotter pitch and timbre, all the striking, scorching color and fiery, feisty spice are all there right at the outset of Parfum de Maroc. A heady punch of ginger and its distant cousin galangal zaps your senses awake, followed by an exuberant orange, a mellow pepper and glowing over all like the Moroccan sun, a vibrant saffron smoldering its own kind of fire around the edges, which proves that spice is indeed…very, very nice. But Parfum de Maroc is no gourmand, does not have any edible associations, and as I’ve come to expect with Mandy Aftel’s creations, just as that delectable, spicy top accord fades, a most wondrous thing occurs.

Normally, when rose is immersed in a perfume, I know what to expect. It can be green, spiky, untamed, erotic, musky, lemony…even (here comes that word again!) spicy. Still – a rose is a rose is a…you get the idea.

Until I said that happy hello to Parfum de Maroc, I had never met a rose that hid so well behind its spice and light, flirty teases of jasmine, of nutmeg, a puff or two of dusky, dark cinnamon, and before I know it, the biggest surprise of all. It’s raining…dried rose petals! Nothing like fresh roses, these petals are earthy, warm, slightly dusty, underlining their inspiration and exuding their own kind of heat, glimpsed out of the corner of your olfactory eye in that faraway medina as if falling behind an ornate pierced woody screen of spice and cinnamon, a breath of jasmine caught from far away weaving its own ribbon of heaven into the mix. As those petals fade after a long while, the twilight descends. The blinding light and searing spice, the flowers that catch you by surprise, and the final curtain between night and day, cardamom and myrrh and rich, dark labdanum.

Where do all these fragrant colors begin, what could be said to describe Parfum de Maroc? It’s a tapestry woven to a memory of heat, color, light and perfume, it’s a vacation in a bottle, and it’s an exhilarating, happy aura to wrap around yourself on mundane, rainy days, when life conspires against you and you need that reminder – just like the spice blend, just like this perfume, you, too, belong only…at the top of the shop!

Notes: Bitter orange, fresh ginger, galangal, saffron, black pepper, nutmeg, jasmine, rose, cinnamon, cardamom, myrrh, labdanum.

Parfum de Maroc is available as a 1/4 oz. perfume and as an Eau de Parfum from the Aftelier website.

Disclosure: A sample was provided for review by Mandy Aftel.

Image: Peter Hammer, Redbubble. Used by permission.

Primeval Forces of Perfume

In Quantum Demonology, there is a term for what the protagonist calls…primeval forces, a phrase that refers to those musical epiphanies that are above superstardom and even above musical gods on an altogether different plane of existence. The ones she can’t live without, ever. The ones who never leave her iPod playlists. Ever.

But I have them in perfume terms, too. And a recent Skype conversation with one of them brought the concept up again. Which made me think, something this particular august personage does quite well. So what creates such paragons of fragrant epiphanies – what does it take to elevate illustrious perfumers and creative directors into my nosebleed stratosphere? Who are they? And why do they loom so important – on my person, in my cabinet, in my perfume subconscious? Read on, and I’ll tell you.

Understand that once upon a time, although I used – and likely abused – a wide range of perfumes starting at age 14, I did not always have such a visceral, emotional connection with perfumes. I operated on the time-honored French principle of “Ça sent beau”… “It smells…good!”, and so long as it worked on my mood, my manner or my nefarious plans, often horizontal, then all was well, until…

Until I began reading about perfume on a scale I never had before. In those days, it was olfaction by proxy, since I couldn’t afford any, but at least I could educate myself, and so I did, right up to the moment I read about a certain Paris-based perfume house, whose perfumes were described as ‘bottled emotions’. For whatever reasons, that idea stuck in my receptive mind. How did you…bottle emotion? And which ones? What did they smell like? Would they be different than the ones I already knew and loved, if no longer owned?

If I only knew what I know now.

Since becoming a perfume blogger in earnest, I’ve discovered that emotions could indeed be bottled – good, bad, even horror! (Secretions Magnifiques, here’s looking at you!). My tastes have evolved to such an extent that I love all sorts of perfumes – greens, chypres, opulent Orientals, knock ‘em dead florals, woods, gourmands, ouds…you name them, I’ll love them. There’s still room for improvement – musk is a note I struggle with – but I’m all for…fragrant transport to …elsewhere and otherwise, to new horizons and time travel, too!

Primeval Forces, however, elevate themselves above the rest. These creations are the ones I will wear without fail and with total surrender, the ones that suck me into a vortex of wonder, the ones I never hope to be without again, the ones that define not just this perfume writer, but this woman – and this soul. Which takes a lot more than simply…smelling good!

1) In every peerless work of art, so say the discerning, there is a hint of..strange, some oddity that catches the eye, the ear, or the nose. True beauty will always be unusual, always make you pause and take another look, another sniff, another snag that catches on the cogwheels of your imagination and sends it down a new and unexplored path. So that whiff of…strange that compels you to breathe deeper, that stops you cold and fires your imagination, would be my first criterion.

2) Every artistic creation – or collaboration, and some of my Primeval Forces are – contains some detectable droplet of the minds that conceived it. You could say that there’s an invisible ribbon in these bottles that goes straight from the creator(s) to that secret, bedrock location in my soul that was waiting for this reminder to shoot towards the light of awareness. I have to sense the heartbeat(s) behind it, which could explain why I tend to gravitate towards the niche and independent lines these days. They rarely disappoint me.

3) All my Primeval Forces excel at transport and the unexpected…they surprise me, they show me wonders, they make me cry, they take me places I’ve never known before, and as they do, my world is somehow larger, richer and far more colorful for it. Some kind of seismic perspective shift occurs, and how I define ‘perfume’ will never be the same.

4) Last, but not least…inspiration! When the time comes to sift through my impressions and turn them into expression, do I find myself tearing my hair out, grappling with metaphor and simile, trying to say something new, trying to expand – if not explode – my limitations as a writer? If that’s the case, I know I’m on to something spectacular. The less control I have over my own creative process, the better the end result. The perfumes that remove that illusory ‘control’ and just write my review for me – these are the ones I know I won’t be able to live without!

5) Each of these houses and perfumers march to their very own and distinctive beat. This means they can be as ground-breaking and as creative as they please, and so they are. Each has their own style and signature, and each of them make only their own rules.

So here they are – my fragrant Primeval Forces. There is no hierarchy here, no order of preference – these perfumers and houses are all laws unto themselves, continuing to take my breath away and explaining in liquid and essence, why I love to live and live to sniff!

Parfums Serge Lutens/Serge Lutens & Christopher Sheldrake

When I first read about Serge Lutens perfumes, I had this cold chill of intuition…there was something there, some secrets I needed to know. Not many understand quite so well the compelling beauty of strange and spectacular, of redefining by deconstructing. When I finally had the opportunity to try them, my world view changed…forever. I’ve been amazed ever since and I remain amazed every time I wear a Lutens, for familiarity does not take away that thrill of discovery and epiphany. I haven’t loved all of them, and in a few cases not at all, but of those I fell for – nearly twenty at last count! – I’ll love them for as long as I live.

Aftelier Perfumes/Mandy Aftel

Encountering the marvels of Mandy Aftel was one of the happiest ‘coincidences’ of my life. Mandy’s perfumes are nearly impossible to categorize, which qualifies her right there, but that’s only where she begins to pull those rabbits out of her hat. Strangely beautiful, beautifully strange, earthy, shockingly sensuous and opulent or ethereal as dancing moonbeams, she always surprises me and never compromises on her artistic vision. I have yet to encounter an Aftelier that hasn’t blown me away. They compel me and inspire me and fortify me in ways very few other perfumes do, so much that I usually have one drop of an Aftelier somewhere on me regardless of whatever else I wear, just because it’s the final cross on this T!

DSH Perfumes/Dawn Spencer Hurwitz

Right when I thought I was fast becoming my own living anachronism, mourning the death of Immortal Green Chypres, along came hope in a bottle in the form of a sample sent by Lucy of Indieperfumes. That sample was Vert pour Madame, and repercussions could be detected as far away as Buenos Aires at least. Dawn’s epic range and vision don’t stop there. Her knowledge of perfumes through history is unparalleled, her recreations and her own creations are…peerless, and just as Mandy, she knows just how to pull the rug from under my feet and expectations and swipe me sideways in all the best ways. I’ve yet to meet a DSH creation I couldn’t instantly fall for with a vengeance. As indeed I have! She’s simply…THAT…great!

Amouage Perfumes

Luxury in this day and age has become such an overused, over-hyped word. Ridiculously overpriced, average perfumes sold on pretentious PR copy are not how I define it. My perfume budget is so low, it’s a joke, yet I’m not laughing. I was laughing the day I caught myself ordering two fated (and outrageously expensive) samples of Amouage with the thought that I would be impervious to the hype, I would simply let these two speak for themselves, and despite many warnings from the Greek chorus of my fellow perfume bloggers (who knew precisely what I was in for), I was convinced Amouage couldn’t possibly be that stupendous. Famous last words, for heaven help me – they are. Every single one of them! Since the arrival of Creative Director Christopher Chong, Amouage has made perfumes so plush, unique and persuasive (if not addictive!), that all I can do is shrug at my own bloody-mindedness and surrender to their charms. In the case of Amouage, I’m so easy, it’s ridiculous. Or I am!

Opus Oils/Kedra Hart

Opus Oils, to my line of thinking, should be a smash success if there were any justice in this world. Because Kedra Hart makes perfume – always in danger of being just a little precious and high-minded – f-u-n. That might make you think they couldn’t be complex, tell stories, or take your breath away. Not so. Look past the tongue-in-cheek vintage-inspired copy (not that I’m complaining) and you will find perfumes as stellar as any others on my Primeval list, as rich and as surprising and evolving. As I work my way through my samples of Kedra’s creations, my FB wish list is getting ever longer. That they are all so easy to wear and to love can take away the fact that they are so masterfully constructed, with a sleight-of-hand that makes the very difficult look so very artless – always the sign of a true, dedicated, epically talented artist!

Neil Morris Fragrances/Neil Morris

Neil is a recent addition to my Primeval list, although I’ve been aware of him for quite some time. My introduction to Neil’s art was through a Vault collection perfume, and it literally wiped me off the floor in a swoon. But distracted as I am by all the details of my quotidian life, even I can feel that cold chill brush of intuition that sings… “Here we go – again!” For since that fatal discovery, thank all the perfume Gods!, Neil and his titanic talents have joined the Devilscent Project, and what a revelation they both have been! No neophyte to the Dark Arts of perfumery, he has reduced me to tears with his mods, because…by golly, he gets it! All of it – the light, the dark, the joy and the tragedy of my story. Our common fragrant journey has only just begun, but I am so grateful to have such a talent to explore,l and so privileged to have so many wonders to anticipate.

Olympic Orchids/Ellen Covey

If my (mis)education as a perfumoholic began with reading perfume blogs and evolved with the discovery of Serge Lutens, then it was surely cemented (or I was doomed!) when I discovered Olympic Orchids. Ellen Covey and her scents – orchid-inspired and otherwise – have done so very much to educate me and astonish me as well as delight me. She was my first indie perfumer, and has since been a perpetual surprise. Her orchid perfumes are spot-on, true to life and utterly spectacular (just ask the head gardener of the Orchid House at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Copenhagen, when I came to visit as the cattleyas bloomed, perfumes in tow), and the rest of her range is no less magnificent. But then – since this is the trouble we both like to make when we can! – we cooked up the Devilscent Project…and neither of us will ever quite be the same. The four Devils she conjured – and the synchronicity of their creation in her perfumes and my words – have shifted some major ground in my world, which has yet another reason for never quite… being the same!

Maria McElroy & Alexis Karl, Cherry Bomb Killer Perfume

Trouble always awaits when you’re sent eight samples of a new line and you can’t say one bad thing about any of them, only that you want…one of everything, pronto! This happened last summer when I was introduced to Aroma M and the lovely Maria McElroy, but little did I know the epiphanies that awaited when she joined forces with her Cherry Bomb Killer Perfumes partner Alexis Karl of Scents by Alexis fame for the Clarimonde Project and their Immortal Mine, nor what I would be inspired to write because of it. (There’s another kind of novel in that story/review just begging to be written!). These two have the kind of spectacular creative synergy between them I can only marvel at, marvel and be grateful I’m privileged to write about it. Coming soon are my reviews of their contributions for the Devilscent Project, and if perfumes are perilous – as I’ve always fervently believed – then this Devil and this Lilith, Queen of the Succubi – are surely proscribed by a top-secret Papal bull!

Neela Vermeire Creations/Neela Vermeire & Bertrand Duchaufour

Even in niche perfumery, there’s no shortage of hype – or launches. I’m well aware of all the lines I have yet to discover, or the one I’m dying to. So it takes more than PR machinery, a luxury label and ditto price tag to convince this perfume writer. It takes…that ribbon, that soul connection, that Aha! moment. When everyone started talking in hyper-excited tones about a new trio of perfumes unlike anything at all else around the time of the Elements NY exhibition, a line inspired by memories of that storied sub-continent of dreams that is India, my nose pricked up. When my sample set arrived on a gray day of forever goodbyes, I wondered whether it might be a sign of new beginnings. It was. For the trilogy and evolving stories that swirl and eddy within Trayee, Mohur and Bombay Bling are indeed those singular, vivid and personal narratives in perfume we all say we want to sniff and all too rarely do. All three reached out, grabbed my heart in fated, fabled, fragrant hugs and wouldn’t let me go. Their intricate, many-faceted wonders are there to stay!

Tauer Perfumes/Andy Tauer

When it comes to Andy Tauer, I usually joke I want to parade him down Fifth Avenue in a sedan chair with an adoring crowd throwing rose petals. I doubt this would ever happen – or even that the very modest Andy would stand for it! – but it says something of the impact he has – or the seismic potential of his perfumes. They are sometimes challenging and always unusual, and have done so much to reinvent my own perfume vernacular, no matter what the context or the materials. Whether rose – and no one does roses quite like Andy – incense, lavender or amber, or just the olfactory bomb that is Orange Star, I’ve had to really push my words to describe them and the places they took me to, and that, too is another kind of genius and another unique talent for which I can never thank him enough!

Primeval Forces are personal epiphanies, the ones you can’t live without and wouldn’t want to try. The ones you can find on yourself when all you want to do is feel that sigh of perfection in a world that all too often is anything but.

Do you have Primeval Forces, too?

Best of the Best 2011 – Perfumes and Perfumers

If anyone had told me what kind of year I would have just three hundred and sixty four days ago, I wouldn’t have believed it. I would have believed it even less if I had known what magic carpet rides I would encounter, what places I would go, or what marvels I would breathe.

This has been an impossible list, impossible because there have just been so many discoveries and so many perfumes, perfumers and fellow bloggers I would have loved to have on my list, but if I wrote about them all – and surely, I’ve tried? – we’d be here until next year.

Instead, I’ve split my best of the best into three – this one, to celebrate the perfumes and perfumers I was introduced to in this momentous year, second, to celebrate my favorite reading material/avoidance actions/friends and facilitators, and third, a tribute to the ones I wore with a passion and loved with a fury. The perfumes I mention in this post have been without exception released this year, which meant omitting others that were released previously, but they’ll receive their own mention in Part Three. It also means that in spite of other important releases issued, I’ve only mentioned those I’ve had the opportunity to try.

Indie Love!

My heart belongs to the indie perfumers of the world. With a few notable exceptions, the idea of handling a perfume bottle that has been touched by the hands that made it, the mind that conceived it, the perfumer who wrote me, wrapped it up and sent it to me, Ms. No One In Particular, makes it that much more…special.

All the indie perfumers who have made it to my Best of list put the ‘mano’ in the Italian phrase ‘fatto à mano’, made by hand, made with love, care and ‘ àl ‘onore della m’arte ’ – “in honor of my art”, an art that mainstream releases all too often ignore in their mercilessly commercialized hunt for the Next Big Thing.

It is a dedication I have rarely found until this past year, a dedication I had all but given up on ever finding again. When you support the indies, you support the artists themselves instead of filling the already overstuffed coffers of Sanofi, Proctor&Gamble, LVMH…

Support your indie perfumers, and you support a commitment to quality and artistic vision that even the Fragrance Foundation itself has now acknowledged with a category all its own. For a reason – the indies are…that good! They do it without much advertising, but only simple editorial write-up (if they’re lucky to get it), reputation/word of mouth and a little help from the blogosphere.

The Perfumers

This was the year I discovered the staggering creativity of American artisanal perfumery. Granted, I had a lot of help to point me in that direction, but geez, Louise…the scope, the breadth, their sheer jawdropping, sleight-of-hand artistry…

Each has their own personal signature, that singular touch and aesthetic vocabulary that makes them instantly recognizable.

This being my own year of Great Epiphanies, I’ve decided that rather than single out one of them, I’ve put them all up on the Number One spot. Ladies – you have all won my heart and undying loyalty to my dying day, and I can’t ever imagine a perfumed life without any of you!

Mandy Aftel, Aftelier Perfumes

The early morning I found an email from Mandy Aftel in my inbox redefined that lovely Yiddish word…’plotz’. Yes, I did. I had read reviews, I had perused her website, I had some intimations of what to expect…so I thought. Nothing could have prepared me for the olfactory shock treatment my Jacobsens’s organ had in store. Mandy’s perfumes redefine sensual shock treatment. Mandy had an amazingly creative year – with Haute Claire in her collaboration with Liz Zorn, with Oud Luban for the Clarimonde Project, and with Secret Garden, her tribute to the classic florals of yore in collaboration with Dawn Spencer Hurwitz. Heaven help me, I love them all. Mandy herself has been a constant encouragement and inspiration for me this past year, and for that, I love her, too!

Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, Parfums de Beaux Arts

Where does Dawn Spencer Hurwitz quit? I mean…where does she quit? First, she blew my mind with Vert pour Madame, a throwback to my most favorite ever perfume family, the green floral chypre, and next, she created the Cities of Splendor collection in a unique collaboration with the Denver Art Museum, and then…she gave us Pandora, her staggering ode to Mousse de Saxe, and to top it off, she also gave us Paradise Lost for the Clarimonde Project. Not one I couldn’t love, not one I couldn’t rhapsodize about until the cows came home, not one misstep. Dawn’s perfumes will surely be the death of my borrowed credit card. Or me, whichever comes first.

Maria McElroy, Aroma M

Maria is someone who somehow manages to bridge the gap between the time-honored art of Japanese perfumery and thoroughly modern Western scented sensibilities. Her Geisha perfume line of eaux de parfums and perfume oils is incredibly diverse and heart-rendingly beautiful, and therapeutical, too! She outdid even herself when she gave us Geisha Amber Rouge, a thick, heady, all-out outrageously opulent take on her famous Geisha Rouge (another favorite of mine), but she also created Immortal Mine for the Clarimonde Project with Alexis Karl, with whom she makes Cherry Bomb Killer Perfumes. Maria has become very dear to me and she is as lovely in person as her breathtaking perfumes.

Kedra Hart, Opus Oils

I have reasons to suspect that Kedra Hart conjures up an imp for every perfume she makes, because in every Opus Oil perfume I’ve ever tried, it sneaks out and makes me write things or imagine things I never dreamed I could. Mischief and mayhem, time travel and Tiger, and I never know where I’ll end up, but it will certainly… be so much fun, I have to do it again. And again. Kedra, too has had a banner year…with her soliflore collection of good-time gals Les Bohemes, with her Wild Child that won the Patchouli Summer of Love award (and put the POW! in patchouli), with Starfucker for her house model, Tiger the Tempter, and with her latest amazing creation, the world’s first perfume for anosmics, Eau Pear Tingle, which I can’t wait to try. Had I but known that perfumed perdition could be so much fun…and I suspect, there will be…many more imps to come! And a Tiger. And other hazards to my sanity…

Honorable Mention:

No slight is intended to either Liz Zorn of Soivohle/Acoustijuice or Neil Morris, except to say I have been thrilled beyond measure and compare to explore two more lines I had never had the opportunity to try. Expect to see reviews of both Liz Zorn and more Neil Morris in the coming year!

Best Mainstream Niche:

The three that made it to this part of my list are both made by houses that hold a special place in my heart – Amouage and Serge Lutens. What’s worse is that I’ve only reviewed one of them, which will be amended shortly. My opinion is definitely in the minority, but I don’t care – they are each of them the reason I love what I do.

Vitriol d’Oeillet, Serge Lutens & Christopher Sheldrake

Serge Lutens released Jeux de Peau, Vitriol d’Oeillet and De Profundiis this year, and much as I liked Jeux de Peau with its burnt toast, melted butter and delicious sandalwood drydown, I loved Vitriol so much, I arranged for a decant…and drained it. I’m no stranger to the old-fashioned splendors of carnation, but not many carnations have surprised me so consistently as this one, from its pepper punch opening to its silky-smooth drydown and its hourglass shaped development.

Honour Man & Honour Woman, Nathalie Feisthauer, Alexandra Carlin, Violaine Collas with Christopher Chong, Amouage

One thing to love about Amouage is how their perfumes tell two sides to the same story from a masculine and a feminine perspective. Inspired by the final act of ‘Madame Butterfly’ as a filial tribute, they both represent something new – the resinous, black pepper explosion of Honour Man, and the love letter to the big, white floral feminine that is Honour Woman. Both beautifully rendered, both surprising, both stunning. As for the ex who drained my sample of Honour Man to the last drop…he can buy his own!

Favorite Indie Trend:

Once upon a time, I gave up hope that anyone, anywhere would ever love the Green Fiends of yore as much as I did. Was I ever…wrong! I came to discover the marvels of Puredistance Antonia, Aftelier’s breathtaking conciliation of galbanum and ylang ylang, Haute Claire, and Dawn Spencer Hurwitz’ Vert pour Madame and Pandora. Green is the color of hope, and all of these give me just that. If I were to look into a magic mirror and predict what might lie ahead, that rediscovery of green would be one trend, but more importantly, I believe that indie perfumers are rediscovering the inherent challenges and thrills of the all-out, opulent florals…as we saw with Aftelier’s Secret Garden, or the opulent Oriental, such as Aroma M Geisha Amber Rouge.

Worst Mainstream Launch of the Year:

Chanel no. 19 Poudré

I had such high hopes for this one, was so excited to try it, and was so unbelievably let down. What on Earth were Chanel thinking when they decided to give Chanel no. 19 a makeover? Yes, it’s difficult, yes, it’s different, and yes…it’s an icon for a reason. So they took my beloved no. 19, which I’ve worn for almost thirty years without fail, filleted it, flattened it, and added an overdose of baby powder to make it more palatable for the mainstream consumers who might be intimidated by the original. I was hoping for a no. 19 Eau Premiere. What I got was a pale, wan, semi-starved seventeen-year-old who photographs well but is very vague in person. Me, I’ll take intimidation any day of any year.

Worst Advertising Idea, Ever:

Nothing against the lovely Natalie Portman, you understand, but I am…in an outrage of epic proportions when I see that Dior has now dropped the ‘Cherie’ from Miss Dior Cherie and is now promoting it as simply Miss Dior. Now, an entire generation will equate this hot, synthetic strawberry mess with the perfume that made Dior famous. This is superbad in the worst possible way.

Best Mainstream Launch:

Bottega Veneta

Color me surprised. When a fashion brand best known for its hyper-luxe gloves and woven-leather handbags launched its own eponymous perfume, I had no expectations whatsoever. So I was in the perfect place to be taken aback by the restrained, elegant and very ladylike Bottega Veneta, which is nowhere so restrained it’s boring, but also so consistently well-made, it’s easy to love, even for this cranky leather fan. I might even buy it, so long as I get a handbag, too.

Coolest Fusion of Fumes and Phrases:

When Lucy of Indieperfumes asked me to participate in the Clarimonde Project in time for Halloween, thrilled was not the word to describe my reaction. A vampire story unlike any other, an immersion into the netherworld of dark and light, faith and passion – what wasn’t to love about that idea? Seven bloggers, six perfumers, one story and a kind of synergy I have a hard time describing, but some kind of magic occurred along the way, something very special was created in both perfumes and words, and in several compelling ways, I’m not quite what I was that day I wrote her back to say I’d love to be a part of it. Monica Miller of Perfume Pharmer, Mandy Aftel, Ayala Moriel, Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, Maria McElroy and Alexis Karl all rose spectacularly to the challenge of being inspired by Théophile Gautier’s 1836 story, and it was all this blogger at least could do to hope I was up for doing each of their creations the justice they deserved. Certainly, Monica, Trish of ScentHive, Lucy, Beth of PerfumeSmellin’ Things, Jade Dressler, Deana Sidney of LostPastRemembered and I pulled no punches each in our own ways to dive into the vials and wrest their interpretations of the story from them. All  – the words and the perfumes – happily coalesced into a special kind of magic I will always feel proud to have been a part of.

Most Dangerous Perfume of the Year:

Maria McElroy and Alexis Karl, Immortal Mine for the Clarimonde Project

I have reasons to suspect that on occasion, not even the perfumers involved in creating a perfume are entirely aware of just what genie they’re unleashing upon an unsuspecting world. The term ‘mortal peril’ is a bit of a cliché in perfume terms, but in the case of Immortal Mine, take my word for it – it’s no cliché here! I broke that dripping, blood-red wax seal and my blood immediately ran icy cold and scorching hot. Even now, I get goosebumps just thinking about it. Magic, mojo, that blood of a slayed Wyvern, the soil from an unmarked grave…whatever else they put into Immortal Mine, it is, hands down, the most dangerous thing I’ve smelled all year, and likely ever in my life. They will have to wrest this one from my cold, dead hands if they can…or bury me with it, so I can haunt my descendants!

Stay tuned tomorrow for Part Two – and more favorites of the year! And tell me, what were your best and worst of 2011?

Image: The Coronation crown of King Christian V of Denmark, made in 1670-71 by goldsmith Paul Kurtz in Copenhagen. This is the crown depicted on all DK coins and it is known as ‘The Crown of Absolute Sovereignty’. Image from the Royal Danish Collections at Rosenborg Castle, Copenhagen.

An Alchymistic Veil

– a tale and a review of Aftelier Perfumes‘Secret Garden’

Tonight would be a night to remember. Tonight, she had decided, it was time to move past those effervescent champagne conversations that somehow lasted until the waiters began to close the restaurant. Time to move past those promising goodnight kisses at her door.

It was time to show him what he had yet to learn about her, that other woman who hid waiting just beneath her skin, that woman he had yet to know. That woman she wanted him to know and not forget.

So here she stood in her bathrobe and her dizzying state of anticipation, preparing to be picked up at 7:30. Her seduction kit was laid out in order on her bed – her luckiest, laciest garter belt, the 10-denier stockings, the sinful silk satin slip and the perfect little black dress to give just enough of an intimation of the wonders beneath it, nothing more nor less than her skin…and a perfume, but which one?

All her bottled divas clamored for attention. The ones she wore for her own pleasure, the ones he said he’d liked, the ones she had yet to find the courage, the audacity to wear with him.

Audacity would have to wait until some unsuspecting, rainy Sunday afternoon, when it would be so much more effective.

No. She wanted something different, something new, some other perfume he had yet to know, something…like that woman who would peel off all that sultry lace and satin to reveal the volcano underneath. Yet it had to be a little less …obvious, a little mysterious, a breath of that clandestine self she so wanted him to find.

There was a purple box stashed among the divas, a purple box with a beautiful orange and purple label and nestled inside in yet more purple-printed orange tissue paper, another bottle full of possibilities and a name containing anticipation, and what could be better for a night like tonight?

She sprayed the air and sniffed. Oh, yes. This was the one. ‘Secret Garden’ it was called, and it was perfectly named for a perfect night.

This green, fruity, woody startling shock of beauty and bergamot and a satin touch of orange would be the light she knew she would see in his eyes when she opened her door, it would be that lift of his eyebrows, that tug at the corner of his mouth and that widening of his pupils that told her he liked what he saw, but that wasn’t all she was and certainly not all this perfume was, either, for an electric heartbeat of otherworldly animal pulsed below it, pulsed with promises and moonlight under a wild midnight sky.

It beat through and around a floral heart as peerless as the charmeuse skin that soon would hide her heat, so seamlessly blended it was a thankless task to tease the bouquet out beyond a helpless shrug of surrender to a floral otherworld. They might have been rose, a rose to inspire a legend, an idea of some forbidden fruit, jasmine, that most devastating of blooms, and ephemeral flowers opening up just beyond a garden gate in some eternal Eden.

In her more cynical moments, she sometimes thought the perfumer’s art was dying out, replaced by facsimile approximations of what perfume could be, should be, had once upon a time always been…a way to breathe in and be inspired by the divine.

Every time that threatened to occur, she was surprised in her soul again, surprised that somewhere, a perfumer’s master hand created yet another marvel, yet another fervent promise that beauty still lived and all one had to do was breathe with an open heart and a burning soul.

She did that now, and that suggestion of animal twitched its tail and purred its furry purr against her senses. Could this really be civet, this mischievous wink that tugged in her mind? This, ah, how could it be…castoreum that added so much velvet deep and devilishly rich, a sweet-scented fever touch of desire? Patchouli…ah, no one did patchouli like this any more, no one at all, this was the purple soul of patchouli, this was simply all in all an unapologetic, decadent, thick, vanilla-tinged, superheated sable pelt of a perfume.

She had to sit down for a moment on her bed. Her clandestine skin, captured in this bottle. Anticipation and promise, wonder and fire, caught within the weightless liquid filigree of essence and absolute, animal and anima and all she wanted only him to know at last.

She knew what would happen, she knew that later, she would be wrapped in that anticipation and promise lurking underneath its sheath of silk and satin skin, and he would breathe in this alchymistic veil of perfume that would utterly transmute this woman he only thought he knew.

Notes:

Top: Bergamot, bois de rose, geraniol, blood orange

Heart: Jasmine sambac, raspberry (compound isolate), Turkish rose, blue lotus

Base: Civet, castoreum, vanilla, deer tongue (a plant), benzoin, aged patchouli.

‘Secret Garden’ is available as an Eau de Parfum from the Aftelier website. A sample was provided for review by Mandy Aftel.

Image: Katarina Silva. Used by permission.

The Sanctity of Solace

THE CLARIMONDE PROJECT

The Clarimonde Project – Part Three

Aftelier Perfume’s ‘Oud Luban’

It is a paradox of Roman Catholicism that even as its doctrine denounces the sensual world in favor of a life of the mind and the spirit, its rituals are deeply sensuous. Sunlight streaming through the jewel colors of a stained glass window depicting the lives and deeds of saints and apostles, the ornate vestments of its celebrants, the flowers adorning the altar and the pews on holy days scenting the air, the smoke of the thurible, burning its ethereal bridge between Heaven and Earth, mundane and divine.

This was the world that Romuald, the narrator of ‘Clarimonde’, knew as his own, that cloistered world apart of seminary and church, mind and soul. In all his short life, he held no other ambition than to give himself completely to God and be perfectly content in his choice and his renouncement of the mundane world and all its pleasures.

Until that fateful day of his ordination, when he glanced away and saw Clarimonde, and all he knew and thought he loved and believed came into question by his first awareness of Woman. And ever after, that duality of carnal and spiritual, dark and light would haunt him night and day, with Clarimonde and in all those endless years without her, an unending dream war between pleasure and priesthood. What was the dream and what the reality – the decadent princely paramour in Venice, who denied himself no indulgence yet was still tortured with a vision of a life he had renounced, or the poor parish Curé attending his duties and his flock, thinking his life of luxury with Clarimonde no more than a fevered, sensuous dream? Or was all his ecstasy and sorrow but a dream born of the one heartfelt longing in his soul not even God could fulfill?

This is the dilemma Mandy Aftel seeks to bridge with ‘Oud Luban’, her perfume solid contribution to the Clarimonde Project, and just as with Monica Miller’s ‘Sangre’ and Maria McElroy and Alexis Karl’s ‘Immortal Mine’, to call ‘Oud Luban’ anything so prosaic as mere perfume is a bit like pointing to a perfect blood-red rose and calling it ‘flower’.

‘Oud Luban’ sings in both melody and harmony – the opening melody of a sunshine-bright soprano aria of orange and Hojari frankincense, an illuminating sunbeam of light through a window, Romuald’s first glance at Clarimonde, that fated moment when all he knew and thought he loved fell away to dust, and a plush, richly faceted basso profondo that soars and sweeps to the rafters of the cathedral and sings its song of the eternity he lost with one fevered beat of his heart.

As ‘Oud Luban’ warms and evolves on my skin, oud entwines around those basso profondo notes like the smoke of a thurible, but this is no oud I have ever encountered before. Blended from eight varieties of oud, it glows its unearthly, animal aura through a decadent velvet patchouli dream that lingers with the smoky burnt aroma of choya ral, opoponax and benzoin and conjures visions of Clarimonde, blonde hair embers of gold over her pearly white shoulders and in another wisp of smoke, she is gone, a haunting dream that never left him or a reality that negated all Romuald’s other life into nothing more than a dream.

In the way of all evocative dreams that stick like cobwebs in the mind long after they’re gone, ‘Oud Luban’ haunted me for days and nights on end, haunted me harder than any ghost for being so familiar a memory and yet I could not place it, until it came to me in a dream, a dream much like Romuald’s secret life. I had breathed this in before, had been haunted by this perfume of soul and longing, oud and incense, elemi and patchouli, sanctity and solace.

At the very top of Mount Lykavettos in Athens, there is a chapel to Saint George, built in the nineteenth century on a Byzantine ruin in the Byzantine style,. It is tiny, and would fit inside a space not much larger than my living room, a simple, white-washed structure with its small golden icon at the altar, a few wooden pews, a box of candles to light and a strongbox for the coins to buy them. Saint George is a saint very dear to my heart – I was born on Saint George’s Day. I entered that little chapel on a blustery January day, intent on lighting a candle and making a wish or saying a prayer, and all too often, they are one and the same. But as I entered, I was struck by two things…the chapel’s complete barebones simplicity in a city filled with opulent Byzantine churches, and that scented air of sanctity, of what to my inexperienced nose was the perfume of countless centuries of faith and prayer and sacred space. I had no reference for that perfume, had never encountered it in my own agnostic upbringing. I only knew of my own frantic heartbeat and a perfume that touched my soul in a way I had never known before and never quite would again, not in any other of the many churches I visited in my time in Greece, not in all the many years that followed.

Not until a dark October night, when ‘Oud Luban’ made me remember what I thought I had forgotten, and a timeless perfume took me back in time and forward through space and on through the words of Théophile Gautier and ‘Clarimonde’.

‘Oud Luban’ is the bridge between dream and reality, and it is also the heritage the Abbé Serapion offers Romuald as a consolation for his loss of Clarimonde – here is your heritage and our shared history, the light of faith that will illuminate the dark of your soul and console you, here is all you know and all you lost, here…is the smoke of the thurible and the sunlight through a stained-glass rosette window, here… is the sanctity of solace.

Notes for Oud Luban:
Top: Elemi, orange terpenes, blood orange, Hojari frankincense CO2
Base: Oud, opoponax, choya ral, benzoin, aged patchouli

‘Oud Luban’ is available as a solid perfume from the Aftelier website.

My sample was provided for review as part of the Clarimonde Project by Mandy Aftel.

In the Clarimonde Project, ‘Oud Luban’ has also been reviewed by Monica Miller of Perfume Pharmer, Scent Hive and Indieperfumes.

Other reviews in the Clarimonde Project:
Monica Miller’s ‘Sangre’ and her two lipstains:
Indieperfumes
Scent Less Sensibilities

Maria McElroy and Alexis Karl’s ‘Immortal Mine’:
The Perfume Pharmer
Indieperfumes
Scent Less Sensibilities

LostPastRemembered has a stunning entry on Clarimonde, vampires and other lore of the dark, as well as an opulent recipe for perfumed port.

Alexis Karl has also composed music inspired by the story. Find it here.