The Color of Wonder

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– a review of Neela Vermeire Créations Rahele

In a day and age when mass transportation has made travel to anywhere on Earth not just possible, but attainable, imagination has to fill in the spaces for when travel meant not just adventure and opportunity, but also danger. Most people never left the villages and towns where they were born and raised.

Ships could sink in a storm, caravans could be robbed by thieves, and at every turn, hostile natives or malevolent bugs large and small could lay waiting for the unwary.

Yet human curiosity burned bright and hot enough to send the intrepid Magellan and Sir Francis Drake around the world, caravans traversed the Silk Road from west to east and back again, and everywhere ‘elsewhere’ great discoveries awaited; revolutionary ideas, marvelous merchandise, peoples, faiths and histories without number.

The lucky ones who returned with tales of faraway, fabled places set the European imagination alight with their stories of unimaginable splendor, unfathomable wealth, and ancient, sophisticated civilizations vastly different than their own.

Three fearless Frenchmen, Jean Baptiste Tavernier, a jeweler and merchant, François Bernier, a physician and Jean de Thévenot, a linguist and botanist, all of who lived to return to France and tell their tales, set off at the behest of first Cardinal Richelieu and later Louis XIV himself, to find themselves in that fabled land that fanned the tallest flames and tales of all: India.

Like all true travelers everywhere, their own lives would be forever changed, and they themselves would change others’ lives as well, not least through their published stories of their travels, which were translated into several languages and lit up the imaginations of generations of armchair-traveling Europeans to come. At different times in their lives, the paths of all three men crossed. De Thévenot and Tavernier hoped to travel overland together from Isfahan in Persia to India, and Bernier and Tavernier met in India.

Jean Baptiste Tavernier was the Harry Winston of his day, buying and selling gems as well as Persian and Indian textiles. He became especially famous for bringing home the ‘French Blue’ diamond, a centerpiece of the French crown jewels, before it disappeared in 1791, only to reappear recut in 1830 as the diamond we know today as the Hope diamond.

François Bernier went to India to become first the court physician to Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal, and later, to Dara Shikoh’s younger brother and successor Aurangzeb and the Mughal court. In an age where there were very few reliable travelogues to the Orient, his Travels In the Mughal Empire, based in part on accounts of officials at the Mughal court as well as his own first-hand observations, became a European sensation. Bernier also became the first – and for a long time, the only – European to travel to Kashmir.

Jean De Thévenot, an independently wealthy scholar and linguist fluent in Turkish, Arabic and Persian, also published his own travelogues, as well as making considerable contributions to botany through his travels, observations and botanical collections through India in 1667-8.

These three gentlemen and the stories they wrote of their travels became the inspiration for Neela Vermeire’s 2016 release Rahele, the Persian word for ‘traveler’, yet Rahele has a twist in its tale. Here, you’ll find no associations of ‘East-meets-West’ so much as ‘West-meets-East’, with an open mind and an absolutely marvelous sense of wonder.

Often, our associations of the Mughal Empire are somewhat, well, tainted by Victorian-era letters and books, written from that lethally close-minded Victorian (and imperialist) viewpoint, which sadly makes us forget that in Tavernier, Bernier and de Thévenots day in the 17thcentury, attitudes towards other cultures and perhaps Mughal India in particular were very different and far more open. Believe it or not, this expansiveness is very much reflected in Rahele the perfume.

As always, Rahele was created in that flawless pas-de-deux of Neela Vermeire with the perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour. Six peerless perfumes later, it becomes very clear that Neela Vermeire knows precisely how to push the justly celebrated M. Duchaufour’s work higher and farther than it has ever been before. She has never compromised on her creative visions of what she wants her perfumes to embody, always held out for the best and most elevated concept of her exquisitely articulate ideas, and Duchaufour has shown an uncanny and profound understanding of precisely what it takes to get both of them there in essence and absolute.

Rahele – the Traveler – speaks to the adventurer in all of us, even those of us who can’t travel beyond our armchairs. We are all of us on the road to somewhere, but Rahele reminds me of a description of the Tarot trump The Chariot – travel in luxurious circumstances. And such a journey lies ahead …

From its beginnings, Rahele is a chypre born and bred, that most uniquely perfume-y of all perfume families, and in my chypre-biased opinion the most difficult to execute. Rahele opens big, spicy and jungle green, with its unmistakeable Duchaufour cardamom and a grassy violet leaf and green mandarin kick that tells you you’re definitely not anything near the Paris of the seventeenth century.

This is a wonder of a very different order, everywhere apparent in Rahele’s floral heart. Osmanthus takes center stage, but this is not your usual osmanthus of apricot and leather, this is an altogether grander bloom. This is an osmanthus veiled, kholed and bejeweled with its intimations of rose, violet, jasmine and a lemon velvet magnolia to tame osmanthus’ fruity sweetness and make it stay the course.

Some long time later, well before osmanthus has overstayed its welcome, a deep, silken cloud of cedar and sandalwood – if not Mysore, which it could be, then some alchemical sleight of hand that achieves the precise same effect, with glove leather and sotto voce whispers of patchouli and oakmoss.

I’m reminded of a pivotal moment in another context, when I realized that the inlaid flowers of the Taj Mahal are made of precious stones set in white marble, and the world was never quite the same again. Rahele has that same effect; its flowers embroidered in liquid to bloom forevermore.

The overall effect is the perfume equivalent of the embroidered muslin pantaloons worn by the ladies of the Mughal court; sophisticated, beautiful, as opulent as silk brocade yet  as transparent as gauze.

Like all Vermeires, it lasts a surprisingly long time – I get at least 8+ hours, but Rahele’s sillage wears close to the skin after the first hour or so, and will not overwhelm either your own nose or your surroundings.

I found myself dreaming often about those three Frenchman wearing Rahele. Thinking of what it must have been like to experience that jaw-dropping awe in the face of the Mughal reality, when suddenly, the world – or rather, their understanding of what ‘the world’ encompassed – grew and grew like some revelatory Rajasthani sunrise, broader and far richer in all senses of the word than anything they ever knew in the Sun King’s realm.

Call Rahele  the color of wonder. And call yourself lucky to exist in a world where such marvels may still be discovered.

Notes: Green mandarin, cardamom, cinnamon, violet leaf, osmanthus, rose, magnolia, jasmine, iris, violet, cedar, sandalwood, oakmoss, patchouli, leather

Disclosure: A sample was kindly provided for review by Neela Vermeire. For which I thank her from the bottom of my heart. My opinions are my own, and no posts on the Alembicated Genie are ever sponsored.

Neela Vermeire Créations Rahele is available as an eau de parfum at LuckyscentFirst in Fragrance and directly from Neela Vermeire Crèations.

Beloved of the Gods

 

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– a review of Neela Vermeire Créations Ashoka

Close your eyes and let your imagination run with the wind a while, let yourself fall far back through time and imagine…

Imagine you are the undisputed ruler of all you see, a topic of conversation from West to East. Ptolemy in faraway Egypt knows your name and reputation well, and Antiochus the Seleucid king, and neither can scarcely believe the tales they are told nor the words your peoples and your emissaries spread on the winds that blow from East to West.

Nothing shall ever be denied you, no desire for conquest can ever be anything than a self-evident victory.

And so, it has come to this appalling day the world will know as the last Battle of Kalinga and yet another plume to your glory, yet another place to add to the lists of peoples and lands who now call you Emperor.

It could be this day of triumph when everything changes, or it could be later, when the treaties have been signed, the levies decided, the razor sharp memories of war and sorrow dulled to an ache.

It could be the memory of that fateful day: an old man, mourning the loss of a son, or the endless tears of a woman trying to wash away the pain of her dead children, it could even be you turned a corner and saw a spotted puppy amid the smoking ruins your armies caused, a puppy with no one left to care for him, a puppy who glanced up from the rubble and looked at you, a mighty conqueror and ruler whose praises were sung throughout the lands and plains of a fabled country, looked at you with both hope and apprehension in those liquid brown eyes, looked right through to that innermost, carefully concealed part of you, and something in you shifted, moved and gave way, crumbled like the plastered walls of conquered cities… and was changed forever.

There was another path for you to choose, another way to act and live, another way of life and faith for all creatures under a searing sky. A heart that burned with a warrior’s heat found that way to another path and so you traveled the length and the breadth of your empire and told your peoples of that path you now walked, that way that became known as the dhamma, the path to justice, to compassion, to enlightenment and peace and prosperity. As you traveled and as you spoke to your people in person, you had pillars and stones carved with your words, so they would know and not forget. Down through that swirling axis of time and history, on through other conquests and other eras, your memory was kept alive as both an inspiration and a wonder for hundreds of generations to follow.

Nearly two thousand, three hundred years on, the world has not forgotten neither those memories of the man nor the words he left behind.

I, Piryadasi, beloved of the Gods, speak thus: To do good is difficult. One who does good first does something hard to do.”

Now…open your eyes. You are here, in this moment, in this time, and for just a moment more, indulge me, dear reader. Only here, in the frantic, flashing LED lights of the twenty-first century, imagine all of such an incredible tale from a nearly mythical time had somehow materialized in essence and absolute, in vision and dedication and many, many versions… transformed by alchemy both profound and mundane into… a perfume.

A trio of perfumes was launched by Neela Vermeire last year that were inspired by three different eras of her native India’s history. They were a sensation, partly due to an incredible amount of hard work and promotion on her part, and more importantly because there truly is nothing at all else like them.

All three somehow bridge a gap between heritage and future, simultaneously as sophisticated, as complex, and as intellectually satisfying as any of the great creations of the twentieth century, and at the same time as thoroughly modern and unusual as the very best of niche perfumery today. Neither Trayee, Mohur nor Bombay Bling paid the slightest heed to any fragrant clichés we cynical perfumistas might have supposed, but if three perfumes ever somehow managed to bottle that whirling kaleidoscope of impressions that is an Occidental dream of India in all the very best of novel Oriental ways, they certainly did.

All three, I came to discover myself over the course of this past year when I have worn them very, very often, have an extraordinary effect on my mood in a way few perfumes do. I’m old enough to remember that Seventies relic we teenagers wore then called mood rings, which is precisely what these three are.

The numinous effect of Trayee eddies around sacred smoke and contemplation, the luminous, majestic rose of Mohur winds around oud, cardamom and almond delicacies, the bright, fragrant lights of Bombay Bling elevate endless rainy days with its energetic, solar-powered optimism.

So here the story continues with Ashoka, and this is a story just as extraordinary. In this little vial is yet another theme, not faith and contemplation, not majesty, heritage and opulence, nor even exuberance and optimism, but, in a word… enlightenment.

Don’t believe me? What if I told you it starts its tale with a fierce, almost shocking opening burst? Fig leaves – those bitter, grassy green wonders – paired with a bracing, nearly brutal but reined-in leather, as if to stop those chariot horses before they run away. This is Ashoka as he was, the merciless Emperor who vanquished his enemies without a second thought or a single sign of remorse. For long moments, they play out against each other, but before you crown leather the victor, remember that Buddha himself was enlightened beneath the leafy shade of a fig tree. Sure enough, soon enough, the leather recedes, the bitterness fades, and a far softer and infinitely tender floral heart blooms, so seamlessly blended and satiny it’s hard to parse out the individual notes.

How Neela and Bertrand Duchaufour pulled it off, I can’t imagine, but that’s what it does – it opens up, petal by luminous petal like the lotus blossoms it contains. This is Ashoka’s well-guarded secret, the one you could never, ever guess. A sweet yet never saccharine secret, wrapped with care and cunning both around the sap of fig milk. Ashoka is no gourmand, so I’m guessing it’s the osmanthus exuding its dulcet apricot soprano, in perfect harmony with a golden-hued mimosa and very plush rose, the rose again in perfect counterpoint with that green hyacinth, echoing back to those green, fig-laced beginnings and bridging the evolution to come.

Ashoka takes its own time to tell its story, and compressed in these relatively few words are hours and hours of wear and wonder, of florals soft as peacock feathers and a dark green heartbeat underpinning them all, as touching and as tender. In the base, I sense a common pulse or vision that ties Ashoka to all of its siblings in the Neela Vermeire Creations line, the sandalwood, incense and myrrh made different shades of a dark viridian green with that vetiver and with fir balsam adding its own sense of timelessness.

For if another word could sum up Ashoka, it would be just that – timeless. Like all the very best stories and the superlative best of perfumes it tells that tale of a seismic shift in your consciousness, of that tiny flutter of a butterfly’s wing, a puppy’s liquid eyes, the patience of an elephant in a teeming crowd that touches that secret part of your soul the world has never known and so changes you…forever, and that, too is part of the Dhamma – to manifest what you had never before even dared to dream.

As Ashoka very likely said himself:

One who does good first does something hard to do.

Which is always and forever another path to… enlightenment. Or being… beloved of the gods.

Notes: Fig leaves, leather, pink and white lotus, mimosa, fig milk, osmanthus, rose, water hyacinth, vetiver, styrax, incense, sandalwood, myrrh, tonka bean, fir balsam.

Neela Vermeire Créations Ashoka was created by Neela Vermeire in collaboration with perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour. It will be available worldwide in the autumn of 2013.

Images: The Great Stupa at Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh, commissioned by Emperor Ashoka in the third century BCE, superimposed with the First Rock Inscription at Girnar, ca. 257 B.C.E. Translation of the Fifth Edict by Ven. S. Dhammika, via Buddhanet.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons, Photoshop montage my own.

Disclosure: A sample was provided by Neela Vermeire for review.

A Ticket To India Contest!

Lord Shiva as Dakshinamurthy

Or…what happens when the Genie is felled by a cold…

Ladies and gentlemen, I had so many plans – and so many posts to write. New, unknown wonders to discover, other wonders to find the words for, a hotly anticipated release to review… And then.

And then, a rhinovirus had other ideas and zapped me with the common cold. In spite of ginger/lemon/honey infusions, steam baths with thyme oil and massive quantities of thermonuclear chiles, it stands resolute and makes sure that nightmare of all perfumoholics everywhere is all too real:

I. Can’t Smell. A. Thing. My voice is gone, too. I sound like a lovesick frog. It’s one way to shut me up! 😉

But that’s no excuse for not having a little fun for my readers while I can, is it? Thanks to the generosity of Neela Vermeire Creations, I have a little giveaway contest. Two lucky and sagacious readers can win:

One Discover Your India set; 10 ml of all three of Neela Vermeire Creations; Trayee, Mohur and Bombay Bling in spray atomizers.

One Try Your India sample set of 3 x 2 ml of Trayee, Mohur and Bombay Bling.

If you haven’t had a chance yet to try this trinity for yourself and find out what all the fuss is about (trust me, it’s there for a reason!), these three celebrated perfumes created by Neela Vermeire with Bertrand Duchaufour might be just what you need to banish the winter (or summer!) blahs.

The Fine Print:

The contest is open to readers and/or followers anywhere in the world with the exception of Italy and Russia. The contest closes Sunday, February 24th, at midnight CET, and a winner will be announced on The Alembicated Genie Monday, February 25th. Participants must provide a valid email address and contact me here with their shipping address within 48 hours after closing, so I can forward them on to Neela Vermeire, who will then ship the prizes from Paris.

The Contest!

Trayee, Mohur & Bombay Bling were all inspired by different periods of India’s history and heritage. To participate, answer the three questions in a comment, and all correct answers will be entered into a draw at random.org.

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1. Trayee is a fragrant ode to the sanctity of India’s distant Vedic past. Which of the three principal gods mentioned in the Rig Veda acts as a messenger between the gods and humanity?

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2.  Mohur was partly inspired by Moghul Empress Nur Jahan, who retired in luxury after a coup d’etat following the death of her husband, the Emperor Jahangir. When she retired, she devoted her time to poetry, her gardens and manufacturing perfumes. What famous building immortalized her niece? 

Lagaan

3. Bombay Bling is a liquid poem to both the modern, dynamic India of today and the exuberance of Bollywood. One Bollywood movie, 2001’s Lagaan was an international success and nominated for an Oscar as Best Foreign Film of 2002. (If you haven’t seen it yet – do! I promise – you won’t regret it!) Did it win the Oscar?

Write the correct answers to these three questions in a comment below and who knows – maybe it will be your lucky day?

Good luck!

As for me, I’ll be back with more wonders as soon as this cold is gone, no worries!

Find out more about Neela Vermeire Creations on her website, Facebook page and follow her on Twitter as @NeelaVermeire.

With many thanks to Neela Vermeire for the giveaway, and with gratitude for whoever invented Kleenex.

The giveaway contest is now closed. Thanks to all who entered. 

An Embarrassment of Riches

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– A review of Parfums MDCI Chypre Palatin

Sometimes on gray ordinary days, those days you expect nothing more scintillating than more of the same gray, the same mundane, the same quotidian wonders of simply being alive and able to breathe, lightning will strike out of nothing and nowhere. Subterranean rumbles shake the bedrock of your soul and new, untold tales will take you unaware.

Any perfumoholic will tell you… these are the moments we breathe for, the revelations we seek, even as we all know one irrefutable fact.

You don’t find revelations so much as they find you.

This happened to me recently on a completely humdrum day, a day of few expectations and less anticipation, rooting around my perfume cabinet looking for the backlog pile, and MDCI’s Chypre Palatin fell into my hand as if planted there by the Fates themselves.

At the time I received it from a perfume fairy, I couldn’t quite decide what I thought about it. All my usual phrases came to mind – decadent, delirious, a throwback, opulent bordering on over-the-top and maybe just a bit… too much for a D-list blogger buried in the Z-list boondocks of northern Europe.

Mind you, as a devoted (if not definitively debauched) Amouage fan, that says something. To be honest, I just wasn’t sure whether I had enough chest hair for this one. My initial impressions were of shaving soap – of a kind sold in 18 karat gold cans with dead-exclusive distribution and three-figure euro price tags – but I felt this needed two glands and one appendage I certainly don’t have even on temporary loan, so back it went into the cabinet and off I moved to other preoccupations.

Yet something tugged insistent at the back of my mind about Chypre Palatin, as if it held a secret that was just beyond my reach at the time. When this happens, it also happens that a perfume I can’t quite grasp will return to haunt me later, and just as with those epiphanies, when I least expect it.

One night over the holidays while buried in a book by Edith Wharton, I dug in the cabinet for something to wear as I read. The Fates decreed it Chypre Palatin, and made the penny drop at some point in the story where I was riveted by the dastardly deeds of the British upper crust. I settled down to read, Hairy Krishna purring on my lap, and…what was that?  That minute-long burst of hyper-expensive shaving soap morphed into something so utterly beautiful, it was like hearing a three-chord death metal guitarist suddenly flip during a soundcheck and break out the first movement of Beethoven’s Pastorale and play it – exquisitely. (True story.)

All associations of shaving soap and lavender machismo were gone, and in their place was a thickly embroidered, three-dimensional tapestry of chypre, the kind of chypre you rarely find any longer, a chypre to live and breathe for.

One distinguishing characteristic of chypres, or should I say, the best ones, is their stubborn refusal to be taken apart, especially in the heart notes. Those who can are better noses and writers than yours truly, but the very best of them are so peerlessly constructed, so seamless and gravity-defying, they exist more as an evolving aura than as an easily decoded mélange of notes that progress from one stage to the next. With the best chypres, there is no linear time travel from point A to point B – they can spiral, circle and even dance around and through their notes, and all you can do is enjoy the scenery  and the story as it unfolds upon your skin.

Chypre Palatin is no exception. After that initial barbershop blast which lasts less time than it takes to tell, this marvel opens wide into a limitless horizon of plush, posh elegance with a surprising fruity-green pulse, a pulse that slowly deepens into a sweetly leathered, mossy animal throb, the kind that would spell danger were it only slightly less refined, and even then, I’m not convinced it doesn’t.

This is not your usual gender-bending masculine-leaning perfume, nothing like those run-of-the-mill ‘chypres’ that pass through the needle of the IFRA these days. This is a defiantly green and definite challenge to all of them. Chypre Palatin has a vintage heritage and a classical structure yet nothing like a vintage feel. It walks an improbable tightrope walk between opaque and translucent from its surprisingly dark opening through that blooming, fruity-floral heart all the way to its rich, brocade-leather-vanilla-moss drydown many, many hours later, and just like Beethoven’s Pastorale, with not one note, one refined phrase, one phase out of place.

On a man of discernment, it would be devastating. On a woman, it is a sublimely elegant revelation. (At least on this woman.) As a perfume, it is, for lack of a better term, as much an embarrassment of riches as the rose petals in Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s painting above, like a moment you look up or around you – and all you can see, all you can sense is beauty everywhere you look and every time you breathe.

Notes

Top: Lavender, labdanum, hyacinth, galbanum, sage, clementine, aldehydes

Heart: Iris, jasmine, gardenia, rose, plum

Base: Styrax, benzoin, tolu balsam, vanilla, castoreum, leather, costus, oakmoss and immortelle

Chypre Palatin was made by Bertrand Duchaufour in collaboration with the Creative Director of Parfums MDCI – Claude Marchal. Parfums MDCI Chypre Palatin is available directly from the Parfums MDCI website by email request, at First in Fragrance and Luckyscent. Parfums MDCI also has an exquisite sample program of 5 12 ml samples redeemable with any full-bottle purchase.

With deep gratitude to Diane for providing this window of opportunity! For the review of Chypre Palatin I wish I could have written, I recommend Suzanne of the Perfume Journal.

Image: Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888).

The Hidden Art

– Is it… the art of perfume or perfume as art?

Whiling away a dismal Sunday November afternoon can be a most perilous undertaking. For one thing, I have been known to wade my way through all the internecine happenings on blogs, magazines and online newspapers I might have missed out on during the week. For another, this sudden surfeit of information overload has been known to cause something much, much more dangerous to my mind.

It makes me think. Watch out, world!

No kidding, there I was in my usual Sunday demeanor of microwaveable death-warmed-over beneath several layers of ratty wool and a cozy cloud of a favorite perfume, when my Facebook newsfeed alerted me to an item that somehow had managed to pass me by.

Chandler Burr, perfume writer and author of ‘The Perfect Scent’ as well as curator of Olfactory Art at New York’s Museum of Art and Design, has created an exhibition called The Art of Scent, the first major exhibition to highlight perfume as an artistic medium of expression in its own right, and to focus on how perfumes have evolved since the 1889 ground-breaking game changer that was the addition of synthetic coumarin in Houbigant’s Fougère Royale and Guerlain’s Jicky, the latter included in the exhibition itself.

You will find no iconic bottles, no advertising, nothing to distract you from the experience of the perfume itself, inhaled through specially designed snifters created expressly for this exhibition. In other words, not unlike Burr’s recent OpenSky experiment, where decants could be bought in plain bottles of the scents he chose to include, devoid of all marketing mystique.

But is it art? How can it be in an age that provides so many opportunities for redefining sensory artistic expression that relatively few exhibitions have focused on that most atavistic, primitive sense of all – our sense of smell?

After all, scents travel that little-understood information highway from our nasal receptors straight to our memories, emotions and associations, and completely bypasses that neocortical off ramp to language – just like another and not unrelated art form – music. And while no one will argue that an artist isn’t equally artistic in whichever medium he or she chooses whether it’s paint, Carrara marble or decomposing pork carcasses, the idea that perfume is every bit as valid as an expressive medium raises a few eyebrows among many non-perfumistas, simply for being such an unorthodox idea – or is that for turning a much-needed spotlight on the least-understood of all our senses?

Can it be that perfume straddles that great divide between ‘artistic medium’ and ‘artisanal product’, being not enough of one and too much of the other? In which case, perhaps it’s a good thing Mr. Burr chose that loaded headline-grabber for his exhibition…The Art of Scent, for no other reason that it brings us – the audience – to question and maybe even to redefine what we name ‘art’.

I haven’t seen the exhibition, so I can’t say anything you can’t already read in the press release. What riled me up and made me think, however, was Alyssa Harad’s take on Chandler Burr’s intiative, since her excellent blog post echoed many of the thoughts that ran through my own overheated Sunday afternoon mind, and Denyse Beaulieu’s own blog post did not much more to prevent me chewing on my nails.

I’m in no position to argue whether or not perfume is an art form in its own right and with its own merits – and limitations. For one, you could say I have a vested interest.

I’m a perfume writer, and perfume happens to be one of my own personal passions. To me, perfume is a means of artistic expression as valid, as rich, as rewarding, as challenging and as complex as any painting, sculpture or piece of music. To my fellow perfumoholic friends and acquaintances, I rattle off the names of famous perfumes and perfumers as easily as I can reference works by Titian, Gentileschi, or Alexander Calder. These liquid epics and novels, these allegorical redolent poems and metaphorical operas in magic, however, all exhibit a few characteristics in common no painting or sculpture can claim.

For one, I take issue with the general perception of ‘art’ (you insert your own definitions here) as a mode of creative expression that exists in a vacuum, outside any context or touch points with our ‘real’ lives. Art as a means of cultural expression  – in the sense of being ‘fine art’ – often ends up on private hands and out of reach to the general public or in the museums and art galleries who can afford to lend or buy them whereupon they exhibit them as ‘works of art’ to accentuate whatever statements the museum – or the curator – is trying to make. Art to me is something much more inclusive and dare I write it – quotidian. It is whatever enriches your life, makes you appreciate beauty, makes your personal horizons wider and maybe takes you somewhere out of yourself and into a place you would otherwise never know.

Perfume, on the other hand, is a democratic, inclusive art form. It is an instant mode of transport and mood elevator available for the price of a bottle for anyone who can afford to buy it. You can and often do take it with you anywhere and everywhere you go. It exists in a physical, concrete form in the bottle as a chemical concoction of ingredients both ‘natural’ and/or synthetic, yes – but the true story, the true art, is written on your skin every time you wear it, and no two wearings will ever be entirely alike, depending on such factors as your genetic makeup, your diet, your very mood, weather and so on.

You may have been seduced to buy it by the story of its inspiration, by the aesthetic considerations and heritage of the perfume house behind it, but as any perfumista and not a few perfumers know, the ‘story’ is nothing but a marketing ploy to lure you in, and the real story – and my own test criterion of a truly ‘artistic’ perfume – is what happens in that sublimely seductive, intimate space above your skin where it blooms. Not in whatever abstract or elusive inspirations the perfumer/creative director chooses to share with the world to sell the juice.

You may buy into the perfumer’s aesthetic, but the real reason you buy it and love it as you do is what it does to you and for you – in other words, how that perfume sings in its infinite variety…to you alone. Your family and friends, your colleagues and even total strangers can define or explain you by your choices in clothing, hair, and general demeanor – but that hidden art form, that art that may trail behind you and explicate you when you’ve left – that is the true art…of perfume.

In other words – also as Alyssa Harad stated – perfume art is ephemeral art. It exists only in the moments it breathes its wonders on your skin and invents new, untold stories of you, of its materials, of its very existence and the spaces the perfumer chose to give expression.

Even the very language we use to evoke that art form somehow lacks the ability to crack through the fourth wall and open the doors for our readers to perceive it. Which is why the best perfume writers have a large reference frame of history, literature, art and last, but not least, music to call upon. It’s no accident at all that perfumes are often described in notes, whatever Chandler Burr might argue to the contrary.

I applaud Chandler Burr’s decision to create an exhibition around the Art of Scent. I can appreciate his endeavor to create a neutral, association-free space in which to approach it anew, from another, more radical and perhaps more abstractly intellectual, unbiased angle. The question is, if perfume is an art form, is there such a thing as a lack of bias?

And yet. And yet. I look to my little sea grass basket full of wonders, signed by the perfume world’s Titians and Caravaggios, Francis Bacons and Lucian Freuds and Magrittes, the Afteliers, the Jacques and Aimé and Jean-Paul Guerlains, the Dawn Spencer Hurwitzes, the McElroy/Karls, the Tauers, the Kerns, the Lutens/Sheldrakes and the Duchaufours, the Chong/?s,  the Shoens, the Orchids and the Harts and the Morrises too, and I shake my head at such marvelous ideas and laugh and laugh.

Perfume is indeed a form of art, a medium of artistic expression, a story unfolding its unique and ephemeral pages. And as it does, as we who love its art as we do, redefine those stories each in our own individual ways, every time we wear it and every time we breathe it.

Caravaggio’s works should have been so lucky.

For an entirely different take, I can highly recommend Legerdenez.

With thanks to Legerdenez, Lucy Raubertas, Alyssa Harad and Denyse Beaulieu.

Image: ‘La Dame et Le Licorn’, ‘Smell’, late fifteenth century Flemish tapestry, from the Musée du Moyen-Age, Cluny, Paris

Falling Forward

 – an ode to my favorite fragrant Fall thrills

Autumn is one of my favorite times of the year. A little melancholy, slightly tinged with regrets for what might have been and what should have been done, autumn has also proven itself to be the season of cataclysmic change this year, a change so drastic, it’s been all I can do to hang on by the skin of my teeth and know…that all I can do is to go with the flow and give myself over…to evolution and the knowledge that from here on, life can only get more exciting.

And I can give myself over to the many pleasures of falling forward…into autumn, into the incendiary glow of golden-leafed trees, ruby-hued leaves, and the intoxicating sharp scent of burning wood fireplaces and bonfires, the smell of mushrooms and cepes sprouting up overnight, the sound and scent of apples falling to the ground, that looming breath of steel and stone that lurks beneath the colors and the chills in the air. Wrapping my chilly, wintry self into favorite woolen sweaters, and wrapping favorite scarves and mufflers around my neck, inhaling that palimpsest of perfumes worsted in the wool.

Autumn is also an excuse for hauling out the heavy, heady perfumes with which to slay the unsuspecting world – the ones I wear as I would wear cashmere, the ones that comfort and console me on rainy days and Thursdays, the ones I wear like scented armor, and all the ones I love…

Below, you’ll find some of my favorite autumn fumes, the ones that contain October  and November in their essence, the ones that trail behind me like the ghosts of autumns past as well as harbinger angels of the future possibilities that lie ahead, waiting for when life returns and all is green again.

L’Artisan Parfumeur – Seville à l’Aube

It’s generally agreed that Bertrand Duchaufour is one of the greatest perfumed geniuses alive today. His work has ruined me several times over this year, when I was introduced to Neela Vermeire’s breathtaking perfume odes to her native India and all three of them shot to the top of my Most Worn of the year list. Next came an introduction to L’Artisan’s Dzongkha – one haunting, numinous iris – and Sienne L’Hiver, no less haunting and evocative. They all broke my heart. But when I read of Duchaufour’s collaboration with one of my own inspirations, Denyse Beaulieu of Grain de Musc, and heard the fated words ‘orange’ and ‘blossom’, I was had at the first syllable. Oh! So imagine my anticipation when I moved in on a split of Seville à L’Aube blind (this very rarely happens any longer), and all it took to tip me over the edge was one fatal sniff…My full review will be up in a few weeks, but this mesmerizing blend of orange blossom, lavender and incense is …flawless.

Amouage – Memoir Woman

Something about autumn brings out my inner Goth, which is to say, that part of me that appreciates seriously depressed-mode music, rainy days, and lots of witchy black velvet. While I wouldn’t be so bold as to say Memoir Woman is Goth per se, I will say that it is a moody, magnificent, haunting perfume of a kind that tends to stick in the mind long after it wears off. I didn’t like it much at first, but I couldn’t stop sniffing. It reminded me of a advertising tagline I once cooked up for a story I wrote: “Haunted. What he will be.” Haunting, unforgettable, there is nothing quite like it and nothing quite like a love that grows and grows to haunt you.  As it has. As I have been. As I remain.

Serge Lutens – De Profundis

Some claimed that dear Uncle Serge had somehow lost his marbles when De Profundis was released, and I have no idea what mushrooms they nibbled, because De Profundis – inspired by the treatise by Oscar Wilde, death and funereal chrysanthemums – is simultaneously green, cool and impossible to forget. Incense, chrysanthemum and a mesmerizing icy green-tinged, tear-stained violet chill all add up to ‘spellbinding’ in my book, but if any Lutens is perfect for that delicious melancholy that pervades October Sunday afternoons, it’s this one.

Aftelier – Cepes and Tuberose

My first introduction to the fabled perfumes of Aftelier was Mandy Aftel’s justly famous and unorthodox Cepes and Tuberose, which is earthy, floral, spicy, heady bottled magic – or else a horror story of mildewed mushroom and airy tuberose. There is truly nothing at all else quite like it, and you either adore it or hate it. I have since that fatal introduction loved it so much, a mini of the parfum goes where I go and a dab often wafts as I breathe no matter what else I wear. It smells golden to me – golden as the maple leaves that now are turning red to bloom in midair and dance their leafy sigh into the ground.

Neela Vermeire – Trayee

Whether it’s the blaze of color or the sudden shock of chill in the air, there is something numinous about autumn, something that reminds you of the passage of time and the ephemerality of all life. When that sudden pang of mortality hits me with the delicate slap of a falling leaf, I often reach for Trayee, a swirling, whirling, spicy Mahabarata epic in a bottle, wit its fiery, feisty cardamom, a wink or two of sacred bhang, smoke, incense and samsara. In no time, my spirits lift and my mood improves, and I dream such faraway dreams of other times and other, sacred spaces.

A Trinity of Ambers

Autumn is also the perfect time for ambers…those glorious, heady, drop-dead sexy golden potions I once hated and now love with a fury that teeters on obsession. Three in particular hold pride of place in my amber-tinted Pantheon, and I’m not even sure I can bear to know there will be others in their wake. The Great Khadine, Serge Lutens’ Ambre Sultan, with its opening green bite and its sumptuous drydown, whispers its secrets in my ear, while Amouage’s Opus VI speaks its twisting, turning, ever-evolving tongues of wood flickering in firelight, and when I stand still and listen to the beat of my heart in the moonlight, Neil Morris’ Rumi trills its transcendental tale of another kind of sweet-scented magic.

Labdanum dreams

The ongoing Devilscent Project has completely changed my life around in more ways than one. I could talk about these unbelievable perfumes until the cows came home to roost, but the one note the Devil insisted upon to his perfumers was labdanum, a whole fragrant universe unto itself, and one of the oldest perfumery materials in the world. When life has been known to grind me down, Olympic Orchids’ spare, pensive Dev #4, which puts a magnificent labdanum in the spotlight, centers me as nothing else will, so even I can envision such luscious, labdanum things come true. As I do, I’m often taken back to a midnight moment in time, and when I am, another spicier, darker, more ominous labdanum-tinged marvel wafts forward, and that is Neil Morris’ Midnight at the Crossroads Café.

Olivier Durbano – Black Tourmaline

One reviewer on Fragrantica stated that Olivier Durbano’s Black Tourmaline was ‘for real men only’. This is absolute nonsense. For Black Tourmaline is a stunning mélange of leather and the darkest, deepest, smokiest incense you can imagine, and I’ve received many, many compliments when I’ve worn it, despite being nothing masculine in the slightest, not even in a tux. It’s as otherworldly as a fog-drenched November morning and as warming as a firelight glow at night, and when it goes, it will be missed, like November, like firelight, like a ghostly wisp of cloud bearing down to kiss the earth one last and final time.

More than any other season, autumn sings to me of time passing, of moments as fleeting as the bloom of glowing leaves dancing in a deep blue sky. When Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’ seems to match the tasty tristesse of a rainy afternoon, and when the smoky thrills of firelight and flame warm the soul through.

What are your autumn favorites? Or just…your favorite things about autumn? I’d love to hear about them!

With many thanks to…Andrea, Amy, Ruth, Christopher, Mandy, Ellen, JoAnne, Neil and Christos. 

Shut up, Gertrude!

– Or…not all roses are created equal!

Among my collection of books and cookbooks is a book, ostensibly a cookbook but actually very much more. It contains not only a plethora of outrageous recipes that would have health fanatics screaming for their heart fibrillators, but also anecdotes from two extraordinary lives in extraordinary times, two lives that openly dared to fly in the face of convention – and sometimes propriety – and as such became inspirations for me as well.

The book is ‘The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook’, part cookbook of questionable virtues, part extraordinary testimony to the lives and times of two fabled iconoclasts of the early 20th century – Alice B. Toklas, partner, helpmeet, and frontline editor, and Gertrude Stein, art collector, literary salon hostess and resident genius.

Like all relationships viewed with the rose-tinted glasses of reminiscence and in hindsight, the reality of Alice and Gertrude was much more complex and far more extraordinary than the book would suggest – they were both raised at the tail end of the Victorian age, after all – but what’s really telling in our own iconoclastic age is that today, we remember Gertrude for two things, one of which I don’t consider relevant at all and the other for a simple throwaway poem that came to define her in popular culture. Gertrude Stein was considered a literary superstar in her day, but now, say the name (if it registers at all!) Gertrude Stein, and unless you’re well-versed in art history, famous American ex-patriots or impenetrable poetry, this is what you’ll think:

 ‘A rose … is a rose…is a rose’.

An entire lifetime of literary output, and you’re remembered for five words. As they say…

You don’t get to choose what you’re famous for.

This is when I say…shut up, Gertrude! As dedicated gardeners, flower lovers, perfumers and perfumoholics are very well aware, entire olfactory universes lie waiting for discovery within those velvety petals, and with the exception of those scentless blooms sold at florists these days, there’s no such thing as just…a rose.

Roses occur in nature in every hue except blue, green and black, and depending on the variety, exude a unique, multifaceted perfume that can be…lemony, tea-like, musky, greenly fresh, narcotic, spicy and fiery, earthy and warm – and these are just the living flowers, mind, well before they’re turned into concrete and absolute and essential oil in their infinite varieties, all of which will reflect the qualities of the roses themselves. Rose is also attributed to the goddess Aphrodite – no accident, since the scent of roses can be very erotic, quelle surprise!

I’ve been thinking about roses and wearing rose-centered perfumes a lot lately. Rose has a stimulating, uplifting effect on my overall mood, and during a very frantic March, I needed all the help I could get…

Gertrude may have considered rose as just another ‘flower’, for which I’ll forgive her since she was an Aquarius, yet I have other plans for your delectation…here are my personal favorite perfumed Odes to the Rose in no particular order of preference, which each prove that even Shakespeare got it wrong on roses. By any other name they might well smell as sweet, but they would not be those multiverses of perfume and poetry contained within the velvet folds and musical tones…of rose.

The Maharani of RoseNeela Vermeire Créations Mohur

We perfume bloggers live for those moments of olfactory epiphany when suddenly, a seismic shift occurs in our amygdalas and our noses blow our minds. This happened to me when I was given the opportunity to discover a brand-new line that is currently taking the perfume world by storm – Neela Vermeire Crèations. I knew Neela had collaborated for over a year with Bertrand Duchaufour, I had read the reviews. I thought I knew from roses. I was delighted to be proved so very, very wrong. For Mohur, Neela’s tribute to both the glorious Mogul empire and the British Raj, is nothing less than a Maharani – a Great Queen – of roses. Spicy and fiery, earthy and decadent, with more rosy-floral facets than any diamond can boast, it’s an outrageously spectacular rose perfume, opulent yet also as ethereal as a fervent wish on a full moon. It’s one of the most magnificent roses I’ve ever had the pleasure to sniff and to wear. As I have and I do and I indeed will for as long as I can ever love a rose…

The Wildest HeartLiz Zorn’s Sinti

Liz Zorn, indie perfumer extraordinaire, was unknown to me when I received a decant of her heart-stopping tribute to rose centifolia, Sinti. Sinti is not your usual rose perfume cliché, there’s nothing in the slightest that will remind you of rose soap or Eau de Granny. For one thing, this rose is wild at heart, wild and untamed and blooming unseen in a secret Saharan desert oasis, as green as nature itself and as surprising as a sudden beam of sunlight on that instant shock of …rose. It is bitter and a bit thorny, with its herbal bite of sage and galbanum that blooms into a fevered dream of one feral flower, easily unisex, easily worn, and all too easy to love, even though it never can be tamed.

A Rosy Dance on Moss Olympic Orchids’ Ballets Rouges

Olympic Orchids’ Ballets Rouges took no time at all to pirouette its way into my rosy heart – it was love at first sniff! Ballets Rouges is by bounds and leaps a green, silky opening that segues into a pas-de-ballet of roses so real, I’ve had people turn to look for the bouquet when I’ve worn this. Yet rose is not the whole story in this perfume, for down below beats a heart of green and a pulse of chypre with a ribbon of oakmoss so dark and luscious, this diehard chypre fan is reduced to molten jelly in gratitude that there are still perfumers who love oakmoss and roses as we do. Put the two together in this peerless pas-de-deux as Ellen Covey did, and even I can dance en point forever more those perfect, mossy, rosy steps.

Iconoclast RoseEtat Libre d’Orange’s Rossy di Palma L’Eau de Protection

If anyone knows how to do celebuscents (that hated category) flawlessly, it would be Etat Libre d’Orange. Their tribute to Rossy di Palma, the feisty, fiery actress Pedro Almodovar so adores, is a thorny, spiky, emerald-green and crimson red tattoo rose that obeys no laws but its own, which is every reason to adore it just as much as Rossy herself. From that bright, green opening bite to the dark patchouli pulse below, Rossy the rose perfume is the quintessential Rossy…unusual, unsettling and beautiful in its defiance of all those tired, trite rose tropes. This is a rose that shows its thorns plain as day and glows its crimson-lipped beauty as soon as you come closer. If you dare.

The Mozart of RoseEnvoyage Perfumes L’Emblem Rouge

When perfumer Shelley Waddington of Envoyage Perfumes worked with master distiller Dabney Rose, they danced a tandem that made precisely the rose perfume no one else would dare – the very essence of a classical rose perfume wrapped in a burgundy promise of perfection. L’Emblem Rouge is a thick, lavish, Oriental rose, spicy, green, and darkly romantic. It dances its own Mozart minuet on your skin with its burst of orange and spice, violet and orris, and all its pleasures proves as you muse that Mozart may be music, and rose may be a flower, but that doesn’t make L’Emblem Rouge any less a marvel – or Mozart any less a genius!

The Rosy RevolutionsTauer PerfumesUne Rose Chyprée & Incense Rosé

I’ve said it before in several locations and I’ll happily say it again – I personally consider Andy Tauer a perfumer of such stellar magnitude, I think he should be paraded down Fifth Avenue and carpet-bombed with rose petals by an adoring crowd, except I suspect he’ll have turned them into Un Rose Vermeillé (which I have yet to try) or something else equally spectacular before the parade reaches East 81st Street. The man knows his roses, knows them as only a truly dedicated rose lover can, and has done audacious things to roses that only prove how little Gertrude – or Shakespeare – knew of roses. When I recently was given a chance to name a bunch of samples to try, these two jumped off my keyboard and into the email before I could even blink. Certain things – and certain perfumes – you just…have this hunch about, although in this case, it was more of a neon blinking billboard. Une Rose Chyprée is a rose of reinventions and revolution, dark and light, depth and sweetness, no one element taking a backseat to the other. It’s Rose, Oh, Yes! But Wait! There’s So Much More! A breath of oakmoss, a kiss of vanilla, a whole library of everything rose and fire and all its splendors, too! Incense Rosé is yet another sleight-of-hand rabbit from Andy’s hat – again, not a rose, and not an incense and not like anything else your imagination could dream but something otherwise and elsewhere…from the blinding sunshine brought of its orange/citrus open to the smoky-tinged labdanum and frankincense drydown, if you’re curious what else can possibly be said about roses…look no further. I can guarantee you one thing only – you will be surprised! And roses will forevermore never be the same…

So Gertrude…hush. Yes, I know you’re dead, but I can still feel your crotchety ghost breathing down my back as I type, said with a sneer and a hint of that grande dame you also were:

“Well, obviously, I had other, more important things to contemplate than roses!”

But stop a moment and think…about a rose, and know that by any other name, it’s very much more than sweet…

Original image of Gertrude Stein, Alvin Langdon Coburn, 1913, from indicommons.org. ‘Gertrude en rose’ version – me.

With big thank you hugs to the Great Facilitators: Shelley Waddington, Ellen Covey, Anthony of NKDMan, Nick of Les Senteurs and the incredible Neela Vermeire.