A Gothic Grimoire


–  The Genie’s Guide to the Supernaturally Sublime

Something about October, the dance of glowing leaves in the wind, the shift in mood from the exuberance of spring and the dolce far niente of summer to a tinge of delicious melancholy, the very perfume of the air itself, with its first hints of looming winter and quietude, the mushroom scent of a forest floor after the rain, the sharp tang of fallen apples and the sudden epiphany of wood smoke in the air – all of these combined add up to what is without question one of my favorite times of the year.

If I were to put an epithet that somehow sums up all of October, it would surely be ‘Gothic’.

These days, Gothic conjures up associations of horror, darkness and menace, if not an entire subculture I once upon a storied time did my own small part to define the first time it surfaced in the zeitgeist of the mid-Eighties. While I may have outgrown my predilection for acres of black eyeliner and ditto lipstick, certain elements of that era have stuck with me ever since – a taste for melodramatic literature written at an operatic pitch of intensity, music, and a certain nineteenth-century feel and line in clothing. Although I still own an outsize amount of very black clothes, one indispensible item more than any other brings out that inspired state of being that consists of equal parts preternatural frisson, high drama, twinges of mortality, and the delectable, unbearable, existential darkness of being.


But what in all that chthonic murk constitutes a Gothic… perfume?

It goes without saying that all the happy-go-lucky flirty florals and fruity wonders we adore so much in high summer no longer cut it.

For a perfume to be deemed Gothic requires a few non-negotiable elements. First of all – that all-important question, my own pop-culture criterion:

Would Morticia Addams wear it?

If it is too light, too young, too obvious, too fleeting, the answer is likely a resounding ‘no’. Anything that doesn’t reduce our own resident Gomez Addams (should we have one) to a helpless pile of smoking ectoplasm need not apply. Speaking of ectoplasm…

All Gothic perfumes must by necessity contain an element of the numinous or the supernatural about them. It could be a question of composition, of overall texture, of unusual fragrant elements in mutual tension, but if it doesn’t give you a superstitious shiver down your spine and you can’t even explain why, what’s the point?

Since the Gothic mood and mindset is dark, intense, and brooding, the perfume must somehow convey all of these things. Therefore, Gothic perfumes are often very plush, with a lot of basenotes that may often include frankincense, labdanum, oud, patchouli, sandalwood, oakmoss, castoreum, civet, musk, leather and other wonders of that fertile alchemical undergrowth that provokes all our darkest, most secret, subconscious desires.

Last but never least, if you can answer an affirmative ‘yes!’ to the question…

Would you wear this to a graveside Halloween party?

Then you’ve found your very own Gothic perfume!

What follows below are my own personal decidedly Gothic favorites, arranged from vintage (and therefore, sadly, the current versions are reformulated beyond recognition and merit) to currently available.

Vintage Glories

Magie Noir – Lancôme

This 1978 classic by Gerard Goupy was a harbinger to come of those opulent Eighties orientals. It is also without question one of the witchiest perfumes ever made. I’ve worn it off and on since 1983, and it remains the single most complimented perfume I own, even today. In fact, I’ve never met a man who didn’t tilt backwards for this one, such is the Circe spell it weaves, turning any modern Odysseus into a slavering hog whether they want it or not. Although still in production, it’s not even a wan, pale echo of its former glory.

Narcisse Noir – Caron

Sometimes, I wonder at the fragrant bombshells I wore in my wanton youth, wonder I even dared to wear them. This great immortal classic, beloved of both Norma Desmond and Anaïs Nin, more than any other delineated my long-ago Goth days. It slew several wannabe latter-day Baudelaires I knew by taking a perfumery trope – orange blossom – and turning it completely inside out. Orange blossom is usually a joyous, summery, sunshine bloom. Ernest Daltroff’s 1912 classic inverts all those expectations and turns them inside out by being a dark, smoky, slinky animal of midnight and divine delirium. Narcisse Noir is still available, although it has irrevocably changed from its inky, slinky, seductive self to a prim Park Avenue mistress in palest dove gray.

Parlous Blooms

If ever an entire perfume house’s resident aesthetic somehow encapsulates all that is Gothic with a decadent French twist, it would surely be Serge Lutens. I doubt it’s an accident it is one of my all-time favorite perfume houses for precisely that reason. Best of all, Serge Lutens has – aided by resident alchymist Christopher Sheldrake and before him Maurice Roucel – subverted several classic florals into new, unnerving territory by making them eerie, and not just through their inscrutable press copy or their names, but throughout their very souls. Iris Silver Mist will send chills of otherworldly orris down your spine, Tubereuse Criminelle shall disturb you to your depths in all its heady jolie laide beauty, Sarrasins might sink its feral feline jasmine fangs into your nose and De Profundis exude its own cold kiss of mortality down your neck, but you will not forget them – nor will anyone who gets close enough to sniff.

Numinous Numbers

Certain perfumes are more than a little… numinous. Meaning they convey a hint or a whole ruined abbey of emotion, legend, ghosts of stories past and premonitions to come. They range from the transcendental to the uncanny, which is precisely why they’re so beloved.

Trayee & Ashoka – Neela Vermeire Crèations

It may seem a bit of a stretch to call Neela Vermeire’s Trayee and Ashoka ‘gothic’ when perhaps the first word that comes to mind is ‘exotic’, but think again – if we take the word to mean transporting in an emotionally compelling, numinous sense, then they both do precisely that in two different, very complex and nearly supernatural ways. Trayee with its sacred incense, oud and sandalwood, Ashoka with its sudden, shocking shift from deepest dark to luminous light – either is perfect for that lingering trail of sanctity we all aspire to leave behind us – or the samsara we all hope to achieve.

Rouge Avignon – Phaedon

Rouge Avignon, inspired by the Papal palace at Avignon, embodies the very best of Gothic sensibilities in its very DNA. Rose, incense, smoke, dark, deep woods – it is its own unholy witchy brew of blackest red and reddest black, the shade of a drop of blood, of power and of carefully concealed secrets, too.


Mad, Bad and Dangerous To Know or… Les Hommes Fatales

Lady Caroline Lamb may well have had all sorts of personal reasons to describe George Gordon, Lord Byron as all of the above, but certain masculine-tinged perfumes will haunt me to my grave if not devastate me into a swoon, whether they’re worn by short, dark and interesting exemplars of the male gender or by tall, fair, rockstar poets in aviator shades fueled by Friday night and Pinot Grigio.

Baudelaire – Byredo

No fan of the Gothic can avoid a fatal predilection for the poetry of Charles Baudelaire. While I somehow doubt Byredo’s Baudelaire would be worn by its namesake, who did indeed have a great affinity for perfume, there’s no question in my demented mind it does full justice to the spirit of his words…erotic, evocative, subversive, and more than a little perilous to short, busty writers with (oversized) nitroglycerin imaginations. Poets beware!

1740 Marquis de Sade – Histoires de Parfums

This thick, heady, delirious leather/spicy/immortelle bombshell of a perfume was inspired by that greatest libertine of them all – or so the notorious Marquis liked to see himself. I say it’s much too good for his ghost, but absolutely grand for modern-day libertines out to slay the unsuspecting with everything they’ve got. So long as they’re careful never to promise more than they’re capable of delivering. I also say 1740 is everything any hopelessly romantic, Gothic-leaning female could wish to inhale, although the consequences of doing just that might be harrowing. My lips are sealed in scarlet ink. To paraphrase Tennessee Williams, things occur in the dark of night that make anything happening in daylight seem… all right.

A Haunted History

Perfume, I heard myself saying some time ago, is every bit as legitimate a way of telling a story as a painting, a sculpture, a film, a novel. Few perfumes tell quite such a timeless story as the most haunting pair I know…

Memoir Man/Woman – Amouage

The great thing about Amouage paired perfumes is the way both the feminine and the masculine versions reflect two sides of the same story, and here, it’s that eternal epic love story of a tempestuous heaven and a mutual melodrama heartbreak. Either of them have utterly ruined me for life for other so-called ‘bottled love stories’, since so far as I’m concerned, this one is unbeatable. Certainly, it’s unforgettable. As all the best love stories – and worst heartbreaks! – always are.

Les Femmes Fatales

Ladies – you’ve been waiting for these. These perfumes are the dragon-slayers and pale-faced Succubi of the perfume world, the pearlescent vampires, the Liliths, Ligeias and Morellas and the Annabel Lees, the transgressions, the most ebony of carnal sins and ultimate, bottled evils, the justifications for terrible, heart-rending beauty and bone-chilling emanations.  If you think about it – what is Ulalume compared to all of those? Edgar? Anyone?

Midnight At The Crossroads Café – Neil Morris

Gothic literature has been such a mainstay of popular fiction for so long, it’s increasingly hard to imagine anything new could ever be done with it. Unless you happen to be that justly famous Boston treasure, perfumer Neil Morris, who took an unknown writer’s opening chapter and turned it into a upgraded Gothic perfume novella for the twenty-first century without overlooking any single essential: a witching hour, a vulnerable woman, a glass of mulled wine, an empty café and the distinct, supernatural thrill of the definitely dangerous and dangerously erotic Devil himself. It can be classified as a chypre, but this is unlike any chypre you think you know – this is as good as fragrant perdition gets. Take it from me. I know.

Immortal Mine – House of Cherry Bomb

Two years ago (and how it could be two years I’m still not sure), I had the great good fortune to participate in the Clarimonde Project, a cross-media collaboration of perfumers and writers to explore in prose and perfume one of the earliest and most unusual vampire stories ever – Thèophile Gautier’s 1836 La Morte Amoureuse. House of Cherry Bomb’s Immortal Mine is one of the superlative finest and supremely Gothic perfumes money can buy. It’s as deep and impenetrable as Nietzsche’s abyss, as black and vast as a winter hour before dawn, as licentious as any celebrated courtesan and as haunting (if not daunting) as Gautier’s story and his creation both.

Babylon Noir – Opus Oils

Hundreds of perfumes claim to be noir. Most of them barely qualify as wannabe noir, if that much. Babylon Noir, created by perfumer Kedra Hart of Opus Oils for the Devilscent Project, is such an audacious, outrageous, luscious feline carnivore of a perfume, it makes vintage Narcisse Noir (no slouch in the darkness department) blanc in comparison. Equally suitable for vampires and aspiring Liliths, it will slay anyone it touches, guaranteed, because darkness gets no blacker nor more alluring. Wear it to any Halloween party and watch the competition turn orange in envy.

Ormonde Woman – Ormonde Jayne London

Some very long time ago, when I was still fairly new to niche perfumery, I won a sample of Ormonde Woman on another perfume blog. That it was a green and witchy creature, I already knew from the review, but I wasn’t at all prepared for my own reaction. It was without question the most terrifying perfume I had ever encountered in my life, so much so, it was the original inspiration for Lilith’s perfume. Not for being repellent (which it wasn’t) nor even poisonous (although there was that hemlock absolute…) but precisely because it was such a feral thing of the forest. It took me a good long time (and very many perfumes) to come around to Ormonde Woman, but now I have another wafting weapon at my disposal to put the capital B in bewitching.

Lil – Olympic Orchids

Still with me on this fragrant descent into the heart of October darkness? In which case, you’re in for a very big surprise, because Olympic Orchids’ Lil – also created for the Devilscent Project – is not dark in the slightest. Ellen Covey happily took every Gothic trope and cliché in perfumery and subverted them into an absolutely terrifying – and horribly beautiful – perfume of sharp, piercing, eerie green light, as if she had somehow managed to capture a will-o’-the-wisp in a perfume bottle that will haunt (and taunt) your surroundings for a very long time. Wimps and wannabes need not apply.

The Moody, Magnificent Monster

Opus VII – Amouage

I’m a bit at a loss to describe Opus VII (although I’ve certainly tried) and its effects, but basically, this is a huge, shape-shifting beast of Faërie that takes oud, black leather, cypriol, fenugreek and galbanum and provides them all with the most delirious fangs  – or pangs! – you could never have imagined. You can wear it ten times and encounter ten different stories. You will catch a waft and think you have managed to parse its depths to your satisfaction. Ten minutes later, you’ll catch another and wonder what you were thinking. Then hours later, the only thing you can be sure of is one literal wild ride – or wild hunt through the undergrowth? – that surely explains every Dionysian mystery rite from antiquity to the present. Or does it? Only its sillage knows…

In short, if you seek the unusual, the preternatural thrill, the mysteries and the magic of a most magical time of year, these perfumes will be honored to send eerie shivers down your spine.

Because every day should be Halloween!

At least in October.


Serge Lutens perfumes are available from Luckyscent and for European customers, directly from the Serge Lutens website. Trayee and Ashoka are available at Luckyscent and from Neela Vermeire Crèations. Rouge Avignon is available directly from Phaedon. Baudelaire is available from Luckyscent and First in Fragrance. Histoires de Parfums 1740 is at Luckyscent and First in Fragrance. Amouage Memoir Man & Woman can be found at Luckyscent and First in Fragrance. Neil Morris’ Midnight is available through his Vault collection of perfumes by request. House of Cherry Bomb’s Immortal Mine is available at Indie Scents. Opus Oils’ Babylon Noir is available directly from the Opus Oils website, Ormonde Woman from Ormonde Jayne London, Lil directly from Olympic Orchids. Amouage Opus VII is available from Luckyscent, First in Fragrance and directly from the Amouage website.

With thanks to the reader who inspired the post…;)

Illustrations: Franz von Stuck, Die Sünde, 1893 and Lucifer, 1890.

A Florentine Adventure – Part Two


Of sales pitches, scents & sensory overload at Pitti Fragranze 2013

Imagine…a huge, old, mid-19th century red brick edifice, with soaring arches high above your heads, with bricks that resonate with the ghosts of a million hellos and goodbyes, joy, sorrow and anticipation somehow swirling invisible above the throng in this vast space. Once upon a storied time, this was the gateway to all things Florentine – the history, the heritage, the ever-present art that somehow elevates all in this city to myth and impossible dream. Such beauty, such stories, such history cannot be, and yet… it did and it does, even here and even now.

Welcome to the Stazione Leopolda in Florence, home for three frenetic days to Pitti Fragranze 2013.

For three days, this is the epicenter of the highest expressions of European perfumers’ and perfume companies’ alchemical art, this is where burgeoning reputations and successes are built, cemented and sometimes destroyed. Distributors are found, deals are made, agreements made, epiphanies are sniffed, discussed and sometimes felt in visceral, fatal ways.

Because presentation matters.

It’s important to understand one thing about my own idiosyncratic perspective on Pitti Fragranze: I have not one niche store anywhere near me, very, very rarely buy full bottles and I don’t own a credit card. My samples are either sent by brands for review (for which I’m far more grateful than they know) or sent by perfumista friends. (Ditto.)

So you can well imagine I wasn’t about to waste a chance in sniffing what I could while and as I could! Only to find that no matter how I tried – I couldn’t. Sooner or later, in spite of coffee beans and a scrap of wool in my handbag, olfactory fatigue would set in. This was a lesson I learned on my first day, which explains why I came home with so many samples and promises of emails for more… samples. Yet very many sample strips still found their way under my nose, and even a few sprays on my person, because having something applied by the mind that conceived it is its own certain thrill.


The Agonist display at Intertrade

And the displays! Bottles glowing like jewels (Intertrade’s section displayed under black lights), bottles in a swoon on transparent shelves and pedestals, bottles set up as epic tales of transport in library settings, bottles lined up as transcendental idols on flower-laden altars…

Presentation was – and is! – everything.

What all discerning pooches and pussycats will be wanting for Christmas.

What all discerning pooches and pussycats will be wanting for Christmas.

Amouage went all out for their presentation of Fate Man & Woman and had an entire booth devoted to them. I had never seen, never mind held a full bottle of any Amouage, and they took my breath away. Should I ever (I can dream!) get my hands on one of those factices, it’s getting its own display case.

Amouage Fate display.

Amouage Fate display.

Temptations in white and blacklight

By far the most unusual display of brands came from Intertrade, who distributes Boadicea the Victorious, Bond no. 9, Byredo, Blood Concept, Agonist, Czech & Speake, Nasomatto and the perfumes of the Icelandic artist Andrea Maack. In three separate rooms off the main hall of Stazione Leopolda, a luxe lounge lizard cave beckoned the curious closer. After wafting and wending my way through the Byredos, the Bonds and Czech & Speake, including happy reunions with old favorites Baudelaire and no. 88, I was stopped in the inner sanctum by this riveting sight:

Who says perfume can’t be its very own drug?

Who says perfume can’t be its very own drug?

Poor taste or effective marketing – you be the judge of that one!

A tall, striking blonde in a floppy black hat walked the innermost room, and with that strange Norse mojo that seems to apply wherever we congregate abroad, I knew precisely who she was – artist Andrea Maack. She and I had a long involved conversation that circled around themes of darkness and congregations prompted by her latest release, “Coven.” Fans of the Devilscent Project take note – “Coven” is a definite relation and variation on that theme of erotic darkness.

The Really Bad Case of Iwannas

Another variation on the theme, namely perfume, came from Panpuri, whose luxurious spa and skincare line has now branched out into perfumes (very good) and home ambience with a series of scented candles inspired by legendary women of history and literature. It was the Panpuri display that caught me (it was beautiful, and I was so enthralled I completely forgot to take photos), but those candles were breathtaking even before they were lit and smelled as divine as they looked. I came away wanting one of everything Panpuri. Fat chance. In the meantime, I can dream of having a candle inspired by Scarlett O’Hara, a favorite literary heroine of mine.


I’ll take one of each, please.

Pitti is also the location for Really Big Releases, and one of the biggest was certainly Neela Vermeire’s ‘Ashoka’, which was such a deserved hot topic at Pitti, Neela was in the spotlight and often on camera every day of the event. I am here to tell you that everything you might have read of Neela in person in absolutely true – she is so wonderful, even my purple prose fails me. She was also sweet enough to let me try her new Mohur Esprit de Parfum, which is so incredibly special, it will be especially reviewed.


Perfume displayed as idols on altars of transport…

The likewise very darling Vero Kern has been a very busy gal, releasing both last year’s Mito in a sumptuous liquid-velvet extrait and all four perfumes of her line in ‘voiles de parfum’ – which are evolutions of their original ideas because that’s how Vero works, bless her heart. They are neither diluted extraits nor amped-up eaux de parfum, but entities unto themselves which have to be felt to be properly experienced.

I was hijacked in the middle of a conversation with Vero by the very charming and persuasive Italian perfumer Lorenzo Dante Ferro, who is behind the Amorvero line of perfumes created for the Hotel Hassler in Rome and also his own line, Profumi d’Autore. Signor Ferro invited me to a cocktail party at the new Café Florian (an offshoot of the famous Café Florian in Venice) in Florence, for the launch of a line of ambient room sprays evoking the ambience of the original four salle, or rooms in Venice, and of course a series of supremely sumptuous perfumes to wear. It was an evening I won’t forget in a hurry – beautiful people in a beautiful café with a storied, centuries-old name, scintillating conversations about perfumes and people, introductions and hellos and promises of emails, and prosecco flowing like the Arno throughout. I left a good many hours later with samples galore and floated all the way back to my Porta al Prato hotel on perfumed prosecco bubbles…

I was certainly thrilled to find San Francisco-based perfumer Ineke Rühland among the exhibitors, since shortly before Pitti I had received her stunningly presented “Floral Curiosities’ collection of soliflores to try. Not only could she remember me, it also happened we knew quite a few people in common. Watch this space.

Another unparalleled pleasure was confusing the heck out of one of the Genie’s very favorite perfumers – and people. Andy Tauer was also in Florence to present his perfumes and also his new customizable collection of decants (something I wish far more brands would do), and just as Neela, Olivier Durbano and Pierre Guillaume, the poor man was mobbed with fans and admirers from morning till night. So I made a habit of sliding by and winking at him a few times a day before moving on through the crush on Friday and Saturday, until on Sunday, I finally grabbed my chance and waited out the throng. Andy has been an ardent supporter of TAG for quite some time, and it certainly meant the world to this perfume writer finally to be able to thank him personally for all his encouragement. I left some time, big hugs and a great conversation later with devious plans to get my greedy hands on Carillon Pour Un Ange (a huge surprise since I’m not the world’s biggest fan of lily-of-the-valley) and Noontide Petals (it really IS all that!) as soon as I possibly can. I foresee a decant set  – or three – in my future…

With so many brands competing for distribution, space, words and sometimes notoriety, it will inevitably happen that a gimmick or quirk will settle in your mind and refuse to leave. The Most Outrageous Gimmick award of Pitti 2013 (although my inner punk applauds the artist’s, shall we say, twisted sense of humor, my outer Taurus knows quite well I’ve Been Thoroughly Had) goes to O’Driù’s Angelo Pregoni for the sheer chutzpah of his latest creation, ‘Peety’. As for the perfume itself, what can I say? Except that if you want to accent one decidedly human aspect in perfume, your idea has been executed with far more flair, elegance and wearable finesse already, my sorrow to say. It was made by Neil Morris for the Devilscent Project and is called ‘Dev #1’.

Among the new brands and discoveries from Florence you can expect to see reviewed on TAG in the months to come are: Bruno Acampora, Parfums de Marly, Schwarzlose, Eau d’Italie, Maria Candida Gentile, Oliver & Co., Peccato Originale, Laborattorio Olfattivo, Phaedon (of which I’ve already reviewed Rouge Avignon), Lorenzo Dante Ferro, Ulrich Lang, Panpuri and a few more big surprises I’ll keep close a while longer. J

That Fragrant Malaise

But some time late Sunday afternoon, as I paced the Stazione Leopolda’s halls again, looking for brands I missed (there were a few) intentionally or otherwise, a certain malaise crept in. I wondered at the machinations of the European hyperluxe end of Planet Perfume, and had to confess to a definite bias I didn’t even know I had. For every Andy Tauer, Vero Kern, or Neela Vermeire, all three of whom show a degree of unparalleled dedication to their artistic vision and uncompromising quality, there are four brands who want a piece of that action – and fail. Not for a lack of trying, not for a lack of understanding their markets, but something far more fatal – a lack of vision. Put simply, they underestimate the customer base that is supposed to validate their existence as perfume brands. “They want fruity-figgy-green? Oud? Oud is hot, let’s make an oud. Call Givaudan/IFF/Mane and have them cook something up…”

If anything, the success I sniffed at the Pitti exists precisely because the brands that will be around five or ten years from now refuse to stoop so low. They know that niche and indie perfume connoisseurs are far more discerning than they’re given credit for, and will know a shortcut when they smell it. But above all in the Sunday afternoon miasma, what I missed most of all from all those emerging brands was originality. I missed the chances taken by American indie perfumers – the all-out sensuality of a Mandy Aftel, the exquisite restraint of a Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, the playfulness exhibited all over the Pacific Northwest by brands such as House of Matriarch, Olympic Orchids, Imaginary Authors, Slumberhouse, or the elegance of Envoyage Perfumes. I missed a sense of humor and risk-taking, the kind you’ll find with Opus Oils in Hollywood or East Coast brands like Neil Morris and House of Cherry Bomb.

There were plenty of fragrant revelations, but most came from the usual, consistent suspects, and not nearly enough from all these emerging brands. It all somehow melded into Eau de Pitti…expensive, expansive and yet not nearly distinctive enough.

How to feel fabulous in Florence: Sit among all the fabulous people.

How to feel fabulous in Florence: Sit among all the fabulous people.

Towards the end of Sunday afternoon, as brands began to dismantle displays and pack up, I left the fug and the fumes behind and went to sit outside, trying to sort all my impressions, trying to find a place for all the happiness I felt in finally meeting those who have meant so very much in my own perfumed journey.

Not long after, I was approached by a woman who sat down beside me with a sigh of relief.

It seems such an insult to call her “old”, although she was nowhere young, since I could tell from that twinkle in her eyes she had long since transcended all such adjectives, was far beyond all such judgment and opinion. Such women are rare, and intriguing when you find them. She was eccentrically dressed in violently clashing colors and floral patterns, with her white hair braided and finished with two periwinkle blue flowers that danced on her chest. She smiled at me, I smiled back, and was greeted with a torrent of Italian. I shrugged in apology, mentioned I spoke Inglese, and at that confession, she seemed to beam wider, as if the very word ‘English’ brought back memories of happy, distant times.

“Ah, signora,” she said. “Sei Americana?”

“Scusi, no. Danesa. I thought for a moment. “Io sono una scrittora.” And thought, not for the last time, that everything sounds so much better in Italian.

“Ah! Danesa! È una scrittora. A writer…” She looked me up and down, still with that devastating twinkle in her eyes. Then, with all the authority of what must have been at least eighty well-lived years, she straightened her shoulders, sat taller and demanded:

“Dammi la mano. Your hand.” She pointed to my right hand.

I handed it over. She traced the lines in my palm, bent and flexed my fingers this way and that, as she muttered sotto voce in Italian.

“Sei famosa. Or you will be. Molto famosa. You know l’amore, si?”

I was too flabbergasted to be anything but honest. “Yes. I do.”

“You will know more. This one-” she traced a line, “will leave, but there is another waiting. For you, signora. You will see. And fame. You will see.” She dropped my hand with a bawdy laugh and tilted her head back, towards Stazione Leopolda. “What you think? Of tutti… in there?”

A universe of implication in those few words and in her tone.

“So many perfumes,” I replied.

“Troppi profumi! That is their problem. Some great, some… not so much.” She shrugged, eyes twinkling. “For you, signora – fame! And l’amore, si? Un grande amore! But there…” Again, that eloquent backwards tilt of her head, the flowers dancing on her braids, a disbelieving shake of her head.

“Too many perfumes!”

She took my hand, gave it a squeeze, walked to the exit with a wave and a laugh, and was swallowed by the crowd outside Stazione Leopolda.

Even today, as the sun shines cold outside my window and I’m battling some sort of flu bug as I type, I’m still not convinced she wasn’t an angel.

Yet there were indeed…  troppi profumi!

With special thanks to all at Pitti Fragranze who made me so welcome; Neela Vermeire, Andy Tauer, Vero Kern, Lisa of Campomarzio70, Sonia Acampora, Andrea Maack, Marillene of Parfums de Marly, Tamas and Veronika of Schwarzlose, Ineke Rühland, and of course Lorenzo and Cindy Ferro.

Also one very large thank you to Sandra Perrone of Florence, human firebrand and an instant friend who opened up Firenze for me, and to Hasan, who introduced us.

Thanks no less to my fabulous readers, who made these words possible.

Note: With apologies for the (near interminable) delay in posting this, but September has been so mad/hectic, I didn’t even have time to change my mind! And when I did, I was felled – by the flu.

All photos: My iPhone.

Serendipity in action

IMG_7625 believed in serendipity with hearts watermarked-1

– Or the art of believing that ancient adage

You’ve heard those stories – sometimes, events will transpire in such a way that you will be where you need or want to be precisely at that moment you need (or want) to be there.

Well, let me tell you dear readers, it’s all true.

Back in the early spring this year, I threw out a sentence to a very dear friend and fellow perfumoholic I know in a phone conversation.

“Wouldn’t it be something if I could make it to Florence for Pitti Fragranze?”

And by implication, be among the first to experience the newest razzle-dazzle moments in the high art of perfume?

“It would, indeed, be… something,” she replied.

At the time, I thought I had a snowball’s chance in Hades, but hey…miracles have been known to occur!

Well, ladies and gentlemen, once again I’ll say it:

Be careful what you wish for!

Whether it was the alignment of the stars, whether wishing on all the full moons or a shooting star one enchanted evening with the Memoir Man, it happened. Also, I received such a great deal on my MacBook Pro, I had a little left over, and decided to put it where my readers are – I mean, c’mon…you’re curious, too, yes?

I have received press accreditation for the event, the tickets have been ordered, the hotel booked, and arrangements made to meet up with a few people I know and adore.

I’m so excited, I have no idea how I’l get through the next week, but I will, no worries! I have never been to Florence before. If I don’t make it to the Santa maria Novella pharmacy, I’ll die. This is far more exciting than you know!

So to the extent Florentine WiFi and Cassius Dio will allow, I shall be reporting to the best (or worst? 😉 ) of my meager abilities on everything planned to set Planet Perfume alight in the months to come.

Stay tuned! And I shall see for you there!


Eau de Maman


 – a Mother’s Day tribute

Of all the many guises of womanhood, perhaps none are so revered – and sometimes reviled – as motherhood. As I recall saying to an old friend two days after becoming a mother the first time myself:

From now on, everything I do or say will be wrong!

But when I think of mothers, as you do on Mother’s Day and your mother’s birthday and other days when your mother pops up unaware and takes you by surprise, I also and maybe even first of all think of perfume.

Because of all the many things that define and explain my own mitochondrial DNA – and thus, my mother – perfume more than anything is what I remember. All the many shades and colors of her existence and my own memories of her were somehow encapsulated in the perfumes she wore, her femininity, her ferocity, her passions and her perils.

She had me very young, at a mere eighteen, and although I was born a scant two months after a hastily arranged wedding to a dashing Creole, he was not my father, and I may never know who he really was or is.

Today, that doesn’t matter so much as the memories I know I have, and all of them – arranged chronologically here – are the perfumes she wore and the memories I have of a truly remarkable woman who cast – as the saying goes – a very long shadow behind her – in her daughters and in the many memories of the many people who knew her.

It was a rare day my mother didn’t wear perfume. I can’t honestly recall her ever wearing any drugstore or Avon fragrances – she knew what she loved and made no excuses for her choices – which were French, expensive, classical and timeless – much like she chose to define herself.

She was a petite, beautiful, passionate, eighth-generation redhead, and mostly was forgiven everything for much of her life because of it. So it should come as no surprise that my first memory of Eau de Maman was the likewise passionate, beautiful (and not precisely petite’):

Jolie Madame by Balmain.

My very first fragrant memory of her – I doubt I was much more than about two at the time – was being wrapped up in her beaver coat after being collected at the babysitter’s. There had been a party somewhere where she usually stopped both conversations and traffic, and as I cuddled half-asleep on the back seat swathed in fur, I breathed in Jolie Madame, with all its verdant opening promises and dark violet heart wrapped in a velvet-soft black glove leather that explained a few things about Maman and perhaps those grown-up parties I was surely far too young to know at the time. Even these many years later, I can close my eyes and breathe in the aroma of that Jolie Madame-saturated fur coat – and wish I had it with me still.

Later, as I was older, her tastes changed. She favored airier, lighter perfumes by then, perhaps because she had gained a certain level of confidence only maturity can acquire, or maybe it was something else, that heady time of rapid change and possibilities where optimism was in the…

L’Air du Temps by Nina Ricci

If post-war optimism had its own perfume masterpieces – and we know today it certainly did – surely, it was L’Air du Temps by Nina Ricci, with its dazzling chiffon beginnings and its sparkling, seamless, floral carnation pulse? This was one of my mother’s all-time favorites, an effervescent blend she might well have called Hope Springs Eternal, since it never failed to lift up her spirits and elevate her days, to fly away as perfectly as that crystal Lalique dove perched on the cap of the parfum that adorned her dresser. Then, some long time later, we moved to tropical South Florida, and she found the great escape that was an island, namely…

Fidji by Guy Laroche

A woman is an island, went the tagline, and Fidji is her perfume. This breathtaking fragrance – as far away from tropical perfume tropes as you can dare to imagine – defined her longest and nearly the best, and for that and another reason, Fidji holds a special place in my own heart. A green, ultra-feminine and peerless chypre – not a family my mother was normally inclined towards – it comes with another memory engraved upon my mind. Around age eight or nine, I had a habit of hiding in her closet. Not to hide, exactly, so much as to try to assume something of its feminine, floral wiles by olfactory osmosis, or else my mother’s fragrant, Fidji-soaked whims. Somewhere between the Pucci silk jumpsuit, the hand-embroidered flares, the eveningwear in their cellophane bags that swished in dizzy chiffon cascades to the closet floor, the shoes both high and low, all of them somehow exuding all her many perfumes – or else that perfectly rendered scent that was Fidji’s glorious blend of ylang ylang and carnation, galbanum and hyacinth, sandalwood and a vanillic amber lay the secrets of womanhood itself, and all I had to do for inspiration was to breathe it in… At seventeen, it was the only one of her perfumes I chose to wear myself, and so it became a secret we shared, my mother and I.

By then, I was already ruined for life, and how could it be otherwise with a mother who wore such wonders? Some mothers sit their daughters down for ‘the talk’ once adolescence hits but my mother had other ideas, and took me on a whirlwind trip to Paris instead, for now, it was time to make my own definitions, and to prove myself my mother’s daughter.

I’ll never forget that Friday afternoon on the Champs Èlysées at the door of the Great Temple of Womanhood known as the Guerlain flagstore.

My mother, still young, still turning heads even in Paris, gave me a certain assessing look, as if to establish whether there might be some hope in store for this gawky jeune fille, if even Ms. Bookworm might perhaps be able to metamorphose into a butterfly and slay a few hearts when the time came. Then, she said:

Never forget the importance of two things – a really good bra and…a stellar perfume!

Words to live by, and once again, much as it pains me to admit – she was right!

So I chose my own path to fragrant perdition that day and a very long time after – the fierce green chypres so in fashion at the time, for I knew – our mutual love of Fidji notwithstanding – I couldn’t choose what my mother wore, and that spring day in Paris, she shapeshifted again, and now her sights were set far away on the Opulent Eastern dream that was

Shalimar by Guerlain

Shalimar – that very French dream of a very Indian love story – is one of the most beloved perfumes – or perfume memories in the world. That it was incredibly complex, unbelievably lush and indescribably opulent somehow seemed to fit my mother at the time, and defined her personal aesthetic so emphatically and with such finality, I can never, ever wear it. The few times I’ve tried since becoming a perfume writer have made me feel like a three-year-old in Mommy’s heels and marabou boa, which is more than a little unnerving in your late forties. But Maman was nowhere finished with Orientals just yet, for along with Shalimar came another Eastern and far more modern and far more audacious dream, the olfactory fever vision that was

Opium by Yves Saint Laurent

In this day and age, it’s hard to understand what kind of impact Opium had on the female consciousness in the late Seventies and well beyond. These days, the fabled perfumes of the fabled M. St Laurent – personally involved with his eponymous perfumes to a degree that would appall many so-called ‘designers’ today – are no more than hollow, heartless echoes of their former glorious selves. Opium had the impact of a literal pulse bomb – on the wearer, on her surroundings, and on the public perfume consciousness, and certainly my mother’s, too. She slayed her surroundings and several masculine hearts with the fire and spice of Opium, and only relented in spring and summer with another fragrant souvenir from Paris that was no less famous and no less fragrant, the one and only

Diorissimo by Dior

This, the lily-of-the-valley to end all lily of the valley perfumes, was another of her ‘hopes in a bottle’, the green and verdant covenant she made to renew her self and her life every year with every spring and every sillage-laden step she took. I haven’t had the pleasure to breathe Diorissimo for a very long time, and thanks to those memories of my mother, I’m almost afraid to, for fear it will break my heart all over again. But even the heartstopping spring of Diorissimo didn’t stop my mother for long, for another classic made a brief appearance in all the midnight shades of

Narcisse Noir by Caron

I’m still not sure what prompted my mother to acquire Narcisse Noir, but knowing her, it could very well have been a late night viewing of ‘Sunset Boulevard’. It’s hard to argue against Norma Desmond or even the stunning Narcisse Noir. Harder still, since she had it only a few days, until that shameful evening her wretched oldest daughter – by now with several Gothic inclinations not even Gloria Swanson or Billy Wilder ever dreamed of – came for dinner, found it and…stole it! Trust my Scorpio mother to enact a chilling revenge of her own some time later, when she came home with the radioactive mushroom cloud that was

Parfum de Peau by Claude Montana

I’ve always admired Claude Montana the designer, whose Glamazon, Wonder Woman clothes embodied the excess of the Eighties perhaps more than any other designer of the time. But when this arrived on Maman’s doorstep, it caused an intervention by both her daughters. This patchouli-laden, musky, literally breath-taking (not in a good way) bombshell would do Thierry Mugler’s Angel in, and that says nearly everything you need to know about it. My sister and I howled our most eloquent protests so loudly and ferociously, within a week, Maman was frogmarched right back to our family favorite department store and ordered to find something, anything, whatever she could find that wasn’t…Parfum de Peau! She redeemed herself, this time for the rest of her life, when she chose

First by Van Cleef and Arpels

I’m fairly certain it was something more than sheer relief from Parfum de Peau’s monstrosities that made both my sister and myself equate all that was our mother with this incredible perfume created by that later perfume Le Corbusier minimalist we all worship today, and that is Jean Claude Ellena. To us, it smelled of the very best of the French perfume traditions, it smelled of money and Bentleys and diamonds in platinum settings, of Class with a capital C, of all the bottled beauty of a perfect summer day in a chateau garden in the Loire Valley. Maman, of course, saw First rather differently. As time went on, she came to see First as the embodiment of all her best and most memorable selves, as if M. Ellena had somehow managed to bottle not only all her selective realities but also her most fervent aspirations, and at long last, her elusive quest for a signature scent came to an end – with First.

As for my mother, pictured below on the day she wed my dearly beloved stepfather, she died much too young and much too soon, aged fifty-two after a two-year battle with breast cancer. Throughout our thirty-three years together, we loved and we hated, we fought and made up, we lived with and through each other in ways that all daughters and mothers do. As daughters do, I defined my own self in her despite, and as daughters also will, I’ve been confronted with the stamp of her when I least expect it. Both her daughters went on to become writers, and I suspect she had not a little to do with that, too.

She lies buried in a rural churchyard next to her mother beneath a Japanese granite garden light instead of a tombstone, imposing her own style and stamp among the more mundane epitaphs. Both her daughters buried her with a bottle of her beloved First, and even these many years later, when I least expect it, a tantalizing, faint trail of First will sometimes appear to haunt me, which is how I know that although she’s gone, she never left and is with me still – and always.


In memory of Alice Ruth Samuelsen Johansen Anderson Witt Caruana

(October 29th 1944 – January 7th, 1997)

And for all mothers everywhere, of children, of projects, and of creatures great and small. 

Image: ‘The Madonna of the Pinks’, attributed to Raphael.

How To Wear Perfume


 – The Genie’s Guide To Sillage

Do you ever have the feeling that one day, a day like any other day, something will happen to shock you so profoundly, you will henceforth crash through any brand of bs and nothing can ever shock you again?

Well, today was one of those days for me, and wouldn’t you know – it’s perfume-related. Going through my Twitter feed, I came across a link to an article on the Australian Bella Sugar on the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways to wear perfume, clicked it, read it, and then proceeded to howl…with laughter.

I haven’t laughed so hard since an Estée Lauder sales assistant told me imperiously that she didn’t hand out samples, since that was ‘bad for business’. (Tell that to the wonderful people at Barneys, Saks, Nordstrom, Bergdorf Goodman and every single niche/indie perfume store I’ve ever heard of in my life…)

So what, according to the perspicacious sages at Bella Sugar is the ‘right’ way to wear perfume?

  1. Don’t put perfume over scented lotion or oil. Not all scents play nicely together.
  2. Rubbing your wrists together causes uneven development, poor wear and the wrong proportion of notes. (sic!)
  3. Don’t use more than a single spritz if you’re wearing an eau de parfum from an atomizer. Your typical perfume is meant to be worn sparingly.

Naturally, I couldn’t take this lying down, or even sitting up. I’m a local Sillage Monster – mainly because the majority of perfumes I smell in the ‘wild’ are so horrible, I feel I have a moral obligation to recalibrate the noses I happen to walk by. You’d do it too, if you were gassed out of existence daily by Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, the ubiquitous Dior J’Adore and Juicy Couture.

As the seed of an idea began to sprout, I thought about all the common assumptions about perfume and perfume wearing that so many people take for granted. So here you have my own ideas…and a few popped balloons in the process, too!

What Bella Sugar Got Wrong

1) Not a few seriously great perfumes also come with all manner of matching pampering potions. For years, I swore by the ultraluxe Chanel no. 19 body crème, which was the last word in luxury – and layering. I say..go for it! Just use a little judgment here – if your perfume leans toward, say, orange blossom and you have an orange blossom body lotion/butter etc – I see no problem. I have for instance happily layered Aftelier’s delicious Lavender & Ginger body oil with vero profumo’s equally delicious Kiki extrait. Just don’t do what a former colleague of mine once did in the Bad Old Eighties, when he wore every permutation of YSL’s Kouros known to man – all at once.

On the other hand…sometimes, it’s better to be safe than sorry. I have a skin condition known as atopic dermatitis, which means I’m a walking Sahara desert hide without the dates. For this – since I pay if I don’t – I usually use a non-scented medical grade thick body lotion straight out of the shower. This does two things at once, both wonderful. It takes care of the crocodile hide and keeps it at bay, and it makes any perfumes I wear last longer. In some cases, much longer.

2) The wrong proportion of notes? WTF? This little maxim comes in other variations, too – such as…it breaks down the molecules in the perfumes. (That would take the term body chemistry to a whole new level of complexity if it were true). The ‘uneven development’ is not entirely untrue, since friction heats up the scent, which blooms evolves faster, and that means – less wear. The better a perfume is constructed, the less it will matter. But if you press one wrist over the other when wet – as I’ve been known to do when I don’t want to wear too much – it’s not going to ruin anything, and certainly not the perfume or your experience of it.

3) ‘When spraying from an atomizer’…Excuse me. But most eaux de parfums these days are in atomizers, and therefore, meant to be sprayed, and not ‘worn sparingly’. To be fair…an eau de parfum will often project more – that is, create an ‘aura’ around you – than an extrait, which is a stronger concentration but often wears closer to the skin. As for ‘a single spritz’…when was the last time that happened with a perfume you loved? Anyone?

The Sillage Monster’s Antidote


Coco Chanel once famously said one should wear perfume wherever one wants to be kissed. It’s a great quote, but it’s dead wrong. For one thing, no matter how edible you smell, perfume tastes terrible. I have it on strict authority and very long experience.

Instead, look for your pulse points – anywhere you can feel your heartbeat. With two exceptions, but I’ll be getting back to those.

Perfume tends to project upwards – that is to say, waft upward with your body heat. For the full-on Sillage Monster experience, this means the following locations: The backs of your knees, the folds of your elbows and your wrists. I’ve sometimes sprayed right above my navel, but I had ulterior motives at the time.

For whatever reason, hordes of people apply perfume behind their ears. As I said – perfume tastes terrible. Which makes that a rotten idea if you like to have your neck kissed. (I do.) Instead, spray lightly at the base of your neck right below the hairline. Not only will your hair hold the scent in wondrous ways, you’ll spread the joy every time you toss your gleaming mane. Which of course is the whole idea. There’s also the ancient trick of spraying the air before you and walking into the cloud, but I don’t recommend it except for very volatile perfumes that wear close to the skin.


We live in perilous, scent-phobic times. In perfumista terms, this means…pick your battles wisely. Slaying your colleagues in the aisles at work is not a great career move, nor is wearing so much perfume on a dinner date that the entire restaurant can literally eat your Poison. In situations like these, stop to consider the consequences. You may not be old enough to remember when Giorgio!, Opium or Poison was banned by restaurants and some theaters (true story), but some of us are, and we’ve loathed them ever since. This is why. At work, people want to show their professional competence, not sit marooned in an interminable meeting distracted to pieces by inordinate amounts of a perfume you love but everyone around you hates. Show a little respect. Also – consider the space. Open-plan offices are more forgiving than if you work in a walk-in closet.

That said, if you go out for a night on the tiles, it will usually be hot and crowded. So you can wear a little more. Just don’t do what I did at a rock concert last year in the middle of an epic cold snap. I left my sister’s house in a nebulous fog of Amouage Epic Woman. Twelve sprays to be exact, not counting my coat and a silk velvet shirt. They must have smelled me in Stockholm. And Oslo. And Hamburg. And possibly London, too. It later took five soaks in baking soda, seven delicate cycle washes and a dry clean to get it out of that shirt. And six months for my sister to forgive me. To this day, she hates Epic. I didn’t care. The rock star gave me a hug for goodbye. I was happy.


If you read that little Bella Sugar article a certain way, you could get the impression that all eaux de parfums are created equal. This is so utterly ridiculous, I can either clutch my hair in despair over such inanity, or clutch my sides in utter hysterics. Well, darlings – you might know this, but if you don’t, here’s a punch line for you.

It’s not true.

I have personally experienced one notorious eau de parfum that lasted one hour before it was gone with the wind without so much as a ‘See you later, Scarlett.’. And others that lingered well past the eight-hour mark to the point where I began to feel a bit…peeved. A bit like a date that just won’t leave when you’ve said goodbye two hours ago.

You see, there really is such a thing as Bang For Your Buck. Generally speaking, certain brands are very long-lived, and others less than perfect in that respect. If you’re a perfume commitment-phobic, stay well away from brands such as Andy Tauer, Amouage and certain Serge Lutens. They want to propose on the first date and set up house by the third. Some might find that charming. That being the case, these are also the ones you’d want to apply with a lighter hand, since you can expect anywhere from 8-12 hours out of them, and sometimes more. (A month, in the case of that silk velvet shirt.)

Certain fragrance families – Orientals, ambers, some chypres, and those wonderful creatures called ‘florientals’ will last longer than citruses, fougères or green florals, or at least that’s been my experience. Likewise, perfumes containing large quantities of jasmine, rose, orange blossom absolute or – you guessed it – tuberose tend to love you most sincerely – and for not a few hours.

Natural perfumes without synthetic fixatives will not last quite so long – anywhere from 2-6 hours. This can either – say you’re in an environment where you can wear with wild abandon – be a blessing or a bane. A blessing – you get to reapply or apply something else – or a bane, darn it, why couldn’t it stick around? One of my fellow bloggers suggested applying a little argan oil before your perfume – and I’m thrilled to say it works.

Alas and alack – not a few so-called ‘niche’ brands with über-niche prices have the half-life of a dying fruit fly. I’ve been sorely disappointed by more than one dead-exclusive niche perfume that was heaven on Earth – for maybe half an hour. Before it all vanished down the black hole of time and left not even a memory behind.

Longevity also comes down to things like skin chemistry, diet and weather, believe it or not. Heat makes a perfume evolve faster, therefore, it will have more sillage in summer than in winter.

The bottom line is this: There are no hard and fast rules. Your mileage may vary. Wear what you love. Wear as much as you like when it’s appropriate for your day and the physical space you’ll take up. If you have a lot of hands-on contact with many people, show some consideration for their personal space, too. And if it’s just you and two cats – that would be me this minute, for instance – go ahead and marinate yourself. I’ve been known to perfume my person, my bed before sleep and my Tibetan prayer flag too for good measure. It makes me happy, so how can it be bad?

If you have ulterior motives, remember that trick about the back of the neck. Trust me on that one.

Because after all, as one very, very famous perfumer once said (about women, but it applies in any direction)

What is left, after a woman removes her clothes and her jewels? Her skin…and her perfume.

Wear it well – and with love. You’re worth at least that much!