Best of the Best 2011 – Perfumes and Perfumers

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

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

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

Indie Love!

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

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

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

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

The Perfumers

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

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

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

Mandy Aftel, Aftelier Perfumes

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

Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, Parfums de Beaux Arts

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

Maria McElroy, Aroma M

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

Kedra Hart, Opus Oils

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

Honorable Mention:

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

Best Mainstream Niche:

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

Vitriol d’Oeillet, Serge Lutens & Christopher Sheldrake

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

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

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

Favorite Indie Trend:

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

Worst Mainstream Launch of the Year:

Chanel no. 19 Poudré

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

Worst Advertising Idea, Ever:

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

Best Mainstream Launch:

Bottega Veneta

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

Coolest Fusion of Fumes and Phrases:

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

Most Dangerous Perfume of the Year:

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

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

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

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

A Philter Perilous

THE CLARIMONDE PROJECT

– a tale and a review of Maria McElroy and Alexis Karl’s ‘Immortal Mine’, inspired by ‘La Morte Amoureuse’ by Théophile Gautier

Such sadness in our village when Curé Romuald passed away and finally found his peace with God. You must understand how important he was, this gentle man, who seemed to live all his life under some impenetrable, black pall of melancholy and we never knew its cause, can perhaps even say, now that he is gone, that we knew him not at all.

So many of us had never known another curé, never known of a time when he had not somehow been present to comfort our ill, to ease our poor, to speed the dying onward to their heavenly reward, there to name a new soul into his flock, or to bless the union of some of us, in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer.

I had myself been one of them, welcomed into his congregation as a babe, recited my dutiful Hail Marys at First Communion, been blessed by those heartrending eyes the day I wed my Pierre, only to bury him with our infant son a mere year later on a desolate winter day of wind and snow.

That day, I stood by the newly dug graves of both my loves, and I wept my bitter tears of loss, and that day, Curé Romuald offered me a purpose and a reason to drag my unwilling soul through the sorry remainder of my life, rather than hurl myself, my hate and my fury at God for my loss onto Pierre’s simple pinewood coffin and never rise again. It was not to be, said Curé Romuald, for God has his reasons we mortals could never know, and there he was without a housekeeper, and I without a home, a husband, a babe in my arms.

It came to pass that I, the widow Séverine, came to the presbytery and never truly left it since.

In all our years together, Curé tended his parish and his duties as our shepherd, and in all our years, he took very great pains to ensure all propriety was observed. He taught me my letters and to read in Latin as well, and when I had become certain enough of my new skill, I would often read to him from those few books he collected, stories from the greater world outside our village or fantastical tales of angels and demons, epics of lost empires, mellifluous poems that flowed like rivers of words, singing their songs of good and of evil.

I remained in this humble presbytery these ten years on, ten years of tending a man so utterly unassuming, so modest, he gave his small stipend to his parishioners rather than use it for himself. I cooked his meals, I darned his vestments as well as his socks, and on those long winter nights that stretched before us as endless as eternity itself, I would read to him those tales, those stories, and all the while, I never knew, never knew…

The Abbé would surely make some small provision for his belongings, so it came to pass that I sorted through his trunk of clothes, the black wool serge worn to a shiny finish, the countless darns of his shirts beginning to fray with age and use and laundering. I set them aside for the rag merchant, unless the Abbé wanted them returned, but surely, they were far too worn for that?

Strange, one of his coats was rather heavier than it should be, and as I unfolded it, I discovered a large box, made of some foreign, fragrant wood and exquisitely carved in a phantasmagorical, vine-like pattern on all sides, a pattern that seemed to play tricks on my eyes as I looked, one moment losing that flowery, fluid vine, and the next, there it would be, nearly vibrant and alive on that strange box, with neither lock nor key to open it.

Ten years of thorough house cleaning and tidying and laundering had made me believe he had no secrets for his housekeeper, yet this box I had never seen before. I pulled at the lid and it came off with a long-forgotten sigh and a whiff of perfumed wood.

Nestled inside was a length of dark red velvet, so sumptuous, so outrageously opulent in these poor surroundings, so rich, it glowed in the afternoon sun through the window like the ruby-tinted pelt of some otherworldly animal. I ran my fingers over it and they tingled with a newborn pleasure as I did. The velvet, too, seemed almost to breathe beneath my fingers, and nearly powerless to stop myself, I pushed the velvet aside and saw what it concealed, what secrets the box had kept all these many years.

A sheaf of papers written in the Curé’s hand, but with an intensity to the blackness of the lines and the haste with which his pen had formed the letters on the page I had never seen before.

If I could yet say I would come to regret that moment in time when my life changed so utterly and forever, there might yet be some redemption for my soul, but I had buried it with my husband and my son. I did what any woman would do. I sat down on that narrow bed, and I read the story on those fevered pages.

All these years, the Curé and I had shared this roof, and I had never guessed at the length and the breadth and the scope of the passion and the torment contained within those words. Yet they explained so much of his unrelenting melancholy state, his utter desolation at losing God and gaining a knowledge he had been better off without, a knowledge of pleasures and palaces, a knowledge of a woman – or a beloved monstrosity named Clarimonde.

Underneath them a flash of gold sparkled, a locket that contained a painted portrait of a woman, an eerie, strange beauty with hair much the same shade as my own, and below, a philter of clear glass, sealed with a blood red wax seal that dripped down its sides, stamped with a ‘C’. It was an oil of some kind, some sacred relic for a rite I could not imagine, a shade of dark amber no less magnificent than the velvet that concealed it.  I opened it.

It was a perfume. I had no knowledge of such grand and costly things, owned none of my own apart from the Marseilles soap I used in the household over the Curé’s insistence that lye soap cost rather less. Yet I inhaled it, then with a compulsion I could neither comprehend nor articulate I applied a precious drop to my skin, and as it warmed to my skin and I breathed, I felt my heart and soul expand and my blood roil dizzying in my veins, I felt my heart beat in my chest as I had not these ten years past, I felt as I could imagine my poor Curé at the day of his ordination as he gazed upon Clarimonde, when all he knew and thought burned to cinders before his eyes, when all his old self fell away.

All my old life of these ten years past was torched in a moment in a roaring conflagration by this perfume that bloomed upon my skin. Was this her perfume, or was this her captured soul that once had lived and beat and flamed undying for my Curé in his youth?

In this philter made of glass were all the secrets of all women throughout time, women who loved and lived and laughed, women who dared dangerous, sinful, decadent things. The glories of the entire world were captured in its amber depths, orange blossom and jasmine in foreign garb, spices that sang their many different songs of a burning Oriental heat, herbs that now would grow fragrant forever more, precious, dark woods from mythical trees thought only to exist in fairy tales, a dragon’s kiss and a unicorn’s heart and all of it entire, all of it the sum of a desire which could scorch to ash in an instant.

This perfume exhaled that danger, that ruby-hued desire and its epic depth and everlasting dark, it whispered its secrets on my skin even as my old self, my half-dead self and all my half-lived life went up in flames. I rocked half-moaning on the Curé’s bed as I learned all I never knew in a single breath, as I knew what I would now be compelled to do, as I breathed in that long-lost soul of that unknown face in the locket.

This little philter in my hand and its contents on my skin could compel the world entire to do my bidding, and not one soul would realize the perils of that compulsion, would comprehend this magic to my hand, invisible, yet compelling, tangible yet untouchable, a cousin to the grief I still felt for my poor Curé. This philter contained a magic so perilous yet so masterful only a woman would know to harness its infinite power.

A woman had worn it. Very well, a woman would wear it still. As I carefully closed the philter and wrapped it carefully in the velvet in its costly box with the papers and closed it, I knew what task I had before me.

Clarimonde had died and the Curé had died with her, tormented all his life by what he knew. What I knew was that now, my time of mourning was over, my losses behind me like all my other, careworn life.

I should go to Paris, once the Curé’s affairs were settled, I thought. I thought many things as I went about my tasks in the days that followed, thought of a future I could now believe in thanks to a captured love in a small glass philter.

A man had lost eternity, all for a woman. He was gone, yet I remained, and I would go out into the world, and claim my own eternity back, all thanks to a philter most perilous, and the soul it contained, and sorrow could touch me nevermore.

Notes for ‘Immortal Mine’: Soil from an unmarked grave. One single drop of blood from a slayed Wyvern, the sweet elixor of dying jasmine and fading neroli. Amber found in ancient tombs of civilizations lost. Longing. Essence of smoke from the funeral pyre. A cut of material from Bela Lugosi’s cape, the dust from a bat’s wing. Wood resins gathered from the Forest of the Dead, myrrh scraped from the cliffs of the Dark Realm. Precious ouds unearthed from burning desert sands. Wax dripping from balck, white and pink candles, ashes of a Phoenix, words froma dead poet’s mouth. Rare herbs found in a cathedral’s forgotten garden. Desire.

‘Immortal Mine’ was made exclusively for the Clarimonde Project and is available in two sizes from Indie Scents and also from the House of Cherry Bomb /Aroma M studio in Brooklyn.

Disclosure: Sample was sent to me by Maria McElroy and Alexis Karl for review.

The Perfume Pharmer’s reviews of
Oud Luban
Immortal Mine
Ayala Moriel’s Clarimonde
Dawn Spencer Hurwitz’ Paradise Lost

Jade Dressler

Deana Sidney’s post on Clarimonde, vampire lore and the perils of perfumed port

Scent Hive
Part One
Part Two
Part Three

Indieperfumes’ reviews of 
Sangre
Oud Luban
Immortal Mine
Ayala Moriel’s Clarimonde
Dawn Spencer Hurwitz’ Paradise Lost

Beth Gehring’s post for Perfume Smellin’ Things:

The Clarimonde Project

Painting: ‘Portrait of a young woman’ by Henry Fuseli, 1781. Photo: my iPhone.