A Fearful Symmetry

– A review of Penhaligon’s ‘Amaranthine’

A Bengal tiger is pacing on my desk as I type this, eyeing me with a bit of feline disdain and a slight twitch of tail. Hairy Krishna and Janice Divacat are convinced this tiger is, as they see it, the cat’s meow. I caught Krishna, the more adventurous of the two, getting so close he could sniff and breathe in this strange and wondrous creature, only to jump away with a sudden sneeze and a shake of his head. Not even he could quite grasp the concept of this …entity. Janice, on the other hand, just sat herself down and gazed at it adoringly.

If Hairy Krishna has issues, then who am I to argue since I have them, too. I can’t quite wrap my mind around it either, and I asked for it, after all.

The tiger is Amaranthine by Penhaligon’s, and while I have often been unsettled and occasionally knocked sideways by a perfume, rarely have I been quite so unnerved and unsettled as I am over this one. So alien in the best sense of the word to so many of my perfume sensibilities and so compelling that no matter how hard I try, I can’t stay away. In the past two days, I’ve walked by my desk and that lovely Penhaligon’s tissue paper, and right as I’m about to go on to do something else, that tiger twitches its tail and stops me in my tracks. I. Just. Have. To. Sniff. Again.

This can’t be good. Yet it is. Sinfully good!

Amaranthine is very much a jungle beast, a tropical tiger, burning bright through the first heady rush of banana tree leaf, green tea, coriander oil and cardamom. It is…odd, the same way a note like davana can be odd for being so compelling, with a definite chai vibe and a milky cardamom. So?

What if I told you that this is a Bertrand Duchaufour creation, and we all know M. Duchaufour likes to have a few aces up his devious sleeve. When I get comfortable with Amaranthine, when I’m about to be lulled into a sweet chai-with-cardamom rush, as smooth and luminous as the gold border on a silk sari, this tiger chooses to show its teeth, and before you know what hits you, you are hoist on a stunning petard of heady blooms, a tropical sword that teeters on the brink of too-much, too-heady, too…hot to handle.

This is where that tiger twitches its tail and shows its claws, when it gets dirty and borderline over-ripe and definitely sexy. Nothing in this humid, flower sword says ‘come-hither’ so much as it says ‘let-me-devour-you’, and I road-tested this on a susceptible quarry, solely in the interests of scientific research, you understand.

Tiger, tiger, burning, bright. I was reminded of a painting by one of my favorite illustrators called ‘The Transformation of Angarred’, of a woman who sees her reflection in a pool, and she’s already half-leopard.

That would be Amaranthine. Strange, haunting, compelling, bordering on dirty, teetering on too much, but it’s not over until the tiger growls, although this tiger never does. Instead, it lies down, sated, and begins to lick its paws, and – who knew? – purr. You can tell me that tigers don’t purr. I won’t believe you, because that’s exactly what Amaranthine does…dries down to a sweet, cuddly, musky, creamy sandalwood that has, to paraphrase Christopher Marlowe, all its pleasures proved and all its dangers braved and all its fearful symmetry is simply a trick of the light, a glimpse of danger and sensual anticipation. Even so, it’s still a pussycat underneath.

The amaranth flower, with its vibrant purple-red hue, was once described by Milton in ‘Paradise Lost’:

“Immortal amaranth, a flower which once
In paradise, fast by the tree of life,
Began to bloom; but soon for man’s offence
To heaven removed, where first it grew, there grows…”

If ever I could imagine such a flower, blooming by the tree of life, this would be it. Just make sure this tiger growls first, or you will never hear it purr…

Notes according to Penhaligon’s:
Top notes: Green tea, white freesia, banana tree leaf, coriander seed oil, cardamom absolute
Heart notes: Rose, carnation, clove oil, orange blossom, ylang ylang, Egyptian jasmine absolute
Base notes: Musk, vanilla, sandalwood, condensed milk, tonka bean

Amaranthine is available from the Penhaligon’s website and also from First in Fragrance.

Disclosure: Sample graciously provided by Nicky of Penhaligon’s Ltd. for review, and although she was kind enough to send me two samples, one of them was quickly purloined by a now former colleague..;-)

Painting: ‘The Transformation of Angarred’, by Kinuko Y. Craft