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.

An Olfactory Postcard

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– a review of Aedes de Venustas’ Copal Azur

Of all the many memories we pack into our luggage on leaving foreign shores and returning home, none are so evocative as the scents and smells of place. Whether the fishy, invigorating tang of saltwater and iodine in a Nordic city harbor, the assault of the spice market in the medina of Marrakesh, the lemon and orange-redolent Amalfi coast or the coconut, Coppertone and frangipani-soaked Caribbean recollections of my own peripatetic childhood, you can close your eyes to remember – and you are there all over again, wrapped in both the atmosphere and the mood of a time and place.

Such a memory was also the inspiration for Karl Bradl of the storied Aedes de Venustas store in New York and for a 2014 addition to their eponymous line of fragrances, Copal Azur, this time inspired by the salt air, the cerulean hues of the sea, the powdered-sugar sand of the beach and the ever-present perfume of copal incense in Tulum, Mexico.

In Central America, copal incense – sometimes but not always the resins of several species of Bursera tree – has been used since the Mayan era, as a natural mosquito repellant, as food for the Gods, to cleanse sick bodies and dispel evil spirits and as a natural glue for leather, ceramics and woods. Because several tree resins are described as “copal”, copal notes in perfumery are often reconstructed with other materials, mainly frankincense, whose odor profile greatly resembles it.

As incense is the common theme of the Aedes de Venustas’ line, it makes absolute sense that the perfumer who first put incense front and center with Comme des Garçons’ ground-breaking 2003 Avignon would be perfect to recreate the ambience and entire atmosphere of a sacred scent the Mayans called pom.

Bertrand Duchaufour began by using three types of frankincense to capture the many facets of copal. Although the press release doesn’t mention which ones, this frankincense aficionado is going to hazard a guess and say Boswellia sacra, or Somali frankincense, with its pronounced cold, spiky, dark green pine-y note, Boswellia carterii, or Omani frankincense, which is sweeter and softer with floral lemony sorbet undertones, and Boswellia serrata, a frankincense native to India, which is sharper and dryer. Having said that, they’re so seamlessly interwoven you’d be hard-pressed to tease that first emphatic burst of incense apart, and it took me several tries and my frankincense olfactionary to realize it.

Copal incense is front, center and in the spotlight in Copal Azur, but that’s just the headline, because this incense comes with a twist of salt and sea spray, just enough to remind you this is not-your-usual-incense. As it moves into the heart and base some time later, softer, warmer and sweeter fumes rise up to greet you, a delicately green-flecked tonka bean burnishes the incense with its own sweet vanillic fumes, and over 7+ hours later, exudes its final breath in a puff of patchouli, myrrh – and copal incense.

Like the five other fragrances of the Aedes de Venustas line, Copal Azur is easily unisex if you’re an incense lover of perfumes such as the aforementioned Avignon or Serge Lutens’ L’Eau Froide. I’d wear this at the drop of a charcoal tablet (because I’m easy!), although some might find the opening blast of monumental incense skews it much more masculine than feminine.

Mainly, though, Copal Azur strikes me as the very best kind of olfactory postcard – or scented place memory? – by painting not just the tropical ambience of Tulum itself – the tonka-bean marzipan vanilla sands of the beach, the salty ozone of a scorching, impossibly blue, limitless sea and sky, the cardamom-green of the jungle, a distant patchouli growl of a jaguar and towering above them all, the monumental Mayan temple complex in all its steely gray-white majesty, conjured by a shaman out of sacred smoke – and incense.

I wish I were there!

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Notes: Three different types of frankincense, ozonic notes, salt, patchouli, cardamom, myrrh, amber, tonka bean.

Aedes de Venustas’ Copal Azur is available at First in Fragrance and directly from the Aedes de Venustas website.

Disclosure: A sample of Copal Azur was sent for review. With thanks to François and Olivier.

Image of Tulum via Flickr. Image of frankincense tree courtesy of Aedes de Venustas. Used by permission.

The Might of a Rose


–  a tale and a review of Neela Vermeire Créations Mohur Extrait

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Lahore, India – November 1627

So it had come to this. All her plans, her hopes and her dreams had come to nothing, reduced to ashes by her own brother’s betrayal. Shahryar had lost everything.

The power, the glory and might of the Mughal and all that was India would now pass to Shah Jahan, who had hated her from the moment sixteen years ago she wed Jahangir, who loathed the way she always favored his far more sensible brother Shahryar.

She had gambled everything on Shahryar, and so she too had lost all the power and influence she had acquired these past sixteen tumultuous years. Even her beloved was no more. Then again, perhaps she had lost him long ago to the lures of wine and opium.

Nur Jahan wrapped her shawl around her in the slight chill of this November evening, looked up from the missive in her hand and gazed unseeing at the intricate winding vines and flowers inlaid in the walls of her quarters.

“Majesty…” Akbar, her faithful retainer for several years, interrupted her reverie. “Asaf Khan has proposed that you retire to a palace here in Lahore with your rank and your privileges intact.”

“Has he now?” Nur Jahan had to laugh. “All my privileges, except the one that matters most, which he knows all too well.” She shrugged and knew with the ease of one who had reigned India in deed if not in name for many years that she would never show just how much her brother’s betrayal burned, never show her sorrow for fear Shah Jahan would have yet another weapon to use against her. One he would never hesitate to use.

“And yet, Majesty, would it be so terrible to have the time to dedicate to your interests? Your poetry, your music, your gardens and your perfumes? All without the distractions of rule, of court intrigue and the endless lines of petitioners at the jharoka receptions? You would no longer rule, it is true, but…” Not even Akbar was audacious enough to finish his own thought.

“There are many kinds of power and might, Akbar,” she snapped. At this late hour of the night, her voice showed the slightest hint of strain, as if everything transpired – the Emperor’s capture and death, Shah Jahan’s blatant refusal to obey her command at Kabul and this war of Jahangir’s succession – had somehow caught up with her.

“The power of poetry, the strength we gain from the music we love, the might of a perfect rose…”

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There was a thought. Nur Jahan stared again at the letter and saw not the black curves, dots and lines upon lines of doom and defeat, but instead the green leaves and dawn-pink petals of a fragrant rose, diamond droplets of dew glistening in the morning light in its silken folds. Such a rose as Jahangir had given her at Nowruz, the New Year so long ago, when she was no Nur Jahan but merely a widow and a disgraced diwan’s daughter named Mehr-un-Nissa.

What would it be, she wondered, to prove just what power a rose such as that could conceal, to leave as her epitaph not the just the Empress but the very woman she had been?

Very well, she thought. Let Shah Jahan have the Empire. Let him take it and rule it and ruin it with his extravagant ways and vaunting ambition.

She, once Empress of all India, would find her solace and her sustenance in her poetry, in her gardens and her charities, and in the perfumes she so loved, to dedicate her days and nights to the pursuit of a beauty so flawless, it could be none other than her own.

And so it came to be in the years that followed her exile from rule that she strove to capture all her myriad selves in her roses and in the perfumes those roses made, to somehow wrap up her essence as the epitaph she would choose to leave behind. It should contain the sharp, spicy scent of cardamom and coriander and pepper, to recall the laughing, lighthearted girl she once was so long ago in faraway Kandahar, perhaps with the jasmines she remembered blooming in the courtyard, and hints of the almond sweetmeats and pastries Jahangir once so loved to feed her. A dusting, like the powdered sugar on loukhoum, of the violets presented to her by those comical English in their outlandish garb, and a cool, purple touch of the elegant iris root from that remote land called Florence its ambassador had presented her with. It should contain the sharp tang of leather as well in happy memory of tiger hunts in the hillsides and the iron might she once wielded in a silken, fragrant glove, and the sacred, haunting trails of sandalwood, patchouli and oud that defined India as perhaps few other essences did. A sweet, luscious finish, as much as if to say that the Mehr-Un-Nissa she once was and the Nur Jahan she became were after all, one woman first, last and foremost.

All of these, the flowers and the herbs, the spices and sacred woods intricately embroidered onto the heart of a singular flower to prove the power of a woman such as Nur Jahan, and the might of her rose.

On a December day of chill and fog, when the Empress who once was Nur Jahan breathed her last, Akbar, an old man himself by this time, took her secret note and anointed it with that mighty rose perfume before he set it alight with a taper to release her story and her essence upon the wind for another to find and to remember… a woman once known to all as… the Light of the World.

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The Shalimar Gardens, Lahore, June 1947

On this sunny day, Edwina Mountbatten wasn’t sure what broke her heart the most, that she would soon say farewell to this wonder that was India, or that she had been fortunate enough to at least experience it and attempt to grasp and encompass all it was and now soon would become. Soon, these marvelous gardens would not even be Indian, but belong to a nation to be called Pakistan.

“It seems,” she said to her friend Jahawarlal Nehru as they walked, “such a pity and yet, such a necessity, that this will be another nation born of India’s ashes.”

“There is no other way, Edwina, as you well know.”

The sunlight danced in the fountains and the mannered geometry and the blaze of flowers should surely soothe any melancholy hearts and make any spirit soar to stroll amid such beauty on a day like today, when the roses bloomed their promise of a new era and a new future.

He sensed her pensive mood as they walked, as he so often did, and bent forward to pluck a perfect rose he presented to her with a flourish and a smile.

“Did you know,” he began, “there is a story about this variety of rose?”

Edwina laughed. “I do so love your stories. You have so many!”

“One of my many pleasures,” he murmured. “Ah, but this story… is a story of the fabled Nur Jahan.”

“She was quite a woman, I gather.”

“Indeed so, and quite extraordinarily talented, so I’ve been told. They say that when Asaf Khan ‘retired’ her, she dedicated her life to poetry, to charity and to perfumes.”

“Perfumes! Only in India…” Edwina buried her nose in the rose. It was like no other rose –certainly, no English rose – she had ever known, lush, deep, both majestic and piercing in its scent.

“You forget, in India, perfume is definition, devotion and adornment all in one. Something for you to think about, perhaps? Or at least consider…” he went on with another smile as they strolled onward, a precious stolen hour of serenity amid the separation talks. “And so the story goes about a perfume Nur Jahan made, and such a perfume they say it was. They say it was all her essence and all of the world, not merely India, wrapped around the might of a rose.”

“The might of a rose. I must say that phrase has a certain… power to it.”

“Well, she was am Empress, after all.”

“But of course.” Edwina breathed in her rose. It made her own British roses seem so indistinct and pallid in comparison. “But what about it? Did someone ever find the formula? I do like the idea of such a perfume.”

Nehru watched the diamond droplets of water flash above the fountain in the sunlight and refract in the air above the pool. As he thought, as Edwina walked beside him with this extraordinary rose in her hand, she thought with a pang that she might never see this fabled garden and its beauty again.

“How does it go, this tale of Nur Jahan’s mythical perfume… Ah! Well then, they say that when she died, her retainer burned the formula and released it into the wind for another to find in time. Remember, this was not simply a perfume, not just a scent to wear, but the very quintessence of an Empress of India. So it would be powerful and immensely rich, as she surely was, it would contain all her majesty and all her secrets. Not something you’d buy in Paris, perhaps. Power and majesty are not to be trifled with.”

“Something of which I suspect Her Majesty was well aware.”

Edwina tried to open up her heart, her soul, her very pores to drink it all in… the gardens, the sunlight, the company of her extraordinary friend and this extraordinary story of a perfume that sparked a longing in her heart to know it, to wear it, to breathe it, to be remembered by its presence.

“Certainly! Nur Jahan ruled an empire, let’s not forget. With an iron hand, I might add.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever encountered such a perfume that would say all those things to the world.”

“Ah, my friend, neither have I, and I am Indian, after all.”

“But that is such an extraordinary story! Power and majesty all contained in a vial of scent.”

“Sometimes,” Nehru’s thrilling voice trailed off as he looked into the distance, “it is better to take the sword than to surrender, fail or run away.”

“And should that sword be a rose?” Again, Edwina inhaled deeply from the rose in her hand. To her, it seemed as if this were so much more than a simple flower and so infinitely much more than a mere ‘rose’.

They walked on a while in the comfortable silence of friends. And then, Nehru looked at Edwina and at the rose in her hand.

“Remember…and this is something I can well imagine Nur Jahan saying herself…

‘Never underestimate the might of a rose.’

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____________________GIVEAWAY!___________________

Neela has offered to give away one ceramic perfume disk (for scenting drawers & closets) and a 10 ml decant of Mohur Extrait to one lucky reader in either the EU or the US, and a sample of Mohur Extrait to the two runners-up who comment on this post by midnight CET on Wednesday, May 21st. Mohur Extrait is a must-try even for those who don’t like rose – this is NOT your usual rose! Make sure to like Neela Vermeire Créations on Facebook and follow her on Twitter.  The winners of the giveaway will be drawn by random.org and announced here on TAG on Thursday, May 22nd. THIS GIVEAWAY IS NOW CLOSED.

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Notes: Cardamom, coriander, ambrette seeds, carrot seeds, pepper, elemi, iris, jasmine, rose, violet, almond, leather, sandalwood, amber, patchouli, oud, benzoin, vanilla and tonka bean.

Neela Vermeire Créations Mohur Extrait is currently only available as a limited edition directly from the NVC website for customers in the EU. For US customers, contact Neela Vermeire Creations at info@neelavermeire.com.

Mohur Extrait was created by Neela Vermeire in collaboration with perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour.

Disclosure: A sample of Mohur Extrait was provided by Neela Vermeire. The story and review are my own, but the historical context, people and events mentioned are as accurate as research allowed.

Painting: “Bani Thani”, by Rajasthani artist Gopal Khetanchi, with the addition of a 17th-century rose by yours truly.

Photo from the Shalimar Gardens, Lahore by Roland & Sabrina Michaud.

Rose petal photo from the flower market of Bangalore and presentation of Mohur Extrait bottle by Neela Vermeire. Used by permission.

 

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.

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 Best of 2012 – Perfumes and Perfumers

C4crown

 – Perfumes and perfumers

It’s that time of the year again when I have the agonizing task of determining the best perfumes of 2012. What did I love, what did I loathe? What did we write and what did I wear?

Just as last year, my Best of list will be in three (long) parts. First, the perfumes and perfumers that – and who – blew my mind in so many different ways. This list is limited to those I’ve actually tried and/or reviewed. I can’t keep up any longer, and I’m not sure what irritates me most – that so many perfumes were launched, or that no matter how I try, I just can’t try them all, darn it! Next comes an ode to the words, the friends and the facilitators who did so much to improve upon what I otherwise consider an annus horribilis of my own, and last, but not least, my personal list of what I wore and adored this year.

The more I’ve written about perfume, the more I’ve discovered the truth of that maxim – it doesn’t get any easier. If anything, quite the reverse. What does get easier is determining the duds from the dudes (and dudettes), the spectacular from the super-bad. As the saying goes – experience is a witch! 😉

Meanwhile, I have three fervent pleas.

Dear EU. You have a problem. Several powerful political lobbies and the IFRA wish to strengthen the substance ban and add far more natural substances used in perfumery for fear of allergic reactions. You also have a billion-euro industry of unparalleled history and heritage who depend on those very substances to make their money and so employ growers, suppliers and the thousands who work in the worldwide perfume industry. Here’s your problem. Do you give in to the political pressure – and lose all those thousands of jobs and billions of euros that pay your salary? Or do you wise up to an irrefutable fact – the people who might react are not the people who wear perfume. I hope for the best – and try to quell that tiny smidge that makes me fear for the worst…

Dear perfume houses – niche, indie and otherwise. Please. For the love of contraband oakmoss – no more oud ANYTHING, OK? Enough is enough. Let those poor, overharvested aquilaria trees just grow for a change, and get back to me in about 30 years.

One more thing. I do hope you’re listening. If you’re going to call something ‘Noir’, make sure it emphatically IS…Noir. (This doesn’t apply to Tom Ford, who knows better.) Instead, I got saddled with Chanel’s Coco Noir. I had such high hopes. Once again, they were dashed to smithereens. Note to Jacques Polge – next time, call it Chanel Greige.

Here are my fragrant epiphanies of 2012 – the best and the worst of what this year had to offer.

Best New Line:

Although technically launched at the very end of last year, the trio of carefully curated perfumes from Neela Vermeire Creations has taken the perfume world by storm this year – for a very good reason. Orchestrated with perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour, her fragrant odes to her native India past and present – Trayee, a numinous song of the distant past and sacred ceremony, the luminous Moghul rose that is Mohur, and the Bollywood extravaganza of exuberance that is Bombay Bling  – an homage to India’s dynamic, fast-moving present and future – are all richly complex, ever-evolving, multi-layered and textured tapestries, a bit like the mood rings I wore as a teenager, since I never quite know what magic carpet rides they will provide this time or what stories will follow, except they will be as fabulous, as colorful and as kaleidoscopic as India surely is and ever was.

Best Discovery:

Sometimes, I suspect that Fate/Destiny/Kismet has plans for me. I rarely enter draws or competitions, but one competition I did enter was a Facebook competition from Roman luxury retailer Campomarzio70 for a chance to try vero profumo’s newest launch, and vero profumo was at the very top of my Dying to Try list and has been for years. Lo and behold, I was one of the lucky ones, and lo and behold – not only did I receive a sample of Mito, I also received samples of both the extraits and eaux de parfums of Vero Kern’s line. I’ll have more to say about vero profumo, but I’m thoroughly, utterly delighted to state that they were all of them everything I could have hoped for and so very much more.

Theme songs

1. The War of the Roses

2012 was a year of some spectacular roses, not simply variations on a theme but roses reinvented and made into new, improved versions of themselves, and this year brought me three breathtaking roses – and one I have yet to review, but I’ll be getting back to that one. My personal 2012 Trinity of Rose – I can’t choose between them and wouldn’t dare to try – consists of the decadent, mossy, silk-velvet Ballets Rouges by Olympic Orchids, Aftelier’s joyously delicious Wild Roses and Neela Vermeire Creations opulent, majestic Mohur. The war referred to in the heading is simply the one that goes on in my mind deciding which one to wear!

2. The Color Of My Hopes

This diehard green-floral fan was thoroughly delighted to see that she wasn’t the only one who loved her greens and wore them, too. The most original take on that particular theme was definitely vero profumo’s Mito, which is my Green of the Year. But another new line’s highly original spin on that well-loved riff deserves singling out, and that is the Green Feral Thang that is Kerosene’s aptly named Creature. Alas, I loved that tiny sample so much I have nothing left to review it with.

3. The Chypre Continuum

Despite whatever the IFRA might say to the contrary, three stellar chypres were launched this year that bear no resemblance to those wan, pathetic, patchouli-laden wannabes called ‘chypres’ in mainstream perfumery. These three are far, far above and way beyond them all. Two I’ve already reviewed, Amouage’s Beloved and the effervescent Parfums d’Empire’s Azemours L’Oranger, the last of the three came to me fairly recently thanks to a perfume angel. MDCI’s Chypre Palatin – yes, expect to see a review soon – is a blatant, deliriously great gauntlet thrown in the face of all who would do away with those dark, earthy, mossy depths so many of us love – and wear with no ill effects whatsoever.

4. Perfume stories

Two tales involving perfume have become a huge part of my own personal scent trail in 2012, and I say this in all humility since one of those stories was my own. The one that wasn’t (which I have yet to read) was L’Artisan Parfumeur’s showstopping Seville à l’Aube, created by Bertrand Duchaufour (I swear, the man was everywhere this year!) in collaboration with Denyse Beaulieu of Grain de Musc for her book ‘The Perfume Lover’. Once that fatal word ‘orange blossom’ began to be thrown around as the rumors grew before its launch, I swept in like a hawk on the hunt and acquired a decant of Seville à l’Aube blind – and never in the history of this perfume blogger did the level of perfume drop so fast in a decant, not for lack of alternatives. This blend of rose-tinted memory and glorious orange blossom, beeswax, a most unusual lavender and thick, dancing swirls of incense is, in a word, flawless. Rumor has it that Denyse and Bertrand have plans for an extrait version called ‘Duende’. I pale to contemplate what it might be like. When that decant goes, I will cry. Buckets. Streams. Rivers!

About that other one…Once upon a time, I concocted a story out of boredom that I wrote all the way to the day I wrote ‘The End’ – and have rewritten several times since. Thanks to my partner-in-crime, Ellen Covey of Olympic Orchids, the Devilscent Project was resurrected as a group project involving some of the very best bloggers in the blogosphere – and the very best indie perfumers in the US. Neil Morris, no stranger to danger and a monumentally talented perfumer, joined the project and then proceeded to blow my poor proboscis to smithereens by bottling up the first chapter of the tale – and calling it Midnight at the Crossroads Café. All the elements of that first chapter are contained within its depths: the smoky, late-night café, the chill of looming winter, the cinnamon and spices wafting from the mulled wine, the remnants of an evening to remember, the danger, the desire, the Devil, the deal…There’s nothing at all on Planet Perfume quite like it. I cried my immensely flattered, floored, grateful tears the day it arrived and many times since whenever I wear it.

Speaking of invoking my inner Drama Queen…one august personage loves nothing more than to induce apoplexy at the post office, apoplexy that means a large, smoking trail of blackest profanity, a not-at-all clandestine spray because I can’t bloody help myself and eff-what-they-think, followed by that unfortunate I-so-have-to-sit-down-now moment. Christopher Chong has had not just an awful lot on his plate this year, he also has that on his conscience! As well as…

Best Post Office Apoplexy – and my Amber of the Year:

Amouage Opus VI. If anything redefined amber as something new and audacious, surely it was Opus VI. Dry, smoky, woody, complex and raspy, it’s extraordinary and yet a definite Amouage, and that’s precisely how I like my ambers – and my Amouages. Meanwhile, I’ve received funny looks at that post office ever since. They probably think I’m getting controlled substances in the mail. I am. And it’s all HIS fault!

Finest WTF moments:

Amouage Interlude Man & Woman

But Beloved wasn’t enough for this Perfume Torquemada. Opus VI wasn’t enough. Then came the coups-de-grace that were Interlude Man and Woman, and my doom was as total as my confusion, since I came by necessity to discover that the labels has been switched on my samples. Interlude Woman was Interlude Man, and vice versa. Or his vice was my versa. Or something. Whatever the case, these two bottled odes to the cacophony and chaos of modern life – and the deep, deep breaths we take in order to cope with them – were astonishing. And nearly impossible to review, since I barely knew where to start. Even now, even today, I wrestle with those obstinate genies who refuse to give anything away, yet insist all the same… “We haff vays to make you talk…” Oh, yes. In tongues long dead and likely forgotten, but talk, I do! The problem, as my readers are surely aware, is shutting up!

That other Christopher (Sheldrake) whose work I so adore – and the devious if not diabolical Creative Director he works in tandem with, M. Lutens  – was no slouch this year, either. Parfums Serge Lutens gave us…

My Favorite Bottled Air Conditioning:

The Serge Lutens line known as L’Eaux tend to be a bit divisive. I happen to like the original L’Eau, (a decided minority), but ‘like’ turned to love when L’Eau Froide arrived in February during an epic spell of freezing weather. It since became a summer staple on those (rare) hot summer days with its unique combination of rosemary/pine/eucalyptus and chilly Somali incense. No matter where I went or what I did, I was – literally – Cool, Calm and (very) Collected. If there were two words that encapsulate all L’Eau Froide is to me, they would be Chill and Out.

Got Wood?

Sandalwood? If we’re talking the fabled Mysore sandalwood, the answer is probably not. Over-harvested to near-extinction, adulterated and even counterfeited, the real Mysore sandalwood is nearly impossible to come by any longer. Australian sandalwood, however – a different species of tree and a different fragrance – is not. Frankly, I don’t mind too much, since the arrival of Santal Majuscule – using that Australian sandalwood – will likely completely make you forget you even miss the real thing, with its spicy cocoa-rosy ribbons wrapped around a rich, creamy sandalwood heart. Obey my commands if not my deeds, ye sandalwood lovers. Try it!

Most Dangerous/Sexy Perfumes of 2012, Masculine:

Anything named Dev, from Esscentual Alchemy, Neil Morris Fragrances, House of Cherry Bomb, Olympic Orchids or the Perfume Pharmer. Trust me. I know.

Most Dangerous/Sexy Perfumes of 2012, Feminine:

Anything named Lil or Lilith from Neil Morris Fragrances, House of Cherry Bomb, Olympic Orchids, and certainly Babylon Noir from Opus Oils, too. Trust me. I know.

Tropical Escape Hatch

Another line that was new to me (if not to the rest of Planet Perfume) was Micallef, and my shameless self-promotion on Facebook and Twitter meant that a sample package arrived in the mail one sunshiney day – with one broken vial, but I won’t hold that against them. There will be more reviews of Micallef to follow – but for now, let’s just say that whenever the winter blahs blow too hard, I now have the tropical escape hatch that is their beautiful Ylang in Gold. Just knowing it’s there glowing in my cabinet tends to make the snow, the rain, the wind somehow easier to bear.

Disappointment, Guaranteed!

It was a spectacular campaign. It was a no less spectacular premise. Even the bottle was, well…spectacular. What wasn’t quite so spectacular were the contents of Lady Gaga’s ‘Fame’. I wish I could say that might have been the whole idea – you’ve been had by a concept – but alas, that might be asking for more meta than even Lady Gaga could supply. Likewise, the much-anticipated ‘Truth or Dare’ by Madonna was a monumental…letdown. I’ll give celebufumes a chance, but throwing Fracas into the cotton candy-machine and calling this fluffy-bunny over-sugared Da-Glo pink tuberose ‘Truth or Dare’ is neither truthful nor particularly daring. C’mon, Madge. We had expectations. Until we didn’t. Sic transit…For one, I never in my wildest flu-ish phantasmagorias expected to write ‘fluffy bunny’ about a tuberose. ‘Nuff said!

From the overthought Unintentional Hilarity Department:

Brad Pitt for Chanel no. 5 could have really rearranged everyone’s mental furniture. It did, but in ways not even the marketing department of Chanel could have anticipated. We were howling with laughter…over the pretension of it all. Since Brad Pitt as a rule doesn’t make me laugh and neither does Chanel these days, that’s…something, just not what Chanel might have been hoping for.

Dear readers, you have all been so patient, so forgiving of all the verbiage. But wait! There’s more! For this year, I hand the baton of Truly And Epically Spectacular Perfumers to…a collective united by a project that took them places and made them create perfumes as perfumes might never have been created before, and an individual that means I’ll likely cook my goose most thoroughly. Since I’m not afraid of controversy – or flying bottles of Britney Spears Circus Fantasy – I’ll plow in regardless.

Perfumers of 2012 – Collective

The perfumers of the Devilscent Project as a whole claim one half of the Perfumer’s Prize. I had no idea one snowbound weekend in January preparing the brief, just what would lie in store or what marvels would be created. But in essence and absolute, Amanda Feeley of Esscentual Alchemy, Neil Morris of Neil Morris Fragrances, Ellen Covey of Olympic Orchids, Monica Miller of Perfume Pharmer, Katlyn Breene of Mermade Magickal Incense Maria McElroy and Alexis Karl of House of Cherry Bomb and Kedra Hart of Opus Oils threw away all the rules and the book they were written in, too – and made my Faustian tale of desires, dreams, love, rock’n’roll and redemption into something brand-new and most wondrous strange – strange for being impossible to classify, wondrous for being, well, some of the sultriest, sexiest, most salaciously hair-raising, inhibition-killing, zipper-popping, bodice-ripping perfumes ever made – anywhere, so long as you parked your preconceptions by the wayside and followed them down the rabbit hole, the Chelsea Hotel, a street in Ditmas Park – or that midnight café.  I’ll have much more to say about them – I have four reviews to go and a wrap-up post, but for now and for always, the technical skills and all-out sinfulness of all the Devilscent Project’s seventeen scents are staggering testaments to a maxim I learned while writing the book – that inspiration is everything, and so long as you dare to follow where it takes you, anything can happen, and sometimes, miracles, too.

Independent Perfumer of 2012

I’ve been writing this post off and on in my head since October, thinking about what should make my list and who I should single out for praise. Yet no matter which ways I sliced or diced it, my mind kept coming back to a man with a stunning string of massive successes just this year alone, and he’s given us perfumistas so many epiphanies in so many bottles for quite some time.

Therefore, I’m going to court controversy and hand it to… Bertrand Duchaufour. For his work with Neela Vermeire Creations, for his work with L’Artisan Parfumeur and Denyse Beaulieu, for the breathtaking Chypre Palatin and for never, ever falling back on a formula and repeating his own artistic predilections. Like all the best of any art in any genre, a Duchaufour is always recognizable, yet always surprising.

Having said that, one of his artistic collaborations blew up in his face and all over the blogosphere as well as perfume boards – namely, his creation of a line of perfumes for Gulnara Karamova, the daughter of Uzbekistan’s dictator, who apparently has plans to become either a fashion designer or a pop star with a celebufume of her own. The problem isn’t that she at least had the supreme good taste to go for the best – the problem, of course, is whether an artist is ethically responsible for the questionable actions of his patrons.

Never mind we mortals will likely never even see these perfumes in our part of the world. The rest of Planet Perfume learned about it via an article in the UK newspaper The Independent, which was picked up by a number of perfume blogs. Next we knew, all hell broke loose as so many rushed to deride the ubiquitous M. Duchaufour, his works and his choice of collaborators. People swore never to buy another of his perfumes again. People threw out entire, costly bottles. Planet Perfume felt somehow betrayed in its illusions of the beautiful world of perfume, when the fact is – it’s every bit as dirty, as filthy, as infested and as cutthroat as any other business these days. And much as it pains me to say it – it IS…a business, for all we prefer or hope to believe otherwise.

It was an interesting debate, not least for what it never really said. If M. Duchaufour were to lose his professional reputation over his trip to Uzbekistan (one commenter stated his career was over, which is a tad over-dramatic) – one of the most severely repressed countries in the world – shouldn’t it by rights follow that the august fashion houses of Dior, Chanel, Balenciaga, Balmain, Dolce & Gabbana et al. should surely be shunned/boycotted, too, for clothing Miss Karamova? After all, it is the precise same problem.

Or – if the questionable ethics of patrons really were the point, then how do you explain the Italian Renaissance – financed by a whole bunch of emphatically and epically questionable so-called ‘nobles’ in Florence, Milan, and Rome? Do we now boycott the Mona Lisa since Leonardo Da Vinci was employed by Cesare Borgia (no Snow White!) at one point in his illustrious career? Would Da Vinci be responsible for what Cesare Borgia and the Papal armies did to Italy? He did make several lethal war-machines, after all…

Or do we simply say…even artists are people, too, and people do like to eat and support themselves and their families as best they can. So artists will go where the money is and hope for a creative challenge if they’re lucky, and the rest is…what it is. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

Here’s what I believe. Anyone can make mistakes. If they’re smart – as I definitely suspect M. Duchaufour is – they’ll learn from them and…move on. As I suspect he will, and hopefully, his legions of enlightened fans will follow. The art supersedes the artist, and the art Duchaufour has created and unleashed upon the world this year alone has done so very much to improve upon my world and my life.

As for the artist – I also have reasons to believe he still has a few aces up his sleeve, and is just waiting to unleash them upon an eager world. Here’s hoping! Bertrand Duchaufour, this was your year. You do have a few more left, yes?

So many perfumes – and so little time! What were your favorites of 2012? What trends did you love – or hate – and what do you hope lies in store for 2013?

Stay tuned for Part Two of the Best of 2013 – in friends, in phrases and in facilitators…

Note: This blog expresses my own independent opinions and views and I am never compensated for any reviews or review lists.

Orange Blossom Special

–  a getaway vacation into the heart of a favorite flower

Of all the many fragrant memories of my South Florida childhood, one in particular has stuck in my mind and stayed with me even today, as a redolent symbol of all that is …happy.

I was ten or eleven at the time, and it was a day I had forgotten my house keys, so I had to wait in the back yard for my mother to arrive home from work. It must have been late March or early April, for the citrus tree orchard in our back yard was in full bloom. We had grapefruit trees, lemon trees, lime trees, and a stand of orange trees that stood at least twenty feet tall. They all required careful navigating to climb – those trees had spiky thorns – but I had long since found a path up the trunk and onto a favorite branch, and that’s where I chose to wait.

It was a heady late afternoon out there beneath the orange tree canopy, the slanting sunlight beating down upon those trees from that breathless blue Florida sky. Everywhere around me, the no less heady, nearly narcotic fragrance of orange blossom in all its many shades…the soapy floral, the hint of the orange zest behind it, the thick, sensuous, indolic aspect that somehow stupefied me to such an extent I have no memory of how long I sat there, only that as I sat on that branch and waited, I was aware of only one thing – the simple joy of breathing in, of inhaling all that was supremely beautiful and supremely happy, which was precisely how I felt.

No matter how much my life attempts to drag me down and chew me out, nothing, but nothing makes me happier in an instant like orange blossom.

Orange blossom – and its kissing cousin, neroli, which is the water-distilled extract of the bitter orange and lighter and less indolic – has been used for centuries in perfumes and soaps, so much that an overdose can easily lead you to dismiss an orange-blossom fragrance as ‘soapy’. It adds its own power-packed punch to countless famous perfumes as one of the four boldest white florals – rose, jasmine, tuberose and…orange blossom. Robert Piguet’s Fracas – that reference tuberose – gets a good deal of its divalicious oomph from orange blossom, as does Caron’s classic Narcisse Noir, although in Narcisse Noir’s case, the orange blossom is a dark and dangerously erotic creature of the night. I never have understood why orange blossom is such a symbol of innocence, unless it’s that orange blossom tends to soothe frazzled bridal nerves, since so far as I’m concerned, it’s a very erotic flower…

A while ago, I posed a question on one of the Facebook fragrance groups about orange blossom. We generally agreed on the orange blossom gold standard  – my absolute favorite orange blossom, which is Serge Lutens’ Fleurs d’Oranger. This is the orange blossom I recall from that afternoon that burned itself into my memory, the rose, the jasmine and the tuberose somehow all adding up to all the nuances contained in that one fatally fragrant blossom – and the cumin (a deal-breaker for some) adding its own intimations of carnal intent. This is no blushing ingénue orange blossom, this is an opulently sensuous creature in full bloom beneath the orange trees, just waiting to lure you in…which might explain why I’ve likely ‘wasted’ a good portion of a bell jar spraying it on my pillow before bed. Sweet dreams indeed!

But there are other orange blossom specials, and here they are for your delectation…some famous, some not so much, some innocent and flirty, some of them not quite so innocuous…

Joyous Orange

Mona di Orio ‘Jabu’

Jabu – the Zulu word for ‘joy’ – was created in 2009 by the epically talented niche perfumer Mona di Orio, who tragically died last year. No tragedy lurks within ‘Jabu’, which was made to benefit the Dutch charity ‘Orange Babies’ for African HIV-positive mothers and their babies. Jabu is a glorious, complex, grand, glowing Oriental of an orange blossom, from its laughing beginnings of petitgrain through its honeyed, swirling heart of orange blossom, rose and coconut all the way to the feather-soft drydown of benzoin, myrrh and sandalwood. Coconut can be a deal-breaker for me, but here, I have no complaints – everything works in perfect harmony, and everything spells precisely what it says on the bottle – which is…joy. It is virtually impossible to be blue when wearing this, and if that’s not an accolade, what is?

Jabu – in the ‘main’ collection of Mona di Orio perfumes – will be re-released along with the other perfumes in Mona’s main line in 2013.

Notes for Jabu: Orange blossom, monoi oil, petitgrain, Damascus rose, honey, amyris, plum, myrrh, benzoin

The Drop Dead Elegant Orange

Hermès 24 Faubourg

If every luxury perfume brand needs a Great Big White Floral, then 24 Faubourg is surely Hermès’ contribution. Made by Maurice Roucel in 1995, this is a unique throwback to those elegant, supremely French perfumes of yore when ladies who lunched wore couture, carried Hermès bags, and wore fragrant statements that left an emphatic presence in the room behind them. Make no mistake – this is no ingénue orange blossom, this one is all woman, and she roars even when she whispers! It starts with a seamless fruity-floral effervescent blast – there’s no other way to describe it – and then. And then, it grows. And it glows. And it grows. Blooming into a luscious, lilting blend of thick orange blossom, gardenia and jasmine, with black elder adding its own earthier segue to its chypre-tinged drydown hours and hours later of orris, sandalwood, amber, patchouli and vanilla. I really don’t do it anything near the justice it clearly deserves when I wear it barefaced in my leopard-print pjs – 24 Faubourg somehow demands a flawless maquillage, great hair, grand clothes and high heels – something to accentuate its stunning sillage, outstanding longevity and eternally stylish structure. Wear it for when you want to make a definite impression no one forgets in a hurry! Preferably with Louboutin heels, but Manolos might do in a pinch…

Notes for 24 Faubourg: Orange, peach hyacinth, ylang ylang, bergamot, black elder, iris, jasmine, orange blossom, gardenia, sandalwood, amber, patchouli, vanilla.

The Limited Edition Orange

L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Fleurs d’Oranger

There should be laws against limited editions I only discover after it’s way too late to do anything about procuring them. But on the other hand…what wonders would I miss? L’Artisan Parfumeur’s ’s special edition tribute to an exceptional Tunisian orange blossom harvest is what. L’Artisan puts the orange blossom – one spectacular orange blossom – front and center of this composition by Anne Flipo, and it’s all orange blossom, all the time! Lush, flirty, ripe, borderline naughty orange blossom, neroli, petitgrain – it’s the whole tree and all the flowers, too – and it’s glorious – and gorgeously linear –  stuff. If I have any complaints – apart from being nearly impossible to find any longer – it’s that it doesn’t last nearly long enough to suit me, which only means that one bottle will be too many and two not nearly enough!

Notes for L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Fleurs d’Oranger: Orange, petitgrain, neroli, orange blossom, almond.

 The Great Escape

Dior Cruise Collection Escale à Portofino

In my fevered imagination – all evidence in my life to the contrary – I have what I’ve come to call ‘perfect moments’ – those fantasies of being somewhere infinitely glamorous, wearing something equally devastating, standing on a balcony overlooking the limitless blue Adriatic with a Bellini in my hand exuding effortless ‘du chien’, a French term that implies something slightly better, cooler and much more fashionable than mere ‘chic’. Chic can be acquired with a little help, ‘du chien’ is something you either have or you don’t. Needless to say, that never happened. Yet if any perfume takes me ‘there’ to that balcony and that fantasy, surely it’s Dior’s Escale à Portofino, created by Francois Demachy in 2008. It was one of the first remotely exclusive perfumes I ever bought for myself, and it is a very unique and uniquely summery vacation-in-a-bottle, with its entire orange tree from leaves to blossoms bottled up and tied around a milky, transparent green almond note so wrong, it’s utterly right, a while before it whispers its twilit song of darkest summery green some hours later. It could last a bit longer, this is true…but isn’t that just another excuse for another hit of fantasy?

Notes for Escale à Portofino: Bergamot, petitgrain, lemon, orange blossom, almond, juniper berries, cedar, cypress, galbanum, caraway and musk

A Vial with a View

Tom Ford Private Blend Neroli Portofino

Although I can’t quite put my finger on precisely what causes it, something about the few Tom Ford’s Private Blend of perfumes I’ve tried tend to rub my fragrant fur in a few wrong directions. It isn’t that they’re not meticulously crafted (Neroli Portofino was created by Rodrigo Flores-Roux), or truly horrible or cheap-smelling, which they’re not. It could be their prohibitive price tag, or else that I’m just not a Tom Ford kind of woman. For one, I’m too short – and too busty, if not quite blonde enough. But if anything could persuade me otherwise, it just might be Neroli Portofino, tacky, tasteless advertising notwithstanding. Neroli Portofino is neither tacky nor tasteless, but instead, another tribute to the deathless, posh summer cool of Italy’s Amalfi coast, and lo and behold…you are all there with that breathtaking balcony view and all of a damn near flawless orange blossom dream yourself. Strangely enough, neroli isn’t listed as a note at all, but orange blossom – the plush, heady, slightly soapy sort of orange blossom – certainly is. It’s pretty linear from start to ambery finish, but who cares with that picture perfect Portofino view?

Notes for Neroli Portofino: Bergamot, mandarin orange, African orange blossom, amber.

 The British Art of Understatement

Penhaligon’s Anthology Collection Orange Blossom

From the overtly stated to the softly sotto voce…Bertrand Duchaufour’s reorchestrated ‘Orange Blossom’ for Penhaligon’s is as soft and as soothing as a down duvet. It’s a light, flirtatious orange blossom that lures you in and surprises you with all the tales that can be told about ‘orange’ and ‘blossom’. It begins clean, cologne-bright and full of light – no intimations of sexpot here, or so you surmise – but that’s nowhere all it is and not at all where it stays as it evolves past those squeaky-clean beginnings into a pas-de-deux of petitgrain and cardamom, tied around an orange blossom that seems more neroli than ‘orange blossom’ to my nose. It’s understated, never obvious, and supremely suited for the mood of summery, flirty and light-hearted laughter that seems to go with long, sunny days and warm, delicious nights. You won’t be knocking anyone over with this, but you won’t overwhelm with your presence either, and that sometimes has its own undeniable appeal. I’ve loved it and worn it when other orange blossom perfumes might seem a bit much in the heat – in other words, when understated is precisely the kind of statement I want to make!

Notes for Penhaligon’s Anthology Collection Orange Blossom: Calabrian orange, bergamot, peach, rose, cardamom.

Many fragrant multiverses lie in waiting within that simple term ‘orange blossom’. Some others I wear, adore and have reviewed include Olympic Orchids‘ ‘Golden Cattleya’ and ‘Emergence’, Andy Tauer’s ‘Orange Star’, Opus Oils’ ‘Giggle Water’ and of course, the Gold Standard… Serge Lutens‘Fleurs d’Oranger’.  Coming up on the Genie –  yet another orange blossom-centric perfume, but this one is so special, it deserves its own review!

Do you have your own orange blossom moments, too?

With thanks and love to the Great Facilitators…Ruth, Carlos and Amy, for making this review possible, and the many comments to my question on my favorite FB group! ❤