Baudelairean Blooms


woodviolet – a review of Parfums Serge Lutens’ ‘Bois de Violette’

Among the many blooms adored by perfumers and perfumistas alike – the regal lilies, the imperious irises, the fatal tuberoses, sensuous jasmines, opulent orange blossoms and that Empress of them all, the rose – one tiny, unassuming spring flower stands half-concealed among this distinguished bouquet, not doing much to call attention to itself, unless it is to confer its own sweetly green air of innocence and youth, so charming yet so modest. Or else it reminds us of dear, departed grandmothers and aunts and their fondness for posies and pastilles, candied petals on chocolate cakes and tiny, mauve soaps languishing in a porcelain dish you never dared to use, stamped with ‘Savon Violette’.

There’s a vintage if not old-fashioned aura around the humble violet, something that smacks of nostalgia, bygone eras, scented with a tinge of melancholy and the ephemerality of time. Marry the violet to rose in certain proportions and you get the fragrance and flavor of lipstick, pair it with its companion violet leaf, and you have an approximation of spring-in-a-bottle, all exuberant greens and bashful blooms playing peekaboo among the greenery. Many of those violets are lovely, sugary, as sweet and as substantial as fleeting promises you just know will never be fulfilled.

All the same, something haunts me about violet, something that tugs insistent on the edges of my mind and gives me an urge to bury my face in a tiny bunch of violets in a woodland glade, something that makes me want to grasp that ethereal perfume and bite it…

Which means I’m no fan of those sweet, restrained, grandmotherly violets. I like my violets with a Gothic edge, their dulcet melody of early spring tempered with an alto counterpoint. In other words – a violet that surprises me.

Here is Serge Lutens’ Bois de Violette, and as any reader of this blog knows, any Serge Lutens perfume is nothing if not surprising.

Bois de Violette and I did not get along the first few times we said hello. A glorious violet, so said the reviews I read, so I felt more than a little cheated when I smelled the ashen cedar tones of pencil shavings, and nary one violet beneath my nose.

It was a red flag in front of this Bull! When all I wanted to do, just as in the story of Ferdinand the Bull, was to sit in a sunlit spring field and smell the flowers.

Some time ago, a perfumista friend asked me if there were anything I would like to try from her extensive collection, and when Bois de Violette came up in the conversation, I jumped at the chance to finally grasp these elusive blooms and banish the pencil shavings to the cedar box they surely belonged in.

Many have stated that Bois de Violette is the sister scent of Feminité du Bois, and it isn’t hard to see the family resemblance in their structure, or indeed to recognize the jazzy riffs of improvisation over a familiar theme of cedar – and surprises. For all her heritage, Bois de Violette is not another Feminité du Bois and has none of her sister’s plummy, Bourgogne-tinted depths.

Instead, she sings in a different, higher register, and begins her own violet revolution by conjuring forth a fairy forest in emerald tones of green, and somewhere in the background, an intimation of shadows with that pine-cedar accord that never remains too far away. This may be a forest, and fairies may dwell here, it seems to say, but secrets and ghosts lie somewhere just beyond. Heed them well.

Except you won’t, for next thing you know, the fairies arrive, which is to say, the very violets that give Bois de Violette its name, and those memories of old-fashioned, old-school, grandmotherly violets are banished forevermore to that cedar box of mementos they surely belong in.

These violets have other, wilder stories to tell, stories with sweetly worded phrases of twilit purple dreams and candied hexameter breaths of leather and anise that grow darker as the shadows deepen and the violets sing their siren songs of dark green cedar, and you listen enchanted as they fade, and the cedar steps forward again to remind you – the hour is getting very late, and not all that grows in this forest is what it seems, and not all that breathes is as entirely benign as those fairies that sang away the hours on your skin.

In this enchanted forest of Faërie lurks a Big, Bold, Cedar Wolf, and it just might bite if you’re not careful…

Bois de Violette won’t overwhelm your surroundings as you wear it. It stays close to you, but never strays.

Instead, this is what you would choose to wear for your own pensive pleasure, whenever the mood for a little needed introspection with just a touch of joy grabs you, when the melancholy grays of endless rainy afternoons are almost more than you can bear, and you want a peerless, perfumed reminder that some day, spring shall return again, and light and life as well, hidden in a woodland glade to catch you unaware.

As for me, with my predilection for the Gothic in les violettes, I find that Bois de Violette is a liquid bloom that Baudelaire would surely appreciate, if indeed he wasn’t referring to them when he wrote:

Charme profond, magique, dont nous grise

Dans le présent le passé restauré!

Ainsi l’aimant sur un corps adore

Du souvenir cueille la fleur exquise.

Or in a freer translation I couldn’t improve if I tried:

It’s by such charms that Nevermore

Intoxicates us in the Now –

As lovers to remembrance bow

Over the bodies they adore.

Parfums Serge Lutens ‘Bois de Violette’ is available at Luckyscent and directly from the Parfums Serge Lutens website.

Quote from Charles Baudelaire’s ‘Un Fantôme’ (1861), translated by Roy Campbell 1953, courtesy of Fleurs Du Mal.

With thanks to two perfume angels who made such Baudelairean blooms – and words! – possible.

The Hidden Art

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

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

It makes me think. Watch out, world!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caravaggio’s works should have been so lucky.

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

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

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

A Dance Through A Heart

– a review of Serge Lutens’ ‘Santal Majuscule

In perfumery, the term ‘base notes’ describes those essences and accords that remain on your skin long after the rest of the magic carpet ride has passed on, the ones that are so fundamental, so rich, so ubiquitous that to conceive of a perfume without them is pointless. Each of them contain entire olfactory universes, ever-unfolding stories, songs and words that evolve and change and breathe with such a life of their own, it’s no surprise at all they are counted among the oldest, most beloved and most sacred of all perfumery materials. One of them is so adored, it’s literally been loved and extracted to near extinction, loved…and adulterated, counterfeited and passed off as itself, when in fact it is nothing of the kind.

Sandalwood. The very name is all you need to conjure up images of intricately carved keepsake boxes, of simple prayer beads and elaborate furnishings, the red paste of chandan used in Hindu ritual, of sacred incense and treasured soaps to scent drawers and cupboards, and above all, the incredibly intricate, complex fragrance of the oil itself, sweet, floral, fruity and dense, creamy, vegetal, musty, moody and woody, it has a subtle animal pulse on skin like nothing else on Earth, simultaneously earthy…and numinous.

Now Serge Lutens, no stranger to the marvels of sandalwood with Santal Blanc and Santal de Mysore, has once again retold the tale of sandalwood, only this time, the story is both ancient as time like all the best stories, as sandalwood itself, and so modern and new and surprising I wonder  – not for the last time – how can this be a tale in perfume I never breathed before?

As a base note, as a fixative, I’ve loved sandalwood for its ability to add a Baroque dimension to so many perfumes, perfumes I’ve worn and loved for decades. On its own in the spotlight, I’ve been too much a survivor of a 1960s childhood best described as ‘Bohemian’ to love it for its own sake, or else, the very word sandalwood came to be associated with so many overpowering scent memories of ‘de trop’.

Too much, too Indian, too heady, too Oriental…too many cheap imitations and adulterations of real Mysore sandalwood or else always united with its once ubiquitous best friend… patchouli.

Yet for all that, the world turns, perceptions change and even I.

This is 2012 after all, here is Santal Majuscule, sandalwood ‘writ large in capital letters’ and it is, after all, a Lutens. What stories would it tell, would I get a magic carpet ride, would the world tilt on its axis?

The short answer is…you wouldn’t believe me if I told you, yes to all of the above, and then again…yet meanwhile, I can’t forget…

Which is no way to describe it as well as it deserves.

It begins as…almost a cliché, an Arabian mukhallat attar of sandalwood – Australian sandalwood, I’ve read, but no one able to remember the mythical glories of Mysore sandalwood will feel remotely cheated – and rose. Not just any rose, this is a rose of a deep, dark, velvety hue. The wood itself is smooth as satin, not milky or creamy as I would expect but instead honeyed and warm without once dancing into gourmand territory.

Yet dance Santal Majuscule certainly does, dancing through the rose, through the heart of the wood, the dream, the myth that sandalwood has become, and as it moves and bends and twirls on my skin, now almost touching a bitter sotto voce note of cocoa, next sashaying through a spicy cloud of cinnamon, then flirting with a rich but never cloying note of honey – orange blossom honey, says my biased nose that detects another floral note, my favorite honey – but always around that central focal point of sandalwood and rose.

Around and around it moves as it transpires, breathing new life and new moves and a new light into a story and a glorious dream of sandalwood as old as all the best tales are, as new as today, as this moment, this very breath, this word and this letter, written with a capital L.

It seems a bit strange to write of a perfume that it dances on my skin. Yet that is precisely what Santal Majuscule does. Not an elegantly contrived ballet so much as something far more spontaneous and kinetic, as elegant and ornate as the russet-hued Erté illustration I chose, as genuine as only a true myth can be. It is still, yet it moves in that stillness, moves through a sandalwood dream, delights in the luminous clouds of honey and spice, trailing its legends of rose behind.

Many, many hours later, when I have decided that sandalwood will never be the same and even I have changed and moved as I breathed it, I am left with a wink and a whispered growl in the twilight, wrapped up warm in the sable pelt of an otherworldly, numinous animal. Maybe it’s the soul that hides in the heart of the wood, the soul that wrote the story, the soul that writes these words?

‘Obey my silences, not my commands’, states the Latin in the picture below, and this closet Classicist bends the Latin as only Latin can bend to say it can also mean…

‘Do as I do and not as I say.’

Move with this fabled wood and follow the story it tells. Dance through a heart that is lit from within and write out the words with a capital L!

Notes: Australian sandalwood, honey, cocoa, cinnamon, Arabian rose attar 

Santal Majuscule is available for European customers directly from the Serge Lutens website, and from Luckyscent.

Images: Above: Romain de Tirtoff, a.k.a. Erté

Below: Santal Majuscule, reproduced here with the permission of Serge Lutens.

 

A Trinity of Tuberose

–  reviews of Serge Lutens’ ‘Tubereuse Criminelle’, Èditions Frédéric Malle ‘Carnal Flower’ & Exotic Island Perfumes ‘Flor Azteca’.

And the Jessamine faint, and the sweet tuberose, the sweetest flower for scent that blows.

– Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘The Sensitive Plant

I’ve been arguing with Shelley’s ghost for hours now. He really needs to lay off that laudanum simply for calling tuberose ‘the sweetest flower’.

There is nothing – I’d like to repeat that for emphasis – nothing in the slightest bit sweet about tuberose. It is a most dangerous, perditious bloom, given to induce an urge for all sensuous pleasures, usually the kind that will end in tears the next morning and maybe smiles in forty years if you’re very, very lucky.

It was once said of prim Victorian matrons in the British Raj era of India that they forbade their marriageable daughters to even sniff tuberose lest they get ideas, ideas of a kind where the glories of the British empire would be the last thing on their impressionable minds. Likewise, at the opulent court of Louis XIV, tuberose hedges were planted alongside the colonnade of the Grand Trianon at the behest of his mistress Madame de Montespan. So powerful, so heady were these rows of innocent white flowers when they bloomed even hardened, cynical courtiers would swoon in defeat. In India, tuberose garlands are used to adorn brides in all their finery, presumably – and in sharp contrast to those proper Victorian matrons – to give the brides a few…ideas! You don’t mess with a flower the canny Indians dubbed Rajnigandha in Hindi, or… ‘night blooming’. Many, many wonders only happen after dark…

Tuberose. Love it or hate it, it is a note and a flower unlike any other. Polianthes tuberosa, which originated in Mexico, has been used in perfumery as a middle note for a very long time, with more or less restraint, for something about this audacious flower and its bold, erotic, otherworldly beauty tends to throw restraint by the wayside and to hell with all consequences. It blends well with a few of its headier ladies-in-waiting, jasmine and orange blossom not least, but something magical – and nearly fatal – happens when the tuberose is placed in a lead role front and center in a perfume, something that elevates it far beyond a heart note and deep into territory Louis XIV’s courtiers were surely familiar with. Call it…

Knock them dead and wipe them up!

Arguably the most famous tuberose-centric perfume ever created is Robert Piguet’s Fracas by Germaine Cellier, a staple of divas everywhere since its creation in 1947. So famous is Fracas, it has become almost a reference point for any tuberose perfume, usually to the detriment of anything it’s compared to. I’ll come right out and say it – I adore Fracas. I will also say that the reason I adore it now is less for being a tuberose perfume and more for the artistry of its construction. Fracas is Tuberose with an Entourage, an entourage of equally fabulous florals who each shine their Klieg lights on Her Serene Empress of Tuberose. Beyond beautiful, oh yes. But not my favorite tuberose.

For since a little more than a year ago, I have since discovered three more tuberoses – and these have for different reasons purloined that knock-them-dead heart I didn’t even know I had.

You may beg to disagree. You may – as even I once did – hate, detest and loathe tuberose. Or else – I’ve heard this happens, too – be frightened if not intimidated by the wonders that lurk in those moonlight petals. Tuberose makes no excuses. Wear wisely!

This trinity of tuberose – all different and all unique expressions of a single flower – is my testament to a flower that gives even this cynic all sorts of…ideas!

The Lethal Jolie Laide

Serge Lutens’ ‘Tubéreuse Criminelle’ (Lutens/Sheldrake)

Tubéreuse Criminelle, one of the most celebrated of tuberose perfumes in the past twenty years, was – and still is – a most divisive perfume. There can be no middle ground, no compromises with this Madame, you are with her or against her, but you will not be indifferent to her!

I hated it when I first tried it, hated it with a fury I usually reserve for run-of-the-mill department store scents, hated it so passionately, there was surely some kind of debauched love letter lurking underneath the vitriol. For M. Lutens and Christopher Sheldrake chose a uniquely alternate route in creating their ode to tuberose…they chose to take it apart and shine a spotlight on all that makes tuberose so compelling and even, dare I write it, repulsive. Yes. I did say repulsive.

Depending on your frame of reference, it will begin with a shocking blast of…gasoline? Camphor? Thick, scorched rubber? Mentholated mothballs, as one character describes it in my novel ‘Quantum Demonology’, and that’s as apt a description as any. Eucalyptus, spearmint or wintergreen…Madame Tubéreuse is all of these in the bloom itself, and all its sparkling, malevolent facets reach out to grab you by the nose and…throttle you. I was so utterly shocked the first time I tried it, I had to sit down. I then proceeded to turn green. I ran to scrub it off. It took five tries, five hysterical fits of pique and five minuscule sprays before everything changed, the world tilted on its axis and I was forever lost, lost in a dream of tuberose, taken apart by the seams by these two master couturiers of perfumery and made entirely new.

For right when you are about to give it up, surrender to this vegetal, veritable monster, the miracle happens. Slowly, like fireworks fading in the sky, the gasoline/burnt rubber/wintergreen/camphor recede to a dim memory of something unpleasant, you just can’t quite remember what it was.

You have forgotten, because now, Madame reveals her moonlit, peerless beauty one petal, one veil, one secret at a time, opening up and up and up until the angels sing and the flower sparkles like a peerless, fragrant diamond. The ‘criminelle’ is only that Madame hides her beauty so well in the èlan of her opening, yet once she blooms, she never fades.

Her lethal allure means that once is one time too many, and twice is never enough. Such is my tubéreuse debauchery now, I have been known to apply again and again, simply for that wintergreen, addictive, electric jolt to my senses. And for that unearthly, ghostly flowery carpet that awaits behind it to enfold me in her embrace.

The California Girl

Editions Frederic Malle ‘Carnal Flower’ (Dominique Ropion)

Carnal Flower, another justly celebrated tuberose, is an altogether more …benign tuberose. I say that knowing full well that so far as tuberose is concerned, there really is no such thing as ‘benign’, yet nevertheless, although it is a happy, beachy, breezy, tropical tuberose, it is still…a heady, intoxicating, man-eating femme fatale of a perfume. But it is oh, so nice about its wicked ways, so sweetly accented with ylang ylang and coconut, so carefree with its hints of orange blossom and a whisper of animal musk, you might as well have Beulah peel you another grape and give up your gripes. Meanwhile, you are as happy-go-lucky as any flawless California blonde ever kissed by a sunbeam and weaned on good vibrations, reeling in all sorts of Big Kahunas marine and otherwise with no trouble and less effort than it takes to swing that gleaming mane of yours and marvel that life really can be perfect and even be a beach, too, in Hawaii or Malibu…or an overlooked spot near the far chillier Baltic. Palm trees are optional. The tropical, sunshine dreams are included in the bottle for a price, but don’t all perfect fantasies have those?

The Feral Jungle Bloom

‘Flor Azteca’, by The Exotic Island Perfumer (Juan M. Perez)

Here’s one of the greatest discoveries I’ve made since first beginning this blog – and the totally tubular <cough> part is…you have likely never heard of him! The fabled wonders of Juan M. Perez, a perfumer based in Puerto Rico, were unknown to me until recently, when I received a package as part of my participation in the Primordial Scents project. (More on that coming very soon!) By rights, I should have reserved my review until I wrote about the project, but this wonder is such a stunner, I can’t keep it secret any longer. Rooting through that box of epic perfumed marvels, I came across a beautifully presented little box, and lo and behold…it contained a tuberose perfume unlike anything – or anyone’s – I had ever encountered before.

Flor Azteca – a tribute to the original tuberose of the Aztec, who called it the marvelously euphonious ‘omixochitl’, or ‘bone flower’ for its pure white blooms – is what I can only describe as a feral tuberose, as wild at heart as the jungle it perfumes.

This tuberose is not tamed, not orderly, neither coiffed nor manicured into tuberose submission, if there even were such a thing, and we all know there isn’t. It’s much as I imagine a tuberose might have been one fatal night some poor conquistador got lost in the jungle, more than a little terrified of all the strange noises and ominous slithers in the dark, when suddenly, he came across a flower like no other, a perfume like the breath of an angel – or a demon waiting to pounce – gleaming in a pool of moonlight reflected in a jaguar’s eyes. You may read this as hyperbole pure and simple. Yet I tell you, I who have sniffed many things and many great – it isn’t.

Juan M. Perez took tuberose and swathed it in its native jungle ambience, with notes of chocolate and massoia bark, ginger and pepper, vanilla and benzoin and more who-cares-this-is-genius notes and let it bloom as it pleased one moonbeam night, as wild, as breathtaking, as free and as feral as a jaguar on the prowl. I realized recently that for all my love of tuberose as a note, I’ve never had a chance to smell the flower itself (one local florist said he wouldn’t order any for me when I asked, because they stank up the whole shop!), but if there really is divinity on Earth, and if angels really do breathe, then I beseech the grace of Oxomoco, the Aztec Goddess of night, please, let the tuberose smell like this!

It’s just…that kind of flower, both perfume and passion, both earthy and divine and not entirely of this world. It can be frightening and flawless, but it will never, ever leave you indifferent to its wonders!

Notes for Tubéreuse Criminelle: Tuberose, orange blossom, jasmine, musk, styrax, nutmeg, clove, hyacinth

Notes for Carnal Flower: Bergamot, melon, eucalyptus, ylang ylang, tuberose, jasmine, salicylates, coconut, musk, orange blossom absolute

Notes for Flor Azteca: Mexican tuberose, massoia bark, chocolatl (sic), tuberose absolute, magnolia, datura, fresh ginger, pepper, Mexican vanilla, benzoin, tonka bean, copal negro, smoky woods, mineral notes.

With profound thanks to Christos of Memory of Scent, to Ruth for graciously assisting this thoroughly damned perfumoholic pauper in her perdition, and to Monica Miller, who knows the great stuff when she sniffs it!

Serge Lutens’ Tubéreuse Criminelle’ is available from the Serge Lutens website (for European customers) and from Luckyscent.

Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle ‘Carnal Flower’ is available from the website.

Discover the marvels of Juan M. Perez’ magical making here.

Primeval Forces of Perfume

In Quantum Demonology, there is a term for what the protagonist calls…primeval forces, a phrase that refers to those musical epiphanies that are above superstardom and even above musical gods on an altogether different plane of existence. The ones she can’t live without, ever. The ones who never leave her iPod playlists. Ever.

But I have them in perfume terms, too. And a recent Skype conversation with one of them brought the concept up again. Which made me think, something this particular august personage does quite well. So what creates such paragons of fragrant epiphanies – what does it take to elevate illustrious perfumers and creative directors into my nosebleed stratosphere? Who are they? And why do they loom so important – on my person, in my cabinet, in my perfume subconscious? Read on, and I’ll tell you.

Understand that once upon a time, although I used – and likely abused – a wide range of perfumes starting at age 14, I did not always have such a visceral, emotional connection with perfumes. I operated on the time-honored French principle of “Ça sent beau”… “It smells…good!”, and so long as it worked on my mood, my manner or my nefarious plans, often horizontal, then all was well, until…

Until I began reading about perfume on a scale I never had before. In those days, it was olfaction by proxy, since I couldn’t afford any, but at least I could educate myself, and so I did, right up to the moment I read about a certain Paris-based perfume house, whose perfumes were described as ‘bottled emotions’. For whatever reasons, that idea stuck in my receptive mind. How did you…bottle emotion? And which ones? What did they smell like? Would they be different than the ones I already knew and loved, if no longer owned?

If I only knew what I know now.

Since becoming a perfume blogger in earnest, I’ve discovered that emotions could indeed be bottled – good, bad, even horror! (Secretions Magnifiques, here’s looking at you!). My tastes have evolved to such an extent that I love all sorts of perfumes – greens, chypres, opulent Orientals, knock ‘em dead florals, woods, gourmands, ouds…you name them, I’ll love them. There’s still room for improvement – musk is a note I struggle with – but I’m all for…fragrant transport to …elsewhere and otherwise, to new horizons and time travel, too!

Primeval Forces, however, elevate themselves above the rest. These creations are the ones I will wear without fail and with total surrender, the ones that suck me into a vortex of wonder, the ones I never hope to be without again, the ones that define not just this perfume writer, but this woman – and this soul. Which takes a lot more than simply…smelling good!

1) In every peerless work of art, so say the discerning, there is a hint of..strange, some oddity that catches the eye, the ear, or the nose. True beauty will always be unusual, always make you pause and take another look, another sniff, another snag that catches on the cogwheels of your imagination and sends it down a new and unexplored path. So that whiff of…strange that compels you to breathe deeper, that stops you cold and fires your imagination, would be my first criterion.

2) Every artistic creation – or collaboration, and some of my Primeval Forces are – contains some detectable droplet of the minds that conceived it. You could say that there’s an invisible ribbon in these bottles that goes straight from the creator(s) to that secret, bedrock location in my soul that was waiting for this reminder to shoot towards the light of awareness. I have to sense the heartbeat(s) behind it, which could explain why I tend to gravitate towards the niche and independent lines these days. They rarely disappoint me.

3) All my Primeval Forces excel at transport and the unexpected…they surprise me, they show me wonders, they make me cry, they take me places I’ve never known before, and as they do, my world is somehow larger, richer and far more colorful for it. Some kind of seismic perspective shift occurs, and how I define ‘perfume’ will never be the same.

4) Last, but not least…inspiration! When the time comes to sift through my impressions and turn them into expression, do I find myself tearing my hair out, grappling with metaphor and simile, trying to say something new, trying to expand – if not explode – my limitations as a writer? If that’s the case, I know I’m on to something spectacular. The less control I have over my own creative process, the better the end result. The perfumes that remove that illusory ‘control’ and just write my review for me – these are the ones I know I won’t be able to live without!

5) Each of these houses and perfumers march to their very own and distinctive beat. This means they can be as ground-breaking and as creative as they please, and so they are. Each has their own style and signature, and each of them make only their own rules.

So here they are – my fragrant Primeval Forces. There is no hierarchy here, no order of preference – these perfumers and houses are all laws unto themselves, continuing to take my breath away and explaining in liquid and essence, why I love to live and live to sniff!

Parfums Serge Lutens/Serge Lutens & Christopher Sheldrake

When I first read about Serge Lutens perfumes, I had this cold chill of intuition…there was something there, some secrets I needed to know. Not many understand quite so well the compelling beauty of strange and spectacular, of redefining by deconstructing. When I finally had the opportunity to try them, my world view changed…forever. I’ve been amazed ever since and I remain amazed every time I wear a Lutens, for familiarity does not take away that thrill of discovery and epiphany. I haven’t loved all of them, and in a few cases not at all, but of those I fell for – nearly twenty at last count! – I’ll love them for as long as I live.

Aftelier Perfumes/Mandy Aftel

Encountering the marvels of Mandy Aftel was one of the happiest ‘coincidences’ of my life. Mandy’s perfumes are nearly impossible to categorize, which qualifies her right there, but that’s only where she begins to pull those rabbits out of her hat. Strangely beautiful, beautifully strange, earthy, shockingly sensuous and opulent or ethereal as dancing moonbeams, she always surprises me and never compromises on her artistic vision. I have yet to encounter an Aftelier that hasn’t blown me away. They compel me and inspire me and fortify me in ways very few other perfumes do, so much that I usually have one drop of an Aftelier somewhere on me regardless of whatever else I wear, just because it’s the final cross on this T!

DSH Perfumes/Dawn Spencer Hurwitz

Right when I thought I was fast becoming my own living anachronism, mourning the death of Immortal Green Chypres, along came hope in a bottle in the form of a sample sent by Lucy of Indieperfumes. That sample was Vert pour Madame, and repercussions could be detected as far away as Buenos Aires at least. Dawn’s epic range and vision don’t stop there. Her knowledge of perfumes through history is unparalleled, her recreations and her own creations are…peerless, and just as Mandy, she knows just how to pull the rug from under my feet and expectations and swipe me sideways in all the best ways. I’ve yet to meet a DSH creation I couldn’t instantly fall for with a vengeance. As indeed I have! She’s simply…THAT…great!

Amouage Perfumes

Luxury in this day and age has become such an overused, over-hyped word. Ridiculously overpriced, average perfumes sold on pretentious PR copy are not how I define it. My perfume budget is so low, it’s a joke, yet I’m not laughing. I was laughing the day I caught myself ordering two fated (and outrageously expensive) samples of Amouage with the thought that I would be impervious to the hype, I would simply let these two speak for themselves, and despite many warnings from the Greek chorus of my fellow perfume bloggers (who knew precisely what I was in for), I was convinced Amouage couldn’t possibly be that stupendous. Famous last words, for heaven help me – they are. Every single one of them! Since the arrival of Creative Director Christopher Chong, Amouage has made perfumes so plush, unique and persuasive (if not addictive!), that all I can do is shrug at my own bloody-mindedness and surrender to their charms. In the case of Amouage, I’m so easy, it’s ridiculous. Or I am!

Opus Oils/Kedra Hart

Opus Oils, to my line of thinking, should be a smash success if there were any justice in this world. Because Kedra Hart makes perfume – always in danger of being just a little precious and high-minded – f-u-n. That might make you think they couldn’t be complex, tell stories, or take your breath away. Not so. Look past the tongue-in-cheek vintage-inspired copy (not that I’m complaining) and you will find perfumes as stellar as any others on my Primeval list, as rich and as surprising and evolving. As I work my way through my samples of Kedra’s creations, my FB wish list is getting ever longer. That they are all so easy to wear and to love can take away the fact that they are so masterfully constructed, with a sleight-of-hand that makes the very difficult look so very artless – always the sign of a true, dedicated, epically talented artist!

Neil Morris Fragrances/Neil Morris

Neil is a recent addition to my Primeval list, although I’ve been aware of him for quite some time. My introduction to Neil’s art was through a Vault collection perfume, and it literally wiped me off the floor in a swoon. But distracted as I am by all the details of my quotidian life, even I can feel that cold chill brush of intuition that sings… “Here we go – again!” For since that fatal discovery, thank all the perfume Gods!, Neil and his titanic talents have joined the Devilscent Project, and what a revelation they both have been! No neophyte to the Dark Arts of perfumery, he has reduced me to tears with his mods, because…by golly, he gets it! All of it – the light, the dark, the joy and the tragedy of my story. Our common fragrant journey has only just begun, but I am so grateful to have such a talent to explore,l and so privileged to have so many wonders to anticipate.

Olympic Orchids/Ellen Covey

If my (mis)education as a perfumoholic began with reading perfume blogs and evolved with the discovery of Serge Lutens, then it was surely cemented (or I was doomed!) when I discovered Olympic Orchids. Ellen Covey and her scents – orchid-inspired and otherwise – have done so very much to educate me and astonish me as well as delight me. She was my first indie perfumer, and has since been a perpetual surprise. Her orchid perfumes are spot-on, true to life and utterly spectacular (just ask the head gardener of the Orchid House at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Copenhagen, when I came to visit as the cattleyas bloomed, perfumes in tow), and the rest of her range is no less magnificent. But then – since this is the trouble we both like to make when we can! – we cooked up the Devilscent Project…and neither of us will ever quite be the same. The four Devils she conjured – and the synchronicity of their creation in her perfumes and my words – have shifted some major ground in my world, which has yet another reason for never quite… being the same!

Maria McElroy & Alexis Karl, Cherry Bomb Killer Perfume

Trouble always awaits when you’re sent eight samples of a new line and you can’t say one bad thing about any of them, only that you want…one of everything, pronto! This happened last summer when I was introduced to Aroma M and the lovely Maria McElroy, but little did I know the epiphanies that awaited when she joined forces with her Cherry Bomb Killer Perfumes partner Alexis Karl of Scents by Alexis fame for the Clarimonde Project and their Immortal Mine, nor what I would be inspired to write because of it. (There’s another kind of novel in that story/review just begging to be written!). These two have the kind of spectacular creative synergy between them I can only marvel at, marvel and be grateful I’m privileged to write about it. Coming soon are my reviews of their contributions for the Devilscent Project, and if perfumes are perilous – as I’ve always fervently believed – then this Devil and this Lilith, Queen of the Succubi – are surely proscribed by a top-secret Papal bull!

Neela Vermeire Creations/Neela Vermeire & Bertrand Duchaufour

Even in niche perfumery, there’s no shortage of hype – or launches. I’m well aware of all the lines I have yet to discover, or the one I’m dying to. So it takes more than PR machinery, a luxury label and ditto price tag to convince this perfume writer. It takes…that ribbon, that soul connection, that Aha! moment. When everyone started talking in hyper-excited tones about a new trio of perfumes unlike anything at all else around the time of the Elements NY exhibition, a line inspired by memories of that storied sub-continent of dreams that is India, my nose pricked up. When my sample set arrived on a gray day of forever goodbyes, I wondered whether it might be a sign of new beginnings. It was. For the trilogy and evolving stories that swirl and eddy within Trayee, Mohur and Bombay Bling are indeed those singular, vivid and personal narratives in perfume we all say we want to sniff and all too rarely do. All three reached out, grabbed my heart in fated, fabled, fragrant hugs and wouldn’t let me go. Their intricate, many-faceted wonders are there to stay!

Tauer Perfumes/Andy Tauer

When it comes to Andy Tauer, I usually joke I want to parade him down Fifth Avenue in a sedan chair with an adoring crowd throwing rose petals. I doubt this would ever happen – or even that the very modest Andy would stand for it! – but it says something of the impact he has – or the seismic potential of his perfumes. They are sometimes challenging and always unusual, and have done so much to reinvent my own perfume vernacular, no matter what the context or the materials. Whether rose – and no one does roses quite like Andy – incense, lavender or amber, or just the olfactory bomb that is Orange Star, I’ve had to really push my words to describe them and the places they took me to, and that, too is another kind of genius and another unique talent for which I can never thank him enough!

Primeval Forces are personal epiphanies, the ones you can’t live without and wouldn’t want to try. The ones you can find on yourself when all you want to do is feel that sigh of perfection in a world that all too often is anything but.

Do you have Primeval Forces, too?