The Epiphanies of 2014

C4crown

  • the thrills and spills of the past year in perfume

It’s that storied time of year again when I finally sit down and decide on my favorites of (the thankfully passé) 2014. In spite of a frantic year that was frantic for all the wrong reasons, and in spite of far too much to review and not nearly enough time to write about it, I did indeed, thanks to dear and generous friends and my own initiative, get to stick my nose in not a few things I loved this year, many I very much liked and a few I absolutely loathed.

This time, instead of posting three separate lists, I’ve decided to mix things up a bit on one ultra-list, otherwise you and I will be here ‘till Doomsday, and I don’t know about you, but I have a long to-do list this year…

Another thing I feel compelled to point out is that many of the perfumes that have made it to this list have yet to be reviewed. Some because… well, that’s a surprise I’ll be getting back to in a bit. In so doing, that violates a principle I have about only including the things I reviewed, but we all have things to do. Some will be reviewed here on TAG, and others… well, I’m getting ahead of myself here.

The Worst of 2014

We might as well get the bad stuff over with.

Which means that whoever is in charge chez Parfums YSL will be the first to go down in flames in my revolution dream. It evidently wasn’t enough to slaughter one of the greatest perfume heritages of the late 20th century in terrible/lazy/rushed refomulations, nor even to pour ‘PVC+phthalate doll accord’ into the dregs of (badly reformulated) Paris and call it ‘Parisienne’. But did whomever-should-be-shot-with-current-version-Tabu stop to think about how we would perceive Black Opium? Because it is neither ‘black’ in the slightest, nor Opium in the least particular. It’s as forgettable and unremarkable as last year’s haute blondes. Henceforth, I shall proceed to call it (“perfume”) Methadone, except it neither alleviates Opium withdrawals nor the nostalgic pangs of prior highs. When Hedi Slimane, chief designer at YSL, finds it necessary to dissociate himself from it in a press release, you know it’s one terrible idea. Horribly executed. Alas, not fatally.

Oud

Perfumers and perfume houses: I have a announcement for you:

I. Am. So. Over. Oud.

And yes, I do like oud, except not so much the barnyard stable ‘fierce’ ouds, and certainly not the synthetic oud that passed for the real thing this past year. This is a trend that needs to die. You still have flowers, woods, resins, plants, all with their own languages to explore and their stories to tell. Start listening.

Hyperinflation

True luxury, stated a friend of mine in the know, is always inclusive. Meaning that inflating an already hefty price tag on a niche perfume, pouring gold dust all over the bottle (or whatever gimmicks are used to justify the price tag) and marking it all up by at least 5000% is not, in fact, luxurious at all. It’s simply, as I see it, pandering to the lowest audience of all: those who are too unsophisticated and too rich to know better. There are far too many ‘hyper-luxe’ sheep masquerading as big, bad wolves worth their prices. If I ever have 1000€ to spend on perfume (because I can dream!), I hope to spend it where my business is properly appreciated, not where I leave with a big, fat “SUCKER” tattooed in risible ink on my forehead. Roja Dove and Diaghilev extrait, here’s looking at you, and I say that because Diaghilev in extrait is literally flawless. And forever and always out of my reach. Damn it.

Flankers.

Because they display a distinct lack of inspiration or ambition, and I can’t decide what’s worse. Maybe both?

Worst idea:

Guerlain Shalimar Souffle de Parfum. I spent the better part of two hours trawling through a large Copenhagen Sephora this Christmas on the first day of the sales, and lo and behold, there was Shalimar and Souffle, and I thought I might as well live a little. While I was certainly impressed with the original current-version Shalimar (although I much prefer the amped-up vanilla frangipane of Shalemur), this was a baby-faced powder puff girl desperately trying to look about 30, because that’s, like, old. Or mature. Or something. I wonder whether the marketing department of Guerlain has a huge THINK YOUNGER neon sign somewhere. The problem is, those ingénues don’t have the cash to go to town on perfume. We gens d’un certain âge, on the other hand, do. Grow up, Guerlain! Thierry Wasser – you’re better than that. And you know it.

Worst trend:

Before I shoot myself in the metaphorical foot here, let me start by saying this is me. Your mileage may vary. Yet for all I adore consuming both chocolate and coffee, sometimes together, I’m emphatically not a fan of wearing either of them. (There are a very few exceptions.) It could be my skin chemistry, it could be something else, but as soon as I try, virtually all the perfumes I’ve tried with either note just grows and grows and grows into an espresso-choc Godzilla, the second before I’m eaten alive. Argh!

The Best of the Best

Biggest Overall Unexpected Surprise:

Jardins d’Écrivain’s Junky.

Please forget that I’m a perpetually immature overgrown teenager who took an inordinate amount of glee in wafting Junky a good deal of this past summer and fall, and then laying it on my unsuspecting audience when they asked what I was wearing. But Junky – just as the other things I’ve sniffed so far from Jardins d’Écrivain’s line – is a super-seamless unisex green floral I can’t get enough of whatever the season or the reason. I’m hopelessly addicted. You can bet your vintage My Sin I hope to explore the rest of Jardins d’Écrivains in detail, tout de suite!

Best Seamless Floral, Part One:

aroma M Camellia Perfume.

If your heart belongs to that grand age of perfumes à la Française, if Coco Chanel had a few great ideas in perfumery at least, if you like your flowers bold and luxurious, if you also love the glories of frankincense all wrapped up in a bow of Parisian Ooh la la!, if in short you’re a nostalgia freak like me, then you might love aroma M’s stupendously beautiful Camellia Perfume.

Best Perfume I didn’t expect to like, but did:

Parfums Serge Lutens Borneo 1837

It smells like unearthed secrets and undiscovered sins of the most glamorous, Baudelairean kind. A dry, dusty, ever-so-slightly rose-flecked, cocoa-dusted patchouli that shouldn’t work at all, but does. This past autumn, I’ve been rereading J.K. Huysmans’ Against Nature and The Damned. I suspect Des Esseintes would be all over Borneo, just as Huysmans would be all over Parfums Serge Lutens, when the paradox is actually the other way around!

Honorable Mention: I’m ashamed I haven’t tried this one before now, even considering I’m such a fan of leather perfumes. But Chanel’s Cuir de Russie has been growing on me like a fungus, and the more I wear it, the more I love it. Who knew?

Best Mainstream releases:

Even in my backwater part of the world, miracles happen. Such as the time I discovered Dior Homme Parfum

in my local chain shop. Since I consider the original Dior Homme (and Dior Homme Intense) among the greatest masculines ever made and I wear them whatever the label, I had to sniff this one. I was not disappointed. François Demachy, you have almost redeemed yourself. I dreamt about smelling this on the right kind of man for days. Lacking that option, I’d wear this super-sexy film noir beast, too.

Balmain Ivoire Eau de Parfum:

The original (I have a vintage eau de toilette) Ivoire is such an all-star favorite of mine, it was the very first true perfume review I wrote. There is neither a season, a reason nor an occasion when it is less than perfectly satisfying, perfectly lovely in its green soapy-sappy-aldehyde aura and perfectly appropriate. So I was expecting another hot-mess reformulation when Balmain launched the eau de parfum in 2014, only to find they’ve kept virtually everything that made the original so great except the oakmoss base. And speaking of…

Best “We’re not worthy!” perfume, Part One:

Every so often, it happens that a perfume launches I suspect Planet Perfume isn’t entirely prepared for. In 2014 came Bogue Profumo’s MAAI. Holy St. Mary Magdalene! Antonio Gardoni took tuberose, that most erotic of flowers, and super-glammed and super-sexed it up, and up and up and UP. No Superman would stand a chance against this perfume Kryptonite. It is as luxe, as grand, as velvety-plush, as mossy, as heady and did I mention s-e-x-y? as anything the Eighties ever dreamed of. I’m saving that sample for a date night with definite ulterior motives, presuming that ever happens. As they say, hope springs eternal, and Signor Gardoni – I’m not worthy! Of either hope or this perfume, I can’t quite decide… 😉

Best New Perfume House:

Aedes de Venustas. AdV, the storied Greenwich Village perfumery store, has a very special place in my black and decadent heart, because once upon a time, their printed catalog provided all the perfumes I had – to dream about. Some time later, my sister brought me back a modestly priced perfume from Aedes, and whoever sold it to her was also sweet enough to provide samples for a severely aesthetically and perfume-starved woman. I never forgot it. So when Robert Gerstner and Karl Bradl launched their own perfume line in 2012 with their eponymous Aedes de Venustas, naturally I sat up and paid attention. Fate had plans when I was sent samples of everything AdV and they all blew me away. The running theme of Aedes de Venustas is incense – heartstopping, sacred, swoon-worthy incense, in unexpected combinations that both intrigue and hugely please this jaded perfume writer. I’ll be getting to those marvels in future posts. On that note…

Best Resurrected Floral, Part One:

Why carnation has such a fuddy-duddy, dowdy reputation is completely beyond me. I can’t get enough of carnation; peppery, rosy, clove-ish, fiery, feisty, thick, sweet and utterly delicious. Carnation sprang into my awareness with a bang when I had the chance to try a brand-new carnation (or so I thought) through a perfume split of Aedes de Venustas’ Oeillet Bengal. I bought a decant blind and promptly… adored it. Oeillet Bengale – actually, the name of a rare China rose – is a peppery, rich, rosy incense-laden wonder that shot to the top of my Hotly Coveted FBW wishlist, especially since that decant is going, going…

A Rose is a Rose is a Marvel… a.k.a. Best We’re Not Worthy, Part Two:

Not many perfumers can claim to have not one perfume that doesn’t do me any favors. The one who does like no other is Vero Kern of vero profumo. Heaven help me, I love all her work in any version: Rubj, Kiki, Onda (Onda did take a while) and Mito. So Vero gave us Rozy, her fragrant tribute to Anna Magnani in ‘The Tattooed Rose’, and just when you thought there was nothing new to say about rose, here is Rozy: emphatic, dramatic, sensuous and earthy, with a honey-flecked sweetness that shows a true maître’s effortless hand. I’ll have a time-travelling tale for Rozy’s crimson glories, but more on that one later…

Best Heatwave Antidote/Best Re-Release:

Tauer PerfumesCologne du Maghreb.

Bless dear Andy Tauer for re-releasing this instant 2011 classic, for it subverted much I thought I knew about Tauers and everything I assumed about colognes, mainly that most of them are boring, as Cologne du Maghreb never, ever is. It is sparkling, subtle, intricate, cooling, distinctively different and utterly delicious, and over several sweaty weeks of a summer heatwave, it kept me and my composure as cool as a glass of chilled cedary lemonade. I think of ‘July’, and I think of this cologne. Because It’s That Good.

Best All-Round Unisex:

Olympic OrchidsBlackbird.

‘Fruity’ – as in ‘berry’ – and I don’t get along that well. But Ellen Covey’s perfume for Seattle store Blackbird is an exception to that rule. This wondrous green concoction with a heart-of-darkness is an ode to the blackberry bushes (something of a plague) of the Pacific Northwest, and if you think blackberry and balsam firs don’t mix, think again. Many of Ellen’s creations have an extraordinary sense of place, and Blackbird’s verdant ode to where the sweet wild things are has been known to make me sing in the dead of night and high noon too, showing just how much one of my favorite perfumers just keeps on getting better and better. And better.

Best Bottled Gothic Autumn:

Neil Morris Fragrances’ October & Chasing Autumn.

Neil Morris is another perfumer whose nose has an exceptional sense of place, and never more dexterously demonstrated than in his two tributes to the beauty of a New England fall, October and Chasing Autumn. Everything I love and adore about autumn is here: the scent of apples on trees and on the ground cradled by leaves, burning leaves and bonfires, the breath of forest trees breathing their seasonal farewells as flaming leaves dance a timeless measure to the forest floor. I do mean everything. If October is mulled wine, apple cider and all things sweetly great on a peerless Sunday October afternoon, then Chasing Autumn is a forest… of Halloween bonfires and eerie shadows in the dark beyond, a resolutely Gothic ode to all things autumnal with no signs of that fabled new England restraint. Nathaniel Hawthorne could do them justice. I’m not sure I could. I’ve never come across anything quite like either of them, and since they’re Neil Morris creations, I know I never will.

Favorite Perfume Experiment:

Sometimes, instead of simply chasing after the Next New Things, it can be good to take a deeper look at what you actually have. The results may surprise you. I was very surprised to learn I owned no less than 22 different Serge Lutens/Christopher Sheldrake creations in varying degrees of full bottles, decants and samples. I then proceeded to wear each of them consecutively over the course of about two weeks, and gained a whole new artistic and aesthetic appreciation of all of them. It goes without saying I don’t have nearly enough of any of them, and wish for at least eleven more…

Happiest Perfume of 2014:

Amouage Sunshine

On rare occasions on Planet Perfume, a concept, the execution of that concept and the final result come so seamlessly and perfectly together it’s all you can do to keep your cool before you surrender with a helpless shrug and a laugh in the face of such beauty. Sunshine arrived with impeccable, supernatural timing at a time when I was seriously considering to pack it in as a perfume writer and just give up the ghost of ever trying to capture the ephemeral art through words. Yes, I reviewed it. No, my words didn’t convey what I had hoped they would. But a few scant days later, I held my daughter as she made me a grandmother to a lovely little girl, and since it was the only thing I had with me at the time, I gave her Sunshine. To see the joy on my daughter’s face as I did was all the sunshine that cold night in November needed. To experience the arrival of a new generation perfect baby girl was all the immortal sunshine I needed. Apropos finding the right words…

Proudest Moment in Prose, 2014 edition:

Amouage Journey

I’ll be honest – Christopher Chong made it very easy for me. Shanghai in the 1930s, Chinese film noir and all things grand and great (noblesse oblige!), wrapped up in the two parts of Journey Man and Woman, one a fiery gold Chinese dragon, the other a sublime osmanthus song, my story of Journey counts among my finest – and hardest – hours as a perfume writer. It took me into new and wondrous places in my research and made me wonder at that story’s continuation of ‘a celluloid cliché of a Shanghai that was an improbable fiction anywhere else but here’. You’ll find no clichés in either Journey, but just as all the best journeys do, you’ll be a changed person when you return home. Whenever I wonder at why I even bother to write about perfume, which happens at least once a day, I look to Amouage. Oh. Yes. That’s why.

Greatest Shapeshifter Perfume of 2014:

Aftelier Palimpsest.

Mandy Aftel’s Palimpsest, inspired by the layer-upon-layers-and-lines of ancient manuscripts, is without question the greatest shapeshifter I encountered in 2014. I’ve never experienced a perfume containing the Australian firetree before, which partly explains it, but this thick, honeyed animalic-peachy-ylang-ylang growl in a bottle did two spectacular things: It completely flummoxed a perfume writer of four years’ standing, and shape-shifted entirely from ‘dead-wildebeest-wearing-ylang-&-jasmine-wreath’ on a blonde semi-vegetarian to a sumptuously sexy come-hither Mae West on Ms. Hare, the carnivorous brunette. Which only goes to prove the artistry of Mandy Aftel and also the maxim, written through several layers of parchment… chemistry is everything.

Best Resurrected Floral, Part Two:

DSH Perfumes Scent of Hope

Among vintage perfume lovers, a select few perfumes stand out for their greatness of execution, their scope of imagination and their sheer, jaw-dropping sleight-of-hand artistry. When perfumer Dawn Spencer Hurwitz was given the bespoke assignment of recreating one such perfume, Jacques Fath’s fabled 1947 Iris Gris for a private client, she apparently succeeded beyond all imagining and expectation. Luckily for those of us who don’t have access to the Jacques Fath original (and being an iris lover, trust me, it’s on my list!), Dawn decided to make it available for the rest of us, and if the original Iris Gris is even 10% of this, then by Golly, it deserves its reputation. Scent of Hope is the apex of Great, Grand Perfume and the perfumer’s art: a peerless, perfect contradiction of everything you’d suspect an orris-centric perfume could be, warmed by the caress of a sun-kissed peach. I thought she outdid herself with Iridum, another of her iris perfumes, but Dawn has had an astonishing creative year and Scent of Hope is among the stratospheric best perfumes I’ve ever encountered. In my life. Why my fixation on the art of perfumery? (Also) Because miracles like Scent of Hope happen. Stay tuned!

Best Floral Reinvention:

Envoyage PerfumesFiore di Bellagio

Readers, bear with me. I tried. I truly did. I tried to think of something else, tried to stir things up a bit, tried to come up with alternatives and be a little different this year. Only to have to give up the ghost, shrug in surrender and kowtow to the spectacular talent of Shelly Waddington of Envoyage as she once again blew my proboscis to smithereens with the companion perfume to last year’s no less spectacular Zelda. Fiore di Bellagio, her ode to Ernest Daltroff’s 1927’s Caron classic, Bellodgia, is neither Zelda nor Bellodgia, but something altogether otherwise and resolutely one of a kind. If you could somehow wrap up all the glamour, all the glitz, all the decadent fun and all the flowers of a 1920s summer day in a luxurious villa at Lake Como, you might come up with something this great, this grand and this glorious. Or, if you love carnations, summers, epically great perfumes and all those words imply, you could take the easier route and head straight for Envoyage and buy a vat of Fiore di Bellagio, the instant before you plant Shelley Waddington on an onyx pedestal in the Perfume Pantheon of Fame and crown her with 20 carat diamond-studded dianthus blooms. This was another high apex of 2014 perfumery for me and although I realize I’m repeating myself (and an army of other perfume bloggers and writers), but there is method to my madness: I recognize greatness when I smell it. That’s all. Go buy it!

My Greatest Perfumers of 2014:

I can’t even hesitate here, and if you’ve read this far, this is a foregone conclusion. But with everything I’ve stuck my nose in this past year, I’ll have to hand it to two. Understand that even the names that made this (overly long) list are at the very top of their game, but these two outdid themselves and their justly deserved stellar reputations:

Dawn Spencer Hurwitz & Shelley Waddington

I’m not quite sure what to say about Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, since I know I’m preaching to the choir, but Dawn has had the most amazing, productive and creative year. Whether it’s her tribute to the Impressionists in her Passport à Paris collection, her Cannabis Culture Collection (review pending), her Brilliant Collection (ditto) or the utterly flabbergasting Scent of Hope (likewise totally ditto), Dawn should be right up there will all the Great and the Grands of perfumery, indie and otherwise.

Shelley Waddington nearly did me in. After taking my breath away with Zelda last year, she pulled another epic rabbit out of her proverbial top hat with Fiore di Bellagio. I had some intimations of what I was in for. Only to find that they weren’t nearly big enough. But Shelley Waddington certainly should be. Make it so…

A Waft of Things To Come

Anticipation is part of the pleasure of writing about perfumes. I’ll never know what pleasures lie ahead. But apart from spending this winter catching up on my review backlog and returning full-speed as a perfume writer to the best of my capabilities, I anticipate becoming acquainted with two ‘new’ brands that have been on my radar for a while: Oriza L. Legrand and Stéphane Humbert-Lucas’ 777. Stay tuned!

Another thing to anticipate is the arrival of not-your-usual perfume book at some point in the year. If you appreciate my perfumed fictions, you might like this book, which will feature not just the Greatest Hits, but also ten brand-new perfume stories, some of which have not been reviewed yet. Watch this space for a book by yours truly with the salacious title: Stories of L’Eaux.

Rumor has it that Neela Vermeire Creations (another all winner line for me) will launch her newest perfume later this year. Are we excited yet? I know I am!

So what are you, dear readers, anticipating in the year to come? What took your breath away this past year, what do you hope to try, what floats you out the door in a cloud of scented bliss?

Tell me all about them in the comments! And have a happy, healthy, fortuitous 2015, too!

With special and perpetual thanks to my greatest enablers and loudest encouragers: Val, Portia, Lucy, Shelley, Dawn, Maria, Neil, Ellen, Andy and Mandy.

Photo: The crown of Danish king Christian IV, 1596.

Spelling Eternity

laviergedefer

–  a review of Parfums Serge Lutens’ La Vierge de Fer

When rumors began to circulate some months back about a new Serge Lutens perfume named after a medieval torture device (I’ll be getting back to that one), you can imagine that a discussion ensued on a perfume forum I frequent as to what that name might imply in olfactory terms – or not. Never mind we legions of Serge Lutens acolytes will always be insatiably curious about the next launch, certainly curious enough to feed the rumor mills and grease the wheels of our own olfactory imaginations.

But a medieval torture device?

Some stated flat out they would rather drop dead than wear anything so euphoniously named simply for the associations that came with it, while others among us have many fond memories of a rock band bearing that name’s English translation and were already flashing the horns in anticipation, all allegories of the Inquisition or indeed our mortal souls be damned.

So let me start there. The Iron Maiden as it exists in the public imagination today was a hoax. No historical evidence suggests it even existed until 1793 when the German philosopher Johann Phillipp Siebenkees became inspired by a reference in St. Augustine’s ‘The City of God’ to invent a particularly chilling example of manifest human cruelty. The most famous, known as the Iron Maiden of Nuremburg, can be dated no earlier than 1802 and would have been patently counterproductive as a torture device.

Meanwhile, the diabolical duo of M. Lutens and Mr. Sheldrake pulled out the rug under all our fragrant and/or morbid phantasms with La Vierge de Fer and in the process confounded us all. Again.

Knowing something of Serge Lutens’ propensity for audacious and inventive florals, I could have half-expected something at least as outré as its name, but also – experience is a witch – I know enough by now to expect the unexpected, which was precisely what I got.

La Vierge de Fer is indeed a floral, indeed a novel interpretation of a lily, but this lily bears no resemblance to Un Lys. Forget all you know about lilies and take a walk on a wintry path where gothic flowers bloom, as it begins to bloom in a huge, frilly, feminine pouf of aldehydes as blinding white and frigid as snow.

The lily grabs those aldehydes in moments and keeps them close by as a demure lily of the valley sidles in between them, but both the lily and the lily of the valley are immaculately scrubbed clean of all their earthier memories, suspended in an endless aldehydic mid-air somersault like flying floral trapeze artistes, and the safety net of arctic incense, a touch of chilly vanilla and white musk waits an infinite space below as they swing back and forth between the perpetual lily, lily of the valley in a morally ambiguous aldehydic love triangle. Where aldehydes are usually used as top notes, here they’re present front, center and nearly all the way to the basenotes some long hours later, as cold and nearly as bleak as a frosty December night before they give way to the no less chilly, steely incense, vanilla and metallic white musk at the base.

After multiple wearings this past fall, I’m still not sure whether this is a perfume, a benediction of light or a curse along the lines of that Chinese proverb: ‘may you live in interesting times.’ I suspect it may be all three at once, but bear with me…

According to the enigmatic press release, La Vierge de Fer was partly inspired by Joan of Arc, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and even memories of M. Lutens’ mother. Yet I sense an artistic theme in many of Serge Lutens’ latest releases that not only runs counter to our usual expectations of former fragrant and etiolated Oriental bombast, but also makes sense in terms of further explicating a personal aesthetic. I was reminded of M. Lutens’ own photographed demoiselles, those pale, sublime, elegantly articulated creatures of perfection which seem to exist in an alternate, timeless universe that keeps the rest of us mere mortals at a distinct, chilly and intimidating distance even as we are helpless to surrender to their bewitching spell. Even as we wonder whether their peerless complexions and enchanting eyes are masks concealing another kind of prison.

So I wonder at La Vierge de Fer and the other recent releases that have also highlighted florals in new and compelling ways: La Fille de Berlin, which was the tale of a thorny rose, Vitriol d’Œillet, the fiery carnation with teeth, Bas de Soie with its cool, restrained hyacinth or De Profundis with its intimations of impending mortality and chill frissons of chrysanthemum, violet and incense. All are far removed from the usual olfactory tropes of ‘floral’, and all are usually recreated in plush, dense fashions, except somehow, M. Lutens and Mr, Sheldrake have lately created florals as diaphanous as chiffon even as they are no less plush than before.

Make no mistake – La Vierge de Fer is a stunning, beautiful perfume. I find it not at all boring or linear. Although I do suspect those blinding, vivid aldehydes are not entirely benign…

And I’m reminded of a favorite fairy tale, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen in the depths of La Vierge de Fer. Where a little boy named Kai is afflicted with a splint of a goblin mirror only to see the ugly in the world, and is abducted by the beautiful Snow Queen to the far, far North, where he sits at a frozen lake trying to assemble a puzzle to spell the word ‘eternity’ to achieve his freedom.

In the fairy tale, he only succeeded when his childhood friend Gerda after endless tribulations found him by the lake and melted the splinter in his heart with her tears, and the puzzle spelled eternity as they left the realm of the Snow Queen and returned to the world, and it was no longer winter, but glorious summer.

And at long last, the lilies are in bloom beneath an infinite blue sky, spelling out that chilling, endless word…

Eternity.

Notes: (my own impressions) Aldehydes, lily, lily of the valley, incense, vanilla, white musk.

La Vierge de Fer is an exclusive eau de parfum available as a 75 ml bell jar from the Palais Royal in Paris, from the Serge Lutens website for EU customers and from Barneys NY.

With profound thanks to Jack for the opportunity.

Photo: Detail from Alexander McQueen’s Haute Couture presentation, Autumn-Winter 2008.

In Pantherine Ink

junglepanther

 – a review of Serge Lutens’ Sarrasins

Once a creature of fable lived, old stories tell, and some say it was a very large, most fearsome cat, and some say it was an animal of another kind, but all of them agree it emanated a most singular and exceptional perfume, so sweet, so utterly delicious no animal save the dragon was ever able to resist it (why that was, they never tell), and all who encountered it were only compelled by that scent to follow it where it went.

Other tales say it was sacred to the god Dionysus, and whispered the incredible, that he rode it to his rites, so that all who breathed in the aura of his mount would follow deeper into the forest, and return with tales of divine madness and sublime mayhem, inspired by the perfume exuded by this being they called… panther.

I’ve wondered what that panther’s scent might be, wondered as I’ve sniffed and breathed and marveled through the many perfumes I’ve met whether this one or that would pass for a fabled panther’s emanations. So many were too dark or too light, promised everything yet delivered not nearly enough. I thought I would never find it.

I forgot that cardinal rule, you see – you never find such wonders so much as they find you.

Until that fabled night I came home to a fragrant letter from a friend and fellow writer to find a little vial of panther’s ink labelled simply… Sarrasins.

Jasmine is one of the Big White Divas of perfumery, that potent trio of orange blossom, tuberose, and jasmine, blooming its almost wanton, lascivious scent only at night, a scent that spans the range from fruity to floral coloratura soprano all the way to …horse stables. It takes no prisoners, leaves no one indifferent to its presence or able to ignore it. It dances well with rose and orange blossom and even with a great deal of care with the feral tuberose, but sweetest of all to my own mind is when jasmine is allowed to take center stage on her own and unfold in all her moonlit glories.

This far north, it’s much too cold for a jasmine to grow outside the greenhouse as it does elsewhere, and what most of my compatriots know as ‘jasmine’ is really mock orange or philadelphus which blooms at Midsummer and wafts a felicitous blend of verdant jasmine and orange blossom combined, yet it is no jasmine, has none of those indolic, heady, licentious threads that lead our minds down other garden paths and gives the epithet it has in both India and all over the Middle East – ‘the perfume of love.’

Would this Saracen secret in its tiny spray vial be that fabled panther’s aura, would I find an arcane epiphany inside its inky, Oriental purple-black depths?

An admonition was written on the vial. ‘DO NOT SPRAY!’ In capital letters, as if my faraway friend would not be held accountable for any fatal consequences if I did.

Naturally that only meant I had to spray, was indeed compelled to spray, all consequences be as doomed as I surely would.

Let M. Lutens tell the tale of Sarrasins:

Applied at night in a Moorish silence, it barely touches the skin before it starts to resonate, like a ritual conducted in gilded surroundings.

I sprayed that first night and many times since in a Nordic quietude, but resonate, it certainly does.

Sarrasins is no perfume of light and sunshine to my nose. Instead, it rushes out to greet you with a metaphorical bruise, purple on the skin, as if writing with calligraphy flourishes and indelible, unforgettable ink:

This is no ordinary jasmine.

Indeed, how could these Saracens be otherwise with this fruity, fragrant grape juice bruise that marks you so painlessly and far too late, too late before it vanishes before your eyes and yet…the deed is done, that bruise was there. As it disappears into a full moon midnight, you have been marked with a jasmine.

Such a one, and such a wonder, it unfolds a little at a time and all across its hours. The accumulated light and sweetness of the midday sun is here released only after dark, and heady, lush indolic pleasures, too. As it sings and blooms, it becomes airier, lighter and ethereal as the radiant shimmer on a moth’s wings, caught in the act of drinking in its floral secrets. The fruity bruise of the beginning becomes sweeter, denser and even more intoxicating, making you that moonlit moth, resonating from soul to heart and bloom to bloom with all the promise and portent jasmine is and maybe should be. The notes say carnation, yet my nose says osmanthus, a honeyed, silk organza overlay of sunshine memory that blows so softly away in the breeze, but the hour is too late, your doom is so close, your initiation from neophyte to zealous acolyte of that dark, complex heart of jasmine is nearly complete.

This ominous night is not over yet, the rite is not finished, there is one secret still to be revealed and one midnight-black candle yet to burn.

What I sense is no relation to any myths or fairy tales the notes deceive me with, but a texture between black glove leather, suede and thick-piled velvet all combined. This is an animal purr at a baritone pitch and timbre that tells that long ago story of a fabled beast they called the panther, rarely seen unless in fleeting glimpses in the forests in elegant, louche repose belying all its feral strength, scarcely known except as legend. A legend believed only by the credulous, the dreamers, the poets and the writers of impossible tales of improbable perfumes who are compelled by alchemical wiles, an occult sleight of hand and… a jasmine.

If ever a perfume could somehow embody that panther’s scent, a perfume to compel all who encounters it to follow where it leads, to glimpse into that secret midnight bloom and that gilded hidden knowledge, that writes its arcane soul on your skin in pantherine ink, surely, it would be a purple black and painless perfumed bruise known as …Sarrasins.

Sarrasins, created in 2007 by Serge Lutens and Christopher Sheldrake, is available for European customers as a Palais Royal exclusive bell jar, and at Barneys NY.

Notes: jasmine, carnation, woods, musk, coumarin, patchouli.

With love,  thanks and eternal gratitude to Christos of Memory of Scent for the initiation, and to Ruth for sealing my doom –  with a jasmine.

Spring Flings!

spring-flowers

 – the Genie’s favorite Scents of Spring

After a long, dismal and dismally cold winter that seemed as if it would never end, Spring has finally…sprung. Even here in the North, even now as I wriggle my sockless painted toes in the glow of the sunlight through my window, and the cats show off their bellies in the warmth.

It’s finally Spring! Time to throw open those windows, time for those deep breaths of sunshine you can feel from the roots of your hair to the tips of your toes, time to wake up, smell the flowers and feel utterly, totally alive in a way the dreary depths of January just can’t muster.

When all of nature is bursting at the seams and exploding right before your eyes, those thick, plush ambers and Orientals seem a bit, well…obvious. Time to pack away those olfactory cashmere and lambswool sweaters and bring out the silks, chiffons and Egyptian cottons of the fragrant world, time to waft a little springtime of your own in your wake, for who knows what can happen when everything you breathe and all that you see exudes hope, new beginnings and promises that may – or may not – be kept?

Because you never know where a spring day may take you, or the glimpse of a flower may surprise you, so long as you carry the spring where you go.

Here, you’ll find the Genie’s own favorite Spring flings, the ones that put the spring in my step and the smile on my face, in an April shower or the depths of a May flower, so long as it’s Spring, my very favorite time of year.

Spring perfumes veer toward either the green, floral or green and floral, and this personal list is no exception. Perhaps one of the most famous of spring perfumes, Dior’s Diorissimo, embodies spring best of all, but since I haven’t had the privilege of trying it since sometime in the Eighties when we were both very different creatures of Faërie, I’ve had to omit it from my list. Some of them you might recognize from this blog or elsewhere, but all of them are loved and adored, and never so much as in the merry month of May, when all of Nature beckons us all to come out and play.

– The Greens of Spring

If ever a color sums up a season, surely it would be green? That scorching chartreuse that burns away all horrid memories of dun and brown, gray and white and lets in the sunshine for our souls.

If you love those great, glorious greens of old, if you could once be encapsulated in all the phrase ‘green/floral chypre’ contains, these are the ones to look for and breathe for.

April Aromatics Unter den Linden

Although linden blossoms in high summer in my part of the world, is there anything quite so honeyed or verdant as the perfume lurking within those fragrant yellow blooms? I think not, since Unter den Linden comes as close to my own inner vision of an exemplary linden blossom perfume as any I’ve ever tried.

Balmain – Ivoire

Ivoire has been with us since 1980, and last year was reworked and redone for a new and hopefully just as appreciative audience. Ivoire – I own the vintage EdT – is a green floral chypre that is consistently surprising, perpetually beautiful and perfectly seamless.

DSH Perfumes’ Vert pour Madame

Lots of potions lay claim to that hackneyed phrase ‘hope in a bottle’. Dawn Spencer Hurwitz’ tribute to those green wonders of our misspent youth doesn’t have to, simply because it is – hope in a bottle. Soft, elegantly restrained and effervescent as all the best greens are, this is suitable for both Mesdames and Messieurs.

Jacomo Silences

This underrated classic (if not by perfumistas), a close cousin to the rosier Chanel no. 19, is unique in that it manages in the space of its evolution to bloom through both spring and summer. From that lovely lemony lily-of-the-valley opening to the almost austere, dark, mossy depths of the drydown some very long time later, you’ve wafted a May morning, a flaming June noon and a hint of July thunderstorm, too.

Puredistance Antonia

I must have heard it not a few times before I ever tried it, but sometimes, the hype over a new perfume doesn’t do it justice in the slightest. Annie Bezantian’s Antonia for Puredistance is nothing more and never less than the flawless spring of your most fevered January dreams. Totally modern and totally timeless.

Green With A Twist

Spring reminds us workaholic writers of the sweet joys of dolce far niente, of sitting in the sunshine with a pastis enjoying the passagiata of a spring afternoon, entirely present in the moment and entirely content to be nowhere else but there watching the world go by. The perfumes below somehow wrap up the whole experience in several happy ways, and whether you prefer a pastis or the more subversive pleasures of La Fée Verte is entirely up to you…

Aroma M Geisha Green

Geisha Green is without a doubt one of the best and most bracing of absinthe perfumes I know, bright with that bittersweet twist of Artemisia, sweet with the promises of violet flower and leaf and herbal with a fabulous thick licorice facet that almost makes me want to drink it if I could over a sugar cube. As it is, I get to wear it, and dream of those passagiatas under sunny spring skies.

Opus Oils Absinthia

Another sweeter and more floral take on the fabled absinthe is Opus Oils’ Absinthia, which somehow manages to pair glorious wisteria, a sinfully sweet vanilla and that decadent wormwood and turn it into a green fairy with a positively wicked gleam in her eye. Et in Absinthia ego…

Parfums Lalun Phènomene Vert

If you prefer your greens strictly that – a bracing herbal kick in the winter doldrums to shake you awake and aware that yes, indeed, it’s time to come alive again, Phènomene Vert will deliver. Glorious on a guy, gorgeous on a gal, with a deft touch of jasmine to hint of the wonders of summer to come.

Vero Profumo Mito

One of the wonders of 2012 was Vero Kern’s spectacular Mito, an unusual green-floral take on all things marvelous, magnolia and green as a breath of fresh air in a beautiful Roman garden on a May afternoon. Wear Mito and write your own springtime myth any way and in any shade of green you please.

Burning blooms

In the story of Ferdinand the Bull, one magnificent bull had no intentions of moving from his flowery meadow just to fight in the bullring, and so he wouldn’t have, if not for a bee in those flowers…

There are no bees in these flowers, just all the fragrant wonders of the blooms themselves, so sit back, breathe in and live for a moment and a flawless, odiferous flower. This bouquet of wonders counts all my own favorite blossoms, and not a few of my own favorite florals, too.

La Vie En Rose

Spring arrived so late in my part of the world that I can’t expect to see the roses bloom until well toward Midsummer, but whoever needed an excuse to wear the Queen of Flowers on a gorgeous spring day? Not I!

Olympic Orchids Ballets Rouges

If it were somehow possible to drown within the depths of a rose, a rose so perfectly rendered people have turned to see the bouquet that wasn’t, Ballets Rouges would surely be it. I’ll happily dance a pas de deux with this rose on any spring – or summer – day.

Parfums Lalun Qajar Rose

This rosy wonder is a magic Persian carpet ride through the roses, with all the twist and turns of Sheherezade’s fairy tales, with its leaps and bounds and flourishes woven in to the weft and warp of pomegranate, rose, a tiny dab of oud and coffee too, just to color you surprised.

Serge Lutens La Fille de Berlin

So it’s not Her Majesty the Rose, it’s the Girl From Berlin, and such a lovely, soft rose she is – or so you’d think before she surprises you with that chypre-like bite. This is a rose that is as young as heart as you wish you were on a May afternoon, and who is to say wishes can’t come true?

Think Pink!

Caron Bellodgia

It wouldn’t be a proper spring list without at least one classic. Caron’s sunny, spicy Bellodgia is pure olfactory sunshine from its peppery opening kick to its spicy sunlit carnation heart, and whenever I wear it, I can’t help but laugh – that May skies can be so blue, that life can feel so effortless and carnations made so perfect.

Ringing all the Bells

Aroma M Geisha Marron

Lily of the valley is not a note I’ve usually sought out, since the ones I’ve tried have made me feel I wasn’t frilly – or girly – enough to wear them. The exception to that rule is another aroma M creation, Geisha Marron, which pairs a lily-of-the-valley with chestnut blossom and other wonders, and in an instant, I’m taken away to a spring day in Paris long ago when the chestnuts bloomed and a young girl’s life was changed forever on the day she truly discovered the art…of perfume. For some, it reminds them of autumn and roasting chestnuts, but on me, it’s a spring day in Paris a very long time ago when the chestnuts and the muguet bloomed and a perfumista was born.

Consider the Lily

Editions de Parfums Lys Mediterranée

Nothing turns me to absolute putty faster than a big, bold, odiferous bouquet of Easter lilies. (Now you know!) And although many, many perfumes claim to be lily perfumes, only one other I’ve tried is as beautifully rendered as Lys Mediterranée. It passes for spring and summer both, but surely, angels wear this one? If they don’t, then maybe they should?

All the flowers!

Aftelier Secret Garden

If like Ferdinand you think there is no such thing as too many flowers to sniff in the sunshine, then Secret Garden is a bottled bouquet of marvels from its fruity, herbal start to a delirious floral heart and a dizzyingly sexy drydown. Just so you’re reminded that not only sap rises in the spring, and there’s more than one way to bloom…

So tell me – what makes you bloom in spring?

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Note: I was reminded that I had forgotten to link to the perfumes previously reviewed here on TAG. This has now been amended, and where I’ve reviewed a perfume earlier, the title/name now links to my review. 🙂

A Rose of a Manifold Stripe

striperose

– a review of Serge Lutens‘La Fille de Berlin’

So rich in facets and form, so varied in color and so infinitely complex the perfumes that lingers within its velvety folds, it’s no wonder the rose has so many names, and so many smell so sweet. Some roses imbue the ambience of a summer day when they sing on the skin and other roses emote in alto, moonlit voices of alto, starlit dreams.

By any other name it might well smell as sweet (as not all roses do), and yet somehow, I feel that simple syllable ‘rose’ is much too simple and much too short to encompass all the many stories a rose can tell on the skin. Or is it that such a short, euphonious name for such a beloved flower contains at least as many stories, dreams and associations as the petals we can count?

Now, we have another rose, another tale, another song a rose can sing in all its dulcet hues, a rose with a new, untold story all its own … La Fille de Berlin, the Girl from Berlin.

Supposedly, La Fille de Berlin was inspired by that golden cultural renaissance of Berlin during the Weimar Republic, when everything bloomed – the arts, literature, the architecture and even the people to such an extent that 1920s Berlin today is a byword for a certain exuberance of mind and spirit that danced on the edge of decadence, and only too often fell all the way in with a defiant, Berlinerisch laugh.

But let M. Lutens tell the story:

She’s a rose with thorns, don’t mess with her. She’s a girl who goes to extremes. When she can, she soothes, and when she wants …!

Such a girl isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when I consider all things ‘rose’, yet I’ve dived into enough roses – and a few Lutens perfumes – to know I should expect the unexpected and brace myself for this story of a girl from Berlin.

Having never tried those other, famous roses, Sa Majesté La Rose or Rose de Nuit, I’ll take La Fille de Berlin on her own terms, thorns and all, such being the price you gladly pay a rose…

She is no ordinary rose, no common cliché of ruby red, sunlit yellow or moonlight white, she is a rose of variegated hue, striped in folds of crimson and cream, reality …and dream.

The dream is all a rose, and the reality is a luscious, luminous rose in a photogenic pose. It breathes a husky, sweet, innocently raspberry-tinged song which tells me a violet is laughing in the mix somewhere. A violet without a hint of powder or lipstick, a violet that coaxes on this lovely rose to other places, places that crave the fire and heat of peppers pink and black and determination, places that demand instead of asking nicely, places unexpected.

Surely, I never did expect what happened next, for inside this glowing daydream of a rose lie her thorns and her backbone, with an icy-metallic twist. Not iron, not any obvious kiss of steel or stone, but altogether lighter, tighter and thoroughly new, titanium thorns you never thought to see through those rose-tinted glasses, a faraway taste of blood and kisses, the price you willingly pay for knowing this girl and this rose.

Ah, but she has so many stories, so many tales, and even this one is still evolving, still opening up its petals to bloom as you watch and you breathe, still reeling with the surprise of those thorns and that determination.

Now you know her secrets and you know to keep them well, for now she shows her softer, muskier self, now this rose will all her pleasures prove with her animal, feline purr, she’ll kiss and laugh the pain away to make you forget those fatal thorns, make you forget all you thought you knew in one blinding bright surprise, make you forget there ever was any other rose or any other girl than one unforgettable, indelible girl from Berlin.

When she wants…watch out!

With such a story and such an inspiration, the obvious association would be that most fatale of femmes, Marlene Dietrich as Lola-Lola in ‘The Blue Angel’, as she entices her ardent admirers ever onward to despair and ruin.

camilla horn2

Camilla Horn in 1927, hot off her breakthrough success as Gretchen in F.W. Murnau’s ‘Faust’

My impression is another one, another – regrettably forgotten – girl who came to Berlin and claimed it for her own, a girl who went on to fame and fortune, but a girl who somehow embodied not just all the allure of all ‘les filles de Berlin’, but also her many charms and her underlying innocence as Gretchen in F.W. Murnau’s ‘Faust’ (one of my own favorite movies), and that is Camilla Horn.

She is all of a piece as Gretchen, with all the hope and innocence of her kind – but with all that titanium will and determination.  All the many beauties of a rose of manifold stripe, all the seductive secrets of this…Girl From Berlin.

So long as you remember – she rocks …and she shocks! 

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Longevity is outstanding, and although this slants toward the feminine, this would be devastating on the right kind of man.

Notes: Rose, pink pepper, violet, black pepper, musk.

La Fille de Berlin is available from the Serge Lutens website for EU customers, and from Luckyscent and Barneys NY in the US.