Shut up, Gertrude!

– Or…not all roses are created equal!

Among my collection of books and cookbooks is a book, ostensibly a cookbook but actually very much more. It contains not only a plethora of outrageous recipes that would have health fanatics screaming for their heart fibrillators, but also anecdotes from two extraordinary lives in extraordinary times, two lives that openly dared to fly in the face of convention – and sometimes propriety – and as such became inspirations for me as well.

The book is ‘The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook’, part cookbook of questionable virtues, part extraordinary testimony to the lives and times of two fabled iconoclasts of the early 20th century – Alice B. Toklas, partner, helpmeet, and frontline editor, and Gertrude Stein, art collector, literary salon hostess and resident genius.

Like all relationships viewed with the rose-tinted glasses of reminiscence and in hindsight, the reality of Alice and Gertrude was much more complex and far more extraordinary than the book would suggest – they were both raised at the tail end of the Victorian age, after all – but what’s really telling in our own iconoclastic age is that today, we remember Gertrude for two things, one of which I don’t consider relevant at all and the other for a simple throwaway poem that came to define her in popular culture. Gertrude Stein was considered a literary superstar in her day, but now, say the name (if it registers at all!) Gertrude Stein, and unless you’re well-versed in art history, famous American ex-patriots or impenetrable poetry, this is what you’ll think:

 ‘A rose … is a rose…is a rose’.

An entire lifetime of literary output, and you’re remembered for five words. As they say…

You don’t get to choose what you’re famous for.

This is when I say…shut up, Gertrude! As dedicated gardeners, flower lovers, perfumers and perfumoholics are very well aware, entire olfactory universes lie waiting for discovery within those velvety petals, and with the exception of those scentless blooms sold at florists these days, there’s no such thing as just…a rose.

Roses occur in nature in every hue except blue, green and black, and depending on the variety, exude a unique, multifaceted perfume that can be…lemony, tea-like, musky, greenly fresh, narcotic, spicy and fiery, earthy and warm – and these are just the living flowers, mind, well before they’re turned into concrete and absolute and essential oil in their infinite varieties, all of which will reflect the qualities of the roses themselves. Rose is also attributed to the goddess Aphrodite – no accident, since the scent of roses can be very erotic, quelle surprise!

I’ve been thinking about roses and wearing rose-centered perfumes a lot lately. Rose has a stimulating, uplifting effect on my overall mood, and during a very frantic March, I needed all the help I could get…

Gertrude may have considered rose as just another ‘flower’, for which I’ll forgive her since she was an Aquarius, yet I have other plans for your delectation…here are my personal favorite perfumed Odes to the Rose in no particular order of preference, which each prove that even Shakespeare got it wrong on roses. By any other name they might well smell as sweet, but they would not be those multiverses of perfume and poetry contained within the velvet folds and musical tones…of rose.

The Maharani of RoseNeela Vermeire Créations Mohur

We perfume bloggers live for those moments of olfactory epiphany when suddenly, a seismic shift occurs in our amygdalas and our noses blow our minds. This happened to me when I was given the opportunity to discover a brand-new line that is currently taking the perfume world by storm – Neela Vermeire Crèations. I knew Neela had collaborated for over a year with Bertrand Duchaufour, I had read the reviews. I thought I knew from roses. I was delighted to be proved so very, very wrong. For Mohur, Neela’s tribute to both the glorious Mogul empire and the British Raj, is nothing less than a Maharani – a Great Queen – of roses. Spicy and fiery, earthy and decadent, with more rosy-floral facets than any diamond can boast, it’s an outrageously spectacular rose perfume, opulent yet also as ethereal as a fervent wish on a full moon. It’s one of the most magnificent roses I’ve ever had the pleasure to sniff and to wear. As I have and I do and I indeed will for as long as I can ever love a rose…

The Wildest HeartLiz Zorn’s Sinti

Liz Zorn, indie perfumer extraordinaire, was unknown to me when I received a decant of her heart-stopping tribute to rose centifolia, Sinti. Sinti is not your usual rose perfume cliché, there’s nothing in the slightest that will remind you of rose soap or Eau de Granny. For one thing, this rose is wild at heart, wild and untamed and blooming unseen in a secret Saharan desert oasis, as green as nature itself and as surprising as a sudden beam of sunlight on that instant shock of …rose. It is bitter and a bit thorny, with its herbal bite of sage and galbanum that blooms into a fevered dream of one feral flower, easily unisex, easily worn, and all too easy to love, even though it never can be tamed.

A Rosy Dance on Moss Olympic Orchids’ Ballets Rouges

Olympic Orchids’ Ballets Rouges took no time at all to pirouette its way into my rosy heart – it was love at first sniff! Ballets Rouges is by bounds and leaps a green, silky opening that segues into a pas-de-ballet of roses so real, I’ve had people turn to look for the bouquet when I’ve worn this. Yet rose is not the whole story in this perfume, for down below beats a heart of green and a pulse of chypre with a ribbon of oakmoss so dark and luscious, this diehard chypre fan is reduced to molten jelly in gratitude that there are still perfumers who love oakmoss and roses as we do. Put the two together in this peerless pas-de-deux as Ellen Covey did, and even I can dance en point forever more those perfect, mossy, rosy steps.

Iconoclast RoseEtat Libre d’Orange’s Rossy di Palma L’Eau de Protection

If anyone knows how to do celebuscents (that hated category) flawlessly, it would be Etat Libre d’Orange. Their tribute to Rossy di Palma, the feisty, fiery actress Pedro Almodovar so adores, is a thorny, spiky, emerald-green and crimson red tattoo rose that obeys no laws but its own, which is every reason to adore it just as much as Rossy herself. From that bright, green opening bite to the dark patchouli pulse below, Rossy the rose perfume is the quintessential Rossy…unusual, unsettling and beautiful in its defiance of all those tired, trite rose tropes. This is a rose that shows its thorns plain as day and glows its crimson-lipped beauty as soon as you come closer. If you dare.

The Mozart of RoseEnvoyage Perfumes L’Emblem Rouge

When perfumer Shelley Waddington of Envoyage Perfumes worked with master distiller Dabney Rose, they danced a tandem that made precisely the rose perfume no one else would dare – the very essence of a classical rose perfume wrapped in a burgundy promise of perfection. L’Emblem Rouge is a thick, lavish, Oriental rose, spicy, green, and darkly romantic. It dances its own Mozart minuet on your skin with its burst of orange and spice, violet and orris, and all its pleasures proves as you muse that Mozart may be music, and rose may be a flower, but that doesn’t make L’Emblem Rouge any less a marvel – or Mozart any less a genius!

The Rosy RevolutionsTauer PerfumesUne Rose Chyprée & Incense Rosé

I’ve said it before in several locations and I’ll happily say it again – I personally consider Andy Tauer a perfumer of such stellar magnitude, I think he should be paraded down Fifth Avenue and carpet-bombed with rose petals by an adoring crowd, except I suspect he’ll have turned them into Un Rose Vermeillé (which I have yet to try) or something else equally spectacular before the parade reaches East 81st Street. The man knows his roses, knows them as only a truly dedicated rose lover can, and has done audacious things to roses that only prove how little Gertrude – or Shakespeare – knew of roses. When I recently was given a chance to name a bunch of samples to try, these two jumped off my keyboard and into the email before I could even blink. Certain things – and certain perfumes – you just…have this hunch about, although in this case, it was more of a neon blinking billboard. Une Rose Chyprée is a rose of reinventions and revolution, dark and light, depth and sweetness, no one element taking a backseat to the other. It’s Rose, Oh, Yes! But Wait! There’s So Much More! A breath of oakmoss, a kiss of vanilla, a whole library of everything rose and fire and all its splendors, too! Incense Rosé is yet another sleight-of-hand rabbit from Andy’s hat – again, not a rose, and not an incense and not like anything else your imagination could dream but something otherwise and elsewhere…from the blinding sunshine brought of its orange/citrus open to the smoky-tinged labdanum and frankincense drydown, if you’re curious what else can possibly be said about roses…look no further. I can guarantee you one thing only – you will be surprised! And roses will forevermore never be the same…

So Gertrude…hush. Yes, I know you’re dead, but I can still feel your crotchety ghost breathing down my back as I type, said with a sneer and a hint of that grande dame you also were:

“Well, obviously, I had other, more important things to contemplate than roses!”

But stop a moment and think…about a rose, and know that by any other name, it’s very much more than sweet…

Original image of Gertrude Stein, Alvin Langdon Coburn, 1913, from ‘Gertrude en rose’ version – me.

With big thank you hugs to the Great Facilitators: Shelley Waddington, Ellen Covey, Anthony of NKDMan, Nick of Les Senteurs and the incredible Neela Vermeire.

The Crimson-Petaled Dark and Light

– a review of En Voyage Perfumes’ L’Emblem Rouge

Without roses, there would be no perfumes. Roses are the heart and soul of more great perfumes than you could possibly name in one breath, in grand, opulent soliflores and classical florals, in chypres and Orientals…there’s always, but always… rose. One niche line – les Parfums de Rosine – does nothing but interpretations of rose in all its myriad glories, and others create entire Wagnerian operas of rose, such as Serge Lutens’ staggering Sa Majesté La Rose or Amouage’s equally titanic Lyric Woman.

Once upon a time, I loved a rose perfume so much, I moved on to other things when it was reformulated rather than be bitterly disappointed. Yves Saint Laurent’s ‘Paris’ – or should I say, the memory of what it used to be – will always be very dear to my heart. Since then, I’ve loved a few, but these days, I have a caveat…I like my roses dark, rich and complex, roses with a definite Gothic vibe, and such roses are not so easy to find.

Or so I thought until I received samples of En Voyage Perfumes’ L’Emblem Rouge eau de parfum and the accompanying hydrosol.

Shelley Waddington, the Carmel-by-the-Sea based perfumer behind En Voyage, has thoroughly impressed me before, when I encountered her Vents Ardents. Vents Ardents, which I reviewed briefly here, is a tropical citrusy tobacco vacation in a bottle, the Montego-Bay-in-a-spray that takes me away…so much, I’m saving it for those really wretched November and January days when I need all the help I can get.

The eau de parfum of L’Emblem Rouge is an altogether extraordinary rose. If you think you have rose perfumes all nicely categorized, if you consider rose perfumes to be rather insipid, old-fashioned or…perish the thought – boring, then I beg you to reconsider. L’Emblem Rouge is not…that kind of rose.

A bal masque is in full swing as I open that vial, swirling and sparkling in the light with all the èlan of its many characters – all of them different aspects of the star of the show. You know she’s there, but first, say hello to the many parti-colored dominoes she likes to wear to the ball…the spicy, warm spark of cinnamon, mace and cassie, and next, the dusky twilit greenery of citrus, green pepper and galbanum, adding yet another facet to the velvety depths that draw her out and lure you in, one plush crimson petal at a time. And such petals they are!

Whatever the quality of the organic Iranian rose otto that’s listed in the notes, it must be truly spectacular stuff. Hidden in those crimson depths is an all-star cast of supporting roles, some of them easily detectable, such as the ylang ylang, a whisper of jasmine sambac with its intimations of sensuous green, and violet that makes every rose bloom more opulent than before. But the overall impression, that heady, audacious, silky-velvety rose in the darkest, deepest shades of crimson never wavers and never falters, it just opens and blooms for its long, lovely entrance, and there it stays, finally giving way to an equally luscious drydown of woods, benzoin, tolu and a mere touch of vanilla and ambergris, all of them somehow adding up to a memory of a rose you’re not likely to forget anytime soon.

L’Emblem Rouge also comes in a hydrosol – the watery end-product of essential oil distillation, but here enriched and accentuated by master distiller Dabney Rose by further additions of rose…and I suspect a few drops of moonlight, too! I’ve sprayed this in my lingerie drawer and I’ve sprayed this on my pillow, and it was never less than a sheer, rosy delight to encounter. But rose water is one of the oldest cosmetics in the world, and on the recommendation of Trish of Scent Hive, I sprayed it on my foundation brush the other morning. I knew she was on to something when a colleague complimented me at work. Of course, I’ll never tell that for an ordinary Thursday, I borrowed just a little beauty….from an extraordinary rose called… L’Emblem Rouge.

I’m never happier than when I get to prove Gertrude Stein wrong. This rose is no mere rose, no run of the mill garden mainstay. This is an altogether different velvet-petaled crimson promise, and something in L’Emblem Rouge makes me want to paraphrase a few lines of one of my favorite poets, who was never a stranger to roses such as this one.

What was said to the rose…
That made it open
Was said to me
Here, in this vial…

Five percent of all L’Emblem Rouge proceeds are donated to Broadway Cares, a leading non-profit AIDS fundraising and grant making organization.

Top: Cassie, mace, cinnamon, bitter orange, juicy grapefruit, green pepper, Iranian galbanum, violet, cistus
Heart: Organic Iranian rose otto, ylang ylang, heliotrope, French jasmine sambac, violet and honey
Base: Gaiac wood, sandalwood, capaiba, vetiver, cedarwoood, tolu balsam, Siam benzion, tonka, vanilla, ambergris

L’Emblem Rouge and L’Emblem Rouge Hydrosol are available from the En Voyage Perfumes website.

Disclosure: Samples of the eau de parfum and the hydrosol were provided by Shelley Waddington of En Voyage Perfumes for review.

Her Serene Empress of Rose

A review – and a long-ago tale – of Amouage “Epic Woman”

Very many sunsets ago in the fabled city of Samarkand lived a widow who had grown rich from the many rivers of treasure that flowed through like water from all ends of the great Silk Road. Silks, samite and ebony from faraway Cathay, spices and perfumes and gems from India to the far south, rare and costly incense from distant, mysterious desert trees, woods and essences from Chenla of the many wondrous stories the merchants exchanged like their goods in the teahouses by the riverside on breathless, hot afternoons.

The widow herself was of indeterminate age, not quite old and wizened by her years, but not so young she was an easy prey for the traders out to make a profit. Once, so the local gossips said, she had been a slave girl brought from a mountain kingdom to the south and west, but this slave girl had somehow managed to marry into a trading house, and when her husband died, she had continued his business, handling merchants and caravans and all manner of goods and trade with equal and admirable ease. No merchant was ever short-shifted in a trade, no caravan mistreated, and even the camels she knew to make happy in her care.

Like all women in any age and indeed all traders, this widow had a secret. In a private, locked room in her apartments grew her most prized possession. Not a huge Indian diamond sparkling in the sunlight, not any bauble or trinket of any empire north, west or south.

It was a rosebush. No more, no less, nothing else. One small, perfect rosebush, easy to overlook on its ebony tray in a sunlit spot were it not that it flourished in a priceless, ornate vessel of jade the green of the riverbank willows. It was a rose bush, yet no rose bush ever held such velvety blooms of such a ruby hue, and no rose along the Silk Road east or west ever held such a scent. To breathe it in was to know the true significance of the word ‘rose’, to know this rose was to know the secrets of all roses who ever bloomed, and any woman who loved roses. To know this rose was to know the very soul of a flower beloved of the world entire.

Yet today, this day like any other in the still heat of a Samarkand afternoon, the time had come for the rose bush to move on. The widow, her black eyes smiling through the fragrant steam of the silver tea tray, leaned forward on her pillow. This man, she knew to tell, had not come from Samarkand. He could have been from anywhere further west along the Great Road, from Persia, perhaps, or further south and west still, from Damascus of the many marvels, or the storied Bagdad where the great Harun ar Raschid ruled still, so it was said.

He was a tall, upright man in his late thirties, with the watchful, guarded eyes of a desert hawk, and as any hawk would, he never looked away from the widow. “You have cared for your secret well these twenty years, and you have prospered because of it. I was told to bring it on, many, many leagues away to where the incense trees grow beneath the desert stars, and to give you this…” he reached in his robe and laid a small object on the costly carpet – “as a reminder of your pledge.”

It was a carved rose in a singular hue of jade, the cloudy pink of a fading sunset, and the widow had not seen it for over twenty years. It was indeed a reminder of a promise she had made so many years ago, a promise that this rose bush would never wither, never die, and so long as she held faithful to her pledge, her care should be rewarded. Indeed it had, and yet, as the widow saw the sunlight through the screen sparkle on the jade, she felt a pang deep within her soul to realize she would never breathe its scent again, never know such a heartfelt, visceral joy. There would be other pangs, other joys, this much she knew, but none like this little rose bush.

The sun streaming through the latticework of the window onto the carpet was not enough to comfort her. Nevertheless she had promised, and she never made a promise she would not keep. It was time. That jade rose before her was proof. She sighed, clapped her hands to summon a servant, and sent for the rose.

“You will tend it with care?” She grabbed the man’s sleeve as he prepared to leave with his little treasure. “You will make certain this rose will not perish on its journey?” In her eyes, the man read a fervent plea, as earnest and as passionate as any mother’s for a beloved child.

“This, lady, is a rose that will never die so long as my people tend it,” he simply said, before he wrapped it with the utmost care and bowed before her. “As you gave your pledge, I give you my promise.”

He was gone in an instant down the teeming Samarkand street, golden in the late afternoon.

All along the wide and winding Silk Road the little rosebush traveled, and as it did, it seemed to absorb the many scents of the goods it met. Spices in a pouch on a passing camel, rare woods from Chenla and India on a merchant’s laden wagon, the jasmine and geraniums blooming in the courtyard of a Persian caravanserai. At last the rosebush came to grow in a secret oasis in a hidden mountain pass, where the Bedouin stood guard beneath the stars by their own costly treasures of myrrh and frankincense, and those, too, the rose absorbed and enriched with its presence.

For over a thousand years and many more the rose bush grew in its hidden valley oasis, grew and bloomed and thrived, forgotten by all but one family who kept their secret well, until the day came, as it had so long before, when it was time for the rose bush and its secrets to move on through time and out into a wider, wilder world.

One day, a perfumer in an Omani teahouse heard a rumor of a rose in a remote oasis, a rose unlike any other, a rose that knew all secrets and held all its history and all its long journey within the velvet folds of its blooms. As the perfumer stared into the depths of his peppermint tea, he thought to himself; “Such a rose is like a fairy tale. It never existed as anything but a rumor. But if it doesn’t yet, then I shall create it.”

So he did.

Yet in a remote and hidden oasis in the mountains, a deathless rosebush blooms still, for so long as one heart, one soul can truly love a rose, it will never die.

Notes: Pink pepper, cinnamon, damascene rose, geranium, jasmine, tea, amber, musk, frankincense, oud, sandalwood, guaiac wood, patchouli, vanilla and orris.

Amouage Epic Woman is available at Luckyscent, Aedes and First in Fragrance, and from the Amouage website.