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 Waft of Woe

– Flotsam & jetsam, gratitude & anticipation 

The image above perfectly sums up the week I’ve just finished, although ‘lovely’ isn’t the word I’d choose…

Let me start by saying I’m fully aware that the frequency of posts (and no shortage of Way Overdue Reviews) has been sporadic these past couple of months. Ladies and gentlemen – I’ve had about two months of Mondays in that overrated dimension called ‘real life’.

Major changes and massive preoccupations have done everything they could to tear me away from what I’ve really wanted to do more than anything, and that was – for that matter, still emphatically is – to write. Three old-school spiral-bound notebooks – the kind that demand démodé pens or pencils and my own brand of schizoid Linear C handwriting – go where I do in case the Next Great Idea pops up out of the blue – three notebooks of three different writing projects that I plan to feed, water and grow into books. Although one of them you might know about, the other two are super-secret, and one of them involves – yes, you guessed it! – that nebulous, shape-shifting subject of…perfume.

My own collection – which seems to propagate like bacteria as soon as I look the other way – is packed away in acres of bubble wrap, electrical tape, bubblepak envelopes and cardboard boxes within a suitcase. My new (cute if tiny) apartment is being renovated from scratch, and until I can move in a few weeks from now, there they remain, whispering their secrets and haunting my dreams.

Meanwhile, life gets in the way…and this became patently clear this past week, when I’ve been glued to social media and the New York Times, frantic for all my extended family and friends in the Northeast US which received a sucker punch of its own named Sandy. I’m thrilled to say that they made it through in one piece, although not without consequences no one ever could have wished for. Sitting in my own cozy corner of Europe, snuggled up against the chill of winter watching the devastation wrought by the storm has broken my heart in several places, but if anything at all gives me hope, it’s that ‘we’ll be damned if we let this get us down’ attitude displayed by so many of those affected despite their devastating losses. If that’s not an inspiration and an attitude to emulate, what is?

The idea that I could ever inspire anyone at all blows me completely away. When it comes from two fellow perfume writers (and forces of nature in their own right!) I admire as much as the divalicious Perfume Pharmer and Portia of Australian Perfume Junkies, I have to puncture my ego, just in case!

Monica of the Perfume Pharmer – who has literally saved my own crocodile hide this year with her African Gold shea butter – interviewed me in a timeline format on Perfume Pharmer. If you ever wondered why I’m a bit strange, I blame my first babysitter…

Some time ago in a perfume exchange, I sent the fab Portia some Devilscent samples I thought she should have the chance to try. These perfumes are so outside anything in niche perfumery these days, I thought it could be interesting to find her take on them. That’s what we fumeheads do – spread the joys of our discoveries! Yesterday, she returned the favor by reviewing Olympic Orchids’ Dev no. 2 and Lil on the Perfume Posse, and interviewing yours truly on her own blog, Australian Perfume Junkies. (My own reviews are here and there.) I feel so privileged to have met and connected with so many hugely inspiring people through my perfume writing – and Monica and Portia are two of my own inspirations, so thank YOU, ladies! Reviews of two more Devilscents will follow…and more are coming in other venues, which is all I’m able to say for now. Stay tuned!

Two months ago, thanks to the kind of serendipitous networking that never happens except when it does, the book that inspired the Devilscent Project landed on an editor’s desk when I least expected – or was prepared for! – it. Although it wasn’t a natural fit for the publisher, I received the kind of feedback any aspiring writer would gladly kill for – and received several road maps for the final edit. So when I’m finally settled in my new digs, I’m going to buckle down and polish Quantum Demonology to a high and glossy patent leather sheen – when I’m not noodling with the super-secret perfume book and another project that isn’t perfume-related but something much more controversial. When a fellow writer throws down a gauntlet, issues a challenge and dares me to kick away a few boundaries, anything can – and likely will! – happen. “Your mission, should you choose to accept it…” And just like that, I did. Be afraid…

Anticipation is one of my most favorite emotions. There are four remaining Devilscent reviews, and I feel a pang in my heart just thinking about them. Opus Oils’ contribution, the mind-blowing Babylon Noir arrived right before my move, and on this side of the Atlantic, it’s caused quite the sensation among my adventurous-minded girl friends. Two more of Neil Morris’ showstoppers have yet to be reviewed, and my one regret is not just that I only have four DSP posts to go, but that until I move, I also don’t have the time or space to write about them, and it’s killing me – not softly!

I’m anticipating not a few wonders in the weeks to come, including Aftelier’s new Wild Rose (anything Mandy does is grounds for Major Anticipation), Serge Lutens’ Une Voix Noire, and yet more wonders from one of my newest discoveries, Juan M. Perez of Exotic Island Aromas and a few more novelties I should have written about months ago – some from another of my Primeval Forces that had me hauling out the hyperbole – they’re that good!

Most of all, I’m anticipating the simple joys of my own space, my own place under the eaves, and banging away until the cows come home without other distractions than Hairy Krishna. I’m looking forward to unpacking my perfumes and samples and wearing them all.  I’m looking forward to blasting the neighbors with vintage punk, classic metal and the new release from another favorite band. (I wore their last release to shreds!). I look forward to the day life returns to mostly normal for my self-selected family of friends in New York and New Jersey. I look forward to all those fragrant epiphanies I know lie in wait and…since I broke my little finger yesterday, I look forward to the day I can remove the splint and move my hand around without yelping! And last, but never least, I look forward to the day I can write about it all – so you, dear readers, can read all about it!

Falling Forward

 – an ode to my favorite fragrant Fall thrills

Autumn is one of my favorite times of the year. A little melancholy, slightly tinged with regrets for what might have been and what should have been done, autumn has also proven itself to be the season of cataclysmic change this year, a change so drastic, it’s been all I can do to hang on by the skin of my teeth and know…that all I can do is to go with the flow and give myself over…to evolution and the knowledge that from here on, life can only get more exciting.

And I can give myself over to the many pleasures of falling forward…into autumn, into the incendiary glow of golden-leafed trees, ruby-hued leaves, and the intoxicating sharp scent of burning wood fireplaces and bonfires, the smell of mushrooms and cepes sprouting up overnight, the sound and scent of apples falling to the ground, that looming breath of steel and stone that lurks beneath the colors and the chills in the air. Wrapping my chilly, wintry self into favorite woolen sweaters, and wrapping favorite scarves and mufflers around my neck, inhaling that palimpsest of perfumes worsted in the wool.

Autumn is also an excuse for hauling out the heavy, heady perfumes with which to slay the unsuspecting world – the ones I wear as I would wear cashmere, the ones that comfort and console me on rainy days and Thursdays, the ones I wear like scented armor, and all the ones I love…

Below, you’ll find some of my favorite autumn fumes, the ones that contain October  and November in their essence, the ones that trail behind me like the ghosts of autumns past as well as harbinger angels of the future possibilities that lie ahead, waiting for when life returns and all is green again.

L’Artisan Parfumeur – Seville à l’Aube

It’s generally agreed that Bertrand Duchaufour is one of the greatest perfumed geniuses alive today. His work has ruined me several times over this year, when I was introduced to Neela Vermeire’s breathtaking perfume odes to her native India and all three of them shot to the top of my Most Worn of the year list. Next came an introduction to L’Artisan’s Dzongkha – one haunting, numinous iris – and Sienne L’Hiver, no less haunting and evocative. They all broke my heart. But when I read of Duchaufour’s collaboration with one of my own inspirations, Denyse Beaulieu of Grain de Musc, and heard the fated words ‘orange’ and ‘blossom’, I was had at the first syllable. Oh! So imagine my anticipation when I moved in on a split of Seville à L’Aube blind (this very rarely happens any longer), and all it took to tip me over the edge was one fatal sniff…My full review will be up in a few weeks, but this mesmerizing blend of orange blossom, lavender and incense is …flawless.

Amouage – Memoir Woman

Something about autumn brings out my inner Goth, which is to say, that part of me that appreciates seriously depressed-mode music, rainy days, and lots of witchy black velvet. While I wouldn’t be so bold as to say Memoir Woman is Goth per se, I will say that it is a moody, magnificent, haunting perfume of a kind that tends to stick in the mind long after it wears off. I didn’t like it much at first, but I couldn’t stop sniffing. It reminded me of a advertising tagline I once cooked up for a story I wrote: “Haunted. What he will be.” Haunting, unforgettable, there is nothing quite like it and nothing quite like a love that grows and grows to haunt you.  As it has. As I have been. As I remain.

Serge Lutens – De Profundis

Some claimed that dear Uncle Serge had somehow lost his marbles when De Profundis was released, and I have no idea what mushrooms they nibbled, because De Profundis – inspired by the treatise by Oscar Wilde, death and funereal chrysanthemums – is simultaneously green, cool and impossible to forget. Incense, chrysanthemum and a mesmerizing icy green-tinged, tear-stained violet chill all add up to ‘spellbinding’ in my book, but if any Lutens is perfect for that delicious melancholy that pervades October Sunday afternoons, it’s this one.

Aftelier – Cepes and Tuberose

My first introduction to the fabled perfumes of Aftelier was Mandy Aftel’s justly famous and unorthodox Cepes and Tuberose, which is earthy, floral, spicy, heady bottled magic – or else a horror story of mildewed mushroom and airy tuberose. There is truly nothing at all else quite like it, and you either adore it or hate it. I have since that fatal introduction loved it so much, a mini of the parfum goes where I go and a dab often wafts as I breathe no matter what else I wear. It smells golden to me – golden as the maple leaves that now are turning red to bloom in midair and dance their leafy sigh into the ground.

Neela Vermeire – Trayee

Whether it’s the blaze of color or the sudden shock of chill in the air, there is something numinous about autumn, something that reminds you of the passage of time and the ephemerality of all life. When that sudden pang of mortality hits me with the delicate slap of a falling leaf, I often reach for Trayee, a swirling, whirling, spicy Mahabarata epic in a bottle, wit its fiery, feisty cardamom, a wink or two of sacred bhang, smoke, incense and samsara. In no time, my spirits lift and my mood improves, and I dream such faraway dreams of other times and other, sacred spaces.

A Trinity of Ambers

Autumn is also the perfect time for ambers…those glorious, heady, drop-dead sexy golden potions I once hated and now love with a fury that teeters on obsession. Three in particular hold pride of place in my amber-tinted Pantheon, and I’m not even sure I can bear to know there will be others in their wake. The Great Khadine, Serge Lutens’ Ambre Sultan, with its opening green bite and its sumptuous drydown, whispers its secrets in my ear, while Amouage’s Opus VI speaks its twisting, turning, ever-evolving tongues of wood flickering in firelight, and when I stand still and listen to the beat of my heart in the moonlight, Neil Morris’ Rumi trills its transcendental tale of another kind of sweet-scented magic.

Labdanum dreams

The ongoing Devilscent Project has completely changed my life around in more ways than one. I could talk about these unbelievable perfumes until the cows came home to roost, but the one note the Devil insisted upon to his perfumers was labdanum, a whole fragrant universe unto itself, and one of the oldest perfumery materials in the world. When life has been known to grind me down, Olympic Orchids’ spare, pensive Dev #4, which puts a magnificent labdanum in the spotlight, centers me as nothing else will, so even I can envision such luscious, labdanum things come true. As I do, I’m often taken back to a midnight moment in time, and when I am, another spicier, darker, more ominous labdanum-tinged marvel wafts forward, and that is Neil Morris’ Midnight at the Crossroads Café.

Olivier Durbano – Black Tourmaline

One reviewer on Fragrantica stated that Olivier Durbano’s Black Tourmaline was ‘for real men only’. This is absolute nonsense. For Black Tourmaline is a stunning mélange of leather and the darkest, deepest, smokiest incense you can imagine, and I’ve received many, many compliments when I’ve worn it, despite being nothing masculine in the slightest, not even in a tux. It’s as otherworldly as a fog-drenched November morning and as warming as a firelight glow at night, and when it goes, it will be missed, like November, like firelight, like a ghostly wisp of cloud bearing down to kiss the earth one last and final time.

More than any other season, autumn sings to me of time passing, of moments as fleeting as the bloom of glowing leaves dancing in a deep blue sky. When Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’ seems to match the tasty tristesse of a rainy afternoon, and when the smoky thrills of firelight and flame warm the soul through.

What are your autumn favorites? Or just…your favorite things about autumn? I’d love to hear about them!

With many thanks to…Andrea, Amy, Ruth, Christopher, Mandy, Ellen, JoAnne, Neil and Christos. 

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.