Clarimonde Revisited

– At the crossroads of narrative, perfume and prose 

One of the greatest joys and highest privileges in my time as a perfume blogger has been the opportunity to participate in what I can only describe as …magic.

Instead of wrestling with concepts and angles, wondering how to write about any given perfume, the concept is already a given. Instead of wrangling ghosts in solitude, I could write away to my heart’s content, happy knowing that other bloggers wrote as I did, that perfumers felt as I do. As we did, as even I did, we each in our own ways created something that became larger, lusher and far more lustrous than any of us or our readers could have anticipated.

This was – and still is – known as The Clarimonde Project, named for the 1836 Théophile Gautier story La Morte Amoureuse, or as it was known when it was translated in 1907, simply – Clarimonde. The haunting, evocative story of the young priest Romuald who was destined for the seminary and had never known any other love than God’s, and how it all fell away in an instant the moment he looked up at his ordination and saw the celebrated courtesan Clarimonde and in an instant, all he knew and loved and believed fell away…or did it? Did he dream of his other, alternate life as Clarimonde’s beloved, or was it only too real and his old life as a priest of God the dream? Was Clarimonde simply a woman of incandescent beauty, or was she as Romuald’s abbot claimed, the vilest form of monster, renounced as vile as the sins Romuald surely  – or maybe – committed with her? Just as Romuald’s fevered prose, the story shapeshifts and changes each time you read it or listen to Joy Chan’s spellbinding reading of the story.

The Clarimonde Project is the brainchild of my dear friend and fellow blogger Lucy of Indieperfumes, and has since grown to involve not just some truly haunting perfumes, but also a Pinterest page and the inspiration for a masquerade ball and a three-day event at MiN New York to start on October 25th. Tickets to the event can be found here.

But it began…with the story, which can be read online here, or enjoyed as an audio file read by Joy Chan at this link, which is highly recommended.

It continued with bespoke perfumes, lipstains, and a dream pillow created by Monica Miller of Perfume Pharmer, Mandy Aftel of Aftelier, Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, Ayala Moriel Sender and the House of Cherry Bomb by Maria McElroy of Aroma M and Alexis Karl by Scents By Alexis.

So it evolved…into some of the best perfume writing to be found anywhere by some of the very best perfume writers in the blogosphere.

For the story of Romuald and Clarimonde – courtesan, woman, Woman or supernatural aberration – grew into other stories and other words, all of them a surrender…to the beauty of Gautier’s story and to the beauty of the perfumes that story inspired.

Of all my many, many words in my two years writing about perfume, I can say for myself that I have never written as I did for Clarimonde before or since. To this day, they all remain my very best perfume writing, just as the privilege to participate in something so special, so haunting and so magical is an honor I will cherish –  always. 

The Clarimonde Project on the Alembicated Genie:

Sangre – perfume and lipstains by Monica Miller: Blood and Kisses

Aftelier PerfumesOud Luban: The Sanctity of Solace

House of Cherry Bomb’s Immortal Mine: A Philter Perilous

Ayala Moriel Sender’s ‘Clarimonde’: Dreaming Venetian

Dawn Spencer Hurwitz‘ ‘Paradise Lost’: Reclaiming Eternity

The Perfume Pharmer’s reviews of
Oud Luban
Immortal Mine
Ayala Moriel’s Clarimonde
Dawn Spencer Hurwitz’ Paradise Lost

Jade Dressler

Deana Sidney’s (LostPastRemembered) post on Clarimonde, vampire lore and the perils of perfumed port

Scent Hive
Part One
Part Two
Part Three

Indieperfumes’ reviews of
Sangre
Oud Luban
Immortal Mine
Ayala Moriel’s Clarimonde
Dawn Spencer Hurwitz’ Paradise Lost

Beth of PerfumeSmellin Things: The Clarimonde Project:

The Clarimonde Project on WordPress

Clarimonde on Pinterest

Image: ‘Barbaric Red’ – via the Clarimonde Pinterest page, pinned from Hoop Skirts & Corsets

A Harrowing Beauty

THE DEVILSCENT PROJECT  VIII

–  a review of House of Cherry Bomb’s ‘Lilith’ 

What makes villains so fascinating? Is it that they’re more often than not expressing something, doing or instigating something we ourselves would never dare? Don’t we all have that secret part of us that wants to be thoroughly, utterly b-a-d, just once, just to say we did?

I wonder what I might have been trying to say when Lilith appeared out of nowhere and made her presence known in no uncertain terms.

I wasn’t looking for her. I rather suspect she might have been looking for me…

Once we got to know each other, I felt a bit bad that maybe I hadn’t treated her entirely fairly. Maybe, as I told a friend recently, she was the quintessence of every she-dog I’d ever encountered – and I’ve known a few.

Maybe…she had it coming.

The principle. Darling.

And yet…even villains need a little compassion, a few lighter shades of gray in the mix, lest they become too predictable, too inhuman for a reader to relate to. The tragedy of Lilith in Quantum Demonology is the tragedy of so many women…the tragedy of making the wrong choice, of choosing the wrong guy, and then coming to terms with your own bitter disappointment – in yourself, which is always hardest to swallow.

So Lilith made a few bad choices, choices with consequences she could never have imagined, and I like to think that’s what makes her relatable even as the antagonist – throughout her long, long history with Dev, she paid a very high price for never daring to face that disappointment.

Instead, she chose to let the rest of the world pay for what she couldn’t face, and became Lilith, Queen of the Succubi, the ultimate female nightmare…and what would such a fabled, alluring creature be in a perfume? How would her character and her glamour be expressed and explored?

Where Ellen Covey painted her portrait in poison Da-Glo green, Maria McElroy and Alexis Karl of the House of Cherry Bomb chose to tell a very different story, one that glows equally vibrant but in an alternate key.

Make no mistake – this is lethal stuff. Maria and Alexis know far too much about blending the essential oil of danger with fever concrete and lust absolute, and this Lilith is no exception.

The Queen of the Succubi rules this perfume, that’s obvious from its shocking, unnerving beginnings all the way to…but I’m getting ahead of myself, and this will not do.

Floral and heady, leathery and earthy, with musky undertones and something else, something that smelled – poisonous, even tainted. It was very erotic and so domineering it cracked an olfactory whip at my nose.

 – From Quantum Demonology, ‘Latte with Lilith’

I will begin, as all stories should and perfume reviews, too.

With …the beginning.

Here she comes, black as night and blinding bright, making her presence felt with what I can only describe as a floral bouquet of carnivorous, rapacious blooms.

Beware the Polianthes.

She is out to devour you, get you as only she can when she gangs up with her equally heady, indolic ladies-in-waiting who lurk just behind her, wearing their sweetest smiles and their satin skins…the orange blossom breathing beautiful, the jasmine sighing a singular delicious promise she will never, ever keep.

Does this sound familiar, sound like something you might have breathed or loved before? Does it read as the well-beloved contents of a bottle you might even own?

I, who have survived this mortal peril in a perfume will tell you this for your own good:

You haven’t.

For no familiarity has ever graced these blooms that grew, were fed and were watered by the river Lethe, exuding their fatal majesty beneath a starless sky in Hell.  Breathe this perfume all the way in, and you will forget yourself as you breathe, forget you have ever known any other kind of splendor, forget all you ever were and everything you are. Forget the velvet-soft caress of those glowing moonlit petals, even as they slide across your skin and your soul and entwine themselves around you, you are far too transported to notice, even as they tighten, even as this sweet, honeyed breath threatens to stifle your own.

You will be lost, you will be doomed, and you won’t, you don’t, you are incapable of even thinking about the peril of your fate.

But there is more to Lilith than this, and as she tells this story you have never breathed before, she shifts in a stealthy, eerie segue to something equally sweet and even green, with heavy and heady intimations of musk that deepen and darken as she evolves, tinted ever blacker but never less than heavenly – or infernal, depending on your point of view. She growls her last on your skin hours and hours later with a bitter drydown that brands itself into your awareness and haunts those fevered dreams you can never admit in daylight to anyone at all.

I can guess what you’re thinking. Hyperbole, an overactive imagination, perhaps a glass of wine too many?

No. I am as sober as the empty page. It’s just …this perfume, you see, that takes away all common sense and all inhibition and haunts everyone it devours in its path.

I even like to believe that the silk scarf I forgot on my one date of the year, a scarf as saturated with Lilith as the rest of me that night to remember, will haunt the dreams of the one who kept it… forever.

You don’t mess with the Queen of the Succubi.

The House of Cherry Bomb’s ‘Lilith’ came with a sealed-wax admonition on scorched parchment paper:

“The secrets of the Succubi are bound in blood. The contents of this vial shall not be known to mankind. As sealed by Lilith.”

I’ve warned you. Will you listen? Or will you, too fall prey to the harrowing beauty – of Lilith?

With my deepest thanks and immortal gratitude to Maria McElroy and Alexis Karl.

Alexis has also been inspired by my Lilith to write this haunting song:

“Lilith – Live” (YouTube)

Image: Nadja Auermann photographed by Richard Avedon, 1995

Sweet Damnation

THE DEVILSCENT PROJECT IV

–  A review of Cherry Bomb Killer Perfumes’ submission ‘Dev’ for the Devilscent Project

We humans like to believe that we have codified, catalogued and categorized everything. Everything we think and feel and believe can be boiled down to the chemical soup of hormones, every original thought somehow classified by identifying which areas in our brains fire up in a particular sequence, and some day, even our most primal, quintessential selves will probably be defined by some biochemical equation that all adds up to – human.

Unless you happen to be an incurable romantic like me. I take my own perverse delight in knowing that not all that equates me can be so neatly defined, in proving I still have mysteries to decode.

Including the enigma of precisely what it is that sparks that phenomenon called ‘lust’. Lust as I define it isn’t passion (that comes later if you’re lucky), certainly not love (that comes later if you’re very, very lucky), and not quite the more polite term ‘desire’ either. What provides that spark-out-of-the-blue that makes you look again, that sets your imagination free, that catches on those half-overgrown train tracks of your thoughts and makes you wonder…what would it feel like, what would it be like, would he, should you…

You get the idea. My own idea about that particular ignition point would be this:

It may start with the eyes, but the nose…knows.

I suspect that idea played at the back of my mind that fated Friday night I plugged myself into my iPod and wrote the first chapter of what would become “Quantum Demonology”, and wove into my storyline an idea about a perfume so dangerous, so delectable, so sinfully sexy and seductive, only the Devil could ever wear it.

Since the Devilscent Project began, these nine perfume renditions of Devilscent have all shown me different aspects and interpretations of Dev in his many guises and moods, some haunting and haunted, some as bittersweet as all the best and most fatal love affairs, some fevered and erotic, all of them heartbreaking. Even the one on my skin as I type these words, but this Dev really does put the ‘dev’ in devious and defines that singular, insidious creature that lurks within us all and goes by a four-letter word…lust.

Maria McElroy and Alexis Karl of Cherry Bomb Killer Perfumes are no strangers to perfumed perdition, as they proved beyond all doubt when they participated in the Clarimonde Project last year with their ‘Immortal Mine’. I was convinced I would very likely never sniff anything quite so dangerous again.

Wrong.

I love it when that happens!

If Immortal Mine were the phantom of perfumed perdition, then this Dev is so downright incendiary, I’m surprised the contents of my little skull bottle don’t just burst into flames. Wearing it, I almost wish I would.

This is not anyone’s usual idea of that pop-culture creature of temptation. This Dev is damnation-in-a-bottle, lasciviously liquid like all the very best of love potions, as illicit and as delicious as sin, but you are helpless to resist it and wouldn’t want to even try. You know he’s a rotter. Your heart will be broken. There will be tears.

You don’t care. It will be worth it, if only in hindsight, if only to know that one instant, you knew precisely what it means to… burn.

Like all fatal fallen angels, he begins with sweet. I don’t have a list of notes – Dev came with a sealed-wax stamp and the words:

By Satanic decree. The essences of this elixir are not to be divulged to mortals. As sealed by Dev.

So I’ll wager the soul Saint Augustine claimed I don’t have and say…cocoa, a dark, decadent chocolate teardrop that sears away any leftover inhibitions and second thoughts and better judgments. What woman in her right mind could possibly resist chocolate? But chocolate is only the first of many veils and the first of many of Dev’s most dangerous disguises. Before long, an opulent, seamless floral note insinuates itself, orange blossom, rose, a heady jasmine, a touch of tuberose?

You were helpless to resist the chocolate, and the next thing you know, you are an equally hapless victim of all these flattering, flowery words. Breathe it all in and believe it, believe it will be beautiful, believe it will be worth it, believe that you’re worthy…

Believe.

Because as you do, you’re reeling on your feet, you’re so dizzy, so delirious with all these potent promises and perfumed wonders, you could almost fail to notice after a long, long while what other secrets this Dev contains, multitudes of layers unfolding like the pages of an arcane book, blooming in slow-motion like the very human and infinitely complex character he also is.

Vade Intro Satanas – let him all the way in now, now you’ve been lured to your fate by the temptation of chocolate, next you’re swooning in that heady, floral embrace with all its heavenly intimations and promises, and here comes that night-black, animal doom…labdanum and myrrh, frankincense and oud, dragon’s blood with their blast of heat and hellfire, and yet somehow above and behind it all, that sweet promise of chocolate that never quite fades away.

I could say it of this perfume, too – it lasts, it lingers, it seems to go on forever and even when it’s gone, even after days, in some midnight moment it will steal into your consciousness to haunt you, and you can breathe it in all over again and discover facets you might have overlooked before, be surprised as you rarely are, and you will never, ever forget it.

This Dev is a creature of magic both occult and very, very dark. Not black, not any preconceived caricature of ‘evil’, but something – or Someone – so much more than the sum of parts, something whole and entire, masculine and virile that constantly defies any definition of ‘black’ or ‘white’. Sinful and taboo, deliriously and deliciously verboten, he glows in those subterranean spaces where all desire is born and all lust begins and all inhibitions are silenced. The only way to know is to go, the only way to see is to dare, and he throws down the gauntlet in a challenge you want to resist so badly, but you can’t and you don’t and you won’t.

I had an idea in my mind when I first conjured up the Devil’s scent, an idea that has been manifested through the funhouse mirror of my brief and my story, and above all by the many and varied inspirations the perfumers have chosen to follow. Each of these Devils are very different, each have their own stories to tell and their own brand of perdition to exude, and above all else, each and every one of them so much more than I could have imagined, and so much more than I think I did imagine. Sniffing Maria and Alexis’ ‘Dev’, I am blown away (again!) by their interpretation, and so incredibly privileged they chose to share it with me.

Like the Dev in my story, this perfume is thoroughly damned. Like my protagonist, I sold my own soul for the one dream I have left. But this dream is no fiction, and this perfume is no dream, but a fervent wish I sent out into the Universe that was returned a thousand-fold. It is nothing I have any kind of reference for, nothing like anything else I’ve ever encountered, but then again…the best kind of perdition never is, is it?

See much more on the Devilscent Project and Quantum Demonology on our Facebook Page. or on the Perfume Pharmer’s overview page.

Find the astounding creations of Maria McElroy and Alexis Karl at House of Cherry Bomb. Maria is also the mastermind behind the beauties of Aroma M Geisha Perfumes.

Final words: Alexis Karl has informed me that they have future plans to launch ‘Dev’ as a masculine companion to Immortal Mine. Stay tuned for details!

Images: ‘Lust’, by Kaaaay at Deviant Art. Photo of Maria and Alexis’ ‘Dev’, my iPhone.