Baudelairean Blooms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charme profond, magique, dont nous grise

Dans le présent le passé restauré!

Ainsi l’aimant sur un corps adore

Du souvenir cueille la fleur exquise.

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

It’s by such charms that Nevermore

Intoxicates us in the Now –

As lovers to remembrance bow

Over the bodies they adore.

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

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

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

A Bloom From the Banks of Lake Eerie

–  a review of Tom Ford Private Blend’s Black Violet

Certain things shall always and forever be perpetually out of my reach. I may, some sunshiney day, become a bestselling writer (here’s hoping!), I may some day aspire to be an inspiration for others, and some day, I may even be able to swan into certain stores in various locations in certain metropolises and airily wave an Amex card with the catch phrase: “Just give me one of everything, darlings!” I may, so I hope, some day be able to kindle desire in another human being, and if I’m very, very lucky, maybe even someone I actually want in return.

But I shall never, no matter what I do, be six feet tall, a perfect size 0, or be anyone so impossibly hip even Tom Ford might think I’m deathless cool.

There’s something about Tom Ford the designer I just don’t get. Which could very well be that I’m not a six foot tall dead ringer for Bianca Jagger in her Studio 54 days. It could also be that my brand of ‘sexy’ doesn’t necessarily imply ‘slit-to-there’ and ‘slashed-to-you’ve-got-to-be-effing-kidding-me’.

Which actually sums up what I thought about his perfume line, too. I’d never tried Black Orchid or any other main line or Private Blend perfumes, and there they gleamed in their classy bottles, like his entire personal aesthetic…just out of reach. I wasn’t a Tom Ford kind of female, more a ‘Anna Sui meets Diane von Furstenberg in a Whitechapel alley with a dash of Rick Owens’… woman. Tom Ford perfumes weren’t sold anywhere within two hundred miles of me. They were probably gorgeous. As it was, I was already ruined for life when I encountered Amouage.

Famous last words. I’d eat them, but that lemon cupcake I just devoured didn’t leave any room, which is yet another reason I shall never be deathless cool – I eat too much. I was resigned to live out my days the perpetual Tom Ford virgin, and it didn’t bother me, any more than never knowing the wonders of Xerjoff bothered me…too much. Still, that niggling pitchfork of curiosity prodded me on occasion. I would read reviews that made me go… ‘hmmmm’. I would wonder. And more to the point, wonder whether I was, in fact, missing out on the Next Great Perfumed Epiphany.

Lo and behold, somewhere in the world are Great Facilitators with Great Big Hearts who take pity on penniless perfume bloggers with Platinum Amex tastes on back-alley thrift store budgets and titanium curiosity pitchforks. Lo and behold, I’m no longer a Tom Ford virgin.

Lo and behold, the world has shifted ever so slightly on its axis, and even if I’ll never be Nadia Auermann, never mind Bianca Jagger, I can certainly wear a Tom Ford perfume and survive. Just don’t tell him I’ll never be that cool.

When the ultra-darling Carlos with the epically sized heart sent me not one, but four Tom Fords, I was rather taken aback, not just by his generosity (which is legendary), but by which one I reached for as if guided by an unseen hand.

It was…Black Violet, from his Private Blend line. There were other wonders in that little sample pack, other marvels I will certainly review, but my inner Gothadelic won out by selecting something I would never have chosen on my own accord.

So is it dark, or even black? Is it even violet? Will I wake up as a latter-day Jerry Hall?

It is very dark. It is definitely violet. And no matter how fever-delirious, I shall never be Jerry Hall. Damn it.

Black Violet is…a shapeshifting, ghostly flower left on the threshold of some equally phantasmagorical portal of the Otherworld. It is quite possibly one of the strangest perfumes I’ve encountered, and trust me, I’m not at all averse to strange, weird or WTF.

Strange in the sense that this is an eerie perfume. From the initial fruity, sweet citrus burst, a fata morgana flower blooms. Not a violet in the sense we usually think of violet, which is often violet leaf with its fresh, grassy-green laugh in the sunlight, this is all about the violet flower, which is to say, if violet flowers grew on the banks of the river Lethe in perpetual twilight, the only burst of color in the shadows. A violet flower wrapped in a sheath of formfitting, moody, dark, dark wood…a wood of weird and wondrous creatures that shift and dance on the edge of your vision, but do they exist or are they mere figments of your overheated imagination?

Violets that glisten in moonlight and dewdrop instead of dappled sunshine, violets that fade to a mere whisper, a ghost of what was, what you surely imagined, but did you really? For now, we’re brought back to the forest floor and that moonlit dark with a plush, earthy, velvet-smooth oakmoss. Oh, yes…oakmoss. Oakmoss which should lead us into chypre territory and so have me at ‘hello and hell, yeah!’, but this is no man-eating beast of a chypre, this is far too understated, far too much a creature of Faërie, dancing on the edge of awareness, leaving only a glimmer of its ghostly beauty behind, but beauty nevertheless.

Black Violet is definitely a haunting, goth, witchy kind of violet, the kind that sneaks up on you and makes you think…yes, I really should own this, I really, truly should and how can I live without it and surely it’s not that expensive and such is the price of haunting these days and…

And somewhere in there, I blink and I’m brought back to real life and a recent memory of another haunting perfume that this resembles very much to my fever/flu-ish nose…and that stops me cold.

On the other hand, how often does it happen you encounter a bloom…from the banks of Lake Eerie?

Nose: Clement Gavarry.

Notes: Bergamot, citrus, fruity notes, violet, oakmoss, woods.

Tom Ford Private Blend Black Violet (2007) is available at Nordstrom’s, Bergdorf’s and other upscale locations.

All thanks to Carlos, who made this happen! 🙂

The Floating World of Flower and Willow

– Part One of a two part series on Aroma M Geisha Perfume Oils


For a perfumoholic such as myself, there is no greater thrill than the thrill of discovery. Where will I go, what wonders will I find, will I find something, smell something, embark upon a journey to a destination or a mindset I have never known before?

In the case of Aroma M, the answer is a resounding, definite…yes.

Maria McElroy, the perfumer and creator behind Aroma M, began as a painter who then took up the study of aromatherapy, and next went to Japan for seven years to immerse herself in many different aspects of Japanese culture, among them kodo – the Japanese art of perfume, ikebana, shiatsu, the Japanese tea ceremony and Zen Buddhism. It gives her Geisha perfume oils a unique aesthetic sensibility that is apparent from the moment I pop open those tiny wondrous vials – the compelling sensual refinement so apparent in all Japanese art forms, and the more opulent, compartmentalized Western approach. Leave your preconceptions behind, open your mind – and breathe as we go.

Dive down with me into ‘The Floating World of Flower and Willow’ of the geiko of the Gion district of Kyoto, where there is no other reason to exist but pleasure. Live for these transcendent moments of sensual beauty, as a geiko plays the shamisen and warmed sake steams in the fragrant air around you, lose yourself in the sinuous lines and effervescent colors of kimono and flower and the evocative perfumed air of the geisha who entertain you with their art. Your cares and the outside world do not exist here, time itself stands still, and only the fleeting mood of this moment of all sensual delights dictates your whims.

Here, the geiko reign supreme, the fully fledged geisha who have completed their training as maiko in all the artistry of geisha, in this teahouse you find not the painted faces of maiko we normally associate with geisha, but the natural, mature beauty of geiko whose art lies in their very artlessness, their ability to make even the striking of a chord on the shamisen, the pouring of tea, the soft musical rustle of hand-embroidered silk an exquisite art form of its own. Like these stellar perfumes, which are not so innocent and far more knowing than they would have you believe.

Geisha Noir

Notes: Spices, amber, tonka bean.

Once upon a time, even here in the decadent West, perfumes existed that put the ‘Oh!’ in …Oriental. O as in opulent, Oh as in audacious, Oh as in…Oh, wow!

Not a few have said that Geisha Noir reminds them quite a bit of what Shalimar used to be before reformulation, and I can see why. My mother loved Shalimar, and she would surely be all over this. Geisha Noir is a definite after dark perfume oil to wear when you have definite after dark events on your mind. Spicy, rich, and very heady, I wore this to bed the other night and had the kind of dreams I really can’t repeat on a perfume blog, but let’s just say that waking up alone was …heartbreaking? Animalic and unabashedly, devastatingly sensual, if you miss the former glories of Shalimar, run, don’t walk, and try this. It lasts and lasts, weaving its siren song around your skin for hours, but what you do with it is up to you!

Geisha Marron

Notes: Muguet, white Japanese magnolia, chestnut blossom, mandarin, bergamot, grapefruit.

Every spring, I’ve always wondered why no one has ever tried to put the soft, lilting fragrance of the dark pink chestnut blossoms into a perfume. I need wonder no longer. Marron is the most ‘Western’ of all the Aroma M line, with its evanescent blend of muguet, magnolia and those glorious chestnut blossoms, sparkling with a citrus kick at the outset of bergamot, mandarin and grapefruit. It settles down to a warm, inviting aura of the muguet – not quite so innocent here as we’re used to – magnolia and the chestnut blossom, and is suggestive more than demanding. It would wear perfectly for a Sunday afternoon promenade, but wouldn’t be amiss at an intimate dinner for two. It begs to be appreciated up close and personal, but never shouts its presence. Unusual, alluring, and uplifting!

Geisha Rouge

Notes: Tonka bean, tobacco, vanilla, cinnamon, star anise, clove, sandalwood, Japanese incense.

Spice, this dedicated hedonist will tell you, is nice, and with Geisha Rouge, spice gets no nicer than this. Not one floral note detracts from these woody, fiery glories that bloom in an exotic language all their own…with that sharp, hot spark to your senses of star anise, clove and cinnamon, and an imperceptibly subtle shift toward the dry down of Japanese incense, sandalwood, tonka bean, vanilla and tobacco with its leathery undertone. If clove deters you – as it does for some – rest assured this will not remind you of the dentist in the slightest, for here clove and star anise dance in their flawless kabuko tandem with cinnamon and Japanese incense for hours, never cloying, never boring or biting. This is a perfume of embers that glow in the space above your skin to remind you of possibilities, hopes and ardent dreams to make your own. Geisha Rouge was one of my favorites – for its exuberant spicy, fiery kick, and for the way it galvanized my creativity. I really need to own this. Whoever knew that spice could cure my writer’s block? My Devil will be so grateful.

Geisha Violet

Notes: Violet, lilac, Japanese lotus, bitter chocolate

In my former life, I trained as a pastry chef, so it’s no stretch for me at all to imagine the pairing of violet and chocolate, used to decorate and accentuate so many classic chocoholic delights. I detect only a whiff of lilac and lotus, but lots and lots of very floral violet, its inherent sweetness undercut by the bitter chocolate just enough to make it a different violet than the blushing ingénue of classical perfumery. I can imagine this would be innocent on someone young, but on someone who isn’t, that chocolate note edges it ever so slightly toward gourmand territory, a wonderful place to be, and either because of the chocolate or because I’m no ingénue, makes it just naughty enough to suit my fancy. Naughty violet suits me perfectly. I can resist anything except chocolate, so that’s my story and I’m sticking to it! I never would have thought that violet could be …subversive, but on me, this is, and precisely for that reason, this is a must for violet lovers.

What is immediately apparent is that all of these perfumes share a common aesthetic vocabulary that is neither distinctly Japanese nor emphatically Western, but a fertile and highly creative hybrid of the best of both worlds. They have a unique ability to evoke a mood and an atmosphere I haven’t often come across in niche perfumery, yet they are also distinct enough to take you on that magic carpet ride to…elsewhere and otherwise, to another place and time, to a different headspace and an alternate mindset – where all that pleases the senses lives, breathes and thrives in a district of its own. Where a geiko can recite a poem by the famous female poet Ono no Komachi, while all these perfumes sing along:

If, in an autumn world

A hundred flowers

can untie their streamers

may I also openly frolic

as fearless of blame?

With a little help from Aroma M, the answer can only be…yes!

Stay tuned for the next review of Aroma M – titled Maiko…

Aroma M is available in several leading department stores across the US and directly from the Aroma M website.

Disclosure: Samples provided by Maria McElroy for review.

Image: Courtesan, Katsushiko Hokusai, 1812-1821

Poem by Ono no Komachi, translated by Hirschfield and Aramati.