Cornball Philosophy

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Jung said it’s not co-incidence but a resonating psychic vibration. Whatever the case, it’s currently happening to me all the time. I’d only just written to you about Etat Libre d’Orange‘s forthcoming new fragrance La Fin du Monde when my brother sends me a clipping from The Times (19.9.13) about a Maine neuroscientist’s latest olfactory research.

Get this: ” scientists claim that all smells can be described as combinations of just 10 basic scents….fragrant, woody, fruity, chemical, minty, sweet, popcorn, lemon…pungent and decayed.”

Strange isn’t it? “Popcorn” (the most striking note in La Fin du Monde) “lemon” and “minty” are so precise; “fragrant”, “chemical” and “pungent” sound like vague cop-outs to me. There again, this puts me in mind of Joan Blondell’s dictum that there is only one film plot: boy meets girl/boy loses girl/ boy gets girl. A little broad that, but Joan had a point. Well, the Maine man – Mr Jason Castro – gets us thinking once again: what say you on this olfactory breakthrough? We should love to know. Meanwhile Les Senteurs can match each of these 10 categories, scent for scent: some of them many times over. I’ll probably draw up a short list later…

Image: scrantongillette.com

My Longings for Ylang

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Ice cream weather, my mother used to call it. We often get it in September and October: fresh autumn nights followed by limpid blue days full of fruit-scented sunshine still strong enough to melt your bones and dissolve inner tensions but which goes off at tea-time to reveal the chill beneath. If you’re lucky, a sharp frost overnight: vanilla ice cream partially covered in hot chocolate sauce. The air feels soft and silky and the breeze laps around your arms and legs like warm water. “Languorous” begins to describe it, and it absolutely befits a perfume such as the divine ylang ylang.

Before I came into the perfume business I’d never heard this melodious word but the flower, yellow and etiolated like a starfish stranded in the arboreal canopy, has been around for a long time. Ylang ylang oil was first widely used in the West to fragrance macassar oil, that ubiquitous Victorian toiletry. Thick and unctuous, macassar purported to come from the Dutch East Indies and with hindsight is primarily associated with men’s grooming. It was smoothed onto capital and facial hair – mutton chop whiskers, Piccadilly weepers, Dundrearies and Imperial beards – to improve sheen, texture and condition. The nineteenth century male was as much preoccupied with his hair as are his modern descendants. the young Dickens, Tennyson and Swinburne all boasted magnificent manes. Disraeli’s dyed jet ringlets were as much of a trademark as his jewels and primrose boutonnieres, while the Prince Consort’s dark curls were soon replaced by a wig which Albert apparently wore for reasons of warmth rather than vanity. Now this macassar had the unfortunate effect of staining the backs of chairs and sofas on which the wearer sat; which demonstrates that young men evidently did not sit as straight as we are told their young ladies were taught to do. (My own great aunts Florence and Maud were brought up at Huddersfield with backboards and sprigs of holly pinned beneath the chin). So one of the most despised dainties of interior design was invented: the washable anti-macassar, to be draped protectively over the upholstery.

As a child I was fascinated by Mrs Edie Exley’s dreadful story: she’d been in service with her sister in the 1930’s . Lily and Edie took advantage of their employer’s temporary absence to have their boyfriends in, and one follower’s hair left dark ineradicable stains on an armchair. To take their minds off this catastrophe they all went off to watch Fred and Ginger on the films, but as Edie said 30 years later, “Let’s Face The Music and Dance” sounded only ominous and hollow , gloomily prescient of the appalling rows to come.

Ylang ylang’s heady scent – said to be an aphrodisiac and, like the sun, great for relieving tension and palpitations – lingered long in smart salons, permeated the furniture and covered up any olfactory imperfections within the macassar oil or in similar preparations based on bear or hog fat. How interesting that modern research indicates that ylang may well stimulate hair growth. The smell of ylang ylang has been likened to that of rubber, jasmine, banana and even custard – and indeed the plant turns out to be related to the custard apple tree, bearer of succulent fruits. I tend to the rubber metaphor – soft pink rubber – in the same way that Shalimar was once described to me as the Marigold glove perfume. Ylang ylang is also creamy, waxy, faintly gassy, clinging, addictive, mesmerising and – because it naturally goes good with vanilla – it also smells of top dollar ice cream.

Which brings me to my current rave, my pash: Caron’s My Ylang, a new perfume from an old House. It has all the excess and exuberance of vintage Caron with a new vitality and a lighter but just as bewitching base. The fresh upper notes of rose, muguet, cassis and mandarin put me in mind of the riotous singing florals of Arden’s uniquely ostentatious Red Door, a favourite of 20 years ago. My Ylang has the same amusingly showy quality, a fragrance that’s fun to wear, a scent with joie de vivre and coquettish abandon. It simmers down to a wonderful warm meringue of green vanilla orchid and musk, a classic coupe garnished with candied ylang ylang blossoms and whipped cream. Rush to table and served immediately.

Image: farm1.staticflickr.com

Opera Buffs

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We’re always on the look-out for the novel and unexpected at Les Senteurs so naturally we were enchanted this week to meet Marie Soulier and Adam Swann of the forthcoming Clapham Opera Festival. Marie and Adam have kindly suggested that we combine forces to show how the power and magic of perfume can interact with music to amplify and enhance both art forms. So in October and November the Festival will be spotlighting composers of Bel Canto, the Baroque, operetta – and presenting an evening’s highlights of Don Pasquale. Les Senteurs is proposing a fragrance to characterise the mood of each event; the trick being to choose a perfume which will reflect and harmonise with the music as well as the times in which it was was written. Fascinating ,very! It opens up the mind –  and the nose. We’d love to hear your ideas on this,too. So come round some time and smell the fragrances that I’ve suggested so far and let us know what makes your own imagination soar – from punk to the Coronation of Poppaea.

Image: pureconsult.co.uk

The Smell of School

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Analysis of those few remembered smells depends on which school I am conjuring. Prep school was suffused with the odour of boiled cabbage, our inevitable luncheon vegetable, implacably doled out from a huge blue plastic colander. The headmaster’s wife wore tiny matching Wellingtons to supervise its preparation. It had to be eaten up: unfortunately we did not wear the bloomers into which my mother’s generation had tucked the leftover for thoughtful disposal after the meal.
Now comes the smell of paraffin heaters, Cherry Blossom Shoe Shine and Dubbin in the gloomy boot room where Mr Bowes cleaned 150 pairs of shoes and scraped away at football boots, a perpetual cigarette partially concealed in his curved palm. (People always said then that this furtiveness denoted an ex-con). The boot domain opened off a sort of concrete Victorian loggia: the next door along opened into the communal exiguous lavatories full of Izal and Bronco, walls streaming with damp, which so appalled me as a new boy that I preferred not to go at all. An experiment in will power which lasted for an unhealthy and remarkable length of time.
I remember more of public school scents, possibly because by the age of 13 my nose had awoken and become more enquiring and demanding. And O! the smells of that first evening when I was swamped and disoriented like a newly housed puppy by the odours of an establishment the size of a village, with 1,000 inhabitants. The dining hall had an echo which was overwhelming itself before one balked like a pony at the extraordinary smell: not especially nasty but very thick and pervasive, an accumulated miasma of floor wax, old food (particularly, it always seemed to me, mashed potatoes) and stale dishcloths. We sat on benches at varnished wooden tables; the windows were set very high, as in the workhouse, so there was no view. In fact, it was forbidden for boys to look out from any window whatsoever for their first two years. There seemed to be a perpetual light film of greasy damp laid over everything and it was all too easy for small fry to slip on the floor when bringing cauldrons of gravy or custard from the kitchens. Yet we dined below a beautiful domed ceiling of sky blue and gold: we looked up to Heaven from the mire. On Sundays we were offered a special breakfast of canned grapefruit, bread rolls baked very hard so that they crumbled to dust when broken and bitter coffee, wonderfully hot and strong. The distinctive fragrance of all this, mixed with slightly damp and clammy best black suits is always with me, and giving me goose flesh as I write this.
Then there were the odours concomitant with dormitories of 50 boys allowed baths only twice weekly and a clean shirt every Friday. Sports clothes were washed much less, say once a term. Between whiles they were merely dried on the pipes of a small boiler room which served as antechamber to the baths. Wet towels were hung here too, or slung over chairs by one’s bed. Some people had competitions as to how long they could go without washing their hair or whether they could get away with sleeping in their clothes for a whole term. Then you had to find storage space for your damp and muddy CCF uniform. Yet I remember only a certain mildewed mustiness, nothing worse, and the teachers never remonstrated. Neither did our parents. the furthest mine ever went was to say how tired and cross we seemed when allowed out. And my father said wistfully, leaving me at the beginning of one term,” do try to keep clean…”. He’d been there himself: he knew the form.
The magnificent library (another painted ceiling) smelled of dried-up leather bindings and Sunday dinners, especially vinegary mint sauce and horseradish. This was odd as it was nowhere near the dining room. The classrooms were still fragrant with ink. The wells in the hacked-about wooden forms  were no longer filled , but they showed ample evidence of former use and we pupils were still up to our wrists in Quink, plus tattoos of biro and fountain pen sometimes applied subcutaneously. Why did no one get blood poisoning? One of my friends henna’ed his fingers and grew his nails like a Manchu before stamping out circles in them with a hole puncher and threading them through with wires which then…etc etc. So much time we had then, so intricately and elaborately wasted.
The one part of the premises which unequivocably reeked was the kitchen yard onto which for two terms my study looked. I had one of the most privileged rooms (being furthest away from the gaze of authority) and yet it gave onto this terrible pen graced with three huge bins labelled  (and I should be correct, I gazed at them for 25 weeks) Sobas Segas, Conidas Segas, Liquido Salsas: – dry refuse, pig food, liquid waste. It was a year of continual strikes – including the dustbin men – coniciding with a very hot summer. The stench was all-enveloping and perpetual, yet it was never referred to, even by visiting outsiders, and no one took ill though looking back I’m inclined to think it made us even more lethargic and snappish. Everyone prided himself on idiosyncratic interior decoration – huge posters of Jane Fonda v Jean Harlow graced the walls – and there was always plenty of expressive music on the go, but the senses of smell and taste ( a study diet of black Nescafe and Mother’s Pride ) were strangely neglected. School was by and large a whole lot of fun and I’ve certainly laughed so much since, but the liberation of my nose began on the day I left.
Image: dailymail.co.uk

What To Look For In Autumn

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7 modern niche classics to sustain and style you through the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness:

L’Eau d’Hiver by Editions de Parfums

Elusive, transparent, gleaming, mysterious, cashmere-soft.
Honey, caramel, iris, hawthorn and carnation as translucent as morning mist melted by the sun.

Aqua Vitae by Francis Kurkdjian

Throw back your head to catch the warm rays of St Luke’s Little Summer. A last holiday break to stock up on the light and heat radiated by mandarin, tonka, lemon and hedione, the blessed sunshine molecule.

Back To Black by Kilian

A rich store of honey, spicy sweet luxury stolen from the bees of Laos, combined with patchouli, cardomom, olibanum, vanilla + vetiver. The scent of fragrant fresh hay and fertility.

Tabarome by Creed

Crisp, invigorating; virile and bracing. Ginger and tobacco, patchouli and green tea for streamlined vigorous elegance. Summer has gone, autumn is full of promise and adventure.

Dries Van Noten by Editions de Parfums

Creamy vanilla and lemon verbena. Subtle hints of patisserie at a pavement cafe on a bright blue morning: a silky-smooth peaceful start to a perfect day.

Sucre d’Ebene by Huitieme Art

The woody cool grey scent of witch hazel dissipates like autumn rain in a comforting heart of tonka and sugar cane from Barbados. Draw the curtains and stir up the fire: blissful animal comfort.

Rose Anonyme by Atelier Cologne

The last rose of summer darkened with oud, plum and dark notes of the lengthening velvet shadows. Patchouli, ginger and oriental incense notes soaked in a brooding atmosphere of full-blown opulence and seduction.

Play with the Devil

pan

Just to get you licking your lips and smacking your chops, I’ll tip you the wink as to a gloriously degenerate new scent coming into stock at Les Senteurs at the very beginning  of October. Get your head round this corker. Kilian’s PLAY WITH THE DEVIL is a luscious fruity creation that toys with all sorts of pagan references: the great god Pan, the horned and cloven-hoofed god, let loose and running wild in the autumn woods   “spreading ruin and scattering ban”. Even today in country areas folk say that you must finish gathering blackberries on by 1st October the day on which the Devil poisons them with his spittle.

Kilian and his inspired perfumer Calice Becker dish up an orgiastic banquet of  blackcurrant, peach, lychee and blood orange, all juicy-sweet and flowing like diabolical nectar. Here’s the deadly sin of sensual greed leading you most appetisingly into bosky tangles of jasmine and roses (” no rose without a thorn”) and the dark musky woodiness of the forest floor. Appropriately enough this will be the 4th fragrance in Kilian’s Garden of Good + Evil Collection: Satan storms into Eden…”. Prepare yourself by popping into the shop now and tempting yourself with the entire Kilian range.

Fan of the Fans

‘ And lest our beauty should be soiled with sweat
We with our ayrie fans dispel the heat’

This summer’s suffocating weather turned each London Tube car into a fluttering aviary of captive butterflies as folding fans came back into their own, in every fabric from painstakingly pleated newspaper and sequinned silk to “Souvenir de Palma” nylon lace. The Tube trend has been quietly established over the past few years but this summer I’ve noted with satisfaction that men have taken it up too, not a whit abashed: and sober middle-aged gents at that, tucking a black fan back into their jacket pocket before swiping out their Oysters. Jolly good: for fans – like perfume – began in the Orient as an exclusively male accessory, used for signalling in battle and to whack the heads of recalcitrant school children. For centuries, western women used the fixed, rigid fan shaped like a leaf or a flag – sometimes feathered, set with a looking glass or used as a screen to protect the face before the fire. In the 1580’s the more romantic folding fan arrived in Europe from China: an early example, closed and set with huge pearls, is seen in the Ditchley portrait of Elizabeth 1st. The Queen, like many another woman, welcomed fans as an opportunity to display her etiolated spider-web white hands.

Some men of fashion adopted fans in the 17th and 18th centuries. You may spot them in use in the odd print, and the Royal Collection possesses a Chinese ivory fan presented to George IV – but they had a taint of the dandy and the rake. It’s good to see such practical yet attractive items coming back into the male wardrobe. I remember BOAC paper fans being handed out in-flight during the 1960’s and some of my older readers may remember their spectacular use at the Vatican: in the days when it was customary to take telephone calls from the Pontiff upon one’s knees, the Pope’s public appearances, borne upon a palanquin, were attended by long-handled feather fans as exotic as any in an Alma Tadema tableau.

Thus they caught the imagination of Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

          And the eyes in the peacock fans
          Winked at the Alien Glory.

The great Edith Evans had much to say about fans – if an actress was lumbered with one as a prop she should scratch her head with it, use it to poke the fire, in short do anything but cool herself with it. By then it had been a ubiquitous female accessory for 400 years. The Empress Elisabeth of Austria carried a large leather fan in the hunting field to protect her complexion; others had quizzing glasses and lorgnettes concealed in the leaves and guards. Even when degraded and imprisoned, the widowed Marie Antoinette was supplied gratis with a mourning fan after her husband’s execution. Like a head covering, the fan had become an essential accoutrement of upper class female respectability.

Nothing looks worse than a badly handled fan being clawed open, crushed and waved about like a ping-pong bat: it should be shimmered, agitated and vibrated like a pigeon’s tail with or without reference to the sign language that once informed every twitch of the sticks.The accomplished user can talk with a fan: I’ve always collected them so each one speaks of a memory and an experience, a souvenir of people, places and emotions.

          Where is the Pompadour now?
          This was the Pompadour’s fan.

There’s magic in the way a fan opens: a whole story, a moving picture is revealed at a flick of the wrist. I think that was what attracted me as an infant – the secrecy and subsequent revelation, trying to guess the pattern on the leaf from the cryptic ciphers when folded. Then the thrill of hearing it open with a flourish and a crack (memories of a visit to The Mikado); feeling it revert again to a neat bundle of flat sticks. A fan has the charm that used to be found in those wonderful sealed shells we found in our Christmas stockings: you chucked them into a glass of water and they slowly opened to release a string of paper flowers, floating to the surface in every colour. I became fixated on the half-moon shape manifesting in anything from fan-lights to scallops, pompadour wafers, palms and Spanish combs. Even geometry sets – thanks to plastic protractors – acquired a certain mystique.

So you see that fans like perfumes, another intimate portable accessory, tell a tale and create a mood. They can float beautiful scents upon the breeze and dissipate a miasma. Perfumed fans have always been a feature of the business. You can easily scent your own either by wrapping it in a perfumed cloth when not in use, by perfuming its case, or (after a preliminary patch test) impregnating the leaf. Better stick to one fragrance per fan, mixing does no favours. 50 years ago I was given a glorious black and red paper fan from Bermuda: the scent still lingers in my mind – patchouli, orris and incense – though the fan is long gone, lost in a move. I remember the odour far more vividly than the vanished visuals. Fans were always about fragility, as transient as those butterflies; maybe this is one of the many reasons why their universal use rapidly declined post-1918 as women’s social role became more powerful and emancipated. It was no longer thought necessary to carry a fan to revive a swooning maiden. Instead women found empowerment and new tools of seduction in the new exploding perfume market, marking their pioneering trail with scent rather than fluttering, mothily modest, into the shadows.