Crowning Glory

 

It’s spring in all but the official calendar. The rooks have returned. Both flora and fauna have begun to go wild with excitement. For the past week the air has felt milder, softer, full of energy. Even us olfactorily-challenged humans can perceive and smell delicate and wonderful new scents. So, what myriads of odours beyond our ken can be driving the natural kingdom crazy with the desire to bloom and procreate? A word of warning: this time of year can be very risky, exceedingly precarious. You may find yourself simultaneously galvanised and drained by spring fever. It’s fatally easy to overdo, as new tingling air powers you up and consequently sends you right over the top. And what comes up must infallibly come down.

 

The wonderful Iraqi Kurdish barbers who used to have a shop round the corner from me always said that at home everyone was bled in March, to drain all the corrupt and exhausted winter blood. We used to do the same in this country up to a couple of centuries ago. Should we keep some leeches in a jar downstairs at Les Senteurs? I feel that I at least could benefit from their action. Imagine the relief of drawing off all the stale air, darkness and fug of winter. It would be the corporeal equivalent of laundering one’s entire wardrobe – and the new blood would smell as sweet as a nut.

 

In spring, those old indoor smells which seemed so cosy in the frozen mid-winter now appear frowsty, drab and unclean like the miasma of a serially unmade and rumpled bed. I was rummaging around in Oxfam the other day and I found this gaudy – but very pretty – little tin box all stuck about with pink and violet sequins. When I lifted the lid, it was to find the box stuffed full of human hair. I was absolutely repelled. Such an intrusion of mortality it was, somehow; so intimate and inappropriate on a breezy fresh morning. I cannot tell whether I really smelled oil and sebum or whether it was the power of imagination; but I clapped on the glittering lid like lightning, made an excuse and left the store.

 

I remember the late Elizabeth Jane Howard comparing the odour of a greasy unwashed scurfy head to that of cheap raspberry jam. Both my grandmothers had cut glass pots with silver lids all over their dressing tables. All their contemporaries did. When the ladies had brushed their hair they would pull out the combings from the bristles and stuff them into a pot. This nosey little boy was told that this operation was for the benefit of the birds: to provide them with warm silky linings for their nests. No doubt by the 1950’s this was so. I have since read, however, that in the days when every woman had (infrequently washed) hair to her waist, the combings were collected to be eventually woven into false fronts, falls and the like. These would augment those elaborate nineteenth century coiffures – and of course match their owners’ hair colour and texture perfectly.

 

In our own day of wash-and-go thrice-daily showering all this can seem a bit grubby. Hair can smell quite wonderful – and erotic, too. But we’ve come to think that hair – like everything else to do with our persons and our daily routines – needs always to be squeaky clean to be found attractive. A less than pristine smell nowadays is evidence of the loathly Beast in Man. Especially hair, which is all too akin to fur and the growth of which is therefore encouraged only upon the human head.  Maybe this is why – in the niche sector at least – “dirty” animalic perfumes are currently so perversely popular. It’s a natural reaction to all the disinfecting. Les Senteurs customers go mad for MUSC TONKIN, SALOME and the more advanced and spectacular ouds in our collect.

 

For the less uninhibited, we have some gorgeous hair products to tempt you. Girls who model themselves on Snow White and Rose Red should try the following delectable duo. CARNAL FLOWER Hair Mist creates the illusion that you are crowned with invisible tuberoses. The spicy rosy raptures of PORTRAIT OF A LADY are now available in an oil for both body and hair. And all those who long to lay their weary heads on a pillow of rose buds should invest in a flacon of DANS MON LIT linen spray.

 

In her later years my grandmother produced a curious little rose gold ring which had belonged to her own mother. It looked like a decayed tooth, really – a fragment of shadowy convex glass surrounded by black and crumbling seed pearls. It was worn almost to pieces. It was said to contain human hair, presumably that of my four great aunts and uncles who had died in infancy. My mother had a horror of the thing: she said it was extremely unlucky to preserve hair. I have the ring still. Sometimes I wonder – if it should finally crack from side to side and the web fly wide – just what smells from 150 years ago would emerge…

“Open Now The Crystal Fountain!” – torrents of scent…

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‘THE MALTESE FALCON’ (1941) – Lee Patrick comes into Bogart’s office, rolling her eyes at a perfumed calling card just handed in at the outer door by Peter Lorre

“Gardenia…..”

” Quick, darling! In with him!”

A dear friend and client of Les Senteurs wrote to us last week to suggest we have a fountain – what is sometimes now called a water feature – installed at the shop. As she said, imagine the cooling musical sound and delicious odour of fragranced droplets  –  maybe rosewater – splashing into a marble basin filled with gold and silver fish. We would all sit around the atrium on cushions stuffed with rose petals and musk, sipping sherbet and drinking jasmine tea. So then we ruminated on the Palatine palaces of Roman emperors, running with conduits of violet perfume; Francis Kurkdjian’s glorious installations at Versailles; Eugene Rimmel’s multi-spouted Fountain of Perfumes at the Crystal Palace in 1851; and Clover Carr’s fantasy of the eau de cologne pond in “Katy”. All excellent precedents and no wonder we got rather carried away. Alas! Perfume shops are not run by peris, djinns and houris. Someone has to cash up the till and dust the shelves. It’s not all glamour.

So, just as Rudyard Kipling wrote of ‘The Glory of the Garden’:

‘Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made

By singing:-” Oh, how beautiful,” and sitting in the shade

While better men than we go out and start their working lives

At grubbing weeds from gravel-paths with broken dinner-knives….’

I scratch around in my back yard with my dad’s penknives and a trowel. I don’t know how I’ve raised such beauty as now manifests by the back door. No credit to me, I’m sure. I’m an old duck that’s hatched a swan in a bucket of compost. The famous tuberoses are now 36″ high – I measured on Sunday morning. They are like bolted sticks of asparagus; the leaves, so profuse in spring, have dwindled to almost nothing. Very strong and tough the stalks are, with no need for staking. At the top of each stem is a cluster of snow white ovoid buds tinged with pale apple-blossom pink; like the toes of a Norse goddess with nails tipped with shells from the sea shore. Msr. Rimmel tells us in his Book of Perfume that no more than two stellar flowers open daily. He’s not precisely correct here – I see rather more – but the blooming is certainly steady and leisured. No doubt there has been some genetic alteration in the bulbs since 1866.¤ What I must do next is to discover when – and if – I should lift the bulbs after flowering; and how to nurture them over the winter to ensure another crop in 2017. Rest assured I shall pass all this on to you. Having spent all my working life with the extracts and infusions of tuberose, how fascinating it is now to watch the plant grow and bloom, not on human skin but in accordance with the rules of Nature.

One thing I have learned is that the plants appreciate almost unlimited watering. Dousing, in fact, at the roots. It seems to me that this prevents the buds at the very top of the stalk from shrivelling before they open: something you often see in shop-boughten tuberoses. (I have noted, too, that those beautiful and supposedly drought-resistant clove-scented pinks and carnations will also lose their buds in infancy if kept too strictly short of water).

Next to the tuberoses stand two pots of  tower lilies: they have grown nowhere near the promised six feet (though this is only year one), but they are billowing out clouds of intoxicating swooning perfume. At dusk the combination of voluptuous floral smells is almost too much. Some visitors are overwhelmed.  The lilies smell something like Malle’s Dries Van Noten but with a touch of ginger, too; the white and gold flowers have a sensuous smooth coolness like that of perfect skin. I put two fallen petals in a saucer of water: these fragranced my bedroom for days.

The plants stay outside most nights pumping forth their nocturnal mega- sweetness to the owls and foxes. However, it was blowing a gale last Sunday so I brought the tuberose indoors and kept her overnight in the passage between kitchen and back door: there’s a glass door at either end. The next morning that space was heavy with elements of every tuberose perfume I have ever smelled – wreathing, blending and embracing. Very fascinating and instructive: everything from Carnal Flower to Fracas, but dominated maybe by Pierre Guillaume’s Tubereuse Couture, sweet and sugary and smokily candified.

The other week in this column I was musing about dogs in perfume shops and wondering how they protect their poor noses. (The tuberoses don’t keep the local cats away from my doves and goldfinches, by the way). One of my supportive regular readers has sent me a piece from a recent edition of the Times newspaper concerning a new type of novelty collar which is designed to curb barking dogs. As the animal sounds off, a powerful burst of citronella – which dogs apparently loathe – spurts from its harness. The fright of the sudden odour is supposed to silence the dog. Animal charities have condemned this device, repeating the old circus adage that any form of cruelty has no part whatsoever in corrective training. Too right. One thinks of customers taken by surprise by zealous spritzers on duty at the doors of a department store. A nasty shock which can put one off perfume for life.

Drop by at Les Senteurs and let us guide you by the hand to the metaphorical crystal fountain of fragrance! Where all is done by kindness and every prospect pleases. You’ll be so welcome.

Be My Valentine?

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What’s one of the very nicest things you can buy your loved one on Valentine’s Day?

“Perfume” I hear you murmur, with quiet confidence. Quite right.

I’ll tell you why.

Perfume smells lovelier than store-boughten flowers which nowadays seem to have sacrificed scent for gorgeousness of colour and immensity of size.

It will smell even more delicious than a fine dining experience or a designer box of chocs; and fragrance carries none the concomitant risks to health and fitness.

And it lasts so much, much longer than either of the above. You always get your money’s worth with scent; besides which, you can personalise it in witty and exquisite ways.

Look, I’ll show you:

To make a successful gift of perfume you have to give a lot of yourself and that is always the best gift of all. You need to plan your purchase to fit your loved one as snugly as a pair of hand-made shoes. Get into his (or her) head – take a tour around his personality and choose a scent accordingly. Staff at Les Senteurs are always happy to help you translate ideas into actions if you need a little assistance.

Think laterally: consider, say, your partner’s favourite movie, colour or flower and pick a perfume to reflect that. If you were going down the cinematic route you might choose a fragrance notably worn or inspired by your inamorata’s favourite star ( Frederic Malle & Dominique Ropion created Carnal Flower with Candice Bergen in mind; Catherine Deneuve was Francis Kurkdjian’s inspiration for Lumiere Noire). Or you could select a perfume worn in a much-loved film. Think of Norma Desmond’s tuberoses in Sunset Boulevard or Caron’s Fleur de Rocaille in The Scent of a Woman. If you wept over Titanic, then track down a scent that was captivating the world in 1912. We have several such treasures – cast your eye and nose over the great Houses of Houbigant, Grossmith and, once again, the inevitable and unique Caron.

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Candice Bergen in Carnal Knowledge

Matching flowers is easy to do, but so romantic and adorable if you take the trouble to discover what she really loves: we have luscious rose perfumes of all types ( dark, dewy, spicy, fruity, innocent, lascivious, smoky, waxy ); but Les Senteurs also holds captive the most beautiful examples of gardenia, ylang ylang, lily of the valley, magnolia and orange blossom. A married gentlemen may like to remember what his wife carried in her bridal bouquet and match those blooms in fragrance. Ladies, you can do the same with your husband’s boutonniere or the favourite plants he cultivates for the garden show. Don’t forget: men love flowers too.

A rose that's perfect for men and women.

A rose that’s perfect for men and women.

Now I mentioned colour which may surprise some of you. I don’t mean the colour of the packaging or the bottle (though this may play its part). I’m talking about a factor that’s rather more subtle. By and large, if a person likes brilliant, strong vibrant hues then that individual will go for expressive rich perfumes too. Contrary wise, admirers of white, beige, cream and pastels will tend to prefer lighter airier fragrances. So consider the colours your beloved wears, the shades your lover paints his rooms and let your instinct guide you like a bee to the honey.

Bette Davis in 'Now, Voyager'

Bette Davis in Now, Voyager

Nothing stimulates memory like the sense of smell so another cute idea would be to conjure up thoughts of a special time you have enjoyed together and celebrate it in scent. If the earth moved for you, try Nu_Be’s explosive and elemental dawn-of-the-universe fragrances. Recreate a day at the sea; an ocean voyage; a holiday in Havana, Istanbul, London, China or Morocco; an evening at the ballet. Or, more modestly, an afternoon in the vegetable garden, a shared creamcake, a romantic breakfast – even the wicked intimacy of a shared cigarette. “O Jerry don’t let’s ask for the moon, we have the stars.”
Getting the idea? Choosing a romantic gift should and can be such a pleasure: and I think I can promise that the more you enjoy the selection, the more delight the chosen perfume will give to the recipient.

Happy Valentines from all at LES SENTEURS!

“Interesting Without Being Vulgar”: The Wily Tuberose

Tuberoses are dangerous demonic flowers. Their oil is one of the great classic natural ingredients of perfume, easy to extract but hard to handle with skill. Tuberoses are said to deflower virgins and heat the blood; they camouflage the scent of death and the dying. Louis XIV planted them out in the gardens of Versailles in Sevres jardinieres; Marie Antoinette’s perfumer relied on them; in her ineffable “A.B.C” Marlene Dietrich told us they not only smell good, they taste delicious. Part of the mystery of the tuberose is that relatively few British people still know precisely what it is. It was unknown in Europe until the seventeenth century when it was introduced from South America and Asia by the British and Spanish colonial fleets. The name which sounds so exotic confuses the unwary and I fell into this trap myself when I first read Gone With The Wind at school and imagined the tuberoses in the girls’ hair at the Atlanta Ball to be tiny tightly coiled rosebuds – or “tubular roses” as you sometimes hear the muddled say. The name is simply French for “tuberous” – a flower grows from a tuber. A disappointingly mundane title for this exotic member of the lily family; but in fact its implications links the flower to the orchid, the avocado, the onion, mandrake, potato and many other plants which because of their growth pattern have graphically sexual connotations.

Orchids and avocados are named because of their supposed resemblance to human testicles; asparagus is explicitly phallic; lettuces and onions bolt in a mad spurt of upward growth, the lettuce exuding a milky juice in the process. Every flower and plant known to our ancestors was imbued with magic, not merely because of its scent and healing or destructive properties but because it symbolised eternal life and reproduction. It died and came again with the seasons; its unstoppable budding, flowering, stalk, leaves, roots and fruit were all illustrative of the human cycle of fertility and reproduction. If it exuded a rich perfume in addition to a suggestive shape it was used as the most powerful of aphrodisiacs. Maybe too the popularity of tuberose in modern perfumery is partially explained by its being such a relatively new scent to Europeans: like Australia and America it is raw, new and still developing, still having the corners knocked off it. We are still coming to terms with it, like vanilla and patchouli; equally ubiquitous oils. Rose, jasmine and iris have had thousands of years for us to get our noses and brains around: tuberose is still to be fathomed. It is a metaphor for the choosing of a perfume in a shop: we keep nipping in day after day for another sniff, still not convinced that we like it but hooked on something in the formula; like moths attracted not to the light but to the deep softness darkness behind the light.

Far too extravagant and showy for all but the most recherche tastes, tuberose was used sparingly by the great perfumers of the early twentieth century: Guerlain and Caron came to it very late in the day. Germaine Cellier first put it on the map with Fracas in 1946, a Robert Piguet scent whose legend continues to glow and evolve. Fracas was said to be an olfactory incarnation of Rita Hayworth – the screen image, not the tragic private personality (“They go to bed with Gilda but they wake up with me…”). Fracas is a dazzling pink champagne burst of fruit blossom, jasmine and tuberose sweetened with vanilla, tonka and musk. Like Rita it is lithe, sinuous, unpredictable and intensely glamorous; unlike her, it has a frilly, girlish side maybe on account of its intense sweetness which set the trend for tuberose perfumes for decades to come. As I write I am wearing the spectacular new Madonna Truth or Dare which releases cerise clouds of thickest tuberose so sweet it seems to be working from a base of Lyons Golden Syrup. There are also fruity hints which seem, as so often with this school of scents, to suggest strawberry tarts or summer jam just beginning to roll to the boil. If you smell pure white tuberose flowers in a hothouse or sheltered garden they are deliciously intense and, like gardenias and tiare, faintly reminiscent of coconut milk, but the ersatz perfumery sweetness is absent. And I rather miss that. I find it brings out the escapist and slightly insane quality of the flower, the bloom from another dimension. Maybe I am simply buying into its magical heritage of tuberose folk lore legend: and I fancy that Fracas and its many successors have done the same. The Gantier offering – Tubereuse – adds another element: a sleek sable animal quality, a damp pelt covered in just-melting snow which suits it to winter wear and the Christmas party spirit: a dance on a volcano spurting black and rosy lava.

Carnal Flower is tuberose re-invented for the 21st century: uber-green tuberose, leaf and loam and all. This is tuberose stripped bare, reconstructed, throwing Fracas and her syrupy sisters out of the pram. Carnal Flower shakes off the more sinister aspects of the fragrance while preserving the erotic: this is a cool morning tuberose full of fresh air, warm rain and dew. There is nothing of the funeral parlour or the exhibitionist actress about it, those aspects which Billy Wilder exploits so brilliantly when he has Norma Desmond boiling with claustrophobic tuberose in Sunset Boulevard. Carnal Flower is the plant dissected with the botanist’s scalpel and reassembled as geometric perfume. On the skin it slowly grows and glows, like the opening of a wild orchid in a marshy field; its movements are delicate and unexpected, sometimes hard to follow: a sensory revolution. Maybe this presentation of an open air wholesome glowing tuberose is the secret of its success: while it continues to mesmerise and enthral it lacks the beaded curtain and Tiffany lamp oppressiveness of its predecessors. Tuberose pruned back and growing fresh from the root: a walk in a morning garden rather than crawling into bed between old-rose velvet draperies. It could almost be bridal, a first for this type of fragrance. Nonetheless, the essential spice of danger still lurks in the title: making you think of those obscene scarlet veined gamboge pitcher plants waiting in boggy meadows for unwary insects. Tuberose is a flower which must always be handled with discretion.

Image from Wikimedia commons

Signing off for now…

Have you got your copy yet of ‘A Card From Angela Carter’ by Susannah Clapp? A fascinating memoir of the writer built around postcards sent by this fascinating woman, sure to appeal to all her admirers; as well as those who, like Lemon Wedge, are always inspired by the imagery, portability and accessibility of a picture postcard. Carter’s final novel was the entirely bewitching and screamingly funny “Wise Children”, the story of identical twins Dora and Nora who are defined by their signature scents – Mitsouko for Dora and Shalimar for Nora: one episode revolves around the sexual havoc that ensues when boyfriends trust to their sense of smell rather than their eyes and ears. A warning to us all.
Many perfume fanciers, women in particular, long for a signature scent; a perfume that will reflect their personality, advertise their presence and, like a memory or even a human soul, linger in the minds of others after they have departed – either from the party, the bed or from this world entirely. I used to know an elderly French lady who had married a Londoner and come to settle here in the 1930’s. During the Second World War her flat was a gathering place for Free French and other expatriates; they found the address, she said, by the trail of Shalimar. She once asked some French exiles what they missed most about home: “Ah, Mme! Les femmes parfumées!”  English women have always been shy of applying scent with the reckless abandon of their Gallic sisters. They want to be remembered, nonetheless: a frequent request is from a young mother who is looking for a perfume that will stay in her children’s minds for a lifetime, adding another dimension to her immortality. Rita Hayworth’s daughter, whom I have mentioned elsewhere in these pages, went so far as to have a candle created imbued with her late mother’s perfume, to surround herself with the scent – the WARM scent – of the maternal prescence.
There is poignant anecdote told – I think by Jonathan Gathorne Hardy (maybe readers can help me?) – in a book on English public schools, of an elderly gentleman reduced to floods of tears at a school reunion by meeting a fellow pupil on whom 50 years before he had had a tremendous crush, “At school he always used to smell of tangerines….” . Scent as we all know prompts the memory with such a powerful,immediate and visceral impact; reminding me of Mae West’s trick of shuffling across the carpet to greet visitors so as to generate enough static to give the caller a sharp electric jolt when she shook hands or kissed. A signature scent may come by design or by happen-stance; it need not be your personal favourite, just the smell that others associate with you. Or if you are fortunate enough, it can even be your own natural odour as saints are said to smell of roses, and Alexander the Great of violets. The signature scent may not even be one that emanates from your own person, but the redolence of your ambience – the magical Mona di Orio always spoke of childhood memories of her grandmother being inextricably tied up with the scent of geraniums, dry in the summer heat and then the delicious smell of the parched leaves and soil revived and made fragrant by the evening ritual watering.
The desire for a scent unique to oneself seems to be more widespread than ever: bespoke perfumes are heavily in demand despite the high cost involved and long waiting lists. The supreme luxury to indulge in to be sure, but I am not entirely convinced; it is a difficult trick to pull off, not so much for the perfumer but for the client. You can end up, I think, in the artificial position of over-analysing likes and dislikes, while straining for effects of which you still remain unsure. And the unfamiliarity with the technicalities of ingredients and manufacturing methods can add to this, together with the perennial problem of conveying olfactory feelings and desires verbally. There remain at least two other alternatives.
One is to take time to browse through perfume departments and particularly specialist shops where there is a wide and ample choice of scents which you can try and analyse at your leisure, until (maybe with a little guidance from sympathetic staff) you find a scent which calls to you, quite literally. Calls to you through your nose and brain, so that you know you can live with and in this through the seasons, day and night for as long as you wish, gradually inducing a Pavlovian reflex with your sillage. Alternatively – and I think this can be amusing besides seductive and highly effective – choose not a single scent but an ingredient, or a theme. Take, say, tuberose: you might define yourself with this oil but do so with a whole wardrobe of tuberose scents, starting with the classic pink froth of Fracas; through the fresh green of Carnal Flower; the sweetness of Bubblegum Chic; and reaching a crescendo with the flamboyant tropicana of Tubereuse Couture.