That Was The Week That Was

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“Casting always starts on time. Can’t you smell the cheap perfume?” MAD MEN: The Final Season.

You can forget about BREXIT – (someone asked, “is it a type of chocolate?”) –  it’s been a great week for scent and smell. In the tradition of Florence Nightingale and native common sense, Professor Stephen Holgate of Southampton University begged us to open our windows and ventilate our poisoned homes. Fancy needing to be told! We have become a funny lot. Fumes from wood-burning stoves, furniture polish and spray deodorants are all under suspicion; which last concern leads us neatly to all these fascinating newspaper features about the human deodorising gene. It seems that around 2% of us probably don’t need to wear a proprietary deodorant at all, if only we dared to leave it off. We smell naturally sweet and clean, no matter how hot and bothered. The problem is, determining for sure who these lucky people are: for who will take a chance, eschew the roll-on and make sure of the fact?

Maybe Alexander the Great – whose sweat reputedly smelled of violets – was blessed with this gene. I have certainly known certain folk who have always the perpetual aura of a spring garden or the flower shop around them. Possibly this topical gene holds the answer to a mystery I have often pondered: the chain smoker who never has a trace of stale tobacco or cigarette smoke about her person but only a redolence as sweet as a nut, fragrant as a rose, pure as a lily.

Also featured in the press was the amusing case of a serial ‘career’ shoplifter who told the judge after sentencing how handsome he was. Like many of her kind, she was no stranger to the perfume counter and, fascinatingly, a cute reporter noted her preference for Hermes and Hugo Boss creations. I remember that around thirty years ago a huge fragrance warehouse in the Midlands was looted by thieves who had tunnelled in like ancient tomb robbers. They stripped the place methodically, leaving only stacks of Houbigant’s Demi Jour untouched. This was taken as a terrible slight on the dewy jammy-sweet perfume in question.

Well, then we took delivery at the shop of James Heeley’s revelatory new Chypre 21, and this started a lively discussion as to what a chypre fragrance actually is. If you’re looking for an intellectual treat in scent-circles, a symposium of meta-cognition, just propose to those present that they categorise a chypre, concisely and definitively. This most glamorous and alluring type of fragrance has been around for centuries but was only pinned to the butterfly board of perfumery ninety nine years ago when Francois Coty launched his eponymous Chypre. Guerlain’s immortal Mitsouko followed two years later with vast success but chypres, though much admired, have never been the most popular scents with the Lumpen. Maybe the name is too tricky for the Anglo-Saxon tongue. I had to smile, because in pursuit of chypre history I stumbled across the Google fact that in the text of Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon (1929/30 ) Mr Joel Cairo’s hankies are soaked in chypre. Evidently Warner Bros jibbed, because in the movie version (1941) Peter Lorre is drenched in gardenia. A more accessible scent for contemporary audiences? (Or was gardenia – as witness Mary Astor’s bath salts in THE GREAT LIE – just more on-point that year? Or did gardenia sound more aptly and obviously pansified).¤

But the greatest event of last week was probably my mail order! I finally got around to answering a most enticing advertisement for tuberose bulbs, as seen in the back pages of a national newspaper. Five bulbs of ‘The Pearl’ for just £8. My imagination ran riot and galloped off, well ahead of itself: as it always does with such ads or with the flowery promise of any seed packet. I imagined the back yard transformed into a tropical terrace, the heavy scent driving me indoors of a summer’s evening, stupefied & moribund with perfume; pink and white tuberoses running riot like a stage garden of tissue paper blossoms. I kept this advertisement on the kitchen table for a full week, gloating over it, but now the cheque’s gone off and when the precious bulbs come I’ll plant them like Jack’s beans and keep you informed of their (indubitably magical) progress.

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Andy Tauer’s new Tubereuse fragrance – of the Sotto la Luna tribe – is sumptuously ample, eye-poppingly opulent, like the chasuble of a Spanish Conquistador bishop. A vestment woven of black cloth-of-gold; then sewn with black opals, jet and black diamonds strung on human hairs. Beneath the coruscating magnificence there lurks a profoundly earthy quality which puts me in mind somewhat of the rootiness of Annick Goutal’s long-vanished tuberose experiment. The crystal Tubereuse grown in Tauer’s nursery – dusky top notes of cinnamon, galbanum, clove and prickly green geranium – slowly rises through the chthonic darkness of earth and cinders like an exhumed Pre-Columbian American statue of the Divine. A massive ornately carved idol, resurrected from chasms of wandering shadows, to bring ambiguous greetings from the Lower World of Mictlan. As Tubereuse warms, it sings – as the Colossi of Memnon were said to do when hit by rays of the rising sun – emitting chords of sweet rose, jungly ylang and the bitterness of patchouli. Tuberose perfumes come in many moods –  natural, green, frothy and frilly, smoothly syrupy, fruity, sensual, erotic and brash. But this Tauer creation is unique, startingly original: an iridescent ruby-throated hummingbird scent from the nectar of a sooty lily. A pure white flower – a sacrificial “blossom of the bone” – reflected in a sorcerer-priest’s obsidian mirror: “through a glass darkly”. Disturbing, weirdly beautiful, mesmerising.

So: why not pop round?

¤ more inexplicable changes in movie translations: can anyone tell us why Melanie’s reading from Les Miserables in the book of Gone With The Wind is switched to David Copperfield in the film? And why the name of the sculptor of Mrs Mingott’s hands in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is (seemingly pointlessly) altered by Martin Scorsese?

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Autumn Leaves

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Following that earlier walk down the autumn garden path, here are 10 super scents to gladden your hearts on crisp frosty mornings and gloomy damp evenings. Scents with uplift, comfort and a whole heap of style; perfumes that make a nod to the season but are not governed by it. Nor is this selection made with any reference to gender. All of the following fragrances are great for both men and women, though some seem angled somewhat by their names; and one or two may work better on those of riper years. But that’s something I’d love you readers to comment on: so please, as ever, do write in. Meanwhile: enjoy, taste and try:

1. Vetiver Fatal by Atelier Cologne

B9-VF 200ml Packshot

Vetiver grass has been used in perfumery for millennia: it has a rather rough male reputation but women love the scent so here’s a perfume to suit everyone: sophisticated, easy-going, clean but with a touch of winter comfort. Oud emphasises vetiver’s greenery; cedar and violet leaf bring out the earthiness. Effortlessly charming.

2. Monsieur by Huitieme Art

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Rocks, streams, stones, trees – the forests of the Auvergne or Wordsworth’s Lakes. Aromatic and woody – full of patchouli, cedar, sandalwood, poplar, dry papyrus and smoky incense. All the invigorating freshness of cool damp forest air but also comforting, warm and perfectly poised.

3. Bois Du Portugal by Creed

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An old personal favourite which never palls: an unjustly forgotten Creed scent but still one of the best. Like sinking into a huge green velvet armchair inhaling lavender, mosses, bark, scented woods and memories of hot summer suns.

4. Oud Cashmere Mood by Maison Francis Kurkdjian

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I adore the loudness, the flamboyance and blatancy of oud. This cracker is wildly animalic, faintly rude, always animalic with sweet oils of labdanum, vanilla and benzoin. A fabulous contrast to the delicate cashmere fibres of Musc Ravageur – see below.

5. Musc Ravageur by Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle

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This is a beautifully dressed continental gentleman wearing soft supple tweeds and the finest, lightest cashmere scarf smelling subtly and deliciously of lavender, bitter orange, spices, woods….and clouds of warm sexy musks.

6. Tobacco Rose by Papillon

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The last rose of summer; the one still blooming in the sere garden on Christmas Day. Deep, dark, pourri’d and arousing; full of wonderful non-floral notes such as aromatic beeswax, musk, ambergris as well as the lushness of spicy Bulgarian rose oil.

7. Intoxicated By Kilian

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To give you courage on dark cold wet mornings; to stimulate you at night. A gorgeous warm spicy coffee fragrance laced with rose, cinnamon, nutmeg and green cardamom. Exciting, addictive, satisfying. Can’t live without it.

8. Vanille by Mona di Orio

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Beautiful fantasies of the South Seas and the Caribbean: a spangled veil thrown across the sky to catch diamond stars. Natural oil of vanilla laced with leather, gaiac wood, vetiver and a hint of rum. A landmark vanilla fragrance: exotic, never ersatz; modest but unconsciously overwhelming

9. Gardenia Sotto La Luna by Andy Tauer

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Tropical splendour from your own hot houses, brought to table with the forced peaches and melons. A boutonniere or bouquet for the winter balls and galas: massed creamy gardenias & white roses with incredible depth and almost vegetal richness. For me, currently Best in Show at Les Senteurs.

10. Sienne L’Hiver by Eau d’Italie

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The city of Siena in dead of winter: stone cold without, sumptuously heated and indulgent within. This little-known fragrance plays with colours, recreating the rich earthy tones of Siena’s architecture with truffle, frankincense, golden hay, labdanum, violet and geranium. A classic jewel!

Some smells do linger, Jean…

Circe Invidiosa

Circe Invidiosa

“Sillage”: in French the word means the cleft water and foaming ripples that mark the wake of a ship; it also denotes the trail of an animal. There’s a clue in that, for by the English it is used almost exclusively to mean the waft of perfume left by the presence or passage of a wearer. Everyone demands intense sillage these days: they even measure it. A sillage of three inches is nugatory; a respectable sillage should reach an arm’s length from the body and no further. And so on. Frederic Malle has even, you might reasonably claim, recreated the odour of sillage in his witty and delicious Cafe Society candle and room scent: une sillage de sillage.

Today people are by and large ready to admit (albeit under pressure) that they are wearing perfume, though they might be reluctant to reveal the name of their Chosen One. For centuries, though, the lovely and desirable sought the alluring enchantment of the sillage without the dubious connotations of the scent that gave it birth. To be seen to wear perfume on the skin was meretricious and dingy; yet to smell delicious was the mark of goodness, of moral integrity. The odour of sanctity revealed that a person was pure, benevolent, divine, without spot or stain. And it would continue to manifest even after death, rendering the mortal remains incorruptible, giving off an redolence of sweet myrrh, roses and what have you. So the aim of the fashionable was to create the illusion that scent emanated from one’s own skin, pores and soul – just as Alexander the Great sweated forth the smell of violets – and not from some dubious potation which aped the divine gift on none-to-clean skin.

“From her fragrant robes a lovely perfume was scattered” reads a hymn to the goddess Demeter. For thousands of years men and women strove for this effect: and contemporary literature – poems, plays, novels – colludes in the illusion. Desirable individuals exude scent from a vague, mysterious source. They are surrounded by an aura of perfume which suffuses their clothing, furniture, possessions and which leaves wonderful sillage when they move: “a faint delicious fragrance hung about her…”. Perfume clings to the objects that the beautiful people touch and it lingers in their rooms, their beds, luggage and hair – “she smells all amber!” But the source of the scent remains vague, unspecified: it manifests spontaneously; it seems to transmit from incense burners, herbs & flowers or from the very air. It comes from the purity of the soul. Nothing so vulgar as a bottle of perfume is mentioned: not in connection with sympathetic characters, at any rate.

I remember, I remember memorable encounters with sillage. I recall the girl with magnificent mahogany hair buying postcards in the National Gallery shop some 20 years ago, and she suffused in a cloud of Guerlain’s Samsara. I have never smelled that lovely but tricky scent so beautifully interpreted. I remember Chanel No 5 at a Covent Garden matinee, stealing over the stalls from a golden-shouldered matron in white linen: far more beguiling than discordant old Prokofiev. Some 30 years ago the ground floor at Harrods always smelled subtly and sweetly of gardenias as though left in the wake of generations of exquisite shoppers dipped in the Floris house exclusive. And most of all I recall midsummer midnight at Luxor in 1992 and the temple of Rameses on the Nile waterfront: everywhere the faint but insistent odour of Oscar de la Renta’s Volupte, the osmanthus & violet hit of the day. It was the scent and epicentre of the hot blue night.

“Some smells do linger, Jean!” as that careful lady in the tv ads used to say. And thank goodness for that. There was a woman picking over Cheddar in the Co-Op the other day who left a gorgeous powdery floral mist behind her – I don’t know what it was; dry, faintly spicy, it hung in the air like a sparkling iridescent bubble. And for sillage connoisseurs everywhere let me put in a word for Andy Tauer’s Sotta la Luna Gardenia – la Stupenda, indeed! Here is a massive and glorious gardenia scent enhanced with all the creamy sandalwood, tonka and vanilla notes exuded by the flower itself; and there’s a mossy, dark, jungly quality that expands its gender relevance. But the volume, the expansion! I like to wear just a drop of this one and follow its progress as it expands and inflates like a great balloon of fragrance. It opens up like the flower which inspires it, from a tight green bud to a voluptuous all-encompassing mantle. This is a case where less is definitely more.

Gardenias! Joan Crawford’s Favourite!

Gardenia Jasminoides Illustration

“She’s got a fabulous figure she no longer puts to any use and skin like a gardenia that’s been one day too long in the ice-box”. Here’s the inimitable Sue Kaufman describing one of her party guests in Diary Of A Mad Houswife, a book I loved so much I literally read my copy to pieces. The horrible guest is “a minor movie queen from the 1940’s” and if ever a flower symbolised the great years of Hollywood it is the gorgeous gardenia: exotic, unreal, like flowers cut from ivory velvet or white satin. They gleam and glow in their waxen creamy purity like Von Sternberg’s mad beautiful sets for The Devil Is A Woman: painted white and sprayed, like the costumes, with aluminium paint. Gardenias are like artificial flowers come to life, with their impossibly shiny dark emerald leaves that rustle like Garbo’s paper camellias in Camille: and then that glorious unearthly scent. I’m quite happy to kneel in the muck on any London street to inhale gardenias outside a florists.

“These Foolish Things” … remember how the line “Gardenia perfume lingering on a pillow” once got this song banned on radio? The young Bette Davis was seduced on a bed of gardenias by Howard Hughes; Jean Harlow was buried under a carpet of them; Orson Welles’s muse, the Mexican beauty Dolores del Rio, ate salads of gardenia and rose petals to intensify the velvety pallor of her skin. Joan Crawford went through her famous “gardenia phase” when the fan magazines featured her swimming through drifts of them in her pool. She wore them in movies and publicity shots, and pinned them to furs and shoulder straps for premieres: but as she tells us, they so quickly turned brown, “just too much body heat”. Joan had perforce to substitute Tuvache’s heady “Jungle Gardenia” for the real thing.

Gardenias are real Art Deco blooms: their geometric Rene Mackintosh look, their snowy whiteness, perfect for a Syrie Maugham interior and an era when white and platinum was de rigueur. This was also the era when Chanel made sun bathing fashionable: nothing looked sexier and more stylish than a gardenia against a honey-gold tan. Mlle liked it so well she brought out her own gardenia scent in 1925. Men loved them too,as boutonnieres on dinner jackets and black cashmere evening coats. But these iconic flowers of the late 1920’s and early 30’s were first categorised in the 18th century: and their wonderful name is merely an eponym, deriving from the botanist Alexander Garden of Charleston, Carolina. For me that’s the only faintly disappointing thing about them: it equates with tuberose meaning “propagated by a tuber”, when you long for both names to have some fantastic and extravagant Latin derivation to complete their fantasy.

The first gardenia perfume I fell under the spell of was by Goya. It was only the talcum powder, hidden in a bathroom cabinet, but it came in a wonderful white and green can with a gardenia worthy of Redoute on the label; the smell was sweet and dry and powdery/spicy. Really nothing like a living gardenia but entirely bewitching: a highly stylised interpretation of the fragrance, like the versions by Crabtree & Evelyn, Floris and Penhaligon’s in years to come. Annick Goutal created Gardenia Passion – closer to the real thing, even to the faint hint of brown bruising. Ma Griffe worked a miracle with an entirely chemical rendition. The thing is, the oil can be extracted from the plant but the yield is infintesimal, thus making it very very pricey. Most perfumers prefer to synthesise, using natural oils such as neroli and tuberose to create a wholly convincing ersatz gardenia. Kind of suitable for such a fabulousy unreal bloom.

Isabey have recreated another great 1920’s perfume: their Gardenia claims to use precious vital extract from the plant and appropriately comes in a glamorous flacon like a cube of gold. It’s heavenly: soft, whispery smooth – like cream silk velvet – with sandalwood and iris to add even more depth. Goutal’s recent Matin d’Orage blossoms in a Japanese Zen garden; gardenias drenched with summer rains opening under a stormy sky of purple and violet. And I love the diaphanous transparency of Pierre Guillaume’s Gardenia Grand Soir, a delicate breath of a corsage from a beautiful woman’s shoulder.

Heartbreaking fragile beauty; powerful emotional perfume. No wonder Billie Holliday made gardenias her trademark.

Image from guide-to-houseplants.com