Spanish Carnations: Vive el Rey!

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It is sad to see the old King of Spain putting aside his crown. When he came to the throne in the 1970’s after Franco’s unspeakably protracted end Juan Carlos was a great golden figure of traditional Bourbon glamour and vigour. The elegant & charming Queen Sofia was said to Hoover her own palaces and there were two pretty neo-Velasquez Infantas plus the little Infant Felipe for the picture papers to delight in: a perfect “Hola!” family to lead Spain out of the long shadows of the Civil War. My friend Dona Pilar who sold newspapers down our road had grown up in a country where women were forbidden to wear trousers nor any garment in red or yellow – the national colours. Do you remember, old books on colour symbolism used to say grimly “in Spain the public executioner is arrayed in yellow”?

And now all this has ended in the anti-climax of abdication and the dreariness of scandal. But the Spanish royals have never had much luck. Maybe Louis XIV’s pushing his grandson onto the throne in 1700 drew down a native curse on the Bourbon intruders. There followed feeble-minded monarchs who never got out of bed, were caricatured by Goya, chased out by Napoleon and subjected to anarchist outrages. An Infanta sent to Versailles as the fiancee of Louis XV was eventually humiliatingly returned to Madrid, labelled ‘Not Wanted’. The beautiful blonde Queen Ena, an English princess and a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, had her wedding dress spattered with blood as a result of a terrorist bomb, an augury of a disastrous marriage.

What, I wonder, do we have in the shop as an olfactory ave atque vale to King Juan Carlos and to the new Felipe VI? Carnations are the national flower of Spain; crimson, pink and snowy flowers pulsating with that hypnotic creamy musky clove scent which electrifies you when encountered in a garden. A red carnation, say Spaniards, is the symbol of hopeless passion, erotic despair.

Ironically none of the perfumes at Les Senteurs use Spanish carnation oil but let that pass: the scent, if not the poetic conception, is similar; and (perceptible) carnation of any species is not common in modern perfumery. Caron’s Piu Bellodgia is a graceful reworking of their immortal Bellodgia first launched in 1927: a lighter, drier accord; powdery like petals. Myself, I think I may even prefer it to the great original. Creed’s Acqua Fiorentina is a decadently lush corncupia of white carnations atop velvety greengages and bursting plums; while Une Fleur de Cassie from Editions de Parfum uses the flowers to enrich an already hedonistic extravaganza of mimosa, acasias, apricots and jasmine.

But for a truly Hispanic experience, the full monty with castanets, fans, guitars mantillas and peinetas, try the Cuban pastiche of Molinard’s Habanita. This is perfumery’s legendary take on the Carmen/ Dietrich sluttish cigarette girl fantasy; you know, the one that has tobacco workers rolling cigars on their thighs; the story that inflamed the House of Molinard in 1921 when smokes were the sexiest smells in scent in the wake of Caron’s barnstorming Tabac Blond. Florid, smoky and dark as the Havana night, Habanita is spangled with stars of orange blossom, jasmine and lilac in a thicket of leather, benzoin, amber,oakmoss, vetiver and cedar with florid flashes of raspberry and peach.
It’s oily, earthy, seductive and as penetrating as a Toledo steel estoque.

Ole! We salute His Most Christian Majesty, King Felipe, as he takes the throne on June 19th.

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Knize Ten

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The end of the Great War saw a frenzied creative activity in the creation of scent: without Caron’s Tabac Blond there would have been no Knize Ten; without Knize Ten there might have been no Habanita. We have all three pillars of perfumery holding up the roof of Les Senteurs: the most remarkable and oddest of the trio is Knize Ten. Extraordinarily difficult to find, its reputation is enormous but in no way belied by its reality, once found. It is surrounded by an almost sinister aura.

When I was young and warnings came via whispers rather than the internet, certain things were held to be arcane and dangerous, to infallibly bring bad luck: such as possession of tarot cards, writing cheques on a Sunday, sticking a postage stamp upside down and reading The Golden Bough. Knize Ten is a bit like this: it has such an accumulation of myth about it and such a powerful presence that the challenge of wearing with it without being overpowered by its legend is too much for some.

Knize Ten is one of the final legacies of old Imperial Europe – the Kaiserzeit in full decadence with all the glamour, gloom and grotesquerie that children of that era – Von Stroheim, Pabst, Von Sternberg, Zweig, Mann – brought to their films and books. The tailoring firm of Knize was founded in 1858 by the Czech Josef Knize but had been bought out by the Wolff family long before the Emperor Franz Josef gave the House its Royal and Imperial Warrant in 1888, the year Queen Victoria’s daughter became Empress of Prussia for just 99 days. In its heyday there were Knize showrooms in Prague, Berlin, Paris, Karlsbad and even New York dressing not only royalty but the German military; gentlemen of both sexes; Maurice Chevalier and Marlene Dietrich. Today Knize Ten, always a star since 1921 (though the exact date is debated) is a murky canary diamond gleaming in the shadows of its own past.

Knize’s Teutonic darkness closes in oppressively and hotly after a brilliant hesperidic burst of rosemary, lemon and orange like sun burning through Berlin fogs over the swamps of the Spree. Knize draws across heavy baize-lined velvet curtains, shutting you in with a padded heart of rose, jasmine and clove carnation whose animalic notes come panting after, echoed in accords of castoreum, civet, amber, cedar and patchouli. The full expression is immense, bursting out of its confines – heady, heavy, swollen; and faintly sweaty, like fine wool heated by vigorous exercise – the feverish walkers of “The Magic Mountain”, or Luis Trenker in one of those unhinged mountaineering Silent pictures of the late 20’s. A wholesome unwholesomeness – or maybe vice versa.

One is confronted with a huge physicality and a sense of a faint (or rather more?) soiling. Speaking for myself, Knize Ten’s attraction never fails, but one application leaves me feeling coated, sealed, painted like that girl in Goldfinger. There’s hardly room left to breathe: Knize Ten is a total experience, it possesses you wholly, crushes you in its fatal ursine embrace. The final kicker is that oily black work-out of Prussian leather and what some people swear is the odour of rubber. And of course for many this is the money-shot, the clincher that makes the fragrance irresistible. It doesn’t play- pretend fetishism like some modern scents: it is itself a fetish, in same way as Narcisse Noir or Bandit. We keep it in a cage.

Black Narcissus

Narcisse Noir

The lure of Caron‘s Narcisse Noir is all about obvious though artful artifice, appreciated by those who enjoy suspending disbelief and immersing themselves in the flamboyance and exuberance of a unique perfumer’s imagination. Narcisse Noir is not for those looking for an organically well-bred, neat and tidy scent: it is farouche, mysterious, disturbing and ever so slightly off its head, like some of its past admirers. My old Harrods chum David (mildy crazy himself) who claimed to know the back-story of every perfume in the repertoire, used to say it was a perfume for broken down ballerinas – his inimitable gloss on Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes.

From the beginning, its conception was bizarre: Caron’s founder, owner and nose Ernest Daltroff claimed to be the first to base a perfume on a myth, a lie; rather than translate the scent of living material (flowers, leather, woods) he would first characterise an imaginary flower and then spin a web from its supposed scent. With his other half, Felicie Vanpouille – and I think she was truly his other half in every way – mistress, publicist, artist, maybe nose – they came up with the perversely brilliant idea of taking the narcissus, so purely virginally spotlessly white and, as it were, dyeing it black. Why the narcissus and not, say, the lily? I think they had the old classic myth in mind – the beautiful, heartless Narcissus, madly in love with his own reflection; dying of desire for himself. And the name ultimately derives from the Greek “narce”: to benumb or the state of being numb, referring to the flower’s narcotic properties. So, “nicht genugens pervers?” as 20’s nude dancer and coke-fiend Anita Berger used to shout at her audiences.

All this, mind you, in 1911, before L’Heure Bleue, Quelques Fleurs, Tabac Blond, Habanita, Shalimar and Knize Ten had shocked and rocked the perfume world. Narcisse Noir became a cult scent, a password to a world of black, gold,orange and crimson Bakst decadence. Noel Coward references it repeatedly in his druggie play The Vortex which outraged the nation and packed the theatres in 1924  – his ambisexual characters wear it, smell it and before lighting up, dip their cigarettes in it. Gloria Swanson (“Arriving with the Marquis, Friday. Please arrange ovation!”) introduced it to Hollywood. And then, first with Rumer Godden’s novel in the 30’s, then with the Powell-Pressburger film version (1947), the perfume took on a whole new dimension as the star of “Black Narcissus”.

As Deborah Kerr takes her tiny community of nuns up onto the Roof of the World they find the rarified air of the high Himalayas  distracting, ennervating and psychotropic; then comes the beautiful Young General (Sabu) wearing a satin coat the colour of ripe corn, and dripping with amethysts and Black Narcissus – “don’t you think it rather common, Sister, to smell of ourselves?” The scent of sex dormant in the painted walls of the convent (once a palace for seraglio women) is animated once more by the drifts of perfume from Sabu’s silk handkerchief; he elopes with the disreputable Kanshi, whom we have seen inhaling his body with sensual bliss. Much worse, both Sisters Clodagh and Ruth fall under the spell of the saturnine British agent down in the lushly jungly valley. Sister Ruth, at first so neurotically mistrustful of the fumes of Black Narcissus (a close-up shows her nose twitching like that of a wary fox), is ultimately tipped over into into paranoid nymphomaniacal murderous mania.
Not bad for post-war Austerity.

And like Narcisse Noir, the film is an exotic illusion – shot in the most beautiful colour you will ever see on screen, it is entirely studio-bound; the Himalayas and sunrises and verdant valleys all painted on glass and card.There is also a wonderful perfume metaphor in the misfortunes of poor Sister Philippa (Flora Robson), the gardening Sister; told off to plant onions, potatoes and beans on terraces stretching out to the sky, she sets instead sweet peas, hollyhocks, lupins and delphiniums. The needs of the senses, unleashed by the esoteric air and an atmosphere where practicalities have no relevance, have once again prevailed. You will find your own needs amply and admirably catered for by Narcisse Noir which takes a modest white flower as its germination and mutates madly and wilfully into a mysterious, hypnotic even carnivorous bloom.

Nosmo King

Catherine Deneuve Smoking

“When I was a girl,” my dear grandmother used to say, lighting a cigarette and plying her lipstick, “no decent woman could be seen to do this”. She was a late Victorian though hated to admit it, and so already in her twenties and a nurse when the universal smoking vogue swept the West. It was the First World War that gave the cigarette trade such an impetus: civilians felt an empathetic bonding with the men at the Front by adopting an essentially military habit. This cheap palliative for the nerves now leapt the class barriers; widely recommended by doctors as a nerve tonic and bracer, it opened the lungs and gave the shy something to do with their hands. An aspirin and a cigarette: the green tea and Yakult of their day.

George V and Queen Mary and all their children were enthusiastic smokers; the hero-padre Woodbine Willie handed out fags to the troops; one of the most widely reproduced portraits of the then Prince of Wales shows him with a gasper glued to his grinning lower lip. Strange now to imagine Prince William thus. The entertainments in the music halls and cinemas were seen through a thick blue haze of cigarette smoke; it was said to deter the moth, discourage germs and the ash good for the carpet.
Superstitions were invented and fostered by the match and cigarette industry to boost sales: if you lit a cigarette from a candle, a sailor would drown; the 3rd person to light a cigarette from the same match would die. Warner Bros even made a talkie about that one – Three On A Match.

For on the films smoking was presented as the acme of sophistication: in the days before cork tips, many an actress made a very sexy trick of picking loose threads of tobacco from her tongue as she vamped the hero: Garbo in Mata Hari does it with blush-making eroticism. The idea of Bette Davis, Bogart or Dietrich “sans cigarette” is almost impossible; Gloria Swanson’s bizarre holder is woven into the script of Sunset Boulevard, a motif of sexual entrapment, and the addiction of fame. A husky smoky voice – Dietrich, Bacall, Bankhead – could also be yours if you kept puffing. What girl could resist? Or what man fail to pick up on the virile and phallic connotations exhaled by Gable, Flynn and Gary Cooper, smoking their heads off as they took the world and women by storm?

So it was only a matter of time before smoking hit the perfume industry – and how – starting with Caron’s revolutionary Tabac Blond in 1919, an ambisexual dark golden “sit up and see me” scent based the fragrance on raw tobacco, and never off the market since. A considerable part of its appeal is the artfulness with which (if you are a smoker, or keeping company with one) it transmutes the smell of smoke into a perfume of its own, adding a third fragrant odour to your aura. Then in 1924 Molinard came up with Habanita, a blend of sweaty vetiver, fleshy white jasmine …and the scent of the hot dusty cigar factories of Havana. Black as the tropical night, almost embarrassingly seductive. Tabu played with the tobacco note; so did Knize Ten incorporating it with leather, thereby pioneering another perfume family, besides iconographing images of contemporary militarism and celebrating the new social and political emancipation of women. But how apt that true to the illusions of perfumery and the movies, tobacco itself is not actually used in these scents: they depend on an accord of patchouli, hay, honey, beeswax, amber and woods

And the trend continues today; but with the difference that smoking is now officially perceived as something low-down, unhealthy, wicked and dangerously anti-social. A wittily subversive perfume like Jasmin + Cigarettes references this with tongue in cheek brio. A saucy combination of smoke and jasmine, that most ambiguous of floral oils with a built-in grubby sexuality; a suggestion of (horrors) smoking in bed…and not alone, at that; the hay note comes through, complemented by an unexpected odour of apricots – connotations of warm, nude skin. So a kaleidoscope of images, including once more the cinematic, is rounded off by a suggestion of that most delicious ciggie of all: on a hot beach, enhanced by salt sea air.

As a veteran said on film, remembering Woodbine Willie: “I wish he were here now!”

Image from cfrankdavis.wordpress.com