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.

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.

BANDIT: by Robert Piguet out of Germaine Cellier

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Back in the 1970’s, the roguish matinee idol charmer Stewart Granger talked on afternoon television about what attracted him to a woman. She should be immaculately dressed,gloved, maquillee, shod and coiffured – “because I want to look at her and think, ‘I’m going to DESTROY all that!'” Coughs and lowered eyes all round…but I bet a whiff of Bandit would have driven the old boy right off his head. Bandit is a leather chypre, the total urban scent. Colossally sophisticated, even formidable, it is the ultimate parfum-de- film-noir; a scent of night clubs, car showrooms, private seances, art galleries, penthouses, theatres, and the sort of restaurant where children are unwelcome. It wears well with green suede gloves, elaborate lingerie,sable fur, cocktail napkins, pink Sobranies, crisp eye veils, Ferragamo shoes and vintage Schiaparelli. Wallis Windsor’s painted lobster dress is a perfect Bandit accessory. So is a lapis Faberge cigarette case, casually chucked about. This perfume always takes centre stage: everything else is an add-on.

Wear Bandit if you wish to seduce and intimidate and where you intend to dominate the proceedings by force of character, devastating chic and effortless charm. Seldom has a perfume been so demanding of the wearer. Possibly a scent to catch a very specialised husband, it is almost impossible to imagine being worn by a bride unless to create the most extraordinary impression. Anti-floral, stylised, artificial and magnificently rich in synthetics (Cellier was fond of tenacious chemical bases) Bandit has no vulnerability about it and few women would wish to be perceived as incisive, and imperious at the altar.But it has sex all right, and to a remarkable degree.

Bandit was created by Germaine Cellier, the first great female nose of the 20th century, a woman as elegant, magnetic and glamorous as any of her clients. Fracas, Jolie Madame and Vent Vert are all daughters of her genius. Beautifully dressed, an acquaintance of Jean Cocteau and Piaf, and moving in Parisian artistic and intellectual circles, Cellier made the acquaintance of the couturier Robert Piguet, former protege of Poiret and patron of Givenchy, Dior and Balmain.A suite of legendary perfumes spilled out from their laboratory and atelier, the first and greatest being Bandit in 1944.

All sorts of stories are told of the perfume. An old gentleman told me years ago that Piguet had asked Germaine to create a scent for his lover, a wild young man known as “Le Bandit”, very soon after killed in a car crash (” I knew the boyfriend!”). Bandit is also said to have been made as a gift for the gorgeous actress Edwige Feuillere, darling of the film intelligentsia and blessed with glorious red-gold hair and a ravishing husky voice. It certainly sits uncommonly well on the sort of pale, thin translucent sometimes freckled skin that often accompanies this tint of hair; the type of complexion that so often turns white waxy flowers like jasmine and tuberose. A product of the War years it exudes such a perversity, ambiguity and sheer weirdness that it is often wrongly assumed to have been a favourite in the pan-sexual Berlin and Paris of twenty years earlier. Certainly it has echoes of Tabac Blond and it could have been worn perfectly (maybe it was) by the likes of Dietrich, Louise Brooks, Margo Lion and Jo Carstairs. Men may sport it with elan and confidence; providing they be as poised as the girls.

When I smell Bandit I feel the hand on my shoulder of Zarah Leander, the great revue star, singer and actress who captivated Sweden, Germany and most of Europe in the 1930’s. Too tall and too massive for Hollywood, a natural red-head with a huge appetite for money, food, alcohol and cigarettes Zarah overwhelmed her audiences and employers: fans were said to have fainted at the sight of her,overwhelmed by her aura; an Italian journalist described her as a beautiful creature from another planet. On set she drank whisky or vodka through a straw from what purported to be Coke bottles or glasses of milk. Her voice recorded as a deep bass and her mystery was intensified by a lifetime of large impenetrable dark glasses. Nordic and practical, she liked to be photographed scratching her pigs on her Swedish farm; when she fled from Germany in 1943 with her film career in ruins, she turned to running her own fish cannery. Swathed in furs, her towering height increased by stilettoes, her skin a mass of freckles, her hair according to her own account “an interesting blend of beetroot and carrot” Zarah used Bandit to make a dream team for 40 years. Where does one end and the other begin? Cigarette papers and tobacco; then the dry fragrance of face powder, the silk lining of a coat, the tang of red hair, the exquisite soft leather of shoes, gloves, bag, all warm from flesh-contact. A hint of whisky, of body heat and feral animal oils, even fresh perspiration; the sharpness of a green corsage or stage-door bouquet. In a copse once, I saw a red dog-fox leap from a bed of violets: here is the fox but no trace of violets except a waft of their musky fleshy crushed hearts.

Image: filmmuseum-potsam.de

Elizabeth’s Bosom

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Today is the 480th anniversary of the birth of Queen Elizabeth 1st. A great week to think about carnations and their unique delicious scent; the very best time to pop into Les Senteurs and smell their fragrance. In Elizabethan England the carnation was the ultra-fashionable flower: in portraits you see the Queen and her courtiers wearing or holding them like pearls of precious price.  The intoxicating clove and vanilla scent of a crimson carnation bed with its blue spikey foliage was the highlight of those mad Tudor gardens, full of ragwort, scarlet runners, cowslips, dog roses and lavender. Modern carnations have been degraded to odour-less petrol forecourt and garage flowers, sometimes tortured with green or turquoise dye: but take heart! Caron‘s Piu Bellodgia brings back a scent of the past, and is besides a shining example of a fragrance flanker being actually superior to the 1927 original. Delicately spicy, elegantly formal, transparently floral Piu Bellodgia lies waiting to ensnare you…why not pop round?And while you’re here try the legendary Tabac Blond (carnation embowered in tobacco) and D’Orsay’s L’INTRIGANTE – a spicy posy from the Victorian ballroom.

The Blue Afternoon

One can admire and revere a perfume without having a desire to wear it and the last of the great Edwardian scents, L’Heure Bleue, is not to everyone’s taste. The great modern perfumer Francis Kurkdjian hates it, thinks it smells of burning rubber. Others, including myself, find the core of the scent more reminiscent of food – almond pastries, glutinous black cherry conserve and the clove of orange pomanders or pink Italian carnations. The heavy cloying food which piled all that creamy flesh onto the picture postcard beauties of the day: how they stride out these girls,charged up with calories, still lively on ancient newsreels of Ascot, the Gaiety Theatre, Longchamps and the Bois de Boulogne. A thoroughly emancipated walk heralding a new era, though still hampered by hobble skirts,
stays and no vote. L’Heure Bleue likewise falls between two worlds – more majestic and assertive than the swoon-away mauve boudoir ambience of Apres L’Ondee, Shem el Nessim and L’Origan; less mad than than the frenzied exaggerations and bizarrie of Narcisse Noir, Tabac Blond and the noisy novelty scents of Ragtime and the Jazz Age.

For a scent which ostensibly celebrates the hour of love, the twilit time of assignation when Paris as Nancy Mitford wrote looks as though “made of opaque blue glass”, L’Heure Bleue is a strangely robust perfume. It reminds me of Lillie Langtry whose exquisite face is from certain angles disconcertingly strong and powerful; her jaw square and bold; her body curiously muscular and masculine in that famous photograph of her marching down Sloane Street from the palace built for her by the Prince of Wales behind the Cadogan Hotel. Maybe this aspect of the perfume is what attracted the late Queen-Empress Elizabeth whose signature scent it is said to have been. It seems an odd choice for the ever smiling chiffony-powdery-petally Queen Mum, but more suitable for George V1’s steely consort and mentor, the Enriye of David and Wallis, the bombed-out consort who could look the East End (and no doubt Hitler, had needs be) in the face.

For at the heart of L’Heure Bleue’s grandeur is an intense melancholy and sense of tragedy which appealed so much to the neurotic literary genius Jean Rhys; and the lyrical perfumer Mona di Orio who confessed to being reduced to tears by the scent. I don’t know if Lady Duff Gordon and Mrs Astor took bottles aboard Titanic but the ship and the perfume both made their debut in 1912, and all too soon the best selling L’Heure Bleue became associated in the mind of its generation with the horror of the Great War, the collapse of old Europe, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1919-20. It had caught the Zeitgeist to perfection and in a way, it transmuted into one of those superstitions that grew organically from the War: like “three on a match” and the ill-omened mixing of red and white hospital flowers.

Perfumes absorb the spirit of an age as well as reflect them: Chanel No 5 (1921) is a world reborn, glossy and adventurous and full of confident sexuality. L’Heure Bleue is death and decay, fading and lost love, a product of imperial luxury and complacence and the decadence inherent in that last flowering in the years before 1914 when the fruits were rotting from inside out. Within 5 years of the Romanov Tercentary Celebrations of 1913 the bodies of the Imperial family were ground into mud and ashes in a Siberian forest; the Prussian and Austro-Hungarian emperors gone into exile.
L’Heure Bleue rolled on, marked by its experiences and the wounds of its wearers: the only Guerlain scent that is indelibly dated; an unmistakable child of a century ago.

No wonder so many find it sad, even depressing: it is often smelled at funerals as it lulls mourners into a stupor of black poppies, spices, jasmin and those almost oppressively lush Bulgarian roses redolent of pepper and musk. It wraps you not in a veil, but a cloak of midnight blue velvet and musquash and sable. It stifles thought, it brings on the comforting warm darkness,it tempers the blues with the blue in almost homepathic principle. Hardly erotic, it is romantic, introverted,narcotic and sentimental. Reassuring and calming like the camouflage of mourning weeds, it muffles feeling and numbs thought like intravenous diazepam.

If you wear it, go easy or it will overcome you and your surroundings with an almost anaesthetic redolence with hints of camphor and menthol before the stained glass floral notes boil over like rose petal syrup – “…such sweet jams as God’s own Prophet eats in Paradise.” And to read as you wear it, William Boyd’s “The Blue Afternoon”, another masterpiece of doomed love.

Cocktails for Two

I see perfume as a cocktail and a cocktail as a perfume. Both are an artful, skilled and witty blend of exotic ingredients put together to create a certain mood, illusion or portrait. The packaging of both is vital – the catchy seductive name, the classic bottle, the correct glass, the elegant flacon. And on the subject of names there is much dispute as to the derivation of the word “cocktail”. My favourites are the theory that it reflects the colours and flamboyance of a rooster’s tale; and an unlikely but picturesque Aztec legend which claims the drinks origin as a love potion brewed by the princess Xochitl (the Lady of the Flowers) – hence ‘choc- til’ to Western ears.

Now to the application. There is a knack to choosing and applying perfume and an ideal way to drink a cocktail: both are appreciated to their best advantage in a serene, leisured environment. They should be taken as part of a leisured, sensuous and hedonistic ritual in which every aspect of both fragrance and drink is savoured, analysed by the brain via tongue and nose. Relaxation and patience lead to pleasure and gratification. Haste and over-indulgence can be diasastrous.

Consider also the connection between the senses of smell and taste, how closely they run together. When you sip a Cupid, Orange Blossom, Dry Martini or a Blue Lagoon, you should derive almost as much delight from the scent of it as from the taste: the stimulant effect must definitely run third. We are not talking about Bargain Booze or Buy One, Get Two Free here: one drinks a cocktail as a luxury, to heighten a mood, to inspire an atmosphere, to appreciate an exquisite artistic blending, not to get blotto asap. The legendary non-alcoholic cocktail, the Shirley Temple has been a barman’s staple for nearly 80 years To continue the perfume parallel: fragrance may be an aphrodisiac but its aim is hopefully far subtler and broader than simply to bag one’s amorous prey for a night.

Ponder the texture, too. Like a perfume, a cocktail can take so many forms. Look at the liquid in the scent bottle: its colour, viscosity, clarity are all part of its charm. The same with the gorgeous colours of a cocktail, layered, shaken or stirred – the whole spectrum in a glass: the green of Creme de Menthe, crimson Grenadine, violet Cassis, sea-blue Curacao, velvety chocolate brown Tia Maria and Creme de Cacao. The hues of fruits, herbs and natural syrups.The colour and the taste segue into the texture of the whole: sparkling, sharp, creamy, acid, silky, smooth, salty, bitter and sweet.

The cocktail has been around since the mid-19th century, growing steadily in popularity, and reaching its apogee in the 1920’s and 30’s, supposedly because mixing bathtub gin with cream, cordials and other accessories helped to disguise the taste of low quality illicit hooch in years of Prohibition. The golden age of the cocktail thus coincided with that of the cinema and what is often regarded as the great classic age of perfumery – the years of Tabac Blond, Habanita, Chanel No 5, Joy, Fleurs de Rocaille, Bellodgia, Shalimar, a veritable corsage of Gardenias and Shocking. And how shocking were all these trends to the middle-aged and elderly of the time. The youthful Evelyn Waugh’s 1930 satire Vile Bodies has much to say on all these phenonema; though, of course, these serpents in Eden were none of them newborn 20th century blues at all, but late Victorian innovations brought to full bloom.

This was an era of strong scents, tastes and emotions inspired by and enhancing larger than life personalities: legendary celebrities defined by their elegant way with a cocktail, a cigarette and a dry line in repartee. Noel and Gertie, Ivor Novello, Cecil Beaton, Hutch, Somerset and Syrie Maugham, Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson (Red Box Papers returned to No 10 marked with rings from cocktail glasses), and of course Tallulah. As the headmaster of Eton cautioned her as to her visits to the Sixth Form, “Cocktails and cigarettes I may tolerate, Miss Bankhead: but I do draw the line at cocaine.”

There was a song that seduced the world, “Cocktails For Two”; a perfume modelled on a cocktail (“Gin Fizz”); and those marvellous concoctions named for stars of the day which encapsulated their style or image, just as perfumes such as Fracas and Bandit sketched the allure of Rita Hayworth and Edwige Feuillere in the 1940’s. Drink a toast to the “Marlene Dietrich”, the “Mary Pickford”, the “Mae West” – and the old “Bosom Caresser” himself, “Charlie Chaplin”.

Cheers! Though as Lady Diana Cooper, THE wit and Society Beauty of the 1920’s, advised the script writers of ITV’s “Edward and Mrs Simpson” decades later:
“Royalty don’t say cheers. They just drink and everyone else goes glug, glug, glug!”

Image from Wikimedia Commons

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.