Thursday, August 30, 2007

Harvest Home, Part III

If you have ever worked a field from the time of its first plowing until the first day of the harvest, you will know that there exists a clear association between certain odors and certain kinds of weather. For a good nose, a field contains as many olfactory nuances (based on temperature and humidity) as, for a painter or photographer, it contains tones, or notes, of color. The rain brings out the sweetness as well as the dirtiness of nature's bounty–as if when we stopped sweating, nature began. The persistence of sun and dry wind brings out the spiciness and ozonic qualities of nature and the atmosphere. According to Rudolf Steiner, centuries ago the agricultural traditions of northern Europe stood for an almost intuitive understanding of such phenomena, but nowadays with the flight of the young from agriculture such intuitions have begun to reemerge in unlikely places: the labs of the flavor and fragrance industry. Quite frankly, I was a little stumped when it came to choosing the last of the harvest triad. I wanted to choose scents that, more than merely mimicking the clichés of late summer, spoke to an intimate knowledge of nature's tumescence and sudden decline. Some classics from the Santa Maria Novella eau de toilette collection came to mind as did a Duchaufour creation for La Sirenuse, but, at the end of the day, two of Jean-Claude Ellena's scent-paintings stood out like masterful oil sketches: L'Artisan Parfumeur's Bois Farine (2003) and, from the recent Hermèssence collection, Osmanthe Yunnan (2005). Wearing them on alternating days, I found that the former marked our gradual move indoors (grain ground to flour; the baking that marks the first of the cooler days; rainfall) while the latter marked a fundamental human ambivalence towards "in-betweenness" (summer sliding into fall; the fullness of life before the inevitable going-to-seed; that bitter lesson which nonetheless leaves a trace of sweetness on our lips). While Bois Farine provides a comfort-food bakeoff of white cedar, fennel seed and Ruizia Cordata blossom drying down to a deletactably doughy base of sandalwood, orris root and benzoin, Osmanthe Yunnan is a minimalist haiku: bergamot, tea and the eponymous Chinese flower. The one puts her unconditionally loving arms around us while the other draws the bath and sets out the steaming, restorative cup. If I had one to pick for sheer ingenuity, it would be the more softly spoken Osmanthe Yunnan. It reminds me of a very expensive oolong tea which shows its strength not in size but in delicacy, in being seemingly at peace with the "in-betweenness" of late summer.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Harvest Home, Part II

In a world of niche perfumeries Pierre Guillaume's Parfumerie Generale is a fragrance house waiting to be discovered. Guillaume cleaves to a pleasantly conservative philosophy of naturals, naturals, naturals, using higher percentages than most of his tribe. Of late, Bois Blond, originally created as a limited edition in 2006, has captured my attention as another ideal "scent of harvest." Redolent of cut grasses, cedar, hay and sweet blond tobacco, Guillaume's little olfactory suite pastorale positively sings for me. Many fragrances purport to flaunt "hay" notes but often end up smelling like a pair of socks abandoned in a grain elevator, as if "hay" translated into dry, slightly fermented and herbal. Blended with cedar, galbanum, and woodshed notes, one would expect this scent to be dry indeed. But it isn't. Bois Blond possesses a pleasant humid note which reacts like a smoky musk on the skin and says "I am comfort married to allure. There needn't be anything frou-frou about the country life I lead. I conduct myself with the dignity and freedom of a woman painted by Courbet." Once you've met her, it's a total coup de foudre.

Bois Blond is available in a 50ml eau de toilette at Image credit: Claude Monet, Haystacks, or Summer's End, oil on canvas, 1891. Courtesy of the Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Harvest Home, Part I

"Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness..." Who cannot recall hearing a high school English teacher intone these immortal lines of John Keats' ode To Autumn, or remember witnessing Maggie Smith's dramatization of them in Ronald Neame's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie? I may be jumping the gun after my time in northern California, but with cool evenings, the air suffused with pine and the yellowed fields, I couldn't help but muse on a triad of scents of the soon-incipient harvest. First to come to mind was Serge Lutens' Chêne (2004), a scent that taught this sceptical nose that, while overused in winemaking, oak can be unostentatious, sedate and urbane while remaining (for lack of a better word) "woody." Lutens' nose Christopher Sheldrake–magnificent Mandarin of all things perfumed–marries the dryness of the house's trademark cedar note to rich, honeyed sap (owing to a "heart" of birch, beeswax and dark rum) and, surprise, freshly hewn oak. But the genius of the fragrance becomes apparent when the upset undergrowth (what the French call sous-bois), the crackling, half-decayed leaves, pine needles and decomposed tree stumps, peaks through the regal morning mist. From a distant field we hear the scythes felling the drooping heads of ripened grain while, unseen, an animal cries out from within the forest's dusky perimeter.

Chêne eau de parfum is available exclusively at the Serge Lutens Les Salons de Palais Royal Shiseido in Paris, but 1ml–8ml samples may be procured from

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Moss't We Now?

Abdes Salaam Attar characterizes oak moss extract (Evernia prunastri) as an "olfactory bridge between the perfumes of yesteryear and the future." Previously known as oak lung, lungwort, and lung moss, the indigenous population of North America used this indispensable ingredient of modern perfumery in primitive medical practices. Today, oak moss is used for its heavy Oriental scent and for its strengths as a fixative. Found in better fougère and chypre compositions, oak moss has been something of a bone of contention due to the fact that about 1 in 10 people find themselves allergic to it. Recently, I found that two of Vero Kern's scents–Onda (reviewed on July 30th) and Rubj–contain this vital ingredient in its natural form. My beloved Mouchoir de Monsieur from Guerlain forges a powerful triumvirate with oak moss extract, civet, and lavender. Geo F Trumper's woody-mossy-green Wild Fern (1877) does, too. The problem, however, lies in the fact that synthetic oak moss has terrible longevity. These classics–and Vero Kern's new classics as well as the vintage concentrations of scents like Lady Caron, Chanel Nos. 5 and 19 and Piguet's Bandit–contain it in its natural form, and, I might add, to fine effect. Oak moss is a wonderful alternative for those people who value the earthy warmth of musks without the animalic notes. We moss't, shan't we?

Saturday, August 11, 2007

En Vacances

Vetivresse is taking a little break until the 19th. I'm vacationing in northern California, out amid the glorious scents of Mother Nature. When I return to the computer our subject will be "harvest scents." Bon Août!

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Salt of the Earth

If Vero Kern's Onda were to be compared to a smoldering Alpine bonfire (a propos, Swiss National Day, August 1st), Céline Ellena's Sel de Vétiver (The Different Company, 2006) would be a beachside one (Berck-Plage, peut-être). I purchased a bottle of it blind last year after reading a short review in French men's fashion magazine L'Optimum, and was very pleasantly surprised to find a daily, warm-weather vetiver with just a bit more smooth complexity than my dear bottle of Annick Goutal Vétiver (1981) with its bracing Javanese vetiver and iodine notes. That said, Sel de Vétiver is a refreshing, consoling scent with a quiet power that it surely owes to its illusion of salt-air clinging to a beachcomber's skin; along with a mildly spicy layer of grapefruit and cardamom; and this married with sweet florals (geranium, ylang-ylang) to a scintillating, tangy accord of lovage and Bourbon vetiver. This is a fragrance which seriously kicks my scent-memory into gear: post-beach showers where the last vestiges of sunscreen blended with young suntanned skin, my towel afterwards carrying the salt-factor which infused practically everything near the ocean's limit, the smell and feel of the soft quilted velvet upholstery in my aunt's car, that slight chill that would come over my body after a few hours in the sun, and something vaguely tropical. Sel de Vétiver is suffused with sunlight and, for me, a hopeful adolescent yearning (Earth's yearning, too) that I continue to associate with high summer.