Fragrance Friday: Scents of the Ancient World

Fragrance Friday: Scents of the Ancient World

Nerd alert! I spent MANY years of my youth studying Latin and Ancient Greek, and my studious little soul still thrills to the occasional article about obscure aspects of the classical world. So it is my pleasure to bring you: Recreating the Aroma of the Ancient City: Incense in the Ancient Mediterranean. Last weekend, there was a conference in Rome where “archaeologists, historians and classicists gathered not only to explore the use of incense, perfume and scented oils in antiquity, but also to attempt to recreate the ephemeral smellscapes of the past.” Heaven!

I have visited the Minoan sites mentioned in the article (Crete, and Akrotiri on the island of Santorini — well worth visiting!). I don’t recall the article mentioning another site I have visited, however: Delphi, possibly because the most famous scented emissions there, the vapor that put the Pythia (oracle) into a trance, was not manmade:

It may even be possible to identify the kind of gas. Plutarch—who, we recall, was a priest of Apollo at the Delphic sanctuary—noted that the intoxicating pneuma had a sweet smell, like expensive perfume. Of the hydrocarbon gases, only ethylene has a sweet smell—so ethylene was probably a component in the gaseous emission inhaled by the Pythia.

Professor Bond, author of the article about recreating ancient aromas, ties the use of incense, frankincense and other fragrant substances to Christian traditions too:

When the Magi brought frankincense and myrrh (Gr.σμύρνα) along with the gold to the baby Jesus, they were donating sacred substances to be used to make the newborn’s house and his body more fragrant. Although frankincense was usually placed in an incense burner, myrrh came from an Arabian tree and was often turned into an unguent used on the dead in ancient Egypt.

She goes on to describe things like ancient recipes for incenses, like one from Egypt called kyphi, which the conference scholars apparently tried to re-create. What a lovely goal — to put oneself as completely as possible into the mindset of the ancients, to understand better their history, literature and architecture.

Kyphi was a popular aromatic in Egyptian temples dedicated to Isis, but could also be used in the house before bed to help people get a good night’s sleep.

Imagining the bedrooms of the ancient world is completely different when you can actually smell the pungent sweetness of kyphi as you take in the colorful frescoes and cushioned furniture within the ancient bedrooms of places like Pompeii. Smelling these reconstructed substances in person is then a potent reminder that experiencing the ancient world is not just about modeling ancient buildings or putting on a wool toga.

I would love to have been a fly on the wall for this conference. I may just have to take up my Ancient Greek grammar book again …

Delphi Pythia

Priestess at Delphi, by John Collier (1891)

Perfume Tourism, 2017

Perfume Tourism, 2017

via Daily Prompt: Perfume

Two years ago, I became fascinated with perfume and fragrance. I was writing a screenplay about two rival perfumers and was doing research to capture some of the details and nuances of those characters’ thoughts and actions. I picked up Chandler Burr’s book, The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industryand I was hooked. It is the story of the development of two perfumes, Hermes’ Un Jardin Sur le Nil, and Coty’s Lovelycreated with and for the actress Sarah Jessica Parker. The book follows the perfumers as they work on their assignments, or “briefs”, all the while explaining the arcane workings of the perfume industry.

Advertisement for Hermes Un Jardin Sur le Nil, bottle of perfume resting on lotus leaf against background of Nile River

Un Jardin Sur le Nil; photo from hermes.com

The book also describes a journey, a form of “perfume tourism”, taken by Hermes’ then-new in-house perfumer Jean Claude Ellena and a team of Hermes executives to Egypt, specifically the Nile river, to try to capture the atmosphere of a “garden on the Nile”, which was the chosen theme for the new perfume. As poets and others have noted for centuries, fragrance and scent seem to link directly to human memories and emotions in a way that only music approaches; even so, scent is the more visceral line of communication between our senses and our memories.

My own perfume journey has been more like a tumble down a rabbit hole, as others have described it. I am also fortunate enough to have frequent opportunities to travel, so I have become a committed “perfume tourist.” What does that mean? I seek out unique opportunities to experience fragrance in my travels, including visiting independent perfume-makers and perfume boutiques. In hindsight, I have actually done this off and on for decades; on our honeymoon, my husband and I visited Grasse, the birthplace of fine French perfume, and toured more than one of the Grasse-based perfumeries (Molinard and Fragonard). When we went on a family trip to Bermuda several years ago, we visited the lovely Bermuda Perfumery,  home of fragrance house Lili Bermuda, in the historic old town St. George’s. I am very lucky that we set a pattern early of my husband indulging me with perfume souvenirs!

The Bermuda Perfumery in St. George's, Bermuda, with pastel houses

The Bermuda Perfumery. Photo: http://www.foreverbermuda.com

Now, however, perfume tourism is a more deliberate choice on my part. It has proven to be a novel way to experience cities: seeking out independent perfumeries, perfume museum exhibits, even perfume-oriented arts.  I have loved discovering independent perfume boutiques like Scent Bar in Los Angeles. And of course, nowadays my souvenirs of my trips are usually perfumes; I look for “niche perfumes” made in that country, but sometimes I just buy a nice fragrance that reminds me of that trip. A recent trip to Switzerland resulted in the purchase of three lovely niche fragrances in different cities, but also an inexpensive small bottle of eau de toilette from Victorinox Swiss Army (yes, the maker of Swiss army knives).

IMG_0101

Scent Bar, Los Angeles

This year so far, I’ve pursued perfume tourism in Barcelona, Spain, and in several cities in Switzerland. What’s next? Somerset House in London will open an exhibition this summer called Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent. I’m hoping I can get to London this summer to see it, as I’ve enjoyed other arts exhibitions at Somerset House in the past. And the ever-fragrant summer gardens of London are a must! Dreaming dreams of fragrant flowers and sweet perfumes …

 

Fragrance Friday: Jackie

This week, I flew to Washington, D.C. for work, and on the plane I watched the movie “Jackie”, starring the beautiful Natalie Portman as the late First Lady. The movie imagines her reactions during the week of JFK’s assassination, including her thoughts about his legacy and her role in shaping it, and her famous interview with Life magazine, when she compared JFK’s White House to Camelot.

Jacqueline Kennedy in pink suit and pillbox hat, riding with JFK in limo in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

November 22, 1963. Photo by Reuters.

It is a powerful, moving film. Ms. Portman’s performance is wonderful, alternating between heartbreak, anger, shrewd calculation, and maternal protectiveness. In flashbacks, we see her work to support her husband’s administration, bringing youth, glamour and style to a White House that hadn’t see much of those under Coolidge, Hoover, FDR, Truman and Eisenhower. We also see her fitting herself into Washington and taking her place as a leader there in society and the arts. That would have been no small task, as I was reminded on my recent visit; I am always struck by the aura of raw power that Washington projects, with its massive, monumental government buildings, the huge Capitol, the wide boulevards, the show of muscular strength, the many statues of powerful men, the many powerful living men who run the nation there. It is so ironic that Washington’s iconic flower associated with the city is the delicate, feminine, evanescent cherry blossom. I see a similar contrast between Jackie, the feminine lover of the arts and all beauty, and the city where she had to find her place.

Jackie Kennedy, JFK, Johnson, Nixon, Eisenhower at JFK's inauguration in 1961

Kennedy Inauguration, 1961.

One especially powerful scene shows Jackie showering, at last, upon her return to the White House as a new widow, right after the assassination. It shows her naked back, with her husband’s blood running down her back in the hot water as it washes out of her hair. We know that Mrs. Kennedy was splattered with blood, as close as she was to JFK when he was shot, and that she wore the same pink suit on the plane back to DC from Dallas. It is reasonable to surmise that the first shower she took washed away blood. Horrible to know this happened to any human being, but it is a very moving, vulnerable moment in the film.

The same scene shows, briefly, an array of fragrances on a shelf. Most appear to be Guerlain, in the fleeting glimpse I got. I think I spotted Shalimar, an unidentifed bee bottle, a bottle of either Mitsouko or L’Heure Bleue, and possibly one of Jicky. There was a clear view of Bal a Versailles, from Jean Desprez. Great product placement by Guerlain…

This got me wondering: what perfumes did Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis actually wear in real life? According to one source, she did wear Bal a Versailles and Jicky. She is also said to have worn Joy, and 1000, by Jean Patou, Fleurissimo, by Creed, Lovely Patchouli, by Krigler, and Jil Sander No. 4.

All of those fragrances have very different personalities.  How interesting that a First Lady, whose outer image is consistent with, say, Joy and Fleurissimo, also wore sexy powerhouses like Jicky and Bal a Versailles. All floral fragrances, but oh so different in so many ways! Fleurissimo, said to have been created for Grace Kelly on the occasion of her wedding to the Prince of Monaco: delicate, virginal, a fragrance for a bride veiled in white.

Jackie Kennedy's portrait in wedding dress

Jacqueline Kennedy

Joy, a sophisticated, elegant “evening perfume”, made in France and said to be “the most expensive perfume in the world” when it was launched.

Jackie Kennedy wears Givenchy evening gown to Versailles on state visit to France

Jacqueline Kennedy wearing Givenchy to Versailles

Her choice of Jicky and Bal a Versailles, however, suggest a more complex, assertive Jackie. Female, as opposed to feminine. Bold and confident when necessary, or desirable.

Jackie Kennedy in yellow at Hyannisport

Jacqueline Kennedy

What a complicated, lovely woman she was. I’m glad to have been reminded of her this past week, and also glad to have been able to see the fleeting clouds of cherry blossoms. Let’s not forget that many of those fragile cherry trees have outlived the men who planted them and walked under their boughs. Maybe they are not as fragile as they look.

Blossoming cherry trees and the Jefferson Memorial at the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC

Cherry blossoms and the Jefferson Memorial

It’s Beginning to Smell a Lot Like Christmas …

It’s Beginning to Smell a Lot Like Christmas …

Is there any season to compare with Christmas in the range and variety of lovely fragrances it evokes? From the balsam-scented boughs of wreaths, garlands and decorated trees to the delicious smells emanating from kitchens; from the incense of Midnight Mass to the smoke of fireplaces hung with stockings; from the spiced scents of oranges pierced with cloves and meat roasting with rosemary and garlic, to the narcotic perfume of paperwhite narcissi forced in pots — the fragrances are everywhere.

I make some holiday drinks mostly because of their wonderful smell, although they also taste terrific. One favorite is the Scandinavian mulled wine Glögg, a concoction of red wine, port, aquavit and brandy mixed with fresh ginger, orange zest, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, raisins and almonds. I make it in a slow cooker and let it simmer all day. Heaven! One must approach it with care, though — one mug makes you feel lovely and warm inside, with holiday goodwill toward all coursing through your veins, and a second mug will likely leave you on the floor, relying on others’ goodwill to take you home and put you to bed. There are many variations on recipes for Glögg, easily found online; I encourage you to try it. So easy and festive.

One of my favorite blogs, Bois de Jasmin, has had posts in which readers recommend various perfumes to wear on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and throughout the holiday season. So much fun to read what others recommend and enjoy! I decided to layer the gorgeous attar of Taif Rose that my husband brought me from Dubai with Aramis Calligraphy Rose, for the notes of rose, frankincense and myrrh. Frankincense and myrrh are obvious candidates for Christmas, but rose, you ask? “Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming” is my response.

On a more serious note, Victoria at Bois de Jasmin is again running an online fundraiser for Doctors Without Borders, an admirable and effective organization that provides medical care to civilians and refugees in some of the most dangerous, war-torn parts of the world. As the Christian world gathers to worship the homeless newborn of a refugee family, born at a time of armed strife and conflict, we should remember the children and families who today find themselves in similar danger. My teenaged son’s Christmas gift to me was an IOU for a gift of fragrance that I could choose; I will ask him to donate to Victoria’s fundraiser and Doctors Without Borders on my behalf — the fragrance connection being that each such gift enters one into a drawing for some marvelous fragrance-related prizes. Check it out! You can enter until January 15, 2017.

Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres), treating refugee mother and baby in Africa

Doctors Without Borders treating mother and child; photo Stephanie Christaki/MSF

The weather here has been so unseasonably warm that we are running around outside doing errands and chores without coats! I plan to do some gardening this week while I am away from my office, which will surely bring more scents to my attention.

What does Christmas smell like to you? Or if you celebrate another holiday at this time of year, what are its most evocative scents?

all-saints-altar-christmas

Christmas altar with Nativity creche and roses

Fragrance Friday: Daily Post -“Aromatic”

Fragrance Friday: Daily Post -“Aromatic”

I don’t normally do the WordPress “Daily Post”, but one of this week’s word prompts caught my eye: “aromatic.” Well, I certainly have a response to that, as some of my favorite fragrances have aromatic qualities, even if they aren’t primarily classified as “aromatics”. But let’s start with a classic: the aptly named “Aromatics Elixir” by Clinique.

In many ways, Aromatics Elixir is a quintessential 1970s fragrance. It was launched at the start of that decade, created by the great perfumer Bernard Chant, for a new brand (Clinique) of the Estee Lauder company. It is green, dry, herbal and strong. Its creators positioned it as a “non-conformist chypre”, a perfume ahead of its time, that went “beyond perfume.” To me, it is in many ways the scent of 1970s feminism: independent, strong, challenging traditional strictures without becoming androgynous. Very in-your-face and unapologetic, but with its own beauty. If I were to assign a face to it, I would choose 1970s supermodel Lauren Hutton, a non-conformist beauty with her gap teeth and American style. Hutton had a chameleon-like quality, able to pull off effortless elegance in couture evening wear but showing off that same great bone structure in a plain white shirt, outdoors in the fresh air. Whenever I picture her in my mind, she is outside.

Supermodel Lauren Hutton in 1975

Lauren Hutton, 1975

Luca Turin describes the impact of Aromatics Elixir thus: “Smelling Aromatics Elixir on a strip and especially in the air following a string of ‘modern’ fragrances is like watching Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep after twelve episodes of Cheers.” That pretty much sums it up; as he notes, Aromatics Elixir “achieves at once salubrious radiance and luxurious dusk.”

But Bernard Chant created another great aromatic fragrance for Estee Lauder, shortly before Aromatics Elixir: 1969’s Azuree. I was lucky enough to find an affordable, unopened tester of Azuree parfum online – wow. This is a really complex fragrance with a lot of different notes balanced against each other. Luca Turin calls it a “citrus leather” with a leather-chypre heart and gives it five stars, contrasting its ongoing fidelity to the original vision of its creator with the sad dismantling of his other leathery masterpiece, Cabochard. Fragrantica lists its notes as follows: top notes – aldehydes, artemisia, gardenia, basil, sage, bergamot; middle notes – cyclamen, orris root, jasmine, ylang-ylang, geranium, vetiver, rose; base notes – leather, amber, patchouli, musk and oakmoss. My bottle is labeled as “parfum”, not “eau de parfum”, and both its strength and longevity bear that out, as does the slightly oily slick on my skin when I first spray it on. Other commenters have noted the excellent spray nozzle on this bottle, which allows you to spray a small amount in fine droplets. That is all you need! Azuree is strong stuff!

On my skin, Azuree opens with a jolt of aldehydes, bergamot and artemisia, with herbal tones from the basil and sage top notes, although I can’t distinguish those separately.  In the middle stage, I mostly smell orris root (really delightful and earthy, with an underlying carroty sweetness), vetiver and a hint of ylang-ylang. The story behind Azuree is that Estee Lauder, founder of the cosmetics empire, wanted to capture the outdoor scents of Cap d’Antibes on the azure sea of the French Riviera, where she had a villa in the years when Cap d’Antibes still looked more like the landscapes painted by Claude Monet and other Impressionists than the overbuilt hodge-podge it has become. Azuree does have a Mediterranean aura of dryness, citrus, herbs, and pine resin, as if one were looking down a dry Riviera coastline toward the stone pines of Juan-les-Pins from a sunlit Mediterranean garden. While roses, cyclamens and geraniums are listed among the heart notes, and they are all Mediterranean flowers that might grow in such a garden, along with the green herbs listed among the top notes, I really can’t pick them out.

View of the cliff garden, sea and boats, from garden of villa in French Riviera

View from villa in the French Riviera

As it dries down, Azuree becomes more leathery, dry and oak-mossy. At this stage, it LASTS.  If I put it on my wrists at night, I can still clearly smell its final drydown stage the next morning. Like Aromatics Elixir, this fragrance is so very different from the current trends of sweet, fruity or gourmand scents! It doesn’t smell old-fashioned at all, it smells almost radical. Yet at the same time, if one were to characterize it as a person, one might describe a free-spirited young woman, wearing no make up but with an “old soul” gazing from her eyes. Definitely one of the great beauties of the 1970s. If Aromatics Elixir is Lauren Hutton, Azuree is Margaux Hemingway, whose grandfather famously spent so much time on the unspoilt Riviera with the most glamorous, unconventional creatives of the day.

Supermodel Margaux Hemingway

Margaux Hemingway

Fragrance Friday: Shampure

This past week, I have needed “comfort smells.” To be honest, the American Presidential election and its outcome were shocking to me and I am downcast, to say the least. I have had trouble sleeping and it took several days for me to stop waking up in the morning thinking the whole thing had been a bad dream. I also had a nasty little virus that stuffed up my nose and kept me coughing uncontrollably. I needed aromatherapy!

And something that I have found comforting is Shampure Composition Oil, made by Aveda. Aveda’s website describes it as a blend of sunflower and meadowfoam oils with 25 different plant and flower essences. It can be used as a massage oil for body and scalp, moisturizer, bath oil, etc. and, in the website’s words: it “calms the senses with an aroma with 25 pure flower and plant essences including certified organic lavender, petitgrain and ylang ylang.” That sounded promising, and I have a small one-ounce bottle of it from the local Aveda boutique, as a birthday freebie.

I have been rubbing it onto the back of my hands when I go to bed, so I can smell it while I read before I sleep. The scent is a pleasant blend of herbal, floral and lightly spicy notes. MakeUp Alley says that some of the 25 essential oils are: Rose, Lavender, Aloe, Rosemary, Orange, Eucalyptus, Patchouli, Ylang Ylang, Anise, Fennel, Licorice, Bergamot, Coriander, Peppermint, Petitgrain, Vanilla. The ones I smell the most, in no particular order, are probably the aloe, eucalyptus, orange, ylang ylang, peppermint, petitgrain and rosemary. It reminds me of Miller Harris’ La Pluie, which shares several of its aromatic notes.

And yes, I am finding its fragrance very soothing at bedtime. I do like to wear fragrance at night sometimes, but it can be challenging to find one that is calming enough to support sleep. The scent of Shampure also wafts up nicely from the back of my hands if I’m up reading, and it is close but not too close when I finally turn out the lights and try to sleep. Added bonus: the oil feels great on my skin and my hands are benefiting from the moisture!

So that’s my current regime of election aftermath aromatherapy. I’m sure I’ll be ready for more resilient fragrances soon, suitable for the long period of resistance I foresee ahead. Something, perhaps, by Boadicea the Victorious.

Queen Boadicea of the Britons, warrior leader against Roman occupation of Britain

Boadicea, Warrior Queen

Image from the Brooklyn Museum.