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)

Fragrance Friday: Fragrance Fantasy

Fragrance Friday: Fragrance Fantasy

For something completely unique, however, there’s Penhaligon’s Bespoke by Alberto Morillas, spearheaded by the man behind some of the world’s most recognisable scents including Calvin Klein’s CK One, Tommy Hilfiger’s Tommy and Marc Jacobs’s Daisy. Comprising eight months of trial-and-error testing and costing from £35,000, it’s a process that requires both a significant monetary and…

Oh, how I long to be able to do this, given how often I have gravitated to Penhaligon’s fragrances! Alas, it will remain nothing more than a lovely fantasy. What choices would you make, if you pursued the less expensive option of having specific bases and notes combined for you, as described in the article? I am consoling myself with a few photos from my visit to the Penhaligon’s boutique in the Burlington Arcade last fall, and a few spritzes of my beloved Blasted Bloom.

via A significant monetary and personal commitment — Now Smell This

Confederate Jasmine

Confederate Jasmine

Although last year I wrote a series called May Muguet Marathon, in truth the lilies of the valley bloomed here in late March/early April. What blooms here in May is Confederate jasmine and in my garden, lots of it. I have a brick wall and more than one fence that are completely covered in it. It is an evergreen vine with medium-sized, glossy, dark green leaves that make a perfect cover for such structures. Its major advantage over other such plants is its flower. Every spring, the vines are covered in hundreds of delicate, small white flowers with a starry appearance and powerful fragrance.

Close up of white Confederate jasmine flower

Confederate jasmine; trachelospermum jasminoides

I was prompted to write here about it because another member of a Facebook fragrance group posted a photo of a plant he had seen and asked what it was, as it smells so heavenly. It really does. A single plant can scent an entire garden; dozens of plants, as I have in my garden, may be scenting the whole block!

When I plant in my already over-crowded garden, I try to use plants that serve multiple purposes, and Confederate jasmine is a prime example. As I love fragrant plants, fragrance is high on my list of the qualities I seek. As my property is less than one acre, plants like vines that will grow vertically and not take up much precious ground space are desirable. It is shaded by a high canopy of tall oak trees, so I seek out plants that tolerate partial shade and shade. I also have a brick wall all along one side of our lot and chain link fence around the rest (erected by a previous owner and now, thankfully, mostly unseen due to the same owner’s clever screen plantings).

The brick wall was built several years ago by a neighbor and required something to cover its then-naked surface, which extended the whole length of our garden. Enter Confederate jasmine! We installed vertical iron trellises on the brick pillars that rose about every ten feet along the wall, planted the jasmine, and within a few years, the whole wall was almost completely covered with pretty evergreen leaves, as the vines fling themselves with abandon into the space between the trellises. The bonus, of course, is that at this time of year, the fragrance is remarkable and the wall is covered with white flowers, as in these images from the blog Old City South.

Confederate jasmine vines on wall and arbor, from Old City South blog

Confederate jasmine; photos from Old City South blog

What does it smell like? It is sweet, with a hint of lemon. It attracts and nourishes bees, another excellent quality given severe declines in North American bee populations. It is intense and it wafts for long distances, but I have never found it overpowering or unpleasant. It is similar to the scent of true jasmine but has less of a “hot-house” aura. Hard to describe precisely, but lovely.

The Gift of Muguet

Happy May Day! Last year I did a blogging “May Muguet Marathon“; not sure I’ll be able to do as many posts this year. But to get you started off on the right foot, here is The Candy Perfume Boy’s take on two wonderful muguet fragrances, both of which I love and about which I wrote last year: May Muguet Marathon: Muguet Porcelaine and May Muguet Marathon: Diorissimo. Enjoy your favorite muguet and your day!

The Candy Perfume Boy

The Gift of Muguet The Gift of Muguet

In France on May Day it’s tradition to present a loved one with a bouquet of Lily-of-the-Valley (or ‘Muguet’ as it is called in France). To celebrate May Day and the beauty of Muguet, I’ve pulled together two reviews from the archives to showcase my favourite Lily-of-the-Valley fragrances.  Both come from entirely different eras, with the first being a vintage formulation of a classic made at time where the key materials that make recreating the scent of Muguet achievable were still readily usable, whilst the other is a modern interpretation that somehow captures the cool and aloof nature of the flower. They’re both entirely different but they’re also both wonderfully beautiful. Enjoy!

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The Scent of Gratitude

The Scent of Gratitude

by Linda Ryan Now and then there comes a moment when time seems to stop, even for the merest fraction of a second, and in that fraction of a second something becomes so clear that it’s almost heartbreaking. It happened to me the other morning when I went to feed the outside cats. It…

via Speaking to the Soul: The Scent of Gratitude — Episcopal Cafe

I loved this reflection on scents and being thankful for them. As we’ve just passed Easter, I want to add how thankful I am for the abundance of flowers that my fellow parishioners provide every year to celebrate it, and the remarkable skill and love with which they arrange thousands of fragrant lilies, roses, hydrangeas, tulips and flowering branches. To be surrounded by so many gifts is indeed cause for thanks!

My Mother’s Last Perfume

My Mother’s Last Perfume

Re-posting this in honor of National Fragrance Day, as the Fragrance Foundation has suggested sharing one’s most poignant scent memories. My poor mother is still with us and still in her own home, but her condition has declined even further.

My mother is slowly dying. It is sad but acceptable, given that she is in her mid-80s and suffered a major stroke more than two years ago. She has been able to stay in her own home, cared for by a live-in aide who has become a much-appreciated member of the family “team.” Now my mother also gets hospice care in her home and she is bedridden. She is emaciated, as she only drinks protein shakes and water. Most of her medications have been discontinued, because trying to swallow pills came to cause her so much distress. She would be mortified to know her present condition, as she was always a proud woman who valued autonomy above almost anything else. She had always hoped that her unhealthy heart would fell her instantly, without any fuss, after she was no longer able to enjoy what she called her “adventures.” My mother loved to travel to exotic places, with or without my father (who died several years ago).

In her younger days, my mother also loved glamour, and parties, and dressing up. She had an eye for fashion and was a striking woman herself: tall, with white Irish skin and startling blue eyes under dark eyebrows and hair that was such a dark brown it looked black. An early memory of mine is of sitting on my parents’ bed, watching her do her hair and make up at a vanity, or what we called her “dressing table.” It was a ritual; and part of that ritual was the finishing flourish of Chanel No. 5.

Chanel No. 5 perfume ad

My parents’ marriage was not always a happy one, though it lasted more than 50 years and only ended with my father’s death when he was almost 90. My mother was never cut out to be a suburban housewife, yet the part of her that craved security sought out that life and chose to stay in it. She was, indeed, very like the creation of Rudyard Kipling to which she frequently compared herself: The Cat that Walked by Himself, or as she said, “the Cat that walked alone.” She sought out creature comfort and made for herself (and us) a pleasing home, but there was always part of her that withheld itself. As a child, I often tried to make my mother feel happier, though I now realize that much of her unhappiness was due to exaggerated expectations on her part of how her life should have unfolded.

The Cat that Walked by Himself, from the Just-So Stories, text and illustration by Rudyard Kipling

One way I tried to make her happy was to save my small allowance to offer her gifts: special gifts, the kind I thought my father should give her more often. More than once, that gift was some form of Chanel No. 5. I remember offering Chanel talcum powder; and once, the smallest size of spray cologne, as that was all I could afford. She was, in fact, delighted by these offerings and made a point of using them when I was around to see that she loved and appreciated them. My mother was in many ways a self-centered woman but she loved us as much as she was able to, given her own loveless childhood.

So now, as she lies slowly dying — a process that could sadly take many more weeks or even months — I occasionally “borrow” a spritz from her last spray bottle of Chanel No. 5 eau de toilette. I think I may have given it to her some time in the last decade; I just don’t remember. But I do remember the fragrance, and her bottle pre-dates the 2013 reformulation. It hasn’t been carefully preserved — it sat out on a shelf in her sunny bathroom for years. So the top notes are a little “off”, but it quickly settles onto one’s skin with powdery, warm, heady florals. Smelling it, I can recall the vibrant, restless, beautiful woman my mother once was. It really is a lovely scent, though I would never choose to wear it regularly as my own perfume, given its long association with my mother.

Sadly, she no longer enjoys it. On one of my visits during this latest phase of her long decline, I thought she might like to smell it again, as she was always hyper-alert to smells, so I applied a bit to my own wrist and held it close so she could smell it. She wrinkled her nose and said to the room, “What is that awful smell?”. So I haven’t offered it again; instead, I bring her pots of live hyacinths, which she has long loved and still enjoys. My father, an avid amateur gardener, used to please her by potting up dozens of hyacinth bulbs for forcing indoors every winter, when their perfume would fill entire rooms.

Pots of blue hyacinth bulbs in bloom

My mother slips in and out of awareness these days, and I’m not always sure she knows I am there, but when I brought her the latest hyacinths and held the pot of blossoms close to her, she inhaled their fragrance, smiled and said, “Lovely!”. It still matters to me to try to make my mother happy, even at this indeterminate, shadowy end.

Bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume with pink hyacinths

Postscript: My mother died peacefully on May 30. We are thankful for her release; we believe she no longer walks alone.

Fragrance Friday: Nirmal

Fragrance Friday: Nirmal

I love a fragrance that is both lovely to smell and intriguing to consider. I also love floral fragrances, although I am branching out as I learn more about perfume. Laboratorio Olfattivo Nirmal is all three. I have previously declared my love for that house’s Decou-Vert Nirmal is a new love, though I don’t see myself wearing it more than Decou-Vert, generally speaking — maybe in the fall, when I don’t crave the green notes of my beloved muguets.

The firm’s website describes it in terms of soft white fabric brushing against skin, sweetness, serenity, tranquility, a cloud of white notes. The top note is carrot, followed by heart notes of iris root and violet, drying down to a base of sweet suede, cedar and amber. The name is a Hindi or Sanskrit first name for boys, which means pure, innocent, tranquil. And yes, this is a fragrance that could easily be worn by a man. The iris note is really orris root, the violet is very hushed and the sweet notes in the base are well-balanced with the cedar.

The carrot top note is very clear and leaves no doubt that it is carrot. It is a fresh carrot, though, the kind one might buy at a farmer’s market, with its ferny green foliage intact as well as its fresh-from-the-earth sweetness, that vanishes before carrots reach the supermarket. The carrot slowly gives way to iris root, the two merging imperceptibly until you notice at some point that the carrot is gone and the iris has taken over, with a blush of violet. Then the iris slowly yields to the violet, and the undertones of cedar, “daim” and amber begin to appear softly.

Olfactoria’s Travels had a lovely review of Nirmal two years ago; the author did not perceive the carrot as strongly as I did, and she sensed the sweet “daim” notes more strongly, although they do get stronger and more candied as Nirmal dries down. She made a lovely comparison between Nirmal and the lone white iris in one of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings, noting that like the white iris, this scent is pale and delicate.

Oil painting of iris flowers with lone white iris, by Vincent van Gogh

Irises, by Vincent van Gogh

I agree — there are no grape notes, as one finds in some iris flowers; the only purplish fragrance note is the faint flush of violet, and maybe that’s a white violet, too.

white-violet

Sweet white violet

Nirmal has good longevity on my skin; five hours or more. I would say that its sillage is moderate. As it dries down, the sweet “daim” notes do become stronger, but they are never cloying or too sugary. There is a warmth to the sweetness that probably comes from the amber note, and a nice balance from the light but woody cedar. After eight hours, most of what I still smell is the amber, which has come shyly out of the background to outlast the other notes.

I will be interested to try this next summer, when the weather is hot, to see how it fares. Right now, my favorite fragrances for the kind of hot, humid weather we get in the South are Ellena’s Un Jardin Sur le Nil and Un Jardin Apres La Mousson Right now, the weather is cool and overcast but not chilly, and Nirmal feels just right.