May Muguet Marathon: Neil Chapman’s “Perfume”

May Muguet Marathon: Neil Chapman’s “Perfume”

If you have read the excellent fragrance blog The Black Narcissus, you have already encountered the writing of Neil Chapman. Neil published, this spring, his first book, called “Perfume: In Search of Your Signature Scent.” You can buy it on Amazon.com! It’s a great book, full of his unique insights, impressions, and life experiences, enriched by his knowledge not only of perfume but of the literature of various cultures. Case in point: his introduction of the section in his book that discusses lily of the valley as a fragrance note.

In Natsume Soseki’s 1909 novel Sore Kara (‘And then …’) the main protagonist, Daisuke — a fraught, pretence-addled, indolent ‘aesthete’ whose descent into madness forms the core of the novel — has a predilection for sleeping in the aroma of delicate flowers in order to negate life’s sordid realities. Overly affected by the ordinary physical world, this nervous book collector uses a faint, lightly sweet floral scent at night to reduce his contacts with the world to a minimum: snowy white lilies of the valley, with their stems not yet cut, flowers that form an important motif in the novel, but not only for their pristine beauty and virginal whiteness.

The muguet fragrances Neil reviews in his book are: Diorissimo, Muguet du Bonheur, Penhaligons’ Lily of the Valley, Don’t Get Me Wrong, Baby, I Don’t Swallow, Muguet Fleuri, Muguet Blanc, Quartana’s Lily of the Valley, and Muguet des Bois. His reviews of those are as distinctive and individually nuanced as his writing quoted above.

I highly recommend Neil’s book, whether you are new to the exploration of fragrances, or you are a perfumista with dozens (or hundreds!) of bottles of your own. There are eleven main chapters, named generally for scent groupings of his own, like “Green”, “Gourmand”, “Eros.” You will learn a lot, no matter where you are in your perfume journey; and even fragrances you know well get “The Black Narcissus” treatment, in which Neil weaves his own extensive knowledge with his personal observations, impressions, and experiences. His story of his close encounter with Japanese incense (he and his partner live in Japan) and the accompanying ceremony is hilarious and worth the price of the book for that alone.

But in line with the theme of this month, I especially recommend reading his thoughts on lilies of the valley and the fragrances listed above. And as a bonus, you can read the end of his summation of that Japanese novel! Have you read Neil’s blog The Black Narcissus?

Japanese woman wearing traditional garb with lily of the valley headpiece

Traditional Japanese outfit with ‘lily of the valley’ kanzashi; image from http://www.donatale.com

Fragrance Friday: Neil’s Book “Perfume”

I am in awe of the fact that Neil Chapman, author of the blog The Black Narcissus, has written and had published an actual BOOK! It is called “Perfume: In Search of Your Signature Scent”, and it just came out in the US (it came out a short time earlier, in March, in the UK). You can buy it on Amazon, where I had pre-ordered it; I came home from work earlier this week to find the package waiting on my doorstep. It is also available online and at booksellers such as Blackwell’s and Barnes & Noble.

As others have written, the book itself is beautiful, a hardcover volume with an Art Deco cover design in black, gold, and silver, and gold-edged pages. If you have ever read The Black Narcissus, you know that Neil is a wonderfully gifted writer with wide-ranging interests. His posts about fragrance include many cultural references and observations from his years living in several countries, from his childhood and youth in England, to his current home in Japan. He studied Italian and French literature at Cambridge University, and he now teaches English to Japanese secondary school students. His literary sensibilities suffuse his writing, but he also includes deeply personal reminiscences and a vast knowledge of perfume: history, ingredients, creators, etc.

Neil’s individual reviews of specific perfumes are grouped into categories such as “Green”, then by notes like “grasses, leaves and herbs.” (As a lover of green fragrances myself, I was thrilled that this is the first chapter!) It is a remarkably user-friendly format with an exhaustive index if one just wants to read one review of a specific fragrance. Neil has a poetic sensibility and lifelong love of perfume, both of which his writing reflects. As he says, “In its wordless abstraction, a beautifully made scent can encapsulate an emotion; smell, with its visceral link to the unconscious, is unique in its emotional immediacy.” His short reviews of individual fragrances combine information about their components and creation with his own reactions to wearing them, or memories of times when he wore them. Since his own perfume collection must number in the thousands, including many rare vintage perfumes, even the most profligate collectors of perfumes will find surprises and revelations. However, the book is also a very accessible guide for those who are just exploring fragrance, or, as he writes, “a guide through a world that can at times seem overwhelming.”

Bravo, Neil! I’m wearing Vol de Nuit in your honor today! To learn more about Neil, check out this interview on the blog “Olfactoria’s Travels.”

MY BOOK ARRIVED IN THE POST TODAY AND I MUST ADMIT I AM RATHER PLEASED — The Black Narcissus

Our friend Neil at The Black Narcissus is a published author!! Publication date for “Perfume: In Search of Your Signature Scent” in the UK is March 21; April 2 in the US. You can pre-order RIGHT NOW at Amazon.co.uk or at Amazon.com.

via MY BOOK ARRIVED IN THE POST TODAY AND I MUST ADMIT I AM RATHER PLEASED — The Black Narcissus

From the Amazon.co.uk website:

A beautifully made scent can encapsulate a particular feeling, transport you to a very specific time in life with clarity, or remind you of a special loved one or friend. And just like wearing your favourite outfit or shoes, your favourite perfume can make you feel invincible. The question is, how do you find such a creation? With the number of new releases steadily In Perfume, Neil Chapman guides readers through a world that can at times seem overwhelming. Fragrances of every variety are listed ‘note by note’ in clearly divided categories that will steer you in the direction of a perfume you not only like, but love and cherish as ‘your’ smell. Chapters are divided into popular base notes (vanilla, sandalwood, cedarwood, jasmine, patchouli), heart notes (lavender, rosemary, black pepper, geranium, juniper) and top notes (bergamot, citrus, basil), and the book features over 200 scents, from department store classics to more boutique fragrances. If a scent intrigues, go out and try it. The further you go on this journey, the more you will be amazed by how many beautiful creations do exist if you take the time to look.

Congratulations, Neil! All your readers are so proud of you! Can’t wait to read a whole book of your thoughts on perfume.

Update: Neil has posted photos of the actual book at The Black Narcissus, now that his parents have seen it first. It is gorgeous! And there will be at least one book event this spring in London, so keep checking his blog for details!

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.

Blasted Heath and Blasted Bloom by Penhaligon’s

From Tara at A Bottled Rose — more thoughts on Penhaligon’s Blasted Bloom, which I’ve also reviewed, and its partner Blasted Heath, which I’ve sampled but not reviewed. Enjoy!

A Bottled Rose

There’s nothing like a returning trend which you remember vividly from the first time around to make you feel your age.  It doesn’t seem like five minutes since aquatics fragrances were at high tide before receding from the mainstream market. When they went out of vogue, many of us were relieved to see the back of them.

Really, it’s unfair to tar all watery-themed fragrances with the same brush. For me (and I suspect many others) it was more the ubiquity of the calone-fuelled 1990’s phenomenon L’Eaud’Issey that made me tire of the genre. There’s actually been a number of really great niche oceanic fragrances since then, including Heeley’s Sal Marin and Epice Marine Hermessence.

Last year aquatic fragrances staged a comeback. I was pleasantly surprised by Jo Malone’s Wood Sage and Sea Salt and in September Penhaligon’s launched a duo of scents which were also inspired by…

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Fragrance Friday: Tangerine Vert, and Glow

Fragrance Friday: Tangerine Vert, and Glow

To round out my comments on my Miller Harris Collection Voyage, I’ve been sampling the third fragrance in the coffret: Tangerine Vert. It is really a unisex citrus cologne.Top notes are tangerine, grapefruit and lemon; middle notes are geranium, orange blossom and marjoram; base notes are oakmoss, musk and cedar. I have read that there is an actual fruit that is a green tangerine, very popular in China and Japan, where it is loved as a fruit that signals the end of summer and the start of autumn. It seems right to review its namesake fragrance in September, especially as we are enjoying beautiful Indian Summer weather. The Miller Harris website refers to “Sicilian green tangerine” but I love the imagery of the Asian fruits heralding early autumn.

The opening of Tangerine Vert is marvelous: a burst of citrus, sweet but not too sweet, with an undertone of slightly bitter rind and grapefruit that turns into an aromatic, green herb, nicely balancing the sweet tangerine. The citrus notes do not feel sharp to me; although lemon is listed as a note, I don’t pick that up. The tangerine dominates without being tangy. In the middle, the dominant notes to me are the marjoram and geranium. In the final stage, I cannot say that I smell anything but the lightest oakmoss faintly tinged with cedar. Lyn Harris has declared that “citrus is all about top notes” and Tangerine Vert embodies that principle.

Sadly, this fragrance comes and goes so quickly on me that I would have to spray it every hour to enjoy it the most. I have dry skin, and citrus notes are famously fleeting; the combination probably doomed the longevity. I may have a solution, though, or at least an experiment! I recently bought a bottle of one of Maison Martin Margiela’s new Replica Filters, Glow.  The “filters”, Glow and Blur, are lightly fragranced dry oil sprays that you use like a primer on your skin before spraying on a perfume. They are meant to brighten (Glow) or soften (Blur) your chosen fragrance as well as extend its longevity, and they are especially designed to be layered with other Replica fragrances.

Bottle of fragranced dry oil spray Maison Martin Margiela Replica Filter Glow

Maison Martin Margiela Replica Filter Glow

I tried both of them at Sephora and much preferred Glow, which I could happily wear on its own as a very simple scent, with its notes of neroli, grapefruit blossom, bergamot and rose. It feels lovely on the skin, not oily but like a veil. Blur was pleasant enough, but I felt it was somewhat nondescript on its own; and when layered with a Replica fragrance (Flower Market), it tamped it down too much. So I bought Glow (shoutout to the lovely SA at Sephora, who happily sampled fragrances with me and sent me home with two samples of Flower Market and several more Chanel samples).

I plan to try Tangerine Vert layered over Glow, in the hopes that the “filter” will improve longevity and that its bright solar notes will amplify what I like so much about Tangerine Vert, the citrus opening. I’ll post an update! Have you tried either of the Replica Filters or Tangerine Vert? What did you think?

Fragrance Friday: Terre d’Iris

Fragrance Friday: Terre d’Iris

Another bottle from my Collection Voyage of Miller Harris fragrances is Terre d’Iris.  I like it very much but I don’t feel I fully understand it yet. Fragrantica says it “represents a fragrant journey around the Mediterranean. Calabria bergamot and Sicilian bitter orange open the composition leading to the heart of delicious southern herbs such as rosemary from Dalmatia and clary sage, followed by orange blossom and roses from Tunis and Turkey. The base is composed of patchouli, moss, French fir balsam and Florentine iris.”

I definitely get the opening citrus notes, bergamot and bitter orange. The bitter orange in particular is pleasant and strangely compelling. I generally like green fragrances, with their herbal notes, and although I wouldn’t describe Terre d’Iris as a green fragrance, it is certainly aromatic, with a little bite to its opening. Here is its “scent mosaic”, from the Miller Harris website:

Scent mosaic by Miller Harris perfumes, for Terre d'Iris

Scent mosaic for Terre d’Iris, http://www.millerharris.com

It is important that one of the key notes is not just iris, but “Florentine iris.” Florentine iris is one of the few irises that is considered to be an herb, not just a beautiful flower. Rachel McLeod writes in NaturalLife:  “The most important herbal use for irises to day is the use of the rhizomes from certain species to make orris root for use in perfumery and pot-pourri. Orris root has been one of the most important ingredients in any scent industry from as far back as the 15th century. The scent is rather like sweet violets but its real value is in its ability to fix other scents…. Orris root comes from three closely related irises – Iris germanica, Iris florentina and Iris pallida.”

Iris florentina is now known to be an ancient hybrid of iris germanica, or bearded iris. It has white flowers flushed with mauve. The flower itself is scented although the main value of this iris to perfumery is as a source of orris root and iris butter, which is painstakingly extracted over a period of years from the plant’s rhizomes. Iris florentina is grown mainly in Italy and southern France, but also throughout the Mediterranean, which is truly the “land of iris”, going back to the Egyptians whose use of iris can be documented. Van Gogh often painted iris flowers in Provence, such as the lovely “Field with Irises near Arles”, above, whose vibrant colors were restored in 2015 by stripping off old, yellowed varnish. Isn’t it clever, how the Miller Harris scent mosaic echoes the colors of the Van Gogh painting? You can still see fields of iris, both in Provence and in the Giardino dell’Iris in Florence, the city for which the iris flower has long been a symbol.

Fields of light purple, mauve and white bearded iris flowers in Provence, southern France

Fields of iris in Provence; image from http://www.luxe-provence.com.

As Terre d’Iris dries down, what I smell is the sweetly carroty note that is supposed to be characteristic of orris root. It is not sugary at all; rather, it is the scent of a freshly dug and washed carrot after you bite into it, maybe even with a little dirt still clinging to it (I’m looking at you, oak moss!). I do not smell powder at all in Terre d’Iris, if you think of powdery as the cosmetic. Instead, there are more dry, earthy, woody, herbal tones that contrast with the citrus opening. If I had to describe the iris heart note using non-flowery words, I would say it is smooth and buttery.

Although my bottle came in a Collection Voyage “Pour Elle” set, Terre d’Iris is clearly a unisex scent, as it is described elsewhere. It may even lean a bit more toward masculine than feminine; it would smell marvelous on a man (really, I’m going to have to start experimenting with some of my fragrances on my husband!) while also smelling lovely on a woman.  This is not a girlish fragrance. Very few floral notes, and the ones it has are not strongly present other than the subtle iris. They lend a smoothness and gentleness to the overall experience but I wouldn’t be able to tell that there was any rose in Terre d’Iris if it weren’t listed among the notes. The only fruit notes are in the astringent opening of bergamot and bitter orange.

Will Terre d’Iris become a go-to fragrance for me? Probably not, as I do love my flowers and floral notes. But this is a well-crafted and lovely fragrance that doesn’t smell like anything else out there. It becomes a skin scent pretty soon but I can still smell lingering traces of it on my wrist ten hours after application.  I’m so glad to have this small bottle of it!

iris_florentina_sydenham_edwards

Iris florentina; illustration by Sydenham Edwards.