Sunday, July 5, 2009

Parfum 137 Nara 1869 Bigarade, Osmanthus, Olibanum: new fragrances reviews

"Princess Asagao had sent perfumes kneaded into rather large balls in two jars, indigo and white, the former decorated with a pine branch and the latter a branch of plum. Though the cords and knots were conventional, one immediately detected the hand of a lady of taste. Inspecting the gifts and finding them admirable, the prince came upon a poem in faint ink which he softly read over to himself. 'Its blossoms fallen, the plum is of no further use. Let its fragrance sink into the sleeves of another.' " ~"The Tale of the Genji"

Parfums 137 is a fledging French niche brand which decided to base their concept on the escapism that perfume so accomodatingly offers: olfactory memory and travel so often powerfully combine, as we have many times personally attested in our "Travel Memoirs" here on Perfume Shrine. Parfums 137 decided to combine that given with the nifty ~but tentative~ alchemist that so many of us hide inside and propose a story layered in 3 different scents which could be mixed and matched, ending up in up to 7 different combinations, so as to produce a unique result each time, however the mood strikes. Hence the subtitle Jeux de Parfums (Perfumes Game). The even niftier touch however is that you could probably use each one of them to layer under other fragrances which you already own, but I will leave this further experimentation to your fertile imagination!

According to the press release with Nara 1869 we're taken on a fictional journey whereupon, a perfumer named Akimoff, was sent by the house of Violet to scout raw materials in mystical Japan on the year 1869. He met a Venitian photographer, Felice Beato, who introduced him to the traditional ceremony Kôdô/Kou-dou, in which participants are asked to recognize essences. The Umegae Chapter (A Branch of Plum) in "The Tale of the Genji" speaks of Incense Making contests, and incense kneaded with honey which form integral part in Kou-dou. It therefore comes as little surprise that it was banned during the later Meiji period because it had become a popular gambling pastime! Still the ceremony is mystifying: The players start with rice chaff ash (kouro-bai), stirred so as to allow for air circulation and placing the hot charcoal on a hole in the center of the censer cup, over which an ash pattern is created (Shin-kouro, Gyou-kouro and Sou-kouro). A vent is pierced and over it a mica plate (Gin-you) is placed where the incense (Kou boku) is finally placed to burn.

Here is a delightful passage from The Tale of the Genji:

"The time had come to review the perfumes. "It should be on a rainy evening," said Genji. "And you shall judge them. Who if not you?" He had censers brought in. A most marvelous display was ranged before the prince, for the ladies were determined that their manufactures be presented to the very best advantage. "I am hardly the one who knows," said the prince. He went over them very carefully, finding this and that delicate flaw, for the finest perfumes are sometimes just a shade too insistent or too bland. Genji sent for the two perfumes of his own compounding. It being in the old court tradition to bury perfumes beside the guardsmen's stream, he had buried them near the stream that flowed between the main hall and the west wing. He dispatched Koremitsu's son, now a councillor, to dig them up. Yu~giri brought them in. "You have assigned me a most difficult task," said the prince. "I fear that my judgment may be a bit smoky." The same tradition had in several fashions made its way down to the several contestants. Each had added ingeniously original touches. The prince was faced with many interesting and delicate problems. Despite Asagao's self-deprecatory poem, her "dark" winter incense was judged the best, somehow gentler and yet deeper than the others. The prince decided that among the autumn scents, the "chamberlain's per- fumes," as they are called, Genji's had an intimacy which however did not insist upon itself. Of Murasaki's three, the plum or spring perfume was especially bright and original, with a tartness that was rather daring. "Nothing goes better with a spring breeze than a plum blossom," said the prince.
Observing the competition from her summer quarter, the lady of the orange blossoms was characteristically reticent, as inconspicuous as a wisp of smoke from a censer. She finally submitted a single perfume, a summer lotus-leaf blend with a pungency that was gentle but firm. In the winter quarter the Akashi lady had as little confidence that she could hold her own in such competition. She finally submitted a "hundred pace" sachet from an adaptation of Minamoto Kintada's formula by the earlier Suzaku emperor, of very great delicacy and refinement. The prince announced that each of the perfumes was obviously the result of careful thought and that each had much to recommend it".
Parfums 137 place Akimoff under the charm of a young geisha on Dec 7th 1869 & subsequently want him to create 3 perfumes based on his experiences of Kodo. Alexandre Bigle, the founder of Parfums 137 came up with the idea of creating a coffret that would incorporate interpretations of these scents and commissioned the trio to nose Isabelle Maillebiau (of Drom Fragrances).

Out of the Nara 1869 triumvirate, Olibanum easily won me over with its nuanced ambience of warmth and cool that raises up into the air in serene tulips of smoke, more Far Eastern Boudhist temples than Orthodox or Catholic crypts.
In Osmanthus the characteristic apricote-suede facets of the natural flower are subtler than in other renditions, with the "sanitised" patchouli of neo-chypres emerging as an underpinning that gives it a disctinctly modern edge. I am reminded of floral woodies such as Coco Mademoiselle or Midnight Poison and their ilk which tells me it will be tremendously popular.
Bigarade is dominated by the heavenly smell of citrus aurantia, or bigaradier; the Seville bitter orange tree that flanks the streets of the Spanish city, and which produces neroli via steam distillation of its leaves and twigs. Here, neroli is fused with the lightly warm, sweetish effluvium of smooth, clean musk, offering another interpretation of the formula that accounts for the tangier and cooler Eau d'Orange Verte.
Personally I thought that the combination of Bigarade and Olibanum complimented one another best, the citrusy facets of one echoeing the tangier facets of the other, but numerous combinations can be tried.

Notes for Parfums 137 Nara 1869:
Bigarade: notes of citruses, white tea blossoms, musk, woods.
Osmanthus: notes of peaches and abricot together with florals and patchouli.
Olibanum: fresh, spicy, an ode to incense with notes of myrrh and patchouli.

Nara 1869 comes in three 15ml/0.5oz sprayers in an illustrated coffret with booklet for 60 Euros and although unavailable in the US, it can be purchased on the official site.

Parfums 137 has also introduced a coffret named Stromboli 1950, comprised of the scents of Spearmint, Myrte and Immortelle (very Med, all of them!) which personally reminds me of the fiesty Roberto Rosellini and Ingrid Bergman affair on that fateful Italian volcanic landscape, but I guess you will have to find out more for yourselves on the official site for Parfums 137 where they also offer samples.

Pics via taiko.be and nipponkodo.com


  1. Ha! Thanks for the excerpt from The Tale of Genji (源氏物語, pronounced as "Genji Monogatari"). I have the translated version in my library but leafing over the massive volumes in order to look of a passage is an inconvineice at best! My Japanese is oooookkkkayyy (not as good as Chandler Burr for sure) but The Tale of Genji was written in sort of "high Japanese" during the Heian period, a style ridden with, for instance, so many now-extinct Japanese honorific forms (including the associated verb conjugagtions) that modern Japanese translation would be required for some native speakers in order to read it.

    And if you can believe it many important characters aren't given names! They were referred to by their ranks in the court, the colour of their robes, the symbols from the poems they wrote in a particular chapter...all of which change from chapter to chapter! So when I read it I had to keep on referring to the footnotes in order to not get confused. But it was a good read though--the ending was a bit abrupt but somewhat amusing in a very poetic way (I can say it because nobody would have really guessed it unless he or she reads it).

  2. Yes, I know about these details, it's not unheard of in other "novels" as well to have characters referred to by rank.
    A, trust me, my Japanese is non existent! LOL! But the English translations are very handy and of course they offer some glimpse, even if translations are often a hard thing to do right (especially in ancient type languages). I believe it's the same with our own Odyssey and Iliad: we also require footnotes when reading in the original!
    Do you have the Tanizaki one by any chance?

    Now I wonder if it's a monogatari or not, since it's so intricate and chronologically sequential (is this the right word?), definitely not the most pacing thing to read through much like Proust, still for those interested in literature worth exploring even if skipping a few pages.
    As to the ending, didn't Edgar Allan Poe do the same with Arthur Gordon Pym? That's the first thing that comes to my mind, there might be others too. (hhmmm)

    BTW, I suggest the Google Books search function if you're looking for a specific passage: it's great to locate something ~when you know what you're searching for, of course. (for instance chapter 10 is beautiful)

  3. Oh Helg...baby steps...the Tanizaki translation is the uber-classic authority! Not an easy read for a person with my Japanese and not very affordable at all! On the other hand I've read snippets of Akiko Yosano's translation--she was also no slouch as a poet in her own right to say to least.

    It's 3:10 AM here and I'm afraid your "monogatari or not" question flies way beyond my head...(sorry)

    Hmm...chapter 10...do you mean "Sasaki", the chapter which Genji's father passed away & the chapter after Genji's wife died after a difficult birth (due to some psychic meddling from one of Genji's mistresses)??? I remember taking a huge gulp when reading that section...right now I can't recall a specific chapter which grabs me but I'll have to think about it.

  4. I have no idea how much these things run for, like I said, I can't read in Japanese and English editions are not that expensive.

    I think that's what it's called in Japanese, not 100% sure, it's Green Branch in English (is that what Sasaki means?). The emperor has died and there is depiction of their mourning and of the memorial rites which the hero performs (the ritualistic is what grabs me). Didn't he have several women die on him?
    This is a nice site with pictures inspired by the book's chapters,btw, here is one.

    I have always been intrigued by Murasaki and the Shiseido scent by same name :-)

    As to the "monogatori or not" discussion, no trouble, let's do it another time. I have the same conversation with students on the classical texts (Aethiopea/Αιθιοπίς, Cyclic epics, Satyricon etc.) It's funny how fanatical one can get regarding those issues!

  5. Yup, the title would be translated as "Green Branch" in English texts...but I made a minor spelling error--it's "Sagaki" (榊)or Cleyera japonica if you want the Latin name. The branches are used for religious ceremonies in ceremonies, hence tying in with the rites performed. One of the problems with translating The Tale of Genji is the sheer amount of plant names :-) In this regard reputable Mandarin versions are slightly better because of some shared characters between Japanese and Mandarin--many plants still have their "original" characters: remember this was a period which Chinese influence was quite encouraged so some words got their kanji characters derived from Mandarin.

    Ah, I see what you meant with the question. As far as I know a translated text would still be considered a monogatari because the structure of the genre is not all that strict (the meter and the rhyming scheme of the poems might be affected...but better than nothing). It's the translation process that's more of a daunting challenge: due to the reputation of the original text and the sheer volume of material it can be a very stressful task to do a modern Japanese traslation. I know Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata wanted to do one--and it tried but alas it was not meant to be.

    Interestingly enough the theme of the novel is still debated. One theory is that it shows what the state which Japanese would call "mono no aware", although many people disagree with it:


    Anyhow, hope this helps.

  6. Liisa Wennervirta17:16

    I lurve Genji (and all I know in Japanese are the plant names - often used for persons and explained in footnotes. Silly)
    I'm cleaning these days. Or, CLEANING, to be exact, moving things there and back and chasing spiders around and revising books. Hitherto I've found around 50 volumes that are not in the inventory, found not several books that should be around and among others, well, Genji was lent to a work buddy and both Iliad and Odyssey in the best translation ever done to our studip language in a bibliophile edition... darn, I love books.

    My attempts to learn Japanese are apparently cursed. Irrelevant and off-topic story not included here.

    Murasaki is one of my fave fragrances. I'm rather pissed by the fact that the contents of the miniature smell much better than the full bottle (freaking ugly bottle, for that matter)...

    And, by the way, Liza Dalby wrote a fictional biography of Murasaki Shikibu. (Mental note, I wanted to buy it.)

  7. A,

    perhaps a completely different language in its structure and very core (such as English towards Japanese) is a better vehicle to get away from this difficulties of classification: in a translation to such a medium, there is a loss of these dilemmas. This applies to quite free translations of course which do not try to immitate the rhythmic patterns of the original language (My own very amasteurish translations of French poems into Greek are such a case, I opt to forego entirely of the musical texture of the original language so as to inject a musical sense to the other; but of course a purist would get the chills!! LOL)

    Thanks for the Japanese term on the melancholy of ephemera, it's certainly true for Genji, going through so much change! Somehow I think Virgil's take is different though (I always thought it was for the futility and vanity of men, who fight what is ultimately lost battles...), the classical world seems of a different fabric than the Far East to me in general, but that might be just the scholar in me.

  8. Liisa,

    you're better than me if you can distinguish the plant names in Japanese, to be sure!
    I know that completely different languages from one's native one (I mean completely different linguistic branches in the Levi frame of thought) are difficult to learn and stick with them. There is some sort of the native tongue's rebellion to it.
    I tried my hand with Sanskrit while a student at the University, which is an Indo-Aryan language after all, so theoretically I should have no major trouble (better than learning Chinese for instance), but they just wouldn't stick to the brain, you know? :-)

    Murasaki should get its treatment here soon and thanks for the book rec too!!

  9. Helg,
    me and languages, that would make a book of silly stories, far-fetched theories that explain nothing and the never-ending awe of my mother, a linguist and a teacher who never understood how the hell I can manage what I manage, without any visible effort.
    I seem to lack any ability to study languages. The famous incident with relative clauses was rather illustrative - and I only know that there is something like relative clauses only because I worked in a publishing house and did quite some graphics and stuff on language textbooks. I probably wouldn't know a relative clause for sure even if it was stealing food from my plate.
    I however learn languages (and not only languages) pretty easily - by letting it happen. So, well, after I read quite some Japanese literature with all those footnotes, I remembered plants. I seem to be good in not remembering names of the characters, though:D

  10. Helg,

    Normally I think a classic text can benefit from a modern translation because it only expresses the timelessness of the composition (witness Andras Schiff interpreting Bach's "The Well-Tempered Clavier"). However in the case of the poems found Genji they are called waka (和歌 lit. "Japanese poem") and they follow very strict rhyming and meter schemes:


    So there lies a translator's discretion. Personally I discover different things in reputable Mandarin & English versions--I get the plot more in English but the Mandarin version has better annotations (right down to the original quote the wakas allude to).

    Oh, I just read Genji again and some minor corrections: chapter 10 is of course "Sakaki". "Sagaki" I believe is a relatively modern corruption--sometimes some syllables like "ka" can be turned into a "ga" sound in Japanese for the ease of pronounciation. And sakaki was passed around when Genji visited Rokujo Haven--so it has nothing to do with the funeral.

    I'm reading chapter 28 again (Nowaki, or "The Typhoon") and it's quite lovely. Yes, the story is bit of a transgression but quite poetic.

    By the way, I should add that the "monogatari" genre during the Heian period was a way for the court ladies to appreciate stories so sophistication was key--beautifaully detailed descriptions, auditorily elegant flowing sentences, lovely gestures and great illustrations were all important at that time. So Kyoto University invented a Murasaki-bot to somehow recreate a storyteller:


    Hope this helps.


  11. PS. Doubled check the Murasaki-bot and I think it speaks modern Japaense. Not quite certain but my contemporary Japanese is picking up key words so I cannot be certain that it recites the original text--plus I would imagine a Murasaki-bot reciting the original text would not be very sucessful at attracting buyers.

    Oh, forgot to add that I tried reading the original Japanese text: to be its hard because the grammatical rules--like the particle applications and verb conjugations--are so different. But the aesthetics jump right out of the page with its balance in syllabus. I know it sounds odd but basically the Japanese writing systemes--hiragana and Kanji--exist during the Heian period. (The third system, katagana, used to trascribe foreign words, came later.) So I understand the alphabets--just can't make sense of the sentences :-p

  12. You have given me much to ponder on! Thanks for all your trouble.
    I am sure I could not comment with any authority whatsoever on the Japanese bots, so don't worry about it.


Type your comment in the box, choose the Profile option you prefer from the drop down menu below the text box (Anonymous is fine if you don't want the other options) and hit Publish! And you're set!

Blog Widget by LinkWithin