Thursday, April 9, 2009

Aquarelle Scents: When Perfume Behaves as Art

If perusing the shelves of perfume collections is akin to galivanting nonchalantly through the portico of a gallery then one would attribute characteristics of the painting media to perfumery without hesitation.

Some fragrances are vividly opaque like Baroque masters' thinned on turpentine; some have the eerily matte luminosity and luxurious old-world austerity that comes from gold leaf and egg tempera on Byzantine basilicas and Fayum mummy portraits. Others seem primed with Gesso primer, an indeterminate ambience that alludes to an undercoat for the development of other ideas on top; while some are thick pastels, waxy and brightly-coloured like Edgar Degas dancers. Some have modernist touches of rough, prickly spots (sand, clay and paper scraps), others still explore the darker side in genuine Soulages manner. But a few of the most enjoyable ones evoke the beguiling transparency and ethereal silkiness of watercolours. The following selection consists of my personal picks of fragrances ~regadless of gender~ which embody the spirit of clarity and light evidenced in an aquarelle, yet do not give in to being overtly delicate to the point of nothingness.

Eau d'Italie Magnolia Romana
If "clean" and crisp florals are a natural contestant amongst diaphanous studies of airy luminosity, then Magnolia Romana composed by Bertrand Duchaufour for niche line Eau d'Italie (of Hotel Le Sirenuse) is among the most pleasant. The scent is atypical of Duchaufour's heteroglossia of smoky woods (expressed in wistful Sienne L'Hiver for the same brand). The unisex and crisp blend of basil leaves, lotus blossom, and magnolia, with its lemony facet, is here especially well-matched to the delicately smoky nutmeg and the starchy linens feel of the hay and white musks drydown that wraps you like a high-thread cotton sheet during a languid summer siesta.

Annick Goutal Musc Nomade
Musk fragrances fall into two major categories: the laundry clean and the animalistically hippie, with all each entails. The extemes of the spectrum project interesting images which might be explored in detail at a later day, but it is intriguing to witness a musk fragrance that balances itself on such middle ground without seeming average. Musk Nomade, composed by resident nose for Goutal brand Isabelle Doyen is the latest addition to their Orientalistes line-up. The vegetal character of ambrette seeds and the salty skin tonality of muscone ally with more standard white musks to give a slightly "dirty" feel that is removed from the laundry or powdery musks of mainstream brands, yet doesn't growl animalistically to the direction of raunchier, warmer and more intimate candidates. Since musk anosmia is often at play with musk fragrances, one would be advised to test this one on their own. To me it seems quite lasting and plenty perceivable.

Rochas Eau de Rochas
The 1970 classic is a study in how to add panache into a classic unisex Eau de Cologne accord: just add a touch of subversive and warmly sweet patchouli! The scintillating verbena opening is akin to the bright tones of Evelyn Dunphy's "Reflections". The addition of sandalwood and oakmoss in the base extends the welcome of what is essentially a light composition by its very nature (an "eau") into something sophisticated that can stay put for a while.

Aqua di Parma Iris Nobile
Iris has a chalky undertone that often contibutes to its somber stiking one rooty note after another, making fragrances that highlight it seem more like gouache than watercolours. Yet it can be also coaxed into rendering a delicate violet-like gauze of softness, such as in Iris Nobile by perfumers Françoise Caron and Francis Kurkdjian. Here iris is married to piquant hesperidic notes that lift it into a study of light, rather than shadow. Sparkling and vivacious thanks to its uplifting anise and orange blossom accents, it's in marked contrast to my usual more brooding favourites of the genre, yet it never fails to capture my heart at the first warm rays of spring and the long hot days of summer when it sings most melodiously.

Antonia's Flowers Tiempe Passate
Orientals are not customarily associated with diaphanous attributes. Their heritage of the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent garlands their curves with an irrepresible voluptuousness. And yet there are a handfull which distance themselves in their windswept elegance. Polished, seamless and constructed on beautiful materials, Tiempe Passate (which means Time Passes, taken from an old Sicilian song that was sentimentally tied to Antonia Bellanca's family) has an individual slightly salty, slightly asteure character of Montauk rose, orris and cedar that belies the expected ornamentation and opulence of classic orientals, as well as the dowdy image of several rose scents, to emerge triumphant into a fluent interplay between the androgynous and the traditionally feminine.

Guerlain Sous le Vent
Like orientals are not considered watercolour material, neither are chypres traditionally ~their powdery or perfumey ambiance denoting sophistication and manière is a notion antithetical to the quick setting of watercolours which makes them such a difficult medium in the first place. In the re-edition of the 1930s classic by Guerlain the air space between each note is ample into letting us differentiate among the scents of bitter green galbanum, sensual oakmoss, exotic ylang ylang and dry woods, resulting in a chypre that can be "read" like the gouaches découpées Blue Nudes by Henri Matisse.

L'Artisan Parfumeur Passage d'Enfer
Frankincense naturally possesses an ornate quality of sonorous incantation, which usually shifts fragrances prominently featuring it into the realm of somber, age-darkened woods, peeling resinous varnish and smoke rings ascending like supplications to the skies. But its grey voice can add just the right background to the lighter notes of white lily and soapy white musk accords, like grainy paper showing through at spots when watercolours run over it, as showcased in the quiet, serene Passage d'Enfer by Olivia Giacobetti.

Hermessence Vanille Galante
One would be hard pressed to attribute the qualities of gauzy clarity to the calorific load of vanilla with its allusions to thick orientals and mouthwatering gourmands, yet the feat has been accomplished most admirably in Vanille Galante by Jean Claude Ellena for Hermès. The use of natural vanilla essence instead of the vastly more common extract vanillin renders this essentially aqueous floral with lily a specimen of true luxury.

Editions des Parfums Frédéric Malle Angeliques sous la Pluie
If the most transparent of bracing liquors embody the emotive effect watercolours have on the psyche (ie. the sudden lucidity of the inerbiated), then a good, dry gin and tonic echoes the aromatic components of this Jean Claude Ellena fragrance. Inspired by the fleeting whiff of an Angelica bouquet gathered just after a shower, the scent tranverses cool, spicy and tonic notes that cede to violet leaf, musks and cedar. From the exhilarating juniper berries aroma of the drink it retains the briskness and the delicate brackishness which conspire into making it the perfect brainy equivalent of a cocktail order with no ornamental umbrellas in sight whatsoever.

The Different Company Sel de Vetiver
When vetiver is attenuated to its core characteristics of hickory smoke and damp swamp then we enter the realm of the Vetiver Series. If it is treated with clear thinner like pigments are, then it takes on a fresh and radiant vivacity like that explored in the classic Guerlain masculine Vétiver and Vétiver pour Elle. Sel de Vetiver by Céline Ellena (Jean Claude's daughter) resembles the coase salt sprinkled into moist paint, producing small imperfections or a bunch of dried roots submerged into a tall, refreshing glass of water as seen from the outside: the refraction of light making it seem fascinatingly disproportionate, like the coloured straws we stared at as kids while drinking our sour cherry drinks.

Paintings: View to Acropolis, Propylaia and Herodion in Athens (painted between 1817-1820),by achitect W.Purserin(via neo-classicism blog), Pont des Arts, Paris by deneux_jacques/flickr (Some Rights Reserved)


  1. E--I have, or have tested, all of these fragrances. They are all beautiful and possess a certain specialness that is unique to each one.

    Today I am wearing Eau de Rochas. Gorgeous! The patchouli/chypre base makes it stand out in a field of all those other "Eaus," don't you think?


  2. Helg - I love that watercolour of Paris!

  3. What a beautiful, beautiful post: both in prose and in illustration!
    I have a special fondness for Iris Nobile which is less gloomy than some of the other carrot-like irises I have tried. It makes me happy. And now I am nudged to go hunt some Angeliqes sous la pluie and Eau de Rochas too!


  4. Anonymous14:25

    You never cease to amaze me with your erudition, but I wanted to ask, what would be an antithetical concept to the watery or light ones, then. Only Orientals, resinous or ambery scents? I have some scents that seem thick and opaque to me, almost baroque like Coco by Chanel, which is an oriental, but also Fracas which is a floral and they sometimes seem opressing, at other times they seem like what is needed but I don't feel at ease wearing them and once in a moon of blue cheese I actually feel good in them. It has to do with moood too, I'd wager, what do you think?


  5. Dear R,

    they're quite beautiful, aren't they. Eau de Rochas is a very special Eau, it's been quite a staple for many women I know and they go through it by the vat every year. It helps that it's so delicious and we have warm climate for half the year if not more :-)
    I deduce you're trying to coax spring into coming with it?

  6. My dear M,

    isn't it beautiful? It's runny and not precious and the choice of palette is very simpatico to some fragrances I am thinking of.

  7. Sue,

    aww....Thanks for stopping by and commenting. IN is brighter than most and I rec AslP for a slightly bitter, aromatic scent when you don't want anything sharp or citrus-flowery but still want something cool in feel.

  8. Aline,

    thank you, I guess mood is of paramount importance when wearing fragrance, otherwise why do we place so much emphasis on how it makes us feel? It's not enough that it should be appropriate for the occassion, it has to fit the frame of mind as well.
    Coco is rather too thick for me, baroque is a great description in fact!

  9. Oh and I forgot your question about what would be antithetical to watercolour: I'd wager billowy scents, those that are layer after layer after layer like layers of oil on a big canvas. They could belong to any family, theoretically (although I couldn't think of eaux de cologne or aromatic fougeres that would fit with that concept).

  10. what a lovely piece. From this it seems I am a big fan of watercolours in fragrance


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