Velvet Mushrooms in Honey
A downright cold day in New York and a taste of seasonal affective disorder occasioned some thoughts on pain in fragrance and, by extension, ugliness. Not to come off as waspish but, as in the evaluation of a fine cellared wine approaching maturity and its tertiary aromas, the “complexity” of certain fine perfumes may be too much for some people. In fact, a good many people would object to having to think too much about a perfume. (I don’t exactly blame them; they want to smell good and attract.) But the paradox of ugliness in perfume is that often the smeller (as opposed to the smellee) finds something more alluring in a difficult accord than in the umpteenth strawberry daiquiri accord. He or she darts in and out for maximum exposure, at first keeping their questions to themselves, until finally asking what the smellee is wearing. Certainly some quotidian floral may be there, but something unknown inheres as well, precipitating the rare attractiveness of the nameless. A perfume can become like the tomb in a bucolique by Poussin, on which are engraved the words “Et in Arcadia Ego.”
Of late, two gems of perfumery come to mind, both of them less than two years old: Onda (Vero Profumo) and Velvet Gardenia (Tom Ford Private Blend). Each intrigues the nose with an off-putting note or accord of notes. Onda’s funk (and its charm) comes from animalic touches; Velvet Gardenia’s from the fungal note so true to living gardenia blossoms. Both have a common bedfellow in phenylacetic acid, hero of the soon-to-be-discontinued Miel de Bois (Serge Lutens), a honeyed note that “if pushed up a notch,” as Grain de Musc notes, “would smell like piss.”
In Velvet Gardenia, David Apel of Givaudan grappled with the age-old problem of the white floral bouquet, a perfume genre capable of genius or utter cretinage. He left the unsavory facets of tuberose in the composition, the sweet mustiness of a flower blown and beginning along the arc of decomposition. He painted his backgrounds in dark shades of incense and labdanum. The overall effect is unsettling but stunning.
Happy All Hallows