I am quicksilver, the fox in the night, emotional about the poetry, love & desire in scent, read me.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

If You Look Closely It Is Written Over And Over Upon My Body - ‘Palimpsest’ by Mandy Aftel (American Trilogy I)

‘What’s left is palimpsest – one memory bleeding into another, overwriting it.’

Natasha Trethewewy

My recent months on a continual diet of opiates have seemed at times like a kind of Traumnovelle, my nights a woozy roaming of page upon page of my fears, past and coruscating anxieties. My memories erase and rewrite themselves in a seemingly endless shadowed vellum of curative process. So many friends and lovers rise and talk, touch and vanish during these unnervingly inscribed hours. One of my meds seems to grant a particularly heightened creation of olfactive recollections; I wake from fraught tangled dreams with blurred and fading catches of perfumes, rooms, skin, hair, kisses and sexual echo.

To be honest, I dislike reverie but interestingly such sonorous cathartic dreaming is a form of psychic palimpsest, partially erasing vintage recollections and meanderings, musing over them in the hinterlands of sleep. I have become so much more aware of odour in dreams, waking with imagined traces on skin, fabric and sheets like phantom love, vanishing as the light dissolves darkness.

Foxy Hospital I (2016)

As long as I can remember I have been fascinated by the concept of paintings and drawings created over erstwhile work. In my own artworks I use a lot of mixed media on tough cartridge paper; it takes quite a battering and I think I’m aware when I’m working of how the pigments, textures and effects adhere and conversely fall out and fade if I choose to reuse or force the paintings through a palimpsest process.

It is an oddly satisfying process, the removal of one’s carefully applied techniques, hues, observations and imagination. I wash the work in a bright white bath until they have almost dissolved, watching the colours bleed away down the drain and then I re-stretch them on battered, savaged boards that have absorbed everything over the years from ink, wax and watercolour to spots of blood, soot and plant matter. Each work inherits genetic material from previous work from the embedded shadows, lines and scarification of paper to the absorption of detritus from the boards.

Windowtax 2012 ©TSF

As the papers slowly dry, tightening in their gum paper surrounds, ghostly lines, blooms and phantom chromatics reveal themselves. I work over these, sometimes ghosting them too, creating more histories. Photographing over lightboxes and then using these images to create further work just deepens the strata. I write on everything, use collage, magazine text, pieces of old sketchbooks and found photographs.

Our skin is a manifestation of memory-paper, absorbing odours and stimulating the limbic system in the brain to recall the filmic moments, good or bad associated with certain notes, accords, odours and fragmentations of jolted aromatic perception. Throughout our lifetimes we write and overwrite upon ourselves a manifold and intricate anthology of aromas; perfumes, oils, blood, mud, rain, saliva, semen, lipsticks, sweat, pets, tobacco, grass, ink and soaps. These layers become virtually erased over time but there are faint indelible psychological traces that are triggered occasionally and the skin comes alive with bursts of remembrance flaring like watchfires in the night.

If perfumes were coloured in some strange dye and visible only under special luminescent viewing conditions most of us would glow spectacularly like splashed and graffitied letters of love and obsession, lines, doodles, jottings and equations of desires scrawled across us in mingled, multi-traced olfactive missives. We are our private perfumed palimpsests. This is important to remember.

Palimpsest by Aftelier Perfumes 
Image created by TSF

Spraying Mandy Aftel’s Palimpsest onto my skin each time is utter bliss, the creamy indolic rapture of ylang and jasmine exploding beautifully, throwing the most enticing light upwards, illuminating the shimmering, blanched florality of the cedrat-blessed yuzu in the skylight of the scent. Mandy has created a superlative overture of glistening, demanding intricacy, laying down the archaeology and suggestion of memory archives.

Added to this complex top are Phenylacetic acid and Gamma dodecalactone a natural isolate derived from apricots. This gorgeous unique material is an amazing and transformative addition to the perfumer’s palette, lending compositions a distinctive smeared and luscious fatty peach/apricot facet. It can be overused and dominate, but used judiciously it provides a sense of unparalleled beauty, an enticing orchard quality of stone fruit, fuzzy skin and ripe juice. The original majesty of Guerlain’s Mitsouko before the soulless reformulation lies in a luminous central peach core wrapped in ylang, rose and jasmine on a dangerously beautiful chypré infused base. Mandy has handled the Gamma dodecalactone with incredible finesse; it has all the required peachiness and blush of its regular lactonic personality but there is an undeniable edge to it, a metallic oddity under the ripeness like lime rubbed along rusted iron. It is a clever conjuring that removes any potential overt fruitiness that might have occurred.

Aftelier sample set..
Image ©TSF

This edginess is due I think to the delicate calibration with Phenylacetic acid, a striking material usually found in a white solid (or crystal) form that generally has an attractively disturbing odour that perturbs and entices simultaneously. It has a reputation as a particularly tenacious material. I have sampled it on mouillettes and it remained alive and calling as it were for days. In lower more controlled concentrations Phenylacetic acid suggests the odour of warmed, civetty-suffused honey with spikes of snarly cat amid the eccentric smoulder. It brings with it just enough dirtiness; nothing obscene or confrontational, instead a kind of sweet purring animalism, a hidebound nearness that smells increasingly compulsive as Palimpsest heats up on skin. There is a seductive corrupted narcissus facet at play in the background and this works so well with the ylang and jasmine that Mandy has utilised in the heart of the construction.

pretty peachy... 

Peach, while very pretty and instantly recognisable in fragrances, is a tough fruitball to keep aloft in the perfumed air. Yet despite its fleshly quirks and flagrant over use in recent years in cheaper high street wares (Beyoncé Heat I’m looking at you…), it remains one of the most atmospheric and delicious notes in perfumery, partly I think because peaches seem like our own skin, plush, delicately furred and cosily erotic. The original Mitsouko by Guerlain is the obvious benchmark for any discussion of peach-toned aromatics but there are other exceptional fragrances that use the peachy/apricot milkiness and lactonic stone fruit booziness to beckon and seduce the senses.

Foxy Rush...
Image ©TSF

I would always mention the neon hooker scream of Gucci’s 1999 Rush made by the quixotically talented Michel Almairic when Tom Ford was lashing his über-successful porno gloss over what had been up until then a relatively straight-laced and rather dull euro jet set brand. The plasticised clatter of shrieking abstract florals and overexposed druggy peachiness is more grenade than perfume; but I have always loved it. The weird collision of hairspray and ripe, glaring fruit is stunning. So many haters hate. Boys smell divine in this by the way, like filthy sugared androids.

Foxglove by HYLNDS/DS & Durga
Image ©TSF

The other one, which couldn’t more different in tone to Rush is Foxglove by HYLNDS composed by Brooklyn wunderkind David Seth Moltz of DS & Durga. HYLNDS is David and wife Kavi’s more spiritual, mythical line set in the hinterlands of Celtic storytelling. Influences include poetry, bardic utterances, grey stone, rivers, beaten iron, mist, blood, battles and the pale thin veil between our world and the darkness of gathered phantoms. Foxglove is inspired by the story of Oisin, the Irish warrior poet, his lover Niamh and the mystical land of Tir Na Nog, the tempting Land Of Youth and a gorgeous mix of wild carrot, bone-dry iris, immortelle and a sensational peach skin note than smells so real you imagine for a moment your skin has transformed into golden furred fruit. The key to Foxglove actually lies in the top, a sublime citron note that explodes the top notes like fingernails in the flesh of the knobbly fruit itself. It seems to illuminate the rest of the materials like fireworks.

Mandy has used the Gamma dodecalactone at the very edge of respectability, barely fresh, there is something perhaps a little unsettling in her portrayal of bruised, over-pressed flesh. It adds just the right dosage of porno-sap to edgily lacquer the timbre of Palimpsest’s enigmatic proceedings. Other perfumers would have been a lot more careless, but when you have trained yourself the way Mandy has and have an instinctual understanding of raw materials and their personalities you will always know how they love, live and play within formulations.

Firetree montage ©TSF

All of this lush, dexterous complexity is scene setting and sensual prep for Mandy’s extraordinary (and unique) Firetree essence that glows in the base with her trademark smoky vanilla absolutes and poignantly wrought ambergris notes. It starts low and inexorably rises to effloresce like aurous fire reflecting in many ways the flaming foliage of this iconic native Australian tree when the vital essence originated from. Mandy thinks and she’s probably correct that’s she is the only perfumer to be using the Firetree essence in this intense and undiluted form. And I for one am very glad.

She originally came across it during one of her insatiable and intensive global forays for raw materials; always looking for the best, the highest quality and the most textured and gourmet if you like, materials that speak to her years of intuition, experimentation and personal interaction with repeated variants of ingredients. The batch she found was diluted with DPG something she doesn’t use in her line so she contacted the supplier who kindly put her in touch with the original source of the Firetree essence. She told me it took a year of asking (begging would be a more accurate term I think..)before they finally relented and sold her a kilo of pure unadulterated glowing essence.

It was absolutely worth the persistence, the material is unique and multi-layered appropriately enough and extremely complex as befitting such a strange and perplexing tree. The odour is described variously as milky-rose with hits of bitter green leafiness. Others mention a soft warm boozy quality as it warms through, a kind of bush amber with wooded aspects that melt with skin. The only trusted word on this really belongs to Mandy; I wrote and asked her what the raw material smelled like and she replied:

‘..the essential oil is harvested under special permit form dead or fallen trees. It has a complex aroma, highly diffusive with lilac/rose notes and milky undertones that give way to a floral sweet spiciness. This morphs into a more woody, earthy, slightly leathery note.. ending finally in a smoky oud-like drydown.’

With that in mind I want to talk about the Australian Firetree (nuytsia floribunda) that is particularly native to South Western Australia and is actually classified as a large mistletoe. It lives a strange semi-parasitic existence, its odd white roots reaching out underground in the moist darkness for other root systems to tap into. It is sometimes known as The Christmas Tree as between October and January it produces a spectacular efflorescence of vivid orange and yellow flame tinted blooms.  

Nuytsia floribunda is a sacred tree to the Noongar (or Nyungar) people of the South Western Australian territories; there are several sacred and folk medicinal associations with the tree and parts are in fact edible. The tree gives. The flowers can be eaten; the leaves are sharp enough to cut and slice through meat and the flower stems can be fashioned into spears. Beliefs have sprung up around the flowers; using the blooms in wedding bouquets will only bring misfortune to the bride and harvesting the flowers before Christmas supposedly brings bad luck. I think it’s interesting that the exhilarating clouds of flame-blooms seem like a portend or echo of the deadly bushfires as their shocking colour often stands out so vividly against the flat brush landscape around them. They are such amazing trees above the ground and then you must remember the unnerving rooty vampirism taking place in the soil for hundreds of yards from the original tree.

In a letter to Captain James Mangles a Royal naval officer and dedicated early botanist, Georgiana Molloy (1805-1845) an early Australian settler, keen amateur botanist and seed collector wrote:

I have been out four times in quest of Nuytsia and send you the very small harvest. They are difficult to obtain, if not there the very day they ripen.

(From Portrait with Background: A Life of Georgiana Molloy by A. Hasluck, Oxford University Press, Melbourne)

Mangles asked Georgiana to collect seeds on his behalf, something she did assiduously despite the evident hardship of settler life and the traumatic death of her son. I came across a poem entitled Nuytsia Floribunda by Alan Alexander that inspired by and celebrating Georgiana’s memory and work. This excerpt is quite shattering.

The parasite Floribunda for
My drowned son.
How delicate they are, these
Stars at random.

It is the strangeness of this haunting arboreal essence that adds such beauteous layer of meaning in Mandy’s profound gathering of Palimpsest. She can undoubtedly create aromatic images of stained glass brilliance but for me it is this unerring sense of narrative that sets her apart from so many of her peers. Her learned alchemy, her fingers and mind of honed craft and almost wiccan, application and practice have laid down a powerful body of olfactive text for us to read. Her experiences, memories and erudition are given freely in order for us to decode our own senses and odours.

The strength and vitality of Mandy’s materials on skin causes us to revaluate our perceptions of how aroma evolves; the shards, curlicues and spills drop deep and re-emerge, re-writing themselves on our bodies. There is truth and bare-face honesty inscribed in repeated odours that when inhaled reveal voices, places, lovers, joy, loss and shadow.

Skin as canvas, paper and vellum is hardly a novel concept, however skin as palimpsest, the repeated act of erasure of past olfactive memories, cadences, touches, fucking, gifting, transgression and epiphany; layering under years of other odours, this perhaps is more complex, melancholy and dangerous.

Mandy was originally inspired to create Palimpsest while doing research for her book Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent, which looks at key materials such as mint, jasmine, cinnamon, frankincense and ambergris and places them in powerful historical, social and aromatic timelines. The chapter on jasmine is a dazzling read.

At once voluptuous and delicate, earthy and ethereal and elusive to those who would render these qualities immortal, flowers are not only beautiful, but embody the paradoxes of Beauty that we embrace when we are drawn into her arms.

(From Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent by Mandy Aftel, Chapter 6, Seduced by Beauty - Jasmine)

Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent
by Mandy Aftel 

When she decided to pursue this life of obsessive scented pathways and scented alchemy Mandy carefully amassed a detailed and eclectic collection of books on the subject of perfumery through the ages. These tomes seemed like recipe books, not as we recognise them now but guidance to medicinal preparations, simple elixirs, lovecraft, poisons, animal husbandry, midwifery, poultices, herbal remedies, but all demonstrating an instinctual awareness of odour and its effects on spirit and miasma. Noticing a variety of repetition in many cases, an essence of hand-me-down telling of herbal lore and craft, Mandy realised that ONLY by practicing, following and echoing this powerful layered set of histories was she able to make sense of her own place in the continuum.

I wanted to capture the feeling of how the past is alive in the present but transferred into beautiful, shadowed feeling of layered richness and sensuality.’

Mandy Aftel

The word palimpsest comes to us from Greek via Latin; palin, meaning again and psēstos, rubbed smooth. In the middle ages manuscripts, parchment, vellum etc were immensely valuable, time-consuming and costly to fabricate, involving the repeated straining of various pulped plant fibres into fine layers, dried, ground smooth and treated with various gums and unguents. Papermaking was an art form.

Today’s throwaway culture would have had no place in medieval monasteries, courts and apothecaries. If pages were to be used again, the texts and any illumination and inking would be carefully scraped or washed off until the pages could be realistically used again.  Of course, traces and shadows of the previous words and imagery might linger, remaining defiantly ghostlike under new prayers, gospels, edicts, tithes, laws and recipes, thus creating the palimpsest. In other cases the church would order Christian texts to be overwritten onto what it considered be pagan or blasphemous writings, thus rendering the words cleansed and sanctified.   

Image ©TSF

I have always considered a life of scent an act of palimpsest. As with the discussions on the merits of pop music and classic repertoires, jazz and opera, some might argue that in terms of memory that scent should be stunning, iconic and classic. This is rubbish, people always want to be thought of as better educated, more stylish, more esoteric; that’s why given time to think they tend to edit and curate their favourite books, movies, designers, songs etc to give the world an outward appearance of erudition and oddity. Essentially it is one-upmanship and covert snobbery. The bulk of our most immediate memory triggers are populist in tone or directly connected to family and lovers. This applies equally to scent; first perfumes bought (we are not all led by plush bourgeois mothers to Guerlain counters…), spritzing in department store beauty halls, the smell of kissing crushes, wearing a lover’s scent, break up scent. All these things layered on our skin, replaced and veiled, remain in our memory, carefully stored, the odours mingling in the shadows of time.

During this last year of illness and on-going recovery, I have become increasingly enamoured with natural perfumery and the complex aroma-therapeutic effects on my spirit and senses, it is these emotive essences, oils and recipes that for me embody the palimpsest ideal. They seem to suggest an arcane awareness of things done and things to come; connecting to sky, water, flesh and being alive. And that it is undeniably, profoundly moving.

Mandy’s background steeped in honest self-regard, fearless accumulation of knowledge, weaving, collecting natural ingredients to dye her own threads, in essence, imparting herself in processes. This allied with her training as a therapist has enriched her ability to understand our studious, recondite intellect who has achieved a very particular sense of personal status and worth by understanding the lessons, words and fugitive layers of the past. If you read her books and I urge you to do so, you will realise how connected she is to flesh, spirit and mind and our place in this increasingly fucked up surreal world.

She does not shy away from sex and its pungent moreishness and the role that odour and perfumery play in the carnal dance of desire. We are all too aware, whether we like to admit it or not of a certain lascivious fleshly palimpsest, an underpinning of phantom depravity, ghostly sex acts, loving, random, brutal, desired, desperate and craved, played out on beds of stained, reeking sheets that rock with laughter and grappled love.

Over this is written the alchemy of Mandy Aftel, never forget this is what she does, transmuting memory, essence into experience. Her received and practiced knowledge; handling and illuminated biographies of materials are exquisite. She instinctively comprehends the syncs, loops, shifts, nuances and seasons of her palette. Dilution, mood, profanity, sensuality and behaviour; all instinctually calibrated.

When Mandy originally contacted me and asked me to choose samples she could send me I knew the ones I wanted alongside her latest wonder, Amber Tapestry, a hymn to her love of time spent among woven threads and chthonic yarns. I chose Cocoa and Vanilla Smoke to complete my quartet with Palimpsest. I have worn Cèpes and Tuberose in the past and the haunting Cuir Gardenia, a perfume that really obsessed me when I discovered it. It felt like Mandy was hybridizing flora and creating sci-fi petals and brave new stems.

cocoa montage... Image ©TSF

In a now distant and bitter job, I needed cocoa bean nibs.. to be honest I can’t quite remember what for now.. I think it was to tincture gin for cocktails. My friend Ali Gower runs the Chocolate Tree, one of the few certified bean to bar chocolatier enterprises in the country. He travels to South America and the West Indies to source his cocoa beans, importing them to roast and grind at his wonderful set up outside Edinburgh. Ali dropped off a bag of shucked and shattered cocoa bean nibs and I opened the bag… OMG, the scent was astonishing. Sweet earth and jungle dust, an arid booze aroma poured over torn, splintered woods. Not chocolate as such but the roots of chocolate, mucky and moreish.

Cocoa nibs... (image ©TSF)

Mandy created her own chocolate alcohol for the indulgent and distinctive base of Cocoa, tincturing organic Costa Rican cocoa beans with high-grade Tahitian vanilla. Now I love my chocolate scents, the Foxy collection has quite a few, like the stuff itself, some sweet and milky, others darker, mulchier. The best for me are Pierre Guillaume’s creamy bold Musc Maori, Sarah McCartney and 4160 Tuesday’s limited edition Over The Chocolate Shop, smooth and oozing with warm comforting choccy fumes and hazelnut. Mandy’s has more in common I think with Il Profumo’s Chocolate Amère, which mixes nutmeg, ginger and a thrilling swoosh of galbanum around the bitter cocoa core. Ultimately Mandy’s Cocoa is on its own, her handling of what could have been a difficult and generic theme is transformed by the halo of chocolate and vanilla thrilled alcohol base. Interestingly Cocoa is strictly speaking a jasmine perfume, a swooning marriage of both grandiflorum and sambac blooms offset by the sweeter citrus tones of pink grapefruit and a noticeable dash of sanguineous blood orange at the top. This arrangement of white over dark with sunrise glow across the opening moments is deeply addictive, swaying between a sophisticated gourmand treat and something more complex, a sombre inhalation of bitter caprice.

Amber Tapestry montage with 1970s embroidered sleeve
Image ©TSF

Amber Tapestry is Mandy’s latest work and really very special indeed, you can sense as soon as you smell it how personal this perfume is, it radiates out of the materials with a retrospective thrumming aura. It was odd having Cocoa in the same collection as I felt smelling it alongside Amber Tapestry they seemed like subtle echoes of one another in the use of double jasmine in their swelling hearts. This aurous glittering thing is about Mandy’s past immersion in the hands-on world of dyeing, threading and weaving I mentioned earlier; a tapestry of recollection and materials, stitched over and under a huge emotive heart.

The top has gauzy heliotrope and sweet mandarin, avoiding any potential bitterness arising from more traditional lemon/citron oils. That grandiflorum/sambac heart is augmented interestingly with pear and cinnamon; these seem to add curve and gold-flecked eau de vie to the body of this beautifully orchestrated scent. The base uses the glistening charms of ambreine and caramelised maltol blended with coumarin, castoreum and resins to fill in the heavier stitching and touches of contrast to bring the composition to life. As with actual tapestry, a little time is needed for the details to wed and the threads and colours to pull into focus. Amber Tapestry is exceptional perfumery, something I think I will need to have in my collection; my skin seemed to come alive in it.

Vanilla Smoke montage
Image ©TSF

Vanilla Smoke got amazing reviews when it launched and quite rightly so. So many purported vanilla scents come and go it is hard to keep track or even care anymore when the word vanilla pops up in things. Even as a diehard vanilla lover, I sometimes succumb to fatigue. I noted the launch and the word smoke and thought must try. I used to be very casual re vanilla scents, buying lots of different ones, enjoying the variety from cakey patisserie fun and baby powder softness to sensual sheath extract textures. But as time passed I have become more ruthless in my expectations, wanting the vanilla in my perfumes to arouse and transport me.

There are a few perfumers who really understand the low feral anima of vanilla. One is Bertrand Duchaufour whose Vanille Absolument by L’Artisan Parfumeur (originally entitled Havane Vanille) was a signature scent for me for five or six years. Bertrand soaked the Mexican vanilla pods in rum and this deep, booming booziness was played off against a beautiful duet of narcissus absolute and smoky tonka in the central section. All this rests meltingly on his lush, creamy vanilla. Every batch I had, (sixteen bottles and counting)… smelled different, all dependent of the harvest quality of narcissus, tonka and vanilla. L’Artisan Parfumeur decided to axe the scent from the line up citing cost issues with the raw materials. I obviously bought up bulk-discounted bottles, but the loss of such an exemplary portrait of vanilla, riven with warm tobacco tones and the contradictory sweet floral pornography of narcissus is immeasurable.

The other great vanilla creatrix was Mona di Orio, her Vanille from 2011 is part of the iconic Nombres d’Or collection, a gathering of perfect and profoundly personal interpretations of classic perfumery tenets such as musk, tuberose, oud, rose, vetiver and amber. They are among my most precious scents; I wore Mona’s fragrances from very early on (Carnation, Nuit Noire and Chamarré) and connected with her work in a visceral, emotional way. She was the same age as me and her sudden death from surgical complications in December 2011 darkened my skies. After my own experiences in the last couple of years during surgery I feel the need to wear her perfumes more and more. Her Vanille resembles Mandy’s in its unorthodoxy, a defiantly discordant voyage of a drifting boat, loaded with spices, oranges and bundles of burnished vanilla sheaths from island plantations all lying on sun-hot timbers soaked in spilled rum. I’ve sampled people with Vanille and they often recoil from its audacious physical presence. Sometimes I think…this vanilla is strange weather and I am buffeted by its beauty. It is a benchmark perfume, an elixir that many other perfumers should sample and marvel at. As with so much in her work and something she has in common with Mandy, Mona had trained repeatedly and exhaustively with materials until she could capture the essence of something, reflecting and refracting its beauty and oddity back through the prism of her own experiences.   

It obvious to me, obsessively wearing Vanilla Smoke that Mandy Aftel is another one of the perfume world’s great vanilla manipulators; you know by the particular feel of the Madagascan vanilla that she doesn’t just settle for a any old vanilla absolute. Why would you? Like a colour tone or lux of light, it is about the search for personal interpretations of materials. The more time I have spent inhaling Mandy’s work I have noticed the dedication to quality and charisma in her absolutes, isolates and oils. She does of course sell some of these, they read like spells and incantations; flouve and poplar bud, cepe, fir and ambreine, elemodor, patchoulyl acetate, tobacco, mitti attar, vetiverol and the all important vanilla. Everything created by Mandy is free from synthetics, parabens, glycols, and petrochemicals but she will often many different variants of a material before deciding which one is the right one for the olfactive task at hand.

The vanilla absolute in Vanilla Smoke is very rich and chewy, with an oily, wood-panelled back-taste to it. Its beauty has been dramatically enhanced by a blueish Lapsang Souchong note, the tea smoked over pine needles. This has imparted a faint yet discernable terpenic nuance to the mix, counterpointed by saffron and a lovely soft touch of yellow mandarin at the top of the scent. The sensual joy of the perfume is to be found in the glorious drawn out fade of the vanilla on your skin. There is a little touch of vanillin in the formula, this seems to both stretch out and light the absolute. It is well nigh on impossible to stop smelling your skin while you are wearing Vanilla Smoke, it really is. The ambrosial dusk of the materials make the wearing moreish and sexy.   

Mandy Aftel
(original image Aya Brackett)
(Jasmine palimpsest TSF)

I knew as soon as I smelled Palimpsest it was something extraordinary, a perfume that would alter me, mark me and add another detailed layer to my olfactory experience. I was honestly quite moved when I wore it for the first time and that flickering frisson has never left me. I will wear it as long as I can obtain it.. and then when it is gone, I will have the memory of it laid down under something new.

It wears so beautifully as time passes, the notes rising and falling like muted music in distant rooms. The lush private indolic jasmine and ylang hung with peach gauze, Mandy’s velveteen fumed vanilla swelled by the civetty radiance of the Phenylacetic acid. This wonderful stuff leaves it own mark, an ephemeral narcissus aroma as it works its magic on the other notes. It took me a while to notice it, but it’s there in the spaces, verdant and smeared, just suggested enough. Despite the graceful harmony of composition, Palimpsest glows with Mandy’s precious Firetree essence, it is the acutely satisfying heart of an affective singular perfume. It’s own intriguing strata of tainted floral ambience, oudy pall and milky leather make it ambiguous and universal, blending beautifully with the other materials and yet still retaining a force of character that demonstrates both its oddity and Mandy’s expert handling of the original essence.

In its elegant final flourish of warm magnificence, Palimpsest seems to echo the blaze of Firetree blooms under an Australian sunset. Skin smells loved, manifold and if you look closely you will see my loves and lives written there upon my body in layers of redolent prose.

For more information on Aftelier Perfumes, Cook’s Essences© and perfumer’s materials, please click on the link below:

Disclosure – samples very kindly sent by Aftelier Perfumes. Thank you Mandy. Opinions and interpretations very much my own.

©TheSilverFox January 2017

Monday, 9 January 2017

Conflation of Influence & Desire: The House of Nishane

Gülü seven dikenine katlanır.

(Who loves a rose will endure the thorns)

Turkish proverb

Istanbul is a layered, complex transcontinental city, bridging Europe and Africa over the iconic Bosphorus Strait. Previously known as Byzantium and Constantinople this vital extraordinary metropolis is in many ways a historical palimpsest with culture upon culture, faith upon faith conquering, erasing, rewriting and adapting what had come before. Roman, Genoese, Byzantium, Ottoman and Islamic structures stud the city like exquisite emotive pins. As you walk, strata of histories are buried under your feet but also scattered across the city in ruined fragments of the faiths and civilisations that have been built high and low across this complicated and urgent metropolis.

Two huge suspension bridges, The Bosphorus Bridge and the Fatih Memmet Sultan Bridge span the strait, linking the European and Asian facets of Istanbul. A third suspension bridge, the controversial Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge opened in summer 2016, with four thundering motorway lanes and a rail line. The fertile political, religious, geographical and cultural symbolism of Istanbul has echoed down through the centuries and continues to do so, making it a city with far-reaching and emotive resonances.

The opening of the
Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge

This whole emblematic concept of linkage, erasure, absorption, borrowing, adaptation and influences is something of fundamental importance to bear in mind when it comes to the House of Nishane, a lavish new line of eighteen new extrait strength perfumes from two Istanbulites Mert Güzel and Murat Katran. The fragrances reflect this vibrancy and eclecticism, journeying across the city and its quartiers in their olfactive referencing. Echoes of the spice trades, Silk Road, tanneries, Grand Bazaar, markets, waterways, busy Bosphorus, ornate gardens, cuisine, music, art, exploration, conquerors and faith. All these elements are threaded through the elegant and pungent tapestry of scented suggestion woven by Mert, Murat and perfumers Jorge Lee and Sylvain Cara.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Dark Christmas: 'Sheiduna' by Puredistance

To perceive Christmas through its wrappings becomes more difficult with every year.’ E.B. White (1899-1985)

A lot of words have been tumbled over social media pages, blogs and magazines about Jan Ewoud Vos’ luxurious and singular Puredistance Master Perfumes, dreamt up in 2002 and launched in 2008 with the appearance of Puredistance 1 created by Firmenich master perfumer Annie Buzantian who was awarded Perfumer of the Year in 2015 by The Fragrance Foundation. Since that auspicious and striking debut Jan and his carefully assembled coterie of talented perfumers have collaborated on a further five uniquely streamlined and glossy compositions: Antonia and Opardu also by Annie Buzantian, Black and White by Antoine Lie and M by Roja Dove. Now in 2016 we have the heavily trailed atmospheric and oddly melancholic Sheiduna, the first overtly oriental perfume from Puredistance created with creatrice extraordinaire Cécile Zarokian, one of the most talented perfumers working in contemporary olfaction today.

L-R Roja Dove, Antoine Lie
& Annie Buzantian 

It’s no secret I’m a huge admirer of her work as anyone who follows my writing will know and my Foxy collection boasts compositions like the sticky addictive aesthetics of Tango for Masque Milano and Patchouliful, her glowing portrait of one of perfumery’s iconic materials for one of my favourite houses Laboratorio Olfattivo. Cécile had already created Kashnoir for Robert Drago’s beautiful and underrated line, a scent of tremendous vibrancy, with notes of powdered wood, white flowers and a delicious balsamic base that draws out an expertly handled vanilla and heliotrope duet. But Patchouliful demonstrated you could take a familiar material and just completely dazzle the senses with the result, showing us things we knew we loved - spiced clovey-leathered warmth but married to a frangipani and iris vellum that made you rethink how patchouli should smell on skin. Nerotic, her new composition for Laboratorio Olfattivo has just launched and I’m really looking forward to adding it to my collection. 

Foxy's MDCI Silk Road Trio..
(with thanks to MC @ Cafleurebon 
& Claude Marchal @ MDCI)

I think Les Indes Galantes, Les Fêtes Persanes and Cio-Cio San the Silk Road inspired triptych for Parfums MDCI, are among her finest work to date. There is an exceptional earlier MDCI work called La Nuit Andalouse from 2013 that Cécile created for Claude Marchal, around a tremulous gardenia note that demands attention like a quiet yet insistent lover. Working with gardenia can be fraught. Too little, the effect is pointless and the delicacy drowns amid its surrounding aromatic arrangements; too much and the composition is a wall of white noise, with barely a flicker of anything else. Abstraction and creative suggestion are fine, but the materials must be of the most exquisite quality and provenance. La Nuit Andalouse uses two keynotes alongside the gardenia to empower its reality and in some ways it’s mythology. Violet suggests a powdered sweet soul and orange blossom references the Andalucían heritage Cécile wraps over the roses, ylang, musks and soft woody fade.

Cécile Zarokian
(image courtesy of Puredistance)

The Silk Road trilogy fragrances are all linked by music, opera to be more precise. Cio-Cio San by Puccini’s tragic Madama Butterfly and Les Indes Galantes and Les Fêtes Persanes by Jean-Philippe Rameau’s ballet-héroique with songs. I reviewed Cio-Cio San for the Foxy blog and for Cafleurebon, followed by the other two for Cafleurebon as well. They were elegant and inspiring perfumes to write on, the marriage of music, oriental perfumery and operatic drama. Cécile’s skilful interpretation of the briefs for Claude’s atmospheric house created miniature worlds that transport the mind. I wear this triptych over and over, losing myself in the journeys and luxurious shelter of the formulae.

Fath's Essentials

When I was writing my piece on Cécile’s wise reworking of Jacques Fath’s Green Water and the creation of Bel Ambre, Vers le Sud and Curacao Bay with Panouge I was aware she working with Puredistance and was intrigued to see how her style of perfumery would marry to the controlled haute-luxe of Jan Ewoud Vos’ house. Along with Luca Maffei, Delphine Thierry, Amélie Bourgeois, Quentin Bisch, Julien Rasquinet, Cristiano Canali, Anne-Sophie Behaghel, Dora Baghdriche, Thomas Fontaine, Marie Salamagne and Amandine Marie she is part of a gloriously talented generation of young perfumers unfettered and untroubled by the hitherto punitively perceived IFRA regulations. They have trained with and within their recommendations and annual adjustments, creating innovative work that meets the challenges set down by restrictions or guidelines depending on how you view them. Their influence across global niche, luxury and mainstream perfumery is hugely important.    
I have sampled Puredistance a few times over the years and will be honest; it is a brand that didn’t catch my senses to any great degree, however I always take time to revisit and re-evaluate perfumes when I write. Also illness in recent years has rewired my perceptions and altered my reactions to a lot of work; perfumes and styles I loved, I can no longer stomach and others I found challenging or perhaps dismissed as not me, I now find rather emotional and sublime. A Paris-based friend sent me decants of M, he’s a leather fiend and included Black, White and Puredistance 1.    

Foxy's Sheiduna atomiser & factice

Puredistance is a strange brand, a tad schizophrenic in its melange of influences and messages, but undeniably luxurious and openly ambitious in terms of its creative and olfactive beckoning. Jan and his gifted team have worked with perception and dedication to create a perfume house that smells opulent and privately sensual, which is no mean feat in this day and age of gaudy excessive BUY ME offerings.  

Jan collaborated with London-based Roja Dove on the purring, automotive leather M and French animal-synth master Antoine Lie on the galactic opaque Black and its creamy spacious White counterpart. I rather like the rich aloofness of Puredistance, the slightly disdainful chilly jet set feel layered into the ruthless marketing of the name, perfumes and direction. There is something a little uneasy and unfocussed in the marketing as a whole; the differing campaigns don’t quite pull together, creating dissonance in the overall ambiance of an otherwise ambitious and persuasive mix. It has a distinctly European feel, with touches of Micellef, The Different Company, Tizania Terenzi and Jovoy. There is I think an aspiration to sit alongside the modern aromatic iconography of Mona di Orio but Puredistance doesn’t quite nail the same plush and understated savoir-faire. To be fair, hardly anyone does. BUT and it’s a big but, there is no denying the bravura quality and sleek sinuous elegance of some of the perfumes that have appeared under the Puredistance name.  

I’m not the biggest Roja Dove fan, the gaudiness and relentless clarion call to certain markets is wearisome to say the least. Consultant, historian and scent designer perhaps and talented one at that but perfumer? Anyway, that aside, M is an elegantly smoky and seductive leather chypré, inspired by the luxurious pelty cocoon of a classic Aston Martin. It is an excellent leather; Roja rarely creates outside of his own line and M is a scent of exclusive indulgence with a tangy animalic bite amid the ambered spices and swirl of moss, cistus, exquisite rose (It is a note utilised extremely well throughout his own line) and illuminated citric-tinted vanilla.

(images courtesy of Puredistance)
 In keeping with the void of advertised noir and darkness, there are no materials listed for the composition of Antoine Lie’s bleak high-gloss hybrid Black. It is undoubtedly a sleek and striking composition, marrying Lie’s perfumed enfant terrible persona with a more cinematic haute olfactive slant. 

Black (cut) TSF 2015

It’s like looking at a black canvas in a dimly lit room, thinking at first it is simply a square of black paint hanging alone in a room. However the longer you look at it as the shadows settle in the room and your eyes adjust to the gloom the black reveals hidden layers, striations, whorls, tiny gaps and shadows. No one does this olfactive black within black like Lie. 

White (wing) 2015 TSF

White is the angelic mirror, perfumed wings of white musks catching odd fractured light. It isn’t quite as interesting; although wearing the two together was fascinating, like experiencing a time lapse night and day roll over skin, shadow, light and fade.  

Now we have Sheiduna, the first overtly classically oriental perfume from Puredistance, the name a bizarre amalgam of she, sheikha and dune, words that coalesced, echoing the cadence of the word seduction for Jan Ewoud Vos. 

Some of Cécile's original
Sheiduna notes.. 
(image courtesy of Puredistance)

The collaborative process is something Puredistance are keen to emphasise throughout their social media and PR material; even the bottles are accompanied by jointly signed postcards of the duo. The provenance and process matters a LOT to Puredistance, not so much to me, they will live and die by their juice. Often a tightly controlled collaborative process, while seemingly calm, can hinder creativity. Cécile is a remarkable and adaptive perfumer however; capable of working in a multitude of ways and working with Jan seems to have been a wonderfully fertile and rewarding experience. The warmth of the partnership glows out of the PR materials and associated social media launch material.

Jan & Cécile.. (image courtesy of Puredistance)

Sheiduna is being marketed in tones of burnished gold and glowing sunset reds to reflect the mood of undulating desert dunes under a glowering sun, in turn echoing the sensuous curves of the eternally worshipped female form. 

(image courtesy of Puredistance)

This fantasy of a desert dream is elegant and easy to sell but doesn’t feel quite right to the Foxy senses; Sheiduna is much more complex than a simple linear twilight narrative. There is darkness, void and shadow at play amid the exquisitely manipulated haute qualité materials that Cécile has used. As my Scottish city of stone and ghosts plunges past autumn into the depths of winter, Christmas looms in all its overwhelming shopping overkill and illuminating brittle intransience. Having worked for in retail for so long, Christmas has long since lost any of its allure, reduced purely to monetary transactions and the human obsession with material possession and one-upmanship. I now find this time of the year rather distressing and desolate.

However, one of the oddly neglected facets of Christmas is the scent of its collected elements and how many of us smell the season as we grow up and away from our families in different parts of the world. I was immediately beguiled by the distinctive olfactive shadows of December, of dark Christmas, the spaces in-between the joy and frivolity of this most divisive of seasons. 

Dark Tree...

The tradition aromatic tropes of Western Christmas celebrations are very sensual and symbolic: spices such as cinnamon, clove and ginger mingling with fumy incense, myrrh, poignant rooms filling with the genuflection of pine trees, the vanilla and creamy float of Christmas desserts, and reassuring glow and bouquet of a door-pinned hand-crafted wreath. Most of all that instantly nostalgic inhalation of freshly punctured and disrobed tangerines and clementines, those seemingly most winter of citrus fruits.

Wherever you are from and however you celebrate and of course many people don’t for religious or personal reasons, this period of the year will have uniquely different olfactive tones. It is the only time of the year I eat panettone and the scent of sweet, chewy bread, studded with shards of dried citrus and sticky rum soaked raisins always triggers Christmas thoughts. The peaty, throaty inhalation of Islay malts was something very particular to my cold Scottish Christmas days, a dram swirled around a jewel-cut snifter or set aflame over the home-made boozy earth coloured pudding. When I visited Brittany to spend Christmas with my partner’s family, the Christmas meal was traditionally started with a towering salver of fresh oysters, glistening on a bed of seaweed. This saline scent, potent with iodine and a rush of boat and harbour mixed with the huge shout of piled lemons and crayfish was a very different array of holiday aromas from what I was used to, but just different, brighter, fresher. An antidote in many ways to the heavier style of repasts we are traditionally conditioned to consuming in the UK.

Flame on...

For me Sheiduna is quite removed from the sensual oriental fantasy of dunes and body-form enticement much as I appreciate its purpose and reason. Of course a launch needs a marketing visualisation and it is clear from glimpses of Jan’s notes and mood collages to Cécile that this was very much how Sheiduna was perceived as the creation of the scent progressed. But inevitably when you send your olfactive child out into the critical world, it will be received in different ways. Such is the way of scent. You can suggest mood and ambience but at the end of the day, it is up to the wearer to interpret the notes in their own way and for their skin to assimilate the composition and radiate their own aromatic weather.  

As soon as Sheiduna hit my skin, it fractured into a kaleidoscopic assemblage of effects with textured and refined impact; I could feel the quality of materials and chromatics of olfaction, the low key way the notes and chords had been combined to produce a scent of emotive suggestion. As with some of the other Puredistance perfumes, it takes a couple of wearings to fully appreciate the way the work has been created. They are well-honed blends. Sheiduna is a concentrated extrait, made for Puredistance by Stephid, a company based near Paris. It prides itself on using quality ingredients and extensive testing, which can take up to three months, ensuring luxury, high end and perfectly IFRA compliant formulae.

Cécile is not a perfumer to rest on her laurels or repeat her herself, which is remarkable considering how much work she is doing just now. A signature style is not the same as repetition. Having a certain trademark impression or ambience to your work is indication of personality and the ability to mould materials to your will. Certain ingredients, flowers, spices, aromamolecules might become leitmotifs but it is the instantaneous feel of a scent, its settling and glorious rise to the senses and emotional brain that really marks out a truly talented creator. In her work to date Cécile has written out on the vellum of our collective skins a signature of delicate and sophisticated yearning; fusing frissons of yesteryear with the courageous sensuality of modernity.

Jan Edwoud Vos of Puredistance

One of the things I admire so much about Sheiduna is the strange disparity between the deluxe offering of the perfume and for me the eccentric tableau that unfolds as the notes develop. I just find it so hard to avoid the Christmas aromas, the blasts of spicy sparkling citrus at the top, laced with an incredible smoky vanilla that reeks of myriad brulée desserts. The incense resinoid, myrrh and patchouli lend that incalculable air of drifting churches, millennial altars, sacrifice, mourning and celebration. Sleek verdigris vetiver and odiferous geranium add a wistful essence of housebound trees. Cécile has utilised that gorgeous ambergris infusion she used so alluringly in Green Water and Curacao Bay for Fath’s Originals. It has a very particular blue waxen whispered aroma, gently saline, but also sweet and kindly floral with a subtle wash of pale animal. As well as imparting such a unique olfactive spoor, the infusion slows down the fade of the composition. This matters with Orientals of this quality, you want the materials to mingle, fuse and drift off the skin like so much scented smoke. 

When you use materials with such vivid realities you create a scent of lavish hue where the odours meld to present a tableau of persuasive intelligence. The more time you spend with Puredistance fragrances away from the suggested marketing images and glossy PR launch stuff, you more you realise how unique and interesting the perfumes are. I worry that the slight preoccupation with creating the definitive luxury atmosphere to the house perhaps overshadows the juice a little. But it’s a minor quibble.   

I am aware that my reading and biography of Sheiduna is perhaps unconventional and even controversial. I am not stating it is simply a Christmas scent; it isn’t, that would imply something more room-scenty, sweet, cinnamon-soaked and perhaps injected with a sickly artificial accord of mulled red wine and brandy. However my senses reacted to it in unexpected way; reading the notes, press info and following the launch info from Esxence had created in my mind an expectation of a golden, burnished not exactly standard (it is Cécile after all) perfume with polished oriental markers such as a dominant amber note, warm woods such as sandalwood mixed with exotic resins and tactile balms. There is an associative expectation to this beloved family and very adroitly Jan and Cécile have cleverly met and sidestepped these presumptions.

It is unexpectedly bravura formulation. Cécile has studied the oriental form and obviously worked with Jan and his words and vision for Sheiduna. Then she has carefully deconstructed and reformed her version of an oriental, taking some of the key elements, mostly the resinous, balsamic pieces and the all important amber and woven some more unexpected and exceptionally high quality notions into the framework.

The key is quality. The ambergris infusion has been married to beautifully calibrated measurements of molecules such as amberXtreme and ambroxan. Over these the benzoin, tonka absolute and luscious vanilla absolute are exalted into beautiful focus by the relatively odd addition of those really bright and vivid notes of tangerine and lemon. For me it is these two relatively innocuous materials that explode the full mood of Sheiduna, like fire kissing gunpowder. The elegant verisimilitude of the duo work in a gustatory way, mixing with the patisserie sweetness of creamy vanilla and chewy tonka and cut through the ‘traditional’ assembly of resins, smoke and woods. 

'Aftermath' by Hege Greenall-Scholtz
It is this unorthodox assembly of materials, effects and careful subversion of tradition of form that paints a unique tableau for me of a shattered Christmas, one with humans removed, just our detritus and influences remaining. Each time I wear Sheiduna, I have a very specific set of images rising up of cluttered rooms lit by flickering Christmas lights; my mind roams through these rooms like a hungry camera, devouring shadows, discarded dreams and family love. The scent track is omnipresent, filling all corners, stroking walls, licking glasses and lifting carpets. It smells of ambered, woody isolation with a whispered ghost of hot, mulled liqueur, clove oranges and fading trees.         

Sheiduna’s eccentric combination of notes and clever use of the oriental structure is the haunted pieces of what is left unsaid at Christmas, of what is left behind as the rooms are emptied and the pent-up excitement, gluttonous present-tearing and glittering bonhomie peaks for yet another year. The sudden puncture of this strange, forced season can be sudden and overwhelming. I find the aftermath fascinating, the suddenly redundant paraphernalia and the awareness of a whole year to turn before it comes again. So much preparation for such a huge explosive burst of sensual cacophony. Sheiduna is all this, warm empty rooms lit by blinking trees, strings of tangled lights and candles, sinuous flames reaching dangerously past gaudy tinsel and scattered cards. Voices in the street mix with sudden pops of broken glass. Inside, all is silence and flickering aurous shadows, a scent of peeled fruit, skins curled like burnished metal by the garnet embers of dying fire. The air is oranges and spices, wreathed in the haunting ecclesiastical fumes of frankincense and myrrh.

'Night Walk' 2016 TSF

Visitors may have bought drifts of classic perfumes, Shalimar and Chanel No 5, Coco Mademoiselle, a pungent burst of Aromatics Elixir with its love me/hate mix of cigarette and hairspray chypré insistence. Mixed with the embers of fine food, incense and sweet desserts, chairs and cushions imprinted with family tensions, alcohol loosening bitter tongues. Incense burned to mask the slow cooking of seasonal birds and hams. But Sheiduna haunts this vulpine tableau like a beautiful rogue relation, dazzling the air from rooms, leaving her sparkling traces over everything.

I think the more you wear this impressive creation from Cécile and Jan, the more you appreciate the skill needed to subvert and play with the conventions of the oriental format. The classical warm, ambered, vanilla-anchored form is actually a vanishing thing, smothered now by the demand for oud-rich, leather-lashed compositions. Everything has its place and of course tastes shift and change but I grew up in the sumptuous shadow of these gilded formulae, YSL’s Opium, Estée Lauder’s rival Cinnabar, Patou’s Joy, a favourite of my late aunt, my beloved rose-shattered Nahéma by Guérlain, Obsession by Calvin Klein that I asphyxiated student libraries with and the heart-breaking Nuit de Noël extract by Caron that I had in the exquisite jewel-like shagreen flacon until someone stole it at a party. For years I just kept the box as it retained the ghostly traces of earthy forested oakmoss and a threadbare damask rose.

Foxy's atomiser

Puredistance is a house on the cusp of much wider exposure, prices aside and they are high, theoretically reflecting the materials used and the manufacturing of their sleek flacons etc. Sheiduna I feel is the most elegant and perfected of their compositions to date. Black was pretty stunning in its daring collision of niche void and Antoine Lie’s adaptation of his own plastic-fantastic style with Jan’s plush euro vision but it lacked a certain border and bite. Annie Buzantian’s Puredistance 1 was the template, the creative paradigm that set a high standard for things to come. Despite the use of different perfumers, there is a certain olfactive motif to the collection, something akin to the smell of new luxury cars or elusive couture bags, an indefinable sense of haute olfaction.

For all of the lavish house banter about materials and process, the glittering global launches and jet set nature of this hitherto relatively low-key house, there is a burgeoning sense of ambition and artistic vision. They have just announced the launch of a very exclusive new scent called Warszawa, created once more in collaboration with Antoine Lie, which will only be available at Quality Missala in Warsaw until 1 November 2017 then it will be globally launched. I strongly suggest keeping an eye or nose on Puredistance, I suspect each new launch will reveal new facets about the house and allow them to work with a more diverse collection of perfumers.

If you can find the Puredistance perfumes, sample them and see what you think, you will find an intensely luxurious, elegantly focused line, made by Jan and his fiercely dedicated team in collaboration with an intriguing and carefully commissioned family of perfumers. For now I will indulge in this beautifully arranged perfume as it conjures up such a sensual and contradictory array of emotions and olfactive images. A plush and luxurious oriental that invokes an eerie, shadow-washed vignette of December’s divisive, garish and obsessively observed feast day. You will all have differing reactions to Sheiduna, the notes and accords will register and transmute in innumerable ways. Mine was a dark telling of Christmas days, reflecting perhaps my own damaged perceptions of this crazy, shiny behemoth of a celebration. So maybe I’m bitter but I will smell wondrous in this work of startling luxe.

©TheSilverFox 20 December 2016

Disclosure: I received a sample of Sheiduna from Puredistance, kindly organised originally by MC at Cafleurebon. All opinions my own.

For more information of Sheiduna and Puredistance, please click on the link below: