There is a photograph from my childhood of a brightly tinted group holidaying by the Red Sea on the Arabian Peninsula. The sun is low and we have our hands up to shield our eyes. Every time I look at this image I can smell roses, as if the torn and curled print itself were impregnated. Not the blowsy collapsing scent of English garden roses or the timid squeak of perfume from over-cultivated sculptural topknots in supermarkets. Not the wet neon heads shimmering in manicured gardens that puzzled me on fleeting visits home from the Middle East nor the melancholy washed fragrance of saddened petals in bonfire night gardens. All these things have their olfactory place too. But this scent… this scent is something else; ephemeral, sweet and yearning. Loukoum, halva, the soft and persistent tumbling of scented water from silver ewers into open hands. The chilled interiors of hidden houses, rooms veiled from the heat outside. Gardens and courtyards like delicate oases tucked away from prying eyes.
I travelled so much as a child memories tumble over one another but the olfactory anchors resist the ebb and flow of time's tides. That cool milky scent of eastern roses is so potent, a direct emotional link back to those early years in Saudi and Iran; hot journeys to Persepolis and Petra, swimming pool parties, air-conditioned rooms, and vast empty supermarkets. It is the aroma and taste of syllabubs, syrups and teas. Roses floating in cool water to rinse the fingers. Jewel-coloured jams, the divine marriage of almond and rose, pastries bubbling in perfumed syrups. And of course loukhoum or Turkish delight, enveloped in silky powder that billowed up as you savoured the floral melt of each bite.
All of this rush of memory has been recently triggered again by the remarkable new Rose Water & Vanilla scent launched by Jo Malone. Part of their stylish new Cologne Intense series of four new fragrances inspired by the scents and rituals of the Middle East. The other scents are Iris & White Musk, Oud & Bergamot and Amber & Patchouli. Rose Water & Vanilla is the stand out scent of the new quartet, (with the White Iris & Musk coming in a slightly distant second), and one of the sleekest and most complex fragrances Jo Malone have created in my opinion. Signed off by Christine Nagel of Fragrance Resources, it is modern, intriguing and for me, personally, a very emotional riff on sweet Middle Eastern pathos and silvered desire. I am a little obsessed by it for now. Whenever I wear it I am asked what I have on. Friends lean in, close their eyes and inhale. It makes them smile. I like my aura of poignant powder.
One problem I have with Jo Malone fragrances has always been an olfactory sameness, a safe house signature. This is not necessarily a bad thing, the same applies to Chanel (powder and gauzy aldehydes) and Dior (grassy green melancholia), Caron with their pungent Mousse de Saxe and Guerlain's legendary vanillic Guerlinade. But The Jo Malone thing has always struck me as vaguely ozonic and too sterile, with little depth and passion. Fragrances for the Stepford Wives if you will. Pomegranate Noir came close, but then became ubiquitous, you smelt it everywhere. It was just too fruity though, too much pomegranate, not enough noir. I used to adore the Black Vetyver Café, but then that seemed to change, it used to be resinous and pungent with a warm salty burn of a dry down. Then suddenly it was a shadow of itself, decaffeinated and safe, no jolt to the heart, no fire.
This new Cologne Intense Collection is a little hit and miss, but they have been working toward more interesting fragrances as of late. The collaboration with Christine Nagel has been interesting to follow. The Kodho Wood Collection was rather beautiful in a rarified sort of way. It was an indication that things might be getting better after a run of rather poor fragrances thrown out after the departure of Jo Malone and the subsequent Estée Lauder buyout. Mutterings and rumblings about a drop in quality, a weakening of formulations, rapid expansion, and the loss of some favourites did not help either. But things seem to be changing. I am intrigued by another imminent Nagel creation, Wild Bluebell, launching in early September. The campaign is signed off by Tim Walker and is quite a departure from their usual flacon led campaigns with languid models and tinted rabbits in elegant mauve Alice in Wonderland woodland settings. It marks a move in a different direction for the brand and for whatever reason - boredom, high street economics and the original Jo Malone's recent announcement of an imminent return to perfumery - I for one am glad of the change. The gap between the vulgarities of high street fragrance and the increasingly lofty pretensions of niche perfumery have created a void that can now be filled with potentially thoughtful exercises in personal and quiet perfumery.
Rose Water & Vanilla seems simple when you first spray it on, a layering of silvery roses and sweet orange from the twinned neroli and petitgrain notes folded through the mix. The green leaf aspect of the petitgrain is pale and lovely, tempering the rose and lending it a refreshing tumbling, splashing quality. The word 'water' in the name is important. If you can imagine an Arab house, walls painted white to reflect the heat, a central courtyard with a quiet pool, plants and the gentle sound of tinkling water. The shadowy rooms have silks and shades drawn against the heat of day. Food is planned, desserts prepared. Almonds pulverised, sheets of fila pastry billowed and stretched, cut, filled and bubbled in vats of rose-tinted syrups. Trays of halva, the unique nutty oiliness of sesame seeds, woody and slightly burnt. For me this is the instant scent of Arabia. Nothing conjures up my childhood like a bite of halva. It is my Arabian madeleine; the sandy texture, the aroma of sesame, a hint of orange, a chip of pistachio. It is this smoky sesame nuttiness, the texture, the milky rosaceous trembling that really impacted me when I first smelt Rose Water & Vanilla. It is a tremulous scent, walking a very thin line between notes that seem to barely hold together like the lightest of puddings, whipped so full of air, it might collapse at any moment.
As it settles onto the skin, the sesame seed note becomes more papery, like those flying saucer sweets of childhood, filled with sherbet. Some reviews have mentioned an underpinning base note of agarwood. I'm not sure there is anything that animalic in the base. There are wonderfully barely-there smoky tones as the rose and vanilla meld together and float across the skin like candles on a moonlit lake. But I would like to think this is my desire to love the memory of the rose rather than any fiery woody rumblings in the base. Hours after the initial sweet and rosy licks on the skin, the scent becomes something magical and intensely personal. Like looking down into a pool of trembling cool water, the barest wisps of woods and milky spices rising, you catch a flash of silver in the depths. Reaching down you find a delicately wrought metallic rose, twisting and turning, almost blushing in the light. Petals and leaves tapped out with tiny hammer blows and molded to perfection. This precision, this contrast in the cool silvery nature of exquisite filigree and the seductive gourmand tones of the halva, loukhoum and rosewater create a shimmering tonality that sets this scent apart from so many other attempts to marry an edible rose to the mysterious Orient. There is joy and light, the heart glows like a filigree rose and catches the light like soft fire.
Addendum: Since I finished this review I’ve had an opportunity to sample the Wild Bluebell. A case of The Emperor’s New Woodland I’m afraid…..
I wanted so much to like this. I wanted it to transport me and lay me down to sleep in a regency opium haze, under indigo skies with the scent of hyacinths and cloves filling the air. The top notes are glorious, creamy green, bursting with bulbous earthy joy, a genuinely giddy little Marie Antoinette moment. But then CRASH… it’s goes, at quite some speed too. You almost want to claw at your own wrist, just to get the top notes back. Then a plummet into nothing. Generic fuzzy floral tones, any old white flower, barely distinctive. It really does radiate a creepy undertone of air freshener, of gas propellant. It has an unpleasant hiss on the skin, bitter and dead as it fades. As it slipped away it reminded me of a piece of faded silk, overwashed and overworn as to be almost transparent and barely there anymore. But then up close turns out to be a piece of fluttering nylon. So sad. It could have been so beautiful. If the richness of the campaign, the hazy tinted enigma, the dreamy druggy Alice, spinning into lost English gardens had been played with properly... If Jo Malone had the bravery to cross the line into genuine English eccentricity instead of this banal please-all ozonic body scenting, they could have created something truly revolutionary: an Alice for our times, resolute and weird, feminine and shockingly beautiful. Imagine. Stick to the Penhaligon’s Bluebell. It may not be to everyone’s taste. It’s not one of my favourites, but its mulchy pungency and leaf-dripping atmospherics will at least provoke a reaction.