Monday, 28 May 2012
I have always had a bottle of the original Lolita Lempicka Le Premier Parfum in my collection. It is one of my touchstone fragrances. As well as being sublimely strange and trangressive on my skin, it was authored by one of my favourite perfumers, the elusive and unpredictable Annick Ménardo. The licquorice, violet and musk blend is one of my favourite sniffs in fragrance, blended so addictively with notes of ivy, snappy anise, tonka bean and amarena.
Ménardo can conjure beautiful waveform scentscapes from her notes. The symphonic movement in Le Premier Parfum from sweet and green to spiced and just downright unsettling is a joy to wear. I find it joyous, it holds to the skin and dries down to a lingering aniseed and lilac-tinted muskiness that floats over the body like the softest voile. It was launched in 1997 in the wake of the all-conquering Angel and is the only pretender to the sugared throne with any real originality. The sensual bottle by Alan de Morgues resembled a twisted fairytale apple and really stood out in the boring and generic world of late 90s bottle design.
The Lolita Lempicka Au Masculin was fabulous too, flaunting a ramped up riff on the anise and ivy accord for a herbalicous and sweetly forested feel. To me is smelt like the taste of Black Jacks, addictive gooey aniseed chews I gulped down in my childhood. But Le Premier Parfum always had the edge for me, more sexual and shocking on the skin. It always smelt so fresh and vibrant; so unexpected on boys, more descriptive and ambiguous. And as much as I liked the Masculin, it did feel like a revisiting of themes Ménardo had done better and more gracefully in the criminally underrated Kouros Body, a suave and elegant take on aniseed, a million miles away from the feral bathhouse sweat and violence of the original Kouros.
Since the 1997 release there have been a number of limited edition flankers and some less successful attempts to move in different directions. But the constant returning to the motherlode, the central motif of violet and vanilla and the gauzy romance that captured hearts and emotions is a powerful force. There was a unique exception in Maurice Roucel’s L in the kitchy blue heart-shaped treasure bottle. An imagining of private treasure found on the ocean floor, this bizarre blend of salt and sweet was dazzling and lickably sexy on the skin. A heady cocktail of solar notes, floral tones and a weird marine/saltiness that reminded you of skin emerging from the sea mingling with traces of Ambre Solaire. Very clever and oddly quite perturbing. I never found it a happy scent, it always made me feel rather melancholy. I saw the sun setting over the sea, shipwrecks and objects glittering down into the depths. I loved it madly for a while and now if I smell it, it just overwhelms me with its scent of sunsets and dying beach fires.
Now we have L’Eau en Blanc, another flanker, in a white lace variation on the original De Morgues bottle. It has a strangely narrow remit, being pitched at brides and young women dreaming of that special day. The scent was sprayed on lace strips for me and the saleswoman mentioned the wedding link and the colour inspiration. The whole launch, bottle, packaging etc are suffused in soft pink and whites with metallic touches and hints of golden embroidery echoing the ivy motif of the original fragrance. All of this decoration references the veils and lacework of bridalwear and the kind of delicacy and transparency we associate with the fragility and frou frou of weddings.
The fragrance is once again authored by Annick Ménardo, the nose behind the original Lolita Lempicka. The main inspiration for L’Eau en Blanc is sugared or Jordan almonds, the popular pastel coloured bonbons used across the world at weddings, christenings and other important social ceremonies. We have all been to weddings and taken bags of these almonds home with us. The tradition goes back to Roman times originating in the preparation of honey-coated nuts and seeds, often as an integral part of ceremonial banquets and foods marking important moments in personal lives. It is a simple concept, the combination of the bitter almond and its sugary shell symbolising the bittersweet nature of love and life to come.
These bonboniera as they are sometimes known are usually white or ivory for weddings, representing purity and innocence. Blue and pink are common for christenings. In my house when I was a child we used to hang little embroidered camels on the Christmas tree and I used to wonder where they came from and just assumed they something we had picked up on our travels through the Middle East. Then my mother told me the camels had been presented to me when I was born in Bahrain. The camels had saddle-bags of blue sugared almonds attached to them. Blue for boys. So I treasure these oddly stitched little toys, knowing they welcomed me into the world.
Jordan almonds are usually found in groups of five, representing Health, Wealth, Longevity, Fertility and Happiness. Always an odd number, as this is indivisible even by two, symbolising the unbreakable bond between bride and groom as they start out in life. After the wedding festivities, any unmarried women and girls taking the almonds home are meant to place them under their pillows and they will dream of their future love.
I was very taken by this fragrance the moment it laid itself down on my skin. It has what I might describe as a craquant quality to it, the scent of a texture, the biting down on sugar and shell, followed by a melting in the mouth. The more I wear it, the more I fall in love with its strangeness. It is veiled. Neither heavy nor light, but a balance of the two. Increasingly a number of perfumes have adopted this parfum voilé approach to scenting the skin. It intrigues me. They demonstrate a stylish tendency to drape or lay over the body like a veil, blending with the skin, lending different aspects to the surface; light, shadow and scented texture. Penhaligon’s Juniper Sling, L’Eau de Chloé and the new Guerlain Aqua Allegoria Lys Soleia work a similar vibe on the skin, rising and falling throughout the drydown, intriguing the senses rather than just a normal top to toe drydown or something more linear.
It is fitting that lace is elemental in the decorative design of the bottle and packaging. The fragility of lace is appropriate to L’Eau en Blanc. Lace casts a web of intricate shadows, lines and shape across the skin, allowing flesh to be merely glimpsed. In many ways Ménardo’s powdery sugared eau de parfum does the same thing, laying itself sweetly and delicately down over the skin. As it breathes down, the interplay of light, heat and Ménardo’s mastery of notes plays up the elegance and drama of the trademark anisic/heliotrope accords and the new almond and raspberry touches. The slivers of iris, sap and vetiver heighten the leafy aspect, like the foliage of the bridal bouquet or the scent of floral arrangements on crisp white table settings. Musks round off the composition, softening the edges and hinting at the desire to come and echo through the night.
The popularity of the Lolita Lempicka fragrances often obfuscates their strangeness, the flickers of oddness, the dusting of shade. The violet nestling in the dark of the woods just out of the reach of the warm tendrils of the sun. The ivy slowly choking walls and drowning trees. The bitter, almost poisonous bite of aniseed undercutting the glitter of sugars and vanilla. Then there are the bejewelled apples begging to be collected and cherished, like symbols of fairytale beauty killed by jealousy. Mixing this potent theme up with virgin white and the dreams of bridal longing presents L’Eau en Blanc as a fragrance with a strange and complex set of signals. The juice itself is dreamlike in its intensity, capturing for me a sense of suffused breathlessness, of almost swooning anticipation, that last poignant glance in the mirror, before the veil is lowered and you walk down the aisle.
The heliotrope emphasises the almond accent of the scent and this is further enhanced by the subtle brushstrokes of orris. You can almost imagine this accord as the crumbling icing of the wedding cake itself. A raspberry and carrot seed accord adds a jaminess, like licked-off party fingers. A vetiver note is velvet soft too, grounding the bonbon giddiness in a warm leafy drydown.
A lot of people have pointed out the repetitive nature of the Lolita Lempicka flankers. But you know, sometimes as with the Mugler Taste of Fragrance releases, revisiting original formulations can produce surprising and rewarding results. L’Eau en Blanc is a welcome addition to the Lolita Lempicka portfolio. I love the almond note, it is arrestingly executed and elegantly drawn out through the whole life of the scent on the skin. It feels and smells like a genuinely romantic fragrance, played out in tones of silver softness and powdered dreams. So for now I am in love.
Please follow the link below for more information on Lolita Lempicka perfumes.
Sunday, 13 May 2012
The original Dior Homme by Olivier Polge released in 2005 was strikingly beautiful, combining a stunning particularity of Tuscan iris with cocoa, leather, sage and amber. There is a traditional lavender note rubbed through the composition too, adding to the haunting bruised quality the fragrance has as it settles onto the skin. Dior Homme really shook up the world of men’s fragrance, being both ethereal and sensual, with a strange ambiguous edge that caught the mood of the time. Yohji Homme and Hanae Mori Men had been sweet and strange too but Dior Homme drifted on a razor’s edge. It has always reminded me of a particular Charles of the Ritz powder my mother used, a peachy, caramel scented dust that was quite particular to the brand. It is this troubling androgyny that has unsettled so many since the launch. The rich Tuscan iris gave the fragrance a bloom and silvered texture that was extremely rare in men’s perfumery. It seemed almost feminine, soft and floating in a sea of its own musky subtleties.
I think it is probably one of the finest men’s fragrance launches of the last 25 years and altered the way many men wanted their skin to smell. It also proved that a non-niche scent could fundamentally shift men’s scent on its axis. In many ways, the launch of Dior Homme was as important as the seismic shift in women’s fragrance after the appearance of Mugler’s magnificently divisive Angel.
The ambiguity and quietly pared down style of Dior Homme was welcome relief from the raft of sweaty, pheromone saturated releases flooding the market and dull sports replications of the great granddaddy of them all: Pierre Bourdan’s calone drenched Cool Water. Everything really started to smell very similar, clone upon scented clone. Bottles mimicked bottles, packaging looked uniform and deliberately generic, campaigns used music stars and sports stars in an attempt to appeal to a more bankable and trend driven customer base. The speed of new releases seemed extraordinary. Flankers were stretched to breaking point with colour (Red, Noire etc.), sport, metallic and Night etc variations. Some brands toyed with stronger concentrations like eau de parfum for men such as Terre D’Hermès.
The test of a true classic is longevity. Along with Jean-Claude Ellena’s original Terre D’Hermès, another modern marker in recent men’s fragrance development, Dior Homme sells in huge quantities and still smells very unusual considering how many fragrances have tried to copy it’s formula: Van Cleef & Arpels’ Midnight in Paris, the rather predictable Avant Garde from Lanvin, Victor & Rolf’s shuddering Antidote and a whole raft of high street horrors from clothing brands such as G-Star. One of their recent releases is so similar as to be shockingly plagiaristic, albeit a badly done photocopy where the toner is running low…...
Even Polge’s own Power for Kenzo channeled the same powdered weirdness and androgyny, not quite achieving the same level of beauty however, something always twisted the formula the wrong way on my skin and I was left with a whiff of burnt metal that made me feel unwell and dizzy.
It was the rendition of the iris accord in Dior Homme that was so very unexpected. There had always been iris in men’s fragrances before, especially orientals. Guerlain’s Mouchoir de Monsieur has lilting iris touches in the base offset by vaguely Parisian pissoir notes. Creed’s Green Irish Tweed flatters the Florentine Iris with violet and verbena and the Different Company’s Bois D’Iris by Jean Claude Ellena sets the iris amid a backdrop of narcissus absolutes, geranium, vetiver and cedar. But Dior Homme was the first mainstream male scent to rally ramp up the powdered more feminine aspects of this most luxurious and strange of flowers.
Extracted from the root of the iris, (the best comes from iris pallida or iris florentina), orris butter: the result of hanging, aging and maceration of the best roots, is one of the perfume world’s most exceptional and beautiful ingredients. It has an incomparable quality and texture in fine fragrances, a silken shimmering sensation that lies across the skin like glittering grey spider webs. I love the ghostly effects of iris and when it is given full rein in fragrance the effects can be utterly sublime. The recent Mon Numéro 8 by Betrand Duchaufour for L’Artisan Parfumeuer was an ice-cold sheath of iris and musks, chilled like death, but incredibly moving. Jo Malone’s limited edition Iris & Lady Moore blended the green fragrant leaf of an English garden with the silvered powder of iris to great effect. And Prada have ben tweaking and amplifying their obsession with iris for years. I do have a nostalgic love of Hermès’ Hiris by Olivia Giacobetti. Dusty and dazzling in equal measure, it fills the senses and plays out a complex portrait of iris over notes of honey, carrot, hay, rose, vanilla, woods and Ambrette seed.
I admit to phases with iris. It needs a time and a place. I often need to be cold, or feel chilled, the onset of frost, snow, and dampness. These are more than abundant in Scotland, so I do wear a lot of iris as I criss-cross this majestic city. Sometimes it can feel like you are wearing a veil of metallic threads. I crave a tempering, a whoosh, a melting. So when I first smelt Dior Homme, I knew it was right. The subtle interaction of iris and musks almost floating on a sea of dark chocolate whipped up by leather tinted zephyrs. The construction was perfection. Odd, sweet and highly addictive, (you were always tempted to drown in the musky sea) just so right.
I wore it obsessively and never got bored. It always smelt beautiful. I always smelt beautiful. Arrogance? Not really, it is just the way Dior Homme is. Adaptive, sensual, personal and oddly secretive.
Then Dior Homme Intense came along and a whole new world opened up. A world of disconnections, cocoa dust, obsessions, sensuality and deep deep skin cravings. Authored by Patrick Demachy, it was a brilliant and darker twist on Polge's original formulation. It had a really magnetic pull on the senses, the cocoa note throttled up, darker and richer, all ganache and dusted patisserie. A touch of animalic Ambrette seed (musk mallow), pear, cedar and a deeply sexy injection of earthy lavender. I could happily keep on spraying until the bottle is empty. It has been re-formulated already since its release which is a little disappointing. The pre-reformulation recipe had a more rounded Guerlinade-style smoky base to it. This resinous bass vocality has been lost a little, replaced by a thinness than becomes more apparent as the fragrance stretches itself out over the drydown. The cocoa note has become a little cheapened too, as if a bar of 85% cocoa solids has been replaced with 50%. There is a more of a lactic, creamy quality now and a turned edge to the scent, which was not there before.
But you know what, even reformulated, Dior Homme Intense is a extraordinary experience, wrapping you in layers of olfactory sweetness and powder, woods and subtle yet persuasive masculinity. Like a trust exercise where you fold your arms and allow yourself to fall backwards and be caught. There is a reassurance in falling. You can topple into this strange and mesmerising fragrance. It has an otherworldly quality I just adore. A kind of replicant charm and sniffability other fragrances can only dream of. In another world I am plastic and walk flickering cocoa dusted streets. I leave faint traces as I walk trailing silvered powder in the air like fire. A car shimmers to a stop and someone says my name. The sky flares with light, a sudden burning setting of moons. I get in and smile, the engine roaring into life as I slide into seats of the softest leather I have ever felt. All around cocoa dust swirls and obliterates the view. A hand presses mine. My skin takes time to reform. I smell iris everywhere like frozen air. The man in the car is blurred and strange, radiating power. I am giddy on The Man Who Fell To Earth eeriness of my own skin. The cocoa and iris glow like a halo in the dim mist of the car interior. I am kissed and smile. I love this fragrance, the intensity and depth, the smudged ambiguity. Engines purr. I sleep and dream.
Click below to Watch the Dior Homme Ad campaign directed by Guy Ritchie, starring Jude law and Michaela Kocianova.
Friday, 4 May 2012
This post is dedicated
To the memory of Mona di Orio,
If Mona Di Orio’s oeuvre is viewed as a body of work, rather than individual pieces then it coalesces into something different. A subtle and deliberate attempt to create beauty from nature as she had been taught. If you consider the nature of light and the multi-facetted changes it undergoes around us, the profundity it has at certain times; dawn, dusk, in darkening rooms, churches, on water, in a lover’s eyes; all of this can be toyed with and applied to scent in terms of notes and structure.
If you think for example of an ocean, of the sparkling particles trembling at the surface reaching toward the sun and then down deeper to the richer aqua and emerald tones and the light leaking away way down to basso profundo depths, towards an inky silence where flickers of luminescence spark in the darkness. This can be suggested in the journey from sparking citric top notes, through richer, rounder floral heart notes down to musky, murkier more sensual depths. Colours, moods, notes, light. Everything moving to create mood and atmospherics.
This use of chiaroscuro in scent is quite rare and hard to balance correctly. Often the tonality is too dark or too bright and over-exposed, the notes too screechy. But Di Orio understood the subtlety of chiaroscuro and her lightness of touch moulds her classic fragrances Lux and Nuit Noire, both of which dip in and out of shade as you wear them, flickering across your skin like the softest impressions of vintage cine film. Just when you think there is depth, something to stand on, the ground beneath you dissolves away. I love this unpredictability and movement. It allows me to wear the fragrances differently each time. I know the perfumer has wondered about the effects and imagined how it will travel and unfold on the skin.
Di Orio’s scents really do polarize people. I know many people who loathe her work. But I know many like me who love her perfumes. She was an artist first and foremost. And like a lot of art, it is very personal; one has to live with it for a while to truly appreciate its true worth. Her most recent releases were a beautiful and rather unexpected body of work called Les Nombres D’Or The Golden Numbers), working with very high quality ingredients inspired by mathematics’ golden ratio to achieve exquisite results. The first three eaux de toilettes were Cuir, Ambre and Musc, each of them beautifully balanced and harmonised with great dexterity and restraint. They seemed like musical compositions, the notes moving together to produce olfactory music of hypnotic depth and charm. I had always admired Mona’s work but suddenly it seemed she had found her true voice. Yes there were still fingerprint traces of her master on her compositions, but that was inevitable, however her exploration of light and floral anatomy was producing work of lucent beauty very much her own.
My favourite from the collection is Les Nombres D’Or Vanille, laden with orange, ylang-ylang, cinnamon, tonka bean and vanilla absolute. It is very erotic and boozy; a drunken reel with a man you’ve loved for years and never had the courage to approach. A hot summer’s beach party, a fire sparking into the shadows, laughter swallowed by the night. Dance and forget. It’s a beautiful soft scent, creamy with an atmospheric smokiness that burns off in the woody and spicy drydown. I love my vanillic scents, can’t get enough of them, but they have to have the real thing, the split pod, the fleshy, plastic burnt truffly depth of true vanilla, not the cheap toffee fix of vanillin. Granted, there’s a time and place for that… But for serious skin and seduction, real vanilla rolls off the flesh like a howl in the night.
My first Mona di Orio scent was a later one, Chamarré, one that many reviewers disliked. I had toyed with Lux and Carnation and liked them both a lot. I almost bought Nuit Noire but it resolutely refused to settle well on my skin and dropped away to zero as if the notes were oil and my skin water. Chamarré was different; it married beautifully to my skin. It was very different to the fragrances I usually wore, sparkling and green with highly ornamental floral structures. Chamarré translates as bedecked, adorned, the implication in French is overdone, a slight sneer, of de trop… a little ostentatious perhaps. But to me the decorative elements of Chamarré are more akin to Flemish tapestry, the rose, iris and violet threaded like sliver and gold through a deep background of ambergris and cashmeran. The surface dazzles with aldehydes and a very strange wash of lavender that seems to set fire across the top of the scent like a flaming Sambuca. As with all Mona di Orio, the notes need time to really settle and stretch across the skin.
I like the idea of dressing and adornment in fragrance, when I wear my beloved Vanille Absolument by L’Artisan Parfumeur it feels like a bejewelled cloak, doge-like and russet gold. Nothing austere, just limitless depth and inhalation of luxury. We all need ornamentation and lashings of adornment from time to time, something to slip into, sigh into and moan against starving skin.
This idea of wearing textured scents, imagining a touch, a rub, and plush is a beautiful thing. Some perfumers instinctively understand the need to go a little further, to dress our skin and live through it.
When I decided to wear Chamarré, I also decided to only wear it in private, in front of darkening mirrors, Salomé-like, shedding inhibitions. I love the suggestive sway of the drydown, the twist and sigh of the notes that are so artistically arranged to form an impression of something glinting just out of the corner of one’s eye. The swelling rose absolute that rolls and caresses the aldehydes in such an unexpected way, like a lick of subtle fire. There is a delightful burn of Oppoponax that flares up as it settles, sending shivers of desire through the composition. The cashmeran in the base is intriguing, used so carefully as if weighed by eye alone, it gives the formula a silken glitter akin to running your fingers over finest Siberian mink. A whisper of ambergris floats a marine verdigris facet across the drydown like a warm smoky salt kissed breeze. The disparate elements of florals, woods, fur, fire, animalics, aldehydes, day, night, sex and privacy are caressed and moulded with consummate skill. It is quietly ablaze with dazzling scented effects and was one of Mona Di Orio’s best works, an exercise in embellished sadness. Wearing it reminds me how close perfume can come to art and how close Di Orio was to bridging that tenuous and oh so debatable gap.
As I come to to the end of writing this piece, I stop and apply some Chamarré. I pause for a while and wander through my apartment. It has been raining all morning, but now the sun is burning off the cloud. I open the window and smell the wet earth on the ruined herbs in the window box. My cat jumps up. As I close my eyes and turn my face into the sun, the cats’s warm fur beneath my fingers, Chamarré rises up from my pulse points. For a moment I imagine Mona di Orio under a French sun in Grasse, sampling a bloom, imagining how it will fracture apart in her mind. Her work has great emotional resonance and beauty and I will always love wearing her perfumes. It is hard to believe she is gone.
For more information on Mona Di Orio, please click below:
Thursday, 3 May 2012
This post is dedicated
To the memory of Mona di Orio,
The death of Mona di Orio at the young age of 42 following surgical complications was a tragedy for all who knew and loved her. A part of the perfumed world had suddenly gone dark. I listened to her recently on YouTube, describing in her beautifully enunciated French her apprenticeship with her maître, the mighty Edmond Roudnitska. Her vibrancy and ability to communicate her passion for fragrance, to philsophise and romance the complex and often pretentious world of perfumery will be sorely missed. She was a rare presence in perfumery; sociable, accessible, modern and yet delicately classical. Mona was an obsessive perfectionist applying this ruthless desire for finish and detail to all aspects of her perfumed work. For someone so preoccupied with the concepts of light and chiaroscuro in perfumery, the extinguishing of so bright and sensual a light is particularly poignant.
Mona was a direct link to Roudnitska (1905-1996), one of the world’s greatest perfumers, the man who created Diorissimo for Christian Dior in 1956, perhaps the finest example of a white floral ever known. Christian Dior was captivated by the beauty and simplicity of the classic muguet blanc. At his lavish and moving funeral at Saint-Honoré-d’Eylau in 1957 his casket was laden with sprigs of lily of the valley and the church was awash with the extraordinary white scent of them. Mourners were overwhelmed by their perfume.
It is Roudnitska’s rendition of muguet blanc, or lily of the valley that will ensure his name will be remembered as one of the true artists and innovators of the fragrance world. Lily of the valley cannot be extracted therefore Roudnitska had to build up layer upon layer to create a painstaking portrait of the flower that captured its beauty, its magical lemony pepper freshness and its almost ethereal shimmering fleetness of presence. It is not just the portrait of a flower, but also its surroundings, a spring dawn, dew and the soft uniqueness of the southern French light. He often referred to it as his ghost flower as he was haunted by his search for its scent. He planted it below his window in Cabris near Grasse as he formulated his masterpiece for Dior. Today’s version of Diorissimo is different as it must be in the light of time moving and reformulation and shifts in taste. The underrated François Demachy has been quietly tweaking the classic Dior scents and sending them back out into to face the world. On the whole they are rather moving, a tribute to times gone by and artistry that will never be seen again. I have been sampling them recently and was very taken with the re-working of Diorama; it smelt astonishing on my skin. I never wear anything like that normally, but all day long I just kept returning over and over again to the crook of my arm. The delicacy of the original was hovering inside a more robust casing of modernity, but it still smelled remarkable.
For me however the re-orchestrated Diorissimo has lost a lot of the creaminess and flow of the original. This was inevitable, but in the spaces between the notes, as the fragrance meanders a little from its mission statement of creating the purity of Roudnitska’s Cabris muguet, you can still detect tiny flashes of tremendous beauty and you realise that Demachy is a talented and instinctive chronicler of these archive classics.
I had a friend who was always given Diorissimo by her mother for her birthday. She used to moan it was too old for her, yet is always swathed her in a glorious smoky green wrap of clarity and nostalgia. I have a photo of her sitting on a bench sullenly smoking in Benetton cashmere and you can actually smell the tangy white notes and green squeak of soft floral muguet roll out of the frame.
Roudnitska also created Eau Sauvage for Dior, a hedione drenched feral citrus that still smells timeless, Eau d’Hermes, Cristalle and the elegiac Le Parfum de Thérèse, a melody of white notes and passion that Roudnitska created especially exclusively for his wife Thérèse Delveaux. He eventually allowed Frédérick Malle to publish it as part of his Perfume Editions. This has allowed the rest of us to experience its poignant personal majesty.
Roudnitska was a true master of perfume. He understood the way women wanted to be scented, the relationship of nature to skin, the way we wanted fragrances to work in harmony with our inner heat and desires. Above all, there was glamour and mystery, a sense of another time, an echo of something past, lingering on the skin, dancing to life in the air. Try wearing his elegiac Parfum de Thérèse; I defy anyone not to be moved to smiling sadness by the shimmering accords of jasmine, rose and plum bathed in light and underpinned by Roudnitska’s masterly use of leather and cedar. There is a hint of melon like a steady candle flame beckoning in a window which I love as the scent settles on the skin. To love someone this much and create a masterpiece for her is a startling, Wuthering Heights thing. It never fails to move me.
This understanding of scent was instilled in a young Mona di Orio during a sixteen-year apprenticeship alongside Roudnitska in Cabris, learning how to read nature and understand the beauty of great perfumery. She first met him in July 1987 when she was just 16 years old. He told her to wait, study and learn. This rencontre would have an impact on her perfumed psyche and oeuvre that would last until she died. She read and absorbed his influential work L’Esthetique en Question, still an important work in terms of reflecting how we view fragrance. Roudnitska argued that fragrance has a role as art, as a creative force, moulded with aesthetics, capable of moving us like great music, painting and literature. There is also a practical side to bestowing a cultural status on fragrance, protecting by law formulae, bottles and packaging in both niche and mainstream fragrance production. This would essentially help in the battle against fakes and plagiarism that has long been a problem in the fragrance world.
Interestingly, in January this year, the French Government, at the behest of the Ministry of Culture and some not so subtle maneuvering by Frederick Mitterrand, has acknowledged perfume as a form of art and a major contribution to French culture. The Société Française des Parfumeurs has been lobbying for this for many years. Five perfumers were inducted as Chevaliers des Arts et des Lettres. Diplomatically they each represented the five big fragrance and flavour companies. They were Daniela Andrier of Givaudan, Françoise Caron of Takasago, Olivier Cresp of Firmenich (and brother of Françoise Caron…), Maurice Roucel of Symrise and Dominique Ropion of IFF.
There is a lot of symbolism and some tokenism is the selection. However the recognition of perfumery as art must not be underestimated. It subtly enhances the industry with a veil of stylised power that did not exist before. Something Edmond Roudnitska has been fighting for all of his perfumed life. It was touching that his son Michel, was present at the ceremony, as a perfumer in his own right and taking pictures of the important day.
So this deeply argued and passionate belief in perfumery as art was installed in Mona Di Orio very early on in her apprenticeship with Roudnitska. She would have been exposed to his aesthetic rigours as she studied alongside him for 15 years in Cabris, near Grasse, the spiritual heartland of French fragrance. Surrounded and profoundly influenced by nature and above all the beautiful natural light of the South, Mona learnt her craft from one of the true aestheticians of the perfume world.
Mona’s perfumed oeuvre was formed by a search for balance and perfection. This again was inculcated in her by the rigour of her training with Roudnitska. A lot of contemporary perfume training involves reverse engineering, students studying what is in existing scents and attempting to deconstruct or unravel the twist and turn of notes. Roudnitska did things a little differently, he would set Mona an exercise where she would pick a flower from the extensive parkland surrounding Cabris and analyse it. She was however expected to describe the essence, the soul of the natural flower. This unique and deeply connective approach is more akin to life drawing, compelling a more detailed and scrutinising examination of the subject. I watched a documentary recently on Lucien Freud. While not his biggest fan, it is true his portraiture is incredibly compelling and seems to reveal truths about the sitters that are buried beneath the surface. A lot of his work is uncomfortable and full on, however there is now denying the power and flayed honesty in his work.
Mona di Orio had trained as an art student and would have understood this detailed and scrupulous approach to studying a flower or scented source. She carried this delicate and precise attention to detail into her own work and you can see in it for example in her passion for jasmine and its indolic magnificence and her later robustly sensual and feral rendition of oud.
Her perfumes have both delicacy and robustness of line, and examine the interplay of notes and the all-important movement to drydown. There is poignancy, character and above all truthfulness. This is in part Di Orio’s talent and personality shining through her work but also the spirit of her master, Roudnitska, guiding her hand and her heart. It is hard to entirely shake off the imprint of a maître. Arguably Di Orio never really reached dizzying heights as a perfumer and certainly never produced anything to rival Roudnitska’s classic creations. This was in her future and her Nombres D’Or Collection was an indication of even more beautiful things to come.