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.
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