I have become much preoccupied with orange blossom in recent years, not the burnt sugar aromas of neroli which can make me dizzy and nauseous in large doses, but the delicious floating beauty of orange blossom water, redolent of sweet succulent jasmine as late evenings drop from summer skies.
2012 seems to be a big year for orange blossom with a number of lip-smacking releases already out and more to come. Roberto Cavalli’s eponymous scent for women reeks of slickly oiled eurotrash and heady casino nights and is tremendous fun to wear. Bobbi Brown’s Beach is salty and full of the coastal rush of summer love, innocent and lickable.
There have been some lovely interpretations of orange blossom over the last couple of perfumed years. Some of my favourites include Killian’s Love, Jo Malone’s Orange Blossom (although I wear this glazed with Prada Candy….) Serge Lutens’ Fleur D’Oranger, A Lab on Fire’s Sweet Dreams 2003 and Azemour Les Orangers by Parfums D’Empire. It is a very tricky note in my opinion to get right, to balance on the skin. I have a real love/hate relationship with the bitter marmalade facets of neroli, it often triggers severe migraines. But the more jasmine-like tones of orange blossom lull me with dreamy longing.
I’m all a tremble just now with the release of one of the most intricate and sensual fragrances I have ever smelt: Séville à L’Aube, a new limited edition eau de parfum by L’Artisan Parfumeur. Brought to life by Bertrand Duchaufour and inspired by an intense erotic olfactory memory experienced by perfume blogger, writer and critic Denyse Beaulieu. This memory of a man and a moment, of skin, touching, lips, tobacco, of Holy Week in Séville, candles, incense, wax and the rush of sexual desire has been mined by Bertrand and Denyse in painstaking and detailed sessions of sturm und drang, emotion and calm. drama and analytical fragrance chemistry in Denyse’s book The Perfume Lover. This aromatic slutty memoir details the collaboration from concept to perfume. Denyse has recently said how the fragrance has shaped and led her and Betrand, manipulating them through the twists and turns of various mods, toying with themes, effects, abstractions and emotions.
I don’t want to go into any great detail about the birth and development of the scent. You should read the book for yourselves. I want to talk about my reaction to this amazing fragrance and the effect it had on me.
It is a fragrance of many facets, animalic, floral, smoke and sun, desire, sex and memory. I love the contrasts, the internal shifts from the pouting innocence of orange blossom to the comforting hive smearings of the beeswax wrapped in smoke and woods. I was lucky enough to wear it before it launched and became obsessed with it. On my skin the osmosis was exquisite.
Every now and again, fragrances come along that seem made for you. Séville à L’Aube is one such fragrance, as soon as it settled on my skin and I sniffed the beautiful hot lavender notes rising lazily through the indolic orange blossom and waxen animalics, I realised I had found something extraordinary. It lives and breathes with you. Denyse’s erotic memory lives on, gilded and transmuted through the painterly olfactory skills of Bertrand Duchaufour. His ability to visualize light and texture, to feel a moment has served this fragrance well.
His 2010 Orange Blossom for London brand Penhaligon’s was very stylish and a touch déshabillé. It is a top to toe re-working of the House’s uninspired 1976 original and much the better for it. He lifted and refreshed the formula with incandescent orange blossom and neroli notes blended with cedar, vanilla, peach flower and a delicate Ambre Solaire flourish (benzyl salicylate) to suggest holidays and beaches. The final result is a glorious rounded floral with touches of deep shocking indolic beauty and was by far and away the highlight of the company’s somewhat hit and miss Anthology Collection.
There are echoes of Bertrand’s work on Orange Blossom (and also his creamy magnum opus Vanille Absolument for L’Artisan Parfumeur) wafting through Séville à L’Aube, but it has a very distinct identity of its own. Shadows and sexual darkness, an erotic past, whisper in the street. I find it very emotional, beeswax does that to me. I burn beeswax candles I buy in a cathedral shop, the scent is like nothing else, sweet and strange, filling my rooms with an ethereal sugared heat that triggers memories of school chapel, a French lover who wore Antaeus and a minor erotic obsession I had with a catholic pretender to a small European principality in my late teens.
The distinctive smell of polished wooden floors, peat smoke, the mahogany warmth of much loved furniture. Corridors and summer sunlit rain, Mallaig and the windswept west coast of Scotland. These are random shards of memory that rise and fall when I smell Séville à L’Aube, it seems to stir quite the olfactory stew. But it’s dirty too, sexual and growling. The costus element; skin and scalp, the leaning in, the nuzzling that runs under the initial indolic rush moulded through the wax is both comforting and repellant. The desire to push away and pull in is quite remarkable. The heat of a moment defined in a scent. So hard to capture, the stay, go… let go, give in. These complex emotions have been translated into a subtle cascading pyramid of notes and that draws you into the heart of a horny and shimmering fragrance.
Beeswax is an extraordinary note and one of the few true animalics still available to perfumers. The texture and beauty it brings to fragrance is unparalleled. Harvested exclusively from hives of the honeybee (apis mellifera), the beeswax used in perfumery must be at least five years old. This allows the wax to absorb the hive mind if you like, the collective comings and goings, whiffs and memories of the bees, the scent of propolis, Royal Jelly, pollen and flowers.
The wax contains the pheronomic imprint of the bee colonies, the molecules that allow them to identify their broods and larvae. Adding this to fragrance and allowing us to melt this onto our skins is a concept I find strangely compelling. I know the purification of the wax (by alcohol extraction) will render it a cleaner more malleable ingredient, but something of the original warmth and addictive sweet strangeness will always remain.
I had a friend whose grandmother kept bees and practised bee-telling. She considered them part of her family, seeing them as the most perfect symbol of harmony, each member of the colony working together to achieve perfection. Her father and grandfather also kept bees and taught her to talk to them, telling them family news, births and marriages, accidents etc. Deaths meant draping the hives in black and turning them from the house. Bee-telling was considered vital to the harmony and peace of her life. She told her grand-daughas they were collecting comb for honey one day that bees understood moods and could read people. If she didn’t talk to them, one day they would just leave and take their mysteries with them.
The sacred aspect and wonder of bees is inherent in many world cultures and our love and respect for them is needed now more than ever as huge swathes of bee populations die out in mysterious and terrifying colony collapses. As we increasingly industralise the honey-making business and increase the movement of hives to pollinate the world’s orchards, we are in danger of destroying one of the world’s most valuable assets, the humble honeybee. The effects of its loss will be catastrophic. Work is being done to safeguard the future of our bees and hive culture but we must be vigilant. That one tiny creature can produce such extraordinary products is simply amazing. We must be cautious in our rush to use and exploit the riches of this charming and vital insect.
Along with tonka bean and white lilies, beeswax is a note I prize highly in my fragrances. The wax itself is made by worker bees, the sterile females who make up most of the colony. Comb production is a vital job for worker bees and they produce the wax from glands on their abdomen. To start the process they gorge on honey and cluster together to maintain a continual temperature as they metabolise the honey. They say that bees must fly approximately 150,000 miles in order to produce one pound of precious wax. The wax is collected and moulded by the bees’ mandibles into position as part of the comb. The wax itself is white and takes on a variety of golden hues with the addition of pollen oils and propolis. Obviously the honey the bees carry within them will also affect the wax production. I love the mystery of bees, the tiny passing of minutely scented parts of themselves in their wax.
Beeswax lends a honeyed comforting facet to fragrances, complimenting the indolic, rubberized skin tones of lilies, tuberose, gardenia, ylang and in this case orange blossom. The waxen softness also works beautifully with leather notes and dried fruits, dates, apricots and plums. Often used to beautiful effect in fougère fragrances (Chanel’s Antaeus, Penhaligon’s Sartorial and the new Lanvin fougère-tinted oriental Avant Garde), the sweetness tempers the more traditional mossy green aspects of the fougère and serves to highlight the fermenting damp hay notes of coumarin that provide stability and balls to the majority of classic fougère fragrances. Bertrand Duchaufour also created Sartorial for Penhaligon’s, inspired initially by the blocks of industrial beeswax that the tailors at Norton & Sons were suing to lubricate their threads before stitching.
In Séville à L’Aube however it is the very bee-ness, the animalic mystery of the note that has been harnessed, the beeswax has been melted and dripped through the notes as though drizzled across naked skin after a lazy sun-dappled breakfast in bed. The stickiness of honey and its golden fluidity make it inherently sexy. I smell a wonderful smoky tobacco note behind the orange blossom, a moist scent of rolling baccy, a memory licked off student fingers when I was lolling around parties in my twenties. It is a shockingly sexy aroma. I’ve long since stopped smoking, but memories of smoky lips and late night tobacco cast in rosy flashback can still stop me dead and spin me around in my past for a while.
It is this hazy tactile facet of Séville à L’Aube that sets it apart from all other orange blossom scents. Bertrand has manipulated the hive memory, the buzzing collective sensuality into a trembling beauty that glows off the skin like fire in the night. The inclusion of Luisieri lavender (Seville lavender) further deepens the courmaranic, resinous tones of the wax and heady floral rush.
There is of course a gorgeous incense note running through Séville à L’Aube, smokily breathed through the composition with tremendous delicacy and poignant verve. This facet reflects Denyse’s memory of the rituals of Holy Week and the mysteries of a very particular Spanish Catholicism. Bertrand has always handled incense with dexterity and style (Avignon & Kyoto for Comme des Garçons and Dzongkha for L’Artisan Parfumeur amongst others). I always perceive incense as a cold note, the cathedral stone after Mass; it needs to be warmed up. It is not my favourite note in the fragrance world, but used as an accent, with skill and painterly application it can infuse grace and wonder into compositions. Etro’s doleful Messe de Minuit, albeit a major ecclesiastical riff on incense, is flooded with the full-bodied yet mystical power that only incense can impart. Scent for the soul.
In Bertrand’s fuckable Al Oudh for L’Artisan Parfumeur, he utilises the sootiness of an incense note to counterpoint the dates and vanilla and herald the decadent drop into the filthysexy oud. Olivia Giacobetti is always mentioned as a great manipulator of incense. Her works include the delicate Passage D’Enfer for L’Artisan Parfumeur, the in-house Hotel Costes Scent and the exquisite John Galliano candle for Dyptyque which I always imagine to be the scent-track to Ken Russell’s The Devils….. All of these have power and atmosphere, yet retain mystery, shadows in the smoke.
What I love about the use of incense in Séville à L’Aube is the delicacy and radiance. As if someone were illuminating skin in the dark by candlelight. Reading every trace of flesh by the light of a flickering flame. Bertrand has always blended his notes with tremendous daring as if assembling impressionistic snapshots of moments in time.
Sprayed initially on the skin, you relish the sweetness, the dropping of the blossom from branches above, the
vague drifting of incense in the distance, reminding you that profanity and desire are eternally linked by skin and the love of the forbidden. I think the lavender is a magnificent touch, toasted and rubbed, heated by a proud Mediterranean sun and oozing with that peculiar aromatic verdancy that draws bees in their nectar-hungry thousands. I remember visiting an isolated monastery near Avignon years ago, the area surrounding the building was covered in lavender fields. We were there at the height of summer. The sound of bees, thrumming in the stultifying heat was dizzying. The charged green air intoxicated me, I felt as if I was drowning. If I smell lavender honey now, a real physical sensation of standing in those fields with my eyes closed comes flooding back.
This judicious counterpointing of herbaceous and sweetness played over smoke gives Séville à L’Aube a timeless, primeval quality, of landscapes before man when insects and flowers and weather played out an eternal cycle of renewal, death and reproduction across skies, stone and petal.
For me, it is one of the most dynamic and erotically charged perfumes to have been released in some time. My love of beeswax is amply rewarded as all the elements and memories that Denyse wanted and that Bertrand has conjured up rise off the skin. The delicate sweet blend of honeyed wax and carnal indolics is a magnificent war of sensual attrition. I could struggle in its golden grasp forever. I am torn between wearing Séville à L’Aube in private and loving only myself or wearing it out so people can inhale my skin as I move through the air, communicating perhaps a tiny part of the magic and mystery that the bees laid down in countless darkened hives.
Click below for Denyse Beaulieu's Grain de Musc blog page:
Click below for link to L'Artisan Parfumer's website: