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

Friday, 29 April 2016

Taking Tea in a Distant Forest of Pine & Fumed Shadow – 'Bohea Bohème' by Maison Mona di Orio

‘Tea is drunk to forget the din of the world’ 
Tien Yiheg

2014 saw the launch of Myrrh Casati, the first wholly new composition from Maison Mona di Orio since the tragic death of the perfumer from surgical complications in December 2011. It was inspired by the wantonly complex Luisa, Marchesa Casati Stampa di Soncino, a flamboyant and possessed creature obsessed with art, arcane rituals, death, sex who created for herself a world of calculated shock and artistic awe. It was the first in the new Monogram Collection, a series of perfumes, devised by Creative Director and Brand Co-founder Jeroen Oude Sogtoen ‘based on the fundaments of Maison Mona di Orio… inspired by art, nature and light.’

The Monogram, alongside the Signature and cult Nombres d’Or Collections form the three main arterial lines of the house. Signature contains reissued compositions, so far, the sparkling bestial Nuit Noire and unctuous glitterball Lux. Nombres d’Or, inspired by the Golden Ratio or Divine Proportion contains Mona’s masterpieces showcasing the classic perfumery tenets; Oudh Osmanthus (originally Oudh), Vanille, Musc, Vetyver, Cuir, Eau Absolue, Ambre, Tubereuse, the posthumously released Rose Etoile de Hollande and Violette Fumée that Mona originally created privately for Jeroen from his scented memories. 

Alongside a quietly elegant restructuring of the house came a new sleek ovoid bottle created in collaboration with Atelier Dinand, one of the great flacon designers, responsible for the original YSL inrō bottle in the 1970s. There was a fleeting flap of disgruntled wings at the discontinuation of the old style Mona di Orio bottles topped with black bespoke caps from the champagne House of Jacquesson held in place with gilded muselets. But the new Bauhaus smooth flacon is immensely sensual in form, tint and weight. The lacquer boxes are gone that once held the old bottles, they seems oddly out of date looking at them now.

Petrovksy & Ramone visual for
Bohea Bohème

There is a distinctive shift in the visual representation of the brand too, a smudged erotic imagery from Dutch art photographers Petrovsky & Ramone. The aching, blurred images of lovers and skin have a dreamy charged quality reminiscent of the legendary Sarah Moon. It is notoriously hard to capture brand moods with imagery like this especially such a specific niche perfume house like Mona Di Orio, but the combination of colour, tone, abstraction and offbeat sexuality is both restrained and suggestively hushed. You cannot deny the sexuality of Mona’s work; her scents hit the skin and burn like private fever. Acknowledgment of these plush desires is a must. But this has to be balanced against an innate craving for aloof beautiful things, a craving to be apart from others. A want I find thankfully satiated by parfums Maison Mona di Orio.   

Jeroen Oude Sogteon

Jeroen has carefully and gently moved the House on; he has grieved, we must not forget how much he lost and how he has made difficult but necessary decisions.  It would have perhaps been simpler to leave things as they were, but it would have carried an unbearable weight of Mona I think. The house belonged to both of them. The perfumes will be forever, but the structures must evolve, honour her memory, and not bury her under the burden of self-indulgence and hagiography. Everything about the new direction works, it is quiet, luxurious, harmonious and above all allows us to focus on the perfumes. Mona’s name is still above the door as it were, her story burns like fire behind the scenes, lighting everything with a soft embracing glow. But it is not all consuming. There is more now. There is Jeroen who has moved centre stage, partly by default, but this has changed the dynamic of the brand and there is the future, Monogram; Jeroen working with a new in-house nose, the first since Mona to create a new future motif and persona for the eaux de parfums.

Portrait of Marchesa di Casati by Man Ray

Myrrh Casati was signed off by Melanie Leroux and while it felt right at the time; I wasn’t entirely sure if Melanie was the right fit as house nose and wondered if Jeroen was considering perhaps a library of perfumers like Masque Milano or Claude Marchal’s enigmatic MDCI. At that scented moment in 2014 Maison Mona di Orio needed something new and the dramatic smoke-wreathed sacrificial ode to the hedonistic Marchesa was perfect.  The scent captures the moribund pyrotechnics of this odd woman’s milieu; masked, bejewelled, kohl-eyed and ravenous for attention. Her theatrics were often accompanied by fireworks, incense and flames. In real life, or what there was of that, the Marchesa herself was illusion behind illusion, often living beyond her means, a precarious artifice of myth and hand to lover living. It is perhaps fitting that Leroux’s composition was centred around a precious unguent used in rituals of death, embalming and on altars, sending prayers and supplications to the gods above. Each time I wear it I am struck by its mournful yet rather clandestine frisson of macabre sensuality.

Much is made of Mona’s trademark use of olfactory chiaroscuro in scent, her way of manipulating light and shadow, definition and incandescence in the connections and synapses within the aromatic building blocks of her work. She understood how shifts in tonality and shadow in the chromatics of her oeuvre could protect and shade effects until required later in the composition. It is something very few perfumers can do, except Mona’s great tutor, Edmound Roudnitska; perhaps Jean-Claude Ellena and to a slightly lesser degree but still rather beautifully, perfumers like Mathilde Laurent and Delphine Thierry. I have written extensively in the past on this aspect of her work, it was the singularity that drew me to her in the first place, her perfumes have the allure of extraordinary art, lambent in their own private worlds. They smell like nothing else, they divide opinion and I didn’t want to share. It was love at first inhalation.


Each time I write on Mona di Orio, I revisit the entire collection, call it nostalgia, homage or reverence but it is something I always do to remind myself of how profoundly dexterous and sensual the perfumes are, how complex the fusion of materials and concept. I don’t like everything, how could I? However, everything is beautiful; that is a given. I have never liked the brittle, effervescent pungency of Eau Absolue, but I understand its citrus driven power and memory blast that drove its creation for Mona, trained for fifteen years in Provençal Cabris, soaked in ochre, pointillist sun. She used citrus like Vermeer used yellow, to suggest the utter glory of sunlight, heart breaking, holy and mysterious. 

Browsing the olfactive Mona-esque pages as it were I have come to realise the talismanic power of smoke and vapour in her rich banquet of work. They serve as veil and protection, occasionally misdirection, but always haunting and inspiring. The sweet drifting tobacco in Jeroen’s Violette Fumée, the guaiac and oppoponax in Amyitis, the carnal growlburn of Cuir, the bleak and penetrating collision of nagamotha and patchouli in Oudh Osmanthus and the boozy pirate kiss of rum, burning decks and salt in Mona’s exceptional Vanille.  Even my beloved Carnation, lost to time, had a bittersweet fumy mist of styrax that lay down so very gently over those lovely heart notes of chiming jasmine and violet. I’m currently besotted with the Musc, it reminds me so much of my fetish twenties club&sex scent the long discontinued Helmut Lang EDP in its huge white clinging expanse. Mona’s Musc is more claustrophobic which I kinda like; a scent of nebulous follow and deceptive carnality. (I know the Helmut Lang has been re-launched. It’s not the same. I don’t care what anyone says. )

Foxy flacon of Violette Fumée

Mona’s use of aromatic chiaroscuro in her work is something lovers of her perfumes acknowledge as a key element of her olfactive talent; a skill I think she instinctively had but was honed to almost absolute perfection by her scholarly sixteen year apprenticeship with Edmound Roudnitska, the man who essentially taught her to see beyond the perceived boundaries of scent, to try and imagine the interior, the soul of a flower; how it might actually be. Working this way outwards, shaping the floral form in her mind’s eye and giving it a second life inside a complex and controlled system of nuanced raw materials and aroma chemicals set her apart from others. I think applying this rigourous aesthetic to root, leaf, musk, resin, blossom, balm or bark allowed Mona to create a palette of radiant, lit materials generating within the array of perfumes the interplay of light and dark she is so well known for. Other perfumers use similar methods too, but few used the shifts in tones from dark to light, moving from resins, ouds, vanilla and woods to bright citrus, bergamot, iris, jasmine, ginger and vetiver with such careful and luxurious consideration.

The presence and power of smoke is however a lingering power in her work, it stalks the more obvious chiaroscuro element but is nonetheless a sensual and persuasive motif in Mona’s oeuvre. When the Monogram Collection was announced in 2014 with the launch of the Myrrh Casati, I think many people expected a signature style to unfold, fragrances in a Mona-esque mode.  Jeroen was far too clever for this and more brutally Mona was gone, why copy? Pay homage by all means, develop a line inspired by her preoccupations with light, shadow and the mesmeric interplay of the two in harmonious finely assembled materials. But people seem to suggest ‘Where is the Mona in this?’ .. the answer is ..there is none. Mona lies in the established line, they continue on unchanged, a pure untarnished tribute to her talents, but as I have said before, the house must move, it cannot lie weeping forever in a dark room, no matter how much diehard fans would prefer it to do so. There is money to be made and perfumes to plan and Mona’s flickering wild flame to keep alive with originality and luminescence.

I feel that the Myrrh Casati and now this wholly original and wildly beautiful Bohea Bohème are increasingly concerned with the mysteries of olfactive smoke, effluvium and cinereous whispers rather than the golden classicism of Mona’s original chiaroscurist vision.  This new launch from Jeroen and the team at Maison Mona di Orio is hauntingly authentic, a voluptuous, vapourous homage to the charred and sinuous oolong teas of the legendary Wuyi Mountains in China’s Northern Fujian province.

Lapsang Souchong tea from Eteaket

Round the corner from where I work is a lovely little independent tea salon called Eteaket, run by Erica Moore, who relinquished a lucrative career in law to pursue a passion for tea. Against all the odds and the rising tide of painfully self-aware artisan coffee shops staffed by bearded know-it-alls and bored rah red-head boho girls, Eteaket has survived and flourished, now selling its teas through a successful wholesale business and online. I mention them because as part of a fragrance launch once for work I had a beautiful white peony tea blended especially for the event, from a black, lightly smoked Chinese tea, with peony buds, rose petals and flashes of blue cornflowers mixed through it. It smelled like exquisite lost scent and tasted soft like floral smoke. As part of the prep for this, myself and Mr E, spent an afternoon in the company of Erica, learning about different varieties of tea, some salient tea facts and of course tasting.

Golden Oolong from Eteaket

The Fox is a tea drinker. I like the odd milky latte in a day, but to be honest I don’t do coffee and definitely don’t subscribe to the coffee is liquid perfume in a cup nonsense I’ve heard bandied about over the years. Yes the roasted beans have an extraordinary aroma, akin to sweet earth, slow cooked veg, pipe tobacco, weed, certain whiskies, beetroot, petrichor etc. But the juice itself. Meh. Just not me. It’s partly medical too, the large doses of caffeine can surge into my system like bushfire and trigger migraine attacks. For some reason, tea doesn’t do this.  So Mr E and I sampled black, white, red and green teas, looking at the dry tea leaves, the colour, shape and texture, then inhaling the startling differences in the vapours given off during the surprisingly precise steeping times. I will admit to be an addict what I like to refer to as builders’ tea, ie… brutally strong, milk. End of. However I do love a high quality Earl or Lady Grey, the leaves infused with lemon, orange and bergamot and I love the smokiness of Lapsang Souchong and charred, malted hit of a finely blended China Caravan tea. The tea tasting itself was almost surreal, an elegant parade of brews, some nearly ghostly, others aggressively floral and chewy, and others infused with the smoke and fire of distant terroir. Some so delicate as to be barely discernible but for lingering blue-green aquatic tannic tones that seemed to suddenly rise as the liquid brushed the throat. One of the interesting things was smelling the leafy detritus after brewing, the tepid, piled tea leaves exuding a mix of mulchy essence of soil, branch and damped down campfire in some cases. The afternoon of tasting and inhaling did alter my perception of tea, leaves, the brewing process and provenance. So now when I see tea for instance listed as a note in perfume, I expect something singular, something important.

The oolongs were the surprise; teas that take name from wūlōng chā, or black dragon tea. The camellia sinensis leaves are partially oxidised and withered under strong high sun before being beautifully twisted or tightly curled in their distinctive aromatic dried form. The Wuyi Mountains have a very particular sparse rocky terrain making for low yields in the tea harvest. This in turn makes the tea highly prized and consequently quite costly. The area has been recognised by Unesco as a World Heritage Site thus insuring its stability and safety for years to come. The word Bohea was the trade name for Wuyi black and oolong teas, such as Lapsang Souchong,  Da Hong Pao, Rougui and Shui Xian. The roasting or smoking is the unique last stage that sets these teas part from all others, imparting wondrous fumy aromas, hints of preserved plums, leathered peaches, tobacco and campfire wood. Lapsang Souchong, my personal favourite is traditionally smoked over pinewood chips that lend the tea its very particular mix of medicinal linctus and forest fire. The pine smoke has aromachemicals, longifolene and terpenes in it, responsible for the charred aroma; these escharotic molecules saturate the tealeaves, giving that charismatic smouldered vapour that rises so seductively out of our cups.

Burning lapsang souchong tea...
(oh the smell was divine...)

It is the olfactory embers of swirling Wuyi black mountain teas, smoky and enigmatic that Swedish perfumer Fredrick Dalman has used as the leitmotif in the strange and thrilling Bohea Bohème, only the second Mona di Orio scent to be released since her death not to be signed off by her.  Fredrik is a young perfumer at Art et Parfum in Sainte Blanche, Cabris in the south of France, a fragrance creation company founded by master perfumer and Mona’s tutor Edmound Roudnitska in the 1940s and now run by his son Michel, a talented perfumer in his own right. He has worked in retail for Linda Pilkington’s gorgeous Ormonde Jayne brand in Harrods and briefly for L’Artisan Parfumeur before undertaking a year’s apprenticeship position in June 2014 with their then in-house nose Bertrand Duchaufour. He joined Art et Parfum in autumn 2015. From what I know of Jeroen, he must have found something kindred in Fredrik, a certain pulse and way of communicating aromatic visions that reverberated in him. Jeroen told me he was very excited to be working with Fredrik and had found the process of creating Bohea Bohème very special. For someone this young and to be honest untested in fragrance terms this is extraordinary trust and an honour for Fredrik to explore the concepts, tenets and influences of the Mona di Orio heritage.

Fredrik has rewarded the trust placed in him with this highly original fumed, tea-soaked and enigmatic offering. As Jeroen has often noted, Mona loved her citrus notes and really understood how to use them and balance the acidities of differences when it came to blending them together. This of course found its apotheosis in her startling Eau Absolue and also earlier in the perhaps more animalic and flickering Lux which always seemed to me like a bare white bulb swinging in a stark, empty room. I think Fredrik being Swedish is somehow important; Jeroen said to me.. ‘Mona used a lot of citrus notes in her work and Fredrik is using pine in similar ways’. This is an important observation; Sweden is a Northern land of whiteness, cold shadow, bright sun and a reputation for introversion and melancholia far removed from the warm, bucolic climes of Provençal Cabris. It nurtures a differing palette of monochromic chiaroscuro, one of dark folklore, runes, alabaster sun, snow and sunless days. Social experimentation in societal living seemed a beautiful dream and then wilted in the face of brutal shifts in class and corrosion within governmental and civil service structures. Just over 50% of Sweden is actually classified as boreal, ie: forested, it is a country of contrasts, like its climate. Fredrik is from Uppsala, the fourth largest city in Sweden, some forty miles north of Stockholm. The city can have eighteen hours of sunlight at the summer solstice zenith and a mere six during the winter. External perceptions of Sweden have been very driven and to a certain extent coloured by the explosion of interest in Nordic crime writing and its subsequent adaptation for both small and large screen.

Foxy Nordic Noir.. 

More Nordic Noir..

The so-called Nordic Noir phenomenon has gripped the small screen, movies and particular the minutiae of the once ailing thriller genre with incredibly gifted writers such as Henning Mankel, Johan Theorin, Asa Larsson, Arin Dahl, Camilla Lackberg and the huge posthumous success globally of Steig Larssen’s Millennium Trilogy and its avowedly anti-establishment anti-heroine Lisbeth Sander. All these writers owe a huge debt to the hugely influential and socially critical decalogue of Martin Beck crime novels published in Sweden in the 1960s and written by a husband and wife duo called Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. I’m a huge fan of the more esoteric side of Swedish electro music, The Knife, Fever Ray and my beloved Lykke Li whose lyrics are tattooed on my skin. Words and beats that chill and darken the heart.

Fredrik Dalman - perfumer

I find Jeroen’s choice of Fredrik Dalman quite fascinating and the more I have worn Bohea Bohème I realise probably the correct one. He will flourish as the new in-house perfumer for Maison Mona di Orio. Much as I loved the high impact and drama of Myrrh Casati, it wobbled a little in the latter stages after so much sensation in the smoky stagecraft. I actually like it a lot more now, over a year later than I did when it launched. Don’t get me wrong, it was a brave and triumphant scent to announce a shift in the perception of Maison Mona di Orio and I mentioned in my review at the time my perceiving of a certain void in Myrrh Casati. I realise now this was the uncertain face behind the Casati mask, unsure as to what the future held. Jeroen is a careful, considerate man, aware of the importance of the Mona name and heritage but also of the cold hard fact that the brand must sell fragrance in order to survive. But he will do this as much as he can on his own terms. There will of course be a tightening of viewpoint for marketing purposes but generally speaking I think he will choose to steer the Monogram Collection in an original and dynamic route. When we spoke recently, he said the word ‘original’ was one of the best compliments he could hear about Bohea Bohème. We agreed that amid to the flotilla of good/nice perfumes that set sail upon the market every year, genuine originality was a flickering, elusive thing.  

Tasting the lapsang souchong..

Much of Mona’s work, even the early masterpieces such as Lux, Nuit Noire, Chamarré and Carnation were suffused with this unique Di Orio light, a particularly mellifluent and honeyed light that revealed, sheltered and illuminated other materials. It was the Nombres d’Or Collection that would showcase this ability to its full extant, taking classic perfume tenets in in Mona’s classically minutely trained mind producing perfect elixirs. In each case she made her chosen material resolutely her own; her Rose Etoile de Hollande is glassy, Dale Chihuly candy-esque, all harem peach and gossamer petal. Vanille is an extraordinary essay in sweet piratey woods swabbed in an oddly medicinal vanilla, burned under a hot still sun. Cuir, a beefy toreador attitude of sexual conquest, uncomfortable and addictive and the Musc, one of my favourites is an unexpected cocoon of loss and silence, a bed of white dust and quiet rapture.  

Nygårds Karin Bengtsson - 'The Forest'

Fredrik Dalman brings a cooler, darker tone to the Monogram proceedings, the long shadows of northern Nordic winters in a country where 65% of the forests are terpenic pine. In the high surreal Arctic Circle the sun is real when it appears to break winter’s suffocating hold, but the heat is tentative, haughty and ambivalent. The interplay and shift between the light and dark is different from Mona’s southern European lustre and olfactive fever. The white is pallid with purity; the darkness has the potential to consume it. Melancholy is a secret sport.

I have been wearing Bohea Bohème over and over and still finding nuances amid the tea-soaked vapours. When you first spray, it is the powerful personality of pungent bonfire tea and oily green cardamom that really hits the senses; it’s a huge atmospheric effect, the tea is startlingly real, earthy, pungent, shot through with twisting tendrils of barky fumed pine. I’m a huge fan of beeswax in scent, it’s something I often look for; I’m often disappointed mind you, its rare to find to blended with sensuality and power. Only Séville à l ‘Aube by L’Artisan Parfumeur, Floris’ Honey Oud and Naomi Goodsir’s Or de Sérail in my opinion use it well. Beeswax in perfumery must be five years old, thus impregnated with the full pheronomic imprint of the hive, a warm, sweet animalic mustiness. It smells like a generous torn chunk of raw honeycomb plunged into smouldering black tea and left to fall apart. The list of materials in Bohea Bohème is one of those rare collections of notes that reads like an incantation, a witch’s gathering of wild things to bind the senses… boxtree, blue chamomile, fir balsam, bay leaf, beeswax, poplar bud and oak wood.. The blue chamomile is an incredible touch, spinning in the inky tea with its singular vanillic tobacco vibe. It is quite different in tone from regular chamomile which is I find rather urinous and vulgar. The blue strain is more hay-stained, throaty and enigmatic.

It is of course the sooty Lapsang Souchong at the heart of the Bohea Bohème that really arrests the senses, it is so smooth and persuasive and oddly comforting. The ghostly scatter of pine needles and ashen juniper seem so damn dry as they collide beautifully with the sticky smudge of popular bud, a note I adore but rarely smell in scent. It’s a favourite of olfactory maverick Josh Lobb of Slumberhouse who loves his dense forested, arable, orchard aromatics weaving them into compositions of astonishing power and tactility. In Bohea Bohème, it has a resinous edginess, a tincture-like quality floating perfectly through the smoky tea.

As it rests down on skin, Bohea Bohème becomes more arid, the fumes less pungent; it’s here I can detect the bergamot more fully, a delicate earl grey shudder in my bones. Despite the smouldering autumnal grace of Dalman’s aromatic build, the Bohea Bohème flame is blue, burning between night-struck Swedish pines, shadows dancing off snow. It is this inbuilt oscillation between the Northern dry, cool medicinal reserve and the voluptuous vapours of smoked tea, woods, Florentine iris, spice and waxen, honeyed vanilla that drives the alluring dynamic at the heart of this strange perfume. The atrementous insistence of the extraordinary oolongs teas and their heady swirling mystery flood over skin with immense elegance and control. It has the poise of a teacup held in the hand of an Ingmar Bergman character swathed in the cindered memory of that distant rocky Wuyi terrain in Fujian Province. Fredrik’s comprehension and utility of soft tensions seems innate, already in this, his first Mona di Orio scent. I feel his work is less concerned with the minutiae of chiaroscuro as Mona was, but more with shadow, dusk and umbra; the way notes, effects and accords shift and blur, hide and reveal intent as they unfold on skin. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one to discern I think.

Smoked tea tincture
(courtesy of Euan McCall)

Does it work? Yes it does. To be honest I sample so many things I am now a little wary of compositions that wow me immediately; if I am really moved or altered in some way, that is beautiful, but a little shock and suspicion, even repugnance is wonderful. I find Bohea Bohème to be rather outstanding. I had some initial misgivings, the black tea note is wild and defiantly incendiary, it never truly fades, impacting all the materials in the perfume. In the later autumnal stages of the dry down an elegantly arranged honeyed vanilla note appears, having taken its time to rise through the complex list of natural materials. Mixed with that delicious beeswax note, the base disperses on skin with whiffs of charred pollen and mead, glowing warmly like a candle in distant window at the end of a long hard day. This final malleable sweetness tempers the smoke, taking the tannic edge off that hypnotic dark tea oil.

The final moments of Bohea Bohème are precious and touching, the assembled drifting smoke and tea-stained journey fading to fragrant embers on grateful skin. One can imagine a silent hunter in a darkening Nordic forest kicking snow over the remains of his pinewood fire and discarded tealeaves before turning in the shadows for home.

Bohea Bohème is an essay in luminosity, pyre and shadow. I admire the unique way in which Fredrick Dalman has used his Nordic vision and measured it against Mona’s radiant ache and sparkle. He hasn’t simply aped her methods or tried to recreate her technique, but has used his own burgeoning skill to compose a perfume that’s sits with respectful and original beauty in the Mono di Orio Monogram Collection. I find my skin haunted by the smoke. It is a wonderful creation, one I will wear with love.

(Note:Bohea Bohème launches towards the end of May 2016)

For more information on Mona di Orio, please follow the link below:

©TheSilverFox 25 April 2016

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