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

Tuesday 9 April 2013

Soft like Dreams – ‘Cuir de Nacre’ by Parfum Ann Gerard

This is a magical scent, tender and mysterious. I imagine it carefully transported back from Neverland by Peter Pan, glowing magically, wrapped in mosses, skins and ferns and presented lovingly to Wendy Darling in her room in Bloomsbury.  Her brothers oohing and aahing, jostling for attention, Wendy shocked and smitten by the attention. Peter stands in the shadows, half smiling, half sad. ‘It is made from the blood of pearls,’ he says, mockingly. ‘Oh Peter, don’t say that, it makes me sad,’ says Wendy, smelling her pale wrist, ‘oh, the bottle is so beautiful… the scent…is like looking at candlelight through paper and it smells soft like dreams. I shall wear it tonight when we fly’.

Ann Gerard is an award-winning jeweler based in Paris. She launched a fine jewellery line under her name in 1994 and opened her eponymous boutique in St Germain des Prés before settling into a gallery/studio space in the Bastille in 2006.  She has decided to enhance the lustre of her profile with the addition of three magnificent fragrances created for her by the scholarly and artistic Bertrand Duchaufour. The fragrances reflect Ann’s work as a jeweller and her love of perfume but also stand alone as perfect examples of artistic and innovative collaboration. Cuir de Nacre, Perle de Mousse and Ciel d’Opale are beautifully made expressions of the perfumer’s art, but Bertrand and Ann have thought very carefully about how to mirror back and forth the multi-facetted concept of surface, materials, maker and creation. Perfumery as invisible adornment.

Ann’s work explores the tensions between delicacy and force, often contrasting the glimmer of surface with the strength of simple yet classic forms. Ann often used pearls, opals, quartzes and moonstones in beautiful settings. There is ghostly beauty in her love of opalescence, the manipulation of opals, pearls, moonstones and smoky quartz.

Looking at her work I thought.. she makes it look so easy. Yet each piece is crafted with consummate skill and attention to detail. They have quiet strength, classicism integrated with great beauty.  Jewellery is something I often find hard to judge; there is intrinsic worth, the stones, the raw materials etc. There are thematics, a wearing of narratives if you like, a continuation of the maker’s story. Some people simply wear the name, the bling, and the crass assumption of perceived status. It can be worn as keepsake or memento, charms for protection and symbol demonstrating affiliation and faith. But I think ultimately jewellery is about the skin it lays upon. Like fragrance, beautiful stones, metals and materials need a canvas.

Some people just cannot wear fine jewellery. If you watch red carpet events it is interesting who looks dazzles in Bulgari, Cartier, Chopard, etc. Actresses like Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weiss, Julianne Moore, Monica Bellucci, Anna Mouglalis and Tilda Swinton often wear single pieces of choice stone and metal. They look remarkable. They wear the pieces, not the other way around.  There is subtlety and grace, illumination and coordination. Skin tones to lapidary lustre, metallic glow to eyes and skin. Watches, rings, brooches, pins, cuffs, torques, chokers, studs, parures and piercings. All these things have a decorative role. Wearing jewellery well is an art form in itself. It takes courage and imagination. The finest pieces are those that caress the skin, love it and just for a moment cause the world to pause while the eye admires. The word jewellery can be traced back (via an Anglicised French word jouel to the Latin word jocale, meaning plaything) There is an inherent playfulness in beautiful jewels, drawing attention to the skin and body wearing them. Flirtation dressed up in stones and metals. Look at me, I glitter, I shine.

I have a friend who wears amber, the various tobacco and honey tones of this lovely stone flatter her pale Celtic skin and seem to draw strength from her hazel-flecked eyes. Another male friend loves garnet (my birthstone actually) and has a fabulous set of rings that burn fire from his fine cellist fingers. My friend C got married in vintage pearls, wrapped three times around her very pale throat. A family heirloom, C wore them all the time at university over her trademark cashmere polo neck sweaters. It was an almost sensual shock to see them against her skin. They seemed to burn white in the church. My mother only wears silver now, it suits her skin and temperament. And yet growing up, travelling abroad, always in the sun, her skin a lovely nut-brown hue, she wore nothing but shimmering gold, plunder from our foreign travels…

I have said before how intrigued I am by the quality of fragrances that often come from jewellery houses. The attention to detail inherent in creating intricate and exquisite objets seems to inspire companies like Cartier, Lalique, Chopard, Van Cleef & Arpels, Boucheron and Bulgari to create some thoughtful and iconic fragrances. Mathilde Laurent’s work at Cartier in particular is quite magical. She created the heavenly Baiser Volé, a white lily soliflore that smells like cold glass, pollen and silvered air. Her series Les Heures de Parfum is a diverse collection of complex fragrances, celebrating precious moments in time. Laurent is on one of the most flexible and consistently surprising perfumers at work today. She shapes and moulds raw materials into fragrances of great beauty, bringing to bear a fierce intelligence and severe sense of style on the work she creates.

Annick Ménardo’s Bulgari Black and Jean-Claude Ellena’s Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert, both at Bulgari are wildly different but again classic fragrances and decorative and sensual on skin.  Lalique’s Eau Noire and Perles de Lalique are offbeat and wildly odd perfumes, exceptional in their constructions and sillage. I loved the original Boucheron pour Femme by Francis Deleamont and Jean-Pierre Bethouart, although smelling it recently I fear reformulation has destroyed its warm bustling heart. I worked as a manny in Paris for a while many moons ago and the busy woman I worked for was always drenched in Boucheron pour Femme, it rolled off her as she burst chaotically home through the doors in the evenings. Her scarves, fur coats, hats and gloves reeked of tuberose, civet, tonka and benzoin, hanging off the wall like scented game.

The trend for softness and tactility in perfume is something I welcome. Scent as texture, sheen and finish; a surface to be admired, touched and worshipped. Bertrand Duchaufour is well known for his olfactory sketches such as his travel-infused work for L’Artisan Parfumeur, Neela Vermeire and Eau D’Italie. Yet in recent years, he has produced glamorous and profound work for niche brands as diverse as Madja Bekkali, The Vagabond Prince (Fragrantica) and Marc Atlan. The perfume that really stood out for me was his Mon Numéro 8 for L’Artisan Parfumeur; a seemingly simple scent built around a trio of notes: iris, jasmine and musks.  This was the best of the Mon Numéro series and smelt ridiculously cinematic on the skin. The closest incarnation of gold-dusted fur I have ever smelt.  It drapes over the skin with the lightest, most erotic of Catherine Deneuve touches. It reeks of luxury and seems to pay subtle homage to every great French perfume every made while somehow remaining utterly original.  Deneuve is always Deneuve in her films, yet somehow this doesn’t matter, she is mesmerising, a force of nature, versatile, iconic and symbolic.  The same can be said of Bertrand’s use of iris, one of perfumery’s most heartbreaking raw materials. Iris is always iris, however, it takes a true master perfumer to illuminate its innate magnificence. Prada prattle on about their use of iris, and yet their fragrances are rather dull, the much-hyped iris awash with a fizzy, fuzzy skein of notes that corrodes the natural beauty of the powdered bruised note.  I am always left a little frustrated by their chemical undertone and garish sillage.

The only other iris fragrances that have impressed me in recent years are Bourdon’s arctic love poem Iris Poudré for Éditions Frédéric Malle and the Iris Nobile Sublime for Acqua di Parma, created by Daniela Andrier. And of course one must never forget the dark alien beauty of Dior Homme Intense, the revved up, bleaker sci-fi re-boot of the original iris-cocoa combo, still probably one of the best men’s scents in the last twenty years. 

The iris in Mon Numéro 8 glows like a candle in a gilded room.  I noticed the same effect and sensation the first time I smelt Cuir de Nacre. But whereas Mon Numéro 8 has a very fresh almost lychee style note in the top, Cuir de Nacre is much more subdued, more angora and chinchilla under the brush of a hand. The candle is burning closer to the floor, shadows flicker and dust rises subtly in the low flickering light.  Ann Gerard originally made this fragrance for her clients as a boutique exclusive under the name Pleine Lune.  She then commissioned Bertrand to create two more fragrances, Perle de Mousse and Ciel d’Opale to sit alongside it and released them as a collection. Each of the fragrances glitters in its own way, catching fire in certain atmospheres. Cuir de Nacre is still the standout fragrance of the trio for me, mainly because of my love for the iris/leather accord.

It is a marriage I adore in scent. It works because of the affinity for skin. The yearning for warmth and blood beating close to the surface. Leather notes and iris seems opposite in tone; iris chilled and mournful, pulled from the ground and aloof; leather warm and soft, sensual and animalic. But there is harmony in their polarity, plushness and comfort. Texture is vital. Smelling iris can seem like touching the softest of all leathers, creamy to the touch, warm and pliable as fingers move across the surfaces. Petals can feel like leather, malleable and finely turned. Leather of course is skin and smells instinctively right, close to us. The leather in Cuir de Nacre is so soft as to feel like spun suede, barely there, but anointed with styrax and Ambrette to further enhance the skin tones of this perfectly conjured facet.

Bertrand has used an ozonic steam accord in the top of Cuir de Nacre; aldehydic and opulent, it sets quite the scene for the notes to come. He used this note to tremendous effect in Sartorial, the fougère he created for Penhaligon’s in 2010. There he used it to suggest scent of pressed tweed in the workshops of Savile Row. I found it overpowering in Sartorial, although my friend Mr E transmutes this note into the most wonderful Berlin warm leatherette effect. Mixed with the occasional drift of his trademark black Sobranies, it smells amazing. (I think to be honest it’s just a bit too butch for me…).  In Cuir de Nacre, the ozonics herald a beautiful arrival of angelica and ambrette, two notes that add piquancy and a powdered anisic flutter to the central theme that slowly emerges from the steam. The iris concrete is married to cassie absolute. This works so joyfully, cassie can have an animal boudoir roar if left unchecked, but the sure hand of Bertrand blends it perfectly to the cool chic chill of iris. The leather accord smells white, blindingly so, like the mother of pearl in the name. A nacreous lather, reflective of light, catching tones of grey, silver and mauve. Beautiful bruises. Bedded down in white musks, sandalwood and an icy blast of styrax, the composition for a moment resembles a watercolor sky, bleeding out across bone white paper. Then the leather and iris rise through and assert themselves, gently, but with enough soft passion as to cause the skin to say a whispered prayer of thanks.

Cuir de Nacre is a thing of beauty. It is no secret how much I love the work of Bertrand Duchaufour, but this glittering, burnished gem has really captured my heart. I have chosen it as one of my fragrances for my Silver Fox poetry event in May this year. I have been invited by the Scottish Poetry Library to talk about my life in scent and poetry and choose up to nine poems and corresponding scents. It has been an illuminating project that has made me examine my passion for words and fragrance all over again. In most cases I chose the poems first and then imagined the perfume that matched the mood and temperament of the piece. But in two or three cases, the fragrance came first. Cuir de Nacre was one of these. I knew I wanted to use and share it, but I had to choose a poem and words that would do the fragrance justice. Wearing the scent one snowy day in the New Year, I was sitting at the window looking out at ashen skies. I could smell the creamy sensuality of the leather and the sadness of the iris. I knew suddenly which poem I wanted: ‘A Marriage’ by R.S. Thomas, addressed to his dead wife, one of the most moving evocations of love, life together and parting.

A Marriage

We met
under a shower
of bird-notes.
Fifty years passed,
love's moment
in a world in
servitude to time.
She was young;
I kissed with my eyes
closed and opened
them on her wrinkles.
`Come,' said death,
choosing her as his
partner for
the last dance, And she,
who in life
had done everything
with a bird's grace,
opened her bill now
for the shedding
of one sigh no
heavier than a feather.

The poem captures the transient and shimmering beauty of lives lived and loved. I cannot read it without feeling tears threaten my day. Cuir de Nacre is no heavier than a feather, a fragrance of degrees of lightness echoing the slow accretion of exquisite layers that the oyster builds to showcase its pearl.

‘Fifty years passed,
love’s moment
in a world in
servitude to time’

This haunting quote parallels the sense I have in the perfume of magic and suspension of time. That rare stumbling upon a scent that transports and moves you. If you wear Cuir de Nacre, live in the delicate strata of effects and emotions that Bertrand has woven into this moody, shimmering jewel, try reading these the poem, inhale the iris, the soft fruity leather, the aerial aldehydes…and try not to weep.

As Wendy Darling flies across the night sky, her skin smells like pearls. There is moon glow and magic. The city glitters. Skin becomes adornment and catches fire like opals and moonstone. There are bird-notes and beauty. Everyone should wear this, it is singularly precious.

For more info on Ann Gerard, please click below:

Link to 'My Life In Poetry Event',hosted by the Scottish Poetry Library (I'm on page 5...)


  1. Dear Mr. Fox, this is the most beautiful review I have ever read.

    1. Dear Vasilisa... such kind words. I am touched. Thank you... Mr Fox. x

  2. This is spectacularly moving perfume writing.