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

Friday 16 August 2013

Let the Stone Weep Around Me: ‘Violette Fumée’ by Mona Di Orio

The 19th of July was Mona di Orio’s birthday and bloggers and writers across the electronic ether again reminded us that the perfumed world is a far less interesting place since Mona’s premature death at the end of 2011.

I am the same age and feel the loss oddly. Sitting here in my sun-flooded Edinburgh kitchen, I simply cannot imagine not being here, doing this, creating, writing and I have nowhere near the talent and artistic power that flowed from Mona. The more I wear her creations, the more I realise how close to genius she was in her instinctual understanding of olfactive chiaroscuro.

Her perfumes oscillate between light and dark, illuminating the shadows but at the same time masking and veiling, keeping certain things hidden from us. This tilting of the light away from the face or main theme, of allowing us to see the edges and hinterlands of compositions; this is her legacy. No one understood the nuances of light and shade like Mona, you can smell the tonal shifts, feel the luminescence on your skin and the bruises of night. There are times when we all need drama, majesty and true luxury in our fragrances. This is when we turn to Mona de Orio.

I worry it is early to say this, and you must forgive any offence, but her premature death has also I think deepened an already very powerful sense of connection to Mona’s work. There is an aura of ownership and enhanced familiarity. The people around the world who have worn her scents feel her absence keenly and draw her creations around themselves like protective charms. I am aware of her loss each time I wear one of her beautiful creations. I am sure she would have been troubled by this sense of melancholia as her work was a celebration of life and nature it all its glory. But we sense what we sense. The poems of Plath, Lowell and Brooke, the films of Monroe, Dean and Jean Vigo, the music of Buckley and Morrison, the art of Basquiat and Schiele, the lives of Princesses Diana and Grace – we imbue these with a different colour of memory. Tragedy bestows nostalgia and absence reinforcing our connections to those that have gone before their time.

It is always bittersweet. At the peak or on the cusp of artistic or creative greatness, we can never really know how much was to come, how much glory was to follow. In the case of Mona, a parfumeuse operating at the peak of her powers, the loss is incomparable. Only those closest to her know what she was preparing to do. Jeroen Oude Sogtoen was left not only with the painful task of coping with the loss of a beloved friend and business partner but also the looming issue of continuance. How to carry on with the perfumed work with Mona gone? However he has managed very successfully to keep Mona’s memory alive while at the same time necessitating movement forward. Transition is painful and forces introspection and change, but it is necessary in order to survive.

Last year saw the release of Rose Etoile de Hollande, a delicious, glass-candy rose Mona had been working on before she died. A typically razor-sharp, complex and soulful portrait of a particular climbing rose from Cabris, the spiritual home where she studied with the great Edmound Roudnitska. Rose Etoile ravishes the senses. I love my roses and this glossy, head-turning configuration of petals, peach, leather, amber and a delicious plunge of powdered heliotrope dazzled me from the moment it hit my skin. I love the peach thing, it can be a danger in scent, tipping the floral elements over the edge into confectionary overload, but like Victoria Minya’s recent Hedonist, the peach note is so deftly handled you are seduced and swooning at the subtle assemblage of everything.

 Dale Chihuly - Red Flowers, Garden & Glass Installation 
(Seattle Centre)

Mona’s rose is luxuriantly glassy. Like spun sugar sculpture. It smells in fact like Dale Chihuly glass looks, the intricate weaving and moulding of extraordinary shape and colour. Hand-blown glass, animalic, frond-like, dazzling in the light, strange and sentient in the shadows. It is one of my favourite rose scents simply because it is beautiful and moves me. There is grassiness, morning dew, a dusting of powder, a deep plushness of petals, blushed pink and streaked with red. Then the peach, an echo of Guerlain, a nod to Mitsouko, tremulous and full, like morning sun on a summer porch.

The Rose Etoile de Hollande, like the Oud, Vetyver, Vanille, Ambre, Cuir and Tubereuse before it are part of the Nombres d’Or collection, Mona’s showcasing of her exquisite talent for finding newness in classic perfumery thematics. By taking each of these tenets of modern olfaction, Mona rebuilt them, gilding them with her special brand of magic and in doing so reinvigorated their reputations as fragrance notes. She infused this Œuvre with modernity and her own instinctual understanding of classical structures and themes.

Arguably setting near perfect standards, this collection of harmonious formulae demonstrate Mona’s dexterity and talent as she left us. Each time I wear one of these fragrances I am reminded of her ability to see inside scent and persuade us for a moment it was her hand on our skin as the notes settled. Mona knew good skin. It’s a simple thing, but countless perfumers forget it in the tumble of money, deadlines, client briefs and material costs. Scent is nothing without skin. Mona knew this, her fragrances are about osmosis, becoming one with the scented elements.

Now Jeroen has kindly and I imagine perhaps a little sadly agreed to share his personal scent created for him by Mona – Violette Fumée. Without sounding too histrionic, it is one of the most luxuriant and affective fragrances I have sampled in a while.

I have been a tad spoilt this year, falling in love with Ann Gerard’s Cuir de Nacre and Vero Kern’s incredible creations. Revisiting Pierre Guillaume’s architectural wonders… Discovering Viktoria Minya’s gorgeous Hedonist and obsessing over Shay & Blue. And now a violet. And my goodness me, what a violet it is.

Ionones, the aromachemical that create the potent illusion of violets in scent were isolated way back in 1893 by Tiemann and Kriger. Chemically speaking, they are strong ketone compounds that allow one sniff of something and then strangely make the senses asnomic to anything after. They take their name from Ion, the Greek word for violet. Methyl ionones lent their considerable weight to two key fragrances of my teenage years, Grey Flannel (1975) by Geoffrey Beene and the original (14%!! violet…) Fahrenheit(1988)by Christian Dior. Sadly, today’s Fahrenheit is a mutilated eunuch of a thing, a mere powdered shadow of its former roaring self.

The scent of violet leaves was originally extracted by the beautiful but painstakingly slow process of enfleurage – laying down successive layers of flowers in wax or animal fat filled trays or chassis, continually replacing the flowers by hand until the wax or fat was saturated with the essential oils of the decaying blooms. This laborious process could produce exquisite results and was reserved for delicate blooms such as jasmine, mimosa, gardenia, honeysuckle and of course violets.

The breakthrough by Tiemann and Kriger put an end to this process and meant that violet-tinted fragrances could be made much more cheaply. I think sadly the problem for many violet fragrances, apart from the ubiquitous Violette de Parme references, is that the discovery of synthetics, while certainly transforming modern perfumery created its own set of olfactive issues. Violet scents became easy to make and market and it became increasingly difficult to make the violet note smell lush and luxurious. Many early violet scents have a whiff of the housemaid about them, something one might might buy at the chemist with hard-earned pennies. Creating decadent, velveteen juice with elements of night and rich sensuality seemed elusive. Occasionally however in the right hands violets were transformed into diamonds of the night.

I have some favourite violet scents. Guerlain’s poignant L’Apres L’Ondée and hairspray-tastic Insolence have played with the transparencies of violet. L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Drôle de Rose and Ralf Schweiger’s Lipstick Rose for Frédérick Malle blend retro-boudoir violet notes with rose to create sexy, smeared lipstick accords. Annick Ménardo’s otherworldy Le Premier Parfum for Lolita Lempicka layered a joyful sparkling violet note over aniseed, licquorice, praline and vanilla amongst other things, resulting in a addictive brew that smelt of twisted fairytales and forgotten overgrown castles. Balenciaga’s Paris Essence reminded us that the violet lives in darkness too, tucked away in shadows on the forest floor. Penhaligon’s Violetta is operatic and dark, musk and geranium lending the simple structure an almost Gothic hooded intensity.

Jeroen Oude Sogteon

Violette Fumée is unlike any of these. As a personal reflection of an individual it is deeply affecting. Combining Jeroen’s love of luxury (by contrasting the inherent powder and purr of violet flower), cashmere, the languorous throatiness of Bryan Ferry, his father’s pipe tobacco and the singular sensations of cashmere and suede. Other keynotes include myrrh, lavender and oppoponax, elements drawn from Jeroen’s life with Mona.

My skin crackled as the scent hit my skin; like dry brush catching aflame in a drought. Instant fire. Violette Fumée smoulders with anticipation. I adore powder in scent and often seek out scents for this reason. The powder in Mona’s scent is the drifting embers of papal burnout. Purple velvet set softly alight at dusk. As I inhaled at my pulse points, I realised I was thinking of L’Heure Bleue, arguably Guerlain’s masterpiece created in 1912 by Jacques Guerlain. The original formulation has long been lost to time. But there is a violet note wrapped into the heliotrope, rose, carnation and jasmine heart that floats out like mauve-tinted fumes even now in the current brasher formulation. This classical echoing and homage has always been present in Mona’s œvre, yet she revisited influences she loved and looked more deeply into the light and shadows that held the elements together.

It is often said we fall in love with our first loves over and over again throughout our lives; looking for their faces, mannerisms, colouring, style and touch. We search to recreate the visceral impact of those emotions, the power of those early days and giddy rollercoaster courtship and desire. Mona wrote about the impact of L’Heure Bleue on her early olfactory senses. It was her first proper grown-up fragrance and she saved up especially to buy it. So desperate to smell the perfume, she could not wait until she got home and opened the box and bottle in the street. One can only imagine how special and charged that moment was for the young Mona di Orio and I think with each fragrance she created she tried to capture that potent and imprinting moment and pass it on to each of us. She wants us to feel the way she did as a young woman experiencing the full-blown shock and awe of L’Heure Bleue as it flooded her senses on the street. With each of her fragrances we think we might anticipate effect, how it might possibly smell, but the chiaroscuro details Mona layered into her work, allows us to see, smell and experience the familiar on a more complex and cerebral level.

The vintage familiarity of Violette Fumée soon segues into something much more compelling, a portrait of melancholia wrapped in the smoke of time forgotten. An empty street, rolling with mist, gardens lit with bonfires ooze sweet smoke into chilled night air. Swathed in cashmere the colour of bruises, a man walks the street, his cigarette smoke curling high into the city sky. His skin is lavender and bergamot, dusted with violet and rose dust. Smoke clings to him like guilt.

Edinburgh is a city of ghosts. The stone is impassive and we are watched over by the looming castle on its volcanic plug and Arthur’s Seat, wind-torn hills overlooking Holyrood Place, the scene of so much political struggle and bloodshed. Burke and Hare hunted their victims across the city and Stevenson was so obsessed by the city’s fetid darkness he created Mr Hyde to eat the night and consume poor Dr Jekyll. The city’s underground passages now entertain tourists and host festival shows, but they are genuinely eerie spaces, echoing with the footsteps of the dead.   

On certain nights, the veil between the living and dead in this stone city seems thinner than usual, the streets resonate with sadness and vacant bustle. Figures turn and faces catch the light. As the autumnal haar mists roll in from the sea Edinburgh loses its edges like a muffled bell; everything drops to the ground, muted and close.

Fanciful I know, but Violette Fumée is the pensive and mournful manifestation of this mood for me. I know others will disagree, but I find safety in introspection and melancholia. It reassures me. This hypnotic scent is like wearing a soft vaporous storm, private and running over the skin under layers of black cashmere and tweed. Small plumes of smoke escaping though fingertips.  

The violet and rose are laid down with great mastery and coloured gently with saffron, an effusive spice if not tempered or used with caution. Rubbed sparingly it adds an unparalleled sense of burnished gold. The resins and woods are balanced with very precise measures of Haitian vetiver and clary sage, both of which deepen the scorched earth note that haunts the central part of the composition. Throughout the settling, violet fumes roam the senses like a restless spirit, mauve and bruised. This note is truly magnificent. Each time I inhale my skin, I wonder at its papal beauty.

This is perhaps Mona’s finest work. I have actually really struggled with this decision. The Rose Etoile De Hollande suits me beautifully and wears like diamonds on my skin, glass-candy magic with poignancy and the occasional head back full-blown throaty laugh in the sunlight. The Vanille is like being dipped in caramel and set on fire in the night. I was a huge Chamarré fan and counted Lux and Carnation amongst my collection. These earlier works, although still beautiful, now seem like detailed indications of the themes Mona was exploring. As the first Nombres D’Or fragrances appeared and the older collections was discontinued, we realised that Mona had reached a level of awareness in her work that meant she no longer needed the early pieces any more. This was a brave and difficult call, to axe popular scents. But as the Nombres D’Or perfumes started to roll out and her fans realised how important and of course how incredibly well made they were, the decisions clicked into place. With their wise and haunting blends of heritage and classical themes and the precise exploration of single notes, this collection is like studying old masters in the dark by candlelight, passing the flame back and forth across the canvas, illuminating and obscuring at the same time.

As I lie drifting off in bed, with ideas wreathing in out of a lightly euphoric post-migraine wrapped skull I smell the embers of Violette Fumée fuming off my wrists. It’s been hours since I applied it and still it holds sway, insistently lachrymose and compelling. Let the stones of the city weep around me. Violette Fumeé affects me so. To wear something this personal, created by Mona for Jeroen with deep love and understanding, with soul and generosity is an honour and sorrowful pleasure. Merci Mona. Merci Jeroen.   

Violette Fumeé launches in September 2103. My review was based on a sample kindly provided by Maison Mona di Orio.

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