Monday, 16 February 2015
A Haunting of Absence – ‘Saffron Rose’ & The Black Label Collection by Grossmith London
“Now that you're there, where everything is known,tell me: What else lived in that house besides us?
I have been wearing Grossmith fragrances since 2005 when this most venerable and historic of English perfume houses was resurrected carefully and reverentially through a fluke of genealogical research by Simon Brooke, a former chartered surveyor. With the aid of family, the guidance of perfume consultant and all round shiny scented guru Roja Dove (and his connections at Robertet) Simon and his wife Amanda invested savings, abandoned a regular income and devoted painstaking amounts of time to what must have seemed like an utterly bonkers venture. But… family Brooke have succeeded magnificently, nay, regally in re-orchestrating a truly delightful vintage line for the modern age, carefully walking an expensive and luxurious line between accessibility and profit. A genuine phantom of the original house haunts the contemporary line and yet the scents themselves combine past tastes and modern yearning for all things heritage with resolute and stylish aplomb.
Old fragrances die all the time. Trends and tastes change. These things we know. It doesn’t make it right or any easier to accept, but sometimes we have to move on and simply just remember. Some vanish forever but occasionally it seems, some are worth saving. Simon discovered he was the great great-grandson of John Grossmith and set about researching not only his own family connections but as much as he could about the Grossmith perfume heritage. The Brookes featured in the entertaining BBC series entitled Perfume from 2011. They were in episode 3 entitled The Smell of the Future. YouTube it. Well worth watching. Worth it for the sight of Roja Dove wandering his glittering emporium, polishing crystal and glass with what looks like part of his voluminous silken MC Hammer ensemble. But their quite passionate and heartfelt dedication to the family story is eloquent and terribly British.
I don’t want to go into too much detail about the whole ‘I discovered I was a Grossmith story…’ here, it’s has been told better by others, particularly by Simon himself in this delightful piece called Scent by Descent in the Telegraph in 2013: bit.ly/10ztppN
Grossmith was originally founded in 1835 and renowned for its lush and sultry overtly exotic Victorian vision of the orient; hyper-feminine florals and a playful yet accurate capture of the then contemporary zeitgeist of aromatic mores. Exotica was sexy business – Indian spices, booming trade routes, sensual art and oriental objets, geisha girls, Hammam baths, mysterious veiled women, the promise of bedroom allure wrapped in a haze of bottled musks, powder and heady floral desire. All rather at odds with the actual acutely patriarchal steadfast and brutal sense of dubious morality in place across the empire. As always the disparity between private desire and public face was a violent one; hypocrisy was a convenient mask.
What sets the Grossmith story apart I think is the tremendous courage and unwavering belief in the realism and accuracy of the line. The first three perfumes to appear: Hasu-no-Hana (1888), Phul-Nana (1891) and Shem-em-Nessim (1906) were appropriately rich and fantastical versions of the successful originals. The Brookes bravely gave Robertet free rein budget-wise in terms of the quality of the materials needed to re-create these complex vintage formulae. This must have felt a little like skydiving and praying so damn hard your parachute opened and you landed without shattering every bone in your body.
It paid off though; this resolutely retro trio have sold well in a variety of luxury outlets but especially in the money-drenched, scent-obsessed markets of the Middle East. In fact, part funding for the stunning Baccarat bottles from original designs, originally commissioned for the Série de Luxe range in 1919, came from the royal families of Oman and Bahrain. The set of three bottles etched in gold will cost you approximately £23,000 and they sell out continually. This combination of rare exclusive original and heritage luxury tied to perfumes of very high sensual quality has made Grossmith an unusual success story in today’s somewhat contemptible and disposable society.
Despite the oriental exuberance of aromas and the distinctly expensive whiff of aloofness to the Grossmith perfumes, it is in fact a house of great warmth and shimmering addictive beauty. These are adult scents for perfume lovers who want to take their time, explore a sense of time and elegance seemingly long gone. They are challenging, heavy, dense, contradictory, winsome, weird and ancient. But my goodness they are alluring and oddly wild. Like the original era that saw their first incarnations, the scents harbour layers of swirling sensuality and turbulent fiction beneath flowers, lowered gazes and still waters.
When I first sampled the original triptych I was pretty mesmerised. I spent years dipping into scents like that, lustrous with brothel age, corsetry and velveteen exotic allure. But somehow I wasn’t quite prepared to wear them; they were little too full-bodied for me at the time, steeped as I was in aroma-chemical minimalism and swathes of smoky indie Americana. My porny collision with Vero Kern’s incendiary Onda reignited my (barely) dormant obsession with carnality and Hasu-no-Hana’s Japanese inspired lotus lily scent utterly seduced me. A truly ravishing and melancholy chypré with the most exquisite blending of bone dry aromatics (oakmoss, vetiver) mixed with bergamot, bitter orange, rose, jasmine, ylang-ylang, iris on a very pronounced and provocative bed of patchouli, cedarwood, sandalwood, and tonka bean. It floats on skin like leaves cast on rippling water, the notes, just turbulent enough to cause effect and glint. The floral blending is beautiful; tumbling petals, a dash of moonlight and dry night air. It is not an easy scent, the complexity is deliberate and a little challenging at first. The quality is delicious and I’m sure finer than the original, more robust somehow, but it’s hard to tell, the accuracy of antique olfaction is shockingly good.
It took me several bemused and disconcerted wearings to really appreciate how refined and perversely elegant the Grossmith scents are. They may smell gorgeously rich and sophisticated, but there is to my nose something else going on, a buried sense of salacious suggestion, whiff of skanky echo and unwashed skin in the drying powder. The undressed body and odour of boudoir is never too far away from the expensive application of rose, orris, supple leather, creamy vanilla and exotic faraway woods.
This buried subversion is important, that the Victorian hankering for kink and erotic adventurism dressed up as cultural expansion still threads its oddly comforting way through these thought-provoking and desirable perfumes.
I lay one day on my bed, half-hit by late summer sun, anointed in the possessed stillness of Hasu-no-Hana and imagined a later life, retired to a room made of woods and cinnabar, I’m smoking cherry pipe tobacco in a foxy Meerschaum, the windows are draped in eternal velvet and I’m not sure I care if there’s a door or not. Books smell of sweet rooty powder, air smells of frozen blooms. I realised as the sun moved slowly over tired skin, I could happily live forever in the plush eccentricities of Grossmith.
I was intrigued to see what Simon and Amanda would do next. They had access to over 300 formulae thanks to a chance meeting with a distant Grossmith relation who had detailed ledgers packed full of olfactive detail, so would they continue down the vintage resurrection road? It appeared so for a while.
Betrothal appeared in 2011 to celebrate the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. It was originally created in 1893 to celebrate the impending nuptials of Princess May of Teck and the Duke of York. Resolutely traditional in appearance, Betrothal was a deceptively unsettling floral bouquet with an underlying sensation that the flowers clutched nervously in the pale white hands of a bride have begun to turn, wilt and die. Not my favourite from the line but a strong statement nonetheless.
2014 saw the release of Sylvan Song, a new green and woody composition by Céline Guivarc’h, exclusively for Fortnum & Masons in London with whom Grossmith have a particular affinity and mutually appreciative relationship. I sampled the line there once on a visit to London on a rubbish rain-soaked day. Normally I am not overly impressed by the sales and service in Fortnums, it has declined in recent years, but the young man who talked me through the Grossmith line that day was wonderful; he genuinely understood the appeal of the line and told the story with interest, not just as a marketing or sales hook. There are many so-called vintage brands out there coasting on somewhat dubious provenance, dates fudged, facts altered to fit the sales package. Grossmith is the real deal and inhaling them as you listen is very part of this experience.
Mark Behnke over at Colognoisseur has reviewed Sylvan Song beautifully after sampling it at Pitti. To read his review, please click on the link: bit.ly/1tQRKSE
In 2012 however, there was a surprise. Four new Grossmith perfumes appeared entitled the Black Label Collection. The beautiful packaging by the one of the Brooke’s daughters Eleanor, an architect graduate who works for her parents part-time combines the feel of Victorian mourning stationary with the bleak austerity of modernist mono chromatics.
There are four fragrances, Amelia (named for Simon’s grandmother), Golden Chypre, Saffron Rose and Floral Veil, all original formulations but still retaining a distinctly haunted vintage halo. This quartet really caught me in a séance of olfactory wonder. Trevor Nichols has created three of the four - Amelia, Golden Chypré and my favourite Saffron Rose, with the honour of composing Floral Veil going to Jean-Marie Santantoni.
Amelia is a strange shy floral, akin to the understated woman whose beauty is underplayed and quietly glowing in a room of glaring tone and artificial enhancement. Sure, the gaudy blooms would be noticed first, but the wrong kind of light and brash charm soon force these wrecked creatures to lose their pall. Then the more subversive allure of Amelia comes into its own, her role of wallflower played to perfection. Tendrils of osmanthus and neroli set a delicate yet important scene for the luxuriously supple triumvirate of rose, peony and jasmine. The drydown is stately and discreet, the floral notes amplifying with lovely, measured time.
Golden Chypré is a vivid and sun-drenched re-imagining of 30s style animalic chyprés, something Gloria Swanson might have worn as she rolled lasciviously toward a terrified camera. It has a smudged tobacco edge, sweet and addictive, with a lovely spool of heliotrope echoing through it. Spices are something Grossmith do very well; they smell defined and correct but blend seamlessly within the formulations. The use of leftfield nutmeg is perfect here, adding depth and a creamy coffee-like effect as it mixes with oily cardamom and rose. Golden Chypré could be the name for a high quality rolling tobacco in fact, such is the sensuality and warmth of this earthy composition. I like the final stages, dry and wintry, last leaves of trees, low sun in skies, burning copper light on empty streets. While not exactly a full-blown traditional chypré, Golden Chypré is in fact a reflection in a gilded oaken eye and all the better for it.
Floral Veil is my least favourite.. not that it is any way a poor perfume at all, in fact the vanilla orchid at the heart of the scent has radiant moreish hothouse weather. No, my problem is the geranium lying in the top; it’s an immovable malachite force that just irritates me. It’s a note when combined with rose, as it is here that I actively dislike in floral scents. I’m aware the melding creates a potent and realistic rendering of wet garden roses, oozing summer perfumes, but not for me I’m afraid, just too twee and Miss Marple-esque. Floral Veil disappears quickly; the cashmeran in the drydown smells coldly bland and plasticised. It’s a pity, because for just a moment, the burst of ivory floral in the middle is truly sublime.
Best till last. Saffron Rose. This is Grossmith’s nod to the ubiquitous oud trend, but my oh my…. what a masterly Wildean nod it is. The whiff of sweet iniquity beneath the buttoned up propriety of everyday wandering skin. This complex and seductive scent is everything I want from an oud/rose combination – warmth, surprise, elasticity, transparency, eroticism and a sense of transgression. It is for me the best scent in the Grossmith house because of its shimmering violence and ambiguity. Trevor Nichols who created it, has used the classical tenets of stuffy Edwardian exotica and literally fucked it full of spice and animalic resins. The myrrh smells filthy, added to the intense plantation aroma of cinnamon, the rose begins to swell and palpate like a desperate heart.
For all of its thrashing drama, Saffron Rose is vintage Grossmith through and through, a homage to so many men and women whose lives were lived in secret, the dangerous duality of Edwardian sexuality, craving adventure, illicit horizons, yet bound by conventions, mores, clothing and societal gaze. It has a whiff of the unexpected, lost and strayed. Tobacco and woods lend the later stages the most poignant whispered drydown that is hard to ignore. You can almost stand and hear the embers pop and fall.
The thing I love about Grossmith is the tireless and genuine dedication to time gone by. There is no jolt of fakery. Perhaps it is to do with the high quality ingredients or attention to vintage structure. After all, Simon and Amanda have a lot of recipes and detail to pull on now. I think though the often-eerie recreation of past olfaction is a correct understanding of what we want from re-orchestrated heritage scent-making; a need to wear something that suggests to our senses and dormant genetics a way of perfumery that was once deeply emotive and private.
I’ve had a recurring image in my head since I started planning this piece on Saffron Rose and working my through the various samples and one generous decant I have. I see Saffron Rose’s haunting ambiguity as akin to spirit photography, the kind so popular in the Victorian era as so many desperately bereaved sought answers from beyond the grave and so many others preyed mercilessly upon them. I am quite obsessed by old images of watchful hovering spirits and mediums vomiting up so-called ectoplasm. They are a fascinating visual testament to an age when despite huge advances in science, industry and medicine people might still be fooled by middle aged women in booths regurgitating fine-spun lace that glowed in the darkness of church halls.
These Black Collection Grossmith scents have something of the haunted about them, an unsettling echo of beautiful absence that makes them very intriguing to wear. They are the olfactory equivalent of vintage portraiture with the lingering ghostly smear, the shadowed shawl and the awareness of melancholy eyes in a distant doorway. This is how I feel Grossmith have interpreted the historical referencing without resorting to pastiche and slavish note for note reconstruction.
Each time I spray Saffron Rose, I half expect voices to whisper in the room behind me or to catch another face, just slightly in my battered vintage octagonal bathroom mirror. Foolish thinking really, but such is the beauty of these old style perfumes that you can’t help seeing and inhaling ghosts.
©The Silver Fox
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