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

Wednesday 24 August 2016

Only the Light Moves: ‘Dilettante’ by Hiram Green

‘We went down into the silent garden. Dawn is the time when nothing breathes, the hour of silence. Everything is transfixed, only the light moves.

Leonora Carrington

The word dilettante can often cast a slight pejorative shadow but its original etymology lies in the Latin delactare and Italian dilettare, to delight; hence dilettante, thus signifying someone who delighted, particularly in the arts. It is now used as a casually throwaway term for someone who dabbles or professes an effusive, superficial love of the arts but lacks a true understanding of any one singular form. You know something though… if I had to choose between one respective so-called expert and a ballroom full of gadfly dilettanti; give me the fun-loving, flitting, dilettanti any day. I’ve had my fill of experts. I’d rather have the laughter and hedonistic skimming.

Natural perfumery is divisive; it often seems to cause a schism of olfactive confusion, annoyance and just plain misunderstanding amongst perfume lovers. I will admit that I am not always its biggest fan and often struggle to find scents I like or that suit my senses. But with age, wisdom and illness actually, I have taken it upon myself to incrementally learn more. Now, more than ever, the natural perfumery movement is a vital and powerful part of the contemporary aromatic scene, offering up a fertile and profound mirror of alternatives to synthetics, fixatives and chemicals. It offers perhaps a more complex and raw communion with the natural world, allowing our skin to come into contact with our scented environment that artificial dilutions abstract and obfuscate.

Natural perfumer - Hiram Green

Now, haters are gonna hate, but not all of it is good; some of it is still a tad spoiled in my opinion by an overly simplistic herbaceous strain of foraging, mountain-craft style work, sullied DIY enfleurage, an over reliance of the medicinal leanings of apothecary verdancy. Often the blending is uninspired and blocky, you can discern the materials lying together in the solvent and there is little true sense of assembly. This of course could be the point, I know from the experience of watching perfumers at work how dense and volatile naturals are to work with and controlling dosage and nuance is difficult. Maybe simplicity is the key. Repeated brushes with illness have taught me painful lessons about detaching and treating different parts of myself rather than the undeniable whole. I think reading this back and seeking a little insight from a friend that perhaps the same applies to natural perfumery, examining the agrestal, pure whole rather than focussing on the shards and immediacies. These raw materials were medicine, poison, balm, weapon and magic; their power and inherent life force has never really departed.

I do not in any way hold myself up as an expert in natural aroma assembly, just as someone who spends a lot of time inhaling, sampling and wearing. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask natural perfume to be beautiful, intricate and challenging and there are some incredible perfumers out there creating a whole range of bright, emotional and sensual works that succeed on many levels. As I have sampled more and more in recent months I have come to realise that in many ways natural perfumers are like the miniaturist painters of old, dazzling us with the extraordinary intricacies of realities on a smaller no less beautiful scale. It is a question of adjusting one’s perceptions and also one’s calibrations; reacting to the materials and blending is often clearer, more affirmative and visceral. 

'Blind Woman in Her Room' by Anna Ancher

I still battle a little with my prejudices and that’s just the way it is, but over the past three or four years in particular, through the kindness of perfumers sending me samples and decants to try and discovering new work on my own I have found some exquisite compositions and makers who have altered my perceptions of how I view the sophisticated, cryptic and sometimes arcane world of natural perfumery. I will continue to explore this unique world as repetitive bouts of illness have created resistance and reaction to perfumes I have long had normal familiarity with.

When I struggled with the honestly traumatic aftermath of epiglottitis a number of years ago, my sense of smell was in pieces, I could no longer reliably sniff and identity things, sometimes I was all too aware I was in actual fact inhaling my learned memory of say, cinnamon, jasmine, cedar or vanilla. It was troubling and frustratingly difficult to pin down. I am not the most patient of people, but in this instance I had to wait for the elements to drop slowly back into place on an almost daily basis. This allowed me to almost rebuild or reboot my catalogue of senses if you like. It was here I started to become increasingly aware of the intensity and impact of untainted, raw materials and how their soul for want of a better term might be diluted and muddied in the struggle between verisimilitude and commercial viability.

I don’t really want to get into long explanations and definitions of natural olfaction, there is a lot of information available out there from very reliable sources and practitioners for people to be able to make up their own minds. I would strongly recommend starting with the writings of Mandy Aftel who I mention later on. Strictly speaking all natural perfumery is 100% irreproachable in it’s sourcing; utilising no synthetic chemicals, aromatic material or extenders. (Do bear in mind that animal derived materials such as civet, ambergris and castoreum are technically speaking natural fragrances). The US based Natural Perfumer’s Guild does have an Associates section which ‘…includes supporters of natural perfumery who may use some synthetic fragrance materials…the majority of the Associates do carry all-natural products.

'Young Girl Plucking a Goose' by Anna Ancher

The Guild has only a select number of natural perfumers among its members and these include Guild chairperson and perfumer Anya McCoy of Anya’s Garden Perfumes, JoAnne Bassett Perfumes, Alexandra Balahoutis at Strange Invisible Perfumes, Jennifer Botto at Thorn & Bloom and Rodney Hughes at Therapeutate Perfumes.  The Guild in the US was set up to certify perfumers and if you want to find out more, please follow the link here. The world is full of natural perfumers though, people working all over the world working in their own scented traditions with an abundance of floral, rooty, woody, animalic, waxen, resinous and fumy wonders. It is just a question of you putting some time and effort in and doing your research.

'Essence & Alchemy', '
'Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent'
by Mandy Aftel

I really admire the work and writing of Mandy Aftel, someone who has transformed perceptions of natural blending through her innovative sensual work, historical and practical text and immense generosity of spirit. I read her books a lot and like to have them with me to dip into when I’m feeling uninspired. I have always loved the fact what Mandy was two distinctly differently things before embarking on her scented journey: a weaver and a therapist. Working with natural fibres, spinning and binding, dying with botanically sourced colours and then dealing with the spiritual and emotional well-being of others, listening, striving to understand drama, dislocation and unsettled emotions. Patience and an ability to see a more distant detailed picture, one of stability and cohesion. In her key book Essence & Alchemy A Book of Perfume, first published in 2001, there is a beautiful piece of writing (one among many…):

Natural perfumery materials possess both sap and mystery. They are the concentrated essence of the materials from which they are derived, but they are not reducible to one thing; by their very nature, they are formed from minute traces of various materials which is why Moroccan rose smells different from Bulgarian rose or Egyptian rose, or, for that matter, why Moroccan rose itself varies discernibly from season to season.’

Many natural and botanical perfumers will discuss that the vital life force inherent in raw materials is inhibited and clouded by synthetics and exposure to chemical carriers. I have always believed too that the line and edges between this branch of perfumery lies close in the dark with poisons, love potions, healing drafts, abortificients, hexes and tinctures to cure all manner of ailments. The line throws backward in time to all healers, forgotten wise women, witches, warlocks, cutwives and shamans. It is dangerous, beautiful hoodoo when it works, the essences dazzling, nature mirrored in such detail as to draw salt from the eye. There are some incredibly talented and ethically minded people working out there in the field of natural or botanical perfumery and you must search out and experiment for yourselves.

Wiccan herbs...

I ask you however to bear in mind what is important to you as perfume lovers: the beauty and osmosis of the materials on your skins or your ethical concerns and those of the perfumer or house making the juice. Sometimes, it is just not enough to be environmentally responsible and the perfumes, while aromatically acceptable might not attain the beauty of Vero Kern, Mona di Orio and Arquiste. But something I am learning is that the markers are different and I need to reassess how I inhale, judge and live in natural work. It has been revelatory. I have had to rethink my approach to something I thought I would honestly never really enjoy. I think the time is coming when the best of natural alchemy is yet to come or perhaps more controversially a return to a standard of unadulterated, genuine before 

Alexandra Balhoutis of Strange Invisible Perfumes
Rodney Hughes of Therapeutate Parfuus,
 Jennifer Botto of Thorn & Bloom Perfume

There are natural perfumers creating astoundingly beautiful work that is starting to unsettle the notion of herbaceous, apothecary style botanical perfumery; the level of sophistication is exquisite, lush and honed, haute-naturelle if you like. People like the super talented Jennifer Botto at Thorn & Bloom Perfume whose luscious Birds of Paradise was a 2016 Art & Olfaction Finalist, Rodney Hughes at Therapeutate Parfums in Brooklyn whose motto is ‘INHALE LIFE’, Alexandra Balahoutis’ Strange Invisible Perfumes has a powerful and alluringly odd range of 100% botanically sourced work of which Black Rosette is an outstanding example. In Europe Swiss house Richard Lüscher Britos launched a low-key detailed range of perfumes inspired by the actual map coordinates of the perfume materials’ terroirs. I wrote a piece for the blog on 14˚S 48˚E, a 100% natural perfume created for the brand by perfumer Vero Kern. It is a gorgeous composition of ylang and Madagascan vanilla with nuances of roasted corn. To this illustrious list of natural talent I must add Hiram Green, for me perhaps the most talented of all, he is able to do things with natural materials that seem alchemical and serenely pure. With four perfumes he has demonstrated the quietly luxurious and luminous possibilities of his craft.  

'Moon Bloom' by Hiram Green

I fell in love with Moon Bloom, the tuberose soliflore he launched in 2013; writing about it on the Foxy blog in a piece called The Brilliance of Snow Night Skin, I described it …strong-willed…full of drama, filling the room with brilliant, searching light. It’s creamy chill and sudden waves of lush delight are just amazing. It made me obsessed all over again with tuberose, a fickle, whorish bloom at times, but tempered and transformed by Hiram’s elegant addition of green coconut. This just exploded the cool sensuality, while keeping a rein on the more indolic excesses of the flower’s more overt side. It felt like floral snow, a winter corsage, something you might wear in snow-laden gardens to an enchanted ball. Wearing it again recently I realised how much it glowed, such unctuous boreal beauty.

I had to return to the early work as I prepared for Dilettante. I always do this; it sets everything in perspective. Since I wrote on Moon Bloom, Hiram has very kindly been sending me samples of each new launch, with beautiful little notes in envelopes sealed down in monogrammed wax. Foxy likes the special touches. Moon Bloom was a tough act to follow, it was so well received and I wondered what Hiram would do next. In atypical style he produced Shangri-La, a ghostly chypré that actually seemed to pull the air from the room with its observant sadness. It references James Hilton’s famous novel Lost Horizon, about the search for the fabled Shangri-La and Coty’s 1917 perfume of the same name. I feel too in the Shangri-La reference there is an implication of perfumers still searching for the fabled concept of classical chypré perfumes, lost somewhere back in a hazy olfactive prefect pre-IFRA time.

'Shangri-La' by Hiram Green 

Shangri-La has a wonderful halo of dusted verdigris that you might discover on lost things piled in untouched rooms. Metallic woods, face powder and vintage lipstick. Odd things, phantom touches of time. It smells abandoned, a scent just out of reach, but still a beautiful hazy echo of past chyprés, of shadowed traces in archived flacons, whispers in cellars and corridors of fading once great Houses. Hiram has blended a sense of just ripe peaches and whiffs of pot-pourri; the real definition of pourri, an undertone of rotten flowers that imbues Shangri-La with a melancholy whisper of memento-mori. It is such a striking perfume on skin, that opening burst of citrus, so jubilant, then the chypré mood, the descent through the darkening floral pathway and peachy weather to the ashen oakmoss wreathed in the base like fog. Working within IFRA guidelines and still producing a perfume of this quality is impressive. That Shangri-La is this emotive is testament to Hiram’s ability to read and integrate his poignant materials.

'Voyage' by Hiram Green

Voyage launched in 2015 in a limited edition run of only 250 bottles worldwide. I was kinda shocked smelling this again; I loved it when Hiram sent me the sample but I wasn’t entirely convinced by the Mysore India and Octopussy’s lake Pichola Palace vibe that was suggested in the exotic scent description. It did throw me off a little, so I think I subconsciously shelved my full access to the scent. My Voyage and how it unfurled on my skin were very different. This time round I was really struck by the violent floral gumminess of Voyage despite the fact there are no florals listed in the notes. I think this must the high quality of the amber and perhaps the more honeyed, waxen facets of the vanilla seeping through. To me Voyage is a specific cracked sandalwood screen I remember from a childhood room, handmade; the hinges and carving rudimentary but pleasing to touch. It was the scent buried within the wood I remember most, sweet, molasses varnish and a ghost of naphthalene, a mothball romance. I smell this memory in Voyage mingled with Hiram’s warm plummy amber making for such an odd insistent scent. I wish now I purchased a bottle, it is so lovely and fades with plush and elegant indolence.   

'Dilettante' by Hiram Green

Now we have Dilettante, perhaps Hiram’s finest perfume to date, a dazzling walk into the sensuous arms of a bountiful sun, the air opiate with every delicious facet of orange blossom. Deliriously delightful. All of Hiram’s perfumes seem to be about persuading us to experience natural materials in a singular, lensed way, filtered through Hiram’s own personal epiphany and understanding of the beauty of such lush and revelatory materials. Adherents of the botanical school claim we lose the soul of the plants, their life force as they flail and drown amid synthetics in normal perfumery. Whatever the case, I can sense in Hiram’s work an impression of purity, harmony and luminosity combined with detailed olfaction and a true beauty of intent and belief. The natural aspect of the work is not just a label or ethical enticement, but a cohesive and seductive reckoning of substance and spirit.

The ecstasy of Dilettante is the transubstantiation of the bitter orange blossom tree into its olfactory oblations. It is the perfumed tree of life. Steam distillation of the fragile blossoms produces the creamy golden scent of marmalade-scented neroli, that takes it name from Anne-Marie Orsini, the Italian Princess of Nerola who soaked her kid leather gloves in the orange essence and made the scent fashionable. What remains in the water after the distillation process is almost a ghost reflection of neroli; the loveliest bruising of orange flower water, delicate and cool. Solvent extraction of the blossoms produces orange blossom absolute, a more intensely floral, richer and warmer product with glow and waxen spicy depth. The fruit is bitter, but the cold pressed peel produces an exquisite and complex oil with peppery florality that can add intriguing nuances to compositions when used with imagination and flair. The leaves, twigs and sometimes the small unripe fruit are distilled to produce petitgrain, another unique offering from this bountiful tree. Petitgrain is such a beautiful scent, green, alert, warm and drily citrus. It is often used to flavour curacaos and Grand Marnier. You find the bitter orange described as Bigarade, Séville and Bouquetier. All these orange-tinted pieces form a cohesive seductive whole, like strata of shimmering summer light.  

Orange Blossom....the tree of light...

This tree of light is at the heart of Dilettante; Hiram has used its radiance to elucidate and illuminate the careful fragilities of our days. Light may banish shadows, but its glare can reveal hidden truths. I sense such manifold beauty at work in Dilettante, I find myself moved by the intensity of the Hiram’s design. Such beauteous intent. It is as if he has cast golden nets to enthral and gather us to him, dizzy on the scented magic rising from our skins. The twist and turn of gummy, textured, bittersweet and spicy orange is mesmerising. The wandering from heat to shade and back again, the imagined moments of rubbing one’s fingers over hanging sullen blossom and extending fingertips for a lover to inhale. These things are electrifyingly woven into Dilettante’s careful errant ways.

Just as it sweet though there is judicious balance with the use of petitgrain, the essence of vaporised twigs and leaves, perhaps the ghosts of immature fruit, all lending an underlying trail of subtle skank. Playful in tone, just enough to raise a brow and speed a heart. The conventional triangular structures of perfumery have never really felt comfortable when applied to Hiram’s work as it means the high quality materials float on silken grounds that feel meticulously prepared.

There is a sense of immense refinement and vigilant application of technique in Hiram’s approach to natural perfumery. The notes and accords are applied like daubs of light in darkened room to allow glorious expression of their potential. The flow and connective bonds between the various incarnations of bitter orange are seamless and pure. In Dilettante the palette of bitter orange oil, leafy petitgrain and the honeyed sulk of blossom mingle with graceful sunlit affinity. I sometimes find with natural perfumery, the blending can be off, edges jar and the materials show their true state a little too willingly. Hiram has mastered his craft magnificently. All is smooth and seemingly effortless which demonstrates how hard he has worked to get to this stage of beauty in his work.

'Hip Hip Hurrah!' by Peder Sevein Kroyer
A portrait of the Skagen Group
at their festivities

As soon as I first inhaled Dilettante I imagined art, Impressionist art to be more precise. A few other reviewers have mentioned a similar emotion; it’s the dappled movement of sunshine through the leaves of the bitter orange tree that suggest this. But whatever the reason it’s hard to shake, once the idea settles in your head. My associations went slightly unconventionally with art from Denmark, where the light is far removed from the sultry cicada rhythms of southern France and the brittle blue and white tightness of Breton and Norman light. I like the detached, coolness of Scandinavian art and the Danish contribution to Impressionism is often overlooked. The Skagen School of painters based on the northern most tip of Jutland produced work of selvedge beauty, suffused with that very particular Nordic sea light, which shimmers like a dream, cool, aloof and enigmatic.

Anna Ancher 1859-1935
(photo  by Frederik Riise)

For me Anna Ancher (Aug 1859-Apr 1935) was the stand out painter of the Skagen colony, she was the only woman and actually the only one of the group who had been born and grown up in the area. Her father Erik Andersen Brødum owned the Brødums Hotel, an inn and merchants shop in Skagen. Anna studied painting for three years at the Vilhelm Kynn College of Painting and Drawing in Copenhagen during the winters of 1875-1878 and she also studied in Paris at the atelier of French symbolist master and maestro Puvis de Chavanne. In 1880 she married fellow painter Michael Ancher and they became the warm focal heart of the Skagen group. The quality of light encouraged an en plein air approach to art, a contradiction to the more traditionalist art doctrines being taught in the art schools. The colony attracted Swedish and Norwegian artists as well as writers, composers and thinkers.

Anna Ancher was unique in her freedom to paint and express herself amid the artists of the Skagen School at a time when women were not even permitted as members to the esteemed Royal Danish Academy of Fine Art. She is considered by many to be a pioneering Nordic painter of light and shadow, her work is lit with silent joy and suffused reverie. Skagen was for the artists who lived there a northern mirror of southern France. There exists in Demmark the concept of hygge; the word itself is virtually untranslatable. Pronounced heurgha, it is a very unique idea of homely snugness. 


However hygge extends beyond food, candles, clothes and rugs to a cultural state of planning of the home, textures, the use of light, the beauty of simple neutralities, warmth and accepted comforts. Hygge is found in these Skagen works, in the fall of light on skin and wood, on beaches and sand. It is the simple asking of contentment. I found it a fascinating idea and one that was hard to throw aside as I delighted in the slow beauty of Dilettante.

'Interior With the Painter's Daughter Helga Sewing'
by Anna Ancher

One of the main differences between Anna and her fellow Skagen painters was Anna’s use of internal light; she bought the light inside. The men depicted outdoor scenes, agriculture, fishing, labour; Anna’s light warmed the skin and faces of children, mothers, sisters and servants, womenfolk bent to task or at rest from household occupation, weary in rooms that speak of patterns, repetition and chores. So despite all the talk of Skagen’s quality of light and the undeniable effect this had on the painters, it is interesting that much of Anna’s work is contemplative in tone, the diffusive light lending her rooms a supple religiosity, rays falling on hands stitching, mending, plucking or merely at rest. It is this internal strangeness of light that I find in Dilettante, effects of olfactory light on skin, an exploration of how light works inside a room and in Hiram’s work how the natural world of aroma manifests on our skin to produce a world of romantic, illustrative effects. It is of course also a portrait of the orange tree, in so many ways a perfumed harbinger of light. It should be aglow such is its bright and sensuous bounty.

'Sunshine in The Blind Woman's Room'
By Anna Ancher

I have mentioned in a number of blog posts my antipathy for neroli and orange based perfumes; their ability to trigger my migraines is just a continual painful hazard. Yet Dilettante leaves me soothed and astonished. The hours pass beautifully by and I realise how much I have missed out by reacting so vociferously to other neroli/bigarade compositions. The only scent I have adored with narcotic doses of orange blossom was Séville à L’Aube by L’Artisan Parfumeur, an unnerving collaboration between perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour and scent writer Denyse Beaulieu. I reviewed it back in August 2012 when it perhaps only going to be a limited edition; but it’s still in production today albeit in the brand’s bland Byredo/Killian/Aesop dull new design configuration. Denyse wrote a book called The Perfume Lover; parts are very good indeed, parts are wanting. What is undeniable however is Denyse’s unerring ability to tell a story. Séville à L’Aube is a tale of skin, sex, indiscretion and the accompanying olfactory and sensory environment translated by Bertrand with emotive and critical input form Denyse into perfume. Denyse’s memory of Séville during Holy Week, being kissed under the falling scent of the orange blossom, skin on skin, arousal, cigarettes, the scent of incense from the swollen churches, beeswax candles, the sunlight catching gold votive vessels; all of this was woven into a scent of the loveliest, dirtiest danger by Betrand. It is one of his best works, blending the pheronomic beeswax with costus and the local Sevillian Luisieri lavender, a sweeter, darker note than we are used to in scent. Amid this mix is the indolic, heady swoon of the orange blossom, laying down like flesh to be loved. It is not a scent for the faint of heart. It marks you, people will turn and angle toward you, but as an exemplar of orange blossom and its incandescent fire and sensual bloom, it is worth the risk.

Foxy's Séville à L'Aube by L'Artisan Perfumer
& 'The Perfume Lover' by Denyse Beaulieu

In my mind Dilettante is just as astonishing; a profoundly sensual scent, just quietly so. Like all of Hiram’s perfumes, the linger and anchorage of notes is sublime. There is one painting by Anna Ancher of a young woman in a black dress inside a house, her back is to us. She is perhaps a wife or a housekeeper, her golden hair piled neatly up; a white lace collar sits over the black.  We watch through a dark green door as she arranges flowers, large yellow, white and red blooms in vases for the house. Some flowers lay sleeping on the shelf. Key things draw our eye; the shadow on the woman’s beautiful neck, the vivid shade of the sun flower heads as they droop under their own weight, the delicacy of the stems pointing towards us from those slumbering flowers. 

But most of it is Anna’s sublime handling of the Skagen light flooding in from the left of the frame, illuminating like warm, shifting weather. The floor and wall seem alive with light, shadows on the wall cast images like clouds around the flower arranger’s face. The differing tones of ochre, gold, saffron, straw, maize and stil de grain are illuminated and enriched by flare and warmth. This scene for me reeks of Dilettante, the layers of carefully constructed orange oil and petitgrain. I can almost smell it on the back of her neck, on her wrists as she clips and tidies the flowers, occasionally raising her hand to inhale the pulse point where the orange flower has settled and gently bloomed.

As Anna Ancher was a painter of light, I think we must accept that Hiram Green as well as being an expert natural perfumer is also a painter of olfactory radiance and revelation. His work to date has been unconventionally burnished with a different kind of beauty; one lit with dedication to his art and a desire I think to transmute his surroundings. Each scent so far has expressed different aspects of this, but Dilettante is perfection, a perfume of uncommon beauty that allows you to walk in a kind of rare olfactive light, listening to the sound of your heart break quietly in the heat of a dazzling day.

For more information on Hiram Green please click on the link below:

A special Foxy thank you to Drew for reading this piece for me and shining light into my thoughts while I was writing... Love & gratitude.  

©The Silver Fox 24 August 2016


  1. Yet another beautiful and written from the heart review. Thank you Mr Fox x