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

Sunday 12 March 2017

A Dream Of Berti: A Fleur de Piel – Macerations, Distillations & Enfleurage (Interlude I)

‘I would choose the tulips reckless way of going;
Whose petals answer light, altering by fractions
From closed to wide, from one through many perfections,
Til wreched, flamboyant, strayed beyond recall,
Like flakes of fire they piecemeal fall.’

(From ‘Deaths of Flowers’ by Edith Joy Scovell)

This is the first I hope in a series of slightly different fragrance focussed essays shorter in length called Interludes looking at some of the fragrance collections, samples, creators and perfumers I have been sent and acquired. I don’t necessarily want to dedicate one of more detailed aromatics biogs to, but I also don’t want to miss out on an opportunity to perhaps share some intriguing olfaction and scented people with you. The larger, longer pieces take up a lot of time with research and just the wordsmithery. I also create 90% of the images and this takes time and effort.  I don’t really want to start going into too much detail about how I chose the scented work for the longer essays, but I guess put simply I have to have a strong emotional reaction to the work and there are certain houses, noses, creative directives olfactive artists and houses to whom I am fiercely loyal. It’s not to say their work always dazzles and moves me, but… I am more often than not drawn wonderfully and happily into their seductive, professional orbits.

I would also like to use Interludes to talk about other things, subjects connected to scent, perhaps film, science, music, mood. Lets see how it goes. I just wanted to open a slightly different line of communication and try to leave less time between the longer essays.

Image courtesy
A Fleur de Piel Instagram

The first of these is something a little different, a portrait of a nascent perfumer, Alberto Fernàndez, or Berti to his friends, a young man soaked in redolent fleshy nature, choosing to create precious amounts of scent with traditional distillation and most beautifully of all, the fatty, waxen stillness of enfleurage. This old-fashioned, time-consuming and repetitive technique of laying down delicate blooms to die and expire their scents into trays of odourless wax or fat has long been abandoned by perfume houses. It is expensive and the yield makes the process counterproductive yet perversely glorious. As they die the flowers need to be rotated, i.e. changed regularly to keep the exuding of essentials oils continuing into the fats and waxes. But a number of small artisan perfumers have resurrected this slow, exquisite technique. The resulting enfleurage pomade is further washed in alcohol to entice the odours to migrate. This technique produces essential oils of great beauty and intensity. It was originally only used with delicate blooms such as jasmine, tuberose and violet that were considered too fragile to survive more traditional steam distillation techniques.

The phantom joy of enfleurage
Image courtesy 
A Fleur de Piel Instagram

Now due to the huge interest in artisanal techniques and craft perfumery on the Internet, more and more people are interested in trying things at home. Enfleurage seems pretty, but it is hard work and demands skill and devotion from the person to do it. I think there has to be an endgame in mind with the final product and an intricate understanding of the types of blooms to be used. Orange blossom, lilacs, hyacinth, jasmine, tuberose, violet, magnolia, orchid and camellias are just a few that lend themselves to this haunting death by wax technique, giving up their scented souls so we can smell like them…

Jasmine traces
Image courtesy 
A Fleur de Piel Instagram

On Berti’s beautifully curated Instagram there are a number of enfleurage images, his blooms slumbering to their quiet deaths in aromatic chassis.  I’ve seen and inhaled the process over the years ; it’s quite eerie actually, mostly done on a small scale now, which is why it is ideally suited to home or cottage production.

Woman preparing the enfleurage chassis
Image - Courtesy of Fritzache Bothers Inc, New York

 Years ago it was carried out on quite the scale, flowers laid on specially prepared sheets of glass or chassis as they were known, the heads carefully monitored and changed at regular intervals usually by women.  Done correctly the results correctly patiently yield an essential oil with an ephemeral clarity, the shimmering anima of the flower as it were. Whether this is due to the process itself or the psychology of observing and participating in the process; well that is a discussion for another time. It is a process Berti considers ‘the perfect medium between art and science’.

Loaded enfleurage chassis

Berti and I know each other from working some years ago for the same company, me in Edinburgh, him in London, Chelsea to be more precise. He left to go and live in Barcelona before the brand become brutally toxic, sold out and from a perfumery point of view, quite insignificant.  I lingered only to crash out last year. He was always obsessed with the architecture and body of scent when I knew him, one of those talented savants we were lucky to have in the brand that wanted to do more than just stand and sell. He is immensely artistic, a creature of fluidity whose fearless love of the senses would have made him I think successful whatever he had decided to do. For now, it is natural fragrance and harvesting his surroundings, obsessively working with roots, petals, stems and blooms to create his own alchemical, floral, intensive world. One where orris, hyacinth, beeswax, jasmine, oakmoss, roses, peony, peel, narcissi, rind and twigs become vapour, pomade, oil, nectar and dream.

He messaged me recently and asked me if I’d like to sample a few of the perfumes he had created. Of course I said yes, send me something you think I would like and vials of Al Zahir, Ola, Tardor and E Lys duly arrived. I had to wait a while as a truly appalling dose of flu stripped me of my senses and I was deeply immersed in the world of Mandy Aftel and I didn’t really want to distract myself from that.  As soon as I posted that I returned to Berti.

Ola was made for Berti’s friend Aleks Cicha, an architect and designer and has all the swooning vivacity of fully gifted roses. Wearing it, I felt as if I was being offered something deeply personal and I was to close my eyes and press petals to my eyes like a lover’s fingers, fingertips stained a rubicund blush. There is a minted pepper note on card that is not quite so apparent at first on skin taking longer to emerge. It is the beauteous powdered soul of rose, violaceous and rebellious that truly delights me on skin.

Rose image ©TFS

I always think boys smell delicious in roses.  Despite being made for one of Berti’s girlfriends and being undeniably feminine Ola has a bitter jamminess and nuzzle-plush muskiness that are defiantly ambiguous on my skin as the notes settle.  In this pretty fade there is just the echo of vintage sap, an edge of metallic stain amid the lush scent of gardens rolling in through open windows. Naturals and distilled roses formulated like this can often smell slightly unstable and overtly ephemeral as if they might suddenly just vanish.  I’m not sure I worry about this actually; roses have always seemed to me a blessing, imbuing my flesh with desire and Ola is beautiful delicate wearing.  I feel like a friend has visited and departed, never to return but the scent of their skin seems to linger in the air.

Al Zahir is a lovely evocation of orange blossom, a note many of you will know by now I have history with. In concentrated doses, neroli, distilled from the orange blossoms triggers terrible migraine attacks for me. Sadly the higher quality the absolute the more violent my reaction can be. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does, boy do I need darkness, heat compresses and analgesics. Birch tar does the same. It’s a question usually of how the material is blended and maceration.  I have slowly come to like a more full-bodied indolic orange blossom scent, Bertrand Duchaufour’s Séville à l’Aube for example, costus, beeswax, Luisieri lavender and a glittering golden orange blossom note or Daniela Andrier-Roche’s beautiful Knot for Bottega Veneta, lush citrus notes thrown over the orange blossom and white rose. Séville.. is erotic recollection and Knot is wistful wondering.

Bitter Orange Image (stock apped by TSF) 

When orange blossom is used well and with intelligence it seems to have an ability to arouse the senses. Al Zahir fall errs firmly on the wistful side of orange blossom play; I was surprised at how much my skin soaked it up and radiated back its approval, caressing the blossom over a slightly sticky rose and base of powdered woods. What remained was a dusting of mellow scented nudity due to Berti’s uses of naturals and particularly his enfleurage techniques.  You can almost smell the transparency and ghostliness of the absolutes and concretes.  The method gives the materials a vital echo of actual nature.

His Instagram for A Fleur de Piel is artistically curated, the images reflecting his processes, sources and inspirations. Plus glimpses of Berti and his close-knit world of like-minded friends and fellow creatives.  He was always artistic and questioning but his dreamy account provides a lush and personal window into his heartfelt and painstaking machinations.  A labour of aromatic love, his desire to include morsels of himself in his work is evident from the images. Berti is beautiful and his coterie of complimentary companions weave in and out of his life of scent, love, hair, pouting and music.  It seems only right to be honest that he is making scent this way, meticulously, yet somehow with flourish and an organic, natural connection to his surroundings. Some people seem a little freer than others; it’s the way it is.

Al Zahir takes it time to settle. I always test side by side on mouillettes and skin; card first just in case my foxy migraine senses start a-thrumming.  On the blotter and on fabric actually, Al Zahir retains an intriguing broken green foliage facet, something a little more vegetal like sweet artichoke with a touch of turned earth still clinging to it.  On skin is it much more romantic and soft, the orange blossom creamy and less pungent but painting itself like skin upon beauteous skin, glowing in warm summer sun. The rose is shy and only emerges from the woozy buzz of Sevillian warmth as the orange blossom begins to gently caramelise; like realising suddenly that the boy or girl you have known for years has been the revelatory lovelight you needed all along.

Lily (image ©TSF)

Berti knows how much I love the scent of white lilies, so he included a sample of E Lys in the vials he sent.  My first impression was a slideshow of clovey, pure images, Carrera marble, starched shirt collars, the architecture of nun’s wimples and cold rippled wax.  White on white on white, I love a lily soliflore. I know they are divisive: sensual, indolic, funereal, indolic, ethereal and symbols of utter purity or petals of death.  E Lys is a gorgeous rush of achromic bloom.  For many years Penhaligon’s Lily & Spice by Mathilde Bijaoui was one of my signature perfumes, an elegant mix waxen flower with saffron and a weird white pepper note that smelled like dry sand. The composition always had a campheraceous edge that worked I found incredibly addictive.  The brand launched it appallingly with an overtly sexual campaign and the packaging was terrible. The staff generally sold it badly, failing to understand it’s singular appeal and it was discontinued.  A pity as it was perhaps one of the only offerings from this beleaguered brand in recent years with any genuine sense of originality, along with Tra La La, Sartorial, Orange Blossom and Ostara (also axed), noticeably all Bertrand Duchaufour fragrances.

Baiser Volé by Cartier
Image ©TSF

My other beloved lily soliflore is Baiser Volé, Mathilde Laurent’s sublime essay in crystalline ikebana for Maison Cartier. I have gone through umpteen bottles of this and the unctuous Baiser Volé Essence De Parfum that ramps up the vanilla so the lily formulation has a rich halo effect. I never tire of the original’s salicylates-in-glass beauty; Laurent places her lilies in a simple, clear-cut vase, facets cut with care and sleek attention so that the gathered stems and curling leaves are refracted and distorted above in the mote-flecked air.  The fleshy, curvilinear petals emit their controversial reek of erotic allure.  I will never tire of Baiser Volé and the flankers, while arguably unnecessary explore the lilyform theme with skill, adding to rather than degrading the classic beauty of Mathilde’s iconic original.

Berti’s E Lys is bone cold; a quiet altarpiece floral, placed reverentially on skin as a precious grasp of flowers might be laid upon the earth over a departed loved one. Much as I adore the scent of the flowers I can’t have them in the apartment, as they are poisonous to my darling cats, so I make do with perfumed facsimiles, a different kind of sexy poison I guess. The blur of white and green, waxen bloom and stemmy bitterness is beautiful; for me any good lily scent should perturb as well as narcotise. E Lys has this, I think, due to Berti’s relentless preoccupation with enfleurage techniques and painstaking affinage of his very small batch work. They smell real, very real, a tangled, weather-lit echo of his external environment but also his operational minutiae.  There are moments when this reality is just a little too bare and exposed, the notes don’t quite gather the way they should, they sit together like close friends in the open air rather than abandoned lovers, entwined in the smudged light of a candle-lit room.

Too many lily formulae flirt with that camphor/mothball effect I mentioned earlier or overdo the supporting cast of jasmine, ylang and vanilla. E Lys is quite dry in mood, playing down the often-gossipy clove/carnation odour that just raises its sleepy head here. As I drifted off to sleep, I realised the thing I liked the most of all in this lovely lily soliflore was the scent of smeared barely yellow pollen dropped on aloof pink-tinged petals, I could almost inhale it off such weary skin, a mix of soothing empty chambers and winking devilment.

The final perfume in the quartet Berti sent me was Tardor, his take on the floral chypré genre with a ghostly leather shadow cast across it, tinged with slightly damp regret.  There is a sudden rush of classic Dior, Dioressence especially in the mossy verdancy and I assume (along with the visual proof from images on his Instagram) some distilled evernia prunastri or oakmoss; its lichen sepia tones are unmistakably doleful and vintage. Roses, patchouli, lavender and maybe a whoosh of mulchy galbanum or hyacinth exalt the chypré mood, sparkling around a white floral haze in the centre. The rose is a little too overbearing as time moves on and that glorious mossy overture recedes a little too much as if afraid of the rhythm at a jazz age party. I did like the whiff of leaf decay and dust as it faded, like someone opening a window and suddenly autumn rolling in over the sill into the once warm room.  Chypré structures are notoriously hard to nail, oakmoss is of course prohibitively regulated and even if you are just making small batches for yourself and friends with no intention to sell you still have to be careful with calibration.  On card and skin, Tardor develops a soapy, rosemary-like intensity that was pretty strong, more so on skin that I found quite difficult to handle.  It was my least favourite of the four Berti sent, but that oakmoss start is super.

A lack of structure does let Berti down in places; the notes and effects err delightfully but with a gauche sense of olfactive spatial awareness.  Like everything in life though, learning curves are everywhere; it is a question of reading and weathering their idiosyncrasies. They are undoubtedly delicious but tricky materials he has chosen to work with.  On the one hand you don’t want to compromise the natural effervescence and charm of the absolutes etc but in order to achieve a deeper, truer sense of beauty one has to impose a strict sense of order on formulae in order to avoid that wandering, vague hand in hand construction where the notes seem pretty and side by side, but are too easily identifiable. No real sense of coalescence or harmony.

Raw materials
Beeswax, oakmoss, orris root

Image courtesy 
A Fleur de Piel Instagram

Berti has really just started on this journey and some of his self-crafted materials are feral and seductive. He has chosen a difficult way, any form of mass production and repeat ordering will be very difficult and he will have ensure he charge any future clients, if that what he chooses to do, the commensurate amount to justify his work.  The materials he is working with bring their own set of beautiful values, demands and personalities to his aromatic palette, beaker and flask. I asked Berti some questions before I started this piece just to let him know what kind of essay I would be putting together, about future plans, solidifying his ideas etc, he said:

I really enjoy the process of distillation and enfleurage because you are able to literally transfer the essence provided by nature and preserve it indefinitely. To me, the scent of flowers such as jasmine, it is an otherworldly gift and to be able to capture it yourself and then put it into a perfume is as good as it gets. ‘

This Interlude piece is my way of introducing you all to Berti and his processes; you should follow progress on his A Fleur de Piel Instagram page. He has plans to consolidate and clarify his fragrance formulae and create a website, something he doesn’t have just now.  He does already have a number of fragrances, as he is always busy making things for friends, something he loves doing. Working with artists on olfactive installations is a another future plan and he is working towards the idea od running a workshop at his studio where people can learn see him in action but also more importantly learn the skills of distillation and enfleurage.  I suggest for now if you want to contact him or say just hello, follow his IG and do so through that. Depending on cost etc and where you are, he is happy to send out samples for people to try.   

One of Berti's distillation classes (lavender...)
Image courtesy 
A Fleur de Piel Instagram

I have been sampling so much since last summer, making up I guess for all the time I lost to illness.  I think now I honestly inhale and register things differently, my tastes and personal thresholds for certain styles have alerted considerably. Animalics, tobacco, costus, cumin, neon gourmands.. I can’t really handle them anymore. Yet galbanum, cistus, carnation/eugenol and ozonics are examples of things I am rediscovering with glee. Illness and an on-going meds regime have made me acutely aware of the odours I now wear. I go scentless for days too, I have to, I just can’t handle too much olfaction. When I do wear something, I really appreciate it.  I was going to say I appreciated the simplicity of Berti’s perfumes but that’s not quite correct, it is more the purity of them I think that both my skin and senses appreciated, the limpidity of the floral arrangements. They lasted well enough, again I’m not massively bothered right now by bombastic persistence but everyone will have their own opinions on that.

This dream of Berti, a lyrical interpretation of field, orchard, tree, leaf, rhizome and bloom is very personal and for now low key and low yield, but he has lovely instinctual talent and a natural grasp so far for the way he is going. Expanding this operationally will be complex but creating small batch shimmering and pellucid perfumes for private clients and working with artists is a way to maintain control over such a high maintenance operation. Berti is a busy boy and this is good. I think E Lys and Ola in particular demonstrate the sheer beauty of enfleurage; the ways the materials produced have such vital force and movement in air.  The rose in Ola especially, really delighted me, I kept thinking about it for days, I could smell it in my brain, visualise its blush and mauve-veined texture.

Hyacinth enfleurage (image apped TFS)
Image courtesy 
A Fleur de Piel Instagram

So, say hello to Berti, follow his progress on Instagram, his world is worth dipping into and inhaling for a while. He has a lot of talent and this is augmenting all the time. These self-taught boys and girls with their immersed senses and hands-on pride, they thrill me. Everyone says you need years and years of training to become a real perfumer.  Really? I don’t think so. It depends on what you want from your perfume.

©TheSilverFox March 2017

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