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

Sunday 24 December 2017

Strange Pilgrims: ‘Smolderose’ & The Chimerical Olfaction of John Biebel

‘I am no beauty, no mirror is necessary to assure me of this absolute fact. Nevertheless I have a death grip on this haggard frame as if it were the limpid body of Venus herself.’

From The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington

For Lucy Raubertas. Thank you.  

I was alerted to the intricate singularities of John Beibel’s work by reading a review of his January Scent Project trio, Smolderose,Eiderantler and Selperniku by Lucy Raubertas, a trusted olfactive wordsmith that I take due care and attention to read. Her blog is an astutely written collection of personal thoughts on American and European indie perfumes and what she refers to as micro niche, perfumes rooted and blooming in certain places that have tantalisingly small distribution. 

If I roll the names Eiderantler, Smolderose, Selperniku and Vaporocindro around in my mind, they become conjured wandering creatures, clothed in muted raiment of earth, stone, forest, wild flower, smoke and morbid petal. They walk scented eternally in colours of decay, rust, pistils, leaf, stone, seashore and woodland bower. Like apostles erring in a wilderness of blasted paint, androgyny and eerie beauty, each of John Biebel’s beautifully named perfumes captivated me the moment his molecules hit my air.

Foxy's JSP Trio...

John is an established painter working out of Waltham Mills, a former cotton and textiles factory outside Boston built on the Charles River at 144-190 Moody Street. The historic building is now home to about seventy artists working across a dynamic range of multi-media artistic disciplines. He is a graduate of Cooper Union, one of the United States’ oldest and most highly respected colleges, located in the East Village side of Manhattan where he studied painting and photography.

John Biebel 

He speaks a certain style of patterned chromatic notation, his collective travelling, musical, sensual, linguistic and searching experiences are laid down in vivid and arresting works. Portraits, landscapes but mostly an evolving series of urban images, etiolated buildings and blinded windows, wires and trees piercing collapsed skies. The cityscapes have a strange upward rush to them, a reach and blur I find oddly moving. 

John Biebel
Shore - oil on canvas
24x 24 2005 Private Collection

The work tastes surreal in its linework and movement, the glaze of oddity, something just happening off canvas. As someone obsessed with colour and how others use it I was intrigued particularly by the diverse vocabulary of green on display in John’s work from mantis, pea, sage and verdigris to absinthe, celadon, jade, moss and chartreuse. This flare for chroma runs through his perfumery as a mix of olfactory discipline and scenting outside the lines.

John Biebel
Green Landscape
- oil of canvas
20 x 22 2006 Private Collection

Like so many of us with artistic dispositions, John has wandered and jobbed around including an intriguing stint in Haggerston, London teaching English as a second language. He is a one-Biebel band under the guise of Ichigatsu and a founding member of Subforum, a design and research collective based in Cambridge MA interested in the improvement of our environment, ecosystem, and experience through design.

John Biebel
Imaginary Portrait, Boy With Crown

oil on canvas 2016, Private Collection 

He does have a day job, working for Pearson North American, an organisation that aims to promote and empower human progress through learning, which if you stop for a moment and think about it is different and more impactful than education. John is a UX or User Experience Designer with Pearson, one of those slightly nebulous job titles that seems on paper the epitome of modern HR office-speak, but in actual fact the role is a important people-related function, focussed on humans with all their foibles, weaknesses and arrogance, creating experiences for them within organisations to enhance their working lives and of course ally this with producing results for companies large and small.

I like these olfactive artists who come to perfumery through other pathways, their skillsets flavoured by ink, cloth, concrete, wood, paint, ceramics, herbalism and photography. They bring stained and crafted experience with them and apply their gathered abilities to perfumery, often from scratch as a kind of challenge to themselves. The results of course vary but as I have said before, the flaws are often outweighed by the sheer flair and imagination on display. The Why Can’t I? approach, uninhibited by automatic years of rigid laboratory training. I don’t want to imply that that one methodology is better than the other; it’s just that the results are different and the people practising them are best suited to one technique or another. Comfort zones are just that. Comfortable.

January Scent Project box
for Foxy's 30mls. 

As John is a talented painter, Antonio Gardoni of Bogue Profumo is a designer and architect, Bruno Fazzolari is a fascinating synesthetic painter, Hans Hendley is passionate about analogue photography and music, artistic directors like Carlos Huber at Arquiste are obsessed with architectural history, Leo Crabtree of Beaufort as well being the drummer with The Prodigy has an abiding passion for British maritime history, Dawn Spencer Hurwitz paints alongside perfume creation in Boulder Colorado, Dr Ellen Covey of Olympic Orchids Perfume is a prize-winning orchid breeder and also one of the world’s leading experts in bat echo location techniques and the enigmatic Andrea Maack has always channelled her Icelandic art into beautiful olfactory work.

John has been a writer on Fragrantica since 2011; his writings have a strong emphasis on the mechanics and chemistry of perfumes. He has written regularly on perfume materials, perfumers such as Carlos Benaim, Olivia Giacobetti, Bertrand Duchaufour, Jacques Cavallier, Sonia Constant and penned his way through an intriguingly diverse range of niche perfume lines, houses, noses and artistic directors.  

John Biebel
Bulgarian Rose Attar, Chelsea Physic Garden

oil on canvas 16 x 20 2006
Private Collection

A close friendship at Fragrantica with fellow writer Ida Meister has taught John much about the synaptic and psychological impact of odour and how finely tuned aromatics can alter our perceptions of personal environment. Ida’s writing is like cello music, rich and harmonious, echoing with crafted meaning and the gentle slow-pulled bow of olfactive instinct. Her years of writing have given her a huge repertoire to draw on and when she reviews her mind peruses this library of experience to create rich reflections that range in tone from gothic and operatic to literary and homely.     

The gathered range of his meticulous curiosity has over the years helped fuel his expert and individual movement into perfumery. You get a sense in his reviews and editorial of someone for whom curiosity grows incrementally into something more emotional and tactile. It is no longer enough just to merely write about the odours that intrigue; a desire to create blooms takes over and leads to the January Scent Project, the name John has applied to his strange pilgrim perfumes…

Foxy's January Scent Project Trio...
(Image © TSF)

The first thing to bloom from the fertile garden of John’s mind was the Smolderose perfume oil, launched in 2015. The transition to actual bottled, packaged and promoted work is far from easy as many independents are well aware, but for some loners and autodidacts, they much prefer the control over all parts of their process and the security of knowing their imagination will not be diluted.

Now in the hands of those not officially trained in chemistry, we bring different backgrounds to this combination of art, craft and science. Some of the results can be less than fascinating, but others have expanded our perceptions into new realms. If anything, we've learned that the mixing of essences is a level playing field, available to any of us, and particularly open to the development via collaboration. So many people have contributed to the beginning of January Scent Project through conversation, contemplation and sharing. It's a wonder to bring something alive from the collective good will of individuals bound by the power of scent. At the same time, the learning curve is steep, and rightfully so. People creating artisan scents should be making the best quality products possible.

This statement by John, taken from his January Scent Project website is very important in terms of how he approaches his work but also how he would like his work to be received by others. It should also really be a manifesto for artisanal and independent perfumers everywhere: …the mixing of essences is a level playing field, available to any of us… a quiet yet seismic statement that pitches at the deep-rooted foundations of elitist perfumery. A lot of classically trained perfumers would argue that home-schooled or self-taught creators are not real perfumers or merely dabblers. I would argue that often some of these perfumers are by their self-taught introspective nature often obsessively focussed on themes and creating distinctive work that mirrors their own experiences. Yes, obviously tasking them to scale up and work briefs for large houses would be tricky but why would they and what would be gained in trying to challenge and fracture what makes them so interesting in the first place? 

John’s work feels so invested with surreal life, I’m not entirely sure I want an explanation, but I am constantly drawn back into his odours over and over, so search I must. His artistry is apparent in the juxtaposition of materials and effects. His creations wander brilliantly through a landscape of perfume made barren by repetition, ubiquity and barely concealed plagiarism. The air reeks of tired oud, generic locker room haze and sickly gourmandise. His quartet is veils, masks, hoods and cloaks on frames of whittled white bone, leaf, metal, fire and fissure. They speak histories of beach pyres, night deaths, hybrid fauna and mournful stags with antlers of glowing green ivy lit by fireflies. Rivers of moonmilk flow upwards towards flickering mountains. Flowers bloom like fireworks, petals snatched by sudden winds. Spoor fills in with moss, seeds and moist mulch.

I actually can’t remember now what I was expecting John’s work to smell like. Different sure. Painterly? Maybe. But it wasn’t this dramatic visual response I had, skin prickling and my mind careening into my returned obsession with surrealist painter Leonora Carrington and her œuvre of dream shards and biographical disintegration. Sometimes upon inhaling I am crowded with assassinations and languor, other time it takes me longer to fall as I navigate John’s fascinating connective alchemy. I know this is important perfumery because I feel something, murmurs of familiarity, eye-catches of memory.

(Image © TSF)

To have one beautiful composition like Smolderose is one thing, but four? I was sick with odourlove after my initial exposure to the trio and later on when Vaporocindro dropped. I wore them on skin, on sheets, in my hair, on clothes. Wearing them at night, something I do a lot with fragrances I am writing on was darkly erotic, lying amid John’s painted scentscapes, eyes shut against light and monsters as his weather rolled over me. I began to examine how they made me feel in the darkness of my shuttered room.

Once I had made the link between these complex and original perfumes and the work of Leonora Carrington I found it virtually impossible to disentangle my impressions from my often-morbid preoccupations with her art. She is without a doubt one of the most compelling and misunderstood artists of the twentieth century, not I think a concept that would really have troubled her. As a woman, her exquisitely detailed and powerfully realised Surrealism was maligned by peers and on a personal level the fabric of her intensely private life was ripped apart on more than one occasion by events that loomed monumental in trauma. Surrealism was strictly speaking a masculine art movement, intrigued; nay besotted with the mysteries and shadowed caverns of femininity. Woman were muse, not the wielder of brush or camera. The female surrealists such as Méret Oppenheim, Leonor Fini, Bridget Bate Tichenor, Valentine Hugo, Dorothea Tanning and Dora Maar were not treated well by male contemporaries or critics of the time, their work often dismissed as overly emotional, whimsical and derivative or somehow less then the big boy names like May Ray, De Chirico, Dali, Ernst and Tanguy.

Leonora Carrington
And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur

1953, oil on canvas

My mother first showed me a Leonora Carrington painting when I was a sullen teen. It was in one of the auction catalogues she used to receive in the post. As someone who was home schooled a lot as we travelled abroad, I was used to her showing me eclectic things she felt I should see or read. It was so long ago I can’t remember the name of the painting, but I remember the almost electrical shock of seeing a canvas inhabited by such strange, hooded beings, creatures searching amid ornate fruit and carriages. Arcana and mystery shroud Carrington’s work in troubling calmness. The games and ceremonies played out in repetitive chambers, caves and valleys have a hypnotic magnitude to them as you wander her dense output. The art you see as a child haunts your mind forever.   

Leonora Carrington, date unknown.
© 2016 Estate of Leonora Carrington/Artists Rights Society
(ARS), New York

Leonora Carrington was a wild troublesome child, expelled from two schools and defiantly creative. She was only reluctantly allowed to study painting by her family, her father opposed it, her mother encouraged her but despite this she demonstrated skill and a keen interest in Surrealism after seeing her first Surrealist painting at the age of ten in a Paris art gallery. I wanted to study in Paris where the Surrealists were in full cry,” she said.

Her shock love in the 1930’s for the older Max Ernst led her to abandon her comfortable London life and family and flee to France but their profound artistic happiness was ripped apart when Ernst was arrested and detained by the Nazis. She fled to Spain and her experiences and Ernst’s subsequent abandonment as he escaped and fled to the US with arts impresario Peggy Guggenheim, whom he later married, caused a full psychotic break. Her parents had her sectioned. According to Carrington and decoding Down Below, the book she wrote about her breakdown, both body and mind were shattered, assaulted and almost eradicated. The use of controversial drugs like Cardiazol and Luminol had terrible side effects including severe convulsions and treacherous hallucinations.

Foxy's Carrington books...
(image © TSF)

Through a convoluted series of circumstances she cast up in Mexico and would work and live here until she died. If you are interested in a more familial side to her story, I would recommend a book called The Surreal Life Of Leonora Carrington by Joanna Moorehead, who wanted to find out more about this ghost who haunted the memory of the family, an aunt she had known as Prim who upped and left in 1937. Little did she realise this journey would lead her to one of the most remarkable women in history. It is a beautiful read, a closing of blood circles, of conversations, history overlapping and memories gently lapping on the surreal shores of time.

Leonora Carrington
1957, oil on board

I have loved her gnomic work throughout my life and as a writer on perfumer I often drawn on art, literature and poetry as inspiration for my essays. It wasn’t until I encountered these strange pilgrims of John Biebel that my Leonora Carrington submersion came welling darkly, wickedly back up.

Carrington’s vast worlds of mythological and ritualised creatures seem both simultaneously monstrous and oddly comforting. They are without a maker’s explanation. Sure there are endless words poured out by art lovers, critics and biographers but she herself remained remarkably silent on interpretation and meaning allowing her body of manifold media to have its own authoritative voice.

Leonora Carrington
Operation Wednesday

1969, Tempera on masonite

I have an on/off love affair with Surrealism on the whole though; sadly much of it has become wrecked by over-exposure and contamination by the charlatanism and rampant ego of Dali. However, taking time to search amid the hinterlands there is much broken, haunted beauty, particularly in photography and etching. We are lucky enough in Edinburgh to have an important gathering of surrealist works bequeathed to the National Galleries as the Gabrielle Keiller Bequest. It is a measured and thoroughly erudite connoisseur’s survey of some the most important names in the movement including Carrington. The associated Keiller Surrealist and Dadaist books, manuscripts and monographs are now housed in an enigmatic enclosed ‘library’ room in the Museum of Modern Art. It is one of my favourite hushed spaces in the city.  

The time I spent with John’s sui generis quartet and the surfaced memories of Carrington’s dreamscapes collided and merged. Smolderose, Eiderantler, Selperniku and Vaporocindro were so preternaturally crafted, they felt alive, crafted with instinct and experimentation, some small amount of dreaming and a desire to see what happens when you push and paint over the edges of your canvas.

Carrington’s universe of cowled, tangled processions, tabled rites and lengths of mystical oddity in a trademark palette of woven flora, weather, eyes, hands, fur, trumpets, webs, cages and galleries of gossamer sages have a deeply affective language the longer you spend in their company. You find yourself lost in wind-caught hoods like sails on storm-tossed boats, mirrors as beckoning doors, crescents and minstrels and labyrinths. All have an uneasy mix of portentous menace and innocence. 

Leonora Carrington
1948, Le Bon Roi Dagobert

Oil on canvas,

Surrealism is essentially an art of dreams and the subconscious. The embers, uncertainties and edges of brainscape. Carrington’s denizens are talismanic, obtuse perhaps and frustratingly inscrutable, yet within the Carrington world there are pieces of such beauty as to pull rain from clear skies. Much like my intense scrutiny process with perfumes as I plan and write essays, the longer I live with and search within, the more I am rewarded. It is one of the reasons I write less these days as I struggle to find perfumed work that really makes me think and feel, or has me enjoying the right mix of words to convey the precision and mysteries of beauty.

John Biebel 

In bed one night before sliding into sleep I looked through books on Carrington, the silence of night and low light a perfect atmosphere for her haunted priestesses, acolytes lost in tunnelled cowls, eyes reflecting loss and organic protocols, crescent-moon faced deities dancing, anointing and simply watching with quiet intent. The tableaux seem so ghostly to me, her people haunted by Carrington’s own turbulent and fractured journey to a place of sanity and fecund creation. Amongst this I feel oddly at home, a world unexplained by its creator and endlessly explained by others, even a little by me here. It is hard to resist projection and the arrogance of decoding.

The January Scent Project began as all things artistic do with curiosity and experimentation. I think John’s exposure to a diverse range of perfumery as a writer at Fragrantica combined with the way he creates his artwork gave rise to a textured and abstract desire to build perverse olfaction. To perhaps challenge what he had already smelled, laying unexpected materials like colour blocks and collided hues, making them work by means of calibration, subterfuge, environment and sheer chutzpah. On paper his formulae seem a little like madness in places. They remind me a little of the work of Josh Lobb, the reclusive lost prophet of olfaction at Slumberhouse, but only in the use of certain materials; the resinous fir, sticky labdanum and that sense of woozy spatial disorientation that you get when you first spray them. But the similarities fade there; Josh has always been on a dark journey with his olfaction. It is an experiment in how materials can be redefined and reimagined in altered states. He is an astonishing talent but a wary and secluded one and whether he likes it or not his work is perceived as art, exploring depths, holes within holes, door-less rooms and the effect light has on captive human senses. John’s sociability and ability to connect is another key factor in the growing of his singular perfume concept.

The Smolderose perfume oil is a powerful thing, a charred rose in a blasted garden as the moon rises. I smelled a borrowed sample of this rolling around a bottle like age-old floral liqour. The oil is an examination of the ubiquitous rose/oud dynamic, not necessarily my favourite of things despite my passion for roses, however John’s careful assembly of a more cathartic and scorched agarwood against the velveteen genuflection of a gorgeous rose and rose geranium duo is quite persuasive. The oil medium dictates a certain depth and linger to the mix and John’s use of honey, castoreum, tobacco, birch and benzoin all really serve to ease out a sweet smoky drydown, smeared with petal fragments and shards of citrus.

Using birch in a scent will instantly impart a sense of vaporous smoulder, but you have to be careful, even relatively small doses can destabilise formulae and overwhelm any work achieved. It is a note I must admit to disliking more and more as I get older. It pierces my senses somehow and flips my migraine switch all too easily. In trace amounts and used with discretion to create an atmosphere of empty Siberian forests and day old campfires for examples it might work, but far too many perfumers, niche and more increasingly high street as well, attempting to riff on ecclesiastical, oudh and whisky themes are overdosing synthetic birch materials and the results are invariably pretty poor so your eyes burn and your head explodes.

(Image © TSF)

Smolderose eau de parfum. How much do I love this fucking thing? I am obsessed with its odour of blood red roses ignited and charred on pyres along secretive night beaches. I return to it over and over, worrying my skin to exhaustion.

elderflower, damask rose, roasted seashells, saffron, frankincense. More of a recipe for binding, blind love and burial. I was so intrigued to know how the roasted seashells would smell; I couldn’t really imagine how John had done it. I don’t think I will ever tire of the sensational head-filling, heart-stopping, skin-thrilling overture where despite a nominal pyramidal structure, cade oil and labdanum smolder up through harvested damp roses, everything drenched in the extraordinary saporous marine-stained Choya Nahk, a very unique naturally processed distillation that combines Himalayan cedarwood and roasted sea shells. Over and over I am truly wowed by Smolderose, from its very beginning it smells created, crafted, a composition of loving difference. A room of burning roses dusted with fleur de sel salt crystals, the trailing altar odour of frankincense and oily smut of rectified juniper wood.

Choyas & fir balsam...
(Image © TSF)

 I have messaged John a little bit since I bought my bottles and I wanted to known how he had created that ‘roasted seashells’ note. When you first read it in the notes, it is easy to imagine it is perhaps going to be a fantasy effect, an accord of established marine materials that are familiar to so many of us already in perfumery. But as soon as you inhale and more importantly wear Smolderose you realise that can’t be the case. There is a true delicacy of brine burning off the beautiful backs of scattered shells. That odour of shells caught in beach fires and brittle to the touch as the flames cool down. Choya Nahks are this and more, allowing John to add a very singular and atmospheric dimension to his work without resorting to the sometimes metallic and slithering quality of conventional marine materials.

What is particularly beautiful about Choya Nahk is that it really does combine all the aspects of its constituent parts without taking away or changing them. There is smoke, cedar, the calcified smell of shells - and then that sometimes barely perceptible but persistent smell of the sea, or more of a "marine" smell. This fascinates me because it's a very rare smell to be captured by natural means, and perfumers go to great lengths to make it artificially, yet there it is in the choya. Also quite remarkable is how powerful this substance is. A small dose will add a substantial amount of that sensation of sea and smoke. Finding it was something of a breakthrough for me, because before this, I was creating smoke smells only with birch tar and cade oil. These are both beautiful substances, but do not have the depth and personality of the Choya.’

John Biebel

The Choya takes it name from the actual vessel it is created in; large specially crafted earthenware distillation pots with twisted ‘L’ bend pipes to channel off the condensed product. The seashells and sandalwood are heated together in what is known as destructive distillation; the process as you might imagine is very labour intensive but the resulting yield is incredibly potent, as John mentions above, needing only small amounts to give personality or background to formulae. John kindly sent me a good link to a short piece on The Perfume Mistress website, with info on the Choya processes so do follow and read if you are interested. The Perfume Mistress: attars & choyas

Cade oil is a wickedly volatile material, brutalist in smoke-concerned compositions. It is the dark oily tarred residue that results from the destructive distillation of a juniper, Juniperius oxycedrus to be exact. Calibration and an innate understanding of how it interacts with other materials are vital. It tends toward the rugged, cowboy campfire scent, that odour of night bonfire clothes when fresh sap-drenched wood has been burned. I find it a less bitter and sarcastic note than birch tar, which has a distinctive medicinal aroma when used in higher doses.

In the beautiful documentary Happy People: A Year In The Taiga (2013) a Siberian hunter make his own reduction of birch tar from sap and bark in the forest. The boiled down sticky black residue is rubbed over his dogs, his son and himself to protect them from the voracious moshka or mosquitoes. I always remember thinking: Fuck. The reek of rectified noir tar coming off his homemade set up would literally kill me. Cade suggests dry brush fires, popping soft woods and the quiet shifting of hot sands as opposed to the claustrophobic forest fume of birch tar.

The cade, labdanum and incense notes in Smolderose wrap around John’s rose like chewy smoke. There is nothing wasted within the structure of the scent, notes layering, entwining around the primal carmine thrum. There is an intriguing sulphurous odour from the Choya that mingles with John’s beautiful basmati rice saffron note. This adds a distant melt of singed honey pastries amid the rosaceous fumes.

My skin obsesses over Smolderose, amplifying the rose like petrol on flames. One of the things I adore with artisanal perfumers like John is the sense of feeling connected, his personal imprint is on every stage of composition. You feel like a ghost in the studio, sniffing close, reaching for materials and letting your skin take the risk with carnal unmade mods. 

The Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wished upon his death that his body be burned on a pyre on a beach, a fitting end for a man of such extraordinary elegiac language. This brings me to the crux of Smolderose, my visions of an end, of a night beach fire, embers glowing in the dark salted sea air. Friends gather around the smouldering woods, sombre faces lit by conflagration. They have armfuls of roses, a favourite bloom. These are thrown into the dying flames and for a brief shocking moment a rush of soldered petals filled the saline darkness.

Leonora Carrington
The Ancestor

This sensual wassail of oceanic rose is Choya Nahk behaviour and I can see why John was so enamoured of the effect. The dosage used in Smolderose suggests residue and afterburn, that dark flipside of gourmand you get with charred rose petals, charcoal sweetness, metallic reduction of booze and burnt sugar. All these things flicker through this beautiful perfume while a cold sea mist rolls in, leaving traces of algal dew. I was quite astonished by the Choya. John was incredibly kind and sent me some samples of various materials, all meticulously labelled, including a sensational fir balsam extract in fractionated coconut oil. Oh my. I have been wearing this as a perfume and mixing it with Vaporicindro. On its own it has that profound smoky bacon richness and dark glittering malachite green taste in the nose.

He included three examples of Choyas; Choya Nahk, the roasted seashells material he used in Smolderose, Choya Loban, a rooty shadowed frankincense distillation and Choya Ral, a distillation of the Sal tree, Shorea robusta, which produces a distinctive resinous leathery-amber material often used in Russian leather and gentleman’s classic fougère compositions. All three have powerful odour profiles and require a slight adjustment to the way I smell. I have written in work about Mandy Aftel, Hiram Green and Tanja Bochnig at April Aromatics how infinitely more connected I am to natural perfumery now after so much illness and personal trauma. The treatment of raw materials, in particular floral notes, seems so much alive and vital to me. I recently revisited the ecclesiastical organic work of Rodney Hughes, whose rich, swirling perfumes at Therapeutate thrilled me all over again and reminded me I must write on them. These Choyas have this rawness of emotion and ability to halt you, suspended in smoky magic for a while as your senses navigate the origins and nuances.

redbrokenrose (2017) (Image © TSF)

The Nahk has fresh oysters on a BBQ odour, the shellfish brine sizzling up and falling on to the glowing embers. It is a very particular smell and one I’m not sure I even like, but I still can’t stop smelling it. Mark Constantine created an astonishing thing in 2012 called Lord of Goathorn for the revived Gorilla Perfume line. I loved it. Many did not. A mix of seaweed, basil, anisic tarragon and an amazing licquorice note. I’m not gonna lie, the overall effect was initially quite shocking, gut-wrenching in fact. It haunted me and when I reviewed it described how the fish-bone, burnt seaweed and charred damp sand vibe was in fact the odour of Scottish west coast and island kelp pits, burning seaweed to produce potash or soda for the glass industry. Lord of Goathorn isn’t exactly subtle but it does have the most beautiful dark, cindered drydown. You do have to battle through that overture of singed kelp, but you will never smell anything like it.

I mention Lord of Goathorn because when I unscrewed the lid of the Choya Nahk I had a similar visceral reaction. Extraordinary. The condensed essence of a seared reef of shells is magnificent and a salted breeze wet with marine brine you can taste as you walk a windswept coast. The great burning beauty to Smolderose is the daring communion between this anomalous distillation and the lush damask rose. It creates a huge cascade of emotive floral effects, ably supported by chewy patchouli and sambucus nigra, or black elder, which I think might explain the jammy, smashed fruit facet that comes at you with ferrous rose and oud when you first spray the perfume on. There is just enough bergamot in the top end of the construction to put the brakes on the rose rush; but everything in Smolderose flows rhythmically around the deep smokiness of the marine-haunted rose.

Smolderose travels and metamorphoses with joyful power. It is not a hugely packed scent, but…and it’s a big but, each of John’s materials has beautiful weight and life. He has arranged them boldly; aware that each of us will smoulder with difference perhaps allowing us to imagine a Carringtonesque figure of red darkness, trailing a cloak of scorched roses wanders a landscape strewn with shells and sandcastles. In the distance a shimmering wave seems to eternally loom, ready to wash everything away. Pieces of crimson paper fall as he moves, turn into birds and fly away. All is intoxication and dream.

Eiderantler(Image © TSF)

Eiderantler is a green rush of discarded moist brick walls, ivy gone rogue and lavender lovesick with bees in a lost feral garden. Atrophying fir cones and a wash of abrasive antiseptic mingle with creamy floral notes and sticky sweet resins.

Eiderantler is described as an ivy fougère, which is an interesting term but one that has resonance. I like the creeping exuberance of hedera or ivy; its ability to greenswarm, claiming walls, fences and trees with is various shades of bottle green palmate leaves. It can be viewed as decorative but I have never seen it like this, it the foliate miasma of nightmares, not exactly parasitic but still removing light. It has a strong hold over Eiderantler, a cloak of a thousand woven leaves.

Ivy (Image © TSF)

For me though initially it is the lavender that raises its bruised aroma from ancient fields to gaze at us. Any nascent chill is balanced by elemi and soft hay. Eiderantler does smell angry in places, a breathing rhythmic vexation played out in lithe contrasts of lavender, rooty vetiver, magnolia and aromatic oakwood. It suggests a forceful verdancy that has grown unfettered for centuries.

In a Carrington dream I see a sea of stags inexorably raising their heads from misty grass. Their velveteen antlers draped like baroque chandeliers with trailing leaves, strips of moss, water lilies and tendrils of ivy. This eerie image rises up each time I wear Eiderantler; it seems like an elegant almost stately chypré reaching thing, despite the hissy mood swings, but there is something off, a sense of alteration. In the dream, the stags become men in bone crowns walking in a landscape of blasted trees, dust settling at their feet like so much emerald mulch.

In my notes, when I first received the trio I made reference to the fact I considered Eiderantler the weaker of the three (at the time) perfumes. But I wear them all so much, my familiarity now with Eiderantler’s beauty made me realise how deceptive and erroneous my original impressions were. But that is how I work. Record everything. Be honest. Revisit everything and be ruthless. It was only after two weeks of skinloving I noticed the sudden obvious sweet wine booziness that bloomed so fabulously in the heart of the scent; a golden, viney Sauternes lilt to the notes that plays so beautifully against the oncoming green lit headlights of cashmere musks and hay.

Wearing it sometimes as it spreads out on my skin, I get the scent-sensation of something moving in that secret garden, leaves swirling inside a tattered hood. There is gauze and veil over bracts and buds on scattered loam. An odour of naked skin moving lasciviously through blades of grass engraved with snail trails and dawn dew. All this obsessed over later in the gloom of a disordered room.

Selperniku(Image © TSF) 

Selperniku is perhaps the most enigmatic of the original trio of pilgrims, a jilted bride, not vengeful but lost and seeking absolution. It is a shrouded gourmand for the shattered and bereft. If you look upon her as she walks he ritualised landscape of broken china and rendered raiment you might notice a blur to the edges of her manoeuvres, a sense of neuroses repeated endlessly. Shedding tears over spilled milk. Never has this adage sounded more vivid. Selperniku must leave the altar in search of obfuscation and erasure.

I may have my passionate heart bleed for Smolderose but Selperniku has such hauteur and creamy quiet. Faced with such silence, all you can do is listen.   

Only a handful of fragrances have really created something on a par with the perturbing sensory seesaw recipes of salt, sweet, acid, butyric, milkiness and floral confrontation. In Selperniku John has succeeded in adding an edge of white butter mingled with floating stone fruit, in this case apricot or peach. Oily green cardamom and the licquorice shrubbiness of immortelle seem to destabilise and force beauty at the same time.

Image for Onder de Linde
I created for FB post

The lovely Spyros Drosopolous at Baruti created the utterly crazy/beautiful Onder de Linden (formerly Melkmeisje) as a sunlight & lime blossom hymn to Amsterdam. There are gorgeous moments of pear cooked in butter and salt cast with hand-crushed white lilac in all its shuddering cold grace. I always marvel at its strangeness, its ability to hold me fixed in honeyed wonder.

Fundamental by Rubini
(image © TSF)

The other oddity is Fundamental by Rubini, a project involving the delightful Andrea Rubini, writer and perfume specialist Ermano Picco and talented perfumer Cristiano Canali. Fundamental is for my money one of the most original and finest perfumes to have appeared in recent years and a key fragrance in the resurgence of Italian niche perfumery. The risk and ingenuity of Fundamental was thrilling; writing about is brought me immense pleasure. Its very incorrectness produced exquisite audaciousness. Notes of white local white grape and the attendant Noble rot (Botrytis cinerea), dirty boudoir powder, beeswax candles in old Italian churches, vetiver, woods and a joyful explosion of tangerine. Just a wonder and makes me so happy every time I wear it. 

On paper, both Onder de Linde and Fundamental shouldn’t work, but it is the challenge of being made to feel unsettled and all the moments of unexpected beauty in such agile and audacious olfaction that reward us. There is allure in all. Selperniku shares the same startling and defiant ability to engage. Mr E. also reminded me of Eau Clair des Merveilles by Jean-Claude Ellena for Hermès in 2010, a salted vanilla concoction that had a distinctly faecal edge at certain times, like diapers doused in cake mix and crowned in aldehydic floral light.

Parts of Selperniku feel blind; the hissy cypress and juniper seem scattered and out of focus amid the milky roaming. But again it kinda succeeds. That camomile note though. It is simultaneously commanding and troubling. I can’t quite decide if John has overdosed it purposely or if the immortelle acts like an amplifier. It’s a note I normally associate with the scent of certain organic skin care lines and therefore I do struggle with it. And do not even get me started on camomile tea, a brew that freezes me in horror just by its very existence.

The butter facet really starts to warm up about half an hour into application just as the tobacco winds up. This isn’t an overtly smoky scent however; Selperniku has the mellifluous flavour of air-dried blond tobacco that adds a suggestion of rolling, match-flare and moist roll-ups. The subtle smear of dairy is deftly controlled, it feels almost accidental, something that came out of the milk/latone and sandalwood materials. But whatever the genesis, mixing it on skin with ripened apricot, spices, fougère notes and the spiky citrus of petitgrain is both savage and comforting. I am dazzled by it and also a little disrupted. Selperniku wears like three perfumes in one, each of them flowing in and around one another with strange ease. John has great control over his materials, much like his paint, aware of how things might or might not cohere. Using skin as canvas is a bigger risk, as each is different, as we all interpret the notes in our own way much as we decode and process the colour palette and symbolism in a finished artwork. There is intangibility in all four January Scent Project perfumes and this is a good and fascinating thing.

The queasy dialogue of this twisted gourmand pilgrim will always be one of dislike and craving; shuddering and falling on the bottle like the skin of a returning lover. The final stages are lovely, white and opaque, the fruit drops to malleable chalkiness and the perfume has the gentle texture of a whitewashed window where the pigment has faded, leaving behind a brume of particles on the glass.

The instinctive surrealism of John’s techniques and imagination is outstanding. You can sense the joy and genuine interest he has in his craft. He is making no great claims about his status as a perfumer, it is not a hobby as such, the work is too damn beautiful for that, but creating olfaction of this quality and singularity while working and maintaining a career as a painter and his day job proves the sheer dedication he has and also the addictive pull of artisan perfumery. His modesty and generosity are rare moreish things and for now I think January Scent Project is just that, a project where John explores his abilities to manufacture worlds that smell of astonishment.


Now I must confess this essay has taken me much longer than I thought, partly because I was side-tracked by photography and the weary machinations of pain management but also because John launched Vaporocindro, a scent of ashen lilacs and I couldn’t decide if I should just post the essay without my thoughts on this crazy sensuous scent or take my time because it is a labyrinthine aroma that I needed time to live with.

I opted to wait and spent a month in Vaporocindro. It was worth the pause and scrutiny. Again John has taken a risk trying to marry the oily suffocation of an imagined (to my nose) blue lilac and smoke. It has the most intense openings of all four of John’s perfumes, a huge green chocolate zoom with shards of coffee. The lilac is glorious, shockingly photorealistic for a moment before fracturing into abstraction. The tight flowers smell indigo, bruise blue, their scent deliciously assisted by the black pepper, a scent of spongy dried apple rings and the reverential surge of jonquil with its honeyed earth tones that John has used to really emphasise the narcissus/lilac personality of this very unique perfume.

l i l a c 

The lilac note really is something. It is not the ephemeral haze of Olivia Giacobetti’s En Passant, but a more robust inflorescence of hypnotic panicles. The scent of lilac (syringa vulgaris) varies from species to species and I always, always stop and smell lilac when I see it. The scent ranges from almonds and wet eggshell paint to rose jam, raw comb honey and mulchy white lilies. John’s lilac note is this BOOM…chocolat vert… Green beautiful chocolate. Bitter cocoa meets absinthe. The fullness of this doesn’t last too long, just long enough to startle and reset your perceptions of how a floral perfume might be made and indeed develop on skin.

Thankfully the listed blackcurrant is underplayed. I can sense it’s creeping, hedgerow pissiness in the sharp high shriek of lilac overture where for a suspended moment Vaporocindro smells like a olfactive papercut before the green chocolate explodes. Davana usually adds sort of rummy boozy note to compositions; here in conjunction with a very dry sandalwood and cumin combo, its laid back smoothness works beautifully against the furious garden of opening lilac.

The oud takes it time to smoulder and reduce the lilac to fragrant ashes. The eerie burn uses turmeric to ramp up a sensation of strange aridness. The singed lilac smells of burnt plastic, powder and scorched sap. This transition from violent floral to haunting incense haunted by the flowers burned is the whole raison d’être of Vaporocindro, vapours of cinders if you fancy. John never once allows his perfume to lose its key personality of sacrificial syringa vulgaris.

The Vaporocindro Pilgrim walks a landscape of abandoned ornamental gardens, their formality scoured by mauve dust storms. He carries a burning bouquet of tumbling lilac blossom, trailing an odour of strange and recurrent magnitude. If you are privileged enough to see him, he will be a creature of mist and grain, barely visible against the rocks, courtyards, caves and lakes, except for his incandescent bouquet. There are sparks of charred blossom I just adore, mixed with fresh oily petals and the rush of finger-rubbing leaves and petals. As the end nears the coffee note flickers and I like the salted transparency of ambergris in the base. It smells like the tinctures that Cécile Zarokian uses, which are incredibly beautiful. She used them in her work for Panouge and the Jacques Fath collection. Any measured and expert use of ambergris tincture will impart such a velveteen curtain drop on your scent and Vaporocindro is no exception. 

As is my want, I wore Vaporocindro to bed and after seven hours of fitful sleep I woke to an inner wrist still tinted with traces of lilac smoke. The Pilgrim reverts back to the ghosts of these addictive haunting flowers. He sits a table of glass, wearing a veil of palest indigo that flows onto the floor like water. Beyond him trees flame as lanterns for the weary, ashes dropping to the ground, building up like banks of snow.

So I completed this quartet in wonderment, so deeply delighted I have John Biebel’s work in my collection. I need to add a bottle of Vaporocindro and I am complete. Each time I return to Smolderose, Selperniku and Eiderantler I revel in the innovation, freshness and challenge of the odours. The charred seashell and damask rose drama of Smolderose is perhaps the most intriguing effect I have smelled all year. The claustrophobic lavender-soaked intensity of a secret garden, walls carpeted in ivy, hands wrecked from tearing at vines to find a door; all this in Eiderantler with dream stags and their antlers draped in battle greenery. And milky, smeared Selperniku I view through old misted glass, an utterly unique experience of salt, ghostly butter, stone fruit and tobacco; a perfume that both confronts and entices. 

Pilgrims in blasted landscapes, enigmatic, singular and richly imagined. They wander olfactive plane that will seem unfamiliar and odd to some, emotionally connective to others. Great perfumery for me is about recognising a creator’s genuine joy, pride and intelligence in his olfactive world. And beauty, there has to be beauty. We all have our own markers so we will all wear, react to and interpret John’s work in different ways.

The surrealism of his olfactive assembly is profoundly beautiful, daring and amusing. This sort of thoughtful perfume making is rare. I will sign off this late essay saying how much I enjoyed writing it, despite struggling at times with words to quite do John’s work justice. So, stained in Smolderose, I rest my tired, tattooed fingers and wait for sleep.

For more information on John Beibel and January Scent Project, please click on the links below:


24 December 2017