Saturday, December 28, 2013

L'Air de Rien. Incense, old books and goat hair

L’Air de Rien by Miller Harris.

Which aromas do you find comforting? For many people vanilla seems to be the ultimate in comfort scent – reminding us as it does of home cooking and nurture, or maybe childhood memories of birthday-cake and feeling loved. Or how about the grounded smells of nature; hay-barns, wheat fields, forest floor, cow pats..?! Most of us find a walk in the country relaxing, and speaking for myself I don’t mind a whiff of cow-pat carried on a spring breeze, preferable by far to the smell of oven cleaner, for example.

It’s entirely subjective of course, although the smells mentioned above with the possible exception of cow pat, would probably win the most votes. There are hundreds of vanilla gourmand oriented perfumes out there, yet very few perfumes explore these ideas with great imagination – most perfumes intended as comfort scents are quite literal and non abstract.

Shalimar by Guerlain is one of the exceptions - playing on a richly authentic vanilla comfort-scent; darkening it with leather/birch tar and contrasting it with intense bergamot lime.  Most gourmands are not abstract enough to keep our interest for very long – there aren’t any surprises or gaps to fill with imagination, and perfumers seem to agree that a certain abstract quality is required to turn a perfume into a work of art, as opposed to a simplistic copy or capture of nature. ‘Show don’t tell’ is the literary equivalent - similarly easier said than done.

When I first sniffed L’Air de Rien by Miller Harris, I knew within seconds that I loved it and that I’d buy it as soon as possible. But it’s taken me a full year to get my senses (and subsequently my brain) around this perfume; it’s not necessarily an easy perfume to love and wear!

Its ingredients are listed as oakmoss, orange blossom, incense, labdanum (resin from rock-rose), vanilla, patchouli and musk, among other things. Because of associations, one person’s grounded patchouli is another’s unwashed hippy, or pair of mouldy socks, but in L’Air de Rien it doesn’t seem to tip into the heavy, cloying hippy aspects of patchouli, and that’s all down to facets the perfumer detracts, or contrasts with other notes. 

To my nose L’Air de Rien is old books (a sweet leather/mildew accord), the scent of hair lending an intimate feel,  Nag Champa incense, goats, horse stables and cup cakes. To me it just doesn't get any more comforting, but it’s also intriguing and nostalgic. I enjoy the fact it sometimes challenges me, I can’t always wear this perfume.

On first spray it sometimes reminds me of horse manure (I've always loved horses and worked in stables as a girl so this isn’t entirely unpleasant!). The goaty note is comforting; I learned to milk goats while on holiday as a girl and I've loved goat's milk products ever since. I’ve learned to let L'Air de Rien dry down for at least half an hour, by which time the incense-sweet ash note appears and the sweaty horse has faded to something more akin to the scent of pillows after someone has slept on them.

To someone unaccustomed to analysing perfume or wearing something a bit odd (for example outside of the more popular clean floral or fruity/sweet gourmand perfumes) these descriptions might sound a bit far-fetched. But recounting the story behind the making of this perfume is a reminder that the strangest concepts can be translated to perfume – into an aura of something lived, experienced and felt, with enormous power to evoke emotion.

The perfumer Lynn Harris (of Miller Harris Perfumes) collaborated with Jane Birkin on L’Air de Rien. (Jane Birkin of Serge Gainsborough ‘Je Taime’ fame). In her own words, Jane wanted; ‘the smell of an old library, the scent of my father’s
jacket and my baby brother’s hair’. She wasn’t at all sure it was even possible to create a perfume she liked – ‘I don’t even like perfume, there aren’t any I want to wear’. L’Air de Rien translates literally as ‘Air of Nothing’, but a more accurate translation might be ‘Like nothing else – un-captured’. It’s a perfume that’s completely unique, which doesn't attempt any reference to the usual familiar anchors and that’s why, to me this has a touch of genius, as much because of its experimental feel and its success in capturing what it set out to, as the labour of love revealed by the story of its inspiration and making.

L'Air de Rien doesn't radiate too much on my skin and I'm reliably informed by my sister that it has a ‘sherbet-like, almost pink smell’. My mum exclaimed on first smelling it - ‘Now, don’t get rid of this one’ (she knows I buy and swap or sell all the time!).So its actual sillage is fairly close-to-skin, and to be honest once it’s into dry-down it’s probably only me who detects the barnyard horse-sweat note, so don’t be put off - though the first sniff might be challenging.

You can probably find a sample for less than £8 on Ebay (or on the websites at the top of this blog on the right) and I would say it’s one that’s best to try before buying, but whether you fall for it or not, if you have a curious nose it does guarantee a fascinating olfactory journey!

(Spot the cat!)

All photos© Rose Strang

Saturday, December 14, 2013

All Things Green

'Spring Sycamore'. Rose Strang

"The trees grew close together and were so leafy that he could get no glimpse of the sky. All the light was green light that came through the leaves: but there must have been a very strong sun overhead, for this green daylight was bright and warm. It was the quietest wood you could possibly imagine"

From 'The Magician's Nephew' The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis

That description from The Magician's Nephew has stayed with me since childhood. The excerpt describes Digory's arrival in 'the wood between the worlds' - a strange and magical place, beautifully described by Lewis. 

Digory in the woods 
My parents were keen on the outdoors, and on all our explorations of the mountains, coastlines, rivers and woods of Scotland I'd judge a place's quality on its 'Narnia-ness'. I was always seeking that 'wood between the worlds' essence of stillness and the feeling that if you were quiet enough you might even hear the plants growing. Lewis was born and grew up in Ireland, which most definitely informed his evocative descriptions of flora, fauna and landscape, and they reflect his love of the 'emerald isle'.

So green, for me, is peace, serenity and the magic of childhood. My house, clothes and jewellery often feature the varying shades of green, as do my paintings. And just as I judged landscape on whether its quality was Narnia-like, I also seek something magical from green, and woody green, perfumes, I expect them to transport me. 

I'm unlikely to wear a perfume while on holiday up north, but when I'm back in the city it's therapy really. Green perfumes do tend to suit the warmer months (with a few exceptions).

Today the wind is howling outside and I'm as drawn to my smoky orientals as green perfumes, but in honour of the occasion I'm wearing a couple of green favourites as I type! 

Here are few of my favourite greens 
(with a few more updatesfor St Patrick's Day!):

Woodland Walks

Chanel No. 19, by Chanel
I feel it's fitting to begin with one of the grande dames of green.
'Perfumes, the Guide', an amusing and informative book written by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, describes No 19 as a 'Wire mother' as opposed to a snuggly more natural mother, and suggests that it will 'appeal to women who have ever wished to know what it is to be heartless' and while I find many of their witticisms amusing, on this occasion I must disagree!

The numerous perfume reviews of Chanel 19 that can be found online are testament to the affection many women feel for this perfume. To me it's a feminine take on the aroma of the 'great outdoors'. This gives it the sense of being freed from a corset and is presumably why in the early 70s it was marketed towards the emancipated and more 'up-front' kind of woman when it was first released.

But really its message is gentle: I have yet to smell a perfume that so beautifully and abstractly conjures up the aroma of the countryside - from river valley flowers and hedgerows to sun warmed woods and mountain tops. There's even the mildest suggestion of the perfume of a wood-smoke fire and the idea of home-coming. We're used to the dry down of vanilla and musks, but here it's the idea of being gently brought back to earth through green galbanum resin and oakmoss after the cooler lily of the valley and hyacinth opening

Sillage light to moderate, longevity around 4-5 hours. Seek the parfum extrait for a richer version.

Ninfeo Mio, by Annick Goutal
Goutal perfumes often aim to evoke ideas, emotions and experiences, and with Ninfeo Mio inspiration was sparked by the mythical garden of the Hesperides. Camille Goutal and perfumer Isabelle Doyen searched for a real-life garden to further explore this idea and during their travels discovered the walled gardens of Ninfa in Rome. 

(Click here for an introduction to the gardens of Ninfa by Monty Don, they really are beautiful gardens.)

Isabelle Doyen captures something timeless, in the sense that this perfume evokes memories of childhood. Going with the mythical garden theme, an arkadian idyll perhaps. The opening of Ninfeo Mio is very citrusy but not just sharp - it's also sweet lemon, herby, like lemon verbena. Then it becomes more woody and that's when this perfume begins to evoke childhood - rummaging around in the bushes and trees with the sun warmed smell of twigs and leaves, tomato plants, and more specifically to me the smell of raspberry bush leaves - bitter green and with a touch of animal! 

Other reviewers have commented on that element, and it's true, there's a civet-like catty or sweat note that makes this perfume feel strangely wild, even sexy, but not in a standard feminine way. It's very, very close to natural smells of woodlands but only if you're rolling around on the ground, as I like to imagine a wood nymph might do on a summer's day. 

In this sense it's worlds apart from Chanel No. 19's equally beautiful yet lady-like take on the idea of a green perfume that evokes the great outdoors. There's also a note of fig, a dusty milky sweet quality that prevents Ninfeo Mio from being a little too rough, sharp and green.

If you seek the unusual and you're bored with flowery feminine classics, I think this might appeal very much because it's as far removed from the clean, bright cheer-leader/ivy league aesthetic of perfumes such as Hillfiger's Tommy Girl or Lauder's Pleasures as it gets. I'd quite like to spray Britney Spears with this liberally and see if she melts, like candy floss. Who knows, it could even bring Miley Cyrus to her senses! There is life beyond the city.

Sillage moderate to strong at first. Longevity 4 to 5 hours.
Iris de Nuit, by James Heeley
Classic English perfumery includes, among many others, Penhaligons, whose meditational and uplifting Elixir is among my favourite incense style perfumes, also Creed perfumes, much sought by the rich and famous. Though to my nose their perfumes for men surpass those for women.

I believe Heeleys wins out over these two in terms of a classic elegant English aesthetic, though Heeley's is a contemporary perfume company. 
I first discovered James Heeley designs in London while seeking a gift for a friend, and having discovered there one of the most beautiful espresso cups ever (I like ceramics almost as much as perfume) it came as no surprise that his perfumes were equally perfect, sharing the minimalist elegance of all his designs. He seems to focus mainly on perfume now.

Iris de Nuit feels like a medieval sort of perfume. There’s nothing obviously sensual here, more a cerebral aesthetic, though very beautiful and romantic in a twilit, ethereal way that reminds me of Arthur Rackham illustrations.

It's as much about violet as iris, and these two alone would conjure up an old-fashioned soapiness, but Iris de Nuit also has notes of carrot oil which sweeten it slightly while matching the rooty/vegetal aspect of iris root (orris), also angelica and ambrette (from the musk mallow plant) which enhances the metallic haze or mineral-soil aspect of orris. Angelica has an anisic or fennel quality, and taken as a whole I think this combination is truly inspired. In the base there's a light, dry cedar which is the perfect choice for a base note here.

The feeling is poetic, moist green, twilit violet, inky cool and oddly reassuring. Also for some reason it makes me think of Boticelli portraits. I apologise in advance for this ridiculousness but it makes me feel like wearing faded silk, reclining in an over-grown garden and being serenaded by a mandolin, probably something by Purcell. 

Sillage soft but persistent, longevity around 5 hours. This is a perfume that's ideally suited to Spring I feel. Pricy but worth its weight in iris bulbs.

Infusion d'Iris, by Prada
I sought out this perfume in 2008 while working on a year-long contract in Stoke on Trent in the West Midlands. A strange time of mixed emotions. Inevitably when I first moved there I pined for the sea, hills and forests of Scotland, and began to search online for a suitable fragrance to evoke a homely mood, which is really when my love and appreciation of perfume began to deepen.

One of these days scientists will invent an app that allows us to smell a perfume at the click of an internet button, anything's possible. But all I had to go on was descriptions of notes since Stoke on Trent shops didn't yet stock this. I bought it blind and when it arrived I reverently unwrapped it, taking my time to fully appreciate the experience. Infusion d'Iris isn't a 'high-end' perfume, it's affordable with most budgets and it's now one of the best selling perfumes out there. 

It was created by Daniela Roche-Andrier for Prada in 2007 and although it's by a mainstream designer, to my mind it was fairly ground-breaking. As other reviewers have pointed out, its inclusion of Orris (Iris flower root - one of the most expensive ingredients in perfumery) was perhaps due to the fact that orris extraction methods had become more streamlined and therefore cheaper around this time.

Orris nearly always lends a nostalgic mood to perfume, some might say sad, even funereal and it has a slightly vintage feel since it was used extensively by high quality perfume houses such as Guerlain and Chanel in most of their perfumes from the 20s to 70s in particular. 

To me it never tips into funereal, it's evocative, slightly dreamy, and this is why Infusion d'Iris's earthy vetiver, subtle woody incense and creamy orange blossom combined with the drifting nostalgic note of orris to produce the perfect perfume for that time of my life. Breathing it in was the olfactory equivalent of an imaginary walk in the Highlands - a gentle caress of perfumed forest.

Sillage soft, longevity around 4 hours, the opening is citrus/floral and it dries down to iris/vetiver

Sun-dappled Leaves and Herbs

Philosykos, by Diptyque

Now that I've had a few years with this as one of my favourites, I feel I know its personality inside out. The fig is deliciously dusty, silky and slightly under-ripe which gives it an astringent green tone. The cedarwood is sun-warmed, restful and comforting and there's a smidgen of coconut which adds the slightest edge of warm sweetness to round out the perfume as a whole

But alongside that loveliness there's a subtle quality in this perfume like the fresh air of a perfect beach holiday in Greece - it's late afternoon, you're lying underneath a cedar tree, the beach is quiet now - just the slight echoing sound of children's voices playing near the lapping water. A delicious breeze wafts past,the first breeze of the afternoon, wonderfully refreshing - you feel awake to nature, fully in the moment.

This is Oliva Giacobetti's second take on a fig-centered perfume, the first is Premier Figuier by L'Artisan, but for me and most others Philosykos is fig tree perfected. Giacobetti's perfume are nearly always characterised by a slightly drifting atmosphere which lends an abstract quality alongside recognisable notes

This is very fresh, green and woody and there's a touch of sweetness that reminds me of an under-ripe banana.

I recommend the EDP for longevity, though the EDT is more affordable and also lovely, but you'll need to re-spray or use more than usual for it to last.

Au thé Vert, by Bulgari
Au Thé Vert's green is mostly about salads, herbs and citruses as opposed to woods and mosses. This is a classic by the genius of 'transparency' in perfumes Jean Claude Elena, who created this in the 90s for Bulgari. He's created many more in similar vein, most recently for Hermes - Un Jardin du Mediterranee and Un Jardin Sur le Nil. But my favourite is still Au Thé Vert. 

It's basically a development on the theme of eau de cologne, similarly light, yet more elegant and complex. It has a subtle floral, herby nuttiness - a lovely accord of orange blossom facets (neroli), citruses, cardamom and of course, green tea. The tea feel is implied in its fresh quality rather than as a noticeable note, but what this really reminds me of is a jug of iced water fragranced with citrus slices, flower petals, lemon verbena and possibly a tiny touch of cucumber.

It's perfect for summer and I remember wearing it on a trip in 2001 to see the Venice Bienale. It was a work-related trip in mid-June and involved a lot of traipsing around galleries at the mercy of a slightly manic gallery director, which can be fairly exhausting in the heat. I counted 5 blisters on my poor feet after three days, but I wore Au Thé Vert and felt cooled and calmed.

Sillage light, longevity a few hours

Fresh-cut florals
Baiser Vole by Cartier
This deceptively simple lily soliflore has an elegant, yet fluffy cloud-like quality that belies the listed ingredients of 'lily and green notes'. On opening I'm reminded of a floral shampoo scent, but into its heart notes Baiser Vole (meaning 'stolen kiss') develops green, peppery facets,  alongside a subtle and very light vanilla - like fresh-cut lilies just beginning to release their angelic scent on a sunny morning.

(Previous review here, scroll down to review - Baiser Vole) 

A La Nuit by Serge Lutens

Lutens perfumes often tend towards challenging for those more used to mainstream perfumes, and A La Nuit's opening notes feel like no exception - there's a quite powerful fruity, pear-like note that almost reminds me of nail polish remover! But within 15 minutes a dewy, mildly indolic and very authentic jasmine appears.

Jasmine absolute has a fresh aromatic green quality alongside a fleshy, slightly fecal heaviness, the former quality in mainstream perfumes is usually more enhanced to create a clean aroma not dissimilar to jasmine scented tea, while the latter's heavy, animalic qualities are often enhanced in perfume classics such as Patou's Joy. In A La Nuit a balance is struck with addition of fruity grenadine which opens the bouquet so it resembles the aroma of true jasmine flowers that wafts in the evening air, clove, which subtly cuts through the viscous feel of jasmine, and warm benzoin with a clean musk dry-down which extends longevity.

Sheldrake (the in house 'nose' for Serge Lutens) has used three jasmine absolutes in A La Nuit which is maybe why it was descried by Tania Sanchez in 'Perfumes, a Guide' as 'Death by jasmine'.  I get the feeling though, that she didn't stick around for the dry-down, which is almost skin-scent light. It does last on clothes till the next day, like a little touch of warm tropical steam from a green-tinted glass hothouse, on a chilly afternoon in Edinburgh I love it, but if you're not keen on jasmine it's best avoided!

Lastly, on the right a symphony in green; Traquair House in the Scottish Borders, looking out onto a garden maze.

All photos © Rose Strang

Friday, December 13, 2013

Feminite du Bois - Shiseido and Lutens comparison review

Photo, Rose Strang
Serge Lutens Feminite du Bois Shiseido Feminite du Bois

The sensuous and cedar-woody perfume for women, Feminite du Bois was, to the dismay of those who loved it, discontinued by Shiseido in the late 90s then re-formulated in 2009 by Serge Lutens. I've had a full bottle of this lovely stuff since 2011, but I've always wondered what the original formulation was like. 

Curiosity led to my buying a small decant (from Surrender to of the original Shiseido version of FdB, created in 1992, so I can offer my humble opinion on differences between the two, bearing in mind I'm not a perfumer of course, just a perfume appreciator. 

For this reason, after noting down my comparisons, I asked for opinions from fellow perfume reviewers online, and it seems that other than a few minor differences in detail, most of us share the same general impressions, though of course there are exceptions! 

Before I begin to compare and contrast, I'd say that generally both versions have a similarly natural wood/plum/spice boozy yet light/transparent quality. The effect is sensual, grounded and relaxing and it is indeed a feminine take on cedar wood (which is traditionally more evident in masculine perfumes). But FdB has no frills, the tone is autumnal and redolent of harvested fruits. The cedar is utterly authentic, full of wood sap and reminiscent of the scent when you pull the cork on a bottle of excellent Syrah wine - an astringent, mouth-drawing purple tanin scent, alongside the dry pencil-shavings note cedar always contains

Onto comparisons..

Shiseido - Honey, carnation, ginger, cedar, cinnamon, rose, orange blossom, plum, violet, peach, beeswax, cloves, cardamom, sandalwood, musk, benzoin, vanilla

Lutens - Cedar, cinnamon, plum, peach, clove, yland, violet, orange blossom, ginger, rose, vanilla, musk, sandalwood, benzoin

The Shiseido version opens with more florals and fruit, there's a drier aspect to the cedar (pencil shavings) but at the same time a fruitier or more moist quality due to florals/fruits. Shiseido's FdB reveals a distinct animalic or indolic orange blossom. (indolic refers to the slightly sweaty or fecal note in some natural flowers - to get to know this quality sniff a bottle of pure organic jasmine absolute.)

Orange blossom in Shiseido's FdB is very clear to my nose because I have an absolute of orange blossom which I occasionally wear. I don't pick this up quite so much in the Lutens, so this, and a tiny touch of civet (urinous note) adds up to the fact that Shiseido's FdB is more animalic and distinctly more floral but with a lovely clean, transparent violet enhancing the plum. 

I believe there's a slight 'five-spices' note in the Shiseido (reminds me of Chinese cooking) which must be due to Cinnamon and clove, yet this 5 spices/chinese cooking aroma isn't clear in the Lutens which also contains cinnamon and clove. I suspect this might be the stronger plum in Shiseido, since plum sauce is a feature in Chinese cooking!

All in all, the differences are fairly subtle, but I'd describe the Lutens as slightly greener, less floral and with more cedar. I believe the Shiseido is more complex and for want of a better word - prettier. Sillage isn't actually very different, but while the Shiseido lasts slightly longer, both dry down to a close-to-skin scent that's detectable as you waft past, not like, say, Opium or Coco, which unless worn very lightly tend to enter the room before you do. Also, in dry down both focus on cedar/cinnamon.

Ultimately it makes sense that FdB has a light, natural aesthetic since the Japanese tend not to favour perfumes that shout. But before you fork out for a vintage bottle of Shiseido, you might be just as happy with the Lutens. Or if perfumes tend to disappear on your skin, try Lutens Bois et Fruits which is actually slightly stronger than both.

I'm glad to have finally got the chance to compare and contrast, but the differences aren't huge, as they are for example in Rochas Femme in reformulation. Having said that, I've encountered a few reviews where people note a very marked difference in the two FdBs and infinitely prefer the Shiseido. I also prefer it, but believe the Lutens is a respectable re-formulation.

FdB reviews on other sites:

The Perfumed Dandy  Bois de Jasmin    Olfactoria's Travels

Have you tried one or both of them? What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A Winter Rose (Seasonal rose series)

Briar Rose (Illustration Arthur Rackham)
How do you feel about rose perfumes? Some people perceive rose as a 'Grandmother' note, but this is mostly because of changing perfume fashions and consequent associations. (I'll save that thorny topic for another post).

Suffice to say, two factors have revolutionised the rose in contemporary perfume; Stella McCartney's rose/patchouli best seller Stella, and the rise of niche perfumery and a resurgent interest in the perfumes of the Middle East.

Middle Eastern perfumers mastered the art of the rose perfume back in the mists of time while Europeans were still strangers to the notion of bathing, never mind perfumery. What can I say in the Northern European's defense? It was too cold to bathe until central heating was brought to us by the Romans! Eastern perfumery was originally about religious ritual and perfumed smoke was used to scent clothes rather than skin, even now many Arabian people will scent clothes and hair alone.

Perhaps it behoves me to write about a winter rose perfume, given that my name is Rose and I was born in winter! But mostly I'm going to write about rose perfumes in seasonal categories because there's such a vast, perplexing range.

As far as flowers in perfumery go, I can't think of a flower that has such myriad perfumery moods. Roses in the wild or on the stem smell, well, rosy - with variations on a similar theme. But in perfumery it's far from simple. I love the scent of real roses, in particular the scent of Zephirine Drouhin  - an astonishingly rich-scented deep pink rose. I also love the scent of  Rose Otto (rose extract) from the Bulgarian Rose (otherwise known as Damascena or Centifolia) whose aroma varies from Turkish Delight-like to wine-like and boozy. But of this last variety I've only ever really experienced it in perfumery, also Turkish Delight and rose-flavoured ice-cream from my local Indian grocers! The Tea Rose is one most UK noses will be familiar with - they're almost lemon or apple-scented and originated in the snowy mountains of China, hence their affinity with the cooler UK climate.

It's probably easy to see why the deep, rich Turkish delight or wine-scented Bulgarian Rose lends itself to winter perfumes despite its warmer-climate origins; paired with amber (wood resins), cedar or patchouli, it holds its own in a way the Tea Rose doesn't, not to my nose at least.

I feel that a winter rose has to be intense to release its aroma in chilly weather, and moody, to reflect the dark skies. It has to reflect the formal, rich textures of winter clothing and isn't about the carefree, flesh-revealing mood of summer 

Here are my perfume favourites based on the idea of a winter rose:


Portrait of a Lady, Frederic Malle
This was my first experience of a rose/oud perfume. Oud, or Aoud, is an Arabian perfume note derived from a fungus that grows on Agar wood. Its scent can be medicinal, woody and various other descriptors, but most of all it's pungent, slightly hard-edged and very distinct. In Portrait of a Lady it's paired with high levels of excellent quality rose absolutes, patchouli, red berries, woods and musk. To say it's pungent is an understatement - of all my perfumes this wins out on longevity, to the extent that I only needed to buy a 10ml roller-ball decant as I'd be wary of the randomness of spray with this ferocious perfume. Just as well because it's pricy. PoaL requires just a couple of dabs on the wrist - any more and someone might report you to your local Council

To me it conjures up wooden chests discovered in an ancient castle, filled with red damask and dried rose petals. The red berries note is a surprise - sweetening the perfume yet further adding to its deep-red baroque mood. On skin it heats up to produce a strangely soapy note. It's hot soap though, glowing fresh from a shower, but at the same time decidedly Gothic. If Cathy from Wuthering Heights had a smell this would be it, rain soaked, wind torn, earthy, wild roses and lips stained from wild blackberries. PoaL can be worn by men too, many do wear it, so you can also throw Heathcliffe into this slightly alarming Gothic mix. However, once sniffed, it becomes very more-ish, hovering around you like a rose on fire.
Notes: Rose, patchouli, incense, raspberry, sandalwood, blackcurrant, benzoin, cloves, cinnamon, amber, musk

Voleur de Roses by L'Artisan
This rose/patchouli scent is in a slightly similar vein to Portrait of a Lady, though I'd say less ferocious due to plum in place of red berries (plum tends to be a more relaxed boozy note in perfumes, depending on how it's handled). The rose is more wine-like too and while there's an earthy/soily patchouli there's no oud, which is what gives PoaL its challenging edge and over all this is more relaxed and sensual in mood though far less complex and interesting. On a Goth-meter it wouldn't tip the scale quite like PoaL but it's fairly moody, gentler in dry-down
Patchouli, rose , plum 

Temple Priestesses

Epic Woman, by Amouage Perfumes 
I'll say straight away that this is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful scents I've experienced.

When I heard the name 'Epic Woman', I suppose I cynically imagined Amouage's idea of an epic female to be a pampered lady dripping with diamonds and fur, reclining in the back of her chauffeur-driven car. (Amouage are a high-end perfumery company based in Oman). Luxury for the sake of status alone is pretty repugnant, but Amouage give their carefully selected perfumers an unrestricted budget when it comes to perfume materials, so it would be pretty depressing if they came up with a dud.

Epic has everything, as though on its travels it's picked up every beautiful impression then woven it into the most evocative, exotic and perfectly blended incense ever. In this case the concept of 'Epic' conjures a woman of legend - a poet, warrior, artist and traveller as well as your standard beautiful princess, though the purity of this perfume conjures up Priestess more than Princess

The drydown at first reminded me of the sweet ash left after burning high quality rose incense, and I had to wear this a few evenings to notice its other more subtle facets. I found myself sniffing around for the source of a milky/creamy, sweet incense quality that was drifting around my nose and realised it was Epic. I think it's due to the rose-dominant floral blend, iris-root (orris) and high quality vanilla.

Epic starts with a rich incense/rose/oud, slightly medicinal (Frankincense) and with an intensity that initially reminds me of Portrait of a Lady. But into its heart it becomes far softer and more, well, elegant than PoaL and it veers more to the feminine side. (having said that, on a male friend it retained its medicinal facets into the dry-down, whereas it became softer on my skin)

Epic is probably the most balanced perfume I've ever tried. At the moment I have a small decant, but a full bottle, at about the same price as a decent pair of boots, is worth the price I think!
Notes: Caraway, pink pepper , cinnamon
Rose, geranium, jasmine, tea.
Amber, vanilla, incense, orris root, patchouli, agarwood (oud)

Al Kaaba, by Al Haramein
Another rose/aoud/amber. Al Kaaba is a surprise for the Western nose. Its particular oud makes it smell, quite frankly, like a swimming pool on first application (another roller-ball decant to be applied with caution!). It takes a full hour to heat up to a quite lovely treacle-scented rose. But it does retain a slightly hard-edged feel, which is perhaps only fitting for a perfume that refers to spiritual pilgrimage - it shouldn't come easily. I rarely feel like wearing this but I like having it. It's outstandingly inexpensive too
Notes: Rose, amber, oud

Woolen Muffler

Hiroko Koshino, by Hiroko Koshino
The name alone begins to conjure up a Japanese aesthetic, and it is in many ways. It's a perfume about natural and pure essences of nature, and it has a very light incense quality that's more Japan than India. But put the name aside and this is also very reminiscent, to my nose, of high quality rose pot-pourri. Proper pot-pourri has a chypre-like (resins, oakmoss and bergamot) accord thanks to oakmoss. The general feel is dry and light yet complex. Wearing this perfume I was transported to an ancient mansion house in York I visited some years ago, which was restored exactly as it would have been in the 16th cent. All around was the scent of aged wood, old Turkish carpets and a dried damask rose scent from the pot-pourri made from an Elizabethan recipe. Hiroko Koshino also has a natural ambrette musk (made from the Musk Mallow plant) which always gives an old fashioned hazy air to a perfume - what I'd describe as a clean cat fur quality. So it's this, and the sense of warm wood and dried rose, that gives this perfume its calming, cosy wool feel.
Notes: Cassis, green tea, rose, camellia, amber seeds, lotus, lily of the valley, jasmine, ylang-ylang, freesia, incense, Tonka, cedar, Guaiac wood, patchouli, sandalwood and agar wood.

Parfum Sacre, by Caron
For all its spicy notes, Parfum Sacre dries down to a light rose/soft incense sort of perfume. It's beautifully blended and has a very pretty, soapy rose.The spices are well blended and warm, not at all harsh. As it warms on skin the rose and black pepper become far more soft. There's a distinct touch of smoke, or incense smoke, in Parfum Sacre, hence why the title refers to a sacred perfume and the scent of holy rituals perhaps. But this isn't a Catholic Mass, it's on a more introspective, intimate scale somehow, and perhaps this is why I associate the gorgeous soft rose/wood incense with woolen mufflers - walking through the woods on a frosty day with the faint smell of woodsmoke in the air. 
Notes: Myrhhr, rose, pepper, cardamom, vanilla, cinnamon, musk, clove, jasmine, mimosa, orange

A Perfume for Christmas

Winter Chinoiserie (detail) Rose Strang

What do you associate with Christmas? Capitalism unleashed? Roasting chestnuts? Mind-numbing seasonal pop songs, or a time to reflect and be with loved ones?

There's something a little soul-less in the mad rush before Christmas and I know I'm not alone in wishing people didn't feel the need to spend so much. But despite all that, I love Christmas Eve and the day itself. I'll usually venture into the cold with a family member to collect holly and ivy and in our family the tradition has always been to cook everything from scratch. So almost a month before the day itself my Mum can be found drenching home-made Christmas cake with brandy and on Christmas Eve she'll be cooking up cranberries, orange peel and cloves and whipping up brandy butter for the pudding. 

When Christmas Eve arrives, I always feel like a magic wand has been waved over all the hectic-ness, the rainy streets and frantic shoppers. I still feel a thrill, even now.

Here are my perfume recommendations based on the varying moods of Christmas:

Christmas gourmet 

Cimabue (Italian Journey no.8) by DSH Perfumes

I have to begin with this slightly hard-to-find niche perfume as it represents my personal holy grail Christmas perfume. This is a gorgeous gourmet concoction that conjures up an almost medieval mix of spice and citrus. The perfume is inspired by early Renaissance painter Cimabue (pronounced cheemabway), and if all this sounds a bit precious, the perfume itself belies this - it's a beautifully blended, warm, comfort scent and quite literally foody in style despite the many, many ingredients. The perfumer or nose of the perfume is Dawn Spencer Hurwitz whose perfumes contain more natural essences than most mainstream perfumes. The natural style means the perfume doesn't shout, it's intense but stays fairly close to skin - though as you waft past you'll smell good enough to eat.

The general impression is orange citrus zinginess alongside tinglingly warm spices and a comforting nutty/milky depth that reminds me of home-made rice pudding or basmati laced with saffron and there's an odd but lovely scent of uncooked Christmas cake batter. Saffron is a dominant note in Cimabue and it's this, combined with vanilla and beeswax that lends it its comforting quality.

Notes: Neroli, nutmeg, cardamom, bergamot, amalfi lemon, bitter orange and clementine.

Carnation, jasmine, geranium, tuberose, beeswax, saffron, clove, cinnamon and rose.
French labdanum, sandalwood, opoponax, benzoin and vanilla.

Fendi Theorema by Fendi

This has a Christmas foody retro vibe, opening with ripe orange-citrus fruitiness that develops into smooth spicy warmth. It reminds me of the aftermath of a marathon Christmas cooking session. Clove is a predominant note, so taken literally (and of all perfume styles, gourmet is perhaps the least abstract) this conjures up a clove-studded orange, right down to the sweet, slightly over-ripe note of a drying orange cut through with clean, medicinal clove. It dries down to a slightly generic but cosy amber. Interestingly there's also a slight touch of sweetened coffee. Chilled out, relaxed and sensual.

Notes: Orange, nutmeg, orange blossom, pepper, jasmine, lemon, brazilian rosewood, cardamom and rose hip

Carnation, cinnamon, osmanthus, ylang-ylang, rose, spices
Siam benzoin, guaiac wood, sandalwood, amber and patchouli.

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire

Bois des Iles, Chanel Les Exclusifs Range
Pricy, but once sniffed never forgotten, Bois des Iles is one of the first ever woody perfumes for women, designed in 1926 by Ernest Beaux for Coco Chanel. But lest you're wary of vintage scents, I must say that in my opinion, this is timeless. As Luca Turin (he of 'Perfumes, The Guide' fame) mentioned, Bois des Iles does for sandalwood what Cuir de Russie does for leather. 

When I first tried it I thought 'What's all the fuss about?' It opens with a somewhat clean/classic Chanel accord of soapy floral aldehydes. But then in the dry-down I experienced that classic moment of 'what smells so gorgeous in here? Ah, it's me!'. It's reputed to have a ginger-bread note, and in fact it does, but mostly what this reminds me of is sitting next to an open fire - specifically the scent of a wicker basket full of logs warming on the hearth. There's even a touch of warm metal, and a little clean soap. This perfume is like drying next to the fire in a warm fluffy towel after your bath. It doesn't get much more cosy, yet clean!

Notes: Aldehydes, bergamot, neroli and peach

Jasmine, rose, lily of the valley, woody iris and ylang-ylang..
Vetiver, sandalwood, benzoin and musk

Le Baiser du Dragon, by Cartier

Where Bois des Iles is cosy, Le Baiser du Dragon (The kiss of the dragon) does indeed have a touch of flame, or perhaps flambé might be more accurate because there's a touch of booze and roasted almonds here. Le Baiser du Dragon is quite a strong scent, so not one I'd recommend for around the dinner table at Christmas, but for collecting your holly and Ivy, it doesn't get much better. This is like being curled up in a warm oak wardrobe.There's a touch of immortelle (the fragrant slightly curry-like herb that grows on Mediterranean coastlines) and musk, which lends this is a tawny, golden aspect. Definitely not one for summer! There's something magical and moving in this perfume, I was reminded of Lucy in the wardrobe from the Narnia Chronicles. It doesn't get more 'Christmasy' than that..
Notes: Bitter almond, amaretto, neroli, orange, gardenia
Cedar, dark chocolate, musk, vetiver, patchouli and benzoin resin.

Let it snow, let it snow

L'Eau d'Hiver, by Frederic Malle

Powdery, sweet and soft, this will satisfy those who aren't keen on the heavier winter perfumes. This is so delicate it will remind you of a snowflake melting onto your skin. It's a contradiction of most winter-styled perfumes. Created by John Claude Elena for Malle. Elena's perfumes (in the last decade or so) are renowned for their 'transparency'. A quality that's difficult to achieve in perfume without forgoing longevity. A more well-known example of his style is the lovely summer perfume Au thé Vert

Diorissimo, by Dior 

If we're going with the idea of an atypical Christmas scent that conjures up snow, I'd say there's nothing more white and luminous than Dior's Diorissimo. It's a well known classic, but if you know this perfume well and associate it with spring, just imagine wearing it on a winter's day walk, with snowdrops sparkling as they emerge from a blanket of snow. Quite magical really.
This wittily titled perfume is in a style that took me many years to appreciate. I always saw it as sterotypically feminine and too brightly white. A deeper appreciation of perfume has taught me that this is really a genius creation, and its whiteness isn't harsh, though it is radiant. It was created by perfumer Edmond Roudnitska for Dior in the 50s. There's no such thing as an absolute of lily of the valley, so he created it using 'head-space technology' - i.e. by analyzing the aroma molecules around the flower and re-creating them. The technique has been perfected today, but it takes art more than science to create this abundant scent of ultra-feminine lily of the valley petals. It also has a touch of civet which warms it up on the skin and gives it a slight animalic touch, quite appropriate for a wild river valley!

Gold, frankincense and myrrh 

Incense Rosé, by Andy Tauer
This is a very fruity wine-like rose and the perfume as a whole reminds me intensely of mulled wine and Christmas time. I use whole spices regularly, not just in cooking but in coffee, I've also burned pure Frankincense and Myrrh resin on charcoal on occasion, so this is all very familiar territory

It reminds me of a good mulled wine that's been made with a perfect balance of rich red wine, fresh spices and citrus - the kind I like to make for a small get together with friends pre Christmas - with no stinting on ingredients and care. Sniffing this is almost like inhaling steam from gently heated mulled wine in a big pan.

I prefer wine-like, or Turkish Delight-like rose to the sharper tea roses so I'm supposing this is the effect of Bulgarian rose, or rose otto, anyway it adds to the fruitiness. Frankincense and myrrh add to the Christmas feel. The longevity is powerful and the quality impressive.

For folks too busy to be bothered with the rigmarole of making mulled wine from scratch, or seeking out expensive resin from obscure suppliers, I recommend this as a mood perfume - for an air of Elizabethan kitchen, Middle Eastern temple and Christmas mood all rolled into one
Elixir, by Penhaligons

For a pure, meditative mood I can't recommend Elixir highly enough. It's my favourite from the entire Penhaligon's range and gave me one of those 'Aaaah' moments when I first tried it on skin. Some incense perfumes conjure up heavy, medicinal incense, but Elixir retains an airiness and light warmth. And if you suffer from any residual Catholic guilt this won't weigh you down either! There's Frankincense, but also cinnamon, florals and warm comforting benzoin resin. The airiness is probably thanks to the lovely dry note of Eucalyptus leaf. If you've ever sniffed these on the tree you know what I mean, it's not medicinal, but it is refreshing. I'm definitely reminded of Greece and the Middle East.

Cardamom, cinnamon, eucalyptus 

Turkish rose, Egyptian jasmine, orange blossom
White cedar, rosewood, benzoin, Tonka, vanilla, Guaiac wood, incense.

What are your Christmas favourites?