dimanche 11 septembre 2011

Myrrhiad by Pierre Guillaume for Huitième Art: Tears for Adonis

In coining a portmanteau word to christen the ninth fragrance of his Huitième Art collection, Pierre Guillaume has operated within the poetic logic of perfume. Aromatic materials literally are olfactory portmanteau words, conjuring through their facets objects that exist separately in the real world (for instance, vetiver: smoke, grapefruit, flint, wood, etc.) and splicing them together. In Lautréamont’s words: “the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella”. The perfumer’s mind is the dissecting table where these things are teased apart and reconnected in different proportions: like the poet, his work is not to represent reality but to operate on the physical reality of his materials (the “smell-words”), as well as on the many cultural connotations they have accrued throughout the centuries (the verbal words).

So, given:
1/ Myriad, from the Greek muriades, “ten thousand” or “a very great number”;
2/ Myrrh, from the Latin murra/myrrha, itself borrowed from the Greek, possibly originating from the root mrr, “to be bitter”, attested in all ancient Semitic languages.

One of the oldest aromatic materials used by mankind, myrrh carries a myriad of stories in its wake.  For instance: the Greek myth of Myrrha, the princess who incestuously conceived Adonis with her father and was transformed into a myrrh tree, whose split bark gave birth to the young god. Or the Gospels, where it appears at the birth of Jesus, as a gift borne by one of the three Wise Men, and again after his death, when it is brought to the sepulcher by Mary Magdalene – the patron saint of perfumers – to embalm him. Myrrh is as bitter as tears.

Myrrh was also burnt, like incense, as an offering to the gods, and like incense, its mythical essence is related to combustion. According to Pliny the Elder, both resins were harvested in Arabia when Sirius was rising, i.e. at the time when the sun was hottest. They were therefore thought to be the earthly substances most in affinity with the Sun and, being the least humid, the closest matter could come to incorruptibility (to know more, read Marcelle Détienne's The Gardens of Adonis).
It is this fiery nature of myrrh that Guillaume addresses in Myrrhiad. Where La Myrrhe (Serge Lutens) brightens it with aldehydes and Myrrhe Ardente (Annick Goutal) stresses its balsamic aspects, Myrrhiad bends it towards the alchemical operation of calcinatio.
The smoky/burnt note that binds its different materials could actually be thought of as the overlap between the bitter (mrr) and the sweet (caramel). Which, of course, falls smack into Pierre Guillaume’s favorite register (perfume, when it is not an entirely marketing-driven product, is what occurs at the point of intersection between what the materials say and what they say to the perfumer).

Guillaume teases out the different facets of myrrh by setting it in materials that both connect with myrrh: vanilla (balsamic, medicinal, woody), and licorice (balsamic, coumarinic/almondy, woody, burnt sugar, anisic). He then adds a further, original twist with black tea absolute, and it is this twist that conjures the oldest memories of myrrh… The smokiness in black tea alludes to the smoke of burnt offerings. Its burnt/tarry facet works with the darker facets of vanilla and the burnt effect of licorice to draw the fragrance towards leather and therefore, towards the use of myrrh in embalmment – embalmed skin is, to a certain extent, tanned (I am indebted to Octavian Coifan’s numerous posts on the matter for this insight).

Thankfully, this funereal connotation remains well within the subtext of the fragrance. For the wearer, Myrrhiad is a hypnotically sweet, dark potion with an affinity for warm, living skin: it feels as though it were exuded through the pores rather than sprayed on. Its sillage is a little subdued, oddly for such potent notes at a 15% concentration; it is long-lasting but fairly simple in its evolution. As it fades quietly, it pivots from a more predominant licorice effect to a more distinctly myrrh-like drydown: myrrh’s mossy/mushroomy facets never develop, at least on my skin. Throughout, it stays in that sweet spot Pierre Guillaume seems most draw to, at the edge of edibility, but never crosses over into the gourmand.
Perhaps it was only a matter of time before the handsome perfumer turned his attention to the mother of Adonis: he’s done her proud.

Myrrhiad will be launched in October.

Illustration: "The Birth of Adonis" by Marcantonio Franceschini, c.1685-90,Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden 

10 commentaires:

  1. Beatifully written, as always. The idea that scent notes carry a wealth of meaning, and that the perfumer combines them to create a specific message is what makes perfume art.

    A scent can be appreciated for its straightforward beauty and harmony, like a painting or piece of music. It can also be appreciated on a deeper level in its historical context. Our subconscious fills in the language of the scent notes.

    I haven't smelled this, and yet I have a mental image of the fragrance. You paint an amazing word picture, and I look forward to experiencing the scent. I also look forward to your book. Please keep us updated on your progress. Be well.

  2. Hemlock Sillage, that's one thing I believe: that even when we're not aware of it, we perceive the cultural heritage certain smells trail with them... Just like words. There are resonances.

  3. I've only ever worn one myrrh perfume, by L'Erbolario (Italian brand). It was very light and pleasant, but still had those interesting bitter facets. Most of the time, myrrh brings up associations of ancient medicine. It's still used as an antiseptic by natural/herbal healers, especially as a mouthwash! B. Duchaufour used to use its bitter facets extensively, now, not so much. I couldn't stand the Goutal version. Love the Lutens. I'll have to give this one a try if it crosses my path someday!

  4. Marla, as I was researching the subject I ran across references in the Gospels where Jesus was offered wine mixed with either gall or myrrh. The hypothesis was that the myrrh acted as some kind of narcotic, and that "doctored" wines were given to the condemned. The fact that Mark and Matthew mention gall and myrrh (maybe a translation problem?) points to the bitterness. I haven't included this in the post as it was long enough as it is...
    I'm also a great fan of La Myrrhe which I consider one of the best of the Lutens line. This is very different and well worth trying.

  5. Yes, that's Mark 15:23, regular wine with myrrh, but Jesus refused it. Matthew, a later gospel, says sour wine and gall, but I usually go with Mark. Myrrh was offered as a narcotic/poison to the condemned just before crucifixion so that they would die much more quickly, just like a garotte was frequently offered to those about to be burnt as heretics (or a bag of gunpowder around the neck), for the same reason. What a conversation! Ack!

  6. Marla, well, I can't say I have a standard M.O. of any sort with the gospels, or any preference as far as apostles are concerned, unless a composer has put their name to a piece of music. But definitely, you can't escape talk of death with myrrh: that's why it resonates so deeply I suppose.

  7. Sounds beautiful. And if there is anyone whose take on myrrh I can see myself wearing, it very well might be PG's.

  8. Anotherperfumeblog, it's beautiful and wearable indeed!

  9. Very much looking forward to this! I love La Myrrhe. PG Cozé is my favorite patchouli perfume, and I admire several of his others. Myrrh does seem like a perfect theme for his style. ~~nozknoz

  10. Nozknoz, you're right, it is a note that suits his style, with that little weirdness he always like to slip in...