This spring, my sense of smell has been swinging from obliterated (hay fever) to madly receptive, as though my entire body were a resonance room for scented molecules, connected to a brain clearly looking for olfactory mating. I’ve fallen in love with the most oddly diverse fragrances, from the fiercely smoky (Patchouli 24, Turtle Vetiver) to the sensuously majestic (Bois de Violette, Féminité du Bois) and the tenderly elegant (L’Heure Exquise, Eau Première), which makes me feel utterly like Mozart’s young Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro:
…And I find myself talking of love
From a need I can't explain.
I talk of love when waking
I talk of love when dreaming,
To the water, to the shadows, to the mountains,
To the flowers, to the grass, to the fountains,
To the echoes, to the air, to the winds…
My tastes have been all over the map, and it’s been hard settling on particularly spring-like smells. I’ve counted out classics like Diorissimo, Vent Vert and N°19: the two first are good as dead in their current form and the third is such an obvious choice for the season that it seems to go without saying. Which leaves us with quite enough to play with…
A Clump of Violets in the Twilit Woods... Serge Lutens Bois de Violette
Oh, where have you been all my life? Amethyst shards inlaid in precious woods… I’ve always shied away from the mawkish mauve charms of Victorian violet posies, the shy wood flowers of spring, but the way the metallic-powdery-woody ionones light up the oily, resinous density of the cedar is nothing short of genius.
Black Wet Earth under the Melting Snow... Histoires de Parfums Noir Patchouli
The one thing I miss about Canada is the smell of earth as it emerges from its snowy coat… A trainee at Histoires de Parfums’ press office, who reads this blog, kindly sent me a full set of samples of this line, which I’d somehow obstinately overlooked. I haven’t made it further than Sylvie Jourdet’s Noir Patchouli yet but this dark, chypre-woody blend has converted me. This veers as far from headshop patchoulis as can be conceived, with just a hint of leather, wet earth and mossy roots (vetiver, a smidge of tree moss), freshened up with a whiff of clove, sweetened with musk and vanilla. Somehow it manages to feel rather transparent.
Primal Green Therapy... Les Nez Turtle Vetiver
Isabelle Doyen’s rough-and-tumble take on vetiver manages to start out smelling practically of nothing but pure vetiver oil – with its borderline nasty camphoraceous blast – before veering unexpectedly into the mineral and salty, then taking a sharp turn into citrus (grapefruit and lemon) and sneakily subsiding into a floral blend of what seems to be jasmine and rose… Surprising, gutsy and totally compelling.
Sap explosion in a Field of Flowers... Parfums de Nicolaï Le Temps d’une Fête
During my honeymoon by Lake Como in Italy, we stumbled on a field embroidered with thousands of wildflowers, like a medieval tapestry under the misty sky of May… Le Temps d’une Fête has the feel of that magical glade. Hyacinth is a natural partner to galbanum (the accord is also found in Vent Vert and Chanel Bel Respiro, which would have made the list if it weren’t so damnably fleeting on my skin), but then narcissus, with its animalic whiff of tobacco and horse, joins the party and things really start rolling on a earthy bed of oakmoss, sandalwood and patchouli. This has a classic chypre feel: how could I not love it? It’s one of those fragrances you might want to stock up on too before it’s spayed by IFRA.
Mimosas in a Puddle after a Spring Shower... Frédéric Malle Une Fleur de Cassie
Mimosa is another early bloomer in the South of France, and Une Fleur de Cassie, with its rounded anisic tones, the metallic coolness of violet and iris and the animal slash of cumin, conveys the exact feel of a blustery day in March, when the clouds blow over and a sprinkling of golden pompons scattered in muddy puddles light up like tiny novas in the sun. I consider this to be one of the best fragrances composed in the past ten years.
Blades of Grass and Irises in a Cloud of Powder... Annick Goutal L’Heure Exquise
Another late discovery. Chanel N°19’s more amiable, approachable sister has the touch of green galbanum that spells leaf buds bursting open, cooled off by a hieratic iris wrapped in rose, but the true delight of this is the powdery Mousse de Saxe base with its licorice-like smidge of isobutyl-quinolin and marron glacé flavor. Utterly lovely for the odd day when I’m feeling ladylike.
The Rococo Light of Dawn in a Freshly Washed Sky... Chanel N°5 Eau Première
In the Chanel-for-spring stakes, I’ve been dithering between N°19, Beige (for the big huge unlisted muguet note nestled in the honeyed hawthorn) and Eau Première, so let’s say the new variation on N°5 won out because it seems to be disappearing the quickest in my collection. I love the dawny, rosy, rococo light infused to the – unwearable for me – classic: this is a Galatea of a scent, a perfect statue come to life.
The Lilies of Easter... Hermessence Vanille Galante
By now, we all know that Jean-Claude Ellena’s take on vanilla is actually a lily, but even though I’m still deeply in love with an earlier vanilla/lily pairing, Serge Lutens’ Un Lys, this light-as-air confection blew my stockings off. A spicy, clove-y, smoky shimmer barely dusted with vanilla-infused sugar than seems to expand into green infinity… Very impressive.
The Orange Blossoms of Seville in the Semana Santa...Vero Profumo Rubj
Orange blossoms have an intensely emotional connotation for me: the first time I smelled in its natural state was on Easter Sunday in Seville. The trees just exploded overnight, and their heady, indolic scent mingled with the incense of religious processions, the rosemary colognes and sandalwood hair gels of the Sevillanos, the big Havana cigars lit up for the season’s first bullfight: it was one of the most intense olfactory experiences of my entire life.
My friend Vero Kern’s Rubj (pronounced “ruby”) manages to turn the sweetish and sometimes acid smell of orange blossom essence into an intoxicating brew of indolic white florals by adding two divas, jasmine and tuberose on a bed of deliciously dirty musk, just barely lightened up with a touch of raspberry. It conveys the lazy Oriental sensuousness of the Jardines de Maria Luisa on a hot spring afternoon.
The Panic Rut of Spring-time... Robert Piguet Bandit
I kind of feel like I’m cheating on this one, because since I’ve discovered the vintage extrait, I can’t take Germaine Cellier’s groundbreaking and unsurpassable classic in any other form. This is one of those fragrances that will compel me to break out in a string of expletives every time I smell it, it’s that good. The old-style nitromusks make the notes jump out in 3-D, and that dirty green vetiver-oakmoss-artemesia wrapping with its aromatic notes hides the most mind-shatteringly gorgeous jasmine heart smeared in leathery castoreum. The current version is as good as they could make it with modern materials and restrictions, but the vintage experience is nothing short of mystical.
For more Spring Top Tens, click on the links: Now Smell This, Bois de Jasmin, The Perfume Posse, Perfume-smellin’ Things. Thank you ladies for inviting me in your magic circle: it is a pleasure and an honor!
Image: Susan Jamison, Curious Bloom