Having recently written about myrrh, I’ve had it somewhat on the brain. Myrrh is one of those notes that you think you know or think you like, except, I find, when it’s actually under your nose and then you remember: “Oh yes, there’s that note.”
I’m not sure if all myrrh worth discussing is bitter, but the two myrrh notes that I know best are. They are inside two veteran perfumes, Coty’s L’Aimant and Jean Patou’s Caline. It was Meg of Parfumieren who first introduced me to L’Aimant. It’s an aldehydic floral that is, to my way of thinking, much easier to wear than No 5.
I know, that’s an outrageous statement, but in my experience the old Cotys are almost flawlessly wearable. There’s no insistence on being avant garde, or opinionated. The Cotys are simply lovely on skin. But to return to my point about myrrh, about ½ way through the evaporation of L’Aimant, you get the note.
This may be remarkably good timing because up until then L’Aimant is an altogether amorphous creature, more cloud-like than No 5, so soft in fact that you would think it needed a component to stiffen it up a bit, a chemical corset or something. Generally with most contemporary perfumes the boning effect would come from a wood note, or from…that topical cliché Iso e Super.
In old L’Aimant, however, it comes from myrrh, which is initially soft, a soft, fuzzily napped resin, very like the skin of a peach. You wouldn’t suspect it of being opinionated, but then it lets off a very passive-aggressive series of comments on your skin, that make you think you had better straighten up and stop slobbing around. In other words, and just as in finishing schools in the last century, myrrh gives you that slight edge that elegance requires.
You can smell myrrh doing the same sort of work in Patou’s Caline. That one uses myrrh as a finish to the evaporation and it is beautiful, but also bitter as myrrh generally is. Since the early sections of Caline are really a green floral/chypre, you get a kind of soapy scent popular in the 1960s, before the myrrh section finally arrives. The whole fragrance is biting, scrubbed, proper, and then you get simultaneously an oakmoss note, rather whiffy and animalic, and even more whiffy, the myrrh.
The final drydown comes along as a kind of aftermath of musk and amber, but before that, the fragrance has been almost exclusively a myrrh scent for at least an hour on my skin. Perhaps Caline, a scent composed originally for teenagers, suggests that there is something a little bitter sweet about growing up. But myrrh gives the whole perfume a poignancy, and a depth that it would never have had as just another 60’s green floral.
It occurred to me, hopelessly late, that the composition of Serge Lutens La Myrrhe of 1995 owes a debt of gratitude to both of these fragrances. Possibly Serge himself was not familiar with them, but probably his perfumer Christopher Sheldrake was, and the combination of myrrh and aldehydes, so much praised by Tania Sanchez in The Guide, turns out not to be all that original. Patou had done it in 1964 and Coty had done it in 1927, which suggests that, once again, Coty was the true innovator here.
Oh well, there never is anything quite new under the sun, and certainly not when you are dealing with something as very old as myrrh. If it could move along the silk road a thousand years ago, it can certainly share space in the same bottle with some aldehydes.