Since the perfume world has taken a decided turn eastwards in the last decade, there have been many more releases that smell of their Middle Eastern predecessors. Did it all start with Andy Tauer’s L’Air du Desert Marocain?
I don’t know, but I find these perfumes to be compelling in the same way that the Arabian Dance from the Nutcracker is, trailing plumes of scent after them through the unhurried still air of the seraglio like a neglected odalisque might trail a Chinese silk, as though they had nothing better to do in life, than beguile away an empty afternoon.
Nor do they. They are so many Sheherazades, telling stories of love and war, of betrayal, of death in the palace by poison, of the murder of overstock princes by garrote. By turns savage and civilized, a universe bound by the covers of The Arabian Nights, preferred reading of mine when I was ten, and everyone else was reading The Pink Fairy Book.
L’Air du Desert about which I have written, is a great favorite with many of the perfume confraternity. I am currently wearing Mr. Tauer’s tribute to Arabia Deserta on my pinkie finger, and it does manage to conjure up the supremely dry air of deserts. You wouldn’t want to be out in those mummifying winds, and yet they were the favorite haunts of mystics, including Simeon Stylites atop his column near Aleppo.
Also St. Anthony, the desert hermit, constantly interrupted at his prayers by every kind of unearthly visitor, from demons to seductresses, all orchestrated by Satan, that tireless impresario. The perfume is extremely evocative, and wearable at the same time, but it is a perfume of empty space, and of atmospheres that seem to rise uninterrupted to the sun.
In other words, not the sort of place where most people get on with the business of living, L’Air is all about the desert as a mystic’s no man’s land, full of mirages and visions, and that brings me to the two other perfumes of this post, both dreams of opulence and decadence, sent to befuddle a hermit’s mind.
Portrait of a Lady is the first. I didn’t know this perfume until Undina kindly sent me a sample, and I have been unable to form an opinion on it since. Except that it is a rose wood of great elegance, and considerable lasting power. The notes to it are as mystifying as anything St. Anthony ever dreamt of: cinnamon, rose, clove, elemi, benzoin, sandalwood, black currant, amber, musk and…raspberry? It has all the shaded inscrutability of a stone colonnade at Topkapi Palace, and no doubt conceals just as many mysteries in the darker alcoves.
Portrait dries down to a skin as soft as Sultan’s favorite. The only thing I’ve smelled like it is Jacques Polge’s Diva, the perfume done for Emanuel Ungaro before that was dumbed down. There is the same sort of drawn out honeyed ending. But if there is any criticism of this scent, it might be that Portrait is a bit sobersided, a trifle dark. But then, if you want a lighter story, you find yourself back out in the blazing sunscapes of the Middle East. It’s either brilliant glare or shadows, there isn’t very much transition between extremes.
Last on my list is the late Mona di Orio’s Oud. This one confuses me nearly as much as Portrait. The notes listed for the scent are all over the place. There’s nagarmotha and cedarwood and Laotian oud, and osmanthus and lord knows what else. Oud comes off as distinctly animalic, which is odd, since aside from musk, there really isn’t an animalic component. But then Mona always did have an affinity for skin, and practically nothing of hers was ever quite floral, or oriental, or woody, because they were also, and simultaneously animalic.
What Mona’s Oud reminds me of faintly is Bal a Versailles-only a trans-Bospherus version of that famous old animalic. Bal was the beloved scent of Liz Taylor, owner of many un-house-broken lap dogs. Including the Pekingese pair she shared with Richard Burton named Oh Fie! and Ee’en So. Their various places probably smelled like Mona’s Oud, or like Bal, and, of course, doggie poop.
Mona’s though is far more fabulous: dried phoenix poop, or something that came through the business end of a mythical beast woven into an Oriental carpet.
Perhaps that is the one thing that all these perfumes have in common on my skin: they don’t quite convince me, they don’t quite seem real. Time to close the book.