Sometimes intricacy is all I want, and then I go in search of the most detailed perfumery I can find. Of recent years some of my favorite perfumers in this category are the evocative ones. Pierre Bourdon and Chris Sheldrake are still great favorites of mine here, despite Bourdon’s retirement.
Of all the richly layered scents I can think of, their joint composition Feminite du Bois, is one of the most crowded with impressions. The scent’s like stepping into the Hagia Sophia, there is always something else to see and smell inside, even when you thought you already knew it well, because here, just as with the Bosphorus, is one of the touching points of East and West.
Feminite is redesigned. Once among the densest perfumes you could find, not strong exactly, but incorporating something in its warp and woof that made you think you were contemplating a very old masterpiece. The perfume had a quality of ancient-ness to it. Sometimes you notice this with oud perfumes, although in the case of Feminite, the effect was achieved much more economically with cedar wood.
Back in 1993, cedar wood, the best of which came from Texas, was quite inexpensive, and just as with Prada Candy nowadays with its benzoin note, Feminite could count on a kind of resident complexity to depict wood and smoke and beeswax and flowers, weaving the whole thing into something like the great Persian carpets, the Kirmanshahs, patterned with flattened stylized gardens on golden grounds, the flowers of crimson and cream, zig-zagging on mahogany stems. There is, in short something decidedly un western about Feminite. Lots of people have pointed out since that the nouvelle Orientalism of Serge Lutens began with that perfume, but did it?
In fact, the eastward pivoting of French perfumery may have begun earlier (1992) with Parfum Sacre, the strange peppery incensy Caron release. The public liked the fragrance, but so did perfumers, and only a year later Feminite was created. The point about Parfum Sacre was its decidedly Middle Eastern spicy rose, the beginning of which made a great use of mace and cardamom, dry spices cascading over the carnation filled rosy heart, everything burned up eventually on a little pyre of vanilla,myrrh, and cedar wood. The perfume that rose up through this enchanted smoke was at times heavy but always subtle, and easily air born, on golden wings.
Parfum Sacre was a very rare bird indeed, immediately recognizable and quite unforgettable. Feminite went one step further in sublimating the formula, and making it just that little bit more discreet and wearable. Parfum Sacre is still around today, although its only available in edp, and is the burnt out shadow of its first fiery incarnation, but Parfum Sacre was itself the child of an earlier Caron perfume: Or et Noir.
Truly, this fragrance was the beginning of the trend of Eastern perfumery. Released in 1949 as a luxury item, Or et Noir was supposed to re-create the “oriental” rose. This, you can see, is the basis of Parfum Sacre, and by extension, Feminite du Bois as well. Conceived of as too heady for most ladies in the 50’s who would wear chypres, but who were cautious with orientals, sticking with Tabu, Shalimar and Emeraude, rather than reaching into the spice closet or the souk for new effects. Or et Noir remained in limited production. Perhaps it seemed too ethnic then, too redolent of immigrants?
Having worn all three, and given my druthers, it’s the grandmother Or et Noir and the granddaughter Feminite I’d wear again. Or I would, if you could find the fragrances in their original forms. These days you’d need a genie to reproduce them and their enchanted smoke and this is Jersey after all, not Istanbul.