Orient Express

francesco-ballesio-the-carpet-sellersSometimes 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.

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9 thoughts on “Orient Express

  1. That’s a fascinating step back through a spicy lineage. I don’t wear orientals much but I am more attracted to these ‘eastern’ orientals (I hesitate to use the word ‘authentic’) than to the plush, dandified, sweet orientals like Shalimar and Coco and so on (although I admit those are lovely in their own way).

    I want to like Parfum Sacre and I do wear it occasionally but it seems overly dry and harsh to me, and its rose sour. Feminite du Bois I have spritzed from a tester several tomes and wondered what all the fuss is about. It was pleasant – just pleasant – while it lasted but on my skin that was less than an hour. So – has it been reformulated? Maybe when SL had it made over from Shisedo to his own brand? Or et Noir of course I have not tried.

    Do you think Ta’if has a place in this lineage?

  2. Ta’if, is the Ormonde Jayne perfume? I have not had the luck to smell it. No one seems to carry the line in my neck of the woods, but from what I can gather over at Fragrantica you’re right, it would be rather similar particularly- to PS and Or.

    The rose in the old Or et Noir was very full, almost sweet, and smelled crimson, and that was nice and, ” Oh it’s a rose soliflore.” you’d say, but about an hour in (and yes it took an hour on me) the incense coda began and that went on for ages. ON was very elegant. I notice that all mention of incense is gone now in the notes, but that’s what I smelled, and I stand by my nose-as it were.

    • Sorry, yes, the OJ Ta’if. I like it but don’t love it. Now I think if it, I don’t think it has an incense note and leans more in the dates and spices direction, without being too sweet or gourmand-y. I smell rose and spices warmed by a very hot sun.

      (I have to purchase samples of the OJs and did so mainly to find out if they deserve the love they get. So far Ta’if is the only one I’ve liked.)

      ON sounds marvellous!

      • Ah ha, well, at least now I know. The OJ line seems to have attracted a lot of fans but it debuted before the Explosion of Niche! (sounds like the back story of Star Wars doesn’t it?) I’ve never been able to try it, so can’t judge the merits. Old Or et Noir is lovely, new is mostly a rose soliflore, and isn’t as exceptional as the original

  3. I’d love to do that, but are the Royal Mails as persnickety about PERFUME as the US ones? Our post people ask me now specifically and I always wonder what we can send through the mail these days?

    • Blacknall, they are as pernickety (as we say ;-) ), but there are ways round this…Am off for a week but PM me with your details and I could send you a sample after that.

  4. I like Parfum Sacre, and had the same reaction to the current Feminite du Bois as Anne Marie. Ta’if doesn’t do anything for me, and doesn’t feel “eastern” in the same way that the others do.

    • Amouage has probably put paid to the dilettante Eastern perfume, although I’d still like to smell Ta’if.

      Parfum Sacre is such a chic perfume, but smells like the end of old Or et Noir to me. And oh, Feminite makes me mad and annoyed in about equal parts. It smelled like… well, have you smelled Back to Black? It was like that, only permeated, waterlogged. by cedarwood.

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