Lifestyle: The Romance of Perfume II

Self-confessed romantic Kay Therese Jones continues her series, this time developing her theme that you can judge a perfume by its name.

‘You can’t judge a book by its cover.’ Really? This is nonsense, as I have proved many times, the most striking example in my possession being The Book of Romance, a truly glorious book to behold. Published in 1902 and sumptuously illustrated, it bedazzles with its heraldic blue cover depicting a knight in battle attire upon his steed, flanked by a pair of magnificent angels and a chalice held aloft, all etched in gold. Of course, the title helped—a clue to its chivalrous content, as did the gilt-edged pages, the price (exorbitant, so it must be good) and the cryptic hand-written inscription: “To Nellie … on her birthday from her (old) sweetheart … 23rd June 1903 …” No signature, just a set of initials in stylish strokes across the page. Oh, the mystery, the intrigue, the sheer romance—and all before you’ve read a single printed word. (Yes, the cost was excessive. So I put on my Shocking Pink dress reserved for such occasions, smiled sweetly at my husband—and voilà, he bought it for me. Wicked, I know, but it works every time.)

Similarly you can judge a wine by its label. See the vixen on the Fox Creek Sparkling Red with her wily ways inciting you to imitative behaviour and after a glass or two, you too might go skulking about, weaving a trail of feminine magic in your wake.

Thus by a circuitous path we reach the third of my theories, that you can judge a perfume by its name. It is a truth that the industry itself has always known, invariably selecting names to touch the emotions, either for their soothing or their more sensational effect: from the softer tones of Fleur de Rocaille, Jaïpur and L’Air du Temps to the more strident notes of Envy, Poison and Obsession. Even in the current edgier times, names that reflect the gentler faces of Love and Nature still grace our perfume counters: add one to your collection today and you too might project a kinder image.

To consider just one perfume house from the many that have excelled in the naming of their products, take Guerlain with its 180-year history and a list of perfumes that have highly evocative names. For me, these three strike a special chord: Shalimar (1925)—almost a mantra; Chant d’Arômes (‘Song of Aromas,’ 1962) and Chamade (1969). Now ask yourself: Does the fragrance itself matter all that much?

Maybe it matters just a little, which is one of the reasons Chamade is dear to me. With a sound that seemed to reverberate in my head, it became one of my favourite perfumes. With its composition of bergamot, hyacinth, rose, jasmine, vanilla and “secret exotic fruits,” naturally it hit the right notes in my flowery imagination. Further, as one of those rare perfumes that I can wear without fear of developing migraine, its place is secure.

Safely I could venture forth cloaked in a mist of Chamade without any thought for the message it might convey: it was just a word that went beyond the level of my schoolgirl French. Yet words are instructive, like many of the signs that we follow—if only we could recognise the symbols and how to interpret them. So what does chamade “mean”? If my old French dictionary defined the word as “a drum or trumpet signal,” John Oakes author of The Book of Perfume added some complexity when he wrote: “The word (chamade) itself is ambivalent. It can mean the rapid beating of the heart as well as the total surrender of it.” Pursuing a shift from the literal to the figurative, I track down a phrase that was used to translate the title of Françoise Sagan’s 1965 novel La Chamade: “the rolling of the drums heralding defeat.” Keen to know more, I rush to the Internet and learn that: “Like many of Sagan’s novels, this is a story of lost love. A couple meet and move in together, but the woman cannot get used to living on a low income, and leaves her lover to return to the high life.” (Would some-one please buy me that book?)

It is as if Chamade the perfume represents a bottled extract of elements from The Book of Romance, with recurring motifs that spell out parallel themes that have intersected throughout my life. Likewise, you too can choose a perfume in harmony with your disposition. You only need to listen to the sound it makes as it unlocks a chamber of your heart or some core part of your being that has been clamouring for expression.

To deepen your enquiry, you might also ask: With what part of your journey do you associate a particular perfume? When did it enter your life? The synchronicity may surprise you as you discover that it was a herald of sorts or that you were an ambassador for its spirit.

Jolie Madame (Pierre Balmain, 1953) accompanied me for much of the period between the Roy Orbison song Pretty Woman of 1965 and the Julia Roberts movie of 1990, at a time when I aspired to all the bright and happy outcomes you associate with the term—with being a “pretty woman.” Embodying her archetype, I displayed all the lustrous trappings: jewellery, two-toned shoes and bags, floor-length blue velvet coats, and accessories galore right down to the slim Pierre Cardin lighter to go with the slender brown cigarettes (where were my colourful Sobranie Cocktails and elegant gold-tipped Black Russians?), in an ivory or tortoise-shell holder—after I misplaced the long, black, extendable one studded with row upon row of pink diamantes. All that glitter! In fact, some-one once asked my escort had he “insured” me before we left the house that evening; in a nasty tone that suggested they did not share my belief in Coco Chanel’s eloquent assertion, “Adornment is never anything but a reflection of the self.”

Even if Jolie Madame is no longer upon my dressing-table, she lives on in my psyche, a serene and silent partner … until she catches that whimsical look in my eyes and follows my gaze to the most alluring item in the shop. Together then we make the most formidable force, if that translates into a statement of style that is spectacularly “over-the-top” and outrageous. She will not be appeased unless we leave, bedecked in our new pièce de résistance. Like the recent hat … the one with the feathers sweeping skyward at a jaunty angle … pheasant feathers, too … Lady Amherst pheasant feathers. Now there’s a name—must do some research on her.

Finally there’s Carven and Ma Griffe (1946). With its clean green-and-white striped and fresh mossy fragrance that together spoke of all things pure and innocent, it would appeal to any Virgo. More likely, though, to my mediæval mind, it was an abbreviated form of “griffin,” the winged four-footed animal with the body of a lion but head and wings of an eagle. Nor was I far wrong, as John Oakes writes: “In French, griffe can mean anything from claw to designer label to signature.” By strange coincidence, that definition draws all the threads together, to capture the very essence of Virgo and her connection with cats, fashion and writing. Perfect! (Did you know, by the way, that she also rules Paris?)

Now, what stories can you tell about the names and origins of your particular perfumes?

What do the names of the perfumes tell about you … ?

Image above by Peony Melbourne

Wikipedia (La Chamade)

John Oakes The Book of Perfumes HarperCollins 1996

John Oakes The Perfume Zodiac HarperCollins 1998 (“the Encyclopædia of Perfume”) – for all things Perfume, such as reviews, history and recent releases

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