Wet blanket alert: this is a review of an obscure discontinued scent. You probably never heard of it and very few bloggers have reviewed it. It is however important to me. After my “Smells of Athens” series I thought that it would take me many months, perhaps years, to create associations strong enough with my new city of dwelling, strong enough to generate a “Smells of Geneva” post. I can happily report that I already have my first perfume memory of this city.
My love affair with all perfumes Jacomo started before I can remember. But the nose knows, and those early memories seem to be etched forever in my subconscious. This is why I bought very cheap three miniature bottles of middle aged perfume beauties, Jacomo Parfum Rare, Parfum Rare Eau de Toilette and Coeur de Parfum. In reality they are approximately the same perfume but I can detect the differences. Coeur de Parfum was launched in 1985 and it also has the eau de toilette version which is rosier, happier. Parfum Rare is a relaunch of Coeur de Parfum. Nobody seems to know why it was relaunched so soon after and who the perfumer is. Keeping records of perfumers was not fashionable at the time. Of the three iterations I prefer my little black triangular bottle of Coeur de Parfum in its eau de parfum variant. I loved it from the first moment I smelt it, with its familiar leather chypre composition sending its fumes from my childhood memories. I realise that my aunt and uncle also must have had a love affair with Jacomo Perfumes because I am almost certain I remember a black triangular bottle on my aunt’s vanity table, next to her Silences and his Eau Cendrée. And the familiarity of the smell is not just wishful thinking. I can immediately see a resemblance to Chanel Coco. They share the same shiny black quality, sparkling patchouli, uplifting florals. Coeur de Parfum is however more serious and a bit more dangerous.
Talking about the opening and the topnotes of a thirty-year-old perfume is really stupid, there aren’t any, except a slightly plasticy note and the familiar smell of perfume past its sell by date: a bit of immortelle-ish mess, a bit of vinegar, the usual stuff that quickly goes away if you were lucky with your buy. But these old perfumes can be like zombies: they feed off the warmth of your skin and after a few minutes the heartnotes have sucked up all the heat they need to come back from the dead. Purple roses explode spiked with fuchsia carnations and heated with cardamom. These flowers are pinned on a patchouli infused leather bustier and this is a wonderful, slender silhouette of a lean, muscular dancer. There is no sweetness to undermine the power of this vision. The patchouli is robust and resinous, not at all powdery. And to support all this, a beautiful base of smoky vetiver and oakmoss casts a dangerous shadow around the elegant figure that dons this beauty. All these thick ingredients create the presence of an animalic, civet note that I never know whether it is really there or whether it is composed in my mind as a synthesis of floral and resinous, leathery notes. The 80’s are back but they are still in love with the 70’s. In the centre of the composition lie the same ingredients that gave Silences its otherworldly beauty, a beauty that only befits Artemis, the independent goddess of hunting. And back she comes to haunt my Geneva days.
In December Geneva celebrates one of its most important “national” holidays, The Escalade, the defeat of the attacking army of Duke Charles Emmanuel of Savoy in 1602. The Savoy army wanted to occupy the city-state of Geneva which was independent and outside the protection of the Swiss Confederation. They attacked in large numbers trying to break the defence of the small city with ladders put up against the walls of the city fortress, a tactic known as “escalade”. The Genevois defeated the attackers and proclaimed their independence. The attack lasted one day, a historic event that seemed too benign to my Greek, drama-and-war-infused historical consciousness but to commemorate the event the city holds its grandest celebration each year. A huge parade of chariots, horses, cows, men, women and children dressed in 17th century costumes, drums, horns and muskets, an amalgamation of history and everyday re-enactment, flood the streets of the city and run through it. After the parade has circled the core of the old city everything culminates in front of the steps of the St Pierre Cathedral were a choir sings songs that commemorate the victory and a bonfire is lit.
Nothing I can actually transmit with my words can show how different the city is during these celebrations. Geneva, not one of the liveliest cities in the world, is flooded with excited people of all ages. Next to tourists and real Genevois dressed in their plain clothes, suddenly a colourful group of participants of the Cortège (the Procession) surprise you dressed in their costumes and carrying real muskets. And the muskets are actually fired! The smell of gun-powder fills the air and meets the smell of roasting chestnuts and warm spiced wine. The chilled December night air is thick with human smells, warm and intense. The narrow streets of the old city are crammed. With people and animals that prepare for the parade. And right there I experienced for the first time the indolic side of horse manure. Not what you would imagine as a vile, dirty smell, but rather the floral, light mesmerizing smell of indoles as they are found in perfume. The cold air, the smell of gunpowder, open fire and spiced wine combined magically with the naturally occurring indoles of the animalic presence in the festivities to recreate the warm scent of Coeur de Parfum almost to the last detail. I always associate the bright, resinous patchouli of Coeur de Parfum (and Coco) with cold weather. It feels exactly like sitting in front of a bonfire in a cold winter night. Half frozen, half red-hot. I could suddenly pick up notes of hay and honey mixing with the flowers and animalic leather.
I am very happy with Coeur de Parfum. It fills my heart with glowing joy, even though I know that it is old and has travelled many miles to find me. It probably doesn’t smell like it used to smell nor like it was supposed to smell. But this is beside the point. We don’t actually walk around with a mass spectrometer stuck in our noses. Even if Luca Turin’s theory proves to be right the message is only captured in the nose but is actually translated in our brains and the work is done by the most imperfect but at the same time most accomplished cells in our body, the nerve cells. Imperfect because they can’t be replaced when damaged. They can’t heal themselves. But accomplished because they can take the message, amplify it, fill the gaps with our own experiences, and ultimately deliver something that always makes sense. What we perceive in the end, olfactory or otherwise, always makes sense. Even if we do not perceive all that we are supposed to, what we process and evaluate is always what will make sense and appeal to us.
I happen to believe that vintage, tired, old perfume may not smell exactly what it was meant to smell but this is beside the point. The thrill of finding it and smelling it has its own value. And the way it translates into feeling is its most important merit, as with all things of course. Nobody would dare say that looking at Mona Lisa is pointless because the colours of the original have faded after centuries of exposure to light. Nobody would dare say that Mozart composed his works when instruments sounded differently so hearing them today is useless. And the analogy I am making here is not that perfume is art. On the contrary: let’s be frank with each other and admit that senses are here to please. And pleasure is in the eye (or the nose) of the beholder.
Notes from Parfumo: Bergamot, Rosewood, Carnation, Geranium, Iris, Jasmine, Cardamom, Coriander, Rose, Labdanum, Sandalwood, Vetiver
Notes from my nose: rose, carnation, cardamom, patchouli, hay, manure
MemoryOfScent by Christos Karageorgos is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.