SmokeStoneRain (Redux) – The Melancholy Perfume of Autumn

I touch a glass stopper to my wrists. An amber tear slips down the inside of my tattooed wrist; I am so taken with its journey, I barely breathe. I feel its transfiguration from perfume to epiphany. I exhale and pause, savouring the wait before sampling gilded skin. A slate grey coat and an endless grey scarf around my neck I walk down worn stairs into the street. A tweed waistcoat holds me close like a lover, favourite patent shoes glittering in the glow of streetlights. Rising from the scarf is something vanillic, pulpy and powdered with a whiff of burnt jam and cedar. I try and remember what fragrance it might be, Figues et Garçons, Evening Edged in Gold, Cierge de Lune? Or just a complication of them all. As I turn a corner, my wrists catch fire.

Ah, the beauty of Chanel’s Cuir de Russie parfum, a holy glow of leather, amber, styrax and rose, radiating across my skin. Campaign-worn Cossack leather, stained with vodka and blood, a fantasy of bygone St Petersburg nights, golden icons in smoke-swathed churches. Coco Chanel’s fantasy of cavalrymen dashing through snow and time wrapped in a scent of horseflesh and hound. Imperial fur and Fabergé jewels glittering in the blurred light of a thousand candles.  These scented images tumble and merge as I walk the autumnal streets, Max Richter’s epic Sleep rumbling through my earbuds. I leave the Russian dreamscape of my mind and pull my scarf closer; the mix of leather, fruits and nitromusks threaded through the wool is almost unbearably comforting.

I am lucky to live in Edinburgh, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, I can’t imagine living anywhere else. The city’s stone reacts differently to the sun, rain, snow and veiled northern light. There is magic, blood, spectral grace and a sense of otherness, of walking through lives lived before. Strolling shadowed wynds and nooks of the Old Town, parks and aloof splendours of the Georgian New Town, there is a sense of being watched and scrutinised. I love this unease and ghostly surveillance. I have grown old here.  It is a magisterial city, glowing with a strange and private magnificence.

Edinburgh is at its best in the autumn after the clocks change and the light shifts and darkens. Leaves flame, piling high across the city streets, rolling in ochre waves. The buildings glisten in the low sun, glorious tangerine sunsets bleed across the streets and the smell of coming rain mingles with hops from the city’s breweries, hanging in the air like miasma.  People often ask me how I bear the fickle weather. I tell them I had my fill of sun travelling in the Middle East and Africa as a child, now I crave the rain, wind and damp of northern climes. We have bright brittle sun and warm languorous days but I prefer the safety of precipitation and unsettled fronts.

A city and its melancholy seasons needs fragrances chosen with care and attention to detail. There is damp, mould; mulch, smoke over transfigured stone and the low glare of late swooning sun.  Edinburgh’s streets can pull huge moods from you as you walk the streets wrapped in layers of wool, tweed and mohair.

As autumn unfolds, the trees below the looming volcanic ramparts of Edinburgh Castle are strung with lights, random flocks of luminescence scattered like fireflies. I start to think about a shift in fragrance, sorting through a wardrobe still woven with traces of aldehydes, smoke, petals and resins from last season’s olfactive shift in fragrance. This is what I love about scent. The sudden whiff of a street or a name, a burst of laughter as incense and rose rise from the weft and weave of scarves and folded merino. This is what makes autumn so beautiful to me: the whispers of a scented wardrobe.

I have worn so many perfumes in this city; so many scents illuminate lost bars, streets, ghost houses, rooms and faces. A university library with old church pews and the balsamic cinnamon vapours of Calvin Klein’s Obsession, kissing a boy against hot water pipes in a lecture theatre on a cold December night to the orange musks of Lagerfelds’s Sun, Moon & Stars, wandering up Arthur’s Seat with a drunken lover, wrapped in the embrace of Azzaro and his fug of Camels, a friend giving me Caron’s Nuit de Noel for Christmas and me dripping it onto my wrists, filling his car with flowers, spices and sexual hunger.

Autumn is the opportunity to indulge in darker fragrance tones. To light a fire, burn a memory and sing songs of solstice. I like my descent into winter to reek of stone, smoke and fire; ritualistic fragrances that utilise the perfumer’s skills with balsams, resins, woods, leather, smoke and storytelling. Some of my favourites are things I reach for every year, others are tremulous spells that might suddenly metamorphose and transform me. On cloth and skin, these fragrances possess a sense of holiness, a connecting to one’s self as the seasons alter. Magic and hocus-pocus aside, true enchantment has always been the work of perfumers.

I have skin favourites and I know it breaks with conventional perfume orthodoxy, but it is the time of the year for scent on cloth; collars, scarves, sleeves. Some fragrances become so ephemeral on fabric, developing a transparency that is sometimes lost in the turmoil of overheated and wrapped skin. So here are some of my seasonal favourites, my stone, smoke and rain.

My friend Euan bought me La Fumée by Miller Harris as a gift.  I have worn Lyn Harris’ fragrances for years, developing a particularly obsessive passion for the skanky wondrous L’Air de Rien she created for Jane Birkin, keeper of the smoky Gainsbourg flame. I bought Fleurs de Sel for someone to remind him of his Breton home. That was a sharp and salt-brushed homage to Batz-sur-Mer in Brittany where Lyn spent childhood holidays. Her perfumed work is often very moving. There are no floral notes in La Fumée and Lyn used great delicacy in her depiction of fumes and incense. Many contemporary perfumers just ramp up the frankincense these days but it can be a very destructive, suffocating note. It is a scent of prayer and should be whispered.  Anyone familiar with Edinburgh will be aware of the brewery odours that can sometimes permeate the city air on low moist nights and still haar-soaked mornings. This beautiful dry hymn of cardamom and cedar is a perfect counterpoint to these malted, sweated skies. I have some deep personal memories conjured up by La Fumée but those, for now, are mine. The perfume swirls with the end of flames, that beautiful moment at evening close when the room is heady with smudged spiced smoke. Your clothes exude a soft amber sootiness as you stare sleepily into the glowering embers. Sleep calls and you dream of lovers, past, present and forbidden.

Coven by Icelandic artist and perfumer Andrea Maack is another one of my haunted scents for Edinburgh’s black rain nights. It blew me away when I first smelled its loamy, pungent gasp; the bouquet of being buried alive in wet, oozing ground.  I imagined waking in a silk lined box, hypersensitive to wormsound and decay. It is a deeply odd perfume but a work of dark art. That chthonic soil tincture is so damn good, mulchy and composty, mildewed and dank, a thrilling grasp of forest root. Drams of igneous eau de vie in the formula are sly genius; it took me a few wearings to register their effect, but they are there in the burned settling of the middle sections as the soil falls away from fingers. The terpenic oakmoss note is amazing considering how restricted the material is; you can almost taste a forest’s history. Iceland has the most extraordinary landscapes in the world, blasted and thermic, divisive and courageous, an island shaped by fire and sea with a mythical roaring past. Coven is partly inspired by Maack’s remembrances of her country’s twisted supernatural history, stories of necromancy and runes, ghosts, witches, elves and trolls. She wanted to explore what she refers to as the mysterious dark corridors of the supernatural world. Edinburgh’s bloody, haunted past of ghosts, grave robbers, witches and plague victims provides its own palimpsest of phantasms. Wearing this as you walk, weather moving against you, you feel as if you are carrying a mantle of wicked verdancy but you are spellbound and cannot lay it down.

I have fallen in and out of love with patchouli throughout my fragrant life; now as I age with more quietude than I thought possible I have come back to loving it again. I first tried the velveteen intensity of Patchouli Patch by L’Artisan Parfumeur back in 2004. Beautiful star anise, caraway, musks and cedar compliment a rich chewy patchouli note. It explodes out of the bottle like one of Francis Bacon’s screaming popes, confrontational and full of papal, regal power.  I wore it on a holiday to the Cairngorms, surrounded by snow, the hotel lit with fires and strangely quiet. For me, the contrast of ecclesiastical skin, licked with musk, anise, incense and the softest osmanthus note with the silent frozen exteriors was the most striking memory of the holiday.  It is a fragrance I turn to over and over for comfort; I feel soothed by its ability to hold my senses in an embrace of perfect nostalgic balance.

Eau Noire by Dior is an autumnal standard. It was one of the first fragrances I wrote about when I started my blog. It an important memory scent to me, acerbic, intensely melancholy and shockingly beautiful.  I have to be wrapped in layers of wool and cashmere, barely happy to wear it.  It reeks of Proustian abstractions, vibrating with slate grey sadness. It is my Parisian scent. I bought it there to anchor myself and its black-green juice in the City of Light. I always do this when I travel, taking or purchasing fragrances to imprint cities and places. Moscow is Fleur de Cassie by Editions Frédéric Malle for instance; a storm-punctuated holiday to the west coast of Scotland was infused with 1969 by Histoire de Parfums. I still think Eau Noire is one of the greatest scents ever to come out of Dior, that collision of monochrome sexy Hedi Slimane and Karl Lagerfeld’s obsessive work ethic back in 2004. If I wear it, I am suddenly back in that hotel in a Paris night in a Paris street. I can even remember the fading Fleur de Lys detailing on the wood paneling around the windows. The illusion holds as Francis Kurkdjian’s hugely complex mix of aniseed and licquorice mingles with blasts of seared lavender and coffee-tinted vanilla.  A spell of sugar-bleak darkness. I have to be careful when I wear it, it can cause my emotions to bolt, but it smells divine as you wander Christmas streets, inhaling mulled wine, fireworks, candyfloss and the heat of snack stalls.

Eau d’Hiver created by Jean-Claude Ellena for the Editions Frédéric Malle library of scents is a chilled and isolating masterpiece. Brave and sheer, it clings to the skin like moisture to furred leaves on high mist-covered mountains.  Angelica, iris and hawthorn lend a silvered whiteness to the scent, while honey, heliotrope and caramel sweeten. People often ask me about moods in perfumery. This is a bravura example of an aloof, distracted chill; a scent of aloneness. Jean-Claude Ellena is perhaps the greatest perfumer working just now and undeniably a true artist of olfaction. He understands the exquisite transience of scent and the beauty in simplicity. Why use a hundred materials when you can use ten? He is often referred to as a minimalist, but this does him a disservice, he is a much more of a purist, someone who sees through the unnecessary to the nub of haunting meaning and allows us to see or smell this through the use of carefully selected materials that communicate the barest of beautiful messages.  Eau d’Hiver is a strange poignant thing, giving hints of sweetness here and there amid moments of desolation.  But like ghosts in that high up mist, this sweetness is fleeting, as clouds roll in with the promise of snow and more chilling rain. It is a remarkable achievement, one of Ellena’s finest. Pared down and skeletal, but glittering like diamond dust.

Neandertal is a unique collaboration between Japanese artist Kentaro Yamada and Edinburgh-based perfumer Euan McCall.  ‘If Neanderthals still walked the earth, how would their unique olfactory system influence their perception of perfume organoleptically?‘ wondered Kentaro. He created two beautiful porcelain bottles, one black, one white, inspired by knapped flint arrow heads to house a small vial of Euan’s preciously conceived juice. A later edition of the project with refined and tweaked perfumes will go into re-designed 50ml size flacons of the same design. Euan is my best friend and a very talented perfumer with a distinctive restless signature; I wore mods of these scents as he was developing them, my skin an aromatic sounding board.  He created a mineralised flint accord to echo Kentaro’s knapped aesthetic and then dressed this in light and dark scenarios to give an impression of pressured weather and excavation. I wore them so much to and from work, using my various well-trodden walks through Edinburgh’s New Town on my way back home that some of my scarves and coat collars were permanently infused with stone, herbs, citrus, oud, patchouli and oceanic musks. I love wearing them together, the mingle of salty metals, bud and scattered soil. The aromatics are delicious and tempered by an offbeat clash of solar/marine osmosis. Worn together it is the caraway, ginger and saffron threesome that seems to resonate and amplify, the ozonics and sweet citrus oils mingling with peppers and the subtle oud, creating a complex landscape that oscillates between flinted spoor and rolling sky.

My final suggestion is something I am wearing tonight as I finish this piece. Chocolat Amère by Il Profumo is one of my favourite chocolate fragrances in the business. Gourmand fragrances have had a rough critical ride over the years, especially since the explosive launch of Mugler’s delirious Angel in 1992. Once scorned by niche and luxury brands as commonplace and trashy, my my, how things have changed. Now all the artisan, indie and haute luxe houses play with gourmand tropes; caramel, vanilla, coconut, cream, all types of chocolate, nuts, chilli, dulce de leche, popcorn, biscotti, coffee and toffee. A lot of people hate them, I adore them. Chocolate can be dazzling in perfume. I imagine myself wholly edible, dipped in dark and milk chocolate, bittersweet, trailing fumes of moreish comfort. When I first started wearing Chocolat Amère I was still smoking cigarillos occasionally, sweet little Cuban things that tasted of bitter chocolate and spice. The balance in Chocolat Amère of floral notes, cocoa and ginger with the heavier notes of sandalwood and incense is thick and waxen like an artisanal ganache. The use of galbanum is key; its mulchy earthiness deepens the chocolate note and emphasis the sensuality of raw cocoa. I love the lack of overt sweetness, the smoky, tobacco-like drydown. Sprayed liberally on the inside of jackets it radiates a soft Aztec charm. I doused a favourite cashmere sweater in the Amère version as I sat down to write. I can smell all the chocolate I’ve ever eaten and the memory of a thousand lost cigarillos.

The rain has returned, more insistently than earlier, lashing the glass in wonderfully petulant outbursts. I started this in Russian leather and I’m ending it in bittersweet Italian chocolate. These melancholy fragrances of smoke, stone and fire are a perfumed soundtrack to my beloved city. If I ever leave, which is very unlikely all I have to do is open a bottle or two, spray some skin and shake out some scarves for a cityscape of notes and memories to unfold and cocoon me in images, voices, places and experiences. I’m glad I’ve worn so many perfumes and walked so many Edinburgh miles it makes the remembering so much more fragrant.

Alex Musgrave