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Last Thursday, after spending most of the day preparing the Thanksgiving meal, I got ready to set the table—actually two tables set end-to-end and looking awkward, even after matching tablecloths had been laid in an effort to make it look all of one piece. Every year, when I get to this stage of the preparations, I wonder why my husband and I have never invested in a true dining-room table and an adequate amount of matching silverware to go with the china I inherited from my grandmother. My nieces were arriving for this meal, and though they are grown women now whose focus is on their new careers, I still like to cultivate an ambience that will hopefully make our get-togethers linger in their memories. However, with the turkey about to come out of the oven and the clock ticking down, I simply did what I do most holiday meals: pulled the few odd knickknacks I own from the shelves of my house and, using an assemblage of tea candles, autumn leaves and other things I’ve collected from outdoors, created a series of small arrangements down the center of the two tables. They weren’t Martha Stewart-like arrangements, and I’m not sure anyone even noticed them when all was said and done, but creating them had its own effect on me. The juxtaposition of two burgundy-colored Japanese maple leaves—fine almost to the point of frilly—against my blue tablecloth gave them a jewel-like glow that reminded me of leaves floating against an autumn sky. Situating them at the base of some bird figurines—a puffin family (carved from Mount Saint Helen’s volcanic ash) that was a gift from my father—they somehow evoked a feeling of Thanksgiving that rang true. As succinct as a poem, they spoke of the season, of family communion, and of beauty.
Sometimes, or maybe often, it’s the simple things that rivet my attention. This doesn’t mean I eschew opulence—quite the opposite. I thoroughly enjoy the thrill and awe of all kinds of opulent gestures: the feeling of jaw-dropping wonder at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, for instance, that allows one to see what superlatives man is capable of in that rare intersection where extraordinarily fine detail is carried out on the grandest of scales. Or an opulent perfume with layers of undulating accords that shimmer and swish like the tiered fringes of a 1920s flapper dress (again coupling the notion of fine detail with a bolder concept like movement). Opulence is, for me, an occasion to expand my world and understand potential, in its fullest sense, while simplicity is like a poem: intimate, deeply personal, the most immediate and straight-forward route to the heart. Simplicity can be homespun, but simplicity is also the measure of elegance: it’s a very concise statement of beauty.
I’ve been thinking about these things—simplicity versus opulence, poetry versus the epic novel—because while I need and crave both ends of the spectrum, this has been a year in which I particularly crave simplicity, especially in terms of perfume. And the perfume I’ve been wearing rather steadily this past month has been Guerlain Encens Mythique d’Orient, which, despite its opulent-sounding name, is an elegantly simple-smelling composition. The aroma-materials used to create this perfume certainly smell rich and expensive—and for all I know, its formulation could be very complex—but in terms of how it comes across to my nose, it is streamlined and deft. I smell a dewy rose gliding over silky greenery, at first, and soon afterwards, the rose and the greenery are joined by a touch of something that smells like myrrh to me (though myrrh isn’t listed in the notes), slightly medicinal and bittersweet, a cross between evergreen boughs and cherried syrup. Then there emerges a soft touch of a marzipan-like almond that reminds me of heliotrope (also not listed), and a cosmetic iris that toggles between the scent of suede leather and talc. A sleek rose-oriental—that’s how it wears for hours on my skin, until its far drydown and slow dissolve on a tender sandalwood-like base.
That’s pretty much all I smell and that’s all I need. Does it matter that I can’t detect the aldehydes, frankincense or the expensive ambergris that this perfume contains? Does it matter that its composition reminds me of other perfumes in my perfume wardrobe which revolve around a similar set of notes and share a similar spirit?
The answer to both questions is no. I find when I’m wearing Encens Mythique, I am often thinking of its similarity to Annick Goutal Heure Exquise, but at the same time I’m also weighing the differences between the two. And contemplating them together in this way makes me smile because they are like elegant poems that could have been written by two poets playing around with the same words and sharing a theme, yet there are different shadings, different phrasings, different points of view that make each poem unique, even if both seem to be playing echo and refrain to the same chorus.
Stanely Kunitz, who at the age of 95 was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States, once wrote: “Every new poem is like finding a new bride. Words are so erotic, they never tire of their coupling.” When I was wearing Encens Mythique this week and thinking about how to write about it—how to differentiate it from several other perfumes I’ve reviewed that, while not identical, are in the same vein—his comment kept running through my mind. Firstly, because Encens Mythique d’Orient and the others (Annick Goutal Heure Exquise, Le Labo Iris 39, Parfum d’Empire 3 Fleurs, Histoires de Parfums Vert Pivoine, and DSH Vert pour Madame) are all elegantly svelte affairs that truly do remind me of poems.
Secondly, because I just realized how I tend to gravitate towards perfumes that contain three main accords (greens, roses and iris), and somehow this combination of accords can be arranged in seemingly infinite ways I never tire of. Greens, dewy roses, and cosmetic irises are so romantic, they never tire of their canoodling—to paraphrase Kunitz. I can happily imagine owning a bottle of any and all perfumes they end up in. Yet here is where personal taste really comes into play: I can’t say the same thing about accords like wood, leather and amber, much as I love a good many of those. (I complain about duplication if I smell too many dry, smoky wood perfumes that seem to be variations on the same theme.) Why is it I feel such an affinity to the aforementioned favorite accords such that if I were trying to decide whether to plunk down money today on a bottle of Encens Mythique d’Orient or Heure Exquise or any of a number of similar scents (of this caliber), I would be a bit tortured in the process, weighing all my options?
* * *
After Thanksgiving ended, I placed my puffin figurines and the two Japanese maple leafs back on my kitchen shelf, juxtaposed next to some seashells, a little crystal I found on a hike in the woods, and a leaf that I have deemed the world’s tiniest oak leaf—just as they’d been before. They have a different poetic effect there, not nearly as potent as when they were arranged on my table with its sky-blue tablecloth and candles. On my kitchen shelf, they are simply a visual poem that reminds me of what I love about the earth. I could arrange them somewhat differently somewhere else in the house—maybe with a favorite scarf or piece of jewelry—and they would take on a different meaning. That’s the analogy I’ll use to justify falling in love with Guerlain Encens Mythique d’Orient. It’s not that it’s a striking new form of olfactory verse, but rather that it’s written in a sonnet form I favor, another exquisite paean to the notions of beauty, love and romance. That’s pretty much what greens and dewy roses and cosmetic irises always speak of, isn’t it?
Well, don’t feel compelled to answer. Poetry is as personal as it is universal, and there are days when I’d like to think those florals are only talking to me.
Guerlain Encens Mythique d’Orient eau de parfum is described in more opulent terms on the Guerlain website, where its actual* notes are listed as:
Top notes: rose, aldehyde, saffron note.
Heart notes: pink pepper, vetiver, patchouli.
Base notes: forest floor notes, ambergris, frankincense.
*Some notes I perceive and mention in my review aren’t listed, so take what I say with a grain of salt. The company describes the perfume as follows: “An ethereal frankincense leaves only a fleeting mark on this fragrance, while rose imprints its fiery accents. But the endless sweetness and exceptional depth come from authentic and majestic ambergris of New Zealand, specially selected by Thierry Wasser for this fragrance. An enigmatic opus to sing the praises of a world devoted to eternity.”
Encens Mythique d'Orient is available from the Guerlain boutiques and SaksFifthAvenue.com, where a 75-ml (2.5 oz) bottle is currently priced at $275. My review is based on a decant I received from my blogging friend (and almost-but-not-quite scent twin) Undina.
Photo of the vase of roses stolen from the website Familyholiday.net.
Photo of Guerlain Encens Mythique d'Orient bottle stolen from Guerlain.com.
A Rose by Any Other Name . . .
Guerlain Encens Mythique d'Orient
December 2, 2015: