Suzanne's Perfume Journal

Around the end of August, I received a package from one of my Canadian readers, Carole, who wrote me a beautiful note and sent me a generous decant of one of her favorite perfumes, vintage Rochas Mystère. "It's silvery and wonderful to me, like pine trees and white birches,” she had said, and I wrote back to tell her she was right—that wearing it was like traveling with the elves through the woods of Rivendell in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s a cool, mossy, woody fragrance (a chypre) that has a haunting beauty to it while being distinctly perfumey too—a fairytale fragrance for adults—and I told her I would write a review. This should be easy, I thought, week after week as I put pen to paper and tried to summon up words for a Tolkien-inspired essay. Here is a fragrance that actually matches its name, I reminded myself as I adjusted my neck, sniffed my wrist, made a third cup of coffee and circled the wagons in the endless way I do when I’m trying desperately to zero in on my subject. I loved the fragrance, I loved the name, but by the beginning of October I realized I couldn’t write any kind of essay about a perfume that speaks of mystery, because I wasn’t feeling any mystery in my own life. Resignedly I put the perfume aside and more or less forgot about it for a couple of weeks, until a few days ago, when, no longer thinking about the ethereal beauty of Tolkien’s elves or about mystery at all, I got the spark I needed. It came in the form of an old and very slender book, one passed down to me from my father’s side of the family, titled Here is New York by E. B. White (the author so famous for his children’s book, Charlotte’s Web, most people don’t realize he spent the better part of his career writing literary pieces for The New Yorker magazine). Published in 1949 and roughly fifty short pages in length (more of a bound essay than a book), Here is New York is White’s love letter to NYC, of which he said:

October 23, 2011:

In My Roundabout Way, Going Into the Woods with Rochas Mystère


Vintage Rochas Mystère eau de parfum has notes of coriander, galbanum, hyacinth, rosemary, carnation, tuberose, violet, orris root, jasmine, ylang-ylang, lily-of-the-valley, narcissus, styrax, cypress, patchouli, musk, civet oakmoss and cedar. Though discontinued, it can still be found at perfume discounter sites and on Ebay.

Image: Ansel Adams' very famous image, The Tetons and the Snake River (1942) is from Wikpedia.com. The Rochas Mystere vintage perfume ad is from Supermamma.It.
 
Here is New York, copyright © 1949 by E. B. White (Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York, 1949, pp. 17-18)



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Though there is no mention of mystery in this passage, every time I read that sentence about the farmer arriving from Italy, the young girl from Mississippi, and the boy from the Corn Belt with his manuscript—all three ready to embrace the unknown, perhaps with a clear idea in their heads (a hypothesis of how their future will play out) but no solid knowledge of what lies ahead in this foreign city where they hope to forge new identities and pursue their dreams—it sends a current through me. By definition, mystery is about the unknown, but what must be read into that definition is the desire to plunge into that veiled territory—to lose one’s familiar bearings and disappear within it for however long it takes to emerge with something new. “Of any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy,” E. B. White said in the first line of his book, and while I would have substituted the word “anonymity” for loneliness, I believe what he meant is that we can reinvent ourselves—we can better venture into the heart of mystery and emerge from its chrysalis changed—when we are alone and partitioned off from the expectations of others and the conditioning of our former selves.

It has been some time since I stepped foot out of my door and left my familiar self behind, and maybe that’s why I couldn’t write about Rochas Mystère in the original way I planned. What I do know is that the process of thinking about it has made me keenly aware that I need to take a plunge of some sort—if not going so far as to reinvent myself in a new place, then at least to have some unexplored destination gleaming on my horizon. Mystère’s sylvan beauty will be my reminder of the importance of going into the woods, so to speak.

Launched in 1978 and now discontinued, Rochas Mystère is an old-school chypre perfume, the likes of which aren’t being produced today due to restrictions on oakmoss. With top notes of coriander, galbanum and hyacinth, Mystère assumes a brisk, green-spicy posture from the start, quickly met by a rich assemblage of florals (impossible for my nose to sort out) that confer density more so than sweetness: wearing it does indeed give one the sense of being drawn into a thick and shaded interior where the sun doesn’t reach but you don’t care. The flora in this olfactory thicket smells a touch leathery and a touch powdery; a little bit spicy and a little bit sweet; tinged green with moss and tinged white with frost. There is enough musk and oakmoss to cast an enchanting, hazy mist around the whole thing—and enough wood in the base accord to ensure that it smells like a forest and not a flower shop, albeit in a perfumey kind of way. (In other words, this is not an outdoorsy scent in the style of an Andy Tauer fragrance, but very much in the vein of an Estee Lauder classic like Aliage or Private Collection.)


It’s the kind of perfume that somehow manages to marry a sense of the primeval with the urbane: the perfect scent for venturing out to lose and find oneself in a silvery forest of one’s choosing.

There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born there, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter—the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these three trembling cities the greatest is the last—the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York’s high strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements. Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion. And whether it is a farmer arriving from Italy to set up a small grocery store in a slum, or a young girl arriving from a small town in Mississippi to escape the indignity of being observed by her neighbors, or a boy arriving from the Corn Belt with a manuscript in his suitcase and a pain in his heart, it makes no difference: each embraces New York with the intense excitement of first love, each absorbs New York with the fresh eyes of an adventurer, each generates heat and light to dwarf the Consolidated Edison Company.