The Scent Critic honestly believes that fragrance is a magic wand. The trigger for a gazillion Cinderella moments, over the years. One minute, you’re fighting party-dread – and then a drop or a zoosh or a splash later, suddenly, you actually feel like putting on a pair of high heels, some dangly earrings, and heading out of the door. Or so it is with me, anyhow.
As an old party-phobe from way back – who would honestly, nine times out of ten, rather stay home with a glossy magazine and beans on toast than make small talk to strangers – I have long relied on the power of perfume literally to act like the fairy story’s coach and horses to get me to a shindig.
So, with 12 scents to review between the start of advent and Christmas, I’ve been seriously putting that to the test again. And you know what? It’s worked every time. In 2010, I’ve been to more Christmas parties – and, what’s more, had more fun at them – than in the past five years rolled together. And last night, it was Guerlain’s Bois d’Arménie that made like the glamorous fairy godmother, insisting: ‘Scent Critic, you shall go to the ball.’ (Or actually, drinks in the glitzily made-over Connaught.)
Bois d’Arménie is the second of three Guerlains I’ve shortlisted for Christmas – and there’s a reason for that. More than any other brand, I’ve observed over the years that Guerlain are consummate experts at blending spice accords, smoothing out and buffing away any harsh corners while retaining their exotic intrigue. To my nose, Bois d’Arménie has a Christmas pudding note, a mince pie element laced with a bit of Christmas-Eve-carol-concert incense, which almost begs for an advent dab or two.
There’s infinitely more to it than that, though. Delicious, powdery iris (which pegs it unmistakably as Guerlain), at the heart. The sweetness of benzoin, adding a vanilla edge to the base. And woods, lots of woods – almost crackling audibly in the grate, wafting traces of smoke into the fragrance, without in the least making you choke.
It’s from the L’Art et la Matière collection, which has been a bit of a departure for Guerlain. With no heir apparent to Jean-Paul Guerlain’s crown within the Guerlain family (how tragic is that?), this ‘library’ of fragrances – complete with gold ‘spines’ – gave several other ‘noses’ the chance of a lifetime to express their creativity beneath the Guerlain umbrella, under the guidance of Fragrance Creative Director Sylvaine Delacorte. Personally, I have a theory that it was a bit of a talent contest – one that the brilliant Thierry Wasser won. (His offering was Iris Ganache, my other favourite within this collection). Francis Kurkdjian had a go, with the beautiful Rose Barbare. Olivier Polge came up with animalic, leathery Cuir Beluga. And this brilliant smoky, woody, balsamic confection is Annick Ménardo’s contender.
Originally, Bois d’Arménie – and its flanker scents – were available only from the Guerlain flagship boutique on the Champs Elysées, to which I still make a perfume pilgrimage every time I go to Paris. Now, they’re also in Harrods, and quite possibly other capital cities that I don’t know about. If you can possibly get yourself within sniffing distance, trust me: they’re worth the schlep.
Ménardo was inspired by the scented paper – papier d’Arménie – which has been burned as incense since the 16th Century, and with its sweet powderiness has been favourited for medicinal purposes by the French (in particular) since then. It’s very much a short-days-long-nights sort of scent, to me. I can no more imagine wearing this on a summer’s day than I could a pair of Uniqlo HeatTech long johns. Though unquestionably winter-warming, Bois d’Arménie has a light touch, for an incense fragrance – it flickers rather than smoulders, yet lasts beautifully on the skin.
And clothes. Don’t forget the clothes. If you’re looking to nudge yourself into a frolicsome festive mindset, it can be highly effective to pull a frock or a jacket out of the wardrobe, and unexpectedly encounter the fragrance you wore with it last time. Not a great believer in dry cleaning anyway, since the smoking ban came in I have evening-wear in which there are virtually Jurassic and Paleolithic layers of previously-worn scents, all scrumptiously jumbled into the fabric. The patchouli, soft musk and guaiac wood in Bois d’Arménie just enhance that complexity, for a signature scent that’s now mine, all mine.
In fact, burying my nose in a velvet jacket infused with that patchwork of much-loved scents is almost enough, in a truly Pavlovian way, to make me stash the baked beans in the cupboard, get dressed and go to the ball. Or the office drinks party. Or that sherry soirée with the neighbours I’ve been dreading since the invite flopped inescapably onto the mat, back in early November.
Who knows, I might even stay out after midnight – and to hell with the consequences.