Ambery Light - Une lumière ambrée © 2015 CHANT WAGNER
Dead Reckoning an Amber Sillage while Crossing Paris - by CHANT WAGNER
The other day, after devoting part of the day to memorializing the Paris Attack sites thanks to photography - and to some extent participant observation - I hopped on a bus glad to make the journey back home in the enveloping warmth and welcoming shell of a seat while gazing at the city shops flickering at dusk, signalling Christmas, more or less convincingly...
Travelling by bus in Paris requires a margin of free time, which you can save better by taking the métro. In exchange however for taking the slow way home, you get to look at a spectacle which renews itself constantly in the midst of a familiar decor, sometimes unchanged for centuries save for a few details, which only invite you to contemplate the essential - the more eternal form of Paris.
A woman had got inside the bus just before me, taking a seat a couple of feet away. She decided after a while to move closer to where I was, sitting on one of those strapontins which are perpendicular to a comfier, elevated seat, inaccessible to the frail and elderly. I noticed her movements like you take note of the weather or a change of light, without thinking about it really. My attention was focusing more on the thousands of details of the streets, flashing back sometimes to a scene from earlier in the afternoon at the Bataclan and its vicinity.
I started to distinguish a smell, which as it happened, corresponded well to the personality of some of the artisanal shops the bus was driving by. Some of the stores looked small, vintage with furniture left intact from the previous century. Sliding by a hairdresser or two, it felt like the scent that was coming to my attention was an exact match to a bygone era - I speculated the 1950s. There was this "odor" of a powdery, old-fashioned perfume which made you think of hairspray and permed hair and fur stoles. By then, I had realized there was someone in the bus wafting of a non-trendy feminine fragrance. I came to imagine that perhaps in this old-fashioned area of Paris, there was somewhere a perfumery with an ancient stock, or privileged access to an obscure, non-publicized perfume brand which had kept the olfactory codes of the fifties alive for its loyal neighborhood clientèle of habituées. The perfume reminded me of Royal Secret by Germaine Monteil with its resinous, powdery and ambery accents, as if it were still in production, bottled in that wonderful simple bottle which looked like a bigger, early Youth-Dew bath oil flacon.
What became more unsettling was that the perfume smelled more and more revealingly of a little-disguised sexual invitation. It was horrifically impudent for those who smell those nuances consciously. I began to think of the famous De Laire base which is said to be have been inspired by the scent of a woman. It was dubbed mousse de saxe, which seems to be a play on the words "mousse de sexe" with all that it implies on the practices of pubic hairdressing, rather than shaving. Unsurprisingly, it was created by a woman, Marie-Thérèse De Laire, for the eponymous company and includes notes of oak moss, licorice, geranium, leather or isobutyl quinolin, myrrh, cedar wood and vanillin.
The perfume sillage which was ambery, musky and oakmoss-y was incredibly suggestive and deep. It actually emanated from the woman who had changed her seat. If her appearance was less than come-hither, her perfume spoke volumes for her, silently - and eloquently. In it, vaguely foresty nuances morphed immediately into a metaphor for hidden, yet fleshy and all-too-obvious feminine sexuality.
If you think that perfume cannot make you think, think again. This puzzling sillage had already occupied my thoughts for a good 15 minutes. I was inhaling more deeply, yet hopefully not too obviously, in order to try to identify the mystery scent.
I then smelled a green note, and the whole composition fell into place for me: it was Obsession by Calvin Klein which I was smelling. "Bon sang, mais bien sûr !" to quote a French cartoon line which has become a standard, second-degree humor phrase. The fragrance is well-known for its sexual, animalic innuendos, so much so that big felines themselves can't get enough of it, as zoologists have attested to. Like the big cats, I was held spellbound by the grip of the perfume.
As I was making a mental note to asap verify this hypothesis, the woman seemed to have seen through my body language and that I was trying to divine what her perfume was - or else she was getting organized for her Christmas shopping; in truth, I probably looked to the trained eye like the human equivalent of a hound sniffing the air and I probably had made some distinguishable noise, that of more rapid, in-succession inhales, so that I could identify the scent better.
The woman had pulled out a catalogue and paused on a page glowing with ambery flacons. Glancing quickly over the page she was looking at, I saw it was Yves Rocher. A second Eureka moment ensued: this woman is telling me it's Voile d'Ambre by Yves Rocher. Perhaps she was just browsing some ambery-looking shower gels, but I immediately made a connection. And yes, I was under the curious impression that she had guessed my interest and wanted to help me.
I finally got off the bus; it had been some 30 minutes, according to my smartphone. I was glad I had gotten some olfactory leads by the end of the bus journey. Smell is both instant and exquisitely elusive. I'd investigate the next day. That perfume was too marvellous for words, really.
The next day, I was able to verify all of my hypotheses. Voile d'Ambre by Yves Rocher it was! It is a perfume which is definitely related to Obsession, except the green note in Voile d'Ambre is due to green mandarin essence. Many wearers of Voile d'Ambre comment that it gives off an old-fashioned vibe, sometimes faulting it for this excessive reverence for the past.
Wearing remnants of it on another bus journey through Paris, mixed however with a fresher layer of Coromandel by Chanel, I felt a bit self-conscious about wafting of an attention-getting, deeply primal scent.
If I had not smelled Voile d'Ambre blind on another person - who wore it so well - I would probably not have perceived so clearly what a sexual bomb it is meant to be. Olivier Pescheux, the perfumer behind the fragrance, recreated an old-school perfume with a head nod to the infamous - I can now think of no other, less scandalous term for it - mousse de Saxe base.
Voile d'Ambre, for me, is one of those olfactory secrets hidden in plain sight: it is a veritable conservatory of tradition and savoir-faire of the art of perfumery kept museum-like in a simple bottle which hides the essence of femininity. It is a bombshell of a perfume - and few people realize it. You need to smell it, past its warm, gently glowing amber sillage.