Mandy Aftel created her perfume  interpretation of the Clarimonde story in solid form. Solid perfumes are a big favorite of mine for many reasons, the portability, the hold  close to the skin, the longevity, the softness. Of course, Oud Luban is fully natural, of the finest materials available, so I have been wearing it above my upper lip, in a trick I learned from Mandy Aftel in a lecture she once gave on natural perfumes, as one of the best ways to fully experience such precious and ephemeral natural materials. Used that way the scent will eventually wreathe around your face and be inhaled with every breath.

I will begin with her own words, as she describes the perfume herself:

This perfume takes its inspiration from Theophile Gautier’s Clarimonde, a story of extremes: austerity and opulence; sin and holiness; carnality and abstinence. Luban, the Urdu word for frankincense, means “the milk” which refers to the color of the finest quality frankincense – the milky tree sap that exudes from the cut bark. Oud, the dark, resinous and infected Aquilaria heartwood, is the most expensive essence in the world. To create the oud notes I wanted, I blended eight different varieties.

Oud Luban is a perfume of great highs and lows, with no middle notes. It opens with the fresh citrus top notes of the finest hojari frankincense, coupled with sweet incense and resinous notes of elemi and luban. This evolves onto the sweet balsamic notes of the faintly vanilla benzoin, the spicy balsamic opopanax, and the fine cognac-like notes of aged patchouli. Threading through the drydown, and softened by the resin, are the smoky choya ral and precious oud, which is intimate and softly animal like a lover’s body. This perfume is perfect for layering with florals — the oud brings an earthy richness that allows the florals to bloom on the skin.

Perfume notes:
Top: elemi, orange terpenes, blood orange, frankincense CO2
BaseBase Notes: oud, opopanax, choya ral, benzoin, aged patchouli

I find it sonorous, meditative and centering. Once it has released some of the top notes, so closely married to the dark base, moments of a fully celestial air waft up around me.

I love the idea of this as a base for florals, and tried a drop of Aftelier Honey Blossom perfume beside it. Oud Luban provides that dark background from which Honey Blossom shines out all the more.

It reminds me of the first times I listened to the story Clarimonde, as read by Joy Chan, whose beautiful voice I now identify with this story. Even when reading it from a page myself, her voice and intonation repeats in my mind.

It was at the time of year when the giant linden trees are in full bloom down the side streets around here, and the fragrance is held in the fog of early evening against the darkness of the night air. The words of the story became imbued with fragrance and darkness.

The intimate quality of Oud Luban acts like a personal memory that is yet tied to all the sacred things the ingredients are associated with. I imagine the young Romauld intoxicated by the traditional incense that uses frankincense and myrrh, and the lit beeswax candles and masses of flowers used on holidays. I believe the seductive visual and sensual aspects of the ceremonies entered into the soul of our narrator Romauld at a young age, as they did mine, as they are meant to do, and related back to all the old stories of saints and miracles, which is why he was so in love with the church and wanted to marry into it. Also why he was prepared to personally engage with the miraculous.

I believe he could sense that Clarimonde embodied the powerful elements within her own person and character, similar to those he had already lived with in the church. I believe she struck him so forcibly because he had been prepared to be open to that peculiar form of beauty mixed with supernatural power from his years of entering into the spirit of the church’s sacraments. He had also cultivated a powerful capacity for devotion, which attached to Clarimonde once he became aware of her.

The stories of the miracles of the saints, the artfully embroidered vestments and ornamented chalices, the incense, the music and singing, the golden gleams in the vast dark interior spaces, the stained glass windows, all the artful decoration of the most extraordinary and most beautified building interiors of the old cities, often contained much of the wealth of the past and the art of the culture. For so many centuries the artists had lavished all their skills on the interiors of churches.

Yet here was a person, “a young woman, of extraordinary beauty”, whose vivid color and perfection of form embodied all the principals of beauty the young Romauld was used to using to worship the sacred, in her own self.

Her gaze was imbued with affection, with personal attention toward him as a special individual that she chose above all others, almost like a vision of the Madonna, but with the added power of sexuality as an expression of all this wrapped into a personal connection to another human/supernatural being he could actually embrace.

Clarimonde appeared to be a goddess herself, come to life and gazing at him with full undivided attention. How could he not fall instantly and deeply in love with someone who embodied everything he had associated with worship so far in his young cloistered life? The incense surrounded him as he genuflected on the cool stone floor and the censers swayed around him during the ceremony marrying him to the church, just at the same moment he saw that luminous being Clarimonde, his alter ego in female form, from out of the corner of his eye, and he was instantly enraptured and entranced. You could say he was preparing for that moment his whole life, and his life in the church was even an aid to that preparation.

I can imagine the substances associated with the sacred, as of Oud Luban, as the basis for his intimacy and feeling for beauty. His associative sense of smell must have been deeply imprinted with the traditional forms of incense made of the finest materials available as a smoky gift wafted up to heaven, most often right at the moments of procession and display of sacred gestures and symbolic objects.

All was ethereal and transitory yet deeply connected him to spirituality and the extraordinary made real. Why would not a novice who believed in the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of the supreme being not be also open to the reality of other supernatural powers that could personify the powerful energies of life and love and liberty? Because he was not used to women, this one woman being all she was had all the more impact upon him.

The socially perceived decadence of the writer Theophile Gautier, was based on the idea that the worship of beauty for its own sake was essentially a decedent characteristic of a failing culture. I don’t know if we can still believe that, since now we know how beauty in this world is so difficult to preserve and to achieve in any form, whether natural or composed. Gautier was very attuned to beauty in all its forms, and he wanted to I think contrast the sacred and profane in this story, as their forms crossed back and forth across a fragile divide.

As I have written before, and as is well known, fully natural perfumes, even those of the best materials, are ephemeral by their very nature, not fixed in time, exceedingly precious, difficult to source for the best quality materials as they become more rare. The luxurious aspect is bound to the ephemeral nature, like taking a sip of wine that is exquisite and then is gone as it passes over senses in the mouth and nose.

Yet nothing of this natural world can hold the ephemeral nature of changeable beauty like the inherent strength of the wood derived Oud and Louban, the milky Frankincense of the ancients who used it for sacred purposes for thousands of years.

I agree with Scent Hive in the comforting nature of the perfume when used on its own. The mix with the high notes lends it an even more celestial air than it already possesses on its own, like a reach to heaven in physical form. Romauld seems primarily fixated on reaching heaven, by whatever means necessary, either by losing his body in the strictures and service prescribed by traditional religion or by abandoning all that to indulge body and emotions with Clarimonde.

It has been a delight to receive and try these perfumes creatively based on the story of Clarimonde.  Please read or listen to the story to get the full impact of what the perfumers and writers have done, and also for your own enjoyment. It is an engaging and sumptuous tale, especially at this Halloween season.

Please also visit Scentless Sensibilities, the Perfume Pharmer, and Scent Hive to get their beautiful words on the perfumes already released.  More perfumes to come from DSH and Ayala Sender, and writings too, with Beth Schreibman-Gehring and Jade Dressler.

Please scroll to parts 1-4 for more and a wealth of other links.

Above photo: a thurible, otherwise known as an incense censer, used in Roman Catholic ceremonies.  Next, the Rose Window of Chartres Cathedral.

Right:  Delacroix painting that influenced Theophile Gautier deeply, Death of Sardanapalus

Disclosure:  all samples in the Clarimonde project were provided to me by the perfumers.  My opinions are personal and I  hope my biases are entirely transparent.

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