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McQueen in Elle

I knew the short story Clarimonde, by Theophile Gautier, was the perfect vehicle for perfume inspiration as soon as I heard it.

I highly recommend a wonderful reading by Joy Chan on Librivox. Her oh so slightly French-accented Hong Kong British voice is expressive and increases the rich detail of the story.  This story full of sumptuous Gothic imagery is also available in a free download.

Theophile Gautier, author of the phrase “art for art’s sake”; a close friend of Baudelaire, and Gerard de Nerval, and quoted by Oscar Wilde in Dorian Gray.  He was one of the original proponents of Aestheticism, also known as  the Decadent school (and also a great animal lover).

I  enticed some perfumers and writers to this project who  shared my enthusiasm about this story.

Each interpreted this story in their own way. The project was done with complete freedom as to form. The main thing is that we all immersed ourselves in and became energized by the beauty of the story to make something beautiful ourselves. The fragrances took the form of perfumes as liquid and solid, fragrant drink, became housed within jewelry, interpreted as room fragrance, a dream pillow, fragrant lip stains, and included variations on a theme.

I love stories that make me think of perfume.  I see this one through my experience of aromatic beauty as a sensual force and with more awareness of how ephemeral it all is, and how its transitory nature is part of its special beauty.

Photo by Katarina Silva

I recall hearing Clarimonde for the first time walking the streets during the blooming of the big old linden trees around here in Brooklyn, on a night with a big full moon, while heavily humid air held the fragrance and intensified it. Breathing in gusts of lively, lush beauty while moving through the luminous dark, hearing this story read by a beautiful expressive voice made a big impression on me.

I wanted to have perfumes to specifically embody this story. It is one of the earliest of the vampire genre.  In this case however, the female vampire feeding on the life force of the male victim gives so much back in terms of beauty, love, life, youth and pleasure that the enthralled victim is more than happy to give his very blood as the price that must be paid.

This description of a vampire is not dark and awful, but instead all about sumptuous luminosity, a blonde who emanates light, who wears pearls that glow almost as much as her skin,  wearing colorful satins and velvets.  Her greatest craving along with the blood of life itself is a matching ardor from someone truly worthy of her.

This story is about a man who dissolves himself every night into a dream of a woman’s love so seductive and sensually detailed he is not sure that she is not real. For him, emotionally, nothing could be more vivid. He can no longer be sure what is real, or when he is actually dreaming or awake, or even what is truly good or not. There is both the tension of resistance and a sense of surrender. The story is one of opulence contrasted with austerity and self-discipline, so heightening the understanding of both.

The victim is a devout young man, who grew up in austerity, isolated from the world. He is meditative, prayerful, exalted in spirit, completely unbalanced to our modern eyes in that he is about to enthusiastically choose an entirely monastic existence. Suddenly he loses his heart and body through the vision of a beautiful womanly apparition, standing by in the Cathedral at the very moment he is vowing self denial and austerity for life.

Eventually he becomes aware that her vitality is enhanced and renewed when she consumes a little blood from him. After these sessions, she gives back abundantly with the most sensual experiences imaginable, providing both the means of great luxury and an intensely erotic and deep romance.

Clarimonde is about dissolving into a deep dream of romantic love so seductive and sensually detailed it becomes impossible to tell whether or not it is real.  It is a romance conducted in an alternate world without limitations, creating a parallel life that stands apart from dogmas, rules, necessities or fears, one that is emboldened to reach for beauty in all its forms.

Clarimonde’s story is also the tragedy of her lover who lives with a divided soul. He believes that the spiritual and physical must be kept entirely separated. He loses his heart through the vision of Clarimonde, standing in the Cathedral at the very moment he is vowing eternal self-denial and austerity.  His own life force calls to the powerful beauty of nature and the world.

Cecil Beaton

With Clarimonde he escapes from a life of humility, solitude and extreme simplicity, to live in a Venetian palace.  There he exists timelessly as a proud and wealthy prince who thoroughly enjoys the privileges of leisure and beauty. Are such detailed experiences of freedom and beauty self-created by an inner life longing for outer expression? Which one is real life, the dream of union with Clarimonde or the dutiful striving for unattainable union with an elusive Spirit? Both are motivated by desires that embrace the supernatural as real.

Perfumes are both earthly and material and derive their beauty from the physical, but are also invisible and ephemeral and enter into the body through the senses recalling the mind to all its secret memories and longings.

Can we ever unite the spiritual and the physical in ourselves and in relationship to each other?

McQueen in Elle

I’m reminded of bright florals as they might corresponde to the colors worn by Clarimonde, her bright gold hair, her inner light illuminating dark interiors, in contrast to Romauld’s monastic minimalism and austerity.

The perfumers participating were Mandy Aftel, who made Oud Louban; Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, who made Paradise Lost, Maria McElroy of Aroma M and Alexis Karl in collaboration as The House of Cherry Bomb, who made Immortal Mine, Monica Miller with a perfume and perfumed  lip stains for a holographic perfume experience, and Deana Sidney of the wonderful LostPastRemembered who created a perfumed port that related to the drugged wine featured near the end of the story.

Writers are Lucy Raubertas of Indieperfumes, who organized and curated the project, Sheila Eggenberger/The Alembicated Genie, Trish Vawter/Scent Hive, Monica Miller/Perfume Pharmer, Jade Dressler  Beth Shreibman Gehring, and Deana Sidney of LostPastRemembered.

The story of Clarimonde is continued through an intricate and extensive Pinterest site, reached as one of the pages above.

The Perfumes:

Monica’s lip stains, completely botanical, contained essences of myrrh and cinnamon in ways that lightly stung the lips as they sent out fragrance around the face that matched and exalted the notes of the perfume she created, Sangre – as Jade Dressler says in her wild ride through the perfumes, stopping to light upon each one with a detailed description of her experience:

Dusk quickened and Monica lights a Roman candle of Roman Chamomile with dark berry fruit essences for the sex-in-your-face top note, and for the heart, a cocktail of Jasmine CO2, honeysuckle absolute, geranium absolute, white and red rose tinctures, which rise up instantly as I tap their names into the blog. (Blood of Christ! What is this love between plant scents and our desire!?) The base is musks (had to go there!) honey absolute, ambrette, Frankincense CO2 and Patchouli CO2 and you are crushed inside the mosh pit of Infernality for sure!

A little mosh pit of purpose is the Lip Stain Monica created called “Purple Shadow” a caldron of melting shea butter plus myrrh, peppermint, lemon balm and spices…again each of which enters my smell receptors as I type. Ok, yes it’s slathered upon my lips for easy access to the love canals of my nose…but still. Old news to anyone who follows me, I firmly believe “aliens” are among us, in the DNA of plants.”

The Tarot Lovers

The sadness of this story is that the narrator fought against the gift of his extraordinary dreams, and the side of himself that was drawn to love, beauty, and sensuality. The gift of this story is the vivid detail in which all those aspects of the narrator’s Clarimonde experience is described. As if dreaming the same dream, you ride with black horses at night through the forest, your eyes catch the sight of pearls against satiny skin. You experience the luminosity of many forms of beauty, you enjoy the palace in Venice hung with Titians, and the swooning emotion between entranced lovers exactly portrayed.


While with Clarimonde, the narrator’s pride and esteem grows and transforms his soul. She acts like water on the dry soil of a self-effacing martyrdom based on the burdens original sin and guilt. Theophile Gautier gives the narrator’s deep sense of regret and life long sense of deep loss as a message to us so we know that Romauld made the wrong choice in giving up Clarimonde.

Beth Schriebman Gehring gave a passionate recounting of all the perfumes while delivering her own understanding of the story’s theme of male to female relationships:

“We need men who are fearless in the face of our passions and our frailties. It saddens me that Romauld and Clarimonde lived in a time when she couldn’t be honest with him about who she was and because it was a time when women were by their very natures suspect, it would have impossible for her to have been honest with him, she who held such a deep and forbidden secret.

Then she perfumed a pair of gloves, with all the perfumes, having found a perfect embroidered white kid leather pair, that she imbued with the scents by perfuming her hands and then wearing them.  She also used a pad scented with the perfumes that the soft leather drank in:

“It was the scent of Clarimonde and it permeated my senses, filling me with an odd mixture of joy and passion tinged with a touch of regret. It was amazing to realize that we had ventured into unknown depths to bring her most intimate secrets into the light.”

Embroidered Elizabethan Gloves at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

With their interpretations of this story, the perfumers and the writers all carried me along with them into their own depth of surrender to beauty.  The personal perception of beauty can act to integrate the mind body and soul.

Romauld’s lifelong regret on his betrayal and loss of Clarimonde proves he was most himself and most alive when living in his dream of surrender to beauty in the person of one with whom he could sometimes forget what he believed himself to be.

With deep gratitude to all the participants, and to the story itself, I present a list that will bring you directly to the sites where you can lose yourself for a time in the dream of Clarimonde and the perfumes made in her honor.

Click here to download and listen to Joy Chan reading Clarimonde

The Perfumes
Sangre and the violet and red lip stains at the Perfume Pharmer;

Oud Louban by Mandy Aftel

solid perfume, also in liquid form

Immortal Mine by Aroma M and Alexis Karl as The House of Cherry Bomb

Paradise Lost by Dawn Spencer Hurwitz

Dream Pillow and Dreaming Parallel Perfume for Clarimonde by Ayala Moriel

Clarimonde Posts from the writers in the Clarimonde Project in order of appearance:

Indieperfumes Clarimonde Part 1

Indieperfumes Clarimonde Part 2

Perfume Pharmer Letters to Lucy Part 1 

Indieperfumes –  Perfume Pharmer Sangre and Lip Stains

LostPastRemembered- Clarimonde, Voluptuous Vampires and Perfumed Port

Aroma M Musings

Ayala Moriel  – Dream Pillow

Indieperfumes – Immortal Mine and LostPastRemembered

The Alembicated Genie: Perfume Pharmer Sangre and Lip Stains

Scent Hive – Part 1 Clarimonde Introduction

The Alembicated Genie: Immortal Mine

Indieperfumes Aftelier Oud Louban

Indieperfumes Paradise Lost 

Indieperfumes Ayala Moriel’s Dreaming Parallel

Perfume Pharmer Oud Luban

Perfume Pharmer Immortal Mine

Scent Hive Oud Luban

Scent Hive Part 3

The Alembicated Genie – Aftelier’s Oud Louban

Jade Dressler Clarimonde Project

The Alembicated Genie:   Paradise Lost

The Alembicated Genie:  Dreaming Venetian, Ayala Moriel 

Poetry and Song by Alexis Karl Immortal Mine 

Beth Schriebman Gehring at Perfume Smellin Things and The Windesphere Witch