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· Perfume Notes: Guerlain Vol de Nuit

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Perfume Notes: Guerlain Vol de Nuit
by Dain

Elihu Vedder, Listening to the Sphinx (1863).

There's a wonderful phrase in French, "les parfums fourrure", that seems to capture the odd synthesis of beauty and vulgarity that is so intrinsic to the cult of luxury. All luxury flouts common sense with its wastefulness, but then, utility is quite beside the point. If ever there was a perfume that captured the feeling of sinking your fingers into the yielding softness of fur, Vol de Nuit is that perfume. It is not merely the animalic hints of castoreum and civet in its drydown, for this lacks the overt raunchiness of its cousin Jicky, but in how it provokes such divergent responses from the senses and the intellect: an opulence of sublime ingredients expressed in a manner disturbingly strange and bitter.

Much is made of its romantic association with aviation and adventure, but ignoring Guerlain's poorly constructed metaphor, it becomes increasingly obvious that a kind of stasis grips the heart of Vol de Nuit, anchoring it firmly to this blighted earth. Even the metallic vitriol of petrol fumes, recreated by the corrosive, medicinal sulfuric, terpene-rich galbanum, hints at a cthonic origin. In one respect, the name is entirely just; it is best worn in the chill winter night, not to comfort as Shalimar would, but to belong. No other perfume so perfectly captures the very substance of darkness itself—opaque, vague, and lonely. There is only starlight in Vol de Nuit, a brief twinkle of bergamot and mandarin, quickly shuttered by that bitter cloud of galbanum, poor illumination against the dense backdrop of resinous woods and earthy aromatics: an abundance of narcissus and iris (these are not actually floral), agarwood, cinnamon (though perhaps more accurately a spice), rosewood, cedar, sandalwood, vetiver, oakmoss, benzoin, and tonka bean.

Vol de Nuit serves in perfume history as the prototypical bittersweet, caught between attraction and repulsion, and counts in its lineage perfumes such as Bandit and Vent Vert (themselves very influential), as if Cellier dehydrated the sepia-toned original of its Guerlinade and then split it in two halves, one black, the other green. Bittersweet is a common enough theme in art—the grit and heartache in Billie Holiday's voice, that sinister tendency behind Kubrick's films, Hamlet generally fucking everyone up with his eloquence, the Amazonian custom of cutting off a breast to ease archery, Goya's black paintings—it is a little more unexpected from a perfume. If a spirit of adventure guides this composition, it is not, as the name may imply, informed by the rash heroism of youth, but by a mature confidence, leading us on an inward journey, deeper into the heart of darkness.

I often think that Guerlain's perfumes are essays on human frailty, and this is what makes them so fascinating. But Vol de Nuit is a homage, not to frailty, but to human strength, the only one we have, the ability to weather horrible, mindless, meaningless adversity, to face that endless night, know it is there, and still live. If that isn't bittersweet, I don't know what is.

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2/18/2009 [3]

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