I tip the glass stopper to my wrists. A small tear of amber slips so slowly down the inside of my pale wrist I can feel its transfiguration from perfume to golden flayed epiphany. I am so taken with its journey, I realise I have barely breathed. I exhale and pause. I am savouring the wait before I lean in to sample my own gilded skin. I fasten my cape; wrap a huge grey woollen scarf around my neck and walk down the stairs into the street. My waistcoat hugs me close like a lover. My favourite patent shoes glitter in the glow of a fluttering streetlight. Rising from the scarf is something vanillic and pulpy, a whiff of burnt jam and cedar. I try and recall what fragrance I had on when I wore it last (Figues et Garçons, Evening Edged in Gold, Mûre et Musc?) but something else catches my nose. I stop, close my eyes and inhale my wrist.
Ah, Chanel’s Cuir de Russie. How much do I love thee? A cradling, orthodox glow of leather and amber, radiating across my skin. Campaign-worn Cossack leather, stained with vodka and blood, a whiff of St Petersburg nights, golden icons in smoke-swathed churches. Mysterious cavalrymen dashing through snow and time. Horseflesh and hound. Fur and diamonds glittering in the blurred light of a thousand candles. These scented images tumble and merge as I walk the whispering autumnal streets, Goldmund meandering softly through my earbuds; an occasional gust of wind whipping the cloak of leaves into eddies of burnt umber. Bickering dogs echo around the neighbourhood. I leave the Russian dreamscape of my mind and pull my scarf closer; the mix of leather, fruits and nitromusks threaded through the wool is almost unbearable.
I am privileged to live in Edinburgh. It is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. A backdrop for a myriad projected lives. The city’s stone reacts differently to the sun, rain, snow and the uniquely veiled northern light. There is magic, blood, spectral grace and a haunting sense of otherness, of walking through lives lived before. Strolling the shadowed wynds of the Old Town, the expansive parks and aloof splendours of the Georgian New Town, there is a sense of being watched and scrutinised. I love this unease, this ghostly surveillance. I have grown older here. It is a magisterial city, glowing with a strange and private magnificence.
Edinburgh is at its best in the autumn, as the clocks change and the light shifts and darkens. Leaves flame, piling high across the city streets, rolling in ochre waves. The buildings glint in the low sun, glorious tangerine sunsets bleed across the streets and the smell of coming rain mingles with hops from the city’s breweries, hanging in the air like a miasma.
A city and a season like this need fragrances chosen with care and attention to detail. There is damp, mould, mulch, smoke, stone, a low flash of late shocking sun. Sadness too. Sudden tears. Edinburgh’s streets can pull huge moods from you as you walk home, wrapped in layers of wool, tweed and mohair. Moods like squalls of rain. Scrappy and uncalled for, but unavoidable.
The castle looms large in Edinburgh, like a resting bird of prey, perched high on dark rocks, wings folded. As autumn comes, the trees below are strung with lights, odd little paths of luminescence scattered upward toward the castle like glowing guardians. They appear slowly as if they’re growing out of the air, buffeted by the winds and otherworldly. They mark the start of autumn for me and I start to think about a shift in fragrance, sniffing and tasting the air like an animal. I sort through a wardrobe still woven with traces of aldehydes, smoke, petals and resins from last year’s foray into fragrance. This is what I love about scent. The sudden whiff of a street or a name, a burst of laughter as incense and rose rise from the weft and weave of scarves and folded merino. An evening spent by a fire in a peaty pub with an old flame, watching the fine lines around their eyes, wondering if you should have stayed and watched them softly form. Inhaling a gentle aroma of sandalwood and leather as they lean in to sip a vintage malt. It’s this aura, the little snippets of scents carried from year to year. This is what makes this time of year so beautiful to me. The whispers of a scented wardrobe.
I have worn so many perfumes in this city, so many scents illuminate bars, streets, houses, rooms, faces and kisses. I have a map in my head of places linked by scented encounters. A university library with old church pews and the amber vapours of Calvin Klein’s Obsession, kissing a boy against hot water pipes in a lecture theatre on a cold December night to the orange musks of Lagerfelds’s Sun, Moon & Stars, wandering up Arthur’s Seat with a drunken lover, wrapped in the embrace of Azzaro and the fug of Camels and a friend giving me Caron’s Nuit de Noel for Christmas. I dripped it onto my wrists in his car and filled the air with flowers, spices and sexual hunger. I still can’t open the bottle without smelling car leather and the dirty sound of his laughter rushing into my mind like floodwater.
Autumn is the opportunity to revel and indulge in deeper darker fragrance tones. To light a fire, burn a memory and sing a song of solstice. I like my descent into winter to reek of stone, smoke and fire. Something ritualistic and pagan; fragrances that utilise the perfumer’s skills with balsams; resins, woods, leather, smoke and storytelling. Some of my favourites are things I reach for every year, others are rarities I treasure and open with care like tremulous spells that might suddenly metamorphose and flee me. On cloth and skin, these fragrances possess a sense of the holy, a connecting to one’s self as the seasons shift and shake. I’ve said it before, but never underestimate the power of fragrance. Magic and hocus-pocus aside, real glamouring and enchantment have always been the work of perfumers.
I have skin favourites and I know it breaks with conventional perfume orthodoxy, but this is the time of the year for scent on cloth; collars, scarves, sleeves. Some fragrances become so ephemeral on fabric, developing a transparency that is sometimes lost in the turmoil of skin. So here are some of my seasonal favourites; some stone, smoke and fire….
Discover which fragrances in the conclusion of SmokeStoneRain later this week.
The Silver Fox writes the blog A Scent of Elegance; looking at the metaphorical, sensual and fantasy elements triggered by the emotive responses to the world of fine fragrance.