There are poisons that blind you, and poisons that open your eyes.” From ‘The Red Room’ by August Strindberg
I am a sucker for poisons and poisoners, I have no idea why. I was told cuttingly once I was probably a courtier of bygone days, vying for power and sexual favours by poisoning the robes, gloves and wine of hated rivals. I think however a larger part is played is by a preoccupation with Catherine de Medici who I mentioned in a previous blog piece for Cafleurebon, the Italian aristocratic who came to France to marry the man who would become Henri II. Luckily for us she also brought her remarkable personal perfumer René le Florentin, who not only created her bespoke attars and lotions but also purportedly her myriad poisons. It was said her private chambers were lined in shelves containing these deadly concoctions. This concept of death and beauty side by side in exquisite organised harmony has always fascinated me.
They often say that poison is a woman’s game. This is not actually true however; statistically only 39.5% of known poison deaths have been attributed to female killers. Historically it’s been about access and proximity to food, drink, cleaning materials; women ‘accidentally’ overdosing abusive lovers, husbands and parents. Women have always been nurses, carers in homes officially or otherwise with access to drugs, medical knowledge, patience and mercy disguised as intent to kill.
Men poison too, but it’s odd how we persist in thinking of it as a female crime; is it tied to our childhood exposure to myths, legends and fairytales that abound with princesses and maidens swooning into deathly slumbers at the hands of evil queens, witches and crones while worlds turn, briars grow and castles crumble? Are we haunted by the memory of beautiful Snow White reaching out for that glistening apple in the hand of her stepmother in disguise, biting down into its noxious flesh only to fall as if dead into the chill snow of winter? Poison exerts a powerful eroticised influence over our imaginations as Dior were well aware when their shocking bestseller Poison by Edouard Fléchier launched in 1985 in a dark, plummy secretive flacon that seemed like something plucked from Catherine de Medici’s private collection.
Now we have a dramatic line of nine, yes, nine new perfumes called Les Potions Fatales created by scent style maverick Joseph Quartana, Artistic Director of Six Scents Parfums. He has spent two years collaborating with perfumers at Symrise in order to compose this project that oozes morbid mood and playful attention to detail. Each of the nine is a poison flower, blooms associated with murder, suicide and magic rites and rituals. Behind the fatal potions are the shadows of Joseph’s homme and femme fatales, the caliginous souls he wants us to offer ourselves up to, drowning in their olfactive games of oblivion.
It’s a big ask of a collection but the line has arrived fully formed, packaging immaculately nailed courtesy of the swirling oleaginous artwork by Argentine artist and calligrapher Aerosyn-Lex Mestrovic whose atramental digital work I love to abstraction. The sexy flacons are cobalt blue and beautifully crafted. As soon you open your box and see the bottle, you think… hello poison. Historically poison bottles were coloured to prevent overdosing and death in ages of illiteracy, people fumbling around in shadows and darkness and killing themselves, unable to read labels. The contents too, needed to be protected from light; cost of manufacture was a factor, red glass was best for protection, but was too expensive so blues and greens were used for poisons and essential oils.
Les Potions Fatales is a coherent project that dazzles from the outset. A few of the nine proffered poisons fall apart on the skin and the Symrise perfumers have definitely been influenced by synthsex master Antoine Lie, but otherwise it is a strong showing. The compositions pulsate with synthetic light and darkness; I know they contain other high grade naturals too, but the elaborate deadly floral accords have been amped up, decorated, shadowed and illuminated with fabulous high-grade synthetics. This creates sheen and slick whodunit in the nine, a morass of compulsive glimmer. Out the nine I loved Bloodflower the most, composed by Alexandra Carlin, close runners up were Digitalis by David Apel and Hemlock by Christelle Laparde. Each of these had fascinating off kilter elements I loved, but Bloodflower just clicked. My skin soaked it up and hurled it back with eerie relish.
Bloodflower is a deadly plant, a form of tropical milkweed, the lacteous sap containing poisonous alkaloids used to tip arrows. Joseph and his perfumer Alexandra have chosen to play on the sanguineous part of the name, creating a full-blown velveteen gothic banquet. In the press notes, the flower’s role in the transformation in the Monarch caterpillar to butterfly is noted, an interesting fact, but one nonetheless, carefully moved aside in favour of Bloodflower’s luscious structure. It too transforms and changes, but then most good scents should shift and alter. It is the enormous draft of licquorice and anise that really hits you when you first spray, they are so damn strong, dry too, spice cupboard dry, which I love.
There is no stickiness or candied clamminess to the notes, just a rooty chewiness. I love blood accords in perfumery (there are more than you might think…), that creepy ferrous queasiness of bodily connection. Antoine Lie is the master; Les Sécrétions Magnifiques for Etat Libre d’Orange and Red+MA for Blood Concept are both extraordinary and shockingly divisive renditions of this challenging concept.
In Bloodflower it is less post dental extraction, more boozy Vampire lite, tempered by Black Sambuca, to smooth the blood into a flickering burgundy stained haze. It’s beautifully handled though, the metallic edge of the blood accord mixes superbly with rose, creating petals of wrought iron and thorns of fire. The amber and patchouli in the base serve to stoke the glow and burn of this weird, compulsive edgy thing. It does smell toxic at moments, when the skin flushes or overheats; I liked that, made me feel oddly alive. I can see Bloodflower being dangerously addictive.
Digitalis is foxglove and depending on the species can be very toxic leading to some of its more sinister names like Dead Man’s Bells and Witches’ Gloves. But herbalists have harnessed the powerful natural forces of foxgloves for millennia; they contain a set of cardiac glycosides and during the digestion process they produce a sugar and aglycones; these are vital in the treatment of cardiac conditions. In folklore it was thought the small bells could be rung to summon fairy folk to woodland clearings. I am a big fan of two things in Digitalis: cucumber and the synthetic Florozone that smells like glassy green notes with a hint of jasmine and exalts the florality of the composition. This entire perfume is an abstracted glittering dell, air giddy with motes of dandelion fluff lit by early morning sun. There is a sense of suspension, of time slowed, tiny words lost amid the flutter of leaves and wind catching branches. It has a lovely cold verdancy to it, mossy and damp, last night’s rain still lying on the grass and on the battered petals of rose, jasmine and delicate violet hidden away in the grassy edges. Galbanum and ozone add mulch and air while cucumber imbues that delicious kick of dew as you walk through morning grass. A total contrast to Bloodflower, no poison, more innocence and folklore, but a reminder that beauty is illusory and if you hear the faint sound of tiny muffled bells as you walk alone in the woods, you should be afraid for the fairy folk heed the call of the fox’s bells to come steal you away.
Hemlock by Christelle Laparde is my second favourite from the collection; it has a fantastic, vertiginous synthetic kickoff of rum muddled with crushed leaves, a huge dose of styrax, bergamot and sweet sexy cinnamon bark. For a moment it feels like someone making you a cocktail and you know you don’t want it, you keep asking what’s in it, but they just keep smiling and turning up the music. Socrates was the most famous victim of hemlock poisoning, forced to drink it, charged with corrupting the youth of Athens and of asebeia or impiety against the pantheon of Athens. Death by hemlock is not pretty and you essentially die of repository failure. The thing I like about Hemlock is its dissonance; there are some odd, jarring moments amid the rather large list of materials. The salt accord seems scattered over the more floral aspects, desiccating them.
The suede and styrax echo the Etat Libre d’Orange catalogue in the slightly fleshy stretch of the accords, Hemlock personalizes them with a really lovely black vinyl accord that I adore, it has elements of both liquid latex and old vinyl shucked carefully from beloved album sleeves. Contrasted against that bonkers cocktail craziness at the beginning, Hemlock has very a very… dare I say itpoignant meeting point of the multifarious elements. This I guess is the sobriety of poison, the realisation of nature’s elegance executing a kind of delayed and tortuous revenge.
And so endeth the deadly lesson. There are more, Mandrake, Poppy Soma, Lily of the Valley, Venetian Belladonna, Midnight Datura and Wolfsbane. What’s your poison? Joseph Quartana and his lethal potions await.