by Stephen Todd
The history of perfume and of poison are inextricably linked. In the Middle Ages, court apothecaries prepared both substances, sometimes combining the two. So a courtier could never be quite certain whether it was seduction or sedition on the cards.
Fragrance houses have hinted at this history, but none had extensively explored the relationship between fragrance and toxin. Love and death.
Dior picked up on this troubled rapport when it launched its Poison fragrance in 1985. Inspired by the infamous Affair of the Poisons, a five-year murder saga that took place under the reign of Louis XIV, Poison's olfactory profile includes top notes of coriander and tuberose and a base of opopanax (otherwise known as myrrh). Available in 15ml purse-pack sprays, the slogan ran: it "mesmerises the senses … forever".
Serge Lutens brewed up a fragrance called Datura Noir (Angel's Trumpet) in 2001. His notes read, "I took brugmansia, also known as Angel's Trumpet, and distilled the notes of its lingering memory. Some say this fragrance will enthral you; others that it will make you crazy. Others still that excessive exposure will kill you dead." Positively gothic, our Serge.
New York's Joseph Quartana is a tad less dramatic, and a lot more intriguing. An esteemed fashion retailer, he launched his Six Scents platform in 2008 with the mission to couple some of his avant-garde designer friends with some of the world's most creative noses in order to translate their sensibility into scent. He forged collaborations with Gareth Pugh, Jeremy Scott and Philip Lim, among others.
Last year, Quartana launched Parfums Quartana to apply conceptually rich thinking to very singular fragrances.
His first collection is called Les Potions Fatales, and is based on the idea that some of the loveliest flowers are toxic. Their essential oils are said to have been used for murder, suicide and witchcraft.
So you have Hemlock, which is described as "green, oriental, woody-spicy". Quartana's research revealed that "in Ancient Greece, hemlock was used to execute condemned prisoners, the most famous being the philosopher Socrates. The word itself derives from the Greek word 'konas', meaning to whirl about, as its effect is vertigo and death."
Then there is Wolfsbane, once used to exterminate wolf populations. "We wished to imbue the fragrance with this animalistic ferocity of the hunter, warrior, wolf to reflect virile rage, but complemented with rich woods and luxurious black truffle. To give it a psychedelic twist, the heart note is wormwood, the basis for the hallucinogenic liquor, absinthe."
Mandrake, Belladonna, Bloodflower, Lily of the Valley. Yes, even dainty lily of the valley has a nasty streak. Quartana refers to it as "both clean and dirty at the same time". His personal favourite is Wolfsbane, "because it's ferocious and macho". Full disclosure, I am wearing Wolfsbane as I type this – and am feeling pretty feisty.
Between the excellence of each essence and the nuance of the narrative is the collaborative nature of the Potions Fatales. Each of the nine fragrances has been devised by a different nose (with the exception of Hemlock and Bloodflower which were developed by Alexandra Carlin). Poppy Soma – devised by Emilie Coppermannand which Quartana describes as "floriental, smoky, narcotic" – last month scooped a Fragrance Foundation Award (aka a Fifi) in the "Parfum Extraordinaire" category. Last year's winner was Chanel's Misia.
Quartana explains his process. "After doing a few months of research I presented the information to nine different perfumers so each could volunteer to work on the one that they most vibed with and then interpret in their own way given their own style. From there I worked with each one-on-one to focus on certain aspects of the history, famous poisonings, each one's use in sorcery or witchcraft, their respective symbology and from there reached agreement on the initial directions for each scent."
It's an intense, lengthy process, but the results are spectacular. Fierce in their individuality, compelling on the flesh, Quartana has managed to bottle pure attitude.
But as extreme as they are in concept, they are also compelling scents. Quartana hasn't fallen into the trap that snagged Rei Kawakubo when she launched a fragrance based on dry-cleaning fluid.