Zen (Shiseido)

There are many who doubt the veracity of memories acquired before the age of four. But my god, I remember. Women of all walks of life used to smell like this-- and I, as a child, would be forever influenced by it.

I've written before about the women of my childhood and their distinctive fragrances-- undefinable to me at that time, but sparking a covetous curiosity that proved enduring. Throughout my scent education, they have stepped forward one by one to identify themselves: Jolie Madame (1953), Youth Dew (1953), Cabochard (1959), Shiseido Zen (1965), Fidji (1966), Norell (1968), Azurée (1969), and Private Collection (1973). What do these scents have in common? How do their similarities intersect? (Cue the guessing games and drawing of Venn diagrams!)

Half of them, first of all, contain bitter green galbanum as a dominant note. Half of them were authored by a single person, and a woman besides: Josephine Catapano (1918-2012). ALL of them speak to me of a modern femininity that was extraordinary for its time.

It may sound far-fetched to assign a scent to second-wave feminism. But when I breathe these bold and singular fragrances, I understand better the women who came before me. They were singular, intelligent, uncompromisingly modern, progressive in their choices of life and love. They ascribed to alternative definitions of gender-- and when they did not find what they were looking for in the prevailing culture, they rolled up their sleeves and created it.

Would it be presumptuous to suggest that this description also applies to Josephine Catapano? After all, because of her, womankind wrested itself from an age of boneless, milky, passive florals and struck out for more rugged territories. Adopting galbanum's bittersweet crispness as a sort of lingua franca, these intrepid explorers went forth bearing Catapano's lifework as a banner, signalling: I am not what you're used to dealing with. Don't mistake me for a soft touch.

The original Zen by Shiseido makes the same authoritative statement, but in a remarkably dispassionate tone. Its sense of restraint is most apparent in the way it presents galbanum-- using powdery, incense-like florals to frame and tame that famously aggressive green note, converting it into a model of self-contained elegance.  If you are used to galbanum slapping you in the face, prepare to be struck here too--by the resounding stillness and spareness of this masterful fragrance. No one could ever accuse it of drama for drama's sake.

The Japanese aesthetic called shibui -- deliberate understatement -- takes as its traditional symbol an unripe persimmon, whose tart astringency causes the mouth to pucker tightly shut. Likewise, the proponent of shibui feels much but elects to say little-- a practice which requires incredible strength of character. "We lock infinity into a square-foot of silk:/ pour a deluge from the inch-space of the heart," wrote the 17th century poet Bashō; I am sure he was talking about shibui. I cannot think of another word which describes more beautifully the women who shaped me-- and the scents they wore, like Shiseido Zen.

Scent Elements: Orange blossom, galbanum, hyacinth, bergamot, mimosa, carnation, violet, orris, jasmine, rose, narcissus, sandalwood, amber, musk, oakmoss, cedar