Bouquet (Gabriel's Aunt)

By the time she reached the age of fifty, the accomplished grande horizontale known as La Belle Otéro (1868-1965) had amassed a fortune worth over $25 million. A substantial portion of this wealth took the form of precious gems-- material proof of the great courtesan's many exalted liaisons. Otéro delighted in wearing the entire priceless collection all at once. "Her bosom is more covered with jewels than a Chief of Protocol's chest is with medals and crosses," reported Le Figaro. "They are in her hair, on her shoulders, arms, wrists, hands, and legs, and dangle from her ears, and when she ends the dance, the boards continue to glitter as if a crystal chandelier had been pulverised on them." Bling!

For the sake of context, it should be noted that in those days, courtesans were not the only ones flaunting ice past the point of decency. Empresses and queens habitually layered parure on top of parure, stacking priceless necklaces from bosom to chin and filling in the blank spots with random brooches, stomachers, and stray royal orders. Such reckless extravagance was designed to provoke shock and awe, leaving onlookers in no doubt of the magnitude of power that lay behind all the glitter. But bigger and more do not necessarily mean better, do they? Monarchies fall; empires crumble. The jewel-encrusted life is still subject to tarnish. La Belle Otéro learned this lesson over the course of many painful decades, ending (as she began) in abject poverty. She might have grasped it sooner if she hadn't been blinded by all those diamonds.

Call it an odd comparison, but it strikes me that the 'natural fragrance' community is similarly dazzled and disabled by its aspirations to Cleopatran splendor. Botanical perfumers often can be found shoehorning as many notes as they can into each formula, as if sheer density of design will forestall all questions of worth. The result: complexity at the cost of legibility. There's too much going on for the wearer to distinguish a lyric, a melody, something to unify cacaphony into harmonious chorus.

On her website, Seattle-based perfumer Nikki Sherritt-Lewis assures visitors of the natural, botanical, organic, vegan, cruelty-free, local, sustainable, artisanal, small-batch, hand-crafted, proprietary quality of her products, which are made only from "real and very costly essences" such as ancient kings and queens would wear. Sherritt-Lewis composed the now-discontinued Bouquet back when she was doing business as Gabriel's Aunt. It exemplifies the problems that arise when qualities such as 'natural' or 'botanical' or 'hand-crafted' are assigned greater value than compositional skill. For Bouquet is a dense, hot mess-- a heap of organic notes steaming away in the sun (and yes, a compost pile can also be described as 'artisanal'). With its welter of sickly-sweet flowers, bitter immortelle, and murky oud-like cepes, Bouquet is simultaneously too much and not enough. If it were a meal, it would be a haute cuisine extravaganza of caviar, cream, truffles, saffron threads, and every other pricey ingredient the chef could think to toss into the pot. Overthought, overcooked, overpriced and overdone, it offers the senses a minute or two of painful intensity. But it disappears from both skin and atmosphere shockingly fast, and you hardly even remember what made this tiny taste worth an entire day's wages.

Scent Elements: Yuzu, lemon, immortelle, carnation, rose, violet, white lotus, rosewood, saffron, oakmoss, mushroom