Inhale to visit a “Garden After the Monsoon”

Is it really possible to bottle the scent of a place? The House of Hermès is trying to do just that — capture the scents of the southern Indian state of Kerala with its new fragrance “Un Jardin Après la Mousson” (A Garden After the Monsoon). hermes.jpg The result, after 300 drafts, according to “Liquid Assets” by Phoebe Eaton in the current NYT Travel Summer 2008 magazine is a perfume that is “confected with vetiver and kahili ginger, which isn’t a ginger at all but a white flower that gusts like a rogue hybrid of jasmine, tuberose and gardenia.”

I really enjoyed reading about the process of developing this perfume — the trials and experiments that Jean-Claude Ellen has undergone as he has struggled to “bottle the fantasy” of … well, let’s just scream it, EXOTIC KERALA! India is hot in the House of Hermès, apparently. Its the theme for 2008 and and “silk scarves are vivid with raw pinks and fleshy mangoes, elephants harnessed to carriages and tigers rampant.” For a bit more on the exotic front, take this passage, which describes the arrival of monsoon. It had me, well, basically flummoxed:

In coastal Kerala, spices have been trafficked since the Romans rode in on the winds of the monsoons seeking cardamom and pepper: black gold. Women wear their saris differently here than they do up north, draping them like togas. And when the first monsoon blows in from the Arabian Sea — and it always seems to arrive during the first week of June, extinguishing the scorching rays of the summer sun and ushering in a joyful verdant renewal — the modest women of Kerala rush out into the rain, ‘‘and the saris cling close to the body. Very érotique,’’ says Ellena. Bollywood films often feature bosomy romantics carelessly cavorting through such torrential downpours in scenes designed to thwart the censors. For this same reason, Muslim boys are not allowed out of the house during the first week of the monsoon.

Umm, is this really true? I feel like I need some fact checkers to either set the record straight or enlighten me.

And, I can’t resist asking: If there was any scent you’d want to bottle, what would it be? I love the experiences that Christopher Brosius of CB Perfume has transformed into perfumes:

A Memory of Kindness: The shining green scent of tomato vines growing in the fresh earth of a country garden

Experience in the Library: English Novel taken from a Signed First Edition of one of my very favorite novels, Russian & Moroccan leather bindings, worn cloth and a hint of wood polish

In the Summer Kitchen: Fresh garden vegetables & herbs on a clear summer evening with a touch of smoked old wooden rafters

kindnessperfum.jpg libperfume.jpg kitchenperfume.jpg

33 thoughts on “Inhale to visit a “Garden After the Monsoon”

  1. Fragrances worthy of a quest: the earth after rains, khas, drumsticks cooking, coffee brewing, smoke/peaty (like a campfire or laphroaig), the crisp air of dawn

    WikiP tells me that us desis have an Ittar for the earth. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ittar#Mitti_Attar

    Wish Wikipedia was around back when I used to live in Delhi. Would have loved to travel away from the babudom of New/South Delhi. Us poor Gen-Xers just got to watch the Op Desert Storm on cable TV.

    I would have loved perfumes more If I wasn’t so pathetic in organic chemistry

    http://www.witnwisdumb.com/2006/10/smell-of-rain.html

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ambergris ” Whale puke Ambergris has a peculiar sweet, earthy odor (similar to isopropyl alcohol); though it has now been largely displaced by synthetics, the principal historical use of ambergris was as a fixative in perfumery

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skatole “It occurs naturally in feces (it is produced from tryptophan in the mammalian digestive tract), beets, and coal tar, and has a strong fecal odor. In low concentrations it has a flowery smell and is found in several flowers and essential oils, including those of orange blossoms, jasmine, and Ziziphus mauritiana. It is used as a fragrance and fixative in many perfumes and as an aroma compound.”

  2. I’m reminded of the ‘India smell’ Russell Peters spoke of when he first stepped off the plane in India…

  3. Speaking of Indian themed products, you know Poland Spings and Ice Mountain water? A friend of mine came up with “Rebirth” bottled water from the Ganges? It would be green colored with abunch of shit floating around in it and maybe ashes from a dead animal or something.

  4. hmm… ou may have a point there. kerala seems to be taking over. i just read that juniper is losing out to elaichi (cardamom) as a gin flavorant.

    films often feature bosomy romantics carelessly cavorting through such torrential downpours …

    and those are just the men. the women huddle around a fire and crack almonds between their chin folds.

    some good smells – hmmm – with suitable romanticization

    memories of a love past: a toasted and buttered montreal bagel with a popping cappuccino the smell of freedom and glee: the smell of the sea while running barefoot on the beach on a varm sunny day [please tune out the ripe smell of a long-unwashed chaddi liner here]

  5. Check out Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab. They sell bottled perfume oils with dark, gothic, exotic, or literary themes. I’m a fan. They have some India-themed scents as well, notably Khajuraho, Diwali, Bengal, Rakshasa(which I have, it actually smells really inoffensive) and a Chakra series, among others.

  6. I have a perfume concept called “Singham: Unleash the Beast”. Maybe I can get this guy as spokesperson celebrity

  7. 6 · khoofia said

    the smell of the sea while running barefoot on the beach on a varm sunny day [please tune out the ripe smell of a long-unwashed chaddi liner here]

    it was going so well — did you have to mention the long-unwashed etc?

    which reminds me.. a friend’s newly-wed mom in the desh fell in love with her husband’s musky smell. she convinced her husband to stop showering, a request he was glad to comply with. but after a week or so of this no-shower business, his boss took him aside and told him to wash up. his colleagues were not quite as enamored with the funk.

    personally, i’m a big fan of sandalwood scents. my freshman year of college, i happened to chance upon this product, ohm sandalwood and chamomile, sadly not available anymore, just like elaine’s sponges. this (fake) sandalwood shower gel was my daily olfactory reminder of home.

  8. Shalu @ 4:

    India smell? Once when I was walking around a city, I said to my partner..”wow! it smells like India”. Around the corner, there was a pile of smelly trash..

    Thats an India smell.

  9. are you guys as appalled by artificial cherry flavors and smell in food products such as bubblegum etc? is this a desi aversion? like the (probably) genetically influenced cilantro aversion?

  10. which reminds me.. a friend’s newly-wed mom in the desh fell in love with her husband’s musky smell. she convinced her husband to stop showering, a request he was glad to comply with.

    This sounds like a similar story I’ve heard about Napoleon and Josephine. He begged her not to wash while he was away….for months at a time.

    personally, i’m a big fan of sandalwood scents.

    My favorite too! There’s a soap I use that’s made in Bali – the best. I also burn sandalwood incense in my clothes closet- fire hazard I know but worth it.

    When I mentioned this Hermes perfume to someone and told him it was based on Kerala he immediately conjured up his own olfactory memories of the place – he couldn’t give me a description but said it was pleasant.

  11. Blue:

    If that library perfume were real, I would totally buy it.

    It is real! They sell it online, and at a few stores, including one in NYC that I spoke to!

    stopbywhenever, with the youtube link: perfume was truly one of he creepiest movies i’ve seen!

  12. Driving from Trivandrum to a beach resort in 2006, the predominant smell was of garbage piled up on either side and in the middle of a divided highway. With unskilled labor in demand elsewhere, I was told, Kerala could not get outsiders to do their dirty work. I have breathing problems and find Synthetics and commercial perfumes noxious and overwhelming. Having looked at CB Perfumes all I can say is why bother. You can do this yourself at home. My preferences … Perfume: Get Khus/Vetiver and Sandalwood oil from India (also in health food stores). They can be blended with mineral oil or liquid soap. Other good stuff I have found in India are extracts of Frankincense, cedar, rosewood, lavender and patchouli. Attar and jasmine are overrated, kevda downright offensive, and pepper/clove/cinnamon/cardamom/vanilla are kitchen smells, not perfume material.
    Dhoop: Indian agarbattis suck – gross and graceless. Look for the Japanese brands. Raw Frankincense is still available in India, but Haalmaddi (a thick gooey resin I remember from childhood) has disappeared from markets. I improvise by heating mixtures of oils and water in a little porcelain cup. My best experiment so far is lavender or patchouli and Latakia tobacco. I found a box of “Duraflame Fatwood” in my grocery store, the smoke from which is the nearest thing to Frankincense, at a bargain price. It is sold as a fire starter. I haven’t figured out how to make it smoke continuously. Sage leaves are very native-American patriotic, and roasting coffee also works for me.

  13. narayan, please to tell the name and address of your alchemy shop, you can expect me soon.

  14. um, i don’t think i’ve ever witnessed any malayali women old enough to wear a sari cavort in the rain as soon as the monsoons start. and if they’re talking about wearing saris so the loose end is worn front to back, wtf – that’s not like a toga! no idea about muslim boys not being let out for a week. also seems like a stretch.

  15. I really enjoyed reading about the process of developing this perfume — the trials and experiments that Jean-Claude Ellen has undergone as he has struggled to “bottle the fantasy” of … well, let’s just scream it, EXOTIC KERALA!… If there was any scent you’d want to bottle, what would it be?

    Eau de Cooum. Don’t go stealing my idea.

  16. Folks, exotickery aside, if someone has actually managed to accurately synthesize the smell of rain in the lab and mass-produce it, it is huge news. Petrichor has the reputation for being one of the toughest smells to synthesize accurately. Of course, I don’t know how accurate the purported monsoon concoction is, so anyone who has smelled the perfume please to comment.

    That said, we can now get down to snark:

    In coastal Kerala, spices have been trafficked since the Romans rode in on the winds of the monsoons seeking cardamom and pepper: black gold.

    Rode in on the winds? On their flying pigs no doubt.

    Isn’t “trafficked” used primarily for illegal trade? Of course, spice can be addicting. You start small, with cardamom in your tea. Then that’s not enough, and you want some ginger in your cheese spread. Then it gets to pepper in your milagutanni soup, and you end up eating too much hot chili pepper and throwing up. That’s when the extent of your addiction will hit you.

    Bollywood films often feature bosomy romantics carelessly cavorting through such torrential downpours in scenes designed to thwart the censors. For this same reason, Muslim boys are not allowed out of the house during the first week of the monsoon.

    Indian censors are thwarted by not allowing Muslim boys out of the house? Or do the carelessly cavorting romantics carelessly cavort into and injure the Muslim boys as well? I just love learning things about the country I was born in. Could any such house-arrested Muslim boy please comment here on your experience as a cavortee?

  17. A monsoon smell without the aroma of chai, pakoras and jalebi is a cop out!!

  18. The last time I cavorted in the rain was at the age of 11, and had considered it an adventure even then – mom had allowed it only because the yard was big, and that afforded some privacy. If an adult Malayalee woman does any cavorting during the monsoons, she would end up in ‘oolampara’, http://www.thehinduimages.com/hindu/photoDetail.do?photoId=6411891

    Nothing can beat this Bollywood bosomy beauty’s cavorting, though: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5r7aR5UbCsU&feature=related

    The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea: Travel and Trade in the Indian Ocean by a Merchant of the First Century, does talk about riding on the winds of the monsoons to Kerala. It was known in the first century that starting from the Persian Gulf, following the South Western monsoons it took only about a month to hit the Kerala coast (known as Muziris in those days). Legend has it that King Solomon used teak from Kerala to build his temple.

  19. There’s an undeniable element of orientalism in the creation of this scent — but just look at the fragrance industry in general in terms of the imagery it tries to evoke about anything. It’s too easy a target to lob serious attacks at — even those who follow the business a little find it frequently laughable. There are as many stereotypes attached to “Un Jardin en Mediterrannee” (the first scent in the series — themed with scents of fig from the European Mediterranean region) as there are to the images allegedly “evoked” by Kerala or India in the Western mind.

    I happen to be an addict on various perfumery blogs. When Jardin Apres la Mousson was being launched, those who cared were VERY excited because Hermès has done a great job with their first two scents in the series, and Jean-Claude Ellena is considered one of the reigning gods of the fragrance creator world. However, when news was that the scent would be more “green” and “fresh”, many readers of these blogs expressed disappointment because they said “India would smell more like warm spices like cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, etc.” (cue excerpt from Chitra Divakaruni here…). However, there was similar surprise that the “Garden on the Nile” scent smelt like green mango (good New Yorker article on that here)

    I coincidentally am wearing the “After the Monsoon” (so easy to confuse with Rahul Bose’s new film “Before the Rains”??) fragrance today (it’s unisex), and it’s actually sort of cucumbery-melony at first, with an undercurrent of spice and maybe the sap of green spice plants… but it’s not exactly chai masala in a perfume bottle.

    A much worse example in my mind was a company called Kenzo and their limited edition version of a scent that they called Kenzo Amour Indian Holi.

  20. By the way, Sandhya, some of Brosius’s products (the line is actually called “CB I Hate Perfume”) are great — the one that smells like tomato vines really evokes being in a summer garden. I’m not sure I’d want to wear it as a perfume all day, but having a little vial of it to sniff once in awhile is great for nostalgia.

    If anyone’s really interested, there are sites where you can mail order small vials of almost any perfume ever created (including the ones discussed here) — a real value and good way to test since full bottles are way too pricey. Google “perfume decants” and you’re sure to hit a few sites. Just FYI.

  21. I absolutely adore Hermes’ India line. It was largely advertised when I was in India last month. As there are only a couple of Hermes boutiques in India so I had to wait to get to Germany before buying anything from their line! How timeless, Indian inspired Hermes! Kenzo also has a perfume inspired by India…I think it is called Amour Indian Holi and is a limited edition.

  22. Oops Kusala- I did not notice your comment before posting about Kenzo. And I agree, I would never want to smell like that!

  23. lifelong @11:

    That smells like an ABD…. :)

    Disdain and contempt for India….yes, India is dirty beyond your wildest imagination. Get over it.

    The piece is about the smell of monsoon and I find it amazing that someone even made an attempt to bottle it!!

  24. When I read about the process of creating Un Jardin du Nile, I had to sample it. Now it’s my summer scent. I’ll have to check this one out just out of curiosity.

  25. Hermes is fabulous this year. I’m a collector of antique Hermes scarves with an India theme. It’s so niche, I’m wondering if any of you are similiarly crazy :) Hermes came our with Years of India a few times, and some scarves have become very rare collectibles. I now have 5-6 such rarities and they are just stunning, eg. a maharani on her throne with a background of horses and elephants and rajas. Or another scarf that is the “tree of life” – full of various iconography and motifs from the Indian subcontinent. My latest acquisition is a scarf with old Indian architecture.

    Anyway, salu to Hermes! I’ll have to try to scent too, Sandhya.

    F