Blood and passion, danger and seduction, money and prosperity, good luck and bad: the colour red signifies a whole host of omens, varying wildly dependent on the culture, era and context in which they’re used. But there’s no ignoring red – it strides up and punches you in the face with its presence – for red can be many things, but subtle isn’t one of them. But why is this colour so prevalent in fragrance? We’re used to the concept of “seeing red”, but can you smell red, too…?
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Aedes de Venustas Pelargonium, Serges Lutens Féminité du Bois, Map of the Heart Red Heart V.3 (middle) Carthusia Prima del Teatro di San Carlo Creed Original Santal, Xerjoff’s Casamorati 1888 Bouquet Ideale
In the world of fragrance, red’s main outings are those twin pillars of consumerism: Valentines Day and Christmas, forming a swathe of scarlet-themed scent offerings across displays in department stores and gathered for colour-coded magazine features. The V-Day celebrations ensure red bottles and packaging are nestled next to puffed-up heart shapes and eerily perfect roses (their stems carefully removed of all thorns), windows and websites decorated with lipstick-print kisses and glowing flacons proffered among teetering piles of luxurious boxes of chocolates, and the kind of feather-trimmed, shiny red satin lingerie that strikes fear into the soul of shop assistants as they imagine the length of the Returns queue come February 15th. So why has this colour in particular been chosen as a dominant theme in certain kinds of fragrance, and now intimately associated with certain celebrations? Describing the meanings of red, colourmatters.com underlines it as ‘…the color of extremes. It’s the color of passionate love, seduction, violence, danger, anger, and adventure. Our prehistoric ancestors saw red as the color of fire and blood – energy and primal life forces – and most of red’s symbolism today arises from its powerful associations in the past.’ Red demands our attention, it draws the eye and makes us think of… well, what, exactly?
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Close your eyes, think of red and what comes to mind? Roses, yes, piles of velvety petals, pools of blood and fat ripe berries, an unapologetically strident lipstick worn by cherry red lips ripe for kissing, though of course Wilfred Owen brings us down to earth with his Eeyore propensities, bless him, by reminding ‘Red lips are not so red / As the stained stones kissed by the English dead.’ Which is all very well as a metaphor for the horrors of the battlefield and complexities of returning to the home front, but does not account for the game-changing power a slick of red lipstick brings to the one who dares wear it. We might picture cursed rubies in Gothic ghost stories, red carpets where only the most glamorous may sink their heels or the poisoned apple of a fairy-tale’s Disney re-telling, glistening wickedly. We could be transported to an exotic world of hot spices and rich, red wine, see red flags, Little Red Books and the act of showing someone the ‘red card’, a ‘red rag to a bull’ or the significance of ‘red letter days.’ Perhaps we glimpse a thrilling flash of a Hammer Horror vampire’s cloak lining or tremble in awe of the ‘lady in red’, that equally feared and admired ‘scarlet woman’ who stalks her way throughout history – think of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath with her carefully tied ‘hosen’ (hose) ‘of fyn scarlet reed’ [red], and her bold face ‘reed of hewe.’A woman not to be messed with, but a great companion to share a bottle of red wine with, no doubt. We speak of ‘the red mist’ descending when we lose control of our emotions, red crosses besmirching the doors of plague houses or the Red Cross working miracles in warzones; we recall rhymes and folklore foretelling the weather by signs of red streaked horizons: ‘red sky at night, shepherd’s delight, red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning.’ Red velvet as a material is sumptuously regal and speaks of wealth and power, while adorning a chaise-lounge it might be deliberately provocative – an item of furniture more befitting of a madam’s boudoir – and in cake form Red Velvet is sheer indulgence personified. Director Stephen Spielberg used the symbol of a little girl in a red coat to punctuate the relentless black and white of his gruelling movie version of Schindler’s List, and Little Red Riding Hood is a beacon to attract the wolfish dangers lurking in the wild wood if she strays from the path to granny’s house. The ‘red light district’ sells sex, as everyone knows – red bulbs making rosy the flesh for hire – the red glow as raw as a butcher’s shop window; while a much-quoted phrase found in Canto 56 of Tennyson’s In Memoriam reveals red as a visceral reminder of our baser emotions, referring to humanity;
‘Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed.’
In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, one of the earliest and most significant symbols of the novel we encounter is the notorious ‘red room.’ The young, orphaned Jane is confined here when her aunt, Mrs. Reed, punishes her, and it becomes a place of mounting terror in which Jane becomes ‘hysterical’ (hysteria inevitably linked to women and their uncontrollable sexuality) imagining monsters and demons waiting to trap her, and many literary critics agree this womb-like place symbolises the onset of Jane’s menstruation – the dawning of her own Womanhood – and the passion and punishment that follows. In Western cultures red can signify the need to STOP for danger signs and equally make us think of strength, strumpets and youthful vigour; but for Eastern and Asian cultures the colour is associated with luck, long life, and happiness, and so brides traditionally dress in red to harness the good vibes for a prosperous marriage. In India it’s used to specify purity of the mind, true love and natural beauty, beckoning wealth and power; while in the Middle East red might be viewed with some caution for its threatening overtones. In South Africa it can be used to portray sacrifice and mourning, and while red might seem naturally imbued in our view of passionate Latin cultures, when combined with white it symbolises Christianity and spirituality. Overlapping with social constructs and complex beliefs, the one thing red cannot be is ignored. When we see red, we want to smell it, to grab it, to get up close and personal and give in to temptation. So give in…
The Scent: Pelargonium
A strikingly elegant still life in scent, Pelargonium portrays its namesake ingredient like one of the mysterious floral compositions of Dutch Golden Age paintings. Described by Nathalie Feisthauer as “aromatic, with a crushed-leaf facet, less fruity and more balsamic than rose, almost incense-like”, geranium Egypt acts as the central motif of this intriguing composition.
The perfumer starts with cool orris notes alongside cedar-wood frame. Then a smoky background of vetiver Haiti, guaiac wood and moss. Shot through with glints of green cardamom, and Calabrian bergamot . The herbal sweetness of carrot enriches the orris accord; ambery clary sage suggests the softness of velvety leaves. Lemony, peppery, incense-like elemi resin enhances both the fresh and balsamic facets of geranium. As a haze of musks smooths out its edges, Pelargonium’s stately bouquet takes on a spare, abstract beauty.
Map of the Heart Red Heart V.3
Taking a literal look at the human heart instead of the cartoonish, softened shape we’ve become accustomed to, the bottle resembles something from a modern art gallery while the juice inside centres around the alluring ripeness of the feijoa, a fleshy fruit related to the myrtle family with a jelly-like pulp that smells of guava, strawberry, pineapple and violets all at once – the fruit an alien Adam and Eve would surely be tempted by on an undiscovered planet. Red apple studded is with peppercorns, smothered with heady tuberose and exotic spices, and the velvety, musky dry-down of Australian sandalwood, vanilla and chocolate-y patchouli fraction feels like flouncing on a feather bed after a night of carnal passion.
Everything comes from the heart. It is our essence. say Sarah Blair and Jefrey Darling the founders behind Map of the Heart perfumes
“OUR HEART IS EVERYTHING PURE, GOOD AND EVIL. IT ACHES, IT DESIRES, IT IS WHO WE ARE. IN MAPPING OUR HEART WE ARE BOTH EXPLORERS AND TOURISTS, AT THE FRONTIERS AND THE CENTRE, NAVIGATING THE UNKNOWN AND THE ALL TOO FAMILIAR. WE CAN TREAD PATHS TRAVELLED AND NOT. IF IT TOUCHES US, MAKES US ACHE, CHALLENGES AND EXPLORES WHAT IT IS TO LIVE, THEN IT IS FOR MAP OF THE HEART.”
Xerjoff’s Casamorati 1888 Bouquet Ideale
Looking for all the world like something an 18th Century murderess would carry in her reticule to poison those who spurn her advances, once the claw-like top has been prised from the bottle, the seductive, powdery warmth of an embrace spills forth with a warm-skin caress of cashmere accord mixed with flecks of dark vanilla and lipstick-smeared letters hastily hidden beneath the mattress. An intoxicating bouquet to be sure, a seamless orchestration of flowers and spices carry you to another time, of heart-shaped velvet patches significantly placed on heaving bosoms and rosebud lips daringly dyed the carmine red of the fateful container. Scandalous.
Creed Original Santal
Now sandalwood is not often placed in the naughty list of notes in perfumery, renowned for its calming powers and spiritual overtones. But here I think it takes on the ruby hue of the bottle because you’re reeled in with herbaceous drifts of lavender, peppermint and rosemary beneath the initially refreshing blast of orange absolute, ginger and lemon, and it’s not long before those little red peppercorns burst through to punctuate your reverie. A continual fluctuation between woozy lulling and spiky slaps, it’s romantically opulent enough to cause quite unnecessary thoughts (hot skin, crimson sunsets, hot breath) to interrupt those spiritual dreams.
Serges Lutens Féminité du Bois
Legend has it that Lutens (quite the maverick of the fragrance world) ‘dragged’ (kicking and screaming no doubt) the entire Shisedo and Quest teams to Marrakech, in order for them to ‘get’ exactly what he was after for this quintessentially seductive perfume. In fact, we can now consider this a bookmark in the Lutens’ legacy, a sensuous scroll of a scent sealed with red wax as lusciously plump plums and peaches bob in a punch bowl of spiced booziness, with indolic hits of orange blossom amidst sugared violets on a base of bone-dry cedar, freshly planed sandalwood, a touch of foamy vanilla and the burned sugar note of benzoin. I miss the weird kidney-esque shape of the old dried blood coloured bottle, though.
Carthusia Prima del Teatro di San Carlo
If we think of a ‘prima donna’ it could be the fiery passions and explosive tendencies we imagine most, but the inherent coolness should not be overlooked, and here we peek behind the opulent red velvet curtains of a stage bedecked with bouquets from ardent admirers, to the bare wooden floor of backstage and a dressing room with the door firmly shut. Inside, perhaps it’s Maria Callas who sits at the dressing table, fanning herself and faintly smiling as the roar of the crowd can still be heard. Bergamot and mint swirl in the background of the rich, red rose and a base of oud oil, they gently prompt from stage left – wouldn’t dream of interfering with the star – while providing an icy sheen to the tempestuous heart.
C’mon baby light my fire, for if illicit nuzzlings are ever welcomed, they must surely be prompted from the scented throw of a cosily red-hued candle, don’t you think? Within its smart, scarlet hatbox like packaging, the Jovoy Bougie Marron billows forth gusts of candied fruits glistening in the dappled candlelight, a waft of freshly ground coffee and the sweet, marzipan-like addictiveness of the tonka bean base. Like being ushered into the hallowed confines of a silent movie starlet’s dressing room, and you’ll never want to leave. For those needing to be swaddled in warmth (and who among us does not crave swaddling now and again?) you can do no better than seek the comfort of Ancienne Ambience Romana Amber Candle. Amber resin was apparently favoured by Roman emperors, the red glass container here a symbol of wealth and indulgence, but the glow something soft to snuggle within rather than plot the downfall of an empire. Contrasting offerings from Diptyque promise rosy romance and smooches beneath a blanket of rose petals and unctuously honeyed Turkish delight, inspired by the ancient banks of the Bosphorus and a Middle Eastern version of French toile de Jouy decoration in Rose Delight; or, conversely, an intoxicating plunge into the beguiling world of the Hitchcock blonde, with the mercilessly seductive, iron first in a red velvet glove of their Tubereuse candle. Meanwhile, kind words may butter no parsnips, but Buly 1803 Crème Pogonotomienne lavishly butters skin ready for stroking – a sensuous shaving cream formulated with naturally antibacterial, smokily scented Hinoki wood and lavishly rich almond oil to soften hairs and leave skin supple. The vintage-inspired packaging depicts a be-winged demon kneeling before an angel, and you may decide which of these characters you most resemble as you succumb to touching your baby-soft skin while reclining on that red velvet covered chaise-lounge.
Giorgio Armani Si Passione
It took over a hundred tests to perfect the vibrant, red lacquered flacon for this juice. Reminiscent of nail varnish bottles used to slick the sharp talons of a woman who knows she wants, or the lipsticks used to signal the wares of a courtesan, it’s slightly unsettling not to see the perfume itself, but somehow thrilling all the same. Spiced pink pepper is a burst of adrenaline from the very first spritz, pear juice is stained almost purple-red with blackcurrants and a bold floral heart beats with scarlet roses swagged by jasmine to create the mystery of what Armani describe as ‘…a seemingly fragile woman who shows incredible strength when guided by passion.’ It’s the helitrope that makes it for me, though, that vintage makeup powdery note that becomes an invitation to self-indulgence and self-pleasure as vanilla musk leaves a trail you’d want to follow. Apparently designed to ‘mirror the self-assurance that a swipe of red lipstick can instantly give the wearer,’ it’s the fragrance equivalent of that satisfying click of a patent red leather purse.
Comme des Garçons Floriental
Their bottles never fail to delight and provoke me in equal measures – made to always down, I’m forever trying to stand them up anyway. Perhaps the perfume is a hint to just give in and lie prone on the floorboards, with warmly glowing, pink pepper-speckled labdanum as the starting point. Permeating the fragrance from top to bottom (if, indeed, these scent can be said to follow a traditional structure, which it doesn’t, really) that labdanum wafts loftily throughout, mingling with sandalwood, a dry crackle of vetiver and heavily laced with plum liqueur, it’s a fantasy oriental red flower like no other.
Bronnley Crimson Cloud
To be worn with a flowing crimson silk gown, this is infused with a sparkle of berries and creamy blossoms, the kind of cocktail that seems to slip down like a cool, fruity treat but creeps up on you suddenly as you swig. Cherry blossom and rose petals are glimpsed through the rising heat mist, piquant raspberries adding buoyancy amidst the candied violet sweetness, a dream of a red-mouthed kiss so real you can feel your lips still tingling as you wake.
Carolina Herrera CH Privée
None other than Dominique Ropion – the master of rose – is the nose behind this lavish affair, but no roses are found here. Instead it’s inspired by red leather, with the softly narcotic femininity of osmanthus sighing into a salty lick of caviar and supple leather rubbed with vanilla infused patchouli. Audaciously cheeky, like red leather stiletto boots worn with jeans and a white t-shirt, it’s the kind of scent that makes you want to skip through the park and perhaps buy a red balloon. When was the last time you had a red balloon? Exactly. Give in to the exuberance of familiarity.
Elizabeth James Nirvana Rose
A twist on a classic femme fatale kind of rose, the Olsen twins add another success to their (okay, I admit it) surprisingly accomplished perfume collection. Evoking the kind of refined, other-worldly nostalgia they were seemingly born imbuing, the deepest red rose heart is laced with the raspberry freshness of the more delicate rose de mai, a peppery-warm geranium and the cool, masculine allure of grassy vetiver. If darkly glimmering garnets had a scent, this would be what they smelled like.
Whether you crave those ripe berries that may or may not be deadly poison, the instant scarlet-lipstick slick of power or the velvety crimson of intoxicating rose petals, when you see a red container of something scented, you’ll be halfway to imagining not only what it smells like, but the taste of it slipping down your throat like a fine wine, the feel of velvet or leather or suede against your skin. Oh there’s no doubt about it: red reels you in.
Words Suzy Nightingale
Images Jason Yates