The poison & the remedy: welcome to the darker side of scent…

Some of our most beloved flowers and fragrant ingredients are, in fact, powerful poisons with a rich heritage of folklore traditions, used for centuries in suspected witchcraft practices, to render scented gloves quite deadly, and by spurned lovers sprinkling petals into potions. Once, during the reign of King Louis XIV, a murderer supposedly used poisoned perfume to kill so many royal courtiers it sparked a witchhunt ten years before those fingers started pointing in Salem. A notorious case named ‘The Affair of the Poisons’ by sensation-seeking newspaper headlines, it simultaneously delighted and horrified a public who began looking at perfumes in a new light…

You see, perfumes aren’t merely ‘pretty’ – they can work as potent brews to bewitch, beguile and welcome you over to the darker side of scent, albeit in the most enticingly elegant manner. For ‘spooky’ scents must do more than simply scare, that’s far too obvious and crass – very few people wish to be terrified by their own fragrance, and I say that even as a mostly reformed ex goth. What I yearn for are fragrances whose beauty belies a more sinister undercurrent – we must first be enchanted to be fully ensnared. Something history teaches us time and again.

 

 

Catherine de Medici’s perfumer (and expert in poisons), Rene lé Florentin, was said to have made perfumed poisoned gloves at her behest, killing Catherine’s rival, Jeanne D’Albret, who fell ill following a shopping trip and died under mysterious circumstances. No matter nothing was proved: the story was far too delicious not to spread the scandalous rumour of death by scent.

Laced fragrances were supposedly used to kill members of ‘the perfumed court’, with 194 individuals arrested and 36 executed between 1677 and 1682. In fact the whole ‘Affair of the Poisons’ masked a crime ring, and the growing concern of womanly wiles being granted by satanic pacts, which writer Anne Somerset thoroughly doccuments in her book The Affair of the Poisons: Murder, Infanticide and Satanism at the Court of Louis XIV (sadly out of print I believe, though you can often find second-hand copies). But the links between glorious smelling scents and deadly intents were now firmly ingrained in the public consciousness.

 

 

For the morbidly curious, the Poison Garden of Alnwick Castle provides modern visitors a chance to see the types of plants grown and harvested by alchemists and wannabe witches throughout the years. When Jane Percy became the Duchess of Northumberland, her husband asked her to do something with the neglected gardens. ‘I think he thought, ‘That will keep her quiet, she’ll just plant a few roses and that’ll be it,”‘ the Duchess commented to The Smithsonian magazine; ‘…but I thought, ‘Let’s try and do something really different.'” Despite the many signs and stern guides warning people of the danger of picking or even smelling some of the plants, apparently each year, several visitors sneak a sniff, with some being taken ill following their reckless actions. What is it about forbidden smells that makes them so… irresistable? Let’s dare to find out.

 

Cyanide smells like almond, cleverly cloaked here in clouds of fuzzy apricot, luscious plum and milky coconut. Waxy white flowers have their narcotic tendencies softly smothered by a blushing rose, creamy sandalwood and a fluffy base flecked with wildly addictive vanilla. Revisit this, and I defy you not to spend the entire day being enraptured by your own smell. Vanity’s supposedly a sin, but oh! How wonderful to adore yourself.

Dior Hypnotic Poison £65 for 50ml eau de toilette
dior.com

Mandrake roots, often used in Wiccan rituals, were believed to emit a blood-curdling scream when dug up, but smell pleasingly of red apples. Happily married to sharp rhubarb, pomegranate and bergamot, the shriek is stifled by a deep, loamy patchouli, smoked birch and a caramel-like undertone swirled with cream. You’ll be screaming for more of this poison-inspired range, I wager.

Parfums Quartana – Les Potions Fatale – Mandrake £115 for 50ml eau de parfum
roullierwhite.com

Socrates drank black hemlock to poison himself, but it’s used here to far greater effect – oodles of the absolute lending mysterious shadows to a dusky forest, otherworldly whispers amidst the verdant undergrowth, all set against the backdrop of a violet-streaked, vetiver rich, amber-tinged, sunset. This one captivates crowds, and could easily conquer a whole court, should you so wish.

Ormonde Jayne Ormonde Woman £110 for 50ml eau de parfum
ormondejayne.com

Commemorating women burned as witches – such as Agnes Finnie, killed at Edinburgh Castle in 1645, screaming ‘may the devil blow you blind’ – hazelnuts are shot through with the red juice of blood oranges, woven with curiously curling tendrils of tobacco smoke, a hint of damp tweed and the mineral freshness of misty moorlands. Delightfully unsettling for those who dare ask the provenance of your perfume.

REEK Perfume Damn Rebel Witches from £85 for 50ml eau de parfum
reekperfume.com

Foxglove, a.k.a. Digitalis, is cultivated for its great beauty, though every single part of the plant can be lethal if swallowed. Imagining a scent for the odourless flower, this heady perfume oil oozes botanical history, blending blood orange with salt meadow grass, hyacinth leaves, jasmine and white cedar. It smells like tear-stained love letters tied in silk ribbons, tossed in a lake but never forgotten.

Joya FoxGlove £75 for 75ml parfum
net-a-porter.com

A slowly unfurling intoxication of transparent jasmine and white narcissus work their magic beneath greedy handfuls of succulent berries snatched in darker woods – a sense of half-glimpsed, tulle-draped ghosts flitting between the trees. Inspired by the notorious Deadly Nightshade, by the time you reach the chocolate-y patchouli base and musky vanilla dry down, it will already have cast its spell.

Shay & Blue Atropa Belladonna £55 for 100ml eau de parfum
marksandspencer.com

Light and shade have rarely been so beautifully juxtaposed: a dry, green rustle of fig leaves, luminescent orange blossom and herbaceous woodiness with the lingering, subtly sweet scent of white oleander. Oleander once accidentally poisoned hundreds of Napolean’s troops, who’d roasted food on its branches; deliberately deployed in Janet Finch’s White Oleander, when a scorned woman slowly poisons her lover by lacing his food (even sprinkling his bedsheets) with its lovely, lethal petals. ‘How lovingly she arranged the dark leaves, the white blooms…’

Hermés Un Jardin en Méditerranée £48.80 for 50ml eau de toilette
johnlewis.com

 

 

Those of you who’d like to further indulge the heritage of fragrance and poisons, might like to consider a perfume bottle necklace engraved with belladonna. Fill the rollerball with your scented weapon of choice, and dangle wickedly at the next dinner party bore, perhaps? Then flamboyantly annoint yourself with the fragrance while smiling, beatifically.

Beads & Bones Belladonna Mini Rollerball Necklace $150-180
beadsandbones.com

The fragrances I recommend, above, can of course all be safely sniffed – though swooning may occur for for other reasons. They have been created by perfumers celebrating a darker side of fragrant history, but in a truly wearable and devastatingly compulsive way. I enjoy using them in the murkier months as a remedy against the seemingly endless Stygian gloom – for none of them smell ‘dark’ or oppressively heavy, despite their nefarious inspirations. And there’s a particular pleasure at being complimented on them (something that will happen a lot when you wear any of these, I assure you), while knowing I trail a history of scented superstitions and olfactory aprehensions in my wake…

By Suzy Nightingale

Seven Wearable Shivers…

Have you ever worn a fragrance that made you shiver? I’m not talking about accidentally spraying yourself in an ex’s favourite scent, but deliberately wearing something that unsettled you slightly? Fragrances can send us into reveries of rapture, but they don’t have to be traditionally ‘pretty’ to do so.

There’s pleasure to be found in challenging your perfume habits – delighting in the pricking of your preconceptions, a sharpening of the senses. The Germans use the term unheimlich, which roughly translates to the experience of something feeling weirdly familiar while remaining mysterious, eerie, uncanny.

These seven scents are best worn with a nip of frost in the air, golden sunlight softly streaming through brightly-dressed trees, and sense of delicious mystery swirling through those misty mornings and rapidly darkening nights…

A concoction of woody and fresh notes with hazelnuts, blood oranges and tobacco at its heart, Damn Rebel Witches ‘…commemorates witches burnt at the stake, those prosecuted today for witchcraft and people who identify as witches.’ The toasty nuttiness is shot through with the red juice of those blood oranges, and rich tendrils of tobacco smoke weave their way through the entire composition, making this one of the most addictively unusual fragrances I’ve tried in ages.

Reek Perfume Damn Rebel Witches from £25 for 7.5ml eau de parfum
reekperfume.com

Inspired by the destructive and regenerative Australian bush fires, its smoky heart of mysterious spices is spiked with shards of fresh (surprisingly fruity) eucalyptus and citrus to create a wonderful juxtaposition of hot/cold and intriguing textures. A smouldering smoky wood accord underlines this contrast of dark and light, with the house’s signature Australian sandalwood smoothing the seared edges, wonderfully.

Map of the Heart Black Heart v.2 £150 for 90ml eau de parfum
harrods.com

A thrillingly dense formula full of overlapping facets, there’s jasmine, warm skin muskiness, dark cracked leather and resionous balsam lapping at white flowers. The concept follows the unsettlingly tense relationship of Agent Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, and is named for the moment Hannibal says: ‘You use Evian skin cream, and sometimes you wear L’Air du Temps … but not today.’ Most certainly a wearable shiver, but of fear or delight? Only you can be the judge.

UNUM But Not Today from £10 for 1ml extrait de parfum
bloomperfume.co.uk

The mere mention of the word oud (sometimes spelled ‘oudh’) causes some to clasp their pearls and screech in horror, jumping on a chair like the maid in Tom & Jerry, and likely fainting clean away. But there’s many types of oud, as perfumer Sarah McCartney discovered, including a softer, ‘white oud’ included here. Beguiling plump plums and fuzzy peaches trickle stickily over rivulets of fresh grapefruit and raspberry flecked with piquant juniper. Overall there’s a hushed leafiness that hides a devil-may-care attitude (and possibly cloven hooves).

4160 Tuesdays Be Careful What You Wish For from £40 for 9ml eau de parfum
4160tuesdays.com

A bewitching concoction that marries the sweetness of toasted marshmallows unctuously melting into an overdose of ginger, with a fluffy heart of jasmine, rose and peony that’s girlish glee personified. Sugar and spice and all things nice? This is the too-perfectly-painted doll whose eyes follow you around the room, the tinkling nursery rhyme in the soundtrack of a horror film, a half-glimpsed lightning flash in a foxed mirror. And that bottle! It looks like something you’d pull out of a purse to surreptitiously drop into a beastly husband’s tea. Beautifully dangerous.

Dior Poison Girl Unexpected from £32.50 for 20ml rollerball eau de toilette
johnlewis.com

Frolicking about with the idea of forbidden fruit, you’re first intoxicated by the tumble of ripe peaches placed at your feet in tempting heaps. Just one bite can’t hurt, right? Lychee, blackcurrant and blood orange suddenly fuse into a licentious cocktail, sharp punches of spicy pimento berries and hot pepper slowly making their way to a velvety bed of vanilla and an almond-like, cyanide kiss of tonka beans. With a trail that snakes on the skin for hours, here’s a fruit salad that could easily lead you astray.

By Kilian Playing With the Devil from £250 for 50ml refillable eau de parfum spray
bykilian.co.uk

The Serges Lutens collection has something of a reputation for not revealing the notes of the fragrances, preferring them to remain as mysteriously illusive as the creator himself. Here all we know is this one contains a key note of fir balsam, and that it’s like wearing a midnight velvet cloak while standing next to a bonfire eating cinder toffee. Gloweringly inky, smoky as spent fireworks yet cold as starlight – it somehow makes you feel enswathed, becalmed, protected.

[Psst! Try a sample in our Niche Collection 1 Discovery Box]

Serges Lutens Participe Passé £160 for 100ml eau de parfum
harveynichols.com

Written by Suzy Nightingale