From The Women Who Paved My Way....
My mother's natural blue gray pearls were actually her mother’s pearls and her grandmother's and great grandmother’s before her. I inherited them when she died 3 years ago and they are beautiful, longer than opera length and even when wrapped in three strands they fall fluidly way beyond my breasts. These pearls are the loveliest silvery blue, the bewitching shade of the sea before a storm. Because they are natural pearls and at least 130 years old there is a whole other lineage of women that I'm linked to through them, Japanese free divers who often risked their lives to obtain these coveted beauties.
There was no other way to collect pearls before the 20th century and sometimes the divers had to go as deep as 40 to 125 feet into the sea and because of the extremely fickle nature of natural pearl growth, any pearls found were extremely rare. To harvest the pearls that I now call my own women that I've never met had to brave uncertain tides, dangerous creatures and hypothermia. More important even than the stories of these pearls are the untold stories that I will never know, but that I can feel. Women who had no other way to feed themselves became pearl divers and were probably paid what amounted to pennies to fashionably adorn my family’s bosoms and as glamorous as they make me feel I cannot wear them ever without acknowledging their true cost.
In 1983 on New Year’s Eve my mother let me wear them to a fabulous Black Tie dinner dance because she thought that they went beautifully with my silver-toned crushed velvet dress. Somewhere in the moments between the last dance and dawn I was seized by a bit of nostalgia. I picked up one of the strands, lifted them to my nose and inhaled their sweet/salty perfume. Surprisingly these pearls have never needed to be restrung and even though they are so very old are lustrous still and perfumed with the essence of all of the women who have treasured them before me. Sandalwood, violet, jasmine and rose and my mother’s Shalimar, which she wore until the day that she died. Maybe it’s my imagination but I’d swear to you that they still smell of the bottom of the sea. Even though I’d heard about all of them for so many years it was the evening that I truly met all of my maternal grandmothers for the very first time.
My maternal grandmother Frances died before I was born and was known to have loved rich oriental fragrances like sandalwood, patchouli as well as single Florals like violet , lilac and rose. She is the one that I am said to resemble the most in looks and spirit. She was a painter, one of the original artists in a notorious and somewhat scandalous Greenwich Village colony at the turn of the century, beautiful and very provocative, at least until she married my grandfather, a terribly sweet gentleman farmer from Champaign Urbana who was probably a very settling influence on her. Somewhere in all of my trunks and treasures there exists a worn and incredibly provocative and sepia photograph of a woman that I could recognize as myself wrapped naked in a bearskin rug, smiling and holding a long cigarette holder.
Taken over a century ago she is draped in yards of pearls that I recognize as my mother’s pearls... my pearls. As I fall backwards through time the distinct fragrance of her attar of violets, sandalwood perfume and tobacco seems to linger alongside her throaty laughter as she makes herself known to me through this delicious photograph. Her long auburn hair is swept up in gorgeous combs made of sandalwood, mother of pearl and 18 karat gold and is surely scented with the simple single floral perfumes of jasmine and rose that she preferred, nothing too heavy. I am told that she always knew just the right moment to undo the combs, letting her gorgeous hair cascade magically down around her face bringing with it a cloud of soft sweet scent. She must have been amazing.
My mother taught me to do this with my own long hair. Just one spray of a single floral note warmed in the hand with a drop of olive oil and then finger combed through from the temples back. Then take some beautiful hair combs and twist your hair up or back in a chignon, pull the front pieces back; whatever you like, but keep it simple, two combs maximum, one is the best. Then at the right moment, just smile, tilt your head, release your hair and toss it gently while never breaking your gaze. It’s an old fashioned sleight of hand but I promise, he won’t know what hit him. The simple floral perfume keeps it from seeming too obvious; your hair should just smell clean and pretty, not drenched with scent.
After she died, my mother inherited most of her mother’s jewelry and delighted in wearing the beautiful pearls as often as she could. She would always wear them draped against gray silk and satin, nestled against her chest. When I miss her the most I go to my jewelry box and put them on. They still smell a bit of her sweet almond soap and Shalimar perfume, a wonderful fragrance that’s lighthearted and giddy; the scent of a woman who was always the belle of the ball. My mother was quite beautiful and more than a little bit bewitching to my father who was quite besotted with her. I still remember watching the magic that passed between them as they’d leave the house together, excited for a wonderful evening out. My mother was one of the original Yardley English Lavender girls so she’d been taught that fine fragrance was a magic spell that needed to be wielded powerfully. She had many delicious secrets and her ritual for applying perfume was one that I still use to this day; one spray on the nape of the neck, one spray at the point where the soft flesh of the breasts meet and depending upon what she was wearing one spray at the ankles. “Remember darling” she’d say “Only just enough perfume to be enjoyed by the lucky fellow who is close enough to kiss you, never so much that it tosses you head first into the room.”
I loved all of my mother’s beauty rituals and over the years I’ve made most of them my own. To her and all of the women who came before her, baths and dressing rooms were the place where the glamour that they were known for was created. My mother took it all very seriously, this business of beauty. She took baths in lovely oils, forever eschewed showers and she always had scented candles burning in her bathroom. She loved floating feminine hemlines and she would always be sure to put a few drops of her perfume on them so that there was just a subtle scent when she moved through the room. It was she who taught me the easiest trick I know; that a few drops of vanilla mixed with a bit of fragrant bath oil rubbed into my breasts has the effect on any man of creating almost instantaneous and lasting hunger. She taught me how to apply my lipstick perfectly without a mirror, a nifty little trick that has never failed to disarm any man who just happened to be watching. When I married she gifted me with a sterling and tortoise shell comb, sable brush, mirror and instructions to never allow my husband to see me looking ill even if I felt like I was dying, advice that I've almost always heeded to this day. Her own husband rarely saw her without lipstick and even when she'd just woken up from open heart surgery. Her first words to me that moment were a breathy “Your father can't see me like this, did you bring my hairbrush, lipstick and perfume?" And of course because she was my mother I'd known that she'd want it immediately. He had to stand impatiently outside of the ICU until I'd made her up to her satisfaction, barely conscious she still had that sense of herself. She was a pretty smart woman. Some of you may be reading this and completely disapproving, but my parents were pretty happily married for 67 years. She definitely knew what she was doing!
Someday, I hope to have a granddaughter of my own with whom I will share all of the intimate secrets that my mother taught me. I will love those moments and share all of the family stories with great pleasure, especially the really wicked ones! Continuing the tradition started so long ago one day the lovely pearls and combs will be passed down to her , along with my collection of perfumes that I hope she will treasure. She will hopefully be blessed as all the women in my family have been with a wicked sense of humor and a penchant for naughtiness but if not the pearls will probably still fit her like a custom made glove. I don't wear them at all the same way as my mother did, she preferring blouses of flowing silk and I am most comfortable in Ralph Lauren. Yet I remember my mother wearing them once when I accidentally walked into my father’s studio late at night...she was lying naked on the couch draped only in the pearls and a soft cloud of Shalimar, as sensual as a beautiful odalisque in a museum. He was painting her and the canvas was fairly glowing with his adoration. I still have that painting, I've never forgotten that moment and I don't think that the pearls have either, immortalized as they were in love, linseed oil and canvas.
I know that it sounds terrifically romantic but I promise that it wasn’t the martinis. Those of us who are truly mesmerized by perfume can attest to its abilities to conjure visions at the deepest level of the soul. That was the moment that I became obsessed with scent as the catalyst for memories and began looking for other ways of wearing it, ways that were more meaningful to me as a woman than simply just spraying on the latest perfume that was currently in vogue.
Those pearls are among the most sensuous pieces of jewelry that I own, probably because they are forever imprinted with the souls of the women who wore them before me. My grandmother's were beautiful and worldly women with lavish tastes and hearty appetites for life and their men adored them. They had all sorts of wonderful tricks, seductive ways that kept their husbands enchanted with them for decades. Violet pastilles to keep their breath sweet and rose scented lip balm, leather gloves that were perfumed with precious oils so that every touch from their hand was as soft as petal and smelled just as sweet, orange flower and rose waters that were not only good for the skin but perfumed so that a cheek offered for a simple kiss became a soft pleasure for the lucky gentleman.
Many of the wonderful Indie perfumers that I’ve met are exploring this concept, recreating and bringing back age old traditions of scented waters and lip balms, exploring the connections between smell, memory, scent and sensuality in a way that is completely familiar and captivating. These days you can walk into almost any store and find a suitable bottle of perfume, but to me that’s just the beginning. Beautiful fragrance is made to be worn, not the other way around. My interest lies in finding new ways to accessorize myself with scent that are perhaps not quite as obvious.
Tomorrow evening I will take them dancing in Manhattan to the black tie wedding of a dear friend and because it is not yet New Years Eve I will still be wearing my beloved Caron Nuit de Noel. My dress is long and sewn of flowing black velvet, full sleeved and adorned with a faux sable collar that floats all around the top of the dress which is worn off the shoulders. Because it is such a romantic dress I have brought the combs for my hair and I am happy, almost giddy with anticipation of a wonderful evening spent in the arms of my boyishly handsome husband. As I write this somewhere my mother is smiling...She would most definitely approve.
Authors note: If you have lovely pearls of your own please remember not to put them on before you apply your fragrance because it’s not good for them to come into direct contact with the fragrant oils or hairspray. The little bit on your skin or clothes will be just fine.
Originally published in The Perfume Magazine