Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Rochas Byzance: A Retro Soapfest 'Clouded' In Mystery

When I look back at my relationship with my mother, whom I still miss keenly 11 years on, there are many things I regret. I regret the fact that I didn't visit her more often in the last year of her life (if only I had known that that was the last year of her life - her sudden death caught even her doctors on the hop, as she died with, but not strictly of cancer). She was always so upbeat and independent that it was easy to forget how ill she really was, and carry on with your own life in a fairly normal way. Though perhaps that was how she wanted it...

This may explain why, for example, she banned all visitors on what turned out to be her last weekend - because she had drips up her nose and "didn't look dignified" ie "normal". We had an elderly cat who went off one morning, lay down in the raspberry canes, and died. He appeared to have opted for a discreet exit with minimal fuss or trouble to his owners. I sometimes think of Mother as having disappeared into the raspberry canes for similar reasons, and I regret not overruling her wish not to be seen looking her best at the end. And of course I regret the fact that I didn't just jump in the car on that final morning and drive to the hospital in Oxford, inferring from my many unanswered phone calls to the ward that something was seriously up. By the time a doctor picked up the phone, she had one minute left to live, and I was over 100 miles away.

So that is the big stuff I regret. But there are other, lesser things too: I am sorry now that I never took the time to learn more culinary skills from her (I can make a roux, but man shall not live by béchamel sauce alone), or to learn more about plant care. Or more about her colourful seafaring ancestors. I do know (for I have the tape of a BBC radio broadcast on the subject from 1968) that her great aunt and two male companions (one of them her husband) were the first people to circumnavigate Africa in a small boat - "at a time before such journeys in small boats were commonplace". Mistress of understatement, my mum.

And finally, finally, I regret giving her Rochas Byzance for Christmas once...

Yes, the perfumista person that I have become is a little ashamed of that. I had just started dating Mr Bonkers, and was self-absorbed and distracted. It was an ill-considered, selfish purchase. Selfish because it was the result of a one minute foray in Boots, something quickly grabbed from a heap of seasonal boxed sets. I had no idea what Byzance smelt like, or whether Mother would like it - or whether I would. Yes, to my shame, another motive for buying that particular set was the miniature bottle that was the Gift With Purchase, which I kept...

So it was a lazy and thoughtless gift, which my mother accepted with her usual good grace. But - and this is the $64,000 question - did she ever wear it? I don't know what became of the mini, but I acquired a decant of Byzance recently to remind myself of how this fragrance smells.

Well, on first impression it is a soapy floral number that is rather reminiscent of Rive Gauche - the soapiness creates a "cloudy" aura to it. And whilst not overtly soapy, other similarly cloudy perfumes to mention would be Fendi Palazzo (particularly Palazzo) and YSL Cinema. They envelop the wearer in a perfumey - yet diaphanous - fug. Now I don't mean a cloud of powder, or any kind of fuzzy, aldehydic whooshing geyser type of effect (though there are aldehydes in there), nor do I mean the type of aquatic, freshly vacated shower cubicle sort of cloud either, for which Issey Miyake's scents are noted. Why, they even have one called "L'Eau d'Issey Goutte d'une Nuage", though it was in and out of the shops quicker than the length of an average shower. No, Byzance is a non-powdery, non-water droplet sort of cloud, if that means anything at all to anyone (and it very may well not).

Without further ado, here are the notes for Byzance, which was launched in 1987, the year my mother moved into my old house in Wiltshire, which we co-owned until her death. The noses behind this fragrance are Nicolas Mamounas and Alberto Morillas. Morillas is a familiar name with a string of hit fragrances under his belt, but I had to look up Mamounas, to find he has only created four scents, all for Parfums Rochas. Byzance is variously described on the Interweb as a "floral chypre", a "sharp oriental" and a "semi-oriental". Given the busyness of the note list, I can see why there might be room for manoeuvre:


Top notes: aldehydes, spices, carnation, green notes, mandarin orange, basil, citruses, cardamom and lemon
Middle notes: tuberose, orris root, jasmine, turkish rose, ylang-ylang, lily-of-the-valley and anise
Base notes: sandalwood, amber, musk, vanilla, heliotrope and cedar.

Once the soapy cloud settles down, it isn't half bad actually, though by no means my usual thing. Interestingly, Luca Turin awards Byzance four stars in Perfumes: The Guide, and he too likens it to Rive Gauche, though I swear I noticed the resemblance myself before looking this one up!

"Rive Gauche with Indian ornaments, like a good French girl playing dress-up..."

He goes on to speak of its original "dreamy, liquid, heavy-limbed feeling" having been reduced through reformulation to "the damp shine of white bathrom tile". Oh look, he is in cloudy territory too, although he appears to lean to the water droplet variety!

So...... did I ever catch a whiff of sillage from my mother that smelt like this? No, I did not. The only other perfume I remember her wearing (by choice) when I was growing up was Lenthéric Tweed, which is a very different proposition. As I wrote of Tweed in a Mother's Day post on Cafleurebon back in May:

"(My mother) loved the West of Ireland, with its craggy landscapes, peat fires and palette of sludgy greys and browns, and a scent inspired by a rough fabric was the perfect choice for her."


Top notes: bergamot, cinnamon and geranium.
Middle notes: ylang-ylang, jasmine, lavender and orange flower.
Base notes: oakmoss, patchouli, sandalwood, benzoin, vanilla, vetiver. there is a bit of crossover there - sandalwood, vanilla and three of the floral notes - but my recollection of Tweed is of a more brisk, outdoorsy, woody kind of scent, while Byzance is the scent of the harem, or perhaps of Roja Dove's sumptuous cushion-stuffed boudoir at the Haute Parfumerie in Harrods.

So, you know, what was I thinking of, giving Mother Byzance? Well, that is just it - I wasn't thinking. How I would love to be able to pick out scents for her now, which I would do with loving care and a modicum of knowledge. Knowing that that will never happen saddens me too.

To sum up, while many perfumistas have written eloquently and touchingly before me about the scents they associate with their mothers, ie the scents their mothers WORE, Byzance is different. Byzance is the scent my mother DIDN'T WEAR. Yet it is inevitably one I will remember her by, because I gave it to her, however carelessly. It is a poignant reminder of all the things I didn't do for her while she was around.

Yes, what my mother really thought of this perfume I will never know. To call it a Byzantine riddle would perhaps be an overstatement, but I can see myself puzzling over the matter for the rest of my perfumista days.

PS Thoughts go out to Josephine of Notes from Josephine, who lost her mother earlier this year.

Photo of boxed set of Byzance from, photo of Tweed poster from Cafleurebon, photos of my mother from family albums.


Katy Josephine said...

This is a beautiful post. I understand your regrets and the sadness that comes with knowing you will not have the opportunity to make them right.

So sorry you didn't get to see your mother one last time.

Your kind thought at the end touched me deeply. Thank you so much.

lovethescents said...

Now I'm crying. These sorts of articles should come with a warning to pregnant/hormonal types, like me.....

Whenever we lose someone we love so much, we always have regrets, don't we? We tend to think of things we should have said or done but even if we had, we would generate other regrets.

I think you and your mother were very close. These regrets come from you and I'm sure, she wouldn't feel the same way. As a mother, the main thing I'd want to see in my life is my son grow up to be healthy and happy and self-sufficient. You gave your mother that!

As for Byzance, I'd forgotten about that bit of nostalgia! It was one of my first favorites. I bought it when I was 16 yrs old and wore it all the time. I also bought it at Christmas time! So it's spiciness reminds me of the Festive season and I must resniff it again someday.

Need a tissue....

Vanessa said...

Hi Josephine,

You are very welcome. I have been meaning to talk about this scent in connection with my mother for a while now, but it was very likely your own recent bereavement that brought the memories back in quite such a powerful way - so long after the event. Thanks for being the catalyst to a cathartic post! : - )

Vanessa said...

Hi lovethescents,

Thanks for providing a mother's angle on this - you may well be right in terms of my mother's expectations. Perhaps I did turn out all right in the end, ditto my globetrotting, earthquake-preventing brother.

I must confess to having a bit of a blart reading this back, which is most unlike me. Haven't done that for years in fact.

What fun that you bought Byzance too, not long after it came out! In the light of this information, I may be able to console myself with the thought that there can't have been so many perfumes on the market back then, if two people independently made the same choice. : - )

Suzanne said...

Very touching and lovely post, Flittersniffer. That you express your regrets so openly and thoughtfully is evidence to me of how very much you loved your mother.

We all have these kinds of regrets...I think it is part and parcel of loving someone that we will, in certain moments, fail that person, usually unintentionally. Loving deeply almost always involves lessons in forgivness, both in terms of others and ourselves.

Your mother's pictures are lovely -- she has such a look of no-nonsense, confident independence in both of them.

Unknown said...

Well now I want to go and visit my mother. I'm going to see her this weekend. She's always worn Diorissimo, but recently I gave her Tauer Rose Chypree, because I had an extra bottle. I wonder if she wears it?

Vanessa said...

Hi Suzanne,

Thanks for your lovely comment, which had me also reaching for a tissue again. Haha, maybe it is all to the good...

Mother was indeed a very independent soul - I have known her spend Christmases alone in a remote spot in Ireland with just a radio for company, a chicken to roast, and a bottle of whisky by way of festive tipple - and (in her mid-70s) she famously went cycling on her own in Halkidiki, much to the bemusement of the locals!

Vanessa said...

Hi kjanicki,

Oh yes, you must find this out, or it will cause you endless posthumous bother, just like me!

hebe said...

Gosh. This had me sniffing away so much that I couldn't respond the same day I read it. What a special woman your mum was. I love her solo Christmases.

Vanessa said...

Hi hebe,

Sorry to cause yet another reader to reach for the tissues... But yes, Mother was a wonderful one off. She was cremated, but had she been buried, she would have chosen the epitaph:


: - )

Nat said...

This is a lovely post, V. Yes, I'm commenting ages late, but I couldn't *not*.

Vanessa said...

Hi Nat,

Thanks for taking the time to hop back here and for your comment. It means a lot to me when people read this particular post out of all of the archives, even though it is quite "un-Bonkers" in style.

Undina said...

It is beautiful and very touching writing, Vanessa. Thank you for sharing.

One of my returning fears is a fear of future regrets. I'm trying very hard to behave the way to minimize those future heartaches - and I know that it's impossible just because of the nature of relationships and specifics of how our brains work.

Vanessa said...

Hi Undina,

Thanks for reading and for your equally touching comment.

A fear of future regrets is very understandable - I have quite a few others to do with other relationships and treasured possessions that I let go. And I think you are right that it is so hard to avoid making mistakes, however hard we try...

Undina said...

I'm back, with an additional comment - since you "revived" the post via FB.

As you know, since I left my previous comment, I lived through two big losses - my mom and grandma. And you know what? I might have some sadness and regrets about something that had happened many-many years ago, when I was much younger, but for the last 10-15 years of their lives I did everything I could have done. I miss them both terribly, I still feel void where my "usual slots" to talk to them used to be. But there is not much I could have done differently or think that I should have. And I think it helps me in these circumstances that, by nature, cannot be changed to the better. So I'm convinced now that this is the right approach to life - and I'll try to leave by that going forward.

Vanessa said...

Aw, how thoughtful of you to comment again - I wasn't expecting anyone to do that, but I can see how the post is more pertinent now you have lost two close family members.

I am glad that you can look back on such a long period of time and know that you wouldn't do anything differently by your mum and grandma - that must help you come to terms with their not being around anymore. I do know just what you mean about those 'usual slots' though, and the hole in your life loved ones leave.