Born wealthy and gasp-inducingly beautiful she is, naturally, a difficult woman to buy a gift for.
From a distance, at a champagne reception gleefully devouring mini crème brulee canapes, she might be mistaken for a cousin, maybe two.
She shares their sparkling eyes and effervescent conversation, stage whispered between slightly parted pearlescent teeth.
But beneath the fizzing small talk and latest fashions she runs to greater depths.
She is less likely to cut a dash on the social pages, has no ambition be a couturier’s muse.
At the opera she doesn’t take a box, but can be found on the balcony amongst her musicologist friends.
She is happiest here, analysing the soprano’s coloratura technique, dissecting the dense prose of a nouveau roman or hunting down meaning in a vast abstract expressionist blur.
On a personal level some, most people, find her spikey.
Her razor sharp mind, mildly acid tongue and brutal directness is not to metropolitan high society’s taste.
She lacks manners they say, missing that what she has in quantities is grace.
Presents though, are a problem.
She is a likely as not to dismiss a diamond ring as ‘porn star bling’, return or send to charity unwanted silk scarves, the marks she says of ‘grand bourgeois conformity’.
The thought, you see, as always, is the thing.
So from six weeks out you begin to worry, with a fortnight to go you find yourself approaching mild panic.
For she’s not too grand or contemporary or unconventional to accept a token of affection at this time of year.
She expects it, sets up an annual ritual of exchange, makes of it a tournament of the interpersonal talents.
Who knows the other best? Who can read the other’s desires perhaps better than they can read their own?
Who loves who most?
It is a high takes game. She knows it, thrills in it.
If you had the money some Van Gogh irises would do, except you haven’t and she’s already set to inherit two.
A first edition of someone French and middle century would suit, but she’d end up donating it to a public library so it could go on show or better still be auctioned to buy hundreds of books more decidedly lower brow.
Why buy her dresses when she’s happy in her relatives worn once cast offs?
She once asked “why would anyone want to take a break from their life if they actually enjoyed it?”
Then, some lucky Friday, a memory comes clattering like a subway train into your suburban station mind.
The scent of her mother.
She came from the same country as all those testing books, translated everything silently, internally to the language of Collete, Robbe-Grillet and Duras.
She had the aroma of a woman who had grown up in perfume.
Layer upon layer of fragrant complexity.
Depths exceeded only by her personality.
Why had she to die so soon?
Salt and pepper haired in an immaculately laundered white cotton shirt, tailored indigo jeans and burgundy patent brogues the parfumeur is not what you expected.
He has the air of a contemporary artist scrubbed up for a private view.
Earnest and almost scientific he approaches her apartment with an attitude composed of reverence and exacting curiosity in equal part.
He notices the roses left to dry in a baccarat vase on a book shelf, the well-used kitchen its refrigerator full of fresh herbs, rosemary to the fore.
He draws a finger across an antique amber dish and inhales the dust that collects there.
“Are there photographs?” he asks, innocent of the inevitable torture of the words.
If you had thought, for just one moment you could have found back copies of fashionable magazines of a few decades ago, scanned images of her radiant face peering out from gallery shows and gala nights.
You didn’t think.
The thought is everything.
It’s thought that counts.
Of course you know where the private family shots are. In a side drawer in the bureau in the bedroom.
Such an intrusion.
In the balance you weigh whether such an attack might be borne, the heavy price for a truly personal perfume.
The tiny key turns stiffly in the centuries old lock.
You hand him the bundle tied with a crimson ribbon.
The artist’s eyes follow every contour of her face, the cut of each dress, the angle of her smile, the curls of her hair.
Nothing betrays his thoughts, no flicker, grimace or raised brow.
Finally, after what feels like a feature film’s worth of time, he lifts the photographs to his nose and then returns them.
In turn you replace them, still unsure of your Faustian pact.
“It will take a month” he says unemotionally.
“But that leaves no time for me to try it before.”
In the end you elect for a plain flacon.
The Lalique bottle would have been too much.
Besides what a shame if she decided to smash such a thing of beauty.
So here it is, a simple glass cylinder in an unremarkable black box.
After making love, an uncommonly quiet city in the background, and a breakfast of scrambled eggs on buttered brioche toast, the moment arrives.
Your two hands outstretched like a Japanese assistant proffering an exquisite purchase, she accepts the package.
She opens the box.
Unscrews the cap.
Sprays the scent first into the air then onto her wrist.
A tear wells in her left eye.
She slaps your face, right side, hard.
For the first time you catch a little of the scent.
“I forgive you.” She says.
“I saw. You left the ribbon untied.”
Liu by Guerlain is an elegant, unshowy aristocrat of a perfume.
It is a scent in possession of a certain near perfection born of impeccable breeding.
An apocryphal story has it that Jacques Guerlain and Ernest Beaux set each other a friendly rivals’ challenge. The man from Chanel would create an ape of Shalimar, while Jacques would formulate a fragrance to match the formidable No. 5.
Only the winning perfume would be available for public consumption.
Whether this tale has any foundation in actual fact is largely irrelevant, it is, aesthetically speaking, the truth.
While it would be fantastically simplistic to describe this composition as a straightforward cross between Chanel No. 5 and the original Shalimar, there are undoubtedly strong elements of both in its lineage.
The opening is all aldehydes of the sparkling Champagne (no Prosecco please) variety. It is an expression of such opulence and self-confidence that even the familiarity of nearly ninety years leaves the pleasure of it undiminished.
What follows though is surprising, not the customary floral explosion or even a civet-driven walk on the animalic wild side. Instead, though not the full accord, we are presented a pared down version of the house’s eponymous luxuriantly enveloping vanilla signature: what I might call a ‘Guerlainette’.
The interplay between fizzing modernity and plush comfort is quite entrancing and would be enough to sustain most scents, for Liu though, it is merely a stage.
Next, the florals arrive: desiccated rose petals, dusted with iris and darkened with oakmosss (really, the last of these notes is not listed but there’s at least an allusion to it there).
Then an herbal twist, rosemary is prominent, but I sense too a bouquet garni that includes other savoury elements made slightly indistinct by a composition as fantastically complicated as Duchess’s family tree.
Then the ‘Guerlainette’ returns, then the initial fizz bursts forth again.
The impression of each of these many twists and turns is entrancing, but taken individually these moments, though awe-inspiring, do not encompass the majesty of the work of art as a whole.
The individual parts of Liu are superior to most modern perfumes, yet they are but movements in a symphony of scent.
Acts in an olfactory opera
This is a perfume to give to a woman, or a man, who has everything.
Happy first day before Christmas.
The Perfumed Dandy.