Hermes Un Jardin Sur Le Nil
In his iconic feature for The New Yorker the brilliant Chandler Burr broke down the creation of Hermes Un Jardin Sur Le Nil in a way that totally demystified the fragrance biz, and at the same time created a whole new romanticism around the perfumer, that previously shady character, now elevated to a seeker of scent stories to inspire creation. (If you haven’t read it, what are you doing here?)
That story seduced me as much as I bet it does everyone who reads it. Here is a guy, Jean-Claude Ellena, who picked jasmine in the fields of Grasse as a kid, slept on beds of oakmoss for heaven’s sake, whose job it was (he’s since retired) to travel round to different romantic locations and sniff his surroundings in order to create fragrances that, he says, aren’t even meant to really represent those places, but rather “an illusion that is actually stronger than reality”. Seriously.
Ellena tells Burr about the agony of actually visiting this place that he has been briefed to fantasise about, the “loss” when reality overtakes fantasy, anticipation, illusion. Breathing in the air and getting… nothing…
Not that I’m trying to compare myself to a master perfumer, but such were the thoughts running through my head as I cruised Dubai airport in a sleep deprived state, on my way from Sydney to a place I’d never been, chosen specifically for its unknown exoticism (well, exotic to me). And with a rare commission from a print magazine for a story about the smells of my destination looming in my mind. The destination ain’t Egypt, but it’s the right neighbourhood: Oman, the ‘cradle of scent’, the producer of the world’s finest frankincense, fully loaded with ancient culture, camels, sand dunes, desert oases, the whole kit and caboodle.
At the duty free, there’s Un Jardin Sur Le Nil. Ellena, after months of revisions, had created a masterpiece of acidic green mango and papyrus, sparkling aquatics and dry spices, searing incense and green lush vegetation. It’s an obvious pick. I get on my connecting flight to the Omani capital, Muscat.
Does anyone else get that feeling of dread before a trip, the nerves, not knowing whether what you’ve dreamed about a destination will match up with the reality? Every traveller knows that straight-out-of-the-airport sensation, the first inhale of breath from outside an artificial air supply. Coming out of Muscat airport, the dry desert heat that bounces off bleached white walls makes every scent in the city radiant, other-worldly. A taxi driver apologises mildly for the lack of colour. Creamy jasmine blossoms are scattered across his dash “for the natural”, he says.
But at Wadi Shab, 2 hours south, it’s a whole new world (I’m scared what would happen if Disney got its hands on this). It’s so unreal, I feel like I am inside an illusion. A frog hops under a ledge in the worn-smooth limestone and little iridescent dragonflies hide amongst the stalks of the bulrushes that surround a pool of impossibly pure, turquoise-tinted water. It sparkles in a surreal fashion and the appearance of a water nymph wandering down the trickling stream that connects the string of pools would not surprise at this point. The scent in the air is aquatic, mineral, almost futuristic in its purity. I’m that total weido that carries a bottle of perfume in her pack. I pull it out to get a shot. It’s a perfect fantasy…