As I write, spring has budded outside. The daffodils came up a week ago; the hyacinths popped out shortly after. The grass has begun to grow tall and green up from its drab winter state, and I see the tall spiky leaves of wild onions growing up through it on roadsides. The cherry trees – from wild to domesticated fruit-bearing to Japanese ornamental – are blooming in froths of white and pink lace.
When I went outside this morning to take the boys to school, no fewer than six male robins were singing their heads off from different trees, claiming their territory.
Spring has really come. And so it is time to wear one of the loveliest spring fragrances in my collection, or in anyone’s collection: Après l’Ondée. Created by Jacques Guerlain in 1906, it is the softest and most wistful scent I have ever smelled. Contemporary with the Impressionist movements in painting and in music, it is a perfect expression of the soft-focus dreaminess of both Monet and Debussy, an indistinct swirl of violet and heliotrope gauzy as a silk chiffon scarf.
Après l’Ondée, the name meaning “After the Rainshower,” begins with the sharp accent of bergamot and anise, like a sudden gust of chilly wind that carries moisture with it. I never smell green leaves in it, for all its fresh topnotes and the suggestion of outdoors. For a time, it weaves anise through violets, and as the anise departs the fragrance becomes more floral. The violets float in and out, darting shy but direct glances from under their lashes, and I smell other floral notes as well: a piquant neroli, a sweet pink rose, a tender powdery mimosa. There a spicy carnation, and there is iris root, cool and satiny. There is powdery vanilla and a woody background of sandalwood and vetiver, but most of all there is a lovely almond-cake heliotrope making sweet promises. For all the combination of potentially cavity-producing components, Après l’Ondée is never sticky-sweet, nor would I call it rich. It is powdery, but also retains a fresh quality that makes it seem very young.
There is an ethereal quality about the scent, and it does not carry big wafty sillage, but it does last for longer than I would expect, at about four hours on me in EdT formulation. The parfum I would assume to last longer, but that was discontinued several years ago, and in any case part of the delight is the ephemeral nature of the thing: flowers fade, the sunlit moment passes, and we wait for them to return with their fleeting burst of joy.
Vanessa of Bonkers About Perfume, writing for Ca Fleure Bon, says that Après l’Ondée is “like rain that has been dragged through the hedge backwards,” “elemental violence… done to vegetation.” I agree that, for all the floral gentleness and sweet, opaque, delicacy of the fragrance, it contains also a sense of unquietness which seems to me perfectly in tune with its connotations of spring. For me, spring is not only the most beautiful season but the one which reminds me most of mortality. I fall in love in the autumn, but in spring I regret. I grieve for mistakes, and for endings, and for things begun well that did not come to fruition. Spring pierces me: so beautiful, so beautiful, and so many things lost, so much joy stillborn…
It’s then that I need a melancholy scent, something that connects me viscerally to the truth that sadness sharpens the vision to joy. Après l’Ondée is Langston Hughes’ bittersweet couplet set to smell:
Oh God of dust and rainbows, help us see
That without dust, the rainbow would not be.
Notes for Après l’Ondée, from Fragrantica: Bergamot, lemon, anise, cassia, neroli, violet, jasmine, mimosa, rose, carnation, ylang-ylang, sandalwood, vetiver, orris root, amber, styrax, vanilla, musk, heliotrope, benzoin.