Wabi Sabi



The sky is a dove-grey bowl.  As I type this, fat snowflakes are drifting down fast, but I doubt they´ll stick for long.  I´ve been outside.  I´ve seen the signs.  Winter — bluster all you want, you don´t scare me.  The tips of the daffodils are up.  The snowdrops are almost finished around the base of the apple tree, and my Glory of the Snow will be carpeting my lawn in blue soon enough.  Yesterday I took cuttings from my wintersweet and brought them into open overnight.  Their flowers are so small, like malformed forsythia, yet their smell is astonishing – part green and part gold, like lilies and honey and hay.  Three small branches scent the back room of our house, and two more perfume the bedroom.   Their fragrance is poignant for me because my shrub, several years old and not quite as tall as I am, is part of the much larger bush behind the house I grew up in, now sadly in decline despite my attentions.  (The bush, not the house.  Well, all right, the house as well, if you want the truth.)

I´ve been reading Wabi Sabi: the Japanese Art of Impermanence, by Andrew Juniper, who lives in the south of England.  It´s a study in contrasts and cultural behaviors; Juniper (in self-effacing Brit fashion) tries to explain the unexplainable, and does so beautifully while at the same time stressing his limitations. 

Wabi sabi describes a traditional Japanese aesthetic sensibility based on an appreciation of the transient beauty of the physical world.

It embodies the melancholic appeal of the impermanence of all things – especially the modest, the rustic, the imperfect and even the decayed.

Finally, “The term wabi sabi suggests such qualities as impermanence, humility, asymmetry and imperfection.  These underlying principles are diametrically opposed to those of their Western counterparts, whose values are rooted in a Hellenic worldview that values permanence, grandeur, symmetry, and perfection.”

Reading this book is like trying to swim in a foreign but oddly alluring body of water.  There are chapters on wabi sabi elements in the tea ceremony, pottery, gardens, and more philosophical explorations like, what is beauty?  I devour this book like the consummate westerner, looking for facts, scanning the glossary.  I wonder if there´s a Wabi Sabi for Dummies out yet. 

The bits of the book that speak most clearly to me concern the imperfect: flaws and defects, topics with which I am intimately familiar.  My spoon sits in a cracked bowl.  Every dent the kids put in a door, every smudge on the wall, every handprint, each scratch on the wood floor chips away at the newness of our house in a way that delights me.  I´m about as Japanese as Mae West, but I´m all for imperfection.  My favorite imperfections are in faces.  Is there anything sexier than a well-placed mole, or gappy teeth?  (I can´t find the link now, but a couple months ago there was a hilarious article in a beauty rag about gap-teethed women and the men who love them.  Some people and cultures fetishize gapped teeth the way other people do shoes.)

I suppose I should get back to living in my own impermanence.  The clothes are in the dryer next to me, but all too soon they´ll be dirty again.  Yes, it´s true – I blog in the laundry room, where nobody else goes.  The dishwasher needs to be emptied, but then I’ll have to fill it, and the Big Cheese wants us all to go out in the snow and have brunch.

 * * *

As always, my meditations on this topic tend to lead me back to fragrance.  One could argue that fragrance, ephemeral and transitory (with the exceptions of Fracas and Secretions Magnifique) could be wabi sabi.  Juniper devotes a chapter to physical (design) and metaphysical properties of wabi sabi, including:

asymmetry, texture, impermanence, ugliness (“disregard for conventional views of beauty; beauty in the smallest, most imperceptible details”); diffuse or subdued color; simplicity/lack of ostentation; space (“significant areas of nothing,”) balance/irregular shape; impermanence/intimacy.

Using these guidelines, I contemplate which of my fragrances might in a general way meet some of these criteria.  I think I´d include:

Diptyque Essence of John Galliano or CB I Hate Perfumes´ Burning Leaves, both scents that suggest ephemeral, transitory aspects found in nature (what is more ephemeral than smoke?);

Earthy scents like CB´s Black March, or sap-green scents (actually, CB has a ton of things I could plug in here), but also Miller et Bertaux´ green, green(4) and the late, lamented Gobin Daude Sous le Buis or Seve Exquise;

Airy and/or mineral scents, maybe a few of the Hermessences, or how about The Different Company´s Sel de Vetiver?  Certainly some of you reading this would argue that several Hermessences have “significant areas of nothing,” right?

Annick Goutal scents like Mandragore and Duel for simplicity and lack of ostentation (although you might also nominate these for impermanence.)

Then there are fragrances that I´d call jolie-laide (in French, obviously) and I´m trying to decide if they meet the same requirement for ugliness, although if I´m reading correctly the point of view of wabi sabi is there is no ugliness, just a perceptual challenge.  If that´s the case, then I´d segue right into what was supposed to be Monday´s review of the newest Hermessence, Vanille Galante.  There´s no point in my writing a review, because it would be a less articulate redo of the one by Robin at Now Smell This.  I get the same melon-y note she does.  Maybe JCE worked the same trick he did with Mousson, which is to create the effect of calone out of something else entirely.  Ultimately, what I get is a melony aquatic lily vanilla with hints of salt, banana and fresh mulch, and no, I won´t be buying a bottle.  What I love about this is, I think Robin and I have the same general smell-perception of Galante, only she loves it and I don´t.  And if that isn´t one of the wonderful things about fragrance, what is?

I´m leaving this post up today and tomorrow.  I invite comments on the concept of wabi-sabi from those more informed than I am; your thoughts on the ephemeral nature of perfume; other wabi-sabi scents, if you think the concept even exists; the beauty in your favorite imperfections; and anything else that occurs to you as you read this.  I’m waiting to see if the Big Snow happens.

image of rock garden: roderickmann.org; this is actually a project done by a robotic arm, if I’m understanding correctly, and the implications of that as relates to wabi sabi and the Zen of rock gardens are beyond my ken.

  • Karen says:

    I have a friend and co-worker who bought a house that was formerly owned by a Japanese family. The entire backyard is a Zen garden. It is the most peaceful place to gaze upon. At first, Robin and her husband rented the house. Later on they bought it. Luckily, there is a nice picture window in her living room that looks out on the garden. I told her that whatever she does, don’t get rid of that marvelous garden!! She agreed. It’s just an ordinary ranch house in New Carollton, MD with an extraordinary garden in the backyard. Robin is not Asian. She’s African-American. Talk about multi-cultural!!

  • Cathleen says:

    I just came across the term wabi in the book Elegance of the Hedgehog. It was used to describe a character’s feeling when she realized that the book she held, which had a rough leather cover, protected her favorite book, Anna Karenina. I am enjoying this book immensely, although I suspect I’m not understanding it entirely.

  • Lavanya says:

    Loved your post- I kept meaning to comment..Must find this book-sounds lovely.

    I always think imperfection lends character and therefore beauty to faces..I can never call a perfect face beautiful- unless it is marked by some flaw or strength or even an asymetry..(or if I know the person and like him/her..:))..Pretty or handsome , maybe, but not beautiful. Sometimes I think it is just the way *I* define beautiful in my head- there are some words like that which I find that I define slightly different from other people- so even though we might have the same reaction/perception to/of a face (or art) we attribute a different adjective to it…Like I can never call a face beautiful just based on physical attributes….(and this doesn’t really have any thing to do with culture or language)..I don’t know if this is the same as the bit you wrote about your perception and Robin’s perception of the melon-y note. As in, I don’ know if what I am talking about is just a matter of subjective ‘taste’ or if infact a difference in the definitions of adjectives..or are they the same thing..ok..I’ll stop before I begin losing myself..as that was ‘slightly’ tangential..lol

    • Lavanya says:

      I meant to type *smiley icon* followed by *closing bracket* and not :))

    • March says:

      I totally agree about imperfection adding character and beauty. According to a lot of articles about facial beauty, symmetry is supposed to be key. And there are these complicated calculations for other distances. But if you look at some of the most beautiful faces in magazines, in photos, they’re quirky.

  • Disteza says:

    I’ve been digging into both sides of the aesthetic divide, trying to appease my love for the intricate, stylized baroque and the simpler zen/wabi-sabi approximations of natural disorder. If you’re local to DC, the Freer is hosting “Golden Seams: The Japanese Art of Mending Ceramics”, which showcases the very wabi-sabi art of kintsugi, which involves mending broken pottery with highly decorative lacquer, usually making the object more beautiful and valuable in the process.

    • March says:

      I just saw that in the paper this morning — doesn’t it look wonderful?!?! By the way, I don’t know if you’ve been there, but my father says they used to keep peacocks running loose. I swear I remember this, but can’t decide if it’s just hearing my father tell the story. (Their screams are disconcerting.)

      Re: existentialist’s comment further up about distressing jeans, etc., I found it interesting that some of the pieces might have been deliberately damaged.

      • Disteza says:

        I don’t remember any peacocks running loose, but it’s possible they were allowed to roam the garden in the center. I practically haunt the Sackler, and sometimes I venture upstairs to see the more interesting Freer exhibits. I will defintiely be going to this one, and I need to find time to get over to the Kennedy Center to see the Islamic exhibits as well. And someday I’ll figure out where the textile musuem–I STILL can’t seem to find it whenever I think I’m nearby.

        • March says:

          My husband belongs to the Textile Museum. Isn’t it somewhere else off the mall? Or am I thinking of the building museum?

  • Natalie says:

    Maximalism — I love it! And just to clarify, I’m a wildly imperfect perfectionist… 🙂

  • Natalie says:

    Since I’m a ruthless perfectionist and Zen-like minimalism leaves me cold, the whole Japanese aesthetic and sensibility grate against every fiber of my being! Nevertheless, I’m still going to offer a wabi sabi nominee: Lonestar Memories, for its prickly, wonky, jolie-laide, strange-bedfellows weirdness.

    • March says:

      Well, I find it interesting reading, mind you. But if you could see my house you’d know that’s about as far as it goes… 🙂 we’re kind of imperfect maximalists.

      Lonestar is an excellent addition.

  • DianaWR says:

    I’d also put a bunch of the CB scents under this description. In terms of greenness, I’d include DSH The Vert and L’Artisan Vanilia also reads weirdly green on me (weirdly in a good way).

    • March says:

      Oh, I’d love some green from the L’Artisan, that sounds spectacular. And yes, you could jam half CB’s catalog in there.

  • Robin says:

    MORE articulate is more likely.

    • March says:

      Um, nope. Beg to differ. It would have taken me 15 meandering paragraphs what you said beautifully in three. Your description is perfect. But I wonder why nobody else gets melon. 😕

      • Robin says:

        Yeah, but you would have said all sorts of fun & interesting & educational things in your meandering paragraphs.

        We are not the only ones getting melon. Another person mentions it in the comments on NST, and then I found this (and this guy is a student perfumer):

        So if he’s wondering if it possibly has calone, I stand by the melon. Would also note that many people have called it aquatic, and to me, aquatic & melon are very nearly the same thing.

        • March says:

          Thanks for that link. That’s also an interesting blog. It’s fun to read from the perspective of an insider.

  • AngelaS says:

    I love the concept of wabi sabi, too. Things that are too new or too matched don’t seem to have much soul. They feel devoid of life. I think that’s one of the reasons I like vintage clothes. A shop full of old dresses feels loaded with stories. A rack of dresses in a department store feels dead to me.

    • Existentialist says:

      I agree completely. There is something so much more profound (if that doesn’t sound over the top) about things that have been used, sometimes used hard. My standard code phrase for something being important to me is “I’ve had that for a long time”. Interesting, too, to see how there is such a market for distressed clothing – you can even learn to distress your clothes yourself, to make them more “authentic”.

      • March says:

        The market for distressed clothing … confuses me. Those artfully sliced-up designer jeans. It’s not like I’m against artifice after all /:) so I’m not sure why they bug me so much. They’re so disingenuous. New is fine. Used is better. And yes, best of all are the broken-in things we’ve had forever. Boots, jeans, coats, shirts. Or the table with all the burns and dents.

        • Existentialist says:

          My feeling is that many people feel their lives lack authenticity, although they are not necessarily able to articulate what that would be or that they lack it. They see the artfully distressed but new clothing as a way of obtaining the signs of authenticity without doing the work, so to speak. Some of it is the allure of wabi sabi, but of course part of the allure of wabi sabi is that it is authentic.

          • March says:

            I think your point is very well taken, and I just referenced you at the bottom re: a new exhibit at the Freer about mending ceramics. Separate from its own interest as a show, the reviewer mentions that some of the vessels may have been broken so they could be repaired in this manner. Early distressing. 🙂

    • March says:

      Yes. Beautiful dresses and stoles and old jewelry. 😡 There are whole lives wrapped up in those things. I would love to know something about the people who owned them before me.

      I really, really need to get to Portland so we can hit some vintage!

  • Olfacta says:

    Lately I’ve been in a phase of impatience with the domestic side of my life: laundry and dishes that just get dirty again, unidentifiable spots on the walls, the endlessly-needs-changing cat box, the black hole of mysteriously disappearing socks. We do try for that unreachable finish line here in the West, don’t we? I’m just naturally messy. But who would want to be remembered for having a clean house? One lady I know walks around with a dustcloth, always cleaning, always frustrated. A subject for thought on a housebound day with icy roads and, yeah, I really should be rearranging the pantry.

    Ephemeral scents are many on me; any osmanthus, for example, or Au te Verte, which is so beautiful and then, poof! gone. Or any citrus. Scent itself could be a metaphor for disappearing beauty, in a way. These have their place — preferably near the bottle, so they can be reapplied lavishly and often. The others, jolie-laide you said? I’m still preferring them.

    BTW: Surviving the Apocalypse will be: roaches, Fracas and Keith Richards!

    • March says:

      Where do those socks go? I wonder. I now buy the twins multiple sets of the same sock from The Children’s Place (his are black, hers are pink.) I am in there every month buying another 12 pairs, I think the clerk thinks I must be donating them to an orphanage or something.

      I am a little neurotic about cleanliness. What has helped me gain perspective is to read something about someone else (like the Manhattan woman who made her staff clean behind everything using Q-Tips) and think, wow, that’s pathetic and insane. And then I take a hard look at myself… /:) In ten years, will I care if the counter next to me gets cleaned today? Nah. It’s easy to say and hard to live, though. :)>-

      The Verte doesn’t come back on you? That’s one of my favorite features about tea scents, the way they lurk around and pop up again…

      Keith Richards, Fracas, roaches. Pondering that.

  • Nava says:

    You’ve enlightened me this morning because I’ve never heard of the wabi sabi concept, so thank you. At first I thought it was going to be a post about wasabi since I’ve been craving sushi; I watched an episdode of Bobby Flay’s “Throwdown” over the weekend where he challenged a couple of sushi chefs and completely embarrassed himself. Based on that, maybe there are certain things we Westerners are just not meant to excel at? Hmmm…

    My dear departed father-in-law had a saying: “A galloping horse wouldn’t notice.” That’s what runs through my head every time I contemplate minor physical imperfections, and it always makes me smile. That’s not to say that I don’t sometimes become unreasonably obsessive. Happens more and more these days. Zen is not something I can fathom right now.

    I smelled Vanille Galante on Friday and I don’t get the rotting melon present in Mousson. It actually smelled very similar to L’Artisan Vanilia to me. 🙂

    • March says:

      Oh, I love those shows! Except it’s geezerville over here — we just switched to FIOS and we have … are you ready? … 1900+ channels, and I can’t find anything to watch. 🙂 But my 12yo daughter is addicted to all the HGTV shows (cooking, decorating) and so now the twins are constantly watching them. I find this hilarious, they’d rather watch those than cartoons. I tell myself they’re learning something…

      So far as I know, Robin and I were the only people to get melon. Did you get banana? (shudder)

      • Nava says:

        I’m an unabashed Food Network groupie. And I think you should continue to let the kids watch those shows. I’ve picked up a bunch of useful tidbits, so why not? If they’re going to watch cartoons, I think the classic Warner Brothers are the only way to go. “Monsters are such eeeeenteresting people!” :d

        Nope, I’ve got no bananas from VG. Ask me again in a couple of weeks.

  • kathleen says:

    Lovely post. The book sounds like a perfect gift for a dear friend of mine. I’ll be heading over to Amazon, anon. Out in Leesburg, the snow began after 4am. We’ve got about 4″ and it is just beautiful, especially as the sun is coming out. Re: Vanille Galante, try layering it with Ambre Narguile, for a delightful, new, scent, sensation

    • Nava says:

      Really? VG with Ambre Narguile? And it’s a perfect day for it, too. About 4 inches of snow where I am. Looks pretty here. 🙂

    • March says:

      It’s a good gift book, I should have given it a more decent endorsement in that department. In fact I am pretty sure I bought it for the Big Cheese in the tea section at Takashimaya in NYC. In part so I could read it. 🙂 Because it’s interesting.

      Hon, I love your enthusiasm, but layering VG with AN (aka The Nazgul to Patty and me) is probably not gonna be happnin’ around these parts. 😉 Look, my two favorite Hermessences are Paprika Brasil and Poivre whatsit, so I’m an idiot.

  • Louise says:

    March, Im reflecting on impermanence a great deal lately, as a key relationship in my life ends/shifts, and as the season changes, as well. Though this is truly some kick-butt snow for “spring a’coming”!

    I especially appreciate the aspect of embracing imperfections. While I am somewhat tough on myself at times to work out, be groomed, dress acceptably, I also have learned to rejoice in my tomboy, messy, at times muddy side. On a below-surface level, I find that age is also bringing acceptance, even amusement at my eccentricities. And I try to actively practice this acceptance of friends’ “flaws”; in fact I often most appreciate seeing my ladies out of “costume”, ready to just hang around and dish or sniff.

    As for perfume. Well. I rail against my “bad”, “scent eating” skin and will almost always cling to my long-lived scents (today Onda will be with me all day). But I am also learning to enjoy other, lighter scents, which float around for a while, then poof! Vanille Galante is working this mojo for me, with none of the nasty notes you pull.

    Other ephemerals I love-many light aldehydes, fresh greens, citrus. These I crave as I need less anchoring against the winter.

    Lovely post, thanks!

    • Louise says:

      Oh, as for joli(e) laid(e) I nominate many, many vintage scents-older Jicky, some Mitsy formulations, old Shalimar, the Chanels. The concept of pure “pretty” was alien to the vintage parfumeurs, as was “clean”. Mono d’Oro (sp) perfumes, many Amouages, Party in Manhattan, Theo Fennell, are examples to me of modern, beautiful “pretty/uglies”

    • March says:

      Yeah, how about this snow? I guess it’s fine, although I had other plans for today. Right now it’s the old undress/redress with the twins. Still snowing pretty darn hard here.

      I am so grateful your learning to accept friends’ flaws, because otherwise you’d have kicked me to the curb… 😉 Today seems like a perfect day for Onda, doesn’t it? But I can’t wait for the weather to moderate so we can move on to the greens and citrus as well.


  • Masha says:

    I think wabi-sabi may be essential to a beautiful perfume. In making my own and smelling lots of others, I notice the “keepers” are those that have an unexpected, even slightly off (ugly) note, and those that change or morph, where notes come and go unexpectedly. Niki de St. Phalle is a perfume that really exemplifies both, ugly/beautiful, ephemeral, changing. I’d love to create one like that! But they don’t make these anymore because, by definition, they’d never pass a focus group, and they’d be too expensive for the bean counters. Very, very sad. Even my ultimate dept. store love/hate, ANGEL, falls into the wabi-sabi category, and it would never be released today. That’s the main reason I’ve started making my own…so someday, maybe….

    • March says:

      See, though, I’m still struggling with the line between wabi-sabi and jolie-laide (because I like to struggle). Wabi-sabi seems to imply this … simplicity. A lot of fragrances I’d describe as jolie-laide (and Niki is definitely one of them) are kind of … baroque. Like First. Or on the wrong day, Mitsouko. Or Jolie Madame. On the other hand, Niki’s weird ugliness is that herbal thing, which smells outdoorsy, so maybe it does qualify, right?

      I love Niki. I hear the parfum is something.

      • Masha says:

        Yes, I can see the difference, the French are very into the jolie/laide thing, and wabi-sabi is quite something else, I must read that book! I have an ounce of the parfum Niki and it’s swoonable, like vintage Mitsouko, I’m like a cat with a pot of catnip when I put it on, it has to be in private because I roll around in a silly ecstasy….:d

  • Lee says:

    Well, I’m British, so familiar with gappy teeth, wonky teeth, irregular teeth. Though younger people have American perfect smiles nowadays, which I find a little disappointing.

    Isn’t irregularity a different aspect of wabi sabi to impermanence? But then again, perhaps they’re more like wonky and permeable circles in a Vennish diagram, not being clear where one starts and the other ends. Who knows. I’m a total neophyte when it comes to Japanese culture. So much I just don’t get. Bonsai for example.

    Anyway, surely the key here will be perfumes that are rustic, primitive, and changeable, or smelling of cherry blossom…? But does cherry blossom smell? Oh, so many mysteries…

    Off to sniff wonky, off-centre, mutable perfumes…

    • March says:

      I’m voting with the venn diagram construct, yes I think there’s a difference. But I’m not sufficiently enlightened to explain it to you. 😉

      Slightly off topic, but I love the contrast between “old” in the states and in Europe. Here, old is 19th century. There … well, we were watching some HGTV house-porn show about house-hunting abroad. Some couple in Umbria were trying to renovate and they found the ruins of a Roman fort under their would-be kitchen… we were giggling at the idea. Wonder if that slows the renovation?

      • Lee says:

        In the UK, if you discover something like that, any work can be held up for two years, or not allowed at all.

        I’m guessing that the italians might be a little more laissez-faire, or whatever the Italian for laissez-faire might be… It’s probably just laissez-faire, seeing as they are… Mind you, it’s laissez-faire in the UK too, so what does that say about us???

        • March says:

          Well, that’s what I’d guessed. Which is why I found the Umbria thing even more interesting. Basically our genial homeowner said something like, I think I’ll dig a bit more of this ol’ Roman wall up to see what’s there and then I’ll try to bury it again real tidy. 🙂 I thought, maybe finding a Roman fort under your house in Italy is like finding a penny on the street here – who cares?!

  • violetnoir says:

    Isabelle Doyen’s L’Antimatiere falls into the wabi/sabi concept, don’t you think, March?

    I love imperfect faces. Laugh lines, slightly crooked teeth, freckles, one dimple in the cheek, small moles (from which I suffer immensely!) and the like just fascinate me. It makes people that much more beautiful, and endearing, to me.


    • March says:

      One dimple! Augh, I love that. A fine, distinctive facial feature. And I will take your word on L’Antimatiere, since I pretty much can’t smell it at all… :”> I hear it’s lovely, though, from those who can.

  • Jarvis says:

    Thank you for a lovely post, March. I have long been interested in the aesthetic concept of wabi/sabi, and I think it particularly resonates with perfume, since fragrance is so ephemeral and impermanent. Once sprayed, it evolves and fades away. The juice itself is impermanent, as even if one hoardes it jealously in the original bottle, sealed in its box, deep in the back of a temperature-controlled closet, the juice will continue to mature and change, and so what we experience later on is always just an imperfect copy of the perfumer’s original intention.

    For me, the beauty of impermanence often appears in floral compositions that have a touch of the animalic. For example, Une Fleur de Cassie, with its gorgeous powdery mimosa/cassie, along with the rather alarming scent of decay. I also get a similar feel from in Guerlain’s Vega. Both of these, of course, have a kind of opulence that doesn’t necessarily meet the “simplicity” or “transparency” criteria, but they do capture that sense of impermanence that is, I think, at the heart of this aesthetic.

    Ellena’s L’Eau d’Hiver does have the transparency and simplicity, along with just a slight touch of skin. And many of the Hermessences reflect these qualities. They are beautifully constructed, yet so simple and intimate, Osmanthe Yunnan and Vanille Galante especially.

    I also nominate Chanel No. 18 for consideration. Such a simple, bare accord of iris, rose, and ambrette. Beautiful, and yet also, almost a little ugly in its bare simplicity.

    • March says:

      Sorry, everybody — snow day today, I’ll be on here in between kid-related crises…

      Jarvis, that’s a wonderful sentiment regarding animalic notes. Anita up there isn’t sure about “decay,” but a little decay in a fragrance is, as you note, a beautiful thing. And Hiver! What a perfect addition to the list, I wish I’d included that one meself… I dig out 18 every few months just to re-smell it. It’s rather pickle-juice on my skin, but compellingly strange.

    • Flora says:

      Jarvis, I was JUST thinking of Une Fleur de Cassie for this topic! So heartbreaking, so lovely yet a little rough, so melancholy yet so sweet. Perfect definition of Wabi Sabi!

      Another idea – Andrew Wyeth’s art. Nothing is ever perfect in it, yet we are drawn to its somewhat faded beauty.

      I was also thinking of the concept that we love people and other things BECAUSE of their imperfections and not despite them. I think that is a very comforting thought for us all. :”>

  • Elle says:

    What a wonderful post! We’ve had both feng shui (twice now) and vastu shastra done to our house, so years ago I bought several books on wabi sabi for the home (one by Griggs Lawrence is probably the one I’ve used the most). I truly love the concept, but wonder if I will ever completely grasp it. Anyway, I agree w/ you about the ephemeral nature of scent being in sync w/ the concept of wabi sabi and love your choices. The ones that also first popped into my mind were SL’s ISM, AP’s Preparation Parfumee, OJ’s Ormonde, NK’s Incense, Guerlain’s La Voilette de Madame and CB’s Boiled Rice. Oh, and agree w/ Kristy Victoria in her comment above about CdG’s Odeur 71 (also their Odeur 53 and Shiso). I think that SIP’s Aramaic fits the bill, but I go back and forth about whether or not Black Rosette does. It definitely has the off kilter part, but I’m not sure it fits the wabi side that well. But if I set aside that vacillating about wabi, then I’d have to definitely also choose Diorama w/ its wonderfully funky notes, SL’s TC and TDC’s Rose Poivree.

    • Elle says:

      I just wanted to add on Onda to my list of perfect wabi sabi scents. I think darker vetivers in general are beautifully in sync w/ this concept.
      And I agree w/ you about Vanille Galant. Am a bit mystified by the choice of name. I’m only seeing vanilla as having a minor supporting role in this scent – far from the star note.

    • March says:

      Juniper makes several qualifying statements (which I skipped) about how wabi-sabi is born of an intuitive concept and it’s not something you can just sit down and explain, although he put it much more elegantly. He said if you ask the Japanese to “explain” wabi-sabi they won’t even go there; you get a haiku or a bit of philosophy, but the idea that you could sit down and chat it out like a recipe for flan would be ridiculous. So. I’m only grasping at bits of it too, it’s so foreign, but I enjoy the change in perspective and the mental exercise.

      I love your list, esp. the Andree Putman and Onda. And VG was very much not my thing at all. As I said to Robin in an email, It’s bad on me in a very low-key, tasteful JCE way. 🙂 It’s interesting and light enough I didn’t scrub it (surprisingly tenacious) but banana lily melon mulch? No thanks.

  • MJ says:

    You must also look into the children’s book Wabi Sabi, about a little Kyoto cat who wants to understand the meaning of her name. GORGEOUS collage art, truly a lovely experience – with bonus haiku too! I don’t usually read kid’s books but this was right up my alley, and I waited for it from Amazon forever because everyone else apparently heard about it at the same time….

    I’m currently in love with Caron’s 3e Homme, and find myself sniffing myself throughout the day to catch the varying wafts and wisps of lavender, then anise, then tonka or amber… Sometimes I think it is gone, but no, it is still there, just muted/changed. Lovely, restrained workday frag.

    • March says:

      Oh, that book sounds wonderful, thanks for the recommendation.

      That Caron is so wonderful. That’s the only place I really got into the Carons – the men’s scents. First that, then Yatagan, I think, and their other weird one. Anarchiste?

  • monkeytoe says:

    As I age, I more and more like the idea of wabi sabi. I am going to take a peek at this book, thanks for pointing it out.

    Les Blank documentary on gap-toothed women:


    Some of my favorite wabi sabi scents: CB:IHP Wild Hunt, CDG Tar, and Malle Noir Epices.

    • March says:

      It’s a short, interesting, non-ponderous read.

      Hey, thanks so much for the link to that movie, I want to see it! The article I’m thinking of was so funny, the author (a gap-toothed woman) was being interviewed by someone for an article about gap-tooth love. She said he looked at her mouth like other men look at breasts or whatever they’re into, she wished she had a long, shapeless sweater for her smile. 🙂 Which ultimately she decided not to change. :)>-

  • I feel like Or et Noir falls into this category. At first I was like “ew” but then I couldn’t stop sniffing it. It was really wacky. I’m not sure what makes it fall into that category for me.

    Also, Comme des Garcons Odeur 71.

    • March says:

      I’d agree with both of your recommendations…. hey, can you believe this snow? I bet it’s snowed an inch in the last hour.

  • Trish/Pikake says:

    Wabi Sabi is going on my reading list now. Thank you for such a lovely post. Really beautiful, March. I am all for the idea of Wabi Sabi, it melds nicely with my having (almost) finished Tolle’s “A New Earth” which is rooted in that same idea of impermanence and transience. I find it liberating.

    Among other more “important” things, it has allowed me to embrace the more ephemeral quality of natural perfumes. They are not tenacious like synthetics, but beauty is fleeting right? And I enjoy them for the moments they are with me.

    PS: Off topic here. Did you get my email about Maja?;;)

    • March says:

      It’s a slender volume (160pp) so you don’t feel like you’re embarking on a huge project. And it’s easy to digest a chapter at a time. And it’s not all woo-woo, which I appreciated.

      Natural perfumery is something I am still learning to enjoy. I have to be a little more patient, not my strong suit. And I did get your email about Maja, I’m so glad to hear they stock it. I now have two bottles and the soap…

      • trish/Pikake says:

        When I was at the PH and saw those little gift sets of Maja I just had to write and tell you about them. It’s nice to see the “oldies but goodies” still around.

        Come to think of it, maybe Maja is a little Wabi Sabi, eh?

        • Liesl says:

          I just bought Maja lotion and shower gel and I really like it! I got cinnamopn and roses out of it, (which could be way off,) but thinking about that combo, they shouldn’t go together. Is that an aspect of wabi sabi? Things that shouldn’t work together that do?
          Maybe it’s the concept of things that go, but don’t match.

  • Musette says:

    Don’t diss the Fracas!:-w A little permanence in an impermanent world is a beautiful thing. Come the Apocalypse, cockroaches and Fracas will be the only things left intact!!!

    So……I can’t speak to Wabi Sabi, though I do like ethereal (decaying, not so much). But my scent connections would probably be violets, as they delight and then quickly overpower and render the nose anosmic for awhile, only to reappear in a slightly altered form (for more on this, read Diane Ackerman’s ‘A Natural History of the Senses’, which is where I first learned that I wasn’t the only one to be rendered thus by violet.

    I think of a lot of ‘green’ flowers as ephemeral – LOTV is very fleeting, especially when the stems are prominent….and what can be more poignant than a potted hyacinth in its death throes…


    you had brunch in the snow?

    • March says:

      We could have brunch in the snow right now… no school today and snowing like the dickens. 🙂 But no, yesterday we went to our favorite French restaurant, which has an excellent array of desserts.

      You point out a whole different enjoyable type of ephemeral scents – the ones we become anosmic to and then fade in and out. And those green notes are heartbreaking and transitory, except when they’re Vent Vert. 😉

      • Musette says:

        Stay off the road! Stay warm and have fun roasting marshmallows or something. I am so over snow – living in the Midwest does that to you (at least it does me)…..am wearing Verte Violette in honor of your post. What’s your Snow Day scent?

        It’s still extremely cold here – nothing is poking its head up out of the ground yet, far as I can see, anyway…..but at least I can see ‘ground’!

        It’s the little things..