Friday, August 22, 2008

The Meaning of Ma Griffe


(Don’t forget to enter the drawing for samples of Yatagan and L’air du Desert Marocain – see the previous post – deadline is Sept. 3rd!

When I was thirteen, I lived in a small Georgia town with my family. I’d already seen some of the world as an Air Force brat, and small-town life was stifling. Restless and bored, I read compulsively. I ended up knowing, as my mother would say sometimes, a little too much.

My father had a glamorous brother, Harold. He blew through town every now and then, like a visitor from another planet. He had invented some kind of oil drill bit, built his own company successfully, and now lived in the same area outside London where the Beatles had their country houses. He’d played golf with Sean Connery, my aunts whispered (and this was when Connery was James Bond). He spent lots of time in Paris and the Middle East.

I loved him, in part because he brought me miraculous, unattainable things from that wider world, like little sets of real French perfume (purchased, no doubt, from the duty-free cart on the plane).

How I wish I had them now! I only remember a few; Je Reivens, Evening in Paris. And a strange one in a green and white striped box – Ma Griffe.

Ma Griffe scared me. The others smelled nice, like flowers, but not this. It didn’t even smell like perfume. It was sharp, acrid and weird. But I kept opening the box, sniffing it, putting it back, and opening it again. What kind of person would wear this? Would want to smell like this? What would she be trying to say?

So I wore it – lots of it – to school one day.

You would have thought I’d shown up dressed as a Valkyrie, with breastplates and a horned helmet on my head. The other girls, miniature versions of their mothers with their hair bands, Peter Pan collars and twin sets, rolled their eyes and tittered as I walked by.

The perfume got deeper as the day went on. By noon, it had turned sultry, and everybody in my classes was talking about me. But by that time I had found something unexpected: disdain. My own disdain for these placid sheep, all facing the same way as they mindlessly ate the same grass. So this was what this strange perfume was about! For me, it was the scent of dissent.

I’ve read different translations of the phrase “Ma Griffe,” but the one I like best, that seems to fit best, is “my claw.” Like the talons of the mythological bird, the Griffon. With a little help from my cosmopolitan uncle, I had discovered something that would ultimately lift me out of that backwater town. It was my own contempt for conformity.

Most of the best perfumes aren’t pretty. They’re not supposed to be. Ma Griffe, even in its modern form, still isn’t pretty. There are people in my life, even now, who can’t understand why I would wear something so different, so sharp, so old and out of time.

Wearing Ma Griffe is still an act of rebellion.

Notes for Ma Griffe include galbanum, greens and citruses, aldehydes, clary sage, jasmine, gardenia, rose, sandalwood, vetiver, orris, ylang ylang, styrax, oakmoss, cinnamon, musk, benzoin, and labdanum.

Thanks to Robin at Now Smell This for unearthing that amazing print ad for Ma Griffe!


mark42 said...

According to wonderful PerfumeShrine - "The formula has indeed been reworked multiple times since its birth, ending with the latest version of 2006 eau de parfum being a one-dimensional soapy floral"

Maybe not so rebellious anymore - pity.

Thank you for the entertaining post!


flannerygrace said...

I can relate to much of your post, I went to 15 schools by the time I got to 12th grade - 11 elementary ones alone! I too dealt with it all by putting my nose in a book any time I could.

To say I was never part of the group is a vast understatement and like you much more enjoyed being the one they whispered about. And while I could rarely afford perfume I would sometimes be gifted as you were by a kind relation and the one I remember wearing and loving the most was, Ma Griffe!

Glad to know I wasn't the only one more like a Flannery O'Connor character than a Barbie doll :)

Reading the Signs said...

I stumbled across your blog because I wanted to look up the meaning of La Griffe, having just written something about the perfume, which my mother used to wear. This is a lovely post and I will be back to read more.

Jeanne Kohl said...

found an unlabeled vintage bottle of Ma Griffe today at a flea market - joy