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March 2016

Iris Review

Prada Infusion d’Iris & Absolue

March 7, 2016
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Prada Infusion d’Iris

Robert James Smith
miuenski via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

I have a bottle of Infusion d’Iris and although I’m not 100% in love with it, I can’t quite bring myself to sell it because it plays a very useful part in my fragrance wardrobe.

Specifically, I use it after a cold shower on a hot day, when its chilly, citrusy scent provides a most welcome cooling sensation on my skin.

Then again, since moving from Montenegro to Ireland, I’m not entirely sure I will ever be hot ever again. Or indeed, warm.

Infusion d’Iris opens with tart citrus and thin, almost austere woods, reminding me more of a cup of chilled green tea than a true iris fragrance. Then the iris shows up midway through, a pale grey root infusion, like the water in which iris roots have been soaking. It smells clean and slightly soapy, like the scented air in the bathroom after a good soak in the bath with Epsom salts.

Later on, there is a hint of leather – a thin, discreet leather note – and a vetiver that shows off its cool, minty side. Gossamer-fine in texture, there is a pleasing bitterness to it that reminds me of similarly chilly and crisp colognes, like Cologne Blanche by Dior, which I also like very much. Both display a cooling, “white” character, like a metallic white wine quaffed straight from the fridge and so cold it makes your teeth chatter.

Infusion d’Iris is just effortlessly classy, and it will never be out of my summer wardrobe. Function over form on this one, for me.

 

Prada Infusion d’Iris Absolue

And her kind eyes shall lead me to the end.
Nick Kenrick. via Foter.com / CC BY

Where the original is watery, cool, and crisp/bitter, the Absolue is rich, sweet, and warm. The iris is much more evident to my nose in the Absolue version than in the original – it is rooty, thick, and almost bready.

If you can imagine a braided Easter bread stuffed with butter, eggs, and sugar, fresh out of the oven and cut open, then the iris here has a similar sweet doughiness.

I can think of only two other iris-centric fragrances where the iris gives off a sweet, yeasty/bready aroma, one being the current Mitsouko EDP and the other being Chanel No. 18. It is an enchanting, addictive aroma, and one that draws me further into the fragrance.

There is nothing fresh, green, or watery about the Absolue version. The sweet oriental base – vanillic-ambery resins (benzoin, oppoponax), a nicely “aged” vanilla, and some tonka bean – wafts up at you throughout the life of the scent, turning the iris note into a silky, buttery thing of sheer luxury. If the original is a wisp of chiffon, then the Absolue is a warm cashmere wrap. Yes, I did it – I just invoked The Great Big Cliche of perfume writing. But it applies here, so I’m going to be lazy and just leave it there.

This is my new “professional” scent for those days when I know I have meetings with clients. I like to try and strike a compromise on my fragrance choice while meeting a client – it has to be demure and classy enough not to distract the client, but also beautiful enough to keep me happy and relaxed. This does the job very well, and so it joins my usual line-up of 31 Rue Cambon by Chanel and Cuir Pleine Fleur by James Heeley.

Neither the original Infusion nor the Absolue last very long on me, but since I favor rich, oriental perfumes over fresh, citrusy ones (as a rule), I much prefer the Absolue. The quality of that iris is just outstanding, as is that warm, sweet resin base. I would wear the Absolue on cooler days and the original Infusion d’Iris on hot, summer days, or after hot showers.

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Caron Nuit de Noel

March 3, 2016
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Modern niche perfumery makes it easy for us. It must be like playing charades with the world’s slowest child. They supply us with all the visual and background cues and then sit back and do a slow clap when we get it. Ambre Russe? Mention vodka in the press materials and in one sniff we are mentally whisked away to boozy Cossacks, samovars, fur, and gold-gilded palaces. De Profundis? Give an essentially cheery floral perfume a gloomy name and a depressive back-story, and suddenly everyone makes the connection to death and funerals.

If we weren’t supplied so readily with these cues, would we make those connections? Probably not. But let’s admit that the back-story is half the fun of it. We are only human after all – we want everything we do to have meaning. Even if it’s only our perfume.

Smell Caron Nuit de Noel in vintage parfum form, though, and everything you know about narrative is upended. It is a Wagnerian opera-sized perfume and we not handed so much as a leaflet. Oh yes, I forgot, they did give us that name – Nuit de Noel. But it doesn’t smell like Christmas, so that doesn’t help.

But this – this – this is what perfume smelled like once upon a time. A dense, powdered thing of mystery that doesn’t really give a shit if you manage to unlock its layers or not. It’s so analog in a digital world that it makes me laugh.

Nuit de Noel doesn’t really have traditional topnotes. In fact, it’s a fragrance best worn for its basenotes, and is therefore the complete opposite to how perfumes are made these days – stuffed with amazing topnotes that last just long enough to get you over to the till to pay your money and petering out into one big fat nothing three hours later. Nuit de Noel, on the other hand, plunges you right into the second cycle of Der Ring des Nibelungen and just trusts that you know enough German to get by. In a way, I appreciate that approach – by giving me very few cues, it expects me to have enough intelligence to figure it out on my own.

I’m still not sure I’ve figured Nuit de Noel out, though. I ain’t that smart. But I like the challenge. The top notes are intense, like a wall of sound coming straight at you. Dense and unwieldy, it smells like bitter powder and polished old woods with a streak of green moss running through it. There is also a huge dose of the typically Caron carnation/clove accord, which I find bitter-leathery and spicy in equal measure. The overall impression I get is of being wrapped in an old fur coat – it’s both old-fashioned and luxurious.

I don’t get any of the Christmas associations, but there is a stage of its development where I sense both the mealy, fluffy meat of roasted chestnuts and a sweet, liquor-like rose. Perhaps it’s that hint of rich fruited breads and baked goods that lead some to make the connection to Christmas. The green, mossy chypre notes also create a crisp, cold-air feeling, placing this perfume in the context of snow. Aside from the notes, there is a certain glow to this perfume – a radiant warmth like candlelight.

As time goes on, a licorice-like note creeps in, cloaking the fragrance in a velvety, sweet darkness. Think soft black licorice, not the challenging Danish stuff that tastes like salt. This note is a feature of the famous Mousse de Saxe, said to contain a heavy mixture of anise (or fennel seed), vanillin, geranium, and isobutyl quinoline (smoky, tough leather notes).

The Mousse de Saxe makes up a huge proportion of Nuit de Noel, and lends it its decisively dark green, mossy, smoky, and sweet flavor profile. A pre-packaged base, Mousse de Saxe is no longer made by Caron to the original recipe, although to their credit, they try to recreate it in order to keep their current parfums rich and full-bodied. But to my nose, there is a rich, dark, and melting softness to vintage Nuit de Noel (reminiscent of marrons glaces, as some have pointed out) that is just not there in the modern Carons.

The leather, powder, and geranium facets of the base connect Nuit de Noel to other hard-to-categorize fragrances like Habanita and Vol de Nuit. Part chypre, part oriental, all three of these fragrances are soft, boneless straddlers of several categories at once and contain a mystery of their very own that is difficult to unpack, to analyze. Mysterious and cool-toned, they leave behind a lingering impression of green moss, face powder, leather, and half-smoked cigarettes. The most slatternly women you could imagine, and the ones I most want to know.

Smelling Nuit de Noel parfum now a melancholic experience, though. Vol de Nuit and Habanita are still in good shape. But with oakmoss being severely restricted these days, the Caron bases can never smell as complex as they once did, and so when I smell my sample of vintage Nuit de Noel parfum, I realize that I’m essentially smelling the air from a time capsule.

 

 

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Amouage Opus III

March 1, 2016
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One day, I was coming out of the Book Centre and he was coming out – both of us with our respective friends, and both of us in our Catholic school uniforms. As we passed each other, our eyes met, and I swear to God, we both turned full circle to take a good long look at each other.

I had never before done anything so brazen in my life. We both walked backwards to keep staring at each other as our respective groups pulled apart, and if a movie crew had been there to catch the moment, it would have gone down in history as the most romantic moment in my shabby little life. I was 16. Back at our respective schools after lunch – boys and girls attend separate schools in Ireland – we both busied ourselves with the business of asking around. Who is this person? What do we know of their people? Their pedigree?

The intelligence on him came quickly back – nobody to bother about. I had a certain amount of capital to expend, being reasonably attractive, popular, and brainy, whereas he was an unknown quantity, and certainly not popular.

Didn’t matter – I had to have him. It also didn’t matter that it ended badly, two years down the line. I will never forget the romance of that moment. The first and only time I’ve ever fallen in love on the spot.

Amouage Opus III gives me a similar feeling. I don’t know how it happened, but there’s been a coup de foudre. Our eyes met and I did a full twirl on my heels. So I now send out feelers into the community – is this a worthy one? The early reports are not encouraging. Nice, they say, but save your money. You can do better.

If I were to distill a whole Internet’s worth of reviews of Opus III into two phrases, it would be “overly complex” and “nothing special or notice worthy.” I don’t argue those points – in many ways, Opus III is both overly complex and not at all groundbreaking or original. But – and it’s a big but – it has a lilting, slow-moving beauty to it that spins my heart off like a leaf on an eddy. It’s like being at a crazy party and discovering at the last minute that it’s really the big, silent farmer in the corner that you want to go home with. Opus III has a solid heft that makes me want to curl up inside it.

Reducing it to a category, I’d say that Opus III is a massive violet floriental. But as others have pointed out, the combination of notes is so complex that it’s hard to pick out individual notes. The best I can do is point to the various phases that the fragrance moves through, managed through a series of small, barely perceptible shifts and transitions.

Violet is the moving force here and is present in each permutation. First, we have the violet-hay-earth opening, where the bitter, dirt-covered hay of broom is balanced out by a wet, candied violet accord that comes off like Apres L’Ondee on steroids.

Welling up behind this dewy, bittersweet opening is a bank of mimosa flowers with their fluffy yellow, bitter almond scent. When the mimosa meets the violet, the fragrance shifts from wet hay-violets to a dusty pollen note that makes one think of the yellow dust that covers your fingers when you crumple a buttercup or some other cheerful yellow wildflower.

There is also a dusty heliotrope note here that makes me think of Farnesiana or L’Heure Bleue, but this lacks almost completely the fruity and pastry-like tones of those fragrances. There is a similar weight here, though, like a piece of blue velvet folded over many times.

A tiny accord is hidden here and I catch glimpses of it only sometimes – a dove-grey iris note that colludes with the violets to produce a faint (very faint!) cosmetic undertone. Not exactly lipstick, not exactly powder, but something a little bit frilly.

Under the earth-hay violets and the meadow-pollen violets and the iris-violets, there is another violet combination brewing, and it turns out to be the definitive one – violets and ylang. Ylang introduces a fruity, plasticky edge with a banana-like note to the mix, and when it merges with the violet note, its creamy banana custard voluptuousness becomes corrupted with a strange boot polish note. Could be tar, could be nail polish remover like some reviews mention – I don’t know. But it is a little strange, and more than a little addicting. It’s what draws me back to my sample time and time again, like a druggie.

The spicy orange blossom and jasmine are secondary players here, but they too form their own little pairing with the violets, and add a slight indolic languor to the violets’ dewy, childlike presentation.

Opus III winds up in familiar Amouage territory – a daub of frankincense, dry woods, amber – and while the base is not wildly new or exciting, what it does do is provide a dry, un-sweet landing for the rich floral combinations swirling around the violets. The base is what makes Opus III perfectly unisex, and takes it further away from the two fragrances to which Opus III is most commonly compared, namely L’Heure Bleue and Insolence EDP, which are far more obviously feminine.

Having mentioned the Guerlains, I must mention that I find Opus III to be far more satisfying than either of those fragrances, and more beautiful. I love the rich, earthy hay of the broom, the yellow pollen feel from the mimosa, and the unctuous creamy ylang. It combines – to my nose – the best of L’Heure Bleue, Samsara, and Insolence, and cuts away the fat and the excess fruitiness of those scents.

Opus III smells wholly natural and of this earth – and although it lasts a long time, is longevity is due to a certain richness and heft of fragrance oils rather than muscular woody synthetics. It wears on the skin like a rich, comfortable old velvet cloak.

I rather love it – can you tell? This fragrance moves me. But like any coup de foudre, I’m suspicious of the strength of my feelings. Practically everyone notes that Opus III is not an unusual or extraordinary fragrance in any way. Does that mean that my tastes are pedestrian? Am I a bit of a pleb? Well, probably, and more than just a bit. I can’t quite bring myself to care, though. I want to wear this, and so by God I will.

Hey Opus III! Yeah, you, the hefty farmer with the big red face in the corner! Get your coat – you’ve pulled! Let’s hope this doesn’t end too badly. My judgment in these matters is famously terrible.