Welcome to Part 3 (Gourmand) of my series on DSH Perfumes, the American indie perfume brand helmed by the talented and prolific Dawn Spencer Hurwitz. For those of you joining me just now, let me recap a little.
This review has taken me many attempts to get right. I’ve written and re-written it more times than I like to admit. I think the reason for my hesitation is that I am bowled over by Bruno Fazzolari’s Ummagumma but not sure whether it’s because it’s really that good or because I am just genetically programmed to find sweet things irresistible (Irish women like me lay down fat automatically on the first signs of cold weather, like a sheep preparing for winter).
Oh hell, enough with the equivocating – Ummagumma smells amazing. It is so palpably delicious and soul-warming that the first time I smelled it, I had to fight myself from tipping the rest of the vial down my throat.
The topnotes are all about that bitter hit of pure chocolate one gets when drink a mug of 80% single plantation cocoa: molten, dark and almost iron-rich. There’s a generous pour of cream, courtesy of sandalwood, and a smattering of barky spice for grit – saffron, cinnamon, and what smells to me like clove but is just as likely to be carnation. The sultriness of the dark chocolate accord is quite similar to that of Slumberhouse Ore, albeit much sweeter thanks to the eventual star of the show, which is amber.
Yes, it’s not the spicy chocolate accord that takes top billing here: it’s the caramelized whisky amber that sits just beneath the cocoa and quickly burrows its way to the top, from where it dominates proceedings. Compared to the bittersweet cocoa top, the amber is honey-sweet, with a boozy edge that makes me think of the Irish whiskey notes in both Tobacco Oud and Amber Absolute. As a result, the amber sports a burned sugar char at the edges that makes me salivate
The amber booms on with its incensey sparkle, but neither the cocoa nor the spice disappears entirely; they lurk in the background, lending a fudgy, bittersweet depth to the main chassis. The scent is quite sweet, let’s be clear, but I find the same sort of balance here as in Ambre Narguile, where the syrup of amber and dried fruit is tempered by tobacco leaf. In Ummagumma, the tonka bean shows off its prickly, herbal coumarin side more than its lush cherry or almond facet, resulting in faint curlicues of smoky tobacco leaf and leather wafting through the amber, lifting and airing it out a little.
Foodie? Yes, most definitely. But don’t infer too much from my mention of Ambre Narguile above, as the scents are really nothing alike, with Ummagumma lacking, in particular, the cinnamon-apple fruitiness of the Hermessence. If anything, Ummagumma’s smooth amber makes me think more of Tobacco Oud with its whiskey-ish, honeyed, and leathery undertones, or a sweeter Ore by Slumberhouse. And although it’s a gourmand-leaning fragrance, there’s enough dry tobacco in Ummagumma to tilt it ever so slightly in the direction of Bond-T. The cedar in the base is faintly sweaty and smoky, with a vegetal edge that helps to cut through the richness as effectively as an Alka Seltzer after a rich meal.
Every artisan perfumer has a signature. But Ummagumma doesn’t really smell like a Bruno Fazzolari fragrance, apart from a certain groovy 1970’s aesthetic that runs through his other scents and also makes an appearance here (the Pink Floyd-related name, the chocolate incense, the textural “mood” feel of brown corduroy jeans, etc). On balance, though, Ummagumma is not as overtly retro in feel as either Au Delà or Seyrig. Neither is it futuristic or stark, as in Lampblack.
Most of my surprise, I guess, stems from seeing such a straightforwardly delicious gourmand coming out of the Bruno Fazzolari stable. Because “straightforward”and “delicious” didn’t seem to be words in Fazzolari’s vocabulary in 2016 when he collaborated with Antonio Gardoni of Bogue to make the “Frankenstein” gourmand, Cadavre Exquis, a fragrance that is as stomach-churning as it is intriguing. Cadavre Exquis smells like a bar of dark chocolate that’s been dragged through fir trees, fruit rot, the ashes of a campfire, and road kill. It smells like camphor and ass (curry-immortelle). Definitely not something anyone would want to eat, even if it smells like food.
I actually like Cadavre Exquis quite a bit, mainly because it nails the essentially animalic characteristics of a bar of evilly-dark chocolate, which, if anyone has ever melted one down will know, smells like warm blood, iron filings, raisins, and something like dried sweat. Cadavre Exquis has the unique quality of making me want to smell it, over and over again, despite the fact that it nauseates me. Which I think makes it at the very least a very interesting fragrance, if not a masterpiece (depending on the definition one uses). But while it’s addictive to smell, I’d never wear it.
Readers may be either disappointed or relieved to know that Ummagumma is nothing like Cadavre Exquis. On the one hand, Ummagumma is not as memorable or as progressive as Cadavre Exquis, but neither is it as divisive. Its gourmandise is sophisticated rather than off-kilter.
How you judge Ummagumma will depend greatly on where you come down on the split between wearability and art. Yet more people will evaluate it purely based on their knowledge of Bruno Fazzolari’s back catalog, including Cadavre Exquis, and find it lacking in edge. But if I were to smell Ummagumma blind, although I wouldn’t peg it as coming from the hands of Bruno Fazzolari, I’d still want to own it and wear it because it’s one of the most straightforwardly delicious things I’ve smelled all year. And I mean those words as a compliment.
Notes: saffron, carnation, chocolate, tobacco, leather, labdanum, sandalwood, cedar, incense, tonka, vanilla
There’s a famous delicatessen in Milan by the name of Peck. Established in 1883, it’s a Mecca for food enthusiasts, its shelves stocked with the finest cured meats, cheeses, wines, and truffles of Italy. When I lived nearby, I would often take the train down to Milan at the weekend, and walk through the store, drinking in the unami-rich air. I remember in particular huge glass jars of mostarda – neon-colored orbs of fruit preserved in a clear mustard seed pickling juice. When the afternoon light caught them at the right angle, they glowed like the gaudiest of paste jewelry: emerald, yellow, and orange.
The guys behind the counter would goad me into taking a little with my prosciutto and salami snack, and they’d laugh as I gingerly nibbled at the edges, the virgin blandness of an Irish diet having ill-equipped me to deal with the gush of hot, sour, sweet, and savory flavors on my tongue. When I first tried Arabie by Serge Lutens, its dried fruits over a sour asafetida base reminded me immediately of my trips to Peck. But although the association charmed me, Arabie proved too syrup-saturated for regular wear, so I passed it by.
I’ll admit that when I read the notes for Zoologist Camel, I thought we were looking at a re-tread of Arabie. But while the dried fruits and dates in the topnotes give a rush of sweetness, Camel is far more sour and savory than it is sweet, and thus reminds me more authentically of Peck and its mostarda than does Arabie.
I think that Victor Wong, as a creative director, is not afraid of a little earthy sourness in the perfumes he commissions. In a sea of sweet niche releases designed to appeal to a mass sweet tooth, he doesn’t mind going sugar-free every now and then. And I like that about him.
Perhaps his bravery with salty-savory flavors comes from an inherent love of unami or the sweet-salty-sour balance in Chinese culinary tradition. I will always remember Victor’s review of M/ Mink for his blog, Sillyage, where he discusses the link between M/Mink’s bleachy opening notes and the smell of Chinese calligraphy ink and dried shellfish. It was the first review of M/Mink that ever made sense to me, because he was able to place it in the context of non-traditionally perfumey things like salt, iodine, and fish. Through his words, I came to understand and finally love that perfume.
Camel has a streak of kimchi running through the dried fruit, amber, and orange blossom, which stops the perfume from tipping into a syrupy cliché of Arabian perfumery. Forget the ad copy about deserts and camels. There is a brief hit of booze, dried fruit, and rose up front, but the frankincense here is limey and tart, and there’s a layer of sealing wax over everything to mute the fervent glow of the fruit. It is rich, but astringent, like a vin jaune from the Alps.
The sourness is given an extra boost in its rather classically French (or so it seems to me) heart of civety jasmine over a pillow of powdery musks. The jasmine is greenish and as fizzy as a vitamin tablet dropped into a glass of water, later developing the leathery profile of sambac jasmine. There is something here that resembles the moist skin under a wristwatch after a long day in the sun. The griminess of the jasmine stands shoulder to shoulder with its gritty, soapy cleanliness, giving the perfume an almost aldehydic buzz.
This tart, soapy, tightly-woven stage of Camel makes me think that Malle’s Superstitious (2016) must indeed have been quite influential on the perfumery scene. There are clear parallels between the Malle and Camel, especially in the acidulated jasmine, the slight raunchiness (without warmth), and its general angularity. Jardin d’Ombre by Ormonde Jayne, which came out in October 2016, the same month as Superstitious, also strikes me as a variation on the theme. In all three perfumes, one might read the notes and think “warmth” or “sweetness”, but the actual scent in each case is of the opposite of lush: astringent, cool-blooded, and definitely more French than oriental in tone.
I admire Superstitious greatly but prefer to gaze upon it from a distance, like watching Joan Crawford rehearse from the safety of a locked wardrobe. Camel, with its pert charm, has fewer pretensions to greatness and is therefore much more approachable. Despite the orientalism of its composition and ad copy, Camel avoids every cliché inherent to the genre, particularly the cheap rosy feel of most modern oriental releases. Its soapy (but dirty) jasmine, musk, and civet combo imbues what might otherwise have been a heavy “souk” amber with weightlessness, as well as a certain French je ne sais quoi.
As long as you’re ok with a little salty-sour funk, Camel might be the modern twist on an oriental you’re missing in your collection. Camel is predominantly French in character, but there is perhaps also something a little Chinese or even Peck-ian in its balance between sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and unami.
Notes: dried fruits, frankincense, palm date, rose, amber, cedar, cinnamon, incense, jasmine, myrrh, orange blossom, civet, musk, sandalwood, oud, tonka, vanilla, vetiver
Maison Francis Kurkdijan’s Grand Soir depresses the hell out of me. Not because it’s a bad perfume (it’s not), but because it’s a Golden Retriever of a perfume and I was hoping for another one of Kurkdijan’s Rhodesian Ridgebacks like Eau Noire or Absolue Pour Le Soir.
I’m a fan of Francis Kurkdijan’s work, and even though I didn’t get along with one of his recent releases, Baccarat Rouge 540, I think he has one of the best batting averages in the business. And I will be forever grateful to him for making Absolue Pour Le Soir, Cologne Pour Le Soir, and recently, Ciel de Gum. His oud series (Oud, Oud Cashmere Mood, Oud Velvet Mood, Oud Satin Mood, and Oud Silk Mood) still stands out as daring and interesting, even in a field as crowded as the Westernized oud one.
But the man has to sell perfume. So every now and then he puts out a fragrance that smells like an upgrade on one of those Clean fragrances, or a plush, ambery people-pleaser (such as Ciel de Gum, which I love despite it not being ground-shakingly original). People love and people buy.
And everyone seems to really love Grand Soir. It’s the new golden retriever on the scene. People I know who don’t pay retail for anything have paid retail for this. The hills are alive with the magic sound of wallets clicking open. And when that happens, I sit up and pay attention. Because in this business, people often praise fragrances to high heaven but don’t actually lay down real money for it.
I get it. Perfume is expensive. And there is so much of it – 2,000 new releases in 2016 alone. So it makes sense to look closely at what people are actually buying, because that means much more than a glowing review. For that reason, I always check in on those “Today I Bought” threads on Basenotes, and often plan my sampling expeditions around what I see there.
Absolue Pour Le Soir is one of my favorite fragrances of all time, and I don’t find it challenging, but my tastes are lazy and mainstream enough that I was half-seduced by the thought of a more easier-going version of it. Even though a little voice in the back of my head kept whispering “But…..you know, Cologne Pour Le Soir.” Yes, voice, yes, I know.
So let me be clear. I don’t dislike Grand Soir because it’s not Absolue Pour Le Soir or Cologne Pour Le Soir. I dislike it because not only is it not daring or original along the lines of those perfumes, but it’s not even as pleasant-smelling or cushy as something like Ciel de Gum. It’s just that it doesn’t smell great. To my nose, it’s yet amber stuffed with potent woody-ambers like Norlimbanol or Timbersilk. And I expect better – far better – from a house such as Maison Francis Kurkdijan.
The rough synth edge on Grand Soir is unpleasant and harsh/burnt to my nose, pulling it surprisingly far away from the plush, velvety “night in Paris” effect that MFK was going for. Admittedly, I may be more sensitive to the presence of synthy woody ambers than most people. But, honestly, it ruins the experience for me entirely.
Apart from the disappointingly, soullessly chemical side taste to Grand Soir, there is a fundamental lack of balance here. Playing to the trend for modern fougeres, there is a bright, resinous lavender in the topnotes that feels natural and refreshingly unsweetened, but once the aromatics melt away, there is nothing left for the nose to play with beyond a waxy, honeyed amber powered with the burnt, chemical smokiness of that woody amber. There’s no counterpointing.
Both Absolute Pour Le Soir and Cologne Pour Le Soir have effective counterparts to the sweetness of the honey and amber; APLS has an almost bitter, smoky depth to it thanks to the incense, and CPLS has a touch of rosy sourness. Grand Soir has only the short-lived aromatic of the lavender, and that synthy woody-amber thing going on; without any other contrasting notes, it develops into a rather flat play-dough amber. Tonka, benzoin, and vanilla add body and sweetness, but with three materials that smell largely like, well, vanilla, there is no counterpointing ballast with which to balance the fragrance.
Ultimately, Grand Soir is as painful for me to wear as Serge Lutens’ L’Orpheline and Amouage’s Opus VI, both of which come off as bare-boned chemical skeletons draped in something smoky and something unctuously sweet.
Grand Soir is quite straight-forwardly commercial in intent. It makes a play for the same synthy radiance and power-boosted projection that I smell in a hundred other modern ambers, and the same dopey amber-tonka-vanilla base that offends nobody except me in its very featurelessness. The audacity of taupe. I find it depressing that it’s stuff like this that everyone opens their wallets for and not the daring stuff like Absolue Pour Le Soir and Cologne Pour Le Soir, both of which are being phased out of distribution outlets and confined to the Paris store because nobody bloody bought them.
Francis Kurkdijan has gone on record to say that despite all the critical acclaim that Absolue Pour Le Soir gathered, he only sold a couple bottles of it worldwide last year. Remember Eau Noire? Same thing. We all loved it – apparently nobody bought it. Perfume houses don’t discontinue brilliant, ballsy perfumes because they are mean bastards and they hate us. They pull products when they don’t sell. As perfume lovers, we just have to put our money where our mouth is, or the glorious perfumes disappear and perfumers make pedestrian perfumes that please a majority and sell to a majority.
I don’t blame Francis Kurkdijan for producing a Golden Retriever a la Grand Soir. I blame me and people like me for not buying all the gnarly Rhodesian Ridgebacks he was putting out before.
Maison Francis Kurkdijan Ciel de Gum is, like Baccarat Rouge 540, a perfume that used to have the prestige of exclusivity or scarcity attached to it. In the case of Baccarat Rouge 540, it had been housed in a fancy bottle that nobody could afford and subsequently nobody smelled. Ciel de Gum, on the other hand, was a Maison Francis Kurkdijan exclusive for the Moscow department store, G.U.M. Over the course of the last year, the decision was made to bring both of these limited-distribution releases into wider distribution.
I wonder sometimes if these “exclusivity” decisions actually pay off – do enough people smell them, buy them, wear them to make them commercially viable?
Francis Kurkdijan is, of course, in the enviable position of being able to decide to change the distribution strategy from exclusivity to mass market, because not only did he compose Ciel de Gum but he also owns all the rights to it as it is produced under his house. Few other perfumers get a say in how exclusively or inclusively the perfumes they compose are marketed. And Francis Kurkdijan is commercially savvy – he has to be, as he is financially responsible for the success or otherwise of a Maison Francis Kurkdijan perfume. So I’m guessing that such decisions are purely commercial in basis. But part of me would like to think that, as a perfumer, he is proud of Ciel de Gum and just wants more people to be able to smell it.
Well I, for one, am grateful to have been able to smell it. The (heinously expensive) decant that I bought yielded exactly three sprays before it dried up, being made of (heinously cheap) plastic. But it’s enough to tell that I’d crawl over hot coals to get some more.
Ciel de Gum is a very smooth floral oriental revolving around a civet-soaked, ambery vanilla that smells about 70% the way towards Jicky, with the remaining 30% tipping its hat towards the self-consciously rich leathery indolic floral of Oud Osmanthus. It’s nothing too challenging or artistically “out there” but it has a pleasantly fat, nostalgic feel to it that renders it instantly legible to fans of big, civety, plush florientals. Didn’t Luca Turin refer to Shalimar in terms of red velvet and the lights of the Eiffel Tower? Well, Ciel de Gum is plenty red velvet and Eiffel Tower.
A smooth, rich mass of ambery vanilla dosed heavily with cinnamon and civet lies at the heart of Ciel de Gum. A thread of indolic, naughty jasmine floats up through the scent but does not define it – even Samsara has more of a jasmine presence than this. It is as if the darker, dirtier facets of jasmine have been plucked out especially for Ciel de Gum – a light seasoning of jasmine over a custard, not a flavoring.
The floral-civet mix settles slowly over a bed of smooth, ambery resins and vanilla, mixing with pepper and cinnamon to create a slight Musc Ravageur vibe. There is a golden, fuzzy aura to this fragrance – very heavy, but smooth, opulent, and gilded like the light from a Tiffany lamp in a dark study. Surely something to look forward to at the end of a long hard day.
If you, like me, have a weakness for slightly dirty, ambery floral orientals with a lit-from-within, yolk-yellow luminosity, then buy with confidence. Ciel de Gum rides proudly in the same car as Jicky, Shalimar, Jasmin de Nuit, Oud Osmanthus, and Musc Ravageur. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but for me personally, it doesn’t have to – it’s already pushing all of the right “Claire” buttons. Needless to say, it has jumped to the top of my wish list, and in terms of the Francis Kurkdijan stable, I think it is up with his personal best, i.e., Absolue Pour Le Soir, Oud, Cologne Pour Le Soir.
A few days ago, I received a mysterious package in the post which continued four largish samples of what even I recognized as rare Creeds – Cuir de Russie, Angelique Encens, Bayrhum Vetiver, and Verveine Narcisse. Spotting the name of the sender, I realized what must have happened – a friend who was kind enough to send me some samples of rare Ensar Oud oils had obviously sent my ouds off to someone else, and I had received instead these Creeds. Somewhere, right now, in Northern Europe, some poor guy is peering at three tiny vials of a brown sticky substance and wondering if the Creeds are so old that they’ve dried up (possible).
Don’t worry, I told my panicked friend, I will send these samples off to yer man. It will be like one of those hostage situations: I release the Creeds if he releases the ouds, etc. I won’t even spray them, I said, obviously lying through my teeth.
I don’t know if Creed Angelique Encens is really that special, but it is so exactly to my tastes that I can’t help but think of it as a masterpiece. Creamy woods, smoky vanilla, resins, smoke, brushed with tender florals and kissed into being by baby angels. Ok, I exaggerate. It’s perhaps not the Second Coming. But it’s pretty damn close to perfection to my mind.
I’m not terribly into straight-up, liturgical incenses like Cardinal, LAVS, or Avignon. I find them initially compelling, but quickly too literal for my liking. My time at Mass was spent daydreaming of it ending, so I am not in any particular hurry to hurry back there in my olfactory memory. Of course, paradoxically, like most everyone else, I find the smell of frankincense and myrrh burning on a censer to be a wonderful smell – raw and primal; spiritually-uplifting even. I just don’t want to wear High Mass on my skin.
The three types of incense that I do like better in perfumery are (a) the thick, dark resin bombs like Sahara Noir and Balsamo della Mecca that evoke something ancient and primal, but not exactly churchy, (b) florals with incense that read as sultry but not High Mass-like, such as Exultat, Sacrebleue Intense, and Chanel No. 22, and, lastly, (c) ambery woody scents with a light touch of incense that are the equivalent of a comfort blanket.
Angelique Encens falls squarely into this third category. When I first put it on – not that I tested this more than five times, by the way, seven at the very most – I get a very clear image in my head of sparkling amber crystals forming on my skin, like salt on bare shoulders after a long day at the beach. The angelica lends the amber crystals a unique herbal, green-stalk-like tone. I am reminded slightly of Iris Oriental, if only for this brief impression of amber crystals forming on the skin, which is something I clearly visualize when wearing the Parfumerie Generale scent too.
The salty brightness and herbalcy of the opening dissipates rather quickly, clearing the way for a woody, creamy amber with hints of powdery incense. This begins to swell and bloom on the skin, growing fuller with every minute instead of thinning out, as one might reasonably expect. In a way, Angelique Encens is constructed in a manner that is completely opposite to most modern scents, which create shock and awe with their massive saturation of aromas in the first few minutes, only to collapse into a lethargic, pale base one hour in. Angelique Encens, on the other hand, grows into its beauty. It fluffs out, like an angora sweater laid to dry in front of an open fire.
No, unlike most modern fragrances, the start really is just the amouse bouche for the most amazing dinner that features no actual dinner per se but the most sensational dessert stretched out over ten courses. What Creed pulled off here was to turn crème brulee into a fragrance, infuse it with smoke, and sprinkle it with the same blue-purple flowers that make the dry downs of L’Heure Bleue, Shem El Nessim, and Farnesiana linger so long in the mind’s eye – heliotrope, violets, a touch of iris perhaps. It is not technically a floriental, though – it has the same elegant woody, ambery feel of Bois d’Armenie and Ambre 114. An incense floriental woody, maybe?
It’s the drydown of my dreams, and one they so rarely make these days. Achieved through what means, I cannot say exactly, but there is surely a very good vanilla absolute here, one that leans more towards smoke than to dessert, ambergris, flowers, and the type of creamy sandalwood you thought was already all bought up by Chanel for Bois des Iles. I also detect – surely – a fat cushion of benzoin further fluffing out the amber, vanilla, and creamy sandalwood.
Nothing too unusual, you’d think, nothing to see here, let’s move along, alright? Except it turns out to have the same full-bodied, voluptuous, soul-stirring beauty as vintage Shalimar or a less rosy Bois des Iles. So here I am, powerless to heed its siren call.
You’d think I’d have learned by now, but no. As it happens, I would be perfectly content to exclusively wear – for the rest of my life – fragrances that are just an inch to the left of Shalimar, one shade darker or lighter than L’Heure Bleue, a fragment of Bois des Iles. My tastes are Catholic, but not Catholic enough.
Angelique Encens is soul food to me. But lusting after it is like going back to the buffet knowing that I’m too stuffed to eat another bite. Technically, I don’t need it. I know it’s going to make me fat. But I sure do want it.
Do you ever give perfumes a last ditch chance after dismissing them one or maybe two times before? I am drawn to certain perfumes, over and over again, not because I love them but because everybody else loves them and so I find myself second guessing my own judgment.
After all, there are plenty of perfumes that I’ve dismissed too easily to then turn around and love hard on them six or twelve months down the line, so it’s certainly not out of the question that it’s just me, and not the perfume.
But sometimes – just sometimes – it is the perfume.
I’ve owned Teo Cabanel Alahine three times. The first was a generous sample from a kind Basenoter. I remember liking it well enough, but being utterly puzzled as to the mass adoration it inspired out there in the stinkoverse. I passed the sample on. But when Teo Cabanel was having a change-of-bottle sale, I began to sweat it, wondering if I’d been too hasty to judge Alahine, and thus, doubting myself, I bought a much-reduced bottle.
Opening the bottle and spraying liberally, I once again thought: What is the big fuss about?
I just didn’t get it.
To be fair, I loved the huge, beautifully baroque-scaled opening. Still do. For the glorious thirty to fifty minutes that Alahine blooms on my skin, I swear to forsake all other ambers and pledge my undying love to this one. It reminds me a bit of the big diva perfumes of the eighties, like Joop – the kind of stuff you wear to knock out the competition on the dance floor. Gorgeous chewy labdanum and powdery sweet benzoin heaped high and covered with syrupy, fleshy indolic flowers like jasmine and orange flower, big buttery yellow ylang, supported by whiff of dirty patch and musk…..but then, POOF! Gone.
Yep, within the space of barely an hour, Alahine completely falls off the ledge. It is a bit shocking, to be honest. The dry down goes on for a bit, in that traditional, slightly boring way most ambers do, along the benzoin-labdanum axis. But all the action has already happened – look behind you and you might catch a glimpse of it in the rear-view mirror. Wearing Alahine is a bit like having the sexiest, most drop dead gorgeous man sit next to you at a bar and then discovering that he has no conversation.
I sold my bottle for a song. But someone on the Facebook forum where I sold it said something that I never forgot. He said, “You’ll regret selling Alahine. It’s one of the most beautiful perfumes ever made.” And thus started the second, even longer cycle of regret over Alahine. The minute I posted the parcel off at the post office I began to long to have it back in my possession.
And now it is. A dear friend and I agreed to a swap a few days ago – I got her small bottle of Alahine (she has a huge back-up bottle) and I sent her an equivalent amount of Coromandel. So, now, almost 18 months on from having sold my bottle, what do I think of Alahine?
Still very pretty, still woefully weak, etc. I don’t care about the longevity issues anymore, to be honest. My friend and I discussed this, and we agreed that we both have so much perfume now that hourly reapplications are the way to go with Alahine.
But now I think I was right in my initial judgment. I find Alahine to be a little bit old-fashioned. Not retro, just old-fashioned. And while it’s very nice, it’s hardly the second coming of Christ that some reviews make it out to be. I also still think it smells a little like Joop.
Not a big disaster – I’ll sell or swap this bottle of Alahine. But I won’t be longing for it ever again. But if you ever see me wondering out loud if I’ve made a mistake, feel free to slap me.
I like Annick Goutal Ambre Fetiche, but I have to admit that the opening smells more like a byproduct of the petroleum industry than a perfume. Something plasticky and greasy in the top notes suggests Vaseline to me, or perhaps pleather. I don’t find this unpleasant, merely a little unsettling, especially when mixed with the sickly, biscuity undertone of the amber underneath.
The mental image: a prostitute at the Bunny Ranch, Nevada, at 2:30 in the afternoon, a big dollop of lubricant making a snail’s trail down the inside of her left thigh while a man in Stetsons huffs and puffs on top of her. The man’s breath smells like biscuit crumbs – he hasn’t washed his teeth. Bored, she turns her head to admire her new white pleather knee-highs, up around her ears now and close enough for inspection. Squeak-squeak goes the pleather with every thrust.
Biscuits, syrup, Vaseline, pleather. Stale cigarette smoke mingling with the powerfully sweet Victoria’s Secret Amber Romance body lotion she applied that morning.
The texture of the perfume is both dry-harsh and syrupy-sweet, resulting in an interesting pulling apart motion in the fabric, like honey rubbed against the grain of a plank of wood. The syrupy white amber is thickly poured, but clashes against the parched powder of benzoin. The resin sticks in my craw and the syrup cloys. It’s too intense, this feeling. The only other perfume that mimics this effect is Byredo’s 1996.
The discordant harmony of the birch tar, the amber, and the iris produces something of a similar push-pull feeling within me: I like it, and then I like it not. Each time I wear this fragrance, it’s like plucking out petals and never knowing whether you’re going to end up. Sometimes, I find the thought of the ride quite exciting. Sometimes, the thought of it exhausts me. Either way, like the Bunny Girl’s client, it always lasts way longer than I want it to.
Hiram Green Voyage has an opening that is both strange and familiar to me. It features a sour (but also candied) citrus note dusted so thickly with the powder of a saffron-like spice that it doesn’t register as fresh or sharp the way hesperidic notes normally do. The effect is of a golden sun shining through a dust cloud of vanilla and spice, with something bright lurking underneath.
Sometimes I spray this on and I get a hint of the tannic peach skin, moss, and spices from Shangri La, and it’s like unwrapping a tiny sliver of chypre hidden in the folds of a dusty, oriental brocade. Sometimes I get no fruit, but a rubbery suede. It is murky and intimate, like the smell of a moist wrist directly under a rubber watch.
Very beautiful and very familiar. Where do I know this scent from?
Immediately, I race off through the library of smells in my brain to see if I can place it, but it remains frustratingly out of reach. I don’t think it is a perfume that I’m remembering so much as a chord in a larger orchestra of smell. Or maybe it’s the whole orchestra of a smell funneled through one chord, I don’t know.
The best I can do is say that the opening has an interesting dissonance to it that reminds of the older Guerlains – Jicky perhaps most of all, with its stomach-churning clash of cymbals between the fresh, clean lavender and the rich, civet-soaked vanilla crème. But there is also the dark rye bourbon bitterness of Mitsouko’s cooked peach skin. Voyage is much simpler and more direct than these perfumes, of course, but it shares with them the impression of a ribbon of bright gold slicing through plush velvet darkness.
The dry down only confirms the familiarity (and the appeal) of this style of retro perfumery – it is a warm, luscious vanilla-amber, heavily laced with what seems to me to be a heavy dose of heliotrope and perhaps orange blossom, although these notes are not listed. It has something of the spicy, floral vanilla feel of L’Heure Bleue, albeit less pastry-like in tone and more tending towards the more resinous, cinnamon-inflected Tolu or Peru balsams. I have to admit that I do not pick up on much of the patchouli – to my nose, if it’s there, then it is only there to add shade and earth to the vanillic dry down.
In a way, Voyage reminds me of Ciel de Gum, by Maison Francis Kurkdijan, not for any similarity in the way they smell necessarily, but for the retro manner in which they present the vanilla note – not clean or sweet, but fudgy with spice, civet and indolic flowers. There is a close, intimate feel to vanillas like this that recall human skin to skin contact. Voyage, Ciel de Gum, Opus 1144 (UNUM), and even Musc Ravaguer all hark back to that Guerlain-like clash between a bright, aromatic side (lavender, bergamot, cloves, cinnamon) and a dark, velvety side ( vanilla, musks, indolic flowers, and civet).
It’s this clash what makes Jicky, L’Heure Bleue, and Shalimar such masterpieces even today – at first so repellent and odd that wonder what kind of drugs the perfumer was taking, and then everything suddenly “works” in the perfume and you think it’s great – addicting almost. Hiram Green’s Voyage has that clash down nicely, and this is why it works. I love this perfume because it gives me a taste of what I love about the classics but in a stripped-down, more legible format that doesn’t make me feel as if I am wearing an entire history of grand perfume on my back. Which is sometimes what I want.
Ah, Guerlain Shalimar, the ur-Oriental. Sitting down to write a review of Shalimar kind of feels like looking up at the top of Mount Everest and wondering how the hell even to begin the ascent. It seems to cover (in one single bottle) a lot of the themes and notes people go looking for in separate perfumes – you want vanilla, it’s the textbook example, you want smoke and incense, well you got that too, you want amber, it is the mother of all modern ambers, you want animalics and leather, ditto. If you also happen to be the type of person who is interested in freaky notes, like baby diaper, burning tires, tar, and slightly rancid butter, then, why yes, Shalimar also has you covered.
It’s not an easy perfume to love right off the bat. Don’t get me wrong, Shalimar is easy to love, but the actual falling in love bit is not immediate. It took me ten days of wearing it before I could even tolerate it, let alone love it, but I got there and in end, it clicked for me, and that was it. Pure love. The everlasting kind. Whenever I see someone saying, oh I just don’t get Shalimar, or oh Shalimar hates my skin, you know what I am thinking? You’re just not trying hard enough. Put your back into it. If you can’t commit a week or ten days out of your life to understanding Shalimar, then not only are you cheating yourself out of experiencing one of the best perfumes ever made, you are also missing the opportunity to “get” most orientals that came after Shalimar.
For, once you unlock Shalimar, you start to see that Serge Lutens’ Ambre Sultan is just a snapshot of a portion of Shalimar (principally the amber and herbes de provence) blown up 150% and turned sideways. Etro’s Shaal Nur is an abbreviated essay on the incense and opoponax in Shalimar. Mono di Orio’s excellent Vanille is a modern take on the woodsy vanilla of Shalimar. You can spot echoes of Shalimar in Chypre Palatin (vanilla and animalics), Fate Woman (bergamot and powder) and Bulgari Black (vanilla, rubber, smoke). Whether perfumers are aware of it or not, most of today’s grand orientals refer at least in part back to the ur-Mother Oriental herself.
Forgive my wittering on. For all of that, Shalimar smells absolutely wonderful, grand, lush, smoky, sexy, comforting, and warm. The opening, as I’ve mentioned, is jarring to the nth degree, especially if you’re not used to it. I don’t know whether it’s the particularly stinky grade of Bergamot that Guerlain use, or the way it clashes with the vanilla, but the top notes smell curdled and rancid, like when you pour lemonade into cream. The vanilla itself smells tarry and burned, like rubber tires piled high and set on fire. Somehow, somewhere underneath all of that, there appears a slightly horrifying note of soiled diapers, or at least baby powder that has been caked into the creases of a baby’s bottom. It smells sort of unclean, and is pungent enough to singe your nose hairs off.
Here’s the odd thing – after you get used to Shalimar, you start to actively crave the weird opening. When you begin to go “Mmmmmmm” rather than holding your breath, this is a sign that you’ve crossed the line. Welcome! It’s like a Shibboleth for hard-core fans of Shalimar – we’re all over here at the other side of the line, and everyone else is pressing their noses to the glass, shaking their heads and saying, “I think you have Stockholm Syndrome”
After the “horrific” first half hour (for which you may want to refrain from sniffing your wrists if you are smelling it for the first time), it is an easy ride from there on in. Sweet, smoky vanilla poured on top of a long, golden, powdery amber, with accents of leather, smoking resins, and animalic musks. It has this neat trick of smelling comforting/familiar and yet ultra-sexual at the same time. It lasts all day and, in my humble opinion, is just fantastic in whatever concentration and vintage you wear. Yes, the vintage parfum is the deepest and smokiest, but we can’t always be wearing that (for reasons of finances as well as time and place), so it’s good to know that Shalimar is still recognizably the same Shalimar in the weakest EDC as it is in the parfum – thinner, yes, but still, you wouldn’t mistake her for anybody else. For me, it is true love, and a top five perfume forever. It is like my second skin.