Kintsugi by Masque Milano smells the way those mysterious salted fruits and chutneys in an Asian restaurant taste – perfumey, bitter, and dark in a way that sucks all the moisture out of your mouth while simultaneously flicking your salivary glands into action. Like in Mitsouko (Guerlain) and Iris 39 (Le Labo), two perfumes that this reminds me of in idea if not execution, the secret to Kintsugi’s successful navigation of that narrow line between repulsion and attraction lies in its lack of legibility.
Kintsugi has been billed as a modern chypre, and refreshingly, that is exactly what it is. Chypres are like a good Chinese meal, balancing a complex range of sweet, sour, bitter, and salty flavors against each other to produce a very satisfying (but completely abstract) sense of completeness. The result is strange and exotic, imprinting on the imagination in a way soliflores and straight-up ambers cannot. This is all present and correct in Kintsugi, so no need to quibble about which material has been chosen to stand in for the moss. The effect is there.
As all good chypres do, Kintsugi revolves around a complex set of juxtapositions. It is cigarette-ashy but also bread-doughy, syrup-sweet but also vermouth-dry, and as vegetal as parsnips but also as perfumey as your mother’s best going-out perfume. Adding to the drama is a shiny, neon-lit fruit note flashing against the desiccated patchouli hulking malevolently in the background.
But like with many Le Labos, and especially Iris 39, what really sets this thing on fire is the pairing of things that smell natural – polished woods, incense, earth, rose petal potpourri – with things that smell industrial, like latex paint, printer chemicals, calligraphy ink, and linseed oil.
Kintsugi is the perfume equivalent of those duochrome eyeshadows that appear bottle green straight on but peacock blue when you turn your head. Sometimes it exactly smells like the grand, tassels-bedecked kind of thing you imagine Oscar Wilde drenching his velvet curtains with, and sometimes like your old school stationary cupboard with a bunch of kids getting high on solvents.
It dries down quickly to the pungent but virile smell of the horse ring, the air thick with saddle leather, sawdust, and the warm muskiness specific to a freshly-exercised horse. I suppose you could also call it cedar but that doesn’t capture even two percent of the total mood that Kintsugi has going on here.
Kintsugi is a love-hate kind of thing, for sure. I hated it when I first smelled it, and then I loved it. And I might hate it the next time I smell it, who knows? People used to the taste of fermented things – natto, kimchi, tea – will cleave as easily to this perfume as they might to oud oil or osmanthus absolute, sharing with this perfume as they do that unique dichotomy of (leathery) dryness and (fruity-cheesey) funkiness.
Based on the resounding silence that greeted this perfume when it launched in 2019, it is fair to say that Kintsugi’s appeal is not immediate. And I get it. Forget about Kintsugi being people-pleasing – it is barely even me-pleasing. But for all its oddness, I find Kintsugi exciting, like a strange flavor of wine or cough syrup or gummy bear that only exists in Japan, and therefore utterly foreign to me.
Source of sample: Purchased from Swedish retailer, Fragrance & Art, in November 2019. A friend of mine kindly sent me another sample of it a couple of days ago, jogging my memory and prompting this review.
Ormonde Jayne set out its mission and values in its original core collection, and to this day, it remains the standard bearer for the brand. I’ve written about some of the perfumes in the Ormonde Jayne core collection before, but since I’ve been reevaluating much of my collection recently, I thought it might be useful to update or expand upon my thoughts.
In general, my unscientific belief that Ormonde Jayne is the English Chanel bears out. This is solidly-built, almost classical perfumery with a modern elegance derived from strong artistic direction and an admirably no-nonsense approach to the valuable role synthetics play in elevating naturals.
One thing I have noticed this time around is that the literal names – Champaca, Ta’if, Frangipani, and so on – are a Le Labo-ish piece of misdirection, suggestive of a soliflore-ism that simply isn’t there. Words have power, so there will always be those disappointed if the titular ingredient isn’t headlining the whole show. But on the flip side, newcomers to the brand who are able to park their expectations at the door may find their minds blown by the beauty arrived at via more circuitous routes.
Champaca is a scent whose appeal
eludes many. But you know what? Half the time it eludes me too. On its bad
days, many of the slurs thrown its way worm their way into my head and nag
persistently at me with the worry that they might be true – that Champaca is nothing
special, that it’s too champaca or not champaca enough, that it’s
nondescript, that it’s a dowdy green floral that Calvin Klein’s Truth
did better and cheaper. Then there’s its musky loudness, which I always forget
until I get called out on it by a colleague who is never backward about coming
forward on the subject of my perfume.
But on good days, Champaca is the
gently starched air from a bowl of Chinese greens and the damp, permeating
nuttiness of brown basmati rice. It makes me think of stepping in from a cold,
rainy afternoon in Cork or Limerick into the wood-lined hush of a traditional
Japanese restaurant, slightly steamy from condensation and humming with low
I don’t understand the accusations of tropical yellow flowers or heady ambers in relation to Champaca. It is not even a particularly floral experience. To me, Champaca smells more like the fresh green peel of a Granny Smith apple rinsed with rainwater than a flower. Yes, technically, this all might be unexciting. The scent of an upscale Japanese onsen or spa is never really going to raise the barometer on anyone’s passion. But when I am feeling delicate, or in need of a friendly hand at the small of my back, then Champaca, with its gossamer-light bloom of starchy musks, rice steam, apple peel, watery bamboo, maybe mint, and the environmental exhalations of clean, blond wood, is what I find myself reaching for.
I originally invested in Orris
Noir as a poor man’s substitute for the far more expensive Tsarina, having
identified a creamy-milky, anisic iris as the underpinning to both. Now, after
taking the time to study both at leisure, I can say that while Tsarina is by
far the creamiest, more luxurious ‘white’ leather scent I have ever smelled, in
retrospect it doesn’t turn me on as much as Orris Noir, which, although less ‘beautiful’
than Tsarina, has more conversation.
Orris Noir has three or four
distinct layers. The first is a doughy iris as dense as under-proved bread
dough studded with dried fruit. A couple of years on, I now smell this as a
rosy iris bread that’s been soaked in sweet milk, like the egg-rich Easter crown
baked once a year in the Balkans. The second layer is an anisic myrrh with the
same crystallized texture as found in other myrrh scents such as Myrrhe Ardente,
albeit more golden and less overtly itchy-scratchy. The third layer is a minimally
smoky cloud of wood or incense that lifts the perfume and makes it radiant
(probably a combination of the Iso E Super and the Chinese cedar). Last but not
least, there’s a bright, fruity jasmine that fizzes as sweetly as a glass of
freshly-poured Coca Cola. Somehow, all of these elements hang together as
naturally and as lightly as a silk shawl.
Orris Noir is a fantastic advertisement for the Ormonde Jayne style of building a fragrance, in that it is composed of many different layers, all of them as light as air, but which when laid one on top of another become a dense, velvety mass. I love Orris Noir for what it is – a beguilingly soft spice oriental – rather than hate it for what it is not, i.e., noir or even orris. Indeed, if Ormonde Jayne had named it something else, Orris Noir might have gained the respect granted to other similarly soft, hazy resinous-floral orientals such as Bois d’Argent (Dior) or Jasmin de Nuit (The Different Company). This is one perfume in my collection that has improved greatly upon (re)acquaintance.
Frangipani Absolute is at least accurately
named, given that it smells more like the absolute than the living flower. The
absolute smells green and waxy, like a nubbin of beeswax rolled in matcha
powder; the living flower, which I had the opportunity of smelling for the
first time in Colombia last summer, smells a bit like jasmine but without the
indole and grape, and there is a buttery undertone that I associate with gardenia,
minus the heavy bleu cheese aspects.
Frangipani Absolute freshens the waxy-green heft of the absolute by filtering it through lime and linden blossom, creating the impression of hothoused tropical flowers drenched in ice water and the glass partitions thrown open to salty sea air. The brightness of this topnote is undercut later on by the lush creaminess of the living flower, embodied by an accord that smells like a dairy-heavy rice and coconut pudding made out of tuberose petals, with pools of yellow Irish butter rising to the surface. A subtly salty musk and clean cedar hum in the far background, mainly there for support in case the almost unrelenting brightness of the lime-drenched white flowers falters.
Cleverly, the perfumer has made the floral component very peachy, to mimic the peachy jasmine-like aura of the living flower. Frangipani is therefore blessed with a suede-skin note that smells charmingly like the back of a rubber watch on a sweaty child. The scent shifts between these three main accords – green-aqueous-fresh, peachy-rubber, and creamy-buttery-tuberose – without ever getting pulled too far down in one single direction. That’s some balancing act.
Frangipani Absolute is an undeniably
beautiful scent, and an interesting take on a flower that often plays second
fiddle to more powerful headliners such as gardenia or tuberose. My hesitation on
whether it stays in my collection or not stems from several different quarters.
First, the salty, quasi-aquatic
musk in the drydown reminds me very much of Lys Méditerranée (Malle), already a wardrobe staple
for me, which makes me wonder if it’s not duplicative to have two scents that represent
largely the same ‘feel’, i.e., heady white flowers drenched in dew and the
salty air rolling in off the ocean. The occasions when I feel the need for this
precise combination are few and far between, therefore surely it is redundant for
me to have two separate fragrances at the ready when this tight little niche
corner of my ‘need’ rears its head.
Second, Frangipani is so pretty
and well-presented that it makes me feel slightly uncouth in comparison.
Worse, the prettiness reminds me of the golden, solar fruity-floral ‘glazed
eyes’ affair that is J ’Adore (Dior), which is fine if you’re wearing
something you can pick up from any Sephora or Douglas, but not great if you’re
special ordering from a classy niche brand like Ormonde Jayne.
Third, the brightness of the lime-and-peach-hued white flowers feels a little too sharp and insistent at times, like when you neck that syrupy but metallic juice from a tin of canned tropical fruit. In other words, absolutely gorgeous at first but perhaps wearing a little on your nerves towards the last? Along the same lines of complaint (minor, but still), the vanilla tuberose pudding base flirts with heaviness; it clashes a little queasily with the citric acid of the lime, to the extent that it teeters on the precipice of a curdle.
Out of all the Ormonde Jayne scents I own, Frangipani Absolute is the one I agonize over the most. Do I need it? No. Does its classical (but slightly mainstream) beauty justify me keeping it? Maybe. But the fact that I swing between a yes and a no on this scent, personally, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t rank among the top tier of tropical floral perfumes I’ve had the pleasure of smelling.
Despite not being wowed at first
sniff, I have come around to the pleasures of Tolu. It has a bitter, spicy
broom note that slices through the golden, balsamic sweetness of amber to
create something that is both fresh and heavy, like a flourless chocolate torte
that dissolves into fennel dust on the tongue. The kind of thing that invites
you to take a second slice, even in summer. I can see this working as a sort of
upmarket Dune. In that sense, this is definitely a floral oriental rather than
a straight up ‘golden’ amber. It certainly doesn’t maintain a strict tolu
balsam fidelity. Rather, Tolu has that sophisticated French floral-sandy feel
to it that I associate not only with Dune (Dior) but also with 24,
Rue Faubourg (Hermes), albeit with the innovation of a sweetly resinous base
to tilt it ever so slightly in the direction of Morocco rather than Paris.
The more I wear Tolu, the more I appreciate its subtlety. I used to prefer the caramelized full frontal of one-the-nose resin bombs and ambers to the almost too quiet, too ‘mixed’ cloud of balsams, orange blossom, and musks represented by Tolu. But Tolu is, I realize, a mood. It is very perfumey meaning it’s been worked and reworked to the same point of abstraction as Coco (Chanel), Dune (Dior) or even Alahine (Teo Cabanel).
Tolu is the quintessential going out perfume for nights along the Riviera, where women and men are beautifully dressed and the warm air smells like a mixture of flowers, salty skin, and the balsamic twang of Mediterranean herbs and umbrella pines lining the promenade. It’s easy to argue that there’s nothing very unusual about Tolu, but what it does, it does extremely well. I will always have space in my wardrobe for this perfumey, French-smelling take on the warm, golden balsams I love rinsed out with flowers, salt, and herbs.
For a while, my interest in
Ormonde Jayne stopped with OJ Woman, a perfume I’d struggled with for years
before finally falling in love with it. That was, until one day a couple of
years ago, I fished around in my sample box looking for something crisp and
green to go well with a planned walk in a nearby castle grounds with my children
and stumbled upon Tiaré.
Its lack of anything truly tiaré-like or tropical puzzled me at first. But I remember marveling at the champagne-like quality of the lime and green notes fizzing gently around the oily but fresh white flower petals. The damp, mossy drydown proved to be a perfect reflection of the elegance of the castle lake and grounds. There is something pinned-up and Victorian in its mien – not entirely me, but rather someone I aspire to be. It was the first sample from the Ormonde Jayne sample set that I drained completely. Whereupon I forgot about it entirely.
Fast forward to Summer 2017, which is when, while sweating our way through the forests and fields of the Sologne and Loiret, I decided that, really, nothing was more French or more crisply elegant than Tiaré, and that I desperately needed a bottle of it. Tiaré would be, I’d decided, my entry point to a new life in France that, although it never actually materialized, was the Big Plan in our family at the time, to the point of flying the kids out to various French cities in an attempt to decide where we would settle.
The firm belief that a life in
France calls for a thoroughly ‘French’ perfume (as if my collection wasn’t
already 75% made up of so-called French perfume) is why I am now the proud
possessor of a totally unnecessary 120mls of Tiaré. (I am perennially guilty of
daydreaming my life forward and allowing my purchases to lead the way. In 2018,
I was so convinced that I was going to be hired by a British not-for-profit to
manage their programs in Myanmar that I got emotionally invested in Indochine
by Parfumerie Generale, a perfume based on Burmese thanaka wood. I didn’t get
the job, but you bet I bought a bottle of Indochine. I don’t even want to say
how many ‘Roman’ perfumes were necessary for me to settle into a new life in
Anyway, back to Ireland in these early, post-Coronavirus times and Tiaré, like Cristalle (Chanel), doesn’t really suit the damp, cool conditions. Yet I am loathe to get rid of Tiaré, because, God knows, I will probably need it for when we finally move to France. In which case, I will also need the quintessential cognac-colored leather shopper, very pointy ballet flats, a chic haircut, and a perfectly-cut navy blazer. So, I guess I’d better start shopping now….
Ormonde Jayne Woman
Woman occupies a place in my personal pantheon of greats, but the route to loving her has not been easy. In fact, I have struggled with this perfume on and off for years. I imagine that, for people like me, with biological sensitivities to certain materials, getting past Woman’s many thorns is like loving someone who is beautiful but difficult.
Initially, my nose was so sensitive to the combination of woody ambers, sticky pine, and Iso E Super that the only notes I could smell were acrid, burnt, metallic – like burnt fuses and the La Roche Posay medicated acne cream. These unfortunate associations, plus the physical sensation I had of an ice-cold shiv driving into the tender recesses of my brain, are what made me keep my sample of Woman at a safe distance from my nose, wrapped twice in cling film and double-bagged.
Every so often, over the years, I
would take out that sample of Woman and tentatively sniff. Now, here’s the
strangest thing. As my exposure to the violent woody ambers and brutal Iso E
Super used increasingly in niche increased, so too did my tolerance. I don’t
mean that I started to like them, but rather that their presence no longer
obscured large parts of a composition for me. This meant that perfumes such as Indochine
(Parfumerie Generale), Musc Nomade (Annick Goutal), and Ormonde Jayne Woman
were now ‘unlocked’ for me. I could smell all parts of these perfumes rather
Having said that, progress was gradual. For example, for about six months, although I could smell all parts of Woman, all depth perception dropped off after about an hour or two, leading me to believe (mistakenly) that the perfume had simply stopped in its tracks. I now believe that this was due to the type of woody ambers used, some of which have a curious side effect of making a scent seem to disappear and then come back, over and over again, throughout a day’s wear. Ambroxan can have this odd ‘receding and resurging’ effect too; I sense it most keenly in Amouage Jubilation XXV, which my husband says he wears for other people because he himself cannot smell it after an hour (to his family, it seems quite big and room-filling).
Anyway, the reason I’m waffling on about this odd facet of Woman is that reviews are the little markers we drop along our journey, in the hope that they serve as clues to fellow travelers years down the road, right? I remember smelling Indochine and doing a Google search for something along the lines of ‘Why does Indochine smell like an ice pick to my brain?’ and stumbling across Kafkaesque’s review, which was the first source of answers for me as to why some materials were physically obtrusive to my nose yet imperceptible to others. I felt seen. I hope that someone struggling with Ormonde Jayne Woman finds their way to this review and gets comfort from knowing that they’re not alone, and that there might be a rational explanation for not immediately jiving with one of the most renowned perfumes in modern niche.
There’s light at the end of the tunnel, folks, there really is. Now when I smell Ormonde Woman, I smell the whole forest, the sugared smoke of gingerbread crumbs thrown onto the fire, and the inky mass of woodland violets and hemlock rolled out underfoot, and Scarlett O’ Hara’s dark green velvet gown made out of curtains and fury.
At heart, Ormonde Woman is a nugget of amber surrounded by tall conifers and hemlock, but its mysterious appeal can’t be explained by its notes or even how we think they all hang together. Woman is one of those perfumes you submit to, body and soul, without much hope of ever picking it apart. It took me years to be able to smell all parts of it but now when I wear Ormonde Jayne Woman now, I smell it all, and what I smell makes me breathe deep and easy.
Osmanthus is not my favorite osmanthus-themed scent in the Ormonde Jayne stable (that would be Qi), but it is surely the prettiest. Osmanthus explores the softly soapy, ‘clean linen’ side of the bloom that marks it out more as vaguely cherry blossom than the pungent fruity apricot suede trope often plumbed in niche.
In fact, aside from a vaguely peachy or apricotty tinge in the topnotes, Osmanthus sidesteps its namesake ingredient and goes for pomelo peel and white petals plunged into ice water and polished to a high shine by radiant aquatic musks. It smells pleasantly cooling, like a tall glass of lemonade or the feel of fresh cotton on hot skin.
Think of it this way; if Qi is an apricot-colored suede pouch filled with green tea, then Osmanthus is a white broderie anglaise sundress and a pair of straw espadrilles strung over one perfectly tan shoulder.
All very nice but running a little too close to one of those Atelier Cologne citrus-and-cotton-musk scents for comfort. I always thought that Osmanthus would smell more ‘at home’ in the form of a body care product than a perfume, and it turns out I was right; the Osmanthus Hair Mist is lovely. Warmer and peachier than the perfume – to my nose at least – the pert, perfumey prettiness of Osmanthus makes more sense to me when spritzed through second day hair. It is still much girlier than I am, but at least in this form, it just creates the manifest lie impression that I am freshly bathed and impeccably groomed.
Ta’if is one of those fragrances
where I seem to be experiencing something completely different to everyone
else. People use the words ‘rich’, ‘dark’, and ‘exotic’ to describe it, which
suggests a texture as heavy as velvet – close to Lyric Woman (Amouage) or
Portrait of a Lady (Malle). But reality is miles removed. On my skin, Ta’if
reads as a sheer peppery mixed floral layered over a musky, dried-fruit base. Neither
the advertized dates nor Taifi rose show up for me, or at least not in any form
I recognize (when I see ‘Ta’if’ rose, I expect a pop of fiercely spicy, green lemon-and-lime
sharpness announcing a tannic rose).
In fact, I’d rank Ta’if alongside Rose Noir (Miller Harris) and Tobacco Rose (Papillon) as rose fragrances that bill themselves as one thing and then deliver another. Clearly, the sheer amount of admiration and positive reviews out there for Ta’if and Tobacco Rose demonstrates that it is possible not only to get over any cognitive dissonance related to their names, but to love them wholeheartedly for themselves.
On me, Ta’if is mostly a blowsy peach and orange blossom chiffonade, interspersed with brief flashes here and there of something that might be interpreted as a tart, green rose. The peachy-powdery feel of the fragrance makes me think of something functional I used to use when I was a teenager, like the Impulse O2 body spray. The dry down is a slightly powdery musk with a streak of dates running through it, which doesn’t tilt too literally in the direction of any one particular note. Rather, one is bathed in a fluffy miasma of musk, fruit, orange blossoms, and caramel that reminds me of some of the prettier ‘pink-smelling’ dry downs in designer perfumery, such as Coco Mademoiselle, or Elie Saab.
Source of samples: Based on a sample set generously gifted to me in 2015 of the niche perfumer store in Dublin, ParfuMarija, I subsequently bought bottles or partials of most of the above. The Osmanthus Hair Mist was kindly gifted to me by Ormonde Jayne PR a couple of weeks ago, along with a Petits Fours box of samples of four of the La Route de la Soie collection sent to me for review (review is upcoming). My opinions are firmly my own.
I don’t know how to say this without sounding condescending, but one sniff of Eve and Pandora, the new duo of perfumes from Diane St. Clair, is enough to tell that there has been an evolutionary leap somewhere between her first group of releases and this one (I haven’t smelled Casablanca, so perhaps this is the missing link).
Don’t get me wrong – I really liked the first Diane St. Clair releases. First Cut, Gardener’s Glove, and Frost were quiet études of a lifecycle as viewed through the eye of a woman intensely connected to it; each perfume a little door cracked open onto an internal dreamscape. I liked that you could tell that these were perfumes made from a woman’s perspective: there was a female sort of tentativeness or ambiguity that I don’t feel in the work of, say, a Josh Lobb or a Hans Hendley. Her first perfumes are little crawlspaces between absolutes, allowing you to breathe and just be.
But Eve and Pandora are perfumes in which you can instantly smell all of the rich, bosomy vintage perfumes that Diane St. Clair has smelled her way through in the meantime. Eve and Pandora are confident florals that have something to say and aren’t apologizing for taking up space. They both smell like flowers, clearly, but this time painted confidently in oil rather than politely in pastel.
Others better and more interested in backstory than I have explored who Pandora and Eve were, and the vein of rebellious curiosity that unites them; all I will say is that both perfumes do justice to the conflicted, imperfect condition that is womanhood. They are abstract and perfumey – a bit resistant to analysis – mixing the bitter with the sweet, and appealing to purely adult tastes. Like women (and bank vaults), Pandora and Eve take a single set of variables, shake them up, and arrive at very different results.
of the endless permutations that Eve could have settled on, we arrive at
innocence. Well, at first anyway. Powdery woodland flowers – violets, freesia,
and a fresh, crunchy green apple note that has the good manners to smell natural
for once, rather than the lurid Jolly Rancher version we usually get, or worse
the fake apple-cum-Ambroxan freshness of some Creed masculines. This is the
prim crispness of apple soap or apple shampoo, with a lemony lick of vetiver
for that freshly-mown grass thing that goes so well with apple.
Lilacs hide and then emerge – all sullen, thick-lipped sexuality, turgid and dormant, trapped inside a prim high-necked blouse, not fooling anyone. Does that description of lilacs surprise you? Are you violently disagreeing with me as you read? Talk to me when you’ve lived for years in a neighborhood so thick with lilac bushes that you feel ganged up on. Lilacs smell soapy and prim and Victorian in the singular, in isolation, but when roaming in packs of five or six, you notice that their scent has a tipping point, where it spills over from soap into this hugely ripe, fertile, polleny smell that occupies the air like a shape. Lilacs are the smell of something that pretends it is being restrained but in reality is already touching you inappropriately. And yet, and yet…that lemony vetiver keeps the outer garments smelling as a fresh as a daisy.
Eve is for lovers of Opardu, or better yet, Warszawa, both by Puredistance, by which I mean that it will appeal to people who appreciate a certain old-fashioned, Veronica Lake-style glamour in their floral perfumes – the scented equivalent of a high-necked white satin blouse hiding a ridiculously lush shelf of a bosom.
Pandora spins the dial on the same set of notes, but the safe opens with a satisfying click on a completely different cavity. Pandora is the Hussy – Joan Holloway to Eve’s Peggy Olsen. It opens with a perfumey blast of heavy, bittersweet gasoline and hairspray mixed with fruit – the gaseous and thick aroma of an apple perhaps, rotting slowly in an organic wrapper of green leaves and flowers. In the background, there is a civety floral musk flushing the air pockets of the scent.
This is – and bear with me here – a fruity, waxy chypre backwashed in a gauze of cigarette smoke. It smells a bit like Lucien Lelong’s Indiscret, a 1940’s femme fatale type floral that derived much of its character from a grey-green, grainy galbanum that cast a hazy fag ash aura over the whole shebang. Thanks to the passion of a close friend for Indiscret, I invested in a vintage bottle from eBay, and was left a little underwhelmed by the perfume apart from this one unique aspect – that weirdly attractive ‘turned perfume’ smell you get from old perfumes whose formerly green or fresh-smelling galbanum, or oakmoss, or God knows, coriander have slowly disintegrated over time until they’ve coagulated into this brown gunk that smells alternatively of coffee grounds, brandy, and hairspray, with a hint of stale Rive Gauche haunting the far corners.
I love this smell to the point of fetishism. I chase vintage perfumes now not really for a glimpse of how they once were, in their fully pristine, original beauty, but for the signs of this incipient decay, like a dog hunting for truffles. The combination in Pandora of this thick, gassy fruit and that ashy galbanum-vetiver is what I’m jonesing for, to be honest, and it might not even be the hook the perfumer intended to reel me in with. Whatever the intention, the top half of Pandora smells to me like the topnotes of a long-sealed-up vintage perfume, sludgy and indistinct with now banned damascones and nitro-musks, like a 1940’s Coco. I get a whiff of this with some of the DSH perfumes too, most notably Jitterbug. It effectively conjures up that fictional (fictional to me anyway) atmosphere of ladies, possibly your mother included, sweeping into the nursery with their long fur coats and Chanel lipstick and long cigarettes held preciously in long cigarette holders, wafting the mysterious musk of perfumery perfume (the ‘good stuff’ worn only on special occasions). The fact that Pandora has flashes of stale lipstick wax or cosmetic powder helps that illusion along even further.
But if I came for the perfumey decrepitude of Pandora’s first half, I stay for the wild vetiver finale. The vetiver here almost has a texture to it, like a cup of black coffee thick with spice and wood. Addictive, rich, and very moreish, this is the saturnine heft of European style gingerbread stuffed with enough black pepper to flavor a goulash but still perfumey enough that you’d know better than to put it anywhere near your mouth. Pandora remains determinedly abstract and fuzzy-bordered throughout, and you have to love that commitment.
Francesca kindly sent me a preview sample of The Lover’s Tale and as we were chatting about it over email, she mentioned that at Pitti fragrance fair, the perfume proved to be quite divisive; most of the (Russian) men from Fragrantica loved it while she could see that others were clearly struggling with it.
When I first tried Arquiste Ella, in a niche boutique in Bordeaux last autumn, I thought, well, at least I can put this one out of my mind. I had been interested in the 1970’s retro marketing drive behind it and its sexy-sleazy disco bomb reputation, but on the skin, it just felt unresolved and murky.
The word pulchritude jumps to mind while wearing Puredistance Warszawa. That’s the word that Akeelah stumbles over in her first training session with Dr. Larabee in the movie Akeelah and the Bee. Dr. Larabee tells her that it means beauty. But by the end of the movie, when Akeelah is given the word to spell as her final test in the National Spelling Bee, each letter in the word is spoken aloud in the voice of someone she loves – her mother, her best friend, her brother, and Dr. Larabee himself. And it’s then that we understand that “pulchritude” means not only beauty, but also pride, character, and an untouched quality very close to innocence.
DSH Parfums Le Smoking is, to my nose, a happy mix of the bitter, smoked-out leather of Cabochard (Grès) and the sweet hashish vibe of Coze (Parfumerie Generale), two perfumes so hard-wired into the scent memory portion of my brain that it’s difficult to judge Le Smoking on its own merits.
Maison Nicolas de Barry has been around since 2003, but has garnered relatively little praise or attention. I wonder why that is? I’ve enjoyed every single perfume I’ve tried from this brand, and find some of their natural perfumes to be stunning. In an era where natural and attar-themed perfumes for a Western audience is gaining traction (Sultan Pasha Attars, Areej Le Dore, Rising Phoenix Perfumery etc.), the perfumes of Maison Nicolas de Barry should be a slam dunk. And yet….crickets.
I don’t think that the price is the barrier. Their historical EDPs, while not cheap, are not terribly unreasonable at €149 for 100mls. The naturals and oud collection perfumes are indeed very expensive (between €600 and €1,140 for 150mls), but there are 7ml mini bottles to be purchased at a reasonable cost of between €29 and €52. I know plenty of perfumistas who wouldn’t mind paying that, especially those who care about high quality naturals, pure ouds, and sandalwood oil. The people who love Siberian Musk by Areej Le Dore, or Nan-Kun by Sultan Pasha, or Bushido attar by Rising Phoenix Perfumery, or the latest sandalwood oil by FeelOud do not hesitate to drop in excess of $500 on even a small quantity of these perfumes.
But scarcely anyone in the perfume blogosphere mentions Maison Nicolas de Barry. The few blog mentions or reviews on Fragrantica and Basenotes seem polite but slightly puzzled or underwhelmed. Having tested a diverse selection of their offerings, there is absolutely no question regarding the high quality of the materials and compositions.
I do believe, however, that the way the brand has positioned itself might have caused some confusion or misunderstanding. In brief, while most brands have one driving force behind their establishment, Maison Nicolas de Barry has two, and pursues both – sometimes on dual tracks, and sometimes simultaneously within the same collection.
Every niche parfum house has an avowed driving force – a raison d’être – behind their existence, be it to explore the beauty of synthetic molecules (Nomenclature), translate Italian and Mediterranean music and art into fragrance (Sospiro), or bring the magic of the Orient to Western noses in a digestible, French format (Amouage). I think it’s possible that Maison de Barry has gone ignored and misunderstood because, although the brand says it is mostly focused on recreating the historical perfumes of the past, many of the perfumes themselves smell much more like attars or natural perfumes.
The stated mission of Maison Nicolas de Barry is to recreate the perfumes that might have been worn by historical figures important to European social and cultural history, such as Empress Sissi, King Louis XV, and Georges Sand. But the perfumer and owner of Maison Nicolas de Barry – Nicolas de Barry himself – is clearly far more passionate about natural perfumery and the attar perfumery of both India and the Middle-East than any other type of perfume. He has personally visited the center of attar making, in Kannauj, India, to watch distillers and attar makers at work. He also travels around the world, visiting ylang plantations, jasmine farms, oud distillers, and sandalwood projects, sourcing his materials there and bringing them back to Paris with him, where he works them into his perfumes. He has even written a beautiful book on Indian attar making, called L’Inde des Parfums.
So, although Nicolas started off with a range of conventional niche perfumes – the historical ones – he has since focused more and more on his ranges of all-natural perfumes, raw materials, and (real) oud compositions. In other words, the soul of the brand “Maison Nicolas de Barry” is actually more about natural perfumery and attar/oil perfumery translated to a Western format than, strictly speaking, historical reconstructions (although there are some of those in the line too).
The only problem that this presents is that the split purpose might confuse customers (and even fragrance bloggers). The first impression any customer will get of the brand is the historical reconstruction angle, with the attar and naturals focus emerging only when you delve deeper into the descriptions and background on the site. Hence, a disconnect between that the brand itself suggests you’re going to smell, and what you actually smell.
The recreation, or reimagining, of les parfums historiques is not a new or unusual theme in perfumery, of course, as brands such as Parfum d’Empire, Histoires de Parfum, Rance, Creed, and even Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier demonstrate. But because these niche brands either got there first or are more popular, they managed to set the expectation for a parfum historique as thus: abstract, modern, niche constructions that behave like any other Western niche fragrance. Since the compositions of Maison Nicolas de Barry are at once far more streamlined and more naturals-focused, it’s possible that they appear simplistic or muddy to someone expecting the 3D mixed media richness of an Ambre Russe by Parfum d’Empire or even the Samsara stylings of Guerlain.
So, let’s re-set expectations here. The perfumes of Maison Nicolas de Barry are great when viewed through the lens of a parfum historique, but superlative when viewed as their rightful form, i.e., naturals, pure ouds, and attar scaled up into a sprayable EDP format.
Understanding that the perfumes of Maison Nicolas de Barry are basically scaled-up attars and naturals in the guise of les parfum historiques is crucial to understanding the perfumes themselves. I remember receiving a tiny vial of Mumtaz-I Mahal from a perfume friend in 2014: it had leaked and filled the wrapping of the parcel with one of the most intensely beautiful smells I had ever experienced – sandalwood and rose. Strangely enough, when I applied what was left of the perfume to my skin, I found it to be less complex than the scent it left in the air: a sweet rose over an austere sandalwood. I much preferred the smell of the spilled perfume to the perfume itself as a wearing experience.
Looking back at this now, I think I understand that Mumtaz-I Mahal was teaching me my first lessons about attar perfumery in general, which are that:
attar perfumery is quite simple compared to complex, French or Western perfumery, focusing as it does on exalting the spiritual beauty of just one or two naturals rather than on an abstract, perfumey vision,
when a blend is this simple and composed almost entirely of naturals, the properties of the 1-2 naturals chosen for the blend are very important – there is nothing to disguise the inherently green sharpness of Ta’if rose oil or the soured milk tones of Australian sandalwood, and so on. And finally, that;
since attar perfumery was created more as a way of scenting the air for others, in a display of Muslim and Hindi generosity of spirit to fellow worshippers, than for one’s own personal pleasure, the trail of scent left behind by an attar is often more pleasing than the scent smelled up close on one’s own skin.
Since I’ve already waffled on quite a bit, I’m going to split this article into two parts, the first dealing with the conventional parfums historiques produced by Maison Nicolas de Barry (samples of which can be found here), the second part dealing with the all-natural perfumes and oud collection of the house (samples of which can be found here).
The first part, below, contains reviews of a cross-selection of samples from the historical perfumes range. Some of these perfumes behave like most conventional Western niche perfumes (abstract, complex, perfumey), albeit with a strong naturals focus, while others behave as pure attars diluted with alcohol to scale them up into EDP format.
L’Eau de Louis XV (Le Bien-Aimé)
L’Eau de Louis XV (Le Bien-Aimé) – le bien-aimé meaning beloved or well-loved – is a scented tribute to King Louis XV. It is one of the most sublime and natural-smelling neroli fragrances I’ve had the pleasure of smelling. Unlike most neroli fragrances, there is no slow descent into soapiness; L’Eau de Louis XV retains a juicy, fresh bitterness that’s akin to biting into a winter orange and getting a mouthful of peel, waxy green leaf, and a bit of the woody bark too. It is both bright and salubrious. There is a floral poudrée heart of rose, violet, tuberose, and other flowers for support, as well as a dark, unsweet amber accord, but these are merely there to hold the orange and neroli aloft.
Am I imagining the slightly animalic muskiness that closes in around the neroli topnotes after the first few minutes? Probably. But something about this fragrance makes me think of the steamy, soapy floral odors escaping from the King’s boudoir during his morning bath, with the underlying funk of a sleepy and as of yet unwashed body warm from his bed. Without doubt, this should be the bellwether for neroli scents. It smells natural, uplifting, fresh, and bitter in all the right places. Bien aimé indeed…
La Reine Margot (La Scandaleuse)
It’s odd that jasmine is technically a white floral when its smell is so purple. In La Reine Margot, the natural jasmine really shines through – round and creamily sweet but not as bright, high-pitched, or as sunlit as the synthetic variants. In fact, it has a curiously dusky, subdued hue, as if the flower has been covered in heavy velvet. There is also a slightly muddy, plasticky tone that I associate with natural jasmine. It smells almost exactly like a natural jasmine ruh I’ve smelled before, while doing research for the Indian attar portion of my book.
The star is the natural jasmine, but it is backed by a powdery, spicy amber and what reads to my nose as creamy pheromone. What I mean by this is that it features the same “cream of wheat” smell that I’ve picked up in two pheromone-based fragrances, the all-natural Feromone Donna by La Via del Profumo and Pheromone 4, an attar produced by Agarscents Bazaar. Feromone Donna features a similar although not identical notes list to Pheromone 4: jasmine, civet, ambergris, tuberose, and vanilla. Like Pheromone 4, these materials come together to form a floral creaminess that is part cream of wheat, part white chocolate.
In La Reine Margot, there is something of a similar effect, with the jasmine interacting with either an animalic musk or ambergris in the base to produce a creamy floral porridge effect. It is perhaps more accurate to view this as a natural jasmine soliflore filtered through the sheen of a milky sandalwood oriental like Dries Van Noten for Les Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle. I find this to be a very sensual, natural-feeling jasmine perfume that – unlike many other jasmine-musk combinations – never tapers off into that leathery sourness one smells beneath the wrist band of a rubber watch at the end of the day. It remains soft, pure, and creamy all the way through.
L’Impératrice Sissi (L’Indomptable)
L’Indomptable means indomitable, a person who cannot be subdued or defeated, and this describes perfectly both the character of Empress Sissi and the fragrance itself. Sissi is a cheeky little scent. It comes so over-stuffed with violet pastilles, gummy bears, face powder, cherry syrup, and doll head plastic that you’d think that it would be insufferable to anyone over the age of 12, and for a while, it is. But then a thick, raw lump of benzoin and the uncooked pallor of a very potato-y iris emerge, interjecting the saving grace of ugliness into the pretty.
Sissi is extreme in all respects – a sort of cosmetics violet-iris accord set on fire and sent rolling down the hill to flatten everybody in its wake. People who like the part-syrupy, part-powdery excesses of Guerlain’s Insolence, Incarnata by Anatole Lebreton, or Ombre Mercure by Terry de Gunsberg will probably love this lipstick-on-steroids perfume too. I don’t love it, myself, but I certainly enjoy wearing it more than I should. In fact, it’s become something of a guilty pleasure. There’s a fluffy marshmallow crème accord in the drydown that gives as much pleasure and comfort as a giant, fluffy onesie. I’d imagine. Not that I own one or anything.
L’Eau de George Sand
I find it fascinating that both Maison Nicolas de Barry and Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier have historical fragrances in honor of George Sand and Queen Margot. Both houses chose jasmine as the principal material for their Queen Margot fragrances, although the MPG version is more of an animalic orange blossom than a true jasmine, and the Maison Nicolas de Barry version stars a very dark, natural jasmine accord.
For George Sand, both houses focus on the dried-up remnants of a perfume vial carried by Sand herself, which seemed to be made up of patchouli, roses, and amber. But while MPG takes the basic historical formula in a spicy, ambery oriental direction, the Maison Nicolas de Barry focuses on the dark, chypric elements. Think Amouage Beloved, Clinique Aromatics Elixir, and Noir Patchouli by Histoires de Parfum, rather than Cinnabar or Or Noir.
L’Eau de George Sand establishes its chypre credentials immediately upon application, putting forth a mossy, abstract bitterness that recalls dried plums, polished wood, and violin resin. It is also immediately powdery in a sumptuously floral way, and I’m sure that I can smell the bones of Acqua di Parma Profumo here, itself a cleaner, more powdery version of Mitsouko. However, there is also a plush animalic feel lurking under the topnotes, which could be either a grubby musk or labdanum. The contrast between the bright, elegant sharpness of the flowers and the murky skin-like feel of an animal is quietly disarming.
It is only towards the heart that I sense the darkness of patchouli moving in. But from there on out, this is a herbal, earthy patchouli chypre with a healthy dose of powdery rose. It is dark and somber in feel, while also elegant in that inimitable French manner. Lovers of Aromatics Elixir, Beloved, Noir Patchouli, or even Profumo should give this a try. It does everything they do albeit in a quieter and more natural way.
This was the perfume that sparked my initial interest in Maison Nicolas de Barry back in 2014, but I could reconcile neither my actual wearing experience nor the middling reviews with the incredible, unforgettable scent that had spilled on the package and permeated my sample box. In much the same way that I love the collected smells of all my perfumes on my winter coat collar or when I open up my perfume drawer more than the scent of any one single perfume on the skin, Mumtaz-I Mahal smells better in the ambience than on the skin.
On the skin, it is a very simple fragrance, just a Turkish rose backed by a smidge of sandalwood. The rose is very high quality – truffled, velvety, rich, and slightly jammy around the edges – but for all intents and purposes, it’s a rose soliflore, and that has to be what you’re looking for when you buy or sample Mumtaz-I Mahal. I think of it as the rose note from Aramis Calligraphy Rose cut free of all the spices, smoke, and resins of the Aramis.
It grows a little more citrusy and fresh towards the base when it meets the sandalwood, but in general, the rose tends more towards the softly jammy and truffled rather than sharp or green. Beautiful rose, beautiful materials…but perhaps better smelled in the secondary wake of someone else than as a personal perfume.
Shah Jahan is, of course, the natural companion to Mumtaz-I Mahal and supposedly the masculine counterpart. It is unisex, in truth, like all of the perfumes produced under Maison Nicolas de Barry. Inspired by the traditional attars produced in Kannauj and offered as gifts to the ruling emperors and princes of the Persiatic Mughal dynasty in India, Sha Jahan is far more complex than Mumtaz-I Mahal, with a tart, rhubarb-like rose on top of sandalwood, a vegetal amber attar base, and a touch of pure oud for exotic Arabian flair.
Shah Jahan has a fresh, silvery mien to it that speaks to homely Indian green herbs; compared to its female counterpart, it is angular and sugar-free. A woody, oudy sourness lurks at the corners, drawing the bright rose and herbs into the shadows somewhat, but mainly providing depth. It is spicy, sharp, and quite traditionally Indian in feel. Indian ambers are not creamy or vanillic, tending instead towards tart and spicy.
Oddly enough, the raw materials behave in this EDP format in much the same way as they would in an oil-based attar, meaning that the rose, which normally fades out over time in conventional fragrances due to the volatility of its geraniol and citronal molecules, re-emerges towards the end of the perfume, bathing the taut oud and woods in a rosy glow, that, while never sweet, softens the austerity of the blend. Think of this one as a rose-oud accord wrapped up in the clothing of a traditional Indian attar, which in turn is disguised in the form of a conventional eau de parfum. Superb.
Every time I try Robert Piguet Bandit, I wonder why I don’t love it. I should love it – I love chypres, I love leathers, and I love the idea of a perfume so bad-ass you can almost visualize its resting bitch face.
Maybe it’s because there’s nothing to distract from Bandit’s core brutality. Chypres are bitter, leather is bitter – leather chypres are therefore doubly bitter. Tabac Blond takes you almost to the edge but drifts into a sweet, smoky amber drydown that softens the landing. Habanita covers it up with flowers and face powder. Jolie Madame has the sweet sparkle of violets.
Bandit apologizes for nothing, and covers nothing up. It’s a tough, bitter, raw-edged leather that winds up in ash and sweat. The flowers that are there are putridly creamy in a stomach-turning way, and the civet forces your head into its crotch.
Putting it on is like fighting your way into a tight black leather jacket that crackles with hostility as you try to make it bend. Once on, there is a raw, salty meat smell that crawls up at your nose from the seams of the jacket, as if bits of cow flesh still cling to the underside. I was always disappointed that Lady Gaga’s first fragrance didn’t smell like I imagined her dripping meat dress to smell – but Bandit does.
But that’s not what turns my stomach. What gets me each and every time is the jarring clash between the raw, salted-meat leather notes and the creamy floral side. The florals are calorific, full-fat renderings of themselves – a rubbery tuberose, a petrol-like jasmine – mashed into a cream cheese texture that when it rubs up against the dark, dry leather causes my gorge to rise. The civet plays a key role here, of course, both heightening the pitch of the brutal leather accord and giving the florals a slutty growl.
To my surprise, it’s the smoky ashes of the dreaded galbanum that rescue Bandit for me – cutting through the overly rich florals and brutal, salted leather, the ash weaves in and out and draws my attention to a campfire in the distance, a successful (and much appreciated) piece of misdirection. Every time I get to this part of the dry down, I wonder if it’s worth at least getting a decant.
On the plus side, Bandit is distinctive, bold, and full of character. It is also ageless. In its cleaned-up, reformulated state, the current Bandit EDP is firmly modern in its minimalism. There is nothing in it that pegs it to any one year, let alone a year as far back as 1944. As Teutonically ergonomic as an Olympian swimmer’s waxed chest, it feels like it could have been debuted in the same year as Rien (Etat Libre d’Orange), even though 62 years separate the two.
On the other hand, Bandit is a fragrance whose high proportion of green notes makes it vulnerable to the ravages of time. In two samples I’ve had (vintage and concentration unknown to me), the green elements – the moss, hyacinth, artemisia? – seemed to have wilted like lettuce in strong sun. The resulting vegetal, decaying mulch does nothing for me, not because it is unpleasant per se, but because part of me associates that wilted green note with perfumes I find dated. I won’t name names, but basically anything with coriander, peach, gardenia, and sometimes that 70’s way of treating patchouli.
In the end, though, Bandit is just a curiosity for me, and a placeholder – it smells much better and richer than the brown-grey drudgery of the current Cabochard and less herbally-up-its-own-ass as Miss Balmain, but not nearly as good as Jolie Madame, whose rush of violets makes me smile. Habanita and Tabac Blond are its sisters-in-arms, equally at home with a sneer and a cigarette dangling out of their mouths, but I would take them – any of them – over Bandit. I just don’t have the personality required for such naked aggression.