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.
Lovers of the sweet, creamy, and foodie representations of sandalwood, I’m sorry but Santal Nabataea by Fredrik Dalman for Mona di Orio (2018) is not for you. If you love the fake milky sweetness of stuff like Memo’s Quartier Latin, Miller et Bertoux’s Indian Study/ Santal +++, or Perris Monte Carlo’s Santal du Pacifique, and your general expectations of how sandalwood should smell are set in that direction, then take a pass on this.
Santal Nabataea smells very much like real santalum album oil and very little like the usual representation in commercial perfumery. When I first smelled it, I was first astonished, and then a little teary at the thought that something like this can still exist in modern perfumery. The best way to prepare you for something like Santal Nabataea would be to tell you to beg, steal, or borrow a drop of real santalum album oil and see for yourself how different it is from the creamy, sugary loudness of sandalwood in commercial perfumery.
I’ve written a bit about how real santalum album smells like here and here, but to recap, the essential oil itself is quiet, with curiously sharp high notes that can remind one alternately of peanut husks, solvent, glue, and even yoghurt. Australian native sandalwood (s. spicatum) is very sour, with strident green pine notes, but santalum album, used here and also the species from which Mysore sandalwood is derived, is softer, with a dusty incense-and-buttered-toast depth that’s rightly the object of obsession for many.
But no matter what type of sandalwood used, it seems that it’s the perfumer who decides whether to push it in a sweet-creamy or arid-aromatic direction. Natural sandalwood features both aspects simultaneously, but sandalwood synths all seem to focus on the sweet, ambery creaminess to the exclusion of the aromatic.
To date, the sandalwood fragrances that I feel have come closest to capturing the complex, unami-rich flavor of natural sandalwood have been Lorenzo Villoresi’s Sandalo, Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier’s Santal Noble, and Etro’s Sandalo (vintage eau de cologne). Or more accurately, should I say, they all capture that wondrous push-and-pull between the slightly sour milkiness and the dusty, aromatic aridity of the wood itself.
My personal favorite is Etro Sandalo eau de cologne, for two reasons: first, the topnotes feature the same nail polish, industrial plastics, and burning tire weirdness of some natural santalum album oils (which I love and welcome as a sign of authenticity), and second, as a bit of a cop out, it gives me the creamy, incensey milkiness of fake sandalwood in the drydown, a kind of guilty pleasure I can’t seem to wean myself off of. I used to own Santal Noble but although I admired it, I felt its brusque coffee-ish opening rendered it too masculine for me to enjoy as a personal fragrance.
I got into detail about these fragrances because I am convinced that Santal Nabataea is as close to Santal Noble as is possible to get this side of disastrous Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier reforms. It has the same touch of resinous coffee funk and the same dusty, earthy brusqueness. The use of sweet myrrh (opoponax) in the basenotes is also similar, emphasizing the herbal soapiness inherent to both scents.
I always thought that wearing Santal Noble was akin to stumbling upon the private quarters of a very English gentleman and watch him silently getting dressed in his three-piece tweed hunting suit laid out by his valet, tucking as he did a paisley handkerchief sprinkled with aromatic eau de cologne into his upper suit pocket. I didn’t feel comfortable inhabiting the skin of this gentleman every time I wore Santal Noble, so I swapped it away. However, I found and still find the scent of Santal Noble to be richly evocative in a way that few sandalwood-forward perfumes are. Santal Nabataea is similarly evocative; exotic without being derivative.
But Santal Nabataea also possess something of the odd, solvent-like topnotes of the Etro Sandalo and the dark, saline weave of aromatic fougere-ish notes seen in the Villoresi. It’s arid, earthy, and deeply unami, reaching parts of you that synthetic sandalwood just can’t. The supporting notes in Santal Nabataea are just that, a chorus of backing singers for the sandalwood soloist. The dusty resinousness of coffee is noticeable in that it dims the lights a bit, and underlines the essentially masculine nature of the scent. But unless the fruity nail polish honk in the topnotes is thanks to the oleander or apricot, I can’t really make them out as distinct shapes or forms in the texture of the scent. If anything, they exist simply to emphasize the astringency of the sandalwood core.
That’s not a complaint, by the way. I’m so grateful to smell something that actually smells like real sandalwood for once that I’m glad not to be distracted by a plethora of competing notes and accents. I think the way Fredrik Dalman built Santal Nabataea shows real confidence in his materials and in his own vision. I think he’s also counting on people to notice that the authenticity of the sandalwood heart in Santal Nabataea and read it as the entire point of the exercise. If so, message received. Lovers of real sandalwood and of fragrances such as Villoresi’s Sandalo, Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier’s Santal Noble, and even Etro’s Sandalo will definitely want to at least sample Santal Nabataea. For me personally, it joins the pantheon of great sandalwood commercial fragrances.
Building a Capsule Perfume Wardrobe: If you had to build, or rebuild, your perfume wardrobe using only travel sizes and minis, could you do it? What would be on your list?
A couple of questions have been dogging me lately. First, how much perfume do I actually use in a year? And second, if my collection of full bottles was lost or stolen, would it be possible to build a small capsule wardrobe that covers all possible scenarios using only minis and travel sizes, and sticking to a putative budget of +/- $30 per bottle?
My favorite type of art is naïve art, which is a style of painting that looks like a 5-year old child did it with his chubby, untrained fingers – great big blocks of color and form jostled together in a way that, while rough, carries an immediate emotional impact. I like the hand-made-ness of the style, even if it at times it can come off as a little self-conscious or knowing.
I presage my review of Lush Cardamom Coffee with this by way of explaining why I continue to blind buy Lush perfumes, even though 70% of them don’t work out for me. I’m just hopelessly attracted to the aesthetic of all those naturals smooshed together like squirts of red and blue gouache, and to the air of childlike glee that lurks at the corners of all Lush products.
Unfortunately, this sort of naïve style, while attractive, has downsides when it comes to perfume. Lush perfumes are filled to the brim with expensive naturals, but the result is often just too much of everything – too strong, unrefined, too massively clumsy, like a garishly painted elephant careening around a china shop: a Duplo compared to the Lego of a niche or a designer perfume. Still, I love the lack of pretension in the style, and its cheerful, colorful sense of fun, which I why I continue to buy them.
Cardamom Coffee sounds like an excellent proposition on paper. The first question anyone will have is: does it smell like coffee? The answer is that, yes, it does. But your second and more important question should be: what kind of coffee? Because Cardamom Coffee smells like the bitter mass of coffee grounds left in the machine when the barista turns it up too high and burns the hell out of it. Want to smell like that? Yeah, me neither.
How you like your coffee to smell will very much define your relationship with any of the coffee-based fragrances around. Some smell milky, some smell like caramel and hazelnut creamer has been added, some smell resinous or green, some smell like the wooden insides of the coffee shop rather than the coffee itself, and some, including Cardamom Coffee smell burned (they might call it roasted) to the point of bitterness. This last one is the one that nauseates me.
That’s not to say that there are no pleasant aspects to the fragrance, because there are, and I enjoy those parts very much. The cardamom note is excellent here, turning from a lemony, peppery freshness to a metallic greenness and finally to a gently soapiness, all aspects exerting a steadying hand on the bitter roar of burnt coffee grounds.
There are points at which I can even smell what Lush must have been aiming for, which is the exotic scent of drinking Turkish coffee through a pod of green cardamom held between your teeth, as many Arabs and Persians do. When I lived in a North-Eastern town in Bosnia, I was always charmed to see how Muslim women drank their coffee – some with a cracked cardamom pod, some with a sugar cube, some even with an orange peel, held gently between their upper and lower teeth while they sipped the coffee, aromatizing it.
Still, the burned coffee ground aspect in Coffee Cardamom is so potent that it tends to overwhelm the more pleasant notes. Packed densely into this compressed brick of aroma, there are nuances of dirty rubber, fuel, and singed electrical wires. As the fragrance develops (or rather, begins to fade out, since I can’t say that there is much development here), it begins to smell like the dry honk of air sucked in by burning tires. It retains that faintly foodie edge of coffee grounds, however, so the stomach continues to churn a little.
It gets better. Always, by the time the base comes around, I feel as if I could forgive Coffee Cardamom its bitter start. It eases out into a dusty, balsamic chocolate accord enlivened with juicy Coca Cola note, which is probably the cardamom, its characteristic sparkle nudging its way out of the dense darkness of the burned chocolate-coffee mass.
Hints of another Lush perfume, All Good Things, emerge in the drydown, with its charming mix of crystallized sugar, charred woods, toasted newspaper, and something dirty, like a B.O note. Finally, in its last grasp, it becomes a sparkling vanilla scent, with a touch of Barbie doll maltol to see things out on a friendly note. How weird, and how unbalanced, though, this nose-dive from bitter, burned coffee grounds to Pink Sugar. No, Coffee Cardamom doesn’t work for me, but I can’t say that I’ll learn my lesson and stop buying Lush perfumes. The strike rate is low, but the 30% that do work for me really work for me, if you know what I mean.