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Dusita Le Pavillon d’Or

6th December 2019

Although I’ve always worn make-up, my reasons for doing so have varied dramatically over the years. As a teenager, my first and only concern was to make my face into a blank mask to submerge any of the features that made me me and replace them with a ‘fake news’ version of myself. I used make-up to disappear myself. In my twenties and thirties, I used make-up in a purely utilitarian way, zipping through the Holy Trinity of skin-eyes-mouth simply to avoid subjecting strangers to the raw, peeled potato-ishness of my naked face. I cultivated a short-list of favorites and did not deviate, except for dropping concealer altogether when I realized that I’d stopped caring whether people saw my flaws or dark circles.

But now, in my forties – a renaissance of sorts! I have fallen completely in love with the artistry and self-expression side of make-up. And I use it now not to hide, not to cover, but to play. I can be a different woman every day, if I want. But only because I want to shape-shift or it amuses me, not because I feel I have to conform to someone else’s expectations. The pleasure I get in playing around with soft, lavender duochromes from Nabla that shift from blue to pink when you turn your head or going bare-faced with only a bright red mouth to focus the eye – well, it’s extraordinary to me. It’s equal to the pleasure I get from perfume.

The only reason I’m banging on talking about this is that Dusita’s Le Pavillon d’Or reminds me very much of the watercolor blush technique demonstrated by make-up artist extraordinaire Lisa Eldridge in this video, and also of the Japanese-inspired blush placement technique called igari, as demonstrated here. Though different in intent, the two techniques share a focus on the overlapping of delicate, watery layers of color to create a diffused effect that balances richness with translucence. Le Pavillon d’Or seems to be built along the same lines, with several layers laid down until something like the iridescence of a butterfly’s wing is achieved.  

Gosh, it’s so pretty. Mint, iris, and honeysuckle combine to form a fresh, green opening that sometimes reminds me of Chanel. No. 19 and sometimes of Diorella (and sometimes of neither). There is an illusion of galbanum minus the bitterness, or of vetiver without its dankness. The main note here is fig leaf, which would explain the faintly milky quality to the greenness, but there’s none of the urinous quality that often sullies the vibrant smell of fig leaf. There is also a whisper of fruit, but one so phantasmagoric that it might all be in my head.

These opening notes are quickly coated with an overlay of what smells to me like the sweet, musty alfalfa grass notes (half hay, half Quaker’s oats) borrowed from one of my favorite Dusita perfumes, Erawan, but minus that scent’s dusky cocoa. There is also, here and there, a touch of Chanel’s Poudre Universelle Libre – a discreetly-perfumey, buff-colored skein of powder dusted over the scent’s cheekbones.

Although perfumer Pissara Umavijani’s inspiration for Le Pavillon d’Or was drawn from three different lakes, this perfume smells more pastoral than aquatic to me. It carries the green-gold-lilac duskiness of post-harvest meadows and field margins and hedgerows.

The final layer in this igari blush-style fragrance is a crepuscular haze of almond-scented lotion, due to the heliotrope, a plant beloved of midwives for its babyish innocence. But while in less elegant hands the heliotrope might turn fudgy and turgid in that yellow cake way of Etro’s Heliotrope, Pissara has threaded the note through gossamer layers of green florals and iris so delicately that the finish retains the freshness borrowed from the first layer laid down. Simply lovely.

Photo by Linh Ha on Unsplash

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Hiram Green Voyage 2019: A Review

8th November 2019

Hiram Green Voyage 2019, huh. I remember little of the original Voyage other than (a) I liked it a lot – or at least enough to spend €25 on obtaining a precious 5ml decant, which I promptly misplaced, and (b) I spent a lot of time agonizing over it, trying to dissect what made the perfume tick.

And apparently, I got it all wrong. Hiram’s description of swapping out the suede of the original Voyage for lotus in the 2019 version was the first time I realized that the original Voyage was supposed to be suede. My review did pick out a slight peach skin note, similar to that of Hiram Green’s own Shangri La or Guerlain Mitsouko. But it never jumped out at me so strongly that I felt obliged to point at it and call it suedey, suedey McSuederton.

Re-reading my review of the original now, it appears I thought Voyage was structured around that familiar Guerlainesque clash between a bright, aromatic side (lavender, bergamot, cloves, cinnamon) and a dark, velvety side ( vanilla, indolic flowers). The dry down was a warm, luscious vanilla-amber, heavily laced with heliotrope and perhaps jasmine or orange blossom. I recall finding it pleasantly spicy and resinous, that prickly contrast between bright, aromatic citrus notes and warm amber never quite fading. Very loosely, it called to (my) mind the spiced pastry notes of L’Heure Bleue, the aromatic-vanilla of Jicky, and the slightly civety jasmine-tonka-amber of Ciel de Gum (Maison Francis Kurkdjian) and Musc Ravageur (Frederic Malle). No suede, though.  

But even when I get things completely arse-ways, Hiram Green is a true gentleman. He wrote to me after another review to say, in that mild-mannered way of his, that he was always surprised about how his fragrances were interpreted by writers and bloggers. From this I take that he’s bemused by, but accepts, the wildly differing takes on his work and the lack of causal relationship between our perception of what’s in the fragrance and what’s actually in the fragrance.

I’m conscious of how odd and discomfiting it must be for a perfumer to send their work to people like me in full knowledge that we are either going to smell stuff that isn’t there or miss big, important parts of the perfume that they might have labored and agonized over for months on end. This is surely is not a game for control freaks or for people who like to ‘explain’ their work constantly until people get it ‘right’ (hey, I’m sure we all know people like that, right?).  

Anyway, Hiram is probably going to read this and raise an impeccably well-groomed eyebrow, because, despite his assertion that Voyage 2019 is a lighter, fresher, slightly more tropical take on the original, with lotus taking the place of suede, I find it to be neither fresh nor tropical. And it’s about as light as a brick. Although I’ve mislaid my decant of the original and my memories of it are entirely re-built from my review, I’d still say that the overall ‘feel’ of Voyage 2019 is quite different from the original, despite both being structured around a warm amber and vanilla base.

First off, there’s an exuberantly fruity (berried) bubblegum note up top, not present in the original, that reminds me of various BPAL and Arcana ‘red’ musk accords. After that, Voyage 2019 mostly heads straight for the comfort of a deliciously fudgy amber-vanilla accord common to both but skips over the overtly floral or aromatic ‘spiky’ notes from the original completely; as such, Voyage 2019 does not have the same contrast between citrusy-aromatic and vanilla-amber of the original.  The ‘lotus’ note is interesting to me, because rather than smelling particularly floral (think: crisp, fresh, botanical, juicy, etc.), it smells golden, honeyed, soft, powdery, and somewhat resinous. Dusted over the vanilla-amber accord, the lotus doesn’t give Voyage freshness or lightness but instead creates a medicinal ‘nag champa’ character.  

Lotus flowers are revered in Buddhist and Hindi culture, because they are considered to be a direct route to spirituality, so the Indian nag champa reference seems appropriate. This smells like an Indian-style amber to me, with a doughy-powdery joss stick heart. In the far drydown, I’d swear to a bit of benzoin, its spicy ‘Communion wafer’ dustiness dovetailing with the powdery sweetness of the nag champa.  

I like Voyage 2019 more than the original, mostly because it feels simpler and more direct – a big down comforter of Indian incense and amber to keep me going in winter. Its appeal is immediate and, despite smelling briefly exotic, devoid of the twisty-turny mysteriousness of the original that taxed my analytical bandwidth.

But I am also super impressed that Hiram was able to capture the more unfloral parts of lotus, the sacred flower of India. Both the pink and white lotus varieties (from the true lotus family of Nelumbo nucifera) are ruinously expensive to produce, requiring 250,000 flowers to make just 1 kilogram of lotus concrete, which in turn yields only 250 grams of absolute after washing. I mention this to emphasize just how costly lotus absolute is, and how rarely seen on today’s market, especially outside of India itself (I have smelled a white lotus absolute but cannot attest as to its authenticity).

Because of its cost and doubts over authenticity, very few people outside attar makers and artisans working with small quantities of exquisite raw materials – like Hiram Green – will have smelled white or pink lotus absolute. You’ll probably hear talk about the lotus note in Voyage 2019 smelling aquatic, light, and crisp, because that’s what the definition on Fragrantica says. But a better source of information is Chris McMahon of White Lotus Aromatics. He describes pink lotus absolute as a “rich, sweet, floral, fruity-leathery aroma with a powdery-spicy undertone” and white lotus absolute as a “sweet, powdery, spicy,  delicate floral bouquet with an animalic, dry fruity undertone”[1]. Both those descriptions match up better with how the lotus comes across in Voyage 2019 – rich, sweet, powdery – than the Fragrantica description of aqueous or Hiram’s own description of it giving Voyage a “lighter and more tropical feel.” And honestly, I like Voyage 2019 better for how it actually smells (to me! disclaimer!) than how I’m told it’s supposed to smell.  

Photo by Maxime Bhm on Unsplash


[1] https://www.whitelotusaromatics.com/product/lotus-white-absolute

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Francesca Bianchi Lost in Heaven and The Black Knight

30th October 2019

The amount of depravity Francesca Bianchi subjects orris root to, I don’t know to be scared of meeting her in a dark alley – or take her out for an Aperol Spritz. People are just now starting to talk about a Bianchi DNA, but I think that her signature was fairly evident from her first releases. If I were to sum it up, I’d say that Bianchi takes materials that seem innocuous and innocent in and of themselves – light suede, powdery orris, fresh vetiver – and works them over with a knuckleduster until they smell rough around the edges and distinctly unclean.

I wonder if, when Luca Turin said in The Guide 2018 that most of the creativity in perfume these days was coming out of Italy, he meant Italians are not afraid of making a statement? Because that’s true in Francesca Bianchi’s case. She doesn’t shy away from pungency or notes that traverse the scale from matted bear to Siamese kitty. But while I wouldn’t rate Bianchi’s perfumes as particularly beginner-friendly, there’s an (Italianate?) smoothness of finish that renders them beautifully wearable. In fact, I can’t think of any other indie whose work falls into that tight space between animalism and polish as neatly as Francesca Bianchi (although Marlou comes very close).  

Although very different to each other, it’s hard not to see Lost in Heaven and The Black Knight as anything other than two sides of the same coin, joined as they are not only by their twinned launch but by the patented Bianchi move of perverting the aloofness of orris with rude skin musks and the salty, urinous twang of ambergris. Leather is the outcome in one; a diffuse taffeta ruff in the other. But something about both perfumes make me think, ‘Francesca Bianchi, you are a bad, bad girl’.

The Black Knight in particular drives me wild. It took me a bit of time to understand it, but after ten days straight of wearing the damn thing, I’m all in. Opening with a hoary ‘Old Man and the Sea’ vetiver that smells like a bunch of whiskey-sozzled men in damp tweed around an open fire in a cramped little Irish cottage beside the sea, it immediately establishes a tone of neglect and closed-up spaces. Slightly analogous to vintage Vetiver by Annick Goutal and Muschio di Quercia by Abdes Salaam al Attar, the vetiver here is denuded of all freshness and twisted into a grungy leather that smells more like something dug up from the bowels of the earth than grass. But for all its salt-encrusted, boozy ‘staleness’, I think The Black Knight succeeds for much the same reason that Patchouli 24 does, in that it balances out a smoky, barely civilized leather accord with a softening layer of something sweet and balmy, delivering both the sting of the whip and a soothing caress in one go.

The Black Knight swaps out the birch tar of the Le Labo for an interesting cuir accord built mostly (as far as I can tell) from that hulking vetiver and some of the bitter, meaty Cellier-esque, Isobutyl quinoline-infused leather that’s been popping up quite a bit recently (see Rose et Cuir). It takes some time to dry down into that softening layer of balmy beeswax – infinitely more balanced than the sweetness in Patchouli 24, which is more sugary and vanilla extract-like in character – so before we settle in for the final, long drawn-out waltz of leather and cream, there’s a surprising development or two.

Most notably, past the opening of dusty ‘grumpy old man’ vetiver, an animalistic accord emerges, pungent and sticky with honey, and almost honking with the freshly-urinated-upon-hay stink of narcissus. Bianchi’s treatment of orris is fascinating to me – she can make it high-toned and mineralic, or funky with the low-tide halitosis of ambergris or blow it out into a big, civety floral cloud. Here, the orris is briefly pungent, with disturbing hints of rubber, boot polish, tar, and urine. This pissy-rubbery stage almost never fails to surprise me – and I’ve been wearing these two samples for the past ten days straight. Don’t smell your skin too closely and you might miss it entirely.  

The Black Knight seems to go on forever, dawdling in that balmy double act of creamed beeswax and ‘hard’ leather before eventually dropping all the sweetness, leaving only mineralic dust and the faint whiff of marshy runner’s sweat (a drydown it shares with Le Labo Patchouli 24). The Black Knight is a bolshy, mouthing-off-in-all-directions strop of scent that’s probably not the easiest thing for a total beginner to carry off. But it’s striking as hell, and never less than sexy.   

I can never tell if Lost in Heaven is a civety floral or a floral civet. There’s a brocaded sourness of honey, pale ale, and resin in the far drydown that gives it something to rest against. But mostly this is a bunch of dollhead-sweet flowers blown out into a diffuse cloud of satiny musks and underlined with something very, very unclean – like leaning in to kiss and girl and catching a suggestion of unwashed pillowcases, scalp, and skin that’s already been licked.

At first, Lost in Heaven reminds me very much of other vaguely retro indie floral civets (or civety florals), especially Maria Candida Gentile’s irisy Burlesque – a mini of which I bought for myself as a birthday present and am rapidly burning through – and Mardi Gras by Olympic Orchids. Then it strikes me that it’s not only the civet (or technically, the ambergris in the case of Lost in Heaven) that’s linking all these scents in my mind, but a certain indie treatment of the iris, or orris, that they all share. I’ve smelled it in Andy Tauer’s iris-centric work too, most notably in Lonesome Rider and his more recent Les Années 25, and it runs like a hot streak through Francesca Bianchi’s work.

The only way I can describe this specifically indie orris treatment is this: take a huge mineral-crusted rock from the beach, wipe it down quickly with a lemony disinfectant, stick it in a clear glass kiln and turn up the heat to 1370 degrees C until it vaporizes, filling the closed-in space with a glittering miasma of acid, mica, and lime-like tartness. I have a suspicion that a matchstick’s worth of Ambrox or Cetalox is the fuse that ignites the orris here, with castoreum creating that dusty, soot-like dryness that approaching freshly tanned leather or suede. The end result is a rather sour and acid-tinged iris that smells like you’re smelling the material diffused in the air after a lab explosion rather than from anything growing in nature. Actually, to be fair – I’ve smelled this ‘hot lava stone’ treatment of orris in landmark Guerlains too, most notably in Attrape-Coeur (one of my all-time favorite scents), which layers a dollop of peach and raspberry jam over a bed of these hissing-hot iris rocks and watches for the chemical reaction. Fridge-cold jam against hot minerals, with a side of sweet, rubbery dollhead, all blown out into sour, almost boozy mist – well, what’s not to like, really?

God, I only hope I’m making sense to someone out there.  

Image by Mark Frost from Pixabay

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Concept versus Execution: I Am Trash, But Not Today, & Vetiverissimo

8th November 2018

 

It might seem to regular readers of this blog (all 23 of you) that, for a fragrance writer, I write very infrequently about perfume. In fact, I write about perfume every day. But since it’s either copy for big fragrance retailers or work on a book that I’m not sure will ever see the light of day, most people will just never come across it.

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Francesca Bianchi The Lover’s Tale (2018)

11th October 2018

 

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.

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DSH Perfumes Series: Japanese Haiku

25th September 2018

 

Welcome to Part 4 (Japanese Haiku ) 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.

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Zoologist Tyrannosaurus Rex

11th September 2018

 

Antonio Gardoni’s style is so distinctive that his work can almost be graded in Gardoni-ness, with Noun being a 9/10 (i.e., immediately identifiable as an Antonio Gardoni creation) and Aeon 001 being a 3 or a 4 (identifiable as a Gardoni only if you think hard about it). I’ve never had the chance to smell Gardelia, but from all accounts, its honeyed white floral softness places it slightly outside Gardoni canon, so perhaps a 1 on the Gardoni scale.

 

For those unfamiliar with the Gardoni style, the recurring motifs might be loosely defined as (a) a lean and elegantly bitter mélange of apothecary herbs and spices, tending towards medicinal, (b) a butch, non-traditional treatment of white florals, especially tuberose, and (c) a complex, brocaded drydown that mixes resins with musks, castoreum, ambergris and/or other animalics. More prosaically, I always think of Gardoni’s creations as possessing an authentic ‘golden’ vigor that’s masculine in an old school manner.

 

Zoologist, as a brand, could also be said to have a distinctive house style. Of course, since each perfume has a different creator, it’s more difficult to pin down the specifics beyond the fact that all seem to be built on an exaggerated scale, with one chosen element (woods, smoke, leaves, fruit) blown up until it towers comically over the composition like King Kong. They are all exciting, vivid fragrances, but often quite rough, probably because they aren’t put through the glossing filter that most other niche scents go through to reach market these days. As an example, Hyrax would be a 10 on the Zoologist scale, because its filth-and-dried-urine-inside-burning-tires aroma makes it one of those hardcore ‘I dare you’ scents that only the nichiest of niche-heads would wear, whereas something like Hummingbird is a solid 2: a frothy whirl of fruit and flowers that won’t scare the horses.

 

Apologies for the lengthy preamble, but anyone dithering over a blind purchase of either a sample or a full bottle of Zoologist Tyrannosaurus Rex will want to know how Gardoni it is, and also possibly, how Zoologist it is, on a scale of 1 to 10. My short answer is that Tyrannosaurus Rex is a 4 on the Gardoni scale, and a 8 on the Zoologist scale. In other words, I don’t know that I’d guess it’s a Gardoni creation from smelling it blind (although digging in, there are a few clues), but I’d confidently peg it as a Zoologist release.

 

Tyrannosaurus Rex opens with a furnace blast of burning tree sap and smoke, featuring both the rubbery green soot of cade and the piney sharpness of frankincense. This sounds rather par for the course for anyone who’s ever collected or smelled the most popular scents in the phenolic category, like Encens Flamboyant (Annick Goutal), A City on Fire (Imaginary Authors), or Revolution (Cire Trudon), but Tyrannosaurus Rex immediately distinguishes itself from this company by layering a core of buttery floral notes through the rough-grained miasma of smoke.

 

In particular, a thickly oily champaca stands out, smelling not of the its usual fruity-musky cleanliness but of the almost rancid, stale ‘Irish butter’ gardenia undertones of Indian champaca, the red ‘joy oil’ stuff that gives Strangelove NYC’s lostinflowers its pungency. Picture the greasy saltiness of gardenia, rose, and ylang butters thrown onto a burning fire with some laurel leaves and fir, and you’ll get a sense of the opening here. It smells like something charred to purge the air of impurities and sickness; the smoke element more medicinal than holy. This facet, plus the fact that it smells the way frankincense gum tastes, identifies it as being Gardoni-esque.

 

The sheer brute force of the opening, however, is more Zoologist in style. The marriage of smoke and oily floral takes some getting used to. It smells rich and addictive, but also a little too much of a good thing, like staying too long at the fuel pump to breathe in the gasoline fumes, or walking through a rubber plantation on fire fully aware that you should run before the toxic fumes get you but also weirdly narcotized into a trance-like state.

 

The smoke, in particular, is what pushes this one up on the Zoologist scale. It’s an element I associate with, in particular, Hyrax, a 2018 Zoologist release, which smells like a well-used rubber incontinence sheet set on fire. While Tyrannosaurus Rex is far more accomplished and not provocative for the sake of being provocative, there’s no denying that the shock factor of the opening is high. Unless, unlike me, you’re one of those people who absolutely live for the most challenging parts of a perfume, like the Listerine mouthwash of Serge Lutens’ Tubéreuse Criminelle’s topnotes or the putrid cherry cough syrup first half of Diptyque’s Kimonanthe, in which case, the ‘burning rubber plantation’ portion of  Tyrannosaurus Rex will be the highlight.

 

For me, though, the latter parts of the scent are the most enjoyable because that’s when everything relaxes and the warning system in my solar plexus stops ringing. This is where things get seriously sensual. Only two components of the drydown are identifiable to me, or at least familiar. First, a minty-camphoraceous balsam note, like a solid cube of Carmex set to melt gently on a hot plate, mixed with the gritty brown sugar crystals of benzoin or some other ambery material. At times, it smells like fir balsam and old leather mixed with vanilla ice-cream (soft and almost creamy), and at others, it is bitter and metallic, thanks to rose oxide, a material that smells like nail polish mixed with mint leaves and rose.

 

The second component in the drydown, for me, is the sandalwood. Although I don’t know whether sandalwood synthetics or natural sandalwood oil was used, the note reminds me very much of Dabur Chandan Ka Tail (Oil of Sandalwood), a santalum album from India that’s sold as an ayurvedic medicine rather than as something to be used as perfume. Dabur comes in a small glass container with a rubber cap to allow penetration by a syringe, which you’re supposed to remove, but that I (not being a meticulous person in general) do not. Accordingly, the topnotes carry a bitter, smoky rubber and fuel exhaust overtone that’s curiously addictive. Tyrannosaurus Rex’s sandalwood component is roughly similar: it is creamy and aromatic, but tainted by all these weird little wafts of rubber and car exhaust that add character to the usual pale milk of sandalwood. It’s sexy as hell. Damn, give me a big, rich sandalwood base any day and you’ve got me. It’s like nuzzling into the chest of a biker who’s ridden through 50 miles of Mysore forest.

 

A friend (and fellow blogger) often teases me for not being clear in my review about whether I like the scent or not, and that’s fair: I tend to get bogged down in analysis and forget to tell you whether or not a scent connected with me at a personal level. So, let me be clear – I absolutely loved Tyrannosaurus Rex. The opening is too powerful for my taste, but for the most part, I loved the warmth and ‘bigness’ of this perfume. It’s smoky, it’s complex, and it keeps you guessing without taxing your brain cells to oblivion. In other words, although there’s a certain amount of head-scratching and puzzling over notes to be done here (which will please bored fragheads), it’s also very easy to step away from the analysis and simply enjoy wearing the thing itself. And you know, apart from the over-fueled opening, I do.

 

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Arquiste Ella: A Review

9th April 2018

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.

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Puredistance Warszawa: A Review

5th April 2018

 

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.

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Le Labo Ylang 49: Some Thoughts

19th March 2018

Le Labo Ylang 49 is a scent that gives me some serious cognitive dissonance. I keep wearing it and trying to figure out why, and this is what I’ve been able to come up with:

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