When I wrote a review of Peety by O’Driu a few years ago, I struggled to put into words a certain accord that I noticed in the sort of neo-retro (is that even a word?) Italian perfumery espoused by ateliers like O’Driu itself, and Bogue. The word I used was Ricola drops, which are those funny herbal cough sweets you buy at the counter of any bar or corner shop in Italy, the ones that taste of honey mixed with anise, licorice, and a whole kitchen garden’s worth of herbs.
Set aside the notes for a minute. This isn’t a fragrance overly centered on either tobacco or tuberose. Slowdive, for me, is Hiram Green’s take on honey.
And what a gorgeous and strange honey this is. Medicinal and syrupy, it begins as a river of intense aromas all knotted together so thickly that it’s difficult to make out what one is smelling. On my first wearing, I thought the opening had something of that anisic, clove-scented cherry dough that forms the medicinal heart of L’Heure Bleue (Guerlain) or even Kimonanthe (Diptyque), but a second wearing told me I was wrong.
Recently, I was lucky enough to have been sent travel sprays of the new perfumes in Parfum Dusita‘s line-up – thanks to the generosity of Pissara Umavijani. I understand that all Dusita perfumes will soon be available in the more perfumista- and budget-friendly option of these 7.5ml travel sprays, a move I can’t applaud enough. Here are my thoughts on the new perfumes.
Erawan blends the rich, vanillic hay-like properties of liatris odoratissima (deertongue) with a nutty crown of vetiver, moss, and clary sage for a result that has the same sweet, pappy aroma of freshly-poured putty and earthy, uncooked grains.
This effect is startling: nutritious without being foodie. Several non-perfumey ideas jump to mind, including freshly mown grass, warm hay, the horse feed we would give horses after a race (oats with Guinness and a boozy, fermented edge), and the smell of the brown soda bread mix prepared every morning in farmhouses up and down this country, which contains bran flakes, wholewheat flour, baking soda, salt, and milk.
Suddenly, though, after a period of lingering in the cereals aisle, Erawan rips open one side to let a crisp, pond water muguet out of hiding, a move that surprises me since I am used to the cut glass green floral notes like narcissus and muguet appearing at the top of a perfume. The coumarin facets of the liatris emerge more strongly in the drydown, giving the scent the more recognizable character of lightly toasted tobacco leaves, dry hay, honey, beer hops, and dusty vanilla.
With the green floral notes and the coumarin, I am reminded slightly of a less pissy Tabac Tabou, whereas the beginning posses more of the nutty, quinoa flour feel of Bois Farine (L’Artisan Parfumeur). These are just distant points of reference, though, because to my nose, Erawan is thoroughly original to the point of being kind of weird. And that’s a compliment.
I’d recommend Erawan to fans of rustic “countryside” fragrances that smell like the great outdoors than a classic French perfume (although that is exactly what Erawan is) – scents such as Fieno and Tobacco Toscano (Santa Maria Novella), Cuir Pleine Fleur (Heeley), Sova (Slumberhouse), and Tabac Tabou (Parfum d’Empire).
Le Sillage Blanc
Le Sillage Blanc features the same grey-green, matte, slightly oily galbanum leather that stars in both Cabochard (Cabochard) and Bandit (Robert Piguet), but to my taste, Le Sillage Blanc is an improvement on both because while it is quite dry and bitter, it is absent the stomach-churning raw meat aspect that makes Bandit unbearable (to me) and the somehow lifeless, non-moving torpor of the Cabochard. Le Sillage Blanc is slightly sweeter and smokier than its antecedents, as if the leather is trying to crack a smile while dangling a cigarette at the corner of its mouth.
Still, there is a certain brown-grey grimness to this genre in general – a certain lack of juiciness and sap that marks them out as unforgiving of human frailty. I think one needs to be Parisian, whippet-thin, and an elegant chain smoker to find this one perfectly comfortable. But in those circumstances, yes, I can see how it might read as sexy.
Fleur de Lalita
Fleur de Lalita is simply phenomenal. My favorite out of the new Dusita perfumes had initially been La Douceur de Siam, but then I tried Fleur de Lalita and have been mainlining it like a junkie ever since. There is something about this perfume that excites me, and I think that it’s because it manages the same perfect balance of crisp, crunchy green “leafy” notes and warm, milky-sweet tropical florals as in Amaranthine (Penhaligon’s) and Sira des Indes (Patou), but mixes in the deeply animalic galbanum-musk pairing that makes L’Heure Exquise (Annick Goutal) so enduringly beautiful.
I am not a big fan of galbanum, but here in Fleur de Lalita, the galbanum sidesteps the lime leaf and cut green pepper freshness of the resin and goes instead for that cigarette smoke-inflected, murky, animalic dankness that we can glimpse lurking in the depths of L’Heure Exquise and maybe even No. 19 EDP (Chanel). The animalic aspects of galbanum are cleverly emphasized with natural ambergris, which gives the body of the scent a salty, musky funk that hangs around for a good while (the last time I saw galbanum and ambergris work together so well was in Ella by Arquiste).
None of which might be apparent when you first spray this on, of course, because Fleur de Lalita is a ladylike endeavor and will only reveal her undergarments when you insist on looking. The first part of the scent, therefore, really focuses on the milky, banana-leaf sweetness of tropical ylang, jasmine, and lily; if you loved the sultry, cumin-spiked crème brulée of Amaranthine, like I do, then the opening hour or so will have your eyes rolling back in your head.
But the sharp, wet greenness of muguet reins in the supine creaminess of the florals to the perfect degree, ensuring that the scent never tips too far one way or another into sharpness or dessert. It’s like a rice pudding stirred with a snapped-off piece of agave, cold from the fridge and beginning to drip droplets of clear nectar.
Fleur de Lalita is the perfect balance of the green and crunchy with the sweet and milky, all underscored with the most beautifully musky, animalic galbanum-sandalwood seen this side of L’Heure Exquise – back when the Annick Goutal still had real Mysore sandalwood in it. I’d hesitate to try and define this, because it is a very complex fragrance and straddles (I think) several different categories, but perhaps this might worj: a tropical milky floral a là Songes, Sira des Indes, or Amaranthine crossed with a woody, animalic galbanum fragrance a là L’Heure Exquise or even Bandit. That might not seem like it would smell all that great, but it truly does.
La Douceur de Siam
Kafkaesque has, as per usual, described this fragrance to perfection – his/her degree of accuracy and eloquence is unmatched in perfume criticism. As I am not the best at describing notes or the progression of a fragrance, perhaps it is best to first read Kafka’s review to find out what La Douceur de Siam actually smells like, before returning to my flightier, impressionistic impressions.
You back? Great. Notes aside, La Douceur de Siam is, for me, the perfect rendering of that moment in Snow White when the little birds are helping Snow White to clean up the cottage of the seven dwarves by dropping fresh flowers into a vase and hanging shirts up on the line. It also reminds me of that orgasmic moment in the Herbal Essences ad when the girl throws back her head in ecstasy as soon as a dollop of that clear pink gel hits her hair.
Wearing La Douceur de Siam gives me the same feeling of childlike joy as those scenes suggest – when I first tried it, the first thought that jumped to my mind was how grateful I was that florals like this are still being made, by which I mean juicy, clear, uncluttered, and happiness-inducing without being too self-conscious about it.
The first stage of La Douceur de Siam strongly features the minty bubblegum aspects of ylang, against a backdrop of a tropical, fruity custard of frangipani, magnolia, and champaca. It might prove almost too pretty were it not for the overdose of benzoin or some other resin up front that gives the texture a strangely raw, doughy feel, like a bowl of potato flour moistened with a few drops of water. This central accord is lifted at the corners by small flourishes of green tea, banana, wet violet leaf, and cinnamon, like those little Disney birds lifting the corners of a tablecloth.
The scent goes on in this fruity, floral track for a while, getting sweeter as time goes on, while all the time avoiding that metallic, tinned-fruit aspect that dogs most tropical florals. Interestingly, the champaca begins to take over at some point, imbuing La Douceur de Siam with the rich, steamy rice and green tea character of champaca flower. Champaca is often strangely musky to my nose, like a curl of green apple peel dipped into a resinous cream, but here the clean, fruity facets of the flower dominate.
Thanks mostly to the strong presence of the champaca, the scent takes on a pleasant soapiness. This is not the thick, opaque soapiness of, say, Ivoire (Balmain) or even Noa (Cacherel), but the clear, fruity soapiness of shampoos like Herbal Essences or Garnier Fructis. Fun fact: champaca blossom gave rise to the word “shampoo” by way of the Sanskrit word for champaca, “champo”, which means “to massage”. Champaca oil was traditionally used throughout Asia to fragrance all kinds of hygiene products such as soap and shampoo.
Later on, I notice a creamy vanilla and sandalwood duo coming in and settling all the floral notes. This is a truly delicious part of the fragrance, making me think of both dry book paper and a creamy chai sprinkled with dark cocoa and flakes of coconut.
A silky, jammy rose emerges strongly at the end, and combined with the lingering traces of the fruity, tropical shampoo notes conspires to make me think of Liasons Dangereuses (By Kilian), another fragrance that conjures up the vision of a clear shampoo with droplets of pear and peach nectar suspended in the gel, popping and bursting juicily against one’s head when massaged in.
They are not smellalikes, but in both these perfumes, there are mouthwatering gourmand notes like rose jam, dark chocolate shavings, cinnamon, and coconut flakes that work perfectly against the canvas of sharp, green-fruity shampoo. These are the kind of perfumes that make me think of showering with Lush Rose Jam or Garnier Fructis (the original), aromas so appetizing that you instinctively want to open your mouth and swallow some, just to see if the taste matches up.
The only drawback I see to such out-and-out gorgeousness is the lightness of the perfume – it settles rather too quickly into that papery cinnamon rose-ambergris-sandalwood base, losing the crispy green juiciness of the tropical flowers. But while it lasts, there is little to match the beauty of that floral bouquet, which I find intensely moving in its purity and gentleness.
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.
One of four in their most recent round of perfume releases, Areej Le Doré Flux de Fleurs is an interesting experiment in what happens when you blend Indian attars with Arabian raw materials in a classically French manner, thus confusing the heck of someone used only to the Western style of fragrance. For the sake of brevity, I would define the differences between these three styles as follows:
- Western floral perfumery is predominantly abstract and mostly composed of synthetics, or synthetics mixed with some naturals
- Indian attar perfumery focuses is ayurvedic, focused on the exalting the naturalness of plants, flowers, and herbs of India and Mother Earth
- Middle-Eastern attar perfumery is less focused on nature and more on a “perfumey-ness”, mixing natural oud, musk, and ambergris with already distilled attars and ruhs for a result that is richer and more complex than Indian attars, but not abstract in the Western manner
Flux de Fleurs pushes boundaries because it borrows a little from each category. It uses traditional Indian attar ingredients, including an Indian co-distilled jasmine and frangipani ruh, a very expensive blue lotus absolute, and a complex, distilled shamama (hina) attar, but then takes those materials in an Arabian direction by mixing them with materials more associated with the Gulf region, such as deer musk and aged Cambodi and Sumatran oud. To add to the confusion, there is obviously a very French, almost classical feel to the finished perfume – it boasts not only a French name but also a Gallic smoothness in the way the materials are blended.
So, the question then becomes: which style does Flux de Fleurs end up typifying? Because, to be fair, despite the complexity of any particular perfume, the finished result is always likely to end up more in one camp than the other. My answer would be that Flux de Fleurs smells predominantly like a blend of traditional Indian ruhs and attars, but with an abstract floral polish that glosses the whole thing in a classically French aura. Despite the presence of oud and musk, in other words, Flux de Fleurs does not smell Arabian or Middle-Eastern.
Flux de Fleurs is not a challenging scent per se, but I can see why people might struggle with it: it is familiar enough to make you feel comfortable but contains odd elements that are difficult for a Westerner to place. The general style – floral oriental – is old hat to us by now. But the strangeness of the raw materials casts us adrift. It’s like hearing a tune you think you know re-mixed on the radio to the point where you wonder if you remember the original at all.
There’s a logic to why some parts of Flux de Fleurs appear strange to us. Natural raw materials and attars smell quite different to their (often) synthetic reproductions in Western perfumery. For example, in French perfumery, the use of natural jasmine oil has been almost completely replaced by jasmine synthetics because of the prohibitive cost, and now appears to us in one of several forms – sweet, syrupy, and “purple”-smelling (the Grandiflora variant) or leathery, indolic, or minty (the sambac variant).
But a jasmine ruh, which is what’s been used in Flux de Fleurs, is a different kettle of fish. A ruh is an essential oil of jasmine flowers obtained through gentle hydro-distillation in India, using the ancient deg and bhapka system. And being entirely natural, a jasmine ruh smells more like earth and fruit than floral. We can recognize it as jasmine, sure, but there are some weird bits to the smell that we don’t immediately recognize, like the smell of spilled fuel, roots, metal, porridge, or gassy bananas.
I know that sounds weird, but some naturals bear little resemblance to the idea of it that we hold in our heads. Osmanthus absolute smells incredibly pungent and cheesy, for example – more like a barnyardy oud than a flower. I remember being shocked at how little these pungent Indian naturals smelled like, compared to their standardized Western form. Indian ambers smell rather harsh and spicy, reading as vegetal and austere to the nose rather than the sweet, vanillic “souk” style ambers to which we’ve all grown accustomed. Natural jasmine is quite a bit danker, spicier, and “muddier” than the bright, fruity, creamy, or even indolic tones of the jasmine aroma most commonly presented in niche or even classic perfumes. Likewise with the nose-clearing camphoraceous slap of Indian patchouli or the pungency of Indian saffron. Not bad different, you understand, just… different different. Smelling Indian attars and ruhs – the pure, natural ones, that is – is like being on a clean food diet and cleansing your blood stream of all the unnatural sugars in processed food.
So, while the florals in Flux de Fleurs are easily identifiable as semi-tropical white ones – jasmine and frangipani – their shape does not emerge in the usual form. In other words, not in the form of sweet creaminess, indoles, syrupy texture, tropical headiness, and so on. Instead, I sense odd bits and pieces of their character coming through, like the faintly peachy rubber undertone of frangipani and the smoky phenols of jasmine, its benzyl acetate character giving the florals a grapey, fuel-like savor. Later on, when the white florals filter through the dry, woody oud and the frankincense, there is even an austere sootiness to the way the flowers present.
In general, I do not find Flux de Fleurs to be as fruity or as spicy or as sweet or as heavy as most others seem to. To my nose, it is full of these little Indian touches that aligns it with my experience of these natural ruhs and attars out of the traditional Indian canon of perfume making. There is a spicy, vegetal saffron-amber topnote that, when melded with the citrus (my nose says orange, not grapefruit), smells quite close to the traditional shamama or hina attar scent profile, but creamier and with a licorice-like nuance that makes me think of myrrh. There’s also a fuzzy nag champa or stick incense note that appears midway through, likely due to the combination of sooty frankincense, dusty benzoin, and the sweet florals, and although this never comes off as headshoppy, it does have a distinctly Indian tone.
But still, these exotic Indian touches are not enough to make me think that it’s entirely unique. There are parallels with Western niche fragrances such as Le Maroc Pour Elle by Tauer Parfums and Manoumalia by Les Nez, which gives rise to that sense of familiarity I mentioned earlier. This is mostly through the common use of tropical, rubbery white florals combined with stick incense or earthy, vegetal notes. So I wore all three perfumes together, to see if I could pin down that nagging sense of familiarity.
Side by side, Flux de Fleurs lacks the fecund earthiness and wet, savory, coconutty feel of the ylang in Manoumalia; but interestingly, returning the nose to Flux de Fleurs after Manoumalia reveals a fizzy, powdered incense note that is strikingly similar to Tauer’s effervescent Incense Rose (specifically, that Pez note that people either love or loathe in his work). Conclusion: although the rubbery, earthy nuances of the ylang are quite similar, Flux de Fleurs is far brighter, drier, and smokier/fizzier than Manoumalia. When compared directly with Le Maroc Pour Elle, Flux de Fleurs reveals a much lighter nag champa note than the Tauer, which is all round far richer and heavier than the Areej Le Doré. Conclusion: despite similar themes and approaches, Flux de Fleurs is far less headshoppy than Le Maroc Pour Elle.
I don’t find Flux de Fleurs to be very tropical, or creamy, or (overly) sweet in feel – nor do I find it spicy or dense. It is simply an unfamiliar but very Indian treatment of white flowers: earthy vegetal jasmine and peachy, rubbery frangipani filtered through a semi-pungent haze of dry, fizzy incense, powder, rubber, fuel, milk, scented erasers, Chandrika soap, and an array of other interesting, non-perfumey accords, glossed to a 3D shine in the French floral oriental style of blending. I say “simply”but of course, that’s no small feat to pull off, especially for an indie perfumer who seems to be bootstrapping everything himself from the sourcing to the distilling and bottling out in the steamy jungles of Thailand.
Marc-Antoine Corticchiato is one of my all-time favorite perfumers, along with Gérald Ghislain of Histoires de Parfums. If push came to shove (and if you were to allow me a few Chanels, Guerlains, and attars), then I feel that I could survive quite happily on their perfumes alone. Parfum d’Empire and Histoires de Parfums were my gateway to niche perfumery, and still have the highest head count in my personal collection today.
Tabac Tabou is a masterpiece that always makes me think of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, its dirty yellow floral smearing smut all over the handsome, corduroy-fronted trousers of tobacco. Real gentleman farmer chic.
Ambre Russe has survived a ruthless cull of ambers from my collection, a pogrom that included even Amber Absolute, a fragrance I still call the ne-plus-ultra of ambers. I don’t wear Ambre Russe more than once a year, but it was my first niche purchase and still one of the most satisfying.
Musc Tonkin extrait, oh boy. Less of a musk and more of a salty, oysterish indolic floral, but sensual nonetheless, in an auto-erotic kind of way. It suffocates me most pleasantly, like that game where you see how long you can hold your breath under water.
When I saw the notes for Le Cri de la Lumière, I thought how brave it was of Marc-Antoine Corticchiato to release a perfume that sounded so much like Chanel No. 18. There was also the fact that there was another ambrette-iris perfume in the Parfum d’Empire stable, namely Equistrius, which Luca Turin had already compared to No. 18 in Perfumes: The Guide. (Personally, I found Equistrius to smell very little like No. 18, the former being musky in a cocoa-ish, velvety, and opaque way, the latter musky in an angular, crystalline way.)
As it turns out, though, Le Cri de la Lumière has much more in common with clean, ozonic musks like Chypre 21 by Heeley and L’Antimatiere by Les Nez than with the more buttery Equistrius and the fruiter, greener Chanel No. 18.
Le Cri opens with the crisp but slightly alcoholic green apple nuances of ambrette seed, which are immediately folded into the silvery whipped air of orris and the smell of a hot iron hitting a starched white shirt. The fuzzy “cold air” and starched linen brightness of the opening made me think immediately of the Chinese steam laundry room feel of Encens Mythique d’Orient, especially at the start, where the green rose is powdered upwards by a whoosh of aldehydes.
All of the words used by the brand to describe the perfume ring true – “crystalline”, “vegetal”, “opalescent” and “lustrous” are words that instantly jump to my mind when I smell this. The brand mentions luxury, and I feel this too, especially in the first five minutes when the full force of that silver orris butter is felt.
Unfortunately, where Chanel No. 18 takes a bare-bones structure and makes each of the elements sing for their supper, Le Cri de la Lumière quickly reveals that its skeletal framework isn’t hiding anything deeper or more nuanced. Although a dry, greenish rose appears in the drydown, it does nothing to mask or enliven the yawning gulf of white musk that opens up behind the arresting opening.
That is not to say that perfumes like this don’t have their place. Many people love these crunchy woody floral musks for exactly the reason that I dislike them: they are anti-perfume. They are the smell of clean air, freshly-laundered shirts, and the clipped minimalism of nothing at all. It reminds me of something Holden’s dead-eyed girlfriend in Mindhunter might wear – wry and deliberately affectless, as if emotion was being taxed.
I don’t dislike Le Cri de la Lumière, but I find it puzzling that something so curiously bloodless came out of the Parfum d’Empire stable. Chanel proved with No. 18 that it’s possible for a minimalist composition to be lively and full of charm; I’m not sure why, with their history of putting out such obscenely rich, talkative fragrances Parfum d’Empire pressed the mute button on this one.
If I were writing a book on how to make it big in niche perfumery, I’d make Dusita a headlining case study. Even the most casual observer of the niche sector would tell you that Pissara Umavijani, the founder of Parfums Dusita, is probably the most astonishing success story of 2016. The niche sector is thick with the self-taught, entrepreneurs, amateur mixologists, and mainstream brands masquerading as niche, but in 2016, Pissara came out of nowhere, swept them all aside, and went straight to the top end of the market, charging between €300 and €400 for a bottle, and completely getting away with it.
Whether the perfumes themselves are any good is almost beside the point. Truth be told, I am more impressed with Pissara Umavijani’s business strategy than the perfumes themselves, but both are worth looking at.
The first thing that Umavijani did right was to align herself immediately with the right partners. The niche and artisan sector is rife with self-taught perfumers, but results are not typically the high-end, polished luxury perfumes that command Roja Dove prices. In partnering up with a very good team at one of the best fragrance labs in Grasse, she was able to ensure that the product itself was as polished as a Bvlgari jewel. And all credit due here – Umavijani is clearly an excellent creative director, taking the time to push her team to produce perfumes that are not commercially safe as Roja Dove’s perfumes, but important, artistic efforts in their own right*.
*Important correction, dated 13/06/2017: The above paragraph hypothesizes that, due to the extraordinary polish of the first three perfumes, it was the Grasse partner lab that formulated the perfumes. However, Pissara has made it clear to me since then that she is the sole perfumer behind the brand, writes her own formulas, and only uses the Grasse partner, Accords et Parfums, for European & IFRA compliance checks. My apologies if my editorializing implied, or led others to infer, otherwise.
From a commercial point of view – branding, product placement, bottle design, graphic design, copy, distribution, and so on – it is also clear that Umavijani knows what she is doing. Every single detail is haute luxe. But the most important thing that Umavijani seems to have understood is this: people need to smell the product in order to enthuse about it. 90% of success in a crowded market such as niche perfumery is simply access. Umavijani set up a very generous sampling scheme whereby for the price of postage from Paris, you would receive three large deluxe samples of each of the perfumes, housed in simple but luxurious black decant bottles.
The sampling scheme ensured that as many people as possible got to smell the perfumes. Since the perfumes are very good indeed, people enthused about them online, and the word spread – suddenly the name of Dusita was everywhere on the Internet. It was a canny investment, and other niche companies looking to enter the market should look to this example.
Companies always gripe about the expense of sampling schemes. And yes, at first glance, they are loss leaders. But Umavijani (or an advisor) had a clear vision as to the precise dividends such a sampling scheme would eventually pay out in terms of brand recognition and customer valuation. Dusita’s sampling program must have cost thousands and thousands of euros, but it was no after-thought. It was a deliberate part of the strategy to get Dusita perfumes talked about in the community, and I bet a large portion of the operational budget was devoted to it.
The second thing that Umavijani did right was social media marketing. Social media engagement is a very tricky thing for niche and indie perfumers, and few get it entirely right. Too much chatter with perfume fans runs the risk of cheapening a brand, and too little wins you a reputation for standoffishness. You want to be available to answer questions and do post-sales follow-up, but it is also important for a brand in the luxury segment of the niche perfume market to preserve at least a little bit of mystique.
Umavijani is always present on social media, always checking to see if she needs to say thank you for a nice review or answer a comment. She has aligned herself with certain influencers and prominent bloggers to help magnify and grow the brand’s presence, but has managed to make her online presence as charmingly non-commercial as possible. She is there to sell, yes, but she manages to make the seams between social media participation and selling thin enough that you don’t feel aggressively marketed to.
Only time will tell how authentic a voice Umavijani will prove to have on the social media networks and throughout the broader community. Authenticity always rings true: I think of perfumers such as Liz Moores, Sarah McCartney, and Andy Tauer who apart from handling all the onerous, day-to-day tasks of their businesses also engage meaningfully with their customers on social media, openly sharing the intimate details of their personal lives and their perfume business with joe schmoes like me and you. It feels like a privilege to be allowed this kind of access, but I know it can’t be easy for them either. Authenticity of voice on social media is very tough to develop and maintain. There’s a line to be walked, and it’s no joke trying to navigate one’s way to it.
One last word, on pricing. Many bloggers say that the only thing that matters is the perfume itself and that the price shouldn’t come into the equation. I think that price plays a very big role in how we (subconsciously or consciously) value a fragrance. Simply put, if something is cheap, we perceive its materials to be cheap. If a perfume costs almost €400, we assume that the very best materials went into it. It’s just the way our prehensile brains work, sorry.
Perfumers can price their products in two ways – production pricing or market pricing. In production pricing, you work backwards from the cost of the materials and man hours, and price the perfume at what it cost to produce (adding in margins for distributors, marketing, one’s own income, etc.). Andy Tauer recently provided an example of what goes into the costing his perfumes, and Laurie Erickson also published a post about the business costs involved in running an artisan perfumery.
On the one hand, this makes things quite clear – you know you are paying more if a precious or rare ingredient was used. On the flipside, exposing one’s own profit margins to your customers opens the door to discussions over how fairly you’ve priced your own talent.
Market pricing, on the other hand, prices a product at exactly what the market is willing to pay for it. A perfume priced at €400 ignores all the details and simply asks the question “Are you worth it?” If you feel that you deserve the luxury of an expensive bottle of perfume, then you will buy it. You won’t quibble about the perfumer’s margins, you know only that this perfume must be absolutely amazing because it costs almost €400.
People in the fragrance community talk grumpily about luxury pricing, but really, we all know that past the €80-100 mark, you are always paying for the prestige, the boasting rights, and not the actual perfume. No perfume costs more than €10 or so to make, anyway. But perfumes priced at luxury prices sell because they play into the perception that a high price means top quality.
Parfums Dusita didn’t play around – they went straight in at Roja Dove prices. That took some guts. But they held steady because they knew that the perfumes were good enough to stand up to the scrutiny of the few for whom the scent actually matters, and satisfy the desire for the exclusive, the pricey, and the haute luxe for the person also buying the $35,000 Rolex.
But Oudh Infini costs €100 more than Issara, so there’s a strange dash of production pricing mixed in there with the market pricing. The price difference is probably supposed to come across to the customer as the marker of quality for the real oud used in the fragrance. That gaping price differential makes me curious as to what they are actually using as the oud note, whereas had they priced it the same as the others, I wouldn’t have cared. But a €100 price difference? That kind of makes it my business, as a consumer. I could speculate that the oud is an expensive new oud captive developed by a laboratory like IFF or Givaudan, or real oud oil from the plantations in Laos (which I’ve been told is so plentiful and consistent in quality that it is sold in liter jars to perfume companies in France). Either way, I doubt that the cost differential actually amounts to €100 per 50mls of liquid.
From a market pricing perspective, though, pricing an oud-based perfume at this much more suggests to the customer that the raw materials are hellishly expensive. It’s a genius move because with a simple (and probably arbitrary) pricing adjustment, you’ve added value to the customer’s perceptions of your brand’s worth as they open their wallet.
Anyway, on to the perfumes themselves! They are all very good and interesting, although not half as interesting to me personally as the brand’s own stratospheric rise.
Oudh Infini has far more of the animal, furred warmth of a pack animal than a tree or resin, so at first my nose thinks it smells heavy deer musk, not oud oil. But then I’m reminded that there are a couple of pure oud oils out there that mimic the characteristics of deer musk, such as Ensar Oud’s Yunnan 2003 oil, which has a furry thickness to it that makes me think I can just reach out my fingers and touch the warm animal in front of me.
It is a brave act, you know, to launch a commercial perfume that smells like this. Those of you who have grown up on farms will not be shocked – neither will people who wear pure oud. But the rest of you? Prepare your nostrils, for Oudh Infini smells intensely of warm sheep, packed ten deep into a shed in winter, the warm (tallow fat) smell of their oily wool mixing with their shit-smeared backsides and the soiled straw beneath. I pick up a faint hint of roses, faded and sour like the emanation from a vase of roses in a locked room. It is not pleasant, it is not pretty, but it has impact.
Past the ferociously animalic, barnyardy opening, creamy sandalwood and vanilla turn the oud into a crottin of goat’s cheese. It’s refined and gentle – as I mentioned once to a friend, like dung strained through a silk stocking.
Oudh Infini does an excellent job of sketching out what one would smell in a real oud oil – evolving slowly from barnyard, feces, pack animals to runny cheese and flowers and herbs. It lacks perhaps only the more complex depth of camphor, smoke, sap, and woods that form the backbone of pure oud oil, but all the other markers are there.
However, and this is a big however, I am having trouble placing Oudh Infini in a hypothetical wardrobe. I love pure oud oil but I also love fragrance compositions that present me with a different, more artistic impression of oud. My trouble with Oudh Infini is that it smells too close to the real oud oil experience for it to succeed purely as an artistic interpretation of the oud theme.
In other words, if I want something that smells like real oud oil, why not (for reasons of cost and others) just go for oud oil? Naturally, personal preferences in terms of how we prefer to wear perfume come into it, but if you are thinking of a real oud oil experience, then there is little else as magical as an essential oil (oud oil) that can give the nose all the complexity of wood, fruit, flowers, dung, soil, and ozone without any help from a fragrance laboratory. If I want to wear a proper perfume based on oud, I’d go for more ambitious, complex perfumes such as Oud Shamash or Oud Osmanthus. They don’t smell as authentic oudy as Oudh Infini but verisimilitude is not what I’m seeking when I wear oud-based perfumes. I want the smoke and mirrors.
Mélodie de L’Amour is, to my nose, a powerful statement on jasmine, the filthy kind that drapes the insides of your nostrils in the matte black ink of pure indole. Very little to differentiate here at first between the flat wall of scatole that rises off a fresh turd and a jasmine decaying right off the vine, which is how all jasmines would be if I had my way. Boy, it fairly pins my ears back. There is the faint breath of rotting fruit to add moistness to the dank, flat tonality here, a peach or pear perhaps, with an undertone of acrylic paint or turps.
Later, it develops a green, rubbery, creamy cheese odor that I assume is gardenia, but it is successfully managed by that wall of jasmine and never approaches the rancid horror of Dame Perfumery’s Gardenia soliflore, which smells like black spots on butter taste in my mouth. Mélodie de L’Amour is the rare instance of a floral that smells more like an animal than a plant, joining the ranks of other bloodsucking florals such as Manoumalia, Rubj, and Une Fleur de Cassie, perfumes I never know if they going to wear me, eat me, or fuck me.
Issara is the most immediately likeable and wearable of the initial Dusita trio. For a fougere, it is surprisingly lush and sweet, deftly side-stepping the beardy, Brut-ish machismo of most of this year’s fougere revivals (I’m looking at you, Le Barbier de Tangers) and aligning itself with softer takes on the theme, such as Chanel’s Boy. The topnotes sparkle like sunlight on fresh snow – friendly, crisp pine mingling with mint and sage, faintly sugared with tonka bean and a starchy white musk. There is a beautifully fresh, green “salt” note here, reminiscent of beach grasses and sand dunes.
I only have two issues here, really – first, that the musky, tonka-ish drydown is rather synthetic in feel, in comparison to the more natural Oudh Infini and Melodie de l’Amour (I suspect a touch too much of either Ambroxan or Iso E Super), and second, fougeres used to be the unpretentious backbone of the male grooming world, so I’m not sure if putting it in extrait form or pricing it at €295 for 50mls isn’t missing the point somewhat. Issara is a very good fougere, but for that type of money I’d rather buy a 200ml vat of Chanel’s Boy and just splash it on with gay abandon.
I’ve been very run down recently, both in body and spirit. I have a nasty eye infection that has caused my left eye to swell up like a baboon’s arse, and although I have always been rather plain, this sudden lurch towards outright ugliness has thrown me into a deep funk. (I would like to be all “Little Women” about this, but it turns out I have no depth of character, only a succession of shallow pools).
But there are two bright spots in my gloom. Well, three if you count my children, but since they are so unreliable in their light-bestowing capacity, I won’t. The first was the totally unexpected gift by a friend of a small Le Rouge Lipstick by Givenchy included in a transatlantic perfume swap. I loved the perfumes, of course, but I was delighted by the rouge. With my face looking like a freshly-peeled potato, the swipe of labia-pink lipstick was exactly what the doctor ordered for my looks and overall mood. I might look like the back of a van, but my lips are on point.
The second bright spot was a small vial of Hiram Green’s new fragrance, Dilettante, which he had thoughtfully sent me with a note explaining that this was a fruity-floral scent, “fresh, sweet and ideal for the summer months.” This description, plus the fact that the scent was orange blossom-focused, made me feel even grumpier. Surely when you’re down, you need something that matches the blackness of your soul, not the keys to Disneyland.
But I was wrong – Dilettante is not only very lovely, but is a perfume that deals in pure joy. I am doling out my sample in small drops because I take my orange blossom in therapeutic doses, like pure vitamin C on the tongue. Dilettante is a tonic; a shot in the arm. I kind of feel like Madonna.
The first few moments of the fragrance are like getting a full hit on a whole orange tree – the green, waxy leaves, the bitter rind, the pulp, and the bark. I can’t adequately describe all the different shades of green I smell in the opening of Dilettante, but it’s kind of like driving in Ireland on a summer’s day and catching a glimpse of the colors of the fields and trees, with their gold-green, pollen-green, grey-green, jungle-green, rapeseed-green and so on whirling gently into one verdant ribbon streaming at the sideline of your vision.
It’s quite oily and heavy at the start, as if all the natural oils and absolutes are fighting each other for dominance, but it also manages to feel green and fresh. It is strongly aromatic, and I sense the presence of lavender as well as the petigrain.
After a few minutes, the intensely green, orangey topnotes settle down and the more floral orange blossom begins to bloom. But I have to thank Hiram Green with all my heart here, because the naturally syrupy sweetness of the orange blossom is cut with those sharp green notes, making it the one orange blossom-focused fragrance that I think I could wear on a regular basis rather than just doling it out like Echinacea.
Dilettante grows ever more floral as time goes by, eventually settling into a pale green wax heart that smells like pure neroli oils being mixed by hand into molten beeswax, or the cushioned air of an upscale massage parlor. There may be some jasmine, but I mainly smell beeswax, neroli, orange oil, and the slight caramelized edge of lavender. I don’t find it particularly indolic, but rather waxy, gentle, and floral-aromatic in a muted way.
For a natural perfume, the longevity and sillage as impressive. I found this to be the case also with Voyage and Shangri-La. But better yet, the base is not just some lazy fading out into green soapy vagueness as with most other orange blossom scents, but contains a little surprise animal kick to reward those willing to hang around for it – a salty, skanky “licked-skin” note that is very sensual.
Although I have no idea what Hiram Green used for the base, I suspect it is either a vegetal musk derived from ambrette seed or a tincture of real ambergris. There was a beached whale recently in the Netherlands, and although it was the Indian company Ajmal that bought the huge chunk of ambergris hacked out of its gut for an undisclosed figure, I’d like to think that someone slipped Mr. Green, who himself lives in the Netherlands, a small chunk of ambergris to tinker with.
Dilettante is not at all, as the name implies, trite. It is a sunny, orangey fragrance first and foremost but there is shading here that adds complexity. And the way that animalic, musky base slides in at the end – well, that shows that the perfumer is no amateur.
On the other hand, I’d imagine that this is the first Hiram Green fragrance that would appeal to a broader, more commercial market, because it is an easy-to-enjoy citrusy fragrance that lasts a long time and just smells so darned, uncomplicatedly good. You don’t need to know much about fragrance to enjoy Dilettante, unlike perhaps with his previous perfumes where it might help to have some experience with chypres, tuberose soliflores, or complex orientals. Dilettante requires no learning curve. It is a true elixir of vitamin C for people with troubled souls and sore, weeping eyes.
One year, at Christmas, my father gave my mother a beautiful embroidered dressing gown for her Christmas present. I remember this for two reasons. First, it was the first (and only) time I ever remember my father giving mum something quite so obviously expensive. Second, even at age 12, I knew my mum wasn’t going to like it. A woman of plain and sensible tastes, she has a strong distaste for luxury, so I expected her to murmur her polite thanks and disappear it later under the stairs, which is where all unwanted items in our house went to die.
But she loved it. I’ll never forget the look of sheer pleasure came over her face as she stroked the material – a rich black velvet with an overlying brocade of silver, gold, and vermilion threads all wound up together tightly in an intricate Chinese design. As of the lily hadn’t been gilded enough, there was a huge cream ermine muff around the collar. Either my father had – for the first time in his life – guessed exactly what it was that would make her glow like that, or she had seen it somewhere and requested it. I’ve never asked, but I’m sure it’s the latter.
Every time she wore that dressing gown, it struck me as an act of perversity, somehow. That although lovely, she was working against the natural grain of her taste in wearing something so over the top.
Jean Patou “1000” works against the grain too. What’s the grain these days anyway? Well, the fashion for simple, clear florals that ring out as clear and sweet as a bell, for one. And the muffled, beige tonality of what I think of as the Narciso Rodriguez musk family – all pleasant, all background music.
Wearing something like Jean Patou “1000” is self-consciously anti-trend, deliberately eccentric, like a teenage girl wearing a tweed hunting cape to stand out in the crowd. Or like my mum, every time she put on that ridiculous dressing gown. She looked like a fucking pimp, but…… it did look fabulous.
Legend has it that it took Patou 10 years to make “1000” and a 1,000 attempts before being released, hence the name. The perfumer credited with “1000”, Jean Kerléo, joined Patou in 1968, by which time the perfume had been in development already for 6 years. It must have been a difficult task for Kerléo to pick up on another perfumer’s brief. I also imagine that by that stage, “1000” was the elephant in the room at Patou, with people coming in every now and then to poke the monster and paste something else onto the formula.
Maybe by the time Kerléo got to it, “1000” was just sitting there, a big, bloated sack of expensive ingredients so ludicrously rich and complex that it was impossible to edit for clarity. Maybe the best he could do was give it a coherent beginning, middle, and end – a structure that held it all together. I also kind of like to think that some board member at Patou just said, “F&*k it. Just release the damn thing already.”
“1000” is a dry floral chypre, which doesn’t really tell you anything these days. It boasts whole acreages of roses and jasmine from Grasse, as well as fields’ worth of osmanthus in China that Patou allegedly had to buy in order to secure enough osmanthus for the formula. But far from being the orgasmic cornucopia of flowers you might expect – hot and glowing like the nuclear Ubar, let’s say – the effect here is muted and shady, as if all the flowers cancel each other out leaving only the sense of their richness rising to the surface like oil on water.
The one note that signs clearly, to my nose, is the violet leaf. Fresh and metallic, this shimmers so brightly in the top of the composition that I couldn’t stop thinking about Fahrenheit and Cuir Pleine Fleur. Interspersed with starched-white-shirt aldehydes and a bitter, crushed-herbs effect (trampled artemisia?), the violet leaf opening is striking, and yes, completely out of step with the trends in modern perfumery.
In the heart, an orchestra of expensive flowers – rose, jasmine, powdery iris, osmanthus – raise their voice to the ceiling as one, but the effect remains soft, sottovoce. There is a vague hint of apricots and suede from the osmanthus, dusky soap from the iris, a thrilling flicker of indoles from the jasmine. But not one flower makes a break for it. Chanel No. 5 and Arpege strike me as much the same, a chorus of dark florals and powder and ambery fruits swirled together so that no one note is distinct.
A faint prickle of civet licks around the edges of the florals, spiking the composition with the warm glow of animal, like raw honey or stale saliva from licked skin. The tainted florals now merge with a golden, mossy drydown that features plenty of oakmoss, 70’s style patchouli, labdanum, and Mysore sandalwood. Interestingly, the oakmoss adds depth and shade, but no bitterness – it’s as if the herbal bitters and violet leaf had played enough of that role at the start.
The drydown is textured – creamy, but also earthy, mossy, woody, with enough lingering civet-licked florals for light relief. It’s at this stage I can see the familiar relationship with the far sweeter and more single-minded floral of Joy, as well as with other dry woody chypres such as La Perla. I don’t, however, see the connection to Mitsouko, as so many people seem to.
I can see why people might find this a bit too much. It’s overly complex and it’s hilariously out of step with the times. Every time I wear it, I feel I should come equipped with a map, a pencil, and a Venn diagram just to try and figure out what’s going on. It’s not even me, in particular. But the more I wear it, the more I like it, especially if I stop scrutinizing it and just let its monumental effect wash over me. It’s a question of letting my taste the time to adjust to a new shape, that’s all. Just like I eventually came to like that pimp dressing gown.
On my second day in Rome, there I was having lunch with my husband in one of our favorite restaurants in Trastevere, La Scala, when lo and behold, a friend of mine happened to walk past with her partner! After dragging them in and making them taste all our food, we discovered that neither Ana nor George were enjoying Rome very much. They thought it too gritty, too dirty, and the people a little gruff. They’d even had bad pizza the night before, which in Italy is like turning up to an orgy and finding everyone already engaged. I’d imagine.
My husband, being a lover of Rome, felt that all they needed was a little bit of good pizza to start seeing Rome in a good light. Me, I suggested perfume. There happened to be, I suggested innocently, a little niche perfume store just down the road, would the men mind waiting….?
The men did indeed mind waiting, a fact they made clear in very loud, complaining tones of voices that we, however, could no longer hear, because we had long since disappeared into the cozy gloom of Roma Store. Looking back at them through the window, I saw that they had adopted the centuries-old stance of men waiting on women – dazed, slightly defeated, and weighed down by shopping bags.
So Ana and I proceeded to smell all of the perfumes in the shop. We both wanted to test Map of the Heart v4, said to be Feu d’Issey smell-alike and an artistic achievement in its own right. We thought it smelled a bit like fruity, milky vomit, and on my skin in particular, there appeared a slight biscuity undertone, like standing really, really close to someone who’d just eaten a packet of McVities digestives.
Spotting a big bottle of Parfums de Nicolai Number One Intense, I grabbed it and sprayed it on the back of my arm. I was immediately transported. This was a Chypre, Goddammit. A real-life, honest-to-goodness Chypre with a capital C. In the middle of all these cool, trendy, somewhat “out there” niche perfumes, this perfume felt like the air was splitting open to reveal a third dimension, allowing me to slip into a dark, cool forest, its atmosphere sodden with the inky, bitter smell of oakmoss absolute and thick with jasmine.
“Smell this,” I urged Ana, excited and grinning like a love-struck fool, “Now this is a real chypre, right?” Ana smelled my arm, and made a little face. “A little bit too polite,” she said, “A real ladies-who-lunch kind of scent. Not sensual enough for me.” She also noted that it was more about tuberose than jasmine, and that it also smelled a little like Odalisque, which she owns. And she is correct, of course, on both scores. But I can’t explain it – right there, at that moment, this unassuming little thing – a De Nicolai! – was the most exciting thing in the shop for me.
When I got back to the apartment that night, I looked up the reviews, and to my surprise, they backed Ana up on the general tone of the fragrance – a nice, somewhat staid white floral in the classical French manner. Patricia de Nicolai had won the Mouillette d’Or for Best International Perfume Creator in 1989 with Number One.
But I insisted – no, no, I smell oakmoss! This is surely a floral chypre. A sexy, jasmine-soaked chypre with a dark, womanly feel to it. I convinced myself that I needed it in my life and that I’d be the only person on earth to divine the true sexual, earth mother, Goddess-like nature of this perfume that everyone else thought was boring. I would walk the streets leaving a trail of devastated men in my wake. So, after a month of humming and hawing I ordered a small bottle of it directly from Parfums de Nicolai.
Yeah, so….I was wrong.
This is not sexy. It’s also, as Fragrantica and Basenotes correctly identified, not a chypre but a white floral. There is a smidgen of oakmoss absolute in the formula, but it’s not enough, no, not nearly enough, to spread a much-needed dark, velvety layer of forest under the feet of the sumptuous white florals.
And without the chypre bitterness, this is truly all about a big block of white flowers – orange blossom, jasmine, tuberose – bleeding into each other and smoothing out any of the individual, interesting identifiers of each flower. There are no fruity indoles from the jasmine, no buttery, mentholated weirdness from the tuberose, and no honeyed orange notes from the orange blossom.
It’s, well, it’s “Nights in White Satin” (“I looooovvveee yeeeewwwwww”) and shoulder pads and big hair, and it’s also, clearly, Giorgio.
A friend of mine wears this, but she is a young, hot, sexy girl who has hordes of men panting after her. I think that in order to wear something as old-fashioned as Number One, you have to either wear it with irony, or you have to be beautiful enough yourself to subvert the essential staidness of the fragrance.
But I’m mostly too tired to be ironic, and I’m not cool or sexy enough to make it ripe. I guess I’ll have to reserve it for those special occasions when I want to clear an elevator and make people hate perfume all over again.