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Three by Mellifluence: Hellicum, Spirit of Narda II, and Miel Pour Femme (Almond)

1st September 2021

It’s been a while since I last wrote about Abdullah’s work at Mellifluence, which was about his amazing Tsuga Musk mukhallat featured in my Basenotes article, ‘The Murky Matter of Musk‘ (1 September, 2017).  Four years might have passed since then, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been dipping into Mellifluence’s wares in the meantime. Last summer, I placed an order with Mellifluence for some raw materials and mukhallats, and Abdullah generously included some samples of stuff he also wanted me to smell. I’m getting to them only now, which unfortunately means that some of the scents I talk about are now unavailable.

Because here’s the thing you need to know about Mellifluence before you invest – Abdullah works in small batches, using naturals he has sourced elsewhere, and when that material runs out, so too does the mukhallat featuring it. That means you need to work fast, with a speedy turnaround time from sample to full bottle (well, tola) purchase if you’re going to snap up the thing you love. The house style is light, clean, and delicate, which is no mean feat considering the ofttimes heaviness of some of the naturals involved. In general, Abdullah excels at work involving rose, green herbaceous notes like lavender, tuberose (which he is able to render quite masculine), oud, and vetiver. 

To the best of my knowledge, Abdullah works only with naturals, because of certain sensitivities he experiences when dealing with synthetics. But worry not, while the all-natural focus does give his work a certain ‘crunchy granola’, aromatherapy-adjacent flavor, I haven’t personally experienced any of the muddiness you sometimes get with all-natural perfumery. The flip side of all this lightness and clarity is, however, a certain lack of projection and longevity. But people seeking out the authenticity of raw materials above all else are already mostly prepared for this trade-off.   

The other things to be aware of are that these are mukhallats, not attars, though people (and brands who make them) tend to use the word ‘attar’ to describe any perfume in oil. Strictly speaking, however, though mukhallats and attars are both oil-based (i.e., they do not contain alcohol), attars are defined by their manner of production, which is the distillation of raw materials into sandalwood oil in the traditional ‘dheg and bhapka’ method (named for the copper piping and leather receptacle involved in the method) used in Kannuaj, India. A mukhallat, on the other hand, is the term used to describe a mix (mukhallat is simply Arabic for ‘blend’ or ‘mix’) of any already distilled essences, absolutes, attars, ruhs, and oud oil (and sometimes even synthetics, increasingly so in modern times) with a carrier oil, which used to be sandalwood oil but for reasons of both cost and availability these days is more likely to be something like moringa, jojoba, or even good old vegetable oil. For those of you who don’t care about the pedantry of this, your main takeaway should be that these are oils, and often highly concentrated ones, and therefore need to be dabbed onto the skin (or beard, if you have one) in judicious amounts. A dab will do ya. 

 

Hellicum

 

Hellicum’s opening is both medicinal and animalic – fresh lavender and sage dipped in something lasciviously scalpy, like costus. There is also a brief flash of something sweet, like vanilla or honey, but this is gone almost immediately. Oud emerges from a mist of sinus-clearing eucalyptus or mint, and it is almost outrageous to me that a wood oil so deeply thick, so animalic, can be stretched out and massaged into something so airy. Flanked by those soft, camphoraceous herbs and pinned in place by a waxy amber accord that smells like a minty version of a Werther’s Original, the oud reads more as a light, clean leather than the stable filth that we are sometimes asked to grit our teeth through in the name of oud.

 

And this is precisely the kind of sleight of hand that Abdullah of Mellifluence excels in. Heavy, animalic substances tweaked until they are transformed into something clean, and delicate, qualities more suited, perhaps, for the soothing of frayed nerves than for the purposes of seduction or for projecting an image of yourself onto the world.

 

It is not a slight to suggest, by the way, that Hellicum, like many Mellifluence mukhallats, is more Rescue Remedy than perfume. Sometimes, that’s what life calls for. I rarely wear fragrance during the day, choosing instead to aromatherapize myself off the stress ledge by rubbing a Mellifluence mukhallat or one of his naturals onto a knuckle, or massaging some of my Francesca Bianchi Under My Skin body oil into the ends of my hair. These quiet, subtle whiffs of aroma as I type, gesticulate, or turn my head are what propel me through my workday, a friendly hand at the small of my back. Hellicum is really good at this. I especially love the hidden thicket of patchouli tucked into the tail of the scent, there to please anyone who’s been paying attention. 

 

Spirit of Narda II

 

Part of the risk of falling in love with any Mellifluence mukhallat is returning to the brand’s Etsy page and realizing that it no longer exists. I hope that Abdullah finds some way to bring this back, though, because to my nose, it is one of the best things he has ever made. It reminds me of a long lost love of mine, which is the sadly discontinued Bohèmians en Voyage (Alkemia), which had a similar pastoral quality to it, like a stroll along countryside lanes, past fields of wheat and sunny hedgerows full of wild barley and small wildflowers.

 

The ‘Nard’ in the title refers to spikenard, or jatamansi, an intensely aromatic herb native to India not a million miles away from lavender in overall scent profile, but featuring a uniquely fatty, animalic undertone, like beef tallow or the yellow subcutaneous fat under the skin of an organically reared piece of mutton. In Spirit of Nard II, the herbaceous aspects of the spikenard are sharp and spiky, like a thistle, but there is also a milky element to the it that’s relaxing to the point of inducing sleepiness. This is bracketed by medicinal woods – an antiseptic sort of oud material, no doubt – and a soft, vegetal muskiness.

 

Spirit of Narda II feels complex and multi-layered, a haze wherein herbaceous, woody, milky, floral, and musky molecules advance and recede in such a crazy loop that you are never sure what it is all supposed to be, category-wise. Each time I wear it, I’m stumped. Is it an oud masquerading as a Spanish leather? A herb that’s secretly a sheep? A plant revealed by those meddling kids to be a medicine? No idea. But two things it is not are (a) available to buy, and (b) aromatherapy rather than a fully-realized perfume.

 

Miel Pour Femme (Almond)

 

This is an odd one. Not honey at all, but rather, a pale wodge of barely set beeswax poured into a polished oak mold and wrapped up in rustling layers of that edible paper they roll candy cigarettes or torrone in. It smells varnishy, waxy, and ever so slightly stale, like printer paper or Holy Communion wafers left open in a wooden chest. I suppose all this is also very much almond – not the syrupy cyanide (benzaldehyde) tones of most almond accords, but the grassy tannins of raw almond that you get in fragrances such as L’Amandière (Heeley). The overall effect has been achieved with a combination of benzoin (for that communion wafer aspect) and beeswax (for that waxy white honey aspect). The scent thickens up, over time, into a blanched, stodgy sweetness that is never as animalic or as thick as real honey, but still quite a distance away from the beeswax-paper-almond of the first half. Miel pour Femme (Almond) is fine, if a little odd. It just doesn’t set my world on fire quite as effectively as Spirit of Narda II.

 

 

Source of sample: I purchased 3mls of Miel Pour Femme (Almond) from the Mellifluence Etsy page, and 0.2ml samples of Hellicum and Spirit of Narda II were included as a gift with purchase.

 

Cover Image: Photo by Susan Wilkinson on Unsplash

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Les Indémodables Part II: Iris Perle, Fougère Émeraude, Rose de Jamal, and Chypre Azural

1st March 2021

 

Iris Perle

 

Username checks out. In its totality, Iris Perle is an opalescent soap bubble of freshly peeled mandarin over soapy-waxy-fatty mimosa clasped in a child’s slightly sweaty paw, but studied closely over a day, it breaks down into two distinct phases. The first is reminiscent of what I think of as the typically Italian take on iris, i.e., slightly bitter, powdery, and freshly-laundered, rather than floral. This is clearly built around a ‘grey’ workaday iris material (rather than orris root) dressed up with lots of mandarin peel and the sharp, vegetal greenness of violet leaf, which lends a subtle leather accent. It’s not a million miles off the Acqua di Parma or Prada Infusion d’Iris line DNA. But more expensive-smelling. So, like Satori Iris Homme

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The mimosa, shy creature that it is, is slow to unfurl, but eventually we get glimpses of that “is it a flower? Is it school glue? Is it a cucumber?” oddness that makes this flower so charming. It smells high-toned and bleachy, which gives it only a glancing similarity to the treatment of mimosa in Une Fleur de Cassie (Malle) (Une Fleur de Cassie possesses a grungy, garbagey tone that Iris Perle does not), and absolutely no connection at all to the throatier, almond gateau takes on mimosa like Farnesiana (Caron). In fact, as time goes on, it is the subtly aquatic cucumber aspects of mimosa that come to the fore, joining with the violet leaf to form a pale (wispy) melony leather accord that splits the difference between Diorella (Dior) and Le Parfum de Thérèse (Malle). Verdict: Nice, though not required reading if you have either Diorella or Le Parfum de Thérèse.   

 

 

Fougère Émeraude

 

I left Fougère Émeraude for last because (a) I have extremely narrow parameters for the type of tuberose I am willing to wear (see here for evidence of just how anal I get about it), and (b) I usually find fougères too masculine and bitter-smelling for me to pull off. But I’m pleasantly surprised! Fougère Émeraude manages to find my sweet spot on both the note (tuberose) and the style (fougère) and does so with such panache that I’m genuinely excited to wear it. It might even be – gasp – my favorite of the entire Les Indémodables sample set.

 

Let’s start with its treatment of tuberose. Fougère Émeraude captures all the toothpasty, camphoraceous ‘box hedge’ greenness I love in Carnal Flower and sidesteps entirely the lurid butter-bubblegum loudness that I abhor in Fracas. The tuberose smells dewy, crisp, and freshly-watered, not wilted or overblown. What I appreciate in particular is that, before the tuberose can start to droop and start smelling of its naturally fleshy, semi-decaying self, the note is quickly flanked by a softly powdery ‘fern’ accord made up of lavender, mimosa, tonka, and amber, so what you end up smelling is tuberose that’s been modulated and softened from all angles – a creamy, powdery floral accord with tuberose in the mix, rather than a full-on, straight-ahead tuberose.

 

The fougère element of the scent also plays squarely in the modern fougère sandbox, meaning that it leans on creamy tonka, powdery lavender, and soft floral notes rather than on the rather brusque aromatic sting of leaves, twigs, and bitter-minty oakmoss for its structure, thus making it perfectly easy for a women (certainly this woman) to wear.

 

The green, floral creaminess of Fougère Émeraude, particularly in its drydown, reminds me a little of the drydown of Chypre Palatin (Parfums MDCI), albeit without that scent’s lush, dense-as-a-brick castoreum-oakmoss-labdanum accord that makes it both sweetly creamy and subtly animalic. But where Chypre Palatin is a special occasion scent, Fougère Émeraude’s lightness of texture and (comparative) freshness makes for an altogether more casual wear, and thus is perfectly suited for an everyday ‘reach’.

 

Rose de Jamal

 

I don’t know who the Jamal in Rose de Jamal is, but I suspect he’s the guy they hired to sneak into the Kannauj attar factory at night and spoil an otherwise nice, fresh green rose distillation with an over-enthusiastic pour of whatever woody aromachemical they use in Rose 31 (Le Labo).

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I can’t blame Jamal. The shortage of real sandalwood oil, coupled with the rise in India of a middle class of young men and women who largely prefer to smell fresh and modern in dupes of Dior Sauvage and Gucci Flora than of anything their parents or grandparents might have worn, i.e., attars and ruhs wrung from Mother India’s abundant flowers, herbs, and aromatics, has pretty much taken the traditional attar factories of Kannauj out at the knees.

 

Rose de Jamal smells like the stuff churned out these days by attar houses that have accepted reality and switched to producing oil-based freshies and designer dupes in their labs (no deg and bhapka here), their backrooms filled with gallon containers of modern aromachemicals rather than precious rose oils, sandalwood, or choyas. So, like I said, I don’t blame Jamal. He’s just out there, trying to survive, you know? I do blame Antoine Lie, however. I love Antoine Lie’s work in general, so I’m not too sure what went wrong here, unless it was a deliberate cash grab for the market share currently dominated by Rose 31 (Le Labo). Rose de Jamal smells like the beginnings of a decent rose accord – minty, powdery, but also jammy –  quickly smothered by a brutal cloud of chemical ‘radiance’ that seems to last for days on fabric and on the skin.

 

Chypre Azural

 

What Acqua Viva (Profumum Roma) does for lemons, Chypre Azural does for oranges – a superbly naturalistic whole-of-tree citrus accord (leaves, fruit, pith, wood) sustained for an abnormally long time without resorting to any (obvious to me anyway) aromachemical support system. It’s basically my dream orange cologne-style fragrance – Hermes Concentré d’Orange – retrofitted to last more than ten minutes. And as long as you set your expectation dial at ‘long-lasting eau de cologne freshie’ level, Chypre Azural doesn’t disappoint. If you come to it looking for a genuine chypre with all its twists and turns, however – well. Chypre Azural is a lot of things (all of which are an orange) but a chypre it is not.

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Aside from the midsection, where a rather soapy neroli-musk accord sets in, Chypre Azural is resolutely linear. If you want to smell of orange pith from morning to night, then this will thrill you. For me, personally? Smelling of citrus this bright is fantastic in the early morning hours but all kinds of inappropriate by dinnertime. My seven-year-old daughter, Mila, crawled into bed with me in the middle of the night after a nightmare, and after wriggling into ‘space pod now attached to mother ship’ position, she sniffed me and said, “Why does your neck smell like oranges? It’s the middle of the night!” Exactly.     

 

Source of Samples: I purchased the Les Indémodables sample set here.  

Cover Image: Photo by Steven Lasry on Unsplash

 

 

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Tyger Tyger by Francesca Bianchi

2nd February 2021

There are three types of tuberose fragrance and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Category I is Photorealistic Tuberose, which is where you find the dewy ‘ripped from nature’ takes like Carnal Flower (Malle), Moon Bloom (Hiram Green), and yes, even Tubéreuse Criminelle (Lutens) after it shimmies through that Listerine bead curtain up front.

Category II is Nights in White Satin tuberose, where you find all the aging Baby Janes sweating naked but for a fur coat on a hot Southern veranda, waiting to pounce on the mail boy, her left buttock making a slurping sound as she propels herself off her lounge chair – stuff like Amarige (Givenchy), Giorgio (Giorgio Beverly Hills), and Number One Intense (De Nicolai).

Category III is Tuberose Messed Up Beyond All Recognition, the hangout room for perfumes that drown out the objectionably fruity bubblegum bullshit of tuberose until you’re smelling as much hay, leather, incense, or patchouli as tuberose itself. Tubéreuse III (Histoires de Parfum) and Daphne (Comme des Garcons) are good examples.

I have little use for perfumes from Category I. I wear Carnal Flower about once a year, swooning at its limpid green beauty only to cheerfully bench it again for another twelve months. Category II, in all its “The Eighties Called and Want Their Shoulder Pads Back” glory, is triggering, for me, and therefore a hard no. (Even some really modern perfumes, like Mélodie de l’Amour (Dusita) and L’ Eau Scandaleuse (Anatole LeBreton), released in 2016 and 2014 respectively, accidentally fall into Category II due to the man-eating nature of their tuberose). Category III is really the only space in which I can enjoy tuberose, because, as you might have guessed by now, tuberose needs to be so heavily masked with other notes that I can get it down without gagging.

Because Tyger Tyger by Francesca Bianchi is fruit, tuberose (and ylang, to my nose) over smoky woods and uncured leather, it would seem to fall effortlessly into the third category. Right? And yep, it mostly does. However, the sticky peach jam note coaxes out all of the unfortunate bubblegum tendencies of tuberose, which means that it tips its rather cartoonish Jessica Rabbit sunhat just enough in the direction of the Nights in White Satin category to make me uncomfortable.     

Which is my long-winded (even for me) way of saying that Tyger Tyger is not for me, but that is due entirely to my own personal issues with tuberose rather than the way in which the perfume is constructed or wears. The perfume itself is blameless. Lovers of the spicy 1980s floriental style of Big White Floral will rejoice in this juice. It starts off with a hugely sweet peach bubblegum note that might as well be tuberose candy – and at this point, I’m all #thanksifuckinghateit.

But this is Francesca Bianchi, y’all. She’s not going to leave those great, big honey-dripping white flowers out there on their own for long. Almost immediately, in fact, the familiar Bianchi accord of ‘stony, smoky, slutty iris leather with a side of licked skin’ (that’s how I refer to it anyway) rises up to infuse the floral candy with an attractive smokiness, kind of like hay, leather, and woods being smoked in a far off barn.  

So, yes, by the mid-section, I’m starting to come around. There’s enough going on here to reduce the tuberose to something I can just about glimpse at the corner of my eye. Think Pèche Cardinal (Parfums MDCI) – minus the tropical coconut – sleeping with a stable boy, their sticky sex juices mingling with the grimy but healthy aroma of leather riding tack and hay. It shares something with the utterly mad, bubblegum-on-steroids tuberose incense of Daphne (Comme des Garcons), a bit of that fleshy peach sweetness of Pèche Cardinal, and quite a lot of overlap with the retro butter-caramel-leather-hay-filtered smut of Tubéreuse III.

The drydown smells curiously like the peach-scented floor wax of Chinatown, the tuberose boiled down until its bubblegum and peach juice juiciness evaporates, fading out into a gently smoky Crayola finish. But tuberose wax is still tuberose, and man, even a little bit of it is nigh on too much for this gal. As it flattens out slightly at the end, more of the scent’s candied tuberose-ness – and thus also its essentially 1980s floriental character – is laid bare. Don’t get me wrong – Tyger Tyger is a beautifully made, and surprisingly softly spoken white floral that will please many. It’s really no fault of the scent that it happens to brush up against one of my personal triggers.  

 

Source of Sample: PR sample, provided gratis by the brand. 

 

Cover Image: Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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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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Fallintostars by Strangelove NYC: A Review

27th November 2019

Fallintostars by Strangelove NYC is clever because it pairs the 15th century smell of Hindi oud – the dank, rotting, wet wood smell of animal hides piled high in a medieval dungeon – with the 21st century radiance of a modern amber. For the first half hour, the dissonance is dizzying. The oud is so authentically filthy that I feel like I’m being pressed up against a wall by an lout with a shiv and bad intentions. It’s as funky as a plate of fruit and cheese furred over with mold, wrapped in a length of freshly-tanned leather, and buried in a pile of steaming, matted straw.

But just when you fear you’re slipping wholesale into slurry, you notice the bright, peppery overlay of something radiant and electric, like sparks popping off a shorted wire. This accord calls to mind the aromachemically fresh, smoky black tea opening of Russian Tea (Masque Milano Fragranze) more than the pink pepper the notes tell me this is likely to be. The distance between the light and the dark is perfectly judged. It’s more of a whoosh than a lift. It smells exciting – sexy even. I’m tempted to douse myself in it and force strange men to come sniff my neck, even though, technically, this hard, peppery smell is more masculine-leaning than otherwise.

But wait, because we haven’t really talked about the amber yet. Poor Christophe Laudamiel – I bet that after the category-defining glory that is Amber Absolute (Tom Ford) he’s afraid to touch labdanum for fear of either never reaching those heights again or being accused of repeating himself. But then again, this is Christophe Laudamiel we’re talking about – a man who, as I’ve said before, when confronted with a straight line instinctively starts to zig zag wildly across the page like a wild hoss. He seems to create restlessly in one forward motion, refusing to circle back to even his most hallowed of halls.

So, no, this is not the benzoin-thickened incense amber of Amber Absolute, but (unexpectedly) the bright, hard sparkle of a champagne-and-vodka amber in the style of pre-reform Ambre Russe (Parfum d’Empire). Like a shot of those clear gold liquors served in the Alps after dinner, I’m not sure which I want to do more – drink it or apply it to a wound. It smells…well, excuse my language, but fucking amazing. How does a perfumer get amber to smell as rich as leather but as transparent as jelly?

My nose fails me when it comes to the other notes. I don’t get any of the green, hay-like barnyardiness of narcissus (unless it’s giving the dirty straw notes in the Hindi oud some welly) or indeed any of the gentler, more jasmine-like nuances of the jonquil variety, and there’s nary a hint of rose. I don’t perceive the benzoin at all, which is strange because even if I can’t smell it, I can usually feel it thickening the texture of the basenotes into a flurry of papery dust.

What I smell in Fallintostars is really an act in three parts: Hindi oud, followed by champagne-and-vodka amber, and finally a huge honking myrrh not listed anywhere. Of course, it’s entirely possible that Christophe has managed to work the inky, astringent tones of saffron and hina attar (henna) with his feverish fingers into the shape of a rubbery, mushroomy myrrh. It’s also possible that it’s just myrrh.

Anyway, what I like about this perfume is that it transcends its raw materials to make you think about the way it is composed. The modern, near slavish adoration at the foot of complex-smelling naturals such as Hindi oud or rose or labdanum often results in muddy, brown-tinged accords that speak more to their own worthiness than to joy, especially in the indie sector. In Fallintostars, Christophe Laudamiel takes heavy hitters like Hindi oud and makes it smell like bottled fireflies. And that is alchemy, pure and simple.

Disclosure: A sample of Fallintostars was sent to me by Strangelove NYC for review. My opinions are my own.

Image by Alina Zakovyrko from Pixabay

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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

Animalic Citrus Floral Hay Independent Perfumery Leather Review Smoke

Aftelier Tango: A Review

13th February 2018

 

A common complaint about natural perfumes is that they rarely, if ever, transcend their materials. That without the lifting sparkle of aldehydes or the spaciousness of white musk or Iso E Super they take up a dense, muddy form, their back flattened against a wall. To be honest, as much as I love natural perfumes, it’s hard to deny this.

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Parfums Dusita Erawan, Fleur de Lalita, La Douceur de Siam, Le Sillage Blanc

12th November 2017

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

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.

Floral Oriental Hay Incense Review Violet

Amouage Opus III

1st March 2016

One day, I was coming out of the Book Centre and he was coming out – both of us with our respective friends, and both of us in our Catholic school uniforms. As we passed each other, our eyes met, and I swear to God, we both turned full circle to take a good long look at each other.

I had never before done anything so brazen in my life. We both walked backwards to keep staring at each other as our respective groups pulled apart, and if a movie crew had been there to catch the moment, it would have gone down in history as the most romantic moment in my shabby little life. I was 16. Back at our respective schools after lunch – boys and girls attend separate schools in Ireland – we both busied ourselves with the business of asking around. Who is this person? What do we know of their people? Their pedigree?

The intelligence on him came quickly back – nobody to bother about. I had a certain amount of capital to expend, being reasonably attractive, popular, and brainy, whereas he was an unknown quantity, and certainly not popular.

Didn’t matter – I had to have him. It also didn’t matter that it ended badly, two years down the line. I will never forget the romance of that moment. The first and only time I’ve ever fallen in love on the spot.

Amouage Opus III gives me a similar feeling. I don’t know how it happened, but there’s been a coup de foudre. Our eyes met and I did a full twirl on my heels. So I now send out feelers into the community – is this a worthy one? The early reports are not encouraging. Nice, they say, but save your money. You can do better.

If I were to distill a whole Internet’s worth of reviews of Opus III into two phrases, it would be “overly complex” and “nothing special or notice worthy.” I don’t argue those points – in many ways, Opus III is both overly complex and not at all groundbreaking or original. But – and it’s a big but – it has a lilting, slow-moving beauty to it that spins my heart off like a leaf on an eddy. It’s like being at a crazy party and discovering at the last minute that it’s really the big, silent farmer in the corner that you want to go home with. Opus III has a solid heft that makes me want to curl up inside it.

Reducing it to a category, I’d say that Opus III is a massive violet floriental. But as others have pointed out, the combination of notes is so complex that it’s hard to pick out individual notes. The best I can do is point to the various phases that the fragrance moves through, managed through a series of small, barely perceptible shifts and transitions.

Violet is the moving force here and is present in each permutation. First, we have the violet-hay-earth opening, where the bitter, dirt-covered hay of broom is balanced out by a wet, candied violet accord that comes off like Apres L’Ondee on steroids.

Welling up behind this dewy, bittersweet opening is a bank of mimosa flowers with their fluffy yellow, bitter almond scent. When the mimosa meets the violet, the fragrance shifts from wet hay-violets to a dusty pollen note that makes one think of the yellow dust that covers your fingers when you crumple a buttercup or some other cheerful yellow wildflower.

There is also a dusty heliotrope note here that makes me think of Farnesiana or L’Heure Bleue, but this lacks almost completely the fruity and pastry-like tones of those fragrances. There is a similar weight here, though, like a piece of blue velvet folded over many times.

A tiny accord is hidden here and I catch glimpses of it only sometimes – a dove-grey iris note that colludes with the violets to produce a faint (very faint!) cosmetic undertone. Not exactly lipstick, not exactly powder, but something a little bit frilly.

Under the earth-hay violets and the meadow-pollen violets and the iris-violets, there is another violet combination brewing, and it turns out to be the definitive one – violets and ylang. Ylang introduces a fruity, plasticky edge with a banana-like note to the mix, and when it merges with the violet note, its creamy banana custard voluptuousness becomes corrupted with a strange boot polish note. Could be tar, could be nail polish remover like some reviews mention – I don’t know. But it is a little strange, and more than a little addicting. It’s what draws me back to my sample time and time again, like a druggie.

The spicy orange blossom and jasmine are secondary players here, but they too form their own little pairing with the violets, and add a slight indolic languor to the violets’ dewy, childlike presentation.

Opus III winds up in familiar Amouage territory – a daub of frankincense, dry woods, amber – and while the base is not wildly new or exciting, what it does do is provide a dry, un-sweet landing for the rich floral combinations swirling around the violets. The base is what makes Opus III perfectly unisex, and takes it further away from the two fragrances to which Opus III is most commonly compared, namely L’Heure Bleue and Insolence EDP, which are far more obviously feminine.

Having mentioned the Guerlains, I must mention that I find Opus III to be far more satisfying than either of those fragrances, and more beautiful. I love the rich, earthy hay of the broom, the yellow pollen feel from the mimosa, and the unctuous creamy ylang. It combines – to my nose – the best of L’Heure Bleue, Samsara, and Insolence, and cuts away the fat and the excess fruitiness of those scents.

Opus III smells wholly natural and of this earth – and although it lasts a long time, is longevity is due to a certain richness and heft of fragrance oils rather than muscular woody synthetics. It wears on the skin like a rich, comfortable old velvet cloak.

I rather love it – can you tell? This fragrance moves me. But like any coup de foudre, I’m suspicious of the strength of my feelings. Practically everyone notes that Opus III is not an unusual or extraordinary fragrance in any way. Does that mean that my tastes are pedestrian? Am I a bit of a pleb? Well, probably, and more than just a bit. I can’t quite bring myself to care, though. I want to wear this, and so by God I will.

Hey Opus III! Yeah, you, the hefty farmer with the big red face in the corner! Get your coat – you’ve pulled! Let’s hope this doesn’t end too badly. My judgment in these matters is famously terrible.

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