Picture a delicately carved silver dish piled high with quivering cubes of rose milk lokhoum, barely set and opalescent. This tower of pink jellies, as wobbly-legged as a newborn giraffe, sits perched on a folded suede opera glove. In the background, a complex but translucent inter-knitting of pink pepper, fruits, roses, and white tea recalls the faded-silk grandeur of both Etro’s Etra and Rajasthan, a series of polite, sepia-toned portraits of India as seen through the rose-tinted glasses of imperialists.
It’s difficult to figure out what Strangelove NYC is, as a brand. If you were to go by appearances alone – the fashionably minimalistic, almost text-free website, the $260 perfume necklaces with 1.25mls of perfume oil, the fact that Helena Christiansen is the brand’s spokesperson – you’d be forgiven for writing these off as perfumes for New York socialites, designed to look banging on the glossy, bronzed neck of a supermodel as she poses for a photo to go with her ITC Top Shelf interview.
But you’d be wrong.
Bruno Fazzolari Feu Secret opens with the balsamic, fruity tang of fir balsam, jammy and bitter in equal measure. Underscored with the earthy tang of turmeric, the coniferous notes feel unfamiliar, because the combination smells simultaneously earthy, green, sweet and waxy, like a piece of fruit dropped into a bag of powdered herbs.
My first impression of Francesca Bianchi’s Under My Skin was that of a milky sandalwood over something vegetal and spicy, like a dish of Chinese greens simmered with lots of black pepper and fenugreek. But like Santal de Mysore, which it resembles in some parts, Under My Skin reads like two different perfumes – one when sniffed closely on the skin, and the other sniffed as an aura or a trail of scent on the air.
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.
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.
LANZ is a good example of what Luca Turin refers to as skin physics, namely the way in which moisture added to or subtracted from the skin can alter the way a perfume develops.
When I first tried LANZ, I was in New York, and it was the last gasp of an Indian summer – temperatures in the high twenties (Celsius) and humidity at 95%. Under those conditions, LANZ smelled rather like a ghost of vintage Chanel Coco, meaning Perfume with a capital P – a thickly knotted clutch of bittersweet balsam, prunol, spice, and sandalwood studded with amber resin. On my moist skin, LANZ glowed like a slice of pain d’epices over a heat lamp.
There was also a spermy topnote, thanks to an extremely rooty iris material; this is most evident up top, but it reoccurs (more gently) throughout the drydown of the perfume. Don’t be alarmed, though! The spermy note is more surprising than unpleasant: cold, bleachy, and floral in a foamy way, as if someone had eaten a meal of elderflowers, meadowsweet, and cow parsley before ejaculating politely on one’s outstretched arm. The contrast between the cold, spermy iris and the glowing warmth of the rest of the scent is arresting – metal slashing through red velvet.
It is this chilly iris note that establishes a relationship between LANZ and New Sibet, although LANZ is warm and New Sibet is cold. It also places LANZ firmly in the new generation of Slumberhouse perfumes, characterized by a more classical, more “watercolor” direction than the darker, denser oil-painted olfactory landscapes of earlier works such as Norne and Sova.
At home in gloomy Ireland, LANZ reveals itself to be far drier, woodier, and less full on “spice oriental” than in New York. Although the chilly sperm impression is as strong as ever in the topnotes, the cooler weather has allowed me to pick up more of a connection to Ore than to New Sibet. It is not by any means a smell-alike, but there are two points of intersection that I can see.
First is an opening full of waxy dark chocolate, cognac, and balsamic (almost buttery) woods – briefly close in feel to the Carmex lip balm texture of the cocoa/woods in Ore. Second, a movement towards the end when LANZ dries out into a very smoky, lacquered wood, which although in LANZ is due to oud, is not entirely unlike the oiled and dusty guaiac wood in Ore. There is something about the balsamic, waxy texture of the woods that connects them.
Of course, aside from these two (small) points of intersection, LANZ is a very different scent. Past the initial blast of rooty iris and boozy cognac-cocoa notes, LANZ develops into a dark balsamic wood scent glazed with a spiced, plummy lacquer. The fruit note could be raisin or prune or even the dusty skin of a plum – but crucially, something only distantly suggestive of fruit and not redolent of its juices, sugars, or pulp.
In fact, this fruity wood lacquer smells quite like Cambodian oud to my nose, a type of oud oil characterized by its juicy fig, berry, and plum notes. This becomes more evident in the drydown, as the scent dries out, taking on the dusty, “old furniture” notes exuded by some aged Cambodi ouds. In the end, LANZ smells comfortably nostalgic and familiar, like standing in an ancient Chinese apothecary or a disused storage facility, the air thick with the aroma of old wood, charcoal dust, decades-old varnish, paper, and medicinal salves. A while ago, someone wrote to me asking whether I knew of an oud mukhallat that smelled like a Chinese store – I suggested Abdul Samad Al Qurashi’s Heritage Blend and Swiss Arabian’s Mukhallat Malaki. But LANZ could quite easily join that list.
With each wear, LANZ increasingly feels less like leather and more like a waxed jacket. It reminds me of my old Barbour jacket, bought in a thrift shop and immediately an integral part of my Pony Club youth, largely spent tumbling off horses and straight into dances without so much as a cursory wash behind the ears. LANZ smells like my memory of this jacket: old skin cells, perfume, girlish sweat, and pheromones caught like flies in the thick wax coating of its collar.
LANZ also reminds me vaguely of 1980’s sandalwood perfumes, although I’d be hard pressed to name any of them – the kind that feature a type of sandalwood that, while probably genuine Mysore, would never strike a sandalwood purist as having a typical sandalwood oil smell; in other words, spicy and balsamic, rather than blond, pure, or nutty-creamy.
Although something in LANZ still reminds me of 1970’s and 1980’s woody, spice orientals like Opium or Coco, it has a more homemade feel to it that marks it out as both more modern and more natural. Scents like Samsara and Coco boosted the quiet voice of their naturals with massive doses of sandalwood synthetics, Prunol, and damascones: it is unlikely that LANZ contains any of these and thus is far quieter. It is also not at all sweet, and, although rich, it is a predominantly dry scent. It is wonderful to be able to smell the real sandalwood here, cutting loose every now and then from the spice and balsam to float up lazily towards the nose. Texture-wise, LANZ nails the defining characteristic of real sandalwood oil in that it is both delicately dusty and lactonic.
I find LANZ both original and easy to wear. It being much lighter than other Slumberhouse scents means that I’m not signing a letter of commitment when I reach for it. It doesn’t move me as deeply as New Sibet and Sova, but the time and place for such perfumes is quite limited anyway. So, yes, LANZ is less of an experience and more of a personal scent, but this suits me just fine. LANZ is an easy wear – bold, satisfying, slightly grimy, but beautiful in quite a classical, fine-boned way. For me, one of the highlights of the year, and there have been many in 2017.
I’ve struggled with L’Artisan Parfumeur Dzongkha for a long time, and even now, three, four years on, I admit that I’m perhaps only halfway towards understanding this brilliant and sometimes frustrating fragrance. Part of my old problem with Dzongkha is that it smells so little like perfume that I am always wrestling with the question “What the fuck am I smelling right now?” Because, depending on the day, the hour, it’s always something different.
I don’t know what I’m smelling, so my mind defaults to the nearest recognizable object.
Most of the time, Dzongkha smells like the steamy aromas caught in the wool of my sweater when making chicken stock – pepper, chicken fat, bones, celery, salt. It smells intensely savory, almost salty, metallic, and most definitely vegetal. On other days, I spray it on, and it is obviously, immediately a very rooty iris, smelling of nothing so much as potato starch or hospital disinfectant. Other times, my nose shortcuts to a glass of whiskey or to the smell of a wet newspaper, its ink running down my fingers, about to disintegrate into mush.
But then again, sometimes the smell of paper is dry and rustling. Sometimes, there is a fiercely pungent boot polish note, as iridescent and blue-black as a bluebottle’s shell. Sometimes, the iris shows me a petrichor side, similar to the flat mineralic smell of drying rocks and tarmac after a rain shower that features so heavily in Apres L’Ondee.
In the background, there is always a strain of green tea leaves, dry-roasted over a campfire, a waft of incense, and a totally puerile-smelling, soapy overlay of fruit and flowers, faint and smudged like the waxy, wet residue of the bottom of a bar of cheap hotel soap left to fester in a dish. There is a purple cheapness to the floralcy here, a cleaning product whose scent nobody has given much thought to other than the brief to contain a smell that is “like a flower” and “opposite to poo”. The first few times I tried Dzongkha, I remember being shocked at the florid, purple floral smell more than any of the weirder stuff.
At some point in Dzongkha’s development, a rubbery, dry leather note emerges and takes center stage, and it puffs on in this mode for the rest of the duration, sweetening and softening quite a bit along the way. It even starts to smell, well, nice. Slightly more like perfume and slightly less than the collected smells of a household.
People are fond of saying that Dzongkha is like Timbuktu but with iris added, but I don’t really get that. For me, Timbuktu is a deceptively simple smoky woods and incense fragrance, with all its magic and power tied up in its uncluttered nature. I wear it to reset my clock when I am feeling upset or out of balance – I find it calming and far more spiritual than any of the acclaimed church incenses out there.
Dzongkha, on the other hand, packs an awful lot of weird stuff into one tight space, and is clearly a Hieronymus Bosch to Timbuktu’s naïve art. When I wear Dzongkha, it distracts me. My mind is agitated, feverishly trying to mentally place all of the odd little flourishes in this library of smells I carry around in my brain. Whether this proves to be stimulating or just plain annoying depends on what kind of day I’m having. So you better believe I think twice before spraying this on.
But still, I spray this on. It’s interesting – it’s art.
There was a thread recently on Basenotes that posed the question of whether L’Artisan Parfumeur was going out of fashion, and there were a fair few people who wrote in to say that, yes, the house was irrelevant and that most if not all of its perfumes could happily disappear off the face of the earth for all they cared.
Well, get a load of you, you bitches. Before you all slope off looking for the most chemically-powered hard leather bombs with which to blow your smell receptors out or the latest , achingly-cool melting glass bottles that won’t stand up full of liquid that smells like fish eggs, or toner ink, or glue, or whatever niche decides is new and shocking these days, take a moment to remember the Grandmaster Flash of them all, the weird-before-it-was-cool-to-be-weird Dzongkha. And maybe don’t be so quick to dismiss an entire house with quite the back catalog of conversation starters and pot stirrers.
You can’t even throw that tried-and-tested (and true) complaint about L’Artisan Parfumeur’s fragrances – weak longevity – at the head of Dzongkha. It is not quietly radiant as Timbuktu, it is just as strong and as dense as a brick. This stuff lasts 10-11 hours easily. Of course, whether you’ll want it to or not is another matter….
Prada Infusion d’Iris
I have a bottle of Infusion d’Iris and although I’m not 100% in love with it, I can’t quite bring myself to sell it because it plays a very useful part in my fragrance wardrobe.
Specifically, I use it after a cold shower on a hot day, when its chilly, citrusy scent provides a most welcome cooling sensation on my skin.
Then again, since moving from Montenegro to Ireland, I’m not entirely sure I will ever be hot ever again. Or indeed, warm.
Infusion d’Iris opens with tart citrus and thin, almost austere woods, reminding me more of a cup of chilled green tea than a true iris fragrance. Then the iris shows up midway through, a pale grey root infusion, like the water in which iris roots have been soaking. It smells clean and slightly soapy, like the scented air in the bathroom after a good soak in the bath with Epsom salts.
Later on, there is a hint of leather – a thin, discreet leather note – and a vetiver that shows off its cool, minty side. Gossamer-fine in texture, there is a pleasing bitterness to it that reminds me of similarly chilly and crisp colognes, like Cologne Blanche by Dior, which I also like very much. Both display a cooling, “white” character, like a metallic white wine quaffed straight from the fridge and so cold it makes your teeth chatter.
Infusion d’Iris is just effortlessly classy, and it will never be out of my summer wardrobe. Function over form on this one, for me.
Prada Infusion d’Iris Absolue
Where the original is watery, cool, and crisp/bitter, the Absolue is rich, sweet, and warm. The iris is much more evident to my nose in the Absolue version than in the original – it is rooty, thick, and almost bready.
If you can imagine a braided Easter bread stuffed with butter, eggs, and sugar, fresh out of the oven and cut open, then the iris here has a similar sweet doughiness.
I can think of only two other iris-centric fragrances where the iris gives off a sweet, yeasty/bready aroma, one being the current Mitsouko EDP and the other being Chanel No. 18. It is an enchanting, addictive aroma, and one that draws me further into the fragrance.
There is nothing fresh, green, or watery about the Absolue version. The sweet oriental base – vanillic-ambery resins (benzoin, oppoponax), a nicely “aged” vanilla, and some tonka bean – wafts up at you throughout the life of the scent, turning the iris note into a silky, buttery thing of sheer luxury. If the original is a wisp of chiffon, then the Absolue is a warm cashmere wrap. Yes, I did it – I just invoked The Great Big Cliche of perfume writing. But it applies here, so I’m going to be lazy and just leave it there.
This is my new “professional” scent for those days when I know I have meetings with clients. I like to try and strike a compromise on my fragrance choice while meeting a client – it has to be demure and classy enough not to distract the client, but also beautiful enough to keep me happy and relaxed. This does the job very well, and so it joins my usual line-up of 31 Rue Cambon by Chanel and Cuir Pleine Fleur by James Heeley.
Neither the original Infusion nor the Absolue last very long on me, but since I favor rich, oriental perfumes over fresh, citrusy ones (as a rule), I much prefer the Absolue. The quality of that iris is just outstanding, as is that warm, sweet resin base. I would wear the Absolue on cooler days and the original Infusion d’Iris on hot, summer days, or after hot showers.