Kintsugi by Masque Milano smells the way those mysterious salted fruits and chutneys in an Asian restaurant taste – perfumey, bitter, and dark in a way that sucks all the moisture out of your mouth while simultaneously flicking your salivary glands into action. Like in Mitsouko (Guerlain) and Iris 39 (Le Labo), two perfumes that this reminds me of in idea if not execution, the secret to Kintsugi’s successful navigation of that narrow line between repulsion and attraction lies in its lack of legibility.
Kintsugi has been billed as a modern chypre, and refreshingly, that is exactly what it is. Chypres are like a good Chinese meal, balancing a complex range of sweet, sour, bitter, and salty flavors against each other to produce a very satisfying (but completely abstract) sense of completeness. The result is strange and exotic, imprinting on the imagination in a way soliflores and straight-up ambers cannot. This is all present and correct in Kintsugi, so no need to quibble about which material has been chosen to stand in for the moss. The effect is there.
As all good chypres do, Kintsugi revolves around a complex set of juxtapositions. It is cigarette-ashy but also bread-doughy, syrup-sweet but also vermouth-dry, and as vegetal as parsnips but also as perfumey as your mother’s best going-out perfume. Adding to the drama is a shiny, neon-lit fruit note flashing against the desiccated patchouli hulking malevolently in the background.
But like with many Le Labos, and especially Iris 39, what really sets this thing on fire is the pairing of things that smell natural – polished woods, incense, earth, rose petal potpourri – with things that smell industrial, like latex paint, printer chemicals, calligraphy ink, and linseed oil.
Kintsugi is the perfume equivalent of those duochrome eyeshadows that appear bottle green straight on but peacock blue when you turn your head. Sometimes it exactly smells like the grand, tassels-bedecked kind of thing you imagine Oscar Wilde drenching his velvet curtains with, and sometimes like your old school stationary cupboard with a bunch of kids getting high on solvents.
It dries down quickly to the pungent but virile smell of the horse ring, the air thick with saddle leather, sawdust, and the warm muskiness specific to a freshly-exercised horse. I suppose you could also call it cedar but that doesn’t capture even two percent of the total mood that Kintsugi has going on here.
Kintsugi is a love-hate kind of thing, for sure. I hated it when I first smelled it, and then I loved it. And I might hate it the next time I smell it, who knows? People used to the taste of fermented things – natto, kimchi, tea – will cleave as easily to this perfume as they might to oud oil or osmanthus absolute, sharing with this perfume as they do that unique dichotomy of (leathery) dryness and (fruity-cheesey) funkiness.
Based on the resounding silence that greeted this perfume when it launched in 2019, it is fair to say that Kintsugi’s appeal is not immediate. And I get it. Forget about Kintsugi being people-pleasing – it is barely even me-pleasing. But for all its oddness, I find Kintsugi exciting, like a strange flavor of wine or cough syrup or gummy bear that only exists in Japan, and therefore utterly foreign to me.
Source of sample: Purchased from Swedish retailer, Fragrance & Art, in November 2019. A friend of mine kindly sent me another sample of it a couple of days ago, jogging my memory and prompting this review.
The challenge for any reviewer in reviewing the Areej Le Doré releases is that (a) either you’re late and the perfumes you’re writing about are no longer available to buy, or (b) you’re on time for a full bottle release, but you are talking only to the group of three to six hundred people that are buying them, a tiny circle of devotees that seems to get tighter and more closed-off with each successive release from the house.
I can certainly see why many people in perfume-land might be attracted by the fantastic raw materials on offer by Areej Le Doré but turned off by the feverish fandom that has sprung up around the brand. If you’re not willing to set your timer to bumfuck o’ clock Thailand time or duke it out with the scalpers, then the whole thing can feel like the most fearsome clique from high school. And when anyone feels excluded, there is the natural tendency to grumble to yourself, “Well, if I’m not in, then I’m sure as hell out…of this hot, culty mess.”
While this is certainly not a problem for Areej Le Doré itself – selling everything you produce is the dream, after all – I wonder if the lack of new entrants into the inner circle of devotees represents a problem over the longer term. Fresh perspectives on your work are essential whether you are making a car or a perfume because they stop you from drowning in the reflecting pool of constant and uncritical adoration. They also safeguard the perfumer against the danger of becoming essentially a private label or custom outfit dancing to the whim of a small but intimidatingly vocal group of buyers, none of whom I’d particularly like to meet in a dark alley. Just kidding, just kidding (sort of).
Anyway, this review goes out to anyone who has an interest in Areej Le Doré fragrances but has, for one reason or another, avoided actually buying them, either in sample or full bottle form. This might be someone who loves natural raw materials, for example, or someone who loves and misses the rich orientals of yesteryear that boasted real sandalwood or expensive floral absolutes. Or it might be people who are into perfumes in general and have the money to invest in the really good examples, but zero stomach for the clusterfuckery around the brand itself. If that’s you, and you’re reading right now, then let me tell you that this particular Areej Le Doré collection is the one to dip your toes into, if you were reluctant before.
Here’s why I think this
collection is a good entry pointfor newcomers to Areej Le Doré.
First, the perfumes in this collection are noticeably lighter and more refined
than previous cycles, making them easier and more pleasant to wear, especially
Second, none of the perfumes in this collection are marred by the heavy, almost seedy animalic undertone that has dogged other collections. For example, I loved Plumeria de Orris from one of the previous collections, however, once the buttery orris and frangipani burned off, the fragrance was dragged under the gutters by a honeyed civet or musk that smelled disturbingly like dried saliva. Koh-i-Noor was my absolute favorite of a previous generation, but a greasy costus-laden musk gave it an old-man’s-crotch vibe that I couldn’t quite shake. But in this collection, even the musk- and oud-heavy perfumes are not overly heavy, greasy, or saliva-ish.
Third, and probably the most
important one: I think that this collection is Russian Adam’s best yet. If you
don’t know already, each Areej Le Doré collection usually contains variations on a
basic line-up of a (i) musk (usually natural deer musk-based), (ii) an oud,
(iii) a humongous mixed oriental floral, (iv) a ‘soliflore’, (v) an ambergris,
and/or (vi) a leather or sandalwood. Although there doesn’t seem to be an
ambergris-focused scent this time around, the others are all either superlative
or really good examples of their respective ‘theme’. If you love natural raw
materials like oud and sandalwood, then pull up a chair: brands like Areej Le
Doré are the last holdout for exquisite raw materials in a world that is
increasingly sanitized and lab-molecule-dependent.
Rather confusingly, Santal Galore is the kaleidoscopic floral nag champa extravaganza this time around, rather than the sandalwood you might be expecting (which is actually to be found in the equally-confusingly-named Musk Lave). My vial leaked in transit, but after smashing it open and swabbing the gooey remnants onto my skin with a Q-Tip, I can tell you that this is the one I’d crawl over hot coals to smell again. Oh God, grant me the unlimited funds to buy the few perfumes that smell as good as this. It opens with a big, creamy swirl of aromas that you imagine emanating from a Persian carpet or a well-oiled antique from a souk, soaked in multiple generations’ worth of glossy, fruity Cambodi oud oils, rosy-sandal attars, and the sweetness of smoke from decades of burning Indian Chandan sticks and barkhour.
This perfume carries that full romantic sweep of Orientalia in its bosom that Westerners like me find so irresistible but that usually come out mawkish and kind of cheap-smelling. Santal Galore deftly matches the slightly gummy-floral sweetness of nag champa with a savory cream cheese background that seems to encompass the smoked Easter Ham aroma of guaiacol and a salty-minty oakmoss. Eventually winding down to the lovely smell of a freshly-struck match, Santal Galore performs the same trick as Santal de Mysore in that it is suggestive of the spiced warmth of real sandalwood without smelling directly of it.
For my personal taste, this is the best floral/woody/musky thing that Areej Le Doré has ever done. There are no analogs in the commercial or niche world, so it’s difficult to draw comparisons that will make sense to those new to the brand. But if pushed, I would mention Le Maroc Pour Elle(Tauer Perfumes) or Daphne (Comme des Garcons) as scents that occupy the same scentoverse ideologically speaking. Less helpfully perhaps for newcomers, but more so for people who have bought into the brand since its inception, Santal Galore is roughly in the same ballpark as Ottoman Empire, with which it shares a similar nag champa floral richness, and Koh-I-Noor, for that same almost claustrophobic rush of dense, heavily-packed-in floral notes and that texture that is both creamy and powdery (although Santal Galore is not as animalic or as costus-laden). It has been a while, but there could also be a line drawn to the sharp, almost oily Flux de Fleurs, though Santal Galore is a far gentler, rounder affair.
Musk Lave has one of the best real sandalwood finishes I have smelled outside of attar and mukhallat perfumery. For fans of real sandalwood, the real treasure lies here, and not in Santal Galore. But be aware that this is the type of musky, spicy, masculine-leaning sandalwood that used to feature in high quality ‘barbershop’ fougères before Indian sandalwood became generally unavailable to commercial perfumery in the late eighties, and before entire carpets of beige, sweetish tonka bean were conscripted to fill the gap.
In other words, though it certainly smells rich and incensey, like all good sandalwood should, this sandalwood is the handsome, rugged version that smells more like good wood and bay rum spices than a creamy dessert that will send you into a stupor. The invigorating sparkle of the sandalwood is beefed up by a nice lump of labdanum, so you get the full balance of aromatic-dry and sweet-incensey that the very best examples of sandalwood possess, e.g., the Mysore 1984 by Ensar Oud, which, because it is aged, has developed that rich, incensey sonic boom ‘loudness of voice’ that would be most unusual for a pure sandalwood more freshly distilled.
Winding back to the start, Musk Lave opens with a fresh, powdery lemon and lavender accord, which would be a naturally lean kind of thing were it not for the immediate upswell of an unctuously buttery musk or tonka that adds richness, like a pat of yellow Irish butter melted over a salad. Think Jicky but with real sandalwood and musk dialled in for that naughty ‘skin musk’ feel, writing over the rather sharp, sometimes foul-smelling synthetic civet of the Guerlain. Given that Jicky is my favorite fragrance in the world, hopefully you’ll take my word for it that Musk Lave is the upgrade nobody knew was in the wings but immediately presses the install button on.
Agar de Noir (can’t you just feel Luca Turin squirming?) is the oud in the collection and is quite the departure for Russian Adam for two reasons. First, although the oud is the real deal, it does not smell like any one particular terroir or style of oud (as opposed to Antiquity, which smelled almost entirely of the beautiful Cambodi oud oil used) but rather presents as a generalized picture of ‘oudiness’ that’s been cleaned up for public consumption. So, you get the characteristic smell of damp, fermenting wood chips and the dusty scent of old wood varnish, but not the shriekingly sour hay and leather highnotes of a Hindi, or the hyper-treacly stickiness of a Trat, or the wolf-fur wooliness and ambergris-saltiness of a Chinese oud. The oud is there merely as a signpost planted in the scent to suck you deep into the shadows, where the equally dusty darkness of ground coffee is waiting, deepening the gloom.
The opening reminds me more of Borneo 1834 (Serge Lutens) than any of the other Areej Le Dore oud-dominated fragrances, due to that ‘brown’ dustiness; Oud Luwak also used coffee as a note, but it felt much more like an oud-focused affair than Agar de Noir, which feels more floral. It does share with Oud Luwak that dark, airy elegance of structure – like an expensive bar of chocolate that makes a satisfyingly clean ‘snap’ noise when you break it. The gloom of these brown notes has been lifted by the chalky brightness of violets, which create a sort of pastel-colored clearing in the Agar de Noir forest. I like the civilizing effect the violets exert on the oud: they add an unexpected foppish lightness that could be read, in some lights, as ‘dandified’. This tangy, balmy oud-and-violet accord makes what is essentially a floral leather sort of thing – like Jolie Madame (Balmain) with an oudy twist.
The second way in which I find Agar de Noir a departure is in its overall lightness of feel. The light-on-dark, violet-on-oud-leather thing is super elegant while it lasts but after two hours, the show is essentially over, save for the cinder toffee-like sweetness of the labdanum that brings up the rear.
The labdanum persists for hours beyond this, of course – it is a traditional basenote for a reason and has been the finish of choice for Russian Adam in all his oud blends after Oud Zen. But compared to Russian Oud and Oud Piccante, the labdanum absolute used here is of a much lighter weight – a judicious smear of incensey, golden toffee, but unencumbered by the sheep fat unctuousness of the labdanum in Oud Piccante or the chocolatey amberiness in Russian Oud. Personally, this ‘middle’ weight of labdanum suits me just fine; Oud Piccante is too savory-fatty for my tastes, and Russian Oud too gourmand. Agar de Noir is lighter, shorter, more attenuated, and is all the better for it. However, oud heads who want their oud to be perceptible past the third hour mark, Agar de Noir might be one sacrifice too far in the name of elegance.
For anyone not already inducted into the Areej Le Doré oud hall of fame mentioned here, just picture an oudified Jolie Madame and you’re on the right track. I think this would also be a particularly friendly oud for beginners, and because of its soft, ‘thin’ floral mien that restrains the brutishness of the oud, it may also be a better pick for women. Dark, dapper, and mysterious in a Victorian gentle-person kind of way, Agar de Noir is my pick of the Areej ouds, barring Oud Zen, which was similarly minimalist and ‘legible’.
Grandenia suggests that it might be going big on the famously creamy, mushroomy lushness of gardenia, but this is not the case. Rather, this is a tightly-wound, stiffly-starched green floral that starts out at the data point of a citrusy-piney frankincense – a resin that here smells like a freshly-stripped piece of Silver Birch – and winds up in Chandrika soap territory.
I find this pinched, freshly-scrubbed sort of floral a chore to wear, but it may appeal to people who like Antonia by Puredistance. I also want to acknowledge that this would be a good white floral for men, as it is completely devoid of the soft, candied creaminess and tinned-fruit syrupiness of most white florals. It is clipped and pure; the sort of thing to stiffen the spine. A very good wood accord develops in the base that smells more like sandalwood soap than oud or sandalwood per se. And then, finally, in the last gasps – a ghostly imprint of gardenia, with that slightly glassy, freshly-cut-mushroom quality it shares with myrrh.
Cuir de Russie is a scent to spray on fabric rather than on your skin, but I have done both to no ill effect (if you have sensitive skin, just obey the damn instructions). This is not the Chanel kind of Cuir de Russie (Russian Leather), but rather, a leather-ish note in a minor key nestled inside a massively cheesy and then baby-powdery deer musk. On the skin, the chalky, innocent pallor of violets peeks out shyly, but not to the extent where you would define the scent as floral (or feminine, or soft, or indeed any of the usual descriptors used for flowers). On fabric, it is the rude, smeary honk of deer musk that dominates, stepping firmly down on the neck of any floral note that threatens to make a break for it.
Given that Cuir de Russie has real deer musk in it, it stands to reason that it is very, very powdery and clings to the inside of the nostrils for days. If you want to know what real deer musk smells like, by the way, please read my article ‘The Murky Matter of Musk‘ here. Many people think that real musk smells foul or fecal. It does not. It does smell intimate, like the morning breath of someone you love, or a clean perineum, but it is more often than not quiet, powdery, and quite sweet, its odor clinging to skin, hair, and fabrics for many days (deer musk was one of the four great animalic fixatives of perfumery).
The musk in Cuir de Russie is somewhat similar to the musk in War and Peace, which I loved for the way its musk was so dry that it smelled like smoke from a just-fired gun (some people interpreted the dryness as baby powder). But Cuir de Russie also doesn’t have the almost pretty smuttiness of the musk in War and Peace, nor its sultry sweetness; it is more butch and a bit rough around the edges, despite the inch-thick layer of powder.
I like Cuir de Russie but wouldn’t particularly recommend it to a newcomer seeking an entry point to the brand. There’s always the danger that leather fans might roll up and expect leather (crazy, right?) and right now, before the full whack of aging and maceration, Cuir de Russie is mostly musk. Birch tar fans, of which I am one, might be disappointed at its subtlety in CdR – there is zero BBQ meat or ‘just threw a leather jacket on a campfire’ smokiness here. Cuir de Russie is primarily a very rich, powdery musk that ultimately leans a bit too hard on the intrinsic complexity of its naturals to fill in the olfactory blanks.
This is probably going to mature into something stunning, along the lines of Koh-i-Noor. But it is a high risk investment for a bottle of something whose materials might veer off into directions that not even its perfumer can predict with 100% certainty. For those signed up to the rare natural materials pledge, this is is part of the thrill; for the rest of us, contained within the unfixed, mutable nature of these raw materials is the warning that the perfume might also change for the worse.
Source of Samples: Kindly
sent to me free of charge by the brand. My opinion are my own.
The more I wear Sticky Fingers by Francesca Bianchi, the more I’m convinced it is the Bengale Rouge of the Bianchi line, by which I mean a deliciously thicc n’ fuzzy oriental that’s characterful without being challenging – the much-loved woolly sweater your hand reaches for over the stark, uncompromising Ann Demeulemeester gilet you bought in a factory sale but could never figure out where the arm holes were. The thing these perfumes have in common is their sense of familiarity – they remind you (vaguely) of scents you already know and love. They wear like old friends even if you’ve just been introduced.
Just like Bengale Rouge is a more ‘people-pleasing’ option for people who would never wear Salome, Sticky Fingers is the perfect ‘out’ for people who want to own a Bianchi but find Sex and The Sea or The Lover’s Tale too heavy on the harsh orris-leather accord that has become the Bianchi calling card. That’s not to say that there’s none of Francesca in this perfume, because women with strong personalities always spill over into their art. You’d know, for example, that Sticky Fingers is a Bianchi creation as surely as you can tell Bengale Rouge is a Liz Moores one.
But Sticky Fingers is not going to ruffle any feathers. It is a cosy, feel-good diorama of Francesca Bianchi’s back catalogue with most of the hard edges sanded down and its already duvet-thick volume fluffed up by a mille-feuille of chocolatey patchouli, resins, amber, tonka bean, and vanilla.
My own sticky fingers hover over the ‘buy’ button on Sticky Fingers mostly for the last two thirds of its life, which is when it turns into that combination of smells perfume lovers know as ‘sweater mélange’ – that sweet, lived-in aroma of a fabric like wool or coat collar or seatbelt exhaling, like a sigh, the breath of multiple perfumes last worn God knows when. Or that lovely and as-individual-as-a-fingerprint nuclear cloud that rushes up at you when you open a box of your favorite perfumes or cosmetics.
To wit, Sticky Fingers smells like the heady, third-day fug imprinted on my bathrobe after several days of wearing some of Francesca Bianchi’s other perfumes; especially The Dark Side with its honeyed resins, The Lover’s Tale with its sharp leather, and Lost in Heaven for its simultaneously urinous and sherbety civet-iris accord that is practically the Bianchi DNA. Yet Sticky Fingers is much softer and gauzier than any of these. It’s like all of these perfumes mingling together and blown in at you through an air vent from another room.
Digging down into the detail, there are muffled echoes of something of the choco-wheat-cereal notes from indie perfumes of the last few years (like Ummagumma by Bruno Fazzolari, Café Cacao by En Voyage, or Amber Chocolate by Abdes Salaam Attar), but also a spicy tobacco gingerbread (Tan d’Epices), and a thick ‘white’ note like sandalwood creamed with benzoin (Santal Blush perhaps). I sprayed some Ta’if (Ormonde Jayne) over the tail end of Sticky Fingers once and could have sworn to the presence of smoky, caramelized marshmallow (Amber Absolute by Tom Ford). To be clear, Sticky Fingers doesn’t smell like any one of these perfumes. It’s just a delicious, jumbled up funk of rich woody or resinous orientals that have been worn at some point in the past two or three weeks, and have left an indelible, if undefined, impression.
In essence, Sticky Fingers is a patchouli perfume. But through a glass darkly. Think of the patchouli as the soloist leading the charge in a huge orchestra, drawing in supporting riffs from the strings and the bass until the music swells up from a hundred different sources, creating an incredibly rich, harmonious sound that fills all the air pockets in the room. The patchouli starts out solo, a musty, stale, and fruity rendition of pure earth. But almost immediately it calls in the high notes of the string section, in the form of those acidulated orris-leather tones of the Bianchi DNA, and to counter that, the bass tones of grainy tobacco leaf, shredded into tiny pieces and soaked in a glass of cold, floral-anisic Chinese tea. This combination of notes and ‘sounds’ has the effect of roughing up the patchouli, turning it into a hessian cloth accord of earth, stewed tea, and tobacco, back-lit by the yellow streak of ureic civet-iris that runs through Bianchi’s work like battery acid.
This opening act is attention-catching but, focused on two or three accords that ride bullishly over everything else, it feels like we are all waiting this part out until the quieter, richer sound of the rest of the orchestra can spot an opening and rise to fill it. Eventually this happens, a whole chorus of dusty spices and sandblasted resins and micas ‘blooming’ in unison, softening the sharp edges of the Bianchi iris and blurring the outline of the patchouli. If I like the scent thus far, then I start to love it now, just as the central accord thickens up like a custard with the addition of tonka, sandalwood, vanilla, and tons of sparkly resin. This is when the perfume becomes a comforting ‘sweater mélange’.
The older the get, the more I enjoy scents that envelop me in a billowing cloud of warm, toasty goodness powered by the natural expansiveness of their resins, flowers, or sandalwood, as opposed to the fake radiance of Ambroxan or the forced volume achieved by over-spraying. The most naturally ‘wafty’ fragrances in my arsenal are the big balsamic orientals like L’Heure Bleue parfum (Guerlain), Opus 1144 (UNUM), Bengale Rouge (Papillon), Coromandel (Chanel), Farnesiana (Caron), and Taklamakan (777 SHL), which wear like a delicious ‘gold-brown’ scent cloud that moves with me, like Pig-Pen from Peanuts. Sticky Fingers – welcome to the fold.
Source of Sample: Free with my purchase of Under My Skin from the Francesca Bianchi website.
Stupidly, I ignored this one for the longest time, believing it to be yet another Westernized take on oud. Guess what? It isn’t. The penny dropped just as I ran out of money, or at least the willingness to spend more than that €1.2 per ml limit Luca Turin originally advised us to stop at. This means that I don’t, and never will, own a bottle of Nawab of Oudh, which is terrible because this thing brings me to my knees.
But let’s make some lemonade out of dem lemons. I like to pretend that my bottle of Nawab of Oudh is hanging out at Roma Store, a small profumeria in Trastevere I frequent. Every month, I take a leisurely stroll down the Tiber to visit with the bottle of Nawab of Oudh the shop is kindly (but obliviously) hosting for me and douse myself liberally in its glorious juice. Then I walk back home, sniffing myself with a huge, dopey grin on my face, oblivious to how I look to passers-by.
Describing what Nawab of Oudh smells like is like trying to catch butterflies with a teaspoon. It has that gauzy, dizzying abstraction characteristic of so many Ormonde Jayne standouts like Black Gold and Rose Gold, and features – as far as I can tell – peppery spice, juicy mandarin, champagne-like aldehydes, roses, sandalwood, and a mass of creamy floral notes.
But I’m not sure any notes list adequately conveys the fierce joy of this scent. Better to say instead that this perfume gives you that Saturday morning feeling of good things to come – a crisply folded newspaper, a fresh pot of coffee, warm bread rolls, cold Irish butter, and a day of leisure stretching out in front of you like a cat. It smells like sunshine in a loved one’s hair and a just-cancelled meeting.
There is a point at the center of this fragrance that makes me think perfumer Geza Schoen might be playing around with an old Roucel-ian template of a green-ish magnolia bathed in a silky bath of citrus, honey, roses, and heavy cream (last seen in Roucel’s Guerlain’s L’Instant for Women and Rochas’ Tocade). The magnolia is viewed obliquely here, through a haze of spicy pepper, pimiento, cardamom, and cinnamon-dusted rose, but it’s definitely got some presence.
I love that when I spray it heavily, Nawab of Oudh coats the back of my hand with an aggressively oily sheen but then immediately radiates off into the air with an aldehydic swagger. Despite the name, there is little oud to speak of here, aside from a slightly sour, leathery tint to the soapy sandalwood in the base. I love this fragrance and believe it to be one of the most elegant and accomplished spicy oriental-florals that a woman or a man could wear.
Tsarina is a creamy, anisic floral suede that was the object of my affection obsession for much of 2016. It is a decidedly cool-toned fragrance; if it were an eyeshadow palette, Tsarina would be all dove greys and silvery taupes in the sort of satin finish that makes your eyelids appear expensively buffed. If it were a textile, it would be a length of raw silk, dotted with nubbins of texture that ride up pleasurably against the palm of your hand. Did I crack under the pressure of desire? Of course I did. It was 2016 and I was still spending money on perfume like they were bottles of H2O.
But even though I split a bottle with a friend during the famous Ormonde Jayne Black Friday event, Tsarina turned out to be an eye-wateringly expensive purchase. Not so much because of the price I paid, but because I never wore it as much as I thought I would. And a perfume sitting unloved in a collection is the costliest cost of all.
Three years on, I’m trying to understand my sudden and brutal withdrawal of affection for Tsarina. I suspect it covers too much of the same ground as Orris Noir (also by Ormonde Jayne), with its anise-tinted iris and myrrh, and maybe also L’Heure Bleue, with its medicinal heliotrope-iris tandem, for me to get any relief from this nagging cognitive dissonance. There’s also some overlap with the plasticky, clove-spiced benzoin creaminess of Guerlain Lui, which I also (somehow) own. But there’s also the fact that, for the 2020 me, Tsarina is now too rich, too claustrophobic.
But it is beautiful. Tsarina opens with the characteristic Ormonde Jayne blur of uplifting citrus and pepper notes, fueled by aldehydes, before quickly settling into that anisic, peppered ‘cream of wheat’ milkiness I associate with floral sandalwoods like Dries Van Noten (Frederic Malle) and the Pheromone attars produced by both Sharif LaRoche and Abdes Salaam Attar. Ormonde Jayne’s Vanille d’Iris, I find, recycles the same core of buttery iris suede, stripping it way back, and adding a dollop of plasticky vanilla to dull its ethereal gleam. As for Tsarina, once the first burst of spicy freshness dies away, both I and the fragrance miss it dearly.
Tsarina is soft and stodgy, like a bowl of porridge. Its lack of definition is probably why I sought it out so insistently the first time around, because I’m drawn to the boneless torpor of cream-sodden florals with little in the way of ballast propping them up. I find them comforting. However, for my money, stuff like Alamut by Lorenzo Villoresi – an exotic rice pudding-custard made out of tuberose, nag champa, and lots of civety sandalwood – satisfies the same itch and at less expense.
Of course, I didn’t know Alamut back then. Sure, if I could go back and tell my 2016 self that some of the perfumes I am passionate about would be rendered obsolete down the line by perfumes I was yet to smell, then I might have chosen differently. But I’m letting myself off the hook here. Tsarina is still a beautiful perfume judged against any parameter. It’s just that my 2020 self wants Nawab of Oudh more.
Qi is constructed to make no great statement thus offending no one. Lest you think I’m being bitchy, that sentence comes from the Ormonde Jayne official copy!
Normally, my shackles rise when I hear anyone describing a perfume as ‘inoffensive’ or, worse (shudder), ‘mass-pleasing’, because if that’s the end goal, then there’s no need to spend $425+ on a bottle of perfume when you can spend $5 on a bottle of that chocolatey, oudy Axe spray my husband is invariably wearing whenever I complement him on his lovely smell.
But honestly, Ormonde Jayne is onto something here. Osmanthus – for those not overly familiar with it – is a material that shares a rudely pungent quality with Hindi oud oil, black tea, and leather, all materials that have undergone some kind of process like soaking in water, tanning or smoking that lend them a distinctly fermented facet. I’m a fan of the fermented, but the uninitiated might find this particular floral note a challenge. The trick is to trim back the ruder, earthier facets of osmanthus absolute, and to capture only the fresh, pretty notes of the flower smelled straight from the plant.
And that’s exactly what Qi does. It is a super clean, bright take on osmanthus – a glowy little pop of apricot over soapy musks and fresh green tea (maté) that create enough of an illusion of leather to catch at the back of your throat. The osmanthus note is sustained for a remarkably long time, the fresh tea and soft leather notes soaked in an indelible peach or apricot ink. There’s also a whiff of clean rubber tubing – a pleasant inevitability whenever tea and osmanthus share the same space.
Despite the complex array of notes, though, Qi smells charmingly simple and ‘honest’. I can see this elegant glass of green tea, aromatized gently with a slice of apricot, appealing to many people. Ormonde Jayne is a rare house that knows what to do with osmanthus, and for me, Qi is its shining example. I prefer it to the also excellent Passionate Love, which is constructed along similar lines as Qi, but duskier, with a mineralic vetiver-and-Iso-E-Super drydown I’m less fond of.
An interesting fragrance. Revolving around a dank, green sage-tobacco accord that’s been lightened and spaced out by tons of Iso E Super, Montabaco is both dark-smelling and airy. Despite the distinctly aftershavey, fougère-like aspect to Montabaco that tags it as masculine, I have enjoyed smelling this on my skin and trying to break it down.
It’s worth mentioning that the two or three times I’ve worn this, my nine-year old son has sought me out to tell me that I smell really good. That makes me wonder if it’s just that Montabaco has huge sillage (thanks to the Iso E Super) or if there’s something in this fragrance that calls out to males.
I know that I’m not best placed to evaluate. When I smell a ‘classic male aftershave’ accord, something in the analysis part of my brain shuts down, blanking out the individual notes or components of the scent beyond the first and all-encompassing impression of ‘maleness’. But even to me, it’s clear that Montabaco is several pay grades above something like Brut or Azzaro Pour Homme.
And am I picking up on a sleight of hand here? With its flourishes of dry green herbs, ‘clovey’ spicing, and cleansing bay leaf, the central accord smells far more like cedarwood to me than tobacco leaf. This impression is underlined by a dollop of powdery amber that adds no sweetness but instead a pleasantly dustiness that softens the mealy bitterness of the cedarwood (or tobacco).
We are spared the intensely syrupy dried fruit and cacao notes that usually accompany tobacco. In fact, the vermouth-like dryness of the tobacco leaf in Montabaco reminds me very much of Miller Harris’ Feuilles de Tabac, pumped up with the creamy cedarwood baritone of Creed’s Royal Oud and fleshed out with a traditional barbershop fougère’s worth of spices and herbs. I liked Royal Oud and Feuilles de Tabac well enough, but Montabaco is more nuanced, more complex. If any of my male relatives were in the market for an interesting interpretation of a traditional tobacco or cedarwood-heavy fougère, and had the funds to go niche, I’d definitely point them in the direction of Montabaco.
Source of Samples: The staff at the Dublin niche perfume store ‘ParfuMarija’ generously included a sample set of the Ormonde Jayne house as a gift with purchase in 2016. The set included samples of the Four Corners of the World collection.
I’m fascinated by the individuality of the models at play in the indie perfume sector. Some houses, like Diane St. Clair and Papillon work slowly, releasing an average of one perfume a year (if that), willing to wait until every single detail is ‘right’ before releasing what is a highly-finished work to the public. Others, like Prin Lomros, work gonzo style – restlessly creating, releasing, and then wiping out whole perfumes, like an artist furiously rubbing out a sketch he is suddenly unhappy with.
What this boils down to is the notion of risk. Just how much risk is Prin Lomros willing to take? In my opinion, a lot. This is a guy who has had quite a few brands and sub-brands in a very short period of time (I count three, including one disappeared, one prestige, and one diffusion, although in the last few days, I think a fourth might have been sprung upon us), populated with perfumes that appear and then disappear, never to be seen again. Other perfumes get the chop, only to return a year later under a different name.
Sure, this all sounds like Prin Lomros is having a lot of fun – but what about us? Though there’s nothing permanent in perfumery these days – Penhaligon’s glorious Ostara came and went in the space of two years, despite its critical success, and half of the 13 Gucci Flora flankers will probably have been removed from the shelves by the time I finish this sentence – expecting even the most committed of indie perfumery supporters to lay down $160 on a 30ml bottle of liquid that might be axed on a whim four months later is an exceptionally big ask.
Generally, a perfumer can only bet on their customers accepting this level of risk if one of two conditions have been met. Either a) the raw materials are of such rarity or unusual quality, like vintage Cambodi oud oil from the 1970s or a hunk of white ambergris from the Western shores of Ireland that customers buy out of the fear of missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime experience, or b) the compositions themselves are so artistic or clever that customers are inspired to invest wholesale in the creative real estate locked inside the perfumer’s head.
For the former, you only have to look at the success of Areej Le Doré, Sultan Pasha, and Ensar Oud to know that the feverish fanboyism around the cult of raw materials is more than adequate to keep the ship afloat. Brands, if they are clever, might seek to co-opt a bit of this market for themselves by introducing special one-off editions focused on rare, limited run materials; Eris Parfums did this recently with Mxxx. (review here) to great effect, using a fantastic piece of white ambergris to turn their regular Mx. from a silky white cotton t-shirt into a $1,500 cashmere wrap.
Prin Lomros’ perfumes lean a bit on the precious raw materials thing, but really rely more on the perfumer’s artistic vision as the hook with which to reel customers in. He takes quite a few creative risks – which makes sampling his work huge fun (but blind buys ill-advised). What this means for me is that although roughly 60% of what he turns out doesn’t work for me, the ones I do like I really, really admire and find myself thinking about long after I’ve put the sample away. Heck, even the ones I wouldn’t wear to save my life linger in my head.
worked my way through 18 – count them, 18 – samples from both Parfums
Prissana and Strangers Parfumerie during a time of great stress this January,
when multiple deadlines and the arrival of a new management team at work meant
that I survived on crisps and wine for nutrition and rarely got more than five
hours of sleep a night. Normally, conditions like these would taint my
perception of whatever I’m testing or wearing; but, a grosso modo, the
Prin Lomros stuff still emerged with a big fat thumbs up from me.
Of course, that’s not to say that there aren’t a few problem areas. For one, the perfumes are all a little front-loaded, with drydowns that, while long-lasting (lots of ‘beastmode’ performers here), are a little wan compared to the richness upfront. Two or three of the perfumes I tried were marred with an overdose of noxious ‘power tool’ aromachemicals – Ambroxan, maybe, Norlimbanol, and a few of those ‘new wood’ captives; these ones were an immediate line in the sand for me. But even in those, I was able to find little pockets of something interesting or playful that kept me plugged into the experience. To say that his perfumes surprised me and challenged my preconceptions is really quite something, only because I am jaded as fuck.
I think Mandarava (Prissana) is utterly horrific but many people whose opinion I respect think it’s a masterpiece. While clearly well made, its dense cloud of indeterminable flowers, incense, and musk is unbearable to me, because note for note, it smells like someone emptied an entire aerosol of nag champa-scented room deodorizer into a small room and closed all the windows. It has the same overwhelming stuffiness and cheap, greasy-powdery musk overload as Koh-I-Noor by Areej Le Doré but lacks that scent’s more fine-tuned sense of balance that somehow keeps everything in check; Mandarava is unhinged in a way that sets my teeth on edge. But, you know, people other than me love it.
I don’t normally review so negatively, so you have to know there’s a redeeming angle here. And here it is – the drydown is weirdly good. I’ve worn this three times in the name of science, and each time the drydown takes me by surprise in a good way. Unfortunately, I never quite managed to make it to my notepad in time to write down what it is that I think almost redeems Mandarava, so you’ll have to believe me that the texture of the scent changes about six hours in, emerging from the cardboardy fug of nag champa to become sharper, woodier – more interesting somehow. If I ever subject myself to Mandarava again – which, to be honest, is unlikely – I’ll come back and update this review.
If you’re skimming this post for an entry point, then Ma Nishtana is probably the easiest and most immediately likeable perfume in either the Prissana or Strangers Parfumerie line. A judiciously-spiced church incense scent, Ma Nishtana splits the difference between the soapy, aldehyded, Coca-Cola-ish airiness of Cardinal/Avignon and the warmer, breadier, more caramelic-ambery thickness of Contre Bombarde 32 by SAUF or Samharam by Arte Profumi. The drydown drones on a bit, thanks to an application of the dreaded Norlimbanol, but even as a No-Limbs-Left-At-All-hater I have to admit that it’s applied with an unusually subtle touch here.
I don’t know that Ma Nishtana distinguishes itself so much from the stalwarts of this rather cramped incense genre to be worth the price, but of course, this is a deeply personal thing. The most innovative or unusual thing about Ma Nishtana is really that faint whiff of armpitty cumin or turmeric that’s half under-proved doughnut and half curry-sweat, but if you own either Grimoire by Anatole LeBreton or Al Oudh by L’Artisan Parfumeur, I think you’re covered. Ma Nishtana is very nice, very good – but not entirely necessary, at least in my opinion.
Tom Yum is a thing of beauty! A fantastically fresh and sour take on the classic French eau de cologne, it is something like Eau Sauvage or Ô de Lancôme flushed with the mouth-stripping aroma of lemongrass – half lemon, half rooty grass – and freshly-squeezed limes. These tart, aromatic topnotes are all under-pinned with a gorgeously sweet and dusty galangal note that stands in for musk and serves an a pillowy extension cord for the citruses well into the drydown. Although Tom Yum doesn’t smell as authentically hot, sour, or herbaceous as a bowl of Tom Yum itself, and is therefore not nearly as exotic as the notes list wants you to believe, it is still the rare ‘update’ to the eau de cologne model that actually works (and lasts).
Yum is just sour enough in the topnotes to refresh, herbaceous and soapy enough
in the midsection to offer that essential coolness, and sweetly spicy enough in
the tailbone to avoid that throat-catching sourness of laundry musk that tires
my palate in most modern takes. For me, Tom Yum competes head-to-head with the
basil leaf-inflected blast of air conditioning that is the bottle of Paris-Deauville
(Chanel) I keep in the door of my fridge as a substitute for, you know, actual
air conditioning. If you have the money to spend on an eau de cologne-style
perfume and want it to last a fair amount of time without having to choke on
nasty woody ambers or oceans of white musk, then I highly recommend Tom
Somewhat along the same lines, if you love neroli and want a complex, natural-smelling version, then Natsumeku is very good. In keeping with its Japanese inspiration, it smells quite like a Di Ser perfume in that its tingly, orangey citrus notes (neroli in this case) tinged with the wintergreen finger snap of camphor and silvery, refined hinoki wood. In other words, neroli filtered through a Japanese sensibility rather than through the regular ole channel of an Amalfi citrus grove. It is fresh and sharp, and quite medicinal, like the cool, steamy air in a Japanese onsen on Hokkaido island, where you are getting rubbed down by a masseur with unpronounceable Japanese herbs, damp sea mosses, and yuzu-style citruses that probably only exist within 2 miles of the onsen and nowhere else. It smells like, for want of a better word, the “Other”.
I am less enthused about the solid-but-plain-Jane drydown of Natsumeku, because I am not a huge fan of neroli, and this does get very ‘neroli’-ish in the end. It might be just me who has this issue, but I always tire of the incessantly cheerful soapiness of neroli. In this instance, if I am choosing to smell soapy and clean, then I’d much rather be wearing Tom Yum, above.
Thichila is an interesting one indeed. Sorry to be bossy, but I’m really going to have to insist you disregard any reviews you see for Thichila that make it out to be tremendously complex, floral, incensey, old school, or even chypre-ish – it’s really none of those things. Because Thichila is one of those perfumes that happens to be composed in an Eastern style and uses complex-smelling, exotic naturals, many people – mostly Westerners – may mistake its complexity for a matter of construction. As a matter of fact, Thichila is simply one big bridge built between two massively complex materials – a natural Thai oud oil and a big, rustic myrrh. These two monoliths happen, in this case, to share a peculiarly rubbery-rooty-oily-anisic character that makes it difficult to tell where one ends and the other takes over. I find Thichila fascinating precisely because of this.
The Thai oud smells charmingly like the inside of a party balloon or a bouncy castle – plasticky, rubbery, with the far-off twang of trampled fairground straw and sticky, jammy-fruity children’s handprints. It reminds me very much of one of FeelOud’s more unusual-smelling oud oils, whose name I can’t recall right now, but which smelled like the air that escapes from plastic lunchboxes that you’re opening for the first time in three months when the new term is starting.
At some point, the sweet, plasticky rubber tube of oud rolls into the scent of myrrh – gloomy and rubbery, but also sweet and crunchy, like giant golden sugar crystals dipped in anise and spread in a hard, glittery paste across your skin. I think Thichila is, on balance, a great perfume, but fair warning – you have to love this particular style of oud oil and this particular sort of myrrh for it to be a success for you. A very specific perfume, therefore, for a very specific taste.
Maruyama smells to me like a richly vegetal cis-jasmone or immortelle scent, i.e., floral notes with clear overtones of burnt hay, maple sugar, or strange exotic herbs like lovage that smell half like a white flower, half like celery. It reminded me at first of Comme des Garcons’ Sequoia and then of Cardamom Rose Sugar by Solstice Scents. There’s always a point at which this sort of thing smells pleasantly like a glazed maple-cider doughnut to me, and then slightly but ever so insistently of curry and caramelized brown sugar mashed together, at which point I don’t really want to smell it at all. If you don’t hit that plateau quite so quickly as I do, then I highly recommend Maruyama as an exotic Eastern take on the classically French ‘Sables’ (Annick Goutal) territory.
Mohragot is the nouveau fougère of the line, kind of analogous to the place that Mousse Illuminée holds for Rogue Perfumery, or Eiderantler for January Scent Project, but with a thrillingly damp earth accord that whips us away from that lavender shaving foam ‘daddy’ picture and plunges us instead deep into the bowels of a violent thunderstorm in a forest, the rain and wind ripping up the soil and hurling broken branches, leaves, and air molecules into each other.
It took me forever to work out why I love the wet, dark, green ‘mustiness’ and soil-y ‘moldiness’ of this opening, until I realize that it replicates the same ozone-in-turmoil atmosphere ofSupercell by Sixteen92, and to a lesser extent, the ‘old’ and ‘clay-like’ green earthiness of Oakmoss (Muschio di Quercia) by Abdes Salaam Al Attar.
Someday, I’ll figure out what it is about this sort of scent that moves my black soul, but right now, all I can think of is that this kind of mossy vetiver smell is alive and dead in equal measure. The mold and the dustiness, the ‘aged’ browny tint of the earth smell, its overall murk and gloom – this reminds me of the ‘newly-opened tomb’ dead air that billows out of Onda parfum (Vero Profumo) and Djedi (Guerlain).
But here and there, there is the juicy rudeness of new plant life poking its way through, the air crackling with ozone. So yes, though the hummus-rich, brown-green earthiness is all-encompassing at first, soon you notice that it is pierced here and there with the minty vase water of oakmoss.
On balance, however, this is not a particularly fresh or herbal example of a fougère. Pandan leaf, or screwpine, is mentioned in the notes list, so perhaps the gentle sweetness of those screwpine ittar they use to flavor syrups, tobacco, and cosmetics in India is what is relieving Mohragot of that tiresomely ‘Brut’-like, aftershavey bitterness that usually makes fougères such a bore to wear (as a woman). The pandan leaf note gives Mohragot an interestingly milky, nutty tonality, yet it is not as piercingly sweet or as fruity as an actual screwpine ittar. I find Mohragot one of the more interesting perfumes in the Prissana line, because it takes a while to pick apart, and even after three or four wears, parts of it remain impenetrable to me. I do appreciate that the ubiquitous 21st century finish of dopey tonka bean has been swapped out for a softly musky tobacco accord that smells like an idealized vision of an autumn walk. Unfortunately, Mohragot disappears from my skin within three hours. Now, I’m no longevity bore, but for $160 for 30mls, that’s just taking the piss.
If I’d been dipping my toes into Strangers Parfumerie to test the waters and encountered Aroon Sawat first, I’d have turned 180º on my heels toute suite. Its clumsy mish-mash of woody ambers and big, syrupy fruit is bathed in a chemical radiance so powerful and all-reaching that my eyeballs hurt even to remember it now. It is a perfume whose finer points are wasted on me completely, obscured as they are by this big, thick gloppy blanket of amber-wood-syrup-resin-fruit aromachemicals. It’s just atrocious. A crime against perfume.
Thank God I operate a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ policy, because all the other Strangers Parfumerie perfume turned out to be either memorably quirky, or charming, or at least interesting enough to redeem the utter horror that was Aroon Sawat. In fact, in general, I liked the Strangers Parfumerie as much as, if not more than, the perfumes in the more upmarket (and more highly priced) Prissana line. The fact that they represent much better value for money is almost beside the point.
SM Café is possibly one of the most successful coffee-based perfumes out there, and I say that as someone who rarely thinks that coffee-scented anything works (apart from the real thing itself of course). The SM in SM Café stands for sado-masochism, but there’s nothing really risqué about this nicely-balanced dance between the intense, burnt flavor of freshly-roasted coffee beans and the clean sweetness of wood, musks, and amber resin. The coffee does smell undeniably dirty and grungy, but it’s more the funk of damp coffee grounds you’re cleaning out of the pot than anything S&M or leather related, and anyway it all gets balanced out by the milky ambers and beeswax in the base.
Although not terribly fruity, the sour morello cherry accent and the coumarin add a certain pipe tobacco angle to the concoction that I find broadly handsome – it also makes SM Café the indie synonym for Close Up by Olfactive Studio. But truth be told, SM Café is far more austere and masculine-leaning; in overall orientation, far closer to the dusty, burnt, 1970s character of Coze by Parfumerie Generale than to the sweetened coffee-tobacco of Close Up.
I’m confused by just how much I enjoy the gourmand perfumes in the Strangers Parfumerie line-up. Gourmand perfumes are not generally my thing. The designer ones are gloppy glucose bombs with zero distinguishing features, the niche ones use higher quality or more interesting sugar-choco-frooty aromachemicals but unfortunately tend to arrive at much the same place as the designer ones (and cost about $200 more), and the indies, well, in their effort to be all weird and ironic and indie about it, push the gourmand notes into ever-increasingly grotesque forms just for the sake of it (with few of them very wearable in the long run).
So Fetch, for example, has a protein bar accord and is based on a phrase from Mean Girls, so you’ll forgive me if I say I was ready to automatically class this with the third category. But I WAS WRONG. This stuff is just delightful. It has sass. It opens up on a huge whoosh of cherry-flavored fizz, as if someone dropped a whole packet of Love Hearts into a 2 liter plastic bottle of 7-Up and shook it all up until it exploded like a trailer park Prosecco.
So Fetch makes me feel young. It makes me imagine what Bendelirious by État Libre d’Orange might smell like if cross-pollinated with the rubbery tennis balls of The Soft Lawn (Imaginary Authors). There are, at points, beguiling little whiffs of rubber tires, fuel exhaust, and lemon-scented sherbet powder. In the drydown, notes of pink lemonade, strawberry erasers, and marshmallow fluff float into the picture – basically the same soft, billowy lokhoum fun of Douleur! by Bogue, minus the enamel-stripping rose oxide. Really, really good stuff.
Sangre Dulce is darker in tone than So Fetch, but no less weird or interesting, or ultimately, wearable. Immediately on application, there is something here that reminds me of something Lush or BPAL would make: burned sugar crossed with the headshop murkiness of amber cubes and dragon’s blood incense, or some mysterious dried herb concoction in a burlap sack. It smells very indie – not in the super-fancy artisanal sense of the word, but more in the sense of the Etsy crowd dropping a Solstice or Hexennacht release of perfumes honoring the Moon or witches or something. Not saying that to knock it, by the way – many of my favorite perfumes are indie oils from the latter category (I am just not into the witchy side of things).
I smell in Sangre Dulce a whole host of confusing but really pleasing notes that seem to hang together very well – burned sugar, rubber galoshes, sugar mashed into dirt, bathtub booze, and in the far drydown, something that smells like over-baked wheatgrass and granola bars (maybe this is where that protein bar ended up). If Luca Turin were to smell this, I’d imagine he’d find a way to praise Prin Lomros for his off-the-wall thinking, in the same way he (almost wistfully) loves the Constantine father and son duo at Lush for having the guts to just throw everything into a pot as a mad experiment and see what works (“Someone seems to be having a lot of fun over there” as he might say, in that impish way of his).
A basic way to describe Sangre Dulce is to say that it smells like sugar cubes and burned wheat that took a wrong turn somewhere and fell down a dark cellar into a pot of hooch, dragging with it some Converse sneakers and a vial of herbal folk medicine. In fact, I’m pretty sure that was the creative brief for Lush’s All Good Things.
Cigar Rum seems to be one of the most popular scents in the Strangers Parfumerie stable, probably because the handsome, complex aroma of tobacco absolute never fails to please. This is a good but hardly unique take on tobacco leaf – most of the heavy lifting is done by the tobacco absolute, but there’s a flash of warm, boozy rum up top to dress it up, and it skips over the heavy vanilla or dried fruit stickiness of Tobacco Vanille.
That said, it does nothing special or new above and beyond the real baseline for indie tobacco perfumes, which remains Tabac Aurea by Sonoma Scent Studio. Cigar Rum is also one of the Prin Lomros scents that falls flat in the base – there’s very little there to hold it together once you get past the richness of the tobacco opening. If you’re thinking of investing in an indie tobacco, I’d still go for the best-in-class of Tabac Aurea.
Rum Intense is the same,
but is obviously a concession to the bros, who always want something more
chemically radiant and beastmode. Anything nice-smelling or natural about Cigar
Rum has been wiped out by the heavy woody ambers in the Intense version. Honestly,
I’d steer clear and leave this one to the bros, because God knows those poor
guys are under-catered to/s.
Burning Ben is so, so good. You definitely need to love phenolic scents to like it, but as long as your fetish is smelling like beef jerky on a campfire, then Burning Ben will really do it for you. It runs along the same lines as Le Labo Patchouli 24 or Slumberhouse Jeke – basically big, billowing bombs of birch tar, cade, and lapsang souchong smeared over a sweet or boozy baseline. But it features an innovation so good-smelling and so damn right that I can’t believe nobody’s thought of before now: coffee! The burnt, aromatic ‘fresh roast’ coffee bean note lifted out of SM Café and grafted right on top of the burning cade-birch heart of Burning Ben makes for a smoky, tarry coffee darkness that smells fantastic.
At first, as you might imagine, it’s a bit too intense, like a billycan of coffee that’s boiled over on a campfire and is now sizzling meanly on the embers beneath. The addition of the coffee gives the birch tar leather a more masculine bent, and for part of this ride, I feel like I’m wearing my boyfriend’s leather jacket, infused with his scent of aftershave, manly musk, and general ‘maleness’ – this I find sexy in a cross-dressing way, and for people who find Patchouli 24 not masculine or butch enough, well, voila Burning Ben.
But before all of these intensely burnt, roasted flavors can run over into harsh or bitter, an oriental-ish and sweetly nutty base arrives to soften the edges. The basenotes are vague and amorphous in a way that makes you think, ‘Mmm, that smells good’, but also leaves you at a loss to define any one particular note or accord that’s making it so.
The best I can do is to say that it’s more like a texture than a taste, like those firm salted toffees whose pleasure lies mainly in the chew. Salty-sweet amber, toffee, beeswax, crushed hazelnuts – a sensuous mélange of silky, warm ‘brown’ flavors that are the perfect accompaniment to the sharper, smokier ‘brown’ notes of birch tar and coffee up top. Burning Ben is one of the Strangers Parfumerie scents that smells ever better the more it goes on – perhaps the forceful nature of phenolic scents in general is what ensures the richness doesn’t attenuate as quickly. Anyway, I love this category of scents, so it follows that I love Burning Ben. Beyond my general bias, I think that Burning Ben manages to pull off a bit of innovation in a genre that I suspect is rather a self-limiting space.
As good as Burning Ben is, I’ve left the best for last. Salted Green Mango is, for me, the standout of the Strangers Parfumerie line. The mango note is not really the point – it’s just a momentary swelling of something syrupy and green-tropical behind the avalanche of musk and vetiver, subsiding into the ether far too quickly to be a feature.
The thing to pay attention to here is the salt. Salted Green Mango is basically a huge, spacey cloud of sparkly vetiver-musk molecules that mimics the invigorating scent of salt air. It smells clean, but despite the probably industrial amounts of white musks or Iso E Super used here, also quite organic, like what I imagine the air around the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah smells like on a breezy day. And yet, there is something clearly lab-made about the scent; it feels engineered, ergonomic, and therefore a bit more chic or more modern than just a simple clustering of naturals.
I’m in love with how this (really quite simple) scent of white, clean, salty woods and musk gives me that ‘my-skin-but-better’ aura; it’s effortless and sensual. I’m willing to bet serious money that people who love those modern, shape-shifting floral-woody musks made to smell like 50% cyborg, 50% warm human skin – stuff like Glossier You, Diptyque’s Fleur de Peau, and Le Labo Ambrette 9 – will love Salted Green Mango. For me, it knocks all those modern skin musks, as well as Jo Malone’s (really excellent) Wood Sage & Sea Salt, right off their perches. This one goes straight on the full bottle list.
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.
Hyde by Hiram Green is an exercise in birch tar. Actually, it’s an exercise in how to do birch tar without swamping the structure in an overwhelming wall of BBQ smoke. The scent opens with the peculiarities of rectified birch tar on full display: the tarriness of melted gumboots brushed with the cooling tingle of wintergreen and the medicinal sting of TCP (Germolene). A pleasantly boozy warmth, a licorice-like chewiness, stirs underneath the surface.
Francesca kindly sent me a preview sample of The Lover’s Tale and as we were chatting about it over email, she mentioned that at Pitti fragrance fair, the perfume proved to be quite divisive; most of the (Russian) men from Fragrantica loved it while she could see that others were clearly struggling with it.
If you’ve ever been disappointed in a fragrance that’s been advertized as smelling like tea and then goes on to smell nothing like it, then put Carta Moena 12|69 on your to-test list pronto. Utilizing a little-used essential oil called moena alcanfor, which is distilled from the leaves, bark, and branches of the moena tree native to Amazonian Peru, this fragrance smells truly and honestly of tea. Specifically, it knits together the aroma of a really earthy Pu-Erh tea with the tannic, catch-in-your-throat quality of cold, slightly over-brewed black tea.
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.