I was going to start this review by saying that despite having studied French literature in college, my only experience with Baudelaire was with his poem Les Fleurs du Mal,but then I Googled to see where the phrase Luxe, Calme, et Volupté was from and saw that it’s actually from Les Fleurs du Mal, so not only is my Arts degree as useless as everyone said it would be but obviously Baudelaire’s chef d’oeuvre had slipped in one ear and out the next without encountering any resistance in between.
Anyway, having now smelled Luxe, Calme, Volupté by Francesca Bianchi, I’m relatively confident that it’s named not for anything from the poem but for the Matisse painting that takes one of its lines for its name. If you can’t be bothered to look the painting up, just know that it features several supine female figures in beside a river, painted in a style that would later become known as fauvism – daubs of unnatural colours laid down in dots and dashes that makes the figures appear almost normal (representative of real figures) from afar but disjointed and unrecognizable up close.
The perfume resembles the painting a bit in that it’s a very effective mixture of the soft and the harsh, or maybe more accurately, the fine and the gaudy. I feel like it’s obligatory, when reviewing a Francesca Bianchi fragrance, to mention the animalic, mica-dry iris accord that runs through her work like a recessive gene. But I’m thinking now that that’s an over simplification of what she actually does. Because what really strikes me about Luxe, Calme, Volupté is its balancing act between the slutty gaudiness of tropical fruit-and-ylang notes and the stern ashiness of the galbanum. It must have been a tough one to get right.
At first, it smells bitter and dusty, the galbanum and iris drawing a brief Heure Exquise-shaped hole in the air, but shot through with a neon orange ribbon of something luridly fruity, almost overblown, like a papaya or passionfruit. Galbanum, when it has shaken off all its wet, green bitterness, withers to a nubbin of ash. So Luxe, Calme, Volupté smells rather like someone spilled a can of Lilt on the ashes of a burned-out fire a week ago and it’s now living a second life as a string of fruit leather. This ashy-fruit-amber thing is something I’ve smelled before, namely in Nur by SoOud, which was later recycled into Soleil de Jeddah by SHL 777, neither of which were as half as good as this.
But here’s the fauvism of it all – from a distance of, say, a foot or two, the perfume just smells like a tropical fruit amber sliced through with sharp, rustling greenery. It’s loud, it’s effective, and most of all, it’s cohesive. Up close, however, the gaudy daubs of colour break apart into particles of ash, leather, and vetiver, too abstract for you to really say what you’re smelling apart from something intensely, intoxicatingly fragrant.
In a way, Luxe, Calme, Volupté is a mash-up of Lost in Heaven (powdery, civety flowers) and The Black Knight (tangy, mineral-rich leather) but with its parts rearranged and stuck back together with gobs of galbanum, a resin that can’t seem to decide whether it’s a cool, dewy blade of grass or a dry green leather bitch. The best is, in my opinion, yet to come, however, because it all dries down into a wierdly addictive basenote that I can only describe as bowl of creamy banana custard made by someone with a a smoker’s cough. For me, this is the best thing Francesca Bianchi has made since Under My Skin.
Source of sample: PR sample sent by Francesca Bianchi.
It’s been a while since I last wrote about Abdullah’s work at Mellifluence, which was about his amazing Tsuga Musk mukhallat featured in my Basenotes article, ‘The Murky Matter of Musk‘ (1 September, 2017). Four years might have passed since then, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been dipping into Mellifluence’s wares in the meantime. Last summer, I placed an order with Mellifluence for some raw materials and mukhallats, and Abdullah generously included some samples of stuff he also wanted me to smell. I’m getting to them only now, which unfortunately means that some of the scents I talk about are now unavailable.
Because here’s the thing you need to know about Mellifluence before you invest – Abdullah works in small batches, using naturals he has sourced elsewhere, and when that material runs out, so too does the mukhallat featuring it. That means you need to work fast, with a speedy turnaround time from sample to full bottle (well, tola) purchase if you’re going to snap up the thing you love. The house style is light, clean, and delicate, which is no mean feat considering the ofttimes heaviness of some of the naturals involved. In general, Abdullah excels at work involving rose, green herbaceous notes like lavender, tuberose (which he is able to render quite masculine), oud, and vetiver.
To the best of my knowledge, Abdullah works only with naturals, because of certain sensitivities he experiences when dealing with synthetics. But worry not, while the all-natural focus does give his work a certain ‘crunchy granola’, aromatherapy-adjacent flavor, I haven’t personally experienced any of the muddiness you sometimes get with all-natural perfumery. The flip side of all this lightness and clarity is, however, a certain lack of projection and longevity. But people seeking out the authenticity of raw materials above all else are already mostly prepared for this trade-off.
The other things to be aware of are that these are mukhallats, not attars, though people (and brands who make them) tend to use the word ‘attar’ to describe any perfume in oil. Strictly speaking, however, though mukhallats and attars are both oil-based (i.e., they do not contain alcohol), attars are defined by their manner of production, which is the distillation of raw materials into sandalwood oil in the traditional ‘dheg and bhapka’ method (named for the copper piping and leather receptacle involved in the method) used in Kannuaj, India. A mukhallat, on the other hand, is the term used to describe a mix (mukhallat is simply Arabic for ‘blend’ or ‘mix’) of any already distilled essences, absolutes, attars, ruhs, and oud oil (and sometimes even synthetics, increasingly so in modern times) with a carrier oil, which used to be sandalwood oil but for reasons of both cost and availability these days is more likely to be something like moringa, jojoba, or even good old vegetable oil. For those of you who don’t care about the pedantry of this, your main takeaway should be that these are oils, and often highly concentrated ones, and therefore need to be dabbed onto the skin (or beard, if you have one) in judicious amounts. A dab will do ya.
Hellicum’s opening is both medicinal and animalic – fresh lavender and sage dipped in something lasciviously scalpy, like costus. There is also a brief flash of something sweet, like vanilla or honey, but this is gone almost immediately. Oud emerges from a mist of sinus-clearing eucalyptus or mint, and it is almost outrageous to me that a wood oil so deeply thick, so animalic, can be stretched out and massaged into something so airy. Flanked by those soft, camphoraceous herbs and pinned in place by a waxy amber accord that smells like a minty version of a Werther’s Original, the oud reads more as a light, clean leather than the stable filth that we are sometimes asked to grit our teeth through in the name of oud.
And this is precisely the kind of sleight of hand that Abdullah of Mellifluence excels in. Heavy, animalic substances tweaked until they are transformed into something clean, and delicate, qualities more suited, perhaps, for the soothing of frayed nerves than for the purposes of seduction or for projecting an image of yourself onto the world.
It is not a slight to suggest, by the way, that Hellicum, like many Mellifluence mukhallats, is more Rescue Remedy than perfume. Sometimes, that’s what life calls for. I rarely wear fragrance during the day, choosing instead to aromatherapize myself off the stress ledge by rubbing a Mellifluence mukhallat or one of his naturals onto a knuckle, or massaging some of my Francesca Bianchi Under My Skin body oil into the ends of my hair. These quiet, subtle whiffs of aroma as I type, gesticulate, or turn my head are what propel me through my workday, a friendly hand at the small of my back. Hellicum is really good at this. I especially love the hidden thicket of patchouli tucked into the tail of the scent, there to please anyone who’s been paying attention.
Spirit of Narda II
Part of the risk of falling in love with any Mellifluence mukhallat is returning to the brand’s Etsy page and realizing that it no longer exists. I hope that Abdullah finds some way to bring this back, though, because to my nose, it is one of the best things he has ever made. It reminds me of a long lost love of mine, which is the sadly discontinued Bohèmians en Voyage (Alkemia), which had a similar pastoral quality to it, like a stroll along countryside lanes, past fields of wheat and sunny hedgerows full of wild barley and small wildflowers.
The ‘Nard’ in the title refers to spikenard, or jatamansi, an intensely aromatic herb native to India not a million miles away from lavender in overall scent profile, but featuring a uniquely fatty, animalic undertone, like beef tallow or the yellow subcutaneous fat under the skin of an organically reared piece of mutton. In Spirit of Nard II, the herbaceous aspects of the spikenard are sharp and spiky, like a thistle, but there is also a milky element to the it that’s relaxing to the point of inducing sleepiness. This is bracketed by medicinal woods – an antiseptic sort of oud material, no doubt – and a soft, vegetal muskiness.
Spirit of Narda II feels complex and multi-layered, a haze wherein herbaceous, woody, milky, floral, and musky molecules advance and recede in such a crazy loop that you are never sure what it is all supposed to be, category-wise. Each time I wear it, I’m stumped. Is it an oud masquerading as a Spanish leather? A herb that’s secretly a sheep? A plant revealed by those meddling kids to be a medicine? No idea. But two things it is not are (a) available to buy, and (b) aromatherapy rather than a fully-realized perfume.
Miel Pour Femme (Almond)
This is an odd one. Not honey at all, but rather, a pale wodge of barely set beeswax poured into a polished oak mold and wrapped up in rustling layers of that edible paper they roll candy cigarettes or torrone in. It smells varnishy, waxy, and ever so slightly stale, like printer paper or Holy Communion wafers left open in a wooden chest. I suppose all this is also very much almond – not the syrupy cyanide (benzaldehyde) tones of most almond accords, but the grassy tannins of raw almond that you get in fragrances such as L’Amandière (Heeley). The overall effect has been achieved with a combination of benzoin (for that communion wafer aspect) and beeswax (for that waxy white honey aspect). The scent thickens up, over time, into a blanched, stodgy sweetness that is never as animalic or as thick as real honey, but still quite a distance away from the beeswax-paper-almond of the first half. Miel pour Femme (Almond) is fine, if a little odd. It just doesn’t set my world on fire quite as effectively as Spirit of Narda II.
Source of sample: I purchased 3mls of Miel Pour Femme (Almond) from the Mellifluence Etsy page, and 0.2ml samples of Hellicum and Spirit of Narda II were included as a gift with purchase.
I blame my workload for a lot of life stuff that just doesn’t get done, including, inter alia, regular exercise, parenting that extends to more than rubbing their little heads fondly as I pass them in the corridor, emailing people back, and, at the bottom of the list, reviewing perfume. But in the case of the new Pekji samples, which – full disclaimer – were sent to me by Omer Pekji, who also happens to be a personal friend, I have to admit it was less my workload and more my fear of trying anything that’s even a little out there, artistically-speaking, that kept these samples boxed up and unsniffed in my drawer for the past three months.
I mean, come on. It’s Omer Pekji. The chances of there being samples in there that smell like petrol mixed with jasmine (Eau Mer), incense smeared in sheep dung (Holy Shit), or horse blankets soaked in urine (Zeybek) rubbing shoulders with more safe-for-life options like exotic roses (Ruh) or cozy ambers (Battaniye) are going to be high. And since I now spend the first eight hours of the day unscented, the choice of what to wear in the evening becomes a little more high stakes. It’s what I’m stuck with all night.
A quick glance at the notes for Flesh – ambrette, iris, musks – makes me feel that this would be a safe first choice. A powdery skin scent akin to Blanc Poudre (Heeley), perhaps, or one of those metallic, crisp musks that flit between clean and not-so-clean without raising eyebrows. Holy cow was I wrong.
The first sniff is misleadingly angelic. A nuclear mushroom cloud of iris and ambrette seed – conveying messages of ice-cold vodka, steel, potatoes, toner fluid, and grey suede – blooms immediately to the nose. It smells almost unbearably pure and high-pitched, walking the line between ‘expensive naturals’ and ‘factory-strength chemicals’ so expertly that I’m not sure which one I’m smelling. It’s big and rough but pure and beautiful. It is at this point that I decide that Flesh is the bathroom gin version of Iris Silver Mist (Serge Lutens).
But hold up. Because like a bad trip, Flesh goes to weird places very quickly. In the space of five minutes, it loses the high-bred pearlescent glow of the iris, and starts to smell more like a soft furnishings factory when they’re soldering the non-slip plastic backing onto the carpets. The reek of hot glue guns, latex, paint thinner, leather chaps, rubber, and roiling pans of solvents fills the air insistently. Weirdly, it does still smell like suede. But it is so powerful now that the mere act of breathing makes my head spin. It’s as close to sniffing glue as you’ll get as an adult. Wear this to a kink shop in Berlin and you’ll be very popular.
As the civet starts to layer in, the industrial suede carpet gets progressively grimier. Not quite to the point that it feels like it’s been smeared in scat – though normally quite sharp and acidic, the civet here is soft and earthy – but the suede is definitely moving from a clean, modern factory setting to an abandoned warehouse where piles of raw hide are stacked to the ceiling. Here’s where I start to see past the skin (suede) through to the flesh of Flesh, a whiff of meat clinging to the underbelly of just-cured leather skins. Like the closest relatives I could think of, Cuir d’Iris by Parfumerie Generale and New Sibet by Slumberhouse, it’s hyper-clean while also being redolent of the curdled-milk-fat funk of a milking shed. And yet, at its core, Flesh still smells like an expensive, vegetally-musky iris suede.
Flesh is a disjointing experience that exemplifies the outer edges of what most people would think of niche, where mad hatters like Omer Pekji are still thinking, imagining, and experimenting. It’s worth seeking stuff like this out, not necessarily to smell good but to take a reading of what’s fermenting out there and then head back on into your comfort zone with some new perspective. I don’t think I’ve smelled an iris suede that shifts so convincingly between industrial and expensive, pure and sullied, and robotic and fleshy as Flesh. And I’m not sure I want to ever again, either.
The indie perfume brand Neandertal boasts some of the most achingly cool bottles I’ve ever seen, one of the hottest talents on the indie perfumery scene (Euan McCall), and several glowing Luca Turin reviews – and yet, surprisingly little hype. I’m going to hazard a guess that, for some, ‘achingly cool’ + bottles that look like ice sculptures = intimidating.
That includes me, by the way. I am the least cool person in the room at any given time, so it’s likely I’d have continued to ignore Neandertal to infinity and beyond were it not for the fact that I recently purchased some samples of Euan McCall’s work (for his eponymous brand) and wanted to compare/contrast against his work for another brand to get a fuller picture of his style. When a perfume contact who does some PR for Neandertal (Brooke) offered to send me samples of the line, I figured it was kismet.
I’m really glad I got to smell these. All of them were interesting – unique even – and none of them were the paint-by-numbers type of jobbie we’ve come to expect from the more upmarket niche brands. One was marred by a heavy hand with nose-burning aromachems, but even that was redeemed by a beautiful and unusual central section. Matching the bottles, the perfumes draw on the jolie laide nature of raw, elemental things – metal, earth, leather, salt. The effect is often jarring, and sometimes (one senses accidentally rather than deliberately) even pleasant. But we all need a little intellectual roughage in our diets, don’t we?
Oh, the grappa and Fairy washing up liquid sting of pure orris root tincture! I love how, when used in more generous quantities than the standard dribble tapped out with a fingernail into niche perfumes to justify an obscene price tag (Floretiiiiinnnnne irisssssss), this buttery but bleachy rhizome always manages to bring in the desaturated cool grey-pink colour canvas of Scandinavia – even if what the perfumer had been going for was Italian sunshine or Russian leather. Orris will out. Luckily, we have a Northern European perfumer (Euan McCall, a Scot) going for a cool, foggy interpretation of orris root, so the Scandi colour palette works just fine.
Orris root is an interesting material because, to me, it is a mixture of high and low, which means that it smells in equal parts like a fine leather glove and like the rooty sting of moonshine brewed by a Polish potato farmer. An elevated root cellar smell. Part of the reason that Them works because the perfumer understands this element of the material and surrounds it with other high-low accents. So, we have a green, scratchy salt note rubbing up against an ambrette material that feels luxuriously cloudy (a drop of Pernod in water), and a vaporous leather note slowly losing its initially screechy, toxic edge as it is folded into a much finer, softer ‘cuir’ along the same lines as Cuir d’Ange (Hermès) or Cuir X (La Parfumerie Moderne).
It is also an outdoors-to-indoors kind of perfume. It starts in the cool, foggy outdoors (Iris Silver Mist territory even) before slowly switching the scene to a posh art gallery full of spot-lit ‘found art’ sourced from nature, like long, silvery hunks of hollowed-out driftwood, polished stone, dried seaweed, salt, leather – the type of beach-cast objets that a collector might pay thousands for. There’s an awkward moment in the transition that smells a little bit sweaty or BO-ish, but it’s brief enough for me to pass it off as my imagination (or perhaps a momentary concentration of something evil in the iris material used). The small flashes of furry warmth and leather underbelly briefly bring to mind Slumberhouse Sibet, but no, Them is green, salty, and almost aqueous in a way Sibet is not.
Us is one of those atmospheric indie scents that are more like exhibitions than perfume – experiments not really designed to survive beyond the walls of the lab but to be held up, admired, and put back down again. It smells like boot polish, tanning agents, and the soot-streaked insides of a kipper smoking house. And also like wet eucalyptus branches thrown onto an open fire in a sauna. While I admire the phantasmagoric summoning of the La Brea tar pits, I’m not sure that something this extreme is for wearing.
In the drydown, it calms down enough for me to spot the relationship to the hoary old seagrass vetiver (burnt, whiskey-ish) of Vetiver by Annick Goutal Vetiver or Arso by Profumum, but I would rather wear the Goutal than a version that’s been amped up by a factor of ten. I just don’t have the stomach for this kind of stuff anymore. If you’re just getting into niche or indie, however, and you are chasing down all the ‘burning tire’ scent experiences you can find, then Us is gripping stuff indeed.
Light is a jarring but ultimately thought-provoking fragrance. There is an opening blast of some aromachemical so vile and toxic I can feel it at the back of my throat, and for a moment or two, before this thing rights itself, I have to fight the urge to scrub it off my skin. I suspect a noxious brew of Ambroxan and the milky-metallic shriek of violet leaf, with a pronounced ‘curdled milk’ effect.
However – and you know that the ‘however’ has to be a good one in order for me to get past the teenage body spray thing at the start – Light surprises me by settling into a weird but interesting accord that I can only describe as a tart but creamy ‘rhubarb and custard’ floral that gets me in its headlights and refuses to let go. Yes, I understand that nothing in the notes list would explain this. Yes, it is possible that I’m going crazy. I have worn Light several times now, and each time I grimace my way through the opening (hairspray! licked metal spoons! teenager deo!) and each time I wind up in the rhubarb and custard place.
And if it only stayed there, I would be enthusiastic. However, after an hour or two, the scent begins a slow fade into a chemical marshmallow drydown with an unpleasantly dusty ‘wheaten’ undertone – a sort of stale, chocolate-less smores accord – which reminds me a bit of that Godawful Rouge Smoking by Parfums BDK (which is cherry cough medicine + pleather + bubblegum + stale, wheat-dusted marshmallow) and of Sangre Dulce by Strangers Parfumerie, which is actually pretty good. I’m not keen on this indie ‘protein bar’ accord, to be honest, so this is a mark against it. But that weird salty-floral-creamy rhubarby midsection – oh man. What I’d do for a flanker that excerpted that part.
Aptly named, Dark is one of those oily, industrial-smelling concoctions that get you thinking both of (a) the fuel spills, rubber, tarpaulin, and black oil of a car repair shop, and (b) the oily black infestation at the cire of a freshly-felled agarwood tree, i.e., the natural and unnatural intertwined so densely that one is undistinguishable from the other. It smells dank and oddly savory (umami), perhaps due to the seaweed note, which is more reminiscent of miso paste than of salt. Unlike Light, Dark is, well, the smell of closed-up spaces, of rot, of time v. infection.
Though unusual, its grungy industrial bent is not entirely unique – there are elements of what I am smelling here in both Nooud by Baruti and Black No. 1 by House of Matriarch. But in the drydown, Dark takes a very different turn, and this is where the paths diverge. The scent sees itself out on a long tail of pure, blinding metal. You know the metallic scent of orange juice that’s been spilled and left to dry? This is precisely that, minus any scent of orange. I don’t know if this is saffron, coriander, rose oxide, violet leaf, or some other metallic material, but the flash of metal provides a link to Light that I find interesting. Dark mixed with Light, by the way, provides for a compelling experience – the tart, metallic rhubarb and (salted) custard sparks against the oily, savory dankness of Dark’s oudy leather to yield a scent that feels as bright as an over-exposed photo and as grungy as mold.
Source of samples: Samples of the Neanderthal line were kindly sent to me by Brooke, who does some PR on social media for the brand. I disclose where my samples came from so that you (the reader) can decide for yourself whether my review is unbiased or not.
There are three types of tuberose fragrance and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Category I is Photorealistic Tuberose, which is where you find the dewy ‘ripped from nature’ takes like Carnal Flower (Malle), Moon Bloom (Hiram Green), and yes, even Tubéreuse Criminelle (Lutens) after it shimmies through that Listerine bead curtain up front.
Category II is Nights in White Satin tuberose, where you find all the aging Baby Janes sweating naked but for a fur coat on a hot Southern veranda, waiting to pounce on the mail boy, her left buttock making a slurping sound as she propels herself off her lounge chair – stuff like Amarige (Givenchy), Giorgio (Giorgio Beverly Hills), and Number One Intense (De Nicolai).
Category III is Tuberose Messed Up Beyond All Recognition, the hangout room for perfumes that drown out the objectionably fruity bubblegum bullshit of tuberose until you’re smelling as much hay, leather, incense, or patchouli as tuberose itself. Tubéreuse III (Histoires de Parfum) and Daphne (Comme des Garcons) are good examples.
I have little use for perfumes from Category I. I wear Carnal Flower about once a year, swooning at its limpid green beauty only to cheerfully bench it again for another twelve months. Category II, in all its “The Eighties Called and Want Their Shoulder Pads Back” glory, is triggering, for me, and therefore a hard no. (Even some really modern perfumes, like Mélodie de l’Amour (Dusita) and L’ Eau Scandaleuse (Anatole LeBreton), released in 2016 and 2014 respectively, accidentally fall into Category II due to the man-eating nature of their tuberose). Category III is really the only space in which I can enjoy tuberose, because, as you might have guessed by now, tuberose needs to be so heavily masked with other notes that I can get it down without gagging.
Because Tyger Tyger by Francesca Bianchi is fruit, tuberose (and ylang, to my nose) over smoky woods and uncured leather, it would seem to fall effortlessly into the third category. Right? And yep, it mostly does. However, the sticky peach jam note coaxes out all of the unfortunate bubblegum tendencies of tuberose, which means that it tips its rather cartoonish Jessica Rabbit sunhat just enough in the direction of the Nights in White Satin category to make me uncomfortable.
Which is my long-winded (even for me) way of saying that Tyger Tyger is not for me, but that is due entirely to my own personal issues with tuberose rather than the way in which the perfume is constructed or wears. The perfume itself is blameless. Lovers of the spicy 1980s floriental style of Big White Floral will rejoice in this juice. It starts off with a hugely sweet peach bubblegum note that might as well be tuberose candy – and at this point, I’m all #thanksifuckinghateit.
But this is Francesca Bianchi, y’all. She’s not going to leave those great, big honey-dripping white flowers out there on their own for long. Almost immediately, in fact, the familiar Bianchi accord of ‘stony, smoky, slutty iris leather with a side of licked skin’ (that’s how I refer to it anyway) rises up to infuse the floral candy with an attractive smokiness, kind of like hay, leather, and woods being smoked in a far off barn.
So, yes, by the mid-section, I’m starting to come around. There’s enough going on here to reduce the tuberose to something I can just about glimpse at the corner of my eye. Think Pèche Cardinal (Parfums MDCI) – minus the tropical coconut – sleeping with a stable boy, their sticky sex juices mingling with the grimy but healthy aroma of leather riding tack and hay. It shares something with the utterly mad, bubblegum-on-steroids tuberose incense of Daphne (Comme des Garcons), a bit of that fleshy peach sweetness of Pèche Cardinal, and quite a lot of overlap with the retro butter-caramel-leather-hay-filtered smut of Tubéreuse III.
The drydown smells curiously like the peach-scented floor wax of Chinatown, the tuberose boiled down until its bubblegum and peach juice juiciness evaporates, fading out into a gently smoky Crayola finish. But tuberose wax is still tuberose, and man, even a little bit of it is nigh on too much for this gal. As it flattens out slightly at the end, more of the scent’s candied tuberose-ness – and thus also its essentially 1980s floriental character – is laid bare. Don’t get me wrong – Tyger Tyger is a beautifully made, and surprisingly softly spoken white floral that will please many. It’s really no fault of the scent that it happens to brush up against one of my personal triggers.
Source of Sample: PR sample, provided gratis by the brand.
I keep trying to sum up Spell 125 by Papillon Artisan Perfumes for myself in one of those snappy two-liners that Luca Turin excels in, but it is a testament to the perfume’s shape-shifty-ness that I can’t settle on just one. Some days, I think, hmm, definitely Limey Smoke, but then there’s also Ashy Frankincense, Foresty Green, followed later by Balsamic Salt, Sour Honey, and Chewy Leather. Spell 125 just feels like a scent that’s been put together in thin, crisp layers that peel off into the atmosphere, like smears of organic matter hissing on hot volcanic rock. It smells acid-bright – neon almost – but also dry, like a nubbin of frankincense whittled to ash.
Papillon perfumes run the gamut from pretty (Angélique) and sweetly comforting (Bengale Rouge) to dirty-sexy-money (Salome) but what connects them all is that deep richness of finish that some have called Guerlainesque. Spell 125 marks something of a departure in style. Though it is as seamlessly constructed as the rest, Spell 125 actually smells far more environmental than it does classically perfumey – a clutch of green resins, blackish gums, and saltwater dripping from trees in some primordial forest, immediately evaporating into smoky ether as they hit the hot minerals beneath.
In a way, Spell 125 smells almost more like a Tauer or a Sonoma Scent Studio (think Incense Pure) than a Papillon, in that it smells both funkily organic, i.e., ‘ripped from nature’, and preternaturally airy, a whole diorama of sky, forest, and wind filling your lungs as you draw breath.
Spell 125 starts out with the lemon-and-limeade fizz of Siberian pine, sluicing everything in an acid-green halo of antiseptic fluid that might feel a little challenging at first until you realize that we all need something this invigoratingly bright to disinfect our lives of the bullshit that is life under COVID-19. An earlier mod of Spell 125 was more confrontational in its piney-ness – almost saltily urinous – but the final version turns the pitch just right, so that it feels more darkly balsamic than high-toned, with just enough residual volatility to make you think of fingers in electric sockets and lime-scented soap and ion-charged air.
But anyway, though the pine certainly is first out the gate, you immediately sense a myriad of other layers shifting, separately, and lifting into place. Most notable is a tremendous frankincense material, which is at first slightly green and waxy-balsamic-raw but grows increasingly ashy and ‘burned out’ in feel, until finally, everything feels like it is coated in a thin layer of white ash (but one that is not, thankfully, acrid).
Counteracting the vegetal coolness of the incense is the creeping mammalian funk of ambergris, with its hints of saltwater, warm tar, and loose tobacco flakes in a paper pouch. This is soon joined by other similarly resinous, gauzy layers of organic matter misting up through the scaffolds – the honeyed spicy-sourness of opoponax, dried lime peel, and a lightly chewy leather dimension that I feel sure comes from labdanum. Spell 125 is never quite animalic – but there is the suggestion (just the merest hint) of something grimy or unclean lurking beneath the ashy-resinous brightness. A Barbour waxed jacket clinging to warm, clammy flesh.
Spell 125 will be launched on the 7th July 2021, to mark the 7th anniversary of Papillon, closing the circle started by Papillon’s first fragrance, Anubis. The name is significant – Spell 125 describes the ceremony known as the “Weighing of the Heart” in The Book of the Dead (usually presided over by Anubis) where the deceased soul is asked to weigh their purity against their sins, before being led by Anubis before Osiris and their eternal reward. Incense and leather are the two accords that connect these perfumes, but they run in such opposite directions, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to connect the two. Anubis is a dark, incensey leather fueled by a jammy jasmine absolute that smells a bit like gasoline spilled on a forecourt; Spell 125 is a dry, effervescent incense that smells like a wash of smoky crystals in the air.
I appreciate both, but Spell 125 is the one I feel in my bones, if you know what I mean. In the midst of the busiest time of the year for me, with multiple deadlines and lots of stress, coupled with a return to the ‘joys’ of home-schooling for what feels might be the next twenty years, Spell 125 has acted as a little talisman of calm ten times more powerful than Bach’s Rescue Remedy drops and yet not quite as numbing as Xanax. I find it to wear very lightly (more vellum than velvet in tensile weight) but it is also immensely durable, with no discernible sacrifice to naturalness (of feel) made to the chemical Gods of Longevidee.
Listen, I f***ing love it. I’d carry this stuff around with me in the pockets of my pants if I still wore pants and I would definitely wear it for yoga were I ever to find a yoga video on YouTube that wasn’t intensely irritating (what do these people mean by ‘breathe into your spine’?). But just because Spell 125 happens to be exactly my kind of thing these days doesn’t mean its ascetic, modern ‘spaciness’ will be for everyone. It is not a people-pleaser like Bengale Rouge, for example, and it might challenge those who’ve come to love Papillon for its richer, more classically-styled output. But if a fresh, diaphanous, almost airy-sparkly coniferous incense sounds like just what the doctor ordered, and you already love stuff like Zagorsk (Comme des Garcons), Incense Pure (Sonoma Scent Studio) and the hemlocky green amber of Woman (Ormonde Jayne), then Spell 125 by Papillon will likely be a safe bet.
Source of Sample: Smuggled to me by Liz Moores of Papillon Artisan Perfumes in (Mod A) a small box of chocolate shoes filled with salted caramel and then (Mod B – the final version) a Papillon t-shirt, size XL to fit my capacious boobage.
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.