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The Business of Perfume: Artisan as the New Niche

June 29, 2018

When it comes to fragrance, traditional classifications of niche and designer are beginning to lose their meaning. Economists might divvy up the fragrance pie into two big slices called “prestige” and “mass”, but we all know that Tom Ford (prestige) has more in common with Dior (mass) than it does with Hiram Green (prestige). In reality, the perfume segment really ought to be divided up into Masstige (high-spec commercial fragrances, whether niche or mainstream) and Artisan/Indie (independent, artisanal, non-commercial in nature).

 

While “mass” as a category is relatively homogenous, “prestige” is not. How can it be? It’s a term that awkwardly covers everything from a $800 Henry Jacques to a $12 Solstice Scents roll-on. Those in the fragrance community have always preferred the term “niche” over “prestige”, in recognition that it is its apart-ness from the mass that defines niche, and not its prestige, real or implied. Therefore, although the market equates the term “niche” with luxury and high spec, the die-hards inside the Fragrance Community are still clinging to the OG definition of niche.

 

And the word “niche” really stood for something once. When Jean Laporte left Sisley to form L’Artisan Parfumeur in 1976, he did so to offer people a real alternative to mass market fragrance. His work at L’Artisan Parfumeur defined the true essence of niche perfumery as bold new ideas, freedom from artistic or financial constraint, and a disregard for what is commercial.

 

In a segment now dominated by masstige brands and big beauty conglomerates, it’s hard to imagine fragrances like Tubéreuse Criminelle (Serge Lutens, 1999) or Secretions Magnifiques (Etat Libre d’Orange, 2006) getting past the marketing execs. But it wasn’t only the fragrances that were idiosyncratic, the perfumers and creative directors were too. It is difficult to imagine, for instance, Serge Lutens, who communicates in sentences so gnomic that I’m convinced it’s code for aliens, being allowed to talk to a room full of investors.

 

But as soon as niche had established itself as a high-growth area, everyone wanted in. Brand behemoths like LVMH, Puig, and Estee Lauder gobbled up many of the original niche brands, smoothing out any rough edges and turning them back out again to capture a broader stream of customers. Thank God Lutens had his old stomping grounds, the artistically alien culture of the Japanese firm, Shiseido, to fall back on when it came to his inevitable corporate take-over. Tom Ford was acquired by Estee Lauder, which absolutely makes sense, given they both espouse a peculiarly American style of square-shouldered luxe that’s rich but slightly dull.

 

Fragrance as Haute Couture  

 

Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash

Designer brands like Chanel, YSL, Armani, and Dior liked the downstream potential of OG niche so much that they launched special “private collections” to capture it. Cleverly, the designer brands picked names for their exclusive collections that drew direct parallels to their haute couture clothing collections – Givenchy’s L’Atelier, for example, Armani’s Prive, and Dior’s Privée – so as to mark them out clearly from their humdrum prêt-a-porter collections.

 

The drift towards luxury also sparked a fetishization of raw materials in the marketing, an effort by Masstige niche brands to cultivate the appearance of authenticity to cover a real lack of thereof. Carl Groenewald of Dior said that the Dior Privée fragrances are constructed using a limited number of top quality raw materials, in much “the same way we do the fabrics for Haute Couture gowns.”[1]  A smart, if cynical analogy that most consumers will get. It is now very common to see niche fragrances giving their raw materials and provenance top billing in the perfume names – how many Santals of Mysore or Vanillas from Madagascar are currently floating around the market?

 

The homogenization and smoothing out of niche accelerated at the top with the fastest-growing mini segment of all, namely the “haute parfumerie” brands like Clive Christian, Creed, and Roja Dove. These brands, spiritual inheritors of the trend for bespoke perfumery that began at the turn of the 20th century, turned the niche dial even further away from “boundary-breaking” to “because you’re worth it”. They were so successful in their colonization of niche territory that today many consumers equate the word niche with luxury.

 

Niche was originally defined loosely through its specialness, meaning its apart-ness from the mainstream, and its idiosyncrasies. At least that’s the way the Father of Niche, Jean Laporte, saw it. Today, niche is still defined by its specialness, but it’s a carefully managed image of specialness rather than the real thing. Crucially, the direction of specialness has been reversed: whereas originally it was the fragrance itself that was special, now it is the customer who wears the fragrance who is special. The experience has been transmuted; not art for art’s sake, but what it can do for you, the end user.

 

Dior’s Carl Groenewald told the Independent that the customers for Dior’s Privée collection “do not want a commercial fragrance and to smell like everyone else.”[2]  The market term for this is personalization, or customization – making the customer feel as if the product has been created especially with him or her in mind. And yet, ironically, these fragrances are technically masstige – luxury for the masses – implying a specialness that can be bought by anyone as long as they have the cash, and therefore really not all that special.

 

The rise of “Masstige”

 

“Masstige” is a smushed-together name for a smushed-together category – prestige and mass. In their article “Luxury for the Masses” for Harvard Business Review (April 2003), Michael J. Silverstein and Neil Fiske defined Masstige as goods that “occupy a sweet spot between mass and class[3]. It might seem like a real conehead kind of term to use, but I like it, because it’s honest about the blurred lines between a Dior Privée and a Tom Ford Private Blend.

 

Masstige is all about giving a customer the high spec experience they expect from a professionally made product, but also making them feel special and different from the masses. As a market category, it covers mainstream designer brands with prestige lines, big brand niche brands with corporate backing, and the haute parfumerie luxe brands. It’s a giant chunk of the perfume segment.

 

The trick to masstige, and the one that every brand wants to figure out, lies in making the perfume wearer feel special, not necessarily in making the perfume itself special. Masstige fragrances are basically one giant reflecting pool designed to flatter the person who looks into it.

 

In shifting the focus from the intrinsic qualities of the perfume itself to the wearer’s experience, perfume has become more of a commodity than an art form. In line with the commoditization, everything else about the business of niche has been commercialized too. Forget the image you might have of a bunch of creative people sitting down with mad perfumers over bunches of wild lavender and exotic oud oils. Masstige niche perfume is a business like anything else. They operate in a similar manner to designer brands, meaning they have marketing teams, ad budgets, product placement strategies, and quality control.

 

Of course, niche still has that aura of “not available to just any Joe Schmoe” to cultivate. Limited distribution and short-run production are calculated to the nth degree to create an illusion of unavailability and drive up demand. For example, the Le Labo City Exclusives are made available only in one city, like Moscow, or in one specific month of the year. Xerjoff Join The Club perfumes come with special membership cards allowing access to a restricted part of their website. Some By Kilian special editions come with jewel-encrusted handbags.

 

In short, brands will go to extraordinary lengths to create that feeling of “specialness” for the buyer. The notion of specialness in niche has well and truly flipped; it is no longer the special of the non-commercial, wildly artistic idea, but the special of luxury and of exclusivity.

 

There’s nothing here to take personally; niche perfumery is a business like any other, and exists to make a profit. Members of the Fragrance Community understand this, if only in its general outline and not its detail. More importantly, being aware of it doesn’t make masstige niche any less attractive to fragrance fans. The lure of prestige and luxury is strong, even among those who consider themselves to be more clued in than more casual perfume buyers.

 

Masstige versus the artisans

 

There’s a small part of the prestige segment that still espouses everything once associated with the word niche, namely its independence from the mainstream, boundaryless creativity, and the preference for the idea of a perfume over its potential to make money. And that’s artisanal, independent perfumery. Because this segment has so little in common with the credo or modus operandi of masstige, or even just prestige perfumery, I’d argue that independent artisanship stands alone and apart from masstige, a tiny sliver of the overall perfume pie. Instead of mass and prestige, I would reconfigure the pie to read as masstige and artisans.

 

Artisanship is the last hold-out against the broad strokes of commercialization that has colonized the originally niche, but now masstige segment. If masstige brands are the professionals and the corporations, artisanal brands are the DIYers, the crazy bunch o’ fools, the starving artists, etc. Not only did artisans pick up the OG niche baton, but they also created some of the really big, important, conversation-starting perfumes of the past 10, 15 years. Onda by Vero Profumo, L’Air du Desert Marocain by Tauer Parfums, Maai by Bogue, Salomé by Papillon, Lampblack by Bruno Fazzolari, Civet by Zoologist….these are all fragrances conceived, created, and sent out into the world by artisans.

 

 

The definition of artisanship

 

The word “artisanship” refers to someone who is particularly skilled at a trade and makes things by hand. In food terms, it has come to mean products made either in a very traditional, skilled way or without much mechanization. To that definition, I’d add the notion of authenticity; we often associate artisanally-made anything with genuineness, with the sense of something being made because it is beautiful and right, not because it will make money.

 

In perfume, we take artisanal to mean something made by the hand of the artisan. At its most basic level, artisanship means that the perfumer owns or co-owns the brand. Artisan perfumers are largely self-taught; most will never have been formally trained as perfumers either in Grasse or Paris.  Artisanship  also translates to a lack of corporate backing for the enterprise; the artisan is responsible for everything, from the sourcing of raw materials and the writing of the perfume formula to the purchasing of bottling, mixing and blending, maceration, bottling, labeling, the expedition of orders, shipping and handling, and so on.

 

That’s the general understanding, at least. In reality, the picture is far more complex, with some brands doing everything from A to Z themselves, and others outsourcing parts of the process such as the final compounding of the perfume, or the bottling and packaging. Some of this is location-dependent: artisan perfumers in Europe, for example, are obliged to hire external safety assessors to ensure that each component of its perfume formula is safe, because without an EU Cosmetics Safety Certificate, the product can’t be sold in the EU.

 

The folks who run the Art & Olfaction Awards have come up with a neat system that divides this corner of the perfume-making world into two groups: artisans and independent perfume brands. So, when we talk about indie artisans, we’re really talking about two distinct groups.

 

According to Art & Olfaction, an artisan perfume brand is one where the perfumer who wrote the original formula (i) either owns or co-owns the brand that is releasing the perfume, and (ii) wrote and has legal ownership of the perfume formula[4]. In other words, the person who runs the company is also the one making it. Examples of artisan brands under this definition would be: Tauer, Papillon, SP Parfums, Hans Hendley, Pekji, Slumberhouse, Bogue, Auphorie, Imaginary Authors, DSH Parfums, Hiram Green, Vero Profumo, and many more.

 

An independent perfume brand, on the other hand, is a company that employs “an external perfumer or fragrance house to initiate and create their blends, with creative direction from the perfume brand[5]. For example, Zoologist is an indie brand whose creative director, Victor Wong, hires a variety of (artisan) perfumers to compose the brand’s perfumes, which are released under the Zoologist name. Other examples of indie brands include: Maria Candida Gentile, Masque Milano, Jul et Mad, Charenton Macerations, and Skive.

 

The dividing lines between artisan and independent perfume brands are probably not important to anyone other than the people who run or judge high-stakes awards like the Art & Olfaction Awards. I’ve conflated the two terms myself in this article because I think most people in the FragComm will understand indies and artisans as being linked by a general independence from market trends, a genuine feeling for the art of perfumery, and the creation of artistically risky perfumes (compared to masstige and ‘haute parfumerie’ niche). The hand of the artisan or creative director is clearly in evidence throughout, from the design of the bottle art to the marketing, copy, and of course, how the scent smells.

 

Artisanship in perfumery compared to artisanship in other categories

 

Photo by Lubo Minar on Unsplash

Pour-over coffee. Craft beer. Organic carrots. It’s fair to say that the artisanal movement has had a profound effect on the way we consume at a meta level. We take pleasure in buying organic, supporting local businesses, and choosing the artisanal over the corporate. But what began as a movement in the food industry has spilled over into other, surprising areas too.

 

Advertizing, for example, once the preserve of big, rather traditional companies, is now drifting downstream into artisanal mode, with the CEOs of massive companies doing podcasts to talk about their products, and using Snapchat and Instagram Stories to reach out to consumers directly.

 

The message filtering through is that consumers care more about authenticity than video quality. Julia Vyse of Mediative, in an article about the top advertizing trends for 2018, noted that the “audience for these ads is more likely to spend a little bit more for brand loyalty, for locally or independently produced items. Authentic messages plus a premium-minded audience is about as harmonious as pour-over coffee and locally baked doughnuts!”[6]

 

Authenticity is the keyword here. Modern consumers are drawn to the authentic, even if it is at the cost of slick production values.

 

The contradiction: artisanship versus consumer expectations

 

Consumers are drawn to authenticity. Well….to a certain extent. The truth is that we are a generation raised on

Photo by Thanh Tran on Unsplash

maximum efficiency. We might like pour-over coffee, but if it’s 8am and we’re late for a meeting, then we want that cup in front of us stat. And therein lies the contradiction: while artisanship emphasizes the slow, homemade, personal nature of the product, consumers have little tolerance for things that do not work as quickly or as effectively as they’re used to.

 

Even massive global conglomerates like Unilever are struggling with the contradiction between the consumer’s desire to support artisanship and his (seemingly equal) desire for maximum efficiency, comfort, or the lower cost base that commercialization brings.

 

How do we embrace customized, local, artisanal consumer desires with the need for efficiency and ruthless price competition?” asks Bryan Lapidus, in an article for The Association for Financial Professionals. Unilever responded by copying the marketing ideas of smaller competitors, increasing its local markets spend by 50%, and oh yeah, by buying up many of those small, artisanal companies biting at its ankles[7]. Big companies often buy up smaller niche brands in the same segment – it’s a great way to plug into a downstream market without having to start up a new brand. Estee Lauder acquiring Les Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle, By Kilian, and Le Labo, for example.

 

Why am I blathering on about this? Well, because this contradiction very much applies to artisanship in the fragrance category too. As we know, market research companies divide fragrances into two broad categories: prestige and mass. Internally, the prestige category is so heterogeneous that it’s kind of awkward – a Creed and a January Scent Project uneasily crammed into the same space, like a gorilla lumped in with a canary. We can all see for ourselves that these are from two very different species. And yet, subconsciously, the consumer expects the same level of finish, smoothness, and performance metrics from the January Scent Project scent as he or she does from the Creed. This might strike the artisan or indie brand as being quite unfair, and it is. But it doesn’t make it any less true.

 

Perfume buyers are a risk adverse lot: if there is a choice between Carnal Flower (Malle) or Moon Bloom (Hiram Green), for example, many will go for the Malle simply because Malle is a known quantity and Hiram Green is not, despite the fact that Moon Bloom is probably the better perfume. Indie artisan brands need to be aware of all the inhibitors to buy in the mind of their audience, and then set about challenging them, one by one.

 

My sympathies to the artisans and the indies

 

Photo by Brandy S on Unsplash

It must be incredibly difficult for small independent artisans to be thrown into the same bull pen as masstige and niche brands whose corporate backing pays for their distribution channels, marketing, packaging, materials, and talent, and then be told to go compete. They have my profound sympathy.

Being an independent or an artisan brand has its advantages, of course, chief among them the creative license to create perfumes that don’t have to conform to a certain market demand or budget. Likewise, the freedom from having to worry about IFRA and EU cosmetics directive compliance, if the brand decides to stay out of the European market. Oakmoss, eugenol, and coumarin, oh my!

 

But mostly, I’d guess that trying to stay afloat in a market segment dominated by the deep-pocketed guys like Le Labo and Malle is a giant pain in the ass. A daily, no-letting-up, crushing, almost existential struggle to launch that one perfume that pierces the murk of a market fogged up by all that capital investment sloshing around the ankles of big niche brands, and land so successfully with perfume buyers that it makes your name. Not overnight success, not even financial sustainability, but just enough to filch a bit of that spotlight away from the bigger players, and start the hard slog towards building the kind of brand recognition, trust, and return custom that counts in the long run.

 

At a bare minimum, the challenges an indie / artisan perfume brand faces include:

 

  • Low purchasing power with big raw materials and bottling supplier: many suppliers will not sell in units less than wholesale figures, which indies can neither afford nor absorb
  • (In the EU or for brands who want to sell in the EU) Finding and then paying for expensive safety assessments of each perfume formula to obtain an EU Cosmetics Safety Certificate
  • Lack of control or oversight over supply chain integrity; especially important for small all-natural brands
  • Lack of in-house marketing know-how
  • Finding distribution channels that don’t bleed the brand dry at the margins

 

 

But the biggest challenge facing small, independent & artisan brands is probably us, the consumers. Apart from the challenge of having to cut through all the noise and competition for our attention, indie brands have to deal with that contradiction between our desire to support artisanship and our over-reliance on high-tech performance and glossy production values.

 

Why weaning consumers off the masstige tit is tricky

 

Weaning consumers off the glossy tit of masstige and luxury niche and onto the rougher, realer one of indies and artisans is no small feat. In many areas of our lives, we have switched our allegiance to the artisans, buying plantation-specific dark chocolate, fair-trade coffee beans, and locally-sourced cheese and wine. But in the world of cosmetics and perfume, indies are still a hard sell.

 

Or, in other words, you have my sympathies for being an artisan brand afloat in a sea of corporate greed, but do you have my money? Aside from the die-hard, anti-corporate folks who will only buy face creams, perfume oils, and eye shadows from Etsy indies and consider Estee Lauder anything to be the devil incarnate, there’s a general hesitation among perfume buyers to step outside the warm embrace of masstige and take a chance on indie perfumers and brands.

 

Part of the hesitation I get. There’s a (rational) concern over putting any product that might not have been subjected to the same stringent testing as Estee Lauder products directly on one’s skin. But it’s also because, as consumers, we have been raised on a diet of glossy, high-tech products that meet our every need without us having to put much work in: iPhones, espresso machines, Kindle, Netflix, hair straighteners, etc. Anything even vaguely “handmade” scares the shit out of us. Because it implies we might have to make a compromise somewhere, whether it’s on price, on performance, on availability, whatever. And man, are we reluctant to do that.

 

Niggling concerns at the back of the mind of the potential indie buyer include: poor performance metrics compared to big niche brands, high prices (even for new entrants who haven’t proved themselves), creatively risky compositions, leaky bottles, less-than-luxurious packaging, and often, a lack of distribution channels which leave the casual browser wondering where on earth they can actually buy the perfume. And that’s even before you add in the fear that if you fall in love with a perfume, the entire brand or its distribution channel might have fallen off the face of the planet before you can replace it.

 

As discussed in my previous article, perfume buyers – even within the Fragrance Community itself – are surprisingly conservative in their taste, as well as risk adverse. Bloggers like me are writing for an audience that barely exists anymore, namely a small band of olfactory explorers who will buy the latest experimental perfume from that start-up brand. This is the natural audience, too, of the indie / artisan world. But unfortunately, this shrinking demographic isn’t buying as much perfume these days, or at least, not nearly as much as the primary demographic of the FragComm, namely young, upwardly mobile males, aged 25-35 whose interest in fragrance is less aesthetic than functional or mating-related.

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The challenge then becomes how to get people who buy masstige and big brand niche to buy some of the artisanal stuff too. How to do that within a group of people who, despite what they might say, are actually kind of risk-adverse when it comes to perfume, and whose demographics mark them out as being interested in performance metrics over art, grooming over a cool idea, and attracting compliments from the opposite sex over appreciating a perfume for its intrinsic properties?

 

Keep talking

 

First of all, indie brands and artisans need to be as good at communicating as they are at making perfume. Social media, blogging, reaching out to other bloggers, and trying a variety of new and interesting ways to reach anyone who will listen is crucial, because in talking, talking, talking, indie brands get to assuage any fears or reservations customers might have about spending money on their product.

 

The fragrance community is not the place for the artisan to be enigmatic or shy. Indies and artisans have to keep up a steady stream of conversation with their target market, inside of which must be hidden nuggets of information that educate and persuade the person who is reading. Why is the product so expensive, for example? Why can’t I buy it directly from your store in the UK? Where can I get samples? Why doesn’t your jasmine perfume last as much or project as strongly as this niche?

 

Probably many indie artisans find this side of the perfume-making business tiresome and, in some cases, unpleasant. The bigger niche brands all have marketing professionals and agencies, so the perfumers themselves never get their hands dirty in the mud of self-promotion: indies and artisans don’t have this luxury. They have to do all of it themselves. Most of the indie perfumers I know are thoughtful, creative introverts who are passionate about making perfume but kind of awful at talking to their customer base about why they should buy their perfume and not the new Creed.

 

Nonetheless, in order to breach that gap between the consumer’s a) desire to support indie artisans and b) fear of plunging way too much money into a product that might not deliver, it’s essential for artisans to keep going out there, day in, day out, and talk to customers.

 

Getting the word out about artisans

 

As a bystander – a blogger – there’s only one thing I can really do to help, and it’s not much: just talk about the gems in the indie world that deserve attention, especially among the groups of people who would rather buy Guerlain, Dior, or Creed. And maybe even argue the case for these perfumes in a way that artisans themselves rarely do themselves, by acknowledging their true place in the pecking order of similar choices, being upfront about the niggling concerns a buyer might have, and ultimately, making a convincing case of why people should buy this perfume over another slicker, more readily accessible masstige option.

 

Here’s a list of 20 indie/artisan fragrances that I think deserve more attention and kudos. My hope, in talking them up, is to convince anyone who was ever on the fence about indies to take that leap of faith.

 

 

House of Matriarch Kazimi

 

It may seem odd to some that I’ve chosen to lead this list with a brand that, while certainly artisanal, is extremely well-placed in the market. House of Matriarch has distribution channels that include Nordstrom’s and a retail website that cleverly mines data from its customers and browsers, flooding their inbox with coupon codes and special offers on exactly the perfumes they were just looking at. The owner-perfumer, Christi Meshell, is the rare example of someone who is both an artisan and a brilliant businesswoman. But still, in the flurry of copious new releases from House of Matriarch in the past 12-24 months, I’m worried that one of its most extraordinary perfumes might get lost in the shuffle.

 

Photo by Ravi Pinisetti on Unsplash

Kazimi, like Nahema (Guerlain) and Rose 31 (Le Labo), is one of those perfumes that boasts impressive quantities of rose oil and yet smells very little of rose, leaning instead on the sharp, peppery radiance of ambergris, ginger, and woods to broadcast an aura of danger, like the crackle of static between lightning strikes. The scent opens with a dry, ammoniac smell, with a hint of that brutish tar-and-fuel dirtiness that natural ambergris sometimes exudes, like oil rising to the surface of a plastics fire under the surface of the sea. Kazimi is a 100% natural fragrance, but interestingly, has something of the chemical buzz I associate with Rose 31.

 

Kazimi smells wild and a bit unhinged – every time I wear it, I think of the island that Pi in The Life of Pi lands on with the tiger, Richard Parker, which at night turns from a lush paradise into a carnivore that dissolves human flesh in its acid pools. There’s something verdantly poisonous about Kazimi, with its barely-there rose that snaps and fizzes, eating into your flesh. It smells of thickets of pine blown sideways and crippled by strong ocean winds, crusted over with salt. Kazimi is an important achievement in natural perfumery because it highlights the most stirring parts of ambergris but still feels like a proper perfume rather than a tincture.

 

Downsides? Price, for sure. At $330 for 50ml, it’s hard to make the case for buying this over the alternatives listed below, both of which are obtainable at lower prices (approximately $200 per 75ml and $180 per 50ml). The ambergris and other materials used in Kazimi are 100% natural, and therefore expensive to obtain. This and the fact that House of Matriarch runs regular sales take the sting out of the price tag somewhat. For me, Kazimi is worth the investment: an essay on the strange, transformative brutality of natural ambergris, it twists a rose into a new shape that’s both ugly and beautiful.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: If you love natural ambergris, or even just rose fragrances that don’t really smell like an on-the-nose rose, Kazimi should be on your list of things to try. Although not a replacement for scents such as Encens Mythique d’Encens (Guerlain) or the supernaturally radiant Rose 31 (Le Labo), Kazimi has a similar “steel wire” gauziness that registers more as a texture than a scent. It’s bitter, perfumey, and natural all at once. If you love or wear Ambre Nuit (Dior Privée), another rose-ambergris composition, then consider Kazimi the speed to Ambre Nuit’s comfort.

 

 

Di Ser Kyara & Adameku

 

The Di Ser fragrances are a triumph of natural perfumery: 100% natural, yet light-footed rather than muddy as some all-natural fragrances can be. They are also immediately identifiable as Japanese, in terms of both aesthetics and form. To a Western palate, most of the Di Ser scents will first appear deeply unfamiliar, because of the traditionally Japanese botanicals the company focuses on, such as Himalayan spikenard, yuzu, and kyara.

 

Di Ser’s Kyara is an exquisite natural oud fragrance that features genuine oil distilled from kyara, the highest grade of agarwood in the world, considered only to be kyara when it comes from wild, densely-resinated Vietnamese agarwood of at least 80 years in age. Because of its rarity, kyara is never used to distill oud oil. Until Di Ser decided to do it, that is. Di Ser is in the unusual position of having access, through its mother organization, a Japanese research facility in Sapporo, on Hokkaido Island, to a wide variety of rare botanicals, woods, and resins collected for research purposes. Most pieces of kyara are collector’s pieces, kept in private vaults across Japan and China: Di Ser’s mother organization happened to have one.

 

It’s genuinely nuts that the brand decided to distill kyara and equally nuts to put it into a fragrance, but there you go – the essence of artisanship is taking the kind of anti-commercial risks that just wouldn’t fly in the mainstream. Its price – $1,150 for 33ml of extrait, $25 for a 0.5ml sample – reflects the kind of madness that using genuine kyara entails.

 

The scent itself smells amazing. It captures the elusive aroma of kyara when heated gently on a burner, which is an ethereal, almost silvery-jade smell encompassing arboreal sap, conifers, and an aromatic note that, to my nose, bridges the fiery heat of freshly-grated ginger root and the dull warmth of powdered ginger. I smelled both the pure kyara oil from whence the fragrance was built, and the fragrance itself; the finished fragrance has a rose note that suffuses the taut coniferous notes with lush sweetness. If you have loads of money and absolutely no sense, then at least sample Kyara to find out just how delicate (and non-animalic) oud oil can be.

 

But the price of Kyara places it far beyond the means of most people, so for the purposes of this list, I’d like to talk about Adameku. At a much more accessible $240 a bottle, Adameku is a very Japanese – and endearingly odd – take on osmanthus, the small flowering tree or shrub native to Eastern Asia but traditionally associated with Japan and China.

 

While most osmanthus-forward compositions focus on the leathery aspects of the flower (a by-product of fermentation caused by a long pre-distillation soak in water), the Di Ser take focuses on the translucent, fruity-jellied texture of the small petals themselves when sniffed fresh from the tree. This gives Adameku a bright, uplifting character similar to Diptyque’s Oyedo, but there’s a softly dirty, almost sour note in the background creating a chiaroscuro effect – cubes of delicate fruit jelly strewn across soil. If you’re an osmanthus fan and are looking for a fresh take, then Adameku’s half-Hello Kitty, half-Japanese botanical garden deserves to be on your radar.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: If you love a) osmanthus, b) the fetching weirdness of Japanese esoterica, culture, and flavors, and c) natural perfumery in general, then Adameku is worth at least a sample. Also, in a sector almost offensively prone to cultural appropriation, it’s thrilling to smell something so authentically Japanese. When you smell the Di Ser perfumes, you are granted a direct window view into Japanese culture rather than someone else’s interpretation of that culture, and that feels like a privilege.

 

 

Olympic Orchids Mardi Gras

 

A key difference between the indie/artisan world and the big brand niche one is that while the latter is primarily interested in creating luxurious, gorgeous smells that make its wearer feel special, the former invests its perfumes with atmosphere, emotion, and a sense of place.

 

Olympic Orchids excels at this kind of “set piece” perfumery: Café V transports the wearer straight to a Seattle coffee shop, Tropic of Capricorn will make you feel like you’ve just made love on top of a pile of rotting mango peels, and Ballets Rouges will whisk you back in time to the scent of rosin, furniture wax, and the cool-toned red lipstick of your piano teacher. None of the Olympic Orchids scents have the polish or “finish” of big brand niche – picture a retsina next to a Barolo – but they are all tremendously evocative, delivering an emotional punch to the gut that’s as cleansing as a good cry.

 

Mardi Gras is what I’d call a sexy-but-weird perfume. It’s a floral for Goths and non-conformists. A quick read of the notes – vanilla, orange blossom, honey, civet, and benzoin – might make you think that this is going to be standard floral fare, but it’s anything but. Rather than go the usual soapy and sugared route with orange blossom, Mardi Gras smears a fistful of withered, leathery flower petals over the dusty flagstones of a temple, allowing them to evaporate into the heat like spores off rotting fruit.

 

Anybody in love with the smell of aging wood, paper, and flagstone in ancient churches or castles will experience a thrill of recognition here; at times, the perfume seems resolutely un-floral, with a mustiness so deep it’s capable of blocking out the orange blossom. At other times, powder puffs of honeyed civet poke through the orange blossom, turning it into a bathtub gin version of Bal à Versailles. Central to its character, I suspect, is benzoin, responsible for the spicy, medicated foot powder texture that makes it so unusual.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: If you’re in the market for a come-hither scent that’s sexy in a slightly gritty, bohemian-messy way, then roll the dice on Mardi Gras. It’s the kind of fragrance that’s flashes its boobs at you whether you throw a necklace or not.

 

Aftelier Ancient Resins

 

Mandy Aftel is the mother of the artisanship movement in perfumery; originally a writer, she continued to write and educate other artisans after she founded Aftelier in 2000, with a total of 9 books published. Her 2001 work “Essence and Alchemy: A Book of Perfume” has proved deeply influential in the movement, helping inspire other artisans such as Andy Tauer to branch out and start their own perfume companies.

 

Mandy is known for her work with natural essences. Her work is often quirky and unexpected (Cepes & Tuberose, Sepia), sometimes straightforwardly lush (Secret Garden, Velvet Tuberose), but for me personally, it is the weird and wonderful Tango that is emblematic of her quixotic style. Unfortunately, it has been discontinued due to an unavailability of a certain component, but those who have a chance to smell it certainly should; I know that it was a key part of my own “smelling education”. It is a scent that espouses a perfume made without any regard for how it might be received in the wider, commercial market. Full review here.

 

In terms of current availability, I would urge people to sample Ancient Resins, which although technically a body oil, is strong and rich enough to wear as a personal perfume. Very reasonably priced at $40 for 50ml, I am planning to buy this at Christmas, because its meditative resins and balsams are perfect for instilling calm during long bouts of enforced family time.

 

Ancient Resins by Aftelier was developed by perfumer Mandy Aftel in cooperation with, and expressly for, the great Leonard Cohen himself. It smells exactly what you’d think a Zen guy like Leonard Cohen would like – a warm treble base of resins that balances the bitter, cleansing properties of something that might be used in a Shamanic ritual with the dusty smell of wood, paper, and rosin breaking down in old record stores or bookshops. It features an ingredient that I’ve not seen many perfumers work with, namely Balm of Gilead. Full review here.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: Because Mandy Aftel is the mother of the artisanal movement in perfumery, and so her work is what we’d call a safe pair of hands. Her work sits at the tippy top of the quality chain in artisanal perfumery, therefore, although expensive, one sniff will tell you that you’ve found the baseline for judging all quality thereafter. Plus, if you’re a Leonard Cohen fan, wearing Ancient Resins takes on another layer of significance, one almost as reverential as the ancient resins used in the oil itself.

 

La Via del Profumo Oakmoss (Muschio di Querchia)

 

There is little from the hand of Abdes Salaam Attar (Dominique Dubrana) that I don’t at least admire, and quite a few that I love. One of the giants of natural perfumery, Dubrana has now rendered most of his fragrances in attar format, both in keeping with the brand’s original focus on natural attar perfumery and the rising popularity among consumers of high-end artisanal attars (Sultan Pasha et al).

 

I have been testing some of the attars these past few weeks, and can tell you that a) they are superb, and b) they solve the problem that plagues most of the catalog of La Via del Profumo and natural perfumery in general, namely, that of extreme ephemerality. The attar formats of favorite La Via del Profumo scents are rich, strong, and long-lasting; paintings done in oils compared to the pastel work of the EDTs.

 

This is great news for anyone who might have loved the scents but hesitated over plunging $100+ into a fragrance that, while beautiful, doesn’t last more than 3-4 hours on the skin. Lovers of natural perfumery understand and accept the trade-off between all-natural materials and their brief longevity. But with Dubrana’s attars now offering fans the best of both worlds, we don’t have to compromise.

 

Oakmoss (Muschio di Querchia) is one of my favorite fragrances from La Via del Profumo, and in attar format,

Photo by Tj Holowaychuk on Unsplash

allows me hours of pleasure, rolling around and luxuriating in its ripped-from-nature goodness. Far more a vetiver scent than an oakmoss, Oakmoss at first smells like wet leaves, upturned soil, bark, wild mint, the air after a rainstorm, and potatoes buried deep in the ashes of a campfire. It plugs me directly into a powerful current of memory: playing War with my brothers and neighborhood friends in the sprawling ditches and orchards once attached to our Famine Era home.

 

Slowly, the sodden smell of tree sap, mulch, and root dries out, ceding some ground (but not all) to an incensey, blond oakwood note, which is probably cedar but reminds me very much of the aromatic woodiness of Chêne (Serge Lutens) minus the booze. It smells more like split logs drying in a shed and woodsmoke than the oozing wetness of living trees.

 

The oakmoss has a bitter velvety softness that calls to mind the furred green carpets creeping over the roots and trunks of old oaks in some less trodden part of the forest. And while Oakmoss is far from sweet or creamy, the nuttiness of Dubrana’s famous Mysore sandalwood gives it a rounded warmth that speaks to comfort. People have called Oakmoss formal; the kind of scent to wear with a business suit. I can see that, especially in its clipped, almost monolithic elegance. However, the attar is earthier, more sepulchral, and darker-green than the EDT, and reminds me a bit of the way Djedi (Guerlain) and Onda (Vero Profumo) make me feel. Worth saving up for.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: Every now and then a perfume comes along to prove that scent is the most evocative sense of all, capable of connecting people in a profound way to memories and feelings they’d thought long-buried. In my experience, when this does happen, it happens mostly with fragrances created by the smaller artisans and independent brands, as opposed to those created by the big masstige or luxury niche brands. Oakmoss is a powerful example of this, for me. It might not tap into the same current of emotion for you as it did for me, since these things are highly personal. But if what you’re seeking is a deeper connection to your personal experience through scent, then artisan perfumes are more likely to spark that for you.

 

Aside from this (quite personal) angle, Oakmoss is special because it has the vivid rawness of an outdoors scene, which is more special to me than a simply luxurious smell. It is similar to both Annick Goutal’s Vetiver (the original) and Etro’s Vetiver, in that it features a salty, ferrous vetiver that pulls no punches. Oakmoss will also appeal to lovers of vintage chypres, especially Chanel’s Pour Monsieur and Givenchy’s Givenchy III. In attar format, it also reminds me somewhat of the rooty, Middle-Earth solemnity of both Onda (Vero Profumo) and Djedi (Guerlain). Just keep in mind – less of a perfume, more of an experience.

 

St. Clair First Cut

 

There’s a “build it and they will come” model at work in the artisanal food movement, whereby artisans choose one product upon which to build their reputation, invest everything they’ve got in it, and trust that the high-value end users of artisanally-produced food (chefs, restaurants) will absorb it all. This holds true for Diane St. Clair, renowned in the United States for her artisanal butter produced from milk from her small Jersey cattle farm in Vermont. Read more about Diane’s extraordinary back story in Kafkaesque’s comprehensive introduction post here; suffice it to say, with every gram of Diane’s butter bought up in advance by chefs of Thomas Keller calibre, she truly is the Queen of Butter.

 

Like Hans Hendley, Bruno Fazzolari, Annette Neuffer, and quite a few other indie perfumers, Diane St. Clair is an example of an artisan who decided to take her artistry in one field and cross it over into another. The connection between food and perfume is, naturally, that of sensory pleasure, so it follows that Diane St. Clair’ has a talent for perfumery too.

 

But perfume is an incredibly crowded field. The “build it and they will come” model doesn’t quite cut it in a segment where marketing, social media outreach, and YouTube reviews are perhaps two-thirds of getting a perfume to land where it needs to. That leaves the Diane St. Clair scents – as good as they are – at risk at being swallowed up in the great white noise of the perfume scene before they’ve really had a chance to resonate with buyers.

 

To help the brand resonate with potential buyers, bloggers like me have to figure out how to describe them in a way that it will be clear to readers where the scents fit in the larger context of the perfume landscape. The best way I can put it is that the Diane St. Clair scents are subtle portraits of an idealized rural landscape where the cows that give us our milk are all happy, golden creatures, where wildflowers scramble over banks, and nobody has to get up at 4am.

 

It’s not the raw, wild density of Josh Lobb’s American landscape, nor is it the smoky, resinous forests of Laurie Erickson’s imagination, where mighty oaks ooze great fat tears of labdanum and myrrh. Instead, Diane paints an ethereal, almost translucent picture of what we might imagine a Vermont smallholding to be. There’s nothing literal or heavy-handed about the way the bucolic ideal is presented here, though; the perfumes are minutely textured and abstract in a way that shows real vision.

 

First Cut is by far my favorite of the initial releases. Its contrast between prickly aromatics (citrus, lemon verbena, tomato leaf) and the buff creaminess of hay reminded me at first of Jicky, especially in its famous clash of cymbals at the start, citrus and lavender stirred into dirty vanilla, but First Cut is not at all animalic. The dulcet almond tones of the tonka deepen, sweetening and thickening the scent, but the crisp aromatics persist throughout; fans of both Tonka Impériale (Guerlain) and Cologne Blanche (Dior) will appreciate the prickle of rosemary against the smooth expanse of hay here.

 

Although never strictly gourmand, there’s a whipped egg white delicacy of texture to First Cut that recalls the sensation of biting into the soft almond center of pasticche di mandorle, dusted with powdered sugar and aromatized with a drop of Sicilian lemon oil.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: Hay fragrances can often stray too far into syrupy richness (Chergui) or sugared grass (Fieno), but First Cut gets the balance just right. It takes me a while, and multiple wears, to realize that the success of the scent lies in the same equation Etat Libre d’Orange figured out for its Fils de Dieu du Riz et des Agrumes, which is to say pitched perfectly between sweet and sour, pungent and creamy, hot and cold, like the best South East Asian meal you’ve ever had. 13ml travel sizes of First Cut can be purchased for $65, including shipping in the US, which is not bad at all for an artisanal perfume.

 

April Aromatics Ray of Light

 

April Aromatics, along with Hiram Green, is one of the rare all-natural perfume brands that produce perfumes that feel like proper perfume rather than a mixture of essential oils. Many of my favorites from April Aromatics, like Bohemian Spice and Calling All Angels, rely on a clever use of labdanum to enrich the bases and make them last longer. Tanja Bochnig is a obviously perfumer who has learned to embrace that strange Janus face aspect of labdanum, meaning its psychotic, continuous lurching between parched-leathery and wet-honeyed.

 

Her florals, while slightly less intense, are also rich and durable, with Nectar of Love and Tempted Muse leading the pack. But perhaps the greatest test for any natural perfumer is how they handle The Great Citrus Problem. Citrus notes are short-lived molecules of pure joy, and it is the task of every perfumer to come up with new solutions to make them last beyond 5 minutes. Companies with a broad palette of mixed media materials (both naturals and synthetics) can extend the citrus through layering it over coumarin or oakmoss-replacing materials; see Azemour Les Orangers (Parfum d’Empire) as perhaps the best example of this on the niche side.

 

On the natural end of things, Ray of Light is probably the best I’ve personally encountered. The yuzu-like grapefruit topnote is so riveting that you’ll drop whatever you’re doing just to focus on it. How is this incredible note extended? The best I can tell, it’s done through using mint to bridge it to a slightly bitter, resinous galbanum or hay-like accord in the base. There’s also a candied edge to it reminiscent of the lemon-and-lime flavored chews of my childhood.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: Perfume is mood-altering and depression-lifting; none more so than a perfectly-judged citrus. For perfume nerds like me (and hopefully you), the fact that an all-natural citrus perfume that lasts actually exists and that it’s this good is reason enough to smile.

 

 

January Scent Project Selperniku

 

Diane St. Clair might be the Queen of Butter, but John Biebel of January Scent Project made a scent that really smells like butter (and a few other, weird things). Read my full review, here, to get an idea of what Selperniku smells like; if you can make sense of it based on my incoherent ramblings, then more power to you. Better yet, order a sample. And then write to me to tell me what you think it smells like.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: Selperniku is the scent that jumps to mind when I think about the central tenet of what sets artisans apart from big brand niche, i.e., the boldness of the original and utterly non-commercial idea. Selperniku might not make the brand any money, and I’m not sure I’d want to wear it as a personal fragrance, but it moves the landscape of fragrance several steps forward. At the very least, it’s a talking point.

 

 

Marina Barcenilla Black Osmanthus

 

Osmanthus is one of those things that smell different in its absolute form than in commercial perfumery. In commercial perfumes (and most high-end niche ones), osmanthus is usually presented as a light apricot-and-suede note. In absolute form, however, it smells like a pungent and creamy Laotian oud oil, with a greasy leather undertone and a winey, damascenone-rich fruitiness. Because osmanthus petals are so tiny, you have to collect a lot of them to fill the still, so the petals sit (and rot slightly) in water until enough petals have been gathered for distillation. This process, similar to the pre-soaking of oud wood chips for at least 10 days before distilling, gives the resulting oil the animalic twang of fermentation.

 

Marina Barcenilla’s Black Osmanthus doesn’t veer away from the animalic, fermented leather side of osmanthus absolute, but instead embraces it. Probably much influenced by the dank, oudy pungency of the osmanthus absolute in Auphorie’s Miyako, the scent that famously revived Luca Turin’s interest in blogging, Barcenilla sets about exploring the less polite aspects of this most expensive material, framing it with a host of equally pungent materials – Indian tuberose, myrrh, saffron, bay rum. This has the effect of “de-floralizing” the osmanthus, shearing off all the pretty apricot nuances until all that’s left is rubber, smoke, pepper, and the metallic smell of rain hitting the red earth of India. The drydown reads like an extended essay on myrrh, bringing its savory, wet-soil gloom to the fore.

 

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: If you’re fed up with the stultifying serenity of florals as presented by big brand niche, take a walk on the wild side with the indies and naturals – they’re the ones that will show you the surprisingly non-floral, non-pretty face of all those flowers you think you’ve been smelling.

 

Natural jasmine, osmanthus, even rose – these are all materials that are rarely found in commercial perfumery anymore due to expense or low yields. Indies and artisans are a holdout for working with natural raw materials to any substantial degree, because they work with small batches and don’t care about stretching the formula to fill 100,000 bottles. Sample Black Osmanthus because it’s the real face of osmanthus, the one you rarely see. If you’re intrigued by this, then you’ll know you’re ready for exploring some of the other ugly-beautiful faces of flowers in the artisan arena.  Cue Matrix quote: “You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.

 

Slumberhouse New Sibet

 

Slumberhouse fragrances are fetishized in certain parts of the community, so hardly needs no talking up by little old me. But for people who didn’t jive with the original aesthetic of Slumberhouse – dense, syrupy New Gothic Americana – and thus allowed their interest to drift away from the house, might be brought back into the fold by New Sibet, a scent that marks a stylistic departure for Josh Lobb and the house.

 

Underneath the otherworldly chill of orris meeting the gamey funk of leather, New Sibet has a classical bone structure. The gears shift midway through its trajectory, transitioning so soundlessly from Slumberhouse weirdness to a Caronesque leathery carnation that it unnerves the wearer. The dusty coldness that permeates from head to toe gilds the scent with a silvery edge that feels like breathing in dry ice.

 

New Sibet is unusual in that it exhibits almost human intelligence; sometimes it is a cool-toned, ashy leather, other times it seems rather ripe, buttery, and pungent, and occasionally, it smells resolutely classical, like a beguiling mash-up of Tabac Blond and L’Air du Temps. It’s gloriously weird, borderline unwearable, and absolutely beautiful.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: Along with Feu Secret by Bruno Fazzolari, New Sibet is the rare example of an artisan fragrance that turns our traditional idea of iris on its head, rather than simply allowing the beauty of the material to do all the talking, as is the norm.

 

 

Pekji Battaniye

 

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Amber fragrances are a sort of rite of passage in the first few years of one’s fragrance journey; they are un-challenging, simple in structure, and offer the kind of dopey sweetness that’s hard to pass up on when you’re in need of warmth. But what makes ambers so attractive is also what limits them. One you’ve amassed two or three of the amber stalwarts, it’s hard to find a variation that innovates or improves on the basic model to the point where you’d be happy shelling out for another.

 

Battaniye is that rare amber that does something new with an old idea. Meaning blanket in Turkish, Battaniye was made to evoke the feeling of restfulness and comfort of having an old wool blanket pulled over your lap, while you watch the rain bucket down outside. Omer Pekji took his inspiration from a stormy evening in Trabzon, in his native Turkey, a town on the Silk Road that served as the gateway to Persia.

 

The scent opens on a remarkable note of burned coffee grounds, before smoothing out into a dry, whiskeyish amber that reads more like fabric – leather, sheep’s wool, hessian – than resin. In fact, it does rather smell like an old afghan or perhaps a man’s battered leather jacket, something that you absentmindedly pull onto your bare knees and then spend the rest of the evening inhaling the rich humanity of smells bound up in its fibers.

 

Battaniye achieves a textured, layered feeling of warmth without ever spiraling into gooey sweetness, or at the other end of the scale, the sort of parched dryness that wears on the spirit. It’s a masculine scent, and slightly animalic in parts, a core of medicinal Peau d’Espagne-style leather hiding out in layers of wool, resin, and cool, wet earth. Once the TCP-like nuances of the leather burn off, the patchouli really piles into the scent in a big way, reminding me of the evocative smell of rain on soil. This is a scent that just gets better and better as it ages on the skin.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: It’s hard to do something with amber that a) diverges from the basic model of sweet, resinous warmth, and b) doesn’t in any way call to mind the spice-rack ambers of the Middle East. Battaniye shuffles the spirit of oily, macho Peau d’Espagne-style leathers into an ever-shifting deck of resin, wool, and earth, for a result that both comforts and pulls on an emotional string.

 

It’s masculine but not macho, dry but not desiccated, exotic but not souk-ish, and finally, evocative but not challenging. Battaniye solves a lot of problems inherent in amber scents, and thus might be the baby bear’s porridge of amber for many fragrance fans. Devotees of By Kilian’s Amber Oud and Tauer’s Lonestar Memories will want to sample.

 

 

Providence Perfume Cocoa Tuberose

 

Chocolate, like coffee, is one of those things that smells amazing in real life and borderline disgusting in perfume. Overly burnt, harsh, syrupy – these are all charges laid at the door of coffee and chocolate perfumes, be they natural or mixed media. But Cocoa Tuberose is very clever; it hints at the topnotes of dark chocolate (brandy, dried plum, red earth, dust) without ever tipping into the faintly metallic, period blood-like animalism that lurks beneath, or worse, adding cream and sugar to bloat it up and dumb it down.

 

I put this down to the surprisingly subtle influence of the tuberose, which shows up only as a faintly rubbery, vegetal note that throws a net over the chocolate and controls it. Hints of dry tobacco add a sexy, rugged accent very much like the animalic tobacco-chocolate-black tea triad in Sammarco’s Bond-T. The overall effect is of a dark, dusty richness born not of flowers and chocolate, but of cardboard, solvent, old houses, and libraries.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: Sexy and evocative, Cocoa Tuberose is a rare natural perfume that transcends the limits of its constituent materials. It won’t hit you over the head with either cocoa or tuberose, but instead explores what those things feel like in a wider, more perfumey context. For people who prefer less “on-the-nose” florals like Le Labo Iris 39, this is a must-try. Hurry though – I hear Cocoa Tuberose is on the chopping block.

 

 

Stora Skuggan Silphium

 

Silphium demonstrates the endearingly nerdy interest of some artisans in repurposing old materials and traditions for modern ends; Antonio Gardoni, perfumer of Bogue, created Maai, for example, when he discovered a stash of barrels of vintage raw materials in a disused warehouse. In the case of Silphium, Stora Skuggan wanted to create the scent of Silphium, an ancient plant native to modern-day Libya that was used for medicinal purposes in Ancient Greece. Pedanius Dioscorides, in 70 BC, described Silphium as having a “very healthy aroma”, and it’s possible that it was used as a contraceptive or even an aid to abortion.

 

The perfumers, probably working off the information that Silphium may have been related to fennel or asafetida, built an accord that smells like an ancient salve made from sweeping armfuls of culinary herbs and spices off the rack. But whatever medicinal pungency might have resulted from this is mitigated by the cheerful zing of freshly-grated ginger root, which sluices the dense herbal canopy with heat and sunshine. Indeed, layered with a fizzing incense note, Silphium smells more like a good mood than the inside of Hippocrates’ medicine chest, and that’s a good thing.

 

The clove and black pepper accents rev up the spicy and metallic aspects of the Silphium accord, making it feel half-clean, half-sweaty. Crucially, there’s no amber or vanilla to blunt the spice, so things never get maudlin or, shudder, creamy. It does, however, smell incredibly soapy in a happy, effervescent way. Although Silphium doesn’t really remind me of any other perfume, I’m confident that anyone who loves the sooty, airy incense in Timbuktu (L’Artisan Parfumeur), the clovey resins of Eau Lente (Diptyque), and the luxurious soapiness of Castile (Penhaligon’s) would also love this scent.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: Love the ancient herbs and spice rack authenticity of the earlier Diptyque scents? Silphium nails it, and is an indie to boot.

 

 

Hiram Green Shangri La

 

Some all-natural perfumes sacrifice aeration for wholesomeness, leaving the perfume feeling overly dense and “brownish” in aura. Then, when the main show of force is over, they evaporate into the ether. What, pay €150 for sludge that lasts 30 minutes? Nope, I require both beauty and lift, which is why I usually prefer mixed media perfumes over all-natural. However, there are a couple of artisan brands whose all-natural perfumes slip past my cynicism barrier and make it to “must buy” status, and Hiram Green is one of those.

 

Florals are, I suspect, slightly easier to arrange in the context of natural perfumery; many absolutes and essential oils, like jasmine, rose, and ylang, are complex aromas in their own right, and the trick then becomes how to best manage their behavior in the final composition. But chypres, which involve a complex arrangement of bergamot, labdanum, and oakmoss, are difficult to achieve, especially in a day and age when real oakmoss is restricted.

 

Shangri La pulls it off. A dry but lush chypre with an aged peach saké topnote, it has the rubied, velvety bitterness of a Mitsouko or Femme without any the compromises one has to make for the modern-day versions. Plus, it’s all-natural, although Shangri La is so good that you forget all about its worthiness. Full review here.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: A proper fruity chypre with a properly mossy drydown priced at €39 for a travel size? Come on, I’ve laid riskier bets than that at our local greyhound track.

 

Francesca Bianchi Under My Skin

 

Together with Siberian Musk (Areej Le Doré), Francesca Bianchi’s Under My Skin was my favorite fragrance in 2017, but it’s kind of silly to confine perfumes to years, because I have the feeling that this would make my list every year. Under My Skin smells of intimacy in the best way possible, an idealized notion of milky sweat, buttery baby skin, worn suede, and old wood. Original review here.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: If you’re attracted to the special, private smells common to a loving household or family, then skip the much-vaunted L’Air de Rien by Miller Harris, now reformulated down to a small, pungent amber, and come right to the door of an artisan who’s doing it all right. It is both atmospheric, in the way it paints a picture of the collected smells of a place – a bed, a room, a library – and intensely human, in the way it captures the private, milky scent of much-loved skin. It’s basically the kind of human fur perfume that Guerlain should still be doing but isn’t.

 

 

Hans Hendley Mown

 

Many artisan perfumers come to fragrance by way of another art or artisanal profession, such as photography, graphic design, jazz music, poetry, jewelry-making, or small-batch artisanal food production: Bruno Fazzolari, Diane St. Clair, Annette Neuffer, and Hans Hendley are all prominent examples of this sort of crossover. A surprising number of them started out in the field of science and chemistry: Andy Tauer, Sven Pritzkoleit, and Spyros Drosopoulos all came with a professional curiosity about scent molecules and how they behave (scientifically or not) in a composition.

 

Obviously, the desire to create is one that spills feverishly over boundaries and finds cracks in the pavement through which to sprout. The artisan sector is where cross-pollination thrives; it gets strangled in the bigger niche and mainstream segments of the market.

 

Not all art is good just because it is art, just like not everything an artisan makes is intrinsically superior to what’s offered in the mainstream. I like Hans Hendley perfumes because they are artistic without being pretentious or inaccessible to a more general public taste. I would describe his style as Slumberhouse-esque, inspired by rugged, outdoorsy smells such as “pine, cedar, oak, forest floor, daffodil flowers (narcissus), honeysuckle, sage, tomato leaf, fresh bread, sawdust, smoke and the secretly amazing smell of gasoline[8] but much lighter than Slumberhouse and with a use of “radiant” woody-ambery basenotes.

 

Mown encapsulates both facets of the Hans Hendley style well. It features a damp, nutty hay accord interspersed with the dried fruit and bitter cocoa notes of curing tobacco, with a result that is syrupy, rich, and almost edible. However, layered over a radiant woody amber that smells like shards of wood impregnated with resin, smeared with honey, and left outside in the sun to dry, there is enough “burnt” in the scent’s structure to keep it buoyant. Powdery orris helps tilt the scent towards the dry, bitter “grassy” aspects of the harvest line. There’s even a toasted note in there that calls to mind cereals laid out on hay to dry out in the sun.

 

Before the woody amber sets itself on fire in the base, we have time for a whistle-stop tour of the tobacco curing shed. The dried fruit richness of the start mimics the chocolatey dampness of un-cured tobacco leaves, which smell like they’ve been dipped in fruitcake soaking liquor, before becoming green and waxy, similar to the smell of beeswax absolute.  But as the scent dries out, so too do the sheaves of tobacco, honeycomb transitioning into the crackling nuttiness of 100% cured tobacco leaf, red-gold at the edges and barely sweet. The base is what marks Mown out as related to other powerfully dry, woody perfumes such as Woodcut by Olympic Orchids, Eau My Soul by 4160 Tuesdays, and Hendley’s own Bourbon. At $28 for a 9ml travel spray, Mown has to be one of the best deals on the market if you love the earthy smells of the harvest.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: Because if you’re a young professional living in the city, you’ll always feel a tug of yearning for wide open spaces and rusticana. You see the countryside as wholesome and freeing, an imagined space into which to pour all your longing. The perfume landscape is dotted here and there with visionary perfumers who see the wildness of non-urbanized spaces as the refuge of authenticity; Slumberhouse, Hands Hendley, and Diane St. Clair are all artisans who create pictures of the (predominantly American) rural scene, albeit filtered through a very sophisticated, and in the case of Hans Hendley, Big City aesthetic.

 

Mown will strike a chord with those who love earthy harvest scents: honey, hay, tobacco, grains, grass, cereals, etc. It is built along the same lines as Erawan (Dusita), Agartha (April Aromatics), and Slowdive (Hiram Green), but distinguished by its potently dry, radiant woodiness. It might also be an option for those looking to replace the now-defunct Tabac Aurea (Sonoma Scent Studio), or the more expensive Tobacco by Frank Broclet.

 

Bruno Fazzolari Au Dela Narcisse

 

Au Dela Narcisse deserves the kind of “classic green floral” status as Chanel No. 19 or Guerlain’s Chamade. Revolving around a honeyed, animalic narcissus and a dulcet jasmine, Au Dela has a brisk modern feel, but none of the clipped formality of either the Chanel or the Guerlain. The opening moments – a clustering of green notes that manage to be simultaneously crisp and nectarous – are truly riveting, and though the jasmine that follows is a hair too honeyed for my taste, the overall impression is of a green floral chypre, a feat that’s none too easy to accomplish in an oakmoss-limited era.

 

What I appreciate most about Au Dela Narcisse is that it is the rare green floral that doesn’t feel ramrod stiff. It has a sexy, tousled feel to it, as if Chamade had rolled around with a lover on a bed of wild, honeyed narcissi for hours and is now pleasantly drowsy.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: Anyone unhappy with the current state of Chamade (Guerlain), Vol de Nuit (Guerlain), or No. 19 (Chanel) could switch to this and not feel the sting, apart from a slight lack of chypric bitterness. There are distinct parallels between Au Dela Narcisse and both Romanza (Masque Milano Fragranze) and Le Temps d’Un Fete (Parfums de Nicolai), so if the former is too bitter or animalic, and the latter too unavailable, the Bruno Fazzolari would be a more than satisfactory replacement. Travel sizes of 9ml sometimes appear on the brand’s website too.

 

Bogue MEM, Vero Profumo Naja, & Papillon Dryad

 

Last but not least, I’d like to mention three of the artistic standouts of last year, all three released at around the same time in Spring 2017, and all three still defining the heights to which artisanal perfumery can scale. I’ve reviewed them already, in this post here, but I’d like to talk here specifically about the aspects that make these three perfumes in particular so significant, in terms of artisanal perfumery and in perfumery in general.

 

Vero Profumo Naja is significant because the sheer ambitious scale of the perfume belies the humble beginnings of the brand, as the brain child of a woman who worked for Swissair until she was 54. Although largely self-taught (another key feature of the artisan scene being that its perfumers don’t go through the formal route of a Grasse education), Vero Kern’s fragrances are all built in the grand, sweeping manner of the Guerlain, Chanel, and Caron classics.

 

But where the greats of classic perfumery have all degraded into pale versions of their former glory, or stagnated in the artistic sense, Vero’s fragrances continue to grow in scope and depth. Naja is a strange green-gold osmanthus leather scent that’s almost too complex to categorize except for a passing nod to Tabac Blond and Habanita. But truthfully, Naja transcends and surpasses its antecedents. It’s the kind of perfume we’ll still be using as a reference 50 years from now, and guess what, an artisan made it.

 

Papillon is an outfit that I’m guessing many consumers would mistake for high-end niche rather than artisan, because of the extraordinarily high gloss finish of the perfumes and the artistic self-assurance of its perfumer, Liz Moores. But in fact, Papillon is an artisan outfit through and through, Liz Moores doing everything herself from the sourcing of materials and creating the formula to bottling, packaging, and shipping. Her 2017 release, Dryad, demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that a talent for perfumery is innate rather than taught. Encompassing the cantilevered depth of vintage Vol de Nuit, the chilly smoothness of No. 19, and the leathery wickedness of Bandit, you could tell us that Dryad sprang from the loins of Germaine Cellier or Jacques Guerlain, and we’d believe it.

 

Bogue Mem is a perfume event in the landscape of perfumery, whether you like it or not (and many did not). A perfume of such astonishing complexity it requires repeat wearings to break it all down, it is essentially a riff on lavender that meanders through burnt marmalade, malt, hay, and the low tide stench of ambergris. But the important thing about Mem is that after it’s finished – a good 12-14 hours after you’ve applied it – you think to yourself, boy, now that was an experience. It’s as twisty as a good telenovela, but nutrient-dense, cerebral. Wear this if you want the perfume equivalent of watching The Unusual Suspects or Inception for the first time.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: These are three artisans at the top of their game, artistically and career-wise; sample their work to track the trajectory they took to get there and to pay witness to the extraordinary complexity and polish that’s possible from the hands of self-taught perfumers.

 

 

[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/fashion/features/designer-perfumes-niche-fragrance-collections-are-the-heaviest-hitter-in-the-business-a7052226.html

[2] https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/fashion/features/designer-perfumes-niche-fragrance-collections-are-the-heaviest-hitter-in-the-business-a7052226.html

[3] “Luxury for the Masses”, authored by Michael J. Silverstein & Neil Fiske, April 2003 issue, Harvard Business Review, accessed through https://hbr.org/2003/04/luxury-for-the-masses

[4] http://www.artandolfactionawards.org/submission/artisan/

[5] http://www.artandolfactionawards.org/submission/independent/

[6] http://www.mediative.com/2018-digital-trends-9-artisanal-advertising/

[7] https://www.afponline.org/trends-topics/topics/articles/Details/why-should-finance-be-buzzing-about-artisanal-trends

[8] https://www.theolfactive.com/hendleyperfumes/

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Small But Perfectly Formed: Building a Capsule Perfume Wardrobe with Travel Sizes

March 9, 2018

Building a Capsule Perfume Wardrobe: If you had to build, or rebuild, your perfume wardrobe using only travel sizes and minis, could you do it? What would be on your list? 

 

A couple of questions have been dogging me lately. First, how much perfume do I actually use in a year? And second, if my collection of full bottles was lost or stolen, would it be possible to build a small capsule wardrobe that covers all possible scenarios using only minis and travel sizes, and sticking to a putative budget of +/- $30 per bottle?

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Designer Lists Review Round-Ups

Resurgence of Designer Perfumes? Angel Muse, L’Envol, & No. 5 L’Eau

September 26, 2016

Is it just me or are you noticing a slight resurgence in designer perfumes? Lately, I’ve been testing designers that are not only good but excellent, and not only excellent but beating niche releases in the same category. I’m no statistician but a recent sniffing expedition to Dublin left me more impressed with the designers than the niche.

In particular, these:

 

Angel Muse (Thierry Mugler)

 

Honestly, I think I’m in love. A softer and more wearable version of Angel, Muse manages to drown out the high-octane Maltol shriek of its predecessor with a velvety blanket of hazelnut cream.

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Edible? Yes – it smells like gianduja, that silky marriage of ground hazelnuts and chocolate they make in Turin. There is also a berryish undertone in the first few minutes, as well as a hint of citrus (chocolate orange anyone?). But it’s not trashy. The edible component doesn’t make me think of fairground food like candy floss and red berry Kool Aid. With the teeth-gnashing sweetness of the sugar molecules tamped down and an addition of nutty, grassy vetiver, it smells less like food that the original Angel.

 

Well, ok, it does still smell of food. But there is something perfumey and inedible in there that brings it back from the edge, like a posh truffle mashed underfoot into the warm, sweet grass of a polo pitch.

 

I have often noticed that vetiver can smell like ground hazelnuts, most particularly in Vetiver Tonka, Sycomore, and even Onda. It adds a savory, mealy element that feels warming, adding a special thickness and body to a composition. That effect is noticeable here, and matched to the soft chocolate of the patchouli, the inevitable result is that of a creamy, nutty chocolate truffle (gianduja). Unlike the original Angel, Muse holds on to the briny element of vetiver, which makes it seem more nutty/savory than sugary.

 

It is still recognizably Angel. More so in its overall feel than precise arrangement of notes, but it definitely retains that sweet, room-filling bombast for which Angel is famous. But whereas I can’t bear Angel, I could see myself wearing this version on a regular basis. The sour harshness of the patchouli and the screechy Maltol of the original have been sanded away, and replaced with creamy, nutty, chocolatey softness. And that suits me.

 

It’s got va-va-voom sillage and presence, but on balance, it’s probably a little quieter than the original. It’s still more sillage than I’m used to, though – I’m beginning to realize that Thierry Mugler perfumes are just built on a bigger scale than most other designers and even niche. They are the pointy Madonna bras of the perfume world.

 

Whenever I’ve sampled this perfume, people have noticed. I can’t go anywhere without my husband, my mother, the crèche workers, the supermarket ladies, and so on, all commenting on how good I smell. I am unused to people commenting on my perfume or taking much notice of me. But I could get used to it! Sexy, warm, and edible….Angel Muse is a success in my book.

 

L’Envol (Cartier)

 

I am still not sure if L’Envol is just plain great or if it stands out simply because it’s swimming in a sea of male designer dreck. Mostly I think I am just relieved that a designer is finally giving men a fragrance that has obviously very high quality raw materials, and has a coherent beginning, middle, and end. Also, it is joyfully clean of the harsh woody-ambery aromachemicals that get hurriedly stuffed into male designer perfumes these days to boost its power and projection. Give me natural-smelling and quiet over screaming power top any day. Please.

 

Of course, this was done by Mathilde Laurent, who has authored all the perfumes in the beautiful, uber-pricey and exclusive Les Heures collection for Cartier. So we should assume that a designer fragrance would contain some of her hallmarks, such as rendering a striking idea in a classical, easy-to-catch manner but not strictly commercial per se.

 

L’Envol does contain these hallmarks. It is quite smooth, blond, and easy to wear, but features a bite in its tail that surprised me and struck me as gutsy for a commercial male designer. Putting aside all the talk of honey and powdery patchouli (of which there is a lot, in a subtle, sheer way), what really struck me about L’Envol was the strong violet leaf presence it has.

 

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It is not obvious straight away, but in the base there is a HUGE violet leaf note, which joined to the slightly musky tobacco-like feel of the patchouli, made me think of both Cuir Pleine Fleur by Heeley and “1000” by Patou. By association, therefore, there is a slight Fahrenheit vibe to L’Envol – not really similar but inexorably linked through that sharp, green “petrol”-like violet leaf note. The base notes really stick out for me here because in comparison to the relatively light and airy topnotes and middle notes, it is quite heavy – thick, earthy, tobacco-like, with that slightly pungent violet leaf exerting its pleasantly bitter presence.

 

Moving backwards from the base upwards, the general tone is one of gentle, powdered translucence. The honey note is cleverly layered with a silvery iris for space and air, and thus doesn’t read as heavy, boozy or animalic. At the top, I thought I smelled a very good quality bergamot oil, because it opened on a bitterness I associate with citrus. However, bergamot is not listed, so I must assume that the bracing, bitter freshness comes from the violet leaf or some unlisted fruit note. In the middle, the (clean) patchouli and the honey formed a pleasant sort of ‘honey tea’ note – a translucent chamomile tea with a spoonful of honey. It is very subtle, refined, slightly powdery, and not too sweet.

 

The power of the scent really belongs to that base, though. Does nobody else smell the violet leaf and tobacco-ish tone to this at all? It might be just me, but I sense a massive violet leaf presence here. Anyway, I think L’Envol is a fabulous male designer release and worth checking out for fans of violet leaf in perfumery, such as Cuir Pleine Fleur and “1000”.

 

Chanel No. 5 L’Eau

 

I’ve been wondering what the difference between Eau Premiere and the new L’Eau might be – after all, Eau Premiere was launched to do exactly the same job as L’Eau, which was to update Chanel No. 5 for a younger generation. I thought that Eau Premiere had cornered that task with aplomb – it is a sparkling floral lemonade to No. 5’s heavy satin. I absolutely love Eau Premiere. Like many other women of a similar age, it is MY Chanel No. 5. So how is L’Eau different?

 

In a way, it’s even younger and more sparkly than Eau Premiere. Perhaps Chanel is moving past me and down the line towards 16-year-olds? I don’t know. It’s hard for me to imagine that Eau Premiere has anything to repulse a very young woman.

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I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but L’Eau does go one step further than Eau Premiere to cast off the onerous mantle of its grandmother, No. 5. The aldehydes, although already toned down greatly in Eau Premiere, have been almost completely done away with here, leaving the bright lemon and mandarin to provide enough lift and sparkle to carry the opening. It is a beautiful, joyful opening – clean, scintillating, with the fresh twang of freshly peeled citrus fruits. It has the same washed-and-scrubbed radiance to it as Eau Premiere (thanks to hedione, an aromachemical that gives the jasmine in scents such as Eau Suavage, Chypre 21, and Eau Premiere its green, radiant, ozonic lift). And it is not weighed down by the creamy soap of the original. Even Eau Premiere has a tiny bit of soapy sparkle from its small portion of aldehydes.

 

The rest of L’Eau feels similar to Eau Premiere – it has the same creamy, abstract swirl of iris, rose, jasmine, and ylang – but being a cologne rather than a perfume, it whips past its floral heart rather quickly and doesn’t linger there. The florals feel as bright and as synthetically “plastic” as in Eau Premiere and the original No. 5, but that has always been part of No. 5’s appeal to the modern girl, who wants to perhaps smell more of an expensive French perfume than of a rose in a vase. We want to attract more than bees, after all.

 

The base is a bit problematic for me, being mostly a white musk that lends a clean, diffuse texture. It’s not bad quality, or anything like that – this is not a cheap laundry musk. But its bland muskiness seems to swallow up the brightness of the citrus and the twang of the florals, meaning sometimes I can smell nothing at all past 45 minutes and sometimes I can smell vague traces of it in the morning after applying at night. In general, I’d venture a guess that the longevity of L’Eau might depend on individual sensitivity to white musk.

 

Still, very nice work by Chanel on this one. I feel certain that I will pick up a bottle of this next summer, and use it in much the same way that I use Eau Premiere, i.e., as a replacement for a summery eau de cologne (I much prefer a proper perfume over an eau de cologne any day, no matter how hot it is).

 

No. 5 L’Eau is a wonderful update on the Chanel No. 5 model. It retains the classical beauty of a Greek statue, yet is beautifully bright, radiant, fruity and crisp – a sort of pencil sketch of the real thing that still manages to satisfy all the pleasure-firing synapses in the brain.

Lists Masculine Round-Ups

My Take on 7 Basenotes Hype Monsters + GIVEAWAY + Discount Code!

September 21, 2016

Today I’m looking at some of the fragrances that have been hyped up on the Male Fragrance Discussion (MFD) board at Basenotes over the last couple of years.

 

Hype is a weather system onto itself; little eddies swirling around a particular perfume suddenly escalate into tornados. And like any weather system, it follows a distinct pattern – someone makes a claim that X which costs $ smells just like Y which costs $$$, or that X is a panty-dropper or surefire compliment-getter, excitement gathers around the product, it sells out quickly, followed by mass deflation (scornful reviews, naysayers) punctuated by little upticks in popularity thanks to the impassioned pleas of the true believers.

 

Hey, no judgment! It’s hard not to get swept up by mass enthusiasm. I have been carried away by a swirling hype river many a time myself, although my weakness tends to be new, experimental niche perfumes. Roughly 50% of these hype monsters have worked out for me – the other half languish in the depths of my perfume collection, hidden away so that I don’t have to face my own stupidity every time I open the closet.

 

Generally, most of the excitement involved in hyped fragrances comes from buying them blind. Either the fragrances are super exclusive and hard to sample (the experimental niche ones), so we should just bite the bullet and go in blind, right? or are so cheap or readily available that it makes more financial sense to buy the whole damn bottle.

 

There’s a sort of fool’s honor in buying the whole bottle blind.

 

But buying a whole bottle blind based on hype does one of two things to your judgment: (i) either you feel you have to muster up enough enthusiasm for the fragrance because you bought 100mls of it and thus give an effusive, less than honest review, sullenly willing others on to make the same mistake you did, or (ii) you feel intense, bitter disappointment at having spent $45 on something you’ll never wear, so you invest far too much time and energy into railing against the “hype” you feel is responsible for you having opened your wallet in the first place.

 

Hype is not to blame – we are. We are the ones who opened our wallets.

 

If someone likes a fragrance enough to want to talk about it and share the love, that’s not hype – that’s just enthusiasm. And it’s unfair to say that people who love a particular fragrance want to “hype” it. Because that implies shilling and you’d have to be a particularly miserable human being to believe that everyone who talks passionately about a fragrance has a financial stake in it. Sure, shills exist. But they’re pretty easy to spot and ignore.

 

I view hype more as an irresistible social phenomenon that appeals to our basic need to belong to a group (of people, of passions). Because, hot damn, when you see a group of people being enthusiastic and “blown away”, don’t you want to feel that way too? I know I do.

 

Feeling strongly about something is always more of a blast than feeling apathetic or “meh” about something. It means you’re alive and you still have hope. Because if you’re anything like me, the best perfume in the world is the one you haven’t smelled yet, the one just around the next corner. It’s what drives us on!

 

So, Basenotes MFD hype monsters. Over the years, I’ve noticed certain fragrances being the subject of hype – some small, slow hype builds, others fast little flurries that build into the aforementioned tornados. Some, like Aventus, have become such huge, lumbering megaliths of hype that they’ve succeeded in getting themselves banned to a sub-forum.

 

When I was recently given the chance by the lovely Greg Hartill of the UK decanting and sampling site, https://www.fragrancesamplesuk.com/, to pick a few samples from the site and review them, I decided to choose a selection of fragrances that have received some amount of hype on the MFD. He sent me generous decants of each of the seven fragrances I picked, and they were delivered to me within a couple of business days. I am hosting a GIVEAWAY of these samples, so look at terms and conditions at the end of this post!

 

Some of these fragrances are niche, some are designer. They are all masculine fragrances, and range from the very expensive to the very cheap. Some of these fragrances received the hype they did because they are similar to another famous fragrance but are cheaper. Some are hyped because they are astonishingly good for the money, and some are hyped because they take a common theme but do it so well and distinctively that they are hard to replicate with another, cheaper fragrance.

 

Men are always saying that they want a woman’s view on how a fragrance smells, right? Well, here’s my opinion on some of these Basenotes hype monsters. I tested all of these fragrances on myself and my husband, and sometimes my young son, who has a very good nose, was asked for his opinion too. So, here we have it, a 360 evaluation!

 

Aventus (Creed)

 

Aventus has become a bit of a joke in the fragrance community. Well, not the fragrance itself, to be fair. But its reputation as a panty-dropper and compliment-getter has turned it into a punch line for tired jokes about getting unsuspecting women to sleep with you – the fragrance equivalent of a roofie. Hype around Aventus is insane. And it is so acutely irritating to normal, rational people that it’s been forevermore banished to a dark corner of the Basenotes MFD where no-one ever visits unless you’re one of the converted.

 

via GIPHY

 

I was curious about Aventus because I wondered if it was possible to evaluate the fragrance without pre-scorn or bias, and if indeed I liked it, would I be able to say so? Alternately, if I disliked it or was lukewarm, could I say that too without having to tone down my words?

 

I dislike Aventus on principle – the hype, the crude jokes, etc. But the fragrance itself is pretty nice.

 

The opening is immediately appealing – a fresh, fruity note identifiable as pineapple but not tropical in any way. I am able to identify the style as the Creed house style, which comes across as watery, green, fresh, and sparkling in a slightly metallic but pleasant way. I think that many of the Creed Royal Exclusives such as Aventus and Spice and Wood play with the trope of fresh fruit (apple, pineapple) joined to a light, clean cedary base. It is crisp, aqueous, and pleasant to wear.

 

The base is smoky in a lightly-charred-woods kind of way, owing to a restrained hand with birch tar and cedar or oak wood. It smells slightly synthetic, but in a way that seems deliberate and therefore forms part of the fragrance’s charm, as in CdG Black.

 

As it dries down even further, it becomes sharper and more generic, with a “male aftershave”-y character. I could see my brothers wearing this. It’s clean and inoffensively masculine, so I can see why this would be a popular, safe choice for the office.

 

Pineapple over birch tar – it doesn’t sound like much, does it? However, Aventus manages to come across as more than a sum of its parts. Like Narciso Rodriguez for Her EDT or L’Instant, the fragrance might seem nothing special when you pick it apart or smell it on a paper strip. But when you spray it and wear it over the course of a day, it forms a sort of force field of attractiveness around you that cannot be explained away by the notes. You smell great and other people think you smell great too. It’s pretty soulless and generic-smelling. But it does its job of making a man seem clean, fresh, and ready to mate with.

 

My husband tested Aventus several times, but couldn’t find a single thing to say about it, apart from the fact that it was “ok”.

 

Oud Black Vanilla Absolute (Perry Ellis)

 

The hype on this one has been crazy. It went from selling at $35 to being hawked on eBay for $300 when the manufacturers ran out of stock. I imagine that the Perry Ellis people are as shocked as everyone else. It is possible that they thought they were making a pleasantly soft, wearable vanilla fragrance that men could wear. But one comment on Basenotes about a supposed similarity to Guerlain’s Spiritueuse Double Vanille and a massive hype storm brewed up in no time at all.

 

At the time of writing, it’s been reintroduced and sold in the $65-$80 range, and everyone who missed out on it the first time round are buying it and finding out for themselves how wide that gap between expectations and reality really is.

 

Does it smell like SDV? Sort of. But only in the way that Gisele’s sisters look like Gisele – i.e., there’s a family resemblance but one is reminded instantly of how one minute variation in jaw length or height of cheekbones makes all the difference between “attractive” and “drop-dead, mouth-watering, hubba-hubba, Girl from Ipanema beauteousness”. I apologize if that sounds callow. But does it help if I explain that, to me at least, the beauty of SDV, like that of Gisele, is overrated?

 

SDV is a nice, slightly boozy vanilla perfume that has a luxurious, golden sparkle to it. I used to own a full bottle of it, until I realized that it bored the living daylights out of me every time I wore it, so I sold it. Don’t get me wrong – I think it’s beautifully done. But it is simply not interesting, or dark, or boozy enough to hold my attention.

 

The opening of SDV is pretty arresting – a sugary, sparkling rum brought into being by the meeting of pink pepper, vanilla, and woods. But then there is a long period of time when the sourish, pickled tones of the cedar predominate on my skin, and I don’t enjoy that. In its final stages, a warm golden vanilla-custard glow is set free about my person and I admit that it smells wonderful. But so does Shalimar. And I am not crazy enough about straight-up vanilla to spend $300 on what turns out to be the vanilla component of a more evolved (and cheaper) fragrance.

 

Recognizing the limits of my need, I sold my bottle of SDV and have contented myself ever since with two types of vanilla fragrances – first, the type you buy in vats and hose yourself down in (until dripping wet) before you go to bed, or for layering purposes (these include Molinard Vanille and Cologne des Missions), and second, the type of vanilla fragrances that do something more interesting with vanilla.

 

In the latter category, I love Eau Duelle for its fresh black tea and frankincense angle, Vanille Tonka for its lime and carnation smokiness, Mona di Orio Vanille for a dark, woody vanilla sodden with booze, and occasionally, Bois de Vanille, which is mostly licorice allsorts on me. Oh, and Shalimar. But Shalimar is more than just vanilla.

 

Apologies for the lengthy preamble. But I want you to be clear on where I stand on SDV before I get into discussing a possible dupe for it. For all its strengths and weaknesses, Perry Ellis Oud Black Vanilla Absolute is a credible approximation of what is to (to me) a pretty nice but unremarkable fragrance. Thus, it follows that Oud Black Vanilla Absolute is nice but unremarkable.

 

The opening note is one of pure alcohol. When it settles, a nice, plain vanilla note with a soft booziness comes into view. It is difficult for me to pick up anything more complex than that, because it is very soft and low key, with little to no projection. It does, however, lack the dynamic sparkle of SDV’s opening, and the vanilla here comes across more as a sort of plain vanilla fudge texture. In fact, the vanilla in Oud Black Vanilla Absolute strikes me as being the same type as in Havana Vanille or Vanille Absoluement, whatever it’s called these days. A sort of undifferentiated blob of vanilla bread pudding.

 

via GIPHY

10 minutes in, and a dusty, medicinal “oud” note appears. The oud note is a bit harsh and abrasive, and reads to my nose more like a woody ambery aromachemical than synthetic oud. Even Montale’s oud note, which although rubbery and sour, is still recognized by the nose as an oudy “type” of smell. The oud note here smells burned and chemically woody. It smells like something out of the base of Sauvage, except nowhere near as brutal. If this note is what people are picking up on as “dark” and “smoky”, then I feel sorry for you. You need to try a better class of perfume.

 

This perfume lacks the density and heft I want in a straight-up vanilla. To be fair, so does SDV. (Tihota is by far and away the best straight-up vanilla on the market, but you have to really love vanilla to spend $$$ on 50mls of it).

 

Oud Black Vanilla Absolute is ultimately a very flat, plain vanilla fudge perfume with a male designer perfume base that smells a bit generic and hollow. The woody ambery aromachemical they are calling oud is nowhere near the quality of even the standard Montale oud note, and to me reads as a bit abrasive. Thank God for small mercies, though – this is not one of those overly potent Norlimbanol bombs that seem to plague the male fragrance market these days. It is, on the contrary, very, very quiet, lying flatly on the skin and refusing to project more than 1cm off the skin. Weak sauce.

 

Men, you can do better for vanilla, I promise you. Just don’t get swept up in the hype for this. Look further afield. Eau Duelle is piney and fresh, a vanilla you can wear without worrying about the fact you are a man wearing a vanilla perfume – and it doesn’t cost as much as the Perry Ellis, ironically. The EDP version smells as good as the SDV, vanilla-wise. But fresher, greener.

 

Cologne des Missions is a better dupe for SDV, if that’s what you’re specifically looking for. It’s a better capture of the sugary, smoky sparkle of the SDV opening than the Perry Ellis, although the drydown is not as creamy and as silky as the SDV. But for a more translucent, cologne-style version of SDV, you really can’t get much better than Cologne des Missions. Instead of the synthetic oud note in the Perry Ellis, you get myrrh and benzoin, which together smell woodier, smokier, and more natural than any fake oud. It’s made by nuns in a convent, for heaven’s sake!

 

My husband didn’t like this one either. He said that vanilla makes him think of baking sugar cookies and he finds that smell too simple and sugary to be interesting, either on me or on himself. Keep in mind that he’s a health nut, and sneaking a bar of chocolate in our house is a complicated operation involving small children distracting their father while I try to open the fridge as silently as I can.

 

New Haarlem (Bond No. 9)

 

New Haarlem is probably one of Bond No. 9’s most iconic fragrances, along with Chinatown (on the female side). It’s a grotesque, “extreme” gourmand that pushes the envelope with a set of roasted, burned, and syrupy notes that walk the line between cloying/intense and appetizing/comforting.

 

I like extreme gourmands a lot – they are impolite and they don’t pussyfoot around with the idea of food as fragrance. They don’t make any apologies. Done right, they are both satisfying and cartoonishly awful in equal measure. In this category, I place Jeux de Peau, Cadavre Exquise, A*Men, and yep – New Haarlem.

 

via GIPHY

 

My family and I perceived New Haarlem in quite different ways – in fact, it was the one fragrance where our opinions diverged so much so that I feel it necessary to note. To my nose, New Haarlem smells like roasted black coffee beans over a soapy, aromatic lavender cologne. The lavender here has the same sun-roasted, “garrigue” effect I notice in Eau Noire, that intensely woody, aromatic aroma of crushed lavender buds which is what creates the roasted coffee impression.

 

It is certainly a very dark and woody coffee smell – very attractive and distinctive. I can’t think of anything else that smells as close to real coffee as this does. I pick up on a creamy vanilla sweetness later on, but I can’t say that I perceive any syrupy notes at all. And I certainly don’t pick up the famous pancake accord.

 

To my nose, this is all coffee, intensely black and roasted at first, then smoothing out into sweet, milky coffee in the drydown, draped over a soapy, aromatic barbershop fougere. It strikes me as incredibly masculine. I like it very much, but find it too butch for me to pull off comfortably.

 

My husband, on the other hand, had a completely different experience. That is to say, it smelled the same on his skin as it did on mine, but his understanding of New Haarlem jives far more closely with the majority opinion of the scent on Basenotes and elsewhere. Without telling him what the fragrance notes were, I sprayed it on him and asked him to tell me what it smelled like. This is what he said:

 

“Nuts, specifically pecans, and that Danish pastry you like with the pecans. There is a lot of syrup here. Yes, it smells exactly like the bakery where I get the croissants and pecan Danish for you guys at the weekend. It is like wearing a pastry. This is far too sweet. I could maybe like this if I were feeling hungry and wanted to smell something a little sweet. But I wouldn’t wear this, really. It’s way too sweet.”

 

via GIPHY

 

For the record, my son wasn’t privy to this conversation. He sniffed his dad and pronounced it “sweeties and woods”, which I believe puts his reading of New Haarlem at the halfway point between my “woody coffee” and his father’s “pecans and syrup” readings. Keep in mind that he is five.

 

Tabac Rouge (Phaedon)

 

Tabac Rouge has picked up a lot of hype as a substitute for Tobacco Vanille over the years, but on the whole, it’s stayed at the level of hype “eddy” rather than hype “tornado”. I’ve mentally arranged it on the same shelf as scents such as Meharees and Dolcelixir – versions of more famous, expensive fragrances that some will always insist are superior to their source inspiration for some reason or another (“Meharees completely removes that awful clove note from Musc Ravaguer” etc.).

 

Likewise, many people prefer Tabac Rouge over Tobacco Vanille because it is much lighter, has ginger instead of clove, and more honey than heavy vanilla. Oh, and the price, of course – although not massively cheap, Tabac Rouge costs far less than Tobacco Vanille.

 

I agree that Tabac Rouge smells like Tobacco Vanille. But as with Meharees (Musc Ravageur clone) and Dolcelixir (Ambre Narguile clone) and yes, even Oud Black Vanilla Absolute (SDV clone), the resemblance is skin-deep really, based on a superficial reading of the notes. The biggest difference between these clones and their source material is texture and weight. And a whole world of difference can be found in the small detail of texture and weight.

 

Tobacco Vanille is luxuriously, ludicrously rich and heavy – it smells like you are wearing an overstuffed armchair, upholstered with the most expensive materials known to man. It is famously sweet, but its sweetness derives from delicious dried fruits, prunes, and bitter chocolate, all aspects of the rich tobacco absolute used.

 

People complain about the vanilla, saying that it smells like a holiday candle. Hey! Point me in the direction of a candle that smells as good as Tobacco Vanille and I will buy the shit out of that. Until that happens, shut up. Tobacco Vanille is a thick scent for days when it is so cold you want to never leave the house. There is no better smell to catch for days and days on the label of your heaviest winter coat. I wear it once every 365 days, which is more than enough for one person.

 

Tabac Rouge catches all the notes of Tobacco Vanille, but in a kind of “skim-reading” type of way. The difference is, like I said, in the small matter of texture and weight. Tabac Rouge has the texture of hot, clear tea. A sparkling ginger note is an improvement over the (frankly) awful, metallic clove note in TV, but that contributes further to the feeling of spicy, lively winter tisane rather than the thick duvet feeling I get from TV. It is as sweet as TV, but derives its sweetness from honey rather than from dried fruit. (Honey is yet another element that makes me think of tea).

 

I think that it smells great, though, and I would certainly buy this. It would suit warmer weather than Tobacco Vanille, due to its relative sheerness, and for this reason alone, it is by far the more versatile fragrance of the two.

 

Tea for Two is also in the same general area as Tabac Rouge, especially in terms of that honeyed tobacco “tisane” translucence, but Tea for Two is far smokier and ashier than Tabac Rouge. Out of all these variants, Tabac Rouge is perhaps the easiest to wear and the most versatile, especially in warmer weather. However, I still think I would spring for Tobacco Toscano for a sweet summer/spring tobacco fragrance, before Tabac Rouge.

 

My husband liked Tabac Rouge better than all the other non-oudy samples. He smelled the honey straight away. “It reminds me of M Komplex, a thick medicinal unguent you eat to boost your immune system. It has propolis, pollen, royal jelly, honey, maybe ginseng, and a few other things I can’t remember. It smells good – but sweet and medicinal at the same time. So yes, basically it smells like every substance that comes from a bee, mixed together.”

 

Rasasi Tasmeem Man

 

I’m in the middle of writing a guide to attars and oud oils, and Rasasi is a house that has started to impress me, for its quality to price ratio. I’d never tried their EDPs, though, so when I saw Tasmeem Man getting a lot of attention on the Basenotes MFD lately, I took note of the name.

 

Tasmeem Man doesn’t start out too promisingly, with a sweet, powdery floral musk that feels utterly generic and faceless. But I know that some Arabian cheapies (both oils and EDPs) need some time to settle before revealing their true character, and this was the case with Tasmeem Man. Eventually the scent smoothes out into a sweet, powdery tonka-based scent, with a trace of rose and vanilla. I thought I also picked up a bit of cumin, which my husband confirmed when smelling it blind (his comments are below).

 

I quite liked Tasmeem Man, and it is excellent value. Tonka is a trendy note in modern masculine designer scents, so it reminded me quite a bit of other men’s fragrances, in particular, the tonka-heavy Midnight in Paris. However, there is something pretty cheap and generic about it that puts me off. It is partially the source material – there is often something a little cheap-smelling about the almond aspect of tonka and/or coumarin, to my nose at least. I also find it excessively sweet and powdery (with a hint of sweaty armpit lurking beneath).

 

via GIPHY

 

My husband’s comments: “Oh my GOD, there’s cumin in this, isn’t there? It smells like a**. It’s very sweet. I’m surprised that this is a man’s fragrance.” Well, he said much ruder things than that, but I’ve toned it down.

 

Tom Ford Oud Wood

 

I’m surprised that nobody’s mentioned the fact that Oud Wood smells a lot like Dzongkha. Specifically, the oily, rubbery cardamom that adds a green, celery-seed-like note to the composition in both fragrances, setting their character dial at once to the savory (as opposed to sweet).

 

It’s interesting to me the way the different facets of the fragrance – the green spice of the cardamom, the smooth woods, and the oily/industrial facets – add up to a smell that is recognizably “oudy” without ever really smelling like oud when you smell it up close, on the wrist. Once you draw your head back, the disparate parts seem to coalesce into one amalgamated flow of fresh, green oily oud wood.

 

It smells wonderful – smooth, integrated wooden parts with a rich fleshiness or milkiness to the base. It smells impersonal, too, like a much-admired building in an award-winning industrial complex. It doesn’t have a soul, so it’s easy to make it one’s own. There is something creepy about it, and yet also mesmerizing, like that video that’s been doing the rounds lately with the papier mache, robot-controlled faces biting and licking at each other.

 

via GIPHY

 

It strikes me easily as masculine but not in a butch way that would preclude me from wearing it. Actually, I guess it is truly genderless, or rather, sexless – as sexless as a Ken doll. I love its creepy, putty-like texture. It’s almost off-puttingly smooth.

 

My husband liked this sample the best out of the whole line-up. It smells expensive and luxurious, he noted. I should mention that my husband loves pure oud oil, and because I test a lot of it, he is familiar with many different oud profiles and has come to love the fiercely animalic ones.

 

These are his comments: “I really like this. But that’s not oud. It is very safe-smelling. I would recommend it to people who wear suits. Real oud oil smells crazy, wild. It doesn’t have limits. This fragrance does have limits. I suppose that’s what makes it perfect for the workplace.”

 

David Yurman Limited Edition (David Yurman)

 

I’ve had to re-test this fragrance several times, because in the very short time it takes for my mind to wander off, the scent performs such a 180 on my skin that I keep wondering what perfume I actually have on. The second part is so completely removed from the first that it’s like wearing two different perfumes. If you’re not sniffing your arm like a hawk and focusing intensely, you might miss the transition completely and wonder what the hell just happened to the dark rose fragrance you originally put on. Because what I end up with is a smooth, boot-polish leather that feels texturally very close to Tuscan Leather.

 

And I know I didn’t start out with Tuscan Leather. David Yurman Limited Edition starts off on a beautifully rose note, roughly hewn and set in a dry smoky haze of oud and spices. It feels slightly green and herbal. That rose is really excellent quality. I can tell that the oud is the standard synthetic variant out of either Firmenich or Givaudan, but the rose smells like a really high quality Taif rose oil. It is bright, sharp, and lemony – almost harsh at first, but then loosening out into something sweeter.

 

Quite quickly. I lose the moist, fleshy parts of the rose, but what remains of the rose oil are the germanium-green and lemony-sharp facets, leaving their high-pitched, oily traces on all the other notes.

 

The base – which comes on very fast and surprised me every time – is a dusty vetiver leather with a fruity, boot-polish note lent by the raspberry. The combination comes off as dry and slightly musky and is very close to the way Tuscan Leather smells in its far drydown.

 

The raspberry note doesn’t smell like a fresh raspberry, but adds this strange, solvent-like tone to the leather. I have noticed this plasticky, boot-polish like effect of the raspberry note in two fragrances thus far: Tuscan Leather and Impossible Iris (Ramon Monegal). It is very appealing, because it adds a modern edge to the musky, sawdusty leather accord.

 

I like this perfume very much, and I’m given to understand that it’s not that expensive either. It is extrait-strength, so it is long-lasting. Unusually for an extrait, it projects quite powerfully too. Many quote this as a great rose-oud-leather fragrance for men, and I agree. In fact, it’s a creditable alternative to Portrait of a Lady or Tuscan Leather if you’re on a budget. It might also do the trick for fans of Atelier Cologne’s Oud Sapphir. I’m not saying it rivals their quality, but for the price, it gives you a smoky, oudy rose over leather that lasts all day. For most, that will do the job.

 

My husband said that this one was just ok.

 

GIVEAWAY!

 

I will ship the remaining samples I have of each of these 7 scents to someone ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD! Terms & Conditions are as follows:

 

  • Leave a comment telling me if you ever got caught up in hype, bought something blind, and how you (honestly) felt about the perfume when you got it! The funniest, most inspiring, or most painful-sounding answer will win
  • To enter, leave your comment either here on my blog, on my Facebook posting of this (Take One Thing Off Facebook page), on a Basenotes thread I will open up for this, or in any Facebook fragrance groups! All comments count.
  • Anyone asking me the batch code of the Aventus sample will be taken out and shot automatically disqualified.
  • I will choose the winner on Friday, 30th September, 2016.

 

 

DISCOUNT!

 

The lovely Greg Hartill of https://www.fragrancesamplesuk.com/ is offering a 10% discount to anyone using the special code HYPE10. Officially, it’s UK-only deliveries because of the draconian shipping regulations, but I believe if you contact him at info@fragrancesamplesuk.com, he might be able to work something out with you. He says he is actually starting to ship a lot of stuff abroad, even though the site doesn’t specifically state it.

Independent Perfumery Lists

Top 10 Indie Perfumes I Want to Own

October 7, 2015

I’m cheating slightly here, because there are more than ten on my list. I’m a greedy bitch and can’t confine myself to wanting only 10. But since that seems to be the magic number for this list-y thingies, then 10 it is!

This is basically a list of perfumes that made me stop in my tracks. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, more often than not it happens with indie perfumes. That is to say, perfumes produced (mostly in small batches) by independent perfumers, who tend to be one-person outfits with none of the distribution channels or financial backing of big cosmetics companies like most of the big name brands.

The fact that these independent perfumers are able to produce heart-stoppingly good, often brilliant perfumes without the big bucks or sophisticated marketing engines behind them is one of those things that makes my Irish rebel heart happy. It just does.

Here’s the list  – click on the links to go to the full review. Just to be clear – I don’t own any of the perfumes on this list…but I really, REALLY want to.

First up is Hiram Green’s Shangri-La. A sexy peach-skin and jasmine chypre with an animal growl operating just under the surface. I see a sexy librarian wearing this – the type you see in Mills and Boon novels with the high-necked blouse and tidy chignon that comes undone with passion behind the shelves with the silent-but-deep cowboy type she hates (but doesn’t really hate).

Bond-T by Sammarco is a dark, dry “sort of” gourmand perfume that smells like the best dark chocolate, leather, and black tea you’ve ever smelled. Hot damn, this is some sexy stuff right here. Great on a woman, but hubba-hubba on a man. Apply this to a man and you will be clubbing him over the head and dragging him back to your, um, cave.

Peety by O’Driu is an unusual tobacco perfume – not at all comfortable like others in the category (Tobacco Vanille, Pure Havane, etc.). Instead it goes for an unsettling combination of pissy honey, medicinal cloves and herbs, and a paper-dry tobacco. Weird and gorgeous. And totally wearable. You’re supposed to add a drop of your own pee to experience Peety in its full, er, splendor. Click through to see if I did or not….

Mito by Vero Profumo is an Italian garden’s worth of green leaves and citrus fruit squeezed into one little bottle. There is something about this that says “Diorella-on-Steroids” but I love it far more than Diorella. If you want classical greenery and anti-classical rotting underbelly, Mito has you covered. I can’t believe I don’t own this. Yet.

Lampblack by Bruno Fazzolari is the first vetiver fragrance I have ever enjoyed enough to want to own a bottle of (if you don’t count Timbuktu and Shaal Nur as vetiver fragrances, which oddly some people do not….freaks). A sour spray of grapefruit rind against a matt, black background – that’s what this smells like. Deep, crisp, and unforgettable.

Odoon by Pekji is my platonic ideal of a woods fragrance. Dry, pure wood with little pockets of sweetness like droplets of maple syrup caught inside the wood going pop, pop, pop when the log is put on the fire to burn. My sample broke and the contents shrank to an attar-like sludge, making it even better. In fact, if I ever get a bottle of this, I plan to crack it on the kitchen counter like opening a bottle of champers and then leave it on the window sill to concentrate.

Le Maroc Pour Elle by Andy Tauer is a heady, sumptuous rose and jasmine perfume that is refined and naughty in that classically French tradition, but also has a side that hangs out in the local head shop huffing Indian incense and cheap patchouli oil. Rather marvelous…can’t get this one out of my head (cue Kylie).

Cimabue by Dawn Spencer Hurwitz is Safran Troublant to the power of Opium. Or Theorema. Like a golden, fruit-studded Pain d’Epices or Pannetone, it writes Christmas in big letters across the sky. An oriental you can almost, but not quite eat. Right now with the weather drawing in, it’s all I want.

Christopher Street by Charenton Macerations is a turbo-charged version of an eau de cologne that twists the form in bewildering ways. The opening notes come at you like a huge wall of sound, fizzing and snapping at you like electrical wires cut loose in a storm. It’s explosively sour, like those lemon and lime sweets you bought as a kid and sucked until they corroded the lining of your mouth. Truly exciting stuff.

Winter Woods by Sonoma Scent Studio is a big ole angora sweater of a scent, with dark amber, smoky incense, tree resins, and animalic leather all twisting together like strands of wool until you can’t tell where one strand ends and the next begins. Comfortable and edgy at the same time, like hearing the howl of a wolf deep in the forest from the safety of your cabin fireside.

Au Dela by Bruno Fazzolari is an ode to citrus, sun-baked hay, and a green jasmine that floats above a dark, salted amber like a layer of silk. It triggers a scent memory to do with my father and his Eau Savauge, but I’m not sure that explains my fascination with this. It feels like I am remembering a glorious past, but in a quiet, unemotional way.

Jeke by Slumberhouse….I love you, I hate you, I love you again. I think I was always a Slumberhouse ho from the get go (yo!), but it’s only recently I got into smoke-monster fragrances. Le Labo Patchouli 24 was my gateway drug and from there I found my way into Jeke, which I had originally despised. Now, it’s my down-country Tribute.

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