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Serge Lutens Santal de Mysore

December 8, 2016
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When I first smelled Serge Lutens Santal de Mysore, I said to myself, as long as Serge Lutens keeps making this fragrance, I will be happy. If all my other bottles were to be destroyed in a fire, I’d be ok with just this one. Hyperbole? Probably. Just trying to get across how much I love it.

 

What I value most about it is its dichotomy. It is both wet and dry, and intensely so at the same time. At first, the wet elements come to the nose – a big, spicy red butter curry with blisteringly hot black peppercorns crushed to release their oil, and something green, frondy, and aromatic, perhaps dill or fresh fenugreek. There is a tamarind sourness to it but it is also intensely sweet, as if cubes of salted caramel have been set on top to slowly sweat down into pools of butter.

 

I don’t understand when people say a perfume smells like a curry like that’s a bad thing? I can think of no better smell than this. My mouth waters at the host of hot spices and aromatics. I slaver like Pavlov’s dog every time I go near the stopper.

 

Talking of the stopper, sniffing Santal de Mysore from the bottle gives me a jolt of recognition every time, because it smells like real Mysore sandalwood. But on the skin, this impression disappears, as the big building blocks of flavors and spices jostle each other for position. Drawing your nose back from your arm, you notice these clumps of notes magically coalescing into a true Mysore aroma – deep brown, buttery, arid, resinous. Salted butter dried and made into a red dust. Put your nose back to that spot on your wrist, and the Mysore impression falls apart again. This is a fragrance that plays peek-a-boo with its wearer, and it’s mesmerizing.

 

The wet, creamy curry accord hangs around, but it flips on a switch to dry, aromatic sandalwood dust when you’re not looking. Look again and it switches back to wet and spicy. When I catch glimpses of the dry, dusty facet, it smells like zukoh, a powdered sweet incense that combines camphor, cloves, and sandalwood. The drydown is pure magic, the curry notes fading away to a caramelized sandalwood incense aroma, with hints of honey and amber rounding out the dry woodiness.

 

Why do I find Santal de Mysore such a gorgeous, satisfying wear? Because it’s not a straightforward representation of sandalwood like Tam Dao or Wonderwood. It takes you to a fantasy Mysore sandalwood destination by way of the Silk Road, weaving through curry spices, aromatic oils, and incense sticks as we go. It’s also a scent that makes your perceptions of it turn on a dime: wet then arid, savory then sweet, creamy then dusty, spicy then herbal and green. Sandalwood in a House of Mirrors – its basic shape remains the same but what we see each time we look is different.

Amber Gourmand Honey Oriental Tonka Vanilla

Maison Francis Kurkdijan Grand Soir

October 1, 2016
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Maison Francis Kurkdijan’s Grand Soir depresses the hell out of me. Not because it’s a bad perfume (it’s not), but because it’s a Golden Retriever of a perfume and I was hoping for another one of Kurkdijan’s Rhodesian Ridgebacks like Eau Noire or Absolue Pour Le Soir.

 

I’m a fan of Francis Kurkdijan’s work, and even though I didn’t get along with one of his recent releases, Baccarat Rouge 540, I think he has one of the best batting averages in the business. And I will be forever grateful to him for making Absolue Pour Le Soir, Cologne Pour Le Soir, and recently, Ciel de Gum. His oud series (Oud, Oud Cashmere Mood, Oud Velvet Mood, Oud Satin Mood, and Oud Silk Mood) still stands out as daring and interesting, even in a field as crowded as the Westernized oud one.

 

But the man has to sell perfume. So every now and then he puts out a fragrance that smells like an upgrade on one of those Clean fragrances, or a plush, ambery people-pleaser (such as Ciel de Gum, which I love despite it not being ground-shakingly original). People love and people buy.

 

And everyone seems to really love Grand Soir. It’s the new golden retriever on the scene. People I know who don’t pay retail for anything have paid retail for this. The hills are alive with the magic sound of wallets clicking open. And when that happens, I sit up and pay attention. Because in this business, people often praise fragrances to high heaven but don’t actually lay down real money for it.

 

I get it. Perfume is expensive. And there is so much of it – 2,000 new releases in 2016 alone. So it makes sense to look closely at what people are actually buying, because that means much more than a glowing review. For that reason, I always check in on those “Today I Bought” threads on Basenotes, and often plan my sampling expeditions around what I see there.

 

Absolue Pour Le Soir is one of my favorite fragrances of all time, and I don’t find it challenging, but my tastes are lazy and mainstream enough that I was half-seduced by the thought of a more easier-going version of it. Even though a little voice in the back of my head kept whispering “But…..you know, Cologne Pour Le Soir.” Yes, voice, yes, I know.

 

So let me be clear. I don’t dislike Grand Soir because it’s not Absolue Pour Le Soir or Cologne Pour Le Soir. I dislike it because not only is it not daring or original along the lines of those perfumes, but it’s not even as pleasant-smelling or cushy as something like Ciel de Gum. It’s just that it doesn’t smell great. To my nose, it’s yet amber stuffed with potent woody-ambers like Norlimbanol or Timbersilk. And I expect better – far better – from a house such as Maison Francis Kurkdijan.

 

The rough synth edge on Grand Soir is unpleasant and harsh/burnt to my nose, pulling it surprisingly far away from the plush, velvety “night in Paris” effect that MFK was going for. Admittedly, I may be more sensitive to the presence of synthy woody ambers than most people. But, honestly, it ruins the experience for me entirely.

 

Apart from the disappointingly, soullessly chemical side taste to Grand Soir, there is a fundamental lack of balance here. Playing to the trend for modern fougeres, there is a bright, resinous lavender in the topnotes that feels natural and refreshingly unsweetened, but once the aromatics melt away, there is nothing left for the nose to play with beyond a waxy, honeyed amber powered with the burnt, chemical smokiness of that woody amber. There’s no counterpointing.

 

Both Absolute Pour Le Soir and Cologne Pour Le Soir have effective counterparts to the sweetness of the honey and amber; APLS has an almost bitter, smoky depth to it thanks to the incense, and CPLS has a touch of rosy sourness. Grand Soir has only the short-lived aromatic of the lavender, and that synthy woody-amber thing going on; without any other contrasting notes, it develops into a rather flat play-dough amber. Tonka, benzoin, and vanilla add body and sweetness, but with three materials that smell largely like, well, vanilla, there is no counterpointing ballast with which to balance the fragrance.

 

Ultimately, Grand Soir is as painful for me to wear as Serge Lutens’ L’Orpheline and Amouage’s Opus VI, both of which come off as bare-boned chemical skeletons draped in something smoky and something unctuously sweet.

 

Grand Soir is quite straight-forwardly commercial in intent. It makes a play for the same synthy radiance and power-boosted projection that I smell in a hundred other modern ambers, and the same dopey amber-tonka-vanilla base that offends nobody except me in its very featurelessness. The audacity of taupe. I find it depressing that it’s stuff like this that everyone opens their wallets for and not the daring stuff like Absolue Pour Le Soir and Cologne Pour Le Soir, both of which are being phased out of distribution outlets and confined to the Paris store because nobody bloody bought them.

 

Francis Kurkdijan has gone on record to say that despite all the critical acclaim that Absolue Pour Le Soir gathered, he only sold a couple bottles of it worldwide last year. Remember Eau Noire? Same thing. We all loved it – apparently nobody bought it. Perfume houses don’t discontinue brilliant, ballsy perfumes because they are mean bastards and they hate us. They pull products when they don’t sell. As perfume lovers, we just have to put our money where our mouth is, or the glorious perfumes disappear and perfumers make pedestrian perfumes that please a majority and sell to a majority.

 

I don’t blame Francis Kurkdijan for producing a Golden Retriever a la Grand Soir. I blame me and people like me for not buying all the gnarly Rhodesian Ridgebacks he was putting out before.

 

 

 

 

Chypre Oriental Review Rose Sandalwood Smoke Spicy Floral Vanilla Woods

Caron Nuit de Noel

March 3, 2016
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Modern niche perfumery makes it easy for us. It must be like playing charades with the world’s slowest child. They supply us with all the visual and background cues and then sit back and do a slow clap when we get it. Ambre Russe? Mention vodka in the press materials and in one sniff we are mentally whisked away to boozy Cossacks, samovars, fur, and gold-gilded palaces. De Profundis? Give an essentially cheery floral perfume a gloomy name and a depressive back-story, and suddenly everyone makes the connection to death and funerals.

If we weren’t supplied so readily with these cues, would we make those connections? Probably not. But let’s admit that the back-story is half the fun of it. We are only human after all – we want everything we do to have meaning. Even if it’s only our perfume.

Smell Caron Nuit de Noel in vintage parfum form, though, and everything you know about narrative is upended. It is a Wagnerian opera-sized perfume and we not handed so much as a leaflet. Oh yes, I forgot, they did give us that name – Nuit de Noel. But it doesn’t smell like Christmas, so that doesn’t help.

But this – this – this is what perfume smelled like once upon a time. A dense, powdered thing of mystery that doesn’t really give a shit if you manage to unlock its layers or not. It’s so analog in a digital world that it makes me laugh.

Nuit de Noel doesn’t really have traditional topnotes. In fact, it’s a fragrance best worn for its basenotes, and is therefore the complete opposite to how perfumes are made these days – stuffed with amazing topnotes that last just long enough to get you over to the till to pay your money and petering out into one big fat nothing three hours later. Nuit de Noel, on the other hand, plunges you right into the second cycle of Der Ring des Nibelungen and just trusts that you know enough German to get by. In a way, I appreciate that approach – by giving me very few cues, it expects me to have enough intelligence to figure it out on my own.

I’m still not sure I’ve figured Nuit de Noel out, though. I ain’t that smart. But I like the challenge. The top notes are intense, like a wall of sound coming straight at you. Dense and unwieldy, it smells like bitter powder and polished old woods with a streak of green moss running through it. There is also a huge dose of the typically Caron carnation/clove accord, which I find bitter-leathery and spicy in equal measure. The overall impression I get is of being wrapped in an old fur coat – it’s both old-fashioned and luxurious.

I don’t get any of the Christmas associations, but there is a stage of its development where I sense both the mealy, fluffy meat of roasted chestnuts and a sweet, liquor-like rose. Perhaps it’s that hint of rich fruited breads and baked goods that lead some to make the connection to Christmas. The green, mossy chypre notes also create a crisp, cold-air feeling, placing this perfume in the context of snow. Aside from the notes, there is a certain glow to this perfume – a radiant warmth like candlelight.

As time goes on, a licorice-like note creeps in, cloaking the fragrance in a velvety, sweet darkness. Think soft black licorice, not the challenging Danish stuff that tastes like salt. This note is a feature of the famous Mousse de Saxe, said to contain a heavy mixture of anise (or fennel seed), vanillin, geranium, and isobutyl quinoline (smoky, tough leather notes).

The Mousse de Saxe makes up a huge proportion of Nuit de Noel, and lends it its decisively dark green, mossy, smoky, and sweet flavor profile. A pre-packaged base, Mousse de Saxe is no longer made by Caron to the original recipe, although to their credit, they try to recreate it in order to keep their current parfums rich and full-bodied. But to my nose, there is a rich, dark, and melting softness to vintage Nuit de Noel (reminiscent of marrons glaces, as some have pointed out) that is just not there in the modern Carons.

The leather, powder, and geranium facets of the base connect Nuit de Noel to other hard-to-categorize fragrances like Habanita and Vol de Nuit. Part chypre, part oriental, all three of these fragrances are soft, boneless straddlers of several categories at once and contain a mystery of their very own that is difficult to unpack, to analyze. Mysterious and cool-toned, they leave behind a lingering impression of green moss, face powder, leather, and half-smoked cigarettes. The most slatternly women you could imagine, and the ones I most want to know.

Smelling Nuit de Noel parfum now a melancholic experience, though. Vol de Nuit and Habanita are still in good shape. But with oakmoss being severely restricted these days, the Caron bases can never smell as complex as they once did, and so when I smell my sample of vintage Nuit de Noel parfum, I realize that I’m essentially smelling the air from a time capsule.

 

 

Myrrh Oriental Review The Discard Pile

Mona di Orio Myrrh Casati

February 19, 2016
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Mona di Orio Myrrh Casati is somewhat of a disappointment. Mona’s style was always rich, thick, dirty, lush, and as dense as a brick wall – it’s what her fans loved about her. I don’t see her style in this perfume. Myrrh Casati is the first Mona di Orio fragrance to be composed by someone other than Mona herself, following her tragic death in 2011. And you can tell.

Myrrh Casati, while very nice and wearable, does not have any of the special Mona di Orio signatures that could be traced from one perfume to another like a vein on a lover’s arm. It lacks the almost overbearingly rich, dirty, creamy woodiness of Vanille and Oud, the dry-ice, almond-like musks from Ambre, Violette Fumee, and Musc, and the harsh animalism of Nuit Noire and Cuir. Without these little olfactory clues that she tucked so deftly into the sleeves of her work, I am lost. Myrrh Casati could be the work of anyone.

If her other perfumes are rich tapestries, then Myrrh Casati is a silk gauze. It is beautiful but simple to the point of being spare. The opening is particularly striking. A dark, dry spice note fuses with a warm, cinnamon-tinted Siam benzoin and sharp black pepper to form a gorgeous aroma of tarry coca-cola. There is also an arresting black rubber feel to the opening, arising from the use of saffron, or perhaps plain old saffraleine, and it is a smooth complement to the licorice.

But any opening richness or darkness quickly attenuates. Within minutes, I am left with a rather bare bones resin scent with a faint but noticeable minty smoke note from either the myrrh or the licorice. I’m a myrrh lover and a big Mona di Orio fan, but this one leaves me wanting more.

Amber Floral Oriental Independent Perfumery Leather Oriental Resins Suede

Hiram Green Voyage

February 2, 2016
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Hiram Green Voyage has an opening that is both strange and familiar to me. It features a sour (but also candied) citrus note dusted so thickly with the powder of a saffron-like spice that it doesn’t register as fresh or sharp the way hesperidic notes normally do. The effect is of a golden sun shining through a dust cloud of vanilla and spice, with something bright lurking underneath.

Sometimes I spray this on and I get a hint of the tannic peach skin, moss, and spices from Shangri La, and it’s like unwrapping a tiny sliver of chypre hidden in the folds of a dusty, oriental brocade. Sometimes I get no fruit, but a rubbery suede. It is murky and intimate, like the smell of a moist wrist directly under a rubber watch.

Very beautiful and very familiar. Where do I know this scent from?

Immediately, I race off through the library of smells in my brain to see if I can place it, but it remains frustratingly out of reach. I don’t think it is a perfume that I’m remembering so much as a chord in a larger orchestra of smell. Or maybe it’s the whole orchestra of a smell funneled through one chord, I don’t know.

The best I can do is say that the opening has an interesting dissonance to it that reminds of the older Guerlains – Jicky perhaps most of all, with its stomach-churning clash of cymbals between the fresh, clean lavender and the rich, civet-soaked vanilla crème. But there is also the dark rye bourbon bitterness of Mitsouko’s cooked peach skin. Voyage is much simpler and more direct than these perfumes, of course, but it shares with them the impression of a ribbon of bright gold slicing through plush velvet darkness.

The dry down only confirms the familiarity (and the appeal) of this style of retro perfumery – it is a warm, luscious vanilla-amber, heavily laced with what seems to me to be a heavy dose of heliotrope and perhaps orange blossom, although these notes are not listed. It has something of the spicy, floral vanilla feel of L’Heure Bleue, albeit less pastry-like in tone and more tending towards the more resinous, cinnamon-inflected Tolu or Peru balsams. I have to admit that I do not pick up on much of the patchouli – to my nose, if it’s there, then it is only there to add shade and earth to the vanillic dry down.

In a way, Voyage reminds me of Ciel de Gum, by Maison Francis Kurkdijan, not for any similarity in the way they smell necessarily, but for the retro manner in which they present the vanilla note – not clean or sweet, but fudgy with spice, civet and indolic flowers. There is a close, intimate feel to vanillas like this that recall human skin to skin contact. Voyage, Ciel de Gum, Opus 1144 (UNUM), and even Musc Ravaguer all hark back to that Guerlain-like clash between a bright, aromatic side (lavender, bergamot, cloves, cinnamon) and a dark, velvety side ( vanilla, musks, indolic flowers, and civet).

It’s this clash what makes Jicky, L’Heure Bleue, and Shalimar such masterpieces even today – at first so repellent and odd that wonder what kind of drugs the perfumer was taking, and then everything suddenly “works” in the perfume and you think it’s great – addicting almost. Hiram Green’s Voyage has that clash down nicely, and this is why it works. I love this perfume because it gives me a taste of what I love about the classics but in a stripped-down, more legible format that doesn’t make me feel as if I am wearing an entire history of grand perfume on my back. Which is sometimes what I want.

Amber Animalic Incense Leather Oriental Resins Smoke Tonka Vanilla

Guerlain Shalimar

November 22, 2015
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Ah, Guerlain Shalimar, the ur-Oriental. Sitting down to write a review of Shalimar kind of feels like looking up at the top of Mount Everest and wondering how the hell even to begin the ascent. It seems to cover (in one single bottle) a lot of the themes and notes people go looking for in separate perfumes – you want vanilla, it’s the textbook example, you want smoke and incense, well you got that too, you want amber, it is the mother of all modern ambers, you want animalics and leather, ditto. If you also happen to be the type of person who is interested in freaky notes, like baby diaper, burning tires, tar, and slightly rancid butter, then, why yes, Shalimar also has you covered.

It’s not an easy perfume to love right off the bat. Don’t get me wrong, Shalimar is easy to love, but the actual falling in love bit is not immediate. It took me ten days of wearing it before I could even tolerate it, let alone love it, but I got there and in end, it clicked for me, and that was it. Pure love. The everlasting kind. Whenever I see someone saying, oh I just don’t get Shalimar, or oh Shalimar hates my skin, you know what I am thinking? You’re just not trying hard enough. Put your back into it. If you can’t commit a week or ten days out of your life to understanding Shalimar, then not only are you cheating yourself out of experiencing one of the best perfumes ever made, you are also missing the opportunity to “get” most orientals that came after Shalimar.

For, once you unlock Shalimar, you start to see that Serge Lutens’ Ambre Sultan is just a snapshot of a portion of Shalimar (principally the amber and herbes de provence) blown up 150% and turned sideways. Etro’s Shaal Nur is an abbreviated essay on the incense and opoponax in Shalimar. Mono di Orio’s excellent Vanille is a modern take on the woodsy vanilla of Shalimar. You can spot echoes of Shalimar in Chypre Palatin (vanilla and animalics), Fate Woman (bergamot and powder) and Bulgari Black (vanilla, rubber, smoke). Whether perfumers are aware of it or not, most of today’s grand orientals refer at least in part back to the ur-Mother Oriental herself.

Forgive my wittering on. For all of that, Shalimar smells absolutely wonderful, grand, lush, smoky, sexy, comforting, and warm. The opening, as I’ve mentioned, is jarring to the nth degree, especially if you’re not used to it. I don’t know whether it’s the particularly stinky grade of Bergamot that Guerlain use, or the way it clashes with the vanilla, but the top notes smell curdled and rancid, like when you pour lemonade into cream. The vanilla itself smells tarry and burned, like rubber tires piled high and set on fire. Somehow, somewhere underneath all of that, there appears a slightly horrifying note of soiled diapers, or at least baby powder that has been caked into the creases of a baby’s bottom. It smells sort of unclean, and is pungent enough to singe your nose hairs off.

Here’s the odd thing – after you get used to Shalimar, you start to actively crave the weird opening. When you begin to go “Mmmmmmm” rather than holding your breath, this is a sign that you’ve crossed the line. Welcome! It’s like a Shibboleth for hard-core fans of Shalimar – we’re all over here at the other side of the line, and everyone else is pressing their noses to the glass, shaking their heads and saying, “I think you have Stockholm Syndrome”

After the “horrific” first half hour (for which you may want to refrain from sniffing your wrists if you are smelling it for the first time), it is an easy ride from there on in. Sweet, smoky vanilla poured on top of a long, golden, powdery amber, with accents of leather, smoking resins, and animalic musks. It has this neat trick of smelling comforting/familiar and yet ultra-sexual at the same time. It lasts all day and, in my humble opinion, is just fantastic in whatever concentration and vintage you wear. Yes, the vintage parfum is the deepest and smokiest, but we can’t always be wearing that (for reasons of finances as well as time and place), so it’s good to know that Shalimar is still recognizably the same Shalimar in the weakest EDC as it is in the parfum – thinner, yes, but still, you wouldn’t mistake her for anybody else. For me, it is true love, and a top five perfume forever. It is like my second skin.

Amber Oriental Oud Rose

Estee Lauder Amber Mystique

November 16, 2015
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I’ve had a sample of Estee Lauder Amber Mystique for ages now but my hand would always pass over it, my mind doing the kind of internal eye-rolling that nonetheless is visible from outer space and makes me (I suspect) quite an irritating person.  The preconceptions I nurtured so smugly were: (i) this is Estee Lauder making a cheap grab for their slice of the oud craze driving the market – totally predictable and utterly depressing, (ii) the bottle is just f^&*($g awful, (iii) it would be just another syrupy, loud oriental amber along the lines of Ameer al Oudh, or 24 Gold, or (iv) that it would be stuffed with cheap woody ambers that scream “Power” and “Projection” to the bros and “outstaying its welcome” to me.

Thankfully, although I am still convinced of numbers (i) and (ii), my fears about the scent itself were completely unjustified. This is a sweet, soft oriental blend of rose, amber, incense, honey, some fruit, and a touch of (non-rubbery, non-medicinal) oud. It is not synthetically-extended in the rear with potent woody ambers. In fact, the sillage is polite and sweetly diaphanous rather than bullying or insistent.

I like it a lot. It would make a great starter oriental for those looking to dip their toe into the water, and for those who do not like the rather over-powered, syrupy, or harsh examples of the Arabian cheapy genre. It opens with a tiny berry and plum note, and what smells to me like a subtle oud wood note, but these get swallowed up pretty quickly into a powdery, sweet amber. It is sweetly balsamic and slightly-honeyed – never throat-catchingly resinous or sharp.

There is, later, an attractively whiskey-ish tone to the amber that develops, giving it some dimension. I also smell a slight buttery tone that could be a facet of the amber or of the leather – either way, it reminds me of the only part of the amber accord in Opus VI that I really like, which is that buttery, almond-like undertone from the periploca flower. In Amber Mystique, you really feel the presence of the rose, and I would say that overall, this is a rosy amber (or an ambery rose), like Dior Privee’s Ambre Nuit, albeit without the salty ambergris tint. If you like Kalemat or Calligraphy Rose, then you’ll enjoy this too (although those other two perfumes are better, in my opinion).

If I had to point out a little niggle, I’d say that it lacks the sub-woofer boom that makes ambery orientals so (traditionally) satisfying. Everything unfolds in a little shallow pool of bliss, the ripples spreading out on the skin, but there are no hidden depths here.

In the United States, this appears to be sold on eBay for $30-40 for the 100ml size, but in Europe, we are still seeing prices of €80-110. I am surprised at the difference, but maybe the American market is just better at finding the correct value of things.

Personally, I would put the real value of Amber Mystique at around the same level of Spellbound or Sensuous Noir. It smells great but is neither groundbreakingly unique nor as attention-grabbing as Estee Lauder would like us to believe, and therefore the “exclusive” tone of the marketing and pricing makes little sense. But if you live in America and see this on eBay for peanuts, grab it! Especially if you don’t already own an example in this genre – Arabian-style oud/amber EDPs – and would like to start off on an easy rung.

Oriental Review Saffron Spicy Floral White Floral Woods

Dawn Spencer Hurwitz Cimabue

October 7, 2015
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Dawn Spencer Hurwitz was originally asked by a fan on Makeupalley.com to recreate her favorite perfume, Safran Troublant, because she had heard it was being discontinued (it wasn’t) and was distraught. Cimabue is not a faithful rendition of Safran Troublant, but instead a loving tribute that ends up taking the delicate saffron-infused rice-pudding-and-cream accord of the original inspiration and spinning it off into a far more complex, oriental result.

A creamy, dessert-saffron takes center stage here. But a significant clove, ginger, orange, and cinnamon combination lends it a spicy pomander feel that makes my mind wander more in the direction of Pan d’Epices and other European Christmas treats, rather than in the direction of delicate, dusty-floral Indian milk puddings.

There is rose too, and whole ladlefuls of a dark, molten honey – not sweet, but rather bitter and grown-up, like the slight edge of bitterness on a candied peel or a raisin that rescues a taste from being too sugary. There is a charming medieval feel, overall, like a rich golden tapestry hanging on a banquet hall or the taste and smell of those sticky (but dry) honey and almond cakes studded with nuts, cloves, and dried orange peel that are still popular in Siena and Pisa today, such as panforte and ricciarelli.

Cimabue is no simple gourmand, though. It’s a fully-fledged oriental. It’s as if the simple, gourmandy custard of Safran Troublant got dipped into the clove-studded orange and booze of Chanel’s Coco, rubbed in the spicy velvet of Opium, and rolled around in the ambery dust of Fendi’s Theorema, and emerged twelve hours later all the better and wiser for it. It’s the pomander-cross-spice gourmand I had hoped Noir Epices by Frederic Malle would be (but wasn’t). And best of all, it features my favorite note – saffron – in perhaps by favorite guise, that of a sweet, creamy, exotic dessert saffron.

I own two bottles of Safran Troublant, because I love it mindlessly and wear it as a simple comfort scent. But Cimabue is a step forward in the perfume evolutionary chain, and as a piece of art, I prefer it.

Cimabue, by the way, was the Italian artist famous for breaking with the flat Italo-Byzantine style of painting icons and frescos in pre-Renaissance Italy by introducing more naturalistic, true-to-life proportions of figures and shading. And I like to think that the name of this fragrance was deliberate. Because Cimabue takes the basic model of Safran Troublant, animates it subtly with shadows and highlights, and renders it in living, breathing, 3-dimensional form.

It doesn’t make me love Safran Troublant any less, but it is only when I wear its more evolved descendant that I become aware of the progenitor’s serene flatness.

Gourmand Oriental Oud Resins Review Rose Spice

Amouage Epic Woman

September 18, 2015
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Anybody here remember Opal Fruits? The tagline was: “Made to make your mouth water” – and sure enough whenever an ad for those tangy, sherbet-y little suckers came on TV, my mouth would begin pumping out saliva. Like Pavlov’s dog.

Well, I just have to glance at my dark green bottle of Amouage Epic Woman for my mouth to start to water. Like pickles, umeboshi, and sourpatch gummies, there is an almost physical pleasure to be had in a wincingly tart flavor. It is a credit to Amouage that Epic Woman contains so many piquant green notes and still manages to be so inviting. It smells like something pickled in brine! And yet sweet!

Every part of Epic Woman is as satisfying to me as a good meal – the lip-smacking savor of kimchi leading into a meaty, smoked rose and finally a few spoonfuls of thin crème anglaise, just enough to sweeten the tongue.

Many people say that Epic Woman belongs to the same oriental woody perfume family as Chanel’s Bois des Iles, Molinard Habanita, and even Jean Desprez Bal a Versailles. But I always get the feeling that putting those perfumes in the same sentence as something like Epic Woman is like saying tomatoes = strawberries because they are both fruits. Needless to say, Epic Woman is neither a tomato nor a strawberry. Clearly, it’s a salted plum.

I’m always trying to figure out where Epic Woman fits in the general scheme of things. No doubt about it, it is an oriental perfume. However, it lacks the plush sweetness and creamy roundness of most other orientals. After much thought, I’ve come to realize that the head space it occupies (for me, at least) is the same as for Tom Ford’s Plum Japonais and YSL’s vintage Nu EDP – smoky incense perfumes with a phenomenally sour streak of flavor running through them that prickle the saliva glands. In case you haven’t picked up on my feeling about this sourness – it’s good! I love it actually. It’s the tart streak in these perfumes that stops them from melting into the characterless vanilla-amber-sandalwood sludge that sometimes plagues the category.

Epic Woman balances the hot and the sour and the sweet as masterfully as a delicate Chinese dish – the heat from the black pepper and cinnamon, the green pickling spices (caraway), and the soft-but-oh-so-vinegary oud are the major players here. But there is also a diffuse sweetness, coming off the pink rose that blooms behind the sour opening notes and what feels like a mixture of powdered cinnamon and vanilla. I can’t say that I smell black tea, but maybe I’m just not picking out the tea tannins when placed up against a smoky guaic wood, incense, and other woody notes.

The vanilla in the base is extremely subtle – a thimbleful of creme anglaise rather than an ice-cream sundae – and spiked with just enough sugar added to round out the sourness of the oud wood. The sourness and the delicate spices surrounding the rose persist all through the perfume, though, and keep me smacking my lips.

In short, this is a perfume to be savored like a good Chinese sweet and sour dish, or the snap of a cold dill pickle straight from the jar when you’re starving. It is a wholly appetizing perfume – almost gourmand in the pleasure it affords me.

Chypre Floral Oriental Leather Oriental Tobacco Tonka Woods

Molinard Habanita

September 18, 2015
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Molinard Habanita is a giant in a field of gnats.

But man, it took me ages to understand it, let alone enjoy it. At first, I was repulsed. It smelled harsh to me. Indistinct and muddy – like a fistful of wet, mulched leaves. There was a sticky grey -brown cast to it that lent it a slightly glum feel. Who the hell wants to smell like this, I thought to myself.

But something kept making me want to wear it, and now, with time, I’ve come to love it. And I don’t mean love it from a distance. No, I actually wear Habanita once a week. Coming from a gal with as many perfumes as I have, that should tell you something.

I think I’ve got a handle on what makes Habanita tick now.

At the heart of Habanita lies a soft, worn leather note that recalls the smell of the inside lapel of a well-loved leather jacket. It is an intimate smell, a beat-up leather mixed with twenty years of human skin rubbing up against it. It’s not a leather with aspirations to luxury, like Chanel’s Cuir de Russie, or leaning towards unbearably animalic, like Montale’s Aoud Cuir d’Arabie. It’s just a low-down, rough-copy leather, a smell with history, and aware of its humble beginnings as a liquid used to perfume cigarettes.

The leather note at the center reminds me somewhat of Onda by Vero Profumo. They don’t smell alike, really, when taken as a whole. But the more I wear Habanita, the more I understand that Onda is the core of Habanita extracted, shaken clean of the powder, tonka, and the flowers, and reshaped as a gaspingly harsh leather chypre. The core accord in both is a grainy, grimy leather with a slightly unclean, carnal feel – a half-urinous, half-honeyed tobacco-like smell. There is also a whiff of floor disinfectant. Whereas this is what had repulsed me to begin with, I now find this very sexy. It’s a lived-in, intimate kind of smell. This combination of honey and tobacco or vetiver that works for me in a few of my other favorite fragrances as well, such as Serge Lutens’ Fumerie Turque and Jardins D’Ecrivains’ George.

There’s a lot more going on in Habanita than in Onda, though. Whereas Onda is all about that fierce, dry honey-vetiver-leather, Habanita wraps it all up in a thick blanket of baby-powder florals (rose, heliotrope, and jasmine) and submerges it in a base of sandalwood and vanilla. I also get a buttery almond-like smell akin to the cherry tobacco smell of an unlit pipe, so perhaps there is tonka in there too (I’m convinced there is).

But despite the complex list of notes, I have to say that Habanita maintains its rather singular identity all the way through. It never smells overtly floral (although there are tons of flowers) or incense-y (although it has resins). Even the vanilla and the vetiver don’t smell like vanilla and vetiver – they meld so completely with the honey, flowers, woods, and resins that their separate identities are completely consumed. What they give birth to is a new form – that nutty, dry leather core of Habanita.

I own three versions of it – the modern Eau de Parfum (inexpensive), the vintage Eau de Toilette (costs a fortune and is increasingly difficult to find), and the vintage-ish pure parfum (discontinued, I believe). They are all three essentially the same when it comes to the core accord that makes Habanita Habanita, although there are some slight differences.

The modern EDP is plush, deep, and more intensely powdered than the vintage EDT, and has a gummy, lemon-green mastic note at the start that is missing from the other versions. The vintage EDT has a sharp petigrain note at the start and more of a spicy, clove-y character, but it dries down to the basic scent profile as is found in the EDP.

The pure parfum goes straight to the leather-tobacco core of Habanita without any of the harsh, wild green opening notes of the other two versions – it is altogether quieter and more buttery. It is also the version with the most smoke, which I enjoy very much. All three versions last on my skin for an eternity. But I wouldn’t necessarily feel that you have to hunt down the pure parfum or the vintage EDT unless you were really a hardcore Habanita whore like me. The modern EDP is a rare instance where a beloved classic was not only preserved but also maybe a little improved. Plus – and when do you ever get to say this about a favorite perfume – it is democratically priced.