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Maison Nicolas de Barry: Part II (Les Parfums Naturels, Oud Collection)

November 15, 2017

Part II of my little series on Maison Nicolas de Barry focuses on the brand’s all natural and oud lines, called respectively Les Parfums Naturels and the Oud Collection. (Part I, on Les Parfums Historiques, is here). Introduced in the past few years to reflect Nicolas’ increasing interest in all natural perfumery and the perfumery of the East, these perfumes contain raw materials that Nicolas de Barry has sourced or tinctured himself, including a 25-year old lump of ambergris, rose oil from Grasse, ylang oil from Jean-Paul Guerlain’s private plantation on Mayotte, and a pure oud oil (Aquilaria subintegra) from Thailand.

 

The perfumes are formulated at 15% pure perfume oil and scaled up to make 150ml bottles of eau de parfum. None of the perfumes in the naturals and oud collection are inexpensive, ranging from €480 to €920 for the natural line, and from €920 to €1,140 for the oud collection, but two things soften the blow a bit: first, the fact that each bottle contains approximately 22mls of pure, natural (and expensive) essences like pure oud oil or sandalwood, and second, samples or should I say mini bottles are available at €52 for 7ml. Not cheap, but definitely a more feasible way for those curious about natural and oud perfumery to dip their toes into the water and see if this style of perfumery suits them.

 

Having tested quite a few of these natural and oud-based perfumes, I’d rank the Maison Nicolas de Barry perfumes alongside those of Mandy Aftel of Aftelier, in California, and Dominique Dubrana (Abdes Salaam al Attar) of La Via del Profumo. There is a similar passion for natural raw materials going on here, and the perfumes are similar in terms of texture, both being soft, gauzy, but also sometimes pungent depending on the intrinsic properties of the raw material being used. The perfumes are also similarly soft in terms of projection and lasting power, naturals often fading quickly on the skin due to the absence of synthetic musks or woody ambers to keep them locked in place.

 

The main distinction between these all-natural brands comes in the form of artistic intent and compositional styles: Mandy Aftel’s work places naturals in the context of a more abstract, perfumey vision (atmospheric and emotional rather than soliflores, etc.), whereas the work of both Nicolas de Barry, in his naturals and oud collections, and Abdes Salaam al Attar  is more attar-orientated. Both specialize in simple natural arrangements of materials and more complex ones, but the underlying aim is always to exalt the beauty of the raw materials used.

Here below are reviews of the naturals and oud collection that I tested.

 

Ylang de Mayotte

 

Ylang de Mayotte is my favorite out of the natural samples provided to me by Nicolas de Barry. Sourced from the 100% natural, small-batch production of ylang on the private plantation of Jean-Paul Guerlain on the island of Mayotte, this particular oil showcases all of the good aspects of ylang and none of the more disturbing properties. I have a personal weakness for ylang, but it’s a difficult material to work with because it is enormously potent and can overpower a composition. Depending on the grade used, ylang can be a brash, grapey, fuel-like bully of a smell that mows down any other note that’s unlucky enough to get in its way.

 

My favorite treatments of ylang, including this one focus on the delicate “egg custard” properties of ylang that align it quite naturally with vanilla and sandalwood. Ylang de Mayotte smells like a powdered length of buttery yellow silk, a subtle pattern of fresh mint leaf picked out here and there.  It is delicately fruity, but not in the harsh, benzene-laden way of some ylang oils, rather like a sliver of apricot skin dropped into a milky banana custard halfway through the cooking. It’s rich but subtle, with small gourmand flourishes that make it quite delicious – a quivering, fine-boned tropical panna cotta dotted with slivers of apricot, almonds, peaches, and mint.

 

Ylang de Mayotte is somewhat comparable to Tasnim by La Via del Profumo in that they are both 100% natural, artisanal productions and both present the soft, custardy side of ylang. But Tasnim is more oriental in evolution (smokier, woodier, and more ambery) while Ylang de Mayotte doesn’t deviate from the central ylang note and has a clear, pure shampoo-like smell. Both allow the soft, sweet almond-like tones of the ylang to emerge in the late drydown, a pleasure for anyone who loves this complex oil.

 

In terms of price, Ylang de Mayotte is twice the price of Tasnim per ml, so perhaps only the true ylang enthusiast would be able to justify a purchase. But both are beautiful, both present the very best sides of the difficult ylang, and both are all-natural; a preference for faithfulness to the central material versus a preference for a more evolved composition are the only parameters (beyond budget) that matter here.

 

 

Santal d’Australie

 

Santal d’Australie focuses on the native Australian species of sandalwood oil (santalum spiccatum), both an ordinary grade and an organic, high quality s. spiccatum extract with higher santalol content from Mount Romance in Australia. I have to admit that when I saw the name, I had been hoping that there was also going to be some of that very expensive santalum album oil from the newish plantations in Northern Australia, because I recently smelled some in a sandalwood attar made by Al Shareef Oudh that was excellent. But Santal d’Australie focuses entirely on the s. spiccatum, an oil I’m not overly keen on because of its fresh, piney, and sometimes harsh facets.

 

True to form, Santal d’Australie opens with the citric, camphoraceous slap of Australian sandalwood, which, if you haven’t smelled it before, smells like a freshly split pine log covered in lime peel and lemon juice, with a faint backdrop of soured milk or cheese curds. It’s not unpleasant; in fact, I like its good-natured, silvery freshness, but anyone expecting the creamy, arid sweetness specific to Indian sandalwood might be disappointed. The citric/fresh impression is helped along by a very limey bergamot in the topnotes.

 

The drydown is very nice, developing into a richer, curdier version of the opening notes but with a tinge of browned butter and incense. The freshness prevails in the form of a sour lime leaf facet, but it is softer than in the opening, and fleshed out by the apricot skin richness of osmanthus. The presence of the osmanthus gives the sandalwood a background of fruity suede that works very well in adding curves to the angular sandalwood. Osmanthus also has tannic properties, and this comes out more in the far drydown, with a pronounced black tea leaf bitterness that works nicely against the cottage cheese curdiness of the sandalwood.  Fresh and green, Santal d’Australie reminds me quite a bit of FeelOud’s Sandal 100k, but scaled up to eau de parfum format to allow for generous application.

 

 

Oud du Siam

 

Oud du Siam straddles the categories of naturals and the oud collection: it features in both, priced at the higher end of the naturals collection, and at the lower end of the oud collection (which features Oud du Siam as the main starting point for each oud perfume). Oud du Siam is made with 100% natural, pure oud oil from Thailand, specifically oil from a well-regarded species in the oud world, Aquilaria subintegra.

 

I guess the most important thing to know about Oud du Siam is that, although it seems to have a fairly simple composition of oud oil and sandalwood, it smells more like a more complex, oriental perfume than a pure oud or an attar (bucking the trend somewhat for this brand). There is something about the way the fresh, citrusy sandalwood reacts with the oud oil that creates an interesting brocade of citrus on golden amber resin, leather, and smoke that ends up resembling an all-natural Shalimar or Habit Rouge.

 

Oud du Siam is immediately likeable and not at all pungent or animalic. The oud oil comes across as a handsome, brown leather accord, like a lawyer’s briefcase rubbed in medicinal salve. Slowly, the oud wood materializes in a haze of smoke, nuggets of golden honey popping like fireworks in the dark, as if amber resins were knotted into the grain of the agarwood from which the oil was distilled. It is subtly smoky, in the same leathery, resinous way as Shalimar or Habit Rouge, and just as easy to wear.

 

Make no mistake about it – there is clearly natural oud oil used here, and its character comes through quite clearly. But it’s not nearly as pungent, fecal, or as difficult as some oud oils, and therefore would be a fantastic entry point for a beginner or for people who prefer to take their oud oil tamed and corralled in mixed compositions, such as the Fragrance du Bois perfumes. Towards the end, the perfume does a very interesting thing: it becomes brighter and more citrusy (lime leaf) with time, instead of the reverse. This is the point where the oud hands the reins over to the handsome, silvery Australian sandalwood, which pumps a stream of aromatic citrus and coniferous notes through the tail end of the fragrance.

 

Oud du Siam et sa Tubéreuse des Indes

 

With Oud du Siam et sa Tubéreuse des Indes, we are now firmly in the Oud Collection, although it is also all-natural and therefore could technically belong to both categories. This is a perfume that trusts the complexity of its starring raw material, here natural tuberose, to put on a show for the crowd, and it does, pirouetting gracefully from a minty, camphoraceous topnote to a salty, buttery cheese note reminiscent of gardenia, and finally ending in a creamy but rooty pool on the ground, like parsnips pulled from the wet earth, creamed, salted and peppered. The tuberose in Oud du Siam et sa Tubéreuse des Indes is fleshy and sensual, but never syrupy a la Fracas; rather, it is earthy and savory, with a distinctly rubbery texture.

 

The medicinal facets of tuberose – hospital tubing, camphor, and acetone – are accentuated by the oud, which bathes the florals in a smoky, sour haze of smoke. There is a very appealing “rotted” facet to the tuberose petals and the oud, as if both had been soaked in water for a few days, their edges beginning to blacken and disintegrate. This slight edge of fermentation adds tremendous depth to the fragrance, as well as a sort of wildness.

 

There are some parallels to Jardin de Borneo Tuberose by Sultan Pasha, which combines a very bitter, camphoraceous tuberose absolute with the dark green jungle notes of the rare Bois de Borneo oud from Ensar Oud, as well as a needle prick’s worth of skunk. Jardin de Borneo Tuberose is more herbaceous, bitter, and complex than Oud du Siam et sa Tubéreuse des Indes, but I love both for daring to combine two of perfumery’s most characterful materials and not allow one get swallowed up by the other.

 

Oud du Siam et son Jasmin des Indes

 

Oud du Siam et son Jasmin des Indes features the jasmine most commonly grown in India, which is the Grandiflora variant – sweet, pure, buttery floral bliss in a classical manner (also the variety grown in Grasse) as opposed to the mintier, but coarser and sexier sambac jasmine. The jasmine here is quite high-pitched at first, with the natural fuel-like or spilled gasoline topnote caused by the benzyl acetate molecule in jasmine. It is slightly grapey, but also tarry and spicy, with the same sort of fizzy coca-cola backdrop as seen in Jasmin de Nuit (The Different Company).

 

The cinnamon and coca-cola effervescence is one facet; the strangely sweet, plasticky texture is another. The jasmine smells both floral (sweet, full, buttery) and non-floral (plastic, rubber, fuel), which lines up perfectly with my experience of naturals. Less flower, more the scent on your lips after you’ve blown up 50 purple balloons for a child’s party. The smoky woodiness of the oud here plays perfectly with the smoky phenols of the jasmine; even more so than the tuberose, these are natural bed partners.

Attars & CPOs Chypre Floral Floral Oriental Independent Perfumery Iris Oriental Oud Patchouli Resins Review Rose Round-Ups Sandalwood Thoughts

Maison Nicolas de Barry: Part I (Les Parfums Historiques)

November 9, 2017

Maison Nicolas de Barry has been around since 2003, but has garnered relatively little praise or attention. I wonder why that is? I’ve enjoyed every single perfume I’ve tried from this brand, and find some of their natural perfumes to be stunning. In an era where natural and attar-themed perfumes for a Western audience is gaining traction (Sultan Pasha Attars, Areej Le Dore, Rising Phoenix Perfumery etc.), the perfumes of Maison Nicolas de Barry should be a slam dunk. And yet….crickets.

 

I don’t think that the price is the barrier. Their historical EDPs, while not cheap, are not terribly unreasonable at €149 for 100mls. The naturals and oud collection perfumes are indeed very expensive (between €600 and €1,140 for 150mls), but there are 7ml mini bottles to be purchased at a reasonable cost of between €29 and €52. I know plenty of perfumistas who wouldn’t mind paying that, especially those who care about high quality naturals, pure ouds, and sandalwood oil. The people who love Siberian Musk by Areej Le Dore, or Nan-Kun by Sultan Pasha, or Bushido attar by Rising Phoenix Perfumery, or the latest sandalwood oil by FeelOud do not hesitate to drop in excess of $500 on even a small quantity of these perfumes.

 

But scarcely anyone in the perfume blogosphere mentions Maison Nicolas de Barry. The few blog mentions or reviews on Fragrantica and Basenotes seem polite but slightly puzzled or underwhelmed. Having tested a diverse selection of their offerings, there is absolutely no question regarding the high quality of the materials and compositions.

 

I do believe, however, that the way the brand has positioned itself might have caused some confusion or misunderstanding. In brief, while most brands have one driving force behind their establishment, Maison Nicolas de Barry has two, and pursues both – sometimes on dual tracks, and sometimes simultaneously within the same collection.

 

Every niche parfum house has an avowed driving force – a raison d’être – behind their existence, be it to explore the beauty of synthetic molecules (Nomenclature), translate Italian and Mediterranean music and art into fragrance (Sospiro), or bring the magic of the Orient to Western noses in a digestible, French format (Amouage). I think it’s possible that Maison de Barry has gone ignored and misunderstood because, although the brand says it is mostly focused on recreating the historical perfumes of the past, many of the perfumes themselves smell much more like attars or natural perfumes.

 

The stated mission of Maison Nicolas de Barry is to recreate the perfumes that might have been worn by historical figures important to European social and cultural history, such as Empress Sissi, King Louis XV, and Georges Sand. But the perfumer and owner of Maison Nicolas de Barry – Nicolas de Barry himself – is clearly far more passionate about natural perfumery and the attar perfumery of both India and the Middle-East than any other type of perfume. He has personally visited the center of attar making, in Kannauj, India, to watch distillers and attar makers at work. He also travels around the world, visiting ylang plantations, jasmine farms, oud distillers, and sandalwood projects, sourcing his materials there and bringing them back to Paris with him, where he works them into his perfumes. He has even written a beautiful book on Indian attar making, called L’Inde des Parfums.

 

So, although Nicolas started off with a range of conventional niche perfumes – the historical ones – he has since focused more and more on his ranges of all-natural perfumes, raw materials, and (real) oud compositions. In other words, the soul of the brand “Maison Nicolas de Barry” is actually more about natural perfumery and attar/oil perfumery translated to a Western format than, strictly speaking, historical reconstructions (although there are some of those in the line too).

 

The only problem that this presents is that the split purpose might confuse customers (and even fragrance bloggers). The first impression any customer will get of the brand is the historical reconstruction angle, with the attar and naturals focus emerging only when you delve deeper into the descriptions and background on the site. Hence, a disconnect between that the brand itself suggests you’re going to smell, and what you actually smell.

 

The recreation, or reimagining, of les parfums historiques is not a new or unusual theme in perfumery, of course, as brands such as Parfum d’Empire, Histoires de Parfum, Rance, Creed, and even Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier demonstrate. But because these niche brands either got there first or are more popular, they managed to set the expectation for a parfum historique as thus: abstract, modern, niche constructions that behave like any other Western niche fragrance. Since the compositions of Maison Nicolas de Barry are at once far more streamlined and more naturals-focused, it’s possible that they appear simplistic or muddy to someone expecting the 3D mixed media richness of an Ambre Russe by Parfum d’Empire or even the Samsara stylings of Guerlain.

 

So, let’s re-set expectations here. The perfumes of Maison Nicolas de Barry are great when viewed through the lens of a parfum historique, but superlative when viewed as their rightful form, i.e., naturals, pure ouds, and attar scaled up into a sprayable EDP format.

 

Understanding that the perfumes of Maison Nicolas de Barry are basically scaled-up attars and naturals in the guise of les parfum historiques is crucial to understanding the perfumes themselves. I remember receiving a tiny vial of Mumtaz-I Mahal from a perfume friend in 2014: it had leaked and filled the wrapping of the parcel with one of the most intensely beautiful smells I had ever experienced – sandalwood and rose. Strangely enough, when I applied what was left of the perfume to my skin, I found it to be less complex than the scent it left in the air: a sweet rose over an austere sandalwood. I much preferred the smell of the spilled perfume to the perfume itself as a wearing experience.

 

Looking back at this now, I think I understand that Mumtaz-I Mahal was teaching me my first lessons about attar perfumery in general, which are that:

 

  • attar perfumery is quite simple compared to complex, French or Western perfumery, focusing as it does on exalting the spiritual beauty of just one or two naturals rather than on an abstract, perfumey vision,

 

  • when a blend is this simple and composed almost entirely of naturals, the properties of the 1-2 naturals chosen for the blend are very important – there is nothing to disguise the inherently green sharpness of Ta’if rose oil or the soured milk tones of Australian sandalwood, and so on. And finally, that;

 

  • since attar perfumery was created more as a way of scenting the air for others, in a display of Muslim and Hindi generosity of spirit to fellow worshippers, than for one’s own personal pleasure, the trail of scent left behind by an attar is often more pleasing than the scent smelled up close on one’s own skin.

 

Since I’ve already waffled on quite a bit, I’m going to split this article into two parts, the first dealing with the conventional parfums historiques produced by Maison Nicolas de Barry (samples of which can be found here), the second part dealing with the all-natural perfumes and oud collection of the house (samples of which can be found here).

 

The first part, below, contains reviews of a cross-selection of samples from the historical perfumes range. Some of these perfumes behave like most conventional Western niche perfumes (abstract, complex, perfumey), albeit with a strong naturals focus, while others behave as pure attars diluted with alcohol to scale them up into EDP format.

 

L’Eau de Louis XV (Le Bien-Aimé)

 

L’Eau de Louis XV (Le Bien-Aimé) – le bien-aimé meaning beloved or well-loved – is a scented tribute to King Louis XV. It is one of the most sublime and natural-smelling neroli fragrances I’ve had the pleasure of smelling. Unlike most neroli fragrances, there is no slow descent into soapiness; L’Eau de Louis XV retains a juicy, fresh bitterness that’s akin to biting into a winter orange and getting a mouthful of peel, waxy green leaf, and a bit of the woody bark too. It is both bright and salubrious. There is a floral poudrée heart of rose, violet, tuberose, and other flowers for support, as well as a dark, unsweet amber accord, but these are merely there to hold the orange and neroli aloft.

 

Am I imagining the slightly animalic muskiness that closes in around the neroli topnotes after the first few minutes? Probably. But something about this fragrance makes me think of the steamy, soapy floral odors escaping from the King’s boudoir during his morning bath, with the underlying funk of a sleepy and as of yet unwashed body warm from his bed. Without doubt, this should be the bellwether for neroli scents. It smells natural, uplifting, fresh, and bitter in all the right places. Bien aimé indeed…

 

La Reine Margot (La Scandaleuse)

 

It’s odd that jasmine is technically a white floral when its smell is so purple. In La Reine Margot, the natural jasmine really shines through – round and creamily sweet but not as bright, high-pitched, or as sunlit as the synthetic variants. In fact, it has a curiously dusky, subdued hue, as if the flower has been covered in heavy velvet. There is also a slightly muddy, plasticky tone that I associate with natural jasmine. It smells almost exactly like a natural jasmine ruh I’ve smelled before, while doing research for the Indian attar portion of my book.

 

The star is the natural jasmine, but it is backed by a powdery, spicy amber and what reads to my nose as creamy pheromone. What I mean by this is that it features the same “cream of wheat” smell that I’ve picked up in two pheromone-based fragrances, the all-natural Feromone Donna by La Via del Profumo and Pheromone 4, an attar produced by Agarscents Bazaar. Feromone Donna features a similar although not identical notes list to Pheromone 4: jasmine, civet, ambergris, tuberose, and vanilla.  Like Pheromone 4, these materials come together to form a floral creaminess that is part cream of wheat, part white chocolate.

 

In La Reine Margot, there is something of a similar effect, with the jasmine interacting with either an animalic musk or ambergris in the base to produce a creamy floral porridge effect. It is perhaps more accurate to view this as a natural jasmine soliflore filtered through the sheen of a milky sandalwood oriental like Dries Van Noten for Les Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle. I find this to be a very sensual, natural-feeling jasmine perfume that – unlike many other jasmine-musk combinations – never tapers off into that leathery sourness one smells beneath the wrist band of a rubber watch at the end of the day. It remains soft, pure, and creamy all the way through.

 

 

L’Impératrice Sissi (L’Indomptable)

 

L’Indomptable means indomitable, a person who cannot be subdued or defeated, and this describes perfectly both the character of Empress Sissi and the fragrance itself. Sissi is a cheeky little scent. It comes so over-stuffed with violet pastilles, gummy bears, face powder, cherry syrup, and doll head plastic that you’d think that it would be insufferable to anyone over the age of 12, and for a while, it is. But then a thick, raw lump of benzoin and the uncooked pallor of a very potato-y iris emerge, interjecting the saving grace of ugliness into the pretty.

 

Sissi is extreme in all respects – a sort of cosmetics violet-iris accord set on fire and sent rolling down the hill to flatten everybody in its wake. People who like the part-syrupy, part-powdery excesses of Guerlain’s Insolence, Incarnata by Anatole Lebreton, or Ombre Mercure by Terry de Gunsberg will probably love this lipstick-on-steroids perfume too. I don’t love it, myself, but I certainly enjoy wearing it more than I should. In fact, it’s become something of a guilty pleasure. There’s a fluffy marshmallow crème accord in the drydown that gives as much pleasure and comfort as a giant, fluffy onesie. I’d imagine. Not that I own one or anything.

 

L’Eau de George Sand

 

I find it fascinating that both Maison Nicolas de Barry and Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier have historical fragrances in honor of George Sand and Queen Margot. Both houses chose jasmine as the principal material for their Queen Margot fragrances, although the MPG version is more of an animalic orange blossom than a true jasmine, and the Maison Nicolas de Barry version stars a very dark, natural jasmine accord.

 

For George Sand, both houses focus on the dried-up remnants of a perfume vial carried by Sand herself, which seemed to be made up of patchouli, roses, and amber. But while MPG takes the basic historical formula in a spicy, ambery oriental direction, the Maison Nicolas de Barry focuses on the dark, chypric elements. Think Amouage Beloved, Clinique Aromatics Elixir, and Noir Patchouli by Histoires de Parfum, rather than Cinnabar or Or Noir.

 

L’Eau de George Sand establishes its chypre credentials immediately upon application, putting forth a mossy, abstract bitterness that recalls dried plums, polished wood, and violin resin. It is also immediately powdery in a sumptuously floral way, and I’m sure that I can smell the bones of Acqua di Parma Profumo here, itself a cleaner, more powdery version of Mitsouko. However, there is also a plush animalic feel lurking under the topnotes, which could be either a grubby musk or labdanum. The contrast between the bright, elegant sharpness of the flowers and the murky skin-like feel of an animal is quietly disarming.

 

It is only towards the heart that I sense the darkness of patchouli moving in. But from there on out, this is a herbal, earthy patchouli chypre with a healthy dose of powdery rose. It is dark and somber in feel, while also elegant in that inimitable French manner. Lovers of Aromatics Elixir, Beloved, Noir Patchouli, or even Profumo should give this a try. It does everything they do albeit in a quieter and more natural way.

 

Mumtaz-I Mahal

 

This was the perfume that sparked my initial interest in Maison Nicolas de Barry back in 2014, but I could reconcile neither my actual wearing experience nor the middling reviews with the incredible, unforgettable scent that had spilled on the package and permeated my sample box. In much the same way that I love the collected smells of all my perfumes on my winter coat collar or when I open up my perfume drawer more than the scent of any one single perfume on the skin, Mumtaz-I Mahal smells better in the ambience than on the skin.

 

On the skin, it is a very simple fragrance, just a Turkish rose backed by a smidge of sandalwood. The rose is very high quality – truffled, velvety, rich, and slightly jammy around the edges – but for all intents and purposes, it’s a rose soliflore, and that has to be what you’re looking for when you buy or sample Mumtaz-I Mahal. I think of it as the rose note from Aramis Calligraphy Rose cut free of all the spices, smoke, and resins of the Aramis.

It grows a little more citrusy and fresh towards the base when it meets the sandalwood, but in general, the rose tends more towards the softly jammy and truffled rather than sharp or green. Beautiful rose, beautiful materials…but perhaps better smelled in the secondary wake of someone else than as a personal perfume.

 

Shah Jahan

 

Shah Jahan is, of course, the natural companion to Mumtaz-I Mahal and supposedly the masculine counterpart. It is unisex, in truth, like all of the perfumes produced under Maison Nicolas de Barry. Inspired by the traditional attars produced in Kannauj and offered as gifts to the ruling emperors and princes of the Persiatic Mughal dynasty in India, Sha Jahan is far more complex than Mumtaz-I Mahal, with a tart, rhubarb-like rose on top of sandalwood, a vegetal amber attar base, and a touch of pure oud for exotic Arabian flair.

 

Shah Jahan has a fresh, silvery mien to it that speaks to homely Indian green herbs; compared to its female counterpart, it is angular and sugar-free. A woody, oudy sourness lurks at the corners, drawing the bright rose and herbs into the shadows somewhat, but mainly providing depth. It is spicy, sharp, and quite traditionally Indian in feel. Indian ambers are not creamy or vanillic, tending instead towards tart and spicy.

 

Oddly enough, the raw materials behave in this EDP format in much the same way as they would in an oil-based attar, meaning that the rose, which normally fades out over time in conventional fragrances due to the volatility of its geraniol and citronal molecules, re-emerges towards the end of the perfume, bathing the taut oud and woods in a rosy glow, that, while never sweet, softens the austerity of the blend. Think of this one as a rose-oud accord wrapped up in the clothing of a traditional Indian attar, which in turn is disguised in the form of a conventional eau de parfum. Superb.

Attars & CPOs Floral Floral Oriental Incense Independent Perfumery Jasmine Musk Oriental Oud Resins Review Saffron Smoke Spicy Floral

Areej Le Doré Flux de Fleurs: A Review

November 6, 2017

One of four in their most recent round of perfume releases, Areej Le Doré Flux de Fleurs is an interesting experiment in what happens when you blend Indian attars with Arabian raw materials in a classically French manner, thus confusing the heck of someone used only to the Western style of fragrance. For the sake of brevity, I would define the differences between these three styles as follows:

 

  1. Western floral perfumery is predominantly abstract and mostly composed of synthetics, or synthetics mixed with some naturals
  2. Indian attar perfumery focuses is ayurvedic, focused on the exalting the naturalness of plants, flowers, and herbs of India and Mother Earth
  3. Middle-Eastern attar perfumery is less focused on nature and more on a “perfumey-ness”, mixing natural oud, musk, and ambergris with already distilled attars and ruhs for a result that is richer and more complex than Indian attars, but not abstract in the Western manner

 

Flux de Fleurs pushes boundaries because it borrows a little from each category. It uses traditional Indian attar ingredients, including an Indian co-distilled jasmine and frangipani ruh, a very expensive blue lotus absolute, and a complex, distilled shamama (hina) attar, but then takes those materials in an Arabian direction by mixing them with materials more associated with the Gulf region, such as deer musk and aged Cambodi and Sumatran oud. To add to the confusion, there is obviously a very French, almost classical feel to the finished perfume – it boasts not only a French name but also a Gallic smoothness in the way the materials are blended.

 

So, the question then becomes: which style does Flux de Fleurs end up typifying? Because, to be fair, despite the complexity of any particular perfume, the finished result is always likely to end up more in one camp than the other. My answer would be that Flux de Fleurs smells predominantly like a blend of traditional Indian ruhs and attars, but with an abstract floral polish that glosses the whole thing in a classically French aura. Despite the presence of oud and musk, in other words, Flux de Fleurs does not smell Arabian or Middle-Eastern.

 

Flux de Fleurs is not a challenging scent per se, but I can see why people might struggle with it: it is familiar enough to make you feel comfortable but contains odd elements that are difficult for a Westerner to place. The general style – floral oriental – is old hat to us by now. But the strangeness of the raw materials casts us adrift. It’s like hearing a tune you think you know re-mixed on the radio to the point where you wonder if you remember the original at all.

 

There’s a logic to why some parts of Flux de Fleurs appear strange to us. Natural raw materials and attars smell quite different to their (often) synthetic reproductions in Western perfumery. For example, in French perfumery, the use of natural jasmine oil has been almost completely replaced by jasmine synthetics because of the prohibitive cost, and now appears to us in one of several forms – sweet, syrupy, and “purple”-smelling (the Grandiflora variant) or leathery, indolic, or minty (the sambac variant).

 

But a jasmine ruh, which is what’s been used in Flux de Fleurs, is a different kettle of fish. A ruh is an essential oil of jasmine flowers obtained through gentle hydro-distillation in India, using the ancient deg and bhapka system. And being entirely natural, a jasmine ruh smells more like earth and fruit than floral. We can recognize it as jasmine, sure, but there are some weird bits to the smell that we don’t immediately recognize, like the smell of spilled fuel, roots, metal, porridge, or gassy bananas.

 

I know that sounds weird, but some naturals bear little resemblance to the idea of it that we hold in our heads. Osmanthus absolute smells incredibly pungent and cheesy, for example – more like a barnyardy oud than a flower. I remember being shocked at how little these pungent Indian naturals smelled like, compared to their standardized Western form. Indian ambers smell rather harsh and spicy, reading as vegetal and austere to the nose rather than the sweet, vanillic “souk” style ambers to which we’ve all grown accustomed. Natural jasmine is quite a bit danker, spicier, and “muddier” than the bright, fruity, creamy, or even indolic tones of the jasmine aroma most commonly presented in niche or even classic perfumes. Likewise with the nose-clearing camphoraceous slap of Indian patchouli or the pungency of Indian saffron. Not bad different, you understand, just… different different. Smelling Indian attars and ruhs – the pure, natural ones, that is – is like being on a clean food diet and cleansing your blood stream of all the unnatural sugars in processed food.

 

So, while the florals in Flux de Fleurs are easily identifiable as semi-tropical white ones – jasmine and frangipani – their shape does not emerge in the usual form. In other words, not in the form of sweet creaminess, indoles, syrupy texture, tropical headiness, and so on.  Instead, I sense odd bits and pieces of their character coming through, like the faintly peachy rubber undertone of frangipani and the smoky phenols of jasmine, its benzyl acetate character giving the florals a grapey, fuel-like savor. Later on, when the white florals filter through the dry, woody oud and the frankincense, there is even an austere sootiness to the way the flowers present.

 

In general, I do not find Flux de Fleurs to be as fruity or as spicy or as sweet or as heavy as most others seem to. To my nose, it is full of these little Indian touches that aligns it with my experience of these natural ruhs and attars out of the traditional Indian canon of perfume making. There is a spicy, vegetal saffron-amber topnote that, when melded with the citrus (my nose says orange, not grapefruit), smells quite close to the traditional shamama or hina attar scent profile, but creamier and with a licorice-like nuance that makes me think of myrrh. There’s also a fuzzy nag champa or stick incense note that appears midway through, likely due to the combination of sooty frankincense, dusty benzoin, and the sweet florals, and although this never comes off as headshoppy, it does have a distinctly Indian tone.

 

But still, these exotic Indian touches are not enough to make me think that it’s entirely unique. There are parallels with Western niche fragrances such as Le Maroc Pour Elle by Tauer Parfums and Manoumalia by Les Nez, which gives rise to that sense of familiarity I mentioned earlier. This is mostly through the common use of tropical, rubbery white florals combined with stick incense or earthy, vegetal notes. So I wore all three perfumes together, to see if I could pin down that nagging sense of familiarity.

 

Side by side, Flux de Fleurs lacks the fecund earthiness and wet, savory, coconutty feel of the ylang in Manoumalia; but interestingly, returning the nose to Flux de Fleurs after Manoumalia reveals a fizzy, powdered incense note that is strikingly similar to Tauer’s effervescent Incense Rose (specifically, that Pez note that people either love or loathe in his work). Conclusion: although the rubbery, earthy nuances of the ylang are quite similar, Flux de Fleurs is far brighter, drier, and smokier/fizzier than Manoumalia. When compared directly with Le Maroc Pour Elle, Flux de Fleurs reveals a much lighter nag champa note than the Tauer, which is all round far richer and heavier than the Areej Le Doré. Conclusion: despite similar themes and approaches, Flux de Fleurs is far less headshoppy than Le Maroc Pour Elle.

 

I don’t find Flux de Fleurs to be very tropical, or creamy, or (overly) sweet in feel – nor do I find it spicy or dense. It is simply an unfamiliar but very Indian treatment of white flowers: earthy vegetal jasmine and peachy, rubbery frangipani  filtered through a semi-pungent haze of dry, fizzy incense, powder, rubber, fuel, milk, scented erasers, Chandrika soap, and an array of other interesting, non-perfumey accords, glossed to a 3D shine in the French floral oriental style of blending. I say “simply”but of course, that’s no small feat to pull off, especially for an indie perfumer who seems to be bootstrapping everything himself from the sourcing to the distilling and bottling out in the steamy jungles of Thailand.

Amber Animalic Floral Oriental Incense Independent Perfumery Musk Myrrh Orange Blossom Oriental Oud Resins Review

Zoologist Camel: A Review

October 17, 2017

There’s a famous delicatessen in Milan by the name of Peck. Established in 1883, it’s a Mecca for food enthusiasts, its shelves stocked with the finest cured meats, cheeses, wines, and truffles of Italy. When I lived nearby, I would often take the train down to Milan at the weekend, and walk through the store, drinking in the unami-rich air. I remember in particular huge glass jars of mostarda – neon-colored orbs of fruit preserved in a clear mustard seed pickling juice. When the afternoon light caught them at the right angle, they glowed like the gaudiest of paste jewelry: emerald, yellow, and orange.

 

The guys behind the counter would goad me into taking a little with my prosciutto and salami snack, and they’d laugh as I gingerly nibbled at the edges, the virgin blandness of an Irish diet having ill-equipped me to deal with the gush of hot, sour, sweet, and savory flavors on my tongue. When I first tried Arabie by Serge Lutens, its dried fruits over a sour asafetida base reminded me immediately of my trips to Peck. But although the association charmed me, Arabie proved too syrup-saturated for regular wear, so I passed it by.

 

I’ll admit that when I read the notes for Zoologist Camel, I thought we were looking at a re-tread of Arabie. But while the dried fruits and dates in the topnotes give a rush of sweetness, Camel is far more sour and savory than it is sweet, and thus reminds me more authentically of Peck and its mostarda than does Arabie.

 

I think that Victor Wong, as a creative director, is not afraid of a little earthy sourness in the perfumes he commissions. In a sea of sweet niche releases designed to appeal to a mass sweet tooth, he doesn’t mind going sugar-free every now and then. And I like that about him.

 

Perhaps his bravery with salty-savory flavors comes from an inherent love of unami or the sweet-salty-sour balance in Chinese culinary tradition. I will always remember Victor’s review of M/ Mink for his blog, Sillyage, where he discusses the link between M/Mink’s bleachy opening notes and the smell of Chinese calligraphy ink and dried shellfish. It was the first review of M/Mink that ever made sense to me, because he was able to place it in the context of non-traditionally perfumey things like salt, iodine, and fish. Through his words, I came to understand and finally love that perfume.

 

Camel has a streak of kimchi running through the dried fruit, amber, and orange blossom, which stops the perfume from tipping into a syrupy cliché of Arabian perfumery. Forget the ad copy about deserts and camels. There is a brief hit of booze, dried fruit, and rose up front, but the frankincense here is limey and tart, and there’s a layer of sealing wax over everything to mute the fervent glow of the fruit. It is rich, but astringent, like a vin jaune from the Alps.

 

The sourness is given an extra boost in its rather classically French (or so it seems to me) heart of civety jasmine over a pillow of powdery musks. The jasmine is greenish and as fizzy as a vitamin tablet dropped into a glass of water, later developing the leathery profile of sambac jasmine. There is something here that resembles the moist skin under a wristwatch after a long day in the sun. The griminess of the jasmine stands shoulder to shoulder with its gritty, soapy cleanliness, giving the perfume an almost aldehydic buzz.

 

This tart, soapy, tightly-woven stage of Camel makes me think that Malle’s Superstitious (2016) must indeed have been quite influential on the perfumery scene. There are clear parallels between the Malle and Camel, especially in the acidulated jasmine, the slight raunchiness (without warmth), and its general angularity. Jardin d’Ombre by Ormonde Jayne, which came out in October 2016, the same month as Superstitious, also strikes me as a variation on the theme. In all three perfumes, one might read the notes and think “warmth” or “sweetness”, but the actual scent in each case is of the opposite of lush: astringent, cool-blooded, and definitely more French than oriental in tone.

 

I admire Superstitious greatly but prefer to gaze upon it from a distance, like watching Joan Crawford rehearse from the safety of a locked wardrobe. Camel, with its pert charm, has fewer pretensions to greatness and is therefore much more approachable. Despite the orientalism of its composition and ad copy, Camel avoids every cliché inherent to the genre, particularly the cheap rosy feel of most modern oriental releases. Its soapy (but dirty) jasmine, musk, and civet combo imbues what might otherwise have been a heavy “souk” amber with weightlessness, as well as a certain French je ne sais quoi.

 

As long as you’re ok with a little salty-sour funk, Camel might be the modern twist on an oriental you’re missing in your collection. Camel is predominantly French in character, but there is perhaps also something a little Chinese or even Peck-ian in its balance between sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and unami.

 

Notes: dried fruits, frankincense, palm date, rose, amber, cedar, cinnamon, incense, jasmine, myrrh, orange blossom, civet, musk, sandalwood, oud, tonka, vanilla, vetiver

Attars & CPOs Floral Oriental Independent Perfumery Musk Myrrh Oriental Oud Resins Review Rose Sandalwood

Areej Le Doré: Translating Attar Perfumery into Extrait Form

May 13, 2017

Guys, if you want to smell something truly great, then buy the Areej Le Doré sample set. Costing $40 for samples of three beautiful perfumes that contain real oud oil, santalum album sandalwood, and genuine deer musk, it’s a small price to have your mind blown and eyes opened as to what can be achieved when superlative raw materials meet a talent for composition.

 

Fear not: Areej le Doré is not one of those brands set up in the West to take advantage of the current fashion for haute-luxe Arabian perfumery. It is, in fact, a natural extension of FeelOud, an outfit based in the Far East that has been artisan-distilling wild oud oils for several years now. Led by Russian Adam, a name that will be familiar to real oud oil fans all over the world, FeelOud focuses on producing quite wild, almost feral-smelling oud oils in the old school manner, with little concession made to  who take their oud oil smooth and with a bit of sugar.

 

FeelOud recently diversified into the area of sandalwood oil, recently producing a superb santalum album oil distilled from the buried rootstock of old santalum album trees (long since felled and harvested), the age of which is estimated to be between 80 and 100 years old. The resulting oil, called Sandal 100k, sold out in 24 hours when it was put up on the FeelOud site. It’s beautiful; I give a description of it further on.

 

First, a bit of background on this mysterious-sounding Russian Adam chap. I’ve been sampling Adam’s wares for quite a few years now, at first buying from his Book of Oud store when he was still based in the UK, and then testing a wide cross-section of oud oils produced by FeelOud, which he set up when he moved to the Far East to be an artisan oud distiller.

 

In his trajectory, Adam is following in the footsteps of people like Taha Syed of Agar Aura and Ensar of Ensar Oud, both of whom also relocated from comfortable, middle-class environments in the West (Canada and America, respectively) to the steamy, flea-ridden jungles of the Far East so they could distill wild oud oil on the ground. It’s the only way to do it if you want to ensure a good result, but by all accounts, it is an often times hard life, fraught with frustration and danger. I don’t envy these oud artisans, but I sure as hell respect them for what they do.

 

But now, onto Areej Le Doré. The name itself appears to be a blending of the Arabic name for a girl, Areej, which means “the fragrance from under an orange tree”, and the French phrase for “the golden one”. The ethos behind the brand is to create fragrances that are luxurious explorations of the raw materials with which Adam frequently comes into contact as an artisan. In terms of business strategy, there is a clear evolution here from distilling raw materials (oud and sandalwood) to developing value-added products that blend the raw materials in a complex, abstract composition.

 

And having tested all three perfumes extensively over the last few weeks, I can tell you that these are not some ham-fisted throwing together of a few essential oils – there is evidently a real skill for composition at work here. Each of the perfumes feel “finished” and refined to a high technical degree. In fact, in terms of overall positioning, I would place Areej Le Doré perfumes alongside the first three perfumes by Parfums Dusita, perfumes that are similarly priced and beautifully blended to the same high polish. Dusita is phenomenally successful, and deservedly so: now I wish the same sort of brand trajectory for Areej Le Doré.

 

The Areej Le Doré fragrances are as follows: Siberian Musk, Ottoman Empire, and Oud Zen. They are all technically extraits de parfum, but I would define them more as rich, dense attars translated to spray form through the addition of some indentured alcohol. Also thinning out the attar format are hydrosols distilled by Russian Adam himself – a hydrosol being the water left over after hydro-distillation of some fragrant material like rose or oud wood, and after the essential oils have been separated from the distilling water. After having been passed several times through the fragrant material, the hydrosol is itself highly fragrant and useful in perfumery.

 

Siberian Musk is the one I tried first, and it resulted in the sort of jaw-dropping-to-the-floor awe that happens very rarely in the life of this particular perfume writer. After a bright citrus and pine start, the scent settles quickly into a full-fat, clotted-cream musk redolent of rosy beeswax, apricots, orange blossom, and the salty intimacy of a post-coital embrace.

 

The musk component manages to be seriously filthy but in a refined way, with a buttery floral purr that typifies a French sort of polish. I have smelled quite a few samples of genuine deer musk before, including a 20-year-old Himalayan musk so frighteningly feral that I thought a herd of sweaty goats had taken up residence in my nostrils. This is not that. The musk here is authentically sensual and animal-like, but it comes across as a creamy, rounded smell, not sharply urinous or sweaty. Texture-wise, it has the silky density of yellow fat skimmed off the top of raw milk. Think Muscs Khoublai Khan crossed with the decaying roses and adiposal wax of Rose de Nuit, backlit by the subtle glow of resin, orange blossom, and citrus peel. The contrast between the fresh notes and the fatty, un-fresh musk is perfectly pitched.

 

As the scent progresses, the musk deepens and smolders, like a Persian cat stretching in the sun. Sultan Pasha once described the smell of deer musk to me as saccharine sweet, almost cloying, a smell that clings to the hairs of your nostrils for hours after you’ve smelled it. I sense the same clinging depth of the musk here, and there is a faintly sugared quality to the florals that help the impression along. But it is never cloying (and I agree with Sultan that some deer musks – depending on their geographical provenance, age, and level of heat used during the tincturing process – can be almost claustrophobically sweet).

 

Let me be clear: the musk used here is genuine deer musk, a raw material never used in commercial perfumery these days. Apart from the various legal and ethical concerns, there is the problem of sourcing the darned stuff: perhaps 99% of all deer musk goes straight into the hungry gaping hole that is Chinese medicine, with the remaining 1% trickling down as crumbs to the poor man’s table of perfumery. In terms of perfumery, therefore, only small-batch, artisanal attar makers and perfumers can viably access and use real deer musk. Furthermore, within the artisan attar making community itself, only a few are open about their use of the material.

 

I am writing an article about the issue of musk, which will be published later on this year, but for the moment I will say that Adam’s use of Siberian deer musk here is both ethically and legally fine, because it comes from legal hunting in Siberia, sanctioned and controlled by the Russian Government through seasonal licenses and hunting lotteries. Every part of the deer is used – the meat, the hooves, the skin, everything – and the hunting helps support the incomes of local hunting families.

 

In other words, don’t be afraid that by buying this perfume you might be contributing to illegal hunting or unethical trading practices. Yes, the musk deer still dies to give up his musk – but he is not dying specifically because of the perfume sector. (You might want to start asking the Chinese medical sector some hard questions, though.)

 

The second perfume, Ottoman Empire, is also stunning, but in a different way. Although I suppose technically it is a rose-oud, containing as it does real Assam oud oil and expensive rose absolutes from Afghanistan, India, and Bulgaria, it does not really come across as a typical rose-oud. Instead, it reads more as a buttery rose chypre with a dark, mossy drydown that reminds me of the hippy, retro floriental style of Neil Morris, especially his Rose of Kali, which is a rose slowly left to molder and wither in a damp church basement. In other words, there’s a fair bit of myrrh here. There is also the chocolate-rich dustiness of closed-up spaces and old books, which makes me think of the 70’s style of the original Norma Kamali perfume (not Incense, the namesake perfume itself).

 

The rose oils used in Ottoman Empire are beautiful, and display a wide range of nuances ranging from the fruity apricot hue of the Afghani rose to the sour earwax quality of the Bulgarian. In the context of the blend, the roses are largely subdued by the resins and oakmoss in the base, but their essentially rosy character burns brightly through the blend, like a heat lamp under layers of parchment.  The oakmoss used here, by the way, is real and unneutered: firstly, because it is Indian oakmoss (charila), a lacy oakmoss-like material covering trees in the forests of the Himalayas, and secondly, because, well, Adam is not based in Europe and doesn’t have to be IFRA-compliant.

 

In summary, then, Ottoman Empire is a waxy, mossy rose chypre crossed with souk perfumery (oud and spices) crossed again with a certain hippy, 1970’s style as espoused by certain American indie perfumers. If I’ve made that sound confusing, then don’t worry – the perfume makes perfect sense on the skin. Wear it and see for yourself.

 

The third and last perfume is Oud Zen. People who are a bit wary about the oud note need not worry; the Indian oud oil is authentic (and smells authentic) but it is not nearly as animalic or as feral as uncut Hindi oils can be, when worn neat on the skin. Instead, right from the start, the leathery, sourish smoke of the Indian oud is folded into sweet, smoky woods and vetiver that together smell rather like the saltwater taffy of labdanum. The Hindi oud oil is also moderated by the fresher, more sparkling aspects of a Papuan oud, a variety that often displays surprisingly hints of green tea, mango, and flowers.

 

The main impression is woody, smoky, and leathery, with the Hindi elements of fermentation slowly fading away in the heart, leaving a trail of cool, ashy woods. I suppose it is a traditionally masculine perfume, but I think any woman who wants to could certainly rock it.

 

Interestingly, just as I think the perfume has given up its last breath, it revives and puffs out its chest in a death display of feral honey, vetiver, and dry leather, a combination very much in the vein of Vero Profumo’s Onda Voile d’Extrait or the far reaches of vintage Habanita when the powdery florals have burned off. An extraordinary finish, and one that gets me spraying again and again, just to arrive at the same destination.

 

Lastly, a word about Sandal 100k, FeelOud’s first venture into sandalwood distilling. Sandal 100k was distilled by Russian Adam himself using wood from the buried roots of old santalum album trees that had long been harvested and cleared from land in Indonesia. Forgotten about, the rootstock of these noble old trees lay in the ground until the locals figured out there was precious oil in them there roots!

 

To make the oil, the roots of old trees, all aged around 100 years, are dug up, cleaned off, and left to dry out. Then the roots are broken down into small shards, and finally into a sawdust-type mixture which is put in the distilling pot. The wood was sent from Indonesia to Russian Adam in Thailand, which is where he distilled it himself.

 

To all extents and purposes, the root stock has the same value as heartwood from 100-year old santalum album trees: experts have determined that the age of the santalum album species chosen for distilling is more important to the aroma profile than where the tree actually grows. Therefore, while this oil is not Mysore because the tree (and its roots) was not harvested in the Mysore region of India, it is an incredible santalum album oil because of the age of the heartwood from which it was distilled.

 

Sandal 100k smells bright, greenish, and terpene-rich at the offset, with all the nutty, savory sourness characteristic of santalum album perched just behind it. The slight green bitterness dies back quickly, allowing the salty, buttery sides of the oil to emerge. For the first part of the ride, I’d place this oil in the aromatic, fresh category of santalum album, but as time goes on, the oil gathers force and bursts into full being as the perfect sandalwood – rich, nutty, creamy, salty-sweet, and almost meaty in terms of body. It’s absolutely beautiful, and I urge people to buy it when the second batch of oil is ready for sale. Since my personal ne-plus-ultra of sandalwood oil, Ensar’s 1984 Mysore, is no longer available, this is the next best thing.

Animalic Aromatic Floral Jasmine Oud Review Thoughts

Parfums Dusita: A Case Study, The Perfumes

December 16, 2016

 

If I were writing a book on how to make it big in niche perfumery, I’d make Dusita a headlining case study. Even the most casual observer of the niche sector would tell you that Pissara Umavijani, the founder of Parfums Dusita, is probably the most astonishing success story of 2016. The niche sector is thick with the self-taught, entrepreneurs, amateur mixologists, and mainstream brands masquerading as niche, but in 2016, Pissara came out of nowhere, swept them all aside, and went straight to the top end of the market, charging between €300 and €400 for a bottle, and completely getting away with it.

 

Whether the perfumes themselves are any good is almost beside the point. Truth be told, I am more impressed with Pissara Umavijani’s business strategy than the perfumes themselves, but both are worth looking at.

 

The first thing that Umavijani did right was to align herself immediately with the right partners. The niche and artisan sector is rife with self-taught perfumers, but results are not typically the high-end, polished luxury perfumes that command Roja Dove prices. In partnering up with a very good team at one of the best fragrance labs in Grasse, she was able to ensure that the product itself was as polished as a Bvlgari jewel. And all credit due here – Umavijani is clearly an excellent creative director, taking the time to push her team to produce perfumes that are not commercially safe as Roja Dove’s perfumes, but important, artistic efforts in their own right*.

 

*Important correction, dated 13/06/2017: The above paragraph hypothesizes that, due to the extraordinary polish of the first three perfumes, it was the Grasse partner lab that formulated the perfumes. However, Pissara has made it clear to me since then that she is the sole perfumer behind the brand, writes her own formulas, and only uses the Grasse partner, Accords et Parfums, for European & IFRA compliance checks. My apologies if my editorializing implied, or led others to infer, otherwise.

 

From a commercial point of view – branding, product placement, bottle design, graphic design, copy, distribution, and so on – it is also clear that Umavijani knows what she is doing. Every single detail is haute luxe. But the most important thing that Umavijani seems to have understood is this: people need to smell the product in order to enthuse about it. 90% of success in a crowded market such as niche perfumery is simply access. Umavijani set up a very generous sampling scheme whereby for the price of postage from Paris, you would receive three large deluxe samples of each of the perfumes, housed in simple but luxurious black decant bottles.

 

The sampling scheme ensured that as many people as possible got to smell the perfumes. Since the perfumes are very good indeed, people enthused about them online, and the word spread – suddenly the name of Dusita was everywhere on the Internet. It was a canny investment, and other niche companies looking to enter the market should look to this example.

 

Companies always gripe about the expense of sampling schemes. And yes, at first glance, they are loss leaders. But Umavijani (or an advisor) had a clear vision as to the precise dividends such a sampling scheme would eventually pay out in terms of brand recognition and customer valuation. Dusita’s sampling program must have cost thousands and thousands of euros, but it was no after-thought. It was a deliberate part of the strategy to get Dusita perfumes talked about in the community, and I bet a large portion of the operational budget was devoted to it.

 

The second thing that Umavijani did right was social media marketing. Social media engagement is a very tricky thing for niche and indie perfumers, and few get it entirely right. Too much chatter with perfume fans runs the risk of cheapening a brand, and too little wins you a reputation for standoffishness. You want to be available to answer questions and do post-sales follow-up, but it is also important for a brand in the luxury segment of the niche perfume market to preserve at least a little bit of mystique.

 

Umavijani is always present on social media, always checking to see if she needs to say thank you for a nice review or answer a comment. She has aligned herself with certain influencers and prominent bloggers to help magnify and grow the brand’s presence, but has managed to make her online presence as charmingly non-commercial as possible. She is there to sell, yes, but she manages to make the seams between social media participation and selling thin enough that you don’t feel aggressively marketed to.

 

Only time will tell how authentic a voice Umavijani will prove to have on the social media networks and throughout the broader community. Authenticity always rings true: I think of perfumers such as Liz Moores, Sarah McCartney, and Andy Tauer who apart from handling all the onerous, day-to-day tasks of their businesses also engage meaningfully with their customers on social media, openly sharing the intimate details of their personal lives and their perfume business with joe schmoes like me and you. It feels like a privilege to be allowed this kind of access, but I know it can’t be easy for them either. Authenticity of voice on social media is very tough to develop and maintain. There’s a line to be walked, and it’s no joke trying to navigate one’s way to it.

 

One last word, on pricing. Many bloggers say that the only thing that matters is the perfume itself and that the price shouldn’t come into the equation. I think that price plays a very big role in how we (subconsciously or consciously) value a fragrance. Simply put, if something is cheap, we perceive its materials to be cheap. If a perfume costs almost €400, we assume that the very best materials went into it. It’s just the way our prehensile brains work, sorry.

 

Perfumers can price their products in two ways – production pricing or market pricing. In production pricing, you work backwards from the cost of the materials and man hours, and price the perfume at what it cost to produce (adding in margins for distributors, marketing, one’s own income, etc.). Andy Tauer recently provided an example of what goes into the costing his perfumes, and Laurie Erickson also published a post about the business costs involved in running an artisan perfumery.

 

On the one hand, this makes things quite clear – you know you are paying more if a precious or rare ingredient was used. On the flipside, exposing one’s own profit margins to your customers opens the door to discussions over how fairly you’ve priced your own talent.

 

Market pricing, on the other hand, prices a product at exactly what the market is willing to pay for it. A perfume priced at €400 ignores all the details and simply asks the question “Are you worth it?” If you feel that you deserve the luxury of an expensive bottle of perfume, then you will buy it. You won’t quibble about the perfumer’s margins, you know only that this perfume must be absolutely amazing because it costs almost €400.

 

People in the fragrance community talk grumpily about luxury pricing, but really, we all know that past the €80-100 mark, you are always paying for the prestige, the boasting rights, and not the actual perfume. No perfume costs more than €10 or so to make, anyway. But perfumes priced at luxury prices sell because they play into the perception that a high price means top quality.

 

Parfums Dusita didn’t play around – they went straight in at Roja Dove prices. That took some guts. But they held steady because they knew that the perfumes were good enough to stand up to the scrutiny of the few for whom the scent actually matters, and satisfy the desire for the exclusive, the pricey, and the haute luxe for the person also buying the $35,000 Rolex.

 

But Oudh Infini costs €100 more than Issara, so there’s a strange dash of production pricing mixed in there with the market pricing. The price difference is probably supposed to come across to the customer as the marker of quality for the real oud used in the fragrance. That gaping price differential makes me curious as to what they are actually using as the oud note, whereas had they priced it the same as the others, I wouldn’t have cared. But a €100 price difference? That kind of makes it my business, as a consumer. I could speculate that the oud is an expensive new oud captive developed by a laboratory like IFF or Givaudan, or real oud oil from the plantations in Laos (which I’ve been told is so plentiful and consistent in quality that it is sold in liter jars to perfume companies in France). Either way, I doubt that the cost differential actually amounts to €100 per 50mls of liquid.

 

From a market pricing perspective, though, pricing an oud-based perfume at this much more suggests to the customer that the raw materials are hellishly expensive. It’s a genius move because with a simple (and probably arbitrary) pricing adjustment, you’ve added value to the customer’s perceptions of your brand’s worth as they open their wallet.

 

Anyway, on to the perfumes themselves! They are all very good and interesting, although not half as interesting to me personally as the brand’s own stratospheric rise.

 

Oudh Infini has far more of the animal, furred warmth of a pack animal than a tree or resin, so at first my nose thinks it smells heavy deer musk, not oud oil. But then I’m reminded that there are a couple of pure oud oils out there that mimic the characteristics of deer musk, such as Ensar Oud’s Yunnan 2003 oil, which has a furry thickness to it that makes me think I can just reach out my fingers and touch the warm animal in front of me.

 

It is a brave act, you know, to launch a commercial perfume that smells like this. Those of you who have grown up on farms will not be shocked – neither will people who wear pure oud. But the rest of you? Prepare your nostrils, for Oudh Infini smells intensely of warm sheep, packed ten deep into a shed in winter, the warm (tallow fat) smell of their oily wool mixing with their shit-smeared backsides and the soiled straw beneath. I pick up a faint hint of roses, faded and sour like the emanation from a vase of roses in a locked room. It is not pleasant, it is not pretty, but it has impact.

 

Past the ferociously animalic, barnyardy opening, creamy sandalwood and vanilla turn the oud into a crottin of goat’s cheese. It’s refined and gentle – as I mentioned once to a friend, like dung strained through a silk stocking.

 

Oudh Infini does an excellent job of sketching out what one would smell in a real oud oil – evolving slowly from barnyard, feces, pack animals to runny cheese and flowers and herbs. It lacks perhaps only the more complex depth of camphor, smoke, sap, and woods that form the backbone of pure oud oil, but all the other markers are there.

 

However, and this is a big however, I am having trouble placing Oudh Infini in a hypothetical wardrobe. I love pure oud oil but I also love fragrance compositions that present me with a different, more artistic impression of oud. My trouble with Oudh Infini is that it smells too close to the real oud oil experience for it to succeed purely as an artistic interpretation of the oud theme.

 

In other words, if I want something that smells like real oud oil, why not (for reasons of cost and others) just go for oud oil? Naturally, personal preferences in terms of how we prefer to wear perfume come into it, but if you are thinking of a real oud oil experience, then there is little else as magical as an essential oil (oud oil) that can give the nose all the complexity of wood, fruit, flowers, dung, soil, and ozone without any help from a fragrance laboratory. If I want to wear a proper perfume based on oud, I’d go for more ambitious, complex perfumes such as Oud Shamash or Oud Osmanthus. They don’t smell as authentic oudy as Oudh Infini but verisimilitude is not what I’m seeking when I wear oud-based perfumes. I want the smoke and mirrors.

 

Mélodie de L’Amour is, to my nose, a powerful statement on jasmine, the filthy kind that drapes the insides of your nostrils in the matte black ink of pure indole. Very little to differentiate here at first between the flat wall of scatole that rises off a fresh turd and a jasmine decaying right off the vine, which is how all jasmines would be if I had my way. Boy, it fairly pins my ears back. There is the faint breath of rotting fruit to add moistness to the dank, flat tonality here, a peach or pear perhaps, with an undertone of acrylic paint or turps.

 

Later, it develops a green, rubbery, creamy cheese odor that I assume is gardenia, but it is successfully managed by that wall of jasmine and never approaches the rancid horror of Dame Perfumery’s Gardenia soliflore, which smells like black spots on butter taste in my mouth. Mélodie de L’Amour is the rare instance of a floral that smells more like an animal than a plant, joining the ranks of other bloodsucking florals such as Manoumalia, Rubj, and Une Fleur de Cassie, perfumes I never know if they going to wear me, eat me, or fuck me.

 

Issara is the most immediately likeable and wearable of the initial Dusita trio. For a fougere, it is surprisingly lush and sweet, deftly side-stepping the beardy, Brut-ish machismo of most of this year’s fougere revivals (I’m looking at you, Le Barbier de Tangers) and aligning itself with softer takes on the theme, such as Chanel’s Boy. The topnotes sparkle like sunlight on fresh snow – friendly, crisp pine mingling with mint and sage, faintly sugared with tonka bean and a starchy white musk. There is a beautifully fresh, green “salt” note here, reminiscent of beach grasses and sand dunes.

 

I only have two issues here, really – first, that the musky, tonka-ish drydown is rather synthetic in feel, in comparison to the more natural Oudh Infini and Melodie de l’Amour (I suspect a touch too much of either Ambroxan or Iso E Super), and second, fougeres used to be the unpretentious backbone of the male grooming world, so I’m not sure if putting it in extrait form or pricing it at €295 for 50mls isn’t missing the point somewhat. Issara is a very good fougere, but for that type of money I’d rather buy a 200ml vat of Chanel’s Boy and just splash it on with gay abandon.

Celebrity Incense Independent Perfumery Oud Resins Review Scent Memory Smoke

Aftelier Ancient Resins, Oud Luban, and Leonard Cohen

December 5, 2016

“It’s four in the morning, the end of December, I’m writing you now just to see if you’re better…”

 

Leonard Cohen was following me around Bosnia. Or rather, his voice was. My Dad was a customs officer and had to drive to the most remote border crossing points, and me, being a penniless student with little to do on my holidays, would fly out to Bosnia to spend to join him on road trips up and down the war-ravaged country.

 

This was the third time we’d stopped, the third bleak, deserted café in the wasteland of Bosnia after the war. Three different towns, three different ethnicities, three different currencies….and the only unifying factor was bloody Leonard Cohen.

 

I say “bloody Leonard Cohen” in a fond-but-exasperated way. My father, known in our family as a “Cohen pusher”, would play his records over and over again to anyone who will listen. Holidays to France, with four kids captive in the back seat of our Renault 12, were pure torture.

 

In revenge, my brothers and I would try to taunt him by staging elaborate suicide scenes, such as lying in wait in the bathroom with a razor poised at the wrist, or play dead on the couch with pills (Smarties) strewn around our lifeless bodies, croaking “We’re doing a Leonard, Dad”.

 

Never got a rise out of him.

 

Anyway, the fact that Cohen’s music was playing in each of three cafes or restaurants we stopped at that day made my father very happy indeed. And in a way, it was fitting, because in this country, as broken and divided as it was, there was always more to unite them than divide them. The coffee was the same, even though they called it by different names. They all ate those sticky, syrupy cakes made so popular by the Turks during their, um, residence in the country. And they all seemed to really like Leonard Cohen. They might have played First We Take Manhattan at the Dayton peace talks and wrapped the whole thing up quicker.

 

Cohen himself was a pretty Zen guy. I like to think the universe paid him back by giving him plenty of women, acclaim, and mass turnouts at the comeback concerts he forced to do when his manager stole all his money.

 

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.

 

I’m not sure it makes much sense to analyze this beautiful oil too much – just let it wash over you in a peaceful wave, just like Cohen’s music – because it is, at heart, just a collection of resinous basenotes. And yet, the total effect is uplifting in a way that belies the simplicity of the blend.

 

Balm of Gilead is a note that jumps out at me, though, for its unusual biblical associations. Looking it up, it seems that the name refers (in religious history) to a balsam that was used as a spiritual balm to weary souls in Talmudic, Old Testament, and Muslim/Arabic history. Sources differ over what species of tree actually produced this balsam, although it seems to be either from mastic (green, herbal-smelling), pine, or terebinth /turpentine trees.

 

Although the opening notes of the oil are indeed very pine-like, I assume that this comes from the terpenes naturally present in the frankincense, because Mandy After clarifies that the Balm of Gilead note in Ancient Resins comes from poplar buds, from the Populus species of tree. These trees produce a nicely balmy scent on the white undersides of their leaves, and are used to produce the modern-day versions of the Balm of Gilead – basically, a wound- and spirit-healing balm.

 

And Ancient Resins is healing. It is healing and calming and restorative. I can see why Leonard Cohen reportedly wore this every day of his life. I was, coincidentally, wearing Ancient Resins in my hair when I heard that he had passed away. I had been using it almost every day since I received a generous sample of it, because the American elections had just taken place and I was feeling stressed out. Ancient Resins seems to have the power to right everywhere that is wrong in the world, just like Cohen’s music seemed to be doing in Bosnia that day. A knitting together of things that have been fractured.

 

I like to think that when he died, Leonard Cohen was laid naked in a white shroud, anointed from head to toe in Ancient Resins, and then burned on a pyre that floats off down the Ganges. But recently, I learned that Cohen loved more than one of Mandy Aftel’s creations. In fact, Mandy Aftel told me that Cohen wouldn’t go out without a drop of her Oud Luban on his person.

 

Learning that made me reassess my imagining of Leonard Cohen as a gloomy, depressive poet, anointed with the biblical-smelling Ancient Resins. Because Oud Luban is an oud fragrance that takes what Luca Turin mentioned as an “inherent brown study grimness” characteristic of the material and shoots it through with a light-strobing blood orange note that makes it feel like liquid late-afternoon sunshine.

 

Superior, Hojari-grade frankincense from the Dhofar desert in Oman adds a bright, terpenic freshness that sidles up to the citrus and supports it – think crushed pine needles, with their juicy, lemony, green scent on your fingers after you touch them. And all this against a very smoky, leathery oud oil that is darkness personified. A superb, natural-smelling, joyful balancing of dark and light, Oud Luban displays a sort of switching-on-of-the-Christmas-lights effect. I don’t think I have ever smelled a perfume that works oud quite like this. The smoky, growly undertones of real oud are there alright – no mistaking this for a synthetic variant – but its usual tendency to spread its gravel-voiced gloominess over everything has been reined in by the bright, citrusy resin elements. I think of it as humorous and hopeful.

 

And maybe this humorous, fey thing is a truer portrait of Leonard Cohen than my historic, mental imagining of his character. My dad recently told me a story he had read somewhere, of Leonard Cohen at a party. He just sat down on his own, picked up a guitar and started to strum, quietly humming the words to one of his famous songs. Bit by bit, women, young and old, began to kneel down at either side of him, listening intently. One of his friends whispered to him, Leonard, did you notice that you’re surrounded by women. Without looking up from his guitar and strumming away, he whispered back, “Works every time”.

Oud Smoke Woods

By Kilian Pure Oud

May 5, 2016

By Kilian Pure Oud is the racehorse of the Western oud-based fragrances; all sinew and nerve, and not an inch of fat to spare. Kilian could have easily named this Oud Noir or Dark Oud, because Pure Oud really does convey the inky, matte darkness of a moonless night sky.

It smells like a black leather jacket tinctured into a pool of black tar and then vaporized into a mist of gasoline.

Pure Oud draws a line around itself and stays within it. Real oud oil has a smell that spills messily out over every line you’ve drawn for yourself; the brazenly-named Pure Oud (it is purely synthetic) is self-contained. But they do share a common denominator – both smell other-worldly and somewhat stark.

For me, it is the Western-based oud fragrance that comes closest to mimicking the smell of real oud oil. Not a sour, fermented-smelling Hindi or Assam oud oil, but one of those aged, dry oud oils where you can pick out hints of leather, dried fruit, melting plastic lunch boxes, and smoke.

Caveat: Pure Oud is a minimalist take on a maximalist smell, i.e., it does not approach the complexity or range of aromas of real oud oil. Nothing this obviously synthetic can come close to copying something so rudely natural.

But the experience of using oud oils and attars is not interchangeable with or comparable to using traditional fragrance; one is a quiet, more private experience geared toward internal contemplation; the other is a projection of oneself to the wider world. We shouldn’t keep holding up one against the other in a race for authenticity. Prefer instead that benchmark of Guy Robert’s: Does it smell good? And yes, Pure Oud does smell good – very good indeed.

I find Pure Oud to be very quiet, but long-lasting. Sometimes, to turn up the volume a bit, I re-spray during the day, twice, or even three times. This way, it builds up on the skin in layers of translucent ink – leather upon rubber upon gasoline, until it finally pushes off the skin in a sulky swirl of woodsmoke.

Oud Rose Saffron

By Kilian Rose Oud

January 10, 2016

Rose, oud, saffron, gaiac wood, cardamom……yes, it’s the typical line-up for your average rose-oud fragrance. I’ll excuse you if you’re not getting too excited – I know I wasn’t. But I find myself haunted by my sample of By Kilian Rose Oud, long after it’s gone, and I’ll tell you why. It’s one of the easiest rose-oud fragrances to wear, as well as the most serenely beautiful. It has none of the exciting harshness of the oud accord used in most other Western oud fragrances, and is all the better for it. Think of the most beautiful supermodel you’ve ever laid eyes on – but one who nonetheless fails to either move you or turn you on – and that’s Rose Oud by Kilian.

The secret to the success of Rose Oud is this: all the major elements (the rose, the oud, the gaiac wood, and the saffron) do not possess a strong character of their own but instead melt together to form a small black velvet pocket into which you find your hand fits perfectly.

So the green, slightly sour wet rose at the start gains a dulcet depth from the subtle oud, growing sweeter, jammier, and fuller as time goes on. The oud provides the dark backdrop without muscling its way into the composition in that bullying way oud tends to have. The saffron casts only a fine patina of sweet gold dust rather than its usual iodine-y leather scream. It’s a very subtle, smooth fragrance  – almost ephemeral. When I think the show has ended, eight hours on, I am surprised to find that golden, almost pudding-like saffron emerge on my skin, and a pleasantly sour tinge of oud.

Calice Becker knows her roses. Boy, she knows her roses, and Rose Oud is a rose done right. The eventual jamminess and “wetness” of the rose here mimics the pulpy lushness of the flower at the start of Liaisons Dangereuses (also by Calice Becker), but without that peach shampoo thing that Liaisons Dangereuses slithers into towards the end.

The oud, by the way, is synthetic but has the virtue of not smelling like it, so carefully woven into the fabric of the fragrance has it been. Yet more proof that it is more the skill of the perfumer (and to be fair, the art direction, for which we can thank Kilian Hennessey himself) than the raw materials that matters in terms of the final result.

Rose Oud is a beautiful, delicate piece of work whose subtleties could easily go unnoticed if you weren’t paying attention. It is by far one of my favorite rose-oud fragrances, and despite the cost, I have a feeling that I will own a (refill) bottle of this someday, even if I have to sell off some of my (many) other oud fragrances to afford it. I have finally reached the stage where I am content to do away with five or six inferior bottles of perfume to get my hands on just one bottle of something that satisfies and pleases from every angle.

Rose Oud may not be the most exciting or unusual rose oud on the market – many think it is pretty but mundane – but I think it’s one of the best-smelling rose-ouds around, perhaps only bettered by Tom Ford’s wonderful Noir de Noir or Guerlain’s Rose Nacree du Desert.

Attars & CPOs Oud

Abdul Samad Al Qurashi Kannam 100-Year Aged Oud

December 3, 2015

I realize, as I am sitting down to write this review, that there is no accurate way for me to describe what a hundred-year old oud smells like. The best I can do is to say that it is unami, that Japanese word for the fifth taste, one that is packed ten deep with savory, sweet, salty, and sour notes, all piled in on top of each other so that the taste buds receive a complex sensation that is part taste, part smell, part feeling. Foods that are rich in unami, for example, are aged Parmesan cheese, aged balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, breast milk, and fine wines. In fact, if you have ever tasted any of these things and tried to describe them to someone has hasn’t, then you will know what I mean when I say it is a struggle to come up with accurate vocabulary.

Kannam 100-year old aged oud is, by a very wide margin, the most complex and unami-rich thing I have ever smelled. I feel very privileged to have been able to experience it at all, given that the price per tola on this one is, as the Americans say, “beyond my pay grade”. If I were rich, though, and I wasn’t depleting my kids’ trust funds too badly, I would happily cough up the $2,700 or so it costs (for 11.66666 grams). Hell yeah I would! But unless I find myself a sugar daddy, and soon, before the small portion of good looks I have run out, then I will have to content myself with the memory of my sample.

The oud oil in the sample vial was so thick, black, and viscous that I had to warm it for two hours between my boobs in order to even prise the applicator wand out of the vial (I do apologize to whomever receives this sample after I’m done with it). You have to dab it on, but the texture is like tar, so spreading it around gently is not an option – it sits there on your skin like you just painted it with wood varnish.

The smell – oh my God. It is utterly unfair that I should smell something this good and not be wealthy enough to procure it. Immediately, I have to say that the smell is not animalic or barnyard in the slightest – I was surprised by this. It is smooth and deep, but intense. My husband said it immediately brought him back to his childhood, to a massive state-owned Yugoslav leather goods store in town he used to frequent with his father for shoes, jackets, etc. There was a tannery nearby, and the air in the store thus smelled of newly-tanned leather and of the chemicals used to tan the leather. He said the oud had such an intense smell that it caused his teeth and jaw to ache, just like the leather goods store did. I have read that this is a common reaction with unami-rich smells too.

To me, at first, it smells of the following things: ancient furniture varnish, balsamic vinegar reduction, leather, rubber, resins, pine sap, wintergreen, chopped trees in a wet forest. The smell is, I have to say, intoxicating, smooth, almost sweet, balsamic, but 20,000 miles deep in unami flavors. The fumes are almost radioactive, so I can feel a buzz in my ears, almost like I am getting high on glue or something. Not that the smell is similar, not at all – just that the material gives off this powerful cloud of aromachemicals almost physically intoxicating to the senses.

Strangely, as time goes on, it becomes less sweet and more earthy, by which I mean that it takes on the damp, pleasantly moldy/sour inflections of a good patchouli. It smells of earth freshly upturned, of a wooden box buried in the damp earth for decades and then dug up and opened, releasing a stream of shut-up, stale air that smells ancient and good. I see what other writers on oud mean when they write that they smell like something prehistoric, dug up from a deep, dark cave in the woods somewhere. But like with all primitive smells (oud, patchouli, stone, forest), this has the ability to be “not strange” to your nose, as if somewhere in your prehistoric brain, you do remember this ancient smell from thousands of years ago.

Highly recommended as a once in a lifetime thrill, if only to set your own personal barometer for complexity. Samples of 0.15mls cost almost $50, so you have to be sure you want to travel this road, but it really is something I wish everyone could experience, at least once.

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