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Kintsugi by Masque Milano

13th October 2020

Kintsugi by Masque Milano smells the way those mysterious salted fruits and chutneys in an Asian restaurant taste – perfumey, bitter, and dark in a way that sucks all the moisture out of your mouth while simultaneously flicking your salivary glands into action. Like in Mitsouko (Guerlain) and Iris 39 (Le Labo), two perfumes that this reminds me of in idea if not execution, the secret to Kintsugi’s successful navigation of that narrow line between repulsion and attraction lies in its lack of legibility.

Kintsugi has been billed as a modern chypre, and refreshingly, that is exactly what it is. Chypres are like a good Chinese meal, balancing a complex range of sweet, sour, bitter, and salty flavors against each other to produce a very satisfying (but completely abstract) sense of completeness. The result is strange and exotic, imprinting on the imagination in a way soliflores and straight-up ambers cannot. This is all present and correct in Kintsugi, so no need to quibble about which material has been chosen to stand in for the moss. The effect is there.

As all good chypres do,  Kintsugi revolves around a complex set of juxtapositions. It is cigarette-ashy but also bread-doughy, syrup-sweet but also vermouth-dry, and as vegetal as parsnips but also as perfumey as your mother’s best going-out perfume. Adding to the drama is a shiny, neon-lit fruit note flashing against the desiccated patchouli hulking malevolently in the background.

But like with many Le Labos, and especially Iris 39, what really sets this thing on fire is the pairing of things that smell natural – polished woods, incense, earth, rose petal potpourri – with things that smell industrial, like latex paint, printer chemicals, calligraphy ink, and linseed oil.

Kintsugi is the perfume equivalent of those duochrome eyeshadows that appear bottle green straight on but peacock blue when you turn your head. Sometimes it exactly smells like the grand, tassels-bedecked kind of thing you imagine Oscar Wilde drenching his velvet curtains with, and sometimes like your old school stationary cupboard with a bunch of kids getting high on solvents.

It dries down quickly to the pungent but virile smell of the horse ring, the air thick with saddle leather, sawdust, and the warm muskiness specific to a freshly-exercised horse. I suppose you could also call it cedar but that doesn’t capture even two percent of the total mood that Kintsugi has going on here.   

Kintsugi is a love-hate kind of thing, for sure. I hated it when I first smelled it, and then I loved it. And I might hate it the next time I smell it, who knows? People used to the taste of fermented things – natto, kimchi, tea – will cleave as easily to this perfume as they might to oud oil or osmanthus absolute, sharing with this perfume as they do that unique dichotomy of (leathery) dryness and (fruity-cheesey) funkiness.

Based on the resounding silence that greeted this perfume when it launched in 2019, it is fair to say that Kintsugi’s appeal is not immediate. And I get it. Forget about Kintsugi being people-pleasing – it is barely even me-pleasing. But for all its oddness, I find Kintsugi exciting, like a strange flavor of wine or cough syrup or gummy bear that only exists in Japan, and therefore utterly foreign to me.

Source of sample: Purchased from Swedish retailer, Fragrance & Art, in November 2019. A friend of mine kindly sent me another sample of it a couple of days ago, jogging my memory and prompting this review.

Cover Image: Photo by Tokyo Luv on Unsplash

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The Cult of Raw Materials: Treewitch by Teone Reinthal and Antiquity by Areej Le Doré

10th September 2020

A common assumption in evaluating all-natural fragrances – thanks in large part to the Cult of Raw Materials that has sprung up around top-tier artisanal, distill-it-yourself houses such as Bortnikoff and Areej Le Doré – is that the presence of a rare natural like oud or sandalwood automatically translates to a superior composition. Another is that because the starring raw material is rare and natural, it must be – by corollary – the best example of its kind among all available rare and natural materials.

Both are fallacies. The first correlates the quality of a natural raw material with compositional skill, which, while tempting, just doesn’t bear out. The second assumption flirts with the idea that most fragrance fans won’t be able to differentiate between a top notch raw material and a shitty one as long as there is demonstrably some of it in the scent. In other words, as long as it smells oudy or sandalwoody or deer-musky, then that’s the main bar cleared.

Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash

Treewitch by Teone Reinthal demonstrates the problems inherent to the latter. While I enjoy many of Reinthal’s other compositions and think she does a fantastic job of creating all-natural fragrances that smell like fully-fledged, 1980s powerhouse orientals rather than the slightly dull, worthy muddiness of most all-natural scents, Treewitch just doesn’t really smell that great, despite the rare and natural oud that has been used.

Or maybe it is because of the rare and natural oud that’s been used? While the oud is obviously real, it doesn’t smell like a very good one. Rather, it smells like an oud oil that has either been hastily distilled (many modern Cambodi-style oils display an unpleasantly stale nuance that smells like radiators being cranked up after many years) or force-aged, a post-distillation process that involves leaving the oil uncovered for weeks until it picks up the biliously-sour hay and leather high notes of the traditional Hindi profile.         

The good news is that a) it gets better, and b) if you haven’t had much oud-smelling experience, then you’ll likely not know or care about the difference between high quality and low quality oud – oud is, for most people, just a generally broad oud ‘flavor’ profile, in that it either smells authentically oudy or it doesn’t. Depressingly, in this age of the Cult of Raw Materials, many perfume aficionados believe that this binary indicator (smells like real oud – yay or nay) trumps the famous Guy Robert assertion that ‘Un parfum doit avant tout sentir bon.’     

And indeed, perfume should, above all, smell good. Treewitch does not. It opens with a grandstanding blast of honest-to-goodness Hindi oud – phenomenally dusty, animalic, with a hulking sour note that, on the inhale, smells like unwashed towels left to molder in a holiday let, and on the exhale, like a glass of Irish whiskey left on the counter for several days. It categorically does not smell like earth or the forest or the wilderness (the perfumer’s description had me visualizing something like Chypre Mousse, Muschio di Quercia or even Supercell), but of the unpleasant staleness of neglected fabrics and the dust trapped behind appliances that haven’t been touched in decades.

I love the undervalued scent of mustiness, but more the air of cultured neglect clinging to old books (Dzing!) or closed-up aristocratic lairs (Iranzol) than something genuinely unhealthy. I love the moldy dankness of stuff like Marescialla and the peeling wall plaster lurking behind the innocent violet topnote of Iris by Santa Maria Novella. Onda extrait and Djedi make me think of ancient sarcophagi being opened. But I cannot love the staleness of the oud used in Treewitch, because it smells like the poor hygiene of real neglect rather than a romanticized version of it.

True to form for Teone Reinthal’s style, however, a rich, spicy oriental base swells up to muffle the offending oud in an intricately-woven carpet of 1980s Opium or Coco – bittersweet red-brown balsams, tree sap, amber crystals, clove or carnation, all adding up to a spicy-mature orientalia clustering around a hot pink floral note that could be anything from carnation to rose. An amazing finish, therefore, but not quite amazing enough (for me personally) to make up for the objectionably foul-smelling oud in the front half.

Photo by Benjamin Ranger on Unsplash

Antiquity by Areej Le Doré is a good example of the first assumption, i.e., that a superb raw material is synonymous with compositional artistry. Now, Antiquity is a perfume that uses a natural raw material of superb quality – an aged Cambodi oud oil – and also smells really good (meeting that Guy Robert benchmark). However, and this might sound a bit controversial, the reason Antiquity smells so good is 80% due to the quality of that aged oud oil rather than to compositional skill.

I mean absolutely no offense to Russian Adam. He is a very promising, self-taught perfumer who has managed, in the space of just three years, to carve out and then completely dominate his own niche in the narrow crawlspace between the super-competitive, internecine oud community and the niche all-naturals crowd, building a committed fan base while remaining polite, loyal to his customers, and ethically-responsible. His perfumes are rich, big, and dripping in complex raw materials. There’s also a purity to him as a person that I appreciate.

However, I’d argue that Russian Adam’s real talent lies not in composing perfumes per se, but in finding (or distilling) two or three of the best raw materials for each composition, introducing them to each other, and then staying the hell out of their way, allowing them to work their synergistic magic on one another. This is the way, by and large, an Eastern way of making perfume – it is how attar wallahs work. Russian Adam clearly understands how each raw material will behave and evolve in a composition when placed alongside other raw materials. It is easy to mistake the richness of an attar-like perfume made in this manner for the gloss of classically French or Western perfumery – I’ve done it myself – but I think that the Guerlainesque richness and complexity we are smelling has more to do with the qualities of the raw materials that go into these perfumes than a ‘French’ way of making perfume. They feel composed more by instinct than formula.

As a result, if you love the raw material Russian Adam has used, then you’ll love the perfume itself, with the inverse also being true. Sometimes, if I don’t love the raw material he’s chosen, I find myself picking up on a certain blockiness to the composition, which tells me that really great raw materials can blow you away, masking the underlying compositional features one might otherwise notice or criticize. For example, the unctuously buttery labdanum used in two of Russian Adam’s oud-dominated fragrances, Oud Piccante, and to a lesser extent in Russian Oud, is not my favorite: it reminds me uncomfortably of the savory-greasiness of that sub-cutaneous layer of fat you have to excise from your lamb shank before braising it. Therefore, Oud Zen, which uses a nutty vetiver instead of this greasy labdanum in the base, strikes as the more elegant composition.  

I love the Cambodi oud used in Antiquity, because it smells like a vintage Cambodi oud oil (Kambodi 1976) that Ensar sent me a sample of once. What many people don’t realize is that the trees that made the original (and deservedly popular) Cambodi oud oil of the 1970s no longer exist, thanks to over-exploitation. New Aquilaria trees were planted, of course, but it turns out that subsequent harvests could never replicate the unique conditions of the original trees, which some suspect had something to do with the cleaner water and air quality ‘achieved’ during the forced agrarian rule of Pol Pot. Ensar asserts that of the existing Cambodi oil on the market today, less than 5% is vintage stock from the original trees, while the remainder is oud oil distilled to mimic the Cambodi ‘style’ – and it seems to me that Adam got his hands on a little store of the real stuff.   

It’s worth taking a minute to discuss what vintage Cambodi oud oil smells like on its own, because (a) Antiquity smells mostly like vintage Cambodi oud oil, and (b) not many people will have had the opportunity to smell the OG raw material itself. Unlike the hyper sweet berries-and-caramel punch of modern Cambodi-style oud oils, marred in some cases by the funky, dusty staleness associated with rushed distillation, vintage Cambodi oil from the original trees has had a leisurely 40+ years to deepen in the bottle, the sharp edges of the woods and berries sanded down over time to produce a perfectly round, glossy smell of old leather and decades-old wood.

The OG Cambodi oil doesn’t smell at all animalic, and if it is slightly dusty or stale, then it more pleasant than not – an old cedar chest that once held damsons and figs, but where the fruit has long since disappeared into the grain of the wood, leaving a ghostly presence of its dark, raisin-like fruit. It has a patina that glimmers darkly, calling to mind a good aged port.

In Antiquity, the fruit is ostensibly peach but it is the darker, vaguer scent of plum skin that predominates. Sometimes the underlying basenote is an intensely honeyed, saliva-ish musk-leather, but sometimes it smells more like the polish of old wood that has been cared for over decades with a weekly application of linseed-and-lemon furniture oil. The saliva-honey leather note intensifies with the passage of time, creating a sharp, almost sheepy muskiness that calls to mind the aroma of real animal fur or an ancient leather chesterfield armchair decades-deep in manly smells – fermented sweat, old booze, decades of grime, tobacco stains – a sort of sweet n’ sour smell that smells distinctly (to me) masculine.  

The Cambodi oil is the big, deep smell that drives the body of the scent, but cleverly, Adam has dressed it up with light chypric elements to extend and accentuate key features of the oil. I admit that little of this chypre nuance was evident to me when I tried this in Rome, where I lived until recently, a place far warmer and more humid than where I live right now. The first few tries, I thought Antiquity was leaning far too hard on the natural complexity of the oud oil to do all the heavy lifting. But in a cooler climate, and by applying the dregs of my sample in big brown smears all over my arms, I am finally able to smell the chypre in this – the tart, spicy bergamot in the topnotes (still no aldehydes, though), and far down in the basenotes, past the massive Cambodi oud midsection, that buttery-animalic-leathery labdanum that Adam uses (the kind that smells like it was freshly combed from a particularly goaty goat) and in the very last gasps of its life, a whisper of something minty and vase water-ish that is probably the oakmoss.

So, yes, technically a chypre if you are ticking off the boxes of the tripartite formula – bergamot, labdanum, and moss. And yet, Antiquity still smells more like an amplified vintage Cambodi oud oil set in musk than a chypre. Real chypres are like a good Chinese meal in that the elements of sweetness, sourness, and saltiness come together at the same time in order to produce that essential chypre ‘flavor’: Antiquity feeds all the right elements into the composition but, dwarfed by the intensity of the Cambodi oud oil, they are squeezed to the sides, from where they make an appearance whenever an air pocket opens up in the structure. But the three strands never come together at the same time. Still, Antiquity is a pretty darned great oud fragrance and one that definitely improves upon aging.

Source of samples: The sample of Teone Reinthal’s Treewitch was kindly sent to me by a fragrance friend, along with generous samples of many of her newer stuff (which I hope to get around to reviewing soon). Areej Le Doré kindly sent me a sample set of the next-to-last collection* in early autumn 2019, without any obligation to review.

*Yes, I know, I know. That collection is now long sold out, which again shows why so few perfume houses send me samples to review and why they honestly should not – I am deeply unreliable and don’t work to any schedule or logic that would make sense to anyone but me. I feel guilty about this occasionally but know that feeling guilty would tip me over into a sense of obligation towards brands, especially the smaller indie ones, which in turn would probably skew my content more positive, and that right there is a slippery slide. As always, I write content for people who want to read about perfume for the pleasure of it, not to influence what you think you’re smelling or fuel a purchase decision

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Sticky Fingers by Francesca Bianchi

19th August 2020

The more I wear Sticky Fingers by Francesca Bianchi, the more I’m convinced it is the Bengale Rouge of the Bianchi line, by which I mean a deliciously thicc n’ fuzzy oriental that’s characterful without being challenging – the much-loved woolly sweater your hand reaches for over the stark, uncompromising Ann Demeulemeester gilet you bought in a factory sale but could never figure out where the arm holes were. The thing these perfumes have in common is their sense of familiarity – they remind you (vaguely) of scents you already know and love. They wear like old friends even if you’ve just been introduced.

Just like Bengale Rouge is a more ‘people-pleasing’ option for people who would never wear Salome, Sticky Fingers is the perfect ‘out’ for people who want to own a Bianchi but find Sex and The Sea or The Lover’s Tale too heavy on the harsh orris-leather accord that has become the Bianchi calling card. That’s not to say that there’s none of Francesca in this perfume, because women with strong personalities always spill over into their art. You’d know, for example, that Sticky Fingers is a Bianchi creation as surely as you can tell Bengale Rouge is a Liz Moores one.

But Sticky Fingers is not going to ruffle any feathers. It is a cosy, feel-good diorama of Francesca Bianchi’s back catalogue with most of the hard edges sanded down and its already duvet-thick volume fluffed up by a mille-feuille of chocolatey patchouli, resins, amber, tonka bean, and vanilla.  

My own sticky fingers hover over the ‘buy’ button on Sticky Fingers mostly for the last two thirds of its life, which is when it turns into that combination of smells perfume lovers know as ‘sweater mélange’ – that sweet, lived-in aroma of a fabric like wool or coat collar or seatbelt exhaling, like a sigh, the breath of multiple perfumes last worn God knows when. Or that lovely and as-individual-as-a-fingerprint nuclear cloud that rushes up at you when you open a box of your favorite perfumes or cosmetics.

To wit, Sticky Fingers smells like the heady, third-day fug imprinted on my bathrobe after several days of wearing some of Francesca Bianchi’s other perfumes; especially The Dark Side with its honeyed resins, The Lover’s Tale with its sharp leather, and Lost in Heaven for its simultaneously urinous and sherbety civet-iris accord that is practically the Bianchi DNA. Yet Sticky Fingers is much softer and gauzier than any of these. It’s like all of these perfumes mingling together and blown in at you through an air vent from another room.  

Digging down into the detail, there are muffled echoes of something of the choco-wheat-cereal notes from indie perfumes of the last few years (like Ummagumma by Bruno Fazzolari, Café Cacao by En Voyage, or Amber Chocolate by Abdes Salaam Attar), but also a spicy tobacco gingerbread (Tan d’Epices), and a thick ‘white’ note like sandalwood creamed with benzoin (Santal Blush perhaps). I sprayed some Ta’if (Ormonde Jayne) over the tail end of Sticky Fingers once and could have sworn to the presence of smoky, caramelized marshmallow (Amber Absolute by Tom Ford). To be clear, Sticky Fingers doesn’t smell like any one of these perfumes. It’s just a delicious, jumbled up funk of rich woody or resinous orientals that have been worn at some point in the past two or three weeks, and have left an indelible, if undefined, impression.

In essence, Sticky Fingers is a patchouli perfume. But through a glass darkly. Think of the patchouli as the soloist leading the charge in a huge orchestra, drawing in supporting riffs from the strings and the bass until the music swells up from a hundred different sources, creating an incredibly rich, harmonious sound that fills all the air pockets in the room. The patchouli starts out solo, a musty, stale, and fruity rendition of pure earth. But almost immediately it calls in the high notes of the string section, in the form of those acidulated orris-leather tones of the Bianchi DNA, and to counter that, the bass tones of grainy tobacco leaf, shredded into tiny pieces and soaked in a glass of cold, floral-anisic Chinese tea. This combination of notes and ‘sounds’ has the effect of roughing up the patchouli, turning it into a hessian cloth accord of earth, stewed tea, and tobacco, back-lit by the yellow streak of ureic civet-iris that runs through Bianchi’s work like battery acid.  

This opening act is attention-catching but, focused on two or three accords that ride bullishly over everything else, it feels like we are all waiting this part out until the quieter, richer sound of the rest of the orchestra can spot an opening and rise to fill it. Eventually this happens, a whole chorus of dusty spices and sandblasted resins and micas ‘blooming’ in unison, softening the sharp edges of the Bianchi iris and blurring the outline of the patchouli. If I like the scent thus far, then I start to love it now, just as the central accord thickens up like a custard with the addition of tonka, sandalwood, vanilla, and tons of sparkly resin. This is when the perfume becomes a comforting ‘sweater mélange’.

The older the get, the more I enjoy scents that envelop me in a billowing cloud of warm, toasty goodness powered by the natural expansiveness of their resins, flowers, or sandalwood, as opposed to the fake radiance of Ambroxan or the forced volume achieved by over-spraying.  The most naturally ‘wafty’ fragrances in my arsenal are the big balsamic orientals like L’Heure Bleue parfum (Guerlain), Opus 1144 (UNUM), Bengale Rouge (Papillon), Coromandel (Chanel), Farnesiana (Caron), and Taklamakan (777 SHL), which wear like a delicious ‘gold-brown’ scent cloud that moves with me, like Pig-Pen from Peanuts. Sticky Fingers – welcome to the fold.

Source of Sample: Free with my purchase of Under My Skin from the Francesca Bianchi website.

Photo by Dmitriy Frantsev on Unsplash

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

9th March 2018

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

 

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

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

9th November 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.

Incense Independent Perfumery Leather Oriental Patchouli Resins Review Sandalwood Scent Memory Smoke

Couteau de Poche – Fumabat: A Review

25th October 2017

 

Couteau de Poche means pocket knife in French, a name you’d think has little connection to an American niche perfume brand until you realize they’re based in Brooklyn and suddenly it all makes sense. The brand’s first perfume, Fumabat, costs a hefty $160 for 50mls, which I’m only paying if it’s served to me in a mason jar by a trustafarian with a man bun.

 

No, no, forgive my good-natured joshing: I’ve only recently let go of my outrage, you see, of having to pay $18 for a spinach frittata the size of an ash tray in Williamsburg earlier this month – it’s not that I don’t understand that the price is the new normal, for both the area and the artisanal side of the niche perfume market.

 

Regular fragrance fans would find that expensive, but for the trendy young hipster with a job, Fumabat is probably justified as a one-off investment into something that will make them feel unique and offbeat. What we in the fragrance community tend to forget is that while we often buy more than one fragrance per month, there’s a whole market of people out there who don’t buy more than one fragrance per year. And since we’re talking about a high value segment of the market – young professionals with a strong need for differentiation and individuality – as a brand it makes sense to hit them up hard on that one transaction.

 

Working through on that logic, does it follow that because Fumabat is not aimed at me, I won’t find it special or noteworthy?

 

Actually, I think Fumabat is pretty striking, although probably not in the way the brand intended. You can read the notes list at the end of this short review if you like, but despite everything pointing to a smoky incense oriental along the same lines as Black Afgano or Sombre Negra, Fumabat actually smells like vintage Opium, specifically the last droplets of vintage parfum that’s evaporated over time until only a smear of brown sludge is left in the vial. Now, what on earth could be going on in this modern, urban, hipster-y perfume to give off such a pronounced retro flavor?

 

Well, let’s break it down. When first applied, the topnotes smells pleasantly of stale but minty furniture lacquer on old furniture or decorative Chinese fans that have been left to fester in a damp, closed-up room for decades. The slightly airless, varnishy smell make me think of certain aged oud oils at first, but then I realize that the notes are triggering a scent memory that goes further back, to my childhood. It takes me a while to pick apart the associations: there is the handsome smell of soap bars kept in clothing drawers, incense sticks, little sandalwood elephants, patchouli oil, and winter coats with last year’s woodsmoke still embedded in the wool.

 

Slowly, I follow the train of thought to my stepmother, a half-Danish, half-Macedonian woman with a gypsy spirit and a talent for making every abode smell like her within minutes of arriving. Her name is Snežana, or Snow White, and for me, the smell of vintage Opium is the closest thing in perfume form that matches the exotic-but-homely maelstrom of aroma that accompanies her. She smells of sandalwood, soap, colorful wool, and incense sticks, and so does Opium.

 

In Fumabat, the direct link is found in its soapy pine and varnishy incense notes, but also quite strongly in the spicy, powdery carnation note that gives Fumabat (and Opium) its balsamic warmth. Actually, from a technical standpoint, it’s possible that the heavy patchouli and oakmoss in the drydown places Fumabat closer to scents such as Paloma Picasso or Norma Kamali Perfume (original) than Opium, but let’s not quibble. The fact is that the strangely vintage “grande dame” perfume vibe will surely strike a familiar chord for anyone that wears or collects the classic patch or spicy sandalwood bombs of the 1970’s.

 

Oddly, as the perfume hits the base, it shakes off the corduroy-brown glaze of the 1970’s, and stepping out from behind its bushy sideburns, reveals itself to be the smoky frankincense scent I thought it was always going to be, based on the notes. With a dry, sooty Somalian frankincense as matte as charcoal, it reminds me very much of Comme des Garcons’ Black, right down to the licorice twist. Lovely, smoky, satisfying stuff….albeit with zero connection to anything that had gone before.

 

On a more basic level, Fumabat is a great WTF perfume. You know, one of those madcap, slightly screwy perfumes that play mind games with you, making you wonder if you’ve got your frame of reference right. As a writer, these moments of self-doubt and “lost-ness” are essential to stop myself from crawling too far up my own arse. It’s possible that I return to this a few months down the line and realize that it’s not even that interesting, let alone good, but at least this review will be here to remind me that Fumabat got me going today.

 

Either way, Fumabat hit right at my emotional gut and connected, which was unexpected, considering the source. I’ll be back in Brooklyn in January, hopefully, so perhaps I’ll swallow the awful indignity of being awkward and un-cool in achingly hip Brooklyn and head round to their place to see them in situ. Let’s just hope they don’t read this poor excuse of a review and block the door.

 

Notes: green tea, galbanum, mint absolute, Bulgarian black pine, carnation, Somalian frankincense, vetiver root, leather, oakmoss, patchouli

Independent Perfumery Patchouli Review Sandalwood Vanilla Woods

Hiram Green Arbolé Arbolé

16th November 2016

Hiram Green’s new fragrance, Arbolé Arbolé, is his best work yet and the one that I would race out to buy in a heartbeat. Featuring woods and patchouli this time, Arbolé Arbolé, is the perfect autumnal riposte to Green’s entry for Spring, the bright and sunlit Dilettante.

There is a wonderfully soft, smutty quality to the patchouli used here – it’s quite clearly patchouli, but there are no headshop undertones, and it is not camphoraceous, green, or oily. Instead, it has a pleasantly stale, waxy chocolate softness that recalls vintage make-up, heavy silks taken out of storage in cedar trunks, and huge beeswax candles dripping over everything.

There is no beeswax in Arbolé Arbolé, though. Hiram Green does not use any products of animal origin in his all-natural perfumes, be it beeswax or ambergris. However, there is no denying that there is a homeopathic “waxy” thread running through most of Hiram Green’s perfumes, a sort of cosmetic, floral wax tonality that smudges the corners of the other notes and gives the perfumes a slightly retro, vintage glamour. His perfumes wear as if lit from within by candlelight.

If you’re used to modern woody fragrances, with their piercing synthetics blowing them up into bombastic stadium-fillers, then Arbolé Arbolé will ask you to adjust your television set. Natural perfumery is where the nose goes to take refuge from the eternal parade of modern woody ambers. Arbolé Arbolé takes cedar, patchouli, and sandalwood and melts them down into a silky wood smoothie.

All of the individual characteristics of the raw materials – the cedar, patchouli, sandalwood – have been rubbed off and sanded down until only a smooth, integrated woodiness remains. There is none of the normal bitter muskiness of cedar, none of the raw, earthy, or leafy facets of patchouli, and the sandalwood registers only as a unifying texture of creamy butter.

There is a faintly smutty, sexy quality to this perfume that appeals enormously. There is no musk used here, for obvious reasons, but there is nonetheless a vegetal muskiness that smudges the outlines of the different woods used, almost like ambrette but with none of the green apple peel rosiness that goes along with it. Arbolé Arbolé also shares the same soft, warm “musky cocoa powder” sexiness with Mazzolari Lei and Parfumerie Generale L’Ombre Fauve, both of which also blur the lines between patchouli, musk, and ambery-vanilla aromas so smoothly that the nose doesn’t immediately recognize one or the other.

However, those are both perfumes that mix naturals and synthetics, so they may not be the best point of comparison. In the sphere of natural perfumery, I think that Arbolé Arbolé has a similar feel to some of Neil Morris’ work in America, especially the slightly grungy, waxy (and surprisingly vintage-smelling) patchouli used to great effect in Prowl. Arbolé Arbolé is smoother and more refined; lighter in texture. Fans of Loree Rodkin’s Gothic I might also want to check out Arbolé Arbolé because it shares something of that waxy vanilla-patch vibe.

Arbolé Arbolé takes its name from a famous Lorca poem where young suitors try to persuade a young girl picking olives to go off with them (but she refuses). In my mind, while wearing the perfume, I can see the golden brown colors Lorca describes when talking about the darkening afternoon light:

When the afternoon had turned
dark brown, with scattered light,
a young man passed by, wearing
roses and myrtle of the moon.

Arbolé Arbolé has incredible sillage and tenacity on my skin for a natural, and yet it never feels muddy or thick. It is a linear but thoroughly warm and sensual experience for me, with only slight transitions in the body of the fragrance from waxy wood smoothie to faintly powdery vanilla. It is sweet in a natural, woody way, and the powdery touch at the end is not excessive. Personally, I absolutely love it.

Hiram Green is running a fantastic introductory offer for the launch of Arbolé Arbolé – if you go to his website here, you will see that if you buy 50ml of Arbolé Arbolé, you get a 10ml travel size of it for free. Also, may I commend Hiram Green for selling travel sizes of all his fragrances in the first place? That’s a rare thing indeed and much appreciated by perfumistas who find it hard to get through 10ml of anything.

Chypre Floral Gourmand Iris Patchouli Vanilla

Guerlain Shalimar Parfum Initial

22nd November 2015

I think Guerlain did a bang up job of modernizing Shalimar for the tastes of the younger market. Personally, I love the original Shalimar, but from what I smell on young girls around my neighborhood, their tender young noses would likely wrinkle at the smell of all that smoke, leather, balsams, and dirtiness. Some perfumes need to be grown into, and Shalimar is definitely one of those. (Don’t worry, girls, she will be still there waiting, still great, when you are finally ready). In the meantime, Shalimar Parfum Initial is a very good rendition.

Shalimar Parfum Initial is essentially an add-and-subtract job that was done with taste and thought. Wasser removed the stinky grade of bergamot used in the top notes of the original and replaced it with a sunny orange/lemon combo unlikely to offend young noses. He took away all the smoky leather, balsams, and incense, and added a huge dollop of what feels to me like Angel-like notes, mainly caramel, berries, and patchouli, thus bringing Parfum Initial to the teetering brink of the modern fruitchouli epidemic, but never pushing it all the way in. Finally, he added a massive dose of iris, giving it a plush, vevelty, powdery mouthfeel that puts it in the same family as the great Dior Homme Intense. It is also vaguely reminiscent of Coco Mademoiselle and Angel, but always retains its own character. It smells a bit like Shalimar too, of course, but the overall feel is different, more gourmand, sweet, plush, and uncomplicated. For people who hated the baby powder in the original, this version will also likely provide some relief – it is not nearly as powdery as the original.

For all of that, I don’t LOVE love it. The original Shalimar simply blows this out of the water on all levels, and it is an impossible act to follow. Moreover, repeat wearings of Parfum Initial has wearied my nose to it somewhat, and there are some things in it that I’m picking up and irritating me. I find that there is an intensely sweet, almost syrupy note in there (the caramel plus berries probably) that I can almost feel in my throat. It kind of throws the perfume off balance a bit. There is nothing to balance out the sweet syrup in this, and it makes me appreciate the original even more, because at least in that, the sweetness of the vanilla is perfectly tempered by the smoke and leather. Anyway, overall the scent is gorgeous and will appeal to the younger market, and (hopefully) bring a new generation of scent lovers around to the great Shalimar when they are good and ready for her.

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