Quasi Un’Absurdia by Chris Rusak is a rare joy. In the modern hodge podge of brutal woody ambers and syrupy eau-de-department-store florals, instances of classical beauty are few and far between. So a minute of silence, please, for the feat that’s been pulled off here by a small artisan.
I’ve no idea whether if it’s innate talent – genius untrammeled by the stifling stays of the classical perfumery education corset – or the simple good luck of a five year-old who accidentally hammers out a Monet with a potato stamp, but I’ll be damned if Chris Rusak, probably armed with nothing more than a small perfumer’s organ of essences, hasn’t created a glorious floral to rival that of giants such as Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue or Grossmiths’ Shem el Nessim.
Quasi Un’Absurdia is a cinematic sweep of flowers that elates my spirits in the same way as the first swell of sound from the orchestra pit. I experience the opening as a rush of colors and texture – the purple velvet of jasmine, the buttery yellow of ylang against the polleny green-yellow of narcissus, and the greenery of lily stalks. In the roar of color and sound, I swear I smell the aromatic crushed bud of French lavender, but this may just be the civet punching its way through the floral mass and drawing a phantom Jicky-lite shape in the air.
The polleny narcissus aroma splits the difference between the eyelid-droopingly indolic, over-stuffed scent of a room filled with the flowers and the tartness of freshly-cut daffodil stems plunged into water. I find the rich, true smell of the jasmine and rose absolutes used here to be intoxicating in the way only the real flowers can be. This perfume makes me feel like I’m Dorothy, walking through that field of poppies, drugged up to my eyeballs on their narcotizing scent.
The gasoline beauty of pure jasmine absolute alone would have made this an easy sell for me, even if Chris Rusak hadn’t been clever enough to underline its Sambac-like quality with the pleasantly watery bitterness of mint or artemisia and its Grandiflorum-like qualities with a bubblegummy ylang. But he has, so there you go. The arrangement here – the complex juggling and trade-offs involved in keeping this great slew of natural floral absolutes afloat – is flawlessly executed. Especially impressive is the fact that the benzyl acetate facet of natural ylang and jasmine has not been allowed to dominate, thereby saving the composition from the grapey dopiness of the standard big white floral.
A bouquet this rich in white flowers risks heaviness. But thanks to the sharply woody civet and a lily tincture that leans more towards the crunchy green-and-white freshness of muguet than the funeral meatiness of lily, the overall impression remains remarkably crisp. Quasi Un’Absurdia is definitely not as lily-dominant to me as perfumes like Malle’s Lys Méditerranée, but actually, there’s a time and a place for the insistent salty, almost aquatic-tinged heavy cream of lilies, and this is not it. The ‘lily-ness’ of Quasi Un’Absurdia is perfectly dosed.
There’s some civet here, but it’s been used less as a keystone note and more as a means by which to texturize and sharpen the fuzzy beige carpet of tonka padding out the florals all the way down to the base. Quasi Un’Absurdia isn’t terribly animalic, therefore. However, there is a subtle ‘freshly-washed crotch’ nuance here that works very well against the sweet floral mass. This too is Guerlainesque, a cheeky reference perhaps to Jacques Guerlain’s assertion that all Guerlain fragrances contain something of the undercarriage of one’s mistress.
The drydown of Quasi Un’Absurdia will be an unmitigated pleasure-fest for anyone who loves the intricate yet cozy abstraction of the great Guerlain perfumes such as L’Heure Bleue or Chamade but doesn’t adore the sometimes fussy powderiness of their finish. This perfume’s Guerlainesque almond-custard denouement is streamlined by comparison, a product of cantilevering a huge bouquet of flowers over a sharp, airy base of woods, civet, and soapy musks. In fact, Quasi Un’Absurdia is the equivalent of a John Irving novel: it spins a cracking good yarn in the classical tradition of Alexandre Dumas but borrows the dreamily absurdist, abstract style of Gabriel García Márquez to tell it.
Source of Sample: I purchased this sample as part of a sample set directly from the Chris Rusak site, here. Quasi Un’Absurdia is currently all sold out, but apparently will be made available again in 2020/2021 when the new batch is ready (the perfume contains a rare lily tincture that Chris makes himself). It costs $140 for 30ml, and $190 for 50ml. The perfume features real civet, as per the website, which means that it is not cruelty-free.
I’m fascinated by the individuality of the models at play in the indie perfume sector. Some houses, like Diane St. Clair and Papillon work slowly, releasing an average of one perfume a year (if that), willing to wait until every single detail is ‘right’ before releasing what is a highly-finished work to the public. Others, like Prin Lomros, work gonzo style – restlessly creating, releasing, and then wiping out whole perfumes, like an artist furiously rubbing out a sketch he is suddenly unhappy with.
What this boils down to is the notion of risk. Just how much risk is Prin Lomros willing to take? In my opinion, a lot. This is a guy who has had quite a few brands and sub-brands in a very short period of time (I count three, including one disappeared, one prestige, and one diffusion, although in the last few days, I think a fourth might have been sprung upon us), populated with perfumes that appear and then disappear, never to be seen again. Other perfumes get the chop, only to return a year later under a different name.
Sure, this all sounds like Prin Lomros is having a lot of fun – but what about us? Though there’s nothing permanent in perfumery these days – Penhaligon’s glorious Ostara came and went in the space of two years, despite its critical success, and half of the 13 Gucci Flora flankers will probably have been removed from the shelves by the time I finish this sentence – expecting even the most committed of indie perfumery supporters to lay down $160 on a 30ml bottle of liquid that might be axed on a whim four months later is an exceptionally big ask.
Generally, a perfumer can only bet on their customers accepting this level of risk if one of two conditions have been met. Either a) the raw materials are of such rarity or unusual quality, like vintage Cambodi oud oil from the 1970s or a hunk of white ambergris from the Western shores of Ireland that customers buy out of the fear of missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime experience, or b) the compositions themselves are so artistic or clever that customers are inspired to invest wholesale in the creative real estate locked inside the perfumer’s head.
For the former, you only have to look at the success of Areej Le Doré, Sultan Pasha, and Ensar Oud to know that the feverish fanboyism around the cult of raw materials is more than adequate to keep the ship afloat. Brands, if they are clever, might seek to co-opt a bit of this market for themselves by introducing special one-off editions focused on rare, limited run materials; Eris Parfums did this recently with Mxxx. (review here) to great effect, using a fantastic piece of white ambergris to turn their regular Mx. from a silky white cotton t-shirt into a $1,500 cashmere wrap.
Prin Lomros’ perfumes lean a bit on the precious raw materials thing, but really rely more on the perfumer’s artistic vision as the hook with which to reel customers in. He takes quite a few creative risks – which makes sampling his work huge fun (but blind buys ill-advised). What this means for me is that although roughly 60% of what he turns out doesn’t work for me, the ones I do like I really, really admire and find myself thinking about long after I’ve put the sample away. Heck, even the ones I wouldn’t wear to save my life linger in my head.
worked my way through 18 – count them, 18 – samples from both Parfums
Prissana and Strangers Parfumerie during a time of great stress this January,
when multiple deadlines and the arrival of a new management team at work meant
that I survived on crisps and wine for nutrition and rarely got more than five
hours of sleep a night. Normally, conditions like these would taint my
perception of whatever I’m testing or wearing; but, a grosso modo, the
Prin Lomros stuff still emerged with a big fat thumbs up from me.
Of course, that’s not to say that there aren’t a few problem areas. For one, the perfumes are all a little front-loaded, with drydowns that, while long-lasting (lots of ‘beastmode’ performers here), are a little wan compared to the richness upfront. Two or three of the perfumes I tried were marred with an overdose of noxious ‘power tool’ aromachemicals – Ambroxan, maybe, Norlimbanol, and a few of those ‘new wood’ captives; these ones were an immediate line in the sand for me. But even in those, I was able to find little pockets of something interesting or playful that kept me plugged into the experience. To say that his perfumes surprised me and challenged my preconceptions is really quite something, only because I am jaded as fuck.
I think Mandarava (Prissana) is utterly horrific but many people whose opinion I respect think it’s a masterpiece. While clearly well made, its dense cloud of indeterminable flowers, incense, and musk is unbearable to me, because note for note, it smells like someone emptied an entire aerosol of nag champa-scented room deodorizer into a small room and closed all the windows. It has the same overwhelming stuffiness and cheap, greasy-powdery musk overload as Koh-I-Noor by Areej Le Doré but lacks that scent’s more fine-tuned sense of balance that somehow keeps everything in check; Mandarava is unhinged in a way that sets my teeth on edge. But, you know, people other than me love it.
I don’t normally review so negatively, so you have to know there’s a redeeming angle here. And here it is – the drydown is weirdly good. I’ve worn this three times in the name of science, and each time the drydown takes me by surprise in a good way. Unfortunately, I never quite managed to make it to my notepad in time to write down what it is that I think almost redeems Mandarava, so you’ll have to believe me that the texture of the scent changes about six hours in, emerging from the cardboardy fug of nag champa to become sharper, woodier – more interesting somehow. If I ever subject myself to Mandarava again – which, to be honest, is unlikely – I’ll come back and update this review.
If you’re skimming this post for an entry point, then Ma Nishtana is probably the easiest and most immediately likeable perfume in either the Prissana or Strangers Parfumerie line. A judiciously-spiced church incense scent, Ma Nishtana splits the difference between the soapy, aldehyded, Coca-Cola-ish airiness of Cardinal/Avignon and the warmer, breadier, more caramelic-ambery thickness of Contre Bombarde 32 by SAUF or Samharam by Arte Profumi. The drydown drones on a bit, thanks to an application of the dreaded Norlimbanol, but even as a No-Limbs-Left-At-All-hater I have to admit that it’s applied with an unusually subtle touch here.
I don’t know that Ma Nishtana distinguishes itself so much from the stalwarts of this rather cramped incense genre to be worth the price, but of course, this is a deeply personal thing. The most innovative or unusual thing about Ma Nishtana is really that faint whiff of armpitty cumin or turmeric that’s half under-proved doughnut and half curry-sweat, but if you own either Grimoire by Anatole LeBreton or Al Oudh by L’Artisan Parfumeur, I think you’re covered. Ma Nishtana is very nice, very good – but not entirely necessary, at least in my opinion.
Tom Yum is a thing of beauty! A fantastically fresh and sour take on the classic French eau de cologne, it is something like Eau Sauvage or Ô de Lancôme flushed with the mouth-stripping aroma of lemongrass – half lemon, half rooty grass – and freshly-squeezed limes. These tart, aromatic topnotes are all under-pinned with a gorgeously sweet and dusty galangal note that stands in for musk and serves an a pillowy extension cord for the citruses well into the drydown. Although Tom Yum doesn’t smell as authentically hot, sour, or herbaceous as a bowl of Tom Yum itself, and is therefore not nearly as exotic as the notes list wants you to believe, it is still the rare ‘update’ to the eau de cologne model that actually works (and lasts).
Yum is just sour enough in the topnotes to refresh, herbaceous and soapy enough
in the midsection to offer that essential coolness, and sweetly spicy enough in
the tailbone to avoid that throat-catching sourness of laundry musk that tires
my palate in most modern takes. For me, Tom Yum competes head-to-head with the
basil leaf-inflected blast of air conditioning that is the bottle of Paris-Deauville
(Chanel) I keep in the door of my fridge as a substitute for, you know, actual
air conditioning. If you have the money to spend on an eau de cologne-style
perfume and want it to last a fair amount of time without having to choke on
nasty woody ambers or oceans of white musk, then I highly recommend Tom
Somewhat along the same lines, if you love neroli and want a complex, natural-smelling version, then Natsumeku is very good. In keeping with its Japanese inspiration, it smells quite like a Di Ser perfume in that its tingly, orangey citrus notes (neroli in this case) tinged with the wintergreen finger snap of camphor and silvery, refined hinoki wood. In other words, neroli filtered through a Japanese sensibility rather than through the regular ole channel of an Amalfi citrus grove. It is fresh and sharp, and quite medicinal, like the cool, steamy air in a Japanese onsen on Hokkaido island, where you are getting rubbed down by a masseur with unpronounceable Japanese herbs, damp sea mosses, and yuzu-style citruses that probably only exist within 2 miles of the onsen and nowhere else. It smells like, for want of a better word, the “Other”.
I am less enthused about the solid-but-plain-Jane drydown of Natsumeku, because I am not a huge fan of neroli, and this does get very ‘neroli’-ish in the end. It might be just me who has this issue, but I always tire of the incessantly cheerful soapiness of neroli. In this instance, if I am choosing to smell soapy and clean, then I’d much rather be wearing Tom Yum, above.
Thichila is an interesting one indeed. Sorry to be bossy, but I’m really going to have to insist you disregard any reviews you see for Thichila that make it out to be tremendously complex, floral, incensey, old school, or even chypre-ish – it’s really none of those things. Because Thichila is one of those perfumes that happens to be composed in an Eastern style and uses complex-smelling, exotic naturals, many people – mostly Westerners – may mistake its complexity for a matter of construction. As a matter of fact, Thichila is simply one big bridge built between two massively complex materials – a natural Thai oud oil and a big, rustic myrrh. These two monoliths happen, in this case, to share a peculiarly rubbery-rooty-oily-anisic character that makes it difficult to tell where one ends and the other takes over. I find Thichila fascinating precisely because of this.
The Thai oud smells charmingly like the inside of a party balloon or a bouncy castle – plasticky, rubbery, with the far-off twang of trampled fairground straw and sticky, jammy-fruity children’s handprints. It reminds me very much of one of FeelOud’s more unusual-smelling oud oils, whose name I can’t recall right now, but which smelled like the air that escapes from plastic lunchboxes that you’re opening for the first time in three months when the new term is starting.
At some point, the sweet, plasticky rubber tube of oud rolls into the scent of myrrh – gloomy and rubbery, but also sweet and crunchy, like giant golden sugar crystals dipped in anise and spread in a hard, glittery paste across your skin. I think Thichila is, on balance, a great perfume, but fair warning – you have to love this particular style of oud oil and this particular sort of myrrh for it to be a success for you. A very specific perfume, therefore, for a very specific taste.
Maruyama smells to me like a richly vegetal cis-jasmone or immortelle scent, i.e., floral notes with clear overtones of burnt hay, maple sugar, or strange exotic herbs like lovage that smell half like a white flower, half like celery. It reminded me at first of Comme des Garcons’ Sequoia and then of Cardamom Rose Sugar by Solstice Scents. There’s always a point at which this sort of thing smells pleasantly like a glazed maple-cider doughnut to me, and then slightly but ever so insistently of curry and caramelized brown sugar mashed together, at which point I don’t really want to smell it at all. If you don’t hit that plateau quite so quickly as I do, then I highly recommend Maruyama as an exotic Eastern take on the classically French ‘Sables’ (Annick Goutal) territory.
Mohragot is the nouveau fougère of the line, kind of analogous to the place that Mousse Illuminée holds for Rogue Perfumery, or Eiderantler for January Scent Project, but with a thrillingly damp earth accord that whips us away from that lavender shaving foam ‘daddy’ picture and plunges us instead deep into the bowels of a violent thunderstorm in a forest, the rain and wind ripping up the soil and hurling broken branches, leaves, and air molecules into each other.
It took me forever to work out why I love the wet, dark, green ‘mustiness’ and soil-y ‘moldiness’ of this opening, until I realize that it replicates the same ozone-in-turmoil atmosphere ofSupercell by Sixteen92, and to a lesser extent, the ‘old’ and ‘clay-like’ green earthiness of Oakmoss (Muschio di Quercia) by Abdes Salaam Al Attar.
Someday, I’ll figure out what it is about this sort of scent that moves my black soul, but right now, all I can think of is that this kind of mossy vetiver smell is alive and dead in equal measure. The mold and the dustiness, the ‘aged’ browny tint of the earth smell, its overall murk and gloom – this reminds me of the ‘newly-opened tomb’ dead air that billows out of Onda parfum (Vero Profumo) and Djedi (Guerlain).
But here and there, there is the juicy rudeness of new plant life poking its way through, the air crackling with ozone. So yes, though the hummus-rich, brown-green earthiness is all-encompassing at first, soon you notice that it is pierced here and there with the minty vase water of oakmoss.
On balance, however, this is not a particularly fresh or herbal example of a fougère. Pandan leaf, or screwpine, is mentioned in the notes list, so perhaps the gentle sweetness of those screwpine ittar they use to flavor syrups, tobacco, and cosmetics in India is what is relieving Mohragot of that tiresomely ‘Brut’-like, aftershavey bitterness that usually makes fougères such a bore to wear (as a woman). The pandan leaf note gives Mohragot an interestingly milky, nutty tonality, yet it is not as piercingly sweet or as fruity as an actual screwpine ittar. I find Mohragot one of the more interesting perfumes in the Prissana line, because it takes a while to pick apart, and even after three or four wears, parts of it remain impenetrable to me. I do appreciate that the ubiquitous 21st century finish of dopey tonka bean has been swapped out for a softly musky tobacco accord that smells like an idealized vision of an autumn walk. Unfortunately, Mohragot disappears from my skin within three hours. Now, I’m no longevity bore, but for $160 for 30mls, that’s just taking the piss.
If I’d been dipping my toes into Strangers Parfumerie to test the waters and encountered Aroon Sawat first, I’d have turned 180º on my heels toute suite. Its clumsy mish-mash of woody ambers and big, syrupy fruit is bathed in a chemical radiance so powerful and all-reaching that my eyeballs hurt even to remember it now. It is a perfume whose finer points are wasted on me completely, obscured as they are by this big, thick gloppy blanket of amber-wood-syrup-resin-fruit aromachemicals. It’s just atrocious. A crime against perfume.
Thank God I operate a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ policy, because all the other Strangers Parfumerie perfume turned out to be either memorably quirky, or charming, or at least interesting enough to redeem the utter horror that was Aroon Sawat. In fact, in general, I liked the Strangers Parfumerie as much as, if not more than, the perfumes in the more upmarket (and more highly priced) Prissana line. The fact that they represent much better value for money is almost beside the point.
SM Café is possibly one of the most successful coffee-based perfumes out there, and I say that as someone who rarely thinks that coffee-scented anything works (apart from the real thing itself of course). The SM in SM Café stands for sado-masochism, but there’s nothing really risqué about this nicely-balanced dance between the intense, burnt flavor of freshly-roasted coffee beans and the clean sweetness of wood, musks, and amber resin. The coffee does smell undeniably dirty and grungy, but it’s more the funk of damp coffee grounds you’re cleaning out of the pot than anything S&M or leather related, and anyway it all gets balanced out by the milky ambers and beeswax in the base.
Although not terribly fruity, the sour morello cherry accent and the coumarin add a certain pipe tobacco angle to the concoction that I find broadly handsome – it also makes SM Café the indie synonym for Close Up by Olfactive Studio. But truth be told, SM Café is far more austere and masculine-leaning; in overall orientation, far closer to the dusty, burnt, 1970s character of Coze by Parfumerie Generale than to the sweetened coffee-tobacco of Close Up.
I’m confused by just how much I enjoy the gourmand perfumes in the Strangers Parfumerie line-up. Gourmand perfumes are not generally my thing. The designer ones are gloppy glucose bombs with zero distinguishing features, the niche ones use higher quality or more interesting sugar-choco-frooty aromachemicals but unfortunately tend to arrive at much the same place as the designer ones (and cost about $200 more), and the indies, well, in their effort to be all weird and ironic and indie about it, push the gourmand notes into ever-increasingly grotesque forms just for the sake of it (with few of them very wearable in the long run).
So Fetch, for example, has a protein bar accord and is based on a phrase from Mean Girls, so you’ll forgive me if I say I was ready to automatically class this with the third category. But I WAS WRONG. This stuff is just delightful. It has sass. It opens up on a huge whoosh of cherry-flavored fizz, as if someone dropped a whole packet of Love Hearts into a 2 liter plastic bottle of 7-Up and shook it all up until it exploded like a trailer park Prosecco.
So Fetch makes me feel young. It makes me imagine what Bendelirious by État Libre d’Orange might smell like if cross-pollinated with the rubbery tennis balls of The Soft Lawn (Imaginary Authors). There are, at points, beguiling little whiffs of rubber tires, fuel exhaust, and lemon-scented sherbet powder. In the drydown, notes of pink lemonade, strawberry erasers, and marshmallow fluff float into the picture – basically the same soft, billowy lokhoum fun of Douleur! by Bogue, minus the enamel-stripping rose oxide. Really, really good stuff.
Sangre Dulce is darker in tone than So Fetch, but no less weird or interesting, or ultimately, wearable. Immediately on application, there is something here that reminds me of something Lush or BPAL would make: burned sugar crossed with the headshop murkiness of amber cubes and dragon’s blood incense, or some mysterious dried herb concoction in a burlap sack. It smells very indie – not in the super-fancy artisanal sense of the word, but more in the sense of the Etsy crowd dropping a Solstice or Hexennacht release of perfumes honoring the Moon or witches or something. Not saying that to knock it, by the way – many of my favorite perfumes are indie oils from the latter category (I am just not into the witchy side of things).
I smell in Sangre Dulce a whole host of confusing but really pleasing notes that seem to hang together very well – burned sugar, rubber galoshes, sugar mashed into dirt, bathtub booze, and in the far drydown, something that smells like over-baked wheatgrass and granola bars (maybe this is where that protein bar ended up). If Luca Turin were to smell this, I’d imagine he’d find a way to praise Prin Lomros for his off-the-wall thinking, in the same way he (almost wistfully) loves the Constantine father and son duo at Lush for having the guts to just throw everything into a pot as a mad experiment and see what works (“Someone seems to be having a lot of fun over there” as he might say, in that impish way of his).
A basic way to describe Sangre Dulce is to say that it smells like sugar cubes and burned wheat that took a wrong turn somewhere and fell down a dark cellar into a pot of hooch, dragging with it some Converse sneakers and a vial of herbal folk medicine. In fact, I’m pretty sure that was the creative brief for Lush’s All Good Things.
Cigar Rum seems to be one of the most popular scents in the Strangers Parfumerie stable, probably because the handsome, complex aroma of tobacco absolute never fails to please. This is a good but hardly unique take on tobacco leaf – most of the heavy lifting is done by the tobacco absolute, but there’s a flash of warm, boozy rum up top to dress it up, and it skips over the heavy vanilla or dried fruit stickiness of Tobacco Vanille.
That said, it does nothing special or new above and beyond the real baseline for indie tobacco perfumes, which remains Tabac Aurea by Sonoma Scent Studio. Cigar Rum is also one of the Prin Lomros scents that falls flat in the base – there’s very little there to hold it together once you get past the richness of the tobacco opening. If you’re thinking of investing in an indie tobacco, I’d still go for the best-in-class of Tabac Aurea.
Rum Intense is the same,
but is obviously a concession to the bros, who always want something more
chemically radiant and beastmode. Anything nice-smelling or natural about Cigar
Rum has been wiped out by the heavy woody ambers in the Intense version. Honestly,
I’d steer clear and leave this one to the bros, because God knows those poor
guys are under-catered to/s.
Burning Ben is so, so good. You definitely need to love phenolic scents to like it, but as long as your fetish is smelling like beef jerky on a campfire, then Burning Ben will really do it for you. It runs along the same lines as Le Labo Patchouli 24 or Slumberhouse Jeke – basically big, billowing bombs of birch tar, cade, and lapsang souchong smeared over a sweet or boozy baseline. But it features an innovation so good-smelling and so damn right that I can’t believe nobody’s thought of before now: coffee! The burnt, aromatic ‘fresh roast’ coffee bean note lifted out of SM Café and grafted right on top of the burning cade-birch heart of Burning Ben makes for a smoky, tarry coffee darkness that smells fantastic.
At first, as you might imagine, it’s a bit too intense, like a billycan of coffee that’s boiled over on a campfire and is now sizzling meanly on the embers beneath. The addition of the coffee gives the birch tar leather a more masculine bent, and for part of this ride, I feel like I’m wearing my boyfriend’s leather jacket, infused with his scent of aftershave, manly musk, and general ‘maleness’ – this I find sexy in a cross-dressing way, and for people who find Patchouli 24 not masculine or butch enough, well, voila Burning Ben.
But before all of these intensely burnt, roasted flavors can run over into harsh or bitter, an oriental-ish and sweetly nutty base arrives to soften the edges. The basenotes are vague and amorphous in a way that makes you think, ‘Mmm, that smells good’, but also leaves you at a loss to define any one particular note or accord that’s making it so.
The best I can do is to say that it’s more like a texture than a taste, like those firm salted toffees whose pleasure lies mainly in the chew. Salty-sweet amber, toffee, beeswax, crushed hazelnuts – a sensuous mélange of silky, warm ‘brown’ flavors that are the perfect accompaniment to the sharper, smokier ‘brown’ notes of birch tar and coffee up top. Burning Ben is one of the Strangers Parfumerie scents that smells ever better the more it goes on – perhaps the forceful nature of phenolic scents in general is what ensures the richness doesn’t attenuate as quickly. Anyway, I love this category of scents, so it follows that I love Burning Ben. Beyond my general bias, I think that Burning Ben manages to pull off a bit of innovation in a genre that I suspect is rather a self-limiting space.
As good as Burning Ben is, I’ve left the best for last. Salted Green Mango is, for me, the standout of the Strangers Parfumerie line. The mango note is not really the point – it’s just a momentary swelling of something syrupy and green-tropical behind the avalanche of musk and vetiver, subsiding into the ether far too quickly to be a feature.
The thing to pay attention to here is the salt. Salted Green Mango is basically a huge, spacey cloud of sparkly vetiver-musk molecules that mimics the invigorating scent of salt air. It smells clean, but despite the probably industrial amounts of white musks or Iso E Super used here, also quite organic, like what I imagine the air around the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah smells like on a breezy day. And yet, there is something clearly lab-made about the scent; it feels engineered, ergonomic, and therefore a bit more chic or more modern than just a simple clustering of naturals.
I’m in love with how this (really quite simple) scent of white, clean, salty woods and musk gives me that ‘my-skin-but-better’ aura; it’s effortless and sensual. I’m willing to bet serious money that people who love those modern, shape-shifting floral-woody musks made to smell like 50% cyborg, 50% warm human skin – stuff like Glossier You, Diptyque’s Fleur de Peau, and Le Labo Ambrette 9 – will love Salted Green Mango. For me, it knocks all those modern skin musks, as well as Jo Malone’s (really excellent) Wood Sage & Sea Salt, right off their perches. This one goes straight on the full bottle list.
Mxxx. by Eris Parfums is an almost embarrassingly
sexual scent – the result, I imagine, of an experiment to cross breed the silvery,
driftwood aroma of a far-off beach bonfire with the boudoir-ish scent of smoked
butter, incense ash, and the baritone subwoofer of 88% cocoa powder.
I really liked the original Mx., which, with its creamy-spicy-woody character (à la Cadjméré by Parfumerie Generale), was a bright and casual affair. The innovation here, with Mxxx., is that Barbara Hermann and her perfumer for Eris Parfums, Antoine Lie, decided to up the stakes by adding a large dose of 7% natural ambergris tincture, cacao from Trinidad, and hyraceum tincture to the formula. The difference this has made to the bones of the perfume is striking. It’s not just that the natural ambergris has made the perfume warmer, siltier, more animalic – which it has – but that the furniture has been rearranged in a way that makes me think it’s another room entirely.
Each time I wear Mxxx., it overwrites my memory of the original a little bit more. I remember the original smelling like sandalwood, if sandalwood was made of pine, milk, hazelnuts, and chocolate oranges – sexy in a tousled, white cotton t-shirt kind of way. Mx. was firmly unisex, or just ever so slightly feminine-leaning, and clearly a perfume for daylight hours.
Mxxx., by contrast, is a smeary creature of the night and more emphatically masculine. The bright chocolate-orange sandalwood of the original has been replaced with a smoky butter note, which is held in place by an quasi-fecal cedarwood with bitter, chocolatey undertones.
In its total effect, Mxxx. still smells like sandalwood to me, but a much earthier, more aromatic version than the milky ‘saffron orange’ sweetness of the original. The butter-cacao undertone here is unctuous but roughened with a kitten’s lick of grey sea salt that catches at your throat and stops the scent from smelling overtly gourmand. The incense, subtle spices, and the musky cedarwood give the scent a dry, gauzy texture, like ash from a wood fire blown into the air.
Animalic? Technically, yes, I suppose it is. But Mxxx. isn’t one of those fragrances that sacrifices smoothness or wearability at the altar of animalic authenticity. I think we’ve all smelled scents where castoreum smells like the pissiest, driest, most urine-soaked piece of leather imaginable, or where their natural ambergris smells alarmingly like halitosis, horse dander, and low-tide harbor. While I admire those kind of scents for pushing boundaries, and for testing our tolerance for the unabridged ‘realness’ of animal secretions at their rawest, they sure as hell can be a trial to wear.
Give me something like Mxxx. any day. It smells great, and sexy in a skin-like kind of way, but never like something that’s playing a game of chicken with me. It really isn’t any more challenging or animalic than, say, the full-bodied, all-original-woods-and-civet-intact lasciviousness of 1980s-1990s perfume, like Samsara (Guerlain) or Ubar (Amouage) or Creed’s fantastic Jasmin Impératrice Eugenie (not that Mxxx. smells like these, particularly; I’m just referring to a similar ‘generosity’ in their proportions of thick, pongy-sandalwoody-French-perfumeyness).
The smoked butter note is, for me, the primary animalic element. It smells a bit fatty and skin-like, at first, before the smoke and ashy woods arrive to dry it all out. The smoke here is subtle, rising in curlicues up from the bottom of the scent, and sifting its way lazily through the salty, melty cocoa-butter of the topnotes. This is not the strong smoke of cade or birch tar, but rather the rubbery, sweet smoke of the tire leather in (vintage) Bvlgari Black.
It’s a genuinely sexy perfume, this minxy Mxxx., but not in an immediately obvious way – far more Hot Priest from Fleabag, let’s say, than the knowingly calculated (and boringly obvious) head-tilt of George Clooney.
Source of sample: Barbara Hermann very kindly sent me a sample to test (with no obligation to write about it), for which I am very grateful. I believe that wearing it has increased my sexual attractiveness by about 156%, but I work with scientists, so I should say that there’s no real evidence to support that figure outside of my own imagining.
I don’t know how to say this without sounding condescending, but one sniff of Eve and Pandora, the new duo of perfumes from Diane St. Clair, is enough to tell that there has been an evolutionary leap somewhere between her first group of releases and this one (I haven’t smelled Casablanca, so perhaps this is the missing link).
Don’t get me wrong – I really liked the first Diane St. Clair releases. First Cut, Gardener’s Glove, and Frost were quiet études of a lifecycle as viewed through the eye of a woman intensely connected to it; each perfume a little door cracked open onto an internal dreamscape. I liked that you could tell that these were perfumes made from a woman’s perspective: there was a female sort of tentativeness or ambiguity that I don’t feel in the work of, say, a Josh Lobb or a Hans Hendley. Her first perfumes are little crawlspaces between absolutes, allowing you to breathe and just be.
But Eve and Pandora are perfumes in which you can instantly smell all of the rich, bosomy vintage perfumes that Diane St. Clair has smelled her way through in the meantime. Eve and Pandora are confident florals that have something to say and aren’t apologizing for taking up space. They both smell like flowers, clearly, but this time painted confidently in oil rather than politely in pastel.
Others better and more interested in backstory than I have explored who Pandora and Eve were, and the vein of rebellious curiosity that unites them; all I will say is that both perfumes do justice to the conflicted, imperfect condition that is womanhood. They are abstract and perfumey – a bit resistant to analysis – mixing the bitter with the sweet, and appealing to purely adult tastes. Like women (and bank vaults), Pandora and Eve take a single set of variables, shake them up, and arrive at very different results.
of the endless permutations that Eve could have settled on, we arrive at
innocence. Well, at first anyway. Powdery woodland flowers – violets, freesia,
and a fresh, crunchy green apple note that has the good manners to smell natural
for once, rather than the lurid Jolly Rancher version we usually get, or worse
the fake apple-cum-Ambroxan freshness of some Creed masculines. This is the
prim crispness of apple soap or apple shampoo, with a lemony lick of vetiver
for that freshly-mown grass thing that goes so well with apple.
Lilacs hide and then emerge – all sullen, thick-lipped sexuality, turgid and dormant, trapped inside a prim high-necked blouse, not fooling anyone. Does that description of lilacs surprise you? Are you violently disagreeing with me as you read? Talk to me when you’ve lived for years in a neighborhood so thick with lilac bushes that you feel ganged up on. Lilacs smell soapy and prim and Victorian in the singular, in isolation, but when roaming in packs of five or six, you notice that their scent has a tipping point, where it spills over from soap into this hugely ripe, fertile, polleny smell that occupies the air like a shape. Lilacs are the smell of something that pretends it is being restrained but in reality is already touching you inappropriately. And yet, and yet…that lemony vetiver keeps the outer garments smelling as a fresh as a daisy.
Eve is for lovers of Opardu, or better yet, Warszawa, both by Puredistance, by which I mean that it will appeal to people who appreciate a certain old-fashioned, Veronica Lake-style glamour in their floral perfumes – the scented equivalent of a high-necked white satin blouse hiding a ridiculously lush shelf of a bosom.
Pandora spins the dial on the same set of notes, but the safe opens with a satisfying click on a completely different cavity. Pandora is the Hussy – Joan Holloway to Eve’s Peggy Olsen. It opens with a perfumey blast of heavy, bittersweet gasoline and hairspray mixed with fruit – the gaseous and thick aroma of an apple perhaps, rotting slowly in an organic wrapper of green leaves and flowers. In the background, there is a civety floral musk flushing the air pockets of the scent.
This is – and bear with me here – a fruity, waxy chypre backwashed in a gauze of cigarette smoke. It smells a bit like Lucien Lelong’s Indiscret, a 1940’s femme fatale type floral that derived much of its character from a grey-green, grainy galbanum that cast a hazy fag ash aura over the whole shebang. Thanks to the passion of a close friend for Indiscret, I invested in a vintage bottle from eBay, and was left a little underwhelmed by the perfume apart from this one unique aspect – that weirdly attractive ‘turned perfume’ smell you get from old perfumes whose formerly green or fresh-smelling galbanum, or oakmoss, or God knows, coriander have slowly disintegrated over time until they’ve coagulated into this brown gunk that smells alternatively of coffee grounds, brandy, and hairspray, with a hint of stale Rive Gauche haunting the far corners.
I love this smell to the point of fetishism. I chase vintage perfumes now not really for a glimpse of how they once were, in their fully pristine, original beauty, but for the signs of this incipient decay, like a dog hunting for truffles. The combination in Pandora of this thick, gassy fruit and that ashy galbanum-vetiver is what I’m jonesing for, to be honest, and it might not even be the hook the perfumer intended to reel me in with. Whatever the intention, the top half of Pandora smells to me like the topnotes of a long-sealed-up vintage perfume, sludgy and indistinct with now banned damascones and nitro-musks, like a 1940’s Coco. I get a whiff of this with some of the DSH perfumes too, most notably Jitterbug. It effectively conjures up that fictional (fictional to me anyway) atmosphere of ladies, possibly your mother included, sweeping into the nursery with their long fur coats and Chanel lipstick and long cigarettes held preciously in long cigarette holders, wafting the mysterious musk of perfumery perfume (the ‘good stuff’ worn only on special occasions). The fact that Pandora has flashes of stale lipstick wax or cosmetic powder helps that illusion along even further.
But if I came for the perfumey decrepitude of Pandora’s first half, I stay for the wild vetiver finale. The vetiver here almost has a texture to it, like a cup of black coffee thick with spice and wood. Addictive, rich, and very moreish, this is the saturnine heft of European style gingerbread stuffed with enough black pepper to flavor a goulash but still perfumey enough that you’d know better than to put it anywhere near your mouth. Pandora remains determinedly abstract and fuzzy-bordered throughout, and you have to love that commitment.
Although I’ve always worn make-up, my reasons for doing so have varied dramatically over the years. As a teenager, my first and only concern was to make my face into a blank mask to submerge any of the features that made me me and replace them with a ‘fake news’ version of myself. I used make-up to disappear myself. In my twenties and thirties, I used make-up in a purely utilitarian way, zipping through the Holy Trinity of skin-eyes-mouth simply to avoid subjecting strangers to the raw, peeled potato-ishness of my naked face. I cultivated a short-list of favorites and did not deviate, except for dropping concealer altogether when I realized that I’d stopped caring whether people saw my flaws or dark circles.
But now, in my forties – a renaissance of sorts! I have fallen completely in love with the artistry and self-expression side of make-up. And I use it now not to hide, not to cover, but to play. I can be a different woman every day, if I want. But only because I want to shape-shift or it amuses me, not because I feel I have to conform to someone else’s expectations. The pleasure I get in playing around with soft, lavender duochromes from Nabla that shift from blue to pink when you turn your head or going bare-faced with only a bright red mouth to focus the eye – well, it’s extraordinary to me. It’s equal to the pleasure I get from perfume.
The only reason I’m banging on talking about this is that Dusita’s Le Pavillon d’Or reminds me very much of the watercolor blush technique demonstrated by make-up artist extraordinaire Lisa Eldridge in this video, and also of the Japanese-inspired blush placement technique called igari, as demonstrated here. Though different in intent, the two techniques share a focus on the overlapping of delicate, watery layers of color to create a diffused effect that balances richness with translucence. Le Pavillon d’Or seems to be built along the same lines, with several layers laid down until something like the iridescence of a butterfly’s wing is achieved.
Gosh, it’s so pretty. Mint, iris, and honeysuckle combine to form a fresh, green opening that sometimes reminds me of Chanel. No. 19 and sometimes of Diorella (and sometimes of neither). There is an illusion of galbanum minus the bitterness, or of vetiver without its dankness. The main note here is fig leaf, which would explain the faintly milky quality to the greenness, but there’s none of the urinous quality that often sullies the vibrant smell of fig leaf. There is also a whisper of fruit, but one so phantasmagoric that it might all be in my head.
These opening notes are quickly coated with an overlay of what smells to me like the sweet, musty alfalfa grass notes (half hay, half Quaker’s oats) borrowed from one of my favorite Dusita perfumes, Erawan, but minus that scent’s dusky cocoa. There is also, here and there, a touch of Chanel’s Poudre Universelle Libre – a discreetly-perfumey, buff-colored skein of powder dusted over the scent’s cheekbones.
Although perfumer Pissara Umavijani’s inspiration for Le Pavillon d’Or was drawn from three different lakes, this perfume smells more pastoral than aquatic to me. It carries the green-gold-lilac duskiness of post-harvest meadows and field margins and hedgerows.
The final layer in this igari blush-style fragrance is a crepuscular haze of almond-scented lotion, due to the heliotrope, a plant beloved of midwives for its babyish innocence. But while in less elegant hands the heliotrope might turn fudgy and turgid in that yellow cake way of Etro’s Heliotrope, Pissara has threaded the note through gossamer layers of green florals and iris so delicately that the finish retains the freshness borrowed from the first layer laid down. Simply lovely.
Fallintostars by Strangelove NYC is clever because it pairs the 15th century smell of Hindi oud – the dank, rotting, wet wood smell of animal hides piled high in a medieval dungeon – with the 21st century radiance of a modern amber. For the first half hour, the dissonance is dizzying. The oud is so authentically filthy that I feel like I’m being pressed up against a wall by an lout with a shiv and bad intentions. It’s as funky as a plate of fruit and cheese furred over with mold, wrapped in a length of freshly-tanned leather, and buried in a pile of steaming, matted straw.
But just when you fear you’re slipping wholesale into slurry, you notice the bright, peppery overlay of something radiant and electric, like sparks popping off a shorted wire. This accord calls to mind the aromachemically fresh, smoky black tea opening of Russian Tea (Masque Milano Fragranze) more than the pink pepper the notes tell me this is likely to be. The distance between the light and the dark is perfectly judged. It’s more of a whoosh than a lift. It smells exciting – sexy even. I’m tempted to douse myself in it and force strange men to come sniff my neck, even though, technically, this hard, peppery smell is more masculine-leaning than otherwise.
But wait, because we haven’t really talked about the amber yet. Poor Christophe Laudamiel – I bet that after the category-defining glory that is Amber Absolute (Tom Ford) he’s afraid to touch labdanum for fear of either never reaching those heights again or being accused of repeating himself. But then again, this is Christophe Laudamiel we’re talking about – a man who, as I’ve said before, when confronted with a straight line instinctively starts to zig zag wildly across the page like a wild hoss. He seems to create restlessly in one forward motion, refusing to circle back to even his most hallowed of halls.
So, no, this is not the benzoin-thickened incense amber of Amber Absolute, but (unexpectedly) the bright, hard sparkle of a champagne-and-vodka amber in the style of pre-reform Ambre Russe (Parfum d’Empire). Like a shot of those clear gold liquors served in the Alps after dinner, I’m not sure which I want to do more – drink it or apply it to a wound. It smells…well, excuse my language, but fucking amazing. How does a perfumer get amber to smell as rich as leather but as transparent as jelly?
My nose fails me when it comes to the other notes. I don’t get any of the green, hay-like barnyardiness of narcissus (unless it’s giving the dirty straw notes in the Hindi oud some welly) or indeed any of the gentler, more jasmine-like nuances of the jonquil variety, and there’s nary a hint of rose. I don’t perceive the benzoin at all, which is strange because even if I can’t smell it, I can usually feel it thickening the texture of the basenotes into a flurry of papery dust.
What I smell in Fallintostars is really an act in three parts: Hindi oud, followed by champagne-and-vodka amber, and finally a huge honking myrrh not listed anywhere. Of course, it’s entirely possible that Christophe has managed to work the inky, astringent tones of saffron and hina attar (henna) with his feverish fingers into the shape of a rubbery, mushroomy myrrh. It’s also possible that it’s just myrrh.
Anyway, what I like about this perfume is that it transcends its raw materials to make you think about the way it is composed. The modern, near slavish adoration at the foot of complex-smelling naturals such as Hindi oud or rose or labdanum often results in muddy, brown-tinged accords that speak more to their own worthiness than to joy, especially in the indie sector. In Fallintostars, Christophe Laudamiel takes heavy hitters like Hindi oud and makes it smell like bottled fireflies. And that is alchemy, pure and simple.
Disclosure: A sample of Fallintostars was sent to me by Strangelove NYC for review. My opinions are my own.
Douleur! by Bogue, a collaboration between Freddie Albrighton, a tattoo artist and erstwhile perfume blogger, and Antonio Gardoni, the beloved beardie of Bogue Profumo, has already garnered quite a bit of reaction on the fragrance scene. So, on a scale of one to Sécrétions Magnifiques, just how terrifying is Douleur? Well, it’s definitely quirky, but you won’t a fainting couch or anything. Actually, I kind of love it. And that’s coming from someone whose taste lies somewhere on the scale between ‘deeply conventional’ and ‘willing to experiment on occasion, albeit briefly, and in very small doses’. Last week, I allowed myself to be talked into attending a performance by the Armenian experimental jazz pianist, Tigran Hamasyan, at the Rome Jazz Festival. For the first hour, I sat in silent rage as he jabbed at the ivories like an unsympathetic gynecologist (the fact that he seemed to be wearing diapers didn’t help), but by the end of the performance, I had realized that, under his hands, the piano was not a piano after all, but an oboe. Mind, if not blown, then opened a crack.
While I won’t be listening to experimental jazz or wearing Douleur! every day, I’m genuinely glad to have experienced them. The smell of Douleur! – strawberry erasers on crack mixed with toothpaste and sports aftershave, essentially – is both fizzily exciting and weirdly nostalgic for me. I’d never buy or use a bottle of it but I’d love to smell it every now and then. Does that make sense? A friend of mine mentioned that he’d like to smell it on a handkerchief or blotter rather than on the skin, and I get that. As it turns out, I managed to get a bit of Douleur! on the sleeve of my trench coat, so there it will live in perpetuity, sending up a nuclear cloud of sour, rosy toxicity every time I pull it on.
Mind you, you have to like rose oxide to like Douleur! I have a real thing for it. But you might not. With its uniquely high-pitched ‘castrato’ tonality, rose oxide feels more like a whine from an electric saw than a smell. Think pear-scented nail polish remover or geranium leaf or those hard-boiled rhubarb-and-custard sweets that people in Ireland and the UK will remember for their porny balance between the creaminess of fake custard and a bright pink streak so sharp it peels your taste buds back from your tongue. This sharp, metallic smell is as chemically exciting as a pure aldehyde. Have you ever smelled Opus X by Amouage? That’s rose oxide.
But stuff like Opus X wears on you very quickly – rose oxide can drone on somewhat unless you temper it with something. In Douleur! the rose oxide has been mixed with a seaweed note, which introduces an aquatic fougère note, a bunch of toothpaste-y mint, and a strawberry cotton candy accord that smells like, well, Maltol. All this makes for an admittedly grotesque opening. You smell everything separately at first – the metal, the candy, the mint, and the melony aftershave note – and the effect is jangly and cacophonous, like an orchestra warming up.
Past the opening, though, the notes jostle into place and the whole thing settles. The cloud of semi-poisonous rose oxide remains but softens into the smell of those strawberry erasers we girls used to huff at school. There’s also a rubbery cedar or oak note in the mix here that reminds me of the milky juices that you could work out of a pencil if you chewed on it long enough. I know that Freddie Albrighton is a fan of rose oxide and strawberry, but I wonder if the innocent, almost child-like air in Douleur is coming from Antonio? If he’s anything like me, then he spends a lot of his time trying to wrest those strawberry-scented, rubber knickknacks like Shopkins, LOL figurines, and My Little Pony from their packaging, and maybe this drydown is his smoke signal to other parents of girls. Or maybe a cigar is really just a cigar.
Anyway, all you need to know is that the minty, rosy bitterness of the acid rain opener eventually melts into a big, pink marshmallow, and there’s just something about this trajectory from unsettling to fluffy that is compelling. It makes me want to smell it again and again. There’s a nutty, rosy loukhoum accord in the drydown that smells like a cross-section of Sweet Oriental Dreams by Montale and that makes me smile. In execution, Douleur! reminds me of a limited edition indie oil from Arcana called Strawberries Crave Waterfalls, which features notes of rain, woodland strawberries, fresh water, petitgrain, osmanthus, clover, and smooth amber, and despite a more amateurish finish, arrives at a similar result, i.e., artificial strawberries over an aquatic fougère base. But Douleur! has something that the Arcana oil doesn’t have, and that’s a sense of humor. I don’t know how it’s possible for a perfume to have that, but Douleur feels very playful.
So, is Douleur! weird? Yeah. Quite a bit. But plenty of things are weirder to me than the smell of Douleur. Like, it’s weird that people talk about Xerjoff perfumes like they are blown into bottles by virgins in an Amalfi lemon grove when most clearly have more in common with an ‘after’ photo of Thierry Mugler than a piece of fruit. Dior Sauvage is weird and metallic but also vile-smelling, and bafflingly, men seem to love it. And it’s super weird that, more and more, people are praising perfume for being ‘inoffensive’ and ‘mass pleasing’ as if those are not both words that mean ‘blah”.
Fuck me. I’d much rather smell a charming little weirdo like Douleur! than 99% of the insta-niche I get sent to write about – and I hope I’ve conveyed just how normal and boring my personal taste is. Douleur! is an anachronism. Smelling it makes me realize just how much we’ve sanitized every corner of our perfume to drive out any sign of eccentricity or nonconformity. Modern niche perfumery seems locked in a race to the bottom of the aromachemical sludge jar to find that single, all-pleasing, common denominator scent that sends out the unequivocal signal that we are freshly plucked, powdered, and ready to be mated with.
I’m not interested in writing about the depressing and seemingly endless parade of $300 niche perfumes whose only provocativeness or shock factor is in their marketing. (Tom Ford is releasing a new perfume called – wait for it – Rose Prick. A dildo-pink bottle of (likely) ‘meh’ juice that you know in your heart of hearts is aimed at people more interested in penis-related double entendres than in perfume). But something like Douleur? Yes, now that is worth writing about. Something that wears its weirdness as an artistic badge of honour rather than a sales ploy always is.
Have you ever been walking along the street and suddenly feel so good that you burst into a run? Zoologist Bee is that for me – a burst of positivity that settles on you like a blessing you don’t remember asking for. The perfume doesn’t seem to be particularly complicated, but the trick it performs is by no means simple; effortlessness, or at least the impression of it, always requires an invisible-to-the-naked-nose system of levers and pulleys operating under the surface. Perfumes exuding this sense of almost child-like glee are rare. I can count on one hand the number of fragrances so exuberantly good-smelling that you feel you’re the world’s Secret Santa. Kalemat is one; so is Shaal Nur. Now Zoologist Bee joins their ranks.
I’m torn as to how best describe the pleasantness of the balance between bitter and sweet achieved in the opening – it’s the smoky, brown sugar-tinged bitterness of molten honeycomb (cinder toffee) just before the baking powder is added, but at the same time, there’s a jellied, clear coldness that calms the roil before it reaches burning point. This note, or rather texture, could be the royal jelly that appears in the notes. But the way I perceive the royal jelly note in Bee changes with each wearing. Sometimes, it feels as gelatinous as the cubes of grass jelly you get in bubble tea, at others, it smells more like rooibos tea that’s been boiled with a spoon of honey and allowed to cool on a window sill, i.e., a mixture of something tannic and something coldly sweet.
Whether it’s jelly or cold tea, the important thing is that this accord lends an impression of clarity, or transparency to the perfume. The rundown of notes doesn’t matter here because, as with any honey perfume, it’s as important to state what Bee is not as what it is. So, Bee is not treacly or syrupy or heavy. It’s not so sweet that it smells pungent or sharp. It is hugely radiant, but not unpleasantly scratchy or ‘fake’, by which I mean that it doesn’t smell like it’s been overloaded with those annoying woody ambers stuffed into most perfumes laying claim to the word ‘radiant’.
Bee is not – crucially, for me at least – animalic. I adore pissy honey perfumes like Absolue Pour Le Soir, but I have to be mentally ready for them. I don’t like when the saliva-ish staleness of honey reveals itself only in the far drydown, because it’s like an uninvited guest who, no matter how charming or brilliant they turn out to be, grate purely because their presence was unsolicited. I’d describe Bee a clear, radiantly ambery floral honey, tilting more towards amber than floral. There’s a doughy, fluffy sweetness in its underskirts that I take to be heliotrope, but the floral notes are largely indistinguishable, muffled as they are by the thick, white-ish beeswax note. There’s orange in the notes list, but I don’t smell any citrus at all, and if there’s anything green or fresh in the bitterness of the opening, then I’ve missed it entirely.
Bee is clearly honey from the start. No mistaking it for anything else. My children absolutely loved the scent and keep sticking their noses into my arm; my husband sniffed it and said, rather grimly, ‘yes, that’s honey alright.’ So, make no mistake – you need to like the essential honey-ness of honey to like Bee. Zoologist Bee is not the perfume for you, for example, if you like your honey notes abstract or folded into the weft where, as one note among many, it can do the least damage.
For me, honey is as problematic a note as coffee, chocolate, and caramel notes. In the context of a perfume, these solinotes almost always present more as a series of problems to be resolved (too bitter, too burnt, too urinous, too pungent, etc.) than the purer sensory pleasure they are capable of giving in the mouth. So, it’s really something for me to say that Bee is probably the only honey or beeswax-centric fragrance that I can see myself committing to without having to make a series of unhappy compromises with my own self.
For example, I like Honey Oud by Floris but am in two minds over that vaguely synthy wood in the basenotes that only I seem to be able to smell. I enjoy the grapey, musty honey of Botrytis by Ginestet, but only when I can smell the rot – about 70% of the time I wear it, it reads as a slightly dull, fruity amber. With its smoky-sweet cinder toffee amber, my memory of Immortelle de Corse by L’Occitane comes closest of all to Bee, but of course, it’s been discontinued so my memory might be serving me up false positives. But what anybody reading this review really wants to know is this: how does Bee compare to the last honey-focused runaway success on the niche/indie scene, namely Hiram Green’s Slowdive?
Slowdive is much richer, thicker, and more complex than Bee, with the herbs, florals, and tobacco almost as important to the whole smell as the honey and beeswax. On the other hand, Slowdive is far too heavy and syrupy for me to wear casually. I can’t just throw it on – I’d have to suit up for it. Compared to Slowdive, Zoologist Bee is simpler, more user-friendly in a big-boned, good-natured, ambery way. Bee and Slowdive are connected by way of their indie or smaller niche ‘feel’ (both have more in common with those rustic, ‘honest’ indie honeys such as Golden Cattleya by Olympic Orchids than with, say, Oajan by Parfums de Marly or Honey by Kim Kardashian West). But while Slowdive has that unmistakably hand-crafted, all-natural feel to it, Bee has the more polished, high-spec finish you get with mixed media perfumes, positioning it as slightly more niche than artisanal.
With its expansive ambery radiance, Bee moves one step closer to what most people outside the tight inner circle of perfume nerds would consider ‘yummy’ and gorgeous and easy to wear. And I’m not saying that like it’s a bad thing – Zoologist Bee made it to my ‘to buy’ list the minute I smelled it. Anything that smells this good just begs to be bought and worn, not endlessly agonized over.
Hiram Green Voyage 2019, huh. I remember little of the original Voyage other than (a) I liked it a lot – or at least enough to spend €25 on obtaining a precious 5ml decant, which I promptly misplaced, and (b) I spent a lot of time agonizing over it, trying to dissect what made the perfume tick.
And apparently, I got it all wrong. Hiram’s description of swapping out the suede of the original Voyage for lotus in the 2019 version was the first time I realized that the original Voyage was supposed to be suede. My review did pick out a slight peach skin note, similar to that of Hiram Green’s own Shangri La or Guerlain Mitsouko. But it never jumped out at me so strongly that I felt obliged to point at it and call it suedey, suedey McSuederton.
Re-reading my review of the original now, it appears I thought Voyage was structured around that familiar Guerlainesque clash between a bright, aromatic side (lavender, bergamot, cloves, cinnamon) and a dark, velvety side ( vanilla, indolic flowers). The dry down was a warm, luscious vanilla-amber, heavily laced with heliotrope and perhaps jasmine or orange blossom. I recall finding it pleasantly spicy and resinous, that prickly contrast between bright, aromatic citrus notes and warm amber never quite fading. Very loosely, it called to (my) mind the spiced pastry notes of L’Heure Bleue, the aromatic-vanilla of Jicky, and the slightly civety jasmine-tonka-amber of Ciel de Gum (Maison Francis Kurkdjian) and Musc Ravageur (Frederic Malle). No suede, though.
But even when I get things completely arse-ways, Hiram Green is a true gentleman. He wrote to me after another review to say, in that mild-mannered way of his, that he was always surprised about how his fragrances were interpreted by writers and bloggers. From this I take that he’s bemused by, but accepts, the wildly differing takes on his work and the lack of causal relationship between our perception of what’s in the fragrance and what’s actually in the fragrance.
I’m conscious of how odd and discomfiting it must be for a perfumer to send their work to people like me in full knowledge that we are either going to smell stuff that isn’t there or miss big, important parts of the perfume that they might have labored and agonized over for months on end. This is surely is not a game for control freaks or for people who like to ‘explain’ their work constantly until people get it ‘right’ (hey, I’m sure we all know people like that, right?).
Anyway, Hiram is probably going to read this and raise an impeccably well-groomed eyebrow, because, despite his assertion that Voyage 2019 is a lighter, fresher, slightly more tropical take on the original, with lotus taking the place of suede, I find it to be neither fresh nor tropical. And it’s about as light as a brick. Although I’ve mislaid my decant of the original and my memories of it are entirely re-built from my review, I’d still say that the overall ‘feel’ of Voyage 2019 is quite different from the original, despite both being structured around a warm amber and vanilla base.
First off, there’s an exuberantly fruity (berried) bubblegum note up top, not present in the original, that reminds me of various BPAL and Arcana ‘red’ musk accords. After that, Voyage 2019 mostly heads straight for the comfort of a deliciously fudgy amber-vanilla accord common to both but skips over the overtly floral or aromatic ‘spiky’ notes from the original completely; as such, Voyage 2019 does not have the same contrast between citrusy-aromatic and vanilla-amber of the original. The ‘lotus’ note is interesting to me, because rather than smelling particularly floral (think: crisp, fresh, botanical, juicy, etc.), it smells golden, honeyed, soft, powdery, and somewhat resinous. Dusted over the vanilla-amber accord, the lotus doesn’t give Voyage freshness or lightness but instead creates a medicinal ‘nag champa’ character.
Lotus flowers are revered in Buddhist and Hindi culture, because they are considered to be a direct route to spirituality, so the Indian nag champa reference seems appropriate. This smells like an Indian-style amber to me, with a doughy-powdery joss stick heart. In the far drydown, I’d swear to a bit of benzoin, its spicy ‘Communion wafer’ dustiness dovetailing with the powdery sweetness of the nag champa.
I like Voyage 2019 more than the original, mostly because it feels simpler and more direct – a big down comforter of Indian incense and amber to keep me going in winter. Its appeal is immediate and, despite smelling briefly exotic, devoid of the twisty-turny mysteriousness of the original that taxed my analytical bandwidth.
But I am also super impressed that Hiram was able to capture the more unfloral parts of lotus, the sacred flower of India. Both the pink and white lotus varieties (from the true lotus family of Nelumbo nucifera) are ruinously expensive to produce, requiring 250,000 flowers to make just 1 kilogram of lotus concrete, which in turn yields only 250 grams of absolute after washing. I mention this to emphasize just how costly lotus absolute is, and how rarely seen on today’s market, especially outside of India itself (I have smelled a white lotus absolute but cannot attest as to its authenticity).
Because of its cost and doubts over authenticity, very few people outside attar makers and artisans working with small quantities of exquisite raw materials – like Hiram Green – will have smelled white or pink lotus absolute. You’ll probably hear talk about the lotus note in Voyage 2019 smelling aquatic, light, and crisp, because that’s what the definition on Fragrantica says. But a better source of information is Chris McMahon of White Lotus Aromatics. He describes pink lotus absolute as a “rich, sweet, floral, fruity-leathery aroma with a powdery-spicy undertone” and white lotus absolute as a “sweet, powdery, spicy, delicate floral bouquet with an animalic, dry fruity undertone”. Both those descriptions match up better with how the lotus comes across in Voyage 2019 – rich, sweet, powdery – than the Fragrantica description of aqueous or Hiram’s own description of it giving Voyage a “lighter and more tropical feel.” And honestly, I like Voyage 2019 better for how it actually smells (to me! disclaimer!) than how I’m told it’s supposed to smell.
The amount of depravity Francesca Bianchi subjects orris root to, I don’t know to be scared of meeting her in a dark alley – or take her out for an Aperol Spritz. People are just now starting to talk about a Bianchi DNA, but I think that her signature was fairly evident from her first releases. If I were to sum it up, I’d say that Bianchi takes materials that seem innocuous and innocent in and of themselves – light suede, powdery orris, fresh vetiver – and works them over with a knuckleduster until they smell rough around the edges and distinctly unclean.
I wonder if, when Luca Turin said in The Guide 2018 that most of the creativity in perfume these days was coming out of Italy, he meant Italians are not afraid of making a statement? Because that’s true in Francesca Bianchi’s case. She doesn’t shy away from pungency or notes that traverse the scale from matted bear to Siamese kitty. But while I wouldn’t rate Bianchi’s perfumes as particularly beginner-friendly, there’s an (Italianate?) smoothness of finish that renders them beautifully wearable. In fact, I can’t think of any other indie whose work falls into that tight space between animalism and polish as neatly as Francesca Bianchi (although Marlou comes very close).
Although very different to each other, it’s hard not to see Lost in Heaven and The Black Knight as anything other than two sides of the same coin, joined as they are not only by their twinned launch but by the patented Bianchi move of perverting the aloofness of orris with rude skin musks and the salty, urinous twang of ambergris. Leather is the outcome in one; a diffuse taffeta ruff in the other. But something about both perfumes make me think, ‘Francesca Bianchi, you are a bad, bad girl’.
The Black Knight in particular drives me wild. It took me a bit of time to understand it, but after ten days straight of wearing the damn thing, I’m all in. Opening with a hoary ‘Old Man and the Sea’ vetiver that smells like a bunch of whiskey-sozzled men in damp tweed around an open fire in a cramped little Irish cottage beside the sea, it immediately establishes a tone of neglect and closed-up spaces. Slightly analogous to vintage Vetiver by Annick Goutal and Muschio di Quercia by Abdes Salaam al Attar, the vetiver here is denuded of all freshness and twisted into a grungy leather that smells more like something dug up from the bowels of the earth than grass. But for all its salt-encrusted, boozy ‘staleness’, I think The Black Knight succeeds for much the same reason that Patchouli 24 does, in that it balances out a smoky, barely civilized leather accord with a softening layer of something sweet and balmy, delivering both the sting of the whip and a soothing caress in one go.
The Black Knight swaps out the birch tar of the Le Labo for an interesting cuir accord built mostly (as far as I can tell) from that hulking vetiver and some of the bitter, meaty Cellier-esque, Isobutyl quinoline-infused leather that’s been popping up quite a bit recently (see Rose et Cuir). It takes some time to dry down into that softening layer of balmy beeswax – infinitely more balanced than the sweetness in Patchouli 24, which is more sugary and vanilla extract-like in character – so before we settle in for the final, long drawn-out waltz of leather and cream, there’s a surprising development or two.
Most notably, past the opening of dusty ‘grumpy old man’ vetiver, an animalistic accord emerges, pungent and sticky with honey, and almost honking with the freshly-urinated-upon-hay stink of narcissus. Bianchi’s treatment of orris is fascinating to me – she can make it high-toned and mineralic, or funky with the low-tide halitosis of ambergris or blow it out into a big, civety floral cloud. Here, the orris is briefly pungent, with disturbing hints of rubber, boot polish, tar, and urine. This pissy-rubbery stage almost never fails to surprise me – and I’ve been wearing these two samples for the past ten days straight. Don’t smell your skin too closely and you might miss it entirely.
The Black Knight seems to go on forever, dawdling in that balmy double act of creamed beeswax and ‘hard’ leather before eventually dropping all the sweetness, leaving only mineralic dust and the faint whiff of marshy runner’s sweat (a drydown it shares with Le Labo Patchouli 24). The Black Knight is a bolshy, mouthing-off-in-all-directions strop of scent that’s probably not the easiest thing for a total beginner to carry off. But it’s striking as hell, and never less than sexy.
I can never tell if Lost in Heaven is a civety floral or a floral civet. There’s a brocaded sourness of honey, pale ale, and resin in the far drydown that gives it something to rest against. But mostly this is a bunch of dollhead-sweet flowers blown out into a diffuse cloud of satiny musks and underlined with something very, very unclean – like leaning in to kiss and girl and catching a suggestion of unwashed pillowcases, scalp, and skin that’s already been licked.
At first, Lost in Heaven reminds me very much of other vaguely retro indie floral civets (or civety florals), especially Maria Candida Gentile’s irisy Burlesque – a mini of which I bought for myself as a birthday present and am rapidly burning through – and Mardi Gras by Olympic Orchids. Then it strikes me that it’s not only the civet (or technically, the ambergris in the case of Lost in Heaven) that’s linking all these scents in my mind, but a certain indie treatment of the iris, or orris, that they all share. I’ve smelled it in Andy Tauer’s iris-centric work too, most notably in Lonesome Rider and his more recent Les Années 25, and it runs like a hot streak through Francesca Bianchi’s work.
The only way I can describe this specifically indie orris treatment is this: take a huge mineral-crusted rock from the beach, wipe it down quickly with a lemony disinfectant, stick it in a clear glass kiln and turn up the heat to 1370 degrees C until it vaporizes, filling the closed-in space with a glittering miasma of acid, mica, and lime-like tartness. I have a suspicion that a matchstick’s worth of Ambrox or Cetalox is the fuse that ignites the orris here, with castoreum creating that dusty, soot-like dryness that approaching freshly tanned leather or suede. The end result is a rather sour and acid-tinged iris that smells like you’re smelling the material diffused in the air after a lab explosion rather than from anything growing in nature. Actually, to be fair – I’ve smelled this ‘hot lava stone’ treatment of orris in landmark Guerlains too, most notably in Attrape-Coeur (one of my all-time favorite scents), which layers a dollop of peach and raspberry jam over a bed of these hissing-hot iris rocks and watches for the chemical reaction. Fridge-cold jam against hot minerals, with a side of sweet, rubbery dollhead, all blown out into sour, almost boozy mist – well, what’s not to like, really?
God, I only hope I’m making sense to someone out there.