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Tauer Perfumes Attar AT: A Review

November 20, 2017

I hadn’t understood how big a role that cultural misappropriation, or rather the perception of cultural misappropriation, played in the evaluation of attars until I read a comment on a Basenotes interview I did with JK DeLapp of Rising Phoenix Perfumery, which read as follows: “Looking forward to trying it and appreciate the perspective on Attars, but also giving the side-eye to another American appropriating an other’s work and culture and claiming he knows better and can do better.”

 

Funny gif aside, he is making the point that only people of Eastern culture (Indian, Far East, of the Islamic or Hindi faiths, etc.) truly understand how to make an attar, and that Westerners doing it is either a cynical cash grab or a case of cultural misappropriation.

 

This comment, whether founded or not, raises the crucial question of how attar perfumery is perceived in the West. I have noticed a certain awestruck tendency towards attars by Westerners, a kind of mass reverence for the genre, as if all attars and oils hitting our shores were uniformly possessed the magic of the Orient simply because they originated there. This is rubbish, of course.

 

First of all, speaking as someone who has tested hundreds of attars and mukhallats from almost every major brand from Amouage to Surrati, I can tell you that there is as much dreck coming out of the East as there is from the West. I’d estimate the percentage of truly sublime attars or mukhallats at about 5-10% of the mass, which is roughly equal to the hit rate in Western perfumery. Unfortunately, because these oils carry mysterious names, come in a little gold bottle, and are from an exotic-sounding house like Rasasi or Al Haramain, the consumer is psychologically primed to find them amazing even if they’re aren’t. Even Amouage has attars that are dull, nasty, or just plain unimpressive.

 

Second, it’s not the where (the East) that counts, it’s the who. The best quality attars out there are not being made by the big Gulf or Indian brands in the East but by small-batch artisans with a mostly Western background and upbringing. Sultan Pasha, Ensar of Ensar Oud, JK DeLapp, Al Shareef Oudh, Russian Adam, Dominique Dubrana, and now Andy Tauer – these are all people who, no matter whether they are Muslim or not, are Western by birth, location, or background.

 

I mention this because although some people seem to think it is the exclusive preserve of Easterners to make attars, these days it is actually mostly Westerners that take the care to distill oils in the old manner, hand-blend and macerate formulas, and source the purest raw materials. I like to think that they are taking a certain Western propensity towards precision, authenticity, and attention to detail to bear on an old tradition of perfumery.

 

And now Andy Tauer, himself an artisan in the genre of Western perfumery, has joined this elite group. In a way, it’s a natural fit: Tauer already mixes everything for his perfumes by hand (in a similar fashion to blending an attar) and as a longstanding user of resins, sandalwood, and jasmine, he would have all the necessary contacts in the Middle East to source the materials needed for this.

 

Attar AT is excellent work. It succeeds both as an attar and as an atmospheric set piece in the Tauer manner; it contains exotic raw materials but somehow conjures up more of that tough old Americana (cowboy boots, pilgrims, vast open spaces of the American plains) than it does the East. It opens up as an extract of pure boot leather, with a dense wall of fuel-like jasmine, birch tar, and castoreum-driven leather hitting the nose all at once.

 

But despite the tarry creosote-like tone and the fact that Tauer has used materials like this before, mainly in Lonestar Memories and L’Air du Desert Marocain, Attar AT does not make me think of his other perfumes. The leather, although smoky, is smooth and dark, and, crucially, completely free of competing notes like amber or citrus. There is no Tauerade. It is powerful and concentrated at first, but soon becomes very quiet and almost linear. A rubbery jasmine appears just past the opening notes, relieving, albeit briefly, the almost matte darkness of the leather accord.

 

As an aside, it’s funny how noses differ: my husband smelled this and immediately said that there was jasmine in this, as well as a little bit of oud. I, on the other hand, can only smell the jasmine briefly (it is similar to the phenolic jasmine used in the topnotes of Anubis by Papillon, for reference), and the impression of oudiness is only a background one, playing second fiddle to the leather. However, at a distance and at certain points of the attar’s development, it has something of the leathery, fermented smokiness that I associate with oud oil. In general, I think it’s fair to say that Attar AT genuinely has an oud-like tone to it at times, but that it in no way dominates.

 

Perception of sweetness seems to be subjective, but I’d peg Attar AT as being un-sweet, which is not to say that it is piercingly dry or sour. It is more a question of lacking sweetness in the form of amber or a syrupy floral note; if you know the sappy, sooty darkness of perfumes such as Heeley’s Phoenicia or Le Labo Patchouli 24, then you will know what I mean – an unsentimental, un-sweet darkness that nonetheless possesses so much texture and energy that it never tires the nose. Dusty, dark woods in the base only confirm this impression. There is no creamy sandalwood or welcoming amber in the drydown to placate the sweet tooth, only a continuation of the main accord of dark, smoky birch tar leather.

 

As an attar, Attar AT starts off very strong and dense, but soon loosens up into something much softer and quieter. It wears close to the body and doesn’t project much. However, longevity is excellent. So far, so standard for an attar. But people will want to know if there is anything of Tauer’s synthetic signature in Attar AT: my take is that it doesn’t feel synthetic to my nose at all, but be aware that birch tar in high concentration can have a bitter, metallic sharpness to it that some noses may interpret as synthetic. The only hint of something unnatural comes when you try to wash it off, and then (only then) something synthetic does linger on the piece of skin you’ve just washed.

 

Masculine? Yes. I’d even go so far as to say that this is super-macho, especially during the first couple of hours when the leather is blazing streaks across the sky. Attar AT is more evocative (for me) of the landscapes of the American West than of the deserts of the East; something about it celebrates the good-natured but tough manliness of the men who had to conquer large stretches of the American West on horseback, hungry and alone. This is a theme that seems to course through much of Andy’s work.

 

Having said that, there are plenty of women who like this sort of dry, unemotional scent, and I count myself as one of them. Overall, this is a great *masculine* attar for a very reasonable price, and also yet another addition to the attar genre that proves that you don’t have to be Muslim or be located in the East to make an attar that smells authentically, genuinely good.

 

Notes:  animalic leather, birch tar, Java vetiver, dark dry woods, sandalwood, hints of Jasmine, cistus, and castoreum

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

November 15, 2017

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Ylang de Mayotte

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Santal d’Australie

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Oud du Siam

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Oud du Siam et sa Tubéreuse des Indes

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Oud du Siam et son Jasmin des Indes

 

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

 

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

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Parfums Dusita Erawan, Fleur de Lalita, La Douceur de Siam, Le Sillage Blanc

November 12, 2017

Recently, I was lucky enough to have been sent travel sprays of the new perfumes in Parfum Dusita‘s line-up – thanks to the generosity of Pissara Umavijani. I understand that all Dusita perfumes will soon be available in the more perfumista- and budget-friendly option of these 7.5ml travel sprays, a move I can’t applaud enough. Here are my thoughts on the new perfumes.

 

Erawan

Erawan blends the rich, vanillic hay-like properties of liatris odoratissima (deertongue) with a nutty crown of vetiver, moss, and clary sage for a result that has the same sweet, pappy aroma of freshly-poured putty and earthy, uncooked grains.

 

This effect is startling: nutritious without being foodie. Several non-perfumey ideas jump to mind, including freshly mown grass, warm hay, the horse feed we would give horses after a race (oats with Guinness and a boozy, fermented edge), and the smell of the brown soda bread mix prepared every morning in farmhouses up and down this country, which contains bran flakes, wholewheat flour, baking soda, salt, and milk.

 

Suddenly, though, after a period of lingering in the cereals aisle, Erawan rips open one side to let a crisp, pond water muguet out of hiding, a move that surprises me since I am used to the cut glass green floral notes like narcissus and muguet appearing at the top of a perfume. The coumarin facets of the liatris emerge more strongly in the drydown, giving the scent the more recognizable character of lightly toasted tobacco leaves, dry hay, honey, beer hops, and dusty vanilla.

 

With the green floral notes and the coumarin, I am reminded slightly of a less pissy Tabac Tabou, whereas the beginning posses more of the nutty, quinoa flour feel of Bois Farine (L’Artisan Parfumeur). These are just distant points of reference, though, because to my nose, Erawan is thoroughly original to the point of being kind of weird. And that’s a compliment.

 

I’d recommend Erawan to fans of rustic “countryside” fragrances that smell like the great outdoors than a classic French perfume (although that is exactly what Erawan is) – scents such as Fieno and Tobacco Toscano (Santa Maria Novella), Cuir Pleine Fleur (Heeley), Sova (Slumberhouse), and Tabac Tabou (Parfum d’Empire).

 

 

Le Sillage Blanc

 

Le Sillage Blanc features the same grey-green, matte, slightly oily galbanum leather that stars in both Cabochard (Cabochard) and Bandit (Robert Piguet), but to my taste, Le Sillage Blanc is an improvement on both because while it is quite dry and bitter, it is absent the stomach-churning raw meat aspect that makes Bandit unbearable (to me) and the somehow lifeless, non-moving torpor of the Cabochard. Le Sillage Blanc is slightly sweeter and smokier than its antecedents, as if the leather is trying to crack a smile while dangling a cigarette at the corner of its mouth.

 

Still, there is a certain brown-grey grimness to this genre in general – a certain lack of juiciness and sap that marks them out as unforgiving of human frailty. I think one needs to be Parisian, whippet-thin, and an elegant chain smoker to find this one perfectly comfortable. But in those circumstances, yes, I can see how it might read as sexy.

 

Fleur de Lalita

 

Fleur de Lalita is simply phenomenal. My favorite out of the new Dusita perfumes had initially been La Douceur de Siam, but then I tried Fleur de Lalita and have been mainlining it like a junkie ever since. There is something about this perfume that excites me, and I think that it’s because it manages the same perfect balance of crisp, crunchy green “leafy” notes and warm, milky-sweet tropical florals as in Amaranthine (Penhaligon’s) and Sira des Indes (Patou), but mixes in the deeply animalic galbanum-musk pairing that makes L’Heure Exquise (Annick Goutal) so enduringly beautiful.

 

I am not a big fan of galbanum, but here in Fleur de Lalita, the galbanum sidesteps the lime leaf and cut green pepper freshness of the resin and goes instead for that cigarette smoke-inflected, murky, animalic dankness that we can glimpse lurking in the depths of L’Heure Exquise and maybe even No. 19 EDP (Chanel). The animalic aspects of galbanum are cleverly emphasized with natural ambergris, which gives the body of the scent a salty, musky funk that hangs around for a good while (the last time I saw galbanum and ambergris work together so well was in Ella by Arquiste).

 

None of which might be apparent when you first spray this on, of course, because Fleur de Lalita is a ladylike endeavor and will only reveal her undergarments when you insist on looking. The first part of the scent, therefore, really focuses on the milky, banana-leaf sweetness of tropical ylang, jasmine, and lily; if you loved the sultry, cumin-spiked crème brulée of Amaranthine, like I do, then the opening hour or so will have your eyes rolling back in your head.

 

But the sharp, wet greenness of muguet reins in the supine creaminess of the florals to the perfect degree, ensuring that the scent never tips too far one way or another into sharpness or dessert. It’s like a rice pudding stirred with a snapped-off piece of agave, cold from the fridge and beginning to drip droplets of clear nectar.

 

Fleur de Lalita is the perfect balance of the green and crunchy with the sweet and milky, all underscored with the most beautifully musky, animalic galbanum-sandalwood seen this side of L’Heure Exquise – back when the Annick Goutal still had real Mysore sandalwood in it. I’d hesitate to try and define this, because it is a very complex fragrance and straddles (I think) several different categories, but perhaps this might worj: a tropical milky floral a là Songes, Sira des Indes, or Amaranthine crossed with a woody, animalic galbanum fragrance a là L’Heure Exquise or even Bandit. That might not seem like it would smell all that great, but it truly does.

 

La Douceur de Siam

 

Kafkaesque has, as per usual, described this fragrance to perfection – his/her degree of accuracy and eloquence is unmatched in perfume criticism. As I am not the best at describing notes or the progression of a fragrance, perhaps it is best to first read Kafka’s review to find out what La Douceur de Siam actually smells like, before returning to my flightier, impressionistic impressions.

 

You back? Great. Notes aside, La Douceur de Siam is, for me, the perfect rendering of that moment in Snow White when the little birds are helping Snow White to clean up the cottage of the seven dwarves by dropping fresh flowers into a vase and hanging shirts up on the line. It also reminds me of that orgasmic moment in the Herbal Essences ad when the girl throws back her head in ecstasy as soon as a dollop of that clear pink gel hits her hair.

 

Wearing La Douceur de Siam gives me the same feeling of childlike joy as those scenes suggest – when I first tried it, the first thought that jumped to my mind was how grateful I was that florals like this are still being made, by which I mean juicy, clear, uncluttered, and happiness-inducing without being too self-conscious about it.

 

The first stage of La Douceur de Siam strongly features the minty bubblegum aspects of ylang, against a backdrop of a tropical, fruity custard of frangipani, magnolia, and champaca. It might prove almost too pretty were it not for the overdose of benzoin or some other resin up front that gives the texture a strangely raw, doughy feel, like a bowl of potato flour moistened with a few drops of water. This central accord is lifted at the corners by small flourishes of green tea, banana, wet violet leaf, and cinnamon, like those little Disney birds lifting the corners of a tablecloth.

 

The scent goes on in this fruity, floral track for a while, getting sweeter as time goes on, while all the time avoiding that metallic, tinned-fruit aspect that dogs most tropical florals. Interestingly, the champaca begins to take over at some point, imbuing La Douceur de Siam with the rich, steamy rice and green tea character of champaca flower. Champaca is often strangely musky to my nose, like a curl of green apple peel dipped into a resinous cream, but here the clean, fruity facets of the flower dominate.

 

Thanks mostly to the strong presence of the champaca, the scent takes on a pleasant soapiness. This is not the thick, opaque soapiness of, say, Ivoire (Balmain) or even Noa (Cacherel), but the clear, fruity soapiness of shampoos like Herbal Essences or Garnier Fructis. Fun fact: champaca blossom gave rise to the word “shampoo” by way of the Sanskrit word for champaca, “champo”, which means “to massage”.  Champaca oil was traditionally used throughout Asia to fragrance all kinds of hygiene products such as soap and shampoo.

 

Later on, I notice a creamy vanilla and sandalwood duo coming in and settling all the floral notes. This is a truly delicious part of the fragrance, making me think of both dry book paper and a creamy chai sprinkled with dark cocoa and flakes of coconut.

 

A silky, jammy rose emerges strongly at the end, and combined with the lingering traces of the fruity, tropical shampoo notes conspires to make me think of Liasons Dangereuses (By Kilian), another fragrance that conjures up the vision of a clear shampoo with droplets of pear and peach nectar suspended in the gel, popping and bursting juicily against one’s head when massaged in.

 

They are not smellalikes, but in both these perfumes, there are mouthwatering gourmand notes like rose jam, dark chocolate shavings, cinnamon, and coconut flakes that work perfectly against the canvas of sharp, green-fruity shampoo. These are the kind of perfumes that make me think of showering with Lush Rose Jam or Garnier Fructis (the original), aromas so appetizing that you instinctively want to open your mouth and swallow some, just to see if the taste matches up.

 

The only drawback I see to such out-and-out gorgeousness is the lightness of the perfume – it settles rather too quickly into that papery cinnamon rose-ambergris-sandalwood base, losing the crispy green juiciness of the tropical flowers. But while it lasts, there is little to match the beauty of that floral bouquet, which I find intensely moving in its purity and gentleness.

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

November 9, 2017

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

L’Eau de Louis XV (Le Bien-Aimé)

 

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

 

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

 

La Reine Margot (La Scandaleuse)

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

L’Impératrice Sissi (L’Indomptable)

 

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

 

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

 

L’Eau de George Sand

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Mumtaz-I Mahal

 

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

 

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

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

 

Shah Jahan

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

Couteau de Poche – Fumabat: A Review

October 25, 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

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Slumberhouse LANZ: A Review

October 16, 2017

LANZ is a good example of what Luca Turin refers to as skin physics, namely the way in which moisture added to or subtracted from the skin can alter the way a perfume develops.

 

When I first tried LANZ, I was in New York, and it was the last gasp of an Indian summer – temperatures in the high twenties (Celsius) and humidity at 95%. Under those conditions, LANZ smelled rather like a ghost of vintage Chanel Coco, meaning Perfume with a capital P – a thickly knotted clutch of bittersweet balsam, prunol, spice, and sandalwood studded with amber resin. On my moist skin, LANZ glowed like a slice of pain d’epices over a heat lamp.

 

There was also a spermy topnote, thanks to an extremely rooty iris material; this is most evident up top, but it reoccurs (more gently) throughout the drydown of the perfume. Don’t be alarmed, though! The spermy note is more surprising than unpleasant: cold, bleachy, and floral in a foamy way, as if someone had eaten a meal of elderflowers, meadowsweet, and cow parsley before ejaculating politely on one’s outstretched arm. The contrast between the cold, spermy iris and the glowing warmth of the rest of the scent is arresting – metal slashing through red velvet.

 

It is this chilly iris note that establishes a relationship between LANZ and New Sibet, although LANZ is warm and New Sibet is cold. It also places LANZ firmly in the new generation of Slumberhouse perfumes, characterized by a more classical, more “watercolor” direction than the darker, denser oil-painted olfactory landscapes of earlier works such as Norne and Sova.

 

At home in gloomy Ireland, LANZ reveals itself to be far drier, woodier, and less full on “spice oriental” than in New York. Although the chilly sperm impression is as strong as ever in the topnotes, the cooler weather has allowed me to pick up more of a connection to Ore than to New Sibet. It is not by any means a smell-alike, but there are two points of intersection that I can see.

 

First is an opening full of waxy dark chocolate, cognac, and balsamic (almost buttery) woods – briefly close in feel to the Carmex lip balm texture of the cocoa/woods in Ore. Second, a movement towards the end when LANZ dries out into a very smoky, lacquered wood, which although in LANZ is due to oud, is not entirely unlike the oiled and dusty guaiac wood in Ore. There is something about the balsamic, waxy texture of the woods that connects them.

 

Of course, aside from these two (small) points of intersection, LANZ is a very different scent. Past the initial blast of rooty iris and boozy cognac-cocoa notes, LANZ develops into a dark balsamic wood scent glazed with a spiced, plummy lacquer. The fruit note could be raisin or prune or even the dusty skin of a plum – but crucially, something only distantly suggestive of fruit and not redolent of its juices, sugars, or pulp.

 

In fact, this fruity wood lacquer smells quite like Cambodian oud to my nose, a type of oud oil characterized by its juicy fig, berry, and plum notes. This becomes more evident in the drydown, as the scent dries out, taking on the dusty, “old furniture” notes exuded by some aged Cambodi ouds. In the end, LANZ smells comfortably nostalgic and familiar, like standing in an ancient Chinese apothecary or a disused storage facility, the air thick with the aroma of old wood, charcoal dust, decades-old varnish, paper, and medicinal salves. A while ago, someone wrote to me asking whether I knew of an oud mukhallat that smelled like a Chinese store – I suggested Abdul Samad Al Qurashi’s Heritage Blend and Swiss Arabian’s Mukhallat Malaki. But LANZ could quite easily join that list.

 

With each wear, LANZ increasingly feels less like leather and more like a waxed jacket. It reminds me of my old Barbour jacket, bought in a thrift shop and immediately an integral part of my Pony Club youth, largely spent tumbling off horses and straight into dances without so much as a cursory wash behind the ears. LANZ smells like my memory of this jacket: old skin cells, perfume, girlish sweat, and pheromones caught like flies in the thick wax coating of its collar.

 

LANZ also reminds me vaguely of 1980’s sandalwood perfumes, although I’d be hard pressed to name any of them – the kind that feature a type of sandalwood that, while probably genuine Mysore, would never strike a sandalwood purist as having a typical sandalwood oil smell; in other words, spicy and balsamic, rather than blond, pure, or nutty-creamy.

 

Although something in LANZ still reminds me of 1970’s and 1980’s woody, spice orientals like Opium or Coco, it has a more homemade feel to it that marks it out as both more modern and more natural. Scents like Samsara and Coco boosted the quiet voice of their naturals with massive doses of sandalwood synthetics, Prunol, and damascones: it is unlikely that LANZ contains any of these and thus is far quieter. It is also not at all sweet, and, although rich, it is a predominantly dry scent. It is wonderful to be able to smell the real sandalwood here, cutting loose every now and then from the spice and balsam to float up lazily towards the nose. Texture-wise, LANZ nails the defining characteristic of real sandalwood oil in that it is both delicately dusty and lactonic.

 

I find LANZ both original and easy to wear. It being much lighter than other Slumberhouse scents means that I’m not signing a letter of commitment when I reach for it. It doesn’t move me as deeply as New Sibet and Sova, but the time and place for such perfumes is quite limited anyway. So, yes, LANZ is less of an experience and more of a personal scent, but this suits me just fine. LANZ is an easy wear – bold, satisfying, slightly grimy, but beautiful in quite a classical, fine-boned way. For me, one of the highlights of the year, and there have been many in 2017.

Review Saffron Sandalwood Spice Woods

Eris Parfums Mx

October 1, 2017

I’ve never had the opportunity to explore any of the Eris Parfums fragrances, but based on my experience with the newest release, Mx, I’d be very interested to smell the others. If Mx is anything to go by, these are properly-built perfumes, not your average paint-by-numbers niche.

 

Naturally, one might expect this of someone like Barbara Herman at the helm; her blog Yesterday’s Perfume and subsequent book Scent and Subversion were loving tributes to the vintage perfumes of the past. It stands to reason that someone so interested in the construction of classics such as Joy and Chanel No. 5 would take proper care to ensure that her own perfumes are thoughtfully constructed, warm, solid.

 

And so it is with Eris Parfums Mx. This is a big, creamy-but-aromatic sandalwood oriental built in the mold of something like Samsara (without the plasticky white flowers), Santal Noble (minus the coffee), or Cadjmere (without the fuzziness), and it smells as good at the end as it does in the first hour.

 

The name Mx comes from the brand’s belief that perfumes should not be gendered and that everyone signing a form should have the choice of what prefix to write: not Mrs., Mr., Miss, or even Ms., but Mx, signaling to officialdom that one’s gender is really none of anyone’s business.

 

Although Mx is not a gourmand fragrance, there is something about the topnotes that smells incredibly moreish, like a delicate Indian saffron-and-rose-petal pudding dusted in coconut. The saffron is very soft and orangey, and I also smell a lot of cocoa powder, its faint bitterness interacting nicely with the creamier notes. The oily, dark Ethiopian frankincense smells almost anisic, or licorice-like, more like myrrh than frankincense.

 

Given that the whole idea behind Mx is its gender fluidity, the sweet, creamy components of the perfume are immediately balanced out by a brusque, more aromatic side. This comes in the form of Australian sandalwood, its sturdy, dry character emphasized by a musky cedarwood. Australian sandalwood can be sour and piney, but not here – in Mx, it is merely handsome in a rough-hewn way, the perfect counterbalance to the creamy orange and spice.  Some aspects of this creamy-aromatic dichotomy remind me very much of Cadjmere by Parfumerie Generale, but Mx is far more complex.

 

There are no flowers here, nothing powdery or dated: simply that ancient lure of the dry and creamy push-pull of sandalwood. If men are handsome and women are pretty, then we might call Mx good-looking and leave it at that. Gender-wise, there is truly nothing here to tug it in one direction or the other.

 

A second sandalwood phase occurs when the vetiver moves in, characterized by a grassy, hazelnut texture that’s (again) both dry and creamy. There’s a beguiling Petit Beurre accord here too, wheaten and buttery, the sort of thing that makes me feel that a perfume is nutritious somehow. That pale gold wheat-nut-grain texturization is reminiscent of other milky sandalwoods such as Bois Farine (L’Artisan Parfumeur) and Castaña (Cloon Keen Atelier). In my opinion, there cannot be enough perfumes in the world that do exactly this. I feel nourished just by wearing it.

 

Eris Parfums calls this perfume “a luscious woody animalic for all genders” and I agree with everything but the animalic part. It is a warm, inviting perfume, but the castoreum in the base just adds body to the leathery notes supplied by the birch tar. There is no dirtiness, no civet, no musk notes. It is more a woody gourmand than animalic; a touch more cinnamon or clove, for example, would push Mx into Musc Ravageur territory (itself a rich doughnut oriental rather than a true musk).

 

The smoky, woody, leathery base disturbed me at first, because it had a faint “steel wire” aspect to it that I associate with the powerful (sandblasting) woody-leathery aromachemicals used in so many niche fragrances. But with subsequent testing, I realized that my nose is so over-exposed to these woody ambers that my brain sometimes shortcuts to them even when natural materials are used (cedar, birch tar, certain amber accords).

 

In short, Mx is durable and long-lasting; but it genuinely doesn’t seem to get there on the back of those chemical power tools Luca Turin talks about. Its warmth and expansiveness is all hard-earned, achieved thanks to a properly designed beginning, middle, and end. It might seem redundant to mention that, except to people who’ve smelled enough niche to know that (a) ain’t nothing new under the sun, and (b) solid construction is not a given. Mx is fantastic work and well worth investing in if you love rugged sandalwood orientals and can’t hack the white florals or ylang in Samsara. Or, indeed, if you just love beautiful, well-made perfumes.

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Areej Le Doré: Translating Attar Perfumery into Extrait Form

May 13, 2017

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Aromatic Gourmand Oriental Sandalwood Spice Woods

Serge Lutens Santal de Mysore

December 8, 2016

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Independent Perfumery Patchouli Review Sandalwood Vanilla Woods

Hiram Green Arbolé Arbolé

November 16, 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.

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