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Eve and Pandora: Two Perfumes by Diane St. Clair

4th February 2020

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.

Out 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.

Photo by Les Anderson on Unsplash

Amber Floral Incense Independent Perfumery Review Spicy Floral

Hiram Green Voyage 2019: A Review

8th November 2019

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”[1]. 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.  

Photo by Maxime Bhm on Unsplash


[1] https://www.whitelotusaromatics.com/product/lotus-white-absolute

Ambergris Animalic Balsamic Floral Hay Herbal Honey Independent Perfumery Iris Leather Musk Resins Review Smoke Spicy Floral Suede Vetiver Woods

Francesca Bianchi Lost in Heaven and The Black Knight

30th October 2019

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.  

Image by Mark Frost from Pixabay

Independent Perfumery Leather Review Smoke Spicy Floral Uncategorized Woods

Hyde by Hiram Green

21st November 2018

 

Hyde by Hiram Green is an exercise in birch tar. Actually, it’s an exercise in how to do birch tar without swamping the structure in an overwhelming wall of BBQ smoke. The scent opens with the peculiarities of rectified birch tar on full display: the tarriness of melted gumboots brushed with the cooling tingle of wintergreen and the medicinal sting of TCP (Germolene). A pleasantly boozy warmth, a licorice-like chewiness, stirs underneath the surface.

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Areej Le Dore Koh-i-Noor, Malik al Taif, Oud Luwak & Baikal Gris

15th November 2018

 

In autumn 2018, Areej Le Dore released its 4th generation of fragrances. Russian Adam very kindly sent me a sample set, which I’ve been playing around with for a while now. Without further ado, here are my reviews of Areej Le Dore Koh-i-Noor, Malik al Taif, Oud Luwak & Baikal Gris.

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Floral Fruity Scents Gourmand Green Independent Perfumery Review Saffron Sandalwood Spice Spicy Floral Thoughts Vetiver Woods

Concept versus Execution: I Am Trash, But Not Today, & Vetiverissimo

8th November 2018

 

It might seem to regular readers of this blog (all 23 of you) that, for a fragrance writer, I write very infrequently about perfume. In fact, I write about perfume every day. But since it’s either copy for big fragrance retailers or work on a book that I’m not sure will ever see the light of day, most people will just never come across it.

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Chai Citrus Floral Fruity Scents Green Floral Herbal House Exploration Independent Perfumery Japanese Perfumery Milk Musk Review Round-Ups Sandalwood Spicy Floral Tea Woods

DSH Perfumes Series: Japanese Haiku

25th September 2018

 

Welcome to Part 4 (Japanese Haiku ) of my series on DSH Perfumes, the American indie perfume brand helmed by the talented and prolific Dawn Spencer Hurwitz. For those of you joining me just now, let me recap a little.

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