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

November 8, 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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Books Independent Perfumery Review The Business of Perfume Thoughts

Review of Perfumes: The Guide (2018) by Luca Turin & Tania Sanchez

October 26, 2018

 

Takeaway for the casual browser

 

To the casual browser who’s wandered in here because the SEO on my site is working – yes, you should buy Perfumes: The Guide (2018) by Luca Turin & Tania Sanchez. Heck, buy the original Perfumes: The A-Z Guide (2008) too. Because whether your interest is casual or professional, there’s always space in your life for a book that explains a subject with equal parts erudition and bitchiness. Reading this book is like being seated next to a scientist who whispers hilarious put-downs in your ear about the hostess’ bottom all night and then gets up and explains Chaos Theory so elegantly you wonder if you’d ever not understood it.

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Independent Perfumery Lists Round-Ups The Business of Perfume Thoughts

The Business of Perfume: Artisan as the New Niche

June 29, 2018

When it comes to fragrance, traditional classifications of niche and designer are beginning to lose their meaning. Economists might divvy up the fragrance pie into two big slices called “prestige” and “mass”, but we all know that Tom Ford (prestige) has more in common with Dior (mass) than it does with Hiram Green (prestige). In reality, the perfume segment really ought to be divided up into Masstige (high-spec commercial fragrances, whether niche or mainstream) and Artisan/Indie (independent, artisanal, non-commercial in nature).

 

While “mass” as a category is relatively homogenous, “prestige” is not. How can it be? It’s a term that awkwardly covers everything from a $800 Henry Jacques to a $12 Solstice Scents roll-on. Those in the fragrance community have always preferred the term “niche” over “prestige”, in recognition that it is its apart-ness from the mass that defines niche, and not its prestige, real or implied. Therefore, although the market equates the term “niche” with luxury and high spec, the die-hards inside the Fragrance Community are still clinging to the OG definition of niche.

 

And the word “niche” really stood for something once. When Jean Laporte left Sisley to form L’Artisan Parfumeur in 1976, he did so to offer people a real alternative to mass market fragrance. His work at L’Artisan Parfumeur defined the true essence of niche perfumery as bold new ideas, freedom from artistic or financial constraint, and a disregard for what is commercial.

 

In a segment now dominated by masstige brands and big beauty conglomerates, it’s hard to imagine fragrances like Tubéreuse Criminelle (Serge Lutens, 1999) or Secretions Magnifiques (Etat Libre d’Orange, 2006) getting past the marketing execs. But it wasn’t only the fragrances that were idiosyncratic, the perfumers and creative directors were too. It is difficult to imagine, for instance, Serge Lutens, who communicates in sentences so gnomic that I’m convinced it’s code for aliens, being allowed to talk to a room full of investors.

 

But as soon as niche had established itself as a high-growth area, everyone wanted in. Brand behemoths like LVMH, Puig, and Estee Lauder gobbled up many of the original niche brands, smoothing out any rough edges and turning them back out again to capture a broader stream of customers. Thank God Lutens had his old stomping grounds, the artistically alien culture of the Japanese firm, Shiseido, to fall back on when it came to his inevitable corporate take-over. Tom Ford was acquired by Estee Lauder, which absolutely makes sense, given they both espouse a peculiarly American style of square-shouldered luxe that’s rich but slightly dull.

 

Fragrance as Haute Couture  

 

Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash

Designer brands like Chanel, YSL, Armani, and Dior liked the downstream potential of OG niche so much that they launched special “private collections” to capture it. Cleverly, the designer brands picked names for their exclusive collections that drew direct parallels to their haute couture clothing collections – Givenchy’s L’Atelier, for example, Armani’s Prive, and Dior’s Privée – so as to mark them out clearly from their humdrum prêt-a-porter collections.

 

The drift towards luxury also sparked a fetishization of raw materials in the marketing, an effort by Masstige niche brands to cultivate the appearance of authenticity to cover a real lack of thereof. Carl Groenewald of Dior said that the Dior Privée fragrances are constructed using a limited number of top quality raw materials, in much “the same way we do the fabrics for Haute Couture gowns.”[1]  A smart, if cynical analogy that most consumers will get. It is now very common to see niche fragrances giving their raw materials and provenance top billing in the perfume names – how many Santals of Mysore or Vanillas from Madagascar are currently floating around the market?

 

The homogenization and smoothing out of niche accelerated at the top with the fastest-growing mini segment of all, namely the “haute parfumerie” brands like Clive Christian, Creed, and Roja Dove. These brands, spiritual inheritors of the trend for bespoke perfumery that began at the turn of the 20th century, turned the niche dial even further away from “boundary-breaking” to “because you’re worth it”. They were so successful in their colonization of niche territory that today many consumers equate the word niche with luxury.

 

Niche was originally defined loosely through its specialness, meaning its apart-ness from the mainstream, and its idiosyncrasies. At least that’s the way the Father of Niche, Jean Laporte, saw it. Today, niche is still defined by its specialness, but it’s a carefully managed image of specialness rather than the real thing. Crucially, the direction of specialness has been reversed: whereas originally it was the fragrance itself that was special, now it is the customer who wears the fragrance who is special. The experience has been transmuted; not art for art’s sake, but what it can do for you, the end user.

 

Dior’s Carl Groenewald told the Independent that the customers for Dior’s Privée collection “do not want a commercial fragrance and to smell like everyone else.”[2]  The market term for this is personalization, or customization – making the customer feel as if the product has been created especially with him or her in mind. And yet, ironically, these fragrances are technically masstige – luxury for the masses – implying a specialness that can be bought by anyone as long as they have the cash, and therefore really not all that special.

 

The rise of “Masstige”

 

“Masstige” is a smushed-together name for a smushed-together category – prestige and mass. In their article “Luxury for the Masses” for Harvard Business Review (April 2003), Michael J. Silverstein and Neil Fiske defined Masstige as goods that “occupy a sweet spot between mass and class[3]. It might seem like a real conehead kind of term to use, but I like it, because it’s honest about the blurred lines between a Dior Privée and a Tom Ford Private Blend.

 

Masstige is all about giving a customer the high spec experience they expect from a professionally made product, but also making them feel special and different from the masses. As a market category, it covers mainstream designer brands with prestige lines, big brand niche brands with corporate backing, and the haute parfumerie luxe brands. It’s a giant chunk of the perfume segment.

 

The trick to masstige, and the one that every brand wants to figure out, lies in making the perfume wearer feel special, not necessarily in making the perfume itself special. Masstige fragrances are basically one giant reflecting pool designed to flatter the person who looks into it.

 

In shifting the focus from the intrinsic qualities of the perfume itself to the wearer’s experience, perfume has become more of a commodity than an art form. In line with the commoditization, everything else about the business of niche has been commercialized too. Forget the image you might have of a bunch of creative people sitting down with mad perfumers over bunches of wild lavender and exotic oud oils. Masstige niche perfume is a business like anything else. They operate in a similar manner to designer brands, meaning they have marketing teams, ad budgets, product placement strategies, and quality control.

 

Of course, niche still has that aura of “not available to just any Joe Schmoe” to cultivate. Limited distribution and short-run production are calculated to the nth degree to create an illusion of unavailability and drive up demand. For example, the Le Labo City Exclusives are made available only in one city, like Moscow, or in one specific month of the year. Xerjoff Join The Club perfumes come with special membership cards allowing access to a restricted part of their website. Some By Kilian special editions come with jewel-encrusted handbags.

 

In short, brands will go to extraordinary lengths to create that feeling of “specialness” for the buyer. The notion of specialness in niche has well and truly flipped; it is no longer the special of the non-commercial, wildly artistic idea, but the special of luxury and of exclusivity.

 

There’s nothing here to take personally; niche perfumery is a business like any other, and exists to make a profit. Members of the Fragrance Community understand this, if only in its general outline and not its detail. More importantly, being aware of it doesn’t make masstige niche any less attractive to fragrance fans. The lure of prestige and luxury is strong, even among those who consider themselves to be more clued in than more casual perfume buyers.

 

Masstige versus the artisans

 

There’s a small part of the prestige segment that still espouses everything once associated with the word niche, namely its independence from the mainstream, boundaryless creativity, and the preference for the idea of a perfume over its potential to make money. And that’s artisanal, independent perfumery. Because this segment has so little in common with the credo or modus operandi of masstige, or even just prestige perfumery, I’d argue that independent artisanship stands alone and apart from masstige, a tiny sliver of the overall perfume pie. Instead of mass and prestige, I would reconfigure the pie to read as masstige and artisans.

 

Artisanship is the last hold-out against the broad strokes of commercialization that has colonized the originally niche, but now masstige segment. If masstige brands are the professionals and the corporations, artisanal brands are the DIYers, the crazy bunch o’ fools, the starving artists, etc. Not only did artisans pick up the OG niche baton, but they also created some of the really big, important, conversation-starting perfumes of the past 10, 15 years. Onda by Vero Profumo, L’Air du Desert Marocain by Tauer Parfums, Maai by Bogue, Salomé by Papillon, Lampblack by Bruno Fazzolari, Civet by Zoologist….these are all fragrances conceived, created, and sent out into the world by artisans.

 

 

The definition of artisanship

 

The word “artisanship” refers to someone who is particularly skilled at a trade and makes things by hand. In food terms, it has come to mean products made either in a very traditional, skilled way or without much mechanization. To that definition, I’d add the notion of authenticity; we often associate artisanally-made anything with genuineness, with the sense of something being made because it is beautiful and right, not because it will make money.

 

In perfume, we take artisanal to mean something made by the hand of the artisan. At its most basic level, artisanship means that the perfumer owns or co-owns the brand. Artisan perfumers are largely self-taught; most will never have been formally trained as perfumers either in Grasse or Paris.  Artisanship  also translates to a lack of corporate backing for the enterprise; the artisan is responsible for everything, from the sourcing of raw materials and the writing of the perfume formula to the purchasing of bottling, mixing and blending, maceration, bottling, labeling, the expedition of orders, shipping and handling, and so on.

 

That’s the general understanding, at least. In reality, the picture is far more complex, with some brands doing everything from A to Z themselves, and others outsourcing parts of the process such as the final compounding of the perfume, or the bottling and packaging. Some of this is location-dependent: artisan perfumers in Europe, for example, are obliged to hire external safety assessors to ensure that each component of its perfume formula is safe, because without an EU Cosmetics Safety Certificate, the product can’t be sold in the EU.

 

The folks who run the Art & Olfaction Awards have come up with a neat system that divides this corner of the perfume-making world into two groups: artisans and independent perfume brands. So, when we talk about indie artisans, we’re really talking about two distinct groups.

 

According to Art & Olfaction, an artisan perfume brand is one where the perfumer who wrote the original formula (i) either owns or co-owns the brand that is releasing the perfume, and (ii) wrote and has legal ownership of the perfume formula[4]. In other words, the person who runs the company is also the one making it. Examples of artisan brands under this definition would be: Tauer, Papillon, SP Parfums, Hans Hendley, Pekji, Slumberhouse, Bogue, Auphorie, Imaginary Authors, DSH Parfums, Hiram Green, Vero Profumo, and many more.

 

An independent perfume brand, on the other hand, is a company that employs “an external perfumer or fragrance house to initiate and create their blends, with creative direction from the perfume brand[5]. For example, Zoologist is an indie brand whose creative director, Victor Wong, hires a variety of (artisan) perfumers to compose the brand’s perfumes, which are released under the Zoologist name. Other examples of indie brands include: Maria Candida Gentile, Masque Milano, Jul et Mad, Charenton Macerations, and Skive.

 

The dividing lines between artisan and independent perfume brands are probably not important to anyone other than the people who run or judge high-stakes awards like the Art & Olfaction Awards. I’ve conflated the two terms myself in this article because I think most people in the FragComm will understand indies and artisans as being linked by a general independence from market trends, a genuine feeling for the art of perfumery, and the creation of artistically risky perfumes (compared to masstige and ‘haute parfumerie’ niche). The hand of the artisan or creative director is clearly in evidence throughout, from the design of the bottle art to the marketing, copy, and of course, how the scent smells.

 

Artisanship in perfumery compared to artisanship in other categories

 

Photo by Lubo Minar on Unsplash

Pour-over coffee. Craft beer. Organic carrots. It’s fair to say that the artisanal movement has had a profound effect on the way we consume at a meta level. We take pleasure in buying organic, supporting local businesses, and choosing the artisanal over the corporate. But what began as a movement in the food industry has spilled over into other, surprising areas too.

 

Advertizing, for example, once the preserve of big, rather traditional companies, is now drifting downstream into artisanal mode, with the CEOs of massive companies doing podcasts to talk about their products, and using Snapchat and Instagram Stories to reach out to consumers directly.

 

The message filtering through is that consumers care more about authenticity than video quality. Julia Vyse of Mediative, in an article about the top advertizing trends for 2018, noted that the “audience for these ads is more likely to spend a little bit more for brand loyalty, for locally or independently produced items. Authentic messages plus a premium-minded audience is about as harmonious as pour-over coffee and locally baked doughnuts!”[6]

 

Authenticity is the keyword here. Modern consumers are drawn to the authentic, even if it is at the cost of slick production values.

 

The contradiction: artisanship versus consumer expectations

 

Consumers are drawn to authenticity. Well….to a certain extent. The truth is that we are a generation raised on

Photo by Thanh Tran on Unsplash

maximum efficiency. We might like pour-over coffee, but if it’s 8am and we’re late for a meeting, then we want that cup in front of us stat. And therein lies the contradiction: while artisanship emphasizes the slow, homemade, personal nature of the product, consumers have little tolerance for things that do not work as quickly or as effectively as they’re used to.

 

Even massive global conglomerates like Unilever are struggling with the contradiction between the consumer’s desire to support artisanship and his (seemingly equal) desire for maximum efficiency, comfort, or the lower cost base that commercialization brings.

 

How do we embrace customized, local, artisanal consumer desires with the need for efficiency and ruthless price competition?” asks Bryan Lapidus, in an article for The Association for Financial Professionals. Unilever responded by copying the marketing ideas of smaller competitors, increasing its local markets spend by 50%, and oh yeah, by buying up many of those small, artisanal companies biting at its ankles[7]. Big companies often buy up smaller niche brands in the same segment – it’s a great way to plug into a downstream market without having to start up a new brand. Estee Lauder acquiring Les Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle, By Kilian, and Le Labo, for example.

 

Why am I blathering on about this? Well, because this contradiction very much applies to artisanship in the fragrance category too. As we know, market research companies divide fragrances into two broad categories: prestige and mass. Internally, the prestige category is so heterogeneous that it’s kind of awkward – a Creed and a January Scent Project uneasily crammed into the same space, like a gorilla lumped in with a canary. We can all see for ourselves that these are from two very different species. And yet, subconsciously, the consumer expects the same level of finish, smoothness, and performance metrics from the January Scent Project scent as he or she does from the Creed. This might strike the artisan or indie brand as being quite unfair, and it is. But it doesn’t make it any less true.

 

Perfume buyers are a risk adverse lot: if there is a choice between Carnal Flower (Malle) or Moon Bloom (Hiram Green), for example, many will go for the Malle simply because Malle is a known quantity and Hiram Green is not, despite the fact that Moon Bloom is probably the better perfume. Indie artisan brands need to be aware of all the inhibitors to buy in the mind of their audience, and then set about challenging them, one by one.

 

My sympathies to the artisans and the indies

 

Photo by Brandy S on Unsplash

It must be incredibly difficult for small independent artisans to be thrown into the same bull pen as masstige and niche brands whose corporate backing pays for their distribution channels, marketing, packaging, materials, and talent, and then be told to go compete. They have my profound sympathy.

Being an independent or an artisan brand has its advantages, of course, chief among them the creative license to create perfumes that don’t have to conform to a certain market demand or budget. Likewise, the freedom from having to worry about IFRA and EU cosmetics directive compliance, if the brand decides to stay out of the European market. Oakmoss, eugenol, and coumarin, oh my!

 

But mostly, I’d guess that trying to stay afloat in a market segment dominated by the deep-pocketed guys like Le Labo and Malle is a giant pain in the ass. A daily, no-letting-up, crushing, almost existential struggle to launch that one perfume that pierces the murk of a market fogged up by all that capital investment sloshing around the ankles of big niche brands, and land so successfully with perfume buyers that it makes your name. Not overnight success, not even financial sustainability, but just enough to filch a bit of that spotlight away from the bigger players, and start the hard slog towards building the kind of brand recognition, trust, and return custom that counts in the long run.

 

At a bare minimum, the challenges an indie / artisan perfume brand faces include:

 

  • Low purchasing power with big raw materials and bottling supplier: many suppliers will not sell in units less than wholesale figures, which indies can neither afford nor absorb
  • (In the EU or for brands who want to sell in the EU) Finding and then paying for expensive safety assessments of each perfume formula to obtain an EU Cosmetics Safety Certificate
  • Lack of control or oversight over supply chain integrity; especially important for small all-natural brands
  • Lack of in-house marketing know-how
  • Finding distribution channels that don’t bleed the brand dry at the margins

 

 

But the biggest challenge facing small, independent & artisan brands is probably us, the consumers. Apart from the challenge of having to cut through all the noise and competition for our attention, indie brands have to deal with that contradiction between our desire to support artisanship and our over-reliance on high-tech performance and glossy production values.

 

Why weaning consumers off the masstige tit is tricky

 

Weaning consumers off the glossy tit of masstige and luxury niche and onto the rougher, realer one of indies and artisans is no small feat. In many areas of our lives, we have switched our allegiance to the artisans, buying plantation-specific dark chocolate, fair-trade coffee beans, and locally-sourced cheese and wine. But in the world of cosmetics and perfume, indies are still a hard sell.

 

Or, in other words, you have my sympathies for being an artisan brand afloat in a sea of corporate greed, but do you have my money? Aside from the die-hard, anti-corporate folks who will only buy face creams, perfume oils, and eye shadows from Etsy indies and consider Estee Lauder anything to be the devil incarnate, there’s a general hesitation among perfume buyers to step outside the warm embrace of masstige and take a chance on indie perfumers and brands.

 

Part of the hesitation I get. There’s a (rational) concern over putting any product that might not have been subjected to the same stringent testing as Estee Lauder products directly on one’s skin. But it’s also because, as consumers, we have been raised on a diet of glossy, high-tech products that meet our every need without us having to put much work in: iPhones, espresso machines, Kindle, Netflix, hair straighteners, etc. Anything even vaguely “handmade” scares the shit out of us. Because it implies we might have to make a compromise somewhere, whether it’s on price, on performance, on availability, whatever. And man, are we reluctant to do that.

 

Niggling concerns at the back of the mind of the potential indie buyer include: poor performance metrics compared to big niche brands, high prices (even for new entrants who haven’t proved themselves), creatively risky compositions, leaky bottles, less-than-luxurious packaging, and often, a lack of distribution channels which leave the casual browser wondering where on earth they can actually buy the perfume. And that’s even before you add in the fear that if you fall in love with a perfume, the entire brand or its distribution channel might have fallen off the face of the planet before you can replace it.

 

As discussed in my previous article, perfume buyers – even within the Fragrance Community itself – are surprisingly conservative in their taste, as well as risk adverse. Bloggers like me are writing for an audience that barely exists anymore, namely a small band of olfactory explorers who will buy the latest experimental perfume from that start-up brand. This is the natural audience, too, of the indie / artisan world. But unfortunately, this shrinking demographic isn’t buying as much perfume these days, or at least, not nearly as much as the primary demographic of the FragComm, namely young, upwardly mobile males, aged 25-35 whose interest in fragrance is less aesthetic than functional or mating-related.

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The challenge then becomes how to get people who buy masstige and big brand niche to buy some of the artisanal stuff too. How to do that within a group of people who, despite what they might say, are actually kind of risk-adverse when it comes to perfume, and whose demographics mark them out as being interested in performance metrics over art, grooming over a cool idea, and attracting compliments from the opposite sex over appreciating a perfume for its intrinsic properties?

 

Keep talking

 

First of all, indie brands and artisans need to be as good at communicating as they are at making perfume. Social media, blogging, reaching out to other bloggers, and trying a variety of new and interesting ways to reach anyone who will listen is crucial, because in talking, talking, talking, indie brands get to assuage any fears or reservations customers might have about spending money on their product.

 

The fragrance community is not the place for the artisan to be enigmatic or shy. Indies and artisans have to keep up a steady stream of conversation with their target market, inside of which must be hidden nuggets of information that educate and persuade the person who is reading. Why is the product so expensive, for example? Why can’t I buy it directly from your store in the UK? Where can I get samples? Why doesn’t your jasmine perfume last as much or project as strongly as this niche?

 

Probably many indie artisans find this side of the perfume-making business tiresome and, in some cases, unpleasant. The bigger niche brands all have marketing professionals and agencies, so the perfumers themselves never get their hands dirty in the mud of self-promotion: indies and artisans don’t have this luxury. They have to do all of it themselves. Most of the indie perfumers I know are thoughtful, creative introverts who are passionate about making perfume but kind of awful at talking to their customer base about why they should buy their perfume and not the new Creed.

 

Nonetheless, in order to breach that gap between the consumer’s a) desire to support indie artisans and b) fear of plunging way too much money into a product that might not deliver, it’s essential for artisans to keep going out there, day in, day out, and talk to customers.

 

Getting the word out about artisans

 

As a bystander – a blogger – there’s only one thing I can really do to help, and it’s not much: just talk about the gems in the indie world that deserve attention, especially among the groups of people who would rather buy Guerlain, Dior, or Creed. And maybe even argue the case for these perfumes in a way that artisans themselves rarely do themselves, by acknowledging their true place in the pecking order of similar choices, being upfront about the niggling concerns a buyer might have, and ultimately, making a convincing case of why people should buy this perfume over another slicker, more readily accessible masstige option.

 

Here’s a list of 20 indie/artisan fragrances that I think deserve more attention and kudos. My hope, in talking them up, is to convince anyone who was ever on the fence about indies to take that leap of faith.

 

 

House of Matriarch Kazimi

 

It may seem odd to some that I’ve chosen to lead this list with a brand that, while certainly artisanal, is extremely well-placed in the market. House of Matriarch has distribution channels that include Nordstrom’s and a retail website that cleverly mines data from its customers and browsers, flooding their inbox with coupon codes and special offers on exactly the perfumes they were just looking at. The owner-perfumer, Christi Meshell, is the rare example of someone who is both an artisan and a brilliant businesswoman. But still, in the flurry of copious new releases from House of Matriarch in the past 12-24 months, I’m worried that one of its most extraordinary perfumes might get lost in the shuffle.

 

Photo by Ravi Pinisetti on Unsplash

Kazimi, like Nahema (Guerlain) and Rose 31 (Le Labo), is one of those perfumes that boasts impressive quantities of rose oil and yet smells very little of rose, leaning instead on the sharp, peppery radiance of ambergris, ginger, and woods to broadcast an aura of danger, like the crackle of static between lightning strikes. The scent opens with a dry, ammoniac smell, with a hint of that brutish tar-and-fuel dirtiness that natural ambergris sometimes exudes, like oil rising to the surface of a plastics fire under the surface of the sea. Kazimi is a 100% natural fragrance, but interestingly, has something of the chemical buzz I associate with Rose 31.

 

Kazimi smells wild and a bit unhinged – every time I wear it, I think of the island that Pi in The Life of Pi lands on with the tiger, Richard Parker, which at night turns from a lush paradise into a carnivore that dissolves human flesh in its acid pools. There’s something verdantly poisonous about Kazimi, with its barely-there rose that snaps and fizzes, eating into your flesh. It smells of thickets of pine blown sideways and crippled by strong ocean winds, crusted over with salt. Kazimi is an important achievement in natural perfumery because it highlights the most stirring parts of ambergris but still feels like a proper perfume rather than a tincture.

 

Downsides? Price, for sure. At $330 for 50ml, it’s hard to make the case for buying this over the alternatives listed below, both of which are obtainable at lower prices (approximately $200 per 75ml and $180 per 50ml). The ambergris and other materials used in Kazimi are 100% natural, and therefore expensive to obtain. This and the fact that House of Matriarch runs regular sales take the sting out of the price tag somewhat. For me, Kazimi is worth the investment: an essay on the strange, transformative brutality of natural ambergris, it twists a rose into a new shape that’s both ugly and beautiful.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: If you love natural ambergris, or even just rose fragrances that don’t really smell like an on-the-nose rose, Kazimi should be on your list of things to try. Although not a replacement for scents such as Encens Mythique d’Encens (Guerlain) or the supernaturally radiant Rose 31 (Le Labo), Kazimi has a similar “steel wire” gauziness that registers more as a texture than a scent. It’s bitter, perfumey, and natural all at once. If you love or wear Ambre Nuit (Dior Privée), another rose-ambergris composition, then consider Kazimi the speed to Ambre Nuit’s comfort.

 

 

Di Ser Kyara & Adameku

 

The Di Ser fragrances are a triumph of natural perfumery: 100% natural, yet light-footed rather than muddy as some all-natural fragrances can be. They are also immediately identifiable as Japanese, in terms of both aesthetics and form. To a Western palate, most of the Di Ser scents will first appear deeply unfamiliar, because of the traditionally Japanese botanicals the company focuses on, such as Himalayan spikenard, yuzu, and kyara.

 

Di Ser’s Kyara is an exquisite natural oud fragrance that features genuine oil distilled from kyara, the highest grade of agarwood in the world, considered only to be kyara when it comes from wild, densely-resinated Vietnamese agarwood of at least 80 years in age. Because of its rarity, kyara is never used to distill oud oil. Until Di Ser decided to do it, that is. Di Ser is in the unusual position of having access, through its mother organization, a Japanese research facility in Sapporo, on Hokkaido Island, to a wide variety of rare botanicals, woods, and resins collected for research purposes. Most pieces of kyara are collector’s pieces, kept in private vaults across Japan and China: Di Ser’s mother organization happened to have one.

 

It’s genuinely nuts that the brand decided to distill kyara and equally nuts to put it into a fragrance, but there you go – the essence of artisanship is taking the kind of anti-commercial risks that just wouldn’t fly in the mainstream. Its price – $1,150 for 33ml of extrait, $25 for a 0.5ml sample – reflects the kind of madness that using genuine kyara entails.

 

The scent itself smells amazing. It captures the elusive aroma of kyara when heated gently on a burner, which is an ethereal, almost silvery-jade smell encompassing arboreal sap, conifers, and an aromatic note that, to my nose, bridges the fiery heat of freshly-grated ginger root and the dull warmth of powdered ginger. I smelled both the pure kyara oil from whence the fragrance was built, and the fragrance itself; the finished fragrance has a rose note that suffuses the taut coniferous notes with lush sweetness. If you have loads of money and absolutely no sense, then at least sample Kyara to find out just how delicate (and non-animalic) oud oil can be.

 

But the price of Kyara places it far beyond the means of most people, so for the purposes of this list, I’d like to talk about Adameku. At a much more accessible $240 a bottle, Adameku is a very Japanese – and endearingly odd – take on osmanthus, the small flowering tree or shrub native to Eastern Asia but traditionally associated with Japan and China.

 

While most osmanthus-forward compositions focus on the leathery aspects of the flower (a by-product of fermentation caused by a long pre-distillation soak in water), the Di Ser take focuses on the translucent, fruity-jellied texture of the small petals themselves when sniffed fresh from the tree. This gives Adameku a bright, uplifting character similar to Diptyque’s Oyedo, but there’s a softly dirty, almost sour note in the background creating a chiaroscuro effect – cubes of delicate fruit jelly strewn across soil. If you’re an osmanthus fan and are looking for a fresh take, then Adameku’s half-Hello Kitty, half-Japanese botanical garden deserves to be on your radar.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: If you love a) osmanthus, b) the fetching weirdness of Japanese esoterica, culture, and flavors, and c) natural perfumery in general, then Adameku is worth at least a sample. Also, in a sector almost offensively prone to cultural appropriation, it’s thrilling to smell something so authentically Japanese. When you smell the Di Ser perfumes, you are granted a direct window view into Japanese culture rather than someone else’s interpretation of that culture, and that feels like a privilege.

 

 

Olympic Orchids Mardi Gras

 

A key difference between the indie/artisan world and the big brand niche one is that while the latter is primarily interested in creating luxurious, gorgeous smells that make its wearer feel special, the former invests its perfumes with atmosphere, emotion, and a sense of place.

 

Olympic Orchids excels at this kind of “set piece” perfumery: Café V transports the wearer straight to a Seattle coffee shop, Tropic of Capricorn will make you feel like you’ve just made love on top of a pile of rotting mango peels, and Ballets Rouges will whisk you back in time to the scent of rosin, furniture wax, and the cool-toned red lipstick of your piano teacher. None of the Olympic Orchids scents have the polish or “finish” of big brand niche – picture a retsina next to a Barolo – but they are all tremendously evocative, delivering an emotional punch to the gut that’s as cleansing as a good cry.

 

Mardi Gras is what I’d call a sexy-but-weird perfume. It’s a floral for Goths and non-conformists. A quick read of the notes – vanilla, orange blossom, honey, civet, and benzoin – might make you think that this is going to be standard floral fare, but it’s anything but. Rather than go the usual soapy and sugared route with orange blossom, Mardi Gras smears a fistful of withered, leathery flower petals over the dusty flagstones of a temple, allowing them to evaporate into the heat like spores off rotting fruit.

 

Anybody in love with the smell of aging wood, paper, and flagstone in ancient churches or castles will experience a thrill of recognition here; at times, the perfume seems resolutely un-floral, with a mustiness so deep it’s capable of blocking out the orange blossom. At other times, powder puffs of honeyed civet poke through the orange blossom, turning it into a bathtub gin version of Bal à Versailles. Central to its character, I suspect, is benzoin, responsible for the spicy, medicated foot powder texture that makes it so unusual.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: If you’re in the market for a come-hither scent that’s sexy in a slightly gritty, bohemian-messy way, then roll the dice on Mardi Gras. It’s the kind of fragrance that’s flashes its boobs at you whether you throw a necklace or not.

 

Aftelier Ancient Resins

 

Mandy Aftel is the mother of the artisanship movement in perfumery; originally a writer, she continued to write and educate other artisans after she founded Aftelier in 2000, with a total of 9 books published. Her 2001 work “Essence and Alchemy: A Book of Perfume” has proved deeply influential in the movement, helping inspire other artisans such as Andy Tauer to branch out and start their own perfume companies.

 

Mandy is known for her work with natural essences. Her work is often quirky and unexpected (Cepes & Tuberose, Sepia), sometimes straightforwardly lush (Secret Garden, Velvet Tuberose), but for me personally, it is the weird and wonderful Tango that is emblematic of her quixotic style. Unfortunately, it has been discontinued due to an unavailability of a certain component, but those who have a chance to smell it certainly should; I know that it was a key part of my own “smelling education”. It is a scent that espouses a perfume made without any regard for how it might be received in the wider, commercial market. Full review here.

 

In terms of current availability, I would urge people to sample Ancient Resins, which although technically a body oil, is strong and rich enough to wear as a personal perfume. Very reasonably priced at $40 for 50ml, I am planning to buy this at Christmas, because its meditative resins and balsams are perfect for instilling calm during long bouts of enforced family time.

 

Ancient Resins by Aftelier was developed by perfumer Mandy Aftel in cooperation with, and expressly for, the great Leonard Cohen himself. It smells exactly what you’d think a Zen guy like Leonard Cohen would like – a warm treble base of resins that balances the bitter, cleansing properties of something that might be used in a Shamanic ritual with the dusty smell of wood, paper, and rosin breaking down in old record stores or bookshops. It features an ingredient that I’ve not seen many perfumers work with, namely Balm of Gilead. Full review here.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: Because Mandy Aftel is the mother of the artisanal movement in perfumery, and so her work is what we’d call a safe pair of hands. Her work sits at the tippy top of the quality chain in artisanal perfumery, therefore, although expensive, one sniff will tell you that you’ve found the baseline for judging all quality thereafter. Plus, if you’re a Leonard Cohen fan, wearing Ancient Resins takes on another layer of significance, one almost as reverential as the ancient resins used in the oil itself.

 

La Via del Profumo Oakmoss (Muschio di Querchia)

 

There is little from the hand of Abdes Salaam Attar (Dominique Dubrana) that I don’t at least admire, and quite a few that I love. One of the giants of natural perfumery, Dubrana has now rendered most of his fragrances in attar format, both in keeping with the brand’s original focus on natural attar perfumery and the rising popularity among consumers of high-end artisanal attars (Sultan Pasha et al).

 

I have been testing some of the attars these past few weeks, and can tell you that a) they are superb, and b) they solve the problem that plagues most of the catalog of La Via del Profumo and natural perfumery in general, namely, that of extreme ephemerality. The attar formats of favorite La Via del Profumo scents are rich, strong, and long-lasting; paintings done in oils compared to the pastel work of the EDTs.

 

This is great news for anyone who might have loved the scents but hesitated over plunging $100+ into a fragrance that, while beautiful, doesn’t last more than 3-4 hours on the skin. Lovers of natural perfumery understand and accept the trade-off between all-natural materials and their brief longevity. But with Dubrana’s attars now offering fans the best of both worlds, we don’t have to compromise.

 

Oakmoss (Muschio di Querchia) is one of my favorite fragrances from La Via del Profumo, and in attar format,

Photo by Tj Holowaychuk on Unsplash

allows me hours of pleasure, rolling around and luxuriating in its ripped-from-nature goodness. Far more a vetiver scent than an oakmoss, Oakmoss at first smells like wet leaves, upturned soil, bark, wild mint, the air after a rainstorm, and potatoes buried deep in the ashes of a campfire. It plugs me directly into a powerful current of memory: playing War with my brothers and neighborhood friends in the sprawling ditches and orchards once attached to our Famine Era home.

 

Slowly, the sodden smell of tree sap, mulch, and root dries out, ceding some ground (but not all) to an incensey, blond oakwood note, which is probably cedar but reminds me very much of the aromatic woodiness of Chêne (Serge Lutens) minus the booze. It smells more like split logs drying in a shed and woodsmoke than the oozing wetness of living trees.

 

The oakmoss has a bitter velvety softness that calls to mind the furred green carpets creeping over the roots and trunks of old oaks in some less trodden part of the forest. And while Oakmoss is far from sweet or creamy, the nuttiness of Dubrana’s famous Mysore sandalwood gives it a rounded warmth that speaks to comfort. People have called Oakmoss formal; the kind of scent to wear with a business suit. I can see that, especially in its clipped, almost monolithic elegance. However, the attar is earthier, more sepulchral, and darker-green than the EDT, and reminds me a bit of the way Djedi (Guerlain) and Onda (Vero Profumo) make me feel. Worth saving up for.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: Every now and then a perfume comes along to prove that scent is the most evocative sense of all, capable of connecting people in a profound way to memories and feelings they’d thought long-buried. In my experience, when this does happen, it happens mostly with fragrances created by the smaller artisans and independent brands, as opposed to those created by the big masstige or luxury niche brands. Oakmoss is a powerful example of this, for me. It might not tap into the same current of emotion for you as it did for me, since these things are highly personal. But if what you’re seeking is a deeper connection to your personal experience through scent, then artisan perfumes are more likely to spark that for you.

 

Aside from this (quite personal) angle, Oakmoss is special because it has the vivid rawness of an outdoors scene, which is more special to me than a simply luxurious smell. It is similar to both Annick Goutal’s Vetiver (the original) and Etro’s Vetiver, in that it features a salty, ferrous vetiver that pulls no punches. Oakmoss will also appeal to lovers of vintage chypres, especially Chanel’s Pour Monsieur and Givenchy’s Givenchy III. In attar format, it also reminds me somewhat of the rooty, Middle-Earth solemnity of both Onda (Vero Profumo) and Djedi (Guerlain). Just keep in mind – less of a perfume, more of an experience.

 

St. Clair First Cut

 

There’s a “build it and they will come” model at work in the artisanal food movement, whereby artisans choose one product upon which to build their reputation, invest everything they’ve got in it, and trust that the high-value end users of artisanally-produced food (chefs, restaurants) will absorb it all. This holds true for Diane St. Clair, renowned in the United States for her artisanal butter produced from milk from her small Jersey cattle farm in Vermont. Read more about Diane’s extraordinary back story in Kafkaesque’s comprehensive introduction post here; suffice it to say, with every gram of Diane’s butter bought up in advance by chefs of Thomas Keller calibre, she truly is the Queen of Butter.

 

Like Hans Hendley, Bruno Fazzolari, Annette Neuffer, and quite a few other indie perfumers, Diane St. Clair is an example of an artisan who decided to take her artistry in one field and cross it over into another. The connection between food and perfume is, naturally, that of sensory pleasure, so it follows that Diane St. Clair’ has a talent for perfumery too.

 

But perfume is an incredibly crowded field. The “build it and they will come” model doesn’t quite cut it in a segment where marketing, social media outreach, and YouTube reviews are perhaps two-thirds of getting a perfume to land where it needs to. That leaves the Diane St. Clair scents – as good as they are – at risk at being swallowed up in the great white noise of the perfume scene before they’ve really had a chance to resonate with buyers.

 

To help the brand resonate with potential buyers, bloggers like me have to figure out how to describe them in a way that it will be clear to readers where the scents fit in the larger context of the perfume landscape. The best way I can put it is that the Diane St. Clair scents are subtle portraits of an idealized rural landscape where the cows that give us our milk are all happy, golden creatures, where wildflowers scramble over banks, and nobody has to get up at 4am.

 

It’s not the raw, wild density of Josh Lobb’s American landscape, nor is it the smoky, resinous forests of Laurie Erickson’s imagination, where mighty oaks ooze great fat tears of labdanum and myrrh. Instead, Diane paints an ethereal, almost translucent picture of what we might imagine a Vermont smallholding to be. There’s nothing literal or heavy-handed about the way the bucolic ideal is presented here, though; the perfumes are minutely textured and abstract in a way that shows real vision.

 

First Cut is by far my favorite of the initial releases. Its contrast between prickly aromatics (citrus, lemon verbena, tomato leaf) and the buff creaminess of hay reminded me at first of Jicky, especially in its famous clash of cymbals at the start, citrus and lavender stirred into dirty vanilla, but First Cut is not at all animalic. The dulcet almond tones of the tonka deepen, sweetening and thickening the scent, but the crisp aromatics persist throughout; fans of both Tonka Impériale (Guerlain) and Cologne Blanche (Dior) will appreciate the prickle of rosemary against the smooth expanse of hay here.

 

Although never strictly gourmand, there’s a whipped egg white delicacy of texture to First Cut that recalls the sensation of biting into the soft almond center of pasticche di mandorle, dusted with powdered sugar and aromatized with a drop of Sicilian lemon oil.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: Hay fragrances can often stray too far into syrupy richness (Chergui) or sugared grass (Fieno), but First Cut gets the balance just right. It takes me a while, and multiple wears, to realize that the success of the scent lies in the same equation Etat Libre d’Orange figured out for its Fils de Dieu du Riz et des Agrumes, which is to say pitched perfectly between sweet and sour, pungent and creamy, hot and cold, like the best South East Asian meal you’ve ever had. 13ml travel sizes of First Cut can be purchased for $65, including shipping in the US, which is not bad at all for an artisanal perfume.

 

April Aromatics Ray of Light

 

April Aromatics, along with Hiram Green, is one of the rare all-natural perfume brands that produce perfumes that feel like proper perfume rather than a mixture of essential oils. Many of my favorites from April Aromatics, like Bohemian Spice and Calling All Angels, rely on a clever use of labdanum to enrich the bases and make them last longer. Tanja Bochnig is a obviously perfumer who has learned to embrace that strange Janus face aspect of labdanum, meaning its psychotic, continuous lurching between parched-leathery and wet-honeyed.

 

Her florals, while slightly less intense, are also rich and durable, with Nectar of Love and Tempted Muse leading the pack. But perhaps the greatest test for any natural perfumer is how they handle The Great Citrus Problem. Citrus notes are short-lived molecules of pure joy, and it is the task of every perfumer to come up with new solutions to make them last beyond 5 minutes. Companies with a broad palette of mixed media materials (both naturals and synthetics) can extend the citrus through layering it over coumarin or oakmoss-replacing materials; see Azemour Les Orangers (Parfum d’Empire) as perhaps the best example of this on the niche side.

 

On the natural end of things, Ray of Light is probably the best I’ve personally encountered. The yuzu-like grapefruit topnote is so riveting that you’ll drop whatever you’re doing just to focus on it. How is this incredible note extended? The best I can tell, it’s done through using mint to bridge it to a slightly bitter, resinous galbanum or hay-like accord in the base. There’s also a candied edge to it reminiscent of the lemon-and-lime flavored chews of my childhood.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: Perfume is mood-altering and depression-lifting; none more so than a perfectly-judged citrus. For perfume nerds like me (and hopefully you), the fact that an all-natural citrus perfume that lasts actually exists and that it’s this good is reason enough to smile.

 

 

January Scent Project Selperniku

 

Diane St. Clair might be the Queen of Butter, but John Biebel of January Scent Project made a scent that really smells like butter (and a few other, weird things). Read my full review, here, to get an idea of what Selperniku smells like; if you can make sense of it based on my incoherent ramblings, then more power to you. Better yet, order a sample. And then write to me to tell me what you think it smells like.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: Selperniku is the scent that jumps to mind when I think about the central tenet of what sets artisans apart from big brand niche, i.e., the boldness of the original and utterly non-commercial idea. Selperniku might not make the brand any money, and I’m not sure I’d want to wear it as a personal fragrance, but it moves the landscape of fragrance several steps forward. At the very least, it’s a talking point.

 

 

Marina Barcenilla Black Osmanthus

 

Osmanthus is one of those things that smell different in its absolute form than in commercial perfumery. In commercial perfumes (and most high-end niche ones), osmanthus is usually presented as a light apricot-and-suede note. In absolute form, however, it smells like a pungent and creamy Laotian oud oil, with a greasy leather undertone and a winey, damascenone-rich fruitiness. Because osmanthus petals are so tiny, you have to collect a lot of them to fill the still, so the petals sit (and rot slightly) in water until enough petals have been gathered for distillation. This process, similar to the pre-soaking of oud wood chips for at least 10 days before distilling, gives the resulting oil the animalic twang of fermentation.

 

Marina Barcenilla’s Black Osmanthus doesn’t veer away from the animalic, fermented leather side of osmanthus absolute, but instead embraces it. Probably much influenced by the dank, oudy pungency of the osmanthus absolute in Auphorie’s Miyako, the scent that famously revived Luca Turin’s interest in blogging, Barcenilla sets about exploring the less polite aspects of this most expensive material, framing it with a host of equally pungent materials – Indian tuberose, myrrh, saffron, bay rum. This has the effect of “de-floralizing” the osmanthus, shearing off all the pretty apricot nuances until all that’s left is rubber, smoke, pepper, and the metallic smell of rain hitting the red earth of India. The drydown reads like an extended essay on myrrh, bringing its savory, wet-soil gloom to the fore.

 

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: If you’re fed up with the stultifying serenity of florals as presented by big brand niche, take a walk on the wild side with the indies and naturals – they’re the ones that will show you the surprisingly non-floral, non-pretty face of all those flowers you think you’ve been smelling.

 

Natural jasmine, osmanthus, even rose – these are all materials that are rarely found in commercial perfumery anymore due to expense or low yields. Indies and artisans are a holdout for working with natural raw materials to any substantial degree, because they work with small batches and don’t care about stretching the formula to fill 100,000 bottles. Sample Black Osmanthus because it’s the real face of osmanthus, the one you rarely see. If you’re intrigued by this, then you’ll know you’re ready for exploring some of the other ugly-beautiful faces of flowers in the artisan arena.  Cue Matrix quote: “You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.

 

Slumberhouse New Sibet

 

Slumberhouse fragrances are fetishized in certain parts of the community, so hardly needs no talking up by little old me. But for people who didn’t jive with the original aesthetic of Slumberhouse – dense, syrupy New Gothic Americana – and thus allowed their interest to drift away from the house, might be brought back into the fold by New Sibet, a scent that marks a stylistic departure for Josh Lobb and the house.

 

Underneath the otherworldly chill of orris meeting the gamey funk of leather, New Sibet has a classical bone structure. The gears shift midway through its trajectory, transitioning so soundlessly from Slumberhouse weirdness to a Caronesque leathery carnation that it unnerves the wearer. The dusty coldness that permeates from head to toe gilds the scent with a silvery edge that feels like breathing in dry ice.

 

New Sibet is unusual in that it exhibits almost human intelligence; sometimes it is a cool-toned, ashy leather, other times it seems rather ripe, buttery, and pungent, and occasionally, it smells resolutely classical, like a beguiling mash-up of Tabac Blond and L’Air du Temps. It’s gloriously weird, borderline unwearable, and absolutely beautiful.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: Along with Feu Secret by Bruno Fazzolari, New Sibet is the rare example of an artisan fragrance that turns our traditional idea of iris on its head, rather than simply allowing the beauty of the material to do all the talking, as is the norm.

 

 

Pekji Battaniye

 

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Amber fragrances are a sort of rite of passage in the first few years of one’s fragrance journey; they are un-challenging, simple in structure, and offer the kind of dopey sweetness that’s hard to pass up on when you’re in need of warmth. But what makes ambers so attractive is also what limits them. One you’ve amassed two or three of the amber stalwarts, it’s hard to find a variation that innovates or improves on the basic model to the point where you’d be happy shelling out for another.

 

Battaniye is that rare amber that does something new with an old idea. Meaning blanket in Turkish, Battaniye was made to evoke the feeling of restfulness and comfort of having an old wool blanket pulled over your lap, while you watch the rain bucket down outside. Omer Pekji took his inspiration from a stormy evening in Trabzon, in his native Turkey, a town on the Silk Road that served as the gateway to Persia.

 

The scent opens on a remarkable note of burned coffee grounds, before smoothing out into a dry, whiskeyish amber that reads more like fabric – leather, sheep’s wool, hessian – than resin. In fact, it does rather smell like an old afghan or perhaps a man’s battered leather jacket, something that you absentmindedly pull onto your bare knees and then spend the rest of the evening inhaling the rich humanity of smells bound up in its fibers.

 

Battaniye achieves a textured, layered feeling of warmth without ever spiraling into gooey sweetness, or at the other end of the scale, the sort of parched dryness that wears on the spirit. It’s a masculine scent, and slightly animalic in parts, a core of medicinal Peau d’Espagne-style leather hiding out in layers of wool, resin, and cool, wet earth. Once the TCP-like nuances of the leather burn off, the patchouli really piles into the scent in a big way, reminding me of the evocative smell of rain on soil. This is a scent that just gets better and better as it ages on the skin.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: It’s hard to do something with amber that a) diverges from the basic model of sweet, resinous warmth, and b) doesn’t in any way call to mind the spice-rack ambers of the Middle East. Battaniye shuffles the spirit of oily, macho Peau d’Espagne-style leathers into an ever-shifting deck of resin, wool, and earth, for a result that both comforts and pulls on an emotional string.

 

It’s masculine but not macho, dry but not desiccated, exotic but not souk-ish, and finally, evocative but not challenging. Battaniye solves a lot of problems inherent in amber scents, and thus might be the baby bear’s porridge of amber for many fragrance fans. Devotees of By Kilian’s Amber Oud and Tauer’s Lonestar Memories will want to sample.

 

 

Providence Perfume Cocoa Tuberose

 

Chocolate, like coffee, is one of those things that smells amazing in real life and borderline disgusting in perfume. Overly burnt, harsh, syrupy – these are all charges laid at the door of coffee and chocolate perfumes, be they natural or mixed media. But Cocoa Tuberose is very clever; it hints at the topnotes of dark chocolate (brandy, dried plum, red earth, dust) without ever tipping into the faintly metallic, period blood-like animalism that lurks beneath, or worse, adding cream and sugar to bloat it up and dumb it down.

 

I put this down to the surprisingly subtle influence of the tuberose, which shows up only as a faintly rubbery, vegetal note that throws a net over the chocolate and controls it. Hints of dry tobacco add a sexy, rugged accent very much like the animalic tobacco-chocolate-black tea triad in Sammarco’s Bond-T. The overall effect is of a dark, dusty richness born not of flowers and chocolate, but of cardboard, solvent, old houses, and libraries.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: Sexy and evocative, Cocoa Tuberose is a rare natural perfume that transcends the limits of its constituent materials. It won’t hit you over the head with either cocoa or tuberose, but instead explores what those things feel like in a wider, more perfumey context. For people who prefer less “on-the-nose” florals like Le Labo Iris 39, this is a must-try. Hurry though – I hear Cocoa Tuberose is on the chopping block.

 

 

Stora Skuggan Silphium

 

Silphium demonstrates the endearingly nerdy interest of some artisans in repurposing old materials and traditions for modern ends; Antonio Gardoni, perfumer of Bogue, created Maai, for example, when he discovered a stash of barrels of vintage raw materials in a disused warehouse. In the case of Silphium, Stora Skuggan wanted to create the scent of Silphium, an ancient plant native to modern-day Libya that was used for medicinal purposes in Ancient Greece. Pedanius Dioscorides, in 70 BC, described Silphium as having a “very healthy aroma”, and it’s possible that it was used as a contraceptive or even an aid to abortion.

 

The perfumers, probably working off the information that Silphium may have been related to fennel or asafetida, built an accord that smells like an ancient salve made from sweeping armfuls of culinary herbs and spices off the rack. But whatever medicinal pungency might have resulted from this is mitigated by the cheerful zing of freshly-grated ginger root, which sluices the dense herbal canopy with heat and sunshine. Indeed, layered with a fizzing incense note, Silphium smells more like a good mood than the inside of Hippocrates’ medicine chest, and that’s a good thing.

 

The clove and black pepper accents rev up the spicy and metallic aspects of the Silphium accord, making it feel half-clean, half-sweaty. Crucially, there’s no amber or vanilla to blunt the spice, so things never get maudlin or, shudder, creamy. It does, however, smell incredibly soapy in a happy, effervescent way. Although Silphium doesn’t really remind me of any other perfume, I’m confident that anyone who loves the sooty, airy incense in Timbuktu (L’Artisan Parfumeur), the clovey resins of Eau Lente (Diptyque), and the luxurious soapiness of Castile (Penhaligon’s) would also love this scent.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: Love the ancient herbs and spice rack authenticity of the earlier Diptyque scents? Silphium nails it, and is an indie to boot.

 

 

Hiram Green Shangri La

 

Some all-natural perfumes sacrifice aeration for wholesomeness, leaving the perfume feeling overly dense and “brownish” in aura. Then, when the main show of force is over, they evaporate into the ether. What, pay €150 for sludge that lasts 30 minutes? Nope, I require both beauty and lift, which is why I usually prefer mixed media perfumes over all-natural. However, there are a couple of artisan brands whose all-natural perfumes slip past my cynicism barrier and make it to “must buy” status, and Hiram Green is one of those.

 

Florals are, I suspect, slightly easier to arrange in the context of natural perfumery; many absolutes and essential oils, like jasmine, rose, and ylang, are complex aromas in their own right, and the trick then becomes how to best manage their behavior in the final composition. But chypres, which involve a complex arrangement of bergamot, labdanum, and oakmoss, are difficult to achieve, especially in a day and age when real oakmoss is restricted.

 

Shangri La pulls it off. A dry but lush chypre with an aged peach saké topnote, it has the rubied, velvety bitterness of a Mitsouko or Femme without any the compromises one has to make for the modern-day versions. Plus, it’s all-natural, although Shangri La is so good that you forget all about its worthiness. Full review here.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: A proper fruity chypre with a properly mossy drydown priced at €39 for a travel size? Come on, I’ve laid riskier bets than that at our local greyhound track.

 

Francesca Bianchi Under My Skin

 

Together with Siberian Musk (Areej Le Doré), Francesca Bianchi’s Under My Skin was my favorite fragrance in 2017, but it’s kind of silly to confine perfumes to years, because I have the feeling that this would make my list every year. Under My Skin smells of intimacy in the best way possible, an idealized notion of milky sweat, buttery baby skin, worn suede, and old wood. Original review here.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: If you’re attracted to the special, private smells common to a loving household or family, then skip the much-vaunted L’Air de Rien by Miller Harris, now reformulated down to a small, pungent amber, and come right to the door of an artisan who’s doing it all right. It is both atmospheric, in the way it paints a picture of the collected smells of a place – a bed, a room, a library – and intensely human, in the way it captures the private, milky scent of much-loved skin. It’s basically the kind of human fur perfume that Guerlain should still be doing but isn’t.

 

 

Hans Hendley Mown

 

Many artisan perfumers come to fragrance by way of another art or artisanal profession, such as photography, graphic design, jazz music, poetry, jewelry-making, or small-batch artisanal food production: Bruno Fazzolari, Diane St. Clair, Annette Neuffer, and Hans Hendley are all prominent examples of this sort of crossover. A surprising number of them started out in the field of science and chemistry: Andy Tauer, Sven Pritzkoleit, and Spyros Drosopoulos all came with a professional curiosity about scent molecules and how they behave (scientifically or not) in a composition.

 

Obviously, the desire to create is one that spills feverishly over boundaries and finds cracks in the pavement through which to sprout. The artisan sector is where cross-pollination thrives; it gets strangled in the bigger niche and mainstream segments of the market.

 

Not all art is good just because it is art, just like not everything an artisan makes is intrinsically superior to what’s offered in the mainstream. I like Hans Hendley perfumes because they are artistic without being pretentious or inaccessible to a more general public taste. I would describe his style as Slumberhouse-esque, inspired by rugged, outdoorsy smells such as “pine, cedar, oak, forest floor, daffodil flowers (narcissus), honeysuckle, sage, tomato leaf, fresh bread, sawdust, smoke and the secretly amazing smell of gasoline[8] but much lighter than Slumberhouse and with a use of “radiant” woody-ambery basenotes.

 

Mown encapsulates both facets of the Hans Hendley style well. It features a damp, nutty hay accord interspersed with the dried fruit and bitter cocoa notes of curing tobacco, with a result that is syrupy, rich, and almost edible. However, layered over a radiant woody amber that smells like shards of wood impregnated with resin, smeared with honey, and left outside in the sun to dry, there is enough “burnt” in the scent’s structure to keep it buoyant. Powdery orris helps tilt the scent towards the dry, bitter “grassy” aspects of the harvest line. There’s even a toasted note in there that calls to mind cereals laid out on hay to dry out in the sun.

 

Before the woody amber sets itself on fire in the base, we have time for a whistle-stop tour of the tobacco curing shed. The dried fruit richness of the start mimics the chocolatey dampness of un-cured tobacco leaves, which smell like they’ve been dipped in fruitcake soaking liquor, before becoming green and waxy, similar to the smell of beeswax absolute.  But as the scent dries out, so too do the sheaves of tobacco, honeycomb transitioning into the crackling nuttiness of 100% cured tobacco leaf, red-gold at the edges and barely sweet. The base is what marks Mown out as related to other powerfully dry, woody perfumes such as Woodcut by Olympic Orchids, Eau My Soul by 4160 Tuesdays, and Hendley’s own Bourbon. At $28 for a 9ml travel spray, Mown has to be one of the best deals on the market if you love the earthy smells of the harvest.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: Because if you’re a young professional living in the city, you’ll always feel a tug of yearning for wide open spaces and rusticana. You see the countryside as wholesome and freeing, an imagined space into which to pour all your longing. The perfume landscape is dotted here and there with visionary perfumers who see the wildness of non-urbanized spaces as the refuge of authenticity; Slumberhouse, Hands Hendley, and Diane St. Clair are all artisans who create pictures of the (predominantly American) rural scene, albeit filtered through a very sophisticated, and in the case of Hans Hendley, Big City aesthetic.

 

Mown will strike a chord with those who love earthy harvest scents: honey, hay, tobacco, grains, grass, cereals, etc. It is built along the same lines as Erawan (Dusita), Agartha (April Aromatics), and Slowdive (Hiram Green), but distinguished by its potently dry, radiant woodiness. It might also be an option for those looking to replace the now-defunct Tabac Aurea (Sonoma Scent Studio), or the more expensive Tobacco by Frank Broclet.

 

Bruno Fazzolari Au Dela Narcisse

 

Au Dela Narcisse deserves the kind of “classic green floral” status as Chanel No. 19 or Guerlain’s Chamade. Revolving around a honeyed, animalic narcissus and a dulcet jasmine, Au Dela has a brisk modern feel, but none of the clipped formality of either the Chanel or the Guerlain. The opening moments – a clustering of green notes that manage to be simultaneously crisp and nectarous – are truly riveting, and though the jasmine that follows is a hair too honeyed for my taste, the overall impression is of a green floral chypre, a feat that’s none too easy to accomplish in an oakmoss-limited era.

 

What I appreciate most about Au Dela Narcisse is that it is the rare green floral that doesn’t feel ramrod stiff. It has a sexy, tousled feel to it, as if Chamade had rolled around with a lover on a bed of wild, honeyed narcissi for hours and is now pleasantly drowsy.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: Anyone unhappy with the current state of Chamade (Guerlain), Vol de Nuit (Guerlain), or No. 19 (Chanel) could switch to this and not feel the sting, apart from a slight lack of chypric bitterness. There are distinct parallels between Au Dela Narcisse and both Romanza (Masque Milano Fragranze) and Le Temps d’Un Fete (Parfums de Nicolai), so if the former is too bitter or animalic, and the latter too unavailable, the Bruno Fazzolari would be a more than satisfactory replacement. Travel sizes of 9ml sometimes appear on the brand’s website too.

 

Bogue MEM, Vero Profumo Naja, & Papillon Dryad

 

Last but not least, I’d like to mention three of the artistic standouts of last year, all three released at around the same time in Spring 2017, and all three still defining the heights to which artisanal perfumery can scale. I’ve reviewed them already, in this post here, but I’d like to talk here specifically about the aspects that make these three perfumes in particular so significant, in terms of artisanal perfumery and in perfumery in general.

 

Vero Profumo Naja is significant because the sheer ambitious scale of the perfume belies the humble beginnings of the brand, as the brain child of a woman who worked for Swissair until she was 54. Although largely self-taught (another key feature of the artisan scene being that its perfumers don’t go through the formal route of a Grasse education), Vero Kern’s fragrances are all built in the grand, sweeping manner of the Guerlain, Chanel, and Caron classics.

 

But where the greats of classic perfumery have all degraded into pale versions of their former glory, or stagnated in the artistic sense, Vero’s fragrances continue to grow in scope and depth. Naja is a strange green-gold osmanthus leather scent that’s almost too complex to categorize except for a passing nod to Tabac Blond and Habanita. But truthfully, Naja transcends and surpasses its antecedents. It’s the kind of perfume we’ll still be using as a reference 50 years from now, and guess what, an artisan made it.

 

Papillon is an outfit that I’m guessing many consumers would mistake for high-end niche rather than artisan, because of the extraordinarily high gloss finish of the perfumes and the artistic self-assurance of its perfumer, Liz Moores. But in fact, Papillon is an artisan outfit through and through, Liz Moores doing everything herself from the sourcing of materials and creating the formula to bottling, packaging, and shipping. Her 2017 release, Dryad, demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that a talent for perfumery is innate rather than taught. Encompassing the cantilevered depth of vintage Vol de Nuit, the chilly smoothness of No. 19, and the leathery wickedness of Bandit, you could tell us that Dryad sprang from the loins of Germaine Cellier or Jacques Guerlain, and we’d believe it.

 

Bogue Mem is a perfume event in the landscape of perfumery, whether you like it or not (and many did not). A perfume of such astonishing complexity it requires repeat wearings to break it all down, it is essentially a riff on lavender that meanders through burnt marmalade, malt, hay, and the low tide stench of ambergris. But the important thing about Mem is that after it’s finished – a good 12-14 hours after you’ve applied it – you think to yourself, boy, now that was an experience. It’s as twisty as a good telenovela, but nutrient-dense, cerebral. Wear this if you want the perfume equivalent of watching The Unusual Suspects or Inception for the first time.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: These are three artisans at the top of their game, artistically and career-wise; sample their work to track the trajectory they took to get there and to pay witness to the extraordinary complexity and polish that’s possible from the hands of self-taught perfumers.

 

 

[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/fashion/features/designer-perfumes-niche-fragrance-collections-are-the-heaviest-hitter-in-the-business-a7052226.html

[2] https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/fashion/features/designer-perfumes-niche-fragrance-collections-are-the-heaviest-hitter-in-the-business-a7052226.html

[3] “Luxury for the Masses”, authored by Michael J. Silverstein & Neil Fiske, April 2003 issue, Harvard Business Review, accessed through https://hbr.org/2003/04/luxury-for-the-masses

[4] http://www.artandolfactionawards.org/submission/artisan/

[5] http://www.artandolfactionawards.org/submission/independent/

[6] http://www.mediative.com/2018-digital-trends-9-artisanal-advertising/

[7] https://www.afponline.org/trends-topics/topics/articles/Details/why-should-finance-be-buzzing-about-artisanal-trends

[8] https://www.theolfactive.com/hendleyperfumes/

The Business of Perfume Thoughts

The Business of Perfume: Demographics, Gender, and Influence

May 23, 2018

 

Who is buying perfume? Why are they buying it? Are their reasons for buying perfume different based on gender, culture, profession, or geographical location? And who or what is influencing them to buy?

 

These are not easy questions to answer. Perfume is a difficult product to pin down because it straddles two categories at once: it is both a functional product (designed to make you smell good) and an aspirational lifestyle product like a watch or a car – the reflection of a personal and complex interwebbing of desire, imagination, and ambition.

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January Scent Project: Selperniku, Smolderose, Eiderantler – Reviews (Sort Of)

January 26, 2018

 

In October 2004, a man called Chris Anderson wrote a very influential article for Wired magazine called “The Long Tail”[1]. In it, he explained how a little-known statistics term, called the long tail, actually explained a lot about success in the business world. The basic premise is that the market for products not widely available in bricks n’ mortar stores is as big, if not bigger, than the market for products that are carried in stores.

 

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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 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.

Review Round-Ups Thoughts

Cire Trudon Fragrances: The First 5

October 23, 2017

If you’d told me that I’d be considering investing €95+ in a coffret of perfumes from candle maker Cire Trudon, I’d have been skeptical. It’s not that I doubt a company more known for its candles would be capable of producing good perfumes – after all, Diptyque has managed it – but based on personal experience, any time 5 or more niche perfumes are released at the same time by a brand, it usually features one or more of the following problems:

  • The perfumes are a paint-by-numbers rundown of popular niche themes – there will be an oud, a leather, a rose, and so on, every single perfume feeling like a retread of a perfume I already own
  • There will be one stand-out perfume, the basket into which all the eggs have been placed, which means that you get stuck with 4 or 5 “also rans”, or fillers
  • Lack of thought put into the execution or skipping corners on quality in order to rush all perfumes to market at once

 

But none of these problems appear here. Cire Trudon hired really good perfumers, among them Lyn Harris and Antoine Lie, and obviously told them to take their time. And although the perfumes are not bold or experimental, they are more abstract than the perfumes in the main Diptyque line (Tam Dao et al).

 

I won’t belabor the Diptyque comparisons too much, because they’ve been in the fragrance game for decades now and that would be unfair; but I will point out that the Cire Trudon exhibits a very Diptyque-ian naturalness of feel (despite being, like Diptyque, mixed media perfumes). I think that last point will be important for people who find modern woody ambers to be too overbearing.

 

Furthermore, a huge point in Cire Trudon’s favor: they have issued these fragrances both as standalone scents and as a coffret of 5 travel sprays of 10ml each, thus making the range perfumista-friendly. It’s a smart move, and I’m willing to guess that this, coupled with the wave of positive reviews that have been emerging for the perfumes, will give this launch a nice boost in an extremely crowded market. Not many fragrance friends I know would pay full retail on a €180 bottle of scent, especially from a new-to-fragrance company: it’s too much of a risk and we all already own way too much perfume. But 5 bottles of only 10ml each for €95? Now that’s a different proposition. That gives us perfume whores the variety we crave, in quantities we actually have a hope of consuming within our lifetime, and at a price that is not too much to swallow.

 

There is no redundancy in the Trudon line at all, no thematic or note overlap that might stall a purchase. My only hesitation comes as a result of a certain tendency towards linearity in the perfumes, as well as slight familial resemblances to other perfumes I already own. However, I’ve smelled enough perfumes to know that many of these similarities are just a happy accident of arranging similar notes or materials together in a composition. Over the years, I’ve lost count of the number of niche perfumes that are ghostly (and probably entirely accidental) doppelgangers of others.

 

In some cases, this accidental similarity works in the perfume’s favor. For example, my favorite of the coffret, Olim, composed by Lyn Harris, is a clear descendant of the Shalimar/Jicky family. I have long accepted that I am the kind of person who buys not only Shalimar but its every relative, including Fate Woman, Angelique Encens, Opus 1144, and Musc Ravageur, regardless of the obnoxious overlapping that this incurs in my modest wardrobe. So, I was always going to love this. And I do.

 

Olim first most closely resembles Jicky in its clashing, slightly sour combination of fresh lavender and creamy, powdery benzoin. But there is also a distinct resemblance to Opus 1144 in its sparkling, fizzy bergamot sweetened into a lemony sherbet by the elemi resin. Its candied lemon-and-lime opening might take some time to get used to, but lovers of Refresher Bars will find it familiar.

 

Olim has a beautifully resinous drydown, full of earthy myrrh and fat, powdery benzoin, and is quite hotly spiced with clove. It feels compositionally similar to Jicky, Shalimar, and Opus 1144 in its play of brightness (sherbet, lemon, bergamot, lavender) over darkness (the earthy myrrh and benzoin). In its final blaze of spice on the skin, it strikes me that it is also similar to one of Lyn Harris’ own compositions, Fleur Oriental, which puts its own spin on the golden, balsamic Shalimar model with a spark of dry, hot carnation.

 

I can see myself slipping Olim quite easily into a “Shalimar” day, where I typically start off with a spritz of Fleur Oriental, then move onto Iris Oriental or Opus 1144, finally finishing off with the PDT or parfum version of Shalimar. I love deliberately blurring of the lines between these perfumes and finishing the day in an expansive aura of glittering benzoin, myrrh, vanilla, bergamot, and herbs, one pasted on top of another. I’m MacGyvering what I have to make an über-Shalimar, and it smells incredible.

 

Lyn Harris also composed II, pronounced (and sometimes written as) Deux. II is a fresh, green aromatic fragrance that clearly revolves around the use of fig leaf, although it is not listed. Fig leaf in perfumery smells resinous, fresh, and more like freshly-peeled lime peel aspect of galbanum than the milky, sappy smell of cut fig wood: Diptyque’s Philosykos, for example, focuses far more on the milky, coconutty facets of the entire tree rather than just the green leaf itself. Deux far more closely resembles the sharp, citrusy greenness of Annick Goutal’s Ninfeo Mio, a perfume I once owned but quickly swapped away because of the throat-catching sourness of its cassis drydown.

 

II (Deux) sidesteps the urinous, sharp tones of the cassis problem in Ninfeo Mio, and bolsters the juicy greenness of the fig leaf with a lot of what smells to me like tomato leaf. Either way, II is a perfume that smells pleasantly of a kitchen garden after a gentle shower: dewy, crisp, and green by way of snapped stalks and crushed bean pods. I like II in particular because it is vegetal without being harsh or sour. The base of the scent, mostly Ambroxan, feels like a gust of salty air from outside, and simply aerates the greenery without leaving a bitter chemical aftertaste. Tastefully done.

 

It’s difficult to make a church incense scent that stands out in a field crowded with giants: Avignon, LAVS, Cardinal, Bois d’Encens, and Casbah tower over the genre, and all newcomers are inevitably measured against them. I am not terribly fond of church incense genre, a lesson learned only after buying a few of those above-listed stalwarts, but then again, I suspect that most Catholics have something of a quixotic relationship with the aroma of lit resin. Having said that, I far prefer Mortel above most in the genre, and it is for these specific reasons:

 

  • It feels completely natural on my skin. Even in the much-lauded Bois d’Encens, the peppery Iso E Super bothers me, and a recent entrant, Mandala by Masque Fragrance, was loaded with such a large dose of a potent woody amber that it defeated my nose in an hour. When I see “meditative” in the description of a fragrance, I equate that with peacefulness and naturalness: unfortunately, many brands equate it with the soaring reach of woody ambers or IES, and thus disturb my sense of peace.

 

  • Rather than being soapy, cold, or “spiritually elevating”, Mortel is warm and full in feel. The brand calls Mortel “erotic” but I interpret this more as a sort of grounding, animal-like feel that comes from the dusty labdanum that plays the starring role in the scent; it smells like resin combed directly combed out of a goat’s hair. Golden, warm, balsamic, dusty, spicy – these are the words I’d use to describe labdanum, and these words also define the feel of the fragrance.

 

  • Although the fragrance includes frankincense, the topnotes of Mortel do not smells fresh, pine-like, or peppery, as in many frankincense-dominated fragrances. Instead, it plunges straight for the warmer myrrh and labdanum in the heart. I think that many church incenses use frankincense and elemi to impart a certain airy, cathedral-filling brightness to the topnotes, in an attempt to make us feel spiritually elevated. Mortel, lacking this hauteur, is more down to earth and less reverential in tone, which of course makes it far easier to wear for a church-o-phobe like me.

 

  • I have no idea why I’ve taken to bullet-pointing this review, but like they say on Countdown, I’ve started so I’ll finish: Mortel pleases me because it gives me the smokiness of resin without the stone coldness of a church pew. If you like the idea of a very warm, natural-smelling incense fragrance that will make you feel meditative and restful without making you feel like you’re in church, then do give Mortel a try.

 

I love a good smoky fragrance, but it’s hard to get right. Le Labo Patchouli 24 satisfies me on almost every level, but its marshy, vetiver-led drydown sometimes turns to runner’s sweat on my skin, so I have to think carefully before putting it on. I love the sweet, glazed-ham smokiness of Fireside Intense by Sonoma Scent Studio, but sometimes I think I can taste a rather nasty aromachemical up front, like a shot of liquid smoke one puts in BBQ sauce (I can live with it, though). Bois d’Ascese by Naomi Goodsir is too much for me, an unrelenting plume of opacity.

 

Revolution really gets the smoke right, and as far as I can tell, it’s because there’s a clever balance between black, dry smoke (licorice root, charcoal, soot), green, herbal smoke (cade oil, papyrus, pine), and white, creamy smoke (mainly elemi). Creamy might sound like an odd word to use, but it really does strike me that way. Elemi smells lemony and bright, but also creamy and vaguely floral, in some compositions. It also smells like the white ash that’s left after a piece of resin burns away completely.

 

This balance of elements means that while Revolution smells green and coniferous, it also smells like ash rubbed into butter. I can see where the gunsmoke reference comes in – a bright, dry pepper note fizzes on top, giving the composition a sense of excitement and movement, but it’s quite subtle (not unlike the way pepper is used in L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Amour Nocturne to suggest gunpowder). I appreciate Revolution because it’s both atmospheric and wearable, which is not as easy as it sounds. Consider the set piece that is Memo’s Russian Leather for a more heavy-handed treatment of the same theme.

 

Bruma is perhaps my least favorite of the bunch, but I’m struggling to say why. Perhaps it’s because of the dissonance between the ad copy the brand provides and my actual experience of the scent. It’s worth noting the original brand copy here, so as to be as clear as possible:

 

Bruma contains a distinguished, almost animal-like sensuality. In the night, a feminine rider draws inner strength from the elements that surround her: her horse and the depth of the forest at night seem to give her a magnetic and carnal aura. Bruma (“solstice” in Latin) is intrinsically tied to the sun. And to royalty. An icy solstice, Bruma feeds on the moon and the forest to evoke the inner metamorphosis of a character in contact with the nature surrounding her.” (Source: Fragrantica)

 

To me, that kind of language implies something more dramatic and forceful than what actually transpires. Bruma is a very pretty violet and iris cosmetic powder scent layered over a fruity apple suede base, not a million miles removed from what you’d get if you were to spray Chanel’s Misia on top of I Miss Violet by The Different Company or even Traversee du Bosphore by L’Artisan Parfumeur. They all share a delicious “I could drink this as liqueur” quality.

 

There is, however, an oddly ashy, peppery core to Bruma that does not appear in the other fragrances I mentioned, and for a time, I was close to defining this as Tuscan Leather-lite (there is a similarly sawdusty texture that links the two). But this ashen portion of the scent melts away quite quickly, leaving the deliciously fruity violet suede in its place. The drydown has a nutty, chewy lokhoum flavor to it that I truly enjoy: picture a violet lozenge of Turkish delight dusted in powdered sugar.

 

It’s a good fragrance, but I feel like I am missing a trick when I compare my experience with the brand copy. I felt the same way about Times Square by Masque Fragranze, which I enjoy as a syrupy apricot and lipstick scent, but completely fail to grasp the more exciting garbagey or sinful hooker stuff referenced in the descriptions. Both are kind of less than advertized, like when you see a trailer for a movie that looks great, and then you go and see the movies and realize that the trailer had all the exciting bits.

 

That’s a minor gripe, though, because there’s not a bad one in the bunch. A very well-thought-out debut by Cire Trudon, therefore, and its wallet-friendly coffret deserves to be very popular at Christmas or for gifting to oneself as a little treat. I personally find many occasions for rewarding myself, like, say, finishing a review or an article, so having finished this blog piece, excuse me while I go hover my cursor over the buy button on that nifty little coffret. Yes, I have too much perfume. But no, I can never have enough perfume.

Round-Ups Thoughts

Some Excellent New Perfumes: Not Reviews, Just Smelling Notes

April 14, 2017

I haven’t been writing about perfume lately – at least in public. I’ve been writing a book on attars, researching raw materials, writing product descriptions for various perfume sites, and hosting an Aftelier Parfums thread over on Basenotes, but in terms of actual perfume reviews, nada. Maybe at some point, I’ll feel like writing about why I stopped, but not right now.

Not publishing reviews doesn’t mean I have stopped writing or wearing perfume, though. Apart from writing a book, I also write product descriptions for sites such as Luckyscent and Essenza Nobile, so I am lucky enough to smell many of the new releases.

But remove the pressure of blogging and something wonderful happens: you simply wear perfume for the pleasure of wearing it rather than holding it at arm’s length. I can feel some of the original joy I felt in perfume flooding back into me, and it feels, tentatively, like a blessing. Wearing a perfume to evaluate it for a review forces you to step outside of your own enjoyment and consider more objection questions such as structure, longevity, and the situation in which you might wear it. Shedding these criteria feels like taking off tight pants at the end of a long day.

Wearing perfume for myself for a few months has taught me a lot about the way I use, collect, and wear perfume. I no longer want to smell all the new releases right now. I don’t feel the same pressing need to own every single violet fragrance ever made, for, you know, “comparison purposes”. I have become immune to the shiny new gobs of faux-luxe seem to hit the perfume scene every week, clogging up my critical drains and obscuring the view of the really, really good perfume.

My collection instinct has also changed, shifting from “I must smell all the perfume in this category” (which, by the way, also made me buy all the perfume in that category) to “I will buy only the ones worth owning.” My wardrobe is stuffed to the brim with good-but-not-exceptional perfumes – bottles and decants – that I mainly bought with the purpose of educating my nose, building a reference library of smells, and ultimately, writing a review for this blog or elsewhere. That doesn’t feel like a good plan to me anymore, because not least because it runs counter to the blog’s original manifesto of paring things down to only the best and buying less schtuff, but because I really can’t afford to smell all the perfume in the world.

In the interests of doing what I originally set up this blog to do, which was to separate the wheat from the chaff, and pare my collection down to only the truly excellent examples in each category, I will tell you about the perfumes I have smelled in the last 4 months of radio silence that have been truly special in some way. I often smell between 50 and 75 perfumes, samples, and attars over the course of any given month, both in the guise of writing the attar book and writing for perfume sites, and over time, these are the ones that floated to the top, like cream.

In the past, I might have dropped in a quick review and then moved on to the next thing, but the absence of blogging pressure has meant that I could simply return to them over and over again at my own leisure. A perfume is judged in the context of all the other perfume you’ve smelled, and these are the ones that, for me, stand out as exceptional.

 

Bogue MEM: This is the perfume that made me want to write again in public – not to return to blogging, really, but simply to spread the word about how brilliant it is and how everyone who invests in perfume as art should buy a bottle. I got a sample from Luckyscent and spent the next few days struggling to understand it enough to write about it.

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My basic description would be dirty lavender marmalade: Jicky dragged through the quinoa section of the health food store, covered in earth, incense, and floor wax, and lifted up into the air with the malty fizz of champagne. All of this nestled in a burned-sugar floral accord that smells a bit like tuberose but isn’t tuberose, a complex series of smoke and mirrors designed to lead your nose out of its depth.

Unusually for a modern perfume – although this isn’t really a modern perfume – MEM reveals its true complexity in the base, where a silty, musky ambergris lights up all the other elements like a blowtorch. Antonio used real animalics for the base, and it shows. The perfume is complex, beautiful, and abstract, far more so than even Maai. By far one of the most exciting perfumes I’ve put on my skin lately.

Notes (deep breath now): petitgrain, mandarin, grapefruit, 4 different types of lavender, ylang ylang, lily of the valley, white champaca, jasmine grandiflorum, rose damascena, bourbon geranium, vanilla, peppermint, laurel, Siam benzoin, rosewood, sandalwood (santalum album), Himalayan cedarwood, labdanum, aldehydes, ethyl maltol, ambergris, musk, castoreum, civet, amber

 

Naja by Vero Profumo: A creamy, blond tobacco floral sluiced with the iodine-like astringency of melon rind. Naja reminds me of Le Parfum de Therese and Diorella, not in the way it smells, particularly, but because they all take dense, saturated materials and pass them through a sieve of something salty and aqueous, giving them a luminescence that is particularly French. The dense tobacco of Naja is leavened by this salty, wet fruit note, and underpinned by a bitter, doughy suede note fleshed out with the apricot skin of osmanthus flower. Pulled in two directions, sometimes it feels airy and dusty, other times, thick and chewy.

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There is also a sharp spice to Naja that is immensely appealing, something hot, slightly smoky, and carnation-like, but although I can understand the references to Tabac Blond and Habanita, Naja is far stranger and more modern than either – in other words, a creature of its own time.

I sense a dusty, pollen-ish honey texture here too, unsweet and slightly floral, which I conclude is coming from the lime blossom. I don’t know if the effect is deliberate or not, but it is this slightly bitter, dusty honey that links Naja to both Onda and Rozy.

To my nose, there is none of the citric brightness of lime that others seem to be picking up, just the slightly green floral tang of linden honey and that salty, wet fruit note that is too blurry to define as either a melon, an apple, or anything else specific. What I love the most about Naja is its surprising sturdiness, its sense of substance. In each of my wearings, I visualized Naja as a dense square of osmanthus-tobacco lokhoum, striated with saltwater and dusted with an inch-deep layer of green pollen.

Like MEM, Naja is an El Bulli meal full of little trade-offs between texture and taste that will prick your saliva buds and fire up all five of your senses. And like its creator, Naja is as elegant and fierce as a single slash of Russian Red across an otherwise unmade-up face.

Notes: tobacco, osmanthus, lime (linden) blossom, melon

 

Dryad by Papillon Perfumes:   Basically a reworking of vintage Vol de Nuit parfum for modern times, and yes, I understand the impact of my comparison here. To many, Vol de Nuit is the zenith of the art of Guerlain, but to me, it speaks of home. The heart of Dryad reproduces almost exactly the same damp, green narcissus and jonquil accord found in Vol de Nuit (and actually, come to think of it, also the original Miss Dior), and there is a similar support in the form of oakmoss, tarragon, galbanum, and vetiver. But the sage note spins it in a slightly naughty, “witchy” direction. It smells like dark green velvet, with a bluebottle anisic sheen from the tarragon to keep things lively.

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Liz Moores calls this a green chypre-oriental, which of course is the same category to which Vol de Nuit belongs. But it diverges in the base. Dryad features none of the sweet, ambery notes found in Vol de Nuit, switching instead to a dry, rubbery galbanum resin that gives off the feel of sage and hay thrown on a bonfire and left to smoke out. It is also not powdery, but it does exhibit the kind of “cut grass” and “lime peel” dustiness that galbanum has.

Supposedly, there’s quite a lot of costus root in this, but thankfully, I can’t smell it. (I’ve never smelled a treatment of costus that didn’t end up smelling like unwashed hair). In fact, I don’t pick up on anything animalic here at all, which is fine with me, because all the focus is kept on those burningly pure green notes. It’s all resin and grass and sage, no soft landing in the form of amber or vanilla. There is something crystalline and focused about it.

Green perfumes are not overly represented in my wardrobe, but I would buy this in a hot second. Dryad has joined the small but exclusive group of green perfumes I truly love, which include Vol de Nuit (Guerlain), Mito (Vero Kern), Romanza (Masque), Vie de Chateau Intense (De Nicolai), Ormonde Jayne Woman, and Sycomore (Chanel).

Notes: narcissus, jonquil, oakmoss, galbanum, labdanum, clary sage, vetiver bourbon, apricot, costus, deer tongue, cedrat, benzoin, tarragon

 

Vetiver Blanc by Sultan Pasha Attars: I am not a huge fan of vetiver, but wow, Vetiver Blanc is sexy. Straight out of the bottle, it is a creamy emulsion of grass and tropical flowers, with a texture close to coconut cream or butter. The gardenia and tuberose absolutes give up their softer, low-register facets but none of their strident, candied, or rubbery undertones, so the blend stays smoothly earthy, like damp, hummus-rich earth covered with tropical blossoms that have fallen from nearby bushes.

But it’s unmistakably green. The galbanum and the vetiver in Vetiver Blanc run a smoky, rooty thread through the attar, tethering it to the greenery of the jungles and preventing the scent from floating away aimlessly into a pool of pikake island bliss. There is sensuality, but it is reigned in. Which, of course, is what makes this even sexier.

Another welcome surprise: ambergris. The composition of Vetiver Blanc contains 35% real ambergris, procured on the West Coast of Ireland and tinctured by Sultan Pasha himself. It is white ambergris, the highest grade of all, which does not produce much of a scent of its own beyond a certain sweet, sparkling, seawater minerality.

The role that the white ambergris plays in this composition is vital – it causes all the other notes and materials to glow hotly, as if lit by some internal heat source. The effect in this attar is a gauzy halo of buttery white florals and creamy green grasses and resins, all pulsing outwards in concentric circles of scent waves that fill the room and (almost) one’s own mouth.

I find this incredibly beautiful, sexy, and warm; the perfect white floral for white floral avoiders and the perfect vetiver for the vetiver-averse. It rivals both Songes and Manoumalia for their damp, fecund, “tropical island” sensuality, which, if you know those perfumes at all, is really saying something.

 

Grimoire by Anatole Lebreton: I respect and admire Anatole Lebreton’s work, but Grimoire in particular stands out at being special. Not everyone will like it, and I think it’s fair to say that the perfume has a cool, remote air that means it must select you, not the other way around. Setting out to smell like the thick dust that rises off a book of spells (a grimoire, in French) when closed shut, it combines a set of ashy resin notes with the earthy red-brown dampness of cumin.

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It’s a riff on the idea of Gris Clair but better, more successful because the dust tamps down the screech of lavender and makes it feel genuinely restful. It’s also monastically, ascetically dry. But the scent manages to capture dryness without filling the scent with the usual nose-scrapingly dry aromachemicals, for which I’m genuinely grateful.

As a side-note, I’ve recently smelled a couple of perfumes that seek to recreate the feeling or smell of dry, hot dust from a desert. L’Air du Desert Marocain, of course, was the trail blazer in this area, but it’s been followed by two equally costly niche fragrances, namely, Sheiduna by Puredistance and Taklamakan by SHL 777. These two perfumes demonstrate the risk and rewards associated with using the new generation of potently dry, woody-ambery aromachemicals: Sheiduna fails miserably, becoming a white, massively radiant ball of pain to those sensitive to scratchy aromachemicals, and Taklamakan succeeds completely, emitting a low pulse of warm, ambery “sand” and dry patchouli aromas that smell toasted, dry, and yet utterly comfortable to wear and to smell.

In Grimoire, the dryness feels cool and almost ashy. It gains an element of warmth, however, from the rather generous dose of cumin featured in this scent. The cumin adds a nice human touch to the cool dustiness of the lavender and incense, like the sweet, damp, oniony sweat under the arms of an ancient gardener tending a Mediterranean herb garden. The aromatic, simmering heat of the spice and the elemi makes the base of the scent feel hot to the touch, a nice contrast to the cool dryness of the top half. Grimoire is surprisingly easy to wear, and has a natural elegance to it that doesn’t labor any particular point. Have you ever seen the photos of the Italian men coming and going from the Pitti men’s fashion shows in September? This scent is the living embodiment of that.

Notes: bergamot, patchouli, musk, basil, moss, atlas cedar, lavender, elemi, olibanum and cumin

 

Al’Ghaliyah by Kyara Zen: Al’Ghaliyah, meaning “the most valuable”, is one of the very few rose-oud mukhallats out there that successfully manages to achieve perfect balance between the elements in the blend – a rich, perfumey oud that smells like liquid calf leather, a winey rose with no sourness or sharp corners, and what smells to me like a golden nectar of apricots, peaches, plums, and osmanthus soaking into all the other notes.

It’s important to note that all the elements reach the nose at once, cresting over each over continuously like the swell of a wave. The bright rose has been modulated to run straight through the blend like a piece of thread, so even in the basenotes you can sense its rich, red presence glowing like pulp through the oud and musk. I am unsure whether the succulent fruit notes are wafting out of the oud or the rose, but there is a cornucopia of winey, autumnal fruits to savor here. The fruit notes fade away gently, leaving the rich rose to proceed on its own.

According to Kyara Zen’s Instagram feed, it appears that genuine deer musk grains were macerated and then added to the final blend. If that is true, then it is a clever vehicle to demonstrate to people that natural deer musk does not smell as dirty or as fecal as its recreations sometimes make it out to be. Rather, it is unobtrusively musky, with all the pleasing warmth of a clean, furred animal.

Overall, I am astonished by the richness and depth of this mukhallat, and applaud the skill of the perfumer who managed to corral two or three of the most commonly-used raw materials in attar perfumery and shape them into a form that smells, well, if not new exactly, then at least a 100 times better than other iterations of the same materials. The attar equivalent of a piece of opulent, gold-threaded brocade, Al’Ghaliyah truly one of the most beautiful oils I have smelled on my attar journey. If it ever becomes available again, I will be buying it.

 

L’Animal Sauvage by Marlou: The minute I smelled this, I had to sit on my hands to stop myself from ordering it. The opening notes contain something of the almost fecal furriness of Serge Lutens Muscs Kublai Khan, but tempered with fresh, sugary orange blossoms, there’s also a thread of milky innocence running through it.

Actually, it straddles the divide between dirty and clean as successfully as Kiehl’s Original Musk, which it somewhat resembles, but the luxe factor is higher in L’Animal Sauvage. I’d add only that, on subsequent wears, I’ve noticed it is even softer and milkier than it at first appeared to me, making it a good contender for a summer musk. I don’t think that I will buy this, not because it’s not gorgeous (it is), but because I’m not buying much perfume these days. Still, it makes me happy indeed that people are still making fragrances like this.

 

Violet Moss by SP Parfums: I have been testing all the perfumes by Sven Pritzkoleit, and I think that although few are actually wearable, they are very bold, new, and have something to say. They are all a bit harsh at first, and all of them work more as separate accords just smashed together rather than a real, complete perfume, but some of them just nail it. In particular, Violet Moss, which smells like our family holidays to France when the boat would dock in Cherbourg, the aroma of raw petrol on dank harbor water mingling with the foreignness of the air, and the Grey Flannel-type colognes worn by my father’s French colleagues, his fellow customs officers.

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There is a strong waft of cigarette smoke darting through the structure too, calling to mind fond olfactory memories of the near-constant stream of smoke from Gitanes and Gauloises on the dock, which only ever added to the exotic, exciting air of newness that greeted us on the other side of the water. If this smell had a name, it was “freedom” and “not Ireland.” Violet Moss represents such a specific smell memory for me that I can barely judge it as a perfume.

Sunmilkflowers is also interesting, a totally weird, nearly repulsive mixture of bitter, green notes and milky caramel, creating a striking duel of fresh-green and sickly-lactonic notes. Challenging stuff, but again, a perfume I am glad to have smelled.

Animalic Aromatic Floral Jasmine Oud Review Thoughts

Parfums Dusita: A Case Study, The Perfumes

December 16, 2016

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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