A common assumption in evaluating all-natural fragrances – thanks in large part to the Cult of Raw Materials that has sprung up around top-tier artisanal, distill-it-yourself houses such as Bortnikoff and Areej Le Doré – is that the presence of a rare natural like oud or sandalwood automatically translates to a superior composition. Another is that because the starring raw material is rare and natural, it must be – by corollary – the best example of its kind among all available rare and natural materials.
Both are fallacies. The first correlates the quality of a natural raw material with compositional skill, which, while tempting, just doesn’t bear out. The second assumption flirts with the idea that most fragrance fans won’t be able to differentiate between a top notch raw material and a shitty one as long as there is demonstrably some of it in the scent. In other words, as long as it smells oudy or sandalwoody or deer-musky, then that’s the main bar cleared.
Treewitch by Teone Reinthal demonstrates the problems inherent to the latter. While I enjoy many of Reinthal’s other compositions and think she does a fantastic job of creating all-natural fragrances that smell like fully-fledged, 1980s powerhouse orientals rather than the slightly dull, worthy muddiness of most all-natural scents, Treewitch just doesn’t really smell that great, despite the rare and natural oud that has been used.
Or maybe it is because of the rare and natural oud that’s been used? While the oud is obviously real, it doesn’t smell like a very good one. Rather, it smells like an oud oil that has either been hastily distilled (many modern Cambodi-style oils display an unpleasantly stale nuance that smells like radiators being cranked up after many years) or force-aged, a post-distillation process that involves leaving the oil uncovered for weeks until it picks up the biliously-sour hay and leather high notes of the traditional Hindi profile.
The good news is that a) it gets better, and b) if you haven’t had much oud-smelling experience, then you’ll likely not know or care about the difference between high quality and low quality oud – oud is, for most people, just a generally broad oud ‘flavor’ profile, in that it either smells authentically oudy or it doesn’t. Depressingly, in this age of the Cult of Raw Materials, many perfume aficionados believe that this binary indicator (smells like real oud – yay or nay) trumps the famous Guy Robert assertion that ‘Un parfum doit avant tout sentir bon.’
And indeed, perfume should, above all, smell good. Treewitch does not. It opens with a grandstanding blast of honest-to-goodness Hindi oud – phenomenally dusty, animalic, with a hulking sour note that, on the inhale, smells like unwashed towels left to molder in a holiday let, and on the exhale, like a glass of Irish whiskey left on the counter for several days. It categorically does not smell like earth or the forest or the wilderness (the perfumer’s description had me visualizing something like Chypre Mousse, Muschio di Quercia or even Supercell), but of the unpleasant staleness of neglected fabrics and the dust trapped behind appliances that haven’t been touched in decades.
I love the undervalued scent of mustiness, but more the air of cultured neglect clinging to old books (Dzing!) or closed-up aristocratic lairs (Iranzol) than something genuinely unhealthy. I love the moldy dankness of stuff like Marescialla and the peeling wall plaster lurking behind the innocent violet topnote of Iris by Santa Maria Novella. Onda extrait and Djedi make me think of ancient sarcophagi being opened. But I cannot love the staleness of the oud used in Treewitch, because it smells like the poor hygiene of real neglect rather than a romanticized version of it.
True to form for Teone Reinthal’s style, however, a rich, spicy oriental base swells up to muffle the offending oud in an intricately-woven carpet of 1980s Opium or Coco – bittersweet red-brown balsams, tree sap, amber crystals, clove or carnation, all adding up to a spicy-mature orientalia clustering around a hot pink floral note that could be anything from carnation to rose. An amazing finish, therefore, but not quite amazing enough (for me personally) to make up for the objectionably foul-smelling oud in the front half.
Antiquity by Areej Le Doré is a good example of the first assumption, i.e., that a superb raw material is synonymous with compositional artistry. Now, Antiquity is a perfume that uses a natural raw material of superb quality – an aged Cambodi oud oil – and also smells really good (meeting that Guy Robert benchmark). However, and this might sound a bit controversial, the reason Antiquity smells so good is 80% due to the quality of that aged oud oil rather than to compositional skill.
I mean absolutely no offense to Russian Adam. He is a very promising, self-taught perfumer who has managed, in the space of just three years, to carve out and then completely dominate his own niche in the narrow crawlspace between the super-competitive, internecine oud community and the niche all-naturals crowd, building a committed fan base while remaining polite, loyal to his customers, and ethically-responsible. His perfumes are rich, big, and dripping in complex raw materials. There’s also a purity to him as a person that I appreciate.
However, I’d argue that Russian Adam’s real talent lies not in composing perfumes per se, but in finding (or distilling) two or three of the best raw materials for each composition, introducing them to each other, and then staying the hell out of their way, allowing them to work their synergistic magic on one another. This is the way, by and large, an Eastern way of making perfume – it is how attar wallahs work. Russian Adam clearly understands how each raw material will behave and evolve in a composition when placed alongside other raw materials. It is easy to mistake the richness of an attar-like perfume made in this manner for the gloss of classically French or Western perfumery – I’ve done it myself – but I think that the Guerlainesque richness and complexity we are smelling has more to do with the qualities of the raw materials that go into these perfumes than a ‘French’ way of making perfume. They feel composed more by instinct than formula.
As a result, if you love the raw material Russian Adam has used, then you’ll love the perfume itself, with the inverse also being true. Sometimes, if I don’t love the raw material he’s chosen, I find myself picking up on a certain blockiness to the composition, which tells me that really great raw materials can blow you away, masking the underlying compositional features one might otherwise notice or criticize. For example, the unctuously buttery labdanum used in two of Russian Adam’s oud-dominated fragrances, Oud Piccante, and to a lesser extent in Russian Oud, is not my favorite: it reminds me uncomfortably of the savory-greasiness of that sub-cutaneous layer of fat you have to excise from your lamb shank before braising it. Therefore, Oud Zen, which uses a nutty vetiver instead of this greasy labdanum in the base, strikes as the more elegant composition.
I love the Cambodi oud used in Antiquity, because it smells like a vintage Cambodi oud oil (Kambodi 1976) that Ensar sent me a sample of once. What many people don’t realize is that the trees that made the original (and deservedly popular) Cambodi oud oil of the 1970s no longer exist, thanks to over-exploitation. New Aquilaria trees were planted, of course, but it turns out that subsequent harvests could never replicate the unique conditions of the original trees, which some suspect had something to do with the cleaner water and air quality ‘achieved’ during the forced agrarian rule of Pol Pot. Ensar asserts that of the existing Cambodi oil on the market today, less than 5% is vintage stock from the original trees, while the remainder is oud oil distilled to mimic the Cambodi ‘style’ – and it seems to me that Adam got his hands on a little store of the real stuff.
It’s worth taking a minute to discuss what vintage Cambodi oud oil smells like on its own, because (a) Antiquity smells mostly like vintage Cambodi oud oil, and (b) not many people will have had the opportunity to smell the OG raw material itself. Unlike the hyper sweet berries-and-caramel punch of modern Cambodi-style oud oils, marred in some cases by the funky, dusty staleness associated with rushed distillation, vintage Cambodi oil from the original trees has had a leisurely 40+ years to deepen in the bottle, the sharp edges of the woods and berries sanded down over time to produce a perfectly round, glossy smell of old leather and decades-old wood.
The OG Cambodi oil doesn’t smell at all animalic, and if it is slightly dusty or stale, then it more pleasant than not – an old cedar chest that once held damsons and figs, but where the fruit has long since disappeared into the grain of the wood, leaving a ghostly presence of its dark, raisin-like fruit. It has a patina that glimmers darkly, calling to mind a good aged port.
In Antiquity, the fruit is ostensibly peach but it is the darker, vaguer scent of plum skin that predominates. Sometimes the underlying basenote is an intensely honeyed, saliva-ish musk-leather, but sometimes it smells more like the polish of old wood that has been cared for over decades with a weekly application of linseed-and-lemon furniture oil. The saliva-honey leather note intensifies with the passage of time, creating a sharp, almost sheepy muskiness that calls to mind the aroma of real animal fur or an ancient leather chesterfield armchair decades-deep in manly smells – fermented sweat, old booze, decades of grime, tobacco stains – a sort of sweet n’ sour smell that smells distinctly (to me) masculine.
The Cambodi oil is the big, deep smell that drives the body of the scent, but cleverly, Adam has dressed it up with light chypric elements to extend and accentuate key features of the oil. I admit that little of this chypre nuance was evident to me when I tried this in Rome, where I lived until recently, a place far warmer and more humid than where I live right now. The first few tries, I thought Antiquity was leaning far too hard on the natural complexity of the oud oil to do all the heavy lifting. But in a cooler climate, and by applying the dregs of my sample in big brown smears all over my arms, I am finally able to smell the chypre in this – the tart, spicy bergamot in the topnotes (still no aldehydes, though), and far down in the basenotes, past the massive Cambodi oud midsection, that buttery-animalic-leathery labdanum that Adam uses (the kind that smells like it was freshly combed from a particularly goaty goat) and in the very last gasps of its life, a whisper of something minty and vase water-ish that is probably the oakmoss.
So, yes, technically a chypre if you are ticking off the boxes of the tripartite formula – bergamot, labdanum, and moss. And yet, Antiquity still smells more like an amplified vintage Cambodi oud oil set in musk than a chypre. Real chypres are like a good Chinese meal in that the elements of sweetness, sourness, and saltiness come together at the same time in order to produce that essential chypre ‘flavor’: Antiquity feeds all the right elements into the composition but, dwarfed by the intensity of the Cambodi oud oil, they are squeezed to the sides, from where they make an appearance whenever an air pocket opens up in the structure. But the three strands never come together at the same time. Still, Antiquity is a pretty darned great oud fragrance and one that definitely improves upon aging.
Source of samples: The sample of Teone Reinthal’s Treewitch was kindly sent to me by a fragrance friend, along with generous samples of many of her newer stuff (which I hope to get around to reviewing soon). Areej Le Doré kindly sent me a sample set of the next-to-last collection* in early autumn 2019, without any obligation to review.
*Yes, I know, I know. That collection is now long sold out, which again shows why so few perfume houses send me samples to review and why they honestly should not – I am deeply unreliable and don’t work to any schedule or logic that would make sense to anyone but me. I feel guilty about this occasionally but know that feeling guilty would tip me over into a sense of obligation towards brands, especially the smaller indie ones, which in turn would probably skew my content more positive, and that right there is a slippery slide. As always, I write content for people who want to read about perfume for the pleasure of it, not to influence what you think you’re smelling or fuel a purchase decision