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Blind Smelling Blogging Review Thoughts

Adventures in Blind Smelling: Rose et Cuir, the Fragrance Foundation Awards, & Other Stories

21st October 2019

I used to think that fragrances were like books, in that the more you experienced, the more your mental library expanded.  But that’s not true.  When I read a new book, the bookshelves in my mind reshuffle a bit and expand; when I smell a new perfume, I can almost always file it to a scent memory that’s already been logged.  The more I smell, the fewer ‘unique’ perfume experiences I have.  Little smells completely new.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons why perfumistas eventually tire of, and move away from, this hobby?

Every now and then, I smell something that gives me a jolt.  But these days, I wait and see if my mind spits out a duplicate warning.  Rose et Cuir by Frederic Malle is a big geranium-ash-leather bomb that immediately smells arresting to me, chock full of the bitter, crushed-stem greenery of Mediterranean kitchen garden scents like Un Jardin en Méditerranée by Hermes, or the opening of L’Ombre dans L’ Eau by Diptyque minus that scent’s screechy, burnt-jam rose that ruins the rest of the composition.

It didn’t bother me that I was able to ‘scent match’ the front half of Rose et Cuir so quickly, because a) the green topnotes are, for me, an improvement over what had gone before, and b) an interesting overlay of record vinyl, condom rubber, and cigarette ash rescues the greenery from the sort of simple naturalism that’s always affecting at first but eventually boring.

Without looking at the reviews, the second half was a challenge to place, but place it I eventually did.  Cabochard de Grès.  Voila.  If you like the peculiarly ashy, meaty, acrid bitterness of that Cellier-esque leather (à la Bandit et al), then you’ll be in seventh heaven.  Me?  I can quite happily go without.  Interestingly, though, despite the clear references, Cuir et Rose doesn’t feel derivative or jaded.  It’s a gutsy fragrance that doesn’t feel particularly Ellena-esque (nothing ‘watercolor’ about it).  Actually, it’s downright grimy.

I’m glad I didn’t cheat and take a look at the reviews for Rose et Cuir first, because since everyone and their cat identified the main building blocks of the scent right away, I can’t be sure that my nose would have landed on the right reference on its own.  Because sometimes, you know, I see words like ‘ashy’ or ‘rosy’ or ‘metallic’ and I start to smell it that way too, even if my own nose says otherwise.  The truth is, I’m very open to suggestion.  And so are you.  

Sometimes I think that the riskiest thing for any perfume reviewer (or a reviewer of anything really) is simply to go first.  Because even if you have a list of notes at hand, you really only have your own impressions to go by for a full review, and you won’t know if you’ve diagnosed the major constituents correctly, or at all, until the other reviews come in.

I run into this fear-inducing scenario quite a bit, because I write product descriptions for Luckyscent and often the scent is so new that my description is the first one out there that tells you what a scent actually smells like, outside of the brand blurb which have all started to blur into one giant blob of ‘creamy Madagascar vanilla’ and ‘smoky Haitian vetiver’ and ‘buttery tonka bean’ in my brain.  I check the Luckyscent reviews often (maybe even a bit obsessively) to see if my description makes sense to anyone.  When I get it right, the relief is palpable.  But every so often, I’ll see a review that’s basically ‘WTF is up with Luckyscent on this description, like, lol, what are they smoking over there?’ and my confidence in my own smelling power dissolves like snow on a hot bonnet.              

Several degrees worse than this scenario, however, is the utter awfulness of having to smell something completely blind and then publicly pronounce your judgment on it.  I remember Luca Turin doing a brief blind judging stint for Women’s Wear Daily and thinking that I’d rather vomit up a whole garlic bread and then re-ingest it than do that.  However, a couple of years ago, I won a Jasmine Award, and as part of my ‘reward’, I was asked to participate in a blind judging of entrants for that year’s Fragrance Foundation awards.  I know – the horror.

But I’m glad that it happened, because first, it was a lot of fun (if nerve-wracking), and second, it helped me pinpoint one of the things that bothers me about writing perfume reviews, which is the issue of capacity.  Specifically, I came to the realization that unless you’re Luca Turin, with a background in science, or Victoria Frolova, with her classical training in perfumery, or Ayala Moriel, with her experience with natural perfumery, there’s nothing in particular that qualifies the average perfume writer to pass judgement on a perfume other than their breadth of smelling experience and an ability to put it into words.  And these days, you don’t even need a blog to get your opinion out there – if you have an Instagram account, you have the floor.  

That’s why I think that perfume blogging is getting kind of stale. While websites and blogs require huge amounts of maintenance, planning, and all that SEO stuff, you can publish a review to Instagram or Twitter in minutes.  The immediacy of the medium feeds the modern hunger for fast information.  It’s not permanent, but hey, neither is anyone’s opinion on a fragrance.  The reviews I see popping up in random Basenotes threads (the Areej Le Dore and Slumberhouse ones are the definitive source for reviews on these pricey artisanal brands), on Instagram (among those to watch are gunmetal24, scentosaurs, lucy_loves_ivo, Bangkok_hound, Houdini_sotd, armadilloscookiequeen and enchantefragrance – although the latter two also blog), and from certain Fragrantica reviewers (like Roge’ – that guy both knows his stuff and expresses it in a unique way, ditto FruitDiet and Houdini) are far more immediate, incisive, and, importantly, outspoken than those I see on the blogs I follow.  Even Kafkaesque’s Twitter reviews reveal a sort of gleeful relief of being set free from the burden of 5,000 words on a perfume s/he doesn’t even like very much but feels duty bound to readers to be as detailed about as possible.

Don’t get me wrong.  I will always value long-form writing above a tossed-away snippet on social media, but when it comes to wanting to know exactly what a perfume smells like without having to wade through the miles of brand-approved guff on backstory, perfumer, and inspiration that seems to invariably has to precede the review, or dodging that ‘social engagement trigger’ question that bloggers have been trained to trot out as rote, I am not really turning to blogs for perfume reviews anymore. (Oh, the irony, I hear you mutter – yes, I know).  The ones I love, I love either for the sheer quality of the storytelling – like Neil Chapman’s The Black Narcissus – or for the joy of feeling like you’re part of a close-knit gang of friends, gossiping over tea, like NST and Australian Perfume Junkies.  Katie Puckrik has recently re-joined the fray, which is exciting, because if she can’t revitalize this tired old format, then no-one can.  But while I don’t see any of us old school perfume writers quitting our blogs anytime soon, we should recognize that much of our audience has already moved beyond our borders into the more nimble, interactive, and mostly visual media of Instagram, Facebook groups, Reddit communities, and Twitter.      

Anyway, before I turn any more paragraphs into one long run-on sentence and irk my WordPress editing software, which always rates my posts as Red for Unreadable, I am going to lay bare exactly how my nose stood up against the challenge of blind-judging the perfumes entered in the Fragrance Foundation awards of 2017.  Some notes I got (yay!), some ones I miss completely (boo!).  Really, all that separates me from anyone else with a working nose and an opinion is my willingness to shell out $10.99 a month for a web hosting package.

Each sample sent to me by the Fragrance Foundation was numbered, following either a M for Male or F for Female (depending on how the perfume was classified by the brand), and mostly provided in plain decant bottles or sample vials containing anywhere between 1ml and 10ml. The lack of consistency on the quantity and type of decant vial provided bothered me a little, because it meant I was able to draw conclusions about multiple scents belonging to the same brand without leaning on my nose to identify to commonalities of style or texture. But ok, minor niggle really.

I’ll first give you the number of the vial, my initial testing notes (unaltered), what the scent was later revealed to be, my re-evaluation of the scent once I knew the perfume name and notes, and the score I give my nose out of ten.  I’ll be offloading the first lot of scents in this post, and the second and final one in December, because I spend much of the year cut off from my collection.  Aventus for Her is in the second lot, and believe me, that one’s so horrific I’m not looking forward to the re-match.  Send thoughts and prayers.            

M510

My Notes:  Nice woody scent, smells like straight-up cedar, with a side of some herb that is both warm and dirty, like tarragon.  It is a little spicy; I smell cardamom, cumin, and clove.  The base is a dry amber, with a hot, gunpowder feel to it, possibly due to eugenol in the form of a clove or carnation note.  Pretty straight-forward, smooth, nice, unexciting woods.

The Big Reveal:  Atkinsons The Big Bad Cedar

What it’s supposed to smell like:  Fragrantica defines this scent as a woody chypre for women and men (unisex).  The scent officially features the following notes: cardamom, sage, broom, Virginia cedar, oakmoss, cashmeran.

Upon Re-Testing:  This is very nice indeed – easily identifiable as cedar, but unusually for a cedar, it manages to smell quite natural, as if the perfumer eschewed the use of those Iso E Super and Cedramber aromachemicals that so often stand in for cedar these days.  The cedar smells damp and mealy, with that armpitty cumin nuance characteristic of natural cedarwood.

There is a cool, watery greenness at the beginning that I correctly identified as cardamom, but none of the other spices I picked up on are actually on the notes list.  The animalic-smelling herb was sage, not tarragon, but upon re-smelling, neither is particular evident to my nose.  What is obvious to me now, however, is the fuzzy, freshly-poured-latex-paint smell of cashmeran in the drydown.  I can’t believe I missed that.  It gives the scent a smooth industrial vibe that works very well against the rugged naturalness of the cedarwood.

Scanning the reviews at Fragrantica, I see that some reviewers find The Big Bad Cedar to have a Comme des Garcons aesthetic, and I agree.  This scent could easily be a flanker to Wonderwood and Blue Santal.   

Score for my Nose: 7/10.  I think I did ok on this one.  I’m deducting three points for missing the cashmeran, which forms a crucial part of the scent’s quasi-industrial Comme des Garcons vibe.

M504

My Notes:  Argh!  Ambroxan overload.  Or Cedramber.  Just kill me now.

The Big Reveal:  Jack Piccadilly ‘69

What it’s supposed to smell like:  A fresh, woody-spicy scent. This fragrance is by Richard E. Grant, the actor. His inspiration was this: “In May 1969, I was 12 years old and flew from Swaziland to London on a trip with my parents. Emerging from Piccadilly Circus tube station, I was wide eyed in wonderment seeing the Eros statue and fountain, whose steps were people-crammed with Patchouli perfumed hippies.  The combination of Patchouli oil and petrol from all the traffic, proved an indelible inhalation!”  The scent officially features the following notes: bergamot, ginger, green leaves, nagarmotha, mate, petrol (gasoline), cedar, amber, leather.

Upon Re-Testing:  I get more of the citrus notes now, but my nose is still assaulted by a massive wave of woody aromachemicals, which obscures the rest of the notes.  It is physically painful to smell.  Upon re-smelling it, the posterior part of my skull tightened and started to throb.

Score for my Nose: 9/10.  My nose missed the citrus the first time around but correctly identified this for what it is, which is a stew of modern woody aromachemicals.  

F504

My Notes:  Coconut, tuberose, peach, wheat-porridge (sandalwood?), beachy, suntan oil, creamy, milky, luxurious, benzoin, definitely fruit, tinned peaches.  Smells expensive.

The Big Reveal:  Armani Privée Rouge Malachite

What it’s supposed to smell like:  An oriental floral.  The scent officially features the following notes: tuberose, clary sage, pink pepper, orange blossom, ylang-ylang, jasmine sambac, cashmeran, benzoin, tuberose, amber, tuberose.

Upon Re-Testing:  Count how many times tuberose appears in the notes list – yep, three times.  But this is no Amarige or Fracas.  In fact, the outcome is gentle and creamy, the tuberose restrained by a peachy ylang note and the milkiness of what still feels to me like sandalwood or vanilla.  The white tropical floral plus cream-of-wheat note gives it an oddly familiar character, and I suspect I’ve smelled this perfume under a different name before.  The closest thing I can think of is that this is Armani showing Tom Ford how Orchid Soleil could have turned out if the volume had been turned down a bit.

Beachy and tropical this certainly is, but it was a little unfair of me to throw in the references to suntan oil and tinned fruit.  Rouge Malachite is much better constructed than your average greasy suntan oil scent, and on close inspection, it doesn’t bear much similarity to Montale’s Intense Tiaré, a scent whose tinned peach note gives it an unfortunate cheapness that mars the overall experience.

Wearing Rouge Malachite now, I can acknowledge that it is a beautifully-done, rich, tropical white floral that is nowhere near as loud or as overbearing as it might have been.  It’s much better than most of the examples of its genre, in fact.  And yet, it’s not something I’d personally invest in as long as Manoumalia (Les Nez) or Songes (Annick Goutal) were still around.  Well, maybe only Songes is left standing.  I’m never too sure about the status of Manoumalia.   

Score for my Nose: 9/10.  I did ok on this one.  I’m deducting one point out of shame for trotting out a line as hackneyed as ‘smells expensive’.

F510

My Notes:  Grapefruit, herbs, vetiver, green-fresh in aesthetic.  It is lightly leathery in the base, although this could be a by-product of a leathery floral or vetiver.  In the drydown, I pick up on a slightly spicy note, like carnation.  It’s linear, unsentimental, simple, and unfussy.

The Big Reveal:  Yardley English Dahlia

What it’s supposed to smell like:  English Dahlia is a green floral.  The notes are: green notes, citrus, neroli, apple, dahlia, rose, peony, patchouli, cedar, and musk.

Upon Re-Testing:  The re-testing phase of this project has seen me wearing and re-wearing many rich fragrances stuffed to the gills with sultry musks, fruit, and ambers.  Yardley’s English Dahlia smells like a break for my nose.  It is admirably uncluttered; really just a smattering of green notes over a crisp white musk.

Dahlias are famously unscented, which is why they are so vividly colored – they have to attract the bees someway.  So, this scent is an abstract imagining of what their scent might smell like were they to possess one.  If this is anything to go by, dahlias smell like the color green with a streak of red dust coating the inside of their stamens.  Upon re-testing, I don’t pick up on any light leather notes, but it still reads as slightly spicy in a carnation fashion.  The floral notes are slightly more sugared to my nose this time around too, but not in an obnoxious way.  What really stands out to me now, however, is the scent’s gentle soapiness in the drydown.  I don’t know how that didn’t register with me the first time I tested the scent.  

Score for my Nose: 5/10.  I got the general scent profile right, but I also get a spicy facet that’s not accounted for anywhere in the official notes breakdown.  I also misdiagnosed the drydown as ‘lightly leathery’ when, in fact, it is nothing short of soapy!

F409

My Notes: Sheer forest berry, fizzy sweeties, rose, damascones, backed by Ambroxan, mint, camphor, iris, and perhaps patchouli coeur (denatured patchouli, very dry).  This smells like a fruitchouli, with a dose of scratchy-dry Tauerade.  Could this be Tauer’s Fruitchouli?  (Never smelled it, but the notes sound about right).  Blackberry, brandy, very sweet, with a fizzy candied edge (Sweet Hearts).  It kind of reminds me of the strange contrast between winey fruit and ultra-dry, resinous woods in Del Rae’s Bois de Paradis, but fainter, and far less densely-saturated.  On paper, the scent is fresher, greener, and fruitier than on the skin.  There’s a soft, marshmallowy drydown, featuring a mixture of milky musks, vanilla, and Pez candy.

The Big Reveal:  4160 Tuesdays Mother Nature’s Naughty Daughters

What it’s supposed to smell like:  A juicy, berried chypre.  The scent officially features the following notes: black currant, pear, malt, praline, rose, strawberry, broom, ambergris, cedar, cedarmoss, and opoponax.

Upon Re-Testing:  This smells both sweeter and less complex than I’d originally thought, but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.  What comes across most clearly is that juicy blackberry or blackcurrant note, buoyed up by Ambroxan, providing for a hint of mossy, foresty bitterness at the back of the bone structure.  It reminds me a lot of one of my favorite fruity attars, which is the Ambergris White Blackberry by Agarscents Bazaar.

There is a dusty, effervescent texture to the scent that recalls the fizz of vitamin tablets dropped into water or Pez candy.  The slightly sticky resinous woods accent is possibly the praline note, because it gives me the same sensation as Shalimar Parfum Initial, a sort of catching, resinous texture that I feel at the back of my throat, akin to necking homemade lemonade too quickly.  I don’t pick up on the pear, strawberry, broom, malt, or oppoponax notes at all.  This is an example of a very well done fruity scent for young girls – it is not screamingly sweet or syrupy, nor is it sophomoric.  It’s just a bit of innocent fun picking berries in the forest and looking cute while doing so.   

Score for my Nose:  6/10.  I got the berries, Ambroxan, and fizzy candy bit, but failed to pick up on any of the more complex notes, such as pear, malt, or broom.  The broom only came out on paper for me.

F507

My Notes:  A Peau d’Espagne type of leather with pressed flowers and herbs.  Doughy, bitter, rooty heart of clove and iris like L’Heure Bleue or Cuir Cannage.  Fruity, ripe peach, with a thick, velvety, syrupy texture.  It is incredibly medicinal.  My guess on notes: camphor, menthol, clove, ivy, orange blossom, tuberose, eucalyptus, intense, poisonously rooty notes that pack a punch.  Old-fashioned, big-boned scent, kind of 1980’s ‘Giorgio for Women’ in style.  Could clear a church.

Reminds me of a French toothpaste my father used – labial pink, medicated, sort of perfumery in the mouth. Tons of buttery orris.  Waxed leather jacket.  Not my kind of thing, a bit cloying, but indisputably complex, high quality, and probably top of the line.

The Big Reveal:  Roja Dove Britannia

What it’s supposed to smell like:  The official notes are citron, bergamot, mandarin orange, tangerine, rose de mai, jasmine, champaca, heliotrope, cassia, violet, peach, cinnamon, cloves, patchouli, vetiver, sandalwood, vanilla, cacao, musk, orris root, ambergris.

Upon Re-Testing:  My testing notes indicate that I found this to be intense, with a spicy, medicinal heart and leathery-floral character (like L’Heure Bleue and Cuir Cannage).  I don’t think that my reading was too far off, but embarrassingly, I completely missed the huge cacao note that lurks around the opening, as well as the doughy almond nuances of the heliotrope.

Smelling Britannia now, I can clearly smell the cacao and the heliotrope, and the whole scent seems softer, less intense to my nose than previously.  I wonder if that’s because I’ve now read the notes and the reviews?  Or is it the more relaxed, leisurely pace of testing?  Either way, it’s clear that my nose is tipped off to the presence of some notes only when I see them written down.  

Score for my Nose: 5/10.  I correctly guessed the essential character of the scent (leathery, peachy, medicinally-spiced floral with 1980’s feel) but failed miserably when it came to identifying key elements like heliotrope and cacao.  The fluffy almond doughiness of heliotrope and the rich bitter-sweetness of cacao are so obvious to me upon re-smelling that I feel like whacking myself in the head with a mallet.  Must do better in class!   

F514

My Notes:  Fruity suede with a sweet and creamy undertow.  Smells like Maltol was involved somewhere along the line.  It has a lot of that berried, candied patchouli that’s popular in fruitchouli fragrances.  As it develops, it gains an interestingly ashy texture, like a pudding strewn with cigarette ash. It could be a modern fruitchouli like Visa (Piguet).  Or a mall version of the contrast between candied citrus and ashy woods in Soleil de Jeddah (SHL 777).

The Big Reveal:  Michael Bublé By Invitation

What it’s supposed to smell like:  A fruity-floral.  It has notes of red berries, bergamot, lily of the valley, peony, rose, sandalwood, musk, praline, and vanilla.  Folks at Fragrantica think it’s similar to Decadence by Marc Jacobs, a perfume I haven’t smelled. 

Upon Re-Testing:  The topnotes are both creamy and fruity, like a scoop of strawberry ice-cream dropped into a glass of Fanta.  It’s very sweet and very young.  I can’t see anyone over thirty wearing this and expect to be taken seriously.  My initial feeling that this was a fruitchouli was incorrect: By Invitation simply supplied the sharp sweetness of praline and my nose immediately made the leap to that modern, syrupy-sweet patchouli used in modern fruitchoulis.

Upon re-testing, I do not pick up on any ashiness, but the woods in the base do have a rather interesting (and probably unintended) urinous tint that gives the scent a little edge to work with.  The Fragrantica designation is spot on – this is a fruity floral, with a ‘blurred’ soft focus muskiness that makes it very modern.  

Score for my Nose: 5/ 10.  I got a lot wrong here.  But I’m giving myself a few points for nailing its grimly modern gourmand-floral bent.  

M409

My notes: woodsmoke, sweet incense, a big like.

The Big Reveal:  4160 Tuesdays Captured by Candlelight

What it’s supposed to smell like:  This is supposedly a big, boozy gourmand vanilla that reminds people of Christmas pudding.  The official notes are cognac, cinnamon, toffee, fruity notes, beeswax, and oak.

Upon Re-Testing:  Everyone seems to get something very complex from this: booze, melting candlewax, raisins, and tons of Christmas spice.  Although I do really like this scent, I don’t get any of that complexity.  What I smell is a very pleasant, linear accord of quasi-burnt, sweet woodsmoke and incense, with a lick of spiced vanilla underneath and that’s it.  It even smells a little synthetic and bare-boned after a while.

Aroma-wise, Captured by Candlelight is pitched somewhere between the papery Communion wafers of Atelier Cologne’s Vanille Insensée and the candied chestnut/woodsmoke accord from Maison Martin Margiela’s By The Fireplace. It’s also quite like Alkemia’s Smoke and Mirrors, or more accurately, its limited edition spin-off, Bonfire Toffee and Woodsmoke.

Pleasant and comforting, yes, but not groundbreakingly original.  This is one case where I think reviewers are writing under the influence of the notes list.  It’s easy to see how this happens: you read all these delicious notes like cognac, toffee, and beeswax, and subconsciously believe the scent to be more complex than it actually is.  Smelling it blind allowed me (for once) to remove myself from the tempting romance spun by the notes list or the back story, and just write down plainly what it is that I smell.  Forget the boozy dried fruits and melting candlewax – this is simply a very nice toasted woodsmoke scent to curl up with by a fire.     

Score for my Nose:  9/10 for my nose, 2/10 for everyone else who writes about boozy Christmas puddings and dripping candles.

M502

My Notes:  Clearly masculine, this scent is aromatic, herbal, and woody, with a fougère-ish twist that involves lavender, coumarin, and something crunchy and bitter-green, possibly artemisia.  Then a crystalline heart of chilled iris, powdery and still fresh, like a laundered napkin folded into a square and tucked into a well-groomed man’s suit pocket.  It’s hugely radiant in that modern masculine manner (Ambroxan?).  Faintly cedar-ish in parts.  An anisic vanilla drydown featuring a blond patchouli, orange, and musk, similar to 1826 by Histoires de Parfums.

The Big Reveal:  Penhaligon’s The Tragedy of Lord George

What it’s supposed to smell like:  A boozy oriental (seriously?).  Notes include brandy, woodsy notes, tonka bean, and amber.

Upon Re-Testing:  Although the notes say ambery oriental, my nose still says aromatic fougère, of the nostalgic shaving soap variety.  It opens with a burst of gin and tonic brightness, owing to some mix of citrus and juniper, before segueing into a long-drawn-out herbal-woody heart.  Bright green herbs, Ambroxan, and cedar are, for me, the main building blocks of the scent, but I misdiagnosed the sawdusty texture of the cedar as coumarin the first time around.

It is very much a masculine scent, but in a gentlemanly style that recalls old school fougères rather than the sweet, aromachemical-driven blare of modern masculine designers.  That’s not to say that it doesn’t have that synthetic twang, because it definitely does, with Ambroxan in particular providing its usual starched-shirt buzz.  But if it smells a little scratchy-synthetic, then it is at least not overly sweet.  

Amber?  No, unless you count Ambroxan, which I don’t.  That has to be the biggest switcheroo that brands pull on us.  We didn’t use to have to be so careful when we saw amber listed in the notes, but now we are on high alert, because you never know when that listed amber turns out to be the salty steel-wire radiance of Ambroxan.  There’s a deeply powdery tonka operating in the background, but it’s barely enough to soften the fougère-ish aspects, let alone add sweetness.  There’s no booze, except for in your imagination.  For a quick and dirty frame of reference, think of this as Fougère d’Argent (Tom Ford) on top and 1899 Hemingway (Histoires de Parfums) down below.      

Score for my Nose: 7/10.  I think I got the basic outline of the scent correct, but neither the brand nor Fragrantica agrees with me, insisting that this is a boozy amber scent.  I took a quick peek at the Basenotes reviews for this when I’d finished writing the description, and oh wow, The Tragedy of Lord George gets hammered.  Well, I’m not nearly as down on this scent as Basenoters are.  To me, this is pretty darned good for a modern masculine.  It certainly smells better to me than Fougère d’Argent, which winds up leaving a bitter synthetic feel at the back of my throat in the far drydown.    

M503

My Notes:  Lots of dusty resins, smoky cedarwood, cumin, frankincense but the star here is labdanum, specifically the dry, leathery kind of labdanum (as opposed to the sultry saltwater taffy ‘wetness’ it can sometimes display).  It is spiced with either cloves or cumin, adding a softly bready or sweaty undertone that adds interest.  Resolving in the airless, papery quality of a hot stationary storeroom, this scent is linear but so pleasantly rich that it’s difficult to find fault.

The Big Reveal:  État Libre d’Orange Attaquer Le Soleil

What it’s supposed to smell like:  Huh. Just labdanum.

Upon Re-Testing:  I don’t believe the notes list – there’s no way that there’s just labdanum.  At a bare minimum, I smell the searing sharpness of resins burning, singed cedar, and some hot spices, and that’s in addition to the labdanum.  In particular, the opening displays a remarkable note of burning cedarwood, vividly recreating the precise aroma of the moment a piece of wood touches the flame.  But true enough, the star is that dusty but sweet labdanum.  Studying it now, I pick up on a faintly boozy quality, as well as an animalic facet, both inherent to labdanum absolute.

My general opinion of this remains the same – a nice, rich labdanum scent that will thrill passionate devotees of labdanum and probably bore the pants off everyone else.  I am glad to have a sizeable sample of this, as I do love labdanum and find this to be a very well-worked-out version. And I do adore that topnote of smoky, singed wood or resin.

Score for my Nose: 8/10. This is a labdanum-plus scent, not a labdanum-only scent as the brand insists.  I’m calling it for my own nose.

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

26th January 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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Amber Chocolate Gourmand Incense Review Saffron Sandalwood Smoke Spice Tonka Vanilla Woods

Bruno Fazzolari Ummagumma: A Review

1st December 2017

This review has taken me many attempts to get right. I’ve written and re-written it more times than I like to admit. I think the reason for my hesitation is that I am bowled over by Bruno Fazzolari’s Ummagumma but not sure whether it’s because it’s really that good or because I am just genetically programmed to find sweet things irresistible (Irish women like me lay down fat automatically on the first signs of cold weather, like a sheep preparing for winter).

 

Oh hell, enough with the equivocating – Ummagumma smells amazing. It is so palpably delicious and soul-warming that the first time I smelled it, I had to fight myself from tipping the rest of the vial down my throat.

 

The topnotes are all about that bitter hit of pure chocolate one gets when drink a mug of 80% single plantation cocoa: molten, dark and almost iron-rich. There’s a generous pour of cream, courtesy of sandalwood, and a smattering of barky spice for grit – saffron, cinnamon, and what smells to me like clove but is just as likely to be carnation. The sultriness of the dark chocolate accord is quite similar to that of Slumberhouse Ore, albeit much sweeter thanks to the eventual star of the show, which is amber.

 

Yes, it’s not the spicy chocolate accord that takes top billing here: it’s the caramelized whisky amber that sits just beneath the cocoa and quickly burrows its way to the top, from where it dominates proceedings. Compared to the bittersweet cocoa top, the amber is honey-sweet, with a boozy edge that makes me think of the Irish whiskey notes in both Tobacco Oud and Amber Absolute. As a result, the amber sports a burned sugar char at the edges that makes me salivate

 

The amber booms on with its incensey sparkle, but neither the cocoa nor the spice disappears entirely; they lurk in the background, lending a fudgy, bittersweet depth to the main chassis. The scent is quite sweet, let’s be clear, but I find the same sort of balance here as in Ambre Narguile, where the syrup of amber and dried fruit is tempered by tobacco leaf. In Ummagumma, the tonka bean shows off its prickly, herbal coumarin side more than its lush cherry or almond facet, resulting in faint curlicues of smoky tobacco leaf and leather wafting through the amber, lifting and airing it out a little.

 

Foodie? Yes, most definitely. But don’t infer too much from my mention of Ambre Narguile above, as the scents are really nothing alike, with Ummagumma lacking, in particular, the cinnamon-apple fruitiness of the Hermessence. If anything, Ummagumma’s smooth amber makes me think more of Tobacco Oud with its whiskey-ish, honeyed, and leathery undertones, or a sweeter Ore by Slumberhouse. And although it’s a gourmand-leaning fragrance, there’s enough dry tobacco in Ummagumma to tilt it ever so slightly in the direction of Bond-T. The cedar in the base is faintly sweaty and smoky, with a vegetal edge that helps to cut through the richness as effectively as an Alka Seltzer after a rich meal.

 

Every artisan perfumer has a signature. But Ummagumma doesn’t really smell like a Bruno Fazzolari fragrance, apart from a certain groovy 1970’s aesthetic that runs through his other scents and also makes an appearance here (the Pink Floyd-related name, the chocolate incense, the textural “mood” feel of brown corduroy jeans, etc). On balance, though, Ummagumma is not as overtly retro in feel as either Au Delà or Seyrig. Neither is it futuristic or stark, as in Lampblack.

 

Most of my surprise, I guess, stems from seeing such a straightforwardly delicious gourmand coming out of the Bruno Fazzolari stable. Because “straightforward”and “delicious” didn’t seem to be words in Fazzolari’s vocabulary in 2016 when he collaborated with Antonio Gardoni of Bogue to make the “Frankenstein” gourmand, Cadavre Exquis, a fragrance that is as stomach-churning as it is intriguing. Cadavre Exquis smells like a bar of dark chocolate that’s been dragged through fir trees, fruit rot, the ashes of a campfire, and road kill. It smells like camphor and ass (curry-immortelle). Definitely not something anyone would want to eat, even if it smells like food.

 

I actually like Cadavre Exquis quite a bit, mainly because it nails the essentially animalic characteristics of a bar of evilly-dark chocolate, which, if anyone has ever melted one down will know, smells like warm blood, iron filings, raisins, and something like dried sweat. Cadavre Exquis has the unique quality of making me want to smell it, over and over again, despite the fact that it nauseates me. Which I think makes it at the very least a very interesting fragrance, if not a masterpiece (depending on the definition one uses). But while it’s addictive to smell, I’d never wear it.

 

Readers may be either disappointed or relieved to know that Ummagumma is nothing like Cadavre Exquis. On the one hand, Ummagumma is not as memorable or as progressive as Cadavre Exquis, but neither is it as divisive. Its gourmandise is sophisticated rather than off-kilter.

How you judge Ummagumma will depend greatly on where you come down on the split between wearability and art. Yet more people will evaluate it purely based on their knowledge of Bruno Fazzolari’s back catalog, including Cadavre Exquis, and find it lacking in edge.  But if I were to smell Ummagumma blind, although I wouldn’t peg it as coming from the hands of Bruno Fazzolari, I’d still want to own it and wear it because it’s one of the most straightforwardly delicious things I’ve smelled all year. And I mean those words as a compliment.

 

Notes: saffron, carnation, chocolate, tobacco, leather, labdanum, sandalwood, cedar, incense, tonka, vanilla

Aromatic Celebrity Incense Review Vetiver Woods

Sarah Jessica Parker Stash  

14th November 2016

I read somewhere that Sarah Jessica Parker wanted her new perfume to smell like contraband, hence the name Stash. But the first image that jumped to mind when I heard it was the abbreviation of “mustache” and the association has stuck. The mustache association turns out to suit the perfume perfectly – it’s as sexy and androgynous as a pretty girl dressed in drag for the night, fake mustache included.

Stash starts off as dry as a bone, with a bitter, peppery cedar dressed up with a sinus-clearing sage note. There’s a faintly watery-milky green note floating around in there that reminds me somewhat of the green violets in Santal 33 and the minty fig leaf in Santal Massoia, but the green note doesn’t direct any of the focus away from the dry, masculine woods. Add in some frankincense and what emerges is a creature in the same mold as Kyoto by Comme des Garcons – a stripped-down, minimalist cedar-incense with a tinge of something green and resinous.

My feelings about this are mixed. On the one hand, I think that Sarah Jessica Parker has succeeded in making a fragrance that is as anonymous and androgynous as Santal 33 and Kyoto – perfect for that low-key sexy vibe that Manhattanites go nuts for. It shares that same intimate, but at the same time oddly room-filling woody radiance that makes people wonder if you’re wearing perfume or if it’s just your skin and clothes that smell so good. The sage note, in particular, gives that witchy impression of a good, cleansing smoke-out to drive away djinns.

But the flip side of that premise is that Stash is a perfume that smells better at a distance than up close, on the skin. It’s a more of a scent of an ambiance – a gift to other people in your vicinity – than a pleasure for your own nose. None of the elements here truly work for me – I am unenthused about the bitterish cedar (mostly because in recent years, cedar has come to be synonymous with Iso E Super and Cedramber, even when the real stuff has been used, as here) and the dry sage, vetiver, and pepper make me think of dreary generic masculines.

I will give it this: somewhere in Stash’s development, all the dry, woody elements coalesce into a sweet, creamy finish that reads – at a distance – as sandalwood. Sometimes, days later, I catch a whiff of it on my sweaters and I fall in love with it. So I spray it again and am disgruntled, all over again, by the weak, bitter cedar and watery green notes that I find so bony and unsatisfying. Fast forward a few hours, and I am entranced by the creamy cloud that now surrounds my person. I smell warm, approachable, and ready for a hug.

In the end, I also struggle a bit with how to evaluate Stash fairly. It’s like talking about the smart kid who’s eons ahead of his classmates in Grade 1, but bump him ahead to Grade 3, and he struggles a bit. Stash is clearly head and shoulders above other celebrity perfumes – it is cool, sexy, androgynous, and not at all sugary or dumb. Bumping it up into the niche category, among whose brethren Stash really should be evaluated, and I find that it still holds up pretty nicely against similar stuff like Santal 33, Santal Massoia, Kyoto, and Tam Dao. It doesn’t stand out in that company. But it doesn’t fall too far behind either.

I’ve been wearing it a lot. It’s a perfect little thing for autumn – slip it on, forget all about it, and go kick over some leaves.

Price-wise, Stash is a much better deal than any of those androgynous, woody-incense perfumes in the niche category, and so I recommend it thoroughly to people who are into this type of scent but who want to achieve the same effect with less money. I paid €32 for a 30ml bottle, shipped over to me free from the UK Superdrug. I just found out that you can buy it in Boots, but you pay €45 for 30ml. God, people in the Republic of Ireland get completely shafted on price – better buy direct from the UK, if you can.

Floral Oriental Review The Discard Pile

Maison Francis Kurkdijan Baccarat Rouge 540

21st February 2016

Oh dear. This is rather unfortunate.

I have huge respect for Francis Kurkdijan as a man and as a perfumer. I own quite a few of his perfumes (Absolue pour le Soir, Eau Noire, Cologne Pour Le Soir), and greedily covet others that I don’t (his original Oud, Oud Cashmere Mood, Lumiere Noire Pour Homme, Enlevement au Serail). I’m hard pressed to think of a composition of his that I can’t at least appreciate, even if I don’t want to own it myself.

Baccarat Rouge 540 is an exception. Unfortunately, it manages to be the perfect storm of all the notes I hate, all of them converging at once to screw with my head. And it sticks to my skin like glue (ain’t that the way it goes).

The top notes are pleasant, barely – a brief succulence in the form of oranges, saffron, and marigold that combines in such a way as to suggest a ripe red berry. For a moment, I am also reminded of the radiant freshness of his original Oud, a metallic brightness of spilled orange juice and yellow saffron powder. The jasmine here smells fresh, like a green-scent breeze moving through a line of cottons hung out to dry, and is reminiscent in its crispness of both Eau Sauvage and  Kurkdijan’s own Aqua Vitae – safe to say that rather than jasmine sambac or grandiflorum, this note is probably Hedione, a wonderful aromachemical that expands the lungs with a radiant, green jasmine sensation.

Unfortunately, the fruity floral top notes get swallowed up almost immediately by the powerful basenotes – and when I say powerful, I mean overwhelming. There is a potent cedar here that reads as wet, pungent, almost musky with that sour edge I dislike in the note, and when it buts up against the sweet, juicy top notes, the result is like throwing a thick pear juice onto a bed of ashes. This unsettling accord (fruit juice thrown into dirty ashes) is also what I experience from Soleil de Jeddeh by Stephane Humbert Lucas 777, another fragrance I’m struggling to get my head around.

The musky, sour cedar is quickly joined by one of the most obnoxious notes in all perfumery (for me personally), fir balsam. This note might make others think of Christmas, but to me, it always makes me think of sweat. Each of the five times I tried Baccarat Rouge 540, it dried down to this thin but obnoxious smell of dried runner’s sweat – I know it’s the fir balsam because I’ve experienced this once before, with Annick Goutal’s otherwise very lovely Encens Flamboyant. Pure sweat. It’s a hard association to shake.

The saltiness from the Ambroxan or ambergris note (whatever it is) doesn’t help much either. Its salty mineral smell brings a pleasant outsdoorsiness, yes, but it also brings forward that sensation of feeling your skin crackle with dried sea salt, sweat, and sun tightness after falling asleep on the beach after a swim. Pleasant in perfumes such as Eau des Merveilles, but joined with the wet, musky cedar and the sweaty fir balsam of Baccarat Rouge 540, it’s simply one drop of sweat too much. Some will find this salt-sweat note very sensual, sexy even – but it just makes me want to go take a shower.

Fougere Leather Masculine Musk Patchouli Review Vetiver

Charenton Macerations Christopher Street

6th October 2015

I don’t know what it is about these small, indie perfumers in America these days, but they are somehow taking what is a traditionally European structure – the classic citrus cologne ‘smell’ – and beating us at our own game. Not only beating us, but sailing past us with a cheeky wave and a grin. The opening notes of Charenton Macerations Christopher Street are a sort of turbo-charged version of the citrus, herbs, and aromatics one smells in the (all too brief) top notes of European eaux de colognes such as Eau de Guerlain and Acqua di Parma. In Christopher Street, the bergamot, lime, and bitter oranges come at you like a huge wall of sound, fizzing and snapping at you like electrical wires cut loose in a storm. It’s explosively sour, like those lemon and lime sweets you bought as a kid and sucked until they corroded the lining of your mouth. Truly exciting stuff and a memorable opening.

The roiling citrus and aromatics here are like a skin on the fragrance, always present, but fitted tightly over a dark, damp undergrowth of woods, patchouli, leather, tobacco, and moss. There is something slightly mineralic, grey, or metallic in the center of the fragrance – possibly the listed incense. Mostly, though, what I sense is the pleasantly moldy patchouli and a sort of spicy, sweaty thin leather accent. The musky and leather in the base turns the dry down of Christopher Street is a long, protracted affair that feels pleasantly solid, like a good, old-fashioned fougere or leather bellwether. In fact, fans of the modern version of Bel Ami (me among them), with its transparent, spicy clove leather smell might like Christopher Street an awful lot. I don’t find it to be very animalic, though – just pleasantly skin musky in the way that some masculines smell on male skin by the end of a long, hard day. An intimate, lived-in skin smell.

But Christopher Street smells infinitely crisper and more modern than a mere pastiche of the masculine fougere genre. It is as if a small part of a traditional men’s fougere or leather fragrance has been folded up and hidden inside the structure of a citrus cologne. I like and admire it a lot, and think it really stands out as an achievement in independent perfumery.

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