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Les Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle

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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Hyde by Hiram Green

21st November 2018

 

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

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Le Labo Ylang 49: Some Thoughts

19th March 2018

Le Labo Ylang 49 is a scent that gives me some serious cognitive dissonance. I keep wearing it and trying to figure out why, and this is what I’ve been able to come up with:

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Independent Perfumery Iris Review Sandalwood Spice Woods

Bruno Fazzolari Feu Secret: A Review

16th January 2018

Bruno Fazzolari Feu Secret opens with the balsamic, fruity tang of fir balsam, jammy and bitter in equal measure. Underscored with the earthy tang of turmeric, the coniferous notes feel unfamiliar, because the combination smells simultaneously earthy, green, sweet and waxy, like a piece of fruit dropped into a bag of powdered herbs.

 

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Attars & CPOs Chypre Floral Floral Oriental Independent Perfumery Iris Oriental Oud Patchouli Resins Review Rose Round-Ups Sandalwood Thoughts

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

9th November 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

23rd October 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.

Amber Animalic Floral Oriental Incense Independent Perfumery Musk Myrrh Orange Blossom Oriental Oud Resins Review

Zoologist Camel: A Review

17th October 2017

There’s a famous delicatessen in Milan by the name of Peck. Established in 1883, it’s a Mecca for food enthusiasts, its shelves stocked with the finest cured meats, cheeses, wines, and truffles of Italy. When I lived nearby, I would often take the train down to Milan at the weekend, and walk through the store, drinking in the unami-rich air. I remember in particular huge glass jars of mostarda – neon-colored orbs of fruit preserved in a clear mustard seed pickling juice. When the afternoon light caught them at the right angle, they glowed like the gaudiest of paste jewelry: emerald, yellow, and orange.

 

The guys behind the counter would goad me into taking a little with my prosciutto and salami snack, and they’d laugh as I gingerly nibbled at the edges, the virgin blandness of an Irish diet having ill-equipped me to deal with the gush of hot, sour, sweet, and savory flavors on my tongue. When I first tried Arabie by Serge Lutens, its dried fruits over a sour asafetida base reminded me immediately of my trips to Peck. But although the association charmed me, Arabie proved too syrup-saturated for regular wear, so I passed it by.

 

I’ll admit that when I read the notes for Zoologist Camel, I thought we were looking at a re-tread of Arabie. But while the dried fruits and dates in the topnotes give a rush of sweetness, Camel is far more sour and savory than it is sweet, and thus reminds me more authentically of Peck and its mostarda than does Arabie.

 

I think that Victor Wong, as a creative director, is not afraid of a little earthy sourness in the perfumes he commissions. In a sea of sweet niche releases designed to appeal to a mass sweet tooth, he doesn’t mind going sugar-free every now and then. And I like that about him.

 

Perhaps his bravery with salty-savory flavors comes from an inherent love of unami or the sweet-salty-sour balance in Chinese culinary tradition. I will always remember Victor’s review of M/ Mink for his blog, Sillyage, where he discusses the link between M/Mink’s bleachy opening notes and the smell of Chinese calligraphy ink and dried shellfish. It was the first review of M/Mink that ever made sense to me, because he was able to place it in the context of non-traditionally perfumey things like salt, iodine, and fish. Through his words, I came to understand and finally love that perfume.

 

Camel has a streak of kimchi running through the dried fruit, amber, and orange blossom, which stops the perfume from tipping into a syrupy cliché of Arabian perfumery. Forget the ad copy about deserts and camels. There is a brief hit of booze, dried fruit, and rose up front, but the frankincense here is limey and tart, and there’s a layer of sealing wax over everything to mute the fervent glow of the fruit. It is rich, but astringent, like a vin jaune from the Alps.

 

The sourness is given an extra boost in its rather classically French (or so it seems to me) heart of civety jasmine over a pillow of powdery musks. The jasmine is greenish and as fizzy as a vitamin tablet dropped into a glass of water, later developing the leathery profile of sambac jasmine. There is something here that resembles the moist skin under a wristwatch after a long day in the sun. The griminess of the jasmine stands shoulder to shoulder with its gritty, soapy cleanliness, giving the perfume an almost aldehydic buzz.

 

This tart, soapy, tightly-woven stage of Camel makes me think that Malle’s Superstitious (2016) must indeed have been quite influential on the perfumery scene. There are clear parallels between the Malle and Camel, especially in the acidulated jasmine, the slight raunchiness (without warmth), and its general angularity. Jardin d’Ombre by Ormonde Jayne, which came out in October 2016, the same month as Superstitious, also strikes me as a variation on the theme. In all three perfumes, one might read the notes and think “warmth” or “sweetness”, but the actual scent in each case is of the opposite of lush: astringent, cool-blooded, and definitely more French than oriental in tone.

 

I admire Superstitious greatly but prefer to gaze upon it from a distance, like watching Joan Crawford rehearse from the safety of a locked wardrobe. Camel, with its pert charm, has fewer pretensions to greatness and is therefore much more approachable. Despite the orientalism of its composition and ad copy, Camel avoids every cliché inherent to the genre, particularly the cheap rosy feel of most modern oriental releases. Its soapy (but dirty) jasmine, musk, and civet combo imbues what might otherwise have been a heavy “souk” amber with weightlessness, as well as a certain French je ne sais quoi.

 

As long as you’re ok with a little salty-sour funk, Camel might be the modern twist on an oriental you’re missing in your collection. Camel is predominantly French in character, but there is perhaps also something a little Chinese or even Peck-ian in its balance between sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and unami.

 

Notes: dried fruits, frankincense, palm date, rose, amber, cedar, cinnamon, incense, jasmine, myrrh, orange blossom, civet, musk, sandalwood, oud, tonka, vanilla, vetiver

Review Saffron Sandalwood Spice Woods

Eris Parfums Mx

1st October 2017

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Aldehydes Dominique Ropion Jasmine Rose Vetiver

Superstitious by Dominique Ropion for Frederic Malle

7th May 2017

Superstitious is like a woman that walks into a party wearing a gold lame dress that plunges to her navel. Like everyone else in the room, you think she’s gorgeous, but you’re not sure if she’s really your kind of people. I’m not sure I understand her yet, so I’m going to circle this interesting creature a little bit longer while I try to figure her out.

 

People are citing all manner of classic perfumes as reference: Arpege, Gold, even Portrait of a Lady. But none of those references help me place her in my mental pantheon of smells. Superstitious strikes me as more a modern cyborg than something classical or referential. And it certainly has nothing to do with Portrait of a Lady. Actually, I find it comes at me from slightly beyond my frame of reference, and thus my footing is unsure.

 

Something that takes me aback is the astringency of the opening: it’s as metallic and bitter as a mouthful of pennies, sluiced with the acid of unripe fruit. Sensation-wise, it reminds me of biting into a persimmon that’s two weeks away from becoming perfect, ripping all moisture from my mouth.

 

I’m starting to understand that not aldehydes smell or feel the same. Some feel loose and creamy, like those at the top of Chanel No. 22 – the fizz of a can of Fanta mixed into a pot of Pond’s Cold Cream. Some feel tight and lemony, like Tauer’s Noontide Petals. The aldehydes of Superstitious, on the other hand, are extremely fine-grained and waxy, like a bar of green soap put through a microplane grater and blown up your nose. It reminds me somewhat of the opening to Seyrig by Bruno Fazzolari. The onslaught is aggressive, and slightly mean.

 

What’s amazing about this fragrance – and I say this even before figuring out whether I like it or not – is how the clean, chemical bite of the aldehydes have been balanced out by the dirty, botanical impression of flowers. Even in the first onslaught of the perfume’s harsh, soapy green fuzz, you can smell the slightly unclean jasmine – wilting and browning, as if about to drop off a vine and into your lap. This produces an effect that is half synthetic, half naturalistic. You can almost imagine the perfumer muttering to himself as he works out the formula, “a little bit from the lab, and now a little bit from the garden”.

 

The quality of the florals is amazing – there is a Turkish rose, jasmine from Grasse, and a hint of dry peach skin a la Mitsouko in the later stages. But put aside expectations of sweetness, or even density. Even with the late addition of the peach, things stay dry, leathery, and slightly sour, like the inside of the strap of your watch after a long hot day, or the taste of a very dry, metallic white wine on the back of the tongue.

 

Which is a way of saying that although all signs point to lushness, this is not a particularly lush perfume. Being a longtime fan of Alber Elbaz and his work for Lanvin, I had expectations of something with as many dangerous curves as his midnight blue and flesh-colored dresses for this house in the 2008-2009 period. Alber himself is round; is it weird that I was expecting a perfume with his name on it to be round too? But Superstitious turns out to be as chicly angular as one of his models.

 

The drydown is a slightly smoky, raspy base of vetiver and woods that somehow reads to my nose as incense. It is slightly sweeter, or at least, less tart in the far reaches of the scent, and I find it comforting.

 

Superstitious is a very interesting, beautiful, and somewhat challenging perfume. It is perhaps easier to admire than to love, because a certain bitchiness inherent in its character suggests that this is a perfume that might not love you back. But despite a certain lack of easy access here, I really do like Superstitious, not least because it turns my expectations on their head. Expecting lush and sweet, I get angular and tart. Expecting classic, I get modern. Most of all, I admire the perfume’s sublime balance between its metallic, chemical shimmer and its unclean, slightly earthy flowers and fruit – and it’s this last aspect that might move me towards an eventual purchase. Some day.

Amber Animalic Floral Oriental Jasmine Review

Maison Francis Kurkdijan Ciel de Gum

4th June 2016

Maison Francis Kurkdijan Ciel de Gum is, like Baccarat Rouge 540, a perfume that used to have the prestige of exclusivity or scarcity attached to it. In the case of Baccarat Rouge 540, it had been housed in a fancy bottle that nobody could afford and subsequently nobody smelled. Ciel de Gum, on the other hand, was a Maison Francis Kurkdijan exclusive for the Moscow department store, G.U.M. Over the course of the last year, the decision was made to bring both of these limited-distribution releases into wider distribution.

I wonder sometimes if these “exclusivity” decisions actually pay off – do enough people smell them, buy them, wear them to make them commercially viable?

Francis Kurkdijan is, of course, in the enviable position of being able to decide to change the distribution strategy from exclusivity to mass market, because not only did he compose Ciel de Gum but he also owns all the rights to it as it is produced under his house. Few other perfumers get a say in how exclusively or inclusively the perfumes they compose are marketed. And Francis Kurkdijan is commercially savvy – he has to be, as he is financially responsible for the success or otherwise of a Maison Francis Kurkdijan perfume. So I’m guessing that such decisions are purely commercial in basis. But part of me would like to think that, as a perfumer, he is proud of Ciel de Gum and just wants more people to be able to smell it.

Well I, for one, am grateful to have been able to smell it. The (heinously expensive) decant that I bought yielded exactly three sprays before it dried up, being made of (heinously cheap) plastic. But it’s enough to tell that I’d crawl over hot coals to get some more.

Ciel de Gum is a very smooth floral oriental revolving around a civet-soaked, ambery vanilla that smells about 70% the way towards Jicky, with the remaining 30% tipping its hat towards the self-consciously rich leathery indolic floral of Oud Osmanthus. It’s nothing too challenging or artistically “out there” but it has a pleasantly fat, nostalgic feel to it that renders it instantly legible to fans of big, civety, plush florientals. Didn’t Luca Turin refer to Shalimar in terms of red velvet and the lights of the Eiffel Tower? Well, Ciel de Gum is plenty red velvet and Eiffel Tower.

A smooth, rich mass of ambery vanilla dosed heavily with cinnamon and civet lies at the heart of Ciel de Gum. A thread of indolic, naughty jasmine floats up through the scent but does not define it – even Samsara has more of a jasmine presence than this. It is as if the darker, dirtier facets of jasmine have been plucked out especially for Ciel de Gum – a light seasoning of jasmine over a custard, not a flavoring.

sleeping-89197_640

The floral-civet mix settles slowly over a bed of smooth, ambery resins and vanilla, mixing with pepper and cinnamon to create a slight Musc Ravageur vibe. There is a golden, fuzzy aura to this fragrance – very heavy, but smooth, opulent, and gilded like the light from a Tiffany lamp in a dark study. Surely something to look forward to at the end of a long hard day.

If you, like me, have a weakness for slightly dirty, ambery floral orientals with a lit-from-within, yolk-yellow luminosity, then buy with confidence. Ciel de Gum rides proudly in the same car as Jicky, Shalimar, Jasmin de Nuit, Oud Osmanthus, and Musc Ravageur. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but for me personally, it doesn’t have to – it’s already pushing all of the right “Claire” buttons. Needless to say, it has jumped to the top of my wish list, and in terms of the Francis Kurkdijan stable, I think it is up with his personal best, i.e., Absolue Pour Le Soir, Oud, Cologne Pour Le Soir.

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