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:
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Dawn Spencer Hurwitz was originally asked by a fan on Makeupalley.com to recreate her favorite perfume, Safran Troublant, because she had heard it was being discontinued (it wasn’t) and was distraught. Cimabue is not a faithful rendition of Safran Troublant, but instead a loving tribute that ends up taking the delicate saffron-infused rice-pudding-and-cream accord of the original inspiration and spinning it off into a far more complex, oriental result.
A creamy, dessert-saffron takes center stage here. But a significant clove, ginger, orange, and cinnamon combination lends it a spicy pomander feel that makes my mind wander more in the direction of Pan d’Epices and other European Christmas treats, rather than in the direction of delicate, dusty-floral Indian milk puddings.
There is rose too, and whole ladlefuls of a dark, molten honey – not sweet, but rather bitter and grown-up, like the slight edge of bitterness on a candied peel or a raisin that rescues a taste from being too sugary. There is a charming medieval feel, overall, like a rich golden tapestry hanging on a banquet hall or the taste and smell of those sticky (but dry) honey and almond cakes studded with nuts, cloves, and dried orange peel that are still popular in Siena and Pisa today, such as panforte and ricciarelli.
Cimabue is no simple gourmand, though. It’s a fully-fledged oriental. It’s as if the simple, gourmandy custard of Safran Troublant got dipped into the clove-studded orange and booze of Chanel’s Coco, rubbed in the spicy velvet of Opium, and rolled around in the ambery dust of Fendi’s Theorema, and emerged twelve hours later all the better and wiser for it. It’s the pomander-cross-spice gourmand I had hoped Noir Epices by Frederic Malle would be (but wasn’t). And best of all, it features my favorite note – saffron – in perhaps by favorite guise, that of a sweet, creamy, exotic dessert saffron.
I own two bottles of Safran Troublant, because I love it mindlessly and wear it as a simple comfort scent. But Cimabue is a step forward in the perfume evolutionary chain, and as a piece of art, I prefer it.
Cimabue, by the way, was the Italian artist famous for breaking with the flat Italo-Byzantine style of painting icons and frescos in pre-Renaissance Italy by introducing more naturalistic, true-to-life proportions of figures and shading. And I like to think that the name of this fragrance was deliberate. Because Cimabue takes the basic model of Safran Troublant, animates it subtly with shadows and highlights, and renders it in living, breathing, 3-dimensional form.
It doesn’t make me love Safran Troublant any less, but it is only when I wear its more evolved descendant that I become aware of the progenitor’s serene flatness.
Frederic Malle Musc Ravageur is a big ole sex musk with a leer on its face. Luca Turin says it’s more flashy than good, and I’d agree, but then again, I don’t think Musc Ravageur takes itself all that seriously to begin with. It’s a musk with bedroom eyes and an Adam’s apple.
The more I wear it, the more I think of it as the male equivalent of Shalimar. It’s a big-boned oriental at heart, a crude, deconstructed version of the older versions of Shalimar extrait – all rude body musks, thick vanilla, and butter-like tonka. Objectionably rich, and quite pungent in parts.
Even the top notes of Musc Ravageur share a certain barbershoppy feel with Shalimar: in Musc Ravageur, it’s lavender and cloves, and in Shalimar, it’s something like herbes de Provence (thyme?). Perhaps that’s why so many men find the opening challenging – the pungent spices, dirty musk, and sweet vanilla churning their stomachs in a way they can’t handle.
But I’m a Shalimar girl all the way, baby, so this is familiar territory for me. People either hate the opening and love the dry down, or wish that the rough opening would last all the way through – me, I love every part of Musc Ravageur from front to end.
It smells like someone rubbed a vanilla-glazed Cinnabon across the sweaty perineum of a man who hadn’t washed for a few days. Hot, sweet, a bit dirty (in a good way). The combination of the rich, sweet vanilla, tonka, and sandalwood in the base is to die for, no matter where you stand on the exact dirtiness of the musk at the start.
I used to think that it was too loud and too dirty for a lady to be wearing outside the house. But then I realized that the Shalimar extrait I wear is pretty dirty and I wear that out of the house all the time. I think I bought into the hype about this being a disgusting, filthy, old-man kind of smell. Now, I just think it’s a fabulous gourmand musk/oriental that’s both sexy and comfortable.
Vulgar? Yeah. Hell yeah! And so what! A bit of vulgarity never hurt nobody.