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Maison Nicolas de Barry: Part II (Les Parfums Naturels, Oud Collection)

November 15, 2017

Part II of my little series on Maison Nicolas de Barry focuses on the brand’s all natural and oud lines, called respectively Les Parfums Naturels and the Oud Collection. (Part I, on Les Parfums Historiques, is here). Introduced in the past few years to reflect Nicolas’ increasing interest in all natural perfumery and the perfumery of the East, these perfumes contain raw materials that Nicolas de Barry has sourced or tinctured himself, including a 25-year old lump of ambergris, rose oil from Grasse, ylang oil from Jean-Paul Guerlain’s private plantation on Mayotte, and a pure oud oil (Aquilaria subintegra) from Thailand.

 

The perfumes are formulated at 15% pure perfume oil and scaled up to make 150ml bottles of eau de parfum. None of the perfumes in the naturals and oud collection are inexpensive, ranging from €480 to €920 for the natural line, and from €920 to €1,140 for the oud collection, but two things soften the blow a bit: first, the fact that each bottle contains approximately 22mls of pure, natural (and expensive) essences like pure oud oil or sandalwood, and second, samples or should I say mini bottles are available at €52 for 7ml. Not cheap, but definitely a more feasible way for those curious about natural and oud perfumery to dip their toes into the water and see if this style of perfumery suits them.

 

Having tested quite a few of these natural and oud-based perfumes, I’d rank the Maison Nicolas de Barry perfumes alongside those of Mandy Aftel of Aftelier, in California, and Dominique Dubrana (Abdes Salaam al Attar) of La Via del Profumo. There is a similar passion for natural raw materials going on here, and the perfumes are similar in terms of texture, both being soft, gauzy, but also sometimes pungent depending on the intrinsic properties of the raw material being used. The perfumes are also similarly soft in terms of projection and lasting power, naturals often fading quickly on the skin due to the absence of synthetic musks or woody ambers to keep them locked in place.

 

The main distinction between these all-natural brands comes in the form of artistic intent and compositional styles: Mandy Aftel’s work places naturals in the context of a more abstract, perfumey vision (atmospheric and emotional rather than soliflores, etc.), whereas the work of both Nicolas de Barry, in his naturals and oud collections, and Abdes Salaam al Attar  is more attar-orientated. Both specialize in simple natural arrangements of materials and more complex ones, but the underlying aim is always to exalt the beauty of the raw materials used.

Here below are reviews of the naturals and oud collection that I tested.

 

Ylang de Mayotte

 

Ylang de Mayotte is my favorite out of the natural samples provided to me by Nicolas de Barry. Sourced from the 100% natural, small-batch production of ylang on the private plantation of Jean-Paul Guerlain on the island of Mayotte, this particular oil showcases all of the good aspects of ylang and none of the more disturbing properties. I have a personal weakness for ylang, but it’s a difficult material to work with because it is enormously potent and can overpower a composition. Depending on the grade used, ylang can be a brash, grapey, fuel-like bully of a smell that mows down any other note that’s unlucky enough to get in its way.

 

My favorite treatments of ylang, including this one focus on the delicate “egg custard” properties of ylang that align it quite naturally with vanilla and sandalwood. Ylang de Mayotte smells like a powdered length of buttery yellow silk, a subtle pattern of fresh mint leaf picked out here and there.  It is delicately fruity, but not in the harsh, benzene-laden way of some ylang oils, rather like a sliver of apricot skin dropped into a milky banana custard halfway through the cooking. It’s rich but subtle, with small gourmand flourishes that make it quite delicious – a quivering, fine-boned tropical panna cotta dotted with slivers of apricot, almonds, peaches, and mint.

 

Ylang de Mayotte is somewhat comparable to Tasnim by La Via del Profumo in that they are both 100% natural, artisanal productions and both present the soft, custardy side of ylang. But Tasnim is more oriental in evolution (smokier, woodier, and more ambery) while Ylang de Mayotte doesn’t deviate from the central ylang note and has a clear, pure shampoo-like smell. Both allow the soft, sweet almond-like tones of the ylang to emerge in the late drydown, a pleasure for anyone who loves this complex oil.

 

In terms of price, Ylang de Mayotte is twice the price of Tasnim per ml, so perhaps only the true ylang enthusiast would be able to justify a purchase. But both are beautiful, both present the very best sides of the difficult ylang, and both are all-natural; a preference for faithfulness to the central material versus a preference for a more evolved composition are the only parameters (beyond budget) that matter here.

 

 

Santal d’Australie

 

Santal d’Australie focuses on the native Australian species of sandalwood oil (santalum spiccatum), both an ordinary grade and an organic, high quality s. spiccatum extract with higher santalol content from Mount Romance in Australia. I have to admit that when I saw the name, I had been hoping that there was also going to be some of that very expensive santalum album oil from the newish plantations in Northern Australia, because I recently smelled some in a sandalwood attar made by Al Shareef Oudh that was excellent. But Santal d’Australie focuses entirely on the s. spiccatum, an oil I’m not overly keen on because of its fresh, piney, and sometimes harsh facets.

 

True to form, Santal d’Australie opens with the citric, camphoraceous slap of Australian sandalwood, which, if you haven’t smelled it before, smells like a freshly split pine log covered in lime peel and lemon juice, with a faint backdrop of soured milk or cheese curds. It’s not unpleasant; in fact, I like its good-natured, silvery freshness, but anyone expecting the creamy, arid sweetness specific to Indian sandalwood might be disappointed. The citric/fresh impression is helped along by a very limey bergamot in the topnotes.

 

The drydown is very nice, developing into a richer, curdier version of the opening notes but with a tinge of browned butter and incense. The freshness prevails in the form of a sour lime leaf facet, but it is softer than in the opening, and fleshed out by the apricot skin richness of osmanthus. The presence of the osmanthus gives the sandalwood a background of fruity suede that works very well in adding curves to the angular sandalwood. Osmanthus also has tannic properties, and this comes out more in the far drydown, with a pronounced black tea leaf bitterness that works nicely against the cottage cheese curdiness of the sandalwood.  Fresh and green, Santal d’Australie reminds me quite a bit of FeelOud’s Sandal 100k, but scaled up to eau de parfum format to allow for generous application.

 

 

Oud du Siam

 

Oud du Siam straddles the categories of naturals and the oud collection: it features in both, priced at the higher end of the naturals collection, and at the lower end of the oud collection (which features Oud du Siam as the main starting point for each oud perfume). Oud du Siam is made with 100% natural, pure oud oil from Thailand, specifically oil from a well-regarded species in the oud world, Aquilaria subintegra.

 

I guess the most important thing to know about Oud du Siam is that, although it seems to have a fairly simple composition of oud oil and sandalwood, it smells more like a more complex, oriental perfume than a pure oud or an attar (bucking the trend somewhat for this brand). There is something about the way the fresh, citrusy sandalwood reacts with the oud oil that creates an interesting brocade of citrus on golden amber resin, leather, and smoke that ends up resembling an all-natural Shalimar or Habit Rouge.

 

Oud du Siam is immediately likeable and not at all pungent or animalic. The oud oil comes across as a handsome, brown leather accord, like a lawyer’s briefcase rubbed in medicinal salve. Slowly, the oud wood materializes in a haze of smoke, nuggets of golden honey popping like fireworks in the dark, as if amber resins were knotted into the grain of the agarwood from which the oil was distilled. It is subtly smoky, in the same leathery, resinous way as Shalimar or Habit Rouge, and just as easy to wear.

 

Make no mistake about it – there is clearly natural oud oil used here, and its character comes through quite clearly. But it’s not nearly as pungent, fecal, or as difficult as some oud oils, and therefore would be a fantastic entry point for a beginner or for people who prefer to take their oud oil tamed and corralled in mixed compositions, such as the Fragrance du Bois perfumes. Towards the end, the perfume does a very interesting thing: it becomes brighter and more citrusy (lime leaf) with time, instead of the reverse. This is the point where the oud hands the reins over to the handsome, silvery Australian sandalwood, which pumps a stream of aromatic citrus and coniferous notes through the tail end of the fragrance.

 

Oud du Siam et sa Tubéreuse des Indes

 

With Oud du Siam et sa Tubéreuse des Indes, we are now firmly in the Oud Collection, although it is also all-natural and therefore could technically belong to both categories. This is a perfume that trusts the complexity of its starring raw material, here natural tuberose, to put on a show for the crowd, and it does, pirouetting gracefully from a minty, camphoraceous topnote to a salty, buttery cheese note reminiscent of gardenia, and finally ending in a creamy but rooty pool on the ground, like parsnips pulled from the wet earth, creamed, salted and peppered. The tuberose in Oud du Siam et sa Tubéreuse des Indes is fleshy and sensual, but never syrupy a la Fracas; rather, it is earthy and savory, with a distinctly rubbery texture.

 

The medicinal facets of tuberose – hospital tubing, camphor, and acetone – are accentuated by the oud, which bathes the florals in a smoky, sour haze of smoke. There is a very appealing “rotted” facet to the tuberose petals and the oud, as if both had been soaked in water for a few days, their edges beginning to blacken and disintegrate. This slight edge of fermentation adds tremendous depth to the fragrance, as well as a sort of wildness.

 

There are some parallels to Jardin de Borneo Tuberose by Sultan Pasha, which combines a very bitter, camphoraceous tuberose absolute with the dark green jungle notes of the rare Bois de Borneo oud from Ensar Oud, as well as a needle prick’s worth of skunk. Jardin de Borneo Tuberose is more herbaceous, bitter, and complex than Oud du Siam et sa Tubéreuse des Indes, but I love both for daring to combine two of perfumery’s most characterful materials and not allow one get swallowed up by the other.

 

Oud du Siam et son Jasmin des Indes

 

Oud du Siam et son Jasmin des Indes features the jasmine most commonly grown in India, which is the Grandiflora variant – sweet, pure, buttery floral bliss in a classical manner (also the variety grown in Grasse) as opposed to the mintier, but coarser and sexier sambac jasmine. The jasmine here is quite high-pitched at first, with the natural fuel-like or spilled gasoline topnote caused by the benzyl acetate molecule in jasmine. It is slightly grapey, but also tarry and spicy, with the same sort of fizzy coca-cola backdrop as seen in Jasmin de Nuit (The Different Company).

 

The cinnamon and coca-cola effervescence is one facet; the strangely sweet, plasticky texture is another. The jasmine smells both floral (sweet, full, buttery) and non-floral (plastic, rubber, fuel), which lines up perfectly with my experience of naturals. Less flower, more the scent on your lips after you’ve blown up 50 purple balloons for a child’s party. The smoky woodiness of the oud here plays perfectly with the smoky phenols of the jasmine; even more so than the tuberose, these are natural bed partners.

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

November 9, 2017

Maison Nicolas de Barry has been around since 2003, but has garnered relatively little praise or attention. I wonder why that is? I’ve enjoyed every single perfume I’ve tried from this brand, and find some of their natural perfumes to be stunning. In an era where natural and attar-themed perfumes for a Western audience is gaining traction (Sultan Pasha Attars, Areej Le Dore, Rising Phoenix Perfumery etc.), the perfumes of Maison Nicolas de Barry should be a slam dunk. And yet….crickets.

 

I don’t think that the price is the barrier. Their historical EDPs, while not cheap, are not terribly unreasonable at €149 for 100mls. The naturals and oud collection perfumes are indeed very expensive (between €600 and €1,140 for 150mls), but there are 7ml mini bottles to be purchased at a reasonable cost of between €29 and €52. I know plenty of perfumistas who wouldn’t mind paying that, especially those who care about high quality naturals, pure ouds, and sandalwood oil. The people who love Siberian Musk by Areej Le Dore, or Nan-Kun by Sultan Pasha, or Bushido attar by Rising Phoenix Perfumery, or the latest sandalwood oil by FeelOud do not hesitate to drop in excess of $500 on even a small quantity of these perfumes.

 

But scarcely anyone in the perfume blogosphere mentions Maison Nicolas de Barry. The few blog mentions or reviews on Fragrantica and Basenotes seem polite but slightly puzzled or underwhelmed. Having tested a diverse selection of their offerings, there is absolutely no question regarding the high quality of the materials and compositions.

 

I do believe, however, that the way the brand has positioned itself might have caused some confusion or misunderstanding. In brief, while most brands have one driving force behind their establishment, Maison Nicolas de Barry has two, and pursues both – sometimes on dual tracks, and sometimes simultaneously within the same collection.

 

Every niche parfum house has an avowed driving force – a raison d’être – behind their existence, be it to explore the beauty of synthetic molecules (Nomenclature), translate Italian and Mediterranean music and art into fragrance (Sospiro), or bring the magic of the Orient to Western noses in a digestible, French format (Amouage). I think it’s possible that Maison de Barry has gone ignored and misunderstood because, although the brand says it is mostly focused on recreating the historical perfumes of the past, many of the perfumes themselves smell much more like attars or natural perfumes.

 

The stated mission of Maison Nicolas de Barry is to recreate the perfumes that might have been worn by historical figures important to European social and cultural history, such as Empress Sissi, King Louis XV, and Georges Sand. But the perfumer and owner of Maison Nicolas de Barry – Nicolas de Barry himself – is clearly far more passionate about natural perfumery and the attar perfumery of both India and the Middle-East than any other type of perfume. He has personally visited the center of attar making, in Kannauj, India, to watch distillers and attar makers at work. He also travels around the world, visiting ylang plantations, jasmine farms, oud distillers, and sandalwood projects, sourcing his materials there and bringing them back to Paris with him, where he works them into his perfumes. He has even written a beautiful book on Indian attar making, called L’Inde des Parfums.

 

So, although Nicolas started off with a range of conventional niche perfumes – the historical ones – he has since focused more and more on his ranges of all-natural perfumes, raw materials, and (real) oud compositions. In other words, the soul of the brand “Maison Nicolas de Barry” is actually more about natural perfumery and attar/oil perfumery translated to a Western format than, strictly speaking, historical reconstructions (although there are some of those in the line too).

 

The only problem that this presents is that the split purpose might confuse customers (and even fragrance bloggers). The first impression any customer will get of the brand is the historical reconstruction angle, with the attar and naturals focus emerging only when you delve deeper into the descriptions and background on the site. Hence, a disconnect between that the brand itself suggests you’re going to smell, and what you actually smell.

 

The recreation, or reimagining, of les parfums historiques is not a new or unusual theme in perfumery, of course, as brands such as Parfum d’Empire, Histoires de Parfum, Rance, Creed, and even Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier demonstrate. But because these niche brands either got there first or are more popular, they managed to set the expectation for a parfum historique as thus: abstract, modern, niche constructions that behave like any other Western niche fragrance. Since the compositions of Maison Nicolas de Barry are at once far more streamlined and more naturals-focused, it’s possible that they appear simplistic or muddy to someone expecting the 3D mixed media richness of an Ambre Russe by Parfum d’Empire or even the Samsara stylings of Guerlain.

 

So, let’s re-set expectations here. The perfumes of Maison Nicolas de Barry are great when viewed through the lens of a parfum historique, but superlative when viewed as their rightful form, i.e., naturals, pure ouds, and attar scaled up into a sprayable EDP format.

 

Understanding that the perfumes of Maison Nicolas de Barry are basically scaled-up attars and naturals in the guise of les parfum historiques is crucial to understanding the perfumes themselves. I remember receiving a tiny vial of Mumtaz-I Mahal from a perfume friend in 2014: it had leaked and filled the wrapping of the parcel with one of the most intensely beautiful smells I had ever experienced – sandalwood and rose. Strangely enough, when I applied what was left of the perfume to my skin, I found it to be less complex than the scent it left in the air: a sweet rose over an austere sandalwood. I much preferred the smell of the spilled perfume to the perfume itself as a wearing experience.

 

Looking back at this now, I think I understand that Mumtaz-I Mahal was teaching me my first lessons about attar perfumery in general, which are that:

 

  • attar perfumery is quite simple compared to complex, French or Western perfumery, focusing as it does on exalting the spiritual beauty of just one or two naturals rather than on an abstract, perfumey vision,

 

  • when a blend is this simple and composed almost entirely of naturals, the properties of the 1-2 naturals chosen for the blend are very important – there is nothing to disguise the inherently green sharpness of Ta’if rose oil or the soured milk tones of Australian sandalwood, and so on. And finally, that;

 

  • since attar perfumery was created more as a way of scenting the air for others, in a display of Muslim and Hindi generosity of spirit to fellow worshippers, than for one’s own personal pleasure, the trail of scent left behind by an attar is often more pleasing than the scent smelled up close on one’s own skin.

 

Since I’ve already waffled on quite a bit, I’m going to split this article into two parts, the first dealing with the conventional parfums historiques produced by Maison Nicolas de Barry (samples of which can be found here), the second part dealing with the all-natural perfumes and oud collection of the house (samples of which can be found here).

 

The first part, below, contains reviews of a cross-selection of samples from the historical perfumes range. Some of these perfumes behave like most conventional Western niche perfumes (abstract, complex, perfumey), albeit with a strong naturals focus, while others behave as pure attars diluted with alcohol to scale them up into EDP format.

 

L’Eau de Louis XV (Le Bien-Aimé)

 

L’Eau de Louis XV (Le Bien-Aimé) – le bien-aimé meaning beloved or well-loved – is a scented tribute to King Louis XV. It is one of the most sublime and natural-smelling neroli fragrances I’ve had the pleasure of smelling. Unlike most neroli fragrances, there is no slow descent into soapiness; L’Eau de Louis XV retains a juicy, fresh bitterness that’s akin to biting into a winter orange and getting a mouthful of peel, waxy green leaf, and a bit of the woody bark too. It is both bright and salubrious. There is a floral poudrée heart of rose, violet, tuberose, and other flowers for support, as well as a dark, unsweet amber accord, but these are merely there to hold the orange and neroli aloft.

 

Am I imagining the slightly animalic muskiness that closes in around the neroli topnotes after the first few minutes? Probably. But something about this fragrance makes me think of the steamy, soapy floral odors escaping from the King’s boudoir during his morning bath, with the underlying funk of a sleepy and as of yet unwashed body warm from his bed. Without doubt, this should be the bellwether for neroli scents. It smells natural, uplifting, fresh, and bitter in all the right places. Bien aimé indeed…

 

La Reine Margot (La Scandaleuse)

 

It’s odd that jasmine is technically a white floral when its smell is so purple. In La Reine Margot, the natural jasmine really shines through – round and creamily sweet but not as bright, high-pitched, or as sunlit as the synthetic variants. In fact, it has a curiously dusky, subdued hue, as if the flower has been covered in heavy velvet. There is also a slightly muddy, plasticky tone that I associate with natural jasmine. It smells almost exactly like a natural jasmine ruh I’ve smelled before, while doing research for the Indian attar portion of my book.

 

The star is the natural jasmine, but it is backed by a powdery, spicy amber and what reads to my nose as creamy pheromone. What I mean by this is that it features the same “cream of wheat” smell that I’ve picked up in two pheromone-based fragrances, the all-natural Feromone Donna by La Via del Profumo and Pheromone 4, an attar produced by Agarscents Bazaar. Feromone Donna features a similar although not identical notes list to Pheromone 4: jasmine, civet, ambergris, tuberose, and vanilla.  Like Pheromone 4, these materials come together to form a floral creaminess that is part cream of wheat, part white chocolate.

 

In La Reine Margot, there is something of a similar effect, with the jasmine interacting with either an animalic musk or ambergris in the base to produce a creamy floral porridge effect. It is perhaps more accurate to view this as a natural jasmine soliflore filtered through the sheen of a milky sandalwood oriental like Dries Van Noten for Les Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle. I find this to be a very sensual, natural-feeling jasmine perfume that – unlike many other jasmine-musk combinations – never tapers off into that leathery sourness one smells beneath the wrist band of a rubber watch at the end of the day. It remains soft, pure, and creamy all the way through.

 

 

L’Impératrice Sissi (L’Indomptable)

 

L’Indomptable means indomitable, a person who cannot be subdued or defeated, and this describes perfectly both the character of Empress Sissi and the fragrance itself. Sissi is a cheeky little scent. It comes so over-stuffed with violet pastilles, gummy bears, face powder, cherry syrup, and doll head plastic that you’d think that it would be insufferable to anyone over the age of 12, and for a while, it is. But then a thick, raw lump of benzoin and the uncooked pallor of a very potato-y iris emerge, interjecting the saving grace of ugliness into the pretty.

 

Sissi is extreme in all respects – a sort of cosmetics violet-iris accord set on fire and sent rolling down the hill to flatten everybody in its wake. People who like the part-syrupy, part-powdery excesses of Guerlain’s Insolence, Incarnata by Anatole Lebreton, or Ombre Mercure by Terry de Gunsberg will probably love this lipstick-on-steroids perfume too. I don’t love it, myself, but I certainly enjoy wearing it more than I should. In fact, it’s become something of a guilty pleasure. There’s a fluffy marshmallow crème accord in the drydown that gives as much pleasure and comfort as a giant, fluffy onesie. I’d imagine. Not that I own one or anything.

 

L’Eau de George Sand

 

I find it fascinating that both Maison Nicolas de Barry and Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier have historical fragrances in honor of George Sand and Queen Margot. Both houses chose jasmine as the principal material for their Queen Margot fragrances, although the MPG version is more of an animalic orange blossom than a true jasmine, and the Maison Nicolas de Barry version stars a very dark, natural jasmine accord.

 

For George Sand, both houses focus on the dried-up remnants of a perfume vial carried by Sand herself, which seemed to be made up of patchouli, roses, and amber. But while MPG takes the basic historical formula in a spicy, ambery oriental direction, the Maison Nicolas de Barry focuses on the dark, chypric elements. Think Amouage Beloved, Clinique Aromatics Elixir, and Noir Patchouli by Histoires de Parfum, rather than Cinnabar or Or Noir.

 

L’Eau de George Sand establishes its chypre credentials immediately upon application, putting forth a mossy, abstract bitterness that recalls dried plums, polished wood, and violin resin. It is also immediately powdery in a sumptuously floral way, and I’m sure that I can smell the bones of Acqua di Parma Profumo here, itself a cleaner, more powdery version of Mitsouko. However, there is also a plush animalic feel lurking under the topnotes, which could be either a grubby musk or labdanum. The contrast between the bright, elegant sharpness of the flowers and the murky skin-like feel of an animal is quietly disarming.

 

It is only towards the heart that I sense the darkness of patchouli moving in. But from there on out, this is a herbal, earthy patchouli chypre with a healthy dose of powdery rose. It is dark and somber in feel, while also elegant in that inimitable French manner. Lovers of Aromatics Elixir, Beloved, Noir Patchouli, or even Profumo should give this a try. It does everything they do albeit in a quieter and more natural way.

 

Mumtaz-I Mahal

 

This was the perfume that sparked my initial interest in Maison Nicolas de Barry back in 2014, but I could reconcile neither my actual wearing experience nor the middling reviews with the incredible, unforgettable scent that had spilled on the package and permeated my sample box. In much the same way that I love the collected smells of all my perfumes on my winter coat collar or when I open up my perfume drawer more than the scent of any one single perfume on the skin, Mumtaz-I Mahal smells better in the ambience than on the skin.

 

On the skin, it is a very simple fragrance, just a Turkish rose backed by a smidge of sandalwood. The rose is very high quality – truffled, velvety, rich, and slightly jammy around the edges – but for all intents and purposes, it’s a rose soliflore, and that has to be what you’re looking for when you buy or sample Mumtaz-I Mahal. I think of it as the rose note from Aramis Calligraphy Rose cut free of all the spices, smoke, and resins of the Aramis.

It grows a little more citrusy and fresh towards the base when it meets the sandalwood, but in general, the rose tends more towards the softly jammy and truffled rather than sharp or green. Beautiful rose, beautiful materials…but perhaps better smelled in the secondary wake of someone else than as a personal perfume.

 

Shah Jahan

 

Shah Jahan is, of course, the natural companion to Mumtaz-I Mahal and supposedly the masculine counterpart. It is unisex, in truth, like all of the perfumes produced under Maison Nicolas de Barry. Inspired by the traditional attars produced in Kannauj and offered as gifts to the ruling emperors and princes of the Persiatic Mughal dynasty in India, Sha Jahan is far more complex than Mumtaz-I Mahal, with a tart, rhubarb-like rose on top of sandalwood, a vegetal amber attar base, and a touch of pure oud for exotic Arabian flair.

 

Shah Jahan has a fresh, silvery mien to it that speaks to homely Indian green herbs; compared to its female counterpart, it is angular and sugar-free. A woody, oudy sourness lurks at the corners, drawing the bright rose and herbs into the shadows somewhat, but mainly providing depth. It is spicy, sharp, and quite traditionally Indian in feel. Indian ambers are not creamy or vanillic, tending instead towards tart and spicy.

 

Oddly enough, the raw materials behave in this EDP format in much the same way as they would in an oil-based attar, meaning that the rose, which normally fades out over time in conventional fragrances due to the volatility of its geraniol and citronal molecules, re-emerges towards the end of the perfume, bathing the taut oud and woods in a rosy glow, that, while never sweet, softens the austerity of the blend. Think of this one as a rose-oud accord wrapped up in the clothing of a traditional Indian attar, which in turn is disguised in the form of a conventional eau de parfum. Superb.

Round-Ups Thoughts

Some Excellent New Perfumes: Not Reviews, Just Smelling Notes

April 14, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

Attars & CPOs

Sultan Pasha Aurum D’Angkhor

November 30, 2015

For those of you who don’t know him, Sultan Pasha is a passionate attar collector, curator, and now in recent years, also a perfumer of his own teaching. Based in the UK, Sultan Pasha used to sell a fantastic range of samples of very rare or discontinued attars, including almost all of the Amouage ones, along with his own creations (see his eBay page here). I don’t know if he’s still selling the sample set of other brands, but he very kindly gave me samples from his own range of concentrated perfume oils, attars, and essential oils (including a sample of wild Mysore sandalwood, which I can’t wait to get to!). In the coming weeks and months, I will be reviewing each attar sample in the order they came to me.

If you’re interested in acquiring the sample set yourself (it contains about two drops each of 45 CPOs), you can order it here. Sultan Pasha advises that you dip the end of a paper clip into each sample well to draw out a tiny amount of the oil and apply it to the skin – these oils are extremely strong, so each two-drop sample is more than enough for five wears.

Now to Aurum D’Angkhor. It’s the first CPO in the pack that I tested, and right now I’m worried that nothing will be able to top this for me. Aurum is just mind-blowing. I trudge through an awful lot of the lower-priced Arabian oils and attars (as well as some very high-priced ones), and it’s rare that any of them stand out to me as being worth the skin time. What I mean is that there’s an awful lot of dodgy stuff out there in the CPO world, and with price not always correlating to quality or complexity, you have to have a lot of time and money to hone in on the good ones.

Or maybe it’s just me. Plenty of fellows over at Basenotes go straight to the super high end stuff, such as the pure oud oils and oud mixes (mukhallats) being sold by Ensar Oud and Agar Aura. But the price of entry for that serious oud scares me, so I mainly just lurk in the waters of whatever samples of Ajmal, Al Haramain, and Amouage CPOs that I get my hands on, lazily hoping to somehow stumble upon the attar that seems made just for me.

The Amouage attars, with the exception of Badr al Badour, failed to impress me much. I liked Tribute too, but the expense of tracking it down now seems prohibitive. The recently released premium collection by Al Haramain (reviewed here) was very mixed and in general, not worth the Amouage-level prices they are asking for them. But I did go through about 25 of ASAQ CPOs and oud mukhallats over a year ago, and I got to understand more about oud, the general profiles of the different types, and the difference between young and aged oud. Now I have my favorite CPOs, oud and non-oud mukhallats, ranging from the very costly (Badr al Badour, Ajmal Mukhallat Dehn al Oud Moattaq), mid-range (Arabian Oud Najdi Maliki and Al Siraj) to the very cheap (Majmua attar).

Aurum D’Angkhor, though, is special. It blew my socks off with its depth, complexity, and beauty. It contains a small amount of the famous Ensar Oud Encens D’Angkor in the basenotes, which is a smooth, fruity Cambodi oud oil with soft, cozy wood aspects. But the “Aurum” in Sultan Pasha’s remix means “Golden” and indeed that’s the color that comes across in this blend – golden, dusty saffron, a light smooth oud with the timbre of polished oak floors, smoke, honey, henna, and a haze of sweet jasmine and rose.

The topnote of Aurum D’Angkhor showcases the oud, and for a few minutes it has a ripe, barnyard aroma to it – not unpleasantly animalic, for example nowhere near the sour bile facets of a Hindi oud oil – but it definitely recalls the soft, ripe smell of fresh cow silage, a sort of liquid, sweet aroma that oozes across the room. I find this smell to be warm and nostalgic, because I grew up around farms.

The cow pat note disappears quickly, allowing a soft, spicy brown leather to take shape, with faintly indolic jasmine floating in and out. To my nose, saffron plays a pivotal role here, called on to bring out all its strange facets at once – the leather, the exotic dust, the sweetness, the faintly floral “mouth-feel”, fiery red spice, and a certain medicinal, iodine-like twang. The oud and the saffron create this deep, deep multi-levered scent profile suggestive of old oak floors, spicy brown leather, and dusty fruit skins (plums and figs). It is such a smooth, woody, refined aroma – it has the depth of real oud, but none of the challenging aspects.

Now, as to the smoke – this varied greatly on me from one test to another. At first, I found the opening and heart notes so smoky I felt sure there had to be either a touch of birch tar or cade oil in the topnotes, or at least a hefty dose of labdanum in the basenotes. At times, I felt that the smokiness was almost exactly like the rough, smoky Balsamo della Mecca, which is primarily a labdanum-focused scent, with dusty cinnamon (Siam benzoin) and frankincense. During my second test, I couldn’t detect as much smokiness, but instead I picked up on the honey (a sort of toffee-like, ambery sweetness) and a hint of the hay-like dustiness of henna.

In the base, I pick up a woody resin, kind of nutty, but also kind of granular, like coffee grounds. It may also be the musk, because some suede scents, like Tom Ford Tuscan Leather, Oud Saphir, Black Suede, and Al Haramain Tajibni, use a combination of a vegetal musk like ambrette, saffron, and cedar/woods to create a sort of musky, resinous suede effect. Whatever it is, it’s great. GBP 400 for 3ml, though…..it’s too much for me personally, but I have no doubt that it’s worth it.

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