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Zoologist

Amber Gourmand Honey Independent Perfumery Review

Zoologist Bee

12th November 2019

Have you ever been walking along the street and suddenly feel so good that you burst into a run? Zoologist Bee is that for me – a burst of positivity that settles on you like a blessing you don’t remember asking for. The perfume doesn’t seem to be particularly complicated, but the trick it performs is by no means simple; effortlessness, or at least the impression of it, always requires an invisible-to-the-naked-nose system of levers and pulleys operating under the surface. Perfumes exuding this sense of almost child-like glee are rare. I can count on one hand the number of fragrances so exuberantly good-smelling that you feel you’re the world’s Secret Santa. Kalemat is one; so is Shaal Nur. Now Zoologist Bee joins their ranks.

I’m torn as to how best describe the pleasantness of the balance between bitter and sweet achieved in the opening – it’s the smoky, brown sugar-tinged bitterness of molten honeycomb (cinder toffee) just before the baking powder is added, but at the same time, there’s a jellied, clear coldness that calms the roil before it reaches burning point. This note, or rather texture, could be the royal jelly that appears in the notes. But the way I perceive the royal jelly note in Bee changes with each wearing. Sometimes, it feels as gelatinous as the cubes of grass jelly you get in bubble tea, at others, it smells more like rooibos tea that’s been boiled with a spoon of honey and allowed to cool on a window sill, i.e., a mixture of something tannic and something coldly sweet.

Whether it’s jelly or cold tea, the important thing is that this accord lends an impression of clarity, or transparency to the perfume. The rundown of notes doesn’t matter here because, as with any honey perfume, it’s as important to state what Bee is not as what it is. So, Bee is not treacly or syrupy or heavy. It’s not so sweet that it smells pungent or sharp. It is hugely radiant, but not unpleasantly scratchy or ‘fake’, by which I mean that it doesn’t smell like it’s been overloaded with those annoying woody ambers stuffed into most perfumes laying claim to the word ‘radiant’.

Bee is not – crucially, for me at least – animalic. I adore pissy honey perfumes like Absolue Pour Le Soir, but I have to be mentally ready for them. I don’t like when the saliva-ish staleness of honey reveals itself only in the far drydown, because it’s like an uninvited guest who, no matter how charming or brilliant they turn out to be, grate purely because their presence was unsolicited. I’d describe Bee a clear, radiantly ambery floral honey, tilting more towards amber than floral. There’s a doughy, fluffy sweetness in its underskirts that I take to be heliotrope, but the floral notes are largely indistinguishable, muffled as they are by the thick, white-ish beeswax note. There’s orange in the notes list, but I don’t smell any citrus at all, and if there’s anything green or fresh in the bitterness of the opening, then I’ve missed it entirely.

Bee is clearly honey from the start. No mistaking it for anything else. My children absolutely loved the scent and keep sticking their noses into my arm; my husband sniffed it and said, rather grimly, ‘yes, that’s honey alright.’ So, make no mistake – you need to like the essential honey-ness of honey to like Bee. Zoologist Bee is not the perfume for you, for example, if you like your honey notes abstract or folded into the weft where, as one note among many, it can do the least damage.

For me, honey is as problematic a note as coffee, chocolate, and caramel notes. In the context of a perfume, these solinotes almost always present more as a series of problems to be resolved (too bitter, too burnt, too urinous, too pungent, etc.) than the purer sensory pleasure they are capable of giving in the mouth.  So, it’s really something for me to say that Bee is probably the only honey or beeswax-centric fragrance that I can see myself committing to without having to make a series of unhappy compromises with my own self.

For example, I like Honey Oud by Floris but am in two minds over that vaguely synthy wood in the basenotes that only I seem to be able to smell. I enjoy the grapey, musty honey of Botrytis by Ginestet, but only when I can smell the rot – about 70% of the time I wear it, it reads as a slightly dull, fruity amber. With its smoky-sweet cinder toffee amber, my memory of Immortelle de Corse by L’Occitane comes closest of all to Bee, but of course, it’s been discontinued so my memory might be serving me up false positives. But what anybody reading this review really wants to know is this: how does Bee compare to the last honey-focused runaway success on the niche/indie scene, namely Hiram Green’s Slowdive?

Slowdive is much richer, thicker, and more complex than Bee, with the herbs, florals, and tobacco almost as important to the whole smell as the honey and beeswax. On the other hand, Slowdive is far too heavy and syrupy for me to wear casually. I can’t just throw it on – I’d have to suit up for it. Compared to Slowdive, Zoologist Bee is simpler, more user-friendly in a big-boned, good-natured, ambery way. Bee and Slowdive are connected by way of their indie or smaller niche ‘feel’ (both have more in common with those rustic, ‘honest’ indie honeys such as Golden Cattleya by Olympic Orchids than with, say, Oajan by Parfums de Marly or Honey by Kim Kardashian West). But while Slowdive has that unmistakably hand-crafted, all-natural feel to it, Bee has the more polished, high-spec finish you get with mixed media perfumes, positioning it as slightly more niche than artisanal.

With its expansive ambery radiance, Bee moves one step closer to what most people outside the tight inner circle of perfume nerds would consider ‘yummy’ and gorgeous and easy to wear. And I’m not saying that like it’s a bad thing – Zoologist Bee made it to my ‘to buy’ list the minute I smelled it. Anything that smells this good just begs to be bought and worn, not endlessly agonized over.   

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Zoologist Tyrannosaurus Rex

11th September 2018

 

Antonio Gardoni’s style is so distinctive that his work can almost be graded in Gardoni-ness, with Noun being a 9/10 (i.e., immediately identifiable as an Antonio Gardoni creation) and Aeon 001 being a 3 or a 4 (identifiable as a Gardoni only if you think hard about it). I’ve never had the chance to smell Gardelia, but from all accounts, its honeyed white floral softness places it slightly outside Gardoni canon, so perhaps a 1 on the Gardoni scale.

 

For those unfamiliar with the Gardoni style, the recurring motifs might be loosely defined as (a) a lean and elegantly bitter mélange of apothecary herbs and spices, tending towards medicinal, (b) a butch, non-traditional treatment of white florals, especially tuberose, and (c) a complex, brocaded drydown that mixes resins with musks, castoreum, ambergris and/or other animalics. More prosaically, I always think of Gardoni’s creations as possessing an authentic ‘golden’ vigor that’s masculine in an old school manner.

 

Zoologist, as a brand, could also be said to have a distinctive house style. Of course, since each perfume has a different creator, it’s more difficult to pin down the specifics beyond the fact that all seem to be built on an exaggerated scale, with one chosen element (woods, smoke, leaves, fruit) blown up until it towers comically over the composition like King Kong. They are all exciting, vivid fragrances, but often quite rough, probably because they aren’t put through the glossing filter that most other niche scents go through to reach market these days. As an example, Hyrax would be a 10 on the Zoologist scale, because its filth-and-dried-urine-inside-burning-tires aroma makes it one of those hardcore ‘I dare you’ scents that only the nichiest of niche-heads would wear, whereas something like Hummingbird is a solid 2: a frothy whirl of fruit and flowers that won’t scare the horses.

 

Apologies for the lengthy preamble, but anyone dithering over a blind purchase of either a sample or a full bottle of Zoologist Tyrannosaurus Rex will want to know how Gardoni it is, and also possibly, how Zoologist it is, on a scale of 1 to 10. My short answer is that Tyrannosaurus Rex is a 4 on the Gardoni scale, and a 8 on the Zoologist scale. In other words, I don’t know that I’d guess it’s a Gardoni creation from smelling it blind (although digging in, there are a few clues), but I’d confidently peg it as a Zoologist release.

 

Tyrannosaurus Rex opens with a furnace blast of burning tree sap and smoke, featuring both the rubbery green soot of cade and the piney sharpness of frankincense. This sounds rather par for the course for anyone who’s ever collected or smelled the most popular scents in the phenolic category, like Encens Flamboyant (Annick Goutal), A City on Fire (Imaginary Authors), or Revolution (Cire Trudon), but Tyrannosaurus Rex immediately distinguishes itself from this company by layering a core of buttery floral notes through the rough-grained miasma of smoke.

 

In particular, a thickly oily champaca stands out, smelling not of the its usual fruity-musky cleanliness but of the almost rancid, stale ‘Irish butter’ gardenia undertones of Indian champaca, the red ‘joy oil’ stuff that gives Strangelove NYC’s lostinflowers its pungency. Picture the greasy saltiness of gardenia, rose, and ylang butters thrown onto a burning fire with some laurel leaves and fir, and you’ll get a sense of the opening here. It smells like something charred to purge the air of impurities and sickness; the smoke element more medicinal than holy. This facet, plus the fact that it smells the way frankincense gum tastes, identifies it as being Gardoni-esque.

 

The sheer brute force of the opening, however, is more Zoologist in style. The marriage of smoke and oily floral takes some getting used to. It smells rich and addictive, but also a little too much of a good thing, like staying too long at the fuel pump to breathe in the gasoline fumes, or walking through a rubber plantation on fire fully aware that you should run before the toxic fumes get you but also weirdly narcotized into a trance-like state.

 

The smoke, in particular, is what pushes this one up on the Zoologist scale. It’s an element I associate with, in particular, Hyrax, a 2018 Zoologist release, which smells like a well-used rubber incontinence sheet set on fire. While Tyrannosaurus Rex is far more accomplished and not provocative for the sake of being provocative, there’s no denying that the shock factor of the opening is high. Unless, unlike me, you’re one of those people who absolutely live for the most challenging parts of a perfume, like the Listerine mouthwash of Serge Lutens’ Tubéreuse Criminelle’s topnotes or the putrid cherry cough syrup first half of Diptyque’s Kimonanthe, in which case, the ‘burning rubber plantation’ portion of  Tyrannosaurus Rex will be the highlight.

 

For me, though, the latter parts of the scent are the most enjoyable because that’s when everything relaxes and the warning system in my solar plexus stops ringing. This is where things get seriously sensual. Only two components of the drydown are identifiable to me, or at least familiar. First, a minty-camphoraceous balsam note, like a solid cube of Carmex set to melt gently on a hot plate, mixed with the gritty brown sugar crystals of benzoin or some other ambery material. At times, it smells like fir balsam and old leather mixed with vanilla ice-cream (soft and almost creamy), and at others, it is bitter and metallic, thanks to rose oxide, a material that smells like nail polish mixed with mint leaves and rose.

 

The second component in the drydown, for me, is the sandalwood. Although I don’t know whether sandalwood synthetics or natural sandalwood oil was used, the note reminds me very much of Dabur Chandan Ka Tail (Oil of Sandalwood), a santalum album from India that’s sold as an ayurvedic medicine rather than as something to be used as perfume. Dabur comes in a small glass container with a rubber cap to allow penetration by a syringe, which you’re supposed to remove, but that I (not being a meticulous person in general) do not. Accordingly, the topnotes carry a bitter, smoky rubber and fuel exhaust overtone that’s curiously addictive. Tyrannosaurus Rex’s sandalwood component is roughly similar: it is creamy and aromatic, but tainted by all these weird little wafts of rubber and car exhaust that add character to the usual pale milk of sandalwood. It’s sexy as hell. Damn, give me a big, rich sandalwood base any day and you’ve got me. It’s like nuzzling into the chest of a biker who’s ridden through 50 miles of Mysore forest.

 

A friend (and fellow blogger) often teases me for not being clear in my review about whether I like the scent or not, and that’s fair: I tend to get bogged down in analysis and forget to tell you whether or not a scent connected with me at a personal level. So, let me be clear – I absolutely loved Tyrannosaurus Rex. The opening is too powerful for my taste, but for the most part, I loved the warmth and ‘bigness’ of this perfume. It’s smoky, it’s complex, and it keeps you guessing without taxing your brain cells to oblivion. In other words, although there’s a certain amount of head-scratching and puzzling over notes to be done here (which will please bored fragheads), it’s also very easy to step away from the analysis and simply enjoy wearing the thing itself. And you know, apart from the over-fueled opening, I do.

 

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Zoologist Camel: A Review

17th October 2017

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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