The topnotes of Serge Lutens Serge Noire‘s smoky, dried fruit incense draw me in every single Goddamn time, like a mermaid’s song. And then I am dashed cruelly against the rocks that are this scent’s downfall – the unmistakably oniony sweat of unwashed (male) armpits.
Ask me how I know. No, really. I first smelled this when I was visiting Mont San Michel with my family when I was seven. The children had sat down in a grumpy, sun-beaten heap on the doorstop of the nth church, refusing to indulge our parents any further in their unquenchable thirst for the various religious icons and tchotchkes of French medieval churches, which seemed to us to be identical to the ones we had back home, only a little older and grimier.
From our vantage point, we got to study the interiors of everyone’s nostrils, skirts, and armpits. People passed over us; we were ignored, perhaps not even seen. A middle-aged man stopped under the mantel and leaned against the cool wall for a moment to gather himself, and in that moment, I understood that dried sweat could smell like onions and black pepper and celery – the makings of a mirepoix, practically – when suspended in droplets in the thicket of a man’s armpit hair.
The onion sweat accord can be parsed out later as clove, cumin, black pepper, and incense. While I love clove in stuff like Eau Lente (Diptyque) and the Eau de Parfum by Commes des Garcons, I admit that it can come off as sweaty and metallic to an almost objectionable degree. But the operational word is almost. There’s always something in those fragrances to reign it in – herbaceous oppoponax, a bit of honey, some sandalwood. In Serge Noire, the clove business simply goes too far. It sidles up to the breaking point of human endurance and then waltzes brazenly past it, lurching unchecked into pure onion sweat territory whence it cannot be redeemed.
I keep trying it, hoping I am wrong or that my perception will loosen up, allowing me to glimpse the true beauty of this scent as others describe it. But as of May 2020, and upon my 14th attempt, I have to admit defeat.
Source of sample: Purchased over and over again from Notino.uk to no avail, because I do not and will never ‘get’ this scent.
Cover Photo By photographer Jens Karlsson, Creative Director at Your Majesty, NYC, available here via Stockpholio.net
Rose Gold opens with a fiercely fresh green rose that briefly hints at the rose in Ta’if before folding its lemon-rind-and-black-pepper topnotes into the folds of a richer, pulpier rose that smells as lush and ‘full-bodied’ as the traditional rose and sandalwood attars once produced by Amouage – I am thinking mostly of Ayoon al Maha and Majan attars here, but also the spicy sandalwood-rose core of the stupendous Lyric Woman. Let’s say that Rose Gold falls halfway between one of those Amouage greats and the homelier but nonetheless moving beauty of the heavily peppered rose and carved sandalwood elephants of Caron’s Parfum Sacre. I mention these perfumes not just for your reference, but for mine – perfumes like Parfum Sacre and Lyric Woman were among the first perfumes that brought me to tears. They are my North Star of what I consider to be important ‘smells’ in my life. That I am comparing Rose Gold to them should tell you that I think Rose Gold is special.
The traditional rosy ‘attar’
scent is what dominates here, and it is unmistakably regal. There is a flare
here and there of the initial lemony freshness of a Ta’if rose, but this only
serves to highlight the deep red velvet backdrop of the more sensual Turkish
rose. There’s a hot-to-the-touch quality to the perfume, and a note that makes
me think of spicy crab apple jelly – both reminders that the presence of
carnation is what links Black Gold to its baby sisters, Rose Gold and White
Gold. Although this remains quite dry and spicy throughout, the rose centerpiece
softens the rather masculine pepper-carnation-sandalwood-oud heart of Black
Gold, making it an option for those who thought the original too hairy-chested.
Rose Gold would come close to de-seating
Amouage Lyric Woman and Caron Parfum Sacre as my favorite rose-based perfumes
were it not for the rapid unravelling of richness and complexity after the
roses, spice, and carnation have roared their loudest. Quite simply, Rose Gold becomes
too quiet, too soon. A rather plain but pleasant smelling mélange of creamy,
rose-tinted blond woods, made radiant with the usual Ormonde Jayne dollop of
Iso E Super, is left to carry the load on the remaining 40% of the scent’s
If I were rich, though, I’d have
no qualms about buying the biggest bottle of Rose Gold I could find (a veritable
jeroboam of the stuff!) and spray, spray, spray to get that glorious start and
midsection going again on my skin at the first sign of flagging. Millionaires
can buy all the Viagra they want; I’d buy mine in the form of Rose Gold.
I am trying to say this with the
greatest respect, but in many ways, White Gold is the most department-store-smelling
iteration of the Gold series. By this, I mean that it smells like an abstraction
of white flowers, white orris, white powder, white musks, and white woods (even
white spices) all blurred into one haze of cloudy white scent molecules. White
Gold is made of the kind of white noise that I find very difficult to pick
apart and analyze when I am sniffing perfumes at the department store. There’s
very little for me to hang onto. My nose feels around for the boundary lines
between the notes but fails to locate any.
I think that the perfumes that have most in common with White Gold are not Rose Gold or Black Gold, but the white cube perfumes and Pure Musc by Narciso Rodriguez, which, to my nose at least, all smell like minute variations on the same theme, i.e., the freshly-poured cement muskiness of cashmeran and fluffy white musks, the basic model altered with one drop more or less gardenia or rose or ylang. I get that most people find this sort of thing comforting. It’s like the warm, plush terrycloth robe you pull straight from the dryer and put on when you emerge shivering from a cold shower. It’s just that it’s too simple, too easy. Mindless comfort is good for those moments when you need a liquid hug. But it doesn’t engage the brain cells. I can’t help but hold that against it.
White Gold traps the naturally effervescent, floaty white dust that emanates from orris and folds it into a cloud of silky ambrette and lab musks, which hover weightlessly over the freshly-scrubbed wood and concrete floor built by cashmeran.
The flowers – jasmine mostly, but also some rubbery freesia and orchid – smell clean and expensive, like an upmarket shampoo that sets you back around 50 quid from your hairdresser’s. Abstract and more than a little perfumey, the floral components smells more like artistic, man-made representations of a flower than the rude, fleshy vulgarity of live blooms.
There is a 1990s perfume that White Gold reminds me of strongly, but I can’t recall the name. Something made by Armani, the Lei/Lui series perhaps? Naturally, White Gold smells a lot more expensive and plushly-upholstered than any department store perfume. But there’s a fruity-nutty-sticky sweetness here that hints at the Galaxolide-and-Maltol candy-ness of designer musks and florals, and it’s an impression that proves hard to shake. Overall, I’d peg the color of White Gold as a cloudy, almost milky white, tinged in places with a rosy pink stain. Although easily my least favorite in the series, I think White Gold would make for a perfect bridal perfume or special occasion perfume for someone who might view it as a cashmere wrapped upgrade to the very floral, very clean, musky designer perfumes they already know and love.
I remember loving Black Gold when I tested it in 2017, and even wrote about it here as part of a shambolic, rambling essay on my journey through the Ormonde Jayne stable. But now, when I look back at that review, what I really remember is how hard I had to beg Essenza Nobile to release a sample to me (Fragrance Daily, where the review appeared, was the blog loosely tied to Essenza Nobile, the fragrance retailer which would regularly send the blog writers samples they’d requested).
If I recall correctly, Linda Pilkington was being very strict about where the pre-release samples of Black Gold ended up and even how copy for the fragrance was being worded, so Essenza Nobile was concerned that a negative or even slightly critical review of the perfume might harm their business relationship with the brand.
Essenza Nobile needn’t have
worried, for two reasons. First, I absolutely loved Black Gold. I wouldn’t sell
a kidney to buy a bottle, but I’d happily accept a bottle from a loaded
relative, should I ever succeed in identifying one. Second, while Ormonde Jayne
is clearly invested in controlling the narrative and distribution of its
perfumes (as it should be), I don’t think they put much stock in reviews as part
of their business model.
None of this bothers me unduly. I’m conscious of the business reality for brands outside of the artificial blogger/vlogger bubble. Brands like Ormonde Jayne have to be protective of their products where they can. They are the Chanel of English perfumery. If Ormonde Jayne ever sells to an investor, then their good name, their grip on distribution channels, and the customer perception of the brand’s core values (taste, luxury, exclusivity) is all calculated on the balance sheet as a ‘goodwill asset’. Goodwill assets monetize all those values we associate with the name of Ormonde Jayne even if we can’t see or touch them.
Ormonde Jayne operates mostly outside
of the reviewer bubble. The brand doesn’t enter the fray of perfume blogs or
reviews in the ways that other brands do. They don’t promote or circulate
positive reviews of their perfumes; nor do they openly contradict or wade into reviews
that are less than complementary. Their relationship with the outside world
seems to be smoothly commercial, almost transactional in nature, i.e., they are
a company whose primary objective is to sell luxury perfume and perfumed goods to
those who can afford it, not to get chummy with writers and blogs and YouTubers.
The brand isn’t rude or dismissive of the review crowd; we just don’t figure
much in their strategy. And that is perfectly valid.
Reviewers like me can request to be put on the Ormonde Jayne PR list to receive samples. But again, there’s that thorny issue of how to reconcile being sent press samples and offering an independent, fair-minded review to readers that has nothing to do with the ‘free-ness’ of the sample. I haven’t figured out an answer to that dilemma yet. I want access to the perfume, my reviews depend on access, and yet the sincerity of the review will always be in question (even in my own mind) if the sample was sent to me for free by the brand.
That’s part of the reason it’s taken me so long to write about these Ormonde Jayne exclusives; some of the samples were (very kindly) sent to me in PR. I am not on anyone’s PR list normally, so I’m grateful, but conflicted. Can you trust me on these, at a distance of three years? I hope you can. Maybe the passing of three years has created a sort of decontamination chamber for the perfumes, cleansing them of all trace of expectation, guilt, and reciprocity.
I will do one more post in the Ormonde Jayne series covering the perfumes from the original (core) collection; this will be less angsty because any full bottle of Ormonde Jayne perfume I own, I paid for. But there will be a little angst – there has to be – because I’ll be reviewing my bottles of Ormonde Jayne perfumes with a view to deciding which ones I sell and which ones I keep.
Source of samples: My sample of Black Gold was sent to me for free to write about by Essenza Nobile, the large European fragrance retailer and distributor, for the blog Fragrance Daily linked to the site (the blog is now defunct). My sample of White Gold was sent to me by Luckyscent for the purpose of writing the copy for White Gold on their site. My sample of Rose Gold was sent to me by PR at Ormonde Jayne, for free and with no expectation or demand to write about it.
Stupidly, I ignored this one for the longest time, believing it to be yet another Westernized take on oud. Guess what? It isn’t. The penny dropped just as I ran out of money, or at least the willingness to spend more than that €1.2 per ml limit Luca Turin originally advised us to stop at. This means that I don’t, and never will, own a bottle of Nawab of Oudh, which is terrible because this thing brings me to my knees.
But let’s make some lemonade out of dem lemons. I like to pretend that my bottle of Nawab of Oudh is hanging out at Roma Store, a small profumeria in Trastevere I frequent. Every month, I take a leisurely stroll down the Tiber to visit with the bottle of Nawab of Oudh the shop is kindly (but obliviously) hosting for me and douse myself liberally in its glorious juice. Then I walk back home, sniffing myself with a huge, dopey grin on my face, oblivious to how I look to passers-by.
Describing what Nawab of Oudh smells like is like trying to catch butterflies with a teaspoon. It has that gauzy, dizzying abstraction characteristic of so many Ormonde Jayne standouts like Black Gold and Rose Gold, and features – as far as I can tell – peppery spice, juicy mandarin, champagne-like aldehydes, roses, sandalwood, and a mass of creamy floral notes.
But I’m not sure any notes list adequately conveys the fierce joy of this scent. Better to say instead that this perfume gives you that Saturday morning feeling of good things to come – a crisply folded newspaper, a fresh pot of coffee, warm bread rolls, cold Irish butter, and a day of leisure stretching out in front of you like a cat. It smells like sunshine in a loved one’s hair and a just-cancelled meeting.
There is a point at the center of this fragrance that makes me think perfumer Geza Schoen might be playing around with an old Roucel-ian template of a green-ish magnolia bathed in a silky bath of citrus, honey, roses, and heavy cream (last seen in Roucel’s Guerlain’s L’Instant for Women and Rochas’ Tocade). The magnolia is viewed obliquely here, through a haze of spicy pepper, pimiento, cardamom, and cinnamon-dusted rose, but it’s definitely got some presence.
I love that when I spray it heavily, Nawab of Oudh coats the back of my hand with an aggressively oily sheen but then immediately radiates off into the air with an aldehydic swagger. Despite the name, there is little oud to speak of here, aside from a slightly sour, leathery tint to the soapy sandalwood in the base. I love this fragrance and believe it to be one of the most elegant and accomplished spicy oriental-florals that a woman or a man could wear.
Tsarina is a creamy, anisic floral suede that was the object of my affection obsession for much of 2016. It is a decidedly cool-toned fragrance; if it were an eyeshadow palette, Tsarina would be all dove greys and silvery taupes in the sort of satin finish that makes your eyelids appear expensively buffed. If it were a textile, it would be a length of raw silk, dotted with nubbins of texture that ride up pleasurably against the palm of your hand. Did I crack under the pressure of desire? Of course I did. It was 2016 and I was still spending money on perfume like they were bottles of H2O.
But even though I split a bottle with a friend during the famous Ormonde Jayne Black Friday event, Tsarina turned out to be an eye-wateringly expensive purchase. Not so much because of the price I paid, but because I never wore it as much as I thought I would. And a perfume sitting unloved in a collection is the costliest cost of all.
Three years on, I’m trying to understand my sudden and brutal withdrawal of affection for Tsarina. I suspect it covers too much of the same ground as Orris Noir (also by Ormonde Jayne), with its anise-tinted iris and myrrh, and maybe also L’Heure Bleue, with its medicinal heliotrope-iris tandem, for me to get any relief from this nagging cognitive dissonance. There’s also some overlap with the plasticky, clove-spiced benzoin creaminess of Guerlain Lui, which I also (somehow) own. But there’s also the fact that, for the 2020 me, Tsarina is now too rich, too claustrophobic.
But it is beautiful. Tsarina opens with the characteristic Ormonde Jayne blur of uplifting citrus and pepper notes, fueled by aldehydes, before quickly settling into that anisic, peppered ‘cream of wheat’ milkiness I associate with floral sandalwoods like Dries Van Noten (Frederic Malle) and the Pheromone attars produced by both Sharif LaRoche and Abdes Salaam Attar. Ormonde Jayne’s Vanille d’Iris, I find, recycles the same core of buttery iris suede, stripping it way back, and adding a dollop of plasticky vanilla to dull its ethereal gleam. As for Tsarina, once the first burst of spicy freshness dies away, both I and the fragrance miss it dearly.
Tsarina is soft and stodgy, like a bowl of porridge. Its lack of definition is probably why I sought it out so insistently the first time around, because I’m drawn to the boneless torpor of cream-sodden florals with little in the way of ballast propping them up. I find them comforting. However, for my money, stuff like Alamut by Lorenzo Villoresi – an exotic rice pudding-custard made out of tuberose, nag champa, and lots of civety sandalwood – satisfies the same itch and at less expense.
Of course, I didn’t know Alamut back then. Sure, if I could go back and tell my 2016 self that some of the perfumes I am passionate about would be rendered obsolete down the line by perfumes I was yet to smell, then I might have chosen differently. But I’m letting myself off the hook here. Tsarina is still a beautiful perfume judged against any parameter. It’s just that my 2020 self wants Nawab of Oudh more.
Qi is constructed to make no great statement thus offending no one. Lest you think I’m being bitchy, that sentence comes from the Ormonde Jayne official copy!
Normally, my shackles rise when I hear anyone describing a perfume as ‘inoffensive’ or, worse (shudder), ‘mass-pleasing’, because if that’s the end goal, then there’s no need to spend $425+ on a bottle of perfume when you can spend $5 on a bottle of that chocolatey, oudy Axe spray my husband is invariably wearing whenever I complement him on his lovely smell.
But honestly, Ormonde Jayne is onto something here. Osmanthus – for those not overly familiar with it – is a material that shares a rudely pungent quality with Hindi oud oil, black tea, and leather, all materials that have undergone some kind of process like soaking in water, tanning or smoking that lend them a distinctly fermented facet. I’m a fan of the fermented, but the uninitiated might find this particular floral note a challenge. The trick is to trim back the ruder, earthier facets of osmanthus absolute, and to capture only the fresh, pretty notes of the flower smelled straight from the plant.
And that’s exactly what Qi does. It is a super clean, bright take on osmanthus – a glowy little pop of apricot over soapy musks and fresh green tea (maté) that create enough of an illusion of leather to catch at the back of your throat. The osmanthus note is sustained for a remarkably long time, the fresh tea and soft leather notes soaked in an indelible peach or apricot ink. There’s also a whiff of clean rubber tubing – a pleasant inevitability whenever tea and osmanthus share the same space.
Despite the complex array of notes, though, Qi smells charmingly simple and ‘honest’. I can see this elegant glass of green tea, aromatized gently with a slice of apricot, appealing to many people. Ormonde Jayne is a rare house that knows what to do with osmanthus, and for me, Qi is its shining example. I prefer it to the also excellent Passionate Love, which is constructed along similar lines as Qi, but duskier, with a mineralic vetiver-and-Iso-E-Super drydown I’m less fond of.
An interesting fragrance. Revolving around a dank, green sage-tobacco accord that’s been lightened and spaced out by tons of Iso E Super, Montabaco is both dark-smelling and airy. Despite the distinctly aftershavey, fougère-like aspect to Montabaco that tags it as masculine, I have enjoyed smelling this on my skin and trying to break it down.
It’s worth mentioning that the two or three times I’ve worn this, my nine-year old son has sought me out to tell me that I smell really good. That makes me wonder if it’s just that Montabaco has huge sillage (thanks to the Iso E Super) or if there’s something in this fragrance that calls out to males.
I know that I’m not best placed to evaluate. When I smell a ‘classic male aftershave’ accord, something in the analysis part of my brain shuts down, blanking out the individual notes or components of the scent beyond the first and all-encompassing impression of ‘maleness’. But even to me, it’s clear that Montabaco is several pay grades above something like Brut or Azzaro Pour Homme.
And am I picking up on a sleight of hand here? With its flourishes of dry green herbs, ‘clovey’ spicing, and cleansing bay leaf, the central accord smells far more like cedarwood to me than tobacco leaf. This impression is underlined by a dollop of powdery amber that adds no sweetness but instead a pleasantly dustiness that softens the mealy bitterness of the cedarwood (or tobacco).
We are spared the intensely syrupy dried fruit and cacao notes that usually accompany tobacco. In fact, the vermouth-like dryness of the tobacco leaf in Montabaco reminds me very much of Miller Harris’ Feuilles de Tabac, pumped up with the creamy cedarwood baritone of Creed’s Royal Oud and fleshed out with a traditional barbershop fougère’s worth of spices and herbs. I liked Royal Oud and Feuilles de Tabac well enough, but Montabaco is more nuanced, more complex. If any of my male relatives were in the market for an interesting interpretation of a traditional tobacco or cedarwood-heavy fougère, and had the funds to go niche, I’d definitely point them in the direction of Montabaco.
Source of Samples: The staff at the Dublin niche perfume store ‘ParfuMarija’ generously included a sample set of the Ormonde Jayne house as a gift with purchase in 2016. The set included samples of the Four Corners of the World collection.