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Rule Evernia: An (Ormonde Jayne) Essay on Oakmoss

22nd September 2021

Evernia by Ormonde Jayne takes its name from Evernia prunastri, the species of lichen from which oakmoss absolute – the star ingredient here – is obtained.  It is interesting that Ormonde Jayne, one of the rare fragrance houses to successfully straddle the sprawling No Man’s Land between the minuscule community of esoteric, quirk-seeking fragrance wearers and the larger group of ‘normal’ fragrance wearers who just want to smell great, has chosen to focus on oakmoss.

 

Not because oakmoss is particularly challenging for those outside the inner circle of perfume fanatics. In and of itself, oakmoss absolute is a fantastic-smelling raw material.  As you might imagine for something distilled from lichen growing on oak trees, it smells earthy and bitter, like a forest floor distilled into a dark green sludge, but with a beguilingly velvety, almost creamy depth to it that has the effect of sucking you into its shadows.  Perfumery has long leaned on those properties as a fixative to anchor flightier, more volatile notes like bergamot, lavender, geranium, and carnation (while building a fougère) or to give the sweet, ambery parts of a chypre enough backbone to keep it standing straight.

 

But its value as the third leg to the triadic structure of a chypre or a fougère has meant that oakmoss has largely remained in the shadows, consigned to the role of a reliable basenote.  Bringing it out into the light is further complicated by the uncertain status in today’s fragrance regulatory environment.  As it turns out, oakmoss absolute contains two naturally-occurring molecules, or more accurately degradation products (i.e., substances produced or emphasized by the distillation process) called chloroatranol and atranol, which are allergens known to cause sensitivity in 1-3% of the population.  For this reason, the EU, on the advice of IFRA, the International Fragrance Association[1], has banned chloroatranol and atranol outright, while oakmoss as a whole (the absolute) is restricted to similar levels as other materials deemed a bit dodgy (like coumarin and geraniol) i.e., 0.001%.

 

Anything over that percentage is technically permissible, by the way – but manufacturers are required to include the full ingredient list, with the percentage levels of each material used, as a sort of ‘health and safety’ warning akin to the skull and bones images on cigarettes.  Since no perfume brand in their right mind wants to taint what is essentially a luxury product (fine fragrance) with an association – whether real or imagined – with the picture of skin breaking out in angry red boils or crumbling off our wrists in flakes the size of a small baby,  most major fragrance houses with oakmoss-heavy heritage perfumes, for example, Guerlain (Mitsouko), have simply reformulated using one or more of the commercially-viable alternative to oakmoss absolute, i.e., low- or zero-atranol oakmoss (first developed by Robertet), tree moss (which smells like a thinner, pine-ier oakmoss), or at the very least, some combination of a synthetic replacer like Evernyl Veramoss (an IFF captive) with some vetiver or celery seed to put back some of the oakmoss ‘flavor’.

 

That all raises the question: why oakmoss for Ormonde Jayne?  Why now?  After all, it is a material that has largely fallen from favor, both in the regulatory sense, and in terms of broader consumer tastes (there is a mustiness, or ‘old furniture and floor wax’ vibe to oakmoss that, though alluring to fragrance aficionados, can smell rather dated and old-fashioned to a modern nose raised on Ambroxan and that sweet, sweet tonka bean).  And how does Evernia compare to other notably oakmossy scents on the market?

 

Right away, you are able to tell that Evernia is quite recognizably an Ormonde Jayne take on oakmoss.  By which I mean that the oakmoss has been stripped out, pared down, and framed in an elegantly sparse structure featuring several of the brand’s signatures, for example, the fizzy brightness of cardamom and other ghost spices, a peppery-metallic lift in the topnotes, a touch of freesia or peony in the basenotes for that touch of clean rubber sneaker to push back against any creaminess that edges into excess.  And Iso E Super?  Sure – this is radiant, musky stuff.  But that’s all by the by. Because Evernia never lets us get distracted from the oakmoss.

 

In Evernia, Ormonde Jayne has highlighted the savory aspects of natural oakmoss rather than its more pungent or bitter facets.  Though the two perfumes are ultimately very different, the oakmoss in Evernia reminds me very much of the one used in Guerlain’s Vol de Nuit, in that they both have that soft, earthy ‘slow-cooked greens’ element to them that calls to mind the vapors of celery cooked to the point of collapse, clinging to the fibers of one’s angora sweater in a warm, steamy kitchen.  While the Guerlain surrounds its oakmoss with heaps of animalic narcissus, piercing bergamot, and that plush Guerlainade of vanilla and balsams, the Ormonde Jayne emphasizes the vegetal savoriness of its oakmoss with a cardamom-tinged musk so buttery that it feels like vaporized Kerrygold.

 

I’m almost sure that low-atranol oakmoss has been used here rather than a synthetic replacer, but as Thierry Wasser, Master Perfumer of Guerlain, has pointed out, if “you make a fractional distillation and you pull out what the European Commission doesn’t want any more, then you create an olfactive hole. So then you have to find a way of tricking the nose into thinking that it’s smelling real oakmoss. You have to cheat by using other things”.  So perhaps the perfumer has leaned on other materials to fill this ‘hole in Evernia too’, something like jasmone (which often smells like a cross between immortelle and celery to me), or a touch of mastic oil to anchor the greenness and weigh it down.  It could even be the same supporting cast as seen in Ormonde Woman (or Man), i.e., that greenish, coniferous mélange of cardamom oil, juniper, and hemlock (though Evernia is far less sweet).

 

Unlike Ormonde Woman, Evernia doesn’t end in a gingerbread amber, nor does it wind up in the scratchy oud-wood place occupied by Ormonde Man (though it clearly belongs fits into the ‘core collection’ of Ormonde Jayne, alongside these stalwarts).  Instead, Evernia shakes off the deep, earthy-saline creaminess that dominates for much of its life, and takes on the pale, woody sourness of linen washed in rainwater and hung out to dry in a cold, sharp wind. It is metallic and mineralic, the faint ‘freshly-poured-concrete’ scent of cashmeran whipping it dry.  Though I’m personally less enamored by the drydown than I am with the first 75% sprawl of Evernia, I recognize that in its absence of sweet amber, creamy sandalwood, or warming resins, the entire scent maintains this cool, modern spareness throughout that makes it an attractive choice for both sexes.

 

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Photo by Aidan Hodel on Unsplash

How does Evernia compare to some of the other oakmoss-centric fragrances out there?  Here’s a small selection of other mossy scents with which I am personally familiar.  (By the way, for some stretches of its lifespan, Evernia reminds me a little of a less weird Dzongkha by L’Artisan Parfumeur.  This must be because of the savory-cooked-celery aspects the two have in common.)

 

Encens Chypre by Sultan Pasha Attars:  Encens Chypre, compared to Evernia, is a less civilized take on oakmoss.  It doesn’t strip out any of the material’s bitterness or grunge, but rather, emphasizes it.  Encens Chypre is a formidably bitter, green smell, dominated by a pungent oakmoss absolute running right down the line from its fresh, herbal top to its smoky incense base. I think what makes it work is the way the metallic, inky bitterness of oakmoss absolute has been matched with an equally pungent array of elemi and herbs.  The aromatics in the opening are themselves naturally bitter, with artemisia and clary sage providing a dark green herbal tone that sings in the same register as the oakmoss.  For the most part, Encens Chypre’s mossy timbre is actually far more reminiscent of a traditional fougère than a chypre.  The drydown adds in touches of jasmine, iris, and rose.  Ultimately, however, the shy floral presence stands no chance against the predominantly dark, mossy override of that oakmoss.  A thick brew of incense resins and balsams replaces the usual labdanum or patchouli for a fantastically dry and smoky finish.  An extremely well-done mossy chypre, Encens Chypre raises the middle finger to IFRA so openly that it makes me wonder if it’s entirely legal.

 

Chypre Siam by Rogue Perfumery:  Unlike Evernia, the whole premise of Chypre Siam (and indeed of Rogue Perfumery) is that it uses natural oakmoss absolute in contravention of IFRA recommendations.  Man, I am so tired of the overarching F%*k IFRA! narrative among some American indies.  To put things very plainly: since Rogue Perfumery is an American indie that doesn’t intend to sell its perfumes in the EU anyway and isn’t a member of IFRA, there is actually no requirement – legal, moral, or otherwise – for them not to use natural oakmoss, should they so desire.  In other words, Rogue telling IFRA to stick their oakmoss ban up their @ss is like a housewife in Madison, Wisconsin stoutly declaring that she will not be following the Taliban’s requirement for women to wear the hijab in public the next time she’s out for a pint of milk, thank you very much.  A plea, if you don’t mind, to indie perfumers.  F%*k IFRA is cool and all, but how about you focus less on crafting highly-emotive war cries and more on making great perfume?  Rant aside, Chypre Siam is a pretty great perfume.  But less because of its real oakmoss than for its clever updating of the chypre model with Asian notes such as kaffir lime and basil.  Strangely, after the rivetingly sour opening of lime and oakmoss, I find that Chypre Siam settles very quickly into a soft, powdered-leather affair (more vegetal violet leaf than an animalic leather), the lime maintaining the bitterness of the chypre style when the oakmoss runs out of steam.  Though beautiful, I find Chypre Siam to be delicate to the point of being wan, which is odd given that it uses the unadulterated stuff (compared to modern Mitsouko, which uses low-atranol oakmoss and yet smells very rich in comparison).  As always with indies, I have to ask myself if Chypre Siam does something so different or so much more satisfying than a mainstream perfume that I will brave the extra time, international shipping, and custom fees involved in getting a bottle of it to Ireland.  And in the case of Chypre Siam, the answer is, regrettably, no.  Not when I can just buy a bottle of Mitsouko eau de toilette for €60 in full confidence that it will smell great, and despite its reformulation woes, also reliably oakmossy.

 

Sballo by Bruno Acampora:  Funnily enough, Sballo doesn’t list oakmoss in its notes, but that doesn’t stop this from being one of the most joyfully oakmossy fragrances I’ve ever smelled.  Unlike Evernia, the oakmoss in Sballo is dry, herbal, and hay-like, rather than creamy or earthy.  Sballo means ‘trip’ in Italian.  Not in the ‘trip to the seaside’ sense of the word, but in the ‘I ate some funny-looking mushrooms and now your face is a rainbow’ sense of the word.  (The name is appropriate when you consider how mind-bendingly 1970s the original Acampora aesthetic was).  Sballo goes heavy on the aromatics, hay, patchouli, and oakmoss.  It ain’t pretty or cleaned up, but it sure does smell authentic.  The main thrust of this scent is a patchouli-rose chypre in the Bernard Chant style.  Think Aromatics Elixir and Aramis 900, but richer and rougher in texture.  An artisanal, homemade take on a commercially-fluted model.  The rose is brilliant and red, but quickly smothered by a wave of dry grasses, a rustic hay note acting in tandem with oakmoss and patchouli.  Some modern chypre scents fake the bitterness of oakmoss in the traditional chypre accord via other materials that share a similarly ashen dryness, like denatured patchouli aromachemicals (Akigalawood), hay, galbanum, or even saffron.  But although there is no oakmoss listed for Sballo, I can’t imagine that it doesn’t actually contain at least some. To my nose, the shadowy dankness of the material is unmistakably present.  Sballo shores up this oakmoss effect by flanking it with equally dank or earthy-dry materials such as hay, clove, patchouli, and a material that smells like tobacco.  The overall effect is gloomy and dusty, but also abstractedly perfumey in the grand chypre tradition.  Saving it from a classic ‘ladies who lunch’ formality of the chypre structure is the rough, almost burnt-ashy texture of the moss and patchouli.

 

Oakmoss (Muschio di Quercia) by Abdes Salaam Attar:  Oakmoss is one of my favorite fragrances from Abdes Salaam Attar, but compared to Evernia, it is an altogether wetter, earthier, and more vivid scent – more an experience than a perfume.  It is also as much a vetiver scent as it is an oakmoss one, though, arguably, it conjures up the ‘forest floor’ aspect of oakmoss just as effectively as oakmoss absolute does.  Oakmoss at first smells like wet leaves, upturned soil, bark, wild mint, the air after a rainstorm, and potatoes buried deep in the ashes of a campfire.  It plugs me directly into a powerful current of memory – playing War with my brothers and neighborhood friends in the sprawling ditches and orchards once attached to our Famine Era home.  Slowly, the sodden smell of tree sap, mulch, and root dries out, ceding some ground (but not all) to an incensey, blond oakwood note, which is probably cedar but reminds me very much of the aromatic woodiness of Chêne (Serge Lutens) minus the booze.  It smells more like split logs drying in a shed and woodsmoke than the oozing wetness of living trees.  The oakmoss has a bitter velvety softness that calls to mind the furred green carpets creeping over the roots and trunks of old oaks in some less trodden part of the forest. And while Oakmoss is far from sweet or creamy, the nuttiness of Dubrana’s famous Mysore sandalwood gives it a rounded warmth that speaks to comfort.

 

Ayuthia by Mellifluence:  Ayuthia shares a similar forest floor effect with Evernia but deepens the shadows with an animalic oud.  The first note out of the bottle is most definitely the oud – a wave of wet, rotting wood, mixed with woodsmoke, camphor, and sharp fruit.  However, this settles quickly, segueing into a dry, woody heart with lots of grounding patchouli, green leaves, and bitter oakmoss.  Although never sweet, the earth and wood notes are made rounder with a hint of something soft and giving, like vanilla.  Not enough to make it sweet, just to sand off the edges.  The Chanthaburi oud oil vibrates thickly in every fiber of this mukhallat.  Lightly smoky, it sews a thread of fermentation through the fabric of the blend.  Though oud is the main driver, the base develops a velvety green dampness that is very forest floor-ish.  The inky oakmoss note expands to meet the mossy mintiness of a Borneo-style oud, completing the picture.  Hours later, the minerality of the oakmoss and the smoky woodiness of the oud melt away, leaving only the lively bitterness of camphor on the tongue.

 

Diaghilev by Roja Dove:  Diaghilev is often dismissed as a Mitsouko knock-off at five times the price, and while I don’t disagree that Roja Dove does tend to recycle old Guerlain tropes a bit too much to be called truly original, Diaghilev is actually far heavier on the oakmoss than Mitsouko.  I don’t know if that’s simply because Mitsouko’s peach lactones have been stripped out, or if Dove simply used more oakmoss in the formula.  But the result speaks for itself – if Mitsouko is a brilliant rust-gold-brown, then Diaghilev is a deep forest green.  Furthermore, its opening of creamy, bitter oakmoss and tart bergamot is laced with enough cumin or civet to produce a sensual skin note that makes Diaghilev warmer and more human, somehow, than Mitsouko.  The heart of Diaghilev layers in a chorus of buttery floral notes such as ylang, peach, and rose, flanked by powdery musks, which emphasizes the velvety plushness of the moss.  Where Diaghilev dovetails with Evernia is mostly in the drydown, where it shares with the Ormonde Jayne fragrance a similarly matte, almost smoky marine ink (mineralic) note.

 

Givenchy III by Givenchy:  Luca Turin referred to Givenchy III as ‘good, honest earth’, and with its one-two punch of patchouli and oakmoss, I can see what he means.  I was lucky enough to find a jeroboam-sized bottle of the vintage stuff on eBay, and once you get past the slightly decayed, coffee-and-greasy-coconut hairspray vibes of the opening blast, it does settle into a smell that can be described as spray-on forest floor.  Earthy, grungy, and with quite a bit of that lank, mint-stems-in-vase-water aroma that denotes real oakmoss (it pops up in both my vintage Diorella and Dune by Dior too), my Givenchy III doesn’t seem to have held on very well to any of the softening florals (hyacinth) or the citrusy sharpness of bergamot, aside from a general fustiness that vintage chypres generally display.  But I value Givenchy III precisely for this slightly fusty, old-fashioned oakmoss vibe.  It is the direct opposite of the modern, streamlined version of oakmoss presented in Evernia.  I like the idea of these two fragrances forming neat bookends to the story of oakmoss, with one very traditional and one very modern.

 

Bergamoss by Aftelier:  Bergamoss – an all-natural solid perfume – consists of sweet orange, oakmoss absolute, antique civet, and clary sage suspended in beeswax.  Though the name cleverly suggests a marriage of bergamot and oakmoss, and therefore a chypre, this really doesn’t smell like a chypre to me.  Expecting the familiar, rich brightness of bergamot, I am momentarily disoriented by a sharp lemongrass note (from the citronellal facet of geranium or rose, I guess), overlaid on a very vegetal, savory-rooty oakmoss whose funk has been emphasized by real civet paste.  It smells more like a real forest floor than an idealized one, therefore, with hints of pungent hay, urinous herbs, the natural dankness of moss soaked in two feet of rainwater, and perhaps even the slowly-decaying body of a small woodland creature.  Unexpectedly, I rather love Bergamoss, though more for its artistic weirdness and refusal to be pretty than for the bucolic picture the copy (and most reviews) promise.  Its only intersection with Evernia is on the shared emphasis on the vegetal, savory nature of oakmoss.

 

Source of samples/bottles:  I purchased samples and/or full bottles of Givenchy III, Oakmoss EDT, Chypre Siam, Ayuthia, and Sballo.  Samples of Bergamoss, Encens Chypre, and Evernia were provide gratis by the brands, though with no expectation of a review.  The sample of Diaghilev was kindly given to me by the lovely Josie of Oswald NYC as a gift-with-purchase when I bought my bottle of Khôl de Bahreïn in October 2017.  

Cover Image: Photo by Alexx Cooper on Unsplash 

[1] IFRA not a regulatory body but a voluntary membership organisation along the same lines of, say, the Boy Scouts or the Rotary Club. However, because it represents the interests of the fragrance industry as a whole, from raw materials producers to consumers of all things fragranced, it is a hugely influential body within the health and safety sphere. When the EU passes anything into law under the EU Cosmetics Directive (products applied directly to the skin like fine fragrance, cosmetics, soap, and toothpaste), or under the Classification, Labeling and Packaging (CLP) Regulation (functional fragrance products such as laundry detergents and air care), it consults with various expert bodies, chief among them IFRA and the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS).  IFRA recommendations are therefore generally regarded as pre-law, a weird, pre-regulatory state of play you might sum up as a ‘it’s just a recommendation now but it’s likely to be a law later, so I’d better get my arse into gear’ kind of situation. Any cosmetic product that comes into contact with skin, like fragrance, gets classified under the EU Cosmetics Directive, and in order for it to be sold or marketed in the EU, it must first earn an EU Cosmetics Safety Certificate. This certificate guarantees that each component of the formula is safe for contact with human skin. Safety assessors request evidence that the company is IFRA-compliant as part of the assessment protocol. Thus, being IFRA-compliant is a de facto requirement for selling fragrance goods in the EU market, whether one is an IFRA member or not.

 

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