For all that vetiver famously possesses an olfactory range stretching between hazelnut, roses, and earth, it is always unmistakably ‘vetiver’ in the same way that patchouli is always patchouli. You’ll notice, therefore, that descriptions in reviews tend to drift towards one pole or another – dark or fresh, wet or dry, wood or root. But in the end, they’re all variations up and down the scale of the essential vetiver-y-ness of vetiver.
Then there’s the personal tolerance angle to assessing vetiver fragrances. Before I learned to love the (vetiver) bomb, I would rank vetiver scents on a sliding scale from what a friend of mine calls ‘bullshit vetivers’, i.e., scents like Timbuktu (L’Artisan Parfumeur) or Shaal Nur (Etro) where it plays a key but minor role, and the hard no of the swampier, danker, more evilly-vetiver vetivers like Racine (Maître Parfumeur et Gantier) and Vetiver (Guerlain). So, when I see a perfumer venturing out into vetiver soli-root territory, I always wonder (a) what the perfumer will do – or not do – to break vetiver out of the olfactory straitjacket it was born into, and (b) where it falls on my old but probably still ingrained sliding scale of tolerance.
On the first, Vetiver by Hiram Green definitely innovates on the theme by using the vetiver as the portal through which we get to – at a distance at least – a spicy, musky base dressed with a lemongrass brightness. But Vetiver is still clearly vetiver. The burnt lemon peel aspects of the root are cleverly accentuated by ginger, another root that crackles with spikes of primary yellow before tailing off into sepia. This is vetiver in the guise of a sparkling eau de cologne, although while fresh, the opening is immediately spicier and more aromatic than citrus alone. Soon, the fragrance settles into its second and what seems to be final iteration – the nostalgic scent of ancient wooden furniture and dusty covering sheets that have lain undisturbed for half a century until relatives come to clear the place out.
Not enough is said about the appeal of mustiness. But it’s precisely this smell of ancient neglect that marks fragrances like Djedi (Guerlain), Mukhallat Malaki (Swiss Arabian), Muschio di Quercia (Abdes Salaam al Attar) and Messe de Minuit (Etro) out as special. Further, it’s the dryness of materials – stone, wood, earth – that is important to me at a personal tolerance level, as anything wetter signals a rot of a less noble kind, i.e., damp rot in walls, rotting fruit, or the breaking down of animal tissue. The dustiness of the vetiver in Vetiver is the pleasant exhalation of once-loved rooms, books, and ‘good’ furniture, their human users long gone and their memory faded with time. If, like me, you abhor the rootier, marshier variants of vetiver that smell like stagnant pondwater, then you’ll love Vetiver for first its cleansing-spicy and then dry-woody character.
But let me also tell you that if you’re a complete vetiver wuss, you might like Vetiver anyway because there is the get out clause of a very good ambrette material tucked away in the basenotes. Normally quite vegetal and cool-toned, here the ambrette takes on an almost ambery, resinous sweetness (akin to the ‘rice pudding skin’ vibe the same material creates in Musc Nomade by Annick Goutal). And there are moments where the lingering citric brightness of the ginger smashes into the musk mallow, recreating that distinctive Refresher-Bar-meets-amber vibe of Opus 1144 (UMUM).
How much of this you perceive will depend on application method and the distance at which you smell it. When lightly applied, the sweet, sparkling resinous-musky facet rides up quite insistently, but applied heavily, it is the pleasantly dry, musty woodiness of the vetiver (and the warmth of the ginger) that predominates. Similarly, when smelled up close, Vetiver is all about that vetiver, but when smelled from a distance, the sillage in the air is more that of a bright, spicy Italianate balsamic mixed with something vaguely woody and earthy.
Now, that might be a mixed bag of findings for some (especially those don’t like musks or balsams masking – if even partially – the purity of vetiver), but if you’re looking for a vetiver-centric scent that faithfully conveys the essential vetiveriness of vetiver without making you feel like you’re ingesting a plateful of collard greens boiled in fetid swamp-water, the Vetiver by Hiram Green is a brilliant option. I enjoyed this sample to the last drop because it gave me the ‘dusty old books in a decaying mansion’ vibe I really dig, while also giving me the white-hot lemongrass sting of ginger at the top to wake me up and the sweet, almost resinous sparkle of ambrette in the base to see me out comfortably. It’s basically what I’d make for myself if I were a perfumer and I wanted a vetiver fragrance.
Source of sample: Kindly gifted by the perfumer, Hiram Green.
The indie perfume brand Neandertal boasts some of the most achingly cool bottles I’ve ever seen, one of the hottest talents on the indie perfumery scene (Euan McCall), and several glowing Luca Turin reviews – and yet, surprisingly little hype. I’m going to hazard a guess that, for some, ‘achingly cool’ + bottles that look like ice sculptures = intimidating.
That includes me, by the way. I am the least cool person in the room at any given time, so it’s likely I’d have continued to ignore Neandertal to infinity and beyond were it not for the fact that I recently purchased some samples of Euan McCall’s work (for his eponymous brand) and wanted to compare/contrast against his work for another brand to get a fuller picture of his style. When a perfume contact who does some PR for Neandertal (Brooke) offered to send me samples of the line, I figured it was kismet.
I’m really glad I got to smell these. All of them were interesting – unique even – and none of them were the paint-by-numbers type of jobbie we’ve come to expect from the more upmarket niche brands. One was marred by a heavy hand with nose-burning aromachems, but even that was redeemed by a beautiful and unusual central section. Matching the bottles, the perfumes draw on the jolie laide nature of raw, elemental things – metal, earth, leather, salt. The effect is often jarring, and sometimes (one senses accidentally rather than deliberately) even pleasant. But we all need a little intellectual roughage in our diets, don’t we?
Oh, the grappa and Fairy washing up liquid sting of pure orris root tincture! I love how, when used in more generous quantities than the standard dribble tapped out with a fingernail into niche perfumes to justify an obscene price tag (Floretiiiiinnnnne irisssssss), this buttery but bleachy rhizome always manages to bring in the desaturated cool grey-pink colour canvas of Scandinavia – even if what the perfumer had been going for was Italian sunshine or Russian leather. Orris will out. Luckily, we have a Northern European perfumer (Euan McCall, a Scot) going for a cool, foggy interpretation of orris root, so the Scandi colour palette works just fine.
Orris root is an interesting material because, to me, it is a mixture of high and low, which means that it smells in equal parts like a fine leather glove and like the rooty sting of moonshine brewed by a Polish potato farmer. An elevated root cellar smell. Part of the reason that Them works because the perfumer understands this element of the material and surrounds it with other high-low accents. So, we have a green, scratchy salt note rubbing up against an ambrette material that feels luxuriously cloudy (a drop of Pernod in water), and a vaporous leather note slowly losing its initially screechy, toxic edge as it is folded into a much finer, softer ‘cuir’ along the same lines as Cuir d’Ange (Hermès) or Cuir X (La Parfumerie Moderne).
It is also an outdoors-to-indoors kind of perfume. It starts in the cool, foggy outdoors (Iris Silver Mist territory even) before slowly switching the scene to a posh art gallery full of spot-lit ‘found art’ sourced from nature, like long, silvery hunks of hollowed-out driftwood, polished stone, dried seaweed, salt, leather – the type of beach-cast objets that a collector might pay thousands for. There’s an awkward moment in the transition that smells a little bit sweaty or BO-ish, but it’s brief enough for me to pass it off as my imagination (or perhaps a momentary concentration of something evil in the iris material used). The small flashes of furry warmth and leather underbelly briefly bring to mind Slumberhouse Sibet, but no, Them is green, salty, and almost aqueous in a way Sibet is not.
Us is one of those atmospheric indie scents that are more like exhibitions than perfume – experiments not really designed to survive beyond the walls of the lab but to be held up, admired, and put back down again. It smells like boot polish, tanning agents, and the soot-streaked insides of a kipper smoking house. And also like wet eucalyptus branches thrown onto an open fire in a sauna. While I admire the phantasmagoric summoning of the La Brea tar pits, I’m not sure that something this extreme is for wearing.
In the drydown, it calms down enough for me to spot the relationship to the hoary old seagrass vetiver (burnt, whiskey-ish) of Vetiver by Annick Goutal Vetiver or Arso by Profumum, but I would rather wear the Goutal than a version that’s been amped up by a factor of ten. I just don’t have the stomach for this kind of stuff anymore. If you’re just getting into niche or indie, however, and you are chasing down all the ‘burning tire’ scent experiences you can find, then Us is gripping stuff indeed.
Light is a jarring but ultimately thought-provoking fragrance. There is an opening blast of some aromachemical so vile and toxic I can feel it at the back of my throat, and for a moment or two, before this thing rights itself, I have to fight the urge to scrub it off my skin. I suspect a noxious brew of Ambroxan and the milky-metallic shriek of violet leaf, with a pronounced ‘curdled milk’ effect.
However – and you know that the ‘however’ has to be a good one in order for me to get past the teenage body spray thing at the start – Light surprises me by settling into a weird but interesting accord that I can only describe as a tart but creamy ‘rhubarb and custard’ floral that gets me in its headlights and refuses to let go. Yes, I understand that nothing in the notes list would explain this. Yes, it is possible that I’m going crazy. I have worn Light several times now, and each time I grimace my way through the opening (hairspray! licked metal spoons! teenager deo!) and each time I wind up in the rhubarb and custard place.
And if it only stayed there, I would be enthusiastic. However, after an hour or two, the scent begins a slow fade into a chemical marshmallow drydown with an unpleasantly dusty ‘wheaten’ undertone – a sort of stale, chocolate-less smores accord – which reminds me a bit of that Godawful Rouge Smoking by Parfums BDK (which is cherry cough medicine + pleather + bubblegum + stale, wheat-dusted marshmallow) and of Sangre Dulce by Strangers Parfumerie, which is actually pretty good. I’m not keen on this indie ‘protein bar’ accord, to be honest, so this is a mark against it. But that weird salty-floral-creamy rhubarby midsection – oh man. What I’d do for a flanker that excerpted that part.
Aptly named, Dark is one of those oily, industrial-smelling concoctions that get you thinking both of (a) the fuel spills, rubber, tarpaulin, and black oil of a car repair shop, and (b) the oily black infestation at the cire of a freshly-felled agarwood tree, i.e., the natural and unnatural intertwined so densely that one is undistinguishable from the other. It smells dank and oddly savory (umami), perhaps due to the seaweed note, which is more reminiscent of miso paste than of salt. Unlike Light, Dark is, well, the smell of closed-up spaces, of rot, of time v. infection.
Though unusual, its grungy industrial bent is not entirely unique – there are elements of what I am smelling here in both Nooud by Baruti and Black No. 1 by House of Matriarch. But in the drydown, Dark takes a very different turn, and this is where the paths diverge. The scent sees itself out on a long tail of pure, blinding metal. You know the metallic scent of orange juice that’s been spilled and left to dry? This is precisely that, minus any scent of orange. I don’t know if this is saffron, coriander, rose oxide, violet leaf, or some other metallic material, but the flash of metal provides a link to Light that I find interesting. Dark mixed with Light, by the way, provides for a compelling experience – the tart, metallic rhubarb and (salted) custard sparks against the oily, savory dankness of Dark’s oudy leather to yield a scent that feels as bright as an over-exposed photo and as grungy as mold.
Source of samples: Samples of the Neanderthal line were kindly sent to me by Brooke, who does some PR on social media for the brand. I disclose where my samples came from so that you (the reader) can decide for yourself whether my review is unbiased or not.
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.
Marc-Antoine Corticchiato is one of my all-time favorite perfumers, along with Gérald Ghislain of Histoires de Parfums. If push came to shove (and if you were to allow me a few Chanels, Guerlains, and attars), then I feel that I could survive quite happily on their perfumes alone. Parfum d’Empire and Histoires de Parfums were my gateway to niche perfumery, and still have the highest head count in my personal collection today.
Tabac Tabou is a masterpiece that always makes me think of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, its dirty yellow floral smearing smut all over the handsome, corduroy-fronted trousers of tobacco. Real gentleman farmer chic.
Ambre Russe has survived a ruthless cull of ambers from my collection, a pogrom that included even Amber Absolute, a fragrance I still call the ne-plus-ultra of ambers. I don’t wear Ambre Russe more than once a year, but it was my first niche purchase and still one of the most satisfying.
Musc Tonkin extrait, oh boy. Less of a musk and more of a salty, oysterish indolic floral, but sensual nonetheless, in an auto-erotic kind of way. It suffocates me most pleasantly, like that game where you see how long you can hold your breath under water.
When I saw the notes for Le Cri de la Lumière, I thought how brave it was of Marc-Antoine Corticchiato to release a perfume that sounded so much like Chanel No. 18. There was also the fact that there was another ambrette-iris perfume in the Parfum d’Empire stable, namely Equistrius, which Luca Turin had already compared to No. 18 in Perfumes: The Guide. (Personally, I found Equistrius to smell very little like No. 18, the former being musky in a cocoa-ish, velvety, and opaque way, the latter musky in an angular, crystalline way.)
As it turns out, though, Le Cri de la Lumière has much more in common with clean, ozonic musks like Chypre 21 by Heeley and L’Antimatiere by Les Nez than with the more buttery Equistrius and the fruiter, greener Chanel No. 18.
Le Cri opens with the crisp but slightly alcoholic green apple nuances of ambrette seed, which are immediately folded into the silvery whipped air of orris and the smell of a hot iron hitting a starched white shirt. The fuzzy “cold air” and starched linen brightness of the opening made me think immediately of the Chinese steam laundry room feel of Encens Mythique d’Orient, especially at the start, where the green rose is powdered upwards by a whoosh of aldehydes.
All of the words used by the brand to describe the perfume ring true – “crystalline”, “vegetal”, “opalescent” and “lustrous” are words that instantly jump to my mind when I smell this. The brand mentions luxury, and I feel this too, especially in the first five minutes when the full force of that silver orris butter is felt.
Unfortunately, where Chanel No. 18 takes a bare-bones structure and makes each of the elements sing for their supper, Le Cri de la Lumière quickly reveals that its skeletal framework isn’t hiding anything deeper or more nuanced. Although a dry, greenish rose appears in the drydown, it does nothing to mask or enliven the yawning gulf of white musk that opens up behind the arresting opening.
That is not to say that perfumes like this don’t have their place. Many people love these crunchy woody floral musks for exactly the reason that I dislike them: they are anti-perfume. They are the smell of clean air, freshly-laundered shirts, and the clipped minimalism of nothing at all. It reminds me of something Holden’s dead-eyed girlfriend in Mindhunter might wear – wry and deliberately affectless, as if emotion was being taxed.
I don’t dislike Le Cri de la Lumière, but I find it puzzling that something so curiously bloodless came out of the Parfum d’Empire stable. Chanel proved with No. 18 that it’s possible for a minimalist composition to be lively and full of charm; I’m not sure why, with their history of putting out such obscenely rich, talkative fragrances Parfum d’Empire pressed the mute button on this one.