Iris Ghalia by Ensar Oud makes for an unconventional iris but a reassuringly traditional Ghaliyah*. It takes the gin-and-ice ethereality of orris and dispassionately sets it up to either thrive or fail against an onslaught by grungiest, most uncouth cast of characters ever licked up from a zoo floor – castoreum from the anal glands of a beaver, warm-scalpy costus root, calcified urine scraped off a rock (hyraceum), and saliva-ish musk grains scooped out of the undercarriage of some poor unsuspecting Tibetan deer. And that’s before we even talk about the marshwater skank of natural ambergris.
Yeah, it was never going to be a fair fight. If you have any experience at all, then you go into Iris Ghalia knowing that it is only a matter of time before quivering silver bloom of the iris is subsumed by the powerful animalics.
But the perfumer has sought to stack the deck a little in favor of the iris by flanking it with a sharp, fresh accord that is one third citrus peel, one third plant juice, and one third piano rosin. Therefore, you get that first dopamine hit of warm, plush iris (smelling divinely of antique wood furniture, old books, and closed-up mansions) and just as the sugary deer musk bubbles up to nip at its heels, your nose flashes on the shrill, metallic greenery of violet leaf and the funky cat pee fruitiness of blackcurrant leaf. Together these notes form a citric-resinous barricade around the iris, allowing it to stand up and assert itself just a little longer.
Iris Ghalia also benefits by being a spray and not an attar or an oily distillate, because a note as ephemeral as iris needs its own space (think a whole castle rather than a room). For a while, the notes teeter, achieving a precarious balance between something very classical and something very grunge-indie-artisanal.
Of course, in the end, it is inevitable that the warm animalic notes begin to tighten around the trembling neck of the iris like a dirty fur stole. The musks, which start out smelling as sweet and as dusty as powdered sugar sifted over a hot wolf, grow ever staler by the minute, a time-lapse video of animal fur collapsing into decay over the course of a week.
All this might prove heavy going indeed were it not for the persistent effervescence of a bright Coca Cola note running like ambient noise in the background. I suspect that some combination of the iris and the powdery musks is what’s conjuring this effect. But at times it also smells like all those minor aspects of benzoin – brown sugar, crackling brown paper, camphor, mint gum, and yes, Coca Cola – that only ever come out when benzoin is left alone to do its own thing rather than called in to serve as a member of the fantasy amber trope or as a rough stand in for vanilla. No benzoin listed, by the way. Pure conjecture on my part.
Anyway, no matter how it’s configured, the contrast works. And it seems to be a series of contrasts, rather than just one thing. Notes-wise, you have something quite funky and animalic (scalpy) – the musks, the ambergris, and so on – jutting right up against something quite ethereal or even effervescent – the iris, benzoin, the powdered sugar of the Tibetan deer musk. But there is also a textural contrast between the greasy/leathery and the dusty/sparkling. In terms of ‘taste’, the contrast between the intensely sugariness of the musks and the sourness of the funky, leathery castoreum in the tailbone is clearly no afterthought either. (Flanked by the saliva-ish musks, I find the murkiness of the castoreum to be very similar to the bases of other Ensar Oud scents, most notably Chypre Sultan, but the innovation here is all in that Coca Cola effervescence).
All in all, a novel idea. The sharp, greyish, concrete-like violet leaf (think Kerbside Violet by Lush) shoring up the elegant woodiness of the iris, the powdered sugar musks, the swelling chorus of animal gland secrete, just licked skin, and that miles-deep, bubbly Coca Cola sweetness. Could I pull it off on the regular? Probably not – it feels too much like hard work at times, and it is incredibly heavy. Yet I found Iris Ghalia a tremendously exciting scent to wear.
*Ghaliyah, meaning ‘most precious’ or ‘most fragrant’ depending on the source, is a common type of mukhallat in the Middle East. These were once all-natural affairs containing real ambergris, musks, oud, and spices, offered primarily to royal princes and members of the ruling class.
Source of sample: Ensar Oud very kindly sent me a sample free of charge for review purposes (I paid a small customs fee). I freely acknowledge that I am in a privileged position, as a fragrance writer, to receive free samples of the most expensive or rarest fragrances in the world. The hope is that I perform some sort of service for the reader by reviewing them.
What I find disturbing about Fiore d’Ambra by Profumum Roma is that it is sweet and filthy in equal measure, like Youth Dew sprayed on a dirty crotch. Unlike Ambra Aurea, which is immediately pleasant, Fiore d’Ambra mouths off at you in three different languages at once and gives you little time to catch up. Best I can make out, the smell boils down to a particularly clovey stick of clove rock, sugar cubes soaked in antibiotics, and underneath, a stirring of some very unclean musks. The combination is suggestive of both the pleasures of the headshop (musk cubes, unlit incense, dust) and of the faintly sour-sweet breath of unwashed ladybits that must have risen like yeast every time Henry VIII lifted a lady’s gown.
I love it. I thumb my nose at anyone suggesting it is an amber, though. Names are powerful things, but smell this without thinking of the ‘amber’ in the title or the fact that it sits right next to a similarly-named fragrance (Ambra Aurea) in the Profumum Roma catalogue, and you begin to see that its feral poop-fur quality aligns it far more closely with scents like Muscs Khoublai Khan (Serge Lutens), L’Air de Rien (Miller Harris), and L’Ombre Fauve (Parfumerie Generale) than with stuff like Ambre Sultan (Serge Lutens) or even Ambra Aurea.
As an accord in perfumery, amber is both a comfort and a straitjacket. On the one hand, the smoky-spicy sweetness of warm resins and vanilla never fails to hit, plugging into our dopamine receptors with the same ease as the smell of coffee first thing in the morning or something good in the oven when you’re hungry. Amber cocoons you, satiating your basic appetite for warmth and richness. It is the flannel pajamas of the scent world.
But there is not to distinguish between ambers – or if there is, it is a matter of minute variations to the left or the right of the same basic ambery accord. Think of just how much really separates Ambra Aurea from an Amber Absolute (Tom Ford), say, or from an Ambre Sultan (Serge Lutens), or a Mitzah (Dior Privée). Past a certain point, you’re just playing with varying degrees of sweetness (vanilla), powderiness (benzoin), leather or caramel (labdanum), smoke (incense) and the accoutrements of spice or herbs. The result always smells good. But does it smell interesting or original? Hardly ever.
Now, Fiore d’Ambra innovates. It doesn’t even really smell like amber to me, unless you count any sweet element at all – here a soda stream-Coca Cola syrupiness – as ‘amber’. The ‘opium’ element, which has traditionally been interpreted in perfumery by way of eugenol – a substance that is almost as verboten as opium itself these days – has probably been built with clove oil instead. But the perfumers didn’t even bother to lather it up into a soft froth with geranium or rose, so the clove note juts out of the topnotes like a sudden erection. The musks are sensual, but raw and unclean (a bit salty even), strangely reminiscent of the dry honey-toner-ink accord from M/Mink (Byredo).
The minute I smelled Fiore d’Ambra, I was reminded of the vials of Fleur Poudrée de Musc (Les Nereides) that the Conor McTeague (aka Jtd), my friend and the best fragrance writer in the world, sent to a group of perfume friends around the world in early 2015. I think he got enormous fun out of the collective recoil. It smelled like the most innocent of baby powders combined with the foulest of human shits, a merry middle finger to the frou-frou Botticelli angels and Ye Olde Italian Script of the brand itself. Conor wrote this of Fleur Poudrée de Musc: “Have you ever undressed somebody after a long day of winter sport, all those layers amplifying the scent of skin that’s sweated then dried multiple times? Remember that scent, then imagine some powder on top”. I don’t know if Conor ever smelled Fiore d’Ambra, but I like to think he might have described it in much the same way.
Source of sample: I purchased my 18ml travel bottle of Fiore d’Ambra from the Profumum Roma store in Rome, March 2022. It cost €55.
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.