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The Attar Guide to Earth, Herbs, Spice & Aromatics: Reviews N-Z

12th October 2022

 

 

 

For a brief introduction to everything earthy, herbal, spicy or aromatic in attar, mukhallat and concentrated oil perfumery, see a handy primer here.  Now on to the reviews!

 

 

 

 

Nagi Attar (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: mukhallat

 

Photo by David Brooke Martin on Unsplash

 

Nagi is based on nag champa incense.  Banish all thoughts of those five dollar packs of dusty Indian jossticks you might have seen around your local head shop or New Age store.  Instead, Nagi was inspired by the old, traditional way of making aromatic nag champa agarbatti (Indian incense sticks) that prevailed in India before the formula was cheapened in order to satisfy foreign demand for cheap incense.

 

The original formula for agarbatti included some very expensive naturals such as Assamese agarwood, Mysore sandalwood, expensive floral essences such as champaca and rose, kewra, saffron, henna flower, and spikenard, a rooty Indian herb.  These aromatic materials were bound by honey and halmaddi, a fragrant gum from the Ailanthus triphysa tree.  Important yogi would traditionally use nag champa in rituals, and it is still the prime component of any major Hindu event.  

 

Mass production and cost-cutting over the years has meant that the Indian pan masala incense you buy these days is usually very low quality and, indeed, possessed of that hippy vibe that tramples on any cachet the original nag champa once enjoyed.  Nagi Attar is Rising Phoenix Perfumery’s attempt to return nag champa to its former glory, re-building it entirely with natural, superb-quality raw materials, and recalibrating expectations of what nag champa can be.

 

If you expect nag champa anything to be sweet and powdery, then the opening of Nag Champa will be a bit of a shock.  The topnotes smell like a deeply fermented oud, redolent of rotting wood, rising damp, pressed apricot skins, and kimchi.  It is herbal and meaty all at once, a soup of things both alive and dead.

 

But suspend judgment and you will be rewarded by the sudden expansiveness of a creamy accord perched happily between banana custard and Eastern Orthodox resins powdered with mastic.  This accord is not smelled directly on the skin but rather in the trail you leave behind.  It is a moreish, welcoming kind of smell – like coming in from the cold to a kitchen fragrant with the scent of baking.  The creamy sweetness seems to swell in the air, powered by a combination of buttery Mysore sandalwood, benzoin, vanilla, and ylang.

 

This surprising fruit-and-cream heart lasts a couple of hours at the most, but it demonstrates what I think is one of the signatures of The Rising Phoenix Perfumery, namely, a way of composing mukhallats so that they present the wearer with little twists and turns that hold the interest all the way through.  There is thoughtfulness to the composition here that is unusual in the area of mukhallat perfumery.

 

The drydown returns to the leathery oud, only now it is bone-dry, incensey, and darkly smoky thanks to the addition of nagamortha root (cypriol oil).  In the far drydown, notes of sugared woodsmoke and powdered incense appear again, ensuring that the attar circles back fully to the nag champa incense theme.  Wear this if you want to know why nag champa was once considered the stuff of Gods.

 

 

 

Nesma (Amouage)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Nesma opens on a hot, oily note that makes me think of saffron mixed with Hindi oud.  Saffron is such a multifaceted material in perfumery, sometimes presenting as a dry, rubbery leather accord, and other times as iodine or hay.  But add vanilla or sandalwood, and suddenly you have a floral-spicy custard.  Place saffron adjacent to real oud, and you get something as pungent and as wild as the oud itself.  It is a marvelous shapeshifter of a material, and rarely showcased with the subtlety or careful handling it deserves.  But Nesma is the rare attar that gets it right.

 

Cycling as it does through several facets of saffron, Nesma is more complex and perfumey than other saffron-dominant attars.  To begin with, the saffron is pungent and sticky, gaining a fermented tone from the oud, reminiscent of the mild under-pantsy funk of another saffron-forward attar, namely the beautiful Mukhallat Najdi Maliki by Arabian Oud.

 

Nesma does not dwell in this mode for long, however, drying out into a fine-boned, snappy leather accord – think the thinnest book sleeve imaginable, supported by a range of dusty, papery notes that conjure up the collected smells of a rarely-visited library.  The bitter suede-like feel of the saffron is reminiscent of the leather note in Cuir de Lancôme.  However, this is much fiercer, drier, and does not have any soft, powdery florals with which to blunt the impact.  

 

Later, a sublime aroma of baked, toasted rice grains emerges, adding a delightful nuttiness and roundness to the scent.  Despite the rice note, however, Nesma is never sweet, creamy, or dessert-like – it leans firmly in the direction of austerity.  I recommend it highly to saffron fans interested in a nuanced take on the material without the distraction of florals and amber.

 

 

 

Oakmoss (Muschio di Quercia) (La Via del Profumo/ Abdes Salaam Attar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Photo by Eugene Chystiakov on Unsplash

 

There is little from the hand of Abdes Salaam Attar (Dominique Dubrana) that I don’t at least admire, and quite a few that I love.  One of the giants of natural perfumery, Dubrana has now rendered most of his fragrances in ‘attar’ format (strictly speaking, they are mukhallats), both in keeping with the brand’s original focus on natural perfumery and the rising popularity among consumers of high-end artisanal attars.

 

I have been testing the Abdes Salaam Attar  attars consistently over the past few years and can tell you that a) they are superb, and b) they solve the problem that plagues most of the catalog of La Via del Profumo and natural perfumery in general, i.e., that of extreme ephemerality.  The attar formats of favorite Abdes Salaam Attar scents are rich, strong, and long-lasting – paintings rendered in oil compared to the pastels of the regular eaux de toilette.

 

This is great news for anyone who might have loved the scents but hesitated over plunging $100+ into a fragrance that, while beautiful, rarely lasts more than three or four hours on the skin.  Lovers of natural perfumery understand and accept the trade-off between all-natural materials and their longevity.  But with Dubrana’s attars now offering fans the best of both worlds, we no longer have to compromise.

 

Oakmoss (Muschio di Quercia) is one of my favorite fragrances from La Via del Profumo, and in attar format, allows me hours of pleasure, rolling around and luxuriating in its ripped-from-nature goodness.  Far more a vetiver scent than an oakmoss, 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.

 

People have called Oakmoss formal, the kind of scent to wear with a business suit.  I can see that, especially in its clipped, almost monolithic elegance.  However, the attar is earthier, more sepulchral, and darker-green than the eau de toilette, and reminds me of the way Djedi (Guerlain) and Onda (Vero Profumo) make me feel.

 

Oakmoss possesses the vivid rawness of an outdoors scene, which is more special to me than a smell that is simply luxurious.  It is like both Annick Goutal’s Vetiver (the original) and Etro’s Vetiver, in that it features a salty, ferrous vetiver that pulls no punches.  Oakmoss will also appeal to lovers of vintage chypres, especially Chanel’s Pour Monsieur and Givenchy’s Givenchy III.  In attar format, it also reminds me somewhat of the rooty, Middle-Earth solemnity of both Onda (Vero Profumo) and Djedi (Guerlain).  Less of a perfume, more of an experience.

 

 

 

Palisander (Ava Luxe)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

There is something therapeutic about the smell of wood, isn’t there?  Rosewood, or palisander, is especially comforting, because it smells mostly like a freshly-split log of wood, but has steamy undercurrents of curry leaf, pressed rose petals, and chili pepper for interest.  Ava Luxe’s Palisander is an excellent representation of the rosewood note, the essential plainness of the wood dressed up with enough amber and incense to stop it smelling skeletal.

 

Palisander was one of the samples I grabbed when evacuating our house during Storm Emma in early 2018.  And I was enormously grateful for its plain, wholesome comfort as I struggled to lift my two little kids through the snow and up into the cabin of the tractor that my mother had flagged down, having waded through snowdrifts for hours to get to us.

 

It all seems a little extreme now, of course. The power came back on twelve hours after our dramatic rescue, and by the next morning, the roads had cleared enough to get us back home.  But it was a great comfort to be sitting in front of the fire in the house where I grew up, wrapped up in a warm blanket and wafts of Ava Luxe’s Palisander floating up at me from my sweater.  The best things are also the most basic of things.  A good fire, happy children, hot food, a working mobile phone, and the glorious smell of wood.

 

Rosewood has a particular significance for me, because I wore the oil neat as a teenager in the nineties. Nowadays, rosewood is almost as rare as Mysore sandalwood, having fallen victim to a similar over-exploitation.  The species that produces rosewood oil, Dalbergia nigra, is categorized as an Appendix I material under CITES, meaning that no rosewood produced after 1992 should be bought, sold, or traded. I have no idea whether Palisander by Ava Luxe actually contains rosewood or is just the artist’s representation, but it sure does smell like rosewood.

 

Palisander opens with the scent of a freshly-split plank of wood – raw, high-toned, and clean in a way that reminds me of industrial glue and binding products.  Were the scent to remain in this track for too long, it might start to wear on the nerves,  but soon the bland wood cracks open a little to reveal a host of interesting little details.  There is the faintly fecal, coffee-ish undertone of cedar, for example, as well as a plasticky red pepper note that recalls the hot rubber milkiness of fragrances such as Etro’s Etra and Hilde Soliani’s Hot Milk.

 

But there is an essential plainness to Palisander that cannot be denied, and for me, that is part of its appeal. The soporific character of the wood is close to that of scents such as Tam Dao (Diptyque) and Cadjmere (Parfumerie Generale), and under certain lights, you might even call it sandalwood-ish.  However, rosewood is softer, plainer, and a touch fruitier than sandalwood – a mixture of aromatic cypress wood, pulpy chili pepper, hot milk, and sawdust.  Either way, the result is a scent so relaxing it should be prescribed as therapy.

 

Palisander cycles on at a fair clip, shifting quickly from its raw lumber start to a pale wood heart full of sweet incense powder, amber, benzoin, and soft vanilla.  It finishes up as one of those elegant vanilla-woods combinations that always remind me of sweet Communion wafers, old books, and the tail end of Dzing.  A simple, but well-rendered scent for those of us who love the wholesomeness of wood because it signals the comfort of home.

 

 

 

Port Royal (BPAL)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Spiced rum and ship’s wood mixed with the body-warmed trace of a prostitute’s perfume and a hint of salty sea air on the dry-down.

 

 

I have never smelled a prostitute’s perfume – not knowingly, at least – but I think that the rest of the description matches the scent perfectly.  However, one small point of clarification.  Rather than the sweet, boozy rum alluded to in the notes, Port Royal revolves around the notion of bay rum, the spicy clove-and-bay-leaf accord closely associated with old-fashioned male grooming rituals and wet shaving.  The original bay rum was a spicy, astringent lotion one slapped on after shaving, ostensibly to ‘close the pores’.  (Though, by now, I hope that we all know that pores do not close and open like trapdoors). 

 

Port Royal is therefore less drunken pirate and more herbal fougère with a brisk salty edge.  It would be very elegant on a man, as it is clean and bitter.  In the latter stages, a powdery amber accord moves in to soften the blunt edges of the scent and add a warming sweetness.  But, glanced by the lingering aromatics and either ginger or mint, the amber never becomes too sweet or sticky.  In all, Port Royal wears as a warm, full-bodied men’s aftershave.

 

The transitions between salty and bitter to warm and soft are intriguing.  Port Royal carries the same mysterious, hard-to-define allure of a woman wearing her boyfriend’s cologne to freshen up in the morning after a night out.  Its unusual combination of fresh androgyny and worn-at-the-edges glamour will have people falling over themselves to ask you what you’re wearing.  

 

 

 

Rasa (Ava Luxe)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Rasa has a fearsome reputation for being animalic, but either it has been gutted through reformulation or all the reviews for it were written in the pre-Salomé era.  Rasa is a basic model, the first Supercomputer, a pro-genitor of Skank – something that has been innovated on and subsequently surpassed by countless other things in the same track.  If I close my eyes, I can almost imagine how its rosy-saffron attar-lite façade might strike someone as deliciously exotic and dirty.  But to be truly blown away, you would have to be utterly unfamiliar with the cheap rosy-saffron-musk oils sitting behind the cash register in one of those Asian food emporia alongside the dried shrimp snacks and the Satya Sai Baba nag champa.  Because that is exactly what Rasa smells like. 

 

Rasa smells big and slightly cheap.  Its rosy mixture of musks, saffron, and ‘exotic’ spices feature in many fragrances seeking to evoke a vaguely souk-ish atmosphere.  This basic attar accord will be recognizable to anyone who has ever smelled Scent by Theo Fennell or even Agent Provocateur (the original EDP in the pink bottle).  Rasa is pungent in the spicy saffron way of these scents, and slightly animalic through the use of civet, which adds a nice shot of bitterness.  But Rasa’s original shock factor just doesn’t hold up in a day and age when modern niche perfume companies are falling over themselves to out-skank each other.

 

 

 

Royal Dream (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

Photo by Javier Peñas on Unsplash

 

I cannot locate the notes for this, but to my nose, Royal Dream is a somber patchouli chypre built around rose absolute and the leaf-sap dryness of immortelle.  An undercurrent of galbanum, hay, and scorched summer grasses lends a backdrop of dry, green velvet.

 

Don’t let these sunny-sounding, notes fool you though – Royal Dream is a nocturnal animal.  It feels formal, due to a curiously starchy, antiseptic note running through the composition, which is possibly saffron.  It pulls hard at a memory chord, although I fail to pinpoint why exactly.  It is likely that I’m reminded of some vintage chypre, but until someone names it, I’m at a loss.  Apologies for the near uselessness of this review.  

 

 

 

Royal Medina Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Royal Medina Blend is a sharp, rather dour take on the theme of shamamatul amber, a traditionally Indian blend of amber, spices, woods, and flowers or herbs made according to family-owned recipes handed down through the generations.  The Royal Medina Blend take on shamama essentially spikes a musky, bitter cedarwood with equally astringent saffron, roses, sandalwood, and amber.  It bears some similarity to the spicy, smoky, and sour woody bone structure of the more famous 1001 Nights by Ajmal, although the ASAQ version tilts more towards vegetal amber than the spicy woods of the Ajmal.

 

Royal Medina Blend’s shamamatul amber base stands knee-deep in the funk of fermented, sour leather, woods, and spice, so it stands to reason that many will smell this and think they are smelling a raw, sharp Hindi oud.  This is a shamama to scare the horses, in other words, and therefore one that beginners should approach with caution.

 

 

 

Ruh Khus (Anglesey Organics)

Type: ruh (sort of)

 

 

The ruh khus from Anglesey Organics is much more refined than the Yam International version.  It does not display any of the sharply green, earthy, rooty, almost marshy aspects of vetiver, but instead showcases only the gentlest of nutty and woody undertones.  If it were a color, it would be a gray-olive green rather than a luridly bright, thick green.

 

To be frank, it doesn’t strike me as a true ‘ruh’, or steam-distilled essential oil.  However, the lack of purity or concentration here works to its advantage because it presents the vetiver in a gentler, more digestible format, which will please those who abhor the pungent rootiness of the pure stuff.  With its aura of softly mashed and cooked greens, nutty with olive oil and salt, there is something very soothing about this oil.  In the far reaches of the drydown, a pleasing hint of dry woodsmoke appears.  Smoothly unobjectionable, I recommend this ruh khus to people who think they dislike vetiver, because if anything is going to convert them, it is this.

 

 

 

Safran White Or (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

A potent saffron over a dark, rubied rose, Safran White Or unfurls like a length of thickly-embroidered fabric handed from one prince to another.  The saffron rings out as clear as a bell, a piercing diorama of freshly-tanned leather, orange peel, and iodine calling to mind both medicine and food.  But before the saffron note rides too high (it is a hellishly strong material), the plummy rose softens the spice, rounding it out into a rich Christmas cake accord.  There is something both bejeweled and clear about it, a sleight of hand possibly attributable to the ambergris lurking in the shallows beneath.  

 

 

 

Safwa (Al Haramain)

Type: mukhallat

 

Photo by SIMON LEE on Unsplash

 

I never thought this would work for me, given the double whammy of cloves and camphor listed in the notes, but Safwa is a surprisingly sexy and comfortable wear.  The biting dose of camphor and metallic mix of clove and cardamom in the opening was a trial until I had figured out the game.   This is the mastic and cinnamon opening of Eau Lente, borrowed and repurposed in attar form – no longer an apothecary-style salve for middle Europeans but a genuine ‘soul of the souk’ affair. 

 

Twenty minutes in, and all other notes drop out of sight for a while, leaving an oily mint note floating weightlessly over a waxen patchouli.  It is not a fresh mint note, even, but strands of mint roots left to rot gently in a glass of water.  A most strange and unconventional opening to a Middle-Eastern mukhallat, I appreciate Safwa even more for not taking the tried and tested route towards exotica.

 

The pungent, spicy greenness up top acts as a necessary prelude to the main act, which is a muted patchouli so beautiful it makes me think of piles of red and brown leaves on a forest floor.  It shares with Patchouli Bohème by LM Parfums the same musky-ambery vanilla and sandalwood base that makes the patchouli note slightly edible.  

 

Further on, a smoky labdanum reveals itself, its grit roughing up the smooth woodiness of the vanilla, patchouli, and musk. The golden pool of amber and patchouli slowly becomes cross-contaminated with the black oiliness of uncured leather.  It is very sensual.  On balance, Safwa has much more development on my skin than any of the other high-end Al Haramain attars, and the only one where the complex list of notes bears out on the skin.

 

And you will have ample time to study Safwa’s development, by the way.  It has a half-life of decades.  Sillage is low at the beginning, however.  Don’t make the same mistake I did, which was to keep on applying more oil until suddenly I could smell it and I’d realized I had applied far too much.  My precious sample lived on my bookshelf for six months until it dropped into a crack between the wall and the shelf, never to appear again.  I have thought about it ever since.

 

 

 

Sajaro (Classic) (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Sajaro Classic is a simple but pleasing riff on the traditional Arabian-style attar, namely a blend of saffron, rose, jasmine, and a dab of something oudy or musky in the base for support.  This kind of thing is barely interesting, let alone exotic to my nose anymore, but as with anything this ubiquitous, there are good examples and bad examples.  And this is a good example. 

 

The opening is sharply rosy, with a backing of spicy, leathery saffron forming that tart rose-saffron bridge used in most Arabian attars and co-opted for use in some very famous Western fragrances such as the original Agent Provocateur, Juliette Has a Gun Lady Vengeance, Diptyque Opône, and The People of the Labyrinths’ A. Maze.  Clearly, the rose-saffron pairing has legs.

 

And Sajaro, while by no means original, executes the theme with honesty and grace.  There is something satisfying about a plain thing done well.  Sajaro Classic differs from the Sajaro Imperial by containing only the basic qualities of rose oil, saffron, oud, and so on.  To get an idea of how different grades of the same raw materials can produce utterly different effects, wear Sajaro Classic and Sajaro Imperial side by side.  Sajaro Classic is sharper and brighter, with a dusty texture that feels like cracked leather – it plays true to the original attar theme.  Sajaro Imperial, on the other hand, is duskier, with a darker, more velvety feel.  In particular, there is a plummy quality to the rose that distinguishes it. 

 

 

 

Sballo (Bruno Acampora)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Photo by Rei Yamazaki on Unsplash

 

Sballo means ‘trip’ in Italian. Not in a ‘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.  Which is appropriate when you consider how mind-bendingly seventies the Acampora oils smell.  Trippy, psychedelic, groovy – all words that fit the Acampora aesthetic like a glove.

 

Sballo is the banner-carrier for this seventies feel, so it goes heavy on the aromatics, hay, patchouli, and oakmoss.  It ain’t pretty, but it sure does smell authentic.  The main thrust 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 commercial model.

 

The rose is brilliant and red, but quickly smothered by armfuls of dry, rustic grasses and hay note acting in tandem with oakmoss and patchouli.  Most 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 though 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 or black tea leaves.

 

The overall effect is gloomy and desiccated 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.  The hoarseness of this accord is great.  It is like the rough, stubbled jaw of a brutish male thrust into your personal airspace, causing both discomfort and the thrill of secret excitement. 

 

 

 

Shamama (Amouage)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Amouage’s take on Shamama opens with a sharp antiseptic burst of iodine, spackling the olfactory landscape with gaudy daubs of saffron and henna flower.  The spice element is pungent, oily, and radiant, as if coriander and cardamom seeds were first roasted at high heat in a dry pan, and then tipped, piping hot, into the deg.

 

In keeping with the Indian tradition of making shamama, Amouage’s Shamama is not at all sweet or soft, but rather fierce, pungent, and alkaline.  There is also a light rubbery undertone, like hospital tubing, which we can probably attribute to the henna.  Shamama eventually mellows into a soft, muffled bed of amber, but because this is vegetal, herbal Indian amber rather than the sweet, resinous kind, it never becomes sweet or creamy. 

 

All in all, Shamama is not a bad rendition of traditional Indian shamama, but given its price point, it is not something to pursue above and beyond the more interesting and more reasonably priced shamama currently in production.

 

 

 

Shamama (Nemat)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Nemat’s version of the famous shamama attar is affable, sweet, and easy-going.  Like most other shamama attars, it opens with the slightly medicinal tinge of saffron or henna, but, fused to a sweet underpinning of amber or vanilla, this accord is never allowed to become too vegetally bitter.  Later, it develops a fruity muskiness that might strike some as slightly rude, possibly thanks to ambrette seed.  All in all, Nemat’s Shamama is a sweet, herbal-ambery shamama with a slightly raunchy trail.  A passable example of the species but not especially complex.

 

 

 

Shamama (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

Photo by Andrew Draper on Unsplash

 

Sultan Pasha’s take on the classic Indian shamama attar – a complex, blended attar consisting of over sixty different materials, herbs, spices, choyas, and other attars made according to closely-guarded secret family recipes – is an unusual one.  It twists the traditional format into a new shape.

 

The opening confuses as much as it delights, packed with as many dense aromas as a tin of the blackstrap molasses, but shot through with the antiseptic airiness of saffron.  The dual tracks of dark stickiness and explosive spice give the opening tremendous energy.  Quickly, the individual notes begin to pull apart a little so that you start to perceive them more easily.  Orange peel, saffron, henna paste, saltwater, toasted buckwheat, and chestnut honey all come to the fore.  These are all notes that teeter between savory and bitter, with only a thin ribbon of sugar calling a truce between them.

 

Compared to other shamama attars, the Sultan Pasha take is far darker, balmier, and smoother.  It is molten licorice to the sharply golden, leathery herbs of the others.  After the complex, packed feel of the start, the middle decompresses somewhat, flattening everything into a single layer of anise-flavored toffee, with hints of a dark chocolate musk, henna, and supple leather flitting in and out.  In fact, it would seem to combine the best of a traditional shamama attar with the damp, chewy chocolate sensuality of a good Darbar attar. 

 

Then, as if filmed in slow motion, the attar collapses into a slightly smoky, boozy amber with hints of dried fruit, leather, and incense, reminding me very much of Ambre Russe, a fragrance that Luca Turin called ‘the most nutritious amber in existence’.  There is a similar pain d’épices texturization at work here.  The mukhallat derives much of its richness from the scent of macerating raisins, brandy, damp tobacco, and plum pudding.  This develops further into a smoky, incense-laden amber accord, with the stained-glass window warmth of something like Amber Absolute.

 

What I love about Sultan Pasha’s take on shamama is that it preserves a core of tradition but twists it into a sleeker, more sensual format to appeal the modern taste.  It gives you the dusty, medicinal feel of a traditional Indian attar, with its exotic henna, herbs, spices, and innumerable Indian botanicals, while at the same time spinning you off into a more Middle Eastern direction, rife with sweet, smoky resins and balsams.  This is the 2.0 version of shamama, and my personal favorite of its genre.  Think of the licorice darkness of Slumberhouse’s Vikt unspooling into a thick, smoky-sweet incense amber, and you have an idea of the complexity at play here.

 

 

 

Sirocco (Solstice Scents)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Description: It is a blend of sandalwood, precious saffron threads, hot baked Earth, myrrh resin, spices and a touch of oud and jasmine which meld together to create a dry, woody, resinous and spicy scent representing the blisteringly hot desert, spice caravans and never ending sun scorched sand.

 

 

In general, Sirocco smells as advertized, except for the sandalwood, which is not a significant player.  First, a starburst of saffron, its astringent aroma redolent of hay, leather, and iodine.  This quickly gives way to the mitti, which here smells of wet soil rather than the drier, dustier earthy scent of true Indian mitti.  Last to emerge is the rubbery, mushroomy myrrh, which smells like the plain essential oil one picks up at the health store, i.e., bitter, saline, and musty.  Unfortunately, the myrrh dominates the scent completely. Once it pops its head around the door, it is here for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 

 

Top marks to Sirocco for smelling precisely of the notes promised in the notes list.  Just be aware that Sirocco is not really the hot, dry ‘desert’ scent billed in the description, but rather the damp and almost fungal scent of caves.  It is closer to the original Bat (Zoologist), for example, than to L’Air du Désert au Marocain (Tauer).  (It is especially tempting, based on the description alone, to expect something desiccated and toasty along the lines of L’Air du Désert Marocain, because who doesn’t want a version of that for a tenth of the price?).  But if you like the wet, fungal side of myrrh, and earthy, medicinal smells in general, then you will love Sirocco.

 

 

 

 

Supercell (Sixteen92)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

Photo by Andrew Draper on Unsplash

 

Exploring the (mostly American) indie perfume oil sector from the viewpoint of the niche or mainstream perfume world often feels like a step backwards.  Sometimes this is because of a lack of polish and sometimes it is because of the gap between reality and the unfeasibly high expectations stirred up by the descriptions.  But where the indie perfume oil sector excels well over and above niche or mainstream perfumery is in creating perfumes that accurately recreate entire atmospheres, such as a spooky forest at night, a bonfire, or, as in the case of Sixteen92’s Supercell, the intensely green, mineralic scent of the air after a rainstorm.

 

Supercell, by perfumer Claire Baxter, who won the 2017 indie perfume award for her Bruise Violet at the 2017 Art and Olfaction Awards in Berlin, is a greenish petrichor perfume.  It is not incredibly long-lasting, but its effect is so pleasing that I recommend it for cooling down on sweltering days.

 

The scent opens with wet, sweet grass, transitioning slowly to the electric smell of rain on hot asphalt and damp soil.  The name Supercell seems to refer to the ion-charged air particles present in the air just before or right after a storm breaks, and for once, the perfume lives up to the promise of its name.  It is both dewy and protein-rich.

 

 

 

Sycomore (Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Vetiver is a funny material.  Depending on the varietal, source, and extraction method, it can display a wide range of nuances from roast hazelnuts to grass, campfire smoke, rose, and vase water.  It can be bitter, woody, smoky, or creamy, and sometimes all of those things at once.  That is why, even though vetiver is not the most expensive or precious raw material in the world, its nuances can be hard to match note for note.  On the other hand, vetiver always smells robustly and clearly of itself – you rarely mistake it for another material. 

 

This observation, generalizing as it may be, bears out here.  The vetiver used in the dupe smells much darker than the grassy vetiver used in Chanel Sycomore.  It is also a bit simpler, less textured – more like a simple ruh khus than a composed perfume.  However, vetiver is vetiver is vetiver, which means that if you love vetiver, then the chances are you will like this too.  

 

But while Sycomore is a complex perfume that corrals cypress, sandalwood, and juniper around a vetiver core, the dupe is mostly just vetiver.  There is a crystalline gin and tonic buzz to the topnotes of the original Sycomore that is not replicated in the dupe, and the dollop of very good quality sandalwood that renders the original creamy in its drydown is missing in the dupe.  Perhaps most importantly, Sycomore has a harsh, exciting smokiness that makes it an evocative perfume experience – the dupe emphatically does not.

 

Still, the vetiver used in the dupe produces the same relaxing, outdoorsy, and slightly narcotizing effect as Sycomore.  It does not adequately replace the original EDT, perhaps, but post-2016, even Sycomore is not truly itself anymore, so perhaps these are distinctions that matter less and less.  In summary, this is a good perfume oil in its own right and may appeal to hardcore vetiver fans.

 

 

 

Thebes I (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

Photo by Natalie Comrie on Unsplash

 

Thebes is Sultan Pasha’s tribute to the fragrance he most reveres in the world – Guerlain’s infamous (and deeply unavailable) Djedi.  I am lucky enough to own a large sample of Thierry Wasser’s Djedi reconstruction, so, for the purposes of this review, wore both side by side.

 

Djedi is a dry vetiver chypre.  It is immediately arresting both to the nose and the imagination – dusty, rich, and shadowy, its greenness is more that of dried up lichen and creeping mold than of living plants and roots.  It has a crypt-like coldness to it that defies analysis.

 

Vetiver, dried flowers, moss, and ambergris – such a curt line-up of ingredients, and yet an entire underworld is called forth.  A dab of Djedi is transportative.  One can almost taste the thickness of the first gush of air that must have rushed out at Howard Carter when he prized open the tomb of Tutankhamen, a smell full of cool stone, ancient dust, dried-up herbs, ointment, and kyphi, a complex Egyptian incense made with spikenard, henna, mastic, and other aromatics.

 

The vetiver turns slightly creamy and almond-like later with the addition of orris and rose, but despite the listed notes of civet and ambergris, the reissue of Djedi is never animalic.  Its dry and salubrious demeanor drives the composition forward in a single-minded fashion.  There are echoes of Djedi in both Habanita by Molinard (minus the soft-focus vanilla and florals) as well as in Onda extrait by Vero Kern, which is perhaps its closest-living relative today.  A distinctive and memorable fragrance, Djedi is notable most of all for its total absence of warmth.

 

Thebes (both I and II) is an entirely different animal.  To my nose, it is a more complex version of Muscs Khoublai Khan by Serge Lutens, cleverly balancing pungent animalics with sweet, plush roses, fur-like warmth, and sugar.

 

In the opening of Thebes I, there is a rush of oily, compressed florals that taken together smell like ancient, dusty wooden chests rubbed with linseed oil.  The aged wood and oily floral flatness make me think immediately of oud oil.  In fact, it is extraordinary that this effect is apparently achieved without a single drop of it.

 

The rose is most present to my nose, followed by lily of the valley.  But the florals are not fresh, crisp, or ‘living’.  Rather, they are a memory of scent clinging to flower petals pressed into old books by Victorians, then placed in an attar bottle to preserve them further.  Although I do not smell vetiver or moss strongly here, I am impressed that Pasha has arrived (via a completely different route) at the same sort of dusty, ancient-smelling accord featured in Djedi.

 

From there on in, however, the composition of Thebes I is overtaken by a wave of musk and ambergris.  The musk dominates at first, working with the dried jasmine to create an animal fur note with a creamy filth attached to its underbelly.  Very close to the fur effect in Muscs Khoublai Khan, the musk has the almost mouth-filling texture of wool.  The dance between clean fur and human filth makes me think of making hot, sweaty love to someone on a lion pelt in a medieval banqueting hall.  Overall, Thebes I is far furrier and thicker than Djedi.  But the key difference, I think, is that Thebes I has an almost animal warmth, while Djedi has none at all.

 

In the far stages of the dry down, there comes a wonderful surprise.  Vetiver – bone dry and smoky as hell – remerges phoenix-like from the ashes to mingle with the animal fur.  It is here, in the ashes of this rich, dusty vetiver that Thebes intersects most strongly with Djedi.  But still, where Djedi is ascetic, Thebes is sensual.

 

Using lesser qualities of rose, orris butter, and musks, Thebes II is a more cost-effective version of Thebes I.  To my nose, the opening is brighter and sharper, with the florals taking on a slightly more chemical character (especially the lily of the valley notes).  Thebes II suffers in comparison to Thebes I, but probably only if worn in a side by side wearing.  There is the same lovely, smoky fur-like quality in the drydown.

 

It is perhaps fairer to simply say that Thebes I will suit those who prefer their floral topnotes to be abstract, and Thebes II those who prefer the bright, laundry-fresh florals of mainstream perfumery.  In Thebes II, the additional space between the notes allows for a spicy powder to creep into the structure, a bonus for those who like the powdery, clove-tinted feel of the older Carons. 

 

 

 

Vasura (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Vasura is made with over forty different essential oils, ruhs, or absolutes, all of which pull in the direction of wet jungle earth.  The first impression is simply one of a cool, herbal freshness.  It mixes the bitter white floral crunch of a Borneo oud with pungent vetiver and aromatic sandalwood.  Zero cream, low calorie, but maximum flavor.

 

Further on, traces of Hindi oud bubble to the surface, bringing with them the acrid, smoky stench of fermenting leather.  But the Hindi is brought to heel by a damp blanket of velvety greenery, which lies on top and calms its fiery heat.  The result is a cool-toned, earthy leather aroma that is pleasurably easy to wear.

 

The delicate aroma of mitti – the attar that captures the smell of the first rains of the season on the red earth of India – is unfortunately lost in the mélange of stronger, earthier notes like oud, myrrh, and vetiver.  However, as the fresh, moist green notes wither away, they leave behind a mineralic dust accord that could quite conceivably be interpreted as the scent of soil after the rain.  Therefore, despite the disappointingly quiet role of the mitti, something of the Indian people’s longing for the rain has been captured in the golden, earthen mien of this scent.  And that is more than good enough for me.

 

 

 

Vert Gallant (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Vert Gallant opens with an accord of fresh herbs shimmering over rank body odor that smells intensely animalic and arousing.  The sweaty, green topnotes glint evilly like petrol on water.  This effect is probably due to use of a specific lavender absolute that smells more like spikenard, which in turn smells rather like lavender with a subcutaneous layer of sheep fat.

 

Under this front of green, cuminy herb is a generous layer of labdanum massaged with sandalwood and vanilla.  Sweet, dusty, and strangely musky, Vert Gallant smells enticingly like the belly fur of a domestic animal, like a cat or guinea pig.  I suspect a judicious dose of costus somewhere in the mix, although this is not listed.  If you like intimate, human-skin-smelling fragrances such as Under My Skin (Francesca Bianchi) and L’Air de Rien (Miller Harris), it is likely that you will also enjoy Vert Gallant.  I find its curious balance between the purity of herbs and the licentiousness of labdanum to be compelling. 

 

 

 

Volubilis (Bruno Acampora)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

Photo by Apurv Das on Unsplash

 

Many have extolled Volubilis as a beautiful expression of mint, black pepper, citrus, and rose.  Unfortunately, I experience it a true expression of its name, which translated from Latin, means ‘volume’.  Volubilis is doused in enough Iso E Super to achieve a stadium-filling reach, sacrificing the delicacy of its natural raw materials at the altar of radiance (that most modern of codenames for projection).

 

Note that I have been sensitized to certain aromachemicals over the years and tend to perceive them as a hair too highly pitched above the other voices in a chorus line.  Your experience may be entirely different.  And indeed, based on reviews available for Volubilis, I seem to be in the minority.  Most other reviews mention its fresh, sparkling mint and citrus duet, spiked with black pepper for interest.  If those notes sound appealing to you, then don’t let my experience put you off trying it.  Unless you’re as sensitive to woody ambers as I am, you are likely to experience the scent as it was intended to be.

 

 

 

Wicked (Sixteen92)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Three vanillas, aged patchouli, almond buttercream

 

 

Wicked benefits from a long, hard aging.  When I first received the sample, the almond buttercream notes jumped up and bit me in the arse.  It was nauseating, like inhaling a blast of the cheap, cherry-scented nail polish remover you get in Poundland.  Sharp and unlovely, this greasy almond solvent note seemed to float gracelessly over a sea of headshoppy patchouli and ice-cream.

 

Reader: I tried it several times, each time with the same result.  I gave up and put all my Sixteen92 samples away in a dark drawer and forgot about them for eighteen months.  As it turns out, Sixteen92 perfume oils need far more than the recommended two weeks resting time, and eighteen months proved to be the magic number. (If you’re not the patient type, then perhaps avoid the American indie oil sector entirely.)

 

Although all my Sixteen92 samples benefitted from aging, Wicked emerged as the most improved.  Now, Wicked smells as it should – a creamy vanilla with moody patchouli giving it a dark and sexy earthiness.  There is a brief snap of cherry pit at the start, but this melts away so quickly that it barely registers.  I find the aged version of Wicked to be divinely rich and gorgeous.  If I could guarantee being spared the horror of its unaged self, I would buy a bottle in a heartbeat.

 

 

 

Zafraan Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Zafraan Blend takes an ultra-medicinal saffron and marries it to a subtle scaffolding of roses, musk, and sweet amber for support.  The star of the show, however, is that tannic saffron note.  You must love saffron to appreciate this attar, but if you do, then you’re in for a treat.  The saffron here smells dusty, red-gold, and vaguely iodine-like, with rich, woody tea notes lurking in the background.

 

Zafraan is a simple blend, with little to distract from the main note.  It starts and ends with the mysterious spice, fading out slowly into an austere, gold-tinged leather.  Its stark focus on saffron limits its usefulness as a standalone oil – one simply grows tired of its dogged purity after a while – but it is perfect for layering with rich ambers, vanillas, or even rose soliflores.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Me:  A two-time Jasmine Award winner for excellence in perfume journalism, I write a blog (this one!) and have authored many guides, articles, and interviews for Basenotes.  (My day-to-day work is in the scientific research for development world).  Thanks to the generosity of friends and acquaintances in the perfume business, I have been privileged enough to smell the raw materials that go into perfumes and learn about the role they play in both Western and Eastern perfumery.   Artisans have sent vials of the most precious materials on earth such as ambergris, deer musk, and oud.  But I have also spent thousands of my own money, buying oud oils directly from artisans and tons of dodgy (and possibly illegal) stuff on eBay.  In the reviews sections, I will always tell you where my sample came from and whether I paid for it or not.

 

 

Source of samples:  I purchased all the samples reviewed in this chapter, apart from the samples from Sultan Pasha Attars and Abdul Samad Al Qurashi, which were gifted to me by either by the brand or a distributor for review purposes, and the Henry Jacques samples, which were part of a Basenotes sampling thread.

 

Cover Image: Photo by Varun Gaba on Unsplash 

 

Note on monetization: My blog is not monetized.  But if you’d like to support my work or show appreciation for any of the content I put out, you can always buy me a coffee using the little buymeacoffee button.  Thank you! 

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Chypre Sultan by Ensar Oud

11th August 2022

 

Always brave, I think, for a perfumer to set their cap at making a chypre in this day and age.  Most falter not because they can’t find an oakmoss replacement or the low-atranol stuff, but because they are so focused on getting the moss element right that they miss the whole point of a chypre in the first place, which is that abstract, kaleidoscopic richness, that sweet-and-sour balance that makes your mouth both salivate and shrivel up a bit.   Good chypres feel murky and on the knife edge of bitter to me – a mysterious conflagration of forest floor and a miso-based tare that took hours to make.  

 

Chypre Sultan feels like a real chypre because it treats the chypric model (bergamot, moss, labdanum) more as a suggestion than a straitjacket.  Bergamot?  Forget bergamot, too stuffy, let’s put yuzu in instead.  Labdanum?  Booooring.  Tends to take over.  Put in the quietest of sandalwood instead, creamy and substantial enough to anchor the scent.

 

In playing fast and loose with the rules, Chypre Sultan successfully captures the mysterious umami character of chypre that eludes the grasp of others.  The opening is winey and dark, a dense carpet of forest floor notes – minty wet moss, woods, artemisia, hay, sage, perhaps even a touch of rubbery myrrh – which give it a distinctly medicinal tinge, similar to Tiger Balm.  It wears like the deepest green velvet this side of Scarlet O’ Hara’s curtain dress.

 

Naturally, being an Ensar Oud creation, Chypre Sultan is kitted out with the most exquisite medley of natural oud, castoreum, and musks, which weighs down the flightier herbal and citrus notes, and creates the ‘pea souper’ murkiness so essential to a chypre’s character.  It is so thick that I can almost taste it at the back of my mouth.

 

The castoreum alone is extraordinary – leathery, almost burnt in its dryness, and in conjunction with the minty-vegetal tones of the (genuine) oakmoss, distinctly savory in tone.  The musk element is not animalic or heavy-smelling in and of itself.  In fact, it seems to be there only to give the castoreum and oakmoss this buffed-out, diffused ‘glow’ effect.  Imagine burying your nose in a man’s leather jacket and then walking around in a ‘head space’ cloud of those same molecules all day long.  This feels like that.

 

Surprisingly for such a dense, winey stew, I can clearly smell the jonquil.  Jonquil is a type of daffodil (narcissus) that smells like hay but also quite like jasmine under some conditions.  At some point, the sweet, sunny wafts of hay and jasmine begin to shake loose of the darker backdrop, and the effect is like a sudden shaft of sunlight piercing the gloom of a medieval forest.

 

Bear in mind that this floral effect is really subtle.  There is, however, a moment when the savory (almost celery-like) oakmoss meets the jonquil, and I think of Vol de Nuit.  It is a similarly ‘long simmered greens’ train of thought that connects the two.  But of course Chypre Sultan is an indie-artisanal perfume, while Vol de Nuit is a perfume made in the grand manner of French classical perfumery, so both the finish and the intent are very different.  Chypre Sultan is, naturally, far richer, more pungent, and rougher around the edges than Vol de Nuit.   

 

But there is a distant link, nonetheless, and you might be the type of person who prefers the raw authenticity of the natural ouds, musks, or oakmoss that an artisan outfit can offer.  Chypre Sultan is Vol de Nuit if she got up from her table at Le Cinq, delicately wiped her lips on the Irish linen napkin, and disappeared off into Fontainebleau forest to roll around in the muck and the hummus and the animal carcasses, only to emerge naked ten hours later with nothing more than a smirk and eyeliner smudged all over her chin.  

 

There is only one slightly difficult moment for me, and that is when all the minty herbs and hay-like florals fade out, leaving only the surround system of the castoreum, musk, and oud to play out their slightly gloomy brown tune.  Without the distraction of the fresher notes, the oniony-sweat nuances of oakmoss, complete with that slight over-stewed celery tea note, start to wear on me a little.  However, the rich, rubbery castoreum, musk, and oud step in to smooth this over and it steadies itself, finishing out the day (and this is a serious all-day kind of thing) in a softly murky, leathery-foresty haze that hovers rather than ‘sits’ on your skin.

 

I am hard-pressed to say what Chypre Sultan might be compared to, because a perfume by an oud artisan like Ensar Oud is always going to be on a different level of pungency and purity to a commercial perfume.  So, allowing for the sheer ‘apples and oranges’-ness of the comparison, I suppose that Chypre Sultan reminds me a little of Diaghilev (Roja Dove) in terms of the bitter, foresty greenness and masculine-leaning character.  However, Diaghilev has a stouter floral core and, being a commercially-produced rather than artisanal perfume, lacks the leathery castoreum-musk depth of Chypre Sultan.

 

Chypre Palatin (Parfums MDCI) is also a fair comparison, but is much sweater and creamier, its florals appearing almost powdery in comparison (Chypre Sultan is a powder-free zone).  The Vol de Nuit linkage is but a fleeting impression and probably a figment of my overactive imagination; Dryad (Papillon) is another possibility because of its costus note. 

 

But in fairness, Chypre Sultan is far less classical in structure than these two fragrances, and in its ‘brewed up in a wild jungle’ intensity, comes closer to the tannic, crunchy-organic Peruvian Amazon experience that is Carta Moena 12|69.  In terms of murkiness, complexity, and that ‘Chinese meal’ completeness you get with a good chypre, it drifts along the same orbit of Kintsugi (Masque Milano) without smelling like it at all.  Either way, Chypre Sultan is very much its own thing, and that thing happens to be a force of nature chypre.

 

 

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.

 

Cover Image:  Photo by Philipp Pilz on Unsplash 

Hay Iris Leather Musk Patchouli Review Spicy Floral Violet

Le Labo Iris 39: A Review (Sort of)

15th October 2021

 

I have yet to come across a review that captures what Le Labo Iris 39 smells like to me, so I’m going to take a run at it myself.  Despite the advertised violets and iris, Iris 39 doesn’t smell sunlit, or powdery, or even floral in the traditional sense.  To me, it smells utterly abstract, a nigh-on impenetrable wedge of industrial cement and toner ink mixed with mud-caked flower bulbs, fuzzed up at the edges with a carbolic soap (patchouli-musk) accord that wears on you like a rain-soaked wool sweater.

 

I’ve noticed that the earlier Le Labo perfumes – Patchouli 24, Oud 27, Santal 33, Iris 39 – all feature this interesting tension between something natural-smelling and something ‘pleasantly chemical’, i.e., the vaporous head-spin of industrial materials like hot glue, ink, magazine paper, or burning rubber.  Perhaps this is what makes these perfumes so distinctive.  Later Le Labo output (The Noir 29, Tonka 25, Another 13) shoot for the same complexity but lean too hard on harsh woody ambers, Ambroxan, etc., thereby landing on the ‘bad chemical’ mat rather than the ‘good chemical’ one.  You know what I mean, right? A good chemical smell to me is the honest honk of fresh newspaper ink or spilled petrol or the school supply closet.  A million miles away from those powerful woody ambers like Amber Extreme or Norlimbanol that are (over) used in perfumery these days to make a scent enormously radiant or long-lasting.

 

So there you have it. Part of Iris 39 that makes me feel like a hippy who’s spent the afternoon planting out tubers in a wet garden, while the other makes me feel like I’m getting a semi-high from hanging around the office printer while they’re changing the cartridges.  Mostly, though, I think it’s just one of those thick, murky ‘soups’ of a perfume that are vaguely resistant to analysis, like Mitsouko (Guerlain) or Kintsugi (Masque Milano) – perfumes that are simultaneously harsh and organic.  Wearing Iris 39 gives me a physical jolt akin to being so hungry for the first bite of something that, even before it’s fully tasted, your mouth waters so suddenly it’s almost painful. 

 

Source of sample: Various samples, decants, and finally a full bottle, all of which I purchased myself.

 

Image:    Photo by Darklabs India on Unsplash  

 

    

Floral Green Green Floral Hay Independent Perfumery Review

L’Amandière by Heeley Paris

12th October 2021

Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez have an extraordinary turn of phrase, don’t they?  One of the many things they have written that has lingered in my mind for years is their description of L’Eau d’Hiver (Frédéric Malle) as ‘an elegiac, powdery, almonds-and-water accord that takes its place next to Guerlain’s Après L’Ondée and Caron’s Farnesiana among the fragrance Ophelias of the world’ (Perfumes: The Guide, 2008), calling to mind Millais’ famous painting of the doomed Ophelia, kept afloat in a pond by flowers and tendrils of her own hair before being pulled to her ‘muddy death’.  The association with the perfume is immediate – you understand, even without smelling it, that L’Eau d’Hiver is watery and delicate and even a little melancholic.

 

But L’Eau d’Hiver, while undoubtedly a lovely perfume, is as fragile and as milquetoast as its predecessor, Après L’Ondée, meaning that it works perfectly if you have a quiet space somewhere where you can appreciate its every nuance in slow motion, but tends to dissipate as rapidly as a mummy when exposed to the hoary breath of modern life.  Both L’Eau Hiver and Après L’Ondée are a ‘bottled firefly’ type of smell that belongs more to the fairies at the bottom of a garden in Cottingley than to an irritated woman fighting her way through the crowd to get on her train to work.

 

Enter L’Amandière by Heeley Paris.  With its boot polish lilacs, linden, hyacinths, maybe a smidge of rose, mint, and freshly cut grass, it shares the same watery translucence as L’Eau d’Hiver and Après L’Ondée, i.e., Spring incarnate, but is robust enough to stand up to modern life.   It is certainly a watercolor fragrance, its soft daubs of blush pink, mint green, and duck egg blue qualifying it as one of Turin and Sanchez’ so-called ‘fragrance Ophelias’.  But suffused with sturdy, air-conditioned musks and a green, unripe almond note, there is a slight thickness of body to L’Amandière that keeps it all from crumbling away into nothing.

 

There is also an undercurrent of sweetness in  L’Amandière,  but this is the faint natural sweetness you smell in crushed lilacs, green plant milk, and freshly trampled grass, rather than the sticky, all-encompassing sultriness of tonka-led takes on almond, which tend to lean towards cherry pit and marzipan. There is no fudge here, no extra weight.   

 

Above all, L’Amandière is the perfect reflection of the Heeley house style, which is discreet, refined, and vaguely pastoral, filtered through a modernist lens that allows for clarity.   And this is definitely a soft, clear perfume.  Nobody else but James Heeley could have, in my opinion, produced a fridge-cold spring floral with all the watery melancholia of an Après L’Ondée or a L’Eau d’Hiver that lasts longer than a sigh in the wind while sacrificing none of the ‘fairy dust’  translucence that makes those perfumes special in the first place.   

 

 

Source of sample: I bought a full bottle of L’Amandière at full retail price from ParfuMarija in Dublin, one of only two bottles of perfume I have purchased in 2021 (the other being a bottle of the reissued Nahema eau de parfum by Guerlain).  

 

Image: John Everett Millais, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

 

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Three by Mellifluence: Hellicum, Spirit of Narda II, and Miel Pour Femme (Almond)

1st September 2021

It’s been a while since I last wrote about Abdullah’s work at Mellifluence, which was about his amazing Tsuga Musk mukhallat featured in my Basenotes article, ‘The Murky Matter of Musk‘ (1 September, 2017).  Four years might have passed since then, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been dipping into Mellifluence’s wares in the meantime. Last summer, I placed an order with Mellifluence for some raw materials and mukhallats, and Abdullah generously included some samples of stuff he also wanted me to smell. I’m getting to them only now, which unfortunately means that some of the scents I talk about are now unavailable.

Because here’s the thing you need to know about Mellifluence before you invest – Abdullah works in small batches, using naturals he has sourced elsewhere, and when that material runs out, so too does the mukhallat featuring it. That means you need to work fast, with a speedy turnaround time from sample to full bottle (well, tola) purchase if you’re going to snap up the thing you love. The house style is light, clean, and delicate, which is no mean feat considering the ofttimes heaviness of some of the naturals involved. In general, Abdullah excels at work involving rose, green herbaceous notes like lavender, tuberose (which he is able to render quite masculine), oud, and vetiver. 

To the best of my knowledge, Abdullah works only with naturals, because of certain sensitivities he experiences when dealing with synthetics. But worry not, while the all-natural focus does give his work a certain ‘crunchy granola’, aromatherapy-adjacent flavor, I haven’t personally experienced any of the muddiness you sometimes get with all-natural perfumery. The flip side of all this lightness and clarity is, however, a certain lack of projection and longevity. But people seeking out the authenticity of raw materials above all else are already mostly prepared for this trade-off.   

The other things to be aware of are that these are mukhallats, not attars, though people (and brands who make them) tend to use the word ‘attar’ to describe any perfume in oil. Strictly speaking, however, though mukhallats and attars are both oil-based (i.e., they do not contain alcohol), attars are defined by their manner of production, which is the distillation of raw materials into sandalwood oil in the traditional ‘dheg and bhapka’ method (named for the copper piping and leather receptacle involved in the method) used in Kannuaj, India. A mukhallat, on the other hand, is the term used to describe a mix (mukhallat is simply Arabic for ‘blend’ or ‘mix’) of any already distilled essences, absolutes, attars, ruhs, and oud oil (and sometimes even synthetics, increasingly so in modern times) with a carrier oil, which used to be sandalwood oil but for reasons of both cost and availability these days is more likely to be something like moringa, jojoba, or even good old vegetable oil. For those of you who don’t care about the pedantry of this, your main takeaway should be that these are oils, and often highly concentrated ones, and therefore need to be dabbed onto the skin (or beard, if you have one) in judicious amounts. A dab will do ya. 

 

Hellicum

 

Hellicum’s opening is both medicinal and animalic – fresh lavender and sage dipped in something lasciviously scalpy, like costus. There is also a brief flash of something sweet, like vanilla or honey, but this is gone almost immediately. Oud emerges from a mist of sinus-clearing eucalyptus or mint, and it is almost outrageous to me that a wood oil so deeply thick, so animalic, can be stretched out and massaged into something so airy. Flanked by those soft, camphoraceous herbs and pinned in place by a waxy amber accord that smells like a minty version of a Werther’s Original, the oud reads more as a light, clean leather than the stable filth that we are sometimes asked to grit our teeth through in the name of oud.

 

And this is precisely the kind of sleight of hand that Abdullah of Mellifluence excels in. Heavy, animalic substances tweaked until they are transformed into something clean, and delicate, qualities more suited, perhaps, for the soothing of frayed nerves than for the purposes of seduction or for projecting an image of yourself onto the world.

 

It is not a slight to suggest, by the way, that Hellicum, like many Mellifluence mukhallats, is more Rescue Remedy than perfume. Sometimes, that’s what life calls for. I rarely wear fragrance during the day, choosing instead to aromatherapize myself off the stress ledge by rubbing a Mellifluence mukhallat or one of his naturals onto a knuckle, or massaging some of my Francesca Bianchi Under My Skin body oil into the ends of my hair. These quiet, subtle whiffs of aroma as I type, gesticulate, or turn my head are what propel me through my workday, a friendly hand at the small of my back. Hellicum is really good at this. I especially love the hidden thicket of patchouli tucked into the tail of the scent, there to please anyone who’s been paying attention. 

 

Spirit of Narda II

 

Part of the risk of falling in love with any Mellifluence mukhallat is returning to the brand’s Etsy page and realizing that it no longer exists. I hope that Abdullah finds some way to bring this back, though, because to my nose, it is one of the best things he has ever made. It reminds me of a long lost love of mine, which is the sadly discontinued Bohèmians en Voyage (Alkemia), which had a similar pastoral quality to it, like a stroll along countryside lanes, past fields of wheat and sunny hedgerows full of wild barley and small wildflowers.

 

The ‘Nard’ in the title refers to spikenard, or jatamansi, an intensely aromatic herb native to India not a million miles away from lavender in overall scent profile, but featuring a uniquely fatty, animalic undertone, like beef tallow or the yellow subcutaneous fat under the skin of an organically reared piece of mutton. In Spirit of Nard II, the herbaceous aspects of the spikenard are sharp and spiky, like a thistle, but there is also a milky element to the it that’s relaxing to the point of inducing sleepiness. This is bracketed by medicinal woods – an antiseptic sort of oud material, no doubt – and a soft, vegetal muskiness.

 

Spirit of Narda II feels complex and multi-layered, a haze wherein herbaceous, woody, milky, floral, and musky molecules advance and recede in such a crazy loop that you are never sure what it is all supposed to be, category-wise. Each time I wear it, I’m stumped. Is it an oud masquerading as a Spanish leather? A herb that’s secretly a sheep? A plant revealed by those meddling kids to be a medicine? No idea. But two things it is not are (a) available to buy, and (b) aromatherapy rather than a fully-realized perfume.

 

Miel Pour Femme (Almond)

 

This is an odd one. Not honey at all, but rather, a pale wodge of barely set beeswax poured into a polished oak mold and wrapped up in rustling layers of that edible paper they roll candy cigarettes or torrone in. It smells varnishy, waxy, and ever so slightly stale, like printer paper or Holy Communion wafers left open in a wooden chest. I suppose all this is also very much almond – not the syrupy cyanide (benzaldehyde) tones of most almond accords, but the grassy tannins of raw almond that you get in fragrances such as L’Amandière (Heeley). The overall effect has been achieved with a combination of benzoin (for that communion wafer aspect) and beeswax (for that waxy white honey aspect). The scent thickens up, over time, into a blanched, stodgy sweetness that is never as animalic or as thick as real honey, but still quite a distance away from the beeswax-paper-almond of the first half. Miel pour Femme (Almond) is fine, if a little odd. It just doesn’t set my world on fire quite as effectively as Spirit of Narda II.

 

 

Source of sample: I purchased 3mls of Miel Pour Femme (Almond) from the Mellifluence Etsy page, and 0.2ml samples of Hellicum and Spirit of Narda II were included as a gift with purchase.

 

Cover Image: Photo by Susan Wilkinson on Unsplash

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Les Indémodables Part II: Iris Perle, Fougère Émeraude, Rose de Jamal, and Chypre Azural

1st March 2021

 

Iris Perle

 

Username checks out. In its totality, Iris Perle is an opalescent soap bubble of freshly peeled mandarin over soapy-waxy-fatty mimosa clasped in a child’s slightly sweaty paw, but studied closely over a day, it breaks down into two distinct phases. The first is reminiscent of what I think of as the typically Italian take on iris, i.e., slightly bitter, powdery, and freshly-laundered, rather than floral. This is clearly built around a ‘grey’ workaday iris material (rather than orris root) dressed up with lots of mandarin peel and the sharp, vegetal greenness of violet leaf, which lends a subtle leather accent. It’s not a million miles off the Acqua di Parma or Prada Infusion d’Iris line DNA. But more expensive-smelling. So, like Satori Iris Homme

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The mimosa, shy creature that it is, is slow to unfurl, but eventually we get glimpses of that “is it a flower? Is it school glue? Is it a cucumber?” oddness that makes this flower so charming. It smells high-toned and bleachy, which gives it only a glancing similarity to the treatment of mimosa in Une Fleur de Cassie (Malle) (Une Fleur de Cassie possesses a grungy, garbagey tone that Iris Perle does not), and absolutely no connection at all to the throatier, almond gateau takes on mimosa like Farnesiana (Caron). In fact, as time goes on, it is the subtly aquatic cucumber aspects of mimosa that come to the fore, joining with the violet leaf to form a pale (wispy) melony leather accord that splits the difference between Diorella (Dior) and Le Parfum de Thérèse (Malle). Verdict: Nice, though not required reading if you have either Diorella or Le Parfum de Thérèse.   

 

 

Fougère Émeraude

 

I left Fougère Émeraude for last because (a) I have extremely narrow parameters for the type of tuberose I am willing to wear (see here for evidence of just how anal I get about it), and (b) I usually find fougères too masculine and bitter-smelling for me to pull off. But I’m pleasantly surprised! Fougère Émeraude manages to find my sweet spot on both the note (tuberose) and the style (fougère) and does so with such panache that I’m genuinely excited to wear it. It might even be – gasp – my favorite of the entire Les Indémodables sample set.

 

Let’s start with its treatment of tuberose. Fougère Émeraude captures all the toothpasty, camphoraceous ‘box hedge’ greenness I love in Carnal Flower and sidesteps entirely the lurid butter-bubblegum loudness that I abhor in Fracas. The tuberose smells dewy, crisp, and freshly-watered, not wilted or overblown. What I appreciate in particular is that, before the tuberose can start to droop and start smelling of its naturally fleshy, semi-decaying self, the note is quickly flanked by a softly powdery ‘fern’ accord made up of lavender, mimosa, tonka, and amber, so what you end up smelling is tuberose that’s been modulated and softened from all angles – a creamy, powdery floral accord with tuberose in the mix, rather than a full-on, straight-ahead tuberose.

 

The fougère element of the scent also plays squarely in the modern fougère sandbox, meaning that it leans on creamy tonka, powdery lavender, and soft floral notes rather than on the rather brusque aromatic sting of leaves, twigs, and bitter-minty oakmoss for its structure, thus making it perfectly easy for a women (certainly this woman) to wear.

 

The green, floral creaminess of Fougère Émeraude, particularly in its drydown, reminds me a little of the drydown of Chypre Palatin (Parfums MDCI), albeit without that scent’s lush, dense-as-a-brick castoreum-oakmoss-labdanum accord that makes it both sweetly creamy and subtly animalic. But where Chypre Palatin is a special occasion scent, Fougère Émeraude’s lightness of texture and (comparative) freshness makes for an altogether more casual wear, and thus is perfectly suited for an everyday ‘reach’.

 

Rose de Jamal

 

I don’t know who the Jamal in Rose de Jamal is, but I suspect he’s the guy they hired to sneak into the Kannauj attar factory at night and spoil an otherwise nice, fresh green rose distillation with an over-enthusiastic pour of whatever woody aromachemical they use in Rose 31 (Le Labo).

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I can’t blame Jamal. The shortage of real sandalwood oil, coupled with the rise in India of a middle class of young men and women who largely prefer to smell fresh and modern in dupes of Dior Sauvage and Gucci Flora than of anything their parents or grandparents might have worn, i.e., attars and ruhs wrung from Mother India’s abundant flowers, herbs, and aromatics, has pretty much taken the traditional attar factories of Kannauj out at the knees.

 

Rose de Jamal smells like the stuff churned out these days by attar houses that have accepted reality and switched to producing oil-based freshies and designer dupes in their labs (no deg and bhapka here), their backrooms filled with gallon containers of modern aromachemicals rather than precious rose oils, sandalwood, or choyas. So, like I said, I don’t blame Jamal. He’s just out there, trying to survive, you know? I do blame Antoine Lie, however. I love Antoine Lie’s work in general, so I’m not too sure what went wrong here, unless it was a deliberate cash grab for the market share currently dominated by Rose 31 (Le Labo). Rose de Jamal smells like the beginnings of a decent rose accord – minty, powdery, but also jammy –  quickly smothered by a brutal cloud of chemical ‘radiance’ that seems to last for days on fabric and on the skin.

 

Chypre Azural

 

What Acqua Viva (Profumum Roma) does for lemons, Chypre Azural does for oranges – a superbly naturalistic whole-of-tree citrus accord (leaves, fruit, pith, wood) sustained for an abnormally long time without resorting to any (obvious to me anyway) aromachemical support system. It’s basically my dream orange cologne-style fragrance – Hermes Concentré d’Orange – retrofitted to last more than ten minutes. And as long as you set your expectation dial at ‘long-lasting eau de cologne freshie’ level, Chypre Azural doesn’t disappoint. If you come to it looking for a genuine chypre with all its twists and turns, however – well. Chypre Azural is a lot of things (all of which are an orange) but a chypre it is not.

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Aside from the midsection, where a rather soapy neroli-musk accord sets in, Chypre Azural is resolutely linear. If you want to smell of orange pith from morning to night, then this will thrill you. For me, personally? Smelling of citrus this bright is fantastic in the early morning hours but all kinds of inappropriate by dinnertime. My seven-year-old daughter, Mila, crawled into bed with me in the middle of the night after a nightmare, and after wriggling into ‘space pod now attached to mother ship’ position, she sniffed me and said, “Why does your neck smell like oranges? It’s the middle of the night!” Exactly.     

 

Source of Samples: I purchased the Les Indémodables sample set here.  

Cover Image: Photo by Steven Lasry on Unsplash

 

 

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Tyger Tyger by Francesca Bianchi

2nd February 2021

There are three types of tuberose fragrance and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Category I is Photorealistic Tuberose, which is where you find the dewy ‘ripped from nature’ takes like Carnal Flower (Malle), Moon Bloom (Hiram Green), and yes, even Tubéreuse Criminelle (Lutens) after it shimmies through that Listerine bead curtain up front.

Category II is Nights in White Satin tuberose, where you find all the aging Baby Janes sweating naked but for a fur coat on a hot Southern veranda, waiting to pounce on the mail boy, her left buttock making a slurping sound as she propels herself off her lounge chair – stuff like Amarige (Givenchy), Giorgio (Giorgio Beverly Hills), and Number One Intense (De Nicolai).

Category III is Tuberose Messed Up Beyond All Recognition, the hangout room for perfumes that drown out the objectionably fruity bubblegum bullshit of tuberose until you’re smelling as much hay, leather, incense, or patchouli as tuberose itself. Tubéreuse III (Histoires de Parfum) and Daphne (Comme des Garcons) are good examples.

I have little use for perfumes from Category I. I wear Carnal Flower about once a year, swooning at its limpid green beauty only to cheerfully bench it again for another twelve months. Category II, in all its “The Eighties Called and Want Their Shoulder Pads Back” glory, is triggering, for me, and therefore a hard no. (Even some really modern perfumes, like Mélodie de l’Amour (Dusita) and L’ Eau Scandaleuse (Anatole LeBreton), released in 2016 and 2014 respectively, accidentally fall into Category II due to the man-eating nature of their tuberose). Category III is really the only space in which I can enjoy tuberose, because, as you might have guessed by now, tuberose needs to be so heavily masked with other notes that I can get it down without gagging.

Because Tyger Tyger by Francesca Bianchi is fruit, tuberose (and ylang, to my nose) over smoky woods and uncured leather, it would seem to fall effortlessly into the third category. Right? And yep, it mostly does. However, the sticky peach jam note coaxes out all of the unfortunate bubblegum tendencies of tuberose, which means that it tips its rather cartoonish Jessica Rabbit sunhat just enough in the direction of the Nights in White Satin category to make me uncomfortable.     

Which is my long-winded (even for me) way of saying that Tyger Tyger is not for me, but that is due entirely to my own personal issues with tuberose rather than the way in which the perfume is constructed or wears. The perfume itself is blameless. Lovers of the spicy 1980s floriental style of Big White Floral will rejoice in this juice. It starts off with a hugely sweet peach bubblegum note that might as well be tuberose candy – and at this point, I’m all #thanksifuckinghateit.

But this is Francesca Bianchi, y’all. She’s not going to leave those great, big honey-dripping white flowers out there on their own for long. Almost immediately, in fact, the familiar Bianchi accord of ‘stony, smoky, slutty iris leather with a side of licked skin’ (that’s how I refer to it anyway) rises up to infuse the floral candy with an attractive smokiness, kind of like hay, leather, and woods being smoked in a far off barn.  

So, yes, by the mid-section, I’m starting to come around. There’s enough going on here to reduce the tuberose to something I can just about glimpse at the corner of my eye. Think Pèche Cardinal (Parfums MDCI) – minus the tropical coconut – sleeping with a stable boy, their sticky sex juices mingling with the grimy but healthy aroma of leather riding tack and hay. It shares something with the utterly mad, bubblegum-on-steroids tuberose incense of Daphne (Comme des Garcons), a bit of that fleshy peach sweetness of Pèche Cardinal, and quite a lot of overlap with the retro butter-caramel-leather-hay-filtered smut of Tubéreuse III.

The drydown smells curiously like the peach-scented floor wax of Chinatown, the tuberose boiled down until its bubblegum and peach juice juiciness evaporates, fading out into a gently smoky Crayola finish. But tuberose wax is still tuberose, and man, even a little bit of it is nigh on too much for this gal. As it flattens out slightly at the end, more of the scent’s candied tuberose-ness – and thus also its essentially 1980s floriental character – is laid bare. Don’t get me wrong – Tyger Tyger is a beautifully made, and surprisingly softly spoken white floral that will please many. It’s really no fault of the scent that it happens to brush up against one of my personal triggers.  

 

Source of Sample: PR sample, provided gratis by the brand. 

 

Cover Image: Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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Dusita Le Pavillon d’Or

6th December 2019

Although I’ve always worn make-up, my reasons for doing so have varied dramatically over the years. As a teenager, my first and only concern was to make my face into a blank mask to submerge any of the features that made me me and replace them with a ‘fake news’ version of myself. I used make-up to disappear myself. In my twenties and thirties, I used make-up in a purely utilitarian way, zipping through the Holy Trinity of skin-eyes-mouth simply to avoid subjecting strangers to the raw, peeled potato-ishness of my naked face. I cultivated a short-list of favorites and did not deviate, except for dropping concealer altogether when I realized that I’d stopped caring whether people saw my flaws or dark circles.

But now, in my forties – a renaissance of sorts! I have fallen completely in love with the artistry and self-expression side of make-up. And I use it now not to hide, not to cover, but to play. I can be a different woman every day, if I want. But only because I want to shape-shift or it amuses me, not because I feel I have to conform to someone else’s expectations. The pleasure I get in playing around with soft, lavender duochromes from Nabla that shift from blue to pink when you turn your head or going bare-faced with only a bright red mouth to focus the eye – well, it’s extraordinary to me. It’s equal to the pleasure I get from perfume.

The only reason I’m banging on talking about this is that Dusita’s Le Pavillon d’Or reminds me very much of the watercolor blush technique demonstrated by make-up artist extraordinaire Lisa Eldridge in this video, and also of the Japanese-inspired blush placement technique called igari, as demonstrated here. Though different in intent, the two techniques share a focus on the overlapping of delicate, watery layers of color to create a diffused effect that balances richness with translucence. Le Pavillon d’Or seems to be built along the same lines, with several layers laid down until something like the iridescence of a butterfly’s wing is achieved.  

Gosh, it’s so pretty. Mint, iris, and honeysuckle combine to form a fresh, green opening that sometimes reminds me of Chanel. No. 19 and sometimes of Diorella (and sometimes of neither). There is an illusion of galbanum minus the bitterness, or of vetiver without its dankness. The main note here is fig leaf, which would explain the faintly milky quality to the greenness, but there’s none of the urinous quality that often sullies the vibrant smell of fig leaf. There is also a whisper of fruit, but one so phantasmagoric that it might all be in my head.

These opening notes are quickly coated with an overlay of what smells to me like the sweet, musty alfalfa grass notes (half hay, half Quaker’s oats) borrowed from one of my favorite Dusita perfumes, Erawan, but minus that scent’s dusky cocoa. There is also, here and there, a touch of Chanel’s Poudre Universelle Libre – a discreetly-perfumey, buff-colored skein of powder dusted over the scent’s cheekbones.

Although perfumer Pissara Umavijani’s inspiration for Le Pavillon d’Or was drawn from three different lakes, this perfume smells more pastoral than aquatic to me. It carries the green-gold-lilac duskiness of post-harvest meadows and field margins and hedgerows.

The final layer in this igari blush-style fragrance is a crepuscular haze of almond-scented lotion, due to the heliotrope, a plant beloved of midwives for its babyish innocence. But while in less elegant hands the heliotrope might turn fudgy and turgid in that yellow cake way of Etro’s Heliotrope, Pissara has threaded the note through gossamer layers of green florals and iris so delicately that the finish retains the freshness borrowed from the first layer laid down. Simply lovely.

Photo by Linh Ha on Unsplash

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Fallintostars by Strangelove NYC: A Review

27th November 2019

Fallintostars by Strangelove NYC is clever because it pairs the 15th century smell of Hindi oud – the dank, rotting, wet wood smell of animal hides piled high in a medieval dungeon – with the 21st century radiance of a modern amber. For the first half hour, the dissonance is dizzying. The oud is so authentically filthy that I feel like I’m being pressed up against a wall by an lout with a shiv and bad intentions. It’s as funky as a plate of fruit and cheese furred over with mold, wrapped in a length of freshly-tanned leather, and buried in a pile of steaming, matted straw.

But just when you fear you’re slipping wholesale into slurry, you notice the bright, peppery overlay of something radiant and electric, like sparks popping off a shorted wire. This accord calls to mind the aromachemically fresh, smoky black tea opening of Russian Tea (Masque Milano Fragranze) more than the pink pepper the notes tell me this is likely to be. The distance between the light and the dark is perfectly judged. It’s more of a whoosh than a lift. It smells exciting – sexy even. I’m tempted to douse myself in it and force strange men to come sniff my neck, even though, technically, this hard, peppery smell is more masculine-leaning than otherwise.

But wait, because we haven’t really talked about the amber yet. Poor Christophe Laudamiel – I bet that after the category-defining glory that is Amber Absolute (Tom Ford) he’s afraid to touch labdanum for fear of either never reaching those heights again or being accused of repeating himself. But then again, this is Christophe Laudamiel we’re talking about – a man who, as I’ve said before, when confronted with a straight line instinctively starts to zig zag wildly across the page like a wild hoss. He seems to create restlessly in one forward motion, refusing to circle back to even his most hallowed of halls.

So, no, this is not the benzoin-thickened incense amber of Amber Absolute, but (unexpectedly) the bright, hard sparkle of a champagne-and-vodka amber in the style of pre-reform Ambre Russe (Parfum d’Empire). Like a shot of those clear gold liquors served in the Alps after dinner, I’m not sure which I want to do more – drink it or apply it to a wound. It smells…well, excuse my language, but fucking amazing. How does a perfumer get amber to smell as rich as leather but as transparent as jelly?

My nose fails me when it comes to the other notes. I don’t get any of the green, hay-like barnyardiness of narcissus (unless it’s giving the dirty straw notes in the Hindi oud some welly) or indeed any of the gentler, more jasmine-like nuances of the jonquil variety, and there’s nary a hint of rose. I don’t perceive the benzoin at all, which is strange because even if I can’t smell it, I can usually feel it thickening the texture of the basenotes into a flurry of papery dust.

What I smell in Fallintostars is really an act in three parts: Hindi oud, followed by champagne-and-vodka amber, and finally a huge honking myrrh not listed anywhere. Of course, it’s entirely possible that Christophe has managed to work the inky, astringent tones of saffron and hina attar (henna) with his feverish fingers into the shape of a rubbery, mushroomy myrrh. It’s also possible that it’s just myrrh.

Anyway, what I like about this perfume is that it transcends its raw materials to make you think about the way it is composed. The modern, near slavish adoration at the foot of complex-smelling naturals such as Hindi oud or rose or labdanum often results in muddy, brown-tinged accords that speak more to their own worthiness than to joy, especially in the indie sector. In Fallintostars, Christophe Laudamiel takes heavy hitters like Hindi oud and makes it smell like bottled fireflies. And that is alchemy, pure and simple.

Disclosure: A sample of Fallintostars was sent to me by Strangelove NYC for review. My opinions are my own.

Image by Alina Zakovyrko from Pixabay

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Francesca Bianchi Lost in Heaven and The Black Knight

30th October 2019

The amount of depravity Francesca Bianchi subjects orris root to, I don’t know to be scared of meeting her in a dark alley – or take her out for an Aperol Spritz. People are just now starting to talk about a Bianchi DNA, but I think that her signature was fairly evident from her first releases. If I were to sum it up, I’d say that Bianchi takes materials that seem innocuous and innocent in and of themselves – light suede, powdery orris, fresh vetiver – and works them over with a knuckleduster until they smell rough around the edges and distinctly unclean.

I wonder if, when Luca Turin said in The Guide 2018 that most of the creativity in perfume these days was coming out of Italy, he meant Italians are not afraid of making a statement? Because that’s true in Francesca Bianchi’s case. She doesn’t shy away from pungency or notes that traverse the scale from matted bear to Siamese kitty. But while I wouldn’t rate Bianchi’s perfumes as particularly beginner-friendly, there’s an (Italianate?) smoothness of finish that renders them beautifully wearable. In fact, I can’t think of any other indie whose work falls into that tight space between animalism and polish as neatly as Francesca Bianchi (although Marlou comes very close).  

Although very different to each other, it’s hard not to see Lost in Heaven and The Black Knight as anything other than two sides of the same coin, joined as they are not only by their twinned launch but by the patented Bianchi move of perverting the aloofness of orris with rude skin musks and the salty, urinous twang of ambergris. Leather is the outcome in one; a diffuse taffeta ruff in the other. But something about both perfumes make me think, ‘Francesca Bianchi, you are a bad, bad girl’.

The Black Knight in particular drives me wild. It took me a bit of time to understand it, but after ten days straight of wearing the damn thing, I’m all in. Opening with a hoary ‘Old Man and the Sea’ vetiver that smells like a bunch of whiskey-sozzled men in damp tweed around an open fire in a cramped little Irish cottage beside the sea, it immediately establishes a tone of neglect and closed-up spaces. Slightly analogous to vintage Vetiver by Annick Goutal and Muschio di Quercia by Abdes Salaam al Attar, the vetiver here is denuded of all freshness and twisted into a grungy leather that smells more like something dug up from the bowels of the earth than grass. But for all its salt-encrusted, boozy ‘staleness’, I think The Black Knight succeeds for much the same reason that Patchouli 24 does, in that it balances out a smoky, barely civilized leather accord with a softening layer of something sweet and balmy, delivering both the sting of the whip and a soothing caress in one go.

The Black Knight swaps out the birch tar of the Le Labo for an interesting cuir accord built mostly (as far as I can tell) from that hulking vetiver and some of the bitter, meaty Cellier-esque, Isobutyl quinoline-infused leather that’s been popping up quite a bit recently (see Rose et Cuir). It takes some time to dry down into that softening layer of balmy beeswax – infinitely more balanced than the sweetness in Patchouli 24, which is more sugary and vanilla extract-like in character – so before we settle in for the final, long drawn-out waltz of leather and cream, there’s a surprising development or two.

Most notably, past the opening of dusty ‘grumpy old man’ vetiver, an animalistic accord emerges, pungent and sticky with honey, and almost honking with the freshly-urinated-upon-hay stink of narcissus. Bianchi’s treatment of orris is fascinating to me – she can make it high-toned and mineralic, or funky with the low-tide halitosis of ambergris or blow it out into a big, civety floral cloud. Here, the orris is briefly pungent, with disturbing hints of rubber, boot polish, tar, and urine. This pissy-rubbery stage almost never fails to surprise me – and I’ve been wearing these two samples for the past ten days straight. Don’t smell your skin too closely and you might miss it entirely.  

The Black Knight seems to go on forever, dawdling in that balmy double act of creamed beeswax and ‘hard’ leather before eventually dropping all the sweetness, leaving only mineralic dust and the faint whiff of marshy runner’s sweat (a drydown it shares with Le Labo Patchouli 24). The Black Knight is a bolshy, mouthing-off-in-all-directions strop of scent that’s probably not the easiest thing for a total beginner to carry off. But it’s striking as hell, and never less than sexy.   

I can never tell if Lost in Heaven is a civety floral or a floral civet. There’s a brocaded sourness of honey, pale ale, and resin in the far drydown that gives it something to rest against. But mostly this is a bunch of dollhead-sweet flowers blown out into a diffuse cloud of satiny musks and underlined with something very, very unclean – like leaning in to kiss and girl and catching a suggestion of unwashed pillowcases, scalp, and skin that’s already been licked.

At first, Lost in Heaven reminds me very much of other vaguely retro indie floral civets (or civety florals), especially Maria Candida Gentile’s irisy Burlesque – a mini of which I bought for myself as a birthday present and am rapidly burning through – and Mardi Gras by Olympic Orchids. Then it strikes me that it’s not only the civet (or technically, the ambergris in the case of Lost in Heaven) that’s linking all these scents in my mind, but a certain indie treatment of the iris, or orris, that they all share. I’ve smelled it in Andy Tauer’s iris-centric work too, most notably in Lonesome Rider and his more recent Les Années 25, and it runs like a hot streak through Francesca Bianchi’s work.

The only way I can describe this specifically indie orris treatment is this: take a huge mineral-crusted rock from the beach, wipe it down quickly with a lemony disinfectant, stick it in a clear glass kiln and turn up the heat to 1370 degrees C until it vaporizes, filling the closed-in space with a glittering miasma of acid, mica, and lime-like tartness. I have a suspicion that a matchstick’s worth of Ambrox or Cetalox is the fuse that ignites the orris here, with castoreum creating that dusty, soot-like dryness that approaching freshly tanned leather or suede. The end result is a rather sour and acid-tinged iris that smells like you’re smelling the material diffused in the air after a lab explosion rather than from anything growing in nature. Actually, to be fair – I’ve smelled this ‘hot lava stone’ treatment of orris in landmark Guerlains too, most notably in Attrape-Coeur (one of my all-time favorite scents), which layers a dollop of peach and raspberry jam over a bed of these hissing-hot iris rocks and watches for the chemical reaction. Fridge-cold jam against hot minerals, with a side of sweet, rubbery dollhead, all blown out into sour, almost boozy mist – well, what’s not to like, really?

God, I only hope I’m making sense to someone out there.  

Image by Mark Frost from Pixabay