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The Attar Guide: Floral Reviews (P-R)

13th December 2021

 

 

Prima T (Bruno Acampora)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Prima T is a musky floral chypre that leans on the authentic stink of natural floral absolutes for the bulk of its structure.  The standout floral here is clearly the narcissus, an oily green floral note that mysteriously turns to pollen dust on the skin.  Narcissus is an interesting flower because it smells fresh and green, but also funky, like the compacted layer of soiled hay in a horse stall.

 

The fertile honk of narcissus up front is backed by a compact webbing of roses, lily, muguet, and jasmine, which, though less distinct than the narcissus, lends a beautifully creamy, retro vibe to the fragrance.  While there is no moss involved, the earthy greenness of galbanum resin lends an ashy bitterness that fills in the oakmoss blank on the chypre form.  The effect is like cigarette smoke blown through a bouquet of mixed flowers.

 

Prima T smells old-fashioned in the best possible sense.  It recalls a period of perfumery where the powdery richness of flowers such as daffodils and roses were celebrated rather than relegated to the background, or God forbid, derided as old-womanish or grandmotherly.  As far as examples of narcissus-centered fragrances go, Prima T is more color-saturated than the current-day version of Chamade (Guerlain), as well as creamier and more animalic than the now sadly discontinued Le Temps d’Une Fête (Parfums de Nicolaï).

 

In other words, fans of this particular green floral style would do well to look in the direction of Prima T, especially if currently-available versions of old favorites have suffered badly through reformulation and cost-cutting exercises.

 

 

 

Princess Jawaher Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Princess Jawaher opens with a juicy bergamot on top of some warm, fuzzy oud, stretching its limbs out into a beautiful bouquet of sweet, creamy flowers – jasmine, neroli, and ylang.  The floral accord is so limpid and sweet you might be tempted to neck it like a liqueur.

 

Backing the volley of floral and citrus notes is an oud note that has been cleaned up for public consumption.  There is no bilious sourness or rank animal scat that might challenge the average Western nose.  But the oud note is not linear, either.  It begins its life as a warm, high-toned note akin to leather or hay, but picks up traces of smoke, resin, and woodiness as it approaches the final stretch.  And honestly, were it not for the gravitas that this note adds, Princess Jawaher Blend might be just another light, unremarkable floral.

 

Following the creamy whoosh of white and yellows florals of the opening, a jammy rose rises like a Phoenix, the suddenness of its arrival a wonderful shock.  This neon-colored rose gives definition to the creamier white florals, and when the flowers meet the oud, perfect synchronicity between smoke and sweetness, florals and woods, cream and spice, is achieved. Held together by the toothsome chew of caramelized amber, this is the kind of thing that makes me forgive Abdul Samad Al Qurashi for the bubblegummy floral dross they often try to palm off on us females.

 

The jump in quality or complexity between the lower price echelons of the big Emirati houses and the top tier is sudden rather than incremental.  Take Princess Jawaher Blend, for example.  This is listed as ~$365 per tola.  A favorite of mine from the lower-end blends, Al Ghar, costs $135 per tola.  I like them both.  They pursue broadly similar themes.  Realistically, what could possibly justify the price difference between these two oils of $230?  

 

For many customers – absolutely nothing.  Yet, there is an undeniable hike in quality and complexity from Al Ghar to Princess Jawaher Blend, most notably in the quality (and quantity) of oud used.  Compared to Princess Jawaher Blend, Al Ghar now feels light, simple, and almost insubstantial.  This is to not detract from Al Ghar, but to point out that, in oil-based perfumery, the correlation between price and quality is much tighter than in commercial or niche perfumery.

 

 

 

Rain (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Have no fear – despite the name, there is really nothing aquatic about Rain.  Rather, this is a clean floral musk with a tender, fluffy-pillow of (at a guess) mint, rose, hawthorn, amber, pale woods, and heliotrope.  It is cucumberish in parts, as well as lightly honeyed, leading me to think that this is largely a mimosa-centered composition.

 

In style, it is similar to Jo Malone’s Mimosa and Cardamom, as well as to Malle’s luminous L’Eau d’Hiver.  The only fault I find with Rain is that it is reminiscent of several nineties mainstream scents as well as the clean, breezy (but ultimately flimsy) style of Jo Malone.  And for this kind of money, one expects something a bit more, well, special.

 

 

 

Rayaheen (Amouage)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

A varnish-like Taifi rose explodes upon first contact with skin, painting the air in a glistening slick of thorns, lemons, and solvent. The rose in Rayaheen runs very close to the acid-tinged ‘bloody rose’ accords in Amouage’s Opus X.  Although not listed, I suspect the sharpening presence of geranium leaf, because there is a metallic glint to the rose that gives the scent a blue-green gleam, like petrol on a puddle.  This aspect causes the rose to shimmer hard, in an almost preternatural way.  The shiny, disco-bright rose is, in turn, supported by sweeter, smokier notes, which to my nose, consist of mostly frankincense mixed with dry tobacco leaf.  Rayaheen is unfortunately very difficult to find now.

 

 

 

Red Rose (Al Rehab)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Red Rose is a dupe for Kenzo’s Flower, which means that it is a clean, powdery rose resting on a pillow of white musks.  The opening is sharp and green, with a minty swagger that reminds me of violet leaf or geranium, but soon settling into a pale, rosy powder.  It smells girlish, like rose-scented lipsticks, body dusting powder, and those Pierre Hermes Ispahan macarons.  A silvery thread of carnation emphasizes the spicy vintage floral vibe. 

 

Red Rose is perfectly pitched as a young girl’s first rose scent.  But I would also recommend it to lovers of the retro-vibed cosmetic genre, which includes scents such as Teint de Neige (Lorenzo Villoresi), Ombre Rose (Brosseau), and even Lipstick Rose (Malle).  Personally, I think it smells rather like a bar of pink soap, which is a nice thing to smell like once in a blue moon.  (I imagine it working well in a water shortage).

 

 

 

Rêve Narcotique (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

A beautiful mukhallat that was originally composed as a tribute to vintage Opium, Rêve Narcotique turns out to be a much softer, retro-styled floral amber than the all-out spice and resin bomb I had been expecting.  Vintage Opium’s floral note comes from a carnation-rose axis, shored up by a hot, powdery clove note that blows even more heat into the smoky, balsamic base.  Rêve Narcotique, in contrast, builds its floral component along a warmer, creamier axis of ylang, gardenia, jasmine, and tuberose, producing a slightly grassy floral bouquet that counterpoints the smoky, balsamic basenotes more dramatically.

 

The predominant floral here – to my nose at least – is a dark, phenolic jasmine surrounded by smoldering resins, making it difficult not to draw a dotted line between Rêve Narcotique and Anubis (Papillon). But unlike Anubis, which ends in a fiery bath of smoldering resins and chewed-out leather, Rêve Narcotique slides into an extended gardenia-tuberose riff.

 

The gardenia in Rêve Narcotique begins quietly but quickly gathers pace to become a surprisingly significant player in the composition.  It has an almost savory thickness that is very satisfying, like wild mushroom soup with lashings of double cream.  The green milkiness of the note also reminds one of the slightly grassy taste of fresh Irish butter, recalling the meadows in which the cows have grazed.  It is rare to find a gardenia note as good as this, so gardenia lovers should make sampling this mukhallat a priority.

 

On balance, the florals in Rêve Narcotique are dark, serious, and ultimately, delicate.  People who are afraid of the loudness and shrill sweetness of the Big White Floral category of fragrances need not worry about the florals in Rêve Narcotique.  Natural floral enfleurages and absolutes, minus any synthetics to sharpen them into a sonic boom that can be felt several rooms over, tend to be subtly fragrant rather than loud.  Furthermore, the grassiness of the gardenia and the burnt-tire smokiness of the jasmine take the florals here as far away from that big bouquet of wedding flowers as you can get.

 

 

 

Rose Bouquet (April Aromatics)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Rose Bouquet is the oil version of Rosenlust, the eau de parfum.  Both are rose-centered compositions that blend Turkish rose otto with Bulgarian rose, rosewood, pink grapefruit, tonka bean, orris, and ambrette.  The quality of the rose absolutes and ottos used here is great, with the meaty lushness of the Turkish varietal and the sour sharpness of Bulgarian roses duking it out in a glorious battle that benefits everyone. 

 

Unusually, the usual ratios of complexity versus simplicity found in comparing the eau de parfum and oil formats are reversed here, with the eau de parfum emerging as a fresh, powdery rose soliflore, while the civety lavender-vanilla dimension of the oil version turns it a rose-heavy version of Jicky (Guerlain).  It is a surprise, but a welcome one.  In this case, the oil takes home the prize.

 

 

 

Rose Galata (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Rose Galata shares a certain citronella-like brightness with Rose Snow, below, but is fuller in body – velvet compared to cotton.  Laced with a red hot, Eugenol-rich carnation note, it rasps along in a rather loud, cigarette-hoarse voice that I find rather attractive.  A spiced amber in the base fills out the air pockets, lending it an extra heft around the hips that perhaps it does not need.  Heady, spicy, but with spectacularly poor volume control, Rose Galata is for rose purists who enjoy the stadium-filling radiance of scents such as Opium (Yves Saint Laurent) and Cinnabar (Estée Lauder). 

 

 

 

Rose L’Orange (April Aromatics)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Rose L’Orange is a fizzy orange crème petit fours enlivened with a bitter, green-tipped rose.  It possesses an unusual texture that moves from syrupy to powdery without ever straying into sweetness.  It feels instantly feels happy, sunny, and maybe even a little sexy, in a good-natured way.   It is not dark or cluttered.  The orange blossom note in Rose L’Orange also gives the perfume a mealy ‘corn masa’ facet similar to that of L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Seville à L’Aube.  

 

While the eau de parfum stays firmly in the happy place between creamy orange and green rose, the oil version plays up the intense bitterness of the rose otto, with an edge as herbal as a sheaf of freshly-crushed lavender.  Volume-wise, the oil is thinner and flatter than the eau de parfum, as if all the notes have been compressed into one line.

 

The oil version is considerably less sweet than the original eau de parfum, even though the original itself is not terribly sweet.  The oil lacks both the snappy effervescence of the original format, as well as a certain creaminess, which could be seen as a plus for men.  Think of the oil format here as almost a pure Taifi-style rose otto compared to the fully-fleshed-out rose composition that is the eau de parfum. 

 

 

 

Rose Myosotis (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Rose?  No, not rose, but rather heliotrope, violets, and orange blossom.  Despite the name, Rose Myosotis is a powdery, deep-bosomed floral amber in the L’Heure Bleue (Guerlain) mold, all violet-eyed seduction and steely sexual intent – think Maggie in that white dress in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

 

A doughy, spiced ylang heart tightens the memory link to the pre-war Guerlain.  But there is also a suggestion of Bal à Versailles (Jean Desprez) and the newer Cuir Cannage (Dior).  Rose Myosotis is an old-fashioned, spicy poudrée – a Hermes leather toiletries case smeared with lipstick, powder, bubblegum, gasoline, and a winning dollop of ladylike skank.  It is gorgeous but also tremendously sweet.  Check your blood sugar levels and then gorge yourself.

 

 

 

Rose Oud (Mr. Perfume)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

The Mr. Perfume dupe lands in the same general area as the original By Kilian Rose Oud (rose, saffron, oud with a fruity Turkish delight edge), and indeed, someone not overly familiar with the original might find it to be an adequate replacement.  But worn side by side with the original, the differences are clear.

 

The original opens with a tart, lemony rose that feels like Turkish rose petals dipped into acid green bergamot, before softening into dry, saffron-led leather.  The dupe, on the other hand, is immediately softer, jammier, and sweeter, its rose note candied in salep and thickened with amber.  Texture-wise, the rose in the dupe is wet and jellied, the background notes sweetly ambery in the classic Arabian style.  The original is brighter, drier, and more elegant, tilting slightly more towards tart-sour than candied. 

 

The original is more complex and refined, unfolding its different phases slowly over time, whereas the dupe delivers all the action upfront.  Projection and longevity are roughly on a par, although the oil starts with a loud bang and then fades into a whisper, while the original maintains a steady volume throughout.

 

Overall, this is not a bad job.  Many people may even prefer the easygoing sweetness and raspberry jam notes of the dupe over the more austere original.  In terms of accuracy, however, the jamminess of the rose note pushes the dupe away from By Kilian Rose Oud and into territory more comfortably occupied by Tauer Perfumes Rose Flash.

 

 

 

Rose Oudh (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Rose Oudh draws upon the power of geranium to fuel the full-bodied rosiness of the composition.  Geranium also lops in a minty-herbaceous tingle, the bitterness of citrus peel, and a shiny boot polish note.  Violet leaf sharpens the opening to a knife point.  It smells rather like blood, varnish, and rose petals ripped from a thorny rose bush, lending the perfume an angry, even hostile edge. 

 

Saffron dominates in the far reaches, whittling the rosy geranium until it becomes a rose-oud in the style of By Kilian’s Rose Oud, minus the soft lokhoum note to ease you in.  Bitter honey adds an animalic flavor but no sweetness or thickness.  This is the sort of accord that fits with my idea of ‘haute couture’ Arabian perfumery – angular and uncompromising, a jutting chin chiseled in granite.  

 

 

 

Roses (Al Rehab)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

A surprisingly true-to-life rendition of the traditional Bulgarian rose.  The extent to which you will enjoy Roses very much depends on the type of exposure you have had to this type of rose, which is sharp and leafy-sour rather than lush or jammy.  While some may experience unpleasant flashbacks to the rose toiletries used by their grandmothers, others will experience only the thrilling pungency of a dewy rose freshly-ripped from an English garden.  It is all about context, baby.

 

The closest commercial counterpart to Roses is perhaps Tea Rose by The Perfumer’s Workshop (more natural-smelling) or Rose Absolue by Annick Goutal (lusher, fuller).  If you know those fragrances, then use them as a personal yardstick to judge your likely reaction to Roses by Al Rehab.  Personally, you couldn’t pay me to wear this, but I recognize it could as easily be manna from heaven to someone else.

 

 

 

Rose Sahara (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

The perfumers at Henry Jacques are evidently very proud of their virulently citrusy rose, because it turns up in at least three compositions – Rose Sahara, Rose Galata, and Rose Snow.  To describe the minute differences between them all is to split hairs.  Honestly, smell one and you have smelled them all.

 

Rose Snow is the purest exposition of the note, in that it is really just a vehicle for the rose and little else.  Rose Galata adds spice and amber to raise the volume to stadium-filling levels.  Rose Sahara switches out the amber for ambergris, resulting in a much more strident, saltier composition.  Out of the three, Rose Sahara is the driest and sternest, and therefore perhaps the version that will most appeal to the male sex.  (A hint of ‘hard leather’ in the drydown makes it official.) 

 

 

 

Rose Snow (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Rose Snow is a bright, citrusy rose with all the acidity of a Taifi rose but none of its resinous lemon peel and pepper notes.  It smells like the color lime green.  When the aroma settles, the scent of a freshly-cut cabbage rose emerges, simultaneously blowsy and sharp.  The citronal and geraniol components of rose oil have been drawn out and exaggerated here by their closest living relatives in the natural world, namely verbena and a minty-rosy geranium.  With its unfortunate resemblance to the scent of a citronella candle, the outcome is unfortunately more suited to fighting off mosquitoes than members of the opposite sex. 

 

Rose Snow will satisfy those for whom roses should only ever smell bright, clean, and flood-lit from all angles.  Lovers of dark, jammy roses can steer clear.

 

 

 

Rose Taifi Supreme (Arabian Oud)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

From the cap, Rose Taifi Supreme smells narcotic and deep, teeming with lush red berries, wine, and a raspberry sherbet rose.  On the skin, the lush fruits are sidelined by the tangy green spiciness of the Taifi rose, pitched searingly high, like black pepper sizzling on a dry pan over direct heat.

 

Rose Taifi Supreme smells simultaneously like the most intense rose you have ever smelled but also like a freshly-cut lemon and not at all like a rose.  It smells rosy at a distance, and fiercely spicy up close.  Together the disparate impressions mingle to form a 3D image of a Taifi rose, complete with its strong citronal facet. 

 

The drydown is weirdly addictive, a beguiling mixture of dry spice, freshly-cut grass, lemonade, cassis (both the berry and the leaf), and hot pink rose petals.  It is similar to Al Ta’if Rose Nakhb Al Arous from ASAQ, but while the ASAQ is so pure that it is absorbed into the bloodstream within the hour, Rose Taifi Supreme lasts far longer on the skin and boast phenomenal sillage.  Although there are no other notes listed other than Taifi rose, my guess is that a fixative of some sort – white musk perhaps – has been added to enhance performance.  Crucially, though, it does not smell diluted or synthetic. 

 

Rose Taifi Supreme is beautiful and uncompromising.   Make sure that you love Taifi rose before investing, but if you do, this oil is a safe bet. Taifi rose lovers will want to wear this straight, but for others, it will really come into its own as a layering agent to lend heavier, darker perfumes, attars, and oud oils a turbo-boost of dazzlingly pure rose.   

 

 

 

Rose TRO (Amouage)

Type: rose otto

 

 

Rose TRO is a lush, creamy rose guaranteed to satisfy the itch of rose lovers if Homage does not.  The TRO in Rose TRO stands for Turkish Rose Otto, which is Rosa Damascena that has been steam-distilled as opposed to chemically extracted (processes that yield rose absolute and CO2 extract rather than an otto).

 

The attar itself is clear in hue, but despite its translucence, the aroma that bursts onto the skin could only be described as deep red and gold streaks in a purple sky.  I was taken aback at how carnal the opening minutes of the fragrance felt on my skin.  Thick, heady, and drowning in beeswax, it recalled, for a moment, certain aspects of Lutens’ animalic rose chypre, Rose de Nuit.  Past the bluntly sexual opening, however, the attar drops its seductive growl and becomes a purring kitten of a thing.

 

Either the rose oil used in this is so multifaceted that it can throw out a startling range of rosy ‘tones’ or this attar relies on more than just Turkish Rose Otto for its effect.  Whatever the answer – and I doubt we will ever know the truth – the net effect is of something far more complex than one imagines a simple rose oil to be.

 

At the start, there is a whisper of something citric, but as the rose unfolds, notes of cream soda, milk chocolate, sugared cream, butter cookies, and lokhoum crowd in.  It is soft and truffly, but at the same time, dense and rich. Those whose taste runs towards the vanilla-rose-saffron combination found in scents such as Safran Troublant (L’Artisan Parfumeur) and White Oud (Montale) will likely love Rose TRO, because its rose is rendered in the same style, i.e., dessert-like rather than ripped from a bush.

 

Longevity is higher than average for a pure distilled rose otto, which normally disappears within the hour due to its volatile nature, leading me to suspect there’s at least a little fixative thrown into the mix to help extend the general deliciousness.  At $199 per tola, this was originally one of the true bargains of the Amouage attar line.  Alas, if you can find it now, it is likely to be more expensive, as is the way with most things that have been taken out of production.

 

 

 

Royal Patchouli (Ajmal)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Priced at the lower end of the Ajmal range, Royal Patchouli is nonetheless a thoroughly enjoyable mukhallat.  Belying the name, it is, at least initially, far more of a floral vanilla than a patchouli-forward affair.  Enriched with the heady bubblegum-banana aroma of ylang, the vanilla thickens up over the course of the wear into a semi-tropical custard – a cross between M. Micallef’s Ylang in Gold and Hiram Green’s Arbolé Arbolé.

 

This is not Le Labo, however, in that despite its rather secondary role here, there is a bit of the titular ingredient in the formula.  The patchouli is subtle, and surprisingly for this material, does not attempt to chew up the scenery.  It spends most of its time humming away in the background as a green, minty breath of fresh air.  A few hours in, a creamy amber takes over, and this is when the patchouli finally decides to kick it up a notch, doubling down on red-brown richness until the floral vanilla gains a waxy, white chocolate mien, for an almost Coromandel-esque vibe.

 

Ultimately, Royal Patchouli is a more than serviceable floral vanilla with minty-boozy patchouli undertones and an appealing eggnog-like texture.  For those who think they dislike any and all patchouli perfumes, from the middle-earth examples to the fruity ones like Thierry Mugler’s Angel, this mukhallat could prove to be acceptable middle ground.

 

 

 

Ruh al Mogra (Nemat)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

There is a certain poetry to the names and titles used in attar perfumery.  Ruh al Mogra, for example, translates to ‘soul of Sambac jasmine’, a fitting name for what is essentially an essential oil distilled from Sambac jasmine flowers, with no carrier oil diluting the distillate.  However, given the expense involved in producing even small quantities of a true ruh, it is unlikely that Nemat’s version, which costs $22 for four ounces (125 grams), is a pure essential oil.  Indeed, the Nemat site is charmingly upfront about this, calling Ruh al Mogra a blend rather than a pure essential oil.

                      

For all its lack of purity, Nemat’s Ruh al Mogra manages to pull off an impressively convincing accurate portrait of a Sambac jasmine essential oil.  At first, it is pungently green and screeches with the nail-varnishy wail of benzyl acetate, the grapey isolate in jasmine that gives both ylang and jasmine their petrol-like fruitiness.  This rather high-pitched opening might be a little nerve-wracking for anyone used to the creamy, fruity deliciousness of synthetic jasmine.  But it is also authentic to the way pure jasmine essential oil smells, so do not write it off just yet.  It gets better.

 

The aroma then flattens out into a cool, damp, earthy smell that has more in common with old wooden furniture and animal fur than flowers.  As the nose adjusts, one begins to perceive the very real, living aroma of a jasmine blooming on the vine.  This is Arabian jasmine, so there is plenty of leathery spice and an indolic character, but it differs from other Arabian jasmine attars by being less coarsely fruity.  There is an attractive dankness to this ruh suggestive of mud and closed-up rooms.

 

Once it settles, the jasmine aroma stays firmly in this earthy, musky track.  Interestingly, many Indian sellers wrongly translate mogra as ambrette seed, and the scent of this ruh makes me wonder if this common misunderstanding stems from the vegetal, ambrette-seed kind of muskiness inherent to natural jasmine oil.   Towards the far drydown, it becomes incredibly sour and musky – animalic to the point of offensiveness.  Still, it retains a modicum of dignity sillage-wise, and never projects too vulgarly.

 

This little oil is an education for the nose of a true jasmine lover.  Despite its lack of purity or refinement, it gives a very good, naturally rugged picture of Arabian jasmine.  Highly recommended for wearing alone or layered under other attars to give a blast of musky fecundity to whatever you’re wearing. 

 

 

 

Ruh Gulab (Nemat)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

As with most Nemat attars, Ruh Gulab is very good once you get past the off-putting topnotes, as well as any preconceived notion of what rose should smell like.  The shocker with Ruh Gulab – a name that translates to ‘soul of the Damask rose’ – is the cloud of bitter, sharp, soapy, and stale notes that bloom malevolently, like a nuclear mushroom cloud, on the skin upon application.  In fact, imagine all the undesirable facets of rose you have ever smelled, and you have just visualized the awfulness of the first half hour.

 

However, get past the rocky first bit and you land in rose heaven, specifically, a warm bath of pure, sweet Turkish rose that is almost syrupy in its richness.  There is a hint of rose jam too, although it never strays into gourmand territory.  The freshness, sparkle, sweetness, fullness – it is all there, and perfectly balanced so that no one single facet dominates.

 

Doubtless, this is not a pure ruh of rosa damascena given its relatively low cost, but for that brief stretch in the heart when it explodes into your consciousness as a pure ruh gulab, it is fabulous.  The base, which arrives a little sooner than one might wish, is a soapy musk of no distinction.  Still, this is worth the price of admission for its Damascus rose heart alone, and for the myriad of layering possibilities.  

 

 

 

Russian Centifolia (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: essential oil

 

 

There are some materials that, when you smell them in high levels of purity in a composition, have the power to move you to the very core, and rose is one of these.  Most people feel an emotional connection to the smell of a rose, with memories of garden walks, a childhood toiletry, or a beloved relative’s rose garden coming to mind straight away.  This reaction is evoked by a certain type of ‘English garden’ rose, which invariably smells dewy, as if freshly torn from its stem by a storm, its tightly furled center yielding its secret, familiar scent.

 

Russian Centifolia is an essential oil drawn from the cabbage rose, a blowsy, old-fashioned rose that whose scent many associate with the rose of their memories.  It is not spicy, but green, full-bodied, and lusciously rosy in a lacy kind of way.  Splutters of sourness stain the pink velvet but far from interfering with this oil’s serene beauty, they add to its sense of authenticity.  The oil slowly becomes spicier, darker, and takes on a musky tinge that runs close to animalic.  This is not an attar or a mukhallat.  However, its aroma is so rich and multifaceted that I include it in the hope that people buy it and wear it for its simple, evocative beauty.

 

 

 

 

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 samples from Amouage, Al Rehab, Nemat, Ajmal, Arabian Oud, Mr. Perfume, and Bruno Acampora. The samples from Sultan Pasha, April Aromatics, Rising Phoenix Perfumery, and Abdul Samad al Qurashi were sent to me free of charge either by the brand or a distributor.  Samples from Henry Jacques were sent to me by Basenotes friends in sample passes.  

 

 

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! 

 

Cover Image: Custom-designed by Jim Morgan.

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  

 

    

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Anamcara by Parfums Dusita

6th October 2021

 

The fact that something as weird and borderline confrontational as Anamcara by Parfums Dusita was workshopped in a Facebook group known for its strict ‘say something nice or don’t say anything at all’ policy is hilarious to me.  This is a humongous, syrupy fruity-floral that lurches at you with a pina colada in one hand and a baseball bat in the other.  Though striking, it is more feral than pretty.  Think less Juliette Binoche and more Béatrice Dalle.  

 

If you are familiar with the pungency of some floral absolutes in the raw, like jasmine, with its grapey nail solvent highnotes, or ylang, with its banana fuel-spill aspect, then you’re going to love Anamcara, because it features a massive overload of natural orange blossom.  If you’re unfamiliar with just how jolie laide naturals can smell or are new to the more artistic corners of niche-dom in general, however, Anamcara could be something of a shibboleth.

 

Because this is not the polite orange blossom of, say, Orange Blossom (Jo Malone) or Eau des Sens (Diptyque).  Rather, this is the weirdly medicinal gunk of cough syrups, hard-boiled orange throat lozenges, and vitamin C gummy bears sold in rickety little apothecaries all throughout Provence.  It reminds me very much of a holiday in Uzès, where everything from the ice-cream, honey, and chocolate to the bread (gibassier) seemed to be expensively infused with orange blossom or lavender essences and hyrosols.  I think of this perfumey oddness as distinctly French.

 

In Anamcara’s opening notes, I smell a dense ‘brown’ floral syrup diluted with a pour of carbonated water for an uplift that reminds me of the orangey Coca Cola fizz of Incense Rosé (Tauer). This is shot through with the fresh, lime-green bite of petitgrain, which also smells very French to me, recalling the openings to both Eau Sauvage and Diorella (Dior) as well as the later Mito (Vero Kern).   I can’t think of anything that smells quite like Anamcara in its totality, though.  I suppose that Rubj (Vero Kern again) in eau de parfum format is the fragrance that comes the closest, in terms of a shared focus on the medicinal ‘boiled sweet’ aspect of orange blossom.  But where Rubj piles on the sensuality with a shocking cumin seed note, Anamcara focuses on the weirdness of orange blossom alone.  There is also a savory or umami element to Anamcara, possibly from the sandalwood, that reads as more Asian than European.

 

If I had a criticism, it would be that Anamcara is overdosed (on something) to the point of being oppressive, a monolith of floral muck so densely muscled that it’s hard to make out the shape of any of the tendons or veins.  This will be somebody’s idea of floral bliss, no doubt, just not mine.  I can’t wear fragrances like this – they wear me down, defying my attempt to parse them out.  I do, however, respect the hell out of Pissara Umavijani’s refusal to color inside the lines on this one.  Despite the ‘rainbows and unicorns’ vibe of its origin story, Anamcara will push buttons as well as boundaries.

 

 

Note: As widely reported, Anamcara translates roughly to ‘soul friend’ in Irish (and Scots Gaelic, which is similar), though ‘soul mate’ is probably closer in modern parlance. As an Irish person (and Irish speaker) myself, I can tell you that the vocative form of ‘cara’ is used very often in day to day speech, i.e.,  ‘mo chara’ to say ‘yo my fine friend’ and ‘a chara’ to mean Dear Sir/Modom when writing a letter to the Irish Times complaining that last week’s crossword puzzle was wrong or that the banks are running this country into the ground, etc. So it’s funny to see these words appear on a fancy French perfume. 

 

Source of sample: Sent to me free of charge by the brand. My review and thoughts are my own.

 

Photo by Mohammad Metri on Unsplash

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Kintsugi by Masque Milano

13th October 2020

Kintsugi by Masque Milano smells the way those mysterious salted fruits and chutneys in an Asian restaurant taste – perfumey, bitter, and dark in a way that sucks all the moisture out of your mouth while simultaneously flicking your salivary glands into action. Like in Mitsouko (Guerlain) and Iris 39 (Le Labo), two perfumes that this reminds me of in idea if not execution, the secret to Kintsugi’s successful navigation of that narrow line between repulsion and attraction lies in its lack of legibility.

Kintsugi has been billed as a modern chypre, and refreshingly, that is exactly what it is. Chypres are like a good Chinese meal, balancing a complex range of sweet, sour, bitter, and salty flavors against each other to produce a very satisfying (but completely abstract) sense of completeness. The result is strange and exotic, imprinting on the imagination in a way soliflores and straight-up ambers cannot. This is all present and correct in Kintsugi, so no need to quibble about which material has been chosen to stand in for the moss. The effect is there.

As all good chypres do,  Kintsugi revolves around a complex set of juxtapositions. It is cigarette-ashy but also bread-doughy, syrup-sweet but also vermouth-dry, and as vegetal as parsnips but also as perfumey as your mother’s best going-out perfume. Adding to the drama is a shiny, neon-lit fruit note flashing against the desiccated patchouli hulking malevolently in the background.

But like with many Le Labos, and especially Iris 39, what really sets this thing on fire is the pairing of things that smell natural – polished woods, incense, earth, rose petal potpourri – with things that smell industrial, like latex paint, printer chemicals, calligraphy ink, and linseed oil.

Kintsugi is the perfume equivalent of those duochrome eyeshadows that appear bottle green straight on but peacock blue when you turn your head. Sometimes it exactly smells like the grand, tassels-bedecked kind of thing you imagine Oscar Wilde drenching his velvet curtains with, and sometimes like your old school stationary cupboard with a bunch of kids getting high on solvents.

It dries down quickly to the pungent but virile smell of the horse ring, the air thick with saddle leather, sawdust, and the warm muskiness specific to a freshly-exercised horse. I suppose you could also call it cedar but that doesn’t capture even two percent of the total mood that Kintsugi has going on here.   

Kintsugi is a love-hate kind of thing, for sure. I hated it when I first smelled it, and then I loved it. And I might hate it the next time I smell it, who knows? People used to the taste of fermented things – natto, kimchi, tea – will cleave as easily to this perfume as they might to oud oil or osmanthus absolute, sharing with this perfume as they do that unique dichotomy of (leathery) dryness and (fruity-cheesey) funkiness.

Based on the resounding silence that greeted this perfume when it launched in 2019, it is fair to say that Kintsugi’s appeal is not immediate. And I get it. Forget about Kintsugi being people-pleasing – it is barely even me-pleasing. But for all its oddness, I find Kintsugi exciting, like a strange flavor of wine or cough syrup or gummy bear that only exists in Japan, and therefore utterly foreign to me.

Source of sample: Purchased from Swedish retailer, Fragrance & Art, in November 2019. A friend of mine kindly sent me another sample of it a couple of days ago, jogging my memory and prompting this review.

Cover Image: Photo by Tokyo Luv on Unsplash

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The Cult of Raw Materials: Treewitch by Teone Reinthal and Antiquity by Areej Le Doré

10th September 2020

A common assumption in evaluating all-natural fragrances – thanks in large part to the Cult of Raw Materials that has sprung up around top-tier artisanal, distill-it-yourself houses such as Bortnikoff and Areej Le Doré – is that the presence of a rare natural like oud or sandalwood automatically translates to a superior composition. Another is that because the starring raw material is rare and natural, it must be – by corollary – the best example of its kind among all available rare and natural materials.

Both are fallacies. The first correlates the quality of a natural raw material with compositional skill, which, while tempting, just doesn’t bear out. The second assumption flirts with the idea that most fragrance fans won’t be able to differentiate between a top notch raw material and a shitty one as long as there is demonstrably some of it in the scent. In other words, as long as it smells oudy or sandalwoody or deer-musky, then that’s the main bar cleared.

Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash

Treewitch by Teone Reinthal demonstrates the problems inherent to the latter. While I enjoy many of Reinthal’s other compositions and think she does a fantastic job of creating all-natural fragrances that smell like fully-fledged, 1980s powerhouse orientals rather than the slightly dull, worthy muddiness of most all-natural scents, Treewitch just doesn’t really smell that great, despite the rare and natural oud that has been used.

Or maybe it is because of the rare and natural oud that’s been used? While the oud is obviously real, it doesn’t smell like a very good one. Rather, it smells like an oud oil that has either been hastily distilled (many modern Cambodi-style oils display an unpleasantly stale nuance that smells like radiators being cranked up after many years) or force-aged, a post-distillation process that involves leaving the oil uncovered for weeks until it picks up the biliously-sour hay and leather high notes of the traditional Hindi profile.         

The good news is that a) it gets better, and b) if you haven’t had much oud-smelling experience, then you’ll likely not know or care about the difference between high quality and low quality oud – oud is, for most people, just a generally broad oud ‘flavor’ profile, in that it either smells authentically oudy or it doesn’t. Depressingly, in this age of the Cult of Raw Materials, many perfume aficionados believe that this binary indicator (smells like real oud – yay or nay) trumps the famous Guy Robert assertion that ‘Un parfum doit avant tout sentir bon.’     

And indeed, perfume should, above all, smell good. Treewitch does not. It opens with a grandstanding blast of honest-to-goodness Hindi oud – phenomenally dusty, animalic, with a hulking sour note that, on the inhale, smells like unwashed towels left to molder in a holiday let, and on the exhale, like a glass of Irish whiskey left on the counter for several days. It categorically does not smell like earth or the forest or the wilderness (the perfumer’s description had me visualizing something like Chypre Mousse, Muschio di Quercia or even Supercell), but of the unpleasant staleness of neglected fabrics and the dust trapped behind appliances that haven’t been touched in decades.

I love the undervalued scent of mustiness, but more the air of cultured neglect clinging to old books (Dzing!) or closed-up aristocratic lairs (Iranzol) than something genuinely unhealthy. I love the moldy dankness of stuff like Marescialla and the peeling wall plaster lurking behind the innocent violet topnote of Iris by Santa Maria Novella. Onda extrait and Djedi make me think of ancient sarcophagi being opened. But I cannot love the staleness of the oud used in Treewitch, because it smells like the poor hygiene of real neglect rather than a romanticized version of it.

True to form for Teone Reinthal’s style, however, a rich, spicy oriental base swells up to muffle the offending oud in an intricately-woven carpet of 1980s Opium or Coco – bittersweet red-brown balsams, tree sap, amber crystals, clove or carnation, all adding up to a spicy-mature orientalia clustering around a hot pink floral note that could be anything from carnation to rose. An amazing finish, therefore, but not quite amazing enough (for me personally) to make up for the objectionably foul-smelling oud in the front half.

Photo by Benjamin Ranger on Unsplash

Antiquity by Areej Le Doré is a good example of the first assumption, i.e., that a superb raw material is synonymous with compositional artistry. Now, Antiquity is a perfume that uses a natural raw material of superb quality – an aged Cambodi oud oil – and also smells really good (meeting that Guy Robert benchmark). However, and this might sound a bit controversial, the reason Antiquity smells so good is 80% due to the quality of that aged oud oil rather than to compositional skill.

I mean absolutely no offense to Russian Adam. He is a very promising, self-taught perfumer who has managed, in the space of just three years, to carve out and then completely dominate his own niche in the narrow crawlspace between the super-competitive, internecine oud community and the niche all-naturals crowd, building a committed fan base while remaining polite, loyal to his customers, and ethically-responsible. His perfumes are rich, big, and dripping in complex raw materials. There’s also a purity to him as a person that I appreciate.

However, I’d argue that Russian Adam’s real talent lies not in composing perfumes per se, but in finding (or distilling) two or three of the best raw materials for each composition, introducing them to each other, and then staying the hell out of their way, allowing them to work their synergistic magic on one another. This is the way, by and large, an Eastern way of making perfume – it is how attar wallahs work. Russian Adam clearly understands how each raw material will behave and evolve in a composition when placed alongside other raw materials. It is easy to mistake the richness of an attar-like perfume made in this manner for the gloss of classically French or Western perfumery – I’ve done it myself – but I think that the Guerlainesque richness and complexity we are smelling has more to do with the qualities of the raw materials that go into these perfumes than a ‘French’ way of making perfume. They feel composed more by instinct than formula.

As a result, if you love the raw material Russian Adam has used, then you’ll love the perfume itself, with the inverse also being true. Sometimes, if I don’t love the raw material he’s chosen, I find myself picking up on a certain blockiness to the composition, which tells me that really great raw materials can blow you away, masking the underlying compositional features one might otherwise notice or criticize. For example, the unctuously buttery labdanum used in two of Russian Adam’s oud-dominated fragrances, Oud Piccante, and to a lesser extent in Russian Oud, is not my favorite: it reminds me uncomfortably of the savory-greasiness of that sub-cutaneous layer of fat you have to excise from your lamb shank before braising it. Therefore, Oud Zen, which uses a nutty vetiver instead of this greasy labdanum in the base, strikes as the more elegant composition.  

I love the Cambodi oud used in Antiquity, because it smells like a vintage Cambodi oud oil (Kambodi 1976) that Ensar sent me a sample of once. What many people don’t realize is that the trees that made the original (and deservedly popular) Cambodi oud oil of the 1970s no longer exist, thanks to over-exploitation. New Aquilaria trees were planted, of course, but it turns out that subsequent harvests could never replicate the unique conditions of the original trees, which some suspect had something to do with the cleaner water and air quality ‘achieved’ during the forced agrarian rule of Pol Pot. Ensar asserts that of the existing Cambodi oil on the market today, less than 5% is vintage stock from the original trees, while the remainder is oud oil distilled to mimic the Cambodi ‘style’ – and it seems to me that Adam got his hands on a little store of the real stuff.   

It’s worth taking a minute to discuss what vintage Cambodi oud oil smells like on its own, because (a) Antiquity smells mostly like vintage Cambodi oud oil, and (b) not many people will have had the opportunity to smell the OG raw material itself. Unlike the hyper sweet berries-and-caramel punch of modern Cambodi-style oud oils, marred in some cases by the funky, dusty staleness associated with rushed distillation, vintage Cambodi oil from the original trees has had a leisurely 40+ years to deepen in the bottle, the sharp edges of the woods and berries sanded down over time to produce a perfectly round, glossy smell of old leather and decades-old wood.

The OG Cambodi oil doesn’t smell at all animalic, and if it is slightly dusty or stale, then it more pleasant than not – an old cedar chest that once held damsons and figs, but where the fruit has long since disappeared into the grain of the wood, leaving a ghostly presence of its dark, raisin-like fruit. It has a patina that glimmers darkly, calling to mind a good aged port.

In Antiquity, the fruit is ostensibly peach but it is the darker, vaguer scent of plum skin that predominates. Sometimes the underlying basenote is an intensely honeyed, saliva-ish musk-leather, but sometimes it smells more like the polish of old wood that has been cared for over decades with a weekly application of linseed-and-lemon furniture oil. The saliva-honey leather note intensifies with the passage of time, creating a sharp, almost sheepy muskiness that calls to mind the aroma of real animal fur or an ancient leather chesterfield armchair decades-deep in manly smells – fermented sweat, old booze, decades of grime, tobacco stains – a sort of sweet n’ sour smell that smells distinctly (to me) masculine.  

The Cambodi oil is the big, deep smell that drives the body of the scent, but cleverly, Adam has dressed it up with light chypric elements to extend and accentuate key features of the oil. I admit that little of this chypre nuance was evident to me when I tried this in Rome, where I lived until recently, a place far warmer and more humid than where I live right now. The first few tries, I thought Antiquity was leaning far too hard on the natural complexity of the oud oil to do all the heavy lifting. But in a cooler climate, and by applying the dregs of my sample in big brown smears all over my arms, I am finally able to smell the chypre in this – the tart, spicy bergamot in the topnotes (still no aldehydes, though), and far down in the basenotes, past the massive Cambodi oud midsection, that buttery-animalic-leathery labdanum that Adam uses (the kind that smells like it was freshly combed from a particularly goaty goat) and in the very last gasps of its life, a whisper of something minty and vase water-ish that is probably the oakmoss.

So, yes, technically a chypre if you are ticking off the boxes of the tripartite formula – bergamot, labdanum, and moss. And yet, Antiquity still smells more like an amplified vintage Cambodi oud oil set in musk than a chypre. Real chypres are like a good Chinese meal in that the elements of sweetness, sourness, and saltiness come together at the same time in order to produce that essential chypre ‘flavor’: Antiquity feeds all the right elements into the composition but, dwarfed by the intensity of the Cambodi oud oil, they are squeezed to the sides, from where they make an appearance whenever an air pocket opens up in the structure. But the three strands never come together at the same time. Still, Antiquity is a pretty darned great oud fragrance and one that definitely improves upon aging.

Source of samples: The sample of Teone Reinthal’s Treewitch was kindly sent to me by a fragrance friend, along with generous samples of many of her newer stuff (which I hope to get around to reviewing soon). Areej Le Doré kindly sent me a sample set of the next-to-last collection* in early autumn 2019, without any obligation to review.

*Yes, I know, I know. That collection is now long sold out, which again shows why so few perfume houses send me samples to review and why they honestly should not – I am deeply unreliable and don’t work to any schedule or logic that would make sense to anyone but me. I feel guilty about this occasionally but know that feeling guilty would tip me over into a sense of obligation towards brands, especially the smaller indie ones, which in turn would probably skew my content more positive, and that right there is a slippery slide. As always, I write content for people who want to read about perfume for the pleasure of it, not to influence what you think you’re smelling or fuel a purchase decision

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Sticky Fingers by Francesca Bianchi

19th August 2020

The more I wear Sticky Fingers by Francesca Bianchi, the more I’m convinced it is the Bengale Rouge of the Bianchi line, by which I mean a deliciously thicc n’ fuzzy oriental that’s characterful without being challenging – the much-loved woolly sweater your hand reaches for over the stark, uncompromising Ann Demeulemeester gilet you bought in a factory sale but could never figure out where the arm holes were. The thing these perfumes have in common is their sense of familiarity – they remind you (vaguely) of scents you already know and love. They wear like old friends even if you’ve just been introduced.

Just like Bengale Rouge is a more ‘people-pleasing’ option for people who would never wear Salome, Sticky Fingers is the perfect ‘out’ for people who want to own a Bianchi but find Sex and The Sea or The Lover’s Tale too heavy on the harsh orris-leather accord that has become the Bianchi calling card. That’s not to say that there’s none of Francesca in this perfume, because women with strong personalities always spill over into their art. You’d know, for example, that Sticky Fingers is a Bianchi creation as surely as you can tell Bengale Rouge is a Liz Moores one.

But Sticky Fingers is not going to ruffle any feathers. It is a cosy, feel-good diorama of Francesca Bianchi’s back catalogue with most of the hard edges sanded down and its already duvet-thick volume fluffed up by a mille-feuille of chocolatey patchouli, resins, amber, tonka bean, and vanilla.  

My own sticky fingers hover over the ‘buy’ button on Sticky Fingers mostly for the last two thirds of its life, which is when it turns into that combination of smells perfume lovers know as ‘sweater mélange’ – that sweet, lived-in aroma of a fabric like wool or coat collar or seatbelt exhaling, like a sigh, the breath of multiple perfumes last worn God knows when. Or that lovely and as-individual-as-a-fingerprint nuclear cloud that rushes up at you when you open a box of your favorite perfumes or cosmetics.

To wit, Sticky Fingers smells like the heady, third-day fug imprinted on my bathrobe after several days of wearing some of Francesca Bianchi’s other perfumes; especially The Dark Side with its honeyed resins, The Lover’s Tale with its sharp leather, and Lost in Heaven for its simultaneously urinous and sherbety civet-iris accord that is practically the Bianchi DNA. Yet Sticky Fingers is much softer and gauzier than any of these. It’s like all of these perfumes mingling together and blown in at you through an air vent from another room.  

Digging down into the detail, there are muffled echoes of something of the choco-wheat-cereal notes from indie perfumes of the last few years (like Ummagumma by Bruno Fazzolari, Café Cacao by En Voyage, or Amber Chocolate by Abdes Salaam Attar), but also a spicy tobacco gingerbread (Tan d’Epices), and a thick ‘white’ note like sandalwood creamed with benzoin (Santal Blush perhaps). I sprayed some Ta’if (Ormonde Jayne) over the tail end of Sticky Fingers once and could have sworn to the presence of smoky, caramelized marshmallow (Amber Absolute by Tom Ford). To be clear, Sticky Fingers doesn’t smell like any one of these perfumes. It’s just a delicious, jumbled up funk of rich woody or resinous orientals that have been worn at some point in the past two or three weeks, and have left an indelible, if undefined, impression.

In essence, Sticky Fingers is a patchouli perfume. But through a glass darkly. Think of the patchouli as the soloist leading the charge in a huge orchestra, drawing in supporting riffs from the strings and the bass until the music swells up from a hundred different sources, creating an incredibly rich, harmonious sound that fills all the air pockets in the room. The patchouli starts out solo, a musty, stale, and fruity rendition of pure earth. But almost immediately it calls in the high notes of the string section, in the form of those acidulated orris-leather tones of the Bianchi DNA, and to counter that, the bass tones of grainy tobacco leaf, shredded into tiny pieces and soaked in a glass of cold, floral-anisic Chinese tea. This combination of notes and ‘sounds’ has the effect of roughing up the patchouli, turning it into a hessian cloth accord of earth, stewed tea, and tobacco, back-lit by the yellow streak of ureic civet-iris that runs through Bianchi’s work like battery acid.  

This opening act is attention-catching but, focused on two or three accords that ride bullishly over everything else, it feels like we are all waiting this part out until the quieter, richer sound of the rest of the orchestra can spot an opening and rise to fill it. Eventually this happens, a whole chorus of dusty spices and sandblasted resins and micas ‘blooming’ in unison, softening the sharp edges of the Bianchi iris and blurring the outline of the patchouli. If I like the scent thus far, then I start to love it now, just as the central accord thickens up like a custard with the addition of tonka, sandalwood, vanilla, and tons of sparkly resin. This is when the perfume becomes a comforting ‘sweater mélange’.

The older the get, the more I enjoy scents that envelop me in a billowing cloud of warm, toasty goodness powered by the natural expansiveness of their resins, flowers, or sandalwood, as opposed to the fake radiance of Ambroxan or the forced volume achieved by over-spraying.  The most naturally ‘wafty’ fragrances in my arsenal are the big balsamic orientals like L’Heure Bleue parfum (Guerlain), Opus 1144 (UNUM), Bengale Rouge (Papillon), Coromandel (Chanel), Farnesiana (Caron), and Taklamakan (777 SHL), which wear like a delicious ‘gold-brown’ scent cloud that moves with me, like Pig-Pen from Peanuts. Sticky Fingers – welcome to the fold.

Source of Sample: Free with my purchase of Under My Skin from the Francesca Bianchi website.

Photo by Dmitriy Frantsev on Unsplash

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Small But Perfectly Formed: Building a Capsule Perfume Wardrobe with Travel Sizes

9th March 2018

Building a Capsule Perfume Wardrobe: If you had to build, or rebuild, your perfume wardrobe using only travel sizes and minis, could you do it? What would be on your list? 

 

A couple of questions have been dogging me lately. First, how much perfume do I actually use in a year? And second, if my collection of full bottles was lost or stolen, would it be possible to build a small capsule wardrobe that covers all possible scenarios using only minis and travel sizes, and sticking to a putative budget of +/- $30 per bottle?

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Maison Nicolas de Barry: Part I (Les Parfums Historiques)

9th November 2017

Maison Nicolas de Barry has been around since 2003, but has garnered relatively little praise or attention. I wonder why that is? I’ve enjoyed every single perfume I’ve tried from this brand, and find some of their natural perfumes to be stunning. In an era where natural and attar-themed perfumes for a Western audience is gaining traction (Sultan Pasha Attars, Areej Le Dore, Rising Phoenix Perfumery etc.), the perfumes of Maison Nicolas de Barry should be a slam dunk. And yet….crickets.

 

I don’t think that the price is the barrier. Their historical EDPs, while not cheap, are not terribly unreasonable at €149 for 100mls. The naturals and oud collection perfumes are indeed very expensive (between €600 and €1,140 for 150mls), but there are 7ml mini bottles to be purchased at a reasonable cost of between €29 and €52. I know plenty of perfumistas who wouldn’t mind paying that, especially those who care about high quality naturals, pure ouds, and sandalwood oil. The people who love Siberian Musk by Areej Le Dore, or Nan-Kun by Sultan Pasha, or Bushido attar by Rising Phoenix Perfumery, or the latest sandalwood oil by FeelOud do not hesitate to drop in excess of $500 on even a small quantity of these perfumes.

 

But scarcely anyone in the perfume blogosphere mentions Maison Nicolas de Barry. The few blog mentions or reviews on Fragrantica and Basenotes seem polite but slightly puzzled or underwhelmed. Having tested a diverse selection of their offerings, there is absolutely no question regarding the high quality of the materials and compositions.

 

I do believe, however, that the way the brand has positioned itself might have caused some confusion or misunderstanding. In brief, while most brands have one driving force behind their establishment, Maison Nicolas de Barry has two, and pursues both – sometimes on dual tracks, and sometimes simultaneously within the same collection.

 

Every niche parfum house has an avowed driving force – a raison d’être – behind their existence, be it to explore the beauty of synthetic molecules (Nomenclature), translate Italian and Mediterranean music and art into fragrance (Sospiro), or bring the magic of the Orient to Western noses in a digestible, French format (Amouage). I think it’s possible that Maison de Barry has gone ignored and misunderstood because, although the brand says it is mostly focused on recreating the historical perfumes of the past, many of the perfumes themselves smell much more like attars or natural perfumes.

 

The stated mission of Maison Nicolas de Barry is to recreate the perfumes that might have been worn by historical figures important to European social and cultural history, such as Empress Sissi, King Louis XV, and Georges Sand. But the perfumer and owner of Maison Nicolas de Barry – Nicolas de Barry himself – is clearly far more passionate about natural perfumery and the attar perfumery of both India and the Middle-East than any other type of perfume. He has personally visited the center of attar making, in Kannauj, India, to watch distillers and attar makers at work. He also travels around the world, visiting ylang plantations, jasmine farms, oud distillers, and sandalwood projects, sourcing his materials there and bringing them back to Paris with him, where he works them into his perfumes. He has even written a beautiful book on Indian attar making, called L’Inde des Parfums.

 

So, although Nicolas started off with a range of conventional niche perfumes – the historical ones – he has since focused more and more on his ranges of all-natural perfumes, raw materials, and (real) oud compositions. In other words, the soul of the brand “Maison Nicolas de Barry” is actually more about natural perfumery and attar/oil perfumery translated to a Western format than, strictly speaking, historical reconstructions (although there are some of those in the line too).

 

The only problem that this presents is that the split purpose might confuse customers (and even fragrance bloggers). The first impression any customer will get of the brand is the historical reconstruction angle, with the attar and naturals focus emerging only when you delve deeper into the descriptions and background on the site. Hence, a disconnect between that the brand itself suggests you’re going to smell, and what you actually smell.

 

The recreation, or reimagining, of les parfums historiques is not a new or unusual theme in perfumery, of course, as brands such as Parfum d’Empire, Histoires de Parfum, Rance, Creed, and even Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier demonstrate. But because these niche brands either got there first or are more popular, they managed to set the expectation for a parfum historique as thus: abstract, modern, niche constructions that behave like any other Western niche fragrance. Since the compositions of Maison Nicolas de Barry are at once far more streamlined and more naturals-focused, it’s possible that they appear simplistic or muddy to someone expecting the 3D mixed media richness of an Ambre Russe by Parfum d’Empire or even the Samsara stylings of Guerlain.

 

So, let’s re-set expectations here. The perfumes of Maison Nicolas de Barry are great when viewed through the lens of a parfum historique, but superlative when viewed as their rightful form, i.e., naturals, pure ouds, and attar scaled up into a sprayable EDP format.

 

Understanding that the perfumes of Maison Nicolas de Barry are basically scaled-up attars and naturals in the guise of les parfum historiques is crucial to understanding the perfumes themselves. I remember receiving a tiny vial of Mumtaz-I Mahal from a perfume friend in 2014: it had leaked and filled the wrapping of the parcel with one of the most intensely beautiful smells I had ever experienced – sandalwood and rose. Strangely enough, when I applied what was left of the perfume to my skin, I found it to be less complex than the scent it left in the air: a sweet rose over an austere sandalwood. I much preferred the smell of the spilled perfume to the perfume itself as a wearing experience.

 

Looking back at this now, I think I understand that Mumtaz-I Mahal was teaching me my first lessons about attar perfumery in general, which are that:

 

  • attar perfumery is quite simple compared to complex, French or Western perfumery, focusing as it does on exalting the spiritual beauty of just one or two naturals rather than on an abstract, perfumey vision,

 

  • when a blend is this simple and composed almost entirely of naturals, the properties of the 1-2 naturals chosen for the blend are very important – there is nothing to disguise the inherently green sharpness of Ta’if rose oil or the soured milk tones of Australian sandalwood, and so on. And finally, that;

 

  • since attar perfumery was created more as a way of scenting the air for others, in a display of Muslim and Hindi generosity of spirit to fellow worshippers, than for one’s own personal pleasure, the trail of scent left behind by an attar is often more pleasing than the scent smelled up close on one’s own skin.

 

Since I’ve already waffled on quite a bit, I’m going to split this article into two parts, the first dealing with the conventional parfums historiques produced by Maison Nicolas de Barry (samples of which can be found here), the second part dealing with the all-natural perfumes and oud collection of the house (samples of which can be found here).

 

The first part, below, contains reviews of a cross-selection of samples from the historical perfumes range. Some of these perfumes behave like most conventional Western niche perfumes (abstract, complex, perfumey), albeit with a strong naturals focus, while others behave as pure attars diluted with alcohol to scale them up into EDP format.

 

L’Eau de Louis XV (Le Bien-Aimé)

 

L’Eau de Louis XV (Le Bien-Aimé) – le bien-aimé meaning beloved or well-loved – is a scented tribute to King Louis XV. It is one of the most sublime and natural-smelling neroli fragrances I’ve had the pleasure of smelling. Unlike most neroli fragrances, there is no slow descent into soapiness; L’Eau de Louis XV retains a juicy, fresh bitterness that’s akin to biting into a winter orange and getting a mouthful of peel, waxy green leaf, and a bit of the woody bark too. It is both bright and salubrious. There is a floral poudrée heart of rose, violet, tuberose, and other flowers for support, as well as a dark, unsweet amber accord, but these are merely there to hold the orange and neroli aloft.

 

Am I imagining the slightly animalic muskiness that closes in around the neroli topnotes after the first few minutes? Probably. But something about this fragrance makes me think of the steamy, soapy floral odors escaping from the King’s boudoir during his morning bath, with the underlying funk of a sleepy and as of yet unwashed body warm from his bed. Without doubt, this should be the bellwether for neroli scents. It smells natural, uplifting, fresh, and bitter in all the right places. Bien aimé indeed…

 

La Reine Margot (La Scandaleuse)

 

It’s odd that jasmine is technically a white floral when its smell is so purple. In La Reine Margot, the natural jasmine really shines through – round and creamily sweet but not as bright, high-pitched, or as sunlit as the synthetic variants. In fact, it has a curiously dusky, subdued hue, as if the flower has been covered in heavy velvet. There is also a slightly muddy, plasticky tone that I associate with natural jasmine. It smells almost exactly like a natural jasmine ruh I’ve smelled before, while doing research for the Indian attar portion of my book.

 

The star is the natural jasmine, but it is backed by a powdery, spicy amber and what reads to my nose as creamy pheromone. What I mean by this is that it features the same “cream of wheat” smell that I’ve picked up in two pheromone-based fragrances, the all-natural Feromone Donna by La Via del Profumo and Pheromone 4, an attar produced by Agarscents Bazaar. Feromone Donna features a similar although not identical notes list to Pheromone 4: jasmine, civet, ambergris, tuberose, and vanilla.  Like Pheromone 4, these materials come together to form a floral creaminess that is part cream of wheat, part white chocolate.

 

In La Reine Margot, there is something of a similar effect, with the jasmine interacting with either an animalic musk or ambergris in the base to produce a creamy floral porridge effect. It is perhaps more accurate to view this as a natural jasmine soliflore filtered through the sheen of a milky sandalwood oriental like Dries Van Noten for Les Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle. I find this to be a very sensual, natural-feeling jasmine perfume that – unlike many other jasmine-musk combinations – never tapers off into that leathery sourness one smells beneath the wrist band of a rubber watch at the end of the day. It remains soft, pure, and creamy all the way through.

 

 

L’Impératrice Sissi (L’Indomptable)

 

L’Indomptable means indomitable, a person who cannot be subdued or defeated, and this describes perfectly both the character of Empress Sissi and the fragrance itself. Sissi is a cheeky little scent. It comes so over-stuffed with violet pastilles, gummy bears, face powder, cherry syrup, and doll head plastic that you’d think that it would be insufferable to anyone over the age of 12, and for a while, it is. But then a thick, raw lump of benzoin and the uncooked pallor of a very potato-y iris emerge, interjecting the saving grace of ugliness into the pretty.

 

Sissi is extreme in all respects – a sort of cosmetics violet-iris accord set on fire and sent rolling down the hill to flatten everybody in its wake. People who like the part-syrupy, part-powdery excesses of Guerlain’s Insolence, Incarnata by Anatole Lebreton, or Ombre Mercure by Terry de Gunsberg will probably love this lipstick-on-steroids perfume too. I don’t love it, myself, but I certainly enjoy wearing it more than I should. In fact, it’s become something of a guilty pleasure. There’s a fluffy marshmallow crème accord in the drydown that gives as much pleasure and comfort as a giant, fluffy onesie. I’d imagine. Not that I own one or anything.

 

L’Eau de George Sand

 

I find it fascinating that both Maison Nicolas de Barry and Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier have historical fragrances in honor of George Sand and Queen Margot. Both houses chose jasmine as the principal material for their Queen Margot fragrances, although the MPG version is more of an animalic orange blossom than a true jasmine, and the Maison Nicolas de Barry version stars a very dark, natural jasmine accord.

 

For George Sand, both houses focus on the dried-up remnants of a perfume vial carried by Sand herself, which seemed to be made up of patchouli, roses, and amber. But while MPG takes the basic historical formula in a spicy, ambery oriental direction, the Maison Nicolas de Barry focuses on the dark, chypric elements. Think Amouage Beloved, Clinique Aromatics Elixir, and Noir Patchouli by Histoires de Parfum, rather than Cinnabar or Or Noir.

 

L’Eau de George Sand establishes its chypre credentials immediately upon application, putting forth a mossy, abstract bitterness that recalls dried plums, polished wood, and violin resin. It is also immediately powdery in a sumptuously floral way, and I’m sure that I can smell the bones of Acqua di Parma Profumo here, itself a cleaner, more powdery version of Mitsouko. However, there is also a plush animalic feel lurking under the topnotes, which could be either a grubby musk or labdanum. The contrast between the bright, elegant sharpness of the flowers and the murky skin-like feel of an animal is quietly disarming.

 

It is only towards the heart that I sense the darkness of patchouli moving in. But from there on out, this is a herbal, earthy patchouli chypre with a healthy dose of powdery rose. It is dark and somber in feel, while also elegant in that inimitable French manner. Lovers of Aromatics Elixir, Beloved, Noir Patchouli, or even Profumo should give this a try. It does everything they do albeit in a quieter and more natural way.

 

Mumtaz-I Mahal

 

This was the perfume that sparked my initial interest in Maison Nicolas de Barry back in 2014, but I could reconcile neither my actual wearing experience nor the middling reviews with the incredible, unforgettable scent that had spilled on the package and permeated my sample box. In much the same way that I love the collected smells of all my perfumes on my winter coat collar or when I open up my perfume drawer more than the scent of any one single perfume on the skin, Mumtaz-I Mahal smells better in the ambience than on the skin.

 

On the skin, it is a very simple fragrance, just a Turkish rose backed by a smidge of sandalwood. The rose is very high quality – truffled, velvety, rich, and slightly jammy around the edges – but for all intents and purposes, it’s a rose soliflore, and that has to be what you’re looking for when you buy or sample Mumtaz-I Mahal. I think of it as the rose note from Aramis Calligraphy Rose cut free of all the spices, smoke, and resins of the Aramis.

It grows a little more citrusy and fresh towards the base when it meets the sandalwood, but in general, the rose tends more towards the softly jammy and truffled rather than sharp or green. Beautiful rose, beautiful materials…but perhaps better smelled in the secondary wake of someone else than as a personal perfume.

 

Shah Jahan

 

Shah Jahan is, of course, the natural companion to Mumtaz-I Mahal and supposedly the masculine counterpart. It is unisex, in truth, like all of the perfumes produced under Maison Nicolas de Barry. Inspired by the traditional attars produced in Kannauj and offered as gifts to the ruling emperors and princes of the Persiatic Mughal dynasty in India, Sha Jahan is far more complex than Mumtaz-I Mahal, with a tart, rhubarb-like rose on top of sandalwood, a vegetal amber attar base, and a touch of pure oud for exotic Arabian flair.

 

Shah Jahan has a fresh, silvery mien to it that speaks to homely Indian green herbs; compared to its female counterpart, it is angular and sugar-free. A woody, oudy sourness lurks at the corners, drawing the bright rose and herbs into the shadows somewhat, but mainly providing depth. It is spicy, sharp, and quite traditionally Indian in feel. Indian ambers are not creamy or vanillic, tending instead towards tart and spicy.

 

Oddly enough, the raw materials behave in this EDP format in much the same way as they would in an oil-based attar, meaning that the rose, which normally fades out over time in conventional fragrances due to the volatility of its geraniol and citronal molecules, re-emerges towards the end of the perfume, bathing the taut oud and woods in a rosy glow, that, while never sweet, softens the austerity of the blend. Think of this one as a rose-oud accord wrapped up in the clothing of a traditional Indian attar, which in turn is disguised in the form of a conventional eau de parfum. Superb.