Picture a delicately carved silver dish piled high with quivering cubes of rose milk lokhoum, barely set and opalescent. This tower of pink jellies, as wobbly-legged as a newborn giraffe, sits perched on a folded suede opera glove. In the background, a complex but translucent inter-knitting of pink pepper, fruits, roses, and white tea recalls the faded-silk grandeur of both Etro’s Etra and Rajasthan, a series of polite, sepia-toned portraits of India as seen through the rose-tinted glasses of imperialists.
When I first tried Arquiste Ella, in a niche boutique in Bordeaux last autumn, I thought, well, at least I can put this one out of my mind. I had been interested in the 1970’s retro marketing drive behind it and its sexy-sleazy disco bomb reputation, but on the skin, it just felt unresolved and murky.
In October 2004, a man called Chris Anderson wrote a very influential article for Wired magazine called “The Long Tail”. In it, he explained how a little-known statistics term, called the long tail, actually explained a lot about success in the business world. The basic premise is that the market for products not widely available in bricks n’ mortar stores is as big, if not bigger, than the market for products that are carried in stores.
All Neil Morris fragrances smell like they come already pre-aged in brown apothecary bottles, lifted from the dusty shelves of the local Salvation Army store. Evocative, rich, and hippy-ish, they act as sealed time capsules of a specific mood or place that, notwithstanding the exoticism of the inspiration, always manage to smell comfortingly familiar.
Neil Morris Rose of Kali, for example, takes its inspiration from India, but it smells like a memory of something far closer to home. There is a mix of dank chocolate, rose, and fruit that smells less like the cited pear (although there is a solvent-like nuance) and more like strawberries, with the result that the topnotes of the perfume smell like those dusty fondant-filled chocolates that nobody chooses in the selection box.
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.
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 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.
Marc-Antoine Corticchiato is one of my all-time favorite perfumers, along with Gérald Ghislain of Histoires de Parfums. If push came to shove (and if you were to allow me a few Chanels, Guerlains, and attars), then I feel that I could survive quite happily on their perfumes alone. Parfum d’Empire and Histoires de Parfums were my gateway to niche perfumery, and still have the highest head count in my personal collection today.
Tabac Tabou is a masterpiece that always makes me think of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, its dirty yellow floral smearing smut all over the handsome, corduroy-fronted trousers of tobacco. Real gentleman farmer chic.
Ambre Russe has survived a ruthless cull of ambers from my collection, a pogrom that included even Amber Absolute, a fragrance I still call the ne-plus-ultra of ambers. I don’t wear Ambre Russe more than once a year, but it was my first niche purchase and still one of the most satisfying.
Musc Tonkin extrait, oh boy. Less of a musk and more of a salty, oysterish indolic floral, but sensual nonetheless, in an auto-erotic kind of way. It suffocates me most pleasantly, like that game where you see how long you can hold your breath under water.
When I saw the notes for Le Cri de la Lumière, I thought how brave it was of Marc-Antoine Corticchiato to release a perfume that sounded so much like Chanel No. 18. There was also the fact that there was another ambrette-iris perfume in the Parfum d’Empire stable, namely Equistrius, which Luca Turin had already compared to No. 18 in Perfumes: The Guide. (Personally, I found Equistrius to smell very little like No. 18, the former being musky in a cocoa-ish, velvety, and opaque way, the latter musky in an angular, crystalline way.)
As it turns out, though, Le Cri de la Lumière has much more in common with clean, ozonic musks like Chypre 21 by Heeley and L’Antimatiere by Les Nez than with the more buttery Equistrius and the fruiter, greener Chanel No. 18.
Le Cri opens with the crisp but slightly alcoholic green apple nuances of ambrette seed, which are immediately folded into the silvery whipped air of orris and the smell of a hot iron hitting a starched white shirt. The fuzzy “cold air” and starched linen brightness of the opening made me think immediately of the Chinese steam laundry room feel of Encens Mythique d’Orient, especially at the start, where the green rose is powdered upwards by a whoosh of aldehydes.
All of the words used by the brand to describe the perfume ring true – “crystalline”, “vegetal”, “opalescent” and “lustrous” are words that instantly jump to my mind when I smell this. The brand mentions luxury, and I feel this too, especially in the first five minutes when the full force of that silver orris butter is felt.
Unfortunately, where Chanel No. 18 takes a bare-bones structure and makes each of the elements sing for their supper, Le Cri de la Lumière quickly reveals that its skeletal framework isn’t hiding anything deeper or more nuanced. Although a dry, greenish rose appears in the drydown, it does nothing to mask or enliven the yawning gulf of white musk that opens up behind the arresting opening.
That is not to say that perfumes like this don’t have their place. Many people love these crunchy woody floral musks for exactly the reason that I dislike them: they are anti-perfume. They are the smell of clean air, freshly-laundered shirts, and the clipped minimalism of nothing at all. It reminds me of something Holden’s dead-eyed girlfriend in Mindhunter might wear – wry and deliberately affectless, as if emotion was being taxed.
I don’t dislike Le Cri de la Lumière, but I find it puzzling that something so curiously bloodless came out of the Parfum d’Empire stable. Chanel proved with No. 18 that it’s possible for a minimalist composition to be lively and full of charm; I’m not sure why, with their history of putting out such obscenely rich, talkative fragrances Parfum d’Empire pressed the mute button on this one.
Guys, if you want to smell something truly great, then buy the Areej Le Doré sample set. Costing $40 for samples of three beautiful perfumes that contain real oud oil, santalum album sandalwood, and genuine deer musk, it’s a small price to have your mind blown and eyes opened as to what can be achieved when superlative raw materials meet a talent for composition.
Fear not: Areej le Doré is not one of those brands set up in the West to take advantage of the current fashion for haute-luxe Arabian perfumery. It is, in fact, a natural extension of FeelOud, an outfit based in the Far East that has been artisan-distilling wild oud oils for several years now. Led by Russian Adam, a name that will be familiar to real oud oil fans all over the world, FeelOud focuses on producing quite wild, almost feral-smelling oud oils in the old school manner, with little concession made to who take their oud oil smooth and with a bit of sugar.
FeelOud recently diversified into the area of sandalwood oil, recently producing a superb santalum album oil distilled from the buried rootstock of old santalum album trees (long since felled and harvested), the age of which is estimated to be between 80 and 100 years old. The resulting oil, called Sandal 100k, sold out in 24 hours when it was put up on the FeelOud site. It’s beautiful; I give a description of it further on.
First, a bit of background on this mysterious-sounding Russian Adam chap. I’ve been sampling Adam’s wares for quite a few years now, at first buying from his Book of Oud store when he was still based in the UK, and then testing a wide cross-section of oud oils produced by FeelOud, which he set up when he moved to the Far East to be an artisan oud distiller.
In his trajectory, Adam is following in the footsteps of people like Taha Syed of Agar Aura and Ensar of Ensar Oud, both of whom also relocated from comfortable, middle-class environments in the West (Canada and America, respectively) to the steamy, flea-ridden jungles of the Far East so they could distill wild oud oil on the ground. It’s the only way to do it if you want to ensure a good result, but by all accounts, it is an often times hard life, fraught with frustration and danger. I don’t envy these oud artisans, but I sure as hell respect them for what they do.
But now, onto Areej Le Doré. The name itself appears to be a blending of the Arabic name for a girl, Areej, which means “the fragrance from under an orange tree”, and the French phrase for “the golden one”. The ethos behind the brand is to create fragrances that are luxurious explorations of the raw materials with which Adam frequently comes into contact as an artisan. In terms of business strategy, there is a clear evolution here from distilling raw materials (oud and sandalwood) to developing value-added products that blend the raw materials in a complex, abstract composition.
And having tested all three perfumes extensively over the last few weeks, I can tell you that these are not some ham-fisted throwing together of a few essential oils – there is evidently a real skill for composition at work here. Each of the perfumes feel “finished” and refined to a high technical degree. In fact, in terms of overall positioning, I would place Areej Le Doré perfumes alongside the first three perfumes by Parfums Dusita, perfumes that are similarly priced and beautifully blended to the same high polish. Dusita is phenomenally successful, and deservedly so: now I wish the same sort of brand trajectory for Areej Le Doré.
The Areej Le Doré fragrances are as follows: Siberian Musk, Ottoman Empire, and Oud Zen. They are all technically extraits de parfum, but I would define them more as rich, dense attars translated to spray form through the addition of some indentured alcohol. Also thinning out the attar format are hydrosols distilled by Russian Adam himself – a hydrosol being the water left over after hydro-distillation of some fragrant material like rose or oud wood, and after the essential oils have been separated from the distilling water. After having been passed several times through the fragrant material, the hydrosol is itself highly fragrant and useful in perfumery.
Siberian Musk is the one I tried first, and it resulted in the sort of jaw-dropping-to-the-floor awe that happens very rarely in the life of this particular perfume writer. After a bright citrus and pine start, the scent settles quickly into a full-fat, clotted-cream musk redolent of rosy beeswax, apricots, orange blossom, and the salty intimacy of a post-coital embrace.
The musk component manages to be seriously filthy but in a refined way, with a buttery floral purr that typifies a French sort of polish. I have smelled quite a few samples of genuine deer musk before, including a 20-year-old Himalayan musk so frighteningly feral that I thought a herd of sweaty goats had taken up residence in my nostrils. This is not that. The musk here is authentically sensual and animal-like, but it comes across as a creamy, rounded smell, not sharply urinous or sweaty. Texture-wise, it has the silky density of yellow fat skimmed off the top of raw milk. Think Muscs Khoublai Khan crossed with the decaying roses and adiposal wax of Rose de Nuit, backlit by the subtle glow of resin, orange blossom, and citrus peel. The contrast between the fresh notes and the fatty, un-fresh musk is perfectly pitched.
As the scent progresses, the musk deepens and smolders, like a Persian cat stretching in the sun. Sultan Pasha once described the smell of deer musk to me as saccharine sweet, almost cloying, a smell that clings to the hairs of your nostrils for hours after you’ve smelled it. I sense the same clinging depth of the musk here, and there is a faintly sugared quality to the florals that help the impression along. But it is never cloying (and I agree with Sultan that some deer musks – depending on their geographical provenance, age, and level of heat used during the tincturing process – can be almost claustrophobically sweet).
Let me be clear: the musk used here is genuine deer musk, a raw material never used in commercial perfumery these days. Apart from the various legal and ethical concerns, there is the problem of sourcing the darned stuff: perhaps 99% of all deer musk goes straight into the hungry gaping hole that is Chinese medicine, with the remaining 1% trickling down as crumbs to the poor man’s table of perfumery. In terms of perfumery, therefore, only small-batch, artisanal attar makers and perfumers can viably access and use real deer musk. Furthermore, within the artisan attar making community itself, only a few are open about their use of the material.
I am writing an article about the issue of musk, which will be published later on this year, but for the moment I will say that Adam’s use of Siberian deer musk here is both ethically and legally fine, because it comes from legal hunting in Siberia, sanctioned and controlled by the Russian Government through seasonal licenses and hunting lotteries. Every part of the deer is used – the meat, the hooves, the skin, everything – and the hunting helps support the incomes of local hunting families.
In other words, don’t be afraid that by buying this perfume you might be contributing to illegal hunting or unethical trading practices. Yes, the musk deer still dies to give up his musk – but he is not dying specifically because of the perfume sector. (You might want to start asking the Chinese medical sector some hard questions, though.)
The second perfume, Ottoman Empire, is also stunning, but in a different way. Although I suppose technically it is a rose-oud, containing as it does real Assam oud oil and expensive rose absolutes from Afghanistan, India, and Bulgaria, it does not really come across as a typical rose-oud. Instead, it reads more as a buttery rose chypre with a dark, mossy drydown that reminds me of the hippy, retro floriental style of Neil Morris, especially his Rose of Kali, which is a rose slowly left to molder and wither in a damp church basement. In other words, there’s a fair bit of myrrh here. There is also the chocolate-rich dustiness of closed-up spaces and old books, which makes me think of the 70’s style of the original Norma Kamali perfume (not Incense, the namesake perfume itself).
The rose oils used in Ottoman Empire are beautiful, and display a wide range of nuances ranging from the fruity apricot hue of the Afghani rose to the sour earwax quality of the Bulgarian. In the context of the blend, the roses are largely subdued by the resins and oakmoss in the base, but their essentially rosy character burns brightly through the blend, like a heat lamp under layers of parchment. The oakmoss used here, by the way, is real and unneutered: firstly, because it is Indian oakmoss (charila), a lacy oakmoss-like material covering trees in the forests of the Himalayas, and secondly, because, well, Adam is not based in Europe and doesn’t have to be IFRA-compliant.
In summary, then, Ottoman Empire is a waxy, mossy rose chypre crossed with souk perfumery (oud and spices) crossed again with a certain hippy, 1970’s style as espoused by certain American indie perfumers. If I’ve made that sound confusing, then don’t worry – the perfume makes perfect sense on the skin. Wear it and see for yourself.
The third and last perfume is Oud Zen. People who are a bit wary about the oud note need not worry; the Indian oud oil is authentic (and smells authentic) but it is not nearly as animalic or as feral as uncut Hindi oils can be, when worn neat on the skin. Instead, right from the start, the leathery, sourish smoke of the Indian oud is folded into sweet, smoky woods and vetiver that together smell rather like the saltwater taffy of labdanum. The Hindi oud oil is also moderated by the fresher, more sparkling aspects of a Papuan oud, a variety that often displays surprisingly hints of green tea, mango, and flowers.
The main impression is woody, smoky, and leathery, with the Hindi elements of fermentation slowly fading away in the heart, leaving a trail of cool, ashy woods. I suppose it is a traditionally masculine perfume, but I think any woman who wants to could certainly rock it.
Interestingly, just as I think the perfume has given up its last breath, it revives and puffs out its chest in a death display of feral honey, vetiver, and dry leather, a combination very much in the vein of Vero Profumo’s Onda Voile d’Extrait or the far reaches of vintage Habanita when the powdery florals have burned off. An extraordinary finish, and one that gets me spraying again and again, just to arrive at the same destination.
Lastly, a word about Sandal 100k, FeelOud’s first venture into sandalwood distilling. Sandal 100k was distilled by Russian Adam himself using wood from the buried roots of old santalum album trees that had long been harvested and cleared from land in Indonesia. Forgotten about, the rootstock of these noble old trees lay in the ground until the locals figured out there was precious oil in them there roots!
To make the oil, the roots of old trees, all aged around 100 years, are dug up, cleaned off, and left to dry out. Then the roots are broken down into small shards, and finally into a sawdust-type mixture which is put in the distilling pot. The wood was sent from Indonesia to Russian Adam in Thailand, which is where he distilled it himself.
To all extents and purposes, the root stock has the same value as heartwood from 100-year old santalum album trees: experts have determined that the age of the santalum album species chosen for distilling is more important to the aroma profile than where the tree actually grows. Therefore, while this oil is not Mysore because the tree (and its roots) was not harvested in the Mysore region of India, it is an incredible santalum album oil because of the age of the heartwood from which it was distilled.
Sandal 100k smells bright, greenish, and terpene-rich at the offset, with all the nutty, savory sourness characteristic of santalum album perched just behind it. The slight green bitterness dies back quickly, allowing the salty, buttery sides of the oil to emerge. For the first part of the ride, I’d place this oil in the aromatic, fresh category of santalum album, but as time goes on, the oil gathers force and bursts into full being as the perfect sandalwood – rich, nutty, creamy, salty-sweet, and almost meaty in terms of body. It’s absolutely beautiful, and I urge people to buy it when the second batch of oil is ready for sale. Since my personal ne-plus-ultra of sandalwood oil, Ensar’s 1984 Mysore, is no longer available, this is the next best thing.
Superstitious is like a woman that walks into a party wearing a gold lame dress that plunges to her navel. Like everyone else in the room, you think she’s gorgeous, but you’re not sure if she’s really your kind of people. I’m not sure I understand her yet, so I’m going to circle this interesting creature a little bit longer while I try to figure her out.
People are citing all manner of classic perfumes as reference: Arpege, Gold, even Portrait of a Lady. But none of those references help me place her in my mental pantheon of smells. Superstitious strikes me as more a modern cyborg than something classical or referential. And it certainly has nothing to do with Portrait of a Lady. Actually, I find it comes at me from slightly beyond my frame of reference, and thus my footing is unsure.
Something that takes me aback is the astringency of the opening: it’s as metallic and bitter as a mouthful of pennies, sluiced with the acid of unripe fruit. Sensation-wise, it reminds me of biting into a persimmon that’s two weeks away from becoming perfect, ripping all moisture from my mouth.
I’m starting to understand that not aldehydes smell or feel the same. Some feel loose and creamy, like those at the top of Chanel No. 22 – the fizz of a can of Fanta mixed into a pot of Pond’s Cold Cream. Some feel tight and lemony, like Tauer’s Noontide Petals. The aldehydes of Superstitious, on the other hand, are extremely fine-grained and waxy, like a bar of green soap put through a microplane grater and blown up your nose. It reminds me somewhat of the opening to Seyrig by Bruno Fazzolari. The onslaught is aggressive, and slightly mean.
What’s amazing about this fragrance – and I say this even before figuring out whether I like it or not – is how the clean, chemical bite of the aldehydes have been balanced out by the dirty, botanical impression of flowers. Even in the first onslaught of the perfume’s harsh, soapy green fuzz, you can smell the slightly unclean jasmine – wilting and browning, as if about to drop off a vine and into your lap. This produces an effect that is half synthetic, half naturalistic. You can almost imagine the perfumer muttering to himself as he works out the formula, “a little bit from the lab, and now a little bit from the garden”.
The quality of the florals is amazing – there is a Turkish rose, jasmine from Grasse, and a hint of dry peach skin a la Mitsouko in the later stages. But put aside expectations of sweetness, or even density. Even with the late addition of the peach, things stay dry, leathery, and slightly sour, like the inside of the strap of your watch after a long hot day, or the taste of a very dry, metallic white wine on the back of the tongue.
Which is a way of saying that although all signs point to lushness, this is not a particularly lush perfume. Being a longtime fan of Alber Elbaz and his work for Lanvin, I had expectations of something with as many dangerous curves as his midnight blue and flesh-colored dresses for this house in the 2008-2009 period. Alber himself is round; is it weird that I was expecting a perfume with his name on it to be round too? But Superstitious turns out to be as chicly angular as one of his models.
The drydown is a slightly smoky, raspy base of vetiver and woods that somehow reads to my nose as incense. It is slightly sweeter, or at least, less tart in the far reaches of the scent, and I find it comforting.
Superstitious is a very interesting, beautiful, and somewhat challenging perfume. It is perhaps easier to admire than to love, because a certain bitchiness inherent in its character suggests that this is a perfume that might not love you back. But despite a certain lack of easy access here, I really do like Superstitious, not least because it turns my expectations on their head. Expecting lush and sweet, I get angular and tart. Expecting classic, I get modern. Most of all, I admire the perfume’s sublime balance between its metallic, chemical shimmer and its unclean, slightly earthy flowers and fruit – and it’s this last aspect that might move me towards an eventual purchase. Some day.
Modern niche perfumery makes it easy for us. It must be like playing charades with the world’s slowest child. They supply us with all the visual and background cues and then sit back and do a slow clap when we get it. Ambre Russe? Mention vodka in the press materials and in one sniff we are mentally whisked away to boozy Cossacks, samovars, fur, and gold-gilded palaces. De Profundis? Give an essentially cheery floral perfume a gloomy name and a depressive back-story, and suddenly everyone makes the connection to death and funerals.
If we weren’t supplied so readily with these cues, would we make those connections? Probably not. But let’s admit that the back-story is half the fun of it. We are only human after all – we want everything we do to have meaning. Even if it’s only our perfume.
Smell Caron Nuit de Noel in vintage parfum form, though, and everything you know about narrative is upended. It is a Wagnerian opera-sized perfume and we not handed so much as a leaflet. Oh yes, I forgot, they did give us that name – Nuit de Noel. But it doesn’t smell like Christmas, so that doesn’t help.
But this – this – this is what perfume smelled like once upon a time. A dense, powdered thing of mystery that doesn’t really give a shit if you manage to unlock its layers or not. It’s so analog in a digital world that it makes me laugh.
Nuit de Noel doesn’t really have traditional topnotes. In fact, it’s a fragrance best worn for its basenotes, and is therefore the complete opposite to how perfumes are made these days – stuffed with amazing topnotes that last just long enough to get you over to the till to pay your money and petering out into one big fat nothing three hours later. Nuit de Noel, on the other hand, plunges you right into the second cycle of Der Ring des Nibelungen and just trusts that you know enough German to get by. In a way, I appreciate that approach – by giving me very few cues, it expects me to have enough intelligence to figure it out on my own.
I’m still not sure I’ve figured Nuit de Noel out, though. I ain’t that smart. But I like the challenge. The top notes are intense, like a wall of sound coming straight at you. Dense and unwieldy, it smells like bitter powder and polished old woods with a streak of green moss running through it. There is also a huge dose of the typically Caron carnation/clove accord, which I find bitter-leathery and spicy in equal measure. The overall impression I get is of being wrapped in an old fur coat – it’s both old-fashioned and luxurious.
I don’t get any of the Christmas associations, but there is a stage of its development where I sense both the mealy, fluffy meat of roasted chestnuts and a sweet, liquor-like rose. Perhaps it’s that hint of rich fruited breads and baked goods that lead some to make the connection to Christmas. The green, mossy chypre notes also create a crisp, cold-air feeling, placing this perfume in the context of snow. Aside from the notes, there is a certain glow to this perfume – a radiant warmth like candlelight.
As time goes on, a licorice-like note creeps in, cloaking the fragrance in a velvety, sweet darkness. Think soft black licorice, not the challenging Danish stuff that tastes like salt. This note is a feature of the famous Mousse de Saxe, said to contain a heavy mixture of anise (or fennel seed), vanillin, geranium, and isobutyl quinoline (smoky, tough leather notes).
The Mousse de Saxe makes up a huge proportion of Nuit de Noel, and lends it its decisively dark green, mossy, smoky, and sweet flavor profile. A pre-packaged base, Mousse de Saxe is no longer made by Caron to the original recipe, although to their credit, they try to recreate it in order to keep their current parfums rich and full-bodied. But to my nose, there is a rich, dark, and melting softness to vintage Nuit de Noel (reminiscent of marrons glaces, as some have pointed out) that is just not there in the modern Carons.
The leather, powder, and geranium facets of the base connect Nuit de Noel to other hard-to-categorize fragrances like Habanita and Vol de Nuit. Part chypre, part oriental, all three of these fragrances are soft, boneless straddlers of several categories at once and contain a mystery of their very own that is difficult to unpack, to analyze. Mysterious and cool-toned, they leave behind a lingering impression of green moss, face powder, leather, and half-smoked cigarettes. The most slatternly women you could imagine, and the ones I most want to know.
Smelling Nuit de Noel parfum now a melancholic experience, though. Vol de Nuit and Habanita are still in good shape. But with oakmoss being severely restricted these days, the Caron bases can never smell as complex as they once did, and so when I smell my sample of vintage Nuit de Noel parfum, I realize that I’m essentially smelling the air from a time capsule.