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Aromatic Review Rose Spice Spicy Floral Woods

Smyrna by Le Couvent

8th September 2022

 

Although Le Couvent house perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena art-directed rather than authored Smyrna, he almost certainly slipped whoever did it an early draft of his own Rose Poivrée (The Different Company).  But while Rose Poivrée’s pepper, cumin, and coriander overload created a savory, metallic funk that came uncomfortably close to the scent of second-day men’s underwear, the formula for Smyrna has been stripped back to a simple premise of rose, woods, and a bit of black pepper.

 

Where Smyrna remains similar to Rose Poivrée (The Different Company) and even Rose 31 (Le Labo) is in that neat sleight of hand where, despite it ostensibly being a rose scent, the rose comes and goes, as unreliable as sunbeams on a cloudy day.  Sometimes it smells like a peppery rose, sometimes like gently spiced woods.  But never the twain shall meet.

 

Smyrna, for the most part, reminds me of the steamy, botanical smell of a warm greenhouse where you are dividing geranium plantlets – the vaporous aroma of sun-warmed wood frames, the peppery snap of the roots and stalks, the rosy-minty smell of the geraniums.  The black pepper gives the scent a kick but no funk.  It smells planty, not underpanty.

 

Simultaneously, though, it also smells like a body lotion or shampoo, one scented with Turkish rosewater or loukhoum.  Unlike in Rose 31 or Rose Poivrée, therefore, every time the spice threatens to flare up to the point of pungency, there is enough of this balm to sooth it all down again.  In fact, there is an almost Uncanny Valley lack of sharp corners here.  The scent is preternaturally smooth. 

 

I’m in two minds about Smyrna, to be honest.   On the one hand, fragrances like Rose Poivrée (the original version at least) are too vegetally-sharp or culinarily stinky for me to enjoy comfortably.  Smyrna resolves this by removing the more pungent spicing and adding an almost candied rosewater balminess.  It is therefore much brighter and easier to wear.  But ultimately, Smyrna remains a copy of something that, while not to my personal taste, was deeply original and artistic.  Wearing Smyrna kind of feels like wearing the original soaked in stain remover and put through the hot cycle – it suits me better, but it also feels like a bit of a cop out.

 

Source of sample: Provided by the brand for copyrighting purposes.

 

Cover image: Photo by Bence Balla-Schottner on Unsplash 

 

 

Aromatic Chocolate Green Herbal Iris Leather Masculine Review Smoke Spice Spicy Floral Suede Vanilla Woods

Iris Malikhân by Maison Crivelli

22nd August 2022

 

 

Iris Malikhân is immediately two things.  It is a leather bundle charred in the grate, so smoky and bitter it short circuits to the word ‘chemical’ in my mind.   But equally, it is a thick iris-vanilla cream that fills the room with a haunting sweetness.

 

It took me ages to figure out that second is causally linked to the first.  Unwrap the scorched, blackened skin of the leather bundle, blowing on your fingers for relief, and you reveal the slightly singed, chalky orris roots that lie within, the violence of the char the catalyst to releasing those cocoa-thickened vanilla spores.

 

For six months, I have struggled mightily with the burnt part of Iris Malikhân.  I believed that it was just like any number of other sweetened iris-suede scents out there – Dior Homme Intense (Dior), Bois d’Iris (Van Cleef & Arpels), Vanille d’Iris (Ormonde Jayne) and so on – just not as good or at least more ‘on trend’ in its use of those intrusive liquid smoke aromachemicals that brands like Maison Martin Margiela, seem to be so fond of.  

 

Funnily enough, it was all those upvotes on Fragrantica for Iris Malikhân smelling like Dior Homme Intense that made me revisit the perfume and try to reframe it for myself.  Because that comparison definitely doesn’t tell the full story.  I’ve smelled Dior Homme knockoffs before (like D600 by Carner Barcelona) and there is more artistry and kink in this one’s little finger than in all of those.  The weird Pastis-like note of artemisia or mastic upfront makes this clear.

 

The moment I was able to mentally reclassify the harshness of the opening accord as part and parcel of a leather tanning process – which in and of itself involves chemicals – was when the clouds cleared and Iris Malikhân clicked for me.   Whereas before I was gritting my teeth through one part to get to the other, I now experience the fragrance as a whole, where the tanning chemical front end is key to unlocking and releasing the full fatness of that licorice crème anglaise, infusing it with a hint of anise, bitter chocolate, and woodsmoke.   If I squint, I just about get leather.   Heck, I can sometimes make out the shape of the purported orris root.  But like Dior Homme Intense, Iris Malikhân is so much more than a sum of its parts.

 

 

Source of sample:  Provided free of charge by the brand for copywriting purposes.      

 

Cover Image:  Photo by Linus Sandvide on Unsplash 

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Chypre Sultan by Ensar Oud

11th August 2022

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Source of Sample:  Ensar Oud very kindly sent me a sample free of charge for review purposes (I paid a small customs fee).  I freely acknowledge that I am in a privileged position, as a fragrance writer, to receive free samples of the most expensive or rarest fragrances in the world.  The hope is that I perform some sort of service for the reader by reviewing them.

 

Cover Image:  Photo by Philipp Pilz on Unsplash 

Review Vanilla Woods

Vaniglia by Santa Maria Novella

9th August 2022

 

 

Vaniglia is one of the few vanilla-centric vanilla perfumes I own, and to be honest, I am not sure why it has become such a big part of my rotation other than the fact that my children, currently on their school holidays, have blocked my access to my perfume collection with a rickety tower of soft toys.  Since 1st September is the earliest I can yeet it off my summer tray into the deepest depths of my cupboard where it belongs, now is as good a time as any to review it.

 

Vaniglia is a Jekyll and Hyde vanilla.  In the air, it smells like a scoop of artisanal vanilla gelato, thick with egg yolks and stiff with tiny, crackling particles of vanilla bean.  People have accused Vaniglia of smelling a little like extract, which it does, except it is probably more accurate to say it smells like vanilla bean paste, which is woodier and has less of an alcohol shriek.

 

The sillage is thick, unctuously creamy, and even a bit sticky or cloying.  Like many of the richer Santa Maria Novella perfumes (Muschio, for example), there is a Biscoff undertone running through the lower register that strikes me as obscene in a perfume meant for grown-ups.  But because there’s the slight bitterness of the booze in which the bean has been preserved, or a dusting of something cocoa-ish at the edges of this aroma, you do have that rather alluring (and yes, vanilla extract-like) contrast between the very expensive and the very cheap.

 

Smelled this way, I can take Vaniglia.  It is a little disgusting in its biscuity foodiness, but since it has survived several collection culls, I obviously have some sort of feeling for it.  Smelled up close, however – my God, what a shitshow.  The vanilla eggnog thing completely disappears, replaced by the ugly aroma of melting plastic, which assaults the nostrils relentlessly for the first couple of hours.  Given that Santa Maria Novella is one of the more traditional, and therefore, naturals-heavy brands, I will give the benefit of the doubt here and say that this is possibly an overdose of a latexy myrrh or an inherently plasticky jasmine material.

 

I am leaning towards the latter because this repulsive banana-plastic-acetone-industrial-fire aspect reminds me very much of Vanillary by Lush, another scent that burns my nose hairs when I get too close to it.

 

My solution for Vaniglia is not to get too close to it.  

 

 

Source of sample: I bought my own bottle of Vaniglia from the Santa Maria Novella store in Florence.  I know – what was I thinking? I blame the heat, the crowds, that final glass of Prosecco at lunch….   

 

Cover Image: Photo by Rachael Gorjestani on Unsplash 

 

 

Aromatic Citrus Floral Fruity Scents Green Floral Musk Review Suede Summer Vetiver Violet Woods

Gatsby 22 by Ormonde Jayne

9th August 2022

 

Because I feel that I should love Gatsby 22, but definitely don’t, I have worn it heavily over the course of the summer to figure out how to describe it to someone who very well might.  All perfume reviewers have their blind spots, and here’s mine: I am terrible at describing huge floral-woody musks that are little more than a vague shape in the air.

 

Amber smells delicious, kind of like food.  Flowers smell distinctly of themselves, once you know what they smell like individually.  Incense smells like church.  Pine smells like the forest.   But to me, Gatsby smells less like the individual flowers or woods or vetiver referenced in the notes list, and more like an abstract (and ever-shifting) set of ‘moods’ caused by these notes bouncing off each other as they jostle around that expanse of sour, rubbery musk.  

 

Parts of it certainly smell good.  I appreciate the clean, bright citrus shifting into the spearmint tones of geranium, the tangy waft of violets, that Ormonde Jayne osmanthus with its high-end, peach fuzz suede, all washed down until shiny with benzyl salicylate water for that mild, sweet balsamic touch.  This familiar familial arrangement of Ormonde Jayne notes cannot fail to please.

 

But then again, these accords all come drenched in, and partially obscured by a woody musk material that screams eau de department store for once, rather than the usually palatable (to me) Iso E Super accord that Ormonde Jayne uses.  The effect of this particular woody musk is to make the more natural-smelling fruit and floral notes read as arch, highly stylized versions of themselves – glossy magazine inserts rather than the real thing.

 

Here’s the kicker.  I am not the young professional or cool girl/gal at whom it is aimed.  So, can I do this scent justice for the reader who does form part of this demographic?  Ormonde Jayne call Gatsby 22 edgy, but it took me a whole month of wearing it to figure out that they didn’t really mean that it smells edgy (it doesn’t) but rather that it has that clean, androgenous, Ambroxinated vibe that people who wear Glossier You or Tanagra by Maison de Violet or even Baccarat Rouge 540 find so sexy.  These are perfumes that smell like nothing at all but also like crushed gemstones, fresh air, sexual confidence, and the aspiration of personal wealth.

 

In other words, it is the abstraction of Gatsby 22 that matters.   Worn side by side with, for example, Bal d’Afrique (Byredo), a scent that goes for a similar sparkly champagne-lemon-vetiver vibe, it soon becomes clear that Gatsby 22 is much drier, more urbane, and far less literal than the Byredo (which suddenly seems quite ostentatiously gourmand-ish in comparison).  Gatsby’s tart woody musks act like a pour of the driest Vermouth on earth, swishing all the notes together into a blur of things that your field of perception sometimes catches (was that grappa?) but more often not (why am I not picking up on the vetiver?).

 

Gatsby 22 isn’t something I can see myself ever leaning into, but I appreciate that it made me work harder than usual to figure out why I don’t like it and, conversely, think more seriously about the person for whom it might be the best thing ever.  Because, as it turns out, those are two types of people whose tastes will never intersect on a Venn diagram.  And that’s ok too.

 

 

Source of sample:  Ormonde Jayne very kindly sent me a 50ml bottle of this free of charge for review.

 

Cover Image: Photo by Atikh Bana on Unsplash

 

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Casablanca by St. Clair Scents

13th June 2022

 

 

I don’t wear fully floral perfumes very often, but when I do, I swing wildly between two extremes – the dependable, if sedate, beauty of established classics like L’Heure Bleue (Guerlain) or Farnesiana (Caron) and the odd but thought-provoking experiments that are indie-made perfumes, like Cornaline (Anatole LeBreton), Quasi Una Absurdia (Chris Rusak), Flos Mortis (Rogue Perfumery), Romanza (Masque Milano), or Mardi Gras (Olympic Orchids).  When I wear perfumes from the first group, I miss the element of surprise (and often discomfort) that indie perfumes bring.  When I wear perfumes from the latter, I miss the polish and reassuring solidity of construction represented by the classics.

 

Casablanca by St. Clair Scents blows me away because it bridges the divide.  The buttery, vegetal tuberose and other white floral notes never get a chance to weigh the perfume down because they are lifted in the short term by a fizzy, spicy medicinal note that smells like a vaporization of Clovis toothpaste and Epsom bath salts, and over the longer term by a bright citrus accord that smells like someone peeling an orange through a dense thicket of white flowers, spraying its petals with volatile peel oils.

 

The effect is extraordinarily rich, voluptuous, and delicious, yet fizzy and upbeat in a way that I rarely find white flowers to be.  To me, white flowers usually smell solemn and ‘posh’, their natural environment seemingly more that of an achingly hip vase in a luxury hotel than anything that grows in actual soil.  But Casablanca takes white florals out of the hotel environment and into the boudoir.  It is both artificial and natural.  By this, I mean that while Casablanca smells very natural, with several expensive floral absolutes clustered together for effect, there is no way one would mistake its naturalness for an absence of design.  

 

The minty-spicy Listerine effect upfront, for example, is a klaxon sounded to jerk the white flowers out of their creamy stupor, and the sexy civet-laced minerals running through the base have been deliberately placed there to give it a retro feel.  And though I suppose there are parallels to similar effects achieved in other non-mainstream perfumes  – the toothpasty mothball vibe in both Tubéreuse Criminelle (Serge Lutens) and Flos Mortis (Rogue Perfumery) for one, the dusty floral civet floor of both Mardi Gras (Olympic Orchids) and Lost in Heaven (Francesca Bianchi) for another – there is not much out there that replicates the total effect of Casablanca, which is to say its rich, warm density that holds all elements (rich white flowers, civet, Listerine, blood orange soda) in balance for so long and with such grace.  It has this slightly smudgy, smeary texture that I love, like flowers seen through glasses steamed up and knocked askew by an illicit embrace. 

 

I am late to the Casablanca party, but better late than never, right?  My only regret is that St. Clair’s Scents perfumes do not seem to have a distributor outside of the United States, and so, a large part of the perfume-consuming market will probably miss out on getting to know it.   And that’s a shame, because I think anyone who loves full-blooded, smutty but still slightly edgy white floral bombs would love Casablanca.

 

 

 

Source of Sample:  My sample was sent to me by Diane St. Clair free of charge.  I understand my privilege as a EU-based perfume journalist, believe me, and am very grateful for the chance to smell perfumes that would normally be out of reach to consumers living where I do.  

 

Cover Image:  Photo by Joeyy Lee on Unsplash 

 

 

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Libertine Neroli by Francesca Bianchi

8th June 2022

 

 

Over the years, I have built a scent library in my head, where I keep extensive files on all the different smells I have smelled.  So when I smell a new perfume, I can usually dip into the shelves of this library and pull out a reference or two that helps me put it into context.  Smelling Libertine Neroli by Francesca Bianchi makes me realize that there is a huge gap in the shelves where the classics of masculine perfumery should be.  I am able to tell you what Libertine Neroli smells like to me – fresh, dark, bitter musky-woody – but will be rather useless when it comes to placing it in the broader context of masculine classics.  Sorry.

 

I only hope I can do it the justice it deserves, because Libertine Neroli is fantastic.  My husband, who wore the sample three or four times (I wore it twice), said it reminded him very much of the old school, masculine grooming products men used in the Balkans back when he was growing up.  These were mostly Italian brands of colognes, shaving creams, or talc like Felce Azzura and Pino Silvestre.  Old Spice even (yes, yes, not Italian – don’t be pedantic).

 

But while there is certainly some retro-styling going on here  (I knew I was on the right track when, after testing and writing the bones of this review, I finally checked the promo materials and saw photos of 1950s Italy, all Anita Eckberg prancing around in the Trevi Fountain and Marcello Mastroianni living his best, most suave life), Libertine Neroli is determinedly modern.

 

For every 1950s move this scent makes, therefore, there is a sly, sexy Francesca Bianchi ‘made-in-2022’ move to counterbalance it.  The topnotes are classic neroli cologne – fresh, balmy, redolent of the waxy emerald leaves of the orange tree.  But immediately under this there is an animalic, leathery thickness that is pure Bianchi.  It smells bright and clean, but also murky and therefore a bit sinister.  Water clouded with dirt.  

 

And while Libertine is as musky and as soapy as you’d expect a neroli fragrance to be, the bitterness of the ‘fern’ (oakmoss) note has been bulked up in the basenotes by what smells to me like a bit of Ambroxan or some other woody musk.  This creates the same drift-in-drift-out effect noticeable in other fragrances with a slightly Ambroxinated drydown, like Jubilation XV (Amouage).  What this means is that sometimes you can smell Libertine Neroli on yourself, and sometimes you suspect it is ghosting you.  But rest assured that others around you can still smell it.  It seems to become part of your pores, so you smell great but not necessarily like you are wearing fragrance.       

 

The oakmoss note in Libertine Neroli is stunning.  Inky, woody, and astringent as hell, it has the effect of sucking you into the grey-green shade of an oak tree.  Now, don’t hear oakmoss and think of the damp, lush green moss clambering over trees in Northern European forests.  This is the scent of desiccation – the melancholic, sun-bleached dryness of Balkan forests by the Adriatic, dotted sparsely with reedy umbrella pines and Holm oaks, bent over sideways and battered by the Sirocco or Bora gales.   This makes sense, as much of the world’s oakmoss comes from lichen scraped off Balkan oaks. 

 

The only modern oakmoss fragrance I think Libertine Neroli’s oakmoss reminds me of is New York (Parfums de Nicolai), but that one is far more formal, more French.  If this were a Mills and Boon novel, New York would be the stern, slightly stuffy (but absolutely hot) CEO-slash-Daddy, while Libertine Neroli is the sexily louche younger brother who runs off to the Italian Riviera with your heart and half your fortune. 

 

But this is not a Mills and Boon novel.  This is Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley, the epitome of the type of male beauty that is both charming and arrogant in its unassailability.  It is dapper from top to toe and yet is by no means a simple retread of the old school masculine trope.  This is 1950s masculine perfumery as seen through a female gaze in 2022, and that is what makes it feel so right for right now.

 

Interested in oakmoss?  Read my essay on oakmoss and a round-up of excellent oakmoss fragrances here

 

 

Source of sample:  Sent to me gratis by the brand for review.

 

Cover Image: Still from the movie The Talented Mr. Ripley, starring Jude Law as Dickie Greenleaf (courtesy of The Rakish Gent)

 

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Aquilaria Blossom by Areej le Doré X Agar Aura

26th May 2022

 

 

Aquilaria Blossom is an exciting new collaboration between Russian Adam of Areej le Doré and Taha Syed of Agar Aura, both oud artisan distillers and perfumers of repute in the oud and mukhallat community.  Russian Adam is something of a pioneer for the oud community in that Areej Le Doré was the first brand to make a commercially successful breakthrough from pure oud distillation into the bigger market of niche spray perfumes.  In doing so, he opened new doors for the rest of the oud artisan community.

 

And now it seems that Russian Adam is once again forging new market pathways both for his own brand and others, this time with a marketing strategy known as collaboration, a partnership-based strategy that expands the commercial reach of both partners, cements reputations, and deepens the customers’ feeling of engagement and authenticity associated with the brand.  Areej le Doré’s first collab was with Sultan Pasha Attars on Civet de Nuit (review here). 

 

For us consumers, the important thing is to understand what we are getting in terms of value added.  How are the two styles of the two collab partners different, or similar?  Why does a collab between them make sense, both for them as artisans and for us as the people who end up buying and wearing this perfume?  For readers who are perhaps unfamiliar with the respective styles and signature ‘moves’ of Taha Syed and Russian Adam, let’s take a closer look at them individually before examining the end result of their collaboration, i.e., Aquilaria Blossom.   

 

Taha Syed of Agar Aura is a famous artisan oud distiller, with a reputation roughly at the same level of Ensar Oud (they are fierce competitors).  Though unfamiliar with his mixed media work, I have tested and reviewed two of his pure oud oils for my oud series here and here (I purchased both samples directly from Taha).  The common thread I found in both ouds was that his style is deceptively clean and minimalist, eventually revealing very complex substrata.

 

But Taha is also famous for his support for the idea of using fractionated compounds of oud oil to ‘build’ a more complete or compelling aroma.  In oud distillation, as in any essential oil distillation, the quality of the aroma of the compounds in the distillate varies according to many different factors (read here for more detail), one of which is the timeline at which the distillate is ‘pulled’ out from the still. 

 

For example, in ylang, the distillate produced in the first hour of distillation is known as Extra, with the grades of First, Second, and Third following in sequential order.  The descending order is generally thought to correspond to a descending quality, though lack of standardization in the essential oil distillation business makes this extremely difficult to verify and is often purely conjecture.  I am not sure that fractioning is that precise or quantifiable a tool.  But what it does allow for is a bit more room to play for the artisan who is distilling the oil.  

 

The upshot is that at each stage (or ‘pull’) of the oud distillation process, the distillate possesses some characteristics that customers find desirable and some that are less so.  The artisan’s job is to figure out how to amplify the desirable traits and weed out the less desirable ones.  What Taha Syed is known for doing is separating out the oud distillate into individual compounds and then putting them back together in a way that fits with the idea he holds in his head.  If the customers love the smoke and leather notes of a particular style of oud oil, but not the more sour, abrasive ones, Taha can separate them out and discard what he doesn’t need.  A retrofitting of sorts[1].  Apparently, this is now a quite common approach in the pure oud distilling world. 

 

Russian Adam, on the other hand, is probably best known for the Areej le Doré perfumes, many of which I have reviewed here on this blog.  His perfume compositions tend to be baroque, retro-styled florientals that lean hard on rare raw materials (oud oil, real deer musk, genuine ambergris) but stop short of making them the entire point of the exercise.  The result is often as pungent as its constituent raw materials, but you would never mistake it for a simple distillate; these are clearly perfumes.

 

Interestingly, his pure oud distillation work under the Feel Oud banner tends to be far more experimental.  Read through my pure oud oil reviews (grouped and alphabetized here: 0-CD-KL-O, and P-Y) to see reviews of Russian Adam’s pure oud oils and you’ll see what I mean.  From runny Brie to green curry oil and jasmine, his oud oils are perhaps the quirkiest and most playful I’ve seen in what can be a very po-faced genre.   

 

So, without further waffling on, how does Aquilaria Blossom – as a collab between two oud artisans who also happen to be self-taught perfumers – fare both as a fragrance and as a representation of two quite different artistic styles?

 

Let me start by saying that Aquilaria Blossom surprised me by its lightness and its simplicity.  Now, never were two words more guaranteed to make the Basenotes boys sweat than these, so let me clarify.  When I say ‘light’, I mean that texturally, it wears as thinly and elegantly on the skin as an Hermès silk scarf (compared to, say, an Aran sweater).  This isn’t the bulky ‘stacked to the rafters’ scent experience we are used to from Areej le Doré.  It wears on the skin in the same way as Dehn Oud Ateeq (Abdul Samad Al Qurashi) does, which is to say a sheer but durable wash of scent on the skin.

 

And when I say ‘simplicity’, I mean that this isn’t a perfume that crowds in so many notes and accords that all you smell is a thick mud of absolutes.  It remains legible, uncluttered  – no squinting required to make out what it is that you’re smelling.

 

Don’t know about you guys, but those are both positives in my book.  It certainly makes the scent easier to describe.

 

The TL;DR:  Aquilaria Blossom is a fresh, spicy scent that pairs a juicy floral-tart citrus accord with a fine-grained, horsey leather (most likely the result of that ‘touch of oud’ promised in the notes list), bracketed by an ambrein-rich resinousness that seems to build from nowhere about six hours in.   

 

The feature-length movie version: A one-two punch of a tarry citrus and a pop of (briefly) gamey oud opens the scent with a dramatic flourish, holding court in that vein for quite some time.  The citrus accord, pithy with bergamot and aromatic-woody with yuzu, is bitter but also balmy, with a waxy perfumeyness that brings to mind orange blossom.  If you’ve ever had those strange Japanese gummies that taste both citrusy and floral in the mouth (think Diptyque’s Oyedo), then you have an idea of what this smells like.  For the record, this is the only even vaguely floral part of the scent, for me at least.  

 

A note on the oud (or ouds) used.  They are not specified and maybe not even the point.  But I do wonder if Taha Sayed use compounds of different ouds at various points of the perfume’s composition to highlight an effect he wanted and discard the rest.   For example, the briefly animalic pop of oud at the start might be a fractionated compound of a Hindi oil, because we get the spicy hay and leather notes of a Hindi but none of its depth or range.   And while the faint undercurrent of sour berries and stale radiator dust that soon develops under the skin of this opening might point to a Cambodi, who really knows, because there sure ain’t any caramel. 

 

Whatever it is, the main effect of oud is to start building a lightly gamey leather accord that stretches all the way from the top of the scent to its basenotes.  The citrus notes eventually fall off, as they do, but when they do, you don’t lose any of the freshness initially created by them, largely because the leather that the oud whips up is so elegantly thin.

 

Ambergris sometimes adds this wonderfully silty, horsehair muskiness to a composition.  Combined with the oud in Aquilaria Blossom, I find this produces the impression of being in a tack room, the air thick with the scent of saddles freshly taken off heated horseflesh.  A touch of castoreum (beaver butt) adds to the soupy animal warmth.  Yet, the doors of this putative tack room have been flung open to let the fresh smells of flowers and hay in from the fields.  And maybe someone peeled an orange an hour ago, its volatile skin oils still staining the air.   

 

‘Aquilaria Blossom’ is so-named for what both Taha Syed and Russian Adam imagined what a flower growing out of an Aquilaria tree might smell like.  But despite the listed magnolia and neroli, the only floral touches I perceive are brief and upfront, worked into the perfumey bittersweetness of the citrus notes in the opening.  Thankfully, the neroli doesn’t go soapy on me, or perhaps it does and all I end smelling is saddle soap, which is the only way I take my soap in perfumery anyway.

 

The ending really does come as a bit of a surprise.  It shows up right when everything else is winding down, but unlike that one drunk guy who shows up at 3 am, it is most welcome.  One by one, all the other notes seem to get siphoned off into a golden cloud of glittery resin particles, anchored by a rubbery licorice myrrh, and thickened only slightly by a subtle (thin) vanilla.  The ending, like the rest of the scent, feels deliciously sheer.  This is a scent where all the molecules are spread out and have ample room to breathe. 

 

In the end, how much of Taha and how much of Russian Adam actually got into Aquilaria Blossom?  I think the light, minimalistic structure is more Taha than Adam, but then I haven’t smelled any of Russian Adam’s fresher, more citrus-forward perfumes, like Chinese Oud (though his Limau Hijau under the Feel Oud banner is very citrus-forward) and I only know Taha’s work through his pure oud oils.  All I can say with confidence is that Aquilaria Blossom has none of that heady, musky floriental thickness of body that we are used to in Areej Le Doré releases.

 

Is it possible that two oud greats came together and created….a freshie?  Maybe!  Russian Adam is an innovator and this is possibly him shaking things up.  Aquilaria Blossom is fragrant and aromatic, woody and bright.  It lingers on the skin and in the air but feels like no weight at all on the skin.  But that’s not to say that its simplicity is, well, simple.  I’m reminded of the line in Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” where he says “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then, I contradict myself. / I am large, I contain multitudes”.  Aquilaria Blossom is relatively simple and straightforward.  But it too contains multitudes.  Multitudes of hay, ambergris, spice, citrus peel, and wood rot all tucked away neatly into one long thin line of leather.

 

 

Source of sample:  A 2ml sample sent to me free of charge by Russian Adam (I paid customs).   

 

Cover Image:  Photo, my own, of Aquilaria Blossom sample next to piece of Wild Thai agarwood for scale.  Please do not distribute, circulate or use this photo without my permission.

 

 

[1] For example, on the Agar Aura website, Taha describes his technique for Berkilau Hitam, a discontinued oil, as follows: ‘Berkilau Hitam is the pure isolated base-note fractions of the agarwood extract (and approximately 6 times higher in quality: Berkilau raw materials). This is pure wood, resin, and smoke. These are the same aromatic fractions that most people associate with actual burning agarwood, Fractions which are either missing altogether in many oud oils, or extracted using inferior distillation techniques. Scientifically speaking, this oil literally consists of only the heaviest, densest, richest aromatic compounds found in agarwood (read: darkest smelling)[1].’ Interesting, no?

 

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Hera by Papillon Artisan Perfumes

22nd May 2022

 

 

Two fragrances do not an evolution make, I’m aware.  But I can’t help feeling that Spell 125 and now Hera mark a departure for perfumer Liz Moores, away from perfumes that either reference classical styles (Dryad – a green chypre in the fashion of Vol de Nuit, Bengale Rouge – a spicier, more balsamic take on Shalimar or Emeraude) or espouse a particular trope like leathery incense (Anubis) or rose (Tobacco Rose).  Rather, Her and Spell 125 seem to be a bold move towards abstraction, wherein the perfumes are much more than a good smell – they are an expression of an idea.

 

Take the complete lack of literalism in Hera, for example.  You look at the notes and the description, and you think, ah, ok, a wedding bouquet perfume.  Lush, creamy white and yellow florals spilling over a whale-boned corset of puffy marshmallow musk.  Romantic, serene and beautiful in that conventionally feminine manner expected of brides.  But you don’t actually get any of that from Hera.

 

The first surprise is an atomic cloud of spicy violet-iris powder, a diffusive ballooning of molecules powered by what feels to me like aldehydes but is actually ambrette, a natural musk derived from the musk mallow plant.  The apple peel and grappa facets of the ambrette sharpen the violet sensation of the opening and feathers the whole thing into an ethereal mist.  But in no way does this smell pretty or candied or like face powder.  No dainty bridal pastilles here, no Siree.

 

There is also – immediately – the tarry benzene edge of Extra or First Ylang, announcing the first of the floral absolutes that don’t really smell like their usual floral representations in perfumery.  Ylang is always painted as banana-ish or custard-like, but in truth, the natural stuff (essential oil) often has this surprisingly creosote-like smokiness that most often gets smothered by perfumers with sandalwood or vanilla, in the hope of squishing it into a more banana custard shape.  Here, the ylang is uncut and unsweet.  And it definitely doesn’t smell like banana custard. 

 

The surprisingly true ylang in Hera is soon joined by a spicy Sambac jasmine – again, not the creamy, sweet white jasmine of conventional perfumery, but more the authentically leathery-sour twang of Sambac absolute.  The florals do not smell lush, sweet or traditionally feminine.  In fact, Hera does not even smell particularly floral.

 

The central surprise of Hera – its abstraction – is the way in which this tug of war between potent floral absolutes takes place inside this smoky cloud of iris-mimosa-violet powder, stacked one on top of another like a matryoshka doll.  It is an incredible feat of construction that turns florals as heavy as jasmine, orange blossom, and ylang into a fizzy, violet-colored ether.

 

With time, another layer of the matryoshka reveals itself as a murky accord that smells like tobacco but is probably ambergris.  This lends the perfume an aura of salty, powdered skin, like the glow on healthy young skin after mild exertion.  Momentarily, the interaction between the purplish dry-ice florals and damp, tobacco-ish ambergris produces an impression of Caron’s Aimez-Moi (which itself smells like a pouch of moist, tobacco leaves dotted with anise and dried violets).  But this impression is fleeting.

 

Hera feels spicy but remains utterly air-filled and diffuse, as if someone has tried and failed to plug cinnamon sticks and clove buds into an ever shifting dust cloud of wood molecules.  There is also something like myrrh, with its dusty, minty-latexy bitterness.  But Hera never gets bogged down in the thick, sweet thickness of resins, thus neatly sidestepping any effort to pigeonhole it as an incense.  Yet, the spices and the myrrh do give Hera a hint of what I imagine medieval candy might have smelled like, a sort of salty-herbal-fizzing concoction that, when ingested, banishes all evil.    

 

The perfume seems to deepen, but the overall sense of its construction – a complex whirligig of chewy florals and tobacco inside a bright, acidic haze of floral high C notes – remains consistent.  I picture Hera almost synesthesically, a violet-greige cloud of molecules that spark off each other like electricity.

 

It is an abstract experience, similar to the hard-to-define Spell 125 or even Seyrig (Bruno Fazzolari), but that’s not to say that Hera doesn’t also meet the original brief, which was to honor Liz Moores’ daughter, Jasmine, on her wedding day.  Indeed, Hera feels fizzy and bright and sensuous.  It smells optimistic.  

 

What Hera absolutely is not is a re-tread all the tired tropes of traditional bridal perfumery, so if you’re expecting something conventionally feminine or sweet, then park your expectations at the door.  Hera feels made for a lifetime of marriage – interesting, complex, wistful, packed with all the bittersweet moments of a relationships that morphs over time – rather than for one single shiny, glittery, picture-perfect day.  And in my opinion, it is all the better for it.  

 

Source of sample:  Sent free of charge to me by Liz Moores, with no expectation of a review, let alone a positive one. 

 

Cover image:  Photo by Łukasz Łada 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