Un Jardin à Cythère by Christine Nagel for Hermes is two thirds of a good fragrance. The burst of citrus up top is a tonic for the soul, full of the rinsing sourness of a French-style eau de cologne. The notes don’t tell you which citrus notes are included in the mix, but I smell a zesty bergamot, piercing lime, and the rosy urinousness of pink grapefruit, though far more rind and pith than juice. It is the dryness of this citrus medley that makes it smell so specifically French.
Zipping forward to the drydown, there is an extraordinarily good ‘olive oil’, or what the brand refers to as ‘olive wood’, note, which smells less like wood and more like the peppery bite of a very young, tart Umbrian olive oil, mixed with the evocative smell of trampled grass and upturned earth. Notes of grass, soil, and olive are used so rarely – or rarely so well – that it is a pleasure to see their full power coaxed out of them by a perfumer who knows what she’s doing.
Sadly, it is the third and final element – the pistachio note – that sabotages this perfume’s grab for greatness. After years of trawling through the indie perfume soil sector, I have learned that even a hint of the aromachemicals used to approximate the scent of freshly baked, pastry, or toasty nuts is enough to ruin an entire composition.
Let me be clear – it is entirely possible for a perfumer to give a composition a nutty feel or texture by drawing on the naturally nutty aspects of naturals, such as vetiver oil (which smells like crushed hazelnuts) or heliotrope (which smells like almonds). Hermes itself used a specific type of vetiver, and a more broadly nutty tonka bean, to create Vetiver Tonka, so it’s not as if the house doesn’t have form in this area. Castaña by Cloon Keen Atelier and L’Amandière by Heeley Parfums do similarly excellent work with naturals to create the mouthfeel of real nuts.
Which makes it all the more puzzling that Nagel instead plumps for one of those off-the-shelf aromachemicals that smell as fake as fuck, like the butter croissant aroma they pump around supermarkets, and even worse, moistly claggy, like a businessman taking his shoes off on a plane, the yeasty aroma of his warm, damp (but clean) socks permeating the cabin. Jeux de Peau by Serge Lutens plays around with the same pyrazine-rich molecule, but does so with skill and humor, burying the lede so deep in the thick swaddling cloths of an incredibly rich sandalwood and delicately apricotty osmanthus that you are forced to forgive the movie butter popcorn-ness of its main hook. The fakeness of the buttery, nutty note is the inside joke you either get or you don’t. It’s like wearing a lab experiment knocked up by a group of lab geeks close to midnight, high on something, after someone slurs, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be kind of cool if we recreated the scent of a slice of toast with butter and jam in a petri dish?’
There is no such skill or humor on display here. The three parts of the composition are so disjointed – it runs from sharp citrus to fake nuts to gloriously earthy grass in three staccato leaps – that you never smell the whole thing at once and, so, even if there was an overarching design vision for this on paper, it fails to materialize on the skin. Word of warning: the same mediocrity of a molecule seems to have been used to create the sesame note in L’Eau de Papier by Diptyque, though that perfume also has the further disadvantage of a foghorn’s worth of Ambroxan in the base, so really does not have any redeeming qualities at all, unless your aspiration is genuinely to smell like the inside tray of a Xerox machine.
Yum Pistachio Gelato | 33 by Kayali Fragrances comes in a unbearably gorgeous pale mint bottle, which makes me immediately suspicious, because anybody’s who eaten as much gelato al pistacchio as I have will know that the color of true pistachio gelato is more baby poop green than it is pale mint. Still, I am surprised by how true to life the opening is – fresh, floral, and savory all at once, just like that first lick at the cone. If only it stayed like this, I could have declared it the winner against the venerable Hermes (which, incidentally, I was wearing on the other wrist the first time I tried either fragrance, in my own little pistachio-off).
However, this fresh-floral-grassy piquancy faded all too quickly, leaving in its wake a sticky, white-musky-Maltol cloud of something that might be called ‘marshmallowy’ by someone more charitable than me. To me, though, these spacey, candied drydowns are like The Nothing that rolls over Fantasia, destroying it and pulling it into the darkness – they represent the absolute death of imagination and richness of inner life. I fear for the young women who smell this drydown and think it smells like a scoop of gelato or fluffy marshmallows or whatever. Please, ladies, go out, touch some grass, eat some Goddamn real pistachio gelato if you dare, and then go smell something like L’Heure Bleue to recalibrate your standards. Because you deserve better.
Source of Sample: I smelled both perfumes multiple times in Galleries Lafayette and Sephora France in May this year while on holiday in Bordeaux.