When it comes to fragrance, traditional classifications of niche and designer are beginning to lose their meaning. Economists might divvy up the fragrance pie into two big slices called “prestige” and “mass”, but we all know that Tom Ford (prestige) has more in common with Dior (mass) than it does with Hiram Green (prestige). In reality, the perfume segment really ought to be divided up into Masstige (high-spec commercial fragrances, whether niche or mainstream) and Artisan/Indie (independent, artisanal, non-commercial in nature).
While “mass” as a category is relatively homogenous, “prestige” is not. How can it be? It’s a term that awkwardly covers everything from a $800 Henry Jacques to a $12 Solstice Scents roll-on. Those in the fragrance community have always preferred the term “niche” over “prestige”, in recognition that it is its apart-ness from the mass that defines niche, and not its prestige, real or implied. Therefore, although the market equates the term “niche” with luxury and high spec, the die-hards inside the Fragrance Community are still clinging to the OG definition of niche.
And the word “niche” really stood for something once. When Jean Laporte left Sisley to form L’Artisan Parfumeur in 1976, he did so to offer people a real alternative to mass market fragrance. His work at L’Artisan Parfumeur defined the true essence of niche perfumery as bold new ideas, freedom from artistic or financial constraint, and a disregard for what is commercial.
In a segment now dominated by masstige brands and big beauty conglomerates, it’s hard to imagine fragrances like Tubéreuse Criminelle (Serge Lutens, 1999) or Secretions Magnifiques (Etat Libre d’Orange, 2006) getting past the marketing execs. But it wasn’t only the fragrances that were idiosyncratic, the perfumers and creative directors were too. It is difficult to imagine, for instance, Serge Lutens, who communicates in sentences so gnomic that I’m convinced it’s code for aliens, being allowed to talk to a room full of investors.
But as soon as niche had established itself as a high-growth area, everyone wanted in. Brand behemoths like LVMH, Puig, and Estee Lauder gobbled up many of the original niche brands, smoothing out any rough edges and turning them back out again to capture a broader stream of customers. Thank God Lutens had his old stomping grounds, the artistically alien culture of the Japanese firm, Shiseido, to fall back on when it came to his inevitable corporate take-over. Tom Ford was acquired by Estee Lauder, which absolutely makes sense, given they both espouse a peculiarly American style of square-shouldered luxe that’s rich but slightly dull.
Fragrance as Haute Couture
Designer brands like Chanel, YSL, Armani, and Dior liked the downstream potential of OG niche so much that they launched special “private collections” to capture it. Cleverly, the designer brands picked names for their exclusive collections that drew direct parallels to their haute couture clothing collections – Givenchy’s L’Atelier, for example, Armani’s Prive, and Dior’s Privée – so as to mark them out clearly from their humdrum prêt-a-porter collections.
The drift towards luxury also sparked a fetishization of raw materials in the marketing, an effort by Masstige niche brands to cultivate the appearance of authenticity to cover a real lack of thereof. Carl Groenewald of Dior said that the Dior Privée fragrances are constructed using a limited number of top quality raw materials, in much “the same way we do the fabrics for Haute Couture gowns.” A smart, if cynical analogy that most consumers will get. It is now very common to see niche fragrances giving their raw materials and provenance top billing in the perfume names – how many Santals of Mysore or Vanillas from Madagascar are currently floating around the market?
The homogenization and smoothing out of niche accelerated at the top with the fastest-growing mini segment of all, namely the “haute parfumerie” brands like Clive Christian, Creed, and Roja Dove. These brands, spiritual inheritors of the trend for bespoke perfumery that began at the turn of the 20th century, turned the niche dial even further away from “boundary-breaking” to “because you’re worth it”. They were so successful in their colonization of niche territory that today many consumers equate the word niche with luxury.
Niche was originally defined loosely through its specialness, meaning its apart-ness from the mainstream, and its idiosyncrasies. At least that’s the way the Father of Niche, Jean Laporte, saw it. Today, niche is still defined by its specialness, but it’s a carefully managed image of specialness rather than the real thing. Crucially, the direction of specialness has been reversed: whereas originally it was the fragrance itself that was special, now it is the customer who wears the fragrance who is special. The experience has been transmuted; not art for art’s sake, but what it can do for you, the end user.
Dior’s Carl Groenewald told the Independent that the customers for Dior’s Privée collection “do not want a commercial fragrance and to smell like everyone else.” The market term for this is personalization, or customization – making the customer feel as if the product has been created especially with him or her in mind. And yet, ironically, these fragrances are technically masstige – luxury for the masses – implying a specialness that can be bought by anyone as long as they have the cash, and therefore really not all that special.
The rise of “Masstige”
“Masstige” is a smushed-together name for a smushed-together category – prestige and mass. In their article “Luxury for the Masses” for Harvard Business Review (April 2003), Michael J. Silverstein and Neil Fiske defined Masstige as goods that “occupy a sweet spot between mass and class”. It might seem like a real conehead kind of term to use, but I like it, because it’s honest about the blurred lines between a Dior Privée and a Tom Ford Private Blend.
Masstige is all about giving a customer the high spec experience they expect from a professionally made product, but also making them feel special and different from the masses. As a market category, it covers mainstream designer brands with prestige lines, big brand niche brands with corporate backing, and the haute parfumerie luxe brands. It’s a giant chunk of the perfume segment.
The trick to masstige, and the one that every brand wants to figure out, lies in making the perfume wearer feel special, not necessarily in making the perfume itself special. Masstige fragrances are basically one giant reflecting pool designed to flatter the person who looks into it.
In shifting the focus from the intrinsic qualities of the perfume itself to the wearer’s experience, perfume has become more of a commodity than an art form. In line with the commoditization, everything else about the business of niche has been commercialized too. Forget the image you might have of a bunch of creative people sitting down with mad perfumers over bunches of wild lavender and exotic oud oils. Masstige niche perfume is a business like anything else. They operate in a similar manner to designer brands, meaning they have marketing teams, ad budgets, product placement strategies, and quality control.
Of course, niche still has that aura of “not available to just any Joe Schmoe” to cultivate. Limited distribution and short-run production are calculated to the nth degree to create an illusion of unavailability and drive up demand. For example, the Le Labo City Exclusives are made available only in one city, like Moscow, or in one specific month of the year. Xerjoff Join The Club perfumes come with special membership cards allowing access to a restricted part of their website. Some By Kilian special editions come with jewel-encrusted handbags.
In short, brands will go to extraordinary lengths to create that feeling of “specialness” for the buyer. The notion of specialness in niche has well and truly flipped; it is no longer the special of the non-commercial, wildly artistic idea, but the special of luxury and of exclusivity.
There’s nothing here to take personally; niche perfumery is a business like any other, and exists to make a profit. Members of the Fragrance Community understand this, if only in its general outline and not its detail. More importantly, being aware of it doesn’t make masstige niche any less attractive to fragrance fans. The lure of prestige and luxury is strong, even among those who consider themselves to be more clued in than more casual perfume buyers.
Masstige versus the artisans
There’s a small part of the prestige segment that still espouses everything once associated with the word niche, namely its independence from the mainstream, boundaryless creativity, and the preference for the idea of a perfume over its potential to make money. And that’s artisanal, independent perfumery. Because this segment has so little in common with the credo or modus operandi of masstige, or even just prestige perfumery, I’d argue that independent artisanship stands alone and apart from masstige, a tiny sliver of the overall perfume pie. Instead of mass and prestige, I would reconfigure the pie to read as masstige and artisans.
Artisanship is the last hold-out against the broad strokes of commercialization that has colonized the originally niche, but now masstige segment. If masstige brands are the professionals and the corporations, artisanal brands are the DIYers, the crazy bunch o’ fools, the starving artists, etc. Not only did artisans pick up the OG niche baton, but they also created some of the really big, important, conversation-starting perfumes of the past 10, 15 years. Onda by Vero Profumo, L’Air du Desert Marocain by Tauer Parfums, Maai by Bogue, Salomé by Papillon, Lampblack by Bruno Fazzolari, Civet by Zoologist….these are all fragrances conceived, created, and sent out into the world by artisans.
The definition of artisanship
The word “artisanship” refers to someone who is particularly skilled at a trade and makes things by hand. In food terms, it has come to mean products made either in a very traditional, skilled way or without much mechanization. To that definition, I’d add the notion of authenticity; we often associate artisanally-made anything with genuineness, with the sense of something being made because it is beautiful and right, not because it will make money.
In perfume, we take artisanal to mean something made by the hand of the artisan. At its most basic level, artisanship means that the perfumer owns or co-owns the brand. Artisan perfumers are largely self-taught; most will never have been formally trained as perfumers either in Grasse or Paris. Artisanship also translates to a lack of corporate backing for the enterprise; the artisan is responsible for everything, from the sourcing of raw materials and the writing of the perfume formula to the purchasing of bottling, mixing and blending, maceration, bottling, labeling, the expedition of orders, shipping and handling, and so on.
That’s the general understanding, at least. In reality, the picture is far more complex, with some brands doing everything from A to Z themselves, and others outsourcing parts of the process such as the final compounding of the perfume, or the bottling and packaging. Some of this is location-dependent: artisan perfumers in Europe, for example, are obliged to hire external safety assessors to ensure that each component of its perfume formula is safe, because without an EU Cosmetics Safety Certificate, the product can’t be sold in the EU.
The folks who run the Art & Olfaction Awards have come up with a neat system that divides this corner of the perfume-making world into two groups: artisans and independent perfume brands. So, when we talk about indie artisans, we’re really talking about two distinct groups.
According to Art & Olfaction, an artisan perfume brand is one where the perfumer who wrote the original formula (i) either owns or co-owns the brand that is releasing the perfume, and (ii) wrote and has legal ownership of the perfume formula. In other words, the person who runs the company is also the one making it. Examples of artisan brands under this definition would be: Tauer, Papillon, SP Parfums, Hans Hendley, Pekji, Slumberhouse, Bogue, Auphorie, Imaginary Authors, DSH Parfums, Hiram Green, Vero Profumo, and many more.
An independent perfume brand, on the other hand, is a company that employs “an external perfumer or fragrance house to initiate and create their blends, with creative direction from the perfume brand”. For example, Zoologist is an indie brand whose creative director, Victor Wong, hires a variety of (artisan) perfumers to compose the brand’s perfumes, which are released under the Zoologist name. Other examples of indie brands include: Maria Candida Gentile, Masque Milano, Jul et Mad, Charenton Macerations, and Skive.
The dividing lines between artisan and independent perfume brands are probably not important to anyone other than the people who run or judge high-stakes awards like the Art & Olfaction Awards. I’ve conflated the two terms myself in this article because I think most people in the FragComm will understand indies and artisans as being linked by a general independence from market trends, a genuine feeling for the art of perfumery, and the creation of artistically risky perfumes (compared to masstige and ‘haute parfumerie’ niche). The hand of the artisan or creative director is clearly in evidence throughout, from the design of the bottle art to the marketing, copy, and of course, how the scent smells.
Artisanship in perfumery compared to artisanship in other categories
Pour-over coffee. Craft beer. Organic carrots. It’s fair to say that the artisanal movement has had a profound effect on the way we consume at a meta level. We take pleasure in buying organic, supporting local businesses, and choosing the artisanal over the corporate. But what began as a movement in the food industry has spilled over into other, surprising areas too.
Advertizing, for example, once the preserve of big, rather traditional companies, is now drifting downstream into artisanal mode, with the CEOs of massive companies doing podcasts to talk about their products, and using Snapchat and Instagram Stories to reach out to consumers directly.
The message filtering through is that consumers care more about authenticity than video quality. Julia Vyse of Mediative, in an article about the top advertizing trends for 2018, noted that the “audience for these ads is more likely to spend a little bit more for brand loyalty, for locally or independently produced items. Authentic messages plus a premium-minded audience is about as harmonious as pour-over coffee and locally baked doughnuts!”
Authenticity is the keyword here. Modern consumers are drawn to the authentic, even if it is at the cost of slick production values.
The contradiction: artisanship versus consumer expectations
Consumers are drawn to authenticity. Well….to a certain extent. The truth is that we are a generation raised on
maximum efficiency. We might like pour-over coffee, but if it’s 8am and we’re late for a meeting, then we want that cup in front of us stat. And therein lies the contradiction: while artisanship emphasizes the slow, homemade, personal nature of the product, consumers have little tolerance for things that do not work as quickly or as effectively as they’re used to.
Even massive global conglomerates like Unilever are struggling with the contradiction between the consumer’s desire to support artisanship and his (seemingly equal) desire for maximum efficiency, comfort, or the lower cost base that commercialization brings.
“How do we embrace customized, local, artisanal consumer desires with the need for efficiency and ruthless price competition?” asks Bryan Lapidus, in an article for The Association for Financial Professionals. Unilever responded by copying the marketing ideas of smaller competitors, increasing its local markets spend by 50%, and oh yeah, by buying up many of those small, artisanal companies biting at its ankles. Big companies often buy up smaller niche brands in the same segment – it’s a great way to plug into a downstream market without having to start up a new brand. Estee Lauder acquiring Les Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle, By Kilian, and Le Labo, for example.
Why am I blathering on about this? Well, because this contradiction very much applies to artisanship in the fragrance category too. As we know, market research companies divide fragrances into two broad categories: prestige and mass. Internally, the prestige category is so heterogeneous that it’s kind of awkward – a Creed and a January Scent Project uneasily crammed into the same space, like a gorilla lumped in with a canary. We can all see for ourselves that these are from two very different species. And yet, subconsciously, the consumer expects the same level of finish, smoothness, and performance metrics from the January Scent Project scent as he or she does from the Creed. This might strike the artisan or indie brand as being quite unfair, and it is. But it doesn’t make it any less true.
Perfume buyers are a risk adverse lot: if there is a choice between Carnal Flower (Malle) or Moon Bloom (Hiram Green), for example, many will go for the Malle simply because Malle is a known quantity and Hiram Green is not, despite the fact that Moon Bloom is probably the better perfume. Indie artisan brands need to be aware of all the inhibitors to buy in the mind of their audience, and then set about challenging them, one by one.
My sympathies to the artisans and the indies
It must be incredibly difficult for small independent artisans to be thrown into the same bull pen as masstige and niche brands whose corporate backing pays for their distribution channels, marketing, packaging, materials, and talent, and then be told to go compete. They have my profound sympathy.
Being an independent or an artisan brand has its advantages, of course, chief among them the creative license to create perfumes that don’t have to conform to a certain market demand or budget. Likewise, the freedom from having to worry about IFRA and EU cosmetics directive compliance, if the brand decides to stay out of the European market. Oakmoss, eugenol, and coumarin, oh my!
But mostly, I’d guess that trying to stay afloat in a market segment dominated by the deep-pocketed guys like Le Labo and Malle is a giant pain in the ass. A daily, no-letting-up, crushing, almost existential struggle to launch that one perfume that pierces the murk of a market fogged up by all that capital investment sloshing around the ankles of big niche brands, and land so successfully with perfume buyers that it makes your name. Not overnight success, not even financial sustainability, but just enough to filch a bit of that spotlight away from the bigger players, and start the hard slog towards building the kind of brand recognition, trust, and return custom that counts in the long run.
At a bare minimum, the challenges an indie / artisan perfume brand faces include:
- Low purchasing power with big raw materials and bottling supplier: many suppliers will not sell in units less than wholesale figures, which indies can neither afford nor absorb
- (In the EU or for brands who want to sell in the EU) Finding and then paying for expensive safety assessments of each perfume formula to obtain an EU Cosmetics Safety Certificate
- Lack of control or oversight over supply chain integrity; especially important for small all-natural brands
- Lack of in-house marketing know-how
- Finding distribution channels that don’t bleed the brand dry at the margins
But the biggest challenge facing small, independent & artisan brands is probably us, the consumers. Apart from the challenge of having to cut through all the noise and competition for our attention, indie brands have to deal with that contradiction between our desire to support artisanship and our over-reliance on high-tech performance and glossy production values.
Why weaning consumers off the masstige tit is tricky
Weaning consumers off the glossy tit of masstige and luxury niche and onto the rougher, realer one of indies and artisans is no small feat. In many areas of our lives, we have switched our allegiance to the artisans, buying plantation-specific dark chocolate, fair-trade coffee beans, and locally-sourced cheese and wine. But in the world of cosmetics and perfume, indies are still a hard sell.
Or, in other words, you have my sympathies for being an artisan brand afloat in a sea of corporate greed, but do you have my money? Aside from the die-hard, anti-corporate folks who will only buy face creams, perfume oils, and eye shadows from Etsy indies and consider Estee Lauder anything to be the devil incarnate, there’s a general hesitation among perfume buyers to step outside the warm embrace of masstige and take a chance on indie perfumers and brands.
Part of the hesitation I get. There’s a (rational) concern over putting any product that might not have been subjected to the same stringent testing as Estee Lauder products directly on one’s skin. But it’s also because, as consumers, we have been raised on a diet of glossy, high-tech products that meet our every need without us having to put much work in: iPhones, espresso machines, Kindle, Netflix, hair straighteners, etc. Anything even vaguely “handmade” scares the shit out of us. Because it implies we might have to make a compromise somewhere, whether it’s on price, on performance, on availability, whatever. And man, are we reluctant to do that.
Niggling concerns at the back of the mind of the potential indie buyer include: poor performance metrics compared to big niche brands, high prices (even for new entrants who haven’t proved themselves), creatively risky compositions, leaky bottles, less-than-luxurious packaging, and often, a lack of distribution channels which leave the casual browser wondering where on earth they can actually buy the perfume. And that’s even before you add in the fear that if you fall in love with a perfume, the entire brand or its distribution channel might have fallen off the face of the planet before you can replace it.
As discussed in my previous article, perfume buyers – even within the Fragrance Community itself – are surprisingly conservative in their taste, as well as risk adverse. Bloggers like me are writing for an audience that barely exists anymore, namely a small band of olfactory explorers who will buy the latest experimental perfume from that start-up brand. This is the natural audience, too, of the indie / artisan world. But unfortunately, this shrinking demographic isn’t buying as much perfume these days, or at least, not nearly as much as the primary demographic of the FragComm, namely young, upwardly mobile males, aged 25-35 whose interest in fragrance is less aesthetic than functional or mating-related.
The challenge then becomes how to get people who buy masstige and big brand niche to buy some of the artisanal stuff too. How to do that within a group of people who, despite what they might say, are actually kind of risk-adverse when it comes to perfume, and whose demographics mark them out as being interested in performance metrics over art, grooming over a cool idea, and attracting compliments from the opposite sex over appreciating a perfume for its intrinsic properties?
First of all, indie brands and artisans need to be as good at communicating as they are at making perfume. Social media, blogging, reaching out to other bloggers, and trying a variety of new and interesting ways to reach anyone who will listen is crucial, because in talking, talking, talking, indie brands get to assuage any fears or reservations customers might have about spending money on their product.
The fragrance community is not the place for the artisan to be enigmatic or shy. Indies and artisans have to keep up a steady stream of conversation with their target market, inside of which must be hidden nuggets of information that educate and persuade the person who is reading. Why is the product so expensive, for example? Why can’t I buy it directly from your store in the UK? Where can I get samples? Why doesn’t your jasmine perfume last as much or project as strongly as this niche?
Probably many indie artisans find this side of the perfume-making business tiresome and, in some cases, unpleasant. The bigger niche brands all have marketing professionals and agencies, so the perfumers themselves never get their hands dirty in the mud of self-promotion: indies and artisans don’t have this luxury. They have to do all of it themselves. Most of the indie perfumers I know are thoughtful, creative introverts who are passionate about making perfume but kind of awful at talking to their customer base about why they should buy their perfume and not the new Creed.
Nonetheless, in order to breach that gap between the consumer’s a) desire to support indie artisans and b) fear of plunging way too much money into a product that might not deliver, it’s essential for artisans to keep going out there, day in, day out, and talk to customers.
Getting the word out about artisans
As a bystander – a blogger – there’s only one thing I can really do to help, and it’s not much: just talk about the gems in the indie world that deserve attention, especially among the groups of people who would rather buy Guerlain, Dior, or Creed. And maybe even argue the case for these perfumes in a way that artisans themselves rarely do themselves, by acknowledging their true place in the pecking order of similar choices, being upfront about the niggling concerns a buyer might have, and ultimately, making a convincing case of why people should buy this perfume over another slicker, more readily accessible masstige option.
Here’s a list of 20 indie/artisan fragrances that I think deserve more attention and kudos. My hope, in talking them up, is to convince anyone who was ever on the fence about indies to take that leap of faith.
House of Matriarch Kazimi
It may seem odd to some that I’ve chosen to lead this list with a brand that, while certainly artisanal, is extremely well-placed in the market. House of Matriarch has distribution channels that include Nordstrom’s and a retail website that cleverly mines data from its customers and browsers, flooding their inbox with coupon codes and special offers on exactly the perfumes they were just looking at. The owner-perfumer, Christi Meshell, is the rare example of someone who is both an artisan and a brilliant businesswoman. But still, in the flurry of copious new releases from House of Matriarch in the past 12-24 months, I’m worried that one of its most extraordinary perfumes might get lost in the shuffle.
Kazimi, like Nahema (Guerlain) and Rose 31 (Le Labo), is one of those perfumes that boasts impressive quantities of rose oil and yet smells very little of rose, leaning instead on the sharp, peppery radiance of ambergris, ginger, and woods to broadcast an aura of danger, like the crackle of static between lightning strikes. The scent opens with a dry, ammoniac smell, with a hint of that brutish tar-and-fuel dirtiness that natural ambergris sometimes exudes, like oil rising to the surface of a plastics fire under the surface of the sea. Kazimi is a 100% natural fragrance, but interestingly, has something of the chemical buzz I associate with Rose 31.
Kazimi smells wild and a bit unhinged – every time I wear it, I think of the island that Pi in The Life of Pi lands on with the tiger, Richard Parker, which at night turns from a lush paradise into a carnivore that dissolves human flesh in its acid pools. There’s something verdantly poisonous about Kazimi, with its barely-there rose that snaps and fizzes, eating into your flesh. It smells of thickets of pine blown sideways and crippled by strong ocean winds, crusted over with salt. Kazimi is an important achievement in natural perfumery because it highlights the most stirring parts of ambergris but still feels like a proper perfume rather than a tincture.
Downsides? Price, for sure. At $330 for 50ml, it’s hard to make the case for buying this over the alternatives listed below, both of which are obtainable at lower prices (approximately $200 per 75ml and $180 per 50ml). The ambergris and other materials used in Kazimi are 100% natural, and therefore expensive to obtain. This and the fact that House of Matriarch runs regular sales take the sting out of the price tag somewhat. For me, Kazimi is worth the investment: an essay on the strange, transformative brutality of natural ambergris, it twists a rose into a new shape that’s both ugly and beautiful.
Why you should take a leap of faith: If you love natural ambergris, or even just rose fragrances that don’t really smell like an on-the-nose rose, Kazimi should be on your list of things to try. Although not a replacement for scents such as Encens Mythique d’Encens (Guerlain) or the supernaturally radiant Rose 31 (Le Labo), Kazimi has a similar “steel wire” gauziness that registers more as a texture than a scent. It’s bitter, perfumey, and natural all at once. If you love or wear Ambre Nuit (Dior Privée), another rose-ambergris composition, then consider Kazimi the speed to Ambre Nuit’s comfort.
Di Ser Kyara & Adameku
The Di Ser fragrances are a triumph of natural perfumery: 100% natural, yet light-footed rather than muddy as some all-natural fragrances can be. They are also immediately identifiable as Japanese, in terms of both aesthetics and form. To a Western palate, most of the Di Ser scents will first appear deeply unfamiliar, because of the traditionally Japanese botanicals the company focuses on, such as Himalayan spikenard, yuzu, and kyara.
Di Ser’s Kyara is an exquisite natural oud fragrance that features genuine oil distilled from kyara, the highest grade of agarwood in the world, considered only to be kyara when it comes from wild, densely-resinated Vietnamese agarwood of at least 80 years in age. Because of its rarity, kyara is never used to distill oud oil. Until Di Ser decided to do it, that is. Di Ser is in the unusual position of having access, through its mother organization, a Japanese research facility in Sapporo, on Hokkaido Island, to a wide variety of rare botanicals, woods, and resins collected for research purposes. Most pieces of kyara are collector’s pieces, kept in private vaults across Japan and China: Di Ser’s mother organization happened to have one.
It’s genuinely nuts that the brand decided to distill kyara and equally nuts to put it into a fragrance, but there you go – the essence of artisanship is taking the kind of anti-commercial risks that just wouldn’t fly in the mainstream. Its price – $1,150 for 33ml of extrait, $25 for a 0.5ml sample – reflects the kind of madness that using genuine kyara entails.
The scent itself smells amazing. It captures the elusive aroma of kyara when heated gently on a burner, which is an ethereal, almost silvery-jade smell encompassing arboreal sap, conifers, and an aromatic note that, to my nose, bridges the fiery heat of freshly-grated ginger root and the dull warmth of powdered ginger. I smelled both the pure kyara oil from whence the fragrance was built, and the fragrance itself; the finished fragrance has a rose note that suffuses the taut coniferous notes with lush sweetness. If you have loads of money and absolutely no sense, then at least sample Kyara to find out just how delicate (and non-animalic) oud oil can be.
But the price of Kyara places it far beyond the means of most people, so for the purposes of this list, I’d like to talk about Adameku. At a much more accessible $240 a bottle, Adameku is a very Japanese – and endearingly odd – take on osmanthus, the small flowering tree or shrub native to Eastern Asia but traditionally associated with Japan and China.
While most osmanthus-forward compositions focus on the leathery aspects of the flower (a by-product of fermentation caused by a long pre-distillation soak in water), the Di Ser take focuses on the translucent, fruity-jellied texture of the small petals themselves when sniffed fresh from the tree. This gives Adameku a bright, uplifting character similar to Diptyque’s Oyedo, but there’s a softly dirty, almost sour note in the background creating a chiaroscuro effect – cubes of delicate fruit jelly strewn across soil. If you’re an osmanthus fan and are looking for a fresh take, then Adameku’s half-Hello Kitty, half-Japanese botanical garden deserves to be on your radar.
Why you should take a leap of faith: If you love a) osmanthus, b) the fetching weirdness of Japanese esoterica, culture, and flavors, and c) natural perfumery in general, then Adameku is worth at least a sample. Also, in a sector almost offensively prone to cultural appropriation, it’s thrilling to smell something so authentically Japanese. When you smell the Di Ser perfumes, you are granted a direct window view into Japanese culture rather than someone else’s interpretation of that culture, and that feels like a privilege.
Olympic Orchids Mardi Gras
A key difference between the indie/artisan world and the big brand niche one is that while the latter is primarily interested in creating luxurious, gorgeous smells that make its wearer feel special, the former invests its perfumes with atmosphere, emotion, and a sense of place.
Olympic Orchids excels at this kind of “set piece” perfumery: Café V transports the wearer straight to a Seattle coffee shop, Tropic of Capricorn will make you feel like you’ve just made love on top of a pile of rotting mango peels, and Ballets Rouges will whisk you back in time to the scent of rosin, furniture wax, and the cool-toned red lipstick of your piano teacher. None of the Olympic Orchids scents have the polish or “finish” of big brand niche – picture a retsina next to a Barolo – but they are all tremendously evocative, delivering an emotional punch to the gut that’s as cleansing as a good cry.
Mardi Gras is what I’d call a sexy-but-weird perfume. It’s a floral for Goths and non-conformists. A quick read of the notes – vanilla, orange blossom, honey, civet, and benzoin – might make you think that this is going to be standard floral fare, but it’s anything but. Rather than go the usual soapy and sugared route with orange blossom, Mardi Gras smears a fistful of withered, leathery flower petals over the dusty flagstones of a temple, allowing them to evaporate into the heat like spores off rotting fruit.
Anybody in love with the smell of aging wood, paper, and flagstone in ancient churches or castles will experience a thrill of recognition here; at times, the perfume seems resolutely un-floral, with a mustiness so deep it’s capable of blocking out the orange blossom. At other times, powder puffs of honeyed civet poke through the orange blossom, turning it into a bathtub gin version of Bal à Versailles. Central to its character, I suspect, is benzoin, responsible for the spicy, medicated foot powder texture that makes it so unusual.
Why you should take a leap of faith: If you’re in the market for a come-hither scent that’s sexy in a slightly gritty, bohemian-messy way, then roll the dice on Mardi Gras. It’s the kind of fragrance that’s flashes its boobs at you whether you throw a necklace or not.
Aftelier Ancient Resins
Mandy Aftel is the mother of the artisanship movement in perfumery; originally a writer, she continued to write and educate other artisans after she founded Aftelier in 2000, with a total of 9 books published. Her 2001 work “Essence and Alchemy: A Book of Perfume” has proved deeply influential in the movement, helping inspire other artisans such as Andy Tauer to branch out and start their own perfume companies.
Mandy is known for her work with natural essences. Her work is often quirky and unexpected (Cepes & Tuberose, Sepia), sometimes straightforwardly lush (Secret Garden, Velvet Tuberose), but for me personally, it is the weird and wonderful Tango that is emblematic of her quixotic style. Unfortunately, it has been discontinued due to an unavailability of a certain component, but those who have a chance to smell it certainly should; I know that it was a key part of my own “smelling education”. It is a scent that espouses a perfume made without any regard for how it might be received in the wider, commercial market. Full review here.
In terms of current availability, I would urge people to sample Ancient Resins, which although technically a body oil, is strong and rich enough to wear as a personal perfume. Very reasonably priced at $40 for 50ml, I am planning to buy this at Christmas, because its meditative resins and balsams are perfect for instilling calm during long bouts of enforced family time.
Ancient Resins by Aftelier was developed by perfumer Mandy Aftel in cooperation with, and expressly for, the great Leonard Cohen himself. It smells exactly what you’d think a Zen guy like Leonard Cohen would like – a warm treble base of resins that balances the bitter, cleansing properties of something that might be used in a Shamanic ritual with the dusty smell of wood, paper, and rosin breaking down in old record stores or bookshops. It features an ingredient that I’ve not seen many perfumers work with, namely Balm of Gilead. Full review here.
Why you should take a leap of faith: Because Mandy Aftel is the mother of the artisanal movement in perfumery, and so her work is what we’d call a safe pair of hands. Her work sits at the tippy top of the quality chain in artisanal perfumery, therefore, although expensive, one sniff will tell you that you’ve found the baseline for judging all quality thereafter. Plus, if you’re a Leonard Cohen fan, wearing Ancient Resins takes on another layer of significance, one almost as reverential as the ancient resins used in the oil itself.
La Via del Profumo Oakmoss (Muschio di Querchia)
There is little from the hand of Abdes Salaam Attar (Dominique Dubrana) that I don’t at least admire, and quite a few that I love. One of the giants of natural perfumery, Dubrana has now rendered most of his fragrances in attar format, both in keeping with the brand’s original focus on natural attar perfumery and the rising popularity among consumers of high-end artisanal attars (Sultan Pasha et al).
I have been testing some of the attars these past few weeks, and can tell you that a) they are superb, and b) they solve the problem that plagues most of the catalog of La Via del Profumo and natural perfumery in general, namely, that of extreme ephemerality. The attar formats of favorite La Via del Profumo scents are rich, strong, and long-lasting; paintings done in oils compared to the pastel work of the EDTs.
This is great news for anyone who might have loved the scents but hesitated over plunging $100+ into a fragrance that, while beautiful, doesn’t last more than 3-4 hours on the skin. Lovers of natural perfumery understand and accept the trade-off between all-natural materials and their brief longevity. But with Dubrana’s attars now offering fans the best of both worlds, we don’t have to compromise.
Oakmoss (Muschio di Querchia) is one of my favorite fragrances from La Via del Profumo, and in attar format,
allows me hours of pleasure, rolling around and luxuriating in its ripped-from-nature goodness. Far more a vetiver scent than an oakmoss, Oakmoss at first smells like wet leaves, upturned soil, bark, wild mint, the air after a rainstorm, and potatoes buried deep in the ashes of a campfire. It plugs me directly into a powerful current of memory: playing War with my brothers and neighborhood friends in the sprawling ditches and orchards once attached to our Famine Era home.
Slowly, the sodden smell of tree sap, mulch, and root dries out, ceding some ground (but not all) to an incensey, blond oakwood note, which is probably cedar but reminds me very much of the aromatic woodiness of Chêne (Serge Lutens) minus the booze. It smells more like split logs drying in a shed and woodsmoke than the oozing wetness of living trees.
The oakmoss has a bitter velvety softness that calls to mind the furred green carpets creeping over the roots and trunks of old oaks in some less trodden part of the forest. And while Oakmoss is far from sweet or creamy, the nuttiness of Dubrana’s famous Mysore sandalwood gives it a rounded warmth that speaks to comfort. People have called Oakmoss formal; the kind of scent to wear with a business suit. I can see that, especially in its clipped, almost monolithic elegance. However, the attar is earthier, more sepulchral, and darker-green than the EDT, and reminds me a bit of the way Djedi (Guerlain) and Onda (Vero Profumo) make me feel. Worth saving up for.
Why you should take a leap of faith: Every now and then a perfume comes along to prove that scent is the most evocative sense of all, capable of connecting people in a profound way to memories and feelings they’d thought long-buried. In my experience, when this does happen, it happens mostly with fragrances created by the smaller artisans and independent brands, as opposed to those created by the big masstige or luxury niche brands. Oakmoss is a powerful example of this, for me. It might not tap into the same current of emotion for you as it did for me, since these things are highly personal. But if what you’re seeking is a deeper connection to your personal experience through scent, then artisan perfumes are more likely to spark that for you.
Aside from this (quite personal) angle, Oakmoss is special because it has the vivid rawness of an outdoors scene, which is more special to me than a simply luxurious smell. It is similar to both Annick Goutal’s Vetiver (the original) and Etro’s Vetiver, in that it features a salty, ferrous vetiver that pulls no punches. Oakmoss will also appeal to lovers of vintage chypres, especially Chanel’s Pour Monsieur and Givenchy’s Givenchy III. In attar format, it also reminds me somewhat of the rooty, Middle-Earth solemnity of both Onda (Vero Profumo) and Djedi (Guerlain). Just keep in mind – less of a perfume, more of an experience.
St. Clair First Cut
There’s a “build it and they will come” model at work in the artisanal food movement, whereby artisans choose one product upon which to build their reputation, invest everything they’ve got in it, and trust that the high-value end users of artisanally-produced food (chefs, restaurants) will absorb it all. This holds true for Diane St. Clair, renowned in the United States for her artisanal butter produced from milk from her small Jersey cattle farm in Vermont. Read more about Diane’s extraordinary back story in Kafkaesque’s comprehensive introduction post here; suffice it to say, with every gram of Diane’s butter bought up in advance by chefs of Thomas Keller calibre, she truly is the Queen of Butter.
Like Hans Hendley, Bruno Fazzolari, Annette Neuffer, and quite a few other indie perfumers, Diane St. Clair is an example of an artisan who decided to take her artistry in one field and cross it over into another. The connection between food and perfume is, naturally, that of sensory pleasure, so it follows that Diane St. Clair’ has a talent for perfumery too.
But perfume is an incredibly crowded field. The “build it and they will come” model doesn’t quite cut it in a segment where marketing, social media outreach, and YouTube reviews are perhaps two-thirds of getting a perfume to land where it needs to. That leaves the Diane St. Clair scents – as good as they are – at risk at being swallowed up in the great white noise of the perfume scene before they’ve really had a chance to resonate with buyers.
To help the brand resonate with potential buyers, bloggers like me have to figure out how to describe them in a way that it will be clear to readers where the scents fit in the larger context of the perfume landscape. The best way I can put it is that the Diane St. Clair scents are subtle portraits of an idealized rural landscape where the cows that give us our milk are all happy, golden creatures, where wildflowers scramble over banks, and nobody has to get up at 4am.
It’s not the raw, wild density of Josh Lobb’s American landscape, nor is it the smoky, resinous forests of Laurie Erickson’s imagination, where mighty oaks ooze great fat tears of labdanum and myrrh. Instead, Diane paints an ethereal, almost translucent picture of what we might imagine a Vermont smallholding to be. There’s nothing literal or heavy-handed about the way the bucolic ideal is presented here, though; the perfumes are minutely textured and abstract in a way that shows real vision.
First Cut is by far my favorite of the initial releases. Its contrast between prickly aromatics (citrus, lemon verbena, tomato leaf) and the buff creaminess of hay reminded me at first of Jicky, especially in its famous clash of cymbals at the start, citrus and lavender stirred into dirty vanilla, but First Cut is not at all animalic. The dulcet almond tones of the tonka deepen, sweetening and thickening the scent, but the crisp aromatics persist throughout; fans of both Tonka Impériale (Guerlain) and Cologne Blanche (Dior) will appreciate the prickle of rosemary against the smooth expanse of hay here.
Although never strictly gourmand, there’s a whipped egg white delicacy of texture to First Cut that recalls the sensation of biting into the soft almond center of pasticche di mandorle, dusted with powdered sugar and aromatized with a drop of Sicilian lemon oil.
Why you should take a leap of faith: Hay fragrances can often stray too far into syrupy richness (Chergui) or sugared grass (Fieno), but First Cut gets the balance just right. It takes me a while, and multiple wears, to realize that the success of the scent lies in the same equation Etat Libre d’Orange figured out for its Fils de Dieu du Riz et des Agrumes, which is to say pitched perfectly between sweet and sour, pungent and creamy, hot and cold, like the best South East Asian meal you’ve ever had. 13ml travel sizes of First Cut can be purchased for $65, including shipping in the US, which is not bad at all for an artisanal perfume.
April Aromatics Ray of Light
April Aromatics, along with Hiram Green, is one of the rare all-natural perfume brands that produce perfumes that feel like proper perfume rather than a mixture of essential oils. Many of my favorites from April Aromatics, like Bohemian Spice and Calling All Angels, rely on a clever use of labdanum to enrich the bases and make them last longer. Tanja Bochnig is a obviously perfumer who has learned to embrace that strange Janus face aspect of labdanum, meaning its psychotic, continuous lurching between parched-leathery and wet-honeyed.
Her florals, while slightly less intense, are also rich and durable, with Nectar of Love and Tempted Muse leading the pack. But perhaps the greatest test for any natural perfumer is how they handle The Great Citrus Problem. Citrus notes are short-lived molecules of pure joy, and it is the task of every perfumer to come up with new solutions to make them last beyond 5 minutes. Companies with a broad palette of mixed media materials (both naturals and synthetics) can extend the citrus through layering it over coumarin or oakmoss-replacing materials; see Azemour Les Orangers (Parfum d’Empire) as perhaps the best example of this on the niche side.
On the natural end of things, Ray of Light is probably the best I’ve personally encountered. The yuzu-like grapefruit topnote is so riveting that you’ll drop whatever you’re doing just to focus on it. How is this incredible note extended? The best I can tell, it’s done through using mint to bridge it to a slightly bitter, resinous galbanum or hay-like accord in the base. There’s also a candied edge to it reminiscent of the lemon-and-lime flavored chews of my childhood.
Why you should take a leap of faith: Perfume is mood-altering and depression-lifting; none more so than a perfectly-judged citrus. For perfume nerds like me (and hopefully you), the fact that an all-natural citrus perfume that lasts actually exists and that it’s this good is reason enough to smile.
January Scent Project Selperniku
Diane St. Clair might be the Queen of Butter, but John Biebel of January Scent Project made a scent that really smells like butter (and a few other, weird things). Read my full review, here, to get an idea of what Selperniku smells like; if you can make sense of it based on my incoherent ramblings, then more power to you. Better yet, order a sample. And then write to me to tell me what you think it smells like.
Why you should take a leap of faith: Selperniku is the scent that jumps to mind when I think about the central tenet of what sets artisans apart from big brand niche, i.e., the boldness of the original and utterly non-commercial idea. Selperniku might not make the brand any money, and I’m not sure I’d want to wear it as a personal fragrance, but it moves the landscape of fragrance several steps forward. At the very least, it’s a talking point.
Marina Barcenilla Black Osmanthus
Osmanthus is one of those things that smell different in its absolute form than in commercial perfumery. In commercial perfumes (and most high-end niche ones), osmanthus is usually presented as a light apricot-and-suede note. In absolute form, however, it smells like a pungent and creamy Laotian oud oil, with a greasy leather undertone and a winey, damascenone-rich fruitiness. Because osmanthus petals are so tiny, you have to collect a lot of them to fill the still, so the petals sit (and rot slightly) in water until enough petals have been gathered for distillation. This process, similar to the pre-soaking of oud wood chips for at least 10 days before distilling, gives the resulting oil the animalic twang of fermentation.
Marina Barcenilla’s Black Osmanthus doesn’t veer away from the animalic, fermented leather side of osmanthus absolute, but instead embraces it. Probably much influenced by the dank, oudy pungency of the osmanthus absolute in Auphorie’s Miyako, the scent that famously revived Luca Turin’s interest in blogging, Barcenilla sets about exploring the less polite aspects of this most expensive material, framing it with a host of equally pungent materials – Indian tuberose, myrrh, saffron, bay rum. This has the effect of “de-floralizing” the osmanthus, shearing off all the pretty apricot nuances until all that’s left is rubber, smoke, pepper, and the metallic smell of rain hitting the red earth of India. The drydown reads like an extended essay on myrrh, bringing its savory, wet-soil gloom to the fore.
Why you should take a leap of faith: If you’re fed up with the stultifying serenity of florals as presented by big brand niche, take a walk on the wild side with the indies and naturals – they’re the ones that will show you the surprisingly non-floral, non-pretty face of all those flowers you think you’ve been smelling.
Natural jasmine, osmanthus, even rose – these are all materials that are rarely found in commercial perfumery anymore due to expense or low yields. Indies and artisans are a holdout for working with natural raw materials to any substantial degree, because they work with small batches and don’t care about stretching the formula to fill 100,000 bottles. Sample Black Osmanthus because it’s the real face of osmanthus, the one you rarely see. If you’re intrigued by this, then you’ll know you’re ready for exploring some of the other ugly-beautiful faces of flowers in the artisan arena. Cue Matrix quote: “You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
Slumberhouse New Sibet
Slumberhouse fragrances are fetishized in certain parts of the community, so hardly needs no talking up by little old me. But for people who didn’t jive with the original aesthetic of Slumberhouse – dense, syrupy New Gothic Americana – and thus allowed their interest to drift away from the house, might be brought back into the fold by New Sibet, a scent that marks a stylistic departure for Josh Lobb and the house.
Underneath the otherworldly chill of orris meeting the gamey funk of leather, New Sibet has a classical bone structure. The gears shift midway through its trajectory, transitioning so soundlessly from Slumberhouse weirdness to a Caronesque leathery carnation that it unnerves the wearer. The dusty coldness that permeates from head to toe gilds the scent with a silvery edge that feels like breathing in dry ice.
New Sibet is unusual in that it exhibits almost human intelligence; sometimes it is a cool-toned, ashy leather, other times it seems rather ripe, buttery, and pungent, and occasionally, it smells resolutely classical, like a beguiling mash-up of Tabac Blond and L’Air du Temps. It’s gloriously weird, borderline unwearable, and absolutely beautiful.
Why you should take a leap of faith: Along with Feu Secret by Bruno Fazzolari, New Sibet is the rare example of an artisan fragrance that turns our traditional idea of iris on its head, rather than simply allowing the beauty of the material to do all the talking, as is the norm.
Amber fragrances are a sort of rite of passage in the first few years of one’s fragrance journey; they are un-challenging, simple in structure, and offer the kind of dopey sweetness that’s hard to pass up on when you’re in need of warmth. But what makes ambers so attractive is also what limits them. One you’ve amassed two or three of the amber stalwarts, it’s hard to find a variation that innovates or improves on the basic model to the point where you’d be happy shelling out for another.
Battaniye is that rare amber that does something new with an old idea. Meaning blanket in Turkish, Battaniye was made to evoke the feeling of restfulness and comfort of having an old wool blanket pulled over your lap, while you watch the rain bucket down outside. Omer Pekji took his inspiration from a stormy evening in Trabzon, in his native Turkey, a town on the Silk Road that served as the gateway to Persia.
The scent opens on a remarkable note of burned coffee grounds, before smoothing out into a dry, whiskeyish amber that reads more like fabric – leather, sheep’s wool, hessian – than resin. In fact, it does rather smell like an old afghan or perhaps a man’s battered leather jacket, something that you absentmindedly pull onto your bare knees and then spend the rest of the evening inhaling the rich humanity of smells bound up in its fibers.
Battaniye achieves a textured, layered feeling of warmth without ever spiraling into gooey sweetness, or at the other end of the scale, the sort of parched dryness that wears on the spirit. It’s a masculine scent, and slightly animalic in parts, a core of medicinal Peau d’Espagne-style leather hiding out in layers of wool, resin, and cool, wet earth. Once the TCP-like nuances of the leather burn off, the patchouli really piles into the scent in a big way, reminding me of the evocative smell of rain on soil. This is a scent that just gets better and better as it ages on the skin.
Why you should take a leap of faith: It’s hard to do something with amber that a) diverges from the basic model of sweet, resinous warmth, and b) doesn’t in any way call to mind the spice-rack ambers of the Middle East. Battaniye shuffles the spirit of oily, macho Peau d’Espagne-style leathers into an ever-shifting deck of resin, wool, and earth, for a result that both comforts and pulls on an emotional string.
It’s masculine but not macho, dry but not desiccated, exotic but not souk-ish, and finally, evocative but not challenging. Battaniye solves a lot of problems inherent in amber scents, and thus might be the baby bear’s porridge of amber for many fragrance fans. Devotees of By Kilian’s Amber Oud and Tauer’s Lonestar Memories will want to sample.
Providence Perfume Cocoa Tuberose
Chocolate, like coffee, is one of those things that smells amazing in real life and borderline disgusting in perfume. Overly burnt, harsh, syrupy – these are all charges laid at the door of coffee and chocolate perfumes, be they natural or mixed media. But Cocoa Tuberose is very clever; it hints at the topnotes of dark chocolate (brandy, dried plum, red earth, dust) without ever tipping into the faintly metallic, period blood-like animalism that lurks beneath, or worse, adding cream and sugar to bloat it up and dumb it down.
I put this down to the surprisingly subtle influence of the tuberose, which shows up only as a faintly rubbery, vegetal note that throws a net over the chocolate and controls it. Hints of dry tobacco add a sexy, rugged accent very much like the animalic tobacco-chocolate-black tea triad in Sammarco’s Bond-T. The overall effect is of a dark, dusty richness born not of flowers and chocolate, but of cardboard, solvent, old houses, and libraries.
Why you should take a leap of faith: Sexy and evocative, Cocoa Tuberose is a rare natural perfume that transcends the limits of its constituent materials. It won’t hit you over the head with either cocoa or tuberose, but instead explores what those things feel like in a wider, more perfumey context. For people who prefer less “on-the-nose” florals like Le Labo Iris 39, this is a must-try. Hurry though – I hear Cocoa Tuberose is on the chopping block.
Stora Skuggan Silphium
Silphium demonstrates the endearingly nerdy interest of some artisans in repurposing old materials and traditions for modern ends; Antonio Gardoni, perfumer of Bogue, created Maai, for example, when he discovered a stash of barrels of vintage raw materials in a disused warehouse. In the case of Silphium, Stora Skuggan wanted to create the scent of Silphium, an ancient plant native to modern-day Libya that was used for medicinal purposes in Ancient Greece. Pedanius Dioscorides, in 70 BC, described Silphium as having a “very healthy aroma”, and it’s possible that it was used as a contraceptive or even an aid to abortion.
The perfumers, probably working off the information that Silphium may have been related to fennel or asafetida, built an accord that smells like an ancient salve made from sweeping armfuls of culinary herbs and spices off the rack. But whatever medicinal pungency might have resulted from this is mitigated by the cheerful zing of freshly-grated ginger root, which sluices the dense herbal canopy with heat and sunshine. Indeed, layered with a fizzing incense note, Silphium smells more like a good mood than the inside of Hippocrates’ medicine chest, and that’s a good thing.
The clove and black pepper accents rev up the spicy and metallic aspects of the Silphium accord, making it feel half-clean, half-sweaty. Crucially, there’s no amber or vanilla to blunt the spice, so things never get maudlin or, shudder, creamy. It does, however, smell incredibly soapy in a happy, effervescent way. Although Silphium doesn’t really remind me of any other perfume, I’m confident that anyone who loves the sooty, airy incense in Timbuktu (L’Artisan Parfumeur), the clovey resins of Eau Lente (Diptyque), and the luxurious soapiness of Castile (Penhaligon’s) would also love this scent.
Why you should take a leap of faith: Love the ancient herbs and spice rack authenticity of the earlier Diptyque scents? Silphium nails it, and is an indie to boot.
Hiram Green Shangri La
Some all-natural perfumes sacrifice aeration for wholesomeness, leaving the perfume feeling overly dense and “brownish” in aura. Then, when the main show of force is over, they evaporate into the ether. What, pay €150 for sludge that lasts 30 minutes? Nope, I require both beauty and lift, which is why I usually prefer mixed media perfumes over all-natural. However, there are a couple of artisan brands whose all-natural perfumes slip past my cynicism barrier and make it to “must buy” status, and Hiram Green is one of those.
Florals are, I suspect, slightly easier to arrange in the context of natural perfumery; many absolutes and essential oils, like jasmine, rose, and ylang, are complex aromas in their own right, and the trick then becomes how to best manage their behavior in the final composition. But chypres, which involve a complex arrangement of bergamot, labdanum, and oakmoss, are difficult to achieve, especially in a day and age when real oakmoss is restricted.
Shangri La pulls it off. A dry but lush chypre with an aged peach saké topnote, it has the rubied, velvety bitterness of a Mitsouko or Femme without any the compromises one has to make for the modern-day versions. Plus, it’s all-natural, although Shangri La is so good that you forget all about its worthiness. Full review here.
Why you should take a leap of faith: A proper fruity chypre with a properly mossy drydown priced at €39 for a travel size? Come on, I’ve laid riskier bets than that at our local greyhound track.
Francesca Bianchi Under My Skin
Together with Siberian Musk (Areej Le Doré), Francesca Bianchi’s Under My Skin was my favorite fragrance in 2017, but it’s kind of silly to confine perfumes to years, because I have the feeling that this would make my list every year. Under My Skin smells of intimacy in the best way possible, an idealized notion of milky sweat, buttery baby skin, worn suede, and old wood. Original review here.
Why you should take a leap of faith: If you’re attracted to the special, private smells common to a loving household or family, then skip the much-vaunted L’Air de Rien by Miller Harris, now reformulated down to a small, pungent amber, and come right to the door of an artisan who’s doing it all right. It is both atmospheric, in the way it paints a picture of the collected smells of a place – a bed, a room, a library – and intensely human, in the way it captures the private, milky scent of much-loved skin. It’s basically the kind of human fur perfume that Guerlain should still be doing but isn’t.
Hans Hendley Mown
Many artisan perfumers come to fragrance by way of another art or artisanal profession, such as photography, graphic design, jazz music, poetry, jewelry-making, or small-batch artisanal food production: Bruno Fazzolari, Diane St. Clair, Annette Neuffer, and Hans Hendley are all prominent examples of this sort of crossover. A surprising number of them started out in the field of science and chemistry: Andy Tauer, Sven Pritzkoleit, and Spyros Drosopoulos all came with a professional curiosity about scent molecules and how they behave (scientifically or not) in a composition.
Obviously, the desire to create is one that spills feverishly over boundaries and finds cracks in the pavement through which to sprout. The artisan sector is where cross-pollination thrives; it gets strangled in the bigger niche and mainstream segments of the market.
Not all art is good just because it is art, just like not everything an artisan makes is intrinsically superior to what’s offered in the mainstream. I like Hans Hendley perfumes because they are artistic without being pretentious or inaccessible to a more general public taste. I would describe his style as Slumberhouse-esque, inspired by rugged, outdoorsy smells such as “pine, cedar, oak, forest floor, daffodil flowers (narcissus), honeysuckle, sage, tomato leaf, fresh bread, sawdust, smoke and the secretly amazing smell of gasoline” but much lighter than Slumberhouse and with a use of “radiant” woody-ambery basenotes.
Mown encapsulates both facets of the Hans Hendley style well. It features a damp, nutty hay accord interspersed with the dried fruit and bitter cocoa notes of curing tobacco, with a result that is syrupy, rich, and almost edible. However, layered over a radiant woody amber that smells like shards of wood impregnated with resin, smeared with honey, and left outside in the sun to dry, there is enough “burnt” in the scent’s structure to keep it buoyant. Powdery orris helps tilt the scent towards the dry, bitter “grassy” aspects of the harvest line. There’s even a toasted note in there that calls to mind cereals laid out on hay to dry out in the sun.
Before the woody amber sets itself on fire in the base, we have time for a whistle-stop tour of the tobacco curing shed. The dried fruit richness of the start mimics the chocolatey dampness of un-cured tobacco leaves, which smell like they’ve been dipped in fruitcake soaking liquor, before becoming green and waxy, similar to the smell of beeswax absolute. But as the scent dries out, so too do the sheaves of tobacco, honeycomb transitioning into the crackling nuttiness of 100% cured tobacco leaf, red-gold at the edges and barely sweet. The base is what marks Mown out as related to other powerfully dry, woody perfumes such as Woodcut by Olympic Orchids, Eau My Soul by 4160 Tuesdays, and Hendley’s own Bourbon. At $28 for a 9ml travel spray, Mown has to be one of the best deals on the market if you love the earthy smells of the harvest.
Why you should take a leap of faith: Because if you’re a young professional living in the city, you’ll always feel a tug of yearning for wide open spaces and rusticana. You see the countryside as wholesome and freeing, an imagined space into which to pour all your longing. The perfume landscape is dotted here and there with visionary perfumers who see the wildness of non-urbanized spaces as the refuge of authenticity; Slumberhouse, Hands Hendley, and Diane St. Clair are all artisans who create pictures of the (predominantly American) rural scene, albeit filtered through a very sophisticated, and in the case of Hans Hendley, Big City aesthetic.
Mown will strike a chord with those who love earthy harvest scents: honey, hay, tobacco, grains, grass, cereals, etc. It is built along the same lines as Erawan (Dusita), Agartha (April Aromatics), and Slowdive (Hiram Green), but distinguished by its potently dry, radiant woodiness. It might also be an option for those looking to replace the now-defunct Tabac Aurea (Sonoma Scent Studio), or the more expensive Tobacco by Frank Broclet.
Bruno Fazzolari Au Dela Narcisse
Au Dela Narcisse deserves the kind of “classic green floral” status as Chanel No. 19 or Guerlain’s Chamade. Revolving around a honeyed, animalic narcissus and a dulcet jasmine, Au Dela has a brisk modern feel, but none of the clipped formality of either the Chanel or the Guerlain. The opening moments – a clustering of green notes that manage to be simultaneously crisp and nectarous – are truly riveting, and though the jasmine that follows is a hair too honeyed for my taste, the overall impression is of a green floral chypre, a feat that’s none too easy to accomplish in an oakmoss-limited era.
What I appreciate most about Au Dela Narcisse is that it is the rare green floral that doesn’t feel ramrod stiff. It has a sexy, tousled feel to it, as if Chamade had rolled around with a lover on a bed of wild, honeyed narcissi for hours and is now pleasantly drowsy.
Why you should take a leap of faith: Anyone unhappy with the current state of Chamade (Guerlain), Vol de Nuit (Guerlain), or No. 19 (Chanel) could switch to this and not feel the sting, apart from a slight lack of chypric bitterness. There are distinct parallels between Au Dela Narcisse and both Romanza (Masque Milano Fragranze) and Le Temps d’Un Fete (Parfums de Nicolai), so if the former is too bitter or animalic, and the latter too unavailable, the Bruno Fazzolari would be a more than satisfactory replacement. Travel sizes of 9ml sometimes appear on the brand’s website too.
Bogue MEM, Vero Profumo Naja, & Papillon Dryad
Last but not least, I’d like to mention three of the artistic standouts of last year, all three released at around the same time in Spring 2017, and all three still defining the heights to which artisanal perfumery can scale. I’ve reviewed them already, in this post here, but I’d like to talk here specifically about the aspects that make these three perfumes in particular so significant, in terms of artisanal perfumery and in perfumery in general.
Vero Profumo Naja is significant because the sheer ambitious scale of the perfume belies the humble beginnings of the brand, as the brain child of a woman who worked for Swissair until she was 54. Although largely self-taught (another key feature of the artisan scene being that its perfumers don’t go through the formal route of a Grasse education), Vero Kern’s fragrances are all built in the grand, sweeping manner of the Guerlain, Chanel, and Caron classics.
But where the greats of classic perfumery have all degraded into pale versions of their former glory, or stagnated in the artistic sense, Vero’s fragrances continue to grow in scope and depth. Naja is a strange green-gold osmanthus leather scent that’s almost too complex to categorize except for a passing nod to Tabac Blond and Habanita. But truthfully, Naja transcends and surpasses its antecedents. It’s the kind of perfume we’ll still be using as a reference 50 years from now, and guess what, an artisan made it.
Papillon is an outfit that I’m guessing many consumers would mistake for high-end niche rather than artisan, because of the extraordinarily high gloss finish of the perfumes and the artistic self-assurance of its perfumer, Liz Moores. But in fact, Papillon is an artisan outfit through and through, Liz Moores doing everything herself from the sourcing of materials and creating the formula to bottling, packaging, and shipping. Her 2017 release, Dryad, demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that a talent for perfumery is innate rather than taught. Encompassing the cantilevered depth of vintage Vol de Nuit, the chilly smoothness of No. 19, and the leathery wickedness of Bandit, you could tell us that Dryad sprang from the loins of Germaine Cellier or Jacques Guerlain, and we’d believe it.
Bogue Mem is a perfume event in the landscape of perfumery, whether you like it or not (and many did not). A perfume of such astonishing complexity it requires repeat wearings to break it all down, it is essentially a riff on lavender that meanders through burnt marmalade, malt, hay, and the low tide stench of ambergris. But the important thing about Mem is that after it’s finished – a good 12-14 hours after you’ve applied it – you think to yourself, boy, now that was an experience. It’s as twisty as a good telenovela, but nutrient-dense, cerebral. Wear this if you want the perfume equivalent of watching The Unusual Suspects or Inception for the first time.
Why you should take a leap of faith: These are three artisans at the top of their game, artistically and career-wise; sample their work to track the trajectory they took to get there and to pay witness to the extraordinary complexity and polish that’s possible from the hands of self-taught perfumers.
 “Luxury for the Masses”, authored by Michael J. Silverstein & Neil Fiske, April 2003 issue, Harvard Business Review, accessed through https://hbr.org/2003/04/luxury-for-the-masses