Wednesday, 26 March 2014

From Ambre Sultan to Chanel No. 5, A Curious Journey In Taste

Eight years ago, I lifted a curiously understated rectangular bottle of fragrance to my nose and inhaled. At that moment, my concept of ‘what perfume smells like’ changed forever. It was Ambre Sultan by Serge Lutens.

This revelation occurred whilst I was teaching in Dubai. Being so deeply opulent and spicy, I assumed it was an Arabic brand. Not being a certified fume junkie back then, I didn’t buy it, waiting instead until my bottle of Opium ran out to consider a purchase. Of course I did re-visit the store to indulge in it’s heady lure several times. 

From discussion with fellow fumies, it appears that many of us began our journey into niche with this creation. Unsurprising when you consider that the most popular genre amongst contemporary niche fans tends to be orientals.
As my interest developed into a hobby increasingly more compulsive than a serious train spotting habit, I smelt a great many niche perfumes. I developed a distinct personal taste that was dominated by; citrus chypres, intense orientals and outdoorsy feeling woods. A jasminophobe, I was highly unlikely to feel the love for a full on white floral or (gulp) the horror of an old fashioned floral aldehyde.

So, how the hell have I fallen hard for Chanel No. 5?
Whilst having a boozy dinner at my beautiful friend Jo’s house around Christmas time, we delved into her very grown-up stash of fumes. Jo Loves ‘proper perfume’, i.e. the likes of Moschino, 24 Faubourg and Chanel No. 5, that which we associate with drinking champagne in an immaculate dress. Or more relevantly to our friendship, glugging Asda’s Prossecco in tatty clothes. My overriding sensation whilst sampling Jo’s grown up lady scents was a sense of exoticism, they smelt extraordinary, innovative and otherworldly. Odd, because that’s exactly how I felt when I smelt Ambre Sultan.

As I dozed off in her absent son’s big red tractor bed that night, I pondered the curiously soapy whiff radiating from my arm. The Chanel No. 5 was emitting the fizzy sherbet like quality of aldehydes over a complex mélange of sappy woodland greenery and an abstraction of floral delights. It was beautiful. I was astonished.

 Harry, a budding fumie takes a shine to Jo's Rochas Alchemie..

..but decides that Moschino is more pleasing
And so to Ebay. A bottle of Chanel No. 5 Elixir Sensuel was rapidly obtained and a couple of days ago, an EDP of the original arrived courtesy of a kindly regular swopping buddy.

What’s essentially happened is that over the last few years I have smelt so many repetitions on the theme of amber and woody orientals that they have become ‘normal’ and no longer feel unique or ‘niche’. Ambre Sultan has been emulated so many times that Chanel No. 5 feels like a contemporary innovation. The mainstream has (with exception of some truly awful leaden fruitchoulis) become the exotic.
So, you can expect to see some changes at Odiferess this year as I embark on a journey into new genres. This year I will be mostly seeking out notes that I didn’t used to like (yes, I am emitting a vociferous air of jasmine from my wrists today courtesy of No. 5 and enjoying it enormously) and seeing how far my tastes have broadened. I have on my current list of things to review; fruity hedgerow delights from Mark Buxton, Penhaligon’s ‘busty’ Cornubia, Caron’s ‘shining happy people’ scent - My Ylang, Boucheron’s dazzlingly snooty - Place Vendome and Le Labo’s unfeasibly sticky lily- Lys 41.

The result of a google search for 'Woodland Flowers'. This is better than woodland flowers.

I shall be continuing to read the insightful words of some of my favourite blogs written by men who love a lavish bouquet. In particular, The Scented Hound who has a penchant for Caron and The Silver Fox who is as unafraid of a strident white floral.

Disclaimer: Despite my current adoration for No. 5 I reserve the right the state that Brad Pitt looked and sounded like a complete buffoon in the recent fragrance advert which was as humourous as Tom Ford's 'naked female bottom-crack scent smelling strip dispenser' was vile and sexist. I want to hear a secret tape of the associated marketing exec meetings, what were they thinking?!

I'd love to hear your thoughts on matters of taste, has anybody had a drastic shift in recent times?

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Oriental Roses: Neela Vermeire - Mohur & Scent On Canvas - Rose Opera

Last spring I wrote about two of my favourite ‘alternative roses’, taking an exceedingly French angle with the exploration of Robert Piguet’s broody masterpiece – Calypso and Parfum D’Empire’s effervescent – Eau Suave. You can read about them by clicking here.
For the rest of the year my nose fatigued of the ongoing replications of current trends, i.e. rose + oud and rose + patchouli, samples of which lay unloved the dusty yawn of my ‘unlikely to review’ box. However, I searched hard for word worthy roses and discovered two with distinct and worldly personalities. Although both classified as unisex, I interpret them as ‘his and hers’ orientals, Rose Opera by Scent on Canvas and Mohur by Neela Vermeire Creations.

The Rose In Victorian Orientalism 
For him:
Men just don’t wear enough roses, and when they do it’s often butched-up with buckets of black pepper or a strident wood. I’m thinking of Cartier’s Declaration D’ Un Soir here which makes me sneeze uncontrollably with watering eyes. Some of the finest roses hail from the beauty counters of the high street, in particular YSL. I would grant a definite second glance to a man striding past me in a cloud of the aldehydic mossy rose - Rive Gauche (women’s version) or in the fizzy, sour, rose-Ribena of (the rather sickly named) In Love Again.
Scent On Canvas present an abstract rose composition that is dominated by a dry spicy saffron note, rendering it sufficiently butch to avoid being perceived as overtly feminine.

A complex composition, Rose Opera rather suits it’s orchestral name. It does that peculiar thing that we associate with Mitsouko in that it’s so well blended that single notes (it’s instruments) do not shout for noisy dominance, in fact some are undetectable amongst the symphonic aroma simply serving a supporting role. A peak at it’s Fragrantica page reveals that many can smell a wild strawberry note. I highly doubt this would be the case if it weren’t previously revealed to be nestling amongst the top. I can’t detect it. Above all else, this is a distinctly arid spiced oriental, rich in saffron, smokey woods and cardamom, where even the suggestion of rose appears in an abstraction. Alike YSL’s eternal spice bomb Opium, it lasts for aeons, unlike Opium, it’s subtle.

Maria Coluccelli's beautiful artwork for the Rose Opera  packaging
Rose Opera fits into the heavily replicated genre of ‘Cod-Arabic Rose’, a bore-fest of Western perfume houses filling everything with oud, naming it something to connote a desert or souk and overpricing it. Except, that this one is not boring. It’s beautiful. Thankfully it’s creator, Jordi Fernadez, avoided the recognizably nose piercing screech of dominant oud and relied on alternative harmonic notes to create a much softer souk-a-delic trip.

'Souk-a-delic', soon to be as frequently mentioned as 'fruitchouli' and 'floriental'

For her:

In opposition to the aridity of Rose Opera, Neela Vermeire’s Mohur is a heady voluptuous juice. Although it shares many notes with the former, it drenches you with the suggestion of rain on petals. Meteorologically, more Indian, which fits rather well with Neela’s heritage and the inspiration behind the range of scents.  I’ve been underwhelmed by recent Duchaufour compositions, but this one feels truly creative, as if he’s felt genuinely inspired by the brief.
Again, describing individual notes in Mohur is a challenge. Although it is noticeably ‘rosy’. This time the concept of rose is less abstract, feeling akin to the milky and almost ‘apple-like’ sensation that occurs when you press your nose into an old fashioned globe shaped shrub rose. My mum grew a ‘Geoff Hamilton’ rose in her previous garden that gave off a scent of such profound beauty that it would necessitate sniffs on an hourly basis. Rather than shrieking ‘rose’ it was creamy, powdery, confectionary and woody, as if it were soaked in Mysore sandalwood. This is how Mohur feels.

The Geoff Hamilton Rose

Mohur was inspired by an olfactory concept of the time of the British Raj in India. An Anglo-Indian atmosphere is conjured here by an impression of Masala chai (tea). We think of tea as a quintessentially English habit, amplified by the idea of the civil servants and gentry who inevitably continued their tea parties and upper class twittery on the croquet lawns and polo fields of their ex-patriot creation. This isn’t an old fashioned British brew up though. It is the exotic cardamom rich delicacy first offered to me by a mini bus driver in Dubai. I admit I gagged at the spiced tea, made bizarrely sweet and lukewarm by the inclusion of Nestle condensed milk, but it grew on me over the following months.

Tea chaps?

So that’s Mohur, a candied and creamed sandalwood rose with an exotic eau de Holland and Barret tea bag appeal. I adore it. I want a full bottle.

Also worth a mention:

La Parfums De Rosine - Rose Kashmirie (smells a little like the scented towels given out at up-market Asian restaurants, but in a beautiful way).

Ormonde Jayne - Ta'if (peppery and woody oriental rose, elegant and sensual)

Neal's Yard - Pure Essence EDP 2, Rose (as natural as a rose can be, affordable and photo-realistic).

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Sunday, 2 March 2014

Adventures In Scent At 4160 Tuesdays: Day 2, A Chypre Perfume Making Workshop

 The archetype, Coty's long gone Chypre

I was lucky. Not only had I made it to a scent making day, but I’d made without catching a nose immobilizing cold. February half term is often spent with whatever virus has been troubling the students at my school since Christmas. I work with kids who aren’t proficient at the ‘hand over mouth during sneeze’ routine.

And so, nose on top form, I joined my fellow (and significantly more sophisticated) students to be taught about the form of chypres by the highly engaging Sarah McCartney of 4160 Tuesdays. Our mixed cohort included a keen novice fumie, two long term fumies, an admirable obsessive with a vast collection and myself (insert your assessment of compulsion here).

We began with an introduction to the structure of the chypre. The chypre genre is widely acknowledged to be ‘perfumey perfume’, characterised by a distinctly classic French feel and a slightly snooty dry temperament. I love them, possibly because I’m not snooty. Possessing a more ‘dappy spaniel’ character, I like the fact that a chypre transforms me into a  ‘graceful greyhound’. They are the polar opposite of a warm-hearted oriental or a cheerful fruity floral.

Sarah delves into a vintage Eau Sauvage for our sniffing pleasure

The Queens of the genre could be said to be Guerlain’s Mitsouko and Dior’s Diorella. Both of which Sarah proffered for a sniffing from astoundingly well preserved vintage bottles. As we sat around the grand desk together, we amassed hoards of smelling strips, studiously comparing variations on the theme. With the majority of the examples dating from a time pre- IFRA regulations, we smelt the real thing. My favourite of which was The Edmond Roudnitska creation for Rochas – Mousseline. I’d never heard of it before, but this heart breakingly cool madame was the mossiest thing I’d ever smelt, aside from actual moss, which doesn’t smell of much unless it’s been raining and you have stuck your face to the ground in a wood (I have of course done this, as I imagine have some of you). To add to it’s appeal, it was packaged in a beautifully minimal and art deco reminiscent yellow box. Although it was created later than the deco period (in 1946), it both smelt of and looked like the liberated masculine habits of those women lucky enough to be wealthy and socially mobile in the 1930s. A round of golf chaps?

The marvelous Mousseline

Another Roudnitska marvel was passed around, the citrusy classic Dior masculine – Eau Sauvage. Chypres marketed at men tend to incorporate abundant citrus and herbal notes, making them hugely appealing to my personal taste. I successfully wore Chanel’s Pour Monsieur, another classic citrus chypre with a soapy accord, for some years without growing a moustache or a fondness for football.

After sampling some classic chypres came the table-top scientist part, about which I was wobbly with excitement.  Time to smell some ingredients.

Sarah’s first offer was oakmoss, the ‘bones’ of the chypre, which we smelt at a 20% dilution. It was symphonic. By this, I mean that there was a multitude of sensations to associate with it’s scent. As I look back to my notes, I see that I wrote; multifaceted, woody, earthy, whole. It was utterly whole, indeed I wish I’d have ‘made’ a perfume containing solely oakmoss, such was it’s complexity. I’d imagined it to be an olfactory challenge as natural notes often are (white birch on it’s own can tear my nose to broken pieces) but it wasn’t. It was everything I love about the outdoors bottled, delivered with sensitivity and gentleness.

We went on to sample the other natural chypre bones; patchouli, cistus labdanum and bergamot, each familiar to anyone who’s dabbled in aromatherapy and regularly haunts the isles of Holland and Barret. This was followed by less familiar synthetic smells, a real treat for hardcore fumies; Exaltolide and Fixolide (two musks, the first of which smelt like Body Shop - White Musk), ISO E Super (wood for wizards), Hedione (used to bring radiance to florals and citrus, used heavily in Van Cleef & Arpels – First, smells to me disgustingly like Cystitis salts – Cystopurin-a-go-go), Suederal (a beautiful soft leather) and several others including a peculiar crème brulee plus strawberry note used to great effect in Sarah’s own ‘The Great Randello’. I was most bewitched by two synthetic violet notes – Alpha Ionone and Ionone Beta, the first of which radiated the rubbery tyres and sugar side of violets that was instantly recognisable in BVLGARI Black and Midnight In Paris. The second presented a more woody interpretation.
Brilliant stuff to play with in bottles

The final smell of the morning was Sarah’s curious ‘seaside’ accord, a mixture of Calone (melon/cucumber/water) and Verimoss (moss, akin to seaweed) which smelt unerringly like the beaches of my childhood holidays in North Wales.

Tired noses headed off to a local café for lunchtime resuscitation.

Upon our return we had about four hours in which to become perfumers. You’d think this would be a laughable amount of time in which to create our personal desires but one of the students was markedly thrilled by his creation which he deemed complete in far less time. For me, it was more difficult.

Wrists soaked, I move progressively up my arm for a skin test

Before the day I vowed to keep an open mind about my ingredients, and focus upon the never before smelt synthetics which are really hard to get access to if you’re an amateur enthusiast. The studio at 4160 Tuesdays was chock full of bottles to play with but I found myself drawn back to the leather and violet notes that I sampled in the morning. My initial mixture contained oakmoss, both violets, Exaltolide musk and Suederol (which dominated the blend). This excited me. I planned to later brighten it with citrus in a kind of homage to Cartier’s Eau de Cartier Essence du Bois. The studio however was filled with scent and a ‘used smelling strip mountain’ so upon Sarah’s advice I took it outside to experience it in the open air. It smelt overtly powdery and smothering. A rethink was required.

Whilst I’d been outside Sarah had produced refreshments of delicious blackcurrant and coffee cordial. This aromatic drink spurred me into pursuit of another of my favourite themes – the hedgerow. Sarah talked me through a few relevant ingredients, this time three picturesque natural accords – raspberry leaf absolute (curiously jammy and tart), cassis (astringent green blackcurrant, bordering on cat pee but unfeasibly beautiful) and buchu (a heady and herbal feeling blackcurrant). With just five students, she had plentiful time to assist each of us, helpfully delving into the stash of materials to find potential interpretations of our olfactory ideas.

Notes a-plenty

I combined my berries with small amounts of other naturals (see the photo of recipe), a great mass of oakmoss and ISO E Super. The unscientific measurement is listed on my recipe as ‘shed loads’ of ISO E Super. Roudnitska would have been appalled.

The process of creation involved using tiny drops of our selected notes and building it up judging quantity by nose alone, an intuitive process that required methodical recording and a fair bit of maths. My records were (typically for me) a little slapdash and I found myself losing count. Care is required. As I peruse my notes tonight I can still smell the lovely patches of accidental drips, a souvenir of the day.

My final creation is without doubt, a hedgerow bordering on a forest. Only six days old, it still needs time to continue to mature but I like it. It’s hints at a drier, leafier version of YSL’s In Love Again (although obviously nowhere near as professional). The 4160 Tuesday’s brand is all about conjuring places and memories, olfactory experiences rather than perfumey perfume. With this in mind, I’m pleased that I made something that echoes the character of the brand. I am unlikely to wear my perfume regularly but I am sure that I will lie in bed on drizzly urban nights and let it transport me to the countryside of my youth.

My finished creation, entitled "Could It Be Mossier?"

What I gained from the event was more than just the creation of a bespoke perfume. It was more significantly about the fun and camaraderie of the day. As you’d expect, we fumies talked each other to death and eagerly absorbed Sarah’s chypre education with delight. As a true perfume geek, I already knew a lot about the genre but I learnt a great deal of fresh information, with the exploration of ingredients being of particular interest to me. This combined with the opportunity to smelt unknown pleasures such as the Mousseline and Miss Dior as it was intended to be, was in itself worth the trip to London. Sarah is an enigmatic teacher. Warm, witty and hugely knowledgeable. She manages to pull off a serious olfactory presentation with a friendly informal atmosphere. Instruction is personally tailored and given frequently or you can withdraw into your own world of pipette heaven and suit yourself. It would be unlikely for a newbie to feel out of place.

The day closed with a sprawl on the sofas with lemon cake and champagne. A chance for us to ponder our creations and a much needed rest for our exhausted conks.

Sarah’s perfume making workshops run once a month throughout the year. Upcoming genre themes include such treats as florals, citrus, watercolours (think Jean Claude Ellena for Hermes) ambers and abstracts (the last of which I imagine it will be tres Comme De Garcons). For more information, take a look here:

Thank you Sarah for a truly wonderful couple of days at the perfumery. In suitably Northern style I can only say – It was bloomin brilliant!