Winter is in full swing in the Western hemisphere, so Frederic Malle‘s L’Eau d’Hiver by Jean-Claude Ellena seemed like a suitably symbolic choice for today’s review. It is described as a watercolour that intertwines water and coolness with softness and warmth. What struck me was the exquisitely delicate opening that felt like an olfactory visual that captured intangible senses of atmospheric light and quiet moods, and turned them into concrete form.
Painted in translucent colours, the opening somehow manages to encapsulate Zen-like serenity, silence, and elegance in a way that makes the perfume as a whole far more than a mere collection of notes, far more than the sum of its parts. Again and again, the words which came to mind were “hushed breaths” and “translucent light.” The overall effect is more of a feeling than just a perfume. I’m not one of Jean-Claude Ellena’s fans and his minimalism usually leaves me cold, but the opening of L’Eau d’Hiver truly impressed me and leaves no doubt as to his technical mastery or brilliance. If only it had lasted….
L’Eau d’Hiver is an eau de parfum that was released in 2003. I think its description on the Malle website is extremely accurate, at least with regard to the beautiful opening phase of the scent:
Jean-Claude Ellena fuses the two extremes of the olfactory spectrum into a fragrance of a new kind: the first transparent and light water scent that is simultaneously soft and warm. Composed like a watercolor, the transparency of zests and hedione is mixed with the softness of white heliotrope, iris and honey. Jean-Claude Ellena set out to create the first “Eau Chaude” pushing his understated, minimalist style beyond traditional boundaries. An ocean of comfort, both pure and warming.
According to that description, the notes in L’Eau d’Hiver are:
Heliotrope, iris, honey, citrus zests, and hedione.
L’Eau d’Hiver opens on my skin like something out of a beautiful memory. The first impression is not of any particular note but, rather, of pureness, translucency, and light, followed by sweetness and a floral, powdery heliotrope. Tiny droplets of citric zestiness and hedione’s floral greenness shimmer throughout, adding to the sense of a mirage flickering in the light.
What is left out of Malle’s description is the liquid quality and texture of the scent. It really feels like a thin, honey nectar whose sweet wateriness is covered with powdered pollen from the heliotrope and iris. The latter is a quiet, hushed note, more like soft brushstrokes of greyness and abstract floral coolness, instead of anything stony, icy, or rooty. It hovers in the background, letting the heliotrope dominate with its warmer, sweeter softness. Heliotrope is one of my favorite notes, but there is none of its usual almond, meringue, marzipan or vanilla-ish qualities here. Rather, it’s a purely floral bouquet that evokes the same sort of sweet pollen images that mimosa does, though oddly the purity of L’Eau d’Hiver conjures up images of delicate, white Baby’s Breath flowers more than anything else. Underlying it is a soft, watered down milkiness that is really pretty, even if it’s just a tiny streak.
Ten minutes into its development, L’Eau d’Hiver shifts slightly. The tiny bursts of citric crispness retreat to the sidelines, while the watery milkiness in the base grows stronger. Something ineffable and wholly intangible has happened that I really cannot describe properly except to say that L’Eau d’Hiver feels more like atmospherics, mood, feeling, and light, instead of an actual perfume. It’s something really impossible to convey and that I rarely encounter with fragrances, because it’s almost as if L’Eau d’Hiver were a genie’s lamp that has been rubbed to release images, sensory feel, and emotions instead of a combination of flower and plant essences. I can’t even find photos to properly demonstrate the feel and images because it’s all so intangible, much like the bouquet itself. It’s limpid. It’s translucent. It’s a watercolour gouache that one of the 19th century French Impressionists might have done to capture a certain feeling. And I’m utterly awed by the brilliance of it all.
The best way I can describe those breath-taking minutes is through the visual or scene that consistently popped up in my head whenever I tried L’Eau d’Hiver. A ray of soft, warm light shines into a slightly old-fashioned but very elegant living room done up in cool shades of grey. The beam hits a table upon which lies a large, glass vase of flowers filled with heliotrope, iris, and (in my mind) baby’s breath. Their pollen and powder fall into the water which is honeyed with a touch of milk. The water seems to lap in small waves, rippling and extending outside the vase and into the soft light, where it mixes with the delicate, subtle whiff of floralcy. Every part of it feels like a hushed breath.
It’s cool but also warm, clean and fresh but also surprisingly soothing, and chic-ly elegant on every level. It feels like vintage Chanel minimalism, and is very much what I had hoped Bel Respiro would be but wasn’t. It also feels like French Impressionistic art, only it’s very modern as well. Most of all, it feels timeless, and like a hushed breath of silence that envelops you with calm. I can’t emphasize how chic the restrained fluidity is, or how strange it is to feel minimalism that has a surprisingly presence. Eau d’Hiver may be like an intangible mood and translucent light in these moments, but its Zen-ishness has an impact that belies its lucidity. I honestly can’t describe it or explain why, but I was enraptured, despite the fact that absolutely none of this is my thing at all normally. I can only chalk it up to the fact that serenity is something that we are all drawn to, no matter how abstract and intangible.
I just wish it lasted because, in all frankness, L’Eau d’Hiver rapidly goes downhill for me from this point forth. At first, starting at the 15-minute mark, it’s merely a subtle shift in the balance of notes. The citrus seems to pop up in the background with greater frequency, while the honeyed nectar up top turns thinner, more watery, and cooler in feel. More importantly, a subtle wave of greenness is beginning to wash over the notes, and L’Eau d’Hiver is slowly turning crisper. There is the first hint of something sharply clean, almost like a clean white musk, and the serenity is beginning to have an edge.
Exactly 30 minutes in, the landscape changes completely, and it’s due almost entirely to the hedione. It’s a synthetic from Firmenich that was first created or discovered in the 1950s. You may be unfamiliar with the name, but chances are that you’ve smelt something with it, even if you weren’t aware of it at the time. Hedione is such a walloping part of the rest of L’Eau d’Hiver on my skin that its smell and character are worth discussing in further detail.
The best discussion I’ve seen of the aromachemical is from The Perfume Shrine, and I’ll quote parts of the article here, though I recommend reading it in full if you have any interest in the subject:
Hedione or methyl dihydrojasmonate is an aromachemical… that is often used in composition in substitution for jasmine absolute, but also for the sake of its own fresh-citrusy and green tonality. […][¶] Perfumer Lyn Harris, nose of the brand Miller Harris … attributes to it the capacity to give fizz to citrus notes much “like champagne”. […][¶]
First used in the classic men’s cologne Eau Sauvage, composed by Edmond Roudnitska in 1966, hedione had been isolated from jasmine absolute and went on to revolutionize men’s scents with the inclusion of a green floral note. Eau Sauvage was so successful that many women went on to adopt it as their own personal fragrance leading the house of Dior to the subsequent introduction of Diorella in 1972 [….][¶] Ten years after its introduction to perfumery, in 1976, it was the turn of Jean Claude Ellena to coax hedione in a composition that exploited its fresh and lively character to great aplomb in the production of First by jewelry house Van Cleef & Arpels. […][¶]
Hedione also makes a memorable appearance in many other perfumes, such as the classic Chamade by Guerlain (introduced in 1969), Chanel no.19 (1970) and Must by Cartier (1981) and in many of the modern airy fragrances such as CKone, Blush by Marc Jacobs, the shared scent Paco by Paco Rabanne or ~surprisingly~ in the bombastic Angel by Thierry Mugler, in which it is used as a fresh top note along with helional! Perhaps if you want to feel it used in spades smell L’Eau d’Issey by Issey Miyake: the aquatic/ozonic notes cannot hide its radiance. Its uses are legion, especially since it acts as a supreme smoothener of the rest of the ingredients. In Terre d’Hermes, perfumer Jean Claude Ellena uses lots of it to bring out the softer side of hesperidic bergamot and to fan out the woodier aspects. [Emphasis to names added by me.]
As that discussion makes clear, Jean-Claude Ellena not only loves to use hedione in his various creations, but to use it in spades. As he does here, alas, in L’Eau d’Hiver. None of it smells like jasmine on my skin; all of it smells citrusy, green, fresh, clean, and abstractly floral with an undertone of effervescent fizziness that is vaguely liquid-like. The fizziness is minor, though, and very unlike the champagne note in YSL‘s Yvresse, while the cleanness has a pointed sharpness that really made me wonder if L’Eau d’Hiver contained my hated white musk.The floral quality is not something that can be dissected into a particular note, but is wholly abstract and intangible. In other words, more “floral-like” than concrete. The predominant sense, though, is of overwhelming greenness flecked with crisp citruses, cleanness, and watery coolness.
At the 30-minute mark, L’Eau d’Hiver is a mix of liquidity, hedione, cold iris, and citric crispness, lightly flecked with powdered heliotrope and tiny drops of honey. The latter has weakened substantially and is barely noticeable now. The streak of milkiness in the base has practically disappeared. Up top, the wonderful heliotrope is rapidly dying. All of them have been thoroughly drowned out by the hedione, which is slowly clobbering any vestige of warmth, softness, and sweetness in a tidal wave of greenness. It is joined by an increasingly strong iris note which is slowly turning colder, and its aroma is now more akin to something stony instead of floral.
The complex, multi-faceted, juxtaposed contrasts of the opening minutes have now been replaced by an image of hedione water trickling over stones in a stream. It’s endlessly green, cold, and austere, not to mention increasingly thin in texture as well. At times, it feels as though L’Eau d’Hiver is evaporating off my skin and, 45 minutes into its development, the nuances are becoming increasingly hard to detect. All that’s left is a translucent wisp of cold, green floral water with stony iris and citrus.
I don’t like any of it, period. The monumental shift from the beauty of the opening minutes is depressing enough, but it doesn’t help that the hedione gives me a pounding headache every time I smell L’Eau d’Hiver up close. And, my God, is there a lot of hedione — intensely loud, blasting, full-throttle amounts of it. I find the overall end result to be unbearable, overly simplistic, completely uninteresting, and lacking in nuance. The droplets of honey, the warmth of the heliotrope, the approachable and lovely aspects to the liquidity, the floral softness that seemed so elegant and chic…. it’s all vanished. By the start of the 2nd hour, L’Eau d’Hiver is green hedione floral water running over cold stones, and nothing else.
It is also a linear scent which barely changes in the hours that follow. At the 3.5 hour mark, the perfume turns slightly creamy in feel and undertone, weakening some of its wateriness. The floralcy turns even more abstract, and is only occasionally a bit reminiscent of iris. By the time the 7th hour rolls around, the water and creaminess have both been replaced by soapiness. L’Eau d’Hiver is now merely a soapy clean, green floral, and it remains that way until its final moments.
L’Eau d’Hiver has moderate projection, and good longevity. Using 3 big smears equal to 2 sprays from an actual bottle, the perfume initially opened with 3.5 inches of projection. That number dropped to about 1.5 inches after 25 minutes, then to a bare inch above the skin by the end of the first hour. L’Eau d’Hiver turns into a skin scent on me at the 3.5 hour mark, and then dies away 8.75 hours from the start.
On Fragrantica, others report much shorter times for the scent, with the majority of votes (32) selecting 3-6 hours (which is how Fragrantica defines the “moderate” category.) One poor woman, though, said the perfume only lasted a mere 20 minutes on her skin, which is terrible indeed. I suspect that L’Eau d’Hiver wouldn’t stand up particularly well to the heat, and would die much sooner than when worn in the colder, winter temperatures in which I tested it. Even then, it certainly took effort to detect any nuances beyond its hedione greenness and wateriness after first hour.
As noted earlier, there were times when the perfume seemed to be evaporating off my skin, but I was surprised not only by its tenaciousness but also by just how noticeable that translucent greenness scent was on occasion. I suspect that, similar to ISO E Supercrappy, hedione is an aromachemical whose larger sized molecules will make the scent feel like a peek-a-boo ghost, one which is more noticeable at times, especially if you’ve given your nose a rest for a while by not smelling the perfume up close. (ISO E Super’s large molecules tend to block out the nose’s receptors, and therefore block out the scent as a whole when sniffed up close for too long. It is why other people can sometimes detect a fragrance with a lot of ISO E Super better than you can on yourself. They’re smelling it from afar.) On Basenotes, one commentator, “drseid,” wrote that L’Eau d’Hiver “does a near disappearing act after about 15-20 minutes that had me wondering if that was it… Sure enough though, it reappears a few minutes later.” I suspect the hedione’s large molecules were to blame, due to their effect on one’s nose.
What surprised me even more is that few of the Fragrantica reviews mention wateriness. They talk about the cleanness, the iris, the heliotrope having a powdered almond sweetness, the fluffy or cool qualities of the scent, but not any liquidity. Fragrantica doesn’t list hedione amongst L’Eau d’Hiver’s ingredients, and I doubt the average person would know what it is even if they did, but commentators don’t mention greenness, either.
It’s different on Basenotes, where the reviews skew more neutral and negative. One person found L’Eau d’Hiver to smell exactly like Johnson’s Baby Powder, undoubtedly due to the heliotrope, while others think it is an almond powder fragrance for probably the same reason. Yet, quite a few mention “water,” a “mineral” quality, or the “nothingness” of the scent. A few examples of the different perspectives:
- A pale, powdery nothing to my nose. Strives to be a non-scent. It is described by Turin as watery almond, but the water wins out. [..][¶] Eau d’Hiver is not a bad scent, but it is not an impressive scent. Smells like someone skimped on the materials. A pale shadow of what it might have been.
- This smells exactly like Johnson’s Baby Lotion to me […] but after a few wearings it has really grown on me. [..][¶] l get the barest whiff of heliotrope in the initial phase, & then it’s mainly a smooth, sweet, soft floral blend with a slightly cool, mineral feel.[..][¶] For me it’s a little too cool, pretty & ethereal to make me feel comforted on a cold winter’s day, but in early spring l have found it just perfect for wearing to work. lt has a clean & inoffensive prettiness that works really well in my hospital environment. Very nice.
- “Synthetic almond water” is the best way to describe this.
- The top is dominated by a boring florist / green-house violet note with the irritating insistence only synthetics have. This is followed by the much mentioned watery almond note, a little bitter, a little peppery, a little powdery sweet, but mainly continuing the cheap artificiality of the top.
L’eau d’Hiver opens with a mild citric bergamot that lasts longer than I would have expected. It then does a near disappearing act after about 15-20 minutes that had me wondering if that was it… Sure enough though, it reappears a few minutes later and the very powdery iris and heliotrope combo take over in full force. When I say “full force,” I guess this is in relative terms, as the scent never is loud or attention grabbing in *that* way… It just acts as a powdery skin scent that is light, subtle, minimalist and well composed.
- watery, powdery, synthetic smelling..dont know what to make of it. to an extent it smells like a mint flavored toothpaste. totally uninspiring. very hard to believe its an JCE creation.
- I bought it and the first week I wore it, I thought I’d made a dreadful mistake. I found it linear and dull and even rubbery. I was ready to renounce Ellena and his minimalism. And then suddenly, something about it clicked. […][¶] What fascinates me about L’eau d’hiver is that it manages to be both serene and remote at once. Its genius lies in its affectlessness, its sheer neutrality. The composition itself is remarkable: there’s a burst of opening powder and some recognizable almonds, but after the top notes burn off it defies comparative reference points. Though frequently compared to Apres l’Ondee, there is no violet in this perfume and much less vanilla. There are some gestures in the direction of “floral” that never quite read as flowers, and lots and lots of musk that never quite reads as animalic.
- Heavenly, smooth, transparent, clean, watery, refined, spohisticated, impeccable, gentle, whispered, elegant…sexless. […][¶] Not my cup of tea but I can’t deny this iteraton of the heliotrope is terrific. Just next to Apres L’Ondèe.
As regular readers know, I adore heliotrope, so my views on L’Eau d’Hiver would very different if it actually was a heliotrope scent on my skin, from start to finish and in full force. I might even accept the “synthetic almond water” that one Basenoters mentions, though probably not given my feelings on strong synthetics.
Unfortunately, L’Eau d’Hiver is none of those heliotrope-oriented things on my skin, and it’s definitely nothing like Après L’Ondee, either. Instead, 95% of the fragrance after the first 20 minutes is hedione greenness and water, with the remainder made up of stony iris and a cleanness which initially starts off similar to white musk before eventually turning soapy. I completely understand why one Basenotes commentator compared L’Eau d’Hiver to the watery, synthetic atmosphere of “boring florist” because the vast majority of the scent is akin to a translucent feeling of clean coolness infused with an abstract floralcy, the same way the air smells in a florist. The sliver of creaminess in the base around the 4th hour briefly attempts to add some minor body to the wateriness, but it doesn’t really succeed. And, unfortunately for me, absolutely nothing detracts from the endless amounts of hedione, its greenness, its fresh cleanness, its synthetic quality, or the headache which it imparts.
Jean-Claude Ellena is a man whose talent is both vast and undeniable. Though he traumatized me early in my childhood with his hedione-heavy “First” for Van Cleef & Arpels (and hasn’t done anything to capture my heart since), there was a brief moment in L’Eau d’Hiver’s very elegant, evocative, and masterful opening where I thought he would finally make up for it all. I was sorely mistaken. Nevertheless, if you’re a lover of heliotrope, iris, and scents that combine wateriness with cool powder, then you should probably try L’Eau d’Hiver for yourself.