Nanban is the latest release from Arquiste, and a fragrance that seeks to transport you back in time to 1618 when a Japanese galleon sailed on “the ancient commercial trade between Asia, Europe and the Americas,” filled with a cargo of spices, coffee, leather, incense, and woods. To some extent, it succeeds in its endeavour, at least initially….
Arquiste is an American perfume house founded by the architect turned perfumer and designer, Carlos Huber. His goal is always to bottle a specific moment in history. In this case, it’s January 1618, and “the last leg in the transoceanic voyage of a Japanese delegation returning home, after having spent seven years abroad visiting Europe, Mexico and lastly, the Phillipines.”
On its website, Arquiste elaborates further on the history, the exact mental picture that the perfume is meant to evoke, and its scent:
Following a diplomatic mission to the West, a galleon carrying a delegation of samurai charges through dark ocean currents. Loaded with a rare and precious cargo, the ship’s hull is redolent of sweet-smelling tropical woods, heady Spanish leather, frankincense, fine black pepper and other exotic ground spices—the intoxicating spirit of a singular, extraordinary voyage of discovery. [¶]
The pitch black hull of the galleon carried exotic goods like European leather, fine oil paintings and carved woodwork, rich spices from South East Asia and silver, cacao and coffee from Mexico. It was the last commercial and diplomatic excursion to the West until the 19th century. After this epic mission, Japan closed its borders to foreign influence[.] [¶]
The fragrance of NANBAN represents a Japanese story outside of the traditional vision of the country. It’s not Japanese in style because it composed of ingredients from Europe, South East Asia and Mexico alien to Japanese culture, but that were brought into the country by the 17th century delegation. A ‘foreign-style’ (i.e. Nanban style) fragrance representing an oriental view of the West, and vice-versa.
Nanban is an eau de parfum that was created in collaboration with Rodrigo Flores-Roux. Arquiste lists the following notes:
Malabar black pepper, Persian saffron, black tea accord, Chinese osmanthus, coffee absolute, Spanish leather, myrrh, frankincense, styrax, sandalwood, copaiba balsam, cade.
Nanban opens on my skin with delicate wisps of osmanthus that are quickly subsumed within leather that is sweet, spicy, smoky, very musky, and subtly animalic. It feels coated with a thin veneer of civet, one of the ingredients that was typically used in the oil which treated Spanish leather. In the old days, “Peau d’Espagne” or “Spanish Leather” was the name for a highly scented oil made of flowers, citruses, spices, civet and musk that was commonly used to scent gloves. Here, in addition to a good dose of civet, the leather in Nanban feels as though it were treated with a few of the other elements from the ancient, traditional recipe as well. There are light dustings of cloves, cinnamon, green coriander, something vaguely citrusy, and a hint of rose, in addition to a good heaping of saffron and a pinch of pepper. It’s leather with a sweet and spicy bite but, in the first 20 minutes, it evokes the sensuality of heated, very musky skin above all else.
Within minutes, the osmanthus’ breathy floralcy fades away, and its place is taken by a multi-faceted smoke accord. There is frankincense and myrrh that smell woody and a bit dusty, but never skew to the side of liturgical, High Church, spiritual incense. They are fused with cade which emits powerful gusts of heavily burnt woods, campfire smoke, a subtle leathery tarriness, and occasional hints of something piney and resinous. Trailing behind the main trio is cedar which smells like an ambery woody aromachemical. Actually, both the frankincense and cade smell purely man-made and synthetic. The incense never once evoked the smell of either the Omani or Somali frankincense that I tried in AbdesSalaam Attar’s long perfume seminar, not in resin, resinoid, essential oil, blended, or burnt form.
This is a black smokiness that is profoundly woody in nature and, later on, redolent of sharp, overly desiccated aromachemicals. In the case of the cade, its burnt, ashy woods also have a creosote and oily tarriness about them. One of these notes emits a scratchy raspiness that is noticeable within the first 20 minutes, and it becomes increasingly unpleasant by the end of the first hour. I’m not keen on it. At all. I’m similarly unenthused by the rivulets of sourness that run through the base of Nanban, maybe from the synthetic civet in the “Spanish leather’ accord.
For the most part, Nanban’s opening is basically a simple bouquet of spiced, musky, animalic leather with charred woods and various forms of smokiness. From a distance, the spices are heavier and more pronounced than up close. The saffron is particularly evident in the first hour, followed by the black pepper. In the base, there are faint streaks of something balsamic and sticky, a more natural black smokiness that speaks to styrax, though it never shows up in a clearly delineated, distinct way on my skin. There is no black tea at all.
However, there is coffee, and that’s what separates Nanban in its opening hour from the slew of other fragrances out there centered on charred woods, campfire smoke and/or musky, spiced, tarry leather. The first hint of it pops up in the background 10 minutes into Nanban’s development, then gradually solidifies into shape and inches its way to the foreground. Roughly 25 minutes in, the coffee becomes a bridge between the fragrance’s two core components, the leather and the woods. It smells like black, roasted beans but also bears a Turkish coffee aroma, as though it were a bitter sludge laced with green coriander. What’s odd about the note is that it frequently feels very abstract, more like a floating, shimmering haze that suggests “coffee” rather than the clear, solid, actual thing.
Still, the overall end result during the first hour does make me feel as though I were in a trade ship’s cargo hold where the eye (or nose) passes over bags of leather, spices, woods, coffee, and “incense,” all tied together with thick chords of smokiness. Up close, each of the core notes is clearly delineated and, yet, flows seamlessly into the next. From afar, things are blurrier, but it’s still a beautifully blended scent. I just wish I liked it more. Many of these ingredients are favorites of mine, but the aromachemicals in the base are harsh and too noticeable for my tastes.
What’s interesting about the first hour is the kaleidoscopic nature of the scent. The core elements are constantly shifting in their strength or order of prominence, as though they were runners passing the baton in a relay race. Sometimes, the cade’s burnt woods and campfire smoke take the lead, trailed closely by its other woody team mates; at other times, it’s the leather with its musky, civet-y animalics, its spices, and its oily, smoky tar.
Nanban changes as the first hour draws to a close and the second begins. The notes turn hazy and increasingly amorphous in shape. The leather’s musky animalics and civet weaken, while the spice blend feels abstract. More significantly, the coffee — which had never been a dominant element on my skin — now fades to the distant background, then vanishes completely at the end of the 2nd hour. The aromachemical smokiness grows stronger, undulating powerful ripples of sharp blackness and dryness. The woody elements also grow more powerful, frequently making me think of the smoky Javanol “sandalwood” used in a number of Montale, Nasomatto and Orto Parisi fragrances.
Nanban’s long drydown phase begins at the start of the 3rd hour, and is limited to a sheer, thin cloud of aromachemical smoky woods, woody smoke, and smoky, spiced leather. That’s all it is for hours to come. I’ve tested Nanban three times using different quantities to see if there would be a difference, but the fragrance devolves into this basic, simple bouquet each time from the end of the 2nd hour onwards. The only real change is that the leather retreats to the sidelines after 7 hours, taking 3rd place behind the campfire smoke and the “incense,” while the myrrh comes to the forefront in a clear way after 9 hours. In its final hours, all that’s left is a dry, lightly spicy woody scent.
Nanban had very good longevity, but soft sillage and projection on my skin. The scent typically lasted between 16.5 and 17 hours with several generous smears equal to 2 sprays from a bottle, and about 14 hours with the equivalent of 1 spray. Given how my skin eats up fragrances unless there are large amounts of powerful aromachemicals, I think that’s telling. Using roughly the equivalent of 2 sprays, Nanban opened with about 3 inches of projection and about 5 inches of a sillage trail. The projection dropped after an hour to about 2 inches, and hovered just above the skin from the 3rd hour onwards. The sillage was now discreet. Nanban became a skin scent 4.25 hours in, and felt like it was about to die around the 9th hour, but clung on tenaciously as a thin wisp. At all times, the fragrance was light in body and weight, though the actual bouquet was strong up close in the first 4 hours.
To me, Nanban feels like any number of smoky, spicy, leather-woody aromachemical fragrances, particularly during their drydown phases. I thought of Montale, Nasomatto, Orto Parisi, and the new LM Parfums‘ release, Malefic Tattoo. Parts even reminded me occasionally of Masque Milano‘s Russian Tea in its later phases, minus any counterbalancing sweetness. On my skin, Nanban never manifested any obvious, distinct black tea aroma (at any point), but both scents exude huge amounts of cade campfire smoke, charred woods, and an overly sharp “incense” note, and differing amounts of tarry, oily, smoky leather.
On Fragrantica, there are only two reviews for Nanban at this time. There are also 2 votes for a resemblance to Tom Ford‘s London. I haven’t tried the latter to know how much overlap there may be. In terms of the reviews, both are positive, and read in large part as follows:
- First Impression: [¶] Right off the bat I get the Olibanum, Coffee, and Leather. This is a really beautiful mix. Given about 10 minutes passed the black tea note is starting to surface. Excellent juice. This is fall and winter all the way. This is classified as a unisex fragrance but I see this as a total Men’s fragrance. Very different.
- Tried this on my skin today after visiting Bloom, they had a few drops left in a tester. The black pepper at the opening tricked me once again in thinking nothing much was going on in this fragrance. Luckily, myrrh and coffee started coming through after 10 mins or so, and after another while a lovely osmanthus made its presence noticeable. [¶] It seems to increase in projection as it dries down to a sweet and very comforting mix of resins and woods. [¶] It is very nice indeed.
Bloggers generally seem to love Nanban quite a bit. Angela at Now Smell This found it to be a “cozy blanket of earthy-yet-delicious leather that packs in all the notes that to me symbolize fall.” Her short description can be summed up as: “smoky, leathery, sweet, woody and spicy. It’s a big, enveloping fragrance, but it’s also as soft as a kitten’s belly.” Patty at The Perfume Posse fell head over heels for Nanban, and her review reads, in large part, as follows:
Wow. I mean the end. I’m a sucker for a great coffee fragrance, and this is that and so much more. [¶] A gorgeous osmanthus and coffee announce themselves when you spray on Arquiste Nanban, and then it just starts smoking with tea and spices on a slow simmer. I mean, much as I love coffee, a smoking osmanthus has a charm that’s pretty hard to ignore.
The tea and the incense with balsams are amazingly restrained in some way – this isn’t full-on hit you over the head with that powerhouse list of notes above – but it never seems to hold back. Is the spices and leather you smell from another room or when that galleon rolled into the harbor and was unloaded. It is all of that at a distance, but in no way diminished.
Love is an understatement for how I feel about this one. […] It had great lasting power the three times I’ve worn it, so expect it to make itself at home and stay put for a good visit.
It sounds far more interesting on her skin than it was on mine. My experience with Nanban was boring as hell after the first hour, and the vast majority of the fragrance lacked distinctiveness once the coffee had passed. I wasn’t impressed one bit with what was left; I’ve tried far too many scents with a similar smoky-woods-and-spicy-leather profile. And a comparison to Montale or Nasomatto isn’t a plus in my book. I thought the aromachemicals in Nanban felt raspy and unpleasantly sharp, but keep in mind that my skin amplifies them. Other people have no issues with chemicals even when they detect them, so your experience may well be very different.
If you like woody fragrances with smokiness and spicy, briefly animalic leather, as well as a light suggestion of coffee, try Nanban for yourself.