Each of the fragrances of Rania J. Parfumeur showcases a different raw material, and it is the turn of tobacco in T. Habanero. It seeks to give the dark, black note the spicy fire of hot Cuban nights and the aroma of Havana’s famous cigars, but it is more complicated than that for me. Honeyed sweetness, black frankincense, Middle Eastern oud, synthetic sandalwood, and leather all play a part in T. Habanero’s dance, resulting in scent which took me to some surprising places. There is a stage where T. Habanero is a drier, deeper Killianesque Back to Black tobacco that is more suited to an aristocratic, private club in London frequented by Prince Charles and captains of industry than to a wild tango in Cuba. At other times, the scent is like Cuban cigars by way of bedouins in the Sahara, thanks to the barnyard funk of authentic, Middle Eastern oud. And, in the very end, it is a simple trip to overly smoky, arid, blackened woods. It is the last stage which is my problem.
Gone with the Wind and Light in August, Kiste takes you straight into the heart of the American deep South. It’s the latest fragrance from Josh Lobb of Slumberhouse, released today without fanfare or advance press, and it is utterly beautiful. In fact, it is my favorite creation from Slumberhouse to date, and the first one that I would buy for myself.
Kiste is a deeply evocative fragrance, but I can’t make up my mind if it evokes Gone with the Wind or one of William Faulkner’s set pieces. The meticulously balanced composition has the genteel qualities of Tara, conjuring images of Scarlett O’Hara sipping sweet tea and eating a peach cobbler on the plantation veranda, as Rhett Butler smokes a honey-laden cheroot and takes a swig of bourbon under a honeysuckle tree.
Yet, Kiste also has an underlying ruggedness, a pronounced muskiness, and a tiny streak of masculine rawness as well, even though the fragrance is far too perfectly balanced for it to ever verge on brutish strength. Something about the mix creates a sense of underlying earthy darkness, subtle though it may be. But it’s enough to create a parallel image that is far removed from the sun-dappled sweetness of Gone with the Wind.
This other side of Kiste evokes the darker, grittier world of William Faulkner’s South (or Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana) where things are less pristine, less simple, less a land of sweet tea and peach pie. Here, the muskiness and earthiness that were such a big part of Light in August abound. The more animalistic strains of honey, the sensuous muskiness of a fleshy peach, the rawness of tobacco spittoon juice, and even spiced, dark earth all strain at the leash, threatening to spill over and darken Tara’s summer light like an eclipse. In the end, they don’t. What triumphs is a creamy sweetness and golden warmth that tame the musky darkness, as though the South’s gentler side had overcome. The result is so comforting, so delicious, I feel like saying, “Bless my stars,” and “Frankly, my dear, I do give a damn.”
Imagine a land in an alternate universe, a parallel Cuba called Cuir Cuba Intense. There, an old tobacco farmer rolls out tobacco leaves, not on the thighs of nubile virgins, but on cedar tables covered with thick, black licorice paste. The leaves are still a bit raw, half-moist, and wet, with a certain dirty darkness that borders on the leathery. The farmer layers the tobacco with generous amounts of sweet coumarin crystals, then more black licorice, before dusting them with geranium rose, bits of lavender and mint, and a touch of lemon. Rolled into cigars, they are lightly doused with civet and musk, then nestled between sheaves of sweet hay, and left to dry in a room filled with golden ambered warmth which carries the faintest traces of rum and honey.
Over time, the cigars change. The licorice melts into their body, the civet awakens to add a slightly sharp edge, and the tobacco starts to dry. They lose their raw darkness, tempered by the coumarin crystals which bloom into a subtle creaminess. Eventually, by some alchemical transformation of this alternate universe, the tobacco is no longer even tobacco. It has turned into leather. First, into a dark, sweetened leather dusted with spices and, then, finally, into the creamiest calf-skin with supple smoothness and a hint of sweetness.
That is the world of Cuir Cuba Intense, brought to you by Patricia de Nicolaï, a talented perfumer who is, in my opinion, the true, rightful heir to the Guerlain throne. You can read more about that, her childhood in the Guerlain family, the glass-ceiling for female noses within both the family and the perfume industry as a whole, and how her Parfums de Nicolaï brand was really the first, truly “niche” house in a profile piece I wrote a long time ago. Here, I will only say that we’re all probably better off that Madame de Nicolaï (hereinafter spelled simply as “Nicolai,” sans the dotted “i”) is following her own vision and not subject to the dictates of a corporate overlord like LVMH. In fact, this year marks Parfums de Nicolai’s 25th Anniversary, so a huge congratulations to her and to her husband who co-founded the house.
An alcoholic harem master lies drunk in a pool of Calvados brandy in a seraglio made of amber, tobacco, and gold. A hookah lies next to a vat of booze, and wafts a fragrant fruitiness that mixes with the smell of musky cedar from the swamp which circles the harem like a moat and fortress barricade. Within the palace’s high walls is a small apple orchard dotted with bales of hay that are lightly coated with honey. In the lush gardens, exotic Indian davana flowers emit a tiny apricot scent, next to the custardy richness of ylang-ylang. At the palace’s heart is a courtyard where nubile concubines lounge on aromatic woody divans, dressed in thin silks made from vanilla. They dust their bodies with a light sprinkling of cocoa, as they nibble on toasted nuts and puff on a hookah. The sultan’s favorite, Leila, watches with a smile, glowing like a jewel in red and gold fabrics that match the stream of fruited liqueur pouring from a nearby fountain. The air is indolent, warm, musky, sweet, and filled with the smell of decadence, but darkness lies just around the corner. Slowly, shadows of tobacco and dry woods sweep over the ambered gold, covering it like an eclipse does the sun, until night finally falls over the harem. And, still, no-one bothers to help the drunken man collapsed in their midst. They all know what happens when you overindulge in the delights of the seraglio, or l’Or du Sérail.