An explosion of fiery reds and peppery black, followed by muddy greens and dulled mahogany. Peppered meat, dentists, barber shops, and grandfathers, but also sleekly elegant women bundled in warm furs against the chill. The visuals and images evoked by Caron‘s Poivre are all over the place for me. And so are some of my responses to this famous, ostensibly “pepper” perfume.
Poivre was released in 1954, and was created by Michel Morsetti. It is one of Caron’s Haute Parfumerie “Urn Scents” which originated as extracts or pure parfums. I tested the parfum extrait version, but not the vintage version. I would like to, but, as with Tabac Blond, the vintage is not what most people have access to or can easily find, even on eBay. So, modern Poivre extrait is the focus of this review.
Caron describes Poivre as an explosive pepper scent:
In 1954, Caron creates a stir with Poivre, whose explosive scent remains unparalleled on today’s market. It took particular daring to make this spicy, peppery departure, held together with an ultra-rich floral heart note, typical of Caron, and woody base notes.
I’m not clear on the precise notes in modern Poivre. The Caron website only mentions three elements: pepper, cloves, and sandalwood. Fragrantica has no list, and only mentions the pepper. In a review devoted primarily to the vintage Poivre parfum, Bois de Jasmin lists:
red pepper, black pepper, giroflore [clove], carnation, ylang ylang, opoponax [sweet myrrh], sandalwood, vetiver, and oakmoss.
However, Luckyscent — which is one of the handful of places that sells modern Poivre outside of a Caron boutique — has a very different set of notes:
Pepper, clove, geranium rose base, jasmine, tuberose, carnation bouquet.
What I smelled was some variation or combination of the two lists:
red pepper, black pepper, clove, carnation, geranium rose base, jasmine, opoponax [sweet myrrh], vetiver, and oakmoss.
Modern Poivre opens on my skin with an explosion of fiery notes: clove, red pepper that faintly resembles the bite of a chili pimento pepper, and black pepper. They are quickly trailed by spicy carnation and nutty, sweet myrrh. Then, seconds later, a very odd, earthy, musky, musty note with a strongly medicinal character suddenly appears. It smells like cloves infused with a hint of bad, almost rancid, patchouli. It has almost a chewy, leathered undertone, but also sourness. The sweet nuttiness of the opoponax softens some of its medicinal facade, but the odd accord definitely evokes the dentist’s office for me. I love cloves, passionately, and there is a heaping amount of the regular note as well, but this undertone is rather difficult, unpleasant, and pronounced as well.
Five minutes in, matters get a little worse when another subtle undertone appears as well. I feel quite crazy for writing this, but there is a meatiness to the medicinal note. It’s as if the usual Caronade signature base suddenly turned into a clove-covered, raw steak. I can’t explain it as I’ve never encountered anything quite like it, but something about Poivre initially smells both meaty and quite “off.” Thankfully, the raw, spiced steak impression fades away after about 15 minutes, but I’m telling you, the cloves are a multi-faceted thing of much weirdness in Poivre’s earliest moments.
Slowly, very slowly, a floral element grows stronger. From the very start, there was a touch of carnation, but it grows increasingly pronounced. It is spicy, peppered, piquant, and yes, very clove-like in its core. It is soon joined by an equally peppered geranium, only this time it smells like the fuzzy leaves with a touch of rose. A microscopic amount of pungent oakmoss follows suit, but it’s muted and largely indistinct. Perhaps it’s simply that nothing can compete with the cloves, which continue to overpower everything. To my relief, the various sour, meaty, and earthy undertones have faded.
Yet, the cloves are so intense that I noticed my lips tingling from contact with the skin of my arm. One reason for that is that cloves can be an analgesic or numbing agent, which is why it is often in dental products for tooth or gum pain. Another reason is that it is hard to smell a lot of the nuances in Poivre from a distance, and you have to put your nose close to the skin. The projection isn’t huge, even in the opening minutes, though the intensity of the clove note may fool you, especially if sniffed up close. At best, though, Poivre hovers about 2 inches above the skin, potent in its cloves, but difficult to separate out in terms of other notes.
15 minutes in, Poivre settles down in to a spicy clove fragrance, trailed by the various peppery florals. I rather enjoy it, though that is partially due to the novelty of having a clove-centric fragrance, and partially due to my own love for the note.
Something about Poivre at this point and for the next hour feels very much like a comforting, old-fashioned men’s cologne, only deeper, richer, and thicker. The clove onslaught makes it a little like a barber shop fragrance, and conjures up images in my mind of a grandfather in his Sunday suit, freshly shaved and ready for church in the 1950s. Poivre wouldn’t be Don Draper’s scent, but someone much older, less debonair, and more solid. Perhaps, Andy Griffith in the old “Mayberry television” show, or an old-world Neapolitan grandfather who likes more spicy fragrances than fresh, aromatic fougères
A muted, quiet touch of powder creeps in after 30 minutes, along with a dark, abstract woodiness. It smells like some odd combination of cedar, vetiver, oakmoss, and a tinge of the Caronade signature base. Poivre is now a warm, richly spiced clove scent, followed by clove-y carnation and that odd, dark, dry woodiness. The top notes are trailed further behind by pepperiness and a whisper of powder. The florals are increasingly muted, except for touches of carnation which generally just accentuate the clove bouquet.
I find myself baffled by it all, but I think I like Poivre now. The dispositive word is “think,” because I’m honestly not completely certain. Poivre is interesting and different, to say the least, and not like anything I’ve smelled before. That said, I know I’d have a pretty different (and probably entirely negative) view of things, if I loathed cloves or if I’d expected an actual pepper fragrance as the name suggests.
Poivre doesn’t change drastically or dramatically over the next few hours. At the start of the 3rd hour, a tiny trace of a velvety, white floral creeps in, but it’s extremely hard to separate or pull out from under the cloves. At best guess, it smells more like the jasmine in the Luckyscent description than the ylang-ylang of the original Poivre. I wouldn’t bet the house on it, though, as it’s barely noticeable, and Poivre continues to waft copious amounts of clove. Now, however, there is also more of that odd woodiness I talked about earlier, which is slightly more discernible as vetiver and oakmoss. It creates a dry green touch in the base.
At the same time, however, the fragrance seems warmer, better balanced, and smoother. For reasons I can’t explain, Poivre suddenly loses its barbershop, masculine impression, perhaps because the cloves feel softer, tamer, less sharp. The medicinal traces are long gone, and the cloves merely feel wonderful spicy, rich, and deep, albeit in a light form. Increasingly, Poivre evokes the image of a well-dressed woman from the past, bundled in thick furs on a chilly day. She looks old-fashioned and dated, but also very chic and strong. She stands out, and she uses the softened, spicy heat of Poivre to counter the chill in the air in the same way as she does her elegant coat that drapes itself close to her skin.
Poivre is now a visual blend of the darkest reds, and burnished clove-y umber, with a touch of muddy greens and dulled mahogany, though the scent itself feels increasingly murky and hazy. The notes are hard to separate, except for the spicy cloves, and the weak sillage doesn’t help. At the 2.25 hour mark, Poivre is almost a skin scent, with only the cloves standing out when sniffed up close. It remains that way largely until its end. About 4.75 hours in, an odd touch of soapiness joins the cloves, but it is fleeting and soon fades away. As a whole though, Poivre is almost entirely cloves on my skin for the rest of its lifespan. In its final moments, it’s merely a wisp of something spicy, brown, and dry. All in all, Poivre lasted 13 hours on my skin with a tiny 1/3 of the vial being dabbed on. Its sillage was extremely soft, but it was generally easy to detect up close for most of its life.
I think I would very much enjoy wearing Poivre if a bottle ever fell into my lap, but I say that as someone who loves cloves. I do hesitate, though, because it doesn’t feel like the easiest or most versatile fragrance. It would definitely be one of those mood or special occasion sort of things, for when I needed a lot of undiluted spice in my life and wanted to go retro.
Yet, despite my appreciation for the fragrance (at least after the opening 30 minutes), I would not recommend modern Poivre to the average person. You have to love cloves passionately — and most people don’t. Even those who like the note may not want such an unrelieved, undiluted form of it. Whatever Poivre may once have been, nowadays, the modern version is centered on almost nothing but cloves. Even the vague, mostly abstract carnation smells a lot like cloves, and floralacy isn’t a large part of the fragrance anyway.
That brings me to other people’s impressions of modern Poivre. There aren’t a lot of reviews for it out there, but Bois de Jasmin talked about it briefly in a post devoted mostly to vintage Poivre. She loves the vintage Extrait which she rates at 5-stars, but gave the modern fragrance a rare one-star. Her review of the 2011 Poivre reads:
On Reformulation (March 2011):
Wearing the original Poivre is an exhilarating experience that can only be compared to biting into a black peppercorn crust atop steak au poivre. The spicy rose underscoring the fiery pepper and woods lent the composition a certain dark vision of glamor. The current version is more pink than crimson, and as such, its beauty has been lost. The cinnamon, clove and pepper notes are quite attenuated, with the final result verging on bland.
On Fragrantica, reviews on the current version of Poivre are mixed, with a distinct tendency towards disapproval at the changes. The very first review sounds a bit like my experience, from the medicinal start, to the changes after 30 minutes, and how Poivre may work well for men:
This fragrance isn’t worthy of the Caron name. The first note was sharp pungent black pepper followed instantly by the medicinal scent of oil of cloves, the toothache medicine we used as kids and now contained in the OTC preparation Ora-Gel. Reminding me of toothache didn’t do much to impress me. The initial scent is very harsh, even although the pepper moves to the background quickly and the clove takes over. After it dried down a bit, I could smell a touch of sandalwood in the background, but no real carnation at all, and I love the spicy scent of carnation. There may be a tiny bit of floral there, but it is overpowered by the sharp and unpleasant clove scent. After about forty five minutes, I smelled a touch of baby powder and vanilla, but the vanilla is what makes most fragrances cloying and I don’t like it. Poivre kept the vanilla down to the minimum I can tolerate in a fragrance, so that was a plus. Spicy scents are my absolute favourite – Opium is one I have used for decades, and the only one so far that doesn’t turn sickly sweet and cloying on my skin after a half hour or so. But Caron’s Poivre smells heavily like oil of cloves and a concoction I made containing it when first experimenting with essential oils years ago, consisting of clove, pepper, sandalwood, jasmine and a drop of ylang ylang. Poivre also didn’t last long on my skin, but the scent was much better after about thirty minutes. But still, the clove overpowered. I’m glad I just bought a few samples. It would do better marketed to men.
Her experience actually sounds more complex and detailed than my own, as I detected no sandalwood whatsoever in the scent, and the vanilla was akin to a tiny, temporary pimple on my skin, at best. Then again, I got sweet myrrh, vetiver and some oakmoss, so maybe it balances out.
One man’s experience with modern Poivre offers an interesting comparison to another scent, as well as a cautionary tale about expecting actual pepper in a fragrance with that name. (Honestly, don’t you have to laugh at how much of a misnomer it now is?!) In his review, “Johngreenink” wrote:
I tried a sample today of the modern version and kept asking myself what it reminded me of. Then it came to me: Royall’s Bay Rhum – it is almost exactly the same, with perhaps just a bit more vanilla.
I have had visions of ‘Poivre’ being a kind of holy grail of perfumes – a classic, a hard-to-wear (which is fascinating to me), exceptionally rare. I love black and pink pepper scents, and I think I mistook the name of the perfume to actually mean that it smelled ‘like pepper’. Instead, it is (basically) a carnation/clove kind of scent… something like what you’d find in a gentleman’s cabinet. It has a very aftershave-y quality to it.
It’s linear, doesn’t last too long, and a bit ordinary. I was really hoping for a bit more. [Emphasis to the other perfume name added by me.]
Another commentator who is a hardcore Caron lover has a brutal (and, if truth be told, not inaccurate) description of modern Poivre:
Why this was reformulated I can’t say, but what I can say is that I could walk through the eye of a hurricane and stop to pick out a Caron, and this ain’t one of them.
When Poivre was reformulated someone simply opened their kitchen spice drawer, unscrewed the lids from the pepper and clove jars and mixed it with a little water.
I’d be less harsh with my review if this were an EDT, but as a parfum I have to keep it real.
Caron needs to be called to task on this one.
I don’t generally disagree, I really don’t, especially given the Extrait’s price per quantity issue, but, still, I thoroughly enjoyed parts of Poivre. I wasn’t plagued by memories of the past, which obviously matters in this case. Plus, I liked the masculine, retro feel, and I can take the endless amount of cloves, at least once the odd undertones disappeared after about 30 minutes. I am sure the vintage version is utterly spectacular, but I recall the one time I tried to blind buy an old bottle (a large one, perhaps from the 1970s or so) on eBay: it ended up going for an astronomical, nose-bleed of a price. Since I can’t get the vintage, I have to deal with the modern Extrait, and it really can be nice. If you love cloves. Really, really love them.
That part cannot be stressed enough. As one person put it on Fragrantica, “Poivre is ideal for clove lovers or spicy carnation lovers — it is heavily laden with spices.” I would qualify it further to say that modern Poivre is perhaps best suited for men who enjoy vintage classics, or for those women who love more intense, spicy fragrances with an occasionally old-fashioned, masculine feel. And they both have to have a tolerance for discreet scents that don’t projection much. What should be self-evident from all this is that people who don’t love cloves passionately and fiercely should avoid modern Poivre like the bubonic plague. You’ll be utterly miserable.
On a parting note, I just wanted to add that writing this review made me quite sad. Sad for the things long gone, frustrated over the inability to find (or, rather, afford) the rare times vintage Poivre may pop up, nostalgic for how elegant things used to be in the past, and rather demoralized as a whole about changes to perfumery. There are so many things that have gone by the way of the dinosaur, and while many changes are positive, I mourn the diminution of so many iconic legends of the past. So few of us have the chance to even try the masterpieces in their original form, and to explore the history of this passion we call perfumery in concrete form. We have even less chance of doing something about it if we find a new love. It all feels bloody unfair.
I have tried both vintage and current extrait (which I believe may be in the process of being discontinued too, certainly Fortnums no longer stock it here). The older perfume I tried was (contrary to what many Caron ‘connoisseurs’ claim) brusque and luxurious in equal measure. Those who would like to recall it as an entirely refined and elegant affair should perhaps peruse the advertising of the original which quite clearly gives this away as a fiery beast (literally) from the start.
It had a depth and subtlety that the modern version almost entirely lacks and a decidedly more floral element that you are absolutely on the money in pointing out as being absent in the current (or most recently deceased) formulation. Finally, that complex base you describe so eloquently is more prominent and better balanced in the original.
All that said they are, without a shadow of a doubt, recognisable as the same scent, or fragrance family.
In considering the modern perfume, I regard it as being a true object of fascination, in fact I’d say I positively like it.
Clove doesn’t carry the same dental associations for me: mouthwashes are mint and toothache treated with antibiotics in my experience. Instead it’s Christmas, or glazed hams or powerful herbal teas.
Poivre is an odd scent. A very odd scent. And there is a fleshy, leathery, mossy middle and a sharpness and fire to the carnations and geranium that many might find shocking (less so men I suspect, as these flowers are often deployed this way in male perfumery). All that said it is truly an original and though excessively expensive, has a feel of quality absent from much in the mainstream: at which point I’d depart from the notion that it feels like a culinary car crash in a spice rack.
Whilst not wishing to sound like the proverbial stuck gramophone record, it is lamentable that, lemming-like, so many seem prepared to dismiss the current Caron’s out of hand.
If this were released by an ‘of the moment’ niche producer would it be garnering single star reviews? I doubt it.
Thank you for your honest review.
The Perfumed Dandy
Thank you for the lovely, extremely useful, detailed comparison between old and new, my sweet Beau/Dandy. Do you really think that Caron is removing Poivre, even in modern form? GAH, noooooooooooo. I like it quite a bit, because it really IS different and, yes, odd. I think you get more moss than I do from it, and perhaps more geranium too, but it’s such a lovely bit of fiery warmth. At least once those odd parts pipe down after 30 minutes.
BTW, over here, there are a few dental products that are heavily clove-based, and I own one myself called Oro-gel or something like that. It’s a numbing agent for the gums, and I resorted to it quite heavily right before I gave in and had to have my first (and thank god, only) root canal. I don’t have the most positive associations when it comes to dentistry. lol.
On another matter, I fully and completely agree that if Poivre were released by Mona di Orio, Etat Libre, or Andy Tauer, it would quite adored and praised. Actually, I could see it being a Tauer. It has that same heavily spiced vibe, but with the greenness of some of his Rose scents. And it might even work as a Serge Lutens too.
Can you tell me more about the vintage Poivre? What precisely do you mean by “brusque” but, also, subtle? I’m dying to try the vintage Poivre, but I somehow can’t stop thinking about the modern version either. God, I really do love my cloves! 🙂
PS — Isn’t that fiery Poivre ad fabulous? I want a framed poster of the vintage ad maybe even more than I want to try the perfume original! I’m such a sucker for the Chinoiserie style. In anything!
Yes, I should guard against my constant tendency to anthropomorphise!
By ‘brusque’ I meant that the original I sampled was a very assertive scent,. the notes, including the clove, being defined and if not aggressive then certainly active. It was certainly not a scent that was interested in being simply pleasing. Where the subtlety came in is that, as my memory serves, the more rounded and prominent floral accord acted as a greater counter-weight within the composition so that the overall effect was much less exclusively spice driven (where even the flowers are mainly pepper).
I trust this makes sense of my previously slightly cryptic prose.
The Perfumed Dandy
*sigh* That settles it. I want a vintage Poivre sample. I’m going to contact MinNY, I think, to get some Poivre from their super-secret stash of Caron vintage Extraits.
I will hope that Poivre, in modern form, is not being discontinued in general but is merely being removed from Fortnum & Masons. It’s really going a step too bloody far if they discontinue even the modern version! Ca suffit! Sheesh.
It sounds fascinating, but probably not for me. I do love reading your reviews- they make me feel like I’m wearing the perfume!
Thank you for the huge compliment, Aurora! I’m very touched.
Decades ago, my mom took me to a gentile department store to buy my first fine perfume. I was probably around twelve, and this was a smart move on her part as we were heading for the teenage years. Any mother/daughter bonding would need to be executed pronto! I had always loved perfume, but had been limited to the drug store and what my mom and my friends’ mothers wore.
I chose Caron’s Fleurs de Rocaille.
About twenty years ago, I decided to buy a bottle to revisit the scent and the memory. At the not-so-gentile department store, I requested a spritz and was so disappointed I chalked it up to faulty memory, a change in taste, or a diminishment of nostalgia. I didn’t buy it as I simply didn’t like it.
Lucky for me, I’d seen a mention of Parfumelle in a magazine, and on a whim I called. A charming Frenchman in Texas told me Fleurs de Rocaille had been re-formulated, but he would do his best to find me the vintage. And he did. When I opened the package he sent, I was transported back to a very special time in my life, and the perfume itself was exactly as I remembered. I still love it today.
My mom is now 86 and has dementia. A few years ago, I bought her a bottle of Fleurs de Rocaille and we reminisced about the day we went shopping, were girlfriends and enjoyed each other. She can’t remember that any longer, but she does take immense pleasure in my recalling it, dabbing her with the beautiful fragrance and admiring the bottle.
I agree with you, I do feel sad that many of the old formulations are gone. I often wonder why, with all the technology and chemistry available (let’s skip the IFRA issues), they can’t be revived. Then again, I note that for many people, they smell “old” or “out-of-date.” While vintage perfumes can cost a bundle, perhaps more money is to be made on reformulating rather than attempting to recreate a classic, especially if the classic is no longer appreciated.
I’m just so grateful that I can revisit a classic with my mom. She is one herself. Perhaps out of touch, no longer of this time, but worth every moment.
Holly, thank you for sharing some deeply personal memories and pain. I’m so incredibly sorry for what both you and your mother are going through. Honestly, my worst nightmare for those I love is Alzheimers. It seems like the cruelest, most hellacious hell imaginable — for those involved and those watching on helplessly. I’m really glad you have such a beautiful, meaningful memory with her, tied to a scent that you can both relive. Olfactory memories are often the strongest, and I hope that is the case with your mother, and that the bottle of Fleurs de Rocaille that you bought her brings her back from time to time.
My dear, I wish I could send you a hug. Truly, I am so incredibly sorry.
Shoot and dang, Kafka. Here I thought I was talking about perfume, lol.
I suspect you could handle anything that presented itself. After all, you are Kafka!
I’m so glad you posted your thoughts, as they’ve helped me realize how people view dementia. It certainly can be hell, but honestly it has been a profound experience for me as well. I don’t feel helpless in the least. I’ve learned such a great deal, most of all to let go and respect others just as they are. I’m often reminded of Christopher Reeves’ late wife being quoted as saying “You’re still you” after the accident that paralyzed him. I thought it was a kind phrase, until I realized the intelligence and amazing compassion behind it. For him, and for herself as well.
So on to perfume! I’m going backwards through your blog and taking notes and enjoying myself immensely. Perhaps someone will be enterprising enough to do a Julie and Julia movie based on perfume.
Thanks for the hug. Consider it sent and received 🙂
My views on dementia are partially impacted by Nancy Reagan’s comments on how she felt, and the terror or fear that she could see radiating out of Ronald Reagan’s eyes towards the end. They are also strongly influenced by an elderly lady I know, her interactions with me, and a pretty difficult episode when she showed up on my doorstep one night about two months ago, terrified and with no idea as to where she should be. She didn’t even who *I* was half the time! She merely knew the address as she had lived next door, but neither of us knew her new home, and she …. never mind. This is not the time or place. As you say, you were talking about perfume. 🙂
Onto happier subjects, I hope you find a few new scents to tempt you. 🙂
Dearest Kafka, I understand what you’re saying. I’m apparently a really tough old bird, and I refuse to cave. I feel joyful that I can meet anyone on their terms and say hi! no worries, it’s ok, let’s work this out. I’m not concerned about how I think they “should” be. Of course I have many friends, neighbors and family members who are determined to prove me wrong. My perception is that I do what works.
I HAVE found many scents that tempt me. I started off with post-its, and now I have a notebook. I can either view this as what I can have, or what I can’t. Either way, it’s all good.
I love pepper in my food, but not really on my skin. And carnation is a note that tends to scare me. However, I have to say I love that vase shaped bottle!
The old vintage bottle is gorgeous! They cost an arm and a leg, though, so I would happily settle for the spectacularly fiery vintage poster. I WANT THAT POSTER!!! lol
I’m quite obsessed with the idea of trying this now! I really like pepper and spice in fragrance, and love carnation, love cloves, love oakmoss, etc. And while the Lady-Gaga-Meat-Dress aspect might be a little odd, I think I might enjoy the rest! But I have to admit the price does seem a little much for what it is. Damn, now I’m regretting not trying the Caron when I was at ScentBar!
I think you’d love Poivre, Kevin. I really do. And a little goes a long way, even if the sillage isn’t monstrous. I hope you get a sample next time you order something from StC, especially if it’s true that Caron may be removing the scent. I hope that rumour just applies to the UK site that once carried it.
Oh. I just loved the images you create here for a perfume I have never smelled, and yet have smell through your words. Clove is so tricky. It is such a strong oil and can overpower one’s nose and lead you down the hallway to the dentist chair. When I grow up I want to have the ability to parse out notes in the progression of development that you do. When I am 70, maybe? Until then, I will rely on your nose, which has taught me so very much about how and what to sense when sniffing.
I am embarrassed by my bad grammar. Please forgive me. ‘smell’ should have been ‘smelled’. Although that sounds wrong, too. Oh forget it. I know you know what I meant!
Never a worry, sweetie. I know what you meant, and focused only on the sentiment. I didn’t even notice the typo until you mentioned it. And we ALL make typos! xoxoxo
Thank you for the enormous compliment, Tora. I’m deeply touched. Really, really touched, my dear.
As for Poivre, I actually think you’d love this one. I really do. The difficult stage is brief, but the overall scent is truly luxurious. I’ve found it’s stayed in my head, and that I want to go back to trying my tiny sample again and again. Poivre seems to get better with each wearing. I really hope you’ll get a sample with your next Luckyscent order!
Another Stockholm Syndrome???
Hahahaha, no, not quite. Some perfumes with tricky notes simply get easier as your nose adjusts to the difficult patches. But Poivre is no Alahine, either in terms of beauty, complexity, power, or drama. Besides, I loved Alahine pretty much from the start. The time factor merely made that love turn into a small obsession.
Poivre does stick in your head, though, and I really think that people who love spices (well, primarily, cloves) should seek it out. And give it at least 2 tests. 🙂
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For anyone interested in giving some feedback I will mail you out a .50 ml sample of the original 1954 formula. I inherited a very LARGE bottle that my grandmother had filled with this stunningly well kept scent. It took me years to figure out what it was and as I pieced the clues together and both purchasing samples and sending samples out. I am thrilled to know what it is.But, now I am interested in others opinion of this unicorn.
Let me know if you are interested.