“Yo, ho, ho and a bottle of rum.” Drenched in vanilla. If Captain Jack Sparrow and the pirates of the Caribbean ever wore a vanilla fragrance, I suspect it might be Provanilla from Providence Perfume Co., a boozy, quietly smoky, dark, but surprisingly tropical scent. It is actually what I had hoped Maria Candida Gentile‘s Noir Tropical to be, but wasn’t.
Providence Perfume Co. is an American artisanal brand founded by Charna Ethier around 2009. According to her website, she had spent several years “working for large beauty and fragrance companies” before deciding to create a natural line of perfumes that “embrace the finest natural botanical ingredients from around the world.” Everything is hand-done in small batches.
In early 2015, she released Provanilla, an eau de parfum and her very first vanilla fragrance. A detailed blog entry on her site demonstrates the surprising challenges in handling vanilla, the complicated creative process behind Provanilla in specific, and the background to the scent. Apparently, clients asked Ms. Ethier for a vanilla scent, and the queries came every single day. However, she was initially quite reluctant and unenthused. She had thought vanilla to be a simplistic, “ho-hum-yawn” genre and potentially linear in nature, but she “learned very quickly that creating a natural vanilla scent is very, very, very challenging.”
I found her explanation why to be fascinating and informative:
The harder it became for me to create a vanilla scent, the more I became intrigued by the process. You see, vanilla hates to be the star of the show. Natural vanilla loves to play the role of a back-up performer in a scent. It’s difficult to make vanilla the star of the perfume as any addition of other essence in the formula instantly dominates the vanilla. I made countless mods and became more frustrated with each unsuccessful trial. Adding one drop of myrrh instantly transformed the scent into a leathery myrrh based scent with hints of vanilla in the background. A small amount of rose and I had a gourmand candy rose scent, with the vanilla being covered by any other essence that was added.
I decided that what I needed was a powerful, potent beyond compare vanilla base. I began to focus on creating a strong vanilla centric accord. Again after much trial and error and a year (no joke) of aging, I had created the mother of all vanilla bases. This base required: 1 kilo of vanilla Co2, ten pounds of Madagascar, Mexican and Tahitian vanilla beans chopped and macerated in perfumers alcohol, vanillin powder (extracted from cloves) and the addition of benzoin, and various balsams to bolster the vanilla aroma.
That’s quite a lot of different vanilla beans and elements, and I’m impressed that it took a whole year of aging to perfect, but the base was only the first step. Ms. Ethier found the fragrance lacked sillage, and attempts to remedy that by playing with the top notes resulted in “creamsicle and baby powder like accords” which were far from what she wanted. After much effort, she finally found the perfect solution, unlikely as it may seem:
Natural melon aldehyde. Weird, watermelon, potent, soapy and fresh. It was everything that should not combine with vanilla. It was wrong in every way. It was so wrong it was RIGHT! I loved the way the fresh melon aldehyde combined with mimosa and projected the vanilla. I had created a vanilla mist scent. A cloud of vaporous vanilla. An interesting vanilla scent. Despite my best attempts at playing it safe with the vanilla scent, I followed my own path and the result was Provanilla.
That “Eureka” component is not officially part of Provanilla’s note list which is simply stated as:
5 different types of vanilla, rose, balsams, myrrh, and coconut pulp.
Provanilla opens on my skin with rich, dark, vanilla extract laced with small streaks of booziness and spirals of incense smoke, then splattered with a quiet, cool, refreshing wetness that smells of cantaloupe melon. The latter is an unexpected note, not only because I had expected coconut from the note list, but primarily because it does not smell like the hideously synthetic aquatics which I loathe. On Twitter, Ms. Ethier had mentioned calone to me, but the note here is really quite different on my skin to what I typically encounter. It doesn’t have a truly watery (or salty) aroma; it is nothing like the cucumber or dry-cleaning undertone that calone can sometimes lend to scents; and it smells nothing like the overly clean melon note that is so evident in such famous 1990s, calone-heavy scents as L’Eau d’Issey. Here, it’s a merely a simple, delicately sweet liquidity that, initially, just barely hints at a cantaloupe. Even when the resemblance grows more profound later on, it is never a wholesale, blaring, in-your-face “melon, melon, melon” note, but something much more delicate and carefully balanced.
Within minutes, perhaps less, the delicate, vaguely fruity sense of wetness takes a step back, and starts to inch its way to the sidelines. Its place next to the vanilla is taken over by a sugar cane sweetness and by a dry, lightly smoky woodiness. The sugar cane is a critical, central part of Provanilla on my skin, and smells like a mix of brown sugar, singed brown sugar, and actual rum. It encircles the vanilla, amplifying its darker facets.
The vanilla itself smells different than what you find in so many fragrances in the genre. It’s exactly like the dark, raw paste that you’d scrape from inside long vanilla pods, rather than the usual vanilla custard, vanilla flan, or even a purely crème brulée vanilla. It’s also far from the more infrequent cake batter or cookies bouquet, either, like Tihota. Initially, it’s not even as sweet or overtly boozy as scents like Guerlain’s Spiritueuse Double Vanilla. It’s also not: evocative of rum-raisin or apple-pie like Hermès’ Ambre Narguilé; buttery, citrusy, or powdery like Mona di Orio’s Vanille; citrusy (or cheaply synthetic) as Couvent des Minimes’ Eau des Missions; buttery or like freshly baked waffle-cones like Profumum’s Dulcis in Fundo; and not an overly caramelized, dense, foghorn creme brulée vanilla like Profumum’s Vanitas and so many of its similarly diabetes-inducing, sugar-drenched kin. Now, to be clear, Provanilla does have some creme brulée nuances, especially once the second hour begins, but they’re not as profound as the brown sugar cane accord which turns the titular note darker, more tropical in nature, rather than the typical white sugar frosting.
By the same token, both the smokiness and booziness differ, even if the differences are sometimes subtle or one of degree. Provanilla’s smokiness doesn’t feel like the purely frankincense variety found in so many dark, boozy vanillas. This is a very woody sort, so clearly driven by myrrh instead. As for the booziness, I find the note in many other vanillas to be either rather abstract in nature, or very much like bourbon or cognac. Actual rum isn’t so common, but Provanilla is filled with it after the end of the first hour, thanks to that sugar-cane note which grows so strong.
The overall end result consistently conjures up thoughts of something Caribbean, a dark sweetness laced with smoky woodiness that has been splashed with a wetness that hints at summer melons. Whenever I wear Provanilla, I envision Captain Jack Sparrow chugging rum made from sugar-cane and vanilla on a beach near a lifeboat singed by smoke and wet from splattered fruit juice. The image would be a perfect fit if I actually smelt coconut, since those are the trees typically shown in Caribbean beach scenes but, despite Provanilla’s official note list, there is no coconut whatsoever on my skin. By the same token, the “melon aldehyde” doesn’t smell of the watermelon mentioned by Ms. Ethier in her blog description, either. It simply smells like orange cantaloupe on me, and nothing else.
I really like Provanilla’s opening stage, and find the first hour to be nicely balanced. Regular readers know my threshold for sweetness and for sugariness is very low, so the typical creme brulée vanillas with their cloying, thick, burnt sugar crust almost always exceed my limits substantially. Provanilla is sweet, often very sweet in the first hour, and, yet, it is enjoyable. The smoky and woody tonalities definitely help, but it’s actually the melon aldehyde which plays the greatest role in keeping things fun. It may circle the edges of the main notes but, during the first 30 minutes, it nevertheless provides a gravitational lift or bounce to the rapidly darkening, increasingly rum-like smoky sweetness, undercutting and diffusing the burnt caramel crust that is usually the sign of sugar taken several steps too far for me.
Provanilla shifts 30 minutes into its development. The cantaloupe’s wetness begins to weaken and, with each step in its retreat, the smokiness and woodiness take another step forward. By the end of the first hour, the melon’s cool, liquidy freshness has essentially disappeared from sight in any noticeable way, though, once in a blue moon, a little pop appears from under a thick blanket of sugar-cane rum and whispers a feebly hello before being strangled down into submission. The melon’s loss leaves behind a scent that is significantly harder for me to deal with, largely because the sweetness feels as though it has doubled or tripled in strength. The growing prominence of the woody and smoky accords doesn’t help much either, especially as they occasionally smell acrid, as though the sugar-cane had been burnt at the edges. By the 90-minute mark, Provanilla smells primarily of rum vanilla with woody smokiness, and only a ghostly, rare splash of melon freshness.
From this point forth, Provanilla’s path is largely set and the only real change comes from a realigning of its notes. The smoky, myrrh woods start to slowly, very slowly, take over the focus of the scent. Roughly 3.25 hours into the perfume’s development, the sugar-cane rum vanilla and the smoky, myrrh woods are in a 50/50 split, though there is a whisper of textural creaminess lurking deep below in the base. At the end of the 5th hour and the start of the 6th, Provanilla smells mostly of the smoky woods, drizzled with only a thin layer of vanilla rum. From the 8th hour onwards, all that’s really left is rather indistinct, smoky sweetness, blurry as to its parts, and neither predominantly woody nor boozy vanilla-ish in nature. To my surprise, though, the ghostly pops of melon become more frequent at this point; I wouldn’t say they’re a huge part of the scent, but tiny splashes of slightly creamy, sweet wetness splatter the edges from time to time. In its final moments, Provanilla is simply a wisp of dark sweetness.
Provanilla has good longevity, along with some strength and a surprising richness, despite simultaneously feeling rather airy. Using 3 big smears equal to roughly 2 good sprays from an actual bottle, Provanilla opened with 3 inches of projection. Its sillage or scent trail was initially soft but rapidly grew to 5-6 inches after 20 minutes, as the fragrance melted into the skin. The sillage was one of the surprises for me, but there are a few others. First, Provanilla is stronger than I had expected it to be, especially for an all-natural creation, most of which are overly discreet on my skin even from the start. Second, the fragrance is rich and oily enough to leave a glistening sheen on my arm and, for the first 40 minutes, actually stained the skin a shade of yellow-brown. (This is not a scent that I would recommend spraying on light-coloured clothing or fabric.) Third, as noted earlier, the opening sillage grew as the scent melted into the skin. After 90 minutes, the actual projection was about 2 inches, but the sillage remained good at about 4-5 inches. While Provanilla became a skin scent a little after 3.25 hours, it was still easy to detect up close without exhaustive effort until the middle of the 8th hour. After that, it became a little harder, but Provanilla clung on like a sheer wisp until a little over the 10.75 hour mark. Generally, depending on how much I applied, Provanilla lasted between 9.75 and 12 hours, which is really excellent for an all-natural fragrance on my wonky skin.
Provanilla has received very positive reviews thus far. On Fragrantica, there are only two comments at this time, but what I noticed first there was that I experienced far greater longevity with the scent than others. All but 1 of the Fragrantica longevity votes opt for a “moderate” lifespan. The two comments talk about how Provanilla is a rich scent or a natural vanilla seamlessly blended with a subtle hint of fruitiness, along with “balsam and myrrh [to] ground the sweetness of the vanilla and add a beautiful depth.”
In terms of blog reviews, The Non-Blonde experienced a sheerer scent than I did, one which she thought was perfect for all weather. She found Provanilla to be “a deceivingly light vanilla fragrance that goes from a sheer floral to an airy gourmand” with some early watery facets that “reminded [her] of a favorite refreshing summer drink: ice cold almond water laced with a whiff of vanilla. This Middle Eastern treat that takes what you usually think of “comfort” ingredients and gives them a summer spin.” That wasn’t a permanent part of the scent, though:
Eventually the watery notes disappear in favor of a deeper vanilla. This time the gourmand aspect is more pronounced, yet the sheerness of the perfume brings to mind a delicate embroidery on a silk chiffon fabric that moves around you in the light summer breeze. The dry-down is absolutely beautiful. It walks the line of “yummy” very carefully: yes, the temptation is there, but vanilla ( a good vanilla, that is) is more interesting than that and has an inherent complexity that includes smokiness, booze, fantasy orchid, and creamy desserts. Vanilla-centric perfumes are not too common in natural perfumery, making Provanilla an even bigger standout. Perfume Charna Ethier managed to use all the facets and create a vanilla fragrance that expresses all the most skilled perfumers who restrict themselves to natural ingredients.
Robin at Now Smell This found Provanilla to be a mid-weight vanilla scent and “delicious.” For her, as for me, the calone wateriness was something that she would normally dread, but it appeared “a bit cantaloupe-ish,” was never “assertive enough to overwhelm,” and merely worked to soften the gourmand aspects of the scent. She seems to have detected some actual coconut in Provanilla, along with a “soft rose in the heart.” Farther along, she found the wateriness
mostly disappears, and Provanilla gets slightly warmer and spicier, but it stays in the mid-weight range — this is not the sort of vanilla that you’ll have to put away when summer arrives.
Provanilla is a delicious fragrance, just foody enough to satisfy lovers of vanilla gourmands, but not so dessert-like that anyone couldn’t enjoy it. Very nicely done, and to my nose, could be easily worn by either sex. [¶][… And the] lasting power is very good.
I agree with her that Provanilla is very nicely done and easily unisex in nature, but I do think that it may exceed the sweetness levels of people whose threshold is as low as mine. Even during the cantaloupe phase, the fragrance flirts with the edge of sugariness but, once the melon disappears for all intents and purposes, Provanilla skews very sweet indeed. On the other hand, it’s never (thank God) a cloying, dense, over-the-top, shrill vanilla like Vanitas with its excessive acridness, or like Vanitas’ lighter, more synthetic, but equally unbalanced cousin, Shay & Blue’s Salt Caramel. Provanilla’s airiness helps in that regard, but the key difference is that its vanilla is really not a purely caramelized creme brulée sort that drips endless sugar.
A slightly closer comparison would be to an airier Guerlain’s SDV mixed with the rum from Ambre Narguilé, but the closest one would be to a much better, more interesting version of Maria Candide Gentile‘s Noir Tropical. Like Provanilla, Noir Tropical is rum-based and woody in nature; unlike Provanilla, Noir Tropical felt flat on my skin, its guaiac smokiness was not as appealing as the myrrh woodiness here, and I found it quite a boring, uninteresting scent as a whole. It lacked a spark or character; Provanilla has that, even when the sweet, cantaloupe liquidity disappears. Plus, something about it really and truly does conjure up a Noir Tropical, Caribbean vibe for me — something that the Maria Candide Gentile fragrance never did.
If you’re looking for a darker take on boozy (rum) vanillas with a truly enjoyable splash of tropical wetness, with sufficient lightness to wear all year round, but without the skin-clinging discreetness and brief longevity of so many all-natural scents, then you should give Provanilla a sniff. It’s very nicely done, and I think all the time and effort that Ms. Ethier put in to perfecting her vanilla really shows.