“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.
My kind of vanilla! 😉
I hope you get to try it one day. 🙂
I really should take a detour and stop by her shop when I’m on my way to see mom one of these days. Perhaps it’s better for my wallet if I didn’t. The fact that you like this one has really made it catch my interest.
The first hour was wonderful with that cantaloupe; I never expected it to be so perfect and so good with the vanilla. Really a surprisingly perfect touch. For me, Provanilla lost its greatest appeal afterwards because the lack of cantaloupe liquidity made the sweetness pretty excessive by my (admittedly low) tolerance threshold. Still, for vanilla lovers who can handle more hardcore gourmand sweetness, Provanilla is definitely one to consider trying. I was really impressed by the smoothness, and such dark vanillas aren’t a dime a dozen.
As for price, I know the renovations must have taken a big bite out of your wallet, but the decant mini might be a good option. So don’t let pricing stop you if your travels take you past Providence. I would certainly stop by the shop myself if I were ever in the area, as the line has quite intrigued me now. (Plus, I love Providence itself and have very happy memories from there.) Bottom line, go visit Providence Perfume Co.! 😉
You must go! Charna is so lovely and personable and there are wonderful perfumes in her shop. I love Ginger Lily and Moss Gown….
Wonderful review, dearest Kafka! I think this was made just for me :-). The sillage may be a little worrisome for an office scent if it is too rum-my. In any case, the 7,5 mL sample is flashing “buy me, buy me”.
If your work colleague can get away with Black Orchid (!!) every day, this one should be no problem at all. The only potential issue I see is that you spray a mist which you walk through, and I’m not too sure how that might impact any light-coloured clothing that you might wear. The perfume may stain, so I do think you should try it on skin first, if you can, even if you generally avoid doing that. (As an all-natural fragrance, your allergies might be okay?) In any event, I definitely recommend Provanilla for someone with your tastes, and the mini decant is perfectly sized for your large collection. 🙂
Great review! Sounds like an interesting scent but, as always, your writing makes it even more compelling. I don’t know how you catch those nuances.
Thank you, my dear. Are you a vanilla or gourmand person? I can’t recall your tastes on that point.
I’m all over the place. I tend to love vanillas, no matter how sweet or cheap. But sweet in general makes me ill (especially that treacle fruit thing). And I’m very mood driven, so sometimes I love one thing and another time I hate it (citrus, oud, wood). And anything that smells like sunscreen (Bobby Brown Beach is an automatic yes and please don’t cringe).
But I’m more vanilla, less gourmand, More incense, oud and wood then florals. But the right florals I adore.
And if it strikes a memory (Coco by Chanel) I’m all in. My current favorite is Dirty Flower Factory by Kerosene because it reminds me of some lilac bushes at my grandparents house when I was growing up…but lilac isn’t even part of the scent!
LOL at your comment regarding my possible reaction to the Bobby Brown Beach. Actually, I am just appreciative that you took the time to give me a brief run-down of some of your specific tastes. That way, I have a better sense of what you like or respond to. 🙂 Up to now, the one thing I remembered was that you like ambers (Kalemat was a hit with you, no?) and I think, rose fragrances? (Unless I have mixed you up with someone else?)
I love woody vanillas! Woods in general, as you know and dark sweetness laced with smokiness sounds like a the promise of heaven -minus the weird cantaloupe that I fear and load and that my skin amplifies and turns into cucumber water-. I adore the smell of the vanilla caviar in the tip of a cold knife, right before you drop it into custard but definitely not in the custard and definitely not dusted with burnt sugar!
The cane sugar scares me, my dearest K. Will I turn this into a marshmallow mess? Will my nose and brain end up 15 kilos chubbier after I try this?
I’ll try it.
I would think of the sugar cane more as dark “rum,” and definitely nothing evoking white, sugary marshmallows! But, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’ve given up trying to guess/predict how things may turn on your skin, my dearest, because it really depends and there doesn’t seem to a set certainty from one scent to the next, even when those scents share some overlap in notes. lol. So, bottom line, if Provanilla tempts you — and I think it does have the darker quality that you love — then you should try it for yourself to see. Fingers crossed, it works out on your wonky skin! xoxo
Great review, and the first one on this scent that makes me want to try it. I love the smell of vanilla, but when it’s the dominant note in a perfume I find it tiresome after about 30 minutes. Cantaloupe!? Wow. I can actually imagine it, believe it or not, because I adore vanilla yogurt with cantaloupe! I’ve got to try this Provanilla now!! Thanks for sharing Charna’s process and thoughts with us; they are fascinating indeed!
You’re very welcome. I hope it ends up on your skin as it did on mine, but extra cantaloupe to boot. 🙂
Somewhere in my amber explorations and your mentoring me through that I realized that perhaps one of the elements I was drawn to might be the Vanilla (with benzoin resin as you explained). So I have ordered a bunch of vanilla samples that have yet to arrive (Zolty’s Van-Ile, Tihota, Frapin 1270, Farmacia’s madagascar vanilla, VC&Arpel’s Orchidee vanille and Mona di Orio’s take on vanilla). I’ll let you know if any of those work out. I did receive my Provanilla sample. Yowza cantaloupes!!!! I was happy when they faded into the background relatively quickly. I liked the tropical sweetness that remained but only for a travel size decant to play around with. Just a touch too beach-like for me (the coconut), so I’m looking forward to the other vanilla’s.
However, PPC unexpectedly sent long a 1ml sample of their new scent: Sweet jasmine brown. It’s not on their website yet. The thickness of the oil was the same as Provanilla, as well as the richness and eventual linearity of the scent. It is a lovely natural perfume oil. The tag it came with says:
“Inspired by the jazz standard. Feminine, sassy and sweet with a crescendo of seductive jasmine ~ vanilla, tonka, pink pepper, jasmine, cocoa nib, ylang ylang, musk ambrette.”
It opened with the loveliest natural blooming night jasmine surrounded by sexy skin musk. Pepper on the edges. Within an hour it became what it would be for the remainder of the evening: A wonderful muted jasmine ensconced in musk, with swirling cocoa/tonka in the background. It reminded me immensely of Shangri La in terms of evoked mood and resonance, except with jasmine rather than peaches, and less changes along the way. It did smell ‘brown’. The jasmine had NONE of the synthetic twang to it found in other jasmine scents, no green, and while rich rich rich in scent, with dark elements, the overall feel was … moonlight. I may get a travel size decant when it comes out on their website.
More importantly – the rich quality of PPC’s perfume oils and beautiful combination of elements had me back at their website…and they have two (yes, two) orange blossom scents! Divine and Samarind. I’m ordering those of course. Perhaps one will be my orange blossom? Otherwise, it’s back to George and Pichola. I really loved the latter, and was my gateway NVC scent. I have a decant. My partner found it ‘too sweet’ compared to our Andalusia experience, but I enjoyed the complex florals. If no other orange blossom comes along, it may end up being the FB one. fyi -Le Labo’s Fleur d’oranger’s pretty green blossoms were nice but run of the mill. Good for layering, like Jo Malone’s version which may be less expensive.
I understand you’re off on vacation? Enjoy.
“Yowza cantalopes”…. LOLOLOL! They do fade relatively quickly, don’t they? I received a package with the PPC line around the same time that you did, and Divine definitely caught my eye with its note list, but I don’t think I’ll have the time to get to them before I leave on the 20th.
I’m smiling at how you’ve taken the plunge into Vanillas, following your recent realisations about the note when mixed with benzoins for mixed “amber” scents. Your new found appreciation is going to involve some fun searches. That said, I should warn you that finding a “Holy Grail” vanilla takes a long while, not just for me. I still haven’t found one, and I know others have searched for years before trying Tihota and thinking it’s The One. For me, I’m still looking. The fact that there are SOOOOOOOOOOOOO many vanillas on the market simultaneously makes it a long search and, also, something where one has a lot of different options. Bottom line, don’t give up if the ones you’ve ordered aren’t the one, but do be aware that finding The Perfect Vanilla may be a harder thing than, say, finding the perfect amber or orange blossom. I don’t know why, but this genre is simply trickier.
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