Francesca Bianchi‘s Sex and The Sea and its sibling Sex and The Sea Neroli are tales of two different days at or near the beach. Today, we’ll look at both and how they compare.
SEX AND THE SEA:
Sex and The Sea is, like all of Ms. Bianchi’s fragrances, an extrait de parfum. It has a high 25% concentration. She describes it thusly:
During my childhood and teenage years I used to spend lots of time at the seaside. One of the strongest memories of that time is the smell of my skin, which I liked to sniff like a junkie. Eventually my parents sold the house at the seaside, and university, work, boyfriends etc. brought me far from that memory. Five years ago I moved to the Netherlands and I forgot the smell of my sweaty, salty skin.
Sometimes back I bumped into a face cream of L’Occitaine containing Immortelle. The odor of that plant was actually not so pungent in the cream, nonetheless it was strongly pulling out of my head the childhood memory of my skin.
I confess I had totally neglected the essential oil of Helicrysium which was sitting on my shelf. But now I smelled it again, with a new nose. I worked on a special amber accord, I would say — a human one. A Civet tincture reinforced this intimate atmosphere, while a special ambergris molecule added the mineral-salty touch.
So this was the starting point: a sun-burnt, sweaty, salty skin — one of the most comfortable, and probably weird memory I had in my heart.
While working on this core idea, inevitably other dirty-minded ideas popped up, and I added to this weird yet innocent idea a more sultry, sinful, decadent fantasy of remotely tropical, creamy, sticky skin after a sexual intercourse.
The notes are:
mimosa, pineapple, coconut, immortelle, rose, iris, sandalwood, myrrh, labdanum, benzoin, ambergris, civet, vanilla.
Sex and The Sea opens on my skin with coconut, light pineapple juice, salt, the clean and slightly rooty floralcy of iris, and sweet, fluffy, pollen-laden mimosa. It feels like a lighter, fruitier, mildly floral version of suntan oil on a body that’s salty from a dip in the sea. Moments later, a mixed amber accord arrives on scene. It smells primarily of salty, buttery, warm and golden ambergris with a lick of caramel benzoin.
I find it interesting how the coconut suntan lotion accord changes on my skin during the first few hours. Initially, during the first 30 minutes, Sex and The Sea doesn’t have the sort of heavy, thick, occasionally gooey and cloying suntan oil accord that tends to repel some people away from the note in perfumery. Yet, even later, when the note is more concrete, dense, and overt, it’s still not cloying on my skin due to counterbalancing aromas and Ms. Bianchi’s carefully calibrated touch. (I keep referring to that in my various Bianchi reviews, but I’m genuinely impressed by Ms. Bianchi’s mastery of some difficult, occasionally polarizing, or overpowering notes and how she wrangles them into something more harmonious than expected. In addition, she seems to have a wizard’s touch in terms of editing so that nothing feels cacophonous or like a bulldozing foghorn.)
Returning to the issue of the suntan oil, it initially smells more of coconut milk – not coconut butter – wafting breezily over your body. Even better, my fears of aquatic or ozonic synthetic elements are wholly unwarranted as there are none here. (Calone, why won’t you just die in perfumery already?)
In fact, during the initial 30 minute opening phase, the entire “suntan oil” accord is more suggestive on my skin than, say, overpowering. Sex and The Sea is, at this point, more of an intimate atmospheric scent than an on-the-nose, in-your-face blaring suntan lotion bouquet. I appreciate that a lot because I find the real thing occasionally runs the risk of being excessively gooey or cloying. So, if Ms. Bianchi’s goal was to recreated the “memory of” and generalized nostalgic feel of the best days of late summer afternoons after a long day at the beach, mission accomplished.
Sex and The Sea changes after 30 minutes. It turns more ambered as well as sweeter and heavier in body, thanks to the ambergris and benzoin blooming on my skin. A pop of labdanum toffee pops up once in a while on the periphery, too. I’m starting to have nostalgic flashbacks to the old Bain de Soleil oil (and even better tv advertisements) that I loved as a child and teenager during summers in the South of France.
It’s very difficult for me to describe Sex and The Sea’s evolution (and the same for Sex and The Sea Neroli) because I experienced different things at different times on different arms and with different scent quantities. I tested each fragrances a total of three times, switching arms and application dosages, and I didn’t find the same thing occurring, as I sometimes do, at different stages.
Throwing me for a loop was that both fragrances were dramatically different and, in my opinion, lesser and not as enjoyable when I tried them on my right arm. As I’ve mentioned many times before, something is terribly wonky on the skin of my right arm, which is not my main testing arm but which I frequently use as a control test. For one thing, it absolutely EATS through fragrance, typically cutting off longevity by four hours at a minimum and sometimes as much as eight hours, unless I go nuts with the scent application. For another, it tends to evaporate top notes and emphasize base notes to a degree that my usual testing arm does not.
So, let’s start with a few generalities. In testing Sex and The Sea, I noticed a rubbing alcohol scent on my left arm towards the end of the first hour. It wasn’t intrusive or problematic. I wondered if it was something ISO E-like in chemistry character. On my anomalous, frustrating, bizarre right arm, however, this synthetic note clearly seemed to derive from the sandalwood which, alas, pretty much overtook the main bouquet for several hours on end at one point, much to my dismay. The coconut beachy elements were significantly thinner, the ambergris less lush, and in the case of Sex and The Sea Neroli, most of the good juicy stuff was wiped away in a plethora of citrus rubbing alcohol-laced sandalwood layered within a mixed amber accord. I wasn’t a fan. But then I never am of what pops up on my weird right arm.
I’m mentioning it now solely because we all have different skin chemistries and maybe one of you has something like my weirdo right arm or doesn’t like synthetic sandalwood, so you might want to know that the fragrance may take on a strong woody component. That said, in talking with others in the past many years, it seems that what develops on my left, main, testing arm is far, far more the norm than my crazy, atypical right arm. (I swear to you, I moisturize!)
So, focusing entirely on Sex and The Sea on my non-schizophrenic arm and the more typical development across multiple tests, the fragrance bouquet changes towards the end of the first hour and start of the second to something more ambered, semi-gourmand, sweet, and more strongly dominated by a realistic coconut butter suntan lotion accord — as opposed to a nostalgic, impressionistic “memory of” one. Alongside it and intertwined somewhat within it is a lushly golden, absolutely creamy, salted ambergris which coats the skin like the most luxurious and expensive of olfactory butters.
Though the light, fresh pineapple juice has now disappeared completely from my skin, it is replaced by immortelle syrupy honey and a soft, muted, impressionistic floralcy. If you put a gun to my head, I could not easily pinpoint the latter. I know the note list says iris and rose but, honestly, I don’t detect either on my skin. I detect, instead, an amorphous tropical lushness that is floral-ish in a hot house sort of way, but it’s all subsumed within the really evocative atmospherics (for lack of a better word) of post-beach, post-suntan lotion dunked in salty sea, warm, sun-kissed skin.
As a side note, I know Ms. Bianchi’s scent description focused on a slightly naughtier scent with post-sex echoes but, on my skin at least (on either arm), there was no urinous or body-replete civet, no skank, no sex eroticism, and most certainly nothing remotely dirty. Sex and The Sea, like its sibling Sex and The Sea Neroli, is sun-kissed, not crotch-kissed. I can’t phrase it any more directly or succinctly than that.
The opening sillage is moderate, maybe 6-7 inches at most on me but, like the bouquet’s initially lightweight and voluminous body, the sillage grows near the end of the hour to something about about a foot in distance. It stays that way for about an hour before dropping to something softer, around roughly 4 inches. It remains soft for several hours, though it’s easily detectable when I bring my arm to my nose; it’s simply not radiating as it once was.
At the end of the first hour, Sex and The Sea is a sweet, semi-gourmand scent dominated primarily by ambergris and benzoin, followed by an immortelle coconut butter suntan oil and a soft, muted impressionistic floralcy. Its texture is creamy on the skin and plush, thanks no doubt to the accumulated impact of the ambergris, the santal, the coconut, and the iris butter that appears to be Ms. Bianchi’s signature scent.
90 minutes in, the floralcy grows, but I really can’t identify it. It doesn’t smell of iris, rose, or mimosa in any clearly delineated, unmistakable, concrete way. It’s an expressionist note like a smear of paint on a canvas showing a golden sunset, something that flows into the warmth like a lush exoticism. While it’s wholly abstract in scent, it triggers an escapist visual image, like being on a beach in Hawaii or Tahiti as the breeze carries over a heady floral note mixed with the sea salt in the air.
When the sillage drops in the third hour to a more discreet scent, a thought strikes me about the very skin-conscious creations which I’ve tried from Ms. Bianchi thus far. I’m not talking about sillage really. I’m thinking of how the fragrances seem to extol a sensual vision of human skin as well as seem to radiate that vision from the inside out. They are intimate scents beyond just issues of sillage; they sometimes seem designed to be natural extensions of the skin in different contexts or surroundings, but always sensual in nature. Someone on Twitter said that Ms. Bianchi describes her fragrances as “liquid intimacy” and I certainly agree, though I don’t think that term does her aesthetic the full justice because there is as much sensuality as there is intimacy in many of her visions.
The middle of the 4th hour changes things a little. There is a growing muskiness to the scent but whether it’s from the civet or the ambergris, it’s hard to tell, particularly as the mixed amber accord remains the central focus of the bouquet, overshadowing much else, including the coconut suntan lotion note which is now merely a backdrop. The one difficulty for me during this narrow window of time is how sweet Sex and The Sea has become on my skin, thanks to the surging immortelle and what feels like actual honey, all in addition to the caramel benzoin. It’s a little too gourmand for my personal tastes, but this phase only lasts an hour or so on my skin.
Throughout this period, there are hints of vanilla in the base along with something smoky and/or smoky woody, but the latter are minor and abstract on my skin. In fact, the wood note never smells of sandalwood on my skin or by my standards of sandalwood which are heavily influenced by the Mysore kind. I’ve been called a Sandalwood Snob before, affectionately, and it’s true.
But the real issue is that the woody note is, on my main testing arm, even in the 6th hour, primarily just a basic woody note with something smoky fused in (which could be from the santal or the myrrh, who knows?) and a slight rubbing alcohol whiff. It’s only on my wonky bizarre right arm that the note firmly translates into one of the synthetic types of sandalwood used today by perfumers, frequently for eco-sustainability reasons. Plus, everything is, as I’ve said before, greatly overshadowed by the ambergris and benzoin duet on my arm, a duet that is joined on center stage by labdanum and vanilla in the 6th hour as well.
Sex and The Sea doesn’t change on me after that. It simply becomes blurrier and blurrier, softer, and 100% golden in hue, reminding me of one of J.W.M. Turner’s beautiful sunset paintings. It becomes a skin scent on me about 8.5 hours in and dies away as a smear of sweet, honeyed, snuggly, ambered goldenness about 13.25 hours in.
When taken as a whole, from start to finish, I find Sex and The Sea to be a largely linear, uncomplicated scent.
A few things about that, however. As I’ve frequently said, there is absolutely nothing wrong with simple or linear if you love the notes in question and if the price and quality of materials are commensurate, as is the case here, with what you’re getting. Some of my very favourite fragrances are what I call “cozy comfort” scents that are pretty straightforward in nature.
Second, as I’ve mentioned in a few of my other Bianchi reviews, I think skin chemistry will determine if you get a scent that is more of an impressionistic soliflore with subtle detailing or if you’ll experience a nuanced, detailed bouquet. The weirdness of my right arm experiences should tell you as much.
Third, and on a related matter, I think the subtle layers attached to the core suntan oil-beach-and-amber bouquet will require quite a bit of sniffing throughout time to detect. In other words, if you just apply Sex and The Sea then sniff it only once every hour, the composition will seem far more linear than if you sniff your arm frequently. This is true of many, many fragrances, but I find it especially true here because Ms. Bianchi paints in subtle, highly edited, and extremely impressionistic brushstrokes when you take the perfume as a whole. As I mentioned up top, I think this is deliberate, an attempt to avoid an on-the-nose, in-your-face beach fragrance in favour of something more refined and elevated, more atmospheric, more intimate.
All of this is true of Sex and The Sea Neroli as well, by the way, so let’s move on to that.
SEX AND THE SEA NEROLI:
Sex and The Sea Neroli is also an extrait de parfum at 25% concentration. Ms. Bianchi describes it and the thoughts behind its creation as follows:
The Making Of Sex and The Sea + Neroli
This perfume came out just for fun: What happens if I get my Sex and The Sea – an extrovert, sexy, warm scent – and combine it with my Neroli reconstitution – a shy, sharp, hypnotic smell?
Mind you, things didn’t happen that easily, I had to calibrate the whole formula to allow Neroli to stay in the same room with Sex and The Sea.
But the result was so hypnotic and sexy, so refreshing and warm, that I decided to produce this little treasure and not just to keep it for my personal use.
I have to admit that I have a soft spot for an anti-snobbish attitude (though probably being unconsciously snobbish myself) therefore the simple idea of creating something as commercial as a “flanker” was exhilarating.
Sex and The Sea Neroli presents – as the original version – a heart of coconut, the saltiness of the sea, the sweet sweat of a warm skin but this time with a hint of narcotic freshness, which makes the perfume more complex and its evolution more intriguing.
Bergamot, petit-grain, honey, neroli, mimosa, coconut, immortelle, rose, iris, sandalwood, vetiver, labdanum, benjoin, ambergris, civet, vanilla.
Let me say two things at the start: First, this note list threw me when testing the fragrance because the “neroli” in question was not a mere briskly green, crisp citrus note but, rather, the citrus mixed with narcotic, lush orange blossom. In other words, “neroli” is, on my skin, the whole shebang from the refreshing, bright, green-skewing, unripen citrus fruit juice to the bitter, aromatic zest of its rind and the heady, intoxicating floralcy of its flowers in full bloom. Orange blossom lovers, pay heed, because this one might be right up your alley.
Second, from the broadest view perspective, Sex and The Sea Neroli tells a different beach day than its sibling. Instead of a full day at the beach, followed by the end of the day warmth of post-beach, post suntan-oil, salty, warm, ambered goldenness, the Neroli version talks of a day at an orange blossom fruit orchard that just happens to be near a beach, an orchard where the breeze carries sea salt and aromas of beach goers’ coconut-y suntan oil to mix with the lush, heated, heady floralcy of orange blossoms that are in full bloom and doused by the brisk freshness of their fruits.
Another way of looking at it is to say that Ms. Bianchi has toggled the focus away from having the coconut-amber bouquet slap dash in the forefront to having it as the side companion then the backdrop against which a vividly bright, glowing citrus-floral bouquet shines and is the new dominant focus. As Ms. Bianchi said in her official scent description for Sex and The Sea Neroli: “I had to calibrate the whole formula to allow Neroli to stay in the same room with Sex and The Sea.” I think she’s succeeded by changing the balance of notes to have the beachy accords take second place, even third place at times. The result isn’t so much a “flanker” but a different story about a different excursion to the sea side.
Sex and The Sea Neroli opens on my skin with the complex, layered citrus-floral neroli orange blossom bouquet that I’ve described above. The tangy, bitter neroli juice is like a jolt of energy and brightness that works well with the aromatic zest of bitter oils from a zested green orange skin and the salty tang of ambergris which adds a radiance to the bouquet. Bergamot and petit-grain add to the citrus freshness as well.
There is little to no coconut or abstract mimosa floralcy in the opening moments and the pineapple only arrives 30 minutes in, adding a different sort of fruity freshness. This pineapple is not like the sticky, thick, ripe fruit slabs that you find in canned pineapple but rather, a muted, light slug of its freshly squeezed juice. What sweetness there is in the scent seems to derive from the amber components and, no doubt, the honey indirectly as well.
All in all, Sex and The Sea Neroli is a much brisker, brighter, crisper, zestier, and more floral scent during the first 30 minutes than its sibling. It’s all due to the absence, thus far, of any rich or heavy coconut suntan lotion notes.
Those notes emerge so incrementally that, if you weren’t sniffing your arm nonstop as I do, you might be surprised to notice them suddenly and in an obvious way at the end of the second hour and the start of the third. Even then, they’re a background element, never detracting from the core bouquet: Heady orange blossom flowers and a zesty, refreshing, bright neroli-citrus blend, woven together by salty, buttery, satiny ambergris goldenness, caramel benzoin, and a hint of honeyed vanilla, then placed against an impressionistic backdrop of tropical, beachy warmth. What keeps coming to my mind (and that I simply cannot find the photos to properly convey) is an image of a stroll through an orchard on a Tahitian island where the wind carries aromas of the sea-side far away. The closest image I can find to convey it is “Beach Scene 2” by Paul Gauguin, except the beach is more at a distance, there is endless cream and gold in lieu of red earth, and the greenery is that of a citrus orchard:
Sex and The Sea Neroli doesn’t change in any dramatic fashion on me until the late drydown. All that happens in the hours until then is a change in the prominence of certain notes, a sort of ebbing and flowing of elements. This pertains most to the coconut suntan oil accord, but it’s also true of the sandalwood, the degree of sweetness from the honey and immortelle, and the skin-like muskiness that emerges from within the cloud of goldenness. The latter is undoubtedly the result of the civet with the ambergris but, once again, I don’t detect any urinous, skanky, or true civet aromas on my skin. Also, once again, I experience no rose or iris on my skin.
As for the sandalwood, it is again largely an abstract, impressionistic woody smear on my skin with occasional undertones of rubbing alcohol, though the latter are muted on the skin of my main left testing arm than my weird right arm. (I should add that, on that bizarre arm, Sex and The Sea Neroli is largely a very woody neroli orange blossom floriental with a quiet touch of salty, mixed amber on the side. There is little to no coconut suntan lotion. And my skin eats through the whole thing in a mere seven hours versus the 12+ hours that I get on my main arm.)
Sex and The Sea Neroli’s drydown phase begins roughly 7.5 hours into the fragrance’s development. The scent, which now hovers less than an inch above my skin in projection, is largely a citrus white floral amber licked by light touches of vanilla and coconut cream, then splattered with droplets of honey. It’s soft, creamy, light, sweet, gently musky in a heated skin sort of way, and very reminiscent of summer skin. Everything is blurry and the notes are fully fused together.
When the 9th hour ends and the 10th hour begins, Sex and The Sea Neroli is simply a smear of honeyed, ambered sweetness with occasional, fleeting, will o’ the wisp pops of something vaguely floral and/or vaguely citrusy. In total, the fragrance lasted 13.5 hours to 14.75 hours on my skin, depending on whether I applied either 2-3 or 3-4 wide, generous smears from a sample vial.
ALL IN ALL:
I liked both fragrances and would wear them (but not on my weirdo arm) if I were gifted a bottle, but I can’t see me purchasing either for myself. That is solely an issue of personal tastes and comfort zones. In the years since I started wearing fragrances at age six, I don’t recall ever wearing a beachy or beach-adjacent fragrance. It’s a little out of my personal comfort zone, though both Sex and The Sea versions seem fun enough that a decant might be a happy, whimsical, escapist change.
But I honestly couldn’t choose between the two if I were forced to because each scent had its highlights. If one felt like having a brisker, zesty, fresher and orange blossom white floral oriental*, then one would go for the Neroli one, particularly on a hot day or when in need of some brightness on a dark winter’s night.
(* – By the way, “ambery” is now apparently the sensitive, updated, modern fragrance category name or terminology in lieu of the old “oriental,” but it doesn’t really fit this fully mixed genre of composition in my mind and it’s still difficult for me to use for fragrances that aren’t just primarily ambered in nature. I shall strive to do better and adapt, though.)
On the other hand, if one wanted a full escape to the beach with a fun but elevated take on a salted beach, suntan lotion summer’s day, then the original Sex and The Sea would be the better choice.
It really depends what you, personally, are looking for and are most comfortable with in your fragrance style. Also, your appreciation of sweetness may come into play because the original Sex and The Sea is a sweeter (also heavier in body), occasionally almost a semi-gourmand, composition on my skin whereas its Neroli counterpart really isn’t. As always, there is no “One Size Fits All” conclusion or recommendation when it comes to scent — and particularly not with regard to two equally solid, good quality, thoughtfully done releases.
One other thing, I think both fragrances are unisex. If you’re a guy, don’t let the orange blossom aspect of Sex and The Sea Neroli put you off; far more men have told me about, recommended, or said they own and love the S&TS Neroli than women.
If you would like to try either or both fragrances, Francesca Bianchi sells bottles and samples of: Sex and the Sea, Sex and the Sea Neroli, and various sized discovery sample sets. Luckyscent carries most Bianchi fragrances as well as the large discovery set. At the time of this post, they have Sex and the Sea but not Sex and the Sea Neroli except in body oil. Ms. Bianchi has other retailers which carry her line, but I’ll leave that for you to look up on her Stockists page.
Disclosure: My samples were provided courtesy of the company. That did not impact this review. I do not do paid reviews and my opinions are my own.