BDK Parfums‘ Gris Charnel is a cult hit, a blockbuster retail seller, and a fan favourite on TikTok and other social media sites. Does the creamy iris, cardamom, sandalwood amber scent live up to the hype? Well, yes and no. I think it will depend, even more than usual, on which notes your skin chemistry emphasizes.
As this is my first time covering the BDK Parfums (hereinafter just “BDK”), I thought I’d briefly give you a little background on the brand in case you’re unfamiliar with it. It is a small, independent niche house that was founded by David Benedek in Paris in 2016. BDK’s detailed mission statement reads, in part, as follows:
Different perfume, created by the heart. An olfactive library similar to a modern one. Elaborated fragrances of the likes of an apothycary [sic] perfumer.
Distinctive writiting [sic] stamps of equilibrium between raw ingredients. Sillage composed of singular olfactive shapes. From the beginning, the idea was to work around one particular raw material in order to give it life but also directly tie it to an inspiration. This initial idea then becomes the main driver in shaping the olfactory family that characterises each BDK Parfums fragrance.
From this olfactory family stems a personality, a way of being which surges into feelings enabling the mind to run freely and narrate its tale.
The House of BDK Parfums is in perpetual search of the most flawless raw materials to offer an incomparable final product.This is why all concentrate used are formed in the region of Grasse in France.
The creative process is never rushed; new scents are complete when the perfect equilibrium between notes is found, the alchemy perfect.
Gris Charnel is an eau de parfum that was created by Mathilde Bijaoui and released in 2019. BDK Parfums provides a lengthy Parisienne romance tale with no olfactory details or relevance in lieu of a real scent description, so I’m going to skip it in the interests of brevity. You can read it here, if you’re interested. Ms. Bijaoui’s perfumer’s description is as follows:
In the heart, the powdery clarity of iris absolute challenges the tenebrous essential oil of Cistus. This play of lights is balanced by a light-dark trail born of sandalwood essential oil, mixed with bourbon vetiver and tonka bean absolute.
Officially, Gris Charnel’s notes are as follows:
Fig, Black Tea, Bourbon Vetiver, Cardamom essence, Absolute of iris, Sandalwood from India, Absolute of Tonka bean [and cistus amber].
Let me discuss a few things before we begin with the scent journey. First, several BDK retailers add bourbon as a separate element in Gris Charnel note list, not merely as the Bourbon varietal of vetiver. Put another way, retailers like Luckyscent and Fumerie in the US suggest that Gris Charnel has an actual boozy component in addition to its particular type of vetiver, and I share their opinion.
Second, I have tested Gris Charnel four times (or five now, I forget) in order to properly clarify my thinking on the boozy note, the scent as a whole, and how I feel about it. I used different quantities on each of those occasions since, as you know, a fragrance’s nuances and the prominence of some of its notes are greatly impacted by how much or how little you apply.
The primary reason for so many tests and for the differing scent applications is the same: the bourbon or boozy accord I mentioned up above. On my skin, Gris Charnel had a profound, persistent, and inexplicable aroma of rum and bourbon. In all but one of my tests, it persisted well over 12 hours on my skin. And, though I usually love boozy notes in perfumery, I was not a fan of it here.
What was equally surprising to me is that there was no real vetiver on me other in all four or five of my tests other than a few muted wisps of amorphous greenery in the first 10 minutes. I know what vetiver smells like (heck, my last review was for a special-distilled vetiver-oud fragrance) and I also know what Bourbon vetiver in specific smells like, and I have never encountered a Bourbon vetiver that was functionally and practically all rum and booze, no vetiver at all. If you’re unfamiliar with Bourbon vetiver (which is considered by some to be the best kind), the prestigious Osmèthetique fragrance institution describes its olfactory profile as follows (with nary a mention of booziness):
Bourbon vetiver stands out due to its earthy, rooty, spicy, leathery, hazelnut aspects, with a slightly rosy facet, while Javanese vetiver is earthy, bitter and extremely smoky.
So, I don’t know what is going on with the note list in Gris Charnel or why a boozy accord was a central part on my skin with barely any whiff of vetiver (is the booze coming from the cistus??), but that is what I experienced in all but one test. That one test involved just the merest light dab of Gris Charnel on my skin in order to see whether the inexplicable, unlisted boozy accord would show up. It did not, beyond an occasional will o’ the wisp flicker.
[UPDATE – March 20th: BDK’s founder, David Benedek posted this photo of the upcoming Gris Charnel extrait or pure parfum on Instagram today and, as you can see, bourbon is explicitly listed in the notes and highlighted in the photo:
In short, it seems that there really IS a boozy accord in Gris Charnel! I wanted you to know that and also the fact that I wasn’t imagining it.]
Given the miniscule scent application and the anomalous outcome in that one test, I wouldn’t consider it as representative so I’ll simply talk about how Gris Charnel develops all the other times that I wore it.
Gris Charnel opens on my skin with a synthetic-smelling black fig followed by nice black tea, a cardamom-infused iris, and a lovely buttery, creamy (and very authentic-smelling) Indian sandalwood. The bouquet is edged with an indeterminate greenness (vetiver), then the whole thing is dunked into a boozy vat of rum and bourbon liquor.
This liquor aroma appears regardless of whether I apply the dabbed equivalent of one good spray from a bottle, two sprays, or three.
Furthermore, its scent on my skin goes beyond simply being prominent in Gris Charnel’s composition. First, it is also extremely – arguably, excessively – sugary sweet. Second, I find it is overly loud, rough, brash, and jarring in relation to the quality, smoothness, and calm, balanced nature of the other notes. If you’re going to use something as expensive as iris absolute, why bludgeon its refined delicacy with such a rough and thuggish blast?
Third, I’d argue that the ubiquity of rum/bourbon notes these days – including in mainstream fragrances found in Sephora like Maison Martin Margiela’s Jazz Club – in conjunction with the unbalanced, seemingly discordant nature of the accord here serves Gris Charnel poorly, rendering common what would otherwise be a refined, grey-gold, elegant, creative, and rather delightfully cuddly mélange of cardamom, iris, sandalwood, tonka, and cistus amber.
Having said all that, I think that the boozy accord will undoubtedly please those who prefer “sugary fragrances” (to quote one woman’s explicit perfume preferences on Fragrantica) or scents in the vein of that wretched Baccarat Rouge 540.
I am not one of those people, however, so it was with dismay that I experienced the highly sugared, foghorn boozy accord for an inordinate amount of time on my skin. Hours and hours, in fact. (Where the devil is it coming from??!)
Gris Charnel shifts as it develops during the first 2.5 hours. After 30 minutes, the boozy accord turns dominant, overshadowing and in some cases completely drowning out the other notes, particularly the poor iris which is largely strangled into silence. That said, a certain indeterminate “floral” note remains when I smell Gris Charnel from afar on the scent trail. At the 30 minute mark, the fig and black tea are still detectable, though they are subsumed within the liquor; and the cardamom turns into an abstract spiciness.
Roughly 75 minutes in, Gris Charnel’s bouquet turns texturally soft and creamy, thanks to the iris and also the sandalwood blooming in the base.
About 1.5 hours in, the sandalwood rises up from the base and the vanilla takes its place. At the same time, the rum and bourbon duo weaken, though not enough to let the iris really shine in its own right. That said, there is an anonymous, clean-ish floralcy when I sniff Gris Charnel on the scent trail but, even there, the highly sugared boozy accord is the dominant, overpowering note.
2.25 hours in or after the start of the 3rd hour, Gris Charnel starts to change for the better. The iris finally emerges from the shadow of the blasted liquor and merges with the sandalwood and tonka to create the fragrance’s dominant trio. Black tea, figs, and cardamom spiciness weave softly in and out. The rum/bourbon regretfully remains a discordant anomaly that I think ruins the elegance of the bouquet, but it’s nowhere as strong as it once was. Separately, a soft goldenness descends upon the notes, adding a cuddly quality to a chic mix of expensive materials.
It’s from this point onwards that I enjoy – quite a bit, truth be told – Gris Charnel despite the fact that iris is my most disliked floral note in perfumery! I’ve never been a fan of rooty iris, dank cellar iris, or worst of all, I shudder, cold and stony iris. As for “floral” iris, I frequently find it to be a mere olfactory abstraction devoid of substance or actual smell. But ambered iris? That’s a different matter. The only iris scent I own is SHL 777‘s semi-gourmand Khol de Bahrain which takes a cold, stony iris, mixes it with heliotrope, vanillic tonka, and violets, then uses amber to heat everything up and make it golden. (Warning: people have to like heliotrope or have it smell like something other than Play Doh or baby wipes in order for KdB to work for you.)
In the case of Gris Charnel, it took me four or five tests for me to figure out the common link in my reaction to it: I’m consistently underwhelmed and Meh about the first two hours but then, once the third hour begins, Gris Charnel grows on me and I think “I wouldn’t mind wearing this.” The link is that the third hour begins to temper and weaken the cheapening, coarsening booze accord which, up to then, has drowned out what is actually a really appealing mix of milky floral iris married to buttery sandalwood within a growing cloud of amber and a light dusting of vanillic tonka powder. Soft wisps of fig and spicy, slightly nutty cardamom also re-emerge, floating in and out.
What happens next between the end of the 4th hour and the start of the 7th depends on how much scent I apply. The smaller the quantity, the more likely it is that the boozy accord is simply a layer within the bouquet and the more likely the central parts of that bouquet become focused on the sandalwood tinged with either fig, cardamom, black tea, or a combination thereof within a cloud of vanilla-dusted amber and abstract, fluffy, iris-ish floralcy. (The iris always turns into an impressionistic blur at the end of the 4th hour on my skin, no matter how much or how little scent I apply.) This is the Gris Charnel that I’d be happy to wear.
The larger the quantity, however, the more likely that blasted rum/bourbon returns during this same time as a prominent and strong note that shares (and occasionally dominates) center stage instead of simply swooshing around the edges in a balanced fashion when I smell my arm up close.
Regardless of quantity, the notes in Gris Charnel begins to turn increasingly blurry and abstract as the 7th hour begins and also increasingly focused on santal-ish woody and ambery aromas. Basically, from start of the 7th hour until the start of the 10th hour, Gris Charnel is wonderfully creamy, cuddly, and fluffy bouquet of spicy, boozy, sweet, ambered, floral, and buttery santal woody notes.
At the start of the 10th hour, Gris Charnel’s drydown begins. The perfume’s floralcy and spiciness disappear, leaving a fluffy, creamy, dry-sweet, ambered woody fragrance. A quiet, subtle booziness is layered within, while the top is dusted with sweet, vanilla-ish powder (tonka). In its final hours, all that’s left is a blur of dry-sweet, occasionally boozy, ambery, golden, woody, slightly creamy plushness.
Gris Charnel’s sillage and longevity depends on how much scent I apply. With a light amount (1-2 small smears from a vial) equal to one spray from a bottle on my forearm, Gris Charnel opens with about 5 inches of scent before becoming soft at the start of the third hour. The fragrance did not turn into a skin scent, however, until late in the 5th hour. In total, Gris Charnel lasted around 8.5 hours on my skin.
With the equivalent of two typical sprays from a bottle, Gris Charnel opens with about 7-8 inches of sillage. That number drops to about 4 inches at the 3.5 hour mark, though the bouquet is very strong (thanks to the boozy note) when I smell my arm up close. Gris Charnel turns into a skin scent on me during the 8th hour and lasts 11.75 hours in total.
With 3-4 smears equal to about three big sprays, Gris Charnel had enormous projection that extended about 1.5 to 2 feet in length. The number drops to about 6 inches in the middle of the 4th hour. Gris Charnel turns into a skin scent on me late in the 12th hour and lasts in total around 15 hours or a bit after.
Gris Charnel is exceedingly popular, so much so that it’s sold out at quite a few places that I checked. It is also, I’ve been told, a huge hit on TikTok and YouTube. I can see why it’s popular, because the heart to drydown phases are wonderful. Like a warm cozy hug or a camel-coloured cashmere shawl enveloping you in slightly addictive, sweet, creamy, golden, santal-y plushness. It’s just the opening phase with that discordant booziness that drives me a little batty and turns me off. Do I have the patience to put up with it to get to the good stuff? I’m still pondering that, but it’s doubtful. For my personal tastes, Gris Charnel is appealing in the late heart and drydown stages, but I’m not in love with it by any means.
Fragrantica reviews provide an interesting perspective, in part because booziness is not mentioned by others who also dislike the opening phase. No, for a good number of them, it’s the cardamom. One even called it a “sledgehammer.” I lack the time to scroll through all 1000+ reviews to see if anyone else encountered a boozy accord but, from what I’ve seen thus far, it’s just me. By the same token, I haven’t seen anyone talking about vetiver. Not at all. (Admittedly, most of the reviews are not particularly detailed.) If you’re turned off by either booziness or vetiver in perfumery, maybe that reassures you a bit.
If you’re interested in a cozy comfort scent which pretty much everyone, including me, agrees is replete with iris, cardamom, sandalwood, amber, and sweetness, then I’d encourage you to both read the Fragrantica page and get a sample to test for yourself. Skin chemistry is a weird and wonderous thing and all tastes are subjective in nature, so consider my review as merely one perspective on Gris Charnel, its highs and its lows. Whatever you do, I do not advise blind buying unless you know you would enjoy every possible version of Gris Charnel, whether it’s the boozy one described here or the non-boozy, softer (sometimes cardamom-heavy) one described on Fragrantica.
On a somewhat unrelated note, a Fragrantica poster by the name of “Scentrix” reported on March 14, 2022 that a richer, slightly tweaked version of Gris Charnel is in the works. She writes, in relevant part:
There was an Instagram live today that featured David Benedek, he announced that there would be an extrait version of Gris Charnel. He did say that there would be a few tweaks in this extrait version
One last thing: I want to applaud BDK Parfums for the variety of size and price options that it offers. There are multiple sample and discovery sets, including several offering 10 ml decant size trios of various BDK fragrances. The Parisienne discovery trio is the one which includes Gris Charnel. BDK Parfums also offers a single 10 ml travel decant of Gris Charnel for just $45, though it seems to be sold out everywhere I’ve looked. I wish the full bottles came in intermediate sizes but they’re all 100 ml or 3.4 ounces. In the case of Gris Charnel, $190 is a not a bad price for a large bottle of a mostly smooth and appealing scent that contains a number of expensive raw materials like Indian santal, iris absolute, and cardamom essence. (Green cardamom, I’ve read, is the third most expensive spice in the world.) Below you will find links to some retailers that offer samples or discovery sets in addition to the full bottle.
So give Gris Charnel a sniff, if you haven’t already. If you have, I’d enjoy hearing about your experiences with it.