Nanban is the latest release from Arquiste, and a fragrance that seeks to transport you back in time to 1618 when a Japanese galleon sailed on “the ancient commercial trade between Asia, Europe and the Americas,” filled with a cargo of spices, coffee, leather, incense, and woods. To some extent, it succeeds in its endeavour, at least initially….
History in a bottle, and a trip back in time through scent are the specific goals of the American niche perfume house, Arquiste. Founded by the architect turned perfumer (and now, also, designer), Carlos Huber, Arquiste always attempts to bottle a specific moment in history, using fragrance as a symbolic time-machine. In the case of Boutonnière No. 7, the target date is 1899 in the lobby of the Paris Opera house.
Released in late 2012, Boutonnière No. 7 was created by Rodrigo Flores-Roux and is an eau de parfum. (I’ll refer to the fragrance from this point forth merely as “Boutonniere” for convenience and practical reasons.) Boutonniere is categorized as a “Floral” on the Fragrantica website but, interestingly, Carlos Huber calls it a “Floral Woody” on the Arquiste website.
There, Carlos Huber elaborates further on the precise historical scene that the perfume is meant to recreate:
May 1899, Foyer of the Opéra-Comique, Paris
During the Opera’s intermission, a group of seven young men gather at the Grand Foyer in search of new flirtations. Women of all sorts are lured in by the crisp, green scent of the men’s gardenia boutonnieres, enlivened with the bergamot and lavender colognes they wear. As they draw closer, the “Opera Flower” exudes its elegant masculinity, the last breath of a bloom sacrificed on a black-tie lapel.
Lavender, Bergamot, Italian Mandarin, Gardenia jasminoides/Gardenia citriodora duo, Genet absolute, Vetyvert, Oakmoss.
A brief word about the notes. First, “genet” is apparently some sort of Broom plant, not a relative of the civet mammal. (A big thank you to perfumer, Maggie Mahboubian, who clarified that point for me, and who also commented that it has a rich, honeyed, herbal aroma.) Second, you have to remember that the smell of a gardenia flower is often replicated through other floral notes. In this case, however, Arquiste seems to be saying that different varieties of actual gardenias were used. Regardless of source, the goal seems to have been a masculine, green floral. A Fragrantica profile on Boutonniere and Carlos Huber states, (or perhaps quotes Huber himself):
In taming and “sharpening” gardenia’s multifaceted nature towards a great masculine feel, it took a mix of lavender, bergamot, Italian mandarin, vetiver and oak moss. And the “gardenia” is a duo of Gardenia jasminoides and Gardenia citriodora. While citrus and bergamot combine with lavender to create the opening, the base of vetiver and oak moss in the final stages will always back up the straightforward courage into the subdued passion of the wearer.
It all sounds terribly good on paper. How often do you have the lush, indolic, hyper-feminine gardenia flower treated almost like a traditional fougère with its lavender, moss and herbal elements? A masculine take on gardenia has infinite potential for originality, so I was really excited to try Boutonniere when I won a sample set of the Arquiste line in a giveaway on The Fragrant Man blog. If only the reality of Boutonniere were as complex or unique as the promise of its notes.
Boutonniere opens on my skin with a burst of fresh, very green gardenia. It is heavily infused with vetiver that has a brief nuance of something rather minty, and is also accompanied by a touch of bright, springy mossiness. The whole thing is a visual panoply of emerald greens with a bright, dewy, green-white gardenia at its center. Dainty whiffs of bergamot, orange, and a vaguely herbal, very abstract aromatic note dance around the edges, but they are mere specks in the picture. The final element is a subtle, synthetic tonality resembling ISO E Super that lurks deep down in Boutonniere’s base, though it is very muted at this point. [Update: Arquiste has clarified that the aroma-chemical in question is Ambermax, a synthetic which Givaudan describes as having “the power of dry amber” with “subtantive [sic] fusing [of] cedarwood facets.”] Initially, the whole thing wafts in an extremely airy cloud that blooms 2-3 inches above the skin. It is perfectly balanced between the bright, fresh, green elements and the sweet gardenia, and is initially strong when sniffed up close. From afar, however, Boutonniere smells merely like a translucent wisp of green gardenia with vetiver.
Time is not kind to Boutonniere on my skin. Less than 15 minutes in, the perfume starts to devolve. Boutonniere becomes thinner in feel, and also loses its touches of citrus and mint. A bare 25 minutes in, the sillage drops further, and Boutonniere hovers an inch above the skin. Before the first hour is even up, the perfume lies right on the skin, and is close to becoming a skin scent. It accomplishes that disappointing feat a mere 75 minutes into its development. Around the same time, a subtle element of pepperiness pops up at the periphery, as the
ISO E Super Ambermax starts to rise from the base.
The end of the first hour ushers in another change as well. Boutonniere feels creamier and warmer, as the more jasmine-based gardenia element becomes more prominent. The scent still retains its greenness, but the flower is less dewy and crisp. It parallels the evolution of a white flower that you pick and wear, moving from the dainty, fresh greenness to a warmer, more yellowed creaminess after a few hours. The minuscule citric curlicues vanish; and the vetiver begins to turn more dry. It eventually becomes more woody than green and bright, but, for now, Boutonniere is still primarily a gardenia scent with varying levels of fresh vetiver.
By the end of the third hour, Boutonniere lives up to its description on the Arquiste website as a woody floral, for the softened, velvety gardenia is now firmly entrenched in a woody, dry vetiver embrace. It has a lightly mineralized feel that is supplemented by the tiniest touch of oakmoss, but there really isn’t much more to the scent. It is light, simple, and airy, but it clings to the skin like translucent gauze. In fact, the perfume is so wispy and thin that I was sure it was going to die at any moment after a mere 2 hours, so you can imagine my surprise to see Boutonniere cling on tenaciously for quite a bit longer.
As the hours passed, Boutonniere fought for dear life as the most basic gardenia soliflore around, with fluctuating degrees of vetiver and a growing
ISO E Super Ambermax peppered flourish. At times, the vetiver actually seemed like it had wiped out the gardenia altogether, but the flower is stalwart and makes a comeback. In its final moments, Boutonniere is the sheerest smear of a vaguely greenish gardenia. All in all, it lasted just under 7.5 hours on my skin.
On Fragrantica, the comments range all over the place:
- Like Carnal Flower, but less skanky/interesting. WAY too feminine for unisex IMO.
- On paper I thought that maybe a little bit of Carnal flower had somehow got mixed up in my sample, I was overpowered by crushed gardenia petals. However when put on skin the sweet floral edge almost disappears to give way to a sensual spicy skin scent that I can not stop sniffing! This is like carnal flowers darker sultry sister, still with a hint of sweet gardenia but mostly about spicy wood (vetiver) and balmy lavender, and dirty (in a good way) genet and a shimmer of petitgran. In the heart the creamy sparkly gardenia comes back a bit to soapy strong for my liking. This scent wears very close to the skin not much silage. But depending on how long the soapy gardenia lasts this could be a little gem that should be worn close to skin, a little secret that only those close to you can appreciate.
- This smells like a balloon that was rubbed against someone’s head…. [¶] I honestly don’t know know what notes are clashing to create that sharp, dense rubber note (oakmoss and genet poop perhaps!?), but I cannot imagine forking out that kind of money to smell like this, it’s bizarre.
Kevin of Now Smell This had an infinitely better experience than either that last commentator or me, though Boutonniere did not seem to sweep him off his feet. In his review, he wrote:
Arquiste Boutonnière no. 7 opens with a burst of fleshy white flowers (not gardenia, but jasmine); the flowers are sweet, mildly indolic and have an undercurrent of woodiness. As the fragrance quickly develops, I detect a soft “orange peel” note, a gentle touch of “smoke” (the vetiver?) and oak moss. Arquiste Boutonnière no. 7 plays nicely on skin: after I sprayed the fragrance on, I detected indoles on my left hand, orange peel on my right hand, and vetiver and flowers on my wrists; this fragmentation makes for an interesting experience, and all the perfume’s notes work together to create a “happy,” sunny, summertime vibe. Boutonnière no. 7 dries down to a “fresh” (but creamy) white floral and smooth vetiver perfume.
Arquiste Boutonnière no. 7 can easily be worn by women, but how will men take to a jasmine/“gardenia” fragrance? (I’m betting, without any evidence, that women will buy this fragrance more than men.) Arquiste Boutonnière no. 7 contains excellent ingredients, has good lasting power, discreet sillage, and it does not smell old-fashioned[….] As for me…the gardenia perfume I’ve been waiting for has not yet arrived.
Victoria of Bois de Jasmin loved Boutonniere, though her experience was closer to mine with all the vetiver than to Kevin’s. In her review, she writes, in part:
My first impression of Boutonniere no.7 was that it was a gardenia at long last. […][¶] But as I wore Boutonniere longer, I realized that it’s really a vetiver fragrance with just a scattering of white petals. The earthy vetiver and cool moss are so rich in the drydon that you are no longer sure if you’re smelling the petals or the stems. The damp, nutty vetiver may seem a surprising companion to the lush gardenia, but their earthy facets are natural complements. A bright touch of bergamot keeps the composition sparkling and vivid, while lavender takes off the overripe, indolic edge. The result is a bright, crisp fragrance, the heady gardenia notes notwithstanding. […]
There are many elements of Boutonniere that draw me to it. I love its contrasts and smooth transitions from one accord to another. I love the salty, damp darkness of vetiver that is contrasted against the white petals. I also love its quality and polish.
I envy her experience. I wish I had “twists” with Boutonniere No. 7, let alone “transitions.” On my skin, the only significant changes pertained to the early, muted, tiny flickers of tertiary elements vanishing in less than 15 minutes.
I love big white florals, so I enjoyed the green gardenia in Boutonniere quite a bit, but my overall reaction is disappointment. The Arquiste signature style seems skew towards light, discreet scents as a whole, but the sillage on Boutonniere is far too weak in my opinion. 50 minutes for it to lie right on the skin, and a 75 minutes for a skin scent? It is extreme. If Boutonniere had more projection, body, or richness, then I wouldn’t mind that it was a completely basic, linear soliflore that primarily consisted of two elements.
I don’t believe in examining perfumes in a vacuum, and, in this case, all the factors combined together are very problematic in light of the perfume’s cost. Arquiste may currently sell the perfume for $175 for a small 55 ml bottle on its website, but most of the big U.S. retailers are charging $195. The same story applies in Canada, too. With tax, that makes the final price for a small bottle of Boutonniere just under $220. In my opinion, that’s bloody high for the fragrance and size in question.
I find it interesting that a handful of the biggest perfume sites in Europe seem to have dropped Arquiste. Perhaps it is merely a contract issue, but Arquiste fragrances are no longer available on Liberty London’s website, and Jovoy Paris has stopped carrying the line entirely. At the same time, First in Fragrance is massively slashing its prices on those few fragrances in the line that it still has, an action that I find to be quite telling. Others large retailers who continue to carry the Arquiste line (like Essenza Nobile, Osswald in Zurich, and First in Fragrance as well) don’t even bother with Boutonniere No. 7, suggesting that the perfume simply doesn’t sell at the high price point that Arquiste wants for it.
[UPDATE 1/30/14: Arquiste has responded in the comments to both the pricing differential and to the distribution issue, and it’s only fair to repeat the gist of their position up top in the text where everyone can see it. Arquiste clarifies that the $195 price is for a special numbered edition of the fragrance which comes with a steel stick-pin made by jewelers. The regular, retail price for the normal Boutonniere No. 7 fragrance is still $175. According to Arquiste, the “stores have chosen which one to carry based on what they liked.” As for the issue of distribution in Europe, Arquiste states that it is a matter of finding out which partnerships work and which don’t. You can read the full text of their response down in the comments.]
One can only wonder if perhaps Arquiste is over-pricing fragrances that are consistently sheer, wholly unobtrusive, quite simple, thin, and with only moderate longevity. I really love Arquiste’s Anima Dulcis, but it has similar flaws in projection, body, and longevity which renders its price too high for me. Same story with another Arquiste fragrance that I tested last week. As for l’Etrog, an Arquiste citrus scent I reviewed a while back, I found it to be a dull, overly simplistic, terribly boring, linear, ISO E Super-laden disappointment.
Boutonniere is a significantly better fragrance than that one, but a complex, nuanced masterpiece it is not. I think it would work best for women who are looking for an extremely intimate, green gardenia scent that few other people can detect. Boutonniere is most definitely suited for an office environment. I’m less certain as to whether men may fall hard for Boutonniere. It’s not as masculine as touted, and the amount of vetiver (let alone lavender) that you may experience will undoubtedly depend on skin chemistry. I think if you enjoy green interpretations on white florals (like, for example, Frederic Malle’s Carnal Flower), but want something even sheerer, lighter and more unobtrusive, then Boutonniere No. 7 will be right up your alley. I’m still highly dubious about the value for the price, though.
Cost & Availability: Boutonniere No. 7 is an eau de parfum that is available only in a 55 ml/1.85 oz size. It costs currently $175 on the Arquiste website, but many U.S. retailers carry the special, numbered edition which costs $195. The perfume’s non-US price is: CAD$195, £125, or €159 (I think). In the U.S.: You can buy Boutonniere for $175 from Avery Fine Perfumery, The Twisted Lily, and Babalu Miami. The following sites sell it for the higher $195 price with the numbered bottle and accompanying steel stick-pin: Barneys, Osswald NYC, Beauty Habit, and Aedes. Outside the U.S.: In Canada, the Arquiste line is available at Holt Renfrew Bloor in Toronto (though I could not locate it on the overall Holt Renfrew website), or at Etiket in Montreal for CAD $195. Each store is the exclusive dealer for the Arquiste line in their city. In the UK, Boutonniere is available for £125.00 from Bloom Parfumery, along with a sample. In France, Jovoy no longer carries Arquiste, and First in Fragrance is discounting those few Arquiste fragrances that it still carries. In Australia, there are a few vendors which carry the Arquiste line, such as Peony Melbourne or Libertine which sells Boutonniere for AUD$199. Arquiste is also sold at numerous small retailers throughout France, Italy, and Germany, but also Mexico, New Zealand, Lithuania, Croatia, Ireland and more. You can use Arquiste’s “Stockists” page to find a retailer near you. Samples: Samples are available at Surrender to Chance where the price starts at $4.99 for a 1/2 ml vial. The site also sells all 7 perfumes from the Arquiste line in a sample pack for $33.99.
October 1175. Calabria, Italy. South of Naples, northeast of Sicily. “During the First Crusade, Southern Italy fell to the Normans, which encouraged Calabrian Jews to engage in the agricultural trades. By the 12th century, the communities were thriving. Since then, the harvest of the Diamante Citron or Etrog has remained a regional tradition.” Etrog is even described in the Bible in connection to the Garden of Eden. “The fragrance is said to be the ‘Fragrance of Heaven’, and the Etrog itself is associated with righteousness, goodness and desirability.”
October 1175 in Calabria, history and the etrog fruit are the specific inspirations for L’Etrog by the American niche perfume house, Arquiste. Founded by the architect turned perfumer (and now, designer), Carlos Huber, Arquiste always attempts to bottle a specific moment in history. It’s something that I greatly admire, as history has always been one of my greatest passions in life. And, here, the mission is not only to capture the festival of L’Etrog in Norman-conquered Calabria, but also the very feel of life in the Mediterranean itself.
Arquiste elaborates further on the exact mental picture that the perfume is meant to evoke:
In Medieval Calabria, a family gathers to celebrate a good harvest. Within a cabin built of Palm leaves and other woody branches, an aromatic bounty is presented. The citrusy scent of the Etrog citron, a regional specialty, brightens the air while embracing Myrtle and lush Date Fruit envelope the sweet warmth of the Mediterranean night.
Released in late 2011, L’Etrog is described as a “citrus chypre” and was created by Rodrigo Flores-Roux and Yann Vasnier. On its website, Arquiste says:
The brisk character of Myrtle marries with leafy nuances, emulating the freshly opened fronds of palm trees. An unexpected mouthwatering accent follows, with Smyrna Date fruit and elegant Cedar wood from Lebanon.
Cedar, however, is not explicitly included in L’Etrog’s official notes on the Arquiste website which merely list:
Calabrese Cedrat [Citron], Myrtle, Date Fruit and Vetiver
Elsewhere, however, department store retailers like Barneys and blogs like CaFleureBon quote the press release description which states the perfume is: “a citrus chypre with citron, palm leaves, willow branches, myrtle and dates.” So, let’s just assume that “willow branches” and “palm leaves” are in there, along with cedar, too.
As for the fruit in question, internet research tells me that cedrat is a type of very large, fruity lemon with a thick rind and little acidity. It has many different names: cedrat seems to be one linguistic version of the term citron (which is the main French name) and seems to be the same as etrog which Wikipedia tells me is the Hebrew version. Whatever the linguistics, the fruit looks a bit like its close cousin, the pomelo, but doesn’t smell (or taste) like a grapefruit.
I’m a little OCD, so forgive my brief digression into history for a moment. First, Arquiste’s comment on the Normans would seem to imply that they were responsible for agriculture successes in the region, when I think that history would argue it was the Saracens or Moors. Starting in the late 9th Century, they invaded the area in southern Italy that includes Calabria and that later became part of the larger Kingdom of Sicily. It was the Moors who seriously impacted both the agriculture and the cuisine (not to mention the architecture); who brought over things like dates, oranges and lemons; and whose advancements in agricultural techniques led to the thriving cultivation of those citrus crops — techniques that, I would argue, were the sole reason for the bounty of the etrog on that day in October 1175 during the Jewish festival of Sukkot. It was not the bloody Normans! They were merely the subsequent conquerors. So, while Robert Guiscard admittedly encouraged the Calabrian Jews, it was the Moors who got the whole ball rolling to start with in what has been termed the Arab Agricultural Revolution. (Sorry for the tangent, but that esoteric point has been bothering me for hours and hours.)(And hours!)
Second, and returning to the perfume now, I don’t understand how L’Etrog is supposed to be even a neo-chypre, let alone an actual one. There is no oakmoss; there isn’t even the patchouli that is sometimes considered as an alternative foundational base. Is vetiver alone now enough? Not in my opinion.
I tested L’Etrog twice, using different quantities and resulting in a very different openings. The first time, my hand slipped and quite a large amount gushed out of the vial onto my arm. It was a vision of bright, sunny, yellow with sweet lemon that wasn’t zesty so much as slightly fruity and rich. There were also elements of light vetiver and myrtle. According to Fragrantica, myrtle oil is said to have a scent similar to eucalyptus but here, during the first test, there is a minty undertone instead. It creates a slightly chilled, very energizing effect that is lovely. At the same time, however, something about the overall combination leads to a definite impression of Theraflu or LemSip cold powder. As the seconds passed, the minty touches grow stronger, creating more of a fizzy, sparkling aspect than just mere fruity citron.
After 15 minutes, the perfume changes slightly. The fruity aspect of the citron grows stronger, but it doesn’t seem at all like dates, per se. In fact, there is nothing reminiscent of sweetly dark, dried fruits at all. At the same time, the vetiver also becomes more prominent, adding a quiet earthiness to the scent. What is more interesting, however, is the interplay between the vetiver and the myrtle.
On one part of my arm, the peppermint note has transformed into eucalyptus, nullifying much of the sweet lemon but accentuating the vetiver. L’Etrog shows itself here as a spicy, mentholated eucalyptus with vetiver that is simultaneously earthy, rooty and touched by nuances of green citrus. On another part, however, it remains as peppermint, enabling the sweet, fruited lemon to show itself. Here, L’Etrog is a fruity lemon scent with a more generalized, abstract woody undertone. In both cases, however, the perfume is incredibly light, airy, and sheer. It’s much more akin to a cologne in feel and becomes a skin scent in as little as 20 minutes on my skin.
At the ninety minute mark during this first test, L’Etrog is a sheer lemon vetiver scent with the merest hint of woody, peppery elements and a bare drop of sweetness. Something in the undertone feels a little like ISO E Super, but it’s extremely light. The perfume remains this way for a number of hours until, around fifth hour, it turns into a thin veil of musky vetiver with a hint of lemony fruit. By the ninth hour, the last traces of L’Etrog are soapy musk with vetiver. Soon thereafter, it faded away entirely.
My second test of L’Etrog involved a far lesser quantity and, as a result, led to a very different opening. This time, the perfume opened with spicy lemon (not a sweetly fruited one) intertwined completely with very woody vetiver. There was also quite a noticeable amount of soap from the start, and the myrtle showed no minty aspects at all. Instead, it was all eucalyptus. The whole lemon, vetiver, soap mix strongly called to mind lemon liquid dishwashing liquid. It wasn’t unpleasant, but the Joy similarities couldn’t be ignored.
Another big difference was the presence of ISO E Super. I don’t know why it was so much more evident at a lesser quantity of L’Etrog, as opposed to the greater dosage, but I’m absolutely convinced it’s there. L’Etrog had a slightly velvety wood undertone with that telltale, giveaway sign of peppery, rubbing alcohol. The ISO E Super is not enormously prominent, and it does fade away after an hour, but given the headaches that even small amounts can cause people who are sensitive to the note, I wanted to warn you.
By the second hour, during the second test, L’Etrog was primarily a vetiver scent with lemon nuances, a woody undertone, and the merest whisper of light musk. And it remained that way until the final drydown when it turned, again, more of a soapy, light musk. The perfume was so close to the skin, it was incredibly hard to smell at times. Clearly, this is a perfume that — like a cologne — will require a significant quantity if you want to detect its nuances. And, even then, you’re going to have to put your nose directly on your skin after the first hour. All in all, the perfume lasted a little under 7 hours with the lesser amount.
L’Etrog wasn’t my cup of tea. True, my personal style and tastes are very different, but I also found it disappointing as a whole. Ignoring completely the sillage issue, L’Etrog was a tame, boring, linear creation that really just played off lemon and vetiver. Perhaps if I’d smelled actual dates, I would have been more excited. But I doubt it. Lemon and vetiver are the primary strands of this perfume, with everything else being merely a tangential, occasional touch — from eucalyptus, to soap, to amorphous woody notes, to ISO E Super, to musk. They can’t take away from the main, most evident thrust of the perfume. Even the lemon itself wasn’t unique, the way the descriptions of Calabrese cedrat or etrog had led me to expect. In short, L’Etrog simply isn’t that interesting — not at $165 for a 55 ml/1.8 oz bottle. It actually verges on the banal and mundane. I far preferred Arquiste’s fabulous, wonderfully nuanced, sophisticated, rich Anima Dulcis.
On Fragrantica, the comments vary. There are those who find it “super wearable” but admit that they don’t have “the most trained of nose palates,” and then there are established commentators like the hardcore perfumista, “Sherapop,” who found L’Etrog to be a pleasant, somewhat quirky perfume that is “nice… but not compelling.” She reached that conclusion despite smelling not only the dates, but some candied sweetness and some caramel. (So, perhaps I didn’t miss out on anything after all?) Interestingly, she seems to have first smelled the perfume blind as part of Chandler Burr’s Untitled Series and thought that it was Histoires de Parfums‘ 1873 (“Colette“). In a side by side test, before the reveal, she detected small differences, but not much. The similarity is something to keep in mind if you have tested or own Colette.
But Sherapop wasn’t the only one who gave a shrug of “meh” to L’Etrog. Another commentator, “Alfarom,” succinctly summed up the perfume as follows:
A citron hologram introduces a honestly crafted woody-citrus fragrance that’s refined, nice smelling and very wearable. The woody notes (incredibly not overdone) and some sweetness, provide some sustain to an otherwise extremely fleeting composition that while resulting definitely pleasant, it still doesn’t have the ability to stand out in todays overpopulated niche market…
Nice yet somewhat forgettable.
That said, for those who want a simple, light, sheer, summery, lemon vetiver cologne that is utterly inoffensive, you may want to try L’Etrog. It would be appropriate for even the most conservative office environment. No perfume Nazi would be bothered, simply because they wouldn’t be able to detect it; unless they had sensitivities to ISO E Super, in which case, you may be screwed….
Cost & Availability: L’Etrog costs US $165, CAD $200, £125.00 or €149. It comes only as an eau de parfum and is available only in a 55 ml/ 1.85 oz size. In the US, it is available on the Arquiste website, Barneys, and Aedes. In Canada, the Arquiste line is available at Holt Renfrew Bloor in Toronto (though I could not locate it on the overall Holt Renfrew website), or at Etiket in Montreal for CAD $200. Each store is the exclusive dealer for the Arquiste line in their city. In the UK, it is available for £125.00 at Liberty London which also ships throughout Europe. In France, you can find it at Jovoy Paris where it retails for €149. Elsewhere, you can use Arquiste’s “Stockists” page to find a retailer near you. Samples are available at Surrender to Chance where the price starts at $4.99 for a 1/2 ml vial. The site also sells all 7 perfumes from the Arquiste line in a sample pack for $33.99.
It was a chilly day in Mexico City that November, long ago in 1695, and the kitchens of the Royal Convent of Jesus Maria were a beehive of activity. The haughty Mother Superior took the heavy key from the chain around her neck and unlocked the vault with the sisters’ most precious ingredients: bitter, dark chocolate, rich chilies, earthy spices, incense used in their religious ceremonies, and the heaviest of vanillas. The recipe for their famed “Anima Dulcis” was a secret one — even some of the nuns weren’t privy to its true magic. Were there flowers hidden under its dark depths? Was ancient incense responsible for its smoke, or was it darkened patchouli? The Mother Superior smiled to herself as she passed through the convent’s stone passageways and heard the younger sisters’ whispered questions. She, and she alone, would add the finishing touches.
The Royal Convent of Jesus Maria in Mexico City on a day in November 1695, is the explicit reference point for the “baroque gourmand” fragrance that is Anima Dulcis (loosely translated as “soul of sweetness”). It comes from the perfume house of Arquiste, founded by the Mexican architect and designer, Carlos Huber. Mr. Huber — who just won the Fashion Group International’s Rising Star award a few weeks ago — was inspired by the convent’s history and practices after he worked on renovating and converting the building in Mexico City.
As Mr. Huber explains on the Arquiste website, the Royal Convent of Jesus Maria had been founded in 1578 for the female descendants of the Spanish Conquistadors. (Or, at least, the very wealthiest and most aristocratic among them!) It was known for the nuns’ recipes which combined European and Asian ingredients with those particular to Mexico’s ancient history. Octavian, the highly respected perfume blogger of 1000 Fragrances, elaborates further in his beautiful review of the perfume:
The most carnal elements of the baroque cuisine were mixed in unexpected combinations, forgotten by the modern nose. Animalic jasmine, tuberose, petals of white flowers and all the temptations of the flesh were mixed with cocoa and hot spices to produce liqueurs and sweets. The nuns were discovering the fabulous scents of the new world, earlier than Europe. Vanilla, cocoa and tuberose, brought to Versailles, but still a great luxury before their massive use in the next century, made their debut in a Convent where the ancient Maya and Aztec flavors were tested and studied by Europeans. Anima dulcis, a modern interpretation of this magic encounter, tells the story of when the european sensibility started to use the “dark” ingredients of the New World – the discovery of cocoa, vanilla and chili pepper, reported by Cortez 150 years earlier. [Emphasis in the original.]
Using his research (and, I believe, the sisters’ actual recipes), Carlos Huber worked with two perfumers, Yann Vasnier and Rodrigo Flores-Roux, to encapsulate the Convent’s creations. The result was Anima Dulcis which was released in 2011. It is classified on Fragrantica as an “oriental vanilla,” though I think “oriental chocolate” might be a more accurate summation. On its website, Arquiste says the notes include:
Cocoa Absolute, Mexican Vanilla, Cinnamon, Chili infusion.
Those official notes are just the tip of the iceberg. There is no way that the list is complete. I would venture a guess that the complete list might possibly look a little bit like this:
Cocoa Absolute, Mexican Vanilla, Cinnamon, Red Chili infusion, Jasmine Sambac (or some sort of florals), Seville Oranges, Cumin, Cardamom, Patchouli, Incense and, possibly, some sort of ambery resin.
Anima Dulcis opens on my skin with cinnamon-infused dark chocolate. It’s chewy, dusky, and spiced, but also, simultaneously, honeyed. Fiery red chilies counter the sweetness of the vanilla that just barely seems to breathe in the background. So does the earthiness of a dark patchouli — dirty and slightly smoky in the best way possible. The smoky notes seem to be further accentuated by some hint of light incense. It’s a lovely take on vanilla and chocolate, especially with the piquancy from the red chili pepper.
The chocolate note, however, is the real star. It’s unusual and nothing like the typical sort of chocolate notes which, to me, often feel more like powdery cocoa. At the same time, it’s also not like purely dark chocolate. Here, it’s more like the richest chocolate flourless cake covered with ganache made from bitter chocolate, covered by a dusting of smoky powder, cinnamon, cumin, cardamom, decorated with faint slivers of Madagascar vanilla pods, and then set on a plate of spicy, cinnamon red-hot candies. The richness almost has the feel of a British Christmas plum pudding, only tinged with incense.
It’s an incredibly cozy scent that is, at the same time, very sexy. There is a rich, meaty, chewy, dark aspect to it that can certainly be called “baroque” but, to be honest, aristocratic Mexican nuns descended from the Conquistadors are not really what comes to mind when I smell it.
Instead, I feel transported to a secluded wood cabin in Vermont on a very snowy, wintery night; there, by the light of a roaring fire which casts flickering shadows on the wall, a seduction scene full of deep long kisses and teasing nuzzles unfolds. Cups of spiced hot chocolate filled with dark liqueurs lie empty; the fire releases an occasional tendril of smoke; the light is glowing amber and red; and sensuality underlies the cozy warmth of the scene.
As time progresses, the baroque chocolate notes are joined by something that is definitely floral in nature. It’s lovely, adding a lightness and sweetness to the dry spices, but I can’t pinpoint the exact flower. Perhaps Jasmine sambac, with its earthier, muskier nature than regular jasmine? Octavian on 1000 Fragrances thinks it’s a green lily note and, while I can see some light greenness, I don’t think it’s the delicate lily flower. Either way, the perfume definitely has some sort of floral component. Carlos Huber may consider Anima Dulcis as a “baroque gourmand,” but, to my mind, it is much more of a spicy oriental perfume which just happens to have some gourmand elements. It’s also a very ambery perfume for something that is meant to smell like Mexican hot chocolate, and I wonder if there is some sort of resin in Anima Dulcis’ foundation. Whatever the specific notes, it’s a fascinating and addictive scent. I can’t stop sniffing my arm, and I just barely stifle the urge to put on more.
Two hours in, the perfume shifts and changes a little. It is now predominantly cinnamon orange with red chili peppers. There is a feeling of caramelized cooked fruit, where the caramel has burnt just a little. Or, maybe, it’s more like a sticky, toffee’d orange, salted and sweet, mixed with dark raisins stewed in rum and dark chocolate. It’s really hard to pinpoint; the perfume is superbly blended, leading all the notes to melt together in a decadently luscious, rich whole. The burnt note, unfortunately, lasts a wee bit too long for my liking, and seems to become just a tad bit more bitter and burnt with time. It’s not strong and over-powering — it’s not even the predominant note — but I think I would have liked just a little less of it or, perhaps, a little more sweetness to counter it.
After another hour, it fades, leaving Anima Dulcis as a lovely combination of bitter Seville oranges, dark patchouli, cinnamon, chili pepper and a soft dusting of sweet vanilla. Eventually, at the end of the fourth hour, the perfume turns into a soft amber with spices and just a flicker of orange, before finally ending up in its final stage as sweet vanilla and light white cocoa powder, with just a smidgen of dusty spice.
For all that these notes seem dark and heavy, the perfume itself actually is not. It’s neither narcotically heady nor cloyingly sweet. It’s not a light, clean, airy scent by any means — no laundry detergent freshness here — but it’s surprisingly not heavy or opaque either. Octavian describes it as “light, woody, airy” and “delicate.” I think it’s a bit heavier than that; I wouldn’t want anyone to think this is a sheer, translucent scent or something like the minimalistic creations made by Jean-Claude Ellena. But, given the richness of some of its components, it is far from thick and never overbearing.
In fact, even the sillage is moderate. In the beginning, you can smell it on yourself but it’s far from overpowering. Someone across the room definitely won’t be gassed by it. After the first hour, the perfume becomes softer and, by the third hour, it was quite close to my skin. By the fourth hour, it took some determined sniffs, putting my nose right on the skin, to detect some of the nuances in the notes. As for longevity, it was moderate on my perfume-consuming skin. It faded away shortly before the sixth hour. On others, I’ve read lengths of time around varying between six and eight hours.
All in all, I really liked Anima Dulcis. A lot. The only thing stopping me from wanting a full bottle is the fact that, for my personal tastes, I would have preferred it if the scent were heavier, headier, and just a slightly bit sweeter. (Just a smidgeon!). I realise, however, that most people don’t share my preference for narcotically heady scents, so I think Anima Dulcis would be a real crowd-pleaser for many. It taps into the current trend for gourmand scents but, in my opinion, it really isn’t one. Those who are expecting a true dessert fragrance will be disappointed. This is not half as sweet as some of the niche Guerlains that are out there. Those, however, who share my feeling that a few of those Guerlains are a bit too gourmand should really look into Anima Dulcis. The same applies to anyone looking for a very high-quality, luxurious take on spicy Orientals without the heavy, boozy or opaque aspects that can sometimes accompany them. I should add that it is most definitely unisex!
Try Anima Dulcis, and see if a perfume twist on a recipe from the aristocratic descendants of the Conquistadors over three hundred years ago touches your sweet soul.