Welcome to the year in review, a look back at both the best new releases of 2017 and the noteworthy releases from prior years which I tried this year and enjoyed. Before I start, though, let me say first that I’m operating at a bit of a handicap because I took a long sabbatical for the first half of 2017. I spent the next six months after my return trying to catch up on, test, or review all the new fragrances that I had missed during my break as well as the ones released subsequently, but I’m sure I’ve missed a few great ones along the way. It’s not easy to put a dent in the tsunami of 2,300+ fragrances which are released each year even when one is reviewing nonstop, never mind when one takes a break from modern perfumery. Even so, I found a number of fragrances that either I loved immensely, that I thought were good representations of their genre, or that I thought were original and executed extremely well.
There is an exciting, bright new talent on the perfume scene, John Biebel, a man who reminds me a bit of Slumberhouse‘s Josh Lobb in his creative, bold, unusual, and very modern voice, a man who has quietly released two of the most accomplished and striking fragrances of 2017 and a third pretty one. They demonstrate a remarkably deft mastery of complex fragrance structures, an eye for good quality raw materials, and an innate talent but, above all else, his fragrances feel authentically original. Like Mr. Lobb (and also Serge Lutens), Mr. Biebel has the rare ability to combine unusual notes or aromas that might sound odd on paper but, thanks to his talent and skill, come across in the most interesting ways that leave you sniffing your arm again and again, wondering why no-one had thought of the idea before. At other times, though, he takes a classical composition and manages to make it feel modern and fresh but also dramatic. In both instances, I think that the result is bound to be somewhat polarizing, but then original, thought-provoking, impactful, and sometimes challenging fragrances usually are.
“What fresh hell is this?!” That question repeatedly crossed my mind as I smelt the new Jeroboam fragrances, and it wasn’t solely because some of them were indeed “fresh” (and excessively clean). The question really arose because I physically recoiled from the very first sniff of the sample wand for fragrance after fragrance, one after another, like a falling domino. When a scent wafts a brash, often brutish amount of chemicals merely from the wand and far before the liquid has even developed on my skin, then I know I’m in trouble.
There wasn’t even the promise or potential of something different and interesting in the synthetic cocktail to make the effort of wearing the fragrance seem worthwhile. For some of the Jeroboam fragrances, the molecules wafting from the wand and, later, on my skin were the most generic of bouquets whose quality and distinctiveness veered between being worse than a Montale, on par with a Montale, or like something you’d find in an Arab bazaar. For others in the line, the scent was all too familiar, evoking a richer or stronger aroma of things like Terre d’Hermes or one of the thousands of creme brulée caramelized vanillas on the market. At least two of the fragrances could be summed up flatly as “Bro Juice” on chemical steroids, with the added benefit or catnip of “Beast Mode” projection. If you like that genre of perfumery, great, all the more power to you, but it’s not my thing.
Move over Tihota, I’ve found something else. Van-ile is almost as good, but costs much less. Imagine airy vanilla, wrapped up with ribbons of lemon, tangy orange, orchid floralcy, and clean musk in a silky cloud that soon turns into the delicious coziness of silky, cake batter-style vanilla made from expensive Tahitian beans. That’s the essence of Van-ile (officially spelt as “Van-île”), an extremely simple, unpretentious eau de parfum that bears a strong resemblance to Indult‘s famous Tihota for almost all of its life, only for a third of the price. It’s a soft, easy-to-wear scent that is so appealing, I bought a bottle for myself. It helps that Van-ile is very reasonably priced, especially for the quality in question, and I’m a sucker for a good deal. More than that, though, it’s been extremely difficult for me to find a vanilla that is neither so sweet it would trigger a diabetic coma nor too heavily imbued with the ghastly white musk that I loathe. Van-ile fits the bill.
Let’s start at the beginning, though, since Jacques Zolty is probably not a name with which you’re familiar. I certainly wasn’t. According to Fragrantica, he was a French supermodel in the 1970s and then, in 2007, founded a perfume house whose creations celebrated the smell, culture, and vibe of the island of St. Bart’s in the West Indies. In 2014, the brand was bought by Roberto Drago, the owner of Laboratorio Olfattivo. He asked Cecile Zakorian (creator of Masque’s Tango, Majda Bekkali’s Mon Nom Est Rouge, Jovoy’s Private Label, and other fragrances) to make two new scents for the line, and one of them was Van-ile.
Van-ile is an eau de parfum that was released in late 2014. According to First in Fragrance, its name is a play on “vanille (vanilla) and île (island)… in French, the native language of Saint-Barthélemy. This fragrance is a passionate homage to vanilla planifolia, the sugar orchid that grows up symbiotically with the sun in the Caribbean and makes life sweeter on the most beautiful and glamourous island in the Antilles.” The perfume’s notes are:
Top Note: Bergamot, Orange, Almond
Heart Note: Vanilla, Heliotrope, Frangipani, Jasmine, Patchouly, Powdery Notes
Base Note: Vanilla Bean, Leather, Animalic Notes, Oakmoss, Musk