There is not a person alive who has been unaffected by the wretchedness of 2020 and the pandemic that has dominated the list of traumas. I won’t even start to talk about the issues of this year because they are many and all hideous. But what about the escape methods for many of us during the best of times: scent? How much is perfumery still a big escape in the midst of one of the worst years in the 21st century?
For perfumistas, reading about fragrances is fun but smelling what you’ve read about is even better. As most of you probably know, Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez just published their Perfumes The Guide 2018, the first new version of the book in ten years. The authors sought to examine the changed perfume landscape since the original Guide was released and, consequently, there is a heightened focus on both niche and indie/artisan houses.
I haven’t done a giveaway in years and years, but this seemed like a good occasion to make an exception. One of the criticisms of the book, in some quarters at least, is that too many of the houses are small and unknown. That won’t be the case if you’ve been a regular reader of this blog because I’ve long emphasized niche and indie/artisanal houses over big designer ones. In fact, a good number of the brands that I’ve covered are reviewed in the book.
The end of the year is almost upon us, so it seems like a good time for a “Year in Review” post with a list of favorites. I can’t say it has been easy for a variety of reasons. For one thing, I always struggle with lists, both in terms of placement and selecting the thing which will take that last spot. For another, I think I may be a little fickle in terms of my favorites, as perfumery can be as much about mood as other subjective factors.
In the case of fragrances that debuted in 2013, it’s been even harder. Honestly, I wasn’t impressed by the vast majority of the new releases that I tested, and the ones I did enjoy wouldn’t amount to a full ten in number. I’m not going to put something on a list simply and solely to round out the numbers, especially if I was underwhelmed with the scent in question or thought it had some serious problems. Take, for example, Tom Ford‘s Shanghai Lily from the Atelier d’Orient line. It is a scent that I liked the most out of Tom Ford’s various new collections this year, but that is a relative thing, not an absolute thing. Just because I liked it more than the rest of the 2013 Tom Fords doesn’t mean I would classify the scent as one of the best of the year. I certainly wouldn’t include Plum Japonais which I found to be a badly done, distorted copy of my beloved Fille en Aiguilles from Serge Lutens.
Another problem is that I’m not sure I should include one scent that was supposed to be released this year, and which I adored when I got to test it, but whose release was subsequently pushed back until Spring 2014. It is Neela Vermeire‘s Mohur Extrait, the formerly named Mohur Esprit. It would definitely be in my list of top 2013 favorites, and I considered saving it for the Best of 2014. In the end, I’ve cheated by including it here for 2013 with an asterisk next to its name.
In reality, my absolute favorite fragrances came from a wide range of years, but since this is the first year of the blog, everything was technically “new” for the purposes of my reviews. So, I’m going to do two lists or, to be more technically accurate, 2.5 lists: my top fragrances released in 2013, even if the number falls short of ten; then my personal top 10 of the perfumes I covered in 2013, followed by the next 15 for an overall top 25 favorites.
TOP NEW RELEASES OF 2013:
LM Parfums Hard Leather. Lust in the woods. A scent that, despite the “leather” in its name, is really more about dark woods, oud, incense, and sandalwood, than it is about leather. That said, the stunning, lusty leather and animalic musk give Hard Leather the best opening of a fragrance that I’ve tried in years. Pure, utter sex appeal, and lust. Sex in a bottle. An opening that sweeps me off my feet each time I smell it, and a gorgeous drydown as well. The middle stage isn’t particularly my cup of tea, but if one takes the scent as a whole and judges things on the basis of how intensely one wants a full bottle, then Hard Leather has to come in at first place. That said, I definitely wouldn’t recommend it for everyone. For one thing, I think Hard Leather skews very masculine in nature, and even some men may find it excessively dry, dark, or animalic, but I loved it and it is my favorite new fragrance of 2013.
Neela Vermeire Mohur Extrait** I like the regular Mohur eau de parfum, but Mohur Extrait is profoundly stronger, deeper, and richer. It has a va-va-voom oomph that transforms the pale, quiet, restrained, sometimes excessively delicate rose Mohur into Cinderella at the ball. A Cinderella with a diva’s charisma, and wearing the most opulent ball gown and jewels around. Mohur Extrait is a deep, rich, potent blend of roses, with real Mysore sandalwood, iris, and violets. There is a touch of leather, smoky elemi, and pepper to prevent it from being too dainty or femme, and the whole thing sits on an ambered base that is faintly milky but always infused with that beautiful, rich, creamy Mysore sandalwood. Mohur Extrait is simply beautiful, and a head-turner. **I’m cheating, as Mohur Extrait’s release has been pushed back until 2014, but dammit, it debuted at the Milan Esxence show, so I’m going to include it in my list of 2013 releases.
- Viktoria Minya Hedonist. A stunningly golden, happy, but refined, sophisticated, lush, floral oriental, Hedonist sparkles and soothes at the same time. It opens with Bourbon-like, boozy, dark honeycombs that are infused with lush peach, heady jasmine, citrus notes and some orange blossom, all perfectly blended in a soft, golden cloud. It eventually turns into a honey, beeswax and vanilla scent that soothes you in its soft sweetness. Whenever I wear it, I feel calmer, more relaxed, like a cat stretching out in the warmth of the sun. Hedonist has a truly classique feel of haute perfumery, but it never feels dated or old-fashioned, in my opinion. It is elegant and opulent without being excessive, heady but perfectly balanced, and sparkles in a way that reminds me both of champagne and the sunniest of skies in the South of France. Truly beautiful, and a stunning debut from Viktoria Minya.
Oriza L. Legrand Chypre Mousse. Elfish green and the floor of a fairy forest filled with the essence of nature in a delicate but strong bouquet of oakmoss, wet leaves, mushrooms, herbs, a strip of dark leather taken over by nature’s minted greens, and a touch of balsamic resins. It’s really hard to describe in many ways, as this is not a traditional chypre, and may be the most unusual, otherworldly scent I’ve encountered. Chypre Mousse stopped me in my tracks, made me turn around on my way to the mecca of Serge Lutens to buy my bell jar, and became something I had to have after a mere 15 minutes, further tests or development be damned. Chypre Mousse won’t be for everyone, but those who love it will experience an incredibly potent, extremely green fragrance that lasts an enormous amount of time for such a seemingly delicate, ethereal scent.
Amouage Fate Woman. Fate Woman is a beautiful chypre-oriental hybrid that starts off as a very restrained, cool, aloof scent that smells of citruses, oakmoss, and cool daffodils. Like shedding a sculptured black dress to reveal the sensuous lingerie underneath, Fate Woman turns warmer, more opulent, and sensuous with roses, jasmine, animalic notes, and creamy vanilla that is almost gourmand-like at times. The sensual, sophisticated heart turns warmer and more golden as the fragrance ends on labdanum amber, vanilla, and soft musk in a creamy blend that feels like cuddles after a heated night. I’m not a fan of the soapiness that appears at one point, but Fate Woman is a beautiful scent that starts off as controlled restraint before ending in warm abandon.
Neela Vermeire Ashoka. Ashoka is a creamy, milky fig and sandalwood fragrance with incense, peppered woods, iris, and other subtle tonalities. It has an enormously comforting vibe that feels like a mother’s warm embrace. It is not my favorite NVC creation, as it is far from my personal style which is much better suited to Neela Vermeire’s bolder, spicier creations. However, it is very well done, and an elegant fragrance that is definitely one of the top releases of the year as a whole. If any of the other NVC perfumes have felt too intense, too oriental, complicated, or fiery, then Ashoka will be for you.
Lys Epona Lys Epona. Lys Epona is from a new French perfume house by the same name and sponsored by Jovoy Paris. It is a beautiful scent that caught my attention from the moment I sniffed it at Jovoy and, despite its sillage flaws and longevity problems, it is very well-done, extremely evocative, and has a very vintage vibe. It is also original, taking delicate white lilies, and infusing them with dark, animalic leather, and grassy, outdoorsy elements ranging from hay to daffodils, grass, and amber. The scent is supposed to replicate the dance between a courtesan and a Hussar cavalry officer in France’s elite Republican Guard. For me, however, it conjured up a Celtic princess astride a large white stallion, garbed in a softly burnished, slightly musky, brown leather cuirass, and draped with white lilies. Her skirt is made of hay, wheat and grass; her skin is coated in ambered oil; and her long hair braided with daffodils that matched the flowers in her horse’s mane. Truly, very well done, and the vintage, antique bottles from the 1930s are a perfect accompaniment to the scent.
Tauer Perfumes PHI – Une Rose de Kandahar. Andy Tauer’s PHI is a deep, spicy apricot-rose confection with rich vanilla mousse, dark green elements that almost feel mossy, and oriental flourishes ranging from tobacco to cinnamon and ambergris. It’s far from your usual rose scent, and I’d argue that the deep, dark flower isn’t even the main star of the show at times. PHI is a vibrant, sophisticated Oriental-hybrid with the faintest gourmand touches in a rich blend that that even those who don’t particularly like rose fragrances might enjoy.
Parfums Retro Grand Cuir. Contradictions and paradoxes lie at the heart of Grand Cuir, which explores leather from one end of the spectrum to the other under the most civilized and sophisticated of veneers. It starts as raw leather coated with birch tar and pungent herbs before turning into the expensive, new black leather of a biker’s jacket, then burnished, softly aged leather with amber, before ending up as the most refined of creamy Italian suedes infused with amber, lavender, and skin-like musk. It’s a journey that is at once animalic and aldehydic, soapy clean, beginning as a masculine scent that is an aromatic, herbal fougère with leather, before it transforms into something very different. And the whole thing is done sotto voce, with the quiet firmness of a confident man who doesn’t believe he has to be flashy and loud to draw attention to himself. Very well done, and very refined.
MY PERSONAL TOP 10 FOR 2013:
Perfume reviewing is subjective by nature, but whittling down those personal choices into a favorites list is even more so. No-one ever agrees fully on a Top Ten list, whether it’s for movies, television shows, food, or some other category, and perfume is no different. So, I don’t expect any of you to agree with everything or even some of the things on this list, but these are my absolute favorites out of the modern, non-vintage scents available on the market and that I’ve tried this year.
I’ve struggled for hours over the placement and order, because I can be fickle and prefer some scents over others depending on mood. After re-testing a number of these, I think I have the order set, more or less, with the caveat that there may be a standard deviation of +1 or -1 for the fragrances listed. In other words, on one day, a fragrance coming in at #4 may be at #3 or #5 from one day to the next, but not really more than that. Then again, I can be a little fickle, ranking things is an utter nightmare, and who knows if this would be the precise order in two months from now? I did my best for now, however, so this is the list thus far.
- LM Parfums Hard Leather. As noted in my description above, I think this is sexy as hell. I’ll spare you additional heated descriptions, as I quite lose my cool whenever it comes to this fragrance.
Serge Lutens Fille en Aiguilles. At first sniff, Fille en Aiguilles is Christmas in a bottle, from the pine tree before the fire to sugar-plum treats. Look closer, though, and you’ll find Fille en Aiguilles is really all about the frankincense. Spiralling swirls of dark smoke weave its way around the pine, the crushed needles on the forest floor, and the plummy fruits infused with ginger and spices. There is warmth and sweetness, despite the chill in the snowy forest outside. From start to finish, Fille en Aiguilles is my favorite scent from my favorite house. To my amusement, each and every time that I’ve taken perfume samples to share with friends, Fille en Aiguilles is consistently the one that men fall for. The last time I sprayed Fille en Aiguilles on someone, there were precisely 6 women sniffing his neck, his arms, and his chest. I practically had to fight him from grabbing my travel decant there and then for himself. Yet, Fille en Aiguilles is wholly unisex in nature; out of all the people I know who wear it, the vast majority are women.
Puredistance M. A masterpiece from Roja Dove, M has a citric chypre opening reminiscent of Hermès’ vintage Bel Ami that turns to a rich, smooth leather that briefly smells like the most expensive car seats. Soon, the leather is burnished by cognac, becoming soft, rich, and oiled with honeyed roses, jasmine, spices, and beeswax. At times, it feels a little like Serge Lutens‘ Cuir Mauresque (see below at #11), but the leather phase doesn’t dominate the scent. In my opinion, the true essence of M is a molten, oriental labdanum amber. Simply stunning, from start to finish, and one of my favorite fragrances. I believe that M is unisex in nature, thanks to the florals and the honeyed amber drydown with cinnamon-dusted vanilla, but it will depend on one’s yardstick. Those who love pure florals, powdery scents, or gourmands will probably consider M to skew masculine.
Neela Vermeire Trayee. Someone once called Trayee a “force of nature,” in a slightly overwhelmed, stunned tone, and I think that’s quite true. The Bertrand Duchaufour creation is fiery, spicy, smoky, dusty, and woody, dominated by genuine, almost rare Mysore sandalwood in copious amounts that runs through the fragrance from top to bottom like a luscious red-gold vein. There are also two different kinds of Jasmine absolute, cardamom, cinnamon, saffron, ginger, frankincense, oud, amber, and a plethora of other notes, all superbly blended into a bouquet that is dry, dusty, spicy, sweet, and smoky. Trayee is intense, no doubt about it, but in its later development, it loses its dry, dusty, spiced smokiness, softens and turns warm with smooth, creamy sandalwood, and deep, slightly smoky amber. Trayee is a tempestuous, stormy, fiery, rich mix that I find utterly mesmerizing. If the perfume were a woman, she’d probably be the famous, legendary diva, Maria Callas, with a touch of the young Sophia Loren in all her hot-heated, Italian ways and a dash of the fierce Mistral wind. It is definitely a force of nature that evokes India in all its multi-faceted, complicated splendour.
Amouage Tribute attar. Perhaps the smokiest of the smoky greats, Tribute reminds me of Darth Vader’s perfect rose, a rose thoroughly infused with darkness and smoke. It’s utterly spectacular, though the variations in batch numbers is troublesome, leading some versions to be out-of-balance and with such disproportionate smokiness that a handful of people have reported experiencing an almost ashtray-like note. Still, the version I tested was magnificent, and makes Tribute my favorite Amouage scent thus far.
Chanel Coromandel (Les Exclusifs). My favorite, modern Chanel scent is Coromandel, hands down and by a landslide. It’s probably no surprise, as it is made by my favorite perfumer, the brilliant Christopher Sheldrake who normally works with Serge Lutens. Coromandel begins on an intense frankincense note before turning into a milky Chai tea dusted with white chocolate powder and infused with deep, mellow patchouli. It is my favorite sort of patchouli with its nutty, smoky, woody, spicy, ambered warmth, instead of that vile purple, fruited, syrupy, fruit-chouli. The whole mix is perhaps the most refined, addictive, creamy patchouli-incense fragrance I have encountered. If I could take a bath in Coromandel nightly, I would, because I find something endlessly soothing and indulgent about its ambered, golden warmth.
Serge Lutens Fourreau Noir. Nothing in Fourreau Noir should make it a fragrance that I would like, as I normally despise lavender with a fiery passion. I’m actually quite phobic about the note, and the mere mention of the word makes me shudder. But there is magic in Serge Lutens and Christopher Sheldrake’s touch, and the two wizards created the most beautiful scent imaginable. It helps that Fourreau Noir is ultimately not about the lavender at all, in my opinion, but about the incense. From the very first moment, until the fragrance’s end in a cloud of spiced, mellow, patchouli infused with amber and vanilla, the dark tendrils of black smoke weave their way around you. It also helps that the dried lavender transforms into creamy lavender ice-cream with almonds. The real gem in Fourreau Noir, however, is that incense and ambered-patchouli cocoon at the heart of the scent. It says something when a lavender-phobe can love a fragrance with a note they despise; it says more when they go out of their way to purchase an expensive bell jar of it. Which I did….
Téo Cabanel Alahine. A Moroccan souk filled with spices under a turquoise sky. Sumptuous, dark, red roses concentrated to their headiest essence. Golden amber as far as the eye can see with rich, dark, toffee’d caramel, labdanum amber. A powerfully start of incredibly booziness, but a finish that is pure, vintage Bal à Versailles without the skank or dirtiness. Alahine is a fiery, spicy, incredibly complex, oriental monster that may require a bit of Stockholm Syndrome to love. Spray on too much, she’ll blow out your nose, or traumatize you. Don’t give her enough time or tests, and you’ll be misled into thinking she is all booziness, Moroccan spices, and smoke. It seems to require four tests to understand Alahine, and not be overpowered by her intense, smoldering start. It can take time to see that her real nature is the most sophisticated of slinky black dresses, cut low and deep, with a va-va-voom glamour that is opulent, French classicism at its best. Yet, Alahine ends as a really plush, soft, golden, slightly powdered warmth that is as rich as a cashmere, camel overcoat. Don’t let the roses fool you; Alahine is unisex, and I know a number of very masculine men who love its boozy, spiced fieriness deeply.
Dior Mitzah (La Collection Privée). A start of dark incense that belongs in a Chinese temple, followed by an ode to labdanum amber in all its richness. Labdanum is the true form of amber, and Mitzah highlights all of its facets from honeyed, toffee’d, slightly dirty, occasionally leathery, and deeply warm in an incredibly refined blend that is also infused with smoke, roses, and patchouli. It’s a wave of richness that made Mitzah much loved, and I find it utterly baffling that Dior decided to discontinue one of its most popular scents. However, you can still find Mitzah online and at Dior boutiques while supplies last, so if you haven’t tried the scent and you love amber, I urge you to get a sample as soon as you can.
- Oriza L. Legrand Chypre Mousse. (See above. Or, better yet, read the review, as this is one scent that is very hard to describe.)
THE NEXT 15 FOR THE LIST OF THE TOP 25.
Serge Lutens Cuir Mauresque. Cuir Mauresque is a shamefully under-appreciated fragrance, in my opinion. It’s one of my favorite leather scents, and, apparently, Serge Lutens’ own choice of perfume to wear. He and Christopher Sheldrake focus on taming animalic leather by infusing it first with clove-studded oranges and spices, then hefty amounts of heady jasmine absolute and orange blossoms. He uses powder to cut through the animalic skank and civet, keeping it perfectly balanced, while also weaving in dark incense, styrax, cedar and ambered resins. The resulting combination resembles Bal à Versailles at times, and oozes pure sex appeal, in my opinion. Cuir Mauresque is wholly unisex in nature. Some men find the leather too powdery, while some women find the skank to be a little too much. It will depend on your tastes. I’ve started using my parents — aka The Ultimate Perfume Snobs who taught me about perfumery to begin with– as my yardstick for other people’s perception of “skank” and leather. My father who finds Hard Leather to be too animalic and “dirty” has Cuir Mauresque as his second favorite leather scent after Puredistance M. In contrast, my mother (who adores Hard Leather and doesn’t find it to be “dirty” at all) thinks Cuir Mauresque is feminine sex appeal and utterly addictive. Your yardstick may vary, but if you love leather fragrances and some skank, then you really should try Cuir Mauresque.
- Viktoria Minya Hedonist. (See above.)
Profumum Roma Ambra Aurea. Profumum’s ode to goldenness focuses not on amber, but on ambergris in all its deep, rich, salty, musky glory. It’s a very different matter and aroma, as my review tries to make clear. Ambra Aurea is the thickest, most golden, opaque, intense, salty-caramel amber fragrance around, a veritable deluge of one note heightened to its most concentrated essence with 43%-46% perfume oils. It’s a linear, non-stop soliflore that coats your skin for hours on end, emitting a slight smokiness from incense. There are strong undertones of labdanum amber that are, alternatively, nutty, toffee’d, honeyed, faintly dirty, and almost chocolate-y at times. In its final stage, Ambra Aurea smells of amber and incense with beeswax, saltiness, and sweetness. Lovely on its own, and lovely when used as a layering base, Ambra Aurea is the single richest amber on the market. It blows all the others out of the water, in my opinion, especially Serge Lutens‘ Ambre Sultan which also has a labdanum focus but which is like water in comparison.
LM Parfums Sensual Orchid. A seductive floral oriental, Sensual Orchid is centered on the eponymous flower. On my skin, the orchid is a delicate, pastel, floral note that feels as crystal clear, clean, bright and sparkling as a bell rung at the top of the Swiss alps. It smells of lilies, peonies, hyacinth, rose, jasmine, vanilla — all wrapped into one in a cool, clean, crystal liquidity. It is followed by the richest ylang-ylang; custardy vanilla; a hint of smoky woods; bitter, green-white almonds; and boozy cognac fruitedness. The final result is incredibly narcotic, dramatic, opulent, and heady. For me, Sensual Orchid is all about dressing to undress, and to seduce. It is a scent that definitely skews feminine in nature, though I know a number of men to love it as well.
Jardins d’Ecrivains George. Feminine orange blossoms turned masculine in an ode to George Sand. The potent flowers are transformed into something leathered, dark, and faintly dirty with tobacco, resins, and more. From a mentholated beginning with neroli, George slowly takes on paper, coffee, and tobacco notes, followed by heliotrope, myrrh and Peru Balsam in a play of hardness and softness, lightness and dark, masculine and feminine. Leathered orange blossoms is quite an original take on the usually indolic flowers, and I was taken enough by George to buy a full bottle. Some find the scent far too masculine for a woman, which rather defeats the whole point of a fragrance meant to reflect the particular character of George Sand. I think it’s unisex, though you have to like your neroli and orange blossoms with a dark, dirty edge.
Arabian Oud Kalemat. Kalemat is a fantastically affordable, easy, rich oriental centered on a honeyed amber with tobacco, incense, and dry cedar tonalities. It opens with dark berries that smell like blueberry purée, infused with honey and incense, then a rich, deep Damascena rose joins the party. Eventually, Kalemat turns into a non-powdery, more concentrated version of Serge Lutens’ tobacco-y Chergui with touches of Hermes’ Ambre Narguilé, Tom Ford’s Tobacco Vanille, and, for some, Amouage’s Interlude Man. There is a subtle whiff of oud underlying the mix, along with dried cedar. Heady and potent at first, Kalemat becomes a sheer cloud that envelopes you in a golden haze of sweetness, dryness, woodiness and incense. It lasts for hours and hours, smells incredibly expensive, and is highly affordable. If you love ambers, tobacco-incense fragrances, or sweet scent like any of those mentioned above (including Guerlain’s Spiritueuse Double Vanille), then you really should give Kalemat a sniff.
- Amouage Jubilation XXV (Men). I love Jubilation XXV, and always regret that it has very little longevity on my wonky skin. What a beautiful opening! Dark oranges infused with incense, balsamic resins, cedar, patchouli, ambergris and a faint touch of oud in a deep, rich blend that often makes me think of Hermès‘ Elixir de Merveilles, but better. A few hours later, Jubilation XXV takes you to the wintery outdoors, with a large stone campfire amidst a dark, dry Guaiac forest, a brisk, chill in the air and the smell of burning leaves. There is a slightly medicinal, synthetic, pink band-aids undertone to the oud, but the fragrance is really well done as a whole. If Jubilation XXV lasted on my skin beyond a mere 5.5 hours, it would be ranked much higher.
Nasomatto Black Afgano. In essence, Black Afgano is a super-concentrated, richer, deeper version of YSL‘s fabled M7 in its original, vintage form. It’s a smoky plethora of darkness from the dark, quasi/fake “hashish” elements and cherry-cola labdanum amber with all its nutty, toffee’d undertones, to the incense, the oud (supplemented by Norlimbanol), leather tonalities, and resinous sweetness. I didn’t enjoy the synthetic nuances to the oud or the Norlimbanol, but I liked the fragrance as a whole. It seems Black Afgano may have been reformulated to dilute some of its super smokiness and render the fragrance more sweet, as it wasn’t the dark monster of brutish repute that I had expected. If it has changed, then perhaps the reformulation merely makes it more unisex. Those looking for a version of vintage M7 with deeper potency, sillage, and longevity, should definitely check out Black Afgano.
Serge Lutens De Profundis. A hauntingly delicate, evocative floral that captures the essence of flowers in purple twilight and feels like a call to Spring. It opens with its core note, chrysanthemums. that have been blended with violets, green notes, white lilies, and sweet, wet earth. Lurking at the edges are peonies, chamomile flowers, incense, a dash of light roses, a whisper of purple lilacs, and some ISO E Super. The flowers feel incredibly dewy and light, almost tender and soft. It is as though they are just waking up, releasing the airiest of delicate floral scents. De Profundis is, at the start, a cool fragrance that is almost chilly in its delicacy. As time passes, however, the floral aroma becomes stronger, more robust, almost as if the flowers have fully bloomed in the sunlight. The dew has evaporated, the petals unfurled, and the meadow floor comes to life with earthy softness, light smoke, and every bit of green around. De Profundis is a bit too watery for my personal tastes, and I’m generally not one for pure florals, but it’s hard not to be swayed by its pale, ethereal delicacy. It is really a hauntingly elegant scent.
Dior Ambre Nuit (La Collection Privée). If Mitzah was Dior’s ode to labdanum amber, then Ambre Nuit must be its homage to ambergris. On my skin, Ambre Nuit is smoky, liqueured, salty-sweet amber, with dry woods and a quiet touch of delicate roses that have been rendered a little fiery from pepper and a little sweet from patchouli. It is laced with black incense, creating a mix that evokes parts of Chanel’s Coromandel. There is something extremely sensuous about Ambre Nuit which often makes me think of the Argentinian tango. The ambergris’ special, unique features evoke the warmth of heated, slightly musky skin that has been rendered just the faintest bit salty from sweat. The incense conjures up the smoky, dark feel of those dance rooms, while the gaiac and cedar replicate the incredibly smooth, wooden floors that the dancers glide across. The rose never features much on my skin, though it does on others. On me, the patchouli is more prominent with its spicy, sweet, often chocolate-y mellowness. It’s a beautiful combination, and my second favorite scent from Dior’s refined Privée line.
Maison Francis Kurkdjian Absolue Pour Le Soir. Described by some as beastly, by others as “dirty,” Absolue Pour Le Soir is my favorite from MFK, but how you respond to it will depend very much on your personal yardstick for honey, cumin, and animalic notes. For me, Absolue conjures up the heart of a Turkish harem besieged by musky, leather-armoured warriors. They bang on the sandalwood doors which open to release spirals of incense, as honey-swathed concubines approach to tempt with deep roses and indolic ylang-ylang. Absolue Pour Le Soir begins as an instant war between warm human flesh, the mysteries of floral-draped women, sweet honeyed intimacy, animalic leather, and feral, musky masculinity. As if tamed, the fragrance later softens to a creamy, spiced sandalwood infused with honey, dark resins, frankincense, and a dollop of roses. It’s lovely, though I’ve found myself holding it at more of a distance these days, perhaps because of the sharpness of the honey which is a core element of the scent. Still, if you want a truly skanky Oriental with the most golden of ambered hues and endless layers of complexity, you should rush to try Absolue Pour Le Soir.
- Amouage Fate Woman. (See description above.)
Tauer Perfumes’ Une Rose Chyprée. I’m generally not one for rose scents, but Andy Tauer’s Une Rose Chyprée is an exception. It’s a spectacular chypre-oriental hybrid that features an autumnal, ambered rose nestled in the mossiest of green cocoons. The fragrance swirls all around you in a veiled shimmer of greens, garnet red, earthiness, and mossy trees — all rolled into one. This is a green rose whose petals were crushed into the damp, wet soil of the forest floor; a rose that lies nestled amidst fresh, just slightly mineralized, faintly bittersweet mosses; a rose infused with the concentrated essence of a thousand dark green, slightly spicy, peppered leaves, then sprinkled with hints of alternatively tart and zesty citruses. It is a rose that is fruited, but spiced with cinnamon, and wrapped with the tendrils of black incense. Some chypres can be haughty, cold, aloof numbers that keep you at a distance. Une Rose Chyprée is almost a coquettish chypre that beckons you with a sweet smile, despite the emeralds and rubies glowing around her elegant, rosy throat. If it didn’t have an enormous amount of ISO E Super and didn’t give me a ferocious, piercing headache, I would definitely be tempted to buy a full bottle. Nonetheless, it’s an absolutely beautiful scent, and my favorite from Andy Tauer.
- Tauer Perfumes’ PHI – Une Rose de Kandahar. (See description above.)
Puredistance Opardu. I’m not the sort to be deeply moved by pure florals, but Opardu has one of the most beautiful openings in the genre that I’ve encountered in years. It almost gave me whiplash as I smelled the bouquet of lilacs — vast fields of purple with a scent that was concentrated, pure, and incredibly delicate. It was followed by violets, tuberose, jasmine, lush gardenia and heliotrope in a stunning mix. It is pure, unadulterated, classique, haute elegance that calls back to the golden age of perfumery. On my skin, unfortunately, that spectacular start lasts only a brief hour before it fades, and then sheer, vaguely floral powderiness takes over. If there were a way to capture and retain that beginning, Opardu would undoubtedly be in my Top 10. As it is, I think it’s a beautifully feminine fragrance with Puredistance’s signature touch of great refinement, elegance, and luxuriousness.
So, that’s my Year in Review. I may end up having a separate post next week that divides fragrances into categories, from Ambers and Leathers, to Floral Orientals, Pure Florals, Gourmands, and the like. I’m still undecided, as I know it will take forever to compile, and some genres may only have one or two entries in it. Others may have far too many to choose from. In case you hadn’t noticed, I tend to focus on Orientals, and I rarely stick my toe into such fields as foodie gourmands, crisp colognes, or aldehydic fragrances. Plus, many Orientals are either hybrids or have two or more dominant elements that can make the scent fall into different categories. As a result, I’m not sure how useful or precise such a list will be, but we shall see.
As the year draws to a close, I want to wish you all Happy Holidays. I hope that the upcoming year brings you endless joy, peace, prosperity, good health, success, love and laughter. Thank you for staying on this journey with me, and here’s to a great 2014!
A while ago, I asked Neela Vermeire of Neela Vermeire Créations (“NVC”) if she would be kind enough to do an interview. She graciously agreed, and I sent along some questions. “Some” is an understatement — not being one for brevity, I’m afraid I inundated her with rather a lengthy list. Ms. Vermeire never blinked, and never once said that her incredibly busy schedule couldn’t accommodate such a barrage. Instead, she spent a portion of her holidays answering them. (And she never told me to fly a kite when I came back with follow-ups, twice!) I’m incredibly grateful for her graciousness, her time, her enormous patience, and her always sunny disposition.
My goal with the questions was for us to learn as much about Neela Vermeire the person and perfume lover, as about the one who creates beautiful perfumes. Many of you know the brief outlines of Ms. Vermeire’s story. She was born in India, living life in the lushness of Calcutta (now Kolkata), before travelling around the world. She studied in America, completing a Master’s Degree in social sciences, then eventually moved to England where she studied law and became a solicitor. She spent a little time in Aberdeen, Scotland, practiced in London, and, for a brief period, moved to Paris where she remained for two years. She went back across the pond to England, then, six years after she left Paris, Ms. Vermeire and her Belgian husband moved back for good, this time for her husband’s work.
Ms. Vermeire was always passionate about perfumery and, in an almost organic process, she decided to express her love concretely by starting her own line. So, she approached Bertrand Duchaufour — one of the most famous perfume noses in the world, who has worked with everyone from Dior, to Acqua di Parma, L’Artisan Parfumeur, Comme des Garcons, Givenchy, Penhaligon, and many others. The result was Neela Vermeire Créations, three highly acclaimed fragrances, an award nomination, inclusion at the top of many perfume sites’ annual “Best of” lists, and a passionate following of admirers. And now, a fourth creation whose release is just a week away: Ashoka, Imperial Buddhist, a scent intended to capture the essence and life of India’s most famous Emperor, the man whose very symbol (a chakra) is now placed right in the center of India’s flag.
I asked Ms. Vermeire about Ashoka, its creation, and the feelings that she sought to capture. But what about the woman herself? As I said earlier, I wanted you to know the complex, intellectual, extremely diverse, fascinating woman behind the fragrances, as much as the perfumista who created them. Ms. Vermeire kindly shared everything from some of her favorite perfumes that she used to wear, to her favorite television shows, her culinary weaknesses, and even her favorite type of chocolates. I hope you enjoy the answers as much as I did.
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What are some of your favorite notes in perfumes? Notes that make you sit up with excitement when you see them on a perfume list?
There are too many to list but here are some: iris, jasmine sambac, tuberose, rose, lavender, vetiver, galbanum, sandalwood and most precious woods, styrax, resins…
Are there any perfume notes that you struggle with or that you don’t like at all?
Certain fruits, heavy patchouli, overtly sweet “gourmand” notes.
Which fruit notes don’t you like? Peach? Grape? Grapefruit? Blackcurrant?
I have difficulty with fruity notes in general – difficult to point to and blame certain fruits. It really depends on how a perfumer works with some of the fruity notes.
What was your earliest perfume memory?
It comes of course from my childhood years in India –smell of sandalwood paste, incense, tea, spices, flowers…
Before you started your own perfume line, what were some of your favorite perfumes?
There are too many to list as I collected many fragrances over the years. What I reached out for the most were:
Chanel Bois des Iles Extrait; Chanel No. 22 Extrait; Guerlain Jicky, Vega, and Sous Le Vent; Frederic Malle Iris Poudre and Une Fleur de Cassie; Serge Lutens Iris Silver Mist and Bois de Violette. I used to wear the Le Labo Tubereuse 40 NY exclusive, Iris 39 and Labdanum 18.
Also, I love and collect vintage perfumes. My main haul this year include an unopened Shalimar extrait in the box from the 1940s with the original wrapping paper, vintage Femme, and vintage Madame Rochas over summer from an antique fair, among a few…. [All font emphasis to the names added by me.]
Did you ever have a signature fragrance?
I don’t have a signature fragrance; I have always been too interested in experimenting or trying new scents. That said, I do wear NVC Mohur frequently, and a future creation which is still work in progress. [Font emphasis added by me.]
When you started your own perfume house, you obviously had a clear overall vision and inspiration for the perfumes that subsequently became Trayee, Mohur and Bombay Bling. What happens after you have that initial idea for a scent? Can you share a little about the steps in the creative process, and the methods by which you and Bertrand Duchaufour rendered your initial idea into something concrete? For example, would both of you test out different formulas each week?
Once I have clear vision – it is expressed to the perfumer. Sometimes we can start with a part of the entire vision and then build the foundation of the fragrance – we usually work on a couple of options in line with the original idea.
For Ashoka, the challenge was rather different compared to the first trio (which express vast periods of history) and not a legendary personality who helped spread a magnificent religion Buddhism. [Font emphasis to the name added by me.]
Can you expand a little on the process of building the perfume’s foundation and working with different options in line with the original vision?
It is one of the ways for me to develop and flesh out ideas – when you express an idea – you may not get (as a mod) what you think it is going to be. [Me: “Mod” is industry-speak for “version.”] The guiding factor is in imagination of the notes and the balance of the work-in-progress creation.
A perfume can take shape from those early stages to something very different from what was presented at say stage one. It is truly a matter of being on the same page for all parties involved in the creation.
Things take time in general – it is either a matter of being quick/hurried and accepting mods which may not be fully formed or the tougher route when one decides to carry on with the development and make sure that one reaches a satisfactory stage where the “eureka moment” actually happens!
Why did Emperor Ashoka appeal to you in the first place as a source of perfume inspiration, as opposed to some other Indian figure representing peace? Has he always interested you?
Personally as an Indian, Ashoka has always held a very special place since my childhood. One cannot ignore his importance if you grow up in India. In a nutshell – he was a true humanist (after his self-realization) and possibly one of the greatest emperors ever. He believed in secularism and was way ahead of his times.
Our new bottle, designed by Pierre Dinand, has 24 ridges just like Ashoka’s chakra. The logo [adaptation of the chakra] is also embossed on the metal cap. [So, the perfume] is about the meaning of this important symbol.
H.G. Wells summed up what you need to know about Ashoka in his book A Short History of the World. (1922):
“Asoka was at first disposed to follow the example of his father and grandfather and complete the conquest of the Indian peninsula. He […] was successful in his military operations and —alone among conquerors— was so disgusted by the cruelty and horror of war that he renounced it. He would have no more of it. He adopted the peaceful doctrines of Buddhism and declared that henceforth his conquests should be the conquests of religion.
His reign for eight-and-twenty years was one of the brightest interludes in the troubled history of mankind. He organized a great digging of wells in India and the planting of trees for shade. He founded hospitals and public gardens and gardens for the growing of medicinal herbs. He created a ministry for the care of the aborigines and subject races of India. He made provision for the education of women. […]
Such was Asoka, greatest of kings. He was far in advance of his age. He left no prince and no organization of men to carry on his work, and within a century of his death the great days of his reign had become a glorious memory in a shattered and decaying India. […] But beyond the confines of India and the realms of caste Buddhism spread—until it had won China and Siam and Burma and Japan, countries in which it is predominant to this day…”
What made you both decide on certain notes, like fig, being a perfect way to reflect a stage in Emperor Ashoka’s life?
The main idea was to ensure that the fragrance has a contrasting start from a strong top note to a gentle drydown. We included some floral notes, fig leaves and fig milk, styrax, and sandalwood as some of the important notes to bring about this contrast.
Buddha achieved his enlightenment while meditating under a Bodhi tree/Sacred Fig (Ficus religiosa) and the fact that Ashoka converted to Buddhism to gain his own enlightenment.
For each of the perfumes, including the upcoming Ashoka, when did you finally know that a particular version or formula was “the” final, perfect one? Was there one of the perfumes that was a little harder to finalize and perfect (according to that mental vision) than the others?
I could go on perfecting a perfume forever and I do not care to rush towards any deadline. In the case of the trio, Trayee was the toughest to declare “final” as well as Mohur. Bombay Bling appeared to be relatively less complex to finalize in comparison to the other two.
Ashoka was incredibly tough and took many iterations. [All font emphasis to the names added by me.]
Speaking of Ashoka, there is already a tidal wave of anticipation and excitement. I read your interview with Fragrantica back in April about the two versions of the perfume that you showed at Milan: versions 108, 110 and their differences. To quote the relevant part of the Fragrantica reviewer’s perceptions: “108 is more masculine, green and harsh, with a fierce start recalling the period of the youth of Ashoka—a fearless hunter, cruel warrior and a great conqueror. 110 is more lactonic and sleek; it shows Ashoka after his enlightment [sic], as a kind and compassionate person…” Given his description and your own words about having different versions in Milan, it sounds like you went through numerous different interpretations for the scent. Did you finally settle on #108? And, if so, what made one formula seem like a better, truer, more representative fit for Ashoka than the other?
The numbers got juxtaposed somehow and did not get amended! It is 110 we settled for as it “is more masculine, green and strong, with a fierce start recalling the period of the youth of Ashoka—a fearless hunter, cruel warrior and a great conqueror.”
110 was the overall character of the perfume that we had in mind for Ashoka.
108 was relatively gentle in the opening.
One of the many, many things that I think will make Ashoka such a hit is that it hits that sweet spot in your line-up for a comfort fragrance. Each of your other ones represent a certain type of fragrance: Trayee is the seductive temptress with flair; Mohur is quiet, refined elegance; and Bombay Bling is fun, jubilant, exuberance. For me, Ashoka represents soothing comfort, a sort of serenity mixed with a mother’s protective embrace. Obviously, that’s my subjective interpretation of it, but I’m curious if you thought about the types of perfumes that you had already, and if you sought to create a type of refined, sophisticated comfort fragrance for your line-up?
Thank you for your faith in our fourth creation! To answer your question, for us – it is about the general mood of a fragrance.
Trayee is spiritual, contemplative and refined.
Mohur is elegant and glamorous as the same time.
Bombay Bling is sheer sophisticated fun.
Ashoka is intended to be that sophisticated comfort fragrance that you describe, both powerful and gentle.
All are created for men and women. We wanted everyone to be able to select a fragrance wardrobe from the collection. [All font emphasis to the names added by me.]
If you had to choose a painting, picture, photo or place that you think sums up the overall feel of Ashoka, perhaps as an emotional experience, what would it be?
It is very much a collage of various images – it is very tough to link it to one single image. The only image I can think of right now is the Ashoka’s chakra.
Emotionally it is a fragrance that works from a powerful top note to a very warm and comforting heart and base notes.
I’m always in awe of the quality of your ingredients but, especially, of that stunning sandalwood in your original trio. Without getting into trade secrets, can you tell us anything about the sandalwood or perhaps the Laotian Oudh that you use?
I have faith in a specialist perfumer like Bertrand Duchaufour’s choice of materials – naturals and aroma chemicals he uses in the compositions and we know that in the case of the NVC perfumes we did not cut any corners for the sake of economics.
We have used some precious woods like Mysore sandalwood oil and Laotian Oudh. We hope to continue on this path.
To what extent has your creative process or the perfume’s development been impacted by sourcing issues for ingredients? For example, that beautiful sandalwood is neither cheap nor in great abundance.
As mentioned above, I leave this to the perfumer and the essence company. The perfumers are specialists and know their materials well. It is their tool. Using some of the rare and precious raw materials can make a formula exorbitantly expensive.
When you work with experts/professionals in the fragrance world and I will underline experts – who know how to create a formula and know that if the ingredients are excellent – the end result will usually be very good.
There is a level of complexity to get an idea or message across through the perfume – even though the message is used mainly as an intellectual prop.
The perfume should make one “feel”/emote…
You make very French perfumes, even if they have an Indian inspiration. I think there is a very definite style to French perfumery as a whole or, at least, there was. Do you think that may be in danger in the years ahead due to things like IFRA or EU restrictions? Do you see any changes ahead for French perfumery?
Yes, but as long as one can conform to the new rules – it will hopefully be ok.
Perfume and your company obviously take up a vast amount of your time. What do you do to relax? Or, to put it another way, what are some of your non-perfume-related passions? Do you have any guilty pleasures — whether in television, books, food or something else — that you would confess to? 🙂
Music – all forms – I do enjoy going to classical concerts and productions of baroque opera.
Theatre when we visit London or NYC. We enjoy some French Theatre.
Art – everything from street art (like Space Invader), to Chagall.
Food – see below.
I adore the Cinema but rarely find the time to go.
I am also a fan of intelligent TV series – enjoy some excellent HBO productions, BBC and Nordic productions.
I know you love the TV show, Borgen, but what else? Which HBO or BBC series?
Borgen, Wallander, The Killing, The Bridge. On the BBC, there are too many to list, as I grew up with the BBC – crime, justice, comedy. But I am a Downton Abbey fan. I’m also a HUGE Poirot fan.
From HBO or American television, there are also too many, but some include The Wire, Boardwalk Empire (fabulous), The Sopranos…. I also watch other shows like: Engrenages (French), The Shield, and The Good Wife.
I’ve enjoyed Mad Men very much. It’s very stylish, and I love John Slattery’s part, as well as many other characters. Homeland is also great, and I liked the original Israeli version, Prisoners of War. Another show I like is the new Netflix series, House of Cards, mainly for Kevin Spacey. I’ve been a fan of his since early in his career with The Usual Suspects.
I do not dare to mention feature films, as I am film buff and have an endless list that may bore everyone.
Since you live in Paris with all that glorious food, and since I’m a foodie myself, I have to ask as my last question: what are some of your favorite dishes, cheeses, patisseries, breads, or other aspects of French culinary life? Please let us live vicariously through you!
Even though I live in Paris, I remain a huge fan of all types of Asian cuisine (which I still like the best). Second for me comes Italian cuisine. I also enjoy savoury Persian and Lebanese cuisine. In fact, I am known to impose Asian or Middle Eastern cuisine on my friends.
There is nothing like good organic bread and we have some excellent artisanal boulangeries near us.
Sadly, we have not found a truly great Indian restaurant in Paris, the UK and the US just seem better for that.
In India, the cuisine is varied – I love most regional cooking. My favourite type of cuisine is Dum Pukht. If you are in New Delhi, you must try the restaurants Dum Pukht and Bukhara for an excellent culinary experience.
I also enjoy creative meals from any of the great French chefs and from chefs from all over the world. There, I go more for quality than quantity.
However, if I have to go for general French cuisine, I enjoy good fish restaurants. I enjoy platters of my favourite French oysters — speciales Gillardeau with some vintage champagne — followed by a deliciously cooked sole (grilled or fried), or grilled sea bass with olive oil or cooked in salt crust.
I also enjoy wine tasting wherever we go. And we enjoy looking for good champagne houses that are rather niche in production. My favourite champagne maison is Jacquesson. I also enjoy dunking rose biscuits from Reims in champagne.
I’m not fond of heavy patisseries, but I enjoy some good dark chocolate from time to time. My favourite chocolatiers include Pierre Marcolini (Belgian), Patrick Roger, Debauve et Gallais (French)…
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Oh my God, I don’t know about you, but I salivated like a dog reading her food answers! Wouldn’t you love to go eating and drinking across Europe with Ms. Vermeire?! Coincidentally, I went to the famous Bukhara in New Delhi years ago, and can attest that it is as good as Ms. Vermeire says it is. (Actually, it was completely mind-blowing. And I gained 6 pounds to prove it!) Ms. Vermeire clearly knows her food. And her oysters, too! The New York Times calls Gillardeau “the most famous name in oysters.” If you’re curious about Jacquesson, the champagne house has a fascinating history that goes back to 1798 and not only pre-dates Krug, but arguably gave rise to the latter.
Lastly, if you’re a masochist who loves to torture yourself with food porn from afar (as I do), then you really should check out the handsome Pierre Marcolini, his lovely website with its various chocolate collections, and his e-Boutique that offers everything from macarons to your own choice of chocolate selections. (No U.S. deliveries, alas.) A much less visually appealing website is that of Debauve & Gallais, and it offers chocolate deliveries on a more global basis, including FedEx shipments to the U.S. The company was founded in 1800, and became the official chocolatiers to Emperor Napoleon, as well as to several kings who followed him.
As for the perfumes, I think we would all agree with Ms. Vermeire that the fragrance should make us feel. And the very best ones always do. I have felt the soothing comfort of Ashoka, and I think many of you will love the Emperor’s embrace. I’m still madly in love with the upcoming Mohur Extrait above all else (yes, even more than Trayee!), but I think Ashoka has a refined gentleness that makes it very appealing and perhaps the most versatile of all the NVC creations. I can’t wait for you all to try it!
I would like to repeat my grateful thanks to Ms. Vermeire for taking big chunk of time out of her extremely busy schedule to answer my questions. She is working on a new fragrance, is constantly on the move, and is also preparing for the new launch of Ashoka that is mere days away. The fragrance will be officially released at the Pitti Immagine Fragranze Faire in Florence on September 13th! In light of all that, her graciousness, and patience mean even more. I shall see if I can one day repay her with dark chocolates or, perhaps, with some grilled sea bass.…
[AVAILABILITY UPDATE: Ashoka will be available for sale starting on September 23, 2013. In the U.S., it will be sold at Luckyscent and Min New York. I asked Ms. Vermeire about Ashoka samples and the Discovery Sets. This is her reply:
Here is what we are planning till we have Ashoka in the sets.
Try your India sample sets (3×2 ml) and Discovery sets with Ashoka EDP from late autumn from the site.
We will include a free glass vial sample of Ashoka with every purchase of the NVC Discovery set 10 ml x 3 of the first trio.
Please stay tuned for news on e-boutique.
The full flacons of Ashoka will be available at 190 Euros plus shipping.
So, starting on September 23rd, if you order the Discovery Set, you will get a glass vial of Ashoka. Ms. Vermeire says that samples of Ashoka won’t be available to go with the smaller “Try your India” sample set until much later in the Fall. So you can only get a sample if you order the NVC Discovery Set. As for a possible 10 ml bottle of Ashoka, at some point much later in the Fall, Ashoka will be added to the Discovery Set, but it is not offered being right now. (When it is, the Discover Set’s prices will presumably change for 4 x 10 ml, instead of 3 x 10 ml, but that is just my guess).]