As always, my Reviews En Bref are for perfumes that — for whatever reason — didn’t seem to warrant one of my more lengthy, exhaustive, detailed reviews.
One of the most beautiful children’s books is The Secret Garden (1910/1911) by Frances Hodgson Burnett. As a rather lonely, very isolated child whose main companions were books and animals, The Secret Garden gave me hours of comfort, joy and peace. In fact, I kept my copy of it throughout the years and am staring at it as we speak. So, as you might imagine, I was extremely excited to try its concrete, olfactory manifestation: Secret Garden by the highly respected, acclaimed perfumer, Mandy Aftel of Aftelier Perfumes.
Ms. Aftel is a perfumer who specializes in natural fragrances, seeking out only the finest in pure essences and oils. She hand-blends and bottles all the perfumes herself in small batches in her Berkeley studio. As she explains on her website:
My perfumes and products contain only the purest, most sublime botanical essences from around the world. I work with awe and passion for the alchemy that transforms these rare, gorgeous individual natural essences into a beautiful perfume. Indulge yourself in authentic luxury.
In 2011, Ms. Aftel released Secret Garden, a floral oriental fragrance that comes in Pure Parfum and Eau de Parfum concentrations. This review is only for the latter. According to the Aftelier website, the perfume’s notes include:
Top: bergamot, bois de rose, Geraniol, blood orange.
Heart: jasmine sambac, raspberry (compounded isolate), Turkish rose.
Base: civet, castoreum, vanilla, deertongue (plant), benzoin, aged patchouli.
A few words about the notes. First, I’ve read on a number of sites, including Fragrantica, that the perfume also includes Blue Lotus, which has a sweetly aquatic, watery, floral aroma. I don’t know if it is still included, since it is not listed on the Aftelier website. Second, “deertongue” is a plant and has nothing to do with any animal. There are no animal cruelty issues to be concerned about here! The plant is sometimes called the “Vanilla Plant,” and its scent is described by Ms. Aftel as a combination of “the sweet and powdery notes of tonka beans with the aromas of the countryside.” Third, Ms. Aftel clarified in a comment on Now Smell This that Bois de Rose is another name for rosewood. Lastly, as Fragrantica explains, Secret Garden “includes two historical animal essences: very old civet bought from a retired perfumer and castoreum tinctured from the beaver.” Since the civet was extremely old stock, there should be no concerns of animals being harmed to create Secret Garden, but those who seek completely vegan perfumes may want to ponder the civet issue.
Ms. Aftel describes the perfume as follows:
Like fitting a key in a lock, when you inhale Secret Garden, you enter a redolent and sensual wild garden, where the scent awakens a vitalizing force in the wearer.
Secret Garden opens into roses and wood, brightened with mixed citrus. The jasmine sambac heart of the perfume, with its spicy indolic kick, paired with the jammy raspberry, lends the illusion of spice where there is none — like the lure of a blind pathway in a garden. This intertwines with voluptuous Turkish rose absolute.
Secret Garden opens on my skin with animalic notes from the very start. There are subtle touches of geranium alongside a very heavy, rich, red rose, atop a foundation of raspberry with just the subtlest hint of citrus. But these are all extremely muted; the primary, overwhelming impression is of castoreum and civet, creating a dense musk tonality with strongly leathered, almost tarry, undertones. The castoreum is potent and, for once, the term “animalic” applies quite literally.
There are also hints of vanillic powder that lurk in the background and that become stronger with every passing moment. As it increases in prominence, less than five minutes into the perfume’s development, it softens the potent, opaque, heavy richness of the animalic tones, rendering them lighter and softer. The powder accord strongly brings to mind those extremely old-fashioned, big, powder poofs that women in the late 19th century would use to dust their décolletage to erase any suggestion of a moist sheen. Here, the note is that exact same old-fashioned, vanilla-centered, makeup powder accord. It’s light and daintily sweet, but, as time passes, it becomes one of the primary, dominant notes on my skin, overshadowing much else except the castoreum.
Ten minutes in, the perfume shifts a tiny bit. The geranium recedes to the background, to be replaced by muted hints of rose and jasmine. They are not strong. In fact, the flowers are never wholly distinct on my skin at all, and are completely dominated by the other notes. By the twenty-minute mark, the floral bouquet feels almost amorphous and abstract, just an overall suggestion in the midst of what is predominantly fruity musk, raspberry and vanilla powder. Very soon thereafter, and for the remainder of the perfume’s development on my skin, Secret Garden is merely powdery, raspberry musk. That’s it.
I tried Secret Garden twice, and it was the exact same development on both occasions. Before the start of the second test, I wondered if perhaps my skin was too dry to bring out the lush, blooming garden that I had so anticipated, so I put on some unscented lotion, waited thirty minutes, and then re-tested the perfume. I applied a greater quantity; I even applied a smear to my inner thigh as well, in case something about my arms was wonky and was throwing off the scent. But, alas, nothing worked. Just like the first time, there were minimal florals at the start, followed by almost none after the first 20 minutes. Instead, the perfume was mainly raspberry castoreum musk and old-fashioned, scented makeup powder, lying close to the skin. And Secret Garden remained that way for approximately 5.5 hours and 6.5 hours, respectively, until the last traces finally faded away. (For an all-natural perfume with no synthetics, the longevity on my voracious, perfume-consuming skin was quite impressive.)
Given my personal style and tastes, the way Secret Garden manifested itself on my skin wasn’t my cup of tea. Something about my skin chemistry completely refused to bring out the lush garden that I kept reading about in all the reviews. Whether one reads the assessments on Now Smell This, The Non-Blonde, The Perfume Shrine, Perfume-Smellin’ Things, Olfactoria’s Travels, or Smelly Thoughts, they are all glowing; and the vast majority talk about the rich, spicy, powerful floral heart that prevents the perfume from being too jammy or too much of a fruit cocktail. Reading Freddie’s experiences in his Smelly Thoughts review, in particular, I felt as though I was crazy and smelling a different fragrance entirely. Naturally, the tricky issue of skin chemistry will often mean that a perfume manifests itself differently. But those are usually small differences in degree, here or there, not a totally polar opposite experience.
I would have felt like a complete anomaly in the vast ocean of positive raves about the lush, floral garden if I hadn’t come across a few isolated voices whose comments reflected — just in small part — my own experience. For example, on Surrender to Chance, one person wrote: “Sadly, on me it smelled unexciting — like Juicy Fruit gum, with a little nutmeg thrown in. Next.” If we’re going by this analogy, I would compare it more to a powdery sweet, raspberry bubble gum, but I can understand the impression. On Fragrantica, one of the two (both positive) comments says “Warning: it can smell ‘grandmother-y’ to certain people used to very conventional perfumes.” I like both conventional and extremely unconventional scents, and I’m hardly a perfume dilettante, but, yes, I think Secret Garden’s manifestation on my skin was “grandmother-ly.” Without any doubt at all. It’s the overwhelming powder. It’s not bad, and it’s almost sweetly pretty, but that extremely old-fashioned, simple character is not to everyone’s taste.
Again, the minor criticisms or caveats are few and far between. Judging by the blogosphere, 99% of people seem to have had a completely different experience than I did. All perfume experiences are subjective; I repeat that again and again in my reviews. My personal experience with Secret Garden may very well be a complete anomaly. But given the overwhelming nature of those many (many) positive reviews, I thought it was important to share a dissenting opinion, especially as we’re talking about a perfume whose cost can reach $170 for a small bottle. I very much hope that Secret Garden manifests itself on your skin as a lush, blooming floral garden with a secret heart of animalic gold, a perfume that incorporates India’s heady, opulent, orientalist flowers with the best of the English countryside. But, if it doesn’t, you’re not crazy and not completely alone.