The Sniff Box – Perfume In Plain English

Acqua di Parma

Colonia | Colonia Assoluta

Acqua di ColoniaBefore I start, I have to admit that the Acqua di Parma colognes have never really floated my boat, but very kindly the company have sent me some samples to try, and as it’s one of the most popular men’s fragrances I wanted to explore why that might be.

There are lots of things to like about Acqua di Parma Colonia. Its packaging, for starters, is wonderfully elegant: a golden-yellow, linen-textured cardboard tube, which splits exactly in half to reveal the bottle tightly nestled inside.

The bottle itself is a beautifully judged design, in plain glass with gently flared shoulders and a chunky black cap to match. And the typography is lovely: effortlessly stylish, with something of the 1920s about it. The whole package is an object lesson in how to make a product that says ‘classic’ and ‘quality’.

So what about the scent inside? Again, it’s classic and simple – perhaps a little too simple for me. The original Colonia was launched in 1916, and I’m presuming it was always a fresh, citrussy eau-de-cologne, though like pretty much every long-lived fragrance on the market it will almost certainly have been reformulated over the years.

That’s not always a bad thing, and today’s version may well smell more sophisticated than the original; Agua de Colonia by the Spanish brand Alvarez Gomez, for example, may conceivably have been less tinkered with, but by comparison it smells quite crude and harsh.

Not that Colonia has a particularly complex character: it’s intensely lemony when first you spray it on, but as the sharpness of the lemon fades into the background you get the clean, herbal smells of rosemary and lavender. So far so classic eau-de-cologne, but what makes Colonia different is the fact that it’s also blended with rose, which adds an unobtrusively feminine touch – a bit like the artificial jasmine scent at the centre of Eau Sauvage, though not nearly as striking in its effect.

The rose (I think) also makes Colonia smell rather talcum-powderish, which is pleasant enough but comes across as somehow rather old-ladyish – I guess because we associate powdery perfumes with an older generation. It certainly smells clean and fresh, in a soapy kind of way, and perhaps that explains its popularity among men for whom smelling clean and fresh is the main (and often only) purpose of perfume.

Personally I want to smell a bit more interesting than fresh laundry, and my other problem with Colonia is that it doesn’t last: within an hour or two I can hardly smell it on my skin. Again, that may be part of its appeal for men who are a bit nervous about wearing scent of any kind, so horses for courses, I suppose.

After its glory days in the 1920s, the Acqua di Parma company limped along until 1993, when it was bought by three rich Italian businessmen whose money came from Ferrari cars, Tod’s shoes and La Perla underwear. They launched scented candles and the like, but it wasn’t until after the luxury conglomerate LVMH took a stake in 2001 that the Colonia range was extended.

First came Colonia Assoluta in 2003, followed by Intensa in 2007, Essenza in 2010 and Intensa Oud in 2012. I have all of these versions apart from Intensa Oud, and I have to admit that, though I thought I had a fairly sensitive sense of smell, the differences between them are so subtle that I find them almost impossible to tell apart.

Colonia Assoluta was formulated by two of the best-known perfumers around today: Jean-Claude Ellena (creator of Vétiver Tonka, among others) and Bertrand Duchaufour (creator of many unusual fragrances, especially for L’Artisan Parfumeur), which is a bit like getting Debussy and Ravel to compose a duet. The results should be extraordinary, but these two great talents seem to have cancelled each other out: Colonia Assoluta is discreet to the point of invisibility, like a plain grey Hermès jumper.

What Duchaufour and Ellena seem to have done is shuffled a few of the ingredients of the original Colonia about a bit – changing the lavender for jasmine, for example – but it’s all so carefully balanced that the overall effect is almost identical, though you can smell a faint difference after an hour or two. Their work is certainly very subtle and clever, like Gus Van Sant’s frame-by-frame remake of Psycho, but you could argue that it’s equally pointless.  

The same conjuring trick, if it’s fair to call it a trick, seems to have been achieved with the Essenza and Intensa versions: in each of them the ingredients are slightly different, but their smell is even less varied than their packaging (Essenza comes in a black tube, but is otherwise, ahem, a carbon copy).

Brilliant or bonkers? Delicious discreet or disappointingly dull? I’ll have to let you compare them for yourself. Maybe my nose isn’t as super-sensitive as it should be, but I’d be interested to hear what other people think. All the same, thank you to Acqua di Parma for letting me give them a try: they certainly look very handsome on my perfume shelf.

 

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