The Sniff Box – Perfume In Plain English

Tagged With ‘Black’

Bulgari

Black

One of the problems with perfume is that there are far too many to choose from. Every year brings more new launches than the year before, and every year the choice becomes more bewildering.

Yet look (or rather smell) more carefully and it soon becomes clear that the vast majority of scents smell boringly similar to each other. Perfume companies on the whole like to play it safe, since it costs a lot of money to launch a new one and failure can be very costly.

So you can bet your bottom dollar that the minute a new fragrance starts to sell really well, a hundred imitations will start appearing on the shelves. Of course it could all be coincidence, or something in the air, but it’s amazing how many perfumes smell virtually identical, even when their branding and their marketing is poles apart. (Want to do a little experiment? OK, follow my friend Roja Dove’s suggestion and try comparing Angel Men with Bleu de Chanel…)

Yet once in a while a really new fragrance does come along, something that stands out from the crowd. Some of them go on to become best-sellers; others don’t. Some of them are crowd-pleasers. Others are wonderful but weird. And few are weirder or more wonderful than Bulgari Black.

Launched in 1998, this was Bulgari’s first perfume for men. It was created by a very talented perfumer called Annick Menardo, who works for the multinational fragrance company, IFF. Now, I’m not a great believer in that tired old cliché that scents can transport you instantly back to a specific moment in your childhood or the like, but the first time I smelled Bulgari Black that’s exactly what happened to me.

I wasn’t transported back to my mother’s knee, though, or to the smell of laundry on a winter’s day. Bulgari Black took me somewhere far more interesting: to the toxic but weirdly sexy 1970s smell that greeted you when you opened the door of a car that had been sitting for too long in the summer sun – of hot PVC, of black plastic car seats that stuck to your legs when you got in.

I think it’s an amazing perfume: the olfactory equivalent of a Helmut Newton photo-shoot, simultaneously erotic and slightly repellent, though I’m still not sure I could actually wear it. But for anyone who loves fast cars and the smell of burning tyres then maybe this is the perfume for you.

Lalique

Encre Noire

Encre Noire 2Calling a perfume ‘black ink’ has intriguing connotations. ‘Black’ or ‘Noir(e)’ has been the perfume industry’s shorthand for ‘edgy’ ever since the 1998 launch of the striking but hard-to-wear Bulgari Black. Among the many followers in its wake we’ve had Ambre Noir, 1881 Black, Armani Privé Cuir Noir, Bois Noir, Coco Noir, Cologne Noir, Dahlia Noir, Datura Noir, Eau Noir, Fourreau Noir, even (I kid you not) Hello Kitty Noir.

So Encre Noire (which was launched in 2006) follows a bit of a bandwagon, though at least its name is better than most. It’s a nostalgic name, since hardly anyone uses ink (black or otherwise) these days, yet it’s evocative too – I can kind of imagine the smell of black ink, even though I must have been a teenager the last time I opened an actual bottle of the stuff.

Whatever you think about the name, Encre Noire is a fine addition to the many men’s perfumes to be based on the smell of vetiver, the vigorous tropical grass whose roots have a wonderful dry, earthy, slightly musky scent. My all-time favourite is Guerlain’s simply-named Vétiver, which starts with a burst of lemony freshness, but Encre Noire foresakes such tricks and sticks resolutely with vetiver all the way through.

I say ‘all the way through’, but of course it’s actually a bit more complicated than that, thanks to Nathalie Lorson, senior perfumer at the giant Swiss fragrance company Firmenich. When she created Encre Noire she cleverly smoothed off some of vetiver’s rough edges, adding tiny amounts of cypress extract (which has a dry, woody, slightly resinous smell), as well as synthetic musk and so-called ‘cashmere wood’. This is actually 2,3,5,6,7-hexahydro-1,2,3,3-pentamethyl-4h-inden-4-one, a chemical sold under the brand name of Cashmeran, which is widely used in perfumery (and household products) and has a soft, gently woody smell.

The final result an appealing and long-lasting perfume, though some people are always going to find vetiver too dry and bitter-smelling for their taste. As for the bottle, a black glass cube with a square wood-effect cap, I like its inkwell look, but its glossy surfaces all too quickly get smeared with fingerprints, and the lettering is so spare – just a bare ENCRE NOIRE in thin white sans-serif capitals – that (to me at least) it ends up looking a bit cheap and half-considered, though I’m sure it was anything but.

Minor gripes aside, this is a fine perfume, and even if, in the end, I think it’s unlikely to supplant Guerlain’s Vétiver in my affections, I think its popularity is well deserved.

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