The Sniff Box – Perfume In Plain English

Tagged With ‘cistus’

Heeley

Phoenicia

rsz_heeley2Though there’s some dispute about its exact origins, the word ‘perfume’ most likely derives from ‘fumes from a substance being burned’, so you could say that Phoenicia, the latest fragrance from Yorkshire-born, Brussels-based perfumer James Heeley goes back to perfume’s roots.

The name refers to the ancient civilisation that flourished in the eastern Mediterranean around 1000BC, but Phoenicia’s smell is instantly evocative of childhood bonfires, just as his earlier L’Amandière evokes an almond orchard in spring.

‘I loved the way my hair smelled after a bonfire,’ Heeley recalls, and he’s captured the memory using a mixture of cedarwood, oud, smoky birchwood and vetiver.

Luckily there’s more to Phoenicia than smoke. ‘I’ve always loved the concrete of labdanum ciste,’ Heeley says (the densest refined extract from the fragrant Mediterranean shrub Cistus ladanifer), ‘which has a slight smell of dates or prunes.’ Adding this to the formula gives Phoenicia an attractive hint of dried-fruit sweetness, which balances the smokiness is a very attractive way. It certainly lights my fire.

Comme des Garçons

Avignon

Avignon largeNot everyone wants to smell like a Catholic cathedral in the middle of Midnight Mass, but I do. Maybe it’s because I’m not Catholic, but incense’s associations, for me, are less religious than architectural – and sensual too, since it’s one of those addictively overpowering fragrances that drive you slightly out of your mind (which of course was the original intention).

The smell of incense is almost certainly among the oldest perfumes we have, with a history that stretches back as far as the word itself – the Latin ‘per fumum’ means ‘through smoke’. The word ‘incense’, meanwhile, derives from ‘incendere’, which also gives us ‘incendiary’ and ‘incinerator’.

Burning incense of one kind or another is common in many ancient cultures around the world, but the Catholic version began life in Africa and the Middle East. Lumps of incense have been found in the tombs of Ancient Egypt, and its main ingredients – frankincense and myrrh – still come from the Yemen, Oman and Somalia.

Recreating the burnt, resinous smell of incense in a perfume must be difficult, but in the last decade several perfumers have made the attempt, and Avignon, to my mind, is among the most convincing. It’s strong stuff, and not everyone will like it, but I love its almost narcotic intensity, with the pungent yet herbaceous smell of sun-burnt shrubs (especially cistus and santolina) on a rocky Greek mountainside. I don’t know if it’s simply the power of association, but I can even detect a hint of the slightly mouldy dampness that so many old churches smell of.

Launched in 2002, Avignon was created for Comme des Garçons by the brilliant French perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour, known for his long-standing association with L’Artisan Parfumeur. The name might seem a bit of a puzzle, until you remember that Avignon – now a beautiful if touristy walled town with tedious suburbs – was the seat of the papacy from 1309 to 1376, after the election of a French pope who refused to move to Rome. And ‘Avignon’ is surely a more evocative and intriguing name for a perfume than ‘Rome’. I, for one, am a willing convert.

 

Acqua di Parma

Colonia Leather

rsz_adp (1)The smell of leather is one of the staples of men’s fragrances. It has an interesting history, too, since at least one of the roots of modern perfumery can be followed back to the perfumed-leather gloves that became fashionable from the sixteenth century on.

Some ‘leather’ fragrances are more successful than others, Chanel’s powerful and historic Cuir de Russie being one of the best. But until the launch of Colonia Leather in May 2014 I’d never come across a perfume that really captured clean new leather’s comfortingly aromatic smell.

I have to admit that this came as something of a surprise, as I’m not a great fan of the other perfumes in the Acqua di Parma range. I can recognise their quality, and I love their packaging, but their combination of lemon and rose just doesn’t do it for me – the rose seems just too feminine a counterpart to the freshness of the classic citrusy eau-de-cologne.

So I could hardly believe my nose when I first sprayed Colonia Leather on. Yes, it contains a definite hint of the Acqua di Colonia signature rose-cologne smell, but that’s quickly overlaid by a beautifully smooth, refined leather smell, like the finest fresh kidskin gloves, or an unjustifiably expensive suede jacket from Hermès. Though it’s not especially strong, its gentle scent stays on the skin for a good half day or more, even if I find it hard to smell on myself after an hour or so.

How such an authentically leathery fragrance is done is beyond me, though it does contain at least one of the classic ingredients of ‘leather’ perfumes, rectified birch tar, which is also used in Cuir de Russie. I’ve pointed out before that a list of ingredients is about as useful in describing a perfume as a list of words in describing a Shakespeare sonnet, but for those who would like to know here are some of the other things in the formula: Sicilian lemon, Brazilian orange oil, raspberry, rose, honeysuckle, Paraguayan petitgrain (made from the twigs of orange trees), ‘red’ thyme, cedarwood, cistus, guaic wood and olibanum.

So who was behind this marvellous scent? As usual there’s no mention anywhere on the Acqua di Parma website or in its marketing material, but I think Colonia Leather’s creator deserves more credit than that. So please take a bow François Demachy, the French perfumer, formerly at Chanel, who has been the ‘director of olfactory development’ at Christian Dior since 2006.

(If you’re wondering, incidentally, what Dior’s head perfumer is doing moonlighting for Acqua di Parma, the answer is that both companies are owned by the luxury-goods conglomerate LVMH, and Demachy also has oversight of its other perfume brands. And as it happens Colonia Leather isn’t his first perfume for Acqua di Parma; he also created Colonia Intensa, which was launched back in 2007.)

At £150 for 100ml Colonia Leather is a lot more expensive than the other fragrances in the Acqua di Parma range, and for now (2014) it’s only available from Harrods, but it’s really worth going to smell, even if you can’t justify spending quite so much on a single bottle of perfume.

Chanel

Antaeus

rsz_antaeusWhen I first started thinking about The Sniff Box, I wondered how I could make it look different from other perfume blogs. I knew I’d have no problem with the overall look, thanks to my super-talented friend, Leanda Ryan, whose design perfectly reflects the idea of ‘perfume in plain English’.

But illustrating individual perfumes is a problem, as you’ll gather if you look at other perfume sites on the interweb. The obvious thing to do is to use a ‘pack shot’, generally supplied by the brand in question: it’s what the brands like as that’s how they want you to see their scent, but how many times do you want to see the same cheesy photograph?

The trouble is, if you don’t use a photo of the bottle, what can you use instead? How do you illustrate something you can smell but can’t actually see? It’s interesting to check out what other people come up with, but given that few bloggers can afford to commission photography or illustration, they’re generally stuck with stock shots of things like perfume ingredients – a sprig of lavender, say, or a twist of lemon – which are as cheesy as the pack shots they’re trying to avoid.

It took a while, but finally it struck me: since I can draw, after a fashion, why not draw my own illustrations? And that’s how I began.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that, when I was trying to draw my bottle of Antaeus this morning, it gradually dawned on me that it is one of the most beautiful perfume bottles I know. It’s also one of the simplest: a tall, square, black-glass container that, if you took away the classy sans-serif Chanel lettering, would bear a more-than-passing resemblance to sinister monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Designed (or at least commissioned) by Chanel’s long-standing artistic director, Jacques Helleu, and launched in 1981, Antaeus was a kind of dark-side twin to the brand’s only other men’s fragrance at that time, Pour Monsieur (launched way back in 1955). Their bottles may be almost identical in shape, but Pour Monsieur is as cool and transparent as Antaeus is brooding and mysterious, and that reflects the fact that they’re very different scents.

Pour Monsieur is a refined, impeccably discreet fragrance: perfect in its way but perhaps (dare one whisper it?) just a tiny bit dull. Antaeus, by contrast, is a dark sexy scent that was launched just as the disco era crashed and burned: the same year Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell sold out of Studio 54 and the big disease with a little name first reared its ugly head.

Antaeus (the scent) was created by Chanel’s much-fêted in-house perfumer, Jacques Polge, in collaboration with François Damachy, now head of fragrance at Dior). As suggestive as Pour Monsieur is safe, its sexiness comes from castoreum, derived from a secretion extracted from beaver wee (I kid you not), which despite its revolting origins becomes, after careful treatment, a potent perfume ingredient, with its musky, leathery smell.

It’s a warm, slightly spicy leather scent, with a lot of Mediterranean herbs, most notably clary sage and thyme, that most of us would probably associate with hot, rocky mountainsides in southern France and Greece. My nose isn’t yet sensitive enough to identify them, but it also apparently contains labdanum (derived from two different species of Cistus, another Mediterranean shrub), as well as sandalwood and patchouli, which presumably add to the slightly hippyish warmth of the scent.

Antaeus became a big best-seller in the early 1980s initially, it seems, among gay men, and with its hints of sex and leather it’s easy to see why. Chanel itself tapped into this trend in 1983 with a delightfully pervy advert (pictured), whose subtext I can leave to your imagination.

But gay men, as we’ve often been told, are classic early adopters, and these days Antaeus is just as likely to attract anyone who enjoys a rich and complex scent. It’s long been one of my favourites, for its warmth and easy appeal, but I love its darker origins too: sex (and history) in a bottle.

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