The Sniff Box – Perfume In Plain English

Tagged With ‘orange’

Tom Daxon

Laconia

The Greek region of Laconia includes some of the most historic and spectacular parts of the Peloponnese, including the city of Sparta (the regional capital), the Mani peninsula and, on its eastern edge, the extraordinary presque-île of Monemvasia. Seen from the mainland, this huge rock – over 100 metres high, 300 metres wide and a kilometre long – towers over the sea that encloses it, surrounded by precipitous cliffs on every side. Connected to the shore by a narrow causeway, it makes a formidable natural fortress, and in the middle ages an important city grew up on its summit, connected to a small walled town on the narrow shelf at its base.

Lacking water and reliant on man-made cisterns cut into the rock, the city was gradually abandoned and today lies in romantic ruins, overgrown with scrub and difficult to explore. But the little town has been gradually restored, and now forms a car-free tourist haven. It was while staying at a luxury hotel here that British perfumer Tom Daxon found the inspiration for his latest scent, in the form of lemonade made with ice, local mint and honey and lemons grown on the hotel’s own estate. He’s named it after the region, which itself gave us the word ‘laconic’, apparently because Spartans were famously sparing with words.

Like me, Daxon is a fan of colognes, especially for the summer months, but he also feels that his customers want something that lasts longer than a few minutes on their skin. Citrus scents, refreshing though they may be, are notoriously short-lived, so the question was how to extend his new fragrance in an interesting way. His solution includes quite a long list of zingy and green ingredients, starting with lemon, yellow mandarin, orange and bergamot, followed by violet leaf, spearmint and clary sage, as well as ginger, cubeb, pink pepper and cardamom, all underpinned by vetiver and long-lasting synthetic musks.

The result is an attractive, fresh-smelling perfume with good staying power, though personally I’m willing to forego longevity in a cologne in favour of that all-important if all too short-lived blast of uplifting freshness – a laconic cologne, if you will. But when you’re paying £155 for 100ml, I can see the argument in favour of depth and development. I also admire the design of Daxon’s chunky, faceted bottles and smart monochrome packaging, which adds to the feeling of weight and lasting quality.

Guerlain

Habit Rouge

‘Mass luxury’ may be the oxymoron of the moment, but the name of Habit Rouge is a nod back to a time when perfume really was a luxury enjoyed only by the stinking rich (eg the family Guerlain), among whom fox-hunting was a favourite pursuit.

Habit Rouge, in this context, is the French term for what British toffs call (with typical bourgeois-baiting mystification) ‘hunting pinks’, the scarlet riding jackets worn while hunting the fox. But that’s as far as the hunting or riding references go, which is probably a good thing, if you know what an actual fox or a horse-stable smells like.

Created by the last of the great Guerlain family perfumers, Jean-Paul, and launched in 1965, Habit Rouge was only the third Guerlain fragrance to be aimed at men. In character it is very different from its immediate predecessor, Vetiver, launched in 1959. While Vetiver is elegantly earthy (a brilliant contradiction in terms) and ineffably masculine, Habit Rouge is much more dandified, with a sharp, powdery sweetness that some people love but that makes others gag – imagine lemon sherbert in liquid form and you won’t be far wrong.

According to my friend the perfumer Roja Dove (who worked at Guerlain for twenty years), it ‘has an extraordinary volume of hesperidic materials, especially bergamot and lemon, which make up in excess of 25 per cent of the formula. Without question you can “feel” their effervescence.’It’s so zingy to start with that I wonder whether it might even contain a touch of aldehydes – the chemicals that give Chanel No. 5 its champagne fizz.

With all that lemon you’d imagine it would smell like an eau de cologne, but like other classic Guerlain perfumes Habit Rouge has great depth and complexity, and in the terminology of the perfume world it actually counts as an ‘oriental’-style fragrance, as behind the sherbert there’s a surprising amount of spice as well.

Though the version we have today was apparently ‘cleaned up’, as the industry jargon has it, by another fine perfumer, Edouard Fléchier, to comply with updated regulations governing the use of potentially harmful ingredients, it still smells wonderfully rich, with traces of vanilla and patchouli for those who smell it carefully.

Habit Rouge also lasts and lasts, which for me is an added plus when a perfume is as great as this – for anyone on a limited budget it’s hard to justify spending £70 or so on something that vanishes within an hour of putting it on. Definitely worth hunting down.

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.

Guerlain

L’Homme Idéal

L'Homme IdealI have before me a bottle of Amaretto liqueur, which I’m tempted to drink, though seeing as it’s ten in the morning I probably shouldn’t. I also have a bottle of the latest men’s perfume from Guerlain, L’Homme Idéal, which you’ll be relieved to hear I won’t be drinking either.

The reason for this conjunction is that several reviews of L’Homme Idéal have suggested that it smells distinctly like Amaretto, so I’m testing whether they do – and the answer is that, side by side like this, they don’t. Amaretto smells far sweeter and more almondy, with a touch of bitter almonds that L’Homme Idéal lacks.

All the same, the Amaretto comparison should give you some idea of L’Homme Idéal’s character: burnt-sugar sweet and, yes, really quite almondy. It’s a smell that won’t appeal to every man (though I suspect a lot of women will like it), and in fact the perfume hasn’t exactly been greeted with universal acclaim, though personally I rather like it.

Launched in June 2014, L’Homme Idéal was created by Thierry Wasser, who has been the company’s in-house perfumer since 2008; I’ve reviewed one or two of his other perfumes, including Guerlain Homme l’eau Boisée and the wonderfully refreshing Cologne du Parfumeur. Its ingredients include orange, rosemary, cedar and vetiver, but the two that most people pick up on are tonka beans and almonds, with a bit of leather thrown in.

Tonka beans are used in a wide range of perfumes, and they have a warm, slightly sweet smell, which many people find reminds them of food, especially chocolate and vanilla. The scent of almonds is less often used (though James Heeley’s fine but painfully overpriced L’Amandière smells of almost nothing else), but they’re what give L’Homme Idéal its distinctly foody, burnt-sugar smell.

Luckily – from my point of view at least – L’Homme Idéal isn’t nearly as sickly-sweet as Thierry Mugler’s revolting Angel, or even as cutesy sweet as Black XS for Men from Paco Rabanne. Sweet smells, like sweet tastes, have something a bit childlike and unsophisticated about them, but Thierry Wasser has toned the sweetness down here by surrounding the tonka beans and almonds with the smells of freshly-sawn wood and new leather, as well as a hint of dry, earthy vetiver.

All in all this is a nice enough fragrance, but it’s a bit too muted and polite to really stand out for me. That may well be intentional, since it seems to be squarely aimed at the big middle market, whose buyers are not widely considered to be particularly adventurous or sophisticated. Mind you they’re also considered to be virtually illiterate, if Guerlain’s French-pretentious marketing guff is anything to go by.

Yes, it’s same old tired perfume bollocks yet again: ‘The ideal man is a myth. His fragrance, a reality. Guerlain decodes men’s aspirations and creates for them a concentrate of ideal. The ideal fragrance? Smart, handsome, strong. Three adjectives, three accords for this fresh woody fragrance that will trigger your full potential.’ As a copywriter myself I’d be ashamed to have written that, though I’m sure whoever did write it was handsomely paid. (The box, incidentally, sports a typographical car-crash that seems to read, ‘Be You. No Need to Anymore Have Your Fragrance.’ Got that? Me neither.)

Still, the smell is nice enough, and the bottle is actually far better than most: a chunky glass square with (according to Guerlain) ‘radical’ matt black lacquer sides and a crisply detailed cap that apparently ‘borrows its guilloché detailing from the world of watchmaking.’ I think they should have borrowed the cap from an Amaretto bottle, but there you go.

 

Hermès

Concentré d’Orange Verte

Eau d’orange verteIn 1979, Hermès launched a brilliant take on the classic men’s eau-de-cologne. Simply called Eau de Cologne d’Hermès, it was created by Françoise Caron, who you could almost say had perfume in her blood. Born in the one-time capital of French fragrance, the Provençal town of Grasse, into a family that worked in the perfume trade, both she and her brother, Olivier Cresp, became highly regarded professional perfumers in their own right.

Many perfumes are variations on a theme, and the fresh, citrusy scent of eau-de-cologne is probably the best-known theme of all. But some variations are more interesting and successful than others, and Françoise Caron’s master-stroke was to turn up the volume, if you like, on a single ingredient – bitter orange – that plays a subsidiary role in most colognes.

The effect is delicious and bracingly sour-sweet, like a proper old-fashioned lemonade, but because orange is a more powerful, complex citrus scent than lemon it has far more depth and staying power. Françoise Caron also included mint (which adds a minor cooling touch), as well as lime and blackcurrant buds – which, if like me you have blackcurrant bushes in your garden, you’ll know have an intriguing scent, both sweet and slightly foxy.

Eau de Cologne d’Hermès continued in production until 1997, when Hermès changed its name to the slightly more individual Eau d’Orange Verte, though the scent remained the same. One criticism of Caron’s original perfume was that it didn’t last very long, and presumably as a response to this, in 2004 a concentrated version was released, tweaked by in-house perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena and helpfully called Concentré d’Orange Verte.

It’s this version I like best, I suppose because it seems to have retained all the character of Françoise Caron’s original yet packs a rather more powerful punch, and on my skin at least it certainly seems to last a good hour or two. It’s a zesty, uplifting and – I’d say – a happy scent, and one that I’d happily wear every day. Perfect for lifting the spirits on a dull grey Monday morning.

 

Hermès

Equipage

Equipage is a perfume I hadn’t smelled for years. I had a bottle long ago, but when it ran out I never got round to replacing it. Actually I’d forgotten how good it smells, so I’m delighted to have it back. It’s as timeless and well made as a piece of Hermès saddlery, and it even has something of the same comforting, leathery smell.

The first Hermès perfume to be aimed at men, Equipage was created by Guy Robert, one of the leading perfumers of his generation. You could say that Robert had perfume in his blood. He learned his trade in Grasse, once the world capital of perfumery and still an important production centre today. His uncle, Henri Robert, succeeded Ernest Beaux as perfumer-in-chief at Chanel, where he created No.19 and Pour Monsieur.

Equipage shares much of its character with Pour Monsieur, smelling effortlessly grown-up, discreet and rather conservative. The funniest comment I’ve seen online is that it ‘makes you smell ten years older. Richer, maybe; but older’, and I think that’s right, but now I’m older myself it’s nice to at least smell rich.

For a men’s perfume it has rather more floral ingredients than one might expect, including lily of the valley, jasmine and carnation, but they’re so subtly blended together that you’d never know. The flowers give it a little sweetness, but that’s balanced by the spicy, clove-scented edge of carnation. Equipage also contains a lot of orange, in the form of bergamot, squeezed from the peel of the Sicilian bergamot orange, Citrus bergamia, which is also used to flavour Earl Grey tea.

But that’s not all. This rich and complex fragrance also includes oakmoss (or a synthetic equivalent), which is actually a type of lichen that smells like a forest after rain; as it happens oakmoss also features in Pour Monsieur and Chanel No19. You might also be able to smell a touch of patchouli, that favourite 1970s fragrance, and perhaps a little Badedas-like pine – another forest touch.

There’s much, much more, which makes Equipage worth returning to again and again. It may not be the most avant-garde of fragrances, but if you want something reassuringly luxurious, it’s up there with the best.

 

Paco Rabanne

Black XS for Men

Perfumes can suggest many things. They can be uplifting, outrageous, disgusting, sexy, hard, delicious, warm, cold, luxurious, even sad. It might seem a bit far-fetched to describe a perfume as silly, but that’s what I think of Black XS by Paco Rabanne, and it’s also why I like it.

Created by Oliver Cresp (co-creator of Thierry Mugler’s love-it or loathe-it Angel) at perfume powerhouse Firmenich and licensed to fragrance multinational Puig, Black XS was launched in 2005. Its black-glass flip-top bottle originally came in an outer slip-case with a shirtless photo of the English model and amateur boxer Will Chalker, which added to its charm.

Packaging aside, its appeal is pretty simple: pump the spray button and you get an unexpectedly fruity blast of ripe strawberries – sweet, girly and completely at odds with the rather Gothic / Twilight-style design and lettering of the bottle. It’s not what you’d call a complex fragrance, but occasionally it’s fun to forget about trying to be cool and sophisticated: perfumes, like people, can sometimes take themselves too seriously, and there’s a silliness about Black XS that makes me smile every time I spray it on.

What’s really funny, though, is that Black XS doesn’t actually have any strawberry in it at all – at least it’s not among the official list of ingredients. What it does have is lemon, calamanzi (a kind of orange native to the Philippines), sage and what most perfume sites describe as ‘tagete’, which I’m assuming is an illiterate corruption of Tagetes, the Latin name for marigold.

The Mexican marigold, Tagetes erecta, is the source of an oil used in perfumery because of its attractive appley scent, and I wonder whether it’s the combination of orange, lemon and apple that fools my nose into thinking that what I’m really smelling is strawberry? If the effect is intentional it’s dead clever, but it’s the kind of thing that professional perfumers do all the time. Personally I think it’s magic.

 

Christian Dior

Eau Sauvage

Eau SauvageHow did I get this far without reviewing Eau Sauvage? And now that I’ve finally got round to reviewing it, how am I going to do justice to such an iconic perfume? OK, I’ve covered Eau Sauvage Extrême, but that’s a dreary spin-off and bears little relation to the glorious real thing. So, deep breath now, and here we go.

Created by the legendary perfumer Edmond Roudnitska, Eau Sauvage was launched in 1966, and it’s deservedly regarded as one of the greatest men’s perfumes of all. Roudnitska’s took the idea of a classic men’s cologne, packing it full of fresh, zingy, clean-smelling bergamot-orange oil from southern Italy, but then he did a brilliant thing, by blending it with an equally strong dose of a recently patented chemical called Hedione.

Hedione smells of jasmine – as well it might, since it was discovered by chemists during the process of deconstructing the molecular bits and bobs that, collectively, create natural jasmine’s heady, narcotic scent. Hedione’s real name is methyl dihydrojasmonate, and it was first isolated in 1958 by Dr Edouard Demole, who worked for the giant Swiss perfume company Firmenich.

Methyl dihydrojasmonate has a light jasmine smell but also something citrusy about it, giving Edmond Roudnitska a jigsaw piece that fitted into both the bergamot orange of a man’s cologne, and also had something – but crucially not too much – of natural jasmine’s sumptuous, powerfully floral scent, which most men would have considered far too feminine to wear.

To this Roudnitska added lavender – another floral scent, though this time one whose herby, faintly sweaty character had made it a long-standing male favourite – as well as a range of other, less pronounced ingredients including oakmoss (originally extracted from a lichen that smells of forests after rain) and patchouli, which in small amounts, I’m guessing, enhances the dandified character of Eau Sauvage without pushing it over into full-on let-it-all-hang-out hippiness.

A great perfume is one thing, and an all-too-rare thing at that, but it’s rarer still for a brilliant perfume to be supported by great marketing and presented in a great bottle. And here Eau Sauvage struck lucky again. Christian Dior died in 1957 of a heart attack, but under Yves Saint Laurent and then Marc Bohan, the company commissioned a series of sexy, tongue-in-cheek yet effortlessly elegant posters from René Gruau, arguably the greatest fashion illustrator of the 20th century. They certainly added to Eau Sauvage’s masculine appeal.

Few of us think a great deal about the bottles that contain the perfume we use, though they do have their collectors (most of whom, oddly, seem to have lost interest in the perfumes they contain). But some bottles repay a second glance, and Eau Sauvage is one of them. It was designed by Pierre Camin, who worked for Baccarat and created many of the bottles for the perfumer François Coty, and its chic silver cap, embossed with a pattern of tiny overlapping scales like a freshly-caught mackerel, is said to have been inspired by the silver thimble that Christian Dior always had to hand. The diagonally ridged sides of the bottle itself, meanwhile, are supposed to resemble the regular pleats of a Dior dress, though that seems a bit of a stretch to me.

I could go on, but in the unlikely event that you’ve never smelled Eau Sauvage, or think of it as a tired old dinosaur, I’d rather you headed out and tried it for yourself. Just be careful, though, as Dior have experimented with different versions over the years, and what’s now called Eau Sauvage Extrême (which you’d think would just be a stronger version, as indeed it used to be) is now a completely different fragrance, pleasant enough in a dull way but far less exciting than the original.

My last words, though, go to Edmond Roudnitska, not only because he was a perfumer of genius, but also because he also had something so important to say about marketing that it should be tattooed on the forehead of every perfume-company PR.

‘The choice of a perfume,’ he said, ‘can only rest on the competence acquired by education of olfactive taste, by intelligent curiosity and by a desire to understand the WHY and the HOW of perfume. Instead, the public [is] given inexactitudes and banalities. The proper role of publicity is to assist in the formation of connoisseurs, who are the only worthwhile propagandists for perfume, and it is up to the perfumers to enlighten, orient and direct the publicity agents.’

Here’s to the day his dream comes true.

What a stink

There’s nothing unusual about hating airports, but it only dawned on me recently at Gatwick how much I hate airport duty free shops too. I always feel I should have a look at the hundreds of perfumes on offer in case I stumble across something wonderful and new, but while it’s useful, I guess, to keep an eye on the latest big launches (though who can keep up with them all?), I always stumble out afterwards feeling slightly depressed and very headachy.

My problem? It’s that in all those hundreds of perfumes there are maybe three or four I’d want to buy another time, and they’re nearly always the ones I know and like already. Of all the hundreds of new launches every year, in other words, barely one or two are worth a second sniff, and most of them are (not to mince words) utterly vile.

There are occasional exceptions, but they’re pretty rare, and often unexpected: Paco Rabanne Black XS for Men, for example, which is ridiculously sweet but enjoyably silly and smells of strawberries (though it’s actually based on a variation on orange); or Marc Jacobs Bang – hideous advertising, hideous bottle, but actually not such a bad scent inside. But mostly it’s sniff and recoil in horror: why does anyone buy this stuff? Just because they’re told to? It doesn’t seem to make sense.

There again, maybe it was always this way: apart from sad exceptions it’s the good, on the whole, that tends to survive, while the rubbish and the dreadful is quietly dropped and disappears. And perhaps it was just the same in the 1920s or the 1950s. The difference, today, is that there are far too many launches, the industry having backed itself into an unprofitable corner where only the latest thing sells, but only because it’s the latest thing – and it’s all too quickly superseded.

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