The Sniff Box – Perfume In Plain English

Tagged With ‘pencil shavings’

Hermès

Bel Ami

Bel Ami (bright)I’ve been pondering furniture for my flat recently, and that has made me think about one of Hermès’ most famous perfumes, Bel Ami.

Why? Well, it’s all about the difference between what, in the antiques trade, I guess you’d call original and repro. Bel Ami is a bit like a lovely Chippendale chest of drawers that once attracted admirers from all over the world – not just for the beauty of its design but for the skill and complexity of its construction.

The maestro in Bel Ami’s case was Jean-Louis Sieuzac, one of the finest perfumers of his time, who was also behind Fahrenheit for Christian Dior and Opium for Yves Saint Laurent. First launched in 1986, Sieuzac’s Bel Ami packed a powerful punch thanks to a combination of leather and pepper, and it was by all accounts a rich and complex scent.

But apparently it didn’t sell, and when Hermès appointed Jean-Claude Ellena as its in-house perfumer in 2004, one of his first jobs was to reformulate Bel Ami. This new version is still very attractive, with a schoolroom scent of pencil shavings that, after an hour or two, settles down into a pleasing, if not especially unusual fragrance of the kind that’s often described as ‘classically masculine’ – a bit wood-smoky without being bitter, slightly sweet without being at all cloying. It reminds me a lot of one of my other favourite ‘classically masculine’ perfumes, Halston Z-14.

What I wouldn’t describe it as would be particularly complex: it doesn’t change radically over the hours, though it does have good staying-power, and my amateur nose doesn’t detect lots of intriguing added ingredients, though I’m wondering if there’s a touch of clove-scented carnations. It is, in other words, a bit like a very good-quality piece of ‘repro’ antique furniture: looks pretty convincing on the outside, but when you open the drawers you realise they’re made of MDF instead of mahogany. A classy job nonetheless.

 

Serge Lutens

Féminité du Bois

Féminité du BoisFéminité du Bois was launched in 1992 for Shiseido, the Japanese beauty company for which Serge Lutens created many striking ad campaigns, and which backed him in the launch, the same year, of his super-chic Salons du Palais Royal. It was in its original incarnation that I first encountered Féminité du Bois, and what first caught my eye was the design of the bottle – a lovely teardrop-shaped glass container, designed by Lutens himself.

Sadly that style of bottle disappeared in 2009, when Lutens left Shiseido and set up in his own name; the perfume went with him, repackaged in his signature bottles – a tall, slim, rather flat rectangular design, stylish in its own right but not as poetic as Shiseido’s original.

Recommending a perfume called Féminité du Bois to men might sound like a rather capricious (not to say perverse) enterprise, but many great fragrances transcend the gender associations that their names, and their marketing, impose on them, and this is one of the most beautiful fragrances I know.

Floral scents may be thought of as quintessentially feminine, and it would take a very confident man to wear something that smelled predominantly, say, of jasmine or of rose. Yet some of the most popular men’s perfumes have flowers in them – violets in Grey Flannel, for example, or jasmine in Eau Sauvage.

Féminité du Bois is, if you like, a mirror image of these kinds of men’s fragrance: a nominally female fragrance made more, rather than less alluring by the addition of elements that are generally associated with the opposite sex. The master stroke, in this case, is the combination of sweet, rather girly smells – violets and plum (the fruit rather than the flower) – with the masculine, pencil-shaving smell of cedar wood.

It’s one of those combinations that works so well that you wonder why nobody had thought of it before, but I guess that’s the mark of genius – in this case the genius of British perfumer Christopher Sheldrake (who worked on many of the Serge Lutens fragrances before getting snapped up by Chanel) and the legendary Pierre Bourdon (Cool Water, Kouros and many others).

The first time I tried out Féminité du Bois my reaction was ‘This smells exactly like Bel Ami’. Which is to say, like pencil shavings, which is the main – and very appealing – impression you get from the classic Hermès scent. But moments later you realise that there’s more going on inside the woodiness, and the warmth and slight sweetness of plum, violets and spices blend with the cedar to make an effortlessly satisfying whole.

Luxury can mean different things to different people: for some, bling is the thing, but for others luxury means high quality and discretion – and that’s the kind of luxury Féminité du Bois suggests to me. It’s neither brash nor overpowering, which makes it eminently wearable, but nor is it faint or feeble. Try it for yourself and I hope you’ll see what I mean.

 

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