The Sniff Box – Perfume In Plain English

Tagged With ‘rum’

Hermès

Vétiver Tonka

Vétiver TonkaLike several other major perfume and fashion brands, Hermès has, in recent years, organised its range of perfumes into a number of different groups. I’m guessing that this is partly to help them refine their message for different segments of the market, but I also wonder whether it has something to do with their in-house perfumer, Jean-Claude Ellena, trying to bring order to a rather disparate collection of scents, in the way that a newly appointed curator might attempt to impose order on a rather muddled art collection.

Whether intentionally or not, the groups have been divided in a way that reflects the gradual shift away from gendered to genderless scents, with most of the pre-Ellena perfumes being assigned, in the old-fashioned way, to either women or men (men getting Bel Ami, Equipage and Terre d’Hermès). By contrast most of the more recent scents are categorised by type, not gender, and described as ‘for sharing’ – currently five in Les Colognes collection, four in Les Jardins and eleven in the much more expensive Hermessences range, leaving Eau d’Hermès and Voyage d’Hermès standing on their own.

I’m guessing that the mass-market scents – Voyage and Terre d’Hermès – bring in most of the cash, but what seems to interest Hermès most (and, by extension, Jean-Claude Ellena) are the Hermessences: there are already more of them than there are in any other range, and they’re the only fragrances for which the company does its own in-house PR. They’re also almost twice the price of other Hermès scents: £161 for a 100ml eau-de-toilette as opposed to £73-£80 for a 100ml eau-de-toilette from any of the other groups.

Given how much they cost, you’d expect the Hermessences to be more unusual and have more staying-power than Hermès’ other perfumes, and at least in the case of Vétiver Tonka, that seems to be true. One often-repeated criticism of Jean-Claude Ellena is that the perfumes he creates tend towards the light and evanescent – delicate compositions that disappear all too quickly on the skin. Some people might regard that as a good thing, but as a value-for-money Yorkshireman I want to get some bang for my buck.

Vétiver Tonka certainly lasts, so that’s a good start. It’s also unusual, which for me is another plus – so many perfumes smell almost identical these days. But unusual doesn’t always mean attractive, or even wearable – just smell the amazing Bulgari Black, which is a brilliant scent, but also almost unwearable, at least outside a nightclub. Vétiver Tonka certainly isn’t in that league, but nor does it fit into an easily recognisable ‘normal’ category of scents.

Vetiver, of course, is a classic ingredient of many perfumes aimed at men: extracted from the roots of a tropical grass, it smells earthy and dry, but also fresh; it has the added advantage of being extremely long-lasting, and it can enhance the longevity of other ingredients too. The vetiver that Jean-Claude Ellena has used here, though, is a smoother, less rough-edged extract, which makes the perfume smell perhaps a little more feminine than I’d normally expect.

Tonka – the perfume ingredient, not the toy company – comes from the beans of the cumaru tree, Dipteryx odorata, which grows in Central America and, like laburnum and wisteria, belongs in the pea family. These beans yield coumarin, a chemical that was often used as a cheaper substitute for vanilla; coumarin also smells a bit like cinnamon, almonds or cloves, all of which I get traces of in Vétiver Tonka.

In many ways this is a perfume that does what it says on the tin, for if you can imagine the earthy smell of vetiver mixed with the foody smell of tonka (which many people find slightly chocolatey, probably because of its association with chocolate), then that’s pretty much how Vétiver Tonka smells. The vetiver helps it last all day, but what I mostly smell is the tonka, doubtless blended with many other things – there’s a gentle nuttiness, a bit like rum or sherry, or even a kitchen in the middle of baking day.

When I asked my mum what she thought of it she said, ‘It’s a very nice smell, but it doesn’t really smell like a perfume,’ and I think that pretty much sums it up. Not something you’d necessarily want to adopt as a signature scent, but a quality perfume to try if you fancy smelling a bit out of the ordinary. It also comes in a very nice Hermès box (with a rather cheap-looking cloth bag inside), and the clear-glass bottle – cleverly suffused with pale green – is satisfyingly chunky, with a stitched-leather cap, though whether all that makes it £161 I’m still not sure.

Guerlain

Guerlain Homme l’eau Boisée

Guerlain Homme L'eau BoiséeFew perfume companies have such a great heritage (and so many perfumes) as Guerlain, which is presumably why the luxury behemoth LVMH bought it in 1994. Founded in Paris in 1828 by Pierre-François Guerlain, it reached its apotheosis in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century under Pierre-François’ grandson Aimé (who concocted the wonderful Jicky in 1898) and Aimé’s nephew, Jacques Guerlain.

One of the greatest perfumers of all time, Jacques created a whole series of legendary fragrances between 1906 and 1925, whose names are almost as alluring as the scents themselves: Après l’Ondée in 1906, L’Heure Bleue in 1912, Mitsouko in 1919, Shalimar in 1925, and Vol de Nuit in 1933.

Jacques’ grandson, Jean-Paul Guerlain, continued the family tradition, creating many superb fragrances of his own, for women and for men, including three of my own personal favourites – Vétiver (1959), Habit Rouge (1965) and Héritage (1992). But his reign ended sadly: after the Guerlains sold out to LVMH, Jean-Paul became just one of Guerlain’s hired hands, and in 2010 even his post-retirement role as a consultant was terminated after he made a casually racist remark on French television.

I’ll return to some of my own favourite Guerlain perfumes in future reviews, but I’ve recently been given, very generously, a bottle of Guerlain Homme L’eau Boisée, and as I rather like it I thought it would be good to feature something that was only released in 2012.

L’eau Boisée was created by Thierry Wasser, the Swiss-born perfumer who, before he took over from Jean-Paul Guerlain in 2008, worked for the multinational fragrance company Firmenich and was responsible for perfumes as diverse as Dior’s Addict, Diesel’s Fuel for Life and Kylie Minogue’s Darling.

Wasser’s original Guerlain Homme was released, to mixed reviews, the same year that he joined the company in-house. With a nice touch of wit, it’s based on the smell of a mojito, the Cuban cocktail whose ingredients include white rum, spearmint leaves and lime juice, but it’s been generally described as a fairly mass-market men’s fragrance – perfectly wearable, at least, but hardly up there with Habit Rouge or Jicky.

Since then, impelled by perfume retailers’ insatiable (and ultimately self-defeating) demands for novelty, Wasser has so far created three further versions of Guerlain Homme: Intense (2009), L’eau (2010) and L’eau Boisée. This last is a soft, woody fragrance, whose initial fresh scent of lime fades fairly quickly, to be followed by the warm scent of cedar wood and the pleasantly earthy smell of vetiver (Wasser uses a special vetiver from Tamil Nadu in southern India, apparently, rather than the more usual variety from Haiti or Réunion).

I can’t smell rum in L’eau Boisée, but to me it does have a faint but not unpleasant smell of celery, and a faintly sweaty (but again not unpleasant) scent that reminds me of a bottle of Penhaligon’s Hammam Bouquet that I used up years ago – must go and have a sniff to compare.

Would I rush out and buy a bottle? I’m not sure I would, as it’s hardly a groundbreaking scent; but as new perfumes go it’s both pleasant and rather refined, the kind of thing you could safely buy for an uncle or a friend. I’d be interested to know what you think.

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