The Sniff Box – Perfume In Plain English

Tagged With ‘sherbert’

Balmain

Monsieur Balmain

 

Lemon verbena is not, it has to be said, the most beautiful shrub in the world, though it’s easy enough to grow in a sunny corner. Its long woody stems give it a rather ungainly appearance, with tufts of spear-shaped leaves at their ends, which appear so late in the season that I’ve often wondered whether the one in my garden was dead.

Aloysia citrodora, to give it its Latin name, grows wild across much of South America, and like so many other garden plants it was brought to Europe by Portuguese and Spanish colonists at some point in the seventeenth century.

Though you wouldn’t grow lemon verbena for its shape, its leaves are a different matter. Long, narrow and folded neatly in half along their length, they are bright green, shiny, and rather rough and sticky to the touch. But what makes them special is the scent they release when crushed, which is so deliriously refreshing that, once I’ve started sniffing them, I find it extremely hard to stop. They make a fine herbal tea (the verveine in which Proust dipped his famous madeleine) and an even finer perfume.

As both its common and Latin names suggest, lemon verbena has a lemony scent – yet that hardly does it justice. Lemons may have a wonderfully fresh, sharp tanginess of their own, but it’s accompanied by the sour, mouth-puckering sharpness of their taste. Lemon verbena has none of that. It has all the freshness of lemon, for sure, but mixed with a gentle sweetness that never becomes cloying, however often you smell it.

This sherbety, sorbet-y scent has all the innocence of childhood: just smelling it can give me the giggles. It might not be the most sophisticated fragrance in the world, but I can think of few better pick-me-ups on a dull dark morning, or for that matter on a sultry summer’s day. And what I love about Monsieur Balmain is that it smells pretty much exactly like lemon verbena, with little else to distract your attention – and why would you want to have your attention distracted from such a delicious scent?

Perfume buffs will already know that Monsieur Balmain was originally created by Germaine Cellier, who was the perfumer behind such justly famous fragrances as Fracas, Bandit, Vent Vert and Jolie Madame. Cellier died in 1976, and Monsieur Balmain was relaunched in 1991 in a new – but apparently faithful – reformulation by Calice Becker, the creator of (among many others) Tommy Girl and Dior’s J’Adore. More recently its bottle has also been redesigned, which means that my illustration is already out of date. For once, though, the new design is classier than the old one, so all respect to Balmain (or rather to Inter Parfums, the company that recently bought Balmain’s perfume licence).

 

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.

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