The Sniff Box – Perfume In Plain English

Tagged With ‘vetiver’

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.

Aesop

Hwyl

Since 2004, when its first store opened in the corner of a Melbourne car-park, Aesop has developed into a global brand, thanks to its simple but sensual products, individually designed boutiques and large injections of private capital (most recently from Natura Cosméticos, the Brazilian version of Avon, which took full control of the brand in 2016).

Given that fragrance was always part of its products’ appeal (founder Dennis Paphitis got the original idea after adding essential oils to hair bleach to disguise the smell of ammonia), it’s no surprise that Aesop has flirted with perfume over the years. In 2005 it launched Marrakech, followed by Mystra in 2006, both of which were subsequently discontinued, though they still have their fans – perfumer Paul Schutze still has his roller-ball version of Marrakech, which he suspects was a commercial disaster not because of the fragrance, which he loves, but because ‘you use so little scent with the roller-ball that you never need to buy another one’.

In 2014 Aesop returned to perfume with Marrakech Intense, followed by Tacit in 2015 and now, in 2017, Hwyl. Though the name is Welsh, the scent is inspired by smoke floating through a Japanese forest of hiba cypress trees (the conifer Thujopsis dolabrata, also known as Hiba arborvitae), and that’s pretty much what you smell when you first put it on. The formula, which was devised by French perfumer Barnabé Fillion (who previously contributed to Marrakech Intense), also includes a good dose of thyme with hints of spice, moss and vetiver.

Hywl is my favourite of the three ‘new’ Aesop perfumes so far, though I think it’s rather overpriced at £83 for 50ml, especially as it doesn’t last for more than two or three hours on my skin (Aesop kindly sent me a bottle to review). It enters an increasingly crowded field of perfumes based around the smells of incense and smoke, most of them aimed at men, and while it’s nice of its kind, I can’t say that it’s especially original. But then perhaps Aesop knows that its customers aren’t looking for ground-breaking scents: just something that’s easy to wear and fairly on-trend, which Hwyl certainly is.

Lalique

Encre Noire à l’Extrême

rsz_encre_noire_extreme_2Lalique has been associated with perfume since 1907, when its founder, René Lalique, began to produce alluring glass bottles for the prodigiously entrepreneurial French perfumer François Coty. But it wasn’t until 1992 that the company launched a perfume of its own with Lalique de Lalique.

Encre Noire – literally ‘black ink’ – was released in 2006, and was quickly hailed as one of the best vetiver scents around. Created by the talented perfumer Nathalie Lorson from the Swiss fragrance-and-flavour firm Firmenich, it blends good-quality vetiver (whose earthy, slightly bitter smell comes from the roots of a tropical grass) with the woody notes of cypress and a long-lasting synthetic called Cashmeran, whose effect is as plush as its name.

Though Encre Noire is still available, and presumably a steady seller, Lalique has celebrated its 10th anniversary by launching a slightly more powerful, punchy version called Encre Noire à l’Extrême. Created again by Nathalie Lorson, the new perfume blends two different vetivers, one from Haiti and the from Java, and adds touches of iris, incense, sandalwood and patchouli.

If rather stronger and heavier than the earlier Encre Noire, it’s still a very attractive fragrance, and while Lalique claims that Encre Nore à l’Extrême ‘redefines masculinity’, we feel that it would smell equally appealing on a man or a woman. Think ink.

Elie Saab

Essence No 6: Vetiver

rsz_elie_saabIs it just me, or would you be more impressed if a successful fashion designer decided not to do a perfume range than decided to do one? But there we are: perfume and fashion have gone together since the days of Paul Poiret, and you can’t blame Elie Saab from joining the crowd.

Actually perhaps that’s a bit unfair, as Saab’s new perfume, Essence No 6: Vetiver, is a really fine unisex fragrance, cleverly balancing the slightly damp earthiness of vetiver with the woody, floral scent of violet and herbal lavender.

There again maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, as like all of Saab’s fragrances, Vetiver is the work of Francis Kurkdjian, who is now arguably the leading perfumer of his generation. French-born Kurkdjian sprang to fame at the age of 26 when he created Le Male for Jean-Paul Gaultier, and he has gone on to launch a stream of commercial hits, from Armani Mania to My Burberry. Yet he’s remained a highly creative perfumer, with his own excellently packaged Maison Francis Kurkdjian line.

In 2010 Saab signed a ten-year deal with Beauté Prestige International, one of the big perfume licensing companies (which in turn is owned by Shiseido), and the first Elie Saab perfume came out the following year. The Essences range was launched in August 2014, and Essence No6: Vetiver is the latest addition, along with Essence No7: Neroli (funnily enough there isn’t an Essence No5 in the range, presumably for Chanel-related reasons).

Vetiver has long been one of the most popular ingredients in perfumery, particularly in men’s perfumes. It’s not hard to understand why: the dried roots of this tropical grass have a wonderfully earthy, sexy, slightly bitter smell. You could probably use good-quality vetiver oil as a scent in its own right, but understandably enough, creative perfumers enjoy the challenge of combining it with other ingredients to bring out its specific qualities. In Guerlain’s classic Vétiver, for example, it’s combined with the lemony citrus smells you’d expect to find in a men’s cologne.

For Essence No6: Vetiver, perfumer Francis Kurkdjian has done something a bit different, by softening the earthy vetiver with the gentler, less abrasive scents of lavender, cloves, geranium and bergamot orange. Together they give Essence No6 a gentle touch of fruit, and even a hint of chocolate, though vetiver remains the star of the show. The result is deliciously rich and rounded, and you can really sense the quality of the ingredients. The chunky glass bottle, too, has an appealing weight to it, helped by the attractively unfussy, rather retro design, like a men’s after-shave from the 1930s. Perfect for wearing every day.

Edition Perfumes

On the Road

rsz_on_the_roadSince it was published in 1957, Jack Kerouac’s amphetamine-fuelled road-and-head-trip of a novel has inspired generations of would-be counter-culturalists to take off into the unknown, but until now, it has never inspired a perfume.

On the Road is only the second scent from East London-based Edition Perfumes, aka perfumer Timothy Han, but it follows in the literary footsteps of his first fragrance, She Came to Stay. Inspired by Simone de Beauvoir’s 1943 novel L’Invitée, She Came to Stay went on to be a best-seller for legendary London fashion boutique Browns.

Taking the plotline of Kerouac’s novel as its starting point, On the Road is one of those rare things in contemporary fragrance: a scent whose story unfolds on the skin – unlike so many recent perfumes, which continue to smell boringly identical from first spritz to final dreary gasp.

As Han describes his perfume, ‘it begins with smoky notes of benzoin and birch reminiscent of the hot asphalt and grittiness of New York City. Punctuated by forays into tobacco-filled bars where a new era in music is being defined by the jazz greats, our journey takes us through the openness of the dusty cornfields of a Mid-Western America and rises to the cedar forests of a Pacific Coast. The restlessness of the journey finally gives way to the optimism left by the fresh green fragrance of galbanum, citrus and bergamot.’

That is quite a lot to squeeze in to a 60ml bottle of perfume, but what we like about On the Road is that it really does develop in the hours after first spraying it on your wrist. Its initial burst of smoke and whisky gradually evolves into a very pleasing, long-lasting woody vetiver. It’s a fine piece of work, and all the more impressive given the quality of the design and packaging – though perhaps that’s less surprising once you learn that Han started his career as an assistant to John Galliano.

Though Han develops and makes his fragrances in his Dalston studio himself, he sees his work very much as a collaborative effort, and for On the Road he’s keen to mention hot young chefs Olia Hercules and Oliver Rowe, Hixter bartender James Randall and model Olivia Inge, without whom its launch, in Han’s words, ‘would have been a no-go’.

But perhaps the biggest shout should go out to the ebullient London artist Cedric Christie, whose photographs from a train trip he took from New Orleans to New York add an authentically On the Road-ish touch to the perfume boxes. Buyers get to choose from five different pictures, adding an extra layer of depth and desirability to the scent. All in all it’s a great launch, and I’m very much looking forward to Timothy Han’s next novel in a bottle.

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.

Aesop

Tacit

TacitLaunching worldwide in September, Tacit will only be Aesop’s second perfume (if you don’t count the long-discontinued Marrakech and Mystra), but this being Aesop there won’t be lots of razzmatazz. Everyone’s favourite Australian skincare brand likes to do things quietly, and Tacit – which means what’s left unsaid – captures the essence of Aesop pretty well.

Created by New York-based International Flavors & Fragrances perfumer Céline Barel, Tacit is a subdued take on a classic eau de cologne, though with the grapefruit-like Japanese yuzu replacing eau de cologne’s usual lemony opening, and basil leaves taking the place of rosemary and lavender in its herbaceous heart.

The result is a fresh, unsweetened unisex scent, with a touch of the sour vermouth dryness of Haitian vetiver, extracted from the root of a tropical grass. But this is no ordinary vetiver: instead Barel has used IFF-LMR’s trademarked Vetiver Heart – a cleverly smoothed-out version of traditional vetiver oil, using hydro distillation followed by fractional distillation to extract its usual earthy smell, leaving its slightly bitter dryness intact.

Tacit comes as a 50ml Eau de Parfum (the fragrance industry’s slightly vague term for a solution containing around 10-20 per cent pure perfume) in Aesop’s standard brown glass bottles, but despite the concentration it doesn’t outstay its welcome; in fact personally I’d like it to last a bit longer. The packaging is rather more extravagant: a slim card box decorated by Australian artist Jonathan McCabe, which nestles inside a chunkier brown box, lidded with a card, which in turn slides inside a brown card sleeve.

Tacit is unlikely to turn heads on the street, but that’s not what Aesop’s about: it’s sexy but well-mannered and discreet, which pretty much sums up the brand.

Guerlain

Derby

DerbyWhat a great perfume this is. Rich and complex yet totally wearable, Derby smells of old-fashioned luxury and style. It’s the kind of perfume that should have been name-checked in The Great Gatsby (surely the worst-written major novel of the 20th century), and yet it was first launched as recently as 1985, when electropop ruled the airwaves and shoulder-pads the size of aircraft carriers filled the pages of the fashion magazines.

It was created by Jean-Paul Guerlain, the last member of the family to run the brand and a great perfumer in his own right: his other triumphs include Habit Rouge, Chamade and the fantastic Vétiver. Derby smells like crushed aromatic herbs when you first spray it on: rosemary and lavender with a hint of mint, but mixed with more exotic things like patchouli and sandalwood. Mace and pepper add a tiny touch of spice, while oakmoss, leather and vetiver give it extra depth and staying-power. After a while it smells more leathery than anything else, though still with herbs and spices mixed in – the scent of a Greek mountainside in summer.

For a long time Derby was quite hard to track down, which added to its mystique, but in 2005 Guerlain relaunched it as part of its Parisiens collection, at which point is was probably (though of course perfume companies never tell you these things) slightly ‘tweaked’ to change some of its ingredients (such as oakmoss) to comply with EU legislation. In 2011 it was repackaged in what I think is a rather cheap-looking balsawood frame, and its price went up as well: today it’s one of Guerlain’s most expensive fragrances, which I think is a shame, as it deserves to be widely worn.

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.

Lalique

Encre Noire

Encre Noire 2Calling a perfume ‘black ink’ has intriguing connotations. ‘Black’ or ‘Noir(e)’ has been the perfume industry’s shorthand for ‘edgy’ ever since the 1998 launch of the striking but hard-to-wear Bulgari Black. Among the many followers in its wake we’ve had Ambre Noir, 1881 Black, Armani Privé Cuir Noir, Bois Noir, Coco Noir, Cologne Noir, Dahlia Noir, Datura Noir, Eau Noir, Fourreau Noir, even (I kid you not) Hello Kitty Noir.

So Encre Noire (which was launched in 2006) follows a bit of a bandwagon, though at least its name is better than most. It’s a nostalgic name, since hardly anyone uses ink (black or otherwise) these days, yet it’s evocative too – I can kind of imagine the smell of black ink, even though I must have been a teenager the last time I opened an actual bottle of the stuff.

Whatever you think about the name, Encre Noire is a fine addition to the many men’s perfumes to be based on the smell of vetiver, the vigorous tropical grass whose roots have a wonderful dry, earthy, slightly musky scent. My all-time favourite is Guerlain’s simply-named Vétiver, which starts with a burst of lemony freshness, but Encre Noire foresakes such tricks and sticks resolutely with vetiver all the way through.

I say ‘all the way through’, but of course it’s actually a bit more complicated than that, thanks to Nathalie Lorson, senior perfumer at the giant Swiss fragrance company Firmenich. When she created Encre Noire she cleverly smoothed off some of vetiver’s rough edges, adding tiny amounts of cypress extract (which has a dry, woody, slightly resinous smell), as well as synthetic musk and so-called ‘cashmere wood’. This is actually 2,3,5,6,7-hexahydro-1,2,3,3-pentamethyl-4h-inden-4-one, a chemical sold under the brand name of Cashmeran, which is widely used in perfumery (and household products) and has a soft, gently woody smell.

The final result an appealing and long-lasting perfume, though some people are always going to find vetiver too dry and bitter-smelling for their taste. As for the bottle, a black glass cube with a square wood-effect cap, I like its inkwell look, but its glossy surfaces all too quickly get smeared with fingerprints, and the lettering is so spare – just a bare ENCRE NOIRE in thin white sans-serif capitals – that (to me at least) it ends up looking a bit cheap and half-considered, though I’m sure it was anything but.

Minor gripes aside, this is a fine perfume, and even if, in the end, I think it’s unlikely to supplant Guerlain’s Vétiver in my affections, I think its popularity is well deserved.

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