The Sniff Box – Perfume In Plain English

Tagged With ‘woody’

Hermès

Equipage Géranium

rsz_equipage_geraniumEquipage is such a classic perfume that it’s tempting to ask why anyone would mess with it, but that’s a bit like wondering why anyone would want to reinterpret the Beatles’ original version of Yesterday.

Created by the perfumer Guy Robert and launched in 1970, Equipage was the first Hermès perfume to be designed specifically for men, and Robert composed a rich, subtly spicy scent which includes – among many other things – bergamot orange, jasmine, lily of the valley and clove-scented carnations.

Forty-five years on, the company’s in-house perfumer, Jean-Claude Ellena, has revisited three of its classics, in each case pairing them with a new ingredient. First came Bel Ami Vétiver, followed by Rose Amazone, and now we have his updated version of Equipage – Equipage Géranium.

If Ellena’s attempt to give Equipage a modern twist isn’t (to my nose at least) entirely successful, his choice of geranium (or pelargonium, to be botanically correct) as a new ingredient is a typically clever and imaginative one. Though the leaves of different species of pelargonium smell of everything from lemon to cinnamon, most of the so-called geranium oil used in perfumery comes from a single South African species, Pelargonium graveolens. As with all natural ingredients, geranium oil comes in a range of different grades, but they generally share a fresh, slightly sharp smell that’s usually described as both fruity and minty, often with a hint of rose.

I’m guessing that it was the fresh, minty element of geranium oil that appealed to Jean-Claude Ellena, and Equipage Géranium does smell a tiny bit fresher and sharper than the original Equipage – but it’s a subtle twist rather than a radical reinvention. I’m not sure it’s sufficiently different to make it worth choosing over the original, but unlike many of Ellena’s perfumes, which are always refined but sometimes stripped down until they’re slightly colourless, Equipage Géranium retains all the richness and complexity of its inspiration. Given the crude simplicity of so many modern scents, that’s a quality to be celebrated.

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.

Hermès

Voyage d’Hermès parfum

I wouldn’t normally suggest starting your day with a gin and tonic, but that’s exactly what the ‘pure perfume’ version of Voyage d’Hermès smells like when first you spray it on. It’s not really gin and tonic, of course, but it does share two important ingredients: alcohol (which doesn’t in itself smell of anything) and juniper, which adds its bracing, slightly bitter fragrance to both gin and Voyage d’Hermès parfum.

So why not simply spritz yourself with a glass of Gordon’s? It would certainly be cheaper, but if you smell it again after a few minutes you’ll notice that Voyage d’Hermès parfum has more to it than gin. In fact it develops into a very pleasant, slightly spicy-smelling scent, with hints of coriander and pepper and a warm, comforting woodiness underneath.

Launched in 2012, this is in-house perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena’s second take on the original Voyage from 2010, which (backed by a serious advertising budget) went on to become a big seller for the brand. While the original version is a relatively insubstantial eau de toilette – that is, the liquid in the bottle contains around 10 per cent actual perfume, diluted in odourless alcohol – this revised version is labelled as ‘parfum’, or ‘pure perfume’.

But is it? In industry jargon, to call something a ‘parfum’ generally indicates a concentration of around 40 per cent, with a punch – and a price-tag – to match. Yet Voyage d’Hermès parfum costs only around £10 more than the earlier eau-de-toilette, which seems odd. (For comparison purposes, a 50ml bottle of Chanel No5 eau-de-toilette costs about £55, while a mere 30ml of the parfum would set you back £220.) Nor does Voyage d’Hermès parfum last as long as you’d hope a ‘true’ perfume would; in fact it doesn’t even last as long as other Hermès eau-de-toilettes such as Equipage or Bel Ami, which can see you through the day.

So what’s going on? Like other online reviewers I suspect that what we have here is actually what’s known as an eau de parfum, with a concentration of between 15 and 20 per cent, which has been inadvertently mislabelled as a parfum. That’s a shame, as the world of perfume is mystifying enough without muddling up its terminology. Maybe Hermès can explain.

That gripe aside, Voyage d’Hermès parfum is an attractive, easy-to-wear fragrance, and like its predecessor it comes in a nifty bottle (in charcoal grey rather than the earlier version’s clear glass) that swivels within a protective metal case. OK, it’s a bit of a gimmick, but it’s been nicely done given the cost constraints of a mass-produced scent, and as a perfume it’s a safe choice for anyone who isn’t, perhaps, too confident about wearing anything too offbeat or eccentric. Or who simply enjoys the occasional G&T.

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.

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.

 

Francis Kurkdjian

Pluriel

Apologies for the recent radio silence: holidays followed by a family drama and so-far unsuccessful job-hunting. Normal service will (I hope) be renewed before long, but in the meantime I thought it might be an idea to do a quick recent-releases round-up of some perfumes I’ve kindly been sent in the last couple of months that don’t, I feel, merit a full review of their own.

I’ll start with PLURIEL, the latest men’s fragrance from the super-talented French-Armenian perfumer Francis Kurkdjian. Listening to him at the London launch I couldn’t help but like him: he speaks with such knowledge and passion, and he draws such interesting parallels between perfume and other kinds of artistry. His fragrances are excellently packaged too, with a nesting double box and a nicely proportioned bottle like a chamfered cube.

My problem is that his perfumes just don’t seem to suit me: I’ve tried them all so far and none of them appeal (see my review of Absolue Pour le Matin). The men’s version of Pluriel takes two of the main elements in male perfumery – the smells of lavender and wood – but Kurkdjian has given them a contemporary twist by using lavender absolute rather than lavender oil, and by mixing a number of different woody smells to create an impressionist ‘blur’ of woodiness. As he explains, lavender absolute has the same overall smell as lavender oil, but it has more depth; a bit like playing the same tune an octave lower.

It’s sophisticated perfumery, but while I admire Kurkdjian’s defence of synthetic ingredients, which he compares to Pantone colour charts for giving him a far greater range of effects than natural ingredients ever could, I think that, ironically, it’s precisely their synthetic smell that puts me off his fragrances.

As a professional perfumer with a long and successful industry career, he also says that he wants to create commercial scents: that makes good financial sense, especially for someone running his own relatively small business, but the downside (and again this is just how it seems to me) is that they can end up smelling like pretty much every other big-selling men’s perfume out there, which is how Pluriel smells to me. And given how much thought and care has gone into creating it, I think that’s a shame.

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