21 August, 2015
Sage isn’t everyone’s favourite herb, though turkey stuffing wouldn’t the same without it. It’s used less often in perfumery than in cooking, but Jules shows what a great ingredient it can be in the hands of a brilliant perfumer.
The ‘nose’ in this case was Jean Martel, who worked for the French fragrance company Givaudan in the 1970s and 1980s and deserves to be far better known, not least because he also created that 1970s classic, Paco Rabanne for Men.
Jules was launched in 1980, with a brilliant advertising campaign featuring posters by René Gruau, arguably the greatest fashion illustrator of the last century, which helped the first bottles sell out in record time. Martel combined sage (which has a slightly catty smell) with cedar and other things like wormwood, lavender and bergamot. To me the result smells like sage and slightly peppery leather, though there’s a long list of other ingredients, including cumin, sandalwood, oakmoss, jasmine, musk and rose.
Despite its initial success, Jules has since been overshadowed by the success of Kouros, which was launched the following year. Created for Yves Saint Laurent by the brilliant Pierre (Cool Water) Bourdon, Kouros shares Jules’ clean / dirty / sexy character, and both scents belong to the same fragrance ‘family’, the fougères – a style of perfumes, usually aimed at men, based on a combination of lavender and coumarin (originally derived from tonka beans but usually synthesised).
Of course, Kouros’ ongoing popularity may be because it’s inherently superior to Jules, but actually I think it’s more to do with the fact that over the years Kouros has benefited from regular advertising, while Dior seems to have forgotten that Jules ever existed, which I think is a terrible shame.
To make matters worse, while you can buy Kouros pretty much anywhere, Jules has become ridiculously hard to find: I don’t know anywhere in the UK that sells it, and even in Paris the only place that seems to stock it is the department store Bon Marché, though you can buy it from Dior’s French website. Given Dior’s apparent lack of interest, it’s a wonder it hasn’t been discontinued, but I’m glad it’s still on sale, even if it’s now a rarity.
I can only hope that one day they decide to invest in promoting it again and making it available to all – but in the meantime if you want something special that very few other people will have, get over to Bon Marché.
4 July, 2015
Patchouli – a tropical plant in the mint family – has been used as a perfume for centuries. The story goes that it was introduced to the West by Chinese and Indian traders, who used its leaves in bundles of silk as a moth repellent. The perfume oil is extracted from the leaves of several closely related species belonging to the Pogostemon family, which are grown commercially across Asia and West Africa.
For many people the scent remains indelibly associated with the hippy era, when miasmatic waves of cheap patchouli oil belched forth from bong shops and student campuses across the Western world.
But while there’s still cheap patchouli around (try visiting Camden Market over a sweaty weekend), the highest quality oils have a completely different character. Light rather than heavy, fresh rather than sweaty, top-notch patchouli is a refined, delicious fragrance, working equally well on its own or in combination with other perfume ingredients – which is why it’s so widely used in perfumery still.
There aren’t, though, that many really classy men’s perfumes in which patchouli is the dominant scent – I guess because perfume companies feel that those unfortunate hippy associations are still too strong. Givenchy Gentleman used to be a fine men’s example, but sadly it has been reformulated in recent years and isn’t a patch on its previous incarnation, so it’s been great to discover Javanese Patchouli, from the smart Italian business-suit brand Ermenegildo Zegna.
Javanese Patchouli is one of six ‘premium’ perfumes in Zegna’s ‘Essenze’ collection, which was launched in 2012. Each of the perfumes is built around a single scent, sourced from a single country or region: apart from Javanese Patchouli there’s Haitian Vetiver, Italian Bergamot, Indonesian Oud, Sicilian Mandarin and Florentine Iris.
Each 125ml bottle in the Essenze range currently (in mid-2014) costs £140, so they’re certainly not cheap; by comparison a 100ml bottle of Zegna’s Uomo scent costs £60, less than half as much. But – and I hope by now I don’t automatically associate quality with price – the two I’ve tried so far do feel luxurious and refined.
Javanese Patchouli smells, to me, like nothing else, in the sense that all I smell is patchouli, of the highest quality. Given that it’s such a lovely, gentle smell that’s absolutely fine with me, though apparently its ingredients also include soft, faintly chocolatey tonka bean, cedar wood, bergamot and pink pepper. I can’t smell any of those, but perhaps my nose is simply not sensitive enough; if they help make this perfume smell as good as it does, though, I’m perfectly happy that they’re there. I only wish I knew who the perfumer was so I could congratulate her or him.
The bottle (which after all is part of what you’re buying) is well made too, in heavy glass with a black magnetic cap that clonks satisfyingly in place, like the door of an expensive limousine. It’s not, perhaps, quite as sophisticated a design as comparable ‘premium’ perfumes from Dior or Chanel, but at least it’s not hideous or tacky, which all too many contemporary perfume bottles are. And the box it comes in conceals some rather clever cardboard technology, which locks the bottle snugly into place in an oddly pleasing way.
My only criticism, I suppose, is that I can’t smell it on my skin for very long. I was going to say that’s a bit of a swizz, since for £140 you’d hope to get something that didn’t disappear so fast, but I’m told that other people can smell it hours after I can, so at least someone else will get the benefit of your investment.
4 March, 2015
The latest addition to the ‘Jardin’ range of perfumes from Hermès takes China as its inspiration, though apparently the original intention was to develop a fragrance inspired by English gardens. Sadly it seems that Jean-Claude Ellena, the company’s starry in-house perfumer, found the idea too conventional and boring, responding to the suggestion with words to the effect of ‘who wants to smell another rose garden?’
If that’s true I think it’s a shame, since English gardens are some of the most varied and imaginative in the world, and I’d have loved to get the chance to show Ellena the all-green garden at Rousham, say, or the vast yew terraces of Powis Castle. Then again, perhaps he simply fancied travelling somewhere more exotic than could be reached within the limits of a day-trip on the Eurostar.
Either way, Chinese gardens, with their long and literary history, offer rich material for a creative perfumer, and it can’t hurt that China is a vast and expanding market for luxury brands, as attested by Hermès’ sumptuous new store in Shanghai.
Though the Monsieur Li of the title is imaginary, Ellena’s visits to Chinese gardens were made with the Chinese painter Li Xin, who moved from Beijing to Paris in 2002 and whose work forms a perfect counterpoint to Ellena’s: subtly sophisticated abstract ‘landscapes’ in washes of ink on creased rice-paper, one of which decorates the box for Le Jardin de Monsieur Li.
‘So,’ Hermès tell us, ‘Jean-Claude Ellena travelled to China. He visited gardens. Many gardens. Each one was unique but they all spoke the same language of fluidity and precision. So he created his own garden. An imaginary place inspired by the symbolic power of all the gardens he had seen. An earthly paradise in miniature, on a human scale. A retreat in which to converse with oneself and with others, and to honour one’s ancestors…
‘A vantage point from which to observe the soul and creation, where different kinds of beauty never compete but rather complement and enhance one another. A place that can only be fully experienced if one takes a partial tour of it every day, humbly and eagerly, with an eye that is ever fresh and a heart that is ever pure.’
If you’re feeling slightly queasy by now join the club, though this is par for the course for perfume PR. It probably sounds just fine in French, but high-flown purple prose translates terribly into Anglo-Saxon English, and I do wish they wouldn’t bother.
All the same it’s interesting to read what Ellena says about the smells that inspired him when he started work on Le Jardin de Monsieur Li at his house in Cabris near Grasse. ‘I remembered the scent of the pools, of the jasmine, the wet stones, the plum trees, the kumquats and the giant bamboo. It was all there, even the carp in their pond, taking the time to live to a hundred. The Sichuan pepper bushes were as thorny as roses and the leaves gave off a lemony scent.’
And can you smell this in the perfume itself? The answer is yes and no. I can certainly smell lemon and something like kumquats – a sweet, slightly strawberryish smell, though far less sweet than the delirious strawberry-kumquat scent of Black XS for Men from Paco Rabanne. I get a hint of jasmine, but it’s subtle and restrained enough for Le Jardin de Monsieur Li to be equally intriguing on a woman or a man.
It smells quite green and fresh to me as well, which I guess suggests the giant bamboo; Hermès describe the perfume’s ‘key notes’ as ‘Jean-Claude Ellena’s personal evocation of Vegetal Jasmine, Mint, Kumquat and Sap’.
What I like about this perfume most might drive other people mad, which is that I can’t quite put my finger on what it smells of, but to me that’s intriguing enough to make me want to keep wearing it. And though it’s subtle and restrained, Le Jardin de Monsieur Li has a staying power that some of Ellena’s other perfumes lack – worth noting when a 100ml bottle costs £84. Still, it’s a lovely scent and a beautiful bottle too, in heavy glass suffused by a pale shade of imperial yellow that delicately deepens from top to bottom.