Salt-Cured Angel Wings

Tobacco & Leather Week (May 11-15)

In line with last' weeks Leather & Tobacco theme, I'm wearing the new Cuir d'Ange (angel's leather) from the Hermessence collection. This is the first perfume that is both intriguing and wearable that came out of this line since, perhaps, Vanille Galante. And in fact, it also layers quite well with it.

Cuir d'Ange is both bold and delicate, if such a thing is even possible for a leather scent. By the name of it, I'd expect something much more delicate, actually, like Chamois leather - feathery, lightweight and reminiscent of a baby's head. I'd expect more powder and musk.

Instead, Cuir d'Ange smells more like the stretched skin on a dumbek drum, or perhaps like cured angel's wings... There is more than just a tad of smokiness at the start, but there is also a sweetness lurking underneath, a touch of vanilla and also the briny element that was in Vanilla Galante (which inspired me to layer them together - and you should try it too!).

There is a hint of an aquatic element as well. Peculiar as it is, is actually works and adds an interesting dimension to the scent yet without making it unpalatable (which is almost the case for Épice Marine). If anything it bring stop mind the saltwater taffy that I fondly remember from Vanilla Galante.

Comparing to the rest of the line, it has an excellent staying power and a diffusive sillage, but not too obtrusive. It's almost as if there is a feathery lightness to it, which make it easy to wear. And it's far more intriguing than any of the scents ever been since Poivre Samarcande and Vetiver Tonka saw the light of day. I want to find out more about the story behind it.

Cold Milk

I was a couple of years late into the game trying Santal Massoïa Jean-Claude Ellena (created for the Hermèssence collection). Perhaps it was after the Iris Ukioye that I felt a little disappointed in the line. I feel that the majority of the new creations are becoming victim of their own style. As if the creator's commitment to stick to a certain genre of aesthetic statement. I feel that no matter what theme would be picked for this line, and no matter how outrageously intriguing the combination of notes may be, the result would be the same ethereal, non-descript quality of non perfume. Something quite pleasant, utterly wearable and easily so.

Like many of the scents in the collection, in the several times I wear it and try to find words to describe it - I stick my nose really close to my wrist and shake my head from side to side in search for something more. And before it has any chance to appear, the scent disappears altogether. Which is truly unfortunate in the case of Santal Massoïa. I was truly excited to discover what Jean-Claude Ellena would do with such an intriguing raw material as massoia bark: a rarity in the world of naturals, offering an extremely milky, lactonic odour reminiscent of toasted coconut and melted butter. It would have been the perfect accompaniment to sandalwood - highlighting its milky, creamy qualities, especially the Mysore kind which is practically non existent. This would have helped, I thought, to create a similar quality even in lesser varieties from, say, Australia or New Caledonia.

Instead, I get a watered-down, vaguely woody rendition with hints of peppery spice - sort of a cross between Iris Ukioye, somewhat violetty tea-like hints like Osmnathe Yunnan, and a very subtle wink towards Poivre Samarcande (but with non of the piquant originality of the latter). The sandalwoodiness of it is practically a reflection of a reflection of a clear water pool in a mirror; and the milkiness is more reminiscent of cold milk that one would gulp to wash down a very dry and neutral flavoured shortbread. Maybe if this appeared before any of the above scents did, it would seem original. But being the tenth fragrance in the collection, I desire for something more, something original and surprising. Which haven't happened since the launch of Vanille Galante, and only happened again with Épice Marine (the 11th in the series). This is very thin and linear, which is unfortunate, because neither sandalwood nor massoia are. It left me lukewarm and wanting much more.

Eau de Narcisse Bleue

morning narcissus by F_blue
morning narcissus, a photo by F_blue on Flickr.
Like the black narcissus, the blue lense on this flower also relies heavily on orange blossom to tell its fantastic tale of seductive yet destructive self-loving.

Eau de narcisse bleue is unexpectedly part of Hermes' cologne collection; a fragrance family characterized by effervescent citrus, pungent herbs and overall cheerfulness. Eau de narcisse bleue, like its former abstract floral cologne eau de gentiane blanche, is melancholy and more than sunny Mediterranean patios and azure sea and skies, it brings to mind a walk in a Northern garden early in early autumn morning after it rained. There is still a fair amount of vegetation from the sunny summer left - cyclamens, irises and many leafy greens. The air is filled with a crisp watery freshness of green grass and violet leaves crushed underneath one's foot. It's so vegetale that it's reminiscent of a very green gazpacho and juiced greens and wheat-grass.

The opening notes are those of vulnerable orange blossoms drenched in iced green tea (which undoubtedly would be what rain is made from in the Ellena's world). Their scent is sweet and cheerful, but is diminished by the celestial rinse. Echoed from the distance are narcissus flowers peeking through the green shrubs and represented by the sweet scent of hay more than anything else. You'll find non of the animalic, paracresyl methyl ether characteristics of the flower that give it the unbearble leathery corpse personality. Just a whiff of the narcissus' green top notes, resembling lily of the valley in their ethereal greenness.

Then comes iris, and the playful orange blossom all but disappears. Cool and powdery yet also sweet and plasticy, the iris brings to mind Hiris, which may as well be the blueprint for both Narcisse Bleue and Gentiane Blanche. At the present makeup of this collection, it is a bit astonishing that Hiris wasn't drafted to serve as a cologne as well.

The dry down is a bit disappointing though: it reverts to a non-descript musky coumarin whisper. Vague, sweet and disappointing at the end of an interesting exercise in restrained story-telling and subtle olfactory imaging.

Top note: Tea, Orange Blossom
Heart notes: Iris, Violet Leaf, Narcissus, Hay
Base notes: Tonka Bean, Musk

Eau de Mandarine Ambrée

mandarin by kierobau
mandarin, a photo by kierobau on Flickr.
For a cologne with the the adjectif amber in the title, Eau de mandarine ambrée is surprisingly green. And cool.

True to the eau de cologne genre, eau de mandarine ambrée begins with a rush of bitter orange zest, whose juicy tartness is only intensified by undertones of passionfruit*. The mandarin itself is rather tart as well, rather than the characteristic sweetness of Citrus reticulata. Amber plays an interesting role, giving a cool presence rather than sweet-confectionary. Rather than embodying the honeyed and perhaps floral nuances of mandarin, it recalls crushed leaves and cool greenery in the shade of an abstract glass orchard.

For an eau de cologne, this has an astonishing longvity, although true to Ellena's style, it remains quiet and vague throughout. The amber lingers on and on - it's a clear, cool and transparent amber, not nearly as sweet as those with rich vanilla absolute and labdanum resin. Instead, it relies on distilled resins and balsams (Peru and copaiba balsams, as well as less-sweet labdanum isolates), and synthetic molecules which I know nothing about**.

The concept of amber within the refreshing, light composition of citrus and herbs is not new: Spanish-style eaux de colognes are long-known for incorporating cistus, the plant bearing labdanum resin, and an essential component of ambers. Cistus has a coniferous, herbaceous facet in addition to its resinous-amber aspect. Ellena plays with a similar concept, while conjuring modern ambery elements that carry the illusion of crushed chilled leaves and mandarin pulp to control the sweetness of amber. 

* Thus continuing the theme of fruit in the refurbished eau de cologne series: Eau d'Orange Verte had the addition of mango; and Pamplemousse Rose had rhubarb ( not botanically a fruit, but considered as such by North American cooks...). The Jardin series features fruit more consistently: Fig in Mediteranee, green mango in Sur Le Nil, cantaloupe in Apres la Mousson, and pear in Le Toit.

** Except that I can recognize this as the amber same I've smelled years ago in DiorAddict, Kingdom and Nu.

Tea and Perfume: Time is of Essence

Mariage Frères, purveyors of Tea, originally uploaded by maralina!.

Although tea and perfume both have a deep connection in the history of mankind through medicine, rituals and the magical species in the plant kingdom, it was not until recently that tea made its way as a note into perfumery.

Both tea and perfume are art forms and ancient rituals that take place in time: the many aspects of tea take place in time. Time is of essence in every aspect of tea: The art of growing, harvesting and processing the tea (i.e.: fermentation, oxidation, roasting, etc.) and than of course the preparation for brewing a cup of tea – waiting for the water to reach the ideal temperature, steeping the tea, and finally, sipping it in perfect harmony with the leaf, oneself and the company involved.

Perfume also requires time for preparing the raw materials (growing, harvesting, and distillation or extraction) and than there maturation – the magic that happens in the beaker when all the molecules connect and mingle and marry. It takes time to make a good perfume, not to mention the planning that goes into it on behalf of the perfumer who designs it (and the same goes for the ancient wisdom that evolved into the sophisticated tea cultures we can see today).

But more than that, perfume also changes over time. From the moment it escapes the bottle and lands on one’s skin, it morphs into at least 3 different stages, most commonly known as head notes, heart notes and base notes. And the pace and exact evolution that occurs on one’s skin makes each perfume a unique, unmatched experience.

Similarly in tea, there are different stages at which the tea can be enjoyed – the dry leaf or blend, before it has been brewed; the aroma of the brewed tea as it rises with steam from the cup, than the way it tastes in one’s mouth, and finally – the aftertaste that is left behind, usually at the back of the palette or the throat. My friend and tea master Dawna Ehman pointed out to me that these stages are very similar to the top, heart and base notes in perfume.

Perfumed tea is a term known mostly to true perfume connoisseurs and it’s a very ancient term in tea culture and is the ancient art of perfuming tea with fresh living flowers or plant matter. For example: rose congou is achieved by layering rose petals among black China tea. The process is very similar to enfleurage, only it is tea leaves that soak the fragrance of the flowers, rather than animal fat. Thousands of petals of Jasmine Sambac are layered between tea leaves and are replaced by new ones until the green tea achieves its distinct aroma. And a similar process creates other more rare floral teas such as magnolia oolong or pomelo blossom green tea (the one used in Charisma).

And while perfume made its way into tea thousands of years ago, it is strange perhaps that it’s only in the past 15 years or so that the one can hear of the notion of tea within a perfume composition. Why?

We said it earlier: tea is subtle. And so is tea absolute (both green and black). It doesn’t give the hit that an essential oil of grapefruit would have, for example. It really is not that impressive raw material. My guess is that tea really needs the chemistry that water gives it to open up. And so it is not really surprising to find that tea as a note did not make it to perfumery until the early 90’s. The 90’s were marked by the craving of fresh, clean, gender-neutral scents. At the same time, as is usually the case with trends, it all starts with a fad of one innovative individual who’s either stubborn to death or very intuitive about what everyone else is secretly craving. In the world of perfume, that person happened to be Jean-Claude Ellena.

The story goes that he had the idea for a “tea” scent for a few years before it finally got accepted as a perfume by the jewelry house of Bvlgari. The inspiration was none other than Mariage Frères shop in Paris – a tea shop that even I can attest to its magic as an olfactoroy experience alone. They seem to have hundreds of different kinds of tea, and the atmosphere there is pensive as if time stops once you’re in. Monsieur Ellena did not try to capture the real-life aroma of tea, nor did he want to brew any specific type of tea. He created the abstract suggestion of un-steeped tea leaves by pairing two molecules: hedione (a component in Jasmine) and ionone (a component in Violet Leaf). And voila – he made tea. The only problem was that no one was interested in it as a commercial product, perhaps it seemed to avant-garde, or simple or strange; until the house of Bvlgari commissioned him to make a perfume to scent their shop, which became a perfume, which became very popular. And from than on, tea has become the craze of the 90’s and early millennium – as part of the trend for fresh, light, inoffensive, unisex, non-perfumey fragrances.

The copycats of Bvlgari’s Eau Parfumee au The Vert (that was the name of the perfume when it was finally released to the public, not just the Bvlgari jewelry boutique customers) are too many to count, but among the most significant and successful of them, we must mention Elizabeth Arden’s Green Tea (1999, by Francis Kurdjian). Later on, other types of tea entered the perfume counters: Lapsang Suchong in Bvlgari Black and l’Artisan Parfumeur Tea for Two (2000, Olivia Giacobetti), the South American Mate (Villorsei’s Yerbamate, 2001), and most lately rooibos tea notes in Eau Parfumee au The Rouge for Bvlgari (and my own Immortelle l’Amour).

Tomorrow: natural raw materials with tea or tea-like notes.

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