Review: Guerlain Pamplelune — 5.0 points

All this time I had viewed the slightly tinted juices of the Aqua Allegoria series packaged in simple bottles as variations on a theme of flowers and fruits. That they were no more than pleasant eaux de cologne had been my impression all along, and I had not been curious about them. But when I first tried Pamplelune (Guerlain, 1999) by perfumer Mathilde Laurent, such prejudice was quickly banished. Already, its perverse opening of sulphurous acridity and wonderfully tart bergamot makes a clear statement: Pamplelune is not your typical sweet and pleasant tutti-frutti.

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At its heart is one-of-a-kind grapefruit accord replete with furious pungency, citrusy tang, and bubbly delight. It is built around 20% lemon oil and 14% orange oil. Neroli and petitgrain lend their spicy and floral accent. But what I find most intriguing is the tart blackcurrant buds. Its green, fruity-leafy note and lasting power imbue Pamplelune with a unique character. The fresh tartness of its citrus never seems to fade.

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As the effervescence calms, Pamplelune turns woody and sensual with patchouli and vanilla. The camphoraceous woods and sweetness provide diffusion and a nice contrasting aspect. The lasting dry down of tart citrus versus earthy woods is an interesting change from the more typical musky finish. And, more importantly, there is no fruit syrup here.

I admire Pamplelune for its distinctive bites in the top and the powerful refreshing effect of blackcurrant buds. To top that off, its vats of citrus oils give Pamplelune a natural complexity. Its grapefruit is simply inimitable.

Sources: guerlain.fr, Scent and Chemistry The Molecular World of Odors

Reformulation is not the end of the world

There are various reasons for reformulation of a perfume: production cost, market preference, availability of raw materials, or environmental and health issues. It is no surprise that companies cut corners by reformulating the original recipe to increase profits. Also to drive sales, they attune their products to consumers’ taste for stronger fragrances with powerful synthetics. But, more often than not, reformulation is inevitable because certain raw materials are no longer available, limited in distribution, or of a very different quality. For example, if synthetic musks did not replace their natural counterparts, the ravenous demand for perfumes would probably drive the musk deer to extinction. And, in the case of ambergris, the amount harvested from the shores of New Zealand alone cannot sustain such a demand. With tuberose, the characteristic richness from enfleurage extract cannot be maintained due to the prohibitive cost of the laborious method, and only the greener solvent-extracted absolute is available to fill the gap. More importantly, however, modern technology has informed us of the potential health risks of these raw materials that necessitate the reformulation of our favourite perfumes.

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Musk pods (left) and Siberian musk deer (Moschus moschiferus) (right)

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Ambergris

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Simple enfleurage of tubersoe flowers (Polianthes tuberosa)

Regardless of the actual reason for reformulation, the International Fragrance Association (IFRA), which provides the safety guideline, often comes under fire for its lists of restricted materials. Whilst such changes can render your favourite compositions mediocre, I do not think it is fair to lambaste the IFRA. They are not there to destroy the future of perfumery; in fact, they even safeguard it by ensuring that we do not develop rashes or sun burns and begin suing fragrance companies for such cases. The craft of perfumery will not be lost simply because one door is closed. I sincerely believe, as my late mentor in science often said whenever I was stuck with an inexplicable result, that ‘one finds a way around it’. It is the creativity and passion that drives perfumery and keeps it alive. And, such challenges actually open a new door. A blessing in disguise, perhaps?

Sources: bbc.co.uk, wikipedia.com, profumo.it, Luckyscent, Dabney Rose

Review: Hermès Muguet Porcelaine — 5.0 points

Lily of the valley or muguet is a classic example of flowers that refuse to yield a feasible quality or quantity of essence. Perfumers make it their eternal quest to capture its delicate scent. They initially constructed muguet based on combinations of essential oils, but later painted their ideas of the flower with the help of new aroma chemicals such as hydroxycitronellal, Lyral, and Lilial. But these were later found to be able to induce allergic reactions and are therefore restricted or even banned. Given such limitations, it is a creative challenge for perfumers to compose and interpret the scent of these white bells.

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Enter Muguet Porcelaine (Hermès, 2016), a testament to the mastery of perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena. The lily of the valley is vividly captured here with notes of fresh rose, spicy clove, jasmine, and green sap. A surprising melon accent makes the accord full-bodied with its fruity voluptuous touch. Its vivid beginning is as bright as the start of a fine spring day.

But as the clove-like freshness of its floral evaporates, the dewy greenery becomes more apparent. The interplay between peppery floral and watery green note keeps the muguet accord fresh. The sum is spot-lit, radiant lilies of the valley amidst their lush foliage. It also leaves a crisp green dry down that lingers for as long as six hours on me, and it has a green trail.

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I adore it with just as much enthusiasm as I do Diorissimo (Dior, 1956). Whereas the latter is an impressionistic take that paints a mélange of muguets and damp woodlands, Muguet Porcelaine is a close study of muguet. Here, the white porcelain bells are clearly delineated with floral, spicy, and green nuances, and then nestled amidst their dewy leafy stalks. Perfumer Edmond Roudnitska gave a fantasy of vernal woodlands for Diorissimo, but Jean-Claude Ellena draws our attention also to its evergreen foliage — it provides just as beautiful a lush ground cover in summer and through to autumn. With Muguet Porcelaine, he met the creative challenge successfully and in his own way.

Source: uk.hermes.com

Review: Frédéric Malle Portrait of A Lady — 4.5 points

Named after the 1881 novel ‘The Portrait of A Lady’ by author Henry James, the perfume surely must have raised questions as to the association with the novel’s heroine, Isabel Archer. What would be the connection? What would this American heiress smell of? Would Portrait of A Lady (Frédéric Malle, 2010) smell of her? This left me pondering.

Considering the rigorous tenets of a proper Victorian lady, Isabel Archer would eschew the sensual oriental drama of Portrait of A Lady. Opulent perfumes were the embodiment of vulgarity and impropriety, regardless of the social standing of the person who wore it, however high the station. Even Queen Victoria, on her 1855 state visit to Paris, was overtly criticized by Le Messager des Modes for her choice of perfume that emitted a ‘distasteful hint of musk’, despite her irreproachable stature. Such strong fragrances were the opposite of ‘good taste’. Meanwhile, lavender, violet, and eaux de cologne would be more likely; their representation of discretion, modesty, and hygiene was never in doubt.

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Nicole Kidman in The Portrait of A Lady (1996). Feisty, is she not? I should think that this version of her likes this Frédéric Malle’s perfume very much.

Portrait of A Lady is as far from Victorian propriety as possible. It is a sweeping force of opulent rose set in an oriental frame. The moment I sprayed it, I decided that I could no longer be bothered to make the connection with Isabel Archer. All my thoughts before were swept away.

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Dollops of hot pepper act as a prelude to the oriental theme along with clove and cinnamon. Its glaring brightness makes a strong introductory statement. The hot cloves and cinnamon remain as a lasting bright accent throughout the development.

The rose of Portrait of A Lady is sublime. It has a honeyed, raspberry-confit facet that lends an opulent curve to the composition. This decadent jammy richness also tells plenty about the quality that goes into the juice. It lasts through to the dry down. Its dense and rich character blankets the dark oriental notes that begin to emerge.

Much of the oriental flair comes from patchouli, incense, and musk. The rich woody notes of patchouli are interspersed with strong resinous accents of incense. Its interplay is rounded by plenty of musks.  and creamy softness of sandalwood. A crisp ambery accent sets a warm sensual tone to this oriental recipe.

The oriental rose of Portrait of A Lady is not a novel idea, but the quality and peerless execution by perfumer Dominique Ropion give it character and performance that stand out. Sterling ingredients are used with such lavish hands that the resulting richness already marks the rose with a distinctive note. The spicy contrast also lasts until the finish. The pairing of an opulent, fruity rose with rich woods and incense create a dark, dramatic accord. It lasts for days, and can sometimes come back on laundered clothes. A single spray is highly recommended, and even then, one is certain to leave a trail. That being said, this is the kind of perfume to wear with confidence. Its mysterious whirlwind may turn heads and draw questions.

Sources: ocado.com, sundaytimes.co.uk, gearpatrol.org

  1. The Force of Fashion in Politics and Society: Global Perspectives from Early Modern to Contemporary Times, p. 97-113.
  2. Le miasme et la jonquille, p. 323

Review: Carthusia Mediterraneo — 3.5 points

A summer in Campania is, by and large, what many would consider a paradise. The heat, however, can present quite a challenge to that notion even on the most beautiful escape such as Capri, an island off the Gulf of Naples. The scorching sun not only made the journey up to the town with other tourists via the funicolare steamy and funky, but it also started to present some serious threats of sunburns. So, I decided to take refuge in the many shops along the dainty Via Camerelle alley.

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The little shops of Via Camerelle in Capri

Impressed by the Mediterranean idylls, I was looking also for a token to remind me of that beautiful summer, a piece of Capri. There were so many affordable touristy products: I LOVE CAPRI T-shirts, cups, bags, refrigerator magnets et cetera, but they would remind me more of cheap cookie-cutter productions than the bucolic Mediterranean island. I finally stumbled upon Mediterraneo (Carthusia, 2003), a perfume from the local niche house.

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Mediterraneo by perfumer Laura Tonatto gives the impression of a very good iced lemon tea, especially generous with the lemons. It opens with a firework of citrus: zesty lemon, bergamot, and sweet mandarin accented by aromatic herbs. Once the effervescence calms, there is a jasminic overtone to the composition.

As the rustic herbs gain their grounds, the sum is now a balance of tangy lemon, jasminic sweetness, and soothing iced tea. This continues for a decent three to four hours on skin and fabric, which is more than many other citrus-based eaux de toilette. And, while it lasts, it stays close, like a personal glass of cool refreshment.

Mediterraneo does not set out to be a grand parfum, but is meant as a refreshing touch. It is imbued with the exuberance of Sorrento lemons and agrestic herbs that hark back to that summer in Campania. It may not merit the exemplary status amongst its counterparts, but Mediterraneo has its own charm. To me, it brings back the rough charms of Naples, the picturesque ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the sun-drenched villas of Capri.

Source: dasparfumklima.de

Sechseläuten: The Arrival of Spring in Zürich

The ‘Sechseläuten’ or locally ‘Sächsilüüte’ was born and has been held at this time of year in Zürich, usually the third Monday of April, at the namesake Sechseläutenplatz. Its origin could be traced back to the society of the time.

In the past, work could only be done as long as there was light, so the working day of winter ended at 5:00 pm when sun light faded into the horizon. But, in summer, the sun continued to shine until 6:00 pm and work could be prolonged by an hour. Therefore, the city council, which comprised members of the Zürich guilds of craftsmen, decided that the summer working day should be extended by an hour around this time of year. Thus, the church bell of the Grossmünster would be rung at six o’clock — um sechs Uhr läuten in German — in the evening to mark the new end of working day. Coincidentally, at around the same time of year, the youths of Kratz Quarter, an area around the Fraumünster, often paraded through the streets with effigies of the bogeyman or ‘Böög’ tied to their wagons. These were later burnt in places around the Quarter. The two traditions would later combine and give birth to the modern spring festival.

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Guild members making their way to the Sechseläutenplatz

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Burning of the Böörg at Sechseläutenplatz

Before the day of the Sechseläuten, the children paraded with the Böög on Sunday afternoon clad in traditional costumes. Today everyone gathered at Sechseläutenplatz to observe the spectacle of the event: the burning of the Böög on a pyre towards its explosive finale. Horsemen consisting of the men of the guilds circled the pyre as the old hunting march continued to play in the background towards the explosion of the head.

Tradition has it that the burning time foretells the weather of the year. The quicker the head of the Böög explodes, the better the summer of that year it should be. You can see the general correlation between the combustion duration and the weather below. This year, in particular, has just set a record of the longest burning time of 43 minutes and 34 seconds. Whether the Böög would foreshadow the eternal winter remains to be seen. I, for one, hope that modern meteorology would prove him wrong!

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Afterwards, guild members left to celebrate the day at the various ‘Zunfthaus’ — guild houses. And, the real fun started as the crowd approached the remaining ember to grill their wursts!

Of course, the town was full of colours, and here are some of the sights I have managed to capture today:

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Wir kutschieren Sie ans Sechseläuten — We chauffeur you around the Sechseläuten

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One of the many fountains in the old town brimming with flowers to welcome the guild members

Sources: nzz.ch, zuerich.com

Review: Guerlain Pera Granita — 3.0 points

Next in the series of Aqua Allegoria is Pera Granita (Guerlain, 2016) by in-house perfumer Thierry Wasser. ‘Pear granita’ references the Sicilian ice-based dessert known as granita siciliana. It is similar to sorbet, but has a rougher mouthfeel due to the crystalline texture of the ice. So, pear sorbet is as close as the name Pera Granita could be interpreted. And, Pera Granita, though not peculiarly Sicilian or fastidious about its texture, fulfils its promise of a sweet and sour treat.

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Its tart pear introduction is juicy with drizzles of lemonade.  The accord is quickly backed by blooming florals. Amongst others, the sweet apricot note of osmanthus and the sensual roundness of orange blossom come to my mind. Pera Granita seems to strike the balance between tart fruits and florals. But, sadly, the pear top fades all too quickly, leaving only its tangy after-taste. What remains is a lemony, rosy accord with musks. In the late stages, the balance is tipped to the sweet musky side. It is quite nicely done, but not very exciting.

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If anything, I wish the tart pear were more long-lasting and with more interesting support as in the case of Pamplelune (Guerlain, 1999). However, Pera Granita is just as a pear sorbet should be. It has to be sweet and it does just that, with some sliver of natural complexity to refine the fruity-floral composition. And, whilst I would not be asking for poached pear in red wine with cinnamon and anise from this Aqua Allegoria, I would enjoy it more if there were more pear purée to keep the cheerful sweetness company.

Nonetheless, I would not hesitate to recommend this to anyone just entering the world of perfume. Pera Granita can give the pleasures of being perfumed without a single thought to it. It requires no acquired taste for the animalic funks, the leathery whips, or the mossy roughness. One can enjoy the triviality and the carefree light-heartedness on the route of a Guerlain before one finds the way to the Guerlinade of Shalimar (Guerlain, 1925).

Sources: allure.ru, greenbeverages.com

Photograph of the Day: The Colours of Man and Nature

Yesterday I passed by the favourite route in town, just parallel to the main street. The best on this route only manifest themselves once a year, and I derive much pleasure from just strolling through the street.

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To my surprise, there was another splash of colours. The abstract work of Ian Davenport popped up on  a canvas that covered the building.

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Two colourful works of man and nature vying for attention. What a brilliant coincidence.

History and Review: Miss Dior Originale (1947) — 4.0 points

I find the reflection on the classics of perfumery just as difficult as an analysis of the literary classics. These perfumes are, for most cases, complex; they are filled with ingredients of distinctive qualities that, by modern standards, are either restricted due to safety concerns or unattainable due to social and environmental changes. The state of these perfumes is, therefore, often a pale shade of their former glory. Miss Dior Originale (1947) is a case in point. But before we smell our vintage sample, let us examine the trends and ideas surrounding the inaugural launch of Miss Dior Originale — which I shall refer to in its original name ‘Miss Dior’ in this article — to understand why it would become a smashing success of its time.

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It was 12th February 1947 at 10:30 am when those who had gathered in the salons of 30 avenue Montaigne heard the first announcement: ‘numéro un, number one’. Then, ninety silhouettes filed past the astounded crowd as Christian Dior debuted his collections: En Huit and Corolle.  They captured the feminine aesthetics of hourglass figure and of full skirts resembling a bloom with its open corolla — hence, the names ‘In Eight’ and ‘Corolla’. Amongst the silhouettes, the ‘Bar Suit’ — the cream shantung coat and rounded tails following the curves of the bust as well as the calf-length, full-pleated, black wool skirt — epitomised the aesthetics with the sloping shoulders, cinched waist, articulated bust, and padded hips. At the end of the show, the then editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar Camel Snow exclaimed, clearly impressed, ‘It’s quite a revolution, dear Christian! Your dresses have created such a new look!’ The collections have since been dubbed ‘New Look’, which softened the shoulders, accentuated the waist, volumised the hip, and emphasised the bust. It was a repudiation of the 1920s and 1930s fashion. Dior tore off the pages of sartorial restriction, gloom, gravity, rationing, and uniforms, and revived a long-forgotten tradition of the corseted silhouette and opulence in the late nineteenth century. He opened a new chapter. A new outlook.

This thrilling sense of atavism pervaded right down to his final touch: perfume. Above all, it must translate his retrospective sense of aesthetics. Christian Dior worked with Serge Heftler Louiche, perfumer Jean Carles, and perhaps, perfumer Paul Vacher in the creation of Miss Dior, named after his sister Catherine Dior, to ensure that the creation reflects the quintessence of his couture. And rightly so, Jean Carles took to the structure of Chypre de Coty (Coty, 1917), hearkening to the heyday of the classical chypre. But he also wove into Miss Dior the green galbanum of Vent Vert (Pierre Balmain, 1945) by perfumer and colleague Germaine Cellier that he admired and the bold accords of Ma Griffe (Carven, 1946) that he created a year earlier — both were popular elements of their time.

From the first spritz, Miss Dior is unmistakably a chypre. The structure alone is foretelling, with the main chypre accord of bergamot, jasmine, patchouli, vetiveryl acetate, oakmoss, labdanum, and animalic notes comprising 60% of the composition. Yet, Miss Dior is wondrously original.

In the opening, Miss Dior sports the green citation similar to Vent Vert. It combines galbanum with a green accord based on styrallyl acetate, styrax, and aldehyde C-10 (decanal) and C-11 (undecylenic aldehyde). It feels like a fresh opening buds of gardenia. This is balanced by the spicy brightness of pepper and coriander. The sharp green top is also bridged to the floral heart by lavender and neroli.

The rich floral notes come into full-bloom with mainly a jasmine complex. Rose and confit-like tuberose also vie for attention. The green aromatic note of celery seed oil also enriches the tuberose. And, soon the warm base notes emerge.

Amber, animalic notes, and the powdery sweet combination of orris and vanillin provide the much-needed softness to contrast the sharp top notes. Much of the woody aspect in the chypre structure of Miss Dior also comes from 9.2% patchouli oil. And, what remains on skin is a combination of rich animalic musks, sweet floral powder, and warm damp-woody oakmoss.

Miss Dior harked back to the glorious chypres, but was also well-attuned to its time. The ingenious composition successfully demonstrated the versatility of the chypre structure in accommodating themes as different as leather, green, and floral. Jean Carles, though anosmic by that time, effectively placed the galbanum green of Vent Vert and the bold green accords of Ma Griffe into the classical chypre accord to take advantage of the remarkably versatile structural materials. He, then, gave Miss Dior the richness and complexity of natural ingredients such as jasmine absolute, tuberose derived from enfleurage, and even with traces of celery seed oil. The result provided such originality.

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Miss Dior is a grand parfum so inventive and idiosyncratic. But, it is also reminiscent of the sensorial richness of good old Lux soaps in the 1960s. This is also a compliment to its brilliance. That the accords of Miss Dior have trickled down to the functional scents of everyday life proves its trend-setting capability. Miss Dior is phenomenal.

Nevertheless, the fate of this classic perfume is lamentable. The current formulation of Miss Dior Originale in the eau de toilette is sorely lacking. Its verve has been lost due, perhaps, to the unattainable ingredients. For instance, oakmoss is restricted to a minimal concentration; the popularity of galbanum has waned; and the tuberose absolute of today is of a different profile than, back in 1947, when its confit-like richness was procured through costly and laborious enfleurage in India, using the now-restricted animal fats. What is left of Miss Dior Originale is a whisper of galbanum, a murky floral heart that lacks the richness and opulence befitting a classical chypre, and a fond of lukewarm oakmoss. It is now a hollow chypre, devoid of striking character and dramatic richness.

Sources: dior.com, hpprints.com, Perfumery Practice and Principles, Scent and Chemistry The Molecular World of Odors, vogue.ru

Mapping The Classic Chypres

Whilst making a study of the classic chypres, I realised that they borrowed from one another in more ways than I could have perceived from sniffing alone. However, the results were anything but copies. By determination and strokes of ingenuity, their creators produced very original and creative compositions. In order to see the big picture of how each composition was inspired or influenced by the others, I drew the diagram of these timeless compositions whose traditional chypre structure dotted the landscape of perfumery.

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Chypre de Coty ( Coty, 1917) consolidated the structure of chypre family. Two years later, Jacques Guerlain appropriated the structure for the ripe peach skin and Guerlinade of Mitsouko (Guerlain, 1919). This ripe peach was later put at the fore by Edmond Roudnitska in Femme (Rochas, 1942).

Inspired by Chypre de Coty, Jean Carles used the classical structural materials in Ma Griffe (Carven, 1946) and built the composition with bases, which are bold accords based on synthetic and natural ingredients. This gave Ma Griffe a strong structure and an exceedingly complex quality. He would later apply this technique to Miss Dior (1947) with a  nod to the galbanum of Vent Vert (Pierre Balmain, 1945) by Germaine Cellier. Even though I do not see Vent Vert as a chypre, I put it there because Miss Dior was indubitably influenced by it.

And, although its inspiration involves the leather accord based on isobutyl quinoline, Bandit (Robert Piguet, 1944), also by Germaine Cellier, still clearly screams of chypre. This brutal combination of leather and chypre was reworked by Bernard Chant in Cabochard (Grès, 1959) to make it more accessible with a floral emphasis and softer character. He would go on to establish this leather chypre accord in masculine perfumes with Aramis (1965) that retains some of the softness of Cabochard, but darkens its leather. I almost forgot to include another noteworthy creation, but thanks to Robert who mentioned  Azurée (Estée Lauder, 1969). Possibly by Bernard Chant as well, it  bears striking similarity to Aramis and Cabochard. And, of course, Bernard Chant was creative with Aromatics Elixir (Clinique, 1971), dosing the patchouli and floral notes whilst reducing the animalic touch to simply the castoreum puffs. Aromatics Elixir, thus, sets itself uniquely between a chypre and an oriental.

Charles Hard Townes, in his Nobel prize speech, commented, ‘Scientists do, as we have heard, stand on the shoulders of giants from the past’ — I could not agree more.