Review: Chanel Coromandel — 5.0 points

Gabriel Chanel was an ardent collector of Coromandel folding screens. These decorative wood screens with elaborate inlays are so termed because they were shipped to Europe via the Coromandel coast of Southeast India. It was also here that dry patchouli leaves were often laid among clothing to repel moths. Hence, I find it apt that perfumer Jacques Polge and Christopher Sheldrake would decide to explore this multi-faceted material in Coromandel (Chanel, 2007), a perfume inspired by the mademoiselle’s passion for the folding screens.

coromandel

With just a resinous piney start, it quickly descends into a rich patchouli. The camphoraceous and earthy facets of this raw material are curtailed, whilst the woody balsamic aspect is pushed and extrapolated. Fruity jasmine adds to the voluptuousness. Benzoin and vanilla play up the balsamic sweetness of the woody facet. And, to offset the heft, resinous incense is the perfect foil. The result is a patchouli so opulent that it tantalises with the richness of chocolate.

The dry down is just as decadent and smouldering, with sweet benzoin and incense lingering well into the night. Its resplendent sillage beguiles with enchanting sweetness of woods and resins. Its restrained gourmand exploration is mesmerising. Coromandel is a revelation about this otherwise earthy, woody raw material. It invites me to imagine the couturier lounging in her chair, feeling cocooned by the woody warmth of the decorative screens whilst beholding the gilded and mother-of-pearl inlays.

Source: Boris Lipnitzki’s portrait of Gabrielle Chanel in 1937

Review: Memo Italian Leather — 4.5 points

I once lavished praise on Chanel N°19 (1970) and argued for why it deserves a place on the pedestal of classics. Perfumer Henri Robert employed aroma ingredients and sumptuous natural materials—galbanum, iris, May rose and jasmine, and vetiver—to explore and extrapolate the ideas of superb contemporaries, such as Cabochard (Grès, 1959) and Aramis (1965). He wove together an idiosyncratic accord of green galbanum, buttery orris, and mossy woods, and gave an inspiring successor to the old-school chypre perfumes. In a similar vein, perfumer Aliénor Massenet draws on this backbone and carves out a niche for Italian Leather (Memo, 2013) 

Despite the name, it is not so much an interpretation of leather from Italy as a road trip in Italy, which is the vision of Clara Molloy, the founder of Memo. The very first note that strikes is the piercing green of galbanum, but it is quickly softened by aromatic clary sage so that the impression the green accord gives is of sticky tomato sprigs. How fitting. After all, a road trip in Italy must surely involve tomatoes? 

The green lingers, gradually tempered by the buttery iris that emerges. There it is, the marvel of Chanel N°19 revisited. Whereas the galbanum-orris accord in Chanel N°19 is joined by dark woods, the green tomato leaf and soft orris in Italian Leather transition slowly into a complex oriental accord. If this were an Italian road trip, it would be in Tuscany, where the gentle zephyr carrying the scent of the evergreen cypresses tempers a warm summer afternoon

Ilm

After that oriental languor comes the sweet vanillin, the long-awaited climax of the act. But if it were just that, Italian Leather would not be nearly as compelling as it is. Joined by benzoin and warm labdanum, darkened by myrrh and balsams, and rounded by musks, the accord is faceted and rich, with a hint of molasses. I particularly cherish the part one hour into the development, in which opoponax lends much of the powdery, velvety comfort. And, all this while, the green sap of tomato sprig sticks, keeping the heft of the oriental accord grounded.  

It bears a relationship to Chanel N°19 and a more recent release, Vert d’Encens (Tom Ford, 2016). It borrows the galbanum-iris interplay from the former, whilst in the latter, the bitterness of galbanum is tamed with citrus and herbs and a peppery frankincense is thrown into the oriental accord. If you relish these and their original, multi-faceted accords with challenging green notes, you may well revel in sniffing Italian Leather. And, like these two other fragrances, it possesses great lasting power.  

I am drawn to it not only because of the strength of its character but also the depth of its accords. Massenet did not simply take the backbone of Chanel N°19 and tweak it to give us a pastiche. On the contrary, attention has been paid closely to the notes that make up and balance the accords.  The harsh character of green galbanum is softened by clary sage. The oriental accord is a complex plot of multiple shades and textures, from luminous to dusky balsams. Ingeniously, the duality of orris—its chilly crunch and buttery facet—is used to bridge the transition. In Italian Leather, Massenet achieves an equipoise of green and oriental notes rich in nuances.  

sources: fragrantica

Review: by Kilian Amber Oud — 4.5 points

Previously, I confessed to my aversion to oud. But ever since Pure Oud (by Kilian, 2009), I have consistently been wearing the oud collection from by Kilian. I reckon I am beginning to warm up to this multi-faceted note, especially when it is as excellently crafted as the ones from by Kilian. And, Amber Oud (2011) is yet another sublime creation around this note that I heartily recommend.

In spite of the rather banal name, Amber Oud offers an interesting vantage point from which to appreciate the rich oriental notes. It opens right away with a stirring whiff of incense and labdanum, and without any attempt at a prelude, segues into warm amber. A vanilla so resplendent sets the stage, with the complexity of the cured beans one often finds in a gourmet section. Benzoin provides the dry, lingering sweetness that harks to the fantasy of honeyed almonds. All the rich, hefty notes that make my mouth water constitute the bulk of Amber Oud, but the composition is far from being cloying. Instead, it remains lucent.

The description alone is a testament to the quality of its amber, but what is it that distinguishes it from being a mere ‘nice amber’? The answer to that can remain elusive for the first few tries, as, I find, is often the case with the deceptively simple quality that marks many of perfumer Calice Becker’s creations. However, as I pondered the question, I found myself reminiscing more and more about the time when my mother made traditional desserts.

One of the last steps is to perfume them, and this is almost always a rite to Thai desserts. She would put flowers such as sambac jasmine, rose, and ylang ylang in a small cup and place it in a lidded ceramic pot containing the dessert, thereby imbuing the treats with the fragrance overnight. On the next day, a fragrant candle called ‘tian op’ was instrumental in imparting its unmistakable lingering scent to the treats. The candle has a wick that can be lit on both ends and its wax comprises a mixture of frankincense, benzoin, dried kaffir peel, brown sugar, camphor, nutmeg, sandalwood, and bee wax. After having set tian op in a holder in the ceramic pot and lit it, she would extinguish it by covering the pot with a lid, allowing the dessert to soak up the aroma for ten to fifteen minutes. Even after this step, a potent mixture of frankincense, benzoin, kaffir peel, brown sugar, nutmeg, and camphor that had been seared in a pre-heated terra cotta cup would be similarly used to suffuse the dessert with its opulent fumes. How fondly I recall that caramelised, incense-y, floral accent that staved off some of the rich sweetness of the dessert. The flavour was a combination of melancholic incense and decadent sweet amber, which is essentially what Amber Oud mirrors.

tian op

Tian Op: a scented candle used to perfume food and clothing. Its melancholic fragrance balances out the sweetness.

Now, the answer to what sets Amber Oud apart is clear: it is the floral and incense inflection of its amber accord. Just like how the rich dessert was lifted with floral hints and dry incense, the same effect is employed in Amber Oud in taming the hefty notes. This also explains why the drydown of Amber Oud possesses an uncanny resemblance to Bois d’Arménie (Guerlain, 2006), another favourite composition of mine that revolves around benzoin, incense, and balsams with a sprinkle of rose petals. The result is an unexpected delight in an ostensibly straightforward composition, a hallmark of Becker who has a knack for subtly weaving together multiple layers and facets.

All in all, the played-up aspect of sweet amber together with the unique accent that carries well to the next day makes Amber Oud my perennial favourite. It is an intriguing oud aspect that is both cosy and refined—a quality which I rarely see in an oud composition. A spritz suffices to catapult me to those scrumptious recollection of floral and incense-y fantasy.

Review: Tom Ford Vert d’Encens — 5.0 points

I admit that I am rather jaded of exclusive lines. Nowadays, every brand seems to have this so-called ‘special offerings’. They come in similarly packaged flacons and tend to arrive in sets of a few fragrances, much like variations on a theme. There are simply too many of them to catch up, and too often, they are outrageously priced. A prime example would be the Private Blend of Tom Ford, whose entire range I tend to simply skip  altogether.

But with Vert d’Encens (Tom Ford, 2016), it was such a momentous discovery. Truth be told, I had imagined it to be yet another banal interpretation of the Corsican coast, as the accompanying description would have me believe. Little did I know when picking up Vert d’Encens for a quick sniff that I would end up discovering a hidden gem in the sea of launches.

tom ford

What makes Vert d’Encens memorable is its fierce duel of green and incense. However, to describe it as such would be simplistic. The notes that revolve around this juxtaposition of cool green and warm incense are orchestrated in layers, creating a complex and almost baroque sensation. Take a look at the first stage: it is never plain green, but it morphs instead from bright chartreuse to deep green at heart. Citrusy shades of lemon and bergamot segue into cool Provençal herbs of lavender and sage before arriving at the intense bitterness of galbanum. And, only then does the glorious battle commence.

Swirls of resinous incense begin to exude and pulsate throughout the development. So, the next stage, as you might have guessed, is a warm oriental bed of sweet vanilla, benzoin, and heliotrope. It is a familiar chord, but when accented with cardamom and pine needles that echo the green stage, the result is surprisingly original. The dry down is also smouldering, with sober incense slicing through cosy vanilla and heliotrope. In the end, the oriental sweetness is offset nicely by the dry woody notes of vetiver.

The idea of green versus oriental in Vert d’Encens alone is sufficient to grab attention, but it is in the elaborate arrangement of its components that it truly spurs my passion. It makes me want to discover the filigree and ornate columns of its green and incense cores. That being said, it will appeal to those who like strong contrasts and ornate arrangements. If you, for instance, like the galbanum and animalic-leathery oriental of Must de Cartier (1981), chances are you might adore Vert d’Encens. It defers to some of the by-gone notes of perfumery — the galbanum, the dark oriental — and does so without being contrived. You can enjoy the fiercely green galbanum and sober incense easily for a whole day and without having to smother passers-by. You can appreciate the dramatic interplay and discover also how beautifully the battle unfolds.

Source: tomford.com

Review: Guerlain Bois d’Arménie — 4.5 points

Papier d’arménie is a curious object. The so-called ‘Armenian paper’ is neither a paper for all its purpose and intent, nor is it originated from Armenia. In fact, it was a French innovation. Auguste Ponsot had observed during his travels in the Ottoman Empire that the inhabitants often burnt incense to perfume their homes. Upon his return, he worked with pharmacist Henri Rivier to develop a method that facilitated the process. The result was papier d’arménie. They are paper strips that have been soaked in tinctures of benzoin, styrax, frankincense, and other sweet balsams before they are dried, and they emanate sweet incense upon combustion.

Perfumer Annick Ménardo took to these fragrant, combustible strips of paper and created Bois d’Arménie (Guerlain, 2006). It is a composition of glowing, sweet incense that reminisces the paper strips, but with a polished style.

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It opens with a brief pink pepper that marries well with its oriental theme. The rest is a bulk of balsamic incense. That sounds like a hefty theme indeed, but in the adept hands of perfumer Annick Ménardo, it is rendered luminous. She has a knack for interpreting heavy accords in a radiant manner, and one only needs to smell Bois d’Argent (Dior, 2004) to see how she lifts a rich iris-musk accord with plenty of frankincense oil and Ambrox to create the impression of warm, crisp driftwoods.

Likewise, the treacly sweetness of balsams and benzoin in Bois d’Arménie are offset by frankincense. Iris, meanwhile, lends its powdery touch to mellow the sharp resinous note of frankincense. And, patchouli rounds the accord with woody richness. Then, throw in guaiac wood, and the overall effect is a soft, glowing balsam with accents of smoky woods and rose petals.

It finishes on a musky, balsamic incense note. I especially like how its incense crackles, sending out its rich noble notes over a balmy and dulcet base. In a way, it is like the extinguished Armenian papers oozing its fragrant incense smoke. The difference is that the polished glow of Bois d’Arménie never fades. It lasts well, and throughout the day, I feel as though I were wrapped in a warm cocoon. Its soft glowing presence begs one to lean in and inquire as to the nature of this addictive, cosy scent.

Source: guerlain.fr

Review: Serge Lutens Un Bois Vanille — 4.0 points

We describe something colloquially as ‘vanilla’ when it is considered ordinary, standard, and possesses no specialities. In the same vein, the warm, sweet effect of vanilla, though universally appreciated, can be just as plain and unexciting or even downright cloying, especially when it is used ad nauseam, as has been the case in many recent launches.

But when used judiciously, vanilla is one of the most versatile and powerful tools in perfumery. In large quantities, it provides much of the sensual warmth to the base of Jicky (Guerlain, 1889) and forms the classical oriental accord à la Shalimar (Guerlain, 1925). In small amounts, it can still provide great effects by highlighting the character and increasing the impact of a composition. For instance, it lends a warm touch to the cold aldehydic accords in Chanel N°5 (1921) and Arpège (Lanvin, 1927) and smooths out the rough-hewn quality in chypres like Ma Griffe (Carven, 1947) and Miss Dior (1947). Vanilla in perfumery can thus be thought of as salt in cooking: it brings out the flavour, but too much of it and the dish becomes unpalatable.

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In the case of Un Bois Vanille (Serge Lutens, 2003) by perfumer Christopher Sheldrake, there is the challenge of focusing solely on vanilla, but without succumbing to the cloyingly sweet cliché. In other words, the challenge is akin to using a lot of salt and giving it character without rendering the dish inedible. To that, I think of my favourite salty food like anchovies and dried seaweed; their marine tang best matches the sea salt, with which they are prepared. Likewise, the solution to the composition of Un Bois Vanille is a classical one: an oriental accord with vanilla at the centre.

By layering vanilla with strong oriental notes, Un Bois Vanille puts the richness of this delectable raw material into perspective. Vanilla is not just sweet here; it is, in fact, multi-faceted. The anisic liquorice in the opening contrasts with and highlights the plush vanilla that soon emerges in full glory. A mélange of oriental notes, including milky sandalwood, benzoin, tonka bean, and musk, accompanies and enhances the main theme towards the dry down. There are also plenty of interesting twists in the layers, from beeswax and lactonic coconut to roasted almond.

The orchestration of Un Bois Vanille gives the luscious vanilla its surreal, distinctive quality. The spicy, creamy, and balsamic accents along with the layers of notes emphasise the curious nature of vanilla. They suggest something delicious and unapologetically decadent. And, the waves of its warmth hover around me from dawn till dusk. Such is the quality, for which I most crave in the bleakest of winter days. Un Bois Vanille is an interesting vanilla that is anything but… vanilla.