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

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Thurgau Strawberries and Sprüngli Chocolate: A Case of Perfumery

What I eagerly await at the beginning of June here in Switzerland is the sun-ripened strawberries from Thurgau. They are nothing like those imported from the greenhouses of Spain in February; Thurgau strawberries are sweet, fruity, and possess the nuances of fresh pineapple and dulcet apple. Yet, the acidity therein provides a refreshing contrast. Paired with the deep bitterness of molten grand cru chocolate slivers from Sprüngli, and one arrives at pure decadence. As I enjoyed these two deceptively complex sensory profiles of strawberry and chocolate, I reflected on the fascinating craft of perfumery and flavours.

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Thurgau strawberries and molten Sprüngli  70% chocolate

Whilst we can easily say that something smells like strawberry or chocolate, the chemical make-up of these two entities are much more complex. There is no single character-impact compound that says ‘strawberry’ or ‘cocoa’. A strawberry comprises hundreds of volatile compounds, of which possibly twelve contribute to the characteristic ripe fruit. Of note is the naturally occurring Furaneol (HDMF, 4-hydroxy-2,5-dimethyl-3(2H)-furanone), which is sweet and caramel-like, and found also in pineapples, tomatoes, and buckwheat. As for cocoa, the beans are made up of nearly six hundred compounds, and some of these are found in cooked cabbage, raw beef fat, and sweat — not the most appetising combination, surely. In any case, the specific olfactory and gustatory profile of strawberries or chocolate also depends on factors like varieties, maturity, post-harvest conditions, and treatments. Re-creating these two simple foods can be a feat.

But thanks to the craft of perfumery, we do not need as much as a dozen or six hundred chemicals to make our brains perceive strawberries or chocolate. Sometimes, we do not even need a naturally occurring component of these. For example, the fruity aldehyde C-16 (ethyl methylphenylglycidate or ‘strawberry aldehyde’) is a popular compound for the reconstitution of strawberries. Perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena, however, begs to differ and suggests a simple strawberry accord of the strong exotic fruity note of Fructone and the crème caramel of ethyl maltol. Add the sweet berry accent of the methyl anthranilate, and one arrives at the intense smell of wild strawberries. For chocolate, the perfumer simply weaves together vanillin and the sweet, chamomile-like isobutyl phenyl acetate. And, to this accord, patchouli can create unsweetened chocolate. Whereas a trace of civet conjures a creamy ganache, orris concrete gives a cocoa powder. Other effects like orangette or minty chocolate thins can be rendered with the help of orange essence or spearmint oil, respectively. Such successful combinations have much to do with our innate ability of perception, and perfumery taps into that way we are wired. Our neural interactions allow us to perceive a new odour sensation, even if the individual odorants stimulate the neurons for very different smells. We smell chocolate from the vanilla of vanillin and the sweet charmomile of isobutyl phenyl acetate. The sensation created is an illusion of sort. The result is more than the sum of its parts.

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Wild strawberries

Instead of two, one plus one equals to three — that is the magic of perfumery.

Sources: Journal d’un Parfumeur

  1. André Schiefner, Quirin Sinz, Irmgard Neumaier, Wilfried Schwab and Arne Skerra. Structural Basis for the Enzymatic Formation of the Key Strawberry Flavor. J. Biol. Chem 2013, 288:16815-16826.
  2. Frauendorfer, F and Schieberle, P. Identification of the key aroma compounds in cocoa powder based on molecular sensory correlations. J Agric Food Chem, 2006 Jul 26;54(15):5521-9
  3. P. Schieberle and T. Hofmann. Evaluation of the Character Impact Odorants in Fresh Strawberry Juice by Quantitative Measurements and Sensory Studies on Model Mixtures. J. Agric. Food Chem., 197, 45 (1), pp 227–232

Review: Guerlain Samsara — 5.0 points

The house Guerlain owes much of its glory to the oriental character of its perfumes. The association of Guerlain perfumes with tales of the Orient is therefore a given, and Samsara (Guerlain, 1989) –Sanskrit for the ‘wheel of life’ — is no exception. For Samsara, the marketing at Guerlain also twisted this Buddhist reference of perpetual rebirth into a story of serenity and harmony.

But, in fact, what is far more interesting than such a woven Oriental tale is the conception of Samsara. It is a known fact that a passion of perfumer Jean-Paul Guerlain is dressage. And, through their legendary horse trainer Patrick Le Rolland, he met Decia de Pauw in 1985, a Belgian woman of English origin who would later inspire the creation of Samsara. She had the habit of perfuming her bath with two essences, jasmine and sandalwood, which are of particular affection to her. Therefore, Jean-Paul Guerlain, with Gérard Anthony playing a part, created a perfume around these two essences — it was the first time that Jean-Paul Guerlain employed this accord. He would often go to India to acquire the particular jasmine and sandalwood that he wanted. Madame de Pauw also recalled that Samsara was very recognisable at the time and once people on the streets of Vienna would accost her just to inquire what her perfume was.

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The answer, perhaps, is still Samsara. It debuts with the classic freshness and brightness of bergamot. The invigorating freshness contrasts nicely with the rich development of its floral and oriental aspects. Already a radiant and diffusive sandalwood note of Polysantol appears early and resonates throughout the duration.

Then, the florals of Samsara unfold. The duet between plush sandalwood and narcotic jasmine serves as the centrepiece. Its heady depth is provided by a damp brushstroke of narcissus, whilst its spicy floral character comes from ylang ylang and rose.

The ornamented centrepiece rests on the softness of powder provided by orris, vanilla, and tonka bean. This harmony lingers for about an hour. The sandalwood-jasmine complex becomes warmer and richer, transforming along with orris, tonka bean, and vanilla into the famed praline-like Guerlinade accord.

Samsara might have set a new standard with the highest dose of sandalwood oil, but that alone cannot entitle its classic status. The time when Jean-Paul Guerlain could afford some 20% Mysore sandalwood oil is long in the past, and the sandalwood note has been supplanted by Polysantal brightness. Yet, it is the way Jean-Paul Guerlain weaves the sandalwood-jasmine richness into the distinctive Guerlinade to engender a unique yet familiar personality that makes Samsara so enduring.

A note on the concentrations: In the extrait de parfum, the rich florals are lavish with rose petals, narcotic jasmine, spicy ylang ylang, and powdery orris so much so that it reminds me of Chanel N°5 (1921). The focus on Guerlinade, likewise, makes no mistake that this is a creation of Guerlain. The eau de parfum, meanwhile, shifts the focus towards the ripe florals so that it recalls Arpège (Lanvin, 1927). In this formulation, I enjoy equal attention from the ripe flowers and the Guerlinade dry down.The eau de toilette is the brightest with a dab of Guerlinade; the sharpness of Polysantol can be slightly dissonant.

Sources: etsy.com, makeupalley.com, Scent and Chemistry The Molecular World of Odors, noblesseetroyautes.com reportage Alexandre Cousin.

Review: Hermès Hiris — 4.5 points

Pablo Picasso was adept at using either melancholic blue hues or warm shades of red, orange, and earth to create masterpieces characteristic of his Blue and Rose Periods. Similarly, fragrances in styles that are as distinctly opposite as dark woods and pastel florals number amongst the œuvre of perfumer Olivia Giacobetti. Her virtuosity can be seen in both the spiced sandalwood of Idole (Lubin, 2005) or the sublime soliflore of Hiris (Hermès, 1999). And if I had to pick a spring time favourite, it would be this water-colour iris par excellence.

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Despite its delicate character, Hiris is not simplistic. In fact, the composition is polished. It possesses the various facets that afford iris its inimitable complexity. Green and waxy notes in the beginning provide the vegetal impression of orris, which is reminiscent of raw carrots. This is contrasted by a spicy touch of coriander seeds. Then, a hint of orange blossom imparts the subtle floral nuance. These subtleties give Hiris its sophisticated bearing.

At the heart of it is an interplay between powdery and woody notes of iris. Violet overtones emphasise the powdery aspect, whilst cedarwood lends its subtle woody, powdery character. Such curious duality is what makes this raw material beautiful, and it is employed here as the centrepiece of the composition. Then, rounded by musky notes, the combination of powder and woods also acquires a soft, hazy signature.

The sum is a composition that offers a vibrant contrast even with its soothing pastel shade. Her unique treatment of iris is the reason why I find the composition intriguing. And though its diaphanous character may be intended for the wearer’s admiration, it is surprisingly persistent. Having said that, if you have an appreciation for such a style, you will find her other water-colour works just as beautiful an offering. And in the case of Hiris, it is a great example of how a light composition can have yet a strong character.

Sources: usa.hermes.com