When The Post Office Smells of Corsica…

I fell in love with the everlasting flower since my first contact with it in the now discontinued Immortelle de Corse (L’Occitane, 2011) by perfumer Claire Chambert. I have always sought its warm, comforting sweetness. But, I have just fallen in love with these golden bunches again because of Sables (Annick Goutal, 1985). Precisely, because of a broken bottle of Sables.

If you have an idea of Sables, you will understand why I have been inspired to write this upon receiving my package at the post office. The 100 ml of juice that soaked the package and trickled down on my table as I opened the parcel has left an indelible scent of immortelle.

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The everlasting flowers or immortelles are so named possibly because they retain the bright canary even after drying. They seem immortal. These aromatic shrubs thrive in low-nutrient coastlines, rocky cliffs, slopes, and ditches in the Mediterranean. The immortelle belongs to the genus Helichrysum, of which the species H. italicum is most important to perfumery. It can be divided further into three subspecies. H. italicum subspecies microphyllum is found mainly in Corsica in France, Sardinia in Italy, and the Balearic Islands of Spain. H. italicum subspecies italicum thrives in areas around the Mediterranean, including the Balkans. H. italicum subspecies serontinum populates areas of Spain and Portugal. Amongst the three subspecies, the first two provide most of the commercial extracts. The three main producers are Corsica, the Balkans, and Spain.

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Not only the flowers, but the entire plant, which is charged with volatiles, is harvested in summer. In Corsica, harvest takes place in June, around summer solstice. The aromatic top bush is skilfully harvested with a sickle, and only part of the plant is left above ground to survive — a haphazard swing could thus kill the plant in one season. Thereafter, the harvest is quickly taken to a nearby processing plant, where the extraction of essential oil by steam distillation takes place immediately. The copper or steel kettles are filled with the flowers in such a way that creates most resistance to the steam, hence maximising the yield. As for the absolute, the flowers will be sun-dried in a greenhouse for one month prior to solvent extraction.

Generally, the essential oil is fresher, greener, and fruitier, whereas the absolute possesses a more tobacco-like character with celery, curry, nutty, and dry-fruit facets. The absolute is also reminiscent of labdanum and spirits such as cognac and Armagnac.

Moreover, origin also influences the olfactory profile of immortelle extracts. The Corsican oil is much fruitier, spicier, more ambery, and warmer, but the Balkan oil is almost aldehydic and possesses tobacco, hay, amber, and leather notes. For absolutes, the Corsican origin is also the most prized for its richness, density, and diffusion; it is the most powerful with honeyed, aromatic notes, and a floral facet that rounds up the character. The Balkan absolute recalls liqueur and dried fruits, and is nutty, spicy, aromatic and ambery. Interestingly, the Spanish variety maintains the hallmarks of herbal hay and tobacco, and is more animalic.

In terms of composition, the essential oil generally consists mostly of nerol and its ester neryl acetate. However, provenance also affects the composition. For example, the Corsican oil has relatively significant levels of neryl acetate along with elevated levels of nerol compared to the Balkan oil that is much lower in neryl acetate, but possesses ten times as much α-pinene.

But above all, immortelle has such an alluring warmth that is so singular so that even Napoléon Bonaparte often said that he could smell his hometown — Corsica — before he would set foot on it.

dry immortelle

Sun-dried immortelle: I cut the bunches in bloom and left them to dry in the sun. The result looks like those dry puffy bunches in L’Occitane stores, but with intense aromatic, curry, tobacco note.

 

Immortelle in Perfumery

In perfumery, immortelle has traditionally been a complement to chypre, floral, and amber compositions. It is also sometimes considered an aromatic subset of the gourmand family. Immortelle usually takes a subsidiary role in both formulation and consumer marketing. But thanks to the surge of woody or spicy fragrances with darker notes, perfumers are driven to employ lesser known naturals with warm, tobacco, tea, liqueur, and wood notes like those of immortelle.

Perfumer Dorothée Piot, for instance, often incorporates immortelle absolute in men’s fragrance. Its tobacco character blends well with woody, oriental, fougère, or leathery accords. The challenge of using immortelle lies in the dose. Its warmth can be used to illuminate the composition, but too much of it, and one has mouth-watering pancake topped with maple syrup. The softness of the absolute also pairs well with magnolia or tagete in floral and fruity accords. As for me, immortelle is akin to the assoluta voice with the rich darkness of a contralto and the ringing bells of a soprano — it simply pierces through the thickest of compositions.

Immortelle in Perfumes

My first and most favourite immortelle composition is Immortelle de Corse from the Voyage en Méditeranée Collection of L’Occitane. It features a floral immortelle whose honeyed accent blends with the rich balsamic benzoin, extending the character. The tea accord therein accentuates the tea nuance of immortelle, keeping the composition fresh. The sweet maple syrup aspect of immortelle, in the meantime, provides a glaze to the delicious ginger pumpkin pie of Like This (Etat Libre d’Orange, 2010). Going into the sweet territory, Blanche Immortelle (Atelier Cologne, 2014) is anything but blanche: imagine barrels of maple syrup and bitter roasted coffee to reinforce your favourite immortelle — surely not for everyone. For a similar, but less sweet immortelle note, one can explore the herbs, burnt caramel, and woods of Eau Noire (Christian Dior, 2005).

In the terrain of woods and chypre, The Afternoon of A Faun (Etat Libre d’Orange, 2012) buries its immortelle note amongst the heft of spicy woods, earthy myrrh, leather, and mosses. Yet, the rich immortelle cuts through the chypre elements with surprising limpidity like a huge sfogato voice soaring above the chorus. In 1740 Marquis de Sade (Histoires de Parfums, 2000), immortelle creates a beautiful resonance with the dense chypre composition as its dark sweetness and tobacco nestle perfectly amongst the patchouli, amber, leather, and labdanum, whilst its luminous accent lights the background. It is a good bridge between the sweetness of a honey note and the warmth of amber.

As for the gold standard, I pick Sables. The emphasis falls on the blazing intensity of a whole field of immortelle distilled. It parallels the heat of curry, and is only contrasted by the milky, creamy cushion of sandalwood and vanilla. I reach for Sables most often for winter comfort and summer reminiscence. Its warm signature that goes on slowly like undying embers is perfect for the coldest of days. Yet, in the searing 34-degree Celsius heat of tropical Hong Kong, it transports me to the hot sands of a summer holiday.

And, I am sure that no post office since has ever smelled as good as the one that received my Sables.

 

Sources: P&F Vol. 34 May 2009 by Pierre-Jean Hellivan, The Federazione Italiania Produttori Piante Officinali (FIPPO)

  1. Leonardi, M., Ambryszewska, K. E., Melai, B., Flamini, G., Cioni, P. L., Parri, F. and Pistelli, L. (2013), Essential-Oil Composition of Helichrysum italicum (Roth) G.Don ssp. italicum from Elba Island (Tuscany, Italy). Chemistry & Biodiversity, 10: 343–355

Review: Etat Libre d’Orange The Afternoon of A Faun — 4.5 points

The Afternoon of A Faun (Etat Libre d’Orange, 2012) was born of a serendipitous encounter. Etienne de Swardt, founder of Etat Libre d’Orange, was approached by a cantankerous patron who criticised the marketing gimmicks of the brand’s perfumes. In an attempt to rid himself of the annoyance, he gave away a perfume, only to have the patron returned two days later. It turned out that the patron was the late Jacques Damase, the influential publisher-cum-editor of several twentieth-century artists including Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Jean Cocteau, and Le Corbusier amongst others.

A fortuitous partnership was formed. Damase would eventually inspire de Swardt to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the Ballets Russes with a perfume that honours its founder Sergei Diaghilev and one of the principal choreographers Vaslav Nijinsky. The resultant composition by perfumer Ralf Schwieger was named after the ballet choreographed and performed by Nijinsky and the Ballets Russes: L’Aprés-midi d’un faune.

The-Afternoon-of-a-Faun-570x708.jpgThe composition might have been christened with Nijinsky and the Ballets Russes in mind, but I tend to think of it in operatic terms. This is because of the glowing immortelle that cuts through the heft of myrrh. Immortelle is rich and dark, yet easily soars above the rest. It is a fittingly powerful companion to myrrh, whose strong notes of sweet balsam, amber, and smoky licorice also perfectly convey the notion of ancient rites. Paired together, the result smells as though an assoluta voice were slicing through the chorus.

As myrrh forms the bulk of the composition, the style is very much contemporary; yet, the skilful use of accents gives it a vintage feel of the early twentieth century. These range from the bright spicy cinnamon and tart bergamot, the honeyed rose that mellows the sharp resinous note and lends an opulent curve, to the notes of incense, leather, and oakmoss that give a dramatic touch in the later stages. Such accents give a sense of grandeur and set the tone of the composition. And, what better way to pay homage to Nijinsky and the Ballets Russes than setting a chypre tone to the perfume?

What I really like about The Afternoon of A Faun is the way its heavy notes linger there, but upon the slightest movement, its warmth rises to greet. This effect is noticeable in the dry down when the balsamic myrrh becomes dominant and is punctuated with incense, leather, and oakmoss. This and its beautiful sillage of resinous woods and warm immortelle will make it stand out in the crowd. But it is certainly elegant and never begs for attention. And, a few dabs suffice to perfume me throughout the day.

Source: etatlibredorange.com, interview with Etienne de Swardt on basenote.net