Histoires de Parfums 101- Five to Get You Started

If there is one person who has been one of the stalwarts of niche perfumery from the earliest days who doesn’t get enough credit it would be Gerald Ghislain. M. Ghislain created one of the first niche brands in 2000 called Histoires de Parfums. This has been one of the most successful brands over the long haul. It has also become impressive for the ability to change with the trends. Histoires de Parfums is one of those brands it is easy to overlook because you have always seen the bottles on your favorite website or in your favorite boutique. I am hoping I can get you to stop and try these five because Histoires de Parfums is worth it.

Gerald Ghislain

My first encounter was in a New York city store. When the sales associate told me that 1740: Marquis de Sade was a combination of immortelle and leather I was already sold. Up until recently the sole perfumer for Histoires de Parfums was Sylvie Jourdet. I am a big believer in how that continuity between creative director and single perfumer can be critical for creating a brand identification. M. Ghislain and Mme Jourdet laid down an early marker as to what that aesthetic would be. 1740 transitions quickly through an iris dominated beginning until Mme Jourdet brings together her leather accord with amber, at first, followed by immortelle. It is one of the great niche perfumes of this century.

Mme Jourdet used amber in its more traditional base component in 1740. For Ambre 114 she serves it up as the core of a luscious gourmand. Using nutmeg early on to set the gourmand style she moves through a floral intermezzo down to a mixture of sandalwood, amber, benzoin, tonka bean, and vanilla. Together it forms an abstract “warm cookies from the oven” accord. It takes amber from Oriental standard to yummy.

Sylvie Jourdet

1969: Parfum de Revolt was meant to evoke the Summer of Love in San Francisco. What I’ve always found here is another more modern take on the gourmand with cardamom and coffee forming that aspect. Before we get there Mme Jourdet opens with a rambunctious peach from which the coffee and green cardamom bubble up from. Patchouli and chocolate provide the finishing touches.

In 2011 M. Ghislain created the Editions Rare collection within the brand. The first three releases were amazing but I am recommending Rosam for the contemporary take Mme Jourdet gave to the staid rose and oud combination. Oud on its own provides an exotic vibe. Mme Jourdet adds to it by using saffron as companion to the rose. Incense completes Rosam with a resinous kick.

A year later another trio was added to Editions Rare of which Vici was the floral part of the triptych. Mme Jourdet used osmanthus and iris as her focal point. Surrounded on top with aldehydes, cardamom, and galbanum. In the base musk, cedar, and patchouli give the woody foundation to Vici.

M. Ghislain has continued to produce perfume and even though this list doesn’t have any of the most recent releases they are worth experiencing, too. These are just the five I think will entice you in to one of the pioneers of niche perfumery.

Disclosure: This review is based on bottles I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Flanker Round-Up: Cool Water Wave and He Wood Cologne

As I work my way through giving a try to everything which makes its way to me there are times some of the flankers command a little more attention than usual. When I think they’re really good I’ll do my usual wearing of them for their own review. When I think they might be above average and worth my mentioning I do one of these Flanker Round-Ups. As I was testing the summer releases for 2017 I was intrigued that two of the original mass-market brands turned out something more than the run of the mill. A caveat to this I only wore each of these on one arm for a weekend morning making these less informed reviews than I normally write.

Cool Water Wave

I think Cool Water is one of the great perfumes ever made. When Pierre Bourdon essentially created the aquatic genre of perfume in 1988 it truly was an inflection point for the industry. Davidoff has ever since used that phenomenon to create yearly flankers of Cool Water. Most of the time they don’t present much of anything different this year’s version Cool Water Wave does.

I smelled Cool Water Wave before knowing who the perfume team was behind it. My first impression was a modern take on the classic fougere M. Bourdon originally created. When I learned the perfumers behind it were Antoine Lie, Francis Kurkdjian, and Jean Jacques it was easy to see where that modernity came from.

Cool Water Wave begins with grapefruit and Sichuan pepper. The choice to allow the spicy pepper to point towards the sulfurous undertone of grapefruit is what first caught my attention. This is followed up with the rough green of birch leaves over the chill of gin-like juniper berry. These early phases are what is worth giving Cool Water Wave a try. It ends on a generic sandalwood which does nothing but act as an ending place.

Cool Water Wave has 6-8 hour longevity and average sillage.

He Wood Cologne

In 2007, He Wood was released and immediately became a big seller. My explanation for the popularity of this perfume is when someone wanted a woody perfume you can’t go wrong with one which has the word in the name. Perfumer Daphne Bugey combined fir, cedar, and vetiver into something for the man who wanted wood and nothing else. I was not that man. Whenever I have subsequently received other releases over the years it was almost always described on my spreadsheet as,” wood and lots of it”. Nothing wrong with a fragrance that lacks nuance; there is obviously a market for it. Which was why when I tried He Wood Cologne in celebration of the 10th anniversary I expected to do the same.

Except the strip I sprayed it on had more than wood and lots of it. There was a citrus cologne top and the violet heart has some room to make an impression. The same thing happened when it was on my skin. Mme Bugey got the opportunity to find more than woods in He Wood Cologne.

The biggest change is a snappy citrus accord of lemon, orange, and ginger which immediately provided a cologne-like feel. The fir that the original opened with is still here but the citrus is on an equal footing and both are kept at a way softer volume than the original. That is what I think allows the violet to breathe some life into this as it makes an impression before the cedar and vetiver remind you what this perfume is the cologne version of.

He Wood Cologne has 8-10 hour longevity and average sillage.

If you’ve walked away when seeing a new Cool Water of He Wood on the department store counter stop and give these a try on a strip. You might be surprised, too. Disclosure: This review is based on samples provided by Davidoff and He Wood.

Mark Behnke

Dead Letter Office: Madonna Truth or Dare- Not a Fragrance Girl

That the Dead Letter Office is full of celebrity perfumes is not surprising. Most of the time the reason is the scent and the celebrity bear no relationship to each other. The few successes usually have a perfume loving star who does want to make a fragrance which does represent something about them. Even in those cases timing is also a large part of eventual commercial success. If the process of designing the perfume causes it to be released as the supernova begins to cool it can miss its window of opportunity. The first perfume by Madonna had a celebrity who loved perfume but she was so determined to get what she wanted it took a long time; perhaps too long before Madonna Truth or Dare was released to the world.

Madonna had spoken often of her fascination with Robert Piguet Fracas and going in she wanted Truth or Dare to be a modern take on Fracas. What she meant was a thinning out of the boisterous tuberose to something more accessible. She also wanted all of the skank that was in Fracas, indoles and musk, to not be present in Truth or Dare. Over eighteen months she would work with perfumer Stephen Nilsen on her vision. 

Stephen Nilsen

First Mr. Nilsen had to come up with a base accord which would not become obliterated by the tuberose. His choice was to go with a gourmand accord of caramel and amber. It was the first thing Madonna and Mr. Nilsen agreed upon. From there it was the typical give and take of perfumer and creative director as they tried to find this modern tuberose accord. This was where the bulk of the process was stuck for months until they were happy. In the spring of 2012 Truth or Dare was released.

Truth or Dare opens with the tuberose matched with its white flower cousins, gardenia and jasmine. As she apparently desired these are white flowers scrubbed clean of their dirtier components. It does allow for it to feel a bit greener at the expense of the creaminess that the mixture of these florals usually provide. As the white flowers move towards that caramel and amber base the gourmand nature turns it into an exotic dessert perfume. 

Truth or Dare has 8-10 hour longevity and above average sillage.

Truth or Dare was discontinued as of the end of 2016; it never gained much of a foot hold. One of the reasons was despite the promise to be exclusive to specific department stores by Memorial Day 2012 it was on sale at Walmart and Target in the US. That was a remarkable lack of faith in the fragrance to move it onto those shelves in a matter of weeks. As I was reacquainting myself with it I was thinking if the tuberose was made even more transparent it would fit in the current day trend of light gourmand florals. 
The basic reason Truth or Dare is in the Dead Letter Office is trying to make a modern version of a classic perfume is not easy no matter how dedicated to the task you are. It ends up pleasing nobody. While she might be a Material Girl; Truth or Dare showed she was not a Fragrance Girl.

Disclosure: this review was based on a bottle I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds: Korres Blue Sage Lime Fir Wood- Apothecary Aesthetic

One thing I want to do with this series is also point out good brands which have good perfumes for a modest price. I would also like these to be easily available but the one I am recommending this month isn’t as accessible as it should be. I became aware of Korres through my participation on the online perfume forums. The first release was Pepper Jasmine Gaiac Wood Passion Fruit. I was completely enthralled with this peppered jasmine. I still wear some during the summer. This was released at the end of 2009 yet finding a bottle is problematic.

Korres is a Greek brand which is part of its US distribution issue I think. What this leads to is re-stocking after inventory sells out seems to be problematic. Which is too bad because each release wears its main ingredients on its label. You almost know if you’re inclined to like it before you even pick up a bottle. There is an admirable WYSIWYG aspect of that as there is not one of these where the named ingredients don’t sing out. Only in the case of a few of them do I know who the perfumer is. There is no evidence at all who is doing the creative direction although the brand has been founded by George and Lena Korres. I would love to give credit to the creative team because these are worth knowing who is responsible for them. For the purpose of the column I am going to focus on the last new release I received; Blue Sage Lime Fir Wood.

As I mentioned the name tells you what you will be experiencing if not in the order you will detect it. To show this it is the lime that comes first. It is supported by grapefruit and given a sprightly green herbal contrast by mint leaves. The heart uses geranium to draw out the green quality of the mint before the sage and fir arrive with a flourish. You really have to enjoy sage and fir because they are here at full volume. I like the way all of the Korres perfumes are not attempting to shy away from their focal points. The base is patchouli and vetiver also not presented in a delicate way.

Blue Sage Lime Fir Wood has 12-14 hour longevity and above average sillage.

The apothecary influence which is paramount for all of the Korres releases also leads to powerful perfumes. If you are not a fan of this style it is probably not worth the effort to track Korres down. If you do like the occasional powerhouse you can find many of the Korres releases on the online auction sites as well as every now and then the bigger perfume e-tailers. If this sounds good make the effort I think you’ll be rewarded with something nice for a good price.

Disclosure: this review is based on a bottle I purchased.

Mark Behnke

The Best of Times

In my circle of perfume friends there is a phrase I hear quite a bit, “Everything new is crap.” This could be more politely phrased as, “It is the worst of times.” It is a somewhat easy position to take because of the sheer amount of new perfume released. Most new fragrance is cynical focus group driven designs. Part of the reason I write about this ephemeral art is there is so much more than cynicism on display.

At this point in time we now are in a world where an independent perfumer can make a living. While there are still some pockets of less than forthright design in this area that is the minority. What is here are examples of single-minded aesthetic. If you need any evidence of that take a look at the twenty-two nominees for the 2017 Art and Olfaction Awards. These are fragrances which exemplify the vitality of the independent perfume sector. Underneath the list of finalists were over 200 submitted entries which show these are not the few they are the best of the many. If you were to spend the next few months wearing one of these each week you would see there is something happening here.

You might be thinking, “sure that’s independents of course that wasn’t what I meant”. Except some of the stalwarts of niche perfumery have stepped up with new releases that show the best of what these brands represent. Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle released a collaboration with designer Alber Elbaz and perfumer Dominique Ropion. Kilian Hennessy returned to some of the initial influences from the beginning of By Kilian with the new Black Phantom. Yann Vasnier produced the Bloomsbury collection for Jo Malone London. Geza Schoen’s fourth iteration of Molecule 04 and Escentric 04 continue a tradition which can simultaneously educate and thrill perfume lovers. All four of these are brands which defined the parameters of niche perfumery. They represent the longevity of this style of perfume as well as consumers’ acceptance of it.

So now you’re thinking “okay sure those are the experienced what I’m talking about are the new brands” Except there are new brands like Vilhelm Parfumerie and Nomenclature which refute this thought.

Now you’re thinking, “it’s the big brands the ones which only care about money over creativity” Except Hermes Eau des Merveilles Bleue and Cartier Baiser Fou aren’t support for that line of thinking.

I want to put up a thought which is different than what many like to propose, “This is the best of times”. On my desk, right now, I have an embarrassment of riches through all of these areas. I am having trouble remembering this many excellent new releases in front of me at the same time. I think across every area of fragrance there has been a slow refining of what each sector appeals to. Therefore I think the fragrance glass is more than half-full.

Mark Behnke

Under The Radar: Ulrich Lang New York Lightscape- Fresh Purple

One of the most genuine people in the perfume business is Ulrich Lang. Mr. Lang has promoted the greater cause of independent perfumery by co-founding the Elements Showcase and being someone who believes there is a significant place for it. He is so passionate about those themes you might not know he is the creative director of a brand which carries his name; Ulrich Lang New York.

One of the reasons you might have overlooked these perfumes is since the debut of Anvers in 2003 there have only been a total of six releases. Mr. Lang has worked exclusively with perfumer Frank Voelkl over that time. A brand which is not constantly churning out new releases is almost by definition going to fly under the radar. Over the years there has been one of these six perfumes which has become one of my spring staples, Lightscape.

Ulrich Lang

When you think of fresh fragrances a perfume featuring violet and iris is unlikely to be something you might describe like that. Violet has a metallic sharpness while iris can be powdery. Even just that would seem to be a recipe for a construction akin to a head-on collision. Mr. Lang and Mr. Voelkl take some impressive measures to not put these notes against each other; instead finding a way to make them harmonize in a fresh way.

Frank Voelkl

The way they go about this is two-fold. For violet Mr. Voelkl instead of using the actual essential oil of the flowers he instead creates a violet accord. That allows him to tune out those metallic aspects. It also allows the powdery nature that is also a part of the violet flower to be modulated, as well. For the iris, he chooses to use a high-quality orris which doesn’t have as much of the powderiness of iris in favor of a more grounded earthy character.

Lightscape opens with a snappy duet of lemon and galbanum. An attention-grabbing zesty green citrus. To go along with it Mr. Voelkl adds in violet leaf. This adds more green to the galbanum. Then the orris and violet accord appear. I am always so surprised at how uplifting the combination comes off here. It is why I reach for it every spring because it is green and fresh. Cedar brings it back to earth with a wood-based foundation tempered by the botanical musk of ambrette seed.

Lightscape has 10-12 hour longevity and above average sillage.

I can say all six of the Ulrich Lang New York perfumes are Under the Radar gems. They are worthy of being put on your to-try list. If you need one to start with Lightscape is a spring perfume which is a fresh purple fragrance of violet and iris.

Disclosure: This review is based on a bottle I purchased.

Mark Behnke

My Favorite Things: Rhubarb

1

We all have different natural smells which signal the change of seasons. Based on the sheer amount of perfume that gets released this time of the year most brands believe rose is the harbinger of spring. While that might be true for many; my signal scent for spring comes with one of the first things harvested; rhubarb. I always look forward to May because rhubarb and strawberries are ready to be eaten at the same time. Rhubarb as a perfume ingredient has a rooty vegetal quality along with a hint of tart citrus facets and a sulfurous undertone. It is not an easy ingredient for a perfumer to work with but sometimes it can create the sense of digging in the soil. Here are five of my favorite rhubarb fragrances.

My first experience with rhubarb in perfume came from Comme des Garcons Series 5 Sherbet: Rhubarb. Perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour took rhubarb and displayed in all its tart vegetal glory. To stay true to the sherbet theme of the series M. Duchaufour adds in sweetness via lychee and vanilla. The whole effect is a creamy rhubarb ice cream. Beyond the use of rhubarb, it is just a fascinating deep freeze effect M. Duchaufour realizes.

Perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena uses rhubarb with its most common partner grapefruit as his top accord for Hermes Hermessence Rose Ikebana. Hermessences have been likened to perfume haiku. The rhubarb and grapefruit are the five syllables of the first line here. Peony and rose provide the second line while honey and vanilla the final line. Rose Ikebana is all about the rose but it is the grapefruit and rhubarb which keeps me returning to this minimalist construct.

There was a part of me that wanted a perfumer to go all-out with the rhubarb and give it a chance to shine. M. Duchaufour would create a spring garden opening around not only rhubarb but tomato leaves, green apple, and strawberry in Aedes de Venustas. This is spring time digging in the dirt which patchouli represents before trailing to a warm amber. It is the perfume which showed me that rhubarb could be a star.

In Jul et Mad Terasse A St-Germain perfumer Dorothee Piot uses rhubarb as part of an elderflower accord. The rhubarb provides the tart aspect as along with grapefruit, freesia, and lotus flower the elderflower comes alive. It ends with a creamy sandalwood and patchouli base. This shows the potential of rhubarb as a versatile ingredient.

I was still wanting a rhubarb perfume which showed something artistic. I would get that from Hermes Eau de Rhubarbe Ecarlate. Perfumer Christine Nagel takes a fabulously complex rhubarb note then like tendrils of fog she ensnares it in a coating of white musks. Each new musk transforms the keynote displaying every facet that is there. It is a shifting study of rhubarb as the shadows and light alter constantly.

If you want to join me down in the dirt this early spring try one of my favorite rhubarb perfumes.

Disclosure: This review is based on bottles I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Arquiste 101- Five To Get You Started

Arquiste is another one of those perfume brands which I consider to be “mine”. The criteria to be considered “mine” is that it started about the time I started to get serious about writing on perfume. I’ve been trying to remember the first time I met Carlos Huber the owner/creative director of Arquiste. While I don’t remember the place Sr. Huber is one of the most genuine personalities in perfumery. He came to perfume from training as an architectural historian. Every Arquiste perfume starts with a brief which describes a place and time period. He then managed to find two perfumers with whom he has exclusively worked with by themselves and in tandem; Rodrigo Flores-Roux and Yann Vasnier. Together since their debut in 2011 they have created a brand aesthetic which now announces itself with each new release. Obviously, I think this is a fragrance collection worth checking out; here are the five to start with.

When you get around other perfume lovers and you both really like the same perfume there is a combination of sounds and facial expression which convey the emotions. A fluttering of eyelids over rolled back eyes. A low semi-guttural purr combined with a tilt of the head to one side. Long-time friend Ida Meister and I did this when we both tried one of the first Arquiste releases called Anima Dulcis. The fragrance was set in 1685 Mexico City as cloistered nuns developed their concoction of hot cocoa and chiles. M. Vasnier and Sr. Flores-Roux capture the simmering heat of the chiles in juxtaposition to the cocoa. Cinnamon, clove, jasmine, and sesame provide texture and detail to one of the best gourmands I own.

L’Etrog is another co-production by M. Vasnier and Sr. Flores-Roux. It is at the cologne end of the spectrum as the perfumers imagine the scent of 1175 Calabria, Italy as the local species of citron known as Etrog provides the early citrus brightness. In the background are the very light smells of the flowers around the Calabrian milieu. Vetiver provides the green contrast in the base.

For Boutonniere No. 7 Sr. Huber asked Sr. Flores-Roux to imagine a group of young men at fin de siècle France in the lobby of the Opera-Comique in Paris. Their lure is the gardenia in their lapel. Sr. Flores-Roux captures the gardenia as it scents the air to capture attention. Using lavender to evoke the cologne the dandies would be wearing then a perfectly balanced gardenia accord, lush and green. It all ends on an expertly formed accord of a freshly ironed suit. Boutonniere No. 7 is a fabulously different take on gardenia.

The Architect’s Club is the Arquiste which most acts as a time machine. Set during 1930 Happy Hour at an elegant Mayfair club of the same name in London. Some of the Lost Generation burst into the room livening up the stuffy atmosphere. It opens with spice and wood paneled drawing room accords before M. Vasnier unleashes the gin-toting wild things into the mix. Things just pick up steam from there. M. Vasnier keeps the frivolity under control to make The Architect’s Club the best party in town.

Nanban is an East meets West fragrance set on a Japanese sailing ship in 1618 returning from their first contact with Mexico. Sr. Flores-Roux and M. Vasnier create a construct where osmanthus pushes against the spices of the New World. Myrrh and sandalwood provide serenity which is disrupted by coffee and leather. It ends as the ship sails into the harbor of home as the fir trees and frankincense welcome the crew home.

Arquiste is one of the best new brands of the last few years well worth the time to explore. Start with these five.

Disclosure: This review is based on bottles I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Is Perfume an Aspirational or Signature Purchase?

I read an interesting piece on The NPD Group website called “How the Aspirational Purchase Has Shifted”. The basic thesis of the article is in to the mid-2000’s there was a significant number of consumers who would shell out for a particular set of expensive items in the effort to give off the sense of wealth these brands would impart. The author now hypothesizes that over the last decade or so that has changed. Now it is about finding that great item at a thrift store. The rise of YouTube videos which extol just that shows it to be a particularly enjoyable effort of that Facebook Live group of consumers. The author also believes if you are going to spend you will do it for a “signature item”. These could include an artisanal made leather briefcase or a coat from an obscure designer made to order. They are the pieces which help define the person who has them. They also hope to have them be singular to their circle of friends and family.

As I read through this I could see perfume acting as part of both categories. I still think the popularity of the major design houses in the department store can be ascribed to the aspirational type of consumer. I suspect that the bottle of perfume with Chanel, Dior, Hermes, Cartier, Prada, or Armani on its label is often the only thing from the brand in most homes. It speaks to the power of fragrance to be able to impart the brand aesthetic through scent which the best of these manage to do successfully.

Created by Pressfoto – Freepik.com

I think the signature purchase has also always been there in those who buy perfume. How many words have been written about finding a “signature fragrance”? I also think it is part of what has driven the expansion of the niche perfume market over the same time the author of The NPD Group article describes as when signature began to win out over aspirational. It has allowed a perfume lover to find a perfume that is not going to be as widely available as those typically found at the mall.

The final thing I realized is there is also a fragrance group which combines both. Chanel Les Exclusifs, Dior La Collection Privee, Hermes Hermessences, Cartier Les Heures, Prada Olfactories, and Armani Prive live in both worlds. The perfumes are often sold in upscale department stores or exclusively in the designer boutiques with price tags multiples greater than the mass-market line.

This allows perfume to inhabit that sweet spot where the Venn diagram of aspirational and signature overlap. It also probably allows it to be that affordable luxury which even the younger generation sees as “worth it” to filling whatever aspect they are looking for from their fragrance purchase. It probably means that fragrance will continue to be a significant part of the beauty economy for years to come.

Mark Behnke

Dead Letter Office: M. Micallef Yellow Sea- First Impressions Lost

When I look back over the perfumes which have been discontinued to add to the list of future Dead Letter Office columns sometimes I am a little sad. Most of the time that emotion arises because the first perfumes that connected me to a brand are no longer being made. Those first impressions are what made me look forward to every future release. One of the reasons those fragrances end up here is because they were also part of the brand evolving their aesthetic. A good example of this is the M. Micallef Seas Collection.

Martine Micallef

I became aware of M. Micallef and the Seas Collection through my participation on the Basenotes forums. They sounded interesting and through the generosity of other members I swapped for the first two; Black Sea and Red Sea. They were two distinct points in my discovery of the difference between European and American aesthetics. Even in the early 2000’s Americans were continuing with clean and fresh. When I tried Red Sea there was the fresh and clean but creative director Martine Micallef and perfumer Jean-Claude Astier added in cumin which added in the body odor character that ingredient is known for. Black Sea would provide a contrast as it added in a prominent saffron note which I found to be the best representation of that particular note I had tried at that point in my perfume testing. I came away from trying those two wanting to try more from the brand and went on an acquisitional spree. What I found was the other perfumes by Mme Micallef and M. Astier were very different; they had an ineffable French-ness to them. That quality is what would define the brand but they weren’t done with the Seas at this point. When Yellow Sea was released in 2008 that Gallic sense of style was added to a sunny plush citrus fragrance.  

Jean-Claude Astier

The early moments are sunny lemon and bergamot which then is transformed by one of the best uses of castoreum to provide the sweet muskiness as contrast. Unlike the earlier Seas this time the stronger note added into the mix works very well. Patchouli and incense provide a richly resinous heart but it is pitched at a much more transparent level than you normally get from the rest of the brand. The base is a clean cedar framing with a bit of amber and benzoin adding some length to the resinous tail from the heart.

Yellow Sea has 8-10 hour longevity and average sillage.

None of the M. Micallef Seas is like anything else the brand has released. It seems clear that consumers were more interested in the different aesthetic being presented in the other releases; Note Ambree is a good example of that which was released contemporaneously with Yellow Sea. I miss the loss of my first impressions of M. Micallef but the brand has mostly delighted me over the years even if I wanted more of what ended up in the Dead Letter Office.

Disclosure: This review is based on a bottle I purchased.

Mark Behnke