Dead Letter Office: Penhaligon’s Elixir- Casualty of the Reset Button

The longer a brand is around the usual trajectory is a solidifying of a brand aesthetic. If there are some swings, they usually come early in their existence. In the case of perfume brand Penhaligon’s I could make the case they have never been able to figure out what they’re all about. For a brand over a hundred years old you might think they’ve figured it out. You would be wrong. Penhaligon’s has gone through so many distinctly different eras and styles it is hard to keep track. One benefit of all that uncertainty is there was bound to be a time of creative apotheosis. That happened in the years between 2006-2013. Perfumers like Mathilde Bijaoui, Bertrand Duchaufour, Olivier Cresp and Alberto Morillas had a freer hand under creative director Nathalie Vinciguerra. Too many of these have found their way to the Dead Letter Office including the one I think is the best of them all; Penhaligon’s Elixir.

Nathalie Vinciguerra

Mme Vinciguerra kept up her trend of working with the best perfumers as she asked Olivia Giacobetti to compose Elixir. She would come forward with one of her trademark transparent structures which has become one of my Holiday Season staples.

Olivia Giacobetti

By 2008 when Elixir was released the trend towards more transparent constructs was only being practiced by a few perfumers. Mme Giacobetti was one of the earliest and most creative working on these kinds of fragrances. She is one of the reasons I have some issues with many of the modern transparent creations now that the pendulum has swung so firmly in this direction. She showed me that transparency can have tremendous beauty in fragility. Elixir is a good example of how spices, florals, and woods can form an opaque Oriental.

Elixir opens with an accord of three spices; cinnamon, cardamom, and clove. I jokingly think of them as the “3C’s”. Mme Gicaobetti finds an ideal balance of all three so that they form this shimmering spicy accord. In an ingenious flourish she takes eucalyptus to provide mentholated lift to those spices. This is one of my favorite top accords by Mme Gicaobetti, ever. When I wear Elixir, I sometimes refresh it a few hours after the first sprays because I like it so much. What comes after is also quite good, but the beginning is brilliant. It moves through a floral phase led by a lightly indolic orange blossom paired with a subtle incense. This is another diaphanous accord which doesn’t sacrifice the soul of its ingredients. It finishes on a fabulous guaiac wood and sandalwood clean woody foundation.

Elixir has 12-14 hour longevity and average sillage.

Elixir has made it to the Dead Letter Office because of the schizophrenic nature of the Penhaligon’s brand. They hit the reset button early and often sending too many good perfumes off to oblivion. The nice thing is bottles of Elixir can still be found reasonably at many of the fragrance resellers.

Elixir has been one of my favorite perfumes by Mme Giacobetti I marvel at how well it stands up to cold weather as I wear it during the Holidays. It shows a sturdiness belied by its presence. The only thing which it couldn’t survive was the reset button.

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

Mark Behnke

My Favorite Things: Chestnut

It isn’t Christmas without Nat King Cole singing “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” If you’re walking in New York City the smell of roasting chestnuts from the street vendors is part of the cold weather milieu. When it comes to chestnut being a keynote in a fragrance there are not a lot of them. Although I do have five which can be my scented companion to the smooth vocals of Mr. Cole.

There are two chestnuts roasting perfumes on this list. The first is Maison Martin Margiela Replica: By The Fireplace. Perfumer Marie Salamagne keeps the cade wood smoke to a minimum while weaving a cozy accord of chestnut warmed with clove and vanilla. It comes together as a fragrance equivalent of a snuggly cashmere blanket.

The other one is DSH Perfumes Chataignes du Bois which was Dawn Spencer Hurwitz’s Holiday perfume in 2017. She produced a full-spectrum chestnut effect as she combined multiple sources to form an uber-chestnut accord. What endears it to me is there is a burnt sugar accord underneath it all which takes me back to winter nights running around NYC.

Perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour has used chestnut in two different perfumes for L’Artisan Parfumeur.

Mechant Loup was one of M. Duchaufour’s earliest perfumes for the brand in 1997. The core of this perfume is a nutty accord of chestnut and hazelnut coated in honey. It was one of the first nutty perfumes I fell for although I was resistant to its charms at first. The nuts and honey are powerful but if you give it time a gorgeous use of myrrh turns the Big Bad Wolf into a puppy.

Twenty years later M. Duchaufour returned to chestnut with Noir Exquis. Meant to capture a café encounter in Paris over coffee and pastries the chestnut is candied to represent the baked goods. The coffee is nicely realized. What makes this different is his use of a maple syrup accord which makes it all sweeter than I expected. There are days I want to slow down for a pastry and a coffee, Noir Exquis allows me to do it in a decaffeinated low-calorie way.

Etat Libre D’Orange Fat Electrician is the most interesting use of chestnut in a perfume. Perfumer Antoine Maisondieu wanted this to be a different interpretation of vetiver. To achieve that he used chestnut to amplify the nutty facets of vetiver. This is one of my favorite vetiver perfumes because of how successful he was. He takes that nuttier vetiver and wraps it in vanilla and myrrh for a completely unique vetiver fragrance because of the chestnut.

If you want some chestnuts on your skin instead of the fire these five will do the job.

Disclosure: This review is based on bottles I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Flanker Round-Up: Dior J’Adore Absolu and Bottega Veneta L’Absolu

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This month’s round-up looks at two flankers of what I think are some of the best mainstream perfumes ever. Usually when you see “absolu” as the name on a flanker what I have come to expect is a warmer more intimate version of the original. What is interesting about both of this month’s choices is they went for the intimacy without going deeper.

Dior J’Adore Absolu

I know I’m going to sound like a broken record but her we go again with Dior and names. J’Adore was released in 1999 immediately becoming a best-seller within the fruity floral style of perfume. It is one of my all-time favorite mainstream perfumes. In the nearly twenty years since there have been multiple flankers most of them typical tweaks to the original formula. Including in 2007 J’Adore L’Absolu which was the typical absolu flanker described above. Now in 2018 they are releasing J’Adore Absolu which is one letter away from the other perfume which is still on the market. Dior seems to be a brand which excels at trying to confuse the consumer with its names. Despite this nonsense the new J’Adore Absolu is very different than any other J’Adore flanker.

In-house perfumer Francois Demachy says he wanted to create a “floral nectar” which I get. J’Adore Absolu is overall a floral dripping with honey. I found it the most sensual of any of the flankers released so far.

M. Demachy takes a set of floral absolutes as his keynotes. The J’Adore DNA is defined by jasmine, rose, and tuberose. All of those are here. The two additions are magnolia and orange blossom. Through the early moments the magnolia is out in front followed by the jasmine and rose. There is a pause while the tuberose sets up a bassline to the other florals. What makes this perfume take off is the use of orange blossom which provides a sparkle to things just before honey oozes over everything. This comes together as a bright set of sunny florals captured in viscous honey. It is intimate but not as warm as something with absolu in the title might indicate. Which makes it a uniquely good flanker.

Bottega Veneta L’Absolu

In 2011 leather goods designer Bottega Veneta entered the fragrance market with an eponymous mainstream perfume. Designed by creative director Tomas Maier and perfumer Michel Almairac it was a fragrance which captured the leather of the company fused with jasmine and patchouli. It was my favorite mainstream release of that year and remains a favorite now. Hr. Maier has gone on to oversee a coherently excellent mainstream collection of Bottega Veneta fragrances. There have been flankers but not a ton of them for each of the pillar lines for the brand. Bottega Veneta L’Absolu is just the second flanker of Bottega Veneta. These have all been correctly described as dry leather woody fragrances. I was expecting something similar but perhaps a bit less dry for a L’Absolu. M. Almairac had something else in mind creating the driest version yet for the L’Absolu.

The construction is much simpler for L’Absolu. It is stripped down to pink pepper, jasmine, leather and ambroxan. There is very little else in here. The pink pepper provides an herbal lift to the jasmine before the same delicate leather accord from the original arrives. Then using ambroxan the entire composition is dehydrated. Leaving a desiccated effect that is really compelling, only ameliorated by a pinch of vanilla and an equally small amount of patchouli. Those latter ingredients are critical to keeping L’Absolu from becoming too sharp. What is left is like looking at a leather memory book and finding a dried jasmine flower in its pages.

Disclosure: this review is based on samples provided by the manufacturers.

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds: Zirh Ikon- Soft Incense

I go to my local discount stores to get ideas for this column. As I dig through the bins, I am looking for something which wasn’t there before. Which means I miss the forest for the trees. In the search for buried treasure I fail to notice the silver coins on the beach. On my last visit I was digging while another shopper was next to me going through the testers. With my head down, a nice scent drifted down upon me. I looked up and asked what he had just sprayed. He held out a bottle with big blocky letters which read: Zirh Ikon.

Zirh is a men’s full-service skincare brand including perfume. It is particularly prevalent during the holiday shopping season because they sell gift sets where they mix and match many of their products, including fragrance. When it comes to the very modestly priced fragrance out there all the Zirh perfumes are great bang for the buck. I own Zirh Corduroy and Zirh Perfume as well as Ikon. For someone who wants an economical choice of perfumes for all seasons there are many worse options.

Frank Voelkl

What the spritz of Ikon at the discount store reminded me of is that it is a simple triad of spices, incense, and woods. Perfumer Frank Voelkl works with an efficient style in Ikon to create something better than it should be for the price.

The opening is a mix of lemon and cardamom which primarily hold the foreground. There are hints of clove and cinnamon, but they are there to shade the top accord towards the cardamom. The incense steps forward with a sharpness to it. This is further refined as labdanum softens it. Cedar and vetiver provide a green woody base accord.

Ikon has 8-10 hour longevity and average sillage.

You can find 4oz. bottles of Ikon for around $10. They are $9.99 at the discount stores I shop at. I also mention the gift sets which will be popping up because you will find some of them also contain Ikon along with some skincare products.

One thing about Ikon which I should mention is when you read spice, incense, and woods you think of something with a large presence. One reason I like Ikon is M. Voelkl softens the overall effect to make it much more approachable. It is at its best in the cold weather. When I smelled it at the store the other day it was that which drew my attention the most. Reminding me to appreciate what was right in front of me.

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

Mark Behnke

Under the Radar: Majda Bekkali Mon Nom est Rouge- My Kind of Rose

For those of you who put up with my annual grumpiness over the deluge of spring rose perfumes it would probably surprise you to know one of my very favorite perfumes is an unabashed rose perfume. I would further mention that you might expect it isn’t a typical rose perfume which I would hold in such high esteem. It is also typical that it would come from a small niche brand along with being composed by one of my favorite perfumers. All the above means it is a perfect choice for this column. The perfume I am describing is Majda Bekkali Mon Nom est Rouge.

Mon Nom est Rouge was released in 2013 as part of the second set of releases for the brand. Majda Bekkali was working with many established names in the early days. The perfumer for Mon Nom est Rouge was a young woman, Cecile Zarokian, who used the opportunity to create one of the most memorable perfumes I own.

Cecile Zarokian

The name comes from the novel by Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk. The story takes place with the miniaturists in the Ottoman Empire. The story is also one of those fractured narratives where dead people narrate and others are imperfect witnesses. The perfume reflects all of that as even though it is one of her earliest perfumes it is also one of Mme Zarokian’s most precise constructs. It also is a fractured rose perfume where it isn’t just presented as a pretty piece of fragrance. In Mon Nom est Rouge it passes away only to arise again.

The perfume opens with a fantastic accord of aldehydes wrapped around a shiny metallic accord. The hair spray quality of the aldehydes fits right in with the chrome-like accord. Out of this arises a Turkish rose as if it is chrome covered itself. This is followed by the heat of spices as Mme Zarokian precisely uses cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, baie rose, pepper, and ginger to scour that chrome off the rose to lay bare the flower itself. It then combines with tobacco, incense, sandalwood, and musk for the base accord.

Mon Nom est Rouge has 12-14 hour longevity and average sillage.

Mon Nom est Rouge is the perfume I turn to when the deluge of spring rose perfumes has me at my grouchiest. It reminds me that in the hands of a skilled artist like Mme Zarokian rose still has relevance. If you need a reminder of that Mon Nom est Rouge needs to be on your radar screen.

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

Mark Behnke

The Name Is The Same But The Perfume Is Not

William Shakespeare’s Juliet asks, “What’s in a name?” Large perfume companies seem to disagree with the remainder of her line, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” That’s because they keep insisting on using the same name for a new perfume which has nothing to do with a perfume which has the same name from an earlier time.

If you need an example of what that does to consumers go read the comments on my review for the new Tiffany & Co. perfume. There is one after the other about how disappointed consumers are that this new perfume smells nothing like the previous Tiffany & Co. perfume. They are correct. In the review I pointed out that it was seemingly designed for a completely different perfume lover. The impassioned comments bear that out as the previous fans share their disappointment. Granted Tiffany is not a major perfume brand but the display of annoyance I think is one that goes underreported. What I worry about is the perfume consumer who only has a couple of perfumes on their table becomes a not consumer because of this.

I mentioned this again in the recent review of Givenchy L’Interdit where the choice was to do something completely different from the original perfume. The original was designed for Hubert de Givenchy’s muse, Audrey Hepburn. I couldn’t find a shred of Ms. Hepburn in this new version. I liked it, but it isn’t the L’Interdit I have a bottle of. The cynic inside tells me that the typical perfume consumer has no knowledge of historical perfumes. Which means only a tiny percentage of fragrance wonks like me care.

The biggest evidence of this is the use of the name Joy by Dior for their new mainstream release. They were able to do it because they bought the brand which previously used the name, Jean Patou. Seemingly solely so they could do this. The sad part is this is the case which compares a masterpiece of the past to something less so. Dior of course is the brand which in 2011 did one of the most inexplicable name changes as they changed the name of Miss Dior Cherie to just Miss Dior. The perfume named Miss Dior Original was the old Miss Dior. Miss Dior Cherie disappeared completely. Follow that? I continue to receive e-mail where I straighten this out for those who have finished a bottle of Miss Dior Cherie and can’t find it. I wonder if the sales associates know this? Or does a consumer walk away disappointed?

The bottom line is the large perfume companies have decided the name and brand loyalty mean little to them. They are more interested in providing new product even when wrapped in old names. Alas fair Juliet I don’t think these impersonal companies see perfume as poetry; just product.

Mark Behnke

Dead Letter Office: Fan di Fendi pour Homme- Picking the Hits

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There are designer labels that just can’t seem to find their way in the fragrance world. One of those would be Fendi. As a brand they had two distinct eras of trying to become a successful perfume provider. The first era ended in 2004. That was despite producing one of the best perfumes of the last 25 years in Fendi Theorema. That it was a previous entry in this column shows the struggle Fendi had. After 2004 they pulled back and rethought their approach.

Francois Demachy

If the originality of something like Theorema was not going to draw consumers maybe there was a different tack. When the brand returned to making perfume in 2010, they put Francois Demachy in the position of fragrance creative director. Then they seemingly decided that originality was not going to be a priority. Instead they became a fragrance version of a greatest hits record. All the perfumes with Fendi on the label from 2010-2015 were made up of successful accords and tropes from other best-selling perfumes. The idea seemed to be if we can just take a little bit from the other perfumes on the perfume counter, we will find an audience. That I put a date up there to the end of this era is a giveaway to how successful it was.

Benoist Lapouza

Fendi is far from the only brand happy to mash-up the kind of accords which consumers desire. It is a too common way to produce perfume. The thing is if they pick the hits you like the most you will probably enjoy the tune even if it reminds you of other things. For me the right set of tunes showed up in Fan di Fendi pour Homme.

Delphine Lebeau-Krowiak

M. Demachy chose to work with a team of perfumers for all the Fendi releases in this second era; Benoist Lapouza and Delphine Lebeau-Krowiak. Usually this is my recipe for success with a consistent creative team. The strength here was they were all on the same page just figuring out how to balance the styles they were combining into something nice. For Fan di Fendi pour Homme they hit the right accords.

It opens on a mixture of herb and spice with basil and cardamom mixed with citrus. It is a sturdy opening; one which will remind you of many other perfumes. It switches to the men’s style of florals as geranium provides the heart. It picks up the green parts of the herb and the spice. It ends with a leather accord made deeper with patchouli before cedarwood provides the woodiness necessary in a “pour homme” perfume.

Fan di Fendi pour Homme has 8-10 hour longevity and average sillage.

I like Fan di Fendi because it fills in on a day when I don’t want to wear one of the many perfumes, of which I smell pieces of, within it. It has become a reliable weekend fall choice. It has just been recently discontinued so this, and any of the second era Fendi perfumes, are still out there to be found.

Fendi has now failed in two different approaches to fragrance. Will there be a third? Is there a path between originality and greatest hits? It will be interesting to see the answer if there is a return in a few years. The Dead Letter Office has two relics of the first two eras whether they are the final representatives of the Fendi fragrance output will only be seen with time.

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

Mark Behnke

My Favorite Things: Beeswax

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There are certain ingredients in perfume which have such a multi-faceted character I enjoy smelling the absolute on its own. Beeswax absolute is one of those. Created by extracting hives which have been around for years. Depending on where those hives are from each version has its own scent profile. What is common is a musky honey infused with the pollen harvested from whatever indigenous plant life surrounds the hive. While the absolute is great by itself it is even better when used in a perfume here are five of my favorites.

Chanel Antaeus pour Homme was my first experience with beeswax in perfume although I didn’t know it at the time. It was part of my early expansion of my perfume collection. It provides a bit of animalic muskiness underneath the sage, patchouli, and labdanum spine. I was attracted to it because of that.

I talk about inflection points by perfumers all the time. Ineke Field Notes From Paris was that for independent perfumer Ineke Ruhland. The beeswax brings home a gorientalmand base stitching together tonka bean, vanilla, and amber. Prior to that is the smell of a Paris day.

Rubini Fundamental is one of the most original perfumes of the last few years. The creative team of Andrea Bissoli Rubini, Ermano Picco, and perfumer Cristiano Canali created a perfume capturing Verona in 1937 with the actors, in greasepaint, taking a break underneath the grape arbor. It is beeswax which provides the linchpin to the greasepaint accord mixed with the grapes in the heart of Fundamental. If you’re looking for something completely different this is where you should go.

Maria Candida Gentile released a trio of perfumes in 2014 called “Flight of the Bumblebee”. Within that she used three different sources of beeswax. It was Leuco and its powdery French beeswax which was my favorite. It was the counterweight to a keynote of tuberose. The beeswax provided a muffling effect while also adding a shimmering effect over the top of it all. Leuco is my favorite of al of Sig.ra Gentile’s perfumes.

For a straightforward beeswax experience there is nothing better than Sonoma Scent Studio Bee’s Bliss. Independent perfumer Laurie Erickson created a perfume which captures the entire process of honey. Starting with mimosa as the flower harvested on top of a rich honey accord. The beeswax represents the hive along with vetiver representing the propolis which holds the cells together. It is a gorgeous abstraction of harvesting honey fresh from the hive.

Disclosure: This review is based on bottles I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Flanker Round-Up: Jennifer Aniston Chapter Two and Katy Perry’s Indi Visible

My primary issue with flankers is they are so often cynically safe. They tend to start with a safe mass-market alpha perfume dumbing it down by degrees. I don’t know this to be true but there are times I think they do a survey. Then for the flanker they take out whatever ingredients were problematic to the respondents. There is another way to go with a flanker. Take the same foundation and build something entirely different. This doesn’t keep the brand from playing it safe, but it does show a bit more effort than the phoning it in which seems to accompany the first way I described. For this month’s Round-Up I thought I’d provide an example of each.

Jennifer Aniston Chapter Two

Ever since the first Jennifer Aniston perfume in 2010 this has been a line firmly mired in safe boring perfumes. It had become easy to ignore the brand. Last year they released Chapter One. It was surprising to find a full-bodied white flower perfume supported by a bunch of musks. It certainly was derivative, but it was a new direction. When I saw my sample of Chapter Two I was wondering what was next.

It turns out the feedback they received must have been, “those flowers are too strong”. Because what Chapter Two does is make something so lightly floral it is almost the opposite of the previous release. Perfumer Caroline Sabas adds a watery accord on top followed by the less obstreperous florals of lavender, iris, and gardenia. It forms a less forward floral style. The musks also get reduced in effect greatly. The overall fragrance feels like something which has been overedited.

If you are a fan of the brand Chapter Two is more like what came before Chapter One. Depending on your feelings on that should guide you into whether you will like it.

Katy Perry’s Indi Visible

Singer Katy Perry also put her name on a fragrance starting in 2010. Hers has also been a line of perfume inspired by other trends. The difference is there have been well-done versions of those trends. 2013’s Killer Queen was an early take on the now popular floral gourmand. Last years Indi was another good lily and musk perfume. I had the same feeling when the new Indi Visible showed up; which way would they go?

In this case the perfumer, Caroline Sabas, retained the musky vanilla foundation. What they then built on top of that was something entirely different. A juicy plum lead to a sweet coconut in the heart which is amplified with some vanilla. It is then floated on a pool of musks with sandalwood retaining that sweet follow through.

Indi Visible is a mass-market alternative to anyone who has been interested in the suntan lotion style of perfume which ran through the niche market over the last year or so. This is in line with much of what the Katy Perry fragrance brand has done. Good versions of good trends. That’s as much as you can ask of flankers.

Disclosure: This review is based on samples provided by the manufacturers.

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds: Lalique Encre Noire- Masterpiece Vetiver

With so much perfume released every year it becomes easy to forget about those which were released a short while ago. One of the goals of this column is to take advantage of that as the discounting cycle is also accelerated. Throughout the nearly five years of writing Discount Diamonds this is the first entry which I think is a modern masterpiece; Lalique Encre Noire.

Vetiver has become a staple ingredient of perfumery in the 21st century. Prior to that it was two perfumes which were the standard bearers for the ingredient; Guerlain Vetiver and Givenchy Vetyver. They were the perfumes which introduced my generation to vetiver. As we crossed into the new century the independent perfume market began to expand rapidly. That meant there were new perspectives provided on previous keynotes. Vetiver started off with a pair of perfumes, once again, leading the modern interpretation. One of those is Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle Vetiver Extraordinaire. I don’t think that one is ever going to be a Discount Diamond. Lalique Encre Noire is the other one and it has become a fit subject for this column.

Nathalie Lorson

Encre Noire was released in 2006. Lalique’s fragrance business was looking for a way to join in on this new way of making perfume. Perfumer Nathalie Lorson would help as she composed three perfumes for the brand from 2006-2007; Perles de Lalique, Amethyst, and Encre Noire. It was a statement of intent to try for something different.

The original vetivers were citrus affairs with the vetiver providing an acerbic green contrast. More interested in the higher register effects. Encre Noire was going to go for a different style; plumbing the woody depths underneath the green. What was also so interesting about doing that was there was a smoky quality just waiting to be separated and amplified. Mme Lorson finds that.

The opening of Encre Noire is the classic grassy green of old-style vetiver. Mme Lorson uses cedar to find the woods inherent within vetiver. She uses two sources of vetiver in Encre Noire, Haitian and Bourbon. The Haitian vetiver I have come to know has a quite prominent smoky character. By blending the two versions Mme Lorson tunes the smoke to a soft level. I used to burn pine needles as a boy and whenever I wear Encre Noire the smoky nature reminds me of this. The Bourbon vetiver brings a spicy complement to the Haitian smoky version. The base is a cocktail of sensual musks which really represent the “noire” in the name.

Encre Noire has 8-10 hour longevity and moderate sillage.

I consider Encre Noire to be one of the best perfumes of this century. That you can buy a bottle for under $30 makes it a steal. There is no other Discount Diamond which will shine brighter.

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

Mark Behnke