When it comes to the Dead Letter Office there are entries which come from a brand trying to strike out in a new direction. One which their customers are not interested in following. For some of the longer lived brands there comes a moment after a few years of success with a very specific aesthetic they will take a risk on something different. This was where Jo Malone London was at in 2002.
Jo Malone London was the early success story of independent perfumery. Ms. Malone had grown her business starting in 1994 with the release of Nutmeg & Ginger into something Estee Lauder would acquire in 1999. Part of the deal allowed Ms. Malone to continue on as creative director where she remained until 2006. The upside of the acquisition was expanded distribution which would see the heretofore difficult to find fragrances in the US begin to expand into the luxury department stores in the first five years of the new century. As part of this expansion there would be new releases to put a new shine on the previous collection.
If there was something that was frequently commented on with those early releases it was they were light. Maybe too light. There were lots of people who would criticize the longevity of the line; feeling it needed to be re-applied in an hour or two. The early releases fell into two categories either citrus or floral. As Jo Malone was starting life as part of a big company it seems the powers that be decided it was time for a change.
There were four new releases between 2002-2003. Three of them have been discontinued. One has remained as part of the collection. The four were Wild Fig & Cassis, Stephanotis & Cassia Café, Orange Blossom, and Black Vetyver Café. Which one do you think survived the Dead Letter Office? Of course it was Orange Blossom. The other three represented a different take as they went with assertive themes around keynotes which were not light. In the long run they would prove to be too different none more so than Black Vetyver Café.
Black Vetyver Café was released in 2002 by perfumer Jean-Claude Delville. The gourmand style of perfume was just gaining traction. At that point almost all of them were sweet. For Black Vetyver Café M. Delville wanted to focus on coffee as the keynote. The version he used as the focal point was the roasted whole bean. If you’ve ever opened a fresh bag of roasted coffee beans you will know the coffee being used here. It has a nutty character along with a tiny amount of sour oiliness. That is what you smell right from the moment it hits your skin. The heart is a mix of nutmeg and coriander used to pick up those nutty and oliy qualities. Turning it much richer. The woods come next and the coffee reasserts its core character. Then the promised vetiver swathes it in green. A very transparent incense skirls throughout the final drydown.
Black Vetyver Café has 8-10 hour longevity and moderate sillage.
As far as I was concerned this new direction was fantastic. Black Vetyver Café was the first Jo Malone full bottle I owned. Unfortunately, I was not joined by others. Black Vetyver Café would be discontinued around 2012-ish. By that point Estee Lauder had come to realize what the Jo Malone customer desired and it wasn’t bold. It was more of the florals the brand had been founded on.
It is admirable that there was an attempt to try something different. Sometimes the perfumes which find their way into the Dead Letter Office are put there by the will of the consumer. In the case of Jo Malone those customers wanted to have their favorite brand decaffeinated.
Disclosure: This review was based on a bottle I purchased.
You have probably walked by the display of bottles in your local department store. Dozens of clear bottles with a black and white label on them with the name of Jo Malone. There is a simple elegance in the display but you look at all those bottles and wonder where to start. This edition of Perfume 101 will give you some suggestions on just how to do that with one of the best bang for the buck brands in the department store.
Lime Basil & Mandarin– This wasn’t the first Jo Malone fragrance, that was 1990’s Nutmeg & Ginger. It was the second one and it has become the flagship fragrance in the line. Back in 1991 the idea of taking strongly herbal notes like basil and thyme while matching them with citrus on top over a woody base was not as common as it is 23 years later. Perfumer Lucien Piguet would take the citrus cornucopia centered on mandarin and juxtapose it with a heart of sage and basil along with iris. It all ends with a lilting amber, patchouli and vetiver base. There is a reason this perfume has lasted so long it really is a new classic.
Amber & Lavender– In 1995 very few people knew who Bertrand Duchaufour was. Jo Malone tapped him to make Amber & Lavender. It was his first signed fragrance. These kind of time capsules in perfume form are interesting. Amber & Lavender shows M. Duchaufour’s desire to use contrasting notes to form texture and depth was there right from the start. He sort of condensed the core of Lime Basil & Mandarin into the top notes of Amber & Lavender as petitgrain along with basil and rosemary give the herbal and citrus tension. The heart takes a Provencal lavender and allows it to be a little more herbal in character. This opens space for spices like cinnamon and nutmeg the opportunity to flow in around the floral nature. The base is vetiver, oakmoss, amber, and musk which provide a dark green finish. This was where M. Duchaufour started and you can see, in hindsight, some of his favorite techniques in play already.
Dark Amber & Ginger Lily– By 2008 Jo Malone had created an impression that they were all about making lighter brighter fragrances. Dark Amber & Ginger Lily would shatter that impression as perfumer Andrea Lupo would compose a gorgeous woody gem. Dark Amber & Ginger Lily opens with ginger and in 2008 there were so many poor uses of ginger in perfumes. Here it was used as a foundation for cardamom and pink pepper. The lily comes in the heart and it carries a watery quality. The floral character is enhanced with a bit of jasmine and rose. This all leads to an as advertised dark amber made even darker with leather, patchouli, and sandalwood added in. I remember getting this sample back then and I just couldn’t believe it was Jo Malone. This would start a trend of having some deeper compositions every year.
Vanilla & Anise– I am a sucker for vanilla and licorice and 2009’s Vanilla & Anise gave me both. What perfumers Celine Barel, Clement Gavarry, and Pascal Gaurin created was a perfume featuring both vanilla and licorice but the most transparent perfume featuring these notes I own without sacrificing one iota of depth. Fennel and star anise provide the lighter licorice quality in the top notes. A floral intermezzo of vanilla orchid and frangiapani usher this in to a rich musky vanilla base with a grace note of clove to add an exotic fillip to keep it from being too vanilla.
Sakura Cherry Blossom– I live near Washington DC and when the cherry blossoms herald the coming of spring I revel in the delicate scent as I walk along the Tidal Basin in the snow of petals falling around me. In 2011 perfumer Christine Nagel made one of the only perfumes I think captures the inherent fragility of the cherry blossom. By opening with a bergamot and cardamom zephyr into an even more opaque cherry blossom accord. It all ends on an equally transparent base of rosewood and musk. It is one of my very favorite perfumes by Mme Nagel.
I hope this guide gives you a reason to stop by the Jo Malone counter next time you walk by it.
Disclosure: This review was based on bottles I purchased.