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.
One of the more interesting perfume stories is the ongoing changing of the guard in the fragrance business at Hermes. Perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena has been the in-house perfumer for over 10 years. Last year Christine Nagel was hired to eventually take over the reins when M. Ellena chooses to retire. I have been very interested to see Mme Nagel’s first perfume for Hermes and I’ve been kept waiting for over a year. Finally, at the end of January it was announced that there would be two new releases in the Les Colognes series. What was exciting was each perfumer would be responsible for one. As prime a compare and contrast moment as one could ask for.
This series is among the simplest fragrances from a perfume brand which has made minimalistic perfumes part of their aesthetic. Eau de Rhubarbe Ecarlate by Mme Nagel and Eau de Neroli Dore by M. Ellena don’t fully answer the question of how different Mme Nagel’s Hermes fragrances will be from M. Ellena’s. Yet I think there are some interesting observations to be found even within something as simple as these two perfumes are.
Mme Nagel composes Eau de Rhubarbe Ecarlate with two listed notes, rhubarb and white musks. Notice the “s” on that last ingredient. It gives some insight into how this perfume has much more than that note list might portend.
The rhubarb comes out from the very first second mixing that vegetal quality with a citrus-like quality. This is a very tricky note when hung out to be all on its own and it is for about 30-45 minutes. Either you will like it and be drawn in or it will annoy you enough you won’t notice what happens next. Like tendrils of fog Mme Nagel uses a selection of white musks to entwine themselves around the rhubarb. It was M. Ellena in Jour D’Hermes, who showed me how the right mix of multiple white musks could have a softening effect. Mme Nagel also knows this. The result is as the white musks increase in presence the rhubarb’s intensity is softened while being made much more transparent. So much so that when I thought this had worn off one of my co-workers commented on it. It is a perfume which shows the power of white musks to transform even the most obstreperous note. Eau de Rhubarbe Ecarlate has 8-10 hour longevity and moderate sillage.
M. Ellena’s entry Eau de Neroli Dore is equally short in notes; neroli and saffron. According to an article on Wallpaper M. Ellena’s affection for Neroli comes from his early days, “When I started out as a perfumer I learned to distill raw materials, including orange blossom. When you enter the world of stills, you are also immersed in a scent, impregnated with it, you become it. To reproduce this sensation, where normally one uses very little neroli in fragrances, I used it abundantly.” He further claims in the article that Hermes had to buy up half of the annual neroli crop from Morocco and Tunisia. Hyperbole or not this is a very concentrated neroli.
Eau de Neroli Dore opens with that neroli attempting to immerse you within it. Neroli is the only listed ingredient and it is so immersive that I feel like there might be some orange behind it all but I wonder if that is a trick of the concentration. Another aspect of having it in such high concentration is subtle green facets are apparent with nothing else to override them. The modulator for M. Ellena is to use saffron to take this neroli and evolve it. The saffron carries a dusty floralcy as well as a warm spicy glow. It adds a beating heart underneath the neroli. This never reaches the intensity of rhubarb in the Eau de Rhubarbe Ecarlate. Throughout it is a soft floral pitched at a volume just above a whisper. Eau de Neroli Dore has 8-10 hour longevity and moderate sillage.
Of course, I am going to look for signs of what is to come from these two perfumes. I think Mme Nagel shows that she has grasped the aesthetic M. Ellena has put into place while also showing she has some new ideas to explore. M. Ellena returned to an experience of his beginnings as a perfumer to create one of his final releases. Both perfumes are well worth seeking out and will be very good once summer arrives. I am excited to see what’s next from both of these talented perfumers.
Disclosure: This review was based on a sample from Hermes.