What to Wear for Apple Picking: Hermessence Ambre Narguile

This past weekend I headed to our local orchard to be surprised at some early apples to be had. I adore this time of year. Apples are part of what makes autumn. Greedily I scooped some up and watched Mrs. C roll her eyes when I exclaimed, “Apple pie!” I spent my afternoon putting it together. If there is any scent which means fall to me it is an apple pie fresh out of the oven. There is a perfume which does a fantastic job of recreating it, Hermessence Ambre Narguile.

The Hermessence line was created in 2004 by in-house perfumer at the time Jean-Claude Ellena. This was a collection which reflected his minimalistic approach to composition along with his ability to add a luminous quality. Back when this collection debuted with four fragrances it stood apart from almost everything else in the artistic perfumery world. These were the early days and M. Ellena was staking out a section of it all his own. For the next twelve years and nine more perfumes it became one of the best collections out there. This is a set of perfumes of which I own all of them. They are everything I look for in the world of perfume.

Jean-Claude Ellena

That’s the Colognoisseur talking. Mark the apple pie maker loves Ambre Narguile because it so ideally captures the scent of a cooling apple pie. Another thing to consider is that it was an early very different entry in the gourmand style of perfume. At this early point of time they were heavy cloying affairs. Amber Narguile was subtle to their sledgehammers. The beautiful trick is that M. Ellena creates an apple pie without using apple in the formula. What happens is his understanding of intersections of ingredients to give rise to something new.

It opens with that cinnamon flavored apple pie accord. Early on it is subtle like the steam rising from the pie as it comes out of the oven. It begins to take on a larger presence as it “cools”. I do not know exactly the combination M. Ellena uses here. It is some parts honey, another part amber, some coumarin, some cinnamon, and vanilla. Even after all these years I am sure I don’t have it all. I have just learned to enjoy it.

As it develops further a dollop of dark rum along with rich tobacco form the base to the apple pie. They add depth without turning it treacly.

Ambre Narguile has 10-12 hour longevity.

After making the apple pie this weekend I was driven to want to write about this perfume. it doesn’t really fit any of my usual monthly themes. Although I had a fleeting thought to try and claim it was Under the Radar. Sometimes I choose the perfume to write about. This time apples and Ambre Narguile chose me.

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

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Laboratiorio Olfattivo Bergamotto and Limone- Riding Shotgun with M. Ellena

Many artists have “periods” when an aesthetic seemingly animates their output for a time. It hasn’t been as obvious when it come to perfumers, but I think Jean-Claude Ellena is in the midst of one. Ever since he left Hermes as in-house perfumer. They called it retirement, but it doesn’t feel like he has done that. Mainly because there has been a consistent output by him. He seems to be enjoying making solitaires focused on a single ingredient. He has assayed the flowers of his home in Grasse for Perris Monte Carlo. He has also done similar work for Laboratorio Olfattivo under the creative direction of Roberto Drago. What comes through is his desire to display the keynote in an ideal perfume setting. Laboratorio Olfattivo Bergamotto and Limone are the latest additions to his “Solitaire Period”.

Both are part of the “Viaggio in Italia” collection begun last year with Mandarino. The idea is these are the scents of a summer road trip in Italy. I said at the end of last year I would ride anywhere with M. Ellena. This year I’m calling shotgun as we make two stops.

Jean-Claude Ellena

Bergamotto features that character actor in almost every other perfume. Bergamot is the fresh complementary ingredient to thousands of top accords. That isn’t an exaggeration it is thousands, I looked it up. I only have a few perfumes which allow it to be the focal point. It has always made me wonder why it isn’t more frequently used this way. In the press release M. Ellena points out that it is the only citrus which came from Italy when a botanist crossed a lemon tree with a bitter orange tree. That allows bergamot to have this sweet spot which seemingly goes with everything. M. Ellena gives it the star treatment.

When I spray it the intensity of the bergamot surprises and delights me. Making me wonder anew why it isn’t featured more. There is the freshness of lemon, but that bitterness of the orange is different than the tart of straight lemon. It doesn’t add a lip-pucker as much as an engaging depth. Twin breezes blow over the bergamot. One is the lemon-tinged zephyr of cardamom. It floats across the keynote while kicking up a kind of lemon aerosol off the bergamot. White musk is the other trade wind as this adds some softness to the bitterness. Acting as a gentle simoon adding in a layer of dryness.

Bergamotto has 8-10 hour longevity and average sillage.

Roberto Drago

We get back in our car and head to the Amalfi Coast for Limone. According to the press notes the cliff roads there have the ocean on one side and terraces of lemon trees on the other. M. Ellena captures the lemon at the peak of its summery ripeness.

The lemon here is so faceted I suspect there are multiple sources. It isn’t just the astringent type we associate with it most familiarly. There is also a hint of the pulp and especially of the rind as a noticeable green runs throughout the early display of the lemon. This is a lemon which is full spectrum. To that ginger adds its vivacious kineticism. Acting as a catalyst to give this more zing as we drive on the edge of the cliff road. He again uses white musk but in this case, it is as a way of adding expansiveness. As you drive on the edge of the world with sea below and lemon trees above the whole world seems to be in front of you. So step on the gas.

Limone has 6-8 hour longevity and average sillage.

I have enjoyed all the perfumes from M. Ellena’s “Solitaire Period” so far. I hope there are more yet to come. I’m ready to go on another road trip. Just remember I call shotgun.

Disclosure: This review is based on samples I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds: Van Cleef & Arpels First- Playing Telephone

One of the difficulties of writing this column is deciding when a perfume from the past has been reformulated in a way that it is worth pointing out. If I think the original is awesome but it is because of banned materials like oakmoss and nitro musks, it causes a problem. Then when I try the currently available version I must see if it retains enough of the character to write about it as it exists today. One of the things which happens infrequently is the current version surpasses the original as has happened in Van Cleef & Arpels First.

I own an original bottle of First because it is one of perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena’s first. Released in 1976 it is a typical big floral. It is fun to smell something like this and think how M. Ellena will become famous for the antithesis of it. Lots of “to be banned” materials abound. It is exactly what a mid-1970’s floral perfume smelled like.

I was digging in the discount bins a year ago around the Holidays when this nice green chypre hit me from someone spraying it nearby. I went searching to see what it was. I probably picked up everything on the tester shelf but First because I thought I knew what it would smell like. When I finally figured out it was First, I was floored. Mainly because I liked this better.

I’ve spent the last year trying to find out who was responsible for this version. It is a thankless job that no one at the big brands will admit goes on. Tracking down the perfumer was going to take more effort than I was willing to exert.

One of the things I did do was track down some of the iterations that have been released between 1976 and now. What I found was a perfume version of the party game telephone. The way it is played is the first person is given a phrase which they whisper one time only into the ear of the person next to them. This repeats until it gets back to the person who started it. What generally happens is it has been changed in a funny non-intelligible way. Rarely it ends up with a new phrase which is related to the first one.

That is what happened with First. In a 1990-ish bottle the base has begun to be changed as the musks seem to have been changed. In an early Y2K version the floral heart has gone much greener as the overall early moments have dialed back the rose and jasmine power. Then we arrive at what you can buy now.

The current version starts off with some mandarin on top of a green accord of blackcurrant bud, narcissus, and muguet. Hair spray-like aldehydes add some sparkle. The rose and jasmine are still here but they are using one of the more expansive synthetic jasmines. It allows for more space for the narcissus and muguet to expand into. They become the primary counterpoint to the rose. It moves to a modern chypre base where sandalwood, amber, clove, and some synthetic musks form it. It fits ideally with what is here now.

All of this refers to the Eau de Parfum version. The current version has 12-14 hour longevity and average sillage.

I think this game of “perfume telephone” has ended up in a better fragrance at the end of the chain. It can be found for less than $25/bottle at many discounters. If you remember the old First give the new one a try you might be surprised, too.

Disclosure: This review is based on bottles I purchased.

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Perris Monte Carlo Mimosa Tanneron- The Hills are Alive with Mimosa

Outside of the stalwarts there are ingredients which seem to have their moment for a few years. I’ve never understood if it was consumer preference or a new source of the ingredient which causes this. Probably some of both. The yellow puffball flower mimosa has been having its moment recently. Perris Monte Carlo Mimosa Tanneron adds to it.

Jean-Claude Ellena

This is the fourth entry in the Les Parfums de Grasse collection. All of them have been composed by perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena under the creative direction of Gian-Luca Perris. The three previous releases focused on the three famous florals to be found in Grasse. To feature mimosa they must go about 16km southwest to the Massif du Tanneron. It has been described as something magical to see the mountainside covered in the yellow flowers in spring. The previous entries in this series have been based on M. Ellena’s memories as youth in the fields of Grasse. It is not so hard to believe he also spent more than his share of spring days running on the Massif. All the perfumes have been soliflores and this does not break the progression. This shows off the titular note with a couple smartly chosen ingredients meant to display its versatility.

Gian-Luca Perris

Mimosa has a sunny powdery disposition. It is the latter M. Ellena displays first. One’s tolerance for this in perfume will be tested because there is a high concentration of mimosa to start. It is as of the trees of flowers are raining down their scent upon you. To ameliorate this hawthorn adds its honeyed growl to shift the perception. Now the sunny golden heart of mimosa is captured in the slightly sweet slightly animalic hawthorn. The final piece is a set of white musks to capture the cool wind rushing down the Massif from on high. It gives an airiness to the overall composition.

Mimosa Tanneron has 8-10 hour longevity and average sillage.

For this moment mimosa is having M. Ellena finds the hills alive with it. That vitality is what makes this stand apart.

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

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Laboratorio Olfattivo Mandarino- Italian Citrus Joyride

When Jean-Claude Ellena retired as in-house perfumer at Hermes it seems he didn’t understand the term. Particularly over the last eighteen months he has been as prolific as he has ever been. There is also enough data on the type of fragrances he is making these days to think he has entered a new phase. Lately he has been composing perfumes which focus on a single keynote which is tied to a geographic location. The results have been some remarkable solitaires of perfume ingredients put into settings where they shine. The newest of these is Laboratorio Olfattivo Mandarino.

Jean-Claude Ellena

Mandarino is the second perfume M. Ellena has done for the brand. Last year’s Baliflora was orange blossom and Bali within this new oeuvre. Mandarino is the start of a new collection called Viaggio in Italy. It is meant to capture a trip around the country. Mandarino is a summery stop in a grove of mandarin oranges somewhere in Italy.

Roberto Drago

Creative director Roberto Drago has been one of the earliest influencers in this new Renaissance of Italian perfumery. He has helped refine this style through the years at Laboratorio Olfattivo. In asking M. Ellena to find Italy in its indigenous ingredients he is evolving the brand yet again.

Mandarino opens with a huge amount of mandarin. I am not sure if this is a single source or a mixture of different types. What I experience in the first few moments is a full spectrum sweet citrus. The tartness of the rind, the sweet juice, and the squishy pulp all are represented. It is a citrus lovers dream. The first ingredient to be added is blackcurrant which provides a different type of fruity contrast. I think there might be some blackcurrant bud here too because there is a subtle green harmonic which thrums underneath the fruits. The berry provides the setting for the mandarin to glitter within. A set of white musks are then used to add a lot of expansiveness. In the early going the concentration of the mandarin might feel claustrophobic to some. In a short period of time the white musks provide a lot more space for it to exist in.

Mandarino has 10-12 hour longevity and average sillage.

For those who are looking for a long-lasting citrus perfume Mandarino is one of the more tenacious ones I’ve tried. Mandarino is a gorgeous example of the beauty a single keynote can provide. I am not sure what the next destination in their trip of Italy is. I only know I want to ride wherever Sig. Drago and M. Ellena want to take me. I’ll even ride in the back seat.

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

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Perris Monte Carlo Lavande Romaine- Lavender Jelly

Of any ingredient in perfumery the one I am becoming most knowledgeable about is lavender. That increase in understanding has come through a local lavender farm. I have become an itinerant pest to them full of questions. One day they asked me if I wanted to come back that night to watch them distill the oil. I think they needed an extra pair of hands, but I was good with that. As the lavender was extracted and distilled the little shed filled up with a scent I would describe as lavender jelly. It was a humid scent hanging in the close quarters of the room. I have encountered it again in Perris Monte Carlo Lavande Romaine.

Gian-Luca Perris

I am not sure how Gian-Luca Perris was able to cajole “retired” perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena into making perfumes based around the flowers of Grasse. Last year the first two of the Les Parfums de Grasse collection were released, Jasmin de Pays and Rose de Mai. Both were based on the days M. Ellena spent as a child working on the harvest. The same concept informs the two newest, Mimosa Tanneron and Lavande Romaine. He is using a variation of the minimalistic style he is known so well for. In these perfumes the floral at the heart is given depth through two or three ingredients. In the case of Lavande Romaine it is just a couple.

Jean-Claude Ellena

Lavender of Provence has a pronounced herbal quality. It is the same variety that grows at my local farm. M. Ellena takes it and marries it to blackcurrant bud. This is an ingredient that is seemingly difficult to use as there are many perfumes where it becomes unpleasant at higher concentration. M. Ellena has apparently found a partner in lavender which tempers that. Almost immediately these two ingredients combine into that lavender jelly scent I remembered. What I mean by that is it has more substance than the typical floral lavender. There is an olfactory viscosity that comes through the blackcurrant bud. This isn’t the typical lavender scent profile. It is marvelously different. Some white musks provide lift and expansion over the latter stages but it holds at that thicker lavender stage for hours.

Lavande Romaine has 10-12 hour longevity and average sillage.

This is a delightfully unique take on a well-known floral. By asking M. Ellena to access his memories of the lavender harvest of Grasse we are rewarded with another fantastic perfume.

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

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds: Bvlgari Eau Parfumee Au The Vert- First Haiku

As my closet is testament to, if you wait long enough every trend eventually comes back into style. As I wrote that I gazed at the perfume vault and realized the same thing holds there. As perfume trends go the 1990’s was one of the most vital at creating new genres and styles. Despite it being all the rage today, transparency was one of those. It was also a time where perfumers who were behind-the-scenes artists had some latitude. It would be another ten years before their names were as known as the brands they worked for. The first star perfumer is probably Jean-Claude Ellena. The perfume which probably defined the style he would refine for the next 25 years is Bvlgari Eau Parfumee Au The Vert.

To perfume lovers if you speak M. Ellena’s name they think of their favorite minimalist perfume from his time as in-house perfumer at Hermes. Many are surprised when I show them that style was apparent in 1993 with Au The Vert.

Jean-Claude Ellena

The simple brief given him was to create a perfume evoking a Japanese tea ceremony. He took this to heart considering the minimalist aesthetic of Japan. His thought was to streamline the composition down to a few essential ingredients. To keep the focus on the tea as you would at an actual tea ceremony. What comes to life is a vibrant perfume in just a few well-chosen notes.

The opening is the soft floral citrus of orange blossom. It is given definition using coriander and cardamom. The cardamom gives lift to the citrus character. The coriander captures the green undertone of the flower. The floral nature is given some depth with jasmine. This brings us to the green tea. It is a bit bitter. It is also very transparent. It rises in tendrils of steam through the top accord. Underneath it all is a light application of smoky woods as if the brazier the tea was heated on enters the scene.

Au The Vert has 8-10 hour longevity and moderate sillage.

At the time this was released it was a best seller because there was nothing like it on the market. It was a perfume which wasn’t as forthright in its charms as the others on the department store fragrance counter. It is entirely on trend for today’s perfume customers. The nice thing is it falls into my Discount Diamonds cutoff as you can find bottles available for right around that $40 limit. I can tell you there are few perfumes out there which are better.

As M. Ellena would evolve the style begun here his creations would be called “Perfume Haiku”. Au The Vert was the first of those verses.

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

Mark Behnke

Under the Radar: Hermes Elixir des Merveilles- Holidays with Jean-Claude


I have a whole set of perfumes I wear during the Holiday season of Thanksgiving through the New Year. This is the time of year which seems a natural fit for the gourmands in my collection to make their appearance. As I begin to sort them to the front of my shelves, I am reminded of those that helped define the genre in the early days. This year I looked at the tilted round bottle of Hermes Elixir des Merveilles and thought this might be a Holiday gourmand that flies Under the Radar.

Perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena spent over ten years as in-house perfumer at Hermes. His earliest creations of the first Hermessences, the first two “Un Jardins” and Terre D’Hermes would set the aesthetic which would be refined throughout his tenure. Tucked in this same time period is Elixir des Merveilles. It never felt like part of that minimalist aesthetic. As a guess it always felt to me as if it was M. Ellena’s response to the bombast of the alpha gourmand; Thierry Mugler Angel. While Elixir des Merveilles doesn’t get quite as transparent as the other perfumes M. Ellena made for Hermes it is more than a few notches less effusive than Angel.

Jean-Claude Ellena

The original Eau des Merveilles was an homage to ambergris. M. Ellena imagined Elixir des Merveilles to take that ambergris and float it on a chocolate ocean. Before we get there, a fabulous spiced orange accord begins things. Then the chocolate rises accompanied by warm balsamic notes, cedar, and ambergris. This is the amazing gourmand heart which engages me time after time. To give it that final Holiday twist M. Ellena creates a sugar cookie accord fresh from the oven.

Elixir des Merveilles has 12-14 hour longevity and average sillage.

As I was thinking about writing this, I realized that while Elixir des Merveilles does not rise to the transparency of the current trend of gourmands it feels like a forerunner. I always facetiously imagine it is what the Holidays at Jean-Claude’s house must smell like. I’m sure I’m wrong but it is what the Holidays in Poodlesville smells like on the days I wear it.

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

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle Rose & Cuir- Ellena Evolves

When I heard perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena was retiring from being in-house perfumer at Hermes I was sad. I felt like one of the most distinctive voices in perfumery was going to enjoy life without the grind of being the face of the fragrance line of an important brand. He had certainly earned it. In his time at Hermes he created an identifiable aesthetic wherein he found beauty from simplicity. If the source of my sadness was that M. Ellena would make perfume no more; this past year has put the end to that line of thought. He has been behind five different releases for four different brands.

Jean-Claude Ellena

If there is something common to these new perfumes it is the focus on floral ingredients. In the past M. Ellena’s perfumes have been likened to scented watercolors. The delicacy was part of the appeal. These latest perfumes step things up a notch or two. I might call these acrylic pastels. Less transparent while still retaining a minimalist ingredient list. The best example of this is Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle Rose & Cuir.

Frederic Malle

M. Ellena returns to the groundbreaking brand by M. Malle sixteen years after his last fragrance; L’Eau D’Hiver. A year later he would be at Hermes. When I heard about Rose & Cuir I was excited to see what M. Ellena would produce for his fifth perfume. Even within this collection Rose & Cuir feels like a new step taken.

I have recently been reminded the soul of modern perfumery is not to slavishly replicate nature. Instead it is meant to interpret nature using scent. Rose & Cuir lives up to this as there is no rose and there is no leather. What replaces them is geranium and isobutyl quinoline. M. Ellena uses them to create a bitter green facsimile of the titular notes.

Rose & Cuir opens with a cousin to Szechuan pepper called Timut pepper from Nepal. This rare pepper has a scent profile of citrus and flowers. It is what comes off my skin in the early moments. The green begins to take form as geranium comes forth. This is a lush geranium, at first, which is given a few thorns as the sharpness of blackcurrant bud complements it. Now comes the leather surrogate, isobutyl quinoline. This ingredient was Germaine Cellier’s response to all the birch tar leathers of the day as she overdosed this ingredient in Robert Piguet Bandit. It created a leather of the tannery with bitter facets front and center. M. Ellena does not overdose the isobutyl quinoline. He adds just enough to provide a precise counterweight to the geranium. This allows the acerbic leathery-ness just enough room to provide the same alternative to a birch tar leather as it did in the past. This all finishes with vetiver elongating the green atop cedar.

Rose & Cuir has 12-14 hour longevity and average sillage.

I have had my sample of Rose & Cuir for about a month. I have spent most of that time dissecting it to find the overlaps. What I found is the evolution of M. Ellena as he looks for a less opaque way to create modern perfume.

Disclosure: This review is based on a sample provided by Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle.

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Perris Monte Carlo Jasmin de Pays- Fields of Jasmine

In May of 1897 writer Mark Twain was in London he had a hospital stay which lead to reports that he died while there. When contacted by a reporter friend he was said to respond, “the rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated.” I’ve been thinking about this in relation to perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena. It seems like the reports of him having retired after he left as in-house perfumer at Hermes have also been greatly exaggerated, too. M. Ellena certainly could’ve never made another perfume. Except I think creative director at Perris Monte Carlo, Gian-Luca Perris, offered him an opportunity to come full circle.

Gian-Luca Perris

M. Ellena is one of those perfumers we know a lot about. One of the things we know is he was born in the town of Grasse. He spent his childhood surrounded by the flowers made famous from that town, rose and jasmine. He has remarked how he spent his youth harvesting the flowers. Sig. Perris wanted a collection celebrating the rose and jasmine of Grasse. He also wanted M. Ellena to be the perfumer. The perfumes they produced are Perris Monte Carlo Rose de Mai and Perris Monte Carlo Jasmin de Pays. Both are remarkable but as readers know if given a choice I’m going to chose the jasmine over rose, every time. Which is why Jasmin de Pays gets reviewed first.

Jean-Claude Ellena

As part of the press materials M. Ellena reminisced on his days harvesting the jasmine. He would remark how over the course of the day the scent of the petals would change. From a transparent green while on the vine to a more floral scent in the middle of the day to its animalic essence by nightfall. M. Ellena weaves those three phases though this jasmine soliflore.

M. Ellena uses jasmine absolute as the jewel at the center of Jasmin de Pays. He then uses three ingredients to tease out the inherent scent profile of his jasmine absolute. To get the transparent green he uses tagetes to find that green vein running through the jasmine and isolate it. To capture the more floral aspect he uses clove as a spicy contrast. It has the effect of dampening down the indoles, so the floral quality rises more strongly. As the clove gives way a set of gentle animalic musks find the indoles and invite them to provide the finish.

Jasmin de Pays has 12-14 hour longevity and average sillage.

Jasmin de Pays feels more emotional than other perfumes by M. Ellena. There is a feeling of looking back to his youth from his current age to find a scent memory. I’m not sure if he succeeded to his satisfaction but I can imagine the fields of jasmine in Grasse every time I wear it.

Disclosure: this review is based on a sample provided by Perris Monte Carlo.

Mark Behnke