The sources of most musks in perfumery are derived from animal sources. Those musks have a presence to them which sets them apart. There is a source of musk in fragrance which does not come from animals. It comes from the seeds of the ambrette plant. Particularly over the past few years it has become one of the more interesting musks to use. One reason is it can be used as part of a top accord. It can substitute for the heavier musks when a lighter touch is needed in a base accord. It also is the musk I most enjoy wearing in warm weather because it is lighter. Here are five of my favorites.
The perfume which probably put ambrette on the map is 2007’s Chanel No. 18. A mixture of ambrette and iris this is one of the most lilting Chanel perfumes. One of the interesting aspects of ambrite is it has tinges of green and fruit to its scent profile. Perfumers Christopher Sheldrake and Jacques Polge take advantage of all the nuance available from the ambrette as they wrap it around a luxurious iris. Most perfume lovers had never heard of ambrette prior to this. After this I never forgot about it.
The reference standard musk perfume is 2009’s Serge Lutens Muscs Koublai Khan. Most people remember it for the combination of rose and the animalic musks. What few people realize is perfumer Christopher Sheldrake uses a high concentration of ambrette as the interstitial tissue between the rose and animalic musks. The ambrette is what makes this the king of musk perfumes.
One of perfumer Christine Nagel’s last perfume for Jo Malone was 2014’s Wood Sage & Sea Salt. Working with creative director Celine Roux they wanted to make a different aquatic. Mme Nagel uses ambrette in the top accord in place of the typical ozonic notes of most aquatics. It is the ambrette that brings the fresh to push back against the briny mineralic accord. This is a great example of how flexible ambrette is in the hands of perfumers.
In 2017’s Parfum D’Empire Le Cre de la Lumiere perfumer Marc-Antoine Corticchiato uses ambrette as the sole ingredient in the top. He takes advantage of that by teasing out the threads of subtlety he wants to use. Most importantly a powdery aspect which entwines around a similarly styled iris. This forms the most beautiful opaque globe of light musk and iris which get a rose tint before it is done. A gorgeous fragile piece of perfume.
In 2017’s Frassai Verano Porteno creative director Natalia Outeda asked perfumer Rodrigo Flores-Roux for a perfume of summer nights in Buenos Aires. The opening is a beautifully realized air of night flowers on the breeze. In the base he uses ambrette to form a lighter musk accord by combining it cleverly with mate tea. It is just the right partner to add some edge to the ambrette without it taking over.
Disclosure: This review is based on bottles I purchased of each perfume.
As we reach the end of March it is time to start digging in the dirt. Before the flowers begin to scent the air in Poodlesville it is the herbs which have the honor of providing the smell of spring. We have a patch of wild sage growing in a corner. It is always one of the earliest things I detect in the spring. Sage in perfume is more of a character actor ingredient. Happy to be part of an ensemble of herbal notes most of the time. It is used a lot because it is one of the more versatile herbal ingredients. This month I pick five perfumes which display that.
Tom Ford Private Blend Moss Breches is still one of the most striking of this collection. Perfumer Stephen Nilsen creates one of the most compelling earthy green perfumes available. In the heart of it all is sage as part of a group of herbal notes. They act as the harbinger for the patchouli and moss in the base.
When I first discovered D.S. & Durga one of the first bottles I purchased was Cowboy Grass. Perfumer David Seth Moltz takes every dusty showdown on a movie Western Main Street and makes a fragrance. It has a dryness imparted by many herbs but it is that sage brush tumbleweed which rolls through the center of it all which turns it from desert to cowboy.
One of the most unique uses of sage comes in L’Artisan Parfumeur Caligna by perfumer Dora Baghriche. The top accord is a vibrant combination of fig and sage. When it sinks into the jasmine marmalade accord in the heart it sets Caligna apart. This is my favorite L’Artisan release of the last few years.
Thirdman Eau Inexplicable took its time to grow on me. The reason I’ve come around to enjoying it as much as I do is the sage at the heart of the perfume. Creative director Jean-Christophe le Greves and perfumer Bruno Jovanovic have made one of the edgier Cologne Nouveaus. It has a spiky top half of baie rose, sage, and geranium. The sage is the star before sandalwood and vetiver in the base finish things up. It is a perfume which is a little aloof but if you give it a chance you might warm to its charms.
Jo Malone Wood Sage & Sea Salt is one of the recent spate of aquatic perfumes which look for a different beach milieu. Creative director Celine Roux and perfumer Christine Nagel, in one of her last for the brand, took a trip to the English seaside in Cornwell. What that turned into as a perfume is a mineralic mixture of sun and dunes with the sage standing in for the grass growing on those. This has become one of my favorite shoulder season aquatics.
Disclosure: This review is based on bottles I purchased.
When I lived in Boston my favorite time to visit Cape Cod was at the end of September or early October. As someone who had grown up on the beaches of South Florida where beach season never really ends it was different living in the Northeast. By this time of year the colors of fall are starting to sneak into the leaves and I always wanted to go spend one last weekend near the ocean, while I could. I always found it to be a sort of melancholy farewell to summer. I also noticed a shift in the smells of the surf and sand, too. It also carried a sense of endings coming. The latest release from Jo Malone, Wood Sage & Sea Salt captures all of this. It is also fitting as this perfume marks a farewell of sorts for perfumer Christine Nagel from being de-facto in-house nose for the brand as she leaves to take up a new position at Hermes.
Christine Nagel (l.) and Celine Roux on the beach in Cornwall
In an interview with The Moodie Report I was interested to learn that Mme Nagel took a trip to Cornwall with Jo Malone Creative Director Celine Roux. Mme Roux said, “Traditionally, when you think of a beach, you think of sun, warmth, bikinis. It wasn’t like that (in Cornwall)! It was rainy and windy, with big waves and rugged cliffs – so refreshing and exhilarating. It felt like an escape from real life, but in a good way.” She wanted Mme Nagel to experience this, “Most of the world’s perfumers are French, and they are not familiar with the British beach. We went in March; it was super windy and we got salt in our hair. It was exactly what I wanted Christine to experience.” She also directed Mme Nagel, “I told her I wanted a fragrance that represented the English coast, but which wasn’t an aquatic, I wanted something mineral, and also something green.” It is exactly this kind of creative direction which can lead to something that rises above the crowd. Wood Sage & Sea Salt does just that.
Mme Nagel opens the perfume with a two pronged approach as she takes the sea salt accord and mineralic raw materials to give the earth and spray aspect. Concurrently she matches this with a unique pairing of ambrette seed and buchu leaves. The ambrette adds a freshness while buchu adds a slightly minty herbal aspect. A pinch of plum is used to smooth any roughness that might arise. Together they capture that milieu of green things growing in the dunes whipped by the wind and sea spray. Eventually you notice the drying driftwood in the presence of guaiac wood and the promised sage again adding Mme Roux’s desired green to go with the mineral.
Wood Sage & Sea Salt has 6-8 hour longevity and average sillage.
Over the past year I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of new takes on the aquatic genre of perfumery. I think it is due to creative direction from people like Mme Roux who are pushing for something different than the typical midsummer ozonic lightness and instead push for something with a little more weight. Wood Sage & Sea Salt serve as the perfect farewell to summer and Mme Nagel. The best part is both summer and Mme Nagel will return in time.
Disclosure: This review was based on a sample provided by Jo Malone.