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.
This year I tried 678 new perfumes which once again keeps me below the 50% mark of all new perfumes released in 2017. When sniffing this many perfumes there tends to be a lot of background noise as many coalesce into a generic sameness. What is presented below are the perfumes which rise above that.
The Top 5 (Perfume of the Year Candidates)
5. DSH Perfumes Gekkou Hanami– Independent perfumer Dawn Spencer Hurwitz never fails to surprise me in a given year. In 2017 she has had many releases worthy of high praise. I was completely blown away by this first in her Haiku Series. Ms. Hurwitz builds a perfume of delicacy around themes of life and death in the moonlight infused with cherry blossoms. Both of the other Haiku series released this year; Tsukiyo-en and Tsukimi were almost as good.
4. Parfum D’Empire La Cri de La Lumiere– A spectrally transparent study of light as fragrance. Perfumer Marc-Antoine Corticchiato uses a trio of ambrette, iris, and rose to form a perfume which will define light when I speak of it in relation to this art form in the future.
3. Naomi Goodsir Nuit de Bakelite– The creative direction of Naomi Goodsir and Renaud Coutaudier matched with the virtuosity of perfumer Isabelle Doyen provided the best tuberose of 2017. Their choice to focus on the green stemmy quality by editing out the flower they found something within which reinvents tuberose.
2. Bruno Fazzolari Feu Secret– What do you do when you decide to make a perfume from one of the most expensive ingredients you can? If you’re independent perfumer Bruno Fazzolari you take orris butter and challenge it with “dirty” notes like turmeric, birch tar, and eucalyptus. They don’t harmonize, they confront. What orris butter has to say in response is what makes Feu Secret special.
1. Ineke Idyllwild– A more detailed reason can be found in Part 2. Idyllwild is a contemporary fougere that pairs expertise and artistry. Ineke Ruhland is back after five years in a big way.
Here are the rest of the Top 25 in Alphabetical Order
Aftelier Velvet Tuberose– After smelling so many tuberoses the last one of the year was one of the best. Mandy Aftel found the softer texture within.
April Aromatics Pink Wood– Independent perfumer Tanja Bochnig created this dynamic rose perfume for a competition where she finished third! Simply inconceivable to me.
Arquiste Esencia de El Palacio Azahares– The best of the collection from creative director Carlos Huber and perfumer Rodrigo Flores-Roux produced for a Mexican department store. Orange blossom, lavender, and iris show Sr. Flores-Roux’s brilliance with floral ingredients.
Atelier Cologne Café Tuberosa– Creative director Sylvie Cervasel and perfumer Jerome Epinette pour a shot of rich esperesso over a full spectrum tuberose to fabulous effect.
Comme des Garcons Vogue 125– A mixture of Polaroid developer and cigarette smoke might not conjure the premiere fashion magazine in the world. That’s the genius of this perfume which never plays it safe while it makes sure both names on the label stand for innovation.
Grandiflora Boronia– Creative director Saskia Havekes working with perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour capture an Australian greenhouse with an indigenous white flower providing the keynote.
Imaginary Authors O! Unknown– Josh Meyer has gotten better and better; this is his best perfume. He finds a precise balance between a transparent tea accord and orris butter. Easy to write, much harder to realize.
John Varvatos Artisan Pure– Best mainstream perfume of the year. Rodrigo Flores-Roux adds to his legacy as the only perfumer for John Varvatos with a tableau of a summer hillside in Mexico.
Masque Milano Times Square– HBO’s series “The Deuce” reminded us of 1970’s era Times Square. I had already had my memory revived with this perfume from creative directors Alessandro Brun and Riccardo Tedeschi working with perfumer Bruno Jovanovic. A fantastic realization of this time period.
Memo Eau de Memo– Creative director Clara Molloy and perfumer Alienor Massenet celebrated ten years of making perfume together by not looking back. Instead they launched the second decade with what they do best make some of the best niche perfume around.
Puredistance Warszawa– Creative director Jan Ewoud Vos was shown pictures of the Golden Age in Warsaw. Perfumer Antoine Lie turned this into the best Retro Nouveau perfume of 2017.
Vero Profumo Naja– Last year I made a wish for a new perfume from Vero Kern. Naja did not disappoint as it was an ever-developing tobacco focused construct. It was easily the perfume I have had the most fun dissecting this year.
Vilhelm Parfumerie Basilico & Fellini– Creative director Jan Ahlgren continues to look to Hollywood for inspiration. Famed director’s Frederico Fellini’s love of basil was turned into a Nouveau Cologne by perfumer Jerome Epinette. Refreshing and innovative just like the name on the bottle.
Xinu Monstera– Perfumer Rodrigo Flores-Roux found a kindred spirit in creative director Veronica Alejandra Pena. Monstera is the best of that collaboration as the scent of the leaves in the jungle slowly change into leather.
Zoologist Civet– First new perfume of 2017 was another triumph for creative director Victor Wong who had independent perfumer Shelley Waddington begin the year of tuberose with one of the most memorable. They fused it with animalic notes in the heart to create magic.
The Final Cuts (The Other 25 best perfumes of 2017)
Light is one of those words I use a lot to describe perfumes. Sometimes I mean the strength of the composition. There are certainly many new releases for whom this applies, especially recently. I use light to often describe those accords and fragrances which feel sunny; citrus, aquatics, or fougeres can all be full of light. Then you encounter a perfume which has as its stated goal to explore light in fragrance and in that experience, realize all those previous ideas of light didn’t tell the whole story; Parfum D’Empire Le Cri de la Lumiere is that one.
Parfum D’Empire is one of the most successful independent perfume brands because of the creative force behind it, Marc-Antoine Corticchiato. M. Corticchiato is not the most prolific perfumers but each of his releases are among the best of the year they are released. Le Cri de la Lumiere qualifies as that for 2017. The name translates roughly into “Cry of Light”. If you look at that you might think the perfume carrying that name would be a full-throated olfactory scream. M. Corticchiato instead works with a minimalist’s efficiency using only four ingredients to create this. It places a burden on those ingredients to not have any rough edges when coming together with the others. In this case, with this perfumer, that is hardly a problem. Each ingredient is chosen such that it provides its own part of the spectrum that become Le Cri de la Lumiere.
The opening moments are dominated by ambrette seeds. These are the most commonly used botanical musk. As a result, they are almost always blended with other notes which tend to cover up the nuances inherent in this ingredient. If you smell ambrette essential oil you will get a definitive vegetal and pear undercurrent. In Le Cri de la Lumiere M. Corticchiato gives the early going exclusively to the ambrette and both of those aspects rise to be noticed. In this form it can focus the musky parts into something less diffuse. In the press materials it is described as “crystalline” but I kept thinking “laser pointer”. There is also a subtle powdery quality which provides the transition to iris in the next phase. You might not think of iris as a “light” note but here it is the powderiness which expands into a bright globe of particles illuminated by the ambrette. Just as it seems this can’t get better Turkish rose appears in a transparent concentration as it colors the pink a deeper shade of red. Once this all comes together it is a lightness I’ve never experienced previously. There is a bit of woods, in the base, but it is this ambrette-iris-rose accord which is the story.
Le Cri de la Lumiere has 8-10 hour longevity and moderate sillage.
Le Cri de la Lumiere is another brilliant creation from M. Corticchiato which has given me new things to think about in my definition of light as it pertains to perfume.
Disclosure: This review is based on a sample from Parfum D’Empire.