On the Scent: Materialism
Describing a perfume is a lot like describing a wine – to the uninitiated outsider, the descriptions often sound like bullshit. It seems implausible at first that anyone could pick out “aldehydes,” “jasmine,” “rose,” and “musk” in what strikes you as a singular, whole scent. Similarly, it’s hard to believe a wine could taste like hay or butterscotch or cedar, until you try a wine that, due to whatever whims of earth and weather, tastes exactly as though it was barreled in a cedar chest. From that point forward you’re able to pick up hints of cedar in the occasional wine, because they’ll remind of you the first.
The same is true of perfumes. You learn to smell individual “notes” by sampling an array of perfumes that purport to contain a note – and by doing a kind of mental subtraction to strip away the rest – or by smelling perfumes that showcase that note. (For floral notes, these are known as soliflores.) Once you realize, “Oh, that’s what orange blossom (or galbanum or castoreum) smells like,” you’re able to recognize its character in complex compositions and in smaller concentrations.
Further, it’s inevitable that you’ll begin to favor some notes or materials over others and seek them out, potentially amassing a collection of ambers or patchouli gourmands the way wine collectors might specialize in Bordeaux or pinot noir. But note that as in wine, where a style (Bordeaux) does not necessarily correspond to a grape, notes in perfume do not necessarily correspond to materials. For example, a rose note is usually built with several raw materials, including synthetics, not simply (in some cases, not even) rose absolute. Some scents we recognize as notes, or single identifiable smells, are actually composites of simpler scents. For example, vanilla and almond together can create a root beer note – sniff Hypnotic Poison if you don’t believe me.
This month, I took a closer look at a few of the notes and materials that are common building blocks in perfume. The three materials below, labdanum, vetiver, and galbanum, are all natural materials found in the world, but keep in mind that they could be reconstructed synthetically.
Labdanum, also known as cistus labdanum, is a resin extracted from the rockrose, a flowering shrub native to the Mediterranean. It used to be harvested by combing the sticky resins from the beards and coats of goats and sheep who had grazed on the cistus shrubs. Now, labdanum is produced through steam distillation or solvent extraction of the leaves and twigs. It has a very layered fragrance, with woody, earthy, smoky, and leathery facets, and is said to be reminiscent of the sweet, animalic complexity of natural ambergris. To my nose, with its variegated tonality, labdanum has the shimmery quality of an oil slick or a mirage. It is one of the key materials traditional to the amber family of fragrance (amber and incense accords are closely related), and it’s used in other classical accords as well, including the chypre genre.
Sonoma Scent Studio Incense Pure – Laurie Erickson’s line was my gateway into labdanum obsession – many of her fragrances contain a signature amber base (Ericksonaide?) with a strong labdanum component, giving them a long-lasting woodsy depth I find completely addictive. (If some cruel god consigned me to perfume exile with only one material to smell and wear for the rest of my days, labdanum is probably what I’d choose – that or tuberose absolute.) Incense Pure is perhaps the most direct hit of labdanum among her perfumes (though I haven’t yet tried her Ambre Noir); it’s all woody, smoky resins from the word go. The smoke component is quite prominent, evoking campfires and desert air. In addition to labdanum, it contains biblical favorites frankincense (with its piney edge) and myrrh as well as woods, patchouli and a little vanilla, giving it a rounder feel than straight labdanum. While it’s an incredibly rich and beautiful smell, I can’t help feeling like it’s more a showcase of the Ericksonaide than a complete perfume, since some of her other scents seem to contain it. But that just demonstrates how complex her creations tend to be, and for those looking for straight incense with none of the fluff, this is a go-to option.
Parfum d’Empire Wazamba – Wazamba brings out a surprisingly fruity character in labdanum, emphasized via dense, Christmas-y fir and probably some weird esters. Compared to the smoky, airy Incense Pure, it feels sweet and chewy, with a cooked-down effect like strawberry jam—it’s even a little ketchup-y. I know that sounds bizarre, but it’s actually quite wonderful. (See Diptyque Oyedo for a similar effect, though there the referent appears to be lime gummy bears. Come to think of it, Wazamba is kind of a gummy bear take on the incense theme, which suits the fun name.) It’s an uplifting incense next to the more austere, outdoorsy Incense Pure. What’s interesting is that these features only became apparent to me when I compared the two side by side, demonstrating what a multifaceted material labdanum is. In my memory, I’d thought of them as similar. Eventually and inevitably, they do converge on the same territory.
Donna Karan Essence Labdanum – After an effervescent moment that suggests a touch of aldehydes, Essence Labdanum quickly gets down to the business of its main material. This is the least niche and least expensive by volume of the incenses I tested, and I have no idea if it makes use of synthetic materials to create a labdanum accord or if it’s the real deal – I don’t think labdanum is a particularly expensive material as naturals go. In any case, Donna Karan’s take is really quite good, and nicely illustrates the complexity inherent to the resin, hinting at leather, tobacco, and woods (with a touch of the fruitiness seen in Wazamba) in a muted manner – if it had a texture, it would be fuzzy, like nubuck. It’s also the cleanest smelling of the labdanum-centric scents here, probably due to the addition of musk.
Aftelier Amber – Mandy Aftel’s all-natural Amber opens with a burst of lavender (the lavender absolute tinges the juice green) that segues smoothly into the labdanum base and continues to inflect it with an herbal, tea-like pungency – though, upon reflection, tea could be yet another facet of the labdanum. Like Incense Pure, Amber is on the dry side – as far as labdanum is concerned, “amber” and “incense” are not two distinct categories but a sliding scale. Amber fragrances are usually sweetened with vanilla notes, but the only sweetness here comes naturally from the labdanum, and it has none of the dessert-like qualities of contemporary orientals. Really, labdanum is almost a ready-made masculine, and every man should have something like this on his dresser – simple but not boring, seasonless and exceedingly easy to wear.
Vetiver is a fragrant grass, closely related to lemongrass and citronella and native to India (where it is known as khus). It is also produced in Haiti, Java and other nations; vetiver from Reunion is considered to be the best. The roots of the vetiver plant are unusually long and can be used to help stabilize soil and prevent erosion, as well as conserve soil moisture. It is the roots that give us the essential oil used widely in perfumery. Like labdanum, it’s a complex, fixative material, with crisp, green facets as well as smoky, woody, and earthy angles. Compositions that put vetiver front and center are traditionally masculine, but it’s a component of many feminines as well, especially when combined with vanilla. I had limited familiarity with vetiver prior to writing this column, due, frankly, to indifference. Vetiver is quite subtle and while I appreciate subtlety on others, I prefer to be conked over the head with my own perfume. Still, I thought it was time I got to know this material better.
Frederic Malle Vetiver Extraordinaire – Vetiver is sometimes reminiscent of celery, and this effect is present in Malle’s excellent Vetiver Extraordinaire, though it smells less like a stalk and more like celery infused vodka or gin: crisp, green and vegetal but with an earthy warmth at its heart, like the afterburn of a swallow of liquor. The drydown is slightly peppery-spicy, with the clean/dirty dichotomy of a humanoid musk. It’s very handsome but very quiet, with no discernable sillage, especially after the first half hour. A beautiful, expensive fragrance for beautiful, rich men, but much too refined for my taste.
The Different Company Sel de Vetiver – I didn’t like Sel de Vetiver, composed by Celine Ellena (daughter of Jean Claude Ellena), at all on the first wear, but this scent has many fans, so I thought it might be that I tested it under the wrong conditions (on a cold, rainy day). I tried it again on the first sweltering day of the year and my impressions didn’t change. Here are the notes from my first impression: “A bit watery … slightly sweet … the citrus aspect of vetiver is amped up w/ ___? Grapefruit? The citronella angle reminds me of cleaning products. A bit shrill, initially, compared to the Malle, but in its own way clean and pleasant … works better the longer you wear it. It’s the cleanness that I can’t fully get behind, though. Aquatic angle. But turns dirty after a while? Dirty water? Dirty underbelly? Better on a hotter day? This might have a touch of seaweed absolute. What is the wet smell? Reminds me of wet yarn – I get a clear mental image of blue-grey yarn being dyed in tubs, a scene from my childhood (my mother used to weave), but not an exceedingly happy memory. Too dank for me.” There you go. Having identified the predominant smell as wet wool, I can’t un-smell it. Sel de Vetiver does not smell salty exactly, but there is a mineral quality – like mineral water if you could turn up the volume. If all this sounds rather enticing to you, you might have a brackish water fetish. Hie thee to a Barney’s counter.
Guerlain Vetiver Pour Elle – This smells as you’d imagine it might from the name, like a crisp, green vetiver masculine but sweeter, cleaner and more floral, with the addition of a little peppery lily of the valley and some tonka in the base. However, nothing about this screams “feminine.” There’s an astringent, limey citrus note giving it extra freshness, and the dry, powdery feel (it reminds me of iris, but could be a facet of the vetiver; both are rooty materials) is subliminally cooling – Vetiver pour Elle was made for sweat-inducing weather (and would be fairly useless in winter, I imagine). I also get the impression of cardamom (one of the listed notes in Sel de Vetiver, but I detected no sign of it there), so it feels slightly exotic. This lovely, hard-to-find fragrance is considered by many to be the gold standard of vetivers, which cements my suspicions that vetiver is not for me. I find no fault with it but am nevertheless unmoved. If forced to choose, I’d probably take a bottle of the Malle over this, because the Malle seems truer to the material.
DSquared HeWood – HeWood gives the impression of being entirely synthetic, but I have an inexplicable fondness for whatever mixture of aromachemicals it contains. It smells the same color as the juice, a sort of grayish-bluish-lavender-taupe constructed of violet leaf, vetiver, synthetic woody notes (might Iso E Super play a role?) and an amplifying musk. It’s completely linear, but lasts a long time at the comfortable volume of the music in a better store. I have no idea why I like this as much as I do, but it strikes an impressive balance between unassuming, “normal guy” cues and a sweet, soft roundness that reads as vulnerability – picture a frat boy with ladylike eyelashes. This is a good bet if you’re looking for a fragrant, affordable gift for a regular fellow. (Different story if he’s a punk – Billy Idol wears L’Ombre dans L’Eau.) For similar purposes, see also Eau Sauvage.
Tauer Perfumes Vetiver Dance – Water is such a faint shade of blue that you can’t see the color until you’re looking at hundreds of gallons of the stuff. In Vetiver Dance, Andy Tauer creates a saturated version of vetiver, as though layering many transparencies on top of each other to get a darker shade. Those who love vetiver for its barely-thereness will find Vetiver Dance heavy (Tania Sanchez wrote of it, “This sort of fragrance needs to whisper, not shout”), but this is what I like about it. It’s a vetiver I can perceive without concerted effort, with a balance between the cooling, watery nuances of the material (with no wet wool effect, thank God) and a woody, earthy warmth, filled out with some of the spicy, citrusy rose from Une Rose Chypree. However, if you want to know what Andy Tauer is about, please try one of his rose- or incense-centric scents instead. Now, if only Vetiver Extraordinaire came at this concentration….
A resin derived from a flowering plant called the ferula, galbanum is used to give a bitter green note to perfumes. It is perhaps most famously used in Germaine Cellier’s original Vent Vert for Balmain (released in 1947), which gave birth to the green floral genre and has reportedly been reformulated into complete dreck. (I’ve never smelled any vintage of it.) Galbanum has a distinctive signature that’s not simply green but intensely bitter-sour, and it has fallen out of favor in the past couple of decades, especially in mainstream scent launches. Now that oakmoss is all but outlawed (it’s been flagged by IFRA as a potential allergen, so its use in commercial fragrances is highly restricted), fragrances with galbanum smell the most like real chypres to me – the materials don’t smell alike, exactly, but they seem to accomplish some of the same objectives.
Ralph Lauren Safari – If memory serves, Safari was very popular in its day – Dominique Ropion created it in 1990, before ‘80s baroque went completely out of fashion. It’s the first perfume that impressed itself on my consciousness as a symbol of status and style. The ads were ubiquitous, and echoed the Out-of-Africa sensibility of Banana Republic back when they sold mostly branded t-shirts and khaki shorts. I have the feeling that, unlike Banana Republic, Safari hasn’t changed much in the past 20 years. I’ve never smelled Vent Vert, but Safari has the most galbanum of anything I’ve experienced. The opening blast is incredibly rich and strong, and may force someone to open a window. It veers from the typical green chypre in all its dry refinement by piling on mandarin and honeyed floral notes till it approaches the edge of being too much to stomach. It smells sticky, like something you’d stir with a wooden paddle. But there’s some powdery iris too, like a dusting of cocoa powder. After a while it starts to remind me of the citrusy, aldehydic jasmine of Haute Couture, a happy, summery scent. Applied lightly, a to-scale version of all this richness is quite beguiling. A must-try for galbanum lovers, Safari can be found very cheaply at discount stores.
Puredistance Antonia – Where Safari makes galbanum smell warm and suffused with sunshine, Antonia is a smooth green floral with a frosty edge, Grace Kellyesque. A big dose of galbanum in the top notes combines with the bergamot and jasmine for a sweet & sour effect, eventually giving way to a classic, creamy floral heart of rose, jasmine, and ylang and a fuzzy vanilla and vetiver base. The icy-cool quality and the green hue have me hallucinating a mint note running from top to bottom, unless galbanum has a minty facet I never noticed before, much like geranium. (And I think it might, because now I’m even smelling this minty coolness inside the warmth of Safari.) While Antonia is perfectly attractive and well made, with an olfactory texture like silk shantung, I hold it to a higher standard given its outlandish cost ($200 for just 17.5 ml – a typical bottle of perfume contains 50 to 100 ml). For that kind of money I expect something strikingly original or at least drop-dead gorgeous, in the manner of Calice Becker’s work for By Kilian (see Beyond Love). Instead, it’s just very nice – probably the prettiest, most wearable green floral here, but still not worth the cost. Luxury in itself is not a point of view.
Chanel No. 19 (Eau de Toilette) – What distinguishes No. 19 from other green florals is the amount and grade of iris (one of the most expensive raw materials in perfume), giving it a thick, dry, almost chalky smell, so that in my mind it’s less green than bluish white – the galbanum, to my nose, just peeking out. The vetiver, however, is very present in the opening – this could have easily appeared in the vetiver section – so No. 19 feels surprisingly masculine, like an Iris pour Homme. It’s a striking accord that’s instantly familiar, so it’s clear how much influence this had on later perfumes (it was released in 1971). As it dries down, it softens considerably to a powdery clean accord (I smell a little rose in there too) that I associate with vanities and bathrooms – the latter association possibly an unfortunate case of trickle-down perfumery, possibly a cheapening of the formula, possibly both. The EDT only lasts a few hours on my skin.
Parfums de Nicolai Le Temps d’Un Fete – Under its green top note, Le Temps d’Un Fete holds a warm, honeyed hay accord (based on narcissus) that reminds me of a fresher, lighter-weight Chergui (which is not a green floral but a tobacco oriental). It’s grassy, and floral with hyacinth, but also spicy and richly resinous, with opoponax and styrax (both incense materials) in addition to the galbanum. Ostensibly a green floral, to me it smells more like once-green things turned brown (dried tobacco, crunchy leaves), a memory of spring in the fall. Oddly, both Le Temps d’Un Fete and Chergui contain something that reminds me vaguely of hair products – and though they’re both very good, it prevents me from falling entirely in love with them.
Jacomo Silences – The fresh, grassy, lemony-herbal top notes of Silences, released in 1978 – green was queen in the ‘70s – are uncompromised by sweetness, with a pungency that reminds me of mustard and tarragon. (It’s the perfect perfume to pair with potato salad.) Like many green florals, it has a heart of hyacinth and lily of the valley (see Gucci Envy for a fruitier, modernized version of the green floral idea) with a little rose, but, like Le Temps d’un Fete, Silences is more about leaves than petals. Unexpectedly, the particular character of galbanum becomes more prominent in the drydown, once the herbal and citrus notes have fled. Silences smells like a spring picnic, and I see this as falling along a kind of continuum with Le Temps d’un Fete and Chergui – you’d wear yellow-green Silences in April, green-brown Le Temps d’un Fete in September, and brown-brown Chergui in December.
Elisa Gabbert is the poetry editor of Absent and the author of The French Exit (Birds LLC) and Thanks for Sending the Engine (Kitchen Press, 2007). Her latest chapbook co-written with Kathleen Rooney is Don’t ever stay the same; keep changing (Spooky Girlfriend Press). Recent poems can be found in Colorado Review, The Laurel Review, Puerto del Sol, and Salt Hill.
Perfumers interested in having their scents reviewed can send inquiries to elisagabbert [at] gmail [dot] com.