Naomi Goodsir Or du Sérail: Harems, Hookahs & Gold

Sir Frank Dicksee, "Leila," 1892. Source: dailymotion.com

Sir Frank Dicksee, “Leila,” 1892. Source: dailymotion.com

An alcoholic harem master lies drunk in a pool of Calvados brandy in a seraglio made of amber, tobacco, and gold. A hookah lies next to a vat of booze, and wafts a fragrant fruitiness that mixes with the smell of musky cedar from the swamp which circles the harem like a moat and fortress barricade. Within the palace’s high walls is a small apple orchard dotted with bales of hay that are lightly coated with honey. In the lush gardens, exotic Indian davana flowers emit a tiny apricot scent, next to the custardy richness of ylang-ylang. At the palace’s heart is a courtyard where nubile concubines lounge on aromatic woody divans, dressed in thin silks made from vanilla. They dust their bodies with a light sprinkling of cocoa, as they nibble on toasted nuts and puff on a hookah. The sultan’s favorite, Leila, watches with a smile, glowing like a jewel in red and gold fabrics that match the stream of fruited liqueur pouring from a nearby fountain. The air is indolent, warm, musky, sweet, and filled with the smell of decadence, but darkness lies just around the corner. Slowly, shadows of tobacco and dry woods sweep over the ambered gold, covering it like an eclipse does the sun, until night finally falls over the harem. And, still, no-one bothers to help the drunken man collapsed in their midst. They all know what happens when you overindulge in the delights of the seraglio, or l’Or du Sérail.

John Frederick Lewis, "Reception," 1873. Source: Wikipedia

John Frederick Lewis, “Reception,” 1873. Source: Wikipedia

Or du Sérail is a fragrance from Naomi Goodsir, the Australian milliner and designer, and was released a few months ago. It is an eau de parfum that was created by the prolific, legendary Bertrand Duchaufour, and it very much bears his signature. It’s a fantastic scent with a particularly stellar opening whose rich booziness I found to be compulsively sniffable and almost intoxicating. Later, Or du Sérail turns into a cozy, completely seamless, oriental blur of multi-faceted depth and sweetness that is very accurately summarized by Naomi Goodsir’s poetic description on her website:

Or du Sérail via Luckyscent.

Or du Sérail via Luckyscent.

citadel of MURMURS,
FORBIDDEN fruit,
voleur de NUIT,
VOLUPTUOUS
delicacy,
rêveries ORIENTALES.

by Bertrand DUCHAUFOUR

Oriental tobacco (2014)
A gourmand & textured perfume,
evocative of a golden tobacco.
An ambery, woody, musky & greedy
composition.

Or du Sérail has a long list of notes, roughly 20 in total. Peony Melbourne provides the following pyramid:

Head Notes – Cistus, Apple and red fruits, Mango, Rum, Sweet Orange, Davana, Sage
Heart Notes – Beeswax, Coco, Geranium, Ylang-ylang, Turkish Tobacco, Amber
Base Notes – Labdanum, Oak Tree, Cedar wood, Musk, Vanilla, Maté

Calvados apple brandy. Source: NYTimes.

Calvados apple brandy. Source: NYTimes.

Anyone who has read this blog for any amount of time knows that I love boozy fragrances, and the boozier it is, the more I love it. I really, really love the opening of Or du Sérail…. It begins with a wonderful tidal wave of heavily liqueured, ambered sweetness. Brandy oak barrels bob along a vast ocean of Calvados, whose waves spread apple’d alcoholism out as far as the eye can see. A tiny suggestion of rum lurks at the edges, next to the liqueured apricot of the davana flower. A second wave of cognac hits you, but this one is infused with the aroma of bright red apples, as well as a sprinkling of tart red fruits, and a small slice of orange. None of them feel cooked, gooey, or saturated with sweetness. Rather, they are fresh fruits with a distinct nuance of tartness.

Hookah or narguile pipe tobacco. Source: the Hookah report.

Hookah or narguile pipe tobacco. Source: the Hookah report.

Hookah tobacco leaves lie like a blanket over it all. They are fruited and sweet, but not too sweet. In fact, there is no suggestion of any narguilé smoke in the air at all. This tobacco is unsmoked, fragrant, and a little dry. As if by some accident of mixture, the aromatic pile contains wisps of dry hay that sometimes feel coated by a light smear of honey. There are also a few leaves of dried maté or Yerba Mate which people in South America use as a tea and which has a herbal, leafy, or earthy aroma. Here, it merely seems to accentuate the hay undertones, as well as the tobacco.

"In the Harem," Moritz Stifter, 1890. Source: artrenewal.org

“In the Harem,” Moritz Stifter, 1890. Source: artrenewal.org

For the most part, Or du Sérail’s opening bouquet is primarily a delicious cocktail of rich, alcoholic delights and drunken fruits, dusted lightly by a veil of fruited hookah tobacco. It is lush, decadent, and intoxicating – though not literally, no matter how drunk I occasionally feel on a mental level. It is a heady brew which is a hedonistic sybarite’s joy, and a complete 180 from Naomi Goodsir’s earlier Bois d’Ascece which was far too ascetic, austere, and dry for my personal tastes.

Photo: my own.

Photo: my own.

As I’ll discuss in further detail a bit later, this new Goodsir fragrance very much feels like a Bertrand Duchaufour creation. His signature first becomes apparent is Or du Sérail’s airy strength. A reader of the blog, Tim, coined the term “heavy weightlessness” to describe the perfumer’s style, and that description holds true for Or du Sérail as well. Three big smears amounting to 2 small spritzes from an actual bottle results in a very strong bouquet of great richness. It feels as though it bears great depth; yet, it is simultaneously very airy in body, and as light as cotton fluff. The heady, intoxicating cloud initially projects maybe 3 inches at most, though I have the strong suspicion that spraying from an actual bottle would create a much bigger cloud whose tendrils would waft about you with some tenacity.

Later, Or du Sérail grows deeper in body, but a hair softer in sillage. The interesting thing is that the perfume doesn’t drastically drop or change in the way that many fragrances do after a while. Instead of having a huge opening burst that soon softens, Or du Sérail stays pretty consistent. At the 90-minute mark, the perfume hovers about 1.5 inches above the skin, but it remains there for an incredibly long time without change. Well over 7 hours, in fact.

Like many Duchaufour fragrances, Or du Sérail changes slowly, sometimes just by fractional degrees. Some of the changes are so subtle that you’d be hard-pressed to notice them at the time unless you concentrated deeply. Yet, before you know it, they’ve all added up, and the perfume has turned into something different than it was at the start. That pattern holds true for Or du Sérail where some of the secondary notes shift by micro-degrees, while the main essence continues to be sweet, boozy, tobacco amber with fruitiness for a good portion of the perfume’s first five hours.

Photo: Christopher Martin. Source: christophermartinphotography.com

Photo: Christopher Martin. Source: christophermartinphotography.com

If you pay attention, however, you will notice that Or du Sérail slowly — very slowly — turns much woodier and drier. The long journey first starts 15 minutes into the perfume’s development, when the cedar and a woody-amber accord begin to stir in the shadow, while the tobacco grows much stronger. Not long after that, all three notes become almost as dominant as the boozy Calvados brandy with its infusion of fruits, though it takes hours from Or du Sérail to turn completely dark.

Art by: LordmOth on Deviant Art. (Click on photo for website link embedded within.)

Art by: LordmOth on Deviant Art. (Click on photo for website link embedded within.)

I have to say, the woody tonalities are my least favorite part of Or du Sérail. First, there is a definite woody-amber element that occasionally smells like cypriol, and is mixed with an aromachemical. Cypriol or nargamotha is a type of dry grass with a peppery, woody aroma and whose oil is often used as a base for agarwood by perfume companies who don’t want to spend the money on actual or substantial doses of oud. As a result, I’ve noticed a tendency for some people to smell cypriol, and think they’re detecting “oud.” It’s all about mental associations, and I make it here too as there is a very infrequent suggestion of “oud.” It is slight, however, and overshadowed by another note, a woody-amber aromachemical which feels slightly peppered in nature. (AmberMax?) It’s not my favorite part of the scent, but given that some people can’t detect aromachemicals and the majority don’t mind when they do, let’s move on.

"Young Atlantic White Cedar Swamp" by Jason Howell at Motivepicture.com.  (Website link embedded within.)

“Young Atlantic White Cedar Swamp” by Jason Howell at Motivepicture.com. (Website link embedded within.)

Much more dominant is the cedar which is extremely musky in nature. In fact, it smells flat-out marshy at times, evoking images of a slightly damp, wet cedar trunk that is somewhat rotting away and has a vague earthy, meatiness about it. It is a note which fluctuates in strength. It also weaves in and out. Sometimes, it is a big part of the top notes. At other times, it lurks at the edges, though never fully out of sight. The woody-amber aromachemical does the same. I wish both of them would stay far in the periphery, but Naomi Goodsir specifically mentions “woody” and “musky” in her description for Or du Sérail, so they are clearly intended to be significant elements. I appreciate how the notes are meant to cut through the boozy liqueur, amber and fruits, and to thereby keep the perfume’s sweetness in check. I simply wish the cedar didn’t smell quite so fetid, and that a slightly peppered aromachemical had not been used (at all).

Tart Honeycrisp apples. Source: thefruitcompany.com

Tart Honeycrisp apples. Source: thefruitcompany.com

On the plus side, the apple note is lovely. It skews so red visually, with a touch of greenness. Best of all, there is a crisp feel to it, as if you just sliced into a hard, fresh Braeburn or Honeycrisp apple, and its juices squirted out to drip into the apple Calvados. I haven’t found a lot of fragrances that include a fresh apple note, and it’s a lot more substantial here than what I’ve previously encountered, so it’s quite a happy delight.

In contrast, I have to say that I don’t detect most of the other fruits in any clearly delineated or substantial way. Apart from the apple, everything really subsumes itself into a general, indeterminate “fruitiness.” The mango never really appears on my skin, though I thought for one moment there might be a small hint of it. The orange is only a momentary flicker at the start, and the red fruits are merely an abstract suggestion a lot of the time. To my regret, the lovely dash of rich apricot (one of my favorite fruit notes in perfumery) also fades away quite quickly, and drops into the general sinkhole of something “fruited and boozy.”

Photo: Hawkea. Source: hawkea.blogspot.com

Photo: Hawkea. Source: hawkea.blogspot.com

As time passes, Or du Sérail continues to display an interesting juxtaposition of contrasts between boozy sweetness, fruited darkness, dark tobacco, dryness, woodiness, and muskiness. None of them really dominate in the first hour, except the Calvados apple brandy. Even so, Duchaufour brings in other elements to undercut any potential sugared excess. Roughly 20 minutes into Or du Sérail’s development, the geranium briefly pops up at the edges, adding a piquant, slightly bitter touch of greenness. Yerba Mate herbal leaves join in as well, though both are extremely muted elements that rarely display themselves in any distinct, clearly defined manner. And, throughout it all, the tobacco, musky cedar, and dry woody aromachemical continue to grow more and more noticeable.

Or du Sérail’s development feels as though it were timed and balanced by a master. The dark, dry touches become stronger at the exact moment that the vanilla starts to creep out of the base. It’s lovely, creamy, and rich like an eggy creme anglaise sauce. Yet, it’s only a thin layer; and it is silky and delicate, not gooey, heavy, or unctuous. It doesn’t feel really “foody” at all, thanks to the counterbalance provided by all the drier elements. It’s also not a hugely powerful presence, as it tends to dart in and out of the sidelines during the first two stages of the perfume, working from afar to indirectly provide an additional layer of depth to the fragrance.

By the start of the second hour, Or du Sérail is primarily a mix of boozy Calvados amber with hookah tobacco and dark woods, lightly infused with tart, fresh fruits and resting atop more woods that are coated with the thinnest sliver of silky vanilla. And it is after this point that the rest of the perfume’s development becomes very hard to explain. The notes increasingly merge one into the other, overlapping, losing shape, and resulting in seamless, rich blend that can’t be really teased apart. There are fluctuating levels of woodiness, especially the “oud”-like touch and the peppered woody-amber aromachemical. The tobacco feels thicker, deeper, and chewier, but it’s also become fused into every atom of the alcoholic ambered haze, instead of a clearly separate note. In the same way, all the fruits except for the apple have melded into one.

"Luminous," by Jaison Cianelli at cianellistudios.com  http://www.cianellistudios.com/abstract_art.html

“Luminous,” by Jaison Cianelli at cianellistudios.com http://www.cianellistudios.com/abstract_art.html

Or du Sérail comes close to being “prismatic,” a term I use to describe a scent that throws off different notes like light reflecting off a chandelier, changing each time you wear it. Yet, something about Or du Sérail doesn’t really qualify because there is a clear progression of darkness taking over, and of the tobacco triumphing over the boozy amber. In addition, there are rather major shifts which occur late into the perfume’s development and which render the term “prismatic” somewhat inapposite.

Nevertheless, from the start of the 2nd hour until well into the 9th one, Or du Sérail definitely has notes which weave in and out, fluctuate in prominence, or disappear altogether before they suddenly pop up again at the periphery. For example, at the start of the 4th hour, the vanilla feels much stronger and is infused with toasted nuttiness, as well as hints of semi-sweet cocoa powder. A momentary flicker of caramel seems to pop up as well. Then, they all seem to sink back into the base, as if swallowed up by an increasingly dark quicksand made of tobacco, amber, dryness, and musky woods.

Painting by Hultberg Artworks. (Website link embedded within.)

Painting by Hultberg Artworks. (Website link embedded within.)

The same thing happens to other notes. Sometimes, the hay is quite noticeable, sometimes, it’s the touch of honey that coats it. The geranium, yerba maté, and apricot have long since vanished, but the ylang-ylang suddenly shows up at the end of the 5th hour to add a hint of velvety, custardy floralcy to the mix. Then, it vanishes, seemingly forever, until it pops up many, many hours later to briefly wave a languid, creamy arm. These are all small touches though, and they do little to counter the growing wave of tobacco and dry, musky woods that slowly sweep over Or du Sérail like nightfall. Interestingly, the tobacco has transformed from fragrant, unsmoked hookah leaves into something darker and chewier, almost like wet tobacco that has been concentrated down a little.

As for the “oud”, cypriol, or whatever the blasted aromachemical note may be, it is the most temperamental ghost around, annoying me for hours with its constant “peek-a-boo” games, until it suddenly decides to sit down, chat, have tea, and move in forever at the start of the 7th hour. I would rather it packed up its bags and left entirely, but Or du Sérail is now almost fully tobacco’d and woody at this point. Even the Calvados cognac amber has gotten tired, and slinks off to sit on the sidelines, watching while the tobacco and woods wrestle in a fully fused merger of arms and legs for supremacy.

"Javascapes 3" by Photographer Daniel G. Walczyk. Source: http://devidsketchbook.com (Website link embedded within.)

“Javascapes 3″ by Photographer Daniel G. Walczyk. Source: http://devidsketchbook.com (Website link embedded within.)

Everything turns into a dark oriental blur, until the vanilla decides to pop up like a long line of prancing cheerleaders at the end of the 10th hour. Now, Or du Sérail is starting to display a distinct similarity to a combination of Tom Ford‘s Tobacco Vanille with Oud Wood, as well as to his recent Tobacco Oud flanker which was rather like a mixed-tape compilation of several Private Blends in one.

There are differences, however. Or du Sérail lacks the strong Christmas Plum Pudding note that is such a big part of Tobacco Vanille’s foundation, not to mention its sticky, saturated sweetness that can sometimes feel cloying. As a whole, Or du Sérail is significantly boozier than the Tom Ford in its opening, and later turns much drier and darker. It also lacks Oud Wood’s strong mix of spices. However, if you take those fragrances’ tobacco, vanilla, oud-cypriol, dry woods, muskiness, sweetness, booziness, and dark amber, mixed them all together, you would get something extremely close to Or du Sérail’s final drydown. The essence of the two main Tom Fords, especially in their later periods, is present in such a way that I feel like Yoda: “the force is strong in this one.”

Or du Sérail remains that way until its very end when, in the last two hours, it finally turns into simple tobacco darkness. It is a very long end at that, if I might add. The perfume lasted just under 16.5 hours on me. It didn’t even turn into a skin scent on me until the 7.5 hour mark. Up to that point, Or du Sérail chugged away roughly 1.5 inches above the skin, but even at the 11th hour (literally), it wasn’t hard to detect the perfume up close. I certainly didn’t have to snuffle away at my arm until well after the 13th hour had passed.

"Luminous," by Jaison Cianelli at cianellistudios.com

“Luminous,” by Jaison Cianelli at cianellistudios.com

Or du Sérail is a super fragrance, even if it isn’t hugely original, distinctive, or unique. I’ve already talked about the fragrances which it resembles in its drydown phase, so let me briefly discuss ones which it may appear to resemble during its first 8 hours when it is golden haze of alcoholic, sweet, oriental delights. You would think there would be a lot of close similarities, but I think Or du Sérail actually differs from some of its (many) compatriots in the boozy amber genre. I may not like the musky cedar or the dry woody-amber aromachemical, but they ensure that Or du Sérail is drier, less gourmand, and less heavily foody than some of its colleagues. For example, Or du Sérail may have boozy sweetness, but there is none of drunken gourmandise excess of Duchaufour’s ridiculously over-the-top, kitchen-sink fragrance, Fusion Sacrée for Majda Bekkali. (No, I will never, ever get over Fusion Sacrée.)

Source: wallpaperswide.com

Source: wallpaperswide.com

By the same token, the tart crispness of Or du Sérail’s fresh apples ensures that it is different from Hermès‘ Ambre Narguilé‘s stewed rum raisins and apple-cinnamon pastries. The alcohol is different here, too, as it’s not rum but something much less sugary that has also been soaked in oak-barrels. Finally, unlike the Hermès scent, Or du Sérail is substantially woodier, darker, muskier, and more heavily tobacco’d. Those things — as well as Or du Sérail’s focus on apples, body, potency, and huge longevity — also distinguish it from Frapin‘s orange cognac amber, 1270. Plus, there is the fact that the orange in Or du Sérail is quite different. It is a very minor element, and it’s not cooked, caramelized, or dipped in chocolate, either.

Source: forwallpaper.com

Source: forwallpaper.com

On the surface, and in the first few hours, Or du Sérail bears the closest kinship to Kilian‘s New York exclusive, Apple Brandy, which is another Calvados-centric fragrance. However, Or du Sérail has substantially more going on, with a plethora of notes that don’t exist in the singular, rather linear Apple Brandy. The latter has woodiness, but of a different sort to the kind here. More importantly, the Kilian fragrance has no heavy waves of tobacco, honeyed hay, flickers of green, tiny floral touches, or any truly dark oriental elements. Apple Brandy feels like a purely alcoholic amber, as opposed to a multi-faceted oriental. Plus, the few similarities that exist between the two fragrances fade away completely as Or du Sérail develops, turning even darker and woodier, with the tobacco finally triumphing over the Calvados apple brandy.

As a whole, I absolutely loved Or du Sérail’s opening, enjoyed the middle phase, but was unmoved by the finale. There wasn’t anything terribly wrong with it, but it wasn’t particularly interesting to me. Plus, I could have done without the aromachemical woods which I disliked from start to finish. Still, I think the perfume is very well done as a general matter, and much more complex than you’d think from a passing sniff. It would be easy to dismiss Or du Sérail as a mere fruity, tobacco, boozy amber, but this is a scent that rewards very close attention due to its prismatic nature, the subtlety of some of its notes, and their “hide and go seek” game. It shows the technical mastery for which Duchaufour is so praised, and thankfully avoids the excesses of the terrible, shudder-worthy Fusion Sacrée by keeping things in a nice balance.

Normally, I would give you comparative opinions and quotes from other sites or reviews, but I’ll have to skip that this time. My schedule is a bit insane this week. In addition, I’m expecting any day now the arrival of several, brand new releases which means that the next 7 or 8 days will quieter than usual as I give each of them a few tests. If you wish to read up further on Or du Sérail, Mark Behnke at Colognoisseur gave it a great review, calling the scent “kaleidoscopic” and “a multi-layered fragrance full of fascinating olfactory nooks and crannies which reward the wearer who explores every facet offered.” There is also a positive assessment at Australian Fragrance Junkies. Finally, you can turn to Fragrantica and Basenotes. The latter has a few mixed reviews. One person experiencing an “ashtray” note, while another found the opening to be far too much for his tastes and much preferred Bois d’Ascese.

I want to make a brief comment about cost and availability. Or du Sérail is priced a little higher than its other siblings in the Goodsir line. It retails for $185 or €125 for a 50 ml bottle, compared to $150 or €110 for the others. Or du Sérail feels like a much richer, more opulent fragrance than the lovely but stark Bois d’Ascese, so perhaps that is why, but I thought you should know. Given Or du Sérail’s notes, body, and massive longevity, I don’t the price is too bad for the scent in question. The weirder thing is availability. Outside of the usual big sites like Luckyscent, First in Fragrance and Premiere Avenue, I’ve had some trouble finding Or du Sérail at some of the smaller vendors which usually or previously carried Naomi Goodsir fragrances. A few don’t have any stock on their website for any of the fragrances in the line (almost as if they’ve stopped carrying Naomi Goodsir but don’t want to say it), one former retailer no longer lists the brand at all, while others only carry Or du Sérail’s two siblings. And, unfortunately, I don’t think Naomi Goodsir is carried in Canada or the U.K. at all. Still, it’s not impossible to find Or du Sérail or to get samples (including a 5 ml decant from Premiere Avenue), but your more local stores may not carry it.

Wallpaper by Njanj. Source: scenicreflections.com

Wallpaper by Njanj. Source: scenicreflections.com

The bottom line is that I really like Or du Sérail as a general whole — with the word “love” be wholly appropriate for that glorious opening — but I don’t think it is for everyone. People who struggle with really boozy fragrances should stay far away. Very far away. Plus, Or du Sérail also has some definite gourmand elements, so those of you who dislike sweetness of any kind would probably have issues, especially if your skin chemistry amplifies such notes. That said, I think the perfume is generally unisex, and its darker elements don’t make it skew very masculine, thanks to the overall complement of notes.

So, if you like dark, rich orientals centered on tobacco with some sweetness, you should give Or du Sérail a test sniff. If you absolutely adore any of the other fragrances mentioned here — from Kilian’s Apple Brandy to Frapin 1270, Tom Ford’s Tobacco Vanille, Tobacco Oud, or Oud Wood — then you should probably rush to put Or du Sérail high on your list of things to try. And, if you’re a brandy or Calvados lover, I would bet money that you’ll be intoxicated by the glorious opening and end up feeling like a hedonistic lush drunk in a Turkish harem.

DETAILS:
Cost & Availability: Or du Sérail is an eau de parfum that is available only in a 50 ml/1.7 oz size that costs $185 or €125. The Naomi Goodsir website doesn’t have an e-boutique from which you can purchase the perfume directly. In the U.S.: You can purchase Or du Sérail from Luckyscent (which has priced it at $187), and MinNewYork. Both sites sell samples. Outside the U.S.: I don’t think Naomi Goodsir is carried in the U.K. or Canada. In Europe, you can purchase Or du Sérail for €125 from France’s Premiere Avenue, along with a 5 ml decant for €15. In Germany, you can find Or du Sérail at First in Fragrance. In Paris, it’s available at Nose boutique. In the Netherlands, ParfuMaria no longer lists the brand on their website. Skins carries Naomi Goodsir, but the new Or du Sérail is not listed on their website, so you may want to drop them a note to see if it’s a stocking issue. In Hungary, Neroli has the two earlier fragrances, but doesn’t show the new one on their website. In Denmark, Nagpeople no longer seems to have any Naomi Goodsir in stock. Same story for Italy’s Alla Violetta, but Sacre Cuore carries Or du Sérail for €130. In Belgium, you can find the scent at Kroonen & Brown. In Russia, Ry7 has the two earlier fragrances, but not the new Or du Sérail. In Australia, Peony Melbourne carries the Naomi Goodsir line, and sells Or du Sérail for AUD$201. In the UAE, Villa 515 in Dubai carries the line. For all other locations from Croatia to Riyadh, Korea, Kiev, and Romania, you can use the Naomi Goodsir Retailers list to find a vendor near you. Samples: I obtained my vial from Surrender to Chance where prices start at $4.99 for a 1/2 ml vial. You can also order from Luckyscent, MinNY, and several European retailers on this list.

Le Labo Benjoin 19 (Moscow): Ambered Incense

Source: vk.com

Source: vk.com

The Kremlin in the snow, warm ambered light shining into the darkness of incense from a cathedral, and a dry wind that carries the faintest hints of pine trees on the Siberian steppes. That is one aspect of Benjoin 19, an incense and amber duet from Le Labo that I sometimes enjoyed to the point of surprise, though the perfume also ended up presenting a very different version of itself as well, one that was significantly less appealing.

Source: Luckyscent.com

Source: Luckyscent.com

Benjoin 19 is an eau de parfum that was created by Frank Voelkl, and inspired by Tolstoy‘s famous novel, Anna Karenina. The fragrance was released in 2013 as a City Exclusive for Moscow, sold only in that city, and unavailable anywhere else except during Le Labo’s annual one-month celebrations. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Le Labo’s practices, they have a number of fragrances made solely for a particular city, but one month a year (often in September, but sometimes in November), Le Labo makes their creations available world-wide. The prices are substantially higher than for the fragrances in Le Labo’s regular line, but there is one small compensation, I suppose: you can have your bottle refilled for life if you take it to any Le Labo counter anywhere in the world, regardless of the month. You still have to pay the high City Exclusive price (which is almost $300 for a small bottle), but you’re not locked out for the scent once you have it. For those who truly adore a particular City Exclusive, it may be worth it.

Styrax resin via themysticcorner.com

Styrax resin via themysticcorner.com

This year’s Le Labo global fest begins on September 1st and lasts until September 30th, so it seemed to be a good time to try Benjoin 19. I was motivated primarily by the fact that the word “benzoin” (or “benjoin”) is usually a short-hand reference to a wonderful, dark, balsamic resin that comes from the styrax tree, and which is frequently used in amber or incense fragrances. I love styrax with its smoky top notes, and almost leathery undertones. It is the darkest of all the resins, and used in a lot of my favorite scents. However, I think it’s important to mention that “benzoin” by itself can also refer to something completely different: a white, crystallized compound that apparently has a light “camphor-like” odor and which has absolutely no relation to an amber, smoky resin. In the case of the Le Labo fragrance, the company has not specified “benzoin resin” or actual “benzoin,” but I suspect that both were used.

In fact, Le Labo tells us little about what is actually in Benjoin 19. It’s number indicates 19 ingredients are involved, but Le Labo’s official list (as quoted by Luckyscent) says simply:

Olibanum [frankincense], amber, cedar, musks, benzoin, and more…

Anna Karenina movie poster via fanart.tv

Anna Karenina movie poster via fanart.tv

Le Labo’s full description of the perfume is long and spends a lot of time talking about Anna Karenina. Specifically, about a single moment in the book, “the moment when everything changes, when your life topples over, when nothing will ever be the same.” Le Labo then grandiosely adds, “Benjoin 19 is that moment.” I rolled my eyes profusely at that, but I agreed somewhat with the company’s summary of Benjoin 19′s essence:

Benjoin 19 is a comforting blend of resins, soft incense, warm balsamic undertones, never overwhelming but truly addicting.

I disagree with Benjoin 19 being “truly addicting,” but the perfume can be very enjoyable. If you experience the right version of it, that is….

Incense censer. Source: stdavidspokane.org

Incense censer. Source: stdavidspokane.org

Benjoin 19 opens on my skin with a heft amount of incense, along with a dash of what I suspect are aldehydes. The incense is very clearly myrrh with its cool, stony, Church vibe, and it’s trailed by a light amount of sweet myrrh (opoponax) with its toasty, nutty nuances. The aldehydes provide a light shimmer of soapy whiteness, but they last only for a moment before the myrrh overtakes them completely. Its aroma evokes images of a priest swinging an incense censer as he walks on cool stone floors, past the wooden pews and icons of an old Orthodox Church. A fine patina of dust lingers in the air, along with a quiet earthy mustiness, as if the mysterious soul of a church’s darkened alcoves had been bottled together with the incense of a hundred Russian Orthodox masses.

Dormition or Assumption Cathedral at the Kremlin, Moscow. Source: vorotila.ru

Dormition or Assumption Cathedral at the Kremlin, Moscow. Source: vorotila.ru

Underneath them all lies a layer of labdanum which first presents itself as a mere breath of warmness. However, less than 10 minutes into Benjoin 19′s development, it starts to creep up from the base, slowly washing over the cool myrrh. Eventually, the labdanum turns the incense’s somberness into something warm, toasty, and crackling, but, for now, it is only a gentle touch. Small flickers of caramel underlie the resin, but it generally feels like something dark, toffee’d, resinous, and balsamic.

As a whole, though, Benjoin 19′s main bouquet in the opening moments is primarily that of cool, slightly musty, slightly dusty, white myrrh incense atop a tiny sliver of amber. I must admit, I’m not keen on it. As regular readers know well, High Church fragrances don’t bowl me over. Black, Middle Eastern frankincense is my thing, not myrrh with its fusty ancientness and occasional soapy touches.

That is why I was fascinated by the version of Benjoin 19 that appeared on my right arm. I’ve occasionally had small differences in scent occur from one arm to the next, which is why I often test a fragrance on both of them, but I’ve rarely encountered a truly profound divergence. Yet, that is essentially what occurred with Benjoin 19, resulting in what was essentially a completely different opening and fragrance. This one I enjoyed.

Source: hdw.eweb4.com

Source: hdw.eweb4.com

In this version, Benjoin 19 opens with frankincense and a momentary touch of aldehydic soapiness, followed by a rich wave of warm amber that has a hint of caramel sweetness underlying it. The labdanum also wafts its usual, dark, chewy facets, like the ones evident in such fragrances as Mitzah, Tom Ford’s Amber Absolute, or Ambre Sultan and which differ so much from regular amber, ambergris, or the fluffier, softer benzoins in such fragrances as Ambre 114. Within minutes, the labdanum begins to display its characteristic toffee’d, masculine undertones, as well as tiny flickers of its darker, more animalic side. Smoky, black Middle Eastern frankincense is wrapped throughout every inch and seam of it in a way that is very appealing.

On the sidelines, the cedar casts its shadow, smelling both aromatically green and a bit darkly smoky in its own right. In addition, weaving in and out of the base, much like tiny, dancing fireflies in a dark forest, is a definite coniferous aroma that resembles pine or crushed needles. Within 10 minutes, the pine becomes more noticeable, creating a distinct winter woods undercurrent that far exceeds mere cedar alone.

This Version #2 of Benjoin 19 is clearly an amber fragrance from the start. It is infused with frankincense, then lightly flecked by tiny touches of cedar and pine, but the amber is the star of the opening hours. In contrast, Version #1 is all about the myrrh, and pretty much everything else is a substantially weaker element. I’ve tested Benjoin 19 about 3 times now, and it’s the same story each time, with each arm wafting a very different opening. I’d like to say that both versions eventually turn into the exact same thing after a while or at the end, but they don’t. They simply don’t.

Source: journeytoorthodoxy.com

Source: journeytoorthodoxy.com

In Version #1, the frankincense arrives after 20 minutes to lurk at the edges, but it’s a very minor note and the balance continues to be firmly skewed towards a very cool, Churchy, myrrh fragrance until the very end. There is a small, thin layer of dark, toffee’d amber in the base, an occasional suggestion of soapiness up top, and some vague woodiness on the sidelines, but this Benjoin 19 is really all about the myrrh from start to finish. In the final hours, there was a growing soapiness along with a seemingly clean musk that appeared next to the myrrh. And that’s all there is to it. As a whole, this myrrh version of Benjoin 19 is a simplistic fragrance that doesn’t feel very interesting, let alone special. And absolutely none of it feels cozy or inviting to me.

Frankincense. Source: Tumblr

Frankincense. Source: Tumblr

In Version #2, I barely detected the myrrh, and it is frankincense which eventually ends up dominating the fragrance. And this is the Benjoin 19 that I sometimes enjoyed. It is also the version which showed the most nuance and layers. Generally speaking, many of the Le Labo fragrances I’ve tried have been massively linear in nature with very few alterations from start to finish, and certainly none which are major. They don’t twist, morph, or change their core essence, and the Myrrh Version #1 followed that same pattern as well.

Yet, my Amber-Incense-Woody Version #2 showed greater depth and nuance. So, this is the one I’ll talk about in greater detail. After 45 minutes, the labdanum turns richer, deeper, and smoother. There is a growing streak of pine forest weaving throughout the notes, perhaps as a nod to Russia’s great forests. It’s only a small touch compared to the rest of the elements, and nothing about Benjoin 19 screams pine forest liturgies, but its subtle, quiet presence is very evocative. By the end of the first hour, Benjoin 19 is a soft custard of caramel, labdanum amber and smoky incense, drizzled with sweet myrrh nuttiness, dusted with a handful of pine needles, and then nestled inside a tiny Russian forest of pine and cedar. It’s cozy, evocative, and conjures up images of a warm cabin glowing with candlelight and tucked away in some very snowy woods.

Source: wallpapersinhq.com

Source: wallpapersinhq.com

Benjoin 19 continues to bloom, reflecting different facets to its notes as it grows deeper. Joining the sweet myrrh’s toasted nuttiness is a microdot of honey, perhaps from the labdanum or perhaps again from opoponax. The amber feels very rich, and coats the skin like something far plusher than mere cashmere. I keep referencing “warm custard,” but nothing about Benjoin 19 feels gooey, unctuous, particularly sweet, or thick. In fact, regardless of version, the perfume is always a very quiet, airy scent, but this version of Benjoin 19 feels wonderfully fluffy, warm, and rich. It may hover just above the skin after 90 minutes, and turn into a skin scent at the end of the 2nd hour, but it has depth and is compulsively sniffable.

Photo: my own.

Photo: my own.

Things change at the start of the 4th hour. The frankincense no longer trails behind the amber, but overtakes it fully, turning Benjoin 19 into a much drier, darker fragrance. At the same time, the labdanum loses most of its custardy richness, its caramel-toffee’d nuances, and its light sweetness. The woods feel drier and darker as well, and are now devoid of the earlier pine notes.

For the most part, Benjoin 19 is now primarily just incense smokiness infused with a dry amber and a largely abstract woodiness. Once in a while, the amber makes a valiant attempt to take back the lead, but it rarely succeeds. Occasionally, there is something vaguely resembling the cool, fusty, whiteness of myrrh which pops up its head in the background, but it is a muted, squashed note that never holds much sway. Generally, Benjoin 19 is centered almost entirely on black frankincense smokiness with dry woods within a wispy cocoon of equally dry amber. And it remains that way until its very end.

In both versions of Benjoin 19, the fragrance had generally soft sillage and good longevity. I typically used about 3 big smears or the equivalent of 2 small spritzes from an actual bottle, and Benjoin 19 opened with 2 inches of sillage, maybe 3 at best. The fragrance often felt as soft as dandelion fluff floating in the wind, though it consistently grew deeper and less translucent in feel after an hour. Benjoin 19 generally turned into a skin scent on me between the 2.5 and 3 hour marks, but it wasn’t hard to detect up until the start of the 8th hour. In terms of longevity, Benjoin 19 consistently lasted over 10.5 hours. In one case, it was just under 12 hours on my left arm, while, on my right arm, small patches actually wafted gauzy bits of the fragrance around the 14th hour.

Photo: My own.

Photo: My own.

The second version of Benjoin 19 is a rare exception to my feelings about Le Labo. I’m not generally a fan of the perfume house’s fragrances, and most leave me cold with their flimsiness, airiness, discreet nature, linearity, and sometimes synthetic foundation. However, Version #2 of Benjoin 19 was very nice, particularly in its first few hours when it was that truly enjoyable soft custard of amber and incense, with flickers of toasted opoponax nuttiness, pine, and cedar. I actually found it compulsively sniffable at times, and the drydown with its darker, drier, smokier qualities was generally pleasant.

"Inquisitive (2013)", abstract art by T30 on Etsy. (Website shop link embedded within photo.)

“Inquisitive (2013)”, abstract art by T30 on Etsy. (Website shop link embedded within photo.)

I was obviously unenthused with the first version, given my issues with myrrh and High Church scents, but my greatest problem was something else. That version of Benjoin 19 felt wholly unremarkable. It was overly simplistic on my skin, linear, without depth, and lacking any distinctive character. Pleasant, I suppose, and a solid scent, but, ultimately, boring.

In all bluntness, I don’t think either version is worth the hefty price hike that Le Labo has for its City Exclusives. Luckyscent kindly provided me with this year’s American pricing for Benjoin 19: $290 for 50 ml and $440 for 100 ml.

Those numbers are a little less than what Amouage and SHL 777 generally charge for 50 ml of their perfumes, and just under Serge Lutens’ American pricing for his exclusive bell jars. In the case of those brands, however, the fragrances usually have opulence, full-bodied depth, great richness, complex layers, distinctiveness, and/or originality. Absolutely nothing in either version of Benjoin 19 would qualify for any of those terms. The $160 that Le Labo charges for 50 ml of its regular fragrances would be great for Benjoin 19, but $290?! The perfume can be enjoyable at times, but, contrary to Le Labo’s belief, it is most definitely not “the moment when everything changes, when your life topples over, when nothing will ever be the same.”

Source: Houzz.com

Source: Houzz.com

I’m not the only one who has tested Benjoin 19, and found it to be a flawed fragrance that is massively over-priced. Actually, I was a little surprised to see just how many people on Fragrantica dismissed Benjoin 19 with a shrug, and just how simplistic a fragrance they experienced. There is not a single, wholehearted, unqualified rave for the scent listed there thus far. Not one. A sampling of the comments:

  • First impressions of Benjoin are not good. It smells like a base of something I’ve smelled before. The price it’s being charged for is ludicrous [....][¶] I get that it smells like benzoin, a favorite note of mine, but Le Labo is usually not literal, and for the price I wish they weren’t. If it’s a soliflore I would just buy an essential oil, some perfumer alcohol, mix it and I would save a crap load of cash.
  • although nice, it doesn’t stand out from all the other amber musks on the market. The drydown is all cedar. I think this is more masculine than feminine.
  • I liked it from the start, but thought what other reviewers think: nice, but does not stand out. However, by the third wearing I find that this perfume grows on me. It is all about resins and woods. It is a smooth coniferous scent, warm and cosy.
  • Really, not one of the Le Labo Highlights, but at least it smells like the name implies, but doesn’t go beyond it. A standard cozy/sweet/ambery benjoin fragrance with musk and something incensed. Nothing that you really need to know.
Source: alphastoneworks.com

Source: alphastoneworks.com

The most positive comment comes from someone who actually seems to prefer other fragrances!

Wow, I really like this one! Of course, being a city exclusive it’s not available too often but had I smelled this first, I may have bought this and not Wonderwood by Comme des Garcons. They smell very similar but Wonderwood doesn’t have the smoky vibe that I don’t like, so in that way, I prefer Wonderwood. Still, I do like Benjoin 19..so I guess I’m ok about not having a bottle of this one ….yet….
I think if I get some money to burn I’ll pick up a bottle but if not, oh well…I have my beloved Wonderwood….and my Gaiac 10 which also bears a small resemblance to this one….but only small.

Bottom line- if you have anything similar, take a pass. If you love woods, get Wonderwood. [Emphasis to names added by me.]

Source: Wall321.com

Source: Wall321.com

I haven’t tried either of those scents to know how they might compare, but Gaiac 10 with its musk and woods is discussed in the Basenotes‘ entry for Benjoin 19. And absolutely no-one there seems thrilled about the Moscow Exclusive, either:

  • For me it’s vaguely similar to Gaiac 10 (which I wear) with amber thrown in, making it slightly warmer. I was hoping for a phenomenal new scent of incense and amber, being that I love incense frags, however you are correct. I wanted it to be stellar, but it just doesn’t quite reach those heights for me.
  • After receiving mine I applied it and sadly it does seem very flat.(a hint of Amber Sultan though) Theres no real development over time. Longevity is really good, up to 8 hours with no let up.
  • Ugh. So it wasn’t just me? [¶][...] Honestly, when I smelled the compound I thought something was wrong, and that it perhaps would spring to life when blended. In fact, I was surprised by how flat it felt. [¶][...] I’d still love to wear it sometime to really get a sense of what’s going on, but my initial impression of it was that it was a dry musk (similar to their falsely named labdanum 18), with a slightly lactonic benzoin, and something that almost smelled like flour or paste glue. I’m still intrigued, but it doesn’t sound like it lives up to the concept, and certainly not the laughable pricing. [Emphasis to names added by me.]

At the end of the day, pricing is always a very personal, subjective valuation, and Benjoin 19 has enough appealing attributes (in one of its versions) that I could see a few people falling for it. I certainly enjoyed it more than some other Le Labos, and I think it has a polished, uncomplicated character that might also be incredibly cozy on the right skin. If you get Version #2 with its moments of ambered richness, I suspect you might enjoy it quite a bit.

Whether or not you think it’s worth the cost, however, is a whole other matter….

DETAILS:
Cost & Availability: Benjoin 19 is an eau de parfum, and will cost $290 for 50 ml or $440 for 100 ml. I have no idea how much its European or British pricing will be this year when it is released worldwide. On its own website, Le Labo generally offers its fragrances in several smaller, more affordable options, with variations in formulation as well. For example, the scents come in everything from perfume oil to Discovery Sets, 10 ml “travel tubes,” 500 ml monster vats, body lotions, massage oil, and shower gels. perfume oil. Le Labo Website Options: On September 1st, 2014, Benjoin 19 should be available on Le Labo‘s website for one month. The company has a variety of different country options for its website, from North America to the U.K., France, and general International. Click on the “Shipping To” sign at the top of the page in that link for you to go to the website for your location. Le Labo World Boutiques: Le Labo has store locations from New York to London and Tokyo, as well as retailers in a ton of countries from Australia to Italy to Korea. You can find a full list of its locations and vendors hereIn the U.S.: Benjoin 19 will be available at Luckyscent. At the moment and until September 30th, Luckyscent has Sample Packs of all the City Exclusives for purchase. Other retailers who carry the Le Labo line are Barneys and Saks Fifth Avenue. You can check those links in September to see if they have Benjoin 19. Outside the U.S.: In Canada, Le Labo is carried in Toronto by 6 by Gee Beauty, but nothing is shown on their online website for direct purchase. Call to order by phone. In the U.K., Le Labo is sold at Harrods’ Designer Department on the First Floor, and at Liberty. In Paris, you can find Le Labo at Colette. In the Netherlands, the line is sold at Skins Cosmetics. In Australia, you can find it at Mecca Cosmetics. Samples: Surrender to Chance sells Benjoin 19 starting at $6.99 for a 1/2 ml vial. Luckyscent sells a 1.5 ml sample for $12.

Farmacia SS. Annunziata Vaniglia del Madagascar

Creamy vanilla with smoke, multi-faceted inflections, and a hushed breath. That is the core of Vaniglia del Madagascar, a silky parfum extrait from the ancient Italian perfume house of Farmacia SS. Annunziata dal 1561.

Source: Farmacia ss Annunziata website.

Source: Farmacia ss Annunziata website.

As a preliminary matter, the full title of the perfume is Farmacia SS. Annunziata dal 1561 Vaniglia del Madagascar, something which is far too long for me to write out repeatedly. For the sake of convenience, I’ll simply refer to the company as “Farmacia SS. Annunziata” and occasionally shorten the fragrance’s name to a brief “Vaniglia.” (I have an unfortunate habit of mentally thinking of the company as “SS Annunziata,” which sounds like some sort of fascist group or ship, so I may just call it “Farmacia” to avoid an inadvertent malapropism.)

I think the Farmacia is a very under-appreciated company with solid perfumes and an interesting background. It is based in Florence and has a long history that dates back to 1561, when a chemist called Brunetti worked with the Benedictine Nuns of San Nicolò to create all-natural beauty products and potions. Their modern creations are very rich and nicely done, with a style that seems very similar to that of Profumum Roma. Namely, simple, uncomplicated, and unpretentious fragrances that highlight one key note in an extremely concentrated manner. (You should see the Farmacia’s Patchouly Indonesiano. Absolute insanity!)

Interior of the old Farmacia apothecary boutique in Florence. Source: the company's website.

Interior of the old Farmacia apothecary boutique in Florence. Source: the company’s website.

The same signature is evident in the case of Vaniglia del Madagascar, a fragrance that requires a little bit of patience, but one which blooms into something that is quite pretty. In fact, really quite lovely at times. While Vaniglia del Madagascar may not be my perfect vanilla, it did make me sit up and take notice. I even haunted eBay for 10 days to see if decants were available, and that should tell you something.

Source: Luckyscent.

Source: Luckyscent.

Vaniglia del Madagascar is a concentrated parfum or extrait de parfum that Farmacia SS. Annunziata in very simple terms:

Sweet and intense aroma, the scent of a remote island. Recollection of an unforgettable journey to discover an unspoilt island. African sickness.

Top notes: LEMON
Heart notes: FLORAL NOTES, AMBER NOTES
Base notes: VANILLA

Personally, I suspect that there is more going on than that, as I detect distinct smokiness in Vaniglia, as well as a whisper of woodiness. I’ve noticed that some perfume houses, especially some Italian ones like Profumum, prefer to merely give a nutshell synopsis for their perfume lists, so I wouldn’t be completely surprised if that were the case here as well.

Lemon creme brulee. Photo & Source: phamfatale.com. (Link to website & recipe embedded within.)

Lemon creme brulee. Photo & Source: phamfatale.com. (Link to website & recipe embedded within.)

Vaniglia del Madagascar opens on my skin caramelized sugar and candy floss vanilla, infused with brisk, fresh lemon. Miniscule hints of smoky woods, ambered warmth and an abstract floralcy lurk deep in the base, but they are very subtle at this point. Generally, Vaniglia del Madagascar opens as vanilla creme brulée with candied, spun sugar and sun-sweetened lemons.

It reminds me of Profumum‘s dreadful Vanitas, but there are differences. Vanigilia has fresh, bright lemon instead of gooey orange syrup; it doesn’t skew as dark in feel or visuals as Vanitas; and it thankfully lacks the burnt, acrid harshness of the Profumum scent. It also feels like an airier, lighter, fresher form of vanilla as a whole. Profumum’s Vanitas has a plasticity to both its orange and its burnt caramelization that I found unappealing, so Vanigilia is much smoother in that regard. Nevertheless, there is no way around their strong similarity in Vaniglia’s opening moments: they are both massive sugar overloads with extreme sweetness.

Vaniglia’s actual feel, though, is very soft with sillage to match. Three good smears equal to two very small spritzes resulted in only 2 inches of sillage. The fragrance may feel very rich in its notes, but it doesn’t convey the opaque density that so many Profumum scents do, and is actually quite light in weight. I wouldn’t call it objectively airy, but it is almost so — relative to what you’d expect from a concentrated parfum or extrait with such strong sweetness.

Crème Brûlée. Source: eugeniekitchen.com. For an easy recipe, go to: http://eugeniekitchen.com/creme-brulee-recipe-burnt-cream-french-custard/

Crème Brûlée. Source: eugeniekitchen.com. For an easy recipe, go to: http://eugeniekitchen.com/creme-brulee-recipe-burnt-cream-french-custard/

To my endless relief, the similarities to Profumum’s Vanitas soon weaken. Less than 20 minutes into Vanigilia’s development, the perfume starts to turn creamier and the sugar has already begun its journey to more palatable levels. In a side by side test, at the same point in time, Vanitas was still trumpeting a foghorn call of badly burnt pink sugar with gooey orange and a dash of plasticity. Vanigilia, in contrast, has lost more than half of its unpleasant vestiges, and the vanilla feels deeper. The lemon has piped down a notch as well, while the amber is slowly stirring in the base. Vaniglia is still too sweet for my tastes, but I can see hope on the horizon quite clearly.

Source: abm-enterprises.net

Source: abm-enterprises.net

At the start of the 2nd hour, golden veins of amber start to seep out to caress the vanilla. A tendril of smoky dryness curls up in the distance. Further still, a microdot of something floral occasionally pops up its head. For the most part, Vaniglia is still just a vanilla scent, but it is deeper, more golden, and richer with substantially less lemon, far greater creaminess, and a clear promise of darkness to come. The perfume is also softer in both aroma and projection. The scent hugs the skin after 90 minutes, hovering perhaps a half-inch above it, and its overall edges feel smoother.

Vaniglia’s second and final phase begins a little after the 3rd hour rolls around, and this is where things start to get good. The perfume’s crust of caramelized pink sugar has been replaced by a thin layer of amber, and infused by a whisper of smokiness. Something about it suggests a trace of “opium flowers,” a fantasy accord that I experienced with Profumum‘s Fiore d’Ambra. With Vaniglia del Madagascar, the “opium flowers” lurk in the background in a very subtle, muted way, but I’ve noticed them every time I’ve worn the scent. I’d also swear that there was also a suggestion of dry woods far in the distance, even if there is no such note mentioned in the official perfume pyramid. The whole thing feels very smooth and positively silky, but it is also very soft. Vaniglia is almost a skin scent at this point, though it’s still very rich and easy to detect when sniffed up close.

By the end of the 6th hour, Vaniglia is really like creamy vanilla silk. It is infused with wisps of darkness and subtle smokiness, but there is no lemon, no pink sugar, no creme brulée, or even some creme anglaise. An occasional suggestion of Bourbon vanilla pops up now and then, but there is nothing boozy about Vaniglia. Only real vanilla creaminess with just a touch of dark, dry smokiness to keep interesting. It isn’t a truly dark or dry vanilla, but I kept sniffing my arm appreciatively, though I have to be honest, I did have to bring my nose really close to the skin. At the risk of sounding repetitive, Vaniglia is very soft.

Source: Micks Images. http://www.micksimages.com/Smoke-II(2399572).htm

Source: Micks Images. http://www.micksimages.com/Smoke-II(2399572).htm

However, the perfume also has killer longevity. At the start of the 12th hour, I thought Vaniglia had finally died, but the perfume clings on with great tenacity. It may take some effort and hard sniffing to detect it, but this is a determined survivor. There were definite traces of Vaniglia on several areas of my arm at the 16th hour, and, to my disbelief, its delicate, smooth silkiness clung to one patch of skin at the 22nd hour. Granted, it was a small patch, and I had to put my nose right on my arm to detect it, but it was definitely there.

I think Vaniglia is a really nice scent that I thoroughly enjoyed testing, but it isn’t my perfect vanilla for a few reasons. First, I don’t like the sugariness of its opening hours. Second, it is far too discreet for my personal tastes. That said, the loveliness of its core bouquet did tempt me enough for me to haunt eBay for a while. What I liked the most about Vaniglia from the very first time I tried it is that it seemed to have an unusual degree of micro-inflections. Tiny, prismatic nuances — even during its sugared creme brulée phase — that surprised me. Whiffs of abstract flowers, smoke, dry woods, the almost ghostly pop of something “opium,” and an amber that occasionally felt like ambergris. Again, these are all so subtle at times as to warrant a “micro” description, but they are there. Vaniglia is one of those fragrances that rewards really close attention.

Vanilla Custard. Source: Sacchef's Blog.

Vanilla Custard.
Source: Sacchef’s Blog.

There is much love for Vaniglia del Madagascar amongst those who have tried it. On Luckyscent, the overwhelming majority (18) give the fragrance five stars, followed by a handful (3) who give it four stars. Only one person rates it as a 3, but there is nothing lower than that. People use words like “holy grail,” including one person who says they don’t particularly like vanilla fragrances at all. A sampling of opinions:

  • Holy grail indeed. I don’t even like vanilla scents, especially when they’re screaming ‘You’re a cupcake and Imma eat you now!’ HOWEVER, although this is a true vanilla scent, it is not ridiculously sweet or synthetic like many others. The opening was a little strange for me…reminded me of a soda pop candy I had as a kid. But within a half hour the scent really began to open up and breathe, and become this delicious floaty vanilla…much like a true vanilla bean. After a few hours it turns into something even better…something warm and woody and almost smoky. Sillage is soft and polite, but longevity is fantastic. 12+ hours on me. I’m amazed at the depth of this of this ostensibly simple perfume.
  • THE most exquisite Vanilla scent I have ever owned. It is perfection. Opens with a slight hint of citrus,lemon, and then it’s rich creamy vanilla all the way. It lasts a good 8 hours on me and it’s quite subtle not an ‘in your face vanilla’ at all. Worth every single cent
  • I don’t think that I have ever smelled a vanilla this good. I have always loved the idea of wearing a smooth, creamy vanilla, but up until this point have found most to be cloying, sickeningly sweet, or chemical. This is a beautiful vanilla with lasting power, rich and true to the actual pod (or extract, as another reviewer commented). It is still sweet, but in just the right places, and the other notes do a nice job of balancing the vanilla with a rich and smoky feeling (thank you, amber). If you love the idea of wearing a vanilla but find most end up smelling synthetic on you, give this a try. I’ll definitely be ordering a bottle.
  • This scent is great! I am a guy and I think it smells great if not a little too feminine for me, but if you want some advice add 1 part of this to Tom Fords tobacco vanilla and you will have the best cologne you have ever smelled guaranteed. Tobacco vanilla isnt sweet enough, but add this and its amazing! I found the best smell ever, I got 4 compliments just today!Amazing stuff!
  • The open is cotton candy, it’s the only way I can think to describe it. Not it a cheap way, but it’s all I can smell. After a few minutes the sweetness is still there but it’s cooled off a bit. It’s definitely still too sweet for me, but if sweet vanilla is your thing you’ll probably love this. I’m also getting a lemony-custard feel. It’s also got hints of… creamy plastic. Again, not in a bad way, I’m just not sure how else to describe it. And interesting vanilla scent, to be sure.
Source: vanillesdesiles.com

Source: vanillesdesiles.com

A blogging friend of mine, The Black Narcissus, is both a vanilla addict and quite an expert on the various varieties of the pods used in vanilla fragrances. I found his review of Vaniglia del Madagascar to be interesting for several reasons. First, he was wholly unimpressed when he initially tried Vaniglia in London and in the summer’s heat. Yet, time, patience, and a change in environment resulted in a very different response, to the point where the brilliant vanilla expert wrote: “it might actually be my all time favourite vanilla.” I think that says something, but the key to it all lies in the very heading of his review: “Delayed Gratification.”

And that is really my second point. As Neil describes so well, Vaniglia del Madagascar feels like a “time release” capusle that pulsates out its prettier points in very slow waves over a long period of time. I urge you to read his review in full if you’re at all interested in the fragrance or a die-hard vanilla lover, but, for now, I will only quote small parts:

In the London summer heat the scent was disappointing, somehow – too thin; at once laboured yet underwhelming. The reasons for this I will come to, but I wasn’t aware of it at the time, and I put the bottle back on the shelf again, hoping its itme would come.

It has. And it has been delicious. But this is a perfume that is set to a strict slow motion, and it to took me a while to get it. [...][¶]

[I]n terms of sillage it barely seemed to register, at least on hot, sweaty nights in London. But since the Japanese weather has cooled [...] I have come to realize that the perfume is structured like nuclear fission: compressed atoms of flavour which dilate outwards; slowly, at their own prehistorically ambered pace. This perfume just won’t let you rush it. It is set in thick, glacial, time-spaced layers that cannot be perturbed.

Photo: David Prince. Source: Myrecipes.com

Photo: David Prince. Source: Myrecipes.com

In the rest of his review, The Black Narcissus talks about the nuances he detected in the scent. At first, there was an unexpected “bitter orange top note” which seemed to counter the website’s reference to lemons, but the real surprise was the ambiguous “floral” notes. He found them to be “more like a fresh, misty saltiness,” and something that he’d never encountered in a vanilla fragrance before. Those elements lasted about an hour before

…the vanilla, essentially hidden from view by some alchemical trick, begins to appear and advance in depth and texture over a period of twelve hours or so, until you completely succumb to its heat-charged fullness and drape in it like a cream-silk blanket.

It is then that you realize ah yes, this is a parfum, it really is, especially when you wake up the next day and the sunlight bathes the golden glow. Vanilla, classical, resonating Bourbon vanilla, surrounds you, is set from your pillow. A sense, almost, of achievement. And for me, this delayed pleasure, the sensation of a whole day for the scent to reach its full, tantric potency, is quite glorious.

I’m still in the early throes of mania with this one, but I think it might actually be my all time favourite vanilla.

Source: wallpaperscraft.com

Source: wallpaperscraft.com

I am far from being in love with the scent the way that Neil is, but I agree with him on several points. Vaniglia del Madagascar is a lot prettier than it seems at first sniff, especially during the intensely sugared part of its opening hours. I don’t share Neil’s high tolerance for vanillic sweetness and some of the “sugar-icing” fragrances he wears would probably give me a heart attack, but he’s right about how the perfume’s prettiness develops like “nuclear fusion” with a “glacial” pace. Matters aren’t helped by the subtlety of Vaniglia’s later inflections or by its extremely hushed, intimate sillage, so I urge you to be patient even more than he does, but Vaniglia is definitely a scent that is worth trying if you’re a vanilla lover. And if there were ever a vanilla that was wholly suitable for even the most conservative, anti-perfume office environments, this would be it.

Vaniglia del Madagascar is almost “cheap” — relatively speaking and when you take all factors into consideration — and it’s not too hard to find, either. It costs $160, £103, or roughly €115, but Vaniglia comes in a large 100 ml bottle and is concentrated parfum. There aren’t a lot of companies that sell 100 ml of extrait for $160. Plus, a little Vaniglia goes a very long way and, as noted earlier, the perfume has massive longevity. In general, Farmacia SS. Annunziata’s fragrances are available at the usual niche retailers, some of whom also carry the accompanying Vaniglia body products and also ship worldwide. I think I’ve even found a place in Japan that carries Vaniglia, along with fragrances from a lot of other niche brands. Finally, Vaniglia is available for a small discount on eBay.

In short, give Vaniglia a try if you’ve been looking for a creamy vanilla with some darkness. I suspect that the fragrance will still be too sweet for some of you, especially in its opening moments, but be patient. Hope begins after 30 minutes, and things become really pretty a few hours after that. It’s definitely worth a sniff, without a doubt.

DETAILS:
Cost & Availability: Farmacia SS. Annunziata Vaniglia del Madagascar is a concentrated parfum that is available only in a 100 ml/3.4 oz bottle which costs $160 or £103. The European price ranges from €110 to €129, but the actual retail cost seems to be €115. The Japanese and Russian prices are hard for me to figure out, but I did find sellers in those countries. Discount Price: you can find Vaniglia discounted on eBay with prices starting at $125 (without a box) and with world-wide shipping. The main seller seems to be German, and has a wide range of Farmacia fragrances at a discount. In the U.S.: Luckyscent sells Vaniglia del Madagascar for $160, along with a sample. Outside the U.S.: In Europe, you can buy Vaniglia directly from Farmacia SS. Annunziata, along with its accompanying body products from creams to shower gels. At the time of this review, the company is on summer holidays until August 31st, and isn’t shipping orders. In the U.K., Roullier White has some of the Farmacia line, and sells Vaniglia for £103. Rich Perfumes in Buckinghamshire also carries the line, but you will have to call to see if they have the Vaniglia. For the rest of Europe, First in Fragrance has Vaniglia for £121, and they ship world-wide. ParfuMaria in the Netherlands sells it for €129, but Vaniglia is currently sold out. ParfuMaria is taking pre-orders for when it is back in stock. In Italy, the entire Farmacia SS. Annunziata line of fragrances, body products and samples is available from Italy’s AllaVioletta. You can also find Vaniglia and accompanying body products at Profumeria Manuela. In Switzerland, Beauty Flash sells the fragrance for CHF 175. In Russia, Farmacia fragrances are carried at Essenz & Parfume or Bum Parfum. In the Ukraine, they’re sold at Parfumka. In Japan, there is a site called Propice which seems to sell a wide variety of expensive niche perfumes, including the Farmacia line. I haven’t really figured it out, to be honest, but I think it might be a private individual seller who began with reviews and has now become a niche distributor. You can check it out for yourself. Samples: I obtained my sample from Luckyscent. Surrender to Chance sells Vaniglia starting at $3.99 for a 1 ml vial. In Europe, a number of the sites linked above sell samples.

Profumum Roma Vanitas: Foghorn Vanilla

Source: Profumum website.

Source: Profumum website.

Death by vanilla. Or, in my case, death after a diabetic coma from sugar overload. Vanitas by Profumum Roma is a fragrance that should come with an advisory label that warns: “For hardcore gourmands and sugar fiends only!” For everyone else, I would advise serious caution. If you’re like me, you should avoid it entirely.

Vanitas is a concentrated eau de parfum that was released in 2008. The notes provided by Profumum on its website are:

Vanilla, Myrrh, Orange flowers, Sandalwood.

Vanitas opens on my skin with burnt sugar vanilla, times a hundred. To be precise, it’s a caramelized vanilla with burnt brown sugar, burnt candy floss vanilla, and a strong dash of orange syrup. Thanks to the myrrh, there are hints of something that is both dark and a tiny bit musty lurking at the edges, but it is a very small undertone that is completely overwhelmed by the burnt sugar. (Please be prepared for the word “sugar” to be used ad nauseam in this review.)

Caramelized oranges. Source: iVillage.com

Caramelized oranges. Source: iVillage.com

The sweetness is extreme. Not even the minuscule pop of quasi-freshness provided by the bright orange syrup can counter the floodgate of dripping, burnt, caramelized, vanilla sugar. Making matters worse, there are also definite plastic qualities to all three of the main components of Vanitas’ opening bouquet: the vanilla, the sugar, and the orange.

Vanitas differs from some of its siblings in the Profumum line. It is a rich scent with powerful projection at first, but it lacks the opaque, chewy density and heft of something like Ambra Aurea. It also differs quite a bit from Vanitas’ fellow vanilla fragrance in the line, Dulcis in Fundo. In my opinion, the latter is less sweet but, also, significantly better balanced in comparison. In addition, Dulcis in Fundo has a waffle-cone undertone that isn’t present here; its orange note is brief but feels genuinely fresh and bright, as opposed to syrupy; and its vanilla creme brulée never feels drenched in candy floss sugar or blackstrap molasses.

Source: bustle.com

Source: bustle.com

In a lot of ways, Vanitas may actually be closer to Profumum’s almond candy floss scent, Confetto. It has the same sort of airy weight but massive potency, not to mention the same candy floss character to its vanilla. Yet, Vanitas skews darker in both visuals and feel. For one thing, its sugar is more like black molasses sugarcane and badly burnt, unlike Confetto’s white variety. For another, the myrrh works indirectly from the sidelines to turn the candy cane floss more into creme brulée vanilla. As a whole, Vanitas has a subtle tinge of darkness that Confetto lacks, and the most important thing is that its sugariness makes Confetto feel like child’s play in comparison.

Burnt caramel via In the Kitchen blog: http://homeschoolinginthekitchen.blogspot.com/2010/03/bad-chemistry.html

Burnt caramel via In the Kitchen blog. (Website link embedded within.)

I find the myrrh to be almost an inconsequential note on my skin. It doesn’t have the usual incense vibe, there is no anisic undertone, and no “High Church” cold incense or mustiness. I suppose I should count myself lucky, as some Luckyscent commentators thought the perfume had a “medicinal” or “musty” quality. It isn’t that way on my skin at all, but there is something dark about the vanilla in the first few hour that is extremely unpleasant. In my case, it is the almost acrid quality to the burnt sugar. Have you ever tried to caramelize something, burnt it, and had the blackened sugar give off sharp fumes? That is what happens on my skin, complete with a burnt plastic undertone.

My God, the fragrance positively tortures me. Its burnt, sugary extremeness is utterly unbearable. I’ve tried to come to terms with Vanitas about 4 times, and each and every time, the perfume makes me want to curl up in a foetal position and scream. In all my tests, at the end of the first hour, I can feel the back of my throat thickly coated with a grainy paste of burnt sugar, burnt vanilla, and gooey orange syrup.

Source: chefmom.sheknows.com

Source: chefmom.sheknows.com

In fairness, my skin amplifies sweetness, and I do not tolerate hardcore gourmands well. Yet, my main problem with Vanitas is that it is both a foghorn and ridiculously unbalanced. Its monolithic singularity takes sweetness to a painfully concentrated level with no alleviating counterbalance. There are no really profound contrasting nuances or layers, either. Just a burnt sugar, molasses bulldozer that rams you over and over (and over again), until you lie prostrate pleading for death. I do admit that Vanitas does get slightly smoother, richer, and calmer by the end of the third hour, but I think it is only a relative matter and a question of (microscopic) degrees.

I have never once managed to endure a full wearing of Vanitas. I cannot emphasize enough how the perfume physically coats the back of my throat with its acrid sweetness, so five hours has been my maximum. After that I point, I’ve crawled to the bathroom in abject surrender to scrub it off. Part of the problem is that Vanitas never improves in all those hours on my skin. Most Profumum fragrances are soliflores that highlight one single element, so they rarely have twists and turns — and I don’t expect them to. I always say that there is nothing wrong with linearity if you adore the note(s) in question passionately, but Vanitas shrieks linear sugar without any of the key balance demonstrated by so many of its siblings in the line. And, every time I’ve worn it, five hours was enough to make me die a little inside. Given that some Profumum scents can last well over 15 hours on my perfume-consuming skin, the thought of enduring Vanitas for the full time made me turn pale with horror.

The response to Vanitas on most sites is extremely positive. I’d even venture to describe the majority consensus as adoring raves. Yet, I am not the only one who has struggled with the scent. On Luckyscent and elsewhere, there are a handful of detractors in the sea of love for Vanitas, and they often point to its cotton candy sweetness as the problem. Again, these are minority opinions, but they do exist. For the most part, however, people just gush and gush, saying how much better Vanitas is than such notable vanilla fragrances as Indult‘s Tihota, Serge LutensUn Bois Vanille, or Farmacia SS. Annunziata‘s Vaniglia del Madagascar. I have tested the latter and I think it is a far, far better fragrance than Vanitas with some important differences, especially in terms of balance.

Source: wallpaperscraft.com

Source: wallpaperscraft.com

For fairness sake, here are a sampling of opinions on Luckyscent to give you a counterbalance to my own views, with only one negative review tossed in:

  • This is a far superior version of Serge Lutens’ Un Bois Vanille but without the jarring coconut and burnt sugar notes. The vanilla and woods are better balanced here, making this the best creamy vanilla I’ve ever smelt. Longevity is excellent too. Yummy!
  • yuck!!! I had really high hopes for this perfume but they came crashing down once I tried this on. As the review says, the top notes hint towards a medicinal odor and for me that medicinal feel never leaves but gets blended with a vanilla which really doesn’t work. I don’t even know what else to say, it’s a total scrubber for me.
  • Profumum Vanitas is gorgeous! If you are a vanilla fan, then this is a must try! To my nose, it smells very similar to Farmacia SS. Annunziata dal 1561 Vaniglia del Madagascar, but with a “kick” – I think it’s the myrrh. Yes, it’s a sweet vanilla, but the myrrh gives it a cool and crisp aspect, which keeps it from becoming sickly sweet. The sillage is strong, but it’s not in-your-face; rather, it’s quiet (but not as quiet as Farmacia’s VdM) and slowly tiptoes out into the spotlight every so often. The lasting power is phenomenal and I only have to apply once in the morning and it’ll last all day. I have never smelled a “chilly” vanilla, but I must say, I love it! I will definitely purchase a full bottle once my wallet recovers from my recent full bottle purchase of Indult’s Tihota!
  • I have been smelling every vanilla I could for the last 10 years looking for the “one”. Well, here it is. I feel like this smells like a beautiful pale blonde wearing head to toe black. It’s sweet but a tad lethal. I have never recieved more compliments from a fragrance. People beg for it’s name. I give it but then they find out how expensive it is, but it’s also 100ml. It’s a big bottle but sadly in 3 months I’ve used 3/4ths of it. But I will be buying a replacement which I hardly ever do of any one fragrance. It is truly a work of art [...]
  • a more interesting and long lasting tihota at the same price but 3x+ the size. would highly recommend as tihota was a long time favorite but this just wins!
  • Source: colourbox.com

    Source: colourbox.com

    This, on me, is delicious, rebellious vanilla. It actually makes me think of Havana Vanille, and I was surprised that no alcooholic notes were listed here. I would also love to smell this on a man. I generally feel like wearing this when I’m feeling very sexy, relaxed, empowered and kind of secretly mischievious. (A bit like Havana Vanille but where HV is slowly, lazily sipping a syrupous exquisite golden drink, on a deck, in the summer, with the sunset warming your neck and chest, Vanitas is an isolated simple cabin in the woods in the fall with your lover, feeling the luxurious white fur throws on the sofas on your naked bum, the rough wind coming in and not giving a damn, and strangely enough, at the same time, evokes cuddling near a cracking fire with polar throws, for me.) Very evocative perfume, simple notes that smell like something instead of smelling like “perfume”. [Emphasis to names added by me.]

Pink candy floss or cotton candy. Source: Favim.com.

Pink candy floss or cotton candy. Source: Favim.com.

It is the same story on Fragrantica where people write orgasmic paeans to Vanitas, use words like “masterpiece” or “holy grail,” and talk with awe about how the perfume’s sillage is a “nuclear bomb.” A few people find similarities to Pink Sugar (which should tell you something) and some prefer Montale‘s Vanille Absolue, but negative reviews are generally few and far between. A rare criticism comes from “Tiffingirl,” and talks specifically about the problematic nature of the vanilla:

A hefty does of cotton candy (more ethylmaltol than vanillin) in this. I was expecting something more nuanced and layered, not a smack in the face with a candy bar! I do not detect amber or orange flower. Considering the hefty price tag, you’re better off with Montale Vanille Absolu which (though not cheap) is better value than this or el cheapo Molinard Vanille – both smell very similar although perhaps not quite as potent. It also shares some similarity with Pink Sugar (another ethylmaltol fest) without the annoying hairspray, licorice notes.

Bottom line: if you want a sickly sweet, potent vanilla then this does the trick. But you can get your sugar fix far more cheaply elsewhere.

It’s true, Profumum scents aren’t cheap at $240 a bottle, but they are also 100 ml of something that is really an extrait in concentration. Plus, they tend to last for ages, though their sillage is usually moderate after the nuclear blast of their first few hours. So, in light of all the factors, it may be worth it and a good value if you really love the scent in question passionately. There are certainly few brands on the market that consistently put out such concentrated, rich fragrances as Profumum.

In short, if you adore intensely sweet, extremely sugared vanillas with a touch of darkness and some orange syrup, give Vanitas a sniff. But, if you don’t mind, I’ll stay very far away from you when you wear it.

DETAILS:
Cost & Availability: Vanitas is an Eau de Parfum with Extrait concentration that only comes in a large 3.4 oz/100 ml bottle, and costs $240 or €179. There are also accompanying body and shower products as well. Profumum‘s website doesn’t have an e-shop from which you can buy their fragrances directly. In the U.S.: Vanitas is available from Luckyscent, along with a sample. OsswaldNYC sells both Vanitas perfume, and all the accompanying body products as well. Outside the U.S.: In the U.K., Profumum is sold at Roja Dove’s Haute Parfumerie in Harrods. Elsewhere, you can generally find the Profumum line at Paris’ Printemps store, Premiere Avenue in France (which ships world-wide), France’s Soleil d’Or, the Netherlands’ Celeste, Hungary’s Neroli, Switzerland’s Osswald, and Russia’s Lenoma boutiques. Taizo in Cannes also carries Profumum and says they ship worldwide, but I don’t see an e-store. Some European vendors, especially in Italy, carry Profumum’s new 20 ml “stylos” or decants, but they’re not widely available. In general, Profumum’s website says that their fragrances are carried in a large number of small stores from Poland to Copenhagen, other parts of France, the rest of Europe, and, of course, Italy. You can use their Store Locator Guide located at the left of the page in that link. Samples: I obtained my sample from Surrender to Chance which sells Vanitas starting at $3.99 for a 1/2 ml vial. You can also order vials from Luckyscent or Osswald. The latter has a nice sample program for U.S. customers along with free shipping, though there is a 3-item minimum.