“The Elixir of the Gods.” That is a pretty tall order and claim to make, but it is precisely how Roja Dove describes his Nüwa, a parfum released earlier this year. It is named after a Chinese goddess responsible for repairing Heaven and creating Mankind, but I see it completely differently. Nüwa (hereinafter spelled without the diacritical mark as simply “Nuwa”) would be the perfect scent for a Hell’s Angel, and I mean that description in all senses of the word.
A fallen angel dressed in blackened Russian leather in a Hell where brimstone was made out of demonic swirls of heavy cumin and fiery cloves, teetering above a dark vortex of almost animalic balsamic resins and smoking styrax, and clutching onto a withered, dirty rose — he would be wearing Nuwa. So might a Hell’s Angel biker gang member. But a sweet, gentle, feminine goddess? Ha, not in my opinion. Nuwa is a scent whose initial intensity, spiciness, and masculine dirtiness almost feel like brute force at first, before giving way to more unisex, floriental softness in a mix that always has truly heavenly opulence. I mean that, Nuwa’s richness is so insanely over- the-top that the Sultan of Brunei would be impressed and Liberace would giggle. [Update 3/2015: this review is for the original version of Nuwa. At the end of 2014, it was reformulated and dramatically changed. I’ve been told the original Nuwa is still available by request at Roja Parfums, but I doubt it is commonly carried by most Roja retailers.]
It’s not a mix that is for everyone. Not for most people, if you ask me, and I can think of very few people to whom I would recommend Nuwa. But I love it. I simply can’t stand that I love it all so much.
I don’t want to. Believe me, I do not want to, because this fragrance with the tall description of an elixir of the gods comes with an equally tall price tag. That price is one of the two reasons why I’m genuinely sorry to say that I think Nüwa is gorgeous. Really, truly gorgeous. The sort of gorgeous where I couldn’t stop sniffing my arms every time I wore Nuwa. The sort of gorgeous where my perfume snob mother once smelled me from across the room, stopped in her tracks to ask what I was wearing, and asked me to come closer for a sniff. Where my father pretty much did the same. And the post lady stopped sorting her packages one sweltering afternoon to ask, “what is that smell? Is that you? It’s incredible!”
It is a problem. The price gives me such a nosebleed that I can’t even write it at this time. Perhaps the bigger issue is that Nüwa has very strong similarities to another famous fragrance. In a nutshell, Nüwa is an extremely blackened and, initially, very masculine twist on Rochas‘ Femme in its vintage post-1989 form, with its cumin magnified, the fragrance injected with smoky birch tar leather, and the whole thing then reduced down to the most concentrated, dense syrup imaginable. It’s vintage Femme (or the later, somewhat similar Amouage Jubilation 25) turned on its head, and rendered into an over-spiced, leathered brute. Have I mentioned lately how much I love it?
Nüwa is a pure parfum or extrait which was released this year as a sibling to Diaghilev in The Imperial Collection. On his personal Roja Parfums website, Roja Dove describes Nuwa and its notes as follows:
“The Elixir Of Gods”
WARM, DRY, SPICY, LEATHERY, & SENSUAL
“Inspired by the legend of Nüwa, the gentle and kindly Chinese goddess, who is said to have created woman and man; and according to the myth she taught her people to be creative and wise, introduced beauty through music, song and dance, and filled the field flowers with fragrance. This tender liquid narrative will seduce the soul”. Roja Dove
TOP: Bergamot, Lemon
HEART: Blackcurrant Buds, Immortelle, Jasmine, Osmanthus, Rose, Ylang Ylang
BASE: Ambergris, Birch, Black Pepper, Cistus, Cistus, [sic] Clove, Cumin, Labdanum [which is Cistus again], Oakmoss, Orris, Patchouli, Storax [also known as Styrax], Vetiver.
This is not going to be one of my usual reviews. The main reason is that Nuwa is such a dense fragrance with such seamlessness to its notes that many of them all blur together into a thick haze that is often hard to separate, especially after the first two hours. It’s certainly not a hugely twisting, morphing scent with multiple stages. It is almost linear, though it throws out different notes at different times like a prismatic scent. So this is going to be a simpler, more generalized assessment of Nuwa which focuses on its opening stage and, then, on its essential characteristics and its feel.
Nuwa opens on my skin with a veritable tsunami of cumin and cloves. It is followed by a dry, withered, completely leathered and desiccated rose infused with smoky birch tar leather, strongly tobacco’d patchouli, vetiver, bergamot, earthiness, and a brief flicker of juicy, almost peach-like sweetness. Those of you who are cumin-phobes and who wince at the even the most microscopic dusting of the spice should probably stop reading right now. The rest of the tale may give you palpitations.
The opening salvo is followed by more cumin. And more cloves. And then still further yet. I mean it quite objectively when I say that I have never experienced so much cumin in any fragrance before, and that statement may apply to the cloves, too. Yet, the overall effect in conjunction with the other notes completely fascinates me. Something about the mix is simultaneously earthy, powdered, dusty, musky, chewy, and almost akin to smoked, singed mesquite barbecue woods. I’ve noticed that cloves in high doses or in a very pure form can take on a certain meatiness, as they do here. Or, perhaps, that is simply a mental association, because I’m suddenly imagining steaks on a barbecue. Highly peppered, spiced, clove-dusted meat on singed mesquite wood in a Swedish birch forest filled with smoke and trickling streams of black tar.
At the same time, other images come to mind from the many nuances radiating off the mix. If you’ve ever made a Garam Masala mix, you’ll know that one takes a massive heaping of spices — including cumin, black pepper, and sometimes cloves — and tosses them in a pan with some oil to create a thick paste for curry. Something in Nuwa’s opening notes definitely evokes a Garam Masala mix, though I hasten to add that there is nothing sweaty, fetid, or truly food-like about the mix. And there is most certainly nothing smelling like rancid, stale, or unwashed body odor, either. But I can’t deny that there is an earthiness to the spices that takes them beyond a mere dustiness.
I wish I could pinpoint the source of several of the aromas swirling around. There is a strong whiff of tobacco that could just as easily come from the labdanum as from the patchouli. Numa also has a subtle streak of woodiness that could emanate from either the vetiver or the patchouli. And the earthiness could come from any number of possible notes. The perfume is so well-blended and with so many elements that have complementary characteristics that it is very hard for me to tell where one begins, and the other leaves off.
One thing is absolutely certain: the bouquet is infused with smoky leather down to its core. Styrax is the darkest, the smokiest and the most leathered of all the benzoin resins out there, and has been used since antiquity as a sort of incense. It is also a key part of such fragrances as Chanel‘s Cuir de Russie, Serge Lutens‘ Cuir Mauresque, his Tubereuse Criminelle, and a good chunk of the SHL 777 line, including Black Gemstone, Oumma, O Hira, and Oud 777. I’m pretty sure it’s in Shalimar and possibly even in Habit Rouge as well, in addition to the other balsamic resins that they use.
However, the greatest cause of Nuwa’s profound smoky leatheriness comes from birch tar. In the old days, the Russian Cossacks would use its paste in tanning leather, or in sealing and waterproofing their boots. It can have a phenolic, smoky, tarry aroma as much as it can evoke the sense of black leather. Some perfumers like Stéphane Humbert Lucas frequently combine styrax with leather to create what he once called “The Cuir de Russie effect,” and I think that same approach has been used here in Nuwa. Yet, Nuwa doesn’t call to mind the Chanel fragrance with its smooth leather and heavy aldehydes. For me, it conjures up SHL 777‘s Black Gemstone, a scent that I find to be brilliant, fantastic, and utterly intoxicating, a scent which is perhaps my favorite of anything that I’ve tried this year.
The two fragrances are very different in their notes, but very similar in their overall vibe in the opening stage. Both fragrances initially ooze pitch blackness at a dense, super-concentrated level; and both are extremely smoky with a powerful styrax-birch tar combination that is also supplemented by dirty labdanum amber, spiced patchouli, earthy vetiver, and a streak of woodiness. Most of all, both feel like practically solid and opaque. In the case of Nuwa, it is a dense, brown-black block of masculine, dirty labdanum amber that is: coated with fat slices of brown, tobacco-ish patchouli; sprinkled with withered, red damask rose petals; doused in treacly smoked styrax; stuffed into a container filled with the world’s largest amount of cloves and cumin; then rolled into one of Los Angeles’ La Brea tar pits, and set on fire. I love every bit of it. Many others will probably run screaming like a bat out of Hell.
This fiery blast of spicy smokiness is the most prominent aspect of Nuwa’s opening on my skin, but it is not the only aspect. Tiny bits of bergamot are woven into the Garam Masala spice paste, and an even more subtle suggestion of fruitiness hovers at the edges. Much more noticeable, however, is the mossiness that is seamlessly blended within every inch of the blackened leather and cumin-clove combination. Nuwa doesn’t scream “chypre” or pulsate greenness in the way that Roja Dove‘s Diaghilev does right from the start, but there is no mistaking its chypre foundation. It merely happens to lie almost buried at first under the Indian-Russian Orientalism. That changes later, significantly, but the opening moments only vaguely suggest an oakmoss richness.
Nuwa begins to shift after 30 minutes. The cumin finally takes a small breath, and the cloves surge even more to the foreground. The vetiver suddenly emerges from the shadows to add a woody streak, as well as another form of earthiness. The patchouli and styrax grow even stronger, creating a chewy, burnt patchouli note that is a lot more appealing than it sounds. (Well, maybe you have to be a patch head, as I am.) At the same time, the birch leather takes on animalic nuances. It’s not the sort of animalic vibe that one gets from civet, castoreum, or skanky fragrances. It’s something in the rawness of the leather and the sticky, balsamic resins that course through Nuwa’s veins.
Then, at the end of the first hour and the start of the second, the landscape starts to change, almost dramatically if you’re paying close attention. Suddenly, the flowers begin to bloom. Before, there had been only a sense of something “floral” hovering in the background, almost more of a nebulous suggestion at times. Now, however, the accord grows very noticeable, though it is still too well-blended and dense to really separate out into distinct elements. Once in a blue moon, you can detect a wisp of velvety, custardy ylang-ylang. Occasionally, there is a floral sweetness that sometimes transforms into indolic jasmine. Frequently, the dense block of something “floral” translates into an extremely dirty, smoked, spicy rose. At the same time, however, the other elements begin to stir. The bergamot and oakmoss grow stronger, bringing the chypre structure to the foreground after the initial descent into hardcore Orientalism.
Roughly 90 minutes into Nuwa’s development, the perfume has turned largely into a floral chypre, dominated by a dirty, dry, leathered, and wholly smoked rose that is infused with birch tar and styrax, then dusted by cloves and sweet jasmine. The rest of the usual suspects fall in line a few paces behind, including the cumin. The latter is still very noticeable, but it is no longer one of the main driving forces in Nuwa, and it is much more integrated with everything else. The whole combination has a distinct whiff of woodiness underlying it, but also a more noticeable, significant ambered touch, with both the ambergris and the labdanum rumbling in the base.
The overall combination strongly evokes a number of other scents. From afar, Nuwa is now a concentrated version of vintage post-1989 Femme, pure and simple. For those of you unfamiliar with the scent, Femme is a legendary (and, in my opinion, unisex) fragrance that was reformulated in 1989 to include cumin in order to provide a naughty dirtiness in lieu of the civet which had to be removed for ethical reasons. It is a skanky, fruity-chypre, plum-cumin cousin to Guerlain‘s peachy, fruity-chypre Mitsouko; and Amouage‘s Jubilation 25 for Women is an incense-y, less fruited cousin to them both. Roja Dove’s Diaghilev has been compared to Jubilation 25 and Mitsouko, and I agree with that.
However, many Fragrantica posters also compare Nuwa to Mitsouko, and that’s where I disagree. It’s not the best analogy. Most of the commentators are men, and they apparently have never considered trying a something called Femme, or they would mention the whopping similarity. I’m going to do a review of Femme soon, because I think it’s a superb chypre that is wholly unisex in nature and because I think some men need to get over the name. If they tried it, they would love it.
Getting back to Nuwa, however, it is completely and totally Femme in its post-1989 cumin formulation, and particularly in the richer, skankier, vintage form. Nuwa simply happens to have a completely masculine start that is closer to 777 Black Gemstone, before it injects Femme with steroids. My mother whom I often jokingly call “The Ultimate Perfume Snob” loves both vintage Femme and Jubilation 25. She took one whiff of Nuwa and said, “It’s my Femme!!” Yes, mother, it most certainly is. There may be differences up close — if you focus really hard and pull out the birch tar leather, and if you realise the absence of the plum — but for all intents and purposes, Nuwa turns into a massively concentrated form of Femme.
As I said at the start, this won’t be one of my traditional, step-by-step reviews, and the reason is that Nuwa doesn’t really change significantly from this point forth. Nuwa keeps its Femme contours as a floral chypre with cumin, dark notes, smoky leathered touches, abstract mossiness, spiciness, woodiness, hints of tobacco, and ambered warmth until its final hours. The various key elements each take a moment to lead the pack, before falling back and being replaced by another. And then the cycle repeats itself.
Nuwa is what I describe as a prismatic scent, throwing off notes like light bouncing off a crystal chandelier. Whenever I think that one element had receded to the background, it pops back up again. Most of the time, it’s simply too hard to pull out the various notes. Nuwa is dense, but also blended seamlessly. Yet, it never feels blurry, hazy, or even muddy to me. It certainly should with all that is going on, but it doesn’t, perhaps because Nuwa has too strong a character.
One thing that I have consistently noticed, however, is that Nuwa becomes woodier and more ambered in nature as the hours pass. The florals seem to weaken and, in Nuwa’s final hours, largely fade away. What’s left is a very spicy woodiness infused with flickers of smoke, patchouli tobacco, and a very powerful golden, ambered haze. It’s warm, dry, slightly sweetened, and occasionally a little musky or animalic. In its final moments, Nuwa is just a blur of spiced woodiness and warmth.
Nuwa has astonishing longevity on me and initially monstrous sillage, even when I used with a small amount, though I think the projection as a whole is merely average. I’ll try to give you numbers for the quantities that I applied, but it’s going to be a little hazy. My sample was an atomizer with a small hole and a slightly wonky spraying mechanism, so it sometimes gave things in little squirts or dribbles. When I applied the equivalent of 1/2 of a spray from a proper bottle, Nuwa initially gave 5-6 inches in projection, which is quite a lot for me, especially with that minuscule amount. More to the point, that sillage carried. And carried. I was visiting my parents and, at one point, my mother could smell Nuwa on me from across a large room. Using that small quantity, the sillage dropped to about an inch above the skin by the end of the 2nd hour, where it stayed for hours to come. Numa became a skin scent at the start of the 7th hour, but lasted roughly 13.5 hours all in all.
The numbers increase substantially if I apply more. Using the equivalent of 2 good (but not particularly enormous) sprays of Nuwa from an actual bottle, the sillage was initially more than 2 foot in projection! That is unheard of for me. In fact, I rarely experience those numbers unless I use about 6-8 sprays of something. Nuwa’s sillage remained extremely potent for ages, despite extrait fragrances generally being very soft in nature. The projection dropped to about 3 inches above the skin starting at the 3rd hour, the perfume only became a pure skin scent on me at the 10th hour, and it lasted almost 18 hours in total on my perfume-consuming skin.
From start to finish, Nuwa is rich, lush, opulent, sophisticated, slightly dirty, and sexy as hell. I’ve spent a few days pondering who or what might be the perfect symbolic representation of Nuwa, and I’m coming up short. No-one seems to be sufficiently dark, extravagant, masculine, feminine, bold, and, yes, somewhat crazy. I think you have to be a little bit off your rocker to wear such a flamboyant fragrance with so much fire and brimstone — and I mean that as a compliment. In any event, that rules out the Chinese empresses that I had considered, as well as the emperors. Hell’s Angels bikers are not regal enough, while most movie stars don’t have the necessary combination of both masculine and feminine qualities with fiery, brazen boldness. The best that I can come up with is one of the famous Indian maharaja to represent the spicy opulence of the scent, mixed with a fallen angel for Nuwa’s fiery, smoky, cumin-clove-birch beginning.
There aren’t a lot of in-depth reviews for Nuwa out there. On Fragrantica, there are 8 comments on Nuwa’s page, but only 5 posters have actually smelled the fragrance or talk about it. For two people, the cumin is far too strong, and rendered them unable to enjoy the scent as a whole. As one person wrote,
Way too much cumin. It you don’t label the bottle, most people will guess this was a vintage Femme. Hard to justify the price tag.
That comment is the only one which mentions Femme. Two people talk about Mitsouko, one person brings up Jubilation 25, and the 5th commentator references Guerlain Songe D’Un Bois D’Ete. I’ve tried the latter and can see a similarity in the nature of the smoked rose, as well as ties to all the other fragrances mentioned. However, I will repeat that, in my opinion, the only one of those tangentially related scents which truly applies is the cumin-heavy Femme in its vintage (but post-1989) form. (Poor Femme, she rarely gets any love.)
Most of the people on Fragrantica who have tried Nuwa find it disappointing, unoriginal, unworthy of the price, or some combination thereof. For example:
- A spicy homage to Mitsouko. It has the same old school chypre structure as Diaghilev, but is much more introverted and nowhere near as dazzling. There is no copout here, as there was with the recent Puredistance release BLACK. The materials in Nuwa are first rate and it smells grand from top to base. I just find the composition a little flat and dull to justify the £750 price tag. A disappointment.
- Nuwa smells good, no doubts about that. It’s a hyper-traditional dry and rich chyprey oriental thing a-la Mitsouko. We all know that Roja has a penchant for classic Guerlain and, more in general, classic french perfumery and while Nuwa surely speaks of quality, I find it pretty pointless to splurge such big tickets when with just a little effort one can still have access to almost every formulation of Mitsouko from basically every period. Good but in the end pointless.
I don’t disagree with them completely, especially as the majority of Nuwa’s lifespan does, indeed, reflect a strong similarity to other fragrances. However, I have to wonder, did they not experience the same blackened, smoky, leathery aspects that I did at the start? If so, then surely none of that is truly analogous to Mitsouko? The Guerlain has no powerful streak of tar and smoke, no styrax and patchouli tobacco, no vibe similar to that of Black Gemstone. I think it’s more accurate to call Nuwa a blackened, smokier, more masculine homage to the classic, not a pure copy. Does that make a substantial difference to the rest of their argument or to its gist? I don’t know. Perhaps not. Probably not.
Over at Colognoisseur, Mark Behnke loved Nuwa and thinks that the differences do matter. He also shares my view that it is an incredibly sexy scent with “a fabulous darkness [that is] not for the timid.” In fact, he calls the overall sum-total bouquet to be the perfume version of sexual consummation. I don’t know if I would go that far, but I read his review and muttered a small, mental “Hurrah, it’s not just me.” He writes, in part:
Nuwa opens on a bergamot and lemon point of light. Enjoy it for the few moments it is there because the light is subsumed by deep notes and accords as Nuwa takes you into a fabulous darkness not for the timid. Rose holds the middle, in the heart, but the pungent blackcurrant bud and the maple syrup-like immortelle pierce the rose like twin blades. The blackcurrant bud takes the spicy facets and turns them a shade of deepest sticky green. The immortelle takes the sweetest floralcy and gives it a tactile depth not usually felt from rose. The heart oozes sensuality and it sets you up for the base which realizes it in carnality. Vetiver and oakmoss setup the classic chypre foundation over which Nuwa lays a lusty leather accord and full doses of cumin, black pepper, and clove. Together they combine to feel like the olfactory version of human consummation. This is what sexy means in a fragrance to me. […]
I think it will be easy to try Nuwa and think it smells like other classic chypres because it does hearken back to the traditional forms that is an all too easy surface impression. If you have the opportunity to spend a few days with it I think you will find the genius on display is not in the broad strokes but in the shading in between. Nuwa is so powerful it is easy to miss these subtleties. Like the goddess it is named after it is what comes after the creation that makes life worth living. Nuwa is everything that makes me love fragrance all over again.
We can be the crazy ones together. I loved Nuwa as well, even if it bothers me deeply that I do. And I mean that. At the end of the day, it’s not the similarities so much as it is the similarities at that crazy, insane price. Nuwa costs $1,150, €990, or £750. The quality is there, no doubt about it. Nuwa is insanely over-the-top in its opulence. But, still, $1,150… I don’t even know where to begin.
Regular readers are aware of what I’ve actually termed “The Roja Dove Rule” for fragrances that have an astronomical price but incredibly quality: it all comes down to a highly subjective, personal valuation, since the quality cannot be denied. With Numa, the thing that I have the hardest time with is the voice in my head that tells me I’m being taken for a fool. Can quality really justify so much, especially given the similarities?
Nuwa’s similarly priced sibling in The Imperial Collection is Diaghilev. As my review makes clear, I admired its quality, but it did nothing for me. And, I snorted at its price. I wouldn’t have been tempted even if it were cheaper. But I’ve thought about Diaghilev a lot since I’ve tried Nuwa, and the analytical part of me that is sometimes a little too brutally honest wonders is there isn’t a subconscious sense of superiority involved in shrugging off such ludicrously priced fragrances?
Isn’t it a little of, “Well, I’m better for not falling for it?” Most of me doesn’t think so, because I genuinely mean it when I say that I wouldn’t buy Diaghilev if it were cheaper. At least, I think I mean it. I’m pretty certain that I do, but a part of me is now genuinely wondering. I really no longer know what to think. Nuwa has basically up-ended all my certainty, not to mention my feelings about both fragrances. How can I know how honest I’m really being with myself when the numbers are what they are?
With Nuwa, I muttered, “Damn you” a few times to an imaginary Roja Dove figure in my mind, and it wasn’t said happily because I know I would buy Nuwa in a heartbeat if I could and, more importantly, if I weren’t going to feel like a complete sucker immediately thereafter. No, I think that part may not be true, either. If money were no object, I’d buy Nuwa, and tell that (absolutely correct) voice in my head to shut the hell up!
A reader of the blog and a friend wrote a Fragrantica review for Diaghilev that essentially sums up how I feel about Nuwa, minus the fact that I haven’t succumbed to spending a whole week’s pay on the perfume:
i never EVER thought i would even contemplate spending a week’s pay on a bottle of perfume. i made the fateful step of trying this juice out the other day and over the course of the day this smell just got better & better & better. i was extremely sceptical of roja dove – tried several and thought “what’s this guy pulling here”, but with Diaghilev, i take it all back. this is just spectacular on every level. a chypre of such depth, elegance, balance, simply a perfect fragrance. i am not going to start with notes, as this is prodigiously complex; i will say that the rose middle is the finest i’ve ever smelled. the sillage is quite discrete but very solid, and longevity is where it should be for an 850 euro (!!!) parfum. […] it does embody everything i love about chypres in the end, i was seduced.
He was seduced against his will by Diaghilev. I love vintage Femme, and so it was Nuwa that did me in. To be precise, it was the smoky Russian leather and Black Gemstone twist to Femme, as well as Nuwa’s spectacular richness as a whole.
I don’t know what to say to the rest of you. I think that you should seek out a sample of Nuwa if you’re a lover of skanky chypres, vintage perfumes, Femme, Mitsouko, Jubilation 25, smoky fragrances like Black Gemstone, and/or very heavy, strongly classical fragrances. Do it solely for the opulence, and the sheer insanity of it all. However, do not go near Nuwa if you have the faintest issues with cumin. This has so much of it that Nuwa will be a cumin-phobe’s worst nightmare come true.
I keep saying that the “The Roja Dove Rule” comes down to how much each individual finally gives in, as longing overwhelms cold, hard, objective logic. I can’t afford Nuwa, but, if I could, resistance would be futile. In fact, I’m bitterly concluding that Roja Dove is a velvet-coated, ascot-wearing, perfume version of the Borg; he ends up assimilating all of us, sooner or later, even if only emotionally and in terms of lust. So, Nuwa has become my personal Waterloo. I shall throw my hands up in the air, go sit in the corner, and mutter curses. At myself, at Nuwa, at Roja Dove, and, most of all, at today’s insane perfume prices as a whole.