St. Clair Scents Casablanca: Sultry Darkness & Vintage Beauty

Casablanca vintage movie poster via Pinterest.

For people of a certain generation, “Casablanca” is a name which instantly evokes passion, longing, and romance. The famous Oscar-winning film starring Humphrey Bogart as “Rick” and the beautiful Ingrid Bergman as “Ilsa” was, on the surface, a war-time drama involving spies and Nazi resistance figures in Casablanca, Morocco, but it was ultimately a heartbreaking romance involving star-crossed lovers. “We’ll always have Paris,” Rick’s quiet words as he said goodbye to the woman he loved, a farewell full of sacrifice, tenderness, and yearning as she boarded a plan to leave, have become one of the most famous lines in movie history.

Photo, left: Casablanca movie still. Photo, right: Oer-Wout Photography. Collage: my own.

Casablanca movie still. Source: Pinterest.

Casablanca, the new fragrance from St. Clair Scents, was not originally created to reference the movie but it does a great job of evoking the same sultry, steaming, hot and dark elements that the film embodies. Wearing it, it’s not hard to imagine Rick holding Ilsa, except the surroundings are not a candlelit nightclub or a dark airplane tarmac, but an orchard filled with the scent of Moroccan orange blossoms and juicy oranges. The smell of tobacco and booze still cling to Rick’s tuxedo but so do dark, smoky trees and sticky, balsamic resins, while Ilsa’s pearly skin and swan-like neck are redolent of heady, fruity orange blossoms and lush, equally heady indolic jasmine.

Casablanca still & movie lines. Source: DearArt on Flickr. (Direct website link embedded within.)

The ground beneath their feet isn’t a tar-coated runway but darkly spiced earth covered with a thick green blanket of oakmoss, moss-skewing green tuberose, its bitter sap, and vetiver. The air is hot, humid and languid, narcotic with floral sensuality and sticky with the ripe, pulpy, sweet juices gushing down from the mandarin orange trees around them. Shadows fall upon the lovers’ pale faces, shadows made up of smoke, dark musky indoles, and softly growling animalics. Their final goodbye occurs in a blur of shadowed amber, spiced ylang cream, sweetness, woodiness, and a lingering bitter trace of soot-stained orange rind.

When you take Casablanca, the fragrance, as a whole, the lush white florals and bright fruits create a chiaroscuro effect, like rays of light and brightness in a black-and-white movie which has been given a sepia and orange overlay from age, while the olfactives are practically a metaphor for the passion, sensuality, sweetness, and sultry darkness which made the film so famous. It’s brilliantly and cleverly done on a technical basis, a further testament to Ms. St. Clair’s under-the-radar talent, and it is also one of my favourite fragrances that I’ve tried this year.

St. Clair Scents Casablanca, 30 ml pure parfum. Source: Diane St. Clair.

Casablanca was released today by St. Clair Scents and is a pure parfum with a whopping 50% concentration, a number which is even higher than many Profumum Roma extraits. On her website, Diane St. Clair describes the fragrance, its inspiration, its character, and its notes as follows:

I had been watching the snow fall outside of my window for three months, at times blowing horizontally on winds wailing down from the Polar Vortex.

I tried to conjure a way to transport myself to a place far away, a place with warm air and perfumed flowers and fruit—a garden in paradise with odors of mossy dirt, smooth woods with light green notes, and darker woods, sweating their rich, balsamic resins. In the evening, my garden would be bursting with intensely sweet orange blossoms, wafting their sultry notes of indole into the night air. Encircling that would be the intoxicating notes of meaty tuberose, with its sweet, long dry down. Juicy, tart notes of mandarin and grapefruit would brighten the mix as the animalic notes of slinking evening creatures mix with floral richness. I could smell a floral chypre, twisting towards oriental darkness, capturing the romantic, sexy chiaroscuro of my tropical oasis, another world from my barren, winter existence.

Top notes: Pink Grapefruit, Red mandarin, Black currant bud
Heart Notes: Orange Blossom, Tuberose, Jasmine Organic Extract, Ylang Ylang
Base Notes: Labdanum, Oakmoss, Vetiver, Hyraceum Absolute, Civet, Benzoin, Musk.

Photo: my own.

Casablanca opens on my skin with orange blossoms lying supine, lush, tumescent, and gleaming, their pearly ivory petals exposed like naked flesh to reveal the fullness of their floral heart. They lie beside fat orange orbs of fruit, split open to reveal their juicy pulpy flesh and dripping with their sweet juices and the fragrant, bitter oils of their rinds. The orange blossoms are heady — unbelievably heady — identical to the smell that hits me when I walk part my mother’s orange trees and I’m deluged with waves of their sweet, narcotic, sensual aroma, only the richness here is even more concentrated, as though a thousand flowers had been captured in a bottle. The intensity of the effect is probably due, in part, to the jasmine which initially lurks behind the orange blossom, as well as the juiciness of the mandarin which accentuates the orange blossom’s innate characteristics. The cumulative effect makes the floral bouquet feel, simultaneously, fresh, ripe, lusty, indolic, pulpy, sweet, and wholly naturalistic.

Source: vk.com

The flowers and fruit are only the beginning. A thick cloud of darkness envelops their pearlescence, a cloud made up of spices, indolic musk, smoke, spiced patchouli woodiness, and orange-infused cognac. Everything is so immediate (and so rich) that the nose darts from one element to the next, like a drunken bee darting between a bounty of olfactory treasure and unable to decide which one to settle upon. One minute, smooth cognac infused with bitter-sweet orange assails the senses; the next, it’s heavily spiced woodiness (from the patchouli), followed moments later by labdanum that skews leathery, tobacco-y, and treacly. I tried a few prior Casablanca mods and I know from discussion with Ms. St. Clair that it’s the particular sort of labdanum which she’s used here which mimics the facets of leather, tobacco, and even, on occasion, gunpowder and gunpowder smoke. So, if you’re expecting the usual caramel toffee that one typically finds with the note, you might be surprised at just how dark, woody, leathery, dry, and smoky it can be. For me, I find that it works perfectly, just perfectly, to counteract and counterbalance the sweetness, fruitiness, and femininity of the orange-orange blossom accord, turning it both more unisex and something much more sophisticated than the common fruity floral.

Photographer: Kindra Nikole. Source: her website kindranikole.com (Direct website link embedded within.)

Additional facets quickly pop up as Casablanca develops, although a few are very impressionistic in nature. There is a lovely bitter astringency that I initially chalked up to the orange rind but which, if I focus hard enough and close my eyes, just barely morphs into a bitter grapefruit note. To be precise, the bitter, biting, aromatic fragrancy of a pink grapefruit peel if you ran a knife through it and the tart, sour, bitter, fragrant oil squirted out all over you. Equally suggestive is the sense of waxy greenness — half bitter floral sap, half leafiness. I’m guessing it’s due largely to the tuberose which, in all that times that I’ve worn Casablanca, never appears as an actual floral note on my skin but, rather, as green sap or moss. For those of you who fear or despise tuberose because of fragrances like Fracas, let me assure you that there is nothing remotely approaching Fracas, Carnal Flower, or Moon Bloom on my skin, not an iota in the many months I’ve tried or tested this fragrance. Nothing reads as actual or heady tuberose on me; it’s primarily a green floral mossiness identical to the way that the tuberose operated in MAAI or Aeon 001.

Photo: Jimpix.co.uk

If the grapefruit and tuberose are impressionistic suggestions that mimic other aromas, the oakmoss chypre base is very real. Roughly 12-15 minutes in, it blooms in a beautifully expansive fashion, rolling out like a carpet of emerald and mahogany beneath the feet of the orange blossom trees. There is actual oakmoss, smelling faintly salty and woody, but also earthy, woody, and mossy vetiver, both of which lie over dark patchouli earth laden with the scent of cinnamon and clove. Given the steady gush of sticky orange juice and pulp onto the spiced “soil,” the effect might or could tip into Christmas territory if it weren’t for the opulent, heady lushness of the floralcy. To put it another way, there is too much else going on and the orange-spice elements have been carefully, judiciously, calibrated to ensure that they are tangential side notes which support the main players instead of detracting from them.

Source: Pinterest.

For what it’s worth, the same care has been used with the cognac booziness, indolic muskiness, and tobacco-leather-like elements at this stage: they’re unquestionably there, sometimes quite clearly so, but they’ve been proportioned in such a way vis-à-vis the other notes that they never overwhelm the senses; they simply plump up the key players, adding greater nuance, body, heft, and richness to the primary bouquet. If anything, after 35 minutes, the booze, musk, spiced patchouli woods and earth, the green floral sap, and the labdanum “leather” and “tobacco” all melt into the wave of chypre greenness which rises up to envelop the orange-orange blossom bouquet. To go back to Ms. St. Clair’s inspiration for the scent, the orange-orange blossom duo shines like a pearly, gleaming, glowing white-orange beacon amidst waves of emerald, black, and brown darkness. It’s beautiful, it’s compulsively sniffable, it’s sexy, and it’s damn sultry.

One of the many fascinating and interesting things about Casablanca is the way that it effortlessly traverses the spectrum of fruity floral, floral oriental, and chypre fragrance families, its notes and nuances seamlessly woven together with polish and great technical skill in order to create something highly atmospheric. I can detect all of Casablanca’s individual elements and, yet, somehow, they also dissolve to create a larger portrait, a rich olfactory landscape which one inhabits and feels rather than just assesses. It’s one of those fragrances whose complexity might be easy to overlook because it so easily melts into a wearable simplicity that is, paradoxically, less than its parts and more than them.

It’s difficult to explain, perhaps because Casablanca is such a paradoxical fragrance and such a prismatic shape-shifting one, but it’s almost more like an atmosphere and mood that envelops you than merely a series of raw materials mixed into a bottle. The fragrance sort of glows, vibrates, pulsates — sometimes broodingly so with its darkness, like Heathcliff sulking on the moors or Humphrey Bogart’s Rick in the early parts of Casablanca; sometimes lushly, sensuously, romantically, and headily, like Ingrid Bergman collapsing into his arms and saying “kiss me again;” and sometimes, just atmospherically, as though you were actually Diane St. Clair sitting at her kitchen table, looking out at the Polar Vortex snows outside and transported into a warm, extravagant floral garden radiating heat and sweetness amidst the dark night. It takes skill to create a fragrance that is so evocative, whose simplicity masks complexity, and whose effect goes beyond just a series of ingredients poured together in a bottle, a fragrance that somehow becomes more than the sum of its parts and becomes vibrantly alive.

Fashion photographer Bruno Dayan. Source: brunodayan.com (Direct website link embedded within.)

Casablanca shifts when its second stage begins roughly 65-75 minutes into its development and its notes realign themselves to create a different sort of darkness around its ivory-orange heart. The labdanum asserts itself, radiating serious, overt, and solid gusts of leather, charred woods, and gunpowder smoke. At the same time, the jasmine stops hiding behind the orange blossom and joins it with full force, wafting both syrupy and indolic overtones. It is a dark jasmine which, every once in a blue moon, has a grapey quality suggestive of the natural methyl anthranilate compound found in indolic white flowers but its main characteristic is lushness and fleshiness overlaid with darkness in a way which reminds me every now and then of the dark, fleshy, smoky, sensual, indolic, and slightly animalic jasmine in Serge Lutens‘ famous Sarrasins.

A 9 oz bottle of Vintage Bal à Versailles Parfum de Toilette I bought and own. Photo from my eBay seller: moltar227.

The passing Sarrasins thought might stem from the fact that Casablanca’s animalics awaken in the base at the end of the first hour and quickly seep upwards. There, they team with the indoles to create a quietly growling dark musk, one which is partly smoky, partly civet-y, partly camphorous, and partly furry. To be clear, it’s nothing like the civet-hyraceum accord one finds in Bogue’s MAAI, Masque’s Montecristo, Papillon’s Salome, and it’s certainly nowhere as intense, loud, dirty, skanky, or raunchy on my skin. No, a much closer fit would be the quietly radiating base one finds in vintage Bal à Versailles. To be specific, the early 1960s parfum and parfum de toilette versions.

In fact, Bal à Versailles came to mind a lot when I wore Casablanca, though it was not the only vintage classic to do so. Like Casablanca, Bal à Versailles’ beating heart consists of white florals (admittedly with rose as well), enveloped in a slew of chypre and oriental elements which include richly spiced patchouli, smoky woods, citrus fruits, oakmoss, vetiver, leathery labdanum, civet, indoles, and musky, softly growling animalic musk. The difference is that Casablanca is much darker, heavier, spicier, and more resinous on my skin. Significantly more resinous, in fact. Yet, even so, the two fragrances share an undeniable similarity in notes, feel, and vibe.

Vintage Indiscret parfum, circa 1935 or the 1940s. Photo: my own.

The same similarities call to mind another one of my all-time favourite vintage fragrances, Lucien Lelong’s Indiscret in its original 1930s pure parfum form (as opposed to the much less impressive cologne version in the “Jeannie” bottle from the 1950s and 1960s). Indiscret isn’t really animalic, though, which is a big point of difference since there is no denying that Casablanca purrs away from the end of the first hour onwards. It’s like having an orange and white tabby cat sitting on your chest, emitting full-throated happy rumblings and it’s a fantastic touch next to the pulpy mandarin, headily narcotic orange blossom, indolic jasmine, spiced earthy patchouli, tobacco-leather labdanum, gun powder smoke, indoles, cognac, and oakmoss-vetiver greenness.

Casablanca’s vintage feel is a big reason why it stole my heart. Even if it isn’t identical to Bal à Versailles or Indiscret, it habits their same universe, a very classical one which melds their chypre and white floral oriental genres with sumptuous richness. Remember, Casablanca is a 50% concentration. To put that number into context, a number of Puredistance and Areej Le Doré extraits are, from what I’ve read or been told, 32%, 30%, 28%, 25%, or thereabouts, and I would bet that many of the Roja Doves of the last few years are at those levels, too, because they feel lighter than the Areejs. So Casablanca, coming in at a massive 50% concentration, feels and wears very much like an old vintage parfum which has been reduced down over forty or fifty years to reach extravagant levels of richness. Yet, for all that, the fragrance never feels oppressively heavy in the scent cloud that wafts from my arm; it envelops me in a weightless (though extremely strong) cloud. It’s a different story, however, up close where 3 or 4 little squirts from a sample atomizer result in a bouquet which is as deep, dark, chewy, and hefty as some of my richest, most expensive vintage parfums from fifty or sixty years ago, maybe even more so.

It is difficult to chart Casablanca’s evolution after the opening hour with precision or accuracy because it is both what I call a “prismatic” scent (my highest praise) and a shape-shifter on my skin from one wearing to the next. The middle phase is the one which has the greatest variations and it lasts roughly from the start of the second hour until midway during the eighth hour, which is when the next stage begins.

Diaghilev. Source: Paris Gallery, UAE.

Casablanca radiates a number of different bouquets during its heart phase. Sometimes, the oakmoss, vetiver, leather, musky animalics, and resinous base notes pulsate with such vigor and such strength that they quite overshadow the orange, orange blossom, and jasmine heart, consequently resulting in a scent which reminds me strongly of Roja Dove‘s Diaghilev in its middle phase. Sometimes, however, the indolic fruity florals, patchouli, and animalics are the driving force, enveloped in a haze of dark labdanum amber, smoky woods, and resins, and I’m brought right back to vintage Bal à Versailles.

“Fall Vision,” Landscape Photography by Philippe Sainte-Laudy. Source: 500px.com. For sale at Houzz (direct website link embedded within.)

At other times, Casablanca wafts cinnamon-spiced mandarin fruit, patchouli, gunpowder, smoky woods, leather, amber, and dark, purring musk in a purely oriental mix which feels unlike anything else and which skews towards the masculine side. During the 4th hour, there is a sort of floral powderiness that sometimes appears in a few wearings when I smell my arm up close, as if the orange blossoms, fruited pulp, bitter rind, and spices had been ground up into powdered chunks. During the 6th hour, there is a plush, floral creaminess which pops up in the base, lying midway between expensive iris butter and airy spiced ylang custard, only it is textural more than a real, concrete, solid olfactory aroma. Those small tonalities happen often but everything else changes from one wearing from the next, and each time Casablanca follows its own path, heeding a siren’s call of its own making when it delves into the chypre and oriental worlds, tripping the light fantastic in the facets it wishes to reveal and the masculine/feminine gender divide it chooses to embrace.

Photographer Andrew Yee for How to Spend It Magazine. Source: Fashion Gone Rogue. (Direct website link embedded within.)

Every time I think I’ve figured out where Casablanca is heading, it changes course on me or doubles back, but all of it is a perfect chiaroscuro mix of brightness and darkness, sweetness and dryness, masculinity and femininity, a quasi-Impressionistic chypre landscape overlaid with a Rembrandt still-life of fruit bowls, flowers, leather, smoky darkness, and some sort of really modern, polished French Haute Couture perfumery. Man, this is a really, really well done fragrance. You can just tell how much time and work has gone into this incessant interplay and its carefully calibrated balances.

One thing I thought about while wearing Casablanca is the fact that fragrances with a high percentage of naturals (which can often have hundreds more molecules than aromachemicals) are much more likely to be prismatic chameleons than fragrances which are mostly composed of comparatively more one-dimensional synthetics, but I think it’s a testament to Ms. St. Clair’s technical skill that Casablanca shifts its gears so smoothly, effortlessly, and silently. On my skin, there is such a seamless quality to the scent and its notes — and that is much, much harder to achieve than you might realize when dealing with such dark, heavy, base materials and when said materials are used in such huge percentages as well.

In lesser hands, Casablanca might have ended up as a simplistic, unbalanced fruity floral with patchouli and amber, or a leathered amber with gunpowder smoke, gooey orange, and just a strangled whiff of impressionistic floralcy and neo-chypre greenness, or each of the strong base notes could easily have suffocated the others. Instead, they all work so beautifully and harmoniously here, playing off of each other, accentuating innate individual characteristics while also adding further details to the overall picture.

Having said that, however, I think it’s important to add that shape-shifters with a high degree of naturals and dark base materials can be quite dependent on individual skin chemistry in the facets or proportions that they emphasize. So I could see Casablanca tipping into either very dark masculine territory or very indolic, feminine floral territory on some people, namely those whose skin either massively amplifies or eats through wood-tobacco-leather base notes, animalics, or dark musk.

As I mentioned, Casablanca is a prismatic shape-shifter on me during its middle stage but it frequently lands in the same place when the 7th hour rolls around. The leather, gunpowder smoke, dark musk, and patchouli spiced woods soften, turning into a haze of darkness which stains the sides of the floral-fruity heart. The latter now smells just as much jasmine as orange blossom on my skin, but both flowers are increasingly blurry, much like everything else, and turning into a big generic swathe of indolic, white floral sweetness dominated by ripe, sensual, indolic, and ambered slashes. Big chunks of bitter, sweet, and aromatic orange rind lie on top of the white petals, but they’re now sooty with smoke, dry with singed woods, and spiced with earthy-woody patchouli. To the side, lies a soft, indeterminate expanse of greenness, now composed of far, far more vetiver than oakmoss. The animalics have retreated to the background, a small furry feline lick which is quietly felt rather than smelled as a strong, clear presence in its own right.

Photo: my own.

The bouquet is lighter now, less dense in body and weight, as well as quieter on the skin. The net-effect is a jasmine-driven white floral oriental which is sultry, romantic, and slightly, ever so slightly, Sarransins-esque, though I want to emphasize that the scent is not dirty, skanky, or sexualized. (I swear, no “Ho’ Panties” or BWF filth. I know some of you view indolic white florals as strong candidates to fall into “Ho’ Panties” territory, but it’s nothing like that on my skin.)

Photo: Oer-Wout Photography (Direct website link embedded within.)

Sometimes Casablanca stays that way as it slowly ambles towards its drydown, but sometimes the shape-shifter pivots in the 8th hour and emphasizes a very different bouquet, one dominated by charred woods, smoke, leather, spiced patchouli earth, and amber resins, always inlaid with orange peel and orange pulp. Whereas once I envisioned a lush floral conservatory or an orange orchard in bloom, now the visuals are that of a dark forest, licked by flames on the side to char the wood, which is then generously sprinkled with clove and cinnamon spice, coated in orange juice, splattered with floral (jasmine) syrup, and set upon a softly smoky green vetiver base. The background is marked by dancing puffs of spicy floral powder, sweet ylang floral custard, and a more toffee’d-caramel mélange of benzoin and labdanum.

This marks the first appearance of the benzoin on my skin and its sweeter, caramelish overtones go a long way towards counterbalancing the masculine, tobacco-y, leathery, dry, and smoky refrains of the leather. Since the orange blossoms, jasmine, and overall floralcy have been cut in half, its appearance is timely because it keeps the masculine-skewing dark base notes in balanced alignment. Or, to put it another way, just because the florals are weaker now, that doesn’t mean the more masculine elements are out of control; Ms. St. Clair seems to go out of her way to keep her proportions and ratios in check to such a way that the masculine and feminine elements are always carefully balanced. Yes, this is a much darker twist on the floral oriental genre than you might find with anything in the mainstream world, but it seems clear that Ms. St. Clair has tried to maintain the unisex balance even when the dark, heavy, oriental base notes take over.

Photo by Mike VanDeWalker on Flickr. (Direct website link embedded within.)

Casablanca’s long drydown typically begins during the middle of the 10th hour and consists of two parts. It’s one of the few times this shape-shifter is consistent in terms of how it smells on me. During the first half, the bouquet is completely transformed by the ylang-ylang which coats everything in thick, generous swathes of floral cream that is simultaneously vanillic and spicy. It’s a major feature of the scent and I find it absolutely beautiful, particularly in conjunction with the spiced woodiness (from the patchouli) which runs under it. A light dose of floral syrup is swirled into the ylang cream, and it sometimes smells of jasmine but it’s mostly an indeterminate sweet floralcy. This central core of floral syrup, spiced vanilla floral cream, and spiced woodiness is then sprinkled with chunks of cinnamon-spiced orange peel, before the whole thing is enveloped in a soft, snuggly, golden haze of amber composed of dark, musky toffee’d labdanum, the more caramel-scented tonalities of benzoin, and a few licks of smoke. It’s a delectable, inviting bouquet which I find to be compulsively sniffable.

Every now and then, the notes realign in another way, one which reminds me of an orange-ylang Fanta creamsicle. The difference is this one is bifurcated by a big stick of spiced patchouli woodiness, then drizzled with floral syrup and sticky toffee’d resins. It’s not as sweet as the Fanta comparison might lead you to imagine. Casablanca’s woods are still dry and there are still lingering traces of smoke to keep things in check.

“Chocolate Sky” by Silvia Hartmann. (Direct website link embedded within.)

The second and final part of Casablanca’s drydown usually starts around the 14th hour on my skin. It’s a simple bouquet that is dry, sweet, woody, orange-y, and quietly spiced, with traces of cream and amber subsumed within. Those eventually fall away, leaving behind only a dry sweetness with an occasional hint of spiced orange at its edges.

Casablanca had average sillage, low projection, and excellent longevity. It basically performs like many extraits with a high concentration level, but I found the numbers were better when I sprayed from the sample atomizer rather than dabbing on from a vial, even if I used approximately the same quantity of fragrance. In most of my tests, I applied about 3 or 4 squirts from the atomizer, which I’d estimate was equal to 2 large sprays from an actual bottle. With that amount, Casablanca opened with about 3 inches of projection and 6 inches of sillage which quickly grew to about 8-10 inches after 12-15 minutes. The scent cloud grew softer after 90 minutes and shrank back to around 6-7 inches, then dropped again after 3.75 hours to about 4 inches. The aroma of the bouquet, however, remained strong, rich, deep, and powerful up close. Casablanca turned into a skin scent 10.25 hours into its development, although it was easy to detect without any effort if I brought my nose to my arm until the 14th hour. In total, it lasted just under 21 hours on me. With a dabbed vial application, Casablanca’s sillage was much softer, it turned into a skin scent after 8.25 hours, and it lasted between 17 and 18 hours. As a side note, it lasts for days and days on fabric and leaves a gorgeous aroma.

Changing topics, Ms. St. Clair just repackaged her fragrances, now offering a 30 ml size in addition to the original 13 ml bottles. In addition, you can now buy an individual 2 ml atomizer sample of the fragrances, including the original trio, while the Sample Set (in 1 ml dab vials) has been expanded to include the new Casablanca. Pricing information is listed in the Details section at the end.

New St. Clair packaging: left, Casablanca parfum in the new 30 ml bottle; right, 2 ml sample atomizers. Collage: my own. Original photos: Diane St. Clair.

I haven’t spoken much about Casablanca, the movie, during my olfactory description of  the scent but I want to circle back to it in my final paragraphs. Even if the fragrance was inspired by different factors, I think its name and the movie it indirectly references is the perfect evocation of its character: dark, sultry, sensuous, a little brooding but ultimately romantic, as well as vintage, elegant, polished, and atmospheric. At its heart, the scent is both timeless and vintage in feel, much like the movie itself, which still holds up if you watch it with modern eyes. From a technical perspective, its interplay demonstrates the same shadows and light that provide texture and nuance to an old black and white film, except this one is stained orange, brown, and green with age instead of the usual sepia.

What strikes me more than the movie parallels is how the fragrance subtly, quietly nods at the greats which came before it, something which points to both perfume knowledge and the care with which Casablanca has been constructed. It takes the classical chypre tradition which started with Francois Coty‘s 1917 Chypre and Guerlain‘s 1919 Mitsouko, changes the fruits to emphasize orange instead of peach or bergamot, and grafts onto it oriental elements just as Lucien Lelong did in 1935 with his Indiscret (which was created by Jean Carles, the nose behind Shocking, Ma Griffe, Miss Dior, and Tabu, and which was the beloved signature scent of Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart’s wife). To that chypre-oriental hybrid core, Ms. St. Clair then adds dark, musky animalics to create the same sort of sultry, sexy, and sophisticated darkness that made Bal à Versailles (1962) such a floriental showstopper and hit.

I know from personal correspondence that Ms. St. Clair has tried a number of these fragrances, but what she’s created is by no means a copy. Not at all. Instead, she’s taken detailed perfume knowledge of the great legends and given them an updated and highly personalized twist which speaks to her own brand ethos and love of naturalism. For all that I might see Casablanca the movie in the fragrance, it could just as easily evoke the escapist dreams which she and so many of us have on icy winter nights, a fantasy of a hot, sultry, lush, and fragrant garden whose glowing flowers shine like beacons of light amidst the darkness.

There is so much love behind all this, both love of classical Haute Perfumery and loving care to make Casablanca just right. So many big brands just spew out releases every few months, like a factory assembly line, but Casablanca went through multiple mods over a long period of time as Ms. St. Clair sought to iron out every wrinkle, every sharp or overly aggressive dark edge, and every minor imbalance. She changed a number of the base materials and even their grade; she changed the ratios, numerous times over, in order to highlight as many nuances as she could, and then she still kept on refining the final formula to make sure that there was a seamless interplay and balance. After all that was done, then she played with multiple concentration levels in order to create the best and truest representation of her inspiration. During the year-long process, she went way over budget in terms of cost, because she was buying the highest quality materials she could access and going through them at a high rate. But still, she persisted, intent on creating the very best fragrance she could, all while simultaneously running an active dairy farm and also making the most expensive, sought-after butter in the world on a weekly basis. If that isn’t love — an authentic, heartfelt, passionate love of perfumery regardless of the challenges or cost — then I don’t know what is.

The end result is a perfect example of why people should seek out tiny artisanal or indie brands: Casablanca is a beautifully and carefully constructed scent, with great character and complexity, made with top-notch luxury ingredients, all of which have been presented here with extravagant richness at a 50% concentration and with so much heart.

Casablanca is, unquestionably, one of my favourite things that I’ve tried this year and I think it is one of the best new releases of 2018.

Disclosure: My samples were provided by Diane St. Clair. That did not impact this review. I do not do paid reviews, and my opinions are my own.

DETAILS:
Cost & Availability: Casablanca is a pure parfum and is exclusive to St. Clair Scents at this time. It comes in a variety of sizes: the new 30 ml size costs $190 but there is also a 13 ml bottle for $95. You can test the fragrance via a solo sample in a 2 ml atomizer for $15, or try all four St. Clair fragrances in a Sample Set, each in 1 ml dab vials, for $25. International shipping is offered for the EU and other overseas regions. At the time of this post, there is free shipping on all samples (1 mls and 2 mls) within the U.S.

32 thoughts on “St. Clair Scents Casablanca: Sultry Darkness & Vintage Beauty

  1. I’m sold!! Just bought this one blind thanks to your rapturous review (and the mentions of Mitsouko, Diaghilev, and BaV didn’t hurt, either). Cannot wait to get my grubby mitts on Casablanca!

    • Please let me know how it goes, because I’m a little nervous over you blind buying after the EO No 2 was so masculine and animalic on your skin. Actually, to be honest, I’m always nervous about ANYONE blind-buying anything! Lol. What did you get, the 2 ml or the 13 ml?

      • Please don’t worry! My husband loves the EO No 2, so everything worked out fine. Also, I have the distinct feeling that this one will be a big love for me. Plus, I bought the 13 ml. so, it wasn’t like breaking the bank. I’ll let you know what I think when it arrives. Thank you again for the gorgeous review–I would never have known about this perfumer without it.

  2. Dear Kafka, thank you for this glorious review! I wasn’t as moved by the first three fragrances from St Clair as I’d hoped for, although they’re all very well made, especially when considering they’re from a self-taught perfumer from an indie/artisan house. When following Ms. St Clair’s instagram, I had the impression that she’s very knowledgable and passionate about vintage fragrances, and I was wondering if she’d do a vintage style perfume one day. And now reading your review, Casablanca seems to be this special thing, and all the comparisons with classic chypre and animalic floral sound right up my alley! A sample is on its way, and I can’t wait to discover this beauty myself! I also like the sleek design of her new packaging, and it’s really nice of her to still keep the 13ml option open.

  3. I just blind bought the 13 ml size too, because your description of this fragrance sounds exactly like what I would love (oh yes!), and because I greatly admire Diane St. Clair, her dedication to what she loves, and her love of animals.

    • This is so, so beautiful. It’s like a vast fine art museum that one could spend a month in, and never see or absorb all it has to offer. For me anyway, with my limited and often stuffy nose. So I’ll do the best I can, and thoroughly enjoy it. Thanks so much for the lovely review, and for telling us about lady Diane’s accomplishments. She’s awesome, I wish I knew someone like her.

        • Thank you for your kind words. I wanted to tell you that I noticed a gorgeous, robust fragrance as I was driving home this afternoon, and again later. Some of the Casablanca I was wearing yesterday transferred to the seat belt strap from my chest, and from the strap to the shirt I’m wearing today. Powerful stuff! I’m tickled pink.

      • Holly, my dear, Ms. St. Claire’s was really touched by your comment and she loved the “vast fine museum” description so much. She wanted me to tell you that, but to also ask if she could have your permission to share your words on social media. Attributed to you and quoting you. But only if you don’t mind and give consent. Either way, she wanted me to thank you on her behalf for loving her perfumed child. It means a lot to her.

        • That’s OK with me, I’m happy to help. And thank you for relating Ms. St. Clair’s thanks, I’m glad she’s encouraged by how much we are enjoying her marvelous creation. I was thinking of the Louvre; perhaps I will get to visit there again someday, and wear Casablanca when I do!

  4. Too WONDERFUL to walk away from. Beloved Kafka, (please excuse my crude words in advance) I love it when you LOVE a fragrance and go positively “ape shit” in your review of it! (As only you are able to, Beloved Kafka!!!) I’m off to purchase a sample, and will probably get some decent wear time for the winter; that is, until the humidity returns to the steam bath I dwell in known as Florida! Casablanca sounds like a dream come true! I’ve never quite forgiven the IRFA for prohibiting my old friend and “scented life-companion”, Oakmoss! Thank You for such a delightful review! The Happiest of Holidays to you and your Hairy Overlord! 😉

    • Sweet Mother Mary!!! It’s PHENOMENAL!!! This…is…a…perfume!!! And I thought I’d never smell anything this FANTASTIC ever again!!!

      • Dear Anastasia, Diane St. Clair loved your passionately heartfelt, emotional, and sweetly funny reaction to her fragrance. She wanted me to tell you that, but to also ask if she could have your permission to share your words on social media. Attributed to you and quoting you. But only if you don’t mind and give consent. Either way, she wanted me to convey her deep thanks for your touching, emotional response and to tell you that it brought a big smile to her face. (As it did to mine.)

        • Not as big of a smile as Casablanca brought to my face!!! I can’t stop wearing it!!! I put one spray on and enjoy it all day long!!! When my 2ml sample is gone, I’m ordering the 30ml bottle! I hope it will last until after Christmas, otherwise, I’ll have to pull an Ebenezer Scrooge (albeit, a Scrooge enveloped in a cloud of Heaven!)
          Yes, I’d be happy for Ms. St. Clair to quote me!!! Cut and paste straight to her website if it helps!!! I would love to be a small part of bringing this Masterpiece to those of us, who dearly miss our Chypre Florals, and our beloved oakmoss! <3 😀
          All the best to you Kafka! Wishing you, Diane, the Hairy German, and the cows, the Happiest of Holidays!

  5. Ufffffff, wanttttttttttt!
    I remember you teasing about it on Twitter and I was so intrigued!
    On a sidenote, I don’t think I’ve commented on any other of your St Clair posts, but I have them bookmarked. What a woman.

  6. I think I’ll purchase the 2ml just for the sheer pleasure at smelling what a true gem this sounds it is. Quite impressed by your review, especially if it is on your 2018 favourites list. I am looking forward to this year’s list. I know this year was not the best for new releases but I think most of your followers are on the same page when it comes to our likes and dislikes. Thanks K as always for your wonderful reviews and the time you take in conveying what you smell and passing it on to us! Don

        • Considering the lack of….and you’ve been busy with the German’s health, you need a break from those reviews. If you don’t post anything until 2019, I wish you a happy and healthy 2019 my dear K. I.always say this ad nauseum: thank you from your devoted followers for always putting so much into your posts. If it wasn’t for you I’d never discovered, learned about and found so many amazing niche brands & their fragrances. Cheers.
          Don☺

  7. Notch up another 13 ml blind buy … can’t wait to try it!

    I’m especially interested in the effects of that 50% concentration; I love the silky heaviness of the Areej le Doré line, and if those are only in the 30% ballpark … !!

    Will report back after extensive testing (or possibly just dousing myself with the whole bottle). 🙂

  8. Cannot get the image of the drunken bee out of my head. Thanks for the review! I can’t wait to receive the sample of this intriguing perfume that I just ordered. Have a lovely day.

  9. Hi!
    This is slightly off-topic (well, quite off-topic, really), but I didn’t know where else to post, and seeing as this is your most recent post, I figured it just almost made sense.
    To much delight, I discovered your blog earlier this year whilst looking for reviews of Fracas, and since then have been enjoying it thoroughly (to which: thank you! How beautifully you write, and how you’ve made me so deeply interested in something I’d only ever been marginally interested in) and have been dipping my toes into the world of fragrance. As such, I’ve lately become very curious about Guerlain’s Mitsouko, and was wondering if you might consider reviewing it? (If you’ve done so already, do you think you might share the link? I’ve been unable to find it).
    Anyhow, thank you so much for all you do, it’s truly a pleasure reading you!
    – Oli

  10. She had me at floral chypre, you had me at vintage and oak moss base. Much respect to Ms. St. Clair for her passion and attention to detail, her perseverance and insistence on quality. 30 ml. blind buy done. I know I won’t regret it!

    Not a note in your review gave me pause.

  11. While I had already planned on purchasing a sample because I adore Diane’s work (and have worn First Cut since its release) your review sealed the deal. Now I am saving my pennies for the 30ml bottle. Oddly enough Casablanca reminds me of SSS Jour Ensoleille (which for me is a good thing because with the closure of Sonoma Scent Studio last year there is no more of my precious). Your nose is much better than mine so I am sure you would disagree. Nonetheless, Diane is a perfumer to watch as I think she will do many more great things. Thank you for this beautiful review, Kafka. Hope all is well.

      • oh yes, I believe it was last January. She sold out her remaining stock. Tabac Aurea was one of the first to go as it was extraordinarily popular. I bought the very last of her offerings – travel sprays of Amber Incense. At one point someone was interested in buying the business but that deal fell through. Such a shame to lose such a talented perfumer and great artisanal line.

  12. Thank you, dear Kafkaesque, for writing this beautiful review. I have just received my 13ml of Casablanca and it is a real beauty. It is a fragrance that reserves a lot of happiness to the wearer. A splendor (in the grass) and I measure my words.

  13. A splendor (in the grass). A true splendor. Thank you Kafkaesque for writing about Casablanca. Thanks to you, we can discover amazing fragrances. This one is a real piece of art and it gives me happiness.

  14. I held your review of Casablanca in my email folder until my little decant arrived. This morning I sat down with my coffee, opened your review and sprayed two sprays to my wrist so I could read and sniff at the same time. (my favorite way to read your reviews)
    I think I might have actually squealed!! And then I gasped! Oh my gosh, what gorgeousness!! Casablanca is achingly beautiful. Just when I think that the tuberose cannot become any lovelier, a new cascade of flavors emerge. I slowly read your review and once again marveled at your ability to describe indescribable beauty. I bought the full bottle immediately. Thank you for writing this. Your words do this stunning perfume great justice.

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