dimanche 8 juin 2008

A Tale of Three Myrrhs

Although it has been used in perfumery since Ancient Egypt, myrrh hasn’t played much of a role in classic perfumery, and is seldom a star ingredient in contemporary compositions, though it plays a supporting role in some orientals, notably Opium. Guy Robert doesn’t include it in his list of “essentials” (Les Sens du Parfum, éditions Eyrolles); neither does Jean-Claude Ellena (Que Sais-Je : Le Parfum, PUF).

Myrrh is a complex and fascinating ingredient, with facets of pine resin (pinene), citrus (limonene), cinnamon (cinnamaldehyde), cumin (cuminaldehyde) and clove (eugenol). However, it is particularly difficult to handle as it is very tenacious but not very volatile, which means it significantly alters compositions but doesn’t give off much sillage. Because of this, it seems that the only perfumers to take an interest in it are those who want to stray from the path of classic perfumery, to explore its oriental, archaeological roots.

L’Eau Trois by Diptyque: the smell of the Mediterranean seaside

In 1975, Diptyque launched L’Eau Trois, a scent inspired by the smells of the mountains of Northern Greece: myrrh is married to the resinous and spicy accords of myrtle, cistus (from which labdanum, a vegetal substitute of amber, is extracted), pine, laurel, oregano, thyme and rosemary. If the Atlantic coast smells of the sea, the Mediterranean coast smells of the earth… With its gasoline top note and powerfully balsamic accords, L’Eau Trois captures the combustible smells of the overheated garrigue, where you feel that just by striking a match you could set whole hills ablaze. This is myrrh set in Nature, a raspy, slightly medicinal anti-perfume, as salubrious as an ancient potion.
Update: At the time of writing, I hadn't realized that L'Eau Trois was among the fragrances to be discontinued by Diptyque. Which is a shame. Apologies to anyone who was tempted to sample it.

La Myrrhe by Serge Lutens: a post-modern N°5

Ironically, when Serge Lutens the Orientalist tackles myrrh, it is to strip it from its exotic connotation. Though he explicitly refers in interviews to the myth of Myrrha – the red colour of the fragrance is meant to evoke the tears of the incestuous daughter changed into a tree by compassionate gods – Lutens modernizes the note by a massive injection of mandarin aldehydes. Their juiciness emphasizes myrrh’s citrus-like compound and refreshes its balsamic facet: the aldehydic frost lifts it and makes it shimmer under the aldehydic frost. Sandalwood, amber and a beeswax base warm up the base notes of this unexpected composition, creating an almost gustatory contrast with its anise notes. A very great Lutens-Sheldrake fragrance, perhaps one of the most stunning of the collection, precisely because it confounds our expectations: where we expected Oriental splendour, we get a post-modern rewrite of Chanel N°5…

Myrrhe Ardente by Annick Goutal: edible smoke

Annick Goutal’s Myrrhe Ardente, one of the three original Les Orientalistes fragrances (a fourth, Musc Nomade, has recently been added), refers more explicitly to the roots of myrrh as a mystical substance: with Ambre Fétiche (gold) and Encens Flamboyant (frankincense), it is one of the three gifts borne by the Wise Men to the child Jesus. In the gift box of three parfums launched for Christmas, the first letter of each name is reproduced to form the word “AME” (French for “soul”), further underlining the intention of the collection.
In Myrrhe Ardente, myrrh’s spicy, resinous odour is softened with the suave hay notes of the Tonka bean and vanilla-y benzoin, on a slightly animalic honey base. Its anise-y, sweet top notes give it a rounded, candy-like quality. The drydown unveils a slightly smoky, woody, incense-laced base common to all the Orientalistes.
Of the four fragrances of this remarkably well-balanced, attractive collection, Myrrhe Ardente is undoubtedly the most solar, playful and, to my mind, the most interesting.

Thanks to Octavian Sever Coifan (1000fragrances) who made me smell myrrh resin and explained the use of myrrh in perfumery.

Image: Théodore Chassériau, Tépidarium (1853), Musée d’Orsay.

10 commentaires:

  1. Incense, spices, smoke, musk, this is where European fragrances pale in comparison to actual Arabian/Oriental perfumes.

    So much time worshipping bland fragrances, so many masterpieces that will remain unknown here...

  2. Hi, Le Critique, and welcome !
    I wouldn't consider La Myrrhe bland, far from it: it's actually a very interesting encounter of Middle-Eastern and Western perfumery traditions.
    I did briefly explore the theme while in Beirut, but I don't feel I have enough of a handle on it to write about it: oil-based fragrances have quite a different development. A trip to Al-Kuraishi and the Arabian Oud Company is certainly in order, though I'm know there are a lot of other perfumers to discover...

  3. I meant "I'm sure"... Late here in Paris, isn't it?

  4. Thanks for the warm welcome! I finally planned a trip to this posh Arabian Oud boutique in Paris as soon as THIS week, I just can't wait!

    What strikes me about La Myrrhe and the whole Orientalistes bunch is their boring coldness. I mean from Passage d'Enfer to Vanille 44, been there done that!

    This collection should be called "They Wish They Were Orientalistes" or "They Were Orientalistes But Now They Are Just Lazy Snobs" dammit!

  5. About the Annick Goutal Les Orientalistes collection, I beg to differ. The "Orientalistes" label refers to a school of Western painting, after all: it's a European vision/reinterpretation of Oriental themes, not a pretence of being an authentic representation. And it fits well into the discreetly elegantly Goutal aesthetics. Which, of course, one is allowed not to like.

  6. They definitely fit Goutal aesthetics, that's for sure...

    Passe une belle journée! ;-)

  7. Fascinant !

    I love to hear both your points de vue ....

    There is a vastly different nature in the Arabian scents.

    My DH, an Englishman by birth and upbringing, has a visceral response to my Madini oils [ which are not self-effacing, I must say !]...
    Which puzzles me- because I find them unctuously marvellous.

    I enjoy your writing !
    Mille bisous...

  8. Dear I., my English ex-boyfriend spent a good long time with the Madini oils, tried them on and had quite a bit to say about them (can't remember the comments, sadly -- he *is* an ex). The Brits are a surprising bunch! I must say that I haven't revisited the Madini oils for quite awhile now. Should remedy that.

  9. Salut!

    I'm loving these posts of yours. Western perfumery -- the labcoats, if you will -- has taken, in most cases, the linear Arabian tradition and abstracts from it those facets that speak to our own -- Western -- scent-memory.

    La Myrrhe is a difficult, wonderful perfume. L'Eau Trois is a winter favorite of mine -- it captures myrrh much better than Diptyque's own Myrrhe roomspray.


  10. Thanks, C.
    As I've said above, I'm not at all familiar with traditional Arabic perfumery, but I find these hybrid compositions quite compelling -- not least of all, probably, because I feel I understand them. La Myrrhe is indeed a difficult scent: it took me over 10 years to fully appreciate it. I've owned a bottle since it came out and have only started to wear it recently!