Vanilla-centric scents were never something I could get particularly worked up about. I may want to offer myself up at dessert when the mood strikes; I don’t want to smell of it. Which is why the vanilla-clastic compositions that surfaced last year (Vanille Galante, Felanilla and Havana Vanilla) delighted me by their off-kilter take on the pod. And Bertrand Duchaufour’s Havana Vanille delights me particularly because it reminds me of something I’d much rather wrap my lips around after dinner than a spoonful of vanilla ice cream…
A good cigar.
If you’re going to build a scent around vanilla, Havana’s a logical place to go – especially if you’re working within a collection based on exotic olfactory journeys, in this case L’Artisan Parfumeur’s “Voyages” series. Apart from the geographical angle (vanilla planifolia is a Mesoamerican plant), “vanilla” and “Havana” echo each other both on the phonetic and olfactory levels. To put it plainly, the vanilla pod does have a tobacco – and thus, a Havana cigar – aspect. And that’s what Bertrand Duchaufour has chosen to underline, among other things, down to the slight vegetal mustiness of cured tobacco leaves.
The result is what he calls a “wickedly pod” vanilla, gustatory rather than gourmand, stretched out into its less familiar facets: leathery, animalic, smoky, woody/ambery and even medicinal notes.
Like Jean-Claude Ellena’s, his former colleague at Symrise, Bertrand Duchaufour’s compositions are not only impeccably intelligent perfumes, but a reflection on the art of perfumery – in this case, exploring vanilla as though it were a strange new material, and deducing its place on the scent-map. He builds his fragrance from materials that echo each other: each one is strictly necessary, and each one speaks, not only of the fragrance itself (to create its effect) but of what perfume can say and of the way it can say it. The structure of Bertrand Duchaufour's compositions is legible but paradoxically, it is this very legibility that makes them so mysterious.
In Havana Vanille, the actual vanilla acts as the core noun of a paradigm: its adjectives (animalic, ambery, balsamic, woody, spicy…) are picked up and amplified by the other materials, to form a second, decomposed and recomposed vanilla around the core; an olfactory illusion sheathing the real thing; a space in which the notes resonate, carried by musk. Havana Vanille is a perfume that breathes.
Though Havana Vanille’s rum cocktail opening could trick you into believing you’ve just bumped into a relative of Jean-Paul Guerlain’s boozy Spiritueuse Double Vanille, it morphs before you can mutter “been there, done that”. In fact, the shot of rum is so fleeting it acts more as a hook, a teasing allusion to the Cuban theme than a motif. But the rum – reinforced by orange and davana – does introduce vanilla through its woody/phenolic aspect (rum is aged in oak casks, hence its vanillic flavor). Blended with immortelle, it also conjures the amber and warm spices of the pod.
Then Havana Vanille gets down to the heart of the matter: vanilla and its tonka bean-immortelle-narcissus double.
The dominant, balsamic character of vanilla is reinforced by tonka bean and immortelle. Its animalic, tobacco/honey/hay facet is drawn out by both tonka bean and narcissus (LMR Narcisse d’Auvergne absolue, also used by Anne Flipo in L’Artisan’s Fleur de Narcisse 2006 and Mathilde Laurent’s La Treizième Heure). The material itself doesn’t smell much like the actual flower and Bertrand Duchaufour uses for its intrinsic qualities (its olfactory adjectives, as it were) rather than to represent narcissus. The narcissus absolute is what imparts the vegetal, freshly cured tobacco-leaf note that picks up on the green aspect of the vanilla pod.
This tightly-woven vanilla story is what plays out on skin and stays pretty close to it. The sillage, however, expands Havana Vanille into a huge, sensuous cocoon, both powdery and slightly resinous, which Bertrand Duchaufour calls “the dark side of the musk”. Try this experiment: wear the scent in a room for a while then leave it. When you come back, the trail you’ll have left won’t be quite what you smell on your skin. The musks – a blend of clean and dirty, with a bit more emphasis on the dirty – are what give the fragrance its volume, its movement, its follow-me-young-man wake.
But if Havana Vanille is a thinking woman’s (or man’s) vanilla because of the new light it sheds on the genre, make no mistake: it’s also a sultry, Carmen-rolling-cigars-on-her-thighs sort of a scent, appealing on a gut level. Is it useful at this point to mention that the very word “vanilla” comes from the Latin for “sheath”, vaina? I’ll let you add that missing letter – the erotic subtext is also part of vanilla’s appeal when you shake it out of the cupcake.
Since he’s left Symrise to set up on his own as perfumer-in-residence at L’Artisan (he also works with other houses), Bertrand Duchaufour’s work has been getting more hands-on both in the literal (working at arm’s-length from his vials) and metaphorical sense: as though he were engaging more sensuously with his materials. His three latest compositions – L’Artisan’s Havana Vanille and Al Oudh as well as Penhaligon’s Amaranthine—venture into more skin-loving notes and have, as a result, become easier to inhabit for those of us who found some of his earlier work a little too challenging to truly embrace. Perhaps, at this point in his career, and with the recognition he’s getting – Bertrand Duchaufour is undeniably one of the best perfumers of his generation – he feels free enough to play around with outrightly carnal notes, whether ylang-ylang, cumin, civet… Or just plain vanilla, a cliché if there ever was one. He can afford to.
In fact, there’s one L’Artisan coming out this spring that’s frankly… intense. And I’ve been wearing it intensively when I’m not giving in to Havana Vanille.
Resistance is (or will be) futile. But for now, my lips are sealed.
Picture by Helmut Newton.
You are such a dreadful tease, you coquette! ;-)RépondreSupprimer
Enquiring minds need the full S.P., donchaknow?
Lovely review, Denyse. I do like this idea of exploring a central material by almost "exploding" out certain facets and notes inherent within it. I've only tested Havane Vanille on paper, and clearly need to give this one the attention it deserves on skin.RépondreSupprimer
And of course, I'm dying of curiosity to know what the next composition in the pipeline is...
Lee, I swear I don't know what you mean... ;-) I thought I was writing in the French intellectual mode! Wasn't I?RépondreSupprimer
Jarvis, this composition method is pretty much THE modern style, as defined by Ellena and Duchaufour. And, yes, you really need to give it your full attention.RépondreSupprimer
Denyse: Yes, I do have a certain affinity for this approach, and certainly love JCE's work as well. As an approach, it has a bit of a deconstructionist flavour to it, I suppose. Interesting to experience that, as a material, "vanilla" had both "Vanille Galante" and "Havane Vanille" hiding within it...RépondreSupprimer
I'm also fascinated by this process in terms of when the notes that brought out are included by the perfumer because of some shared aspect of the scent itself (a shared "greenness", say, or "muskiness" or "spiciness" inherent to the smell as a purely olfactive experience), vs. when their presence is brought about through allusion (scent as sign)...
Jarvis, you could say both approaches are present here. Vanilla associated to narcissus and tonka can thus become the sign of a cigar without actually smelling like one.RépondreSupprimer
The use of a material not as representation, but for its "adjectives", is, again, typical of the contemporary manner, which we could well call deconstructionist (and then get flamed by Camille Paglia).
Uhoh. Does Camille read the perfume blogs? :-)RépondreSupprimer
Jarvis, one sincerely hopes not, but maybe she's got a Google setting that fires up at the first mention of the word...RépondreSupprimer
Mercy, D, you're giving me the vapors! You're throwing around some of my favorite adjectives there, including "resinous," "balsamic," "spicy..." I'm also not a big vanilla gal -- no desire to smell like a cupcake, ever, and my skin does seem to really pull up the sweetness of anything remotely vanilla-y. But I am intrigued by this new raft of intelli-nillas that seem to have sprung up lately.RépondreSupprimer
Amy, yup, getting steamy is my business. And "intelli-nillas" isn't a bad term after "vanilla-clastic"...RépondreSupprimer
You put your finger exactly on the skin-friendly aspect of Havana Vanille that drew me in. Usually vanilla justs sit on my skin like melted ice cream, but HV breathes on me so well.RépondreSupprimer
Thanks for another insightful and marvelously written review.
Angela, thank you. Coming from you, that means a lot. I'm actually pretty proud of it...RépondreSupprimer
Oh la coquine! Makes me want to pull Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae off the shelf again. Or perhaps some Umberto Eco, for some nice analysis of le signifiant vs.le signifie....RépondreSupprimer
I agree this deconstructionist tendency is the new wave, we'll probably be seeing more of it rather than less in the future. Should be interesting and get us off the beaten paths.
Tara, I think this wave has been unfurling for quite a while, but that our perception of it is keener now. For the time being, it's the still the cutting edge, that's for sure.RépondreSupprimer
As for Sexual Personae, I've read it several times and though Ms. P.'s pieces for Salon are pretty grating, I still think it's a classic.
The vanilla vibes are certainly aligned today! I'm wearing Guerlain's SDV, received a sample of Havana Vanille in the mail today, and now I've just read your review of it. Very interesting review, and now I can't wait to try it looking for everything you describe. Thank you.RépondreSupprimer
Rappleyea, though HV can certainly be appreciated on a much simpler level, I found it fascinating once I put my nose in it: it's really a lesson in perfumery.RépondreSupprimer
A wonderful review indeed! Too bad Havana Vanille didn't stir me up like it did you. I found the banana-wood note too prominent and reeked of rotten fruit on my skin. Too bad, I was really looking forward to it!RépondreSupprimer
Anyways, I heard that Duchaufour is preparing another tuberose fragrance for L'artisan. Who knows, it might even be one of the harvest series taken from tuberoses in Grasse. Ahhh...one can dream!
BTW: I love your blog!
Abdulla (an avid reader)
Abdulla, I think the dire results you got from HV can be put down to "skin chemistry", definitely not a myth (I lived with a man who could do awful things to a chypre). I love a tinge of over-ripe fruit but rotten wouldn't please me at all!RépondreSupprimer
I see you have your sources. I can tell you that the tuberose is not part of the harvest series -- whatever the next installment of that one will be, it's not in Bertrand Duchaufour's pipeline as far as I know, though Anne Flipo might be working on it (this is not "might" as in "I know but I'm not telling", it's "might" as in "who knows, it's not entirely unlikely").
Thanks for reading me so avidly, and please feel free to drop into the comments section more often!
I can no longer let Havane Vanille pass me by after reading your review. The only vanilla scent that I wear is Vanille Galante. I decidedly dislike SDV and other vanilla fragrances that make other people swoon. But, leathery, animalic, smoky, hay notes? And a tobacco/honey/hay facet? How could I have missed this?RépondreSupprimer
Perhaps because in my brief, passing-by-the-counter spritz, I didn't let it develop before I moved on to other fragrances. Al Oudh has my admiration and Amaranthine has me enthralled. And I do wish that Duchaufour would do a harvest series. Or a tuberose fragrance. Well, I'm sure I will be happy with whatever he does at this rate.
Oh fine, torture us then! :-)RépondreSupprimer
I just tried it for the first time a couple of days ago, and I absolutely love it. The rum and tobacco keep it from being dessert, and it blooms on my skin with enough rich musk to make a maiden blush. Wonderful stuff!
Melissa, Al Oudh kind of stole HV's thunder coming out so close after it but it's definitely worth your attention. It tends to attract the vanilla-phobes like us rather than the -philes (who are often dismayed by it) so, yes, have a go!RépondreSupprimer
Flora, I don't know any maidens, but it can certainly fire up a few grown men...RépondreSupprimer
I was expecting this one to grab me by the pelvis and shake me around a bit. So far, it hasn't. It seems to race through the tobacco and narcissus stage too quickly and settle on the vanilla bean. I may be anosmic to the musk, perhaps, but it's a lot less naughty on me than I'd hoped.RépondreSupprimer
In the very far drydown it's very, very sweet on my skin - my daughter described it as "candy" and my son (who hadn't heard the earlier exchange with his sister) as "ice cream." Excellent quality vanilla bean - dark and sweet and liqueur-like - but vanilla bean none the less.
Mals86: your son is spot on. I didn't mention it in the review because it didn't quite fit into my demonstration, but there is a "vanilla sherbet" effect produced by the blend of vanilla and rhum absolute. It was unintentional according to BD, but there you are!RépondreSupprimer
Sorry the earth didn't move for you, but then, thank God it doesn't all the time because we'd be very broke -- and shaken -- women indeed, wouldn't we?
Brilliant review! Thank you!RépondreSupprimer
Aw man, I got a sample of this today. My SA threw it in during a purchase and I finally got around to dabbing it on. I haven't had it on for more than an hour, but I've got to tell you, I'm having flashbacks of them time I accidentally added half of a bottle of vanilla extract to meringues. A test on a blotter gave me an extreme headache but that happens sometimes when I try a fragrance for the first time. Anyway, I seem to have completely missed everything but the overwhelming liqueur-like vanilla. I might just not be the target for this. =PRépondreSupprimer
Eric, I don't think that this is a fragrance for dabbing or smelling on a strip (it also really depends on the width of the strip). It begs for spraying on skin for the real effect: it seems you're just getting the rum top notes here, otherwise it's really a lot airier than what you're describing.RépondreSupprimer
I'm not a vanilla lover,to say the least!, but I appreciate Havana Vanille very much. However, I get an overall different experience than those usually described - I get an almond, cherry like chocolaty feeling, especially in the opening (which is probably the way my nose-brain combo translates the tobacco and rum notes everyone talks about. BTW, my rum has a different smell, I swear). I love the drydown: it has a "grainy" feel, if that makes sense, and smells very much like a true, grainy, vanilla pod with some fluffy musks lying around. I am not sure I want to smell like a vanilla pod, but I love the smell of havana vanille nonetheless. I confess I am mostly using it as a very beautiful and comforting room fragrance, but don't tell anybody ;)!!!RépondreSupprimer
I admire BD's work so much. I love his Amarnthine, despite that 3d banana hologram. I need a bottle. Oh, and I hate so much his Al Oudh. But love-hate relationships are always the most interesting ones, aren't they? ;)
Zazie, BD's compositions express very deliberate choices, which is why they elicit such strong reactions, I'd say.RépondreSupprimer
It's normal that you're getting almond: it's because of the tonka bean. Chocolate, I don't know, but I suspect that it's the tonka-vanilla blend (smell Guerlain's Tonka Impériale to get the full effect): vanilla sometimes "reads" as chocolate because most commercial chocolates have vanillin. Cherry could be the rum-orange-davana-immortelle fruit notes blending with the almond facet of the tonka bean (you need an almond note to create the smell of cherry).
The nose is never wrong! And even perfumers never entirely agree between themselves on what they're smelling.
Next time I get my hands on the tester, I'll definitely give this another shot. Thank you for this great review.RépondreSupprimer