It’s been a hot, dry spring here in Paris, though I haven’t seen much of it as I end my yearlong book-writing marathon. To go along with the premature blasts of summer heat and to keep myself going, I’ve been veering towards tougher scents -- I’ve been told the planets are in a particularly bellicose mood, with Mars in Aries and Mercury retrograde, which worldwide events would certainly bear out. I’m seeing red, which turns out sludgy when mixed with the traditional springtime greens. No time for wimps, this… Hence:
Eau sauvage, by Edmond Roudnitska for Christian Dior
You could tell the “wild water’s” story three ways. Dior launched it in 1966 as a masculine with a Gruau ad that shocked France, including Marcel Boussac, the owner of the house: a pair of hairy legs emerging from a white bathrobe. For Edmond Roudnitska, it was the gardens of Taormina and the rocky landscapes of the Alps and Apennines. For the May 68 generation, it was the scent of the unisex years, a soaring aromatic blast clearing away the wafts of the ladies who lunch. But Eau Sauvage, in its original formula, is as elegant a demonstration as ever was that form ultimately transcends anecdote: it just is. The proof? Even my 20-year-old American students, whose favourite materials are ethyl maltol and ambroxan, are floored by its beauty.
Sous le Vent by Jacques Guerlain for Guerlain
Reedited in 2005 in the “Il était une fois Guerlain” collection and discontinued since, Sous le Vent was slightly lacking in volume and had lost the original 1933 formula’s leather notes along the way. But with its herbaceous basil, tarragon and lavender notes, sweet spices and mossy base, this hybrid of the fougère and the chypre managed to tie in Jicky with Mitsouko and the never-reedited Cachet Jaune, while somehow anticipating Eau Sauvage, a link Mathilde Laurent’s Heure Fougueuse for Cartier may have established decades after the fact. Hot, dry and languorous as the trade winds. Get it if you still can.
Eau de Gloire by Marc-Antoine Corticchiato for Parfum d’Empire
There’s such forcefulness to most of Corticchiato’s compositions that to wear them, you may feel you need a license to bear arms. Even his cologne-inspired Eau de Gloire, a tribute to the maquis of his family’s native Corsica, is anything but a David-Hamiltonian romp through the citrus orchard. This is combustible, incense-laden, resinous stuff with whiffs of immortelle that feels glorious indeed.
Turtle Vetiver series by Isabelle Doyen for Les Nez
If ever a note could bring fortitude, it is the astonishingly facetted vetiver, with its primal ties to smoke, rock, vegetation and the sun, via its grapefruit note. Isabelle Doyen served it up nearly raw in Exercise One; Front Vetiver plays on the smoke and ink softened up by an odd coconut note; Back Vetiver tames it with violet for woody powdery contrast, musk tying it in with skin. One of the two will be available soon – no news of which yet. Both are true to the original inspiration.
Calamus by Bertrand Duchaufour for Comme des Garçons Series 1: Leaves
In the midst of the recent Duchaufour tsunami – soon to be continued with The Different Company’s oud and a rewrite of Esprit du Roi, an 1870 Penhaligon’s reissued in 1976 – it’s worthwhile going back to the scent he pinpoints as the first to truly bear his signature. Calamus, an aromatic material used since ancient Egypt, is particularly difficult to handle because of the sludgy, raw mutton-skin notes it presents alongside its green and fresh-out-of-the-oven pastry tones. Comme des Garçons’ Calamus somehow channels this multiple personality disorder into vivid natural effect of milky sap, with a touch of Duchaufour’s trademark savoury notes – in this case celery seed, connecting with the celery/curry/hazelnut effects of angelica. Sadly, his vividly textural Mint for the Leaves Series seems to have been discontinued.
Réminiscence by Michèle Saramito for Réminiscence
Réminiscence is to patchouli what L’Artisan is to musk: a niche pioneer who translated the wafts of the Woodstock generation into the codes of French perfumery. The costume jewellery company celebrated its 40th anniversary with a jokey-kitsch South-sea turquoise packaging in this 2010 limited edition, but the scent itself is a sophisticated take on the note, less gourmand than the original, with eucalyptus boosting the camphoraceous facet of patchouli, a trio of cool spices – star anise, pink pepper and nutmeg – bringing it texture and jasmine femming it up. A lovely wear even for those of us who were too young to be hippies and who are too grown up to play the hippie chic retro angle.
Weekend à Deauville by Patricia de Nicolaï for Parfums de Nicolaï
In his later years, Cary Grant was told by the hostess who took his invitation for a gala “You don’t look like Cary Grant.” “Nobody does”, he replied. In the same way, any lily of the valley fragrance will be challenged on the grounds it’s not Diorissimo. But Patricia de Nicolaï knows her classics well enough not to attempt to repeat them, and of her two muguet exercises, I much prefer Weekend à Deauville and its rounded, green chypre accents to the sharper rosy musk of Un Coeur en Mai for Parfums MDCI. One of the few muguets that keep firmly out of the closet underneath the sink where air fresheners and fabric softeners skulk.
Pur Désir de Lilas by Annick Menardo for Yves Rocher
This one is so reasonably priced I use it as room spray rather than as a personal fragrance, but I have taken to layering it quite perversely with Bulgari Black. Somehow, the lilac hooks up with the styrax, which brings out qualities you never knew it had, a bit like Dorothy Malone in The Big Sleep when she lets down her hair, removes her glasses and pulls down the blind of the bookshop to lock herself up with Bogart and a hip flask of booze. What else are you going to do on a rainy spring afternoon? Read a book?
Un Gardénia la Nuit by Dominique Ropion for Frédéric Malle Éditions de Parfum
In his Journal d’un parfumeur, Jean-Claude Ellena says gardenia is the result of a drama played out between jasmine and tuberose. My version of the story is that while tuberose is the corruptor, gardenia is corrupted – something in her green creamy heart is a little rotten. But that’s not how Ropion translates it: his gardenia candle, which I’d beg him to turn into a perfume if I had that kind of pull (I have, and I don’t), is the flower is its delicate, green phase with just a hint of the coming ripeness.
Vierges et Toreros by Antoine Lie and Antoine Maisondieu for État Libre d’Orange
If Fracas and Bandit had had an incestuous fling in the bullpen of the Maestranza in Seville, Vierges et Toreros might have been their offspring. I’ve missed out on the Holy Week this year – the processions were partly cancelled because of the downpour – and consoled myself with this butched-up tuberose. Its abrupt leather accord, nose-searing spices and unsettling costus, blood-on-fur effect may be the only things that ever got a chance to slap the bitchy tuberose around. But she gives as good as she gets, gains the upper hand for a while before gushing one last squirt of blood on the sepia boards of the bullring. Turns out the Virgin was the Beast all along.
For more Top Tens of Spring: Bois de Jasmin, Now Smell This, Perfume-Smellin’ Things and Perfume Posse.
Illustration by Christine Spengler.