lundi 13 mai 2013

Eau de Narcisse Bleu by Jean-Claude Ellena for Hermès: of horses, tea and flowers

To say colognes are trending would be an understatement. The family has gone viral and mutant, spawning a branch I’ve dubbed the Faux de Cologne that keeps the freshness while veering off from the classic recipe, either by amping up the heart and base notes to make the scent more long-lasting or by introducing non-canonical ingredients like tropical fruit or tea.

Hermès can lay claim to one of the best-loved and most admired traditional-style colognes with Eau d’Orange Verte. It’s also produced one of the great oddballs of the Faux de Cologne family with the rooty Eau de Gentiane Blanche, one of Jean-Claude Ellena’s 2009 additions to Hermès’s cologne collection.

Now Jean-Claude Ellena has come up with another highly original variation on the theme. Though they smell nothing alike, Eau de Gentiane Blanche and the brand-new Eau de Narcisse Bleu both explore bitterness as an alternative form of freshness, something Ellena also played on in Jour. Perfume lovers who found the latter a little too tame might be intrigued by this quirkier scent, while the readers of Diary of a Nose will remember the author mentioning it as a work-in-progress in which he wanted to focus on texture.

Eau de Narcisse Bleu is – almost – in a class of its own. One of its few close relatives is Mathilde Laurent’s horsy, maté-laced L’Heure Fougueuse for Cartier (narcissus is also present in her much smokier Treizième Heure). The flower is no stranger to the classic cologne genre: its fresher floral effects were already used in Eau de Rochas (1970). Ellena tugs on it to make it the core of his scent. 

Though not claimed in the Hermès copy, what I pick up in is tea, or rather, a well-steeped tannic bitterness that overlaps with the hay-tobacco zone of the olfactory map where narcissus is rooted. Ellena uses this tannic raspiness to produce a textured effect within the more classic green (galbanum) and orange blossom notes of the cologne. Narcissus also gives off a slight whiff of horsiness a pretty good fit for a brand with a horse and carriage for a logo. After all, during WWII, when there was nothing at hand to decorate the shop windows, they used dried horse manure, according to the director of the Hermès cultural heritage Ménéhould de Bazelaire.

But whatever blue smells like, this doesn’t smell blue. The adjective seems to have been plucked from another development Ellena mentions in Diary of a Nose, Eau de Mandarine Bleue. Its working title was inspired by the Surrealist Paul Éluard’s “The Earth is blue like an orange”. Which somehow makes poetic sense, since Ellena seems to work on his accords much in the way Surrealists produced metaphors, first braiding a daisy-chain of contiguous notes, then skipping as many links as he can while still keeping the smells connected. The blue just rolled off from the mandarin, which became Eau de Mandarine Ambrée, and gravitated towards the narcissus following a groove traced in the 1920s by Mury’s Narcisse Bleu (which had already relinquished its bottle to Jean-Charles Brosseau’s Ombre rose).

The bitter-cozy texture of Eau de Narcisse Bleu is refreshing in more ways than one: nothing could be more of a palate-cleanser after being dipped into vat after vat of fruity caramel by the mainstream. It is engagingly odd, yet its form has the uncontrived harmony of a thing produced by nature. As such, it fulfills the primary purpose of cologne as a bracing, feel-good splash. But this one doesn’t just wake you up in the morning: it follows up with intelligent conversation. I think I’m in love.

Illustration: Paul Klee, Der Blaue Reiter 

12 commentaires:

  1. Dear Grain
    The current flush of apparent eaux is indeed more tidal wave than trend.
    The Dandy for one feels, as you allude to, that this can only be a reaction to the syrups that currently dominate the mainstream.
    As such eau de cologne has become a descriptor for anything mixed with a lighter hand that avoids the gourmand... surely a edible eau would be too much?
    The you say is a drink? Too true, but it's leaf and hence and aromatic essentially, so that can be alllowed.
    Ellena, more perhaps than any other perfumer, seems uniquely placed and skilled to ride this wave of faux cologne and after this splendid review I can't wait to try this equine tea party of a perfume.
    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy

  2. Dear Dandy, yes, I agree, it's certainly a reaction to the fruit syrups but also to those masculines on steroids that knock out a fly at twenty paces. These Faux de Colognes also suit the tastes of a very wide section of consumers who are uncomfortable with strong scents (that's something I hear time and again from "civilians"). Not to mention those who need to be discreet about scent in their work environments.
    That said, this Blue Narcissus is quirky enough not to have been conceived with any customer base in mind. Very Ellena, and very delightful!

  3. Dear Denyse I love your review of this one as it made me laugh (silently, I'm at work sneaking covert glances at blogs) in recognition. I have sniffed it only once but I was pretty close to falling in love at that first sniff due to the wonderful note of narcissus which did remind me of my beloved La Fougueuse (which has got a lot of wear recently in this can't make up its mind weather). I love the galbanum, and the tea renders it fresh without resorting to anything stridently citric. FBW. As ever I applaud your choice of artwork. Blue horses - of course! Nicola

  4. Hey Nicola! So I'm not the only one reminded of L'Heure Fougueuse, I see... Also love at first sniff for me and FBW,definitely! As for the artwork, well, horse plus blue made me think instantly of the art movement The Blue Rider, and voilà!

  5. Now I have to try it! Sounds pretty amazing.

  6. Solanace, glad to have inspired you! Definitely worth a try.

  7. I am just sampling this Narcisse today and definitely enjoying it. I find it to be very much in the same family as Gentiane Blanche, which is a huge favorite of mine. Thanks for this review... I especially liked your information about Mandarine Bleue. I'm already looking forward to my bottle of Narcisse Bleu.

  8. Joe, that tidbit about Mandarine Bleue I got from JCE's Journal of a Nose. A recommended read, definitely! And Narcisse Bleu seems to be getting a lot of love, isn't it?

  9. I'm in love with Eau de Narcisse Bleu as well.

  10. Jarvis, that doesn't surprise me in the least!

  11. Such a lovely journey to the birth of this new fragrance. It has finally arrived here in Toronto at Holt Renfrew and The Bay with a price point of $145 CDN 100ml.
    The scent opens in a matter of moments and take us on a wonderful adventure. It was like meeting a new friend that you have known a lifetime. Purchased a bottle and have spritzed a bit in the linens.Thank you for drawing my attention to this lovely surprise.

  12. Rah Toronto, "it was like meeting a new friend you've known for a lifetime" is a very lovely way of describing a fragrance that feels entirely right, as this one does to me as well...