January is basically a miserable time of year in Japan for me (though I suppose at least it isn’t quite as bad as February or March, when all is truly dead and cold except for some narcissi, plum blossoms, and the new buds slowly, tightly, appearing on the cherry trees….)
The pale, Christmassy sunlight of December, when everything was twinkly and filled with the promise of the homely cocoon, is taken over by often frigid temperatures; grey skies with nothing left to look at but ugly architecture, bargain shoppers, bare trees, and and an exhausting year of up and coming work.
At this time of year we need cheering up, and the smell of cinnamon-sprinkled buns and cakes drifting out from a city bakery as you walk along that dark path with hands tucked in coat pockets is surely one of life’s most comforting smells; as if the world couldn’t really be as bad as you thought (as your senses perk up without your even noticing and you plump for a Starbucks hot cinnamon roll and latte and you realize to your horror that you have just consumed 700 calories in one indolent, heartlifting go).
The effect of cinnamon in perfume is similar – it is surely the most trustworthy and unthreatening of the spices; easy, familiar, emotionally warm. Usually blended with orange, mandarin, balsams, exotic florals and other spices for the oriental cargo effect (Cinnabar, Opium); or with animalic ambers and vanilla (Obsession, Obsession Men, Cuir Mauresque) – all of which feature a prominent note of the spice that lends their blends a touch of patisserie snugness and repose – the perfumes I describe below are more clearly cinnamon-centric, tailor-made for these darker months of winter…….
HERMESSENCE AMBRE NARGUILE / (2004) HERMES
Sunday: 6pm. It was raining; dark, freezing cold. You had just done something really bad – been shouted at and belted: and after bawling out your eyes in your bedroom upstairs, were lying prostrate, aimless and self-pitying on the bed covers; the taste of hot, angry tears still in your head.
But then – suddenly, after who knows how long, the warm, delicious smell of your mother’s baking apple pie found its way up the reproachful bannisters, and life began again to be alright. Warm apples, slow-burning cinnamon; comfort of rich buttered pastry; the promise of melting vanilla ice cream.
This is Ambre Narguilé: an exalting perfume that provokes obsessive reactions in people (an olfactory method of regression therapy? ‘Remember the pain. But also remember the good times….’), a scent that is truly designed for cuddling up to.
An hour after spraying it on, after the sweet shock of the apple strudel opening, Ambre Narguilé is an edible and addictive patisserie classic; gorgeously moreish and emotive with a vivid cinnamon underlay: I could eat myself. But to get here, you have to go through stages of ambered bulimia; and to be honest, I’m not always sure I am going to make it as for me it is just that little bit too sweet.
This scent is worth seeking out though if you are having a crap week, it is freezing with rain, and you need a sweet, sensory escape. The perfection of the ending, as it hugs to your skin in the softest, dessert-like caress, is sheer wintry succour.
VANILLE CANNELLE / E COUDRAY (1935)
Discontinued, so probably hard to find now, but I once had the pleasure of using the bath oil on a cold winter’s night when staying with Helen, and with the ambery vanilla-orange tumbling from the lip of the bottle I just melted into the hot water in total bliss. That bottle, of the very old Parisian type, next to me on the side of the bath, just added to the sensation of romance and escape: a perfectly judged dose of cinnamon and sweetly clinging vanilla in the manner of the best French cakes.
ROUSSE/ SERGE LUTENS (2007)
Rousse (‘the red head’), is possessed of red-raw spices that jump out and devour you; the fiery taste (and 3D texture) of real cinnamon sticks and cloves in an ambered, woody, and resinous setting. It is direct, pungent, and somewhat simple-minded (in the manner of Louve, Lutens’ cherry-almond), but if you like to wear your spice on your sleeve, this rough, flushed, russet perfume is perfect: a chic cinnamon bomb to take on the night.
INCENSI/ LORENZO VILLORESI (1997)
A serious cinnamon. As you’d expect from Mr Lorenzo, Incensi is a languorously layered, complicated scent, the incense of the name not prominent until the drydown as the main feature in this curious blend is more a ginger-bolstered cinnamon emerging from a blast of strange greenness (elemi, leaf notes, galbanum), the incense notes of antiquity lying calm and serious beneath (frankincense, benzoin, myrrh, styrax), while the note of cinnamon, unsweetened and vaguely ecclesiastical, remains prominent throughout.
AMBRE CANNELLE/ CREED (1949)
If you are male and have always secretly wished you had worn Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium, the classic for women from the 70’s –balsamic, spicy and orange-laden – but were too embarrassed to buy a ‘women’s’ perfume, then here’s your chance. Ambre Cannelle is apparently a part of Creed’s men’s range; admittedly there are fewer flowers, and its physiognomy has more sinew, it’s formula perhaps more refinement, but this scent was obviously the inspiration (along with Estée Lauder’s Youth Dew) for the whole swooning-Jerry Hall-Roxy-Music-addict phenomenon that was Opium – just thirty years before. It is quite a nice scent, with a sexed, ambergris/ musk base that clings to the cinnamon-amber-flecked accord with mystique. Somewhat old fashioned, though; check it out for yourself first before committing (in a floor length fur coat).
NOIR EPICES/ Editions de Parfums (2000)
A very well respected and original cinnamon spice that many cite as their favourite from the Frederic Malle line, for the tightly woven structure; the dense, spiced treatment of orange and geranium over arid, woody finish. I see their point, but on this occasion I beg to differ. I can certainly see the appeal of this perfume’s fat-free structure (no musk, no fluffiness, no soft, vanillic contours), its stark angularity. But like Campari and orange, which I like in theory for its bitter sunset red but in reality can’t drink, the vile bitterness of this perfume’s orange makes me shudder. I find it quite unendurable on my own skin, though I have to say that I was astonished to find that the perfume I was complimenting on my friend Justin one night at karaoke – warm, sensual, compelling – was in fact Noir Epices. Yet another argument for the fact that some perfumes really do smell utterly distinctive on different people.
CINNAMON/ COMME DES GARCONS SHERBET SERIES (2003)
Of the three jaunty little perfumes in the Comme Des Garcons sherbet series, to me this is possibly the least successful. The rhubarb is a delight: the mint the greenest, mintiest thing you’ve ever smelled, but the cinnamon, with its contrasting (jarring?) notes of hot and cold, is less loveable. On the other hand, the freshness of the scent and its resemblance to more spicy, ozonic scents like Issey Miyake Pour Homme make it the most commercial of the three, and an original take on the note of cinnamon. Like all the sherbets, it is quite fun in a way.
The sherbets are also available in lovely little solid perfume form that let you indulge in sweet, clandestine dabs throughout the day so the room is suddenly tinged with a blast of sweet cinnamon (but nobody knows the source……)
VANILLE CANELLE/ COMPTOIR SUD PACIFIQUE Just what you’d expect from Comptoir– a warm, sexpot aroma of cinnamon in a sweet, ready to wear (for evening) setting.
CINNAMON SPICE/ BODY SHOP Serviceable perfume oil that does the trick in a mumsy, down-at-the-shops kind of way.
CINNAMON BUN / DEMETER &
CINNAMON TOAST/ DEMETER Olfactory holograms for those cinnophiles with a healthy appetite.
Ps. We might be going to Madagascar this summer to research vanilla (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) and we will most certainly be stopping at Nosy Bé, or The Perfume Island in the north of Madagascar, which is apparently redolent year round of ylang ylang, vanilla, cloves, patchouli and cinnamon….