Source: MARC JACOBS / DECADENCE (20I5)
A snowy vetiver vanilla drenched in a mandarin scintillation of tuberose and stephanotis, lucent, champagne aldehydes, and soft, dressed-to-kill murmurings of balsams and amber, Caron’s Nocturnes, in its original vintage form, is a beautifully balanced perfume both in olfactory terms and in character.
While the orange-fused jasmines, vivacious and alive, touched naively with glinting sharp lily greens, do at first make the fragrance an ostensibly shoulder-bared extrovert – gorgeous, delicious, beautifully turned out in black satin and white ruffles and quite ‘perfumey’ – there is none of the blaring, over-sugared American eighties about this ultimately delicate Parisian creation.
Rather, there are more internalizing shadows; those contradictory crepuscular memories, that rise up subconsciously within her; a netherworld, surreal, and quiet introversion, that gives Nocturnes her rather precious, but in my view quite apposite, name.
The first time I discovered this perfume – along with Infini probably the Caron I have worn the most (and which ultimately probably suits me the best: the base notes are really quite nice on me), was in a boxed, miniature eau de toilette that I was thrilled to pick up at a flea market. I had seen the bottle before in perfume books and had always coveted it, but rather unimaginatively, and overly literalist of me, when I actually wore the scent for the very first time, it was when literally performing some Nocturnes, and in the evening, at a piano recital.
The soft harmony of the blend – classicist, dreamy, but not showy, in style and packaging more akin to the twenties of Les Ballets Russes than the depths of the Cold War – was nonetheless, despite my obviousness, quite perfect for the ambience that I was in. The chiaroscuro of the stage lights and the darkness surrounding us; the white of my shirt cuffs somewhat implicated and succumbed to in the sweet, clandestine dabs of my scent; ascending with my body heat, previously unused and unopened, boxed for decades until rediscovered, melded soulfully, and undisturbed, (and internally), with the music.
Unfairly maligned and scorned by several a perfume critic, Nocturnes is in fact a very beautiful perfume in my book, and for me the very the apex of the aldehydic; the mandarin/ orange/tuberose/stephanotis infusion shorn of the more fusty, moss-laden träumerei that make other perfumes of the type, while perhaps more exquisite and ‘artful’, feel more touching, poetic, but familialy melancholic.
Nocturnes is not ‘moving’. The perfume is far more knowing, and self-insulated. Shimmering, but secure. Sensuous, but not ‘erotic’. Gentle, and romantic, certainly, but undeterred – and with a frisk, gleaming core.
I love it.
Guerlain’s strange and exquisite Après L’Ondée has a cool, primeval innocence, yet a wise, sage, intuition; as new as a just-blossomed flower, but as ancient as its knowing, tearful DNA. The soft diluvial transparency it breathes makes the perfume by far the most natural and air-kissed of the classical Jacques Guerlains, while the unusual bouquet garni of anise, cassie, rosemary, heliotrope, carnation and hawthorn contrasting emotionally, and perturbingly, with the vanillic-lined silken flower dust beauty of its powdered iris, violet, mimosa and musks make the scent quietly Arcadian: mythological, almost in its shy but steadfastly feminine beauty. A poignancy: rainsoothed; unfathomed.
Because sometimes you must take refuge in whatever the hell you can.
Fragile, a shrieking, glass-shard perfume of flowers, piercing, (orange blossom, tubereuse artificielle): always seemed to tread a rather precarious, if alluring, tightrope.
Over crystal-sharp raspberry leaves, capsicum, pink pimento, and a psychological basenote of pernicious, reduced-fat cedar; a cruel, golden shower of artifice for the slenderizing, man-rasping trapéziste was released each time from the atomiseur – providing it hadn’t broken (it usually had)…..and a tressed up manicured contessa in the wings, waiting, aloof, took to the ice-rink gilded stage in cigarillo-wielding readiness.
Like the bottle, a wonderful, utterly impractical and leaky creation that had a hands-on-hips diva in little snowglobe clasped by invisible, power-hungry talons (which unfortunately got damaged quite easily and was then, before the perfume was rendered extinct, replaced by a more pragmatic, if far less interesting flacon), the scent, released not quite at the optimum moment in time somehow (an unusually gauche faux pas from the self…
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A small parcel arrived in the post yesterday from a friend who has just been to the island of Réunion. In it was a bottle of freshly distilled ylang ylang oil called ‘Ylang Ylang Compte Goutte’, a heady, extravagant liquid coloured a light apricot-orange that was deliciously, pungently exotic. Even more excitingly, in a light brown manila envelope as well, were some freshly cured vanilla beans from Madagascar, lying enticingly as though they had just been bought from the market in Antananarivo in their new paper bag and somehow found themselves awakened in Japan.
The combination of these aromas, plus the letter-stamped knowledge of where they came from, filled me with an instant luscious high on this rainy afternoon in October, as I have always – naturally and instinctively, even before I had been to any of these places – loved the life-affirming voluptuaries of the tropical: ylang ylang flowers; frangipani, coconut milk, pikake – but in particular the scent, taste, and emotion of vanilla.
I have long been obsessed with this note: not the cheap, synthetic floriental vulgarity of all the current, pink, booblicious, cheap thrill nasties, but rather the vanillin-specked, dark glistening pods fermenting within their sweet odour in the sun; the beans I saw up close and learned how to grow on my stay on an organic vanilla plantation in Indonesia, that ultimate vanilla odyssey,which, for me, was like a dream come true. Those tiny flecks of beautiful vanilla you see suspended in custards and yoghurts that so entice the air and the buds; concentrated; miniscule dots of aphrodisiacal pungency, flowing out knowingly, and coolly into the lactic, surrounding deliciousness…
I suppose in scent terms, to quite a large number of perfumists reading this, the thought of stepping out of the house, sweet, smothered and vanilla-drenched, in an aura of yellow, angelic sweetnesses, into the dark and fur-coated night might seem horrendous. We want our oudhs and our green chypres; our fresh, perennial florals, our taut, brisé incenses, our classics: the dignity, and poise, and people-distancing respect those categories of scent can induce: the elegance. For other people though, for longterm oriental and vanilla lovers like myself, this nerve-appeasing and physically and bodily satisfying perfume ingredient is, when the right mood strikes, a wonderful, pleasure-filled indulgence – pure cocoon – especially in winter or when at low ebb: a halo of security, and a psychological ploy, always against the long-dreaded, incipient cold.
VANIGLIA DEL MADAGASCAR / FARMACIA S.S. ANNUNZIATA DAL 1561
In its first stages, Vaniglia Del Madagascar, quite possibly the best vanilla there is, strangely reminds me very much of the bathing rituals at Japanese hot springs and sento – or public baths – where families, individuals and couples go to soap down, switch off, and relax in cleansing pools of contemplation. The smells of steam, active ions, citrus soaps, and saunas made of hinoki wood are somehow encapsulated in the top notes of this delightful perfume of lemon, florals (almost imperceptible), and minerals. There is a fresh, misty saltiness to this stage of the scent that is probably quite an acquired taste but which I have come to really appreciate (maybe because I know just what’s to come…….)
Despite its name, and the fact that this is only available in parfum concentration, the smell of vanilla isn’t obviously present in this fragrance at first, just subliminally. It takes quite some time to appear, in fact, as compressed atoms of natural vanilla molecules seem to dilate outwards, slowly, at their own prehistorically ambered pace.
When it finally does emerge, though, this vanilla smell is glorious; perfection, and it lasts on the skin all through the night to the next morning, when you have completely succumbed to its heat-charged fullness – draped in its caresses like a cream-silk blanket.
VANILLE / MOLINARD
Icicles dangle over pure water in the vanilla glen. Fairies flit and sip mischievously on vanilla vodka….
Less heavy and direct than most vanillas, Molinard’s refreshingly simple scent is still vanilla-bean centered, naturally, and eventually quite sweet: yet it is also cool, delicious – the flavour you know from glacés, and sorbets. With a spritz of alcohol, a milky ice cream coolness graces the skin, softening nicely to a subtle, skin-close, crystalline vanilla I adore.
TIHOTA / INDULT
The vanilla diva’s cult classic favourite, Indult is a perfection of high quality vanilla bean essences – Tahitian, in particular – encompassing and caressing like a soft, expensive shawl on an island sunset. But is the white musk accord that is the question here: the crux of whether you will fall for this uncompromising elixir or not. Sensual, salty, body-kissing, this note is amalgamated, synergistically, fused effortlessly and fulsomely with the vanilla at the heart of the fragrance, to form an apogee of these two notes that is irresistibly carnal, if a tad boundless.
VANILLE EXTREME / COMPTOIR SUD PACIFIQUE
Another cult product that pushes to dangerous breaking point the limits of sweets and the popular childish goo goo ga ga, many people, probably even the most committed vanillista, will find this scent intolerable. It is the Room 101 of Sweet Vanilla Horror.
Vanille Extrême, an intensely strange and addictive perfume, smells, to me, of Play-Doh and My Little Ponies – that chewy, scented plastic rubber; of the cheap, vanilla candles in all those ‘Angels and Healing’ stores; of all the frilly infantilia of the American childhood bedroom, the volume on the pink music speakers turned up to a deafening ten…..
A couple of sprays on your skin….
You are puking, sweetly, alone, in a vat of mallows. But just when you think you have made a very grave mistake in allowing it on your skin and are deliriously trying to locate the washbasin, your head exploding in Don Quixotian mania, a few minutes in, the perfume suddenly becomes so edible : a spiced Tahitian warmth – rich, cute, lickable; a warm and tenacious vanilla that you leave on, tentatively and begin to savour.
VANILIA / L’ARTISAN PARFUMEUR (1978)
L’Artisan’s Vanilia, unfortunately now discontinued but available online if you look hard enough, was a very original interpretation of the vanilla pod that I always felt whisked up the note to an airy, floral delicacy you simply couldn’t find anywhere else.
Rather than focusing on what humans do with the essence (ie. making cakes and perfumes), Jean LaPorte had the originality to take an innocent, exterior snapshot of the entire plant, from bean to flower, as if from outside, and from botanical distance.
Light as a meringue, this much missed scent opens with an aerian, orchidaceous top note of vanilla flowers and high grade ylang. It seems to dance on air, undercut with subtle notes of nutmeg, clove, and ambergris, the overall effect adding up to a perfume that charms and magnetizes with its carefree, beautiful seamlessness.
SPIRITUEUSE DOUBLE VANILLE / GUERLAIN
This perfume, initially released as a limited edition, is now safely part of the main collection, so its many devotees can breathe a sigh of relief. A Guerlain take on vanilla that takes the note into cherry red territories never chartered before, the ‘spiritueuse’ of the name alludes not in fact to spirituality, nor some form of ‘spirited’, or spritely vanilla, but is in fact an allusion to alcohol. Spirits: a honeyed, liquorous cherry brandy with a ‘double shot’ of vanilla: ambrosial, kirsch-like glints of ylang ylang, jasmine, rose, incense and pink pepper, boosted with warm, golden undercurrents of cedar and benzoin.
When you first put this luxuriant perfume on your skin, the main impression is of a delicious, boozed down sweetness that you can’t always immediately locate in your mind as vanilla. Lying within this dark amber liquid, though, is a shipwreck of vanilla beans drowning in liquor; hundreds of pods slowly surrendering their scent in brilliantly slowed down time.
The final notes (four hours or so after application) embody the true soul of vanille; a fluttering, ripe, hummingbird sucrose.
VANIGLIA DEL MADAGASCAR/ I PROFUMI DI FIRENZE
The Golden Fleece of vanillas? Glinting, concentrated, swimmingly smooth and sweet, this gorgeous monstrosity from Florence is a potent and very gorgeous little vanilla that can send you nuts. I say this because this happened to me personally: my Japanese neighbour had just been to Florence on her first trip abroad and was very pleased with the three perfumes she had brought back from the lovely Profumi Di Firenze boutique there. I quickly snapped them up to borrow and review. Dolce Amaro, yes, very nice. Iris Di Firenze, yes, yes, perfectly fine. But unstoppering the bottle of Vaniglia Del Madagascar I unleashed a dolcissimo, furious, cascade…
Besotted, yet shocked by the exultant sweetness, I found myself using up almost a third of her bottle despite myself in one go: a catnipped, autoerotic frenzy that filled the house with maddening, tooth-loosening scent (I have since discovered that vanilla is made up of certain brain-altering chemicals that include epinephrine, or adrenaline which may somehow explain my excessive reactions….)
The perfume’s perfection came a whole day later though, long after this initial stupor, following a very long sleep, when I awoke in my bed on a late Sunday morning with a golden, delicious smell all over my body: the delectable, creamy Bourbon edibility, basically, of the very best Florentine gelato.
COLOGNE DU 68/ GUERLAIN
While some purists might string me up alive for including this zingy scent in a Best of Vanilla write up, to me, this delightful cologne, despite its citrus beginnings ( clementine, blood orange, limette); herbs (lavender, thyme); its delicate, petalled floralcy (magnolia, ylang ylang, immortelle); its hint of spice (star anise, ginger, nutmeg) and its subtle woody undertones (sandalwood, vetiver), this is ultimately a Guerlain – that is to say, powdery, vanillic and oriental. Basenotes of vanilla pod, benzoin, opoponax and amber grace the aforementioned eye-opening notes most pleasantly, and the result on the skin is fresh and modern, yet soft and carnal. Clearly a descendant of the great Roma (Laura Biagiotti, 1988), but clarified for a new generation, this is a great summer vanilla.
VANILLE 44/ LE LABO
Le Labo make good quality, quirky takes on classic notes – stripped down and modern – and their minimalist, unclogged take on vanilla is very pretty.
Vanille 44 is a light-as-an-egg scent with a lovely bergamot, orange and mint opening that melts into a slightly floriental, warm vanilla note before settling onto a lightly wooded structure of guaiac. It is an optimistic smell: sensual, cute, yet it eschews the heavy-lidded, high-calorie butteriness of some vanillas.
NOTE VANILLEE/ MICALEFF
And while we are on the subject of desserts, and crême brulées, and other totally irresistible contrivances (god I have to say that writing this post is making me seriously hungry), let’s take a quick look at Note Vanillée, a consummate – as always – creation by the house of Micallef: that industrious, unsung house of dense, polished, and glinting surfaces and perfumed riches whose scents, to me, always resemble lovingly crafted confections as much as fragrances.
In their jewelled, gilded, almost gaudily decorated flacons these perfumes are always somehow an event, perfume as a ‘touch of glamour’ to one’s evening apparel: the icing, as it were, on the cake. Note Vanillée is like this: glittering and alcoholic, and sugared as a wrapped up marron glacé at Christmastime.
JOUR DE FETE/ L’ARTISAN PARFUMEUR
I have always loved the vanillic, candied coating on Tic-Tac mints and the powdered glazed dusting on sugared almonds, and in 2004 L’Artisan released this rather unique and unusual fragrance – a scent designed to evoke a French Spring fair: the taste of sugared almond dragées dusted with vanilla sugar.
Sweet, airy and fun, the initial top note is like cassia trees in the wind you pass under on the way to the fair; the sultry vanilla / smoky almond base note – far more melancholic and poetic – the story of perhaps what happens next…..
SUBLIME VANILLE/ CREED
In 2009 Creed released Sublime Vanille, a rather beautiful, simple and delicate scent of vanillic translucence that begins with flighty initial notes of lemon zest and Calabrian orange hovering above a gentle floral eiderdown of climbing Tahitian vanilla orchid. A soft diminuendo down to the opalescent base of tonka bean and South American Bourbon vanilla leads us to that familiar metallic, light-infused ambergris-laced sheen that is always very much the signature of Oliver Creed.
Sublime Vanille is a very subtle perfume (some might say too much so, more a veneer of vanilla than a full-blown concoction,) but this was apparently the point, as it is furtively aimed at being the world’s first men’s ‘soliflore’ vanilla. It is also extraordinarily expensive, housed in a very suave and regal hand-blown Pochet glass bottle that very much adds to the perfume’s appeal.
VANISIA by CREED
If Sublime Vanille is a blushing and introverted handsome prince, he is nevertheless very much the hen-pecked husband, and his consort – buxom, burnished Vanisia, most definitely wears the trousers. Creed tells us that the illustrious forbears of the house created this lusty perfume for the queen of Spain, who “happened to be the great niece of Marie Antoinette of France. After assuming the throne, the Spanish queen wished to make a style statement like her French relative. She commissioned from Creed a fragrance that was rich, sensual and mysterious: the unforgettable Vanisia.”
Believe none of it. Salacious, dry, and libidinous, this perfume couldn’t be more eighties powerhouse if it tried – it is big, voluptuous, curvy, smells exactly like the year it came out – 1987 – and I have the memories to prove it.
Back in my home town as a pop-obsessed teenager, I would often go round to my friend’s house to listen to his new Madonna 12”s on his superior powerhouse stereo system. His mother, large and very proud of it, wore Vanisia, and would be quite happy to stroll about in her lacey white lingerie despite (or because of) the generous flesh on offer, leaving behind her in the air a crude, heady – but delicious – scent of mama.
I had no idea where to look each time and I think she actually loved watching me blush: smoky, dark vanilla with Bulgarian rose and thick, heady jasmine over sandalwood (always a lewd, suggestive accord), together producing a womanly, ‘big event’ scent that though perhaps Creed’s most vulgar offering (if you exclude Royal Delight), is extremely magnetic.
UN BOIS VANILLE/ SERGE LUTENS
Un Bois Vanille is still a nice woody, sawdusty licorice vanilla with a dry, bitey, facet of coconut macaroon that makes it quite appealing. Pre-reformulation, though, it was far more delightful. There was an almost extra-sensory, pillowing softness of texture here that made it delectable: the scent would hover about the mouth of the bottle and, like Alice, urge you to drink me, which is why I got through three or four bottles of the stuff and its drug-like vanilla ending until I put on some perfume from a new, changed batch and the magic had gone
GOURMAND COQUIN / GUERLAIN
Over the holidays, one Christmas and New Year, I attempted to perfect the art of making mulled wine by adding my own twist of Madagascar vanilla beans to the brew along with the other spices, letting the base blend macerate for a couple of days before adding the wine, brandy, and a soupçon of Cointreau. I was thus astonished to find this effect replicated almost perfectly when I first smelled the exorbitantly sweet and boozy perfume by Guerlain, which in its initial stages smells almost identical to what I was imbibing over the holidays. Spices, rum, and dark cacao simmer sumptuously over roses and Shalimar–esque vanilla pods before settling down gently to a cheekily luscious, chocolatey vanilla that while sweet, has enough character and taste to never quite go over the edge.
VANILLE ORCHIDEE/ VAN CLEEF & ARPELS
Yet another vanilla perfume with a touch of enticing gourmandise is Vanille Orchidée by Van Cleef, a well-regarded scent that might possibly be the ideal ‘straight’ vanilla. A sherbety mandarin-lychee opening is a nostril-tickling ballet of delight, as particles of freshness dance before your eyes, edible and delicious as a lemon soufflé: a citric, effervescent apéritif that soon segues into a lightly floral, smooth and warm scent with delicate remembrances of the dessert trolley, bitter almond, cedar, and white musk. Perhaps a touch undaring in its coy, floral femininity, the perfume nevertheless has perfect balance, and a light, smooth, stable, vanilla base note that lasts for hours on the skin yet always remains subtle.
VANILLARY by GORILLA PERFUMES
Feral, indolic, Vanillary could hardly be a more different experience of vanilla. This all-natural creation by perfumer Simon Constantine is a very lush and overripe perfume that begins with a blast of animalic jasmine absolute and tenacious, coconutty sandalwood, over a thick meniscus of insistent vanillic sweetness and tonka bean. Like a powdery, heavy black-winged moth dragging itself slowly through the heat and viscid, dripping jungle sap, we drift along languidly in the heat but find ourselves suddenly subsumed by a giant, flesh-eating flower. All is rough; unseamless; driven – I find Vanillary to be a very erotic and id-driven perfume that will be worn to quite magnetic effect by the sultry and sexually confident, but it is probably to be worn with caution.
VANIGLIA by SANTA MARIA NOVELLA
This elegant, cultured, Florentine creature would simply faint, like Lucy Honeychurch in A Room With A View, in the presence of the hairy vanilla gorilla above.
The Santa Maria Novella profumi are about as far away from Anglo-Saxon literalness, or that charged, coquettish French volupté, as it is possible to be. Though sensual and rich, there is always an indefinable chastity in the monastery’s perfumes; a lack of sugar and nonsense that distinguishes them from other houses. Vaniglia is one such fragrance; liquorous, and savoury, it is a frankly peculiar, but rather pleasingly idiosyncratic scent from another time that to me smells like spilled white wine and overdone crème brulée; yesterday’s sandalwood, and imperious, old fashioned, buttery musks – an unusual vanilla with a nostalgic, coppery reserve.
SLEEPING WITH GHOSTS/ MARK BUXTON
The curiously named Sleeping With Ghosts may sound dark, daunting and gothic but the name is misleading: this is in fact a distinctly appealing, fruity vanillic scent that while linear and monothematic, is immediately touching and uplifting. It is a composition dominated by a sweet, spectral vanilla suggesting poignant memories; a lover’s body that has graced your sheets but has now gone, leaving nothing but the sensation that they are still there… just traces. These are the ghosts that the perfumer seems to be alluding to; those feelings of infatuation, happiness and spontaneity that love and reminiscence evoke, and a sense of yearning for those feelings again come springtime.
If vanilla is usually custard yellow (like, for instance, the Van Cleef & Arpels above), this perfume is pink ivory white: pitched higher on the musical scale, creamily fruit-tinged, an insidious, addictive smell that dominates the scent, fused with barely perceptible touches of leather and vetiver. The beginning of the perfume is the stage I like the best though, as it is all about the vivacious smells of tagetes, peony flowers and, notably, a very bright and deliciously juicy quince, an unusual note in a perfume and one that works perfectly over the softer notes in the base. It is a perfume I would love to wear on an early sunny morning on a winter’s day in London, the fruited opening brisk and optimistic under a crisp white shirt, the softly tenacious sun-licked vanilla note rising up at various points in the day.
Despite the slight disappointment I feel in the base notes, when the vanilla becomes a touch too subdued for a fiend such as myself, this is, for me, one of the happiest scents around.
In vanillic terms, I think of Eau Duelle as Sleeping With Ghosts‘ sister, because they share a similarly light vanilla and ease of temperament that is quite different to the more voluptuous Bourbons that we are used to in most perfumes of this type. Eau Duelle is no odalisque: she is a green vanilla, a gazelle of the forest; shy, demure even. She holds something back. Maybe too much so: like many other people who have been underwhelmed by this release by Diptyque, there somehow seems to be something, that indefinable magical extra ingredient missing in the scent, as though it needed just that extra sprinkling of sugar.
Nevertheless, the intrinsic duality of the fragrance, in which strangely verdant notes of calamus grass, juniper, tea and elemi contradict spitefully with the ghostly frankincense and pepper underlying these cool and aerial groves of vanilla, makes Eau Duelle a youthful, spritely scent, delicately attractive and understated, the tendrils of chlorophyll cradling the vanilla right into the drydown as the deer disappear back into the hedgerow at the first primordial light of dusk.
VANILLE TONKA by PARFUMS DE NICOLAI
This sophisticated, adult, even ‘difficult’ vanilla by Patricia Nicolai, who never toes the line of what is considered fashionable, but simply follows her well-esteemed instincts, is worth your consideration if you like darker, sultrier vanillas. Like Eau Duelle, Vanille Tonka features frankincense in its heart but far more intensely interwoven with a incensey vanilla and dry cinnamon charge that takes the note in new directions. No ingenue, this is a feathery, silky boa of a perfume that has seen a few things in her time: topped with tart, tangy notes of basil, tangerine and lime, she settles into her own dark terrain of vanilla, ensconced in her corner; harder, more aware and brooding than her coquettish, lightweight contemporaries, biding her time, eyes lowered…
VANILLE DES ISLES by PARFUMS DE TAHITI
When it comes to vanilla, it is possible that I am something of a purist. Though I do enjoy novel approaches to framing the bean, ultimately, I don’t usually want anything extraneous getting in the way of the pleasure. For me, the vanilla, preferably of the best possible quality, should be enthroned at the heart of the perfume, and all paths should lead inexorably to its magnificence.
I also realize that I am sometimes being a titillator on this blog, with my tales of the Tokyo flea market and its treasures (which have really buffered up the bounty of my perfume cabinets over the years), and I am not entirely sure either what the Perfumista Ethical Committee take is on describing perfumes that are impossible to find, either, but Vanille Des Isles, by the mysterious Parfums De Tahiti, is certainly a very good example of a very ‘pure’ vanilla, if not quite what you might expect from its name.
Tahitian vanilla is more delicate, floral and exquisite than its Malagasy counterpart, so I assumed that this scent, which was just sitting there at one stall at the flea market one day, would be light, monoï-ish, breathed upon by coconut winds. Instead, it is a perfect example of a boozed-up, smoked, and very full vanilla, as though strands of tobacco and well-cured vanilla pods had been steeped for years in caskets of rum.
I can’t say it is an easy wear: the vanilla within smells almost toasted, and it is masculine enough, to be honest, for a pirate, but it smells so natural, expansive and rugged, that if vanilla perfumes like this really are available all over the islands, you can put me on the first plane to Papeete.
VANILLA SMOKE/ AFTELIER
From my unforgettable experiences in Java, I am now intensely familiar with the smell of natural vanilla. Intensely: as if somehow I myself, in a former life, had been a grain of unctuous vanilla ‘caviar’, emanating oily vanilla-ness gaily from within my own warm, brown seed pod.
Having stayed with my lovely Indonesian family, and seen the process of vanilla bean cultivation and its after-production first hand with their employees: standing in the drying attic in the house’s roof,and being overwhelmed by the utterly intoxicating smell; from crates and crates of the beans just stacked there in open caskets, giving off scent, each one of them replete with vanillin and hundreds of other natural aromachemicals, so different, so so different from the ‘vanilla’ you get in most perfumes – far deeper, leathery, textured, complex and animalically three dimensional (if not as easy or even as necessarily pleasing), I learned, with own my nose, that this is a fulsome, living and breathing smell; of a multi-dimensionality you simply don’t get from the synthetic vanilla we all know so well – a much clearer smell that maintains a smoother, lighter, more crystalline and ice-creamy transparency.
No. Vanilla beans in the flesh, and in great profusion, so strong that your brain tastes of it and you dream it again at night, are far more savoury, masculine and obstinate than one might expect; percolating and ruminating within themselves oleaginously, and without compromise. As a result, I think of vanilla pods almost more as creatures than as just a ‘spice’, the way in which the air root of the vine is constantly searching and moving down towards the ground to gain anchor, the fact that the vanilla orchid flowers on one day and on one day only (and if you miss it, you miss the pollination, which is done by hand); the way the pods have to gestate for such long periods, hanging fecundly and with high suggestiveness, before they are ready to be plucked; even the curing process itself, when the beans (which have no scent until cured) are ‘killed’ before being wrapped up in shrouds, and put in wooden boxes, and lovingly and caringly placed in the sunlight to sweat and be cured, and embalmed, like mummies.
When I came back to Japan with my suitcase (illegally) full of vanilla beans and living orchids that we managed to keep for a fairly long time (though ultimately the climate was wrong for them here), I tried, without much success, to make decent perfumes of my Javan vanilla beans; doused in spirits; soused in vodka to infuse the browning, tangible molecules I was always trying to get the blend right with (see my Black Narcissus Java review for the one exception that didn’t turn out too badly). Yet there was always something ‘off’ in one or more of the later stages; the strange, bodily, dirtiness always coming out on the skin at some later point, just one of the vanilla pod’s inevitable facets, something skeezy you don’t get in the ‘purer’ synthetic (which is probably why Shalimar is so seamless). The Pod always seems to spread itself out and not curtail its unrulier, oozier elements – it is quite a difficult essence to control, actually – which is why it is very interesting for me to smell Mandy Aftel’s very original take on natural vanilla extract, Vanilla Smoke.
From the first microsecond of smelling this perfume, I was plunged immediately back into the world of vanilla steeping – the type here is unquestionably natural – and I found the vanilla pod department of my brain cells lighting up the second I whiffed it – but it has also been cleverly smoothed out; lit up, decorated, but also rounded, in all the right places with intuitively (and counter-intuitively) chosen aromatics. We are immediately aware of a smokiness, as the name of course suggests, but here it is a fuzzy and soft, warm and gustatory smoke, rather than, say, the broiled ham of Le Labo’s Patchouli 24 (I used to love the bonfire aspect of that scent, with its strong vanilla undertones, but once I had honed in the birch tar, barbecued meat-fest lurking at the heart, I could never put it on again). No. This is rather the mellow, snug infusion of lapsang souchong tea leaf extract (a very acquired taste among teas, but one which is very atmospheric I always find; somehow nostalgic and touching; historical) fusing together with the vanilla in great ease, cradled with some ambergris, some coumarin, and some synthesised vanillin, so that in the base, once the hazy, autumnal-wintery vibe of the opening (also tinged with mandarin and saffron) subsides, you are left with a sweet, and quite comforting scent that clings peacefully to the skin.
While this may not be an ‘event’ oriental in the style of the traditional grand parfum (it is hard to imagine anyone wearing this to a gala for example, or to the opera), every well made perfume has its place. Rather than a paen to extroversion, Vanilla Smoke is more for the indoors and for the introverted, or at the very least a scent to snuggle up to. Caught on the wool hairs of a sweater, for instance, or on a soft and favourite scarf, as you wrap yourself up and step out into a cold winter’s day, this strangely touching vanilla perfume is really rather lovely.
7 BILLION HEARTS by CB I HATE PERFUME
7 Billion Hearts (named for the world’s population and its inexhaustible love of the vanilla bean) is a vanilla that you should definitely try if you really like them dark and smoky: it really is the woodiest, most smouldering vanilla I know (my own private name for it is “The Pod And The Plank”), and many perfumists, vanilla lovers or no, have fallen head over heels for it. Costly vanilla absolutes from Tahiti and Madagascar are combined, according to creator Christopher Brosius, with ‘smoky, resinous notes…the vanilla slowly emerging through a veil of smoke…’
To this nose, although the base clearly contains very high quality vanilla tinctures, and I can intellectually appreciate the artistic impulse to ‘reinvent’ vanilla, upon each application of this perfume I feel that I have suddenly been teleported, unwillingly and in Star Trek-style, to IKEA.
An intense blast of woody-woody home centre greets my nose: plastics; paint-strippers; and polyurethane-wrapped kitchen cabinets surrounding and suffocating me in their oaken overcoats…
Dulled by the softly softly muzak and the lighting, I drift along the aisles, half-zonked and mindless, until I come across a food section, the smell of wood shavings and sawdust still grinding me and my brain, slowly, to a halt.
Leaning forward, brainless and floppy at the spice racks, I find myself ogling, suddenly and desperately, an attractive-looking jar of vanilla beans…
Reach out my listless hand; prize it open; taking time to correctly remove the gentle, plastic lid…
Stick in my nose, oblivious to the basket-carrying zombies that mill around me…..
And I recall…
Now I remember: there it is, that was what I was looking for…