Health & Grooming

Scents of adventure

Traditional ingredients are being used in dynamic new forms to create fragrances that are reassuringly familiar yet desirably new. Vicci Bentley reports.

December 14 2010
Vicci Bentley

What really drives a fragrance trend? Since the economic downturn, a distinct whiff of nostalgia has hung around the perfume shelves. Bottling the good old days has brought a poignant edge to an already emotive market. Yet if the latest launches are indicators, we’re beginning to lighten up. Traditional ingredients are essential to the Zeitgeist, but by reanimating them in dynamic new forms and compositions, perfumers effectively manage the best of both worlds – reassuring familiarity without the fustiness that chokes progress.

“It’s like a new chapter in a favourite book, with the same heroes but a different adventure,” muses Daniela Andrier, the perfumer at Prada largely credited with launching the revival of all-but-forgotten iris fragrances. Her most recent challenge has been the reworking of Prada’s bestselling Infusion d’Iris Eau de Parfum – a balmy, Mediterranean nod to Guerlain’s more smoky and emotional L’Heure Bleue. New Infusion d’Iris Eau de Toilette (£42, 50ml) is by contrast almost icy cool, with the greener, lighter characteristic of new floral scents.

Conventionally, iris is a very adult romance. Elegant and intimate, it has a boudoir atmosphere – all powder puffs and silk slips. Tucked into the bodice of grand old classics such as Chanel No 19, Lanvin Arpège and Nina Ricci L’Air du Temps, it’s the plush, steadying influence behind more excitable white flowers such as jasmine and tuberose. It’s also one of perfumery’s oldest stalwarts. A staple of Roman and Greek perfumery, the finest orris (iris) oil is extracted from the peeled, dried and crushed rhizome of Iris Pallida, cultivated in the Florentine hills – a lengthy and painstaking process.

The plant takes two to three years to mature and drying the root can take up to six years. After steam distillation, the ultimate yield is low – one tonne gives a mere 2kg of essential oil or “butter”, accounting for its typical market price of between €6,000 and €8,000 per kilo. But slow oxidation during the drying process produces ionones – the natural chemical compounds that give orris the multifaceted ambery, sometimes rosy, sometimes woody and violet qualities that excite perfumers.

“There is nothing quite like iris,” enthuses Andrier. “Its olfactive prism gives off very different inflections – woody, powdery and flowery, dry rich and buttery,” But its multiple facets make it tricky to work with.

Phase two of the iris revival sees the scent shrug off its vintage aura and more earthy aspect, thanks mainly to airy aldehydes that give fresh first impressions not of the root, but of the flower itself. Iris Ukiyoé (£140, 100ml edt) is Hermès’ nose Jean-Claude Ellena’s ninth addition to the Hermèssences Collection. Evoking the heads of blue and white irises nodding in “the floating world”, it’s a tribute to Japanese printmakers such as Hokusai and Hiroshige. Ellena’s attempts to capture the contradiction of large, showy yet fragile, fluttering blooms whose scent is “delicate but definitely there” has resulted, arguably, in this elite collection’s most commercial scent to date. But its almost dewy freshness, enhanced by rose and mandarin zest, should win over even those who don’t usually warm to floral fragrances.

Something spicier, perhaps? Etro’s limited Edition Via Verri (£89, 100ml edt), named after the Etro Profumi boutique in Milan, deftly exploits two major fragrance trends: after a fresh, flowery opening, iris takes a peppery Oriental turn to pursue its lingering, amber aspect.

And as the preferred base of the modern refined florals, amber is the “new musk”, though less reminiscent of bath gel and washing powder. The very presence of amber’s honeyed warmth is enough to imply opulence – or, more flagrantly, the smell of money. It’s right there in Paco Rabanne’s Lady Million (£33, 30ml edp), the female follow-up to 1 Million, which in its gold bullion-shaped bottle dominated the male fragrance arena in 2009, achieving a record 4.2 per cent of the market share. The defining ingredient of both is Ambroxan, a chemical compound costing €500 a kilo developed by Firmenich in the 1950s to replace the sperm whale secretion ambergris. Synthesised from clary sage, Ambroxan’s white crystals have a musky, woody, animal sensuality not unlike the scent of warm skin. As the presiding spirit of L’Eau d’Issey Absolue Noir (£59, 50ml edp) – the current limited edition of one of the best-loved light, fruity florals – its effect is transformative. The innocuous, clean-linen airiness of the original now takes a darker, velvety, more soignée turn.

Often, when a new scent is introduced to the press, smelling strips are dipped into successive ingredients to demonstrate its construction. Invariably, Ambroxan makes you wish the perfumer had stopped right there – exactly what Romano Ricci (great-grandson of Nina) has done with Juliette Has A Gun’s Not A Perfume (£57, 50ml edp). “I’m pretty obsessed with Ambroxan’s elegance,” Ricci admits. “It’s a back-row chorus girl from the 1950s that has finally moved upfront. Maybe it’s not as powerful as other ingredients, but its ability to be minimalist and extreme at the same time fascinates me,” he explains. It also qualifies Ambroxan as the poster ingredient of scent’s “return to simplicity” trend. But as it warms on each wearer’s wrist, it gives off different inflections – sometimes bright and steely with hints of raspberry, sometimes spicy, golden and caramel-edged.

Flagging up a single, synthetic aromachemical echoes the concept adopted by cultish Berlin-based “anti-perfumer” Geza Schoen. Schoen was the first to build fragrances around two synthetics – woody IsoE Super and Ambroxan – in Escentrics 01 and 02. He then partnered both these scents with further pared-down “subliminal” versions, Molecules 01 and 02, each containing only one aromachemical. Schoen’s latest pairing, Escentric 03 and Molecule 03 (both £74, 100ml) are dedicated to vetiveryl acetate, a fresh, earthy, woody synthetic compound of oil distilled from exotic grass roots. The effect of such molecular subtlety is meant to be pheromone-like – barely detectable to the wearer, yet irresistible to those close by.

It’s not so hard to imagine why. Whether natural or synthetic, molecules with a smooth, woody aspect are luxurious comfort factors in any scent. IsoE Super has been described as a “hug in a bottle”, while new-generation molecules such as cedarwood-like Cashmeran are the olfactory equivalent of snuggling into a soft cashmere sweater. “Molecules such as these push the boundaries for perfumers. They get to their hearts, allowing them to explore new combinations and directions in creativity,” contends Hervé Fretay, global marketing director of fragrance ingredients at leading manufacturer Givaudan.

Perfumer Antoine Lee, also of Givaudan, agrees. In Wonderwood (£64, 100ml edp), the latest Comme des Garçons fragrance, Lee has combined no less than five natural woods and three synthetics with spices such as pepper, incense and nutmeg. Central to this smouldering campfire of a scent is sandalwood, in both natural and synthetic versions. One of perfumery’s oldest and most precious raw materials, this fragrant wood yields the rich, sweet, slightly animalic oil that lends an overwhelming sensuality. Until recently, Mysore sandalwood was the world’s uncontested finest, but sustainability issues and fluctuating quality have led companies such as Givaudan to switch from Indian to Australian suppliers.

As well as partnering with South-Western growers Mount Romance – a relationship that also benefits the harvesting Aboriginal community – Givaudan has synthesised sandalwood analogues to complement the real thing. “Javanol adds power and a rosy creaminess, while Pashminol is a brand-new synthetic that brings out the smooth freshness of Mysore sandalwood,” explains Lee. Meanwhile, International Flavours and Fragrance’s molecule Cashmeran plays the supporting role to chalk, beeswax and a metallic hint reminiscent of scissors in Penhaligon’s men’s fragrance Sartorial (£50, 50ml edt), a tribute to Savile Row tailors Norton & Sons. According to perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour, “The old-wood scent is due to gurjun balsam, a kind of oily exudation with a sweet, subtle, dusty effect, which Cashmeran reinforces.”

It seems that these days, few woody scents worth their shelf space would be caught without a smoky undertow of oud. Also known as Agarwood, oud is the resinous result of mould that attacks the heartwood of the evergreen Aquilaria tree. Traditionally the prized ingredient of Middle Eastern fragrances, the oil it yields has a polarising impact. Its initial rank, decadent odour – reminiscent of fermenting silage – eventually calms down to a hypnotic, incense-like sensuality that justifies its now prolific use. Oud has the potential of making Western scents attractive to a discerning Eastern market, while introducing a new exoticism on the homefront. In Caron’s Secret Oud (£135, 50ml edp) and the new range by So Oud (£99, 60ml edp), the characteristic bitterness is tempered by saffron and Damascene rose; while British, Ghanian-born perfumer Michael Boadi tones down oud with saffron and sandalwood, then builds cool mystique with opoponax and myrrh in Joyous (£140, 100ml edp), from his latest collection for Boadicea The Victorious. But look to the Oud Collection from Boadi’s new Illuminum brand to make an impression: each minimalist scent is designed for maximum impact. Scarlet Oud (£70, 50ml edp) is exactly that – blood-red Indonesian oil with a lingering honeyed incense and just the faintest hint of mould.

There’s something primal and familiar about woody perfumes that make them steady bets in a climate ridden by uncertainty. A comforting, down-to-earth warmth that smokes optimistically upwards to transcend banal stresses and insecurities – what’s not to like, especially in an ambient context? Perfumer Olivier Polge has exploited all these qualities in the covetable Profumi per la Casa for Fornasetti: a room spray (£75) in a Viso-designed glass flask, with whimsical, pixellated features and poire atomiser. The hypnotic, treacly sensuality of this scent is simply far too good to be confined to reodorising your living room. Called Otto, its airy impressions of thyme and lavender settle down smoothly to a comfort zone of orris and cedarwood – an olfactory reference to the Fornasetti furniture-making heritage. But the dreamy birch-tar base is what keeps you revisiting the zone on your forearm where you couldn’t resist a sneaky spritz. “It’s a multifaceted fragrance with Oriental, leathery, woody notes, any of which could be expanded into another fragrance,” agrees Polge. Exactly. But when? And please don’t hold the birch tar…

See also

Perfume