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Marine and aquatic scents

Conjuring memories of sun-drenched days by the sea, marine scents have finally come into their own, says Lucia van der Post, with nostalgic accords that now last well into the evening

August 12 2014
Lucia van der Post

All the great perfume houses know that the scents with the most power to move us aren’t the sophisticated creations that come in exquisite bottles. No, the smells that touch us most are those that lie deep in our unconscious, the ones that evoke half‑forgotten memories and moments from our childhoods – the fragrance of mimosa when we first went to the South of France, the pine trees of the forests where we picnicked one perfect summer’s day, the wood burning in the fireplace on a winter’s night, the haze of tobacco round our father’s tweedy jacket or the scent of polish in our grandparents’ house. These are smells that we never consciously register but which linger in our hearts all our lives. And nearly all the great perfumes, the most successful bottled eaux, reawaken in us these half-buried memories. Take, for example, marine and ozonic scents, which remind us of happy beachside days, when the sun shone and we had sand between our toes and in our sandwiches, when we were carefree and all seemed right with the world. These are near-universal memories and this summer a host of distinguished noses have tried to bottle them.

This is a very new genre. According to James Craven, perfume archivist at Les Senteurs, it is “probably no more than 20 to 25 years old”. He remembers well the first “crashing wave of aquatics in the early 1990s, when Calvin Klein’s Escape and most particularly L’Eau d’Issey by Issey Miyake arrived on the scene. As they came right after the monster power perfumes of the 1980s, customers went mad for them.”

It’s a genre where almost more than any other scent family, so much of the effect depends on the emotional associations of the ingredients – though to make a great perfume it really matters how the creative noses put them together. Mostly, they need some sharp, crisp citrus, some lemon or bergamot. While a seaside ozonic requires a certain warm woodiness, which would come from cedar, sandalwood and amber, a freshwater one calls for an accord of white flowers such as lotus, water lily, jasmine and magnolia. Then there is often a fruity note from watermelon, and if a dry or salty savour is needed, then tea or a touch of wood is added.

Part of the reason the genre is so new is that marine scents are very difficult to do well. As Michael Donovan, perfume connoisseur and PR for several brands, puts it, “If you’re spending £150 on a luxury scent, you rather want it to last, but with marine scents all those fresh, ozoney, sea notes were the first to die so that the very thing you loved them for disappeared and you were left with something… well… ordinary.”

What seems to have happened is that perfumers have become less obsessed with the traditional pyramidal structure of top, middle and base notes. This has freed them up to make sure that the ozoney, marine themes are not overwhelmed as they once were and can run through the whole of the perfume. Aedes de Venustas, the niche but much-admired New York fragrance-based boutique, for instance, showed the way with a (non-marine) radical rhubarb-based scent where the rhubarb notes go all the way through it. And Mark Buxton, who has worked with Comme des Garçons and many other great houses, has given us the lovely Mare Pacifico (£140 for 100ml EDP), a scent he’s made for German company Linari. It has long-lasting ozonic notes that run all through the top, heart and base. He says, “It is important to keep the formula short so you don’t dilute the main idea. To boost marine notes, I use natural products that give the richness and the long-lastingness, as well as strong and expensive musk notes to hold everything together in the dry-down, and very costly concentrates to give the strength. The sophistication comes from the short formula.” The result is irresistibly seductive and radiant, and comes in a bottle as blue as we imagine the Pacific Ocean to be. It’s cool and enticing, and its salty and aquatic overtones are intertwined with a fresh bouquet of tangy lemon, Russian birch leaf, Spanish cypress oil and spicy-flowery maté. It is topped off with kephalis, alluring Indonesian patchouli and Sri Lankan sandalwood surrounded by fresh French moss.

Most connoisseurs think the first great marine scent was Creed’s Erolfa (£150 for 75ml EDP), which launched in the early 1990s and celebrated all the joy of sailing in the Mediterranean. It took a marine theme, using woods, amber, some brilliant citrus for sparkle and some salty accords, all of which, according to Craven, “painted an impressionist masterpiece – a portrait of the Creed yacht, Erolfa, in full sail on a breezy, sunshiney morning, the decks newly varnished, the brass gleaming, the ice and lemon clinking at noon under a flapping awning”. An awesome accomplishment, then.

But it’s really only in the 21st century that these scents have begun to triumph, with creations such as Pierre Guillaume for Parfumerie Générale’s Bois Naufragé (£81.50 for 50ml EDP) taking an entirely new approach, using salty, sun-dried driftwood as its theme, with amber, precious woods and a wonderful green figgy aroma reminding one of groves sweeping down to the shores of the Mediterranean – and underneath it all that faint hint of sun-blessed skin.

But what of the latest marine scents?

Jean-Claude Ellena, Hermès’ distinguished long-time “perfume composer”, had for some time been dreaming of a new perfume that was “redolent of strolls along the beach and the coastguard’s paths” for the Hermessence collection. At about the same time he met Olivier Roellinger, a triple-starred chef who is a master of spices. He inspired him to think of other more exotic seas and the result is Epice Marine (£166 for 100ml EDT), a fragrance launched in 2013 that, like so many of Ellena’s creations, seems to come straight from the pages of his own journal. He uses a synthetic molecule, algenone, which smells of seaweed and lilac blooms – of sea spray and lichens – and has vetiver, bergamot, cardamom and cumin, so that the wild Brittany coast and a seascape “rocked by the waves” springs to mind.

This April, Dolce & Gabbana brought out two limited-edition scents in its Light Blue series: Escape to Panarea (£66 for 100ml EDT) and Discover Vulcano (£64 for 125ml EDT). These are wonderfully evocative, inspired by a love of Sicily and the Mediterranean sea, which is where the pair spend their summer holidays. “We have a house on the Aeolian island of Stromboli,” says Domenico Dolce, “and from there we meander on our boat to the various little islands that dot that magic spot of sea.” Stefano Gabbana adds that he loves “swimming around Basiluzzo and at night taking our dinghy and meeting up with all the other boats at the harbour, where everyone anchors so that you can chat and have a drink in the moonlight. Panarea and Vulcano look rugged from the sea. You need to step into the little harbours, walk among the people in the narrow streets, go to the local restaurants and, most of all, the street markets to discover the true spirit, the soul of these places. These memories are among our most joyful and personal, which is why we decided to dedicate these limited-edition fragrances to Panarea and Vulcano.”

More sea breezes can be found in Laboratorio Olfattivo’s Salina (£90 for 100ml EDP), which is inspired by the tiny island of Salina in the Aeolian archipelago. More than just evocative of this Mediterranean idyll, this is a sensory immersion, whisking you away to sun-drenched shores. Plump with lemon zest, sea salt, pine needles, vanilla, white musk, cedar, marine spray, hot sand and lavender, it lets you taste the salt on your lips, feel the ozone in your lungs and savour the dappled sunlight on your skin, as the rays penetrate the green pine-forest paths that lead you down, through fragrant coastal flora, to the azure sea.

Vista Sul Mare by Linari (£145 for 100ml EDP) uses the fresh citrus notes of Calabrian bergamot. Pink grapefruit, lemon and Italian tangerine join with a cool ozonic accord, ingeniously surrounded by a spicy-floral bouquet of red pepper, cloves, lily of the valley and wild roses to evoke views over an endless blue ocean.

Sarah McCartney’s 4160 Tuesdays has two delightfully tongue-in-cheek homages to happy summer days: What I Did On My Holidays (out late last year) and Sunshine & Pancakes (both £60 for 50ml EDP). What I Did On My Holidays is a playful summary of an afternoon on the pier – the smell of peppermint rock, candyfloss, ice creams, sun oil – all done with coconut, vanilla, cucumber, melon, peppermint, lavender and a soft, misty rosewood. It is an unabashed nod to the nation’s Victorian beach resorts. Sunshine & Pancakes is subtler, evoking a radiant family day on the beach, and McCartney created it for her mother-in-law. Lemon notes lead into honey, jasmine, cedar and vanilla, evoking a sense of sublime relaxation and that air of laid-back holiday tranquillity.

Bobbi Brown has also been having maritime and holiday thoughts. She has just launched Beach (£48 for 100ml EDP), which, she says, smells of “sunscreen, sea and sand – all in one. Whether I spray it on myself or use it as a room spray, its light and refreshing scent makes me feel like I’m at the beach – happy and relaxed.”

At Guerlain, in-house perfumer Thierry Wassler has taken the label’s legendary Terracotta powder and turned it into a fragrance called simply Terracotta Le Parfum (£45 for 100ml EDT). He uses bergamot (a quintessential Guerlain ingredient), tiare flower, ylang-ylang and vanilla to conjure up sun-filled days at the beach.

At Nuxe, Aliza Jabès was thinking along similar lines and asked perfumer Serge Majoullier to turn its popular Huile Prodigieux, a multipurpose oil designed to nourish and protect hair, face and body from ultra-violet rays, into a perfume. The result is Prodigieux Le Parfum (£43 for 50ml EDP), in which bergamot, mandarin, orange blossom, rose, vanilla, coconut and a mineral base note are all used to evoke the smell of holidays and the hot sun on the sand. “I had sexiness in mind,” says Majoullier, “with the sun beating down and the sea on the horizon, and my work involved changing up the tune while ensuring that women would find the oil’s familiar refrain in the perfume.”

But these are merely the first trickle of what seems like a torrent of sun-kissed eaux spilling onto the counters in time for the summer. Les Senteurs has just launched Atelier Cologne’s Cédrat Enivrant (£110 for 200ml), filled with basil, juniper, vetiver and lime shining through the blue waterdrops. Craven describes it as “one of the most adventurous and original of them all – a glittering Florida poolside aquatic – blazing with sun, glinting with spray, like a Hockney painting”.

In March this year, Jean Patou brought back onto the market one of its most successful fragrances ever – Chaldée (£150 for 100ml EDP and EDT). Part of a trio of heritage scents that the house is relaunching exclusively at Harrods, Chaldée was one of the first sun oils to be created. When it was launched in 1927, it was a sensation, coming at the dawn of female emancipation, just as women were beginning to bare their limbs and to sunbathe, as summer holidays became the rage. It has an oriental, floral, powdery fragrance made up of amber and flowers, spice and opopanax, all of which became even more intense under the heat of the sun. So popular was it that it was turned into a gorgeous oriental perfume.

Finally, it seems that as perfumers have come to feel at ease with the aquatic they have begun to add some notes almost as a decorative device, not merely as an end in themselves. Olivia Giacobetti’s En Passant, for instance, created for Frédéric Malle’s Edition de Parfums (£95 for 50ml EDP), has notes that hint at the impression of river water behind the scent of white lilacs, while Jean-Claude Ellena’s Angéliques Sous La Pluies (also for Editions de Parfums, £120 for 100ml EDT) reminds one of nothing so much as spring rain. As Craven puts it, “Their creators have the vision and confidence to weave in an aquatic hint to broaden and amplify their chosen theme. Judicious use of salicylate molecules now brings a sunny flower-fragrant quality to perfume: a hint of Ambre Solaire, a powderiness, a faint spiciness – all invaluable for suggesting sunshine and warmth and a carefree holiday atmosphere.” These perfumes do not mostly have the rich complexity of the grand old classics but come the summer, come breezy beachside picnics, messing around with boats and simply lazing by the pool, they might very well seem perfect.

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Perfume