That great connoisseur of fine fragrances Chandler Burr, former perfume critic at The New York Times, once opined that a great scent “smells like evening on an island where it is always summer”. It’s an evocative phrase that in a few powerful words tells us much about the enduring allure of perfume. But, lovely though the description is, fine perfumery is too complex, too varied for one image alone to sum up all the magic worlds that scent can conjure up. As if to prove the point, this season there seems to be another, very different mood in the air – a move away from the heavy and the huge towards simplicity, to short formulas using expensive molecules and natural materials of the highest calibre. They are mostly fresh and green and they don’t smell like languorous summer evenings on an island at all, but like spring itself.
James Craven, perfume archivist at Les Senteurs, describes it slightly differently – he perceives what he calls “a new pallor” sweeping the perfume world. “These pale beauties may be a temporary reaction, a rebellion against seven fat years of oud,” he says. “Or it may be something deeper, another of those exercises in nostalgia that take curious forms. Are we associating paleness with the comforting security of the past?” In this way, he says, “Green scents spell liberty, a return to nature, the freedom of childhood, the country versus the wicked city, a caring quality, a feeling (no matter how fantastical and illusory) of grounded reality.” They have a sense, in other words, of the pastoral.
For many, this will be a welcome change. Much of the olfactory world has been engaged in a long romance with huge and memorable eaux for the past few years. Intoxicating and theatrical, these are scents that dominate, that often enter the room before the wearer, where ingredients such as tuberose, heavy amber and patchouli linger on for hours. Nobody is saying that many of them weren’t beautifully made and finely balanced, but a sense remains that there is nowhere further to go. Perfumery is ready for something new and fresh.
And so some of the leading noses are lightening the mood and creating naturalistic fragrances that celebrate the fresh, green scents of spring. As niche fragrance lover Lawrence Roullier White of London boutique Roullier White puts it, “This is a trend that celebrates nature, lifts moods and connects us to the natural world, even when we are in an urban environment. These scents capture the smell of mown grass, of chlorophyll and herbs, of green leaves and sunshine. They possess a bucolic quality that conjures up warm feelings of nostalgia as well as the energy associated with springtime. These are also scents that can be worn all spring and summer long – in the garden, at the office, on the beach.”
Recreating the smell of freshly mown grass, cucumber or wet leaves isn’t easy – these are all quite aqueous notes that can’t be extracted naturally. Perfumers have to rely on man-made molecules to get the effects they are after, and so it is idealised imaginings of nature that are pivotal in these modern constructs. For instance, Ulrich Lang’s new fragrance Apsu (£70 for 100ml EDP) has a central note called cascalone, an exclusive Firmenich molecule that smells exactly like spring water. “This fragrance is all about the new simplicity,” says Lang. “The scents of the past two years have often been overwhelming, too intense and powerful. My new fragrance aims to show that less can be more, especially in the months when we don lighter clothing and need a fragrance that is cool, fresh and easier to wear. Violet leaves are a wonderful ingredient, the most sophisticated of the green notes. I have added two green molecules and a large hit of waterlily over my favourite base of cedar, which adds warmth and grounds the whole fragrance.”
Profumi del Forte’s new scent Prima Rugiada (£148 for 100ml EDP), or “first dew”, was created by Bertrand Duchaufour, a perfumer who says he loves “distorting and deconstructing nature” as well as playing with animalic and natural notes. It contains just the tiniest drop of an exquisitely powerful green molecule called scentenal – a molecule that smells “as if you’ve just snapped a tulip stem”, says Roullier White. Here, Duchaufour takes an aqueous accord to capture the essence of that first fresh morning dew and gives it depth with the addition of spice: cumin, cardamom and black pepper.
At Linari, Mark Buxton has come up with Stella Cadente (£145 for 100ml EDP), which uses galbanum, an intense gum resin. One of the best natural green notes, it has a touch of the earth and is lifted/bolstered by spearmint, thyme, fir balsam and bay leaf. Inspired by the night sky over Marrakech, the scent has a green and sparkling opening, like a great explosion of energy (the shooting star of its name), before segueing into a subtle spicy mood that adds sophistication to the mix.
From Ideo Parfumeurs, a new fragrance house based in Beirut and founded by husband-and-wife team Ludmila Lahlou and Antoine Bitar, comes a clever take on a green perfume. London to Mumbai (£145 for 100ml EDP) is a spiced cologne, an original blend of fresh green notes (green lavender, geranium and clover) and citrus (bitter orange balm) with a burst of cinnamon, ginger and cardamom, making for a nuanced and sophisticated trip from the innovative eccentricity of London to the aromatic balms of an Indian barber.
DS & Durga is another husband-and-wife team creating something of a stir in the olfactory world with a collection of perfumes that always come with a clear narrative. Bowmakers (from £98 for 50ml EDP), for instance, captures the smell of a violin maker’s workshop. They have clearly intuited that there is a new mood abroad, and their Cowboy Grass and Boston Ivy scents (each £98 for 50ml EDP) explore fresh, green, outdoor themes. Cowboy Grass, which homes in on American sagebrush, flowering white thyme and, most unusually of all, prairie switchgrass, is a scent to take one out into the wide open spaces of the West with its huge skies and vast landscapes. Boston Ivy, meanwhile, with its notes of lime, hop flowers, green pepper, clover and galbanum resin brings to mind the Boston of the 1980s and its university buildings covered in green moss, with ivy growing alongside political graffiti and fresh clover salted by the sea.
Pour Un Homme de Caron Sport (£75 for 75ml EDT) is a reinterpretation of the house’s Pour Un Homme, the 82-year-old classic beloved of designers Tom Ford and Hedi Slimane, as well as actress Isabelle Adjani. It’s the work of new nose William Fraysse, son of Richard Fraysse, the in-house perfumer at Caron for over 30 years, and grandson of the man who created Lanvin’s Arpège in the 1920s. It’s a green citrus composed of mandarin with grapefruit and the lemon green of verbena. The cool, minty lavender of the original formula is replaced here with French green lavender and spices (cedarwood, blue ginger and nutmeg) to add depth and warmth. It is still recognisably connected to the original but bumps up the energetic, fresh feel while still retaining an easy-going elegance.
New British fragrance house Bohdidharma was founded by wunderkind Michael Boadi who loves working with green notes. “They can add sparkle and vigour through the dry-down. While they are traditionally used at the opening of a scent, I like to construct a fragrance vertically and have them at the heart so that the freshness lasts a lot longer.” Green Camellia (£165 for 50ml EDP) is based on the scent of green tea. Add bergamot and tobacco leaves and you have a pool of green effervescence to dive into. His Sacred Fig (£165 for 50ml EDP) is inspired by a fig tea popular in Greece; it is intensely green. He uses a combination of molecules and natural essences such as fig-tree leaves and a touch of the fruit’s flesh. “Fig is one of the most joyful, elegant ingredients,” says Boadi. “I added a drop of honey for the sunshine element, and jasmine, which works wonderfully with green notes as they complement each other – the green prevents the jasmine from being too sweet, while jasmine adds a white floral beauty.”
Craven recalls the first crisp green scents that came in after the second world war. “They were wholesome, easy-to-wear greens such as Carven’s Ma Griffe in 1946, or Vent Vert by Balmain, and Jacques Fath’s Green Water, both created in 1947.” He sees those green scents as being full of symbolism. “They expressed a freshness, a rebirth, a purity and a wholesome cleanliness after six years of war – they were all about open spaces after the dark claustrophobia of conflict and were wildly successful and much copied.” Today’s softer greens, by contrast, “tend to be more delicate, more subtle, maybe fruitier, less obvious, more diffuse”. Craven says he loves them, in a certain mood. “Never in winter though, too cold. Spring is the time for a stunning green.”
This new crop offers a just-out-of-the-bath freshness – these are not scents for lush nights at the opera, for going to balls or wearing with rich velvets. Instead they recall French doors flung open onto the garden after a spring-clean. These are scents for the fresh open air, for wearing every day, when they make us feel as if the sun, if not already shining, is just about to come out and the breeze on the air is filled with sweetness.