“Art does not reproduce the visible, rather it makes visible,” wrote the cubist, surrealist and expressionist painter Paul Klee. The same could be said about perfumery, which is an art of intangible substances. The greatest fragrances conjure up the most complex of images, holding the artistic intent of their creators and offering a glimpse into their thoughts and memories. Of course, the goal of a perfumer may not always be that grand (or, given the nature of the market today, they may have neither the time nor opportunity to leave their fingerprint on a finished fragrance). However, when it does happen and a perfume feels more than the sum of its parts, it can touch us as deeply as any great work of art.
One of my favourite examples is Lalique’s Encre Noire Pour Homme (£70 for 100ml EDT), released in 2006, which perfumer Nathalie Lorson composed with the intention of showing off the suave, languid character of vetiver – a note usually seen as bracing and cold. A type of grass originating in India, vetiver is grown to prevent soil erosion and produces a complex essential oil with accents of liquorice, bitter grapefruit peel, smoke and damp earth. Everything that makes it interesting is present in Encre Noire, but Lorson went further. She balanced the different facets of vetiver and highlighted them with musk and woods, fashioning the roughness of roots into reams of black silk.
Jean-Claude Ellena is another perfumer – now retired – whose fragrances illustrate Klee’s point. In his books Perfume: The Alchemy of Scent and The Diary of a Nose: A year in the Life of a Parfumer, he explains how in his compositions he seeks not to reproduce nature but to communicate his own ideas about it. His voyage into vetiver, Terre d’Hermès (£57 for 50ml EDT), moves away from the roughhewn image of roots and explores their often-forgotten crisp, mineral nuances. The perfume’s refinement and its luminous take on woody notes make it one of Ellena’s most original compositions.
Another vetiver interpretation, halfway between the dark richness of Lalique’s Encre Noire and the mineral brightness of Terre d’Hermès, is the Pour Elle version of Encre Noire (£80 for 50ml EDP). (Although the Pour Homme and Pour Elle designations should be treated as mere guidelines; both can be worn by men and women.) Encre Noire Pour Elle was created by Christine Nagel, who today works as an in-house perfumer for Hermès. The fragrance is her vetiver, which she sees as soft as cashmere. Nagel peels back the woody, salty layers and sprinkles the milky green heart of vetiver with violets and roses. The result is unexpected, but all the more memorable for it.
Victoria Frolova has been writing her perfume blog boisdejasmin.com since 2005. Her explorations of fragrance touch upon all elements that make this subject rich and complex: science, art, literature, history and culture. Frolova is a recipient of three prestigious Fragrance Foundation FiFi Awards for Editorial Excellence and, since receiving her professional perfumery training, has also been working as a fragrance consultant and researcher. To read more of her columns, click here.