Simple is rarely a compliment when applied to perfumes. A comparison to a symphony or a classic novel is generally the mark of a superior scent. Yet, as any perfumer knows, creating a simple composition is complicated. When the palette is reduced to a few key elements, the selection of each ingredient becomes critical. It is even more difficult to create a fragrance that evokes a single impression – that of, say, a rose. All of us have our own idea about how a rose smells, and a successful rose perfume will not try to replicate nature. Instead, it will weave a fantasy.
Of course, a single-note perfume doesn’t literally contain just one ingredient; rather it uses a combination of materials, sometimes quite an intricate set, to suggest a dominant impression. Hermès Rose Ikebana (£185 for 100ml EDT), for instance, contains notes like rhubarb and bitter citrus, but they allow the rose to take the leading role. This is a scent that is shimmering and weightless, as if the pink flower that inspired the perfumer were painted on silk.
In Chanel’s Sycomore (£155 for 75ml EDP) the standout note is vetiver, the essence distilled from the fragrant roots of an Indian grass. So complex is its aroma that it can be made easily into a perfume; it suffices to highlight the grapefruit bitterness in the top notes and prolong the musky warmth of the drydown. Chanel, however, has given its composition an abstract quality; it’s still vetiver-dominated, but differs from the natural material by emphasising the dark and woody facets. Wearing Sycomore, I’m reminded of antique books and their leather bindings – a vignette that never loses its appeal.
Perhaps the most curious example of a solinote fragrance is L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Patchouli Patch (£105 for 100ml EDT). Patchouli is associated with Woodstock, tie-dye prints and lava lamps, and while the essence is used widely in perfumery, it’s often presented well scrubbed and well behaved. L’Artisan’s version, however, preserves the oil’s deliciously earthy, naughty nuances, but balances them with iris, musk and star anise. The impression it creates is edgy yet elegant. While it’s uncomplicated, it’s far from simple.
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. @boisdejasmin