The heat is on, summer has arrived in most parts of the world, and the search for something cool, refreshing and bright has begun. In the perfume world, one fragrance that may come to mind is the orange-based Bigarade Concentrée from Frederic Malle. Another option might be Orange Sanguine from Atelier Cologne.Though I’d initially planned to review both fragrances together, the length was becoming a bit ludicrous and a split review seemed best. So, first up, is Bigarade Concentrée, and then, tomorrow, Atelier’s Orange Sanguine.
The luxury fragrance house Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle is one of the most respected niche perfume lines in the world. It was founded in 2000 by Frederic Malle, a man who has luxury perfume in his blood. His grandfather founded Christian Dior Perfumes, and his mother later worked as an Art Director for the same perfume house. In 2002, Malle teamed up with famed perfumer, Jean-Claude Ellena, to create Bigarade Concentrée. “Bigarade” refers to the bitter orange tree and its fruit, like the kind from Seville that is used in marmalade, though the term is also sometimes used as shorthand for neroli, the blossom from the tree. Malle’s fragrance is a citrus aromatic eau de parfum which the company’s website describes as follows:
Based on a new bitter orange essence developed especially for Jean-Claude Ellena and obtained by molecular distillation, Bigarade Concentrée imparts a bitter freshness. Its overdose of hesperidic notes combined with a touch of rose expresses a unique natural transparency. A woody base of hay and cedar adds lusty warmth. Bigarade Concentrée: A lasting natural freshness.
Fragrantica lists its notes as follows:
Top note is bitter orange; middle note is rose; base notes are cedar, grass and hay.
Bigarade Concentrée opened on my skin with crisp citruses. At first, it was actually a lemon-scented aroma, followed moments later with orange. The fruit feels like fresh, sweet, concentrated orange pulp but, also, like something a little more bitter.
Then, the confusion set in. I smelled cumin. Without a doubt, it was the sweaty, slightly skanky, stale scent of body aroma triggered by cumin. I was so bewildered, I re-checked the Malle website description and then Fragrantica. Not a mention of cumin anywhere. I examined my vial more closely to see if there was a mistake on the name, but no. So, then, I applied the perfume to a different part of my arm and… cumin again. One rather frantic Google search later, it appears that almost everyone smells cumin in Bigarade Concentrée. Basenotes‘s thread for the fragrance is filled with comments about the note which led one poster to write about “overpowering body odor,” while another compared the scent to “a cab driver eats an orange.” A few adore it, with comments about how it is “ripe and sexy” in a “sweaty man” sort of way. Obviously, it’s a very subjective, personal matter. I, personally, am not a fan of spending a lot of money to smell like stale, unwashed sweat.
In fairness, there is much more to Bigarade Concentrée than citrus and body odor. Soon after that opening blast, notes of fresh, green grass set in, accompanied by dry hay and a light touch of abstract woods. Like most of Jean-Claude Ellena’s creations for Hermès, Bigarade Concentrée bears his signature minimalism: the whole thing is incredibly sheer, lightweight, low projecting, and fleeting in feel. It becomes a skin scent on me in as little as 3 minutes. It’s also extremely linear and never changes substantially, especially once the top notes burn off. At the 20 minute mark, the perfume feels a lot like tangerines over hay and grass with that constant touch of sweaty cumin and a touch of hay hovering in the background. I never smell the rose accord but, instead, there is something that feels like a geranium leaf, right down to its fuzzy, slightly pungent, green leaf. It’s a subtle note, and it’s probably the result of the bitter orange bigarade combining with the grass and hay.
Around the 40 minute mark, Bigarade Concentrée turns into stale cumin and hay with bursts of juicy orange lurking at the edges. It sits so close to the skin, you have to bring your nose right to your arm to detect it. By the end of the second hour, I thought the perfume had gone completely but, no, it is still, in fact, lingering as a very abstract, creamy, soft, beige woods fragrance with orange notes. It is lightly infused with a dry spice that is not quite as prominently cumin-based but, like the rest of the drydown accords, it’s very generalized, vague and amorphous. And, that’s about it. Woods and oranges.
All in all, Bigarade Concentrée lasted about 4.5 hours on my skin — and I’m luckier than most. On Fragrantica, the perfume receives low marks for longevity and sillage, with one poster saying it vanished within 30 minutes from his skin. Another wrote, with undoubted hyperbole, that it lasted all of 30 seconds. I suspect that the perfume’s extremely low sillage and that trademark Jean-Claude Ellena minimalism creates the impression that Bigarade Concentrée has gone before it actually has. At various times — the 40 minute mark, the 90 minute one, and 2 hours in — I felt sure it was completely finished; the fragrance was so thin as to feel almost nonexistent. But, no, for some reason, the underlying base notes lingered on in the most ephemeral form for a few more hours.
There is a definite need in every perfume wardrobe for a light, sunny, citrus scent for summer and, if you like the twist of dry woods with animalic, sweaty cumin, then you should consider giving Bigarade Concentrée a sniff. It’s quite a popular fragrance in some quarters with many appreciating the non-sweetened orange note and that “austere” woody drydown. In others, however, it is greeted with disdain as much ado about nothing, especially given the high Frederic Malle price.
How you feel about Bigarade Concentrée may ultimately depend on how much you’re a fan of Jean-Claude Ellena and his minimalism. One Fragrantica reviewer considers him to be “kind of lazy perfumer that has learned to translate his laziness into a style which able to please and attract fans” — and, obviously, he wasn’t impressed with Bigarade Concentrée. And, as a whole, Fragrantica’s commentators seem underwhelmed to negative. (On Basenotes, however, reviews are much more enthusiastic, though many have significant problems with longevity and/or sillage.)
As a side note, I should mention that Jean-Claude Ellena’s creation for Cartier — Déclaration — seems to be extremely close to Bigarade Concentrée. I haven’t tried it, but the two perfumes are often compared to each other. From the comments and notes, Déclaration seems to be much spicier and woodier, but there are enough similarities to warrant a number of people bringing it up as a reference point, passing on Bigarade Concentrée, and/or feeling that Ellena is a lazy perfumer.
Interestingly, a number of bloggers and perfume critics seem to wholeheartedly gush over the fragrance. I’ll ignore the blogs and go straight to Chandler Burr, the former New York Times perfume critic, who gave it Four Stars in his 2006 review entitled “Dark Victory“:
Ellena’s Bigarade Concentrée … plays brilliantly with darkness. Bigarade smells like a person trapped in a complex weather system, the wonderful scent of a guy’s armpit and a woman’s humid skin washed in fresh rainwater and ozone (Malle doesn’t waste time gendering his scents, and Bigarade is for both women and men). It is a masterful juxtaposition, and smelling Bigarade is like looking down into a well of cool, black water. Your retinas expand from the strange pleasure of this scent.
“Cool, black water”? Ozone? I’m lost. The only part of his assessment that I agree with is the comparison to armpits. And I’m not a fan.
The famed perfume critic, Luca Turin, doesn’t mention armpits, but he too liked Bigarade Concentrée, though he doesn’t seem hugely overwhelmed. In his Three Star review for Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, he wrote:
[bigarade oil] has an interesting mixture of citrus friendliness and resinous austerity. Ellena’s composition emphasizes both aspects, at the expensive of what to my nose is a slightly rubbery top note. Very pleasant, deliberately simple, but somewhat lacking in mystery.
I think that may be too kind, but at least he isn’t gushing unfathomably about ozonic elements and dark pools of water. Personally, I’ll eschew the experts’ opinion and stick to the laymen’s general lack of enthusiasm for Bigarade Concentrée. In my opinion, it’s an okay scent that is hyped only because it comes from Jean-Claude Ellena and Frederic Malle. I certainly don’t think it warrants the Malle price tags, especially given its problematic longevity and nonexistent sillage. You can do better, starting with Orange Sanguine whose review will be up tomorrow.