Perfume Review – Hermès Paprika Brasil: Chilies & Woods

Shakespeare was right when he said that a rose, by any other name, still smells as sweet. However, a name can be bloody important! In perfumery, a name can convey either a wealth of details about the type of scent a perfumer has made, or the sort of impression that a perfume seeks to evoke. A name can also lead to great expectations (to bring up Dickens this time), followed by a great, whacking THUMP of disappointment as the consumer falls down the cliff to a different reality. Exhibit No. 1 for that would be Chanel‘s Coco Noir which is neither Coco nor Noir, and as such was met with howls of disappointment from many perfumistas.

Paprika BrasilExhibit No. 2 would be Paprika Brasil from Hermès. It was released in 2006 as part of Hermès’ exclusive, in-store Hermessence line of fragrances and created by Hermès’ in-house perfumer, Jean-Claude Ellena, a legendary perfumer who was recently called by Der Spiegel “the best ‘nose’ in the world.” Ellena is known for his minimalistic approach to ingredients, and for perfumes that always have depth and complexity, despite seeming sheer and transparent. That sheerness is rather a signature of his and, for some, was taken to unfortunate extremes with Paprika Brasil.

An even greater problem was the name itself which led to certain perceptions of what the perfume would entail. A number of the negative reviews explicitly mention that the reviewer thought the perfume would be something very different than what it was and, as such, was a disappointment. Victoria at Bois de Jasmin felt that way, saying “I feel particularly disappointed with this latest creation. Perhaps, it is due to my high expectations.” However, no-one was quite as blunt about it as Robin at Now Smell This who wrote:

My initial trials of Paprika Brasil cannot be described in any way other than disappointing, and the experience points to the dangers of building up expectations based on the fragrance name, back story and notes. I suppose what I was expecting was a deep woods scent with exotic spices, something that would evoke the jungles of Brazil before the impact of globalization, where Lévi-Strauss was said to have found “a human society reduced to its most basic expression”.

Jean-Claude Ellena. Source:CaFleureBon

Jean-Claude Ellena. Source:CaFleureBon

On the Hermès website, Jean-Claude Ellena describes Paprika Brasil as “[t]he ravaging power of paprika and brasil wood, tempered by iris. Seductive, passionate, unexpected.” He adds:

A tinctorial wood to colour fabrics red, ‘brasil wood’ gave its name to the country. With its power of suggestion, “bois de braise” sparked my imagination and I chose paprika to illustrate it. By mixing and matching, I recreated its scent, which is more secretive and discreet than its taste.

The Fragrantica classifies Paprika Brasil as “Woody Spicy”, but it doesn’t list the full notes. NST states that they include:

pimento, clove, paprika, iris, green leaves, reseda, ember wood (aka Brazilwood or Pernambuco) and woody notes.

I had read the reviews of Paprika Brasil before trying it and — since I have a tendency to root for the under-dog — I was initially quite huffily indignant on the poor perfume’s behalf! It was quite fascinatingly original at the start, and I was baffled by the degree of contempt and animosity which Paprika Brasil has engendered in some.

Pimento chilies.

Pimento chilies.

My immediate reaction to the opening seconds was, “Oh my God, I smell like a chili pepper!” There was an astonishingly powerful, sharp burst of red pimento chilies, followed by green bell peppers, cloves and a touch of paprika. (I wrote in my notes: “Add lettuce, ranch salad sauce, and I’m lunch?”) The paprika is never particularly strong on me, Bell Pepperthough others have reported a different experience, but the green bell pepper is very prominent. It is tamed about ten minutes in, countered by the advent of wood notes that are faintly smoky, peppery and spicy.

Brazilwood or the Pernambuco tree.

Brazilwood or the Pernambuco tree.

Twenty minutes in, a soft green note unfurls, like leaves opening in the sun, and there is the start of the iris note. The perfume has quickly progressed from a chili-vegetable scent into something entirely different and, frankly, it’s rather astonishing. It’s turned into a very airy rendition of spicy, peppery woods with a touch of green and the softening note of floral iris. I found it very original and quite fascinating. I sniffed my arm constantly and with a smile, always wondering about those incredibly dismissive and often caustically sneering reviews.

The scent is translucent in a way and, yet, also strong. It doesn’t project outwardly with vast trails, but what you do smell is quite noticeable. Or, perhaps, I’m merely surprised by the strength given that a commentator on Basenotes disdainfully dismissed Paprika Brasil as “one of Ellena’s more anemic and evanescent efforts.” This is not my definition of “anemic.”

Harvesting the iris root. Source: Weleda UK

Harvesting the iris root.
Source: Weleda UK

As time progresses, 2.5 hours in, the wood notes start to dominate. They are both smoky (black) and spicy (red chili). I wonder if some of the Brazilian reseda or ember woods used have an aroma similar to guaiac because I smell the same sort of black peppery notes here.  The iris has also emerged to great extent. It is oddly both floral and earthy at the same time, as though Ellena used both the orris root and the flowers. It’s never powdery, though there is a faint, subtle, almost microscopic element of powder hovering around the edges. As several commentators on Basenotes also found, the contrasting floral and earthy notes counter the dryness of the wood and spices.

It’s at this time that my feelings start to change about Paprika Brasil. It started to wear me down a little. By the end, about 4.5 hours all in all, I had completely reversed my position and had enough. I don’t know if it was the linearity or the constant pepper accord but something had become too much. There were so many conflicted thoughts darting through my mind.

For one thing, where on earth would I wear this scent??! The supermarket produce aisle would seem to be the most logical choice, since I certainly would not wear this out on a date or to a party! As we’ll discuss shortly, it’s not cheap, so it’s far too expensive for the dog park. And, frankly, that may be the only place where I wouldn’t be embarrassed to smell like chili peppers. I live in Texas. There is a Mexican food place every few blocks. (I cannot stand Mexican food, if I might add.) Paprika Brasil’s green bell pepper may have been apparent mostly in the opening, but the red chilies are constant and, due to where I live, the mental associations are inevitable. (Salsa, anyone?)

The Hairy German

The Hairy German

I spent an inordinate amount of time attempting to determine what might have been a better, more accurate, potentially less disappointing name for the perfume — and concluded that the task is a lot harder than it seems. Neither “Chili Woods” or “Peppered Woods” has much élan. Nor does “Airy Pimento” or “Peppered Iris.” Frankly, I’m at a bit of a loss with regard to all aspects of this scent, and it must have shown because I suddenly noticed The Hairy German watching my face with great concern.

One thing that bewilders me is how different my experience was from many others. Victoria on Bois de Jasmin found this a cold, “watery and limpid” fragrance:

In comparison to the other fragrances from Hermessence collection, I find Paprika Brasil to have the least presence and impact. Theoretically, the weightlessness and the airy quality of spices and woods is interesting, but as a whole, the composition appears watery and limpid, a sketch that never seems to attain the form one wishes it to possess. Being an admirer of Jean-Claude Ellena’s work and Hermessence Collection, I feel particularly disappointed with this latest creation. Perhaps, it is due to my high expectations. Perhaps, it is because I already have encountered two fragrances this year that explore the same theme of cool rocks and damp earth via iris and green notes with much more interesting results– Eau d’Italie Sienne L’Hiver and L’Artisan Parfumeur Dzongkha. Paprika Brasil appears to me like a modern art piece, without a key to understanding its concept.

NST also found it wan, though it classifies Paprika Brasil as a predominantly iris fragrance:

It is first and foremost an iris fragrance, and a sheer one at that. The top notes have the same feel of rooty carrot that you find in Hermès Hiris, but without the sharp metallic twang. There is a slight whisper of green, and a dusting of dry paprika, and yes, there are woods, but the whole is extraordinarily muted, and easily has the least presence of any of the Hermessences so far.

As a rule, I like sheer and muted. It is one of the reasons I admire Jean Claude Ellena: he can work magic without shouting, and while using a very limited palette. But Paprika Brasil feels almost wan, and so entirely fails to live up to its name that it is hard, quite honestly, to find a way to approach it with an open mind. Last night and again this morning, I tried it next to a group of my favorite iris scents, and it failed to make much of a showing.

I’ve only tried Ambre Narguilé thus far from the Hermessence collection, so I can’t compare how Paprika Brasil measures up to the line as a whole. Taking just Ambre Narguilé as a point of comparison, yes, it is far more robust, but Paprika Brasil is hardly a weak, wan, cold scent on my skin. It’s all hot chilies and peppered woods. It’s monotonous, exhausting and, ultimately, the furthest thing from versatile, but it’s not cold and reminiscent of “cool rocks”! None of the commentators on Basenotes found such coldness either, but, rather, dryness, paprika, iris and woods. To the extent that it doesn’t have much depth, body or complexity, then perhaps, yes, Paprika Brasil is “watery” in that sense — but only in that sense.

My experience seems tiny bit closer to that of Marina from Perfume-Smellin’ Things who noted the predominance of  the chili note, but who ultimately found Paprika Brasil to be a huge disappointment:

The spicy notes bear a promise of a scent that is red-hot, fiery, supremely piquant, but Paprika Brasil is much more tame then what the presence of pimento, paprika and clove might suggest. It starts green and dry, making me think of twigs and indeed green leaves. A delicate spicy accord is woven into that greenness, it grows stronger as the scent develops but is always kept in check by the leaves and the wood and the cool earthiness of iris (which is very apparent on my skin). The spice that I smell here is mostly pimento and it is a beautiful note, crimson, dry and appealingly sharp; it saddens me that this attractive piquancy was not allowed to be more prominent. No, I don’t want a scent where other notes are overwhelmed by the spices, but neither do I like the idea of a scent where the spices are beaten into submission by the rather pale and unexciting rest of the ingredients. Dusty-green, too dry, too delicate, dull and fleeting, Paprika Brasil was a bitter disappointment for this fan of the other five scents in the Hermessence series.

I didn’t find Paprika Brasil to be so green, delicate or pale, and the spices were always there, permeating the iris and wood notes. However, at the end of the day, it was simply just too exhausting to wear.

The opportunity to smell like a bell pepper, then iris and chili-ed woods, does not come cheaply. Paprika Brasil costs $235 and is sold only in the large 100ml/3.4 oz bottles directly from Hermès itself (whether online or via its boutiques). It doesn’t come in any other size and only comes in the eau de toilette concentration.

The Hermès travel or gift set.

The Hermès travel or gift set.

However, and this part is key, Hermès sells a travel or gift set of four 15 ml/0.5 oz bottles for $145. You can get 4 bottles of any perfumes in the Hermessence line, or all 4 can be the same perfume. In short, for $145, you would be getting 60 ml or about 2.0 oz of perfume, which is more than the standard 1.7 oz bottles for perfumes. As such, it is a much more manageable price. If you want to smell like iris and pimento-ed wood, that is.

I don’t.

DETAILS:
Paprika Brasil is available on Hermès’ website at the link provided above. Samples are available at a number of sites, as well as on eBay (which is where I obtained my 4 ml vial). Surrender to Chance sells samples starting at $3.99 for the smallest size. As always, I think they have the best shipping prices, so I would start  there if you’re interested in testing out the perfume.
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Perfume Review – Hermès Ambre Narguilé

I may have narrowed the search for my perfect amber. I need to say that at the onset because it’s quite an unexpected, unlikely thing. Certainly, I didn’t expect to like — let alone adore — a scent described as “cinnamon apple pie” by most commentators. I am not a fan of foody or gourmand perfumes. And I am most definitely not a fan of paying high prices to smell like cloying dessert. But there is something intoxicating, sensuous, comforting and unexpected about HermèsAmbre Narguilé. Of course, the incredibly intense ambre-narguil_fumes of rum that emanated from my arm for a few hours may have intoxicated my normal sensibilities, but this really is a boozy amber and tobacco scent par excellence.

Ambre Narguilé was released in 2004 as part of Hermès’ exclusive, in-store Hermessence line of fragrances. It was created by Hermès’ in-house perfumer, Jean-Claude Ellena, a legendary perfumer who was recently called by Der Spiegel “the best ‘nose’ in the world.” Ellena is known for his minimalistic approach to ingredients, and for perfumes that always have depth and complexity, despite seeming sheer and transparent. That sheerness is rather a signature of his and, as I will explain later, a significant aspect of Ambre Narguilé.

Jean-Claude Ellena. Source:CaFleureBon

Jean-Claude Ellena. Source:CaFleureBon

On the Hermès website, Jean-Claude Ellena describes Ambre Narguilé as “[a]mber honey with swirls of smoke from the East. Savory, sensual, enveloping.” (Narguilé means a tobacco water pipe, or hookah, in French.) His goal in creating the perfume was as follows:

Amber, the Western expression of Eastern fragrances, has a warm, enveloping, almost carnal smell. I wanted to imbue this idea of amber with the memory of the East I love where tobacco – blended with the smells of fruit, honey and spices – is smoked in narguilés, or water pipes, and where swirls of smoke diffuse a sweet sense of intoxication.

The Fragrantica classifies Ambre Narguilé as a spicy oriental, but it doesn’t list the full notes. From what I’ve read in a few comments, the complete list seems to be:

benzoin, labdanum, musk, vanilla, caramel, honey, sugared tonka bean, grilled sesame seeds, cinnamon, rum, coumarin, and white orchid.

The opening burst of Ambre Narguilé was a huge surprise to me. From all the comments, I had expected a massive dose of cinnamon apple pie. I was fully intent on hating the perfume and, actually, I wondered why I was even bothering at all. After all, no good thing can come of a scent described as gourmand, right? Well, wrong. I clearly need to remind myself not to prejudge a whole category of perfumes. (Except soapy-clean laundry detergent scents. There, I plan to continue to prejudge as much as ever.)

Source: Fabio Visentin

Source: Fabio Visentin

Instead of a cloying dessert, Ambre Narguile opened as a spicy, sweet white floral. I blinked. White orchid? I never expected to smell white orchid with that list of potent, warm ingredients. But I did now. The perfume was a rich, floral vanilla with toasted, warm tonka bean, white rum and a hint of tobacco. I didn’t get any of the heavy powder that often goes with tonka bean, especially in Guerlain fragrances where the tonka bean’s powdery notes are responsible in large part for the signature Guerlinade.  I wonder if perhaps toasting the bean made a difference and warmed up the notes instead of bringing out its more powdery side? Whatever the reason, the vanilla from the tonka bean was sheer, not cloying.

Tonka Beans.

Tonka Beans.

Two minutes in, suddenly, the cinnamon apple pie hits me. It’s incredibly concentrated, particularly for a scent that does not, in fact, have any apples in it! It’s odd; Ambre Narguilé is still a spicy floral scent, but now, it is also slightly gourmand. A few minutes later, the apple becomes a bit less predominant and I get a strong burst of rum, raisin, rum raisin, rum, rum and more rum. It’s not the light white rum of the start, but dark, black rum. The sort you see in pirate movies. There is so much rum, I feel a bit light-headed and drunk from it, but in the best way possible. I also suddenly feel as though I’ve had rum raisin pie that has a strong dash of saffron in it. Good lord, that’s good! I ponder whether to put on Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean.

About fifteen minutes in, I smell the faintly smoky aspects of the labdanum wrapping itself around the boozy resins. There is such a rich, nutty, smoky feel to the amber that it feels as though there is Siam Resin in there. And the apple suddenly seems a lot more like cooked plums than the apple of a strudel. I’m surprised that such a sweet, rich scent isn’t actually all that sweet. There is a dryness that I think comes from the labdanum which prevents this from being cloying or too dessert-y. The dryness makes me agree a lot more with Fragrantica’s description of this as a “spicy oriental” and not as a gourmand fragrance. It also adds to the impression that Jean-Claude Ellena had intended: shimmering, swirling whispers of smoke. He was right: the smoke helps to “diffuse” the sweetness, as does the hay-like aspects of coumarin.

After twenty more minutes of alternatively contemplating rum-drinking pirates and wanting to eat my arm, Ambre Narguilé starts to change. There is the lovely opening hints of tobacco but not just any tobacco. I smell my late uncle’s pipe: sweet, floral, almost rose-like, with fruity and apple overtones to its spiced tobacco. It’s such a strongly evocative scent that I suddenly miss him very much. The rose and apple

A Middle Eastern hookah water pipe or narguilé.

A Middle Eastern hookah water pipe or narguilé.

overtones also call to mind memories of using a hookah, or water pipe, a few years ago when that trend was very “in” and popular. The tobacco there — as in Ambre Narguilé — was never acrid, bitter, burning or strong like that of cigarettes, but lighter, softer, warmer, sweeter, and aromatically fruity. I’m amazed by just how well Ellena has nailed the hookah or narguilé aspect of things in this perfume. Clearly, it’s a result (in some part) of the labdanum, coumarin, and tonka bean, but that doesn’t really explain how he managed fruity, rosy, floral pipe tobacco in a perfume that has neither fruit nor any significant florals! I can’t understand it.

Another thing I can’t understand is just how sheer this scent is, while simultaneously being rich, narcotic and heady. So many of the reviews of Ambre Narguilé reference its “sheerness” and “transparency,” references which had made absolutely no sense toHookah me when I’d read them a few days ago. How could those two adjectives be used to describe a perfume as rich and sensuously deep as this one was supposed to be? I was baffled. Now, however, I can completely understand it. For such a seemingly gourmand scent, it is neither cloying nor diabetes in a bottle. It’s somehow light and airy, while simultaneously being almost narcotic-like in its headiness. It’s hard to explain, but imagine a light breeze. It gently wafts passed you, but it carries a maximum burst of concentrated smell.

I think only someone like Jean-Claude Ellena could manage such a seeming contradiction in spirit, and manage it quite so deftly. Perhaps he really is a “luminist” as he was recently described on Ca Fleure Bon, the haute perfume site of experts. They called him a “luminist” in terms of both his approach to ingredients and the final result. What I think they’re talking about is that he is a rare perfumer who manages to use a small range of ingredients in a way that illuminates them with both lightness and the most concentrated aspect of their essence. (At least, that’s how I interpreted their comments.)

Here, Ellena blends together a range of rich, ambery, spice ingredients in a way that amplifies their essence, while simultaneously creating an airy feel.  Ambre Narguilé has huge sillage, but you can also smell the concentrated nature of the ingredients. Yet, none of them are cloying or excessively sugary. More importantly, none of them are synthetic or artificial. There is no sharp screech of synthetic compounds, no clanging or burning in your nose, and no vaguely plastic-y tones.

Instead, it’s an incredibly well-blended, heady, cozy scent that has subtle transitions. The changes from stage to stage are not abrupt; the perfume moves seamlessly from that opening burst of white floral vanilla and white rum, to the cinnamon apple pie stage, to the rum raisin and rum, then to the tobacco, before ending in its final stage. Almost 6 hours later, Ambre Narguilé turns into a tobacco and wood scent with a leather undertone. The woody notes almost smell like cedar, but it is the leathery undertone to the pipe tobacco that suddenly explains why I like this scent so much: it reminds me of my beloved Karl Lagerfeld for Men (vintage) that is one of my favorite old fragrances to wear. Ambre Narguilé has the rich tobacco with the amberous, incense and leather feel of the Lagerfeld, but without the latter’s powder notes and with a hell of a lot more rum.

Which brings me to popular dessert smells from brands like Philosophy, Bath & Body Works, Britney Spears (for example, Fantasy which evokes floral supermarket cupcakes), Jessica Simpson (for example, Fancy, which evokes caramel and vanilla), and the like. I like Philosophy and BBW for what they are, and I have owned a number of things from each. (I have never owned Britney Spears or Jessica Simpson, and I never shall.) But, let’s admit it, the fragrances they create are completely artificial. To be as polite as I can possible be, they don’t smell particularly expensive, mature or natural. They are huge money-makers and extremely popular, but they are not expensive in scent or in cost. One reason for their profitability is the use of artificial, synthetic compounds which are significantly cheaper to use. The drawback to these artificial compounds is that they can be extremely sharp, cloying, excessively sugary and one-dimensional.

There is nothing artificial or cheap about the smell of Ambre Narguilé. It doesn’t smell of synthetics. It smells extremely expensive. And I don’t think you could get a comparable scent among the commercial, mass-produced, gourmand fragrances out there. According to a commentator on Basenotes, the famous NY Times perfume critic, Chandler Burr, said Ambre Narguilé:

is not merely the best; there is simply nothing like it on the market, period. And no one will ever do it as well again.

While I love the scent, I think Mr. Burr is pushing it and waxing a little too rhapsodic. But I do agree with him to an extent because I am convinced that there is no-one who could do it better amongst the plethora of dessert scents littering the aisles of Macy’s, Dillard’s, Sephora or the like.

But what about higher-end perfume houses? There, Ambre Narguilé would seem to have serious competition in terms of quality, as well as some overlap with existing amber scents. I’ve read a lot of comparisons on Basenotes to Frederic Malle‘s Musc Ravageur, though there seems to be no consistency in the comments as to how they differ or are alike. Some say that Ambre Narguilé is like Musc Ravageur’s dry-down, only sweeter and less musky. Others say the exact opposite. Interestingly, a Basenotes poll asking for people’s preference between the two resulted in a complete 50/50 tie. Other potentially similar scents that have been mentioned: L’Artisan Parfumeur‘s Ambre Extreme (said to be less spicy than the Hermès); Parfum d’Empire‘s Ambre Russe (said to be significantly richer, spicier and deeper than the Hermès); and Frapin 1270. I hear the last one mentioned a lot on MakeupAlley as an almost complete dupe for Ambre Narguilé (which has a 4.3 out of 5 score there). Unfortunately, I haven’t smelled any of those fragrances, so I cannot judge, but if you own one of them, you may not need Ambre Narguilé.

Do you, in fact, need Ambre Narguilé? That’s hard to say. For all its loveliness, I will be the first to say that it is really quite a simple, linear scent. Yes, it has transitions but, as a whole, it isn’t a complex, heavily nuanced, perfume that constantly transforms and morphs. The notes are essentially the same, though they vary as to degree or to the ingredient being emphasized, with more fruity notes at the beginning and strongly tobacco notes accompanying faintly leathery, woody accords at the end. But amber and tobacco are constant threads running from top to bottom in some form or another. As I frequently say, there is nothing wrong with linearity if you love the notes in question. And I think comfort scents are, in particular, more suited to being linear.

In terms of sillage and longevity, Ambre Narguile does well in both categories. The perfume projects for the first 2 hours quite forcefully before becoming slightly softer and more subtle. It became close to the skin about 4 hours in. And it lasted, all in all, about 7 hours on me. (Again, I have skin that ravages perfume.) On others, however, the average length of time seems to be between 12-15 hours! That is remarkable for a scent that is a mere eau de toilette. The famous perfume critic, Chandler Burr of the New York Times, told Oprah:

The rule is: Pretty is fleeting; heavy sticks around. Take the utterly genius Hermès Ambre Narguilé. Here’s a perfume of such luscious perfection, you want to melt into it as if it were an expert beurre caramel. Ambre Narguilé will not only dance all evening with the one that brung it, it’ll take you all the way home, too.

Perhaps the dispositive issue with Ambre Narguilé is its cost. It costs $235 and is sold only in the large 100ml/3.4 oz bottles directly from Hermès itself (whether online or via its boutiques). It doesn’t come in any other size and, again, it only comes in the eau de toilette concentration. However, and this part is key, Hermès sells a travel or gift set of

The Hermès travel or gift set.

The Hermès travel or gift set.

four 15 ml/0.5 oz bottles for $145. You can get 4 bottles of any perfumes in the Hermessence line, or all 4 can be the same perfume, such as Ambre Narguilé. In short, for $145, you would be getting 60 ml or about 2.0 oz of perfume, which is more than the standard 1.7 oz bottles for perfumes. As such, it is a much more manageable price. However, even then, it is still more expensive than Ambre Narguilé’s amber counterparts: Lucky Scents sells Frapin 1270 in a 100 ml bottle for $155, while Parfum d’Empire’s Ambre Russe is $75 for 50 ml and $110 for 100 ml. Despite their more affordable cost, however, more than enough people (including a number who seem to own one of the other amber scents) can’t seem to live without Ambre Narguilé and shell out $145 for the gift set. It all depends on how much you love boozy, smoky amber and if you consider Ambre Narguilé to be “utterly genius,” or just merely adequately cozy.

I started this review by saying that I had narrowed my search for my perfect amber. If Ambre Narguilé cost less, that search might be over. I really like it that much, and it makes me feel happy. (My German shepherd also adored it and jumped up to repeatedly lick my arm — which he doesn’t usually do when I’m wearing perfume.) I can’t get over how intoxicating that rum was, or how elegantly beautiful that swirling mist of tobacco. But it is simple. And should simple cost that much?

As in most things in life, price is a very subjective, personal thing, and what is worth it for one person may be too much for someone else. For me, the problem is that I’m extremely picky, am constantly inundated with scents I love or am tempted by, could not possibly buy all the things I’d like to buy in one calender year, and have definite cheapskate tendencies. So, I’m not sure that I would spend $145 for Ambre Narguilé. (I certainly wouldn’t spend $235!)

But I am considering it….

DETAILS:
Ambre Narguilé is available on Hermès’ website at the link provided above. Samples are available at a number of sample sites, as well as on eBay. The site I use, Surrender to Chance, sells it starting at $3.99 for the smallest size. As always, I think they have the best shipping prices, so I would start  there if you’re interested in testing out the perfume.

Review: Hermès Elixir de Merveilles Eau de Parfum

Heaven! I rarely have that reaction to new, mainstream or non-vintage perfumes, but this one is sheer heaven. Imagine slipping into a warm pool of creamy custard. As you slide in, you’re surrounded by what is initially a sharp burst of super bright, crisp, fresh orange before — mere seconds later — it turns into the darkness of bitter Seville orange. As you lie there, enveloped as if in a cocoon, sinuous fingers of the darkest, most bitter earthy chocolate wrap themselves like tendrils around your leg. It’s like a fin above the water, while below a huge black shark lies in wait. Patiently. For about 5 minutes. That big monster black is actually a dark, resinous patchouli and balsam wood. It lies in wait, until it slowly rises to the surface. And BITES you! That, my friends, is Hermès Elixir de MerveillesIMAG0032

The “Elixir” (as I shall it from now on) was created in 2006 by the legendary nose, Jean Claude Ellena, and comes in a lovely orange bottle splattered with gold at the top and leaning partially on its side, off-kilter. It is an Oriental Fougère, according to Fragrantica, which essentially means that it has oriental notes mixed with woody ones. The notes are: peru balsam, vanilla sugar, amber, sandalwood, tonka bean, patchouli, siam resin, caramel, oak, incense, orange peel and cedar.

The key notes that you need to really pay attention to at first are the Peru Balsam, the Siam Resin, and the Patchouli, though the cedar and oak become significant later. Now, from my reading of Fragantica’s explanation, peru balsam is a type of wood whose essence has a cinnamon and vanilla smell. At the same time, it has a green olive base which exudes an earthier, as well as bitter, aroma. Resin is slightly different. From general reading, it seems resin is the dark, oozing secretions from a tree that differs from “balsam” mainly in terms of its form and method of preparation. Siam Resin is a type of dark, balsam-ic secretion from a particular type of tree in Thailand, and is supposed to be more smoky and dark than other types of resins. The thing is, both share some great similarities. Peru Balsam and Siam Resin both smell like sweet vanilla but Peru Balsam has a cinnamon aspect too, along with that earthy, bitter edge. In contrast, Siam Resin — which used to be burned as incense — is more smoky and woody. In short, Cinnamon Vanilla with bitter green earth -vs- Sweet Vanilla with smoky, incense and wood.

The reason why I’m emphasizing this at the start is to allay and offset any fears about that orange custard that I mentioned earlier. Yes, the Elixir has been compared to an orange-caramel smoothie but that is really the most superficial possible interpretation possible. Because that orange-caramel smoothie is just the initial tip of a very dark, smoky iceberg.

But let’s start at the beginning. The first sprays of the Elixir creates the most crisp, bright smell of pure orange imaginable. That lasts mere seconds before the orange turns very dark and bitter. Have you had true British marmalade made from real Seville oranges? Those are the oranges I smell at play here. Maybe 30 seconds in, there is an immediate transformation from oranges (of any variety, crisp or bitter) to a suddenly warm…. ooze. I say “ooze” because I’m not quite sure how to describe the warm, seeping, almost thick (but soft) feeling of molting caramel that has suddenly appeared. There is a touch of cinnamon, too.

That seems to be the opening salvo of the Peru Balsam but it’s not jarring. In fact, the perfume has suddenly mellowed into a very complex “whole” with layers and range but, yet, still a “whole,” if that makes sense.  It’s a full package where no-one thing perpetually dominates (except perhaps the bitter orange) and where you can smell numerous different notes all at the same time. And, yet, they blend together perfectly as one. Unctuous, creamy, rich and warm…. it’s like slipping into an enveloping custard bath.

At the same time, the Siam Resin is starting to make itself noticed. That custard bath has a vanilla element that is sweet, yes, but there is also smoke and incense. Smoky vanilla-orange with caramel and incense might lead you to say, “But…. that sounds so damn strange!” It also might lead you to think of food, especially when I mention one of the most obvious impressions from those opening notes: dark, black chocolate.

Yes, chocolate. My immediate first impression was Seville oranges coated in the richest but blackest, most bitter chocolate imaginable. And with a touch of salt on it too! (Do you see why I’m leading you into this very gently, Oh Reader who may hate food scents?)

Don’t worry, this is NOT a food perfume and most definitely not a dessert one. There are chocolate perfumes out there, but this is not one of them simply because of those notes which I said were so key earlier: the Resin, Patchouli, Oak and Cedar. In fact, there is absolutely NO chocolate in the Elixir! What you’re smelling is the Patchouli, a dark, bitter, dirty 70s-kind of patchouli in the best way possible. It’s not a modern patchouli because it has a bite to it. It has a definite kick, like that black shark lurking under the water.

The dirty, earthy patchouli gives this an edge, but it is really anchored in those underlying wood notes which bring an earthy, masculine, woody foundation to the whole perfume. Strong oak, aromatic cedar and the earthy, almost pine tree-like bitterness of the balsam tree make this a scent that is definitely not foody. Plus, it has that Hermès signature in its final stages that is dry. “Dry” in the sense that it’s not sweet, moist, crisp but… dry. It’s almost hard to explain. I’ve heard it time and time again about Hermès fragrances and, after having gone back to smell all mine (as well as my father’s colognes), I can definitely agree. But it’s a bit like Porn as defined by one of the Supreme Court Justices: you may not be able to explain what it is, but you know it when you see it.

The famous perfume reviewer, Luca Turin, supposedly called the Elixir “bon chic, bon genre” and said that its dry-down was “enchanting.” (See a comment from “Lisa.M.Kasper” on Fragrantica, here.) (I don’t have his book, so I’m taking her word for it.) She agrees with Turin, as do I. It absolutely is “bon chic, bon genre” which is a French phrase to describe someone in the “now,” who is chic, stylish and hip. And, yes, the dry-down absolutely is enchanting. It’s all majestic, big, dark bitter tree (almost like a pine tree at times), mixed with peppery incense, smoke, sweetness and spice and just a remaining hint of orange wrapped in dark chocolate.  It’s so unusual that it’s just… baffling…. at times.

If Hermès’ 24 Faubourg was Princess Diana’s signature scent, then this belongs to someone else. I’m tempted to say Audrey Hepburn: sophisticated under a sweet, gamine appearance but not a child. Warm and sexy, but not overtly sexy like Brigitte Bardot. Casual in appearance (no Princess Diana tiaras and dresses here) but always stylish. And with a definitely aloof side under that initial impression of warm approachability.

The Elixir has been called “bi-polar” and I think that is a perfect description for it. It really is bi-polar. How else to explain these enormous extremes? It has also been called extremely masculine. To the point that there are a lot of complaints on Fragrantica, wishing they could like this scent but it’s so masculine. I don’t know when woody or spicy scents became masculine but I don’t consider this one. Nor, for that matter, do I consider it feminine. It is most definitely unisex, and the failure to label it as such is nothing more than a huge mistake in my opinion! I have to wonder if those who find it so masculine went into it expecting an orange dessert or a fruit cocktail scent. If so, then yes, by their standards, I suppose that green pine tree and cedar make it “masculine”. (If you could only hear my audible sniff at that.)

I should confess that I have a terrible weakness for almost all Hermès fragrances (mens, womens, dogs and horses…. no, I kid. Only the men’s and women’s fragrances), but not all Hermès scents make me whimper and moan as I sniff my arm. 24 Faubourg definitely does. And Parfum d’Hermès used to be one of my signature fragrances, though I have not smelled it as its re-named persona, Rouge d’Hermes. But I dislike Caleche from my childhood memories of it and most definitely have not liked most of the Merveilles flankers. The Merveilles line consists of Eau de Merveilles, the original one from 2004, then the Elixir in 2006, followed by Eau Claire and, recently, the very latest, Ambres de Merveilles.

There is a lot of talk about the Elixir versus the original Eau version. I’ve smelled the latter, but I wasn’t particularly impressed. It’s pleasant and nice, but it would hardly drive me to buy a whole bottle. I smelled the Elixir, and promptly went out and did just that. It has a WOW and a POW that, to me, the Eau version does not. The Eau is fresh, airy, clean and zesty. It’s subtle, less warm, and perhaps more demure. I haven’t tested out the Eau beyond some cursory sniffs and sprays, so I can’t speak as to its dry-down or process of development, but I hear that the Elixir and the Eau become very similar towards the end. And it is said that the Eau also has that typically dry Hermès signature at the end as well.

I don’t think the Elixir is for everyone. If your preference is for light, crisp scents, for florals, or for fresh, natural, understated and unobtrusive scents, then I think you will find the Elixir to be overwhelming and you should stay away. Those of you who fear fruity smells and how they may turn on you, I think you should give this a test run. Because it’s not a true fruit cocktail perfume by any means; that strong woody, resinous foundation forbids it! But for those of you who want to feel like Audrey Hepburn, in her capris and ballet flats with an Hermès scarf wrapped around her, as she quietly strolls through a bookstore in autumnal Paris where the orange leaves have fallen all around and where there is a brisk smell of smoky winter in the air… then this is your fragrance.  Bon chic, bon genre indeed!

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Other Details:
Longevity: ENORMOUS, even on me! I would say it lasts a good 8 hours on me. On someone else, probably 10-14 hrs.
Sillage:  Enormous at first but, on me, it becomes less noticeable about 3-4 hours in. On everyone else, I’d guess it would be pretty big.
Cost: $108 for a 1.6 oz bottle of Eau de Parfum (it does not come in Eau de Toilette); $149 for a 3.3 oz. bottle