Perfume Review: Parfum d’Empire Cuir Ottoman

The fluffiest, grey-white clouds flecked with gold, and the most expensive Italian leather shoes — that’s what comes to mind when I wear Cuir Ottoman by Parfum d’Empire, the always interesting French niche brand founded and run by Marc-Antoine Corticchiato. It is a house that seeks to embody history in a bottle, focusing on long-lost empires and the most ancient of ingredients that were “coveted for centuries for their refinement, aphrodisiac properties and use in sacred rituals. It is this age-old link between perfume, eroticism and spirituality that he has sought to revive with Parfum d’Empire.”

Source: 1ms.net wallpapers.

Source: 1ms.net wallpapers.

Cuir Ottoman is a unisex eau de parfum that is intended to explore the best of Turkish leather, done in a manner as indolent as a sultan’s Turkish bath, and wrapped with white flowers “as white-fleshed and opulent as the odalisques painted by Delacroix, Ingres and Matisse.” It’s a glorious thought and, as someone who once planned on becoming a historian, I’ve repeatedly said how much I love the historical inspirations for Parfum d’Empire’s fragrances. The descriptions are often dead on, too, and convey a real sense of the fragrance’s essence. This time, however, I just don’t see it.

Victorian dandies. Men's fashion plate, 1848. Source: Wikipedia.

Victorian dandies. Men’s fashion plate, 1848. Source: Wikipedia.

Cuir Ottoman is the most civilized, refined, sophisticated, smooth, leather fragrance I’ve come across in a while. It starts out being the epitome of cool austerity before turning into an indulgently fluffy, soft cloud — two things I’d never associate with the hedonistic excesses, brutality, or carnal appetites of the Ottoman Empire. To me, this is more Queen Victoria’s leather: well-mannered, preternaturally proper, formal, and controlled in the most luxuriously sophisticated manner. If not Victorian leather, then perhaps Beau Brummell’s from the Regency Era with his focus on refinement that had a slightly dandyish quality about it. Make no mistake, this is not a “Wham, Bam, Thank You, Ma’am” leather that bulges with muscles or macho masculinity. If that’s what you’re expecting, you’ll be sorely disappointed. If, however, you’re looking for supple smoothness that skirts on the feminine and, later, just barely nods its head at the gourmand, then look no further.   

Source: Basenotes/

Source: Basenotes/

The Parfum d’Empire website has a lovely story that explains the elements and inspiration for Cuir Ottoman, but perhaps the most relevant part for the purposes of this discussion concerns the treatment of leather:

Though the leather note is appreciated by connoisseurs, it is so assertive it is seldom featured in perfumery. […][¶][So, Marc-Antoine Corticchiato] set off for the Ottoman Empire, inspired by the secular tradition of leatherwork in Anatolia — up to the 19th century Turkish leather was the most highly coveted in Europe. He added iris, which already presents leathery facets, after learning that its powdery notes were often used to soften the smell of the finest skins.

Soft leather, powdery leather, leather refined to preclude all animalistic savagery and brutishness — I think you see where we’re going. The full list of notes in Cuir Ottoman complete the rest of the picture. As provided by Luckyscent, they include:

jasmine, leather, iris, benzoin, balsams, resins, incense.

A. Testoni (Amedeo Testino) via Testoni.com

A. Testoni (Amedeo Testino) via Testoni.com

Cuir Ottoman opens on my skin as the most expensive of new, Italian leather shoes. Testoni, perhaps. Or perhaps a more accurate description would be the most expensive of leather handbags, right down to their calfskin, suede interior. The aroma of new leather, with its beautifully immaculate smoothness, wafts around my skin, followed by flurries of powder-soft iris that flit about as delicately as snowflakes. The iris flakes are just barely floral, just imperceptibly powdery, but completely velvety and buttery in feel. In the background lurks the merest hint of jasmine, but that’s about it. There is nothing even remotely animalistic, brutal, raw, or musky in its manifestation on my skin. No rough leather with an almost fecal edge the way some uncured leather can have; no phenolic, tarry, smoky or barnyard notes; and no animalic, urinous, intimately raunchy, or sour notes. Not one bit. 

Suede lining to Bottega Veneta black woven tote. Source: discounthandbagbuy.com

Suede lining to Bottega Veneta black woven tote. Source: discounthandbagbuy.com

Cuir Ottoman shifts very slowly, and only in degrees. At the forty minute mark, it starts to become warmer and a smidgen sweeter. The iris slowly starts to recede from its cool heights and becomes lightly flecked by jasmine. It is still primarily, however, an iris leather fragrance that smells exactly like new leather shoes or a new handbag. The fragrance continues to soften and, at the one hour mark, the sillage drops substantially. The fresh leather feels completely warmed over now and so smooth, it’s almost creamy. About 90 minutes in, the tonka bean rises to the surface, adding a beautiful, delicate, and perfectly balanced sweetness to the other accords. 

Cuir Ottoman is so well-blended that, at this point, the notes swirl together as soft as a cloud. It’s a nebulous, fluffy, absolutely creamy blend of iris, leather and vanilla, threaded with the lightest touch of jasmine and vanillic powder into one smooth, sum total. The individual elements are there, but they’re not as individually distinct as they once were. Instead, they simply create an overall feel and olfactory impress of highly refined softness that radiates delicate warmth, florals, and sweetness the way a cloud is shaded by light. It’s a masterful twist on leather that doesn’t evoke the remotest vision of the Sultanate or the Ottoman hordes.

Source: naturalhdwallpaper.com

Source: naturalhdwallpaper.com

In fact, it doesn’t really evoke leather much at all after the first two hours, especially when the note turns more into a muted version of suede. The reason stems, in part, from the iris powder but, increasingly, it’s because of the tonka bean which turns Cuir Ottoman into something just barely hinting at the gourmand. As the vanilla becomes more and more prominent, even the iris accord feels more indistinct. Around 2.5 hours in, Cuir Ottoman is a powdered vanilla and suede fragrance that feels creamy, soft and smooth, and which hovers just above the skin. The fragrance remains that way for hours and hours, almost yummy in its vanilla essence and lightly evoking Guerlainade, Guerlain’s signature of powdery but creamy tonka bean.

All in all, Cuir Ottoman lasted 12.75 hours on my voracious, perfume consuming skin which is quite astonishing given the airy, light, sheer quality of the fragrance. I’ve noted the same thing with all the fragrances from the line which, indubitably, I find too sheer for my personal tastes but which have incredible longevity. Yet, despite my preference for significantly heavier fragrances (I’m still hoping for the spectacular Ambre Russe in triple-strength concentration!), the light, airiness of Cuir Ottoman is really ideal and well-suited to the nature of the scent. It is perfectly modulated in every way, right down to its weight. Cuir Ottoman isn’t supposed to be something brutish, opaque, or heavy, and the texture wouldn’t work with the delicacy of its notes.

There is a lot of love out there for Cuir Ottoman, except from Luca Turin. (Naturally!) In Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, “His Majesty” sniffs out a disdainful Three Star review which reads, in part, as follows:

This leather is in fact barely a leather at all, more a sweet-woody-tea-like composition. It is solid and beautifully crafted, but feels a little like the compulsory figures at skating: solid, precise, impressive, and unsurprising.

I agree with parts of his assessment, especially about how little Cuir Ottoman feels like a true or hardcore leather fragrance. I also agree that it is solid, beautifully crafted and impressive, but I mean it all in a much more positive way. Is it unimpressive because it’s so refined? In my opinion, that is actually part of what makes Cuir Ottoman stand out. After all, people (especially Luca Turin) lavish praise on Chanel‘s Cuir de Russie for its smoothness and luxurious take on leather, so why fault Cuir Ottoman for those same attributes? I think the latter is infinitely more wearable than Cuir de Russie which, on my skin, was piles of horse manure under a heavy veil of soap. No, thank you.

On Fragrantica, the majority of the reviews are overwhelmingly positive for Cuir Ottoman. People’s experiences seem to verge into three camps: those who find the opening to be harsh, sharply animalistic or raw; those who spend paragraphs raving about the fragrance’s refinement and luxurious nature; and those who think it’s a distinctly feminine fragrance, either because of the limited nature of the leather or because of the powder. A large number of those who fall into the first camp still adore the fragrance, finding it to be softened and balanced by the subsequent accords, and concluding that Cuir Ottoman is a “mesmerizing… masterpiece.” (Other adjectives from both men and women include: sensational, classy, rich, virile, luxurious, refined, and erotic.) The handful who have posted negative reviews have had the leather turn on them, finding it to be either: a “shoe polish note,” faintly urinous, reminiscent of burning plastic, or rubbery and smoky like a garage. Interestingly, some have experienced far more smoky incense than any leather at all, so, as you can see, it all depends on your skin chemistry.

For me, personally, Cuir Ottoman veers far from my style and taste in perfumery, but I find something incredibly appealing, fascinating, and compulsively sniffable about the fragrance. It oozes refinement from start to finish, but the cozy, creamy, gauzy, just barely, minutely gourmand drydown phase is especially addictive. I doubt I’d ever be tempted to buy a full bottle, but the perfume has my heartiest admiration. It is a scent that I’d strongly recommend for those who are a bit terrified of leather in perfumery, though I wonder if the drydown might not turn into something evoking “baby powder” on some skins. Nonetheless, I think Cuir Ottoman is extremely versatile, wearable, and also, well-suited for an office environment given its soft sillage but superb longevity. It is also incredibly affordable, especially for such a high-quality, superbly well-crafted niche fragrance. Cuir Ottoman may lean a little feminine for some men, however, so if you prefer a more macho, tough, obvious leather fragrance, then I’d suggest something more along the lines of Montale‘s very masculine Aoud Cuir d’Arabie. But, if you’re looking for an ultra sophisticated, suave, leather-suede that reeks of refinement and elegance, then Cuir Ottoman is definitely one to try.

DETAILS:
Cost, Availability & Sample Sets: Cuir Ottoman is an eau de parfum and costs $75 (or €66) for a small 1.7 oz/50 ml bottle, while the large 3.4 oz/100 ml bottle costs
$110, €92, or £84.50. Parfum d’Empire’s website carries only the large 100 ml bottle at the European price of €92. If you want to try out Cuir Ottoman and some other fragrances from the line, Parfum d’Empire offers two different sample sets directly from its own website. The first Mini Sample Set is for 3 fragrances of your choice in 2 ml vials for €6 or €10 (depending on your location) with free shipping, while the Full Sample Set of all 13 Parfum d’Empire fragrances also is for 2 ml vials with free shipping and costs €14 or €22 (for the EU or the rest of the world). In the U.S.: You can buy Cuir Ottoman at Luckyscent which sells the smaller bottle in a 1.7 oz/50 ml size for $75, along with the larger 3.4 oz/100 ml bottle for $110 and a sample for $3. MinNewYork sells that same 50 ml bottle for $100. Elsewhere, The Perfume Shoppe which has a Canadian branch in Vancouver is currently out of stock of Cuir Ottoman. Outside the U.S.: In the UK, you can find Cuir Ottoman at Les Senteurs which sells the large 100 ml bottle for £84.50, along with a sample. In Paris, you can find Cuir Ottoman in both sizes at Jovoy Paris which sells the smaller 50 ml/1.7 oz bottle for €66. I believe the Parfum d’Empire line is also sold at Les Galleries Lafayette. For the rest of Europe, Germany’s First in Fragrance sells the large 3.4 oz bottle for €115, along with samples, while France’s Premiere Avenue sells it for the retail price of €92. Both sites ship internationally. In Australia, Libertine sells Cuir Ottoman for AUD$150 for the 50 ml/1.7 oz size. In the UAE, you can find Parfum d’Empire fragrances at Les Galleries Lafayette in Dubai. For all other countries from Oman to Italy and Russia, you can find Cuir Ottoman at a retailer near you using the Store Locator on Parfum d’Empire’s website. Samples: To test Cuir Ottoman for yourself, Surrender to Chance sells samples starting at $3.49 for a 1 ml vial. Many of the sites listed above sell samples of it as well.

Perfume Review – Parfum d’Empire Ambre Russe: Old Mother Russia

St. Basil's Cathedral. Source: Tripthirsty.com

St. Basil’s Cathedral. Source: Tripthirsty.com

It was a cold Spring, that April in 1986, when I went behind the Iron Curtain and visited the Soviet Union. Snow still lingered in parts of Moscow and the rural countryside that my group visited. I remember the grimness of Moscow, and have crazy stories about my time there: from our Russian minders; to the bugs in the telephone at the vast hotel where we stayed (either the Hotel Ukraina or the Cosmos) in Moscow; to stomping through birch forests to use a medieval, wooden out-house; and how I was interviewed on camera in the lobby for a news piece about the recent U.S.-Russian ballistic nuclear arms treaty. They quickly yanked and cut that interview when the journalist discovered I wasn’t just some mindless, young tourist who would babble about the glories of peaceful Mother Russia. To his unmitigated horror, I answered his question by giving a concise, Cold War breakdown of the history of nuclear arms talks and treaties between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. going back to the 1960s. His dirty looks followed me all across the giant lobby as I left….

Kiev in the 1980s. Source: Englishrussia.com. For the full post on great colour photographs of Russian cities from 1968-1984, click on the photo. Link embedded within.

Kiev in the 1980s. Source: Englishrussia.com. For the full post on great colour photographs of Russian cities from 1968-1984, click on the photo. Link embedded within.

My group ended up being kicked out of the Soviet Union after someone on it was caught engaging in black market dealings and a few other transgressions. (Not me!) It was probably just as well since we were in Kiev at the time and, as I mentioned, it was April 1986. Kiev, for those of you who don’t know, is in the Ukraine, and less than an hour’s drive from Chernobyl where the worst nuclear reactor disaster in history occurred only a few days later. We would have been there, but, instead, I was back in Paris when news of the disaster hit. The prevailing winds drew most of the radioactive fall-out away from the city, but my mother was still relieved that we left earlier than planned, even if it was under less than glorious circumstances.

Source: www.ruskerealie.zcu.cz

Dormition Cathedral. Source: http://www.ruskerealie.zcu.cz

Though I went to the Soviet Union, I saw enough of old Russia during my time there, from the magnificent old churches to the palaces. It is always Vladimir, however, which comes instantly to mind when I think of that trip. It was one of the ancient capitals of medieval Russia, and two of its cathedrals are now World Heritage sites. The solemn grandeur of those enormous, dark, often candle-lit churches — and Dormition Cathedral, in particular — with their huge walls covered in icons, painted figures and gold is something I will never forget. It instantly took me back in time to the Russia of Rasputin and Catherine the Great.

Dormition Cathedral in Vladimir. Photo by O1e9. Source: Flickr

Dormition Cathedral in Vladimir. Photo by O1e9. Source: Flickr

In a way, so too does Ambre Russe by Marc-Antoine Corticchiato, the founder and nose behind Parfum d’Empire. Well, it takes me back to Russia, though it’s more to a tea room filled with large samovars and smoke as people lounge on velvet or leather sofas and knock back drinks over plates of sweetened fruits. But it’s certainly more than I expected. Unfortunately, the perfume was also significantly less than I expected. It didn’t live up to its wonderful opening and that trip back in time; it was too sheer, light and airy to be the true molten, luxurious, opaque marvel of Rasputin’s boozy, intense, dark, opulent Russia. However, those who prefer more lightweight, airy approaches to their booze and amber Orientals, may enjoy Ambre Russe very much indeed.   

Ambre RusseI don’t think any perfume house has better stories or descriptions to accompany their fragrances than Parfum d’Empire, and Ambre Russe is no exception:

An opulent elixir, as passionate as the Slavic soul. In this intense elixir, the opulence of the Russian Empire is conjured by the golden warmth of ambergris, intensified by vibrant spices, the smoky aroma of Russian tea and the spirituality of incense. Ambre Russe, a fragrance for impassioned souls. […]

In the flamboyant world of Ambre Russe, nothing is done in half-measures: parties are as intoxicating and sparkling as the champagne that flowed in Imperial Russia but they can end in the white brutality of an icy shot of vodka.

Ambre Russe also conjures the warmth and comfort of dachas where Russian tea, laced with cinnamon and coriander, is brewed all day long in samovars. It’s slightly smoky aroma melds with those of the birch and juniper tar rubbed into the legendary Russian leather. At last the golden facets of Ambre Russe are burnished by the incense of the Orthodox Church, before melting into a cloud of musk. And the celebration ends in mystic ecstasy. Ambre Russe: as impassioned and uncompromising as the Slavic soul.. 

I don’t know who writes Parfum d’Empire’s descriptions, but I want to meet him or her, and bow down in awe. As for the perfume notes, Luckyscent offers the following:

tea, incense, vodka, champagne, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, ambergris, vanilla, leather.

The Russian Tea Room, with an iced Russian bear & vodka display. Source: Therussiantearoomnyc.com

The Russian Tea Room, with an iced Russian bear & vodka display. Source: Therussiantearoomnyc.com

Ambre Russe opens on my skin with so much depth, complexity and nuance that I couldn’t stop sniffing my arm. The very first thing you detect is citrus note like that in really good champagne. It is light, fresh, fruity-sweet, and absolutely sparkling. It is followed by a “chaser” of vodka and spices. The alcoholic blast is accompanied by: treacly cardamom; slightly woody-citrusy coriander; endlessly spiced, rich honey, the slightly tarry aspects of the birch tree; browned, aged leather; and, finally, rich ambergris. The amber, honey and boozy sweet notes combine with the tarry, leathery undertones of the birch to create a note of tobacco. Rich, warm and just like that in fruited pipe tobacco. 

Despite those many notes, it is truly the intense booziness of the scent, combined with the plethora of spices, which dominates those opening minutes. It feels a lot like the opening to my beloved Alahine, though the latter lacks some of the leather and tobacco undertones that are here. Ambre Russe also has a significantly drier feel to it, along with a faintly bitter, smoky edge and black tea notes that truly conjure up a Russian samovar. And, as the clock ticks by, Ambre Russe becomes even drier, woodier, dustier, and smokier. Hints of cumin appear, though they never evoke curry, stale sweat, or body odour. Instead, the cumin feels much like the dry, dusty powder. Unless you are a truly extreme cumin-phobe, I wouldn’t worry; the cumin is so minute and fleeting a note in Ambre Russe that I don’t think most people would detect it, especially given the extreme booziness of the scent.

Source: Orangette.blogspot.com (Website link embedded within. Click on the photo.)

Source: Orangette.blogspot.com (Website link embedded within. Click on the photo.)

Speaking of which, the champagne note slowly turns more into that of spiced rum, accompanied by the vast amounts of dried, stewed fruit that are a large part of the perfume’s base. The fruits feel like rum-raisin and stewed prunes, but there is also a surprising amount of stewed oranges to the note, thanks to the champagne. At times, the combination feels closer to fruity champagne, while, at other times, its more like simple, rich, spiced fruit. It flickers back and forth, but the truly odd thing about it is just how damn light, airy and sheer it feels. For a perfume with such strong notes, especially in the beginning, Ambre Russe is surprisingly lightweight in feel.

Hermès saddle. Source: eBay.com

Hermès saddle. Source: eBay.com

The swirl of dusty spices and fruit sit atop a subtle leather note. It feels honeyed, aged, and rich — much like the old, burnished, and oiled leather riding saddle that I once had. There is a faint powderiness that also appears, but it is generally well hidden under the warm smoke from the incense, the equally smoky black tea, and the strong hints of pipe tobacco.

You almost feel as if you’re in an old Russian tea-room in Kiev. The ceilings are a little black from decades of smoke, old icons cover the wall, birch trees logs are tossed into the fireplace, and the bells from a medieval cathedral chime in the background. As you collapse into the comfortable, soft leather banquets, a server puts champagne flutes on the table, next to strong black tea from the Samovar that is infused with massive dollops of cinnamon-honey. Stewed fruit are the only thing to save your stomach, as you ponder the baffling question of why a tea room is filled with sacks of dry, slightly dusty spices.

About 90 minutes in, Ambre Russe turns into a cinnamon-flecked amber perfume with incense smoke. Yes, there are undertones of honey, leather, tobacco, birch, and stewed fruit but they are light and grow increasingly subtle. To be honest, after that glorious opening and particularly after the second hour, Ambre Russe settles into little more than a light, cinnamon, boozy amber on my skin, and remains that way until the very end.

It is also incredibly — and, for my personal tastes, disappointingly — sheer. As early as the thirty minute mark, Ambre Russe starts to get sheerer and softer until, midway in the fourth hour, it feels as gauzily transparent as a thin, ambered kleenex. On my skin, the overall development of Ambre Russe was fully in the mold of a Jean-Claude Ellena fragrance — and I do not mean that as a compliment. In fact, there are quite a few tonal similarities between Ambre Russe and Ambre Narguilé, especially given the boozy rum, smoke, pipe tobacco, and stewed fruit notes. But, ultimately, Ambre Russe is significantly drier, woodier, and more dustily spiced. It also does not tip-toe up to the edges of the gourmand category in the way that Ambre Narguilé does.

Sillage and longevity also differ. In the first 20 minutes, Ambre Russe had good to average sillage, but after that, it projects little and its insubstantial weight turns the perfume into a skin scent surprisingly quickly. I tried it twice and, on both occasions, Ambre Russe turned into amber kleenex on my skin before the end of 2nd hour. (Far before Ambre Narguilé did on my skin.) Thereafter, Ambre Russe remained as dry, dusty spices and smoke over the lightest possible boozy amber base. That’s truly about it. However, Amber Russe has surprisingly longevity and lasted approximately 11 hours on both occasions on my perfume-consuming skin. At the end of the day, though, I found it to be an anorexic scent with little body and overall depth in the long haul.

I realise that not everyone shares my love for opaque, thick, molten perfumes, but that isn’t the real issue here, in my opinion. It’s that Ambre Russe’s beautiful, skeletal structure is there, but without the depth, complexity and nuance of its early start. It feels like a Lite or Diet version of a true, boozy, spiced amber. That said, those who prefer lighter, sheerer ambers may find Ambre Russe to be a perfect compromise, especially in light of some of the spices. Its lack of sillage, but serious longevity, may also make it perfect for those who worry about wearing serious orientals to a conservative office-environment.

I should note that I seem to be in the minority on the issue of Ambre Russe being far too thin. Take, for example, Luca Turin‘s admiring, four-star review in Perfumes: The A-Z Guide in which he writes:

Ambre Russe is quite simply the biggest, most over-the-top, most expansive, most nutritious amber in existence. If there was a cross between pipe tobacco and pain d’épices, this would be it. To call this an oriental is like saying that Nicholas II was no genius.

Notwithstanding that incredibly amusing last line, I couldn’t disagree more on the “nutritious,” expansive nature of Ambre Russe. But then, I rarely seem to agree with His Majesty….

There is a lot of love for Ambre Russe out there, along with a few polar opposite reactions. Perhaps the funniest (and my favorite) description for the perfume comes from Patty at The Perfume Posse who writes:

This amber rolls in fueled by vodka and lust after a handful of Exstasy and Coke hit the pleasure palace center of the brain, and you settle in for the long night partying in Kiev.  As the morning light reveals the detritus of the night’s Pan-like revelry, you find yourself deep in conversation with a beautiful/handsome poet who talks about life and love as an art form, and the amber turns to beautiful glowing warmth, glad for human comfort and conversation.  If only you could find your clothes, car and dignity, this would have been a great night.

Absolutely fantastic! Another favorite comes from Fragrantica where “Espi” writes:

Wearing Ambre Russe is like sitting next to a drunk but very attractive Russian sailor in a nice and comfortable pub. The only thing I don’t really get is why he’s got spiced honey smeared all over his body! 🙂 Quite the intoxicating smell [….]

Others talk about leather armchairs, expensive cognac, cigars, and old-world, sophisticated opulence. On Luckyscent, more than a few have given descriptions similar in spirit to this one from “yonderblues” who writes about “a room lit by candles filled with ladies in brocade dresses, surrounded by chavalier in their tall leather boots, sabers slapping their thighs and the scent of tobacco trailing after them.” I personally think these descriptions would be more apt if Ambre Russe were not quite so lightweight and gauzy since that completely destroys any sense of “opulence” in my mind, but, again, I have very different standards and personal tastes.

The main objection by those who hate Ambre Russe is the booziness. On both Fragrantica and Luckyscent, the negative reviews seem to center upon the opinion that there is just too much damn alcohol and vodka in the perfume. A handful of those commentators state that they don’t drink and don’t want to smell as though they do (“I hate vodka. I don’t drink.”) which is an extremely valid consideration. I honestly don’t think the vodka is that strong, especially after the first 15 minutes, and thought the fruity champagne note was much more pronounced, but, clearly, it’s all still too much alcohol for some people. As with everything in perfumery, interpretations are subjective and depend on your personal tastes, preferences, and history. 

All in all, if the notes sound appealing to you, and if you love very dry, boozy, spiced amber Orientals, I would definitely give Ambre Russe a sniff. Those who are completely phobic about cumin — in even its mildest, most microscopic manifestions — may think that the perfume smells like “Rasputin’s armpit” (to quote one commentator at the Perfume Posse), but I don’t think most people will. It’s a very pretty spiced amber, and I think it’s extremely evocative of Old Mother Russia. 

DETAILS:
Cost & Availability: Ambre Russe is an eau de parfum and is available on Parfum d’Empire’s website where it costs €92 for a large 3.4 oz/100 ml bottle. In the U.S., you can also find it at Luckyscent which sells the smaller bottle in a 1.7 oz/50 ml size for $75 and the larger 3.4 oz bottle for $110, in addition to a sample for $3. MinNewYork sells that same small 50 ml bottle for $100. Canada’s The Perfume Shoppe sells the large 3.4 oz bottle for $110 but you should contact them for the Canadian price. (The Perfume Shoppe website always confuses me a little.) In Europe, First in Fragrance sells the large 3.4 oz bottle of Ambre Russe for €115, along with samples. In Australia, Libertine carries a few of the Parfum d’Empire line, but not Ambre Russe. For all other countries, you can find a retailer near you using the Store Locator on Parfum d’Empire’s website. To test Ambre Russe for yourself, Surrender to Chance sells samples starting at $3.49 for a 1 ml vial. Parfum d’Empire also offers two different sample sets directly from its own website. The first Mini Sample Set is for 3 fragrances of your choice in 2 ml vials for €6 or €10 (depending on your location) with free shipping, while the Full Sample Set of all 13 Parfum d’Empire fragrances also is for 2 ml vials with free shipping and costs €14 or €22 (for the EU or the rest of the world).

Perfume Review: Parfum d’Empire Aziyadé

Aziyade bookConstantinople, 1876. An illicit love affair between a French officer and an 18-year old harem girl. The heat of the city matching the heat of their passions. Forbidden, dangerous, exotic and sexual.

Aziyadé by Pierre Loti was a very influential novel in its time and, in 2008, became the inspiration for the tenth perfume by Marc-Antoine Corticchiato, the founder and nose behind Parfum d’Empire. Aziyadé, the eau de parfum, explicitly attempts to replicate that moment in time, back in 1876. As the Parfum d’Empire website explains:

An elixir blending the aphrodisiacs of many cultures throughout history, Aziyadé draws us into a sensuous feast where the pleasures of love are intimately entwined with those of the palate. More than a fragrance, Aziyadé is a flavour. The flavour of the yielding flesh of Aziyadé, the heroine of Pierre Loti’s eponymous novel, the story of a harem in the twilight of the Ottoman Empire. [¶]

Aziyadé , a quintessence of carnal pleasures. A fruity, spice laden oriental, Aziyadé opens with a splash of pomegranate juice before yielding candied date, prune and orange notes. Its cornucopia of aphrodisiac spices draws us into a sensuous feast where tears of incense melt into musk, cistus and carob.

Aziyadé: an outrageously carnal perfume. 

The full story is laden with history, sensuality, flashbacks to the Greeks, Romans and even Queen Hatshepsut, displaying “her naked body, rubbed in incense, to honour the god Amun-Ra.” Honestly, with my tastes and life-long obsession with history, how could I not be tempted? Was it not guaranteed that I would love Aziyadé?

aziyade perfumeAnd, yet, I don’t. Aziyadé a lovely perfume, but it didn’t bowl me over or wow me. And I definitely don’t think it’s for everyone — not by any means. Only those who love cumin; very naughty, animalic skank; and dark, musky, sometimes leathery, labdanum should try Aziyadé.

Luckyscent offers Aziyadé’s list of notes which include:

pomegranate, crystallized date, almond, orange and prune, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, Egyptian cumin, carob, frankincense, vanilla, Madagascar vanilla absolute, patchouli, musk, cistus [or labdanum].

Source: ifood.tv

Source: ifood.tv

Aziyadé opens on my skin with zesty citrus, cumin, musk, and animalic, leathery labdanum over honey, dates, ginger, prunes and seemingly every single spice known to a Moroccan spice vendor. It’s truly an explosion of scents, all bursting out on the scene within the very first second like a stampede of elephants. In less than a minute, however, the initial blast of very animalic, dark, almost masculine and very dirty labdanum settles a little, softening under a wave of rich, heavy honey. The cornucopia of spices separate, becoming more distinct, and cumin takes the lead. Dried fruits and juicy plum also become more noticeable. And, to my surprise, there really is a subtle note of pomegranates. The perfume is extremely boozy, beautifully complex, layered and rich, but it is also surprisingly airy in feel.

Moroccan Tagine of Lamb, Prunes & Apricots. Source: DimaSharif.com. (Click photo to be taken to website where you can find the recipe.)

Moroccan Tagine of Lamb, Prunes & Apricots. Source: DimaSharif.com. (Click photo to be taken to website where you can find the recipe.)

As the minutes pass, the perfume starts to change. The labdanum loses a touch of its heavily leathered, dirty facade, turning slowly nuttier and sweeter, thanks to the growing infusion of honey. The cumin also becomes a little less top-heavy, swirling into the eddy of spiced notes and blending in a little better. On my skin, it’s very much like the cumin in a curry — fragrant, aromatic and a little dusky — rather than the cumin associated with body odor. The plum and dried fruit tonalities rise to the surface, followed soon thereafter by two polar opposites: smoky frankincense and rich vanilla extract. The smoke serves to add some dryness, undercutting the sweetness of the strong honey notes, while the vanilla adds a subtle, custardy depth to the foundation. The whole thing becomes a swirl of: juicy orange and citrus; dark, stewed, dried fruits dominated by prunes; molten honey; strong cumin-heavy spices; swirls of smoky frankincense; nutty, almost masculine, labdanum amber; and a touch of sweet vanilla.

Shop in a Moroccan bazaar. Source: Moroccansouk.org.

Shop in a Moroccan bazaar. Source: Moroccansouk.org.

A strong vein of animalic musk runs underneath it all. It’s not akin to dirty, unwashed panties on my skin, but it definitely smells a little raunchy, a little naughty. The combination of the leathery labdanum, the musk, and the cumin create a very sexual undertone to the scent, though I have to say I was never transported to the Sultan’s harem. Instead, I was constantly reminded of a Moroccan souk or market. Neither the sweetly zesty citrus notes nor the smoke have the smallest chance of competing with those spices, dried fruits, dirty notes, and honey that are the essence of Aziyadé.

That core essence remains fundamentally unchanged with the passage of time. Only the honey note shifts, taking the lead and becoming the starring note as the cumin fades away. On its heels is that perpetual stewed fruit accord, infused by dirty labdanum and musk, all over a subtle trace of orange citrus. By the fourth hour, the honey becomes even richer and deeper, before eventually taking on a slightly powdered feel. By the eighth hour, the drydown has begun and Aziyadé is a sweet blend of frankincense, vanilla and amber with the sheerest touch of powder. It remains that way for several more hours until it finally fades away.

Frankly, I was astounded by the longevity of this incredibly sheer, lightweight, low sillage perfume on my voracious skin. Aziyadé essentially lasted 12 hours, but I could still detect minute spots of it here or there on my arm well over the 14th hour! It would be jaw-dropping with a stronger, heavier perfume, but for something so sheer? On my skin? Astounding. However, not everyone fared quite so well, and there seems to be a split in opinion about the perfume’s duration. On Fragrantica and elsewhere, some people report that Aziyadé died on their skin after a few hours, while others found it to last an enormous period of time.

There are a few perfumes which Aziyadé called to mind, though they are not very similar at the end of the day. The extremely boozy nature of the perfume’s opening hour strongly reminds me of the start of Hermès’ Ambre Narguilé, only with cumin and animalic notes as a strong vein instead of fruited pipe/hookah tobacco. The late stages of Aziyadé with the slightly powdery, very airy, honey note infused with dry smoke and light musk made me think of the late stage of Serge Lutens’ Chergui which has a very similar honey combination. Chergui, however, is never animalic or skanky, and has tobacco in lieu of leathery labdanum or spices.

Actually, the Serge Lutens fragrance to which Aziyadé is most frequently compared is his Arabie. I have not yet tried it, so I can’t comment, but perhaps this comparative assessment from Now Smell This (“NST”) would be helpful:

Aziyadé is another specimen of the stewed fruits + curry spices genre, although the stewed fruits are mostly in the top notes, and they’re given some lift and tartness here by the pomegranate. Once the top notes fade, for a time it’s nearly a straight-up spice fest. The dry down is woody and only slightly vanillic (it’s more dry than sweet), with mild incense and amber.

It could be a pared down Arabie, but it’s pared down in a very different way than El Attarine. Aziyadé is closer to spicy-foody than El Attarine, and the woods aren’t as velvety-smooth. It’s lighter and drier than Arabie, and possibly more wearable: that all depends on how you feel about cumin. I’m hard pressed to say which fragrance has more cumin — one day it seemed to be Arabie, the next, Aziyadé. I will say that because Aziyadé is a less foody-rich scent than Arabie, the cumin seems to stand out more, and it deepens considerably as it dries down.

The reaction to Aziyadé on Now Smell This, in a review quoted within, and in general assessments throughout the internet are all extremely polarized. NST didn’t like it, and not only because Aziyadé’s drydown turned primarily into “cumin-infused pencil shavings” on Robin’s skin. She likes pencil shavings; she does not like cumin. At all.

There is no doubt in my mind that how you feel about Aziyadé will depend not only on your feelings about cumin but, also, about skanky, animalic perfumes. Those who don’t like the former will consider Aziyadé to smell just like “an old woman’s sweaty armpits,” to quote one disgusted commentator on MakeupAlley, or “yucktastic” and “nauseating” to quote another. By the same token, those who hate animalic notes will find the perfume to have the hint of “dirty panties” and to be the embodiment of “vulgarity,” as one person wrote on Fragrantica.

Yet, those who can tolerate both notes love the perfume and find it exotic, mysterious, or, quite simply, evocative of Christmas. Christmas actually comes up quite a bit in the context of Aziyadé, with a few such references on Fragrantica, like the one below from “sky76sky” who writes:

Aziyade took me straight back to Christmas…not my festive week but one amped & ramped up to theatrical standards -red & gold, velvet, jewels, spangle, spices, candied fruits, brown sugar, … eat up eat up!…..mulled wine, burning logs, pot pourri, fancy linens, oranges studded with cloves, port, plums in brandy [… ¶]

If she were a woman she would be large & sexy, with red lipstick, an artsy scarf, slightly drunk, bejewelled & festooned in glamour from head to toe, the life & soul of the party, dahhhrling,

And the same Christmas feel is mentioned on MakeupAlley, too:

Boozy loveliness, come from a long line of lineage that is Dior’s Dolce Vita and Serge Lutens’s Cedre. Love the combo of cinnamon, spices, dried fruits and dates. Plumier than plums. It gives me flashbacks of biting onto a plum that is ripen to the point that is just before decay, and the juices flowing down the corners of my mouth. A wearable mulled wine &/or apple pie. I would love to wear this to a Christmas Fair!

I enjoyed Aziyadé quite a bit, but I didn’t love it — and my reasons have nothing to do with cumin or animalic notes. In fact, I don’t mind cumin, so long as it doesn’t turn sour or sweaty; and it did not do so here, on my skin. Plus, I thought its honey was truly lovely; gorgeous, in fact, and beautifully balanced with the rich spices and that nutty, leathery, labdanum amber. Also, the price is fantastic for a high-quality, well-blended, niche perfume: $75 for a 1.7 oz/50 ml bottle. No, the reason why I wasn’t enamoured is due primarily to the perfume’s texture and weight.

"The Pashas Concubine" by Ferencz Eisenhut.

“The Pashas Concubine” by Ferencz Eisenhut.

For me, the airy, sheer feel of the perfume simply wasn’t a good match for those potent notes. If you’re going to have such strong, intense, spicy accords, then you should commit fully and go all the way with a perfume whose texture is opaque, molten, baroque, hedonistic, and decadently rich. If you want carnality, then the perfume shouldn’t be so damn airy and translucent. It should be more like the fabulous Absolue Pour Le Soir by Maison Francis Kurkdjian, a perfume that fully and completely evoked a Sultan’s harem for me, even though it is much less skanky and dirty. That is an animalic, spicy Oriental which conveys sensuous carnality and forbidden passions — not Aziyadé which merely took me to a spice seller’s stand in Morocco’s ancient souks.

I have to wonder if the sheerness of Aziyadé was some sort of compromise intended not to completely terrify those who may struggle with cumin or animalic skank. Perhaps Parfum d’Empire thought the notes would be too much if the perfume were heavy as well. But those who would love and wear a perfume like Aziyadé are those who like potent, opaque, deeply resinous perfumes to begin with. Everyone else will run away from the cumin and the “dirty” notes, regardless of whether the perfume were sheer or heavy. For myself, I far prefer the magnificent Absolue Pour Le Soir, though I would certainly wear Aziyadé on occasion if a bottle fell into my lap.

If you loved honey perfumes with richly spiced, stewed fruits and, more importantly, if you can handle both cumin and slightly dirty, leathery, animalic skank, you should definitely check out Aziyadé. But, if you can’t, then you should stay very, very far away.

DETAILS:
Aziyadé is an eau de parfum and is available on Parfum d’Empire’s website where it costs €92 for a large 3.4 oz/100 ml bottle. You can also find it at Luckyscent which sells the smaller bottle in a 1.7 oz/50 ml size for $75, in addition to a sample for $3. MinNewYork sells that same 50 ml bottle for $100. Canada’s The Perfume Shoppe sells the large 3.4 oz bottle for $120 which is a great price, especially if it’s in Canadian dollars. (The Perfume Shoppe website always confuses me a little.) In Europe, First in Fragrance sells the large 3.4 oz bottle for €115, along with samples, while Premiere Avenue sells it for €92. In Australia, Libertine sells Aziyadé for AUD$150 for the 50 ml/1.7 oz size. For all other countries, you can find Aziyadé at a retailer near you using the Store Locator on Parfum d’Empire’s website. To test Aziyadé for yourself, Surrender to Chance sells samples starting at $3.49 for a 1 ml vial. Parfum d’Empire also offers two different sample sets directly from its own website. The first Mini Sample Set is for 3 fragrances of your choice in 2 ml vials for €6 or €10 (depending on your location) with free shipping, while the Full Sample Set of all 13 Parfum d’Empire fragrances also is for 2 ml vials with free shipping and costs €14 or €22 (for the EU or the rest of the world).

Perfume Review: Parfum d’Empire Azemour Les Orangers

Last night, I was transported to the Dust Bowl of the American plains during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Dustbowl 1930s

The problem is, I wasn’t supposed to feel like Tom Joad in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I was supposed to be on horseback near orange groves and the moss-strewn craggy cliffs of Morocco’s coastline. I was supposed to be in Azemmour, one of the most ancient cities of the kingdom of Morocco, a Moslem and Jewish place of pilgrimage.

Silves Castle

Not Azemmour, but Silves castle in Portugal. The photo conveys what I thought I would feel and experience.

That is the goal of Azemour by Marc-Antoine Corticchiato, the founder and nose behind Parfum d’Empire. And it is a goal in which he seems to have succeeded for 99% of the people who have tried Azemour, a critical darling and much-loved perfume that has received endless praise in the blogosphere. I seem to be in the 1% of people for whom the perfume simply did not work.

Parfum d'Empire AzemourI’m truly saddened by that fact, as Azemour was one of the perfumes which I was most eager to try in the last few months and one which I expected to adore. For one thing, on paper, the description of Azemour is not only breath-taking, but filled with notes that should send me into a state of euphoria. Orange, clementine, tangerine, orange blossom, neroli, rose…. My God, it’s as if it were tailor-made for me! And the description even surpassed some of the notes.

In fact, I cannot remember the last time I was so transported by the sound of a perfume as I was when I read the following on the Parfum d’Empire website:

This fresh, timeless chypre plays on all the facets of the orange tree: the sparkling zest and sunny flesh of the fruit, the dark green of the leave, the honeyed sweetness of the flower, the force of the wood. But the word “amour” which nests in AZEMOUR also expresses the perfumer’s deep love for the land where he was born, and this fragrance is an evocation of the Moroccan landscape with its dunes, wild grass and orange groves… AZEMOUR, timeless elegance in the kingdom of Morocco…

The city of Azemmour, Morocco.

The city of Azemmour, Morocco.

A tribute to Azemmour, one of the most ancient cities of the kingdom of Morocco, a Moslem and Jewish place of pilgrimage; a tribute to his parents’ orange grove and to his long horseback rides on the lands that stretch along the Oum Er r’Bia wadi up to the ocean…

The golden light of the Moroccan Atlantic coast suffuses the top notes of AZEMOUR, a blend of sparking citruses dominated by the zest and flesh of orange, set in clementine, tangerine, grapefruit and citrus. Coriander, cumin, black pepper and pink pepper add their vibrancy to this burst of flavours; blackcurrant and galbanum set it in a dark green nest of leaves.

Then AZEMOUR speaks its heart with the freshness of neroli, intensified by geranium, fleshed out by suave, honeyed orange blossom absolute and delicately spicy old-fashioned rose.

Hay, moss and henna extracts conjure dry grass exhaling the day’s heat in the orange grove. Wood notes trace the undulating silhouettes of cypresses in the Atlantic wind. A tinge of saltiness evokes dunes swept with ocean spray…

Reading that lyrical imagery is almost enough to make one want to buy a plane ticket to Azemmour itself or, in the absence of that, just buy the perfume unsniffed! As for the notes which I mentioned earlier, the full and complete list (provided by Luckyscent) sounds simply marvelous:

orange, clementine, tangerine, grapefruit, coriander, cumin, black pepper, pink pepper, blackcurrant, galbanum, neroli, geranium, orange blossom, rose, hay, moss, henna and cypres[s].

Alas, on me, Azemour was not a trip to the orange grove by the sea. It was dry, dry, dry dust for a good portion of its opening, before settling into less dry green moss. My beloved orange notes were ghosts that taunted me, mocked me, laughed at me as they occasionally popped up for an instant before flitting away, teasing me with their presence in a constant vanishing act.The opening seconds of Azemour were a blast of bitter hay, strong henna powder, black pepper and moss with just the faintest hint of bitter orange. It smells of actual dust, and it evokes the barren, ravaged plains of America in the 1930s or the Sahara. Nor does it get better in those first ten minutes. In fact, as time passes, the dustiness just gets more bitter and green. The oakmoss is pungent and musty, evoking images of grey, mineralized lichen and dust. Usually, the scent of oakmoss in most fruity chypres (which is what Azemour is classified as on Fragrantica) is alleviated by the sweetness or freshness of citrus notes. Not here. Not on me. Instead, its pungent mustiness is accentuated by bitter hay and by the acrid greenness of galbanum. The overall impression is not helped by the dustiness of henna whose scent, here, occasionally, evokes ashtrays and leather.

As time passes, the oak moss becomes even more dominant but, still, no sweet mandarin, clementine, orange blossom, or zesty fruits. Instead, the dryness is joined by the faintly mentholated, tarry, pine notes of the galbanum and the dry woodiness of the cedar tree. There is the bite of black pepper, sea salt, and, fleetingly, that faint ashtray smell from the henna powder. Thirty minutes in, there is a light touch of cumin, coriander and some green geranium notes. It is at this point that the ghost of the orange notes becomes more evident but it is only momentary. It flits away like the very worst kind of tease.

My attempts at locating that ghostly note is not assisted by the fact that the sillage of Azemour drops substantially within the first hour. Quantity is not to blame, either, as I had put on a lot of the perfume in anticipation of loving the scent. (Plus, my vial partially broke on me at the time.) No, a solid, good dosage of the scent did nothing to help me locate the elusive orange. The perfume’s projection dropped so dramatically that — by the second hour — I was quite inhaling at my arm like a wild animal about to attack flesh. In all honesty, my discouragement and mood at this time were reaching an all-time low.

By the end of that second hour, Azemour was essentially just oakmoss, sea salt, an ambered leather accord, a hint of cumin and the occasional ghostly presence of orange. The oakmoss was, thankfully, much less pungent, musty and dusty than it was at first. To the extent that the leather felt “ambery,” I suppose you could say that was a subtle effect of the orange, blending with the leather for some resinous richness. And, in truth, the slightly animalic notes underlying the leather were quite nice. Or, perhaps, that’s just relief at smelling something other than dry dust for a while.

Nothing really changed for the remainder of the perfume’s development. For the last few hours, Azemour turned into a perfectly pleasant moss scent with ambered leather and a flicker of orange. There were traces of the perfume on my skin at the end of about five and half hours, I think, but I can’t be sure because, honestly, it was just so damn evanescent on my skin. I looked like a madwoman attacking my arm in hopes of smelling faint hints of something. And,yes, there were those hints. It just took monumental effort to find them! By the end, you can add intense frustration to the gamut of emotions that I experienced when testing this scent.

My experiences do not seem to mirror that of others who talk with gushing adoration of whole oranges, juicy pulp, citrus explosions over lovely mossy greens. My experiences don’t even seem to match in the longevity department, though that latter bit is not particularly surprising given my perfume-consuming skin. Others report that Azemour lasts on them for hours and hours, although many do say it’s an airy, light scent. But, as a whole, I seem to find few people who aren’t completely worshipful of the scent. There are a handful of slightly less enthused comments scattered here or there — and one person commented on Bois de Jasmin that she too smelled ashtray notes which Victoria also chalked up to the henna — but that’s about it.

I can’t even say it’s a gender thing. Yes, the vast majority of the worshipful reviews have come from men, but a large number of female bloggers have raved about Azemour, too. From Bois de Jasmin, to Grain de Musc, to Now Smell This — they’ve all loved the scent. Only Birgit at Olfactoria’s Travels noted that it could be a difficult scent to wear, but she too thoroughly enjoys wearing it from time to time. If the perfume smelled on me as it did on all of them, I might feel the same way. After all, I enjoy chypres and oakmoss, and I absolutely adore orange notes.

Unfortunately, what I experienced was simply too, too dry, dusty and masculine. I say that as someone who not only wears unisex perfumes, but who wears actual men’s colognes too at times. Azemour was simply not enjoyable in the way that it expressed itself on my skin. And I fear that the “for women” part of the title, as well as that stunning list of notes, may lead women who like more traditional, very feminine, “fruity” chypres into thinking this is the perfect scent for them. No, unless you like really DRY, dusty scents, this is not a perfume for you. As Birgit at Olfactoria’s Travels admits, this is “somber,” “severe and stern at times, hard and unyielding[.]” I think that’s very well stated. She thinks, however, that “in the end you realize that this inability to bend and give way is for your own good.”

I don’t quite agree with that. I think it depends on the person and their perfume experience. In my opinion, women who like more traditional, very feminine fruity chypres won’t bend and come to like this at all. Nor will those who prefer for more cozy, warm, or sweet scents. Or those who like more traditional, soft, feminine florals. Not one bit, and not even if they have the slightly more fruited experience that some others have done. In my opinion, this is a perfume for an adventuresome, very experienced perfumista who knows and likes niche scents, but who, most of all, can appreciate her pungent oakmoss on the masculine, dry, “severe” side.

Men, in contrast, will probably continue to worship at Azemour’s feet. And I have no doubt that it would smell wonderful on them.

DETAILS:

Azemour Les Orangers eau de parfum is available on Parfum d’Empire’s website where it costs $110 or €92 for a large 3.4 oz/100 ml bottle. You can also find it at Luckyscent which sells the smaller bottle in a 1.7 oz/50 ml size for $75, in addition to the large $110 bottle. Beautyhabitat sells the smaller size, The Perfume Shoppe sells the larger. For all other countries, you can find Azemour at a retailer near you using the Store Locator on Parfum d’Empire’s website. To test Azemour for yourself, Surrender to Chance sells samples starting at $3.49 for a 1 ml vial.

Perfume Review: Parfum d’Empire Musc Tonkin

When Parfum d’Empire released a special, limited-edition perfume in late 2012, the blogosphere went into a frenzy. The niche perfume house is much respected for its high-quality fragrances that pay homage to different legendary empires in history, from that of Alexander the Great to Tsarist Russia.

Source: CaFleureBon

Source: CaFleureBon

Musc Tonkin, however, had the added benefit of not only being very rare (only 1000 bottles were made), but also a complete mystery because no-one knows what was in it! Its creator, Marc-Antoine Corticchiato (who is also the founder of the perfume house), refused to release the list of notes beyond the one obvious mainstay of musk. Instead, he asked that people smell this incredibly concentrated extrait de parfum blindly and without preconceptions. Though the public has seemed a little ambivalent (to me) in its reaction to the scent, critics adored it. In fact, the experts at CaFleureBon, the premier perfume blog, ranked it as #1 on the list of the Top 25 Best Perfumes of 2012.

Siberian Musk DeerSource: the in-depth article on musk at Summagallicana.it

Siberian Musk Deer
Source: the in-depth article on musk at Summagallicana.it

One cannot begin to talk about Musc Tonkin without first explaining a little about musk. It is one of the oldest ingredients in perfumery, used for thousands of years for its supposed impact as an aphrodisiac. (According to Fragrantica, even some modern scientists “believe that the smell of musk closely resembles the smell of testosterone, which may act as a pheromone in humans.”) Beyond its sensuous underpinnings, however, it was also appreciated for its uses as a fixative in perfumery, enabling a scent to last longer and with greater depth. Thousands of years ago, musk came mainly from the perineal glands of a particular type of deer but, in recent times, animal cruelty concerns have prevented it from being used. In 1979, the use of deer musk was banned entirely.

As Fragrantica explains, nowadays,

[t]he term musk is often used to describe a wide range of musky substances, typically animalistic notes such as CivetCastoreum, and Hyrax, or various synthetic musks, known as white musks, which are created in chemical laboratories. […] In perfumery, the term “musk” doesn’t always apply to a concrete perfume component, but rather designates the overall impression of the fragrant composition. Natural aroma of musk is very complex and usually described with so many contradictory attributes. It’s description may range from sweet, creamy or powdery, to rich, leathery, spicy and even woodsy. Most typically, the musk note is described as an animalistic nuance, with a lively and oscillating, often contrasting nature.

In the case of Musc Tonkin, the word “musk” undoubtedly applies not only to the “overall impression” of the scent but also to its main note, replicated through the use of various substitutes. As CaFleureBon, the premiere perfume blog, noted in its rave review of the perfume,

Marc-Antoine Corticchiato of Parfum D’Empire is one of the most uncompromising perfumers we currently have in the niche community and it is no surprise to me that he would take on the great challenge of making a musk fragrance without using proscribed ingredients. […] Of all the musks Tonkin musk was one of the most prized and highly sought after. Supposedly only able to be sourced from a Himalayan variety of musk deer the trip alone was daunting. M. Corticchiato wanted to create a facsimile of natural musk using the ingredients available to him and even more he wanted to create an image of the elusive Tonkin musk. This effort has succeeded…

It certainly has. The opening of Musc Tonkin is a pure blast of animalistic skank that is concentrated to such an extent that I actually recoiled at first. It is quite a painful ten minutes, but then the perfume settles into something much more manageable and, even, quite sexy.

If I were to join in the global guessing-game for Musc Tonkin’s notes, I would venture the following:

Top: Orange Blossom/Neroli, Gardenia, Ylang-Ylang, Peach, Cumin and, possibly, Coumarin and Bergamot. Middle: Jasmine Sambac, Damask Rose, Honey, Labdanum, and Patchouli. Base: Musk, Civet/Castoreum, Oakmoss, Tonka Beans, and, possibly, Benzoin.

Oakmoss or tree moss.

Oakmoss or tree moss.

The perfume is technically categorized on Fragrantica as a floral chypre, and there is no doubt that is correct. The perfume opens with a chypre’s usual notes of citrus and strongly pungent oakmoss with its characteristic dusty, dry, almost mineralized characteristics. But Musc Tonkin’s opening minutes go far, far beyond that usual chypre beginning.

Here, there is something that strongly evokes pure animal fat, skin, and hair. (Dare I say it, fur?) It’s a shockingly intense contrast to the accompanying notes that are both floral and fruity. The skin note verges on something like raw leather, and there is a faintly urinous undertone, too, along with that fatty note that conjures up rolls of white blubber in my mind. The citric notes feel like neroli — which my nose usually finds to be a slightly sharper, less sweet version of orange blossom — along with some other zesty citrus. It may be bergamot, though, here, it smells nothing like the Earl Grey note that is often associated with it. There also seems to be cumin, in addition to something that is earthy, extremely intimate, and smells greatly of unwashed panties. Honestly, I recoiled from the whole thing and felt a lot like the Coyote in the old Roadrunner cartoons just seconds before the dynamite exploded and the cliff dissolved from under him.

I wouldn’t be surprised if that animalic funk (which perfumistas often call “skank”) came from civet. It is a secretion from the anal glands of the civet cat. The funniest description I have ever read of any perfume ingredient came from Chandler Burr, the former New York Times perfume critic, who wrote about civet on his tour of the perfumery school of the Swiss company Givaudan, the world’s largest perfume maker. In an uproarious article entitled “Meow Mix,” he details regular people’s reactions to the ingredient and the descriptions given by Givaudan’s impish perfumer, Jean Guichard. I really don’t want to ruin the story, so, for our purposes, it suffices to say that civet can smell most definitely like unwashed underwear.

Ylang-ylang

Ylang-ylang

To my enormous relief, Musc Tonkin makes a sharp swerve soon after that slightly brutal few minutes. The floral notes take over, softening the animalistic tones which soon recede to the background. They never fade away completely — this is, after all, a pure musk fragrance — but they become the base for the perfume and not the solo aria. Instead, I smell very creamy, indolic flowers that I suspect are gardenia and ylang-ylang. The latter’s buttery notes are redolent of slightly banana-like custard, and they add a necessary softness to the pungency of the oakmoss and the intimacy of that funk. The leather note remains but it is no longer raw, pungent or rough as it was in those opening minutes. Softened by the florals, it is smoother and extremely subtle.

Soon thereafter, the perfume becomes sweeter. There are undertones that call to mind tonka bean and some faint woodiness that make me wonder if there is a sweet hay element from coumarin. But the greatest note is definitely from sweet peach, something which has been used in a number of fruity chypres from Guerlain‘s legendary Mitsouko to RochasFemme to provide a skin-like impression of intimacy. I’m strongly reminded of the latter, as well as Amouage‘s Jubilation 25 for Women which not only smelled very similar on me but which also led to an equally mixed reaction. The peach, cumin, chypre, skanky civet notes of deeply feminine intimacy in Jubilation 25 are strongly mirrored here. It’s quite erotic and seductive, and calls to mind the famous nudes from Delacroix or Rubens.

"Woman with a parrot" by Eugène Delacroix. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyons. Source: Lib-Art.com

“Woman with a parrot” by Eugène Delacroix. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyons. Source: Lib-Art.com

Marc-Antoine Corticchiato wasn’t far off in his description of Musc Tonkin on the company’s website:

A powerful, addictive, erotic aura… The scent of heated flesh, solar, feline, subtly leathery. This elixir reinvents in a novel, contemporary style, the most suave note in perfumery, worshipped for millennia: Tonkin musk.

More than a fragrance: an imprint… […]

Vibrant, facetted, surprising, at once nocturnal and solar, this aphrodisiac potion changes on each skin, the better to enhance it. A lick of salt for the taste of skin. A heady floral whiff to remind us that perfume links our bodies to the erotic spells of nature. A liquorous, mulled-fruit burn contrasting with a light, shimmering veil of powder…

"Venus at a mirror" - Rubens. Source: La Cornice.

“Venus at a mirror” – Rubens. Source: La Cornice.

A few hours in, as the middle notes start to take over, the perfume becomes even softer. The oakmoss has completely vanished, as have the fruity accords. Now, it smells like deep, dark, red rose with something that may well be Jasmine Sambac. The latter has a muskier, deeper, earthier element to it than regular jasmine. There are also hints of sweetness, as if from honey. The earthiness remains, though it is faint and tinged by more amber-like elements. It’s not resinous but hazy, as if soft amber has mixed with patchouli and musk to create a shimmering patina over the skin. It’s not a cozy, comfy scent, but a rather sensuous one. In its final hours, all that remain are traces of vanilla tonka and just plain soft musk.

All in all, Musc Tonkin had average projection on my skin and very good longevity. The sillage was very potent for the thirty minutes and strong-to-good for the first hour. Thereafter, the scent bubble became much less pronounced. The perfume became close to the skin about four hours in, but it didn’t fade away completely until ten hours had passed. I’ve read of much greater longevity — as would be expected from something that comes in the most concentrated form (extrait de parfum) —  on those with less voracious, perfume-consuming skin.

As a whole, Musc Tonkin has gotten great critical acclaim. (The exception being, perhaps, Now Smell This (“NST”) where the reviewer seemed definitely unenthused and was reminded of floral “chicken manure.”) Still, I have the impression that average perfume wearers are a lot more ambivalent about the scent than the critics at places like CaFleureBon. It’s hard to explain but, from the comments on Fragrantica and elsewhere, it’s as though people feel they are expected to adore and admire the scent — when, in reality, it’s far from a huge favorite. In fact, on Fragrantica, many seem to find it admirable but “challenging.”

I obtained my sample from an extremely generous friend and fellow perfume blogger, the very astute, talented Scented Hound. He couldn’t help himself and ordered a full bottle, unsniffed, only to find it was a “grungey flower” that brought to mind Miss Haversham from Great Expectations. I don’t get Miss Haversham flashbacks — probably because I associate her with extreme white, dust, powder, and shriveled old age — but Musc Tonkin is definitely a “grungey flower.” And it is a flower that is “filled with erotism, lust and sensuality,” to quote the review from Lucasai from Chemist in The Bottle. Others, however, seem to have had a very different experience from all three of us (and the NST reviewer): some posters on Basenotes talk about very powdery notes, a “clean” scent, strong impressions of shampoo and soap, and calone – a very aquatic-melon note. It’s almost as if we smelled a completely different perfume!

I think fans of fruity, skanky chypres like Femme or Jubilation 25 will absolutely adore Musc Tonkin. So, too, will those who like very musky, animalistic scents. Though the bottle is limited-edition and only a 1000 were made, it is still available on the company’s website. There has also been speculation that, if the scent is a run-away hit, it may actually end up in Parfum d’Empire’s permanent line. I can’t speak to that but, if you are a fan of naughty, skanky or chypre perfumes and/or are a perfume collector, you may want to snap up one of those bottles before they’re all gone. I have no doubt that they will appreciate in value by an enormous amount.

For everyone else, however, I would suggest getting a sample first. Musc Tonkin is a beautifully blended and very artistically clever ode to the musks of old — but it is also challenging and, at times, difficult, especially in those opening minutes. It is not something you can just throw on to go to the PTA or to a business meeting. But, then again, it’s not meant to be. It is, however, meant to be powerfully erotic. To the extent that it replicated warmly heated flesh and funky intimacy, I’d say it succeeded in that endeavor.

DETAILS:
Your best bet in obtaining Musc Tonkin is to order directly from Parfum d’Empire’s website where it is still available (as of this posting) and costs $150 or €120 for a 1.7 oz/50 ml bottle. Luckyscent is sold out of the scent and has been for a while. Surrender to Chance offers samples starting at $4.99 for a 1/2 ml vial.