Perfume Review: Habanita by Molinard (Eau de Toilette)

Source: Sensibility.com

Source: Sensibility.com

By day, she was a delicate ingenué, tending to her charges in her job as a nanny in a Bohemian arrondissement of 1920s Paris. She would wear long, old-fashioned, frilly, white dresses up to her neck and dainty ankles, and she dusted her body in floral and raspberry-scented powder.

Source: Insfashion.com

Source: Insfashion.com

By night, she haunted the smoky nightclubs of Montmartre and La Pigalle, luring men with the subtle tease of a dominatrix’s black leather whip that she eccentrically carried as she danced away the night in a flapper dress as white as silvered snow. She still smelled of raspberry powder, but now, she was also imbued with the smoke from the long cigarettes she held in a leather holder between her vermillion-red lips. Men did not fall for that pale face of baby innocence and floral sweetness, but for the contrast between her angelic facade and the biting sharpness that issued from her lips. She was a powerhouse of forcefulness and paradoxical contradictions that awed even the wild Zelda Fitzgerald. Her name was Habanita.

Habanita is perhaps the most famous, influential, historical perfume that is never sold in stores. It is a legend amongst perfumistas — and not only for its long history, or for how it is a tobacco perfume that is made without a single drop of actual tobacco. Habanita comes from the Grasse perfume house of Molinard, first established in 1849 and still run as an entirely family-owned business to this day. In 1921, Molinard released Habanita as perfumed sachets to enable those newly emancipated, modern women who smoked to do so with a perfumed cover to hide their habit. As the perfume blog, Now Smell This, succinctly explains, Habanita was originally introduced:

not as a personal fragrance but as a product to scent cigarettes. It was available in scented sachets to slide into a pack of cigarettes, or in liquid form: “A glass rod dipped in this fragrance and drawn along a lighted cigarette will perfume the smoke with a delicious, lasting aroma” (quoted in The Book of Perfume, page 76).

Habanita EDT bottle and box.

Habanita EDT bottle and box.

The perfume version soon followed in 1924, housed in a beautiful, black Lalique bottle decorated with cavorting nymphs. As the Molinard website proudly announces, it became known as “the most tenacious perfume in the world.” I’m unclear if that description applies to the pure parfum, solid parfum, the eau de parfum or to the eau de toilette, but I’m pretty sure you can describe almost all Habanita concentrations, now and in the past, as pretty damn tenacious! In the 1980s, Molinard reformulated Habanita and this is the version that I’m writing about, in eau de toilette concentration. Finally, in 2012, Molinard issued a new (and, again, reformulated) Eau de Parfum concentration as well.

2012 was also the year that I bought a big bottle of Habanita Eau de Toilette, blindly, off eBay, and due solely to the force of the blogosphere adoration for the scent. My post-lady handed me a small leaking package, commenting, “Boy! That’s strong!” And it was. There wasn’t a huge quantity that had seeped out, but that moderate amount, even partially dried, left a mindbogglingly enormous trail of scent in my wake as I made the walk back to my house from the postboxes. Later, I sprayed some on me and was almost blown out of the water by its strength. I enjoyed every bit of it, back then, overcome by its power, its novelty, and its unusual nature.

Unfortunately, a few more wears (and a very bad experience later in the fall with the scent on clothing) quickly led to a radical change in thought. The simple truth is that I don’t like Habanita very much and, if I’m really, truly honest with myself, I know deep down that I never did, and that my first initial appreciation stemmed purely out of wishful thinking. (Plus, a huge desire to justify a blind buy.) I wanted to like it; I knew I should like it, especially given the history (and my total faiblesse or weakness when it comes to anything historical), but mostly, I wanted to like it. So, I convinced myself that I did. Now that I’m a perfume blogger, I put great thought and analysis into each review, I rip things apart in a way I never did, don’t engage in risky blind buys, and I’m candid with myself from the start. If that post-box trip were to happen now, I would admit right away that Habanita is most definitely not for me, though I’d still respect and admire it for its history. And, dammit, I still want to like it! I almost feel like a traitor to history.

Habanita is classified on Fragrantica as an “Oriental” perfume, but I personally consider it more of a chypre-leather. The notes — as compiled from both Now Smell This and Fragrantica — seem to be:

bergamot, raspberry, peach, orange blossom, galbanum, oakmoss, jasmine, rose, ylang ylang, lilac, orris root, heliotrope, patchouli, amber, leather, musk, vetiver, cedar, sandalwood, benzoin and vanilla.

Habanita is a complicated scent on some levels and a simple one on others. If you were solely to smell the bottle, you’d detect makeup powder with florals, citrus and chypre notes. Even when on the skin, unless you really looked at the notes while smelling the perfume, you may initially conclude that you’re dealing with an avalanche of makeup powder alongside powerful (but completely amorphous, abstract) floral notes backed by the feel of scented tobacco paper and tinges of leather.

Source: Amazon.fr

Source: Amazon.fr

The same thing happens when you put Habanita on the skin, though greater nuances are immediately noticeable, because it’s an incredibly elusive scent in terms of its layers. There are citrusy notes atop leather that has hints of something vaguely verging on animalic. The leather feels almost raw, at times, and there feels like whiffs of castoreum underneath it. The notes are sharp and, on some tests, can seem either medicinal or quite sour on the skin as well. I suspect it’s due to the galbanum which is never noticeable in an individual, distinct, separate way, but whose effects can be seen most indirectly in that leather. As a side note, galbanum’s sharpness was often used in leather fragrances — notably in Robert Piguet‘s Bandit — so I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the cause for the raw, sometimes sour nuance to the leather here.

Dried raspberries via Nuts.com

Dried raspberries via Nuts.com

Habanita also contains a powerful whiff of something that is extremely hard to pinpoint if you don’t stare at the ingredient list, a note that is rarely used in high-end, niche, or classic perfumery: raspberry. Each and every time I put on Habanita, I struggle to place that one, odd, unusual, seemingly “off” element before I remember, “Oh, raspberry. Right.” I don’t know about you, but I actually can’t recall ever smelling raspberry in a significant way in perfumery. Making it all the more complicated for me is the fact that the raspberry in Habanita is not like the fresh, sweet, fruit of summer days. It feels simultaneously: desiccated, syrupy, sour, leathered, and highly powdered. Honestly, I’ve never smelled anything quite like it and, on my skin, it is always a heavy part of Habanita’s opening hours.

Heliotrope.

Heliotrope.

Nothing, however, can possibly detract from the powder note which is created by the iris, orris root, heliotrope and vanilla (perhaps, also benzoin) notes. It is not baby powder or talcum powder simply because this one is scented — and scented with a variety of things to boot. Thanks to the heliotrope, it has a subtext of almonds mixed with Play-Doh. The orris root — an ingredient long used in makeup and lipsticks as a fixative — gives it a makeup vibe, while the florals imbue it with rose, lilacs, and a whiff of jasmine. The vanilla adds its voice to the powder, too, perhaps solidifying some of the makeup associations.

There is something much more important underlying the powdered note, however, something that makes many people classify Habanita as a tobacco scent. The interplay of the powder elements with the other notes in Habanita create the overwhelming feel of powdered tobacco paper. Growing up in France, there were a number of cigarette boxes whose silver paper lining I recall being scented with a powdered note. I’ve never seen it in America, but I have seen similar sorts of boxes in India, the 1980s Soviet Union, Italy, and other parts of Europe. It’s a hard scent to describe if you’ve never encountered it because it doesn’t have the aroma of cigarette, nor stale ashtrays, but also not of paper or pure powder. It simply smells like talcum-powder tobacco paper.

I suspect the reason lies in the vetiver. It’s not like the sort of vetiver that most of us are used to; it doesn’t smell anything like the note in Chanel‘s Sycomore, for example, or Guerlain‘s Vetiver. It’s neither fresh and green, nor rooty, earthy, or woody. And, yet, when combined with the other elements, it creates “tobacco” in a powdered, papery form. Luca Turin categorizes Habanita as a “vetiver vanilla,” while CaFleureBon simply writes: “[a]lthough the perfume Molinard Habanita was originally produced to scent women’s cigarettes, it contained no tobacco and incorporated rose, vetiver, vanilla, and incense notes.” Whatever the exact alchemical reason for the note, “tobacco paper” is a profound part of Habanita’s character for much of the perfume’s development.

Habanita’s opening, as I’ve described it, can vary a little in its nuances. Sometimes, in the first minutes, the extremely sharp, almost pungently bracing, opening note of citrus-rose-leather softens a little, bringing out more of the powder. At other times, the note turns extremely sour on the skin, probably due to the arrival of copious amounts of raspberry which always turns into syrupy, raspberry leather dosed by talcum powder. Sometimes, the vanilla is much more immediately noticeable, while occasionally, the leather with its castoreum-like undertone doesn’t hang back quite as much. Every now and then, I get a fleeting flicker of lilacs in the florals tones, but generally, it is a rose note which rises to the surface.

Almost invariably, whatever the nuances, I get a headache. There are synthetics in the reformulated Habanita EDT, and it gives me that telltale burning sensation high up in the bridge of my nose. I’m not the only one who thinks the reformulated version is quite synthetic. The blogger, Brian, from “I Smell Therefore I” am wrote in a comment to his review of Habanita: “I think current Habanita is probably so synthetic that the pyramid is pure fantasy.” I fear that may be true. I do know that I’m not the only one who got a burning sensation from Habanita; I had a friend try it a while back, and they had a similar reaction.

Source: Allposters.com

Source: Allposters.com

Regardless, as Habanita opens up and develops, it turns into a scent that is primarily raspberry-vanillic powder with amorphous florals, Play-Doh undertones, and a whisper of raw, black leather in the background. It’s seriously extreme, a turbo-charged powder that feels like something from the vivid imagination of Willy Wonka.

Eventually, about five hours in, Habanita turns into something much more leathered in feel. It’s not like a cold, stony leather, exactly, but it’s definitely not like a richly buttered, oiled, soft, creamy leather. It feels like a rubbery, black leather jacket, imbued by a layer of sharp smoke. There is no incense listed on Habanita’s notes, but there certainly should be. At the same time, both the leather and the smoke are backed by the scented powder, fleeting flickers of rose, and a lingering sharpness that feels more dark green than ever before. Undoubtedly, it’s the galbanum which has risen to the surface alongside the leather. At times, wearing Habanita, I’ve also detected something that feels very much like the powerful black, smoky tea, Lapsang Souchong; only here, it’s imbued with some sharp, green, citrus elements. It’s all due to that endless black smokiness underlying Habanita. The whole thing evokes the image of a 1920s smoky club but, also, of that same 1920s flapper draped in a leather jacket atop a large Harley-Davidson, smoking as she flexes her whip. Whatever it is, it involves some sort of femme fatale domination and cigarettes. It’s… different.

Lara Stone, the dutch model, photographed by Mert & Marcus for Interview Magazine.

Lara Stone, the Dutch model, photographed by Mert & Marcus for Interview Magazine.

In its final hours, Habanita turns into a fruited-powder scent with rubbery leather. It usually lasts about 8.5 to 9 hours on my perfume-consuming skin, almost all of that time pulsating away with high-intensity projection. On someone with normal skin, I wouldn’t be surprised if two good sprays lasted 16 hours or more. Four sprays, and you may be smelled from New York to California for more than a few days. If you think I’m exaggerating, check the longevity votes on Fragrantica where 49 people chose “very long-lasting,” 37 chose “long-lasting,” and 1 person chose “poor.” Similar numbers apply to the sillage: 46 for “enormous,” 43 for “heavy,” with 5 for “soft.”

As for fabric, I can tell you that Habanita will last on it forever. In my last wearing of Habanita — the time that put me off it more or less for good — I quickly sprayed some on my neck and on my sweater in a rush out the door. It was Fall and the weather was generally cool, so I can’t chalk it up to the heat for what happened next: a blast of incredibly sourness hit my skin, followed by that avalanche of scented powder. I put up with it, mostly because I didn’t have a choice, when I started to detect an odd smell wafting up from my sweater. It was like sour, powdered cigarette smoke. And it just kept getting stronger and more sour until I felt actually quite embarrassed. When I got home, I hurriedly took off the sweater and didn’t give it a second thought, certain that the perfume would eventually go away. Four months later, during an unexpected cold burst, I took out the sweater to wear it only to detect a massive amount of sour, stale, powdered cigarettes, and that odd, sour, raspberry note. The sweater went off to the dry cleaner, and Habanita was permanently banished to the darkest recesses of my armoire. Basta!

It is impossible to write about Habanita without bringing up the well-known perfume blogger, Denyse Beaulieu of Grain de Musc. Even before she wrote her recent book, The Perfume Lover, Ms. Beaulieu was well-known to adore Habanita. It is one of her favorites, along with Robert Piguet‘s legendary black leather and galbanum fragrance, Bandit. But it was Habanita which was her signature scent for years and years. I suspect my tastes range far from those of Ms. Beaulieu who seems to adore the dominatrix-like, black leather fragrances. I liked Bandit when I tried it, but I had to force myself to really, really give it a chance, and it is a very difficult fragrance. At the end of the day, it is a little too brutal for me, a little too harsh, probably due to the galbanum (a note I struggle with) as much as that ferocious black leather. 

The new Habanita 2012 Eau de Parfum.

The new Habanita 2012 Eau de Parfum, Editions Privée.

Habanita is not Bandit — not by any stretch of the imagination, but it is an equally difficult perfume to wear, even if the reasons are different. I suspect that I would have a considerably better time of things with the vintage version, especially the vintage Eau de Parfum, as I’ve read that it’s lovely and apparently has quite a bit of sandalwood. But this review is for the current version of Habanita in eau de toilette, not the vintage Eau de Parfum or the new 2012 Eau de Parfum. If you’re interested in those concentrations, you can read some comparative assessments of the EDP from some readers of Grain de Musc. As a side note, the Eau de Toilette is no longer available or listed on the Molinard website, which leads some people and even the Perfume Posse to speculate that it has been discontinued and replaced by the IFRA-compliant 2012 Eau de Parfum version. According to one person on Fragrantica, Molinard confirmed it to her in an email. Despite that fact, however, the eau de toilette is still easily found and in plentiful quantities, especially on eBay.

I think the best assessment of the Three Faces of Habanita comes from the perfume blog, I Smell Therefore I Am. In it, Brian compares vintage Habanita (Version 1), the reformulated Eau de Toilette which is what I’m reviewing (Version 2), and the new Eau de Parfum released in 2012 (Version 3). A portion of his review for Vintage Habanita versus the current Habanita is as follows:

When I read on Fragrantica that a reader thought Habanita had, on first spritz, the “strongest blast of baby powder, EVER,” I felt pretty sure she was referring to Version 2.  No mistake, Version 1 is powdered as well, but not to the same degree.  I would argue there’s a lot more going on in Version 1, but the nose approaching Version 2 could easily mistake bombast for complexity.  I like Version 2 a lot, and it smells very rich.  It’s also incredibly powdered.  I say that in a good way.  Almost without fail, when someone talks about powder overload and Habanita I feel sure they’re referring to Version 2.  Version 1 is thick, too, but you feel its layers.  Version 2 is a sort of wall of scent; equal parts tobacco, vanilla, and oakmoss.  Fragrantica lists raspberry, peach, orange flower, Lilac, Ylang-Ylang, rose, bergamot.  I’d be lying if I told you I get anything remotely floral, and not getting any closer to the truth if I led you to believe this is because the fragrance is so “well-blended”.  I believe that Version 2 is a much cruder facsimile of Version 1, and that many people take this crudeness to be the source of its infamous reputation.  Again, I love this version.  I happen to like crude and bombastic.  But Version 2 resembles some of my favorite cheapo drugstore fragrances (Toujours Moi comes to mind) and relates to Version 1 the way they relate to their earlier formulations.  Many people get root beer or cola from this version.  I never really have.

I think his review is very interesting, and I agree on Habanita having a small similarity to the “cheapo drugstore fragrances.” But I don’t share his love for Habanita. In part, it’s because I dislike very powdery perfumes, but the powder isn’t, per se, my real problem. It is Habanita’s sharpness, the sourness that almost feels rancid at times, the sheer overbearing forcefulness of that powder, and the lingering cigarette effect which I find difficult to bear. A few people on Fragrantica have even written that the perfume has a morbid feel to it, with one talking about Habanita’s opening blast of dead florals evoked “a plague [death] mask.” Though I don’t agree, I can certainly understand it because, every time I start to think that, maybe, just maybe, I can handle the perfume, I quickly realise that I’ve really had enough. Habanita always starts out as an interesting novelty that, on some level, fascinates me with its uniqueness, its oddness, its almost niche-like complexity. But then it just becomes too damn much. The constant burning in my nose from the synthetics doesn’t help much, either. Undoubtedly, it would be a whole other matter if I tried vintage Habanita, let alone vintage Habanita Eau de Parfum with its slightly different notes and its sandalwood base. But I don’t have it, so I can only tell you about the current Eau de Toilette. And, in my opinion, it’s a stinker. It really is.

My favorite review for Habanita on Fragrantica amusingly sums up just a miniscule fraction of what I think about the scent. In it, “nikitajade” writes:

First initial spray I am hit full in the face with powder. Like an angry nanny has just slammed down the Johnsons&Johnsons again. ARGGGGHHHHH. Luckily, as it dries down the baby powder disappears and this smoky, leathery gorgeous fruit and spice appears. I’ll just say the nanny apparently moonlights as a dominatrix and leave it at that.

I’m significantly less appreciative of the fragrance than she is, but Habanita receives a LOT of love of Fragrantica, even from those who find it impossible to wear:

  • As others have said, yes it is leathery-dusty-powdery with just a touch of vanilla. Yes, at first it is so sharp it numbs your nostrills. But I love Habanita. The same way I love a classic houndstooth Chanel deux pieces, but would never wear it. If there was a perfume museum, Habanita would be on a pedestal in the main gallery.
  • What a masterpiece. I almost doomed it at the first sniff, for the sweet powder. But man, how i´m happy i didn´t. [¶] Just the history and idea of Habanita is stunning. […]  It´s like an old daguerreotype of mysterious young lady who´s beauty persists for centuries. [¶] Habanita smells velvety smooth and incendiary. Maybe it’s the balance of its main attributes – woman (lipstick, powder, rose) + man (tobacco, leather, motor oil).
  • Habanita is such a BIG TEASER, [¶] The most complicated smell I’ve ever come across. She introduced herself in sweet, fresh, delightful feminine manners…BUT it’s not too long before she stripped off of her light floral dress into the hidden dark & nasty clinging leather suit. She would captivate you, tortured you like a real dominatrix, and you just couldn’t help but yield to her eventually… After an hour, as the leather faded she might show some mercy and comforted you with the most beautiful ghost of heliotrope in rich smokey creamy powder. [..]

There are pages of similar reviews, with vast swathes of them using the word “femme fatale” and raving about how stunning Habanita is, about how she sends you back in time to the most elegant 1920s club filled with velvet and passion. Intermixed in those gushing accolades (most of which go on for far too many paragraphs for me to quote them) are a handful of solitary voices who talk about how sour the perfume was on their skin, how it smelled “rank and stank,” about the hot rubberiness of the leather, “burnt gasoline,” or about the impossibility of dealing with all that powder. More than a few said it made them think of an old lady locked in a room and chain-smoking, or the 1980s Love’s Baby Soft fragrance “covered with cigarettes.” One person — who says she loves leather fragrances — said it was absolutely the worst thing she’d smelled in years, akin to car cleaner and incredibly “dirty.” The dissenting voices are comparatively few and far between though, because, for the most part, Habanita is worshipped. We’re talking hardcore genuflection and obéissance here!

Vintage Habanita ad. Source: The Perfume Posse.

Vintage Habanita ad. Source: The Perfume Posse.

It’s even more loved on the blogosphere. I could link you to a gazillion reviews, but the most interesting one was this more balanced assessment from Anne-Marie at the Perfume Posse which sums up the feel of Habanita, along with its elusiveness:

What I love about Habanita is the elusiveness created by the powdery notes (orris and heliotrope). For me, powder suffuses the whole thing, but it shifts constantly. Suddenly I get a sharp bite of sticky fruit. The powder takes over again, but in the next whiff it clears and I get  … oh yes, vanilla! … and so on through all the major effects: flowers, vetiver, woods, leather, and so on. For me there is no real top-middle-base structure in Habanita, just a series of fascinating and deeply alluring fragrant moments, all glimpsed through that whispy veil of powder. The contrast of sweet/soft with bitter/acrid (almost Bandit-like) notes has me utterly enthralled.

Many people get tobacco and smoke, but I don’t. I do get a smoke-like effect created by vetiver and leather. Or okay, perhaps that would be a leather-like effect created by smoke and vetiver? I can’t tell. But look, if Habanita was produced firstly as a fragrance to add to cigarettes, why would it smell of cigarettes itself? Put like that, it doesn’t make sense, does it?  […]

Depending on your tastes and sensory experience, Habanita will seem absurdly old-fashioned or intriguingly niche-like and modern to you.

I think that last statement is very true, and I’ve heard it echoed a number of times by others. Habanita feels extremely old-fashioned while — simultaneously and oddly — seeming completely modern, and very much the sort of thing that a perfume house like Etat Libre d’Orange might put out. It isn’t really timeless so much as so odd, so off-kilter, and so old-fashioned that it could be a modern niche perfumer’s intentional, revolutionary riff on old perfumery. It’s a completely paradoxical fragrance.

I also find it to be an elusive one, not only in terms of assessing the notes and individual layers, but as a whole. Every now and then, something about it makes me lift up my head and go, “Hmm…. maybe.” But, each and every time, that thought is short-lived because, deep down, I really don’t like it. Not the deluge of powder, not the feel of cigarettes, not the synthetics that burn my nose, not the sour sharpness, not that odd raspberry note, not  the black rubbery undertones…. nothing. But I keep feeling as though I must love it, that I should love it. It’s the only perfume I know that leaves me so utterly torn between expectations and wishful thinking, versus the simple reality deep-down. It’s one reason why I’ve taken this long to review Habanita. Everything about it is just so damn complicated.

The honest truth, though, is that I really can’t bear it. In six months from now, a year from now, or even three, I will probably still be bullying myself over this fragrance and still be hating every moment of it on my skin, while still feeling incredibly guilty for being an utter philistine. So be it. I am a Philistine. Modern Habanita is not for me. You can start stoning me in…. three, two, one….

DETAILS:
Cost & Availability: The Habanita fragrance being reviewed here is the non-vintage, recently discontinued Eau de Toilette concentration which is easily available on eBay at prices ranging from around $25 to $50. The usual size of the black, Lalique bottle is 3.3 oz/100 ml, though I have very, very infrequently seen something in a totally different bottle which is neither black nor covered with the usual Lalique forms and which is 1 oz/ 30 ml. I have no idea if it’s genuine or not. Habanita is available from Sophia’s Beauty for $27.50 for a large 3.3 oz bottle of the EDT. It is also sold on Amazon via third-party sellers (usually the same ones who are selling on eBay). In terms of samples, Surrender to Chance carries both the EDP and the EDT. The EDT sample begins at $2.99 for a 1 ml vial. Habanita also comes in an Eau de Parfum form which is available in a variety of sizes from the Molinard website which are priced at €45 and €91, depending on size. Molinard also offers accompany body products and a candle. On eBay, the Eau de Parfum bottles are usually in a 2.5 oz/75 ml bottle size and go for around $45. As a final note, “Miss Habanita” is a totally different fragrance!

Perfume Review – Tom Ford Private Blend Tobacco Vanille

I’ve tried a number of tobacco fragrances lately and, to my surprise, my favorite has TF Tobacco Vanillebeen Tom Ford’s Private Blend Tobacco Vanille! It was quite unexpected, since I haven’t had a ton of luck in my prior experiences with the line and since Tom Ford fragrances can be a bit too potent even for my liking. (I usually adore powerhouse fragrances, so that says something!) Unintentionally, I seem to have started on the light end of the tobacco spectrum with Hermès‘ airy, ambered, rum and tobacco Ambre Narguilé, before working my way to the heavier, denser, more vanilla-y tobacco and rum Spiritueuse Double Vanille from Guerlain, and ending up with the richest of them all – a chocolate, tobacco and rum scent which I thought was wonderful!

Tobacco Vanille is a unisex eau de parfum which Fragrantica categorizes as “Oriental Spicy.” On his website, Tom Ford describes it as follows:

A modern take on an old world men’s club. A smooth Oriental, TOBACCO VANILLE opens immediately with opulent essences of Tobacco Leaf and aromatic spice notes. The heart unfolds with creamy Tonka Bean, Tobacco Flower, Vanilla and Cocoa, and finishes with A Dry Fruit Accord, enriched with Sweet Wood Sap.

The most complete list of notes that I’ve found was, oddly enough, on Nordstrom’s website which says Tobacco Vanille has:

ginger, tobacco leaves, anise, coriander, tobacco flower, clove, spices, fruit wood sap, benzoin, vanilla, tonka bean.

Tobacco Vanille opens on my skin exactly like a Christmas plum pudding, a sort of Christmas Plum Pudding PuddingDessertz Blogspotdark, blackened, moist-to-dry fruitcake that often is accompanied by a vanilla rum sauce. The similarity is so strong, it’s striking. The rum opening is accompanied by dark pipe tobacco, cinnamon chocolate, and spices. There is a touch of cardamom and ginger, just like in a really strong Chai tea. The subtle ginger note combined with the dark spices renders this a very different scent than Ambre Narguilé or Spiritueuse Double Vanille on my skin. The pipe tobacco is different, too. It’s not as sweet, light or fruity as it is in the other two fragrances, and there are no smoky, incense notes. Here, the tobacco is not like airy hookah smoke, but something a thousand times more dense. There is almost a chewy, black vibe to the whole thing with a faintly bitter underpinning, though I don’t know if it stems from the tobacco leaves, the fruit, or something else.

The rum note here is also different from that in the other two fragrances. It’s not as light or sugary but, rather, like a dark, sullen version. Or, perhaps, it’s just not very rum-like at all in the beginning, though that may well be the result of the amount you put on. I tried Tobacco Vanille twice, in differing concentrations, with the first time involving half my usual dosage. On that occasion, I didn’t get rum so much in the opening as some other strong alcohol. drambuieI couldn’t pinpoint which one but, for some reason, Drambuie consistently came to mind! Drambuie, for those of you who haven’t tried it, is a Scottish liqueur that is made from honey, herbs, spices and single malt whiskey. It’s very much like herbed honey with spices, whereas rum is a much more consistently sweet, dense, heavy black note in my mind. On the second try, with a lot more Tobacco Vanille on my skin, the aroma was unquestionably rum and not Drambuie.

A higher dosage of Tobacco Vanille results in yet another difference: a significantly stronger chocolate note. The more perfume I used, the stronger and darker the chocolate. In my first test, I used half the amount of perfume that I normally use because… well, frankly, one must be cautious in applying Tom Ford fragrances. They can be massive, potent, savage beasts — and I learnt the hard way after Amber Absolute that one should start with perhaps less than what one normally uses. So, using that halved dose, the cocoa note was a bit like a ghost. It popped up here, popped up there, and vanished for stretches of time, before re-emerging like a tease. In my second test, using my normal number of dabs, the chocolate was apparent from the very start. It wasn’t light, dusted cocoa powder either, but more akin to cinnamon-spiced, dark chocolate.

That the rich, dense, chocolate note combined with the slightly smoky aspects of the tobacco almost verges on a chocolate patchouli accord. Though Tobacco Vanille is often brought up in discussions of Serge LutensChergui, the opening make me think of a very different Lutens fragrance: Borneo 1834. Tobacco Vanille lacks the camphorous elements of the latter, but the rich chocolate-patchouli, spiced chai, smoky elements seem much closer to Borneo 1834 than to what I experienced with the lovely Chergui. Chergui is simply not as dense, chewy and dark as Borneo 1834 and Tobacco Vanille. It also has a predominantly honey note, with florals, hay, incense and a very different sort of smoke element. Never once did Chergui call to mind a Christmas plum pudding! I should note, however, that despite the comparison and its sweetness, Tobacco Vanille is not a gourmand fragance. I think the dryness of the tobacco and the spices prevent it from being like dessert. In other words, it’s not cloyingly sweet or diabetes in a bottle.

Thirty minutes in, in my first test at a lesser dosage, the spice notes started to unfurl even more. There is a lovely light note of coriander with its lemony undertones, some candied ginger, and a soupçon of anise. There is also an almost milky accord which makes me think of thick, sweetened tea. The lemony note to the coriander adds to that mental impression of a dark black tea with milk and a sliver of lemon. In conjunction with the dark fruit, spices and tobacco notes, I feel transported to a British gentlemen’s club in Mayfair where High Tea has been served in one corner of a wood-paneled library and where members quietly smoke cheroots or pipes. It’s very masculine, very proper and, yet, simultaneously, for reasons that I can’t quite pinpoint or put into words, it’s also none of those things.

St. James Hotel's Library Bar, Paris. Source: Oyster.com

St. James Hotel’s Library Bar, Paris.
Source: Oyster.com

At a higher dosage, the impression of lemony, thickened, sweetened, dark tea goes away. The gentleman’s library is now serving pure rum, expensive dark chocolates filled with liqueur, and slightly fruited pipe tobacco. A butler brings in Christmas Plum Pudding with a white rum sauce that he sets discreetly to the side, as the gentlemen talk business and smoke away in their club chairs. It’s utterly lovely, either way.

Other perfume bloggers haven’t had quite the same mental association and imagery with Tobacco Vanille as I did. Scent Bound likened it to “loud frat boy” as compared to Spiritueuse Double Vanille‘s “beautiful and constrained young librarian,” though he has often stated that he really likes Tobacco Vanille and wears it when he wants to stand out.

Scent Hound, in contrast, seemed much less enthused about it. He found it to be “very much a 1980s fragrance, sophisticated, big and maybe a bit dated.” Interestingly, Mr. Hound noted: “[t]he first time I wore this, I liked it better than the 2nd time I wore it which made me feel a bit like I was walking around with a ‘Yankee Candle Company’ candle hanging from my neck. For those of you not in the US, that’s not a good thing.” That Yankee Candle Plum Puddingwas an extremely astute observation and dead on. At times, Tobacco Vanille really does evoke a Yankee Candle! Frankly, I rather wish I hadn’t read that comparison because it’s hard to shake the mental association once you’ve noticed it. It’s even harder when you Google “Yankee Candle Plum Pudding” out of morbid curiosity and find that, yes, they actually had such a scent for a limited time!

Despite all that, I find myself really enjoying the perfume, especially in smaller doses where it seems to have more layers and complexity. In my normal, regular dosage for perfumes (3 to 4 large-ish dabs on each arm), it’s a lot more linear and soon ends up as a predominantly rum and tobacco, plum pudding scent, especially in its dry-down.

I should note that dosage may not be the only contributing factor for why I had a slightly different experience than my fellow bloggers. It makes a big difference if one sprays on a Tom Ford scent, as opposed to merely dabbing it on from a vial. Perfume is usually milder or softer when dabbed on, as opposed to when it is aerosolized (if there is such a word). In my case, dabbing on Tobacco Vanille may explain why I didn’t find it to be quite as brash, aggressive and bullying as others have.

Then again, maybe not. After all, I dabbed on Amber Absolute and was well-nigh assaulted by its notes. It was such an 800-pound gorilla that I found it almost unbearable at times. Noir de Noir was also very potent on me (though never anything remotely close to Amber Absolute), as were others like Neroli Portofino and Black Orchid Voile de Fleur. No, the bottom line is that, on my skin, Tobacco Vanille was surprisingly gentlemanly for a Tom Ford fragrance and far from a brute. It had great projection, but not a beastly amount. The real surprise was the longevity which, even by the standards of my voracious, perfume-consuming skin, was much less than for other Tom Ford fragrances. All in all, it lasted about 8 hours on me. On normal human beings, you can easily double and, in some cases, triple that number.

Tobacco Vanille is, thus far, my favorite Tom Ford Private Blend fragrance. I think it’s cozy, comforting, richly heady, almost compulsively sniffable, and completely unisex. I definitely recommend it.

DETAILS:
Cost & Availability: Tobacco Vanille is an eau de parfum. It is available on the Tom Ford website where it sells for: $205 for a 50 ml/1.7 oz bottle, $280 for a 100 ml/3.4 oz bottle or $495 for a 200 ml/8.45 oz bottle. In the US, you can also find it at fine retailers such as Nordstrom, Saks Fifth AvenueBergdorf Goodman, and others. In the UK, you can find it at Harrods where it sells for £135.00 or £195.00, depending on size. Elsewhere, Tom Ford fragrances are carried in numerous different countries; hopefully, you can find one near you using the store locator on the Tom Ford website.
Samples: If you are intrigued, but are also sane enough not to want to spend such a large amount without testing it out first, I suggest stopping by one of the stores listed above for a free sniff. However, given the potency of Tom Ford’s perfumes as whole, you may want to ordering a sample to see how it develops on your skin. You can find them starting at $3 on Surrender to Chance, or on other decant/sample sites like The Perfumed Court. I think Surrender to Chance has the best shipping: $2.95 for any order, no matter the size, within the U.S., and $12.95 for most orders going overseas. (It’s a wee bit higher if your order is over $150.) International shipping has leaped up in price (from $5.95) due to the U.S. Postal Service’s recently increased prices.

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.