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.