An explosion of fiery reds and peppery black, followed by muddy greens and dulled mahogany. Peppered meat, dentists, barber shops, and grandfathers, but also sleekly elegant women bundled in warm furs against the chill. The visuals and images evoked by Caron‘s Poivre are all over the place for me. And so are some of my responses to this famous, ostensibly “pepper” perfume.
Poivre was released in 1954, and was created by Michel Morsetti. It is one of Caron’s Haute Parfumerie “Urn Scents” which originated as extracts or pure parfums. I tested the parfum extrait version, but not the vintage version. I would like to, but, as with Tabac Blond, the vintage is not what most people have access to or can easily find, even on eBay. So, modern Poivre extrait is the focus of this review.
Caron describes Poivre as an explosive pepper scent:
In 1954, Caron creates a stir with Poivre, whose explosive scent remains unparalleled on today’s market. It took particular daring to make this spicy, peppery departure, held together with an ultra-rich floral heart note, typical of Caron, and woody base notes.
I’m not clear on the precise notes in modern Poivre. The Caron website only mentions three elements: pepper, cloves, and sandalwood. Fragrantica has no list, and only mentions the pepper. In a review devoted primarily to the vintage Poivre parfum, Bois de Jasmin lists:
red pepper, black pepper, giroflore [clove], carnation, ylang ylang, opoponax [sweet myrrh], sandalwood, vetiver, and oakmoss.
However, Luckyscent — which is one of the handful of places that sells modern Poivre outside of a Caron boutique — has a very different set of notes:
Pepper, clove, geranium rose base, jasmine, tuberose, carnation bouquet.
What I smelled was some variation or combination of the two lists:
red pepper, black pepper, clove, carnation, geranium rose base, jasmine, opoponax [sweet myrrh], vetiver, and oakmoss.
Modern Poivre opens on my skin with an explosion of fiery notes: clove, red pepper that faintly resembles the bite of a chili pimento pepper, and black pepper. They are quickly trailed by spicy carnation and nutty, sweet myrrh. Then, seconds later, a very odd, earthy, musky, musty note with a strongly medicinal character suddenly appears. It smells like cloves infused with a hint of bad, almost rancid, patchouli. It has almost a chewy, leathered undertone, but also sourness. The sweet nuttiness of the opoponax softens some of its medicinal facade, but the odd accord definitely evokes the dentist’s office for me. I love cloves, passionately, and there is a heaping amount of the regular note as well, but this undertone is rather difficult, unpleasant, and pronounced as well.
Five minutes in, matters get a little worse when another subtle undertone appears as well. I feel quite crazy for writing this, but there is a meatiness to the medicinal note. It’s as if the usual Caronade signature base suddenly turned into a clove-covered, raw steak. I can’t explain it as I’ve never encountered anything quite like it, but something about Poivre initially smells both meaty and quite “off.” Thankfully, the raw, spiced steak impression fades away after about 15 minutes, but I’m telling you, the cloves are a multi-faceted thing of much weirdness in Poivre’s earliest moments.
Slowly, very slowly, a floral element grows stronger. From the very start, there was a touch of carnation, but it grows increasingly pronounced. It is spicy, peppered, piquant, and yes, very clove-like in its core. It is soon joined by an equally peppered geranium, only this time it smells like the fuzzy leaves with a touch of rose. A microscopic amount of pungent oakmoss follows suit, but it’s muted and largely indistinct. Perhaps it’s simply that nothing can compete with the cloves, which continue to overpower everything. To my relief, the various sour, meaty, and earthy undertones have faded.
Yet, the cloves are so intense that I noticed my lips tingling from contact with the skin of my arm. One reason for that is that cloves can be an analgesic or numbing agent, which is why it is often in dental products for tooth or gum pain. Another reason is that it is hard to smell a lot of the nuances in Poivre from a distance, and you have to put your nose close to the skin. The projection isn’t huge, even in the opening minutes, though the intensity of the clove note may fool you, especially if sniffed up close. At best, though, Poivre hovers about 2 inches above the skin, potent in its cloves, but difficult to separate out in terms of other notes.
15 minutes in, Poivre settles down in to a spicy clove fragrance, trailed by the various peppery florals. I rather enjoy it, though that is partially due to the novelty of having a clove-centric fragrance, and partially due to my own love for the note.
Something about Poivre at this point and for the next hour feels very much like a comforting, old-fashioned men’s cologne, only deeper, richer, and thicker. The clove onslaught makes it a little like a barber shop fragrance, and conjures up images in my mind of a grandfather in his Sunday suit, freshly shaved and ready for church in the 1950s. Poivre wouldn’t be Don Draper’s scent, but someone much older, less debonair, and more solid. Perhaps, Andy Griffith in the old “Mayberry television” show, or an old-world Neapolitan grandfather who likes more spicy fragrances than fresh, aromatic fougères
A muted, quiet touch of powder creeps in after 30 minutes, along with a dark, abstract woodiness. It smells like some odd combination of cedar, vetiver, oakmoss, and a tinge of the Caronade signature base. Poivre is now a warm, richly spiced clove scent, followed by clove-y carnation and that odd, dark, dry woodiness. The top notes are trailed further behind by pepperiness and a whisper of powder. The florals are increasingly muted, except for touches of carnation which generally just accentuate the clove bouquet.
I find myself baffled by it all, but I think I like Poivre now. The dispositive word is “think,” because I’m honestly not completely certain. Poivre is interesting and different, to say the least, and not like anything I’ve smelled before. That said, I know I’d have a pretty different (and probably entirely negative) view of things, if I loathed cloves or if I’d expected an actual pepper fragrance as the name suggests.
Poivre doesn’t change drastically or dramatically over the next few hours. At the start of the 3rd hour, a tiny trace of a velvety, white floral creeps in, but it’s extremely hard to separate or pull out from under the cloves. At best guess, it smells more like the jasmine in the Luckyscent description than the ylang-ylang of the original Poivre. I wouldn’t bet the house on it, though, as it’s barely noticeable, and Poivre continues to waft copious amounts of clove. Now, however, there is also more of that odd woodiness I talked about earlier, which is slightly more discernible as vetiver and oakmoss. It creates a dry green touch in the base.
At the same time, however, the fragrance seems warmer, better balanced, and smoother. For reasons I can’t explain, Poivre suddenly loses its barbershop, masculine impression, perhaps because the cloves feel softer, tamer, less sharp. The medicinal traces are long gone, and the cloves merely feel wonderful spicy, rich, and deep, albeit in a light form. Increasingly, Poivre evokes the image of a well-dressed woman from the past, bundled in thick furs on a chilly day. She looks old-fashioned and dated, but also very chic and strong. She stands out, and she uses the softened, spicy heat of Poivre to counter the chill in the air in the same way as she does her elegant coat that drapes itself close to her skin.
Poivre is now a visual blend of the darkest reds, and burnished clove-y umber, with a touch of muddy greens and dulled mahogany, though the scent itself feels increasingly murky and hazy. The notes are hard to separate, except for the spicy cloves, and the weak sillage doesn’t help. At the 2.25 hour mark, Poivre is almost a skin scent, with only the cloves standing out when sniffed up close. It remains that way largely until its end. About 4.75 hours in, an odd touch of soapiness joins the cloves, but it is fleeting and soon fades away. As a whole though, Poivre is almost entirely cloves on my skin for the rest of its lifespan. In its final moments, it’s merely a wisp of something spicy, brown, and dry. All in all, Poivre lasted 13 hours on my skin with a tiny 1/3 of the vial being dabbed on. Its sillage was extremely soft, but it was generally easy to detect up close for most of its life.
I think I would very much enjoy wearing Poivre if a bottle ever fell into my lap, but I say that as someone who loves cloves. I do hesitate, though, because it doesn’t feel like the easiest or most versatile fragrance. It would definitely be one of those mood or special occasion sort of things, for when I needed a lot of undiluted spice in my life and wanted to go retro.
Yet, despite my appreciation for the fragrance (at least after the opening 30 minutes), I would not recommend modern Poivre to the average person. You have to love cloves passionately — and most people don’t. Even those who like the note may not want such an unrelieved, undiluted form of it. Whatever Poivre may once have been, nowadays, the modern version is centered on almost nothing but cloves. Even the vague, mostly abstract carnation smells a lot like cloves, and floralacy isn’t a large part of the fragrance anyway.
That brings me to other people’s impressions of modern Poivre. There aren’t a lot of reviews for it out there, but Bois de Jasmin talked about it briefly in a post devoted mostly to vintage Poivre. She loves the vintage Extrait which she rates at 5-stars, but gave the modern fragrance a rare one-star. Her review of the 2011 Poivre reads:
On Reformulation (March 2011):
Wearing the original Poivre is an exhilarating experience that can only be compared to biting into a black peppercorn crust atop steak au poivre. The spicy rose underscoring the fiery pepper and woods lent the composition a certain dark vision of glamor. The current version is more pink than crimson, and as such, its beauty has been lost. The cinnamon, clove and pepper notes are quite attenuated, with the final result verging on bland.
On Fragrantica, reviews on the current version of Poivre are mixed, with a distinct tendency towards disapproval at the changes. The very first review sounds a bit like my experience, from the medicinal start, to the changes after 30 minutes, and how Poivre may work well for men:
This fragrance isn’t worthy of the Caron name. The first note was sharp pungent black pepper followed instantly by the medicinal scent of oil of cloves, the toothache medicine we used as kids and now contained in the OTC preparation Ora-Gel. Reminding me of toothache didn’t do much to impress me. The initial scent is very harsh, even although the pepper moves to the background quickly and the clove takes over. After it dried down a bit, I could smell a touch of sandalwood in the background, but no real carnation at all, and I love the spicy scent of carnation. There may be a tiny bit of floral there, but it is overpowered by the sharp and unpleasant clove scent. After about forty five minutes, I smelled a touch of baby powder and vanilla, but the vanilla is what makes most fragrances cloying and I don’t like it. Poivre kept the vanilla down to the minimum I can tolerate in a fragrance, so that was a plus. Spicy scents are my absolute favourite – Opium is one I have used for decades, and the only one so far that doesn’t turn sickly sweet and cloying on my skin after a half hour or so. But Caron’s Poivre smells heavily like oil of cloves and a concoction I made containing it when first experimenting with essential oils years ago, consisting of clove, pepper, sandalwood, jasmine and a drop of ylang ylang. Poivre also didn’t last long on my skin, but the scent was much better after about thirty minutes. But still, the clove overpowered. I’m glad I just bought a few samples. It would do better marketed to men.
Her experience actually sounds more complex and detailed than my own, as I detected no sandalwood whatsoever in the scent, and the vanilla was akin to a tiny, temporary pimple on my skin, at best. Then again, I got sweet myrrh, vetiver and some oakmoss, so maybe it balances out.
One man’s experience with modern Poivre offers an interesting comparison to another scent, as well as a cautionary tale about expecting actual pepper in a fragrance with that name. (Honestly, don’t you have to laugh at how much of a misnomer it now is?!) In his review, “Johngreenink” wrote:
I tried a sample today of the modern version and kept asking myself what it reminded me of. Then it came to me: Royall’s Bay Rhum – it is almost exactly the same, with perhaps just a bit more vanilla.
I have had visions of ‘Poivre’ being a kind of holy grail of perfumes – a classic, a hard-to-wear (which is fascinating to me), exceptionally rare. I love black and pink pepper scents, and I think I mistook the name of the perfume to actually mean that it smelled ‘like pepper’. Instead, it is (basically) a carnation/clove kind of scent… something like what you’d find in a gentleman’s cabinet. It has a very aftershave-y quality to it.
It’s linear, doesn’t last too long, and a bit ordinary. I was really hoping for a bit more. [Emphasis to the other perfume name added by me.]
Another commentator who is a hardcore Caron lover has a brutal (and, if truth be told, not inaccurate) description of modern Poivre:
Why this was reformulated I can’t say, but what I can say is that I could walk through the eye of a hurricane and stop to pick out a Caron, and this ain’t one of them.
When Poivre was reformulated someone simply opened their kitchen spice drawer, unscrewed the lids from the pepper and clove jars and mixed it with a little water.
I’d be less harsh with my review if this were an EDT, but as a parfum I have to keep it real.
Caron needs to be called to task on this one.
I don’t generally disagree, I really don’t, especially given the Extrait’s price per quantity issue, but, still, I thoroughly enjoyed parts of Poivre. I wasn’t plagued by memories of the past, which obviously matters in this case. Plus, I liked the masculine, retro feel, and I can take the endless amount of cloves, at least once the odd undertones disappeared after about 30 minutes. I am sure the vintage version is utterly spectacular, but I recall the one time I tried to blind buy an old bottle (a large one, perhaps from the 1970s or so) on eBay: it ended up going for an astronomical, nose-bleed of a price. Since I can’t get the vintage, I have to deal with the modern Extrait, and it really can be nice. If you love cloves. Really, really love them.
That part cannot be stressed enough. As one person put it on Fragrantica, “Poivre is ideal for clove lovers or spicy carnation lovers — it is heavily laden with spices.” I would qualify it further to say that modern Poivre is perhaps best suited for men who enjoy vintage classics, or for those women who love more intense, spicy fragrances with an occasionally old-fashioned, masculine feel. And they both have to have a tolerance for discreet scents that don’t projection much. What should be self-evident from all this is that people who don’t love cloves passionately and fiercely should avoid modern Poivre like the bubonic plague. You’ll be utterly miserable.
On a parting note, I just wanted to add that writing this review made me quite sad. Sad for the things long gone, frustrated over the inability to find (or, rather, afford) the rare times vintage Poivre may pop up, nostalgic for how elegant things used to be in the past, and rather demoralized as a whole about changes to perfumery. There are so many things that have gone by the way of the dinosaur, and while many changes are positive, I mourn the diminution of so many iconic legends of the past. So few of us have the chance to even try the masterpieces in their original form, and to explore the history of this passion we call perfumery in concrete form. We have even less chance of doing something about it if we find a new love. It all feels bloody unfair.