14 June 2011

Interviews from the Outskirts of Perfumery

I’m quite pleased to be breaking a long hiatus by posting bits from the first actual interview I’ve conducted for this blog -- two of them, in fact! I got to speak via e-mail with two independent perfumers whose products I bought online. Looking back, I rather wish I’d asked different questions than I did. Absurd questions like, “What would you do for a client who asked for a custom perfume based on mustard (not the greens or the seeds but the actual condiment)?” Something to give them a chance to talk about perfumery in a way they may not be used to… I’ll have to keep that one in mind for potential future exchanges with perfumers; instead I asked these two some pretty ho-hum stuff, but I still got quite thoughtful responses.

Way back in April, I ordered two flavors of Black Amber Balm, by A Treatise on White Magic. ATWM is the creation of Emmelie Brunetti, comprising the online storefront where she sells Black Amber Balm and the ATWM blog, a charming stream of imagery referencing the American West and 60s/70s Americana, drug culture, fashion, bohemia, astrology and a penchant for jewelry and precious stones, along with some random bits of narrative and more than a dash of the occult.

The balms make up Brunetti’s library of eight solid perfumes, each an elaboration of a single traditional ingredient built atop her custom amber blend. I chose Vetiver and Oakmoss; the other scents are Sandalwood, Vanille, Rose, Tobacco, Vintage Patchouli and Pure Amber. Bearing a deep black hue from the activated charcoal powder she blends with the beeswax base, these balms aren’t simply another expression of Brunetti’s cultural interests. Instead she envisions them as a compression of her entire aesthetic identity. “I have compared it in the past to a Pandora's box in reverse,” she explained, “where an infinite amount of ideas are going back into the box, the box being the balm.”

Fittingly, there’s a wonderful denseness to the scent of these balms on skin (they do go clear with a bit of rubbing and didn’t stain anything I wore), which I suspect is the beeswax amplifying the amber basenote. Brunetti chose beeswax for its texture and distinctive sweet smell; she also “liked that it came from a bee, a living species; and most importantly, it’s this wax that was used thousands of years ago to make the first solid perfumes.”

The Vetiver balm starts out with spicy black pepper and coriander top notes, transitioning quickly to a surprisingly sharp and soil-y vetiver note. Stripped of its surroundings, it could be a close cousin to the vetiver of Encre Noire. It’s the smell of the morning, when things are still dewy and cool, and it warms and sweetens gradually for a few hours before melting into the amber base note.

The Oakmoss balm, on the other hand, seems much more fit for sunset and beyond. After a languid first act featuring jasmine sambac and kadam attar (an oriental woody-floral note), cedar and petitgrain in the heart support the starring moss note, which is warm, fairly vegetal and just a bit briny, as any good tree moss is supposed to be. I’m sure there are countless perfume hoarders out there with vintage chypres whose moss notes would blow my mind, but as an avid perfume fan who hasn’t gone quite that overboard (yet), I can say I’ve smelled a lot of moss notes and haven’t found one that I like more than this. After a few hours it all slides easily into the familiar amber base, rounded out here by an extra shot of labdanum.

Black Amber Balms are a steal at $25, and are available at blackamberbalm.com.

The second perfume I sampled is Réglisse Noire by 1000 Flowers, the perfume label of artist Jessica September Buchanan, whose certification in aromatherapy led her to study at the Grasse Institute of Perfumery and subsequently assist in a few French perfume labs.

Now on her own, she’s created a formidable work of art herself. Réglisse Noire is French for black licorice, and Buchanan’s concept emerged from her lifelong fondness of it – particularly the crystal bowl of Liquorice Allsorts that was a constant in her grandmother’s home. “They were such a treat,” she said, “and almost slightly forbidden given that my Mom normally forbade sugar to us as kids ('Earthy'/ hippie parents – Saltspring Island, west coast, 1970's).”

Réglisse Noire arranges that licorice front and center from the very first moment, but never (thankfully) in a literal way. Likewise, the top notes of white pepper, mint, shiso leaf and ozone don’t come across as individual facets so much as a crisp, translucent wrapper around the candy. A little further along, the licorice gets greater depth and saturation from ginger, anise and cocoa. Cedar, patchouli, vanilla and elegant musks in the base accommodate the sweetness of the licorice, but also make it softer and earthier. This is a very complete and carefully crafted package -- a quality echoed by the brilliant white cedarwood box in which the full size flacon is shipped.

Art runs in Buchanan’s family (her grandmother and great aunt are oil painters, and her father is a photographer), and she proposes perfumery as a mode of storytelling: “I liken it to writing and photography… I feel like the same areas of my brain are active in these processes as when composing perfume.”

Réglisse Noire is thus as romantic and impressionistic as Buchanan’s childhood memory of her grandmother’s candy bowl, but what impresses me most is that – like the small luxury of Liquorice Allsorts – there is a real luxuriousness to it, especially for a fragrance that uses many natural components (Buchanan says naturals make up 90% of her palette). I tend to think of ‘natural’ fragrances as being blunt and rough-edged, which of course can be a good or bad thing, depending on the fragrance. But, like the best of Mandy Aftel's portfolio, Buchanan has given Réglisse Noire a certain ‘finish’ or sense of quality that’s lacking in other natural perfumes I’ve smelled.

I wonder if this is because she does use some synthetic molecules (in Réglisse Noire it’s most likely the musks) alongside the naturals, pursuing a ‘middle path’ in her perfumery. Buchanan first encountered man-made perfumery materials while studying in Grasse, and “surprised myself by becoming quite smitten with some of them. I realized that I had painted them all with one big brush of ‘synthetic=bad’…without having a clue what I was talking about. Ignorance leads to prejudice.”

A humiliating dressing down by the master perfumer Guy Robert further convinced her that a range of both natural and synthetic ingredients would provide the most creatively liberating toolbox. Today, the only standard she uses in selecting materials is an environmental one: “The [synthetic] materials I’ve allowed into my palette,” she said, “are non-toxic, non bio-accumulative, and pure, from recognized and reputable producers. All my naturals are fresh, organic if possible, and tested for purity.”

Réglisse Noire is available in a 50ml refillable flacon with a locking antique-style atomizer bulb, for $110 at 1000flowers.ca.

Many thanks to Emmelie and Jessica for entertaining my questions!

1 comment:

  1. Hello Arthur,

    I enjoyed the questions you asked, and appreciate both the article and review you have written. As well, I'm happy about your enjoyment of Reglisse Noire as an artistic creation! So thank-you and here's wishing you a very happy and fragrant summer!

    ~Jessica September