This is the third and final installment of my contribution to the Outlaw Perfume Project series (see parts one and two) exploring the movement to push back against the institutional and bureaucratic pressures to restrict the use of natural materials in perfumery. The Natural Perfumers Guild’s members feel very strongly that warning labels should be the tool of choice, not bans of indispensable materials that have been safely used for hundreds of years. This project was meant to showcase what can be done with these wonderful traditional essences and why they should be freely available. Some of these fragrance artists have stretched the boundaries of creativity even into territory that really is forbidden, and others have done no less than come up with unique compositions that give us a glimpse of what can be accomplished when there are no limits on what they can use in their artistry.
Perfume historian Octavian Coifan says that fragrance is the eighth art, and experiencing high quality fragrances the way they were meant to be can be a step in the process of believing that it’s true. Perfumers spend many years learning their craft, and taking away the building blocks of their work is like telling a painter they can only use crayons from now on. You might say that oakmoss, for example, is the perfumery equivalent of viridian pigment in oil painting; dark, bitter green, versatile and irreplaceable. That so many of these perfumers have chosen to utilize so much oakmoss in their demonstration scents speaks volumes about its importance and their commitment to returning it to “legal” status. I have a vial of pure oakmoss tincture and I have tested it on my skin with no ill effects whatsoever. In fact, I applied all of the fragrances I sampled for this project directly to my skin, with zero irritation of any kind, although they can also be applied to hair or fabric if there are sensitivity concerns.
From a tiny niche perfumery in the smallest state in the U.S. comes a new creation called Gypsy by Charna Ethier of Rhode Island’s Providence Perfume Company. Gypsy is a modern take on a very traditional perfume category, the fougère or fern style mostly used in “masculine” perfumes. Most of them have an aromatic quality of sweet hay like dried fern, not fresh green, and Gypsy has that character as well, but with a difference. Along with the coumarin smell of the classic fougère and the pungent lavender with which it is often paired is the essence of pink lotus blossom, something you would never expect in a perfume of this style – until now. Does it work? Oh yes, it most certainly does. The hay-like note is a perfect match for the floral sweetness and helps bring the lotus into focus as the centerpiece of the scent instead of drowning it in the watery aquatic (and mostly synthetic) perfumes where it is so frequently found. Rose adds its rich roundness to the whole thing. There is an almost sugary quality to this perfume but not in the heavy-handed way of too many modern perfumes. Spicy galangal, similar to ginger root, adds another dimension of interest, all built on a delicious base of oakmoss, Tonka bean, vetiver and costus. Lacking the buttoned-up austerity and woodiness that characterize so many fragrances in this usually masculine genre, this is a fougère that women will love to wear and men will feel comfortable with. As a big fan of lotus flower, I am glad to see it used in this new way. (What else would I expect from someone who has a perfume in her line called Cocoa Tuberose that also has absinthe in it? Outlaws indeed!)
Of the nine perfumers that are participating in the Outlaw Perfume Project, I had only experienced the previous work of two of them – Anya McCoy of Anya’s Garden and Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, owner of DSH Perfumes at Essense Studio in Boulder, Colorado. I have sampled quite a few of the fragrances in her repertoire. Her range is impressive, from classic florals to abstract scents inspired by colors (she is also a talented painter) to re-creations of perfume formulas from ancient Egypt, she does it all the natural way. Her contribution to the project is called Mata Hari, and is named after the famous seductress and spy. It has more listed notes than any of the other fragrances in this series and it is a truly sophisticated composition. Mata Hari is a fruity chypre scent that opens with a rush of sensation created by a warm blend of neroli, orange blossom, mandarin, tarragon, marigold and juicy orange fruit, spiced with black pepper. The heart notes are a symphony of flowers – cassie, mimosa, jonquil, iris, roses, jasmine, lilac tuberose, osmanthus and more – as well as intensely spicy nutmeg, cinnamon leaf and bark and clove bud, mellowed by honey. These elements work together to create a heady “slow burn” effect, and isn’t that how seduction works best? The base is jam-packed with “illicit” ingredients such as oakmoss, cistus, costus root, Peru balsam, styrax, Tonka bean, and lots more, including the rarely used cade oil .
The notes don’t tell the whole story though, for the art of perfumery is intended to result in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. This has definitely been achieved in Mata Hari, and its seamless beauty is as addictive as anything truly illegal, but far more pleasant. The fruitiness is not the kind you might find in a department store perfume, it is far more subtle and long-lasting; instead of a blast of synthetic “freshness” you get the long, gradual development of the natural ingredients as they mesh with your own skin chemistry. The heart is so complex that it’s impossible to isolate any one flower’s aroma, it just smells like a Paradise garden, and the sensuous base notes ensure that the perfume lasts on your skin long enough for the entire story to unfold. This would be an ideal fragrance for evening wear and it can hold its own against both modern perfumes and vintage classics.
Now we come to the last perfume of the group, and the most surprising. Would you believe, a perfume called Cannabis® ? Yes, and it’s no joke; the fragrance has already been sold for quite a long time by German perfumer Alfredo Dupetit-Bernardi , owner of Bioscent Organic Perfumes which is a division of Dupetit Natural Products, selling a variety of hemp-based items (legal in Germany). If the only marijuana you ever smelled was rolled into “funny cigarettes” this will be a revelation, as it was to me. The aroma of the fresh green leaves is worlds away from the funky smell of the dried and smoked cannabis that is the signature scent of outdoor rock concerts all over the world. Frankly, I did not expect to like this since I cannot abide the odor of the smoke, but it really surprised me. This is a delightfully fresh and lively fragrance, as close to a “sporty scent” as any natural perfume can be but without the usual synthetic aquatic and woody-amber notes found in a thousand men’s colognes of this general style, all depressingly alike. Basil, bay oil, grapefruit peel, bergamot, lemon, lime and orange peels, spices, peppermint and other botanical essences are combined to make a spirited and very wearable perfume. What the cannabis extract seems to contribute to the mix is an intensely resinous yet astringent green note, akin to the sourness of rhubarb or crushed sorrel leaves, both of which are favorite smells/tastes for me. It is both oddly compelling and well matched to the other materials. There is just enough softness from rose and orange blossom in this fragrance to keep it from being too sharp, but it’s not really sweet either. As the citrus high notes subside, it warms up with the emergence of nutmeg, mace and the florals, but always retains the backdrop of powerful green. Cannabis® the perfume is not for everyone but it’s a true high quality fragrance, not a gimmick, and it’s really worth a try.
Read about more The Outlaw Perfume Project scents from writers at these participating sites, and enter to win FREE Outlaw perfumes!
Perfume-Smellin’ Things (Disclosure: I am also a guest writer for this site, but not for this project.)
WAFT By Carol
The Scented Gems
Ça Fleure Bon
(Regretfully, foamcage.com guidelines for its contributors prevent me from hosting a prize giveaway here.)
Related reading on this subject:
The IFRA Web site
The Natural Perfumers Guild
The Natural Perfumery Yahoo! Discussion Group