When it comes to perfume houses, I am not a mixer and a matcher. I am instead one of those stubborn folks who like to have several perfumes in the same style. It’s grounding. You know where you are with a perfumer whose work you’ve used before, it has a familiar vibe to it. The practical result of this stodgy approach is that I adopt perfume houses rather than individual perfumes. As you might imagine, it takes some time for me to make this kind of switch, in fact it probably takes the conclave of cardinals less time to pick a new pope.
The last time this happened was maybe six years ago. I had discovered that my old favorites did not work in summer, and I had to have something between May and October. I had finished poring over Nigel Groom’s Perfume, a book that came out in 1999. In it, he listed a small independent perfume house run by a grand-daughter of Pierre Guerlain: Parfums de Nicolai.
I was intrigued. A Guerlain that was not a Guerlain. I was up for that. Shortly afterwards I ran into a bottle of Sacrebleu at a New York Sephora.
I didn’t like it.
This is always intriguing, because perfumes you dislike at first often end up as an interesting relationship. At least, they do with me. I’m like an old roué in this respect, a slap in the face from a chorus girl always gets my attention much faster than a simper.
It turned out that this style – airy, slightly reserved, very sophisticated – was in fact indicative of the house. In Europe Mme. De Nicolai had made her reputation as much with candles as she had with scents, she also sold lamps that perfumed a house and negated unpleasant odors, but it was the personal perfumery that really interested me.
Early on I took to her Juste Un Rê ve, which had a beautiful monoi note, and to my nose a rum note as well. I still wear it in summer when it blooms predictably. It is as though she had taken the traditional Guerlain style, always predicated on tailoring silk organza into fantastical shapes, and then updated it for the XXIst century so that the creations are even more aerial and ethereal but their edges are sharper.
What we may be talking here is less tailoring than a kind or aerial origami, there is something distinctly starchy about many de Nicolai scents, which combats the wilting effects of humidity. The downside (if you really want to go looking for a downside) is that these are not scents for the cold weather. Even the best of them don’t have the warmth and the furry nap that you look for in winter.
This, by the way, is not to say that Mme. De Nicolai does not have a softer mode. She does. Some of her earlier perfumes had a kind of somnolence to them. The original Le Temps d’une Fête was one of the sleepiest smells ever. A rose/mint accord separated the beginning of the fragrance from the heart, like a five barred gate separates a lawn from a meadow. The rest of the scent was a drowsy duo of rose and musk. This sleepy mode survives in Cologne Sologne, which is one of my favorite orange blossom colognes, a snooze in a Calabrian orange grove on a hot afternoon.
She handles certain notes better than others. Lavender is one of her specialties to my mind. She can make it fierce, as in Maharadjah, and she can make it lyrical, as in Nicolai Pour Homme. She also handles Lily of the Valley very well. Consider her Odalisque, which is a bit reminiscent of Chanel’s Cristalle if Cristalle were yarning with lily of the Valley and iris instead of running down jasmine and orange blossom in a catty way. It is pallid and sort of crisp at the same time.
Then there’s the more rustic treatment she gave to the note in Eclipse, which was a marriage of the lilies with basil and black pepper. It was like a more natural version of Isabella Rosselini’s Manifesto from some years back. In both cases Mme. De Nicolai set off the flower note with great delicacy, and yet in both cases, it was wearable and it was modern. That is not easy to do with floral scents.
Actually, and now that I come to think about it, what she does best is to modernize traditional structures, make them contemporary but never trendy or tarty, perhaps she does this even better now that she is in charge of the Osmotheque at Versailles, but whatever the reason, there’s a lot to be said for her approach.