Sumer is a Cumin In

Chypres are a flickering presence in the perfume world these days.  Whether you see them or whether you don’t, may have to do with what your definition of a chypre is in the first instance.  If you’re a purist, then you define chypres as a bergamot top-note married to whatever you like so long as oakmoss is in the base.  That’s the basic formula of the original Chypre done by Francois Coty in 1917.

Actually, I bet the chypre as a perfume template is much older.  Really it has to do with putting a citrus prologue on a woody perfume and nothing is quite so dark and dry as oakmoss.  It’s kind of a catalyst for other dark and dry materials making them so much darker and drier than they would have been on their own.  Take away the oakmoss and you are left with all the usual wood notes, but the bass in the woody tone quartet has cut out, and the harmonies achieved are just not that resonantly sexy anymore.

You notice this in all sorts of places but one spot where I really miss that oakmoss is citrus chypres.  The oakmoss base actually did give them a dark background that made the citrus pop and sparkle like champagne.  This is not to say that the genre shouldn’t move on.   Perfumery isn’t a museum after all, and if new materials don’t come along from time to time, and if old ones don’t change, or aren’t used differently, things stagnate.

So in the spirit of innovation and trying a new variation on an old theme, I sampled Parfum d’Empire’s Azemour les Orangers.  Azemour has been much admired by other perfume bloggers and it is a long lived citrus composition.  The beginning is a lovely medley of citrus voices singing a cappella, and this is the part of the perfume I like the best.  Why?  Because Azemour is a canticle composed for about an orange grove in Morocco, and it is very evocative indeed of the deep blue Mediterranean sky, and the arid mid day heat, and the polyrhythmic chant of cicadas.

And one of the most evocative parts of the whole composition is cumin.

Cumin, however, is like love, and the late Elizabeth Taylor: by turns utterly enchanting and rather off-putting, and you never know, one minute to the next which impression will be upper-most.  For the most part, I am in the non-cumin admiring camp.  I do not think that cumin is the most beautiful thing I have ever smelled.  In fact to me it often seems rather common and a bit sweaty. Also like the late Elizabeth Taylor, it frequently upstages  other actors in any production it’s in, and gets shrill when it doesn’t get what it wants.  That’s the case here.

The trouble is that without all that cumin Azemour would be just another citrus chypre of a kind that used to be pretty thick on the ground, and which in any case, was ground policed by Edmond Roudnitska, who seemed to have been born knowing everything that anyone would ever need to know about citrus chypres* and everyone else could only say Amen.  So to be an individual, Azemour needs its cumin, but for me, the cumin needs to stay in the Penzey’s jar on my spice shelf.

We will just have to go our separate ways.  When I want to doze in orange groves, I put on Parfums de Nicolai’s Cologne Sologne instead.

*Although I smelled the current version of Diorella the other day and though it was recognizable, Diorella was thin and reminiscent of furniture polish.  Had the formula been diluted?

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8 Responses to Sumer is a Cumin In

  1. Michael says:

    I quite enjoy cumin in both cooking and perfume. I’ve got a sample of Azemour, so will try it again soon to see how much of a cumin vibe I get. For yummy citrus goodness have you ever tried DS & Durga Petitgrain? I love it.

    • Blacknall Allen says:

      I have not, but I see that they are Brooklyn based, which is more or less my part of the world, or close enough as makes no difference. A good excuse to head out to Brooklyn! Not that I really need one….

      (And yes, cumin does make the cut in cooking – our kitchen would be the poorer without it.)

  2. Meg says:

    What you wrote here about Elizabeth Taylor (not to mention cumin) is so true. I’m thinking of “Between Friends”, a cheesy sentimental 1983 movie in which Liz played the brassy-blowsy-boozy BFF of an astonishingly sane and sedate Carol Burnett. At one point she gets snockered at a party, climbs on top of a table, and shouts “GINGER ROGERS!!” for no reason that her peers can possibly discern. Cumin perfumes would do the exact same thing, if they could.

    • Blacknall Allen says:

      I remember that movie! A truly great kitsch fest! Also feel that cumin does tend to take over. The stuff is like plutonium, no matter how tiny the amount used it dominates the formula and it has a half life of forever. I must have liked a perfume that contained it sometime, but, tire to the tarmac, can’t recall a one. Cumin’s just a deal breaker in my book.

      • Michael says:

        Another cumin-heavy fragrance is Cartier Declaration. I love it too. And Kingdom is great in my opinion, although I know some people can’t stand it.

        • Blacknall Allen says:

          The Cartier is Jean Claude Ellena isn’t it? I love his Terre d’Hermes, and should go back to smell Declaration again. Kingdom too has this wonderful earth note. It’s raining here today finally, after three 90 degree days so there’s a little petrichor on the air and it reminds me of those scents.

  3. Mals86 says:

    (Found La Liz pics amusing. Thanks.)

    Cumin is not exactly a deal-breaker for me, but I tend not to feel at home in the kind of scent that contains it. The only cumin-featuring fragrances I remember enjoying were (modern) Femme, which I thought was fascinating and not very comfortable, and Lumiere Noire pour femme, which I think is dead sexy. But in its deafening rose-narcissus-chypre mezzo-soprano, the cumin is, if you can believe, a little outgunned.

    • Blacknall Allen says:

      Cumins have mostly been a problem for me in de Nicolai perfumes like New York and Vetyver. Haven’t gotten around to Lumiere Noir (though it sounds pretty good) and have avoided new Femme because I was so used to old Femme, which is just stick in the mud-ish admittedly. Curiously, McQueen’s Kingdom did not bother me though it was a cumin carnival. Well, if you can like XIIIieme Heure, maybe Lumiere Noir may work for cumin detesting me.

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