Some perfumers produce formulas that are universally likeable. There are perfumers whose perfumes are like ice cream, they go down easily with everyone. But if you read the comments on perfume websites, you will find that Neil Morris has a style that is either loved or misunderstood by many people.
I fall into the first group. Very few perfumers can send me a set of samples- as Mr Morris genially did- and have me wear nearly everything in the selection for days on end. But I did with Neil Morris’s scents. Why? Well, that’s the interesting part.
There is something in perfumes that transmit a sense of the maker. I know that sounds odd, but it’s true. What you get clearly form the work of Neil Morris is optimism and a curiosity about the world, both are rare. Here is somebody who has passed through all sorts of places, a traveler, but a traveler who never lost his investigative nose. Neil Morris has recognized overtly and consciously, what all the rest of us acknowledge covertly and sub-consciously, that all places have their own smell profile. If you were blind, you might still guess at your location, based on what your nose can detect. Neil Morris has learned to do this for his clients –with his eyes wide open.
Of the things he sent me, all retained the sense of where they had been thought up. Their moment of inception was clear in the finished fragrance. Take – just for an example- Izmir. This perfume was inspired by a city on the Western coast of Turkey and the scent of coffee, roses, fruit and food comes through. I’ve never been to Turkey, but somehow I bet that I’d recognize Izmir now. I’ve smelled its atmosphere.
The same sort of specificity of place comes out in his Indian fragrances. His Rose of Kali,is based on an accord of chocolate and roses, the roses almost dried out, the chocolate dark and waxy. Kali makes you think of stone idol images of the goddess of death, wreathed in her grinning garlands of skulls. The scent’s compelling, sort of repulsive, but attractive at the same time. Either way, it’s hard to look away, or put away the sample. Suffice it to say that Rose of Kali is a fragrance for some one who is strong minded. Kali manages to smell Indian, not like modern India, but like old complicated, polyglot, poly- religion India; the India that has absorbed and fascinated millions for centuries.
Here you get to the crux of the matter with Neil Morris scents. They are to my mind perfectly easy to wear, but they don’t excise whatever experience Neil had when the idea of each of them came to him. He does not pasteurize his impressions away. If there was heat, there’s heat, if there was humidity, or the faint smell of smoke, he leaves the traces intact.
His Amber is a good example of this quality. Burning Amber is amber burned like incense in a censer, and the smell of smoke hangs heavily on this fragrance drifting around the familiar labdanum and vanilla core you have found so many times in other amber compositions. But they don’t dominate Burning Amber; smoke does.
Scrumptious is well named. The fragrance is delicious with a pear note over floral ones, jasmine and rose. Easy to have on your skin, fruity and juicy but never sticky or un- sophisticated, Scrumptious has that lighthearted charm that I mentioned earlier. Not many perfumers have this signature cheerfulness, but Mr. Morris does. If he’d done nothing else, I’d still really like his work for this unpretentious and lovely fragrance alone.
But I really love Afire. This is an incense and vanilla perfume. Neil loves vanilla. He says so and the way that he manipulates the note bears this out. Neil Morris’s vanillas are very elegant. They are also caramel-ic and complex. He knows how powerful this bean is and how to extend and over- embroider the scent of vanilla so that the result is intricacy instead of density. Afire is a bit like Shalimar in reverse gear. The scent starts with a ginger spiked frankincense, and then progresses through some florals to become increasingly a vanilla dominant perfume instead of ending with incense the way Shalimar does. However, if this sounds seriously heavy, it’s not. Afire is a flickering dancing thing, that never weighs you down and though its lasting time is good, four hours plus on me, I was never once bored. I’ve kept on wearing Afire, infact, I’m wearing it now.
Outside of the work of Ellen Covey, no perfumer I’ve come across has such a sense of place. Ms. Covey recreates the North West atmosphere, but Neil Morris seems to manage this generally for his clients. You can arm chair travel with his perfumes, or just radiate with one of his experiential ones. All of a sudden, with no warning, and out of nowhere, you’re happy.
The artwork is John Singer Sargent, another well traveled New Englander. My samples come to me courtesy of Neil Morris.