Truly Madly Oddly

Guerlain's pamplelune

Guerlain’s pamplelune

Originality is risky.  You may have observed this yourself in the matter of wardrobe selection.  You may be creative and a free spirit, and completely unrestrained by those tiresome things called conventions, but that’s not the point, the point is, what about everyone else?

When it comes to scent convention tends to control what we wear and where we wear it.  A pervasive oriental to the office? A titanic white floral to a dinner party?  Perfume no matter how romantic in essence, has to fit in with its olfactory surroundings and those tend to be the set pieces of existence everything from the dry cleaner’s to the doctor’s office.The perfumes that buck trends are therefore difficult to pull off.  People aren’t sure if you’re perfumed or if you stink, and this is the kind of divide most of us are pretty hesitant to cross.  I know I am. All the same if nobody ever does any experimenting no progress is ever made and no new fashions in fragrance evolve.  What’s acceptable changes but changes slowly.

Just how hard is it to introduce something totally new?  Pretty hard I think. Which is why so much of what you encounter at perfume counters is familiar to the point of cliche.  Because so few things are completely original I have only three perfumes to discuss here, but to my mind they genuinely didn’t smell like anything else, two were failures, one a success.

Cococabana de Nicolai's pioneering coconut perfume

Cococabana
de Nicolai’s pioneering coconut perfume

The first was Cococabana a de Nicolai perfume from 2006.  I tried it then and was surprised by how original the formula was.  Bitter orange and coconut to open and ylang ylang and tuberose in the mid section.  Finally the end of Cococabana was palm leaves ( I would never have known this) vanilla tonka and cedarwood (which you could actually smell). The result was a weird kind of buttery, well, coconut buttery, perfume which felt as though it should be spread with a butter knife rather than spritzed. This scent was “lipaic” to use an elegant term once applied to a blood sample of mine taken after I had eaten an entire box of Brazilian chocolates. The stuff was completely different.  Honore des Pres’ Love Coco is far more conventional by contrast.

Naturally poor old Coco died the death.  No one was quite ready for this odd essay on suntan oil, but the formula may have been ahead of its time, both Heeley and Honore des Pres have done fairly well out of their coconut scents as far as I can tell.  Perhaps de Nicolai should disinter Cococabana.

The second oddity was Manoumalia composed by the late Sandrine Videault and an ode to the tropical flowers she knew from her antipodal home.  Manoumalia was the oddest white floral I’ve ever sniffed, never mind that jasmine and ylang ylang and tiare were supposed to be in there, the slightly camphoraceous pervasive notes, rubbery and dense and slightly fecal as well, were as uncompromisingly strange as all get out.  I couldn’t fault this because it was a piece of perfume composition that I was  certain was based on memory, rather like Diorissimo, only the reference was one I was entirely unfamiliar with, which can hardly count as criticism. How can you complain that something is unlikely if it exists?

Finally there is the success story: Guerlain’s Pamplelune.  You might call this scent Guerlain’s oxymoron because “original Guerlain” usually is one.  This however belonged to a brief period right around the turn of the century when the firm was producing experimental work, and Pamplelune may have been one of the most original productions.

Advertising for the original Aqua Allegorias

Advertising for the original Aqua Allegorias

This is enough of a success for most people to know that Pamplelune is  grapefruit, grapefruit and petit grain and neroli, but the kicker is a weird combination of cassis and patchouli which gives Pamplelune this peculiarly heavy backbeat.  Guerlain tried a similar tune again with citrus and a lot of patchouli in Philtre d’Amour. Philtre is a bitch slap of a fragrance if ever there was one, but good as it is, and I own a bottle, Philtre is just not quite the striking creature Pamplelune is.  Sweet and bitter, dark but with an edge of wood and dark greenery from the cassis, Pamplelune is that unbeatable thing in perfumery, a paradox.

So have you ever come across a fragrance that struck you as completely original, and if so, would you actually wear it?

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7 thoughts on “Truly Madly Oddly

  1. Angel, when it just came out, was beyond being original. It took me a couple of years to move from almost repulsed to love.
    Other than that, I’m probably not evolved enough to recognize something that is truly innovative and unexpected from just a bad perfume that I don’t like.

  2. I wish I still had some of the old Cococabana samples to share with you because I think you would have had a an interesting reaction- and I know that tuberose is not your favorite note- but this was such a weird combo of coconut and tropical flowers that it seemed totally unique. To this day I can’t really say if I thought Cococabana was good or bad.

    Angel was just stunningly unexpected, I’m still not sure whether I like Angel even after all this time, but I’m always impressed by it :-)

  3. True originality is rare and my smelling experience is not wide enough for me to say with confidence that I’ve smelled it. A perfume that always puzzles me is Nicolai’s Maharahni. I find it fascinating but shrill, and it hot spices make me think of spices ground by mortar and pestle. Not something I can wear but I’m glad it’s there.

    I don’t look for originality now, just wearable fragrances really well done. At a moderate price, hopefully!

    • Yours is a very sane and sensible point of view, I probably wouldn’t be so fond of originality myself, if I didn’t also find it fascinating.

      Maharani is a very curious scent, and for the record, couldn’t wear it myself for beans, but still it’s a very good one as most of the de Nicolais are. If you like odd try her old Maharajah, that’s really strange.

  4. Love the phrase ‘bitch slap of a perfume’! Pamplelune (which incidentally I can never spell) is successful, yet remains somewhat divisive, split into the two opposing camps of ‘smells like pee’ and ‘what are you on about?’.

  5. Yes, do you think some folks just generate the pee scent? If so, what bad luck.

    Philtre d’Amour was the worst named perfume ever, it should have been called “Handbags at Dawn” it’s so bracing.

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