Woody Oriental-Oriental Woody

Nuit de Noel in old advertising

Nuit de Noel in old advertising

Woody perfumes are not so popular with women.  Don’t ask me why. I am one of the out-lying  oddities who like wood.  I wear vetiver and leather and chypres and all sorts of dark, dry things in winter.  You might think from the description that I was kindling some kind of aromatic fire, but it’s simply personal taste.

There is a small, repeat small, group of perfumes that lie right on the line between orientals and chypres.  I’m not discussing ambery orientals here.  Those are resin-y or incense heavy perfumes. The ones I’m writing about today don’t belong to that tribe.  They may contain some amber in the dry off, but they are not really amber perfumes.

Similarly they are not really chypres either.  If they were they would stress oakmoss or woods much more heavily than they do, and would probably be less floral.  The best of this kind of perfume is Caron’s strange old Nuit de Noël.  It’s an acquired taste.  In fact I have to go further here and say that  a large number of people never acquire the taste at all and simply wonder what everyone else is talking about.  Luca Turin falls into this category. He is on record as finding the perfume “boring”.

I don’t, and think that one of the most fascinating things about Nuit de Noël is how the floral notes like tuberose and iris and rose fit perfectly into the dry pungent base of mousse de saxe* and sandalwood. Nuit de Noël is a bit like Lux blox because its components are complex yet snap together to create something quite homogeneous. In time you can detect accords  that structure the perfume, but Nuit de Noël is not constructed in the usual pyramidal fashion, and has no thin citrus top note.  The scent starts right away with the signature Caron jasmine, then adds ylang-ylang and rose.  There is no introduction.

Nuit de Noël is fascinating precisely because it is very floral (rose de mai, and tuberose, and iris, and ylang ylang), yet very woody (25% of the parfum formula is sandalwood), but at no time  musky or animalic.  The fuel that fires Nuit de Noël’s engines is: flowers, sandalwood, and mousse de saxe.

This combination is a rare one in perfumery and is the reason why so many perfumers admire Nuit de Noël.  The perfume is rounded, but that absence of angles is achieved by unusual means, like Brunelleschi’s dome, which is made of great big triangles but pops into 3D anyhow.

Habanita in current bottle from pinterest.com

Habanita in current bottle from pinterest.com

Guy Robert, the creator of Calèche and Mme. Rochas, thought it one of the most significant creations of the 1920’s and claimed that it influenced Habanita (1924) and Bois des Isles (1926). He even discerned a tiny bit of that woody dry down in his Uncle Henri’s Chanel No 19 (1971).

There is only one predecessor to Nuit de Noël.  (Remember, demographically, they’re challenged).  Un Air Embaumé, the Rigaud perfume from 1911/12.  This  fragrance was based on another of those mini perfumes, in the case of Un Air, Sophora produced by Givaudan.  I have not been able to smell this but the descriptions call it a green accord initially and then a very dry scent. Since Nuit de Noël is not green at all, it was probably a significant departure from the Rigaud formula.

In the same line of descent after Habanita and Bois des Isles you get  Lanvin’s Pretexte, Schiaparelli’s Shocking, Guerlain’s Chamade,  Lancôme’s Magie Noire and, strangely, Nocturnes (also by Caron), which was conceived as “the grand daughter of Nuit de Noël” by the company back in the 80’s. Later perfumes wallow in the amber tub which, it’s worth pointing out, Nuit de Noël never dips a toe in.

Un Air Embaume from pinterest.com

Un Air Embaume
from pinterest.com

What makes all these perfumes special is that they stay on the lighter side of the full-on oriental with a serious nod to the chypre group, especially the green chypre, as in the cases of Chamade, Un Air Embaumé, and Shocking. They are a hybrid group, but a very interesting one, based on the proposition that in perfumery as in tight-rope walking, balance is essential

  • What is mousse de saxe?  It is a ready made mini perfume produced by Madame de Laire in 1911 which contained isobutyl quinoline, geranium oil, vanillin and licorice.





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15 thoughts on “Woody Oriental-Oriental Woody

  1. But what is ‘woody’? Like ‘amber’ it seems to be a catch-all term. Does it literally mean ‘must contain wood’ (sandalwood, cedar, what else?), or does it encompass leaves and grasses like patchouli and vetiver? I have wondered about this for years – what do people mean when they say ‘woody’?

    1. That’s a good question. My H&R Guide says about woody Chypres that “dominating influences are produced by three woody essential oils:sandalwood oil, patchouli oil and vetiver oil” Then they go on to admit that patchouli “actually comes from a weed” so there you are.

      H& R don’t mention other woods like nagarmotha or cedar or rose wood though you can find all those in woodies too… Basically I go with, if it smells like wood, it’s wood. That’s a bit simplistic but more or less works 🙂

  2. Is Nuit de Noel the one that smells like chestnuts? That is how I remember it though I haven’t smelt it in years. It was interesting to learn more about the singularity of its composition. I am not so much of a chypre fan but am really into woody orientals, and they can wallow in an amber tub as much as they like, hehe.

    As my mother might have shed light on our definitional conundrum:

    “Woody is as woody does.”

    1. Yes Nuit de Noel is the chestnut one.

      I always wonder how that happened since N de N’s not really supposed to be a chestnut but there it is and your mother is quite right, woody is as woody does.

  3. I wore Magie Noire for many years, and was always surprised to hear it called an oriental because it felt more “chypre” to me. Following its disappointing reformulation, I began exploring other woody-oriental-chypres. Although Caron is perhaps my favorite house (and I love chestnuts) I never did acquire a taste for Nuit de Noel. But I discovered another woody-oriental-chypre from Caron that I like quite a bit (although its lack of floral notes probably eliminates it from the collection you have here): Yatagan.

    Funny that of the “three woody essential oils”, one’s from a weed and one’s from a grass.

    1. Ooh Yeah Yatagan.

      It’s a very interesting scent. I have a couple of big samples from the 80’s and have to nerve myself up to wear them. Kudos to you if you can pull that off because it’s one of those cool shibboleths- like being able to wear ripped jeans anywhere. What I can do is rip jeans anywhere. That is a different skill.

      Original Magie Noire is somewhere in between the oriental and chypre but now it is all flat oriental. A very sad refo!

  4. Thought-provoking post, as always. Enroll me in the lover-of-woody perfumes club, I also struggle to come up with appropriate descriptive words for perfumes in this category. Our current, standard terminology (oriental, floral, aldehyde) seems insufficiently varied for so many vintage masterpieces. I love vintage Nuit de Noel, but Habanita’s smoky vanilla powder goes in a different direction for me, and I therefore class it as an oriental, because I often have difficulty with orientals that feel too syrupy. In addition to the hybrid shapeshifters you’ve mentioned, what does one do with vintage Vol de Nuit? I think it might be another woody-chypre. Do you agree? And how about vintage Dioressence? Green infused, woody, sort of oriental. And Lelong’s Balalaika from a true vintage bottle…woody, spicy, dry. They’re all wonderful.

  5. What is really fascinating is how those genres converged, or should I say conversely broke apart, into the varieties we know now. Habanita is near N d N but more animalic and vanillic and smoky. (I love the idea of women scenting cigarettes with it!)

    Vol de Nuit goes in that strange woody green oriental direction which I think is closer to Un Air Embaume and later Chamade and Molinard’s Molinard. Gorgeous variations on that theme- and yes I’d include Dioressence.

    Lelong’s Balaika I have never found, but have heard it mentioned along with a few other Lelongs as among his best : Indiscret which I did love, and either Balalaika or else Tailspin.

  6. Man, you’re making me want to check out this Nuit de Noel. Maybe since the name is “Christmas Night”, it has something like frankincense and myrrh? Just a guess.

    I have Madame Rochas in the tall octagonal? clear bottle with gold cap. I wore it for a whole week one spring in North Carolina as I revisited Ft. Bragg where my only son was born.

    I stayed at hotel off post and spritzed Mme. Rochas on constantly.

    I was seeking a deep peace. I envisioned Mrs. Rochas as some languishing Parisian rich lady who’d lost a lover but then turned wise and was content with the beauty of life in her golden years. Silly and fanciful of me, but that’s how I envisioned Mrs. Rochas, whom I now learn is a Guy. Literally. Guy Robert, the creator of the scent.

    Ha ha, thanks and please keep educating us.

    Now several years later, I’ve imprinted the Rochas fragrance with that special spring week. Outside the hotel was a Bradford pear blooming so white. Mme. Rochas brings it back. I think of my son and Ft. Bragg trip every time I spritz it.

    You’re making me want to explore the woody orientals, the chypre and Nuit de Noel.

    1. My apologies for getting to this answer late. My bad.

      Madame Rochas or Mrs Rochas is indeed one of the very best of Guy Robert’s perfumes and he was a wonderful perfumer. If you enjoyed Mme R you might also like his Amouage Gold (the first Amouage) or possibly Hermes’ Caleche.

      Nuit de Noel is a strange perfume that either speaks to people or doesn’t and it’s hard to say who will love it. I’d give it a try, it is very soft and comforting in winter.

  7. I like wood in perfumes – any wood that smells like wood, I do not discriminate. Though NdN has never worked for me, every time I read something written about it by those who “acquired” that “taste”, I want to re-test it again hoping for a different result.

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