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.
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.
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.