‘Vanilla’ is a crossover note found in both natural and mainstream perfumery. But notes aren’t necessarily materials. ‘Vanilla’ notes in contemporary dessert-style gourmands and orientals likely have as much actual vanilla in them as the ‘vanilla snow’ flavor at my local frozen yogurt joint does.
Synthetic vanilla materials have been around since the days of early modern perfumery when aromachemicals were created to replace natural materials. Chemistry was king and the scientists of the time sought to create cheaper, easily produced versions of rare and costly botanical and animalic materials. They focused on a few particular characteristics of natural materials, slimming down rich and nuanced materials to a few easily recognized traits. Then they turned up the volume.
Coumarin, heliotropin, nitro musks and ionones did the same for tonka, mimosa, deer musk grains and violet. The goal was mimicry, but the tactic was bait-and-switch or ‘tromp la nez’. The nose becomes trained by what it is exposed to and vanillin, not vanilla, became the olfactory baseline. The unfortunate side-effect is that actual vanilla, viewed through this lens, becomes unrecognizable. Rather than seeming rich and nuanced it comes off as imprecise or murky because it isn’t the comfort-food we expected it to be.
Most gourmand perfumes offers the same self-negating experience as elevator music: easy recognition followed by reflexively tuning them out. The volume of the perfumes might be hard to ignore, but their monotony makes them easy to screen out.
Vanilla Smoke is harder to ignore and much more interesting to consider closely. It is the antithesis of the contemporary gourmand. Rather than bake the cakes and puddings we’re accustomed to, perfumer Mandy Aftel gives us a complex, sinister vanilla. A layer of smoky tea picks up on vanilla’s leathery facets and steers vanilla away from either the musky plush of the oriental (Shalimar, Youth Dew, Musc Ravageur) or the slush of the gourmand.
From the first sniff, it’s apparent that Vanilla Smoke will avoid any custard clichés. The bright topnote that highlights the leathery dryness comes from citrus, an ostensibly ‘foody’ material. Aftel’s site lists yellow mandarin and I assume the note and the material are synonymous. Guerlain Shalimar, the classic vanilla oriental, places a bright bergamot note on vanilla, but uses it to enhance the culinary appeal. Aftel’s use of culinary materials to create non-gourmand aroma profiles is a clever turn and gives Vanilla Smoke a Cheshire Cat smile.
After the shimmer of the topnotes, Vanilla Smoke hovers at skin level, the ideal altitude for its tarry leather to play out. If it were more expansive, or had a longer trail the balance might be lost. The basenote nature of vanilla gives Vanilla Smoke better endurance than might be expected in an all-natural perfume. The spiced resinousness and subtle sweetness of vanilla play out in an evolving shape over the course of the day.
A natural vanilla perfume that smells like rubber, smoke and darkness throws into question the simplistic, sweet desserts we’ve been fed. Aftel doesn’t simply reframe vanilla or dress it out differently. She creates the opportunity for the wearer to rediscover vanilla.
Sample provide by Mandy Aftel.