Duchaufour’s Duet: l’Artisan Parfumeur Timbuktu and Dzongkha

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Bertrand Duchaufour lead the trend of woody-smoky perfumes in the late 90s and the 00s, particularly with his perfumes for l’Artisan Parfumeur and Comme des Garçons. He became known for the genres that his work redefined: translucent incenses, sheer vetiver, weightless woods. Seen from the present, the significance of Duchaufour’s work is better understood by looking at his style and method rather than at genres. He coaxed an unearthly diffusion and weightlessness from woods and resins. Notes typically known for their density and opacity were placed in zero-gravity and made to perform seemingly impossible acts. The word used often to describe his perfumes is “radiant”.

Until this time, “linear” was an insult tossed at perfumes that didn’t show a traditional evolution of head/heart/basenotes. Duchaufour, among others, reclaimed the term, making perfumes whose drydowns held an intentionally similar dynamic range to their openings. Despite their radiance, they were compact, deliberate and carefully edited. They weren’t so much linear as recursive. If wearing a traditional perfume seemed as though it told a story over the course of your day, wearing Timbuktu or Dzongkha felt like wearing an algorithm or a mantra. The two perfumes are the result of similar craftsmanship and follow parallel arcs over time, but they vary in interesting, and if you like them, beautiful ways.

Timbuktu (2004) and Dzongkha (2006) are the clearest, most legible  examples of this particular application of Duchaufour’s style and technique. It’s arguable that his future works in the same genre are more refined iterations of a similar theme (eg. the Eau d’Italie line, Amouage Jubilation XXV or his work for Penhaligon’s) but Timbuku and Dzongkha together capture the impact of the ideas most clearly.

Similarities:  Sheer incense, vegetal fruit notes, background harmonics. Timbuktu wrapped a starchy, unripened fruit quality in vetiver and patchouli giving the perfume a particular balance of smokiness and tartness that was novel. Dzongkha used a spiced lychee note to give its incence-floral pairing a matte finish and a comforting chill.

Differences:  Small changes in the perfumes’ textures and olfactory color palette’s make them smell quite distinct.  Dzongkha’s iris rides a thin line between mineral and floral with a spare, distant quality.  Almost sweet, almost metallic.  Pitched just so.  Where Dzongkha whispers, Timbuktu hums. It renovated the concept of a “green” fragrance. The convergence of vetiver, unripe mango, patchouli and a slightly turpentine incense makes a green perfume like no traditional vetiver, green floral or chypre you’d ever smelled before 2004.

The sheerness of the perfumes and the way that they seem to reduce over time to a compact, coherent version of the first spray is a perfect demonstration of ‘linear’ style. It’s true that a linear perfume emulating the top/heart/base progression will struggle to keep pace. By the same token, though, the evolution of a traditionally composed perfume can’t produce this range of dynamics. Accusing Timbuktu and Dzongkha of having a linear tone is like blaming a Mercedes sedan for its pesky compliant ride.

The performance of the perfumes over time and their diffusion patterns suggest hefty doses of aromachemicals most often used for their olfactory dynamics rather than strictly for their scents. Duchaufour’s perfumes are known as much for their scents per-se as they are for their feeling of inertia and transparency. It’s possible that the perfumes’ peculiar fruit notes create a geometry that allow for their famously high doses of woody-amber materials without the olfactory tinnitus that perfumes like Ormonde Jayne Woman (2002), Terre d’Hermès (2006) and Lalique Encre Noire (2006) create. Timbuktu and Dzongkha both share a range of tones with the aromachemical iso-E Super. Still, Duchaufour’s methods of incorporating the material’s best attributes while buffering against the side effects is remarkable.

No perfumer works in a vacuum and Duchaufour’s work covers terrain similar to that of some of his contemporaries, notably Mark Buxton, who also made a number of perfumes for CdG in the early 00s, and Olivia Giacobetti, whose Dzing! and Passage d’Enfer (both 1999), pre-date Timbuktu and Dzongkha by a good few years. It’s more Duchaufour’s enormous body of work after 2006 that cemented his reputation as the proponent of a certain style, namely the transparent linear-woods that became ubiquitous enough to form their own genre. Following Dzongkha, Duchaufour substantially ramped up his output and created perfumes, whole lines of perfume actually, at a surprising pace. Between his own perfumes and those of the many perfumers who emulated and and expanded on  his techniques, the Radiant Woody became a part of the canon of contemporary perfumery.

In retrospect, the mid 00s were the last period of time where the distinction between niche and mainstream had any meaning. ‘Niche’ still had significance as a cultural movement and not simply as a vector of luxury product marketing.  It was a high point in perfumery and Timbuktu and Dzongkha exemplify a few of the trends that made the time so exciting. Perfumers were being given the resources to open up their stride and test out new ideas. New materials landed on fertile soil and fueled experimentation. New genres were being created and new methods of composition were changing the rules. The 2015  ‘niche’ market grew out of this time, but the focus on luxury and exclusivity has made the state of the art less appealing. At the time Timbuktu and Dzongkha hit the scene, sampling new releases made me feel like a kid in a candy shop. Now it’s more like shopping for a handbag at Neiman Marcus.  There’s hope and there’s a lot of fascinating work being done, but the trend is disconcerting.