(image, Riccardo Sabatini)
Perfumer Pissara Umavijani.
Buyers often identify how much they’ll spend on a perfume and then cross-shop everything in that range. Here is where Parfums Dusita finds itself at an interesting crossroads. It is the most expensive artisanal line of perfume. Cost-wise, Dusita is in the Dove, 777, Xerjoff neighborhood.
With its high price-tag (approx $325-450 per 50 ml bottle of extrait) Parfums Dusita provides a great opportunity to put the values of artisanal perfumery to the test. Should artisanal perfumery should be considered differently than mainstream or ‘corporate’ perfumery?
It’s getting harder to use the word “niche.” Previous definitions no longer apply and the size of the market makes the term seem imprecise. The Institute for Art and Olfaction Awards have a working model that breaks down niche perfumery to independent and artisanal categories. The defining factor is the method of production. Independent lines are privately owned and the owner/artisitic director commissions perfumers to compose the formulas. Artisanal perfumes, on the other hand, are composed and created by the individual perfumer, who also controls production, marketing and brand concept.
Early independent/niche perfumes asked implicitly to be compared to mainstream perfumes. In an apples-to-apples comparison, niche apples were just better. The artisanal-to-mainstream comparison isn’t as simple as a product comparison. Artisanal perfumery looks at the end product in light of the artist’s process and the buyer’s experience. The artist and the audience come together over the perfume.
Artisanal work loses the benefit of economy of scale that the larger producers have. Method, not size, distinguishes artisanal work from the mainstream, but the volume is necessarily limited to what the individual artist can produce. The process is based on artistic goals and creative considerations. These points, if they have a place in mainstream perfumery at all, land far down the list behind everything else that maximizes sales. Commercial perfumers look for consumers. Artisanal perfumers create a dialogue with an audience. After a quick sniff of Oudh Infini I wanted to know more about the line. I was able to contact Pissara Umavijani through her site. She responded quickly and kindly and then sent me samples of her work. I have been able to start a dialogue with her, something that as a consumer I would never be able to do with Thierry Wasser or Bertrand Duchaufour.
Oudh Infini is a refined floral-oud that uses an eastern material to explore a western trend. Most recent oud perfumes come from western perfumers reaching for a middle-eastern aesthetic. Umavijani flips the direction and uses a material from her Thai culture to explore French style and create a thoughtful, nuanced perfume. The other two perfumes in the line take on French perfumery directly. Issara is a fougère and Mélodie de l’Amour is a mixed floral. Coming from Thailand to launch a brand in Paris is brave. Starting with icons of French perfumery, the fougère and the mixed floral, is audacious. The perfumes don’t strike a particularly provocative tone but by taking on French paragons they are quietly subversive.
The fougère is perfume’s best example of the depth to be found in a simple concept. The lavender/coumarin/moss accord is elegantly simple. Issara investigates the fundamentals of the fougère accord but doens’t get penned in by them. Its coolness references both the ‘70s aromatic fougère (think Paco Rabanne pour Homme) and the reinvented fougères from the golden years of niche, notably Olivia Giacobetti’s Fou d’Absinthe for l’Artisan Parfumeur. Pine is the core of the perfume, but surprisingly for such a strident material, it doesn’t overpower. From top to base it acts as a stand-in for a proper lavender, balancing camphor and resinous sweetness as lavender would. Issara lacks a fougère’s characteristic boisterous tone and huge brass section but has just enough of the barbershop sweet muskiness to maintain the shape of the genre. Issara hits all the best points of the fougère accord while side-stepping the expected monologue-quality that sometimes makes the genre overwhelming. Avoiding the datedness that often clings to the genre, Issara is more reinvention than retro.
Mélodie de l’Amour matches Issara’s boldness, taking on another sacred French cow, the mixed floral. Mélodie remixes the intrinsic qualities of the woody-floral genre. You see the pieces in front of you: the luring sweetness, the searing blue-flame of white flowers, the arid turpentine-cedar foundation. The recognizable pieces come together to form an unexpected shape.
Mixed florals run the risk of the bouquet-effect, a spin on the trees/forest maxim. Strong white flowers in the presence of other strong white flowers tend to give up their ferocious bits. It’s hard to see the individual flowers through the bouquet. The best of the bouquet-style perfumes keep the fangs and claws. Mélodie’s approach is to pin the blossoms to a forceful, rich cedar base. The starkness of the wood brings out the angular notes in the flowers—the cardboard, the gasoline vapor, the inkiness. Mélodie finds a novel balance within a well-worn genre and, like Issara, points to a keen and determined point of view. It has density and precision layering of the best woody-florals. It even shares their the chill and slap, but avoids seeming dated.
Having seen how indelicately the perfume industry approaches issues of culture and ethnicity I’m not surprised that an artisan perfumer like Pissara provides a more nuanced perspective. The perfume industry as a whole misses the potential dynamism that can happen when different cultures encounter each other. Instead, it falls back on stereotypes and low expectations. Witness the laughable, pandering of sham-oud perfumes to Arab audiences and the weak, poorly executed pale florals flogged in Asian markets because of the ridiculously broad notion that ‘Asians don’t like strong perfume.’ Umavijani, a Thai in Paris, puts a lie to the stereotypes and composes a subtle, thoughtful oud and a dramatic, powerful mixed floral.
Why support the artisan with your perfume dollars? Here is your case in point.