Authenticity is perfumery’s Achilles’ heel.
Classical perfumery is wounded. The IFRA barbarians are at the gate. The chypre has left the building, orientals have deflated into gourmands, leather is now ‘notes of suede’ and flowers have lost their bite but gained a sweet-tooth. Flankers of flankers of perfumes that were originally designed to be flankable in the first place are released weekly. Niche has been around long enough to have been reformulated and re-reformulated and therefore diminished. Designer lines copy niche strategies and niche lines are sprinting after mainstream glory.
If last year’s release was real, it’s now old and the new model is realer than the old one ever was. Imagine the exponential realness of future releases! The marketing of new niche perfumes is heavy on the appearance of authenticity. You know, the ‘distressed denim’ sort of authenticity. My level of suspicion of new niche lines is almost suffocating.
I had an arsenal of cynicism ready for Richard Lüscher Britos. Terroir? Isn’t that just the language of exclusivity stolen from wine-making? And isn’t running all othe world to find quality just colonialism in spanx? And though I only vaguely remember remember reading French New Feminism in the 1980s the word “natural” makes me cringe.
I haven’t simply crumbled. I’m not chastised. I haven’t seen the error in my disbelief. Better still, I’m convinced.
Read the RLB website. It’s not hyperbolic, it’s not bad fiction, it’s not the attempt at magical realism that ‘natural’ perfumery often tries to sell. It’s more a mission statement: a statement of fact, intent and goals.
Of course none of this means anything if the perfume is bad. (spoiler alert: it’s not)
46ºN 08ºE Swiss Pine from Val d’Anniviers, Switzerland by Jean-Claude Gigolot
38°N 16°E Bergamot from Calabria Italy, by Jean-Claude Richard
44°N 03°E Lavender from Cause-Méjean, France by Andy Tauer
14°S 43°E Ylang-Ylang from Ambanja, Madagascar by Vero Kern
04ºN 74ºW Gardenia from Fusagasuga, Colombia by Jean-Claude Richard
46°N 08°E (Swiss Pine )
I’ve worn 46°N 08°E top to bottom four times. I’ll admit, at first sniff it didn’t knock my socks off. It smelled like pine. Mind you, I grew up New England and feel great peace from the scent of pine. It feels like a part of my DNA and is the scent of nostalgia.
But is it a perfume?
The topnotes of 46°N 08°E are almost exclusively the scent of pine. A solilignum, as it were. But not entirely. What we’re told are gentian, lichen and campfire round out the pine. These notes should make the perfume denser, smokier and heavier, but it smells like pine reimagined as a flower. The biting turpentine aspect of pine is downplayed and the perfume has all of the character of pine with none of the harshness. It’s lovely.
The progression of the perfume is effectively in two parts: topnoes and drydown. If the topnotes are lovely, the drydown is serene. Imagine powdered pine. 46°N 08°E takes a botanical known from cleaning products and reframes it. The powder picks up the floral aspect of the topnotes and any potential harshness disappears.
46°N 08°E turns out to be a nuanced reimagination of an aroma very dear to me. It is a successful attempt at reimagining the spirit of a scent, molding it carefully into a perfume. It smells like smart choices and careful editing.
38°N 16°E (bergamot)
Richard Lüscher Britos’s method of highlighting exceptional botanical raw products and contextualizing them socially and commercially underlines their goals of respecting the people who produce them and of educating the consumer. It’s a fascinating notion and a laudable goal. Naming their perfumes with the geographical coordinates of the source materials announces the mission of identifying the materials culturally and geopolitically. Their website, their principal marketing tool, informs the consumer and invites her to participate in the project. The gap that’s left is how they get from raw materials to perfume. RLB tell us the name of the man who grows the gardenia, but the perfumers aren’t cited on the English language website, a surprising omission for a line that promotes a wider discussion of how perfume is made.
I point out this gap for two reasons. I would like to know more about the art direction, the discussion of how ylang ylang, lavender, bergamot, etc were chosen and what the greater goals of the perfumes themselves are. In addition, a European perfume producer gathering select materials from around the world, commissioning European perfumers and then selling the product exclusively in Europe calls for discussion. These same botanicals (broadly, not from these designated growers) have long been harvested and sold to the consumers who can afford to import them. The ethics of ethnobotany is mentioned on the RLB site but isn’t fully explained. The attitude of the founders of RLB might be different than other importers, but how is the practice of identifying and sourcing materials different?
38°N 16°E highlights the question of art direction more than the others in the line. Bergamot is potentially the most challenging of the terroir materials, not for its exoticness but for its familiarity and role in the canons of perfume history. Its value as a multifaceted topnote (tart, shiny, juicy…) and as a bridge between hesperidic top notes and resinous drydown materials is well known. It is one of the defining components of the chypre, it modulates the amber materials in the traditional oriental genre such as Tabu, Shalimar and Youth Dew. It is one of the common choices in the citric Eau de Cologne.
So, when you have the consummate example of a material, from an ideal terroir, what do you do with it? 38°N 16°E is effectively an Eau de Cologne (the genre) in eau de parfum concentration. It is effervescent and bright, emphasizing the floral aspects of bergamot, but it lacks commentary, a point of view. All cologne is buoyant and shiny. That is its nature, a simple effect of the recipe for the traditional EdC: a dollop of citrus, some other branches and twigs, a pinch of herbs/aromatics, a musky finish. It is possible to perfect a simple recipe, but it is difficult to better it. The only other editorial choice is to twist it, to make us see it in a new light. Again, here is the point of art direction. Was the perfumer given direction or critique during the composition of the perfume? Was there a devil’s advocate to pose questions or to provide a contrary view?
38°N 16°E neither perfects the Eau de Cologne nor advances it. It highlights bergamot in that bergamot is prominent, but does it pay tribute to it? Does it enrich or change or preconceptions of the material? RLB talk of quality and integrity, but 38°N 16°E doesn’t walk the walk.
44°N 03°E (lavender)
How did Richard Lüscher Britos match the botanical material to the perfumer? Did they draw names from a hat? Did the perfumers choose their key material? If Andy Tauer chose lavender, he’s a brave man. It is likely the best known botanical scent in the world after the rose and the lemon. It suggest hygiene, cuisine, cleaning products, ancient history and the new age. Tauer has been there before. His Reverie au Jardin played lavender from top to bottom, demonstrating what we know and love about lavender as well as showing us some new riffs.
Lavender is also a pivotal piece in the the LRB concept, whether they view it as such or not. The proposition of the line is to take gorgeous ingredients from the far reaches of the planet and to task western perfumers with making perfume out of them. There is a bit of classroom anthropology to the prospect. Ylang ylang from Madagascar, gardenia from Colombia. Even bergamot, a traditional ingredient in western perfumery, is made multi-culti with mention of the Pakistani Sikh immigrants who maintain the tradition in their chosen home of Calabria. The test is, can RLB apply evenly the same standards not only to a French material, but one of the consummate French materials? Can the same anthropological approach be maintained vis a vis a European locale, in this case, France, the epicenter of perfume? Is the same principle of cultural relativity applicable?
Yes. RLB treat lavender just as they do ylang-ylang, gardenia and the other choses terroir materials. It is identified culturally and geographically just as the other materials are. They are willing to apply the same approach ‘abroad and at home’ and herein is the proof of the value of their ethnobotanical method.
Like the bergamot in RLB’s 38°N 16°E, lavender is a tough prospect for a perfumer. It is well-known in perfumery and more broadly for skin and body care as well its use as an environmental antiseptic. In classical perfumery, Houbigant Fougère Royale (Paul Parquet, 1882 ), Guerlain Jicky (Aimé Guerlain, 1889) and Caron Pour un Homme (Ernest Daltroff, 1934) form a triangle that have historically defined the lavender terrain. Niche offers some hard-to-beat options as well, including Parfums de Nicolai Pour Homme (Patricia de Nicolai, 2003), VeroProfumo Kiki (Vero Kern, 2007) and by Kilian A Taste of Heaven (Calice Becker, 2007).
Tauer’s perfume is a triumph of craft and vision. It is meticulously composed and and an utter pleasure to wear. It somehow keys into lavender’s aromatherapeutic profile in that it is both elevating and calming. It is steady.
There are a few paths followed simultaneously. The terroir lavender lends itself to a vanilla/tonka creaminess that sidesteps lavender’s potential astringency. At the same time, though, there is a cool pairing of lavender with pine that suggests cool, gentle wind. These two courses run parallel from start to finish and never blur. The balance of the composition feels perfectly calibrated but durable and not fragile in the least. This juxtaposition of comfort with cool is what allows the lavender to keep its tonic but tranquil poise and makes the perfume feel not so much like it evolves over time as it travels. A floral synergy drifts up from the two tracks and 44ºN 03ºE gives off whiffs of a peachy, rosy, powdery quality that stays just at the edge of my attention
Andy Tauer gives a tour of the wonders of lavender, a botanical I have used in one way or another for most of my life, but feels newly recreated in this perfume. Kudos to him for taking a familiar material and allowing me to rediscover it.
14°S 43°E (Ylang Ylang)
Botanical ingredients can be gorgeous and expressive but they have drawbacks for perfumery. With the exception of some of the more resinous ones (eg. peru balsam, patchouli, sandalwood) essential oils aren’t as durable as the more potent aromachemicals. Concretes, absolutes might last longer than essential oils, but they too are variable from batch to batch, harvest to harvest and are more chemically complex than most aromachemicals. The complexity is experienced as richness and breadth, but richness gives with one hand and takes with the other. How many times have you heard a botanical like labdanum, vetiver or olibanum called a perfume in its own right? The hitch is that combining rich botanicals is a difficult prospect. They lose their distinctness and make blurred compositions.
Where an individual essential oil can have many aspects (for example, lavender essential oil is floral, green, camphorous, aromatic and sweet) when combined they risk becoming dulled and less precise. In most perfumery, aromachemicals are employed to emphasize and focus particular facets of botanicals. In principle, essential oils and other botanicals are already complete. Combining them can be likened to mixing bottles of perfume together and hoping that the result will combine the best characteristics of each and will yield a super-perfume. (spoiler alert: it won’t).
Perfumer Vero Kern pulls off a coup with 14°S 43°E. Not only does she train botanicals to act like a proper perfume, she makes them act like an extrait. 14°S 43°E is deep and dense up close, but has mild sillage and a subdued luster and lasts the day. It has the compressed complexity of a parfum, a tendency that essential oils, despite their complex structures and high volatility, rarely convey.
Even the finest grades of ylang ylang EO can be oily and a bit cloying over time. It is definitively ‘tropical’ to the western nose and presents a trap to the perfumer. Many naturally scented products and fragrances that try to single out ylang ylang’s beauty fall into the trap of making a large, but un-nuanced fragrance that screams TROPICAL! to the western nose. These compositions are more piña colada and mai tai than perfume and call to mind pale folks with socks, sandles and rucksacks. Kern emphasizes the cool, camphorous side of the flower and tamps it down with with salty, earthy tones. It the furthest thing from tropical-holiday garish. It is creamy and matte and cool. It doesn’t hide or disguise the flower, it recontextualizes it. Like some of the perfumes in Kern’s own line it isn’t shocking. Better, it’s unexpected.
I can smell the ylang ylang more clearly here than I can in the perfumes that famously contain it, such as Dior Diorissimo, Chanel 5 and Guerlain Chamade, but it isn’t a soliflor and it isn’t simplistic. Kern elected not to use botanical fractions or isolates. Instead, she used whole essential oils, absolutes, etc. which are complex in structure and have many ‘sides’ to them. Perfumers rely on aromachemicals for their specificity. Using botanicals is akin to using bases and aligning them properly isn’t easy.
I suspect Kern’s perfume’s success is due in large part to her understanding of perfumery, aromatherapy and the differences between the two. Kern makes bold choices with her terroir botanical and the result is miles from the stereotype of vague, listless natural perfumery. Had I not known that this perfume was composed of 100% botanicals I would never have known. I don’t mean to imply that it doesn’t smell ‘natural’ but that it doesn’t smell limited by any restriction of ingredients. It is a distinctive perfume that wouldn’t be mistaken for others and would make a memorable signature perfume.
04°N 74°W works with the most interesting material in the RLB line. For the other four perfumes, the challenge is matching the quality of recognized material with an equal degree of artistry. It’s a formidable challenge. Achieving excellence with a well-known material is hard enough, but innovation is harder to come by.
04°N 74°W is a twist on the challenge of terroir material. It’s not simply the highest quality version of a known botanical, it is a new material. Gardenia perfumes are rare because of the technical challenge of synthesizing gardenia notes. In their search for quality through terroir RLB have found a fragrance unicorn: a botanical gardenia essence. It is obtained by a Colombian family’s secret method of enfleurage. Perfumer Jean-Claude Richard meets the challenge by highlighting the gardenia, not composing a soliflor.
Although powdery, 04°N 74°W is not particularly sweet. The mention of a coffee note on the RLB site made me wonder if the perfume might land in frappuccino territory. 04°N 74°W instead balances the flower with a sweaty piquant topnote. The tartness gradually fades and what remains through the drydown is a smooth woody floral tone that reflects a gardenia without mimicking it. The cream is slightly sweet, the wood slightly spicy and the drydown remains comfortable but interesting.
(Images by Alex Kanevsky)