Sunday, 23 January 2011


Poor old Aveda. With their seven 'Chakra balancing body mists' they've tried doing a range of all-natural fragrances linked to the energy centres of the subtle body (blah...), and every time they get 80% of the way to something interesting and attractive only inexplicably to spoil it. Often a clear, bracing accord of three elements is knocked off kilter by the carrier---a sour-sweaty odour in 'Chakra 4: Fulfilment' and a disgusting deep-fat-fryer oily pong in 'Chakra 6: Intuition', for example.

This of course is a problem with all-natural fragrances: without the fixative layer provided by musks and other synthetics, you tend to get a busy, cloudy murk like finest bong-water. There are exceptions: upmarket Aussie perfume company Aesop's two all-natural scents, 'Marrakech' and 'Mystra', are splendid. 'Mystra'---an archaic, green-gold accord of labdanum, frankincense and mastic---is one of my very favourite perfumes, and is the olfactory equivalent of a Byzantine fresco painted in ingredients drawn entirely from nature, the colours vivid but austerely harmonious. To my nose, Aveda's chakra mists are fuzzy and slightly dirty-smelling in contrast.

In the heart chakra one (as far as I can recall) the composer has tried to play with an old, old, combination: rose and incense. Now with an accord this familiar (Calvin Klein's 'Obsession', for example), you have to tune the notes in a particular direction to avoid wearisome cliché. One thing you can do is send the ingredient quality stratospherically upmarket---deploying Omani silver frankincense and Bulgarian rose, for example, which is the strategy that firms like Amouage use. I might call this the 'River Café' technique: simple things done with very expensive, perfect materials.

Rose and incense go together because, like all great accords in perfumery, they share an angle, in this case a clear citrus accent. Good frankincense is basically lemon-resinous-smoky, and good rose is lemon-boozy-pepper. (Next time you wash up a wineglass with the lees of last night's red wine in the bottom, scratch the surface of a lemon to get some oil on your finger then dip it in the dregs. It will smell weirdly rosy.) So what you are doing is trying to make an accord around that shared lemon component, and you can extend that 'keystone' accord in various ways. One thing to do is to warm and round the lemon out in the direction of orange or mandarin (lemon is an icy smell), and this can work beautifully. I find myself unsure whether doing the opposite---sharpening the citrus aspect with lime or grapefruit---would be pleasant.

[Bo spends five minutes experimenting with frankincense oil and Jo Malone's 'Grapefuit Cologne']

Well, whaddya know? In fact, the effect is cold and antiseptically odd, but not at all unpleasant in an astringent, herbal way. The grapefruit unexpectedly accentuates the camphoraceous note in frankincense (the camphor note in grapefruit is one of the things that makes it difficult to use, because some people perceive it as garlicky.) If we were to add rosemary, which is also heavy on the camphor, as it happens, and some lemon thyme, then this might become a decent structure reminiscent of an el-cheapo 'Eau Sauvage'; it could then be rounded and earthed with the clean, bass warmth of cedarwood.

The rose could be extended in other directions: towards shocking pink with summer fruits like strawberry and raspberry (Andy Tauer does this in his fizzy-neon 'Incense Rosé'), or in an exotic direction with different peppers or allspice, picking up the smoky note in the incense. One could also do things to the frankincense end of the accord as well: embitter it with myrrh, raunch it up with some animalic musks bringing out the louche, grubby side of the rose, or sweeten and warm its cold clarity with vanillic benzoin. None of this would quite make a perfume---but it would be a sketch towards one.

What you shouldn't do, pace dear, misguided Aveda, is 'complete' your rose-frankincense accord with a greasy smell like off almond oil and embalming fluid. It's so inexplicable I wonder if it might actually be deliberate---perhaps if natural fragrances smell 'too good', Aveda worries that the customer will doubt their organic credentials. Still, the body mists seems to be selling, so I suppose the bourgeois bohos must be buying this stuff. A shame, in my view: with a careful series of reformulations, this could be a cute, delightfully faux-naif range.


Jane Holland said...

I wore some perfume yesterday. And thought of you. Bit tame though, compared to your glorious experiments - only a whiff of old Giorgio. Same stuff I've been wearing for years. When I remember to put some on, that is.


Bo said...

Oh good oh! Jane, do read t'other blog if you can be arsed to sign it: it's twice the size and not edited! x

Bo said...

*sign in, not sign it.

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