Monday, 21 May 2012
Perfume Lovers London Meet-Up: “Olfactoria, Queen Of Amber” And An Evening Edged In…A Translucent Golden Colour
The third Thursday of the month had come round again, and with it another Perfume Lovers London meet-up held in one of the grand yet surprisingly cosy function rooms at The New Cavendish Club. May’s speaker was none other than the popular, poised and perfectly polished Olfactoria of Olfactorias Travels, one of the fastest growing perfume blogs out there, which has taken the blogosphere by storm since its launch a mere 18 months ago. I have been fortunate enough to meet Olfactoria (aka Birgit) twice in the last year in her native Austria, in temperatures which ranged from 35 C to -2 C. On Thursday it was about 12 C I think, so just the low side of splitting the difference. : - )
Birgit’s talk was scheduled to start at 7pm, but a handful of us foregathered at Les Senteurs at 4pm to catch up on news and sniff some new fragrances Nick, the store manager, had “prepared earlier”. We perched on the very sofa on which Pierre Guillaume had sat after his own talk in London in February. Then, when it emerged that Birgit had a room at the New Cavendish Club, where Pierre Guillaume had also stayed on that occasion, I couldn’t resist teasing her about the tantalising possibility that she may in fact have been occupying the same room as him!
At about 5.30pm, Birgit headed off to the club to get ready, while the rest of our party – me, Tara, the Candy Perfume Boy and Nigel – repaired to a local Lebanese restaurant for some fairly fast food in the form of falafel. The keen-eyed reader may have noticed that when I went for a quick snack with Katie Puckrik before the Perfume Lovers event in March, we also went to a Lebanese restaurant. Not the same one, granted, but that stretch of the Edgware Road happens to be very falafel-forward in terms of its eateries, which is fine by me.
Tara and I marvelled at the size of the bowl of chips we had ordered with our pitta bread sandwiches, and we all marvelled at the pickled celeriac in a startling shade of magenta. Neon brights may be on trend at the moment, but I really don’t want that degree of dazzle in my salad garnish.
THE TALK PROPER
Olfactoria kicked off her talk by introducing herself. She is a psychotherapist by profession (“as in customary in Vienna” ; - ) ), but is “resting” at the moment (my word!). On the couch, presumably, as is also customary in her line of work... Actually, “resting” is a relative term, for with two small children aged 5 and 2, Olfactoria hasn’t seen her bed much beyond 5.20am in the last five years.
Descent into the rabbit hole
Birgit went on to explain – in her wonderfully deadpan delivery - that she had prepped for this talk by watching the entire two seasons of Downton Abbey, which sent ripples of laughter through the audience. We learnt how Frédéric Malle’s En Passant had acted as her gateway scent to the world of niche perfumes, displacing her previous loyalty to Coco Mademoiselle. Birgit had been struck by the way En Passant “captured nature” in a way she had not encountered in mainstream perfumery. “My Coco Mademoiselle was not like that.” Following her lilac epiphany, in no time at all Birgit was reading blogs, and then before you could say: “If she's got a boyfriend, I'm a giraffe” (Sarah O’Brien, speaking of Mrs Hughes), she had started her own site, with En Passant the very first scent she reviewed.
Bonkers side note – OT, the abbreviation for Olfactorias Travels, is also the acronym for Occupational Therapy, which struck me as rather apt.
What amber is - and is not
In the next section of her talk, Birgit explained that amber is always an accord of several materials. It is inspired by the fossilised resin of that name – not by its smell, mind, for it has none - but rather, thanks to an intriguing synaesthetic pathway you might say, by its “translucency and golden colour”. Yup, I have seen those sinister lollies in Selfridges that are basically an amber coloured Fox’s Glacier Mint with a cockroach or scorpion embedded in them. I suppose they were also inspired by the fossilised resin, though not in a good way, "clearly".
The accord of several materials in question is labdanum (derived from the rock rose or cistus labdanum plant), plus vanilla and benzoin. At this point, Lila circulated an actual cistus plant, which she had gone to great lengths to procure specially for this event: it had disconcertingly sticky leaves, but no particular smell to speak of. Below is a photo of The Candy Perfume Boy, gingerly investigating said plant.
Then Birgit clarified for us what amber is NOT – the aromachemical ambroxan, for starters, which is lighter than classic amber, as exemplified by Juliette Has A Gun’s Not A Perfume. Now I don't say this "lightly", but I find Not A Perfume a bit underwhelming to be truthful (there’s a clue in the name).
Nor is amber ambergris, that fascinatingly oddball accretion of whale spit that bobs in the sea before being washed up on a beach somewhere and “harvested”. Birgit pointed out that unlike civet, say, which involves a degree of intrusion into the civet cat’s bodily orifices, the whale has basically just gobbed this stuff up. So while ambergris is technically an animal-derived ingredient, it doesn’t involve any cruelty, “having been separated from the whale for some time”. : - ) But anyway, this hawked up whale phlegm with its animalic and salty, marine notes, isn’t amber either, as I say. And finally, Birgit drew our attention to the false friend that is ambrette seed – a perfumery material that smells more musky and soft rather than like amber, and which is showcased in Ambrette No 9 by Le Labo.
The Group Sniff-In
The science bit over, we spent the rest of the talk in a group sniff-in, as Birgit guided us through a range of ambers covering every base along the spectrum from “Starter” to “Heavy”, including the amusing – and also rather heavy - category of “American Male Superheroes”. Throughout this process, Lila kindly stepped up as the indefatigable “mouillette wallah”.
That sounded like my kind of category, and so it proved!
We smelt: L’Artisan Parfumeur L’Eau d’Ambre
Also in this category: Etro Ambre, Agent Provocateur Strip (I own this), Prada L’Eau Ambrée (I should also own this), and Dior Ambre Nuit (I like this one, but not 125ml worth!)
Birgit positioned L’Eau d’Ambre as “amber for people who don’t like amber”, which may be why it appealed to me most out of everything we tried. Yes, in line with my fragrance tastes generally, my favourite ambers are also soft and understated. In addition to the ones listed above, I also love Marc Jacobs Amber Splash and Jo Malone Dark Amber & Ginger Lily, which isn’t very dark at all. Unsurprisingly, L’Eau d’Ambre was created by Jean-Claude Ellena, who, as Birgit observed with consummate understatement: “is not known for opulence”. Yes, it was on the basis of this remark that I decided to bestow upon Birgit the title of “Honorary Brit”. After all, with a bit of judicious tile shuffling, you can make “Brit” out of “Birgit”...
OLFACTORIA AND TARA
We smelt: Annick Goutal Ambre Fétiche and Serge Lutens Ambre Sultan
Ambre Fétiche is one of Annick Goutal's Orientalistes collection, and as Birgit pointed out, marks a definite departure from the demure florals that are the brand’s normal style. We picked out notes of leather and incense as well as the amber, and Tanya described it as smelling like a “male temple”.
Serge Lutens Ambre Sultan
Birgit joked about how she tends to go back and forth with Serge Lutens scents, though she has been consistent in her liking of this one. Ambre Sultan started off warm, cosy, opulent and sensual, just as Birgit described. It was a bit animalic and a bit furry, like a “purring cat” (see photo of Charlie Bonkers below, snapped this morning snoozing in the sun!). There was the distinctive herbal opening I remembered, but unfortunately this became more dominant as the scent wore on, and I ended up going right off it. Ambre Sultan has a lot of fans in Perfume Land though, also in the room that night, judging by the show of hands of people who actually own a bottle!
Also in this category: Les Parfums d’Empire Ambre Russe
American Male Superheroes
We smelt: Tom Ford Amber Absolute, Armani Privé Ambre d’Orient
Tom Ford Amber Absolute
This is the pecs-rippling category of ambers, and prompted some amusing speculation as to the possible co-existence of brawn and brain. Birgit went on to describe the first scent we sampled, Amber Absolute, as a “thick, heavy, spicy specimen – like Dad’s amber – safe and protected from the big bad world”. She warned us that this scent was not great on paper, whereupon a couple of audience members leapt to their feet and volunteered their own skin, effectively acting as "male mouillettes" - see photo of Nick below.
Armani Privé Ambre Orient
The arresting licorice note in Ambre Orient appears to have completely scuppered my note-taking ability, so that is all I have to say on that one.
Also in this category: Histoires de Parfums Ambre 114
We smelt: Mona di Orio Ambre
The Candy Perfume Boy likened this one to “baby powder for grown ups”. It certainly was a lot quieter than the scents in her original range, which includes my nemesis fragrance, Nuit Noire. Tanya made the comment about Ambre that it had “imps jumping out of it”, and you are best contacting her directly for further clarification on that. Karen detected a “coconut back note” or something like confectionery or vanilla, while there were one or two other shout-outs from the audience of violet and leather. So it sounds as though there were a lot of imps jumping out of it after all. ; - )
Also in this category: E Coudray Ambre et Vanille – I think Prada L’Eau Ambrée could also have fitted in well here.
LILA, THE CANDY PERFUME BOY, NIGEL AND LIAM, CUNNINGLY CAPTURED IN THE MIRROR
Dead Centre Ambers
We smelt: Dior Mitzah
The Dead Centre Ambers are - as their name suggests - a "smack bang in the middle" category, with no one aspect too dominant. I found Mitzah quite rich compared to Ambre Nuit, but by no means as treacly and heavy as I thought I remembered it. It had a number of facets, from herbal to incense to spices; someone spoke of "non-citrussy freshness", while I was preoccupied with another (possibly phantom) licorice note. I would place Mitzah more in the heavy hitters category personally, but I am of course speaking squarely from the viewpoint of a "starter amber" person. Nick exclaimed: “animal print!” at one point, which I will choose to take as an endorsement of my view.
Also in this category: MPG Ambre Précieux
A "WEE" PHOTO OF LIAM FROM PERSONAL ODOUR
(A couple of us thought this category was called “Surprise Ambers” – Birgit is quite softly spoken - only to learn afterwards that it was in fact “Summer Ambers”. Which was a bit of a surprise! ; - ) )
We smelt: Amouage Opus VI
Birgit described this as a “hologram” amber, because of its sheer texture and elusive, shape-shifting quality. Lila asked me for my take on this one, and while I find its herbal opening a little too masculine, I give it props for evolving in an interesting way - in other words: “stuff happens” with this one.
This marked the end of the communal sniffing, but Lila also quickly mentioned three further categories of amber which we didn’t sample.
Yves Rocher Voile d’Ambre (I swapped my bottle away, as I didn’t get on with the coumarin note), L’Occitane Amber
LOOK - AMBERS SO ECONOMICAL THEY HAVE BOTH BEEN NABBED!
80s Vintage Ambers
CK Obsession, Estée Lauder Youth Dew Amber Nude (can't say I am sorry we didn’t sniff these!)
Amber & Friends (ie amber plus another prominent note)
Caron Pour Un Homme (and its lavender friend), Armani Privé Ambre Soie (and its fruity friend), Shiloh X (and its X-rated friend?)
EXTRA POINTS TO ANYONE WHO CAN CORRECTLY PINPOINT WHERE THE CURTAIN ENDS AND BIRGIT'S RAPUNZEL TRESSES BEGIN!
Glasses refilled, the remainder of the evening was spent in relaxed milling mode, chatting to the members of our "blogger gaggle", to borrow the CPB's phrase!, to familiar faces from previous events including Karen, Tanya, Neville and Antje, as well as meeting new members such as Olivia and another fellow compatriot from Norn Iron, Liam of Personal Odour.
An unexpected highlight of the evening was catching a whiff of Lila’s sillage – an ambertastic mélange of every scent tested that night, which I am confident would be an overnight hit if we could just replicate it using headspace technology. Or head and shoulders-space technology, to be more exact.
Yes, a big thank you is due to Lila who did a blinder as ever on the organisational front, and to Birgit for coming all that way to talk us through her "Amber Fétiche" with grace, humour and an encyclopaedic knowledge of her chosen subject.
And finally, although I realise that the fossilised resin was only the inspiration for the perfumery material we know as amber, here are a couple of photos of Malbork Castle in Poland, where I unexpectedly found myself in 2007. It has a fascinating museum devoted exclusively to exhibits made of amber (see also the altar above).
For other (more informative! ; - ) ) reviews of the event, check out Tara's and Candy Perfume Boy's accounts here and here!
Photo of amber crown from sparkletanda.com, photo of pickled celeriac from offthespork.com, photo of amber altar in Malbork castle museum from culture24.org.uk, photo of amber insect candy from candywarehouse.com, photo of ambergris from mbonga.en.ec21.com, photo of L'Eau d'Ambre from fragrantica.com, photo of Malbork castle museum from zamek.malbork.pl, other photos my own