Sunday, 18 March 2012

Penhaligon's Ormolu: A "Wormhole" Scent In A Tutu

When I think of the most famous, long-established perfume houses in Britain, the names Penhaligon's and Floris pop immediately into my mind. Grossmith (I always want to put three "s"s) could be a third, but they have not been continuously in business, plus if I associate them with anywhere it is the Middle East! (I am thinking of the scene in the BBC 4 documentary, "Perfume", where Simon Brooke is over in the Gulf region on a sales mission, pitching his line to affluent Arabian customers).

No, it is the other two who are top of mind for me: Penhaligon's in particular, because of the interesting way it has reinvented itself in recent years, since entrusting the development of its perfumes to the ubiquitous "hot nose on the block", Bertrand Duchaufour. Recent launches such as Juniper Sling are thematically rooted in the past while appealing to modern tastes, making for a winning blend of brand heritage and contemporary flair. In fabric terms, this fusion of eras might perhaps translate as moleskin hipster trousers or a drapey, asymmetric wrap-around top made out of tweed. Bizarrely, I actually have one of those - it is Japanese and came from Spitalfields market, so go figure... It has a sort of cummerbund belt thing going on, and really does look quite nice on, in a vaguely Borg-like way. The lapels really are rather pointy...

But the perfume I am featuring today is not from recent years. It is from 1987, and is no longer in production. Mr Bonkers' guitar tech friend Beetmoll - with whom I attended a Perfume Studio workshop two years ago before becoming a sales associate myself for a while - gave me nine Penhaligon's samples plus a mini of Ormolu that he had come across whilst having a clear out of his flat. So how did he come by the mini of a femininine scent, you may ask, and what's with the "Wormhole" reference in the title?

Well, no actual habitats of worms are involved, though goodness knows I am well acquainted with these, after handling dozens of the beggars during a marathon lawn laying session the other weekend to help out a friend. This also meant digging up the tatty remnants of the existing lawn first, and carefully rehoming the not inconsiderable worm diaspora which were unearthed in the process. By the end of the afternoon I could pick up a worm in my gloved hand, instead of coaxing it gingerly - and to not much effect - with a floppy twig.

But I digress: the "Wormhole" of the title refers to the fact that for Beetmoll, the discovery of the Ormolu mini and the other Penhaligon's samples took him right back in time to the early 90s, when he was working with Italian rock band, Zucchero (of "Senza Una Donna" fame). The guitarist, Corrado Rustici, wore a perfume by Penhaligon's which Beetmoll believes was called "Hamman Oil", as distinct from Hamman Bouquet (assuming the latter was ever available in oil form). I have since made inquiries of Penhaligon's, but they were not able to confirm this point one way or the other, so in the meantime Beetmoll is seeing if he can dig out his empty bottle!

And though the precise name of the scent may remain lost in the mists of time, Beetmoll clocked and liked it enough to ask Rustici what it was. Rustici also mentioned that this scent was a favourite of Winston Churchill's, no less! Now I wouldn't have instantly associated a guitarist in a rock band with the stiff upper lip Britishness of distinguised Prime Ministers or the Penhaligon's brand (certainly as it was back then), but there again the perfume world is full of such surprises. Plus Beetmoll tells me that Corrado Rustici was immaculately dressed, and come to think of it Italians are famed for their keen/sharp sense of style.

You should perhaps also know that Beetmoll himself doesn't fit any of the profiles people might associate with the typical Penhaligon's customer - he is no young fogey or dapper metrosexual, for example. Rather, he dresses top to toe in black utility clothing, and sports a glorious long mane of flame-coloured hair that would make Jane Asher weep.

So anyway, Beetmoll bought Hamman Oil a few times until one day it wasn't available, whereupon he switched his allegiance to Hamman Bouquet, also buying Blenheim Bouquet around the same period.

Then he reckons he bought the samples by mail order out of the company's catalogue, again in the early 90s - they served as a "discovery set" (as we might term it today) for his further exploration of the line. The mini of Ormolu is decked out in copious swathes of pale yellow netting, for all the world like a tutu. After some concerted memory-dredging, Beet reckons he may also have bought the mini out of the catalogue, with the idea of giving it to a girlfriend. Instead, it wound up in my possession, two decades later!

Here is the blurb inside the lid of the box:

"Ormolu is a rich perfume. Like the ground gold decoration after which it is named, Ormolu enhances what is already fine. Sophistication is not easily acquired. Equally it takes time to appreciate the complex character of this warm, floral fragrance."

Of course I had to google "ormolu" to find out a bit more about it...As ever, Wikipedia has the scoop. I was especially concerned to read about the gilders' poor life expectancy:

"Ormolu /ˈɔrməluː/ (from French or moulu, signifying ground or pounded gold) is an 18th-century English term for applying finely ground, high-carat gold in a mercury amalgam to an object of bronze. The mercury is driven off in a kiln (leaving behind a gold-colored veneer). ...Due to exposure to the harmful mercury fumes, most gilders did not survive beyond 40 years of age."

The choice of name and the sales copy both point to this being a rich, rather "ornate" perfume, and so it proves.

Top Notes - Armoise, Camomile, Bergamot
Middle Notes - Jasmine, Rose, Violet, Ylang
Base Notes - Sandalwood, Musk, Moss, Amber

The (small sample of) two reviewers on MUA are not overly enthusiastic it must be said, giving it an average rating of 3 out of 5. That's a "meh", pretty much, or slightly better. One is aged 19-24, admittedly.

"Pretty strong stuff and only to be used sparingly. Smell powdery, as the other reviewer has wrote. It reminds me faintly of baby powder, some Chanel classics, with a dark pungent twist. that knocks the back of my nose."

Then there is a lone review of Ormolu by Foetidus on Basenotes, who confirms that the sweetness and powder don't let up for him, and he was not sorry to learn that it was discontinued.

And I must say it isn't really my thing either, but I don't dislike it. With its slightly spiky opening, Ormolu segues into a full-on powdery oriental which manages to smell oldfashioned but not in a kickass retro way, like Le Parfum de Therese or Onda. It reminds me a bit of Guerlain Mayotte or one of the many Carons with "Aimez" in the title, but it has a mossier, more herbally aspect, at least initially, which fights with the floral notes. I wouldn't call it overly sweet though - perhaps my skin amplifies the mossy note. It almost has the vibe of a Grossmith, in fact, though it errs the right side of out-and-out sneezefest, unlike most of that line to my nose. As it wears on the powderiness mutes down, but it doesn't smell distinctly of a particular flower to me at any point, and I can really take it or leave it, to be honest.

But none of that matters, for the fact that Ormolu is stuck in a timewarp - or down a wormhole - is precisely its charm. And not just any wormhole, but Beetmoll's memories of tours all those years ago, and his own perfume epiphany. Readers may be interested to know that he has also run into the band on which Tarleisio's novel, Quantum Demonology, is based (Type O Negative)!

Sadly, as this Hamman Oil continues to elude us, I cannot give you a note listing for Beetmoll's first perfume love and purchase. But here is the lowdown on Hammam Bouquet, which he went on to own, and which was created by William Penhaligon in 1872.

Top notes: lavender and bergamot
Middle notes: Bulgarian rose, orris root, jasmine and cedar
Base notes: sandalwood, amber and musk

I wouldn't say Beet is on the cusp of being afflicted with full scale fumeheadonism, but he does enjoy his Penhaligon's colognes (Opus 1870 is the current favourite!), and for my own part I am delighted to have inherited his tutu-clad Ormolu mini and its unexpected "back(stage) story"...


Hold on, could that by any chance be a touch of ormolu on that chandelier?

Photo of Corrado Rustici album from, photo of Hammam Bouquet from, photo of Zucchero Fornaciari from Jeangagnon via Wikimedia Commons, other photos my own


Suzanne said...

Hi Vanessa. So you say Ormolu you could take or leave, but now I'm very curious (and I'm sort of suggesting a post idea for you): I get the impression from reading your comments elsewhere on the blogosphere lately that your tastes in perfume have been changing, and I was wondering what you've been loving lately that might be on the more daring side for you. I loved your Dior lippie post, by the way (that shade looks very pretty on you), and I guess I'm just wondering if you've been wearing any vavoomy or new-to-you fragrances to go with your updated new look. Or am I being too nosey? (No perfume pun intended). :-)

Undina said...

I have no comments about the perfume - I barely familiar with either of two cornerstone brands of the British perfumery. But I enjoyed reading the story and also wanted to share that as a child (9-10 years old) I had no problems picking up earthworms. No gloves involved! (together with a no-cover iPhone it should picture me living a life of danger ;) ).

Vanessa said...

Hi Suzanne,

You're not being nosey at all, and it is a good question...

I did enjoy the drydown of Ormolu more when the powderiness had dissipated somewhat; it just didn't move me I guess, as some retro classics can, like Le Dix or Vol de Nuit - or Apres L'Ondee most of all!

On the va-va-voomy front, let me think what I have discovered that might fit that category, given that the lovely Heure Promise you sent me - and Santal Massoia which I also love - are on the quiet and understated side!

I adored Chantecaille Petales that you also sent me and will be reviewing it soon - that counts as quite feminine, if not as "out there" as the likes of Fracas, say.

And Honour Woman is a fairly new, fairly "big" floral I have discovered. I like Mona di Orio Tubereuse too, so it could be that I am having a bit of a white floral moment...And it is not even that far into spring yet!

Vanessa said...

Hi Undina,

Naked iPhones and naked worm handling, the latter from a very early age - my respect for you just leapt up another notch. Daring woman indeed, you are!

Suzanne said...

White florals, yay!! I haven't yet tried Honour Woman or MdO Tubereuse (funny, a while ago I ordered the newest MdO scents but skipped that one, which was kinda stupid since I love tuberose). So happy to hear you love Heure Promise and Chantecailles Petales. :)

Vanessa said...

Hi Suzanne,

Well, I wouldn't have even called myself a fan of the note in the past, but may be having a change of heart. If not a 180 exactly, a 90 degrees for sure. My Petales review is imminent, but still "brewing" if you know what I mean! We "read" this one in just the same way, I sense. : - )

Or - thinking back to that 50s video Birgit posted at the weekend - do I mean "see", haha?!

Unknown said...

Hi Vanessa,

Ormolu sounds like what I would wear to bed! I actually really like powder in a perfume and the 'spikiness' of the opening seems like something interesting! Too bad it's discontinued.

Lovely read, in any case!

Vanessa said...

Hi Joshua,

Are you by any chance coming along to the Leather Event on Thursday, because I could bring the mini along for you to try, if so? Or failing that, to a future talk we will both be at? It has a tiny stopper, so unfortunately it would not be an easy task to decant a sample that I could send you, which would be my normal suggestion in such circumstances!

Olfactoria's Travels said...

Fascinating post!
I find the fact that a rocker/musician is wearing Penhaligon's most interesting.

I think your tastes are definitely changing or expanding lately. I look forward to hear what appealed to you at the leather event.

Vanessa said...

Hi Olfactoria,

I must say the contrast intrigued me too, and I think you are right about my tastes expanding: tuberose, a touch of oud, big white florals, acceptable levels of civet, the odd retro chypre...where will it all end? : - ) I even sniffed my bottle of Cabochard the other day and it wasn't nearly as bad as I remembered!