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.


Olfactoria’s background

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”.

Starter Ambers

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”...


Heavy Hitters

We smelt: Annick Goutal Ambre Fétiche and Serge Lutens Ambre Sultan

Ambre Fétiche

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

Powdery Ambers

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.


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


Summer Ambers

(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.

Economical Ambers

Yves Rocher Voile d’Ambre (I swapped my bottle away, as I didn’t get on with the coumarin note), L’Occitane Amber


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?)


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, photo of pickled celeriac from, photo of amber altar in Malbork castle museum from, photo of amber insect candy from, photo of ambergris from, photo of L'Eau d'Ambre from, photo of Malbork castle museum from, other photos my own


Anonymous said...

Thank you for another wonderful Bonkers classic! I, as ever, enjoyed your post very much and being the center of attention in it was lovely. ;)
I am still most honored by my new title of honorary Brit and I will carry it proudly and wow from now on to never write cosy with a z or closet instead of wardrobe again. ;)

Anonymous said...

Ahhh, what a lovely write up Vanessa! Nigel and I so enjoyed ourselves at before the talk, at the talk and during our food encounter of the lebanese kind!

On a side note - I've also found myself at Malbork Castle before, but I didn't know there was an amber museum there :(

lovethescents said...

Thank you for the detailed account of your experiences, Vee. It sounds like you had a chance to enjoy ambery blobs of all types!

Vanessa said...

Hi Olfactoria,

We really appreciated your visit, both in terms of what we learnt - and smelt - thanks to you, and the fact that you just popped up in our midst (no hire car from Klagenfurt, negotiating all those Guertels blah, blah ; - ) ). That said, I very much hope my work takes me back to the "Ambre Orient" that is your Eastern part of Austria.

The title of "Honorary Brit" is richly deserved, and whilst your spelling has historically hailed from across the pond, your affection for understatement testifies to the fact that in other respects, you are as British as the Union Jack bunting on the fixtures of Penhaligon's!

Ines said...

It's great to read all your posts on how the evening went. :)
I knew it would be great, I just wish I could have taken part.
I sincerely hope I'll get to meet Birgit eventually.

P.S. You're already on my list what with your visits to Croatia's neighbouring countries. ;)

Vanessa said...

Hi Candy Perfume Boy,

It was a pleasure hanging out with you and Tara again, and I enjoyed meeting Nigel for the first time. He is, as they say in Norn Iron, the very epitome of "a sound man", and I feel his unstinting culinary efforts deserve wider recognition. : - )

And oh wow! You have been to Malbork - what are the chances of that? I had a meeting in the town and was staying in one of the outbuildings that had been converted into a hotel. I just kind of wandered into the museum on my day off, so I could understand how you might miss it. Especially as the castle building itself is so impressive.

Vanessa said...

Hi lovethescents,

"Ambery blobs of all types" is spot on! Preferably without insect insert... ; - )

Vanessa said...

Hi Ines,

I do hope you get the chance to meet Birgit some time - I feel spoilt to have had several opportunities already, on both "hair up" and "hair down days"... ; - )

And you have been such a near miss on my travels - both in Paris and Croatia itself - that I feel sure that we will get to meet in the end...fingers crossed. Maybe even in Paris again, on a future visit!

Tara said...

Glorious write-up, V (as always) and you choose the most flattering pics for which - I for one - am very grateful!

It was lovely reading about the evening again from your perspective and those little things that I missed/forgot about. Very much looking forward to Thomas's talk in July already!

P.S. I will now always think of Opus VI as "the surprise amber".

Lila Das Gupta said...

Hi Vanessa,
that was such a great account of the night. Thank you for writing it, I had a smile on my face re-living it again through your words. I certainly enjoyed myself and I think that Birgit did too - apart from the bit about her psychological tussles with Serge Lutens, which may need further therapy! Birgit has a lovely turn of phrase, I think we will have to give her the key to the city since she is now an HB.
Great to see you again!

Vanessa said...

Hi Tara,

Thanks for your kind comment - I enjoyed your own account of the evening very much too.

And it was no hardship choosing flattering pics - there are several other nice ones of you that ended up on the cutting room floor just because I didn't write enough text to accommodate them all. : - ) I'll send you a couple!

I reckon that our confusion over the category names must have been a Freudian slip on our parts (rather aptly, given the Viennese context), for Opus VI was made to be a "surprise amber" - or a "rug-pulling amber", even.

Vanessa said...

Hi Lila,

Lovely to see - and sniff! - you again, and thanks so much for all your efforts behind the scenes to make this event such a success. It was as packed a house as I have seen.

I agree that Birgit may need more therapy on the Serge Lutens front, and possibly also to help her deal with her Pierre Guillaume fixation. Actually, where PG is concerned, I'd say we ALL need therapy. ; - )

Now although we have conferred this title on of HB on B, I think she still has some wiggle room left if she would like to be an Honorary American *as well*. I reckon she could have a foot in both honorary camps, with a bit of careful juggling. You know, say "cosy" and "wardrobe", but keep "colored" and "Fall", that type of thing. : - )

Anonymous said...

As I have written honored instead of honoured in my previous comment, I was fearing my HB status might be swiftly revoked again, but since you are allowing me to keep my feet firmly in both camps, I am quite relieved. But without belabouring (see!) the point, I'm glad my English didn't betray me when it counted. :)

Vanessa said...

Hi Olfactoria,

Ha! I missed "honoured"! I must have been subconsciously cutting you some mid-Atlantic slack already. But by the same token, "belaboured" is a nice concession, firmly confirming your HB status (note that the acronym nicely sidesteps the issue altogether).

: - ) : - )

PS And of course this is all just a bit of silliness anyway. Imho, in matters orthographic, as in life generally, the motto "each to their own" should apply.

Undina said...

I'll try not to repeat everybody else too much :) but I should say that 1) Birgit is beautiful (even on those pictures where her face appears in the more distorted area of the lense); 2) I envy you all and wish I could be there and 3) I enjoyed your story (and a special thanks goes to to you for all those playful alliterations throughout the post).

Vanessa said...

Hi Undina,

1) Birgit is indeed not just popular, poised and polished, but also perfectly pretty too!

2) We would have loved to have had you there, and your name was mentioned, along with those of other absent fumie friends.

3) See 1). ; - ) I will continue to do my best here!