Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A Perfume for Christmas

Winter Chinoiserie (detail) Rose Strang

What do you associate with Christmas? Capitalism unleashed? Roasting chestnuts? Mind-numbing seasonal pop songs, or a time to reflect and be with loved ones?

There's something a little soul-less in the mad rush before Christmas and I know I'm not alone in wishing people didn't feel the need to spend so much. But despite all that, I love Christmas Eve and the day itself. I'll usually venture into the cold with a family member to collect holly and ivy and in our family the tradition has always been to cook everything from scratch. So almost a month before the day itself my Mum can be found drenching home-made Christmas cake with brandy and on Christmas Eve she'll be cooking up cranberries, orange peel and cloves and whipping up brandy butter for the pudding. 

When Christmas Eve arrives, I always feel like a magic wand has been waved over all the hectic-ness, the rainy streets and frantic shoppers. I still feel a thrill, even now.

Here are my perfume recommendations based on the varying moods of Christmas:

Christmas gourmet 

Cimabue (Italian Journey no.8) by DSH Perfumes

I have to begin with this slightly hard-to-find niche perfume as it represents my personal holy grail Christmas perfume. This is a gorgeous gourmet concoction that conjures up an almost medieval mix of spice and citrus. The perfume is inspired by early Renaissance painter Cimabue (pronounced cheemabway), and if all this sounds a bit precious, the perfume itself belies this - it's a beautifully blended, warm, comfort scent and quite literally foody in style despite the many, many ingredients. The perfumer or nose of the perfume is Dawn Spencer Hurwitz whose perfumes contain more natural essences than most mainstream perfumes. The natural style means the perfume doesn't shout, it's intense but stays fairly close to skin - though as you waft past you'll smell good enough to eat.

The general impression is orange citrus zinginess alongside tinglingly warm spices and a comforting nutty/milky depth that reminds me of home-made rice pudding or basmati laced with saffron and there's an odd but lovely scent of uncooked Christmas cake batter. Saffron is a dominant note in Cimabue and it's this, combined with vanilla and beeswax that lends it its comforting quality.

Notes: Neroli, nutmeg, cardamom, bergamot, amalfi lemon, bitter orange and clementine.

Carnation, jasmine, geranium, tuberose, beeswax, saffron, clove, cinnamon and rose.
French labdanum, sandalwood, opoponax, benzoin and vanilla.

Fendi Theorema by Fendi

This has a Christmas foody retro vibe, opening with ripe orange-citrus fruitiness that develops into smooth spicy warmth. It reminds me of the aftermath of a marathon Christmas cooking session. Clove is a predominant note, so taken literally (and of all perfume styles, gourmet is perhaps the least abstract) this conjures up a clove-studded orange, right down to the sweet, slightly over-ripe note of a drying orange cut through with clean, medicinal clove. It dries down to a slightly generic but cosy amber. Interestingly there's also a slight touch of sweetened coffee. Chilled out, relaxed and sensual.

Notes: Orange, nutmeg, orange blossom, pepper, jasmine, lemon, brazilian rosewood, cardamom and rose hip

Carnation, cinnamon, osmanthus, ylang-ylang, rose, spices
Siam benzoin, guaiac wood, sandalwood, amber and patchouli.

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire

Bois des Iles, Chanel Les Exclusifs Range
Pricy, but once sniffed never forgotten, Bois des Iles is one of the first ever woody perfumes for women, designed in 1926 by Ernest Beaux for Coco Chanel. But lest you're wary of vintage scents, I must say that in my opinion, this is timeless. As Luca Turin (he of 'Perfumes, The Guide' fame) mentioned, Bois des Iles does for sandalwood what Cuir de Russie does for leather. 

When I first tried it I thought 'What's all the fuss about?' It opens with a somewhat clean/classic Chanel accord of soapy floral aldehydes. But then in the dry-down I experienced that classic moment of 'what smells so gorgeous in here? Ah, it's me!'. It's reputed to have a ginger-bread note, and in fact it does, but mostly what this reminds me of is sitting next to an open fire - specifically the scent of a wicker basket full of logs warming on the hearth. There's even a touch of warm metal, and a little clean soap. This perfume is like drying next to the fire in a warm fluffy towel after your bath. It doesn't get much more cosy, yet clean!

Notes: Aldehydes, bergamot, neroli and peach

Jasmine, rose, lily of the valley, woody iris and ylang-ylang..
Vetiver, sandalwood, benzoin and musk

Le Baiser du Dragon, by Cartier

Where Bois des Iles is cosy, Le Baiser du Dragon (The kiss of the dragon) does indeed have a touch of flame, or perhaps flambé might be more accurate because there's a touch of booze and roasted almonds here. Le Baiser du Dragon is quite a strong scent, so not one I'd recommend for around the dinner table at Christmas, but for collecting your holly and Ivy, it doesn't get much better. This is like being curled up in a warm oak wardrobe.There's a touch of immortelle (the fragrant slightly curry-like herb that grows on Mediterranean coastlines) and musk, which lends this is a tawny, golden aspect. Definitely not one for summer! There's something magical and moving in this perfume, I was reminded of Lucy in the wardrobe from the Narnia Chronicles. It doesn't get more 'Christmasy' than that..
Notes: Bitter almond, amaretto, neroli, orange, gardenia
Cedar, dark chocolate, musk, vetiver, patchouli and benzoin resin.

Let it snow, let it snow

L'Eau d'Hiver, by Frederic Malle

Powdery, sweet and soft, this will satisfy those who aren't keen on the heavier winter perfumes. This is so delicate it will remind you of a snowflake melting onto your skin. It's a contradiction of most winter-styled perfumes. Created by John Claude Elena for Malle. Elena's perfumes (in the last decade or so) are renowned for their 'transparency'. A quality that's difficult to achieve in perfume without forgoing longevity. A more well-known example of his style is the lovely summer perfume Au thé Vert

Diorissimo, by Dior 

If we're going with the idea of an atypical Christmas scent that conjures up snow, I'd say there's nothing more white and luminous than Dior's Diorissimo. It's a well known classic, but if you know this perfume well and associate it with spring, just imagine wearing it on a winter's day walk, with snowdrops sparkling as they emerge from a blanket of snow. Quite magical really.
This wittily titled perfume is in a style that took me many years to appreciate. I always saw it as sterotypically feminine and too brightly white. A deeper appreciation of perfume has taught me that this is really a genius creation, and its whiteness isn't harsh, though it is radiant. It was created by perfumer Edmond Roudnitska for Dior in the 50s. There's no such thing as an absolute of lily of the valley, so he created it using 'head-space technology' - i.e. by analyzing the aroma molecules around the flower and re-creating them. The technique has been perfected today, but it takes art more than science to create this abundant scent of ultra-feminine lily of the valley petals. It also has a touch of civet which warms it up on the skin and gives it a slight animalic touch, quite appropriate for a wild river valley!

Gold, frankincense and myrrh 

Incense Rosé, by Andy Tauer
This is a very fruity wine-like rose and the perfume as a whole reminds me intensely of mulled wine and Christmas time. I use whole spices regularly, not just in cooking but in coffee, I've also burned pure Frankincense and Myrrh resin on charcoal on occasion, so this is all very familiar territory

It reminds me of a good mulled wine that's been made with a perfect balance of rich red wine, fresh spices and citrus - the kind I like to make for a small get together with friends pre Christmas - with no stinting on ingredients and care. Sniffing this is almost like inhaling steam from gently heated mulled wine in a big pan.

I prefer wine-like, or Turkish Delight-like rose to the sharper tea roses so I'm supposing this is the effect of Bulgarian rose, or rose otto, anyway it adds to the fruitiness. Frankincense and myrrh add to the Christmas feel. The longevity is powerful and the quality impressive.

For folks too busy to be bothered with the rigmarole of making mulled wine from scratch, or seeking out expensive resin from obscure suppliers, I recommend this as a mood perfume - for an air of Elizabethan kitchen, Middle Eastern temple and Christmas mood all rolled into one
Elixir, by Penhaligons

For a pure, meditative mood I can't recommend Elixir highly enough. It's my favourite from the entire Penhaligon's range and gave me one of those 'Aaaah' moments when I first tried it on skin. Some incense perfumes conjure up heavy, medicinal incense, but Elixir retains an airiness and light warmth. And if you suffer from any residual Catholic guilt this won't weigh you down either! There's Frankincense, but also cinnamon, florals and warm comforting benzoin resin. The airiness is probably thanks to the lovely dry note of Eucalyptus leaf. If you've ever sniffed these on the tree you know what I mean, it's not medicinal, but it is refreshing. I'm definitely reminded of Greece and the Middle East.

Cardamom, cinnamon, eucalyptus 

Turkish rose, Egyptian jasmine, orange blossom
White cedar, rosewood, benzoin, Tonka, vanilla, Guaiac wood, incense.

What are your Christmas favourites?


  1. So you liked Ombre Rose but liked Drôle de Rose even more ... Will have to check it. Is it by the same maker ?

    1. Hello Celine,
      How lovely to see you here!
      Yes if it's a powdery rose you like, you'd like Drole de Rose! It's by L'Artisan Perfumes, and they're a bit pricy. So to be honest your Ombre Rose is a really good buy as it's similar but less expensive. Drole de Rose has a bit more violet, maybe sweeter too

  2. Great festive round up Rose. You have a very talented nose indeed!

    1. Many thanks Louise!
      Wouldn't it be fun to go on a perfume sniffing trip next time I'm in Brum xx