When I was at school, we read a short parable about two silver ladles – one was plain and unadorned, the other ornately molded. I forget the details, but I remember that the moral of the story was that although the plain silver ladle looked rather ordinary compared to the excesses of the more decorative one, it actually took a lot more skill to make the plain ladle, because there was nowhere for mistakes to hide. Lesson: true beauty lies in simplicity, and simplicity is the hardest thing to pull off.
I am reminded of this parable when I wear Iris Nobile by Acqua di Parma. It is a perfume whose seams are so invisible to the naked eye that you might think it was just a plain old silver ladle at first. But look closely, and you see that the real skill here was in crafting a perfectly round object that moves quietly from one part of its transition to the next without alerting you to its movements. Its beauty lies in its apparent ease, like a beautiful swan gliding across a lake, whose frantically paddling legs are hidden under the water’s surface.
The name is classic misdirection. After a brief but lovely burst of cool, crisp citrus and watery green iris flower, Iris Nobile unfurls into a massive, creamy white floral – mostly orange blossom. The effect is like steaming iris petals over a pan of simmering cream. It is rich but also delicate. I wore it a couple of times before looking up the name of the perfumer, and the minute I saw the name Francis Kurkdijan on the ticket, I had a classic “aha” moment. Kurkdijan, of course!
For me, Kurkdijan has both a defining style and a signature set of notes beloved by him and used often in his compositions. He often uses orange blossoms, fresh citrus notes like orange, rose, honey, and musk in his fragrances – these are, and I’m generalizing grossly here, signature notes he comes back to time and time again. His defining style is a great delicacy and refinement in how he handles these often heavy, sweet notes, and most importantly, the tremendous skill with which he is able to use these notes as points of a triangle within which to innovate, stretch, and find new forms. You know the way Luca Turin mentioned that the chypre three-legged stool built on bergamot, labdanum, and moss allows perfumers to freely rearrange the furniture in a room? Well, somehow Kurkdijan has managed to use the space between his signature notes as fertile ground from which to mine new forms too.
For example, in Narciso Rodriguez for Her (EDT), Kurkdijan piles a massive amount of musk onto orange blossoms and then nestles this accord within a chypre structure of bergamot at the top, amber in the middle, and vetiver at the base, standing in for the dark feel of moss. The effect is of a musky, dark thing that shakes off the formal feel of the chypre genre and shimmies into the room like a wanton hussy. Anyone in the wake of this is toast.
In Lumiere Noire Pour Homme, Kurkdijan sets orange, musk, and rose on top of a dark fougere structure, and creates one of the most beautiful masculine roses in the world. This beautiful composition is based on a range of dark and light elements, each playing off each other to create a chiaroscuro effect. The bracing opening of lavender and bergamot lays down a brackish bed for the liquor-like pink rose that unfolds next; the creamy orange-inflected musk in the dry-down is brought into sharp focus by the bitter green artemsia; the shy patchouli given texture by the dusty cumin and cinnamon. It’s ultra-refined, with no sharp edges anywhere, and sits light years away from brutish, bullying rose-patchouli scents such as Portrait of a Lady, Black Aoud, and the like. For some, that refinement may be a drawback, but there is room enough in the genre for a rose-patchouli fragrance that doesn’t necessarily hit you over the head with its boldness or roughness.
Kurkdijan takes another approach for his work for Elie Saab (Le Parfum). Here he takes the trite and over-used fruit and patchouli pairing (fruitchouli) and deploys his deft touch to turn the tired structure inside out. It is still recognizably a fruitchouli, to be sure, but it completely avoids the loud, synthetic shampoo effect of its peers by pairing the mandarin and orange blossoms with honey rather than with a cheap musk in the dry down. It is quite sweet, but the sweetness is almost of a natural source, like honey stirred through a cup of milk Oolang. Here is where you can spot Kurkdijan’s extraordinary ability to handle heavy notes with delicacy and refinement. The patchouli used here is refined, non-brutish, and contains none of the earthy, sour, or chocolate-y undertones usually associated with the note. The honey is not heavy or animalic. Even the jasmine is stripped of all its indoles, tamed, bridled, broken in, and strapped down, turning the note into a light jasmine tea accord. There is nothing syrupy or discordant or clunky to weigh down this pretty little bird – all it wants to do is to soar into the air, and it does.
I own three full bottles of Kurkdijan’s work. One, Lumiere Noire Pour Femme, fits in perfectly with his defining style of delicacy, refinement, and smooth beauty. The second, Elie Saab Le Parfum, fits both with his defining style and with his signature notes (orange blossoms, citrus, and honey). The last, Absolue Pour Le Soir, is the one outlier I see in his body of work, and it does not sit to fit within either his defining style or his signature notes. In fact, it is such an incredibly wild, animalic, roaring thing that I am always astonished that the bottle doesn’t explode when I take the top off. It is the one work of his that doesn’t scream Kurkdijan, and yet it is my favorite and also the one that critics often name as his greatest artistic achievement to date. Weird, huh?