Winter is a-coming, and I be a-laying down fat to keep myself warm. Ambers, dark musks, spicy orientals, creamy gourmands…..I’ll take one of each, please. But the perfect vanilla has always eluded me. I mean, yes, there’s Shalimar, and Shalimar is pretty much the perfect everything. But Shalimar is an awful lot more than pure vanilla – there’s leather, incense, musk, and bergamot in there too. I’m on the look-out for a vanilla vanilla.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. Even though the word ‘vanilla’ itself has come to mean something pedestrian, simple, or even a little boring, the variations that perfumers are able to visit upon it seem to be endless. My quest therefore becomes like the search for the Baby Bear’s Porridge – you know, the vanilla that is ‘just right’. Of course, it would help if I knew what exactly I was looking for in a perfect vanilla fragrance. But, like with good art, it’s something I’ll only know when I smell it. Here are the vanillas that I have tried and tested thus far.
Vaniglia del Madagascar by Farmacia SS Anunziata: Vanilla Lite
Vaniglia del Madagascar is a very simple, soft vanilla that evolves slowly and without drama from a sparkling, lemon-sugar opening to a warm vanilla-sugar end. It’s as linear and as slow-moving as this description implies. The opening is perhaps my favorite part, as it dances deftly between lemon-scent sugar and a cool, blond, sauna woods accord that is attractive and calming. It feels airy, cool, and strangely enough for a vanilla scent, effervescent. The warm place the vanilla ends up is not tooth-achingly sweet, nor does it pick up too many extraneous notes – it’s just pure vanilla sugar. Many people talk about this scent as something that only reveals its true beauty after a full twelve hours. Well, I am not one for delayed gratification, but I waited it out patiently anyway. To be perfectly honest, the degrees of change between its starting position and its final destination are so infinitesimal as to make the tortuous wait utterly unnecessary. To its credit, the vanilla here is very natural in feel, and never candy floss sweet.
But to my mind, there is a major flaw that rules it out as a possibility for me, and that is performance, or more specifically, projection. Now, I don’t ever really dwell upon projection or longevity, since I think that these issues can be fixed simply by re-spraying. This scent is a parfum, which means that sillage is very low or close to the skin – fair enough. But when a few minutes after spraying, the scent is barely perceptible on the skin, it indicates a major problem with the construction of the scent. This is so faint a smell as to make it not so much as a skin scent as a subliminal message, sent to mess with your brain, as in “Am I wearing perfume at all?”, “Oh no – here it is”, and “Nope, it’s gone again.” I don’t like playing guessing games with my perfume, let alone hide and seek, so this fragrance is a big no no for me, regardless of what it actually smells like.
Eau Duelle by Diptyque: Bookish Vanilla
I like Eau Duelle for many reasons, but perhaps the best reason is because this is a perfume with clear intentions – it sets out to be an equal dance between two opposing elements (cold, spicy incense, and warm, clear vanilla), and in this, it succeeds effortlessly. “Eau Duelle” means Water of Duality, but to non-French speakers, the name could be suggestive of a duel, an old-fashioned fight to the death between two forces. Either way, the name conveys the direction perfectly. Everything about Eau Duelle clicks into place in a brisk, no-nonsense fashion. The opening is cold and aromatic, fairly fizzing with the sting of pink pepper and juniper berries. Hiding behind the aromatic spices and black tea is a warm, robust, but utterly unsweetened vanilla – this note pops its head out shyly at first, but then it becomes a dance of equals, the aromatics, black tea, and the incense dominating one moment, the vanilla the next. The two elements never merge, instead they develop along separate tracks, but wrap around each other at various points of the journey.
It’s worth pointing something out about the incense and the vanilla here. First, the incense here is not the smoking resins type of incense, but the cold, waxy, almost herbal/aromatic spiced air left behind in a church after incense has been burned but long since extinguished. This type of note is in fitting with the cold, open air feel of Eau Duelle in general. The vanilla is cold and clear, sharpened by a slight evergreen edge. The texture is something to behold – there is a starchy, papery feel to the vanilla in Eau Duelle that makes one think of opened books. The whole thing feels light, but not insubstantial. It is a cool-headed, intellectual vanilla fragrance rather than a sweet, foody one, and it’s all the better for it. I think this has the potential to become an all-occasions type of vanilla, and it is one that I am seriously considering buying.
Un Bois Vanille by Serge Lutens: Foody Vanilla
I used not to appreciate Un Bois Vanille, but several things have happened recently to make me think twice. First of all, my three-year old son made a special request of me – he said he wanted his mama to smell like vanilla and sweets and sugar – and Un Bois Vanille was the closest thing I could think of that would satisfy his brief without making me retch. Second, I have been wearing Aomassi by Parfumerie Generale a lot lately, and have come to appreciate more the juxtaposition of dairy-rich accords such as vanilla, caramel, and cream against darker elements such as licorice, incense, roasted coffee, nuts, and wood. Un Bois Vanille is sort of a sister scent to Aomassi.
And although I think I will be wearing Un Bois Vanille more for my son’s benefit than my own, I have to admit that it has started to grow on me a bit. It is a simple pleasure done well – a doughy vanilla offset by licorice, milky coffee, dark woods, and a dash of caramel syrup. The only trouble with a vanilla this gourmand is that I am constantly tempted to raid the cookie tin when wearing it. I tempt fate even more by slathering myself in Yves Rocher Organic Vanilla Lotion and a good dosing of Couvent Les Minimes’ Eau des Missions cologne water, said to be a close dupe of Guerlain’s Spiritueuse Double Vanille. Basically, at weekends, I go around smelling like one giant ball of vanilla ice-cream. But I find I can live with that because anything that makes my son cuddle up closer to me is worth it. I guess it’s true what they say about boys and vanilla after all.
Mona di Orio Les Nombres d’Or Vanille: Drunken Pirate Vanilla
This is possibly one of the best-smelling vanilla fragrances I have ever laid my nose on, and it solves one of my personal dilemmas of being reluctant to spend a lot of money on a vanilla fragrance by being not very much focused on vanilla at all. Which kind of defeats the purpose, I know. Funnily enough, the lack of vanilla in this caused me to despise this fragrance when I first tested it a month or two into this hobby – I even kept my notes from that testing, which read: “1. Cloves, 2. Rum, 3. Orange, 4. Dark Woods, 5. Where is the bloody vanilla???”. Back then, it almost made me angry, thinking that somebody hated vanilla so much that they made a vanilla fragrance that avoided the note altogether.
Perhaps my nose is different now, or maybe experience has simply pushed my taste beyond its initial starting position. Testing it now, I appreciate a few things I wasn’t able or experienced enough to pick up on back then. First of all, there IS vanilla in this, but it is more an abstract representation of what a vanilla pod smells like, with all its rummy, dark, almost animalic flavors, rather than vanilla extract or a cupcake kind of vanilla. Second, this fragrance crosses several of my favorite types of fragrance categories with each other, and does it in an elegant, confident manner. Specifically, it crosses a Christmas-style pomander spice opening (reminiscent of Fendi’s Theorema and Frederic Malle’s Noir Epices) with a boozy, dark woods done “Pirate style” a la Lubin’s Idole, and follows it up with a long, creamy vanillic sandalwood dry down that recalls the gingerbread delights of Chanel’s Bois des Iles pure parfum. In fact, this fragrance strikes me as being far more about sandalwood than vanilla itself.
But at least from a technical standpoint, this is clearly a stab at suggesting vanilla in an abstract manner rather than a direct paint-by-numbers job. The booziness and the dark, almost licorice-inflected woods are supposed to suggest the dark, sticky, almost alcoholic smell of the vanilla pod itself, whereas the creamy sandalwood stands in for the scads of vanilla cream we have come to expect of the very word “vanilla”. The drydown does come extremely close to the smell and feel of Bois des Iles pure parfum, but lasts for a much longer time, so I may be forgiven for thinking that Mona di Orio’s Vanille gives you the best of both worlds. Actually, it comes close to Holy Grail status for me, except (paradoxically) for the fact that I am hesitant to buy a fragrance that smells so much like three or four of my other favorite scents. I go back and forth on whether it’s redundant or not. I’ll probably buy it eventually, though, because it’s just beautiful and satisfying from every angle, and also because it’s the one vanilla that I keep thinking about long after I’ve emptied my sample.
Guerlain’s Cuir Beluga: Vanilla Suede
True luxury never shouts. Cuir Beluga is perhaps the smoothest, richest, and most refined vanilla-dominant fragrance I own. Wearing it makes you feel like you’re being rubbed down with a silk cloth by a butler. It is rather minimalistic for a Guerlain, and doesn’t evolve much, but when something smells this good, I couldn’t care less. At the opening, I get a brief flash of a mandarin-tinted liqueur – Grand Marnier perhaps – before we slip into a warm bath of silky vanilla, suede, and heliotrope, a sort of luxury-car-on-cruise-control gear where the perfume will stay for most of the ride.
This is a Guerlain vanilla that’s been through several filters. It is recognizably the Guerlain vanilla used in Shalimar, but here it’s been double-strained through a muslin cloth to remove all the impurities that give Shalimar its famous ‘burning tires and soiled nappies’ edge. The heliotrope gives up its faintly almond-like flavors to the putty-like cream, but it is like a paste of pulverized almonds rather than the full-on fudge of marzipan. The almond accents here are of the most pale and refined sort – unsweetened, and reminiscent only of the naturally milky, mild flavor of the nuts themselves. The texture is both buttery and powdery, like the inside of a white chamois leather glove that has been dusted with talcum powder so as to ease a lady’s hand in without any vulgar pushing. The suede is accented with a dusting of anise, which adds a faintly savory, almost salty-metallic feel to the fragrance. These salty, skin-like notes are what conjure up the feel of a true, fine ‘cuir’ here, and save it from being just another gluttonous gourmand scent. This is a fragrance that is drop-dead beautiful, and I get a lot of pleasure from wearing it. Inarguably over-priced, yes, but I can’t seem to find anything that comes close to it.
Gothic I by Loree Rodkin: Floury Vanilla
Gothic I is a nice patchouli-vanilla fragrance that is done well, but does nothing to distinguish itself from other fragrances in this rather crowded field. It’s basically a dulled, floury baking-extract vanilla scent with a touch of patchouli and alcohol at the top. The patchouli departs almost immediately, bringing it with any gravitas or interest the scent may have had. What’s left is a plain, doughy vanilla. It is snuggly and warm, vaguely comforting like most vanillas are, but for this price ($140 for 50mls), I guess I would be much happier with something like Un Bois Vanille. This is far too ordinary and unexceptional for the price being demanded here, and to boot, the sillage and longevity leave much to be desired. Color me underwhelmed (as well as ashamed of myself for spending yet more money on mediocrity). I am giving this a neutral because it is not unpleasant. Just uninspired and shamelessly overpriced.
Guerlain’s Shalimar: Classic Vanilla
Maybe I don’t even need to be on a vanilla exploration – after all, I already have Shalimar. Shalimar smells absolutely wonderful, grand, lush, smoky, sexy, comforting, and warm. The opening is jarring to the nth degree, especially if you’re not used to it. I don’t know whether it’s the particularly stinky grade of Bergamot that Guerlain use, or the way it clashes with the vanilla, but the top notes smell curdled and rancid, like when you pour lemonade into cream. The vanilla itself smells tarry and burned, like rubber tires piled high and set on fire. Somehow, somewhere underneath all of that, there appears a slightly horrifying note of soiled diapers, or at least baby powder that has been caked into the creases of a baby’s bottom. It smells sort of unclean, and is pungent enough to singe your nose hairs off. But here’s the odd thing – after you get used to Shalimar, you start to actively crave the weird opening. When you begin to go “Mmmmmmm” rather than holding your breath, this is a sign that you’ve crossed the line. Welcome! It’s like a Shibboleth for hard-core fans of Shalimar – we’re all over here at the other side of the line, and everyone else is pressing their noses to the glass, shaking their heads and saying, “I think you have Stockholm Syndrome.”
After the “horrific” first half hour (for which you may want to refrain from sniffing your wrists if you are smelling it for the first time), it is an easy ride from there on in. Sweet, smoky vanilla poured on top of a long, golden, powdery amber, with accents of leather, smoking resins, and animalic musks. It has this neat trick of smelling comforting/familiar and yet sexy at the same time. It lasts all day and, in my humble opinion, is just fantastic in whatever concentration and vintage you wear. While it is true that the vintage parfum is the deepest and smokiest, we can’t always be wearing that (for reasons of finances as well as time and place), so it’s good to know that Shalimar is still recognizably the same Shalimar in the weakest EDC as it is in the parfum – thinner, yes, but still, you wouldn’t mistake her for anybody else.
Parfumerie Generale’s Felanilla: Iris Vanilla
A wonderful, sensual surprise. Iris and vanilla – hardly natural bedfellows, but somehow it works. Sexy vanilla wanders over to the cool, rooty Iris, who is typing a letter for her boss, leans over, pulls out the pencil from her bun and takes off her glasses, murmuring, “Why, Miss Jones….you are beautiful.”
The opening is a fiercely rooty iris, made into a cool, silky powder that kind of feels like cornstarch in texture – it’s light and aerated, but you also feel the back tug of something stiff and starchy, like rubbing your fingers the wrong way against a piece of silk. Although I don’t know what banana wood is, there is something of the woody end of a banana stalk to this – not in terms of smell, but texture, because this smells kind of like when you get a bit of banana skin in your mouth by mistake. If you’ve ever done that, then you know what I mean – it sucks all the moisture out of your mouth.
The vanilla immediately starts to warm the iris from below, rolling it around its tongue until it is a sensual, buttery thing purring with contentment. Watching this happen is like when the black and white of the Wizard of Oz bleed into super-saturated color. I don’t pick up any of the hay or saffron, which is disappointing because those are two of my favorite notes. In general, this is all about the vanilla and iris for me. The iris is warmed and made sensual by the vanilla, while the vanilla is given some intellectual backbone by the iris. It is both beautiful and unusual.
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