Today I smell like Terry’s Chocolate Orange. And this is a good thing. I’ve been waiting for Jo Malone’s Sugar & Spice Collection since press launches last year. This deliciously fun quintet of 30ml fragrances by nose Christine Nagel have all been inspired by quintessential British desserts. Nagel took a crash course in tasting puddings, biscuits, looking at the peculiarities of fruity, creamy, nostalgic baking. The results are a mixed bag, however two of them are very good and one of these is exceptional.
I do like the work that Christine Nagel has been doing at Jo Malone. Bought in by Dom de Vetta (now running his own brand Shay & Blue) when Jo and her husband left the brand, she has done hushed and excellent work fine-tuning the scented impressions of what can sometimes be perceived of as a safe and bourgeois brand. Nagel has access at Mane, where she spent years training and working, to some amazing molecules and the latest techniques in aroma chemistry. These connections and her work alongside Pierre Bourdon have worked very much in Jo Malone’s favour. I have posted a piece previously on Nagel’s glittering Rose Water & Vanilla. This will always have a place in my heart (and collection); it is veryseductive, the rose petals washed through with icy silvered water, connecting me directly to my childhood in the Middle East.
I always smell in roses a deep crimson link with my travels as a child. And it’s muskier in the lingering drydown, resonant of store-cupboard spices like pepper, star anise and saffron. Nagel played with this aspect too in her Velvet Rose and Oud, a thicker, more textured rosaceous perfume, lit through with the ubiquitous pull of odiferous oud.
Not every thing Nagel does works. The highly anticipated Wild Bluebell was for me wildly disappointing. The campaign was SO beautiful and when it launched, the windows and stores looked and felt very special. But the scent itself? A pale mauve whisper of a thing. An insipid floral that had more in common with lily of the valley than bluebells. There was a nothing wild about it, it felt tame and safe, a pretty trinket of a scent for timid consumers. It could have been remarkable. It sold well and continues to do so. But I fear this was a triumph of marketing over scented content.
But I will always look out for Nagel’s work, she is not afraid of change and experimentation. Like a chef playing with menus she is keen to surprise and delight her olfactory audience. I was very excited by the announcement last year of this Sugar & Spice Collection – Bitter Orange & Chocolate, Ginger Biscuit, Lemon Tart, Redcurrant & Cream and Elderflower & Gooseberry. I am a sucker for a fun gourmand scent. The idea of a top French perfumer interpreting English desserts is laden with cultural brilliance. The normal French obsession for fine patisserie and delicacy of taste compared to what they perceive as heavy old-fashioned puddings. It could have been horrible of course, sickly and laced with chemicals, fizzing with aldehydes and Britney/Christina type berry effects. But Nagel’s work on a previous tea collection for Jo Malone was evidence she can do lightness and homage with frivolity and serious perfumed intent. Indeed the Earl Grey & Cucumber was re-released earlier this year and added to the permanent collection.
I know that the gourmand strain of perfumery really divides people. When Olivier Cresp, Vera Straub and Thierry Mugler unleashed the unashamedly porno-gourmand bomb that was the original Angel on an unsuspecting world in 1992, they transformed the scented landscape. A fragrance with no flowers. Blasphemy. But oh my… we smelt delicious. Those that wore it felt sinful, ornamental and gaudy. Others loathed it passionately, labeling it with the same room-clearing status as Dior’s insdiuous Poison, Givenchy’s cattle stunning Amarige and the infamous Giorgio of Beverly Hills, a scent that could bring aircraft down. I have always loved it and have been impressed over the years by its various re-incarnations, particularly the glorious Hélène Darrouze collaboration two years ago that ramped up the cocoa until it seemed to blizzard around you. Last year’s leather-soaked flanker was just as stunning, but was just pipped at the post by the giddy version of Alien, which added a suede effect and a very moreish apricot note.
People I know who dislike the gourmand school of perfumery are horrified by the idea of smelling like food. They like a clear line of definition between the sweetness of consumption and the odours we choose to decorate our skin with. I on the other hand love the concept of skin as a carnal and sensualised surface to be worshipped and consumed. Scenting it with chocolate, caramel, candyfloss, coconut, milk makes the body into a gustatory and olfactory canvas. Obviously, it’s personal how we perfume ourselves, but as we apply, but rogue thoughts of lovers roaming our surfaces, inhaling and desiring our aromas are persuasive and sinful.
I believe in perfumed transgression. Unisex fragrances are generally dull and please neither side in their attempts to fulfil the boy meets girl remit. As a guy you should don a woman’s oriental when searching for the full blown vanillic spice hit, layer some Shalimar with Ropion’s Vetiver Extraordinaire. Caron’s Tabac Blond is sublime with a lick of Miss Dior. And likewise girls, play with your inner butch, play with beeswax and fougère notes. Chanel’s Antaeus smells fabulous with L’Artisan Parfumeur’s delicious memory-scented Drôle de Rose. And Penhaligon’s magnificent steam-filled Sartorial, all cloth and machine oil, is lovely interspersed with bursts of Balenciaga Paris Essence. I love patisserie boys, dusted in sugar and girls in tuxedo fragrance notes. It’s all about scented drag.
Bitter Orange & Chocolate is incredibly fun and flirty. It smells startlingly real. Orange is of course a classic note in perfumery and generally married to other citrus notes like bergamot, lemon, lime, yuzu, grapefruit and aromatics like vetiver, lavender, basil and tarragon. In baking it compliments chocolate to near perfection, in mousses, cakes, ice cream, cookies, dark and milk chocolate. Marrying the elements together in fragrance form is witty but obviously fraught with sticky dangers. It could have been so over-sweet and drenched in sugary excess. I was expecting it to be sweet and smooth, with a twist of orange. There was a chocolate cream liqueur I drank to excess years ago, velvety and addictive with a delicious bright orange note treaded through it. It was this that made the tipple so moreish (and less sickly, truth be told). My first spray of Bitter Orange & Chocolate reminded me so much of this compulsive boozy delight. The clever addition of coconut and lovely coumarin layer up the gourmand factor, but also soften and round off the edges, giving everything a slow melting quality I find irresistible.
The key to balancing this fragrance is lightness and Nagel’s patisserie take on chocolate. Much as I love the Terry’s Chocolate Orange thing, there is a sophisticated edge to the cocoa content. It is rich with an earthy almost patchouli like intensity. She is working with 70% cocoa if you like, tempered with the milky white 70s tones of coconut and the rubbed vanillic tobacco note of coumarin. The orange note has been done with verve, it drips through every aspect of the composition, staining everything. It is strong, a glossy lacquered juiciness that smears out the drydown. Nagel apparently used both sweet and bitter oranges to shake up the mix a little. This has worked beautifully against the dusty chocolate landscape of shifting cocoa.
The other scent in the collection I thought was excellent was Ginger Biscuit. Again I have no great love for ginger in fragrances, it just reminds me of cheap body scrubs. But this delicate and warm fragrance was scrumptious.
Nagel said: ‘I wanted to recreate the equivalent deliciousness of a just baked biscuit enlivened with grated ginger. Texture was important in this fragrance; the sharp natural note of ginger is set against the sensation of a baked, crumbly biscuit’.
There are notes of ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon, caramel, roasted hazelnuts, tonka bean and vanilla. It really has a light and airy feel to it, a just baked aroma that despite how it sounds is not at all sickly or sweet. The hazelnut note is really good, gently toasted and balanced with the spices and the convincing grated ginger note gives the overall composition a lovely effect of crumbled softness on the skin.
However… I found that layering Ginger Biscuit and Bitter Orange & Chocolate was bloody amazing. I know Jo Malone is big on the layering thing but I have never really been convinced. But combining foodie scents makes more sense to me and spraying Ginger Biscuit over the chocolate fragrance only seemed to emphasise its impasto beauty. The ginger holds it’s own and the two fragrances marry incredibly well, rolling over each other like playful lovers.
Lemon Tart is a fascinating take on lemon meringue pie, with citrus, lemon thyme, verbena and a meringue accord to give texture and personality. If only this lasted. Sadly it doesn’t. It opens with a startling just-out-of-the-oven sticky sweet pie note, all swirls of meringue and sharp lemon tang, but then plunges far too quickly into a flat and generic sherberty lemon note with no real backbone. It smelt a little cheap after an hour or so.
Redcurrant & Cream uses the latest fragrance technology at Mane to extract from soft fruits such as strawberries and raspberries. A fresh cream note has been added and white musks for texture and air. Inspired by Summer Pudding it smelt very odd to me, echoes of Marc Jacob’s Daisy and touches of something alien, like wet plastic which would not leave my nose.
The last of the five, Elderflower & Gooseberry could have been beautiful. Gooseberries are an unusual fruit with a distinctive, brittle floral aroma when cooked. But the addition of lychee I think is a mistake, it is a slippery cold note and it pulls attention away from the work that Nagel has obviously put into creating the two main fruit notes. The fragrance smelt split and messy.
It will be interesting to see how well this new collection does in terms of sales. I think it is a delightful and fun quintet of perfumes that will make anyone smile. Perfumery should not always be so serious. These have been made to wear with abandon, smile in, flirt in, gad about and gossip in. However, worn with intent, they make us edible, good enough to eat, so go on.. bite me, lick me.