"We are a way for the universe to know itself. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We're made of star stuff.." Carl Sagan
I’ve been glancing at nu_be out of the corner of my busy eye for over a year now; I’m not entirely sure why I haven’t committed earlier. They reek of extreme niche, isolated, haughty, scientific, a little forbidding in their strange referencing meld of big bang atmospherics and concrete architecture visuals. But much as I have come to worship at the pleated, arrogant altar of Zaha Hadid and embrace the brutalism of Italian fascist construction, these compelling deliberate oddities have really charmed me and a couple of them, including Françoise Caron’s Carbon are beautifully arresting.
As soon as Carbon laid its silvered mantle on my skin, I felt myself in the arctic grip of obsessive desire, something stalkerish ripples uncomfortably through this formulae. Carbon is enigmatic and challenging and I am in love.
Nu_be is the debut olfactive collection by Fluidounce, an Italian fragrance house based in Parma, the brainchild of Alberto Borri and Serena Ghidini. Borri’s grandfather was the founder of Morris Profumi, so there is scent in the blood and a fervent obsession with experimentation and the art of perfumery. Borri has focused on the word art and applied a rigourous aesthetic to his sleek and dignified House. It takes a little time to absorb the textual context of the fragrances, but it is worth it. Borri and his team have worked minutely and creatively to produce a collection of scents set within a very particular context. I know some reviewers and bloggers have baulked at the scientific and elemental creativity of the collateral text, but I felt reassured and somewhat assuaged by the analytical and detailed methodology that Alberto wanted us to absorb as we delve into the cosmic, primordial universe of his remarkable fragrances.
There are seven fragrances in the collection at the moment – Hydrogen, Oxygen, Sulphur and Mercury by Antoine Lie, Carbon by Francoise Caron, Helium by Sylvie Fischer and Lithium by Nicolas Bonneville. As you can see, the fragrances are a perfumed periodic table; juice inspired by the most prevalent elements of our solar system and therefore ourselves. We = stars. It’s a pretty ingenious concept for a scent collection, a cartographic gathering of the elements that tie us to our origins.
‘Nu_be speaks of the origins of the universe, of that primordial magma that gave birth to the stars, a material still in fusion that harks back to Chaos, a state preceding finished Form. Something spiritual and cosmic that recalls the uncontaminated matter of the bowels of the Earth. The unexpected experience of an outcrop of pure materials, each hidden within another.’
This statement from the nu_be website may on first reading seem a tad on the pretentious side - a lofty claim for what some might say is simply scent. But bear in mind that olfaction is still in many ways a rather poorly understood sense, the actual mechanisms of scent are multifarious and bewilderingly complex. The unnerving symbiosis of odours and the brain’s limbic system is both perverse and romantic. There is emotive science all over fragrance, so the seemingly highfaluting tone of nu_be blurb broken down seems oddly apt. And after all, it serves as PR and marketing too, very clever and stylish PR at that.
Everything needs a hook. Niche fragrance is no different. From the poetical tomes and gardens of Les Jardins D’Ecrivains and Frapin’s boozy oeuvre to the clinical coldness of Blood Concept’s sleek sanguineous aromas it is important for some defiantly niche houses to develop bold and arresting concepts. I personally find science sexy, formulae, equations, the quiet pursuit of breakthrough; discovery and nerdy lab-based intelligence is a massive turn on. I am inked all over in benzene rings, representations of my favourite aroma molecules: rose oxide, ethyl maltol, vanillin, coumarin, benzoin, iso-butyl quinolone… you get the idea. I have always been fascinated by the chemistry of fragrance and the effects on skin, mind and memory so I relate a little to Alberto Borri’s rigourous and ambitious avowals of olfactory intent.
So in essence, each of the nu_be fragrances is an aromatic portrait or interpretation of certain key elements of the periodic table. The somewhat brutalist packaging by Francesca Gotti reminds me of modernist concrete architecture like the work of Hadid, Testa, Goldfinger and Siefert. I like an ugly building; beauty is an overrated charm in architecture and design. Function, form, information; these things intrigue me. Inside each of the grey, torn, polystyrene crumbled boxes is housed the bottle, simple, tall, clear and blacktopped.
Borri has collaborated with some intriguing noses. Antoine Lie’s work is always compelling and often very strange. His Red+MA for Blood Concept should not work; creepy whiteness washed over metals, powder and milk. But work it does, beautifully and sexily. His fragrances for Etat Libre d’Orange (Tom of Finland, Magnificent Secretions, Je Suis un Homme…) are dark and erotically charged whilst never really losing sight of the fun and outrageousness of the brand. Comme des Garçons have also used him to create their Wonderwood, 888, Daphne and glue-tastic Eau de Parfum fragrance.
Françoise Caron is sister to Olivier Cresp (Angel, Light Blue) and a talented, instinctual perfumer with a number of varied scents to her own name including work with luxury French brand Astier de Villette, the beautiful Iris Nobile for Acqua di Parma, Caudalie’s weird/weather Fleur de Vigne and Jean Charles Brosseau’s classic Ombre Rose from 1981. Both Françoise and Olivier were awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Des Lettres from the French government in 2012.
Sylvie Fischer is a more modest proposition as a perfumer, with work for Harley Davidson, Armand Basi, Kenzo and the Beckhams' Signature collection on her CV.
Nicolas Bonneville is a precocious talent, snapped up by Takasago when he emerged from the ISIPCA School at 21. His Eau de Cologne Astier de Villatte has been critically well received. Other work includes the luscious banana and coconut-tinted Maladie d’Amour for Histoires D’Eaux parfums.
It is a odd little ensemble of noses sitting at the nu_be periodic table, but the mix of scents is on the whole very successful, there are always going to be one or two I don’t like just because of my olfactive preference, but that’s not to say I don’t appreciate the constructions and effects. But the range of talent on display and the length the perfumers have gone to expand their perfumed remit is quite impressive. Each fragrance is closely aligned to its periodic molecular progenitor and nu-be would like us to understand the links and influences as we wear the fragrances. The cosmos’s DNA is laid out is artistic scent form, reflecting an emotional and scientific reflection of the elements. The perfumes in turn reflect the microcosm of universal matter scattered though our bodies mirroring the heavens above us. The poetry and technical playfulness is rather lovely.
It was a work colleague who kindly arranged for me to be sent a full set of nu-be samples and I set about, sniffing, noting and revisiting. In the end it was all about Carbon, it just smelt so unexpected and strange on my skin, like frozen pencils and peppered petals misted in white truffle oil. It adapted to my skin with icy grace and enigmatic difference.
Now, I love my condiments, pepper and I have a deep gustatory bond, but oddly as a note or accent in fragrance I am often left reeling or distinctly underwhelmed. I like a certain sweetness to my pepper, a bloom of rose, or flush of mauve rubbed lavender. Some years ago I was very ill and the recovery process was long and arduous. I had several relapses and tried so many things to heal. I had a long series of acupuncture sessions that worked alongside deep tissue massage. My therapist loved her essential oils and tentatively we started working with aromas in some of our sessions. Black pepper essential oil can be used as an analgesic and muscle relaxant and at the time the vibrant darkness of the oil thrilled me. But as it hit my skin, diluted in a carrier oil, my senses started to rotate and flounder. I felt, hot, flushed and dizzy, the floor beneath the massage table seemed to suddenly fall away. I remember trying to get up and collapsing. It was a horrible faint, despite how god-awful I felt, but for some reason, I had a really deep emotional reaction to the black pepper oil.
Since that wobbly confrontation, piper nigrum and I have had a somewhat volatile and emotional relationship depending on quality of raw materials, aromatic partners and how I am feeling in myself. So it was with a hefty dose of surprise that Carbon and its bleak pungent landscape excited and obsessed me so much. It does smell very sci-fi, metallic and clinical, genetically engineered near perfect pepper. Pepper blossom further enhances a sense of void and cold beginnings. Ginger and chilli are another two notes I normally shy away from, but Francoise Caron has used them with steely control and imagination, assembling her portrait of cosmic inception. The oily atmospherics of resinous cardamom add texture and weft to the expansive olfactive chill. The beauty of Carbon lies in the use of iris, in this case a fugitive, shimmering note writing itself over and over the composition like a evasive palimpsest.
In fact this concept of scripta inferiori runs through the nu_be collection, the creeping sense of ancient codes and repeated motifs underpinning shining metallics, minerals and forged stars. Each of the fragrances despite their differences share a galactic, chilled DNA of anti-matter, aroma notes that seem bleak and utterly at odds with skin on initial application. These lichen, flint, costus, aldehydic and metal oxide oddities are lit through an array of complex and dazzling aromachemical effects and accords.
Lie’s quartet is marked by his trademark sense of disorientation and olfactive claustrophobia. I adore his fragrance work, Red+MA by Blood Concept and his reeking, gummy, sellotape-drenched Eau de Parfum for Comme des Garçons are two of my favourite fragrances. When I smell his work, it’s like finding myself in rooms of a single colour, no doors or windows, it can seem daunting, even a little terrifying. There is no point of reference, no sense of familiarity. But slowly, as the senses adjust, the colour gives up its secrets, tonal shifts occur and you realise the overwhelming beauty inherent in pursuing a purity of monochromatic vision.
Lie applies this mindset to his olfaction, pushing us to experience strangeness and a new type of beauty in fragrance. Much of the joys of perfumery can be the triggering of memories as the notes interact with our limbic systems. We unlock experiences, recall moments, faces; inhale for a moment an ancient memory of something we had thought long gone. Lie challenges this; his perfumes often smell alien, sterile, and deeply contradictory. They can be difficult to handle and comprehend. Like opaque, abstracted art there is a need to circle with caution. But ultimately profoundly rewarding, teaching us something new, adding new perceptions, techniques and odours into our days and nights.
I enjoyed the damp febricity of Hydrogen, the aquatics bubbling over slippery lichen-stained rocks. The smears of vanilla were very unsettling played against the overall verdancy of the composition but this high smelling vegetal scent was sharp and handsome. I LOVE the meld of melon and mandarin, they are shockingly clear and vibrant, singing out from the opening loud and clear. This playfulness bounces around a clotted jasmine effect, creating a scent of limpid vitality.
Oxygen has whiffs of pressure, an icy saffron/Safraleine note that seems to have been exploded with frozen aldehydes and cottony musks. Lie has used a lovely vetiver for a sense of distant earth, but Oxygen smells of troubled sky, expansive and oddly forsaken. The composition feels ephemeral and fragile, elusive almost on the skin, the nose searches for the effects. But it coats the senses I think in faded velvet and this seduces me all too easily.
Mercury I still struggle with, I can’t decide if it’s love or hate. It’s the dental/metallic note that hits me like foil on a sensitive tooth. The queasiness Lie imported into the Blood Concept scents was too much for some, and I must admit to finding a couple a little on the sanguineous, fainty side. For Mercury, he has used a deviant oxide that echoes the lilac and rose oxides he used for CdG. It smells like mirror, silvered, reflective and brutal.
Sulphur is my second favourite nu_be after Carbon, it is dense and metallic, a scent dug out of black, blind ground. It smells sweetly ritualistic, cavernous. Notes of anisic angelica, rooty vetiver, oppoponax, resins, myrrh, patchouli and moss all layer on the sensation of earth and tenebrosity. As you inhale deeply off the skin there is hissing danger, reinforced by the dirty echoes of castoreum and costus. The drying curve is wonderful, warm and spicy with a lick of fiery pimento and the sugared burn of aromatic cinnamon. Sulphur is profound scent, in the sense of depth and bass level effects. I like its pungency and darkness. It will keep me cold in caves.
Nicolas Bonneville’s Lithium is a stark, flinty rose that smells ENORMOUS when you first apply it, the rose sparking like a fire in the night. I love saffron in my fragrances and Bonneville has used it beautifully to help evoke a sense of golden flicker over woods, spice and a subtle chocolate patchouli note. Lithium means stone in Greek, yet the metal is light. The vibrating spark, primeval fire from stone is a compulsive theme, woven around a curiously feral rose that seems to grow in intensity and then burn out from beautiful exhaustion. I’m not sure it works yet on my skin, I love the exploding rose, it’s bloody gorgeous, it’s the rather screechy, hollow woods I object to. It felt a little like studying an old master in a gallery and then realising the heavy ornate gilt frame around it was in fact plastic.
I was expecting Helium to be light and airy, I wasn’t sure how, but I imagined something controlled and silvered. I couldn’t have been wrong as it turned out. Sylvie Fischer looked to hot-air balloons and smoke for inspiration and has produced a perfume of surprising transcendence. I smell tobacco and styrax straight off, two notes I love, drifting rather lazily in a brew of vanillic benzoin, guaiac wood, cinnamon bark. A really elegant marriage of damask rose and iris concrete add drama, mystery and a blooming sense of powdered femininity to the heart of the composition. The scent gets lighter and lighter but conversely more tenacious as vetiver provides a green, sugared smoke to nudge the notes high into atmosphere. I liked Helium; I kept catching moments of it as I wandered around the apartment cataloguing books.
But I return to Carbon again and again, it’s brutal attraction and shimmering, chilled darkness just call to me. In my mind’s eye I see a piece of thick white cartridge paper covered in a dense, polished layer of shuddered pencil, the graphite reflecting like pewter. Tension lines are discernible, some glimmers of form, shadow, a small tear near the edge, some smudging and tiny glimpses of the white beneath. This is Carbon, a perfume of million shattered pencils, an ocean of frozen cracked pepper drifting in the void. It is the sound of a black bell struck in galactic silence.
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