Alexandria II – royal to the last drop

I expected a lot of Xerjoff Alexandria II, partly because of the glowing reviews but mainly because the sample cost €18.  For that kind of money, I expected the juice to be the olfactory equivalent of a multiple orgasm.  Or like being bitch-slapped by, say, Tilda Swinton.  Something extreme.

Alexandria II Xerjoff for women and men

What I wasn’t expecting was…marzipan.  I deliberately hadn’t read the notes in detail (see, this is what happens when you watch too much of Persolaise and his  ‘Love at First Scent’), and the initial impression was of a kind of Playdoh.  A really superior Playdoh, handmade for a royal toddler perhaps, but definitely sweet and nutty and a little bit greasy in the most elegant way.

I sneaked a peak at the notes and saw that I was supposed to be smelling lavender, which I wasn’t reading at all. It was very pleasant, in a Posh Perfume manner, and very smooth and well-blended..but, lavender?

About twenty minutes in, the marzipan effect receded, and I began to recognise something that might well have been lavender.  Not your normal, sprightly National-Trust-Gift-Shop kind of lavender, you understand, but a lavender that had emigrated to a richer country, got a PhD, married into money, and now only remembers its heritage once a year when its mother visits.  It was a lavender well disguised with vanilla and the slightest accent of smoke, which is possibly the oud.

It’s powdery and sweet, all the way through, and does that classy perfume thing of holding a good line at every point.  There’s never a moment when the buy-me notes drop out and leave you with the economy base.  It made me feel like the kind of woman whose plain t-shirt is probably from Reiss.  (Rather than Tesco, my standard couturier.)

Towards the end, the sweetness takes over and it’s essentially caramel, but it takes about five hours to get there. Throughout, there was excellent sillage without having to sniff body parts.

But Tilda, alas, kept her gloves on.



Sample bought from First in Fragrance.


The arte of recall




I’ve reached the stage where nouns and names are drifting into far orbit, only falling to earth when I’m not looking.  “That famous actor,” I’ll say.  “The one that played the baddie in that film where the bloke ends up climbing over the presidents’ faces on Mount Thingummy.  I can see him clear as day.  It’ll come to me any minute….”

Recently, not only can I not put a name to a face, I often can’t put a face to a face. “Hello!” a stranger will say to me brightly.  “I hope you didn’t get soaked on the way home from < a venue I was definitely at quite recently > .” I find this alarming, quite possibly the foothills of dementia, but I note how many people fail to recognise me having met me once, and am reassured. My theory is that, once the need to attract a youthful mate and assess the competition is over, the brain relaxes and dedicates its resources to thinking about food.

The one thing that never evades me is perfume.    Put a drop of a mystery juice on my skin and if I’ve smelled it before I ALWAYS know, and once I parse the smell memory, the name comes at once.

As soon as I dabbed on Arte Profumi Harem Soirée, I knew I’d smelled it before.  Years before.  Long before Arte Profumi even existed. And I couldn’t remember what it was.  It drove me mad all day.


Harem Soirée is an amber.  Ambers all have a strong family resemblance, but you can usually distinguish them by sweetness and whatever’s been added to give them a USP.  This amber was rich, sweet and emphatically resinous.  The oiliness was so striking that my mind kept drifting to all the amber oils I’ve encountered.  Regina Harris?  Jalaine? Michelle Bergman?  It smelled a bit like Goutal’s Ambre Fétiche…but that’s not an oil, and this definitely had that rounded, greasy quality that can only work properly with an amber.

I went to a pub quiz and remembered the capital of Albania but not the singer of the 1994 single ‘Dreams’ or the 2000 film starring Leonardo di Caprio, Robert Carlyle and Tilda Swinton.

I sniffed my arm all the way home, trying to grasp the shreds of memory of where I’d been when I wore this amber.

And then I had a vision of the bottle, brown with dehydrated juice, and I remembered…

James Mason.  Aren’t these things maddening?  (Oh, and Gabrielle.  And The Beach.  You didn’t cheat and google it, did you?)

The perfume, now…that was Ambra Aurea from Profumum Roma, bought over ten years ago from Luckyscent when Profumum were just getting known and the juices were all rich and heavy and occasionally ink-black.  (I’ve heard that there’s been some lightening, presumably so that people’s cuffs didn’t take on permanent grease stains.)  The buzz at the time was all about the same brand’s Fiore d’Ambra, which was also lovely, but didn’t hit the same creosote depths as Ambra Aurea.


My bottle dried up before I got to the end. The sprayer leaked oil all down the sides which dried and darkened.  The bottle had to be left on a coaster to keep surfaces safe.  It was a magnificent mess.

And now I don’t have any left to compare with Harem Soiree.

But I think they’re at the very least first cousins.


Related image


Sample bought from First in Fragrance.

Chanel Misia – review



Where did Misia jump out from? I mean, I kind of knew there was a changing of the guard at Chanel, and a new Exclusif was vaguely on the cards, but I guess I couldn’t get all that worked up about it. So far, none of the Exclusif line has been on my Must-Buy list. In fact, only Sycamore made it onto my Hmm list, and in terms of vetivers, I’d still choose Encre Noir ahead of its haute-couture cousin and save myself a packet.

Misia is like the other Exclusifs, and yet not like them. It starts out with a blast of unabashed orris – somewhere between raw carrot and malt whisky – which is thrilling because you never quite know what orris will turn into. It can stay in a raw vegetable state (Lutens Iris Silver Mist) or sweeten into violet (The Different Company’s Bois d’Iris) or twine itself around other notes (Perfumerie Generale’s Cuir d’Iris). I love them all. Iris is about my favourite note in perfumery.

Misia sweetens and turns violetty – which is a bit of a surprise for a Chanel Exclusif. The sweetness is down to the rose (rose usually collapses into strawberry jam on my skin, but here the Chanel severity makes it behave itself and play nice.) Thereafter it turns powdery and stays close to the skin. It hangs around for a while, but it’s light, and pretty much a pleasure for your own nose rather than a challenge to the person at the next desk.

For all the powder and sweetness, this is unmistakeably a Chanel. Most of the Chanels from the classic period (I’m not looking at you, Chance), share the same base, which has a note I can only describe as vomitous. It’s almost exactly the factor in Parmesan Cheese about which you have to learn to be very grown-up, when you’re 17 and the hot Italian waiter is coming towards you with a spoon and a bowl of what you know will taste like powdered soap when it’s sprinkled on your carbonara. I grew to love Parmesan. I never grew to love the Chanel base.

Misia has the Chanel bite, but here it’s nicely subsumed into the powdery violet/rose. If Misia resembles any other Chanel, it’s their mainstream perfume Allure, which is also powdery and vaguely floral. Where Allure is apricot velvet, Misia is shell pink satin. As will all the Chanels, it’s for a grown-up lady, rather than a girl, but I’m thinking Misia is positively giggly next to 28 La Pausa or 31 Rue Cambon (which I always feel should be worn with a pencil skirt and a small dog tucked under one arm).

It’s beautifully done, and has gone straight onto my Must-Buy list, which comes as a bit of a surprise. I think Olivier Polge may be more my kind of parfumeur than his dad, the venerable Jacques.

Blimey, Chanel.

The Review Review

Oh, drat. I’ve been putting this off. The one thing everyone wants to know about a perfume is…what does it smell like? And here I am avoiding the question.

I have a problem with perfume reviews.

I mean, I love reading them. A new Hermessence comes out, and I’m haunting NowSmellThis to hear what Robin’s got to say about it.

But the things I’ve learned about perfume is…someone else’s view of a scent is rarely likely to be mine. Something that smells to me like someone’s stuffed a mouldy strawberry up each of my nostrils, may quite likely hit another nose as a bright and charming summer scent and applied with generosity. Take ‘Angel’. I’ll slither round three walls of a perfume hall to avoid the Thierry Mugler counter, yet it’s one of the biggest selling perfumes on the planet. This is good news for perfume companies, and bad news for people reviewing perfumes.

So you can be scientific and neutral, and describe notes and development and whatever. But here I run into another problem. I don’t seem to be brilliant at notes. I can work out rose and vetiver and jasmine and orris, but just when I’ve cautiously decided that something leads with citrus, I’ll read a review that says ‘Built round a wonderful redcurrant note…’. I tentatively grasp at ‘smoky…perhaps labdanum’, and then read somewhere ‘The leather effect is achieved using a bright birch tar undercut with patchouli …’. So if I do a review and mention, say, tuberose, then remember to expand the idea of tuberose to everything strong and floral, possibly including fruit.

The main thing I want to know about a perfume is whether it would give me pleasure to wear it. This makes not a jot’s difference to whether it would give you pleasure to sit next to me enjoying/enduring my sillage. So read with that in mind, and don’t give a second’s thought about the fact that you adore…gulp…Angel, and I think it’s essentially a fag stubbed out in meringue. We’re both right.

Just don’t sit next to me.

IFRA – protecting us from perfume

Help, how did it get to be November? I think I typed the word ‘IFRA’ and slid into a deep depression. Still, armed with a beaker full of the warm south, and decidedly purple-stained mouth, let’s get into this unpleasant issue.

IFRA is one of those bodies set up for the well-intentioned purpose of protecting us from ourselves. As we all know, without an official hand hovering just above our own, we’d all be eating shoe polish and ramming our children’s fingers into electric sockets. IFRA exists to stop us from tumbling into a torrent of cancer and allergy through careless use of perfumes.

By ‘perfume’, I really mean any chemical substance that carries scent or flavour, and can be used in products we cheerfully buy without prescription. IFRA stands for ‘International Fragrance Association’, and although the ‘fragrance’ part might make you think of Coco Mademoiselle, in truth it stretches to include the kinds of chemical used to make your shampoo smell less industrial and your disinfectant more ‘natural’.

IFRA wants to make sure that anything put into a perfume or a foodstuff or a household product or a cosmetic item – anything that’s there to make it smell nicer or taste better – is safe. Let me rephrase that: ‘safe’. Quite how you define ‘safe’ is a question where IFRA is determined to err on the side of hypercaution.

We all know these days that some substances are seriously carconigenic. It seems astonishing that cigarette companies ever got away with telling us that fags were good for our health, and nowadays we know that if you eat lots of barbequed food, you really ought to keep your will up to date. We also know that some things are allergenic – hence all those warnings about ‘may contain nuts’ on the sides of packets of peanut brittle. More and more of us are allergic to more and more things. Some of those things occur in nature and can’t be avoided, like pollen. But some might find themselves in a bottle of Eau de Rash Rouge or a canister of Kitchen Kwik Klean…and those CAN be avoided. Enter IFRA, on white chargers.

IFRA constantly analyses flavour and scent constituents to see if they’re likely to make anyone break out in blotches. And here’s the thing. Most substances make at least one person itchy. Most substances, slabbered on in bulk, are likely to put a hamster off his food, possibly permanently.

So IFRA have found an awful lot of ingredients that they’d prefer we didn’t use much, if at all. They don’t actually ban them, in the sense that anyone putting them into a formula would be woken at dawn by men in dark glasses, but they suggest that manufacturers put warnings on the packaging about any ingredient that might just cause a reaction in someone who gets very, very close to the product.

The ingredients they’ve more or less forbidden include jasmine absolute, oakmoss, ylang ylang, and citrus oils.

Just go back and read that sentence again, slowly. These substances are pretty much the bedrock of perfumery. Take them away completely, and you’ve wiped out Chanel No.5, and Joy, and all the glorious chypres that are some of our greatest perfumes.

Interestingly, most of the things on the blacklist are natural substances. It seems that all the synthetic alternatives pass through without reaction, smooth and invisible as dark energy. That is, all the chemicals made by Givaudan and Firmenich and the other manufacturers of scent and flavour synthetics, can be used with impunity. Call me a cynical old hag (“You’re a cynical old hag: [readers]”, but there’s something suspicious about a monitoring body funded by big companies that discovers- what luck! – that the products produced by those very companies are happily safe, while the substances gathered to minimal profit from Outdoors are intrinsically lethal. Isn’t it a miracle that the human race has survived to discover this, given that we’ve spent millennia carelessly brushing against jasmine bushes and peeling oranges?

The perfume houses could get past this, I understand, by sticking a warning on the packaging. But they don’t. I suspect they think that people will look at a box of Dior j’Adore with ‘Contains 5% jasmine, which may cause rash, wheezing and several unpaid days off work’, and put it down hurriedly to pass on to the Elizabeth Arden counter.

Instead, they reformulate. A jasmine-heavy formula gets replaced with a jasmine-type chemical. They slide out most of the real bergamot and put in a dose of ‘Lemonee’ instead. (I made that up. I really hope it doesn’t exist.) They spend £10 on Bulgarian Rose Effect 4533 instead of holding their breaths that the Bulgarian rose harvest doesn’t fail.

And all this so that we don’t give ourselves a mild itch on the inside of our wrists.

Lots of things give off aromachemicals, quite naturally. How long is it going to be before the Garden Police come round to make sure that all our honeysuckles and lilacs are emitting scent that does not exceed 1ppm or whatever?

Will they ban farting?


IFRA standards library:

Blog posts: – and check out Gaia’s links.

Miller Harris~ Rose en Noir


They say:
“Rose en Noir is a velvety rich fragrance inspired by the sensual and dark side of the rose. Rich, dark notes of Turkish rose Damascena, black pepper and violet leaf dominate the heart with sensual top notes of coriander seed, cumin and petigrain citronnier. This powerful combination draws down into a deep velvet base of ambrette seed, patchouli leaf and tabac noir France. Rose en Noir will be available in the new Miller Harris packaging design.”

Eau de Parfum, available in 50ml (£65) and 100ml (£95).

Reformulation 101.1


So now we know that, if your new bottle of perfume smells weirdly different from the last, there’s no immediate need to rush to the doctor to have your nose checked out for nasal polyps or sudden-onset anosmia.

It’s almost certain that the contents of your new bottle would struggle to match the contents of the old version in side-by-side spectrometer tests. However, a big perfume house would sooner set fire to its head office than admit to any change at all. They don’t want to spoil the dream for you, as they think that the dream is what most people are actually buying.


It doesn’t take much imagination though, to see that perfumes must get reformulated a lot.  Each scent is made up of ingredients that – theoretically – have to be extracted from something living, such as a jasmine bush, or a deer’s bottom (this is now banned; good news for deer, bad news for Patou’s ‘Joy’).   Things are always going wrong with stuff that has to be harvested: droughts, floods, housing estates, wars and essentially anything that allows a third-party wholesaler to sell his stockpile for fifty times what he was asking when you first came up with the formula for Eau de l’un Perfect Note.

So the perfume house has to scrabble about for an alternative. Instead of that beautifully peachy osmanthus from an estate in Thailand, they might have to settle for a crisp osmanthus oil from China, with a little soupçon of some fruity molecule (we’ll get back to ‘molecule’ later) sparingly added.

Or they might find an altogether easier route.


Let’s take sandalwood as an example.  Sandalwood is used in tons of perfumes.  Almost anything ‘oriental’ will claim to have some in its base.  Now, the best sandalwood oil for perfume purposes comes from Mysore in India.  The Indian government used to have so many sandalwood trees that they set up an industry to make soap with it just to use the stuff up. But western parfumeurs starting buying the oil in such quantities that now it’s endangered, and getting hold of some needs three letters from the queen and a personal intervention by Simon Cowell.  Other places produce sandalwood – notably Australia – but they’re considered (will I get sued for using this word?  Nah, no-one’s reading this blog except members of my family and a few supportive friends) inferior¹.

Back in Paris, the Maison de Spendy Scents silently thinks about the months it will take to bring all that inferior¹ sandalwood from Oz, if it even reaches Europe (although I’ve yet to hear of a shipwreck that leaves local wildlife dead but smelling sensational).  The Maison de SS then furtively thinks of a quite different essence.  It thinks about Isobornyl cyclohexanol.


Isobornyl cyclohexanol has never seen a tree.  It’s a chemical compound that has the happy characteristic of smelling quite a lot like sandalwood.  But it’s grown in


rather than in

Sandalwood trees

Now, if you’re the SFO of a big commercial enterprise, what do you think you would find the more appealing prospect?

  1. Negotiating to buy an expensive crop from a distant continent, knowing that the quality might be variable and the harvest might be destroyed by bush fires before you even get it, or
  2. Ordering a silo of synthetic sandalwood from a factory in Switzerland or Germany, where the quality is guaranteed to be consistent and you can buy the lot for the cost of a crate of Perrier?

I think this is one of the easier multiple-choice questions we’ve ever faced?

The decision is made much simpler by a completely separate factor.  For perfumistas, this factor is Darth Vader and Big Brother combined into one body of pure, banal evil.  It’s called


And there I’ll have to break off and go weep deep angry tears and kick the garage door for a bit.

I’ll be back, to tell you the story of The International Fragrance Association.  Don’t bring popcorn.  We need hand grenades. ²


¹  Don’t sue me.  I’m sure I can find a reference if I look hard enough, and then you can sue them.

²  This is a joke.  I am not responsible for what other people do with their hand grenades.

Picture credits:,




The moral of the story is this:

As soon as you find a perfume you adore, take out a small loan and invest in half a dozen bottles. Now.  This minute.  Do it while they’re still making Eau de Perfection with sandalwood and genuine jasmine – stuff that someone squeezed from an actual plant – and not from sleek vats of Jas-super Type F19544432 and SandaLozone and other chemicals that just about fool your nose into thinking it’s smelling the real thing.

chemical formula

I’ve had my first big niche perfume disappointment. Can you tell?

Apologies if you arrived at this page by accident, googling  ‘SandaLozone’ or ‘Nepal’ (we’ll get to that) or whatever. If you’re not a perfume fanatic, you probably think that the orange liquid inside a bottle of, say, Chanel No. 5, has been exactly the same stuff since Coco first pointed a finger at a beaker and said ‘J’ai choisi.  Numéro Cinq!’ and the rest of this piece will be a bafflement.  In fact, as with most perfumes, from the moment Ernest Beaux got back to the lab and told his minions that – sacré bleu – Madame had selected the very one which Claude-Yves¹ had accidentally loaded with aldehydes – at that moment, he was doubtless already fretting about how to obtain huge quantities of rose morocco absolute, and calculating that Madame’s nose would fail to detect une petite substitution of something rather cheaper.

chanel no 5

Perfumes are all about substitution.  ‘Contains something rather cheaper’ ought to be printed on the back of the box of almost everything you can buy at the average department store perfume counter. Or the very least, ‘contains something we’re actually allowed to put in it by IFRA, that smells roughly the same if you squint’.

Classic perfume after classic perfume has had its vital organs removed.  The big companies gamble that if your Miss Dior smells a little startling, you’ll think it’s on account of you getting old and your nose being burned out by years of spray deodorant.  The truth, of course, is that the manufacturer long ago stopped putting in the more troublesome ingredients that came from living objects, and started putting in ‘safe’ aromachemicals whose presence you don’t have to admit to on the packaging, and which, by a happy coincidence, are usually much cheaper.

Now, this doesn’t often affect me, because the kinds of perfumes that I love tend to be made in artisanal batches, using whispers and pinches of precious ingredients instead of great glugs from industrial vats.  I can make a sad face about the death of classic Shalimar, but in fact I never wore it, so what I feel is a pang of regret, not an urge to drop my face onto the keyboard and sob.


And, in truth, I have so much perfume that I rarely get to the end of a bottle. In recent years, I’ve only bought new bottles of Cuir Ottoman, vintage Nuit de Noel and Ambre 114.  The replacements all smell exactly as before.

But one of my absolute favourites, that I haven’t got round to replacing, is Ambra del Nepal (see, I told you we’d get to Nepal), from the small Florentine herbalist/parfumerie, i Profumi di Firenze.  I have about a millimetre left in a bottle I bought ten years ago.  Ambre del Nepal isn’t groundbreaking or anything – Tania Sancha gave it grudging acceptance in ‘The Guide’ – but nothing makes me happy quite like it.  I always think it smells of brick dust, if bricks were made of cinnamon and vanilla.  I love it.

Now, Ambra del Nepal isn’t an expensive perfume, so the reason for not buying a new bottle really came down to the sheer faff of it.   You couldn’t seem to buy the stuff anywhere in Europe.  The website – I’ll say ‘unhelpful’ and bite my lip – still claims that Selfridges is their UK reseller, which is news to Selfridges.  My lone bottle came from the USA.  Yup, it had to be shipped from Italy to Florida, then shipped back to me at four times the cost of the stuff as sold in Italy, with all the cost of DHL transporting it, and…this is the killer…weeks of waiting while it clears customs and eventually I’m told I can pick it up from a business park in Tonbridge once I’ve paid the thirty pound customs charge.

Have you added all that up on your fingers?  A bottle you could buy for £25 in Florence ends up costing something like £150.

And yet….and yet….Ambra del Nepal is my ultimate comfort scent.  I’ve been looking at that last, sad millimetre and wondering…

This is why I found myself googling every internet source of a shop in the EU that might just stock iPdF. I didn’t bother with the iPdF website, where I’d always been able to see the perfumes listed without being able to buy them (face-palm, I know).  But somehow I tripped into a link that got me to a page on where I saw the fabulous, magical words….

 “Add to basket.”

 I thought I might be hallucinating.  In fact, the browser crashed and for days I couldn’t find the page again and thought there must have been some digital confusion.  Then I found it again…

Naturally, I ordered a lifetime’s supply.

Delivery was prompt – four days.  The packaging was lovely.  With trembling hands, I pulled the cap from a new bottle of Ambra del Nepal and sprayed…

…and thought ‘WTF?’ Whatever I was smelling, it bore no resemblance to the warm, creamy perfection in my precious millimetre upstairs.

I let it settle down.  I unwrapped another bottle and tried that.  But there was no escaping the truth. The juice in my new bottles smelled as if a woman wearing Ambra del Nepal had passed through the dry-cleaning shop an hour ahead of me.  It smelled – and I mean no disrespect – like something from Yves Rocher (worthwhile perfumes, but you suspect a certain necessary pragmatism with the ingredients).

Sept 15 2103 122

Immediately I wondered if I’d been fobbed off with a fake.  But even I really can’t imagine an international gang of criminals carefully faking the products of a small Florentine perfumery.  Then I wondered – aha! – if I’d got the wrong concentration.  A product sheet which came with the perfumes suggested that you could get 15%, 20% and 60% concentration, and my Last Remaining Millimetre said ‘Eau de Parfum’.  The new bottles also came in slightly different packaging, without the perfume names hand-written in gold.  If I ordered from the US would I get a bottle just like my vintage one, or…

Then I read these awful words on BlogdorfGoodman, recommending amber perfumes…

‘IPdF Ambra del Nepal: Only the original. The reformulations have not been kind.’ ²

Reformulations.  Re. Form. U. La. Shons.

That’s it.  It’s over.  My precious brick dust is gone forever.   I will never smell it on my skin ever again.  (I’m not wasting the last millimetre on flesh, obviously.)

I’m not sure I can bear it.

And, you know what?   Now that I’ve been stung by a reformulation, it strikes me that I’m getting through my MDCI Chypre Palatin (£200 at Harrods) at a rate of knots.  Of course,  I’m sure Claude Marchal wouldn’t dream of swapping out the oakmoss for something cheap like vetiver…

Anyone in the market for a kidney?

¹ I made up Claude-Yves. I think.

²  (Annie: