Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Hermès: Les Quatre Jardins (Reblog from Il Mondo di Odore)

Hermès: Les Quatre Jardins
(originally posted at Il Mondo di Odore on December 6, 2011)

I think it's fair to say that reverence has never been my strong suit. Nor has the term blandishment often, if ever, been associated with my name. So when I hear people talking about figures who supposedly walk on water and the like, my quite natural reaction is one of skepticism. I am particularly wary of such claims as applied to human-all-too-human beings by other human-all-too-human beings in matters regarding values, as opposed to factual hypotheses. In the case of alleged empirical facts, there is at a possibility of some form of testing, so the claims being made can be either confirmed or disconfirmed. In the case of values? The closest we could get would be a popularity poll, but I've never been one to support ochlocracy.

People like to have role models, it is clear, and in extreme cases such as those involving religious cults and nation states, people have been known do some pretty ridiculous things in the name of false idols. Even wildly heinous crimes have been committed in good conscience by overzealous acolytes, all in the name of supposedly “great men”.

Is anyone alive “the greatest living X” for any given X? Such claims usually don't make much sense to me, since they tend to be based on some other human beings' assertion of the same, based on their own obviously finite experience and values. The basis of such claims, in other words, are the opinions of yet more human-all-too-human beings, historically situated in highly contingent circumstances, which have in many ways shaped their values, albeit perhaps unbeknownst to them. Is it beyond the realm of possibility, for example, that some entirely unknown perfumers are actually better perfumers (as opposed to marketers of their wares) than those who are famous to perfumistas today?

Given my naturally skeptical bent, I take the words of everyone about anyone and anything with a grain of salt. In my view, names and reputations mean nothing next to what the people with names and reputations actually produce. Perhaps this or that perfumer is the best of those currently living, and then again maybe not. It seems to me that, in the grand scheme of things, it does not really matter very much how or whether we apply those labels at all. Those sorts of labels may help to market products, but they do not change what they are. In the case of perfume, what matters to me is only the quality of perfumers' wares when I decide to wear them.

UN JARDIN EN MEDITERRANEE (2003)My first experience with Un Jardin en Méditerranée was sufficiently positive to motivate me to acquire a purse spray (15ml). Since then I must confess that I have not reached for this fragrance often. There is something about the opening which reminds me of a cross between Thierry Mugler Womanity and Estée Lauder Pleasures, both of which unfortunately become annoying to me after a short while. Figs, peppery florals, and a vaguely wet quality conspire to evoke chimerical Womanity-Pleasures memories, or something along those lines, at least for a short time.

I don't think that this composition is annoying over the entire course of a wear, but its first stage reminds me of an amalgam of two rather annoying fragrances, so I'm not all that enthusiastic about it. Fortunately, the cedar and cypress take over shortly thereafter, at which point I really warm up to the fragrance as a whole. Still, I do not enjoy being reminded of Womanity and Pleasures every time I spray on Un Jardin en Méditerranée, and this unavoidable association naturally serves to deter me from doing so more often than I might otherwise.

These sorts of associations are bound to arise with exposure to iconic (and quasi-ubiquitous) fragrances sharing significant subsets of notes, particularly when those combinations have not been very common before. Perhaps the best example in contemporary perfumery is Thierry Mugler Angel. Dozens, if not hundreds of recent launches, immediately elicit spontaneous responses from countless reviewers of “Smells like Angel.” Why is that? Because Angel served up its peculiar concoction of notes before all of the vaguely (or blatantly!) Angel-esque perfumes created since.

Of course, everything smells like everything to a greater or lesser degree, which is why in writing reviews a person who is familiar with only Chanel no. 5 may sincerely report that every perfume she smells is redolent of that perfume. And it is probably true that every perfume smells more like Chanel no. 5 than it smells like water! I've actually noticed this phenomenon a lot in reviews written by people with obviously limited experience who often assimilate what I regard as radically disparate perfumes because they do in fact smell more like each other to the reviewer than do any other two perfumes in their experience.

So to defend myself from the charge that my comparing the opening of Un Jardin en Méditerranée to Womanity and Pleasures is rather like comparing Guerlain Samsara to Chanel no. 5, I should clarify that I do not in fact believe that the compositions are even close to the same. It's just that this fragrance evokes vague memories of those fragrances, and from there my experience is more or less that of Pavlov's dog.

I have read many reviews of Un Jardin en Méditerranée, and I must say that I find the range of receptions to this composition fascinating. It's not just that people disagree a little about the details. No, the people who dislike it appear to detest it! I certainly don't find it unwearable and vile (as do some) but neither do I consider it a "must have," as do its ardent fans. In all likelihood, I won't be acquiring a larger bottle of this creation, as I'll probably never deplete my small supply.

For those looking for advice, there's no point in attempting to navigate all of the conflicting evaluations, since this fragrance clearly manifests itself differently on different wearers. It's up to you to decide.

Perfumer: Jean-Claude Ellena
Salient notes (from mandarin orange, bergamot, lemon, fig leaf, neroli, oleander, cypress, musk, juniper, red cedar, pistachio

UN JARDIN SUR LE NIL (2005)In Un Jardin sur le Nil, the opening salvo of salty green shredded mango is rather bitter and nearly sour enough to qualify as a pickle. But that impression subsides relatively quickly, at which point a strong steamed rice-like note takes over this composition, along with what smells to me like green tea. Conclusion: this smells more like a scene from Japan than the shores of the Nile. (I have been to Japan, but not to the shore of the Nile, so perhaps the latter really does smell more like this fragrance than does Japan! cf. Chanel no. 5, see above...)

In oscillating waves, the quasi-rice note wafts sometimes of rice cakes or even vaguely of popcorn! In fact, now that I think about it, there is an almost genmaicha tea scent here—albeit slightly too bitter. Judging by what some other reviewers have written, I gather that I'm an outlier on this one. I do believe that this member of the Jardin series is more original than Méditerranée or Mousson, but its originality is not enough to overcome the sour quality which would definitely prevent me from wearing it as anything but a novelty scent.

The refreshing, even slightly bracing quality of the opening might serve as an aromatherapeutic mood elevator, I suppose, but I cannot really imagine wanting to wear this composition as I ordinarily wear perfume.

On to the next minimalist creation by J.-C. Ellena, who does indeed appear to have a serious cult following, judging by some of the positive reviews!

Perfumer: Jean-Claude Ellena
Salient notes (from Green mango, grapefruit, tomato, lotus, carrot, bulrush, incense, orange, musk, orris, hyacinth, calamus, sycamore wood, peony, labdanum, and cinnamon

UN JARDIN APRES LA MOUSSON (2008)In spite of its reputation, I've never regarded Un Jardin Après la Mousson as very melony at all, certainly not compared to, say, Hilde Soliani Dopo Teatro Mangiami, which is all melon all the time. Although there is a detectable melon-like quality in the opening of this J.-C. Ellena Hermès Jardin offering, the peppery vetiver swiftly takes over and dominates the composition, which to my nose is quite dry for most of its life—in contrast to what I would have expected to smell dans Un Jardin Après la Mousson.

I find myself, again, somewhat amazed at the manifest detestation of this composition by so many reviewers, which leads me to believe, yet again, that how these relatively simple notes work together and express themselves varies quite a bit from wearer to wearer. Melon notes obviously amplify radically on some people's but not others' skin. Indeed, we may actually have a case in point here as regards the controversial skin chemistry dispute!

Another possibility is that the melon note was so off-putting to some reviewers that they could not stomach a full wear and so never made it to the dry down, as they dashed off for a sudsing and scrub. Others report having experienced melon from start to finish, so that note must be particularly salient on their skin.

Many people have complained about what they take to be the “synthetic” melon note, but my understanding is that all fruit notes in perfumes are synthetic, so I suppose that the substantive criticism is more that this one does not smell like fresh or real melon to them. I've smelled some pretty awful melon renditions myself, and comparatively speaking, this one smells pretty good to me—although it is rather evanescent.

That said, although I find it wearable and even somewhat pleasant under certain weather conditions, I cannot get very excited about this entry in the Hermès line-up. It certainly fits right in with the minimalist “capture a scene” Jardin series. The quality of components has never been in question, at least not in any of the creations of this house familiar to me. So what is in question is only the aesthetic conception and execution.

Lest anyone forget, this is the perfumer who also created Van Cleef & Arpels First, next to which the Jardin series seems like the proverbial pendulum swinging way back in the other direction. I'm certainly not blaming the perfumer for having lived a life full of twists and turns, only lamenting this radical change in view as regards his creative output. In my heart of hearts, I suppose that I hope that it might swing back once again... Well, at least we already know that he's not a dogmatist!

In all seriousness, given his already massively prolific oeuvre, the guy has every right in the world to spend the rest of his life twiddling his thumbs, or even bottling aromachemicals and marking them up 10,000%. Under Ellena's creative direction, Hermès has become a strong contender for my “desert island” house. Which is not, however, to say that I think he walks on water!

Perfumer: Jean-Claude Ellena
Salient notes (from ginger, coriander, cardamom, pepper, and vetiver

My first impression upon donning Un Jardin sur le Toit was that this was basically a fruity-floral fragrance with a blast of green up top. Subsequent wearings (four, in total) have not altered but only confirmed that impression. The fruit scent here is similar to that of standing at the kitchen sink and peeling apples and pears and the other components of a fruit salad before running the peels and cores and rinds, now turning slightly brown, through the garbage disposal. So that's my take on the "compost" note, I guess. It has a freshness which is nearly to the point of no longer being fresh, if that makes any sense.

If I try very, very hard to find subtlety and profundity in this fruity-floral fragrance, then perhaps I shall. But would I ever put that much effort into this sort of composition, were I not indoctrinated by the teachings of the cult of Ellena, according to which he is a genius and/or a saint? Honestly, I predict that the evaluations of this fragrance will be much, much higher than they would be if it were tested blind. Just a hunch...

Having now strolled through all of the gardens, I can confidently reaffirm that I appreciate this minimalist "haiku" or atmospheric perfume concept more as a theory than in practice. I admire Ellena and love this house, and I applaud their recent victory against the forces of hegemony. Still, the members of the Jardin series, while perfectly fine for what they are, do not hold a candle to some of the resplendent Hermès masterpieces so dear to me.

In the end, my lukewarm reaction to the Jardin series says much more about me than about the perfumer or the house. When all is said and sniffed, I myself may simply be more of a big luscious complex perfumey (à la 24 Faubourg, Calèche, Elixir de Merveilles, Hermessence Ambre Narguilé, etc.) kind of gal. That's a fact about me, not about this series, house, or perfumer. There's plenty of room in this world for all of us, and there's certainly no reason for thinking that we should always agree! What a boring place the world would be if we did.

Perfumer: Jean-Claude Ellena
Salient notes (from various sources): grass, red apple, pear, rose, magnolia, rosemary, compost note (?)

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