Few things in life inspire loyalty in me like the Parfums de Nicolaï line. No doubt the packaging is plain — but surely this can be overlooked when the contents are so beautiful and yet so affordable? Many of the newer niche brands charge a lot more for an equally ugly bottle. Yes, the products seem to be more expensive in North America than in Europe — but it feels churlish to complain when even the inflated USD or CAD price is a bargain. Besides, the dysfunctional website for the line urges you to "Buy Now" without giving the cost of anything in Euros or any other currency — I'm serious, go check it out: the price column reads zero for all products in every size — so North Americans are never going to know what deals they're missing anyway.¹ Furthermore, the sight of each squat 30 ml bottle of Maharadjah or Sacrebleu warms my heart: may every other perfume company see the light and start providing smaller, reasonably priced packaging across the board!
True, it is often difficult to determine when or whether a Nicolaï fragrance has been discontinued, renamed or reformulated under the same name, and there are clearly some problems with the North American distribution, as many products seem to be on perpetual "backorder" — but even this commercial ineptitude sparks a foolish fondness in me. In this age of the hard sell, it is heartening — if nerve-wracking! — to see fragrances survive simply because they smell darn good.
Three years ago, I visited the Nicolaï store on the rue de Richelieu in Paris and I remember the sales assistant responding to a question I asked in English with the universal gesture for lack of fluency in someone else's language: a kind of one-handed shrug that starts at the chin and mimes something pointless coming out of the mouth. My attempt at the question in French would have been worse than pointless, so I gestured back and then we politely ignored each other until I had sniffed everything in the store. I made my purchases, she gave me a smile and a generous handful of samples and I set off to find some macarons. Coming as it did after the scented chamois ritual at the J.A.R. boutique, the laboratory order and chill of the Frédéric Malle Mont Thabor shop and a visit to the hushed purple cave of the Salons du Palais Royal Shiseido, the experience of shopping at Nicolaï seemed refreshingly focused and free from pretense.
It is time to admit that my loyalty to the line was tested a little in recent years. The last Nicolaï release I purchased was Maharanih, in early 2007. Unlike Robin, I preferred 2008's Eau Turquoise to Nicolaï's original mango spritzer, Eau Exotique. Since the former's launch, though, I've twice found bottles of this milky-green eau fraîche at a great price, and I've passed them up, which I couldn't imagine doing with bottles of other, earlier Nicolaï gems... so the turquoise waters must not have called to me as I thought they would. None of the new scents from the Les Magnifiques collection wowed: Rose Intense (2008) competes with the limited edition Week-end à Deauville (2009) for the title of my least favorite Nicolaï scent ever; the best thing about Vanille Intense (2009) was how its trashy, good-fun heart of Malibu pineapple rum reminded me of March (of Perfume Posse) commenting that the ad copy for this collection sounded "porny"; and I found Patchouli Homme/Patchouli Intense (2009) to be a well-executed but not particularly interesting addition to the suddenly crowded genre of presentable patchoulis. Violette in Love (2009) was just nice.
Now, with L'Eau Mixte, my faith is restored. Released in May, this complex cologne includes bergamot and lemon from Calabria, peppermint, grapefruit, blackcurrant bud, Damask rose, jasmine, spices, vetiver, oakmoss and a "cocktail of muscs". Many will be relieved to learn that the pervasive sweetness of much of the line is not to be found here: L'Eau Mixte opens on a sharp, pucker-worthy mix of citrus. On the other hand, those of you who are made wary by the grapefruit and blackcurrant bud should know that this start is indeed a little reminiscent of Guerlain Aqua Allegoria Pamplelune. L'Eau Mixte is not as intense or saturated as the Guerlain, mind you, and the ammoniac character of the grapefruit and cassis is tempered by a beautiful, breezy fresh mint note – but if you thought Pamplelune's two-word description in Perfumes: The Guide should have read "cat urine", well then, consider yourself warned.
The spiced floral heart of L'Eau Mixte is gorgeous. The structure and style remind me of Eau D'Été (1997), still my favorite summer splash from Nicolaï. The rose note is citrus-bright yet lush, the jasmine is caressing, and the spices, surely including cinnamon, add enough warmth for this capital-X, "mixed" (cross-gendered) fragrance to work credibly on any man who could carry off the more rakishly elegant eighties masculines, like Le 3me Homme de Caron or Chanel's Bois Noir/Egoïste. (Please note that L'Eau Mixte is much quieter than either of these monsters, though.) A note of dry vetiver is present from the middle stages, but it is quite soft.
Some Nicolaï naysayers detect a brand "base" that they find off-putting. I have never noticed the sort of family resemblance in the Nicolaï drydowns that I encounter in, say, the Ormonde Jayne scents, Tauer Perfumes or the Donna Karan Collection fragrances, so I can't comment on its presence or absence here — but I can say that I find the "cocktail of musks" to have a subtle, buttermilk-like effect that is quite lovely. The lasting power is good for an Eau de Toilette, but after the first few minutes, L'Eau Mixte wears close to the skin. Still, I think it could serve in the colder weather if sprayed liberally. In this case, I recommend Nicolaï's 100 ml bottle.
In short — "Too late!" "Too late!" they cry — I think this is one of the best releases of the year so far.
L'Eau Mixte Eau de Toilette is available in 30 and 100 ml. For information on where to buy it, see Parfums de Nicolaï under Perfume Houses.
¹ The perfume world is full of hopeless websites, but I find this one particularly baffling. Many scents still for sale at the Nicolaï stores or through online retailers are missing or miscategorized, fragrance names are sometimes attached to the wrong note lists, and whole different groupings appear on various parts of the site (i.e. the Eaux Fraîches link on the sidebar brings up Eau Turquoise, but the Special Offers section includes Eau Exotique instead - and if you try to access the description of the latter, the site takes you to an Eaux Fraîches page that includes both). The Nicolaï press releases and promotion materials must be similarly wonky, because the confusion extends to the websites of niche retailers. For example, Luckyscent does not list my favorite, Nicolaï Pour Homme, on their pages for the brand, but you can find and order it from them if you enter the name in the "Search" field. Nicolaï Pour Homme is mentioned nowhere on the company site itself, where L'Eau Mixte (misnamed "New York" on its description page) is classed as a masculine scent, even though many reliable sources describe it as the first explicitly unisex Nicolaï fragrance.