This month marks my 10-year anniversary as a writer for Now Smell This, and I've been thinking back to my original impulses for applying for this fantastic gig. I love to write. I love fragrance. I wanted a chance to share my impressions of the perfumes I was exploring, from classics to the newest independent releases. On that latter point: for me, the gold rush of niche perfumery has gone from a thrill to a frequent frustration.
Be warned: this week's review is a also bit of a rant. Ex Nihilo, a Parisian house founded in 2013 by Sylvie Loday, Olivier Royère and Benoît Verdier, has positioned itself as an "alternative" within the world of luxury perfumery, but I'm not too sure about that. I can't help feeling that this brand embodies many niche fragrance trends that bother me these days.
A (supposedly) edgy concept. Ex Nihilo seems fond of names that allude to drug use. That might have been a novel idea when Yves Saint Laurent launched Opium in 1977, but it's never really gone away: we've seen plenty of niche releases that flirt with illicit substances, from L'Artisan Fou d'Absinthe to Nasomatto China White (heroin) to By Kilian Smoke for the Soul (marijuana).
Purple prose. Prix Eau Faux-worthy text that reads like it was composed through a random adjective generator or an SAT-level game of Mad Libs. (Visit the website and pick your own favorite phrase.)
An instant plethora of fragrances. In stores, each Ex Nihilo fragrance is available in several pre-set variations. From what I can tell, it's like having "eau" and "noir" flankers waiting for you. Bonus: a choice of materials for the bottle's cap (buffalo horn, anyone?).
"Raw materials" of the "highest quality." Of course. Apparently no other kind of raw material exists at this point.
Status pricing. $325 for a 100 ml bottle.
So what, you say? So what if the promotional descriptions are a bit overwrought, or a brand wants to offer lots of options? Well, I wouldn't mind if the fragrances actually lived up to their promises. Here are my thoughts on three of them.
Fleur Narcotique is "an overdose of substantive ingredients for an explosion of subtle but affirmed scents" with notes of bergamot, lychee, peach, jasmine, peony, orange blossom, wood, moss and musk, developed by perfumer Quentin Bisch. When I took my first sniff of Fleur Narcotique, my mind instantly flashed back to the department stores of the early 1990s. I can't quite pin down that impression — is this fragrance reminding me of something specific from Estée Lauder (Tuscany?) or Lancôme, or just a general type from those years? In any case, Fleur Narcotique is a long-lasting fruity floral with a sour edge. It has plenty of orange blossom, and some syrupy fruit with a dusting of baby powder and white musk; it's cheerful, but not "narcotic," to my mind.
Sweet Morphine is "the embodiment of a self-assumed but ambivalent femininity, at once delicate yet lascivious. . .a subtle bouquet tenderly perverted by a very captivating carnal lightness," with notes of lilac, iris, wood and vanilla, developed by perfumer Nathalie Cetto. That list of notes sounds like something I'd love. So what happened here? Sweet Morphine starts off with an intriguing chilly note, something ozonic and piercing yet sweet, like frozen cherries. It doesn't last, though. There's a fleeting iris note that smells very synthetic, and then the rest of the fragrance is a sharp, peppery lilac that stings my nose.
Love Shot is "the assertion of a sophisticated and uninhibited Parisian femininity" (as opposed to Sweet Morphine's "self-assumed but ambivalent femininity") with notes of bergamot, pink berries, peony, jasmine, patchouli, raspberry, vetiver, leather, vanilla and musk, again developed by Nathalie Cetto. This is supposed to be a contemporary chypre, another popular idea these days. It's a woody-resiny composition with a gourmand edge, like a mix of berry-vanilla liqueur, cedar-chip potpourri and incense smoke. To me, it's the most interesting of the three (even though I'd never classify it as a chypre); all the same, I'd like it more as a candle.
As you can see, none of these three fragrances was a hit with me. Of course, my grumbling isn't going to make any difference: Ex Nihilo has quickly become a media darling, which brings me to a bit of a back story. Earlier this year, a writer for a glossy women's magazine contacted me looking for a "smart and perceptive" quote for an article in progress. I would have been happy to oblige, but it turned out that this writer was seeking praise for two specific perfume brands. Ex Nihilo was one of them.
I suggested other brands (ones I prefer!) that might fit the story's theme, but no — it was those two, or nothing. I just couldn't do it. And that's one reason you don't see me quoted anywhere in the mainstream press. Which reminds me of another reason I wanted to be part of NST: we have real freedom of speech here. Ten years later, I appreciate that fact more than ever.
Quick poll, as 2016 winds down: has any perfume really surprised you lately?
Ex Nihilo Fleur Narcotique, Sweet Morphine and Love Shot are available as 50 ($225) and 100 ($325) ml Eau de Parfum through Aedes, Luckyscent and Saks Fifth Avenue in the US, or Harrods in the UK.
Great article Jessica and thank you to you and all here who do indeed provide such a great place of perfume free speech.
It’s interesting to hear about only being asked to comment on two brands – hardly a particularly wide school of options there!
I must admit I quite like Love Shot but the others I find rather indifferent. I seem to have become immune o the weird marketing as it is all so very unconnected with perfume form what I can see.
Every little bit of free speech is important, right?
Apparently the article was going to include some other brands too, but these were the two that they still wanted/needed quotes for? I don’t know why I’m still surprised or disappointed by anything about magazines… sigh.
I haven’t tried anything from this brand, but congrats on 10 years!
Thank you! It’s hard to believe. Time flies when you’re smelling good things in good company, I guess!
I feel exactly as you wrote about ExNihilo. Lots of PR but the fragrances are simply boring.
There was one perfume that surprised me this year, and the surprise was that it came from…Yves Rocher- i don’t know how it’s perceived in the US, but in France is kind of supermarket level. When I smelled “Accord chic” it was almost a copy of my beloved NU by Yves Saint Laurent, which was an UFO in the perfumeries when released…
I haven’t ordered from YR in a while, but I remember really liking some of their perfumes. Their rose one is lovely — I still own some.
Oh, many thanks for this article! I wholeheartedly agree — and wouldn’t particularly mind any of it if it weren’t for the “aspirational” pricing.
Truly surprised me this year: not much. But definitely Captured In Amber by En Voyage. I wasn’t expecting deepest darkest 80+% chocolate with Christmas spices (yes, am well and truly hooked!). The bottles leave a lot to be desired re functionality — I don’t care. Have ordered and re-ordered, and it’s not even sold this side of the pond. Thank you, Shelley Waddington:)
Sometimes the pricing just adds insult to injury.
I need to check out a few things by En Voyage…
You do! I’m butting in, sorry, congratulations Jessica on ten years En Voyage perfumes Cafe Cacao is my favorite purchase this year, creamy chocolate coffee and made to layer with Captured in Amber and Indigo Vanilla, samples that Shelley very kindly added to my order. Captured in Amber is the perfume I want next, geordie described it perfectly. Zelda, Fiore di Bellagio, Go Ask Alice are all fabulous in my opinion and reasonably priced, I’d much rather spend my money with little indies that are creating amazing perfumes.
Great article and happy anniversary! Not rushing to purchase these.
Thank you and thank you! lol…no, don’t rush.
Congratulations on your NST decennial!
I have had a smattering of surprises this year: Bat and Macaque from Zoologist Perfumes, the weird vanilla of Choyita by Perfumera Curandera, and Quatrieme by coolife (which has embarrassing copy but smell good).
Thank you! I love the Zoologist packaging — need to smell a few of those. And I’ve smelled two of the Coolifes, which I actually liked, even though the overall image wasn’t my thing.
Congrats on 10 years!!! I completely agree about the Zoologist line; definitely interesting, artistic and wearable.
Thank you, Katrina!!
I’ll definitely add this line to my list!
Just want to add my own heartfelt thank you — I am so grateful you’ve stuck with us for so long!
NST and all its writers and readers are part of me at this point! No thanks needed.
Congrats on 10 years of writing for NST! I enjoy reading your reviews very much… usually it is something I would never had heard of otherwise. So thank you!
Well, that’s good to know — because I’ve always loved hearing about new products and brands (beauty, perfume, whatever!), and that was one reason I was so excited when message boards and blogs started to happen. We could all chat about everything! I’m glad to be part of it all, still.
Thank you for 10 years of enjoyment for many, not that long for me, I only fell down the rabbithole a few years ago. I think therefore perfume, niche or otherwise, is still a thrill I am thankful for, every day. So many perfumes surprise me, Arbole Arbole recently, many of the Mona di Orio’s, Une Rose Chypree, Calling all Angels, Journey Woman, Chamade…I can go on! And some beautiful vintages, no 19 among others.
Chamade still surprises and delights me whenever I wear it! and I like Arbole Arbole quite a bit, too. A snuggly-sweet patchouli… so interesting!
Congrats on 10 years! I always enjoy your honest impressions and look to your reviews when I’m looking for roses or femme perfumes.
I tried Fleur Narcotique last year and didn’t know the brand at the time. I thought it was on par with, say, a Kate Spade fresh floral, which isn’t a bad thing, really. But not for that price. I thought Sweet Morphine was ok but not a wow for me.
My surprises for/from this year were Aroma M Vanilla Hinoki and Parfums Quartana Hemlock-both unusual takes on a vanilla theme. Oh, and Tauer’s Rose Delight! What’s not to love?
I agree…I don’t dislike Fleur Narcotique, but one of the main questions I ask myself when I’m composing a review is, “Does this perfume deliver on its promises?” If it were promoted as a pretty springtime floral with lots of orange blossom, sure. But given this text and this price… I can’t help feeling that the buyer is being taken for a ride.
Andy Tauer does not ship to Australia any more so I cannot test his latest stuff, but he has certainly expanded his brand a lot this year. That is not a surprise, but what what is still pleasing is that, in contrast to brands like Ex Nihilo, he maintains integrity and sincerity in how he communicates about the brand. And the product is driven by desire to CREATE, not an afterthought of a marketing campaign. No wonder Tauer is the perfumista’s perfumer!
Speaking of the 90s, I’m in a teeny spritz of Amarige today. Why pay $325 for a retro-evocation of the 90s when you can wear the real thing for $30?
Completely agree about Andy! When I asked him about his perfume-making process, he confirmed what I’d suspected–he gets a notion of a scent or a feeling he’s reaching for and then goes about trying to match reality with the “image” in his mind. I think this is so apparent, given the fullness, quirkiness and variety of his scents. He is an artist first.
Yes, that’s one of the reasons I’m such an Andy Tauer fan.
Even though I don’t like most of AT’s perfumes on myself, I always enjoy learning about them and trying them out and smelling them on other people. And you really can’t overstate the importance of that “desire to CREATE.” I think whether we’re talking about music or fashion or perfume, if that desire is lacking, and something was made primarily as a “lifestyle” product or what have you, the end result just isn’t the same.
I think Andy is working with an Australian men’s grooming products web site – can’t recall the name right now, but if you write to him I’m sure he can tell you. It is probably not his full line, but at least it’s something.
Men’s Biz, yes, they are selling a selection of AT stuff, but I don’t live near one of their outlets so I can’t sample. Very tempted to blind buy from the MB website though.
Congratulations on ten years! I can’t think of anything that has surprised me this year (in a good way, I’ve been let down a few times) I really appreciate the honesty of the reviews here at NST, I always come here to get the real feel of a fragrance.
That’s why I love reading reviews by Robin and Kevin and Angela, too — when you get to know a critic (perfume, film, etc.) and it’s someone you trust, you can really stick with that person!
Jessica, many thanks for your work here at NST over these past 10 years. I always look forward to your take on fragrance.
Aspirational pricing is ridiculous, but sadly will continue as long as the market supports it. I confess I liked something about Sweet Morphine’s opening, but it morphs quickly, and I want to reapply to have that initial scent again. I burned through 3-4 samples of it…The other EN scents I could skip completely.
Even when you rant you entertain. Your high brow snark has a special place in my treasured perfume writers, like a modern Miss Austen, with well crafted (and earned) barbs. May there be many happy returns of your anniversary here. Be well.
Well, I might just print out your comment and cut out that last bit and pin it up over my desk. That is lovely. Thank you.
Oh I am so with you about Ex Nihilo. I really dislike these a lot, although I get that tastes differ. I was pleasantly surprised by Atelier des Ors Larmes du Desert. The brand shares some of the problems you name here – plus the flecks of gold gimmick! – but the perfume is lovely.
Hee — yes, sometimes there’s an unnecessary gimmick or a silly name, but if the “juice” is actually beautiful, then all is forgiven!!
Congratulations on your ten years writing for NST. I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting you at perfume-related events, other get-togethers and even in the wild!
I like Sweet Morphine a lot and was very fortunate to have been gifted a travel spray by a kind NSTer. At the right discount, I will be buying the big honking 100 mL bottle.
The surprise this year was Chanel Les Exclusifs switching to EDP. I wish they sp nt their time and enery on developing extraits of Coromandel, 28
La Pausa and 31 Rue Cambon. Someone pinch me hard if these exist and I don’t know about them.
Oh yes!! The wilds of M——–! I hope we’ll run into each other again soon!
31 Rue Cambon and 28 La Pausa are two that I really admire.
Congratulations on 10 years of writing and smelling!!! I have been serious about my perfume addiction for about 8 or 10 years now. And that literary means 8 or 10 years of reading on perfume… reading everything one can get hold of, because compared to many other topics there is not too much of information available… So thank you for doing such a wonderful job here.
But that also brings me to thinking about what you have described in relation to the magazine. It is something that has been on the back of my mind recently… as I reader I have noticed that the perspective on things change when bloggers try to fit in and compromise. It is not only about the need to be published or quoted, it also comes in the form of free gifts, when something rather average all of a sudden gets a more or less decent review and and then that happens again… as a reader after a couple of such reviews you get a feeling that you are in strange kind of water. (and of course everything is subjective…. but this is something else)…I mean you have followed the nose of the author and then sudenly you do not know what the author of the blog finds good or bad anymore.. usually it appears in a form of ‘everything is good’ and nothing is bad and average… but when it comes to the ocean of perfume produced each year the ability to withstand a need for a compromise is all I have as a reader. Good or bad, interesting or boring, where should I run to get my nose entertained and educated… I need that kind of trust
And I am not saying that gifts or publications or anything at all is a bad thing, not at all… But compromise is a bad thing… maybe in some other fields it is tolerable but when someone is leading me blindfolded I want to trust that hand. And eventually nose and experience catch up anyway, but of course, it is also about my money spent in process, which is why reviews are so important in this field and I applaud your decision.
Also, who writes these descriptions for Ex Nihilo? to see ‘overdose’, ‘substantive’ , ‘explosion’, ‘subtle’ and ‘affirmed’ in the space of one sentence… what the hell is that? how can that make sense unless you are not under an influence of drugs…
Oh, maybe that was my mistake… I should have “indulged” before trying these fragrances!?!
It can be a slippery slope for all reviewers and critics, and the blogosphere has certainly changed — so, thanks for sticking with us for the ride!
Haven’t been reading NST for ten years — still making my way through the archives. In my opinion your comments have much wider applicability than to just this one line of fragrances: my sense of things is that there is no there there in the case of many, many so-called niche labels (a term that’s been losing all meaning as the number of releases has exploded). What surprises me is that a guy can put together an entire wardrobe of classic, time-tested perfumes these days for under $250. The first three Caron masculines, Habit Rouge and Vetiver, plus Eau Sauvage: they’ll get one through every season and just about any imaginable situation.
That’s a very good point about what can be had for under $250. For quality and originality, my own mental list of ‘why bother with niche’ includes Molinard Habanita, Rochas Femme, Kenzo Ca Sent Beau, and Dior Dioressence.
Congrats on 10 years! And thank you for helping to create a wonderful, pr-free space.
My biggest surprise lately? probably Rose Flash by Tauer. It”s just so big and bold and beautiful. It shouts and in this world, where perfumes seem to get lighter and lighter, I was truly enamored with its power– and price.
Andy, in case you ever read this, Rose Flash brought me great joy! Thank you!
I like all of Tauer’s Flash scents! Very focused but not boring, and the price is great for what you get!
The surprise for me this year has been Sylvaine Delacourte’s musc collection, I am a big fan of musc and clean scents , I loved two of her fragrances a lot, Florentina powdery musc and Dovana more flowery musc. I don’t hear much about this line though .
Those sound nice! I’ll have to check it out. I recognize the name, but I haven’t seen the line anywhere.
The Hiram Greens are new and top quality.
Now that I’ve tried Arbole Arbole, I want to backtrack to try the others!
I have three that actually excited me this year, although all were actually released in 2015. The pricing is aspirational in varying degrees and some of the copy is over the top, but I sill love these three:
Nobile 1942 La Danza delle Libellule Exceptional Edition
Roja Dove A Goodnight Kiss
Francis Kurkdjian Baccarat Rouge 540
I own the first two and am looking forward to a decant of the 540.
Agree about Baccarat Rouge 540! FK rarely lets me down, come to think of it.
Not sure if I can come up with anything surprising – mostly more of the same and a plethora of uninspired niche releases – but congrats on 10 years and thanks for all your enjoyable posts!
Hah! I know how you feel…
Jessica, congratulations on your 10 years. Your great reviews had always been a great reference. Thank you and I look forward to reading much more from you!
Talking about Ex Nihilo. Sweet Morphine and Love Shot really called out to me with their list of notes and Sweet Morphine’s delicious looking pink shade. I was very tempted to purchase the smaller sizes blind but something(s) just didn’t seem justified. Thank you for the reviews and now I am saved! I absolutely agree on the points you said above and I feel they are just mass market pleasers under the fake marketing impression of “niche perfume house”.
I think that everyone likes a house with a good POV but honestly these days most of the “niche” I see are crazy pricing for laughable purple ink and “creatively” repackaged mall fragrances.
Thank you! And, you know, there have been cases where I rolled my eyes at the promotional copy but then I liked the scents. So a wacky concept isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker. In the end, it’s really the fit between the fragrance and the idea (and the price)!!
It’s two years later, so my timing may be a little off to comment on Fleur Narcotique, but as an admitted and possibly recovering perfumaholic I had put aside perfume things for a while. With over 325 bottles of perfumes in my catalog (yes, alphabetized) collected over 25 years and cherished and memorized in my nose, I finally woke up one morning and said ‘ok, that’s enough.’ The drive to smell, own and discuss perfume had occupied a lot of my time, given me a mini-reputation locally as a scent-sorcerer of sorts, captured a small fortune of my hard earned money, and given me enormous pleasure, satisfaction and education for decades. However, the compulsion (there really is no other word for it) to HAVE the next greatest thing was becoming a bit alarming. First because there were 25 next greatest things every day, second because there was often passionate and sometimes vicious, disagreement on what was the next greatest thing, and third because I was running out of closet space for my collection oh and fourth because I had a job and a family to incorporate into my perfume passion. I bought my last perfume on January 1, 2015. It was Odalisque by Parfums Nicolai. I smelled it on a friend at a New Year’s Eve Party, thought about it all evening long, and promptly came home from the party and ordered it online. Heaven of a perfume. Rich, lush and almost vintage-smelling. I gave myself a spritz the other day and couldn’t stand it. I have three Perfumes Nicolai scents-and at the moment I can’t wear any of them. But. Fleur Narcotique. I received a very large sample of this at the 2015 Sniffapalooza and have nurtured it and loved it up gingerly. It haunts me–the not-quite-unisex, almost Francis Kurkdjian-like notes of sharp and sweet, and after a friend told me that it was one of only two perfumes she owned (the other being Fleurissimo) I ran to my sample drawer and pulled out FN and gave myself a generous spritz and found myself once again falling down the rabbit hole. I do love FN. There, I’ve said it. I love it. Jessica, you know WAY more about perfume than I do, and your comments and recos are truthful and honest and insightful and there are not enough ‘bravas’ to give that you don’t let the media, marketing companies and perfume houses stray you from your truthful nose. You are the WSJ of perfume reviews, thank you. You teach, entertain and enrich those of us whose noses go first, but ultimately we are bound by our own noses and skin. For the moment, Fleur Narcotique, with it’s ridiculous marketing but long lasting wink of floral fruity lusciousness, makes me happy. I wonder how long that sample will last?
Dear Julie, Thank you so much for putting your time and thought into this comment. It made me smile *and* sigh with recognition at so many points.
And your final point is so true: we should wear what we love. I don’t always agree with other fragrance reviewers, any more than I agree with all film critics or book critics, but as long as I enjoy their writing and learn something along the way, I’ll keep reading…and then I’ll try for myself and see what I think. I’m glad you have similar feelings about NST!