One of the reasons I love perfume is because I am a chemist. I have been fascinated with the structure and scent of the molecules which make up my favorite perfumes. As much as the early years of this century unmasked the perfumers it also revealed the ingredients. As I wanted to know more about fragrance, I definitely wanted to know more about the molecules.
The entry point was through a molecule which is considered one of the most influential in all of perfumery; Iso E Super. I became aware of it through two perfume releases in 2006. The first was Terre D’Hermes. That was a revolutionary men’s perfume where perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena employed an overdose of 55% of it. It would make for one of the best perfumes of this century. There was a kaleidoscopic effect as it moved from dried mineralic earth to austere woody. I remember someone telling me on one of the forums it was due to this chemical called Iso E Super. I started educating myself on it through the scientific literature.
Almost contemporaneously fellow chemist and perfumer Geza Schoen would assist in my study. In the end of 2006 he would release Escentric Molecule 01. It wasn’t an overdose of Iso E Super it was only Iso E Super. Right about the time I was wanting to try and find a way to source some to smell it. Hr. Schoen provided that opportunity to me. It showed that it could be a perfume all its own. It also helped to illustrate the brilliance of M. Ellena now that I knew what had been amplified in Terre D’Hermes.
It made me accelerate my desire for knowledge of the ingredients that make up my favorite perfumes. Over the past years I have had the opportunity to speak with chemists who make new ingredients. I’ve been fascinated with the similarity to my job in drug discovery and their job of fragrance and flavor discovery.
It hasn’t just been the chemistry it has also been other scientific breakthroughs. Things like supercritical fluid extraction where organic material is exposed to extremely cold liquid and then extracted. Giving significantly different scent profiles then the traditional organic solvent thermal ways. The ability to distil small fractions within a greater distillation has led to fractions of well-known ingredients where a particular facet is enhanced. The biological digestion of patchouli to give Akigalawood.
All of this has expanded the palette of my favorite perfumers. It is one of the reasons perfumery remains so vital. An ever-changing roster of new materials allows for new ways to tell scented stories.
As much as I love perfume for the beauty, I am also deeply invested in the science behind it. It all started with Iso E Super.
If you say Hermes to most people they will respond with Birkin Bag or Scarves. While the leather and silk are what Hermes is more famous for; among perfume lovers it also produces some great fragrances. Since 2003 Hermes perfumes have become almost synonymous with in-house perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena. M. Ellena has produced an impressive body of work but there were some other Hermes perfumes worth remembering from before his tenure. If you’re looking to dive into the brand here are five I think would be good starting points.
My introduction to Hermes came in a shower at a luxury resort in the mid 1980’s. There was this striking colored miniature blue bottle with my toiletries which had this incredible smell of oranges. After asking I found out it was Eau D’Orange Verte. Perfumer Francoise Caron makes a perfume which lives up to its name with a fabulous orange and for the verte, lily of the valley and oakmoss. I still wear this a lot every summer because it is so good.
In 2004 perfumers Nathalie Feisthauer and Ralf Schwieger would collaborate on a more briny take on citrus with Eau des Merveilles. Opening on a blast of orange and lemon which lead to an ambergris accord. It all settles on a balsamic vetiver base.
One of the great collections within the Hermes brand is the Un Jardin Collection composed by M. Ellena. Of the five in the collection my favorite is Un Jardin Sur Le Nil. This is M. Ellena at his most evocative as he captures a night spent next to the Nile. The top notes of grapefruit, tomato leaf, and carrot are still one of the most unique accords I’ve encountered. Together they form a vegetal green accord with a hint of sulfur. The heart is the smell of the river from lotus and calamus paired with the lush fruitiness of mango. The base is the best part as M. Ellena captures the smooth river stones as incense skirls across the wet surfaces. Every time I wear this I feel transported.
In 2006 M. Ellena created one of the great masculine perfumes of the 21st century in Terre D’Hermes. He placed a tart citrus top into a woody heart to end on another brilliantly constructed mineral accord. The grapefruit is rich and tart. The woodiness comes through a high percentage of aromachemical Iso E Super. This all ends on a parched earth accord. Terre D’Hermes was an instant classic from the very moment it debuted.
The other great collection within Hermes is M. Ellena’s Hermessences. These have often been described as M. Ellena’s olfactory haiku. He manages to create perfume with impact using a much abbreviated set of raw materials. That simplicity makes every one of the collection worth experiencing but the place to start is with 2011’s Santal Massoia. For this entry M. Ellena takes a candied coconut on top which segues into a creamy heart before getting to a transparent woody base of sandalwood and massoia wood.
Hermes is one of the best of the designer houses when it comes to perfumes and has shown their commitment to quality over the years. There is plenty to enjoy after trying the five above.
Disclosure: This review based on bottles I purchased.