A good fragrance smells familiar, a great fragrance smells surprising. The whole quest of modern perfumery can be summed by this sentence. We’re instantly attracted to the scents that remind us of something — a pleasant memory or another pleasant perfume, which is why well-liked, best-selling fragrances are often reminiscent of other perfumes on the market. A composition that rises above a merely easy-to-like, however, has an unexpected element. This surprising touch makes the scent linger in the memory and intrigue us. Finding the right combination of familiar and surprising is part of perfumer’s aim.
The five fragrances below represent different genres and styles, but the one element they have in common is surprise. I’ve selected examples that surprise rather than jolt to show subtle accents at play. These perfumes reinterpret classic themes, challenge conventions, and most importantly, smell wonderful.
At the top of my list is Galop d’Hermès, a fragrance that appears at first as a pastel toned, chic rose but has a dark, smoldering heart. To wear Galop is to be enveloped in soft layers of leather, woods and musk. The new Hermès in-house perfumer Christine Nagel also added an accord of incense inflected rose and juicy quince, an additional surprise.
L’Envol de Cartier
Another perfume that combines elegance with intrigue is L’Envol de Cartier. Inspired by flight and the Brazilian aviation pioneer, Alberto Santos-Dumont, who designed and flew hot air balloons, L’Envol is a radiant combination of honey, woods, and patchouli. It has a mellow start that makes me think of tobacco and leather, but within moments L’Envol accelerates into a smoky, sensual drydown. It’s my favorite masculine fragrance of the year.
Gabrielle Chanel made her name in fashion by borrowing elements of traditional masculine aesthetics—sharp tailoring, cardigan sweaters, tweeds—for her couture. Perfumer Olivier Polge chose to follow in Coco’s footsteps by recasting a classical men’s family, fougère, as feminine. Named after Arthur “Boy” Capel, Gabrielle Chanel’s lover and benefactor, the fragrance combines an accord of lavender, geranium and moss with the softness of rose, orange blossom, and milky almond. In Boy, the lucid, sharp character of fougère is contrasted with the lingering, velvety notes of flowers and musks.
Antonio Alessandria Parfums Fleurs et Flammes
From Catania, Sicily comes a fragrance as baroque as the city’s opulently decorated Basilica della Collegiata. Antonio Alessandria, the owner of the cult fragrance store Boudoir 36, is also a perfumer. His line Antonio Alessandria Parfums features four fragrances, and Fleurs et Flammes caught my attention with its dramatic character. The smoky tuberose and gardenia are layered against green leaves and dark woods, one contrast building and reinforcing the other.
by Kilian Moonlight in Heaven
The most unexpected aspect of by Kilian Moonlight in Heaven is that it’s a gourmand perfume that’s neither sugary nor heavy. The idea behind it was to create an impression of the famous Thai dessert of mango and sticky rice. It does so in a delicious but abstract manner. Like other fragrances on my list, it juxtaposes unusual elements—spicy pink pepper and creamy rice, fresh grapefruit and nutty tonka bean, sweet mango and salty vetiver. Perfumer Calice Becker makes Moonlight in Heaven luminous by adding her airy and radiant signature. It’s addictive.
What perfume took you by surprise lately?
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