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January 1, 2010

"Notes from the nose -- Tiare" By Luca Turin

"Notes from the nose -- Tiare" By Luca Turin

It is common knowledge, at any rate in Italy, that the victim of a curse will never understand what is happening without help in the form of a messenger who says, “This is malocchio,” at which point what seemed like mere bad luck suddenly falls into a pattern. Curiously, I find this to be more true for happy events: in my experience, good fortune needs to be pointed out.

I had that flash of recognition a week ago when I read, in the Los Angeles Times (Nov 29), the fragrance historian and taxonomist Michael Edwards say of niche fragrances that they had ushered in “a new golden age of perfume.” Many perfume lovers like myself have witnessed the disfigurement of classic fragrances, the rise of celebrity garbage and the unending plague of flankers, and we have become inconsolable wailers.

True, niche fragrances were always good enough to dry your tears and make you smile, and they have been around since Jean-François Laporte started l’Artisan Parfumeur in 1978. But there was always something deliberately marginal about niche, either exotic (Lutens), dada (Etat Libre d’Orange) or minimalist (CdG), reactions to a classical mainstream that no longer needed knocking down. In other words we had plenty of Gauguin, Picabia and Reinhardt, but no more Botticelli and Vermeer, and certainly no Gerhard Richter.

Few niche firms until recently took on classical fragrance on its own terms, though some came close: Lutens’s La Myrrhe, for example, is essentially Chanel No. 5 in a carnival mask, and MDCI’s Enlèvement au Sérail stands comparison with anything done in the last hundred years. But the perfumers behind these fragrances, Chris Sheldrake and Francis Kurkdjian, were moonlighting from big-project firms and had lavish technical backup. They were merely publishing confidentially a manuscript unsuitable for the majors.

Coincidentally, I read Michael Edwards’ optimistic interview the day the postman brought Ormonde Jayne’s latest fragrance, Tiaré. This tiny London firm has always been modest in word and bold in deed, and it was clear from the start that Linda Pilkington’s ambition was to beat Guerlain at its own game, not invent a new one. Ormonde (Man and Woman) and Tolu are perfumes in the grand manner, with timeless grace, balance and complexity. Tiaré goes one further and takes on the most impregnably classical thing of all: the feminine citrus floral.

For reference, this category includes such marvels as Caron’s Alpona, Diorella and Chanel’s Cristalle, i.e. what Diana the Huntress might wear on a big night. Tiaré is clearly modeled on Cristalle, with a haughty, silken freshness up top and a green, acidic, olive-oil fruitiness below. But Linda Pilkington does not know her place: Tiaré is better than its model, richer, more complicated, more interesting. The formula contains a lot of natural materials, smells like it costs a fortune, and at the time of writing OJ apparently only has enough of the ingredients to make 160 bottles. She may need more.

Luca Turin works at the MIT; he lives in Boston.