The Hermessence Collection in 2009
Vanille Galante: The Olfactory Report and Review
As pointed out earlier in the first part of our review of Vanille Galante by Hermès, although perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena voiced his personal issues having to tackle vanillin in the past, this did not prevent him from creating a vanilla perfume in 2009.
Further back in his career, in 1993, and to reveal how ineluctable the scent of vanilla is for a modern perfumer, Ellena wrote an article on vanilla entitled "Un parfum fatal de vanille" (A Fatal Perfume of Vanilla) in the book Vanilles et Orchidées (Vanillas and Orchids) edited by Marie-Christine Grasse and the Musée International de la Parfumerie which is based on an exhibition organized by the museum. In that article, the perfumer drew a contrasting historical comparison between vanillin and natural vanilla pointing to the marginalization if not downright possible disappearance of vanilla absolute from contemporary perfumery due to its astronomical cost compared to vanillin, an aromachemical synthetized by Wilhelm Haarmann and sold from 1880, as recounted by Ellena. Yet at the end of the 19th century, vanillin used to be much more expensive than natural vanilla extracted using alcohol ("vanille naturelle alcoolée"). The author gives the price of 2000 Francs per kilogram for Vanillin as opposed to 30 Francs for the alcohol extract of natural vanilla. The article of the 1993 edition concludes with the following sentence, finally explaining the title of the article,...
"Aujourd'hui, la Vanilline coûte 100 Francs the kilo, l'absolu de vanille naturelle 20 000 Francs -- une odeur qui pourrait lui être fatale."
"Today, Vanillin is priced at 100 Francs per kilogram, the absolute of natural vanilla is at 20 000 Francs -- it is a scent that could lend it the stroke of death."
Indeed,15 years later in 2007 synthetic vanillin or artificial vanilla was reported to cover more than 97% of the world's needs. In the USA, more than 90% of all vanilla smells and flavors were said to be synthetic in origin [Myers & Myers 2007].
As Vanille Galante features a natural absolute of vanilla and purposefully excludes vanillin, we can all the more appreciate the perfumer's remark made at that time and understand Vanille Galante to be, first of all, an object of luxury.
Vanilla, the fruit of an orchid flower, and ylang-ylang both have developed reputations in history for having aphrodisiacal properties. The name Vanille Galante can be translated to mean Erotic Vanilla with "galante" being used in its ancient, euphemistic sense of designating the pleasures of the flesh and love. For example, it is used with this connotation in the title of the opera-ballet by Jean-Philippe Rameau called Les Indes Galantes (1735).
Vanille Galante is a spicy, balsamic vanilla and floral scent with a more unexpected transparent bent. In a very rough manner I would compare this sensation to the creamy-aqueous contrast found in Eden by Cacharel by Jean Guichard, although here the treatment of that idea is highly sophisticated and refined.
One remarkable spatial feature Vanille Galante possesses is the way in which it seems to play hide and seek with the wearer. In fact, there were times when I could not be quite sure it was me wearing the scent or someone else (although the perfume is not officially out), times when a seductive scent hit my nostrils and I could not quite place it at first, times when the scent of Vanille Galante seemed to have entered a room before I even stepped in and it had already taken possession of the place, filling all its corners. The press material mention a "mist of salicylates" which has reportedly the property of amplifying floral notes and expanding space.
In mood the perfume is tropical, in style, European. Although the composition may appear quite linear at first, it reveals subtle, refined nuances overtime and is thus very discreetly multi-faceted, even kaleidoscopic and unpredictable. This is the perfume of a perfumer who hates to see his compositions be too easily sized up and who is encouraging you to just live with the perfume. In a way, Vanille Galante is the sillage-perfume of sillage-perfumes; it smells even more compelling in the aura it leaves than from up close. This is a departure from the skin-perfume orientation of Ellena who is sometimes faulted for offering perfumes that are not lasting enough. I think that they usually are but it is done usually with a very discreet signature.
The perfume opens on a wonderfully deep dirty and intoxicating indolic accord of ylang-ylang associated with spicy lily and a vanilla accord that is half water, half cream. As the floral-animalic notes bloom on a bed of salty cream (sandalwood), literally heaving with sensuality, it feels as if the perfumer had gone deep inside the corolla of an exhaling tropical flower to dig out the raw alchemical nuggets of indoles. Ellena may have included a headspace of orchid but it is not officially mentioned and usually, one gets descriptions of the scents of orchids as having a lily or muguet or some other more familiar floral aspect. The custardy facet of ylang appears brushed and lightened up by the salty sea air, spiced up by pepper, rounded by a fruity note.
The vanilla is whispery at first, more in the background, but becomes more opaque and heavier, more creamy-white later on, while remaining rather taut and streamlined, without the billowing, cloud-like ruffly "crinoline" effect of a classic Guerlain perfume. It is more like a silken slip than a 19th century petticoat with frills.
The vanilla then becomes browner, darker in color tonality and more leathery, more akin to the visual sensation derived from the glistening cured vanilla bean with some crystals of raw cane sugar deposited on it. The sweet burnt rubber facet of ylang lends a discreet smoky intonation. A light aerial sensation in the background supports this accord. One then feels embarked on the promised exotic journey, as if transported to the Carribeans and invited to enjoy the creole way of life. Paired with this shift in the vanilla sensation is a fruity-aquatic facet that is hard to place at first. I discern a yellow-colored fruity smell, both creamy and aquatic that becomes more precise overtime: I ascribe it to Jackfruit. I can suddenly visualize the glistening flesh and smell of the fruit; Jackfruit has aspects of ylang-ylang and durian but with lighter notes of pleasant, quirky putridity.
At one point, A delightful fresh apricoty nuance appears that seems to conflate the joyful vision of a French market in the summer with the effluvia of ylang brought by the wind from distant shores. There is the suggestion of sweet olive.
The richness and nuances of the floral indoles in this perfume is mesmerizing as they seem to play on a musical scale. In fact the whole perfume is constructed following the seeming movement of an aesthetic walk taken through an art gallery displaying variations I, II, III,...of vanilla. Instead of a color, it showcases perfumery accords.
The vanilla now becomes creamier again, white-beige in tonality, and a little powdery. The ylang bespeaks of excess, of the torpor of the tropiques, of bodies too slow to move yet receptive to the thousands of sensory stimuli delivered by a luxuriating nature.
A spicy dash of pepper pierces through the composition adding to the tropical ambiance. After Guerlain one thinks a little bit of Caron and muses why Guerlain didn't do a pepper fragrance yet.
The vanilla becomes a bit chalky and wet at the same time evoking vanilla ice-cream made with an infusion of vanilla and pepper, which also visually evokes the dotty texture of vanilla ice-cream made with natural ingredients. This is the part where the vanilla suggests edibility, a precious odoriferous dessert as it is married with the yellow custard-like facet of ylang.
The drydown is peppery and creamy with a suggestion of an ozonic impression. Tonka, with its watery facet as if the Tonka bean contained crystal-clear water. The end-result is a blend thatsmells of nothing precise but smells great.
Vaniile Galante comes across as a study on vanilla and the ylang-vanilla accord that is to me a signature accord of the house of Guerlain although it could admittedly simply be viewed as a traditional pairing. I am thinking of Mahora but also of Vanille - Ylang.
As with collections of so-called niche fragrances, certain aspects of a perfume can be pushed to extremes and greater characterization. The prolonged way in which the vanilla is made to speak through different tongues and intonations illustrates that manner, for one thing. The manner in which the floral indoles unleash their might, leading a killer charge is also another aspect of the scent that is explored to the extreme.
Vanille Galante is an unexpected Jean-Claude Ellena: fleshy rather than transparent, more carnal than usual, while maintaining the intellectual framework of the art study. It is more tropical and heavy rather than Mediterranean and fresh. It nevertheless maintains and reaffirms the author's credo in light textures by making lightness subversive of the classic scent of vanilla.
The perfume is structured more like a braid, one strand of scent coming to the fore while another one receding then coming back. The sensations weave in and out.
Finally, Vanille Galante is an extremely playful composition, one that seems to love to play with air, perhaps a symbol of Cupid darting its scent-arrows left and right, up and down, in the hope of provoking mischief and matchmaking.