L'Artisan Parfumeur Havana Vanille / Vanille Absolument (2009): Imagined Communities: with Comparative Notes on Coty Vanilla Musk {Perfume Review}

Havana Vanille is the new, upcoming perfume by L'Artisan Parfumeur, part of their travel series. This time, coming after Fleur de Liane and Panama, the very atmospheric capital city of Cuba is the reported source of inspiration while the composition centers on a Mexican vanilla absolute.
"From its vibrant Salsa rhythm, its famous cigars and its famous Cuban rum, its
palaces and colonial houses with their old and sometimes broken down facades
to its extraordinary religious buildings like the Santa Clara Convent: from its
streets with those old American cars from the 50s to its beautiful long beaches
like Bacuranao, Boca Ciega, Guanabo, Mégano or Santa María...

 A world of contrast. "

Havana Vanille is at first blush a musky vanilla with aspects of sweet honeyed and wet leather, creamy vanilla cupcake undertone and some powdery musk-amber with hints of coffee, green anise, immortelle, caramel all made a bit boozy thanks to a realistic shot of rum. The composition has a creamy-liquorish-y facet that translate a bit as Kahlua and Bayley's liqueurs. An earthy yet understated patchouli in the base gives it an interesting kick, one, I would have wished, were more characteristic. Instead the focus seems to be largely on amber and even more so, on musk....


I am a little surprised at the lack of felt complexity of the composition as the scent seems to be a monochromatic rendering of vanilla. Vanilla it is and vanilla it remains with maybe the powdery musky ambergris taking over a bit much. Nuances are perceptible but give way to the main theme.

The scent becomes more distinctive at one point in the way it transforms itself into a round small sculpture of vanilla, like an ice-cream scoop but not as literal. The composition feels round and buttery-soft.

One can see an opposition between a creamy and a dry facet in this perfume.

I expected Havana Vanille to feel spicier and more exotic but the scent seems almost to rely more on a play on successive varied textures, from liquorish-y to creamy to powdery to smoky, than on a multifaceted retelling of the story of vanilla. As we are all aware, it is not easy to tackle this raw material as it is so commonplace nowadays and perhaps a research on volume and form was thought to be a more interesting positioning for creating novel sensations.

Perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour, to me, did not go for a complex masterpiece in this case, but rather for a variation on vanilla. If I ask myself the question in what way could this perfume be considered a reference point when talking about vanilla fragrances, I would have to say that it strikes me most in stylistic orientation as a linear, minimalist and urban vanilla. And to go back to a metaphor I used previously for Midnight Oud by Juliette Has a Gun, I see it as an ideal vanilla for the design-conscious crowd obsessed with lines and volumes. This may explain to my mind why this vanilla is in a way quite abstract and relies more on textural or volume effects than on the sensual stroking of the richness of the perfumer's palette. In a few notes, a short story is told and rather sotto voce at that.

Going back to my earlier announcement about the perfume I am now struck by the fact that L'Artisan put the stress on the composition being "multifaceted" as I rather perceive it to be the contrary. On the other hand, I did feel that impression that Bernard Duchaufour describes as being that of a "ball of vanilla and powder." Spatial orientation in perfumery is still cutting-edge, one that is not an olfactory sensation per se, being almost more visual, but it does impact our abstract representation of a smell.

The promised crystallized fruits really only contribute to a feeling of density rather than on a fruity sensation. The narcissus brings in a covert green floral note and must have been used for its honeyed tobacco facet rather than was made to stand out as a floral counterpoint.

As consistent with the travel series at L'Artisan, Havana Vanille is anchored in a tale of displacement.

I do not find however that it renews my own sensation of vanilla or make me experience a cultural shock. But it is a warm, enveloping vanilla, a bit herbal-y, with a secret green note of anise and with the everlasting flower rather quite detectable, dark brown, without being extreme.

Havana Vanille by L'Artisan and Vanilla Musk by Coty  

Initially when I first caught a whiff of the new fragrance, I was struck by the centrality of the vanilla-musk accord and decided to launch into a perilous exercise: the comparison of Havana Vanille with Coty Vanilla Musk. The latter is its polar opposite in principle, one that is to be found on mass-market shelves and has no pretense of having traveled to Havana, ever.

The floral notes in Vanilla Musk are more pronounced, there is a more accented almond-y tonka facet to Havana Vanille, more smokiness. The latter is richer and more qualitative but it is also surprising to see how one is not that far removed from the other one in terms of the main tonalities of the scent. They resemble each other quite a bit. Given the difference in price, one would have expected more of a qualitative jump, more of an aesthetic surprise. The fact that Havana Vanilla even made me think of a drugstore staple like Coty Vanilla Musk is a bit unexpected (it is in fact not always easy to lay your hands on it.)

I do not know whether this is a calculated attempt at tapping into the American collective unconscious by seeking the beginning of an inspiration in a popular fragrance located in an altogether different niche of the market. It is a priori not impossible. But however surprising it may sound, in some respects, Havana Vanille could be seen as a sophisticated version of Vanilla Musk.

Imagined Communities

Going further with this reasoning and remembering that designer Narciso Rodriguez originates from Cuba and seeks inspiration in his own childhood emotions (see his Essence) to great acclaim and has been wildly successful with his line of musk perfumes, one might then understand better why a niche perfume house which has been in the process of opening more stores in the USA would want to rein in both the musk note and the Hispanic cultural reference. Call attention to a vanilla perfume from Havana and then appeal to the presumed tastes of the Hispanic community, a segment of the market that is one of the keys to a healthy future for the perfume industry. Jennifer Lopez's other even more wildly successful perfume franchise will not disprove this impression.

Like Havana Vanille, Coty Vanilla Musk has a dark vanilla ice-cream quality about it. Perhaps in the end, one can sense that Havana Vanille is just as close in inspiration to the all-American Coca-Cola ice-cream float than to the complex musings of a perfumer in Havana on the meditation theme of vanilla, rum, and cigars. Although I would like to think that Bertrand Duchaufour mused for some time on a funny old leathery Havana lady smoking a huge Cuban cigar dipped in rum infused with Mexican vanilla, the skeptical and well-lived look on the lady's face is understood by me as a call to come back down to earth. Perfumery may like to adopt the language of the purist but it is for ever at equidistance between art and commerce, the desire to create originality, beauty and the desire to please. I even now suspect that there might be a secret accord of Palmolive soapy musk in the innards of the scent.

As the even newer scent to come is Al Oudh by L'Artisan, I am beginning to wonder if the house's interest these days is to court several imagined communities to borrow Benedict Anderson's metaphor more than his theory. Is oud the instrument of collective cementing for an imagined olfactory community, the Middle Eastern one, and another case of projected Orientalism? We will have to see what kind of oud perfume Al Oudh is. The wave of oud fragrances this year, it occurs to me now, may well have to do with cultural ambitions just as much as with the sudden availability of a raw material.

Photo credits: the colorado incident; Ol' Wizard

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3 Comments | Leave a comment

  1. Well thank you, finally a review of this I can put my brain around. I've gone from being ready to buy this unsnifeed (I KNOW!)to now knowing for sure this is not my holy grail vanilla. I will be sure to get a sample, but the air is de-flated and the search goes on. How 'bout Lush's Vanillary??!

    • Lush Vanillary is a more intoxicating and tropical-like dark vanilla, with a bit more oomph, while Havana Vanille has a more streamlined feel despite the a priori rich ingredients. You are making me realize that Vanillary did not make me think of Coty Vanilla Musk -- I tried it again, and it still does not call to mind VM due to its jungle atmosphere. It's also more of a floral vanilla scent. One word of caution: I saw that Lush had put out a new scent called Vanilla Fizz, which looks like it targets the French market, and it is a pungent musky twist on Vanillary which I find to be less qualitative, more commonplace, less subtle and let's face it, "stinkier".

      Chant Wagner
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