Manoumalia was released in 2009 as the fourth permanent opus offered by Swiss perfume house Les Nez Parfums d'Auteurs founded by businessman René Schifferlé. The story and experience behind the fragrance, signed by perfumer Sandrine Videault, opens an interesting avenue in the exploration of culturally-motivated perfume re-creation as we have to speak of a recreation in this case rather than of a true creative act.
If we take the example of Paprika Brasil by Hermès penned by Jean-Claude Ellena, which is inspired by a similar culturally-constrained motif as filtered through the literary and ethnographic account of Levi-Strauss inTristes Tropiques then we get more of an interpretative distance in the fragrance resulting from this type of reference.
With Manoumalia, there is by contrast a relationship which anthropologists call "participant-observation" in which the perfumer was invited by a lady called Malia to take part in ceremonies involving fragrance rituals. The perfumed result is both an attempt at a faithful homage it seems and a filtering of the culture observed through one's own reference points. Manoumalia seems authentic and is as close to authenticity as one could get rather than being a direct participant-observer oneself. Perfumery-wise, academic references which were not evinced seem to anchor the perfume in the tradition of European perfumery just as much or even more so than in the soil of New Caledonia.
Notes: fragraea, vetyver, tiare, sandalwood sawdust, ylang-ylang, ambery accord
The Eau de Toilette opens on an intense, exotic floral accord with this giveaway sign of big white florals, a Concord grape nuance due to the material Methyl Anthranilate, while the bouquet is characterised by both sweetish and indolic-rubbery facets, a bit as if you had sifted some Fracas through a black ribbed rubber hose. The restrained force of the white floral bouquet which recalls also some of the pushier nuances of Amarige, soon abates but continues to be both syrupy-sweet and camphoraceous with faint earthy nuances let out by the vetyver...
Manoumalia visibly inscribes itself in the lineage of all-out, take-no-prisoner tropical florals. I am invited to think of forebears like Fracas by Piguet as I already mentioned above, but even more closely related in my mind, to Tubéreuse Criminelle by Serge Lutens, the latter which lets out much more of its maleficent sparks of green menthol and has more lift when you do a side-by-side comparison. Or coming more from left-field, I am reminded of one of my personal favorite tropical floral perfumes, Frangipani by Ava Luxe.
This is to say that Manoumalia does not feel alien despite the elaborate exotic and ethnographic reference at hand, Wallisian island culture, and the showcasing of a rare floral note, Fragrea (fragrea berteriana).
At the same time, Manoumalia as you are irresistibly invited to compare it with Tubéreuse Criminelle, is more toned down, linear too, and more characteristically pursuing a honeyed axis of persuasion. At some point, it reminds me of a brand of Chinese honey and it feels a little bit like smelling Tubéreuse Criminelle behind a golden gauze veil of honey. The composition is also a bit woodier than any of the previous scents mentioned. It almost smells a bit oily.
The fragrance develops a discreet skin scent presence subtly perfumed by these floral, woody, mentholated and even slightly oily nuances. In the press release, the practice of applying a perfumed paste onto the body is evoked and Manoumalia suddenly makes me think of this kind of perfume-to-body relationship whereby a perfumed paste is applied to the skin.
One might have hoped that together with the inclusion of Fragrea flower in the repertoire of European perfumery, one might have got more a sense of the unseen-before and less a sense of the familiar by smelling a Tubéreuse-Criminelle matrix. It is understandably not easy to tame powerful florals to make them express something besides their natures. In the struggle between nature and culture, flowers like tuberose - fragrea is close to its scent - can win over the perfumer's art or at least give this impression. If Manoumalia is meant to be considered as a faithful piece of ethnographica recording a central facet of Wallisian olfactory culture, then the creation imperative was admittedly not so needed. It is perhaps to be noted nevertheless that the perfume gives the impression of having been filtered through the lens of European perfumery academic tradition. Apart from the honeyed and woody accents which create a variation of sorts on the notion of an exotic, unpredictable floral emerging from either the mind of a perfumer or from its original habitat, Manoumalia ends up being rather predictable in its language.
If it is hard admittedly to give an intellectual structure to tropical flowers as they overwhelm so easily thanks to their intensity and opulent flesh, a more layered and complex structuring of the scent in the manner of Serge Lutens might have helped tell a more intriguing, multi-layered and personal tale.
The perfume in the end tends to smell like a sensual tropical floral perfume oil, a genre particularly popular in the American market and which is usually thought to be middle-brow rather than a parfum d'auteur. Manoumalia has arguably a smidgeon more character and darkness to it than this type of production usually has thanks to its reliance on sandalwood sawdust in particular and a Serge-Lutens trope of perfumery of contrasted tension which now translates as approved cool, but ultimately does not put enough degrees of separation between itself and the references it evokes to be called truly distinctive.
On a more sensual, pleasurable level, one would recommend Manoumalia as a more honeyed and toned-down version of the venomous flower genre from the tropics. It works well as a skin scent keeping the olfactory imprint, the souvenir, the trace of a culture. If I smelled this perfume on my skin after celebrating fragrance with Wallisians, I would be happy on a sentimental level. But from a perfumery perspective, I cannot call it a full 3-D perfume with volume and complexity. Yes, as a postcard, but here in a different sense than is usually thought of, the (ethnographic) account takes over the perfume itself. I am reminded of the genre of perfumes that accompany books. There was for instance a book about Africa which was sold with vials of fragrance to offer olfactory illustrations of the continent. One could see Manoumalia fitting well within this kind of text, image and perfume interrelationship as the context adds a supplementary level of intrigue to the scent which is lacking from the composition itself.