Histoires de Parfums Petroleum (2011): The Scent of Blissful Oil Prospection {Perfume Review & Musings}


October 2013 is National Energy Awareness Month in the US and there is a French perfume which matches the theme. In 2011, Parisian niche brand Histoires de Parfums, meaning "Stories of Perfumes", under the creative stewardship of Gerald Ghislain launched a trio of fragrances entitled "Collection Rare" dedicated to a three-fold exploration of the material oud. The fragrant, prized and now extremely popular perfumery note was showcased together with amber or rose - two classical Oriental pairings - or petroleum, an innovative proposition. The scents were called Ambrarem, Rosam and Petroleum. In a further classifying effort meant at ordering the world like a medieval cosmogony, Rosam stood as an homage to the vegetal order, Ambrarem was the standard-bearer of the animal order and Petroleum, the pure symbol of the mineral one...

For Ghislain, the perfume Petroleum he saw less as a metaphor, a motif for the Middle East, or an avant-gardist concept, as a perfect-storm of an accord coming together between the scent of the mineral essence and the scent of oud.

The story of the smell of petroleum has a rich historical lineage even though perfumery has not been interested in it as one of the exploitable "bad smells" of history. The refined form of petroleum, gasoline, has been courted however occasionally as a note of masculinity, memory, or realism. Some flowers - like hyacinth - contain that nuance and so, there might be bridge to pleasant memories through that route. Kate Moss herself wanted to launch a perfume with a main accord of gasoline stressing the fact that she loved it but also that it was beloved by a majority of people.

Petroleum however belongs in a well-rounded olfactory history of the world not just for its smell but for the extreme olfactory reactions it elicited.

Its material quality was traditionally determined thanks to its smell, and even taste. In the 19th century, oil prospectors would not hesitate to make oil roll on their tongue in small quantity to verify the aroma which would tell them in the best case scenario that it was the optimal kind called "Light Sweet Crude Oil" on account of its soft and pleasant fragrance. In French, that quality of petroleum has similar hedonistic connotations as it is nicknamed "Le Bonbon" ("The Candy"). By a strange detour of logic, where you might have expected to confront yourself to a terrible smell tamed inside a perfume bottle, there is the opportunity to smell a strange and natural gourmand oozing out from the bowels of the earth possibly with a helping of well-macerated prehistoric dinosaur bones.

According to the Oil Spill Academic Task Force of the State of Florida,

"Light sweet crude oil is the form of petroleum that oil refineries prefer because it contains exceptionally high amounts of the chemicals needed to produce gasoline, kerosene, and high-quality crude oil. "Sweet" is a description of how much sulphur is in the oil. In the 19th century, oil workers would taste and smell small amount of oil to determine its quality. Crude oil with low sulphur content had a mildly sweet taste and pleasant smell. Therefore, "sweet" crude is a low sulfur crude oil."

Petroleum was mana from the center of the earth and smelled and tasted sweet to some. It was anathema to others especially when they rejected it for political reasons - or because in truth it contained too much sulfur, a foul-smelling compound characteristic of Canadian oil for instance which made its smell barf-worthy.

In an 1863 book entitled Petroleum and its Products: An Account of the History, Origin, Composition, Properties, Uses and Commercial Values, etc., its author, Norman Tate, an "analytical chemist" wrote in the following telling section of the study,

"Opposition to Petroleum on Account of its Smell

The next point of consideration is the opposition which has been raised against petroleum on account of its odor. This opposition has been very violent, and legal proceedings have been resorted to in more than one instance.

That the odour of petroleum is disagreeable cannot be denied, and there is no doubt that it may be the cause of serious nuisance, but it is not as bad as people wish to make out.

The remarks made by some persons respecting the smell of petroleum are perfectly absurd and ridiculous. For instance, at a meeting held a short time since at Birkenhead, a gentlemand said that the smell of guano and salted hides was eau-de-cologne and lavender water compared with the odour of petroleum. Such a "clap-trap" statement scarcely requires notice, as any person acquainted with the odour of the three articles must certainly own that the smell of salted hides, at any rate, is much more disgusting, and decidedly more unwholesome, than that of petroleum; but there are many persons who might be misled by such a statement, and it is therefore thought well to notice it in this place, nonsensical as it is."

The debate around the smell of petroleum has been on occasions polarizing, as we can see. It never stank as much as when political issues were at stake. In Petroleum the fragrance, it takes the approach to be the front-and-center note as in a soliflore genre. The structure is simple and goes decrescendo, with a harsh opening, then the perfume mellows down until all you're left with is an interesting and paradoxical skin scent smelling of a strange rose perfume, hugging you close.

At first I think that this is a much more realistic and "hard" smell than I expected upon reading the copy. The mention of oudh made me think that the name "Petroleum" might be used in an imaginary way. Smelled in the flacon it still appears to be a metaphor. Applied onto skin it explodes into a difficult palette of scents where leather and oud have been stripped of their potential pleasantness to suggest instead the tanning process of raw hide, as well as fumes and chemicals. It is searing to the head and nose. I classify it at this point as an interesting smell but not a pleasant one unless you have off-the-chart tastes. It is hardcore.

If this fragrance is to be pegged as stylistically artful, then it would be Brutalist like those Scandinavian mid-century jewels bursting with naturalist imagination and raw energy forming massive organic shapes dangling from your neck or exploding on your finger.

The composition softens down going from industrial strength to bitterly medicinal and then softly bitter. Apart from that, you cannot discern any noticeable evolution. The fragrance is about a single accord and a main sensation telling no story but that of its pure, unadulterated, pristine state as a raw material.

It is only in the drydown that the perfume gets more human thanks to its chypre stylings. It is now a discreet veil of inky rose rounded off by amber with a stealth presence much more important than you might suspect, which is characteristic of the behavior of (real) oud.

A "chypre for oil workers", like there is a spicy mustard by Pommery called "mustard for firemen" (Moutarde des Pompiers), who knew?

Fragrance notes:

The absolu eau de parfum has notes of oudh, bergamot, aldehydes / rose, oudh, amber / oudh, absolute of civet, leather, patchouli, white musk.

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