Maître Parfumeur et Gantier Santal Noble: the son of Mitsouko

Santal Noble

Santal Noble is one of my all-time favourite perfumes. I perceive it as a unique interpretation of sandalwood, as different as possibly can be from other classic representatives of this note. It maintains the creamy aspect of the wood but avoids any buttery, sweet connotation. I love it enough to include it to my initial “desert island” collection and I have not regretted it. In fact I was planning to make my Geneva come-back with a review of this, a post I had already started writing but abandoned, because an epiphany came upon me the other day. As you may have guessed from reading the title I found a connection with Mitsouko.

Let me talk to you about Mitsouko and me. I have smelt it of course several times and it always left me with this baffling impression of misunderstanding. I have never been able to get the notorious peach note, I have even failed to see this as a feminine scent. To me it smells more androgynous, not unisex, the same way Habit Rouge smells androgynous. In a way that neither of the two sexes would feel perfectly comfortable in them, but would instead challenge their confidence. This is what I smell in Mitsouko: straight up a glorious woody note swirling with a vegetal, oily note that never fails to bring to mind rancid oil or flour that has turned and musty closets. There is also a creamy heliotrope side to this accord. Very soon a floral animalic note joins the opening. I get something very fecal but I think I would describe it more as a dirty hyacinth than bona fide civet. I love this phase of bright contradiction. It doesn’t last long however, the animalic side subsides very quickly leaving floral elements that I cannot identify battle with the vegetal, floury, bitter woods of the opening. From then on it is a story of flowers and rancid flour. This perfume really takes me out of my comfort zone but draws me in a mysterious way. Every time I smelt it I was left with a big question mark. Do I like it or hate it? Surprisingly I love the musty, vegetal, almondy, floury aspects of it but the floral part seemed out of place but incremental for this love-or-hate relationship I had with Mitsouko.

Then came reality. I met someone who wears Mitsouko and if my nose serves me well, in the eau de parfum variant. She was the person who interviewed me for my new job. I can tell you that the experience of being interviewed in french by a woman wearing Mitsouko is as close to chemical castration as it can get. You have to “sell” yourself and convince someone who smells bigger than life, stern and powerful. Of course the woman was lovely but with me being placed in a completely foreign environment, a smell so unique was taking over and defining the experience. As I was there sitting across her (there were four other people in the room, mind you) I was feeling like I was being interrogated by Demetra, the ancient goddess of earth. Earth can be a source of regeneration and a place of burial. As I do in situations that I cannot control, I decided that I would not fight the feeling but succumb to it. I stopped trying to sell myself. I just allowed myself to have a talk with her. A simple talk. Questions and answers. Smiles and facial expressions. Words, silences and a conscious decision to reveal myself. You can’t win Demetra, you have to let her lead. As you know all went well. Not only I got the job but I also unlocked the mystery of Mitsouko. Mitsouko is not a woman. It is an archetypal force of life and the end of it at the same time. It is the point where the mouth of the snake bites the tail. The full circle. Self contained and complete.

A few days ago and while at a meeting with the lovely lady who interviewed me for my job, this time from a different perspective, as equals and collaborators, I was once again immersed in her cloud of Mitsouko. And there it was: Santal Noble hanging from the bosom of Demetra! It has taken me far too long to find the energy  to write about this perfume but never lacked the motivation.  Sandalwood can be overbearing, the most un-woody of all woody notes, creamy and sweet, balmy and hot. But not all fragrances based on sandalwood have to be this way and Jean Laporte made an excellent point of this with Santal Noble. If Santal de Mysore is the Gilda of sandalwoods, Santal Noble is Uma Thurrman. Detached and aloof, it is difficult to put in a box and it takes a lot of time to understand and appreciate. Initially you might find it strange, not even pleasing. Then you may notice its qualities but still it may seem like an ugly duckling in comparison. But real beauty is there. You just have to accept that beauty is a living thing, it comes with rough edges and should be conquered.

Santal Noble opens with a raw note of freshly chopped wood. It feels rough and splintery with an acidity that I associate with pale woods and an almost fruity element, like the skin of green apples. After a few moments a smoky note comes through that is aggressive, almost urinous. Although I cannot say that they smell alike, the opening of Santal Noble always makes me think of Le Labo Oud 27, this strange perfume that combines fresh wood with fruity tartness and animalic awe. Jean Laporte combines all these elements in a much more elegant way and the shock effect is much more subdued but this is definitely an eccentric beast. It shifts and turns on my skin making it very difficult to dissect. Santal Noble is famous for its coffee note, a note that I cannot pin down per se but I can definitely see where it is hiding. It is part of this smoky accord that haunts the opening giving it a rough and grey hue. The more you try to focus on it the more elusive it gets. I wouldn’t be surprised if a smidge of oud is in there. After all Santal Noble comes from the house who offered in 2006 Soir d’Orient, a Middle-Eastern exclusive in a time where Middle East and oud were unknown terms for the perfume industry.  All these elements combine to create a musty accord that dominates skin for the first hour of wearing. Sandalwood appears later in its driest of all forms. People who know it better than I do agree that this is Australian, not Mysore sandalwood and I take their word for it.

What connects Mitsouko and Santal Noble for me is what I find most beautiful in the two. This starchy note gone rancid, primordial and dark. In Mitsouko this note has to fight for its life and this is something I have come across in many Guerlain’s: there is this wonderful element that offers itself easily in the opening, only to be made scarce by its rivalling counterparts soon after application. The excellent doughy iris note of Iris Ganache and many other perfumes from the same house comes to mind. And once more Maître Parfumeur et Gantier Fleur d’Iris managed to anchor the same note for longer on my skin. In the same way when I wear Santal Noble, the starchy rancidness of Mitsouko stays in a tight embrace with sandalwood (perhaps the same sandalwood used in Mitsouko?) for ever and ever. This note makes both perfumes hard to like but once that certain moment comes and unlocks the idea behind it, one cannot help but appreciate the grandness. For me this moment had to do with my interview experience, the moment one realises that life is a river, you’re in it and it takes you away. It is not about beauty, it is about accepting oneself as part of something bigger, scarier and not controllable. Not in opposition to the world, but uncomfortably part of it. Life is not a goal, it’s a process. There are no mistakes to be made, only decisions. Each decision is the best one can do at a specific point of life and time. As such it cannot ever be a mistake. Did it lead to where one expected to be lead? Maybe not! Was it a mistake? Definitely not. It was simply what one had to do at the time.

Mitsouko

Notes from Parfumo: Bergamot, Jasmine, Rose, Citruses, Lilac, Peach, Ylang-ylang, Ambergris, Oakmoss, Spices, Vetiver, Cinnamon

Notes from my nose: flour, almond, oil, hyacinth, fecal note, sandalwood

Santal Noble

Notes from Parfumo: Spices, Coffee, Frankincense, Patchouli, Sandalwood, Vanilla, Vetiver, Amber, Castoreum, Oakmoss

Santal Noble notes

Notes from my nose: fresh wood, apple, musty attic, coffee, smoke, flour, sandalwood

 

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About Christos

Scientifically minded but obsessed with the subjective aspect of things. Photos copyright of MemoryOfScent, with special thanks to Pantelis Makkas http://pantelismakkas.blogspot.com/. You are welcome to link to my blog but you are definitely not allowed to copy text or use the photos without my permission. All text and main photos are originals and property of MemoryOfScent All perfumes are from my collection unless stated otherwise.

13 comments

  1. Fascinating. And the story of your interview was riveting. I could just imagine what it must have all felt like, what SHE felt like in those moments and in that scent. Beautifully written, Christos, and a completely fresh, new insight into Mitsouko. Bravo, cheri.

    • I think she feels perfectly comfortable inside her Mitsouko cloud in a way only woman who speaks French as her maternal language can. She wears it every day at work.

      Thank you dear.

  2. This is amazing. What you say about androgynous/unisex (SUCH a difference! Why don’t more people realize this?!) and the experience of being lost in the mirage of Mitsouko gets to the absolute basis of what perfume is.

    • The difference is quite instinctive I think: unisex = un-sex while androgyny is a conscious decision to test boundaries. I would have loved to live in the time of Mitsouko release (if what I smell today is close to what it smelled then) to immerse myself in this culture where this was a feminine scent.

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  4. This is a beautiful piece of writing, Christos. I’ll keep it in mind if ever I decide to sample Mitsouko again. Given that I don’t care for Mitsouko and detest Le Labo Oud 27, I probably won’t ever seek out Santal Noble, but your essay will stay with me nonetheless. I loved your closing paragraph; your conclusions about life are oddly comforting.

    Question: does the lovely woman who interviewed you, and is now your colleague, know that you are a perfume blogger? Do you and she ever discuss perfumes?

    • No we don’t discuss perfume with her. The Swiss are generally very nice people, genuinely kind and polite, but they prefer to keep their professional lives separate from their personal ones. I think at one point however we will discuss the determination with which she wears Mitsouko at work. I really love the way Mitsouko opens but I have never really dared wear it for a full wearing as I am almost certain that there will come a point where I will be running for running water.

  5. Great post Christos! More or less we share the same feelings about Mitsouko. I own a small 30ml bottle of it (one of the very few of my collection that stays still in its box, and this means a lot for me…) and each time I decide to sample it I always end up with the same question : what was this made for? I mean I can’t imagine what the initial inspiration for this smell was and most importantly how can a perfumer reach this high level of creativity and technique where the notes seem like the one hides behind the other and all of them together create a blurred thread with no edge asight. As for its gender, to me, the powdery aspect of it (and not the floral) is enough to categorize it as a feminine.

    • I can’t really pick up the powdery note. I mean it is there but it is so austere that I translate is as flour, not powder. Bitter and heavy, Do you get the peach?

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