James Heeley is an English-born, self-taught perfumer whose interest in olfaction began in 1996. As a designer, Heeley was working on a project for a well-known Parisian florist when he had the opportunity to meet with legendary French perfumer Annick Goutal. This meeting inspired the designer to include perfume in his repertoire of creative endeavors. Years later, his eye for design is still a key part of the Heeley brand. James Heeley’s design fingerprint is impressed on his range of perfumes, from the environmentally conscious packaging to the bottle and labeling design. If ‘niche’ perfumery is defined by limited accessibility, Heeley fragrances are about as niche as it gets. I have seen edits of the range in my travels through Europe and Asia but they are still an uncommon encounter, even in niche perfumeries. On a recent trip I was delighted to discover James Heeley’s entire range at Peony Haute Parfumerie in Melbourne, Australia. Peony’s offer included the even more exclusive Extrait de Parfum line, launched at last year’s Pitti Fragranze fair in Florence, Italy. Annually, the Florentine fair attracts perfume specialists, buyers and media from around the world. Heeley’s Extrait de Parfum range consists of three perfumes that work with the highest concentration of raw materials, many of which are exceptionally rare. One such ingredient is Oudh or agarwood, the rare and very costly resin produced by South East Asian Aquilaria and Gyrinops trees. Although Oudh is currently said to be more rare than Mysore sandalwood, many artisan perfumers have taken an interest in working with this exotic raw material. Wider market brands such as Tom Ford, Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent are now following the niche trend, although YSL, under Tom Ford should be credited as a trail blazer more than a follower, for their release of M7 in 2002; the first mass market men’s fragrance to feature Oudh. With the recent interest in Oudh, YSL have launched a new flanker for M7, called Oud Absolu. The flanker doesn’t stray far from the original and from a marketing perspective; putting Oud in the title is a smart move during this current trend in men’s fragrance. With so many recent perfume releases that contain Oudh in either the fragrance title or composition, the question needs to be asked; does the world need another Oudh fragrance? That was my first reaction when I encountered James Heeley’s Agarwoud. I have a small number of Oudh fragrances in my collection and I had no plans of adding another one. But on smelling the fragrance I was immediately seduced by Heeley’s creative trademark, which is understated, clean and modern; three adjectives you would not commonly associate with this raw material. The packaging is also exceptional with a sophisticated black label and silver foiled text presented in a black drawer made from recycled materials. The jewel on this well designed crown has to be the bohemian glass cap in black, which is cut by hand for each bottle. Truly indulgent if you consider for their spray bottles, even Chanel have replaced all of their glass carbochon stoppers with plastic ones. This attention to detail and a fine perfume makes James Heeley’s Agarwoud a worthwhile investment.
If I was looking for my first Oudh perfume, I would have overlooked James Heeley and gone for something more literal. My initial attraction to Agarwoud was the fact that it is so different from other Oudhs. Stripped of the material’s cultural affiliations, Heeley’s Agarwoud feels to me, to be more about the smell of Oudh rather than being about the story of Oudh. L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Al Oudh, a fragrance that is part of the brand’s travel series is an example of the later. It uses Oudh to invite its western wearer to travel to exotic locations. The precious resin is paired with other eastern references; leather and gourmand spices such as cumin and saffron. The perfume’s bottle is also decorated with eastern motifs. Oudh has been used for centuries in the east and Middle Eastern perfume fans need no convincing of the oil’s attractive power. Last year when I visited Harrods in London, one of Roja Dove’s Haute Parfumerie assistants allowed me to sample pure Oudh oil. The assistant commented how many of their eastern clientele would use pure Oudh oil as an additive to their perfume purchases from the perfumerie. For affluent Eastern clientele, an Oudh perfume is desirable when it is complemented with other rare materials, high quality floral absolutes and refined woods and resins. I see this as a key difference in the way Oudh is used in modern perfumery. Western consumers want to imagine busy market streets and steamy souks, an exotic experience when you have been raised with supermarkets and computerized self-checkouts. In contrast, the Eastern consumer sees Oudh as a perfume symbol of social status and beauty. James Heeley describes Oudh as an acquired taste. Agarwoud utilizes oil from Laos and Vietnam, which is blended with rose, amber and incense. From the beginning wearers are entertained with a parade of fruity rose petals on a lush bed of musk. Transparent Oudh provides an expected complexity without the heaviness that is often seen in an Oudh composition. The result is a wonderfully complex, yet light and delicate scent that is sure to be a hit with both women and men.
James Heeley created Agarwoud for both genders. On men, he describes it as ‘Prince Siddhartha’. On woman, ‘Once upon a time…’ In the morning when I decide on which fragrance I will wear to work, I pack the bottle in my workbag incase I want to reapply more fragrance after lunch. Every time I have taken Agarwoud to work, the females in my office have commented on what I am wearing. When I show them the bottle they gasp and ask questions after sampling it. From this experience I have realized that women love this fragrance. Judging by the way they react I expect they do not attach a gender to the scent, they simply like to smell it, whether it is on other men or on themselves. With this in mind I recommend Agarwoud for men who are looking for a point of difference perfume. It has a feminine softness owing to the high percentage of quality rose oil contained in the formula. Agarwoud displays a nice balance between sensitivity and power, a balance that is desired by modern women in their modern man.
Perfumer: James Heeley
Release date: 2011
Typology (via Fragrances of the World): Woods