Aside from a couple of Frederic Malle fragrances authored by Jean-Claude Ellena, I have not written a great deal about the perfumer’s body of work for the house of Hermes. I deliberately held off writing a review for Terre d’Hermes until I am confident I have found the right way to speak about it. I am thinking it would be too enthusiastic of me to put it in the same category as Chanel No. 5, but Terre does share similar qualities; it is a masterful creation, original for its age and it has a diverse appeal usually reserved for a mass-market product. Since taking up the post of Hermes’ in-house perfumer, Ellena has proven his worth, creating fragrances with wide public appeal as well as a line of niche perfumes reserved mainly for the connoisseur. For those wanting to peer deeper into the mind of Jean-Claude Ellena, the Hermessence collection affords this intimate experience. In 2005 when the collection launched, my heart and nose were too engrossed in Hermessence’s Vetiver Tonka to take notice of the other four scents; Poivre Samarcande, Ambre Narguile, Rose Ikebana and Osmanthe Yunnan. The sample of Poivre Samarcande that was included with my purchase of Vetiver Tonka sat in a box for a number of years before I began to appreciate its peppery wood. This is the risk with an Ellena perfume. Sometimes his fragrances are so delicate or understated they can easily go unnoticed. In time, the smoky spiced wood I once considered too human, too sweaty, began to take my interest and was one of my favourite fragrances over the most recent summer months. An oak tree that grew in Ellena’s Mediterranean backyard inspired Poivre Samarcande’s mellow woody character. In time the tree grew ill and it had to be felled. Ellena says the scent of cut wood was etched in his memory and the soul of the old oak, mixed with pepper lives on in this fragrance. The name also evokes images of dusty roads followed for centuries by travelers on the eastern spice routes. Samarkand is one of the ancient cities spice and silk traders passed through as they carried their wares from the east to the west.
Hermes describes Poivre Samarcande as a “profusion of green and pungent woods.” Traces of chilli are used to bring out fire in the composition. Oak, cedar and Chinese moss are the heavier notes that carry the fragrance to its end. Chilli adds a subtle touch that goes unnoticed until you purposely draw your attention to it. You could almost mistake it for capsicum, a note that features in another Hermessence, Paprika Brasil. This is until you experience the peppery bite on the tip of your nose, the same one experienced when you come in contact with chilli powder in the kitchen. For Declaration by Cartier (1998), Jean-Claude Ellena used cumin oil to give his fresh eau a human feeling, more precisely a male feeling. Some describe it as the scent of a man’s underarm, which may sound odd but women have used musk for centuries purely because it has this illusory effect of communicating like a second skin. For Poivre Samarcande, Ellena creates a more unisex second skin. When I close my eyes and inhale the fragrance, it is a scent that could belong to either gender. You are left with an oaky base on a backdrop of transparent woods, other critics have suggested is the molecule Iso E Super. This warm oaky feeling is what remains throughout a day of wearing Poivre Samarcande. If you judge the success of a fragrance based on how many people comment when you wear it; this is one of my most successful choices in recent years.
Spice has always been attributed to men’s fragrances. Of the peppers, pink and green have been favoured for perfumery because of the fresh, almost fruity edge they impart on a composition. Black pepper is a darker, sweatier odour that can be difficult to work with. Poivre Samarcande romanticizes this scent; the scent of a man warmed up and the name itself inspires exotic travel. Of the pepper fragrances available today, I recommend Mark Jacobs Bang if you find Poivre Samarcande too pompous or Lorenzo Viloresi’s earthier Piper Nigrum if you prefer to travel in backpacker accommodation. Poivre Samarcande still allows you to have a travel experience but you can expect 5-star luxury accommodation all the way. No matter how you travel, I think it is a versatile scent that suits most men and Ellena’s stylistic charm radiates through the scent. Subtle and translucent, it is one of my favourite Jean-Claude Ellena creations I feel confident wearing in every situation.
Marc Jacobs Bang, Cartier Declaration, Lorenzo Villoresi Piper Nigrum, Hermes Paprika Brasil, L’Artisan Parfumeur Piment Brulant, LT Piver Un Parfum d’Aventure
Perfumer: Jean-Claude Ellena
Bottle designer: Annie Beaumel adapted by Hermes studio
Release date: 2004
Typology (via Fragrances of the World): Mossy Woods