Marine is an adjective that found its way into our perfume vocabulary during the early 1990s when it was used to describe the era’s refreshing watery, outdoorsy fragrances such as Cool Water and L’Eau d’Issey. Today the term has the same effect on perfume cognoscenti as throwing garlic onto vampires. Expect facial contortions and hissing noises. Why vampires have this reaction to garlic, I do not know, but the reason why many of today’s perfume obsessed are so adverse to this aquatic genre of perfumery is because most of us are still recovering from the thousands of Dihydromercenol and Calone laden fragrances that were launched over the past 15 years. On a side note, I’m curious to see if in another 15 years time, we will have the same seething reaction towards the popular men’s fragrances of today, which rely heavily on molecules such as Norlimbanol, Karanal and Boisambrene Forte for their woody-amber signature? But back to the marine theme- last year my curiosity was tweaked when Hermes announced the launch of a new fragrance called Epice Marine. Jean-Claude Ellena is one of my favourite perfumers and I had all confidence that the Nose of Hermes would not be presenting a repackaged Cool Water. I was curious to see how the perfumer was going to bring new energy to this expired theme. My expectations were met with a familiar yet unique fragrance that smelled wet and sea-like with a novel twist of dried spices and woods. Epice Marine is the eleventh addition to the brand’s exclusive Hermessence collection and it is the first time Jean-Claude Ellena has collaborated with another artist on a Hermessence project. Epice Marine is the result of collaboration between Jean-Claude Ellena and French chef, Olivier Roellinger, who is famous for his unique poudres d’epices, which are inspired by spice gardens from around the world. Together the pair explored the symbiosis between olfaction and taste. Their creative anchor was Roellinger ‘s hometown, Cancale, a seaport in Brittany that was once used by traders bringing spices from the East. The chef described to Ellena the taste of the wind, which blew into the cliffs that lined the coast of his Breton homeland and the scent of spices, he imagined the Atlantic breeze would carry to shore as it passed over the scented cargo of boats bringing spices from the orient more than a century ago. Ellena summarised the fragrance as spices cut-through with the invigorating scent of the sea. After meeting for the first time in 2011, the pair developed their idea for a further eight months. Jean-Claude Ellena would send samples of his unfinished perfume to Roellinger and rework the formula based on the Chef’s feedback. When Jean-Claude Ellena and Olivier Roellinger gathered beauty journalists in Cancale to launch the fragrance at the end of last year, the Telegraph’s Ellie Pithers quoted Ellena for her article, as he talked about the creative conversations he shared with Roellinger; “Once I sent him a smell and he said one thing was missing: l’odeur du brouillard – the scent of mist!’ Ellena recalls, laughing. ‘He said fog smelt to him like hawthorn blossom and buckwheat porridge; he talked about the mineral taste of wet pebbles, the smell of the rain on the sea, shamrock, peat and wet sand. So I tried to translate that into perfume.” Within these sentences is Jean-Claude Ellena’s new translation of the marine perfume theme. Epice Marine is a salty eau, reminiscent of moody Breton coastlines, pebbled beaches and grey weather skies, which rock boats back and forth on their moorings. This is not the marine fragrance we know from the 1990s, which blurred the line between the scent of cantaloupe peel and Ibiza beach parties. That would be dessert whereas Epice Marine is an olfactory cuisine better served as main course. Bon appetit!
I’ve come to expect uncompromised balance when smelling the work of Jean-Claude Ellena. He has a gift for allowing each raw material in his perfumes to individually reach the nose while collectively; everything hums along in unison with the precision of a professional choir. Epice Marine is another example of Ellena’s skill and with this latest addition to the Hermessence collection, he makes the art of perfumery seem effortless. Just as great cuisine is a play on contrasting tastes and textures; one of the beauties of this fragrance is its contrast, with acidic notes and wet marine notes that contrast superbly against the dryness of spices and smoky woods. Epice Marine begins in a haze of juicy bergamot that contains bitterness. Underneath, fiery Sichuan pepper leads this savoury gourmand with notes of toasted cumin, cinnamon and green, mint-like cardamom, a spice Ellena featured in a significant quantity for his 2010 fragrance, Voyage d’Hermes. As the spices build, an iodine effect bites the inside tip of the nose before settling down to become perfumed brine, cured in whiskey. Epice Marine uses Algenone, a perfume base created by Nactis (formerly Synarome), who are well known in the perfume industry for their bases. Animalis is another of their creations, which is used in Yves Saint Laurent’s Kouros and Chanel’s Antaeus to great effect. Algenone is described by Nactis as “a bouquet of marine and floral rose notes, predominantly lilac.” Similar notes can be achieved with a solvent extraction of natural seaweed but having smelled seaweed absolute, I am imagining that bases such as Algenone are designed to be idyllic and more aesthetically forgiving, as the natural extract smells mossy but also fishy. Along its journey, Epice Marine leaves a salty trail on skin, reminiscent of Sel de Vetiver, a perfume created by Celine Ellena (Jean-Claude’s daughter) for the niche perfume house, The Different Company. Tenacity is often a topic discussed when it comes to Hermessence perfumes. Epice Marine may not have the tenacity (longevity on skin) and diffusion (volume) of its Hermessence sibling, Ambre Narguile, but it has more staying power than others in the collection that have been criticised for being too fleeting. For me it performs well in both areas, requiring a small re-spray during the day and it wears close to the skin without intruding on other’s airspace as do all recent Hermes fragrances.
Fragrances inspired by water are notoriously hard to hold on skin. Often their fresh top notes evaporate quickly, leaving a semi-saline reduction of white musks or transparent woods – you would be expecting something more interesting from an AU$280 bottle of perfume. Ellena avoids this pitfall by designing a spicy blend, particularly important is cumin and Sichuan pepper, which are present in the top end of the fragrance but they also reach right down into the base notes. Because of this, Epice Marine has a complex dry-down of muted spices, woods and beach-salt. For men who relished in the tidal wave of marine fragrances during the 1990’s, Epice Marine is highly recommended. Jean-Claude Ellena has recalibrated the idea and brought it into the 21st century. This was one of my favourite fragrances of the summer just passed.
Alternatives: Heeley Parfums Sel Marin, Profvmvm Acqva di Sale, Miller Harris Fleurs de Sel, The Different Company Sel de Vetiver
Perfumer: Jean-Claude Ellena
Bottle Designer: Annie Beaumel adapted by Hermes Studio
Release Date: 2013
Typology (via Fragrances of the World): Water