The next time you pick up a perfume bottle and you marvel at its beauty, pay a thought to perfumer and entrepreneur Francois Coty, who revolutionized the fragrance industry at the turn of the 20th century. Coty was a genius marketer who understood his products would have more appeal if better attention were given to presentation. Before Coty, fragrance was sold in nondescript bottles because customers decanted the contents into their own decorated bottle or atomizer. Riding the wave of the Industrial Revolution, Coty also found a way to mass-produce his products, which transformed fragrance into a more accessible and affordable commodity. Very quickly Coty became a self-made millionaire.
Coty’s success coincided with Rene Lalique’s rise to fame. The master glassmaker, jeweler and ceramicist had great influence on objet d’art during the Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods. Some of Coty’s most iconic bottles were engraved with Lalique’s signature and leading perfume houses of the era, such as Guerlain, Houbigant, Molinard and Nina Ricci, commissioned Lalique to design their perfume bottles. Characterized by sculptural luminous forms that captured movement, ornate decorations in relief, and combinations of clear and frosted crystal, Lalique’s style was unique. Today new and antique Lalique pieces are highly collectable.
After Rene Lalique’s lifetime, the family business continued to design bottles for the perfume industry. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that Lalique created its first fragrance. For the first decade the fragrances were perhaps collected on the merit of Lalique’s limited edition, hand-worked crystal bottles instead of being collected for the fragrance itself. Entering the 21st century this changed and Lalique began releasing more accessible fragrances, in the same way Coty did a century before. In a market that is saturated by fast fragrances, which are often a copy of a copy of a best-selling fragrance, Lalique’s more affordable offerings were all pleasantly unique. The brand was discerning and leading perfumers such as Christine Nagel who is now “Perfumer – Creative Director” at Hermes and talented Firmenich perfumer Nathalie Lorson were some of the perfumers Lalique selected to work with.
My favourite Lalique fragrance to date is Encre Noire Pour Homme, which is presented in a black glass cube with a square wooden cap inspired by Lalique’s “Biches” inkwell from 1913. Encre Noire Pour Homme has a huge fan base and it’s one of the few fragrances that have managed to win over niche audiences who are notorious for being selective as well as more mainstream customers because of its attractive price point. For collectors, Lalique also offers Encre Noire Pour Homme in a numbered edition, black crystal flacon. The fragrance is a higher eau de parfum concentration and is presented in a lacquered box (add a zero on the end of the price for the standard bottle).
Vetiver (1959) by Guerlain is the vetiver fragrance archetype and Encre Noire Pour Homme is one of the landmark vetiver fragrances that have progressed the vetiver theme beyond the 20th century. It punches well above its weight along side fragrances like Sycomore by Chanel and Vetiver Extraordinaire by Frederic Malle, which cost approximately three times as much. Perfumer Nathalie Lorson created Encre Noire Pour Homme in 2006 and a decade later, she returned to Lalique and created a new version called Encre Noire À l’Extrême.
The original Encre Noire Pour Homme is beautiful in its simplicity and its poetic treatment of vetiver oil. Lorson diluted the essential oil in a black ink accord, which rendered it fluid and mysterious. Surrounded by an overdose of Iso E Super and a musk accord embellished with Cashmeran, Lorson’s vetiver is truly spectacular. À l’Extrême is also spectacular and the new version has a few well-considered changes. The sense of inky fluidity, integral to the original, has been replaced. À l’Extrême has a complex structure, offering more notes and as a result it feels more solid and earthy. While the original feels cool and dark, À l’Extrême feels more energetic and alive. The opening notes of bergamot, cypress and elemi resin evoke the feeling of standing in a forest after sunrise when the sun’s morning rays lift the scent of wet foliage from the earth. The prominent elemi note is peppery-green and this is the perfect pair for the spicy incense note at the heart of the fragrance. Here, vetiver makes its entry. Lorson used two different vetiver oils in her formula, vetiver oil from Java, Indonesia, which is smoky and earthy and she used Haitian vetiver oil, which has a clean, fresh grapefruit peel accent. The iris accord is dark with a hint of cocoa and it adds to the notes of camphorous patchouli and dry woody-amber. À l’Extrême offers more natural references compared to the original. Benzoin and sandalwood replace the original’s dominant musk theme, which in turn helps to balance the overdose of dry smoky vetiver with woody balsamic sweetness. Extreme means different things to different people. For me I wouldn’t want À l’Extrême to be any louder than it is. It settles nicely on skin and on me it wears well into the day. It’s not uncommon for me to get questioned what I am wearing 4-5 hours after application.
À l’Extrême is one of my favourite fragrance releases for 2016 so far. It isn’t a pivotal design moment in men’s fragrance – it just simply smells really good. Others around me seem to agree since it regularly attracts the attention of strangers and work colleagues who want to know what fragrance I am wearing or they comment on how good I smell.
On a scale of masculinity, vetiver is a unique ingredient. It has the ability to smell both rugged and refined. Brands always pitch men’s fragrances somewhere between these two extremes and vetiver’s dual personality naturally makes it a popular ingredient in men’s fragrances. À l’Extrême is a great example of a fragrance that smells rugged and brut but also refined and well mannered. It’s Tarzan with a PHD.
Like movie sequels, brands are often criticised for launching a flanker (fragrance forum jargon for a fragrance sequel). The most common criticism is that the brand should have left the original alone. À l’Extrême remains faithful to the original Encre Noire Pour Homme with just enough restructure to keep it interesting. If you are a fan of the original Encre Noire Pour Homme, I highly recommend trying Encre Noire À l’Extrême.
Perfumer: Nathalie Lorson
Creative Direction: Marc Roesti, Paola Ambrosecchia
Release Date: 2016
Typology (via Fragrances of the World): Woods
Australian stockist: Agence de Parfum