Monday, 15 July 2013

A Bullet In The Air - Carlos Huber On The Creation Of Aleksandr

Following on from my email correspondence with Carlos Huber about what he considers to be the reasons for the success of his brand, Arquiste, I asked him if he would explain the development of one of his perfumes in particular. Anima Dulcis and Boutonnière No. 7 - wonderful though they are - have already had a great many words written about them, so I decided to turn the spotlight on the haughty Aleksandr, authored by Yann Vasnier. What inspired the scent? How did it make its journey from idea to bottled fragrance? Were there any challenges or surprises along the way?

"Aleksandr was developed as a storyline from start to finish," Huber wrote. "One of my favourite periods in Western history is the early half of the 19th century. I am very drawn to its art, architecture, and overall aesthetic. Greats like Sir John Soane, Schinkel, Percier and Fontaine were all creating amazing work. And I love the paintings that came out of this period by masters like Girodet, Gericault and Caspar Friedrich. Stylistically it’s a very diverse and experimental epoch. The political climate and the changes in society created a great many thinkers and writers. The dandies, the duels, the imperial style - I find it all very appealing. I also feel it was a very similar time to what we are going through in our lifetime; it is a climate of change, a very emotional, tumultuous time. One of the period writers I have been interested in for quite some time is the Russian writer Aleksandr Pushkin, especially Eugene Onegin, his novel in verse.

"There are a lot of scenes described in the novel that are very vivid and detailed. After reading some of Pushkin’s work (Onegin, The Captain’s Daughter, The Bronze Horseman) I read a biography of his, and as an annex, it included the police report that described the day of the duel that took the writer’s life, the moment that seemed to be the epitome of the writer's romantic destiny. This fatal day was described in detail to the police by his 'second', his friend Konstantin Danzas. This gave me the idea for Aleksandr: the goal was to recreate the linear account of the duel, provided of course, I found enough information on the notes to use, from what Pushkin wore to where the duel took place. The police report included a lot of meticulous information: Pushkin’s outfit, the precise location of the meeting, the time of day and the weather conditions. There was however, the mystery of what fragrance, if any, Pushkin would be wearing.

"That took a while to figure out. A clue came to me when I re-read Onegin, and the description of Eugene’s grooming ritual as he prepares to leave the house for a ball. His dressing table was filled with Turkish pipes with amber mouthpieces, silver combs and brushes, crystal vials of eaux de cologne, steel utensils for grooming needs, violet vinegars, and English smelling salts in clever snuffboxes. Another source revealed that violet 'extracts' and French eaux de cologne were the most fashionable essences in 1830’s Russia.

"This gave us the key to unravel the perfume, to set Pushkin on his olfactive journey. I imagined him dabbing a violet leaf extract on top of the regular eau de cologne splash. He then put on his polished leather boots (these became our Russian leather accord) and a bear fur coat (the animalistic, musky and warming notes) before leaving the city centre on a cold January day (the icy aldehydes) and arriving at a forest clearing surrounded by birch and fir trees (birch tar, birch leaves & fir balsam). The smokiness of the birch tar almost announces the pistols about to fire.

"All this information was the starting point. Under Yann Vasnier's guidance we started working on a composition that would be centred on a violet leaf vinegar accord. The complexity and cleanliness of violet leaves was bolstered by adding the invigorating values of neroli - part of the eau de cologne structure - which was juxtaposed by a leathery amber heart and a smoky, woody base.

"As the research evolved, neroli was brought further into the discussion as an ingredient that would add a luminous facet to the scent. It served to complement the cool, almost cucumber and melon scent of the violet leaf. This violet accord was used to bridge freshness with sophistication.

"The scent of a fur coat and leather boots were added at this point. Yann works leather like a glove. However, as you know, just a drop too much of birch tar can dominate the entire composition. So we had to be cautious with this ingredient. Orris root added a velvety background to the heart notes, connecting the violet accord with the leather part, and recreating a certain powdery influence on perfumery at the time.

"The idea of grooming vinegars made us envision alcoholic accords, especially those of vodka - of course - and French cognac, which were definitely part of a gentleman's life during that era. Vodka and cognac are such opposite alcohol smells, the first being cold and highly ethylic, while the other is warmer, deeper and woody. This 'cold versus warm' dichotomy became a surprisingly central concept in the perfume formula.

"The final step was capturing the scent of the snowy woods where the duel took place. Yann connected a birch leaf aspect in the top notes with the characteristic birch tar and fir balsam notes of the base. That's when the distinct character of the perfume starting forming.

"Aleksandr is a perfume that warms up from a cool and refreshing violet leaf to a woody, leathery amber. It travels, like a bullet in the air, from a cold exterior to a warm heart.”



  1. What a wonderful tale of how this scent came to be! I was always drawn to the Russian aspects of this one and now I really must try it again! Thanks to you and Mr. Huber for his in depth look at his process!

    1. Dubaiscents, thank you. I'm glad you found the story as fascinating as I did. If only all other perfume 'journeys' made as much sense and displayed as much intelligence as this one.

  2. The Arquiste scents are wonderful (I finally got hold of some samples) and I like Alexander especially. I really enjoy the background of this scent, especially since Eugene Onegin is one of my favorite operas. This was the scent I wore to my brother's wedding.

    1. Eva, I'm pleased that you're a fan too. You must have been one of the best smelling people at the wedding :-)

  3. What a great example of how artistic scents come to be. Carlos knew exactly where he was headed!

    1. Ann, yes, it does sound as though the ideas were very clear in his mind.

  4. I enjoyed reading the story about the inspiration for this perfume. There is also a good description of the notes and how they all work together. I haven't sniffed this one yet, but must do so.

    1. Sunflowers, I'm glad you liked it. I'm always impressed when the final fragrance genuinely and completely reflects the 'story' that inspired its creation.


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