Friday, 29 November 2013

Persolaise Review: Épice Marine from Hermès (Jean-Claude Ellena; 2013)

If only all press packs were as helpful as the one for Épice Marine. Amongst the various bits and pieces of info provided by Hermès for this latest addition to the Hermessence collection is an extract from a diary Jean-Claude Ellena kept whilst he was creating the scent. Such is its clarity, that I feel compelled to reproduce sections of it here. The first is from October 2011 and it recounts a meeting in Northern France between the gnomic perfumer and chef Olivier Roellinger, after which the former decided to create a scent "on the theme of spices but blended with the invigorating smells of the Brittany coast." The initial step was to extract an oil from roasted cumin seeds. Ellena writes,

"The roasting process gives cumin seeds toasted notes which remind me of sesame, and a woody note I've never smelt before. ... I'm amazed by the notes of toasted bread, hazelnut and sesame which add complexity to the simple premise of essence of cumin, and soften its smell of damp sweat."

1st February 2012 - "I've been working on a note which I've called 'épices océanes' ... an accord of spices: cinnamon, cardamom and cumin. ... I've put these spices together with a good dose of bergamot for its invigorating, breath of fresh air quality, and as an evocation of Brittany, I've added a synthetic molecule with a smell of seaweed and ocean water, not seawater, the sea is sweet. This is green, sharp, incisive and salty. The molecule is called 'algenone', and the algae implied by the name are enough to describe the smell."

28th March 2012 - "The overall shape of the perfume is attractive, but when worn it falls away, goes flat. Notes of the sea reappear after a few hours, but there's a whole section missing from the story."

29th March 2012 - "A strong dose of smoke gives it the right tone. It holds its own for the duration of the story, and sustains it."

23rd April 2012 - "In the so-called accord of the three Cs (cinnamon, cardamom and cumin), cinnamon is the spice that leads into Eau D'Hermès. And, as I'm drawn back again and again to this accord, I have to avoid using it in my trials. I replace the cinnamon with allspice. The result is disappointing and, when worn, the allspice brings out a hardness in the perfume. ... The sea-like smell of the algenone is still there but gets harsh and acrid over time; covering it or smoothing it out would mean losing the 'ocean' quality. I'll simply use a smaller percentage..."

May 2012 - "I've carried on with the work, trying to express this perfume in the clearest, most straightforward way possible. Swapping one type of oak moss for another, working with cascalone (which is what is known as a 'captive molecule') for its gorgeous smell of spring water, but then abandoning it after a few trials because it weakened the perfume's saltiness. Eventually satisfied with the latest trial, I sent a large bottle of it to Olivier so he could use it on a daily basis."

Quite frankly, after all of that, I'm not sure there's a great deal left for me to add; Ellena has pretty much covered everything. As he asserts, the cumin is convincingly cumin-esque, yet it somehow manages to avoid sweatiness. The cinnamon veers into the territory occupied by Eau D'Hermès. The cardamom explodes onto the skin like a wave crashing on a sharp rock. The marine effect combines a briny tang with a faint suggestion of diluted sugar. And the smoke/incense binds the whole together like a sea mist enveloping everything in sight.

The master has been equally frank with his hints about the scent's more questionable aspects. The algenone can't quite disguise its synthetic origins at all times, and, as Ellena himself points out, there's a moment towards the middle of the perfume's development that the landscape becomes more 'le labo' than 'la mer' (more on this below). The spice accord is, indeed, compelling, but it sometimes feels like a re-statement of older ideas, not least Ellena's own Déclaration. And, as seems to be the case with several of the Hermessences, longevity is something of an issue. On fabric, the gently musky drydown lasts for a more than respectable length of time; on skin, it fades with a speed which will doubtless cause many punters to point derisive fingers at the three-figure sum tagged onto the elegant bottle. Try it before you buy it, if you believe price should be directly proportional to persistence.

But finally, a few thoughts on that marine note. Ellena is too experienced and self-reflective an artist not to be aware of the implications of a) foregrounding a sea-like whiff in a composition, b) pouring it into the ultra-luxe enclosure of an Hermès flacon and finally c) plastering the word 'Marine' onto its name. Is he throwing down the gauntlet? Could he possibly be daring critics and customers to challenge his decision to use a note that has filtered right down to the level of Gilette shaving foams? Is he trying to re-legitimise a corner of the perfumer's palette which consistently fails to be taken seriously?

Neither Hermès nor Ellena are strangers to the odours of Atlantis. The former's Eau De Merveilles owes a significant portion of its impact to coastal vibes. And the latter toyed with briny ideas when he made Terre D'Hermès. But Épice Marine is an altogether different prospect: it doesn't shy away from its aquatic affiliations. Indeed, it appears to want to make a virtue of them... albeit not to to the extent that it tries to be a posh version of CK Escape.

So, how does it fare? Well, in the final analysis, it would be excessively generous to state that Ellena has succeeded in making the most derided of perfume notes entirely palatable. In other words, if you're already dead set against anything pretending to have been squeezed out of the hair of a buxom mermaid, this stuff will not convert you. But if you're relatively undecided and you believe that suggestions of the sea do have a place in perfumery - as long as they're made skilfully - then you may well conclude that Épice Marine contributes a valuable argument to the discussion. Personally, I was surprised by how easy it was to accept the marine note - apart from, as I've already said, in a few segments when it becomes too coarse - so I can't help but applaud Ellena's achievement: as in much of his other work, he does, for the most part, paint an engaging watercolour here. I can see very few people are ever likely to consider this to be their favourite of the Hermessences, but the mere fact that it has been made is important. It's fairly distinctive, it's scrupulously clear in its intentions, and it provides more evidence of Ellena's commitment to the evolution not just of his own work, but of perfumery as a whole.

[Review based on a sample of eau de toilette provided by Hermès in 2013.]



  1. Based on a blotter testing, I quite agree with you about the marine note, to every detail. However I find the "Epice" aspect overpowering. In particular the cardamom "blast," as you say, is untethered to any olfactory ground I know. Its radiance, persistence, and impact are so extreme that all I can think of is a lab. So I'm in the lab, trying not to think too hard about that crazy cardamom business, and this is not the best venue for an attempt to rehabilitate the marine note. I quite like marine notes in the scents you mention as well as a few others, e.g. Sel Marin. Unfortunately, Epice Marine makes me like marine notes less than I did before. Surely that was not its intent.

    1. Leathermountain, thanks for your comment. Did you get a chance to try the scent on skin? It does change the balance between the spices and the marine note to some extent.

      That said, I can understand why you may have found Ellena's sea-scape tough to take. Sel Marin is definitely gentler... but arguably less marine-like?

  2. Interesting. I admit, I do tend do pass preliminary judgment on a blotter before I even make the decision to test something on skin. Recently I have begun to seriously reconsider this procedure. I don't know if I can bring myself to give this one another try, though, so overpowering was that cardamom blast. And I love actual cardamom!

    Interesting that you describe Sel Marin as being gentler. I suppose the radiance is less, although I find the percept itself to be much cooler and sharper. I must revisit Sel Marin as well -- a prospect I find much more enticing.

    As for less marine.... I get a lot of dried seaweed smell from Sel Marin, which for me is the strongest smell I associate with the ocean. I'm not sure what is marine about Epice Marine, although I do think it explores some olfactory overlap between the ocean and cardamom, which I had not noticed before, and which is always interesting. Maybe you can help me understand what else is going on?

    1. Leathermountain, it seems to me that you don't need my help to understand what's going on :-)

      Firstly, I'd say that I ought to revisit Sel Marin too. But anyway, I don't have a sample to hand right now.

      To me, the marine aspect of EP comes from the calone-like note (which comes from the algenone, I guess) which conjures oysters, ozone and the wateriness of melons. All of these possess a sharp, biting freshness, which is probably what connects them to the equally sharp, aqueous facets of cardamom.

  3. After fragrances like Vanille Galante that smelled nothing like their names, they're back to a more straightforward naming scheme just when the marine aspect would have been better played down.

    Oh well. I don't understand Hermès anymore.

    1. CdP, wouldn't it be fair to assert that Epice Marine fits in with the other Hermessences in the sense that it's a hyper-translucent, limpid poem of a perfume?

      I'm curious: at what point would you say you stopped 'understanding' Hermes?

    2. Vanille Galante was the point of no return. This particular juice could have been one of the Jardins, or one of the Colognes, or any Hermès by JCE.

      Basically any new fragrance from them has the same tone. This is probably why Jour d'Hermès bombed.

      So glad Christine (Nagel) is in.

    3. CdP, that's interesting. A good topic for a perfumed debate, I think! :-)

      The arrival of Nagel will be fascinating to watch. I wonder if it will result in Ellena being Nagelised or Nagel being Ellenicated. Or maybe we'll have an entirely new beast: Ellenagel??!


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