Don't look now, folks, but I think we've made it to the end of another December. Rose-tinted nostalgia goggles aside, it's probably fair to say that 2013 has been as interesting and eventful as most other years: new perfumers were welcomed into the fold at Hermès and Chanel; oud refused to go quietly; the Gatsby fashion revival fell flat on its inebriated face (thank goodness!); Nicki Minaj made a convincing bid for Most Hideous Perfume Bottle Of All Time; and, rather encouragingly, the issue of anti-allergen legislation seemed to quieten down a little bit.
Needless to say, we were also presented with a vast number of new fragrances. Most of them will no doubt be little more than distant memories in a few months' time. But I dare say that a few may stick around for a while, as long as they're given sufficient opportunities to develop a following. Of these, I've compiled a list of my ten favourites, with a few additions, as explained below. As ever, it's important to stress that I did not have a chance to smell every single scent released this year, so there is a possibility that a masterpiece or two slipped under my radar.
Here we go then, ladies and gents... In alphabetical order, the best perfumes of 2013, according to Persolaise.com:
1996 - Jérôme Epinette (Byredo)
In collaboration with Inez & Vinoodh, the folks at Byredo used a photograph of the face of an ecstatic young woman as the springboard for this piece of work by their regular perfumer Jérôme Epinette. If that sounds like too convoluted a back-story for its own good, then feel free to ignore it, because 1996 doesn't need any clever PR scaffolding. Using notes of incense, vanilla and iris it somehow manages to be wearable and to smell like a piece of paper lined with stardust from a distant galaxy. Startling, unusual stuff.
Aqua Vitae - Francis Kurkdjian (Maison Francis Kurkdjian)
If nothing else, Aqua Vitae is an impressive technical accomplishment: it is both whisper-quiet and long-lasting. But it's more than just an example of skilful craftsmanship. With its fresh citrus notes, its suggestion of woody smokiness and its massive dose of sparkling hedione, it bottles the sensation of recollection. Wear it, and realise that, as the perfume's name suggests, memories are the substance of life.
Ashoka - Bertrand Duchaufour (Neela Vermeire Creations)
Sandalwood appears twice on this list, albeit in quite different guises. Here, it's paired with iris and leather to produce a striking olfactory portrait of a mythical figure who undertook a journey from militancy to spirituality. With the skill which has rightly elevated him to the ranks of one of the best perfumers of our time, Bertrand Duchaufour succeeds in telling Ashoka's story with scent, and in the process gives us one of the year's most elegant releases.
Caligna - Dora Arnaud (L'Artisan Parfumeur)
Speaking of Duchaufour, I ought to mention that I was also impressed with his Déliria for L'Artisan Parfumeur, primarily because of the glee with which it proved that fruity notes must never be dismissed off-hand. However, for my money, Caligna is the brand's more commendable 2013 creation. In an attempt to re-instate the status of Grasse as an important hub of the perfume industry, Dora Arnaud created a jasmine marmalade accord, linked it with the body-inflected intimacy of sage, placed it upon a tincture of oak chips and produced a complex, singular gourmandy-aromatic floral. Rather unfairly ignored when it emerged, Caligna is well worth revisiting.
Dries Van Noten - Bruno Jovanovic
(Editions De Parfums Frederic Malle)
Here's sandalwood again, courtesy of the high-concept trinity of Malle, Noten and Jovanovic. The former made us wait a very long time for his follow-up to Portrait Of A Lady, but when his latest labour of love arrived, it didn't disappoint. As restrained as Portrait is emphatic, DVN places its sandalwood base (obtained from a crop of the traditional Indian tree variety which was grown in Australia) beneath a cerebral combination of spices, woods and, most unexpectedly, a speculoos accord. As in the case of all the best Malle releases, the result is simultaneously modern and retro, redolent of both bygone glamour and contemporary luxury.
Eau De Narcisse Bleu - Jean-Claude Ellena (Hermès)
Of the two colognes released by Hermès this year, I seriously considered placing Eau De Mandarine Ambrée on this list, for its effervescent joie de vivre and its expert take on one of perfumery's oldest genres. In the end, I opted for Narcisse Bleu on the grounds that its hay-like greenness is more original and takes the form into relatively unfamiliar waters. Both scents are wonderful and both re-affirm Ellena's status as the master of sophisticated translucency.
La Fin Du Monde - Quentin Bisch (Etat Libre D'Orange)
It may be the sole release from ELDO this year, but La Fin Du Monde encapsulates the brand's DNA more comprehensively than many of their recent creations: it's inspired by a quirky piece of modernist literature, it's signed by an up-and-coming perfumer and it applies a facetious central concept to a structure that wouldn't be out of place at any classical fragrance house. Or to put it another way, its apocalypse is thoroughly post-modern, employing one measure of gun-powdery, explosive, snuffed-candle notes for every dose of sweet, musky iris. The end of days never smelt so enticing.
Opus VII - Alberto Morillas & Pierre Negrin (Amouage)
Forget Comme Des Garçons or Mugler, 2013's strangest releases came from none other than Amouage. Refusing to allow his brand to rely on faux-Arabian cliches, Creative Director Christopher Chong bravely took his olfactory exploration into uncharted territory and discovered a gem, the unsettling, incomprehensible Opus VII. Pulled from all sides to extremes of green, woody, savoury and leather notes, it both pierces and soothes, like an embrace from an endlessly challenging mentor. Co-creator Morillas calls it "the smell of a stone with the sun on it," and I'd say he's spot-on.
Sahara Noir - Rodrigo Flores-Roux (Tom Ford)
How wonderful that one of the year's ballsiest creations came from the mainstream. Sure, on one level, Sahara Noir is 'just another incense perfume', but then you could say that the Sistine Chapel is 'just another church'. With support from a barn-ful of impertinent animalic notes and a souq-load of spices, Flores-Roux cranks his frankincense as high as it can go, lays it down on a desert-wide expanse of labdanum and serves the whole lot up with a fearlessness which made several customers at Tom Ford counters blush with embarrassed horror.
Ylang 49 - Frank Voelkl (Le Labo)
2013 was a pretty good year for Le Labo: they finally unleashed their Dubai-exclusive (the muscular Cuir 28) and they gave us an enjoyable white floral in the form of Lys 41, but I'd assert that Ylang 49 was their most praise-worthy release. A cat's purr in a bottle, it takes an old-school chypre sensibility (lots of woods, mosses and roses) and brings it up-to-date by adding a curious, briny, seaweedy savouriness. More-ish and pleasure-seeking, it nuzzles up to you and demands to be loved. Miaow!
In addition to the above, I've decided to add:
Oumma - Stéphane Humbert-Lucas (777) and
Thirty Three (Ex Idolo)
As I've written on several occasions, my personal view is that perfumers ought to stay away from the genre of oud-inspired, leathery roses unless they've thought of something new to bring to proceedings. That said, both Thirty Three and Oumma impressed me with their sheer beauty, even if they didn't score high marks for originality. So I thought it was only fair to attach them to the end of the list as two extras. They're quite similar to each other in the initial stages of their development, but close inspection reveals that Thirty Three is colder and sharper (it would seem to possess a stronger menthol note) whereas Oumma is dryer and slightly more bitter (saffron is much more prominent in its composition). Both are breathtaking and remind us why the obsession with Arabian-style scents has grown to the monstrous proportions it enjoys today.
And finally, I can't resist mentioning a creation which was released a little while ago but which didn't make itself known to me until this year:
Cuir Velours - Julien Raquinet (Naomi Goodsir)
In a manner reminiscent of Sophia Grojsman's Trésor and Ralf Schwieger's Lipstick Rose, Cuir Velours takes a post-War lipstick feel, places it alongside a scattering of spices (mainly cumin), adds the eponymous leather and conjures up a top-notch, old-fashioned velvet coat with lava running through its seams. Lovely work.
As per usual, my Best Of choices don't exist in a bubble on their own. I'd urge you to read them within the context of the selections from my regular partners in list-making: Eyeliner On A Cat, Candy Perfume Boy, Fragrant Moments and Olfactoria's Travels. On this particular occasion, we've also joined forces with Perfume Shrine, I Smell Therefore I Am, Smelly Blog and The Fragrant Man. So please click on their links and enjoy reading their views and thoughts on all the different concoctions that have been passed under our noses over the course of the last twelve months.
Finally, I'd like to thank you all of you for helping to make the upkeep of this blog such a gratifying experience. Juggling a demanding full-time job with my writing commitments isn't always easy, but your encouragement makes it worthwhile. You have no idea how much your support means to me!
So before I put this blog into hibernation for a few days, I'd like to wish you all a 2014 filled with peace, understanding and good health. Happy New Year!