When Jean-Claude Ellena was replaced by Christine Nagel as in-house perfumer at Hermès, a question that was asked frequently was whether the company would continue adding to its Hermessence range. Brought to life by Ellena in 2004, it was positioned as the brand’s most high-end collection, with each scent acting as a sort of ‘haiku showcase’ of a specific material. Ellena’s final contribution to the line – Muguet Porcelaine – appeared in 2016 and since then, we’ve had nothing. But it turns out that, during this period of silence, Nagel has been working on not one, but five new members. Indeed, as a way of ‘re-booting’ the range, she decided to take her cue from the ‘essence’ suffix and turn her attention all the way back to the very origins of perfumery, focussing on styles and ingredients that would not have been unfamiliar to ancient civilisations. A result of her endeavours is a first for Hermès: the release of two oil-based compositions, in the mode of the sticky concoctions you can find in the souqs of Dubai. Cardamusc is one of these two.
In terms of its construction, it is exactly what it says on the tin: a cardamom note suspended in a melange of modern musks. The effect of the latter is to slow down and stretch out the former, which means – given Nagel has dosed the cardamom at a level much higher than we’re accustomed to – that the overriding impression is akin to a film clip of a cascade of finely-powdered seeds, projected at about a tenth of real-life speed. A curious and fascinating consequence of this treatment is that the cardamom is imbued with uncharacteristic warmth. Generally considered to be one of the coolest of the spices, it’s often used to inject a more interesting, less generically-citrusy freshness to compositions. But in Cardamusc, although it is entirely recognisable – with its woody, herbal, almost orange-like facets – it also comes across as wholly surprising, allying itself with the heat of the musks in order to project a far more intimate, more enveloping personality than we’d normally expect.
And now comes the bit about me. Three years ago, when I met Nagel at the launch of Ellena’s Le Jardin De Monsieur Li, she asked me for my thoughts on western perfumery’s seeming obsession with the Middle East. I replied that, in principle, I thought it was high time Europe expanded its horizons, but I was dismayed that all the attention was on oud. After all, I said, there are plenty of other Arabian ingredients worth considering. When she asked me to explain, I mentioned cardamom, which led to a discussion not just of the material’s importance in Arabic hospitality, but also the technical challenge of making its presence in a scent far less fleeting than it usually is. Fast forward a few years and – with tremendous generosity and honesty – Nagel and the Hermès team have informed me that our conversation was one of the steps on the journey towards the creation of Cardamusc. (In fact, to my disbelief, they've told me that I also had a direct influence on the composition of another scent – the upcoming Eau De Citron Noir, for the cologne range – but I’ll save that story for another time.)
So at this stage, patient reader, hopefully you can understand why this review was difficult to write: me being me, I struggled to find a path between the demands of critical objectivity and my clear – albeit inadvertent – link to Nagel’s creation. However, having said that, and having tried to present the situation in as factual a way as possible, I’d like to end with a few lines that are unashamedly personal. I am thoroughly impressed with Cardamusc. It possesses all the facets I would have hoped to smell in a cardamom scent, but it also offers unexpected diversions, presenting the material in a more tender, more romantic light than I would have thought possible. Yes, it isn’t particularly diffusive – unlike cardamom oil itself – but I suspect that might be deliberate: another attempt on Nagel’s part to challenge our understanding of the ingredient and give it genuinely new life. This almost secretive quality causes you to pause, lean into the scent and seek out the mysteries at its core. And – when coupled with the slow motion effect I described earlier – it immediately conjures Wong Kar-wai’s impassioned, swoon-inducing In The Mood For Love. I take a deep breath, I close my eyes… and straight away, I can hear the opening strains of that haunting soundtrack.
[Review based on a sample of perfume oil provided by Hermès in 2018. The four other new Hermessences are: Agar Ébene, a suede-like, smoothly-textured take on agar wood; Cedre Sambac, a superbly-accomplished balance of the opposing temperaments of cedar and jasmine; Myrrhe Églantine, an unusually girly, pink-hued presentation of myrrh; and Musc Pallida, the other oil-based release and perhaps the most predictable of the quintet, combining iris with clean musks.]