Is Tom Ford on a gender-bending mission? Last year he energised the masculine market with the female-friendly Noir (recent winner of the Perfume Extraordinaire award at the UK's FiFis). Now he's set an unabashedly male panther amongst the pigeons taking refuge in the ladies' counter with Sahara Noir, one of the most predatory, muscular scents we're likely to see from the mainstream this year.
Its chief asset is its apparent simplicity. From the moment its shimmering, oily thickness descends upon skin, there's no doubt about the olfactory direction in which this fragrance is headed: frankincense and labdanum. But of course, the journey is frequently more interesting than the destination, and here, it is especially picturesque. The incense is right up there with the finest I've ever had the pleasure to smell (apparently, the variety used here is 'Orpur', the brand name Givaudan ascribe to their most precious, 'Rolls Royce' materials) but instead of replicating the allure of previous gems in this category, it brings a distinct personality of its own to proceedings. In this composition, it is as sacred as it is profane, combining the usual dusty, resinous, faintly citrus-edged profile with tobacco, clouds of smoke and the dangerous glow of burning charcoal.
The labdanum also marries the divine to the devilish. The press release states that this facet of the fragrance's construction has been created with labdanum absolute - an ingredient as old as perfumery itself - as well as a modern, fractional distillate of labdanum they've dubbed ambreinol. Whatever the alchemical processes involved, the result is a powerhouse expression of pure physicality, a scent rising up from the core of the earth to deliver a chant of profound magnitude.
Although SH's modus operandi is decidedly linear, a few subsidiary elements have been brought into play to provide the contrast that is the hallmark of all high-quality perfumes. There's a sweetness discernible at the top - possibly bergamot or orange - which lures the unsuspecting passer-by into the sticky trap. And spices punctuate proceedings as well - notably saffron - in order to stop the whole from coming across as too heavy. But essentially, attention remains on the two star ingredients, and the perfume is all the more potent for this single-mindedness.
As in the case of all incense-based fragrances, longevity can be an issue with SH. Frankincense is a tricky substance to use and it resists attempts to make its more natural-smelling facets tenacious. But I'd suggest that an amenable compromise has been reached here by the perfumer; although its more diffusive elements fade relatively soon, there's no question that the base remains intact for several hours, purring away with seductive insistence. Note, this is a minor quibble in the face of such swoon-worthy beauty. And anyway, there's always the option to spray on fabric.
Speaking of swooning... the other day, a few hours after I'd spayed the scent on myself, Madame Persolaise burst into my study. She was in a rush and had obviously intended to pop in for a moment, deliver some piece of info and then dash back out again. But when she was hit by the wave of scent emanating from my person - a wave whose strength I confess I hadn't quite appreciated - she literally stopped in her tracks.
"What on... what IS that?" she murmured, closing her eyes to savour the experience. I told her what it was, but I don't think she was really listening any more. Her thoughts were centuries away, resting on a desert floor beneath a black sky lit up with thousands of stars. When she popped out of her reverie, she stared at me for a moment and tried to speak, but she couldn't remember what she'd come to tell me and she just stared into space, blankly.
Since then, we haven't been able to resolve the issue of who gets to keep my sample bottle. She claims it should be hers, on the basis that the scent is being sold as feminine. I say narrow-minded marketing tactics can't be used as an argument. Perhaps we'll both end up wearing it. And who knows, maybe that's what Mr Ford had intended all along.
[Review based on a sample of eau de parfum provided by Tom Ford in 2013.]