You can't blame me for getting excited by the prospect of two new colognes from Jean-Claude Ellena. If there's one thing the man knows how to do well, it's producing light scents which don't leave their brain cells at the entrance to the lemon grove. Taken as a whole, his Jardin series is probably one of the most intelligent expressions of verdancy the perfume world has seen in this century. His Déclaration for Cartier manages to combine authoritative woods and spices with carefree weightlessness. And of course his Cologne Bigarade for Frederic Malle is quite simply one of the most life-affirming, exuberant delights ever bottled. So expectations were high for his two additions to Hermès' well-regarded cologne range.
It's been four years since Ellena turned the spotlight on the most fleeting, most effervescent sub-set of his employer's olfactory portfolio, and the 'light' market has changed a great deal since then. As has been pointed out in articles on a few other blogs, cologne-style perfumes are all the rage at the moment, with many brands taking the decision to release 'eau' flankers of their chief money-earners. However, the great spending public has decreed that these modern renditions of wispiness must last longer than their classical versions. This, in turn, has raised interesting technical problems for perfumers. If their butterfly life-span is lengthened in any way, colognes often refuse to take flight; their wings get bloated and they flounder at ground level. The solution - if that's the right word - has been to opt for a compromise: rather than soaring at high altitudes, many 21st century colognes maintain a holding pattern a safe distance above the ground. They can handle a long-haul trip, but they don't offer as thrilling a flight. Notable examples of this approach include the Assoluta incarnation of Acqua Di Parma's Colonia (co-authored by Ellena) as well as most of the output from Atelier Cologne, a brand whose sole raison d'être is to combine lightness with longevity.
With all this in mind, it was interesting to try to predict the direction in which Ellena would take his new offerings. Would he remain true to the genre's evanescence or would he follow the current trend for increased tenacity? On the evidence of Eau De Mandarine Ambrée, he's decided to stay faithful to the reasons for colognes' age-old popularity, and I, for one, am very pleased indeed.
There is an immediate, holographic intensity to this creation which suggests that a generous dose of natural citrus oils has gone into each bottle. The pips, flesh and zest of a ripe mandarin are conjured with astonishing accuracy, easing the wearer into a flawless summer afternoon, where the warmth of the sun is balanced by a revitalizing breeze. A green note (violet leaf, perhaps) tempers the sweetness and adds a touch of elegance. The faintly metallic glint of petitgrain woods suggests refined sophistication. And then comes the clever bit. Instead of ushering the citrus notes away and merely replacing them with an amber base, the drydown actually appears to turn the mandarin into amber. The citrus takes on the characteristics of woody, sensuous vanillic notes without losing its own identity. It's a seamless olfactory conjuring trick which only a perfumer of Ellena's calibre could have pulled off with such finesse. And even though the links between mandarin and amber have been explored before (Andy Tauer's Orange Star and his similarly-named Mandarines Ambrées soap come to mind) here, the two notes haven't just been combined: they've been presented as natural extensions of each other.
But what about the big issue: how long does it last? Well, on fabric the answer is: longer than you'd think. Of course, it dies faster on skin, but then that's the price you pay for being plunged into a bowl of freshly squeezed sunshine... a bowl into which I am more than happy to be plunged, even if my time there is limited. The more tenacious offerings from other perfume houses may be causing the tills to chime with pleasure at the moment, but I have yet to be convinced about their appeal. I'm with Ellena on the cologne question, which is why this particular fruity number is guaranteed a space in my summer holiday suitcase.
[The second of the new Hermès colognes is Eau De Narcisse Bleu; it may be reviewed here in the near future; review of Eau De Mandarine Ambrée based on a sample of eau de cologne provided by Hermès in 2013.]