Discovering India: Vaara by Penhaligon’s

There is the dual mind present on this blog: Olfactics and Liam. Olfactics is quite decidedly an armchair rationalist, formulating and challenging epistemic attitudes towards fragrance-cum-aesthetics. Olfactics is excruciatingly severe and takes the deeply hard stance towards all things fragrance. My two Gabrielle posts saw Olfactics front and centre, and for this post on Vaara I wish to showcase Liam. This is Liam the fragrance wearer. Equally serious but far more hands-on; empirical like an ethnographer, putting himself into the field and within the sea of fragrances.

Liam can tell you, quite simply, that Vaara is a brilliant work and the result of complex negotiation trying to find the perfect scent evocative of India.

Why speak of this dual mind? They are not separate, they are linked. Olfactics has a penchant for content analysis – looking deeply at scent. And when one starts to look deeply at scent, the scent starts looking back at you, for when one treats scent seriously, as a thing of value and artistic merit, it can’t help but utter questions about the nature of the practice. The limitations of objectivity and interpretation become the fundamental question. A sensitivity develops that one is stuck with. Tastes become tighter as a result of scrupulousness, and as taste is the precondition of true enjoyment, Liam’s tastes are affected due to Olfactics’ focus; it is a reflexive relationship. Through the deep study of a fragrance, it bends back onto that who studies it.

Allow me to explicate this idea through a discussion of Vaara. I am positively besotted by the creation, and as a work by Bertrand Duchaufour it slots itself nicely into his canon of transparent narratives. It is also one of many scents that capture a geographical space through scent. Tauer’s L’Air du Desert Marocain and Duchaufour’s Timbuktu are the archetypes of achievement when it comes to recreating space and place through perfume, but Vaara is a worthwhile contender for the spot. Liam the perfume wearer was searching for a smell evocative of India, a scent evocative of a generosity of spices that was at once balanced yet thematically moved towards an idealised interpretation of India. To me, this meant a suggestion of damp spices with a crisp counterpoint.

© 2017 Liam Sardea
I’d like to thank Corey for getting me out of my reviewer’s ennui!

On this criterion alone an array of worthwhile contenders become prevalent. Ellena’s Un Jardin Apres la Mousson for Hermes was the obvious competitor, sharing a generous helping of spices – but whilst Mousson went cool with a torrent of crisp and pungent cardamom met with the evasive humming freshness of ginger, it presented two features I did not enjoy. Firstly, Ellena relied on a considered dosage of a melon note crossed with an impression of watery flowers and something jasmine (tea) like. But, I was not looking for aquatic overtones. Secondly, as an inevitable result of the generous brushstrokes of melon and aquatic accords, Mousson is a cold fragrance – perhaps I was expecting too much, for this is exactly how you’d imagine post-monsoon would smell, as melon and a touch of flowery indole give way for the sumptuous smells of old water and a sly suggestion of rot. It fits the bill, but unfortunately not my bill.

Safran Troublant was the other alternative, capturing for the most part exactly what I wanted to evoke in my idea of India. It grappled the archetypical combo of rose and saffron, which is both evocative and a cohesive combination. By affixing saffron with rose and warming it with honey, a complex accord is formed. Rose has its singing features of upwards freshness and floralcy, while saffron seems to hover at a transparent middle with impressions of metal and rubbery leather. This pairs well with rose – the classic pairing of a floral and a leather note is mimicked by using saffron in place of leather, which is far more ethereal than leather and less dense than suede. Yet, saffron itself works with the metallic edge of rose, lifting it and presenting its cool steely side. This is not so apparent in Safran Troublant, washing this beautiful crispness in creamy lactic tones.

Vaara embraces what is only partially realised in these two scents. It begins with a passing introduction of dry chamomile flowers with its inflection of apple, immediately presenting the juiciness of quince paired with a spiced rose. Its dosage of spice is full and radiant, as it takes the metallic sheen of saffron and the infinite length of crisp coriander seed and ties it with carrot seed. This rooty, earthy, iris-like note adds definite weight to the composition, providing an elegance that only iris accords can produce. It is also metallic and off-sweet, and so it pairs nicely with the equally off-sweet and metallic saffron. Most importantly, however, the carrot seed note is a contradiction between cool and hot, and thus through carrot seed the evocative temperament of India is captured. Instead of cool, Vaara recreates the effect of the evening sun kissing healthy earth and flora, of humid landscapes cooling down to welcome the evening.

Duchaufour shapes this picture of India further, planting flowers and fruits into this Indian garden. The fullness of rose is enriched with the traditional adornment of a sprinkling of rose water, which is saccharine and weightless, and peony, which lifts the rose’s upper register. It smells quite edible in this format, and with a generosity of quince Duchaufour further achieves my desired smell of both a garden and of healthy rot. The quince note recreates the sickly sweet pleasantness I found in Mousson, without an apparent overdosing of that quality, whilst honey recalls Duchaufour’s Safran without moving into milky tones.

This is a palace garden, after all, and there is a strikingly full and flourishing medley of sunny floral tones, including magnolia, freesia, and champaca. These florals impart a watery, floral-derived aquatic tone – like cool water hitting parched soil. These are the vibrant colours of India recreated in a scent of exquisite blending. A kaleidoscope of colours achieved through a generosity of materials – an Oriental work based purely on the breadth of its ingredients supported by a foundation of creamy tonka bean and sandalwood, but otherwise, it’s all about florals and fruit here within this atmospheric work.

This is what marks a good Duchaufour work. There are many aspects to this fragrance, and they reveal themselves only after careful concentration. That is why I wanted to discuss the way I live with the fragrances that I wear through Vaara, unique in the way it captures a complete and singular narrative of India built by incorporating a series of smaller snapshots: the dry earth, the wet garden, the sweet fruits, the spice markets, the ceremonies, the vibrant fabrics, and all of its unique contradictions weaved into the fragrance.

Any criticisms? Olfactics comes out. I appreciate Vaara’s longevity, but that is a result of white musk and ISO E Super which is fairly concrete and cloying at certain times. I cannot help but think of Traversee du Bosphore, which has the same playful idea of fruit clashed with spices, Vaara, however, is fairly linear despite its complexity, whilst Traversee goes through wonderful stages. I will also admit that my sweet tooth finds these sort of saccharine works particularly enjoyable, but I can imagine that some would find the bigness of this sweet quince far too nebulous and persistent. The base is fairly nonexistent in Vaara too, and it is tempting to imagine a higher dosage of creamy Indian sandalwood for both roundness, depth, and of course to fit in with the geographic theme. This is a matter of assessing the quality of materials over the materials used themselves, but in the interest of this particular post, that’s for another time!

Spicy Quince.

Subjective rating: 4.5/5 

Objective rating: 4/5

3 thoughts on “Discovering India: Vaara by Penhaligon’s

  1. Ohhhhh the anthropologist in me is begging you to consider that India is as diverse from north to south, as it is east to west. As you rightly point out, one’s imagining of whatever India is supposed to be is highly subjective.

    A very sweet perfumer made my son a scent called ‘Indonesia’. It featured spicy notes, a bit of irange blossom, possibly black tea and some woody notes. My son said it smelt nothing like Indonesia, but he understood it was the perfumer’s image of what Indonesia must be like. To my son, Indonesia is dog droppings, incense, frangipani and unmufflered Suzukis.

    As such, all scents puporting to evoke India are all personal interpretations. Is that the fun part??

    Kate xx

  2. I wish I still had my Vaara to compare with your thought but, alas, I gave it to my sister because I wasn’t feelin’ it. It was too something or other and I was never quite engaged with it. I think the quince didn’t sit well with me. Great review. Cheers, Liam.❤️

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