It’s a rare opportunity to sit in on a masterclass with a perfumer, so when we were invited to hear Alexandra Carlin explain her creation of Thameen Insignia, along with the brilliant Christopher Chong – now resident as Thameen’s Creative Director – we veritably leapt at the chance!
Part of Thameen’s Sovereign Collection (all of which are inspired by the Crown Jewels) Insignia evokes the magnificent Garter Star (the late Queen Elizabeth II’s beloved insignia jewel, which she often wore in memory of her grandfather, and is now owned by King Charles). The Garter Star represents honour, loyalty, charitable work – sentiments that meant so much to the late Queen, and continue to resonate through the work of King Charles.
Christopher Chong explained as we began the session that the project was the first he’d worked on in his new role with Thameen, and so it was already special – a project that took on even greater significance with the Queen’s passing, and respectful silence they kept during the period of mourning. ‘That’s the reason we’re only really starting to talk about Insignia now,’ says Chong. Describing how they collaborated on the fragrance, he continues: ‘I proposed that to Alex, to look into heritage from her perspective. She loves doing extensive research. We create today thinking of tomorrow.’
Alexandra Carlin: ‘What I like with Christopher is he always gives me a lot of freedom of expression and interpretation. I wanted it to be for sure a very elegant fragrance. Talking about heritage & transmission I knew I wanted to use a base from De Laire – a fragrance house started in the 19th century now owned by Symrise. They specialised in bases, a mix of synthetic and natural. Now we also make new bases – this is one of them, an incredible cognac oil.’
Arrayed before Alexandra were tantalising rows of raw ingredients, little bottles that hold the scented secrets to Insignia’s composition, and which we were now going to smell. Oh, that cognac oil! How to describe it? A dusky, aged oak barrel discovered in an ancient cellar, the wood and contents made one with time; a smoky, supremely smooth kind of booziness that swirls warmly, but so mellow – never overwhelming.
Alexandra: ‘The clove is obtained by SymTrap technology from clove leaf. You do a distillation and then a second distillation and capture the scent. Its note ethereal and horse like, leathery. This one is from Brazil.’
Again – a revelation. Coming from the leaf, this is no ‘Christmas spice’ of a scent, instead the sun-warmed hay notes shine, revealing an unexpected softness and intriguing levels of complexity.
Alexandra next passed us blotters of the new (and extra special) geranium they used for Insignia, telling us:
‘This geranium from Madagascar is the most refined quality, one you just can’t usually get these days. When I first went there to smell it at the place they distill it, with perfumers like Maurice Roucel, I I knew how great it was even before I smelled it myself, as I saw him well up, almost cry with how it reminded him of this supreme quality you cannot get anymore, which we thought had been lost forever, but we can use again.’
A note called Sandalwood Dreches was next, which Christopher explained was actually upcycled, and has been ‘…distilled from sandalwood chips that are leftover to create an edible note but not milky. It’s toffee, almost salted caramel but not overly sweet. Insignia was the first perfume on the market using it.’
When we finally smelled the base note of Cuir Velour – an accord masterfully blending notes of raspberry, violet, velvet, leather – it left our group gasping. A caress of a scent, it’s something we’d be happy to wear as a fragrance in itself. Of course we were then champing at the bit to smell the final fragrance, and goodness it was worth waiting for…
Top Notes: Whiskey, fig, bitter orange
Middle Notes: Bay Leaf, geranium, Damask rose
Base Notes: Sandalwood, vetiver, suede
Thameen Insignia is the perfect example of how a perfume is always so much more than the list of its notes; though these are intriguing enough on paper, it truly comes alive on the skin. There’s a sparkle to this scent, a radiance that seems to hover above the skin like a fragrant aura. Having smelled the notes in turn, you could definitely recognise them in the composition, but because they’ve been so seamlessly blended, they feel suffused with a dignified subtlety. There’s nothing gaudy or showy about Insignia – a silky, dry powdery-ness adds hushed glamour, the equivalent of candlelight refracted in a foxed mirror.
What an honour to have attended such a masterclass, and have the privilege of talking to the very perfumer and Creative Director who worked on the fragrance itself – and to smell such quality of raw materials, which normally would only get to be sniffed by other perfumers. We so hope Thameen repeat this experience, and that our recounting of it adds to your enjoyment of trying Insignia on your own skin…
Thameen Insignia, £235 for 50ml Extrait de Parfum harrods.com
Written by Suzy Nightingale