Thameen Insignia – a Masterclass with perfumer Alexandra Carlin

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

Maison Francis Kurkdjian Gentle Fluidity – a fragrant dance of two halves

Maison Francis Kurkdjian Gentle Fluidity – a duo of fragrances encompassing the same ingredients, but with utterly differing characters and, therefore, emotional responses in the wearer. We caught up with Francis Kurkdjian himself, to discover the intricacies of two fragrances with ‘same notes, two identities‘…

Within both the Gentle Fluidity Gold and Gentle Fluidity Silver, you will find juniper berries, nutmeg, coriander, musks, amber wood and vanilla. But surely no scents have ever more firmly proved that mere lists of the materials a perfumer’s used are no better way of judging a final fragrance than being given the names of the paint colours a particular artist favours. What’s missing in the bare bones of a list is the emotional flesh of the fragrance. And MFK’s Gold and Silver get their messages across – clearly, but with infinite subtleties. Such is the skill of Kurkdjian.

So, what do they smell like? Gentle Fluidity Gold is warm, nuzzly – it glimmers the way a gilded bronzer does on the skin before wrapping you in a hug of deliciously creamy woodiness. Gentle Fluidity Silver, meanwhile, is cooler, frosted almost, the ultra refined juniper to the fore as it gently caresses the skin. Two sides of the same coin, or of your own personality, perhaps? Who better to explain them than Francis Kurkjian himself?

Beyond the technical skill of the nose, there is an alchemy that takes place – an invisible message from perfumer to perfume-wearer, and from the person who wears the scent to every passer by that smells it. Our personal reactions may not be the same, but those responses are instantaneous and unbidden. At an event hosted by fragrance writer Alice du Parcq, perfumer and founder, Francis Kurkdjian, told us the story of how the scents were inspired – alongside a glimpse of the stunning new advertising campaign, which expresses the scents in a medium close to Kurkdjian’s heart (and his past, as a ballet dancer).

 

The new Gentle Fluidity campaign draws the artistic and emotional analogy between perfume and dance, an art that deeply shaped Francis Kurkdjian’s personality. The complicity between the two dancers and the fluidity of their movements are a symbol of the synergy among the ingredients of the two Gentle Fluidity eaux de parfum.

 

Within the private area of a restaurant in London, the face of Francis Kurkdjian is virtually beamed across the channel via a large television screen. A small group of invited press are here for a Masterclass in his Gentle Fluidity fragrances.

‘I like the idea of telling a story through ballet, that’s very important to me,’ he says, as the sinuous forms of two dancers weave around eachother on screen – a visual evocation of how the fragrances are united yet apart.

‘At the very beginning I only had one scent. I thought the idea was close to unisex, or a gender free scent.’ Francis looks into the middle distance and considers awhile, as he recalls his creative influences. ‘During the process I changed my mind. I wanted to form a new shape from the same DNA, like fake twins in a way.’

‘The original name was Gender Fluidity,’ Kurkdjian elucidates, ‘but I had a friend who kept mispronouncing it, and I thought he was right actually. I like the idea of kindness in the name.’ Talking about the term ‘unisex’ and concepts of gender – in fragrance, in life itself – Kurkjian continued: ‘I think the idea of being “gender fluid” will in time even become dated, it won’t be seen as being “different” because we will have lived with [the concept], we will completely accept that. Whereas fluidity and gentleness are timeless.’

‘It’s all about how you put two things together and they can resonate very differently. The magic of using an ingredient with something else is amazing. Lemon on its own is just lemon. If you start to play and add two other notes next to each other, they vibrate differently.

For the gold version there’s an overdose of vanilla and musk. The musk gives an airiness. Like a ballon within the vanilla. In ballet, my teacher used to tell me when I jumped, you need the feeling of balloon, the feeling of floating all the while gravity is trying to pull you down.’

‘Once I’d defined the gold version, I could define the silver version. I looked at how I could reshape and rebalance. The creative process for me is always chaos, but in my head I’m organised’ he chuckled.

 

 

Discussing how it can still be difficult to get some men to try anything other than scents specifically marketed ‘for men’, Kurkdjian smiled wryly as he gave an example he’s often seen:

‘When a woman wears a man’s fragrance she doesn’t question her femininity at all. Maybe because women have worn trousers for so long? Whereas with men, if you give them a scent to smell on a white card they will like it, but then if you tell them that fragrance was made for women, the majority of them completely disregard it. Perfume is a real mirror of society…’

For more on Kurkdjian’s opinions of ‘gender’ in fragrance, do read his fascinating post Raw Materials Have No Gender, on the Maison’s website. Meanwhile, do seek out the Gentle Fluidity duo and allow them to dance on your skin – we wonder which you will be most instantly drawn to, or what occasions you might wish to wear them to express the multiple sides of your own character…

 

Maison Francis Kurkdjian Gentle Fluidity Gold / Maison Francis Kurkdjian Gentle Fluidity Silver £165 for 70ml eau de parfum at harveynichols.com

By Suzy Nightingale