Wholemeal pasta. The texture is all wrong. It is eaten by worthy, try too-hard long haired types. They are well meaning, it is true, but ultimately they are too wrapped up to know that you can eat white pasta and still get enough fibre in your diet. Some time ago, I began with an assumption that natural perfume must fall into the same category. It would be worthy but somehow stodgy. Maybe, like some whole foods, it would be full of goodness which I don't enjoy enough to use enough to benefit from the goodness. The thought would run something like this: fragrances are about smelling good, and good can be created by human endeavour as well as nature. Nature gives us clay, human beings fire the clay into bricks, and bricks build stronger houses than sticks and mud.
In the background, growing like a cancer treated only with health food remedies, there lurked an allure. The idea that I would smell real oakmoss in a green scent appealed to me. If the description mentions lime, it would be pleasing to think that the fragrance contains lime. I don’t know why this seemed important. Maybe it was to do with the general feeling I have running in the background that I am being duped by everyone about everything all the time. I am an urban boy.
I had read about Ayala Moriel’s perfumes on basenotes.net, and indeed read Ayala's posts there, and her own excellent blog. I had even unsuccessfully attempted to contribute an idea for naming one of her fragrances when she consulted the basenotes public. I had never smelled one.
I set off to Vancouver to visit my friend. One day with little agenda, I was wandering the city when I remembered that Ayala was downtown on the street named Haro. I couldn’t remember the exact address, so I walked along looking out for a shop front, keen to pop in and try her Rainforest of which I had read. It has oakmoss in it (amongst all sorts of other things) and it sounded good. After strolling all the way down Haro, I got to Stanley Park and smelled the real rainforest but I couldn’t find Ayala. Later, I realised that she operates from a private address not a storefront. Luckily for me, when she later read my story of walking straight past her, she generously sent me a set of eight samples of her perfumes.
So, back in London, I opened the little box and unscrewed the lid of the Rainforest and took a sniff. It was sweeter than I expected, the subtle rose note somehow civilising the very green and quite warm rainforest, as if the savages in the forest have a beautiful secret flower garden they maintain tenderly while taking a break from grunting and fighting. A dry hay and a friendly pine note, not at all harsh as pine can be, sitting with a little citrus and some moss. This was very good. I was struck by the depth, darkness and earthiness, the sweet balsamic wood. Like a living forest. Surprised and impressed, I put the samples aside for later when I would have more time.
Coming back to them that evening I opened all the little vials and had a sniff. Several smelled so good from their containers that I couldn't stop. I had something of a re-awakening. I remembered why I like fragrances. For me, it is not so much the longevity, the projection. It is just about something that smells fantastic. I inhaled deeply and repeatedly. I read some of the notes from the website, tested a little on skin, but mostly I inhaled deeply from right above the little pots. This turned out to be a very bad mistake. I had forgotten that these were not light, volatile Eaux de Toilette. My sense of smell hit overload quite rapidly so I couldn’t smell anything much except a general essential oil melange. I felt like my nose had a coating of heavy oils on the inside. I tried to resist mental images of nasal receptors overflowing with oil while an impotent scent molecule struggled to get in. I ran for the coffee, but it was too late. Thoroughly burned out, I wore no fragrance for two days. Even the smell of toast had become annoying. I was briefly worried I had permanently damaged my will to explore, but fortunately this was not the case and I returned to these fine potions a few days later with a much more cautious approach.
First I chose the vetiver scent Vetiver Racinettes. On first sniff I almost recoiled at the sheer raw earthiness on offer here but immediately I wanted more. This smelled so deeply rooted it seemed to touch some primeval nerve. It was almost rude. I sniffed again from the sample, then put a little on a testing strip and waited for it to develop. This didn’t smell sensual to me; I smelled something downright sexual. I had to put some on my arm. After such a radical opening I was surprised to find that this lightens surprisingly quickly as it settles on the skin leaving a perfect wild vetiver fragrance. I was struck by the structure, the composition and the development. This was a fragrance constructed by a nose of some distinction.
Over the next few days, I tested others in a similar fashion:
Arbitrary is beautiful and seamless. It is a zingy blend of citrus and aromatic herbs with bitter oakmoss in a classic chypre accord, reminiscent of legendary masculine scents like Eau Sauvage or Signoricci. The way the citrus melts into the verbena is outstanding, the fresh, slightly minty side of the herb shines through while a touch of an anisic green quality, maybe from the listed basil note, stays very much in the background. In the heart, a dry hay colours the warm jasmine, which is thickened slightly by some patchouli. For lovers of the dry citrus herbal style like me, this will rate very highly.
In Bon Zai Tangerine seems to bridge the rose and the wood, tying the two together into a unified chord. From the first, a green, woody, inedible quality comes to the fore, followed quickly by a citric-emphasised rose. The lemon Verbena is strong too. From a distance it smells like a rose scent but closer up the greens and the woods are more prominent. There is a distinct and fascinating Japanese quality to the woods, a skillfully realized effect. The quality of these ingredients radiates. This is a very fine and unusual rose scent for men to wear which combines echoes of classic English Victoriana with exotic greens.
Epice Sauvage boasts an astounding top note accord of soft wonderful spices. Many perfumes claim the “Spice Market” label but this smells just like I’m standing in front of the stall. Cardamom usually smells harsh and unpleasantly sour to my nose, but here it is round and beautifully integrated. Cinnamon is another note which I often find overpowering in fragrance but here it is a gentle dusting, a flavor amongst others, not prominent in its own right like in a perfect apple crumble. The key word here is accord. It settles into a lovely floral heart with transparent wood and dries to an herbaceous, balsamic, sweet accord balanced perfectly with the savory/dry spice.
Espionage is very different. Lots of action up front here before it settles down into an amalgamated accord of lightly musked vanillic leather with the other notes in wonderful subdued balance. The initial rollercoaster gives me immediate leather, tobacco, leather again, rose otto with a little indolic jasmine in a wonderfully balanced floral blend, with a touch of brightness from bergamot. Vanilla too, all detectable in the first ten minutes but masterfully put together. Again this brings to mind the blending of top quality French fragrance. The fact that it is all natural makes the effect achieved even more impressive. I am not sure how the leather note has been done, but I get a hint of earthy mushroom giving an earth- hide note.
Lovender is a beautiful lavender fragrance which skillfully and without complication showcases and accents the various components of the lavender. The minty quality is there balanced nicely with the more prominent citric aspect. This lemony note segues into an orris note, which remains quite transparent and clear and hardly powdery, though a little soft-focus aspect emerges as it develops. The warm sandalwood, with a pinch of vanilla, sits underneath supporting the more woody tones but these remain very much in a subordinate capacity. The main silage is a wonderful lemony herbal lavender freshness, with just a hint of romance beneath. A scent for an anniversary, not a date.
Ayala describes Sabotage as a “parody on classic masculine scents”. Personally I don’t get the satirical angle. Instead I experience a wonderful fresh lift of citric green; lemon, petitgrain, gentle spice from the pimento (which smells here somewhere between bay, juniper and capers to me) and soft pepper. There is a sorbet-like refreshment from the orange notes. Buried at the bottom is an almost fungal sweet green earthiness from tobacco, vetiver and tonka. Maybe this is the sabotage? Who put the mushrooms in my lemons? The vetiver wins out in the long run in the base accord providing good longevity. Imagine the great men’s’ scents of the 60’s and 70’s made with top quality natural ingredients. Fabulous stuff.
I love the way Ayala references classic mainstream perfumes and accords. In this way, she cleverly avoids being stuck with the old recipes for natural perfumes and stays rooted in the current discourse of ideas. It is as if she has taken some of my favorite commercial fragrances and made them better. Each of these boasts a quality of smell which immediately puts it in the top bracket of its category for me. The longevity and projection are low compared to perfumes which use synthetics, but it is difficult to care when it smells this good.
I knew I couldn’t draw any conclusions about natural perfumery from the work of just one nose who is, in my view, exceptional, and I have since explored more. However, Ayala’s fragrances showed me that natural perfumery can be excellent. I’m sure it often isn’t. The strength in her structures suggests to me that Ayala could have made excellent perfumes with synthetics also or indeed with the contents of her kitchen cupboards. As a natural perfumer, I think she has carved herself out a true “niche” and found an independent way to be in control of her materials as well as secured a good marketing position.
Win a sample set from Ayala Moriel! Ayala is giving away a mini fragrance set, featuring the scents mentioned in the article (worth $360). We will pick a random winner from the comments for Ayala to send the prize to. (closing - end of May 2010)
Walker Minton is a Jasmine award winning freelance writer and jazz musician with a lifelong interest in scent. He lives in North London with his partner and two sons. firstname.lastname@example.org