Sexy. Smooth. Syrupy. In the fragrance world, few ingredients can provoke more polarized reactions than vanilla. For some, it’s simple and cloying; others are lured by its sensuality and stay locked for life. The ubiquitous vanilla note is a victim of its own success; it’s so universally appealing that it can lead many to think it’s unrefined, says Chandler Burr, former
perfume critic with
The New York Times and curator of olfactory art at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City. But here’s the rub: “As human beings, it seems genetically impossible for us not to like vanilla,” explains Burr, recounting what he learned from lauded French perfumer Christophe Laudamiel.
Perfumer and fragrance expert Roja Dove has said that although childhood nostalgia plays a part in our attraction to an ingredient so often used in baked goods and ice cream, he believes that vanilla acts as a psychogenic aphrodisiac. Some studies have shown that vanilla produces a calming effect on humans and animals, and the scent has been used to help people relax during medical tests.
Mental-health benefits aside, vanilla is beloved by perfumers because it has many facets and can easily be associated with different olfactory traits, whether floral, fruity or woody, masculine or feminine. “It is amazingly adaptable,” says Christine Nagel, master perfumer for Jo Malone London, who created Rosewater & Vanilla Cologne Intense. “When I want to highlight a vanilla note, I like to take the raw material, cut it, restructure it, texturize it and magnify one of its facets, depending on how I want to interpret it: sensual, fresh or animal.” Nagel also created Giorgio Armani Sì, one of this season’s most interesting vanilla blends, and says that vanilla is a fundamental material in her palette. Burr believes that this dreamy, comforting note is a more sophisticated ingredient than you may think. “The raw material has an earthiness, darkness and, above all, texture to it that instantly makes it interesting, even if it’s easy to detect,” he says.
Read more about the popular vanilla fragrances that started it all on the next page…
Much in the way that elevating a biker jacket to new heights depends on the style skills of the wearer, “vanilla can be vulgar and ordinary,” says Paris-based Sylvaine Delacourte, director of fragrance evaluation and creation for Guerlain. “It depends on the talent of the perfumer and the creative idea.” When master fragrance designers “dress up” vanilla, they reach for exotic or unexpected notes. Blending (expensive) high-quality natural floral and woody notes (like oud), spicy notes (like ginger) and unique fruity notes (like cassis and fig) gives vanilla an edge and builds character. It goes from girl next door to irreverently stylish, from sweet and pedestrian to urban and mysterious. For instance, in Tom Ford’s best-selling Tobacco Vanille (equally loved by females and males), the vanilla adds softness to spicy clove and coriander. “There are so many possibilities,” says Nagel of the versatile note. “I like the sensual softness of vanilla with fresh rose. I like its animal tones with the roughness of amber wood. I like its tender and luminous facets with sweet and floral solar notes.”
Regardless of what side of the fragrance fence you sniff on, just remember this: If it’s good enough for Tom Ford…
Read it now: 5 FRAGRANCE FAUX PAS
Breakthrough vanilla blend: Guerlain’s Shalimar
Guerlain’s Shalimar—overflowing with vanilla and amber—ostensibly opened the vanilla floodgates in 1925. Jacques Guerlain blended a synthetic molecule, ethylvanilline, with a natural vanilla for the first time, resulting in an intense gourmand brew that couldn’t be achieved with natural vanilla alone. As Ernest Beaux—the man behind Chanel No. 5—said of Guerlain: “When I use vanilla, I get crème brûlée. When he uses it, he gets Shalimar.” Frenchwomen were spellbound with its come-hither appeal; others found it too risqué. Its unofficial tagline: “Good girls don’t smoke, dance the tango or wear Shalimar.”
The new vanilla blend: Thierry Mugler’s Angel
In 1992, Thierry Mugler started a whole new category of vanilla-based blends—oriental gourmands—with Angel. Inspired by childhood memories of breakfast pastries and the scent of pralines wafting through Christmas markets, Mugler wanted the fragrance to smell like mouth-watering confections. “I wanted there to be such a sensual contact with this perfume that you almost feel like devouring the person you love,” he said. Angel was groundbreaking because it marries the sweet with a big dose of musky patchouli. Today it remains cloying to some, a classic to others—with an almost narcotic-like allure.