“What’s that you’re wearing? It’s gorgeous!”
I got various forms of that comment more than once as I was giving Eau de Magnolia more skin-tests that strictly needed to do a write-up. And from perfumers, no less, i.e. the people least likely to be intrigued and impressed, if only because they usually think of the way they’d have treated the theme…
The scent of magnolia is particularly tricky to turn into fine fragrance while keeping it figurative. It's just about as hard to pin down as a Southern Belle flirting full steam ahead. While it has tremendous volume when if wafts from the tree, it has a somewhat static, hazy quality to it: citrusy soap froth, held aloft by indole. Sandrine Videault often mentioned it when she was working Magnolia Grandiflora, which had actually started out as a home fragrance just like Carlos Benaïm’s own Jurassic Flower. Her solution was to turn it into a chypre (to read a short excerpt from her thoughts on the subject, click here).
This was also the option taken by Frédéric Malle and Carlos Benaïm. The perfumer had noted that the evaporation structure of magnolia was chemically closer to cologne than to white or rose-type flowers. They decided to use that as a springboard to revisit the luminous, chypre-cologne hybrids of the early 70s.
Eau de Magnolia verticalizes the scent of its namesake by using the connection between grapefruit and vetiver as a garden stake. That stake is stuck in a patchouli and tree moss bed – both of which, like the vetiver, are fractioned qualities, distilled to shave off any earthy, moldy or camphoraceous jags. Because these are smoothed-down versions of the ingredients, bolstered by cedar which Malle calls a “colorless wood” in the press kit, they don’t warp the olfactory form of the magnolia. The facets remain legible, but in a teasing, out-of-the-corner-of-our-eye way: two of the “Where’s Waldo” molecules of the perfume world, indole and linalool, used in hefty doses, keep the scent as blurry and shimmering as a heat haze induced mirage.
And indeed, for all its freshness, Eau de Magnolia does also convey steaminess – honeyed dew evaporating from petals in the morning sun. The moistness, very much a part of the scent of magnolia, is expressed by a faintly aqueous fruitiness (which shouldn’t send calone-phobes screaming for their mothers).
Despite their differences, Eau de Magnolia shares some of La Panthère’s qualities: great volume and long-lastingness, a silky yet translucent sillage, and that haziness that marks them as contemporary iterations rather than tribute-band versions of classics.
In the press material, Frédéric Malle states he was thinking of Edmond Roudnitska’s streamlined style in the final stages of the development – at the launch, he told me that though Roudnitska had worked for years on a magnolia, it was probably impossible to achieve it without a headspace. Clearly, with Malle as a scent-whisperer, Carlos Benaïm’s head was in some sort of Roudnitskaesque space when he worked on Eau de Magnolia: it has the radiance, balance and sense of rightness that would do Diorella’s author proud (though he’d probably think of the way he’d have treated the theme).
Eau de Magnolia will be available in June.
Illustration: Cy Twombly, Untitled.
 When I reviewed Magnolia Grandiflora, I actually mentioned the fact Sandrine didn’t have IFF headspaces to work from, though as I didn’t know about Eau de Magnolia yet, I mentioned Ropion’s work on the tuberose.
 The tree moss has been treated to remove the two allergenic molecules responsible for restrictions on its use, and slated to be banned by upcoming EU regulations.
 Linalool turns up in citrus oils, lavender, geranium and rosewood, but also in jasmine and orange blossom