I have never been too keen on picking a side in the debate.“Is perfume making art or craft? A spiritual expression or a commercial aspiration?”. Mostly because I don’t think that this is a simple question to answer. To me it is all about the motives of the perfumer. There is more artistic intent in the juices an amateur mixes in their kitchen compared to that involved in the making of the next Shalimar flanker. This doesn’t mean of course that it is technically better but that’s the way I think about art. And then, to make things even more complex, I came across my bottle of Nabucco.
Nabucco Parfum Fin is a not hugely popular brand that made some waves in 1997 with the release of two perfumes, Amytis the feminine and Nabucco the masculine counterpart. I remember that I had noticed them several years ago because of their unique presentation: a crystal inkwell of classical simplicity. I also remember looking at the price tag which was equally commanding. But then earlier this year I found a bottle of Nabucco at a price I could not resist and I made the blind buy. On my way from the shop to my house I kept thinking, will it be worth it? There is not much around to go with in terms of information on the brand. Their site is more of a riddle than a source of information. In an almost Lutensian language it presents Nabucco more as a doorway to a parallel universe than a perfume house. But what stroke as genius is the fact that this is not done in a melancholic, artsy way à la Lutens, but in a detailed, meticulous, almost scientific manner. Their site is a space on the internet that would equally attract perfumistas and the gang of The Big Bang Theory. Having tried to decipher their site before unwrapping my sealed box, I was expecting something less professional in terms of presentation. The lack of the conventional publicist lingo associated with perfume had predisposed me at expecting something coming from the backyard of a mad perfume scientist. I was very off the mark there. Starting from the box, if I am allowed to call this a box, because it is an actual wooden construction dressed in the finest material that could even be fabric or some very expensive paper. Inside it is perfectly moulded to hug the bottle and the cap and is dressed in velvet. The weight of the box alone is close to the weight of an actual bottle of perfume. Opening the box one gets immediately a first whiff of the scent. Not because the liquid has leaked but simply because it is so concentrated that it is bound to fill the tiny enclosure of the box with its fumes. The bottle itself is a cube of crystal that feels and weighs as if it were chopped from an iceberg. The quality of construction is superb, and I use the word deliberately because the word “manufacture” seems too small to convey the feeling of lifting the bottle off its base and into your hands. Half clear, half opaque black, the crystal container requires concentration if not physical strength to handle, that I do not usually associate with wearing perfume. Inside the crystal cube a perfectly spherical bubble of perfume is trapped. You can only see half of it as the other half is hidden by the opaque part of the crystal bottle. Trying to look for the hidden part of the sphere you are faced with a multitude of magical mirror reflections of light on the square surfaces of the bottle. A hide-and-seek of light and reflections that never reveals the way the bottle is actually constructed. The top of the inkwell-like bottle is finished with a metallic surface that looks more like frozen quicksilver than actual metal. It curves naturally and hides inside the black crystal in an organic yet impermeable way. The cap itself is a functionally perfect screw that comes off and detaches itself from the bottle bringing with it a rod that has been steeped in the juice. This perfume is in pure oil form! I would call this an extrait, but the term has often been used to describe high conceentrations of oil diluted in alcohol. No! This is p u r e o i l ! The only method of application is running the metal rod on your skin, on the desired skin surface.
Being an oil, this scent has very specific and different ways of performing and delivering. What we are used to characterising as top notes, the ones that lift off the skin quickly with the speed and volatility of alcohol, do not exist. On the contrary the scent stays relatively silent for the first minutes. You can smell it of course, but you don’t get the initial perfumed blast that accompanies perfume application. Rosemary and bergamot are the first notes I can identify. The volatile fraction of rosemary needles and the sweet roundness of bergamot oil. After the first minutes however the oil starts warming from the body temperature and the conversation begins. I can only describe it as a conversation because Nabucco has revealed and keeps revealing different facets each time a put it on my skin. Pencil shavings appear most of the times. On other days I get this hot, dry sizzle in my nostrils that reminds me of touching a piece of cold coal. Dry and slightly smoky. Some times the smokiness takes off as the scent warms on my skin and meets a round vanillic note. When I am feeling tired, an invigorating medicinal aspect dominates the composition. On colder nights vanilla and bergamot take over in a more gourmand direction. Spices fly off sometimes warming up the gourmand tendencies. Nabucco indiscriminately remains a very strong skinscent and although this may sound as a schematic contradiction it is the closest to describing it that I can get: a scent that remains in the background when you want it to be discrete only to pop out and make all your wishes come true at the nod of your head. Just like a genie from the bottle. I have only had one other perfume oil experience (except the mixing of oils) and I recall the exact same ability of the scent to exist on a separate, hidden level and come to life only when I look for it, and then its powers are beyond question. Oil perfumes are magically alive, with the power of Samson and the agility of Salome.
Nabucco is a spirited perfume and defies classic descriptions and interpretations. I can tell you that Eau Sauvage Parfum is the only thing that comes close to its smell. But on the other hand saying that Nabucco and Eau Sauvage Parfum smell similar, would be like saying that seeing the photo of a galloping horse gives you the same thrill as riding the actual beast. The oil scent is so much deeper and expressive, so much alive, always shifting and turning, delicate as a music that plays in the background. And yet clear and sparkling with perfect diction and articulation. Why on earth did we give up on perfume oils? Why aren’t more people putting out fragrances in pure oil form? It would even make good commercial sense today as alcohol mixed fragrances are considered as dangerous as semtex by international transporters.
In 2015, 18 years after the original releases, Nabucco Parfum Fin released the third instalment of their magical world, ΓΦΛ (an inverted mirroring of LOV). Let’s hope that with them the tradition of perfume oils will continue. Not only for the sake of the beautiful characteristics this perfume format has, but because it also adds a third option to the dilemma art or craft. Nabucco’s answer to the question is “ritual”. The presentation of this olfactive experience makes it impossible to approach it in a casual, mundane way. Ones has to deliberately select it as a scent, open the box and place it alongside. Then concentrate and lift the heavy ceremonial bottle in their hands. Unscrew the cap slowly and allow it to shed a few drops back to the bottle. Touch it on the neck of the mouth to allow the excess of scent to drip off. And then, repeating the same movements that King Nebuchadnezzar and his wife, the Queen Amytis, used before visiting the hanging gardens of Babylon, apply the scented elixir. A process that is carnal, spiritual and ritualistic at the same time. In one word, a mystical experience. And then of course one has to allow themselves to start the conversation with the herbs, the spices, the resins and the fruits. And the stories they have to tell are the same stories that were heard in the hanging gardens of Babylon.