Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Power of "Noir" in Perfumes

Nowhere is the power of "noir" (aka black) more intense than in the sublime and surreal cosmos of perfumes: From modern creations such as Bulgari's Jasmin Noir and Black or Tom Ford's Black Orchid and even Black Violet to Ormonde Jayne's Orris Noir and Yves Rocher's Iris Noir, all the way through to vintage gems such as the murky Narcisse Noir by Caron, or the kaleidoscopic Or Noir by Pascal Morabito, with a detour at niche "founder" Serge Lutens via his Datura Noir, everything is painted in black a la Rolling Stones. And who can forget the enigmatically legendary Nombre Noir by Shiseido and its white heat?

Even more vague and promising in intonation than the above (which mostly recall shady, unusual hybrids of flowers with few exceptions) are those which are sartorially-inspired (Lutens has Fourreau Noir but also Serge Noire, both evoking fabrics and items of clothing; Guerlain La Petite Robe Noire, while Avon has Little Black Dress, where black is synonymous to pared elegance regardless of the discombobulating scent: the mere mention of the name promises Hepburn-like pizazz!). The darkening of ingredients is also popular: The slightly scorched effect of Noir Epices by Michel Rounditska for the F.Malle line, the indie Ambre Noir by Sonoma Scent Studio... Black Sun by Salvador Dali sounds even more surreal than intended, the world of alchemy eclipsed into Schwarze Sonne/Sonnenrad neopaganism purpoting radical change: apparently not so, in perfume terms! Crystal Noir by Versace is reminiscent of jet-bead jewellery, the par excellence mourning jewellery in the Victorian Era, a direction that the designer house considers too far back to be referenced by the youthful audience to which they aspire. Sometimes "noir" can even stand alone, stolid, full of fortitude and mystery, like a promised (but rarely delivered) olfactory Healthcliff: Lacroix Noir for men, Avon's Noir for men...Othertimes, it paints a heroic symbol with the wide brush of machismo: Drakkar Noir, how can we forget you? Perhaps the more literal interpretation of Lalique's Encre Noire (black ink) is more elegant onomastically. And the trend gets carried in excess as in ~fittingly named~ Black XS by Paco Rabanne, The Wrong Man obviously for dark regressions out of the past.

The recent trend of naming perfumes "Black this" and "Noir that" (or as Tania Sanchez wittingly calls Black Thingamajig) has really gained momentum with hundreds of fragrances containing one or the other denominator in their very name. After testing the majority of them with apprehension as to their perceived fangliness, I have come to believe it's pure marketese to denote something that is the antithesis of "fresh", "light", "inoffensive", "cookie-cutter". Admittedly, people have always wanted to be the opposite of the last two adjectives, even if they don't have one iota of dangerousness, sensuousness or mystery in their bones. Call it the call of the wild, the desire to be what they cannot be in their ordinary lives, call it escapism: Which I realise all perfume really boils down to! It's simply irresistible, it's like watching an old film-noir and fantasizing about being the wicked femme fatale (Who is usually coincidentally dressed in black, have you seen any in pink polkadots and yellow ribbons in her hair?). "The femme fatale provokes a kind of temporary insanity in the protagonist, which partially absolves him from responsibility for his actions. It is as though she happens to him, like a natural force". [quote]
Ayala Moriel, an indie perfumer from Canada, has created a glorious (and mysterious-smelling) patchouli confection in her suitably named Film Noir. The crossfire of "good girl vs. bad girl" is a dichotomy prevalent in many cultures, none more pointedly so than the American one, with a plethora of "rules" to adhere to in order to belong to one and not the other, personal fragrance being the outward manifestation of an inward inclination. Nuit Noire by Mona di Orio assumes a very intimate aura (of yes, rather forbidden bodily zones) to talk about the dangers of a black night ~what its name means~ when you'd be more simpatico to some experimenting in Bitter Moon/Lunes de Fiel , Pascal-Bruckner-style. The decade of "clean" (the 90s) with its AIDS hysteria ~when perfumes seemed to serve as a virtual chastity-belt~ is over and thankfully most of the ozonics and aqueous scents are left in a lonely place.

Somehow I think the reference was cinematic to begin with, including the very first scents onomatized with this dark epithet. Marcel L'Herbier's Le Parfum de la Dame en Noir from 1931 based on Gaston Leroux's older novel of the same name conveniently tied the two in an inextricable knot. Narcisse Noir by Caron, apart from Sunset Boulevard and its dramatic sensuality, makes me think of vampy Theda Bara, arguably not the person you'd imagine baking you an apple-pie and preparing the kids for school in the morning; assuming she were actually awake in the morning! Which nicely brings me to the current pop mania for vampires and creatures of the night, via Stephanie Meyer's Twilight and its tremendous marketability: Are dark-named fragrances another manifestation of a youth's desire for safe "danger" and repressed sexuality, as explored via boyish vampire teens who have sharper teeth than other body parts? It's murder, my sweet, not sex!

Arguably black has always been laced with magical qualities too, the sense of inherent danger, the cabbalistic and alchemical symbols tied to its shaded enigma: enter the most representative olfactory case of them all, Magie Noire by Lancome. Apparently in an era where witches are fortunately not burned to the stick with gusto until they're well-done, perfumers show a hankering for well-done renditions instead of dark, earthy and twilight-shaded compositions that lurk within shaded forests, the dark corner and the nighmare alley.

But the obsession with darkness also has to do with fashion and visual cues: Black is not a colour, optically-speaking: It's the absence of colour! This gives it a sort of power that all other colours lack (a comparable case with white but different connotations). Mediterranean cultures who have embraced it because it makes such a strartling constrast with the bright sun knew a thing or two: Picture the lace-headscarf of the Spanish consorts over red blooms, the black cloth of Sicilian and Greek widows against the white-painted little houses. It's not an accident that nidjas are dressed in black, that we have the little black dress (the little red one is a whole different matter), that goths like black, that black has an aura of the occult and the forbidden, even the subversive or the fatal (black death, black metal, black sabbath, black widow...).

I have a personal theory to offer on that matter as well: black is the colour of anonimity! Put someone in black and they mingle right in. "Men in black", remember? The ones supposed to come out of nowehere and zap your memories of close encounters of the third kind out of your system. You can't do that in -say- jade or canary yellow! Therefore black in a genius transition from the visual to the olfactory & the mnemonic allows both the concept of a perfume to be easier to graft on one's self and for one's personality (assuming they have one to begin with) to shine through; allowing the better elements to slowly unveil themselves.

Whether I associate the word "noir" with specific perfumery notes? Not really! Several recent, modern "noir" and "black" fragrances ironically smell exactly "light, fresh, inoffensive, cookie-cutter", Other people however mention oud, patchouli, resin, smoke, tobacco, incense. It's a your mileage may vary, in any case, not one of "all cats are black in the night".

So what does "noir" signify for you in terms of smell?

And a Game: He or She who recognises all the titles of film-noirs hidden in the text will win a decant off my vintage collection! (hint: they're 10 in total and they're all Google-able)

pics of The Killers and The Narrow Margin via, kitsune.noir.blogimages,


  1. 1. Detour
    2. White Heat
    3. Out of the Past
    4. Crossfire
    5. In a Lonely Place
    6. Sunset Boulevard (not hidden)
    7. Murder, My Sweet
    8. Nightmare Alley
    9. Obsession
    10. Black Widow
    11. The Dark Corner

  2. Sitting out the game, but in answer to your question--For me, "noir" always suggests heaviness and earthiness in a perfume, and somehow I can't quite see applying the term to any scent that doesn't have pronounced animalic notes. As I write this, I am wearing Bourbon French's Eau de Noir, which has a base that is rich with musk and incense.

  3. Another noir in your text, not so hidden: The Wrong Man.

  4. Glen,

    you're awfully good at this!!!
    Yes, Sunset Boulevard was not hidden, so no points for that. And The Wrong Man was purposefully capitalised to give a hint for the others. (I think we have a winner?)

  5. M,

    your explanation is one which resonates with me too: I expect earthiness from those perfumes and very often that is not the case. Animalics are all but a lost game in mainstream perfumery these days, so only niche creators get away with that, out of which a few "noirs" did indulge in dirtier notes. I had no knowledge of Bourbon French's Eau de Noir, but it sounds positively inspiring: musk and incense are two of my most favourite "notes".

  6. Glen,

    I was this close to including Black Angel, but then I slapped myself: it would be too obvious and would confuse perfumephiliacs as to my intelligence quota (two popular fragrances, one funny name).

  7. I shall refrain from guessing the films, but "noir" does carry certain connotations, doesn't it? Strangely enough - synchronicity or not - I mentioned the "noir" them in perfume in a recent entry on my blog serial - and certainly, to me, the Biggest, Baddest Noir of them all, which in my view just has to be - Caron's Narcisse Noir, to this day the only perfume I ever stole - from my mother. who had totally differing tastes. I love it to bits to this day, but I can't wear it anymore!

    Magie Noire, another one of the Big Baddies I wore in the Eighties is a manslayer, par excellence. Something you'd think Ava Gardner would have worn in "The Killers", I think, to put the va-va in her voom! ;-)

    One modern scent, which to me smells "Noir" in a good way, is Ormonde Jayne Woman - so evocative, I had to put it into my story, as well. And of course, such being the Power of Noir! - I gave it to the villainess! ;-)

  8. Anonymous17:20

    Glen's intelligence quotient is much higher than mine-- he had a few I didn't catch-- but Call of the Wild, Black Widow, Lady in Black, White Heat-- and Simply Irresistable, if you count Robert Palmer's video . . .:)

  9. I've done my homeworks, thanks IMDB, :
    White heat (Walsh 49)
    The Wrong Man (Hichcock 56)
    Out of the past (tourneur 47)
    I was on the point to include Call of the wild but it's not a film noir
    Crossfire (47)
    In a lonely place (Ray 50)
    Murder, my sweet (44)
    The dark corner (Hathaway 46)
    Nightmare alley (Goulding 47)
    obsession (49)
    And :Black widow (54)

    the game was fun, but I'm beaten by Glen.
    A Bulgari Black addict.

  10. Margot18:28

    Clever post! My own noir addiction is Black Cashmere.

  11. Well, I had a lot of fun finding the hidden movies in your text. And I am really glad you wrote this piece. I was wondering when someone would write something about all this fragrance blackness! Well done!

    I personally have full bottles of Bulgari Black and Encre Noire, samples of Noir de Noir, Jack Black Signature Black Mark (yikes!), Ferragamo F pour Homme Black, and Noir Patchouli, have owned Drakkar Noir when I was a young'un, and am looking forward to getting bottles of Black Aoud, Back to Black, Black Tourmaline, and Or Black, when I can afford it!

  12. Tarleisio,

    why haven't I read your story? That's something I should remedy. I agree that Narcisse Noir had something menacing about it, I first tested it from a rather modern interpretation and clearly missed the plot, when sampling from an old bottle was a whole different story.
    I completely agree about the mysterious guiles of Ormonde Woman: I had referenced a David Lynch cosmos for it, back in the day. It's somehow...perverted, in a delicious, magically twisted way.
    And Magie Noire: yup, baddie, baddie, baddie..... (don't we love them!)

    Thanks for such an interesting comment!

  13. Anon,

    Glen simply slayed it all, I guess, he was excellent! I will post the list of the films in order of appearance below shortly.
    (btw, I don't consider Call of the Wild a noir, is it one?)

  14. Anatole,

    LOL, very cute, you're excellent yourself, you know! Thanks so much for playing :-)
    You did very well, actually, if only Glen hadn't already replied.
    Glad you enjoyed the post!

  15. Margot,

    thanks!! And here's one I didn't mention, exactly because we consider it am established given. Duh... Thank you for mentioning it!

  16. Glen,

    thank you very much for your nice words and most of all for being such a good sport! I admit my jaw dropped a little when I saw you pegging them all at the get go, but what can I say: either one is interested or not and you are interested it seems. So thanks!

    Your choices sound just about perfect (except the Signature Black Mark> sounds like a highlighting mark for colour-blind people...OK, I'm not very funny now, anyway...).
    You might be in luck, if I can locate my Or Black you will receive a little gift of it ;-) If not, I will be sure to pack something interesting nonetheless.
    (Please send me a shipping address using the Contact email in profile)

    BTW, for any readers wondering the full correct list of film noirs appearing in the text was:

    2.White Heat
    3.The Wrong Man (in capitals to help as a hint, not counted if strictly counting, but would be willing to let it go if someone had found the rest and lacked one)
    4.Out of the Past
    6.In a Lonely Place
    7.Sunset Boulevard (not hidden, not counted)
    8.Murder, My Sweet
    9. The Dark Corner
    10.The Nightmare Alley
    12.Black Widow

    If you notice I tried to include most of them at the end of each paragraph ;-) (I thought that might help along as a clue!)

  17. Anonymous23:19

    Elena, you are brilliant! Until I read this post, I never made the connection between the clean, aqeuous scents of the 1990s and the AIDS hysteria.

    And what a fun post this was. Your analysis of film noir was a pleasure to read.

  18. Well I can't resist this one, since I'm such a fan of the noir. That pretty much describes my fragrance choices, as I am in love with patchouli and other animalic notes. I take your point, too- many of the "noirs" out there aren't black at all. I'm think of the By Kilian Back to Black, which to me should have been called Back to Golden with all of those floral honey notes.

    What's the deal with those wannabe "noirs" anyway? Why pretend to have claws? We can't all be Scorpios, friends. And if you're going to go for it, you have to go for it, not put a little toe in to test the water! As any good Scorpio knows, it's total immersion- life or death!

    Archetypal ranting aside, I support what's been said before: patchouli, animal notes, leathers, smokes. They just speak to things that are done by the dark of the moon. Or, if you're not full-blooded vampire, just that little sliver of self that stays out of the light that is ever so enticing and curious. Was it Freud that said we all had a death wish?

  19. Rappleyea23:47

    What a fantastic post with which to begin the New Year! Loved it! I agree with your statement that most of the 'black' or 'noir' naming is simply marketese.

    Very interesting connection to the Aids epidemic, which is a major root chakra blockage. In aromatherapy, the essential oils associated with the root chakra are the heavy, earthy ones that we call noir.

    Besides the above descriptions of what constitutes a noir fragrance, I'd also add a darkness of mood, a certain melancholy. My favorite entry here of course would be Vol de Nuit.


  20. Consistantly brilliant posts... this was particularly fun thinking of the evocative B&W noir images and having a scent waft through one's brain... I can't wait to read what comes next!

  21. Anon,

    awww, thanks, glad it provided some enjoyment (and an aha moment too, perhaps). Thanks for saying so!

  22. Jared,

    ahhhh, a fellow Scorpio! Now we're talking: exactly right, why do ANYTHING by halves?? There needs to be a profound dedication to everything worth doing otherwise why do it in the first place?
    Sadly, so often archetypal ranting is the business with many businesses (and perfumery is a business too, alas, since it pushes a commodity to be shared by many...).

    I believe you're correct about the death wish, brilliant addition! There is a desire to abdandon oneself into the unknown, the dangerous, the occult. And that desire just screams for outlets sometimes, which is why it's better to find some outlets that lend themselves to non-destructive paths: like perfume or cinema and/or the arts.

    Thanks for a most interesting comment!

  23. Donna,

    I am happy you enjoyed it so! How very interesting about the chakra and the noir connection. I didn't know that, I guess everything in the universe is somehow connected, which is a fascinating thing to contemplate really.
    A darkness of mood, melancholy, this brings me to romantic gothic images. VdN is quite romantic, if not goth.


  24. Lostpast,

    thanks for stopping by and for your kind compliment. It's a real pleasure knowing readers enjoy what's been posted and keeps me on my toes to follow up with other witty things along the way, hopefully. So stick around maybe! ;-)

  25. Hi E! Well I almost got them all but Glen beat me to the punch. (You had a couple of ringers in there too, very crafty--"Simply Irrestible" which was, somewhat to my surprise, a movie as well as a Robert Palmer song, and "Close Encounters" which had me thinking...Noir? Close Encounters? But, even though I didn't win I now have a list of Noir films to rent, some which I haven't seen. And of course Robert Mitchum in "Out of the Past" merits yet another look.

    As far as perfume goes, "Noir" is a marketing term of course but for me can be an indicator that it might be something I'd like to sample or at least look up. From my own collection I'd say that vintage Paloma Picasso "Mon Perfume" (in perfume) is pretty dark. That and "Black Afghano" which was interesting, as a concept.

    Very clever!

  26. probably have to think about the game at another time sadly

    i love black- not actually so much clothes but furnishing, and objects. I like the look it gives things. To me I think it says grown up in perfume.

  27. Very interesting post and I see the comments are lively as well - black in perfume is a never-ending topic it seems.
    I would say that when I encounter black in a perfume, I always think it is going to be dangerous and forbidding and most times I am disappointed. Not so much in the fragrance itself but in its failing to live up to the name. Of course, I haven't tried all those you listed (now I have additions to my list of things to try) but for example, I tried Back to Black By Kilian yesterday and I find it a wonderful comfort scent. Hmmm.

  28. Anonymous16:04

    when i see the word "noir" i expect to smell something dangerous and complex and maybe even "forbidden." but i've been lied to so many times by manufacturers that i've learned to put that expectation on hold.

    as example, "kenneth cole black" was, to me, the antithesis of "noir" and the one that made me wake up to the fact that the word "noir" or "black" is often just another marketing tool, not necessarily the truth. ah, well.

    fun post! cheers, minette

  29. Dolly Dagger19:19

    First time poster, perfumista-in-training.

    Magie Noire was the first scent I ever purchased way back in 1982. I loved it and wore it constantly. Unfortunately I didn't know what I had on my hands because I quit using it when the bottle ran out. The only scent my husband ever would wear is Drakkar Noir and I loved it on him. We're both Scorpios, so go figure.

  30. Anonymous21:34

    Oooh, a game! OK, here's my list, and I didn't even peek at the others (promise!):
    1. Detour
    2. White Heat
    3. In a Lonely Place
    4. Murder, My Sweet
    5. Nightmare Alley
    6. Black Widow
    7. The Wrong Man
    8. The Dark Corner
    9. Black Orchid
    10. Bitter Moon

  31. P,

    darling, thanks for the kind words, coming from a cinema buff like you, I feel all smug :-)Yeah, I mixed things up a bit, thought about not making it too easy, but Glen was unstoppable, LOL!!

    I agree with your expectations of "noir" in scent, if only I hadn't been so disappointed so many times... Black Afgano sounds intriguing, you're right. Don't know why I haven't sampled this already!

  32. K,

    "grown up": yeah! I think it is and apart from technological stuff (in which it seems to be ubiquitous, due to the male vibe it gives) I also like it in furnishing. I sometimes dream of painting a wall in my house black to contrast with some things I have which would be a stark antithesis with it. Then I chicken out...(maybe I'm not that grown up!)

  33. Ines,

    took the words out of my mouth, isn't it completely disappointing when the name creates such expectations and then you're left with a "meh" or even ~at the best case~ with a "comforting" thing? The latter should be "painted" milk-chocolate-brown, not black ;D

  34. Minette,

    thanks honey for commenting and glad you had a chuckle!

    As you say, expectations run deep and often they're brutally crushed: seems like Kenneth Cole did so with yours! (I don't recall in the least how his Black smells, please enlighten me!)

  35. Dolly,

    welcome and by all means, make yourself comfortable: throw the shoes, borrow some marabou-trimmed house-shoes, serve yourself a fizzy and sit back and relax! (I was just this close to quoting another famous quote ~"it's going to be a bumby ride"~ but I won't because I always strive for a smooth one)

    Two Scorpios, eh? Powerful combination, good for you! Your "noir" tastes respectively do show your nature. I consider MN a very fine fragrance, especially as it was back then, now it's a bit butchered up. Still, a memorable fragrance even so. Might I suggest exploring Bandit (fatal black bottle), Black Cashmere or Serge Noire? I think you might find them worthwhile.

  36. Patty,

    you did exceptionally well, considering. I didn't make it too easy. I'm afraid Glen beat everyone at the get-go, he was surpemely perceptive, but your own score was very good. I didn't think of Black orchid or Bitter Moon myself for this game, FWIW I have posted the correct list in order of appearence above in my comment.

    Thanks for playing!! And hope you enjoyed it!

  37. Anonymous00:21

    if memory serves, kc black is a nose-hair-singingly sharp white floral, of all things. like a floral glare. belongs to the "clean" family of florals. nothing remotely black or noir about it. all bright, pointy angles. i was totally amazed that they'd named it "black!"

    cheers, minette

  38. Interesting. Finding a perfume that is affordable is not hard when you use online perfume stores. But can you guarantee that the perfume sold at online store is trust worthy.

  39. I had in plan to write about this topic but you really covered it. As you said, there is too much of 'black' and 'noir' perfumes. It as common as oud note. It's probably used just because of marketing and better sales. In my opinion noir should be mystery, intriguing, dark...just like black & white movies.


  40. Anonymous18:04

    Ms. Vosnaki,

    I really enjoyed your article; thank you!

    Hollywood's oddly antiseptic 1946 version of The Postman Always Rings Twice presented Lana Turner as an ice-cold vision in white.

    I consider somnambulist NeoNoir perfume a cosmetic product of the time; the glittering, 'decadent' bottle offers a sweet, quick fix. Directions: Use twice, wash and repeat.

    Warmest regards!

  41. Anonymous03:25

    Don't forget Roxana Villa Illuminated Perfumes "Figure 1: Noir." The best there is....


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