Hermès has gained the sense of olfactive consistency that Guerlain once had back in the day thanks to its head perfumer, Jean Claude Ellena. Their latest unisex, Voyage d'Hermès , is a recapitulation, a déjà vu and a voyage not only through the body of work of Jean Claude himself, but of the house of Hermès as an entity! It's as if Voyage is a passport into the world of Hermès: Small little snippets of numerous fragrances hide beneath a hazy cloud of a formula that must have been laborious to construct without falling apart. Yet what has Jean Claude succeeded in doing, at this point in his career, is creating his own syntax and his own vocabulary for communicating which translates as perfectly leggible and intermixable, even in snippets of conversation that all mingle together harmoniously.
In order to appreciate Voyage d'Hermès on whether it succeeds to convey the vision behind it, we need to access the perfumer's technique in rapport with the values dictated by a mass-marketed but still prestigious Hermès fragrance such as Voyage.
Starting by the latter, we're "stumbling" on the mega-success of Terre d'Hermès, a masculine which is -according to the month in question- the first or second best-selling fragrance in France and terribly popular throughout the world as well. Its mineral & airy interpretation of the Mediterranean coast-line, full of fresh breeze, the whisper of citrus groves from afar and vegetal waste rotting on the hard rock, is the transfiguration of an lived-in impression into a scent (aided by a generous helping of IsoE Super, a synthetic which turns the intriguing aromata into a legible abstraction). A new mainstream release would not want to disrupt the commercial success of Terre, but at the same time, it should bring in women too (sharing thus the desirable facets of Terre) and consolidate the past and future of the house into the consience of everyone. In many ways, it feels to me that Hermès was simplifying its historical codes into an Esperanto of signs for everyone. To that degree they have certainly succeeded.
Ellena himself communicated his aim in composing Voyage d'Hermès, not as the desire to create a figurative or programmatic ~to borrow a term from music~ fragrance "but to create abstract art. A play on paradoxes. Complementary elements. No, this perfume would not smell of a kind of wood, a flower, a particular raw material, but of the unknown in all its glory. To express its nuances and unexpected pairings. Familiar, surprising. Energy, comfort. Masculine, feminine. An infectious mixing of genres. A woody fresh, musky fragrance." Ellena's style (and so is Olivia Giacobetti's in a similar vein) is the quiet, yet subtly intricate music for a quartet, rather than the bustle of a Wagnerian symphony with brass horns and full percussion joining. This is an aesthetic choice, not the result of simplistic or unchallenging incompetence. Comparing ~say~ a traditional Guerlain or 1930s Patou to a modern Hermès composed by Ellena would therefore be a futile exercise in omphaloskepsis. One either likes one style or not, but that doesn't mean that the two are poised on the same plane of existence; they're actually poles apart.
In that regard, Ellena in Voyage d'Hermès is reffarming his signature touch and on top of that creates something that cannot be pinpointed into anything familiar in nature; because there are plenty of familiar accents in the formula itself, as we'll see.
Voyage d'Hermès feels like a composition created on two tiers: The first movement is a flute, oboe and glockenspiel trio, namely the grapefruit-citrus chord he excells at (see Rose Ikebana, Un Jardin sur le Nil, Terre d'Hermès, even Cologne Bigarrade) with a touch of icy artemisia (see Angeliques sous la Pluie with their perfect gin & tonic bitterness) alongside the spicy suaveness of cardamom (diaphanous as in Un Jardin apres la Mousson, yet also a little sweaty as in Déclaration). To that musical line respond clarinets of other spices: some pepper, some ginger. On skin the spices are much more pronounced on the whole, with a small sub-facet (pungent, even a bit leathery) that personally reminds me of Eau d'Hermès.
The second movement is constructed on a basso continuo (the Iso E Super, perceived by many as cedar, alongside an incredibly lasting cluster of musks) with a lightly underlining phrase by a viola, the floral note of hedione (or an analogous material) giving a nod to Dior's Eau Sauvage and an elegant amber-ambergris base recalling Eau de Merveilles. This second movement is most alike Poivre Samarkande from the Hermessences, with its overdose of Iso-E Super. Seeing as Poivre Samarkande is the uncontesatble best-seller in the Hermès boutique in Athens, Greece, ever since the line's introduction, it makes sense that Hermès wanted for a Voyage composition a formula that has already been OK-ed by a warm Mediterranean country: After all, the very term Voyage makes us unconsiously dream of vacations, doesn't it? The two Roudnitska homages (Eau d'Hermès and Eau Sauvage), on the other hand, are unifying two houses and two perfumers into one style uniquely its own.
This clarion call of style, ensured, affirmed, self-reliant, is the fragrance's moot point: It means that if you like previous Jean Claude Ellena fragrances, you will like Voyage d'Hermes. If you don't, there are very little chances that it will change your mind. It also means that if you have all the segmentated make-up-pieces in your perfume collection, you might not be tempted to sort out the Visa and buy the new fragrance. But seeing as this is a mainstream release meant for everyone, not just maniacal collectors, those people will be few and far between.
The bottle design is spectacular: pure Hermès, both classic, inspired by la petite maroquinairie ~and specifically the Evelyne coin purse~ but also subtly modern high-tech too, reminiscent of USB sticks to put in one's computer (formerly known as "travel sticks, because you took them along while travelling, is it any coincidence?) or of a shiny silvery iPod, blasting a daydreaming Debussy tune. The promotional video shows a bird flying towards a horse running in the sea, showing ice, desert and water: an analogy of the segments that the fragrance goes through as well.
Notes for Voyage d'Hermès: citron, bergamot, coriander, ginger, artemisia, cardamom, black pepper, tea, birch, white musk, amber and cedar.
Available in 35ml, 100ml & 150ml bottles, available at major department stores carrying Hermès.
For those registered on the mailing list of Hermès, please use this link to see the promotional video.
Music: "Divertimento for Flute, Oboe and Clarinet" by Malcolm Arnold with Meera Gudipati, flute; Steven Robles, oboe; and James Calix, clarinet.
Print by Nhyen Phan Chanh (1932). Hermes official Voyage d'Hermes ad.