Friday, March 1, 2013

Lived-in Elegance & Sexiness: The Surprising Case of Cumin Fragrances

Would you believe me if I said that one incredibly sexy, shockingly intimate nuance in fragrance comes from a humble kitchen spice? Cumin is frequently featured in men's perfumes to offset lighter notes and it imparts a wonderful carnality in feminine fragrances, especially now that animalic ingredients coming from animal sources are non existent and the alternatives are mostly sub-par synthetics that do not create the same intimacy. This dense, pungent ingredient can couple well with floral essences and with woods and is often among the spice "bouquet" in spicy oriental fragrances, making it a very pliable and versatile partner in perfume composition.

The inclusion of cumin can provide that underlay of lived-in quality that is can be so elegant and old-money in fragrance compositions that would be effete without it: Eau d'Hermès by Edmond Roudnitska for Hermès is a great example, a citrus-leathery cologne for men (that women can share) which feels like a worn pair of chinos for a walk outdoors. Roudnitska's talented pupil and modern maestro of niche, Jean Claude Ellena, took this segment off the old into creating his masterful Cartier Declaration: the cumin in tandem with cardamom creates a contrast of cool and warm, on a mossy, foresty base that feels fresh, yet providing the feeling of someone who is breathing, feating and living underneath (and probably has apocrine glands that function properly and freely!), not a sterilized version of a human just out of the sauna. In Diorella, another Roudnitska classic, the ripe melon, almost garbage-like note marries well to the dirty, spicy cumin to make the refreshing top notes less acidic and more enigmatic.

To extend this notion, cumin can also provide a sexy glimpse, as in afterglow bodies which although were clean to begin with now bear the fruits of some romping around. The inclusion of cumin in the modernized Rochas Femme was an especially enlightened idea in view of that aspect; although purists argue it's quite different than the original Roudnitska creation, one can't fail to notice that at least in spirit, if not in letter, it stays close to the dicta of the grand master. Absolue pour le Soir by Maison Francis Kurkdjian marries cumin and powerful musky notes to render a very naughty olfactory experience indeed! Even though it is profoundly sexy, however, the fragrance never veers into the territory of vulgar, not meaning to please everyone via "easy" popular tricks. In Parfum d'Empire Aziyadé the cumin inclusion provides the exotic touch, but also the languor of the harem, the name deriving from the story of a concubine in Ottoman Turkey. In Jubilation 25 (Amouage) cumin plays a significant role into providing the decadent fruity chypre ambience of classics of yore. Fleurs d'Oranger by Lutens, although certainly not a lonely case of cumin use in the vast portfolio of spicy wonders in the line, is probably the most erotic floral of the brand; lush, dense, seriously romantic, fanning the spice over the carnality of orange blossom absolute and dense, clotted tuberose essence. A play of seduction in the cloistered gardens of Cordoba.

 Other times the author of a perfume is interested neither in the lived-in elegance, nor the sexiness, but in providing an unexpected touch that will distinguish the composition into an unusual spicy arpeggio above the clichés of cinnamon and pepper: Kenzo Jungle L'Eléphant was such a case, as was L'Autre by Diptyque, their distinctiveness probably the very reason of their market demise...


Cumin being the great divider it is, however -several people find a prominent note of cumin either too foody (like Indian food, where cumin is featured in the preparation of curry mixes) or too "dirty" (as in body odor)- sampling is definitely recommended for any fragrance that features cumin prominently. This is a matter of cerebral familiarity with it rather than skin compatibility which goes both ways: If you know the spice, you can pick it up and be indifferent to it due to over-familiarization through spicy food, or alternatively you can pick it up better than someone non familiar with it and thus be more attentive to it, especially if you don't fancy Indian or Middle Eastern food, feeling it sticks out like a sore thumb!)

 Cumin has been inumerable times linked to the scent of sweat on online fora and communities, to the point that it is enough to even mention the list of notes featuring it to have at least one person wondering whether the perfume will end up smelling like stale sweat on them... It's an anecdote, but a good one; when Kingdom by Alexander McQueen, a cumin-laced skanfest by all accounts, launched, an experienced online member by the alias Serpent, described his impression of the new fragrance in the shocking but funny imagery of a "hooker eating a burrito". Such was the effect of the cumin overload!

With cumin, you have to be very deliberate, it seems.

Related reading on PerfumeShrine: Cumin as a raw material, pheromones, sweat and list of cumin-laced fragrances


  1. Eau d'Hermes is indeed a cumin bomb, in a good way. I have the current version and have never smelled the original, and I wonder if the original had more true animalics (civet) and less cumin.


  2. annemariec21:14

    I have two great cumin loves: Femme, and Le Labo's Rose 31. In both I get a perfume that is profoundly human and skin-like (although their other notes are quite different). Femme was instant love for me and I'm glad to hear of your defence of it against the purists. Rose 31 took longer to appreciate, and I learned to appreciate why people don't like cumin.

    Aziyade has never appealed, not sure why, but I hang on to the sample. Jubilation I can't really afford.

    Anyway, that was a great post and I will try some of the others you mention, especially the Hermes and Cartier.

  3. Miss Heliotrope08:43

    I had a sample of Eau d'Hermes for the summer, and enjoyed it - the cumin wasn't too foody (which I was glad about as I am not fond of perfumes with food smells), but more sweat-like without being really so, which took a little getting used to, but was interesting as I did.

  4. The only sweat I get from cumin is the sweat of someone who has been eating cumin. To me cumin is not particularly animalic or body odour-ish, no more than pepper or sage or even indian frankincense all of which have an unexpected animalic facet. The seed that smells more clearly of sweat than any (to my nose at least), with all the rancid-fatty-sour grandeur of months of abstinence from showers is celery seed. Smell it and then cumin will seem as innocent as chamomile (again another one that in several extracts can be animalic AND body-odour-ish).

  5. Cheryl12:29

    Wonderful post and ever wonderful Femme.

  6. btw, do you know that fragrantica doesn't have a single perfume in its database with cumin listed as a note? Talk about strange...

  7. I really like cumin in cooking, and it does remind me of sweat in some sort of way.

    And it's good news to me that it'll be used more in perfumes as a slightly animalic note - especially after today, having just received a bottle of what's supposed to be heliotrope oil, but it has some kind of cheap civet-like musk added. Luckily it cost very little (lesson learned!)

    I thought 'oh well, I'll wash out the bottle and use it for something else' - then followed a half hour battle at my kitchen sink to eliminate the odour - boiling water, jiff, bicarb of soda, and I can STILL smell this lingering pissy musk. Reminds me of a scent memory of Kiku by Faberge - horrific smell! I think it’s been discontinued

    I do like Femme, didn't know it contained cumin but thinking about the fragrance, that does make sense

  8. Vero Profumo Rubj edp has a fantastic cumin note together with passionfruit and orange blossom. It smells very sensual to me.

  9. M,

    I think you have a point , judging by my late 1980s bottle. It's still very very classy in a very lived-in way, an old sweater sort of scent. Very French.

  10. AMC,

    I sometimes think it's because many people abroad are more familiarized with curries than I am. I use cumin a lot when preparing food, but out of the concept of a classic Indian curry, which might make it appear clearer, less dense, more "transparent", so it doesn't bother me in scents either (I actually love it; I don't know what people are complaining about! LOL)

    I think for Aziyade you have to like the immortelle density and pungency as well; it gives that feel. (Do you like Sables? No cumin I can detect there but plenty of maple-y immortelle).

    Declaration is smashing! Do try it, it's aimed at men but usually shared. It has an intense freshness (like opening the window to the air from the forest), but also a very refined spicy heart that fans out as warmth and humanity. It's masterful!

  11. C,

    not foody at all, I say. And very nice to boot. As you say.

  12. K,

    Basically I have this "problem" with lots of things: I don't know what people are complaining about. These essences don't smell of body odour or of piss or of any other apocrine function, they smell like food and people who have consumed them smell like that food! Why should we jump from A to K when associating, things are simpler than that!

    Celery seed. Makes me want to test the essence again with your words in mind.
    I will say a little anecdote here: I often pass by the "laimos" in Vouliagmeni (if you're familiar from the promenade by the sea off the Ithaki restaurant and the Casa di Pasta and on to the seaside avenue off to Varkiza and then Sounio) and the place ALWAYS smells like celery when driving by car with the windows down. I mean, it's uncanny. At first I thought it was fish soup odour coming off from the kitchens, but it didn't smell like fish.
    The place should smell like the ocean (it's only 5 paces off anyway) or the grass or the restos and cafes around, but a small patch there smells intensely like celery! I guess there's an actual growing patch of the stuff tucked someplace over the fences, can't explain it.

  13. Cheryl,

    thank you! Femme has always struck my SO as truly feminine. He says he likes the bottle, he likes the smell. You and I nod our heads appreciatively and with a knowing smirk :-)

  14. K,

    just checked. Must be a glitch.
    Will see to it and provide a list first thing next week.

    Thanks for mentioning it to me.

  15. Rosestrang,

    oh if the bottle is plastic, it will always retain some scent, I'm afraid, no matter what you do. The odor penetrates the material it seems. Glass however can be washed, boiled and cleaned thoroughly and no odor retention!

    It's the modern Femme which is full of cumin, but I find it a very good modernization, very sensuous and true to the spirit of the perfume, i.e. intimacy, femininity, sensuality. ;-)
    Glad it made sense to you. Isn't this game fun?

  16. Christine,

    thank you for stopping by and adding your comment and what a good comment that is! Rubj, of course, excellent addition and a scent I love. The EDP is even brighter and more sensual than the pure parfum, what a joy!

  17. annemariec11:17

    It could indeed be the immortelle in Aziyade that puts me off. It's not a note I really like, although I have not written it off just yet. You never know!

    Declaration sounds fantastic. I will certainly give it a try.

    That's a beautiful photo you have used to lead this post, by the way.

  18. Do you if there are studies linking how the cumin ends mixing with our personal odour? Because i have noticed that, besides the body odor, cumin fragrances are the most complimented ones on me. I was always complimented when wearing Kingdom and Gucci EDP. It really seems to combine well with me.
    Eau d'Hermes is such an intriguing scent. It has something spicy, dirty, but also very classic, citrusy and leathery. It's, again, another fragrance that brings me compliments and another cumin centered one.

  19. Oh thank you for paying cumin the well-earned compliment of your attentions.

    I so agree that this is a much ignored note and a very sensual one at that.

    Also delighted that L'Elephant gets a name check. This Kenzo was far and away above the average of vanilla spices and I'm just so glad I managed to bag it before it apparently passed away.

    So wearable and if I might say so sexy!

    Oh la la.

    Yours ever

    The Perfumed Dandy

  20. Annemarie,

    I bet immortelle is even more controversial!

    Thanks for the nice compliment on the photo :-) Glad you like it.

  21. Enrique,

    sorry for the delay.

    Yup, you have a point there. I suppose the correlation between the free amino acids it contains are close to our humanity.

  22. TPD,

    absolutely agree on L'Elephant being sexy and above and beyond a mere vanillic spice.
    It's funny that in Hindu literature the secretions (ahem) of a type of woman are likened to the natural lubricant of an elephant's ear.


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