Friday, January 23, 2009

The Unicorn Spell by Les Nez: fragrance review

In a line full of engrossing and unusual fragrances, The Unicorn Spell , despite the predisposing to overlyricism name, is perhaps the most arrestingly riveting due to both its unusual treatment of the violet note as well as the juxtaposition of shiny, vegetal leafiness with finespun woodiness.

This unconventional path to violet has been recently reprised by Maurice Roucel for Dans Tes Bras for F.Malle, proving that in a market chokeful of violets lately, there is still some room for wiggling one's toes. The Unicorn Spell forms part of the Les Nez (parfums d'auteurs) line, a niche brand from Klingnau, Switzerland founded by perfume lover René Schifferle. The perfumer Isabelle Doyen, who worked on a similar iris-green (absinthe in that case) theme in Duel for Annick Goutal, envisioned a violet on a cold, frosty morning waiting for the sun to warm it up with its first rays: "If by dawn still linger on your skin mixed scents of leaves, frost and violet blooms, and that relentless yearning for stellar sights, you will know that, at night, you felt the milky breath of a unicorn".

The atypical opening of shelling raw harricots verts in The Unicorn Spell is so transportingly vegetal as to make one become confounded and furtively search for the basket of green beans and the knife of the woman who is peeling them away for an alfresco Friday lunch. (Friday because that's the customary day to prepare a non-meaty dish in Med cultures where this dish is very common). This idiosyncracy of knife cutting onto raw legume is bringing spring in the very heart of winter and invites me closer to inspect the slow unfolding of a delicate floral heart. Comprised of violet leaf (rather than the candied tone of Violets de Toulouse, it is closer related to Goutal's La Violette or Verte Violette by L'artisan) and hazy-toned iris as seen through a gauze, the more it stays on the more it gains in violet-ness and loses in iris-ness. The two merge into a piquant middle in which the borders of green and tart are merged into a fey collage. The images which you might superimpose over this unconventional composition by Les Nez are purely individualistic and left to your own imaginings. The spell distends on ethereal woods, subtle and hushed, so as not to risk scaring away the enchanted creatures that the cool night has invoked.

The Unicorn Spell is available as a 50ml/1.7oz Eau de Parfum, directly from the Les Nez website, through Aus Liebe zum Duft or Luckyscent.

Related reading on Perfume Shrine: Les Nez fragrances, Violet scents, Iris: how to build one.

In the interests of disclosure I got sent a carded sample of each fragrance from Les Nez as part of their sample giveaway upon launching Manoumalia.
Photo by Chris Borgman courtesy of his site.


  1. I love violet but not a candied one (although I do love a violet cream chocolate) so I am very interested in this. I always appreciated L'Artisan Vert Violette but it's not my holy grail. I am also a fan of Dans Tes Bras.
    Very interesting. Did the lady who set up the line approach the perfumer to make the scent for her? I wonder how expensive it is to make a fragrance that way? Is that a bad question to ask?!

  2. One of my very favorite perfume discoveries of 2008. Thanks helg, great review!

  3. K,

    I think then you will like this one!

    I believe René Schifferle is a man, but I don't know if he specifically asked for a violet scent. I think the concept of the line is comparable to Malle's: perfumers given free reign.

    There are no bad questions to ask on Perfume Shrine: actually I think your question is wonderfully stimulating and I'd like to see some feedback on it!
    I personally think the costlier to produce in the line must be L'Antimatiere. But violet leaf absolute (assuming they do use it) isn't cheap and beyond that there is the relative cost of innovation vs.going-by-the-book on well traversed paths (ie. more discarded modules, more time spent formulating the formula itself etc.)

  4. M,

    thank you honey for saying so :-)
    I was almost sure this is the kind of cool, dreamy scent that would appeal to you! Good to have my hunch validated.

  5. K,

    I just had word from René
    himself who mailed me to clarify the following:

    1)It was Isabelle who proposed the violet leaf scent ~I was correct on it using violet leaf absolute and not the sweeter violet synthetic~ which at the time was highly unusual (the concept began in May 2004, when there weren't so many violet fragrances around)

    2)Indeed L'antimatière is the costliest to produce ~as I suspected. He also mentioned the story of a girl whose mother drives her at the trainstation every day and the scent -which she steals from her mother to wear herself- is seemingly stronger and stronger to the mother. It's a core of fans who buy it.

    3)Let me play the Lion is inspired by the final quote of the scene at Midsummer Night's Dream I referenced which says "I will roar like a dove" because the players are afraid to be hanged if the roaring is too frightening for the ladies. So the subdued aspect is explained.

    4)The Les Nez concept is not to work within the industry, it's more artistically independent.

  6. Anonymous18:52

    Helg, you have created an astonishing body of work with this blog, and every day it gets better and better. Thank you!

    Do you remember Cait Shortell's review, from Legardenez blog? " A green bean walk into a bar..." One of the most evocative analogies for perfume, to be sure.

    L'antimatiere does strange things to my skin-it becomes totally matallic and unpleasant to me. But The Lion and The Unicorn Spell are mesmeric. I believe I am in line for a sample of their new fragrance too.



  7. Anonymous01:46

    Green beans?!? Seriously??? I have found, since I've been reading blogs and buying samples, that I'm a classic French perfume kind of girl. Not much one for "interesting" smells. Violet leaf is divine, but I just don't know about green beans.

    I STILL think all of these great reviews need to be compiled into a book. Watch out Luca and Tanya!

  8. Rather unrelated, but I love that pic.

  9. E,
    Any idea if Les Nez uses phthalates/petrochemicals in their perfumes? I'm assuming they are not "all natural" per se. Maybe use some synthetic aromas. But do you know about the phthalates by chance?


  10. Carole,

    what can I say? I am deeply humbled by your praise. Considering I'm writing in a foreign language I hope I'm not blundering too much.

    Cait is a gifted writer: I would buy a novel of hers in an instant! I thought she was writing one? Not sure.

    You should definitely try the latest, Manoumalia. I think it's one of the best discoveries I made lately!

  11. D,

    yup, seriously! I don't find it unpleasant, on the contrary it brings me good associations as I like to make them (and eat them!) and I always associate them with the coming of spring and summer. But it's not a classic French smell to be sure; the treatment is unusual and not "round"/warm perfume-y, rather a cool vegetal smell with the loveliest violet leaves imaginable.

    Thank you for the kind suggestion.

  12. D,

    thanks for stopping by and saying so. I believe we share many visual sensibilities!
    He's a talented photographer and visual artist (had included his work before in visualizing Chanel Les Exclusifs).

    PS.And I owe you a mail. Will do shortly!

  13. T,

    interesting question!
    I am not 100% sure on the phthalates, so I will need to ask and give feedback later on. Perhaps one does and the others doesn't; I don't think it's a uniform thing through a whole line.
    In any case, to be accurate, let me check.

    I do know that they use a high percentage of natural ingredients as they themselves differentiate between what is from natural sources and what is partly from natural sources (ex.benzyl alcohol or benzyl benzoate); they're quality products at any rate.

  14. E,

    Just as an interesting aside. I received an email back from L'Artisan and they do not use phthalates or petrochemicals in their perfumes.

    Did you happen to see Chandler Burr's review of Patyka's Boise? He really criticized natural perfumers. I just had to respond.


    PS: Thanks for checking on Les Nez for me!

  15. I just tried The Unicorn Spell for the first time this week. I immediately thought of Dans Tes Bras, which is a favorite violet of mine. I do not favor the candied violets and I generally prefer violet as a well-blended note, but I find both Unicorn and Dans Tes Bras to be fascinating and mysterious creations.

    I also sampled L'antimatière and found that I must order or obtain another sample so that I can live with it for a few days. It seems to be a shapeshifter of a fragrance. I liked it a lot on first wearing, but I could not really describe it! And now, I want to try the others as well.

  16. T,

    that's good to know, thank you!

    I think CB has relaxed his stance a bit on naturals, although obviously not seismically so. Maybe pregnancy issues are more of a woman's POV and he isn't as informed on these aspects? (hypothesizing)
    I really liked the Patyka Chypre myself. :-)

  17. M,

    the candied violets and the violet leaf compositions are completely different things, I agree! "Mysterious" is a perfect term to describe them.
    L'antimatiere takes some getting used to I guess, especially if one is not a fan of ambergris in the first place.
    I highly rec Manoumalia!

  18. Thank you so much to you and Rene for the answers.

    I really love the story about the girl and her Mother.

    Let me Play the Lion is a beautiful name, more so now I understand it better. I am just returned from a wonderful production of twelfth night and was again reminded of the wonder of Shakespeare, can he really have been one mortal person?

    Long live artistic independence, it's the only kind of art there should be.


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