Thursday, November 17, 2011

Hermes (Hermessence) Santal Massoia: fragrance review

“Virtuosity,” star perfumer Jean Claude Ellena says “is a form of seduction.” In the latest Hermessence, Santal Massoïa, virtuoso Jean-Claude Ellena is quoted as wanting to evoke "what is beneath the air" in an Indonesian forest, and to that end he interweaved an airy fig note amongst the woody ones: fresh rather than creamy, with his trademark space between the notes casting rays of welcome luminescence amidst the dense forestry. Santal Massoia is a luxuriant fresh woody for those of us who appreciate the understated luxury of opting for one piece of jewelry over two; one lump of brown sugar in our tea instead of heaps of caramel corn syrup; and an original art work by an unknown painter, who moonlights as a newspaper illustrator, rather than reproductions of Monet's celebrated oeuvres on our walls. As Mr. Ellena points out in his book "Perfume, the Alchemy of Scent", any perfume is only “a succession of olfactory moments” after all. And living from moment to moment is a small proof of happiness, isn't it?

Hermès Santal Massoïa is such a succession. It opens with a greenish impression of fig skin and leaves, a footnote taken from Hermès Un Jardin en Meditaranée, but at the same time tinged with the unmistakeable scents of sandalwood and coconut, milky notes that combine to create a soft-focus effect like Sarah Moon photography. His green-creamy accord of stemone and octolactone gamma is among his signatures. The coconut note is subtle, watery, not very sweet, more reminiscent of coconut milk or a milk pudding. The wood dries that soft way, not fatty or especially fruity, and do I smell a hint of woody vetiver? I believe so. It doesn't change much beneath those two phases, much as most of the fragrances in the Hermessences boutique line; these are impressionist scents, with no pretense of going for the dense composition of Velázquez's The Surrender of Breda.

Massoia bark of Cryptocaria massoia gives an alkyl lactone (lactones are milky-smelling substances) which would naturally provide the lactic element of natural sandalwood. Massoia lactone (possessing a coconut-like, green and creamy scent) interestingly can also be found in molasses, cured tobacco and the essential oil of osmanthus fragrans. The material has facets of dried fruit and dulce de leche, which would lend themselves to a Lutensian opus easily. It's an unusual material to be sure and one which is not especially used in perfumery. The latest IFRA restrictions in fact target it, which is why perfumers have to resort to fractioned versions that result in a pure material with no risks.

Sandalwood on the other hand is a perennial classic: There are many established sandalwood fragrances in the market, from the mink-stole old-world plush of Bois des Iles by Chanel with its sparkling overlay of aldehydes (especially delightful in vintage extrait de parfum) to the classic woody bonanza of Tam Dao (aerated and creamy at the same time), all the way through the subtlety of Etro's Etra or the gingerbread complexity and heft of Jungle L'Éléphante (Kenzo). Sandalwood is making a come-back (did it ever go away?), with the challenge of coming up with a reputable & sustainable source of the material (the Mysore region in India is protected since the species is on an endangered list) or a composition of a base that imitates it satisfactorily. Recently Le Labo Santal 33 proposed a butch rendition highlighting the Australian variety of sandalwood (which is different than the creamier Mysore sandalwood) with a passing hint of coconut, while Tom Ford offers his own delicious, smooth cumin-laced Santal Blush in his Privé line of upscale fragrances, while Wonderwood by Comme des Garcons is another one.
Hermès Santal Massoïa offers a new, admittedly luxe and subtle version of the prized wood which is mysterious and retains a refined freshness at all times; as with everything Jean Claude Ellena there is no hint of "notes lourdes" (fatty notes). This streamlined composition is not meant to be a diet sandalwood, but an elegant gouache that can remain contemporary, fresh and natural-feeling. Much like Iris Ukiyoe, it's a poetic formula. No one who follows the sensibilities of Jean Claude ~and I'm one of them~ expects a tooth-aching diabetes-coma-inducing dessert from him, nor a cheap "tropical" with that trademark sickening coconut note which obliterates everything within a 4 feet radius. In that regard, the man is consistent.
Hermès Santal Massoïa will therefore satisfy lovers of sophisticated, green woody fragrances, while it might seem too refined (or too sparse or possibly too green) for those who prefer their wood fragrances heftier, more calorific and direct-aiming. Personally I find Santal Massoïa luxuriant and quietly sexy, a radiant composition perceived by people around that lasts well on me (five hours and counting, someplace between Vétiver Tonka and Ambre Narguilé) and totally unisex. In fact it would be totally delicious on a man, a welcome break from "aromatic" woodies that make everyone smell the same.

According to Jean Claude himself (via « Il est des bois verticaux et linéaires comme le cèdre, et d’autres horizontaux, ronds, souples et veloutés tels que le bois de santal et le massoïa. De cet entendement j’ai composé ce parfum de bois lactés, énigmatiques, invitant et distant, aux odeurs âpres et étranges de résine et de fruits secs, et familières de confiture de lait et de fleurs. Ca ne ressemble à rien d’autre et pourtant on est prêt à l’accepter. J’aime cette ambigüité, ce paradoxe ».
Hermès Santal Massoia includes notes of sandalwood, massoia bark, and coconut. It is set to be available at Hermès boutiques around the world from November 11th 2011.

Related reading on Perfume Shrine: Hermes fragrance reviews & news, Sandalwood: the material, synthetic replications & fragrances highlighting it, the Hermessences fragrance reviews.

photo via


  1. Merchella19:53

    Wonderful, wonderful review, as always...Sounds divine...I hope it is, since I bought it unsniffed :-)))But I´m a huge JCE fan, so...

  2. Barbara Patty11:28

    Thanks for the lovely review! As always you don't disappoint, very thorough.
    So contrary to some reports, you find it lasts well? Do you mean that people notice it at all times, or just at the beginning and then only you notice the scent on yourself? Is it a skin scent?

  3. 30 Roses14:06

    This sounds like a winner! I look forward to trying it, and suspect my husband might like it as well. It may be a candidate for a shared bottle for us.

  4. Pamplelune10:13

    Great review as always! I have yet to find a Hermessence that I want enough to have a full bottle, but that doesn't mean I don't always want to try. :) Hope this is it!

  5. Anonymous19:26

    I think this is the first review I've read which has piqued my interest. Thank you, as usual, for the wonderful review. This sounds like a gorgeous blend.

  6. Anonymous21:45

    So what's next now, perhaps a leather next year that smells citrucy? Jean-Claude Ellena's perfumery has become so predictable now,,,

  7. BP,

    thanks for the nice compliment, glad you enjoyed.

    Well, I think I have the advantage of sampling JCE creations in almost exactly the same climatic conditions in which he composes them due to happy coincidence. Therefore, in latitude and longitude I find that his fragrances last very satisfactorily. In fact, some are quite long-lasting, contrary to what one might think due to the generally low volume, the quiet projection (his fragrances never shout "look at me, look at me, I'm a luxury product, notice me!")
    Perhaps other reviewers live in colder latitudes where the beauty of JCE scents doesn't really shine. I guess? :-)

    Santal Massoia is not a skin scent in the sense that it becomes so low-projecting that only those very intimate to you can smell it. It is perceived by everyone coming into the room, in my experience (favourably too). It can be considered a luxe skin scent in the sense that it melds with the skin and makes your skin smell good, instead of having a good-smelling perfume on top of it.
    I find it smells discernable on all stages, but that's my own experience (I also experience the same with Poivre Samarkande and Vetiver Tonka for instance which are sometimes blamed for vanishing).

  8. 30R,

    this is a great scent to share with a husband! I think it unites masculine and feminine in a spectacular way, not the usual eunich approach of "not much of anything". It's delicious!

  9. Pamplelune,

    thanks, you're too kind.

    It's quite good, it should be in my top 5 (or possibly top 3) of Hermessences, if that helps.

    I recall you're Asian, right? Could you enjoy Osmanthe Yunnan perhaps, if you haven't tried that one? I think it captures some Asian aesthetic characteristics well, without going into cliches nor becoming an insult rather than an hommage. I wish I could make it mine, but it's so ephemeral on me for some reason.

  10. APB,

    thank you! I think it's quite lovely, even if it doesn't really re-invent the wheel (JCE loves to put small segments of his previous opus into what he makes).
    Worth a try for sure!

  11. Anon,

    sorry you have been disappointed.

    I think leather through citrus has been already addressed in the Hermes line via Eau d'Hermes which JCE re-orchestrated respectfully. Also in Bel Ami (ditto). So a third entry might be much...
    A leather rendered through greenery though, now there's a thought! (thinking Bandit-light)

  12. Merchella,

    I think since you're a fan, you will like this. I sincerely hope so, at any rate!
    It's cuddly, elegantly so and easy to wear year roung; what's not to like? :-)


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