I don’t wear a lot of gourmand fragrances especially when they are overbearingly sweet, but I love vanilla – the real stuff. Dried pods from the vanilla orchid have a wonderfully complex aroma. Native to Mexico, it’s no surprise that Mexico produces some of the best quality Vanilla plantifolia in the world. In the 1840s, Edmond Albius, a horticulturist from the Réunion Islands invented the hand pollination technique used to this day, which is why vanilla is also associated with Madagascar, the Comoros, and Réunion or Bourbon Islands
Bourbon vanilla has an intoxicating scent. It smells balsamic and boozy with facets of warm spices, tobacco, woods and even a hint of leather.
The other species of vanilla used in perfumery comes from Tahiti. Vanilla tahitensis is a popular alternative to Bourbon vanilla. Its unique geography makes it immune to fluctuations in cost and quality when Madagascan vanilla is impacted by environmental and social events. A hybrid of Vanilla plantifolia and Vanilla odorata, Tahitian vanilla has a smoother, more floral scent compared to its plantifolia parent. The leathery, castoreum note is not so apparent.
The cost of using natural vanilla products like vanilla absolute, CO2 extract, or oleoresin can be prohibitive. One kilo of product will cost thousands of dollars so it’s uncommon to find natural vanilla used in a significant quantity by mass and even prestige perfume brands. This opulent ingredient is mostly reserved for use in luxury and niche fragrances. Here are five fragrances that pay homage to vanilla’s natural beauty without the calories.
CHRISTIAN DIOR - VANILLA DIORAMA (2021)
This recent addition to La Collection Privée Christian Dior is one of my favourites from Dior’s Perfumer-Creator, François Demachy who says, “Vanilla is a call to the senses synonymous with instant pleasure in the collective subconscious. With Vanilla Diorama, I wanted to celebrate both this evocative power, as well as the nobility of this rare raw material. I wanted this scent to be a faithful portrait, to reveal its fragrant, nuanced beauty, and to embody its mellow aspect, heightened by joyful citrus notes, as well as its richer, more organic side, wrapped in an enveloping base. In the end, it is a ‘true’, authentic and intense perfumer’s vanilla that emerges.” Fans of Dior’s Ambre Nuit will appreciate Vanilla Diorama’s dulcet warmth which is supported by neck-nuzzling powdery notes. Touches of orange zest, cardamon and bitter chocolate celebrate the gourmandise of this mysterious olfactory dessert, an ode to Madagascar’s majestic vanilla.
ATELIER DES ORS - LUNE FÉLINE (2015)
My default go-to when I am in the mood for vanilla, Lune Féline was part of the inaugural Black Collection when this French atelier launched in 2015. Perfumer Marie Salamagne wove a distinct signature into these initial four fragrances with an accord of sensual ambery notes, woods and spices. Lune Féline amplifies this signature with an overdose of Tahitian vanilla. Opening on a medley of spices dominated by fresh cardamon, the woods and gritty ambergris that follow tempers vanilla’s sweetness. Styrax and Peru balsam further deepen the fragrance and add a reference to leather. When I interviewed Marie Salamagne in 2017 she said, “Lune Féline is a sensual gem. Darker and more luxurious, it features a Tahitian Vanilla, known as white vanilla. It is rarer than the black Bourbon vanilla and has a specific floral and creamy addiction.” I‘ve been add addicted ever since.
AMOUAGE - MATERIAL (2021)
This Omani luxury perfume house has been undergoing a renaissance this past year as the work of recently appointed Chief Experience Officer Renaud Salmon begins to bare fruit. It’s been exciting to see the energy Amouage is generating under Salmon’s creative guidance. Material is the first time that Paris-based perfumer Cécile Zarokian has worked with Salmon on an Amouage project and the result speaks for itself. Over a soundtrack of Madonna’s Material Girl, Amouage describes this genderless perfume as “vanilla untamed and unleashed.” Fused with Amouage’s signature frankincense, Material shimmers with notes of elemi resin and osmanthus flowers. A paradox of textures ensues, from smooth hues of white musk and tonka bean to coarse sensations of guaiac wood, patchouli and oud. This rich tapestry of ingredients provides the frame for Material’s main character – Madagascan vanilla absolute.
SHALINI - VANILLE RÊVE (2020)
The thing I’ve missed most during the COVID pandemic is being able to travel. There are many amazing islands surrounding Australia in the Pacific Ocean and Asia, which are usually within easy reach. Vanille Rêve is one of those feel-good scents that is a tropical holiday in a bottle. New York couturier Shalini Kumar continues her series with perfumer Maurice Roucel with this evocative vanilla scent. Roucel was the creator behind the legendary perfume for Rochas called Tocade (1994), which set vanilla between accords of amber and Turkish rose. Roucel wanted to create “the fragrant equivalent of red lipstick kisses”. Almost 30 years on, his Vanille Rêve for Shalini is a holiday romance where vanilla is kissed with tropical white flowers and spiced with star anise. While my first three examples play on the dark, mysterious qualities of vanilla, Vanille Rêve is by contrast luminous, airy and spontaneous.
ARQUISTE ESENCIA DE EL PALACIO - VAINILLAS (2018)
Mexico is the birthplace of vanilla, so it makes sense we finish there. Arquiste’s collaboration with El Palacio de Hierro, Mexico’s premier department store is a time capsule of aromas. The collection of eight fragrances pays homage to Mexico’s rich botanical history as experienced by Arquiste’s founder Carlos Huber and his long-time collaborator, perfumer Rodrigo Flores-Roux. Both grew up in Mexico City and their national pride shines through this creative love letter to the aromas of their culture. In Vainillas, the heaviness of vanilla is liberated by fizzy bergamot and Mexican citron (limón gigante). A water-coloured jasmine leads to the body of the fragrance, an infusion of vanilla from Papantla, Mexico’s vanilla-growing region, and an extract of Madagascan vanilla. As the fragrance settles on skin, vanilla’s animalic quality gets turned up with notes of civet, styrax, woods and amber.
While pop culture defines being “vanilla” as being plain, unextraordinary and predictable, each of these fragrances showcase vanilla’s multitude of facets. Vanilla in perfumery is anything but plain or predictable.
Some samples reviewed in this story were provided for review by the brand or their press representative.
Image 1 & 2 credit: Christian Dior Press. Image 3 credit: Amouage.