I first came into contact with Arquiste Parfumeur’s fragrances last year at a little store called Manteau Noir in Daylesford, a cosmopolitan spa-town in rural Victoria. I had heard of Arquiste’s fragrances before but hadn’t laid my nose upon them until I visited Daylesford that day. The friend I was with fell in love with the floral fragrances from Arquiste’s line, and bought the floral travel set. My heart was instantly set on Anima Dulcis, a spicy gourmand that was right up my alley: dark, slightly sweet, complex, unique, edible.
NANBAN & Arquiste Candles Launch
Fast-forward to November 2015. I discovered that Carlos Huber – artistic director of Arquiste – was coming to Melbourne to launch the newest Arquiste fragrance, NANBAN, as well as a new range of scented candles at Peony Haute Parfumerie in Melbourne. It was too late to arrange an interview, but I had the good fortune to meet and speak with Carlos at the launch, and afterwards via email. I enjoyed talking to him about some of the creative concepts behind NANBAN, how Arquiste fragrances are conceived of and made, and how architecture is intrinsic to the creation of Arquiste fragrances.
I spent a couple of hours at the launch, enjoying refuge from the sweltering day inside Peony’s cool, chic perfumery, sipping fine champagne and nibbling intricately decorated macarons. Gorgeous comestibles aside, the fragrances and candles were, of course, the focus of the launch; the entire Arquiste range was displayed prominently and artfully at the front of the store for customers to sample and sniff. I enjoyed having the chance to sample the range again, which offers fragrances that span the spectrum from light citrus through to indolic, rich floral creations, gourmands, woody ambers and richer, darker fragrances.
NANBAN is classed as a woody oriental. At first spray in the shop I detected a warm, sweet nuttiness, leather and incense, but my nose was fatigued and confused from smelling so many fragrances and candles, and I feel that I missed many of the fragrance’s nuances. As is often the case when smelling a new fragrance, it wasn’t until I was at home and able to spend a few days smelling NANBAN in isolation, note-pad nearby, that I could fully experience and get to know it. I am now very fond of NANBAN and will give my detailed impressions of it a little later, but first, let me give you a bit of back-story on Arquiste and this wonderful and complex new fragrance.
Historical Scent Stories
It’s no secret that fragrances and smells have the ability to conjure and stir up memories and related emotions in us. A whiff of darkly polished timber reminds me instantly of my father, with his penchant for antiques. YSL’s Rive Gauche transports me to my early childhood in the 1970s, watching my parents get ready for a night out at a fancy restaurant: Mum garbed in strappy sandals and a silk dress, Dad in his white dinner jacket. These memories and scent associations bypass the logical, conscious mind, transporting us, whether desired or not, to other times and places in an instant.
It is precisely this kind of olfactory time travel that Arquiste deals in. As an architect specialising in historic preservation, Carlos Huber has a talent for recreating structures and details from the past, restoring architectural forms to their bygone glory with accuracy and sensitivity. It is no wonder then that he has combined this specialisation with his love and knowledge of perfume to create a complementary output in his range of fragrances for Arquiste.
Each of Arquiste’s fragrances is an historical, olfactory recreation of a particular time and place, or even a space (as in The Architect’s Club). Sometimes these fragrances celebrate an event (the highly-charged, pre-marriage meeting of Louis XIV and the Infanta Maria Teresa in 1660 as expressed in Fleur de Louis and Infanta en Flor) or a secretly guarded recipe (the Baroque spiced cocoa recipe known only to an order of Catholic Nuns from Mexico City that inspired Anima Dulcis).
As artistic director of Arquiste, Carlos Huber conceives of the historically-based, creative ideas that serve as inspiration for the fragrances and researches them thoroughly before a new fragrance is formulated. He works closely with two highly-respected perfumers, Yann Vasnier and Rodrigo Flores-Roux, to create the fragrances, and Nicole Mancini has helped create the new candle range. Modest about his own knowledge of fragrance — he told me he would never create fragrances for Arquiste without a professional perfumer — Carlos has actually studied perfumery with Rodrigo Flores-Roux, before Arquiste even existed. In fact, these perfumery lessons with Rodrigo were so inspiring that Carlos founded Arquiste in 2011 as a way to combine his love for historical preservation and fragrance in one medium.
As we spoke at the launch, Carlos explained to me that he conceives of Arquiste fragrances with architectural principles in mind. He said that he thinks of “the base notes working as the construction’s foundation, the heart notes as the actual structure and the top notes as the ornament – the decoration on the first approach [first sniff] which lets you uncover then the rest…”
Arquiste’s New Candles
Arquiste’s new range of four candles include three that are related to fragrances from the existing lineup, and one candle made exclusively for the St Regis hotel chain. Carlos explained that making scented candles poses different challenges in regards to controlling how the fragrance materials smell and diffuse through a wax medium, instead of the alcohol base used in the perfumes. For this reason, the candles are not duplicate copies of the fragrances, although they bear similarities to them and are inspired by them. Art Deco Velvet is the companion candle to The Architect’s Club, Mexican Baroque is related to Anima Dulcis, and Dark Galleon was inspired by the new NANBAN. They do indeed smell different, yet closely related to the fragrances, when sniffed side-by-side. Mexican Baroque, for example, smelt sweeter and more chocolatey to me than Anima Dulcis, though clearly it shared the same DNA.
NANBAN: Concept & Development
NANBAN – developed with perfumer Rodrigo Flores-Roux – is essentially a fragrance about a boat and its cargo, though not just any boat. The Arquiste website describes the boat and its special journey:
January 1618, a Japanese galleon, the Pacific ocean.
Following a diplomatic mission to the West, a galleon carrying a delegation of samurai charges through dark ocean currents. Loaded with a rare and precious cargo, the ship’s hull is redolent of sweet-smelling tropical woods, heady Spanish leather, frankincense, fine black pepper and other exotic ground spices—the intoxicating spirit of a singular, extraordinary voyage of discovery.
Source: Arquiste website
The term ‘nanban’ means ‘Southern barbarian’ and was used from the 16th Century onwards to refer to travellers who sailed via the Southern seas into Japan: especially the Portuguese and Spanish traders and unwelcome missionaries keen to spread Catholicism. It also refers to a brief-lived style of Japanese art from the 16th and 17th Centuries that displays Western influences (such as the use of perspective), presumably influenced by these foreign traders and their wares. This style of art was suppressed quickly in an attempt to shut Japan off from what was seen as the corrupting influence of the West and a desire to preserve traditional Japanese culture. The diplomatic mission/journey that Arquiste’s NANBAN refers to was particularly significant as it was soon after this mission that Japan went into cultural lockdown.
Carlos has shared with me the following personal anecdote about NANBAN:
“I was traveling to Japan for the first time in March 2014 – a country that had fascinated me in all the aspects of its culture and its history intrigued me. By chance, I found out about Hasekura Tsunenaga, the Japanese ambassador, and his journey to Mexico and Europe, the very one that inspired this fragrance. From my own studies of Mexican history, I knew of the famous commercial route from the Philippines to Mexico and then to Spain. One day, I stumbled upon the story of a singular trip that carried the first official embassy of Japanese noblemen to Europe, stopping in Mexico. Wherever they went, they tried securing commercial agreements in order to import goods to Japan. What luck that when I arrived in Tokyo, the National Museum was celebrating the 400 year commemoration of the journey, exhibiting Hasekura Tsunenaga’s original portrait. They also displayed Japanese screens painted in Nanban style, meaning ‘Western or European’ style, since it derived from the foreign traders’ influence in Nagasaki in the early 17th century. I was fascinated to discover a story that connected Mexico to Japan, and provided me a way to tell a Japanese story, from the outside, as a foreigner, like the original Nanban.”
Carlos also says of NANBAN:
“The fragrance of NANBAN represents a Japanese story outside of the traditional vision of the country. It’s not Japanese in style because it’s composed of ingredients from Europe, South East Asia and Mexico alien to Japanese culture, but that were brought into the country by the 17th century delegation. A ‘foreign-style’ (i.e. Nanban style) fragrance representing an oriental view of the West, and vice-versa.”
NANBAN: The Structure
Carlos explained to me that when developing Arquiste fragrances, his creative team always considers and works with three ideas. In the case of NANBAN, the ideas that were worked with relate closely to the architectural processes and principles described above, in the sense that each concept deals with a different layer of the ship’s construction, which also corresponds to the three layers of fragrance construction: top, middle and base notes.
Three ideas were considered during the construction of NANBAN:
- HEAD NOTES (decoration): the wind in the sails, the ocean.
- MIDDLE NOTES (actual structure): the deck of the ship and the sailors.
- BASE NOTES (foundation): the hull of the ship and its cargo.
In the end, the creative team decided to focus their direction on concept 3, the hull of the ship and its cargo, leading to the creation of a fragrance that is base note heavy, although not exclusively so.
Notes listed on the Arquiste website include: Malabar black pepper, Persian saffron, black tea accord, Chinese osmanthus, coffee absolute, Spanish leather, myrrh, frankincense, styrax, sandalwood, copaiba balsam and cade.
Review of NANBAN
NANBAN, classed as a woody oriental, is the darkest and richest in the Arquiste lineup. It is a heavy, brooding, intense creation, though it is not entirely without light, space and warmth. When I first spray NANBAN it reminds me of the sound of a rich and densely opaque chord, played right down in the lowest octaves of the piano, sustain pedal on, blending everything together. Like a cluster of notes quite close to one another on the keyboard, yet complimentary, and not at all dissonant. NANBAN is so well-blended that it takes attention and time to draw out and detect the individual notes, but this is part of what I like about it. Smelling this fragrance is indeed like going on a journey of great discovery.
NANBAN opens with a warm, nutty sweetness (hazelnut), along with leather, a sacred and rich olibanum (that great Catholic incense), and a sweetened black coffee. The complimentary notes of coffee and cade blend with the warm leather to create a slightly bitter, animalic melange. It’s like a lover’s skin, up close. After a few minutes I am witness to a dialogue between the leather and the olibanum: my nose detects one, then the other, and then my attention shifts back again. And so on.
After a few more minutes I make out an airy, sharp black pepper, which dances on top of the composition and tickles my nose a little. This, along with the smoky airness of the olibanum, adds a lightness to the fragrance: bright highlights in an otherwise dark olfactory landscape, like the light and shadows in a chiaroscuro painting. A rough, raw sandalwood adds more character to this already robust fragrance, redolent of the ship’s sturdy wooden hull. I imagine I’m inside the dark hull of the ship, packed tight with its treasures and cargo, redolent, rocking and creaking in the strong Pacific waves. Tiny windows let only the smallest beams of light in. The air is close and thickly fragrant.
After an hour or more, a lighter, almost honeyed sweetness emerges. The olibanum is ever-present, though it’s even lighter now and noticeably smokier too, yet is balanced out perfectly by the warm sweetness.
NANBAN is a potent, nuanced and complex fragrance. If I was to stereotype, I would say it’s best suited to men, but after spending some time getting to know it, I think it’s much more than that, and I don’t want to deny anyone the opportunity to try this treasure, woman or man. Lovers of dark and powerful fragrances will enjoy this. NANBAN is a indeed like the hull of a great ship: full of exotic treasures that are worth exploring.
Warmest thanks go out to Carlos Huber of Arquiste for taking the time to chat with me at the launch, and for our email conversations. Carlos provided me with a fabulous training document about NANBAN full of all kinds of wonderful information, some of which is quoted in the piece above.
Thank you also to Jill Timms of Peony Haute Parfumerie in Melbourne, for hosting a very elegant launch, providing marvellous food and drink, and the sample of NANBAN that I used to write this report/review.
The lovely Liam Sardea of Olfactics interviewed Carlos when he was in Melbourne and I also had the good fortune of catching up with Liam at the launch. His interview is fascinating reading.
The Silver Fox has written a fantastic article and review of NANBAN, which was an important reference piece for my own research into NANBAN. Thank you Silver Fox for your detailed articles and information!
Where to Buy
In Australia, the entire Arquiste range, including NANBAN and the new candles, can be purchased from Peony Haute Parfumerie.