I whined about these scents being “soooo expennnnnsiiiiive” for a long, long time. The ad copy was annoyingly pretentious, the packaging even more so. I eschewed trying them. I rolled my eyes every time somebody praised one of them. I said to myself, “There is no reason for you to go off the deep end over something so ridiculously overpriced, whether they’re good or not.”
But, see, the thing is, the By Kilians are good. Really good. I still don’t feel that I need one of them fancy-pants black bottles in a locking box, not for $225 a pop, and I probably don’t need a refill bottle for $175, either. (Probably not.) But the travel bottles (7.5ml) are slightly less ridiculously-priced.
Thanks to a generous giveaway from Musette at Perfume Posse in November, and to a promotion involving By Kilian’s Facebook page, I have recently had the opportunity to try several others from this brand. Like most houses, it’s a mixed bag for me – some of them are terrific, some merely competent. There were two that I didn’t like at all and wouldn’t wear. All of them are clearly composed of some good stuff, which at least justifies, to some degree, the crazy price point.
By Kilian has at this stage two series of fragrances – the first set is called L’Oeuvre Noire (“Black Masterpiece”), and the second is called Arabian Nights. L’Oeuvre Noire consists of the following: Prelude to Love (invitation), Love (don’t be shy), Beyond Love (prohibited), Love and Tears (surrender), A Taste of Heaven (absinthe verte), Straight to Heaven (white cristal), Back to Black (aphrodisiac), Liaisons Dangereuses (typical me), Cruel Intentions (tempt me), and Sweet Redemption (the end). Arabian Nights consists of Incense Oud, Pure Oud, Rose Oud, and the new scent Amber Oud.
I reviewed Beyond Love (prohibited) here, for the Tuberose Series, back in 2010. I have since swapped my small travel bottle, with at least 5ml remaining in it, for something else, upon finding that while I enjoyed Beyond Love, I didn’t really feel like wearing it often. I might agree with Perfumes: The Guide in its assertion that Beyond Love is the Best Tuberose Soliflore EVER. However, it seems that I prefer wearing Vamp a NY (that vanilla-spice-myrrh take on sultry tuberose), or Carnal Flower (greengreen juicy satiny flower oomph).
I reviewed Sweet Redemption (the end) here, remarking that I was very surprised to have found an orange blossom fragrance that didn’t veer soapy on me. I now have a small travel bottle of it, and I enjoy wearing it very much. Oddly, it’s not listed in the “fragrances” section of the By Kilian website, where you can “discover the perfumer’s formula.” It smells of orange blossom, sugar, vanilla, and myrrh, and is both sweet and deep.
The rest of L’Oeuvre Noire Collection:
Love (don’t be shy) – this thing has a long list of ingredients, from bergamot through coriander seed, from honeysuckle through orange flower to jasmine and rose absolutes, all the way to civet (!), vanilla, musk and labdanum – but all I really smell here is the “caramelised sugar accord,” along with a hint of jasmine. It smells like flowery marshmallows. It is very very foody, and I do not really enjoy it. Sigh.
Taste of Heaven (absinthe verte) – Okay, I’ll cop to it: I’ve never tasted absinthe. I am familiar with the smell, though, its close relation to anise and its bitter-green slant. But you take one look at its ingredients list and you see what this one’s really about: the lavender. Despite containing bergamot, geranium bourbon, orange flower, green absinthe oil, turkish rose, patchouli, oakmoss, amber and vanilla, what Taste of Heaven smells most like is, yep, lavender. Headache city for me. I mean, it’s nice lavender. (It certainly ought to be, given the price point and what seems to be BK’s insistence on using excellent raw materials.) It smells nice. I just have issues with linalool, apparently.
Straight to Heaven (white cristal) – I was wary of this one because I had it mixed up in my mind with Taste of Heaven’s lavender. I was wrong: this one’s based on spiced rum, with accords of rum, dried fruits, nutmeg, cedar, patchouli, ambergris, vanilla and musk. This is really good stuff, interesting and pleasant, and yet it’s another I don’t love.
Love and Tears (surrender) – another long long list of good stuff (bergamot, petitgrain, galbanum, ylang, daffodil, cedar, styrax, oakmoss), but again, I mostly smell a single accord of jasmine. It’s excellent jasmine, with enough restrained quiet woody stuff underneath that the jasmine is carried for a long time by its base. I, however, am not a big jasmine fan, so I am left unmoved.
Back to Black (aphrodisiac) – this one gets a lotta love from perfumistas (Tobacco! Honey! Wow!), especially now that Amy Winehouse, its inspiration, has left us behind. But it did nothing for me. Honey, cedar, patchouli, benzoin, cistus, tonka, vanilla, raspberry, tobacco – yep, it smells of all those things. It smells good. It smells like pipe tobacco. It does not contain the musty accord that made Chergui nearly unbearable for me. However, it sits there on my skin not doing anything, and to my mind is considerably less interesting than L’Artisan’s Havana Vanille (now renamed Vanille Absolument). I liked Tom Ford’s pleasant-but-dull Tobacco Vanille better than Back to Black, too. If I want tobacco, I’m going for SSS Tabac Aurea.
Liaisons Dangereuses (typical me) – a deliciously jammy rose-plum accord, almost edible but not quite. Rather sweet-fruity-spicy with notes of plum, peach, cinnamon, but still quite floral with damask rose and geranium. The drydown maintains a rosy hint atop its woody-moss-vetiver-vanilla accord. I love the first hour; but after that it makes me faintly queasy. I’m not sure what the disturbing note is because, as in the Lauder fragrances, I can’t actually smell it. This one reminded me a little of Sonoma Scent Studio Vintage Rose, which is another rose-plum accord and one that I similarly feel nauseated while wearing. After about four hours, the queasy stuff wears off and it’s a dry, woody scent, quite comfortable. I just don’t feel like suffering through those miserable three hours in the middle.
(Is it the plum that’s bothering me? I like the plum in Lyric Woman, and in Femme. I don’t know. And you know that I absolutely adore Mary Greenwell Plum, but I admit that the “plum” note in MG Plum is very different than the one in Femme.)
Prelude to Love (invitation) and Cruel Intentions (tempt me) I did not receive samples of, and haven’t tried. Judging by the notes listed on the By Kilian website, I don’t feel particularly deprived the way I would have if I hadn’t received a sample of, for example, Liaisons Dangereuses, which appealed to me very much in terms of notes.
Amber Oud – I was surprised to like this one as much as I do. I’m not a huge amber fan, and oud I tend to like only as a small accent, but this is a warm amber-wood with a spicy heart – I swear there’s clove in here! – and a lovely silky feel, like whipped cream. It’s somehow airy and smooth at the same time, which is a feat given the raw materials involved. It wears fairly close to the skin, though it lasts a long time.
Incense Oud – I tend to like my incense as an accent, and often find incense-heavy fragrances overly dry. This is the case here; my favorite part of Incense Oud was the top, where you smell the oud most strongly. After that, it’s sour like wet ashes, all dry and uncompromising. It’s supposedly composed of incense, oud, rose, cardamom and labdanum, and you’d think that the rose and labdanum would sweeten it up a little, but no. Fans of dry incenses might like this, and I know at least a few perfumistas who love it – but not me. I managed not to scrub.
Pure Oud – cypriol, gaiac wood, saffron and oud. Wow, this thing is smoky and dark. There are aspects of leather and ink and a body-musk thing that smells sort of appropriate to this composition but nevertheless is not easy for me to wear. For some reason, this fragrance clings closer to skin than I expected from an oud scent; it radiates even less than Amber Oud. I don’t do well with these moody, Gothic-leaning scents, and I’m sure you’re not surprised to hear that this is just Not My Sort of Thing. There are alllll kinds of people on Basenotes whining about Pure Oud being just a more expensive version of Montale Aoud Original. I cannot address the matter, having avoided most of the Montale scents that do not involve rose. Which brings us to…
Rose Oud – Seems like rose and oud has been done to death, particularly by Montale, who has a long long line of fragrances focusing on variations of that accord. Now, first I should tell you that I rather like Montale’s infamously medicinal, band-aidy oud, and the rose is often very pretty (my favorite Montale oud-rose scent is Aoud Roses Petals, though Oud Queen Roses and White Aoud are nice too). Then there’s Epic Woman and Czech & Speake Dark Rose, both of which I like. And I know that there are a number of traditional Middle Eastern perfumery blends that tackle rose and oud, to the point that this accord is wearing grooves in the perfume counter, so to speak.
So I started out with Rose Oud, thinking that it would be just another pleasant rose-oud fragrance. I mean, you know, It’s Been Done. Been there, smelled that. Cliché. And then there are those ridiculous By Kilian prices! I was ready to say, “Yeah, nicey-nicey, so what? I ain’t spendin’ $8 per milliliter on this thang.”
But. This oud is smooth, almost honeyed, extremely pleasant. There’s a hint of saffron and some vague woody notes, but mostly Rose Oud is all about the rose – and it is a truly lovely rose. It reminds me of the rose note in Frederic Malle Une Rose, which I find gorgeous for fifteen minutes before the woody-amber starts acting like the Terminator (I literally feel hunted, chased, when wearing Une Rose). The rose in Rose Oud is beautifully smooth, sheer, delicate. In fact, the whole fragrance is sheer and delicate, with a silken texture that simply delighted me, all the more so because I wasn’t expecting such a lovely experience from the cliché accord. The CEO particularly enjoyed Rose Oud, even going so far as to offer to buy me a bottle. (It was fun telling him how much it cost, just to watch his head snap back in shock!)
I have not often, or at least not deliberately, explored most of the offerings of any particular house. It’s an instructive experience to do so, and I found it interesting to compare the fragrances to each other and look at them as part of a story. Exploring the By Kilians this way has given me an appreciation of the brand that I heretofore lacked. I had, as I explained, dismissed the house as being aspirational and unnecessarily concerned with fancy packaging, and if I’m being honest, some reverse snobbery played a part in my eye-rolling whenever someone mentioned By Kilian. Particularly when someone mentioned how cute Kilian Hennessy is. Because, really, I care so darn much about how attractive the people who make my perfume are. (Note to Dr. Sheldon Cooper: That was sarcasm.)
I’m still a little annoyed by the price schedule, though mollified to some degree by the availability of plain-bottle refills and travel bottles at lower prices. In the plain bottles, By Kilian is not out of the usual niche perfumery price range, and I must plainly admit that the quality ingredients show through. Likewise, BK is not skimping on hiring excellent noses; Calice Becker composed several of these fragrances, and I imagine she’s in enough demand that she doesn’t need to accept just any old assignment these days.
The fragrances smell very natural, especially in the case of florals, and the staying power is very good, at least on my normally scent-eating skin. I typically get at least four hours, and usually more like seven or eight, out of each of these scents, even the lighter florals. Clearly, there must be synthetic ingredients involved in these as well as the naturals, but they don’t smell like a chem lab. I also notice that the projection is not very wide; that is, people will not smell you coming down the hall but will notice your fragrance when inside your personal space. “Discreet” is my favorite type of sillage, and this aspect of these fragrances suits me very well. If you’re a big-sillage bombshell yourself, you might be disappointed. Beyond Love and Back to Black have the most noticeable wafts, in my opinion, even with my usual restrained application, but as I said, are not noticeable from across the room.
Another point about these fragrances is that they’re not wildly innovative. As I described in my review of Rose Oud, they’ve Been Done. There are many jasmine fragrances on the marketplace, many tuberoses, many rose-ouds, many honeyed tobaccos. What distinguishes the By Kilians is the excellent quality apparent in each. Sometimes the particular genre may not move you emotionally, but I think all of these are worth smelling. They are rarely difficult to wear, as are some of Guerlain’s and many of Serge Lutens’ perfumes.
M. Hennessy, for the quality of the perfumes, I forgive you all the over-elaborate packaging and the purple prose of the website and the commercialism of the offerings. Keep making these lovely, winsome, wearable fragrances, and (I beg) keep presenting them in the customer’s choice of plain or fancy packaging. I especially appreciate the generous sample set and the way your Facebook page is meticulously maintained, with news and samples made available to those who’ve demonstrated an interest. Thanks, and good luck to you.
If you’re still waffling over whether or not to try any By Kilians, let me urge you to give them a skin test. One of them may sing to you, all unexpected. I think it’s best not to dodge opportunities for joy, whether they come in the form of coffee with a friend or a little bit of heaven in a bottle.