Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Tom Ford Sahara Noir: Just Desert


Leave it to Tom Ford to bring frankincense back to basics.

It isn't just the name of his latest fragrance, which retraces ancient trade routes, pointing farther east than the Catholic church, where westerners seem to have consigned frankincense.

It isn't just the "Noir" part, which turns the lights down on all that far east mystique, reminding us that when we think of other cultures we should probably think dark, which is to say illicit.

It's certainly more than a little to do with the price. At 150 bucks a bottle, 50 ml a pop, Sahara Noir isn't exactly sacrilege. It's more affordable - if only just - than many niche fragrances its size. But it's not so comparable to most of what it will sit alongside at the mall. As always, Mr. Ford is determined to up the aspirational ante in the mainstream marketplace.

More than anything, it's that gold bottle, which reminds you that, yeah, okay, so all that church stuff - all that holy temple hoo-ha - but let's not forget: this is the substance "more valuable than the gift of gold." Before there was a baby Jesus to give it to, Sahara Noir says, there was frankincense. Frankincense is strictly, in Tom Ford world, B.C.

I'm making it sound like I don't think much of Sahara Noir, and if anything, I think it's getting some awfully careful praise, the whole backhanded thing we've fallen into. We're in kind of a backhanded period, I guess. The needle on our bullshit detector flutters wildly at the stinky stuff, detecting it everywhere we point our noses.

Thus, Sahara Noir is "just" a frankincense fragrance - too one dimensional, not enough something else at some point. It's too heavy. It's not heavy enough. It's nice but suffocating. It's led to water but can't be made to drink. It doesn't open the door for you. Granted, Tom Ford probably asks for this and has it all coming.

The incense fragrances we remember introduce a subtle twist. It's tricky, because we want incense, but better than incense, otherwise one incense would be every other incense. I find it hard to imagine our ancient ancestors splitting these hairs. Surely, there were grades high and low, but just as surely it was enough that the stuff was burning, and smelled like the money spent on it.

Not so with the contemporary sniffer. Our favorite incense perfumes see just how far they can go before you consider them something else entirely, so for instance you get Wazamba, by Parfums d'Empire, which throws a faint but uncanny whiff of apple into the mix. Even Tauer's superficially straightforward Incense Extreme has a little inexplicable something to it, a thing you can't quite put your finger on, ever so slightly...tart?

For me, a good incense fragrance merely need be very good to win my praise, if not my utter devotion, so while I roll my eyes closer to God at the silliness that is the Ford persona,  I'm relieved I don't have to picture, let alone see, Tom Ford's ass playing nice with the asses of others in a communal shower, and I really like Sahara Noir.

My favorite frankincense is the discontinued Norma Kamali Incense. Nary a twist to that one. Norma Kamali is full frontal brute force. You understand, smelling it, why frankincense was used to mask the smell of decay after death, and how it could do this while pleasing rather than offending the powers that be in the afterlife.

Sahara Noir isn't nearly as heavy as I was led to believe - though I admit nothing ever is - but it has a quality I don't remember smelling in anything else, not even in the standard bearing Incense Series from Comme des Garcons, and it's an interesting counterpart to Norma Kamali's Incense, a basic frankincense fragrance which is good enough at being good to get away with not being the best thing ever in the history of all things historically documented. It takes the Norma Kamali approach, straight on, with addition of bottom line wearability.

Somehow, it's got a very open aired feel to it - not the open air of the cavernous temple but of the great outdoors. I'll even go with "desert", which might make it seem smarter than it is. I guess I'm trying to say that while this will be nothing new to the demographic whose mystique it mines, it's something a society lady like Barbara Hutton would consider correspondent to her waspy misunderstandings about the great Other out there, the Other she would view from behind the safety of her car window and consider herself sufficiently immersed. There's a slight sense of safe remove to Sahara Noir - but isn't that true of all mainstream fragrances? And we are nothing if not aspirational in our tastes, so we're more likely, as a whole, to follow Hutton's lead than the source.

Sahara Noir isn't a refreshing fragrance if you expect it to be something unlike anything ever done before. But it's certainly not being done much in the mainstream sectors of society. I appreciate that, and I appreciate the fact that it smells wonderful, lasts well, and takes pains not to insult my intelligence the way so many high priced "luxury items" do. For the record, I like it as well if not better than anything in the CDG Incense Series. It won't surpass Wazamba for me, but I don't need it to.

The notes list honey, jasmine, rose, and papyrus, none of which I smell even the slightest suggestion of. I do smell the cinnamon, which is twist enough for me. Like Ford's other mainstream bids, Black Orchid, White Patchouli, and Violet Blonde, Sahara Noir wears with presence.

(Pictured: Poor Little Rich Girl Barbara Hutton, doing as the Romans do, in Tangiers)

8 comments:

JL said...

I don't like scents that feels heavy when you smell them... I guess I will be giving this scent a try. Thanks for the review!

Katy McReynolds said...

Great review! I love Blavk Orchid and have been wanting to try this. Your review gives me that nudge to see if my local Sephora has it yet.

Brian said...

Thanks Katy. My local Sephora doesn't have it yet--and they seem to be spotty about stocking Ford in general. I've liked the women's fragrances more than the men's. I did like Noir but not enough to own. Maybe it will grow on me.

Tania said...

I tried this in Harrods and went straight home and eBayed for a half-price bottle, I liked it so much.
(I hardly ever pay shop prices any more...)
I agree about the outdoors vibe. I love Avignon, but it's very much a cathedral smell to me. Midnight carols at Notre Dame, kind of thing.

I've never tried Norma Kamali,but based on what you say I think I'd like it.
Wazamba is gorgeous, but I only have a sample, so haven't tried it properly.

Brian said...

Oh good, Tania! I'm glad you like it. I'm enjoying it in the heat but can't wait to take it out for a spin in the cooler months.

mals86 said...

"I guess I'm trying to say that while this will be nothing new to the demographic whose mystique it mines, it's something a society lady like Barbara Hutton would consider correspondent to her waspy misunderstandings about the great Other out there, the Other she would view from behind the safety of her car window and consider herself sufficiently immersed. There's a slight sense of safe remove to Sahara Noir - but isn't that true of all mainstream fragrances? "

This is why I love your reviews, dear Brian. It's the context. I'm not much of an incense-lover, and as such I'm probably not going to go looking for a sample of this (since I don't have a tester available within four hours' drive), but I'm not sure I'm missing that much. I'm currently in a BWF phase, AGAIN... those seem to hit me in January and in July/August, and I've been wallowing in all the white florals I own. Just bought somebody's unloved Escada Margaretha Ley, and I'm finding it delightful. Used up my LL Lys 41 samples already. Got out my vintage DvF Tatiana parfum too, and must hunt up my Vamp a NY decant because this is the weather in which it doesn't seem airheaded. Can't wrap my head around frankincense at all at the moment.

blackanll allen said...


I agree that all of Mr. Ford's fragrances are interesting, some arresting, and have liked all of his mainstream things- except for Black Orchid which strikes me as Angel backwards.
Funny you should mention Norma Kamali. All of her fragrances had this punch to them. Her Zagara was the most powerful Orange Blossom you've ever smelled. It was a KO of an orange blossom, but really likeable.

Anonymous said...

It is a smell of a history..