Ormonde Woman: the forest primeval

Cards on the table: this is a review of my favorite perfume in the world. No qualifiers. It’s not my favorite for winter, spring, summer, or fall. It’s not my favorite “wood” perfume or “feminine” perfume or “splurge” perfume. It’s my favorite fragrance, period.

Let me explain.

Shennongjia virgin forest
As a teacher, I often joke with my students, and one of the questions I routinely pose is: “Who in here likes camping?” When several invariably raise their hands, I follow up with: “Why?

They laugh at my skeptical tone, then tell me the same thing each time: they like to get away from it all, to disconnect from everything, to go into the wild where it’s just them and Mother Nature. Camping is both a retreat and a refuge.

It’s like they’ve never even heard of fairy tales.

You remember Little Red Riding Hood, warned against encountering the Big Bad Wolf when she goes to the woods to see her grandmother. Or Hansel and Gretel, who leave a trail of breadcrumbs in the forest so they won’t lose their way. Or, if you want to kick it up a notch, Dante Alighieri, who begins his journey towards salvation in a dark wood that symbolizes the danger faced by his soul.

Stories love the woods. Poets really love the woods. Remember Robert Frost from high school? The woods are lovely, dark, and deep. He finds them so compelling that he would prefer to remain there and watch the snow fall, but forces himself to resume his journey instead. And what about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow?

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.

I’m getting to the perfume review soon. I promise. (Remember that part about the hemlocks.)

But first, the point that I want to make is that the forest is more than a biome (although it is the biggest). All over the world, forests represent the unknown: the dangers of human existence in a natural world that can erase us in a heartbeat, without caring anything for our hopes, our dreams, or our frustrations.

Does anybody here watch Game of Thrones? Do you remember the opening scene of the series?


I’m just asking.

Let’s separate the trees from the forest. My last post mentioned, briefly, the different categories of perfume. “Woods” is one of the most popular categories, and for a very good reason. You can imagine it right now, can’t you? Think of fragrant logs on a fire, or the smell of a sawmill, or the scent of pine needles. Wood smells great.

And it’s hard to improve on a classic woody scent. Chanel knocked it out of the park in 1926 with Bois des Isles, a modern interpretation of sandalwood. Caron built on it with Parfum Sacré (incense for everyone!), and Serge Lutens followed that with Féminité du Bois (a whopping dose of cedar).

It was all very civilized. Very elegant. Other woody fragrances built on that theme, though as fragrance evolved, you were more likely to find wood mixed with spice for increased sex appeal (see: Opium), or citrus (Diorella). It was supposed to make you feel sophisticated and confident, like you could conquer the natural world, not be cowed by it.

In 2002, Linda Pilkington saw matters differently, and created the first perfume for her niche firm, Ormonde Jayne: Ormonde Woman. As the copy claims, the perfume is bursting with “Black Hemlock absolute – rarely used in such luscious quality and quantity.” If you’re like me and you’re not up on your conifers, you immediately thought: Hemlock? Poison perfume?

Nope. Learn something new every day. Ormonde Woman contains absolute of pine tree, and it doesn’t smell like any other woody perfume I’ve ever encountered. In her review of the fragrance, perfume critic Tania Sanchez says, “Ormonde Woman is the only abstract woody perfume I know that triggers the basic involuntary reflex, on stepping into a forest, to fill one’s lungs to bursting with the air.” I’ll go her one further–it’s the only woody perfume I know that reminds me why the woods are so darn scary. It’s pine, moss, oak, cedar, sandalwood, and the full moon visible through the branches. It’s the dark path leading out of the village. If you leave, who knows what will come back in your place?

It’s also the perfume that taught me the difference between a good fragrance and a great one. On the day I first tried it, I had another wood scent on my other arm: Tam Dao by Diptyque, a straight-up cedar that smelled perfectly nice. Not thinking much about it, I put Ormonde Woman on my unscented arm, and went about my business. Then I took a couple of moments to sniff Tam Dao, then Ormonde Woman, right after the other.

I was stunned. Ormonde Woman was deep, rich, intense–layered. I thought I had to be imagining things, the difference was that stark. It had started off with clean, bright grass–almost citrusy, nothing of the woods at all.

But in the dry down, it got darker, sweeter, and colder. The forest path was unfolding. The wood notes grew deeper, but were balanced by the florals (violet and jasmine absolute are supposedly the floral notes). I’m not sure how to put it, except to say that it got a lot denser, without becoming cloying or too heavy.

I sniffed Tam Dao again. It was the same cedar.  Still very nice, but it was too late: I had just met the love of my life. (I cheat on it all the time, though. Luckily, perfume tolerates promiscuity well.)

Somehow, Ormonde Woman manages to be innovative but also timeless: one of those rare things that actually is an “instant classic,” in that the moment you smell it, you realize it adheres to what is best in the form, improves on it, and is here to stay. The structure, from opening to dry-down, is flawless. Unlike Tubereuse Criminelle, Ormonde Woman never shocks you–it just surprises you. It’s a wonderful surprise, because there is never a thin, sour, chemical moment. From the shiny opening notes to the inky dry-down, you are surrounded by luxury. No corners were cut. The perfume is expensive, but at least it smells like it.



It’s got one huge downside: it doesn’t last long. Some perfumes stick on me all day, but Ormonde Woman vanishes within a few hours. It’s a shame. At that price point, you’d think we could enjoy it for longer. I also have to admit that for people who aren’t addicts, it’s probably best as a fragrance for the colder months. If you don’t love it in June, try it in November and see if it improves.

That said, it’s not for everyone. I will recommend it to anyone who has never tried it, but do try before you buy; I’ve heard never heard anyone say they hate it, but I have heard people say, “It’s amazing, but it’s just not me.” Honestly? It’s not me, either. I’m not nearly cool or badass enough for it. But I’ll wear it anyway, not because of who I am, but because it suggests there are other possibilities if you venture into the forest.

So many possibilities. Ormonde Woman exposes the true fear behind all the fairy tales: that we’ll decide grandmothers are overrated, and choose to join the wolves.


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