Penhaligon’s Vaara : Perfume Review

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A perfume fit for a Maharaja, says Penhaligon’s about Vaara, a fragrance inspired by the Royal House of Marwar-Jodphur in Rajasthan. This state in the northwest of India means “the land of kings,” and it’s renowned for its colorful textiles, filigreed palaces and majestic forts. It’s also the place where you can buy opium scented incense (whether or not it includes the actual drug is another matter) and try the decadently rich milk shakes perfumed with pistachios, almonds and saffron. Like most of India, it’s a sensory roller coaster.

penhaligons-vaara-perfume

So, why is Vaara such a wallflower? Etro has already tried to take us to Rajasthan with its recent fragrance, but the violet and rose combination never got past the South of France. Despite its promises, Vaara doesn’t even cross the Channel. It’s soft spoken and mild, a perfume for someone who really doesn’t like orientals or anything richer than frozen yogurt.

The tart, fruity rose is the main element of Vaara, with the accord of woods underpinning the flurry of petals. At first, you notice the combination of rose with a smidgen of saffron, a note that smells at once of pharmacies and pastry shops, and then the sweetness of apple and pear takes it into a more familiar direction. If you’ve ever smelled magnolia with its perfume of lemon ice cream and tea soaked apricots, you will recognize this note in the heart of Vaara.

This part is exquisite, and if the drydown either had more curves (or to put it bluntly, if Penhaligon’s had spared more pennies for the juice), Vaara would have been terrific. But instead of taking me for a ride, Vaara meanders around rose and settles for a well-behaved drydown of raspy woods and laundry musk.  It’s surprisingly clean, considering that we’re talking about an India inspired perfume. There is not even a hint of the bonfire smoke that pervades most Indian cities, nor the opulent incense hanging around the temples. At best, it’s a neatly packaged idea of India, without any messy bits.

These messy bits, however, make other Duchaufour fragrances much more compelling, whether it’s the sultry Eau d’Italie Paestum Rose, playful L’Artisan Traversée du Bosphore, or even Vaara’s older sister, Neela Vermeire Mohur.  By contrast, Penhaligon’s is a more commercial and approachable brand than the others I’ve mentioned, so Vaara’s garden party exoticism is not accidental. That Vaara is the low-budget version of Mohur is also not surprising.

But not everyone wants a dramatic perfume, and Vaara is a good option if you would like to dip your toe into oriental waters without getting completely overwhelmed. If oud, another major trend, is not your friend, then again, I would suggest trying Vaara for a mild taste of spicy woods. Who knows, perhaps it will inspire you to explore further and discover your own India.

Penhaligon’s Vaara Eau de Parfum lists notes of quince, rosewater, carrot seed, coriander seed, saffron, Moroccan rose absolute, Bulgarian rose oil, freesia, Indian magnolia, peony, iris, honey, white musk, cedarwood, sandalwood, benzoin resin, and tonka bean. 100ml/ £120

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70 Comments

  • FearsMice: Darn, I had such high hopes for Vaara! I guess it’s better to stick with Neela Vermeire’s interpretations despite the high prices. I’m a faithful reader here, and always appreciate (and trust) your reviews, Victoria — thank you for all that you do! August 2, 2013 at 7:31am Reply

    • Victoria: I think that either Mohur or Frederic Malle Portrait of a Lady satisfy my cravings for lush, opulent scents. Ironically, even Portrait of a Lady smells more Indian than Vaara!
      Thank you very much for your kind words! August 2, 2013 at 11:32am Reply

  • rosarita: Another pretty bottle that disappoints. I love that new Etro bottle, too – too bad these don’t live up to their promise. Of course, I’m a lot tougher than the target market, I like my orientals to be assertive. :-) Thanks for the review! August 2, 2013 at 8:20am Reply

    • Victoria: I love the bottle and the whole packaging for this perfume. I haven’t seen it in person though, but the images online are tempting. August 2, 2013 at 11:34am Reply

  • george: Maybe it’s to do with being English and living in London but whenever I see anything overly marketed as English I assume it’s for the tourists: Penhaligon’s appeal to me (as marketed) is of the level of the shops full of union jack jugs and the Scottish themed steak houses around Leicester Square that virtually no-one from London would consider eating in. I also read this review, expecting at the end to see a cheap or relatively cheap price to this fragrance, but I think the comparison to the incredibly highly priced (but by accounts worth it) Mohur, makes a reasonably expensively priced fragrance seem of a lower price than it is. That, along with a list of notes that makes it sound interesting but not as definite in structure I would like (as with a lot of Bertrand Duchaufour fragrances), makes this one I won’t even bother to search out, I’m afraid. August 2, 2013 at 9:44am Reply

    • Eric: Penhaligons colognes go sour on me, but I liked Artemisia. Does anyone know if the price has always been this high? I always thought of them as more affordable. August 2, 2013 at 10:34am Reply

      • Jillie: Good heavens, Eric, I am shocked at the price! Whilst I never thought of Penhaligon’s products as being cheap, they were certainly more affordable than this – you could buy a really outstanding niche, like something from Nicolai, for far less than this. It seems to me that perhaps Penhaligon’s is getting a little greedy? August 2, 2013 at 10:52am Reply

        • Victoria: I can’t agree more! Even if you consider the price alone, you can do so much better. For instance, for a light oriental rose, you can go for Atelier Cologne Rose Anonyme. Parfums de Nicolai Rose Intense is neither intense or oriental, but it’s a wonderful rose. August 2, 2013 at 11:46am Reply

    • Victoria: I used to like the quaint, old world feel of their boutiques, and I remember feeling sorry that I didn’t like their fragrances enough to purchase a full bottle (I discovered Violette and Sartorial much later). By the way, I just realized that the last time I visited their boutique in London must have been about 10 years ago, if not more! August 2, 2013 at 11:37am Reply

      • george: Yes, Violetta is great: it’s a friend’s signature fragrance, and I smell it often! Nothing else has ever excited me much from the range. I could cope if the shops simply exuded Edwardian charm, but it’s the over use and over large use of the royal warrants on their products, and the royalist leanings in how the range is presented, and the brand’s expected deference to the fact that their products are allegedly created for kings, (or in the case of Vaara) a maharajah, or named after the seat of one of England’s most respected bloodlines’ that’s all a bit too much. I would prefer to be in awe of what’s in the bottle, and when there is such emphasis on being in awe of something else other than that, I am not surprised when the perfumes are generally disappointing. When you are next back in London you will find their boutiques to have popped up everywhere though, if there was only one on your last visit. August 2, 2013 at 4:25pm Reply

        • Victoria: You’re right about that! I noticed on my recent visit that their boutiques were everywhere, but I didn’t stop by. As for the seals and heralds, perhaps they are trying to go the way of Creed? August 3, 2013 at 3:37am Reply

          • george: Although maybe Penhaligons should sue over that one- as they hold the Prince of Wales’ warrant- and not Creed, and can rightfully display the Black Prince’s three feathers? August 3, 2013 at 4:28am Reply

            • Victoria: I had no idea that their displaying of the feathers is not warranted. But then again, something about Creed’s royal aspirations has always struck me as too self-conscious. August 3, 2013 at 7:14am Reply

              • george: Hilariously- however- Clarins does have a royal warrant and so does Elizabeth Arden. Unfortunately, only for skincare and cosmetics, so we won’t be seeing the Queen’s badge on bottles of Angel anytime soon. August 3, 2013 at 8:53am Reply

                • Victoria: Ha! But I don’t see them putting it on their skincare packaging either. August 4, 2013 at 3:28pm Reply

                  • george: Bien sur! August 4, 2013 at 5:26pm Reply

  • Aisha: Oh, how disappointing! I love the scents/tastes/sounds of India/Pakistan and I remember the countries as being vibrant (I used to visit relatives there with my parents when I was a young girl). The way you describe this fragrance, it sounds as if it’s for those who want to test the waters before plunging in to something that truly captures that part of the world. Of course, at $160, that’s quite the expensive “test.” August 2, 2013 at 9:57am Reply

    • Victoria: Mmm, I love the smell inside the Indian houses–the combination of rose, cardamom, saffron, nutmeg, incense (rarely cooking scents, since in India most kitchens open to the outside). Even though Indian cities are not uniformly pleasant smelling, it all forms part of a whole. It’s hard to describe why the acrid smell of burning trash becomes strangely pleasant, but it does! Whenever I land in India and notice that scent, plus the ever present tropical scent of decaying things, it’s such an exhilarating feeling. Not that I would want it in my perfume bottle though. :) August 2, 2013 at 11:40am Reply

      • Aisha: That made me laugh. :-) Yes, it’s very odd that even those typically unpleasant smells are somewhat oddly comforting. Really, though, the spices are what I remember the most as far as scents. OK, maybe the overripe mango too. ;-) August 2, 2013 at 12:27pm Reply

        • Aisha: And now, I’m remembering the smog. Thank you. ;-) August 2, 2013 at 12:35pm Reply

          • Victoria: Isn’t it odd though? Now whenever I smell this bonfire scent, I think of India. :) August 2, 2013 at 2:36pm Reply

        • Victoria: The overripe mango is another scent I remember too. Today we have more than 90F, and I have a pile of mangoes sitting on the table in my dining room. As soon as I walked in, I was engulfed in this typically Indian scent. :) August 2, 2013 at 2:36pm Reply

          • Aisha: Oh yum! Craving mango lassi now. August 2, 2013 at 4:57pm Reply

            • Victoria: At a local grocery store the Indian mangoes have finally landed, so I couldn’t help loading up my basket. And they are ripening so quickly! It’s definitely time for some mango lassi. August 3, 2013 at 3:57am Reply

  • Lucas: I was hoping that Penhaligon’s Vaara will have more in common with the real India – spices, vivid colors, than Etro Rajasthan that to me had not much to do wih India really.

    Too bad Vaara seems to lack the Indie factor too… August 2, 2013 at 10:22am Reply

    • Victoria: There are some elements, but as a whole it doesn’t really go there. Not for me, at least. August 2, 2013 at 11:42am Reply

  • Eric: Try Manoumalia for a dose of India! August 2, 2013 at 10:36am Reply

    • Victoria: Oh, that’s a good one! It’s probably even more realistically Indian than some other perfumes I mentioned. Which is what makes it challenging too. August 2, 2013 at 11:43am Reply

  • theperfumeddandy: Dear Victoria
    What a beautiful description of magnolia… “lemon ice cream and tea soaked apricots”.
    It’s a shame that Vaara isn’t a little more adventurous, especially given the fine Victorian tradition of Orientalism in British perfume that it seems to allude to, that has been happily brought back to life by Grossmith.
    That said, and your balanced review reflects this, it’s not a bad smell… a male friend was wearing it recently and I have to admit it really rather agreed with him.
    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy August 2, 2013 at 11:06am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s not bad at all! Rather tame for what’s it’s meant to be, but no, I don’t think that it’s poorly done. Bertrand Duchaufour is an excellent perfumer. August 2, 2013 at 11:48am Reply

  • Portia: SO SAD!! I wanted to be swept away. I will try it though because if it was called something else and I took the expectations away I may like it for itself? Maybe?
    Portia xx August 2, 2013 at 11:26am Reply

    • Victoria: Perhaps, you’ll experience it completely differently than I did. I can accept that it doesn’t capture India for me, but that aside, it just didn’t hit the spot. August 2, 2013 at 11:59am Reply

  • Natalia: Well, I am not into dramatic perfumes (some of my wordrobe inhabitants might be consedered “dramatic” by others but they are not – to me) and I hate (yes, this srtong a word) oud. What’s more, I don’t even like frozen yougurt, let alone the “decadently rich milk shakes” :) but I like roses and properly behaved drydowns, so this might be the thing I would enjoy. However, Penhaligon’s never seems to do it for me, perhaps this one would be different, who knows. Definitely must try. The bottle and especially the box are lovely.
    P.S. God, I would so love to visit India! I am completely envious of those who have. August 2, 2013 at 12:37pm Reply

    • Victoria: Natalia, it’s definitely worth trying then, and if you haven’t tried L’Artisan Traversee du Bosphore or Atelier Cologne Rose Anonyme, please do. L’Artisan is richer and bigger, but it’s not heady.

      India is definitely a place that inspires very strong emotions in people. My friend put it best when she said that it was so dramatically different from anything else she’s encountered that at some point it feels perfectly normal. Like you’re in a different universe. And if you would like a little taste of India via cinema, I have many Bollywood movie recommendations. They are certainly fantasies, but such indulgent ones that it’s hard to resist. August 2, 2013 at 2:40pm Reply

      • Natalia: Victoria, thank you so much for the recommendations! I haven’t tried those yet and they seem very promising.
        I have seen some Bollywood movies (not a lot but a few) recommended to me by my on-line Indian friends whom I “met” in a manner of speaking on the IMDb “Slumdog Millionaire” discussion board several years ago. It was a very lively board that not only dealt with the film itself but also discussed different aspects of Indian life, culture, history, politics etc. Definitely not the real India expetience but that’s where I got very interested in the country.
        My favorite movie about India made by an Indian (it’s not pasrticularly Bollywood though but rather an international production) is Mira Nair’s “Monsoon Wedding”. I think it captures a slice of the Indian life so perfectly, you can almost smell the rich, heady air through the screen. August 2, 2013 at 2:56pm Reply

        • Victoria: Also, it’s so expensive that I hesitate mention it, but it’s very good–Tom Ford Cafe Rose!

          Among my top favorite Bollywood films is Umrao Jaan (the old version with actress Rekha; there is a new one with Aishwarya Rai, but it’s somewhat bland). It’s about a 19th century courtesan, and the cinematography of this film makes me think of Vermeer’s works. I can watch it again and again, and every single time it’s just as special. She must have smelled of something like Mohur or Portrait of a Lady–rose, incense, dark woods. August 3, 2013 at 3:32am Reply

  • linda: I went to India once, several years ago and have forever since tried to find a perfume that captures the scent I found there….that wonderful incense, sandalwood, etc.
    Do you have a few suggestions for me to try? I so love what you share with us Victoria. Thank you so much. August 2, 2013 at 12:54pm Reply

    • Victoria: Linda, oh, I do! First of all, Les Nez Manoumalia, which smells like an Indian night full of jasmine and overripe fruit. Serge Lutens Santal Blanc is another scent that reminds me of India. I also have lots more under India tag here:
      http://boisdejasmin.com/tag/india
      Whenever something is purported to be inspired by India or reminds me of it, I put it there. August 2, 2013 at 2:42pm Reply

      • linda: Thank you Victoria. So excited to try some of these :-) August 3, 2013 at 5:18pm Reply

        • Victoria: You’re welcome! Please let me know what you think. August 4, 2013 at 3:33pm Reply

  • Lavanya: Hmm- this doesn’t sound too interesting- though I would like to smell the magnolia note- I don’t think I’ve sniffed Magnolias in real life, or atleast knowingly.

    The two perfumes that evoke India for me are EldO Rien (insides of stores that sell wooden things) and CdG Champaca (smells of South Indian weddings and girls with plaited hair with strands of jasmine). And ofcourse a multitude of rosy, leathery chypres remind me of paan and supaari..:) August 2, 2013 at 1:38pm Reply

    • Victoria: Have you smelled Ormonde Jayne Champaca? It makes me think of Indian basmati rice and magnolias right away.

      Another interesting perfume with magnolia is Guerlain L’instant. I ended buying the parfum version on ebay, and magnolia is even more obvious in that concentration. But the edt/edp are great too. August 2, 2013 at 2:44pm Reply

      • Lavanya: Yes I have smelled Champaca but don’t get the basmati rice note. I’ll try again..:)

        Are magnolias sold at the florists/farmers markets in the U.S? August 2, 2013 at 2:47pm Reply

        • Victoria: I don’t think so, or at least, I’ve never seen them. But magnolia trees are easy enough to find, even in the cities. Some varieties bloom in spring and others all through the summer. The scent is one of the most beautiful I know. If you google magnolia, you can see what the flower looks like, and the next time you’re walking around town, I’m sure you can spot the tree. Even in New York, there are plenty of magnolias. August 2, 2013 at 2:51pm Reply

  • solanace: I guess ‘ll pass, since I enjoy perfumes with big personalities. I wish they would make something interesting, though, because I need one of these cute, old style bottles in my vanity! August 2, 2013 at 1:47pm Reply

    • Victoria: I love Penhaligon’s bottles too. They’re so charming and retro. Violetta is one of my favorites so far. August 2, 2013 at 2:45pm Reply

  • annemariec: My only experience of Penhaligon’s is Amaranthine, which is wonderful, and also composed by BD. I admit that it too seems to signal a longing for the days when so much of the map of world was coloured pink, for the British Empire. Amaranthine is suggestive of tropical places – Malaya perhaps, of the 1930s. All rather Somerset Maugham – you know, upper middle class English people in exotic climbs. As a perfume I love it, but the implied colonialism makes me squirm a bit. August 2, 2013 at 5:28pm Reply

    • Victoria: I know what you mean. Perfumery as a whole is full of these kind of references that have been toned down in other crafts or artistic endeavors. It’s amazing to read some of the press releases that go on and on about the beauty of the “orient” and imagine what Edward Said would make of it all. August 3, 2013 at 3:59am Reply

      • annemariec: Yes, the perfume industry is dominated by a northern European and northern American view of the world and of history, even though the biggest markets are Asia and South America. August 3, 2013 at 6:08pm Reply

        • Victoria: I recall reading an interview with Jean-Claude Ellena, in which he complained about it. It’s really too bad, because the local perfume traditions of many parts of Asia and Middle East are quite fascinating and sophisticated. August 4, 2013 at 3:36pm Reply

  • Elizabeth: As I type this, I am sitting by the gate at JFK waiting to board a plane to Berlin. I am wearing the tiniest drop of Trayee on my wrist for a bit of comfort and benediction. :) Trayee is something that truly makes me think of India. August 2, 2013 at 8:08pm Reply

    • Victoria: I wish you a safe and pleasant journey! Any interesting duty-free discoveries? :)

      I need to be in a certain mood to wear Trayee. It’s definitely comforting and makes me think of Indian temples, but it feels wrong to wear it as I’m shopping for groceries or cleaning my apartment. Oddly enough, I have no troubles picking grand favorites like Guerlain Mitsouko or Nahema for these chores. August 3, 2013 at 4:01am Reply

  • Emma M: Victoria, you’ve described the opening of this perfume so beautifully that it has gone on my ‘to try’ list anyway, even if it does prove to be too mild for my oriental-loving tastes.

    So far, Amaranthine and Cornubia are the two Penhaligons that I like best. I also remember liking Castile when I received a sample of it. August 3, 2013 at 11:19am Reply

    • Victoria: I don’t even know Cornubia, so in turn, this goes onto my to try list. Have you tried Violetta or Elizabethan Rose? They smell so Edwardian to me, even if a bit prim and proper. August 4, 2013 at 3:31pm Reply

      • Emma M: I’m sure I’ve tried Violetta on a card but not on skin, I’ve just read your review of it and it sounds like something I would enjoy. Elizabethan Rose I’m not familiar with at all which is odd as I love and seek out all things rose. Both are now on my radar!

        Cornubia seems to be one of the lesser known ones from Penhaligons, I would have overlooked it myself if the SA at Harvey Nichols in Manchester hadn’t recommended it as his favourite from the line. It reminds me of something I can’t quite put my finger on, so I’d be interested to hear yours and others’ thoughts on it August 4, 2013 at 6:05pm Reply

        • Victoria: I’ll definitely try this one the next time I’m around a Penhaligon’s counter. I also remembered that I liked their Lily and Spice, which smells like Madonna lilies. Unfortunately, the drydown is not as exciting as the opening. August 5, 2013 at 10:15am Reply

  • Austenfan: I recently wore Paestum Rose again after a long time. It was one of my first niche acquisitions, and fortunately I still really like it. It has plenty of character and yet wears quite easily.
    I don’t believe I have any particular feelings about this brand. The only one of their offerings I have tried is Amaranthine, which I still haven’t made up my mind about. I think I will pas on this one. But it’s a lovely review, as always and I like the photo!
    It was terribly hot yesterday, but fortunately things seem to have calmed down a little today. August 3, 2013 at 12:19pm Reply

    • Victoria: After suffering through 34C for a couple of days, I’m happy that it might start raining next week. I never thought I would say this! :)

      Amaranthine is very nicely done, but it’s somehow not memorable enough. Not sure, but I’m also on the fence about it. August 4, 2013 at 3:33pm Reply

      • Austenfan: Did you ever try Flora Bella? I never have and it got such an intriguing review in the Guide.

        I am dying for some rain! Summer never was my favourite season although the long light evenings are wonderful. August 4, 2013 at 3:47pm Reply

        • Victoria: I haven’t, although some of these older Laliques are striking. Perles de Lalique and Lalique perfume are underrated but oh so good.

          The evenings full of golden light that lingers as late as 9pm are a treat. August 4, 2013 at 3:54pm Reply

          • Austenfan: And Encre Noir! I have never tried Lalique le Parfum, but I have a mini of Perles, which I like. August 4, 2013 at 4:06pm Reply

            • Victoria: That’s one of my top favorite vetivers in general. So earthy, dark, rich, but at the same time transparent. August 5, 2013 at 10:09am Reply

  • Katy McReynolds: When “Monsoon Wedding” was mentioned earlier, I think instantly of marigolds, because of the character in the film who was eating them. What fragrance evokes marigolds to you? I think marigolds and curry and mango might smell spectacular together. August 3, 2013 at 6:36pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s nothing modern, but Ralph Lauren Lauren has a beautiful marigold note. Atelier Cologne Ambre Nue has a great marigold top note together with peppery citrus. I need to think of some others, but somehow these two come to mind right away. August 4, 2013 at 3:46pm Reply

      • Victoria: Just thought of another marigold classic–Estee Lauder Beautiful! It has a gorgeous marigold vignette, and its green apple note offsets the richness of its rose, jasmine and ylang ylang heart really well. August 4, 2013 at 3:52pm Reply

  • Daisy: When I first heard about Vaara, I was very hopeful. I had the chance to smell it at Saks and was disappointed. I didn’t think it was a bad fragrance, I just found it so light and fresh (like a dewy, pink rose). It was nothing like the rich, opulent scent that I had imagined it would smell like. August 4, 2013 at 5:24pm Reply

    • Victoria: The bottle is very pretty though, isn’t it? I think that Penhaligon’s does a great job with their packaging, balance all of these retro elements. August 5, 2013 at 10:13am Reply

      • Daisy: Very pretty. I’m a sucker for those bow ties! August 5, 2013 at 12:08pm Reply

  • Hannah: My friend sent me a decant and I wore it today. I think it is a pleasant little scent. This is what I imagine a Crabtree and Evelyn fragrance smells like, although I could be totally wrong because I’ve never tried their products. I don’t know why these brands give all their products the same price. It’s something that could be a reliable go-to scent when you just want something enjoyable, but it smells like it should be $60 or under. Not because it smells cheap but because it doesn’t really have any complexity. September 28, 2013 at 4:35pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, I’m with you. It’s pretty, but for the price I would have loved more. September 29, 2013 at 1:43am Reply

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