5 Modern Perfumes with a note of surprise

A good fragrance smells familiar, a great fragrance smells surprising. The whole quest of modern perfumery can be summed by this sentence. We’re instantly attracted to the scents that remind us of something — a pleasant memory or another pleasant perfume, which is why well-liked, best-selling fragrances are often reminiscent of other perfumes on the market. A composition that rises above a merely easy-to-like, however, has an unexpected element. This surprising touch makes the scent linger in the memory and intrigue us. Finding the right combination of familiar and surprising is part of perfumer’s aim.

The five fragrances below represent different genres and styles, but the one element they have in common is surprise. I’ve selected examples that surprise rather than jolt to show subtle accents at play. These perfumes reinterpret classic themes, challenge conventions, and most importantly, smell wonderful.

Galop d’Hermès

At the top of my list is Galop d’Hermès, a fragrance that appears at first as a pastel toned, chic rose but has a dark, smoldering heart. To wear Galop is to be enveloped in soft layers of leather, woods and musk. The new Hermès in-house perfumer Christine Nagel also added an accord of incense inflected rose and juicy quince, an additional surprise.

L’Envol de Cartier

Another perfume that combines elegance with intrigue is L’Envol de Cartier. Inspired by flight and the Brazilian aviation pioneer, Alberto Santos-Dumont, who designed and flew hot air balloons, L’Envol is a radiant combination of honey, woods, and patchouli. It has a mellow start that makes me think of tobacco and leather, but within moments L’Envol accelerates into a smoky, sensual drydown.  It’s my favorite masculine fragrance of the year.

Chanel Boy

Gabrielle Chanel made her name in fashion by borrowing elements of traditional masculine aesthetics—sharp tailoring, cardigan sweaters, tweeds—for her couture. Perfumer Olivier Polge chose to follow in Coco’s footsteps by recasting a classical men’s family, fougère, as feminine. Named after Arthur “Boy” Capel, Gabrielle Chanel’s lover and benefactor, the fragrance combines an accord of lavender, geranium and moss with the softness of rose, orange blossom, and milky almond. In Boy, the lucid, sharp character of fougère is contrasted with the lingering, velvety notes of flowers and musks.

Antonio Alessandria Parfums Fleurs et Flammes

From Catania, Sicily comes a fragrance as baroque as the city’s opulently decorated Basilica della Collegiata. Antonio Alessandria, the owner of the cult fragrance store Boudoir 36, is also a perfumer. His line Antonio Alessandria Parfums features four fragrances, and Fleurs et Flammes caught my attention with its dramatic character. The smoky tuberose and gardenia are layered against green leaves and dark woods, one contrast building and reinforcing the other.

by Kilian Moonlight in Heaven

The most unexpected aspect of by Kilian Moonlight in Heaven is that it’s a gourmand perfume that’s neither sugary nor heavy. The idea behind it was to create an impression of the famous Thai dessert of mango and sticky rice. It does so in a delicious but abstract manner. Like other fragrances on my list, it juxtaposes unusual elements—spicy pink pepper and creamy rice, fresh grapefruit and nutty tonka bean, sweet mango and salty vetiver.  Perfumer Calice Becker makes Moonlight in Heaven luminous by adding her airy and radiant signature.  It’s addictive.

What perfume took you by surprise lately?

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29 Comments

  • Hilde: To me Sublime Balkiss of The Different Company was a surprise, when I discovered it by coincidence in 2020. The way in which a chypre is given a modern style by the use of berries is very nice done, I find. I never tought I was going to like berries in a perfume. In this case there are used blackberries and blackcurrant. I have become addicted to this scent and it has become one of my favourites.

    Lately I also discovered Guerlain Aqua Allegoria Pamplelune and I immediately had to think about Sublime Balkiss, because of the use of cassis. It is one of the best citrus fragrances I have smelled in recent years. August 9, 2021 at 7:52am Reply

  • Damiana: One of the ones you mentioned, I love Antonio Alessandria Parfums Fleurs et Flammes. I would agree it’s surprising with that gunpowder aroma that permeates the floral notes. Unique and reminiscent of patron saint festivities in Italy. August 9, 2021 at 8:15am Reply

  • Ramin: Baliflora : jean claude ellena
    Lavande romaine : jean claude ellena
    Terre dhermes : jean claude ellena
    H24 : christine nagel
    Un jardin sur la lagune : christine nagel August 9, 2021 at 8:48am Reply

  • Fazal: Galop and Envol have impressed me though I fear Envol may not last long in the market. I also love the Envol by Ted Lapidus.

    I was underwhelmed by early releases from Hermes under Nagel though I love some of her perfumes from pre-Hermes era. So Galop is probably the first Hermes perfume by Nagel that I enjoy!

    Elena and Nagel have different styles and strengths. Nagel gives us better perfumes when she is true to her strengths. However, since Nagel joined Hermes, I feel as if Nagel is being loyal to the style Elena established at Hermes. I don’t know whether it is because of the message from her superiors at Hermes that Hermes Perfume DNA has been firmly established by Elena and Nagel should follow the suit or Nagel is doing so voluntarily, either because she likes the direction Elena set or she is simply trying to re-invent herself by moving from complex compositions to ethereal compositions, the path Elena himself took. August 9, 2021 at 8:52am Reply

    • Fazal: Forgot to answer the question at the end of the article but the fragrances that have impressed me most over the last year or two are Chloe Nomade EDP and BR540 EDP.

      The hyped-up fragrances in the fragrance community rarely impress me so BR540 is one of those rare few for whom the hype is justified in my opinion. August 9, 2021 at 8:49pm Reply

  • Eudora: The incense in Chanel 22!!! August 9, 2021 at 10:16am Reply

    • Janet: Is it still there? The incense is why I fell in love with it many years ago. I bought a bottle (from Chanel) about two years ago and it was strangely absent. I’d love to know your thoughts on this. August 9, 2021 at 11:04am Reply

      • Eudora: Dear Janet, I smelled 22 for the first time about two years and a half ago. I fell in love immediately and got a sample. I remember perfectly how surprised I was when discovering the incense. Not at the beginning but in the dry down I found it every time until I finished my sample. It wasn’t something I expected. How gorgeous.
        I do not know about past versions, I talk about the Les Exclusives 22 and yes, the incense it was there. But, as it happens, maybe in a more muted way. I never smelled the original 22 and I’ve read it was richer, better. Maybe this version compared with the one you loved is disappointing. For me 22 is the most beautiful perfume ever. Because it’s pricey I do not own a bottle but is in my wishlist and one of those days…
        If you have access give 22 another chance. The incense is there!
        …Have you find a perfume you like as much as 22? August 10, 2021 at 5:35pm Reply

        • Cornelia Blimber: Yesterday I smelled No 22, a tester at De Bijenkorf in Amsterdam. To my nose there was incense. The list on Fragrantica doesn’t mention incense, but Wikipedia does..anyway, that perfume is gorgeous. August 11, 2021 at 3:24am Reply

          • Cornelia Blimber: Victoria wrote a post on 12 juli: Frankincense is on the verge of disappearing. Maybe that’s why it is not (maybe) in no.22 anymore?
            There were also rumours about No.22 discontinued, some time ago. August 11, 2021 at 6:31am Reply

  • Karina: I‘m very curious to try Cartier L’Envol now. Does anyone know if there is a major difference between the edp and edt versions to be aware of? August 9, 2021 at 11:31am Reply

    • Fazal: Go for EDP, it has more depth. I feel rather underwhelmed by EDT. But the composition is same, EDT appears thinner as compared to EDP, probably because the honey note seems toned down. However, it is not that honey is too dominant in EDP; honey note is just one of the defining notes in the overall composition. August 9, 2021 at 8:43pm Reply

      • Karina: Thanks Fazal! I will seek out the edp. August 10, 2021 at 1:40am Reply

  • Trudy: Thank you so much for this post! I’ve been looking for a special fragrance to go with a new chapter in my life. Of the five I think I’m most interested in trying Antonio Alessandria Parfums Fleurs et Flammes, Chanel Boy and Killian Moonlight in Heaven. These three sound fantastic to me. Now I have to track them down. Thank you for the inspiration. August 9, 2021 at 2:10pm Reply

  • Anastasia: Great article! I have tried only moonlight in heaven which is wonderful! I need to try the other ones! August 9, 2021 at 2:29pm Reply

  • rickyrebarco: Great post. Chanel Boy and the Kilian are both excellent perfumes that I enjoy. August 9, 2021 at 6:10pm Reply

  • Caro: Great post! Now I got very curious about these fragrances.

    Some perfumes that took me by surprise lately:
    – Embruns d’Ylang (Guerlain): I love the salty note in the opening and how the perfume transitions to the warmer notes of clove and vanilla.

    – Snowy Owl (Zoologist Perfumes): The earthy and damp opening (coconut?) is quite remarkable. The drydown is comforting and the perfume is easy to wear.

    – Flos Mortis (Rogue Perfumery): This is a weird one. I don’t think I am bold enough to wear it in the presence of others, but I love it! The name, the color, the indole-fruity notes are all great. It definitely reminds me of decaying flowers/plants in a positive way. Perhaps it is the smell of the Dog Days of summer.

    – Angel Muse EDT: Passion fruit, chocolate, hazelnut, vetiver. This one is surprising to me. I think the notes develop very smoothly. A mood enhancer! August 10, 2021 at 1:13am Reply

  • Zazie: The most surprising compositions I smelled lately come from two brands I absolutely love (and feel don’t get talked about enough):
    Encens suave by matiere premiere and
    Celestial patchouli by sana jardin.
    Both perfumes play on the common notes of incense and patchouli, respectively, and offer a very unique and surprising interpretation.
    Usually when incense and patchouli are in a fragrance name, you know the fragrance will deliver one of the 3/4 accords that have become the (unexciting and boring) customary practice. I mean how many citrusy/peppery or ambery incense scents are needed on the market?
    There comes Mr. Guichard and serves a smoking incense over a velvety and fragrant cup of coffee (with a tonka bean infusing in the beverage) The effect is striking. Pillowy? Astringent? dry? sweet? the nose questions with excitement.
    Celestial patchouli is so unique that defies any description. Maybe it is the specific combination of spices and flowers that make it unlike anything else… Is it the touch of osmanthus? Or the dusting of cinnamon?
    In any case, both fragrances smell like nothing else and they are a pleasure to wear.
    And I dislike incense and patchouli centered scents, for reference. But I love to be surprised 🙂 August 10, 2021 at 9:57am Reply

  • Ewan: Cicadas spend 17 years developing within the earth. Perhaps the Perfume ebook could be called Cicada; itheir name does have a twirl of perfume to it, coming out from the earthy notes to the freshness os a new day. August 10, 2021 at 1:45pm Reply

  • Janet: My love for 22 actually started with Cristalle, sometime in the mid 1980s. I loved it so much it led me to #22 and #19; I could never quite love #19 but the incense in 22 was heaven for me. Fast forward over 30 years later: I repurchased both Cristalle and 22 and they were…different. To my nose, Cristalle lacks that green sharpness and I have a hard time finding the incense in 22.

    I guess it’s very possible that these scents were different thirty years ago, and/or, it could just be that I idealize them from my youth; you know, the old “everything was better back in the day.” In any case, I’ll pull out my 2 year old bottle of 22 and give it another shot. Thanks so much for your reply.

    By the way, I have never had a perfume moment equal to my discovery of Cristalle circa 1984. A very chic young woman applied it in the ladies room at a conference in NYC. Right after work I ran to Macy’s Herald Square and bought a bottle (which I really couldn’t afford at the time.) August 10, 2021 at 9:36pm Reply

    • Dorothee: Isn’t it amazing how powerful our scent memories are? August 11, 2021 at 1:44am Reply

    • Silvermoon: Hi Janet, loved reading about your love at first smell story about Cristalle. My three favourite Chanel perfumes are Cristalle, 22 and Bois des Iles. I recently managed to get a small tester vial of Le Lion. I quite enjoyed it, and will wait to test it again when the weather cools down. I think it will be especially good in the autumn. August 19, 2021 at 3:21pm Reply

      • Janet: Glad you liked the story, Silvermoon. I’ve never found any other perfume with that kind of impact; still on the hunt after all these years. I keep thinking the perfect scent is out there somewhere.

        I also like Bois des Iles – still have about an inch left in the bottle. I am dying to try Le Lion, so much so that I actually emailed Chanel and asked for a sample. What hubris! They said exactly what I knew they would: they would be happy to help me at a Chanel store. Well, no harm in asking. August 19, 2021 at 11:20pm Reply

        • Victoria: Typical! But it was good to ask, since depending on location, they can be more helpful. August 20, 2021 at 4:13am Reply

          • Janet: I wish Chanel would consider selling samples on their website. There are many Exclusifs I would like to try but they are too expensive to blind buy. For samples I would normally go to The Perfumed Court or Surrender to Chance, but Chanel is not available there. Coupled with this, most dept. stores don’t sell the Exclusifs line; in fact, I once asked for Bois des Isles and the salesperson had never heard of it. So the only option is a Chanel store and there are not many. Especially in the Covid era, I hope they consider selling samples – I believe they would sell more product. Thanks for listening to my rant. August 20, 2021 at 9:37pm Reply

            • Victoria: From their perspective, selling samples would be too expensive, both in terms of labor involved and packaging. This is why so few brands offer this service.
              I wish that they made coffrets with small bottles of their perfumes. August 21, 2021 at 3:11am Reply

        • Silvermoon: Hi Janet, I did the same. I even said I was willing to purchase something else, and could a sample of le Lion be added? As in your case, they said no, go to a shop (this was during lockdown in the U.K. when travel wasn’t allowed, so I don’t know what they meant!). Exasperating! Anyway, my daughter managed to get me a sample some time later (she lives near London), when she visited a Chanel shop and explained my request. She said they were very kind about giving her the sample (even though she didn’t purchase anything). So, now just waiting for autumn before I commit to purchasing it. August 20, 2021 at 2:02pm Reply

  • Fitz Wong: I recently discovered Galop, and I fell in love with it immediately. It’s treats leather in a way that’s soft and delicate. One of the favoriates from Christine Nagel. August 15, 2021 at 10:27am Reply

  • Mia: Maya Njie, Les Fleurs – I expected a flowery scent when I bought a discovery set and it smelled like what I thought a fragrant grass or the color green would smell like in heaven. And I do not like grassy scents (besides certain Vetivers). I was reading she put some type of fig in it too. Honestly it’s really hard to describe the scent but it was refreshing because it was so different! Also I just bought Jo Malone’s Scarlet Poppy intense in the beautiful red glass bottle & it was so sophisticated and seductive. I don’t usually think go to her scents for the latter vibe August 16, 2021 at 11:14pm Reply

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