Ocean Rain is the last perfume by Edmond Roudnitska. How should we view it?
Roudnitska is known for his perfumes, for his influence on the state of the art of perfumery and, more than many other noses, for his discussion of the art of perfumery. I don’t know all his work. I’m not an historian and there has been very little critical analysis of perfumery as an art form. There isn’t much to draw on for those who would like to know more. The eternal proviso that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing comes to mind. Still, I’d like to write about Ocean Rain.
Ocean Rain is nominally a floral chypre perfume made for the Italian luxury leather shoe and accessory firm of Mario Valentino. It was released in 1990. It braids ideas present in Roudnitska’s earlier works. It comments on the hygeine/human line drawn in his earlier masculine offerings Rochas Moustache and Dior Eau Sauvage. It has a chilly freshness. Where Eau Sauvage’s freshness is citric and a little tart, Ocean Rain’s is closer to antiseptic. It’s also a fruity chypre in the line of Rochas Femme and Dior Diorella but it has none of their warmth. The real predecessor to Ocean Rain is Dior Diorissimo, Roudnitska’s tribute to the lily of the valley.
Even though I’ve never smelled the original Diorissimo, I’ll talk about it. Thanks to the work of Roudnitska we’ve been given some tools to discuss perfume conceptually. An important part of his legacy is the discussion of perfumery. Roudnitska saw perfumery as a place for discourse and I am grateful to him for having helped those of us who wear perfume to think and talk about it.
Ocean rain has a cool, motionless tone that distances it from some of its siblings. Where Diorella and Femme focus on the warmth at the heart of a chypre and suggest body contact, Ocean rain puts a lid on things. It has a dampening tone. It acts more as a filter than a springboard. As soon as it puts forward an idea, it pulls it back almost suspiciously. What seems like a chypre’s moss, and the foot in the door to a bodily scent, freezes suddenly and appears mineral. The citrus topnote doesn’t lead to green woods and indolic flowers, the fullness of hesperidic notes that often follows the initial tartness of bergamot in a chypre. It becomes a cold breeze and leaves behind a clinical wake. Ocean Rain isn’t tentative, it is exceedingly careful.
I've never quite know what to make of Ocean Rain. Roudnitska trained us to understand that at the heart of a chypre is a fundamentally devil-may-care attitude. Before anything else, a chypre is about pleasing oneself. Ocean rain reads more as restrained, grim to some. Where Diorella suggests an infinite range of color tones hiding behind each olfactory note, Ocean rain tells you that the world is a blanched sepia. Earthy olfactory tones can the suggest decay of autumn, the freshness through the muck of spring, the vegetal richness of early summer. The commonality is richness. Ocean Rain's earthiness is less optimistic in tone. It's dirt as opposed to soil.
Seen as a chypre, Ocean Rain is dour. Perhaps a better lens through which to see it would be Diorissimo. Again, I know Diorissimo from descriptions of the original fragrance, through anecdotal history of its making and from the general writing of Rounitska found online--not from smelling the vintage perfume. Seeing Ocean Rain, the last perfume of a dead perfumer from the perspective of one of his great works that had effectively been hobbled by reformulation before his own death, is a bit ghoulish and essentially fictitious since it is based on so many weak links. But the history of perfume is largely the interpretation of discussions of suppositions of gossip in the first place. I’ll proceed, if cautiously.
The muguet at the heart of Diorissimo is the height of synthesis and a success of abstraction as the tool of a trained mind. Roudnitska chose as his topic a fragrance he knew couldn’t be gathered botanically as the flower produces no fragrance materials that can be collected and there is no other scent in the environment that closely mimics it. He chose this target as the means by which he would show the perfumery of the time (mid-20th century) as burdened and overstuffed. He sought to create Diorissimo not only to create what nature wouldn’t surrender, he meant it to be a lesson in the conceptualization and execution of perfumery.
Diorissimo is the only perfume I have found that in fact presented a manifesto. I’ve mentioned in the past that perfumery doesn’t have artistic movements, as in deliberate artistic explorations and uncovering of dogma, credos or theories pre-existing the art itself. Perfume has genres, which are really objective or subjective descriptions and classifications. Here, Diorissimo stands apart from all other perfumes.
I don’t think that Ocean Rain was the artistic assertion that Diorissimo was. I simply find that the tones used to create a crisp, hygienic tone like lily-of-the-valley as the same palette that will let us take apart Ocean Rain. Ocean Rain isn’t a frigid, sociopath of a chypre, it’s simply a cold beauty. The soapy muguet in Diorissimo suggested a temperature that in Spring is cool but warming. The same temperature in Ocean Rain is simply travelling in the other direction, not halfway to summer warmth, but halfway to frozen. It’s the scent of an imaginary late-autumn-blooming fruit tree.
Ocean rain smell of dirt and wood and chilled flowers. Does that seem unwelcoming? I find it enticing.
from scent hurdle.com