Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Elizabeth & James- Nirvana Black

The general consensus among perfume people regarding Nirvana Black is that for a mainstream celebrity brand this is Not A Bad Perfume. People were surprised because the Olsen Twins' previous foray into perfume resembled their movie career and aimed exactly as high. Somehow this self aware fake sandalwood(ish) fragrance managed to appear on many "If you had to buy a perfume at Sephora" lists. It was on mine. It's taken me about two years, since Nirvana Black was first released until this week to put my finger on the reason why. People I know kept comparing this Elizabeth & James 2013 release to a flatter, simplified Tam Dao (post-reformulation, I assume). I get it, but to me Nirvana Black is actually a purple-hued Douce Amere.

I just reread my old Douce Amere review and realized that I made a kind of joking suggestion to layer the classic Serge Lutens (now only in the exclusive bell jar format, I think) with Tam Dao to get a massive dose of sweet woods, comfort and disquiet. I haven't tried it in years, but I think I know what I'm doing tomorrow. Will the result be Nirvana Black? I doubt it. The older perfumes are nuanced where Elizabeth & James goes straight to the point. There's also the painful issue of some ingredients, though thankfully Nirvana Black smells more expensive than what it is.

Sweet woody perfume are often the mainstream interpretation of edgy (as opposed to cupcake, I presume). I can live with that, as well as with the plastic violets that crowd much of Nirvana Black's opening. It's kind of cute, actually, and the violets have some volume and longevity that a more refined and ethereal would have lacked. Then things become milky and opaque, a familiar not-really-cedar note that aims to imitate a not-really-sandalwood, and does it in a very pleasant way. You can't get grumpy with that any more than you can be angry with Michelle Tanner. After all, she liked cookies and velcro shoes.

 I'm not sure what's "black" about the perfume except its being the opposite of Nirvana White, which I find quite insufferable. It's not dark or mysterious, but it's smooth and well-tailored. There's that wormwood note that adds a hint of spice and bark and connects Nirvana Black to Douce Amere, and I can almost smell a hint anise in the mix even if it doesn't go as far. Instead the space is filled with more faux wood, which at times becomes annoying, especially if you know better. Using the roller ball (it was a Sephora GWP, I think) prevents an overdose that I get when I spray straight from a sample. Would I ever bother with a full bottle? At one time I thought I might, but looking at my shelves I think I'm all set. I have a backup of the Lutens.

Elizabeth & James- Nirvana Black ($25, 1/3 oz) is available from Sephora.

Photo: Mary-Kate Olsen for Marie Claire US, September 2010.


  1. This perfume did not work for me at all. At all. I tried it once and was quite repelled by it. I don't really get it. It is not dark or naughty or woody really.
    Happy Wednesday,

  2. I tried this at Sephora when it was first released and thought 'oh, not too bad' but it wasn't worth pulling the trigger. I've got pre-reform Tam Dao and SL scents that nicely fit the bill for nuanced amber/incense cravings.

  3. I love hearing your thoughts on this. I got it as a sample or GWP at Sephora when it came out, and was so surprised to enjoy it that I bought a bottle. Unfortunately, I almost never wear it. (Once a year?) I adore sandal-woody scents and have many, so I don't find I ever crave this particular option. While they're hardly the same, I tend to turn to Dries van Noten, Bois des Iles, or Bois Farine--or even EL Sensuous--to satisfy a similar craving. (Like I said, those scents are certainly not identical to NB, but they end up 'feeling' similar to me.) Ah, well.

    As for Nirvana White, I'm totally with you. *shudder* But my much, much younger sister loves it.

    1. To follow up...the next morning I spritzed on some NB, having been reminded of it by your review. I didn't think much of it; liked it less than I'd remembered. Plus, it seemed thin and didn't last long. I realize that's like the Woody Allen joke ("The food was terrible! And the portions so small!"), but it's how I felt: My, I don't like this much, and it vanishes so quickly. ;) Anyway, an hour or so later I threw some Tam Dao over it and was much happier. My TD is from about 2006 and I'm not sure whether that's pre or post reformulation. Either way, I liked it markedly more than NB. Thanks for inspiring me to try it again--that was fun.

  4. Have never sniffed this and can't say I feel this is any major olfactory tragedy, but you've got me curious enough with the Tam Dao and Douce Amere references that I am now definitely going to give it a try. And, although we are going out with friends this afternoon, I am still going to use some empty arm space to layer Tam Dao and Douce Amere. I'm hoping the remnants of the Orchidee Blanche I put on this morning will play nicely with it - and, if be it. Curiosity wins. And I'm fairly positive I'll love the combination of the SL and TD.

  5. Perfect review Gaia! I'm satisfied with my mini rollerball of Nirvana Black that I got from Sephora as a 100 point gift :-)

  6. Have you tried Infusion Noire by Hervé Gambs? Think you might like it, it smells like a dark version of DA with a huge sprinkling of star anise. I'd love to hear your thoughts!
    For the record: I love DA and Tam Dao, but confess I very much like Nirvana Black, even layered with Nirvana White. But then that might have something to do with the fact that I bought them on vacation in Hawaii.

  7. I hate both the Black and White versions. Granted I would not want to make the Olsen's any richer by buying anything from them, but I did try to keep an open mind and still found both revolting. Even if someone gifted me either I would kindly ask for the gift receipt to return it.


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