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.