Monday, June 27, 2011

Cartier's Déclaration

Perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena has, over the last two decades or so, developed and honed what has come to be his signature style. His perfumes are sparse, translucent, cut from thoroughly modern cloth but draped over the framework of classic perfumery, and distinctive while remaining effortlessly wearable. Unlike the sturm und drang of the 1970s and '80s bestsellers, almost all of which required a few extra ounces of either extreme cockiness or cocaine-fuelled hysteria on the part of the wearer to pull them off convincingly (YSL Opium, Dior Poison, and Ralph Lauren Polo come immediately to mind, but there were more, oh so much more), Ellena's creations demand nothing of the user besides skin. They're built for the modern age, when we don't want our fragrance to announce its presence before we do, but would rather it accentuate and enhance our natural charisma, surrounding us like a subtle aura of confidence and good taste.

One of the first of Ellena's modern style, and arguably the most influential, was Déclaration by Cartier. Released in 1998, Déclaration is as notable for its sheer, gossamer-light treatment of traditionally heavy materials - woods, spice, moss - as for its use of Iso E Super, a synthetic aroma molecule borne of the mid-'80s and possessing a slightly sweet, woody scent and a shimmering, radiant, almost velvety texture. Déclaration was one of the first fragrances to shine the spotlight on Iso E, which has now found its way into almost every mainstream masculine scent on the market, and more than a few feminines as well. It makes up a whopping 50% of the formula for Hermes' Terre d'Hermes (2006), another Ellena bestseller that is arguably the apotheosis of his current style - flinty and full of character, but as lucid and wearable as a sheer cotton tee. Ellena's use of Iso E Super is so profligate that it's become something of a calling card for the perfumer, and the material's distinctive yet ephermal character seems a perfect match for Ellena's style.

Despite its modern sheen, Déclaration has its feet firmly planted in the classic French eau fraiche creations of the 1950s and '60s, with their sparkle of spice and citrus over bases of leather, woods, moss, and musk. (Vintage framework, modern cloth.) Délcaration does away with the musk - a contributing factor to its transparency - and ramps up the spice, particularly cardamom, ginger, and cumin. Juniper, lavender, wormwood, and cedar lend a slightly medicinal aura to the top notes, which consist of full-bodied, almost photorealistic renditions of bergamot, orange, and lime. The base is a long-lasting, smooth, and delicious combination of cedar, vetiver, and oakmoss. The whole composition has a clarity and legibility that belies its list of rather dense materials, and it's this clarity, stripped of bells and whistles - what Ellena himself dubs his "little haiku" style - that is perhaps Déclaration's most noteworthy aspect. Nothing about the fragrance seems forced, contrived, or insincere. It's elegant, but with an outdoorsy air and a sly grin (the cumin and cedar skirt the edge of armpit sweatiness and serve as a nod to '50s classics like Eau d'Hermes, one of Ellena's oft-mentioned favorites). Despite its influence on the male fragrance market, Déclaration smells as singular as it must have when first released. Its velvety texture, hint of sweetness, and lack of leathery musk or patchouli also lend it plenty of unisex appeal. Women could easily wear Déclaration, and they should. It's a desert at high noon, in a bottle: arid, crisp, clear, and breathtaking. It nods to the past yet remains utterly, thrillingly of the moment. In other words, it's a modern classic.


  1. Hey! I followed you over from Katie's blog, and I've been reading your posts for a little while now.

    I'm so glad to see you review this one, I bought it last year and I immediately loved it. It's nice to hear a really detailed opinion of this little gem.

  2. Thanks, Nora! This was a hard one to find an "angle" for, and it took me a while to come up with the words to do the scent justice and convey its overall effect. Declaration is instantly likeable, but surprisingly hard to pin down.

    Also, hey, you're my first commenter! Happy dance!

  3. I should have commented sooner!

    I think your post did a great job of explaining why this frag smells so fresh and crisp and yet at the same time, has a nice little cumin-y element. It's crazy that the two can co-exist like that.