Tempo Rubato: A Celebration of Timeless, Natural Beauty

Recently, I have become fixated on orris butter. This is quite the legendary material in perfumery, known for both its beauty and its expense. It is associated with the iris (the official flower of Saint Louis, no less, due to its association with the fleur de lis and the namesake of my city), but with a more rooty nuance.

Additionally, orris is the epitome of two of my favorite materials, irones and ionones. In my composition for Chatillon Lux, Weinstrasse, my iris accord played a big part that scent. I love ionones of all types, often found in florals like iris and violets, but also in peachy notes, as well, many of which came into play for Lamplight Penance and Eau de Treget.

This was the first of what became two compositions featuring orris butter that will soon be released, along with Orris Forest, the inspiration for which came during the development of Tempo Rubato.

However, Tempo Rubato, in large part due to the inspiration for the perfume, spared no expense in trying to achieve my vision for it. I feel that it would do it a disservice to submit to a budget by exclusing the raw materials that hold so much beauty.

And so I want to highlight this message up front, because I will be sending a link to this article to anyone who emails me, comments on social media or puts out any diatribes about the price of this perfume. Yes, it is costly. I apologize, but the raw materials cost per bottle is over double of what is currently my most expensive perfume, Santal Auster. If it is out of your price range, I totally understand, but that is the unfortunate thing about an uncompromising vision and also trying to run a business. I have to set prices that reflect what it costs to make it.

I wish I could afford to lose money on releases, but I simply cannot (especially as small of an operation that I run). And the fact of the matter is that orris butter, rose otto absolute, narcissus absolute, galbanum resinoids, neroli essential oil, jasmine absolute and civet are amongst the most expensive things that I could add to a formula. It was in part the inspiration behind Orris Forest, a composition that could feature the beauty of orris butter at a more accessible price point.

And, as is always the case, I am sure there will be some who will not be satiated by my response here or anything that I could tell them. I do not understand the anger towards someone charging a price based on what goes in the bottle, especially since I do not even make enough money to work as a perfumer full time, but such is life. And so I will prepare to weather the ensuing outrage of a perfume that costs $180 for a 50 mL bottle.

But with that out of the way, let’s talk about the inspiration and the composition.

Billie Holiday and Tempo Rubato

The idea of tempo rubato is one that is often used in jazz. It translates to “robbed time,” referring to the use of playing off-tempo in a way that adds some tension and feeling to the melody. Much like natural materials used in perfumery, the beauty is in the “imperfections” and the natural feel. Not flawed, but not uniform or robotic, either.

Billie Holiday’s powerful and entrancing vocal style is a perfect example of this style. It’s difficult to define, but tempo rubato isn’t just singing off beat. Far from it. It has to be done skillfully, artfully and in an indefinable manner. Miles Davis said, “A lot of singers try to sing like Billie, but just the act of playing behind the beat doesn’t make it sound soulful.”

And of course, this style is on full display in her masterpiece, “Strange Fruit.” This powerful, gripping dirge remains as relevant today as it ever was and sounds as fresh as it ever did.

However, we’re here to talk perfume, so I would refer you to read more about tempo rubato in this wonderful academic paper you can read here. Additionally, the excellent podcast Throughline did a podcast on her tragic life, and I would highly recommend listening to it (again and again, it’s so good) here or on whatever podcast platform you prefer.

Composing the Perfume

Some perfumes come together in a snap. And some really make me work for it, digging and refining until I finally uncover what I’ve been looking for. By far, Tempo Rubato was the latter. It was important to create something as rich and vibrant as Billie’s vocal styling.

The Floral Bouquet

Like both the upcoming December 8 releases, this idea began with orris butter. The rooty part of the iris flower (the official flower of Saint Louis with its association with the fleur de lis), it is rich, decadent and elegant. The perfect material for the intention of this scent. It is reinforced with a few different ionones and irones, elements of this family, as well as carrot seed essential oil, which has some of the same ionone and silky green charactaristics.

In addition to the silky smooth floral aspect, orris has a watery green aspect that leads very well into galbanum. Galbanum, grown in the Persian region, is a bit of a chameleon, reinforcing floral accords with a springtime freshness, and I used a combination of a supercritical CO2 extract that eliminates some of the bitter aspects of a distilled essential oil with a resin that adds a richness and weight that keeps it from becoming too sharp.

Then that leads to narcissus absolute, also rich, also with green nuances. It also has a throaty nature that feels perfectly in line with the powerful, rich vocal stylings of Billie. Additionally, a rose otto absolute, a species heavy in the fruity, bright damascones that make these roses so vibrant and rounded.

Accompanying that is jasmine grandiflorum absolute from Egypt, which has a meaty, fruity weight to it. This is amplified with a plum accord that plays off the ionones of the orris as well as the fruity benzyl acetate found in jasmine grandiflorum, in addition to prunella and two materials that I use so often: pyproprunat and dimethyl benzyl carbinyl butyrate. Finally, an orange blossom absolute adds some brightness to the white flower/stone fruit note while its woody, bitter counterpoint, petitgrain mandarin, and a more floral neroli essential oil from Egypt add some liveliness and zest to this part of the accord. Finally, an apricot accord using natural apricot and a material called apritone add some more brightness to the featured fruit.

Leather, Musk and Benzoin Base

Underneath the beauty of the florals, a base of leather, musk and benzoin shows the tenacity and grit that I wanted to represent. Benzoin adds a sweet counterbalance to this take on a traditional leather accord.

The accord begins with some of the most trusted materials in an old-school leather accord: castoreum, birch tar, isobutyl quinoline, vanillin, labdanum resin and civet (a synthetic representation called civetone in order to keep this perfume cruelty-free). Then there is a twist, with black currant but absolute, dark-aged patchouli, a smoky vetiver from Java and cypriol (aka nagarmotha, often used by perfumers as an “oud” in perfumes). Then to give it a creaminess, gamma octalactone, mysantol (a creamy sandalwood note) and tonquitone (a cruelty-free Tonkin deer musk substitute) finish off this accord that appears seamlessly from the white florals in the middle of the composition.

This extrait de parfum, released in conjunction with Orris Forest Eau de Parfum, will be available on Tuesday, December 8. The official notes include apricot, plum, neroli, petitgrain, orange blossom absolute, rose otto absolute, narcissus absolute, jasmine grandiflorum absolute, galbanum, orris butter, benzoin, leather and musk.

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