Fragrance Review – Nanban by Arquiste

Nanban by Arquiste fully leans into the colonial aesthetic of so-called “Oriental” fragrances. The marketing copy from Arquiste’s website reads like a Victorian choose-your-own-adventure novel. You’re on a sailing ship that is ferrying exotic herbs and tinctures across the great ocean! You’re attacked by pirates! The pirates are smoking some funny things! You drift to sleep and wake up in the hold, tied up with well-oiled leather straps! The scent of tea and olibanum fill the air. I’m serious:

“Following a diplomatic mission to the West, a galleon carrying a delegation of samurai charges through dark ocean currents. Loaded with a rare and precious cargo, the ship’s hull is redolent of sweet-smelling tropical woods, heady Spanish leather, frankincense, fine black pepper and other exotic ground spices—the intoxicating spirit of a singular, extraordinary voyage of discovery.”

Seriously, like, fuck off, Christopher Columbus. But we get it.

We are there. We’ve been transported to the Far East, into a Sally Lockhart novel. Here’s another image from the page:

As someone who has a nonzero knowledge of Japanese and knows how to use Google Translate, Nanban seems to refer to some sort of non-Japan place, whether the Iberian Peninsula and her traders visiting Japan (a prominent part of Japanese history as the Portuguese were among the first visitors to the island country ever so long ago) or to some other Pacific islands.

Nanban is indeed all of those things– smoky, mysterious, spicy. It walks that fine line between “dank” and “stank,” where “dank” refers to depth and “stank” refers to particularly strong or even offensive smells. The pepper, olibanum (frankincense), and myrrh are quite clear, as is the pepper. In contrast to a scent like Avant L’Orage, which I love for how weird it is, it’s not a bright pepper, but a dark pepper. The pointy terpene scent pulls you into the depths of the hold of this particular fucking galleon, where you’re then introduced to the leather and sandalwood notes and the benzoin. There are some smells that I can’t really detect but that feel like they’re implied– like juniper or coffee (they call the former “cade” as that’s a specific type of juniper, as though the average consumer can tell the difference).

This is ultimately not for me. It’s sort of in the same universe as something like Shalimar by Guerlain, which I also view as walking the stank-dank tightrope, and which my olfactory cortex determines is too much, kind of like a less extreme version of when I’m drinking scotch and my dog curiously smells it and recoils, correctly interpreting it as not only poison– but also just finding it kind of offensive.

However, I can’t say it’s a bad perfume! It’s really well-balanced. It’s complex. Creator Rodrigo Flores-Roux works for Givaudan, a leading manufacturer of fragrances. Appealingly to me as someone who is all about diversifying an industry disproportionately run by white men, Flores-Roux is a Mexican-American perfumer in an industry still completely run (and accordingly gate-kept) by Francophones and the French. F-R has some major accolades to his name and has produced acclaimed fragrances for Dolce and Gabbana, Avon, and a bunch for Arquiste.

Finally, Nanban is also frankly unaffordable. A bottle of Nanban will set you back a couple hundo. They don’t even include free shipping. (⭑⭑⭑)