Cumin (Cuminum cyminum) is a fascinating material for perfumery; almost green and aromatic on one end, very warm and aniseed-faceted on the other end. It is no wonder that the Pharaohs, the ancient Greeks and the Romans all prized it for its rich aroma and its stabilizing aromatherapy properties. One imaginative tradition wants newlyweds sharing a cumin-laced tisane as a means to ensure stability in their marriage. But cumin, in perfumery, if not in cuisine and aromatherapy, has a polarizing fame to follow it as well. It is the reference note for sweat notes and body odor, at least in common parlance among perfume aficionados!
BOTANY AND EXTRACTION
The oil comes from steam distillation of the dried and ground seeds of the small annual plant that blossoms at the border of the Mediterranean, in China, and in India (the latter is the largest provider of black cumin, a more powerful variant from Northern Kashmir, which is prized in North Indian dishes and is frequently featured in the Garam Marsala sweet spice mix). The Turkish variety is the one most widely used.
MARRIAGE OF CUMIN SPICE TO OTHER NOTES
Cumin is frequently featured in men’s perfumes to offset lighter notes and it imparts a wonderful carnality in feminine fragrances, especially now that animalic ingredients coming from animal sources are non-existent and the alternatives are mostly sub-par synthetics that do not create the same intimacy. Cumin can couple well with floral essences and with woods and is often among the spice “bouquet” in spicy oriental fragrances, making it a very pliable and versatile partner in perfume composition.
The inclusion of cumin can provide that underlay of lived-in quality that is can be so elegant and old-money in fragrance compositions that would be effete without it: Eau d’Hermès by Edmond Roudnitska for Hermès is a great example, a citrus-leathery cologne for men (that women can share) which feels like a worn pair of chinos for a walk outdoors.
Roudnitska’s talented pupil and modern maestro of niche, Jean Claude Ellena, took this segment off the old in creating his masterful Declaration: the cumin in tandem with cardamom creates a contrast of cool and warm, on a mossy, foresty base that feels fresh, yet provides the feeling of someone who is breathing, working and living underneath (and probably has apocrine glands that function properly and freely!), not a sterilized version of a human just out of the sauna. In Diorella, another Roudnitska classic, the ripe melon, almost garbage-like note marries well to the dirty, spicy cumin to make the refreshing top notes less acidic and more enigmatic.
To extend this notion, cumin can also provide a sexy glimpse, as in afterglow bodies which although were clean to begin with now bear the fruits of some romping around. The inclusion of cumin in the modernized Femme was an especially enlightened in view of that aspect; although purists argue it’s quite different than the original Roudnitska creation, one can’t fail to notice that at least in spirit, if not letter, it stays close to the dicta of the grand master.
Absolue pour le Soir by Maison Francis Kurkdjian marries cumin and powerful musky notes to render a very naughty olfactory experience indeed! Even though it is profoundly sexy, the fragrance never veers into the territory of vulgar, not meaning to please everyone via “easy” popular tricks. In Parfum d’Empire Aziyadé the cumin inclusion provides the exotic touch, but also the languor of the harem, the name deriving from the story of a concubine in Ottoman Turkey. In Jubilation 25 (Amouage) cumin plays a significant role in providing the decadent fruity chypre ambience of classics of yore. Fleurs d’Oranger by Lutens, although certainly not a lonely case of cumin use in the vast portfolio of spicy wonders in the line, is probably the most erotic floral of the brand—lush, dense, seriously romantic, fanning the spice over the carnality of orange blossom absolute and dense, clotted tuberose essence. A play of seduction in the cloistered gardens of Cordoba.
Other times the author of a perfume is interested neither in the lived-in elegance, nor the sexiness, but in providing an unexpected touch that will distinguish the composition into an unusual spicy arpeggio above the clichés of cinnamon and pepper: Kenzo Jungle L’Eléphant was such a case, as was L’Autre by Diptyque, their distinctiveness probably the very reason of their market demise…
WEARER’S CAVEAT EMPTOR
Cumin being a great divider, however, with several people finding a prominent note of cumin either too foody (like Indian food, where cumin is featured in the preparation of curry mixes) or too “dirty” (as in body odor), sampling is definitely recommended for any fragrance that features cumin prominently. This is a matter of celebral familiarity with it rather than skin compatibility which goes both ways: If you know the spice, you can pick it up and be indifferent to it due to overfamiliarization through spicy food, or alternatively you can pick it up better than someone non-familiar with it and thus be more attentive to it, especially if you don’t fancy Indian or Middle Eastern food, feeling it sticks out like a sore thumb!
THE LINK WITH SWEAT: A MATTER OF SPIRITED DISPUTE
Cumin has been inumerable times linked to the scent of sweat on online fora and communities, to the point that it is enough to even mention the list of notes featuring it to have at least one person wondering whether the perfume will end up smelling like stale sweat on them…
It’s an anecdote, but a good one, that for Kingdom by Alexander McQueen—a cumin-laced skankfest, by all accounts—an experienced online member who goes by the alias Serpent described his impression of the new fragrance in the shocking but funny imagery of a “hooker eating a burrito.” Such was the effect of the cumin overload!
The source of this rumor relaying body odor facets to cumin essence has been two-fold: First the use of the cumin spice in many classic French perfumes which have a slightly “dirty” undertone, starting with Roudnitska creations, the re-issued-in-the-1980s Femme by Rochas and numerous Jean Claude Ellena compositions. Secondly, it is due to a quote from the book The Emperor of Scent by Chandler Burr, where he likens the smell of cumin to female sweat.
Researchers at Firmenich however have disagreed to that one: men’s sweat smells of cheese and female sweat smells of onions ( a sulfurous material which breaks into pungent-smelling thiol when interacting with the bacteria of the axilla), according to their research in their Swiss laboratories.
Still, cumin has an intimate aura that is probably accounted for by its being excreted in sweat easily, like other pungent spices, such as fenugreek.