Elizabeth and James Nirvana Black, Nirvana White ~ fragrance reviews & quick poll

Elizabeth and James Nirvana advert

Ashley and I are really into oils, and those were the notes we were really attracted to. — Mary-Kate Olsen, talking to Women's Wear Daily.

Remember way back when — about 20-odd years ago in perfume years — when Sarah Jessica Parker launched Lovely, and everyone was talking about exactly which perfume oils it was based on? It was the first thing I thought of when I smelled Nirvana Black and Nirvana White, the new fragrances from Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen's Elizabeth and James lifestyle brand.  Lovely, it turned out, was inspired by Parker's own layering blend of Bonne Bell Skin Musk, Comme des Garςons Avignon and some Egyptian Musk oil she bought from a street vendor, but as translated into something marketable by Coty, Lovely was far tamer and more wearable than you might have expected from the original mix.

Nirvana Black and Nirvana White come closer to walking the walk — they smell like someone's personal layering blend. And just as Sarah Jessica Parker's pretty-in-pink ad was a perfect fit with Lovely, so the tousled, boho-chic / goth style of the Olsens, as shown in the ad above, is a perfect fit with Nirvana Black and White.

Nirvana Black

The twins reportedly spent two years working with perfumer Pierre Negrin to develop Nirvana Black, which is meant to be a "sensual woody scent" with violet, sandalwood and vanilla. What it is, basically, is a dark sandalwood musk. There's a quick whoosh of spiced warm fruit in the opening, then it's very smooth, and much darker and warmer than you'd expect from the description — it smells like there are other heavier woody notes in the mix as well. The vanilla is done with a light hand, so that there is a touch of sweetness but no more, ditto on the floral notes, which you'll hardly notice. The dry down is mildly earthy and mildly spicy, and develops a velvety finish after 30 minutes or so on skin.

The Olsens have mentioned their attraction to masculine fragrance notes, and while that usually ends up being just more PR nonsense, in this case it rings true: a man could easily wear Nirvana Black, and while the early reviews at Sephora are quite positive, I'm going to be very surprised if some women don't find it too masculine to wear.

Verdict: I liked Nirvana Black. Would I buy it? Well, no. There are already plenty of dark woody fragrances available already, and many of them are made with higher quality materials than Nirvana Black (Tom Ford Oud Wood came to mind right away). But I'm impressed, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if Nirvana Black is way closer in spirit to what Sarah Jessica Parker originally had in mind when she started down the path with Coty. What ever happened to that unisex fragrance she was going to do, anyway?

Nirvana White

The decision to do a second fragrance reportedly did not come until they were nearly done developing Nirvana Black, and then Nirvana White was whipped up relatively quickly in collaboration with perfumer Honorine Blanc. It's described as "a musky floral fragrance with peony, muguet and musk", and I expected it to be much lighter than Nirvana Black, but it's not exactly that. It's a heavy woody musk, not as dark as Nirvana Black, with some fresh but loud florals + citrus on top, and I found the opening both screechy and dryer-sheet-ish. The dry down is softer, but it's still not what I'd call a light fragrance. And the musk in both Nirvana Black and Nirvana White is persistent: I can still smell them on skin 24 hours and a shower later.

Verdict: I did not like Nirvana White at all, although I did like it much better after it had calmed for an hour or so on skin. I tried layering it with Nirvana Black — they do advertise these as layerable, not that you need permission — but that just ruined the Nirvana Black. Still, if I had to guess, I'd pick Nirvana White as the one that will sell the most.

And the quick poll, just for fun: you are going to release your own fragrance, based on a layering blend of existing products. You can pick up to 3 products, but at least one of them has to be cheap (let's say under $25). What will your fragrance choices be?

eliz-james-nirvana

Elizabeth and James Nirvana Black and Nirvana White debuted last week at Sephora, where they apparently sold out in a couple days. The official launch is not until January, so presumably this was just a sort of preview. When they're back in stock, the 50 ml Eau de Parfum is $75, there are reportedly 30 ml and rollerball sizes still to come.

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78 Comments

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  1. CindyK says:

    The layering of existing fragrances that I do is SJP’s Twilight with Kiehl’s Amber roller ball and Kiehl’s Musk ball. It is great for winter. I purchased Nirvana Black based on a sample – I am very looking forward to wearing it. I found Nirvana White to be overpowering and not for me.

    • Robin says:

      +1 for the SJP! Really do wonder why she stopped doing fragrance.

      • I have to wonder if after the failure of Covet, she lost some of the creative control she’d hoped to have. The last fragrance she did, which was 2010 I believe, was that SJP NYC that was in every way a standard-issue department store fruity floral. Maybe she didn’t want to sign on for more of that…?

        • Robin says:

          Yeah, I wonder. SJP NYC was not what I expected.

        • TheSnailsPajamas says:

          I agree with that. The subsequent releases after Covet also seemed much played down in terms of advertising as well. I really don’t remember much if anything for the NYC and NYC Pure Crush? flanker and that even less known trio that was released – can’t even remember the names of those now, just that they were different pastel coloured juices.

  2. Hm. It almost sounds like their distributor got nervous about the almost-masculine Nirvana Black and asked them to brew up something more crowd-pleasing: Enter Nirvana White. I know Honorine Blanc does a lot of mainstream fruity floral type things.

    I might just have to head to Sephora to try this Nirvana Black.

    • Robin says:

      From the sound of it (as described in Allure, who knows if it’s true) it’s more like they ended up with one fragrance to please each of them.

  3. Dilana says:

    I like to layer Womanity with a rose fragrance, frequently using a vintage Red Door.

    • Robin says:

      Oh interesting! I can’t even quite picture the smell.

  4. GalileosDaughter says:

    Tam Dao and Pacifica Tuscan Blood Orange or Tam Dao and Pacifica Nerola Orange Blossom.

    • Robin says:

      Nice! Tam Dao makes a great mixer.

      I was thinking of something with Pacifica Tibetan Mountain Temple plus Bruno Acampora Jasmin, plus something else I haven’t yet thought of.

  5. Thalia says:

    These sound surprisingly distinctive and interesting — not at all what I’d expect! Even the Nirvana White sounds worth trying, like White Linen had a baby with Sensuous. Also, those bottles are lovely, like vintage evening clutches.

    • Robin says:

      Like White Linen had a baby with something, not quite Sensuous though. Will have to think on that.

  6. Woodgirl says:

    When I layer something pleasantly weird with something too strange for public wearing, I get combinations that are just right for me. Favorites are: Attar Bazaar Hina with their Persian Amber, resulting in an almost molasses-like amber with plenty of skank. I also like Caswell-Massey Ambergris Oil with Madini Ambergris. This becomes a rich marine musk with what I think of as a “bilge” note overlayed with plenty of smoke. I usually wear these when I’m not going to be around other people.

    • Holly says:

      I’ll second you on the Madinis! While I’m not an ambergris girl, it’s pretty spot-on. As is their Agarwood for oud lovers. Their blends are the best of the lot, to my mind, and at $10 for 5 oil samples they’re a lot of fun. I’ve never tried Attar Bazaar, but I went to their site a couple of days ago and found it a bit confusing. So it’s nice to hear that you enjoy them.

      I’ll out myself as an utter rube and say that I often layer Demeter’s Flower Show over anything.

      • Robin says:

        Interesing! Been a long time since I’ve tried a Madini, those sound fun.

        • Holly says:

          They are. The samples are dabbers. I would steer clear of the soliflores. I find them pretty flat, excepting Mimosa. The blends are nice, particularly those geared towards “unisex”.

          • Robin says:

            Thanks!

      • Robin says:

        Demeter makes some great layering scents…I layer several of their incense fragrances.

        • Robin says:

          Oh, and Dirt goes nice with florals, too.

          • Holly says:

            Ooh, yes, it does. I love Dirt, too. I never tried their incense. Somehow the idea of Demeter and incense doesn’t gel in my head, but I’m willing to give them a try.

            I recently splurged on some CB I Hate Perfume samples and I bet those would be incredible to layer. As it stands right now, I am regarding them in their pretty little packets with trepidation.

          • Robin says:

            Holy Smoke is pretty good, and the regular Incense is nice too, although Holy Smoke is way closer to church incense.

            Yes on the CB I Hate Perfume, although they get costly.

  7. Bejoux says:

    These sound interesting – Black more so for me – I hope they make it over to the UK soon. The twins don’t have a big presence here.
    For my layering mix – I like Andy Tauer’s Lonestar Memories over Samsara. The Guerlain adds a smoothness and a sweetness just to take the masculine edge of the Tauer. This blend has tremendous longevity and is great for winter.

    • Robin says:

      I honestly don’t know if they have a big presence here…I’m too out of it to know.

      And that sounds great! But it breaks our cheap rules :-)

  8. wondermelmo says:

    Nirvana Black sounds really interesting, I can’t wait to try it!

    As for layering, I don’t know why I’m blanking on many of my combos right now but I really like John Varvatos Artisan, under Tokyo Milk Dark Arsenic + Dior Hypnotic Poison.

    (As to that earlier discussion of SJP fragrance, I’m still disappointed Covet didn’t do well – I still LOVE wearing it…not to mention I always get compliments when I do.)

    • Robin says:

      It really was too bad, I thought it was a great scent.

    • CM says:

      I thought I was the only one who liked Covet!

      • mossygreen says:

        Didn’t like it at first (too chemical? weird medicinal undertone?); found purse sprays about a year ago and fell in love. Can’t imagine now what my problem was in the first place.

  9. ringthing says:

    Nirvana Black sounds worth trying, maybe in the rollerball format.
    A favorite layering combination that I wear is Kiehl’s musk, Coty Wild Woods and Passage d’Enfer.

    • Robin says:

      Yes, guessing if they do a rollerball set of both, it’ll do well.

      And that sounds great! Surprised Kiehl’s Musk doesn’t eat Passage right up.

      • ringthing says:

        It does, except for the ashy quality of the incense in Pd’E. One time March, on the Perfume Posse, said that Passage d’Enfer was an all purpose fragrance enhancer and I’ve found that to be true; I almost always like it layered better than worn alone.

        • Robin says:

          That makes sense. I do love Passage. I think I used to layer more than I do now — too lazy!

  10. peter says:

    Very Glam looking bottles for such boho-chic/grungy ad.

    • Robin says:

      Yes, but I have no idea what the Elizabeth & James line is like — assume they are meant to fit w/ the brand?

      • Holly says:

        I do remember seeing something about a very pricey backpack accentuated with what were supposed to look like a treasure trove of pharmaceuticals.

        • Robin says:

          Ah.

        • TheSnailsPajamas says:

          That was their uber high end line, The Row (which actually makes some very good quality stuff (I bought a couple things from a sale site heavily discounted). Those backpacks did get a lot of stick though, and if you’re going to charge Hermes rare-skin bag prices you probably want more pedigree beforehand, even if it is an LE Damian Hirst (who I have no patience for) for The Row (I think Lady Gaga bought one, but that seems about right – interpret that how you will). E&J is their ‘more affordable’ line (dubiously so, but a lot of high end lines do that) which I wouldn’t say is at all is the Olsen’s personal style (they appear to dress in the style of The Row) but I guess the clever thinking is that people who are interested in them to begin with will see their faces attached to the ad and possibly buy as opposed to not seeing their faces. Clearly they still sell. For what it’s worth (and I hated Full House growing up and was too old to be a target of their tween stuff) I applaud that they’ve channeled all that into successful adult businesses that they actually appear to be hands-on in.

  11. annemarie says:

    Fresh but loud florals reminds me of EL’s Pleasures which I wore yesterday to a work breakfast and spent much of the time wondering if I had over applied. Fortunately we were sitting outside, there were lots of foodie smells, and to complete the olfactory diversity of the occasion, a rubbish truck pulled up next to us to do its thing.

    I have layered SJP Lovely with Aesop’s Mystra, which is an inky blend of labdanum, mastic and incense. Mystra is by itself not very long lasting but Lovely seems to fasten it to the skin quite well. And Lovely benefits from having a darker bass line than the one it ended up with.

    • Robin says:

      IMHO, the NW is screechy-loud in a way that Pleasures is not, although yes, Pleasures does have some sillage to it.

      Mystra is a cool scent. But I think you’ve broken our cheap rule too!

      • annemarie says:

        Um … well, I bet you can get Lovely for under $25 from somewhere … a roller ball maybe. :)

    • Nightingale says:

      I’ve thought about buying SJP Lovely unsniffed – can’t find a bottle anywhere other than online…any thoughts about wearing Lovely solo?

      • annemarie says:

        Yes, it’s very pleasant and wearable. It is often compared to NR for Her, which I find denser, weightier. Lovely is more transparent and dry, especially because of a little spike of lavender. That lavender and some and woodsy notes helps to make Lovely crisper more masculine than NR4H (which is odd, given Lovely’s very feminine aesthetic). A man could wear it: Chandler Burr did. The musk (to me) is not dirty at all, but not *quite* clean either.

        Lovely is not bland exactly but it is far from being edgy or challenging. I wore it constantly for a few years but hardly wear it now because I’m pretty much over it. But I still wear it on a summer evening around the house sometimes. It’s nice at bedtime too. You can pick it up cheap from just about anywhere, so a blind buy should not be too much of a risk.

      • L says:

        I love Lovely by itself. I never regret wearing it. And it can be found for such good prices at the online discounters. If you’re generally okay with musk, incense and lavender, I say go for it!

        • Nightingale says:

          Thanks for the feedback! Agreed that at $20ish I should just take the plunge!

          • Nightingale says:

            Ok, had to Google Chandler Burr and Lovely. http://www.chandlerburr.com/articles/sarah.html

            A little cautious about the lavender, and my husband almost had a panic attack when I brought home paper white bulbs (definitely not a fan)…but after reading the article I’m still going to risk it and try Lovely!

  12. Andrea says:

    Delurking to say that I was curious about Nirvana Black when I saw the preview on Sephora, and snapped it up the day it came out, not something I usually do. It’s fairly linear on me — mostly smooth sandalwood, with a touch of a dry (not sweet) vanilla. It stays very close to my skin before dissipating after six hours. Love the scent — it’s not a “soap and water” masculine, but not bombastic either. Like a cozy little secret on my skin.
    My favourite layering combo is Calvin Klein’s Sheer Obsession (hoarding this) with Lavanila Pure Vanilla… so you can see where my scentsibilities lay, I guess!

    • Robin says:

      Always glad to see a delurker, welcome!

      Ah, and the NB might layer well with the Lavanila too, sweeten it up a bit.

      • Andrea says:

        Thanks for the welcome! I’ve lurked on here for years…

        Come to think of it, I also layer the Lavanila with Thierry Mugler’s Cologne to femme it up a bit. It’s handy like that. I rarely wear it solo unless I’m just hanging around the house all day and want to smell nicer than just “shower”.

        • Robin says:

          Oh, that’s another one I can’t smell in my mind…will have to try layering Cologne with something. One of my favorites on its own though!

          • Andrea says:

            It’s a good summery mix for me when I want to smell fresh but not too lemon-y, which is how the Cologne works on my skin. Just a tiny spray of the Lavanila, though.

            Of course, my memory may be off as it’s the dead of winter and we have two feet of snow outside (and it’s snowing again!).

        • Holly says:

          Hi, Andrea. I believe it was you who replied to my first post here (after years of reading and not commenting) and announced yourself as a lurker. I just love that.

          When I read that, I thought about the proliferation of popular songs from women over the last year who have expressed a need to speak up. Sara Bareilles and Katy Perry come to mind.

          I have found NST to be profoundly welcoming, and I am so glad you are here. We all have something to contribute.

          • Andrea says:

            Aw, that’s sweet of you to say, Holly! (And wow, what a memory you have!) I have posted once or twice over the years… did I recommend Prada’s Infusion d’Iris to you, by chance? What did you end up going with? I’m interested…

            I LOVE perfume, I’ve just not had the budget to explore it until recently. So not too much to comment on, although I’ve certainly taken note of what many contributors here have had to say. It’s become an amazing — and trusted! — resource! Just because I have the budget doesn’t mean I want to blow it! :)

        • Holly says:

          Andrea, I ran out of reply options here but I’ll give this a try. My memory isn’t that good, so I don’t know if you recommended the Prada or not. It’s on my (LONG) list along with the Lutens and Atelier irises. Thanks for sparking my interest!

          Congratulations on your budget improving. I look forward to hearing from you here again :-)

  13. Hello Robin: I don’t layer, won’t layer (unless accidentally!)

    But thanks for alerting me to Nirvana Black – I am very intrigued!

    • Robin says:

      Honestly I don’t think I ever layered until I started doing so accidentally while decanting. Which, of course, sometimes turns out quite disgusting :-)

      • hehee, yep! And accidental layering by wearing another fragrance the next day when the last day’s fragrance is still firmly attached to one’s skin or clothes!

  14. bowbat says:

    So happy you reviewed these. I almost bought Nirvana Black unsniffed, but lost my nerve at the last minute. Now I’m glad – while those notes make it sound right up my alley, I don’t care for masculine scents (on me, at least). Still DYING to smell it, though.

    • Robin says:

      Do you get Allure? There are scent strips for these this month. Interesting side point, maybe, is that I could not smell Black at ALL from the Allure scent strip. I could smell the White, and liked it. I do hate scent strips in general, this justified my prejudice.

      Do give it a try, maybe you won’t find it as masculine as I did.

  15. nozknoz says:

    Layering never works for me. Occasionally I think of something that I imagine would be great – like Le Dix with Bois de Violette – that doesn’t work at all. If I accidentally stumble upon something interesting or pleasant, then I forget what it was. For example, I wore Iris Ukiyoe with a light amber, which worked, but I can’t remember what the light amber was. Possibly that Kenzo 7:15 am in Bali? I have only a travel size of Iris Ukiyoe, and I like it very much on it’s own, so I’m not really motivated to figure it out. I think I’ve occasionally worn two Via del Profumos on different wrists and that worked, but no idea which ones. Finally, the only thing I can think of that cost less than $25 was Basile (less than $10 on ebay!!!) and 80s powerhouse that would destroy anything in its path (and I LOVE it!). Sorry, I hope I’m not losing part of my perfumista cred by being so lame about layering!

    • Robin says:

      I definitely don’t like layering very expensive fragrances…would probably not layer a Hermessence. I’ll fiddle w/ cheaper stuff though.

      Do not think layering is a requirement for membership :-)

    • TheSnailsPajamas says:

      I usually never layer but the only one that I tried that worked really well was Botega Veneta over Iris Poudre body butter.

      • nozknoz says:

        That sounds good!

  16. Merlin says:

    This post has got me yearning for Nirvana Black AND Covet AND Lovely:) The first one sounds up my alley and the latter two I have to try again.

    Can some dark woods be recommended – other than the Tom Ford (which is both too expensive and has an unappealing image). I have Encre Noir but was wondering what else is out there…

    Almost every time I layer I find that whatever is distinctive about each perfume is just lost and the result is nothing but a muddle without character. However, I like to wear different scents on different parts of my body and get whiffs at different moments of each.

    Layering experiments that seemed to work are Eau de Beaux (Loccitane) + Tea Rose (the budget partner). Very nice amber rose. Another I think might work is Terre d’Hermes + O’de Lancolm (which I picked up for $20). Warm rock and harbally green lemon – lovely! (I’m not sure if I did layer these or just wore them close together)

    • hajusuuri says:

      Merlin! I have to try the L’Occitane Eau des Baux + Tea Rose (is yours by Perfumer’s Workshop).

      • Merlin says:

        Yes, thats the one. It really is a remarkable perfume, but I do find it a little shrill to wear on its own for very long. I have a huge bottle so I use it sometimes to scent my sheets ( I love falling asleep in a cool rosiness!) And I find it works well with the L’occitane which gives it more depth.

    • Robin says:

      Dark woods: 10 Corso Como, Czech & Speake Dark Rose, Donna Karan Woman, Le Labo Rose 31.

      • Merlin says:

        Thanks Robin, there is a shop here that has Czech & Speake – but, can you believe it, no Dark Rose!

        • Robin says:

          It’s one of many oud-rose combinations…and there is the whole By Kilian oud collection too, and L’Artisan Al Oudh.

          The Donna Karan I think would make a great layering scent.

  17. jovejove says:

    -Bond *9 New York Oud
    -V&R Flowerbomb
    -Patchouli extract oil ($23 a 11ml bottle), (musk would work well too)

    I love things that are darker, heavy bodied, unusual fragrances. I could intermix A*Men instead of Flowerbomb in that combo too.

  18. hajusuuri says:

    Nirvana Black sounds interesting.

    I definitely failed the under $25 requirement! I’m a layering fool as I like to layer Le Labo Vanille 44 with the heavy ambery / chocolatey / leathery perfumes (e.g. Dior Mitzah, Puredistance M, Arabian Oud Kalemat, Tom Ford Tobacco Vanille). My second choice for layering (instead of using Vanille 44) is Atelier Cologne Vanilla Incensee. I bet Il Profumo Vaniglia del Madagascar would also make a good layering base. Hmmmm, I am noticing a vanilla trend!

    • Robin says:

      Yes…still have never found the perfect vanilla lotion, but think a really good one would be the best layering tool ever.

    • Merlin says:

      Hajsuuri, have you by any chance tried Hyati by Arabian Oud (I know their range is ridiculous huge). I’m wondering how it differs from the Kalemat?

  19. kaos.geo says:

    I usually layer Kiehls musk with L’Artisan Premier figuier… or with L’Occitane’s Verveine Agrumes.

    Now.. I just realized I am out of Verveine Agrumes and summer will start in hours! :-)

    I’ll ask for a big bottle for christmas! :-)

    Thanks for the reviews, Robin.. these two look quite focused in all the things they do.. it seems that their intensity got to their fragrances as well!

    • Robin says:

      You’re the 2nd person to mention Kiehl’s Musk…I would think that would eat up either of your choices too! It must not be as strong as I remember it.

      • nozknoz says:

        I know Keihl’s Musk seems strong, but isn’t it mainly Ambroxen or one of those other aromachemicals that is ubiquitous as a base note in so many perfumes? In that sense it would be logical, if judicious application could be achieved.

        • Robin says:

          My memory is that it is way darker than would be explained just by ambroxan? But admit I have not tried it in ages, and long enough that it’s almost certainly reformulated more than once.

      • kaos.geo says:

        one spray of musk in chest… one spray of the other frag on the sides of neck… one spray of musk on the inside of each elbow… one spray of the other frag on each wrist… ;-)

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