29 December 2010

Winter Wardrobe, Part 1: What I’m Wearing Now

I started this post before the East Coast blizzard that smothered 50 million people. Unable to get a flight from Georgia back to New York, I was a bit sad not to take part in that scary but thrilling moment when all New Yorkers' delusions of a "mild winter" start to buckle. Now those delusions have been blown cleanly away, and all I get to enjoy is the aftermath, peeking cautiously around hills of plowed snow before I slosh across the street.

The silver lining, as you might suspect, is that I love scents that suit the cold -- the smoky woods and soft, heavy ambers and resins; the oddity of sillage blooming intensely when you walk inside instead of out. My taste in the frigid months leans toward the contemplative and the cozy and my tolerance for the gourmand expands. Here are a few scents where those inclinations have led me so far:

Le Labo Pathchouli 24
May I take a brief moment to share my boundless admiration for Annick Ménardo, my all-time perfumer crush? Her style, to my nose, manages to be both familiar and startling -- familiar because of the uncanny olfactory impressions she paints (the root beer of Hypnotic Poison or the rubber of Bvlgari Black) and startling in the depth and immediacy of one’s emotional reaction to those impressions. Okay fine, that’s waxing way too poetic, but frankly I challenge you to give yourself a spray of Bois d’Argent and not think immediately of milk and honey (or, in my memory, milk and Cap’n Crunch).

She’s been called the “David Lynch of perfumery”, and accordingly, when she goes niche she doesn’t just go. She sprints. Which brings us nicely ‘round to Patchouli 24 for Le Labo. Administering a blatant overdose of birch tar and styrax with such precision and balance clearly takes technical expertise. But underneath that up-front toughness, the aching, lonesome beauty of campfire smoke, glove leather and a faint VapoRub effect remains one of the most convincing arguments ever made that perfumers are fine artists. Much has been said about the dry vanillic ‘smell of old books’ aspect that underpins the heart of Patchouli 24, but my favorite effect is the lingering sensation that something nearby is smoldering, in a good way.

Frederic Malle Bois d’Orage / French Lover
There are exceptions to the tastes I described above. On some cold days -- bright ones in particular -- I like to wear something as sharp and invigorating as the weather, rather than a figurative blanket to comfort against it. Those days I’ve been choosing Pierre Bourdin’s brilliant interpretation of angelica for Frederic Malle: Bois d’Orage (“thunder wood”), or as it’s known in non-American markets, French Lover. The opening is indeed bright with ultra-green galbanum and pimento; the heart and later phases are marked by a medium-warm cedar, discreetly extended by vetiver and iris. Those two branches support the star ingredient, amplifying both the spicy and musky aspects of the angelica while keeping them securely linked. Dry without being thin, masculine without being animalic, every-day wearable but dressy enough for a winter wedding; it’s like a waxed cotton utility jacket that magically reverses into a tuxedo.

Penhaligon’s Opus 1870
This was my second perfume love affair (after Comme des Garçons 2 Man). This is a classic chypre pulled carefully and thoughtfully into the 21st century. This is an old sweater that only gets better with age.

I can’t for the life of me find who actually authored the perfume, but whoever it was struck gold. The whole composition, from the citrus-black pepper opening through the mossy rose-and-incense heart to the cinnamon-dusted base woods, glows like a dimmed Edison bulb hanging over a white marble bar. A fair amount of people (myself included) consider this one of Penhaligon’s best, but it also seems to fly under the radar, especially relative to the house’s splashier new Duchaufours (Amaranthine and Sartorial), and truth be told I’m glad for that. In addition to having one of the best cedar drydowns I’ve ever encountered, Opus is one of the best secrets I’ve ever kept.

06 October 2010

The Sweet Smell of Unboxing:
Gizmodo Explains 'New Gadget Smell'

Gadget site Gizmodo looked into the origins of 'new gadget smell', which I happen to adore in the same way one might thrill to the smell of gasoline. It's actually not the gadgets themselves but the smell of the packaging material, in this particular case an EVA injected foam similar to what Crocs are made from. Read the full post here.

I'm convinced that 'new gadget smell' would be perfect as a facet of the 'Fanboy' concept I dreamed up in my last post: futuristic and proudly unnatural, perhaps mixed with some latex or PVC notes for an unironic cosplay reference?

Image from ntr23's Flickr photostream.

30 September 2010

Feed Your Inner Fanboy:
Etat Libre d’Orange Homage Series

I’m desperately trying to squeeze another post in before September ends, in part because I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t like the archive list to suggest I’m more prolific a blogger than I am, and also because one of these fragrances launched this month. Since I’ve very little time left, I’ll try to make it quick.

I know it might seem a little heavy on the Etat Libre d’Orange here, to the point that one could call me a ELd’O fanboy, but I tell you, Etienne de Swardt helms one of the few perfume brands that take real risks and make hefty statements. Additionally, I get a feeling that it’s the kind of brand that wouldn’t mind its admirers being referred to as ‘fanboys.’ (Come to think of it, Fanboy would be a great name for an ELd’O fragrance.) That’s probably because they do it themselves, having slowly but steadily produced a series of special editions that pay tribute to various artists, most recently including Tilda Swinton’s Like This.

The series started, though, with Tom of Finland, dedicated to the erotic artist -- a cool and bright lemon splashed over a muddle of iris, vanilla, tonka, suede notes and resins, spiked with sharp and/or green notes, like pine, saffron, pepper and galbanum. A dose of aldehydes makes it smell clean and raunchy at the same time.

The second in the series is named for Rossy de Palma, the Spanish actress best known for her roles in Almodóvar films. The scent, I think, is the best in the series, including the two new ones I’m discussing below. Givaudan whizzes Antoine Lie and Antoine Maisondieu, both credited for this one, took a classically beautiful Bulgarian rose and made up its face into almost a drag version of itself, using smooth, milky spices (ginger and cardamom), a slightly slutty jasmine, clean patchouli and cocoa. 

I had an opportunity earlier in the summer to smell the fourth and fifth in the series, which are both being launched this season. The ‘holiday’ timeframe will see the release of Josephine Baker,  a sweet-citrusy, cheekily ‘tropical’ confection that smells like a coconut foam. But the 10th of this month saw the release of Sex Pistols, and while I bet any actual Sex Pistols fanboy would engage in a good bit of teeth-gnashing if s/he came across the twee plaid-capped bottle, it’s the better of these two by a mile. Up front it’s lemon and some very strong black pepper, which lingers admirably through an odd-but-it-works dried fruit note (“prune” as you’ll see if you scrutinize the graphic up close), some faint leather and patchouli, a nicely funky ambrette, and the heliotrope that wraps it all together. Like in Tom of Finland, some aldehydes of the fatty variety soap things up a bit and keep the jammy prune note and sweet heliotrope from feeling too dense. 

Hey, I got through it all with a half-hour left before October starts!

Etat Libre d’Orange Sex Pistols is available at Henri Bendel in New York. Most of their other fragrances are available online at Lucky Scent.

25 September 2010

Telling Stories: Gorilla Perfume Pop-Up Shop and Gallery

(Updated with further thoughts on The Smell of Weather Turning)

My trudging work week ended yesterday with an unexpectedly pleasant surprise. The earth-loving artisans at Lush turned three floors of a building on Crosby street into a makeshift gallery to launch a number of new scents in their Gorilla Perfume fragrance line. Groovy!

The exhibit comprised a series of rooms dedicated to particular fragrances, each one furnished with an illustration of what inspired the scent (live dancers in one room, audio recordings of thunder in another, a bubble machine, dirty bathroom sinks, etc.) and a VERY friendly storyteller ready to translate smell into narrative.

In my typically nerdy fashion, I prodded these ladies and gentlemen for as much nerdy detail about the perfumes as I could, but they seemed far better-versed in the stories than the hard facts. After a while I didn’t even mind, because the stories (all drawn from the global adventures of Lush co-founder Mark Constantine and his son Simon, who author the perfumes themselves) were at the very least entertaining, and more importantly, in most cases they really did seem to relate to the final product, rather than feeling like a cut-throat marketing move. Kudos to these Willy Wonkas, then, for giving their scents more of a soul than one is apt to find in most perfume these days.

A fine example is The Smell of Freedom, which combines three olfactory portraits of people who have suffered extreme hardship into a ‘triptych’ of sorts. The scents were based on a Tibetan monk (clove, black pepper, ginger-honey tea), an Australian Aboriginal (fire tree, lemon myrtle, lemongrass) and a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner (oudh, jasmine, orris and sustainable Australian sandalwood). Each of the three portraits is available as a perfume oil in addition to the combined scent sold in an atomizer bottle.

Other highlights were the new Imogen Rose, a blushing Damascus rose swathed in vetiver, bergamot and soft ambrette; Dirty, a slyly marine-tilting alternative to Axe aimed at unshowered dudes; and three custom scents blended for an actress, an heiress and a dutchess (all of whose hair Mark Constantine had tended to in the 70s), each made available to the public for the first time and exclusively at this gallery for a properly luxurious $2,400 a pop.

My clear favorite, though, and the one that coaxed my credit card from the safety of my wallet, is The Smell of Weather Turning. The perfumers were encouraged to create this ‘thunderstorm in reverse’ by an employee of theirs who is also a white witch. They drew further inspiration from the musician Simon Emmerson, who is a member of an order of druids, as well as a dream Mark Constantine had at an Iron Age inn in Finland where they were fed nettles and dark rye bread.

All of these experiences led Mark to insist on only using materials that would have been available 5,000 years ago in the fragrance, and they pulled it off with aplomb.  Weather Turning turns up an herbal bouquet of English peppermint, chamomile and nettle that anchors quickly to a heart of stately oakwood mixed with what I smell as mossy notes, which provide just the slightest hint of marine saltiness. These first phases bring it initially close to Dirty, an older scent from Lush’s now-closed Be Never Too Busy To Be Beautiful line that Luca Turin dubbed “marine mint.” Where the newer scent differs is in the sweet hay and beeswax absolutes underneath, as warm and dry as anyone could want. The combination imparts both a vague smokiness and creaminess to the last (and longest-lasting) phase, and the beeswax seems to fix the entire composition in place. Those herbs that kick everything off don’t so much collapse into this last phase as they do sink slowly into it, such that one can still apprehend their dull silhouette many hours after their opening act. Minty scents rarely work well on my skin, but Weather Turning marks a bewitching (see what I did there?) halfway point between fresh and cozy. Wearing it out of the exhibit, it actually made me feel at home in the otherwise oppressively humid, pre-storm Manhattan night.

Some of the Gorilla perfumes will be available in Lush stores, but all of them, aside from the “three ladies”, can be purchased from the Gorilla Perfume website in 30 ml bottles or as solids. Many of the former Be Never Too Busy To Be Beautiful perfumes (Dirty and Ladyboy among them) are also available on the site.

31 August 2010

Smelling Neutrally, Smelling Completely:
The Incredible Nose of Sissel Tolaas

“What I try to do is to prove that we are breathing in all this information but we have no tools to make use of it. We can render up to 10,000 different smells but we use only fifteen to twenty percent of this information. We have only two words to describe them -- good or bad -- and there must be something done about it.”
- Sissel Tolaas

My sincere apologies for the late summer lull. Thankfully, my nose has been reinvigorated by the smell of twelve sweaty men, as captured and reproduced by artist and researcher Sissel Tolaas, the subject of a fascinating interview in Mono.Kultur #23. (More on the twelve sweaty men later.) The thrust of Tolaas’s research is investigating ways in which smell can be used as a means of communication, or put another way, developing a language with which we can communicate about smell in ways that we are currently unable to. 

Over the course of the interview she explains that lofty-sounding goal by describing some of her projects and the issues she explores through them, including:
  • Breaking down prejudices and socially-conditioned judgments about smell by taking schoolchildren on smell-collecting field trips through what she calls “hardcore” neighborhoods in Berlin
  • A collaboration with photographer and former skinhead Nick Knight to capture the smell of men when their testosterone levels are most elevated (even going so far as to arrange underground fights in which, somehow, the men were unaware their smell was being collected)
  • An account of her work within the medical field, wherein a psychiatric patient was reawakened to the suppressed memory of witnessing his mother’s murder by the simulated smell of an ashtray
  • Her relationships to the worlds of commercial fragrance and fashion, such as a scent project for Adidas with the goal of communicating the brand’s identity through scent, thereby creating an ‘invisible logo,’ or the fact that her lab is financed by aromachemical giant International Flavors and Fragrances
  • Her personal library of 6,730 scents that she used to train herself, over seven years, to smell from as neutral a perspective as possible
I know it’s rather lazy to throw some bullets down into a book report, but there’s really no other way to illustrate the bewildering scope of Tolaas’s work, and how far-reaching its potential results are. Truth be told, it’s all rather serious and boundary-pushing relative to the dated pageantry and shallow repetitiveness that too often characterizes the perfume industry, and makes part of me question whether following and writing about commercial perfume (even niche or ‘indie’ perfume) is in fact narrowing a potentially broader and more rewarding curiosity.

But then if Tolaas’s relationship with IFF says anything, it’s that (for better or worse) the fragrance giants are the ones with the resources to fuel engines of creativity and progress, like Tolaas herself. For their investment they receive a constant stream of new ideas about scent. And while it’s not a certainty, it seems pretty likely to me that when those ideas become materially accessible to a majority of people, it will be the fragrance giants that bring them to us. So, as someone who feels my nose is many classes lower than the kind of precision instrument that Tolaas wields, I’m comfortable sticking well within the known and waiting to see what trickles down.

At the very least, I can say that exploring perfume has made me more conscious of all kinds of smells. I'm more conscious of the fact that I smell a room before I’m able to take it in visually, and that I smell people I’m greeting before I hear them talk. When a fire broke out in my building earlier this year, it was the smell of the smoke that woke me rather than the blaring alarm. A dramatic example, yes, but what I’ve come to understand is that, as Tolaas argues, scent is not atmospheric but rather elemental to the structure (or architecture, or design -- pick your term) of any environment. And understanding that, I’m glad Tolaas is working to bring the rest of the world up to speed.The interview is highly worth a read for any scent enthusiast. 

As a bonus, those twelve sweaty men I mentioned are featured in the magazine in ‘invisible portraits’ reproduced from Sissel’s show The Fear of Smell / The Smell of Fear, commissioned in 2006 by MIT. Sissel designed an armpit-borne device that collected the sweat of twenty-one men who suffered from severe phobias, at the very moment they experienced those fears. She analyzed and reproduced the scents of their sweat and then, borrowing a process from IFF, microencapsulated the scents in a special paint that she applied to the walls of MIT’s gallery. The scents were released when observers rubbed the walls. To accompany the interview in Mono.Kultur, twelve of the scents have been microencapsulated onto the pages of the magazine. Guy No. 3 -- dude, call me!

Mono.Kultur #23 is available in the U.S. from Textfield.

24 June 2010

Summer Crudité with a Side of Chandler Burr

A number of my friends have been talking up the local CSAs and farmshares they’re participating in this summer – something I have neither the discipline nor creativity to make the most of (what in the world would I do with two pounds of garlic scapes that will go bad in a week?). Luckily, while they’re congratulating each other for their armloads of sustainably-grown produce, I’ve got my own veggies to go on about. They're found in Tilda Swinton: Like This by Etat Libre d’Orange and I ♥ Les Carottes by Honoré des Prés.

An Anti-Celebrity Fragrance
Like This, an homage to actress Tilda Swinton from iconoclastic house Etat Libre d’Orange, is one I’ve been very keen to smell, but also suspicious of in the same way I’m suspicious of all celebrity scents. After its stateside launch at Henri Bendel in New York last week, I’ll concede that Mathilde Bijaoui's work was worth the wait. Tilda herself was there, stone-faced and fauxhawked, esconced on a high railed balcony overlooking the main floor, where she conducted a minimum of press interviews. Since I’m not ‘press’ by any stretch of the imagination, I didn’t get a chance to fawn over her, but I did manage to get a sorry iPhone picture of this rather puzzling display:

Given that they’re nowhere in the official notes listed for Like This, what’s with the carrots? The real star of the show here is the pumpkin accord – fleshy, sweet and quite vegetal. Immortelle makes a star turn, but in an uncharacteristically supporting role. Yes, it’s just as ‘everlasting’ here as it is in other immortelle fragrances, accounting for 95% of the scent’s 12-hour longevity. But it’s not working quite so hard to stand out from all the other ingredients, or simply to overwhelm them as immortelle is prone to doing. It harmonizes with them instead, providing a complex canvas for an accent of ginger and deepening the richness of the pumpkin. This spiced pumpkin-immortelle cocktail follows some mellow citrus top notes and works its way towards a soft, smooth base of rose, vetiver, heliotrope and clean musk.

Like This is a challenging fragrance, clearly meant to be an artistic reach rather than a crowd-pleaser. It differs in that respect from virtually all other celebrity fragrances, and also in the sense that it actually reflects the aesthetic character of its namesake: striking, strange and desirable.

A Short Scene in a Department Store
The best part of this whole affair, though, was that I got to meet one of my perfume heroes – Chandler Burr, author, journalist and scent critic for T magazine, whose “Scent Notes” are the genesis of my now full-blown obsession with perfume. I greeted him on his way out with a crack in my voice and some egregiously untrimmed nosehairs, and he was gracious enough to speak to me for about 45 mortifying seconds. It went something like this:


ARTHUR hovers by the elevator as CHANDLER BURR approaches.

Excuse me, are you Chandler Burr?

(leaning down because he is very tall)

Hi. Sorry to be a creepy hanger-on; I just wanted to say hello and that your column in T  is what got me interested in perfume.

Oh, great. … That’s what we try to do.

Can I ask what you think of the fragrance?

I love it. I know Tilda and can tell you that she was very involved in every part of the process, and the fragrance is such a surprise. It’s a spicy, [something I can’t remember], abstract expressionist gourmand.

I’m impressed with how they used immortelle.

Yes. I do not like immortelle, and I think it’s great here.

Yeah, I really love this line. I own Fat Electrician, [mumbling sheepishly]…

The elevator dings: going down.

I’ve got to run, sorry.

Sure, nice to meet…

CHANDLER turns and gets on the elevator.

ARTHUR (cont’d)

What’s Yr Take On Giacobetti?
(Bonus points for anyone who gets the musical reference in that subhead!)  I bought I ♥ Les Carottes without having smelled it for two reasons: 1) I love root smells, and 2) it was authored by Olivia Giacobetti. I don’t regret it in the least. If Like This is – as Mr. Burr sensibly suggests – an exercise in abstract expressionism, then Giacobetti’s new scent for French indie organic line Honoré des Prés is an equally captivating stab at something like photorealism.

Using carrot seed oil, sweet orange and a beautifully rooty iris, Giacobetti has created an uncompromised olfactory expression of newly-pulled, dirt-covered carrots. The impression is immediate, with a strong anise-y aspect accompanying the raw sweetness. Earthy patchouli and Madagascan vanilla are the only fixatives, and make for an unfussy and comfortable drydown.

The literalism and simplicity of this perfume is very representative, I find, of Giacobetti’s style. Whether it’s the wet-cardboard marvel of her Dzing! for L’Artisan, or the grey pepper and driftwood of her Preparation Parfumée for Andrée Putman, her compositions are unfailingly straightforward and stray not an inch from their strict intentions.

I ♥ Les Carottes is one of the three Honoré des Prés scents that comprise their new “We Love New York” collection, and they’ve really squeezed the theme dry. The flacon comes lodged in an HdP branded coffee cup, nestled inside a crumpled brown bag. The promotional copy even includes an anecdote about Olivia Giacobetti cooking and freezing and re-cooking organic carrots grown in Harlem (eh?). I interpreted it as a cheeky admission that I could get the same results from splashing an orange-carrot Jamba Juice all over my torso.

Most cryptically, the blurb goes on to reference the “it-carrot culture”… Do I take that to mean I’m among those manning the prow of some carrot moment? Or perhaps the more appropriate question would be whether these two examples consitute a trend: is 2010 the year of the vegetable gourmand? I wouldn’t be disappointed.

Etat Libre d’Orange Tilda Swinton: Like This is $100 for 50 ml, at Henri Bendel or LuckyScent. Honoré des Prés I ♥ Les Carottes is about $80 for 50 ml, at Colette.

A heartfelt thank-you to Lendon Flanagan for the I ♥ Les Carottes photo.

16 June 2010

Local Favorite: MiN New York

For both novices and nerds like me, shopping for perfume can be an awfully frustrating retail experience. Perfume salespeople range from the desperately solicitous to the rudely dismissive, and most stores (in New York, anyway) that carry anything worth buying have simply too large a variety to sample without suffering a serious case of nose fatigue. Worst of all is the frequently unsound guidance dispensed by some salespeople: in the case of one department store associate who I asked about a certain brand, this guidance was limited to indicating which scents were “for gentlemen” and which “for ladies.”

Fortunately for fellow New York perfume junkies, there’s a remedy in MiN, an apothecary on Crosby street that stocks  a diverse but tightly edited collection of fragrances, many of which are exclusive to them, and an equally discerning selection of men’s grooming products. Mindy and Chad, the owners, have a genuine interest in perfume and share their knowledge helpfully, as opposed to imperiously. Even the space itself (a bit clubby and masculine; stately ceiling height; lots of wood) is a welcome change from harshly lit department stores and cramped upscale pharmacies.

Linari, one of the lines they carry exclusively, is a relatively new line of four luxury fragrances. Eleganza Luminosa (an exceptionally pretty and balanced feminine floral) and Vista Sul Mare (a citrus-ozonic scent with a spicy floral heart and soft amber-cedar base – talk about development!) were created by Egon Oelkers, whose strong suits appear to be sophistication and reserved luxury. The more interesting Linari fragrances to my nose are the two authored by Mark Buxton, who can also do luxury but not without a deliberate twist. Hence the heady herbal cocktail of absinthe, clove and sage that lifts the blandly woody heart of Notte Bianca, or the startling cherry-raspberry accord that opens the gourmand Angelo di Fiume and manages not to smell like dessert.

All of the Linari fragrances are exceptionally complex, smell of extremely high quality ingredients and definitely have some tenaciousness on the skin, but they do seem very occasional and, for me anyway, too dressy to wear with any frequency. For something a little more rough around the edges, I turned to Frapin, the French cognac producer, which makes a line of perfumes also carried exclusively at MiN.

Admittedly the neatly trapezoidal bottles with their birch wood caps is what lured me in, but two of the scents kept me interested. Passion Boisée embodies a very old-world elegance and masculinity, with sweet spices (nutmeg, clove) to warm the citrus top notes, rum and glove leather to butch it up a bit, and oakmoss, patchouli and cedar for a super-dry chypre base. If I ever had what one could remotely call a ‘power lunch’ I would be all over this.

Finally, Terre de Sarment combines those same sweet spices (this time nutmeg and cinnamon) with grapefruit, cumin, both neroli and sweet orange blossom, a medley of resins, tobacco and vanilla. I don’t particularly like the first fifteen minutes of this scent, which is all spiced fruit, but it eventually assumes a mesmerizing oscillation between the cool, smokey incense and myrrh and the warm, ambery sweetness of the vanilla and benzoin. I wish the tobacco note were a bit earthier to give the dry down more dimension, but it’s still constantly interesting.

MiN New York is on Crosby street between Houston and Prince, in Soho. Among the other not-easy-to-find brands they carry are L’Artisan Parfumeur, Parfum d’Empire, Parfums d’Orsay, Penhaligon’s, Geo F. Trumper, CB I Hate Perfume, and Dr. Vranjes.

26 May 2010

The Smell of Deep-Fried Marc Jacobs

As can be expected given today's prurient pop cultural tastes, most of the online chatter about Marc Jacobs's upcoming men's fragrance, Bang, is about his near-full monty ad.  Personally, I'm amazed that someone found an even more tasteless way than Tom Ford to juxtapose a flacon and a crotch.  I'm also impressed at how, with this ad, Marc Jacobs is straddling (heh) the line between 'designer' and 'celebrity' fragrance. But I think the honors for most entertaining response to the ad goes to Michael K at DListed: "Based on this ad, Marc's nectar probably smells like Jiffy Pop, butt sweat, Molly McButter sprinkles, and cups of grease from the jar my abuelita keeps under her sink. Basically, this is what I wish my apartment will smell like on a Friday night, but it ends up reeking like lonely tears and burnt Hot Pockets."

Alas, if Michael K had read just a bit further he might have discovered that Bang will not, in fact, have a butt sweat accord. Rather, it features a trio of peppercorns (black, pink and white -- evidently MJ likes pepper), er, "primal masculine woods", elemi, benzoin, vetiver, white moss and patchouli.  Peppery top notes and a vetiver-moss-patchouli dry down sound pretty on-trend for an explicitly masculine scent to me, so I'm wondering if the elemi and benzoin will have that great sweet-medicinal character to give it something different or, conversely, if they will manifest as a disappointing approximation of cheap vanilla extract.  To be priced at $55 / $75 for a 50 ml or 100 ml eau de toilette, Bang was created by Ann Gottlieb, author of (among other commercial powerhouses) CK be and Sarah Jessica Parker's Covet.  So yeah, I'm guessing cheap vanilla extract.

16 May 2010

Bathroom Cleaner or Something Better?
Oranges and Lemons Say the Bells of St. Clement’s, by Heeley

I’m all for applying the artistry of perfume to ambient fragrances (candles, room sprays and the like), but when it comes to cleaning, I like things as unadorned as possible. I use unscented Dove soap, Tide Free & Clear detergent and Comet. Even pleasantly scented cleaning products are usually way too strong: I bought a bottle of Mrs. Meyer’s Geranium all-purpose cleaner and had to stop using it because when I did, I couldn’t smell anything else for days.

I was thus unsure of how to react to the opening notes of James Heeley's new Oranges and Lemons Say the Bells of St. Clement’s, which are pure luxury bathroom cleaner – the ones that smell so nice and gentle that you wonder if they’re actually cleaning anything. There is indeed an initial blast of citrus (I get more bergamot, mandarin and petit grain than the namesake oranges and lemons), which occupies a sober middle ground between the Orange Fanta that blasts out of too many citrus scents and the aristocratic shock of something like Penhaligon’s Anthology Extract of Limes. Elegantly straightforward, the citrus in St. Clement’s owes more to the bitter peel than the sweet flesh, which is a-ok by me. A mild sweetness, though, appears courtesy of a swoon-worthy orange flower and a soapy ylang that may be better suited to plush white towels than skin, and ultimately rob the citrus of the luxurious austerity I’ve come to admire in many of Heeley’s other scents. Luckily the opening phase lasts ten minutes at most.

St. Clement’s doesn’t really click until three supporting notes yawn their way out of the woodwork: a smoky earl grey tea, a refined wet-earth vetiver, and a mellow, faintly salty musk. The bitter citrus loses some volume and in fact works much better as a complement to the tea than as a principal character. And finally, out of the musky-smoky heart, a tiny drop of lemon emerges. It’s this later phase that captivates me: both warm and cool, soft and sharp, dim and bright. The musky aspect strikes me as just a bit dirty, which is the main reason I’m so enamored of it. To noses that aren’t as sensitive to musks as mine, I imagine it would stay trapped in the unremarkable ‘fresh’ and ‘clean’ territory where it begins. (Too bad for those people.)

After its spa-candle opening, St. Clement’s is extremely reserved in terms of sillage, and its longevity isn’t anything to write home about. I’ve only applied this by hand from a sample vial, so perhaps an atomizer would make it more than a skin scent, but either way I’m very close to convinced that a bottle of this belongs in my collection.

Oranges and Lemons Say the Bells of St. Clement’s is an eau de parfum, available in a 100ml bottle at luckyscent.

20 April 2010

Happy 4/20: Stoned by Solange Azagury-Partridge

One of the more romantic notions of perfume that I'm susceptible to is the 'signature scent' -- when a person wears only one scent and routinely enough to be recognized by it, the person and the scent becoming inseparable in the minds of those who know them. It would be nice, wouldn't it, to have one less choice we feel we must make?

As appealing as the idea is, I've sacrificed the comfortable regularity of a signature scent for the equally compelling joy of collecting, and chief among the pleasures of accumulating a scent collection is the matching of scents to the right occasions and moods. It brings about the opportunity to go beyond just 'good' or 'bad' in appreciating perfume; to consider whether a scent is celebratory or solemn, discreet or gregarious, mellow or tweaky, or any number of other specific qualities. It gives perfume a chance to contribute to one's experience of an occasion, rather than being merely incidental.

Take what I'm wearing in celebration of today's date (which has, yes, some significance for me): Stoned, the 2006 debut perfume from London jeweller Solange Azagury-Partridge, authored by Lynn Harris of the Miller Harris line. Beyond the chuckle-worthy coincidence of its name, Stoned has about it a rich, hazy yet contemplative feeling that, while not quite psychotropic, would provide a just-about-perfect complement to such - ahem - activities.

As floral-orientals go, it's quite gingerly with its floral facets (jasmine and rose), which are stacked up front and gorgeously dirty. In the first instant the florals are joined by a light, fresh bergamot that seems to be replaced in the very next instant by some mild but wholly present patchouli. It's the kind of earthy, musty patchouli I love and neatly avoids the hippie-dippie zone.

About fifteen to twenty minutes in, all of that cedes the foreground to a powdery, blanket-like layer of resins and tree moss. The super-rich labdanum, benzoin and heliotrope sometimes verge on ice cream-sweetness, but the tree moss along with a high-quality bourbon vanilla and sheer musk in the base keep it tasteful. It's also relatively understated in its sillage, but sticks around for at least five or six hours on me.

The sole comment I received on a prior wearing of Stoned was that it smells "like the '80s." I didn't disagree, at least in the sense that the soft, vintage-y texture could easily pull off the impression of an unearthed, decades-old thrift store treasure. Opulence is another sense in which Stoned harkens back to the days of bigger, badder orientals, but this opulence is somewhat contrived, taking the form of microscopic diamond dust blended into the perfume and an exquisitely cheesy crimson bottle (complete with vaguely-Asian goddess stopper). The scent itself is not ostentatious and shouty the way Poison or Antaeus or other '80s powerhouses can be. It's rich and full-bodied, but lets the packaging (and price) do the shouting.

All things considered, if I had three extra bills lying around, I'd happily add that cheesy bottle to my collection -- even if it's only perfect for one very special day of the year.

Stoned eau de parfum is available in the 100ml bottle at Lucky Scent.

12 April 2010

Translating Margiela

Shall we get right to it? (untitled), the first fragrance from Maison Martin Margiela, was composed by the gifted Daniela Andrier, a watercolorist of a perfumer and the author of Prada’s madly successful Infusions series, and it proceeds something like this: a splash of fresh wet green to start; soft, cuddly resins wrapping a statuesque bigarade; a polite suggestion of jasmine and warm cedar; pretty-but-anemic musk and a drop of sweat. It generates more than decent sillage, but after the opening blast of galbanum fades (it doesn’t take long), all I smell from a distance is pillow-soft amber and bitter orange. If I really hound my wrist I get the faintly animalic musky base and traces of incense.

These are lovely notes, every one, and elegantly interwoven, yet I’m left wishing for twice the effect packed in half the volume, and more importantly, something to skew it a degree or two off-trend. (untitled) is a very nice fragrance, but in the way that a Margiela t-shirt is just a ‘very nice’ t-shirt.

Luckily for the Diesel Group (Maison Martin Margiela’s new corporate parent), very nice is plenty good enough for a lot of people – especially, I would wager, the kind of people who prize expensive simplicity and prefer to smell ‘like nothing.’ I can’t help wondering, though, what might have been if the same devil-may-care daringness had been applied to this project as has been devoted to the house’s most thought-provoking designs. What if the bracing, bitter green notes were prolonged, kept aloft by brighter, headier incense instead of giving way to the woody-floral heart? Or what if the musks were even dirtier, saltier, suggestive of a wet animal coat made strangely desirable (think of the wet fur facet of L’Artisan’s Méchant Loup)?

I’m not suggesting either of these ideas would be better than what ended up in the bottle. The trouble with (untitled) is that I can’t seem to find its identity. It somehow feels overdone and incomplete at the same time. And while I know it’s splitting hairs to say so, even the way it was introduced lacked the intelligence and straightforwardness on which la Maison stakes its reputation.

Last week’s event at the New York Margiela store, for example, featured no experiential process by which to try the scent, unless you want to count the precious scented cloth buttons that were pinned to lapels here and there. Unlike the comparably lavish Paris launch, there was no tower of bottles, no flashy reveal, and no white confetti either. There was merely a pair of tester bottles on a sober white pedestal – arguably more in sync with the house’s aesthetic and yet not very exciting – and a surplus of hors d’oeuvre-bearing waiters. I was kind of hoping I would have to follow the scent across an unlit room to its source on the gaunt neck of a nude model, or something to that effect. I gave up a ticket to Die Zauberflote so I could attend, for pete’s sake! Admittedly, that imaginary scenario is more for-its-own-sake wackitude than something actually meaningful, but surely the passing of lukewarm beet canapes isn’t the only alternative.

Conversely, the house appeared intent on taking its fragrance seriously even if no one else cared to. The testers bottles were accompanied by a handful of small vials bearing samples of (untitled)’s featured raw ingredients (galbanum, galbanum resinoid, bigarade orange, lentiscus resinoid (mastic), and incense) – a thoughtful way of being informative that, by my count, about three partygoers took advantage of. Considering the fashion-oriented crowd and the mill-about, free champagne mood of the gathering, that forlorn display seemed to cry out for all the perfume geeks who weren’t there. It worked as a visual reminder of the house’s preoccupation with construction and process, but then if they really wanted (untitled) to live up to its name and “to hold different meanings for different people” (which itself is not a particularly unique sentiment about perfume), they might have considered not publicizing the list of notes at all, as Hermès did with their new Voyage.

I like (untitled) more than I’m letting on. But at the end of the day, I would’ve believed any number of other designer names slapped on the smart, paint-dipped lab bottle, and I find it difficult to believe (as the house insists) that Martin Margiela himself had anything to do with the project.

The most curious part of the whole enterprise, though, is the deliberately obfuscated marketing copy being used to promote it. In the interest of mining the true intentions behind (untitled), I took the liberty of translating a few breezy excerpts into more everyday statements:
“Everyone can feel called into question by a colour, a shape or a garment… We wanted to give perfume the same chance. Stripped of any reference to an influence of precise climate, (untitled) can be interpreted and worn for all occasions by every one of us.”
Translation: “Everyone can feel befuddled from time to time by our most overwrought pieces. We wanted to disorient our audience with perfume as well, except in the sense that it has little to do with our founder’s vision, which really no longer directs the house anyway, you see. (untitled) takes Margiela into an entirely new market, bearing an instantly familiar, purely pleasurable character.”

• • •

“For its first olfactive creation, Maison Martin Margiela has chosen to strike out on a new path, reformulating the forgotten green fragrances that symbolised the femininity of the 1970s… The principal element of this woody green floral is Galbanum, a fine and rare raw material. Its incisive notes are boosted with the bitterness of box green, the vibrancy of lentiscus and incense, and the smoothness of bitter orange. Like a huge armful of plants harvested just after the rain, its raw state recalling pared-down garments and hems cut open, emblematic signatures of Maison Martin Margiela.”
Translation: “For our first scent we chose to try one of those green fragrances we learned about. It’s said they are reminiscent of a perfumery style from the ‘70s, and we totally heart the idea of ‘reinterpreting’ and ‘reinventing’ things from the past… The best way of blasting someone with green freshness is evidently a double-hit of galbanum, which is suitably uncommon and smells enough like wet plants that people can describe it as something other than just ‘clean.’ Then we loaded up on that awesome bigarade and some other, more subdued notes that make it smell discreetly expensive.”

• • •
“Faithful to its philosophy of metamorphosis, of finding a ›second life‹, Maison Martin Margiela turns this exhumed classical foundation upside down, and contrasts it with resonances of sweet jasmine and musky cedar. Its striking pedigree is then edged with a dense, almost filmy warmth.” (weird emphasis theirs)
Translation: “We had this retro style that we needed to bring into the ‘now’, so we included some airy jasmine and cedar notes for that luxury soap feeling, and finally some slightly dirty white musk that makes people think of their own skin. We figured that would make it attractive to people who are too cool or too confident or simply embarassed to wear perfume."

• • •
“I know that perfume must not follow a fashion or a trend, but an instinct. This first perfume expresses a femininity which does not fit into formal categories… I am grateful to Maison Martin Margiela for whispering the formula for this perfume into my ear.”  -- Daniela Andrier, perfumer
Translation: “I know that it’s important to this brand to believe in themselves as perfectly unique, so I designed their first perfume to evoke the kind of woman who works hard at her ‘effortless’ look, and is willing to go a few weeks without washing her hair for that bit of grit. I’m grateful that the imprimatur of a brand like Margiela made this gig a walk in the park. I mean, really, who’s going to object to galbanum two ways with an orange julius on top?”

• • •
“By creating fragrances woven in the most beautiful raw materials and melted with poetic impetus that is found in the inspired wearer, perfume can be saved from the terrible trivialization that threatens it. This is how I wrote the formula for this first perfume for Maison Martin Margiela, with that special grace that comes with the perception of the obvious, that clarity that gives us wings in the wonderful encounters of our lives.” -- Daniela Andrier
Translation: “I feel so fortunate to have been selected for this project. Thank the lord Diesel put up enough cash to give it some teeth! And all you catty perfume freaks who think I’ve cloned an easy hybrid of all my recent work can screw off and die. You know it's good! And it was actually a very welcome break from simply formulating the next flavor of Prada-ade.  But, please, don’t tell Miuccia. A girl has to eat, right?”

• • •

(untitled) is available in 30ml, 50ml and 75ml sizes at Maison Martin Margiela boutiques and online at Colette.

08 April 2010

The Lusty Smell of Spring

Pedestrians strolling along many an avenue or boulevard on America's east coast lately may have noticed a pungent, slightly putrid and sickly sweet odor lacing the hot spring air. Perceptive types know that the odor comes from those ubiquitous trees that are suddenly awash in pretty white flowers -- a species my roommate fondly refers to as "the pussy trees."  I (as you may have guessed by now) wouldn't know about that, but have also heard people claiming the blossoms smell like "spooge," or whatever juvenile slang you want to put there.

For those of you who never took the time to investigate what the hell these trees are, allow me: Pyrus calleryana, or Callery Pear, is native to China and is named for the French missionary who introduced the tree to the western hemisphere. The most populous variety in the U.S. is a cultivar called the Bradford Pear, and while the scent of its flowers is near unavoidable from March to May, it is known to vary from year to year.

I tell you, this must be a bad year.

Photo by Jason Coleman, via flickr.

05 April 2010

For D.C. Noses: "Scents & Medical Sensibility" at Smith Farm Center

It's always nice to see efforts to draw the world of scent closer to other creative disciplines. A recent talk by Christophe Laudamiel and the neurobiologist Stuart Firestein at the Rubin Museum of Art made a case for appreciating scents via the same critical faculties we use to think about music, sculpture, poetry or any other art. Parsons pushed the same envelope by asking attendees of its Headspace symposium to "acknowledge scent as a new territory for design," and invited architects and designers to become "accidental perfumers" by collaborating with established noses from IFF and Coty.

A new group exhibit from now to May 1 at Smith Farm Center for Healing and the Arts outside Washington, D.C. seems free of that self-important Manhattan luster, but explores similar territory from a bodily perspective: "how the physical self experiences and knows the world through the sense of smell…[and] the connection between physical health and visual, gustatory, and olfactory aesthetics." Curated by Kóan Jeff Baysa, a physician as well as curator and critic, this seems like an excellent place to nerd out for an afternoon. More info here.

31 March 2010

An Upturned Nose: Three Scents I'm Eagerly Awaiting

Check out Basenotes' interview with James Heeley from Esxence (the Milan perfumery trade show), here.

The closing commentary in my post on the Aftel lecture may have given the impression that my appreciation of scents is strictly egalitarian – that my nose is entirely unbiased and unconvinced by anything beyond the smell of the juice itself. That impression is actually pretty far from the truth. I’m a self-admitted snob. While I’m skeptical of most marketing gimmicks and breathless PR-speak, I’m also a total sucker for thoughtful packaging and quickly impressed by conspicuously high price points, low production volumes and other easy markers of exclusivity.

For shame! Every time I caress a neatly detailed flacon or thrill to the lovely hue of the precious liquid inside, Luca Turin’s crabby voice pops up in the back of my head and commands me, harshly, to follow nothing but my nose. It’s a mandate I completely understand, especially given the general consensus among olfactorati that the words “niche” or “independent” or “exclusive” no longer mean much. Spend fifteen minutes on any fragrance discussion board and you’ll find hundreds of voices insisting that a certain mainstream $30 scent smells as good as, if not better than, a near identical “niche” scent that costs four or five times as much.

I’m sure many of them are right. It’s not inconceivable that an inexpensive mainstream fragrance could be transcendent, and I know first-hand that there are fragrances marketed (and priced) as the most innovative, avant-garde juice money can buy while smelling as cheap as a ten year-old bottle of Acqua di Gio. Many argue that this resounding lack of truthfulness with which 99% of perfumes are presented to the consumer is a desperate attempt by the industry to maintain an aura of romance and mystery about their product. I would add that the frequently bemoaned over-saturation* of both the mainstream and niche markets, in producing a need for every new release to distinguish itself somehow, only contributes to the problem. My skepticism of any grandly-introduced new fragrance, as a result, extends both upmarket and down.

On the other hand, my own experience has borne out that a higher price more often than not still yields noticeably higher-quality materials, more risk taking, and a prioritizing of artistry over mass appeal. Hence my curiosity is most often aimed at the more rarefied end of the fragrance market. That being said, here are three fragrances I’m looking forward to trying as soon as I can get my snobby little hands on them:

Oranges and Lemons Say the Bells of St. Clement’s, by Heeley – Named for an old English nursery rhyme, this is the latest from the eponymous perfume line by James Heeley, an English expat in Paris and designer by trade who’s known for (among other things) his zinc vases and perhaps the world’s butchest tea service. I’m generally not crazy about citrus-dominant scents, but knowing how deftly Heeley handled incense in his Cardinal and the well-judged balance of leather and powdery florals in the equally good Cuir Pleine Fleur, I’m quite keen to see what he’s done with “oranges, lemons and Earl Grey tea.” Now Smell This lists additional notes of bergamot, neroli, petitgrain, ylang ylang, oakmoss and vetiver, none of which I can argue with. I suspect it will go in one of two directions: 1) yet another clever ‘modern’ twist on a classical eau de cologne formula; or 2) somewhere entirely different.

Tilda Swinton: Like This, by Etat Libre d’Orange – What a trend, this celebrity scent business! At first I was surprised, and not pleasantly, that at a time when even Jennifer Aniston is jumping on the bandwagon, a house as stridently avant-garde as Etat Libre d’Orange (who made a name for themselves by dropping a semen accord in their infamous Secretions Magnifique) would pull the same trick. Fortunately for snobs like me, house founder Etienne de Swardt partnered not with an Aniston-caliber figure, so to speak, but instead with one whose image dovetails impeccably with the house’s own. One would expect as much from the folks whose prior two muses were Rossy de Palma and Tom of Finland.

Work it, girl 

On top of choosing an appropriately edgy celeb (unimpeachable indie-cred! androgynous six-footer! polyamorous firecrotch!), they took on the challenging notes of pumpkin and immortelle, and grounded the concept in a love poem by Rumi. Business as usual, then. Other notes include yellow mandarin, ginger, rose, neroli, vetiver, heliotrope and musk. Sounds rather sexy, but rightly in that singular ‘Tilda’ way – much like her reading of the poem itself. Have a listen for some mid-week thrills (or, perhaps, chills).

Spray to Forget, by Reed Seifer – Moving even further off the beaten path, here’s an amateur effort by a non-perfumer. Seifer, the graphic designer behind last year’s “optimism”-branded metrocards, created this fragrance in conjunction with the 2010 Armory Show, for which he designed the ‘identity’ (pardon my squeamishness at design vernacular). As its name suggests, the blend of unidentified essential oils is intended to function as a palette cleanser for the memory – an intention that obliquely challenges the proximity of the olfactory cortex to the amygdala and other memory centers. And yet, in this era of the individual, is it not tempting to think of our sense of smell as a means to renewal? On a more tangible level, this will be my first sampling of a fragrance that relies on water – purified and “magnetized” – instead of alcohol as its solvent (I haven’t yet made it to Christopher Brosius’ Williamsburg gallery). And lest you think it couldn’t get any wackier, that water was steeped for several days with tension-relieving black tourmaline and Herkimer diamonds. Here’s hoping one of the 500 limited-edition bottles (for an outrageously reasonable $25) is still available.

* I didn’t originally intend to address this point in depth, but I think it’s important to note that the insane expansion of the niche perfume market – arguably guilty of the most vacant perfume verbiage out there – has been driven in large part by a flourishing online community of self-educated aficionados who, ironically, long to know exactly what perfumes are actually made of. If locavores can reliably trace every crumb of what they eat back to the very soil from which it grew, why shouldn’t a perfume house let its customers know, for example, the geographic origin of the iris roots from which its preferred iris essence is extracted? Or how many years those roots were dried and cured? And which producer performed the steam extraction? In fairness, some perfume houses do include some of this information, especially when they want to highlight the quality of a particular raw material, but generally speaking it’s all the same carefully worded bullshit that continues to inspire the annual “Prix Eau Faux” on Now Smell This.

17 March 2010

Gettin' Nerdy: Part 1 -

Mandy Aftel at the American Museum of Natural History:
Silk Road Aromatics (and the Puzzle of Luxury for Everyone)

The more I learn about fragrance and perfumery, the more I awaken to the irony of how unimportant it seems the human sense of smell has become. The bewildering variety of air fresheners and odor neutralizers at our disposal suggest that we are as reluctant to explore the world by smelling as we are eager to explore it by seeing, hearing and tasting. (I’m aware, of course, that 80 percent of experiencing any given ‘flavor’ relies entirely on our sense of smell, but we still mentally attach the experience to our mouths, and still call it ‘tasting.’ I’ll be coming back to this in Part 2.) And yet smelling is arguably our most visceral and emotionally connected sense, to the extent that we have built up a fortress of Febreze and Glade plug-ins around us to protect ourselves from olfactory discomfort.

Two recent lectures I attended touched on this idea that we don’t really smell much these days (and often prefer to smell nothing), but from vastly different perspectives. The first was given in late January by natural perfumer Mandy Aftel in conjunction with AMNH’s Silk Road exhibition. She outlined the history of some of the oldest perfume ingredients, and lamented modern perfumery’s lack of the crucial ‘otherness’ that these aromatics brought to the ancient and medieval people priveleged enough to enjoy them. The historical presentation was nicely informative, and I was not surprised by how dim a view of modern perfumery the lecture implied. It occurred to me in retrospect, though, that Aftel seemed to be arguing on one hand for a broader and deeper appreciation of fragrances among society at large, while on the other hand emphasizing the tradition of fragrance as an exclusive luxury.

More on that later. First, the fun bits.

To go along with her powerpoint, Aftel passed around scent strips bearing essences from her personal library. The aromatics she covered can be loosely categorized as flowers/leaves, resins, spices and and animal essences.

Rose (vs. synthetic rose)
The first strip to come ‘round was a natural rose essence, accompanied by a synthetic one. Before I got my hands on them I was imagining how fun it might have been for Aftel to mislabel the strips intentionally and fool a whole room of sycophants, and their bored boyfriends, into thinking a natural rose was synthetic and vice versa. Alas, there was no mistaking them for what they were. The synthetic rose was distinctly flat, monotone and familiar as the smell of dish soap, whereas the natural rose was much more dimensional, full-bodied and contained a rich variety of trace notes (honey, tobacco, earthy notes).

Looking back, I’m keenly aware that there was no mention of where that particular synthetic rose fell along the undoubtedly vast spectrum of synthetic roses. Was it a BMW rose or a Hyundai rose? My feelings suggest the latter. And so I’m also wondering if a higher quality synthetic rose, the cream of the crop, perhaps, could rival the presence and individuality of Aftel’s natural essence. Or could a blend of several synthetics, for that matter, achieve the same nuance and authentically ‘rose-y’ effect?

Much to my delight (I’m a huge geek for resins and balsams: labdanum, benzoin, elemi, opoponax…the list goes on), some frankincense and myrrh were passed around in their natural form – small beads of resin – rather than on scent strips.

The frankincense was a variety harvested from Boswellia sacra trees in Oman (Aftel called it “the Mercedes of resins”), and the little resin beads smelled surprisingly fresh and almost gingery, but also dry and a bit dusty. It took a lot of willpower not to dig for my lighter and fire up one of the resin beads, just to see how the smell of the raw frankincense translated into white smoke. (The smell of that smoke, and not the raw resin, is the signature aroma most often associated with frankincense and frequently the aesthetic target of incense accords in perfumery.)

Frankincense on the left, myrrh on the right

Unlike frankincense, the myrrh gave me a sense of transcendence without the aid of combustion. It seemed a bit more pungent, a bit woody, and it produced a feeling both contemplative and sharp. Evidently myrrh was used often in mummification and other rituals that sought to create a passage from one time or world to another. That’s not surprising in the least. It’s hard to describe the smell of myrrh further than simply to admit that its mystical dimension is undeniable.

Cinnamon, black pepper, ginger and saffron were the most popular (and most expensive) spices transported along the spice routes between Asia and Europe.  Accordingly, the cinnamon and black pepper that were passed around smelled many times more exotic than what I have in my spice cabinet.

In addition to being unexpectedly sweet and rich, the natural cinnamon had an appealing mustiness to it – a still-dirty, unrefined quality that reminded me of Antoine Maisondieu’s terrific bay leaves in Monocle Scent Two: Laurel. The black pepper was equally rich, strikingly floral, and at times a bit chocolatey.

I’m planning  to write a separate post on my favorite heavily animalic perfumes because I’m totally gay for the funk, too. In her lecture Aftel focused on three animalics: musk, civet and ambergris. (I was disappointed that she didn’t say much about castoreum, traditionally harvested from beavers and used to spectacular effect in Maurice Roucel’s Musc Ravageur for Frederic Malle.) Natural musk comes from Asian musk deer, and has been almost entirely replaced by synthetic recreations of the muscone compound. (If you’re game, Perfume Shrine has a great piece on the chemical structure of the most commonly used synthetic musks, here.) The practice of harvesting civet from the perineal glands of civet cats is similarly on its way out as synthetic civet compounds continue to impress.

The most interesting, and rarest, of the animalics is ambergris, a sperm whale secretion that hardens and cures under the marine sun for years before washing up on a beach. Before its origin was discovered, people speculated that it was petrified elephant dung or possibly a mysterious tree excretion. Natural ambergris is extraordinarily expensive, in part because it can’t quite be actively harvested. (Most online sellers of ambergris insist that theirs is certified “flotte”, or ‘floating’ ambergris that has occurred naturally and involves no interaction with any animal.) It’s also extremely potent. Scent strips dipped in a natural ambergris tincture were the last to be passed, and the smell was mesmerizing – both aquatic and earthy, a bit sweet, vaguely medicinal, nowhere near as funky as musk or civet but still decidely animalic.

Apparently it tastes amazing, too. After the lecture I met a blogger named Deana, who had been chronicling her recreation of Cosimo de Medici’s 15th century hot chocolate recipe, which includes ambergris and jasmine absolute. One of the methods Deana used to incorporate the ambergris (she ordered it from New Zealand) was to melt a small piece in a spoon and then let it cool, so that the spoon was coated with a hard shell of ambergris. She then simply used the spoon to stir the hot chocolate, and said the effect of that alone was near life-changing.

Another use of this bizarre substance that I found particularly interesting was the wearing of “ambergris apples,” otherwise known as pomanders (from the French “pomme d’ambre”). These were little chunks of ambergris and sometimes other aromatic substances, usually enclosed in a perforated metal globe and worn around the neck or on a belt as a simple way to alleviate unpleasant odors or to ward off infection and evil spirits. Man, if a pomander could protect me from the crazies on the subway, I swear I’d have five of them swinging from me at all times.

The Smell of Class
In discussing pomanders, Aftel noted that the spherical enclosures themselves, the product of intricate metalwork and often inlaid with precious stones, were both a powerful status symbol and a mark of individuality. It was just one of numerous examples in her presentation that positioned aromatics as an exclusive luxury – one of the themes I mentioned earlier on. She frequently mentioned that aromatics commanded exorbitant prices everywhere they were imported, noting, for instance, that in 15th century England a half kilo of ginger cost as much as a whole sheep.

Aftel also showed a painting of ancient Egyptian women at a party, adorned with what looked like conical hats. They were in fact solid animal fats perfumed with resins and oils, molded into cones and worn on the head so that they would scent one’s hair and face as they melted. Aftel said she believes this practice to be the “first perfume.”

Some very casual research indicates that these “scent cones” were in fact not a luxury but instead almost ubiquitous; it seems even servants wore them (and little else). This is an example of an even stronger theme in Aftel’s talk: that historically, perfume wasn’t an afterthought, but a given. She spoke poetically about how medieval people were obsessed with pleasurable olfactory sensations, owing to the “panoply of smells” both good and bad that were an unavoidable fact of life for them, and argued against the “neutral non-smell of modernity” into which we retreat from the real olfactory world.

Those two themes seem at odds to me – to suggest on one hand that everyone should be more in tune with and appreciative of our senses of smell while with the other selling perfumes that cost as much as $56 per milliliter. It’s even more troubling considering how dismissive Aftel was of mainstream perfumery and synthetic aroma chemistry (“just not my thing,” she said nonchalantly), i.e. the industry that convinces the mainstream consumer to smell at least something. It would seem, given the dense clouds of Axe invading middle school locker rooms across the country, that maybe Aftel shouldn’t strike such a pessimistic tone about the assumed neglect of our noses.

I don’t mean to be harshly critical, and in fairness, during the Q&A portion Aftel did recognize the creative potential of synthetics and their usefulness in replacing naturals that are either too expensive or banned by IFRA. I also admire that she approaches perfumery from as knowledgeable a perspective as she does (and I’m actually dying to try her “Cognac” and “Cepes and Tuberose”). I just think that if one wishes for the world at large to rediscover a love of fragrances, it would follow to appreciate all efforts toward that goal, as unsophisticated and ‘unnatural’ as the results often are.

I also think I really must attend my next party with a cone of perfumed animal fat on my head, rivulets of the stuff streaming down my face like fragrant tears.

Coming up in Part 2: Jelly beans, aldehydes and a French man with a mohawk.

Painting of deer: William Daniell (1769-1837) - Musk Deer, and Birds of Paradise (via Wikimedia Commons)
Image of myrrh via Herbology Manchester
Image of pomander via Wartski