27 January 2010

Sibling Rivalry is a Bitch:
Acqua di Parma Colonia vs. Acqua di Parma Colonia Intensa

In my admittedly short time as a perfumery geek, I’ve known flankers to go one of two ways. The first kind comes about as a mildly modified version of an established original, and further revisions often follow. This is how Dior Homme, a perfectly desirable eau de toilette on its own, ended up with Dior Homme Intense, Dior Homme Cologne and Dior Homme Sport (which doesn’t smell ‘modified’ to me so much as ‘tampered with’) all nipping at its mojo.

I don’t react well to the type of unnecessary choice created by flankers in this mode. If I enjoy Scent X, I’d rather not have to choose between it and three other interpretations of the same idea. Likewise, if I don’t care for Scent Y, then ‘
Not Quite Scent Y But Close’ is a pretty unappealing alternative.

That skepticism, paradoxically, leaves me less prone to encounter the second kind of flanker: the kind that has nothing to do with the original but shares its name because some marketing people said it should. Being the youngest of five children and the only male, I tend to gravitate towards younger brothers and sisters, especially those who aren’t inclined to compete with elder siblings and go their own way. So among the figurative younger siblings of the perfume world, I’m sentimentally drawn to flankers that have nothing to prove.

Family dysfunction masked by swell design

Acqua di Parma Colonia Intensa is a favorite example of a flanker with an independent streak. It’s the youngest in a family of eaux de cologne that started with the original Acqua di Parma Colonia, the classic Italian cologne born in a citrus essence factory in 1916 and worn by the likes of Cary Grant and Lana Turner.  Colonia Intensa was born under the present-day ownership of LVMH and is worn by the likes of me – a clear indication that it’s not really even in the same game as its much older and much-celebrated brother.

And yet Colonia Intensa suffers the indignities of being evaluated against Colonia because of its name, which suggests merely a concentrated version of the original. It’s also packaged in the same art deco-style bottle, but rather than Colonia’s iconic black tie label and cap, it wears an unimpressive third-place bronze. Even the family’s middle child, the highly regarded Colonia Assoluta, comes dressed in plucky silver and boasts of being composed by star perfumers Jean-Claude Ellena and Bertrand Duchaufour. I haven’t spent any real time with Assoluta so I left it out of this comparison, but as you can see, it’s easy to mistake Colonia Intensa for yet another dull variation jostling for a share of the family cachet.

But it’s just not. It’s as warm and characterful as the original Colonia is brilliant and aloof. It’s gregarious where the original is discreet. If, for example, you were somehow able to ask Colonia where its citruses originated*, it might answer: “Well if you must know, my lemons are Sicilian, my bergamot from Calabria. Any other
questions?” And if you could ask the same of Colonia Intensa, it might simply say: “I can’t recall, but they’re nice, aren’t they?”

Having undoubtedly suffered one or more reformulations since its heyday, it's quite possible Colonia today relies solely on synthetic citruses. But hey, a cologne can dream, can't he?

Where are
your lemons from?

In both colognes the citrus comes right up front and at a fairly high volume, faithful in that respect to the classic cologne structure (citrus top, floral heart, woody base), yet the difference between the pair is hard to miss even at this stage, when they’re most similar. Colonia’s opening is strictly citrus, signaling its uncompromised quality; Colonia Intensa sports a dash of ginger with its lemon. It still reeks – in the best way – of old Italian luxury, but lightened, a bit effervescent, maybe a little kicky. Like its predecessor, Colonia Intensa calls to mind a crisp white shirt, but this shirt is more in the vein of Band of Outsiders than Brioni.

From there they diverge further: Intensa drifts with extreme nonchalance towards its mildly spiced, resinous and woody middle notes (officially cardamom, myrtle, mugwort, benzoin and guaiac wood, although they're blended seamlessly enough that picking out any individual note is futile), while Colonia strides purposefully through a high-strung heart of astringent herbs and some seriously powdery rose – Bulgarian,
if you must know – and ylang-ylang. (Aside: ‘ylang-ylang’ is very unpleasant to type.) In its last stages Intensa is an afterparty for fun people; a waifish troupe of leather, incense, sweet patchouli and musk supplants its aristocratic veneer. Colonia meanwhile collapses on a stiff mattress of soapy cedar, smelling like fresh laundry. I’m sure it’s clear by now which of the two I prefer.

A handy chart illustrating the respective structures
of Colonia and Colonia Intensa

The same voices who give Intensa grief in the perfume forums for lacking direction and broadcasting a sort of generic, weak-willed masculinity often praise the original Colonia for having an unmistakable sense of purpose. In addition to reminding me of why I avoid people who use phrases like “sense of purpose,” this also reinforces my primary complaint about Colonia: it produces what you could call acute straighten-up syndrome, wherein one furiously resists indulging in even the most harmless slouch. If you like feeling superior even though it means you rarely get to know anyone (something I can’t deny about myself, frankly), it’s likely you’ll favor the classic over the arriviste. Yet as partial as I am to things with pedigree, I’ve come down on the side of Colonia Intensa: outclassed but still classy, and far less exhausting to wear.

The larger point, though, is that Colonia Intensa really deserves its own name and should be judged on its own merits. Measuring it against the original Colonia is like parking a charming little Lancia Fulvia next to a Ferrari 250 GT Spyder California.

I wish the Acqua di Parma Colonia family were pitched as a series of loosely related but distinct scents (a model epitomized by Comme des Garçons’s ongoing series of series) rather than just variations on a theme. The increasingly trendy simultaneous release of multiple scents from one house, e.g. D&G’s 2009 sextuplets, seems to annoy some of the olfactorati, but it would also seem to let black sheep like Colonia Intensa step out of everyone else’s shadows.

Images from
Images de Parfums and Acqua di Parma

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