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