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.

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