10 November 2011

Incense Three Ways

Come the cooler days of the year, there are certain fragrance families and styles I gravitate toward -- dark, masculine woods; sweet amber; warm spices; and balsams and resins. It's the last group that I've been particularly focused on this fall, and in my search for a new incense-prominent perfume I sought out three perfumes (one a few years old, the others pretty much brand new) that I thought might fit the bill.

Byredo Encens Chembur:
Meant to evoke a sunny afternoon in the Mumbai neighborhood it’s named for, Encens Chembur (formerly sold as just Chembur) brings me instead back to my parents’ upstairs den in Texas where, at a small makeshift altar, my mother lit pungent yellow incense sticks between plates of fruit in offering to the Buddha and our ancestors.

But that unexpected olfactory flashback only occurred a few hours after application, and thankfully, Jerome Epinette (author of almost all the Byredo scents, including the excellent Sunday Cologne, née Fantastic Man, as well as three of the Atelier Colognes) crafted some exquisite layers through which the incense emerges: golden lemon and bergamot, sharpened even more by piney elemi resin, and a warm, vibrant pairing of nutmeg and ginger. The ambery drydown is warmer still, with a quietly comforting labdanum note and very soft musk. There’s not much sillage on my skin, but it’s beautiful enough as a close-wearing scent and has very decent longevity.

Olivier Durbano Citrine
Paris-based perfumer/jeweler Olivier Durbano has named all of the perfumes in his collection after gemstones, with each fragrance designed to match the symbolic identities of the stones. His seventh, Citrine, is named for the gold-to-amber-colored quartz variety that is traditionally thought to absorb and dissipate negative energies.  The press materials that accompanied Citrine’s release this fall included words and phrases like “pure joy,” “inner fire” and “glowing celestial energy.”

Okay, sure. Citrine, at least for the first hour or so, certainly has some ‘glow’ to its sweet citrus opening and warm woody heart. But the note list (which has a number of commonalities with Encens Chembur, interestingly enough) makes a lot of promises that, on me at least, the juice doesn’t keep. The ‘ginger’ has no zing; the elemi has had all its teeth removed; and the spiciness of carrot seed is frankly nowhere to be found. Beeswax, amber and musk make the drydown quite comfortable, even luxurious, but not much more than that.

This is the first of Durbano’s fragrances I’ve tried and I had high hopes for it, given the relentlessly positive things I’ve read about Black Tourmaline and about the quality of his perfumes in general. If you can’t tell, I’m unconvinced -- especially at $190 for 100 ml.

Huitième Art Parfums Myrrhiad
Far more than just a clever portmanteau, Pierre Guillaume’s take on myrrh is easily the most accomplished of these three and one of my favorite fall releases. The Huitième Art perfumes (a separate line from his signature Parfumerie Generale line) aren’t constructed as traditional perfume ‘pyramids,’ which are designed around the different evaporation rates of the various raw materials. Instead, they are explicitly linear, exceptionally well-blended compositions with very few components.

In the case of Myrrhiad, the starring note is accompanied by just three others: black tea absolute, licorice and vanilla. The black tea contributes a beautiful smokiness that alludes to the practice of burning myrrh, like incense, as a spiritual offering (for an excellent discussion of this perfume’s symbolic intention, see this piece on Grain de Musc); the licorice adds just the right amount of anisic sweetness to the bitter myrrh, and also turns a bit leathery; and the understated vanilla gives depth to the entire composition.

The aspect I find most refreshing and enjoyable, however, is what Guillaume left out. I love that I don’t have to endure 15 minutes of boring citrus top notes to get to the interesting part, and I love how interesting this scent can be with just four notes.

Encens Chembur is $220 for 100 ml at Barneys, or $145 for 50 ml directly from Byredo. Citrine is $190 for 100 ml, available at Luckyscent. Myrrhiad is $135 for 50 ml, also at Luckyscent.

26 October 2011

Autumn Drag

Like most perfume lovers (and enlightened perfume brands), I avoid assigning scents to a single gender. But that attitude differs in principle and in practice: the “wear-what-I-like” outlook doesn’t mean there aren’t clearly masculine or feminine aspects to most perfumes, whether it’s a nuance or an outright intention, and my collection, not unsurprisingly, leans heavily masculine. The few ‘feminines’ I do own fall in a distinctly androgynous zone. So, perhaps as a test of my claim to being a true ‘perfumista’ (the internet has failed horribly at generating a dignified word for us…), I recently set out to see if I could legitimately wear something that’s explicitly intended for women.

Prada Candy
I was expecting Daniela Andrier’s latest to be as big a departure from the rest of her Prada portfolio as the bottle is from the rest of Prada’s severe, square-edged collection -- like L’Eau Ambrée’s younger cousin with bigger hair and brighter teeth. Turns out, while Candy is indeed awfully sweet, it’s just as limpid as many of its predecessors. A dry, toasty note (which Dane at Pere de Pierre less charitably likens to a ‘dusty cardboard box’) chaperones the synthetic caramel accord into the world, and for me is the only point of interest. It vanishes all too quickly. From there on, it’s all smooth caramel and very soft musk. The tone that Andrier set years ago with Infusion d’Iris (which, incidentally, I own and wear frequently) doesn’t translate nearly as well here as it did with L’Eau Ambrée, so it’s a good thing the packaging alone will likely be enough to move a few million units.

Balenciaga Paris L’Essence

Wow. How did this even make it out the door? Both of my wrists were otherwise occupied when it came time to sample this one, so my poor sister’s had to stand in -- and I almost immediately apologized for asking her to volunteer her skin for this disaster. I’ve read many positive reviews of this recently-released flanker to Balenciaga Paris (which I thought was nice enough but not remarkable), but I can’t for the life of me see what they’re on about. Octavian Coifan writes, “The floral heart of the perfume surrounded by the green slightly fruity IFF violet molecules and wrapped in cotton musks reveals a extremely delicate may rose paying a compliment to a Parma Violet.” I suppose it is a bit green, and not just ‘slightly fruity’ but alarmingly so. Those IFF violet molecules don’t strike me as delicate at all, but rather screechy. I get a vague sense of an iris in the heart, but the poor thing is drowning in a vat of liquid violet soap. I would describe it as ‘linear’, but the almost overwhelming loudness of it leads me to think ‘monolithic’ would be more accurate. Women and men alike should avoid this at all costs.

Bottega Veneta Eau de Parfum
It seems like everyone who’s written about this smashing debut fragrance races to compare it to giants of the suede-leather genre: Lutens' Daim Blond, et al. Fair enough, but I’m wholly convinced of its faithfulness to the Bottega identity specifically: refined, restrained and utterly luxurious. There is a faintly sweet plum note up front that readies the palate for the ultra-smooth glove leather (no birch tar or styrax for miles). The jasmine-oakmoss-patchouli aspect plays a minimal supporting role, giving the leather accord a bit more roundness as it wears, never jostling for attention. There’s nothing terribly complex about it, which A) is yet again in line with Tomas Maier’s aesthetic vision, and B) is a big part of why it works so well. Michel Almairac has not reinvented the wheel with this leather fragrance; he’s just made an exquisite one that I, as a man, would be happy to wear.

18 August 2011

It’s Fun When I Can Call a Post “Coverage”:
Highlights from the Elements Showcase

I confess to being self-conscious about how legitimately I can call myself a blogger, what with my whopping nine followers (and yes, I know it’s not helping things that I would rather die than join Facebook), so I was only half-serious when I RSVP’d as “press” for the Elements Showcase, a New York trade show focused on niche fragrance and beauty brands. But in the end it didn’t matter that I’ve never garnered more than a few dozen unique views in any 24-hour period; everyone I spoke to seemed intrigued that I was even there. Oh, you’re a perfume blogger? Cool! No questions asked.

One of my first stops was the display for the New York-based Joya perfume and home fragrance line, run by Elements Showcase co-founder Frederick Bouchardy. Joya places a lot of significance on containers – most notably the gorgeous matte ceramics by Sarah Cihat that enclose many of their candles and their perfume duo Composition No .1 and Composition No. 6. One of the coolest examples of this appreciation for containers was a double-candle housed in a WWII-era British military soap tin (a clamshell design, thus accomodating one candle poured into each side of the tin; the scents are “Amber Absolute” and “Bitter Orange Leaf”).

But the most fascinating thing on display at Joya was their new limited-run collaboration with indie perfume darlings D.S. & Durga called “Staghorn Sumac” [1], which complements the sharp and lemony namesake plant with accords of lily and bison grass (heavy on the coumarin). I love the way D.S. & Durga translate arcane Americana into scent (i.e. Mississippi Medicine, based on the rituals of a “proto-Mississippian death cult” from the 1200s), and this bright but earthy and bone-dry homage to the American plains fits right in with their oeuvre. I will definitely be pre-ordering one of the 100 bottles they plan to produce.

I got to shoot the shit a bit with Anne McClain, fellow Brooklynite and founder/perfumer of MCMC Fragrances. I’d never smelled the scents in her ‘stories’ collection (each inspired by a personal experience) and I took a real liking to Maine, with its beautifully oddball pairing of Bulgarian rose and seaweed absolutes, and the super-resinous Hunter [2], loaded with fir balsam and tobacco.

I had an equally fun chat with Annie and Therese Gibbons, the sisters behind Alora Ambiance, the first home fragrance company to bring reed diffusers to the U.S. We disagreed on the virtues of vetiver (one of them, like me, adores it; the other not so much) while passing around a scent strip of their interpretation of that note - a pure and wild vetiver, inspired by the woven vetiver mats found just about everywhere in Indonesia.

The display of Williamsburg salon/apothecary Woodley & Bunny featured Andy Tauer’s new Pentachords series (so named because each fragrance is composed of only five components), which I’ve been eager to sniff. After being sold exclusively in Italy for the past few months, the limited-run Pentachords are going global this fall. Verdant [3], as suggested, is green, wet, leafy and earthy. Auburn [4] is warm, dry and woody, with an emphasis on the lovely cinnamon note. While obviously quite different from each other, both were striking and successfully communicated the minimalist intention behind the collection, as opposed to White, a meek, anonymously sweet and utterly non-threatening iris.

I also got to sample two independent European brands that haven’t yet arrived on the U.S. market. The first was Spanish line Carner Barcelona, which launched two perfumes in Europe last year: D600, inspired by Barcelona nightlife; and Tardes [5], a woody floral by Daniela Andrier (I just can’t stay away!) that alludes to wheat fields, almond groves, wild roses and geraniums and the dwindling light of late afternoon. This is a particularly romantic work for Andrier, but – like many of her other works – includes an unexpected element, in this case a fresh, barely salty celery note that keeps the cedar, tonka and Heliotrope in the base from turning too sweet. Fall brings the launch of their third perfume: a great smoky leather simply called Cuirs, surely a nod to the long line of leather artisans from whom founder Sara Carner is descended.

After that I was introduced to Technique Indiscrète, a refined but quirky fragrance line by Belgian-born fashion designer Libertin Louison. Standouts from his collection of eight eaux de parfum include: Paname Paname [6], a chypre re-interpretation that kicks off with an audacious cumin-citrus pairing and sweetens with an “apple cake” note; Safran Nobile, inspired by a wedding in India, a heady swirl of sweet spice, saffron, vanillic benzoin, patchouli and dirty jasmine; and Délivre Moi, a modest but comforting better-than-skin scent focused on honey, accented with almond and heliotrope on a mild woody-musky base. Technique Indiscrète also produce three eaux de cologne and a line of hydrosols.

Last but not least, I marveled at sculptor Niho Kozuru’s gorgeous beeswax candles, which she casts in molds made from reclaimed turned-wood architectural details from traditional New England homes. The molds are so accurate that you can often see the woodgrain on the candles’ surfaces. We bonded over our love of the smell of beeswax (“it won’t overpower your dinner party” being one of the benefits I hadn’t previously considered). You can find her candles, appropriately, at the Noguchi Museum gift shop.

11 August 2011

Coming Up This Fall

Fall is sadly nowhere near, but happily, there’s more to look forward to than just a merciful drop in temperature.

Prada Candy
As I've confessed before, I’m fascinated by Daniela Andrier’s steadily expanding portfolio for Prada. Her latest, the upcoming Candy, is positioned as a signature fragrance (not part of the Infusions series) and appears to be a departure from her typically diaphanous style towards something much bolder and more saturated: the press release uses the phrase “overdose of benzoin.” Musks and a “modern” caramel accord round out the cast. I'm hoping that Candy is as good as it sounds, and not merely an attempt to translate Love, Chloé into Prada-ese.

Bottega Veneta Eau de Parfum
I covet Bottega Veneta's anony-chic clothes, accessories and $40,000 luggage sets like vampires long for sunlight: quite simply never going to happen. But - lo and behold! - the ultra luxe brand has teamed up with no less than Coty, purveyors of the illustrious David and Victoria Beckam air pollution fragrance line, to launch their first perfume this fall. You, reader, lose 10 points if you missed the skepticism and sass in that last sentence. On the other hand, while the “leathery floral chypre” is transparently a brand ambassador to the non-wealthy, there are two reasons why it may also be a good perfume: 1) The perfumer, Michel Almairac, who was behind the original Gucci Pour Homme, several of the better Bond No. 9 perfumes and the adorably delicate Ambrette 9 for Le Labo; 2) Tomas Maier, the brand's creative director, who conceptualized this Eau and whose taste is frankly unassailable. Brand-whore bonus: the bottom of the flacon bears the same debossed intrecciato pattern as BV's fine Murano glassware.

Parfumerie Générale No. 25 Indochine
I'm planning to write soon about Fareb, the only scent from Pierre Guillaume's new Huitième Art line that I've sampled, but I'm also happy to see PG returning to his signature numbered Parfumerie Générale collection. Like Prada Candy, PG's No. 25 Indochine has benzoin at its core, but augments it in typical PG fashion with exotic supporting ingredients: Kampot pepper, Laotian honey and thanaka, a traditional Burmese cosmetic paste that smells something akin to sandalwood. This one I know will be good.

09 August 2011

Late Summer Survival Guide, or
What to Wear When the World's Ending

Maybe it’s insensitive to be writing about perfume when London is burning and our economy back home is imploding – again. But write about perfume I will. Between these doomsday scenes and the hottest, most humid New York summer in years, it’s been quite comforting to come across some lovely warm-weather scents.

Heeley Hippie Rose
Many of James Heeley’s perfume concepts straddle the line between formal and colloquial. The exquisite church incense of Cardinal, the weightless ‘tiger balm’ of Esprit du Tigre, and of course the nursery rhyme namesake of Oranges and Lemons Say the Bells of St. Clement's – they reference the commonplace through exercises in luxury.

So it goes for Heeley’s latest, the sweetly named Hippie Rose, inspired by Antonioni's dusty, sun-bathed imagining of hippies in the American West in Zabriskie Point. Hippie-chic is nothing new, nor are fragrances centered on rose and patchouli. Yet Heeley somehow makes these ideas new by conforming them to the house’s ultra-smooth style – putting a nice green bergamot up front, sweeping away the patchouli’s dirtier facets, smoothing over the rose’s harsher edges with mellow incense and vetiver, wrapping it all up in a sheer woody-amber accord. The rose in this case is Bulgarian rosa damascena – a wise choice because it’s always struck me as the ‘wildest’ smelling rose; plays well with others, so to speak; and avoids both the unflinching, cold perfection of Turkish rosa damascena and the ultra-femme, honeyed sweetness of the Grasse rosa centifolia.

Hippie Rose is an extremely fine execution of an idea that, frankly, never really got me going. Unfortunately, another feature of the Heeley line is frustratingly short longevity, and like a pretty flower (or pretty hippie) in the California desert, this one’s prone to withering in the heat.

Eau d’Italie Jardin du Poete
I was going to write about Eau d’Italie’s latest perfume via an open letter to Bertrand Duchaufour, its frighteningly prolific perfumer. Duchaufour was behind countless splashy niche debuts from the past two years, and a few in the near future: The Different Company's upcoming Oud Shamash; L'Artisan's Traversée du Bosphore, Nuit de Tubereuse and hyper-exclusive Mon Numéro series; Amaranthine and Sartorial for Penhaligon's, along with that house's Anthology series; 1697, Frapin's ode to cognac; Parfums MDCI's tribute to the French pear dessert, La Belle Helene; the list goes on. And don't even get me started on that bottled female orgasm for Marc Atlan. Really, Bertrand? Essentially, Duchaufour seems to have achieved the positioning of a movie director who can afford to choose only the most compelling jobs offered to him. Good for you, Bertrand!

I ditched the sassy open letter idea because, truthfully, that skyrocketing reputation isn’t undeserved: most of the perfumes I listed above are expertly crafted, if not everyone’s cup of tea. Perfect proportion and complexity of development are what I see as Duchaufour’s signature strengths, and Jardin du Poete is no exception, despite being less overtly ‘daring’ than his other perfumes for Eau d’Italie. Bracing citrus (primarily green orange) and a green bouquet of mint and basil give way to a cold spice mix of cardamom, pink pepper, and angelica, and some ‘wet’-feeling floral notes. The scent quickly moves on to a drier, warmer and sweeter phase, with a remarkably light immortelle note that manages not to wipe out the freshness of the opening, buttressed by moss and hay. 

There is a lot going on in this production ‒ perhaps too much. As impressed as I am by the scent’s rendering of a Mediterranean garden, I don’t know that a scent for the stickiest days of summer needs to be all that complex or cleverly referential.

Atelier Cologne Trèfle Pur
In contrast to Jardin du Poete, this little wonder is perfectly happy being discreet. In fact, it shares a number of notes with Jardin: cool, greenish basil and cardamom, and a mossy drydown. But it’s not as aggressively pristine as Duchaufour’s olfactory landscaping, and feels ‒ true to the Atelier Cologne concept – like a traditional eau de cologne with a bit of extra oomph and longevity, rather than a full-figured eau de parfum.

The basil and cardamom tint and refine the opening bitter orange; the heart pairs clover absolute (fainter than I’d wish, to be completely honest) with violet leaves and beautiful Tunisian neroli. Patchouli, moss and light musk round out the final phase, with glimmers here and there of the bitter green opening. The development is as leisurely and seamless as a Mercedes transmission. Trèfle Pur was composed by Jerome Epinette, best known for authoring almost all of Byredo’s perfumes (which makes me eager to give that whole line a more-than-cursory smelling).

Heeley Hippie Rose - $185 for 100 ml at LuckyScent.
Eau d’Italie Jardin du Poete - $140 for 100 ml at Aedes.
Atelier Cologne Trèfle Pur - $165 for 200 ml / $60 for 30 ml at Bergdorf Goodman

14 June 2011

Interviews from the Outskirts of Perfumery

I’m quite pleased to be breaking a long hiatus by posting bits from the first actual interview I’ve conducted for this blog -- two of them, in fact! I got to speak via e-mail with two independent perfumers whose products I bought online. Looking back, I rather wish I’d asked different questions than I did. Absurd questions like, “What would you do for a client who asked for a custom perfume based on mustard (not the greens or the seeds but the actual condiment)?” Something to give them a chance to talk about perfumery in a way they may not be used to… I’ll have to keep that one in mind for potential future exchanges with perfumers; instead I asked these two some pretty ho-hum stuff, but I still got quite thoughtful responses.

Way back in April, I ordered two flavors of Black Amber Balm, by A Treatise on White Magic. ATWM is the creation of Emmelie Brunetti, comprising the online storefront where she sells Black Amber Balm and the ATWM blog, a charming stream of imagery referencing the American West and 60s/70s Americana, drug culture, fashion, bohemia, astrology and a penchant for jewelry and precious stones, along with some random bits of narrative and more than a dash of the occult.

The balms make up Brunetti’s library of eight solid perfumes, each an elaboration of a single traditional ingredient built atop her custom amber blend. I chose Vetiver and Oakmoss; the other scents are Sandalwood, Vanille, Rose, Tobacco, Vintage Patchouli and Pure Amber. Bearing a deep black hue from the activated charcoal powder she blends with the beeswax base, these balms aren’t simply another expression of Brunetti’s cultural interests. Instead she envisions them as a compression of her entire aesthetic identity. “I have compared it in the past to a Pandora's box in reverse,” she explained, “where an infinite amount of ideas are going back into the box, the box being the balm.”

Fittingly, there’s a wonderful denseness to the scent of these balms on skin (they do go clear with a bit of rubbing and didn’t stain anything I wore), which I suspect is the beeswax amplifying the amber basenote. Brunetti chose beeswax for its texture and distinctive sweet smell; she also “liked that it came from a bee, a living species; and most importantly, it’s this wax that was used thousands of years ago to make the first solid perfumes.”

The Vetiver balm starts out with spicy black pepper and coriander top notes, transitioning quickly to a surprisingly sharp and soil-y vetiver note. Stripped of its surroundings, it could be a close cousin to the vetiver of Encre Noire. It’s the smell of the morning, when things are still dewy and cool, and it warms and sweetens gradually for a few hours before melting into the amber base note.

The Oakmoss balm, on the other hand, seems much more fit for sunset and beyond. After a languid first act featuring jasmine sambac and kadam attar (an oriental woody-floral note), cedar and petitgrain in the heart support the starring moss note, which is warm, fairly vegetal and just a bit briny, as any good tree moss is supposed to be. I’m sure there are countless perfume hoarders out there with vintage chypres whose moss notes would blow my mind, but as an avid perfume fan who hasn’t gone quite that overboard (yet), I can say I’ve smelled a lot of moss notes and haven’t found one that I like more than this. After a few hours it all slides easily into the familiar amber base, rounded out here by an extra shot of labdanum.

Black Amber Balms are a steal at $25, and are available at blackamberbalm.com.

The second perfume I sampled is Réglisse Noire by 1000 Flowers, the perfume label of artist Jessica September Buchanan, whose certification in aromatherapy led her to study at the Grasse Institute of Perfumery and subsequently assist in a few French perfume labs.

Now on her own, she’s created a formidable work of art herself. Réglisse Noire is French for black licorice, and Buchanan’s concept emerged from her lifelong fondness of it – particularly the crystal bowl of Liquorice Allsorts that was a constant in her grandmother’s home. “They were such a treat,” she said, “and almost slightly forbidden given that my Mom normally forbade sugar to us as kids ('Earthy'/ hippie parents – Saltspring Island, west coast, 1970's).”

Réglisse Noire arranges that licorice front and center from the very first moment, but never (thankfully) in a literal way. Likewise, the top notes of white pepper, mint, shiso leaf and ozone don’t come across as individual facets so much as a crisp, translucent wrapper around the candy. A little further along, the licorice gets greater depth and saturation from ginger, anise and cocoa. Cedar, patchouli, vanilla and elegant musks in the base accommodate the sweetness of the licorice, but also make it softer and earthier. This is a very complete and carefully crafted package -- a quality echoed by the brilliant white cedarwood box in which the full size flacon is shipped.

Art runs in Buchanan’s family (her grandmother and great aunt are oil painters, and her father is a photographer), and she proposes perfumery as a mode of storytelling: “I liken it to writing and photography… I feel like the same areas of my brain are active in these processes as when composing perfume.”

Réglisse Noire is thus as romantic and impressionistic as Buchanan’s childhood memory of her grandmother’s candy bowl, but what impresses me most is that – like the small luxury of Liquorice Allsorts – there is a real luxuriousness to it, especially for a fragrance that uses many natural components (Buchanan says naturals make up 90% of her palette). I tend to think of ‘natural’ fragrances as being blunt and rough-edged, which of course can be a good or bad thing, depending on the fragrance. But, like the best of Mandy Aftel's portfolio, Buchanan has given Réglisse Noire a certain ‘finish’ or sense of quality that’s lacking in other natural perfumes I’ve smelled.

I wonder if this is because she does use some synthetic molecules (in Réglisse Noire it’s most likely the musks) alongside the naturals, pursuing a ‘middle path’ in her perfumery. Buchanan first encountered man-made perfumery materials while studying in Grasse, and “surprised myself by becoming quite smitten with some of them. I realized that I had painted them all with one big brush of ‘synthetic=bad’…without having a clue what I was talking about. Ignorance leads to prejudice.”

A humiliating dressing down by the master perfumer Guy Robert further convinced her that a range of both natural and synthetic ingredients would provide the most creatively liberating toolbox. Today, the only standard she uses in selecting materials is an environmental one: “The [synthetic] materials I’ve allowed into my palette,” she said, “are non-toxic, non bio-accumulative, and pure, from recognized and reputable producers. All my naturals are fresh, organic if possible, and tested for purity.”

Réglisse Noire is available in a 50ml refillable flacon with a locking antique-style atomizer bulb, for $110 at 1000flowers.ca.

Many thanks to Emmelie and Jessica for entertaining my questions!

11 May 2011

Contraband Jasmine in China

A longer and much overdue post is forthcoming, I swear! But in the meantime, I invite you to join me in my amazement at the lengths paranoid authoritarian governments will go to suppress potential insurrection, courtesy of the New York Times.

17 March 2011

Why No Bottles?

"[The smell] is the work of art. I'm opposed to the photon. If you have to see it, I'm not interested."
-- Chandler Burr, explaining why his upcoming "The Art of Scent: 1889-2011" exhibit at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York will have no visual component (only sound and perfumes pumped through diffusion machines). via the New York Times

photo by Richard Anderson, via flickr

18 February 2011

On L'Eau Ambrée and the Duty-Free Doldrums

I’m sitting in LaGuardia airport (waiting for a flight to Atlanta) with a duty-free spray of Prada’s L’Eau Ambrée on my left wrist. This is an interesting coincidence because of two things: 1) My reluctance to take advantage of duty free airport shops as a legitimate point of purchase for fragrance, and 2) my mixed feelings about the work of Daniela Andrier, Prada’s go-to perfumer for the past several years.

Yes, I am a snob. Even while recognizing that, for most people, buying a bottle of perfume from a duty free shop wouldn’t be terribly different from buying the same bottle from Saks (or even, god forbid, Sephora), I’ll invariably choose the latter. To me at least, the difference between strolling among two thousand-dollar handbags and being constantly jostled by layover zombies in Juicy sweats is appreciable, if not earth-shattering.

Likewise, Daniela Andrier’s work for Prada bears a certain tension between the genuine artistic skill it takes to create a recognizable olfactory signature like that shared among Prada’s Infusion series on one hand, and the take-no-prisoners intention toward plain wearability -- or rather, sell-ability -- on the other. 

Case in point -- L’Eau Ambrée seems of a feather with Infusion d’Iris, Infusion d’Homme, et al in terms of its cool, translucent and silky texture. And the achievement of that texture is what impresses me most, given what constitutes the core on which it rests. What I smell is a simple powdery white floral accord, clean musk and synthetic ambergris, pretty much linear from start to finish. Or, in other words, salted caramel with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar.  

How do you make salted caramels smell cool, translucent and silky? That’s Daniela Andrier’s genius.

How do people react to the smell of caramel, whether or not they’re aware of the artifice that created it? That’s how Prada makes a killing.

Prada L’Eau Ambrée is not outrageously expensive and available in many, many places.

20 January 2011

Two Things that Make Me Happy (and One That Doesn't)

1) The packaging of Annick Goutal's upcoming Le Mimosa - Yes, the latest Goutal limited edition soliflore comes in the same fluted bottle as any old Goutal, but is anyone else kind of swooning for that dotted ribbon like I am? If I were a woman -- well, let's not go that far. But I encourage all my spring-loving female friends, come March, to buy a bottle of this, have a healthy spritz and repurpose the ribbon around the wrist or wherever it can be worn most saucily. (The fragrance, by the way, sounds nice as well: the eponymous ingredient backed up by iris, peach and sandalwood; green / fruity / powdery / milky seems to be the intended effect.)
2) The availability of Chanel's entire Les Exclusifs collection in a 75 ml size for $110 - I've always been impressed with how reasonably priced Les Exclusifs are ($210 for 200 ml) relative to other limited-release prestige lines like the Hermessence collection ($235 for 125 ml) or Tom Ford's Private Blend ($185 for 50 ml or *$480* for 250 ml in what looks like a brown glass whiskey decanter). But $210 is still a hefty amount to part with, and prior to now, Chanel's 200 ml-or-nothing! sizing has been pretty much the only deterrent to Sycomore and Cuir de Russie hopping right off the Saks counter into my man-tote. In other words, thank goodness Chanel finally caught on.

3) The new "Glee" fragrances to be made available soon by Boots in the UK - I am an unabashed anglophile, I love Boots, and I"m even addicted to "Glee" (addicted in the way one is addicted to crystal meth, I'll warn you), but I couldn't fight a wave of genuine depression at the thought of plucky British 12-year-olds sullying their (and everyone else's) noses with a £10 novelty spray called Divas Free your Glee. Yes, I know perfume needn't be haughty or expensive to be enjoyed, but nevertheless suspect that with these, there's definitely a reason they're only £10...

16 January 2011

The Smell of Cuernavaca, the City of Eternal Spring

Tropical flora + wood + warm stone + saddle leather + sweet spice = the most fragrant wedding I've ever had the pleasure of attending. Felicitaciones por su boda, Elizabeth and Josh!

12 January 2011

The Nightmare of Anosmia

Pavia Rosati lost her sense of smell when she suffered a head trauma four years ago. Profiled briefly for a New York Times series about New Yorkers who have lost a sense, Rosati claims to be relieved that she no longer smells garbage lining the street, but also talks about getting a dulled impression of anything she eats (she can still taste food, but without her nose, misses out on the fuller flavor created by spices, herbs or other aromatics). She also misses her Jardin sur le Nil.

I think New York would be an awfully depressing place to be anosmic, and not just because of the food. As ‘bad’ as many city smells are considered, I think the olfactory landscape at street level is a great democratizer – a visceral reminder of how little space so many of us share, and that billionaires smell the same dog shit as panhandlers.

10 January 2011

Winter Wardrobe, Part 3: The Gift Certificate

(In which I solicit the sage advice of my dear readers)

Update: The winner, by one vote, is Cozé. Thanks to everyone who voted!

You read it right. My big holiday gift this year was a generous gift certificate to Lucky Scent, run by the good people behind L.A.’s brick-and-mortar Scent Bar, where I once spent almost three hours on a stool sniffing whatever the patient ‘bartender’ could think to hand me before I made off with a bottle of Sel de Vetiver (it was December, but Celine Ellena’s beach-skin and salted caramel miracle made enough sense on the West Coast to warrant the splurge).

But now I need your help, reader. As I mentioned in my last post, I hate making decisions, so I’ve turned to you (and to Polldaddy) to help me decide how I should spend my Lucky Scent dollars. I’ve already winnowed down my initial list of around two dozen candidates by eliminating any scents I can buy locally in New York (Fille en Aiguilles, Sienne L’Hiver, Shiloh, anything from Le Labo or CB I Hate Perfume) and, in a mostly gestural nod to practicality, anything that’s occasional, extravagant or simply expensive enough that I couldn’t bring myself to drop my own hard-earned dollars on it, much less 'free' money (Absolue Pour le Soir, Stoned, Comme des Garçons x Stephen Jones, etc.). Maybe that’s the kind of thing gift certificates are for, but I’m determined to buy something I’ll get a lot of mileage out of, so to speak, rather than something merely to prove what a robust aficionado I am.

The elimination process has left me, bizarrely, with a choice between two scents from the same house: Pierre Guillaume’s Parfumerie Générale.  I’ve been acquainting myself slowly with Guillaume’s numbered portfolio and “Private Collection” of fragrances, and have grown to recognize the ultra high-quality sense of cohesion in them, which no doubt arises from his background as a skilled chemist. His technical prowess goes beyond the expert linking of disparate ingredients to the interaction of those ingredients with environmental factors like light and heat; many of his scents utilize a proprietary process called “photo-affinage,” whereby “olfactory peaks”  are smoothed out by ultraviolet radiation. He’s also the pioneering beneficiary of a new extraction technology that’s enabled him to plant alarmingly accurate fresh fruit accords among the "olfactory spheres" in his newly-launched second brand, Huitième Art Parfums.

Guillaume’s body of work appeals to me not because it’s the work of a “rockstar” like Francis Kurkdjian or even an avant-gardist like Geza Schoen or the Antoines (Lie & Maisondieu), but because it’s the work of a committed nerd – albeit a French nerd, meaning a sexy one. Rather than proposing the sort of arch-cerebral, almost confrontational ideas that sprout incessantly in the overcrowded world of niche perfumery (ambrox trend, anyone?), he reserves his skill and talent for exploring subtle, precious moods and emotions with a cartographer's precision.

And with apologies for that sycophantic introduction, here are the two candidates:

Private Collection: L’Ombre Fauve
Its name translates to something like “beastly shadow”, and true to form, this scent is dark, dense and alternately scary and cuddly. The official list of five notes (amber, musks, wood, incense and patchouli) suggests a simple, minimal construction – a notion quickly belied by the sheer opulence of the experience, from the first spray to the lingering whiff you’ll get on your coat collar two days later. Animalic musks and patchouli do much to expand the powdery amber and wood, but the true heart of L’Ombre Fauve is an otherworldly tint or texture that repeatedly makes the quietest of entrances and exits. Many fans call it the “fur” or “wild animal” note. Some call it “metallic.” Luca Turin (a fan himself) calls it “raspy.” Whatever it is, however he did it, Guillaume managed to make a sweet ambery oriental that doesn’t bore me to tears after ten minutes.

02: Cozé
Despite its salutatorian name, Cozé is actually the fragrance that launched Parfumerie Générale. Originally a blend that Guillaume had created solely for his own and his father’s personal use, it caught the attention of a Swiss art collector and perfume enthusiast who all but demanded it for himself and his circle of connoisseurs. Surprisingly easy to wear, Cozé subjects the dozy herbal funk of PG’s exclusive hemp seed oil extraction to a Kevyn Aucoin-worthy makeover involving heady pimento, camphoreous patchouli and an especially bitter dose of coffee and chocolate. A heavily-refined mossiness sets the overall tone – somewhere between a misty forest and a hotboxed Bentley. “Hippie luxury,” this scent seems to argue, is not a contradiction.

And now to the poll! Thanks for reading and voting, and of course, feel free to suggest other ideas in the poll box or in comments.

03 January 2011

Winter Wardrobe, Part 2: Wishlist

One of the most maddening things about being a collector is that it’s never a straight line from one absolute desire to the next. Too many desires happen simultaneously, tugging mind and wallet in all different directions. Because I both hate making decisions and think about things too much, I try to separate the fragrances I want into those that are reasonably accessible to me and those that are perpetually out of reach, whether due to price or availability. And with that dreary explanation, here are three exquisite scents that I can’t seem to get my hands on:

Maison Francis Kurkdjian Absolue Pour le Soir ($2.50 / milliliter)
I’ve actually never smelled Cologne Pour le Soir, from which Absolue draws its foundation (a creamy, benzoin-heavy amber accord, incense, rose and honey), but I already know I prefer Absolue. I’m convinced that this foundation only makes its mark at full tilt, as it is in the latter. The magic-hour hue of that sticky, sweet core gets darkened several shades by cumin, sandalwood and an unmistakably dirty civet that’s earned Absolue many a carnal-themed review and the title “Skankfest of the Year."

My reasons for keeping it off the immediate buy list? A) I already own Musks Kublaï Khan, which is enough of a “skankfest-sweet-oriental” showpiece already, and B) $175 is too much to spend on something I could only get away with four days out of the year. Still, I do pine for those zinc bottle caps…

Mark Buxton Around Midnight ($1.73 / milliliter, according to current Euro exchange rate)
I know I said in the last post that Annick Menardo is my perennial number one among perfumers, but I was a Mark Buxton groupie first (as I also mentioned in the last post, the first perfume I loved was 2 Man, easily Buxton’s best for Comme des Garçons). To my surprise, Around Midnight is the only scent from Buxton’s eponymous collection that seems to be anywhere near my own wavelength.

I’ve read people describe it as a stylistic chameleon, moving eerily from aromatic fougere territory to chypre to oriental. You could certainly think of it that way, especially if you never want to actually enjoy it. Or you could just stop thinking and take in the pepper and chamomile (fresh and aromatic like lavender but without that Irish Spring sourness that gives me the heebs), the brilliantly structural (versus ornamental) jasmine, and a powdery wood-amber base.

The overarching sense I get isn’t all that chameleonic. While there doesn’t seem to be a discrete incense note per se, there is very much an incense ‘feel’ or character that lingers over most of the development; a smoky haze obscuring and blending a disparate (and quite saturated) riot of color, and a very familiar Buxton effect. 

I’ve enjoyed my tiny sample of Around Midnight down to its last drop, and with Lucky Scent now sold out of it, I can only turn to First in Fragrance, where as you may have guessed, I would have to pay out the nose in Euros. The last time I ordered a scent from Germany I paid €19 - nineteen! - for standard shipping and it took three weeks and two trips to the post office in Bed-Stuy to get it. Whee.

Tom Ford Private Blend Italian Cypress ($3.80 / milliliter)
This is terribly handsome, utterly desirable and very Tom Ford-priced juice. Imagine original Polo in a Tom Ford black tie look (and in case you’re thinking this is strictly a masculine exercise, it actually works for whichever gender you dress; ditto for the fragrance itself).

In lieu of a “Top 10 of 2010!” listicle (if you’re craving that kind of thing, you can go here or here or here or here), I'm presenting a list of things that feel direly inappropriate while wearing Italian Cypress:

• Spilling coffee on my sleeve while stumbling through a subway turnstile
• Tapping my foot to Blondie’s “Slow Motion” on the subway
• Being on the subway at all
• Being clumsy enough to give myself a papercut
• Wearing a sweater I didn’t realize was completely covered in lint
• Sniffling, sneezing or any other sign of infirmity
• Being under 5’10”
• Cheap underwear
• Cheap anything
• Eating dinner alone

In other words, wearing Italian Cypress with any kind of regularity would probably result in some very unnecessary self-esteem issues. Happy New Year!