One Thousand Scents

Friday, December 06, 2013

Now and Then: Yves Rocher Cocoa Collection Shower Gels

Normally I post every Friday, but technology threw a big old monkey wrench into my plans in the form of a hard-drive breakdown a few Saturdays ago. I was shocked to discover that I had had my current Mac for four and a half years, and considering the way I use a hard drive, I'm not surprised that it imploded. Luckily, I always keep a complete backup, so I wasn't worried about losing anything important.

However, due to a series of unpredictable mishaps, each less interesting than the last, my computer stayed in the shop for over two weeks, which meant no blogging and no a lot of other things, and you may well say "Oh, boo hoo, First World problems," and you would be right, because I do have another computer in the form of an iPad, but still: not having a desktop computer, which I use for pretty much everything, was a real inconvenience to me. I don't have a car or a house but I have my data and I need access to it.

Anyway, it's back in the saddle and on to scented pleasures such as the Christmas limited-edition shower gels from Yves Rocher. Three years ago, the company released an Orange et Chocolat EDP with matching shower gel and hand soap. I was so intoxicated with the smell, which is precisely that of a Terry's Chocolate Orange, that I bought all three, and then when the season was over and everything was half price for Boxing Day, I bought another five bottles or so of the shower gel, which, rationed out, lasted me until earlier this year.

So you can imagine my delight when I discovered that they were re-releasing the Chocolate Orange shower gel as their Christmas limited edition this year, along with two new scents: Chocolate Raspberry and Chocolate Pistachio. (Well, they call it Cocoa, but it's not; it's chocolate, sweetened, without any of the dustiness or salt we associate with cocoa powder.)
The Raspberry smells mostly of rather synthetic raspberry, a step up from Kool-Aid; the overall effect is of a thin-shelled chocolate filled with sugary fruit syrup. Not dreadful, but not highly recommended either, except perhaps for the young. At least the texture is improved over the last iteration: it's thicker, less runny.
I never thought of pistachios as having much of a scent, and the Pistachio shower gel smells more like almonds than anything else, with very little chocolate to it, even less than the Raspberry. Pleasant enough if you like a generic, unidentifiable nut aroma with a hint of floralcy, but it doesn't really have much to recommend it.
But the Orange is at least still a complete delight; the perfect balance of chocolate, vanilla, and orange. It's a shame they didn't re-release the EDP as well (I still have a half bottle from three years ago), but the liquid soaps leave a trace of scent on your skin which is pure joy for the five or ten minutes that you can smell it. All three scents are also available in what amounts to a large Christmas-tree ornament filled with shower gel adrift in sparkles. I wish they'd really committed to it and made the ornament even more ornamental, with a flanged metal cap and a hanging loop

and maybe some snowflakes printed on it, but they had a colour scheme and an aesthetic, and they were bound to stick to it, I guess.
You can also get all three scents as hand soaps, which is the shower gel in a pump bottle for a dollar more; as hand cream; as body lotion; and as lip balm.

If I were you, I would stock up on the Orange. You will not regret it.

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Friday, November 15, 2013

Art and Commerce: Fumerie Turque by Serge Lutens (eventually)

Last week it was tobacco and this week it's tobacco again and I have a feeling that, since winter is setting in fast, it's going to be mostly reviews of warm things and comfort scents and Orientalia for the next three months or so.

Do you read News of the Weird? It updates every Sunday and it’s generally just a whole lot of fun: strange, awful, or ridiculous news stories, encapsulated and presented for your weekly amusement. That plus PostSecret are the first things I read when I fire up my computer on a Sunday morning.


This is a 2009 “News of the Weird classic” from the most recent issue:

People With Too Much Money: In April (2008) the Swiss watchmaker Romain Jerome (which the year before created a watch made from remnants of the Titanic) introduced the "Day&Night" watch, which unfortunately does not provide a reading of the hour or the minute. Though it retails for about $300,000, it only tells whether it is "day" or "night" (using a complex measurement of the Earth's gravity). CEO Yvan Arpa said studies show that two-thirds of rich people "don't (use) their watch to tell what time it is," anyway. Anyone can buy a watch that tells time, he told a Reuters reporter, but only a "truly discerning customer" will buy one that doesn't. [Wall Street Journal, 4-25-2008]

And naturally, contrarian that I am, I need to make an argument as to why a $300K watch is not worthy of ridicule.

I mean I wouldn’t buy one, no matter how much money I had, and you probably wouldn’t, either. But people who could afford a $300,000 watch are not like you and me. If you were say worth more than $10 billion dollars, and over a hundred people currently are, then your perspective on what’s doable and purchasable would necessarily change. Once you’ve given away countless millions or even billions to charity and created a bunch of companies to employ tens of thousands of people and bought some houses and some cars, you’ve still got more money than you could reasonably spend in a lifetime. Maybe you take up watch-collecting. Maybe you have dozens of beautifully worked examples of the art form, and then you see this kind of ridiculous and ridiculously expensive but also strikingly beautiful watch: well, why wouldn’t you buy it if you could afford to? The thrill of the limited edition, of something that only a small number of people will be able to own, is not nothing.

You could argue that anyone with that kind of money to blow on a watch has too much money. But what if it were a painting? Is there a painting out there that’s worth $300K to some collector?

If you were an acclaimed sculptor whose work was in demand around the world; if you made a small, intricately detailed sculpture which was being cast in bronze, limited to nine pieces, after which the mold would be destroyed; if you thought that each of those sculptures was worth $300,000; if nine extremely wealthy art collectors agreed with you and bought those beautiful objects to own and enjoy: would anybody think there was anything wrong with that?* Naysayers might grumble that art prices are ridiculous, that some people have more money than brains, that the money could better have been used for charitable enterprises: but in the end, most people would agree that if you have the (legitimately acquired, let’s stipulate) money, then you get to buy more or less whatever you want with it.

So how is a watch different from a sculpture? Because art isn’t supposed to be practical but a watch is? I don't think so: I think a watch can be an objet d’art as much as anything else can. So can a fountain pen: I adore fountain pens and have a bunch of them, most extremely cheap (a clutch of the joyous $3-ish Pilot Petit1 pens) and a few nice ones, nothing more than $50, but if I had a whole lot of money I would unhesitatingly buy

the jade-panelled Graf von Faber-Castell 2011 Pen of the Year, which I think is a profoundly beautiful piece of art. I’d use it all the time, too. It’s currently £3000, VAT included, and, if I had that kind of money, so worth it. 

All of this is relevant to people who love perfumes, of course, because high-quality perfumes serve little practical purpose and are often expensive well beyond their actual cost to produce, but they inspire the collector’s passion and are considered by their devotees to be well worth the price.

My own personal mania is for Serge Lutens scents, which I think are a form of olfactory art. I have I think thirteen full bottles of his scents, and every one of them is something I love and wear as often as I can. Three and a half years ago I was in Paris for a single day, made a pilgrimage to the Serge Lutens boutique, and, on the assumption that I would never be there again, bought two 75-mL bell jars: Fourreau Noir and Fumerie Turque**. I think I paid €125 each, which was about $175 at the time, the most I have ever spent on a scent and worth every penny: I have gotten endless pleasure from those two bottles.

Fumerie Turque means "Turkish smoking-room", and unlike last week's Le Tabac, which was mostly just a pouchful of cherry tobacco, Fumerie Turque is the story of what happens when a roomful of men are smoking it. It smells not only of tobacco but of its pungent smoke; of dried fruit and of honey-and-rosewater baklava for snacking; of leather upholstery; of good clean sweat. Later on, hours and hours later, most of the smoke has drifted away, the men have left their hookah den, and Fumerie Turque smells mostly of the honey in Miel de Bois, which to my mind is an awfully good thing to smell like.

If you would like to read a completely contradictory review, you ought to head over to Kafkaesque, whose writer is one of those people who can fractionate a scent down to its precise elements and timings (I can't) and who loathes Fumerie Turque as much as I love it. And maybe you'll hate it as much as he does; it's not accessible and loveable, that's for sure. But it is astonishing and complex and wondrous, and that is good enough for me.

* And, in fact, this is not far from being the case with the Spanish sculptor Miguel Berrocal, who produced a number of sculptures — some small enough to be worn on a chain around your neck — which were also fiendishly difficult puzzles, such as the Goliath sculpture seen here.

You see that fig leaf covering his groin? Deep inside the piece as two of its puzzles elements are buried two sets of genitalia, one circumcised and the other not, and you can assemble the sculpture (which comes with an instruction book — these puzzles are difficult) with any of the three options showing and the other two tucked away. To the best of my knowledge, none of Berrocal’s pieces ever sold for three hundred grand (and a few of them are available on eBay for between $600 and $16,500), but the principle is the same: relatively rare artwork that doubles as something else, intended for a small coterie of knowledgeable collectors.

** In truth, I didn't know at the time that Fumerie Turque was also available in the 50-mL spray bottle: it I had, I would have bought it in that format, because I like spray bottles and also because I can't quite imagine emptying a 50-mL bottle as it is and  I'll definitely never use up 75 mL of anything. Mais je ne regrette rien. Every Lutens enthusiast should have one of these gorgeous, gorgeous bottles.

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Friday, November 08, 2013

Hot Stuff: Le Tabac by l'Antichambre

If you’ve ever seen one of those packs of runners leaving from or arriving at a Running Room on a Sunday morning, you may have had the same thought as I often have: these people aren’t running because it’s healthy, they’re running because they get to shop for shoes and those stupid jackets with the ass-covering back hem and the belts that hold all the tiny bottles of hydration — because they get to buy all the stuff.

I love stuff. My apartment has lots of it. In fact, that’s why I don’t go out unless I have to: because  in is where all my stuff is. If I lived in a building with a gym and a supermarket and could work from home, I’d never leave at all. So I don’t have anything against stuff: I just think people should be honest about why they do things. Most men who have a workshop in their garage have it not because they actually make anything, but because they want to be able to buy all the stuff on the assumption that some day they are in fact going to make things. A lot of women who love being women just get off on the fact that they get to have all this stuff, the clothes and the shoes and the makeup — girl stuff.

My father was a pipe-smoker (actually, an omni-smoker who counted pipes among his arsenal), and I think part of the appeal of the pipe is that there’s a lot of stuff. Cigarette smokers get a nice lighter if they want, and maybe a cigarette case, which can seem a bit pretentious if you don’t play it right, but that’s it (unless you use a cigarette holder, and good luck pulling that off). Cigar smokers get humidors and cutters. But pipe smokers get the whole shebang: pipe racks, cleaning tools, special ashtrays, tobacco-pouches and jars, various cultivars and flavours of tobacco, and of course the pipes themselves, of which a dedicated smoker could easily have a dozen or more.

The prize for all this is that pipe tobacco smells spectacular*. Cigarettes smell pretty horrible, thin and acrid and ashy. Cigars can be and usually are famously rank. But pipe tobacco smells gorgeous: in its unlit state rich and full, earthy, with a hint of sharpness; when burning, thick and lush, like incense that gives you a buzz. And perfume aficionados may appreciate that it comes in dozens of scents, too: apple and cherry, vanilla and maple, whiskey and rum.

When a while back I discovered that I had a whole bag of Luckyscent samples from a Dutch company called L’antimatiere (“Antimatter”), I was surprised and kind of thrilled: then this week when I realized I was going to have to wear and think about and describe these samples, I was brought down a little. Or a lot: I thought, “Oh, god. More of the same.” So I decided to stack the deck in my own favour and pick the one out of the twelve that was most likely the please me: Le Tabac, which is to say “Tobacco”.

I am a sucker for tobacco scents. A complete pushover. An easy lay. When I smelled Le Tabac, I was instantly and completely seduced. It's a glorious amalgam of brandied baked apples and cherry tobacco, and it lasts for hours and hours.

The problem, and such a minor problem it is: Le Tabac is far too simple. Tobacco is a pretty complex scent all on its own, but Le Tabac doesn't develop at all, just the baked apples for a while and then cherry tobacco for hour after hour. Still, if that is what you want to smell like — and there are in all honesty not that many things than which that is better to smell like — then Le Tabac, currently $185 for a 50-mL spray perfume at Luckyscent, is absolutely worth owning.

The Antichambre website, though, is kind of a dog: it doesn’t really tell you anything you need to know, just the address (in Belgium) and the hours of operation — no product listing, no online shop, nothing. Apparently they want you to visit their store, and if you don’t live near it, you’re out of luck. In this day and age, why would anyone have such a useless, nothing-y website? Don’t they want to sell more stuff?

*On the other hand, the penalty for all this smoking is that you may, as my father did, suffer a stroke and develop oral cancer, which is why I prefer to take my tobacco in the form of perfumes.


Friday, November 01, 2013

Night Life: Balenciaga Le Dix (vintage)(ish)

Despite my seemingly never-ending complaints about the ubiquitous fruity floral, the dominant mode of perfumery for the past decade and more, I don’t hate them. Some of them are acceptable, even pleasant, and I occasionally enjoy walking past the nearly impenetrable wall of fruity-floral-gourmand stink that radiates from the local mall's Bath and Body Works. What I object to is these twinned facts: 1) the fruity floral is essentially all there is in mainstream women’s perfumery any more, and 2) they all smell pretty much identical.

While I was wearing Balenciaga’s 1947 Le Dix so I could think about it and write about it, a dreadful question occurred to me: these young women, raised to believe that the fruity floral is the only scent in existence — will they wear in ten years’ time when they go out in the evening? Because Le Dix is the very quintessence of the sophisticated women’s evening scent: it’s the sort of thing that, if you are older than thirty, you remember your mom putting on when she was dressing up for a special night out at a restaurant or the theatre. She wouldn’t wear it every day, or any day: she would save it for a special occasion, and the last thing you would remember before falling asleep was her wafting into your room on a cloud of perfume to kiss you good-night.

A scent like that was something that girls aspired to: they might wear Jean Naté and Avon in their teens, but when they were grown up, they were by god going to wear some proper French perfume when they went out. But now: what do they have to aspire to? Even the great French lines have been dumbed down, and graduating from the latest celebuscent to the latest Lancôme or Guerlain is frankly not much of an advancement: there is not much distance between Lady Gaga and La Vie est Belle.

You can’t just stumble across a sophisticated evening scent in a department store or a drugstore as you once could: you can’t even find one if you’re hunting for it, because it no longer exists in those milieux. The only solution is to delve deeply into either vintage perfumery or niche scents, and how many people have the know-how and the determination and the nerve and the money to do that? (I mean, besides anybody reading this.)

It’s worth doing, of course, because the fact is that a really great scent —and I mean “great” in the sense of “world-class”, not the debased sense of “fun” — makes you better than you otherwise would be. A great scent confers some measure of its greatness upon you. It makes you stand straighter, it gives you confidence, it allows you to enjoy life more and in turn bring more pleasure to others. Le Dix is exactly the sort of perfume that does this: it’s world-class, all right. It smells of old-fashioned sophistication; it make you you, only better.

As usual, this is the point at which I need to say that the bottle I have, which is perhaps twenty years old, presumably doesn’t smell quite like Le Dix did upon its launch, and assuredly doesn’t smell like whatever it was transmogrified into before it was discontinued: the online discounters uniformly describe the last iteration as “watery florals with woodsy balsamic notes”, and if you don’t have some vintage Le Dix at hand, trust me that “watery florals” couldn’t be farther from the truth.

If you wanted to boil it down to its essence, you could describe Le Dix as “violets and vanilla”, which is rather like describing a Seurat as “dots of colour”: it tells you something about it while telling you nothing useful. Le Dix starts life as a joyous cloud of lemony aldehydes which parts to reveal dark-purple violets garlanded with roses and (I think) a touch of lilac. If a flower has a personality, if carnations are vicious and ylang is seductively tropical, then violet is dreamy, and Le Dix, with its overdose of violets, has that time-stopping dreaminess about it: the only thing keeping it from lulling you into an opiate stupor is the thorniness of the roses and a bright shard of vetiver. Eventually a swell of vanilla adds to the plushness and powderiness of the violets, and a big smudge of dirty-sexy musk — proper musk, not that clean-white musk that's in everything today — grounds the scent in the real world.

And that’s just the nineties-era eau de toilette: I can only imagine what it was in its day, and I actually can’t even imagine the 1947-era parfum. I bet that was a real world-beater.

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Friday, October 25, 2013

Pot Luck: Four Solid Perfumes by Pacifica

Five and one third years ago I talked about the Lush solid fragrance Potion, or more specifically my own tin of it, which said on the bottom

Made on 15 OCT 07
Use by 15 DEC 08

I promised to notify you all if something inexplicable or disastrous happened on 16 DEC 08, and I need hardly tell you that nothing did. Eventually something milder did occur: I mislaid my little tin of Potion.

Until yesterday, anyway, when, cleaning up, I discovered it again (it was in a box of papers, an object not in short supply in this household). I am pleased to report that it is exactly as I left it: powerfully fragrant, richly carnationy, and as unyielding in texture as a marble countertop.

I don’t love solid perfumes, but they do have their upsides: they’re portable with no chance of spillage and you can apply a very tiny amount without any risk of offence. The main downside is that they are as a rule uncomplicated things: the waxy matrix that holds the scent has a way of damping a lot of the notes, so a solid version of even a complex composed scent is going to be simpler than the alcohol-based version.

Still, maybe you want something uncomplicated, and you could do a lot worse than to check out the Pacifica line, which has at last count 23 solid fragrances. I tried out a bunch of them — maybe ten? — at Asakichi in San Francisco last month, and they were a mixed bag indeed: some of them were kind of awful (Mediterranean Fig) and some that I assumed would be naturals for me just didn’t work (Mexican Cocoa and Spanish Amber). I ended up buying four, three of which were exactly as their names imply and one of which was just a fraud, but this is what happens when you buy a perfume without putting it on your skin and letting it breathe for a while.

Island Vanilla is a warm rich patisserie vanilla; that’s just about all that can be said about it, and that’s plenty. Unless you demand that your vanilla be something besides gourmand, it's an excellent all-purpose vanilla scent.

Indian Coconut Nectar is coconut buttercream frosting and it smells just delicious. The tin says, “ A warm blend of sultry fresh Coconut, delicate Vanilla and creamy Vetiver,” which leads me to wonder if the copy-writer has actually ever smelled vetiver, which is the opposite of creamy in every possible way: if that was the list of adjectives they had at hand, surely they meant “ delicately sultry Coconut, creamy Vanilla, and fresh Vetiver.”

Persian Rose is very rosy, which means it has some of that contained fury, that thorniness, that roses proudly bear. The tin promises “notes of violet, myrrh, oakmoss and cardamom,” and there’s a spicy note so I’ll buy the cardamom, sure, but I don’t notice the other notes: this is all roses, all the time, and it works perfectly.

I bought the tins expecting to be able to mix the scents, and sure enough, the three of these worn simultaneously are very, very attractive, the vanilla trimming the thorns off the rose and the coconut adding a splash of heat-wave sunshine.

The fourth that I bought, Tuscan Blood Orange, is nothing like what you would expect, and the only explanation I have for having bought it is that my nose was completely fatigued at that point and I somehow didn’t notice that while it does have a cheery citrus top, it smells mostly of bright, synthetic raspberry, of the sort you encounter in candy aimed at the younger market. It’s actually rather horrible, to my nose, and I guess I’ll have to find someone to palm it off on.

Pacifica solids are somewhat creamy and nowhere near as stiff as the Lush solids, especially if you swirl your fingertip around on the surface a little and let your body heat melt the wax a little: they’re solid, but they’ll take a fingerprint with no pressure at all. (Lush is largely Japan wax, which comes from sumac trees and is used as a substitute for beeswax, which it strongly resembles: Pacifica uses coconut oil and soy wax.) As you can see from the pictures, they come in tiny metal tins (a third of an ounce per) with rolled edges (the top of the Lush tin has a surprisingly sharp and potentially dangerous unrolled edge) packed in nice little cardboard boxes with slide-out drawers, probably great for storing little objects in (although I jettisoned mine).

I paid $8 each and with the exception of the fake raspberry orange, I got my money’s worth. These go everywhere with me, and if I’m feeling a little underscented or under the weather, well, what did that advertising line say — “A little dab’ll do ya”?

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Friday, October 18, 2013

Free Association: Cocoa Tamarind by Voluspa (eventually)

Have you seen "Gravity" yet? I saw it last Thursday, and it haunted me so much that I went to see it again on Saturday. You really need to see it, on the biggest screen possible and preferably in 3-D.* It's virtuoso filmmaking, terrifying and exhilarating. I figure the only excuse to not see it is: if you are inconsolably horrified by the idea of being stranded in the middle of an infinite ocean, like Pip the cabin boy in "Moby-Dick" or the two hapless tourists in "Open Water", then you had probably better avoid this movie, because bobbing around untethered in the ocean is peanuts compared to bobbing around untethered in the universe**. Otherwise, just go. Trust me.

Speaking of attempting to heave yourself off the surface of the Earth for a while, have you seen this clip from the British show "Airline"?


I feel kind of bad about laughing at her, but the way that fretful voice just keeps ratcheting upwards until it's in dog-whistle territory is hilarious. And her excuse just doesn't hold water: she thought the flight was later than it turned out to be and her cab was twenty minutes late. I don't care. If making the flight was as important as she claimed, then she should have planned to be at the airport at least two hours early. I can't work up any sympathy for people who miss flights due to their own negligence. Jim and I always plan to be at the airport at least ninety minutes before departure time, and for international flights, two to three hours: neither of us has ever missed a flight***. If you're a busy person and there's work to be done, you can do it at the airport: who nowadays doesn't have a portable computer of some sort, and what decent airport doesn't have wireless Internet?

Speaking of people missing their flights, one of the things you are likely to hear at an airport, particularly if you are there a couple of hours before your flight, as we were at the San Francisco airport when heading back to Canada last month, is final-boarding-call announcements requesting that one or more passengers head to gate whatever. And then five minutes later, another final boarding call for those same passengers. And then another. So: the first two were not really that final, were they? But how rude of those passengers to wander off to the bar or whatever and hold up the flight for everyone else.

Speaking of public-address-system announcements at the San Francisco airport, I swear to you I heard the following call over the PA: "Norma Stitz**** to the courtesy desk, please. Norma Stitz to the courtesy desk." I told Jim, who hadn't heard it but immediately got that it was a prank (whether played on or by the announcer I have no idea): a few minutes later, the same announcement was made (Jim heard it this time), and then again, and then a fourth time. I don't know what kind of nerve it takes to go up to some innocent airline employee and ask them to page Norma Stitz or Robin Banks or Phil McCracken, but I do know that I don't have it.

Speaking of misleading names in San Francisco, I went to a tiny, tiny incense shop in Japantown called Asakichi where I sampled a bunch of Voluspa scents in their slender one-ounce bottles and ended up buying one called Cocoa Tamarind. Now, with a name like that, you are going to be thinking that it smells like, oh, cocoa and tamarinds? And it does, a bit, at first: it's all top-loaded so if you smell it in the store, you think you're getting a delicious chocolate-orange scent with a bit of exotic fruit thrown in. Bait and switch! After ten minutes of this, it starts to shift, becoming interestingly musty, which chocolate scents can sometimes do, and then all of a sudden it turns into a full-blown gardenia scent. Just bang, just like that.

I am not necessarily opposed to a gardenia scent: vintage Cartier Panthère is a dark oriental awash in gardenia and it's pretty amazing. But this is a gardenia pretending to be something else long enough to trick someone (i.e. me) into buying it, and that seems kind of low.

Still, having said that, I should note that I've been wearing it for the last four days, around the house, to the gym, and to work, and it is really something. It's not a pretty white floral: the gardenia is ripe and complicated, with a mushroomy-dirty facet and a cheesy undertone. No doubt this is going to sound (and smell) vile to some people, but it's fascinating; not everything has to be beautiful (although the base is a lovely, if generic, vanilla-scented musk). Cocoa Tamarind is not what I thought I was getting, but I'm glad I got it.

* Even if you're the kind of person easily moved to vertigo and nausea by spinning cameras and the lack of a frame of reference, you can make it through this movie: Jim did, and as a rule he gets queasy very quickly when the camera is unmoored and whipping around. (He says he avoided nausea during such scenes, which aren't that numerous, by focusing on whatever wasn't moving, such as the Earth in the background.) Such things never trouble me: I find the jitter-cam moviemaking style to be annoying but not vomitous, and I love roller coasters.

**Although in fact that is exactly what we are. We wander around under the comfortable delusion that we are more or less fixed in place, but in reality we are gravitationally pinioned to the surface of a small silicon-dioxide spaceship hurtling endlessly through an inconceivably vast universe. Really, it's best just not to think about it too much.

***I did come close once when the bus I was on broke down completely on the way to the Pearson Airport in Toronto. Luckily, the company eventually sent a replacement bus and I got to the airport with minutes to spare, back in the days when going through security wasn't a half-hour undertaking.

****I suppose I should point out without posting any pictures — it's the Internet, you can look them up for yourself — that there is a lady named Annie Hawkins-Turner who goes by that alias for photographic purposes: she is in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the largest natural breasts in the world and she seems like a very nice person, judging from her interviews. The fact that she exists makes it just barely possible that she was in the airport at the same time we were, but I think the prank call is a more likely bet.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Carried Away: Encens Lavande by Compagnie de Provence

Not that you could tell from my until-now-punctual postings, but I have been away for a few weeks. What follows is part travelogue, part what-we-bought, and part exhortation for you to buy some stuff, too. In a complete reversal of the way I usually do these things, I'm going to start with the review, so if you like, you can just read that and ignore the rest rather than having to scroll all the way to the end. You're welcome.


One of the things I bought on the trip was a bottle of Encens Lavande (Incense Lavender) edt by Compagnie de Provence. They make two other scents, Jasmin Noir and Anis Patchouli, both of which I found not to my taste at all (I thought they were kind of gross, to be honest), but Encens Lavande is very me.

Serge Lutens makes an Encens et Lavande, one of the Exclusive scents that you can buy in Paris and hardly anywhere else in the world: I tried it in a somewhat evaporated and therefore likely compromised state, and even then I liked it very much, but it is not better than the far less expensive Compagnie de Provence version.

Encens Lavande opens with a little sparkle of citrus notes and an expansive, soapy lavender, burning down into sweet sandalwood incense. And that is really just about it. What makes it wonderful is its strangely polymorphic personality: while staying true to itself, it seems to keep presenting facets that are by turns sudsy, gourmand, thick, attenuated, herbal, dry, hazy, and dense. It's a kaleidoscope of scents packed into a very small olfactory space. It reads as masculine — a barbershop in a Buddhist temple — but obviously that is not going to stop women from snagging it, too.

I paid $69 Canadian for a 100-mL bottle, and for niche that's a bargain, but you can probably do even better if you shop around: I saw the line in the US for I think $46, and online it's €25 or so.


This time last year we were getting ready to head off to Tokyo: it was our twenty-fifth anniversary, and I chose the destination, so this year, my fiftieth birthday, I said to Jim, "You get to choose this time. Anywhere you've ever wanted to go." And after a day's mulling, keeping in mind the cost and the time restrictions we were working with, Jim said, "San Francisco." And so it was.

Big cities like London, New York, and Tokyo are — if you love big cities — immediate: they grab you by the throat and force you to experience them head-on. You don't really have a choice. San Francisco, on the other hand (and compared to those), underwhelmed us at first, but after a couple of days we began to understand that instead of seizing you, it took you by the hand and gently guided you into its mysteries. By the end of the first week, we said the same thing we have said of any number of cities: "Yeah, given enough money, I could live here."

We did all the usual touristy stuff: Alcatraz (self-guided audio tour, very cool), riding the cable cars (UNBELIEVABLY cool), the California Academy of Science and Golden Gate Park and the Aquarium and Fisherman's Wharf and The Castro. And we just walked around and drank it all in. The weather was nearly flawless, only a few hours of rain one morning.

We walked a lot. Most of San Francisco is uphill from wherever you happen to find yourself, and people who think Halifax is a hilly city are in for a bit of a shock at just how diagonal SF is. I think if you lived there and walked everywhere, you would develop a terrific lower body, because just getting from A to B is a workout. Jim actually lost weight on the trip, despite the fact that we were eating kind of a lot: they are very proud of their sourdough bread and you are not going to get out of the city without having some, perhaps repeatedly. (I maintained the status quo, weightwise.)

The Golden Gate Bridge, though, is, I am sorry to say, a massive disappointment: yes, it photographs well, and yes, it was a marvel in its time, and yes, I expect this is heresy, but as an object it is a very dull thing. We took a bus across and walked back, as we like to do, and it was drudgery: even the vaunted view of the city didn't lift our spirits. The Brooklyn Bridge is glorious: crossing it is like walking through an enormous cathedral. The Millennium Footbridge in London is a magical piece of pontine architecture, like walking along a giant spiderweb. The Golden Gate, on the other hand, is just a bridge. If you're going to do a tour of Bridges of the World, I would honestly have to suggest you skip that one.


And now, the shopping.

If you don't knit or otherwise work with spun fibres you can also just skip the next bit, which is going to go on, but I can't help it: there is a place in San Francisco called Artfibers (for the time being 266 Sutter Street, 3rd floor, mere blocks from our hotel, although they're closing up shop in January and selling only via the Internet) which has the most astonishing yarns, and you are doing yourself a disservice if you don't visit them in person (if possible) or go to their website (of course that's possible — you're on the Internet).

Like most retail in SF — we didn't understand this at all — it opens at 11 a.m. instead of the usual-in-Canada 9 or 10, and what you will find when you walk in at or after that late hour is a huge, airy loft illuminated by a wall of windows (it may not surprise you to learn that San Francisco has a lot of natural light) and what seems like a mile of slanted display shelves bearing hundreds upon hundreds of knit swatches that you can fondle, arranged by weight, lace-fine to rope-bulky, atop bins of thousands of cones of irresistible yarns.

The yarns are sold by the yard (they're wound onto heavy cardboard cones), and non-yarn people may not recognize just how amazing this is: it's as if perfumes were sold by the millilitre, and you could just have as much or as little as you wanted in serviceable little bottles instead of having to buy a whole 100-mL flask of something. The prices are beyond reasonable: everything's on sale right now, with some yarns going for as little as 3 cents a yard, and $3 for a hundred-yard skein is no more than you'd pay for many craft-store yarns. But these are nothing like what you'd find in a craft store.

They have a yarn, Man Ray, that is 30% stainless steel: objects knitted with it have a weight and a slinkiness that you have never experienced before. They have yarns made of nylon paper, of silk ribbon, of recycled jeans. They have chainettes, bouclés, slubs, vrillées, and everything else you can imagine and some things you can't.

In the end I bought eight cones of yarn, all between 200 and 300+ yards, and all in a fine weight suitable to make gloves, because I love to knit gloves for myself: I have about fifteen pairs and in the next six months I expect I am going to have six or eight more. And would you like to know what yarns I bought? Go on, say yes.

The number-one find was Shush #4 (smoke grey: the colours are numbered rather than named), a blend of mohair and Lycra, and you glove-knitters, just order some for the love of god. Stretch mohair! And super-stretchy at that! It is going to make some soft, comfortable, warm gloves that fit like gloves ought to. It'll be awesome. Knit double, this yarn would also make a pretty spectacular hat, because it would fit so snugly and it would be so warm.

Yaqui #5 (inky greens, blues and purples) is yak down; Camuse #3 (coloured like the Yaqui only brighter) is camel hair and cashmere; Carezza #1 (blue-black) is merino/alpaca/silk and OH MY GOD PEOPLE SO SOFT. And, let's see: granite-coloured Peruse #8 is half alpaca, half cotton (what? really?); ink-black Tsuki #9 is mohair and silk (luxury, and I am going to knit it so tightly); sapphire-blue Sylph #7 is silk and mohair (the same thing with the emphases reversed, nearly triple the weight of the Tsuki for the same yardage, and SO SQUISHY); and Tantra is 100% silk (probably nothing but trouble when it comes to gloves, but the green-and-ochre colour, #13, seduced me).

Nobody is paying me to say that Artfibers is pure fibre bliss, just the most sublime, gorgeous, wonderful yarns, and you need to check them out right away: even if you don't knit, maybe this will make a knitter out of you, and if it doesn't, find a grandmother or a co-worker to make something for you. These yarns will make you so happy.


Jim needed some heavy felt for a project, so we went to Britex Fabrics one day, and HOLY COW. I don't sew and I don't have any real interest in learning how, to be honest, but if I did, I would probably spend all my available time and money there. THE LAST THING I NEED.

Jim and I both like to write things down, and if you're going to do that in any kind of style, you need the right pen and ink and paper. If you are completely out of control, then you need a lot of inks (every colour tells its own story) and pens (one per ink, ideally) and papers, and as a consequence, we are both very fond of stationery stores, of which San Francisco has a few. Flax Art and Design is a massive art-supply store with a lovely selection of pens and inks: the young woman who served us both times we were there works only in that section, which means selling people pens and inks is her job, and can I just say that it sounds like a dream job to me? Jim is very, very particular about his writing instruments: one of our quests in Tokyo last year was to find the perfect ball-point pen, and it took almost the entire two-week trip but we did find it, the Pure Malt pen

made of wood from decommissioned whiskey casks (yes, really). Earlier this year I found the matching mechanical pencil online, so he has that, too. The only thing he didn't have was the perfect fountain pen, but we found that at Flax: the Faber Castell Basic Carbon

which is made partly of carbon fibre and looks like a tactical weapon. I can hardly exaggerate how excellent this pen is: perfectly balanced, weighty, smooth-writing. If he hadn't bought it, I would have.

And Maido is a small chain that specializes in Japanese stationery items, of the kind we saw all over the place in Tokyo. Still an essential visit.


After San Francisco we spent a few days in Montréal, and uh-oh: STATIONERY STORES. One in particular: Nota Bene (3416 Parc Avenue). Their website is a travesty which doesn't do them justice; I thought they might be the kind of "stationery store" that mostly does greeting cards and scrapbooking paper, but they carry hundreds upon hundreds of different kinds of journals and notebooks, in addition to terrific inks and pens and so much more. A pen store called Stylo has many, many pens and inks, and I would be embarrassed to tell you how many of each I bought there, or on the trip as a whole, so I won't (except to say that among other things I got some awesome, inexpensive Noodler's flex-nib pens

and plenty of Herbin ink cartridges);

a small chain called Essence du Papier is likewise well-stocked with everything a diarist could need, and they got some of our business, too.

The fragrance department at The Bay on St. Catherine Street is kind of astonishing. In SF I went to Macy's and Nordstrom and Bloomingdale's, and I was so bored by the fragrance departments I could hardly stand it. The Bay, on the other hand, has a department the size of any two of those put together: it is massive, and the scope and scale are very exciting.

Nevertheless, I didn't buy anything at The Bay because in the end it's mostly mass-market stuff, very little niche, and what niche there is not that interesting, to my mind. But I naturally ended up at Ogilvy, because they sell Serge Lutens; they don't have a huge selection, but it's a good thing I don't go to Montréal that often, because I can hardly ever walk out of Ogilvy without getting something Lutens, which is exactly what happened.

Among the dozen or so things I sniffed was Serge Noire, which I have already reviewed, and not in the most positive way. But here's the thing: Lutens himself has revealed the dirty secret of the perfume industry, that scents are reformulated on a regular basis, his own not excepted, and I am quite, quite certain that the Serge Noire of five years ago is not the Serge Noire that I bought a couple of weeks ago. When I smelled it at Ogilvy, I was struck by its leatheriness, something I didn't detect before. It still has that incense brutality and that Lutens sidewaysness, but now it's much more interesting than I once found it. I find Cuir Mauresque kind of boring, but Serge Noire is now a terrific, manly kind of leather scent that I am happy to own.


We took the train back home from Montréal, because I love train travel and it is becoming increasingly likely that we will never be able to do this again: train service in Canada has long been a tricky proposition because, unlike the spiderweb hubs of the UK, Canada is mostly stretched out in a straight line (a very long straight line), and with flight being so comparatively fast and airfares becoming ever cheaper, train service is ever more cut back.

We had supper before we boarded but ate breakfast on the train: the breakfast consisted of orange juice, toast, an "omelet" which was really a block of cooked eggs studded with what might have been red and green peppers, a heap of leaky salsa, some undercooked potato chunks, and two slices of dry bacon, the whole of it unseasoned and flavourless, every bit as tempting and nuanced as a ream of typing paper. "Airline food," Jim sniffed, but he was wrong: it was worse than any airline food I can imagine — by far the worst meal I have ever eaten in a vehicle. I don't expect a four-star meal on a train but surely they can come up with something better than this wreckage.

However. The train car we were in was apparently a European model with ten double bedrooms, and each one has its own shower. The bathroom is tiny, no larger than an airplane's lavatory, and when you shower, everything gets wet and you have to towel off the walls and the floor before you can use the other facilities and even then it's all still kind of damp. But still, you get to have a shower before reaching your destination so you arrive all clean and fresh and happy, and how cool is that?


In between San Francisco and Montréal we stopped off in Toronto, and we managed to avoid buying any pens, ink, and paper, thank god, but I did find myself at a skincare-and-fragrance store called Jacob and Sebastian, and I was not going to buy anything, but dammit, I did anyway. Two things, actually.

One was a tube of Marvis toothpaste in Amarelli Licorice, and yes, $11 is a ridiculous price to pay for a 75-mL tube of toothpaste, even if it is imported from Italy, but two things: 1) it is so yummy you could eat it with a spoon, and 2) you need only a tiny little pea-sized squib to get your teeth shiny and fresh. I may never use any other, although they do make some other intriguing flavours, such as Cinnamon, Ginger, and Jasmine, and I will probably end up trying those some day. If they made a Rose toothpaste I would be lost.

The other thing was the Encens Lavande, which brings us back to the beginning.

And now we are home and I am SO not buying anything else for a long time: we have to pay off this trip and start saving for the next one, wherever and whenever that might be.

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Friday, September 27, 2013

Dirty Mind: Archives 69 by Etat Libre d'Orange

Naturally, you are supposed to think of sex when you hear the name of Etat Libre d'Orange's 2011 launch "Archives 69". And then you are supposed to feel abashed when you learn that you, filthy beast, jumped to conclusions, because it's actually (supposedly) a reference to their address in Paris, 69 Rue des Archives. But in a classic case of having their cake and simultaneously eating it too, the logo for the scent is in fact three people engaged in mutual oral sex*.

Are people that easily shocked these days? Are we really meant to find any of this scandalous? Or am I just jaded?

Never mind. Archives 69 isn't about oral sex, or archives, or a building in Paris, or even the year 1969. What it's really all about, for some reason, is good clean fun.

The top is a bright, fizzy soda-pop burst of citrusy aldehyde with a leaf-green overtone that suggests candy spearmint leaves. (No aldehydes in the official list of notes, which run "Mandarin, pink pepper, pimiento leaf, orchid, prune, incense, camphor, benzoin, patchouli, musk": but since the intro feels like a softer version of Clinique Wrappings they're in there, all right.) The middle is a sweetened, slightly fruit-flavoured version of the relentlessly dry orchid from YSL Nu, but not enough to bring Archives 69 into the dreaded fruity-floral category; despite the candy-coated top, this has nothing of the teenaged girl about it. The base is pleasantly musky and close to the skin.

Archives 69 doesn't read as sexy: it's much too cheerful for that. It's all about having a good time, though, and I guess the kind of fun you're having (and how many people you're having it with) is up to you.

*Not so much 69, then, as 103.5.


Friday, September 20, 2013

Bad Attitude: Afternoon of a Faun by Etat Libre d'Orange

I have an unfortunate suspicion that if Afternoon of a Faun been launched (under another name, with other packaging) by a department-store brand, although it isn't nearly mainstream enough for that, it would have been ignored, or written off as merely weird: but because it was launched by niche brand Etat Libre d'Orange, it is going to be given more consideration, and perhaps held in higher regard, than it ought to be. Because make no mistake: it is weird, and not in a good way. It's not even weird for the sake of weirdness. It's just bad.

Obviously nobody sets out to compose a bad scent. Sometimes they just turn out that way.

Badness is to an extent subjective, of course. Last night on Netflix I watched "The Emperor's New Groove", a movie I must have seen at least a dozen times by now and one which does not grow old, a dazzlingly funny animated Disney flick which broke out of the Disney mold by having only one song and by being gloriously anarchic and meta: it works at an adult level at least as well as it does on a slapsticky kids' level. If you don't like David Spade or animation or comedies, I can get that you wouldn't like this, but that isn't enough to make it bad — just not to your taste. But some of the Netflix reviews were extraordinarily negative: I can't understand how anyone can call it a bad movie, and yet some people do.

The perception of quality, the various rankings of good and bad, is affected by a host of intangibles and biases, and in the world of luxury goods, of which perfume is one, the most interesting is price. People, whether consciously or not (usually not), tend to think that, all other things being equal, the more something costs, the better it is, but for that to work you have to know that it's pricier, which is why even during the Depression, the tagline "The costliest perfume in the world" helped ensure the success of Patou's Joy.

You can't even help this: it's exceedingly hard to overcome this tendency to affix expectations to objects. You think that expensive wine tastes better than cheap wine, and if you unknowingly drink cheap wine which has been transferred to an expensive bottle, you are very likely to give it a higher rating than expensive wine poured from a cheap bottle.

And all of this is my roundabout way of saying that The Afternoon of a Faun ("Bergamot, pepper, cinnamon, incense, rose, immortal flower, orris, jasmine, myrrh of Namibia, moss, leather, benzoin") is, I am afraid, cheap wine in an expensive bottle: a spindly peppered floral, all angles and points, not in an interesting or appealing way but more like stepping on a jumble of Lego blocks (or, I guess, jamming them up your nose). Neither beautiful nor fascinating, the only two raisons d'etre for a perfume, it is instead meaningless and incomprehensible, which is to say that it is bad.

I cheerfully concede that I could be wrong about this, that it isn't actually bad but just not my cup of tea. Entirely possible. I am not the arbiter of greatness. But it smells like badness to me.


Friday, September 13, 2013

Good God: Fils de Dieu by Etat Libre d'Orange

Last week I mentioned that I was putting a hold on ordering any new samples because I already have a bunch and because scents launched in big batches — which they all seem to be these days, on the theory that it's just as cheap to produce and launch four or thirteen as it is to launch one — tended not to be very good on the whole. A few days ago I discovered to my astonishment and borderline horror that I had not only done just that a while ago, I had completely forgotten about it, and so I have not only five more Etat Libre d'Orange samples I didn't even know about, I also have a round dozen samples by a company called L'Antichambre, which I must have ordered because many of them sound extremely delicious and you can never have enough gourmands. But I'm leaving the L'Antichambres in their little muslin bag and working through the Etats for the next few weeks, if you don't mind.

Etat scents tend to have perverse or misleading names, the better to shock and confuse you with. Nombril Immense smells mostly of patchouli: Like This smells like pumpkin soup. Even the apparently straight-ahead names don't necessarily take you where you think you're going to go. Divin'Enfant
does in fact smell like a rosewater candy and baby powder at first, but then it takes a sharp turn into adulthood by bringing in aromas of tobacco, leather, and coffee.
Long story short, Fils de Dieu du Riz et des Agrumes ("Son of the god of rice and citrus") smells just like what you think it ought to smell like: sharp, crystalline citrus on top of thick, creamy rice pudding, which you are eating a field of flowers on a sunny day while wearing a brown leather jacket. It is gorgeous, mesmerizing stuff, the perfect example of what Etat does best.

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