One Thousand Scents

Friday, July 28, 2006

Light Rain: Guerlain Apres L'Ondée

When I look back on my childhood I realize that all my life I've been obsessed with the smell (and tangentially with the taste) of things. I wasn't devious enough to hide it well, but even so I knew as a child that this was something forbidden to me: back then, boys just didn't take an interest in scents. Times may have changed: there are now fragrances for teenaged boys and even those younger than that. But I'd be very surprised if things have changed enough that boys are allowed to love scents unreservedly, to get as much pleasure from their noses as they choose. The scents that teenaged boys are permitted to wear have one advertised goal, to snare every woman within a three-block radius; boys aren't allowed to wear scents just because they're pleasurable, and I don't doubt that any boys or young men who try that, even to this day, are looked at askance.

One of the things I loved the smell and taste of was French pastilles, which are tiny hard candies in small metal tins. It was pretty clear that the French knew things about candy-making that North Americans didn't, and I always had a tin of La Vosgiennes candy around somewhere. Then at perhaps the age of 11 or 12 I discovered Flavigny pastilles, compared to which La Vosgiennes, nice as they were and still are, were lumps of coal. Flavigny made a coffee pastille which was irresistible, and even better were the intensely scented anise pastilles; this may be what triggered my lifelong adoration for the smell and taste of anise, and led to my eternal search for the perfect licorice scent.

Eventually, in a fit of bravery, I bought a tin of Flavigny violet pastilles. It seemed like a strange idea, eating something made of flowers, but they were there, and just as nowadays I have to try every scent that comes along, I had to try all the flavours of these candies. (Now I see that they make flavours I hadn't heard of as a child: Jasmine! Rose! Vanilla!) There's still something odd about the idea of eating flowers, and as lovely as the scent of violets is, the taste of the pastilles was not something I was mad about. But I can still remember the fragrance when I opened the tin; sweet, giddy, dancing.

One hundred years ago, Guerlain launched a delicate floral scent called Apres L'Ondée ("after the rainshower"), and, astoundingly, it smells like Flavigny, in the best possible way.

The top note shimmers with the freshness of raindrops: a clear anise note is joined with indistinct citrus notes and orange-flower water, and it sparkles--glitters, almost. The body of the scent is violets and more violets. They're light and fresh, and just a little old-fashioned; there's a slightly vanillic sweetness to them, but it isn't overbearing or cloying. Over time, the scent darkens; the violets are joined and eventually overwhelmed by a dark, wooded iris.

I wish modern perfumers would take a page from the Guerlain notebook: you can achieve lightness, sparkle, spontaneity without having to drown everything in ozone.


Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Getting There: Escentric 01 by Escentric Molecules

In May I wrote about Molecule 01, which consists entirely of a molecule called Iso E Super. I wasn't in love with it: no development, just a sandalwood-like note which, while undeniably appealing, is too uninteresting for the price.

The companion scent, Escentric 01, is decidedly better, I'm pleased to discover. It's still primarily that one scent molecule, but it's been added to; constructed, like an actual scent. When I put my nose to my skin, my first reaction was, "Lemon pepper!" Pretty close; it's actually lime and pepper, and it adds a fresh zing that the scent desperately needs. The top note also contains that soapiness that I thought I detected in Molecule 01, so I'm guessing it's really there and not just my imagination or the smell of just-showered me.

The sandalwood note doesn't take long to emerge, but here it's joined by a thick orris-root note that adds complexity and nuance to the otherwise simplistic Iso E Super. (There's supposedly a balsamic incense note, as well, but I don't get it at all; maybe my nose isn't sufficiently finely tuned, or maybe it's drowned out by the other notes.) After that, it doesn't develop or change any more; it just stays on your skin, and stays and stays. There's something to be said, of course, for an attractive scent that lasts a long time, but there's a lot more to be said for an attractive scent that seems to have some real thought put into it.

If a scent is a painting, then Molecule 01 is a bucket of paint--in a lovely colour, mind you--thrown at a canvas, and Escentric 01 is that same splashed canvas with a few complementary colours dabbed on afterwards. I like Escentric 01, but I don't love it, and I can't see how it's worth what's they're charging; nothing about it, not even that vibrant bottle, makes me feel as if I need it, and that's a fatal flaw for a non-essential consumer good. Nevertheless, I'm looking forward to whatever else the company cooks up; they've apparently given us their first couple of experiments, and I want to see what they produce when they get really good at it.

Monday, July 24, 2006

The Full Twelve Rounds: Everlast Original 1910

It was briefly tempting to use a whole whack of boxing metaphors when talking about Everlast Original 1910, but I managed to resist the urge.

I can't even talk about the fragrance proper anyway, because I haven't tried it. I was ordering a bunch of things from Sephora and I decided on a whim to get the shower gel, mostly because I was captivated by the packaging; instead of a big tube or bottle, the 200 mL of shower gel is divided into 10 20-mL bottles in a clear plastic case, and the little bottles seemed like the perfect thing to toss into a gym bag. Unfortunately, the tops snap off and the bottles aren't resealable, so there goes the gym-bag idea. Still: great packaging! (As you can see from the above photo, the bottles nest together in the box; each has a deep indentation in the bottom into which the top of the bottle below it fits.) I'm a sucker for an attractive or inventive bottle.*

As we'd expect from a shower gel, what we mostly get are top notes; there's no time for subtlety, because most of it's getting washed down the drain in a matter of minutes if not seconds. The first thing that hits your skin as the product foams up--and it's very low-foam, no heaps of lather here--is an explosion (not too strong a word) of lemon and an exceedingly herbal lavender. Officially, there are other citrus notes in there (mandarin and grapefruit), but this is a very lemony scent. If you leave it on long enough, which I did just to see if it would develop, a mildly spicy note is added to the mix, which according to the official list of notes contains nutmeg and cinnamon.

As I've noted before, more expensive brands of shower gel leave more scent on your skin, and this one certainly does, enough that I don't feel the need to apply any kind of scent. Half an hour later I can smell a halo of that original herbal freshness plus a small but distinct woody patchouli note, which surprised me; it really does seem as if the entire fragrance has been duplicated, right down to the base notes. I love that, and now I'm curious about the scent itself, which I suppose I'll have to hunt down.

* The award for cleverest high-end shower-gel packaging ever, though, goes to Givenchy's Pi. II haven't seen it in a long time, but when the scent first came out, the line included a dehydrated shower gel in three foil pouches: you added warm water and sloshed it around to reactivate it. It was of a piece with the brand's original astronaut advertising and it was completely brilliant. Of course I bought it!

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Beyond the Sea: CSP Aqua Motu

A week and a half ago I got a sample of Comptoir Sud Pacifique's Aqua Motu. I hadn't ever tried it before and I wasn't particularly interested in the sample, because I knew what it was going to smell like: fresh, ozonic, aquatic, done-before, boring. This morning I was poking around in my cabinet looking for something I hadn't worn before and there it was, so I put on a couple of spritzes, and I am the first to admit when I've been wrong; it's gorgeous.

The first things that came to mind when I smelled it were Dior's Dune and Dune pour Homme, because they're all meant to evoke the same things: not water, but the beach itself. Neither of the Dior scents really works on me, though I love them both, or more accurately have a love/hate relationship with them both: Dune pour Homme is too sharp and cologney despite its felicities, and Dune has a sweetness that I find aggressive and out of place among the dry licheny sand.

Aqua Motu, though: that works on me, in spades. It's as if someone had taken the Dior scents and stripped them of everything extraneous, reduced them to the pure abstract idea of the seaside. It smells marine, but not that fraudulent ozonic-oceany smell that perfumers can't seem to get enough of nowadays; it smells instead of salt water and seaweed and the grasses and stunted little shrubs that grow above the waterline. There is a warmth to it--one of the notes listed is "warm sand"--and a bare suggestion of sweetness, but nothing cloying. It isn't a beach strewn with sun worshippers bathed in tanning oil: it's a brave, barren little Atlantic seacoast populated by mussels and seabirds. It suggests my childhood in Newfoundland, and now, dammit, I have to go and buy myself a bottle.


Monday, July 17, 2006

Summer Cold: L'Eau D'Issey Pour Homme

Fresh, wet scents don't usually work for me, but when I first smelled L'Eau D'Issey on a trip to Toronto in 1992, I was so amazed by it that I just bought it. It was almost purely floral, containing lotus, freesia, cyclamen, carnation, peony, and lily of the valley, but I couldn't resist its remarkable transparency and otherworldliness, and its startlingly minimal bottle, like the Platonic ideal of a lighthouse. Exactly the same thing happened a couple of years later; on first smelling L'Eau D'Issey Pour Homme, entranced by the scent and the bottle, a wedge-shaped monolith of frosted glass and brushed metal, I just bought the stuff.

Miyake is said to hate fragrance and to have asked the perfumers in both cases to make him something that smelled like water. Obviously, neither scent does; but they both achieve a fresh, watery effect without resorting to the ozonic fresh note that was already becoming overplayed in the 1990s and is now ubiquitous and worn out.

L'Eau D'Issey Pour Homme gets its freshness from, at first, a barrage of citrus notes (bergamot, tangerine, and lemon, plus the Japanese fruit called yuzu) and very lightly played herbal notes such as lemon verbena, tarragon, and coriander. It's an explosively fresh smell; it sparkles, like summer sunlight on water. The coolness gradually warms up as it's supplanted by spice notes--nutmeg and cinnamon, mostly--plus the floral notes of geranium and water lily, but the sharp edge remains from the top; it never really becomes a warm scent. Even the base, a soft, clingy haze of woods and ambergris, manages to retain a hint of sharpness from vetivert. It's not at all what I normally wear, but it's so intoxicating and so perfectly conceived that it wins me over every time. It's just like the first time I smelled it; I don't stand a chance.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Down the Gardenia Path

Yves Rocher likes to give away free stuff when you order by mail, which is why I have a bottle of tiaré shower gel in my arsenal of soaps and gels. (Tiaré is a member of the gardenia family of white flowers, strongly and exotically perfumed.)

High-end shower gels, the ones that are part of a fragrance line, tend to leave a scent on your skin; the less expensive ones as a rule are all throw and no follow-through, and Yves Rocher's shower gels are no exception. The aroma when you pour it out of the bottle and lather it up is dramatic; a hot white floral that conjures up memories of seventies suntan lotion, which all seemed to smell like tiaré and coconut in those days. No coconut in the Yves Rocher gel; it's just flowers and more flowers, hot and beachy. I couldn't imagine using this at the gym; it's not only too floral, it's too strong. But I used it at home this morning, with pleasure. The scent goes down the drain almost at the same time as the lather: it leaves the faintest trace of tropical warmth on your skin which is gone in half an hour, and you have to pretty much jam your nose against your skin to detect it.

Monoï is a skin and hair oil made in Polynesia from tiaré blossoms macerated in oil, and the Canadian company Fruits & Passion has a creamy shower gel called Monoï (with a matching body butter) that, perversely, does smell strongly of coconut. This is what tricked Jim into buying it; searching for a coconut-scented shower gel after his favourite brand was discontinued, he was convinced by a saleswoman that the Monoï shower cream was what he was looking for. It wasn't; the coconut smell is there, but it's joined in equal measure by the tiaré, which is not to his taste, something he didn't discover until he tried to use it. But I hate to let something that smells so nice go to waste. I'm not a fan, at all, of Fruits & Passion's fragrances: every single one of them, men's and women's alike, seems to have the same base, along the same lines as the famed Guerlinade, only horrible. I hardly ever go into the store: sometimes I don't even want to walk by it because that underlying scent is so pervasive and unpleasant. Some of their shower creams, though, are pretty good, and this is one of them. Same deal as with the Yves Rocher: I wouldn't use it at the gym, but at home it's a nice change of pace.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Tender Kiss: Le Baiser du Dragon by Cartier

As I've said before, a great many oriental scents are unisex without even trying. Unless they're heavily floral, they contain notes that have never been assigned a gender in the Western world. Cartier's Le Baiser du Dragon--"The Dragon's Kiss"--is the perfect example; it has floral notes, but they're so unimportant in the grand scheme of things that anyone could wear the scent. The advertising copywriter, clearly aware of this, used such terms as "daring femininity", but don't be fooled. There's nothing daring or feminine about it.

You'd think a scent called The Dragon's Kiss would be intimidating, fiercely sexual, but you'd be wrong. The first thing out of the bottle is the warm sweet scent of almonds, as appealing and comforting as any smell I know, like a glass of amaretto by the fireside. A soft, unobtrusive floral glow soon accompanies this; it's mostly gardenia, which can be overwhelming (as it is in Marc Jacobs, Elizabeth Taylor Gardenia, or most any scent which uses it as the starting point) but here is just another thread in the tapestry.

As the scent warms up even further, the glow is supplemented by a very soft iris note accompanied by warm woods, mostly cedar; this slowly fades as the vanillic ambergris-patchouli base note takes over--and as you might guess, it lasts a very long time, glowing the whole while. The whole thing is remarkable for what it isn't; aggressive, fierce, or sexual. Instead, it's sensual and welcoming.

As noted by a couple of the reviewers here, Le Baiser du Dragon is in fact fairly masculine (one even compares it to Omnia in this regard, a comparison that's also come to my mind more than once). The floral notes don't make it any less so: the heat of it, the warm woods in the middle and the patchouli and ambergris in the base, make it of a piece with men's oriental perfumery, or rather with oriental scents in general. How easy it would be for Cartier to market this to men; tweak it slightly, maybe tone down the gardenia and add a splash of sandalwood and tobacco-leaf, so nobody accuses them of putting the same thing in a different bottle, and you're off to the races. (They'd probably need to square off the bottle, too. It's gorgeous, a big rounded mass that resembles the bottle for Panthère stripped down and ready for action, with a solid cap inspired by Chinese writing and a black dagger piercing the heart of the fragrance. But conventional wisdom has it that round bottles are for women and square bottles are for men, despite such obvious contradictions as the classic Chanel bottle and the spherical Hugo Boss bottles.)

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Shopping, Part 2: CSP Amour de Cacao

There's a Canadian chain of drugstores called Shoppers Drug Mart (I've talked about it before on this blog and on my other one) which is has really upgraded its image in the last few years; one of the new store designs puts a little self-contained fragrance department at the very front of the store, and it's like a really high-end boutique. I walked into such a store this morning and just inside the door was, to my astonishment, a display of Comptoir Sud Pacifique scents. I was completely flabbergasted, because it's just not a line you associate with drugstores. The lovely saleswoman said they'd had them for about a week, about a dozen or fifteen of the line's scents, including many of the newest ones, ones I hadn't even had a chance to try before: Bois de Filao, Vanille Peach, Vanille Pineapple, and Vanille Extreme, along with such standbys as Aqua Motu, Mora Bella (the new name for the old, wonderful Fruits Sauvages), and of course Amour de Cacao. I tried Bois de Filao and Vanille Pineapple--though not on my skin--and was delighted with both of them, and though I couldn't get samples of them, I did snag samples of Vanille Coco--I already had a tiny vial of it, but this is a nice big spray and I never turn down a sample--and Aqua Motu. I don't even want to think about the fact that I am going to be buying a whole bunch of these fragrances in the next six months.

As it happened, I'd put on Amour de Cacao after the gym this morning. Even though it's a hot summer day and AdC is a warm sweet scent, I felt secure that it wouldn't be too strong or too cloying, because, amazingly, it never is.

Officially, the notes in Amour de Cacao are orange peel, vanilla, and chocolate, which makes it sound like a Terry's Chocolate Orange, but the orange note escapes me altogether. (The new, updated version of AdC supposedly has a starfruit note as well; I haven't tried it, so I couldn't say.) All I smell when I first spray it on is vanilla-infused chocolate, though not a pure chocolate-bar scent nor the dust-dry cocoa powder of Cocoon but a mixture of the two, a lush chocolate combined with a very salty, slightly dusty note of cocoa powder. The salt note is amazingly strong at first. I know; salt oughtn't to have a smell at all. But I've worked around large quantities of the stuff, thousands of pounds at a time, and trust me; it has a smell, and that smell is in Amour de Cacao.

Over the next few hours, whatever development there is in this scent consists of the chocolate/cocoa receding and the vanilla coming to the fore, and that's it. But it's the most wonderful simplicity; it smells like someone's making chocolate-chip cookies somewhere in the vicinity, and that's such a cherished, almost universal childhood memory that Amour de Cacao can't help but bring a smile to your face. It's a sleek aluminum can full of lovingly hand-made bakery bliss.

Shopping, Part 1 is here.


Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Elements of Surprise: Very Irresistible for Men by Givenchy

As I was walking home from work tonight, a couple passed maybe ten feet in front of me; I live downtown and a great many people were headed to the bars and restaurants on this warm summer's night. The man, I think it's safe to say, was wearing too much cologne: he must have applied it not fifteen minutes before, because the top notes were still evident, and it was entirely apparent at that distance. (If someone can smell you at more than an arm's length away, you're probably wearing too much of whatever it is, and if they can distinctly smell the top notes, you've probably left the house too soon after applying it.)

But the smell was so dazzling that I instantly forgave him. My first response was, "I know what that is!", but it took a few seconds longer to put a name to the delicious fresh-mocha smell; it was Very Irresistible for Men by Givenchy.

It starts with a zingy green note of mint and grapefruit, with, it seems to me, another fruit note that resembles pear. The top notes are surprisingly persistent; they maintain their fresh edge even as the warm edible middle notes come to the fore. If you've ever eaten those Sesame Snaps or, I don't know, a big handful of sesame seeds, you'll recognize the dry scent of sesame in the middle notes, which help to keep the other main mid-note accord from becoming too sweet. The mocha scent is irresistible indeed; it's not the sweet milky coffee of Comptoir Sud Pacifique's Vanille Café but something more grown-up, for lack of a better word, something drier and richer; the chocolate is laid on with a light hand to keep it from being merely a confection. Some people complain that the mocha note is too fleeting, but it must be a matter of chemistry; it lasts for hours on me.

The base notes, in comparison, don't seem particularly strong or tenacious on my skin; the hazelnut-wood note gradually moves to the fore--I don't detect any cedar at all--and then the whole thing just evaporates. But even without base notes, what there is of it is plenty. Everything about it is a surprise. The spectacular bottle led me to believe I'd be getting something fresh and green; the gourmand oriental that followed those green notes was a welcome turning of the tables, and that sense of the unexpected is what makes it one of Givenchy's greatest men's scents.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Balancing Act: Allure Homme by Chanel

The publicity material for Chanel's Allure, the women's version, made much of the fact that it didn't develop as a classic scent does but instead showed six equal facets, like a jewel. Big deal, I thought; they've reinvented the linear scent. It turns out that what they meant wasn't that it was six accords equally balanced throughout the scent's life, but that there were six accords that came and went in equal measure. It's still more or less a linear scent, but a very complex one. Their men's version, Allure Homme, is structured somewhat more classically; and yet despite this, the composition, like the women's, isn't just the usual top-middle-base, and is altogether more interesting because of it.

One of the first things I smell in Allure Homme, after the usual fleeting shiver of citrus notes, is leather. It's not even listed in the fragrance's notes, and it certainly isn't as intense as the leatheriness of Chanel's Antaeus, but it's there: not the warm sugary leather of Stetson, but something much drier. It's a sexy, manly smell, probably an inevitable component of anything that would dare to call itself Allure.

That leathery dryness doesn't last, though. A spicy note of pepper, powerfully warm but not harsh or aggressive, soon barrels up through the top notes, taking with it a hint of vanillic sweetness which increases in intensity as the scent develops. The middle note never really settles down: the base notes just keep getting warmer and sweeter, with their quantities of woods (mostly sandalwood) and balsams (labdanum and the vanilla-laced tonka bean) sharpened a little with earthy patchouli and vetivert. It never has a chance to get cloying, despite the balsamic warmth, because there's so much else going on in the base notes. As I wrote about before, sometimes it's amusing when individual notes jump out at you before fading away again, and Allure Homme has this in spades: a little swirl of patchouli came out of nowhere at me this afternoon, when I'd almost forgotten I was wearing the stuff, and then a bit later a sudden jolt of pencil-sharpener cedar. It's the perpetual element of surprise that makes Allure Homme a winner.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Orange, Blossoming: Boss in Motion

Yesterday morning I was showering with what's left of my bottle of Yves Rocher's 2005 limited-edition Christmas shower gel, Orange Vanillé, which smells more of spices than vanilla; in fact, it smells very much like one of those clove-studded oranges an aunt or a grandmother might hang in her closet. I was breathing in the luscious orange scent and knew I wanted to wear an orange-based scent that day, and I knew just the one, too.

When Clinique's Happy for Men came out in 1999, I was instantly smitten by it. The top note is a breathless charge of citrus notes, most prominently mandarin orange, and it's so cheerful and bright that I couldn't resist being seduced. But after wearing it for a while I noticed that, on my skin, at least, the aftermath wasn't so delightful; laced with vanilla and creamy-sweet guaiac wood, it dried down into a thick, cloying, sherbet-like scent that was so intense as to be nearly nauseating. I think I had been ignoring this, having been so charmed by the hesperides, but after a while I couldn't ignore it any more, so I gave away my bottle and that was that.

Then in 2002, Hugo Boss launched Boss in Motion, in that smart Death Star bottle with its cleverly invisible spraying mechanism; you form a letter C with your hand, hold the bottle with your thumb on the bottom, and press upwards. And what is the scent but a near-copy of Happy for Men without the choking sweetness?

Oh, it's still sweet and orangey; it still has vanilla in it, it still suggests orange sherbet, but it's been toned down, tempered by soft spicy notes, woods, and musk notes more evident than those in Happy for Men. You want real happy? Boss in Motion is happy.