One Thousand Scents

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Drink It Up II: Brandy by Brandy

As I said a little while back, there are two fragrances that invariably make me think of autumn. One of them is Nature Millenaire, with its aura of fallen leaves and mulch, the harbinger of winter. The other is Brandy.

I don't know why, but I hate apples almost as much as I hate cucumbers. Something about the sound and the smell of them just horrifies me. However, when you use the culinary arts to transform them, by pickling (cucumbers bad, gherkins good) or cooking (baked apples! apple pie! applesauce!), they become wonderful. What's wonderful about Brandy is that it smells intensely of cooked apples without venturing into the realm of either the gourmand scent (no vanilla here) or cheap apple-cinnamon potpourri.

Brandy conjures up its autumnal world through a fascinating contrast between warmth and coolness. It smells predominantly of hot baked apples and warm apple cider, but it also has a crisp edge to it, like the cooling air of autumn, contributed by some fairly sharp spices and herbs. Late in its development it becomes even warmer, and somewhat (but not overwhelmingly) sweet; it's never patisserie, because it carefully avoids the richness of gourmand scents. It's not quite minimalist--it has a complexity--but it's simple and gratifying.

Brandy is a comfort scent. It suggests cozying up by the fire with a glass of mulled cider after a brisk October walk, and if you love the fall, what could be better than that?

Monday, November 27, 2006

Drink It Up: Boucheron's Trouble

If Chandler Burr's description of Jean-Claude Ellena's meetings with the marketers at Hermes is accurate, then this is what I imagine Jacques Cavallier's final meeting with the nice folks at Boucheron might have gone like:

Cavallier (proffering a touche): This, I think, most closely fits the brief.

Marketer number one: This is root beer and ambergris.

Cavallier: No! It's the scent of conquest, a new weapon in the modern woman's arsenal of seduction!

Marketer number two: No, it's root beer and ambergris.

Marketer number three: Hires root beer.

Cavallier (sullenly): A&W.

What contributes to the delicious root-beery feeling of Trouble is its vibrant, lemony top note (which evokes the sparkle of soda pop) and the waves of vanilla that follow not long afterwards. What contributes to the ambergris feeling is ambergris and lots of it.

There are other things in there, too, of course. There's a little spike of jasmine in the middle, and some warm, soft woody notes in the base, mostly, I think, sandalwood and, as an attempt to cut through the vanilla a little, cedar. But while the marketers might want to call Trouble a floral oriental, the floral notes just aren't that important: they're wallpaper to the narcotic dreaminess of the oriental notes. As is true of so many orientals, it's not particularly marked for gender: there aren't any of the usual aggressive notes of men's oriental perfumery, but you can still easily imagine a man wearing this. I know I do.

The bottle is unexpectedly heavy, and exceptionally well made: it's all little touches. The cap is crowned with a curved puddle of transparent red lacquer which nearly obscures the initial B. The green-eyed snake which coils around the cap is all of a piece: it's molded into the bottom half, but somehow detached from the top half, a tiny triumph of engineering. The bottle does call to mind that of Ralph Lauren's first women's scent, Lauren--same colour, same basic shape--but the elegant facets set it apart and suggest the product of a jeweller. You can't tell this from the photograph above, but it stands on four tiny square feet which are set in from the edges so that it almost appears to hover.

If you've ever looked at Jo Malone's pairings such as Blue Agava and Cacao or Basil and Verbena and wished for a Root Beer and Ambergris, well, here you go.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Middlesex: Yves Saint Laurent Nu

The notion of a unisex scent isn't a new one by any means. Classic eaux de cologne, well over a century before Calvin Klein revived the idea with his groundbreaking CKOne, were neither male nor female, but merely refreshing scents to be worn by anyone. Nowadays, it hardly needs to be said, most people consider most scents to be either masculine or feminine, and woe betide anyone who dares to wear the wrong scent publicly. (As is usual in the world of fashion, women have more leeway than men: just as they can wear pants, not a century ago men-only garb, they can wear men's fragrances with some abandon, though a woman wearing Brut or Drakkar Noir would probably be commented on.)

Five years ago, Yves Saint Laurent launched Nu to much acclaim and considerable confusion. Women thought it was too masculine: men who tried it despite its positioning as a women's scent thought it was too feminine. Just look at the reviews on Basenotes, all over the map, from wavering ("I almost purchased it on the suggestion it could be used by men, but there is something in here that definately says feminine.") to mildly panicky ("OK I have taken the plunge and bought this one. I think I'm a man who is assured of his sexuality (heterosexual).") to accepting ("Love it! Very suitable for a man too.").

No wonder everyone is confused. Nu isn't unisex; it's brazenly hermaphroditic, starting with its name--the French word for "nude", but, as French is a gendered language, the masculine rather than the feminine form (which would be "nue").

The gender mixing continues with the the bottle, a minimalist hockey puck of violet-tinged gunmetal which snaps apart to reveal the bottle, of darkest blue plastic, the whole thing wedged into a square black frame inside a transparent smoke-coloured box.

The scent itself is a thoroughly masculine composition of incense, vetiver, and spices, with a core of hypnotic orchid, in Western culture one of the most feminine of flowers.

The opening is a shock of citrus and black pepper, with the first intimations of the orchid already in evidence. The orchid note rapidly pushes its way to the surface, paired with smoky, churchy incense and wood; dark, mysterious, almost threatening.

As the middle notes fade, something wonderful happens; the dreamy orchidaceous note takes on a vanillic tinge, as well it might--vanilla is the seed-pod of a species of orchid. (L'Artisan Parfumeur's Vanilia uses this same vanilla/orchid pairing, to very different effect.) The vanilla blooms; it becomes richer and lusher without ever taking on a gourmand feeling--that's guaranteed by the light but insistently spiny vetiver in the base. Hours later (many hours), the skin is still aglow with the memory of those orchids and a sigh of vanilla, their enduring gift.

The most daring thing about the scent is that it was clearly conceived and executed to blur the lines between feminine and masculine perfumery, to invent and then stake out some middle ground, not the indifferent field of the commercial unisex scent but something altogether more radical. It was designed to confuse. It's not for everyone, but for those who can wear it (lucky me--I can), there's nothing else in the world like it.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Down: L'Eau Bleue Pour Homme by Issey Miyake

I had been hoping beyond hope that the second men's scent from Issey Miyake would be a version of his strange and extraordinary women's scent Le Feu D'Issey, but no such luck. Instead, what we got was L'Eau Bleue d'Issey Pour Homme.

The first thing I smell is lemongrass and rosemary, which are both lovely and accurate, but already, right from the start, there's a strong, synthetic corrosiveness to the scent. The smell of ginger is what's to blame, I think: it has that same laundry-soap harshness that can put me off Bulgari Blu Pour Homme, but without even any of that scent's mitigating pleasures. Midway through the development of L'Eau Bleue, an edgy and appealing anise note shimmers to the surface, but it's keeping bad company, and it isn't enough to mask the harshness.

Slowly--too slowly--that corrosive quality retreats, but unfortunately, what lies underneath it isn't a lot more attractive to my nose. There's a barely floral trail that comes from rose and geranium (in the form of palmarosa), and then a rather dirty patchouli note that takes over the entire base of the scent. L'Eau Bleue isn't a muddle: it's carefully constructed, and it develops over time. But almost nothing about it save that bright, fleeting top note is beautiful, or--more to the point--wearable. (Not by me, anyway.)

The bottle's great: a clever reconception of the original, with a sharp pleat down the middle and shiny blue glass and chrome instead of the frosted glass and aluminum. It's what's inside that bothers me. I'm still dreaming of a knockout men's oriental from Miyake. I know he can do it, but if he keeps pumping out endless summer reformulations of his original Eau, punctuated by this thing, then I have a long wait ahead of me.

Friday, November 17, 2006

More of the Same: Calvin Klein Euphoria for Men

It's been a long time, it seems to me, since Calvin Klein has launched a really good men's scent. Twenty-five years, in fact. His original men's scent, Calvin, was an instant classic: sexy, robust, thoroughly masculine. His follow-up, Obsession for Men, was simply too strong--what I call an attack fragrance--and everything since then (with the exception of the unisex CKOne and CKBe) have been treading water, merely following the trends of the day rather than setting them.

I don't know why I hoped for better from Euphoria for Men, but I did, and I didn't get it. The women's version of Euphoria is at least interesting, with its juicy pomegranate note and its creamy underside, but Euphoria for Men is tiresome and done: it smells like just about every other mass-market fragrance release of the last five or even ten years.

The opener does have a juicy note which is supposedly sudachi, a Japanese citrus fruit, but it briefly calls to mind that pomegranate note. It combines this with ginger, pepper, and a "raindrop accord", whatever that might be; the overall effect is just blandly fresh, like, well, far too many other scents out there. It quickly turns into a woody-oriental scent, and the drydown is pleasant enough, mostly leather and ambergris with a whiff of patchouli, but there's nothing--not one thing--in it that sets it apart from the crowd.

It smells as if it was created for a first-time fragrance user: in fact, for someone who's never really smelled a high-end commercial fragrance before. For that man, it might be a winner. For everyone else, it's same old same old.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Fall of Man: Yves Rocher's Nature Millenaire Pour Homme

I think most of us, maybe all of us, who have large libraries of scents divide them more or less into seasons: we have light, fresh fragrances that would seem pointless in the cold winter and hothouse scents that would be overwhelming in the summer heat. I have a couple that have autumn written all over them--that so specifically call that season to mind that it would seem perverse to wear them at any other time of the year.

Six years ago, a fellow scent addict, someone with whom I exchanged e-mails and swapped fragrances by mail, wrote me to say, in essence, "Get on the phone and order Yves Rocher's Nature Millenaire pour Homme. Just do it. You won't be sorry." And I took her at her word and did it, and boy, was she ever right! It's become a mainstay, but only in the fall: I break it out in September and tuck it away a few months later, because it's the most autumnal scent in the world.

The opening is citrus notes and what the company calls "Earth scents", and what they apparently mean by that is "cool autumn air and fallen leaves", because that's exactly what it smells like. There's a suggestion of decomposition: amid the crispness of those leaves is the smell of loamy earth to which they're returning. You can practically hear it all beneath your feet.

The earthiness is soon joined by a barrage of masculine spices, including lots of cassia bark, verging on harshness; this scent is not interested in being smooth or comforting. It's rough and unrestrained: autumn is, after all, the segue into winter and the death of the green world, and any scent that celebrates that can't be afraid of a little harshness. (What would a nice autumn scent smell like? More on that in a day or two.)

Completing the middle note is a hard dark core of cedar and sandalwood, underlaid with a suggestion of burning...not leaves, which would have been interesting, but incense, paired with myrrh and a glaze of barely-sweet vanillic benzoin, just to prove that autumn is not all about death. It's astoundingly long-lived: it remains noticeable twelve hours after applying, and right now, twenty hours after I put it on, there's a little aura of myrrh and vanilla on my skin, like the merest ghost of I Coloniali's Mirra & Mirra.

A companion scent to the still-available Homme Nature, it's in the same bottle with that same leafless tree inscribed into the back, but in a brown glass rather than the fresh green of Homme Nature. I can't imagine why this scent was discontinued last year: presumably it was meant to make room for their two new men's scents, Transat (tedious fresh oceanic) and Hoggar (uninteresting, overly simplistic woody oriental), which feel like a revisiting of an older pair of much better scents, Antartic and Samarkande, in fragrance, packaging, and advertising. They made a mistake, as far as I'm concerned: Nature Millenaire could have been a mainstay in their fragrance line.


Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Neither Here Nor There: Stella in Two Amber

If you've read more than a few of my postings, you will have discovered that I am a madman for ambergris. Perfumery would be nearly impossible without it: it adds a warmth, a lustre, a sweetness and an earthiness to everything it touches.

Naturally, I was delighted when I found the new Stella in Two scents at a local department store--two scents meant to be worn separately or together in whatever combination the wearer desires. I wasn't expecting too much from the Peony, because I am mostly not a great fan of that flower: fresh peonies are pleasant but I find they don't survive the process of the perfumer's art (I find the same is true of lilacs). Great bottle, mind you. But the Amber--surely that would delight me.

It's a solid perfume in a remarkable little case: a faceted octagon in pale pink enameled metal with a lid that pivots, and it is heavy. What did they make it from, lead?

And what did they make the scent from? It's really amber in name only. Mostly the scent consists of a rose note with an ambergris undercurrent: the whole thing is pale, a faded watercolour--a bizarre achievement, since amber is anything but pale. It's muscular: it makes its presence known. But this wishy-washy scent: what is it? It's just about the most baffling commercial scent I've ever smelled.

I can't imagine having bought the odd, pinky little thing, even if I'd liked it, but I wanted to like it, and I was disappointed that I didn't.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Talk Dirty: Tabu by Dana

It is hard to write about scent.

Someone--Laurie Anderson, definitely, though I think she was quoting Frank Zappa--said, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture", and that goes for fragrance, too. We don't have a big, clear vocabulary to talk about scent, and so we end up comparing a scent to other things--other scents, usually, but also colours and music and shapes and any other metaphorical thing that we think will get our point across. But it's hard to do in a way that seems concrete, and it's really hard to do over and over again without feeling as if you're repeating yourself.

It's so hard to do that I was thinking of discontinuing this blog: I have another one, and a job, and hobbies, and a life. But then I got a comment (read it here) and I thought, well, at least a couple of people read this and seem to like it, so that makes it worth doing. And I've always thought that something worth doing was worth doing right, so I've resolved to write at least twice a week, maybe three, until I get hit by a bus or run out of scents, whichever comes first.


Some people turn up their noses at drugstore scents. I can't imagine why. Just as books from the worst to the best are made from the same alphabet and paper, commercial fragrances are all made with the same basic set of ingredients: what differentiates them one from another isn't the packaging or the marketing, but the skill with which those ingredients are compounded. Extremely high-end scents, of course, are more likely to use expensive and rare ingredients, but the fact is that most of what goes into a bottle of fragrance isn't that costly: even the best rose oil in the world wouldn't account for more than a fifty cents or a dollar in the tiny quantities in which it appears in Givenchy's Very Irresistible or Serge Lutens' Sa Majeste La Rose. (Most of the cost of a scent is in that packaging and marketing, plus the various markups that make profit possible.)

Tabu by Dana is just about the perfect example of this. It's very cheap: I have a half-ounce bottle that cost less than six dollars--Canadian dollars. And yet it's wonderful--striking, bold without being overbearing, absolutely perfectly balanced. If someone gave you a spritz from an unmarked bottle and told you it was the new thing from some Italian or French design house, you might not like it (it takes a certain kind of person to wear it), but you probably wouldn't think of it as a drugstore scent, either, because it's really good.

Tabu is an oriental scent, make no mistake. There are flowers in there: a splat of orange blossom, a dab of rose and jasmine. They don't stand a chance against the onslaught of the oriental base notes, though, allied with potent carnation (my most beloved of all flowers). Almost from the beginning, those powerhouse oriental notes come flying at you: civet, sandalwood, ambergris, benzoin, and most of all patchouli, lots of it, just dirty enough to put impure thoughts in your head. Of course it's sexual: oriental scents are meant to be carnal, but this one acts as if it invented indecency.

The more you smell Tabu, the more you realize that it was not only the inspiration but the template for YSL's Opium, which followed it over fifty years later. Opium is beyond a doubt more complex and, truth be told, more interesting than Tabu, but it's still a devoted homage. Tabu is the original, and the fact that you can have it for just a few dollars makes it more, not less, appealing, to my mind. By the time it's breathing its last (for an eau de cologne it's startlingly long-lived), an animalic whisper of musk and benzoin, you won't remember how much you paid anyway.