One Thousand Scents

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Coming Clean

Pauline Kael, I've read, never saw a movie a second time. As she was watching a movie, she was making notes and passing judgement, and she didn't like to second-guess herself, and seeing a movie again might have forced her to re-evaluate her original thoughts. This, beyond a doubt, is a woman who didn't like to be contradicted, even by herself. Maybe especially by herself.

Not me, though. I'll re-think what I've written, and if I change my mind, or if i think I'm wrong, I'll say so. I've been re-reading my blog, and here are a few things I've written over the last year that I've changed my mind about, or flat-out wish I hadn't written.

1. In March I said of Bulgari's Blu Pour Homme, "I like [it] well enough, but I don't love it." Not any more. That detergent note is just too much. It bugs the hell out of me. Has my nose changed? I used to not mind it, but now it dominates the scent to such an extent that I can't wear it any more. No matter: I have a thousand other things to wear.

2. In May I wrote about a bunch of things I smelled on a trip to Montréal and Ottawa, and something's been bothering me ever since. I sampled, and dismissed, four Serge Lutens scents, without even having tried them on my skin. I didn't just sniff the caps, mind you: I sprayed them, tested them, gave them a little while to develop on the blotters. But you honestly can't tell how something is going to smell without actually putting on your skin: otherwise, it's like deciding that you do or don't like a movie based on having seen thirty seconds of footage projected on a bedsheet hung on a clothesline. I know this, and yet I was trying to be thorough and write about everything I'd tried that was interesting but didn't seem to work. One of these days I'll get to sample the Lutens scents for real, and maybe then I'll write about them for real. The guy is clearly an artist, and I'm sure I just need to give his work a proper chance. (I stand by what I wrote about Youth Dew Amber Nude, though. It just doesn't work.)

3. In June I wrote about Comptoir Sud Pacifique's Matin Calin, which I wasn't enormously fond of at the time: all right, I said, but I can live without it. I wore it some more--I completely used up the large sample I had--and now I have to say that I like it a lot better than I did. It still doesn't have a lot of lasting power, and it's still not a desperate necessity, but it really is lovely, soft and comforting. Ordinarily I would have caved and bought some at Shoppers Drug Mart, but they stopped carrying the line about a month ago, the bastards, so if I want to buy CSP, I'm out o' luck. Probably just as well: one of my New Year's resolutions is that I am absolutely not buying any more scents until I go to Europe in September.

4. My first posting for July was about Boss in Motion, and now I would like to officially state that I'm as sick of it as I became of its progenitor, Clinique Happy for Men. Don't know why. I just am. I also wrote about Cartier's Baiser du Dragon, and nothing I wrote is wrong, exactly, but I would like to note that, having bought a bottle of the stuff rather than relying on a dwindling sample and therefore not being afraid to wear it with a little more abandon, I've discovered that the patchouli note is much stronger than I realized. The scent is still laden with sugared almonds, but it's rather tougher than I'd originally thought, and even more masculine. It's wonderful.

5. I changed my mind about August's posting regarding Demeter Dirt. It's gross. I wore it a few times and it just didn't work on me any more. I emptied out the (nice, simple, refillable) bottle, scrubbed the hell out of it with unscented soap, ran some rubbing alcohol through it, and filled it with Eau D'Hermes, a much worthier occupant. I still like all the other Demeters I've ever written about, though.

6. I was a little, but only a little, dismissive of Boucheron's Trouble, I think. It really does smell of root beer and ambergris, but it's a very complex and interesting scent overall. I like it enough that I bought some soap (more about that very soon) and a box of something called Scented Precious Stones, which is kind of a crystalline potpourri that smells exactly like Trouble and therefore is wonderful if you aren't wearing the scent but want to smell it anyway. I keep it in a closed glass jar so it doesn't stink up the whole apartment.

That's it. It isn't a New Year's Eve countdown or anything, but I had to get all that off my chest. And now it's done and I can start the new year afresh. I still have many, many things in my collection: old favourites (the aforementioned Eau D'Hermes, Alfred Sung's Encore), new stuff I haven't even opened yet (lots of La Maison de la Vanille, Dolce & Gabbana, Calvin Klein, Ferragamo, and Perry Ellis miniatures), at least a hundred samples (I am going to write about Daytona 500 and Golden Goddess one of these days): there's no shortage of scents out there, and as long as they keep cranking out new ones, and I keep trying them, there'll never be a shortage of things to write about.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Holiday: Winter Delice by Guerlain

Not even a month ago I was rhapsodizing about fall scents, and now it's winter already. Now we can wear the really dark, heavy scents with abandon, confident that the cold weather isn't going to make them overwhelming as summer heat is going to do. Anything rich and sweet or smoky and incense-laden is going to bloom in the winter months.

I have one scent that I bring out of storage every December and tuck away come March, the one that not only smells of a winter's day but is named for it: Guerlain's Winter Delice. It's been discontinued, but it's still easily available on eBay if you should need it, and you probably do.

Winter Delice is not only a scent, it's a narrative: the stages of the scent tell the story of a perfect afternoon in December. It opens outdoors with the sharp, resinous smell of evergreen needles and a chilly, almost lemony fresh-air smell.

When you're done playing in the snow, you head indoors to warm up, and what greets you is the inviting aroma of gingerbread freshly pulled from a wood stove. The smell of fir and pine needles sticks to your skin: the scent never becomes entirely warm and sweet, even as the gingerbread aroma envelops you. The wood-stove scent is supplied by, according to the official list of notes, Somalian incense, and it's dark and edgy; you never forget that the fire can burn you.

Winter Delice is heavier and darker than any other Aqua Allegoria scent I've ever smelled (which is most of them), but it has no more lasting power than they do: despite its spicy and vanillic close, it trails away to nothing in six hours, tops. But it's the story of an afternoon: would you want it last longer than that?


Friday, December 22, 2006

The Bitter With The Sweet: Mirra & Mirra

If you want to hear a stirring version of the Christmas carol "We Three Kings", you ought to head over to the iTunes Music Store and check out The Blenders' version. It's a cappella (with the addition of a drum), and it's really something--totally worth your ninety-nine cents.

One verse that they don't get around to singing, and which doesn't seem to be sung much at all any more (but was when I was a kid) because it's just too depressing, is this one:

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in a stone-cold tomb.

Anyone smelling I Coloniali's Mirra & Mirra would be excused for saying, "Bitter perfume? What?" There's bitterness to be had, eventually, but it's wrapped in such a dense cocoon of cozy warmth that it's hard to find at first.

Mirra & Mirra (which means "myrrh and myrrh") is based on myrrh, logically enough, but to make it wearable, it's disguised with a formidable quantity of sugared benzoin. The scent is uncomplicated and linear: what you get at the start is just about all you get--unsmoky incense in a sweet vanillic cloud.

There are moments during the scent's life, though, that the pungent, earthy notes of myrrh rise unadorned to the surface before descending again. Sometimes, too, you'll catch a mere whiff of dark, resinous pine tar, just enough to jolt you out of the fragrance's hazy reverie. When I first got this scent, I thought it was too sweet and too simple, but I hadn't spent enough time with it: there are sharp and disturbing undercurrents that keep it from being cloying and oversweetened. It's beautiful, but not prettified: if you're in a dark Christmas mood, Mirra & Mirra is just the sort of thing you want to be wearing.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Gentleman: Escada Pour Homme

I don't usually see the point in posting the official list of notes for a fragrance, because, as I noted last time, they don't really give you much of an idea of what something smells like. A general idea, maybe, but that's all. Even people who hate a particular fragrance note can't rely on the list of notes: I am not a fan of full-bore patchouli, but one of my all-time favourite scents, Michael for Men, contains tons of it. If I'd just read the list of notes, I never would have tried it.

Having said that, here are the notes for Escada Pour Homme:

Top Notes: Bergamot, Lavender, Lemon, Cognac, Lime, Mandarin.

Middle Notes: Cardamom, Sage, Juniper Berry, Thyme, Black Pepper.

Base Notes: Patchouli, Sandalwood, Vanilla, Musk.

The top notes are, yes, very fresh and vivid: hesperidic, but with a clean soapiness that I enjoy. (Is there a cognac note? Not to my nose; if it's there, it isn't as bold as, say, the rum note in Claiborne Spark for Men.) Underneath that, something warm and cozy is lurking: crisp spices, buffered with the beginnings of a sweet patchouli-vanilla base. The spices and herbs in the middle seem to bloom under the influence of the vanilla: their harshness is tamed and their richness amplified. The close of the scent is even warmer than the middle, with a pleasant sweetness that isn't overdone. This is a very sophisticated scent. The fragrance, the bottle, the packaging--they all suggest refinement and class.

I suppose I have to add that I don't love Escada Pour Homme. It's very nice, and would make a good signature scent for a man who isn't an obsessive collector like me. But the bottom line is that it's really a good but generic man-scent; it hits all the usual notes of men's perfumery and doesn't really distinguish itself from a lot of other men's fragrances. I don't have to own it: I do own it, but if someone wanted it badly, I'd just hand it over to them and never miss it.

The bottle, by the way, is the Escada men's house bottle: a solid round-shouldered rectangular block of glass with a flat front (for the logo) and fluted sides and back, capped with a miniaturized version of the bottle and a cabochon. (The Casual Friday bottle is, appropriately enough, in opaque khaki glass: this one is clear glass with a gold cap and a black cabochon.) The box is black and gold, pinstriped to echo the corrugations on the bottle--a nice touch.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Surprise, Surprise

You can't look at a list of perfume notes and imagine how a scent is going to smell. Well, maybe you can get a pretty good idea if there are only three ingredients, but otherwise, you're lost in a sea of proportions and qualities (Bulgarian rose versus rose de mai?).

A case in point: here's one (incomplete) list of notes for a very famous scent.

Top Notes: Orange, Lemon, Spices, Clary Sage, Aldehydes.
Middle Notes: Cinnamon, Carnation, Geranium, Jasmine, Heliotrope, Pimento Berry.
Base Notes: Vanilla, Musk, Cedarwood, Frankincense, Benzoin, Tonka, Ambergris.

and here's another (also incomplete) listing:

Top notes: Orange, lemon, lavender, basil, petitgrain.
Middle notes: Carnation, geranium, lily of the valley, orris.
Base notes: Sandalwood, cedar.

Interpolating these lists, we can see that the scent in question opens with bright hesperides and herbs, then segues into a spicy, heavily floral heart with what looks to be a sweet, woody oriental base. It could be any of a hundred eighties or nineties scents.

Here's a little story about the scent from Susan Irvine's chatty "The Perfume Guide":

Once, I did a blind-test of fragrances with perfumers and women whose business involved smell. Nearly all agreed on one heavenly potion as the most expensive, feminine, sexy, sophisticated. In short, their favourite. When they took off their blindfolds, they saw it was--

Well, what was it?

Clearly Susan Irvine and I are trying to play a trick on you. "Most expensive, feminine, sexy, sophisticated?" You're already guessing that it must be some cheap drugstore scent, and you couldn't be more right. The scent is Old Spice--yes, the men's fragrance that we associate with old fogies.

Old Spice has been around for almost seventy years and has earned its longevity. It's stunningly well-made, and while the fact that you can get it for five or six dollars at every drugstore in North America is going to turn off a lot of people, others--those who think with their noses--aren't going to let that stop them from appreciating something so good.

The top is bracing: a sprightly, citrusy, almost mintlike freshness in which no one note predominates. Pointed herbal notes lead into the middle note, spicy and intensely floral, dominated by carnation, my most beloved of flowers. (Geranium is also a major component of the middle notes, putting an edge on the more characteristically feminine floral notes such as lily of the valley.) The middle is aglow with these flowers, but that brazen, forceful carnation keeps it from ever become delicate or ethereal.

A sweet warmth gradually percolates up: laden with vanilla, benzoin, and tonka bean, it has a caramel overtone to it, and at times it reminds me, perversely, of bubble gum. It's a lightweight oriental base, never heavy but with a real presence nonetheless. The scent isn't as long-lasting as you might think with all those oriental standouts in the base: its lifespan on my skin is only four or five hours. But that'll do: however long it lasts, it's head and shoulders above most men's scents launched in the last decade.


Monday, December 11, 2006

Ne Plus Ultra

Perfume, by Patrick Süskind, is just one of my favourite books of all time, for what I suppose must be obvious reasons. When I discovered that a a movie was being made of the book, I was dubious: pretty much the entire thing is rendered in terms of the sense of smell, which is clearly a difficult thing to put on film, John Waters' Polyester notwithstanding. When I learned that Tom Tykwer, the director of the spectacular Run Lola Run, was directing, I had more faith in the enterprise: if anyone can do it, he can.

And then, unfortunately, I learned that Parfums Thierry Mugler was releasing a set of 15 fragrances to go with the movie. The more I read about them, the more desperately I wanted the set. Anyone who knows the book will be able to follow the entire sequence of events (and be able to imagine how each of the perfumes smells) from the names alone: Baby, Paris 1738, Atelier Grimal, Virgin No. 1, Boutique Baldini, Amor et Psyché, Nuit Napolitaine, Ermit, Salon Rouge, Human Existence, Absolu Jasmine, Sea, Noblesse, Orgie, and finally Aura, the ultimate perfume. (Rumour has it that this final scent will eventually be released all on its own.)

Pro: I wanted it. Con: it's insanely expensive ($700 U.S.). But, I figured, I must surely have spent that much on fragrances in the last year, and if I promised to be really really good and not buy anything for the next year, I could justify it. But they're little bottles of perfume, and once they're opened, they have a limited shelf life, a few years perhaps, before they start to turn, and I have so many scents already--I'll never use them up in a normal life span, that's how many. But why shouldn't I have the set? I have few vices--a little overfond of food, but I don't smoke or drink or take any drugs save for ibuprofen and the occasional hit of caffeine, and this one weakness harmed no-one. And the idea of owning this set, which must be some sort of pinnacle of the perfumer's art, was thrilling. But I didn't even know if I'd like many of the scents, and some of them seem clearly meant to be novelties and not actually intended to be worn (Paris 1738 and Human Existence, in particular, threaten to be hideous).

Buy it. Don't buy it. Just do it. You'd be crazy to. I did this for days, tossing the yeses and the noes around in my head, hoping that if I waited long enough, they'd all get bought up--only a hundred are available in North America--and then it would be out of my hands. But they're still available!

And then, finally, the thing happened that made me realize I wasn't going to allow myself to have them and it was for the best. A new fragrance boutique had opened up in a local mall, and they have a lot of stock, things you can't get anywhere else in the region, things I've never seen for sale anywhere else in the country, even. And they had Paco Rabanne's Ultraviolet Man, and I had wanted it ever since I read about it. I'd never even smelled it, but after reading the notes and the descriptions of it, and looking at that marvelous bottle, I knew it was for me. I didn't buy it. But I had to go back to the mall a few days later for lunch with a friend, and so help me, I did buy it.

That was that. I knew that I would never be able to keep myself from buying anything new for an entire year (particularly as I'm going to France, and specifically Grasse, next year).

Everything about Ultraviolet Man is synthetic. The box: a clever gradient from metallic violet to black, suggesting, somewhere in the transition, ultraviolet, the colour we can't see. The bottle: a block of dark-purple glass and a slab of chromed plastic set with a rubberized trigger with which you blast yourself with scent. It's a mechanical object, a typically futuristic Paco Rabanne bottle (just look at the bottle for Calandre, a chunk of clear glass in a rigid metal cage, or the women's version of Ultraviolet, a squishy UFO tucked into a blob of a plastic case).

The smell of it is not natural, either, which is not a criticism; it's miles away from the fresh-oceanic smells so popular nowadays (which are just as synthetic, but hide it better). A surge of sweetened mint and indistinct greenery fills the air at first: it's potent, but not aggressive. The sweetness continues through the middle and base notes, which are mostly ambergris and vanilla, tonka bean and musk. It's not quite sugary, not cloying, but without a doubt it's a very sweet, almost luscious, scent. The ambergris isn't the usual amber, either: it's brightened, amped up--accelerated, if that means anything. It doesn't smell like the usual ambergris scents, but instead frankly and unashamedly like something created in a lab.

This deliberate artificiality has turned off a lot of people, but I like it a lot. Its weirdness bears the stamp of originality: it's constructed.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Honey Bear: Boucheron Pour Homme

Boucheron is not afraid to offer its men's scents as an eau de parfum, and more power to them. I don't think it's a trend that will catch on, but it's nice to have a choice, and interesting to see just how wildly divergent an eau de toilette and an eau de parfum can be: same basic template but drastically different execution.

Boucheron Pour Homme EDT is a classic men's scent: light and citrusy in the top (bergamot and bitter orange) and warm floral-herbal in the middle, with a soft, woody drydown that includes a little oakmoss for a chypre feeling. It's very pleasant; it calls to mind a number of Dior scents all at once, including Eau Sauvage and Miss Dior.

The EDP, though, is something else altogether, and that's the one that won my heart. The citrus notes at the top are stronger, with a lemony tinge. They last a while, but directly beneath them, a potent chypre is brewing like a storm; the warm, earthy oakmoss scent, even more honeyed than usual, is swirling around the flowers and herbs at the heart of the scent (mostly carnation and basil, to me, though there are other things in there). In the end, the chypre qualities are what dominate the scent; it's like having warm clover honey dripped all over you.

The EDP smells very much like a masculinized version of Estee Lauder's Knowing (which is already pretty masculine, or at least ambiguous, to begin with). More to the point, it smells expensive. You can tell instantly that's it's no drugstore scent and definitely not a mass-marketed designer scent. It was created with considerable care and even love. It's worth every penny.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Loose Change: Lancome Tresor

When I first smelled Lancome's Tresor in 1990, I was captivated by its soft radiance: hardly any top notes, mostly just a cloud of peach-apricot and ambered rose, rich, uncomplicated and lovely. (There are other notes, other florals and balsams: they don't matter much.) Every now and then I'd sniff at it in the department stores just to remind myself how beautiful it is.

Earlier this year, I noticed that the bottle had changed, and that this is because it was now available as an eau de toilette. (Previously, it had been an eau de parfum only: the EDP has a black collar around its neck, while the EDT has a pale-peach collar.) I took a sniff to see how it different from the original, and was horrified. They'd added a pile of top notes, all bright sharpness, and completely destroyed what made the original so wonderful. The EDP's rosy warmth was still lurking under the surface, but it couldn't compete.

Is this what people want nowadays? Everything to be fresh and clean and pointy and shiny?

For what it's worth, as far as I can tell, the EDP has also been modified. If my nose isn't deceiving me, Tresor isn't as it used to be: it's also had top notes added to it, to make it more of a piece with the EDP. It's not horrible, but it's changed, and not for the better. If I wore this, if I'd run out of a bottle of the old EDP and bought a bottle of the newer stuff, I'd be furious.

Still, the new-fangled EDP and the EDT together provide an object lesson in perfumery: EDP is not simply EDT with more essential oils and less alcohol. Not merely a less dilute version, it's something entirely other: it opens up differently and it develops differently. (The same is true, even more so, perhaps, of perfume; not just "stronger", it's usually richer and more complex, certainly longer-lasting, as a rule.) I wish salespeople were better trained so that they could explain these differences to buyers.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Re-Orientation: YSL Opium Pour Homme

Most people, I think it's safe to say, think that eau de parfum is simply stronger than eau de toilette, and perfume is the strongest of them all. Devotees know that that isn't the case at all--that the three concentrations are actually reformulated, and sometimes very different from one another. This week, three cases in point.

I wonder how many people were as surprised and thrilled as I was when word leaked out that Yves Saint Laurent would be launching Opium Pour Homme in 1995, twenty years after the arrival of their iconic Opium. As soon as it hit the shelves I knew I had to try it, and I ended up buying the eau de parfum, partly because I assumed it was better than the EDT (it usually is!) and partly for the sheer novelty value of it--most men's scents are either cologne or EDT strength, and only a tiny fraction are ever released as an EDP. (Fewer still are ever launched as a perfume, something which, in the West, men simply don't wear.) Plus, the EDP had the better bottle (a lacquer-like case recalling that of the women's perfume bottle, only in blue instead of red). I couldn't resist.

It turned out that however much I liked the EDP, I just couldn't wear it. Opium Pour Homme, I decided, was too overpowering, reminding me of assault fragrances such as Calvin Klein's Obsession for Men, scents which mistake brutality for intensity, which think that attacking people's olfactory organs is sexy.

Much more recently, I had a chance to try the EDT version, which it had somehow never even occurred to me to test, and it was a revelation, almost an entirely different scent. The notes are mostly the same, but the balance--the relationship between them--was reconfigured, and what emerged was not only wearable, but delicious.

The scent is an oriental straight out of the bottle: a warm cocoon of vanilla enshrouds the whole scent from start to finish. But despite this warmth, the beginning is startlingly fresh, a cheerful bolt of orange and blackcurrant with a hint of cool anise. Unlike the EDP, in which the spices predominate right from the start, the spices here take a little while to emerge: a very soft, clean ginger scent (so unlike the harsh ginger in Bulgari Blu Pour Homme and L'Eau Bleue D'Issey Pour Homme) paired with black pepper and, according to the official notes, galingale, which supposedly smells like...ginger and pepper.

The vanilla, of course, is still there, gradually getting sweeter as the tolu-balsam note emerges. A woody note, mostly Atlas cedar and patchouli, keeps the scent from becoming gloppy with sweetness. Some still find it too sweet, but I don't: compared to the original Lagerfeld or gourmand scents such as A*Men, it's a model of restraint. What it is, though, is very modern and very, very sexy.