One Thousand Scents

Friday, May 02, 2008

Shopping Spree

I notice that a couple of years ago I said I was saving a sample of Comptoir Sud Pacifique's Vanille Cannelle, but if that was ever true (I'm starting to doubt it), it got lost in the shuffle somehow, because I never did smell it. Until this week.

I had been pining desperately for Perry Ellis 360 Black, which I had smelled in Ottawa a couple of years ago and instantly loved but had, unwisely, not bought. It plagued me, and I can't say why, but I wanted it. I found a website for a place called Imagination Perfumery, and their prices were surprisingly low (I shopped around); they had the very gift set I'd seen in Ottawa in 2006, and they were selling it for $34.99. I poked around their site for a while and had a tentative list of about ten things I wanted (one of which was a Mother's Day gift for my mom, a bottle of Jolie Madame by Balmain), but I kept putting off ordering, for no good reason except that I couldn't really justify spending that kind of money.

Then on April 14th, Now Smell This posted an interview with Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, authors of the then upcoming and eagerly awaited Perfumes: The Guide. Their simultaneous answer to the very first question--"What is your all-time favourite perfume?"--was "Mitsouko". I'd heard many good things about it over the years but had, amazingly, never really tried it, and I'd put it on my list, so I figured the interview was a sign, justification be damned, and placed my order, after whittling the list down to what I thought was a manageable 7:

• Perry Ellis 360 Black, because I wanted it, and lucky I ordered it, too; I went back to the website on Tuesday to get a picture of the gift set (100 mL spray, 7.5 mL pocket spray, deodorant, and shave balm), and they don't have it any more, which means that I apparently got the last one. Yay!
• CSP Vanille Cannelle, something which intrigued me, at a ludicrously low price, at least two thirds off.
• Balmain Jolie Madame, for my mom, who's been wearing it since 1974. I mean, she wears other things, too--with me as a son, of course she does, because you'd have trouble counting the samples and miniatures and bottles I've given her over the years--but Jolie Madame is her mainstay.
• Lanvin Arpege Pour Homme, because the sample I had was intoxicating.
• Guerlain Aqua Allegoria Anisia Bella, because I love licorice and anise, and even though I'd never smelled this, it got a lot of good reviews. (360 Black also has licorice, and, loving licorice/anise almost as much as I love carnations, I almost ordered Caron Eau de Reglisse, but managed to stop myself.)
• Guerlain Terracotta Voile D'Ete, because it's an iris-carnation-vanilla blend that sounded like something I'd enjoy, as I am mad about carnations (this review at the Scented Salamander tipped me over the edge), and if I didn't like it, it was inexpensive enough that I could just give it away.
• Guerlain Mitsouko, because it was high time.

(Yes, I bought three things that I had never even smelled before and two more that I'd smelled only briefly or in passing. This is not generally a good idea. Don't try this at home!)

I am pleased to report that the shipment arrived exactly when it was supposed to, containing exactly what I had ordered, with a good handful of samples thrown in as well. Imagination Perfumery is not paying me to say that they have lots of desirable fragrances at really good prices; I'm just a satisfied customer. (If I had one criticism, and it's such a tiny one, it would be that the samples were completely random, and some of them things I never would have requested (Aquolina Pink Sugar!): when Luckyscent, another terrific online perfume vendor, gives you samples, they've obviously been carefully chosen to match the things you've ordered in style or perfume house. But hell, they're free, so I have nothing to complain about, do I?)

My first impression of Vanille Cannelle was a bit of a disappointment. I think I had been expecting something bigger and stronger; what I got was a soft, creamy cinnamon with all the edges planed off. The opening of the scent smells exactly like the cinnamon of cinnamon toast; muted by the butter and coddled by the sugar, it's a ghost of the real thing.

CSP's scents are not noted for their complexity or development, but Vanille Cannelle does develop, and in the most unexpected way. As the first hour goes by, the spice becomes sharper and clearer: it's exactly as if you were gradually focusing a movie projector on a screen, or as if someone were walking towards you in a thick fog. The core slowly emerges and, bolstered by some rather undefined spices (ginger, I think, and maybe cloves) and the molasses tinge of brown sugar, takes on the spine and the edginess I'd been expecting of cinnamon all along; the dusty bitterness, the slight sourness, and most of all the radiance. It's a marvelous transformation.

After a few hours more, the cinnamon begins, slowly, to fade away, replaced (though never completely) by that rich and durable CSP vanilla. Twelve, fourteen hours later, that spice-tinged vanilla is still there on your skin, still beautiful. I don't know if I'd say that Vanille Cannelle is my new favourite CSP (because there are a lot of contenders; I own eleven), but I've been wearing it all week and I couldn't be happier.

Naturally, as soon as "Perfumes: The Guide" was available, I ordered my copy, and naturally, I've been waist-deep in it for days.

You haven't heard? "Perfumes" is a book by scent iconoclast Luca Turin and his wife, Tania Sanchez. Beginning with a little collection of essays about perfumery, the book then devotes 300+ pages to capsule reviews of well over 1000 commercially available scents. If you are reading this blog, then you require this book, and no two ways about it. Go order it if you haven't already. I got it from for $17.61, over $10 off the list price. You really have to own this.

The first thing anyone is going to do with such a book is look up their favourites and see how they fare. The authors, no doubt about it, have a pair of noses on them, and a big batch of opinions, and they're not afraid to use these tools.

I was reminded more than once of Pauline Kael, whose film criticism was indispensable to any film lover: I always felt that, even if I disagreed with her, she still had something to say that was worth listening to. Like Kael (who unaccountably adored trifles such as "Club Paradise"), Turin and Sanchez have some rather baffling pets; much has been made of their love of, of all things, Tommy Girl. I'll allow them that, if they want, though I don't think much of the scent, but perhaps there is more to it than I see. However, they champion some indefensible things as well: they allot Gucci Rush five stars. Five stars for that gaudy trash, that heap of glittering olfactory rubble!

And of course the converse is true: they inevitably savage some things that I love. I can't necessarily defend my addiction to Midnight Poison by Dior (though I've tried), but I think it deserves better than to be called "a confused, meretricious, skimpy, trivial, borderline-insulting confection." I'm baffled that the authors didn't, as they so often do, simply interpret it as a men's scent, by which light, I think, it does rather well. Also, if Tania Sanchez thinks that Spellbound is "powerfully cloying and nauseating", then all I can say is, she's doing it wrong.

I was glad to see that I wasn't some kind of philistine by disliking practically everything I've ever smelled by Creed, because Turin and Sanchez' opinions line up pretty nicely with my own. I don't understand Creed's reputation; is it because their stuff is expensive and they've been around for two hundred and fifty years? Green Irish Tweed is as good as Turin and Sanchez say, and I also love Bois du Portugal, but most everything else seems cheap and pointless, particularly the hateful Virgin Island Water, and Original Santal and Original Vetiver, both of which get one star in "Perfumes", and deservedly so. I couldn't even be bothered to review them: every time I dab on one of my samples of them with a mind to writing about them, I think "Ick" and my brain pretty much stalls there.

I think that leads to the most important thing that people who read this book closely are going to take away from it. They'll learn to trust their own noses, to love perfumes because those perfumes are good and for no other reason: cheap scent is not necessarily bad scent, and high cost is no guarantee of quality. Turin and Sanchez give thumbs-up reviews (or at least neutral ones and not outright pans) to, among other things, Stetson by Coty and Believe by Britney Spears, and one-star savagings of such expensive perfumes as Le Labo's exclusive Ambrette 9 ("a costly mess") and L'Artisan Parfumeur's Mechant Loup, which I've repeatedly tried and failed to love ("Bad wolf? More like wet dog").

Something else I hope most readers get from the book, something related that I've been trumpeting for ages, is that they shouldn't be afraid to browse across the aisle. Most men's and women's scents are that in name only: what really counts is how they smell, and a man shouldn't be afraid to wear a scent just because it happens to be in the women's section of the perfume department. In a better world, we'd be able to buy blind, because what matters, all that matters, is that a particular scent smells good and brings us pleasure.

The writing is generally a lot of fun: each scent is suffixed with a two-word description, often very straightforward ("green chypre", "woody citrus", "roasted sweet") but as often snarky, sometimes to the point of outright, and delicious, cruelty ("sad florist", "medicated treacle", "hideous oriental"). The reviews range from a single sentence to a full page, and vary in style from character assassination through chemical analysis to dreamy adoration, exactly right for an art form so volatile and evanescent.

Writing on perfumery, particularly reviewing or criticizing fragrances, tends to be vague, for the very reason that we don't have a big vocabulary to discuss scent. The authors of "Perfumes", particularly Turin, go some way towards remedying this with very specific and sometimes technical discussions of what exactly is in a fragrance to make it smell the way it does, and most readers are going to learn a lot about the chemistry and the business behind the fragrance industry.

There's still more than a little nebulosity about some of the writing, though; when they say, for instance, that Eau du Navigateur smells "very dated today", what does that mean? I've been racking my brains trying to figure it out. Does it smell very early-eighties to the authors (it doesn't have anything in common with other scents from that era to me), or is it somehow stodgy or old-fashioned (it isn't)? This might be a quibble, though: a lot of the writing is admirably clear and direct. I couldn't agree more with Sanchez when she says of Dior Higher Energy, "I've run out of things to say about these horrible sporty masculines." I think we all have.

One of the most interesting, and depressing, things about the book it how clear it becomes that practically every fragrance seems to get reformulated sooner or later. When Bel Ami by Hermes was launched in 1986, I hated it; it was bitter and strange and unlovable. I couldn't even understand how it had ever made it to market. A couple of years later, on revisiting it (which I always do with things I hate, for some perverse reason), I was ready for it; it hadn't changed, but I had, and suddenly I got that baffling strangeness, that brilliant, acrid sharpness that suffuses the whole thing. Now, Turin says that it's been remade (due to new regulations about what can be put into a fragrance), and while I'd been mulling over buying a bottle for literally years now, I think I have to put it in the category of things that are better remembered than re-experienced.

This is an odd thing to say, I think, but the book doesn't work particularly well as a book. It seems like a subject far better suited to a searchable database. I spot a listing for a perfumer or a house I don't know, say Mona di Orio (who will not want to read this book), and want to read what they have to say about all her fragrances, and I can't do it, because the listings are by alphabetical order of the perfume names and nothing else. Clearly we're spoiled by instant access to everything in the world, but this is the sort of book that invites searching of various sorts, exactly the kind of searching that's difficult to accomplish with a book, unless it's supplied with a lot of indices.

There's only one index in this book, for the various ratings (you can easily see which scents earned five stars and which only one). It isn't enough. I should be able to look up every scent that Olivia Giacobetti (the genius behind my beloved Safran Troublant) has had her hand in, so that I can find more by her. I should be able to find all the Yves Saint Laurent scents together (a house which has some baffling omissions in the guide--M7 and Y and Opium are discussed, of course, but not In Love Again, which made a big stir, nor Nu nor Yvresse). I should be able to find everything that the authors classify as, say, an aromatic fougére, or "soapy", a word they're fond of (and with good reason).

I don't think this is nit-picking. For a book on this scale, a book which wants to help people find and fall in love with scents and make smart choices from the thousands out there, such indices are absolutely essential. Perhaps in the second edition. We can hope.


  • Hey there, I really enjoy your blog. The writing is intelligent and enthusiastic and I look forward to seeing what you have to say. I find that if I come across a perfume/cologne I like I sooner or later discover that you've written about it somewhere and recommended it, like Nu, which I saw at Perfumania one day after countless visits where I missed it, and Ferragamo, Catalyst, Todd Oldham, et al. It was refreshing to read your thoughts on unisex fragrances, as that's always a resentment-filled struggle for me at the counter. I agree about the Turin/Sanchez book. I looked for Nu to no avail, and Yvresse, which I recently bought and couldn't believe I'd never heard of. It's interesting what they left out, and though I appreciate their critical rigor and built-in bullshit detector (i.e. as regards Le Labo), like you I was baffled by their lukewarm response to some of my favorites, like, say, L'Anarchiste and Herrera. I think of Perfume Guide as a history book, singing the praises of often lonely works of art (Le Feu D'Issey, for one) and taking the culturally oblivious to task for butchering classics which have deeply rooted social relevance beyond the skin of their wearers.

    By Blogger brian, at 8:31 PM  

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