One Thousand Scents

Friday, December 12, 2008

Cheers: Idole de Lubin

On the one hand, we should be able to judge and rate perfumes based on one thing and one thing only: their scent. That, after all, is the point and the soul of them. On the other hand, perfumery as an art form is no longer separable from the artistry of their bottling and packaging (and advertising, too), and most of us have had their experience of feeling so-so about a scent but being compelled to buy it because of the splendid bottle, or loving a scent but waffling about buying it and having the bottle be the final element that pushes us to own it.

Idole de Lubin is calculated to be that sort of bottle. Just looking it at, with that fantastic ebony African-mask cap and the textury, shield-shaped bib on the bottle, plus that cargo-cult lettering, makes you want to buy it, hold it, put it on display. It's a nearly irresistible object (by Serge Mansau, creator of many near-irresistible perfume bottles). I hate to say it, but if I had smelled Idole before I made my purchase of CDG Carnation, I might have bought the Idole instead. Something to dream of for the future, maybe.

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Once upon a time, many perfumes were drinkable. They were made with regular old alcohol rather than the denatured alcohol of modern times, and, absent synthetics, they contained mostly extracts of various plants, so you could drink a little glassful of a citrusy cologne before splashing yourself with it, or take a curative teaspoonful of a perfume before scenting yourself with a handkerchief dipped in it. Some perfumes were made to be added to food or wine: the Romans were particularly fond of this for parties and banquets. And why not? What is tea, really, but a solvent-extraction perfume made for drinking? What is Jägermeister if not a drinkable perfume, a sugared alcohol-and-water tincture of herbs and spices?

The very first thing that I thought of when I smelled Idole for the first time was, "sandalwood liqueur!" The sandalwood, though a base note, is evident from the very start, and the whole composition has a beverage feel to it. Perfume lovers call this sort of scent "boozy", and while I had experienced alcoholic scents before (in Liz Claiborne's Spark for Men and in Escada Pour Homme, for two, not to mention the obvious Demeters like Gin & Tonic and Sambucca), I had never experienced something so entirely drinkable, something that you would not be at all surprised to find in a little glass in your hand.

The opening of Idole suggests Benedictine and Chartreuse and other complex herb-and-spice liqueurs, zingy and biting with just a hint of saffron. (If it's a liqueur, you're enjoying it in a sandalwood-panelled room with leather furniture.) It never really calms down until the very end: it's a jagged whirl of spices and woods until the soft, vaguely sweet woody-leathery close, hours later. It's not the sort of scent that vanishes into your skin or smells "like you, only better"; it has a presence and even a certain authority, though despite its spikiness it's never loud or aggressive. Every now and then you catch an unexpected whiff of it and say, "That smells really great!" (I do, anyway.)

It's rarely if ever a good idea to buy a fragrance without trying it first, but Idole is really the sort of thing you ought to try on your skin. It's going to disagree with some people, maybe a lot of people: it's not conventionally attractive. But it's unlike any other commercial scent I've ever smelled*, and if you're the kind of person who can wear it and enjoy it, Idole will have people near you hovering around, sniffing, their eyes closed, smiling.

* After writing this I did a little poking around and discovered that some people think Idole smells like a copy of Donna Karan's Chaos. I haven't smelled the DK in years, but from what I remember, I don't see the similarity: Idole is boozy and less assertively spicy than Chaos, which I found overwhelming, a little like the original Comme des Garçons scent, or a dry, hyper version of Organza Indecence.

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