One Thousand Scents

Friday, February 29, 2008

Cutting Edge

One of the complaints that I and thousands of other fragrance hounds have is that the bottle sizes are just too big. I never buy anything larger than 50 mL, because I'll never use even that much. Some scents, particularly limited editions, come only in 100-mL bottles (like the recent Eau Sauvage Fraicheur Cuir, which I would have bought if it had been available in 50 mL), and others still (the Marc Jacobs splashes, the Chanel Exclusifs) are available only in 200-mL bottles. Obviously the marketing people have their reasons: splashes are meant to be used generously so you'll in theory use them up pretty quickly, and a larger bottle brings the price up to the point that the scent seems more exclusive and unattainable.

What we fanatics crave is the smaller bottle. If everything came in half-ounce (15-mL bottles), we'd buy even more than we do now. If I have the choice between a 50-mL and a 100-mL bottle, I might not buy either, but if I have access to smaller bottles, then my resistance is reduced to nearly nothing. Even if they're available only as a set, I'll still do the calculus; "I already have that one, and I don't want that one, but I can trade away those, and there are still four more in the set that I want, so it's totally worth it!"

And better: when I use up the small bottle, I might buy a bigger version just so I never run out, and when presented with an array of scents in a set, I might find one that I'd never tried and subsequently fall in love with. I get what I want, the manufacturers get what they want, and everybody's happy. I'm sure there's some complex set of reasons that more of them don't do this, but they should.

Everybody knows what Axe (or Lynx, in Europe) is, right? It's that loud, stinky "body spray" deodorant aimed at young men. (They don't spray in single, controlled bursts like most scents nowadays; they're meant to be something you cover yourself in, so they keep spraying as long as you hold down the nozzle.) The advertising is horrific: it generally shows a young gent liberally coating himself with the stuff, and then women losing control of their free will and flinging themselves at him, or attacking one another to get to him.

The Axe people have created a wonderful bit of packaging. The fragrances originally came in a 100-mL spray, which is unsurprising, considering the quantity they seemed to be recommending you use. Not very portable, though, so they've come up with tiny 5-mL canisters called Bullets ("Axe Bullets: for the man who needs a lot of weaponry"), with a locking mechanism on the spray cap so you don't accidentally discharge it into your gym bag or knapsack. There are four fragrances available in this format (Clix, Essence, Phoenix, and Vice), and they're sold as sets of four, either all the same scent or one of each, in a little plastic cylinder. It is exceptionally clever; the per-volume price is much higher than the regular packaging, so the manufacturer is happy, and the customer gets to try a bunch of different scents, so he's happy, although those around him might not be.

Do you even want to know what they smell like? Can you even believe that I smelled all of them--that I put them on my skin--so I can tell you? I figure, well, even cheap perfumery is still perfumery. These scents, noxious though they might be, didn't fall out of the heavens; someone had to create them, and cheap isn't necessarily bad.

Clix: waterlogged red fruit and musk. Essence: cheap candy, artificial apple flavouring, plastic greenery. Vice: a dreadful clutter of unidentifiable sharp synthetics and herbs and...things. All three of them: very short-lived, an hour or two.

Amazingly, Phoenix is rather nice. I can't believe I'm saying it, but there it is. The opening is kind of rackety; a big blare of citrus, and some herbal notes, strangely heavy and thick (the word that came to mind was "meaty", although that's not quite it--but it's close). I suspect it's so loud because that's what the user of this sort of thing expects. It goes away soon, thank goodness, and the middle of the scent is a pleasant though unexceptional fougére: if it was applied with some restraint, you wouldn't at all mind smelling on someone. (It's soft and a little fresh, still herbal but with a floral undertone.) The product isn't designed to be applied with restraint, so you'd probably find it overwhelming. Still, this could be the gateway drug scent that the olfactorily inclined young man needs to propel him into the more sophisticated of adult fragrances, the kind of thing you don't need to be embarrassed about naming if someone asks you how come you smell so good.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Colour Copy: CSP Mora Bella

A few years back, CSP revamped their line with new packaging, new scents, and some reformulations. Mora Bella was one of the victims; it had been known as Fruits Sauvages, and savage it was, too.

The new version isn't drastically altered, though. I've smelled them side by side--I never owned the original, but I had a bunch of pochettes, those little packets containing a towelette soaked in scent, which CSP used to give out by the handful--and there are some differences: the original was brighter, sharper, more jagged, where the remake is more restrained and softer around the edges.

"Fruits Sauvages" means "wild fruit" in French, and fruit is the whole point of Mora Bella. If a scent can be said to have a colour, then Mora Bella is dark, dark red, almost maroon. It starts with a giddy whirl of citrus notes, lemon and bergamot, and then barreling up from underneath them comes a volcano of fruit; pomegranate, raspberry, and blackberry. It is intense and it is very, very red.

The floralcy of the scent comes from jasmine and Marvel of Peru, a flower also known as the four o'clock because that's when it opens to release its perfume. These notes aren't enough to make the scent floral, or, god forbid, fruity-floral, but they do two things: they enrich the scent, making it less linear, but they also take some of the signature sharpness away from the fruit notes, which start out fresh and later take on a warmer, almost cooked aspect.

Like a great many CSP scents, Mora Bella doesn't last particularly long; a couple of hours in, and the floral notes are gone, the fruit notes are attenuated (cooked and eaten, I guess), and most of what remains is a very soft, musky wood scent that lies very close to the skin. Mora Bella is somewhat less unisex than its predecessor, though I still wear it with pleasure.


Regarding my discussion of Baldessarini Ambré a while back, reader Steamy Vicks had this to say:

Good interpretation of this promising, but ultimately boring scent. However, I do think you have amber and ambergris confused.

I'm not really confused about them, or at least not any more than the perfumery industry would have me be. I tend to use the terms "ambergris" and "amber" more or less interchangeably. I know they aren't, exactly, but that's because it's complicated: there are five things that we could reasonably call "amber".

True amber or fossil amber, the solidified tree resin used in jewellery, has little if any scent (though some say it has an odour if you warm it against your skin) until you burn it, at which point it smells, of course, like burning tree sap. In fact, the German word for "amber" is "Bernstein", which means "burning stone"--the rock which you can ignite.

Ambergris itself is whale ejecta: it's something that whales produce in their intestines in reaction to indigestibles such as squid beaks, not altogether unlike the way an oyster produces a pearl. Raw, it smells like excrement: when aged, it smells warm, sweet, and animalic. The name comes from French "ambre gris", "grey amber", not because fossil amber and ambergris have anything in common, but because they're both rare and both found washed up on shore. The desirable qualities of ambergris and its extreme rarity led to the search for replacements, which is what the rest of the amber family is all about.

Third on the list is vegetable amber, which is to say various plant distillates that smell something like ambergris or can be combined with other things to provide the impression of ambergris. (Ambrette seeds have a musky-ambergris scent much used in perfumery.) Fourth is synthetic amber, such as Ambrox, which does the same thing.

Finally there's "amber", which in the perfume business is sometimes called "ambra" to distinguish it from fossil amber. Fragrances with an amber note are actually aiming to reproduce the scent of ambergris in various ways, some more accurately than others. Nowadays the term usually means, as you said, something sweet and soft and spicy. An "amber" scent almost always contains labdanum, styrax, and benzoin; there are other elements that can be used for various effects, such as tolu balsam, ambrette seed, Peru balsam, vanilla, and tonka bean, all of which contribute to the desired warmth and sweetness. An amber scent need not have any ambergris in it at all, and probably doesn't, but the important thing to note is that anything called "amber" in perfumery exists because it was originally meant to evoke or duplicate ambergris.

So. I'll concede that I shouldn't use the word "ambergris" quite so cavalierly, since the scent in question and others like it don't claim to have any in them. But since the original point of an amber scent was to imitate ambergris, I don't feel too guilty about using them more or less randomly. However, I think you're right that there shouldn't be any confusion, and I think I'll stick to the word "amber" from now on unless there actually is ambergris in the scent.


Friday, February 15, 2008

Rich and Strange: Clinique Aromatics Elixir

The opening of Aromatics Elixir is turbulent: soapy greenery, as if you'd washed a ficus in the shower with Ivory Liquid, immediately followed by a blunt-edged bitterness which will be a continuing theme. This bitterness comes from chamomile, softened, a little, by the first intimations of the floral heart.

The core of the scent is an armload of flowers, huge opulent quantities of them; rose and jasmine, as usual, but also carnation and ylang-ylang, lily of the valley, and orange-flower. And yet the scent doesn't quite read as a floral. The flowers are there, unapologetically, but the bitterness of the top note remains, and the strongest base notes, oakmoss and patchouli, are already making themselves known. Aromatics Elixir is like no other floral scent on the market; it is the scent of flowers cruelly imprisoned in a chypre cage.

Hours later, the drydown of the scent doesn't sound like anything special; it consists of notes you can find in a hundred, a thousand other scents--vetiver, patchouli, and oakmoss, unsurprisingly, because it is a chypre, but also ambergris and sandalwood and musk. And yet it is not merely warm or lush, though it is those things, and certainly not comforting: laced with the souls of all those dead flowers, and still one last trace of that signature bitterness, it is almost otherworldly, very much in keeping with the offbeat nature of the scent.

I first smelled it and the equally strange Wrappings, Clinique's second women's scent (a piercing and extremely green floral chypre in a fittingly angular bottle, released in 1990), at about the same time, and it seemed to me that this was part of a corporate strategy*; the company, I thought, was saying, "These aren't for everyone. Are you one of the elect? Can you handle them? Huh?" A lot of people can't; there is plenty of hatred for Aromatics Elixir, and it's not hard to see why. This is a scent that refuses to play nice. (Over the years I've had a love-hate relationship with it; sometimes the inherent viciousness of it amazes and delights me, and sometimes it's awful, a scrubber. It's like a Rorschach test that changes every time you take it.)

I can imagine what a shock Aromatics Elixir must have been in 1971, when it was launched; even next to YSL's Rive Gauche and Chanel No. 19 from the same year, not to mention all the other women's scents of the time, it stands out as something uncompromising and a little aloof. It's a declaration of independence.

* The strategy, if it was one, changed in 1997 with the release of Happy, a standard pretty-floral scent. Since then they've been churning out mostly flankers of the scent, plus a marginally novel floral-oriental, Simply. Happy, of course, was a huge seller, and so the rest of the company's offerings were no surprise; when there's money to be made, strangeness and artistry generally go out the window, so everything they've released in the last ten years has been of a piece with modern commercial perfumery. However, they did create a brilliant men's scent, Chemistry, in 1994, and they're still making it, along with Aromatics Elixir, so it isn't as if they've completely gone over to the dark side.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Young Lady: Eau de Dali

Marko writes regarding last week's fragrance:

Where do you "draw the line" on gender specific fragrances? I know in the past you have reviewed and admitted to wearing/enjoying scents that are marketed to women, yet at the end of this week's blog entry you are very specific as to what's appropriate for a man and what isn't. I know this is a complicated subject (and there really isn't any hard and fast rules to go by), but from one male perfume-lover to another, how do you justify when something is "too feminine" to pull off?

It's tricky, isn't it?

It isn't tricky for everybody. Most people, I think, can see where the line is drawn; women's scents are for women and men's scents are for men, and it would never occur to them to cross the aisle. That really is a pity; there are some scents that are heavily gendered in one direction or the other (most of them, just as is the case with clothing, on the women's side), but most fragrances could be read either way, or neither way at all. There's really only one actual category of scent that says "woman" to everyone in the West, and that's the floral scent. And of course even there you can find exceptions; Rochas Man, with all that jasmine, is a men's floral scent, as are Malmison by Floris (carnation), Fleur du Mâle by Gaultier (orange blossom), and more than a few others. Purely floral scents are considered the province of women in Western culture, and yet many, perhaps most, men's scents have floral notes of some sort in them. Rose and jasmine are almost universally considered beautiful, and so they find their way into a lot of masculine perfumery, though usually only as a grace note; often you're not even aware of their presence. Other scents are unabashedly floral--Old Spice, for instance--but constructed in such a way that they still read as masculine.

The distinction for me is the word "pretty". If I smell a scent and the word "pretty" comes to mind, then it's a sure bet that the scent is created for women, easily interpreted as a women's scent, and therefore (for most people) off limits for men. This, of course, opens another can of worms; what's "pretty"? And that's where I'll have to quote Potter Stewart on pornography: "I know it when I see it." Different people will have different opinions on what "pretty" is, but most people, I think, could instantly know when a scent is specifically tailored to women, as opposed to those that aren't so drastically marked for gender. It seems to me that societally, there's quite a lot of overlap between the elements of what's allowed in men's and women's fragrances, but the construction of the scents is very polarized.

My own personal rule is, I guess, as follows: if a scent seems predominantly floral, and more so, floral without any of the usual masculine or genderless markers such as oriental notes, then I'd feel kind of odd wearing it. It doesn't mean that a man can't wear it; it's just that I suspect it would read as particularly feminine to most people, and therefore I couldn't wear it with any comfort, any more than I could wear a dress. (I'm not sure I could even wear a kilt, which is unimpeachably men's clothing.) It's stupid, I know, and it shows how deeply I've been socialized, but I have been socialized, and I don't think that's likely to change.

I have worn many women's scents over the years, and still do. If a scent reads as unisex, or genderless, or masculine, or at the very least not indubitably feminine, then it doesn't much matter what the marketers say; I'll wear it any time and anywhere, because it brings me pleasure. Other scents I couldn't be comfortable wearing in public; I'd feel conspicuous, which is something I don't like to be. Patou's Joy, for instance, is a stunningly good scent, probably the best rose scent ever, but as much as I admire it, I'd feel very strange smelling of it at work. (This is why I love Midnight Poison so extravagantly; because in addition to being a very inviting rose scent, it also smells unexpectedly masculine--it's all that cleaned-up patchouli--and so I can wear it and feel comfortable in it.)

I don't pretend that my attitude, in either direction, is universal. There are many people who are much more stringent than I am about gender divisions in scent, and no doubt there are cultures in which Joy (or, I don't know, Love's Baby Soft or Vera Wang Princess) would smell masculine or unmarked for gender. But it's how I feel.

And that brings us to this week's wonderful thing.

The original Salvador Dali was a bit of a shock; it was launched in 1984, before the modern surfeit of fragrances with non-designer names attached to them, and since Dali was still alive at the time (he died in 1989), it wasn't hard to imagine that he'd had a surrealist hand in the scent, and that it smelled of bowling balls and dryer lint and an alarm clock. (It didn't.)

In 1995, the company launched Eau de Dali, and the packaging alone would be enough to tell you what was inside. The bottle, a by-then iconic pair of lips surmounted by a cap made of a nose, and the box, bearing a Dali painting on which the bottle was based, were identical to the original Salvador Dali, but muted, the whole thing reinterpreted in a delicate palette of pinks and peaches. Dali was for grownups; this was for the young.

Let's look at some lists of notes, which is always fun. The first one is in some vague approximation of alphabetical order, which is useless, but it still gives us an idea of what's in there:

Fragrance notes: amber, boysenberry, honeysuckle, bushflower, apple, bergamot, cedar, cedarwood, grapefruit, iris, jasmine, lemon, peach, pineapple, rose, sandal, tangerine, vanilla.

There's nothing in there that couldn't be used in a men's scent, but all those fruit and flower notes suggest that we're looking at something in the modern mode of women's perfumery, the now-omnipresent fruity floral.

These next two lists are better. First, from Osmoz:

Top note : Bergamot, Lemon, Green note, Peach

Middle note : Lily of the valley, Rose, Jasmine, Orris

Base note : Cedar, Musk, Amber

And then from a website called (that's Denmark):

Head Notes: Lemon Tangerine Grapefruit Peach Green Leaves Bergamot Petitgrain Pineapple Prune

Heart Note: Lily of the Valley Jasmine Iris Rose Ylang-Ylang

Base Notes : Vanilla Sandalwood Cedarwood Amber Plum-tree Evernia

Lots of overlap, some divergence. So what does it smell like?

The top is bright, fresh, and bracing; a lot of lemon and bergamot, rounded out with other fruits, mostly peach. Immediately underneath that--really underneath, not more than a minute away--is a large floral bouquet thoroughly dominated by lily of the valley (or muguet, as the French call it) and rose, with some other flowers and fruit notes tucked around the edges. The balance of the flowers is lovely; it suggests a young woman, just past girlhood, in a white dress in a meadow. There are hints of greenery among the flowers, something slightly piercing, that keep the scent from becoming overwhelmingly flowery. It is enchanting.

The drydown is unexpectedly light, despite those heavy-sounding base notes; as the flowers begin to die away, a few hours in, they're joined and supplanted by a warm glow, an undefined aura with a vanillic overtone and a suggestion of creamy wood, very much in keeping with the prettiness of the middle notes.

As I said last week, I honestly don't see how a man could wear this. I have no trouble with rose- and jasmine-based men's scents, but something that's composed mostly of lily of the valley seems insurmountable; of all flowers, that one seems to me to speak most directly of young womanhood. Has anyone ever made a muguet scent for men? Is such a thing even possible? Can that fresh, lovely white-floral scent ever be masculinized?

Perhaps. Perfumers and their allied chemists are magicians. But I doubt it.

Friday, February 01, 2008

For Men Only: Yves Saint Laurent M7

This ad got a lot of press when Yves Saint Laurent's M7 was launched in 2002. Shock, mostly, and some speculation that advertising was changing. Nothing much happened; most magazines outside France refused to run the ad (they got a more acceptable ad, featuring the same model from the chest up), and it eventually went the way of most advertising campaigns.

Some people were a little less sanguine than the French. The British, for instance. This article about the ad in the Sunday Herald tried to keep its tone light and amused, but it smells like borderline panic to me; it really boils down to OH MY GOD IT'S A NAKED MAN IN A MAGAZINE AD AND HE'S NAKED AND YOU CAN SEE HIS DICK AND EVERYTHING OH GOD OH GOD OH GOD!

Whatever. Calm down.

Is the unexpected sight of a naked man really so threatening and horrifying to vociferously heterosexual men? Are naked men so hideous to behold that their only function is to drive all women to lesbianism?

I thought the ad was nice. The model, Samuel de Cubber, is good-looking and not shaven or waxed bare, thank goodness, and the ad certainly makes its point as forcefully as possible: that M7 is most definitely a scent for men.

The official list of notes:

Top: Bergamot, mandarin, rosemary.
Middle: Vetiver, agarwood.
Base: Amber, musk, mandrake root.

Agarwood is also known as oud or oudh; it's a resinous wood with a dark incense aroma.

M7 comes roaring out of the bottle with a clatter of citrus notes and, right from the start, the aggressive, somewhat medicinal scent of agarwood. The citrus dies away, but the agarwood doesn't; it's joined by rough vetiver and that, right there, is the scent for the next few hours; a smoky, incensey, bristly, growling thing. You'll either love it or hate it; there's no in-between. It is not kidding.

Eventually--it takes a while, and survives hand-washing, believe me--the agarwood and vetiver begin to back away, slowly, and are supplemented by a warm and durable ambergris. By this time it's almost a relief; the middle notes haven't outstayed their welcome, necessarily, but they're so aggressive that it's a pleasure to have something else to smell.

If you put on a tiny dab of the scent, a wonderful thing happens: the ferocity is damped down and the ambergris takes over, smelling--at least on my skin--something like the vanilla-ambergris base of Guerlain's Habit Rouge. When you spray on M7, though, even one quick blast, you're going to smell daunting and assertive. It's a scent that can wear you as easily as you wear it; you have to be in the mood for it. Don't wear it to the office.

The bottle is the picture of simplicity: a block of wood-coloured glass with a silvery stripe separating it from the cap. It was clearly conceived to be as masculine as its contents.

A woman, could, I suppose, wear M7. It's no secret that women can wear men's clothing and scents. Sometimes, though, a scent is so deliberately, obviously gendered that it would smell like olfactory transvestism on the opposite sex, and this is one of them; I think on a woman it would simply smell baffling and wrong, in the same way that an exaggeratedly feminine scent like Anais Anais would smell wrong on a man.

To underscore this point, next week I've got the most amazingly pretty scent you never heard of; delicate, adorable, absolutely and utterly girly. A man might be able to wear Chanel No. 5, but he can't wear this one.