One Thousand Scents

Sunday, March 29, 2009


Yesterday I was in Shoppers Drug Mart, the local hyperdrugstore, which is among other things the closest we have in these parts to a perfume boutique. I wasn't there to try or buy fragrances, but since you have to pass through the boutique section to get into the main part of the store, I always end up checking out their goods anyway.

Near the door was a big conspicuous display of the new Yves Saint Laurent Homme flanker, La Nuit De L'Homme. The original was tragically boring, but the new one had a little promise, based on the spritzed blotter I had under my nose: a warm spicy oriental with an edge to it. I went to the counter and asked if there might be a sample available (since I can't tell if something is any good without wearing it on my skin, and I can't spray it directly on my skin when I'm out with Jim).

"No. Sorry." The saleswoman was as curt as could be without being outright rude, and then she just turned to the next customer, and that was that.

I don't expect groveling obeisance, and I understand that she's making a commission and doesn't necessarily want to spend a lot of time with a customer who isn't likely to buy anything then and there. But customers aren't a one-time deal; they come back, and they remember how they've been treated in the past. Even if I wasn't a number in her sales book that day, it might have occurred to her that samples are the best--practically the only--way to sell fragrance, and that even if she didn't have any, it might behoove her to be a little nicer to customers. "Oh, no, I'm sorry, we didn't get any," even if it's a lie, is not going to cost her anything to say.

I think I am going to start doing what some of the more brazen perfume addicts do: carry around vials and make up my own samples from the testers. I couldn't have done it right then (because I couldn't get any on my skin), but it seems it's the only way I'm ever going to get to try anything.


Shoppers also had a whole bunch of mass-market scents for $9.99 each, the drugstore version of the record store's markdown bin, and when my eyes lit on a few bottles of Giorgio Red, I was thrilled. I remember when it was launched in 1989: it was a huge, genre-mashing fruity floral chypre oriental with a mass of blackcurrant and peach in the top, a gigantic bouquet of flowers made sultry with oriental notes in the middle, and a dark, throbbing chypre base. Very strong, of course, but that was the way of fragrance in the second half of the eighties. The composition was said to have 672 elements, and that seems entirely possible, if a little excessive and show-offy. It was nothing short of astonishing.

One of the boxes was, naturally enough, open already, because people are going to want to smell what they're buying before they buy it. (I never do this: I'm not going to unwrap a box and spray the contents, because then nobody will ever buy it, and I think that's wrong. But if someone's already opened one, I have no compunction about taking advantage of the open box.) One sniff was all it took to tell me that Red had been disastrously reformulated at some point in the last twenty years. It now has that sharp fresh top note that the new version of Lancôme Trésor also has. There's fruit there, but it's not the same: it smells thoroughly synthetic, and not even in a good way. I didn't bother with any more of the scent, and won't. That first sniff told me everything I needed to know. What it was, it isn't any more. It's been destroyed.

I cannot understand this perpetual reformulation. I understand that companies have to tinker with scents over the years: a particular ingredient becomes unavailable, the cost of making the original formula is simply too high for the price point, tastes have changed and the scent seems to need a little updating. I don't necessarily like that, but I understand it. However, when a scent is completely changed, when it no longer bears any resemblance to its precursor, why keep the original name and packaging? Old customers will try it, discover that it's something completely different, and disdain it. New customers don't have any allegiance to the old product, so that isn't a selling point for them. Who wins?

The manufacturer, I guess, who doesn't have to pay for new package design and production. But everyone else loses.

Friday, March 27, 2009


Every time I discover a great discontinued scent, or more usually a great scent that later gets discontinued, I feel as if there ought to be some governing body that could force companies to keep such things in production--and keep them unaltered--regardless of sales figures or fickle taste. It wouldn't be a decision made lightly: you can't keep producing every scent just because someone somewhere likes it. But there are some fragrances that are so good--elementally appealing, ground-breakingly novel or simply the best in their class--that they should be universally and eternally available as an example of what is possible.

Theorema by Fendi is just such a scent. Fendi made the baffling decision to delete every single scent from its line except the most recent, the boring Palazzo. The charming, summery Life Essence: gone. The admittedly very Eighties original scent (which was dazzling at the time and could have been given a renaissance): toast. The iconoclastic oriental Asja, in its gorgeous lacquered box-bottle: a memory. And most incomprehensibly, the greatly beloved Theorema, which is, distilled into a bottle, the coziness of a cashmere blanket, a box of bonbons, and a winter fireplace.

The top is a joyous explosion of orange peel (well, tangelo and shamouti, a seedless, thick-skinned, perfumey orange varietal, according to the manufacturer), supplemented with creamy spices and a smidgen of chocolate, like a memory of a Terry's Chocolate Orange. This settles down into an even creamier body of wood and amber, bolstered with the suggestion of flowers. It's not exactly a gourmand scent, despite the food notes, but it sure is an oriental, and as it should, it lasts a long time: twelve hours or more on me. And they are enchanted hours, because Theorema is extraordinarily beautiful, really in a class all its own. It is incomprehensible to me that it would be discontinued.

The bottle is meant to suggest a Fendi handbag, so clearly Theorema is positioned as a women's scent, and in fact there was a men's version a couple of years later, which I never tried, but the original Theorema is, like so many oriental scents, quite neutral. (Even the handbag is abstracted: the spare, angular bottle wouldn't look wildly out of place on a man's dresser.) There are floral elements, but they are not as important as the sweet, enveloping oriental warmth of the scent.

I could have had a full bottle of it back at the end of the nineties. I can still envision it sitting on the shelf at the perfumery around the corner from where I used to live, that smart black-and-gold box: it wasn't hellaciously expensive, and I knew how gorgeous it was, but in one of those incomprehensible choices we regret later, I decided against it. And then one day it was gone, deleted to make room for something else probably less interesting. A couple of years later, I found a boxed set of Fendi miniatures, among them Theorema, and of course I snapped it up and have been doling out droplets from time to time. I still have nearly a half of the miniature; it hasn't turned or changed in any way, and if luck is on my side, it will continue to delight me for another few years yet.

A little digging--well, a lot of sleuthing, actually--will find you a few places that you can still buy Theorema online. (There are plenty of Google links, but most of them take you to places at which the scent is out of stock. Forever, one supposes.) A site called PerfumeLA, which I've never ordered from, has a one-ounce spray for $34.95, which is a pretty good price, I would think. Get it while you can. (The only thing stopping me from ordering it is that I have way too many scents already that I'll never use up, and I still have a few precious millilitres of Theorema, so I don't want to be a pig: I'll leave it for someone else.)

"Theorema" is a rather baffling name, because Fendi is an Italian design house, but "Theorema" isn't a proper Italian word: their version of "theorem" is "teorema" (which is also the name of a Pasolini film). "Theorema" is, however, Latin, for whatever that's worth. I don't know why such a stiffly mathematical word would be used to name such a soft and luscious fragrance.


Bernard Loiseau was a French chef most famous for having killed himself when his restaurant was rumoured to be losing a Michelin star. (It didn't: he shot himself over nothing.) Before that, though, he was famous for owning the three-star La Côte D'Or ("The Gold Coast") restaurant and making himself a public commodity in France with books, frozen meals, and a boutique.

He also created a group of food-based perfumes with a Parisian fragrance company called B'Prime Parfums, one of which was called Orangette. I can guess, unlike Theorema, why Orangette was used as the name for a fragrance: because, like Theorema, it has oranges in it. What I can't seem to find out is what "orangette" means. It clearly must be some sort of food, but beyond that, I have nothing.

Orangette is essentially the Platonic essence of Theorema, the idea of the scent, stripped down to its barest possible form. While Theorema dances around the idea of chocolate and orange, suggesting it while overloading the senses with other sweets, Orangette simply is chocolate orange, with the balance skewed very much toward a fresh juicy orange. It's bright and vivid without seeming cheap or childlike, and the combination of the two elements, in food or in perfume, is a sort of genius, their individual sharp and sweet qualities contrasting with and complementing one another.

Orangette was one of a series of five scents created by Loiseau called "perfumed recipes", all food-based: the others were Pain d'epices ("Gingerbread"), Fenouil ("Fennel"), Poivre ("Pepper"), and Persil ("Parsley"). Although I haven't tried the others, and all five are long gone, you can still get Orangette, as I did, as part of a sampler from The Perfumed Court, the Gourmand Sampler, a collection of 12 niche scents with a food angle. While I might not agree that Ambre Narguilè smells like "French toast with sweet spices" (what? really?), I can't argue with their choice of scents. If you want to try Orangette, this may well be your last chance.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Soup of the Day

Slate has an interesting article about human body odour which you will find fascinating. I mean, just have a look at this wheel:

The original, plus the instructive sidebar, is here.

You may have seen such wheels before: they're commonly used to identify components of wine

or commercial fragrances

but I have never seen one for body odour before, because it's not the sort of thing that people generally want to classify: they just mostly want it to be gone, hence the millennia-old art of perfumery.

Still, the BO wheel does answer a question that I've always had, and I certainly do apologize if this is too much information, but here goes. Since I hit puberty I've had to wear deodorant, and I always do. My own ordinary scent is unobjectionable, as far as I know, but my underarms? Something else altogether. If I were to go without deodorant for a couple of days (which I have on rare occasion done as an experiment, and once had to do for a while due to an iatrogenic fungal infection about which the less said the better) but continue to shower daily as I always do, what I end up with at the end of a normal day of normal sweating in the axillary region is a smell that can only be described as chicken-soupy. No kidding, no exaggeration: it smells like chicken soup--salty, fatty, animalic, cooked. It really is the damnedest thing. There are worse things to smell like, but I sure don't want to smell like that, so deodorant/antiperspirant it is.

What a relief, then, to find "chicken broth" on the BO aroma wheel. It's not just me! Other people have a soupy-brothy smell to their apocrine sweat as well! I'm not a freak!

Well, maybe I am, actually. But well within certain parameters.


The "wet dog" odour note interested me, because I've read that (some) black people think that (some) white people who've come in from the rain smell like wet dog. But then, people historically have tended to 1) find that people of other races and cultures do not smell like them and theirs, and 2) think that that difference in smell is a bad thing. (When white travellers first came to Japan, the Japanese were not pleased with the newcomers' odours, partly, no doubt, because a long sea voyage is not conducive to top-flight hygiene, but also because of dietary differences: there are no dairy products in traditional Japanese cuisine, and so one Japanese word for Europeans was "bata-kusai", "stinks of butter".)

Not just other cultures, either. Some vegetarians claim that meat-eaters have a stronger body odour; some of the more militant types say they "smell like death". Whatever. I used to be a vegetarian (for four years), but don't get me started on them.

If you do some poking around the Internet, you can find just about any identifiable group vilified by another group for their scent. I would like to believe that if world society becomes more homogenous, as has been the trend over the last fifty years or so, you'll see less of this sort of thing, not necessarily because we all start to smell alike, but because through broader exposure we just get used to the idea that different groups of people, as well as different individuals, can have varying, normal, bodily odours: different ≠ bad. However, given that men and women still think the other sex smells bad, I don't suppose we'll ever see any progress in that regard.

You can read a lot more of this sort of thing in The Smell Culture Reader, which you can preview here in some detail, thanks to Google Books.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Sweet Nothings: Penhaligons Artemisia

With a single exception--LP No. 9, which stands for Love Potion Number 9 and announces its hyper-modernity with minimalist packaging and, in the women's case, an insanely hot-pink juice--the entire aura of Penhaligons is of a discreet Victoriana. It's not undeserved: the company has been around since 1872 with the creation of their first scent, Hammam Bouquet. But it's a bit jarring when you sample a scent from a bottle and a box that could have come from your great-grandparents' attic and instead smell something that could have been created yesterday.

Artemisia is the companion scent to Endymion: they have nothing in common, but you can think of them as any other paired women's and men's scent. Where Endymion starts out old-fashioned and then thrillingly injects a thoroughly modern note into the mix, Artemisia is up-to-date from the very first breath. It's basically a fruity floral with an oriental undertone, the sort of thing that has been done many, many times in recent years. It isn't bad, but it isn't especially groundbreaking, either, and it definitely doesn't fit its packaging.

The opening is supposedly "nectarine and green foliage", and if you can identify nectarine in there, I will give you a thousand dollars. Yvresse actually does have nectarine in it, and it does smell like nectarines (or at least a peachy-apricot facsimile). Artemisia smells more like some generic fruit cocktail in a sugar syrup: it's not hateful, but there's nothing special or compelling about it, either.

After a while, a sugared bouquet of flowers makes an appearance, and as with the generic fruit, it's not any specific flowers, although there seems to be a dose of violet in there. But whatever the flowers are, they're sweet, and the sweetness just keeps increasing in amplitude; if you didn't put this on with a judicious hand, you'd be suffocating in the vanilla-sugar fumes. Because it's an oriental, there's a goodly dose of vanilla, plus amber and sandalwood. (There's supposedly oakmoss, too, but like the nectarine, I don't get it.) It's not gourmand: it doesn't suggest food. But it most definitely does suggest a sugar refinery.

I can see people liking this, because it's likable in small doses. You'd have to have a certain tolerance for sweetness, but if you like any of the myriad of gourmand, sweet oriental, and fruity-floral scents that have landed on the shelves in the last decade and a half, then you'll probably like Artemisia, too. The only thing is the price: £60 for a 50-mL spray at the Penhaligons website, $125 at Luckyscent. Unless you need to have that undeniably pretty bottle on your dresser, I just don't see how it's worth the price when that kind of money would buy you two or even three similar scents.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Moonstruck: Endymion by Penhaligons

Who doesn't love a twist? In a movie, a play, a book, a TV show, it's a pleasure to be surprised, to have our expectations subverted, to look at something we thought we knew and see it in a completely different light.

Sometimes fragrances have twists, too, things that you didn't see coming. Rocabar still has the power to surprise: the ending to an outdoorsy, rough-and-tumble scent is soft vanilla. And Endymion by Penhaligons is a surprise, too, though this one is a little closer to the surface: not a twist ending, but an unexpected second-act revelation.

The first time I put it on, the very first thought in my head was "fresh oriental": there's a zippy citrus note that's gone in a flicker, and the whole structure announces that it's an oriental scent--there's a hint of sandalwood at the start, and you know you're going to be smelling more of it, and maybe more hard-core orientalisms like amber and vanilla, later on. The opening has a barber-shop quality, like shaving lather (it resembles Rive Gauche Pour Homme in no small measure), that soapy-lavender smell that's so comforting. It's a rather old-fashioned kind of scent, not boring or grandfathery but solid and classic, like an old building in the middle of a refurbished downtown neighbourhood.

And then something comes sidling up underneath, a very modern-day perfumery note (Endymion was created in 2003) that completely undermines what went before it. When I first smelled it, all I could think was, "Is that coffee?"

Yes, it is. There's a lot of it; the heart of the scent is hardly anything but, a creamy latte.

At the base is a resurgence of that opening sandalwood, and it is an oriental scent, but instead of amber or vanilla there's a little cloud of spicy incense. It's not as long-lasting as I think an oriental should be, but eight hours later you can still smell it faintly--a ghost of sandalwood and a trace of bitter spice, mostly, dreamy and cozy.

Penhaligons is an old British company: they've been around for almost a hundred and forty years, and their packaging is still suggestive of that legacy. It's what I expected from Endymion, which has the look and the name (from Greek mythology, a shepherd adored by the moon goddess Selene) of something from the Victorian era. What's in the bottle is something else altogether: a novel collision of old and new.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Burning Sensation, Part 2

I am not exaggerating when I tell you that I have been trying to write this for two weeks.

When I was writing about Avignon, I though I'd probably write immediately afterwards about Bond No. 9 Silver Factory, because they're both incense scents. And then I came up with that title (it's a play on words!), I knew that I had to write the two back to back.

The first roadblock came when I just couldn't think of a hook to hang the Silver Factory review on. I can't just put down the facts: I need some sort of format, some structure. And it wouldn't come. Friday went by, and then Saturday, and I thought, okay, well, I'll just post in on Monday. Monday came and went. All right, I thought, I'll post it on Wednesday, then.

Roadblock two: after Wednesday turned into Thursday, a little voice in my brain told me to just write about something else, but then the louder voice, the one I listen to, said, "Oh no you don't." I had already decided that the things had to be done in a certain order and there was no deviating from it, which is the way my brain works, and there's no getting around it.

And then another Friday came and went, and then another Monday, and by this time I had been wearing Silver Factory almost every day for more than two weeks, and I was getting righteously sick of it. Not because there's anything wrong with it, mind; it's wonderful stuff that suits me better than Avignon (good though that is) and I could see owning a full bottle of it. But I just can't wear the same thing over and over again. I know there are people who have a signature scent and wear nothing but, and honestly, how do they do it? Do people watch the same movie over and over again every day to the exclusion of every other? To they wear exactly the same outfit every day of their lives? (Steve Jobs does, I guess.) Do they eat the exact same food three meals a day, week in and week out?

Maybe they do. I can't.

At any rate, today, finally, after two weeks, I just decided that I had to be done with it.

And so here we are.

Though they're both based largely upon incense, and therefore recognizable as kin, Avignon and Silver Factory are dramatically different from one another. Avignon is sombre and grimy with age: Silver Factory is modern, bright, shiny. It's named after Andy Warhol's famous art studio in New York, which had been dressed up with tinfoil glued to the walls and silver paint (and sometimes silver helium balloons drifting around), and it convincingly suggests a glittery, rather drunken sixties happening, with gin in the glasses (and the guests), metal on the walls, and incense in the air. The top is exceedingly vivid (mostly citrus and lavender) but manages to avoid the men's-cologne cliché by immediately following that up with a smoky dose of incense, which is the core of the scent until, some hours later, a warm and not-too-sweet wood-amber base pushes everything else out of the way (and lasts for more hours). It is exceptionally nice, and once I get over being tired of it from self-imposed overexposure, I'll be happy to wear it again.

And just look at the bottle! The silver-foil edging, the parody of Warhol's Campbell's Soup can paintings, the already iconic Bond No. 9 flaçon, about as far removed from the austere Avignon bottle as is possible without crossing the line into sheer vulgarity. How could you not want that sitting on your dresser?

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Burning Sensation, Part 1

Avignon, named after a town in France that served as the seat of the papacy for the bulk of the fourteenth century, is meant to smell of church incense, and I'm sure it does. But I wasn't raised Catholic, and so the full-bore incense doesn't have any religious connotations for me. I can just interpret it as a scent.

The first breath of Avignon is odd and completely unexpected: it has a bright lemon-soda quality to it, and also a pine-needle element. But just underneath that is something musty, the smell of an age-old library, maybe, all wet stone and old books. The lemon and pine (contributed by elemi) suggest commercial cleansing products, making it feel as if someone tried, and failed, to scrub the mustiness away.

The body of the scent is frankincense heaped onto glowing charcoal, cut through with bitter chamomile so the smoke doesn't become too thick. At the end, many many hours later, is the soft glow of vanilla, but very dry, like dying embers. The whole thing is extremely simple; a portrait of something ancient and verging on ruination.

Some fragrances have a specific feeling, a mood, to them, and those are the ones I choose when I'm feeling a certain way (or want to feel a certain way). Others seem to change depending on the circumstances, and for me, Avignon is one of those. Sometimes it's dark, foreboding, funereal; other times, it seems brightly expansive (and right now, as I write this, is one of those times): the burning, instead of producing a heavy pall of smoke, makes the whole scent lighter than air.

If you try to Google "avignon cdg", by the way, you will get a whole lot of airline information, because "CdG" doesn't just stand for Comme des Garçons, it also stands for Charles de Gaulle, a big Paris airport.