One Thousand Scents

Friday, June 19, 2009

Act One: Caron Eau de Reglisse and L'Artisan Mandarine Tout Simplement

I have one of two expectations for a scent: that it be complex, and develop over time, or that it be simple and linear, more or less unchanging from start to finish. If it's somewhere in between, neither one nor the other, I can't help but feel that the perfumer has failed. Such fragrances usually put all their eggs in one basket, that basket being the opening: the theory, presumably, is that people will sniff it but not actually put it on their skin, love it right from the beginning, and buy it, not realizing until it's too late that the rest of the scent doesn't live up to the promise of the first notes. It's worse when the scent is named after those first notes: buyers will naturally believe that what they smell at the beginning is the fragrance, and they're all too likely to be disappointed when it isn't.

Caron's Eau de Reglisse, originally launched as a limited edition in 2006 but still in production, starts off well enough, with a warm licorice-candy effect ("reglisse" being the French word for "licorice") tied to a cheery--chirpy, even--mandarin orange. It has the innocent glow of early-morning sunshine and it is thoroughly enchanting. After the citrus burns off, the licorice is joined by a slightly abrasive ginger, which would fine if the ginger didn't gradually eclipse the licorice altogether and then peter off in a vague trail of woody warmth that nominally is patchouli but in reality isn't much of anything at all. It shouldn't have been hard to rebalance the scent so that the licorice persisted into the base notes, surely, but the perfumer (Richard Fraysse) took a different tack, and one that just doesn't work very well.

Mandarine Tout Simplement was also released in 2006, was also originally a limited-edition scent, and is also still in production. At first breath, you can see why: it's a sharp, brilliant, almost glittering reproduction of mandarin-orange peel, followed in close succession by the softer, pulpier smell of the fruit itself, and it's magic, absolutely realistic and pure joy. But citrus, as it will, disappears quickly, the beneficiary and victim of its low molecular weight, and what remains simply isn't that interesting: a bit of spice, a bit of petal, a bit of wood. Obviously it's impossible to lock citrus peel onto your skin for any length of time, but mightn't there have been some way to carry the mandarin theme into the rest of the scent? (The official description lists three kind of mandarin--green, yellow, and red--and places them respectively in the top, middle, and bottom, like some kind of olfactory traffic light. All I can say, that wasn't my experience of the scent at all, and it sounds like mere advertising nonsense.) I think that in this case, perfumer Olivia Giacobetti was betrayed by her talent for creating light, transparent scents, and made one that works beautifully for about five minutes but not at all in the long run. At least Mandarine Tout Simplement comes in a fair-sized vat--200 mL--so if you don't mind the price (currently $125 US), you can blast yourself at regular intervals and enjoy that glorious clementine sparkle over and over again.


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

To The Cleaners: L'Artisan Parfumeur Mûre et Musc Extrême

Putting a scent in laundry detergent used to pose something of a problem, because the harsh cleaner in detergent would wreak havoc with the scent molecules. Synthetic musk provided a solution: large, stable molecules that smelled good to people, that wouldn't be broken down by the detergent in storage or in use, and that would remain on the clothes to give evidence that they were clean. The use of these synthetic musks was expanded to virtually every household product: they're in toothpastes, other cleaners, shampoo and conditioner, everything that requires a scent, which is to say everything. As a result, something which in its natural form has a rather earthy animalic smell now irrevocably has connotations of extreme cleanliness to North Americans and Europeans. The natural consequence of this is that fragrances which contain a large quantity of synthetic musk--which is essentially the only kind in use today, since natural musk requires the killing of endangered animals--smell hygienic and decontaminated to us, often to the point of being reminiscent of shampoo or soap. Truly animalic musk scents are still being created--Serge Lutens Muscs Khoublai Khan is one--but for the most part, when a commercial scent is based on musk, we're going to associate it with cleanliness.

"Mûre" is the French word for "blackberry". In the eighties, a synthetic blackberry note called beta damascone and its various chemical relatives (with various fruit scents such as raspberry, grape, and plum) was used in quantity in the room-filling Poison by Dior, and by the mid-nineties they were everywhere. When you smell a strong, distinctive dark-berry note, that's what you're smelling.

L'Artisan Parfumeur Mûre et Musc Extrême has the exact smell of a freshly and thoroughly laundered jar of jam.


Friday, June 12, 2009

Ad Feminam, Part 2: Chez-Elle

Do You Want to Make Men OBEY YOU?

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I can't help thinking that there is something missing from the end of her husband comes home at night to help her. Help her what? "...rearrange the furniture"? "...proofread her doctoral dissertation"? "...have an orgasm"?

I'm guessing the missing phrase is "...with the housework". "Chez elle" is French for "at her house", and all manner of things could be going on there, but let's be honest: sex is all well and good, but at the end of the day, wouldn't most women really rather just put up their feet and have a man slavishly vacuum and put things away? (Even if it means she has to suffer through the STRONGEST perfume she ever used.)


That symbol, by the way, is an actual Chinese word, and they didn't just grab it at random for exoticism; it's the word for "to love", and I never would have found this out without the help of Tian, who has a really terrific blog called Hanzi Smatter, "dedicated to the misuse of Chinese characters in Western culture", and who pointed me here.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Classics Illustrated: Comme des Garçons Citrico

Sometimes you deliberately look for a list of notes in a scent, knowing that it's not usually going to tell you anything useful but wanting at least some sort of idea of what you're smelling. Sometimes you stumble across the list by accident, particularly when you're looking for a nice picture of a bottle to go with your discussion of the scent.

Luckyscent has the following list of notes for Citrico, the third of Comme des Garçons' Cologne series:

bitter orange, bergamot, neroli, cedar, sandalwood, lemon

All I can say to that is, "No it isn't!"*

Here's what I smelled right from the beginning when I wore Citrico: a citrusy granita, mostly lemon, sparkles on your skin. As it melts, it reveals a cluster of herbal green with a strip of lemon peel: the green leaves unfurl to reveal a single rose. Citrico isn't a rose scent--it's unquestionably a classic cologne--but the rose is there, large as life. The ending is pale and vaguely woody, more like the abstract idea of base notes rather than an actual third act, and it's not far from the beginning: a couple of hours, maybe, on my skin.

Citrico isn't the most original cologne on the market, to say the least. Of the three Series 4 scents, it hews most closely to what most people think of as a cologne, in structure, ingredients, and longevity. But it's beautifully made, and the rosiness is a charming surprise. I don't need another cologne, particularly not a huge bottle, but if someone were giving them away, Citrico would be my pick.

* Fragrantica says rosemary, iris, musk, neroli, bergamot, rose, lemon blossom, bitter orange and lemon, which seems at least a little closer to the mark.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Ad Feminam, Part 1: Diablo's Secret


DEAR FRIEND: I just found out how to make DIABLO'S Secret of DOUBLE POWER. The same Double Power she used when took a husband away from his wife or a sweetheart away from the arms of his loved one. DIABLO's Secret is one of the MOST POWERFUL perfumes I have ever known. And I know that YOU would like the chance to try it NOW!

So just send me your name and address. When the postman brings you DIABLO's Secret in a plain wrapper, deposit only $3 (2 big bottles for $5) plus postage on my PERSONAL GUARANTEE: Use DIABLO's Secret yourself for 10 days. If you do not Bless ME for sending it to you, I'll send your $3 right back. And you don't have to ask for more than 2 bottles because it lasts a Long Time and is SO POWERFUL.

I think I know Diablo's secret of DOUBLE POWER, all right, and it's carefully tucked away in the silk underpants. "Diablo" is a devil or demon, but more specifically, a male devil: the female version is "Diabla". And just look at that picture: the big hat, the smouldering cigarette, the insouciant stare. No doubt about it; when the lights are down, Diablo is all man. Some husbands and sweethearts go for that.

My question is, what's in the bottle of perfume? Testosterone?

Monday, June 08, 2009

Summer Loving: Comme des Garçons Vettiveru

There isn't a whole lot that can be said about Vettiveru, one of Comme des Garçons' three Series 4 colognes. It starts out with a burst of fresh bergamot and the piercing green of vetiver. As the citrus fades, it's replaced by a suggestion of flowers and an unexpectedly cool cedarwood; the cedar and the vetiver continue to the end, which takes longer than you'd think for a cologne, easily four hours, perhaps more if you really douse yourself. (It's resilient, too; I always spray the backs of my hands, and even after washing a big load of dishes I could still smell the Vettiveru there.)

That's about it, but it's remarkably nice. My first impression was that it was just another vetiver and that I've already smelled better, but after living in it for a few days I have to say that it ranks high on my list of vetivers; very simple, without a lot of development, yet it's perfectly balanced, just sharp enough, just dense enough, just fresh enough. As a cologne, it's very inexpensive--currently $52 US for a 125-mL spray at Luckyscent--and well worth it, a terrific addition to your lineup of summer staples.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Gilded Age: Comme des Garçons Anbar

Pure gold can be beaten into gold leaf which is so thin that light will pass through it. This is the quality that Comme des Garçons has imparted to Anbar, one of their three colognes. Though based on amber, a sweet, heavy base note in perfumery, Anbar is light, fresh, and translucent: after its explosive opening, it clings to you like a veil of golden gauze.

The generic term "cologne" refers to a fragrance containing a high proportion of water and alcohol and only a few per cent aromatic components. Actual cologne, though, properly known as "eau de Cologne", has a more limited definition: it's a composition (again high in alcohol-and-water, low in aromatics) based on citrus essences, often with some herbal or floral elements to distinguish them from one another. Since the principal components are always citrus oils, which evaporate quickly, an eau de Cologne is invariably brilliant, meant to refresh and not to have any lasting power: base notes are few if any.

For their fourth collection of scents, CdG created three eaux de Cologne which, of course, are not quite like anyone else's. Anbar starts with a burst of orange peel, dazzling and enormous, underscored with a light clove note which gives it a bit of a pomander quality. As the citrus gradually drifts away, the spice is boosted by a warm and very soft amber note which never really takes shape: rather than wrapping you in the big flesh-and-blood embrace that amber usually does, Anbar just barely gilds the skin.

There isn't supposed to be much lasting power with an eau de Cologne, and as you might expect, the scent is mostly gone in a couple of hours, nothing but a soft haze of spice and amber which you can detect if you get your nose right up to your skin. Although pleasant, and not like any cologne I've ever smelled, Anbar isn't compelling or magical; I can't quite imagine its being someone's absolute favourite scent.

The CdG Cologne series used to come in massive 500-mL splash bottles, which it would actually be possible to use up if you doused yourself with abandon, since that's how eaux de Cologne are meant to be worn. Because most people nowadays don't have any use for that much of one fragrance, you can buy it in 125-mL bottles which come with an optional sprayer, two concessions to modern tastes.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Naughty & Nice: Guerlain Mitsouko and Van Cleef & Arpels Gem

I bought a bottle of Gem by Van Cleef & Arpels when it came out in 1987. It was great stuff, a charming fruity-chypre with floral undertones and a rather oriental base, and it's a shame that it's nearly impossible to find any more. Today I got a vial of Gem in the mail, and I am quite sure it was never reformulated before it was discontinued: the sample smells just as I remember it.

I wanted it for two reasons: because I wanted to re-experience it, of course, but also because I needed to compare it to another classic chypre, Guerlain's Mitsouko, which was launched almost 70 years earlier, in 1919. I'd never even smelled Mitsouko until a couple of years ago, but as soon as I did, I realized Gem was a sort of variant of it; but more on that later.

From this point on, when I refer to Mitsouko, I'm talking about the version that I have, which is an eau de toilette and certainly a recent reformulation, if not the most recent. It likely doesn't have as much oakmoss as the original, if it still has any at all--it could be a synthetic, supplemented with tree moss--but it is still undeniably a classic chypre, at least. (I own a vial of the eau de parfum, which apparently is different from the EDT, but I haven't even opened it yet: I'm saving it, though I'm not quite sure what for. Some day I'll compare and contrast the two. The perfume itself is different again, it's said: I don't have any of that at hand. That's the perfume bottle below: it even looks richer than the EDT, doesn't it?)

People with experience of the old formulation are not fond of the remake(s), and I understand this perfectly: I know a number of reformulated scents that are nothing like what they used to be, not least Tresor and Fahrenheit. But this Mitsouko, even if it's a bastardization and a shell of its former self, is what I own, so that's what I'm going to be talking about.

Mitsouko has a savagery to it; it sinks its talons into you and doesn't let go. If a cat could make a perfume, it would smell like another cat, or a mouse: but if a cat could make a perfume for a human being, it would smell like Mitsouko. It claws its way out of the bottle and thrusts itself at you all at once: there are floral notes, citrus, peach, and the classic chypre notes of moss, vetiver, and patchouli (and a lot of those last three). Yet despite this all-out assault, it has an inscrutability at the core of it, a secret shrouded heart that does not reveal itself easily. Mitsouko wraps you in a golden glow, but it has another glow, a dark ember with a slow burn, something that could burst into flames without warning. The middle has a prickly quality, the vetiver, I think, which the warmer elements try and fail to conceal. The overall effect is of something dangerous that could happen at any moment--a marvelous thing for a scent to elicit, the smell of peril.

Gem plays like Mitsouko reinvented by someone who wanted a G-rated version. Gem is the nice girl who gets the hero; Mitsouko is the quick-witted, tart-tongued woman with a past who gets all the other men. The structure of the two is similar, because there may have been hundreds of chypres over the years but they all have the same essential structure, a bright (usually citrus) top leading to a dark, earthy base of oakmoss and, usually, patchouli and vetiver. But Gem starts out sweet and stays that way; not the cloying sweetness of modern gourmands, but a warm compote of peaches and plums leading into a classically eighties bouquet of roses, carnations, and tuberose, slightly dark, slightly sweet, unexpectedly subdued. Unlike Mitsouko, which gives you the entire story of chypre in a single lunge, Gem makes you wait a bit for the mossy-woody elements, but they soon show up to bring the flowers down to earth. They're identical to those of Mitsouko, but in very different proportions, and are bolstered and heated up by the classical oriental notes of vanilla and amber: this chypre-oriental is what sees the fragrance out, hours and hours later. (Like most mid-eighties scents, it lasts a long, long time.)

If gender classifications matter to you, you'll note that both Mitsouko and Gem were sold as women's fragrances. But men have been wearing Mitsouko since its inception: Charlie Chaplin loved it, as did Russian ballet impresario Diaghilev, and Jean Harlow's husband poured a bottle of it over himself before committing suicide. Whatever Mitsouko may have been in the past, his newest incarnation has so much force behind it that it wouldn't surprise you at all to smell it on a man. Gem, I think, would be harder for a lot of men to wear: the violence is entirely gone, and the composition is soft, rounded, a little sweet, and absolutely pleasant from top to bottom. I still think a man could wear Gem, of course, if he could find it, and be very happy in it, because it isn't sugary or flowery or perfumey. It's a chypre for people who don't like chypres.