One Thousand Scents

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The End of an Era: 1989

I'm not altogether sure if The New Yorker's online articles stay readable forever, or if they go off into some kind of gated enclosure to which you have to buy a key for the price of a subscription, but in the newest issue there is an article which you will want to read, about desserts in modern cooking. Specifically you will be interested in this paragraph on page 6:

After an apprenticeship at elBulli, he realized that his preoccupation was with scent. “That was something that hadn’t really been realized enough in desserts, I thought: the power of aromas. We had this new machine that could extract essential oils, and I began to play with it. I began making perfumed desserts.” He laughed. “I went to Sephora and found the most wonderful aromas in all the women’s perfumes. And I started making desserts built around their smells. Calvin Klein-like aromas. I wanted to make something as wonderful to taste as Chanel perfume was to smell. For me, that’s where all that new chemistry and equipment help. We have the machine to extract essential oils. Another just for smokes. Working with smokes and smells, this has a—fragile aspect? Sense memory extends to the heart of who we are. I think that there’s a freedom there, for a certain delicacy.” He shrugged. “You’ll see,” he said.

I am of two minds about the high-tech cooking exemplified by Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adria. One part of me thinks that of course it is natural for artists to try new things, play with new technologies, experiment, give us new experiences: the other thinks that our palates, or at least the palates of people who can afford to pay for these meals, have become terribly jaded if we need (as described just after that quote above) something like a dessert that launches a tiny soccer ball into the air, a dessert that requires the use of a MP3 player.

Well, let the insanely rich have their toys. Perfumers have always used the latest technology, too, and there was no shortage of such technological abundance in the seventies and eighties, when fascinating new synthetics were cropping up on a regular basis. (Synthetic odorants were nothing new: Houbigant was apparently the first to use one, coumarin, in 1882, and Guerlain's Jicky used an overdose of them in 1889. But the 1970s saw the introduction of Headspace technology, which allowed perfume companies to gather and synthesize just about any aroma the world had to offer, which led to an explosion in the use of synthetics. The fragrant eighties wouldn't have been what they were without such aromachemicals.)

Red by Giorgio Beverly Hills seems to mark a sort of end point of eighties perfumery, an idea taken as far as it can go before snapping back or disintegrating. It had hundreds of ingredients, everything the perfumers could jam into it and still have it make some sort of aesthetic sense, with elements of essentially every branch of women's perfumery in one big cascading sequence: a fruity top (using all the newest synthetic fruit notes), a floral middle, a base that couldn't decide if it was an oriental or a chypre so it was both at once, the whole composition fresh but warm, bright but deep, light and dark in turns; too much, but gorgeously, radiantly too much.

I don't have any vintage Red, and although it's still in production, it's no longer what it used to be. And in fact looking through Basenotes' list of releases for 1989, I see that I don't own one single scent that I used to wear that year, not one. I usually avoid writing about things I don't have to hand: even though my scent memory is good, I want to make sure that I have all the details right, because memory has a way of tricking us. But I can't smell any of these things, so all I have is impressions. (I don't know if it has been clear up to this point, but with rare exceptions I only put pictures of bottles of things I'm smelling at the time of writing, and since I don't have any of these scents, there will be no pictures today.)

So here's what else I was wearing--in addition to all the other, older things I owned--in 1989:

Byblos, a weird, edgy floral with an acidic tinge, an irresistible raspberry note, and a thick musky base.

Claiborne for Men, which I remember not liking all that much, but I had samples, so I wore it from time to time: in the Salvador Dali Homme mode.

Montana Parfum d'Homme: too much patchouli, and ditto for the Dali mode and also the not-liking-it-much and the samples.

Eternity for Men: boring wet fougere that inspired a thousand imitators. Why did I wear it? Life is too short to wear boring things.

Tiffany for Men: very strong, very sweet floral chypre.

Joop! Homme: very strong, very sweet floral-wood scent.

Feeling Man by Jil Sander: very strong, very sweet fruity-tobacco scent.

Elizabeth Taylor Passion for Men: very strong, very sweet floral oriental. I think I see a pattern here.

Tsar by Van Cleef & Arpels: lightweight herbal-tarragon thing with a carnationy middle and a chypre-ish bottom.

After a decade of increasingly loud and voluminous scents, the nineties couldn't come fast enough. If you take a look at Basenotes' list of 1990 and 1991 releases, you will see a pretty definite trend towards quieter, more reserved fragrances: green-bamboo Kenzo Pour Homme, Dior's oddball beachy oriental Dune, Herrera for Men, Calvin Klein Escape (even gauzier than Eternity), Boucheron Pour Homme, Salvador Dali Laguna, the pale-green Gres Cabotine, the soft orientals Ralph Lauren Safari and Tresor by Lancome. There are still some powerhouses, of course, things that had been in the planning stages for a while, things that would appeal to people for whom "discreet" was a foreign word, and a few that split the difference: big floral-oriental Guess, E*N*C*O*R*E by Alfred Sung (sadly a failure, possibly because of the name), Givenchy's Amarige, Lauder's Spellbound, Chanel's Egoiste, Casmir by Chopard, Montana Parfum d'Elle. But the writing was on the wall: the nineties weren't going to be the eighties. And they weren't, either.

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