One Thousand Scents

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Getting To Know You: 1987

Looking back I can see that if my taste had not been solidified at an earlier age, it certainly was by 1987. Virtually everything I love from that year has two characteristics:

1) It is an oriental or a chypre, and

2) it is offbeat in some way.

My big deal for 1987 was Byzance by Rochas, a genuinely baffling oriental that was sold as a sort of east-meets-west composition, an oriental in an eighties neon-bright suit of clothes. It starts out as a shockingly brilliant aldehydic scent, like shards of glass flying off your skin: the scent is irrepressibly energetic, fighting its way out of the bottle even before you apply it, a supercharged blaze of limey citrus notes and spices. Just underneath is an intensely floral undercurrent, turbulent with jasmine and tuberose. The brightness slowly, slowly dims to a halo while the oriental base makes its way to the forefront, and it is exactly what you think an oriental ought to be, all dreamy languor, musky woods and amber and hypnotic vanilla. (I am sorry to have to state the obvious, but Byzance has of course been reformulated; I have a bottle of the modern EDT and a little tiny bottle of the vintage parfum, and the newer scent is predictably less complex, a much tamer affair: a Photoshopped, softened and smoothed version of the ferocious original.) The bottle and box, as you can see, are meant to suggest Byzantine mosaics,

and that hint of brilliant hot pink on the box and bottle is echoed inside--the box liner is entirely that colour, a real shock when you open the package.

Somehow in 1987 I ended up with a tiny bottle of Cartier's Panthere parfum, and I remember loving the dark, syrupy oriental quality of it, a heady pool of warmth. Earlier this year I bought a quarter ounce of vintage parfum from a private seller, and was shocked when I put it on for the first time in twenty years to discover that it was essentially straight-up gardenia. I thought at first that it had gone seriously off during its long captivity, but as I wore it repeatedly, I realized that it did in fact smell as it once had, but that, fixated on the densely oriental quality of the base, I had somehow failed to notice that Panthere was first and foremost a gardenia scent. Oh, there are top notes, and other florals in the middle, tuberose and ylang, certainly, and of course it is a dark luminous oriental scent, which was what had attracted me to it so many years ago: but smelling it now, with a nose that is if not trained then at least thoroughly exposed to thousands of scents, I can see that Panthere, at least as it used to be, is really a white floral at heart. And the only thing I can think is, "I used to wear this?"

I did used to wear it. I'd wear anything, buoyed up by that complete liberation that if we are lucky we feel in our youth. I simply didn't care about labels: all I cared about was experiencing as much as possible of an intoxicating art form. And why shouldn't I wear it? I liked it, it smelled good, it agreed with me. Now if I were to put it on, I'd be thinking nervously, "Does this make smell like someone's grandmother?"

Another big fat floral oriental that I loved but wouldn't wear nowadays was Cacharel's Loulou, which is mostly an alliance of tiare and vanilla. I haven't smelled it in ten years or so, but the last time I did, I thought two things: first, that it hadn't changed a bit, and second, it was oversized to an almost comic degree. It's still being sold, but I would be willing to bet that it has been drastically rethought to bring it in line with modern tastes--smaller, of course, maybe with a brighter top and probably a woody-musky base. I could be wrong: maybe it's still the huge sweet oriental that drew me irresistibly to it in 1987.

A few years after the release of the extraordinary Salvador Dali came the launch of the men's version, in a humorous little bottle composed of a pair of lips perched on a Buddha belly. It has been completely changed since then, a whole different thing in the same amusing package. Back then it was a strange herbal fougere, bitter, with a pleasant gasoliney or otherwise petroleum overtone to the top and a cruelly leathery base, not entirely wearable but still compelling. I bought a miniature a few years ago and it is now sweet and smoky and really not anything but that, very much like Lutens' Fumerie Turque, only not so interesting.

By the late eighties, chypres weren't being launched in quite the profusion they had been in earlier decades, but a couple from 1987 still managed to make an impact on me. Gem by Van Cleef & Arpels was probably the biggest one in my universe, but another considerably more obscure one also took my heart: Parfum Rare by Jacomo. It was later remarketed as Coeur de Parfum, and without a doubt went through many reformulations: if it were still being manufactured, it wouldn't be anything other than a shadow of its former self by now, considering that the whole purpose of Parfum Rare was to be a delivery mechanism for oakmoss in all its strange, humous wonder. I have a tiny bottle of the vintage EDT, and I suppose the top notes are disappearing, but the first thing, the very first thing, that you smell is the chypre base of oakmoss and patchouli. After that, the heart deigns to show itself, and I suppose it is a kind of dark enigmatic floral, perhaps carnation-based though you wouldn't think of it as a carnation scent, but in its very soul it is a chypre and nothing but. I am not only sorry to see it gone, I am deeply sorry that a few years from now, with the aggressive rebranding of the idea of a chypre as a patchouli scent and the severe restrictions on the use of oakmoss in commercial perfumery, people below the age of forty will have no idea just what it was that made chypres so overwhelmingly popular for decades after the category was invented. Oakmoss is not intrinsically beautiful, and if we are to be honest we will have to admit that a good many elements of perfumery are not absolutely one hundred per cent beautiful; a particular element may be bristly or cloying or sharp or fecal, and it is only in the combining of these element--the art, in other words--that they are transmuted into something greater than any of them could be by itself. Oakmoss is strange, dirtyish, often suggestive of the decay of a forest floor: and yet in combination with other ingredients it is thrilling, compelling, simply one of the greatest smells that humans have ever come up with.

Something I need to make clear is that, in those days before the Internet made nearly the entirety of human knowledge available to us at the press of a button, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I didn't know what an oriental scent was, or a chypre, or a fougere or anything else. I was flying blind. I was trying literally everything I could lay my hands on, and choosing what, for whatever reason, appealed to me. I was like anybody else discovering an art form for the first time: jump in with both feet, splash around, see what appeals to you. It's no different from my discovery of opera a few years earlier, except that when it came to opera I had guides--the musician roommate who explained coloratura to me, the knowledgeable chap at the record store I frequented. With perfumery, I was on my own. (I would like to think I have made up for that deficiency since.)

Some other 1987 launches that made some sort of impression on me at the time:

Clarins Eau Dynamisante, marketed as a "treatment fragrance" that supposedly had effects beneficial to the skin and overall health, mostly light citrus and herbs. I seem to remember rosemary.

Colors de Benetton, a strange little thing with a watermelony top, wildly different from the other youth-oriented scents of the time: a fruity floral, but thin and bright like cellophane, no real base notes and therefore not much lasting power but with a real presence nonetheless.

Iquitos, fronted by Alain Delon, presumably one of the earlier celebrity scents, a rosier version of Salvador Dali Pour Homme, if memory serves me.

Since we are talking about a specific year, this is probably as good a place as any to note that two Comptoir Sud Pacifique scents were launched in 1987. It wasn't until years later, probably around 2000 or so, that I began to discover the line, but it instantly resonated with me; lots of simple but interesting and well-made oriental scents (and a few others that didn't strike as strong a chord). 1987's additions were the lush sweet-coffee Vanille Cafe, now called Vanille Moka, and Fruits Sauvages, renamed and reconstructed (and much tamed, to its slight detriment) as Mora Bella.

The biggest thing that happened in 1987, though, was that I fell in love with someone who fell in love with me at pretty much exactly the same instant, and that, it hardly needs saying, resonated through everything that came afterwards.


  • And since you brought up perfume-as-art: Next time you're in New York, you may have to cut short your time at Bergdorf's counter so you can check out Chandler Burr's contribution to the argument.

    I was just in NYC, but naturally this opened three days after I came home. Next time. (There's always something for next time.)

    By Blogger D.J., at 7:50 AM  

  • I agree, I love the vintage chypres and mourn their loss. I have a sample of vintage Parfum Rare and it's gorgeous.

    By Blogger Unknown, at 2:30 PM  

  • DJ, I had read about that museum--of course I had, all the perfume bloggers are talking about it--and it's going to have to be one of my stops the next time I get to New York. There IS always a next time when it comes to NY.

    Kjanicki, I was wondering if anyone else knew Parfum Rare. It is really exceptional, a perfect chypre--a "pure" chypre--that makes me enormously happy. Some days I think it's better than Mitsouko, everyone's reference chypre.

    By Blogger pyramus, at 2:37 PM  

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