One Thousand Scents

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Water Feature: Estee Lauder Beyond Paradise for Men

Here's an article from the New York Times about the trend in blueness in men's perfumery. You might want to go read it and then come back. It's relevant and interesting. I can wait.

It's nothing new, of course (and in fairness, the article doesn't claim it is, merely that there are already some twenty-odd men's releases this year on the theme of blue). Blue has been considered a masculine colour for at least a century in North America*, so to establish their masculine cred, a great many men's scents are packaged in blue--the box, the bottle, the juice. Because blue evokes water and air, and therefore freedom--flight, sailing away--and because aroma-chemists have created so many wet-fresh-cool-airy molecules in the last couple of decades, there are not many houses that haven't used this trope.

Estee Lauder's 2004 Beyond Paradise for Men is definitely a blue scent, and it has a blue bottle, sort of; it's layered in tropical-sunset shades of red, blue, and green. The bottle is a real attention grabber; because the colours aren't solid but formed of minute inkjet droplets, as you turn the bottle in your hand and look through it--an irresistible impulse--you get the fascinating sense that it is actually composed of mist, like the spray coming from a spotlit fountain at night.

The top of the scent feels convincingly misty, too. Very strong and very fruity, it has a thoroughly wet (and thoroughly synthetic) feel to it which is fascinating but short-lived. After that, what you have is yet another run-of-the-mill men's scent, clean-scrubbed, herbal, aquatic and ozonic and done to death. The base is nice enough, a scrap of warm wood and patchouli, but unexceptional; nothing stands out, nothing announces itself as interesting.

Lauder, of course, has laboured mightily to make Beyond Paradise for Men seem amazing, from inventing a ludicrous new category for it--"prismatic wood"--to including all sorts of novel notes and accords: jabuticaba (a Brazilian fruit), "Mediterranean accord", "Eden's Mist" (that convincing wet-mist feel at the top), Eden Buchu (buchu being an African herb of the agathosma family), and Eden Vetiver, all doubtless synthetic. It doesn't smell exactly like every other men's scent on the market, it's true; but after that bright wet spray at the beginning, there isn't anything much to distinguish it from all the rest.

So that leaves the gorgeous bottle. You shouldn't be leaving clear glass bottles out in the open, but if you must have a nice-looking bottle (containing an inoffensive scent) sitting on your dresser, you could do worse.

*It wasn't always; once upon a time, blue was for girls and pink was for boys.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Kaboom: Montana Parfum D'Elle

Yesterday at work I had a customer who smelled so strong I could hardly stand to be around him. Not body odour or stale smoke: cologne. I don't know if he doused himself with it before leaving the house, or had just come from Wal-Mart where he'd been trying a new fragrance (or six), but it was an armoured assault with scent as the weapon. A co-worker walked by, passed through his scent cloud, and stopped as if she'd hit a wall. (The customer couldn't see her.) I met her eyes; I know, right? Yike!

It's people like that who give scent a bad name.


Claude Montana's Parfum D'Elle, launched in 1990, might have the same effect if you sloshed it on before heading out to face the world.

The first thing you smell is a colossal fruit note: mostly citrus, with a sweet creamy-bakery element, not so much lemon zest as lemon loaf (whipped cream on top, for some reason), joined by lime, orange, and a melony undercurrent. It starts out big, and then it just seems to get bigger; it's hard to overstate the volume of it--like an olfactory blob of that insulating foam that keeps expanding and expanding. God help you if you've applied more than a couple of spritzes, though even that might be too much. Right from the start it's radiant and effusive; beautiful, but showoffy.

The core of the scent is on the same scale; a big fat chypre floral with hothouse tuberose and ylang-ylang, warm and thick. It doesn't read as a pure floral, not flowery; the floralcy is muffled by the liberal applications of oakmoss and amber, and it's a chypre above all else. A big one.

All this is pretty typical of perfumery from the era; by 1990, things were starting to scale back, a little, but a scent that had probably been in the planning stages for a year or two was still going to have that larger-than-life quality that was the hallmark of the mid eighties. Parfum D'Elle was Montana's second women's scent, four years after the mesmerizing Parfum de Peau, and both of them take up a lot of space, as well they might; the eighties, remember, were a time of radioactively bright colours and big shapes in clothing were the norm, when a Claude Montana garment such as this

would not seem odd or out of place at all. Both Parfum de Peau and Parfum D'Elle were entirely in the spirit of the times.

After an hour and a half or so the heaviness begins to abate, and the base that reveals itself is sublime, well worth waiting for, even if the rest of the scent is not exactly to your taste; oakmoss, but subtle and refined, drenched with honey, bathed in vanilla, wreathed with tobacco and amber. (I once sent a vial of Parfum D'Elle to a fellow scent hound, telling him, "Even if you don't like the rest of it, you have to smell the base.")

The bottles--there were two of them--are stunning. Parfum de Peau was encased in a bottle that is essentially a rotated stack of oval discs, and it's a genius piece of work that calls to mind an abstracted female torso, a maple seed spinning through the air, and the helix of DNA. The Parfum D'Elle bottles are also stacks of discs, but taken in a completely different direction: the eau de parfum bottle

seems to be a sort of mollusc shell, suggesting a liquid pearl inside, and the eau de toilette bottle

is like a remote control from the future. The back of the bottle, which is what you're looking at here, is made of up the discs, and bears the designer's logo; the front, where the sprayer is located, is a perfectly smooth oval curve. The glass is frosted, and it feels ridiculously good in the hand. (Don't let the picture fool you--the bottle doesn't stand up.)

Parfum D'Elle was relaunched in 2002, and as far as I can tell it's the same box (a brilliant yellow well suited to the contents, the same colour as that suit up there) and bottles, but it's evidently a very different scent, with, predictably, a big reduction in the oakmoss content; my bottle of EDT is vintage, and I haven't tried the 2002 reformulation (or any of the presumably subsequent reconstructions). If you should stumble across this, and are sure it's vintage--I don't know of any way to tell, unfortunately, though no doubt some connoisseur out there does--and are the sort of person who, like me, has an appreciation for the scale and structure of eighties scents, then for the love of god, buy it!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

One: Montale Attar

I figure if you're going to name a scent after a perfumery note, it had damned well better smell like that thing. If your scent is called Lavender, it should smell mostly of lavender, and Jasmine et Cigarette should smell like those two things. Usually, this rule holds, unless you are unnecessarily perverse; Serge Lutens already had a cedar scent, Feminite du Bois, so when he launched a scent called Cèdre, it seemed like it might be a rehash, but no; it smells mostly of tuberose.

If you are going to call a scent Attar, then, it ought to smell like roses, mostly. ("Attar" can be used to describe any essential oil extracted from a flower, but the word is most closely associated with roses--in the West, anyway--and without any further description, it's fair to assume it refers to the rose.)

I have not been completely enamoured of any Montale scents that I've tried: some are nice enough but not worth the money, some are neither here nor there, and some of them I outright hated. But Attar is glorious; quite possibly the perfect soliflore rose scent.

At the top is a huge, lemony rose, fresh and dewy, and a clean polished sandalwood in equal measure. As time goes on, the rose gradually darkens; Attar cleverly avoids linearity by having the rose become darker, thicker, and eventually sweeter (but not too much) as the sandalwood remains the same throughout, as sandalwood will do.

Some sources list saffron as an ingredient; I don't smell it. Others say that there's oud, or agarwood; if so, it's extremely subtle. What I get is a panoply of roses, the rose in its various incarnations, in a sandalwood vase. There is nothing of the fusty or prim about this rose, no powder, no forced prettiness: it's forthrightly unisex, and not only could a man wear Attar, he should. If you love rose scents, you owe it to yourself to try this; it's up there with such excellent rose-heavy fragrances as Joy, Sa Majesté La Rose, and Rossy de Palma. If you hate rose scents--surprisingly many do--then you also ought to try this; it might be the one that changes your mind.

Labels: ,

Friday, July 09, 2010

Perversity: L'Aromarine Mousse de Chene

It has been appallingly hot in this part of the world for about a week now, and it isn't showing any signs of going away any time soon. It could be worse: Toronto is having 40°-plus days (when you factor in the humidex), and it hasn't been quite that hot here. Yet.

We all know what you do when the weather gets hot: you choose light, fresh scents, things that make you feel cooler, things that won't bog you down with heavy sweetness. But damned if my brain isn't trying to trick me into wearing something thick and suffocative in this heat. "Go on," it says. "You really want to open that bottle of Ambre Sultan you bought last month, you know you do!" Yesterday, I had to fight to keep from putting on AS, Spellbound, and Panthere de Cartier (vintage extrait, to make it worse). Not all at once, I mean (because that would probably have done me in on the spot), but those are the heavy oriental scents my brain was pushing at me. Finally I shut it up by wearing Santal Blanc, a woody oriental but one of the lighter Lutens scents, pre-shower, and Hermes Poivre Samarcande, a predictably transparent Ellena scent, afterwards.

Still. It's hot and close, and my brain is perversely trying to kill me, and I have no idea why.


A couple of weeks ago I was talking about genetics, sort of, and since then I've been giving the matter a lot more thought: specifically, why we would develop a taste for things that are not inherently wonderful or beautiful.

It's not hard to figure out the sense of taste in this regard. All babies, everywhere on Earth, like three things: they like salt, because without electrolytes you die; they like sweetness, because glucose is your brain's only fuel, and without it you die; and they like fat, because its storage means the difference between life and death in times of hardship, times that must have been pretty frequent in our evolutionary history. Salt, sugar, fat: everything else comes down to the learning process. You aren't born liking bitter and sour things; you have to come to like these unpleasantnesses. And they're unpleasant for a reason: they're the hallmarks of spoilage, of things that can injure or kill you. You have to learn that sour, unripe apples can give you stomach cramps and diarrhea, but that a slice of lime can be refreshing and delicious; that the taste of mold or putrescence in a food can be a sign of botulism, but that a related taste of decomposition in cheese can be delicious.

Evolutionary preferences exist for one reason: they help you survive long enough to pass your DNA on to the next generation. If you hated sweetness as a baby, you would die, whereas if you hated sourness, it might well help you live by warning you off things that could do you in.

The sense of smell is altogether more complicated, because we can process thousands of different scents, and yet it is hard to see what most of them have to do with survival. A few bad things are obvious: the smell of the decomposition of flesh means evolutionarily that there is a predator nearby or a disease-bearing corpse, the smell of smoke means something's afire, and food that smells wrong is probably going to do you harm. An appreciation of the smell of fresh air and the outdoors in general and of sweetness are likely hard-wired into us, but it is difficult to see how most other scents that we love would actually improve survival on an evolutionary scale. You may have a low opinion of rose perfumes--many do--but most everybody on the planet can appreciate the smell of a rose on the stem, and why should that be, exactly?

The smell of oakmoss is something that not even I would try argue is inherently beautiful, not in the way that that rose bush or a vanilla bean is. It is a peculiar thing: it has elements of loam and earth and forest floor to it, and the almost subliminal suggestion of fecal matter, allied to a lush honeyed warmth and a dark penetrating spininess. It is a whole concatenation of things in one place, some gorgeous, some decidedly not; and yet many people love chypres. I know I do, almost obsessively.

L'Aromarine Mousse de Chene--which is the French for "oakmoss"--is not a pure unadulterated glob of oakmoss, which is no doubt for the best. Instead, it's a compact, simplified chypre scent, which, as you doubtless know, is classically the alliance of a fruity top note, usually citrus, with an earthy base dominated by oakmoss. Most chypres either fill in the middle with flowers and other interesting aromatics or build up a large base with dark earthy things, often a large quantity of patchouli, but also leather, tobacco, and ambergris. Mousse de Chene takes the latter route, having essentially no middle; it starts with a friendly lemon note, sweetened, with all the sharp edges taken off, and then rapidly segues into a dirty-soapy oakmoss and patchouli accord, heavy on the soap, with a tantalizing suggestion of sweetness at the very bottom. There is plenty of foresty rot and a few pine needles; it's a particularly outdoorsy chypre, this one. It is not as dense as it might sound, although that could just be my brain tricking me into wearing something dark and thick after all.

The small L'Aromarine bottles are about a third of an ounce of what they call "extrait de parfum", but they're in an oil rather than an alcohol-water base. You can treat them as any other perfume oil, which is to say wear them or add them to bathwater, but the company advises that you can also add them to three ounces of alcohol to get a 100-mL bottle of eau de toilette (which L'Aromarine also sells). I would like to believe that the scent is made with some natural oils, though I doubt it very much, since the company makes a number of other perfume oils that don't exist in nature--Peach, Strawberry, and Apple, to name three. But their base-note oils, synthetic or not, are good; they make a Patchouli that wins the approval of my patchouli-loving co-worker, and they have an Opoponax that, although actually too sweet for my taste, is beautiful. You can easily find many of them online, so if you're on the lookout for good and cheap, have fun.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Crazy Good: Dr. Bronner Lavender and Citrus Liquid Soaps

The thing about soap, as opposed to detergent, is that it binds with minerals in water to leave what the marketers for Zest soap used to call "sticky soap film", which isn't just adspeak--it's an exact description. If your water is anything but soft, which is to say if it has any minerals in it at all, sticky soap film adheres to everything you wash with soap: clothing, dishes, skin. Detergent, on the other hand, being mostly synthetic surfactants, washes away cleanly, which is why Zest, which was the first solid bar-form detergent sold as a soap replacement, was so successful. (It's also why most bar soap, laundry detergent, and dish soap nowadays is detergent rather than soap.)

Dr. Bronner's Pure Castile Soap is, as the label says, soap, not detergent. When you wash your skin with it, you get a film so tenacious it feels as if you've been freshly laminated. (And I don't have hard water, either.) I wouldn't use it on my face; I sure as hell wouldn't use it on my hair. (The film is not a huge problem once your skin has been towel-dried, but it's still off-putting if you're used to the clean slickness of a detergent.)

So that's a con. What about the pros?

It smells great. Not strongly scented, but pure. The Lavender soap smells like lavender; the Citrus smells like lemons, limes, and oranges. Real oils, nothing synthetic (like the Original Source products I was lauding a while back). In fact, it's all-natural, if that's a selling point to you--it isn't to me. I like synthetic things; modern perfumery, music, and technology wouldn't exist without them. The scent doesn't really hang around on your skin, or maybe it does but can't fight its way through the soap film. Still, while you're using it, it smells awfully good. (There are others I haven't tried: a Peppermint that will apparently set your skin a-tingling if not actually burning, and a Rose that gets mixed reviews on Makeupalley but that I will have to try anyway if I should stumble across it.)

It is insanely concentrated. It's a very thin liquid, like the hand soaps you see at the dollar stores that are diluted 'cause they're cheap, but this isn't dilute at all. A tiny little squeeze, a wee puddle the diameter of a nickel, is enough to wash your entire body.

The label is hilarious. Dr. Bronner was, and there's no getting around this, sort of a social/religious nut, and his labels are densely packed with minutely printed loonery. I have the two-ounce bottles, so there isn't room for much religion amidst all the instructions and suggestions for use, but there's still some: "Within 9 minutes you feel fresh and clean, saving 90% of your hot water and soap, ready to teach the whole human race the Moral ABC of All-One-God-Faith! For we're ALL-ONE OR NONE! ALL-ONE! ALL-ONE! ALL-ONE!"


The labels are also, and I'm going to give them a lot of credit for this, expensively three-colour printed onto the bottles rather than being glued-on paper. Dr. Bronner evidently wanted to make sure his little billboards were legible right down to the last drop.