One Thousand Scents

Saturday, August 28, 2010

So There

Helg from Perfume Shrine engaged in an absolutely justified bit of nyah-nyah yesterday after having leaked in February the (not one hundred per cent correct , as it turned out, but close enough) information that Serge Lutens was discontinuing four of its scents: Clair de Musc, Chypre Rouge, Miel de Bois, and Douce Amere. It soon transpired that 1) it was actually Santal Blanc, not Clair de Musc, that was being discontinued, and 2) they weren't actually being withdrawn from production, but transformed from the Export line (tall, rectangular spray bottles available for sale in many parts of the world) to the Exclusive line (curvaceous pour bottles available only at the Palais Royale in Paris).

I am really only telling you this because you should definitely be reading Perfume Shrine, and because I wanted an excuse to post pictures of those gorgeous, gorgeous bell jars (each of which you can click to see it its larger-than-life-sized glory).

My first full-bottle Lutens (just last November!) was the thrilling Chypre Rouge, the very definition of a niche scent: absolutely unique, a little odd--well, very odd--and resolutely committed to its own vision, despite the fact (or really because of the fact) that it would never appeal to more than a small handful of people.

The second Lutens I bought was Miel de Bois, the first one I had ever really immersed myself in and gotten to know intimately. Many, many people hate it ferociously; a quick Google will tell you all you need to know. But I adore it.

My third and fourth Lutenses were the sublime Un Bois Vanille (which will never be discontinued, being a warm, sweet vanilla scent very much in the modern style, one of Lutens' most approachable scents) and Douce Amere, which I bought because I thought it was being discontinued, and I knew I could not live without its arresting balance of bitter and sweet.

And then last May I used the excuse of being on vacation to buy a whole batch of Lutenses: Fourreau Noir and Fumerie Turque in bell jars at the Palais Royale, and Ambre Sultan and Santal Blanc in Edinburgh.

And that, I hope, is where I will stop. There are other Lutens scents that it would be fun to have, but I think I have enough to keep me going for quite some time. I have all the scents of his that I really require. (The if-you-had-to-pick-one conversational game is boring, but if I did have to pick one line, it would be Lutens, unquestionably. If I had to pick one scent? Couldn't do it. Would actually rather do without.)

It's a shame that those four excellent scents are going to be so hard to come by, particularly the ravishing Santal Blanc and the melancholy Douce Amere. But at least they're housed in those beautiful bell jars, and they're all still available, even if you have to go a ways to get them.


Thursday, August 26, 2010

Disarming: Serge Lutens Fourreau Noir

Even those of us who love Serge Lutens to death probably ought to be willing to admit that the names and descriptions he gives his perfumes are often less intriguing or mysterious than, well, silly. Certainly over the top.

Case in point: Fourreau Noir. The wax sample of the scent gives as its description "De la nuque au fourreau," which, if you believe Google Translate, means "from the nape [of the neck] to the sleeve." What? The booklet accompanying the samples says "Un note, une fluide", which ought to be obvious even if you don't speak any French, but which is still baffling, since there is more than one note, and all perfumes are fluids. And the website says only, "Un empreinte," "a fingerprint." Seriously: what?

As for the name, a fourreau is a sheath; the implication of a fourreau noir, a black sheath, is that it's a garment of some sort, but it can also be the kind of sheath that hides a knife. Given this, wouldn't you think that a scent called Fourreau Noir would either be femme fatale mysterious or conceal a steely, threatening core inside a simple, maybe leathern scabbard?

It isn't feminine; it isn't recognizably a women's scent at all. It doesn't really hide anything; everything is pretty much out there in the open. It doesn't have even a whiff of danger to it, unless you consider smoke to be dangerous. It seems instead to be a fascinating variation on that standby of men's perfumery, the fougere: darkened almost jet-black, damped down, eventually sweetened to the point of gourmanderie, but for all that a fougere.

A fougere will have lavender, but it is just barely present in the top of Fourreau Noir: so different from the icy, otherworldly lavender of Gris Clair, it barely reads as lavender to me at all, because it is enshrouded with smoke and paired with what seems to be black licorice--the candy pipes that Demeter did so well, but blacker even than that, barely sweet. It is hypnotic.

Over time, the lavender grows in strength and stature--there's the fougere!-- while the licorice bafflingly gives way to immortelle, a sweet maple-syrup floral, and the smoke becomes more imposing, though never particularly heavy: there is the suggestion of the hookah from Ambre Narguilè. After reaching this tipping point, there's nowhere for Fourreau Noir to go but sweeter and denser: tonka bean and vanillic almond start to take over, and hours later--many hours later, certainly twelve, maybe sixteen--they're still there on the skin, though magically never quite losing that fougere-lavender quality.

Lutens calls the bottles "flaçons de table": in English, we usually call them "bell jars" because of their shape. Do I even need to tell you that you can't buy them in North America? I got mine when I was in Paris last spring: I smelled pretty much everything in the entire place except the half-dozen I already owned, but it was Fourreau Noir that spoke most insistently to me. I required it. It took me until yesterday to open the bottle, as if I had to prepare myself. It was worth the wait.

That bell jar up there, by the way, is the limited edition: you probably can't have it, partly because it's no longer being made, and partly because it is, or was when you could still buy it, crazy expensive. Here's the regular bell jar, tulle ribbon not included:


Friday, August 20, 2010

All In The Details

Once again, a good bottle ruined by a crappy top.

The bottles for Tommy Hilfiger's new scent, Loud, are instantly recognizable as LPs. They look a bit cheaply done: a higher grade of glass would take the grooves more crisply. But they're clever, they're novel, and they get their point across at a glance.

The caps, on the other hand, are meant to suggest stereo knobs, but they look like something that you'd find on a bottle of something unspeakably downmarket at a dollar store, don't they? Heck, the cap on the women's bottle isn't even sitting squarely; that doesn't augur well for its quality.

Perhaps they look better in person; I haven't seen the line yet, so I couldn't say. But I am dubious. It's fair to assume these days that all photographs are tinkered with to improve them, so if the caps look this cheapjack in a photo, how are they going to look in real life?

I will be trying both of these as soon as I get my hands on them, because they are apparently based on the same notes, rose and patchouli, but taken in different directions: the women's will naturally have a fruity-floral composition, because most every mass-market scent seems to these days, while the men's will downplay the rose in favour of a patchouli-heavy base. It's entirely possible that we will have another Midnight Poison on our hands, but hey, maybe they're interesting. Can't hurt to try.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Kissing Cousins: Estee Lauder Cinnabar, Part 2

Since I compared Cinnabar to Yves Saint Laurent's Opium, and since Opium is pretty clearly related to, if not derived from, Youth-Dew, I suppose I had better compare the two Lauder scents, no?

It won't take long. They're both dark, spicy floral orientals, and they have a lot in common. However, Youth-Dew (a name that, whatever the merits of the scent, has not aged well) starts out more acidic, with a lemon-bergamot top that seems to me wildly, and unpleasantly, at odds with what follows; Cinnabar also has a citric top, but it segues more quickly into the floral-oriental heart. Youth-Dew is more insistently resinous, more serious; Cinnabar is considerably more accessible.

The fact is, though, that all three scents have enough in common that if you love one of them, you will probably not turn up your nose at the other two. They're not interchangeable, but they're very similar--not just from the same basic family (there are lots and lots of spicy orientals out there), but blood relations.

In a pathetically transparent attempt to give this some appearance of rigour, I've made a chart (which, as ever, you can click on to enlarge).

Very technical! I couldn't figure out how to change the colours to something a little more sensible, but it's all there.

As you can see, Opium is both spicier and sexier than the other two, where Cinnabar is flowerier and generally nicer than the rest (less odd, less aggressive), with Youth-Dew taking honours for being more peculiar (the top note just doesn't fit) and also more heavily laden with oriental base notes. These are not just my opinions: this is science!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Been There, Done That: Estee Lauder Cinnabar, Part 1

In 1977, Yves Saint Laurent made a huge splash in the world of perfumery by launching a huge, brazenly sexual scent with a noxious, unthinkable name: Opium. "Launch" is the right word, too: since subtlety was impossible and pointless, Saint Laurent threw a party on a tricked-out Chinese junk.

Estee Lauder was not pleased: she considered Opium a knockoff of her (by then twenty-year-old) Youth-Dew, a rich, spicy oriental scent that made her a success. Still, there was no denying the popularity of Opium, or its impact, so she did what any smart businesswoman would do: she made a knockoff herself. A copy of a copy!

According to Ann Hodgman, cookbook writers have a saying: "Three changes and it's yours." If you take someone else's recipe, that's theft, but if you alter it sufficiently--sun-dried tomatoes instead of the red peppers, molasses replaced by honey, eggplant standing in for zucchini--then you can call it your own. The same is presumably true in the world of commercial perfumery; an exact duplicate of a commercial scent (and they do exist) is reprehensible, but a tinkered-with, inspired-by scent is a valid composition.

Released one year after Opium, Cinnabar is a direct allusion to its moneyed forebear in almost every imaginable way. Opium has recently been reformulated, as is the way these days, and I haven't tried the new version, but luckily I still have a little of the old eau de parfum, and although you might mistake Cinnabar for Opium (or vice versa) at a quick sniff, wearing them side by side reveals that they are actually two quite different things. Cinnabar--named for a substance that is used to make Chinese red lacquer, and therefore a clear allusion to Opium's packaging without sharing its mystery and forbidden allure--is nicer than Opium; toned down, rounded off, genteel. Opium is feverish sex in a by-the-hour hotel room; Cinnabar is necking in the back seat of a car and then a drive home. Both are clovey-spicy, dripping with Orientalia; but Cinnabar is sweeter and flowerier, the rutting-animal quality replaced, or at least masked, by a heavier dose of vanilla and amber.

The packaging, too, tells a large part of the story. The Opium perfume bottle was a stunningly beautiful object

inspired by a Japanese inro; the eau de toilette and eau de parfum versions were marketed in equally Asian-inspired bottles, generally with calligraphed leaves embossed onto the glass: there have been many variants for flankers and special editions, but they have all hewed to one of these two bottle types. (The reformulated Opium is housed in a bottle influenced by the original perfume bottle, with a nod to bamboo.) The current Cinnabar EDP, on the other hand, is marketed in a generic flaçon without a trace of personality or individuality: the box is Chinese red and bears a gold embossment like a Chinese coin, but that's as far as it goes, and this seems like a mistake to me--or at least an admission that Cinnabar cannot compete with Opium on the oriental battlefield.

I have long been impressed by Opium: it seems to me a thing of genius not only in its composition but its packaging and marketing: it clearly took inspiration from many different sources, but somehow became the ne plus ultra of its kind. Cinnabar isn't anything of the sort; it feels like a copy of something, a fuzzy photostat with something missing. And yet Cinnabar perversely is more appealing--friendlier, more likeable--because you wear it rather than having it wear you, as Opium does. And I can't really make up my mind, but I think I like Cinnabar better.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Unnecessary: Bond No. 9 Andy Warhol Union Square

An artist is somebody who produces things that people don't need to have.--Andy Warhol

I am generally a fan of Bond No. 9 line; I've enjoyed the great majority of the Bond scents I've tried, and even the ones I didn't care for struck me as interesting and novel. But every line has to have a few missteps.

The company has created a series of Andy Warhol scents; they're up to five now with their latest scent, Montauk (which I haven't tried). But I've worn the other four. Three of them were tremendous: my first exposure to a Bond scent was Lexington Avenue, a giddy gourmand which I flat-out adored, I loved Success is a Job in New York, a joyous homage to the eighties, and I wore the sixties-inspired Silver Factory so much I got sick of it.

But Union Square feels like a colossal misfire: a fruity floral that's so exaggerated, it's almost a parody of the category, which has dominated popular perfumery for so long now that it almost feels like a parody of itself. (The second of the Bond Warhols, it was released in 2008, which is kind of late to be jumping on a bandwagon that's been on the road for well over a decade.) The top of Union Square is a huge cartoon splat of wet fruit, appleish, melony, smelling for all the world like cheap candy dipped in toilet cleaner. Then the flowers, god help us; fake lily of the valley, artificial freesia, buckets of them, enormously synthetic--braggingly, peacockishly so.

There's presumably an end point to this, but I didn't stick around for it; the three times I put this on, I washed it off because I couldn't stand to have it poking at my olfactory cavities.

They have to have done this on purpose. They have to have created a big department-store fruity floral because everyone else had one. But why did they have to make it so dreadful?

The bottles are pure Warhol, and charming. But I cannot convince myself that he would have had anything to do with the contents.


Sunday, August 01, 2010

And In Other News

The French do an awfully good job of penning the most risible ad copy imaginable for their perfumes, but Estee Lauder is no slouch, either. You'd almost think they were in some sort of competition.

Perfumeshrine, which you absolutely should all be reading on a regular basis if you are not already, has a piece about an upcoming Lauder, Sensuous Noir, a flanker to their Sensuous of two years ago. I quite liked it, and I like the sound of this, too, but have a gander at the description of the scent.

Sensuous Noir is based on a chord of melted wood nature print, honey and amber but the floral aspects have been intensified: The fragrance encompasses exotic purple rose, rose essence and spiced lily, to evoke a midnight garden aura. “Queen of the Night,” alongside black pepper accent the scent with sweet headiness and spice respectively. The base includes "Crème Noir Accord" and Patchouli Prisma, alongside benzoin, honey, amber and vanilla, making for a gourmand take on woody.

So, so much bullshit!

First and foremost, the idea of Sensuous being a "molten wood" fragrance is a stupid one, and I see they haven't abandoned it for Sensuous Noir. Worse, even. Now it's a "melted wood nature print", which is insulting, because Nature Print is a technology used to extract a plant's scent molecules from their air and then synthesize them back at the lab, meaning that the result is not the process of extraction--which changes all scents--but something which in theory should smell precisely like the living plant in its environment. A lovely, tempting idea--unless you are trying to sell the idea of a "melted wood nature print", which is clearly nonsense because melted wood does not exist in nature. It doesn't exist at all!

Secondly, what is the deal with the invention of these ridiculous new accord names? "Creme Noir Accord"? Honestly. And "Patchouli Prisma"? Just a couple of days ago I derided Lauder for trying to invent a new scent category, "prismatic wood", and here they are again with the prisms. What is their deal? I know the market is crowded and they have to do something to make their product stand out, but do they have to insult us?

Still, you know, this does sound quite nice, and I will certainly be trying it when it hits the stores, though hearing "queen of the night flower" makes me think instantly of Dior Addict, which is also a vanilla gourmand floral with woody notes. Let's hope they're not too similar; it wouldn't be the first time Lauder has ridden the coattails of another established scent, but why would they copy something from 2002?