One Thousand Scents

Friday, September 23, 2011

Finishing Touches: The Smell of Freedom, Tuca Tuca, and Vanillary by Gorilla Perfume

I was naturally going to spin this out over the next week or so by doing these one at a time, as I've been doing, but what the hell. I don't have that much to say about them, so I might as well get it over with.

Before we get started, here is an article from New Scientist magazine about the sense of smell, which naturally you will want to read.

The Smell of Freedom is, like most everything at Lush, louder than you'd think it needs to be. I don't even know what category it might fit into, because it doesn't seem to have any structure: it's just a bunch of things — green citrus, mild spices, vague wood — chucked into a bottle. I guess it's meant for men. I guess?

Tuca Tuca, on the other hand, is for girls, because it smells like a fruity floral, but one made after you'd forgotten to refrigerate the ingredients: it smells overripe and on the verge of spoilage. It's not terrible, certainly not the worst in its category, but it isn't very good, either.

I like vanilla scents a whole lot, and I have nothing in particular to say against Vanillary except that it changes very little over its life and is so minimalist that it eventually overstays its welcome and becomes a bit obnoxious. Otherwise, it's an even more simplified (and, it cannot be denied, cheaper-smelling) variant on Serge Lutens' already stripped-down Un Bois Vanille, a strong, sweet vanilla with cooked-caramel undertones and a splash of jasmine, really quite nice.

So that's the boxful: three florals (one great, one indifferent, one HUGE), four messes, and a decent vanilla. Not a great average, but at least there are worthwhile things in the line, which is not a given these days.


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Intermission: Biting the Hand

I don't know how comprehensive the ad-blocking software in your browser is — you do block most ads, don't you? — but you may see a discreet little ad at the top of this page: this is because some time ago I signed up for Google Ads, which puts them there, calculates how much money is made from people clicking the ads and (they hope) buying things, and eventually cuts me a cheque for $100, which hasn't happened yet and probably never will.

Earlier today I checked my blog to see when my last posting was, since I try to post two or three times a week, and noticed an ad for a product called "Primal Mist", which immediately made me think of the over-the-counter asthma remedy Primatene Mist, so I think we can all agree that it isn't perhaps the best ever name for a perfume company. That's strike one.

We expect a certain amount of nonsense in fragrance advertising; perhaps in all advertising, but most especially in the marketing for a product that is pretty much by definition a pure luxury and also impossible to properly convey in words. But here is what the Primal Mist people have to say about their two fragrances:

Our scientists identified two sensuous aromatics decoded from a 3,300 year-old Mesopotamian cuneiform tablet. The ancient text was authored by a perfume maker named Tapputi, long ago. We searched for and found these extremely rare scents and created two new sensational and alluring perfumes. Primal Mist was born. Experience the seductiveness of the only fully hand-crafted, upscale perfume in the world. Perfume so perfect that it spans the boundaries of time.

I wouldn't even mind that so much if the lists of notes didn't include "white musk" for the first scent and "cashmere musk" for the second. Both of these are synthetics. Did the Mesopotamians invent synthetic odorants? Are commercially available synthetics somehow hand-crafted? Their advertising is even more full of it than most, so that's strike two.

Now, here's the page containing their two scents (click on it to make it bigger, if you like):

Yeah, that's "Formulae Alpha" and "Formulae Beta", which might be acceptable if it weren't for the fact that "formulae" is plural. Formula: singular; formulae: plural. Just like "nebula", "antenna", "vertebra", and other Latin words absorbed intact into English. One fragrance can logically have only one formula, so it looks as if they're using "formulae" instead of "formula" because they think it looks classier (it has a ligature and everything!), which is just ignorant and pretentious. So that's strike three.

Now look at those bottles. They may be crystal, but they sure don't appear very expensive, because they're not. In fact, you can buy them for $12 each ($9.60 in lots of a hundred). See?

I freely admit to knowing nothing about the economics of independent perfumery: maybe it's prohibitively expensive to have a bottle designed and manufactured. But still: strike four.

I haven't smelled these scents, and I know nothing about the people behind them: all I can go on is the advertising, and it's dreadful. I swear I can't even imagine the nerve it takes concoct something which is at least partly (and probably largely) synthetic in the guise of an ancient recipe, name it badly, tip it into a cheap mass-market bottle, and then charge $300 for a quarter ounce of it.

Friday, September 16, 2011

There It Is: Orange Blossom by Gorilla Perfume (eventually)

Let's see how long it takes me to get to the point today. A while, I'm thinking.

James Jorden, who as his alter ego La Cieca (Italian for "the blind woman" and a character from the opera La Gioconda) heads up the splendidly bitchy opera blog Parterre Box, also writes reviews under his own name for the New York Post, among others. He recently wrote a review of the revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Follies", and if you aren't interested in reading it (you should), here is a divagation a few paragraphs long that resounded with me:

...When you start writing reviews, or, rather, when you start writing reviews that people actually read, very early on you run into the Siskel and Ebert Dilemma: The realization that potential audiences may be making the decision to see or not to see, to buy or not to buy, based on your published take on the entertainment in question.

Even when the reader feedback is very positive indeed (“I went to see Satyagraha based on your rave review, and it was amazing!”), there’s this little inside-the-head voice nagging at you: “Who the hell are you to be persuading this guy to be spending his money on a Philip Glass opera?” And, when a critic has an inflated sense of his influence, the voice amps up the volume to such absurdities as “Too bad the Met didn’t have you around the last time they did Billy Budd, because that show didn’t draw flies.”

But the real worry here for a reviewer (again, assuming anybody cares what he writes) is this: If I write a mixed review, with maybe a little more focus on the negatives, am I going to scare somebody away from what is, on the whole, a worthwhile experience, or anyway an experience that somebody might find worthwhile?

Luckily, I don't have that kind of influence, but it still nags at me. People are creating works of art — in this case, perfumes — and sending them out into the world, where they have an independent life of their own, and I and others get to experience them and judge them. Where does any reviewer's obligation lie: to be as fair as possible, or to express their opinions as truthfully as possible? This is why I forever find myself saying things like, "I hated it, but I'm not you, and maybe you'll love it."

We may be past the days when New York Times reviewers were able to shut down a restaurant or a play with a single scathing review, but that may only be because the Internet is replacing newspapers, so there are ever more opinions in print. Still, that kind of power is worrisome. It's good to be able to steer the public away from the truly awful, but not to be able to destroy people's honest livelihood with a few carefully honed words.

I think, or at least hope, that people are becoming more sophisticated when they read reviews: they know that what they're reading is still just an opinion, however educated and sophisticated it might be. It's a guideline rather than a diktat. The more you read a particular reviewer, the more you get to know their tastes: if theirs happen to coincide with yours, then you can place ever more faith in their opinions.

This is an easy task when it comes to book and movie critics, but I've never yet found a fragrance reviewer whose opinion I agree with more than half the time. Luca Turin, probably the most well-known, is opinionated to a degree that occasionally borders on the vendetta: his disdain for Mona di Orio seems positively unhinged, well beyond a mere disdain for her fragrances (none of which I have ever smelled), forcing one to wonder if there is some personal animus behind the professional drubbing he gives her. He is not as fond of Serge Lutens as I am (though we occasionally agree, as on the dreadful eighties men's-fragrance rehash Un Bois Sepia, which Turin called a "dim-witted sport fragrance"). His two-out-of-five review for Lutens' Rousse calls it "bizarre" and "one fine mess": would you like to know what I think?

When I wrote about Rousse last year, I noted that I was using a rollerball version that had a base of silicone oil rather than alcohol, and therefore would almost certainly smell different from the actually, commercially available scent (silicone usually means no top notes), and I was right. I got a proper sample earlier this month and I finally got around to trying it as it was meant to be worn. Today is the first properly cool day of the fall (well, the pre-fall, I guess), and Rousse is just the kind of thing you want to be wearing: a thrilling blast of mandarin and spices with all the familiarity of a men's fragrance but taken in a slightly strange and thoroughly Lutensian direction (this is not a clove-studded orange), the autumnal, spicy-woody angularity of cinnamon and cloves dominating the opening and middle, gradually modulating into a warm, dulcet ground bass of amber, sandalwood, and still more spice. I loved the rollerball version but I love the eau de parfum even more, and I strongly suspect that I am going to be owning this in the foreseeable future.

A few years ago, Bond No. 9 sent me an insanely huge press pack containing press releases and samples of all their current fragrances, about thirty in all. I was on their mailing list for a while, and got a few more press kits and samples (which I duly reviewed), and then the largesse stopped coming; I figured they had revised their press strategy and were downsizing the number of kits they sent out, though of course in the back of my head was the less charitable assumption that I wasn't playing by the rules — I was saying what I thought rather than just giving the sort of breathlessly uncritical coverage that fashion magazines are known for — and therefore had been banned. But I'm still on their e-mail list, because e-mails cost nothing to send out.

A few weeks ago I got a notice of a new upcoming line; the e-mail asked if I would like samples and a press pack for the three new scents. Yes, I said, I would. And I still don't have them. Will I? Don't know. In the spirit of fairness I provided an e-mail link to all my previous Bond No. 9 reviews, though of course they could have easily just looked them up. It may be the case that someone there read my reviews and figured they're not wasting the postage on me, or maybe the post office is slow these days. But just to prove that there are no hard feelings, here's a shot of one of their new holiday offerings:

Now just look at that! Ten perfect 5-mL miniatures in a gorgeous gift box. (The scents included are I presume their best sellers: Andy Warhol Union Square, Bleecker Street, Bond No. 9 Signature, Chelsea Flowers, Chinatown, Eau de New York, Hamptons, Nuits de Noho, The Scent of Peace, and Wall Street. For the record: hated Union Square, disdained Wall Street, liked Bleecker Street, loved Nuits de Noho, and haven't tried the rest.) I think the price, $250, is a little steep; $150 would have been closer to the mark. But that is still a terrific gift idea. They do really great seasonal merchandise.

Also in time for the Christmas insanity is a new version of Clinique's Aromatics Elixir called Perfumer's Reserve (stoppered perfume bottle, no sprayer, 25 mL, $75). The press release refers to the original's restrained savagery with such adjectives as "visceral", "intellectual", "unorthodox", "severe", "complex", "uncompromising", and "formidable", all perfectly accurate. And then it tells us that the new version will be "a fresher, smoother, modern interpretation," and that can only mean one thing: no oakmoss. You can tell without reading the ingredient list that it will be a "modern chypre", which means lighter, less assertive, bottom-loaded with clean molecularized patchouli but with none of the earthy-dirty oakmoss that makes true chypres compelling. as the press release says:

• Rose, jasmine, myrrh and patchouli notes are cleaner, lighter, with a contemporary transparency.
• The addition of orange flower absolute and peach lends a creamy luminosity.

I think it's inevitable that there are elements of perfumery that one just doesn't like: I can't stand large quantities of iris, straight-up patchouli is impossible on me, and as far as I can tell, lilac, ravishing though it is in the wild, never translates well into a composed scent. But then there are elements that one just doesn't get, and one of them for me is orange blossom. I don't hate it; I would just usually rather it not be there. Even when it indisputably works (as with Dior's Fahrenheit 32), it never translates into a really wearable, compelling scent for me. Adding orange blossom to Aromatics Elixir seems like it would be a step backwards, although I suppose that if you're already wrecking it by de-chyprifying it, orange blossom is not going to make the situation any worse.

Lush's Orange Blossom by Gorilla Perfume is hardly anything but its namesake, and as usual, I don't get it, but at least you can't accuse it of false advertising. If you like orange-flower, then you will like this; otherwise, you may safely steer clear and be missing nothing.

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Monday, September 12, 2011

Red Alert: Lust by Gorilla Perfume

One of the problems with a very stripped-down scent is that there's only so much you can say about it. A big constructed scent can make you think: it has multiple meanings that change and reverberate over time, because the more elements there are in a scent (within reason), the more they interact with one another, conjuring up associations and complexities. Simpler scents are more likely to have just a single idea in their heads: "fun", say, or "manly", or "pretty". The idea of Lust is "va-va-voom", or possibly "climb on top of me RIGHT NOW," as if the name didn't already tell you everything you need to know.

Lust is big fat sexy jasmine and that's just about it. It's fairly sweet, candied at the top with some vanilla in the bottom, and floral, with a slug of rose and ylang to keep it from being too monochromatic. But mostly it's jasmine, and huge, and really very nice for the price, as long as you understand that you don't wear it, it wears you: like all the Lush/Gorilla scents, it is minimalist perfumery on a large scale.

It is also dyed dramatically red: my sample leaked and stained the box that the sample set was packaged in. I expect it would do the same to any clothing it happened to touch, so beware.

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Thursday, September 08, 2011

Try Again: Karma by Gorilla Perfume

Now, I do not particularly love patchouli most of the time, although sometimes I will grudgingly admit that a patchouli scent can be excellent, even if I can't wear it, and on occasion in the right company it can sneak up on me, so you will have to keep that well in mind when I am discussing a scent that consists of little else.

Lush's signature scent, Karma, is constructed almost entirely of orange and patchouli: there are a half-dozen notes listed but those are the only ones that matter. Karma starts out as orange peel and patchouli and it remains orange peel and patchouli for a very long time. Whatever novelty that combination might have had at the outset — and its novelty value is considerable, because at first whiff I find it charming and unexpectedly cheery — is exhausted long before the scent ever fades away. There's no development: it just keeps going on in that singular mindset, and on, and on. An hour or so of it is all I can take before I start looking around for an escape hatch. It is relentless.

Karma, unfortunately, is what a bad idea smells like.


Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Intermission: Somebody Stop Me!

The Sunday before last, as I was heading off to work, it occurred to me that Monday the 5th of September was a holiday, I had Saturday the 3rd off, I would probably have Sunday the 4th off, and I would be able to switch my schedule around so that I wouldn't have to work on Friday, so I could theoretically have a four-day weekend, and I said to Jim, "This is a crazy idea, but how much would it cost to take a little trip?"

Not much! By the time I got to work, Jim had already booked flights and hotel and texted me with the details, and that is how we spent the Labour Day weekend in Montréal, flying up on Friday afternoon and returning Monday midday.

When I was a child growing up in Newfoundland, I swear — and my mother confirms this — that on the first day of school, it would be cold enough that there would be frost glittering on the ground, and you could see your breath in the air. Well, climate change, or different geography — Newfoundland is after all dangling in the Atlantic ocean like a piñata awaiting the weather's merciless beating — but the first week of September in eastern Canada was pretty damned hot. Fortunately, Montréal has an underground city; you can live and shop and work without ever breathing unprocessed air, if you have a mind to do such a thing. After seeing the weather forecasts, then, our plan of attack was to go out in the mornings and do whatever we needed to do, and then retreat to the underground and just kind of shop and mosey and whatever, only coming to the surface when we had to.

I did a little research and discovered that Ogilvy carries Serge Lutens, my one and only, so I e-mailed their customer service department to see if they had any Vitriol d'Oeillet in stock. Not only didn't they, I was told that it wasn't available in Canada, which is just wrong. But I figured I would go there anyway to see what they did have, and I promised Jim that 1) I would spend no more than five minutes there (as I had done at Hermes in New York) and 2) that it was the only scent shopping I would do on the trip. And I was almost as good as my word, too.

We popped in on Saturday afternoon and Jim headed downstairs to the café while I made a beeline for the Lutens counter. After eyeballing their selection and confirming that they unaccountably didn't have Vitriol d'Oeillet, I tried a few things on blotters to see if there was anything I couldn't live without. Cuir Mauresque is still as boring as I remember: maybe I have to smell it on my skin, but it just doesn't do anything for me. I was sure I had smelled Borneo 1834 before but I didn't remember its being so overwhelmingly patchouli-laden; absolutely not me. And then I tried Chergui, and it all came rolling back in a wave of memory: how I had loved it and disdained it, used it up and forgotten it, and now somehow couldn't live without it. So I bought it. I bought it! Why did I do that? What was I thinking? I am out of control and Serge Lutens runs my life.

Of course I asked for some samples: the somewhat confused saleswoman (who did not speak a colossal amount of English) was going to wait for another salesperson to help her decide which Lutenses were for women and which were for men, as if such trivialities matter in his world, and I said, as I usually do, "I don't care: I'll wear anything as long as it smells good," so she grabbed a bunch of them and chucked them in the bag. You can never have enough free samples, even when they are things you have already tried, or already own. Chypre Rouge? A spare for my knapsack! Louve? Have to give that one away! Rousse? High time I tried that in its original form!

And that really was going to be the end of my sniffing, but we ended up in The Bay on Sunday afternoon (underground!), and Jim was doing some clothing shopping, so of course I headed to the stench department to see what was what. Did you know that Mugler has done a series of food-related flankers, called The Taste of Fragrance, for Angel, A*Men, Alien, and Womanity? They're the same formulae but dosed with bitter cocoa powder, chili pepper, salted butter caramel, and fig chutney, respectively. I tried the A*Men and Alien; they weren't different enough from the originals to make me even think about buying them. (Now, if they had mixed a large helping of salted butter caramel with A*Men, I think I would have been helpless to resist.)

Then as I was waiting for Jim, the woman at the Gaultier counter started talking to me about the Gaultier exhibition at the Musée des Beaux Arts, which we had seen that very morning. I had a little card which we had gotten when we bought our tickets but hadn't looked at; it entitled me to a sample of, not the latest men's Gaultier, but the first one (had they given all the new ones away?), which of course I took, because, again, you can never have enough free samples.

Oh — the Gaultier exhibition! In June we went to New York where we saw the legendary Alexander McQueen exhibit, thrilling, a real roller-coaster ride that takes you to any number of dark places. The Gaultier, though, really has only one mode: giddy amazement, pure happiness. When I said a while back, "What fun it must be to be Jean-Paul Gaultier," I wasn't kidding: his sense of childlike joy (coupled with his absolute mastery of couture and the human form) shines out through the entire exhibit. Mad corsets with dozens of panels of lacing everywhere except the one place you'd expect to find it (the front has two rows of fake lacing with a zipper between them); demented beadwork depicting Paris as the city of lights, or an entire faux leopardskin pelt (a thousand hours' worth of hand-sewn bugle beads in the most finely gradated colours you can imagine); punk jackets re-created with lavish applications of beads and rhinestones; a mermaid dress of hand-made gold lace, mother-of-pearl bra cups, and a corset of narrow, delicate, bepearled piano hinges. It was such a pleasure: you couldn't leave the museum without a smile on your face. (I was a little surprised that the gift shop didn't have the fragrances: various incarnations of the Classique bottle were rightly part of the exhibition. As curator I would have insisted on it, and as attendee I would have bought something. Perhaps there were licensing or environmental issues.)

As for the Chergui, I wore it yesterday morning before showering, and I briefly thought that I had made a huge mistake in buying it, because all my doubts and misgivings about those unpleasant facets of its dual nature that I had perceived before were there in abundance: its oversweetness, its slightly spiny aggression. Today I put it on again and I found it breathtaking, and what's more, durable beyond anyone's expectations: a couple of sprays before noon, and now, twelve hours later, I can still smell its drydown clearly. And I see upon re-reading my first description of it that I managed to write an entire fragrance review without actually saying what that fragrance smells like, so here goes: a leathern pouch of best pipe tobacco, a curl of smoke, a dollop of honey, one bite from a sugared date, a single rose, a puff of incense, a fragment of amber heated until it glows like a coal. When Chergui behaves, it is beyond beautiful.

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Sunday, September 04, 2011

Coming Up Roses: Imogen Rose by Gorilla Perfume

In a nutshell, I am as overwhelmed by Imogen Rose as I was underwhelmed by Breath of God. Imogen Rose is an armload of bright, fresh, dewy roses wrapped in a sheaf of greenery, dusted with a puff of baby powder, laid on a bed of ambery tonka, the whole gradually warming and sweetening as it develops but never becoming especially sweet, and always a rose scent from start to finish. Enchanting. Actually perfect.

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Thursday, September 01, 2011

A New Angle: Breath of God by Gorilla Perfume

I was reading an article a couple of weeks ago about how men and women speak differently and what this means for transsexuals, who have to basically learn how to be a different sex: a loud Starbucks, a man will just speak with greater volume—so he’ll speak louder—and a woman will tend to speak higher, tend to raise her pitch higher to be heard over the din.

This creates the arresting image of a pre-show Mary Kay seminar full of women pitching their voices up and up and up until they're all squeaking like bats, but regardless of the strategy people use in large groups to make themselves heard, the quotation made me think of the batch of Lush scents I was going to review (in alphabetical order, because I have to have some sort of structure).

Have you ever been in a Lush store, or just walked by one, or even been within twenty feet of one? Because it is loud, olfactorily speaking. A huge din of fragrances, not especially pleasant: I don't know how people work there without a lot of Imitrex. Creams and soaps and bath bombs and shampoos and such, all intensely scented and all competing for a shot at your nostrils. How could you possibly sell a perfume in such an environment? How would people be able to smell it among the racket?

There's only one way: you have to make the fragrances at least as loud as their surroundings, and the Gorilla line at Lush is every bit as loud as the store itself. I have a set of samples which, in case I needed a quick fix on the road, I was lugging around in my knitting bag (actually a MEC travel bag

which I use to lug around my current pair of socks or whatever I'm working on when I'm on the go: it's small enough to be unobtrusive but big enough to hold a small project plus the usual electronics — Kindle, phone, iPod — and a few other things as well, so it's perfect for travel), and the box itself was so radioactively fragrant that the project I started yesterday, and which was in a separate compartment from the scents, already smells like jasmine and patchouli.

You would think that a fragrance called Breath of God...well, what would you think of it, knowing nothing about it beforehand? I think of this exchange from The Simpsons:

Bart: So, Homer, you saw the big cheese? What'd he look like?
Homer: Perfect teeth, nice smell, a class act all the way.

And obviously something called Breath of God should evoke perfect teeth and a nice smell. The perfumer's intention was a scent that was neither masculine nor feminine, or both, something that combined a light freshness with a darker smoky wood-incense. It starts with a cucumbery-aquatic brightness but then the smoky-resin note starts to drift in, and I swear that for the next while, Breath of God strongly resembles this:

Yeah, smoked fish. We used to eat these all the time when I was a kid: I haven't had them in years, but I still remember the agreeable briny-smoky smell of them. It seems like an odd thing to put into a perfume, though, because among other things it calls to mind an exchange from the movie Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (I have it on DVD and I like it, and DON'T JUDGE):

Patty: Seems to me it's all this cheap little tart's fault.
Elvira: Cheap. Who are you callin' cheap? What's that perfume you're wearing, catch of the day?

It doesn't smell exactly or only like smoked fish (there's a sort of floralcy in the middle), but that is what I think of every time I smell it. If that's the breath of God, then God needs to find a better toothpaste.

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