One Thousand Scents

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Centre of Attention: Etat Libre d'Orange Nombril Immense

There is real, hard-core patchouli, the kind that smells a bit dirty, the kind that people associate with hippies and head shops. I can't wear that stuff at all. And there is the new, sanitized, molecularized synthetic patchouli, the kind that smells very fresh and clean, the kind that has been showing up in many fragrances for years now. I loved it for a while but now its ubiquity has begun to bore me.

And then there is Nombril Immense, which has somehow found the middle ground between these two. A mix of various patchoulis? A recent synthetic which combines the best of both worlds? No matter. It's completely dominated by the note, which is neither dirty nor hygienically steam-cleaned, a sort of lived-in smell, friendly and approachable.

There's a little bit of citrus and some black pepper in the top, and a bit of sexy balsamic warmth in the base, but otherwise Nombril Immense (the name means "Cosmic Belly-Button" and suggests countercultural navel-gazing and also the centre of the world) is all about the patchouli, so simple yet so colossally appealing. It does what fragrances are supposed to do: it makes you smell good. (I had two people tell me exactly that last week, despite the fact that I wasn't wearing very much of it: it has a presence.) The middle of the scent also has a chocolatey overtone: I can't wear Serge Lutens' Borneo 1834 despite its being a patchouli-and-chocolate confection, because it's that strong-and-dirty patchouli allied to a dusty-cocoa chocolate; Nombril Immense is the same idea but done, if not "right", then in a way which I can wear.

The website for Etat Libre d'Orange has this to say about their scent:

Exotique et précieux, ce bois indien subjugue ceux qui le respirent

which means "Exotic and precious, this Indian wood captivates all who inhale it," which is untrue at least where it claims that patchouli is a wood: the plant is an herb, not a tree, and even if it were a tree, its wood would be irrelevant since the oil is extracted from the plant's leaves. But the French have certainly never let the facts interfere in their perfume advertising.

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Friday, January 20, 2012

Et Cetera: L'Artisan Parfumeur Santal

L'Artisan Parfumeur launched six fragrances in 1978 under perfumer Jean Laporte (who left ten years later to form Maître Parfumier et Gantier), if you can believe Wikipedia on the subject. One of them, Vanilia, is a magnificent essay on the floral genesis of vanilla, and therefore of course was discontinued in favour of the syrupy, inferior Havana Vanille. Another, Mure et Musc, remains one of their most popular scents, though I don't see the appeal. A third, L'Eau D'Ambre, I thought was an incompletely worked-out idea that Laporte brought, perhaps after a decade's maturity, to its full fruition in MPG's 1988 Ambre Précieux.

The remaining three are gone. I never smelled Tubereuse or Vetiver, but I do happen to have a vial of Santal (which is to say Sandalwood), and perhaps it hasn't aged well — though it doesn't smell damaged or "off" in any way — but it suggests that Laporte spent all his artistic capital on Vanilia.

When I smell a really good fragrance, I am torn between wanting to write about it immediately while still possessed by the thrill of the new and wanting to wear it repeatedly and think about it so I understand it. When I smell a really dreadful fragrance, my mind teems with wicked turns of phrase: it can be fun to write a truly scathing review. But a mediocre, neither-here-nor-there scent like Santal: that's just depressing. I've had this review, if I can even call it that, open in a browser window for five days now, and I just don't know what to say about Santal that's worth saying, except that I'm not sorry it was discontinued.

It starts with a burst of lime cologne, once a standby in men's toiletries, which is nice enough but not what you expect from a niche house like L'Artisan. And then it just stays men's cologne for quite a while, nothing of any real interest, nothing you couldn't find in a hundred other bottles. Eventually a little slab of thin, pale sandalwood bobs to the surface, that creamy-pudding sandalwood note that I found in Molecule 01, which consists entirely of the sandalwoody synthetic Iso E Super. A bit of amber rounds out the base. And that's it. Think of a run-of-the-mill late-seventies men's scent and you've got it.

I suppose Laporte felt he had to have a men's fragrance in his lineup, but did it have to be this one?


Monday, January 16, 2012

Taming the Dragon: Comptoir Sud Pacifique Vanille Pitahaya

Pitahaya, since you must have wondered if you didn't already know, is also called the dragon fruit, which is named for its looks, and if you had been the first to run across something that looks like this

you would probably name it after a dragon, too. In taste it is very mild; if I remember correctly it tastes something like a Chinese pear (though with a much softer texture), with the caveat that I would have tasted both of these fruit imported to Canada, which probably has a deleterious effect on their flavour. Perhaps they taste fantastic right off the tree.

2004's inoffensive Vanille Pitahaya is pleasant enough, but it consists only of a vague pearishness for a top note with a suggestion of floralcy joining it in the middle, and a dollop of that CSP vanilla for a base. There is quite literally nothing else. It's like one of those teenagery fruity florals with all of the flesh stripped off its bones. It's practically a test case in how minimal a fragrance can be and still be called a fragrance.

It may be churlish of me to criticize Vanille Pitahaya when I am a fan of so many other CSP scents which are no more intricate, but my justification is that the successful ones smell more complex than they are, or at least smell interesting. Amour de Cacao, for instance, while being little more than chocolate and vanilla, has an intriguing saltiness and the depth that cocoa can have, while Vanille Ambre benefits from the multifaceted quality of amber, including a pleasant briny note. Comptoir Sud Pacifique scents are generally so simple that they come down to a binary judgement: yes or no. Vanille Pitahaya is a no. 


Friday, January 13, 2012

Party Girl: Vraie Blonde by Etat Libre d'Orange

Vraie Blonde is so much fun! It smells like a box of milk chocolates full of aldehydes. There may be a peach-flavoured cream centre in one or two of them, but otherwise it's aldehydes and chocolate. And it's vivacious and charming, bright and cheery and effervescent, the centre of attention. The life of the party! And the fun doesn't end! Vraie Blonde just keeps being bubbly and madcap, and even if you beg it to stop it's still dancing a couple of hours later, and you try to sneak away for hot shower and a bit of peace and quiet but you can't escape.

A few hours after that it dies of exhaustion.


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Who Are You: Bois 1920 Vetiver Ambrato

I think nowadays most people like to know what the notes to a scent are so they have an idea of what they're getting themselves into, so here they are:

Top notes are bergamot, lemon, petit grain, cloves, geranium and artemisia; middle notes are patchouli, vetiver, sandalwood, cedar and lavender; base notes are tobacco, vanilla, amber, musk, benzoin, french labdanum and galbanum.

Sure, whatever. Here's what Vetiver Ambrato smells like to me: a very brief whiff of vetiver cologne, and then a massive heap of sweet powder. It isn't bad — it calls to mind a number of other ambery-sweet men's scent's like Lagerfeld and Stetson — but it is very sweet, and it is very powdery, and that's practically all there is to it. The list of ingredients sounds like a men's scent, and at first, when those citrus-green notes are still in the air, it suggests being freshly shaven and powdered in a barbershop; but then the volatile notes disappear and all you're left with is sweet powder, though from time to time, not often enough, I thought I detected a bit of tobacco. At the end — a long time coming, since it's almost entirely base notes — there's a bit of that sourishness you sometimes get with ambers, and some vanilla.

Luckyscent, echoing the packaging of my sample, says that "Vetiver Ambrato is a decidedly masculine fragrance that embodies all the power and mystery of modern man," which is hilarious, because if you added a few drops of violet water after the top notes burn off, you would smell like a little old lady crocheting an antimacassar. The sample's text also calls it "virile" and "provocative", and I can't understand why the company is so obviously desperate to promote it as something it is not: it is as virile and provocative as a desk lamp.


Friday, January 06, 2012

Mountainous: Old Spice Denali Deodorant

I am not what you would call a high-maintenance person when it comes to getting ready in the morning. Shower, shave, deodorant, sunscreen/moisturizer, I'm good for the day. I consider those things (maybe not a daily shave) to be an absolute minimum for everyone. Soap and water are cheap, and there is no excuse for smelling of body odour these days. As for deodorant, some lucky people (Jim is one of them) don't need to wear it; if I don't, there are consequences, and I figure for pretty much everyone with armpits it's better safe than sorry. As for moisturizer, I don't know why it's considered unmanly: men have skin, skin dries out (especially in winter), ten seconds of smooshing a bit of lotion on your face every morning solves the problem. And it isn't vain to not want to look like an old leather briefcase before you hit fifty, so some sunscreen in your moisture is a good idea for most people.

I always use Mitchum gel deodorant, which is unscented and gets the job done. But every now and then I sniff around in the men's deo department just to see if anything smells interesting, because you never know, it just might. Last year Old Spice had a Fresh Collection of four scents, and I sniffed them because that's what I do, and three of them weren't me at all but one of them, Denali, intrigued me. So I bought it. And then didn't wear it for over a year, because let's face it, I'm going to be wearing a fragrance most of the time, and if I'm not it's because Jim's around, and since he is a foe of commercial fragrances in general, I don't want to smell like scented deodorant or scented anything.

But on Wednesday morning as I was getting ready to go to work I looked in the storage closet to get some new contact lenses, and I saw the Denali and sniffed it — not too bad — and put some on, and goddamn is it ever strong!

On the way to work (with my arms by my side and my heavy winter jacket on) I put on some Jo Malone Black Vetyver Café, not because I adore it but because I found the vial and figured why not. It isn't a particularly strong or long-lasting scent, so I figured I could reapply it if I needed to. I didn't need to, because once I got to work and unjacketed myself I could smell the Denali all day: when you wear a scent under your shirt, air is forever being pulled in through the neck- and arm-holes, scented, and whooshed back out again. The scent wasn't overwhelming, but it sure was there. And it sure was durable: it hovered around me all evening, and I could still smell it that night when I went to bed, though it had diminished enough that I was pretty sure it wouldn't bother Jim, who didn't comment on it, so I guess it didn't.

Yesterday morning I showered as usual. When I lifted my arm to put on my usual (unscented) deodorant, I could still smell the Denali! That stuff is tenacious as hell.

Denali is the name of a mountain in Alaska, so you might reasonably think that it would smell outdoor-fresh, brisk and cold and ozonic; the website says it smells like "wilderness, open air and freedom". What it actually smells like is quite a lot of patchouli (which is why I bought the stuff — it tricked me into thinking it was a chypre), and a bunch of other men's-cologne things: the list given in Basenotes is

Top Notes: Fresh Air, Mandarin Splash, Crisp Fruits, Spearmint, Fresh-cut Cilantro 
Middle Notes: Fresh Spices, Rosemary, Armoise, Lavender, Licorice, Freesia 
Base Notes: Creamy Vanilla, Rich Amber, Sandalwood, Patchouli, Sweet Musk

and hell, I don't know, it might be accurate or it might be complete bullshit. I mean, it's deodorant. It does have a fruit-salad top and there's a pile of spices in there along with the patchouli, but otherwise it could be anything: they could throw Rhubarb Pie and Wisteria and Larchwood into the list and who would be able to say differently?

I don't see the point of mass-market perfumed deodorant, because if you're the kind of person who wears a fragrance then you're going to want to really wear a fragrance and not risk having your toiletries clash with it, and if you're not the kind of person who wears a fragrance then you sure don't want anything that smells as strong as this does. But it's still on the market, so I guess men are still buying it. It isn't a mistake I'll ever make again.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Disciplinary Action: Le Labo Rose 31

The main thing you need to know about the names of Le Labo scents is that the number is the number of ingredients in the scent (although in perfumery any such contention is usually suspect), and the word is the core note around which the scent is constructed (although from what I've read this is not necessarily the case, but that is also true in the world of perfumery in general: a scent named after tree whose flowers are said to smell of milled flour might smell instead mostly of pretzels dipped in iris cologne, while the delicious-sounding Peppermint Sherbet could smell like hatred and bile).

The main thing you need to know about Rose 31 is that it's pretty horrible. It's an attempt at making a masculine rose scent, which in this case means removing everything that makes a rose the most beloved of all flowers — nothing creamy or plush or honeyed, nothing beautiful, nothing that might, god forbid, be associated with a traditional rose scent, as if the very suggestion that men want to smell good would somehow be insulting — and keeping only the sharp and sour elements (not even a citrusy sour but a damp-kitchen-rag sour), supplementing that with a whole lot of pointy cedar, astringent vetiver, and rough-edged spices, none of it pleasant, all seemingly chosen for unimpeachable masculinity rather than attractiveness. It's masculine, all right, in the same way that a punch in the face is masculine.

I was going to say that it's a rose scent for people who don't like roses, but there's too much rose in it for that. It's a rose scent for people who think that the enjoyment of fragrance deserves some sort of punishment.