One Thousand Scents

Friday, November 15, 2013

Art and Commerce: Fumerie Turque by Serge Lutens (eventually)

Last week it was tobacco and this week it's tobacco again and I have a feeling that, since winter is setting in fast, it's going to be mostly reviews of warm things and comfort scents and Orientalia for the next three months or so.

Do you read News of the Weird? It updates every Sunday and it’s generally just a whole lot of fun: strange, awful, or ridiculous news stories, encapsulated and presented for your weekly amusement. That plus PostSecret are the first things I read when I fire up my computer on a Sunday morning.


This is a 2009 “News of the Weird classic” from the most recent issue:

People With Too Much Money: In April (2008) the Swiss watchmaker Romain Jerome (which the year before created a watch made from remnants of the Titanic) introduced the "Day&Night" watch, which unfortunately does not provide a reading of the hour or the minute. Though it retails for about $300,000, it only tells whether it is "day" or "night" (using a complex measurement of the Earth's gravity). CEO Yvan Arpa said studies show that two-thirds of rich people "don't (use) their watch to tell what time it is," anyway. Anyone can buy a watch that tells time, he told a Reuters reporter, but only a "truly discerning customer" will buy one that doesn't. [Wall Street Journal, 4-25-2008]

And naturally, contrarian that I am, I need to make an argument as to why a $300K watch is not worthy of ridicule.

I mean I wouldn’t buy one, no matter how much money I had, and you probably wouldn’t, either. But people who could afford a $300,000 watch are not like you and me. If you were say worth more than $10 billion dollars, and over a hundred people currently are, then your perspective on what’s doable and purchasable would necessarily change. Once you’ve given away countless millions or even billions to charity and created a bunch of companies to employ tens of thousands of people and bought some houses and some cars, you’ve still got more money than you could reasonably spend in a lifetime. Maybe you take up watch-collecting. Maybe you have dozens of beautifully worked examples of the art form, and then you see this kind of ridiculous and ridiculously expensive but also strikingly beautiful watch: well, why wouldn’t you buy it if you could afford to? The thrill of the limited edition, of something that only a small number of people will be able to own, is not nothing.

You could argue that anyone with that kind of money to blow on a watch has too much money. But what if it were a painting? Is there a painting out there that’s worth $300K to some collector?

If you were an acclaimed sculptor whose work was in demand around the world; if you made a small, intricately detailed sculpture which was being cast in bronze, limited to nine pieces, after which the mold would be destroyed; if you thought that each of those sculptures was worth $300,000; if nine extremely wealthy art collectors agreed with you and bought those beautiful objects to own and enjoy: would anybody think there was anything wrong with that?* Naysayers might grumble that art prices are ridiculous, that some people have more money than brains, that the money could better have been used for charitable enterprises: but in the end, most people would agree that if you have the (legitimately acquired, let’s stipulate) money, then you get to buy more or less whatever you want with it.

So how is a watch different from a sculpture? Because art isn’t supposed to be practical but a watch is? I don't think so: I think a watch can be an objet d’art as much as anything else can. So can a fountain pen: I adore fountain pens and have a bunch of them, most extremely cheap (a clutch of the joyous $3-ish Pilot Petit1 pens) and a few nice ones, nothing more than $50, but if I had a whole lot of money I would unhesitatingly buy

the jade-panelled Graf von Faber-Castell 2011 Pen of the Year, which I think is a profoundly beautiful piece of art. I’d use it all the time, too. It’s currently £3000, VAT included, and, if I had that kind of money, so worth it. 

All of this is relevant to people who love perfumes, of course, because high-quality perfumes serve little practical purpose and are often expensive well beyond their actual cost to produce, but they inspire the collector’s passion and are considered by their devotees to be well worth the price.

My own personal mania is for Serge Lutens scents, which I think are a form of olfactory art. I have I think thirteen full bottles of his scents, and every one of them is something I love and wear as often as I can. Three and a half years ago I was in Paris for a single day, made a pilgrimage to the Serge Lutens boutique, and, on the assumption that I would never be there again, bought two 75-mL bell jars: Fourreau Noir and Fumerie Turque**. I think I paid €125 each, which was about $175 at the time, the most I have ever spent on a scent and worth every penny: I have gotten endless pleasure from those two bottles.

Fumerie Turque means "Turkish smoking-room", and unlike last week's Le Tabac, which was mostly just a pouchful of cherry tobacco, Fumerie Turque is the story of what happens when a roomful of men are smoking it. It smells not only of tobacco but of its pungent smoke; of dried fruit and of honey-and-rosewater baklava for snacking; of leather upholstery; of good clean sweat. Later on, hours and hours later, most of the smoke has drifted away, the men have left their hookah den, and Fumerie Turque smells mostly of the honey in Miel de Bois, which to my mind is an awfully good thing to smell like.

If you would like to read a completely contradictory review, you ought to head over to Kafkaesque, whose writer is one of those people who can fractionate a scent down to its precise elements and timings (I can't) and who loathes Fumerie Turque as much as I love it. And maybe you'll hate it as much as he does; it's not accessible and loveable, that's for sure. But it is astonishing and complex and wondrous, and that is good enough for me.

* And, in fact, this is not far from being the case with the Spanish sculptor Miguel Berrocal, who produced a number of sculptures — some small enough to be worn on a chain around your neck — which were also fiendishly difficult puzzles, such as the Goliath sculpture seen here.

You see that fig leaf covering his groin? Deep inside the piece as two of its puzzles elements are buried two sets of genitalia, one circumcised and the other not, and you can assemble the sculpture (which comes with an instruction book — these puzzles are difficult) with any of the three options showing and the other two tucked away. To the best of my knowledge, none of Berrocal’s pieces ever sold for three hundred grand (and a few of them are available on eBay for between $600 and $16,500), but the principle is the same: relatively rare artwork that doubles as something else, intended for a small coterie of knowledgeable collectors.

** In truth, I didn't know at the time that Fumerie Turque was also available in the 50-mL spray bottle: it I had, I would have bought it in that format, because I like spray bottles and also because I can't quite imagine emptying a 50-mL bottle as it is and  I'll definitely never use up 75 mL of anything. Mais je ne regrette rien. Every Lutens enthusiast should have one of these gorgeous, gorgeous bottles.

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Friday, November 08, 2013

Hot Stuff: Le Tabac by l'Antichambre

If you’ve ever seen one of those packs of runners leaving from or arriving at a Running Room on a Sunday morning, you may have had the same thought as I often have: these people aren’t running because it’s healthy, they’re running because they get to shop for shoes and those stupid jackets with the ass-covering back hem and the belts that hold all the tiny bottles of hydration — because they get to buy all the stuff.

I love stuff. My apartment has lots of it. In fact, that’s why I don’t go out unless I have to: because  in is where all my stuff is. If I lived in a building with a gym and a supermarket and could work from home, I’d never leave at all. So I don’t have anything against stuff: I just think people should be honest about why they do things. Most men who have a workshop in their garage have it not because they actually make anything, but because they want to be able to buy all the stuff on the assumption that some day they are in fact going to make things. A lot of women who love being women just get off on the fact that they get to have all this stuff, the clothes and the shoes and the makeup — girl stuff.

My father was a pipe-smoker (actually, an omni-smoker who counted pipes among his arsenal), and I think part of the appeal of the pipe is that there’s a lot of stuff. Cigarette smokers get a nice lighter if they want, and maybe a cigarette case, which can seem a bit pretentious if you don’t play it right, but that’s it (unless you use a cigarette holder, and good luck pulling that off). Cigar smokers get humidors and cutters. But pipe smokers get the whole shebang: pipe racks, cleaning tools, special ashtrays, tobacco-pouches and jars, various cultivars and flavours of tobacco, and of course the pipes themselves, of which a dedicated smoker could easily have a dozen or more.

The prize for all this is that pipe tobacco smells spectacular*. Cigarettes smell pretty horrible, thin and acrid and ashy. Cigars can be and usually are famously rank. But pipe tobacco smells gorgeous: in its unlit state rich and full, earthy, with a hint of sharpness; when burning, thick and lush, like incense that gives you a buzz. And perfume aficionados may appreciate that it comes in dozens of scents, too: apple and cherry, vanilla and maple, whiskey and rum.

When a while back I discovered that I had a whole bag of Luckyscent samples from a Dutch company called L’antimatiere (“Antimatter”), I was surprised and kind of thrilled: then this week when I realized I was going to have to wear and think about and describe these samples, I was brought down a little. Or a lot: I thought, “Oh, god. More of the same.” So I decided to stack the deck in my own favour and pick the one out of the twelve that was most likely the please me: Le Tabac, which is to say “Tobacco”.

I am a sucker for tobacco scents. A complete pushover. An easy lay. When I smelled Le Tabac, I was instantly and completely seduced. It's a glorious amalgam of brandied baked apples and cherry tobacco, and it lasts for hours and hours.

The problem, and such a minor problem it is: Le Tabac is far too simple. Tobacco is a pretty complex scent all on its own, but Le Tabac doesn't develop at all, just the baked apples for a while and then cherry tobacco for hour after hour. Still, if that is what you want to smell like — and there are in all honesty not that many things than which that is better to smell like — then Le Tabac, currently $185 for a 50-mL spray perfume at Luckyscent, is absolutely worth owning.

The Antichambre website, though, is kind of a dog: it doesn’t really tell you anything you need to know, just the address (in Belgium) and the hours of operation — no product listing, no online shop, nothing. Apparently they want you to visit their store, and if you don’t live near it, you’re out of luck. In this day and age, why would anyone have such a useless, nothing-y website? Don’t they want to sell more stuff?

*On the other hand, the penalty for all this smoking is that you may, as my father did, suffer a stroke and develop oral cancer, which is why I prefer to take my tobacco in the form of perfumes.


Friday, November 01, 2013

Night Life: Balenciaga Le Dix (vintage)(ish)

Despite my seemingly never-ending complaints about the ubiquitous fruity floral, the dominant mode of perfumery for the past decade and more, I don’t hate them. Some of them are acceptable, even pleasant, and I occasionally enjoy walking past the nearly impenetrable wall of fruity-floral-gourmand stink that radiates from the local mall's Bath and Body Works. What I object to is these twinned facts: 1) the fruity floral is essentially all there is in mainstream women’s perfumery any more, and 2) they all smell pretty much identical.

While I was wearing Balenciaga’s 1947 Le Dix so I could think about it and write about it, a dreadful question occurred to me: these young women, raised to believe that the fruity floral is the only scent in existence — will they wear in ten years’ time when they go out in the evening? Because Le Dix is the very quintessence of the sophisticated women’s evening scent: it’s the sort of thing that, if you are older than thirty, you remember your mom putting on when she was dressing up for a special night out at a restaurant or the theatre. She wouldn’t wear it every day, or any day: she would save it for a special occasion, and the last thing you would remember before falling asleep was her wafting into your room on a cloud of perfume to kiss you good-night.

A scent like that was something that girls aspired to: they might wear Jean Naté and Avon in their teens, but when they were grown up, they were by god going to wear some proper French perfume when they went out. But now: what do they have to aspire to? Even the great French lines have been dumbed down, and graduating from the latest celebuscent to the latest Lancôme or Guerlain is frankly not much of an advancement: there is not much distance between Lady Gaga and La Vie est Belle.

You can’t just stumble across a sophisticated evening scent in a department store or a drugstore as you once could: you can’t even find one if you’re hunting for it, because it no longer exists in those milieux. The only solution is to delve deeply into either vintage perfumery or niche scents, and how many people have the know-how and the determination and the nerve and the money to do that? (I mean, besides anybody reading this.)

It’s worth doing, of course, because the fact is that a really great scent —and I mean “great” in the sense of “world-class”, not the debased sense of “fun” — makes you better than you otherwise would be. A great scent confers some measure of its greatness upon you. It makes you stand straighter, it gives you confidence, it allows you to enjoy life more and in turn bring more pleasure to others. Le Dix is exactly the sort of perfume that does this: it’s world-class, all right. It smells of old-fashioned sophistication; it make you you, only better.

As usual, this is the point at which I need to say that the bottle I have, which is perhaps twenty years old, presumably doesn’t smell quite like Le Dix did upon its launch, and assuredly doesn’t smell like whatever it was transmogrified into before it was discontinued: the online discounters uniformly describe the last iteration as “watery florals with woodsy balsamic notes”, and if you don’t have some vintage Le Dix at hand, trust me that “watery florals” couldn’t be farther from the truth.

If you wanted to boil it down to its essence, you could describe Le Dix as “violets and vanilla”, which is rather like describing a Seurat as “dots of colour”: it tells you something about it while telling you nothing useful. Le Dix starts life as a joyous cloud of lemony aldehydes which parts to reveal dark-purple violets garlanded with roses and (I think) a touch of lilac. If a flower has a personality, if carnations are vicious and ylang is seductively tropical, then violet is dreamy, and Le Dix, with its overdose of violets, has that time-stopping dreaminess about it: the only thing keeping it from lulling you into an opiate stupor is the thorniness of the roses and a bright shard of vetiver. Eventually a swell of vanilla adds to the plushness and powderiness of the violets, and a big smudge of dirty-sexy musk — proper musk, not that clean-white musk that's in everything today — grounds the scent in the real world.

And that’s just the nineties-era eau de toilette: I can only imagine what it was in its day, and I actually can’t even imagine the 1947-era parfum. I bet that was a real world-beater.

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