One Thousand Scents

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Heavenly: Byblos Cielo

Buying something unsniffed is not generally a good idea. There are just too many unlikable scents out there, and you have only so much money to spend. But if you find a something that costs only a few dollars, well, why not? Maybe you'll hate it, but you can always give it away or swap it for something you'll like better. And maybe, just maybe, you'll love it, and you win not once but twice: you add a great new scent to your collection, and you have the satisfaction of knowing that hardly cost you anything.

The local hyperdrugstore always has a bunch of fragrances on clearance. I don't know where they come from, but most of them aren't junk, just scents that didn't do so well or have to be cleared away to make room for new stuff. A few months ago, I bought a whole bunch of them: a set of Shalimar EDP and body lotion; an Azzarro Homme set with EDT, shaving balm, and a deodorant which it later turned out had completely evaporated except for a withered husk like one of those solid air fresheners; and a Dolce and Gabbana set of EDT, shower gel, and shaving balm. Those sets were less than $10 each, and I knew I liked them already, so that was a no-lose proposition. I also got two Byblos scents which I'd never even heard of, but I figured at less than $5 each, I can't really go too far afield. (I liked the original Byblos Uomo and loved the women's Byblos, which has a pronounced raspberry note among the subdued flowers, so I figured there was a pretty good chance I'd like at least one of these.)

In 1997, Byblos launched what we can think of, I guess, as a trilogy: Earth, Sea, and Sky, or in Italian, Terra, Mare, and Cielo. In 1998, they threw two more into the pile: Ghiaccio and Fuoco, or Ice and Fire. And finally in 2000, they released Brezza and Uragano, or Breeze and Hurricane. I would love to have had a chance to try all seven (and I would probably have bought all seven if they'd been available at that price), but the ones I ended up with were Mare and Cielo.

Mare isn't a keeper, at least not for me. It's a wet, fresh floral, suggestive of such nineties perfumery as Estee Lauder Pleasures , Cahcarel's Eden, and L'Eau D'Issey (the high-water mark of such scents, no pun intended). There's nothing wrong with Mare, but it feels like a copy of a copy, and I don't like wet florals anyway.

Cielo, on the other hand, is a real surprise. It's not novel in any way; in fact, it's a sort of copy, or at least a reconsidering, of Angel. (That's no surprise, either. It was such an earth-shaking fragrance that everyone did a version of it.) The surprise is that it changes Angel in such a way--it turns it upside down!--that it's actually a better scent. (To recap: Angel is a decidedly loud and sweet scent composed of dewberry, vanilla, chocolate, honey, the cotton-candy scent of ethyl maltol, and caramel, with a strong, some would say strident, base of patchouli. I think it's beautiful: many disagree.)

Cielo starts off with a fresh burst of mandarin, allied with a dose of very clean patchouli, understated and charming. That's right: the patchouli appears at the very top of the scent, descends into the middle, and then disappears as the scent ages, and it's there, but never overexuberant or brutish. After a while, hints of flowers (absent from Angel) appear, but very subtly: a thread of gardenia, a strand of jasmine. These are accompanied by that patchouli, some soft spice notes, and an unexpected and beautiful hint of coconut (which brings to mind a much subtler version of some Comptoir Sud Pacifique scents).

When the base notes begin to appear, we finally experience the really sweet notes that are in Angel from the outset: vanilla, mostly, but also a sticky caramel scent (which may be at least partly from tonka bean) and some sugary musk. The scent is as durable as you'd hope an oriental might be: after eight hours or so, there's not much left except a wash of vanilla, but it's an exceptionally lovely vanilla, suggestive of particularly rich ice cream.

Cielo overall is sweet, but not chokingly so (it's not Pink Sugar), and if you're the kind of person who likes confectionery scents, gourmand orientals, then this is something worth trying. I can't help but think that if this scent hadn't been buried in an avalanche of other scents, if it had been packaged and marketed differently, it could have done very well. After all, Wish, Chopard's version of Angel, is still on the market.

The original bottles for the Byblos septet were made of heavy glass, enclosed in a rubbery sheath spangled with silver glitter. Mare's is light aquamarine: Cielo's is a darker sky blue. Instead of a cap, there's a substantial clip that keeps the sprayer from being accidentally pressed. (The original bottles were all 100 mL, about three and a third ounces. Later on, the scents were all repackaged in a much cheaper 120-mL bottle which looks like the ones you'd find wrapped around any old Calgon body spray.) The boxes are covered in a silvery holographic shattered-glass design.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

One More: CK IN2U Him

As long as companies keep cranking out the same scents--the same as all the other companies, the same as they've done last year and will do next year--it's impossible not to keep complaining about them. They're interchangeable. They're boring. If you're addicted to scents and you live in a big city where you have access to boutique scents and niche lines, you're going to do fine, but the rest of us are stuck with the same damned thing over and over again, and it's maddening.

Calvin Klein used to be a master of the zeitgeist. His scents, starting with the original men's Calvin in 1981, have always had a strong sense of what people wanted and needed; they weren't bandwagon scents--they set trends. 1985's Obsession, of course, was one of the pivotal scents of the self-obsessed 1980s, and he followed that up with the romantic Eternity (just before the backlash against that me-ness hit) in 1988, the soft and dreamy Escape in 1991, and the groundbreaking CK One and CK Be in 1994 and 1996. (His men's scents were never as forward-thinking as the women's, but they were generally conceived to match them in style or intent, and while none of them is a favourite of mine, they're not, as a rule, bad. Not particularly interesting, but wearable for most people.)

A decade later, what's happened?

The two CK IN2U scents, with their tactile fetishy bottles and text-message names, were designed to appeal to the younger crowd; they're clearly a rather flailing attempt to recapture the magic of CK One and CK Be. What's inside the CK IN2U bottles isn't going to shake anything up; it's not trend-setting, not new in any real way.

CK IN2U Her is yet another fruity-floral, one of literally hundreds on the market: everything that's being sold to young women seems to fall into this category, and maybe if you're a thirteen-year-old girl who hasn't smelled hundreds of scents, this will seem novel to you, but otherwise it's the most done scent imaginable. That's all I have to say about that.

CK IN2U Him isn't a terrible scent, and in fairness, it isn't a carbon copy of all the unbearably tedious men's scents out there, but it also doesn't have a whole lot to set it apart from them. The official notes:

Tangelo, Lime Gin Fizz, Pomelo Leaves, Pimento, Shiso Leaves, Cacao, Cool Musk, Palisander Wood, Vetiver.

Top: fresh citrus notes. Check. Middle: green, slightly spicy. Check. Base: warm, woody, slightly chocolatey. Check.

The middle note has a suggestion of swimming pool about it, which is unexpected and pleasant. The scent overall isn't aggressive and forcefully "masculine", a nice change of pace.

But seriously: with all the other fresh semi-oriental men's scents out there, why again should anyone buy this?

Well, the bottle's pretty cool.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Disappearing Act: Baldessarini Ambré

The problem with reading lists of fragrance notes is that they can trick you into wanting to own the scent when it has no business being on your skin.

L'Artisan Parfumeur's Mechant Loup ("Big Bad Wolf", more or less) and Voleur de Rose ("Thief of Roses") ought to be perfect on me. The former is a concoction of hazelnuts, honey, licorice and myrrh, all of which I love, and the latter is a rose scent for men with notes of patchouli and plum, and I love roses, the apex of florality, the Queen of Flowers. But Mechant Loup, on my skin, is boring, with scarcely any presence at all and certainly nothing notable about it, and Voleur de Rose is just disgusting, all filthy patchouli and hardly any discernible rose. (The rose note in L'Artisan's Safran Troublant is more obvious, and that's just a grace note.) Many people love them, but they're not for me. Whenever I see a bottle of either I look wistfully at it, and maybe even grab a quick sniff, but they haven't changed and neither have I. I can't wear them, and that's that.


The new Hugo Boss Baldessarini scent, Ambré, looked like a slam dunk. First of all, anything with ambergris is it is something I want to wear; I just love it unreservedly, and almost all my most favourite scents have amber in the base, usually quite a lot of it. Secondly, the notes sound like they add up to a winner (with one possible exception):

Top: Whisky, mandarin orange, red apple.
Middle: Leather, violet
Base: Vanilla, amber, oak, labdanum

I wasn't sure about the apple in the top note. I'm getting a little tired of these oddball fruit notes in everything. (You can hardly turn around without bumping into a women's scent that's overloaded with them, everything from pomegranate to lychee.) But hey; amber! And it's called Ambré!

Well, you can see where this is going.

The opening has a slightly bitter quality that recalls the strikingly pungent bitterness of Hermes' Bel Ami. Ambré doesn't smell of whisky, exactly; that combination of harshness and smoothness isn't there. But it smells suave and lean at first, with a crisp fruity flourish which is pleasant, if a little too up-to-date to fit the image the advertising presents, that of a mature man who has the world in the palm of his hand.

As it calms down, a soft, barely leathery sweetness begins to take over, combined with a dark, subtle floralcy contributed by the violet, probably one of the most important floral notes in men's perfumery (it plays a large part in such classics as Geoffrey Beene's Grey Flannel and Givenchy Pour Homme). After no more than an hour, the base notes come to the fore: wooded, sweetened vanilla, mostly.

It feels as if it should be beginning to develop further, and then it just goes away. Ambergris is a potent, durable perfumery material: most amber scents last many, many hours on my skin, sometimes still detectable the next day and even after washing. Ambré lasts a couple of hours and then vanishes. There's something very wrong with an amber scent that can't last through a normal workday or an evening out.

It's not a bad scent. It just isn't a very good one, either. It's too bland, too careful, and much, much too short-lived.

Friday, June 15, 2007

No Fun: Puma Aqua Woman and Man

Writing reviews of bad movies is fun. Writing reviews of bad perfumery is not. There's something dispiriting about trying to make sense of the latest assembly-line offering. It sucks some of the life out of you.


Of course the companies that create and launch fragrances are in it for the money. They examine the zeitgeist, they try to figure out what will sell, and then they set about making and marketing that product.

The trouble is that they aren't just serving a market. They're tastemakers. That's why there's no excuse for the endless array of identical, indistinguishable, and almost uniformly bad fragrances that are being trotted out these days. If these companies were to--even every now and then, every third launch or so--present a wider array of possibilities to young people and market them properly, then they could have a hand in advancing and promoting the art of perfumery and not just contributing to an ever-increasing pool of fragrant mediocrity.


Nobody expects world-shaking innovation or timeless classics from Puma, which is a company that makes sports gear and has recently branched out into fragrances, so I didn't expect too much from their new scents, a pair called Aqua, but of course I was willing to give them a shot. (I'll always grab free samples to give something a shot.)

The bottles are very clever. Their previous offerings are packaged in look-twice bottles that resemble crumpled tubes of oil paint, a clever idea for a product called Create. Too bad the scents inside the bottles were as blah and generic as everything that seems to be on the market these days. The bottles for Aqua look like miniature water bottles: you expect them to be in that easily crumpled plastic, but they're glass, of course, and delightful. Every detail is perfect: the ridges around the bottles, the sprayers that resemble the pull-up caps of sport-drink bottles, even the plastic caps that fit over the sprayers.

But the scents are exactly what you'd expect nowadays. The first clue is the name: anything called "Aqua" in the last ten years or so has followed the same template--a boring, watery, fresh scent. Even Bulgari couldn't shake the curse: When they launched a men's scent called Aqua (or, in the house style, "Aqva"), I knew what I was in for, and I tried to approach it with an open mind, but it was more of the same.

The Puma scents are even more of the same. The women's fragrance is a fruity floral, of course, and as impersonal, dull, and obvious as everything on the market nowadays; this one has synthetic peach and strawberry mixed with wood-laced flowers. You hardly even experience it: it's like a whiff of fabric softener on clothing or a trace of toilet cleaner in the air, something you'd expect to be there. It's not unpleasant, mind you: the trouble is that it isn't really anything else, either.

The men's scent is an aromatic citrus scent, of course, and it's essentially indistinguishable from all the other hundreds of similar men's scents that have been launched in the last decade. Grapefruit and spices in the top with that usual wet ozonic quality, more wet greenery in the middle, insipid wood and vetiver in the base. It's exactly like the rest of them. It doesn't have one single quality to set it apart. If you smell something distinctive and well-made like Dior Homme or L'Instant du Guerlain Pour Homme, then you can identify it (if you're well-informed), or at least realize that it's got a name and a personality. If you smell Puma Aqua or David Beckham Instinct or even one of the Axe scents, how can you possibly put a name to it? How can you tell it from anything else out there?

An amusing mistake that shouldn't have happened: Each sample that I got was packed in its correct colour (ocean blue for the men's version, turquoise for the women's, with an orange and a pink puma, respectively), and with the correct product name on the front, AQUA MAN and AQUA WOMAN. But on the back, the men's says "Floral-Fruity" and the women's says "Aromatic-Green". Now how on Earth did those get switched?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Fraternal Twins: Thierry Mugler A*Men and B*Men

I feel fairly certain that the perfumer's brief for Thierry Mugler's B*Men read in full, "You remember A*Men? We want the same, only different."

A*Men is the men's version of Angel, and it's actually a better scent. Angel is extraordinarily potent: it calls to mind all those huge outsized 1980s scents that cleared elevators and led to fragrance bans in some public buildings. It slams you in the face. A*Men is still pretty strong, but it's been toned down somewhat.

A*Men starts with a bright melange of bergamot, lavender, and helional, a grassy-floral synthetic with a brilliant edge. (There is supposedly a peppermint note which I don't detect.) Almost immediately, though, a burgeoning sweetness overwhelms the brightness, and it makes for a strange, clangy opening. Angel's signature patchouli note is still there, and it's identical in A*Men, but now it's supplemented with dry cedar and a distinct sweet-coffee note. It's this sweetness which dominates the remainder of the scent as sugary styrax and vanillic tonka bean well up from the base notes. It lasts forever, so you'd better be sure you like it before you spray it on.

The official list of notes for B*Men has nothing in common with A*Men, so it's a real surprise that they seem so similar. They don't smell the same, but they feel similar; there's no question that they're members of the same family. B*Men starts brightly, of course, but it's an astringent brightness provided by rhubarb and citrus notes. The opening salvo isn't as jarring as in A*Men, but the freshness of the rhubarb soon takes on a cooked quality, like rhubarb pie, as the core sweetness begins to develop. Instead of coffee and cedar in the middle notes, we have sugared spices and sequoia, and the blaring quality of A*Men is absent because there isn't any of that dramatic patchouli. The sweet end notes have a touch of vanilla, I think, and a dose of ambergris.

I used to own a bottle of A*Men, but halfway through it I just couldn't take that concentrated sweetness any more. It's a well-made and fascinating scent, but my tastes changed, as they seem to do repeatedly, and I couldn't wear it any longer. I gave it to a female friend who'd already been wearing Angel for a couple of years, and she took to A*Men just as readily. (Both scents, in truth, are pretty unisex.)

The A*Men bottle is clearly based on the bottle for Angel, but where that was all sharp angles, this is a big sinuous curve of shiny chrome with a star-shaped cutout exposing the signature blue Angel juice. (An identical bottle clad in black rubber is also available.)

The B*Men bottle is the same shape, but the rubber is khaki this time and the cutout is a brazen red.


Friday, June 08, 2007


Life is change, and perfume is life distilled into a bottle, and so perfume is change.


I've been wearing fragrances seriously for about twenty-five years now, and there's no doubt that my tastes have changed, sometimes drastically. I know a lot more about perfumery and I know what to look for, and I have so many more choices that I can indulge a great many whims.

But sometimes my fickle taste surprises even me. When I first smelled the Epices de la Passion trio from L'Artisan Parfumeur, I was instantly smitten--obsessed, almost--with Piment Brûlant, with its lush chocolate and red pepper notes. Since the scent was available only as part of a set, I knew I had to own this set one day, and now I do, but I discovered that Piment Brûlant is probably the least fascinating of the three scents. My taste had changed, and I decided soon after receiving the set in the mail that Poivre Piquant was my true love--smart, severe, minimalist.

And now I find that my taste has changed yet again. In the last few weeks, though I've been wearing lots of samples and rediscovering old favourites, I'm drawn again and again to Safran Troublant, which I had mildly derided as "rather ordinary". And yet now I can't get enough of it. I feel as if I want to smell like this and nothing but this, day after day. I have to tear myself away from its piercing charms, its strange rose-hued allure.

What happened? I don't know. I have no idea.


Sometimes a scent can be changed by its environment in a way that nobody could have predicted. Scents go bad all the time, of course. Perhaps they were slightly contaminated before the bottle was sealed, and over time this contamination grew to destroy the fragile scent. (I had a bottle of Givenchy's Hot Couture, a bewitching potion of raspberries, pepper, and vetiver, that went bad literally in the space of a few weeks, darkening and becoming rank.) Pour bottles are particularly prone to this; bacteria, dust and skin cells get into the bottle every time it's used, and over time they overwhelm the bottle's contents.

But a strange thing happened recently that I wish I could duplicate. I have an old leather knapsack that I've used for about ten years: it goes everywhere with me and needs replacement--in fact, I have bought a new one, but it's just not the same, and I cling to the old one as if it were a security blanket. A couple of months ago I was getting something out of the knapsack when I caught a whiff of something unexpected and alluring: rich, earthy, clearly a composed fragrance and yet one I'd never smelled before. I checked the inside of the sack: no vials of scent, nothing that could account for the potent scent. This went on for a few days until finally I opened a small zippered compartment at the outside top of the bag, and discovered that a miniature of Givenchy's Very Irresistible for Men was now only half full: the top had come partway off and a couple of millilitres of the scent had decanted themselves into the leather, where the new, altered scent had spread down into the main compartment. (Let this be a lesson to people who toss miniatures into luggage.)

What I was smelling every time I opened the bag was old leather saturated with sesame and mocha and wood notes, and it was unbelievably appealing. If Givenchy could have bottled it, they would have made even more money. The scent has faded now, but it's still there, like a wistful memory.


Fragrances themselves change over time, too--not changed by the hand of time, but re-formulated by the companies that produce them. Sometimes an ingredient becomes unavailable, or is outlawed. Sometimes a scent is reinvented to better reflect the times; this has happened with, among many others, Balmain's Vent Vert, which was relaunched about 15 years ago with its signature sharp greenness toned down.

Such changes displease pretty well everyone who remembers the scent as it was. Luca Turin calls the reformulated Cabochard "piss" compared to the original, but I quite like it. Then again, I've never smelled the original; maybe I'd hate the new one as well if I had.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Hot Stuff: Dior Fahrenheit 32

The last Dior men's release, Dior Homme, got a very limited launch in a relatively small number of stores: clearly intended as a prestige fragrance, it still isn't widely available; you can't just walk into any old drugstore or department store and expect to find it. (It's available in only one location where I live, and that isn't a store, it's a little mall kiosk boutique that has one or two bottles of several hundred different scents.)

Dior is taking the opposite tack with their new Fahrenheit 32; they're launching it wide and hard, and they expect it to be a huge seller. Its name is riding on the coattails of its huge success of twenty years ago, Fahrenheit: but as the name suggests, where the older scent was warm, this one is chilly.

If you spray on Fahrenheit 32 with no preconceptions, you will be shocked. The top note is a cold, jazzy splash of aldehydes and a serious quantity of orange blossom. I've been wearing hardly anything but Fahrenheit 32 for a week now, and it's still striking. A few days ago, I caught a whiff of it and said (to myself), "That's exactly the same orange-blossom note as in Poison!" The day before that, the same thing happened, except that I realized it was the same note as in the ultra-feminine Le Classique by Gaultier.

But Fahrenheit 32 isn't feminine. The orange blossom is unexpected, yes, but it's not girly; this scent is, among other things, a lesson in how to make a floral scent for men. The aldehydes (and, I'm sure, other unnamed synthetics) give the flowers a fresh, crisp edge; they don't smell like a treeful of blooms but like something a little aggressive.

Once the aldehydes fly away, the middle note continues the orange-blossom theme, but now some masculine warmth begins to rise up in the form of vetiver and vanilla. The vetiver is angular and green, giving a little spine to the flowers, and the vanilla, warm but slightly dry, wraps around the rest of the scent, decisively masculine. The orange blossom lasts a long time, but it's this vanilla which outlasts all the rest, leaving a faint haze six or eight hours later.

The bottle is the same monument as the original Fahrenheit bottle, with two exceptions: instead of being gradations of orange, it's clear at the bottom, shading to a frosty white at the top, and the cap, no longer a tubular chunk of black, is a sleek bisected chrome cylinder. The box is a shiny chromed silver with an opalescent band near the top, mimicking the bottle. It's all very desirable, inside and out.

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