One Thousand Scents

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Blues, Part 2: Bulgari Aqua Pour Homme

The colour of a perfume has an inescapable connection to its intentions. Essential oils are variously coloured, but they're so diluted in perfumery that the finished product, which is mostly a carrier of alcohol and water, would in most cases be at best a pale straw-yellow colour, and usually almost colourless. (There are exceptions: some ingredients have a strong colour that even dilution does little to remove.) So manufacturers add colourants to suggest what you're going to be smelling before you even smell it. Yellow-gold is the standard: it makes you think "Expensive and classy!", and used to be so ubiquitous that people thought that was the natural colour of a scent. Colourlessness, a more modern tack, implies a light, transparent scent, such as L'Eau D'Issey. Dark brown-gold nearly always connotes an oriental scent, usually a strong spicy one: just look at Tabu, or Obsession, or Youth Dew. Green means, of course, greenery, as in Balmain's Vent Vert or Yves Rocher's Homme Nature. And, as I said last week, blue, with a few perverse exceptions, means fresh-aquatic.

But what do the manufacturers do when they want a dark or opaque bottle? Two options: colour the juice anyway to intensify the experience, which is the tack taken by Dior's Poison, an intensely purple liquid in an amethyst-coloured bottle, or say the heck with it and don't bother, letting the packaging do all the work.

That's what Bulgari does with nearly all their scents; their fragrances are very lightly coloured, if at all. Even Blu, or Blv in keeping with the house style of spelling their name a Romanesque Bvlgari, isn't blue: the bottle is, but the liquid inside is pale gold. You have to give them credit for maintaining a consistent aesthetic, if nothing else.

I admit that I didn't think I was going to like Bulgari's Aqua (or "Aqva") Pour Homme, and I don't, but not for the reasons I thought I wasn't going to like it. You can tell that it's intended to conjure up the idea of the seaside, but that isn't the sort of water that it makes me think of.

What it comes right down to is that straight out of the bottle, Aqua Pour Homme smells like a swimming pool; strong, chloriney, synthetically disinfected. It changes somewhat over time, and it isn't uniformly terrible, but for most of its life on the skin it smells inescapably of swimming lessons at age ten. If you like the smell of a swimming pool, then this might be the sort of thing you want to wear, or you could just save a bunch of money and buy Demeter's new Swimming Pool (which I haven't tried). If you want an honest-to-goodness beachside scent, then I can enthusiastically recommend CSP's Aqua Motu; I grew up on an island, with harsh, wind-sculpted beaches, and Aqua Motu conjures up this environment extraordinarily well.

The bottle, which has apparently engendered some hostility because it doesn't stand up (therefore taking up a lot of valuable real estate in your fragrance cabinet), is of dark aquamarine glass clearly meant to evoke a beach pebble. It's too bad the scent inside doesn't do the same thing.


Friday, August 22, 2008

The Blues: Thierry Mugler Ice*Men

For the last ten years, at least, the dominant category in men's fragrances has been the fresh, aquatic, or ozonic scent, a category made possible by an aromachemical called Calone (discovered in 1966 but not used in perfumery until the 1990s) and its numerous derivatives. And what better way to announce this fresh wateriness than by packaging your scent in blue? The box may be blue, or the bottle, or the liquid inside, or all three, but if you want to let the world know that they're going to be getting more of the same, then you're going to use blue.

Of course there are exceptions. Mugler, a contrarian, coloured his original Angel and A*Men a luscious blue, though (being rich gourmand orientals) they were about as far from aquatic scents as they could possible be, and Lancome's floral Mille Et Un Roses (1001 Roses) is an enchanting periwinkle blue. But for the most part, particularly in men's perfumery, if you see a blue liquid, it's a pretty good bet that it's going to be a fresh-aquatic scent.

Ordinarily I just ignore the blues. I can usually make an educated guess as to what's inside, and I'm probably not going to care for it. But I'm not completely closed-minded, and if some nice saleswoman is going to give me samples, then I'm going to try them.

Thierry Mugler's Ice Men is not my cup of tea, but it's not your average aquatic scent, either, because nothing put out under his name is average. (You don't have to like his scents, but you always have to admit that they're not like anything else on the market. His scents are as original as his couture.) It is a water scent, but right up there under the cool fresh top notes is a dose of coffee, the same coffee that's in A*Men and A*Men Pure Coffee. This, I gather, is meant to shock you awake in the morning.

After the fresh/coffee accord drifts away, in an hour or so, there isn't much left except that synthetic fresh-clean patchouli that everyone uses instead of the real thing these days (not that I'm complaining). There are suggestions of the notes in the original A*Men, but mostly it's just that patchouli. It's not a bad scent, and it isn't like every other fresh scent on the market, but I can't imagine falling in love with it. People do, though; just read the reviews on Basenotes.

I'm not all that enthusiastic about the bottle, either. It's meant to suggest ice, and it alludes to the star that appears on all the Angel and A*Men scents in one form or another, but to me it looks like someone took a tooth-shattering bite out of the bottle, which is strange, and not in the usual intriguing Mugler way, but just strange. It doesn't even look very comfortable to hold. (I bet there are people out there who love that, too, though.)

The hair-and-body shower gel smells more or less like the top notes of the scent--there's the cold aquatic note, there's the coffee--but it also contains a hefty blast of menthol, which means it mostly smells like Vick's Vap-O-Rub. I should have guessed that this meant it contains menthol, but I worked up a lather all over my face and scalp, and a few seconds later got that (to me) mildly unpleasant cold, tingling sensation that some people interpret as "Wake up! Rise and shine!" but I read as "Get it off me!" I don't mind it quite so much on the rest of my skin, except for the Down There areas, which are, after all, rather sensitive.

The packaging for the shower gel ought to read, "This product contains MENTHOL. Do NOT use it on your GOODIES or you will be SORRY."


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Thought Processes

I went to see the doctor today. He wants me to get an MRI on my leg to see if my medial lateral ligament is torn or merely strained. I'm thinking I won't. If he calls with an appointment tomorrow, I might, just to humour him, but the thing can't be torn, because it's healing almost as fast as Wolverine; I think I'll actually be back on my feet by the weekend.


You may have noticed that I finally, at long last, have begun tagging my posts. This means that, when I'm finished at some undefined point in the near future, after you've read a posting you can read all the related ones--the same manufacturer, the same notes, the same idea, whatever I saw fit to group the scent under. I meant to do this a long time ago, but I didn't see how it could be done, until finally this morning I took a long hard look at the innards of Blogger and discovered that it was right in front of me all along: on the New Post page, you can apply labels to new posts, and on the Edit page, you can apply labels to one or more posts at one go. (I was looking for "tags", which is why I never noticed it. Me: not too bright sometimes.)


You may also have noticed that I have started using Twitter, over there on the right side of the page. Because I'm sure you're all breathless with anticipation as to what I happen to have sloshed on my skin that very moment.


An anonymous commenter said of Demeter Waffle Cone:

I didn't think this smelled like a waffle cone at all. It did smell of waffles, with a lot of buttery syrup.

Fair enough. To me it smelled very precisely like the kind of smell that ice-cream shops like to blow out the window to lure you in, that dense, crisp, vanilla-drenched bakery smell. My nose isn't everybody's nose, though, and if someone else smells breakfast waffles (which to me smell much lighter and eggier than waffle cones), then that's what they smell. If someone says that Joy smells like coffee grounds and bathroom soap, I'm going to wonder what's wrong with their nose, but if someone says a fragrance meant to smell like chocolate pudding smells like chocolate fudge, hey, that's close enough for me.

But then there are the in-betweens.

When I was writing about Bulgari Black last week, I naturally read what Perfumes: The Guide had to say about it, and I think that Luca Turin 1) has a much better nose than I do (probable) or 2) has access to detailed information about fragrance composition (a certainty) or 3) is just making stuff up (fairly likely), because he says that to him, Black has three disparate elements: sweet amber, green floral, and dry rubber.

The rubber we can all agree on, because it's so obvious and because Bulgari says it's there, but everything else in his opinion just escapes me. Is there really a Je Reviens floral note to Black? I've been wearing the stuff for years and I've never noticed it. And does Turin not perceive the smoke, which is very dramatic, and the vanilla, which is as plain as, well, the nose on your face? Or do they simply not matter to him in the grander scheme of things?

This, you see, is what art is all about. Interpretation.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Duality: Bulgari Black

A few weeks ago I was in Winners, which is a clothing discounter that also carries home decor and stuff like that, a step up from it-fell-off-a-truck but still a real mixed bag. The only reason I go in there every couple of weeks is that they also carry brand-name fragrances; if you wait long enough for them to get marked down to clearance prices, you can get some real bargains.

I'd gone in after work to see what, if anything, was new. There wasn't anything, but two Bulgari scents, Black and Thé Rouge, had been reduced for clearance. I'd owned Black before, but hadn't even tried Thé Rouge, and since there was just the one bottle and the box was sealed, I went home to Google it before investing the money (even though I could have had the both of them for less than $40). Thé Rouge sounded like the kind of thing I would like, so I decided I should have them.

You know how this turns out: the next day on the way in to work I went in to buy them, and there were still three bottles of Black left, but the Thé Rouge was gone. The hell with it, I said. If I can't have both, I'll have neither. That'll show you, stupid store!

I naturally told my almost equally scent-obsessed co-worker about this, and then she went and bought a bottle of Black for me for my birthday! And this is why I can wear it today and tell you all about it.

I'd bought Black shortly after its launch: it was one of those strange, compelling things that I always seem to need to own as soon as I smell them. (Such things are generally in a strange, compelling bottle, too; this one is a glass disc wrapped in black rubber like a tire. That big metal cap isn't a cap at all; it's the sprayer, which you twist one way to unlock and spray, the other to lock.) And then, as so often happens, I got tired of it after a few years, swapped it away, and began wishing a while ago that I had some. I have really got to stop doing that: I swapped away Le Feu D'Issey and Donna Karan Fuel for Men in the same way.

Black consists of two disparate, one might say incompatible, ideas duking it out for supremacy. The first thing you smell is, if not quite burning tires, then something very close; smoked black tea and a bit of rubber. It's not unlike walking into Princess Auto or Canadian Tire. There's a spiciness to the smoke, too; it's aggressive and more than a little hostile.

Alongside the smoke and rubber is...pretty vanilla. It's soft and musky and creamy. It isn't blended with the smoky-tea-and-tires element; it seems to stand alongside it, and the two ideas wrestle to present themselves to you.

Black is confusing, which is delightful. People are still arguing about whether it's too rough for a woman, too sweet for a man, whether it's actually unisex (as Bulgari marketed it from the start). Is it masculine? Feminine? Aggressive? Comforting? Prickly? Velvety? The paradox is that it's all of these things, not simultaneously but in turns, and you can't tell which side of it you're going to be smelling at any given time.

When it was launched in 1998, it was baffling and enraging to a lot of people, because it wasn't like anything else on the market; they had no point of reference for it. In the interim, there have been plenty of scents that take inspiration from it to some degree or other, so people have gotten used to the strangeness. (Givenchy's 1999 Organza Indecence seems to borrow from it a little, L'Artisan Parfumeur's 2000 release Tea for Two very much.) It doesn't smell as avant-garde as it used to; that's the nature of the avant-garde, I guess, where yesterday's brazen new idea is tomorrow's commonplace.

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Friday, August 08, 2008

Sunrise, Sunset: Bulgari Pour Homme and Bulgari Pour Homme Soir

I'm very fond of some of the Bulgari fragrances, to say the least. Their first, the green-tea one, was so new and fascinating that I bought it the same day I first smelled it. (It's hard to believe that there was a time when a green-tea scent was original or uncommon, and yet that's the case.) Their brainy black-tea-and-rubber scent, Bulgari Black, had a similar effect on me, and I'm so addicted to Omnia that I bought it three times (twice as part of a set of miniatures, and one full-sized bottle at a discounter) so that I'd never run out.

I can't remember when I first tried Bulgari Pour Homme; it might have been shortly after its launch in 1995, or I might have waited a while. Maybe I smelled it and promptly forgot about it. It's nice and refined, and grown-up and subtle, and consequently so uninteresting as to leave hardly any impression at all.

I understand that not everybody approaches the fragrance counter in the same way I do. Most men, if they even think about a scent, are just looking for something that smells good and will attract people to them. I've been pretty much obsessive about scent for nearly thirty years now, and as a result, decent-smelling, theoretically sexually attractive scents aren't enough, because I've tried hundreds and hundreds of them. I need to smell new fragrances. I need them to be strikingly original; they have to stand out from the crowd. They have to compel me to wear them and therefore buy them. They don't have to be loud or insistent, but they have to be new.

Bulgari Pour Homme is kind of soapy and kind of fresh, with a kind of masculine floral middle and a kind of musky base. There's supposedly a darjeeling tea note in there, tea being the Bulgari signature, but it's not a dominant element, to say the least. (The notes, according to the invaluable Basenotes, are

Top Notes: Bergamot, Orange Blossom, Blackcurrant Flower, Darjeeling Tea, Water Lily, Muguet. Middle Notes: Cardamom, Rose Wood, Pepper, Red Iris, Guaiac Wood. Base Notes: Transparent Amber and Musk.

This tells me nothing of any worth.)

Bulgari Pour Homme isn't one of the standard fresh scents aimed at young men; it's considerably more sophisticated than that. It's made with care and intelligence. Nevertheless, there are a great many scents on the market that smell more or less like it. I can't quite imagine anyone sniffing the air around you and saying, "Wow!" while you're wearing it, or compulsively grabbing your wrist or snuggling into your neck for a nice long inhale. It's just one of those scents that's there when you wear it, and if that's the sort of thing you're looking for, then it's as good as any other.

You'd think that a scent with "Soir" in the title, "soir" being the French word for "evening", would be dark and sexy and maybe a little mysterious. If you thought that about Bulgari Pour Homme Soir, which hit the shelves a couple of years ago, you'd be wrong. I'll give the company credit for not making a flanker that has nothing to do with the original scent but merely coasts on its name; the Soir is clearly a variant of the original. The trouble is that it's not an especially dramatic variant. It is a little darker, and if you had to decide which was the day scent and which the night, you could do it. But nothing about the Soir says "Black-tie gala" or "Sexy nighttime fun!" What, they couldn't up the dosage of the base notes, thread some tobacco and cedar through it, maybe toss in a little patchouli?

The bottles, as is more or less invariably the case with Bulgari (a jeweller, and therefore sensitive to image and design), are gorgeous, of a piece with and yet subtly different from the unisex tea scents and the original women's scent, as well as Bulgari Blu. (When you see the bottle for Bulgari Blu Pour Homme, you wouldn't link it to the green-tea bottle, unless you saw the women's version of Blu first, which represents an intermediate stage between the two in the evolution of the bottle.) Who would have thought you could wring so many changes out of such a simple idea?

I feel like I need to repeat myself on this; both Bulgari Pour Homme and Bulgari Pour Homme Soir are decent, respectable, well-made men's fragrances, and they're certainly more appealing than much of what has hit the market in the last fifteen years. But you could do better.


Friday, August 01, 2008

Two Bad

I had this big project planned for the entire month of August and possibly beyond, even bigger than the month of Demeters, and, well, it's not ready, because, as it turns out (who knew?), I have a life beyond blogging. Maybe September. If not, then next August. (It has to be one of those months. You'll know why when it happens.)


According to Perfumeshrine, Miel de Bois is about to be discontinued. Apparently, mastermind Serge Lutens and perfumer Christopher Sheldrake didn't even like it. But I did! I don't perceive that supposed urinous quality at all; I just smell a dense, thick, riveting complexity. If it really is being discontinued, and if I can find a bottle for a good price, I'll be buying.


In my first year of university, the mandatory English course used a textbook containing a chapter called "Varieties of Badness", detailing the various ways in which literature can run off the rails; I enjoyed this so much that I began actively searching out literary badness, going so far as to read a biography of dreadful novelist Amanda McKittrick Ros and hunting down a copy of The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse, a disintegrating paperback which I still own.

Just as there are varieties of literary badness, there are varieties of olfactory badness. Here are two.


For years now, Escada has been cranking out interchangeable, silly fruit-punch scents aimed at young women. Last year, they added Sunset Heat to the line, and broke the mold by making one for men, too; Sunset Heat for Men.

The most recent women's scent was called Moon Sparkle, and I couldn't quite believe it, but they called their men's version Moon Sparkle for Men, as if someone had dared them to. The fragrance is shockingly bad, entirely worthless from start to finish, a blot on the anonymous perfumer's name. Sunset Heat for Men wasn't any good, either, but at least it was just another pointless entry in the overcrowded fresh-scent-for-young-men market. This one is atrocious.

Once again, it consists of a load of synthetic fruit perched atop a load of glaring, synthetic wet on a base of harsh, synthetic wood. This time around, the aquatic notes in the middle are peculiarly aggressive; they jam themselves into your nose, hammer their way in, and will not be ignored or avoided. There seems to be some attempt at complexity, but rather than being a carefully constructed unity or a succession of identifiable notes, it's just a slurry. I am assuming that you couldn't possibly care about the list of notes, but if there's one person out there who does, here they are:

bergamot, mandarin, pepper, ginger, violet, green grape, floral aquatic notes, georgywood, cedarwood, marine amber, vetiver.

You couldn't pick out any of them if you tried. And what the hell is "georgywood"? Some rare wood that grows only on the African savannah, or beside an Italian lake? No, it's a woody-amber synthetic. I'm sorry I asked.

Even the bottle is bad, a duplicate of last year's Sunset Heat without the ridges which might have given it a modicum of graphical interest. Even the name is bad. The scent is aimed at young, hip men, judging from the ludicrous packaging (block-jawed hipster in candy-striped jacket before a silver moon), and yet it's been given a name that suggests an animated Japanese cartoon aimed at eleven-year-old girls, and adding "for men" at the end doesn't make it any more masculine. Moon Sparkle for Men? Why not Pretty Sequined Pony for Men, or Unicorns Daisies and Rainbows for Men?

There's only one explanation that makes any sense. Trying to get out of the men's fragrance line altogether, Escada deliberately sabotaged their latest launch in an attempt to lose as much money as possible. It wouldn't surprise me if legions of young women bought the women's version and then the men's version for their boyfriends, but if guys are buying this scent, then I don't want to know about it. At least, being a yearly limited edition, it won't be around much longer. The bad news is that in a few months there'll be another limited-edition Escada for women, and, if we're unlucky, another one for men, too, and this whole miserable cycle will start all over again.


The One for Men, the men's version of Dolce and Gabbana's successful women's scent, isn't shameful or horrifying. It's merely bad in a dull, depressing, garden-variety way. An oriental scent, it starts with the usual shot of citrus, married to the usual warm-bright spices, which gradually give way to the usual vanilla-wood-amber drydown with a little tobacco, and not much of that. There is not one thing in this sad little fragrance that is remotely interesting or offbeat, nothing that could make it stand out, nothing that anybody who's been paying attention hasn't smelled a dozen times before.

The bottle's nice, though.