One Thousand Scents

Friday, October 31, 2008

Dis Guy's Disguise: Bond No. 9 Bleecker Street

Although this is the first I've heard of it, Bond No. 9 does a shiny, showoffy, Swarovski-studded bottle on occasion; last Mother's Day they produced three bottles in bright pastels and a line of purse sprays (you can see them at The Scented Salamander). They have five more for Christmas, and wouldn't you like to have a look at them?

Here's their limited-issue bottle for Bleecker Street

and I think we can all agree, can't we, that's it's completely over the top and not particularly concerned with good taste, what with that giant paste jewel in the middle and everything? Okay, then. I love the insane combination of acidic green and violet, but the shinies aren't working for me, especially at $395, double-especially with the exchange rate between the Canadian and American dollars being what it is.

These next three, however, are, I hate to admit, actually kind of pretty

in a teenagey, I-blinged-out-my-cell-phone kind of way. (They each have 5000 tiny rhinestones and vend for $650. Each.) The bottles hold Chelsea Flowers, Eau de New York, and Chinatown, respectively, and since I haven't tried any of those scents, I can't tell you a thing about them, except that Chinatown is regularly cited as the best Bond No. 9 ever.

And finally, for people with a whole lotta money, this.

Click on the picture to see it in all its shiny detailed glory. It's an amphora, a drammer, that contains forty-two ounces of whatever Bond No. 9 scent you want them to pour into it, and it costs $3500. As the Bond people put it, it's "breathtakingly covered with 16,500 hand-applied platinum Swarovski stones" and "comes in a white patent leather gift case, also adorned with crystals", and while I should probably be thoroughly ashamed to admit it, if I had a massive quantity of cash, I would buy one of these right now (filled with New Haarlem). I can't help it. I'm part raven and I like shiny things, and those platinum Swarovski stones are remarkably subdued (I mean, relatively, compared to the other bottles). And I would keep a supply of little spray vials, and every time someone came over, I'd dram them out some. What fun!


After seeing the Bleecker Street bottle, I figured I ought to give it a sniff. The original bottle looks like this

which I actually love; the combination of violet and all those sizzling greens is just fun as hell. The company is positioning the scent as a "woody gourmand oriental", and once again, as with their Lexington Avenue, I'm forced to say, "No, it isn't. What are you talking about?" The description of the scent in their publicity materials bears, quite literally, no resemblance to what's in the bottle. Bleecker Street is supposedly made up of

1) vanilla (our salute to Magnolia Bakery, next door), the pastry essential that's also famed for its aphrodisiac powers; b) the latest edible notes--cassis, caramel, cinnamon, and thyme; c) aromatic woods that prolong the more delicate food flavors; d) must, for warmth and sensuality; e) patchouli, another fabled aphrodisiac, poured in, like gin, to balance the mélange of sweet flavors. Result? A not-too-heavy day-into-evening fragrance with overtones of seduction and dessert.

Good luck matching that with the fragrance. There may be food elements to this, as there are in most fragrances these days, but it's a men's fougère scent, plain and simple, and a very good one. It's marketed as a unisex scent, but it's obviously patterned after men's fragrances, without a single element that would detract from this classification. Go read the reviews on Makeup Alley, which all say the same thing: "It smells like something for men," "I bought it for myself but my husband snagged it," "It smells better on my boyfriend than on me".

In fact, I'm not going to break it down much further than that. If you like fougère fragrances such as Grey Flannel, Eternity for Men, Green Irish Tweed, Drakkar Noir, Cool Water, or any of a hundred other masculine scents, but without that toxic artificial-fresh-ozonic quality that seems to infect all the newest ones; if you're a woman who regularly wears men's fragrances; if you want something that will last twelve hours on your skin (I could still smell it yesterday after fourteen-plus), then Bleecker Street is worth a try.


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Cleaning Up

Okay, you tell me. Hotel toiletries: take them or not?

Part of me feels just a leetle bit guilty about taking them, but I do it anyway. (And no, I don't take anything else from a hotel room, not even the notepad.) I have a whole boxful of hotel bath products in the linen closet: yummy Davies Gate products (Quinoa shampoo, Amaranth conditioner, Quince lotion) from some hotel we stayed at during our trip to the UK last year (our second stint in London, I think), some really odd shower gel and shampoo from a hotel in Cardiff (the bottles look exactly like wine bottles, one white, one red), and surprisingly many other things besides.

We were in Hamilton and then Toronto the weekend before last (we went to see Margaret Cho in Hamilton on Friday night, then spent Saturday and Sunday visiting with friends), so naturally we stayed in hotels. The Sheraton in Hamilton was unexpectedly nice, and they had some really great bathroom stuff from Bliss, from a line which I guess was developed especially for the hotel chain, because it's not available from them otherwise: Shine Mandarin Mint. (You can see the whole collection up there. It's not my photo, though; I stumbled upon it while searching for an image labelled "hotel toiletries", so I guess someone else was as impressed as I was, enough to take a picture.) The shampoo is the best: while it smells like its namesake, it also has a subtle vanilla-caramel undertone which clings to the skin (I use shower gels and shampoos interchangeably, so I washed my hands with it). Naturally, I snagged everything that was left in the bathroom. (It just barely fit into my airline-approved one-litre zip-lock bag.)

The previous month, we took a little trip to St. John's, Newfoundland, which is where I was born, and the hotel was part spa, part suites, and so it was all very woman-oriented: a hot tub in the room, enormous fluffy bathrobes, the hallways kept ungodly hot so that people travelling from the spa to their room through a sort-of-underground passageway wouldn't get a chill. (We stayed there because my youngest sister, a travel agent, got us a really terrific rate.) We did not avail ourselves of the seaweed wraps and hot-stone massages and god only knows what-all, but the toiletries, again, were first-rate, Aveda this time, with a zippy wake-up call of mint and rosemary. (The bottles are teeny, though, maybe three quarters of an ounce: the Bliss bottles are much bigger, at least 50 mL and probably two ounces.) Again, I grabbed it all.

On that same trip, I visited my sister and discovered in her bathroom a trove of like products (they were out in the open--I didn't snoop!), and I commented that that was yet another thing we had in common. She travels a lot, and she doesn't feel the slightest bit of remorse about taking them all. Her logic:

You're paying for it anyway. It's included in the price of the room, and they're not going to reduce the price if you don't take them. And if you use them, they just throw out whatever's left anyway.

I can't really argue with that.

The reverse argument, I guess, is that if you use part of a bottle and leave it so you can use the rest, they don't replace it with a fresh bottle, so if you take all the bottles and they have to replace them the next day, then you're taking more than your share. But again, as my sister said, it's included in the price of the room; they don't knock a buck or three off the second day's stay if you haven't looted the bathroom for tiny bottles and bars of soap. So what the hell. No more guilt, I say. I'll take my little souvenirs (that I've paid for!) and remember my travels every time I use them.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Energy Shortage: Kenzo Power

When I sample yet another in a never-ending stream of men's scents, one of the hundreds upon hundreds I've smelled over the years, I sometimes wonder if this is how theatre critics feel when they sit through the latest social-issue play or the twentieth revival of "King Lear" or "The Importance of Being Earnest". The audience might not have seen it all before, but then they don't make a lifelong habit, and even a career, out of seeing everything that rolls into town. It's the same with fragrances. If you're a man who wanders into the department-store perfumery once a year, or under duress, or if you've just turned twenty, then you won't have experienced the extreme sameness of most of the industry's offerings, and you might well try, and fall in love with, something that I'd consider painfully run of the mill. The huge majority of men's scents for the last twenty years have been some variation of the fresh aquatic scent: because human ingenuity is unbounded, there's still new territory to be trod here, I think, but Kenzo Power isn't it.

There's nothing particularly wrong with Kenzo Power. It's nice enough, unobjectionable and even a little interesting at times. It's just that for all its vaunted novelty--a men's floral!--it's neither remarkable nor new. If you didn't know that it had a floral heart, you wouldn't think of it as being anything out of the ordinary.

Up front is a fizzy shot of peppered bergamot which is promising, and charming, for the few minutes it lasts. Unfortunately, it's quickly drowned out by a very standard fresh composition with a suggestion of vanilla.

The core of the scent is a floral accord of rose, jasmine, and freesia, but these flowers have been so neutered and compromised and lavatory-freshened that they barely read as flowers at all. Using flowers in men's scents isn't new: many of them contain rose and jasmine as grace notes, and some flowers such as carnation and lavender appear in as many men's as women's scents, possibly more. The flowers in Kenzo Power, though, are abstracted beyond recognition. I doubt you could name the flowers if you didn't know what they were supposed to be: I doubt that most people would even interpret them as flowers.

The burndown is as pleasant as the top, a cozy little piece of cedar burnished with more vanilla. It isn't much different, though, than the woody-balsamic base of a lot of other men's fragrances. The whole thing feels like a lost opportunity: Kenzo could have created a genuinely bold and fascinating men's floral scent--I can easily imagine a scent which showcases rose, jasmine, and freesia, yet still reads as masculine--and instead he dumped a little vial of synthetic florals into someone else's fragrance.

The bottle is very beautiful--a solid, surprisingly heavy little chrome beaker that's like a stylized sake bottle, bearing the scent's logo complete with an equally stylized flower. I wish the contents had been as compelling.


Friday, October 17, 2008

Brisk: CSP Bois de Filao

There are times when I wish I could try scents completely blind, not knowing who manufactured them, who designed them, what was in them, what their bottle or box looked like. There isn't any other way to have a truly unbiased idea of what the scent is, uncontaminated by expectations ("It's the new Beckham scent so it's probably crap" versus "I am so pumped to try the new Chanel!"). I even thought I might try an experiment, taking a dozen or so vials of things I hadn't review yet and reviewing them completely blind. (I aborted it at the thought-experiment stage: it didn't pan out for various reasons.)

But a scent and its universe are all of a piece, inseparable, so all you can do is try to get past your prejudices and consider the scent for itself--what it's like on the skin and in the air.

All this occurred to me as I was inhaling and thinking about Comptoir Sud Pacifique's Bois de Filao, which I've been wearing for a couple of years now. Would I like it as much if it were the latest Escada young-men's scent? If I could buy it in a drugstore for thirteen dollars and change, would it still smell any good to me, or would I be railing about how cheap it was, how completely like every other men's scent?

I honestly think the answer is no, because--and this is true of a lot of niche scents--Bois de Filao has a certain weirdness about it; it doesn't smell like the usual fresh-ozonic-citric fragrance peddled to the eighteen-to-thirty-five men's market, because it isn't.

Bois de FIlao opens with a sharp, almost fizzy citrus note wrapped up in bone-dry papyrus. In the core is an equally dry greenness allied to that ubiquitous clean patchouli plus a sharp glitter that derives from the also ubiquitous baie rose, which sounds in English as if it ought to be a floral note ("bay rose"?) but is in fact pink peppercorn, "rose" being the French word for "pink" and "baie" meaning "berry". The base is warm but unsweet, with woody notes, more patchouli, and a clear crystalline amber: I love sweet, luscious amber as much as the next person (more, probably), but sometimes it's nice to experience a scent that doesn't turn into a pool of syrup at the end. It lasts for hours and hours, and it stays amazingly there the whole time; it doesn't just wimp out near the end.

BdF is marketed more or less as a unisex scent, and a patchouli-loving female friend of mine wears it, but it most definitely reads as a men's fragrance. It's crisp and upright: though it doesn't actually say "autumn", it's a great scent to wear when the air is cooling around you and the leaves and crunching underfoot.

(It just occurred to me that I wrote this entire review without even saying what "bois de filao" means, is, or smells like. It's French for "filao wood", which in English is known as ironwood. I have no idea what ironwood smells like on its own; it's also in Givenchy's Pi, but I can't find any point of similarity between the two scents.)

Friday, October 10, 2008

Big Money: Bond No. 9 Wall Street and New Haarlem

About six weeks ago, I got an e-mail from the press agent for Bond No. 9 fragrances; she mentioned that they were launching a new scent and asked if I'd like some press information and samples.

Would I! Ever since I started this blog, I've been a little envious of the bloggers who always seem to have all the newest scents; I figured they were on mailing lists of some sort of another, but not having any idea about how to get on these lists (if anybody knows, tell me), I just kept doing what I was doing, which is reviewing scents that I either own or can get samples of. To have someone offer me a press kit, just as if I were a proper writer?

And I didn't just get the press kit for their Andy Warhol Lexington Avenue: I got a huge portfolio full of press releases and photos and an envelope containing samples of every one of their scents. Big samples, too, wrapped in glittery foil like so many tempting bonbons. I was floored, and thrilled, and grateful. And then I began to worry.

This will not surprise anyone who knows me: I've been told by more than one person that I think too much, or that I overanalyze things, and what worried me was that 1) I would feel, consciously or otherwise, that I had to give the Bond No. 9 scents a good review, out of gratitude, or that 2) any good reviews that I did give them would seem tainted, to me if not to anybody else. This is stupid: I've worked for newspapers, and gotten press kits and samples for all manner of things (including a five-pound jar of Smarties when they launched their new blue colour), and I know perfectly well that press agents can't demand positive reviews: they can just get their product out to as many writers and broadcasters as possible and then hope for the best. (Naturally, they're hoping that appreciation of their generosity will also spill over into goodwill for the product itself, which is why movies have press junkets.) But still I worried, because that's the way I am.

As it turned out, I needn't have. I loved Lexington Avenue unreservedly and was only too happy to give it the best of reviews; it's the sort of thing I could imagine buying a bottle of. But the very next Bond scent that I tried was actually kind of dreadful, and I don't feel any compunction about saying that, either.


Wall Street has a gorgeous bottle, imperiously black and spangled with little gold subway tokens bearing the name of the scent. What's inside it, though, is incomprehensible.

The idea behind Bond No. 9 is that every scent is the distillation of a location in New York. Wall Street the place, according to the press notes, is in "proximity to the top of Manhattan Island--where there's always a salty hint of sea breeze." This is meant to explain why Wall Street the fragrance is a fresh-ozonic men's scent. The list of notes is "sea kale, cucumber, lavender, ambergris, vetiver," and I don't know exactly what sea kale is (except what I read in Wikipedia) or what it's meant to smell like, but perhaps that's the thing that gives the scent its harsh, piercing quality, something which contaminates the scent for quite a while.

I think the scent should smell like money. (It's supposedly "the world's first financial fragrance", but I doubt that, because Donald Trump had a scent out a few years ago--it flopped--and Gendarme's Greed seemed to me to be an attempt to convey the smell of money.) If that's not possible, then it should smell like wealthy men, and I cannot imagine rich guys settling for a scent which seems so much like so many other mass-market and drugstore men's scents.

I hunted down some reviews, and there are people who really love this, but there are people who really love a lot of things, like sauteed calf brains or golf. Me, I don't get it, at all.


Yesterday I stumbled across a reference to a Philip Glass film score I'd never even heard of, for a French film called "Animals in Love": iTunes has the album, so I listened to their snippet of the first track, "Swans Take Flight", and immediately thought, "Damn, I have to own this." But just to be on the safe side, I listened to bits of some other tracks as well. And then I bought it. A lot of people will listen to it and think, "Oh, arpeggios. From Philip Glass. Imagine that." But it's achingly lovely music, radiant and lissome, and I'm forever astonished that he can do so much with what often amounts to just a handful of notes.

I'm also impressed by fragrances that can establish a unique identity with their own small collection of notes. When Giorgio Beverly Hills launched Red, they boasted that it contained 691 notes, which is all well and good, but it does compel one to wonder if every single one of those was absolutely necessary. It's a great scent, but a greater feat is when a scent uses a limited palette to create its own little universe.

New Haarlem has hardly anything in it: coffee, vanilla, cedar and (I think) sandalwood, patchouli, bergamot. It takes this little clutch of aromatics, though, and turns it into something wonderful; unforgettable, in fact. After a (startlingly) brief shock of bergamot, for a couple of hours there's hardly anything to the scent but coffee, slightly sweetened (one sugar, I guess, but no cream), with perhaps the barest hint of vanilla. The coffee smells roasted but not burnt, unlike, say, Demeter's Espresso, and it really just smells like coffee, unlike A*Men Pure Coffee. It's yummy and oddly comforting.

The coffee is slowly replaced by a woody-patchouli accord, that new clean patchouli that's in everything; there is nothing about New Haarlem that suggests grime or decay or unpleasantness of any sort. The notes drift in and out, and there's a lot of (again, clean) cedar; eight or ten hours later, the scent is still there, the coffee a bare memory against a backdrop of vaguely sweet wood and a hint of chocolatey warmth. The whole scent isn't diffusive: it plays it close to the vest, the kind of thing you have to lean in to get a good whiff of. If I had smelled this at the same time as I tried A*Men Pure Coffee, New Haarlem is the one I would have bought. (In fact, since the Mugler was a limited edition and is no longer available, you're still in luck if you want a top-notch coffee scent.)

Despite its positioning by the company as the sort of thing that hip musicians would wear, you could easily imagine New Haarlem to be the smell of a man in a business suit, the sort who wants to smell subtle but powerful, the kind of man who isn't going to wear a standard-issue fresh scent but instead a close-to-the-vest power oriental. And so here's what I want to know: since coffee (alongside martinis and cocaine) is the primary fuel of the business world, why on Earth wasn't this one named Wall Street?


Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Vapours

Estee Lauder's Sensuous really is the damnedest thing, isn't it?

Abigail said:

Sensuous was just blah on me. I'm pleased that EL is daring enough to create something other than a fruity floral and perhaps Sensuous is perfect for their target market.

Regarding the riskiness, that's how I felt, too. Sensuous is so different from most of what's being launched these days that I thought it was a real example of risk-taking in the mainstream perfume marketplace. As for whether it'll be a success, well, I have some small doubt, because Anita said:

Chemistry is an amazing thing. I wanted to love Sensuous, because I prefer woody scents and liked that EL was trying something different. I went through two samples and couldn't smell much but a faint carmel note that wore off in no time.

I think that despite the sense that body chemistry's effect on scents is right up there with astrology as an explanation of anything, there really must be something to it. I have a co-worker who can wear the same things as I do and have them smell amazingly different than they smell on my skin. I do think that if twenty random people wore, say, Mitsouko, you'd generally be able to recognize the scent if you knew what it smelled like, but I also think that there would be that twenty-first person who would somehow transmute the scent into something else: "It's kind of like Mitsouko, but not really, and what is it?" As for the faintness, Marchlion said:

I am clearly anosmic to some large percentage of Sensuous, and what I found wildly frustrating was the sensation that something was *there* and I can't smell it. I got, essentially, the scent of woody musk fleetingly discovered on some old sweater in the closet. This makes me sad, because I think I would like Sensuous very much if I could smell it.

So there's that anosmia thing. I think that might have been part of why I had so much trouble writing about it in the first place: it seemed to me that I was never smelling all of Sensuous at once, but only parts of it at any give time. I'd put it on and think, "Jeez, that's so much like Indecence without the spice", and then put it on the next day and wonder what I was thinking, because clearly it was nothing like Indecence but more like, I don't know, Fath Pour L'Homme or something. I was trying to analyze it so I could write something, anything, coherent, but I kept vacillating: it was enormously frustrating.

This seems to be a problem with modern perfume chemistry. Certain organic musks are undetectable to some people, but generally speaking, a naturally-occurring aromatic substance is there, unless you have a generalized anosmia. (I grew up with a couple of friends, a brother and sister, who literally couldn't smell anything; I think they inherited it from their mother. Neither of them had any interest in food.) There appear to be all kinds of newly invented chemical odorants, though, that just don't exist olfactorily for large numbers of people: Iso E Super, for instance, seems to be a popular one, and some people have complained that they can't smell Bulgari Omnia at all.

I can smell both of those, but I had what was for me a startling experience with anosmia in 1991, with the launch of Calvin Klein's Escape. I managed to snag a sample at the department store (then, as now, I will try anything, men's or women's), opened the vial when I got home, took a sniff and....nothing. Dabbed a little on my skin: nothing. Poured a bunch on: a faint rosy floral, barely there. Was this a joke? Had someone emptied out the vial and filled it with water? I smelled it from the bottle in the store a couple of days later: nothing. Clearly a big joke. Some time thereafter, a co-worker took to wearing it, and I discovered to my amazement that I could smell it after all.

As Luca Turin has explained, Escape was originally a floral drenched with Calone (though now it's been reformulated, like so much these days), and I think that at the time, the Calone drowned everything else out and registered as a sort of neutral ozonic nothingness, something I couldn't really smell. I can sure smell Calone now, though. It's in everything.

(P.S. to Marchlion: if you want to read all the Demeter reviews, I did an entire month of them in June 2008, the June 1st posting contains a link to all the previous ones, and in any event I think you can just click on the Demeter tag in any of the Junes and get all of them in one place, if I've done my tagging correctly.)

Friday, October 03, 2008

Difficult: Estee Lauder Sensuous

GOD. I have NEVER had so much trouble writing about a fragrance before. I started wearing Sensuous about ten days ago so I could write about it, and I've hardly worn anything since, using up the entire sample, and I've sat down to write something about it nearly every day since then, and after having written almost TWO complete reviews of it, I'm STILL not happy. I CAN'T FIGURE THIS SCENT OUT. It smells like an amalgam of dozens of other things I've smelled, but not enough like any of them to make this easy on me. How do other bloggers write about a new scent (or more) every day (or more)? HOW? (Yes, I know I did this in June; I still don't know how.)

So fine, whatever. I drank a bunch of Diet Coke, my favourite delivery mechanism for caffeine, the writer's best friend, and forced myself to sit down and finish this thing, and here's what I've got. Sensuous opens pretty dark and pretty sweet, with a hot stewed-fruit quality that resembles Sonia Rykiel's eponymous scent (the one in the short-sleeved-sweater bottle), and, to lesser and varying degrees, Todd Oldham, CSP Mora Bella, Comme Des Garçons White, and Dalissime, and no doubt a bunch of other things as well. There's a hint of underlying freshness, presumably from the listed mandarin-orange note, but mostly it smells cooked, in a very nice way.

Eventually the body of the scent appears, and it's a warm sort-of-woody sort-of-floral with an undercurrent of spice. It smells something like Givenchy Organza Indecence with all the spice notes stripped away or heavily suppressed, and Escada's Casual Friday likewise. The floral element is an extremely minor part of the scent; it's in there, as a nod to the fact that this is aimed at women, but it's not important. Mostly, this is about wood, and if a man doesn't mind a scent that starts off relatively sweet, he would not find people staring at him for wearing Sensuous, because it reads in part as a man's wood scent; the sweetness has deserted the scent by the time it reaches the middle, and while it isn't bone-dry, it's well outside the circumference of what usually constitutes a women's scent these days.

Despite the usual blah-blah about how the scent was "created to evoke the warmest, most sensuous side of a woman", it's not specifically feminine at all, and the advertising, which shows four models of various ages in little else but men's white shirts, does nothing to dispel this impression: it could just about as easily have been used to sell cologne to men--you know, the Axe/Lynx "these hot women will have sex with you if you spray this on your skin" kind of thing.

The burn-down is pleasant, really an extension of the heart of the scent, mostly glowy wood with amber and a honey note that peeks out from time to time. It lasts forever, standing up to a lathery shower without being diminished in the slightest.

The notes are said to be black pepper, mandarin orange pulp, atmospheric florals, molten woods, glowing amber, and addictive honey. Ignoring the rest of the unnecessary (but these days inevitable) adjectives, saying that "molten woods" is a fragrance element strikes me as being very silly, even (or maybe "especially") after reading this quote from the perfumer:

For Sensuous we imagined a fabulous wooden sculpture, and wondered, if you could take all that sleekness, all that sensuality, but then melt it so that it was fluid, almost like a river of wood, what would that smell like?

I don't know. Would it smell like nonsense?

I have no problem with the idea of an abstract scent, but if you melt a sculpture, you don't have a sculpture any more but a pool of hot bronze, and if you try to melt a wooden sculpture, you get the fire department showing up, which might not be a bad thing, but it won't smell anything like Sensuous. I think this is just the copy-writer's way of saying, "No, we promise you will not end up smelling like a pencil sharpener or a hippieful of sandalwood oil." The wood accord doesn't smell like any specific wood; it just smells soft and woody and reassuring. Is that what they meant by "molten"?

If you can ignore the advertising twaddle, Sensuous is a nice addition to the Estee Lauder line, one of the best things they've released in more than a few years. Bless them, too, for making a 30-mL bottle available for those who hate to buy anything more because they know they'll never use it all up. (Lauder used to make everything available in 15-mL bottles; it'd be a shame if they stopped doing that altogether, and it would be nice if Sensuous were available in that size as well, but at least they're not forcing people to buy 50- or 100-mL bottles or even bigger, HERMES and CHANEL and L'ARTISAN.)