One Thousand Scents

Friday, December 26, 2008

Two Become One: Serge Lutens Douce Amere

I am going to be using two words over and over again. Just thought I should warn you. I tried to write around them, but there's no way to avoid them when you're talking about a scent so single-minded in its pursuit of an idea.

The first time I smelled Serge Lutens' Douce Amere, I thought, "It kind of smells like Mirra & Mirra", I Coloniali's version of bitter-sweet (which is what "douce amere" means). I've been wearing the Lutens for nearly a week, and I still think of Mirra & Mirra every time. But they're not interchangeable. I thought they might be, at first: i was smitten with Douce Amere, but I thought, "Well, I could never buy this, because it smells just like something I already own." But where Mirra & Mirra is mostly a single serving--a big bowl of bitter-sweet ice cream--Douce Amere is a succession of courses, each a variation of its theme.

The first course is a curlicue of lemon zest on a dusty, bitter bed of cinnamon sweetened with licorice (which itself has a bitter edge) and a sprinkling of vanilla sugar. Lest you think that the scent will become gourmand, it rapidly adds another pair of notes to the menu: bitter-green wormwood (which gives absinthe its characteristic smell and taste--and its legendary mind-wrecking properties) and sweet, though very abstract, floral notes. (These are officially lily, jasmine, tiare, marigold, and tagetes, but you couldn't identify any one of them if your life depended on it.) Eventually, another bitter note insinuates itself: it resembles the very darkest chocolate, or, more accurately, the peculiar experience of bitter chocolate with the chocolate removed and only the bitterness remaining, accompanied by more of the sugared vanilla. The theme continues almost to the very end (many hours later), with a bit of wood slinking in to give the whole thing some sort of finish: sixteen hours later, there's still a ghost of vanilla caramel left on your skin.

It all sounds very strange, I suppose, and there's no doubt that it's a niche scent, not the sort of thing you might ever expect to find in your average department-store line-up. It's not for everybody, for sure: it wasn't made with an eye to commercial success, instead being an artist's working-through of an idea. But Douce Amere is a flawless composition of two opposing properties, never once veering too far in either direction, never becoming either cloying or astringent. It is magical, and, as perverse as it might seem, an ideal Christmas scent: warm, compelling, a little sexy, something to curl up by the fire with.


Monday, December 22, 2008

Random Thoughts on a Cold Winter Morning

I always have a bunch of samples lying around on my computer desk, because I always need to be wearing whatever I'm writing about so that's where they usually end up, and then they just accrete. (I can see a dozen from where I sit: there are more in the drawer next to me.) I came home from work the other day and there was a post-it note stuck to the cardboard folder containing Fancy, which has a picture of Jessica Simpson looking sultry. Jim said, "I had to cover it with something because every time I looked over at your desk, all I could see was her staring at me with her dead eyes!"

This is what he chose not to see:

She is unsettlingly vapid, isn't she?


This morning in the shower I used A*Men shower gel, and it occurred to me that the Mugler people wasted a perfect opportunity. A*Men is a fantastic name for a scent: it not only means "Angel for Men", it sounds like "amen", for that religious connotation also present in "Angel".

And what did they call their follow-up? B*Men, which is not only meaningless but also irrevocably throws away another great name.

If only they'd called it D*Men! Then you'd have one scent called Angel (for Men) and one called Demon, and it would have been a perfect pair. But if you've called the second scent B*Men, then you're stuck, because you can't call the third one C*Men, for reasons that I hope are obvious if you say it out loud, and you can't just skip over that one and go straight to D*Men, because then people will say, "Hey, what about C*Men? Oh!....", which is almost as bad.

Way to screw it up, Mugler marketing people.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Three Princesses

I was in a mall a couple of weeks ago and I was in a mood, because Christmas is coming and, well, you know. I went into the big department store to look at the fragrance gift sets and said to myself, "I am not leaving without a sample of something." That's often a challenge at any time of year but even more so at Christmas, but as I said, I was in a mood, so I was determined to have something.

I saw a sample lying on a counter, picked it up, saw that it was Jessica Simpson's newest scent, Fancy, thought, "Oh, you have got to be kidding", and put it back down. Snooping around, I noticed a little stack of samples behind one of those plastic displays for some fragrance or other--a favourite hiding place of the sales clerks. I reached behind and picked up one of each of the two samples lying there, not taking any particular care to be sneaky, because why should I be? They're free samples, and I have as much right to them as anyone: I'm probably not going to buy them, but I might, and I'll get at least as much use out of them as anyone else, because I'll definitely wear them just to see what they smell like and I might even write about them.

A sales clerk who was helping another customer may have noticed what I was doing while she was helping another customer, because just as I was walking away from the counter, she came over to the general area of the plastic display and then (I think) gave me the old hairy eyeball. How dare I touch her samples! How dare I take them without asking!

I work in retail so I understand that attitude. You do get a proprietary feeling towards your stuff, and you hate it when customers touch it without asking. But if I'd asked if she had any samples, she would probably have said no, because I am a guy asking for samples in the women's fragrance department, and anyway they were just lying there, indifferently concealed: it's not as if I took her keys and opened the locked drawers behind the counter.

And then on the way out I picked up that sample of Fancy, just because, and so I ended up with three scents clearly aimed at very young women, with their princessy pink-and-purple colour schemes and their near-rococo ornamentation. And what do you know? One of them isn't terrible.


Inspire by Christina Aguilera lurches out of the bottle a big, lumbering white floral with fruity overtones (mango and citrus), and it stays a big, lumbering white floral (mostly tuberose and gardenia) for nearly its entire life. If you like white florals, this may the sort of thing you like, but you may also feel that you've smelled it before, and you have, only done better. If you don't like white florals, which I sure don't, this will strike you as yet another thick, bludgeoning tuberose scent. I can't help but think that this is a misfire, because the target audience for it must surely be young women who listen to pop music a lot, and the fruity-floral opening can't disguise the fact that this is awfully mature. Nevertheless, I would imagine that quite a few bottles of this have been sold on the strength of the celebrity's name.


Despite an almost comical attempt at some top notes, Anna Sui Night of Fancy (a follow-up to Flight of Fancy) consists almost entirely of a large block of creamy candy flavoured with artificial blueberry. It stays this way for a very long time. It's rather pleasant for a while, but it remains exactly as it for so long that eventually you just start to choke on it. The advertising and the name make it clear that this is supposed to be a sophisticated, evening sort of scent, but it's a twelve-year-old girl's idea of sophistication. The bottle, though, is exceedingly pretty, a Lalique-style fan stopper in the shape of a peacock atop a filigreed oblong full of luscious purple juice.

The sample card for Fancy by Jessica Simpson contains a quote putatively by Simpson herself: "This is a unique fragrance--personal, whimsical, playful and romantic. To me, Fancy is just that: fancy." So she's not using the word in the Anna Sui sense of "fantasy" or "imagination": she means something like...what? Highly ornamented? Classy? Whimsical? All I can say is that if this her idea of fancy, then she's even more vulgar than I thought.

And yet the scent is sort of appealing, in a cheapjack kind of way. The first third or so is like grim death for anybody who's sick of fruity florals and overly sweet gourmand scents, because it's a huge wad of indefinable fruit, vague flowers, and sugar. Just when you start to think that this is the entire scent, it mostly boils away to reveal a candy-store core of vanilla, caramel, cream, and almonds, with an overtone of the cotton-candy scent of Aquolina Pink Sugar. Wildly unsophisticated, yet considerably more pleasant than you might think, unless you really hate gourmand scents, in which case steer clear. Later on the scent takes on a certain bakery quality, along with that Pink Sugar cotton candy; it lasts for hours and calls to mind various Comptoir Sud Pacifique offerings dominated by sweet vanilla. The bottle is also rather pretty, in an obvious way.

It's horrible to think about giving Jessica Simpson your money, but in truth, you could do much, much worse than Fancy, particularly if you need a Christmas gift for a teenage girl.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Time Limit

As I wrote back on June 13th of this year regarding a Lush solid fragrance,

Since many Lush products have nothing in the way of preservatives, and in fact some of them are meant to be kept in the fridge, they generally have an expiration date on them, which is fine in the case of, say, hair conditioner (which can separate and spoil), but is rather ridiculous when you're talking about a solid perfume, which ought to last for a decade or two. The label on the bottom of my tin says

Made on 15 OCT 07
Use by 15 DEC 08

which seems to mean that the Lush people have somehow decided that this product will last exactly 14 months and not a day more, a ludicrous notion. If it suddenly detonates or liquefies in the tin on December 16th, I'll let you know, but until you hear from me, you can assume that it's holding on as it ought to.

And here it is, December 16th, and I am pleased to let you know that it did not explode, separate, crystallize, disintegrate, evaporate, spoil, or otherwise become unusable or in any way different than what it was when I bought it.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Cheers: Idole de Lubin

On the one hand, we should be able to judge and rate perfumes based on one thing and one thing only: their scent. That, after all, is the point and the soul of them. On the other hand, perfumery as an art form is no longer separable from the artistry of their bottling and packaging (and advertising, too), and most of us have had their experience of feeling so-so about a scent but being compelled to buy it because of the splendid bottle, or loving a scent but waffling about buying it and having the bottle be the final element that pushes us to own it.

Idole de Lubin is calculated to be that sort of bottle. Just looking it at, with that fantastic ebony African-mask cap and the textury, shield-shaped bib on the bottle, plus that cargo-cult lettering, makes you want to buy it, hold it, put it on display. It's a nearly irresistible object (by Serge Mansau, creator of many near-irresistible perfume bottles). I hate to say it, but if I had smelled Idole before I made my purchase of CDG Carnation, I might have bought the Idole instead. Something to dream of for the future, maybe.


Once upon a time, many perfumes were drinkable. They were made with regular old alcohol rather than the denatured alcohol of modern times, and, absent synthetics, they contained mostly extracts of various plants, so you could drink a little glassful of a citrusy cologne before splashing yourself with it, or take a curative teaspoonful of a perfume before scenting yourself with a handkerchief dipped in it. Some perfumes were made to be added to food or wine: the Romans were particularly fond of this for parties and banquets. And why not? What is tea, really, but a solvent-extraction perfume made for drinking? What is Jägermeister if not a drinkable perfume, a sugared alcohol-and-water tincture of herbs and spices?

The very first thing that I thought of when I smelled Idole for the first time was, "sandalwood liqueur!" The sandalwood, though a base note, is evident from the very start, and the whole composition has a beverage feel to it. Perfume lovers call this sort of scent "boozy", and while I had experienced alcoholic scents before (in Liz Claiborne's Spark for Men and in Escada Pour Homme, for two, not to mention the obvious Demeters like Gin & Tonic and Sambucca), I had never experienced something so entirely drinkable, something that you would not be at all surprised to find in a little glass in your hand.

The opening of Idole suggests Benedictine and Chartreuse and other complex herb-and-spice liqueurs, zingy and biting with just a hint of saffron. (If it's a liqueur, you're enjoying it in a sandalwood-panelled room with leather furniture.) It never really calms down until the very end: it's a jagged whirl of spices and woods until the soft, vaguely sweet woody-leathery close, hours later. It's not the sort of scent that vanishes into your skin or smells "like you, only better"; it has a presence and even a certain authority, though despite its spikiness it's never loud or aggressive. Every now and then you catch an unexpected whiff of it and say, "That smells really great!" (I do, anyway.)

It's rarely if ever a good idea to buy a fragrance without trying it first, but Idole is really the sort of thing you ought to try on your skin. It's going to disagree with some people, maybe a lot of people: it's not conventionally attractive. But it's unlike any other commercial scent I've ever smelled*, and if you're the kind of person who can wear it and enjoy it, Idole will have people near you hovering around, sniffing, their eyes closed, smiling.

* After writing this I did a little poking around and discovered that some people think Idole smells like a copy of Donna Karan's Chaos. I haven't smelled the DK in years, but from what I remember, I don't see the similarity: Idole is boozy and less assertively spicy than Chaos, which I found overwhelming, a little like the original Comme des Garçons scent, or a dry, hyper version of Organza Indecence.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

My Bad

It's been a long few weeks in the retail business, what with Christmas coming and customers being surlier and/or needier than ever before in my experience, and after posting last night, I was scrolling down through my blog (something I normally do on a regular basis to see if I'm missed anything important) and discovered to my horror that I had actually reviewed the same scent twice, once on November 7th and then again on the 28th, two (slightly) different reviews based on two different sets of starting notes. Did anyone else notice? And if so, why didn't you tell me?

Anyway, blogs are malleable things, impermanent in a way that the print medium isn't, so I've amalgamated the two reviews into the 28th's and replaced the original review of the 7th with an entirely new one that I was saving for next week, so you should scroll down and read that and consider it penance for my dimwittery (and maybe while you're at it read the new-and-improved Gucci by Gucci Pour Homme review), and let's hope I don't make this kind of stupid mistake again.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Ride 'Em, Cowboy: Lonestar Memories by Andy Tauer

I don't know what came over me.

In mid-November I finally made a list of samples I wanted from The Perfumed Court and placed my order: a set of chypres, another set of leather scents, a bunch of Serge Lutens, and some odds and ends which you will no doubt be hearing about in the relatively near future. (They all arrived promptly and were nicely packaged, and I can't recommend the company too highly. I could have bought five or six times what I did, easy.)

Then last week--Wednesday, the day before American Thanksgiving, as it turns out, for reasons that will be minimally relevant in a minute--I got home from work very late (like 11:30 p.m.) and was tired but couldn't sleep, and I was at my computer as usual, and I thought, "Fuck it, I'm going to order Carnation from Luckyscent. High time." (I'd been living off a sample which I had finally used up, and I was in a perpetual state of anxiety that it would be discontinued and I'd never get to own a bottle. I figured if you've been wanting to own something for two whole years, if it's not just a momentary infatuation, you should buy it if you can.) So I ordered it, and a few samples, as well, because you can never have enough samples. (As the next day was Thanksgiving, and I guess not much work gets done on Friday or over the weekend, I had to wait until this past Monday before the order shipped.)

Unfortunately, I hadn't really been paying close attention (it was midnight, which is why credit cards and the Internet and exhaustion are such a toxic combination), and as a result, I ordered a few of the same samples from Luckyscent that I had already ordered from The Perfumed Court. What's more, I really hadn't been paying attention, because the leather sampler contained Andy Tauer's Lonestar Memories, which I had also ordered separately from TPC, and which I subsequently ordered from Luckyscent. So: three of the same thing.

Luckily, I can easily use up three, because it's fantastic. But more about that in a minute.

I don't own a whole lot of leather scents; it's something I like, but in moderation. I have Krizia Uomo and Chanel's Antaeus, and four Demeter leathers, which you can read about here and here.

Demeter fragrances are smells, as opposed to proper perfumery. There's nothing wrong with a scent being merely a smell; there mustn't be, or I wouldn't own so damned many Demeters. But sometimes you just want a simple unified note, and sometimes you want a perfume, with complexity and development and depth. Demeter doesn't provide that, but for a really big, rounded leather scent, Lonestar Memories does, in spades.

It opens, briefly, with piercing greenery (mostly the hay/vegetation smell of clary sage), but that's almost immediately overtaken by a huge whoop of leather, which is to say birch tar, which is what provides the aroma of most everything that smells like leather. There are other molecules hovering around, too; some wood (cedar, which provides a smoky-campfire feel) and distant plants and flowers, but mostly it's that sexy, irresistible, animalic leather. It's dry and a little stringent, just like real leather.

Over time, the dryness slowly warms and sweetens, as if you'd taken a piece of charred wood from yesterday's campfire, dipped it in vanilla honey, and tucked it into a leather glove to warm in your hand. (It's not really vanilla; it's tonka, which has a warm, spicy vanillic scent.) This cozy glow lasts for ages: it's still hovering around you twelve, fourteen hours later.

I liked Tauer's Incense Rosé and loved Vetiver Dance, but Lonestar Memories I really, really love.