One Thousand Scents

Friday, January 30, 2009

Big Time

I'm trying to post twice a week starting in February. Still every Friday, but with luck and perseverance, also on Monday or Tuesday. We'll see how that goes.


If you're a niche firm, it helps to have a gimmick of some sort. État Libre D'Orange's is to give their scents provocative names like Putain des Palaces (Hotel Slut), Don't Get Me Wrong Baby I Don't Swallow, and Sécretions Magnifiques, with borderline-pornographic labels to match. Bond No. 9's is to name their scents after (and base them on) various parts of New York City (and why hasn't some French house done the same, with the various quartiers and arondissements?).

Ginestet's gimmick is...well, just look at this bottle.

I mean, just look at it!

That's not wine: it's a fragrance called Le Boisé, with the sprayer under that red cap that looks like the foil cap on a wine bottle. And it comes in a wooden coffret, like some really rare, precious vintage! If you can look at that and not think that you have to at least try it if not own it outright, then there's probably no sense in reading further.

Le Boisé* opens with a whole lot of wood. It's meant to be evocative of the oak casks that wine** is aged in, but it doesn't smell of oak to me. Instead, there's a big wall of cedar and sandalwood, in that order: the cedar dominates for a while, and then eventually cowers in the face of the sandalwood. A slight fruity note suggestive of wine grapes and a little curlicue of spice are also present at the beginning, but they don't last.

And that's just about it. A bit of vanillic warmth in the later stages keeps the scent alive, but mostly it's all wood, very dry and austere, and actually pretty stunning. I'm working on a sample of Le Boisé, and the more I wear it, the more I want to own it--not just for that splendid bottle, although I concede that's part of it, but because my taste seems to be changing, or expanding. I still love sweet, dark oriental scents, but in the past few years I've found myself opening up to the sort of stringent fragrances I disdained in my twenties. I would have hated Le Boisé back then: now, I can't seem to get enough.

*Google Translate shows the limitations of machine translation by translating "le boisé" as "woods". But no. In French, the root past tense of a verb is generally formed by replacing the ending "-er" with "-é": for instance, the root past tense of the verb "fatiguer", "to tire", is "fatigué". This also serves as an adjective: "fatigué" means "tired". If this seems familiar, it's because English works in exactly the same way: the past tense of the verb "to charge", say, is "charged", and this is also the adjective: "a charged situation". So "boisé" doesn't mean "woods": "bois" means both "wood" and "woods", "boisé" means "woody" or "woodsy" (or "wooded"), and "Le Boisé" means "the woody one" or "the woody thing", an unimprovable description of the scent and a sterling case of truth in advertising.

**Ginestet, an old French vintner, has two other winemaker scents, and where red-wine Le Boisé is pretty obviously aimed at men, the Sauternes-themed Botrytis and the white Bordeaux-inspired Sauvignonne are made with women in mind: the bottles alone will tell you that.

Friday, January 23, 2009

City Life: Bond No. 9 So New York

I'm going to New York!

Not for a while yet, but in a few months. I've never been, and naturally I have a list of things I have to do and places I have to go: in the fragrance world, I don't see how I can leave the city without having visited Aedes de Venustas, and I suspect I'm also going to want to go to Bond No. 9, which is a remarkably short distance from the hotel we've already booked (it overlooks Central Park!) So it seemed like an appropriate time to try Bond No. 9's So New York, which is described as having notes of "Mirabelle plum, espresso accord, cocoa powder". Sounds like my kind of thing, although I figured it was a good bet that that wasn't all there was to it.

I tried it for the first time about a week ago, applying a generous splash to the backs of my hands, as is my way, and I had two thoughts, one hard on the heels of the other: first, "Oh. Hm. Another fruity gourmand (and it's kind of like Nuits de Noho and Lexington Avenue)", followed quickly by, "What does this have to do with New York?"

A couple of hours later at my job, where I work with my hands and so occasionally send little wafts of scent towards my nose, I said to myself more than once, "Gosh, that smells nice!" (Yes, I say "gosh" sometimes. Also "Golly!", but that's a Futurama reference.)

As it turns out, there's a story to the scent: the espresso is supposed to represent a "whiff of New York’s consuming passion above-all-else for chocolate desserts and frothy lattes." Bond already has a coffee scent, New Haarlem (it was released the same year, actually), but So New York smells more like caffe latte candy than anything else. It's supposed to be espresso, but it's sweet and milky. The notes:

Top: Bergamot, Osmanthus, Mirabelle. Middle: Espresso Accord, Patchouli, Warm Milk Accord, Muguet, Peony. Base: Precious Woods, Tonka Bean, Musk, Cocoa Powder.

The opening is sweet and fruity (with a bit of the apricot overtone that osmanthus has), but it's not identifiably plummy in the way that Van Cleef and Arpels Gem was. At the same time, there's an intimation of the coffee beverage to come, with a chocolate aspect to it, but it's not the cocoa-powder dryness of Cocoon: it's more like a little splash of hot chocolate in your latte. The opening isn't dramatically different from that of a hundred other gourmand scents, which is why I wasn't particularly taken by So New York the first couple of times I wore it.

The middle of the scent, on the other hand, is charming: it's not a straight shot of caffeine the way New Haarlem or A*Men Pure Coffee are, but instead a lovely, complex construction on a scaffolding of milky coffee. The floral notes are the usual placeholders in a modern gourmand: they add body but don't have a big floral presence of their own. (You'd never smell this and think, "Ooh, peonies!") The drydown turns a little sour (on me, anyway), but is otherwise is the cloud of warm wood and vanilla that you expect in a gourmand these days.

A lot of people (Luca Turin, the folks on Makeup Alley) say that SNY is very similar to Angel, or a rip-off of it, with some going so far as to say that it basically is Angel. It isn't; it doesn't even call it to mind. True, it's a gourmand, a category which Angel more or less invented, but it isn't Angel, any more than every oriental out there is Shalimar. Whatever patchouli is in there is subtle and modern, unlike Angel's big, dirty, aggressive patchouli, and that's symbolic of the two scents' very different personalities: Angel is the loud, witty friend who grabs you by the shoulder and monopolizes your attention, while SNY lays a gentle hand on yours and laughs at your jokes.

If So New York is representative of anything, it's of New York on its very best behaviour, smiling and handing you a cup of coffee to welcome you to the big city.


Friday, January 16, 2009


Sauté two tablespoons of curry powder in one tablespoon of clarified butter. Allow to cool. Stir in one 100-mL bottle of Christian Dior Fahrenheit. Let sit tightly covered for two weeks in a cool place. Filter and bottle as Fougère Bengale by Parfum D'Empire.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Duality: Louve and Luctor et Emergo

As you will know if you have ever baked a cherry loaf (a sort of pound cake studded with halved Maraschino cherries), it's usual to add a few drops of almond extract to it, because this, perversely, will make it smell (and therefore taste) more cherry-like. Cherries and almonds are, in fact, related, both members of the genus Prunus, which is the Latin word for "plum" (and of course prunes are dried plums), except that we eat the fruit of cherries, discarding the pits, and eat the pits of almonds, discarding the fruit. The characteristic fragrance of almonds and cherries, as far as I can tell, comes primarily from benzaldehyde, which alone has a mostly almondy smell but which in combination with other aldehydes has more of a fruity, cherry-like scent.

If you're going to make a commercial fragrance, then, that's based on the almond, you have two options: play up this similarity of scent and give the wearer a cherry-almond, or tinker with benzaldehyde chemically to make it smell more purely of almonds.

Or, I guess, you have a third option: not care. This, I would hazard, is what happened with Serge Lutens' Louve.

"Louve" is French, the feminine of "loup", and therefore means "female wolf". I have no idea at all what this has to do with almonds, cherries, benzaldehyde, or anything else that is present in this scent. (In addition to the sweet, strong cherry-loaf smell, there is a trace of urine, a thick scattering of powder, a sort of metallic whine, and some slightly decomposed rose petals.)

Louve is quite simply the most incomprehensible thing I have ever smelled. I suppose if some enterprising perfumer ever makes a scent out of carrion-flower and tulips, or wheatgrass and mesquite, then that will be the most incomprehensible thing I've ever smelled, but until then, Louve, I think, will hold pride of place. It makes no sense as a composed scent. What it boils down to is that Serge Lutens and Christopher Sheldrake have filled an unwashed toilet with baby powder and then buried in it almond-scented cherries (or cherry-flavoured almonds, it makes no difference) which they have forced you to pick out with your teeth. The powder gets up your nose.

As always seems to be the case with scents you don't like, Louve sticks around. The first time I wore it, a few weeks ago, I put on a couple of sprays at 1:45, just before heading out to work--a dreadful mistake, of course, to apply an untested new scent before leaving for the day, and I don't know what I was thinking. At 11:30 p.m., when I got home, I could still smell it, distinctly if not strongly. The next morning at 7 a.m., it still had enough projection to insinuate itself into my nose from eighteen inches away. This is a scent with some serious staying power.

If only it were any good.


I recently ordered a whole lot of samples from The Perfumed Court, and because it can be really really hard to choose when you're faced with so many hundreds of tempting alternatives, I only ordered collections: 12 gourmand scents, 10 rose scents for men, 7 ambergris scents, that sort of thing. (The gourmands and the roses were all shipped in the same little jewellery box, and that box smells so good!) I'm unfortunately one of those people who gets paralyzed in front of something as simple as a fast-food menu, so when it comes to such a huge array, let someone else make the choices, I say.

Among the gourmands was a vial of Luctor et Emergo, which is Latin for, depending on how literally you care to translate it, "I struggle and emerge" or "I emerge victorious", from a Dutch fashion house called The People of the Labyrinths. It's ten years old and I'd never smelled it, but I've never smelled a lot of things, and I was curious about it because of its cult status. When I put it on and gave it a sniff, the very first thought in my head was, "Oh, that's Louve."

Well, it isn't, really. It has a lot in common with it at first blush: almonds, cherries, and a snootful of baby powder. But the horribleness isn't there, and Luctor et Emergo is a mirror-universe version of Louve, lovely where the other is grating. The powdered-almond-cherry accord gradually reveals a core of nicotiana, or tobacco-flower, and a very light, gentle woody incense with a dark-chocolate undertone. There isn't a whole lot of complexity to the scent: it smells very modern.

As usual when I really hate something, I will concede that many people love Louve. (In fact, most Lutens scents seem deliberately created to polarize; the controversy is as much part of the line as the spare packaging.) But to me there's no contest. I can see myself owning a bottle of Luctor et Emergo, that's how good it is (although for all I know I'll be tired of it by the time I've used up my sample, I'm so fickle). If you want to spend a whole lot of money on a bottle of cherry loaf (Louve is currently $140 for 50 mL at Luckyscent, Luctor et Emergo $165 for 100 mL at Aedes de Venustas), Luctor et Emergo is both the better scent and the better bargain. Get samples first!

Wednesday, January 07, 2009


If you can look at this picture and not feel the almost desperate urge to smell everything in it, you're stronger than I am.

If you can identify at least two thirds of the bottles, then you're a hard-core fragrance slut, and welcome to the club. (I knew 12 of them by sight--I've owned three of them--and figured out most of the rest with some eyeballing and research. Still don't know about that bottle of dark liquid behind the Perlinette; it really looks like one of the old Patou bottles, but I can't be sure.)

The image is from a charming article, which, obviously, you should read, called (not very originally, I'm afraid) Scents and Sensibility, about the Osmothèque in France.


Yesterday I gave a co-worker, almost as big a scent-hound as I am, vials of three Comme des Garçons Red scents: Rose, Carnation, and Harissa. She immediately put on a little Harissa and loved it (as I knew she would); I took a sniff of her wrist and recoiled immediately, remembering just how much I'd hated it. I can't believe I'd forgotten, but it had been two and a half years since I'd last worn it. I swear, I could taste it this time. It still smells like something that should be in a restaurant and not on a person. Not a very good restaurant, either.

A couple of hours later, she dabbed on a little Rose (on a different swatch of skin), and then she put some on me, too. And it's the damnedest thing: it really doesn't quite smell like the same scent on the two of it. It does at first: tart raspberry, rose, a bit of leaf and calyx. And then it sort of lunges off in an entirely different direction on her, becoming unexpectedly sweet (something it does not do on me). She is not a fan of sweet scents: vanilla scents actually make her sick. But she didn't give up on Rose, because it's interesting, very much off the beaten path for a rose scent, and she's going to try it again.

She did not like Carnation. In fact, she gave me back the vial at the end of the day. Fine: more for me.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Unreal: Comme des Garçons Dry Clean

Comme des Garçons doesn't do anything quite like anybody else, certainly not fragrances. They have a large number of them, mostly grouped into eclectic collections: Sherbet, Leaves, Red, Incense, Sweet, and so on. Their sixth collection was called Synthetic, composed of scents that deliberately didn't smell like anything in the natural world: Skai is (putatively) the smell of man-made leather, and Garage, Tar, and Soda are self-explanatory. The containers are as synthetic as their contents: a translucent plastic bottle looking for all the world like household cleaner or disinfectant spray, containing a black plastic bag which gradually shrivels up as the scent is used.

When I was young, there was a small strip mall just around the corner from my house: it held a convenience store, a bank, a supermarket, possibly a couple of other business that I've forgotten, and a dry-cleaner's, where I would go from time to time to pick up my parents' cleaning. I loved the smell of the shop; warm, steamy, solventy, the very essence of clean.

As you will see from my recent Twitter postings, I've been wearing Comme des Garçons' Dry Clean a lot lately. I originally ordered the sample because I assumed it would smell at least something like that shop around the corner. You'd think from reading the official list of notes (ozone, aldehydes, nail polish, bay leaf, rose oxide, metallic incense, dissolvent vapours, gaiacwood) that it would smell like a dry-cleaner's--I mean, "dissolvent vapours"? Bingo! Alas, no. With the usual CdG perversity, Dry Clean smells instead like....

You're a scientist. A successful one: you own your own lab! It has racks of bottles large and small containing hundreds and hundreds of chemicals: most of them have no smell, but some of them do. The lab is nicely outfitted: lots of stainless steel and glass and surfaces made of Corian or some other hard, smooth, inert plastic. In fact, nothing at all from the natural world, nothing that could hold chemical smells: it's all manufactured and easily cleaned.

This is lucky, because you are a clean freak. So one day you set about cleaning your lab (by yourself, because nobody else can be trusted to get it just right). You get some harsh, caustic powdered cleanser with a lemon scent, and you scrub and scrub and scrub, so hard that you practically vapourize a layer of metal and glass and Corian into the air. When you're done, the whole lab is perfectly bright and shiny. You climb into the hazmat shower and wash away the sweat of your exertion with punishingly strong soap that smells as faintly as possible of synthetic roses but mostly of soap, and you put on a freshly laundered lab coat that bears the odour of commercial laundry detergent.

And now you and the lab smell like Dry Clean.