One Thousand Scents

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Playing the Field: Penhaligons Lavandula

The other day I was wearing the springlike combination of Demeter Vetiver and Lavender. I'm not usually in the habit of mixing commercial scents, but Demeters lend themselves to this treatment because they're so single-mindedly one-note (in a good way, obviously); you hardly ever have to worry about elements of the scents clashing with one another. As it turned out, Vetiver overpowers Lavender by a considerable margin: equals amounts of the two produced hardly anything except a wall of vetiver, which is extremely nice but not what I had planned, so I had to up the dose of Lavender until it could stand its ground.

This got me to thinking about just how interesting lavender actually is. Although it's unquestionably floral, its brisk character, like roughly toweling yourself off after a shower, is what makes it such a cornerstone of men's perfumery. While Demeter's Lavender is extremely camphoraceous--it has a certain mothball quality that I find pleasant--others are not quite so assertive: you'll often find a soapy, toned-down lavender as the top note in men's scents, meant to remind us of the barber shop. (The panic over the current outbreak of swine flu also calls to mind lavender in another way: during the Black Death in Europe, smack in the middle of the fourteenth century, people would carry around little bouquets of herbs and flowers to sniff, under the impression that it was bad air that was causing the sickness, and lavender was a favourite flower for this purpose because of its strong, sharp aroma.)

At any rate, when I was wearing my Demeter concoction the other day, I remembered that I had a sample of a Penhaligons scent, Lavandula, that I'd never even tried. The name, which is the Latin word for the plant, suggests it's positioned as a women's scent (it has some company, including Guerlain's Lavande Velours and Yardley's English Lavender), as does the company's website, and I was interested to see what they'd do to it to move it from the standard men's-toiletry category into the women's.

Nothing, as it turns out. It's a men's lavender scent, and a very good one, too. It opens sharply, with a big sprig of lavender joined to a scrub-brush of cinnamon and pepper. The greenness that always seems to be a part of fresh lavender is there, too, along with a bright, almost lemony quality that together give the opening a cheerful zing. It's a real eye-opener. The scent soon calms down to a vast field of slightly soapy and rather camphory lavender (not as much camphor as the Demeter, but enough) underlaid with a hint of warmth, a ray of sunshine that slowly deepens into a creamy pool of musky vanilla and amber.

The lovely thing about Lavandula is that it never lets you forget for even a second that you're smelling a lavender scent. From the very first breath to the final trace of it on your skin, it's lavender in a perfect crescendo-decrescendo.

Monday, April 27, 2009


Our dear friend Trish just sent us a wedding present, a silver bowl, and wouldn't you like to see it?

This is the picture she sent to see if we'd like it:

and this is the picture Jim just took (the blue is the anti-tarnish paper it came wrapped in):

It's even more beautiful in person (so to speak--I mean, if you were here in person to see it). It was made in 1889! It's now officially the nicest thing we own.

I admit it. I like shiny things. Look at these shiny things:

Yes, they're the newest Bond No. 9 Mother's Day offerings, in (respectively) Nuits de Noho, Chelsea Flowers, and The Scent of Peace (none of which I have written about yet, though I will). I should probably think the bottles are cheap and gaudy, but I don't. I think they're pretty. Maybe your mom would, too. Would she think you were throwing your money away at $500 a pop? But they're shiny!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Galactic Alcoholic

Now this is what science is all about.

A recent article in The Guardian begins with the following sentence:

Astronomers searching for the building blocks of life in a giant dust cloud at the heart of the Milky Way have concluded that it tastes vaguely of raspberries.

There's more:

In the latest survey, astronomers sifted through thousands of signals from Sagittarius B2, a vast dust cloud at the centre of our galaxy. While they failed to find evidence for amino acids, they did find a substance called ethyl formate, the chemical responsible for the flavour of raspberries.

"It does happen to give raspberries their flavour, but there are many other molecules that are needed to make space raspberries," Arnaud Belloche, an astronomer at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, told the Guardian.

Curiously, ethyl formate has another distinguishing characteristic: it also smells of rum.

In other words, this

is the centre of the galaxy.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Scent of Power

Parody news site The Onion has a brief news article called Hillary Clinton Launches Intimidating New Fragrance Line, said fragrance being a perfume called Authorité, "described by its manufacturer as 'steely, bracing, and curt, with notes of patent leather, sandalwood, and wool serge'."

A fragrance dominated by patent leather, sandalwood, and wool serge might actually be kind of nice. There are lots of leather scents out there, and even a patent-leather scent, Skai by Comme des Garçons. The smell of wool isn't something we associate with commercial perfumery, but wool has a lovely clean-earth smell allied with a greasy hint of civet that could find a place in a perfume. (I never get a shipment of wool yarn without sticking my nose into the box to take a big whiff, and I know I'm not the only one who does this.)

It's pointless to speculate what Hillary Clinton actually wears, but I'm going to do it anyway. I rather doubt she wears "a scent that brooks no argument", as the article suggests: she strikes me as a Diorissimo kind of woman, because a woman in politics is generally perceived as being loud, overbearing, and frankly masculine, so she might reasonably wear something fresh and pretty to disarm (or at least confuse) the men she comes into contact with. All those years in hot, humid Arkansas and Washington might well have gotten her into the habit of wearing lighter scents.

Or hell, maybe she wears one of those gorgeous, colossal 1980s power chypres like Ungaro Diva or Paloma Picasso Mon Parfum. How would I know?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Attack of the Cetaceans: Balmain Ambre Gris

I should probably just permanently disqualify myself from writing about anything that contains amber as a major component.

Balmain's recent Ambre Gris does. The very top is sugared immortelle, not unlike L Lempicka, with a slightly fruity-floral feel to it, but lurking just below the surface--BANG, amber. A lot of amber.

The trouble is that I love it. I have no sense of perspective on it at all. If I smell something heavily ambered, I'm probably going to just fall in love with the scent and then I'll lose all objectivity, although, come to think about it, I'm about as subjective as can be when it comes to scents: I love them or hate them and there isn't much middle ground. There isn't any with amber and ambergris, though. I am addicted to the stuff. Therefore, you are going to have to take everything I say with a grain of salt. If you don't like amber scents, or sweet scents, well, just move right along.

The amber, as I have said, starts at the beginning and runs through the entire scent. It's not linear, though: grace notes and unexpected accords slide into view and then vanish, every one of them seemingly devised to act as counterpoint to the sweetness of the amber. A pointy little sprinkling of cinnamon appears about an hour in. Smack in the middle, for a little while, is tuberose: not enough to make it floral, and not enough to make me uncomfortable, but enough to cut through the gathering sweetness, a pinpoint spotlight piercing the fog. A slightly dusty wood and a crumb of myrrh show up late in the game. Finally, though, the amber swamps everything else, as it must: the base is amber and vanillic benzoin and not much else, for hours. It is wonderfully composed and very beautiful.

I am still not sure about that bottle. The flacon itself is a nice solid block of glass, the juice is a lovely grey, but the cap? I can see that it's meant to evoke a thimble, which is an obvious choice for a couture house's fragrance: Madeleine Vionnet's eponymous scent did the same thing. Hers, though, used an actual thimble shape atop a stylized dressmaker's form,

but the cap for Ambre Gris has been abstracted into something that could be

a gilded golf ball,

a jaundiced disco ball, or

Disney's Epcot Center.


My first experience with an amber-dominated fragrance was in 1987 (I actually remember the year), when I bought a miniature of the 1985 scent Anne Klein II. Calvin Klein's Obsession, from the same year, also contained a lot of amber, but Anne Klein II was possessed by it: it was a strange little minimalist bottle (a glass cylinder cut in half down the long axis) full of pure liquid warmth. I had never smelled anything like it. I wore it all the time, down to the last drop.

It was, of course, discontinued, although you can buy a duplicate of the scent, which is supposedly made with the original formula (the company that makes the copy has the right to use the recipe but not the name). Haven't tried it, don't know if it's exactly the same, but I had the experience of smelling it a couple of weeks ago nonetheless.

In my last order from The Perfumed Court I had ordered the Ambergris Sampler, which contained Ambre Gris and six other scents. When I opened the little plastic enveloped to extract a sample, I of course stuck my nose in and took a whiff, and to my astonishment, that muddle of molecules from seven different fragrances smelled exactly like my memory of Anne Klein II. I did it again just now, and there it was again: the precise experience of smelling something I haven't smelled in twenty years.


When I was going on last week about an online fragrance boutique called Parfum1, I had a reason for it. I had been browsing for the best price on a bottle of Ambre Gris, just in case, and Parfum1 has it for $22.50, with a 25% discount (code SPRING25NPE), making it a stunningly bargain-priced $16.25. For a 100-mL bottle. It'll last you forever, it's cheaper than any drugstore brand, and it's really nice. Several people have written in the comments that they've done business with the company and it's reputable, so what are you waiting for?


I entered an online contest at Andy Tauer's blog and won a full bottle of my choice. Since I've only worn three of his scents, I was debating whether to pick something I hadn't tried before, and Herr Tauer said,

Please do me a favor and do not buy unsniffed. I do not want you to be disappointed....

This is good advice. Very good advice. I trusted that I would like anything of his and wouldn't be disappointed, but what if I had been? A waste of a bottle!

As it turns out, I went with the one of his that I loved best, Lonestar Memories. It's glorious stuff, dark, resinous, smoky. If you haven't tried it, you really ought to. Mine arrived in the mail today, and I am going to be wearing this a lot.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Attack of the Rhizomes: Christian Dior Bois D'Argent

I should probably just permanently disqualify myself from writing about anything that contains iris as a major component.

Dior's recent Bois D'Argent does. The very top is sugared incense, not unlike Demeter Incense, with a men's-cologne feel to it, but lurking just below the surface--BANG, iris and vanilla. A lot of iris.

Iris and vanilla must have some sort of chemical affinity for one another, because without even trying I can think of three scents which have both elements in some quantity--CdG Sticky Cake and Guerlain's Terracotta Voile D'Ete and Apres L'Ondee--and I bet there are others. In Bois D'Argent as in those other three scents, the two notes seem to move in unison, each enhancing the other. (In Voile D'Ete, the iris actually works to cut through some of the languorous sweetness of the vanilla and ylang, a tropical pairing that would overwhelm the senses in what is meant to be a hot-weather scent.)

The iris in Bois D'Argent is not as metallic or artificial as Demeter's Iris: in fact, I don't know what the name even means, because Bois D'Argent is French for Silver Wood, and the scent is neither silvery nor woody. Still, it has a disagreeable quality that all iris-heavy scents have for me: it smells as if someone has placed a flower and a vinyl record album in a microwave and heated them until the vinyl started to melt. (The Guerlain scents don't have enough iris to trouble me, and the flower appears in a great number of scents that I love, such as Gaultier's Le Classique, so in those it must be a minor note at best.)

Bois D'Argent isn't actively weird, as Sticky Cake is, and the middle is attractively sweet and edible, the flowers notwithstanding. The drydown, though, has even more iris, and that was the point at which I said, "Enough!" (There's supposedly leather in the base as well, but if it's in there, it's subtle, or at least, to my nose, drowned out by you-know-what.)

A lot of people, I feel compelled (as usual) to say, love this scent very much, and I suppose if you loved iris, you probably would, too. It's well-made, and the ingredients are certainly high-quality and probably expensive. But it is not for me.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Nose to Nose

You don't have to believe that every single human characteristic, particularly those that seem to be part of a chasm between men and women, is explained by evolutionary biology to find this interesting: a theory as to why women on the whole seem to have a better sense of smell than men. It's because they're sniffing out the best possible mate.

"Women have a larger interest in reproductive events because they have fewer opportunities for passing on their genes than men," said George Preti, a Monell Chemical Senses Center organic chemist...."Men produce thousands of gametes every day, women just one every month. Their investment in a reproductive event is higher than men's, so they're more biologically attuned to who they're mating with."

Which, of course, makes perfect sense. Men--males, really--will famously mate with just about anyone (or anything), because that's a sensible reproductive strategy: broadcast your seed and hope one of them lands somewhere fertile. Females have a good reason to be a bit pickier: they have a much smaller number of reproductive opportunities, each of which takes much more out of them than it does out of the man, and what's more, before modern times, maternal mortality rates were something like 1 in 100, pretty bad odds, and even worse in the nineteenth century in the Western world, when men started to take over the practice of obstetrics from midwives and doctors were known to go from a dissection or an appendectomy to a delivery without washing their hands, which led to a horrifying forty per cent mortality rate.

I have also read (and I don't have a source for it, and it may just be speculation and possibly even not true at all) that women have a more refined sense of smell and of taste, senses which are amplified during pregnancy, because the consequences for them are enormous if they should eat something which is dangerous for their health or that of the fetus: what an ordinarily healthy man might shrug off after a day or two of nausea and so forth might lead to disastrous miscarriage or birth defects for an otherwise healthy pregnant woman.


I was doing the usual research and I came across an online fragrance retailer I didn't know anything about I've never ordered from them (obviously), but they have a great selection at good prices, and no, they are not paying me to say this. They're also having a promotion which gives you 25% off your order with the code SPRING25NPE, which means that you could get, say, a half-ounce of Caron's Bellodgia perfume for under $60 U.S., a 100-mL bottle of CSP's Vanille Abricot for about $26, 100 mL of Dalissime for $20, or 75 mL of Jacques Fath pour L'Homme for $18. If I had no self-control whatever I would be ordering a bunch of stuff from them (Kenzo Jungle Homme for $32!), and in fact I just saw Floris go by in the list of houses and thought, "Uh-oh," and if they had had Malmaison for a good price I would send off an order, but fortunately, they don't, so I'm safe. For now. If you should place an order with them, or have ordered from them in the past, let me know how that worked out.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Imagery: Serge Lutens Gris Clair

The one thing you can be pretty sure about when you're about to smell a Serge Lutens fragrance is that it will not smell like anything else anyone else has launched. I think I know what's going on in his head, because it's the same thing that his makeup artistry for Shiseido demonstrated time and time again. "Anyone can make a woman pretty: I can make them riveting."

I think his perfumes say the same thing: any hack can make a fruity floral by chucking together a handful of commercial accords, but an artist makes art, and sometimes art is not especially beautiful.

"Gris clair" means "light grey" in French, and according to the packaging, the scent isn't actually called "Gris Clair": it's "Gris Clair...". I am not entirely sure what those ellipses are meant to signify: perhaps that the scent is "light grey plus something more". To say the least.

Gris Clair is lavender from outer space, and I mean that in two ways. It is strange, unearthly, entirely unlike any other lavender scent I've ever smelled. And it is frigid: lavender untouched by the sun. It has surely been tinkered with on a molecular level, as Jean-Claude Ellena's modern lavender was in his Brin de Reglisse for Hermes, because the real thing has a sunny glow, whereas Gris Clair is icy and remote. It is lavender dressed in the ashes of old wood, and warmed, eventually, barely, with a dab of amber and vanilla. It really is light grey.

What makes me think more than anything that Gris Clair is a work of art is that I can't tell if I like it or not. I loved Miel de Bois in a heartbeat, and I loathed Louve almost as quickly, but Gris Clair haunts me. For all its simplicity, it has facets that reveal themselves from time to time: a puff of smoke, a shard of ice, a flicker of palest green. The warmish ending is more to my taste than the cold beginning, and yet I can't get the whole thing out of my mind. I want to explore it, experience it, dive into it. If that's not a hallmark of art, then I don't know what is.


Friday, April 03, 2009

History: Bond No. 9 Great Jones

The effect of Great Jones is marvellous: that of being flung bodily into a time machine and taken back, in a whirl of gears and sprockets, to the early 1970s, when male perfumery was a very different thing than it is now.

It calls to mind two of the mainstays of men's fragrance from that era: Pierre Cardin Pour Monsieur, launched in 1972, and Paco Rabanne Pour Homme, from 1973. There can't have been many dads or older brothers who didn't have a bottle of either or both in the medicine cabinet: Paco Rabanne, announcing its masculinity with a blocky, broad-shouldered swagger, or Pierre Cardin, the polar opposite in a curvaceous fistful of a bottle that can only be read as a phallus, both French and therefore exotic, both unquestionably masculine. They were the scent of a man who had graduated from Old Spice and Brut. Before the Age of Calone, before everything had to be contaminated with freshness, or rather some manufacturers' idea of what freshness ought to be, Paco Rabanne and Pierre Cardin were what sophisticated maleness smelled like, and it smelled good.

Great Jones is not a copy of either of these: it's more stripped down, in the modern manner. It's minimalist, focusing on a smaller number of ingredients rather than saturating the nose with a huge, complex harmony. But one of the time-travel surprises it holds is that it's a real, honest-to-goodness chypre in an age that doesn't see many of them, partly because they're no longer in fashion and partly because oakmoss is restricted in perfumery. But it's in here (either the real thing or a very good synthetic), and, as usual, it is glorious.

At first is a great wallop of citrus notes, orange and bergamot, mostly, underscored with a dash of spice, a sheaf of greenery, and the first intimations of the mossy-woody chypre base. As the brightness begins to fade, the volume is turned up on the wood-and-vetiver centre. The wood is not particularly cedar-y; it doesn't have the sharpness or the slight smokiness I usually associate with cedar (and none of the pencil-sharpener quality). It's mostly just wood, to be honest, with a powderiness to it. The oakmoss is already moving in for the kill: though it's a rather refined sort of oakmoss, smoothed and rounded off (so unlike the vicious chypre of Mitsouko), it still has that languorous honeyed-earth smell that makes chypres so irresistible.

Some commenters on other fragrance blogs have said that Great Jones is an exact duplicate of Paco Rabanne Pour Homme, and I unfortunately don't have a bottle of it so I can't say for sure. (It doesn't match my memory of it.) What I can say is that on its own, Great Jones is a knockout. In a sea of Identikit fragrances, it's something new: something old that smells as up to date as can be.