One Thousand Scents

Monday, August 24, 2009

Go Ape: Kenzo Jungle Homme

None of the lists of fragrance notes mentions it. None of the reviews I sought out mentions it. But to my nose, the top of Kenzo Jungle Homme smells of lime, spices (possibly nutmeg), and banana. It’s not strong, not like CSP Vanille Banane, but it is clear and well-defined: the smell of banana aldehydes. I think if you wanted to make a really jungly scent, a banana note would be a good way to go. Kenzo’s first scent was called King Kong and it infamously had a banana note in it, the better to fit in with his Parisian boutique named Jungle Jap (yes, this really was what it was called--it was the seventies); I think Kenzo Jungle Homme has recycled that element.

The lime diffuses away quickly but the spiciness and the fruit-aldehyde quality persist well into the middle, which is that of a warm, sweet oriental. If someone had described a Serge Lutens scent to you but omitted mentioning the usual Lutens weirdness and you’d tried to recreate it, Jungle Homme is what you’d end up with. There is nothing especially distinct about it, no obvious notes that leap out and announce themselves: it’s just oriental warmth and sweetness and a bit of stewed fruit with a woody undertone that in time is going to take over completely. The wood is cedar, and it’s highly polished, all the edges taken off and buffed to a shine; no pencil shavings here. (There must be vanilla in the polish, too: it’s actually benzoin, with its characteristic warm thick vanillic aroma.)

The bottle, of course, is enchanting, because Kenzo puts a lot of thought into the packaging. (His first men’s scent was in the curved shape of a bamboo stalk: his Tokyo was the same shape, but polished, streamlined, modernized.) Jungle Homme is a blocky glass prism, the back etched with a series of stripes that could be zebraskin, or could be claw marks from some vicious jungle predator; the top suggests bamboo again, crowned with a little zebra mohawk, and how perfect is that?

I don’t need any more oriental scents and I don’t need any more full bottles of anything, but Kenzo Jungle Homme is exceedingly nice. The only that’s stopped me buying it in the past, and the only thing that’s stopping me now, is that it’s no longer available in anything but 100-mL bottles. If there was a 50 or, better, a 30, I think I’d be online with a credit card in my hand right now.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Unexpected: Montale Vanille Absolu

If you're trying out a scent with the word Vanille in its name, you probably have a few expectations, most of which Montale's Vanille Absolu manages to deftly subvert. I don't think it's a scent I need to own, but it kept me guessing, and that's an accomplishment of some sort.

The first weirdness about Vanille Absolu is that it doesn't seem to have any alcohol in it. An alcohol-based scent feels cool against your skin because your body heat evaporates the alcohol (which has a lower boiling point that water, so it evaporates more quickly), drawing a little heat from your skin and making it feel cooler. But Vanille Absolu feels like a silicone oil: it's smooth and just the tiniest bit greasy, and it's exactly the same temperature as your skin, making it feel as if you haven't put anything on at all. I don't know if this is true of all Montale scents or just this one, because I haven't tried any of the others: but it's a little jarring if you aren't expecting it.

The second weirdness is that all you get at first sniff is a huge dose of cotton candy, which is to say ethylmaltol, the modern way for a perfume to announce its yumminess. That's it. Vanilla? What vanilla? Nothing to see here, just cotton candy. If instead of Vanille Absolu they had called it Barbe a Papa, I wouldn't have been a bit surprised. (And since Montale has a scent called Chocolate Greedy, I wouldn't put anything past them.)

Luckily, the cotton candy calms down after a few minutes and blossoms into a full, rich vanilla. It's still very sweet: it has some of that darkly caramelized, cooked-almost-burnt sugar smell that Comptoir Sud Pacifique's Vanille Abricot uses to such great effect. It's very tasty and very pleasant.

And then, in fairly short order, the final surprise: the vanilla takes on a slightly sharp tinge (the word "acrid" comes to mind and I tried to ignore it but it will not leave) as a woody note emerges from underneath it, as if you'd spilled a bottle of double-strength vanilla on a teak end table.

That's it, really. The whole thing. Huge tuft of cotton candy, heavily sugared vanilla, a bit of wood. It lasts a long, long time on the skin, too, that final sweet-vanilla-wood accord. Quite nice, but, to be honest, not groundbreaking, and pretty expensive (currently $95 for a 50-mL spray) for what it is. I own a lot of vanilla scents, and unless something about Vanille Absolu grabs onto your heart and will not let go, I think you could do better. Many of the CSP vanilla scents and any of the Maison de la Vanille, for starters.


Monday, August 10, 2009

Deception: Ormonde Woman by Ormonde Jayne

A recurring theme in this blog, as it must inevitably be in any writing about perfume, is the problem of gender. The industry as a whole is determined to assign to every scent it creates a sex; department stores play along with this, having two departments with little overlap: and the customer base, cowed by a lifetime of fear that in so trivial a matter as perfumery they must not make the wrong move lest they send the wrong message, buys into it. Yes, there are unisex fragrances, some of them selling very well to both men and women, but just look at the imagery of virtually all fragrance advertising, with its languorous women and forthright men, and the message couldn't be clearer: men do, women are done to, and what you wear on your skin is who you are--and you'd better get it right.

But in life, as in fragrance, it is never so simple. Is there one personality characteristic we generally assign to men that could not be advantageously found in women as well, and vice versa? And is there one single note in perfumery which is only ever used is men's but not in women's, or vice versa?

Ormonde Jayne is a British line of niche fragrances, and their cornerstone scents are called Ormonde Woman and Ormonde Man. Pretty clear, that. No swapping. No crossing the aisles. A man might wear the rosy Ta'if, a woman the citrus-woody Isfarkand; but people will generally steer away from a scent explicitly called Man or Woman if it does not fit their gender presentation. (And I ought to be ashamed of it, but I am generally one of those people, so great is my cultural programming. I wear a huge number of "women's" scents, but not one contains Woman or Femme or Elle in its name, with a single exception: I had to buy a bottle of Montana Parfum D'Elle, because the bottle is so ridiculously wonderful and the scent is so fascinatingly eighties. But I feel odd about wearing it, and I can't seem to shake this.)

I can assure you, though, that if you were to smell Ormonde Woman without knowing its name, whether you thought it beautiful or ugly, you would not think of it as a women's scent. If you were coaxed to assign it a gender, you would more likely think of it as a men's scent, but it isn't that, either. It transcends gender. It isn't even unisex: it simply is.

What that "is" is, is dark and mysterious, the deepest midnight blue, not quite black but verging on it. It starts out with a whisper of citrus and spice, but only just: the dense, dark undercurrents are already sweeping up to engulf you. The advertising image is of a bottle cocooned by a stack of wooden shingles, and that's pretty much the whole scent: cedar, sandalwood, and the spruce-like black hemlock (with a strong suggestion of oudh, otherwise known as agarwood). All of this, I feel the need to reiterate, is extremely dark and moody. The woods are garlanded with jasmine and violet, but not in a flowery way: these are for decoration, and what they're decorating is a monolith. (A wooden monolith, which I guess is a contradiction in terms if you're really staring at the etymology, but you get the idea.) You can easily see how this might be construed as a masculine scent--solid burly wood with a few floral grace notes and a subdued, ambery finish with a bracing little splash of vetiver to keep you on your toes.

I confess to being completely baffled by the name. If they're going to make a scent for women, wouldn't you think they'd make something that would fall it little more squarely into the general realm of what people think of as a women's scent? If they're going to make an implacable, earthy wood scent, wouldn't you think they'd give it a more ambiguous name so that everyone could enjoy it? Are they trying to trick women into buying something they ordinarily wouldn't, women being a larger market for scents than men? Are they conducting some sort of experiment?

Still, if you like dark things and woody scents, you are pretty much going to have to hunt this down and try it, because I promise you it's up your alley. Fans of YSL M7, Estee Lauder Sensuous, Satellite Padparadscha, and Ginestet Le Boisé need to check out Ormonde Woman right now. (You can order a sample set of all 11 of their scents for £35, free shipping anywhere in the world, and I think this would probably be well worth it. Their packaging is very beautiful, the samples are generous, and you are highly likely to find something that you can't live without which will give you great pleasure. The Perfumed Court also has samples of Ormonde Woman but per volume they're more expensive that way.)


Tuesday, August 04, 2009

De Gustibus Non Est Disputandem: Serge Lutens Muscs Koublai Khan

The other day I wrote about a scent that didn't make any sense to me, and a reader, Joe, had this to say:

The thing that's great is that there are probably people out there who just LOVE this scent. I really enjoy thinking of it that way. It's terrific that almost anything under the sun will find an audience and fanclub.

Beyond a doubt. There certainly will be someone out there who thinks Encens et Bubblegum is fantastic, and will buy it. There may even be quite a few of them. My problem with that particular scent is that Etat Libre D'Orange positions itself as an edgy, modern, envelope-pushing line of fragrances (they have one named after Tom of Finland, a pornographic artist), and yet they have produced a scent that smells more or less like a teenaged Twilight fan's bedroom, everything but the Hello Kitty straightening iron, and I don't think teenaged girls are the line's audience, if that's the right word for a fragrance.

At any rate, as the title says in Latin, there is no accounting for taste. Human beings are so varied and variable that one person's disgust is another's delight, at art forms as varied as cooking, music, movies, fashion, painting, and of course perfumery.

In fact, music is so often used as a metaphor for perfumery that it seems appropriate to use it here as well. I have never liked the singing of Maria Callas, considered by some (many, perhaps) to be the pre-eminent operatic soprano of the twentieth century. Her voice seems to emanate from very low in her face (what singers call the mask), giving the overall sound a thick, wobbly quality that sounds as if she's singing through a mouthful of suet. It is, to me, a most unpleasant sound: I prefer very high, light, bright sopranos with some brilliance--sharpness, perhaps--to their tone, and my favourite of all is Beverly Sills. It was a bit of a shock, then, to read a couple of weeks ago someone describing Sills' voice as "hideously ugly", which couldn't be farther from my experience--which, in fact, I couldn't even process. Obviously that patron of the arts and I have very, very different ears.

But of course there are multiple levels of appreciation of art. It is possible (and common, and pleasurable) to love something unreservedly, but it is also possible to see the artistry in it even if it doesn't appeal to you personally. I may not like to listen to Callas, but if you watch her perform, it's nearly impossible to think anything but, "Goddamn she's a terrific actress!" In perfumery, I usually have one of four responses: unconditional love, disdain, outright hatred, and the understanding that, although the scent might not be to my taste, I can see the artistry behind it. This last position is, for me, a real leap, because I tend to be very extreme in my likes or dislikes: all or nothing, black or white with no shades of grey.

If you read some reviews of Muscs Koublai Khan, you will begin to notice a couple of common threads. A lot of people think it smells foul: some of the descriptions include such phrases as "unwashed armpit", "unwashed privates", "sweaty scrotum", and, well, you get the idea. A lot of other people, presumably having read such reviews, think it smells much nicer--or, perhaps, that those things can actually smell nice. (After all, among perfume fans, "skank", which is to say "animalic aromas", is a term of approbation.)

When I first tried Muscs Koublai Khan--and I didn't just dab it, I sloshed on a fair amount, to give it a chance to overwhelm me--I thought briefly of another Serge Lutens classic love-to-hate-it scent, Miel de Bois, with its thick, cosseting wood-honey quality, because Muscs Koublai Khan has some of that very same honey to it. Within the space of a minute, though, MKK had blossomed into something else altogether: a bouquet of roses, dabbed with honey and dusted with powder. It was almost demure. There was a certain small degree of skank, a suggestion of delicious filthiness underneath, and I felt pretty sure that this would increase over time, but at first, it was mostly a concoction of honeyed roses and baby powder, and it was extraordinarily lovely.*

Underneath, though. That's something else altogether. The skankiness did in fact increase over time: from what I'd read, I would have been surprised and disappointed if it hadn't.

MKK is dirty at its heart, though I honestly don't get the armpit/crotch thing. There's sweatiness to it, yes, and some animal raunch: it's in the same general category as Yatagan and Tabu (which it ought to be, having a number of the same animalic components, including castoreum and civet as well as dirty-earthy patchouli), but it doesn't strike me as being the outright filthfest that they are. It's subtler than that. Not subtle, god knows, but less extreme. MKK reminds me more of a recently vacated set of bedsheets. What went on between them is open to interpretation.

The scent, too, is clearly a matter of interpretation, and of individual tastes. If I were to wear it to work today--and it seems thats I'm going to have to, because I had to put it on to write about it, and it doesn't wash off--some people might smell it on me and think I haven't washed recently (a filthy lie!). Others will think I smell good. Most won't even notice (because I wear scents discreetly). As for me, within an hour of first putting it on, I was starting to wonder where I might be able to buy a bottle**. Serge Lutens, whatever your inclinations, has that kind of polarizing effect on people: you love it or hate it and there isn't much middle ground. This one I love.

* I would be interested in smelling this drastically rebalanced, so that the honey-powder-rose bouquet is front and centre, longer-lived, and the filth is a bit player in the very bottom. I bet Lutens could do wonders with it. For all I know, he already has.

** Not locally. MKK is part of the Exclusive line, and if you don't know anything about Lutens, you should know that there are two lines, Export and Exclusive, and the former is available in North America and the latter isn't. Every year, to the best of my knowledge, an Exclusive is made available to the export market: MKK isn't one of them. Yet, anyway. That air of rarity makes the Exclusives, of course, seem even more desirable.