One Thousand Scents

Monday, September 28, 2009

Time is Money: Bond No. 9 Andy Warhol Success is a Job in New York

I am going to finish up the Chanel Exclusifs, but first, something else with a Chanel connection.

The newest Bond No. 9 in the Andy Warhol series has the wordy name Success is a Job in New York, the title of an illustration by Warhol for an article by that name and also a book about him. The bottle, as usual, has a Warhol motif: this time, a big, cheerful dollar sign in shades of blue and orange on a shiny black background.

At its heart it's a dark, rich floral oriental, and it seemed familiar to me, though I couldn't quite put my finger on it at first. I thought it was similar to the previous Bond Warhol scent, Lexington Avenue, but I wore them side by side and there isn't much similarity at all. After racking my brains, I finally realized that Success is a Job reminded me of Coco, a Chanel scent launched in 1984 and a huge success. (I bought a bottle of it not long after its launch, one of the first women's scents I had ever dared to buy for myself.) I haven't smelled it recently because I know it's been reformulated at least once, and I'm afraid that the new reality of it won't match my memory of it. Some things are best left the way the are. Success is a Job shares with Coco a rich, lush rose-jasmine middle and a dark, ambery base.

The comparison between Success and eighties-era Coco is apt in more ways than one. Coco was a big, impressive floral oriental which showed up as the Western economy was beginning its huge late-century boom, and it smelled like power and confidence and, of course, success.

Success is a Job isn't exactly like old-school Coco. It's also something like Spellbound, another power floral oriental that wasn't nearly as successful as Coco because it was introduced in 1991, when the tide had already begun to turn against massive oriental scents and towards paler, gauzier things. Success is reminiscent of Spellbound because in addition to their floral oriental structure they share notes of coriander and pimento in the top, tuberose in the middle, and of course amber and vanilla in the base. (Spellbound, I'm happy to say, doesn't seem to have been reformulated at all: Estee Lauder is very good about leaving their scents untouched, or, if reduction in the availability of ingredients necessitates it, making the changes subtle and unobtrusive, bless them.)

But Success is a Job in New York isn't just a throwback; it has its own very modern qualities, particularly in the middle, which is streamlined and slightly clean, considerably less heavy than its forebears. It smells very much as if the perfumer, Laurice Rahme, had made serious notes on an armload of eighties power fragrances and then brought the whole thing into the twenty-first century by introducing the newest aromachemicals to a classic scent category. The economy may not be what it used to be, but if you want to smell eighties-wealthy yet still modern, this is the way to do it.


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Simplicity: Chanel Eau de Cologne

I seem to have liked all the Chanel Exclusifs so far--not necessarily head-over-heels about them, but all the ones I've tried have been really good--so I was all set to dislike Chanel Eau de Cologne, so that I wouldn't seem as if I were simply drooling all over them because they were Chanel. But damned if EdC isn't really good as well.

Here's the thing, though; it's sort of hard to make a genuinely bad eau de cologne, which follows a set structure: choose some citrus fruits for the top, put something with a bit of body in the middle, maybe lay it all on top of something warm, and you're done. There are lots of colognes on the market, and they're generally pleasant to wear and smell: I don't recall having tried a truly bad one.

There are all sorts of variations, of course: the middle can have flowers or green notes, the base can be most any wood or resin, and you have a wide array of citrus to choose from in the top (not to mention sparkling aldehydes and light florals if you like), including begamot, orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit, tangerine, neroli, and yuzu. But the fact is that as a rule, most eaux de cologne are going to smell more or less the same, and this, unfortunately, is also true of the Chanel EdC. It's lovely; plenty of lemon, a droplet of rose, a little vetiver, a musky base. It smells bright and fresh and happy. The lasting power, as you'd expect from such a formulation, is almost nil: an hour, perhaps two. It's meant to be lavished on, enjoyed for its short-lived freshness, and reapplied as needed--the heart and soul of any EdC.

Someone out there will disagree, because some people must be buying it, but I can't see that it's worth almost $200 for a 200-mL bottle (you can also get a giant 400-mL vat), not when you can get many classic colognes for a lot less. The ancient 4711, the very template for an EdC, is an eighth the price of the Chanel; the only thing it's missing is the ritzy bottle and the name.


Commenting on my review of Coromandel, Clare said

This one makes me feel like a fragrance philistine. I feel that, due to inferiority (whether inherent or due to lack of knowledge/experience), I am not "getting" the greatness or appeal of it.

Well, listen: don't ever let anyone make you feel inferior for not liking something that everyone else seems to think is great. Every artist, however gifted, and every work of art, however important, has detractors. George Bernard Shaw disdained Shakespeare, saying, "With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare when I measure my mind against his."

There are artworks that most anybody can appreciate, and then there are those that appeal to people who've done the research, who have studied the form. Most people can enjoy a Rossini tune, but it takes some study to understand and derive pleasure from a Berg opera. And then there is the fact that different people have different tastes; even if the masses declared Coromandel the greatest thing since Shalimar, if you don't like it, then you don't like it, and that's all there is to it. And that's all right.

If it makes you feel any better, I don't get Jicky by Guerlain. It's supposed to be one of the greatest scents in history, but it simply doesn't interest me very much. I know all about its history, and I can smell it and understand that it is a ground-breaking work of art, see the craftsmanship in it. But that's all: I don't love it, it doesn't speak to me, I don't desire it. It is not immediate for me, as many other scents, even lesser ones, are. Does that make me a philistine too? Then so be it. I'm a philistine. I have lots of other scents to turn my attention to.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Hiding: Chanel Cuir de Russie

Alert readers may have noticed that I am apparently doing the Chanel Exclusifs in alphabetical order, but that I've missed Bois de Isles. That's because I don't have any. There are twelve Exclusifs, and I have only the newest releases, not the four re-issues from the twenties. Except for this one. Thank goodness.


A while back I decided--as I will often decide out of nowhere to do something that seems interesting or edifying--to listen to all the symphonies of Haydn. He wrote a lot of them: a hundred and seven, give or take. I suppose I got through about twenty or so when I realized that they all were sounding pretty much alike to me. I couldn't tell if I had listened to a particular one already, so I just gave it up. There's lots of other music to listen to, after all.

I'm not saying that I'm some philistine who thinks that all Haydn's music is the same, and that he might as well have written just the one symphony and be done with it. Without a doubt there are people who love the symphonies individually, and have listened to them all repeatedly over the years with great pleasure, and can even tell from a snippet which symphony they're listening to, in the same way that I can tell which of the six Bach Brandenburg concerti I'm hearing (a much lesser challenge, of course). But you have to have an emotional connection with the composer and his music, and you have to spend the time--and more importantly, want to spend the time--becoming familiar with it.

I know that people who don't get the obsession with fragrance will think it's insane that I would have so, so many different scents, when I can't possibly use them all up. And yet they are all different; one amber scent will not do when there are many dozens on the market and each, if it is made with any degree of care and art, will have something interesting to say about the theme of amber. It's the same with leather: many, perhaps most, men's fragrances contain some of this thoroughly masculine note, and quite a few scents have been based entirely on the idea of leather. And yet perfumers have still not finished ringing the changes on this note: you can buy leather sweet (Stetson) or bone-dry (Knize Ten), classic (Antaeus) or modern (Je Suis Un Homme), aggressive (Yatagan) or restrained (Lonestar Memories). And what's more, there are women's leather scents, too.

"Cuir de Russie" is French for "Russian Leather". There's a Demeter Russian Leather, but where it's a single-minded leather scent with a dark floralcy and no development, Chanel's Cuir de Russie is gloriously elaborate, constructed, and once again, at the risk of repeating myself into meaninglessness, very, very Chanel.

Cuir de Russie opens aldehydic and shimmery, with a jangle of citrus and a typically Chanel iris note on top, the leather already in evidence. Where I said that the Demeter was like a live flower that was somehow made of leather, Cuir de Russie is more like a single flower placed on a well-worn leather armchair. The leather deepens and enfolds you: you're sinking into the armchair, and the stem of iris, root and all, is joined by a clutch of flowers, slightly dirty jasmine and perhaps a rose or two. Despite the animal quality of leather, Cuir de Russie is thoroughly refined, a most genteel sort of leather, and it only becomes more so as it heads towards its long-lasting finale, a warm haze of vanilla and amber with enough of the leather remaining to keep it from ever becoming too sweet or pretty. It is a masterful piece of work: a masculine scent turned into a feminine scent that any man could still wear, and perfectly situated on the line between the coarseness of animal hide and the elegance of couture.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Yum: Chanel Coromandel

Coromandel isn't just a made-up perfume name: it's a thing. In case, like me, you were wondering just what a coromandel might be, it's one of these:

a panelled screen made of inlaid wood. (Coco Chanel had a bunch of them.)

In case you were wondering what Chanel's Coromandel is, it's gorgeous.It opens with a gourmand quality, but, perversely, a sort of gourmand that doesn't quite call food to mind: it doesn't evoke any specific food, but it has a thick, silky richness that you can almost taste, and a little of the pipe-tobacco quality of Ambre Narguilè. This lies atop an extraordinary patchouli-frankincense accord; dense but not overwhelming, voluminous without being suffocating, as complicated as a symphony.

When I first started this blog I didn't care for patchouli very much, and I still can't wear the pure stuff: Patchouly Indonesiano was impossible on my skin, though I could appreciate its qualities in an abstract way. But I think two things have happened in the last few years. First, I've experienced a lot more patchouli-based scents, and I've grown accustomed to it, in the way that you can gradually come to accept and even like a strange food; and second, patchouli itself in perfumery has changed, and shows up in many forms, from the cleaned-up, tinkered-with version that shows up everywhere (such as a favourite of mine, Midnight Poison) to the hardcore dirty-loamy version of the Indonesiano, and everything in between. Coromandel's patchouli falls a bit nearer the dirty end of the scale, but it's too tasteful to have any serious filth to it, and it's balanced out by the incense and by a luscious amber-benzoin base which bookends the deliciousness of the opening.

Once again, I have to say that the idea of buying a 200-mL bottle of anything is a complete impossibility for me, and it's not going to happen; but I've never been so tempted in my entire life. You could wear it like a beloved jacket and never tire of it. Coromandel is magic.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

True Confessions

There are a couple of comments on yesterday's posting from a reader named ScentSelf, you might as well go read those and then come back, okay?

Now, the commenter has this to say about my discomfort with buying full bottles of things these days, since I am so well stocked with scent:

Umm, that sense of unease...does it begin after you realize you are looking for nooks and crannies to stash stuff in? Or when you realize you have more than two charming storage boxes with decants? Hypothetically speaking, of course.

Two storage boxes? It is to laugh!

Try to keep in mind that I almost always hang onto the box that a scent comes in, because I am just that kind of person. Maybe I'll want to swap it or sell it later, and the box is a nice thing to have. And often the box is attractive or interesting, and therefore worth hanging on to. And the next time I move, it's nice to be able to tuck things into their boxes and know that they'll be padded and protected from moving's little bang and crashes.

Okay. Deep breath. Here is what I have by way of storage:

A large Rubbermaid storage container, 24 x 16 x 8 (inches, not centimetres), that contains mostly boxes, but also some bottles that I don't use very often.

A dresser drawer--the bottommost one, which Jim is under strict instructions to never, ever open--that just barely closes.

A freestanding medicine cabinet on top of that same dresser, packed to the gills with things I use the most often. The top of the cabinet is also completely covered with opaque bottles--CSPs, other aluminum bottles, things like that--which will not be damaged by light.

A shoebox in the bedroom closet, full of samples and miniatures, labelled "Samples Sampled", that I have already written about and will probably never wear again but you never know. (I use this to dredge out little gifts for people; "Here are a few scents you might like (and try to ignore the fact that they're not full).")

Another shoebox in the same location, full of things that I have not yet had the chance to write about, mostly samples but also miniatures and a few full-sized bottles. Completely full. Full right up.

Another shoebox full of things I no longer need, labelled "Can Live Without". Also full.

Yet another shoebox full of things that I have not yet decided if I really need or not.

A smaller shipping box, about 8 x 8 x 8, packed full of the most recently acquired samples, mostly stuff I ordered from The Perfumed Court but also Luckyscent and some commercial samples as well.

Oh, and my dresser, my nightstand, the end table by the living-room couch, and my desk are scattered with various vials of samples that I am writing about or have recently written about or intend to write about. And there are two half-ounce Demeters in my knapsack and also a few worthy vials in case I find myself stranded and not interestingly scented.

I think it is safe to say that I have gone waaaaay beyond "unease" and well into "complete derangement". And this is why I am trying so hard to not buy anything new. But they just keep coming out with new scents, and some of them are really good! And I need to try them all!

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Breath of Green: Chanel Bel Respiro

My first impression of Bel Respiro (named after Coco Chanel's country house and Italian, whether approximate or literal, for "deep breath") was not quite "Yuck!", which is a little too consonantal for something so soft, but perhaps something more like "Ugh!" or "Bleh!" It starts out with a harsh, bitter greenness which suggests the floor of something: a barn strewn with new hay, perhaps, or a forest floor with its intermingling of fallen trees and new growth. It is strongly suggestive of decomposition, it is not pretty at the outset, and I did not like it. At all.

But this is why you cannot judge a well-made scent by its opening. A linear scent is pretty much the same from start to finish, but a classically constructed fragrance has stages; it goes through changes, and Bel Respiro certainly does. Once you understand the shape of the whole scent, the opening becomes something rather fascinating, because from that rocky start--and I hasten to say that it's not bad, just unexpected and unpretty--it evolves into something considerably more attractive.

The notes--not in any particular order, it would seem--are apparently "crushed leaves, rosemary, thyme, rose, lilac, myrrh, heather, hyacinth, green tea, leather, and grass." There is a whole lot of greenery in there, and Bel Respiro is a green scent above all else. Even the florals are indistinct, watercolour sketches, as if, like Morticia Addams, you'd clipped all the flowers off and tossed them away, leaving only the stems and the faintest trace of petally perfume in the air. There is a slightly dusty quality to the middle, a holdover from the opening with its intimations of decay. Mostly, though, it's a smart, slightly sharp, very tailored green scent that would feel just as much at home on a man as on a woman.

The base is as indistinct as the florals; it's there, but it doesn't call anything in particular to mind; it's there because a scent has to have a base, something warmish and durable to anchor everything else. (It doesn't smell especially like leather or myrrh, the only things in that list that could serve as base notes, which is yet another lesson that those lists are not to be taken too literally; they're what the manufacturer wants you to be smelling, not necessarily what actually is in there.)

I can't see owning a giant 200-mL vat of the stuff, but that's the only size that Les Exclusifs are available in, which is probably doing the decanters and the splitters some pretty good business: you can buy a five- or 10-mL spray from The Perfumed Court or The Posh Peasant instead of a massive quantity that, let's face it, you will probably never see the bottom of (unless you are very, very different from me). If you're in the market for a good green--and everyone should have one, for the springtime if nothing else--then Bel Respiro is a terrific choice: grown-up, dressed-up, thoroughly Chanel.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Grace Kelly: Chanel Beige

Beige has gotten a bad reputation. It means boring, unsophisticated, commonplace. (In popular slang it has a synonym, "vanilla", something else that has been unfairly slammed as irredeemably dull and unadventurous.) But beige is the colour of high-quality unbleached wool or cotton. It's a pale, subtle, sophisticated colour in the yellow-orange part of the spectrum, and it can look much sharper than plain old white if it's used correctly. This is the essence of beige, and of Chanel's Beige: subtle suavity. The overall effect of Beige is actually blonde: Hitchcock blonde, in fact. It suggests the sort of cool, reserved woman, immaculately put together, who will nevertheless seduce you when and where she decides to. Beige calls all the shots.

It starts out bright and clean and a bit aldehydic, and my first impression of it, which has not diminished with repeated wearings, is that Beige is very, very Chanel, with all the polished French elegance that that suggests. There is a certain fruity-floral quality to the top, but the fruitiness comes from the flowers themselves: Beige is a white floral based largely on freesia and gardenia, and it smells so much of freesia for the first little while that I was reminded of Calvin Klein Eternity, which is also a white floral with lots of clean freesia, though Eternity of course went in a very different direction, the late-eighties scrubbed all-American style (which Klein spearheaded with Eternity and Escape) that was a reaction to the huge room-filling scents of the previous decade (which Klein also helped to make popular and profitable with his latecomer Obsession).

To the shiny (never quite sparkly) freesia of the opening, Beige adds a surprisingly restrained frangipani, nothing like the suffocating bouquets that most perfumes make of the flower. (This, in fairness, is hard to avoid, I think, because the tropical-greenhouse quality of frangipani, like gardenia and tuberose, has a tendency to dominate anything it touches.) Bathed in honey which becomes stronger as the scent evolves, it's the most subdued frangipani I've ever smelled, and I like it a lot, which surprised me, because I usually find it cloying or overwhelming. But this is the way of Beige: it's not for someone who would dance a (possibly drunken) flamenco in the middle of a restaurant, but instead presents the image of someone who is completely in control of herself (in public, anyway).

Eventually after the florals has died away, the honey is joined by a polished blonde wood; no lusty civet or dirty patchouli for this ice queen, nothing that suggests libido or carnality. It's relentlessly chic and aloof from start to finish.

Beige is the most recent addition to the Chanel collection Les Exclusifs, gigantic 200-mL bottles currently retailing for $190 U.S. There are twelve scents in the line, eight new (28 La Pausa, 31 Rue Cambon, Coromandel, Bel Respiro, Sycomore, Beige, No. 18, and Eau de Cologne) and four re-issues of discontinued or hard-to-find scents (Gardenia, Bois des Isles, Cuir de Russie, and No. 22). Let's see how many of them I can get to in September before I lose interest and wander off to something else.