One Thousand Scents

Friday, November 27, 2009

Brief Encounter: Hermes Rose Ikebana

The deal is that when you come right down to it, Rose Ikebana is a fruity floral. That's what it is. It may be stripped down, aesthetically minimalist, and all angles, but it's still a fruity floral.

It opens with a gust of rose, exceedingly pretty, bolstered with peony, sharpened with grapefruit and rhubarb so astringent that they make you flinch; you can practically hear the rhubarb stalk snap. Nothing very much in the base: maybe a wee dab of vanilla. Lasting power is therefore pretty minimal, with the thing mostly gone in a couple of hours.

There is nothing wrong with any of this, if you are in the market for an insanely expensive and short-lived fruity floral. (It's about $200 right now.) And it is undeniably pretty. But you can get something just as nice for a whole lot less.

It would probably layer well, add a fresh rosy-citrus shimmer to something darker and weightier. In fact, playing around with the Hermessences I have at my disposal (the discovery set plus a sample of Osmanthe Yunnan) I am thinking that all of them, being mostly light and transparent and uncomplicated, would probably layer well, with one another and with any number of other things. Once I am done thinking about them as individual entities, I am going to start cross-breeding them to see what emerges.


Saturday, November 21, 2009


Filth, you should know, is an opera lover's term for something that is shockingly bad: shamefully ill-conceived, dreadfully executed, wrong-headed and indefensible in every aspect.

On November 7th, we were in New York and got to see the Metropolitan Opera production of Puccini's Turandot. I am not exactly a neophyte, but I guess I haven't seen more than a dozen or so operas performed live, and this particular Turandot has received its share of derision--big, overblown, stuffed with faux Chinoiserie--but when it was all over I turned to Jim and said, "That is the best thing I have ever seen in my entire life," and I wasn't kidding, either. The sets were enormous and thrilling, the opera house itself was magnificent, the singing was terrific*, the acting and music brought me to tears (in a good way) at one point; it was crazily expensive and worth every penny.

The opera was assuredly not filth. But La Voce, a recent fragrance fronted by opera singer Renee Fleming, assuredly is.

The whole scent, of course, is a gimmick, best exemplified by that bottle. The spiky ring is a visual allusion to the chandeliers inside the Metropolitan Opera house

which hang fairly low and are raised into the rafters seconds before the performance begins. You can pop that ring off and wear it as a brooch, affixing it to a be-pinned jewel which is hidden in a little drawer at the bottom of the box

which I guess is meant to suggest a stage.

It's all very kitsch, and the bottle, once you've removed that brooch piece, is dull, the sort of thing you've seen the likes of a hundred times, not a glimmer of imagination to it. The same can be said of the scent, which is a cheap, vulgar fruity floral gourmand oriental in the modern department-store Britney Spears mode. The official list of notes sounds reasonably tempting: "passion fruit, white truffle, jasmine, lily of the valley, chocolate mousse and ebony." I think not. "Cheap artificial fruit candy garnishing a limp floral bouquet atop an inescapable gourmand note and that vague wood you smell in everything these days" is more like it.

How much do you suppose it costs? Go on, guess. A 50-ml EDP spray is $200. Yes, it really is. I bet they've sold tons of it, too. A portion of the proceeds go to the Met, which is nice (in proportion to the amount of money they're getting), but for that price, honestly, couldn't they have put a little effort into it, made it into something befitting the image of the house? The Met shop--the only place you can buy the scent for now--is not exactly overrun with gum-chewing teenagers.

You can read more about this travesty of perfumery at the very English opera blog Intermezzo.

*The production was broadcast in movie theatres, and it will be re-run on December 5th. If you should happen to go, you will hear an extraordinarily affecting singer named Maria Poplovskaya in the role of Liu--it was her death that made me cry, softy that I am--and at the end when she comes out to take her bows, you will hear people shouting "Brava!" One of them is me. I don't usually make a spectacle of myself in public, but she deserved it.

Friday, November 20, 2009

In The Best of Taste

The newest issue of The New Yorker is all about food, and there's a big article about Givaudan, the company that makes not only many of the perfumes we all love but also many of the food additives that contribute to flavour. I am not providing a link to the article because I am not sure it will work for you: I have a subscription, and I may lead you to something you can't read. My advice is to Google "New Yorker Givaudan" and look for the November 29th, 2009, issue of the magazine. Here are a few relevant (relevant to my blog, anyway) excerpts to whet your appetite:

Smell is a more supple and primordial sense, and its centrality is evident in the way the human brain is arranged. Our forebrains evolved from tissues that once focussed on processing smells, and there are three hundred or so olfactory receptors in the nose....Smells, for the most part, are fed directly from the nose to a "pre-semantic" part of the brain where cognition does not occur, and where emotions are processed. The bypassing of the thalamus may be one reason why smells can be so hard to describe in detail, and also why aromas stimulate such powerful feelings. The smell of rotten meat can trigger sudden revulsion in a way that merely looking at it cannot.

"Our forebrains evolved from tissues that once focussed on processing smells." Isn't that astonishing? No wonder smell is such an immediate, vivid sense; there's a whole chunk of our brain that used to do nothing but endlessly calculate the meaning and value of it. Not only that: the olfactory sensory neurons, which detect odours, are basically brain cells exposed to the world (but protected by a mucus that contains antibodies to keep you from getting a fatal brain infection).

...[C]ontrolled experiments show that, no matter what a person's professional vocabulary or expertise, aromas remain a blur: the average person, with minimal training, can perceive about three or four distinct components in a given aroma; professional flavorists--without leaning on their chemical knowledge of particular types of food--can do no better.

Now, doesn't that make you feel better? You may not be able to olfactorily fractionate the latest Hermessence or Serge Lutens, but neither can anyone else!

Even the most familiar products can bewilder us. Coca-Cola, for instance, is primarily a citrus beverage, its flavor derived from lemon, orange, and lime oils, combined with vanilla, cinnamon, other spices, and corn syrup. Its flavor has little in common with the astringent-tasting kola nut, from which it takes its name, and its caramel coloring is largely imposed. For many people, describing Coke's flavor as a combination of different parts is nearly impossible. (In one study, two-thirds of the subjects could not tell the difference between Classic Coke and Diet Coke.) If you close your eyes, inhale deeply, and try to pay close attention to the volatile chemistry of Coke, it is possible to pick out a few basic elements, but for the average consumer the flavor is "cognitively impenetrable." That is, if you ask someone "What does Coke taste like?" the answer will be tautological: "It tastes like Coke." This presents a conundrum that many flavorists try not to think about.

"Cognitively impenetrable." I like that! More than a few perfumes are cognitively impenetrable. Chanel No. 5 is; it smells only of itself, as does yesterday's Wrappings, which, now that I think about it, is like a hyper-version of No. 5, with a dollop of oakmoss and the aldehydes delightfully amped up to unthinkable, almost cartoonish levels.

(Those very smart bottles up there, by the way, are a test run of eight-and-a-half-ounce aluminum bottles of Coke products. They aren't in wide circulation (yet), but we encountered them in New York last week. Being huge Diet Coke-heads, we each bought a silvery bottle to keep, and are kicking ourselves that we didn't get the other ones, too. They're surprisingly attractive.)

If you can find the whole article online, it's worth your time. If not, check out your local library or newsstand. Or subscribe to the online version: you get the full archives, the entire history of The New Yorker, for maybe $40 a year. Worth it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Supernova: Clinique Wrappings

When I first smelled Wrappings back in 1990 or so (the year it was launched), it made perfect sense. Clinique had only one fragrance, Aromatics Elixir (their sole men's scent, Tailoring, had been discontinued by that point and I'd never tried it), and that was a resolutely strange floral chypre, potent and bitter, pretty much guaranteed to provoke a strong reaction. Wrappings is a little easier to take, and yet it's got a certain degree of strangeness to it, too; it's not out to be universally loved, unlike their next women's scent, Happy, which was a massive success despite not being nearly as good or as interesting as its predecessors.

Wrappings explodes from your skin with a dazzling display of aldehydes. It is positively enormous, and joyous, if a little exhausting, in the manner of one of those hearty bigger-than-life people who fills an entire room with their energy. It buzzes with energy, green and vibrant and sunshiny without resorting to the usual citrus notes. It's practically radioactive. There is also, it must be noted, a faint whiff of the latrine about it, something vaguely urinous which has not quite been removed by vigorous cleaning; the first intimation that Wrappings will not be like anything else in the store.

In the middle is a cluster of flowers, none of which you can really isolate (although you might correctly guess that this here is probably rose, that over there might be jasmine): it has the bone structure of a floral chypre, with the barest hint of warmth and sweetness, but it's irradiated by that never-ending brilliance which nearly drowns out everything else. It always seems to be teetering on the edge of catastrophic too-muchness.

The base has some of the warmer, heavier elements you'd expect--patchouli, the sweetness of old leather, oakmoss--but it somehow remains bright and energetic. Wrappings is as neat a chemistry experiment as you'll find in modern perfumery, because it gives the effect of being composed of volatile, diffusive elements that shouldn't last even an hour, yet despite its endless vivacity it keeps on going; twelve hours after applying it, I can still smell it distinctly. And I think this is at the core of its oddness; it seems to be something that should not exist, that shouldn't be possible at all, and yet there it is, on your skin, larger than life. Much larger.

If you can find it--and you probably can't, because the company makes it available for a short time every year and doesn't seem to advertise it, or even acknowledge its existence--you should snap it up: if you end up not loving it, I guarantee that you can find someone who does who'll buy it from you. It costs as close to nothing as a good scent can: I paid $39 for a 25-mL perfume spray --perfume!--and a 100-mL body lotion. They're practically giving it away.

The bottle, by the way, is considerably more elegant than that picture up there lets on: a palm-sized collection of contradictions, a hard little octagon of soft frosted glass which makes little shushing noises as you run your fingers over it, angular--almost muscular--but tapering at the shoulders into a golden cap sheathed in more frost, the whole thing imprinted so heavily with its name that you can practically read it with your fingertip. It it simply one of the most beautiful fla├žons on the market, all the more reason to own it.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Ask And Ye Shall Receive

And then a couple of hours after my success at Hermes, I ended up at Bloomingdales.

We had walked past it on the way to Hermes, and tucked into the back of my brain was a little voice going oh shit oh shit oh shit it's Bloomingdales and it's famous and you REALLY have to go in there you know but I ignored it because it wasn't on my list and I had already tortured Jim enough. (On Friday afternoon I went to Bergdorf Goodman on my own while Jim went back to the hotel; I told him I would be back in about fifteen minutes, but it was actually three quarters of an hour, to the point that he was starting to get worried, not because he assumed I would get stabbed--it is New York, after all, where there's nothing but crime and death, if you believe the TV shows and movies you see--but because I have an almost supernaturally bad sense of direction, and it's not impossible that I would walk out the wrong door and get entirely turned around* and thoroughly lost. When we went to Hermes on Monday, I promised up and down that I would take no more than five minutes, and took less, but even so he'd suffered enough, since he hates fragrances altogether and would gladly lose his sense of smell, so you can imagine what living with me must be like for him, not to mention putting up with my persistent desire to visit every fragrance boutique and department store I see**.)

And on the way back--we walk just about everywhere we go in New York, resorting to subways only for forbiddingly long distances--I said we ought to take a different route since if I walked past Bloomingdales I was pretty much going to have to go in, and I meant it, too, and so we did take a different route. Eventually, when despite having taken another route we were about a block from the store, Jim said, "Bloomingdales is a proper department store with a men's department, right? Not just perfumes and women's clothing?" I assured him that it was, which meant two things: he was willing to go into the store and kill a few minutes in the men's department, and I was going to get to go to the legendary Bloomingdales.

And it was just horrible. Worse even than Macy's. The fragrance department had as many salespeople as customers and possibly more, and every single one of them was in attack mode. I didn't even have to stop to look at something: as soon as I was within five feet of them, they'd swoop in and ask me if I needed help finding something. Once again, I had to go on the defensive, and soon I was saying, "JUST LOOKING, THANK YOU" in a determined and, I am afraid, not particularly polite manner. I wished I were wearing a large sign, possibly in neon, reading IF I WANT YOUR HELP I WILL ASK FOR IT SO LEAVE ME ALONE TO SHOP IN PEACE GODDAMMIT. Although that would probably take too long for clerks to read, so I might need to edit it down a bit. Possibly to BACK OFF, YOU.

Does Bloomingdales or any other department store think that this is how customers want to be treated? Why have they set up a system that is guaranteed to anger, irritate, and alienate shoppers?

When I spotted the Clinique area of the store, I did a quick visual skim of the fragrance counter in search of Wrappings, the third Clinique fragrance (after Aromatics Elixir and the long-discontinued Tailoring for men). It's kind of still in production, but it's not available anywhere, exactly, except that every year at Christmastime they put out a gift set with the perfume spray and the body lotion. The distribution isn't wide (I haven't seen it in Canada) and it doesn't seem to be advertised; there aren't even any displays or testers (at least not by the time I got there). It just kind of appears, and the cognoscenti swoop in and grab it. Since I didn't see what I was looking for, I made a beeline for a woman in a white lab coat (they still make them wear that, which is unconvincing but sort of cute, like a child wearing princess dress-up clothes) to ask her if they carried Wrappings.

The doctor-coated saleswoman made a little swooping gesture with her index finger--follow me!--and headed off into the Clinique section, where she opened a white (of course) cabinet and lifted out the holy grail in a shiny silver-and-green gift box.

And that is how I came to get my bottle of the strange, baffling Wrappings, about which you shall hear in a few days, after Jim goes to work and I can douse myself with the stuff and get properly reacquainted with it.

* And in fact this did happen; the fragrance department is a basement maze of Thesean proportions, with multiple minotaurs in the form of all those well-educated sales clerks, and after defeating them I came out pretty much completely opposite to where I went in. Fortunately, I have gotten to know that part of Manhattan pretty well--all the streets are straight lines--and sorted it out very quickly.

** If I were in New York on my own with a lot of money, I would go to Frederic Malle and Takashimaya and Barney's and Le Labo and some Sephoras and probably Aedes again and Etro and Bond No. 9 and Caron and Bergdorf Goodman yet again and, well, just everywhere. I would exhaust my nose. I would have the time of my life.


Monday, November 09, 2009


I am going to apologize right now, and repeatedly throughout the course of this posting, for the quality of the photographs. I took them myself (strike one), in a hotel room with indifferent lighting (strike two), using a bedspread as a backdrop (strike you get the picture), editing them minimally on a useful but dinky netbook computer (strike et cetera).

Now that that's temporarily out of the way:

Today, Day 4 in New York, I went to Hermes on Madison Avenue. I could probably have spent half an hour there, no problem (among other things I would like to have been able to compare and contrast Rouge Hermes and Parfum D'Hermes, and try the Extrait version of Terre D'Hermes), but I promised Jim that I would be there for an absolute maximum of five minutes, and I doubt he believed me (knowing me as well as he does), but I did it. I found my quarry, pounced on it, and brought it down in record time (for me). What I was after was the Hermessences Discovery Set, which contains the first four scents in the line. (If there had been a second set containing scents 5 through 8, I suspect I would have bought that, too.)

Whenever a new Apple product comes out, some people make a big deal about unboxing it, taking apart the packaging (which is always well-designed and interesting), removing the various contents, and documenting the whole process. So let's have a go at that.

This is what I brought home with me: an Hermes shopping bag in the familiar house colours of orange and brown. The bag has a nice pebbly leather-like texture.

What's in the bag? No samples: I wanted some of the newer Hermessences but she had none (and opened a cabinet to prove the point), just samples of the ones I was already buying. Oh, well. But the credit-card slip was tucked into a smart little folder of heavy card with a heavily embossed linen texture. Class all the way.

Also inside the bag: a lovely box, again in the house colours, again with that same pebbled leather finish. The charming saleswoman opened a drawer and removed the box, which was in a white cardboard sleeve bearing the name of its contents: she discarded this sleeve as being unworthy. Then at the cash she took a length of brown ribbon and tied up the box. The ribbon is woven but the stitching along the edges and the logo and name are printed on it; however, they're nicely printed in very heavy three-dimensional ink.

Another view of the box, because why not. Since it's Jim's netbook computer and he was resizing the photos for me, I think this was probably the point at which he said, "I have got to teach you how to take photos." They are pretty awful, aren't they?

The box, unribboned and ready to be opened to the world.

This is what is inside the box: four little drawstring bags in a very smart linen-coloured tweed.

And also a little booklet: the cover is two rectangles of heavy card in that same leather finish, glued to each end of an accordion-folded length of translucent paper printed with information about the Hermessence line and the various scents in it. I believe this is the point at which, in despair at the general awfulness of the images, Jim said, "Look, I'll take the pictures over again for you." But I thought he had probably done enough for me, so I declined.

Here is one of the 15-mL bottles, of Rose Ikebana, with the other three still in their pouches. The bottom of the slim squarish bottle has a little glaze of red-pink which shows up when you look at it from the front; the name is printed on the bottle in a similar shade. You don't get any sense of scale from this picture, but since the bottle holds a tablespoonful, you can imagine that it is not very big; the perfect size for tossing into your luggage.

And here are all four of the bottles. As you can see, they are all glazed at the bottom with a little smudge of an appropriate colour: dark red-brown for Poivre Samarkande, fresh bright yellow-green for Vetiver Tonka, and intense gold for Ambre Narguile, which I already reviewed some months ago. I swore I was going to buy some last time I was in New York, but events conspired against me (basically, we stopped by the Hermes boutique on Sunday, a day on which it is closed, and I just never got back to it). This time, the fates were a little kinder, and I so have my Ambre Naguile, and three more besides.

And that's not all! Stay tuned....


Friday, November 06, 2009

Hopeless Case

Here it is, not even twenty-four hours after I landed in New York, and what do I have sitting on the bed in my hotel room? A BOTTLE OF SERGE LUTENS IN A BERGDORF GOODMAN BAG. And it isn't even the one I thought I was going to buy, Un Bois Vanille. It's Chypre Rouge.

I mean, goddamn. Didn't I say I loved Un Bois Vanille madly and didn't really adore the middle of Chypre Rouge? I did say those things. But I smelled them both in the store (along with a lot of other things that didn't really enter into the equation), and I had the Vanille in one hand and the Rouge in the other, and I didn't know what to do. I suppose I could have bought both of them, but, well, that's insane, isn't it? I mean, I HAVEN'T EVEN BEEN HERE TWENTY-FOUR HOURS YET and the chances of my buying something else are all too good, because, as should be pretty obvious by now, I don't have a lick of self-control. And the Vanille was expensive enough ($120), but the Rouge was worse ($140), and that's more than I have ever spent on a single scent in my entire life.

My reasoning, if we can call it that, and we can't, because I was pretty much beyond reason at that point, was that I would get more wear out of the Vanille, but I would appreciate the Rouge more because it is so strange and fascinating and rare. There are lots and lots of vanilla scents out there--I should know, because I think I own most of them--but there is only one Chypre Rouge.

So I bought it. I'm happy with my choice. It could have been worse: I was awfully close to buying a bottle of Coromandel (at $200).

Labels: ,

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Trick Question: Serge Lutens Un Bois Vanille

What's the simplest, most accessible thing Serge Lutens could make and still be true to his vision and his reputation as an offbeat, just-this-side-of-avant-garde niche perfumer?

My first impression of Un Bois Vanille was that Serge Lutens was playing some kind of joke on his devoted fans, because all I could smell was, in essence, Comptoir Sud Pacifique Vanille Coco. I thought that there couldn't possibly be coconut in the damned thing, because it doesn't seem like the sort of thing Lutens would do, so, given the choice between trusting my nose and trusting my assumptions about a brand, I chose to disbelieve my own senses.

There is coconut in there, as it turns out. A big blast of vanilla-infused coconut? How can this be? What saves the opening from being a retread of the CSP is a little static-electricity buzz of dry licorice. There isn't a lot of it, but it adds the necessary Lutens touch of slight oddness.

A few minutes in, there's a moment of LouLou, a Cacharel oriental from the late eighties composed of tropical flowers and lots of vanilla: the LouLou doesn't last long, but it suggests that tucked into Un Bois Vanille is a floral note, probably tiare, that (somehow) makes a brief appearance and then darts away again.

After that, Un Bois Vanille is straight-up vanilla. For something you'd think would be a wood scent--the name means "Vanilla Wood"--it isn't very woody. Guess what? It doesn't matter. Un Bois Vanille consists mostly of the second-most beautiful vanilla I've ever worn. (The winner is still the base of Tom Ford Black Orchid, and you are going to have to sit through a lot of other stuff, beautiful though it is, to get to that vanilla.) It lasts just about forever, too; ten hours later, it's still clearly evident, and not just in a nose-to-the-skin way; it still wafts and eddies around you. If you are in the market for a simple yet spectacularly beautiful vanilla scent, sweet and effusive and glorious, then trust me on this: you are going to want to get your hands on Un Bois Vanille.

And now I'm off to New York for a week, where I am going to manfully fight my urge to buy a bottle of this stuff and who knows what else. I'm trying very, very hard to declare a moratorium on scent-buying, but I have a feeling that if I should end up in Bergdorf Goodman and should somehow get a bottle of Un Bois Vanille in my hands, my moratorium, and my resolve, will collapse. Wish me luck.

Labels: ,