One Thousand Scents

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The End of an Era: 1989

I'm not altogether sure if The New Yorker's online articles stay readable forever, or if they go off into some kind of gated enclosure to which you have to buy a key for the price of a subscription, but in the newest issue there is an article which you will want to read, about desserts in modern cooking. Specifically you will be interested in this paragraph on page 6:

After an apprenticeship at elBulli, he realized that his preoccupation was with scent. “That was something that hadn’t really been realized enough in desserts, I thought: the power of aromas. We had this new machine that could extract essential oils, and I began to play with it. I began making perfumed desserts.” He laughed. “I went to Sephora and found the most wonderful aromas in all the women’s perfumes. And I started making desserts built around their smells. Calvin Klein-like aromas. I wanted to make something as wonderful to taste as Chanel perfume was to smell. For me, that’s where all that new chemistry and equipment help. We have the machine to extract essential oils. Another just for smokes. Working with smokes and smells, this has a—fragile aspect? Sense memory extends to the heart of who we are. I think that there’s a freedom there, for a certain delicacy.” He shrugged. “You’ll see,” he said.

I am of two minds about the high-tech cooking exemplified by Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adria. One part of me thinks that of course it is natural for artists to try new things, play with new technologies, experiment, give us new experiences: the other thinks that our palates, or at least the palates of people who can afford to pay for these meals, have become terribly jaded if we need (as described just after that quote above) something like a dessert that launches a tiny soccer ball into the air, a dessert that requires the use of a MP3 player.

Well, let the insanely rich have their toys. Perfumers have always used the latest technology, too, and there was no shortage of such technological abundance in the seventies and eighties, when fascinating new synthetics were cropping up on a regular basis. (Synthetic odorants were nothing new: Houbigant was apparently the first to use one, coumarin, in 1882, and Guerlain's Jicky used an overdose of them in 1889. But the 1970s saw the introduction of Headspace technology, which allowed perfume companies to gather and synthesize just about any aroma the world had to offer, which led to an explosion in the use of synthetics. The fragrant eighties wouldn't have been what they were without such aromachemicals.)

Red by Giorgio Beverly Hills seems to mark a sort of end point of eighties perfumery, an idea taken as far as it can go before snapping back or disintegrating. It had hundreds of ingredients, everything the perfumers could jam into it and still have it make some sort of aesthetic sense, with elements of essentially every branch of women's perfumery in one big cascading sequence: a fruity top (using all the newest synthetic fruit notes), a floral middle, a base that couldn't decide if it was an oriental or a chypre so it was both at once, the whole composition fresh but warm, bright but deep, light and dark in turns; too much, but gorgeously, radiantly too much.

I don't have any vintage Red, and although it's still in production, it's no longer what it used to be. And in fact looking through Basenotes' list of releases for 1989, I see that I don't own one single scent that I used to wear that year, not one. I usually avoid writing about things I don't have to hand: even though my scent memory is good, I want to make sure that I have all the details right, because memory has a way of tricking us. But I can't smell any of these things, so all I have is impressions. (I don't know if it has been clear up to this point, but with rare exceptions I only put pictures of bottles of things I'm smelling at the time of writing, and since I don't have any of these scents, there will be no pictures today.)

So here's what else I was wearing--in addition to all the other, older things I owned--in 1989:

Byblos, a weird, edgy floral with an acidic tinge, an irresistible raspberry note, and a thick musky base.

Claiborne for Men, which I remember not liking all that much, but I had samples, so I wore it from time to time: in the Salvador Dali Homme mode.

Montana Parfum d'Homme: too much patchouli, and ditto for the Dali mode and also the not-liking-it-much and the samples.

Eternity for Men: boring wet fougere that inspired a thousand imitators. Why did I wear it? Life is too short to wear boring things.

Tiffany for Men: very strong, very sweet floral chypre.

Joop! Homme: very strong, very sweet floral-wood scent.

Feeling Man by Jil Sander: very strong, very sweet fruity-tobacco scent.

Elizabeth Taylor Passion for Men: very strong, very sweet floral oriental. I think I see a pattern here.

Tsar by Van Cleef & Arpels: lightweight herbal-tarragon thing with a carnationy middle and a chypre-ish bottom.

After a decade of increasingly loud and voluminous scents, the nineties couldn't come fast enough. If you take a look at Basenotes' list of 1990 and 1991 releases, you will see a pretty definite trend towards quieter, more reserved fragrances: green-bamboo Kenzo Pour Homme, Dior's oddball beachy oriental Dune, Herrera for Men, Calvin Klein Escape (even gauzier than Eternity), Boucheron Pour Homme, Salvador Dali Laguna, the pale-green Gres Cabotine, the soft orientals Ralph Lauren Safari and Tresor by Lancome. There are still some powerhouses, of course, things that had been in the planning stages for a while, things that would appeal to people for whom "discreet" was a foreign word, and a few that split the difference: big floral-oriental Guess, E*N*C*O*R*E by Alfred Sung (sadly a failure, possibly because of the name), Givenchy's Amarige, Lauder's Spellbound, Chanel's Egoiste, Casmir by Chopard, Montana Parfum d'Elle. But the writing was on the wall: the nineties weren't going to be the eighties. And they weren't, either.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Changing Places: 1988

I have been relying mostly on the Basenotes database to determine when scents were launched, and I've been trusting them more than my own memory, but I am not sure I believe the listings for 1988, because they have twenty-seven Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier scents, nearly the entire line, having been released in that year, and that hardly seems possible. The line was created in 1988, but did Jean Laporte really fling nearly thirty scents into the marketplace all at once?

Maybe he did. Nowadays multi-fragrance launches are commonplace, almost the rule rather than the exception. It would be hard enough to keep up with the deluge if all the big houses did two or three launches a year in addition to the usual barrage of celebrity scents and drugstore cheapies, but most everyone seems to be hewing to the throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks aesthetic these days. Just this past year: 5 Guerlains, 4 Ralph Laurens (as a set), 7 from Bond No. 9, 3 from Serge Lutens, at least 7 Givenchys that I know of, 6 from Donna Karan (three as a set)....

There were not quite so many releases each year in the 1980s; nothing I couldn't have kept up with if I'd put my mind to it. But I had something else to worry about, and that was another nose in the house. Jim and I moved in together within a month of meeting, which of course is a terrible idea, usually, but it made perfect sense for us; although I was, believe it or not, paying only $125 a month in rent, Jim considered it--and still calls it to this day--a rathole (a third-floor walkup with a makeshift shower, a barely functioning toilet, and no lock on the front door, which I shared with a couple who were on the verge of disintegrating), and he couldn't get me out quickly enough.

Jim, unfortunately, had then and has to this day a distaste for commercial scents. For anything scented. He'd gladly forfeit his sense of smell if it meant he wouldn't have to put up with another overperfumed co-worker in the elevator, another barrage of fragrance when walking into a department store. When I moved in with him, I brought with me not only my collection, but my desire to keep collecting. It took me a while to understand that scents were anathema to him, of course, because I am very slow on the uptake when it comes to other people's inner lives, but I soon figured out some workarounds: only go to the fragrance counter when I'm alone, don't wear things he hates (e.g. most of them) when he's around, carry sample vials so I can apply them before getting to work. We both make our compromises and we get along somehow, and that is how marriage works.


At this point it's hard not to feel like I'm beating a dead horse, but here it comes again: mass-market scents in the eighties, or at least the ones that I wore, were better than anything you can find today: fuller, richer, more complex, more interesting, more challenging. Knowing is the perfect case in point.

We need to keep in mind that I am comparing two different types of the scent: the vintage that I have is the parfum, and the newer version, at most two years old though probably less, is the eau de parfum. Still, the differences are striking and unmistakeable, much more than could be accounted for by the difference in concentration. Because my bottle of Knowing parfum is probably fifteen years old, the top notes have started to go a little wayward, but the body of the scent is as it always was: a voluptuous chypre, gilded, lushly sybaritic. Nowadays a fruity-floral scent is something cheap and commonplace: there are literally hundreds of them on the market, and they're all pretty similar. But Knowing is a chypre with a fruity-floral heart, and it is mesmerizing: a golden cloud of rose and mimosa, a plummy richness tempered with the dried-fruit scent of davana, all piled atop a thick, warm base of patchouli and amber and an overdose of oakmoss. (With all those flowers, you'd think it would be a fairly girly affair, but in truth it isn't. Paulina Porizkova up there is in a tuxedo for a reason: the scent is called Knowing for a reason. It is all about sophistication and worldliness, and it smells darkly amazing on a man.)

Though I had discovered other chypres (Diva, Parfum Rare, even the Body Shop oil called Chypre), to the best of my recollection Knowing was the first scent that I put the name "chypre" to as a commercial scent, probably because it got a lot of ink; never let it be said that Estee Lauder slacks off when it comes to promoting their products. Because there was so much written about it at the time, and because it roped me in so handily, Knowing, to the best of my knowledge, was the first scent that got me really, seriously thinking about scent.

It's still in production, but of course it has been reformulated, and the re-do is very much a modern affair: brittle top notes, an immediate deluge of patchouli (the calling card of the "modern chypre"), an indifferent bouquet of flowers, no subtlety, no charm, no elegance. There is oakmoss, not remotely as much as there ought to be, but at least it's in there. If you smelled the two side by side (as I have), you would never think that they were versions of the same scent. If someone told you that they were, you would be shocked and disappointed that they had taken something so utterly redolent of genius and reconstructed it into that. It's as if they'd taken the Mona Lisa and run it through Photoshop software that reworked it in the style of Jeff Koons--and worse, destroyed the original and convinced everyone that that's what it had always been like (we have always been at war with Eastasia).

If you should ever chance upon some vintage Knowing, buy it. You must have it. (If you hate it, I'll buy it from you.) I've smelled a lot of chypres in my time--not enough vintage, for sure, but at least I was operating in a time when they were still being produced--and Knowing is one of the greats. If you have a negative opinion of Lauder scents, if you think they're too big, too bandwagony, too American, be prepared to reconsider. I don't think too much of Lauder's output in the recent years--the last really excellent thing they produced was Spellbound, back in 1991. though there have been some decent ones since then--but there were some classics through the years, as good as anything from France or Italy, and Knowing is one of them.

Now. What else came out in 1988 that enthralled me at the time? On the men's side of the aisle, not much. Of course, everyone was wearing Sung Homme, which was a guaranteed success after the sheer ubiquity of the first Alfred Sung scent a year earlier: I didn't pay much attention to it at the time, because women's scents were often much more interesting and because I was already developing a taste for the slightly out-of-mainstream scent: I didn't want to smell like everyone else. (I eventually did start wearing it, though, and still rather like it.) I also avoided the unavoidable Cool Water, Fendi Uomo and Jazz by Yves Saint Laurent; in fact, they made so little impression on me that I couldn't even tell you what they smelled like.

I did, however, wear the offbeat Fahrenheit, like most every other man at the time. The scent itself was not exactly me, although I owned it and wore it from time to time, but the shower gel--well, that was perfect, a cloud of that strange, angular floral-aromatic scent that dissipated to leave a trace of woody patchouli on the skin.

I also enjoyed Benetton Colors Uomo more than I probably should have, partly because I had been so fond of the women's version the year before and also because I liked the pentagonal-prism bottle. The scent itself wasn't really anything special, but its bright, masculine simplicity was an occasional pleasure.

I liked the odd, pepperminty New West Skinscent for Him, but something about it put me off, and I think that something might actually have been the name: they were so afraid of scaring off a customer by calling their product "cologne" or "eau de toilette" that they made up the name "skinscent", which is the same thing only pretentious.

I don't know what it smells like these days, but the very first Kenzo scent, in that bizarre flower-growing-from-a-stack-of-pebbles bottle, amazed and thrilled me in 1988. It was more or less a straight-up floral, but it was wildly complex, and what's more, it had a way of changing perpetually throughout its life: rather than having three acts as most classically constructed scents do, it was as amorphous and undulating as a Lava Lite. A flicker of coconut, a blaze of carnation, a fragment of wood; it seemed to contain everything possible, and it was ungodly beautiful.

Boucheron, the first scent from the jewellery house, was colossal. Huge. Almost unimaginably elephantine. Big fat orange-blossom top, big fat tuberose middle, big fat oriental base. There was so much of it. You'd think that the powerhouse eighties weren't almost over, that the era of huge perfumes wasn't about to come to an end.

Eternity put the first nail in that coffin, though. Fragrances didn't suddenly become quiet demure little things, of course: cultural shifts like that take a while to percolate through society (Obsession kept selling, and still sells), and scents that had been in the pipeline for a while were still going to be released. But after years of massive, sinus-clogging perfumes, there was a change in the air, and Eternity was at the vanguard: a gauzy, innocent white floral with a freesia core. It's hard to say whether Calvin Klein and his marketing people sensed a change coming, or bullied everyone into changing with their relentless onslaught of advertising: some of both, probably. But either way, things were not going to be the same.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Final Intermission: Me Me Me Me Me

When I started doing my 1980s project on September 1st, I figured I could knock off one piece every two to three days and get the whole decade finished by the end of the month, and then move onto other things. I had not planned on two things: one, life has a way of intruding (an unexpected trip, for starters), and two, I was going to run up against 1987 and that was going to lead me into the hardest thing I had ever written. I have been trying to write this, or trying and failing to not write it, for two months, in my head and on the keyboard, and I have been resisting it every step of the way: I keep telling myself that it is too intimate--intrusive, even--and unnecessary, but I keep writing it. You don't have to read it, and it's probably best if you don't read it: it probably isn't that interesting to everyone who doesn't happen to occupy my brain. But I can't help feeling that what I usually write about doesn't make sense if you don't understand how my brain works, and so despite my misgivings, here is the result of two months' worth of fragmentary labour, willing or otherwise.


As I said last time around, 1987 was notable because I fell in love with someone who fell back in love with me. I don't know that I believe in love at first sight, exactly: I think it's more likely that your brain tells you this might be someone worth mating with, and then later it fills in the backstory to support that decision. But whatever the case, Jim and I met in late September of that year and the attraction was instantaneous, which is sort of miraculous because he is a very good-looking man whereas I am, generously, a six and a half on a scale of ten with the right lighting and a decent suit. (He says I wasn't like anybody else he'd ever met, which is undoubtedly the case, and that he thought I was smart and funny.) Our tastes in nearly everything--music, television, food, art, movies--run the gamut from "not quite the same" to "drastically, irreconcilably different" (we don't have a stereo or even a radio because we would never be able to agree on what to listen to), but we have exactly the same sense of humour, which putties in a lot of gaps, if you ask me. Twenty-three years later, I'm still mad about him, and I think it's fair to assume he feels the same way. But the real reason it seems so miraculous to me has nothing to do with looks, but with my assumption that, at the age of 24, I was not going to meet anyone who could really understand me. I don't know that Jim really does understand me, that anybody could, because I don't know if I even understand myself: but he loves me and puts up with my eccentricities, and that's enough.

I am not going to bore you with a discussion of Asperger's Syndrome, which you can Google for yourself (and how unfortunate that in English, "Asperger" is pronounced like "ass burger" unless you deliberately pronounce it in the German manner), but if you met me and got to know me, you would sooner or later--sooner, I bet--come to the conclusion that I am not quite like most people you have ever met, and that is certainly the case.

My brain is a constant tumult of information; mostly words and numbers, but also sounds and smells. (I'm not an especially visual person, as will become clear later.) There is never a single waking instant that I am not processing a flow of words or numbers; I'm writing in my head, or counting the number of steps from one location to another (376 steps from the gym to my front door this morning, and I counted these while also measuring out the 32-count rhythm of the song playing through my headphones), or recalling a few lines of Shakespeare that were triggered by something or other, or seeing a phone number on a billboard and trying to work out if it's prime. (I am really good with numbers: quick math in my head is no problem, which is useful when you're working retail and a customer asks you the cost of a $47.99 item that's 40% off.) There is almost without fail a song or aria or some other piece of music running in the background, too: sometimes an entire piece over and over again, sometimes just a refrain or a single line, and it can go on for hours before it switches to another one (kind of like a free iPod that doesn't have an Off switch: as I write this, the inner iPod has been playing "Jesusland" by Ben Folds for about three hours now and doesn't show any signs of stopping, except that having written those last few words triggered the Christmas song "Let It Snow!", which contains the lyric "It doesn't show signs of stopping" and which will likely play for a few minutes until Ben Folds reasserts himself, which he likely will after the song "Hurry On Down" from the Bette Midler album "Live At Last" stops playing, and I have no idea what triggered that, but there it is): sometimes two songs play at the same time, and this is not a problem, for some reason. All of this goes on simultaneously, and it does not stop, ever. I can't imagine how normal people can meditate, because I can't imagine what it would be like to not have this perpetual whirligig of data to deal with: meditation seems to require shutting off what Buddhists call the monkey mind to access some quiet inner space, but the monkey mind is all I have, and it craves data and information and stimulation. (It's probably the main reason I don't sleep very well: I lie in bed and I'm processing what I did at work today what I have to do tomorrow the book I'm halfway through the opera I'm going to next weekend the last song I listened to the movie I saw yesterday the next knitting commission that's due that perfume I'm blogging about soon, all of it words words words numbers experiences data, all of it nonstop and inexhaustible.)

I don't know if it's a visual-data problem or some deeper processing issue--I think Asperger's Syndrome is a problem of data, the way the body picks it up and the brain processes it--but people all look more or less alike to me. I can tell that they're young or old, tall or short, male or female, I notice race and clothing and proportions: but these things do not matter. People are as alike and as different as the trees in a forest, but when I look at them I see the forest. If a particular person is especially arresting to look at--very attractive, very odd, extreme in some way or another--or if I encounter them more than a couple of times, I can usually form a memory of them that gets stronger with time, but otherwise when I see a face, I can't tell--honestly cannot tell at all--if I have met them before or not, can't tell them apart from anyone else. Face are data, but they're data that I'm not very good at handling.

Same thing with cars. More so with cars. Cars are all boxes on wheels. With a few exceptions--the dramatically beautiful or otherwise noteworthy--I absolutely cannot tell them apart. I call a friend's car the Greasemobile because her license number is GRE 549, and the three digits sort of look like S A Y, and if you transpose two of them you get GREASY. I couldn't name the colour (I think it might be black) or tell you what the make is if you put me on the rack: but I instantly memorized the license number and then mucked around with it to make a joke, which ought to tell you quite a lot about how my brain works. Also, the first half of that previous sentence is a quatrain, which my brain supplied to me unbidden, although I had tinker with a couple of the words to make it scan.

I suppose I could say that I don't speak the same language as everyone else, but that doesn't seem as close to the mark as I'd like, considering that I have some facility with English. I think a better analogy is that in the country in which we all live, I'm not spending the same currency as everyone else. I take their money in everyday transactions, but I don't quite know what to do with it, and when I make change or hand out my own currency, it's doesn't look quite like it ought to.

As a consequence of this, I misinterpret a lot of human interactions, because I don't get the nuances of expression that I think other people take for granted. I can read all the big emotions--happy, sad, angry--though unfortunately I tend to reflect them right back at their bearers; but I absolutely can't get the subtleties, and so I have an unfortunate and ineradicable way of missing the point, or steamrollering right over it. I sometimes come across as cold, or insensitive, or just odd, and I know this because I've been told: but I can't perceive it, and so I can't fix it. A side effect is that I have had people put the make on me while remaining completely oblivious to this fact until well afterwards, sometimes because I've been informed of it, sometimes because I figured it out later: "Gee, I wonder what he meant by that?" In fact, unless someone flat-out tells me so or grabs me in an unmistakeable way, I have pretty well always failed to understand that I was being approached. My entire life! Think what I've missed out on!

Not much, actually. Human touch is tricky for me because it's so unpredictable, and worse, I can't read the body language involved, so I always end up awkwardly wondering if I am holding a hug too loosely or not long enough or what. Touch is confusing. What I have always liked, since I was very young, is a sort of all-encompassing, controllable, even pressure: mummification, I guess. Temple Grandin, an engineer, made herself a machine that administers hugs, which sounds like a good idea, but since I am not an engineer, I resorted to clothing and bedding. As a child, I'd tuck the bedsheets around me as tightly as I could, rolling to one side and then the other while pulling the sheets underneath me: this provided a firm, uniform pressure that was comforting and pleasurable. I don't seem to need this as much as I get older, but I always wear a two-sizes-too-small T-shirt under my shirt in daily life, and that seems to do the trick, as long as I use a safety pin in the back of the collar to position the front neckline at the precise point that it must sit in order for me to be comfortable, and yes, I know how strange that sounds, but that's the way it has to be.

Possibly related to this in some way is that I am clumsy. It's a rare, possibly nonexistent, day that I don't have a bruise or a scratch or a contusion of some sort from banging into a doorframe, raking my hand against a cutting edge, or whacking my shin on the opened dishwasher door. I bump into protrusions, stumble on stairways, knock things over, drop silverware. If I focus, really concentrate, I have an excellent sense of balance, but it doesn't come naturally to me; my body is mostly just this big lumbering object that I don't have nearly as much control over as I'd like. Perversely, though, I have really good fine-motor control in things I have practiced: I'm a top-notch knitter (something I can do with my eyes closed or otherwise occupied--I always feel I'm just a hairsbreadth away from being able to do it in my sleep, because knitting is really just a series of data-flow problems combined with some fairly rudimentary physical skills), and I have excellent handwriting if I pay attention and slow down, which, unfortunately, I rarely do, because I'm always off to the next thing, in mind if not in body.

As you might expect, and finally to the point, I like to smell just about everything. Food is good, the outdoors often wonderful: a brick wall on a rainy day is a lovely thing to smell. Even unpleasant odours can have their own kind of fascination. I was at the Kensington Market one August with Jim and our friend Liz, who lived in Toronto at the time, and they were gagging at the predictable rotting-vegetation aromas that permeated the air, but it didn't bother me at all: I thought it was interesting. I will sometimes, when doing the laundry, bury my face in an armload of unwashed clothing and take a big sniff of the fabric-ness of it, the bodily scents, stray traces of fragrances I might have been wearing, the olfactory detritus of two people in their daily lives, and it is wonderful.

The reason I love perfumery so much, I think, is that it's a wearable art form with a complex personality: it is the smell of the natural world made great through the intervention of human intelligence. It's data, but much more determined than anything you'd find in nature. And not just perfumery: most anything that bears an odour and has been through human hands is worth analyzing (with the definite exception of the stalenesses of cigarette smoke and sweat, which are just flat-out disgusting). I'm sure a wheat field smells very nice, but I can't imagine it could compare to the smell of a freshly baked loaf of bread. I love the fact that we take things that smell good, or at least interesting--oudh and oakmoss don't really smell good by any ordinary measure--and combine them into something great, something that can be analyzed but that in the end really defies analysis--that goes straight into the limbic system and works its magic.


So that's me and my baffling brain. I sort of hope you didn't actually get this far, but at least it's off my chest, and now I can get back to what I had set out to do, map and catalogue the eighties as I smelled them. Coming up: 1988! Mesmerizing florals, run-of-the-mill fougeres, and one hypnotic chypre that pretty much changed my life!

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Getting To Know You: 1987

Looking back I can see that if my taste had not been solidified at an earlier age, it certainly was by 1987. Virtually everything I love from that year has two characteristics:

1) It is an oriental or a chypre, and

2) it is offbeat in some way.

My big deal for 1987 was Byzance by Rochas, a genuinely baffling oriental that was sold as a sort of east-meets-west composition, an oriental in an eighties neon-bright suit of clothes. It starts out as a shockingly brilliant aldehydic scent, like shards of glass flying off your skin: the scent is irrepressibly energetic, fighting its way out of the bottle even before you apply it, a supercharged blaze of limey citrus notes and spices. Just underneath is an intensely floral undercurrent, turbulent with jasmine and tuberose. The brightness slowly, slowly dims to a halo while the oriental base makes its way to the forefront, and it is exactly what you think an oriental ought to be, all dreamy languor, musky woods and amber and hypnotic vanilla. (I am sorry to have to state the obvious, but Byzance has of course been reformulated; I have a bottle of the modern EDT and a little tiny bottle of the vintage parfum, and the newer scent is predictably less complex, a much tamer affair: a Photoshopped, softened and smoothed version of the ferocious original.) The bottle and box, as you can see, are meant to suggest Byzantine mosaics,

and that hint of brilliant hot pink on the box and bottle is echoed inside--the box liner is entirely that colour, a real shock when you open the package.

Somehow in 1987 I ended up with a tiny bottle of Cartier's Panthere parfum, and I remember loving the dark, syrupy oriental quality of it, a heady pool of warmth. Earlier this year I bought a quarter ounce of vintage parfum from a private seller, and was shocked when I put it on for the first time in twenty years to discover that it was essentially straight-up gardenia. I thought at first that it had gone seriously off during its long captivity, but as I wore it repeatedly, I realized that it did in fact smell as it once had, but that, fixated on the densely oriental quality of the base, I had somehow failed to notice that Panthere was first and foremost a gardenia scent. Oh, there are top notes, and other florals in the middle, tuberose and ylang, certainly, and of course it is a dark luminous oriental scent, which was what had attracted me to it so many years ago: but smelling it now, with a nose that is if not trained then at least thoroughly exposed to thousands of scents, I can see that Panthere, at least as it used to be, is really a white floral at heart. And the only thing I can think is, "I used to wear this?"

I did used to wear it. I'd wear anything, buoyed up by that complete liberation that if we are lucky we feel in our youth. I simply didn't care about labels: all I cared about was experiencing as much as possible of an intoxicating art form. And why shouldn't I wear it? I liked it, it smelled good, it agreed with me. Now if I were to put it on, I'd be thinking nervously, "Does this make smell like someone's grandmother?"

Another big fat floral oriental that I loved but wouldn't wear nowadays was Cacharel's Loulou, which is mostly an alliance of tiare and vanilla. I haven't smelled it in ten years or so, but the last time I did, I thought two things: first, that it hadn't changed a bit, and second, it was oversized to an almost comic degree. It's still being sold, but I would be willing to bet that it has been drastically rethought to bring it in line with modern tastes--smaller, of course, maybe with a brighter top and probably a woody-musky base. I could be wrong: maybe it's still the huge sweet oriental that drew me irresistibly to it in 1987.

A few years after the release of the extraordinary Salvador Dali came the launch of the men's version, in a humorous little bottle composed of a pair of lips perched on a Buddha belly. It has been completely changed since then, a whole different thing in the same amusing package. Back then it was a strange herbal fougere, bitter, with a pleasant gasoliney or otherwise petroleum overtone to the top and a cruelly leathery base, not entirely wearable but still compelling. I bought a miniature a few years ago and it is now sweet and smoky and really not anything but that, very much like Lutens' Fumerie Turque, only not so interesting.

By the late eighties, chypres weren't being launched in quite the profusion they had been in earlier decades, but a couple from 1987 still managed to make an impact on me. Gem by Van Cleef & Arpels was probably the biggest one in my universe, but another considerably more obscure one also took my heart: Parfum Rare by Jacomo. It was later remarketed as Coeur de Parfum, and without a doubt went through many reformulations: if it were still being manufactured, it wouldn't be anything other than a shadow of its former self by now, considering that the whole purpose of Parfum Rare was to be a delivery mechanism for oakmoss in all its strange, humous wonder. I have a tiny bottle of the vintage EDT, and I suppose the top notes are disappearing, but the first thing, the very first thing, that you smell is the chypre base of oakmoss and patchouli. After that, the heart deigns to show itself, and I suppose it is a kind of dark enigmatic floral, perhaps carnation-based though you wouldn't think of it as a carnation scent, but in its very soul it is a chypre and nothing but. I am not only sorry to see it gone, I am deeply sorry that a few years from now, with the aggressive rebranding of the idea of a chypre as a patchouli scent and the severe restrictions on the use of oakmoss in commercial perfumery, people below the age of forty will have no idea just what it was that made chypres so overwhelmingly popular for decades after the category was invented. Oakmoss is not intrinsically beautiful, and if we are to be honest we will have to admit that a good many elements of perfumery are not absolutely one hundred per cent beautiful; a particular element may be bristly or cloying or sharp or fecal, and it is only in the combining of these element--the art, in other words--that they are transmuted into something greater than any of them could be by itself. Oakmoss is strange, dirtyish, often suggestive of the decay of a forest floor: and yet in combination with other ingredients it is thrilling, compelling, simply one of the greatest smells that humans have ever come up with.

Something I need to make clear is that, in those days before the Internet made nearly the entirety of human knowledge available to us at the press of a button, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I didn't know what an oriental scent was, or a chypre, or a fougere or anything else. I was flying blind. I was trying literally everything I could lay my hands on, and choosing what, for whatever reason, appealed to me. I was like anybody else discovering an art form for the first time: jump in with both feet, splash around, see what appeals to you. It's no different from my discovery of opera a few years earlier, except that when it came to opera I had guides--the musician roommate who explained coloratura to me, the knowledgeable chap at the record store I frequented. With perfumery, I was on my own. (I would like to think I have made up for that deficiency since.)

Some other 1987 launches that made some sort of impression on me at the time:

Clarins Eau Dynamisante, marketed as a "treatment fragrance" that supposedly had effects beneficial to the skin and overall health, mostly light citrus and herbs. I seem to remember rosemary.

Colors de Benetton, a strange little thing with a watermelony top, wildly different from the other youth-oriented scents of the time: a fruity floral, but thin and bright like cellophane, no real base notes and therefore not much lasting power but with a real presence nonetheless.

Iquitos, fronted by Alain Delon, presumably one of the earlier celebrity scents, a rosier version of Salvador Dali Pour Homme, if memory serves me.

Since we are talking about a specific year, this is probably as good a place as any to note that two Comptoir Sud Pacifique scents were launched in 1987. It wasn't until years later, probably around 2000 or so, that I began to discover the line, but it instantly resonated with me; lots of simple but interesting and well-made oriental scents (and a few others that didn't strike as strong a chord). 1987's additions were the lush sweet-coffee Vanille Cafe, now called Vanille Moka, and Fruits Sauvages, renamed and reconstructed (and much tamed, to its slight detriment) as Mora Bella.

The biggest thing that happened in 1987, though, was that I fell in love with someone who fell in love with me at pretty much exactly the same instant, and that, it hardly needs saying, resonated through everything that came afterwards.