One Thousand Scents

Saturday, December 31, 2011

I'll Drink to That: Serge Lutens Santal de Mysore

Another year gone! Another thousand or so new scents have whirled past us, and even the most determined of us properly sampled — wore and re-wore and thought about — what, a couple dozen, half a hundred of them? (I didn't even manage that many, I think.) And still they multiply in mad profusion, a few worthy new releases lost in the sea of flankers and copies and reformulations, while all the thousands of old scents remain to be, if we and they are lucky, discovered or rediscovered.

Serge Lutens' Santal de Mysore turns 15 in 2012. It is an old, established scent that is certainly a reformulation (because true Mysore sandalwood is virtually unavailable in any quantity at any cost), probably in large part synthetic, possibly not worth the price being asked for it ($200 for a 50-mL bottle). But it is also pure unadulterated Lutens, as immediately identifiable as a Mozart symphony or a Francis Bacon painting.

It was almost exactly a year ago that I wrote about Lutens' other essay on sandalwood, Santal Blanc, which I loved at first sniff and still love, because it is as beautiful and as rigorous as a mathematical proof. But where Santal Blanc is meant to intrigue and maybe baffle, Santal de Mysore is simply out to gratify: it's much closer in spirit to the luscious, boozy Idole de Lubin, although Idole is a sweet sandalwood liqueur where Santal de Mysore is a slug of spiced rum in a sandalwood cup.

Most Lutens scents defiantly resist classification by gender. Some people consider Santal Blanc to be a women's scent, but it is so strict and austere that I fail to see how it could possibly be assigned a sex: it seems to exist in some rarefied space where gender simply doesn't exist. Santal de Mysore, though, really does seem like a men's scent: it is enormously suggestive of a men's club, all pipe tobacco and wood panelling and suit-and-ties sitting around a cozy fireplace with drinks in hand. There is plenty of spice in it (how Lutens), a little ribbon of caramel sweetness to take the edge off, and much less sandalwood than you might expect (not the only time Lutens has played this joke: Cèdre isn't a cedar scent but a tuberose with a shaving or two of wood at the bottom of it).

As usual — as ever — one of my New Year's resolutions is to not buy any new scents until I have reviewed every single one of the samples and bottles I own, and that is a preposterously large number of which I am both ashamed and pleased. There is, however, a small possibility that I will be going to France next fall, and if I find myself in Paris, and find myself at the Palais Royale, and find myself at the Serge Lutens store, then by god all bets are off, and one of the things I may find myself buying is a bottle of the gorgeous and infinitely wearable Santal de Mysore.

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Sunday, December 25, 2011

Cleaning Up

I love being really clean. If I could manage and justify it, I'd shower two or three times a day. I don't care that it probably wouldn't be good for me: I'd do it anyway.

As a consequence, I love soaps. Bar soap will do, and I've made enough of it myself: not made from scratch with fat and lye (I wouldn't trust anything I had made with lye), but the melt-and-pour kind that you colour and scent and mould, which may be the saponological equivalent of paint by numbers but at least won't dissolve the user's skin. Last year I brought my mom and stepfather at least six pounds of the stuff on a visit: flowery and fruity things for her, sandalwood and almond for him. Then a few months ago in a two-week fit of creativity I used up all the plain soap that I had and made at least fifteen pounds, sixty-plus four-ounce bars. The first six batches were named after London subway stops such as Green Park, a jade-green eucalyptus-and-citrus blend; Blackfriars, an inky-black* brick confusingly scented with orange and orchid; and of course Mornington Crescent, a shimmery yellow lavender-and-lemongrass wakeup call. After I ran out of likely tube stops I started mixing the colours and inclusions (mostly pearl powder, aka shimmer, which comes in different colours) and then deciding the scents and names based on that: an opaque pale-orange soap of course became the orange-and vanilla Creamsicle, while a flashy green-glittered soap became the minty Live Wire, and an unexpected sandalwood and coconut blend went into dark tan with thick swirls of gold shimmer called Bronze Age.

But liquid soap is what I mostly use, because, being a man and having very short hair, I can use it head to toe. I understand that some people might like to use specialty shampoos, but for most guys, a liquid soap that they can use for everything — shampoo, shower gel, and hand soap — is ideal. It certainly is for me.

A good source for soap is the local discounter, which in Canada is usually going to be Winners, our equivalent of the U.S. chain TJ Maxx. A couple of months ago I bought three bottles of liquid soap that looked promising and were gratifyingly cheap; I couldn't open one of them to smell it, and that should be a lesson to all of us.

Though the package of hand soap and lotion in a metal holder was completely sealed in plastic, I thought something called "Peppermint Kiss" by Simple Pleasures might be nice for Christmas, maybe a nice creamy confectionery vanilla-mint. It isn't; it is without a doubt the worst soap I have ever used, because everything about it is wrong, every single thing. Some liquid soaps are too fluid (Yves Rocher is a particular offender in this regard), but this has the opposite problem: it isn't even a gel, but a jelly, so it doesn't spread out as you rub your hands together, but breaks up into clumps. Adding water doesn't do much to improve the situation, because even if you can get it to behave in water between your hands it hardly lathers at all, however much you use. I tried to convince myself that it couldn't have been manufactured that way, that maybe it got frozen in transit and was damaged as a result, but even if the texture wasn't deliberate, the scent must have been: it was cheap and fruity and disappointingly short on peppermint. The lotion was acceptable in texture but burdened with that same scent. I tried to use the soap for a couple of weeks, but I hated it, so into the garbage it went, a lesson learned.

The other two I bought were from a company called Olivia Care. They smelled nice enough in the store, but of course you can't really tell until you get them onto your skin.

One of the soaps is called Apricot Honey, and it is an astonishingly accurate rendition of apricot. Not so much the honey, but when it smells that precisely of apricot, it doesn't matter. It is a big, potent scent, and it stays on your skin for a while, a good half hour or so. (It's so long-lasting that I use only a tiny amount as a hand soap and never use it as a shampoo/shower gel, because Jim, unfortunately, hates the smell of peaches and apricots.) I got a great big vat of the stuff, not the bottle pictured above but a tall 25-ounce pump bottle with a really nice label, for $6.99; so worth it!

The other is Mandarin, and once again the fidelity is just astounding: fresh out of the bottle, you can smell the whole fruit, pulp, peel, bitter white pith and all. It isn't as durable as the Apricot Honey, but of course it isn't, because citrus smells almost never are, and in truth what remains on your skin after you've washed it off is clearly synthetic. But for one brief moment, it's utter joy, and at $5.99 for an 18.5-ounce bottle, I got my money's worth.

So what have I (and I hope you) learned? That soap is one of life's little pleasures. That you need to haunt the discount chains for soapy bargains. And that you should always, always sniff before you buy.

* Paste or gel food colour, the sort you use for icing, makes excellent soap colour. Wilton black food colouring makes a beautiful black soap and won't stain your skin, but when it's diluted in a whole lot of water in the shower, it isn't black at all: it's actually blue-green, which is startling at first. You may want to warn recipients if you decide to do this.


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Gutted: Eau d'Epices by Andy Tauer

I'm sure there are reviewers who are so confident in their mastery of their subject and so sure of their taste that they can unhesitatingly proclaim something to be excellent or dreadful, but I am not one of those people.

When something is undeniably good, or when I just plain love it despite any flaws, I'm fine: I can rave about it to the point of exhaustion. But here are a few of the questions I ask myself when I'm on the fence or I actively dislike something:

• Is it actually good and I just can't tell?
• Do I dislike this because I dislike one specific element of it?
• Have I just smelled this kind of thing so many times that I'm jaded?
• Is it me? Is it my nose or something?

I do have the courage of my convictions, but I also want to be fair.

Andy Tauer's Eau d'Epices has a gorgeous top: effusively spicy, mostly cinnamon and cardamom, brightened with a citrus sparkle; it makes you think of Christmas orange-and-clove pomanders and mulled wine. It also has a gorgeous base that calls to mind a Christmas tree, woody and resinous, but slightly sweetened with tonka bean. It's the middle that's the problem: a soapy orange blossom that yanks me right out of my cozy winter's reverie and plonks me down in a barber shop.

I am not a big fan of orange-flower, but even if I were, I think I would be bothered by the middle, because it just doesn't seem to go with the rest of the scent. There is nothing of Christmas or winter about the orange blossom, so why paste that in the middle of an undeniably wintry fragrance? If it's to have a floral core, why not a Christmassy "Es ist ein Ros entsprungen" rose, or a fantasy red-and-green floral accord meant to suggest poinsettias?

I honestly can't tell if it's the scent or just me, but to my mind and my nose the disconnect between the middle and its bookends is just too great. I wanted to like this — it has elements of the discontinued and lamented Aqua Allegoria Winter Delice — but I cannot get past that incongruous middle. Maybe it makes sense to the perfumer, but it doesn't to me.


Speaking of Andy Tauer, there are still four days left to try to win something in his annual Advent giveaway. He has a lot of great things to choose from, should you win. Good luck!


Speaking of orange flower, over on Perfume Shrine there's a list of the supposed top 10 fragrance notes for the coming year. They are:

1. Ginger Orchid
2. Orange Flower
3. Tart Guava
4. Gold Amber
5. Green Pear
6. Spicy Bergamot
7. Root Beer
8. Pink Pepper
9. Leather
10. Tomato Leaf

Awful lot of low cards in that hand if you're me. Pink pepper has been all over the place for quite a while now, I'm completely done with tomato leaf if I ever liked it to begin with, and there are at least a few things in there that can't be anything but cheap synthetics ("tart guava" and "green pear" do not sound very promising) which will be heavily ladled into everything.

I like the idea of root beer, mind you (though that complex smell can't really be called a "note", can it?). And I approve of leather: you can never have enough leather scents. If only the perfume houses would buck against the IFRA and start using buckets of oakmoss again: then we might see a revival of the classic leather chypre, one of the old mainstays of men's perfumery (and women's, too), and perhaps the inescapable and ever more horrible fresh-aquatic-ozonic category would die a fitting death.

I can dream.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

History Lesson: Miriam by Tableau de Parfums

The Christmas season is rocketing towards us, but you still have eleven chances to win a present from perfumer Andy Tauer, whose annual Christmas giveaways make the season even brighter (or at least more bearable if you're not the Christmas type). It's an Advent calendar for grownups:  each of the first 24 days of December gives you a chance to win a sample set, a bottle of his newest Cologne du Magreb, or even the bottle of your choice from his oeuvre.

Naturally, I'm entering every day, because who doesn't love free scents? And I have already been a winner. The first year of the Advent calendar, I won a my choice of a full bottle: I was waffling, but Andy himself (he seems so friendly and chummy that nearly everyone seems to call him by his first name) said, "You should choose something you've already tried and know you like, rather than taking a chance on something you might not," so I got Lonestar Memories, which I adore.

Andy's recent Miriam is based on a short film of the same name, the first in a projected 10-year series called "Women's Picture". It's a slightly modernized aldehydic floral, the kind that dominated the first half of the twentieth century; it doesn't feel vintage, exactly, certainly not old-fashioned, but it clearly references vintage scents. It opens with a brilliant show of citrus, aldehydes, and that eighties standby violet leaf, making for an almost radioactively bright and expansive scent which calls to mind Chanel No. 5 (of course), but just underneath is a comfy rose-and-violet accord which is a dead ringer for the 2002 relaunch of Givenchy's L'Interdit, itself a much updated reference to the 1957 original. It's not a fusty floral, though, because there is also a very modern sugar-candy quality which provides a brittle edge. Later — much later, because this is a durable scent — Miriam relaxes into a haze of vanilla and sandalwood, all rounded surfaces and warmth.

Andy's the perfumer, but he doesn't sell the fragrance on his website: you can buy it here, though, or at Luckyscent, the source of my sample. It's $160 a bottle: not cheap, but not out of line for a niche scent, and absolutely worth checking out if you're one of those lucky people who can wear vintage clothing and not look as if you're wearing a costume.


Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Changeling: Parfumerie Generale Indochine

The odd thing about amber-heavy fragrances is that more than any others they seem to change character from wearing to wearing. It's unpredictable: I don't know if it's my mood, or whatever I've been eating recently (which is said to affect one's odour), or even the weather. But yesterday I sloshed on some of the newest Parfumerie Generale scent, Indochine, and was startled to notice a distinct cardamom note that hadn't been paramount the first few times I'd worn it. Then later I put on another dab, just a small amount, and was annoyed by a certain sourness that occasionally seems to surface in ambers. The day before that, I was inundated with Indochine's powdery vanilla character. Like some other ambers I own, it seems to be any number of things, and you can't tell which one you're going to end up wearing.

Despite the fact that perfumer Pierre Guillaume is said to be a master at gourmand scents (two of his recent concoctions are Praline de Santal and Tonkamande, which are probably self-explanatory), somehow I have managed to never smell a single Parfumerie Generale scent before now, but Indochine makes a pretty good starting point.

The list of notes ("Siam benzoin resinoid, Kampot pepper, Ceylonese cardamom, Burmese tanakha, Laotian honey") sounds exotic, but the truth is that Indochine doesn't smell profoundly amazing: because of its reliance on sweet vanillic benzoin, it calls to mind any number of other sugar-bakery gourmands, most particularly Serge Lutens' Jeux de Peau but also Guerlain's Gourmand Coquin and CSP's Vanille Amande.

What makes it appealing, though,  is that it isn't the monolith it easily could have been. Guillaume takes that small cluster of elements (with presumably other things we're not being informed of) and makes something suggestive of them. It rarely smells precisely like one particular thing at any given time: there are little wisps and tendrils coming off of it. Is that anise? Do I smell a pinch of bitter chocolate? A wisp of lavender — can it be?

I have so many ambers and so many gourmands that I'm not pining for a bottle of Indochine, but I can see how it could become an addiction for someone relatively new to the genre. It's really something.


Friday, December 02, 2011

F: A by BLOOD Concept

I have tried, I have really tried to be fair to these four scents, but they are ridiculous. The packaging is excellent, but that's where all the money for the project seems to have gone. I don't understand what the thinking was behind them; there's no cohesion to them as a collection (not even the vaunted metallic-because-blood-has-metal-in-it concept) and as individual fragrances they don't make any sense.

A opens with a lot of that tomato-leaf note that started showing up all over the place in the late nineties: I didn't like it then, and I don't like it any better now, because I love gourmand fragrances but anything that smells like it ought to be in a bowl of salsa is not something I want on my skin. It is very tomatoey, and there is basil in there, too, I guess because you put basil in tomato sauce. Married to this juicy greenness is a licorice-jawbreaker candy-store scent and a bathroom-cleaner-and-toothpaste abrasiveness, and seriously, what? What were they thinking? What is this slumgullion supposed to mean? Do they really expect people to buy and wear this?