One Thousand Scents

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Circus Freak: L'Artisan Parfumeur Dzing!

This morning when I sat down at my desk I thought it seemed a little more fragrant than usual, but I didn't really think any more of it, because there are usually little scraps of scent eddying around it, unsurprising considering how many vials and bottles of things are usually scattered on its surface and in its drawers, defying my attempts to keep some sort of order.

I picked up the sample vial of Dzing! that I knew was lying there, popped out the stopper, applied it to the back of my hand without really looking at it, and was shocked to discover that it was quite empty. I looked where it had been lying and — uh-oh — there was tiny rectangular pool of something where the vial had lain since yesterday. Yes, somehow I had not stoppered it tightly, and it had all leaked out and evaporated, leaving only its oil behind.

But no matter. I owned Dzing! quite a while ago — it's one of the first niche scents I ever bought, back in 2000 — and I know it well. Still, I wasn't going to let the remnants of the sample go to waste, so I swiped the oil up with a couple of fingers and applied it to my skin. Of course I did! How can I write about it if I can't smell it?

Dzing! is an oriental, but it's a very strange one, the damnedest thing you ever smelled. It bears a real kinship to Bulgari Black, to the point where I would say if you own one you don't really need to own the other, different though they are. Both have a quantity of vanilla in the base, but where Black's dominant idea is a wondrously strange tea-and-rubber accord, Dzing!'s is a genuinely peculiar wood-and-saffron blend, the peculiarity arising from the fact that the wood isn't wood at all, it's wood products — it's sawdust and cardboard, supplemented with leather. It is meant to evoke the circus (which explains the lady-aboard-a-tiger picture on the label): the sawdust in the ring, the leathery-animalic smell of elephants and lions, the sweetness of cotton candy.

I'm not sure it does that, at least not for me, but it is riveting nonetheless. When you remember you're wearing it, you bring your nose close to your skin for another intoxicating whiff, and when you forget, you're occasionally shocked by a little gust of sweet cardboard-and-leather strangeness. I don't believe in signature fragrances, but if you had to pick one thing to smell like all the time, Dzing! would be a pretty good choice, because it's so weird and so appealing at the same time: you'll smell good, but you sure won't smell like anyone else.

People complain about the longevity of the scent (a common complaint for Olivia Giacobetti scents, though she's made some heavy hitters like Idole de Lubin as well as the gauzy Mandarine Tout Simplement). Maybe a reformulation has shortened its life expectancy, but the bottle I had a decade ago and the sample I just finished up last for at least eight hours on my skin.


Friday, August 24, 2012

Paradox: Lancôme Magie (vintage)

I am the type of person who is always willing to try new things, and, when he finds one that is sympatico with his personality, latches onto it with all his teeth and claws.

My new thing is writing with a dip pen. I was doing some cleaning and discovered a pen holder, a few nibs, and a couple of bottles of ink, all of which I had just forgotten I even owned. I tried writing with the pen and ink and discovered that I liked it a lot: there is something tactile and almost sensual about it that it not present when you write with a ball-point pen. I am aware that if I had no choice, if I had to use pen-and-ink, I would quite possibly hate it, because there are drawbacks, including spillage, scratchy spattery nibs, ink-stained fingers, drips, blotting, and more, but it's like making mayonnaise: you can just buy the stuff, or you can use a blender or a hand-held mixer, but there is something physical and intimate about making it by hand with a whisk and your own two arms, whatever the drawbacks.

If you are going to use a dip pen and nice ink, then you ought to have an interesting inkwell. Early in August we spent the weekend in Prince Edward Island, driving around and just relaxing: I'm not a beach person, but I sure like to drive. (Or be driven: I haven't been behind the wheel of a car in at least five years, but I'm a great passenger, and since Jim likes to drive, that works out pretty well for both of us.) We went to an estate auction and a couple of antiques places but didn't find anything. I did, however, find at the auction an old travelling set consisting of three glass bottles of maybe an ounce each with silver sheaths and caps, all in a leather case, which women used to decant their perfumes into while travelling: all were empty, of course, but one of them (yes, of course I opened them all) contained the dried but still fragrant dregs of something may have been spectacularly beautiful once or may just have been run-of-the-mill, but it had been perfume, honest-to-god perfume and not some flower water, because what remained was mostly oakmoss, that former mainstay of the perfume industry. I didn't stick around to bid on it, because what use would it have been to me?

Then last weekend we went to Halifax, and my mission was the same: find an inkwell! Again, we went to an auction and a few antiques places, again I was thwarted in my inkwell quest, and again I found an old perfume bottle fragrant with remnants. This one was probably a four-ounce glass bottle with a bulb sprayer and a footed silver (or silvery metal) filigree sheath. Unscrewing the cap, though the bottle itself was quiet empty, unleashed a torrent of scent, mostly from sludge gathered around the threads, and what was that smell? Yes, of course: oakmoss again, huge and brazen. The price was $5. I didn't buy it. Again, what was I going to do with it? Sniff it every now and then? Scrape off the sludge and dissolve it in alcohol?

I did, on the other hand, buy some amazing ink and some thoroughly excellent paper: I'm not buying any more scents for a while if I can help it, but now I'm buying ink. (And if you are thinking that ink is just ink, I invite you to take a gander at the ink-review page at the Fountain Pen Network: hundreds upon hundreds of inks, meticulously sampled and reviewed. Just like perfume reviews!) So perhaps my primary obsession was never really scents: perhaps it was liquids in bottles. Thank god I don't drink.


There are two ways to look at Lancôme's 1950 release Magie (not Magie Noire, a dark oriental launched in 1978).

If we look at Magie from a modern point of view, then it's hopelessly old-fashioned: there's no fruit in it, no white musk, no caramel and vanilla, nothing that would appeal to today's target market of 16-to-24-year-olds. Magie has a shimmery aldehydic top note hovering above a big bouquet of flowers, lots of rose and jasmine (of course) among others but without any one flower predominating, and a civety-woody base with lots of oakmoss, because pretty much everything had oakmoss in those days. It is very French in its classical pyramid structure, absolutely natural-smelling, rich and luscious, utterly irresistible. Anybody older than 40 would be thrilled to get their hands on something so beautiful, not least to remember the way perfumery used to be: to a modern nose, though, it doubtless smells like old-lady perfume.

But if we consider it as a vintage scent, here's the odd thing: it's nothing special. I've smelled a number of things like it over the years: there isn't any particular element that sets Magie apart, no extraordinary magic to it, despite its name. I have a feeling that upon its release, it was just another drop in the sea of floral chypres, of which there were too many to count or remember. And there is your paradox: compared to modern commercial perfumes, Magie is unquestionably excellent, but would be dismissed as old-fashioned by modern noses, whereas in its time, it was one excellent scent among many just like it, and would (I suspect) have been dismissed by 1950s noses as well. (And I could be wrong: perhaps it was heralded as a great exemplar of the art form in its day. I can't find any evidence of that, though, and its eventual discontinuation suggests otherwise.)

Magie probably sold well enough for a decade or two, back before there were a thousand or more new scents being launched every year: there would have been at most eight or ten Lancôme fragrances on the counter at that time (after the initial collection was established, they were being launched every two to four years, a rate which Lancôme continued until the industry floodgates opened in the mid-'90s), so if a customer wanted a Lancôme scent, or a floral chypre, then Magie had as good a chance as any of selling enough to be worth continued manufacture — for a time, at any rate. But discontinued it was. A few years ago, Lancôme revived it with three other old standbys (Sikkim, Climat, and Sagamore), but I never did smell any of them, because I have never yet encountered a modern reformulation, however good its intentions, that could compare to the original.

That picture up there, by the way, is not mine (I borrowed it from the limitless Internet and I hope I am not stepping on anyone's toes), but that is exactly the bottle that I have, a one-ounce eau de cologne which is at least as strong as a modern eau de parfum. (the box says 90°, which means it's 10% fragrance oils, comparable to a modern eau de toilette: but in terms of lasting power and sheer quality of materials it's more like an EDP than a dilute, fresh EDC.) If you should ever see this, and you lament the direction modern perfumery has taken or you just want to see what a perfectly ordinary, run-of-the-mill (though very well-made and beautiful) fragrance was like in 1950, then you need to snap it up.


Friday, August 17, 2012

Glory Be: Ambra Nera by Farmacia SS. Annunciata

It is no insult to say that Ambra Nera smells as if you had opened a few dozen bottles of other amber scents and arrayed them in front of you: it calls to mind Obsession, Ambre Précieux, Ambre Sultan, Anné Pliska, Voile d'Ambre, Vanille Ambre, and many more besides. And most of those reviews cross-reference other reviews, because ambers have minor differences (they can be sourish, bright, heavy, austere or sugar-sweet), but they all have that same warm, cozy quality that makes them perennially beloved.

If you can believe the official list of notes (you can't, actually), you are smelling cypress, eucalyptus, amber, benzoin, vetiver, vanilla and patchouli. What you actually get straight out of the bottle is warm sweet amber with a slight hot-toast quality (not as bready as Jeux de Peau) and lots of vanilla (from the benzoin): the whole composition eventually turns very powdery, while remaining an amber scent from start to finish.  It lasts for many hours and is surprisingly low-key, the kind of warm-skin scent that hangs around you but doesn't project to fill a lot of space. I've been wearing it for three days straight now, and can't find a single fault with it: Ambra Nera is ravishing, quite possibly the perfect amber scent.

But we scent hounds are a fickle lot. Perhaps there are still people who choose a single scent to represent themselves until they die (how? isn't that like listening to a single song for your entire life?), but I, obviously, am not one of them: my tastes change over time, my desires and interests change, and what seemed perfect twenty years ago no longer works. And so it is with ambers. My Holy Grail amber used to be Ambre Précieux, but I found over the years that either it or my perception of it had become cloying, overstated, too-much. Ambra Nera is the perfect replacement.


Thursday, August 09, 2012

Strumpet Voluntary: Etat Libre d'Orange Putain des Palaces

To get this out of the way first, I don't know why "Putain des Palaces" translates as "Hotel Slut", but it does, apparently. Was there a hotel named Les Palaces or something? Since we get both "palace" and "hotel" directly from French, you'd think that "hotel" would be "hotel" and "palace" would be "palace", but no, just proving what an unbridgeable gulf there is between English and French.

Anyway, you're not here to read about etymology, you're here to read about perfume.

Once upon a time, and not that long ago, not even a century, nice girls in North America didn't wear makeup and they didn't wear perfume. They might pinch their cheeks to bring up the colour, and they might wear a little eau de toilette in some innocuous lilac or apple-blossom scent, but to wear makeup or actual European perfume, the kind with a musky, animalic base that suggested sex, meant you were easy, and there was no middle ground. Virgin or slut: those were your choices. (Based on their perfumes alone, you could tell that the sluts were the ones having all the fun.)

A friend of mine had a delicious family saying that was dredged out whenever Mother or one of the girls was perfumed for a night out: "You smell like a whore's handbag." Etat Libre d'Orange's Putain des Palaces smells like a whore's handbag, in the best imaginable way.

After a bright, cheery mandarin-orange opening laced with aldehydes, PdP reveals itself to be a midcentury rose-and-violet perfume (it recalls vintage L'Interdit by Givenchy) with a heavy dusting of face powder. To some people, this will read as "old-fashioned" or even "old-lady", but they're not paying attention, they're not sticking around, because lurking just underneath is a slightly sweetened leather — could be the handbag, could be a well-used whip for all you know — and an ambery animal dirtiness with a decidedly sexual connotation: if this is old-fashioned, it's old-fashioned hussy. The only thing missing is a postcoital smoke (and Etat Libre d'Orange already has you covered there with Jasmin et Cigarette).

Putain des Palaces is so ineluctably feminine that there is something irresistible about the idea of a man unapologetically wearing it, someone stylish and masculine like English rugby player and all-around excellent human being Ben Cohen

or American actor Shemar Moore

because we expect men to smell like citrus and ozone (if they are under 35) or tobacco and barbershop (if over), and how terrific would it be to encounter a man confidently smelling like he'd teleported from the 1950s after having just spent some bedsheets time with a brazen lady?


Friday, August 03, 2012

Plain and Simple: Annick Goutal Rose Absolue

Unless you have read a really complete edition of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass" (such as Martin Gardner's indispensable "The Annotated Alice"), then you have never read the chapter called "A Wasp in a Wig". Presumed to be genuine, the chapter was cut by Lewis Carroll upon the urging of his illustrator, John Tenniel, who in a nice little turn of phrase said, "A wasp in a wig is altogether beyond the appliances of art." (It isn't, of course: Tenniel just didn't like the chapter and didn't want to illustrate it, for reasons that Gardner is happy to speculate upon.)

Annick Goutal's 1984 Rose Absolue supposedly consists of nothing but rose oils: Egyptian, Bulgarian, Turkish, Moroccan, Damascena, and Rose de Mai. This is presented as a selling point, but I think it's a problem. A composed perfume needs to have some structure: it can't just be a bunch of things mixed together, any more than music can just be a bunch of notes. Even a soliflore, a fragrance that is meant to smell like a single flower or bouquet, can't just be the smell of that one thing, for two reasons: first, the smell of a single thing, however lovely, becomes tedious over time, and second, an extracted oil never smells exactly like the real thing — it always undergoes some alteration in the process of extraction — and it needs some tinkering to make it smell as it ought to. It needs the appliances of art.

Roses unquestionably smell gorgeous, and there have been lots of rose soliflores throughout the years and decades. (Coco Chanel was responding to this, and making the case for her complex and wildly modern No. 5, when she said, "I like roses, and the smell of the rose is very beautiful, but I do not want a woman to smell like a rose.") But even soliflores still need that structure. Yves Rocher's unrelated 2006 Rose Absolue, for example, bolsters its barrage of roses with a little spice at the top and a little sweetened wood at the bottom, just enough to give it some development while still placing the rose front and centre. But Goutal's version, while it unquestionably has facets, is not enough. It's too simple. It's very pretty and rosy at first, and because the perfumer uses a number of different roses with varying aromatic qualities, there is a slight citrus quality to the scent at the beginning, and a powderiness later on. But the overall effect of all those roses with nothing to temper them is sourish and curdled. Instead of a sonata, it's two or three notes on the piano played over and over again, and after a while it becomes simply irritating.

I would like to suggest, based on the evidence of Goutal's Rose Absolue, that a true rose soliflore, one consisting of nothing but roses, is altogether beyond the appliances of the art of perfumery.