Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Immortelle Beloved

Immortelles (helichrysum italicum) – those aromatic, button-like golden flowers found along vast stretches of Mediterranean coastline – are the stars of Annick Goutal's rich autumnal brew, Sables (1985). Sweet and dark like the maple syrup notes the flower produces, Goutal’s accord is grounded in precious Mysore sandalwood and vanilla, with just the right amount of Indonesian pepper for a subtle spiciness. Like Serge Lutens’ Chergui minus the coumarin, Sables is a deeply individual “comfort” scent which is eminently wearable by both sexes. Lacking the vocabulary capable of embracing phenomena which fall outside the male-female dialectic, one is tempted to call it masculine. It exudes notes of cigar humidor (sans cigars), Indian temple (altar and floral offerings), wild honey and celery seed, albeit without the wormwood edge of Caron’s succès de scandale Yatagan (1976). It is the type of scent that one longs to smell on a cashmere scarf or a Pendleton wool shirtcoat: unique, artistic in temperament, but kind. And it has the longevity to make that sort of encounter a strong possibility.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Alpona: Still Life with Lemons, Orange and a Rose

When I reviewed Ernest Daltroff's En Avion last week, little did I know that a renewed acquaintance with his Alpona (1939) in the brisk, autumnal weather would reveal a brave new world of olfactory art, like stepping into an enchanted wood or a Zurbarán still life. Framing a heart of thyme, myrrh, cedar and well-blended florals with a bright hesperidic accord of crystallized citrus, Daltroff created the perfume-equivalent of Renaissance chiaroscuro. Out of the darkness emerge warm, vibrating colors, under a haze of old gold. It is an organic vision, meaning that each of its features coalesce with the every other; nothing is artificial, nothing is heaped on or juxtaposed in a way that jars the wearer. Likewise, nothing shocks. It is simply the experience of rightness and the realization that here is the result of an art whereby the “unlike” is joined in such a way as to create something entirely new – classically speaking, an improvement on Nature itself. Daltroff aimed here for an evocation of the mythological garden of the Hesperides. On a cold morning, the breeze coming off the East River, Alpona warms me and surprises me. Here, at last, is a citrus for the fall and winter months, something whose moss, musk and patchouli base I want to smell on my woolens. Something which goes right to the heart, or, in Wallace Steven's inimitable phrase, is “like a blaze of summer straw in winter's nick.”

Alpona is one of the urn fragrances, available in Paris and at select Caron boutiques. In New York, it is available at the Caron boutique located in the Phyto Universe day spa on Lexington Avenue at West Fifty-eighth Street. Image credit: Still Life with Lemons, Orange and a Rose by Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Norton Simon Foundation.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Earth Angel

Despite the unseasonable temperatures in much of the coastal Northeast, I’ve begun thinking of what will be most likely another transition-less jolt to winter. And with those thoughts, the dilemma of what to wear on cold, windy days. Vetiver and dry woods are perennial favorites, also orientals with sufficient amber and incense. But the minimalist in me craves something earthier, something that will remind me of the soil, the very dirt of life that hides beneath a frozen, unyielding crust: Angelica (Angelica archangelica), whose long, fleshy root is the stuff of Chartreuse, vermouth and various infused remedies. In perfumery, angelica’s root and seeds are steam distilled to produce a sweet, woody, herbaceous oil which, when blended by an expert like Jean-Claude Ellena, can produce a thing of light and shadows: Angéliques sous la pluie (2007). Using all parts of the plant, including the leaves, Ellena crafts a green, sparkling accord, at turns peppery, earthy, coniferous (cedar) and fleshlike (musk). Softer, sweeter and more muted than Jacques Polge’s Chanel No. 18 (Les Exclusifs de Chanel) whose ambrette accord was inspired by diamonds, Angéliques sous la pluie is quite literally more “rooted” in the natural world. Some argue that its relative weakness and lack of longevity make it inferior to other angelica scents, such as Creed’s Angélique Encens (1933) and Guerlain’s Angelique Noire (2005), but the only difference is Ellena’s eschewal of gourmand yumminess (i.e., vanilla). Nor is this a spice-cabinet anthem, but rather a whisper of the bulb-cellar with the gentle respiration of human life. If it were a wine, it would be a Grüner Veltliner with pepper softness in place of power. If it were a piece of clothing, it would be a light virgin wool scarf wound about the neck under a cashmere sweater, comforting, like a still small voice from out of the storm.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Leather: Three Ways

Few accords in fragrance generate as much difference in opinion as those that smack of leather. From the prim velvet-capped members of elite riding academies to the denizens of downtown biker bars, leather is worn and cared for by more than a discerning few. And like musk, civet and other synthetic animalic notes, it commands an important height in the world of traditional perfumery. For tackbox traditionalists there will always be English Leather, Cuir de Russie, Peau d'Espagne, Knize Ten, and Royal Copenhagen, but nowadays a new generation of leather scents populates the shelves of the niche stores – and among them some very wearable creations.

To begin with basics, leather accords usually are created through the blending of cistus (rockrose) and birchtar as well as the addition of certain petrochemicals used in the tanning and polishing of leather. Depending on the proportions used, the leather accord can smell anything from "new" to "rustic" to "ripe and raunchy." However, the best of the new leather kids on the block contain other ingredients which transport their wearer far beyond the inside of the shoe closet or belt drawer. And, like leather itself, the interpretations in most cases are gender-free.

Mimosa, violet and fresh hay soften a fine leather accord in Heeley's Cuir Pleine Fleur (2007), an eau de parfum conceived by the eponymous James Heeley for his Paris boutique. The birchtar here is sweet and rain-kissed as the slightly humid blossoms spring up around it on the forest floor. Heeley outdoes himself by perhaps creating the very first green-leather fragrance, and something that most anyone can be comfortable wearing.

On the other side of the cleanliness divide, there is Lonestar Memories (2006) by Zürich perfumer Andy Tauer, which might remind some of us of a failed-cowboy-cum-auto-mechanic met on a service road south of Butte. But, for all his brawn, he's a little soft in a lovable sort of way, as Tauer has conjured him from an unmistakable top note of geranium married to Clary sage and carrot seed. The chemical smell is a complete illusion created through the perfumer's art. And depending on your mood, you may want to indulge in clandestine rendezvous with this lonestar stud while putting yourself together for a day in the office. People will talk, but when it's this good it really doesn't matter much.

Heading east (about 8,000 miles), Pierre Montale's Aoud Cuir d'Arabie (2005) appears like a mirage and bears down on us like a band of roving Bedouins. Again, cistus and birchtar make their appearance but bolstered by a near-paralyzing jolt of precious oud extract and backup vocals by mint and sweet tobacco. Unlike many of the Sheldrake-Lutens scents, Montale's Aoud Cuir d'Arabie is less about the tea-shop and more about the mystery of the tent. Its details aren't filigreed or sugary; rather, they are straightforward, plainspoken and super-seductive. To finish getting dressed with a liberal spritz of this potion is like standing in the middle of your room and watching the tie-rack literally shudder. Unless it's your desert riding gear, clothing asks to be subtracted, not added. Think Travels in Arabia Deserta and pray that you make it through the Al Jabir with body, if not virtue, intact.

All three are available at Luckyscent. For a review of Tom Ford Tuscan Leather, see my earlier entry.

Monday, October 22, 2007

In Goût Taste

Last night's Scent Dinner hosted by New York Times perfume critic Chandler Burr was, for the seventeen of us gathered, a privileged peek into the related worlds of scent and flavor. Divided into six courses – each encompassing the expression of a certain staple ingredient (flour, bread, butter, salt, carrot, saffron and so on) – the four-hour dinner could be better dubbed as a sort of olfactionary sleight-of-hand. My table companions arched intently over the rapidly multiplying touches, stumped by white truffle, pink peppercorn and the many masterpieces of modern laboratory scent mimicry. Who would have thought that the pat of butter sitting next to one's dinner roll was infused with a chemical called diacetyl, which most American noses have been schooled in since early childhood and which may explain the propensity (of certain of us, present parties excluded) for drinking over-oaked California chardonnays? In all this gourmanderie, Chandler was an affable guide for everyone from established industry types to budding perfumers, right down to the foodies who swooned over some scents as I imagine they would in a middle-eastern spice bazaar. Favorite among the food-scent pairings was a plate of butter-poached langoustines, heirloom baby carrots and carrot-ginger emulsion avec Jean-Claude Ellena's masterful green mango-infused Un Jardin sur le Nil and, bargain eau du jour, Roger et Gallet's Gingembre, which sent one woman into a near fit of apparent joy. The wines and spirits chosen by the Carlyle beverage director had fewer standouts, but I beamed at the 1990 Poniatowski Vouvray Aigle Blanc, a botrytis-tinged chenin blanc redolent of honey, apples and chèvrefeuille. Six courses later, after a final moment spent in the flame-licked world of Issey Miyake's Le Feu, I thanked my gracious host and slipped out into the air of the Upper East Side: black sequins floating on a cloud of taxi fumes. Eau so New York!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Lost Men of the '80s

Fragrance equals power. Financial, sexual, and social. End of story. The Eighties were about an indomitable optimism and an assurance that, despite the ascendance of women in the workplace, men were still putting it in the bank. It seemed like it would go on forever. But, like the beleaguered S&Ls of that era, many popular men's scents simply went belly-up. And not just splash-on juice for yuppiedom. Some storied masterpieces as well. Versailles pour Homme (Jean Desprez) , Jules (Christian Dior), and Patou pour Homme, all created in 1980, were among them. They followed on an era of great importance for men's fragrances, if one that often gave too much attention to musks and accords potent enough to fell eligible women on the dance floor. (A certain Caron cologne comes to mind. Hint: starts with a Y.) Rather, this Eighties trifecta aimed for something plus civilisé. Versailles and Patou, which shared notes of pine needle, geranium, carnation, patchouli, cinnamon and olibanum, both fell under the classification of "oriental spicy," Jules, with its green notes, artemisia, fir and Russian leather, under the "fougère" distinction. The former were super-rich, super-masculine scents of comfort, meant to be worn with one of those double-breasted power suits, the latter was a bit of carryover from the Seventies but with the addition of cedar, sandal and the full complement of florals at the heart to cut the amaro-like bitterness. Complicated, chock full of ingredients, each scent inhabited its own position of dominance: the head of the boardroom table, the best view in the Grill Room, the first tee-off at the Maidstone. Reared during that decade in a sleepy bedroom community on the North Shore of L.I., I oft remember the dads of my school chums getting into their expensive German autos for that drive to the local train station, the scent on their clothing telling the entire story. Is it mere nostalgia to say it wasn't half bad? And while their betters gaze out over the Intercoastal, who survives today on the shelves at Target? Paco Rabanne, Drakkar Noir and Polo Green. To which I say: Come on, bring back the big boys.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Caron: En Avion

for L.–

Autumn temperatures, finally. And, with them, the opportunity to reacquaint myself with some “Hall of Fame” scents. Yesterday and today, I have been luxuriating in Ernest Daltroff’s olfactory homage to the female aviators of the last century, En Avion (1929). Often labeled as a “leather chypre,” En Avion came ten years after Daltroff’s monumental Lost Generation masterpiece, Tabac Blond, and, while it shares some of that scent’s “woman of confidence” bearing, its personality is marked by a more overt, if darker, femininity. The tobacco of his earlier “oriental leather,” has here given sway to an eccentric, if somber, blend of orange tree (yes, the tree), rose centifolia, jasmine absolute and spicy, clove-laced carnation. Again, the spirit of leather is evoked, but not the supple kid gloves and suede of Tabac Blond; rather, here it is the leather of the cockpit: gear, upholstery, bonnet and goggles. The woman is still rich and independent, but wary of her husband’s overweening financial machismo. This is, after all, the spring before the Crash. She has been to a Freudian analyst and perhaps rankles at the sweet pipe tobacco of yesteryear. She’s ready to pick up the pen and begin writing her own story, to make her own road, even if it spells some brand of disaster. And when she’s not trailing vapor at ten thousand feet, she’s trailing sillage like Isak Dinesen at the Muthaiga Club, Nairobi. She’s re-found her feminine charm. She even professes a love for flowers after all that flapper-era genderfuck fol-de-rol. I love her.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Sous le Vent

All this talk of chypres at Perfume Shrine has me positively green. At a time of year, when I'd usually be contemplating a bottle of Tabac Blond and a pot of Lapsang Souchong, I'm isolating my green scents to a corner of (what my boyfriend has dubbed) "the shrine." Standing out from the midst of them is a small flacon of Guerlain Sous le Vent (1933/2006), recently reissued by Guerlain at their Champs-Elysées flagship and their boutique at Bergdorf Goodman. Sous le Vent is one of my ür-comfort-scents, a complex aromatic chypre that does not bury my nose in sap-soaked, mossy earth but, rather, exalts it in a Provençal herb garden suffused by nearly horizontal rays of sun, wet with morning dew, bordered by beds of rose, iris and ylang-ylang. It is one of the few scents that, each time I wear it, sends me into a type of synesthetic trance: fuzzy pastel points of emerald green and salmon pink move in and out of focus, floating on a cloud of milky white; every few seconds, a lightning-flash of Persian blue "cools" it all down. Sous le Vent is a perfume that, owing to its expertly blended ingredients, nearly eludes analysis. Like Lyn Harris's Eau de Vert, it renews me and, at first, makes me feel clean, but it doesn't stray chez Harris into the fennel/anise part of the garden; rather, after the Guerlinade accord calms down, a little cat comes padding down the walk: civet, ma favorite. In the shadow of Uncle Aimé's masterful Jicky, Jacques Guerlain knew that an animalic was needed to counter the freshness, to give it depth. Surprisingly, the civet does not "dirty" the scent. Rather, it challenges the nose to reconnect to those diminished Guerlinade notes and to pick out the very thing that may explain those flashes of Persian blue: tonka-bean-glazed orris. Along with the initial triad of unmistakeable basil-estragon-lavender, Sous le Vent has me wondering whether Jacques Guerlain created the first gourmand fragrance sixty years before its time.

Image credit: Original advertisement, Ebay.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

A Vital Link

Barraged with articles each week on the gradually worsening state of the planet, I can't help but think how ritual products like perfume and wine are living reminders of nature's vital role in our daily lives. No matter how mechanized our activities, the perfume anointed and the wine sipped are nature's subtle intrusions into the human calendar. Though in themselves works of artifice, and sometime art, perfume and wine traditionally are seen as improvements on nature but always on nature's terms, always delimited by the laws of Nature itself. The interests of many of my fellow perfume- and oenophile bloggers are tied up with natural processes, methods of extraction and sustainable agricultural practices; aesthetic concerns are ancillary. As growers of many stripes will oft remind us: it makes itself. The sun shines down, the vine flowers and fruits. The bud breaks, the moon waxes... and so on. The best in winemaking and perfumery is the enhancement (with integrity) of what Mother Earth herself does best. Let's start living in a way that shows we believe this. Recycle, clean up after yourself and do what you will.

Image credit: Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1500. Prado, Madrid.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Soap Opera

Don't misread the title of this posting: the last thing one would expect of a Penhaligon's scent is drama. But let's face it, for all their aristocratic pedigree, soapy notes do dominate in that green and pleasant land. English Fern (1911), Hammam Bouquet (1870) and, today's subject, Douro, all draw some charm from a soapy, muguet middle note (hydroxycitronellal) which reminds one of immaculately tiled bathrooms, warm towel racks and freshly bleached towels. The problem is that, most of the time, such "fresh" notes are better suited to spring than to nascent autumn. Douro is the exception: a preeminently woodsy citrus eau de cologne which incorporates the soapy note to fine effect. Previously named Lords, it was created in 1985, and thanks to its zesty citrus opening could be dubbed one of that decade's masculine, "power" scents. But, in my humble opinion, the soap keeps its wearer firmly grounded in reality until the fairly sumptuous sandalwood and musk notes come to the fore. In Douro-land, there's little in the way of profundity, but nonetheless it provides a magnificent form of entertainment for the nose on those morning's when a quartet (in this case, the barbershop version) is preferred over a symphony. Longevity is not fabulous, sillage is restrained; but use the soap bath gel beforehand and I'd wager it lasts longer than most colognes. Now, I wouldn't mind smelling this on the handsome guy at the next locker.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Just Dandy: Floris Malmaison Carnation

The scent the divine Oscar himself wore? And which on application one could imagine an Anglicized Henry James adopting for his morning toilette. Such was my relative elation on opening a bottle of Floris Malmaison Carnation and almost instinctively spraying it into the air of my study. This, at last, was the ultimate gentleman's scent. If you can get beyond the seals of the Royal Warrant adorning box and bottle, the very apex of English fustiness, this is not an Edwardian museum-fragrance. Actually, it dates from 1830, making it early Victorian. It reeks of prosperity, of money in the bank, and the comfort that comes in the form of a man wearing a double-breasted suit with weskit and boutonnière – in short, the man who's taking you to lunch in a closed car and hearing no objections. According the botanists, the Malmaison carnation takes its name from the multifoliate Bourbon rose which it resembles. It is exceedingly spicy-sweet by nature (i.e., cinnamon and cloves). Floris reinforces this in their blend with sandalwood, black pepper and a range of florals. If it were a wine, it would be a Beaune 1er Cru Bressandes or Clos des Chênes with some of the complexities that come of medium-term cellaring. Unlike Prada's Oeillet, a masterpiece of understatement, and LV's Garofano with its Florentine "fullness," Malmaison Carnation has breed. It would make a marvelous starter scent for the man who wishes to stray from the dull phalanx of formal scents that populate the top of his dressing bureau ... or for the woman who wears his shirts on weekends.