Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Accordions: Andy Warhol Silver Factory and Fumerie Turque

The traditional fragrance pyramid contains one flaw: unyielding linearity. To say that, on application, a scent is concentrated at a single point from which it then expands in three distinct stages, is too simplistic. Certainly, if pressed, we can all produce the names of fragrances that roughly adhere to this model, but more often these days the fragrances that really provide an odyssey for the nose and the mind are either fairly straightforward or deliciously unstable. It is this latter group that primarily interests me today. It is a known fact among perfumers that a really sterling note is given depth and complexity through the “backup” performance of an often unlikely accord. Many times, such backups are the special signature of a particular house or nose. In perfume-speak, these are the “middle” notes.

In the case of Bond No.9 New York’s Andy Warhol Silver Factory (due out next week) and Serge Lutens Fumerie Turque (2003), the backup accords sequester themselves in a middleground which, in a most nonlinear fashion, exposes itself numerously in the lifespan of the scent (on the skin). And what’s more, these accords seemingly conflict intellectually with the primary idea of the fragrance. In the case of both Silver Factory and Fumerie Turque, the notes which take primary billing are resinous, self-assured, sensual and big. (Did I say “big”?) The backup accords, however, are delicately floral. They are squeezed accordion-like in between the larger notes, amplifying or muting them as the pleats of the bellows expand and contract. Silver Factory has violet, jasmine and iris, while Fumerie Turque has Rose Otto and Egyptian jasmine. Left to their own devices, the tobacco and incense which we associate with these scents would be one-dimensional and literal: we’d either be contemplating a temple brazier or navigating a room of puffing narguiles. Instead, the hidden floral accords deepen and transform these fragrances, sweetening the bitterness of one while sensualizing the social rituals of the other. And instead of inhabiting backlots, simulacrae of the real, both fragrances allow us transport to a shimmering historical moment and to the deepest parts of collective memory.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Sailing to Byzantium

Vetivresse will be offline from 15 November. I will be traveling to Istanbul to visit badboy Dutch design guru Bas van Beek, pondering new olfactory ideas, the East-West divide, and otherwise unwinding from the hectic New York City pace. I look forward to writing about my travels upon my return on 25 November. Happy Thanksgiving to all of my American readers!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


During my years in the postulancy and novitiate of a Roman Catholic religious congregation, I was given the job of community Sacristan. This role entailed rising before the rest of the community of priests and Brothers to dress the altars, set out the appropriate vestments, mark the correct pages in the Missal and the Lectionary, and arrange the bread and wine that would be consecrated during the celebration of the Eucharist. On Sundays, solemnities and significant feast days, it also meant incense. Somehow, at seventeen, I felt that incense – especially when employed on cold winter mornings – redeemed the lowlier aspects of my humble service. Since ancient times, incense traditionally has been used to symbolize the prayers of the gathered faithful rising up to the Deity. A few years ago, I remember the vicar of a local Episcopalian church telling the assembled choirboys that there were two smells with which all believers should acquaint themselves: incense and sulphur. He cited the Book of Revelation, in which great bowls of incense burn, symbolizing the prayers of the saintly. As for sulphur, he cited Milton’s depictions of Hell in Paradise Lost and a recent incident in the boys’ dining hall. But for me, incense was one of the great gifts of the liturgy because, like music and poetry, art and gesture, it engaged the senses. Often on very important days, we’d have incense once at First Vespers, three or four times during Morning Prayer and Mass and then, again, during Second Vespers. Very fine incenses would arrive from around the world, most notably frankincense, myrrh, and a series of particularly precious incenses from monasteries in Syria and Egypt, and I was anxious to experiment with them all. While burning the incense was easy, keeping the charcoal briquette sufficiently hot in a freezing chapel was a challenge. Once the Prefect caught me mashing multiple burning briquettes in the thurible, a feat which managed to keep the incense burning but which drew laughs from the Brothers when the censer itself started to glow red. Needless to say, that incident was not repeated. For saints I deemed “mystical,” great clouds of incense were the desired effect. On one holy woman’s feast day, a cranky monk (albeit possessed of a wicked sense of humor) remarked that I had created our very own “Cloud of Unknowing.” This point was driven home quite memorably when, not seconds later, a loud crash was heard. It would seem that I had created so much smoke that the priests couldn’t see in front of them and had whacked into the roodscreen. Well, I thought, someone was smiling down on us from above ... and enjoying the smell of it all.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Getting Warmer

When the local Williams-Sonoma store has mulling spices, apple pie filling and chocolate turkeys on its most prominent displays I know we’re beyond the point of no return. Even the sweet saleslady pushing Gingerbread at CB I Hate Perfume Gallery in Williamsburg could give the witch from Hänsel und Gretel a run for her money. Well ... not that Vetivresse has anything against this veritable “spiceworld” mentality of late, but our idea of November Gemütlichkeit has more to do with darkness and warmth (of the refined sort) than grandma’s-house spiciness. Some key words: amber, ambre gris, incense, patchouli, Mysore sandalwood, Russian Caravan tea, cedarwood and musk. Some images: the Musée National Gustave-Moreau in Paris; the final color sequence in Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev; the temples of Luang Prabang in Laos; smoke rising from an auberge chimney outide Autun, Bourgogne; a wild boar kicking up underbrush in the woods near Bergamo, Italy; a Carthusian entering his cubiculum at the Grande Chartreuse in Grenoble; the Buddha under the Bo tree.

That said, there is almost something ritualistic in the dark richness of Profumum’s Santalum (2006), hands-down the highest-quality sandalwood fragrance I have ever smelled. With truly amazing liquor the color of samovar tea and gobs of essential oils, Santalum is an enchantment from within seconds of application. Its trinity of Mysore sandalwood, myrrh, and extra-subtle cinnamon in eau de parfum concentration is pure sang royal, a step or two closer to the root of a magnificent lineage which, albeit in eau de cologne concentration, includes Etro's inimitable Sandalo (1989). It is like hearing a performance of Vivaldi's Inverno movement while the sun sets behind the domes of Mysore Palace. Sandalwood is the basso continuo upon which the myrrh etches its crystal maze, the golden room shining out into winter’s gunflint gloom.

Longevity is extraordinary – after six hours on my skin, a sweetness, akin to that of Chergui sans that scent’s powder note, lingers on the skin. All I can think right now is: what a candle this would make! Next up, Profumum’s Fiori d’Ambra.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Gods

These last few days I've been pondering those great fragrances pour lui, which, for me, breathe a finer air than we mere mortals. In lieu of my “Ten Favorite Fall Scents,” here's some ambrosia for the men in the room:

  1. Christian Dior Eau Sauvage
  2. Monsieur de Givenchy
  3. Guerlain Vétiver
  4. Chanel Pour Monsieur
  5. Creed Green Irish Tweed
  6. Creed Vintage Tabarôme
  7. Knize Ten
  8. Hermès Equipage
  9. Guerlain Mouchoir de Monsieur
  10. Guerlain Derby

Wearing any (or all) of these is one of the rites of passage for the well-dressed man. As a high school junior I remember dabbing my neck with Pour Monsieur, as if adopting the rituals of the Establishment were a means toward undermining them. Little did I know then that I was playing with Promethean fire... And, yes, before the comments roll in, these are all eminently unisex.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Soul Patch: Real Patchouly

Today, while most of New York congregated for the Marathon, the boyfriend and I brunched at Fred's (the chicken liver crostini get high marks!) and shopped for a new fragrance for him. In Atique's absence, Marlene and Tyler helped us at the niche fragrance counter on the Lower Level. Basing their selections on the boyfriend’s comfort with Serge Lutens Chergui and Maître Parfumeur et Gantier Ambre Precieux, they produced an adorable frosted bottle of Bois 1920 Real Patchouly. On hearing that it was a patchouli scent, I cringed a bit on the inside. He does not like patchouli, I said to myself. I knew this from a run-in, early in our relationship, with Etro Patchouli. (Apparently, he'd been scandalized by a former coworker on one too many occasions.) We all have our patchouli stories. Well, Bois 1920 Real Patchouly is light-years from cheap hippie juice. With super-rich top notes of Indian sandalwood and amber tinged – radiantly, I might add – with refreshing lemon, this is like sunlight filtered through honey-gold glass and fragrant wood lattices. After a few minutes on the skin, some sweet vanilla comes through, alloyed with something resembling black licorice. (“Yummy” sounds.) But where was the elusive patchouli? Hours later, I still can't say. It may be that the accord we were sniffing equated a good patchouli experience without employing the eponymous note. Bottom line: this is a great, sensual cold-weather scent for amber-lovers and their admirers. The boyfriend agrees.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Got Root?

My lovely sales associate at Barneys New York, Atique Mahjoub, called the other day to announce that the Nasomatto scents had come in, and I made the six-block pilgrimage to sample them. Life could be harder, honestly. Nestled on a small tray, the single-ounce bottles were attractively displayed with their oversized wooden stoppers erect and just asking to be removed. Nasomatto Absinth extrait de parfum was the standout among the five and the reason I am posting so soon on the heels of my love letter to “immortelle.” Less about that transgressive Green Fairy than an absolutely lovely rendition of vetiver, Absinth reminds me of a more elegant version of Wild Hunt, Christopher Brosius' recent foray into sous-bois accords. The Javanese vetiver seems to respire on the skin, revealing just the merest green sweetness allied to faint patchouli leaves, rose woods, bergamot, mushroom, nuts and other earthy notes. The invocation of the fin-de-siècle drink, je pense, is more about marketing than anything else ... as the rather fulsome marketing copy (“the fragrance aims to evoke degrees of hysteria”) on the box leads one to believe. Billed as an extrait, sillage and longevity are pronounced, and price is quite reasonable considering how many other fragrances at eau de toilette concentration fetch similar price-points for the same amount of juice. A clear autumn winner, for sure.