Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Secret Life of Scent

Today I waited around for the better part of the day for furniture deliveries. I rose an hour later than usual and prepped two rooms for their new additions. This sort of thing always throws me out of whack: I leave the tea diffuser in for too long (this morning was Mariage Frères French Breakfast), I don’t shower at a respectable time, I root around for cereal I never eat on a school day, and I pray a little prayer that the milk fairy is on my side and the milk hasn’t gone sour. Since I was shuffling around in house slippers and sweatclothes, I wasn’t reaching for fragrance. A touch of some Arabian rose-white musk oil from last night was detectable on my left wrist, but a trifle too faint. Near my computer were some samples from Caron and the Perfume House Private Reserve, but I wasn’t reaching for them. Later, later, I told myself. Instead, I did some writing for an advertising campaign, listened to a C.P.E. Bach keyboard concerto and updated my Facebook page. Then, the first of the deliveries came, and the gusty morning air whipped around the first floor of the apartment. By the time I’d tipped the two deliverymen, late morning sun was coming through the skylight above my desk. Rare indeed is the day that I even see this sun and where it chooses to focus: a Tibetan throne rug, my Netflix selections (Louis Malle’s Phantom India, Antonioni’s L’Eclisse), a Message Bean plant I was given at Laura’s wedding, a volume of Cavafy. In the bathroom, I burned Voluspa’s Crisp Champagne candle but kept the door closed. Because I like bathroom scents to stay in the bathroom. Before the next set of deliverymen showed up, I rooted around in thirty boxes of books and prioritized which ones would be given shelf space. Books have such funny smells: sulphury, woodsy, mushroomy and gluey. I even managed to discover volumes I hadn’t seen since the move last year. And then there were the ugly stepchildren consigned to a box on which I scrawled M. Likely Strand. (Though there’s a part of me that would like to put them out in the hall for my neighbors.) By the time the bookcases arrived, it was evening. I filled the shelves and then rushed to organize the packing trash. I needed to hightail it to another part of Williamsburg for dinner. Decided to wear Caron Alpona, a true favorite, which I applied liberally. Never too much, I thought, of this good thing. Now, home, and thinking of my first night on my new bed. Wearing a little of Andy Tauer’s Incense Extrême, which reminds me of Armani Privé Bois d’Encens, but with more complexity and a bit more warmth (love the orris and the ambergris, Andy). I saw that Helg at PerfumeShrine reviewed his other new scent, Incense Rosé. With eyelids beginning to droop, goodnight mes amis.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Ajmal Aqhawan

Branding 101. Doesn’t the value of a good name come from its mystique? “Aqhawan” is a variant spelling of the Arabic جامعة الأخوي, meaning “two brothers.” And it couldn’t be a more appropriate name for a fragrance which aligns two of the most unmistakable scents of the Middle East.

The main story here comes from Ta’if rose, the thirty-petal Rosa damascena that grows in the mountainous region near Mecca. For nearly 300 years, rose oil has been distilled here for purchase by the hajji on their way to the Holy City. It is considered one of the most precious gifts in the Arab world, and thus the oil is found in a great number of better Arab perfume oils.

Ajmal’s Aqhawan blends Ta’if rose with Istanbul rose and Cambodian oud. The rose accord initially lurks behind the unmistakable oud; then, after thirty or so minutes, it enacts a subtle victory. In fact, subtle is the key word here. Oud is a tough contender, and it is not won over by force; rather, it is handled, much as one would handle a beast in the jungle. When not––yikes, advertising-speak––“heroing” the oud, a competent perfumer can work with qualities of the oud itself. Arabian Oud does this in a traditional manner, Montale in a contemporary manner. Ajmal is hardly in the middle-ground, but its scents do seem to take cues from both generations of perfumery. (Again, so little has been written in English about modern Arabian perfumery, that it is hard to speak to a tradition or school. I hope that my series can make some headway in spurring this.)

is a unisex eau de parfum marketed to men. Having said that, I can assure you that the rose accord here is not flowery or flirtatious. It is quite masculine, owing to the wood and, again, the surprising complexity of rose petals distilled instead of extracted with hexane or CO2. In a word, beautiful.

Image credit: Ta’if rosewater and aspergelum, compliments of Saudi Aramco World.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Ajmal Dahn Al Oudh Al Shams

A mouthful, to say the least, I acquired a small decant of this fragrance about a week ago and stared it down every evening. What lurks inside, I wondered to myself. It had been quite expensive and touted itself as an eau de parfum expression of aged Indian oud. Spraying timidly the tiniest, most pitiful, downright sclerotic, little amount imaginable, my nose was immediately struck––the metaphor most apt––by the incredible, unbridgeable gap between Indian oud and Southeast Asian oud, particularly those from Cambodia and Laos. All of the dark, earthy sweetness had been replaced by something which an untrained nose might deep acrid and skanky.

Indian oud, most of which harks from Assam, is feral to begin with––age only makes it more so. In Ajmal’s Al Shams, the only eau de parfum offering in its Dahn Al Oud collection, something akin to castoreum links arms with barnyard (read: fecal) notes. The layman would characterize this as “musky” but, in this case, his musky would point more to smell of unbathed skin than the powdery animalic that most of us know from synthetic musks. Adding to the challenge is the absence of any bolstering by modern perfumery’s usual chemical bedfellows nor the addition of amber, patchouli or aromatic floral oils.

Al Shams
is a fragrance that points to itself and then points backwards in time. I imagine a sheikh’s tent, the incense impregnating the various rugs and fabric panels, and then the sheikh himself under his robes. And then, suddenly, the tent gives way to an old paneled Airstream trailer and an old couple sitting down to breakfast on an overcast day. The link is the wood––how it has been marvelously transmuted over the decades into something strange and new. Al Shams, which in Arabic means “sunbeam,” commands attention but never in a run-of-the-mill way. Not so strangely, as I write this, I entertain a scent memory of the first time I smelled the very rare Guerlain perfume, Djedi and its superb accord of grass and animal. I would place this in the same category of first reactions. Perhaps, I think, this is not something for everyday wear but, oh, does it make a statement when liberated from the category of mere olfactory curiosities. It arrests the nose, striking in us a pleasant sort of awe ... alas, all too rare in white-picket Gardenia Land.

Ajmal perfumes are manufactured in Dubai and are currently available in the United States through IslamicStore.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Arabian Oud Siraj

Every once in a while, I come across a fragrance for which the only corresponding feeling is a “religious” one, as if the act of applying it were ritual. Certainly I don’t mean to cheapen the experience of other fragrances but, assembled there on the vanity, the differences in breed and station become strikingly apparent: there are dance-hall tarts and roaring boys, lords of finance and flower children. Then, there are the quiet ones that keep to themselves ... out of discretion, or otherwise. (I call these my parfums au bibliothèque.) And, finally, there are the religeuses, usually the least austere of the lot and often downright superficial. Like fervid youth, they require a modicum of patience. You’d invite them to afternoon tea, but oh how you’d tire of their prostrations and proselytizing, their eternal clarities. Part of them is ancient: you respect that. And the other part is terribly postmodern: you’d rather not respect that, what with its flouting of convention and any shred of rational analysis such as you were raised on. They remind me of the Evelyn Waughs of this world: the-love-and-do-what-you-will type. Even, that is, as they dine at the Savoy and drink only vintage Malmsey or something like that.

The Arabic world has them, too. Siraj (Arab. meaning “lamp”), has quite pronounced religious connections. The phrase Siraj um Munirah describes the Prophet (May Allah bless him and give him peace!) as a bright light, or lamp, by which his followers can be led through the darkness. Arabian Oud’s Siraj perfume oil is held inside a miniature oil lamp, housed inside a bamboo-slatted basket. It is such a wonder of a scent that I can’t help but declare that “this little light of mine” shines indeed. And brightly, as if through the gloaming in a Southeast Asian grove. It is a warm scent that draws you into a special inner space, a space of assurance and trust. Rich, deep Cambodian oud comes forth in the top notes beside the intense and complex Turkish rose (rosa damascena). Emanating from below is a glowing heart of amber, supported in the depths below by Mysore sandalwood and delicate, fresh tobacco flower. I get a touch of patchouli, as well. As with the previously reviewed scents, this is a blended oil and thus not the best example of how classically composed scents evolve within the olfactory pyramid. Everything is held, seemingly as it were, in marvelous suspension. I can only conceive of it as moving, conversely, through the stages of prayer, as who wouldn’t utter some form of thanksgiving after smelling what the good earth has, herself, produced?

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Vetivresse’s Top 10 d’Hiver

That’s winter, folks. Grey skies. A bright absence where the sun is supposed to be. The breeze somehow insinuating itself into even the skinniest pair of skinny jeans. And to cope with all that, 10 scents (thanks for the cue, Patty and March over at Perfume Posse). I hope not to betray too masculine a bent here, but florals in wintertime have never been my thing anyway. And, importantly, these are all available for sale in, or easy shipment to, America. So, without more ado, here they are:

  • Lalique Encre Noire
  • L’Artisan Parfumeur Timbuktu
  • Miller Harris Feuilles de Tabac
  • Annick Goutal Sables
  • Creed Vintage Tabarôme
  • Vero Kern Onda
  • Caron Yatagan
  • Le Labo Patchouli 24
  • Comme des Garçons Series 2: Sequoia
  • Montale Aoud Cuir d’Arabie

Now for some hot tea. Which would you select? Signed “Curious in Williamsburg.”

Friday, January 18, 2008

Comme des Garçons Series 3: Ouarzazate

Incense is of supreme importance in Middle Eastern culture. For millennia incense made with oud, sandalwood, frankincense, myrrh and other of the important commodities of spice route trade, has been traded in souqs throughout the Arab world. The practice of burning incense, known as bahkour, transcends religious differences entirely. At its heart is a palpable symbol of hospitality, either to various gods, the God of monotheism or to visitors in one’s home. Incense is burned in a type of brazier, known as a mabkhara, which to my eye looks like a cross between a pedestal vase and arms raised in thanksgiving. Some are quite ornately decorated, and one can find them in a full range of sizes, from those that sit atop a table to those that mark intersections in large Arab cities during religious observances.

Commes des Garçons Series 3: Ouarzazate was created by incense-perfume master, Mark Buxton, in 2002. Three years previous Buxton had created the well-received Comme des Garçons 2, and two years after he would go on to complete the trifecta with Comme des Garçons 2 Man. Most recently, he has created another incense-spiked scent, Vetiver 46 for Le Labo, which one of these days when I get off the fence I will review in detail.

Ouarzazate is released in both eau de toilette and scented candle formats. It combines resinous glowing labdanum with the warm, comforting aroma of Clary sage, pepper, nutmeg and just the slightest touch of vanilla –– all in a white, billowing cloud of beautifully blended traditional incense. While it is the tamest of the Incense series, I find it refreshing and profound at the same time. It is a scent which I do not have think about. It whispers to me in some unknown language: Come in, you’re welcome.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Arabian Oud Diyafa

These days, oud notes are rapidly infiltrating luxury perfumes. But few people who buy them really know what oud is. They assume that it is just another exotic wood, their reactions hardly differing from those they would have if you told them they were smelling ebony or, as one friend joked, “branche marocaine.” Oud, the resin produced in self-defense by trees in the Aquilaria family, is one of the most prized––if not the most prized––precious oils in the Middle- and Far East. The “aloes” referred to in the Song of Songs are derived from aloeswood, the alternate name for the agarwood tree. The provenance of its oil, combined with age, contribute to a price tag that ranges anywhere from affordable to astronomical.

As any aromatherapist will tell you, this stuff is powerful. The Malaysian oud operative in Arabian Oud’s Diyafa (Arabic for “hospitality”) has a deep, sweet smokiness, which initially hits the nose with a sucker punch sans égal. Conspiring with the loamy muskiness of the Indian oud as well as black amber, and tempered in the heart by a saffron-rose-sandalwood accord, the Malaysian oud is projected in three different dimensions: this perfume emanates from the skin. Longevity is impressive, with any rough edges softening after the first forty minutes. Depending on how much is applied––and I don’t recommend overzealous application unless you are incredibly solvent––the scent can be intoxicating or sexily discreet. That said, Diyafa is an experience not to be taken lightly. Applying some after dinner, the movie I was watching quickly lost my interest. It is the rare scent indeed that has such an effect on me.

Diyafa and Asala are both available as pictured, at Arabian Oud stores in Paris, London and Dubai. Image credit: Diyafa oil blend in handcrafted flacon, courtesy of Arabian Oud.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Vetivresse Looks East

No perfume tradition has exerted as strong an influence on the things we love to wear––and smell others wearing––as that of the Middle- and Far East. Whether this has to do with a latent Orientalism (a term so packed as to warrant scant analysis on this humble blog) spawned during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries or the simple fact that the better share of perfumery’s more precious ingredients (resins, spices, precious woods, lush floral oils like rose and jasmine) came, and continue to come, from those storied regions, is rich fodder for academic debate. But there was a time, not too long ago, when our mother’s and grandmother’s vanities proudly displayed scents with names like Shalimar and Nahéma in charming little bottles, sporting dangerously small amounts of perfume or simply left empty for occasional furtive sniffs. Then came the time of Opium, and love à l'orientale was replaced by torpid dreams of narcotic excess.

But these were mere fantasias, caprices if you will. They followed a presupposition, and a quite romanticized one at that. Most often, they ignored the actual perfume tradition from which they were drawing inspiration. Instead of The Thousand Nights and a Night, they were adaptations, bowdlerizations, Disneyfications of masterful originals. Nowadays, however, with thriving immigrant communities and improving (though far from perfect) lines of communication between countries and cultures, we are offered a rare opportunity to explore and study the customs surrounding, in particular, Middle Eastern scents.

First off, it is important to realize the climate of a better part of the Middle East: arid, hot and desert. For anyone who has read the Bible, dry and dusty are words that come to mind. Just witness all that foot-washing and anointing. For the nomadic tribes of the Arabian desert, tent dwellings were shelters which offered a respite from the harsh elements as well as spatial analogues to a type of paradisal place. As such they were a treat for the eye as well as the nose. Likewise, mosques were perfumed; in some, the mortar itself imbued with musk. And, more so than in Christianity where self-abnegation and mortification play a central role, for Muslims the cleanliness (i.e., purification) and smell of the body were important factors in the proper adoration of Allah (God).

Last month, I had the good fortune to come into possession of fragrance samples from Arabian Oud, a franchise founded in 1982 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and now operating storefronts throughout the Middle East and Europe. In the days to come I will be reviewing each of these scents, but for now I would like to concentrate on their masterful rose composition, Asala (from the Arabic, meaning “origins” or “roots”). As with the Montale Aoud scents (which have been widely reviewed on other fragrance blogs), the first impression is that the shape of the fragrance (i.e., how we envision it in our mind’s eye) is completely different from anything we know. Instead of something overt, there is something modest and veiled. Instead of something layered, there is something fairly linear. The notes: Damascus rose (from Syria), saffron (sweet and savory), Turkish rose (from Isparta), super-dry sandalwood and, underneath it all, a silky whisper of musk. What eludes me is how the perfumer managed to make this dusky to make the veil a black one. I’m assuming that the elusive, slightly medicinal note is oud (the resin from the Aquilaria family of trees). The fragrance is unique and without peer, and reinforces for me the sense of mystery that good scent is supposed to evoke ... the sense that, no matter how much is said, something has been left unsaid. If this is the golden fruit of “tradition,” why must there be novelty?

For my perceptive reader (and I hope he or she is legion), that is the question to keep in mind as we commence our journey eastward. Salam.

Image credit: Asala oil blend in handcrafted flacon, courtesy of Arabian Oud.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Accidental Critic

New York Times perfume critic Chandler Burr renews my hope in the value of happenstance. As he recounted in his 2003 study of Luca Turin, The Emperor of Scent, perfume writing was the last thing he thought he would be doing way back when he was an aspiring journalist with a penchant for genetics. Now, with the incipient release of The Perfect Scent, his newest foray into fragrance journalism, Burr has been cast once more into the spotlight, and perfumista and fragrance marketer alike are paying attention.

Henry Holt and Burr himself were gracious to host me and eight other bloggers (from Perfume Posse, Sniffapalooza and at a special luncheon this past Monday in the “prow” of the landmark Flatiron building in Manhattan. Presiding at the boardroom table, Burr explained the idea behind, as well as the genesis of, this newest venture. A tallish fellow with a short haircut and a pressed Italian dress shirt worn raffishly (or shall I say preppily) open-collared and a little billowy at the waist, Burr speaks in measured Mid-Atlantic tones, inflected with a seriousness only occasionally interrupted by fits of self-amusement. He’s not for mincing words, and he peppers his remarks with all kinds of “off the record” innuendo. He knows how to stir trust in his listeners, rapt or otherwise. And, sitting there, politely trying to eat my lunch and take notes, I realized that he was the very sort of phenomenon that perfumers and perfume houses alike would grow to depend on ... because, take it or leave it, he embodies the spirit of blogs (an ephemeral, opinionated, casually researched, eminently sociable, expertly insinuating, and sometimes incestuous, approach to the people, processes and juicy gossip surrounding something that is, at base, as light as popcorn and as heavy as hundred-dollar bills).

Marketing aside, I thought, this guy sells perfumes. He sells, for the most part, the perfumes that most bloggers and perfumistas, have written off as pandering to the vast mass market and, what is most surprising about the whole Burr phenomenon, is that he doesn’t sell caché, he sells facts and opinions, his opinions. For better or worse, Chandler Burr has become the Robert Parker, Jr. of the perfume world. Yes, he’s more cosmopolitan than Bob Parker; he can namedrop a blue streak that doesn’t include a blue blood or a Rothschild scion. His chemistry is better, even. And, man, he can write incredibly clear, astute descriptions of scents. (Most often, they remind me of Ada Louise Huxtable’s critiques of architecture.) But where Parker is doing the job of a sadly shrinking generation of knowledgeable shopkeepers –– the firm handshake, the recommendation of something singing for just under fifty –– Burr is doing the job of a popularizing critic in an industry already rife with pop. Beyond his ability (impressive, I must say) to rattle off the chemicals responsible for the olfactory confidence-game the big names are playing, he merely confirms what in many cases we already know. My beef with both Burr and Parker is the arbitrary assignment of scores and stars to things which, in most cases, defy that sort of evaluation. Isn’t there some other way to let the noses and the marketers know whether, through mere sloppiness or lack of art, they’ve angered the olfactory Grand Inquisitor? Rue the day, mes amis, when young women (and young men) enter department stores armed with their list of three- and four-star scents and kiss their sense of themselves goodbye.

As he finished with us, after an impromptu evaluation of Juicy Couture, Chloé and Elle Yves Saint Laurent, I thought to myself whether he himself ever tired of the big brands and the Siren-call of the publicity offices. I wondered whether I’d ever find in a hidden vein somewhere in his book an admission that even the five-star marvels were somehow toxic beside the rich yet fragile search (of people like ourselves) for something to remind us of home, of a lost paradise or love, or the thrill of waking up in a different bed under a different sky, or of just being in the right place at the right time, no matter what the smell.

I guess I’ll just have to wait for Chandler Burr the Perfume.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Caspar’s Gift: Myrrh

Myrrh, the gift traditionally held as being that of the magus Caspar, is most often found blended with its rich, resinous cousin, frankincense. By itself, myrrh invokes images of wound-dressing and the embalming of dead bodies. In Matthew’s account it foreshadows the death and burial of Jesus. Myrrh is bitter and astringent (hence it coagulative properties); it emits an cool, earthy, balsamic scent which, at least to me, stings the nose in a pleasantly appealing way, making me think of the historical antecedent to a modern-day nurse’s office, albeit with fewer tongue-depressors and more mortals and pestles. Like frankincense, myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) also harks from short gnarled shrubs which thrive on the semi-arid desert plateau, though it should not be confused with the so-called “sweet myrrh,” more commonly referred to as opoponax. If frankincense is opulent and otherworldly, there is something tenderly human in the austerity of myrrh. It reminds me of the cell of an octogenarian monk I once lived with, of his habit, the box in which he rested his careworn chaplet. The only popularly available single-note myrrh I have come across lately is from Diptyque and it comes in both candle and roomspray formats. I must admit I like to use the roomspray on coats and scarves –– that is, when I’m not spraying it liberally in the basement or near my books. As for the blends where it plays the top note, I would point to the same house and their L'Eau Trois eau de parfum (1975), which manages with the help of body heat to pleasantly sweeten the myrrh without resorting to the usual churchy accords more recently found in Heeley’s Cardinal and Comme des Garçons’ Incense: Avignon.

Image credit: Caspar detail from The Adoration of the Magi, mosaic, Basilica of St. Apollinarius, Ravenna.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Balthasar’s Gift: Frankincense

Frankincense to offer have I; / Incense owns a Deity nigh; / ... Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume / Breathes a life of gathering gloom. (Rev. Henry Hopkins, 1957). Short of gold, which each day performs by leaps and bounds and which I will leave to the folks at Comme des Garçons, frankincense and myrrh traditionally represent the olfactory antipodes of the Semitic peoples. For centuries Jews, Christians, Muslims, Zoroastrians (i.e., the Magi, or at least, symbolically as the author of Matthew, intended them, and not Semitic) prized these substances for their medicinal value. In Matthew at least, they are held to represent kingship and death, respectively. Both substances, in their most notable forms, were (and still are) harvested in Southern Arabia (modern-day Yemen and Oman), “green Arabia” if you will, along the Arabian Sea, on what is known as the Frankincense Route. Travelers to New York City will know the smell of frankincense well, as it is common to find East Africans near Union Square selling the cheaper grades on the street. And, honestly, on a frigid winter afternoon, it’s a welcome scent. Apple pie, à l’Arabie. But in its quality versions this rich, heady-smelling gum (Boswellia sacra) will bring to mind something more exalted –– say, Handel’s coronation anthem, Zadok the Priest. And what’s more, it exalts the mind of its wearer in a way that reminds him or her of its ritual-medicinal status. Let’s face it, we’re not exactly in the land of petitgrain anymore. It’s no wonder, then, that frankincense almost always has played a role in the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and High Church Anglican liturgies —— it was intended to remind the believers that they were part of the “priesthood of the faithful” and thus called to train the mind on higher things. While I love church incense as much as, say, Talullah Bankhead –– indeed, who can live down that campy quip to Spellman holding the censer: “Your purse is on fire”? –– I do love it more as an essential oil (olibanum) or, even better, blended expertly in an Amouage fragrance. The opulent Gold and Dia for Men, both created by master perfumer Guy Robert, employ what could very well be considered Oman’s most valuable resource: silver frankincense from the Dhofar desert. The genius of the Amouage scents, which deserve separate review, is their mastery of what is essentially a smoke-generated aroma and their translation of such for the human skin. I do not consider a spray of Amouage a mere spray, rather, an anointing. Next up: myrrh.

Image: The Adoration of Balthasar, Russian icon, unattributed, 16th century.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Salut 2008!

In the next few days will begin an exploration of Middle- and Far Eastern scents. I have enjoyed a pleasant three-week hiatus, preparing my fragrance and wine writing scheme for January and February. Looking forward to the continuation of our cyber-olfactory discussions. Very best wishes to you all for a happy Epiphany and New Year!