Sunday, February 22, 2009

Hope through Carnations

If Shepard Fairey would like to donate his talents toward providing better PR for carnations, I would put him in touch immediately with Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, perhaps America’s most visually minded perfumer. Because it seems that they share an aesthetic. Her Oeillets Rouges are as high-contrast red as Red Square – all red cheeks, lips and hair flaming against a blue-black sky.

Let’s face it, despite being assigned a high place in Islamic art and culture, carnations aren’t exactly top-shelf in the West. In some societies, they’re even considered bad luck. (No surprise that when Coty released Oeillet de France in 1923, it was solely for export to the U.S.A.) Be that as it may, carnation soliflores are experiencing something of a mini-renaissance in Western perfumery. Witness two spectacular JAR perfumes, Golconda and Diamond Water and a Prada exclusive, not to mention Comme des Garçons Series 2 Red: Carnation. Hurwitz’s eau de parfum rests with some very fine company, indeed.

Hurwitz, whose Parfums des Beaux Art label hails from none other than Boulder, CO, is a perfumer whose tastes run to the classical but not the unadventurous. As Chandler Burr noted in a recent review, “It is, oddly, in the abstracts [Viridian, Quinacridone Violet, Celadon] that Spencer Hurwitz goes from good to much better.” Having tested several other of her soliflores, I would have to agree; but Oeillets Rouges, not a new scent of hers by any means, approaches abstraction in its stunning approximation of red. She should have named it Technicolor Red. It pops and sputters and sparks with pepper and spice and myrrh, then pirouettes to a rest like Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes.

Contra the maximalist approach of niche perfumer Neil Morris, whose recent perfume for the Japanese department store Takashimaya could stun a New York subway car into submission, the perfumes of Dawn Spencer Hurwitz betray a quiet American charm, and occasion in this reviewer the realization that, west of the Mississippi, still waters still do run deep.

Image credit: Josef Albers, Homage to the Square (Red), 1968. Norton-Simon Collection, Pasadena

Monday, February 16, 2009

Just Right

A perfume can be very good but, with few exceptions, the drydown – a fragrance’s second skin – is what assigns it its place in history or consigns it to oblivion. Tacky sports car-driving fortysomethings notwithstanding, very few of us splash on fragrance seconds before meeting a special someone for dinner. (In fact, for me, the very presence of a bottle of cologne in the beverage-holder of a car is a burning sign to cut my losses and clear out immediately.) A good perfume or cologne introduces itself as a living memory, not a mask placed frantically over a less presentable facade.

Of late, I have been admiring two truly stellar, lighter-bodied unisex fragrances: perfumer Jean-Paul Guerlain’s Coriolan (1998; now re-christened and reformulated as L’Ame d’un Héros, 2008) and perfumer Françoise Caron’s Eau Fugace for Astier de Villatte (2008), each is an exemplar of perfection in the drydown.

Unlike the “head” and “heart” of a fragrance, the drydown is that phase of its evolution which best shows off its pedigree. A great drydown can never come from using shoddy, third-rate materials. For Coriolan, the drydown is a brief poème chypré of oakmoss, patchouli and helichrysum (otherwise known as everlasting flower); for Eau Fugace, its a takeoff on traditional eau de cologne but with written for Romantic strings, mainly petitgrain, basil, thyme and patchouli. One is cool, one warm.

Neither Coriolan nor Eau Fugace is reinventing the wheel. These certainly aren’t scents for the treasury, but there is a quiet, limpid, just-right sort of elegance about them that should land them a place in any man’s (or woman’s) life.