Perfume Reviews

Reviews by jtd

Total Reviews: 503

Lumière Noire pour Femme by Maison Francis Kurkdjian

Maison Francis Kurkdjian provides a number of entry points to the brand. It offers traditional products (perfume, papier d’Armenie, candles, body creams) and less expected ones (fabric softener, soap bubbles.) There is a deliberateness to much of the line that challenges the trend-chasing and slot-filling approach of many brands. His vision of a contemporary sensibility derives from an understanding of traditional methods and principles. The design of the brand is like Kurkdjian’s perfumes themselves: modern and classical, composed yet stylish, lavish but concise.

Kurkdjian has mentioned Guerlain as a model for his house but the line’s day-to-evening approach brings Hermès to mind. Hermès offers a fashionable cocoon from an unstylish world. My level skepticism of ‘lifestyle’ branding is stratospheric, but I’m persuaded by MFK.

MFK offers the daydream of a pleasantly scented life but manages to avoid Hermès’s pose of bored affluence. Laundry soap alludes to soap operas and the fiction of the bored housewife. Scented bubbles suggest designer-dressed children and an infusion of finery into the most remote corners of one’s life. The perfumes, though, hint at something more. Most perfume marketing matches a fantasy of inventiveness and distinction to tame, predictable perfumes, but MFK does the reverse. MFK’s subtle subversiveness is in the perfume, not the image. Absolue pour le Soir and Cologne pour le Soir are wolves in sheep’s marketing. The Amyrises satirize mainstream designer perfumes by creating idealized versions of them. The Lumières Noires poke at our nostalgia for the good-old days of the chypre. I might be able to resist the Maison’s sensibility but I fall for the perfumes.

Rose and patchouli aren’t an unexpected combination by any means and their pairing is a motif Kurkdjian has explored over the years, both in his own line and in commission work such as Rose Barbare for Guerlain and Lady Vengeance for Juliette Has a Gun. Coaxing something new out of well-worn materials is one of Kurkdjian’s strengths and Lumière Noire pour Femme demonstrates his knack for reshaping traditional forms and classical techniques to find a novel idea. He shifts the picture and rearranges olfactory clues. Pairing the refined floral and earthy patchouli is a well-understood method for adding richness to perfumes. Kurkdjian recreates the tone in an unexpected way with a clean patchouli and a dirty flower: narcissus. The dynamics are recognizable, but the reframing shifts the perspective and creates a new view.

Lumière Noire pour Femme highlights Kurkdjian’s ability to make perfumes that balance composure and abandon. Grain de Musc called Lumière Noire pour Femme a “bodice-ripper” yet it is also mink-smooth and lusciously lipsticky. It is composed at a glance but uninhibited on closer inspection. It hints at indecency but is never indelicate.

Kurkdjian’s style of subversion is highly mannered. He covers new ideas under a blanket of propriety. The precision of Lumière Noire pour Femme’s composition leaves no seems showing and reveals Kurkdjian’s strategy for subversion. No disruption, no distortion. More a seduction.
21st June, 2016

Cuiron by Helmut Lang

I don’t know the original Cuiron, but the consensus is that the new version is very close to the original. Not 100%, but the shape and the intent are the same. Cuiron’s reissue was hotly awaited but following the curse-of-threes in perfume releases it was somewhat overshadowed by its siblings Helmut Lang EDP and EDC.

The timing of the reissue was awkward. As a 2014 version of a 2002 perfume, it’s neither new nor vintage, so it arrives with two strikes against it. One, it’s a reformulation and, two, even if the restoration is flawless, it’s not old enough to be retro, just out of fashion.

I imagine that even when it was first released Cuiron was neither fish nor fowl. Ostensibly leather but actually more woody than anything else. Largely synthetic but not unapologetically so like many other millennial niche perfumes (eg. Comme des Garçons, l’Artisan Parfumeurs, Etat Libre d’Orange). Minimal but a little fussy. From the perspective of 2014 the neither/nor bit is magnified, giving Cuiron a house-of-mirrors quality that makes it seem endlessly referential.

To wit: Cuiron shares the hissy, gasoline topnotes of a few power-masculines that preceded it, namely Hermès Bel Ami and Dior Fahrenheit. Even Chanel Antaeus for that matter. It manages to find the neutral territory between the plush of Knize Ten and the starkness of ELDO Rien. Cuiron’s synth-woodiness narrowly misses the over-reliance on Iso-E Super that many of the era fell prey to, yet it hints at the freeze-dried hollowness of the norlimbanol beasts that would follow. Cuiron’s shiny, metallic topnotes are oddly reminiscent of Guerlain Coriolan, linking it to the generation of lost masculines like Paco Rabanne Ténéré, Givenchy Insensé and Jacomo Anthracite. It’s freaky how many other perfumes Cuiron brings to mind.

It’s arguable that Cuiron lacks individuality or identity. It’s not as specific as some other leather perfumes but it fits the straightforwardness of the Lang aesthetic. For those attuned to the quiet detail of the brand’s signature minimalism Cuiron was probably fairly loud but it was less bombastic than the power-fragrances and brassy fougères that preceded it.

The reissued Cuiron doesn’t suffer from reformulation, but expectation gets the better of it. The original edition gathered a cult following, especially after it was discontinued. In 2002 Cuiron would have been the star of a rising niche wave. In 2014 Cuiron faced more competition and a more informed perfume consumer. It will be interesting to see how Cuiron survives in this new setting.

20th June, 2016

Romanza by Masque

Romanza plays Spring as the season of bittersweetness, with fresh, young stems, flowers and leaves all crushed together. Narcissus perfumes are a rarity yet Romanza bears a resemblance to Parfums de Nicolai le Temps d’une Fete. Both perfumes set narcissus’s green reediness in a woody, resinous setting, albeit with different orchestration. Romanza’s absinthe topnote performs a role similar to le Temps’s chalky galbanum, ushering in a grassy, green-floral range centered on narcissus. In the heartnotes the two perfumes diverge, though both transition from flowers to woods. Imagine Romanza’s basenotes as sitting an octave or two below le Temps.

I have no idea if Masque Milano even knew of le Temps d’une Fete, but if they are taking on de Nicolai, they’re running directly into the fire. Le Temps d’Une Fete is one of Patricia de Nicolai’s strongest works, a Green Floral that has earned a place next to the other heavy hitters of the genre like Guerlain Chamade, Chanel 19 and VeroProfumo Mito. Romanza’s passing similarity in shape to le Temps is less important than the difference in its intent. Le Temps’s fresh-scrubbed freshness is pure sunlight next to Romanza’s midnight narcissus.

Romanza is based on the attraction of opposites. Bitter angelica accentuates narcissus’s sweet vitality and from the very topnotes Romanza is filled with shadow and texture. The amber drydown has a growl that does not go gentle anywhere. Narcissus might be the image of spring, but the scent is the furthest thing from the stereotype of Spring prettiness. It’s mucky, muddy and messy. Romanza doesn’t hide narcissus’s chaotic side. It liberates it, offering a beautifully defiant take on Spring. The romantic fiction of the season is a birds-cooing, hand-in-hand cartoon of courtship. Romanza reminds us that Spring is brief and there’s no time for subtlety. It dispenses with the niceties and reaches a hand down the front of your pants while it looks you dead in the eye.

Masque Milano’s framing of their perfumes as literary, operatic and episodic is well thought out and has led to a sumptuous style of perfumery. The perfumes are detailed and specific and I don’t question the producer’s/perfumer’s process, but plot and narrative aren’t a requirement to enjoy the perfume. Shear the story from Romanza and you’re left with an exceptional perfume with a detailed, calibrated aesthetic. Romanza is a provocative perfume from a young perfumer and I’ll keep my eyes peeled for future work from Christiano Canali.

20th June, 2016
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Incarnata by Anatole Lebreton

Perfumes that smell like lipstick have a special appeal. For some they are nostalgic, for others they are a femme fetish. When combined, violet, iris root and rose replicate the swirl of freshly applied lipstick. Musks, vanilla, sweet woods and resins bridge the florals to the cold, powdery waxiness that defines lipstick’s olfactory ‘feel.’

A lipstick ‘note’ has been common to many perfumes since the early 2000s when new, less expensive iris materials came online, even sneaking its way into masculine and ‘unisex’ perfumes like Dior Homme and Histoire de Parfums 1889. Previously, lipstick scents had been the province of girly florals like Yves St. Laurent Paris and l’Artisan Parfumeurs Drole de Rose.

Incarnata follows in the line of a few other lipstick perfumes, namely ELDO Putain des Palaces, Frederic Malle Lipstick Rose and Chanel Misia, but it doesn’t copy them. Incarnata reaches past scent and finds the cold, creamy texture of lipstick. Compared to Incarnata, most ‘lipstick’ perfumes come off as basic variations on the mixed floral. Incarnata is lipsticky from stem to stern, even in the basenotes, by which point most lipstick fragrances struggle to maintain the freshly applied appearance that they had out of the bottle. Floral notes have been used to mask the scent of wax and cosmetic cream. They keep lipstick from smelling like crayons. Incarnata doesn’t mask anything. It smells like a complete vintage dressing table set with lipstick, face powder and cold cream.

The scent of lipstick brings to mind a particular range of color. Putain and Lipstick Rose land squarely in the pink/red spectrum. Even perfumes with a minor lipstick note, such as Guerlain Nahema and Chanel 18 tend to have traces of the same hues. Incarnata takes Chanel Misia’s grey-pink a step further with a cyanotic grey tone that implies a cool temperature as well as a cool palate. The papery iris topnote segues believably into the suede heart and waxy base and give Incarnata its frosty edge.

A friend’s grandmother had an endearing habit of touching up her lipstick as she’d head out the door. She’d flash us a girlishly conspiratorial look through the mirror as if she were tossing down a big sip of a martini and say, “Can’t face the world without lipstick now, can we?” She would have loved Incarnata.

20th June, 2016

Anubis by Papillon Artisan Perfumes

The genre of woody/smoky perfumes is having a moment these days. Unfortunately, many of these perfumes start with a disadvantage. A glut of aromachemicals hastily produced to fill the oud-gap that manufacturers are trying to convince us exists has lead to perfumes overdosed with ear-splitting synth-oud bases. Characteristics of these perfumes include density, a lack of topnotes, longevity and minimal evolution. Their motto is a variation on the advice, “walk softly and carry a big stick.” They urge you to carry a big stick and bludgeon everyone in your wake. It’s a genre that conceptually and olfactorily turns me off.

My mistake was to lump too many perfumes into this category, the case in point being Anubis. I bundled the fumes made principally of synth-oud base and the ones smartly calibrated to achieve a smoky darkness into the same category. Based on my dislike for many of the perfumes that comprise the genre I neglected to distinguish good from bad. I threw the baby out with the bathwater.

This all happened in own head, of course. I have written about the traps of mistaking opinion for consideration and I should take my own advice. Fortunately, with the exception of Hard Leather, I kept my thoughts to myself. I lumped Anubis in with Orto Parisi Stercus, Naomi Goodsir Bois d’Ascèse, Masque Milano Montecristo and LM Parfums Hard Leather, four perfumes, two of which are dense but balanced, two of which I find grossly out of whack and make my ears ring. I will leave it for you to decide which is which.

It’s Salome that made me see Anubis in a different light. That and a long hike on a warm day.

If you heat up the bad examples of the Grim Genre (or The Heavy Smokers, my two nicknames for the genre) you’ll burn off the lighter materials and be left with the synth-oud skeleton in short order. I’ve tried them on some hot, sweaty days and in the end I was left smelling like shit. Literally. I recently basted myself in Anubis and went for a hike in the desert. The gasoline-jasmine bloomed, the incense was shot through with a smoky breeze and the drydown made me want to lick myself. While dense and smoky, Anubis is also ambery, leathery and nuanced. Quite the opposite of the grim synth-ouds, Anubis is built for skin. The floral connection to Salome helped me see Anubis in a different light and I did another Anubis-hike the next day. A little Anubis goes a long way and a less concentrated dose (ie. sprayed from a distance) helps the layers unfold more evenly. It’s less smoky but more resinous this way. The gasoline-floral quality, my favorite aspect of Anubis, rises more clearly to the surface.

Whether I was right or wrong in my initial take on Anubis is something for me to keep in mind, but the bigger point is that a well considered perfume can make you work for your pleasure. Taking a risk, targeting a small audience, polarizing your audience. Ambiguity. Marketing theory might tell you that these are guidelines for failure. I disagree entirely and apparently, thank god, so does Liz Moores.

Moores took the risk of making a perfume that polarizes her potential buyers. But she also created a perfume that I came back to over the period of a year or so. In the end, she won me over.
20th June, 2016

Hard Leather by LM Parfums

The trend toward dense, smoky-woody perfumes is not particularly new. Nasomatto Black Afgano was an early example and many perfumes followed its blueprint closely. The trend has been given new life by the abundance of synth-oud accords. Hard Leather smells like a hopped-up version of the oud accords I’ve smelled many recent perfumes. Imbalance and the extrait concentration suggest that quantity was used to define quality. Early niche models of the smoky, tarry, vanillic perfumes such as Lonestar Memories or Patchouli 24 are as strong as Hard Leather but are rich and nuanced.

The durable, dry, woody aromachems that I assume form the shape of Hard Leather are forceful and need a judicious hand to prevent them from becoming the bull in the perfume shop. It’s fair to say that while Hard Leather is as potent as it claims, it is also unbalanced. Heavy synthetics overpower any other materials that don’t shout and the perfume’s chief characteristic is disproportion.

The name says it all. Not about the perfume but about the fantasy the LM Parfums wants you to buy into. Hard Leather strikes a butch pose similar to the spectacle of masculinity you’d see in professional wrestling. The difference is that professional wrestling has a campiness that allows it to be melodrama and comedy at the same time. Hard Leather has the gravity but lacks the irony.
20th June, 2016

2nd Cumming by Alan Cumming

I’m not certain how Cumming (2004) and 2nd Cumming (2010) are related. Obviously, the second followed the first. Beyond that, reformulation? Sequel? The CB I Hate Perfume website states that 2nd Cumming is, “exactly the same as the original Cumming” yet provided Brosius and actor Alan Cumming the opportunity to, “…do the scent the way [they] had originally intended.”

I don’t find this bit of obscurity vague or misleading. The ambiguity is appropriate. They smell like the exact same scent, but not. Perhaps the clue is in the subtitle of 2nd Cumming: Once More with Feeling!

The two fragrances are extremely legible. They seem more abstract than the list of notes (cigar, whiskey, Douglas fir, Scottish heather, peat…) implies, but they are sharply defined. I do get the suggestion of peat and its olfactory quality of being both wet and dry at the same time. ‘Peaty’ when describing Scotch, suggests the smoke and tar of a peat fire. Peat moss itself is more like the scent of rain after a dry spell. The two Cummings build on this quality and have the scent of a storm moving in–static electricity, dust and twitchiness. The start of a rainstorm scratches at all your senses simultaneously and gives a sense of imminence. This is where Cumming resides. It sits at the tip of your nose the way the way a inaccessible memory sits at the tip of your tongue.

From the perspective of 2016, the Cummings feel like a commentary on the woody tones that were a trend at the time the first model was released. That’s not to say that they seem dated or era-specific per se. They are more inventive and precise than the dull woody-amber trends of the time. Their olfactory profiles suggest the guilty pleasure of commercial scents that we often deny liking: plastic packaging, dry-cleaning chemicals, petroleum byproducts. This is much more fun than cigars and drinks.

The greatest difference between the two versions is in the drydown. The original smells metallic and the scent overall fades to a whisper fairly quickly. 2nd Cumming’s drydown is warmer and a bit leathery. Surprisingly given its water base, it has much more longevity than the original. They are both well-sculpted scents but it is an open question whether they are perfumes. I don’t mean this as derogatory. I assume that this discussion would be welcome in a line called I Hate Perfume. The catch here is that the term scent, when contrasted with perfume, usually implies a lack of artistry. The Cummings twist the distinction into meaninglessness and make environmental scents that you wear. They don’t read as room spray applied to the body. They just perform differently on the body than ‘straight’ perfume does.

The cheeky double entendre of 2nd might bother some, but it reminds me of a college professor who started our class one day by writing on the board, “Christianity is a cultural mediation of homosexuality.” For the students who winced, they should have remembered to leave their delicate sensibilities at the door of a class called “The History of Sex.” For those squeamish about trying this perfume, you’d would do well to remember both the name of the perfume and the company.
20th June, 2016

Cumming by Alan Cumming

I’m not certain how Cumming (2004) and 2nd Cumming (2010) are related. Obviously, the second followed the first. Beyond that, reformulation? Sequel? The CB I Hate Perfume website states that 2nd Cumming is, “exactly the same as the original Cumming” yet provided Brosius and actor Alan Cumming the opportunity to, “…do the scent the way [they] had originally intended.”

I don’t find this bit of obscurity vague or misleading. The ambiguity is appropriate. They smell like the exact same scent, but not. Perhaps the clue is in the subtitle of 2nd Cumming: Once More with Feeling!

The two fragrances are extremely legible. They seem more abstract than the list of notes (cigar, whiskey, Douglas fir, Scottish heather, peat…) implies, but they are sharply defined. I do get the suggestion of peat and its olfactory quality of being both wet and dry at the same time. ‘Peaty’ when describing Scotch, suggests the smoke and tar of a peat fire. Peat moss itself is more like the scent of rain after a dry spell. The two Cummings build on this quality and have the scent of a storm moving in–static electricity, dust and twitchiness. The start of a rainstorm scratches at all your senses simultaneously and gives a sense of imminence. This is where Cumming resides. It sits at the tip of your nose the way the way a inaccessible memory sits at the tip of your tongue.

From the perspective of 2016, the Cummings feel like a commentary on the woody tones that were a trend at the time the first model was released. That’s not to say that they seem dated or era-specific per se. They are more inventive and precise than the dull woody-amber trends of the time. Their olfactory profiles suggest the guilty pleasure of commercial scents that we often deny liking: plastic packaging, dry-cleaning chemicals, petroleum byproducts. This is much more fun than cigars and drinks.

The greatest difference between the two versions is in the drydown. The original smells metallic and the scent overall fades to a whisper fairly quickly. 2nd Cumming’s drydown is warmer and a bit leathery. Surprisingly given its water base, it has much more longevity than the original. They are both well-sculpted scents but it is an open question whether they are perfumes. I don’t mean this as derogatory. I assume that this discussion would be welcome in a line called I Hate Perfume. The catch here is that the term scent, when contrasted with perfume, usually implies a lack of artistry. The Cummings twist the distinction into meaninglessness and make environmental scents that you wear. They don’t read as room spray applied to the body. They just perform differently on the body than ‘straight’ perfume does.

The cheeky double entendre of 2nd might bother some, but it reminds me of a college professor who started our class one day by writing on the board, “Christianity is a cultural mediation of homosexuality.” For the students who winced, they should have remembered to leave their delicate sensibilities at the door of a class called “The History of Sex.” For those squeamish about trying this perfume, you’d would do well to remember both the name of the perfume and the company.
20th June, 2016

Khôl de Bahreïn by Stéphane Humbert Lucas 777

A gourmand-cosmetic perfume might not sound like the ideal hybrid fragrance, but Khol de Bahrein is convincing. It is a candied floriental of middle-eastern extraction with iris, violet and heliotropin dipped in amber and incense. The range of resins and flowers is calibrated to create an image of sweets ranging from dragées to nougat and pistachio baclava to orange blossom cakes.

The amber-incense heart is melodic and lightly smoky, less a campfire, more the burnt edges of a cake. Heliotropin’s marzipan aroma hints at vanilla around every corner but you never come eye to eye with it. The buttery aspects of the flowers become embedded in the resin so that scent and texture become linked. The contrasting tones converge elegantly and create a perfume that has a distinctive ‘feel’ for lack of a better word, powdery and oily at the same time like the feeling of pollen on your fingers.

Khol de Bahrein is thick and matte yet light, like the powder of a compact that can be applied lightly or heavily for different effect. The list of notes is like the ingredients in a recipe. They tell you about flavors, or in this case aromas, but give little indications about the texture of the end product. The long arc could allow it to be mistaken for a linear perfume, but on close inspection there is a slow, steady progression, an olfactory inertia that gives the perfume an optimistic and luxurious sense of endless heartnotes. The fugue-like progression of candied notes brings Khol close to loukoum, but it cleverly avoids the cloying sweetness or fly-in-amber inescapability of the loukoum perfumes.

Khol de Bahrein could be compared to Shalimar. It has iris and vanillic amber but it lacks Shalimar’s harp-strumming melodrama and heavy velvet stage curtains. A better comparison is Jicky, little less dense than Shalimar but still forceful. Kohl de Bahrein avoids Jicky’s overt animalism but the sweet leather base gives it a comparable shadowy quality. Like Jacques Guerlain, Stephane Humbert Lucas defines the oriental perfume as a near-gourmand experience.

23rd February, 2016 (last edited: 20th June, 2016)

I Love Dior by Christian Dior

I Love Dior is my latest $12 Ebay purchase. I haven’t received it yet, but the bottle, the name, the zeitgeist give me more than enough to start writing.

In 2003, French Fries became “Freedom Fries” when a US member of Congress proposed excising France from the American consciousness for the perceived betrayal of opposing the invasion of Iraq. I think there was “Freedom Toast” as well.

8260699.i_love_diorI imagine that the Dior perfume, released in 2002, was in the works before 9/11, but I don’t know when the name, image, marketing came into play. The bottle is the generic bottle that Dior were using for Diorella, Diorissimo, Dioressence at the time. LVMH would eventually use the bottle as a bridge from the classics to… whatever perfumes like Dior Me, Dior Me Not and Dior Star and Forever and Ever Dior were. The I Love Dior box and bottle sported a grainy close-up of denim and a decal with, “I (Heart) Dior.”

I suppose I Heart Dior was one of the perfumes hoping to bandwagon on the success of YSL Baby Doll’s nouveau feminism. Still, it’s hard not to see I Heart Dior as a dumbed down version of j’Adore (translation: I heart) for Americans. j’Adore was enormously popular and accessible and I Heart Dior reads as an unnecessary dilution of an already least-common denominator.

Given the timing of its release, I Heart Dior turned out to be Dior’s prequel to Freedom Fries.

23rd February, 2016 (last edited: 20th June, 2016)

Enjoy by Jean Patou

Enjoy was the sequel to a trio of perfumes from 2001 that launched Jean-Michel Duriez as in-house perfumer at Jean Patou. Pan Ame, Hip and Nacre were all fruity-florals centered on a pear note. Of the three, I’ve only smelled Pan Ame, which was clearly a precursor to Enjoy. 2001 was a tough year to re-launch a traditional house and reframe it as modern and accessible. I doubt it helped that the three perfumes were all in the same genre and shared the same uncommon note of pear. I imagine it was an attempt to create a signature house accord in one fell swoop. An unsuccessful attempt—all were fairly quickly discontinued.

Enjoy was an early version of the so-called “nouvelles-chypres” of the time like Miss Dior Chérie (2005) and Narciso for Her (2004). These perfumes substituted a musky patchouli base for the verboten oakmoss of the traditional chypre. The style now seems dated and era-specific, but Enjoy was one of the more successful iterations of the style.

Enjoy builds on Pan Ame’s unripe pear, grounding it in a clean patchouli base. The grainy pear note is balanced by crunchy blackcurrant on one side and an acetone musk on the other. The floral notes, jasmine and rose, have a high-piched synthetic tone that give a tinny quality to the heartnotes. The kicker is an unripe banana note that falls in line with the blackcurrant, tracing a starchy green line through the duration of the perfume. It’s a note that Duriez would set in a tropical floral, creamy woody setting in 2006’s Sira des Indes.

Compared to the syrupy fruity-florals of its time, Enjoy was considered a bit unsmiling and tight-assed. Even from the perspective of 2016, it seems a bit prim, if balanced. There is a sweetness to the perfume, especially in the drydown, but it has a saccharine quality that keeps the fruit from having a three-dimensionality. Enjoy doesn’t hide its artificiality. It molds the high-pitched florals and grainy fruits into a crystalline configuration that suits the perfume’s sharp edges.

Duriez authored the fabled Yohji Essential and Yohji Homme at the end of the 1990s, the same time he made Un Amour de Patou and Patou For Ever. Yohji Yamamoto’s perfumes were made by Jean Patou and his work for both houses were the launch pad for his taking on the in-house post at Patou that Jean Kerléo was to relinquish in 1999.

All of Duriez’s perfumes for Patou have all been discontinued, wiping the Patou pears from the market. Coincidentally, this means that none of the perfumes from Proctor and Gamble’s ownership of Patou (2001-2011) remain in the line-up. After Duriez left Patou, the company took a different direction under perfumer Thomas Fontaine and owner Designer Parfums Limited, recomposing nine Patou perfumes originally released from the 1920s-1980s. The current line-up consists of this Heritage Collection, the seminal Joy, and two perfumes from the Kerléo era, 1000 and Sublime. However it came about, the Patou brand turned away from creating new perfumes and made itself into a museum. It is an open question what direction the brand will take in the future.
23rd February, 2016

Rose Amazone by Hermès

Rose Amazone shows how well Jean-Claude Ellena’s trademarked transparency/minimalism fits into mainstream taste. Not a dig, just an observation. It makes sense, too. Many ongoing trends in perfumery stem his more mainstream perfumes: Bvlgari Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert, Cartier Déclaration, Hermès Terre d’Hermès and Kelly Calèche. He’s one of the most influential perfumers of his time

Ellena’s approach to flanking the original Amazone is to place it somewhere between his connoisseur-admired Hermessence line and his more mainstream work. Smart move. A flanker is first and foremost a sales tactic, and Hermès’ strategy is to revive a few classics by sprucing them up and borrowing on their name recognition (Vetiver Bel Ami, Geranium Equipage). Ellena must maintain the sanctity of Hermès taste while shooting for a big sell. It’s a balance he’s had to maintain in all the Hermès perfumes he’s composed and he’s proven how well he can do it.

Amazone was an early fruity-floral that matched a dowdy woody-floral with unsweetened fruit/berry note. It’s a cautious an inch away from “old-lady” perfume, not a fruity-floral slushie of the’90s-‘00s. It is a dry, woody, green perfume with a potent black-currant note that ties the flowers to the fruit, namely, raspberry.

Rose Amazone takes the tartness and the fruit up a notch with a sweet rose and a grapfruit twist. It’s a beautiful compositional effect. The sweetness is in the flower, not the fruit, and the perfume avoids any syrupy cocktail-y comparisons This is a fruity-floral for those who who managed to steer clear of the fruity-florals of the gourmand/dessert era. It’s also an alternative for those who liked tart-fruity chypres such as Cristalle, Diorlella and Y but are on the bemused side of the chypre-reformulation debate and want to steer clear of the whole mess of it.

Rose Amazone keeps a skosh of the original’s green-floral reediness and it matches the tartness of the grapefruit note beautifully. It doesn’t have any of the mossiness of Amazone’s drydown. In fact, the drydown has a sweet, lucid, nearly metallic muskiness that leaves the base the most contemporary part of the perfume. The opening of the perfume is tribute to the original, but over time, Rose Amazone walks further away from its predecessor. The drydown is deliberately the least distinctive part of the ride. It takes you further into the house of Hermès and closes the door behind you. It is a rosy-sweet, muskier version of the airy-woody drydown of the Hermessence line. It is balanced and straightforward, like the graceful entry that ends a complicated dive.
23rd February, 2016

Petit Fracas by Robert Piguet

The range of opinions on the reformulation of classic perfumes usually alternates between a sighing, “It wain’t what it used to be, kid.” and a howling, “They’ve RUINED it!” By all accounts, Guichard is credited with saving the Piguet perfumes by reformulation and maintaining the outstanding quality of the Germaine Cellier icons. Quite a coup. So, who better to design the flanker to the original than the man who keeps Fracas in its current shape?

In the mid 2000s, Guichard reformulated and relaunched the icons of the Piguet line: Visa, Baghari, Futur and Calypso. Fracas and Bandit had been reformulated in 1998 or so and already defined the Piguet line. The butch-femme pair reflected the lesbian aesthetic of Cellier’s time, barely coded for mainstream consumption. Guichard’s reformulations are the best in the business and his original work for Gucci, Davidoff, Issey Miyake, Kenzo, Mugler, Hilfigger, Versace and many others places him at the top of his profession.

After his initial work at Piguet, in the period from 2011-2013 he added 15 new perfumes to the brand. Exceedingly prolific, especially when you consider that in that same period he produced 26 additional perfumes for other brands. (per Now Smell This.) Of these perfumes he made for Piguet only one is a flanker: Petit Fracas. The others are all-new perfumes. I was very intrigued to see what Guichard, a technical expert at reformulating Cellier’s work, would make of a flanker.

Guichard kept the theatrical uber-femme spirit of the original but sets it in a more contemporary vernacular. It keeps the hyper-femininity of Fracas but makes a baby-doll version of it. From the sweet slap of the topnotes through the cocoa dusted drydown, there is always a recognizeable shape of Fracas. Rather than riff on the original’s themes (pretty much just killer hothouse flowers) he embeds a hologram of the original in the heart of L’il baby Fracas. The buttery tuberose, the doughy iris, the grape-like orange blossom still form the center of the perfume, but Petit Fracas substitutes the faint peach of the original for a potent pear note and an almost plastic musk. Pear and cocoa? The notes update the composition, but the perfume doesn’t aim for trendy. Rather than simply updating Fracas with newer materials and accords, Guichard fits the odd assembly of pieces together into something novel.

Guichard smartly avoids simply plucking a perfume out of its era and modernizing it. Petit Fracas is a great tribute to the original perfume and perfumer. In a way, Guichard makes the mirror image of Fracas, a notoriously feral flower. He substitutes the erotic role role of the vamp from the original with a baby-doll’s exaggerated sense of spectacle (think Coutney Love, who incidentally wears Fracas) Despite the olfactory differences of the two perfumes, they both engage in lipsticky feminine role playing.

Now give me Petit Bandit, please.
23rd February, 2016
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Émeraude by Coty

Post-modern choreographer David Gordon gave a lecture at my university in the early 1980s. His advice to young choreographers was to steal. Steal anything, steal often. Acknowledge the source material or don’t. Take what you steal and do whatever you care to with it. His point was that there is no such thing as a new idea, and if there were, so what? Citation of sources, intellectual property rights and plagiarism are irrelevant—-ideas are shared. Granted, Gordon was a founding member of the Judson Dance Theater, whose dissection of traditional forms had a strong element of sabotage to it. Still, the notion is interesting.

So, did Jacques Guerlain steal from François Coty’s Emeraude when he created Shalimar?

Emeraude preceded Shalimar by 4 years. There are strong similarities in their olfactory profiles. Bergamot topnotes and floral heartnotes enveloped in vanillic-amber bases would come to define the historical “oriental” genre. Sweet, resinous, nearly-gourmand qualities made both perfumes rich and heady but the durable musky, powdery base kept them from becoming desserts. Due to the preponderance of durable, resinous materials (benzoin, labdanum, vanilla, tonka, oppopanax, sandalwood) the perfumes of this era and genre have a long arc that plays out over hours and days. I think of these perfumes as speaking with a drawl.

If these two perfumes were competitors over the years, Shalimar is the clear winner. It has been kept in excellent trim by Guerlain and is a mainstay of the brand. Guerlain have quoted (and flanked) Shalimar many times over the years, but the references have been thoughtful, if not always well-received (see: Shalimar Parfum Initial). Emeraude, poor dear, left the building sometime during the Coty brand’s slow fall from grace after the company was bought by Pfizer in1963. Emeraude, along with l’Origan, l’Aimant, la Rose Jacqueminot and the other seminal early perfumes composed by Fançois Coty were notoriously gutted by cheap reformulation. They became the ‘old and in the way’ models you had to pick past to get to Coty Wild Musk, Stetson and Aspen at the local drug store.

I’ve smelled a few vintage versions and concentrations of Emeraude over the years and while there are differences, they are largely the same perfume. I’m currently sniffing a bottle of the Eau de Toilette Concentrée from the ‘60s. The materials that define the ‘oriental’ genre have distinctive, recognizable scent profiles. Bergamot’s tartness counterbalances a warm, ambery vanilla base, creating a particular dynamic. The unfolding of the topnotes into the heart is quite similar in both but over time the perfumes diverge. Shalimar becomes both sweeter and more animalic. Emeraude veers away from its initial sweetness and leans into the rubbery aspect of amber materials to provide a more leathery drydown The nitro musks that were in use at the time gave amber perfumes a strolling pace. They added endurance to perfumes, but more importantly they added depth and dimensionality. They kept olfactory tones distinct and allowed perfumes made from hundreds of materials to resist becoming porridge. Emeraude smells tart, powdery and leathery at the same time. Smoothness is balanced by angularity, making the perfume interesting from top to bottom.

So who robbed whom? I understand linking Shalimar to the Coty perfume, not only for their olfactory similarities, but for the cliché orientalism that both brands perpetuated. (* Again, Shalimar wins.) Primarily, though, Shalimar is a riff on Guerlain’s benchmark citrus-over-coumarin/musk perfume from 1889, Jicky. Jacques Guerlain simply stole from his younger self. Shalimar has unmistakable similarities to Emeraude, which came first, but it’s likely that Emeraude cribbed from perfumes that preceded it.

The abundance of fairly similar oriental perfumes doesn’t point to mass larceny. It’s a valuable demonstration of how olfactory vocabularies develop and are shared. And even if it were stealing, David Gordon says it’s OK.
23rd February, 2016

L by Lolita Lempicka

Frédéric Malle Musc Ravageur is the classic ‘whole lotta everything’ perfume. It’s an Aromatic Fougiental with gourmand tendencies. It doesn’t blend categories. It lumps them all together in the same bottle. Keeping the different genres at arms length from each other is a remarkable technical accomplishment. Unfortunately, it also leaves Musc Ravageur open to love/hate criticism. Fougère fans will find too much sweetness. Those hoping for a warm amber will find the aromatic elements jarring. It’s not gourmand enough for others.

I don’t know if perfumer Maurice Roucel had plans to spin off a set of flankers by overdosing particular notes, but Musc Ravaguer is an ideal starting place. Helmut Lang Eau de Parfum glides past the aromatics and amps up the musk. Le Labo Labdanum 18 makes a marshmallow of a perfume by emphasizing vanilla and removing much of Musc Ravageur’s kitchen sink.

L de Lolita doesn’t so much overdose a particular note as accentuate the ties to the gourmand genre. The perfume makes its point with patchouli. The camphorous side of the material replicates the aromatic top of Musc Ravageur, but by skipping the lavender L de Lolita skirts fougère references. Patchouli’s chocolate side combines with a maple syrup note (immortelle) to create a dessert feel. Juxtaposing patchouli’s contrastingly cool and warm sides while adding skosh of cotton candy gives Lolita a passing resemblance to Thierry Mugler Angel. Angel’s trick, though, is its inherent dissonance. It suggests food and poison in the same sniff. Lolita is far less conflicted than Angel and lands squarely in the desert camp, ultimately smelling like a German Chocolate cupcake.

L de Lolita misses the point of Angel. Angel balances food and toxin in a 50-50 mix. It draws you close with cotton candy and then blasts you with camphor just as you get intimate. It’s a classic tease. L de Lolita distorts the ratio. 90% cupcake draws you in but the 10% poison isn’t enough to push you away. It’s classic nausea.

There is something technically fascinating yet conceptually crass about L de Lolita. For all the expertise that that may have gone into manipulating genres and layering notes just so, the experience it asks the wearer to have is trite. L de Lolita creeps too far into the laziness of the gourmand genre. The experience it offers is, “Hey. Wanna smell sort of like a cupcake?”
23rd February, 2016

My Insolence by Guerlain

Do you remember how much people kvetched about Insolence when it was released? It was The Death of Guerlain. There had been similar raining-cats-and-dogs wailing about a few other post-LVMH Guerlains: Champs Elysées, l’Instant, the entire Aqua Allegoria line. (Guerlain has in fact survived long enough to hear similar complaints about Idylle, Shalimar Parfum Initial and La Petite Robe Noire.) Guerlain responded by creating two flankers to serve as concession speeches to the Insolence campaign. The two took completely different tacks.

My Insolence came first. It acquiesced. It apologized for Insolence’s garishness. It tacitly confessed and asked forgiveness. Edges were smoothed. The fruit got sweeter. The nail polish note was restrained. The tonka/vanillic base was warmer and more comfortable.

Insolence Eau de Parfum was the defiant, ‘you haven’t seen the last of me!’ version. It kept the hairspray, exaggerated the candied violet, grew monstrously large. It called the critics out for being dainty.

My heart is with Insolence Eau de Parfum for its fuck-you tone, but My Insolence isn’t bad. It might have been built for the buyer who thought Insolence required too much effort, but it was also an alternative for the Britney Spears Fantasy wearer who was looking to get classy with some brand affiliation.

Guerlain aimed for greater accessibility. My Insolence is less sharp than the original. There’s less hairspray, less violet, more berry. It’s fluffier, lighter in every sense. A sweet gourmand lemon note levels out the pitchiness of the original. Think lemon mousse or limoncello instead of Aquanet and you’ll catch the difference between the topnotes of Insolence and My Insolence.

Insolence was intended to be a big seller as the Calvin Klein style name indicates. My Insolence pursued the same goal, in this case by aiming to be more of a crowd pleaser. Just as my expectations of a wide-release action movie are different than what I hope for in a ‘serious’ documentary, my expectation for My Insolence isn’t stratospheric. The fruity-floral is the perfume equivalent of the romantic comedy and My Insolence is a solid if programatic offering within a compromised genre.
23rd February, 2016

Himalaya by Scriabin in the Himalayas

Synesthesia has made a mark on perfumery thanks to artists like Dawn Spencer Hurwitz and Bruno Fazzolari. They experience scent as color. Their work in perfumery ranges from depiction of their experience (Chroma) to more abstract exploration. The audience can speculate as to what synesthesia ‘feels’ like, but the work doesn’t induce a synesthetic experience. The early 20th century Russian composer Alexander Scriabin apparently wanted the audience to experience the phenomenon more directly. Though it never came together during his lifetime, a days-long performance that incorporated music, dance, aroma and light took place at an elevation of 11,800 feet at the Thikse Buddhist Monastery in the Ladakh, India in June of 2015. “Mysterium” was a symbolist approach to the Vedic principle of divine energy animating and linking all aspects of being. The people present for the event were considered celebrants as much as audience members.

Michel Rounitska composed a number of scents that were integrated into the performance. He also composed Himalaya, a perfume tribute to the Mysterium project. The perfume conjures a cold, arid climate. The chilly, metallic olibanum is aerated with ozonic materials to create a sensation of cool winds. It has light, sweet vanillic tone that is balanced by a yogurty tartness. A floral quality floats in the air but never lands. It enhances the incense but stays in the background. An almost fruity aspect appears when the sweetness inherent in olibanum is brought out. Frankincense is the clear center of Himalaya. All other notes circle it and point to it but they never take center stage.

Scriabin’s piece has some of the early 20th century exoticism that flirts with fetishizing the foreign. I’m thankful that Roudnitska chose not to take an orientalist approach to the perfume. He chose a material that is appropriate to the setting (frankincense) and then used it to express an introspective, contemplative attitude.

Intermedia events might seem like a contemporary topic, but Scriabin beat us to the punch by about 100 years. Whether creating a performance that explicitly incorporates all the senses will lead to a synesthetic experience for the audience is an open question. Hallucinogens might help.
23rd February, 2016

Eau Fraîche by Christian Dior

Roudnitska was best known for his fruity chypres such as Femme, Diorama, Diorella to name a few. He was a classicist and one way he approached the chypre was to filter it through other genres, namely the fougère and the Eau de Cologne. The fougère placed bright aromatics on top of a mossy/woody base and the Eau de Cologne draped hesperidic lightness over musk. The chypre’s high-low construction works from a similar principle and all three genres play with olfactory chiaroscuro.

After mixing fruity and mossy tones in Femme, Roudnitska dug further into the hybrid form with Rochas Moustache and Eau d’Hermès. Moustache, composed with his wife Thérèse, joined the fougère with the chypre giving Moustache a ‘missing link’ feel. Focussing on the similarities of the two genres, the Roudnitskas placed a lime and bergamot topnote on a soapy base to created a perfume that smells like each of the genres, depending on your angle of approach.

Eau d’Hermès laid the groundwork for the next logical hybrid, the one that would be the focus of much of his future career, the Chypre/Eau de Cologne hybrid. Eau d’Hermès’s leathery, armpit of a drydown was one of Roudnitska’s warning shots to the world of perfumery. Fresh is nice, but flesh wins the day.

Eau Fraiche, a somewhat ironic name, is another early example of the tendency. The momentum of animalic notes surpasses the delicacy of citric notes. Eau Fraiche bridged the the edc to the chypre, creating a unicorn: the durable cologne. Even in the era of Tonkin and nitro musks, eaux de cologne were fleeting. Combining the edc with a mossy base kept the shape of cologne but gave it longer legs. It combined two historically unisex forms to create a perfume that suited anyone who wore it.

Eau Fraiche was produced in once concentration: eau de cologne. It had the easy-to-love smile of cologne and the fitted quality of the chypre. It was charming and chic. It was optimistic and suited the post-war desire for a return to normalcy. I can easily imagine the 1950s Paris streets smelling of Eau Fraiche.

Eau Sauvage, Diorella and Parfum de Thérèse are all variations on Eau Fraiche’s basic accord of flowers, fruit and a mossy base. Eau Sauvage’s glistening topnotes, often cited as the first substantial use of hedione, can be found almost in their entirety in Eau Fraiche, created thirteen years earlier.

I can’t help but refer to Femme when I look at any perfume by Roudnitska. It was a seminal work and an early indication of his talent and ambition. With limited resources and during the nightmare of the Nazi occupation of France Roudnitska created Femme and went head to head with Mitsouko, the reference chypre for the prior 25 years. It’s hard not to admire his chutzpah. Femme exploded a debate that had already been present in perfumery for years: dirty vs. clean. Roudnitska may not have had the final word on the discussion but he advanced the argument further than any perfumer before or since.
23rd February, 2016

L'Eau Froide by Serge Lutens

When I read Sanchez/Turin The Guide I was taken by the idea mentioned in the review of Equipage. It was said to be fashioned after the scent of cold pipe. My mind went to plumbing. The image stuck with me long after I put the review down. Over the course of time, it dawned on me that Turin had meant the kind of pipe you smoke. Not too bright, I know, but it did make me seek out Hermès Equipage, a fragrance I loved from first sniff.

But Serge Lutens has redeemed me! He has made a fragrance that smells like condensation on cold metal pipes. L'Eau Froide smells like cold metal, it smells like a stony brook in autumn, it smells like drinking melted water from a metal camping cup in winter. It's made of frankincense, but it smells like snow.

We use the expression 'skin scent' as a placeholder for a perfume's later stages of coziness, quiet and low sillage. It’s when the scent has faded to the point that you must jam your nose to your wrist to make it out, at which time you're actually smelling your own skin far more than the perfume applied 12 hours prior. 'Skin scent' coziness can be applied to almost any perfume, but it will never be used to refer to l'Eau Froide. L'Eau Froide points out that the scent of live warmth is the true olfactory association with skin, as if we can smell the blood within the flesh.

L'Eau Froide might pass as the scent of a marble bust, but that is as close as it comes to flesh. You'll never mistake it for a skin scent.

18th May, 2015 (last edited: 21st June, 2015)

Interlude Man by Amouage

God knows Amouage have done the 'go big or go home' style masculine fragrances before. In fact they are some of the line's most successful perfumes. Hybrid vigor, Amouage's implicit goal, has led to beautiful fragrances that highlight traditional Eastern materials and Western compositional methods.

The sensibility that results from this hybrid has seldom been timid and Interlude Man is a beast, but a lovely one. Contemporary men's fragrances, niche and mainstream alike, often use a particular set of woody notes to imply masculinity. This limited vocabulary has drawbacks. Firstly, these notes are usually created from a range of aromachemicals that, when left alone, smell like chemicals. Secondly, without padding, without other notes to fill the empty spaces and round out the angles, men's fragrances often smell alike and lack nuance. Interlude avoids this mistake and is aromatic, expensive, nuanced, complex and capital-B Beautiful.

Line up Interlude with Amouage's other classic masculines (Dia, Ciel, Epic...) and the family resemblance, based largely in their use of incense, is easy to see. The real point of comparison for Interlude, though is the best of the men's Power Fragrances from the 1980s. They're sometimes referred to as knuckle dragging simpletons, but the best of them were simultaneously loud, beautiful and subtle. YSL Kouros was an orange-flower beauty. Hermès Bel Ami wrapped leather in violet and gasoline. Chanel Antaeus had aromatic top notes and lunged at you like a coke-head on aldehydes. Dior Jules and Caron Third Man emphasized the ruggedness of the fougère by smothering it in aromatic and floral notes. Lauder for Men hid its gruffness behind a very pretty muguet note.

Interlude is most similar to the BFFs of the time, the Big Fucking Fougères. It doesn't share the genres defining lavender/coumarin mix, but it balances bass and baritone notes with durable higher pitched notes. Like the BFFs it has a broad spectrum harmony that lasts from start to finish. You don't just hear the high-pitched notes in the top notes, and you don't get the lower register notes only in the bass notes. The harmony last from top to bottom. The similarity to the fougère genre lies in its aromatic quality. Where an aromatic fougère might use geranium or some other leafy green, Interlude uses oregano.

Oregano! Maybe not the greatest selling point points in a list of notes, but extremely successful in bringing a green expansive quality to a woody perfume. A bit of patchouli seems to integrate the oregano, so that it doesn't suggest pizza or a sore thumb. Incense jumps out from first sniff, but the rest of the woody tone is an interesting blend. Oud? Sandalwood? There is a warm, leathery, dusty quality in the basenotes that just purrs.

Interlude's combination of boldness and complexity differentiates it from the dull crowd of most contemporary woody fragrances and links it to the best of the 1980s. Vive le power frag
18th May, 2015

Sotto la Luna : Gardenia by Tauer

There are generally two challenges to making a gardenia perfume. The first is that it requires a complete fabrication since the flower itself yields no aromatic essence. The second is balancing gardenia’s heady and sweet notes with its fleshy, salty, umami underbelly.

Another hurdle, though, is matching the specificity of the appearance of the flower and its scent. There are a lot of things in this world that smell like a rose, jasmine or lemon. Nothing else smells like a gardenia, and so for those who can see, the fragrance and the look of the flower are intertwined. If in re-creating the scent of a gardenia the visual image isn't also summoned, then the representation is incomplete.

Bolstering the association between scent and the visual appearance of the flower, and therefore adding to this challenge, is the way the look of the flower and its fragrance suggest each other. The creaminess of the scent matches exactly the matte texture and luminosity of the petal. The creepy, fleshy quality of the aroma is enhanced by the flower’s likeness to cyanotic or vampiric skin. The hint of blue color to the creamy white matches the cool, liquid quality of the aroma. Gardenia has a visual/olfactory mirroring similar to the way sound and meaning echo each other in onomatopoeia.

Tauer clears the first two challenges easily. The top notes of gardenia smell like a particular slice of the scent of a gardenia. It is an abstraction, as any attempt at re-creating a gardenia will be. The success here is in the point of view. It is a perfectly proportioned sketch of the flower, not a photorealistic image. It stimulates your imagination, and engages you to complete the image for yourself. As for the umami, Tauer gives us a dusty mushroom, one that suggests that dank dark place where a mushroom grows as much as a mushroom itself.

As for the challenge of the sensory mirroring, Tauer shines. The scent of Sotto di Luna Gardenia is like a gardenia under a black light. The aroma suggests spiced cream, a cool touch, a bone marrow blue-tinted white. Over time the specific appearance of a gardenia goes away but the shape holds. The precise abstraction remains, and the surface tension between sweetness and meatiness, creaminess and dustiness lasts through drydown. The gardenia itself is gone, but the angular lushness that characterize it remains. A wonderful 'morning after' scent.
18th May, 2015

Jour de Fête by L'Artisan Parfumeur

Olivia Giacobetti has a way of challenging the wearer without threatening. Jour de Fete makes you question your senses. It presents you with notions of softness, quiet and comfort at the same time that it makes you consider legibility and dynamics. It poses questions. What is the difference between quiet and soft in a perfume? Is low sillage a weakness or an advantage? Giacobetti's gift is to make perfumes that carry ideas, but not at the expense of pleasure and emotion.

The name itself captures the conundrum. Jour de Fete. It sounds like a party in a bottle, but if you come to it expecting music, cheering and applause, you'll be either surprised or disappointed. It's less a party and more like a discussion with a fascinating stranger. It has a black-box quality that I love in Giacobetti's other work. I've read others call Jour de Fete overpowering, undetectable, sweet, bitter, long-lasting and instantly disappearing. Everybody sees something different in the box.

Is there an opposite of a vanishing act? On applying Jour de Fete, I could just barely smell a hint of marzipan and play-do. It suggests scent as well as substances with particular textures. I had to strain to detect it. Within 15 to 20 minutes, I could smell it a bit more strongly. But what I smelled was more of a quality than a scent, per se. For lack of a better word, it smelled blunt. It's as though I was at the outer edge of something that actually absorbed sent. Now, eight hours later, I can't stop pulling my arm to my nose. It's remarkably composed. Simple, but suggestive. I have the same experience with Dzing! (another Giacobetti perfume for l'Artisan Parfumeurs) at its drydown. While the two smell nothing alike, at this stage, they both are evocative without suggesting or referring to anything in particular. They don't smell like anything else I can point to, but they make my mind race.

Giacobetti’s work is fascinating. I’d give anything to have the chance to sit quietly in the corner and observe her at work for a week.

18th May, 2015

Perfume Calligraphy Rose by Aramis

The rose is often maligned among fumies. It's quaint, it's prosaic, it's the low hanging fruit of floral perfumes. It's lovely on the bush but uninteresting in the bottle. Perhaps the rose's greatest sin among the cognicsienti: it's common.

I see it differently. The rose’s ability to play the common denominator makes it the ultimate contextual note. Whole genres are created through the rose's affinity with woods, ambers and resins, fruits and mosses. Rose notes make the most beautiful chypres, fruity florals, florientals and woody florals. It has so many intuitive pairings because there are many facets to rose that are enhanced by other materials and notes: patchouli, oakmoss, cedar, citrus, musk, labdanum, vanilla, berry. Rose perfumes can be woody, jammy, sweet/dry, bright/dark, soft, garish, innocent or skanky. Rose is to flowers what sandalwood is to woods: the broadest, most encompassing example of its genre. The best analogy I can come up with for the rose is blood types. Rose is the AB + blood type of perfumery: the universal recipient. The rose can be paired with just about anything.

And here is the trap.

Many fumies disdain rose perfumes because, where's the artistry in a note that can't help but smell good? What good is beauty if it's common? My counter to this line of thinking has two parts. 1) There have been terrible rose perfumes, so quality isn't guaranteed. 2) Smell Amouage Lyric Woman, Vero Profumo Rozy or Paco Rabanne la Nuit and tell me that rose lacks character.

Aramis Calligraphy Rose takes full advantage of the rose and uses oud to make a woody rose/floriental hybrid. A hybrid/hybrid. The rose springboards off a light oud note to create a heady, jammy, boozy perfume with lush sillage and a long arc. Aramis clearly sees the perfume as a market-expander, a foot in the door of an Arabic sensibility and demographic. The marketing strategy is simple to the point of crass, especially compared to Amouage, a comparison Aramis would desperately like the consumer to make. But the perfume is lovely. It steps straight into the line of fire of the rose critics by being a 'feel good' fragrance. But passing the Guy Robert 'smell good' test is only the first hurdle of any perfume. From there, a perfume must then be considered in light of criteria such as coherence, balance and thoughtfulness, and Calligraphy Rose rises to the occasion.
18th May, 2015

Parure by Guerlain

The signature scent is an obsolete model of perfume use. It was the perfume you mated with and wore exclusively day in, day out. If your perfume was discontinued or fatally reformulated, you were out of luck. I read often about the drawbacks of so many perfume releases each year. Creativity and exploration in commercial perfumery is stifled by market needs, narrow margins and short time frames for success. The explosion of 'niche' is impossible to keep up with without curation. Each year, hundreds of launches are aimed at the same fat middle of the bell curve. 25 years ago the dilemma was simply a dozen men's perfumes that tried to copy Davidoff Coolwater’s success after the fact. Today it’s hundreds of concurrent launches that all smell like Bleu de Chanel, each following the same model of risk management.

iTania Sanchez’s analysis that Chanel 5 wasn't successful due to marketing but to quality isn’t applicable to new perfumes. Half of those hundreds of simultaneous fragrances don't smell any worse or much different than Bleu. The quality, innovation or artistry of the product are the least important variables in the equation. Branding and marketing are the deciding factors and Chanel wins through PR power and prowess alone.

The lifelong signature fragrance has become a losing prospect. Perhaps a better model is to swim out a bit further and let the tide carry you. I don’t mean to Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Wall at Sephora. But investigate a bit. Interested in oud? You’ll have hundreds to choose from. Don't like oud? Try one of the throngs of translucent incense perfumes. Rose is having a moment these days and there are some gorgeous Rose perfumes. Why not try one of those? Even a genre as tired as for the Fruity Floral has been tested by evolution for long enough that there are some solid choices.

If you never step into the same river twice, maybe this constant flow of new perfumes isn't a bad thing. I can't think of any given time in the past 20 years when there haven't been a good number of exceptional perfumes available. I'm thrilled that Guerlain seem to have found a way to resurrect Mitsouko. But if it had simply gone the way, I would have shed a tear and moved on. This attitude is not ahistorical. There lineages, traditions and movements in perfumery that continue whether historical icons remain extant or not.

We reminisce about signature fragrances when we talk about dear old Gran who wore Arpège and Grand-dad who used to wear Caron pour un Homme. Forget the arcadian past and ask yourself, would anyone be better off still wearing Giorgio every day rather than having discovered Carnal Flower? What if your boss still wore Opium rather than l’Air du Désert Marocain?

The choices are there if you chose to act. Investigate new entries in a genre that you’ve like in the past. Discover something completely new. Follow a perfumer whose work you’ve admired. There’s a lot of perfume bliss to be followed these days


But back to Guerlain Parure and the value of the new. A large decant of the discontinued but coveted Parure was sent to me by a generous friend who has a particularly good ability to read perfume. I think there was some degree of test implied in the gift. What would I do with Parure? Thinking about the river of new releases has influenced my take on Parure.

From a market perspective, novelty has come to be a universally positive attribute. It has a value beyond mere goodness. If new is good, then newer is better. The latest is the greatest.

Oy, did Parure missed the boat.

Parure was released in 1975, composed by Jean-Paul Guerlain. For perspective, Guerlain released Chant d’Aromes, a prim powdery floral in 1962, Chamade, an exquisitely powerful green floral from 1969 and Nahema, an over-the-top disco queen in 1979. How is it possible that Parure is so much more in the mold of Chant d’Aromes than Nahema?

I don’t think Parure was intended to be retro. It was simply behind the times and was released into a market that had already had many similar fragrances for years. Aldehydic floral chypres: Paco Rabanne Calandre (1969), YSL Rive Gauche (1970). Green powdery chypres: Estée Lauder Private Collection (1973), Weil de Weil (1971). The more emancipated green fragrances had left the dainty green floral aldehyde behind. By emancipated, I mean taking the lead like Aromatics Elixir (1971), carefree like Revlon Charlie (1973), or active and engaged like Estée Lauder Aliage (1972). For god’s sake, 25-30 years prior women were wearing Rochas Femme (1943), Robert Piguet Bandit (1944) and Miss Dior (1947). These perfumes were erotic, some tacitly, others blatantly. They highlighted the sensuality of the body. By comparison, Parure suggested as much distance from the body as a perfume can make.

Parure was intended for a woman who closed the drawing room doors before the Summer of Love started and still hadn’t opened them in 1975. Even the name, “Parure” which means both a matched set of jewelry and, simply, finery, shows how out of step this perfume was in 1975.

But that was then. As a homo in 2014, I reclaim Parure. Its dynamics are delicate and balanced just so. Removed from the context of the retiring bourgeoise of the mid 1970s, it is a soft floral chypre with fruity elements that, after 15 years of syrupy tactless fruity florals, seem subtle and sexy. Appropriating staid perfumes that were well designed but fundamentally conservative and making them a bit come-hither breathes life into them. God, it's great to be queer.
18th May, 2015

Cuir Cuba Intense by Nicolaï

I applaud PR wing of Parfums de Nicolai. Coordinating the release of Cuir Cuba Intense with the US administration’s plans to normalize relations with Cuba? Brilliant!

Cuir Cuba Intense is a tobacco perfume. No surprise, given the locale in the name, but Patricia de Nicolai creates the notes the way a stage magician plays with your focus. I recognize the tobacco. I smell it as an arpeggio of floral, woody and herbal tones, but he tobacco takes two forms: the humidor and the fresh tobacco leaf. A humidor's richness is a result of both the container and the contents. Fresh tobacco leaf is filled with resinous juice and its fragrance is more characteristically floral than leafy.

De Nicolai uses the tobacco note to focus your attention, but it’s a ruse. As with any good magic act, the real action takes place right in front of you without your notice.

Ta da! Cuir Cuba Intense is a fougère!

Granted, it's an impressionistic one, but an effective one. The classical fougère is typically described as soapy, but from Houbigant Fougère Royale to Caron Troisième Homme to YSL Rive Gauche pour Homme, the coumarin in a fougère smells of hay and tobacco. In Cuir Cuba Intense, de Nicolai uses all the tricks the fougère has to offer. It plays the cool, and anisic tones of coumarin against warmer woody hues. It balances delectable, caramelized qualities with soapy inedibility, suggesting forbidden fruit. And wrapping identifiably masculine aroma (tobacco, leather, rumbly woods) up in a pretty bow, it is a classical dandy. Also in classically Victorian dandy fashion, and epitomizing the early generations of the fougère, Cuir Cuba Intense opens with a generous, expansive geranium note.

Prestidigitation works best on the suggestible and Cuir Cuba Intense is highly suggestive perfume. The fougère is there, but so is the leather. A citrus note ties to a dry smokiness and the heartnotes hint at citrus-leathers like Hermès Bel Ami and Estée Lauder Azurée. The combination of botanical references alongside undisguised chemical qualities reminds me of Robert Piguet Bandit. There is a sweet, caramel-patchouli inflection to the quiet but durable basenotes that is the balanced, pleasant version of Thierry Mugler A*Men’s hangover of a drydown. Cuir Cuba Intense isn’t derivative, it’s just composed of a lot of moving parts.

My strongest association between Cuir Cuba Intense and tobacco is not the way it smells, but the tone of voice and the synesthesia it triggers. It smells like Betty Bacall's gorgeous, cigarette-raspy voice sounds. Her husky feminine voice was exotic yet she was forthright and plain-spoken. This same duality runs through the perfume.

Classical perfumery's forté is orchestration, the ability to build notes and accords and swing them around with flourish. Contemporary perfumery, from about the mid-90s forward, used the tools of postmodernism, focussing on deconstruction and recontextualization to make perfume. De Nicolai’s Guerlain heritage is often cited in order to emphasize her traditionalism. Cuir Cuba Intense shows that she is as contemporary as she is classical and that first and foremost she is an expert structuralist.

18th May, 2015

Cuir Velours by Naomi Goodsir

Cuir Velours suffers from the same malady as its sibling, Bois d’Ascèse. The problem isn’t the fragrance, it’s the strategy.

So let’s get the perfume out of the way. It’s a waxy, fruity leather. Less soapy than Serge Lutens Daim Blond, more spiced than Robert Piguet’s revived Visa. A pretty fruit/leather that smokes and drinks. Very nice, truth be told.

But, why? Is niche perfumery strictly about branding. Say you sell a luxury fashion commodity. Shoes, purses, phone cases. Hats. Must a line of perfumes be part of the business plan? The smugness of viewing niche perfumery as a merely a style to be taken up and dropped is certainly nothing new, but the niche version seems dismissive by design. I know that there need to be business opportunities for up and coming perfumers, but is niche perfumery the lapdog of fashion businesses?

The thought that niche perfumery will serve to accessorize fashion is disheartening. Taking the focus away from exploration and placing it on the production of perfumes ‘in the style’ of niche is exactly how the soul is sold.

Niche orthodoxy. It will be the death of us.

18th May, 2015

Chypre Palatin by MDCI

International Fragrance Association (IFRA) restrictions on materials have made the chypre the bellwether in the reformulation debate. Limiting the quantity of oakmoss that may be used and the type of bergamot allowed, the IFRA have knocked out two legs of the chypre tripod. The limitations have pushed perfumers to reconsider composition and materials-producers to search for novel chemicals and botanicals.

The question remains: is it possible to make a true chypre perfume today? And if so, how? I don’t know the engineering of perfume composition enough to say what’s under the hood of the current lineup of chypre perfumes, but there seem to be a few strategies. Chanel go the route of re-creating the geometry of the composition so as to suggest the chypre. Thierry Wasser has apparently fiddled with the forces of the nature and reconfigured the chemical structure of oakmoss (Mitsouko) and reanimated the chypre. Vero Kern, god knows how, simply makes a chypre with Onda.

The wonder of the chypre is that you smell bergamot, oakmoss and amber at the same time that the totality of the perfume rises above the materials. Chypre Palatin has some of the characteristic elements of the chypre. It has great sillage in the headnotes, a raspy heart and a warm, leathery drydown. Like a chypre its evolution is gradual but substantive. Overall, though, it’s simply smells like the sum of its parts.

Chypre Palatin lacks this synergy and therefore lacks soul. In a go-big-or-go-home attempt to deceive, Parfums MDCI would have us believe that Chypre Palatin is not simply a chypre, but a ‘palatial’ one and they charge accordingly. ($250/75 ml) Despite Parfums MDCI’s goal of high art in perfume, a big-name perfumer and an emphasis on the finest materials, Chypre Palatin swings and misses. It is a chypre in the way a tofu steak is meat and carob-chip cookies are satisfying. It doesn’t appear like an attempt to reinvent the chypre so much as a ploy to fool the buyer.

18th May, 2015

Grand Cuir by Parfums Retro

Parfums Retro Grand Cuir is framed for you before you even try it. Putting the expectation right out front is an interesting strategy. The name tells you it will be a backward-looking, stonking leather perfume. While the name is not an outright fiction, it’s a ruse. Grand Cuir is a leather perfume, but it plays rough with genres and assumptions. If you take the name as a suggestion rather than scripture, the perfume speaks for itself and the fun starts.

Grand Cuir refers to the big, androgynous leathers of the early 20th century, the smoking and drinking party girls and boys such as Caron Tabac Blond, the various Cuirs de Russie, Schiaparelli Shocking and Lanvin Scandal. It is formal but rakish in that unbuttoned tuxedo, end of the evening style. It also links to the whopping aromatic fougeres of later in the 20th century with herbal, soapy facets that smack of loud shower-singing. The references might be retro, but its genre-blurring was current when released in 2013 and the huskiness of the floral leather notes matches a pendulum-swing away from sheer suede/leather notes and toward smoky, peaty leather tones.

Like the early 20th Century Shalimars, Emeraudes and Tabus with their dress up, play-acting orientalism, the art deco-era leather perfumes had a bit of costumey amateur-theater to them. The aromatic fougère of the mid-20th century was equally burdened with drama, in this case the overstuffed props of a wounded masculinity. Grand Cuir takes the stage but does it with a wry, comedy-of-manners-style that suits the project. The irony is smart and never reaches into sarcasm. Grand Cuir simply lives in a world of props and set-dressing appropriate to the genres.

Grand Cuir plays with olfactory tones as much as it plays with genres. Soapiness is common to both floral-leathers and fougères and Grand Cuir uses it to modulate the tannic woodiness of the leather and scratchy herbal qualities. The perfume balances tones of voice that typically would be dissonant. The hissiness of the orange blossom-leather pairing sits easily next to the barbershop quartet of the fougère. Grand Cuir is a big broad perfume and holds these differences in place without them seeming shoehorned into the same bottle.

Taken seriously, lightly or laughingly, Grand Cuir is a potent but nuanced perfume. Its opening gives a picture of the journey of the next 12 hours. The details, though, are nicely calibrated and the sites that you see en route are delightful.

18th May, 2015

Cuir de Russie Parfum by Chanel

Most of what has been written on classical perfumery falls into three categories: the description, the tribute and the complaint, also known as anger passing for nostalgia.

Take Chanel no 5:

• The description: Soapy. Bubbly. Old Lady perfume. Flowery. Feminine.

• The tribute: The greatest perfume ever made. The ultimate fashion accessory of the 20th century. The perfume that launched thousand ships.

• The complaint can be sophisticated or simplistic, but the meaning is the same: something I am entitled to has been taken away from me and I'm bitter. Blame political correctness for taking animal products off the perfumers palate, blame the governmental nannies for taking away nitro musks. Wherever I point the finger, though, I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to wear this anymore.

Cuir de Russe is a seminal work from one of the acknowledged founders of contemporary perfumery, Ernest Beaux. Describing it, idolizing it or bitching about its current state doesn't seem sufficient.

So what can I say about it? It is one of the few remaining examples of the sub genre after which it was named. The Russian leathers were defined by their specific combination of the hard and the soft. Rough leather notes, typically created with great helpings of birch tar, are balanced by dry floral notes. They combined the rugged and the refined and played on the Franco-Russian mystique of the early 20th century. They conveyed the sensibility of an era where sophistication was not defined by effete finery, but by an almost swashbuckling pursuit of 'the finer things'.

Does Chanel's Cuir de Russie meet these expectations? Tough to say. Perfume's capacity to evoke a broad sensibility is a function of many factors, from accessibility and social expectation to marketing, cost and personal habit. The Russian Leathers's connotation of class and privilege was likely a smoke-and-mirrors game at the start of the 20th Century. In the second decade of the 21st it is virtually mythology, which Chanel maintain with their heritage pillars: No 5, Cuir de Russie and Bois des Isles.

Cuir de Russie must meet a two-part goal for Chanel. It must remain coherent with the image of Chanel's history yet be desirable to the buyer who doesn't know or care that the perfume has a history. This is the precipice where many vintage perfumes die. They are reformulated, whether due to materials or strategy, and they lose the buyers. Caron's strategy has been to reformulate their heritage products drastically (eg. Narcisse Noir). Vintage lovers protest that their favorite perfumes have been gutted and new younger buyers have little interest in 'old lady perfumes.’ Taking a different tack, Guerlain reissued Vega as true to its original form as possible. Buyers who didn't care about its historical significance didn't buy it and it has been discontinued.

Caron is the cautionary tale and Chanel have paid close attention. Cuir de Russie 'ain't what she used to be,' but is an exceptional perfume that is precicely calibrated for 2015. The reference to the past is apparent but the perfume isn't nostalgic in the least. Neither is it adorned with olfactory signifiers like fruit notes, lingering woody ambers or cotton candy that that would suggest a cynical attempt to trick a younger demographic. The juxtaposition of leather with flowers is the idea at the heart of both the vintage and the current formulations of Cuir de Russie. The current version focusses on the same concepts that the original did rather than try to recreate it. In emphasizing evolution and continuity Chanel have made the current Cuir de Russie what it always was: a reference point and a standard against which other perfumes are measured.

An excellent leather perfume has been evidence of quality and distinction for niche and classic houses. Robert Piguet are 'known' for Bandit, as is Heeley for Cuir Pleine Fleur and Balmain formerly was for Jolie Madame. Cuir de Russie might not be a best-seller for Chanel, but it is critical to their image and their perfume portfolio. Jacques Polge, who oversees the maintenance of the line and is responsible for its current composition, gets high marks for the deliberation and subtlety that make the contemporary Cuir de Russie an exceptional perfume.

18th May, 2015

Hermèssence Cuir d'Ange by Hermès

2014 marks Jean-Claude Ellena’s 10th year as in-house perfumer at Hermès as well as his departure from the house. His final perfume for Hermès is Cuir d’Ange, released as a part of the Hermessence line that he created soon after his arrival to Hermès. Hermès was one of the first French luxury house to create a luxe-plus, high-cost line. Dior launched their Collection Privé the same year. Chanel followed with Les Exclusifs in 2007. Cartier released Les Heures in 2009.

The luxury on steroids bandwagon was the result of a number of tendencies in the perfume market but had one common goal: profit. The trends driving the escalation included the perfumer-as-artiste movement, a desire to reclaim the distinction that niche brands had stolen and demands for market growth. Each house sold the premise differently. Chanel touted its heritage. Guerlain used misdirection, rereleasing poorly selling perfumes in new bottles at high mark-up in line after line, from l’Art et la Matière and les Parisiènnes to Les Elixirs Charnels and the City Lines. The ongoing question is, how are the perfumes in the exclusive lines any more valuable than their less expensive counterparts? Luxury houses have long espoused convoluted and esoteric equations of worth to sell us their wares. The bottom line was: they created and maintained markets for ever more costly perfumes.

Rather than commissioning hired guns to produce a perfume at a time, Hermès had a more ambitious plan and brought in Ellena to reinvent Hermès’s perfumery starting with the creation of the Jardins series and the Hermessence line. It is valid to be skeptical of the charm of a contemporary luxury goods producer. The avarice of multinational corporations filtered through the haughtiness of top-tier tastemakers calls for suspicion at a minumum. Still, Hermès’s renovation was well considered and transparent, something refreshing in Fashion.

Ellena was the ideal choice. He had a proven track record of success with designer houses (Van Cleef and Arpels, Bvlgari and Cartier) and played a large part in defining niche perfumery with his work for l’Artisan Parfumeur, The Different Company, Amouage and Frédéric Malle. He had an enviable lineage, apprenticing in Grasse, studying at the new perfume school at Givaudan in the 1970s, following in the lineage of Edmond Roudnitska and being a founding member of l'Osmothèque. He brought expertise, talent, a proven track record and, importantly for a house whose currency is status and standing, prestige. The position offered Ellena the possibility to play a critical part in shaping the state of the art of contemporary perfumery and pursuing a vision. It was a rare opportunity for a perfumer. It was a match made in heaven.

But was it also a deal with the devil?

Ellena’s body of work for Hermès defines the states of art and elegance. But it could be argued that Hermès’s explicit focus on finery, exclusivity and branding were a set of golden handcuffs for Ellena. Ellena’s minimalism and Hermès’s refinement might seem like a perfect match at a glance, but the incongruity is implicit. The company’s pristine objets are impeccable, but conceptually fussy. They stem from the decorative arts, but serve as dull finery and symbols of bourgeois prestige. Ellena’s minimalism is deliberate and rigorous, not a superficial style. His work is the result of years of contemplation and effort on the nature of perfumery. In a line of work where chasing the next brief defines long-term planning, Ellena’s body of work demonstrates a coherent vocabulary and philosophy.

So is Ellena’s work for Hermès restrained or constrained? The brand’s sheer, radiant perfumes with their controlled range of dynamics are thoughtful successors to perfumes like Bvlgari Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert (1992) and Osmanthus (2001) for the Different Company. But this is also the perfumer who made highly orchestrated perfumes such as Van Cleef and Arpels First (1976), l’Artisan Parfumeur l'Eau du Navigateur (1982), Rumba (1988) for Balenciaga and Amouage Dia (2002). Was this side of his work set aside during his tenure at Hermès? Will Jean-Claude Ellena step out of his rue du Faubourg St. Honore closet and live large starting in 2015?

Only the future will tell, but Cuir d’Ange provides an enticing hint.

Cuir d’Ange takes a full step away from the tone of Ellena’s prior work for Hermès. It is as composed and edited as the others in the Hermessense line, but it is far more lyrical. Where the majority of the Hermessence line are defined by a dispassionate understatement, Cuir d’Ange has an expansiveness, a brio that is almost startling. Ellena is known for having fine-tuned the narrowly evolving, quietly radiant perfume while at Hermès. He made perfumes that were not static but were largely linear. Cuir d’Ange has sweeping topnotes and a range of dynamics that are akin to those in Calèche, a perfume made by Guy Robert for Hermès in 1961. Cuir d’Ange simultaneously fits the brand’s legacy and Ellena’s oeuvre like no other perfume he’s made for the marque. It has a foot in the past and reaches into the future without sentimentality or contrivance.

(The relation of Cuir d’Ange and Caleche is conjecture, but it isn’t without precedent. Ellena’s Dia for Amouage was a response to Robert’s Amouage Gold [1983], the perfume that launched the Amouage line.)

Cuir d’Ange is a floral-leather, a category that existed before Hermès produced its first perfume. The nod to historical genre tells me that Ellena intends to work with, if not within, tradition. The specific floral quality of the perfume is unexpected. It is bitter and dusty with an herbal, soapy quality reminiscent of Ivoire de Balmain. The scent is strong and specific yet detached. Cuir d'Ange smells more specifically like suede than most leather perfumes, but suggests that the scent comes from objects in a nearby room. Despite the olfactory realism the perfume is abstract and it defeats the expectation of how a leather perfume should play out. It’s neither smokey nor woody and it never warms or sweetens. It becomes hushed over time, but stays soapy and cool, hovering just off the skin without ever becoming a ‘skin scent’ as most leather perfumes do.

Ellena’s work is both literate and legible. He uses a systematic and ordered approach to make expressive if subtle perfumes. His perfumes reveal a coherent aesthetic that can be read. He has both a sense of history and an intimate knowledge of the most recent innovations in perfumery. He is poised to leave Hermès into a wide open future and I’m keen to see what he’ll choose to do next.

17th May, 2015