Monday, July 30, 2007

Coming Attractions: Onda

Zürich-based aromatologist/perfumer Vero Kern has succeeded in creating a "nastierpiece," a nasty, irresistible, take-no-prisoners, exotic extrait de parfum called Onda which she has billed as a "fiery," rooty vetiver. That said, Onda is not for the novelty- or thrill-seekers. Guerlain Vetiver it certainly isn't, nor Maître Parfumeur et Gantier's RdV: it eludes suave-ness as expertly as it eludes shock value ... and any attempt at categorization. On first application it gives up an animalic powder note which, mere seconds later, recedes to reveal a medicinal-edged ginger/coriander note, and which a few seconds more bows before smoking room/tackbox/humidor aromas. Onda takes my imagination from a conjured place of ritual, high-altitude sacrifice (snow, smoky woods, musk deer, circling birds of appetite) to a rowdy, sweat-and-mud-caked high school locker room post-game rubdown (teenage crotch and a whiff of something mentholated) to the stale-cheroot-smoke-and-Jass feel of a rural Swiss Beizli. I wonder at Kern's labors in creating such an inelegant yet wondrous thing, an exotic which eschews all those expensive gums and resins in favor of never-ever-plain grass-roots groundedness. Onda is a stranger of uncommon provenance, almost frightening in its power. Hence, the Kirchner soldiers above. An extreme fragrance for extreme times.

will be available in the U.S. in mid-2008.

Image credit: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Artillerymen, 1915, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Saturday, July 28, 2007


The "best" scents on today's market are those whose components link successfully to the scent components of our bodies. Often this comes at a price upwards of $75 an ounce. Most drugstore and department-store fragrances are either dim echoes of a louder past or chemical scent-bombs; but, of late, I have found that musks can strike a happy medium. Their power comes not from their strength but from their resemblance to our own body's perfume. That said, each musk varies from the next, in most cases falling into the category of vegetal (often straying into the floral) or animalic. Few would argue that the latter position is easily filled by the Serge Lutens/Christopher Sheldrake revelation Muscs Kublaï Khan (1998), a scent which runs the gamut from savage and feline frisky (civet) to clear-eyed and (post-coital) human. Even consummate civet scents like Jicky and Amouage Gold for Men––marvels, no doubt––fail to live up to it. As for vegetal musks, Chanel No. 18, with its base notes of ambrette seed, Santa Maria Novella's Muschio, which takes it old-world medicinal cue from the roots of the Sumbul plant, and Kiehl's Since 1851 Musk Original Musk Blend No. 1, wickedly Sixties in its love-beads-and-grass sort of way, are all personal favorites.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Some Like It Raff

Chinon is the Loire AOC responsible for the most interesting, most classically finessed Cabernet Francs in all of France, perhaps with the exception only of Cheval Blanc. Olga Raffault is Chinon's legend. The vineyard "Les Picasses" is its jewel. The 1990 vintage, recently released directly from the Raffault cellars, is a near-textbook expression of mature Chinon: light garnet color with mahogany at rim, fairly perfumed nose, giving pimento, olives, tobacco leaf, leather, cedar and barnyard aromas; cherry, orange zest and leather on the palate; rounded tannins and good backbone of acidity. There is a cooling quality to Chinon which makes it marvelously refreshing during these dog days of summer, but the 1990 Raffault "Les Picasses" brings with it that leathery-green and spicy note which can't fail to intrigue in me in its dirty, country-French way. For a person accustomed to the New World fruit-bomb high-alcohol style (or even the much-fêted ripeness of St-Emilion and Pomerol), Chinon will speak a decidedly difficult patois––but, then again, who ever turned down that freckled beauty in her father's boots with the smell of the livestock on her jeans?

Break beyond the fruit.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Powder Keg

The "New York Summer" should have a dictionary entry all its own. Oozing humidity (yes, oozing) such as this provides the substratum for some of the greatest olfactory crimes ever committed against humanity, not the least of which is the Parisian affectation lately acquired by a small faction of Williamsburg hipsters: the canine shit-and-run. Nevertheless (you know who you are) we get on. By the time one reaches the steamy cellar of the New York City subway system, one wishes that the better half of his commuter confrères (and con-soeurs) had given at least a millisecond of thought to personal hygiene. Sadly, the better half has opted for that canned commodity known as deodorant. Now, this is a smell that conjures memories. Lactone-laden products immediately will bring a boy back to the barbershop and the upswept glories of the horsehair brush brandished by the proud Italian arm and sprinkled (quite liberally, at last recollection) with baby powder. Lactones, according to Luca Turin, are "the pastels [of the perfumer's art] and "the cuddliest smells ... almost every one is soft and powdery, sometimes to a fault." They are derived chemically from things which first were isolated in lactic acid, i.e., souring milk. No surprise there. Powder and milk. What could be more like mother? The lactone coumarin, a chemical compound which naturally occurs in tonka beans, sweet clover, hay, lavender and tobacco, plays a major role in adding that powdery, comforting quality to a slew of fragrances including, most famously, Parquet's Fougère Royale (1882) for Houbigant and Jacques Guerlain's Mitsouko (1921), and everything from Kiehl's Since 1851 Original Musk Blend No. 1 (1963) to Santa Maria Novella's Melograno (1965). Whether they are superclean, British and polite, as in Penhaligon's classic English Fern (1911), or seethingly Oedipal, as in Coty's L'Aimant (1927), powder notes don't let us forget what perfumes and eaux de cologne were originally created for: the semblance, if not the stamp, of hygiene.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Sign of Four

Famed nose Bertrand Duchaufour has crafted his fair share of "dry" scents: Eau d'Italie's Bois d'Ombrie, Sienne l'Hiver and Paestum Rose, Comme des Garçon's Series 3: Incense: Avignon and Kyoto, and L'Artisan Parfumeur's Dzongkha, not to mention their unbelievably strange and wondrous Timbuktu (2004) inspired by the perfume tradition of the ancient West African kingdom of Mali. The common thread running through Duchaufour's scents is a palpable fascination with incense and dry wood accords which eschew the sticky, savoury amber accords commonly wedded to them, viz. Maître Parfumeur et Gantier's Eau des Îles. A dichotomy is formed which divides such "exotics" into the separate camps of old world churchy and tropical spicy. The special thing about Timbuktu is that it manages, quite effortlessly, to bridge the two: a fleeting top note of green mango is followed by a brief floral (karo karounde, according to the L'Artisan Web site); there is poivre rose and faint cardamom, too. All are grounded in a beautiful, crystalline accord of vetiver, myrrh and patchouli, which, more than acting as a mere base, seem to penetrate the heart and top notes. Wearing Timbuktu on warm summer night at an outdoor café in Williamsburg, I was able to perceive each level singly while, at the same, an almost vertiginous depth of all three simultaneously. Hands down, this is one of the most ruggedly masculine of the more rarefied exotics and, along with Méchant Loup (1997), the pinnacle of Duchaufour's art.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Lacrimae Rerum

Recent posts on the Perfume Smellin' Things blog which dealt with "occasional scents" (i.e., "5 Best Scents to Take on a Holiday," "5 Best Scents for a Wedding") got me thinking about the less conventional occasions for which fragrances might be appropriate. Could there be, for instance, "5 Killer Scents for a Funeral" or "5 Must-Wears for Lunch with Your Ex," or, less sensational, "5 Scents to Bid Farewell to the Blues," or, more superficial still, "5 Scents for Before Bed"? Too often, I think, fragrances simply intensify the feelings we are having by giving them depth. They also provide the illusion of extra-corporeality through their aural qualities; E.g., we leave a room and, depending on the strength of the sillage, our scent lingers in the air like a ghost. Just open a drawer in an old house you've known from childhood, and someone is in there (Great Aunt So-and-So, bachelor Uncle Devereux, etc.) Pretty much Perfume 101––or, at least, the introductory lecture by Professor Proust, eh? Thus, a wedding scent will conjure up images of white duchesse satin and crowns of woven néroli blossoms; a vacation scent, the marine images of white sand and blue water. For some reason (call me an ol' Victorian), tuberose scents remind me of funerals and conjure sepulchral imagery. Their sweet, sickly overripe notes are all Baudelaire and French art song. I can only imagine the consoling, overpowering embrace of some chic, black-clad woman at a family wake. Tuberose comforts in its own fashion. The aroma of Creed's Tubéreuse Indiana (1980) with its base of ambergris and musk provides a sort of solace, a good five hours of it. While it might not be the truest expression of the flower, I admire its greasy, dated appeal. It is the old family friend spied signing the condolence book.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Breg My Heart

The wines of Josko Gravner are among the most iconoclastic expressions of their local varietals in Northern Italy. Sure, there are others like Radikon and Gaja who consistently push the winewaking envelope, but Gravner crafts wines of a complexity that extends far beyond the prices those others' wines fetch on the auction block. Child of novelty that I am, I recently acquired a bottle of his 2001 Breg "Anfora" with the help of Treave Temple at Crush on East 57th Street. Intending to drink it over the next few nights, I forwent the usual shipment to my cellar and opted to store it in my New-York-apartment-sized wine fridge. The unusual thing about Gravner's wines is that they are pressed in a manual vertical press and fermented (at least initially) in beeswax-lined terracotta amphorae buried into a hillside. The Breg is a field blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling Italico, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio, picked and vinified separately and blended. In the glass the wine has a copper hue and great viscosity (for a white); so much so that it you could eyeball it for a dessert wine. On the palate, the Breg has enormous structure and tannins that only can be compared to a mature Montrachet. It is big in the mouth, with strawberry, rhubarb and other red fruit and earthy notes coming through. There is a marked oxidative character to the wine but never to the degree of, say, fino sherry or Arbois. With impressive length and a seemingly endless drinking window ahead of it, I cannot but give it my highest recommendations. It should be the appropriate compliment to savory seafood or, as I prepared, a simple cavatelli with local corn, shiitakes and fresh oregano. (Side note: With his eyes closed, my boyfriend thought this was a red wine. There's no faulting him on that count!)

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Critical Moss

Tom Ford's Web site describes Moss Breches (2007), the seventh fragrance in his Private Blend collection, as a "mystical chypre." Like Tuscan Leather, reviewed here recently, Moss Breches is an unabashedly non-floral (almost anti-floral) chypre, though greener, spicier and more introverted than its Sienese leather-queen cousin. Clary sage, tarragon and rosemary, all perceptible in the top notes, are somehow made hard-edged by the underlying presence of rockrose-labdanum (Cistus labdaniferus) and patchouli. Instead of weaving these strands with something musty or animalic, Ford's house nose uses the slightly sweet note of beeswax absolute and the dark resinous note of benzoin. After thirty minutes, Moss Breches dries down to an inviting, supremely velvety oak moss accord (vetiver, sandalwood). I am both surprised and impressed by this fragrance, as it is so very different from everything to which we have grown accustomed in mass-market perfumery; and while its price makes it definitively "niche," its designer cachet catapults it into a place of visibility populated by those who, say, dance to hip hop in Tory Burch tunic tops and imbibe Cristal as if it flowed from the Southampton water supply. And yet, it is quite far from the tacky, overpriced concoctions of Bond No. 9 New York. It can only be our hope that it will be discovered by people sadly and unknowingly inured to the run-of-the-mill "luxury" scents, and that it will teach them something of a lineup of past greats, the chypres of the ages, such as Coty's Chypre (1917), Guerlain's Mitsouko (1919) and his Sous le Vent (1933). Now, how seriously un-Ford could that be!

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Something Cuir

Tuscan Leather (2007) from Tom Ford's Private Blend collection? In a word, suave. And in your face. Much like Mr Ford's chest. When I examined the eau de parfum out of the black apothecary bottle, it was a gorgeous medium-gold hue which itself reminded me, like it or not, that what I was handling was precious ... in every way. At upwards of USD 160.00 per 1.7 oz. of EDP, it was certainly not something I was going to use as roomspray. Applied to the stretch of skin between the elbow and wrist of my left arm, it gave off topnotes of sweetened leather (saffron, red fruit) which conjured up memories of the leather seats in my uncle's old Jag; after a few minutes, something petrol-like surfaced alongside the olibanum (Boswellia serrata), a member of frankincense's extended family; after twenty-five or so minutes, it was drying down to an amber wood accord. All in all, this is a very seductive fragrance that, applied judiciously to the right places, elicits the same sort of green-eyed fascination with which people approach Ford himself. Many will balk in their usual fashion, but behind closed doors will assume, je pense, a different position entirely. Next up: Moss Breches (2007).

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Forties Flick

The walk down Kantstrasse seemed endless, especially in light of the funny Berlin street-numbering system. But we were on a mission: to find a little-known perfumery purported to stock family formulas unchanged by the winds of fragrance marketing. Not long after an unforeseen pastry stop, we spotted the Fifties-era BRD signage and breathed a collective sigh. Despite the display of bottles in the window, the shop resembled that of a neighborhood florist: bright blooms, retro "greens," and a selection that looked more suited to the high-school-prom-corsage set than the stylishly spritzed. Enter the proprietor in a grey suit and tie. After a formal yet friendly exchange of Guten Tags and Bittes, I turned to behold an entire wall lined with giant apothecary bottles labeled with names like Lindenblüte, Fougère, Chypre, Veilchen, Rose Jacques, Valeria and so on. As Herr Lehmann (grandson of the founder) lifted the heavy crystal stoppers and waved them in front of my nose, I was transported by the scent-profile of an earlier time. These were old-fashioned scents but great unmistakeable scents with not a few imitators ... families of imitators even. However, there was something new and novel in their being hidden away on this unassuming Charlottenburg block. Indeed, the shop was a repository of novelty. The type of novelty that brings a smile to your face when you knot the tie and apply the scent. Lehmann informed me that his brother was trying to re-brand the shop, essentially unchanged since sometime in the mid-1930s. I must have shocked his own sense of propriety when I gently grabbed his grey sleeve and told him that it would be better to smash the front window and burn his treasures than change the packaging and presentation. The scents are rather linear in style for things created so long ago, but this may be precisely why they are so reassuring and worth seeking out. They don't surprise as much as transport, and leave the strangers on the train wondering what miraculous shampoo you've been using. Harry Lehmann, Parfum nach Gewicht: Kantstraße 106, 10627 Berlin

Monday, July 2, 2007

Big Blondes

My predilection for dry humor and dry, smoky voices extends even to a taste for dry fragrances. Ernest Daltroff's Tabac Blond (1919) for Parfums Caron is the loveliest and most sinister scent of its time, melding undried tobacco with leather, vanilla, vetiver, linden blossom, ylang-ylang, amber and cedar notes in a veritable sinfonie concertante of dark seduction. Designed for the modern woman, its success clearly lies in its empassioned flouting of gender assignments. It is masculine one moment and feminine the next, leaving its prey unclear as to which sort of pursuit is under way. The extrait de parfum has excellent sillage and longevity. It is available exclusively from the perfume fountains (known as the "urns") at Caron in New York, London and Paris. Diane Haska, who lovingly runs the New York boutique, has a wealth of knowledge pertaining to this and the other hard-to-find Caron classics.

My other blond(e) would have to be the Lutens-Sheldrake creation, Daim Blond (2005), inspired by white suede. That is, white suede as left in an orchard of ripe apricots. Peeking their not-so-demure heads in and out, from time to time, we can detect iris and heliotrope. The drydown is a warm, sexy musk, which lingers on for nine or ten hours. If Tabac Blond is a true blonde, Daim Blond is like a blonde caught on black-and-white, fading to grey ... but the most divine grey ... like the inside of pair of sueded kidskin gantes, redolent of a very expensive smoky cigarette or caressed (merely) cigar.

Did dry ever seem so intoxicating?

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Tauer Accords

Recently, I received a sample phial of Andy Tauer's newest creation, Rêverie au Jardin (2007). Having not been entirely convinced by his L'Air du Desert Morocain, which simply reminded me of many of Sheldrake's oriental creations for Serge Lutens, Rêverie was a welcome reminder that Tauer is capable of very good things. So let's get down to business. First off, I do not like lavender. Its slightly sweet, medicinal character reminds me of Anthroposophical apothecaries overflowing with Bademilch and warming massage oils. I do not like that ubiquitous and, hence unnamed, fragrance from the house of Creed. Yes, the one that smells like an effete Northern Irishman left out in the rain and that rhymes with greed. That said, when I applied Rêverie, I was rather pleasantly surprised. It was a piece of music, one of the early Beethoven piano sonatas. First movement: lavender oil and galbanum. The feeling here is that of greenness, freshness and something very innocent. Second movement: the heart warms with a spicy orris note backed by rose absolute, which is almost Guerlinade without the aldehydes playing backup. Final movement: Strangely the adagio––drydown to ambrette seeds (hibiscus abelmoschus), oakmoss, vetiver, ambergris and sandalwood. So smooth, it's intoxicating. I put my nose to the inside of my elbow and tears filled my eyes. Tauer had taken me somewhere I'd been before but couldn't capture in my mind's eye. It was like one of those great romantic encounters where, faced with a thing of such withering beauty, your eyes remain closed in utter mystical reverence. I can only look forward to what he will create in the near future.