Wednesday, December 19, 2007

My Christmas Wish

Or at least my olfactory Christmas wish: a fragrance that would conjure up the inner world of French painter realist painter Gustave Courbet (1819–1877). At turns dreary and drunk with the establishment grandiosity of the Salon painters, Courbet embodied a revolutionary spirit which wrestled, albeit painfully, with subject-matter and technique. Dark landscapes, the hunter and hunted, dusky foliage, a conflicted relationship with the realm of woman – each of his themes hints at a deep, perhaps unconscious, wish to plumb previously hidden depths through what was essentially a bourgeois medium, the oil canvas. Courbet has appealed to me since my parents first took me on a day trip to the Metropolitan Museum in the early Eighties. On seeing his work that day I was frightened but intrigued, the way I felt when taken to a wake and beheld the familiar macabre tableau, the maquillage, the clutched cross. Unlike the other Gustave (Moreau), whose nacreous seductions gave instantaneous pleasures, Courbet’s subjects haunted my dreams, spurred my own meditations on sex and death, even when I lacked the vocabulary to discuss such things. His ideas, his women, his blackened abysms became the playthings of the angular, intellectual, if hardly sheltered, child I was. Nowadays I lack the key to many of the sensations his paintings gave rise to then. But it occurred to me today, ill in bed, that scent may be one way back into that shadowed loge of memories. I’m sure there are are many scents which would purport to offer such passage backward, but too often they are merely superficial attempts at forest undergrowth and musty libraries. Courbet’s would be a scent of flesh and blood and disappointment, the silent moldering ashes, the lamp oil spilled next to the open locket.

Image: G. Courbet, Grotto of Sarrazine near Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne, oil on canvas, 1864. Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Miller Harris Cuir d’Oranger

As reported in last Friday’s WWD (Women’s Wear Daily, for those of you outside the ken of retail fashion), one-fifth of fragrance sales occur in the two weeks before Christmas. Funny, I thought, how something as personal as fragrance has become associated with aspirational gift-giving, i.e, if you can’t afford to buy her that Chanel clutch you can always buy her the newest variation of No. 5. Will she honestly like it or will she wear it just to please you? And, ladies, vice versa, will that bottle of Ralph Lauren Double Black turn him into some sexy beast or just turn him off from cologne altogether? Even gift cards are problematic, owing to the fact that most perfume-counter salespeople intimidate the heck out of potential customers, guys especially. At which point, we are left with giftable “classics” which may or may not be everyone’s cup of tea, fragrances like L’Air du Temps and Paris for her, Acqua di Parma and Green Irish Tweed for him. Sure, these might be nice gifts if you’re leaving for a stay at a pretentious hotel somewhere trendy and beautiful – nothing wrong there – but do they really express a personality or, for that matter, encourage the development of one? I think not. They are the old standbys.

A very pleasant surprise for holiday gift-giving comes in the form of Lyn Harris’ indubitably masculine, terribly subtle Cuir d'Oranger. An initial blast of orange oil gives way to petitgrain, labdanum, wild thyme, birch tar (just a tad) and cassie (mimosa blossom) which lends a dry, restrained leather note to the whole. It reminds me of an old panelled dining room, on whose table are stacked dozens of oranges (ye olde WASP Christmas gift). Nothing about this scent is predictable, which makes it a welcome addition to the usual cologne-y holiday picks. The man who wears will know its worth, not through a fancy box or bottle or advertising hype, but through the odyssey it takes on his skin – one which, I hope, grants its rara avis to the office or the club. While this is not a leather scent to end all leathers, it has a complexity which deserves notice and which rewards daily use. I think it would be smashingly sexy, worn under evening attire, Hendrick’s gin martini in hand.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Amber Flowers

As noted time and again over the last few weeks, next to incense amber is the quintessential cold-weather scent. It can be warm and fuzzy, smooth and chic, rich and unctuous ... but always worthy of a repeat sniff. From the fresh-baked gourmand yumminess of Jean-Claude Ellena’s Hermessence Ambre Narguile to the Baroque embellishments of MPG Ambre Précieux, this is a note that runs the gamut. One of my favorite new ambers has been Fiori d’Ambra by Profumum. Very subtly spiced, owing to what the perfumers are calling “opium,” and complex due to the choice of ambergris, Fiori d’Ambra is clean without being hygienic or artificial. It is what I imagine the scent of a noblewoman’s skin to have been in, say, Cinquecento Florence. Some would pigeonhole this as “sweet” scent, whereas I find it manipulates the ambergris (indeed, pushes it to its limits) and just a touch of vanilla in such a way that, over time, these “flowers of amber” blossom on the skin. Like other scents in Profumum’s collection, Fiori d’Ambra has light sillage but excellent longevity. It lives close to the skin, thus encouraging pleasurable olfactory explorations. Quite unisex in its appeal, I think it deserves inclusion on many a holiday wish list.

Fiori d’Ambra is available from in a 100mL atomizer spray for $205.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Istanbul, Part I

Istanbul. 17 November. I disembarked my BA flight after a twenty-minute descent over matte grey waters––here and there, the occasional Black Sea oil tanker, commercial fishing boat––and worn-down ochre-orange landscape. An affable Canadian seated next to me on the aisle had managed to keep my mind off of passport control and taxi directions, money exchange and customs officials. (In my checked luggage a fresh box of rice crispie treats was being smuggled in, at special request.) And while I love to travel, the anxieties of airport security, fickle gate numbers and the like, are the source of much undue ennui. Chalk it up to temperament, I guess.

Needless to say, after nearly eleven hours in the air I was feeling quite haggard. A cashmere scarf spritzed with CdG Avignon provided solace for the weary globetrotter. It did not, however, draw my attention away from the smells I encountered when first I stepped from out the terminal doors. Like the landscape and the failing light of protracted afternoon, things smelled as if they had been overlaid in a smoky grisaille. Minarets rose up around me as my cab sped the first leg of the journey from Atatürk Airport, then succumbed to traffic in Sultanahmet before passing under the original city walls and aqueduct and crossing the Golden Horn to my final destination in the vicinity of Taksim Square. There again, before the evening call to prayer, my nose registered smoke: coal smoke, wood smoke and kerosene. Even the quarter-moon seemed veiled, hanging there, as if expectantly, beside the minaret framed by the terrace window.

Later that night, after walking to Galata Tower with my friend Bas, I realized that there was another, perhaps less romantic, reason for the grisaille: cigarette smoke. (And, I might add, nothing as beguiling, sweet and exotic as SL Fumerie Turque.) American cigarette smoke. Lots of it. Not even France decades ago, I thought, was this “smoked.” In the restaurant, attractive twentysomethings hacked away between bites; that is, before lighting up yet another. Quickly the Orientalist phantasm of quaint old Istanbul faded. A cigarette dispenser outlined in queer blue LED adorned the tavern wall. The golden chain which once stretched between the shores of the Haliç had been replaced with chain-smokers, a smoke-darkened icon with a cigarette dispenser, the Thousand and One Nights with a thousand and one smoldering butts.

To be continued…