Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Taffy Ta’ifi: Ormonde Jayne’s English Take

After a day of luxuriating in Etat Libre d’Orange Jasmin et Cigarette, I decided to follow the floral path that stretched before me to a willing sample of Linda Pilkington’s Ta’if parfum (2004) for London-based house, Ormonde Jayne. My first thought was of roses spread on apricot silk, sugary delicacies strewn about in preparation for afternoon tea. Pilkington manages to cook, or otherwise transmute, some very potent notes (saffron, pink pepper, Ta’if rose oil) into a sweet and subtle pudding of sorts. I can’t quite decide whether I’d like this on the lawn at Ascott or served to me in bed, maudlin expression, covers pulled up to my nose. But, like recently reviewed Cologne du 68, there’s something soothing in its un-effaced femininity and use of premium-quality ingredients, blended like a rose water blancmange in the back kitchen at Alain Ducasse. Unlike some of the Middle Eastern mukhallat which employ Ta’if rose oil (damask rose from Arabia), there’s nothing even remotely dirty about this scent (even the musk in the drydown is sweet and oddly presentable). In fact, if ever there were a perfume that you’d like to wear to an award ceremony, this would be it: sexy enough to have the men greeting you with more than a peck, but clean and breezy enough to make sure you’ll get seated well the next time you’re nominated. And, as you’re a Brit, that’s a very good thing. Just worry yourself about the dress, Dame So-and-So ....

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Precious Ore

Michael Morsetti’s Or et Noir (1949) is a rose scent to be reckoned with. After weeks of admiring Edouard Fléchier’s incomparable Une Rose (2003), I detect a marked family resemblance between the two. Both are cool, luscious and dark, with sweet-oily rose layered over woods and spices. Both stretch their wearer’s expectation of how roses smell. Sad, isn’t it, that roses are so often relegated to the corsage- or nursing-home schools of fragrance? Something in Or et Noir triggers faraway memories of my next-door neighbor pruning her rose bushes while I looked on holding a tall, perspiring glass of iced tea. Rosebud, cold wet glass, green thorny stem and dirty gardening glove become one in my mind, projected back onto the scrim of lost time where so many faces are now assembled. That’s the thing about Caron perfumes: they kindle a nostalgia in us, like a Grès gown or a Verdura cuff. Never “museum,” always chic in that eternal sort of way, with just a tinge of pathos, so that what so often remain glittering surfaces become limpid pools waiting to be sounded. Notes: Bulgarian damask rose, centifolia rose and geranium; Turkish rose, lilac and carnation, oakmoss and woody amber.

To order, contact Diane Haska at the New York Caron boutique/Phyto Universe, 212 308 0270.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Close to the Skin

These last few weeks of experimenting with various perfume oils from North Africa, the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula, India and Southeast Asia, have been something of an education in a different school of perfumery. The word that comes to mind when I apply so many of them is, each time, “private.” Especially among the more classical school of Middle- and Far Eastern perfumes, the natural substances used do not announce themselves. Rather, they invite the senses (smell and taste) which have been granted permission to experience them. They are profound vehicles of sensuality. For a New Yorker who is always on the go, they aren’t the first scents I reach for in the morning. Beneath a jacket, shirt and tie, they would be hidden, wasted. But like a fine wine, they ask to be contemplated in private. Like a lover. Or like a good book cradled in the palms before sleep. They engage our passions, our imagination, our deepest dreams.

In the regions these scents come from they are regarded as remedies with extraordinary powers. Aromatherapy, as we know it, has derived much of its practice from these previously unsystematized ideas. Most important among the effects is a sense of equilibrium and balance in our lives. There is little sense here of a second-skin or shell or mask or protective layer. Instead, there is a mimicry of sorts. The odor of the human body itself is worked up and considered part of the “blend” created when a few drops of the oil are applied to the pulse points. The body is mimicked by the scent, the scent is mimicked by the body.

A quartet of notes come to mind. There are variations but fundamentally they are: rose, jasmine, musk and amber. The middle two are sweet-sensual-animalic; the first and last, warm-cool, herbaceous- fruity, and savoury-spicy. In regions where the cuisine can be notoriously hot (spiced) for reasons of food-spoilage, the body’s natural scent is simply and subtly enhanced. Short of some of the ouds from India, Laos and Cambodia, there is no Asian equivalent of Old Spice or, for that matter, any quality-scent that is so spicy and strong that it obscures its wearer.

Interesting, too, were the many fragrances which were comprised of substances bordering on contraband in the United States, like Tonkin musk and ambergris. While I could be awed by the etherealness of their qualities, I was happy that modern chemistry had done a better-than-decent job of recreating them.

But the greatest lesson of all was that good things come in small packages; for, by and large, perfume oils come in quantities of 3–12mL, reminding us all that luxury comes not with pomp and circumstance but in a still, small whisper across the skin.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Eaux Là Là

A recent exchange with a fellow Sniffapalooza member occasioned some thoughts about the coming (not fast enough) change of seasons, and indeed my eye has been wandering to the lighter end of my fragrance spectrum: scents like Fréderic Malle Cologne Bigarade, Creed Citrus Bigarrade, Annick Goutale Eau de Sud, Bois 1920 Classic 1920, Parfums d’Empire Iskander and Lubin L’Eau Neuve, not to mention the classics-in-our-midst, like Roudnitska’s Eau Sauvage and Guerlain Eau de Cologne Impériale, granddaddy of the lot, at almost two-hundred years old.

Unfairly perhaps, I dub many of these as my “bathroom” scents. The qualifier has nothing to do with their quality – only, rather, with the comfort they provide when easily grabbed while toweling off from a shower or bath. None tries to make a particularly bold statement, except maybe to tell us that everything is going to be just fine. In warmer climes, the application of such scents is cooling. Their predominant néroli, citrus and wood notes, combined with a high level of alcohol, refresh nose and skin alike. These are the sorts of scents I’d love to find on the locker-room counters at my gym in spanking new atomizer bottles. (Instead, all I get is a gush of eucalyptus steam from behind some clouded door, rank towel hamper odors and the almost ubiquitous smell of styling gel.) Heck, I’d be happy with an oversized bottle of 4711 Echt Kölnisch Wasser.

Eaux de colognes are the ultimate accessory to basic personal hygiene, like mouth wash for the skin. In the days before deodorant, these scents separated the sheep from the goats. And in some parts of the world – the Mediterranean comes to mind – they still do. One jaunt on a packed Roman bus in the late June is all you need to learn this vital lesson.

Of late, Guerlain has released an eau de cologne that should earn its place alongside the greats: Cologne du 68, inspired by the street address of their Champs-Elysées flagship. Created by nose Sophie Labbé, it contains 68 notes, including green tangerine, lemon petitgrain, limette, jasmine, rose, tuberose, peach, orange tree wood, petitgrain, musk, patchouli, oakmoss, amber, star anise, coriandre, cardamom, pepper, immortelle, opoponax, and cedar. It has a ravishing pink-tending-to-apricot hue and is as beautiful on the skin as on fresh linens or dispersed into the air. Not as overtly masculine (or implicitly genderless) as Impériale or Eau du Coq, Cologne du 68 is a light, refreshing floriental which clearly takes a nod from the compositions of Guerlain’s Mathilde Laurent (creator of Guet-Apens/L’Attrape-Coeur and Shalimar Eau Légère). It goes on cool and citrusy and ends up just short of lightly confectionary in the floral notes. It is the essence of Guerlain, a perfect evocation of the heights to which the brand aspired in the midcentury and an auspicious sign of where they can still go when all engines are pushed to throttle.

Cologne du 68 is available exclusively at 68, Champs-Elysées and the Guerlain boutique at Bergdorf Goodman. Contact Jason Beers to order, 212-872-2734.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Wood Rose: Montale Attar

Imagine a Bulgarian rose carved out of Mysore sandalwood, drizzled with oud, resting on a frond of some sort, decorated with little mounds of savory spices. Pierre Montale’s blending of these elements in Attar is hardly revolutionary in the Arabic-speaking world. For centuries, precious rose oils have been hydrodistilled and then distilled again into sandalwood. Variously named ittars, itrs and attars, these mixtures must always involve a base oil of sandalwood. Here, the oud lends a sharp medicinal character, which is overtaken almost immediately by a dark velvety rose, but which makes the blend eminently unisex. Saffron and Indian herbs (fenugreek among them) provide backup support, warming the entire composition. Attar is sexy rather than alluring, dark and pleasantly furry rather than smooth, appetite-forming rather than overtly gourmand: a sort of amuse-nez, if you will. I think it is the perfect conversation-starter... perhaps for starting a conversation with a Maharadja or the beauty on the next barstool. And with its extraordinary – though never indiscreet – sillage, it’s guaranteed to start quite a few.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Big Bottles

That nagging question rears its hoary head yet again: Is bigger necessarily better? I don’t know about you folks, but size does make a statement ... even when it’s aw-shucks goofy. Honestly now, given the opportunity to explore the immensities of space, to climb an alpine peak or be dwarfed by the magnificent height of a skyscraper over, say, idling away a day in some Wunderkammer or hunched over a microscope, I’d choose the former. I guess it speaks to my desire for something different, some experience that will rouse me from cyber-myopia or the minutiae of workaday life. I cast my demitasse spoon, gaily, into the volcano’s fiery sublimities.

Over the last week or two, I realize that I’ve been lusting over the larger formats in which one can find some of the best of wine and perfume. Typically, in wine-speak, these are the magnums and the double-magnums; in perfume-speak, they are referred to as “splash” bottles. When it comes to buying wine in larger formats, the concern is generally a lower surface-air ratio. For a very precious cuvée, a larger format grants some insurance of the wine’s development and viability over time. (Hmm.. Shouldn’t that 1928 Romanée Conti be ready about now?) Many bottlers inflate the prices of larger formats because they are harder to come by.

When it comes to perfume, larger formats speak to thrift, the ability to decant into smaller bottlers and, let’s face it, the basic human desire to show off. Yesterday, at Barneys New York, I know I saw the perky thirtysomething’s face light up when she saw the Frederic Malle L’Eau d’Hiver in a 250mL splash. But her look was less about thrift than about a beautiful big bottle sparkling under the halogen minis in her Waterworks master bath. And I don’t blame her. After all, didn’t women of my great-grandmother’s generation use an entire bottle of eau de Cologne for each ablution at Baden Baden or Bad Ragaz. For the valets, it must’ve been like carrying milk bottles to the spa, if not as commonplace.

With the mass-market release of Prada Infusion d’Iris in an unheard-of size – 600mL or thereabouts – there seems to a micro-trend developing for larger bottles of lighter formulations. Chanel caught on to this when they wisely released Les Exclusifs in large, unassuming splash-like bottles. Who knows, maybe Guerlain will release Eau de Shalimar in a sailboat-sized splash. When I was done soaking my guests with it, I could reuse it for pennies or, better yet, goldfish. Perhaps when the chips are down, size is a comfort to us, a means of saving face despite recessionary woes and the morbid morality of penny-pinchers.

My only gripe in all this – bottle designers, hear me out – please include an atomizer!

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Dreaming Scents

If you are like me, no matter how tired you are on a weeknight you put on a little something before bed. (Weekends are a different story entirely. This is New York City.) A brushed cotton v-neck tee, my flannel boxers from Uniqlo and, of course, something that smells good. It has struck me of late that fragrance may trigger and/or influence dream activity or, as may be more the case, a “thinking over” the problem of a particular scent. Not the problem in the sense of defect, but problem as in arithmetic –– the unraveling of a Gordian (or not-so-Gordian) knot. Sometimes, as in “what cigarettes are my neighbors smoking and why is it coming through the wall?” But often it’s a problem I’ve set for myself.

For the past week, I’ve been working through my repertoire of rose soliflores. Is it some premonition of Cupid Day? Or is it the balmy weather beckoning an early spring? In any case, my dreams have had a close, affectionate quality: strait, as opposed to wide-open, spaces; faces of childhood sweethearts; a phalanx of sad, tender salad-day crushes; duvets thrown over futons in student rooms, wine glasses and brandy snifters found the morning after whatever wild party ... In the past, I’ve found that animalics upset my sleep. Some of the sweeter musks are innocuous, but civet and castoreum act our their feral tendencies. I awake at two o’clock, as if visited nocturnally by some succubus. Or, more commonly, I scratch myself. Feline grooming behavior of a past life? Would somebody get Shirley on the phone ... please. The ouds I was sampling are, by far, the most stimulating. Even before falling asleep, my mental state would be keyed up. I would catch myself in waking daydreams, opening some door, traipsing down some mile-long corridor, or visiting places that I’d never been before: jungle, palace, temple. And then there are the scents that I sleep through: the hesperidics, the citruses, the L’Eau Imperiales of the fragrance world. They must get absorbed into the sheets or just -- poof! -- into the air.

But my favorite -- enjoyed with a friend after a sumptuous little feast last night at Cookshop on Tenth Avenue -- was a balloon-shaped glass of Calvados, which seduced my nose, caressed my palate and transported me back to an old apartment after a dinner party, the candles’ glow caught in my neighbors’ windows, a lover asleep on a pillow next to me. If only someone could make it into a perfume ... The premium I would pay is, itself, the stuff of dreams.

Image credit: Picasso, La Rève, oil on canvas, 1932. Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society NY

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Rose and Cavalier About It

Boys, as you recover from a day spent in front of your 52-inch LCD watching instant replay and the consumption of much beer and questionable snack foods, hear me loud and clear: come the warmer days of late April and May, stand out and blend in. “Stand out” as in, I’m not taking 45-minutes to get dressed but I’m not ashamed to wear some color. Hopefully by now, if you have a decent-paying job and a social life, you know that you need a personal shopper at one of the better stores or, at least, a salesperson who can set things aside for you. Too many guys rely on their girlfriends or boyfriends to do this work for them, and quite honestly it just isn’t fair to either party. There’s too much invested. (In fact, industry-secret here, so listen up: if you show a salesperson you’re serious about looking good and you have a budget, they’ll take care of you. Truly, they will.)

Despite the fact that there is tremendous variety in Spring ’08 menswear, there are three things every man should have in his wardrobe for spring: a light grey or umber suit, a faded rose shirt and a scent with some rose in it. A crisp pink shirt under a navy blazer is classic, undying style; but, this season, a man can relax with the lighter colors and doesn’t have to run the risk of looking like a fop. That faded pink shirt can work with jeans, with shorts, with a khaki linen vest, and it doesn’t need to be discreetly hidden under a blazer... but the key to the look is not to iron it. You want it to absorb the light not reflect it. You want to say something like, I dress this way all the time. It’s easy.

I’m a firm believer that sex appeal derives from self-assurance. Think back to your sophomore English class and the character of Phineas in A Separate Peace. Neither a pink shirt nor a tie belt –– for all their RL-coöpted status nowadays –– was going to make anyone rethink this guy’s masculinity. Which brings me to the rose note in fragrances... Like carnation, rose is one of those notes which people might think old-fashioned, but, truth be told, most people don’t know that there are rose scents beyond grandma’s mystery fragrance or the little soaps that people put out in the guest bathroom. Rose has a plethora of expressions, and in many part of the world it is considered a masculine note. There are green-herbal-smelling roses, animalic roses and spicy roses. One of my favorite spicy renditions is Le Labo Rose 31 (reviewed here) by perfumer Daphne Bugey. But there are also: Rose Poivrée by The Different Company (rose with black pepper and the slight dirtiness of civet), L'Artisan Parfumeur Voleur des Roses (with sandalwood and patchouli), Le Sirenuse Eau d’Italie Paestum Rose (with incense and rare woods), Parfums 06130 Lierre Rose (v. green with ivy and cardamom), Etat Libre d’Orange Eau de Protection (a new rose chypré), Frédéric Malle Editions de Parfum Une Rose (geraniol at off-the-charts intensity, truffle and woods), Arabian Oud Prestige Arabia (Tai’fi rose with Laotian oud, saffron and honey) and Ajmal Aquhawan (reviewed here).

By and large, the rose note in the Middle Eastern scents is more subtle than what we are accustomed to smelling. In the West, rose absolute is blended with ylang ylang, jasmine and peony and billed as rose soliflore, and, while the effect can turn heads, it does a disservice to people’s scent memory. Distilled roses are much more complex and green. They capture the terroir and give us a multifaceted picture of the place from which they came.

A guy’s personal style isn’t that different. Proud of his roots, complex, and fearless of putting the shirt on or revealing what he’s got underneath it. Hopefully, the scent of self-assurance and a heart of gold (though I’ll settle for silver any day...)

Image credit: Bottega Veneta S/S 08 Menswear Collection. Courtesy of Men.Style.com (Marcio Madiera)