Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Dame of the Rose

Jean-Paul Guerlain’s Nahéma parfum (1979) was unarguably one of the biggest, sexiest, most luxurious rose fragrances ever created. And one of the most terribly timed releases in perfume history. Its muse, the actress Catherine Deneuve, strangely was endorsing a competitor at the time of its release. Over the years, though, it has garnered its admirers.

Years before Sophia Grojsman’s Paris and Trésor, Nahéma redeemed roses from a boudoir dripping in frillies. Much of this has to do with the amplification that JPG was able to effect in the execution of his idea. Other commentators – Luca Turin among them – have honed in on the painterly quality of this scent, and they aren’t unjustified in this. Damascones, the molecules isolated from rose oil by Firmenich in the late 70s, lent a golden, autumnal complexity to something that could quite easily have been frou frou. Alpha-damascones lent a ripe, bursting peachiness while beta-damascones bolstered the sandalwood in the base with a warm, dusky quality.

All this, blended with Bulgarian rose otto and ylang ylang, succeeded in conjuring up the Arabian Nights sort of woman that Guerlain envisioned. Sadly, women at this time had their sights on the Far East and were more enamored of Opium-dreams than roseate visions.

Nahéma deserves more serious reappraisal than it’s getting. The materials and craft of this fragrance are sans égal, and it doesn’t suffer from the additions and detractions of pervasive reformulation. It would be marvelous on a younger woman and is a shoe-in for the Insolence crowd.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Making Hay

A few things come to mind:
Cutting it.
Summer of ’02.
Dornach, Switzerland.
The onerous task of running in front of the bailer.
Raking the stray blades into clean rows.
Blazing sun beating down on me in farm clothing.
Running behind the bailer straightening the bails.
Taking refuge under shady cherry trees.
Thinking of lunch.

A few years later, I ventured into Santa Maria Novella’s Soho boutique and sampled their eau de cologne, Fieno (Hay), hoping to rekindle fond memories of simpler times. I can’t say it embodied what I thought it would. Rather, its clean, powdery and slightly green character captured an aspect of hay as, say, I’d imagine a hay-scented soap to smell. There was even a sweetness to it. Why does hay automatically get associated with a dry-ish summer barnyard? Come to think of it, there were many days – this being Switzerland and all – when the sun wouldn’t come out and there I’d be with these marvelous respiring dairy cows (Holsteins for the most part), watching them eat as I threw the beautiful green blades into their manger. Something in Fieno (as I wear it today in the triple extract concentrate) brings back that moment, the cooling breeze coming in through an open barn door and wafting over the freshly cut hay. Its sweet herbaceous character, accented by myrtle, is the essence of such days and the respite they gave from the sun’s rays. A summer must-have, for sure. I wish it came in soap and shower gel, too.

Monday, May 12, 2008


Now, here’s a fragrance that Luca Turin really did a disservice to. He didn’t pan it. Rather, as with too many perfumes in his (and Tania’s) guide, he awarded it four stars, threw off some gnomic wit, and basically told us nothing. Yes, to his point, perhaps it is a little “dated,” but to call it tired would be like calling Garbo tired instead of retired. And, happily for us, 1000 is far from either. Created in 1972 by the great Jean Kerléo (incidentally, founder of the Osmothéque in Versailles), 1000 was one of those scents for which the brief must simply have read, “Mind not the cost.”

For me, it is a most-welcome stop on the road to the perfect floral chypre. Elegant, subtle and understated (compared, say, with the exuberance of Joy), it invites us into a bright, burnished environment of apricot-ey osmanthus, jasmine absolute de Grasse (as opulent here as in vintage No 5 extrait de parfum), rosa centifolia, rosa damascena, violet leaf absolute, patchouli, oak moss and sandalwood. On my skin, the heart notes seem to go on for decades.

Certainly not a bargain to procure, be assured that the quality of the naturals here is unimpeachable. If you like Mitsouko, a bottle of this shouldn’t far off in your future. And it’s still available in the extrait de parfum. Who can guess for how long?

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

A Glass of Milk

And a piece of toast. (Be not afraid, I shan’t channel Gertrude Stein.) I’m just trying to wrap my mind around two genre-bending gourmands which use milk-and-toast accords in novel ways: Serge Lutens Douce Amère (2000) and Thierry Mugler Miroir des Envies (2007). Neither is on my usual bill of fare, being neither vintage nor terribly atmospheric. My tastes run to moody perfumes, perfumes that evoke paintings, landscapes, a longed-for past, even music. Douce Amère and Miroir des Envies are un-nostalgic scents which speak to me, rather, as a mother to her child in what, for lack of a more apt term, I will call “kitchen tones.” They invite us to a table. But not just any table.

Christopher Sheldrake’s Douce Amère owes much of its intrigue to wormwood, which, by sheer dint of the name, could not be farther from such a comforting place as the kitchen table. But dried fruits and spices conspire there to make artemisia absinthium a companionable bedfellow. Far indeed are we from the artemisic opening of, say, Yatagan. Rather, we are presented with something resembling a blanc-mange in which almonds have been replaced with licorice and the top has been lightly dusted with jasmine and some type of sharp, dark chocolate. After a few minutes on the skin Douce Amère settles down to light cedar and slightly sweet spiced milk. It is creamy and lovable and addictive – a pleasant alternative to scents with powdery drydowns, like Lorenzo Villoresi’s Teint de Neige.

As for the toast (what wine geeks call pain-grillé), perfumers Louise Turner and Christine Nagel of Givaudan succeed in serving it up in their brilliant, otherworldly tour de force for Thierry Mugler: Miroir des Envies (Mirror of Desires). Given a Givaudan lab with all the great naturals and premium synthetics I don’t know what would possess me to do bread, but these gals obviously knew what they were doing. Toast is one of those things that I like to taste in a good glass of Meursault or Champagne, but on the skin I’d never have imagined how well it works with a jasmine-dominated floral accord. And what’s more, it’s surprisingly unisex. Put this on the list with L’Artisan Parfumeur’s bready iris Bois Farine and reacquaint yourself with the aroma. Clearly, those envies wanted something crunchy (knackig as the Germans say) to sink their teeth into.