Sunday, September 28, 2008

Square Root: Le Labo Iris 39

Frank Voelkl’s Iris 39 for Le Labo came out a couple of years ago. Before someone told me that the number referred to the number of ingredients used, I was thinking it referred to a female character out of dystopian science fiction. You know, Iris 39, the brunette in the Mylar dirndl, the one who replaced Iris 38.

But first the back-story. Since 2006, the mass-market has been flooded with iris scents, many of them soliflores of the chilly, dove-grey, powdered variety. Chanel’s 28 La Pausa comes to mind, along with Hermès Hiris, Dior Homme, The Different Company Bois d’Iris and Prada Infusion d’Iris––each of which shows a distant, if common, progenitor: Serge Lutens Iris Silver Mist. The most respectable iterations show off the woody character of the iris note––in perfume-speak, orris––that originates in the rhizome, not the blossom, of the iris.

In Iris 39, Voelkl (Firmenich) goes a different route, blending orris root with patchouli, ginger, green spices and a woody, forest-violet accord. The fragrance opens screechingly loud, as if the floral base (the uterine nerve center of any perfume) were being showcased with little elaboration. I get rain-splashed flowers after a few balmy overcast days. Mind you, kitchen-garden flowers, not rarities in the Jardins de Bagatelles.

If the photographer who comes most readily to mind when I think of iris soliflores in Edgar de Evia, Iris 39 is a Wolfgang Tillmans’ still life, by contrast. It succeeds at the semblance of a studied paring-down, a premeditated slice of life. It revels in its of-the-moment digitality.

A certain botanical soapiness lingers in the drydown where I’d rather have smelled the green-muskiness of ambrette seed. For all its fresh-from-the-garden-with-mud-on-her-hands character, I find this lass a bit too cleaned-up.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Japanese Peacock

Cinematically speaking, Oyédo by the Parisian fragrance house, Diptyque, is a Technicolor citrus, all chartreuse greens and warm chrome yellows. Ostensibly Japanese in flavor, it succeeds more in a vein of sheer Oriental weirdness – as if Rei Kawakubo had commissioned it, not Desmond Knox-Leet and Yves Coueslant.

To my nose, it doesn’t scream fruit as much as something artificial, like a new plastic shower curtain liner, a grape-flavored Jolly Rancher sans the high-fructose corn syrup, or - and, for most people, this is the monkey wrench in the gears - something that approximates analgesic rub. (But if James Heeley can do it in Esprit du Tigre, then I guess the folks at Diptyque can too.)

Which is not to say that Oyédo won’t appeal to people – Quite the contrary, I think it fills a very real need for wintertime citruses that don’t evaporate in twenty seconds time and that parry notes other than bergamot and lemon zest. It embodies the paradox of something cool-smelling succeeding in a world of ice and snow, as if its notes mimicked the chilled air.

Heard a peacock lately?

Sunday, September 14, 2008


Not much has been written about Joel Arthur Rosenthal’s bejeweled perfume creations. In 2005 Luca Turin remarked on his Duftnote blog: “When jewellers make perfume (Boucheron, Van Cleef et Arpels, Bulgari), it is usually because they have a big name and want to generate some cash flow. But that can't be JAR’s reason since his entire customer base can (and probably does) fit in the Ritz, and the perfumes are if anything even more confidential than the jewels.” Indeed they are, only available at an address in the 1er and at Bergdorf Goodman.

Having circumvented the JAR boutique in the past, I was surprised three weeks ago when Karen Dubin (founder of Sniffapalooza) and I expressed simultaneous urges to penetrate the inner sanctum and put the perfumes to the test. Nary a bottle in sight, the boutique is painted in a dark purple hue with a trompe-l’oeil ceiling bisected by an ominous bolt of lightning. It reminds one of a back-room at Harry Winston, where Audrey Hepburn or Empress Farah would sit waiting for the tiara to be presented. Six lidded glass jars holding pieces of perfume-imbued purple suede sit atop a small table complemented by two purple velvet-upholstered side chairs. I can’t say that we were treated with any of the fanfare or “Spanish court rigmarole” that others have noted. The attendant produced the perfumes one by one – some enchanting, some off-putting, all singular.

My first impressions, coming from Shadow and Diamond Water, were marked by the recognition of high-quality natural materials (mint, oakmoss absolute, sandalwood, carnation absolute, to name a few), but unlike the plethora of mass-market scents that owe their power to the genius of chemistry, they were able to amplify on the skin without the (at least recognizable) presence of fancy man-made molecules. There were chemicals for sure, to bind and bolster ... but not chemicals for the sake of chemicals. Somehow all the while, with each opened jar, the perfumes themselves were proving that the truest novelty, the strangest strangeness if you will, was right there in nature itself. Whether this (and the prices, which run upwards of $380 an ounce) will appeal to the better part of niche perfume shoppers, I haven’t the foggiest. Certainly, if you take the materials into account, the price is not inflated terribly much. After all, that hundred-buck eau de toilette you bought last week is worth less than the price of the bottle it came in. And what’s more, if JAR’s creations don’t feel quite like you, they at least feel like they were made only for you – despite the fact that they didn’t quite get it the way you wanted it. But, there again, the better part of luxury is growing into an understanding of the difficult thing. I’ve always felt that luxury without some difficulty is just blasé. To be continued...

Image credit: Bangle Bracelet, c. 1987 JAR, diamonds, colored stones, titanium, private collection, New York. Reproduced with permission.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

My Fall Scents

A day of cool weather and I’m already thinking of raking leaves, baking pies, dressing for the woods – I don’t get to them that often – chopping firewood, going to the opera (you weren’t expecting that gear shift), sipping coffees on the bench outside of Doma in the West Village, and wearing lots of the scents that I don’t dare in the dog days of summer. So here they are:

The (Chic) Old Guard
  • Caron Tabac Blond. Smoky, floral, sultry and not nearly as strong as I’d like
  • Caron Poivre. Spicy, clove-studded (and studly) in femme sort of way
  • Acqua di Parma Profumo (1930 formula). The quintessential chypre. A big blonde
  • Chanel Cuir de Russie. Birch tar to bring them home
  • Coty Oeillet de France. Dirty carnations
The Lost Generation
  • Creed Tabarôme (original). The Armagnac of men’s cologne. Luca can kiss my...
  • Guerlain Derby. You can tie up your horse here any day
  • Chanel Bois des Îles. Give me wood, lots of wood ... don’t fence me in.
  • Patou pour Homme. I like a little hot pepper on my pizza
The Young Turks
  • Heeley Cuir Pleine Fleur (Fine Leather). One of the best things out there
  • Miller Harris Feuilles de Tabac. A sillage monster. But it smokes quality s***
  • Prada Cuir Ambre. Amber plus leather. Little bottle. Lots of personality
  • Vero Profumo Onda. Dark and fiery. Ouch!
  • JAR Diamond Water. Peppery, sweetly spiced carnation kaleidoscope
Strange that I left off the vetivers. Or maybe not. Of late, I find them so pan-seasonal. Tropical grasses seem appropriate at nearly any time. Anxious here to hear your autumn picks.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Sleeper Standout 3: Sutra Ylang

The name alone conjures up golden temples at dawn, concubines and opium pipes. But this self-professed oriental by perfumer Enzo Galardi would be better described as a hesperidic chypre dressed up like the Empress Dowager of China. It’s a gutsy perfume, fueled by a top-note powerhouse (read: paradise) of half-parts bitter citrus and bay leaf, and it doesn’t go in for histrionics of any sort. Instead of wimping out, like so many orientals, with a screaming synthetic sandalwood base, it progresses slowly and methodically down an endless corridor of rose and violet tones. While the SA’s will market this to women, I think it would serve perfectly for formal wear on a man. Where the current formula of Caron’s (now discontinued) Alpona strayed into expensive furniture polish, this keeps to the path. Materials are deftly handled throughout. And I’m left thinking: It rules!

Wieke Somers “Amber”

Doing some research today on Dutch designer Wieke Somers, I ran across this beautiful image of a bottle she did for IFF Hilversum. In the past, Somers has collaborated with Droog. About six years ago, I bought a pair of barnacle glasses she created at a studio in The Hague. Apparently, the “Amber” perfume applicator is a feather. If anyone knows more about this scent – most likely, a one-off – please let me know.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Autumn Paraphrase: Brûme d’Automne

Jean Paul Guerlain’s Brûme d’Automne (2008) brings to mind those lines of Wallace Stevens’: “The wind of Iceland and / The wind of Ceylon, / Meeting, gripped my mind.” (I had the good fortune to obtain a small decant from Guerlain, extremely rare in part because, at present, it is only available in the limited edition coffret, Les Quatres Saisons, which is mega-expensive.)

If a scent could represent the meeting of two currents, or two jet streams, from vastly different worlds it would be this. From one direction we have cooling green notes of rosemary, coriander and slightly savory pink peppercorn; from the other warm, sensual notes of ylang-ylang, rose, patchouli and vetiver. The composition literally does what its name means, as le brûme denotes “mist,” the phenomenon precipitated by cool air moving above warmer land or water. Of course, ever since types like Wordsworth, Shelley (Mary, too) and Caspar David Friedrich began playing with impressionable minds, mist has become a mood-building device and a metaphor for the numinous, the barely grasped.

It supposedly was inspired by the memory of a long-lost love and a journey to Piascassier, a hilltop village near Grasse. Such histoires sentimentales are nothing new for the house of Guerlain. But who can balk when the product of sentimental reverie is so unbelievably pleasant...and different from everything else on the market? If it ever gets released in the Les Parisiennes line, it will be taking its place alongside such other magisterially moody scents as Jicky and Derby.