Thursday, October 30, 2008

Velvet Mushrooms in Honey

A downright cold day in New York and a taste of seasonal affective disorder occasioned some thoughts on pain in fragrance and, by extension, ugliness. Not to come off as waspish but, as in the evaluation of a fine cellared wine approaching maturity and its tertiary aromas, the “complexity” of certain fine perfumes may be too much for some people. In fact, a good many people would object to having to think too much about a perfume. (I don’t exactly blame them; they want to smell good and attract.) But the paradox of ugliness in perfume is that often the smeller (as opposed to the smellee) finds something more alluring in a difficult accord than in the umpteenth strawberry daiquiri accord. He or she darts in and out for maximum exposure, at first keeping their questions to themselves, until finally asking what the smellee is wearing. Certainly some quotidian floral may be there, but something unknown inheres as well, precipitating the rare attractiveness of the nameless. A perfume can become like the tomb in a bucolique by Poussin, on which are engraved the words “Et in Arcadia Ego.”

Of late, two gems of perfumery come to mind, both of them less than two years old: Onda (Vero Profumo) and Velvet Gardenia (Tom Ford Private Blend). Each intrigues the nose with an off-putting note or accord of notes. Onda’s funk (and its charm) comes from animalic touches; Velvet Gardenia’s from the fungal note so true to living gardenia blossoms. Both have a common bedfellow in phenylacetic acid, hero of the soon-to-be-discontinued Miel de Bois (Serge Lutens), a honeyed note that “if pushed up a notch,” as Grain de Musc notes, “would smell like piss.”

In Velvet Gardenia, David Apel of Givaudan grappled with the age-old problem of the white floral bouquet, a perfume genre capable of genius or utter cretinage. He left the unsavory facets of tuberose in the composition, the sweet mustiness of a flower blown and beginning along the arc of decomposition. He painted his backgrounds in dark shades of incense and labdanum. The overall effect is unsettling but stunning.

Happy All Hallows

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Fuzz Factor

Mathilde Laurent’s Guet-Apens (1999), rechristened Attrape-Coeur (2005) in Guerlain’s Les Parisiennes collection, occupies a high place among the hundreds of bottles in my private collection. More Renoir than Moreau, it is a pastel sketch done in shades of cream, mauve, blue and gold, a sketch that appears to radiate a soft light from within. A quintessential Guerlain fragrance of the contemporary school, it nods back at the house’s historic penchant for confiserie-style creations, without sacrificing any sophistication (viz. Les Élixirs Charnels). When I put it on the blotter, suddenly all the angles in the room seem to go fuzzy. And I think, Ah, no one but a French could have created such a little marvel.

But this is not to say that it is a chic scent. Rather, this a French channeling a much-earlier perfumer – perchance a court perfumer – and modernizing, abstracting the lessons learned in the past. Much the way Renoir channeled the early 19th century boudoir school - retaining his very French frivolité - while remaining firmly in the camp of post-Impressionism. Some may say that this detracts from the finished product, much the way an insipid chorus can emasculate an opera by Gounod; but I would argue that the French have an abiding fidelity to established forms (e.g., the rocaille becoming the slender curve of a Louis Quinze arm chair, in turn, becoming the silhouette of a Dior “New Look” dress). In Attrape-Coeur, the classical rose-violet-iris triad is played at higher and higher frequency until everything is bathed in an almost raucous amber-vanilla glow.

It doesn’t hurt to want to see the world through French eyes every so often, does it?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Tag! You’re It

A few days ago I was tagged by Lucy at Indie Perfumes. (Incidentally, Lucy and I ran into each other at the Sniffapalooza Fall Ball this past weekend.) This fragrant online village is so important, more important than we sometimes think. So, here’s the protocol:

1. Link to the person who tagged you.
2. Post the rules on your blog.
3. Write six random things about yourself.
4. Tag six people at the end of your post and link to them.
5. Let each person know they've been tagged and leave a comment on their blog.
6. Let the tagger know when your entry is up.

Six random things about me:

1. I am a lover of organ music (Bach, Widor, Franck, Dupré and Messiaen, especially).
2. I speak French and German, in addition to my native English.
3. I, too, am a compulsive reader. I like subways for that reason. For some reason, I can never read in cabs or town cars.
4. A couple of times a year, I fetishize the ritual of consuming of a very good dry-aged steak with an excellent bottle of wine. Otherwise, I keep a near-abstemious monastic regime.
5. I have never eaten an ortolan and consider myself the poorer for it.
6. I am planning a trek along the Silk Road in 2010, provided my country re-educates itself in the art of diplomacy just a wee, teensy bit.

Now for some favorite blogs:

Grain de Musc
The Moment
Fragrance Bouquet
Perfume Shrine
The Sartorialist

Enjoy being It!

Romance of the Rose

I’ve long been a fan of Amouage fragrances, especially the über-opulent Gold. (The crystal flacons outfitted by Asprey aren’t a bad touch either.) But times change and, with them, landscapes and peoples. Not thirty years ago the various sheikdoms which skirted the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula were sleepy if, in some cases pretty, backwaters; now, with few exceptions, they are boomtown economies fueled by unfathomable petroleum wealth. Those of the Romantic inclination lament this, preferring the rusticity of the past and Frankincense Route associations to proliferate. But modernity is a mixed bag. The camel has been replaced by the Rover, the souk with shopping trips to Europe and America. But a tradition of perfumery remains.

Many have heard the story of Amouage’s founder, HH Sayyid Hamad bin Hamoud al bu Said, creating a perfume house at the request of his sovereign – a perfume house that would reflect the fragrance heritage of Oman and its prized materials, silver frankincense from Dhofar and cistus from the Jebel Akhdar, the “Green Mountain” towering above Muscat. Not long after, Guy Robert, titan of French perfumery, was commissioned to create the perfume which became Gold (1982).

Fast forward twenty-five years. Creative Director Christopher Chong worked with perfumer Daniel Maurel to create a men’s and women’s complement to the masterpieces of the brand’s inception: Lyric Woman and Lyric Man. Both take rose as their point of departure. Both are expertly constructed. One takes my breath away.

The press release tells me that Lyric Woman takes its inspiration from the lyric-spinto voice (e.g., Callas), but when its scent wafts up into my mind what I hear is a boy soprano. And he’s not singing a Mozart mass – he’s singing 15th century polyphony in the ars subtilior style. Lyric Woman isn’t jubilant but, rather, dark, poignant, even fragile. It warms its wearer, but not to titillate or amuse. It invites her or him into mysterium. A precious rose blooms in its heart but, as in religious iconography, that heart is pierced and magnified by an accord of geranium, cinnamon, jasmine, orris and ginger. Lyric Woman does not move in the traditional progression from head note to base. Rather, the silver frankincense, patchouli, musk and vanilla are present like a continuous progression of bass chords against which the voice rises into a crepuscular au-délà.

I can’t help but think that moving from the Eighties superfluity of Gold, Amouage has enacted an unconscious pilgrimage from the Land of Robert to the Land of Lutens circa 2000. Given the latter’s back-pedaling of late, one can only hope that the Chong-Maurel collaboration yields long and plentifully.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Ancient Mystery: La Myrrhe

Before such storied scents as Muscs Kublai Khan and Cuir Mauresque, Christopher Sheldrake fashioned an “oriental” that clearly was an impostor in the seraglio. La Myrrhe, released in the mid-90’s, has all the markings of a foreign-born harem girl who won’t give in easily to eastern customs. She’s the opulent amber-eyed one who prefers French poésie over dates and pomegranate juice. The other girls think she’s too sophisticated for her age and development, not realizing her deep education abroad ... before her abduction.

Fast-forward to the present. I’m having a quick morning café latte at the local espresso bar. An auburn-haired student, a Penguin classic tumbling from her hand, orders a latte e miele. She leans toward me for the sugar and, in that moment, it hits me. This thing of beauty she is emanating. I lean close and point at the air; she smiles. Myrrh, she purrs, the oil.

Contrary to popular belief, myrrh is not always nose-singeingly dry and bitter. It certainly can be, but more often it exudes sweetness with a hint of the medicinal, reminiscent of pine overlaid with ripe, pulpy fruit. It is this aspect of myrrh that Sheldrake sets, dark and jewel-like, at the center of his creation. As a kid, I sometimes fantasized about putting gemstones in my mouth to see how they’d taste. This is how I’d imagine a ruby to taste. The aldehydes and bitter almond, which mark La Myrrhe’s Western provenance, form an ornate setting, ensuring that this rock indeed is one for the ages.

The girl is reading Rimbaud.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Amber Assoluta

Amber Absolute (2007) is one of those scents that just can’t be appreciated in warm weather. (How the Indians wear it in the extreme humidity, one can only guess.) Perfumer Christophe Laudemiel’s creation for Tom Ford Private Blend betrays more than a couple of backward glances at Youth Dew Amber Nude but comes out the better constructed of the two. Deep but not terribly dark or cloyingly sweet, and with a truly memorable incense drydown, I place it alongside Serge Lutens Ambre Sultan (1993) and Annick Goutal’s Ambre scented candle.

This is perfume as if it were created by a chef at Jean Georges. Just the right blend of spice and dried herbs and a cool, salty, metallic tang that strangely reminds me of the inside of a copper kettle. My nose doesn’t hone in on the vanilla, which, previous to testing it, I’d have imagined in the fore. Instead, the spice comes in waves, tickling my nose, as if someone wearing Egoïste kept entering the room and then, seconds later, departing.

All I can think is, this would be divine on a guy.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Memory of Smoke

A few year back, in a class I audited on Robert Motherwell, the lecturer went on and on about white space, the blank canvas, etc. Likewise, Christopher Brosius’s olfactory creations, for better or worse, have always struck me as studies in what isn’t there. But I fear I must strain the painting analogy a bit further: his fragrances remind me of paint. Or to be more exact still: they remind me of paint’s smell. Some are like tempera, others oil, yet others the smell of an old oil on canvas. (When the guards aren’t looking, I sometimes get frighteningly close.) This is not said by way of disparagement. Fire from Heaven, the third of his “primal smells” series, is breathtakingly beautiful. As beautiful indeed as an Orientalist scene of Damascus from the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

Brosius, who made his name at companies like Kiehl’s and Demeter, isn’t known for the opulence his perfumes. His affectation, rather, tends to melancholy, backward glances and a certain brand of North Brooklyn nostalgie. Names like Snowed In 1973, Poor Leaf I Trod and Grandmother’s Brace populate the shelves of his humble Wythe Avenue studio; beneath them, a wealth of absolutes labeled everything from Dandelion to – my favorite – Ocean (Mediterranean). A behemoth dog of indeterminate breed patrols.

Fire from Heaven takes its cue from literary fag hag Mary Renault’s eponymous novel about Alexander the Great. Apparently, the book is filled with incense. To my nose in the perfume absolute concentration, Brosius succeeds at wedding the sweetness of opopanax to the brisk sting of cedarwood, rounding off the edges with sandalwood, styrax and labdanum. As he himself is wont to admit, this is a scent about subtlety. At first, the elements seem all scrunched together, but with time the air clears a bit. And what is left is, at intervals, dark and light, sparkling and opaque.

Fire from Heaven may not inspire divine retribution, but it will invite warm nuzzles on cool autumn nights. Some may call it an incense for the incense-neophyte or, even perhaps, the incense-lite type. This is hardly tepid praise. Some of the big perfume houses could learn something here for when the hordes tire of flamboyant frankincense and just want someone (or -thing) to keep home fires burning.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Sleeper Standout 4: Bombay

A few weeks ago, I received a selection of fragrances by Montreal perfumer Claude André Hébert. Hébert has created 12 fragrances for men and women, inspired by the continents. Among them, I managed to find two very pleasing masculines, Dundee and Bombay. Of these two, I precipitated to the latter. It was dry and spicy and sexy. Manly but not dirty, elegant but not dressed up. What appealed immediately was Hébert’s apparent restraint in not over-improvising as so many industry noses do. He knew where and when to stop in this gorgeous quartet of vetiver, Indian sandalwood, cardamom and cinnamon. Each element played its part but, taken together, there was a clarity and expansiveness I found myself quietly admiring. Again, as with the others in my Sleeper Standout series, there was something here worth noticing; in this case, a micro-perfumer who is turning out scents which, by rights, deserve a much wider audience. Wearing Bombay on a cool autumn afternoon renewed my confidence in a generation of noses who, despite the trend to unisex fragrances, extract minimalist odes from classic masculines, as if scrubbing the dust from the gold-leaved escutcheons of Guerlain and Givenchy to rehabilitate some past splendor.