Tuesday, January 27, 2009

In this Light of Mars: Noir Epices (2000)

At some point early in this decade, before oriental became subsumed under oriental-woody – before, that is, the middle-finger of perfumery was lopped off – Michel Roudnitska created Noir Epices for Frédéric Malle’s Edition de Parfums. It was one of the series’ inaugural perfumes, and remains sans doute one of its best. While it is neither the shoulder-pad-clad career-bitch perfume that Opium and Cinnabar are, nor the opoponax and vanilla confection that Shalimar is, nor even the date-lipped arabesque of Serge Lutens’ Arabie, it is oriental through and through.

Luca Turin speaks to its medicinal character, a view which, on account of clove, I won’t discount; but Noir Epices is something more than a clove-studded pomander of orange and rose. For me, it is an abstraction of cinnamon – and a non-Lutens’style abstraction at that. It grows, I believe, from a moody cinnamon that eschews all that happy-homemaker/pie-in-the-oven suburban bunkum. It is the sort of cinnamon that would feel at home (indeed!) in a scene from Buñuel’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie or a Genet television play. Sad, but with an abiding sense of the nourishing absurd.

It is a disorienting scent, one that leads you out into a barren desert place and then confronts you, like a woman approaching out of nowhere with a book which, when opened, cannot be read. You turn the page and hear a child’s voice (orange blossom), next the voice of its mother (geranium absolute). It seems then that the sun has been replaced behind your back. Instead of slanting light, there is a strange neon intensity (nutmeg) and the nagging feeling that (that) nothing (sandalwood) that ever pleases you is just nice.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Infini de Caron (1970)

For the past four months I have grappled with writing a review of Caron Infini. Not that I’m turned off by this once-venerable house, like most are. (Yes, like everything, things have changed; thus, I keep my expectations low.) Probably it has more to do with coming to terms with a perfume of my mother’s generation – one that represents not revolutionary fervor but upper-middle-class entrenchment – and finding its restraint unexpectedly beguiling.

Back in pre-World War I Paris, Ernest Daltroff had created a perfume called [L’]Infini [Souvenance], which few have ever smelled, but the version known today was created in 1970 by Gerard Lefort, the perfumer responsible for Caron’s swansong Nocturnes in 1981. According to Richard Fraysse, Caron’s current nose, “[Infini] needed a lot of research to reach the perfect harmony between the “green” start, the aldehyde floral heart, and the wooded base.” Making matters even more complicated, the Caron website makes a distinction between Infini “the perfume,” apparently only available now in EDT concentration (1.7 ounce atomizer bottle) and L’Infini (note the definite article), “an extremely concentrated version of this perfume” in the original Serge Mansau assymetrical geometric flacon (∞), which was released in 2000 in order to “give women the pleasure of needing only a touch of perfume to create an infinite vapor trail.” (If you like Sir Denys Lasdun’s Royal National Theatre complex and Stanley Kubrick set design, you’ll like the parfum bottle. It’s super cool in a super-wonky sort of way.)

Despite its being a skin-scent after about 20 minutes, Infini in the EDT concentration is perhaps a better representation of the 1970 formula, which I have only been able to confirm was made in extrait, EDC, PDT and EDT. According to Jean-Yves Gaborit in his book Parfum: Prestige et Haute Couture (Fribourg, 1985), the formula contains Grasse and Bulgarian rose, jonquil, lily of the valley, iris, peach, plum, vetiver, sandalwood and civet. (No doubt, minus the civet since Alès Group took over Caron in 1988.) The Caron Web site mentions only tuberose, jonquil, sandalwood, vetiver and lily of the valley.

To my nose, there isn’t a tuberose to be found for miles. Instead, what I get is a very pleasant – and short-lived – rose accord followed by a sustained white floral aldehydic of the squeaky clean, soapy variety which would reach its full realization in Sofja Grosjman’s White Linen for Estée Lauder in 1978. On those attributes alone, I’d take White Linen any day, but Lafort’s skill here is apparent in a space-age green metallic note that half-reminds me of the smell that Reynold’s Wrap tin foil gave off when I was a kid and, more recently, a herbal metallic facet of the green opening notes of Creed Original Chèvrefeuille.

With a genealogy so long and confusing, I begin to wonder whether Infini weren’t some elaborate pun for a fragrance that will be reinvented for ∞.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A Certain Slant of Light

For Mark

This past summer I had occasion to write a short description of Dominique Ropion’s Une Fleur de Cassie. It’s short enough to reproduce here:

“Une Fleur de Cassie is as beautiful a perfume as they come. It’s like the feeling that comes when you’ve finished a chapter of Colette; a feeling, that is, wagered on the piling up of pastel adjectives – the prose equivalent of a Renoir oil sketch. Mimosas and almond milk and pearls held up in the light. It’s a floral that doesn’t project the aura of flowers. It’s a meal and a kiss and a brush stroke all in one.”

With the exception of his Amarige, I am an unabashed fan of Ropion. I adore Aimez-Moi on others; I love Vetiver Extraordinaire on myself and pretty much anyone in my immediate vicinity; and Carnal Flower, while not my cuppa tea, is very Something. Ropion is one of a dying - or rather, dead - breed of perfumers: a Classicist who’s initial capital is hard-won. He is one of those perfumers, not unlike Roudnitska père, who build a perfume from the bottom up; who see the idea of a perfume as less its gimmick than its inchoate form.

Une Fleur de Cassie is a trophy fragrance, a perfume that stands out from the rest of the pack like a Vionnet gown stands out in a starlet-of-yore’s closet. It isn’t about glitz or post-Eighties’ sex-appeal. It’s about Eleganz. It’s about a Bugatti Type 41 “Royale” crunching the gravel on its 5mph procession up a long driveway somewhere in Cove Neck. It’s about a cool April night when you’ve left all the windows open in hopes that spring (and love) have come to stay. Your nose is greeted with the most marvelous scents wafting in from the garden, but you must admit, as you reach for the box of tissues, that you’re a tad cold.

Sure, he used some very pricey ingredients - mimosa absolute, jasmine absolute, cassie absolute, rose absolute - but the parts do not justify the whole, which is much more complex than any ingredient list. It’s as if Ropion let a certain slant of light enter in between each layer of the finished product, and what’s more, he used sandalwood and vanillin in his base with such mastery as to create something on par with vintage Guerlain but worlds - galaxies - apart in style.

Just thinking about Une Fleur de Cassie makes me happy, and there are few perfumes that do that these days.

Image credit: Dale Chihuly, “Macchia” blown-glass bowl (1982), courtesy of ArtNet.

Friday, January 2, 2009

2008: The Year of the Perfumista

What did the marketer learn in 2008?
  • That the consumer she’s pitching to is 3 times more likely to be a man than in 2007
  • That assigning the tag “niche” to a perfume house doesn’t make it better or higher in quality; likewise, that niche does not right off the bat spell luxury or the justification of an astronomical SRP
  • That “wardrobing” in fragrances is a good idea, even within a brand
  • That flankers have begun to wobble

  • That markdowns at high-end retailers may be on the horizon, if not very generous incentives to help the sale along
  • That natural perfumery, fraught with a lot of its own self-taught marketing bunkum, is a greater adversary than previously thought
  • That there’s an art to marketing a fragrance beyond two-word tag lines and cleavage shots

What did the consumer learn in 2008?
  • To be more honest about his or her likes and dislikes
  • To reconsider the past. To reconsider the smell of the past
  • That, in some cases, the mighty (houses) have fallen
  • That a fragrance can be as much about a place (or memory) as about desired personae or objects of desire
  • That it’s OK to put on enough that people actually can smell it
  • To like a well-designed bottle as much as the good stuff inside
  • To enjoy reading and bitching about perfume
  • To appreciate complexity
  • To identify notes
  • To own more than two
Some highlights I’m proud of are my January–February 2008 series on Middle Eastern perfumery, my Roses for Men posting, my Search for the Perfect Vetiver, and my rebuttal to New York Times critic Chandler Burr. Here’s to a happy and healthy 2009!

Image credit: Gourielli Fourth Dimension advertisement, c.1953