One Thousand Scents

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Ad Infinitum

Jim and I both love to read. We have, conservatively, about seventeen thousand books in our two-bedroom apartment. Okay, maybe sixteen thousand. But a lot. Too many. Some of them we haven't even opened since we moved in five years ago (as of yesterday). Yesterday morning before leaving for work (I'm on the night shift so I have the morning to myself), Jim said, "Pull all the books you want to get rid of, I'll veto the ones I want to keep, I'll pull the ones I want to get rid of, you can veto them, and then we'll just sell off whatever's left."

There I was, clawing through the books and trying to ignore the dust (we are not the most meticulous of housekeepers), and I stumbled across a book that I'd been looking for for a year and a half, Hey SKINNY! Great Advertisements from the Golden Age of Comic Books. I know I looked where I found it, but it's a narrow little thing, and I guess I could have overlooked it, sandwiched as it was between two burlier books. But I was so sure I checked there!

Anyway, I have it, and I've scanned the page I wanted you to see, and here it is!

"WIN POWER OVER MEN with these COMPELLING PERFUMES!" Hoo baby! "Do you want to make men OBEY YOU?" As Bette Midler would say, what kind of an asshole question is that? "Can YOU make STRONG men WEAK? Do YOU want to MARRY NOW? Do YOU want DOUBLE POWER?" Yes, yes, and yes! Of course! Just gimme the goddamn perfume already!

I know, it's a little scrawny and you can't read anything except the titles. Not to worry. I'm going to divide it up and dole it out in full-sized portions over the next couple of weeks so you can enjoy it as much as I do. It is sublime. It will make you so happy. It will restore your faith in advertising and in the whole human race.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Drink Up: Thierry Mugler A*Men Pure Malt

I don't know the first thing about whiskey, or whisky, for all that. Okay, that's not absolutely true: being a finicky language maven, I do know that Scotch whisky is spelled without the "-e-", Irish whiskey with, and god help you if you get it wrong. But as for the drinks I know nothing, because I'm just not a drinker: I may have tried whiskey or whisky in the past, though more likely not, and if I did, I don't remember it, but I bet I didn't like it. I have friends who are more sophisticated about beverages: Trish and Steve know a thing or ten about wine, and Ralph can tell you about the various peaty and smoky qualities of whiskies.

So I'm not the best person in the world to be talking about the new Mugler scent, A*Men Pure Malt, which is based on whiskey and created with whiskey-making techniques (people who were thinking "Ovaltine" when they heard "malt" are going to be disappointed), but I'm going to talk about it anyway, because while I may not know anything about beverage alcohol, I do know a thing or two about perfumes. Despite the name, the scent isn't boozy at all; I like to joke that things like Idole de Lubin (rum) and Demeter Sambucca (anise liqueur) let you smell like an alcoholic without actually being one, but Pure Malt doesn't make you smell like you've been anywhere near a bar.

Just like last year's A*Men Pure Coffee, Pure Malt is recognizably a relative of the original A*Men, but stripped down to make room for the new fusillade of whiskey. The citrus top notes (and the peppermint which is so evident in the shower gel, much less so in the EDT) are completely gone: instead, the top consists of an intimation of the usual candy-shop A*Men yumminess buried under a big clump of earth. I don't know if it's peat, exactly, but it's earthy, with a little twinge of vetiver. It's masculine; muscular without being bombastic.

The earthiness lingers through the middle of the scent, leading up to a warm, thick caramel, but surprisingly unsugary; it suggests caramel burnt a little so that the smoke veils the sweetness. There's also a demitasse of coffee-with-cream-and-two-sugars; the scent is still sweet, but without that sugar-shock quality that even a bit too much A*Men suffocates you with. There's patchouli in the base, a little; there has to be, because candy plus patchouli is the whole idea of the Angel and A*Men scents. And there's a bit of sweetened wood and some vanilla as well. The drydown is very cozy and warm.

The bottle is nearly indistinguishable from last year's Pure Coffee bottle, except that the rubber casing for the flask is black rather than coffee brown, and the star cutout in front, instead of being shimmery opaque gold, is clear glass to reveal the whiskey-coloured juice inside (and the bottle has a highly reflective silver backing which catches every stray gleam of light to make it look as if the contents are being lit from within, a nice touch). In contrast to last year's coffee-bag package, the box is more or less just a box this time around, although the packaging does suggest a high-end beverage, to the extent that a little paragraph on the side of the box ends with "Do not drink."* The front of the box reads "sublimée en fût de chêne", "sublimated [!] in oak barrels", and the top bears a stamp that reads "Les Liqueurs de Parfums", which suggests the first in a line of booze-themed A*Men clones, does it not? And what might they be thinking of next? Tequila? Rum? A whole line of schnapps-inspired scents?

But between Pure Malt and Pure Coffee (and also the rhubarb-and-wood B*Men), I figure I'm set for A*Men-based scents that aren't actually A*Men, so I don't think I'll be buying whatever they should happen to come up with next year. Unless it's based on root beer or cola, in which case I'm right there at the front of the line with my credit card in my hand.

*The entire text, in case you should care, reads:

Discover the fusion between A*Men and the world of spirits thanks to a patented method inspired by traditional techniques used to produce the finest Whiskies. A*Men Pure Malt is aged in oak casks to reveal a fragrance imbued with elegance, intensifying a lingering note that is subtly peaty and exceptionally noble. Do not drink.

The "traditional techniques" were devised for the production of an Angel flanker called La Part Des Anges, which is a winemaker's term meaning "the angels' share" and referring to the evaporation that naturally takes place during aging in wood: the quantity that disappears is what the angels took in return for making a better beverage. La Part Des Anges was aged in cherrywood barrels for 23 weeks and released as a limited edition extrait: just under 5000 10-mL bottles. And what bottles!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Decaffeinated: Jo Malone Black Vetyver Café

I confess to not having tried every single Jo Malone scent out there, but there are twenty of them, so perhaps I can be forgiven. Maybe some of them are good, but of the ones I have tried, six or seven, I haven't been able to find a single one that I would want to own, for the simple reason that they're uniformly dull. Pomegranate Noir: overripe fruit stewed in patchouli oil. Grapefruit: just grapefruit. Lime Basil and Mandarin: I don't even know how to describe that one, except that you'd have to pay me to wear it. The only one that even comes close to holding my interest is Black Vetyver Café, and it falls so far short of the mark that I would consider it a waste of time, money, and natural resources to own a bottle.

There's nothing terribly wrong with Black Vetyver Café, exactly. It's just as advertised; it starts with black coffee, slightly bitter and astringent, and then moves on to vetiver with a hint of incense, and both these elements are true-to-life and quite nice. The trouble is that after not even an hour of that, you're left with something so generic, so indefinable and uninteresting that it might as well have come out of a bottle marked "PERFUMERY BASE: MALE". It smells vaguely fresh and a a little sharp, like a cleaning product, and also slightly warm, like something left out in the sun. And that's about it.

If you want a proper coffee scent, you can try CSP Vanille Moka, Bond No. 9's New Haarlem, Demeter Cappuccino or Black Russian, or A*Men Pure Coffee for a gourmand experience, or Demeter Espresso for something a little more hard-edged (burnt, to be honest). I can't imagine having tried any or all of these and then somehow deciding that Black Vetyver Café was the best choice.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

New York Stories, Part Two

....and not too much later, either, though more on that in a minute.

To my considerable astonishment, and this really isn't something we had planned, we went to see six shows in the five days we were in New York. On Thursday night we saw "Avenue Q" (so much fun), on Friday night the Jane Fonda vehicle "33 Variations" (she was better than the material, although she needs to work on her projection), and on Saturday the matinee for "The 39 Steps" (hilarious) and the evening show of a one-man show, Mike Birbiglia's "Sleepwalk With Me" (not as great as the advertising would have you think, although at least we saw a couple of celebrities). On Sunday we saw "Chicago" (beyond wonderful, and we would have gone to see it a second time if we'd had a chance, it was that good), and on Monday night a performance by Kristin Chenoweth (generally terrific, but she is not an opera singer and should not be tackling the Doll Song from Les Contes D'Hoffmann, and certainly not starting off the show with it, because I was starting to think that she had lost her talent). At some point during this almost comical run of theatre, I began to understand that New York isn't just bigger than Toronto, it's more than Toronto or probably than any other big English-speaking city, because there's just so much to do: if you had the money--an unlikely state of affairs, because it's so expensive to live there--you could quite literally never stop being entertained, because there's always something going on somewhere. Who would have thought that "The City That Never Sleeps" isn't just a figure of speech?

And yet it really is just a big city. As I said over on my other blog, it's Toronto writ large, and a couple of people I suggested this to were horrified, but my own mom--who lived in Toronto and came within a hair's breadth of actually being born in New York--agreed with me. It has some landmarks, of course: every big city does. But when it comes right down to it, it looks like a generic big city, and if this weren't true, how would it be that Toronto so often subs for it in the movies?

Anyway, Saturday started out sort of awful, but it got better, because not more than two blocks from Macy's is a big, or biggish, Sephora, reasonably well appointed, a good mix of niche and mass-market. I smelled a half-dozen or so things, but the one that stuck with me the whole time I was there was Tom Ford's Black Orchid. I had smelled it in Edinburgh a year and a half ago, but it was very expensive at the time, available only in a 50-mL bottle (and a wildly expensive ounce of perfume for the equivalent of $600): Sephora had a 30-mL bottle for $60, and I was sort of a goner at that point, because I could tell even from smelling it on a card that it was exactly the sort of thing I love. And I'm wearing it right now, and it is. I don't know what I was thinking buying two fairly strong, dark, sweet scents just before summer hits, when I won't get much use out of them for a few months, but those are the things I most like to wear, and I couldn't resist.

I never did get into Hermes to buy some Ambre Narguilè; the timing wasn't good, for one thing, and for another, I had already sort of decided that I wasn't going to spend that kind of money on a bottle I would never see the bottom of. (I don't need a 100-mL bottle of Mugler's Pure Malt, either, but that was a third of the price, so I didn't feel nearly so bad about it.) We went to see the Jenny Holzer exhibit (stunning) at the Whitney Museum on Sunday, and on the way back along Madison Avenue I made a point of finding Hermes, which, as it turned out, was closed on Sundays, so it was almost serendipity. The store made the decision for me. (Anyway, if I had to have some, I could order it from The Perfumed Court, so the Internet has made such pilgrimages less than a big deal these days.)

On Sunday, heading back to the hotel for a bit of a rest before the show that afternoon, I noticed that there was a Bergdorf Goodman just a block and a half from where we were staying, and I could not resist. I sent Jim back to the hotel, promised him I wouldn't get lost on the way back (for I have an almost unbelievably bad sense of direction), and charged in. And if Harrods is a temple, then Bergdorf Goodman is a basilica, a huge shrine to the power of really expensive fragrance. It was in the middle of Mother's Day and anybody who needed a late gift wasn't getting it there, so I was practically the only customer in the entire perfume department, woefully underdressed but not caring. It's not as if they were going to turn away my business, should I deign to give them any.

I didn't, but if I had had a bucketful of cash, I would have spent it. Bergdorf Goodman has an immense range of high-end scents, mostly arranged by brand in boutique-ettes, little niches and sub-rooms artfully lit, decorated, and mirrored to show off their goods to maximum effect. I didn't even bother stopping by JAR, even though I would like to smell the carnation-heavy Golconda some day, because there's a whole ritual in the sales presentation (you can read about it at Now Smell This) and I wasn't in the mood. The Guerlain niche is lovely and apparently thorough, with lots of hard-to-find scents such as the Vega reissue cheek by jowl with the starter-scent Aqua Allegorias and the mass-market things like Insolence. There are a huge number of Serge Lutens scents, more than I've ever seen in one place, and a big collection of Carons. Of particular interest to me was the Tom Ford Private Blend line, launched as a dozen scents (recently expanded by one or two) which seem designed as a group to guarantee ensnarement if your tastes run any higher than what's available at the drugstore: there are men's scents and women's, unisex offerings, florals and orientals and chypres and woods and colognes and, in short, practically anything you could ask for in one form or another. There's even a set of twelve 2-mL roll-on vials so you can try them all: a bit pricey at $180, and I didn't, but don't think I wasn't severely tempted. I tried only 2, because by the time I got there my nose was beginning to wear out. The Amber Absolute, unexpectedly, didn't interest me at all, and I'm sure I needed to wear it on my skin for a day, but the Tobacco Vanille was gorgeous, something that might have been engineered to excite me, a thick, gorgeous, tobacco-heavy variant on Ambre Narguilè. It was with considerable regret that I left it behind.

And that is my entire perfume experience in New York. I missed lots of things, like the Caron boutique, Takashimaya, and Bendel's, but there's always next time, right?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

New York Stories, Part One

We got back from our first-ever trip to New York a couple of days ago, and here, in approximate chronological order, were our joint impressions:

This is essentially Toronto, only bigger.
I'm not dazzled enough to consider coming back.
There is a lot to do here, though.
I can see coming back to do some of the things we missed.
There are way too many people and it's way too noisy.
When can we come back? This fall?

We might, too, this fall. Probably not. But maybe. Definitely sometime.


The uniform for New Yorkers, at least those on the island of Manhattan, isn't black clothing: it's an iPod or an iPhone and a cigarette. (At least ninety per cent of all the MP3 players I saw in use, and at least half the phones, were Apple branded.) If Bond No. 9 really wants to bottle the smell of New York, they ought to consider making a scent composed entirely of stale cigarette smoke. Jim always used to joke that Monctonians smoke like it's a cure for cancer, but New Yorkers smoke like they have stock in the tobacco company. It's horrible and ubiquitous. Thank god they can't smoke in restaurants.


In 1999, I got a new job in a new line of work in a new city, and one of the first things I did with my new disposable income was to place an order with Aedes de Venustas, a New York store famous for its atmosphere and its range of niche scents. They had a couple of things I wanted--Ambre Precieux by Maitre Parfumier et Gantier and Dzing! by L'Artisan Parfumeur--which I had smelled from samples and needed to own. Aedes wasn't doing Internet ordering at the time, so I called them and spoke with an extremely nice and helpful person (one of the owners) who took my order as well as a long list of samples I wanted. I was thrilled to receive the package exactly as I had ordered it: it was my first experience with niche fragrance and it couldn't have gone more smoothly.

Fast forward ten years. I'm in New York for the first time in my life, and naturally one of the things I wanted to do was to visit Aedes de Venustas, so we took the subway to Christopher Street, I sent Jim off to a nearby bookstore, and I headed into the Temple of Beauty, an exotic little store crammed with antique hutches and display cases full of perfumes and candles.

I suppose I shouldn't have gone first thing in the morning. The man behind the counter--if I'm not mistaken, the very person I talked to on the phone ten years ago--said I could ask if I had any questions, so it isn't as if I were completely ignored, nor hovered over. But there were a number of deliveries he had to attend to, the phone started ringing, and I didn't feel as if I could ask him any questions because he pretty obviously didn't have time. I took two slow circuits of the store and became increasingly dispirited as I did. There were no prices to be seen anywhere, not on the packages nor on price lists. And there wasn't any easy way of distinguishing one thing from another without some help: there were, for example, at least thirty different Montale fragrances, and I would like to have tried some, but I wasn't about to spray them all to figure out which ones might have been right for me.

I'm not blaming the store or the owners. I could have asked for help, I could have sprayed and sprayed and sprayed until I found things I wanted. But I didn't feel as if I could. Many other people, no doubt, have had a different experience of the place, but I found it too much. And I know what I'm doing: I came prepared. I recognized the brands, of course, and I had a short list of things I wanted to try (a couple of which I couldn't even find), yet I left empty-handed. How much more overwhelming would it be for someone who was new to the game? Without a tour guide, they'd be lost.

So that was crushing disappointment number one.


In retrospect, going to Macy's on the Saturday before Mother's Day was probably not the best idea I ever had, but it didn't occur to me beforehand that it was the Saturday before Mother's Day and so would probably be fairly busy, and besides, was the only day on our schedule that worked, so off we went. And it was horrible, worse even than Harrods—an undifferentiated mass of people like a slaughterhouse floor full of cattle. And nobody needs to point out that I was one of the cattle; as the saying goes, “You're not in the traffic jam, you are the traffic jam.”

So Jim, with his dislike for scents, went off to the men's clothing department, and I poked around the fragrance department, and what a sorry thing it was. Maybe I missed something: it's entirely possible that there was another, different, better fragrance department somewhere else in Macy's, and the one I found was the boring mass-market one, but I didn't want to wander around to try and find it, because then Jim would never be able to find me. All I know is that the perfumery I saw was not much bigger than my apartment; was not any better stocked than, say, the one at The Bay in Dartmouth or any decent-sized department store: and worse, was not a department in any meaningful sense but was instead a collection of tiny independent duchies, each staffed and overstaffed with people aggressively thrusting perfumed squares of cardboard at me in a desperate attempt to make a sale, people so vociferously determined to make me buy that in comparison the merchants at a Moroccan souk are an order of Cistercian monks. I really am a polite person, but after the first dozen or so courteous demurrals, usually phrased as, “I'm just looking, thanks,” I graduated to an irritated “Just looking”, and finally, though not without shame, to “NO.”

Mind you, I did make a purchase fairly early on. I quickly found the Thierry Mugler counter, and just as quickly found Pure Malt, the new men's scent. I smelled it for thirty seconds or so on a blotter—couldn't put it on my skin, of course, because Jim would object, to say the least—and had it paid for and bagged not two minutes later. And then I discovered another drawback of the Macy's system of individual fiefdoms: I naturally asked for some samples of new things, as I always do, and the sales clerk couldn't give me anything but Mugler samples because of course those were all he had, and he couldn't go to other counters and get samples from them. Any decent store is going to allow the salesperson to move from counter to counter and snag a sample here, another there: not Macy's. And worse: a little later, I smelled the new Prada orange-blossom scent, Infusion de Fleur d'Oranger, and asked the salesman if there might be a sample. I wasn't just some cheap bastard: I had a Macy's bag, I had made a purchase, I was a customer. But no. He pointed to a little pile of cellophane-wrapped bundles and said he just had enough samples to make up into goodie bags--which, he didn't have to say, were only going to go to people who bought something Prada from him.

So that was crushing disappointment number two. At least it wasn't a complete disappointment, since I got something I wanted. But I was expecting much, much more.

Luckily, I found it later that same day....

Friday, May 01, 2009

Been There, Done That: 10 Corso Como

The only downside to being a complete fanatic about an art form, apart from the fact that you spend all your money on it, is that you get maybe a little jaded over time. If you love opera and you're going to your first live performance of Tosca, you'll be thrilled. If you've seen and heard fifty different performances and recordings, then you know more about it, your standards are higher, and you're likely to be more critical. You'll know when you're in the presence of greatness, but you'll also see and hear things that a less experienced person would miss. Others without your history may think you're just nitpicking, when the fact is that you know good from bad from mediocre and aren't shy about saying so.

And the same is true of perfumery. Back when I first started seriously wearing scents, in the early 1980s, I didn't know anything, certainly not enough to form a strong opinion beyond "I like this" and "I don't like this", and everything was new. Now I smell something and I immediately know if it's novel or something I've smelled a hundred times before. Last week I got into a discussion--not quite an argument--with a young co-worker about the perfumes she wears: D&G Light Blue, Ed Hardy, the sort of thing aimed at young women who want to smell nice and also like everyone else. I tried to convince her to broaden her horizons, but she remained unmoved: she knew what scents she liked, and they suited her fine. (I let her smell samples of a couple of somewhat more advanced and rather unisex scents: she hated them. She likes young-pretty-girly scents.) Maybe in ten years she'll develop more interesting taste, but I suppose it's more likely that she'll never be a fanatic: that she'll have a few bottles of things that she thinks smell good, and that will be fine for her.

10 Corso Como has a cult following, and I'm damned if I can see why. It's nice and all, but to be the object of adoration? I don't get it. It's not exactly like anything else on the market, admittedly; but it also isn't better than everything else of its general style, either.

The opening is the most interesting part of the scent, strikingly bitter, mostly geranium and oudh (otherwise known as agarwood) with a suggestion of gasoline. This mostly proceeds to burn away in about ten minutes, and what we're left with is...

Sandalwood. Nice sandalwood, probably synthetic (since we've hunted the real thing nearly to extinction) but nice all the same: sharp-edged, warm but tinder-dry. And yet it's really just sandalwood (with some of that bitter oudh and a bare hint of incense that becomes stronger at the drydown), and there's nothing wrong with that, but it can't hold my interest when there there are a lot of other sandalwood scents out there that have more to offer: ambery Jacques Fath Pour L'Homme, winey Le Boisé, and boozy Idole de Lubin, to name just three of my favourites. All three have much more character than 10 Corso Como, which for most of its life just kind of sits there.

The incense slowly becomes dominant at the end stage of the scent, though even then it isn't strong, and the whole thing just gradually peters out. It takes a good while, though: eight hours, for sure, maybe more.

If I had a bottle of 10 Corso Como, I'd wear it from time to time. It's pleasant enough, well-made, lots of fun at the beginning. But there's no thrill to it. It's a placeholder, a scent to wear because you want to have a scent on your skin. In art, the great is sought after, emulated, and adored, and there's always a place for the flagrantly bad (if only as kitsch, or a bad example); but average, staid, middle-of-the-road? Who can fall in madly love with that?