One Thousand Scents

Monday, January 31, 2011

I Am Lost: Hermes Amazone (Vintage)

Last year I was conversing online with a private seller of vintage scents: I had already bought a couple of bottles from her, and after going through her catalogue I was negotiating for a couple of other things. She didn't know much about scent--she was in it for the bottles, which I sort of get though not really*--but once she figured out my terms and my areas of interest (I'll pay a hundred and fifty bucks but not three hundred, I like seventies and eighties scents) she started making suggestions of things that she'd only just found in her apparently massive stash, discoveries that hadn't made it into her online catalogue yet. One of the things she proposed for me was a quarter-ounce of Amazone parfum*.

I didn't know the scent at all, except that it was an Hermes that was fairly old (1973, it turns out) and still in production, though surely reformulated. After doing a little research and learning that it had originally been a chypre, I figured a vintage bottle was worth risking the $50 she was asking. I wore it a few times, but I admit to not really getting it at first, wondering if I had wasted my money: it's got quite a lot of fruit in the top, it's more floral in the middle than I usually like, and the chypre base takes a long time coming. But it's been sitting on my desk for a couple of weeks now and I've been wearing it obsessively whenever I can; it's all I want to wear when I'm alone, and when I'm home but can't wear it, I open the box to take a sniff of the densely perfumed air inside. Amazone, as it was originally conceived, is an intoxicant.

In cinematic terms, "pulling focus" means shifting the focal point of a camera's lens to follow a moving subject or to shift emphasis from one element within the frame to another in a different plane. If you have three objects within your field of view, one five feet away, one twenty feet, and one fifty, you can focus on only one of them at a time: you can see the others, but they're fuzzy. Classically constructed fragrances--forgive me if you know this already, but maybe you just stumbled across this and don't really know anything about scent--have three acts: the top, which is the first impression composed of bright fresh elements that disappear quickly; the heart, which is what most people think of as the scent itself, lasting a few hours; and the base, which is long-lasting and deep. Amazone is a bit of a surprise: it has three acts, but you experience them all simultaneously, with only the proportion--the focus--changing. (You could argue that all scents are like this--that since all the parts of it are present from the beginning, you must be able to perceive them, can tell an oriental is an oriental right from the start, even if its characteristic base notes are muted. But that isn't necessarily true, not at all: clever perfumers know how to manipulate the elements of a scent so that parts of it are masked until later in the fragrance's development. I've been wearing Rocabar for years, but I still can't detect any vanilla in it until it's been on my skin for hours, even knowing it's there.)

To put it plainly: when you smell vintage Amazone at first, you smell the entire scent all at once, and throughout its life on your skin, but the focus gradually changes. The first act of Amazone is a dazzling fusion of bergamot and blackcurrant, a breakfast-jam note with sunshine pouring in through the window, bright and cheerful: who knew Amazons were so much fun? Just beyond it in softer focus is a floral heart dominated by rose and suffused with geraniums and green vetiver, and much farther in the distance is the oakmoss base that marks it as a chypre, with a certain chocolate darkness and that intimation of filth that makes true chypres so earthy and sexualized. You can smell all of these things, but only the top is sharply focused. Within a half hour or so the top has faded so the green roses can take centre stage, and here the magic of the scent begins to become evident: the top and the base are still well within view, the blackcurrant top hazy but still evident, the oakmoss looming blurrily in the background. As the clock ticks on, with the blackcurrant still present but only as a light, fizzy halo, the flowers and their attendant greens become dimmer and hazier, and the full majesty of the chypre base reveals itself to you.

Whoever you are, wherever you are reading this, I wish I could put a drop of Amazone on your skin and tell you that this is one of the things chypres used to be, what they still could be--that this is what has been lost due to changing tastes and short-sighted bureaucrats. Dinky little "modern chypres"*** with their wax fruit and their cleaned-up patchouli can't hold a candle to true chypres, great chypres.

One of the joys of a parfum as opposed to any other concentration is the charm of the miniature. The quarter-ounce of Amazone is a little thing, just two inches high by one inch wide: you could hide it in your fist with no problem. It is enchanting, a tiny little work of art. I couldn't find a properly clear online picture, but this one

and this one (with a nice shot of the parfum bottle's box)

will have to do. (The liquid inside my bottle is a much darker gold: it's certainly aged at least a little, with a hint of that acetone top that signals the start of its eventual demise. I hope to have used it up before that becomes an issue.) The bottle is an oval of clear glass, deeply carved with geometrically precise but rough-feeling frosted bands which segment it into panes: the top edge and the hemispherical stopper are also frosted. This banding gives it the arresting sensation of being simultaneously natural--it seems like bamboo or some other wood--and constructed, and from the front, back, or sides, the bands form the letter H, for Hermes. The print on the bottle, in a primitive script, is a dark red-ochre: so is the box, with accents of olive green, the whole having a sense of mystery (as all the best chypres do) and sensual abandon.

Nowadays the modern reconstruction of Amazone--likely having little if anything to do with the original, having been stripped of the oakmoss but dolled up with bucketloads of fruit and other synthetic fripperies, in the modern style--is in the house bottle which I guess some would call iconic but I think is boring. I have no idea what it smells like: I don't even remember having been in proximity to it in modern times, but at any rate I've never been moved to try it. I don't need to: whatever it is, it couldn't be as good as its magical forerunner.

*Because a lot of people use the word "perfume" indiscriminately to refer to a scent, whatever its concentration, I use "parfum" or "extrait" when referring to the actual perfume (as opposed to "eau de toilette" or "eau de parfum" or whatever) so that there will be no confusion. For no good reason, I hate the term "pure perfume".

**For me, obviously, the contents have always been paramount, though I admit to having bought some scents because I loved the packaging, and conversely to not having bought some--and on occasion to having declined to even smell them--because I hated the bottles.

*** I don't hate**** all of them! I am quite fond of some of the newer patchouli-heavy scents that people like to call chypres, such as Dior's Midnight Poison. I just don't pretend that they're anything like their ancestors.

**** I only just noticed, on re-reading before hitting the "Publish" button, that I used the word "hate" in all three of the preceding footnotes, and therefore in this one, too. It wasn't planned. Apparently I am just full of hatred.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Familiarity: Keiko Mecheri Cuir Cordoba

When I wrote about Keiko Mecheri's Datura Blanche, launched in 2009, I also mentioned Serge Lutens' 2001 Datura Noir, and with good reason: they're exceedingly similar, except the Mecheri is far stronger and sweeter then the Lutens.

When I smelled Mecheri's Cuir Cordoba (also 2009), my immediate response to it was that it was a copy of Lutens' 2004 Daim Blond, except much louder, much leatherier, much irisier, and much sweeter--noxiously so in each respect.

I am not saying that Mecheri is deliberately aping Lutens' work but increasing the wattage for shock effect, for people--who are they?--who don't think Lutens' scents are potent enough. It could certainly be a coincidence. And that it all I have to say about that. If you like huge quantities of iris, then perhaps this is your cup of tea. On me it's horrifying.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Staying Power: Alfred Sung Encore

After two blockbusters, the Alfred Sung marketing people could probably have been forgiven for assuming that the next scent was a sure-fire hit, but Encore didn't stick around very long, and I don't know why.

Okay, I have a couple of theories. It's not immediately beautiful (although I have to say that the big white-floral original wasn't, either): the top is sharpish and a little violent. In fact, it's sort of odd: when I bought mine not long after its launch, it came with some bath products (probably shower gel and body lotion) in a little drawstring bag, and the bag smelled like Coca-Cola syrup. If you've ever worked with this stuff, you know just what it smells like, and the drydown of Encore does in fact have a distinctly cola-syrup smell to it. Cola smells mostly of sweetened cinnamon, vanilla, and citrus oils, with some other spices thrown in, and although there are many orientals out there with those elements, somehow in this scent they combined, or were combined, to give a definite soda-fountain effect.

After the big, brittle citrus-aldehyde top, Encore turns into an extravagant floral oriental with lots of tuberose allied to that cola accord. It is very large, very richh, and very imposing, and I think that might have been the second part of its problem: it was a throwback to the eighties in a time when lighter, less aggressive scents were starting to take over. You could never accuse Encore of being modest.

And it lasts pretty much forever, too. Here's how durable it is: last week around let's say 6:30 a.m. I put some on the back of my hand (as ever) so I could think about it. An hour later, I did the dishes, showered, put on some A*Men Pure Coffee, which is pretty potent stuff, and headed out the door to go to work. A few hours later, I was sure I could smell Encore, and I could. I arrive home from work at around 6:30, grabbed some supper, and sat down at the computer, and twelve hours after I had originally put on the Encore, I could still smell it. It survived not one but two complete washings, plus however many hand-washings I might have performed at work, and a twelve-hour day.

Now that's an oriental.

I always thought the Encore bottle was kind of genius. Here's the best picture I could find for the original perfume:

And here's the Encore perfume bottle*:

It's the same bottle, but warped, melted, reconfigured and reconsidered. Brilliant. It reminds me of one of those D'Arcy Thompson** transformations:

At any rate, Encore wasn't a big success, and so the next few Sung scents were not absolutely unlike the best-selling floral original: 1992's Sung Spa, 1995's Forever, and 1997's Pure were all white or white-ish florals, and Sung never did make another full-blown oriental. Still, they must have sold Encore for a few years, and they must have produced a hell of a lot of it, because you can still find it if you hunt for it. (I bought a bottle of Encore maybe five years ago, and I'm certain it hadn't been reformulated; it might be the case that it wasn't around long enough for that to be an issue.) PerfumeLA has it, and although it's rarely a good idea to buy something unsniffed, sometimes you get a pleasant surprise. If you want a proper old-style floral oriental that doesn't smell like anything you already own, this could be just such a surprise.

*Actually, I think that's the EDP pour bottle: the perfume bottle had a translucent frosted cap. I think.

**And the name D'Arcy Thompson makes me think of this genius Kate Beaton cartoon:

Seriously, you should read her all the time, because she's brilliant and hilarious.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Lumberjack 2: Space.NK.Man

Space.NK is a British chain of cosmetic-and-fragrance shops, and despite having been to the UK three times in the last three years, I've never been into one. Not for lack of trying, I suppose, but imagine what a trial it must be to travel with me if (as Jim is) you're averse to pretty much everything scented: me trying to find a reason to duck into every perfumery and department-store fragrance section I happen to notice, he trying to do exactly the opposite. (He doesn't begrudge me the visits: it's just that he usually ends up killing time browsing for things he doesn't need, or worse, standing on the street outside the shop--there aren't a lot of malls in the UK, so it isn't as if he can just go to another nearby store in the same building.) If you asked him, he'd probably tell you that I didn't lack for scent shopping in the UK, but I could name dozens of places I didn't go to: we were on Carnaby Street and I could see Liberty but had to give it a pass, for god's sake!

Anyway, I've never been to a Space.NK store, but as it happens I do have a sample of their first men's scent, which is named, logically enough, Space.NK.Man. And the first time I put it on, I thought, "Oh, huh. Rocabar."

At first sniff, it does resemble Rocabar (which was launched in 1998, three years earlier): they are both woody, spicy outdoor scents with tons of conifer needles, both appealingly masculine. But the more you wear Space.NK.Man, the more you realize that the two scents are essentially the same idea treated in very, very different ways. Rocabar puts all its dry, coniferous notes up front, really wallops you with them, and only later treats you to an unexpected bath of vanilla, while Space.NK.Man starts off similarly dry and austere but then introduces its warm, creamy notes much earlier--they're not a surprise finish, but a part of the tapestry of the scent.

I already have a a bottle of Rocabar that will last me pretty much forever, but perhaps Jim is right to try to keep me out of a Space.NK, because if I found myself in one, I'm not entirely sure I could stop myself from buying Space.NK.Man. It's that gorgeous.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Showered With Happiness

On December 31st or January 1st I was going to do a wrap-up of the year and write a little more about my neurological oddity, clear up a few things, add stuff I had forgotten, but it turns out that writing more about it is just as hard as writing about it was in the first place, so that's going to have to wait, although I did want to thank everyone who commented, because you were all really nice. And to think I was so worried about exposing myself so completely!

As I mentioned in late October, I got some Yves Rocher shower gel and hand soap in their limited-edition holiday Orange and Chocolate scent, and it is lovely stuff, which it would appear you can still buy, although I am going to warn you that the texture of these liquid soaps (which are identical in every way except the bottle) is not that great, being far too runny--more corn oil than corn syrup. But the smell is enchanting, and it's well worth the money.

But at least you can get that. Unless you live in the British Isles, you presumably can't get any of the next things I wanted to talk about, which in retrospect seems a bit mean, but at least if you're travelling there you can look for them.

When Jim and I were in the UK this past spring, I bought little bottles of shower gel from a company called Original Source; I got some Lemon and Tea Tree (smells like lemon meringue pie) and Mint (tingly, jazzy, and wide-awakey), and knew I had to get some more before I left. When I went to look for it in London before heading home, I couldn't find the Lemon, so I bought Lime instead. Some of Original Source's products are artificially scented, as we will see, but these three aren't, and so the Lime smells strikingly fresh and realistic. Jim tried some a couple of months after we got home and was instantly addicted: he doesn't like most artificial scents, but this smelled like the real thing. We tried to get some lime oil to put into an unscented shower gel, but there were two problems: 1) we couldn't find lime oil locally (though we could have ordered it for a fair bit of money), and 2) we couldn't find truly unscented shower gel (since even "unscented" or "fragrance-free" on a package doesn't generally mean that, and if it did, you probably wouldn't buy the product).

So we doled out tiny quantities of the shower gel to make it last--I still had the Mint and Lemon ones to fall back on, in addition to, as you can well imagine, others--and then in October when we decided to go back to London for a week, we knew that we would have to stock up. And did we ever. We ended up buying the equivalent of thirteen bottles of the Lime: five of the 250-mL bottle in ones and twos (so that we wouldn't look like complete freaks), and then four more of the

500-mL refill pouches when we discovered those at the local Sainsbury's. I wanted to get more, but Jim put his foot down, figuring our luggage was already heavy enough, and he was right. (We had left for the UK with our luggage half-empty, and when we got on the train to return home from Halifax, I discovered that my checked bag weighed 50.65 pounds. In addition to all that shower gel, we had bought a lot of books.)

On top of all that Lime shower gel, I bought a full-sized bottle of the Lemon

and also a pouch of Chocolate and Mint, which of course has some artificial scent in it but which is nevertheless charming, and also one last irresistible thing,

Winter, which supposedly consists of black pepper and cardamom but which also has other fragrance notes in it ("parfum" on the label), and I should say so, because it smells gorgeously like a very strong, spicy late-seventies or early-eighties men's cologne. (The word "WINTER" on the label appears to be set in lights like a marquee, but those are actually snowflakes, in case you were wondering.) I was going to use it on December 21st, but I kept forgetting until last night just before going to bed when I took it out of the storage closet so that I could shower with it this morning. The texture of all the Original Source gels is perfect--smooth and thick, just liquid enough so that it disperses instantly in water in your hand or on your skin.

As I seem to feel the need to state every now and then, the Original Source people--who as it turns out are not affiliated with Boots, as I mistakenly surmised back in May--are not paying me to say any of this, although frankly if they want to send me a bunch of product I'll happily receive it, because there are still a lot of their shower gels I haven't tried yet and won't be able to until I get back to the UK, which could take a couple of years, and while I'm at it I have to say that they really, really need to figure out a way to sell their stuff in North America, because it would go over gangbusters here. If you live in the UK, lucky you!