One Thousand Scents

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Departure: L'Artisan Parfumeur Oeillet Sauvage

Now that Serge Lutens has a new carnation scent, Vitriol d'Oeillet, on the shelves (though of course nowhere near where I can get my hands on it), I have had carnations on the brain, so it was high time I dipped into my vial of L'Artisan's discontinued and much-lamented Oeillet Sauvage ("Wild Carnation"). And what do you know? I finally found a carnation scent I don't like!

One of the things I love about the carnation is that it's so protean; depending on the company it keeps, it can be languorous (Voile d'Ete) or aggressive (CdG Carnation), needle-sharp (Coup de Fouet) or slutty (Tabu), or, by itself and unadorned, just breathtakingly gorgeous (Roger et Gallet's Carnation soap). It's a mainstay of men's scents because twined in with its complex floral heart is a bold spiciness that reads as thoroughly masculine: it's a star player in Oscar de la Renta Pour Lui, Tsar, Old Spice, and Boucheron Pour Homme, to name a few.

But of course like any perfumery element it can also be girly as hell if you treat it right, and this is the tack taken by Oeillet Sauvage: sparkle up the top notes with once-ubiquitous pink pepper, drench it in ylang-ylang and rose, and bolster the ground floor with powdery vanilla and benzoin. Any of these things by themselves aren't enough to make a carnation feminine: Voile d'Ete is steeped in ylang for that tropical feel, Old Spice has plenty of vanilla, and Carnation has buckets of rose. Oeillet Sauvage, though, has been deliberately engineered to read as a women's scent.

That's not why I don't like it, though. I wore it repeatedly and was having the hardest time articulating why it disagreed with me so thoroughly until finally I realized what the problem was. L'Artisan, always willing to take chances and to make interesting, off-centre fragrances, isn't the most expensive niche line: it's pretty middle-of-the-road, actually, with 50-mL bottles currently running about $95-$115, not horrifically more than the department-store brands (most of them $50 to $70), and as Robin of Now Smell This likes to say, $100 is the new free. The trouble with Oeillet Sauvage is that it smells cheap. Whether as cause or consequence of this, it's dreadfully unbalanced, the top clangourous with pink pepper, that and the ylang taking up far too much space, rudely elbowing aside what ought to be the clean floral spiciness of the carnation. (Voile d'Ete works its alliance of carnation, ylang, and vanilla much more gracefully.)

I mean, it's not atrocious; a fair number of people, as usual, seemed to like it just fine when it was available. But I had higher expectations from the house. My sample vial is empty, and I'm not sorry to see the last of it. If you had a yearning to try this completely unavailable scent (something which I understand all too well), you have my word that you haven't missed much, and that there are many, many better carnations out there for you.


Friday, July 22, 2011

Right The First Time: Serge Lutens Rahät Loukoum

If you ever want a lesson in how the same basic elements of perfumery can combine to produce drastically different effects, you need look no further than Rahät Loukoum and Louve.

I wrote about Louve a couple of years ago and could hardly restrain my revulsion for it: a sweet, powdery cherry-almond scent sounds enticing, but it was a horror show, squally and disastrously urinous. I'm sure I have a sample of it lying around somewhere, but I can't bring myself to try it again.

And yet when I put on Rahät Loukoum — the name for a candy not unlike what we call Turkish Delight — for the first time, my brain was whipsawed by the memory of Louve, because the two are the same scent, but where Louve is horrifying, Rahät Loukoum is gorgeous.

Mind you, it's sweet. Sweeeeeeeet. Dear god, is it ever sweet. Right on the verge of being unwearable. Fat red maraschino cherries in heavy syrup drizzled with honey are the first thing to charge off your skin, followed by thickly sugared almonds and vanilla baby powder. That's just about it for a couple of hours, until a dreamy, drifty musk slowly takes over; still sweet, but not quite as dramatically. I suppose it's vulgar — unsubtle and insistent — but it's appealingly vulgar: that cheerfully loud, slightly over-refreshed party animal with the big irresistible laugh.

There is one thing I can't understand about the pair of scents. Rahät Loukoum was launched in 1998; Louve, nearly a decade later, in 2007. Why did Lutens and Christopher Sheldrake feel the need to revisit the idea? What did they feel could be said by Louve that they hadn't said nine years earlier, except, "We're going to take something fun and add a bunch of stuff to make it nasty, just because we can"?


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Old School: Badgely Mishka

There's nothing inherently wrong with the category of the fruity floral: it's been around for quite a while, and some of its inhabitants are very nice. But the huge majority of scents released in the last decade or so, possibly longer, have been fruity florals of a very specific style. If you pass a teenage girl and she's wearing a fragrance, it's probably some artless decoction of cheap synthetic fruit (never lush and juicy, always bright and astringent, a sort of high-pitched whine in olfactory space), vague indefinable flowers, and sticky-sweet musk. Like so:

Mandarin, Juicy Pear, Wild Berries, Jasmine, Creamy Florals, Vanilla, Soft Musks. (Justin Beiber)

Natural Raspberry, Grapefruit, Pear, Violet, Wild Rose, Apple Blossom, Musks, Cedarwood, Plum. (Marc Jacobs Daisy Eau So Fresh)

Alphonso Mango, Blood Orange, Watery Blossom, Sweet Primrose, Raspberry, Coconut Cream, Musk, Sandalwood. (Escada Taj Sunset)

Pomegranate, Orange And Green Leaf, Rose, Freesia, Lily, Cedar Wood, Sandalwood, and White Musk. (Burberry Summer)

That's four chosen at random from Sephora's best-seller list, four scents released in the last few months. (I really did choose them at random, though I just checked and most of the others are in a similar vein.) The details are a little different, but they're all essentially the same, as if they were all dispensed from a gigantic vat somewhere in, well, somewhere. Does it matter where? (And "natural raspberry"? Really? Raspberries don't release a fragrant oil in response to the arts of perfumery. It's synthetic, like nearly all fruit aromas used in fragrances.)

But 2006's Badgely Mishka, whose alarmingly chic and slightly dangerous bottle you can see up there, is not really a fruity floral, not in the usual sense of the term, because the emphasis is reversed so drastically. It starts with a joyous tumble of plump, ripe, almost fermented-into-brandy fruit dominated by peach and blackcurrant, with the apricot scent of osmanthus just beneath the surface, and though the scent gradually evolves into a sort of a floral, the fruit — still full and rich, more drinkable than eatable — stays and stays and stays, and dominates all the way through. It's like a magic trick, and how was it accomplished?

Badgely Mishka is something you may have thought was extinct or impossible, a fruity floral for grownups: it's sweet, yes, but sweet in the service of something grander than mere teenaged prettiness.

Friday, July 15, 2011

A Keeper: Estée Lauder Private Collection

The mythology, straight from the Estée Lauder website:

In her private office, Mrs. Lauder kept a collection of the rarest, best and most expensive fragrance oils, extracts and essences from every corner of the globe. Over several years, she created a parfum from these precious ingredients that was deeply personal and for herself alone.

Uh-huh. Unless Mrs. Lauder also had a big collection of aldehydes and other synthetic aromachemicals in her private office, she sure didn't make Private Collection, at least not without a lot of outside help.

But never mind. People like their mythology.

Or maybe the scent has changed over the years. Who am I kidding? They all change over the years. I strongly doubt that the miniature bottle that I have is exactly the same as the stuff Lauder launched in 1973, and for all I know it's different from the bottle you would find on the department-store counter today: mine is a few years old, at least, and doesn't have a date stamped on it (although I am starting to think that they all should).

Whatever its origin, whatever its current state, Private Collection (my own personal batch of Private Collection, anyway, and how sad that I have to spell it out like that) has four aspects: a celadon-green version of the aldehydic radiance of Clinique Wrappings (also a Lauder product); a big soapy clean that is a dead ringer for a freshly unwrapped bar of Ivory; a lush white floral that doesn't make me want to brick up my nose (a rare thing); and a reserved chypre base that, if it doesn't contain actual oakmoss, does an excellent job of imitation. Terrific from start to finish.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Through and Through: Etro Mahogany

There are a lot of "transparent" scents on the market these days, and by this we generally mean light, gauzy, inoffensive: that's how I use it. But Mahogany really does smell transparent, like this

which is an LED clock made of wood fronted by a veneer thin enough that the light shows through when you plug it in. Etro's Mahogany gives the impression that if it were an object, light would show through it, too. It's woody: I doubt that it's identifiably mahogany (it seems too lightweight for such a dark wood), but it does smell abstractly of sandalwood, with its transparency amplified through a big dose of bright, breezy vetiver and a scattering of pepper.

Some people think it smells highly synthetic, but it doesn't to me: the sandalwood is surely a synthetic, but it's a good one, and well supported with fresh outdoorsy top notes and a warm but unsweet vanilla-amber base. Most online retailers list it as a women's fragrance, which never means anything to me but makes even less sense in the context of what to anyone's nose must be a dry, woody scent in the masculine mold. (Not, obviously, that a woman couldn't wear it.)

I suppose if you put this in a lineup you wouldn't find anything particularly special or novel about this, nothing to make it stand out from the crowd, but I went through my sample pretty quickly and enjoyed every minute of it. Etro Mahogany is a good thing for a man to smell like.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

What Is Love: Kenzo Amour

Given the stunning bottles which reference everything from early Art Nouveau ceramics to fifties Melamine kitchenware (with I think a cheery nod to the original Shiseido Feminité du Bois bottle) and the novel note of "rice steam" (one source lists frangipani, cherry blossom, white tea, frankincense, thanaka wood, rice, and vanilla), I wanted to like Kenzo Amour, so help me I did, but it smells exactly like Hypnotic Poison sprayed over a dish of rice pudding, and therefore is unendurable.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Celebration: Oh la la by Loris Azzaro

Loris Azzaro's Oh la la, smelled from a distance of almost twenty years, feels like a bit of a throwback. It was launched in 1993, a big, voluptuous floral oriental that feels more like something from the eighties (it shares DNA with some of the big florals like Salvador Dali and Montana Parfum de Peau), or perhaps even a few decades earlier.

A list of notes, for those who like olfactory detective work:

Top: fig leaf, musk vodka, mandarin orange, raspberry, peach, karo-karounde and bergamot.
Middle: orange blossom, cinnamon, osmanthus, jasmine, yellow rose, ylang-ylang and narcissus.
Base: sandalwood, tonka bean, amber, patchouli, vanilla and vetiver.

That, unexpectedly, tells you most of what you need to know. Sharp bergamotty-fruity opening, big fat bouquet of a spicy-floral middle, expansive oriental base. Lasts for hours. Lusciously beautiful. The only way it could have failed is if big extravagant floral orientals were on the way out, and I guess they were; by this time, scents were beginning to thin out a little, or a lot. (1992's big niche success story was the explosively pale L'Eau D'Issey; in 1993, it was the whispery citrus Eau Parfumée by Bulgari; the biggest scent by far of 1994 was CK One, a floodlit unisex.)

Still, Oh la la was in production for a fair while — they didn't give up so easily on a scent in those days — so it can still be had at some of the usual online discounters if you're willing to do a bit of sleuthing. And I really think you should if you like big floral orientals with a lot of presence; not only do you get a really terrific scent that is better than most anything you'll find in a department store these days, you also get that bottle!

The box gives you a hint: streamers and confetti in gold on a bright-red background. A celebration! And if you're celebrating in style, you do it with champagne. Gres' Cabaret shower gel alluded to it, and Yves Saint Laurent came right out and said it with the sparkly Champagne (later renamed Yvresse — arguably an even better name — for legal reasons), but Azzaro did them one better by putting the scent in a baroque champagne glass. You don't have to invert the whole thing to use it: you can just pluck the bottle and its golden cap out of the stand, and in fact you could just buy the bottle without the frou-frou. But why would you? (As a refill, I guess. But the stand can't add that much to the price, surely?)

If you do an image search online, you will discover that a significant number of people do not get the point of the bottle, and depict it sitting "upright", the curvy frosted stem poking helplessly into the air like a misguided antenna. But then, inverted bottles have always confused some people, probably the sort who don't know which way up to hold a book.

Last week I mentioned that the only problem with the Claude Montana Just Me bottle was that the zipper pull was at the top of an opened zipper, which makes no sense, but that there would have been a way to rescue it, and Oh la la shows us the way: turn the bottle upside down. Just look at the bottle for the upcoming Pulse by Beyonce:

Now imagine that that's the Just Me bottle tucked into a similar metal sleeve (only symmetrical), with the zipper pull at the bottom where it belongs. Piece of cake.

In English, "ooh la la" means "sexy", but in French, the phrase is "oh la la", which is an expression of surprise, whether good or bad. It can mean, "Why, what do we have here?", or it can mean, "Oh my god, what just happened?", and you can intensify it by extending it: "oh la la la la" usually means "Oh, NO!" As a fragrance name, "Oh la la" is doubly clever, because it not only suggests the desired reaction to the scent, it alludes to the initials of the house's name: "Oh, Loris Azzaro, Loris Azzaro!"

The tagline in the ad at the top reads "Sillage d'une femme imprévisible," which means "Sillage (perfumed wake) of an unpredictable woman." To be honest, there isn't anything unpredictable about Oh la la; it doesn't stand out dramatically in a field of big floral orientals (despite such notes as the African flower karo-karounde). But it is an undeniably gorgeous scent, and there are never enough of those in the world.