One Thousand Scents

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Raise a Glass: Demeter Irish Cream

As is generally the case with a Demeter scent, the name tells you everything you need to know. When you put on a scent called Irish Cream, you are not expecting it to smell like a sun-dappled meadow of wildflowers or a torrid evening in Miami or whatever fantasies the advertising usually directs you towards: you are expecting it to smell like whisky, creamy coffee, and vanilla sugar, heavy on the creamy, and by god that is exactly what Demeter Irish Cream delivers.

Eventually the whiskied coffee starts to peter out, and what's left is sugary vanilla and cream, and you find yourself wondering it maybe it isn't just a little too much, cloying and oversweetened, but then perhaps you start to think: well, isn't that kind of true of Irish cream liqueurs anyway?

The genius of Demeter is that they ransack the Western olfactory database for things that inherently smell good, or at least interesting, and put them in a form that you can wear. Everybody knows that cream liqueurs smell good, but the idea of deliberately smelling like one is novel and charming, and whatever the flaws of Irish Cream may be — it's plainly synthetic-smelling, it gets a bit too sweet at the end once the grownup elements have wafted away — it's fun, and that's the whole point.


Thursday, June 21, 2012

Halo: Demeter Amber

Demeter scents don't usually take that long to talk about. They're uncomplicated things that usually smell pretty much like their namesake: no layers or depth or development, and that's fine. You don't always want an entire symphony: sometimes you just want a three-minute pop song.

Amber is a slight exception to the rule, but not much. It doesn't smell like ambergris or mineral amber, of course, but like a composed "amber" scent, the far end of a sweet oriental fragrance, with such warm things as opoponax and labdanum. It has a powdery, almost baby-powder, quality heightened by a drop of vanilla, and, the big surprise, a dose of incense which is similar to their Incense scent. It is simple but very well constructed, and since it consists essentially of base notes, Amber lasts longer than most Demeters, a few hours, at the end of which it is a cozy, close-to-the-skin scent, very pleasant and comforting.


Despite my attempted embargo on new scents in 2012, I did get a few new Demeters last week.

A friend at work was thinking about placing an order, so I said I'd have a look at the website and see if anything appealed to me, and we'd split the shipping. She understandably didn't want to pay $12 or so to ship three or four little bottles, but dividing it between two people made it more palatable. I combed through the list and picked six I was pretty sure I'd enjoy, five new ones and Raspberry Jam, which I really missed.

The first one I tried was the jam, and I was hugely disappointed, because they've gone and changed it. The things I specifically noted and loved about it, its cooked-fruit quality and its avoidance of fresh or juicy notes, have been altered, possibly to make it more in line with what people seem to expect things to smell like these days. The scent starts out very bright and fresh, like a cold bottle of Snapple or Fruitopia. After a little while, this does fade, and the cooked-jam aroma presents itself. The thing isn't terrible, but it is changed, and not for the better.


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Runner-Up: Anne Klein II (vintage)

Unless you were around in the mid-'80s, you've probably never heard of Anne Klein II: it wasn't on the market all that long, and it was overshadowed by another of the big scents of the day. You might have liked it, though. It starts off warmly fruity, exactly the sort of thing Serge Lutens would make his name doing years later, with a hint of greenness that's almost minty, and soon opens up into a warm, rosy oriental with a long-lasting vanilla-glazed amber base.

You can't tell from the picture, but the Anne Klein II bottle is half a cylinder, sliced cleanly down the long axis. It's not a very interesting bottle: I suppose you could call it minimalist, but in truth I find it dull, as if not a lot of thought had gone into it.

And, unfortunately, the scent itself is likewise a bit on the boring side, just a little. It's attractive, mind you, but with no real distinctiveness: in the end it's just another amber scent of the sort you've probably smelled a hundred times before. As well, it had the bad luck to be launched in 1985, the same year as Obsession: both were big amber orientals, but Obsession was bigger, and in the mid-1980s, size was everything. Obsession conquered the world with its twin juggernauts of advertising and sillage: it was everywhere, and Anne Klein II didn't stand a chance. It's better than most things that are being poured onto the market nowadays, but back then it was just one in a thousand.

Where Obsession was flat-out vulgar, Anne Klein II was cozy, nuzzling: sensual rather than sexual. The 1985 versions of the scents provide a lesson in how the same basic ingredients and structure (peach-and-citrus top, spicy rose-and-jasmine middle, ambered musk-and-vanilla base) can provide such different effects. Obsession starts big and stays big: it wants to bludgeon the object of its affections into submission. After its big opening, though, Anne Klein II gradually scales itself back until all that's left is warmed-by-the-sun skin.

Back when I first encountered it and hadn't already smelled a hundred different ambers, I was completely entranced by Anne Klein II: I described it as "liquid warmth", and it is. I still have a few drops left in my vial, maybe a millilitre, and I'll enjoy it while I can: it may be unoriginal, but it's well-made and appealing nonetheless. It's long discontinued, but if you are determined to own some, you can get it on eBay for a lot of money, upwards of $40 for an eighth of an ounce. (You might also consider 1991's Krazy Krizia, said to be almost identical, discontinued but available at the usual online retailers for not much money at all, or Serge Lutens' 2000 Ambre Sultan, which is very similar to Anne Klein II but without the fruity top notes.)

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Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Pay Dirt: Claude Montana Parfum de Peau (vintage)

Parfum de Peau ("skin scent") is an extraordinary piece of 1980s perfumery, but I think we need to start off by talking about that bottle, which is genius, surely in anybody's top-ten list of the greatest perfume flacons of all time. It even feels beautiful, an endlessly changing whirl of velvety frosted glass: it wants to be fondled. (The surface texture is of a piece with the shape: imagine how dreadful it would be in clear glass!) It was devised by Serge Mansau, and even for him, the creator of such dazzling bottles as those for Rochas Alchimie, Dior Dolce Vita, and the revamped Idole de Lubin, it's a standout.

Its inspiration is said to be a stroboscopic photograph of a sycamore seed helicoptering its way to the ground, and it does evoke that sense of captured motion. But it also makes me think of two other things. It looks like a strand of DNA, and, as you can see from the photo at the top, it resembles an extremely abstracted torso of a woman, who I assume is dancing with joy, her arms twined sinuously over her head, from the sheer ecstasy of wearing something so gorgeous and amazing as Parfum de Peau.
Montana's first scent, launched in 1986, is — there's no other word for it — violent, extraordinarily so. It is huge and loud: it arrives in a trumpet blare of blackcurrant (omnipresent in the mid-eighties) and citrus and peach, and already, even at the very beginning, there is the intimation of something truly raunchy going on in the basement.

Patrick Süskind's 1985 novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, required reading for anyone who loves scents, contains a sequence at the end of chapter 31 in which Grenouille, the murderer of the title, a man who has the world's greatest nose but no scent to call his own, creates a perfumery base that smells like a human being:

There was a little pile of cat shit behind the threshold of the door leading out to the courtyard, still rather fresh. He took a half teaspoon of it and placed it together with several drops of vinegar and finely ground salt in a mixing bottle. Under the worktable he found a thumbnail-sized piece of cheese, apparently from one of Runel’s lunches. It was already quite old, had begun to decompose, and gave off a biting, pungent odor. From the lid of a sardine tub that stood at the back of the shop, he scratched off a rancid, fishy something-or-other, mixed it with rotten egg and castoreum, ammonia, nutmeg, horn shavings, and singed pork rind, finely ground. To this he added a relatively large amount of civet, mixed these ghastly ingredients with alcohol, let it digest, and filtered it into a second bottle. The bilge smelled revolting. Its stink was putrid, like a sewer, and if you fanned its vapor just once to mix it with fresh air, it was as if you were standing in Paris on a hot summer day, at the comer of the rue aux Fers and the rue de la Lingerie, where the odors from Les Halles, the Cimetiere des Innocents, and the overcrowded tenements converged.

Grenouille then dilutes this stench and uses it as a base for a conventional perfume, which, when he wears it, creates the illusion that he is a normal person with a normal, which is to say revolting, odour.

It is hard to escape the notion that perfume Jean Guichard read Süskind's novel before starting in on Parfum de Peau. That fragrance's raunchiness, which threads its way through the entire scent and cannot be contained even by the rose-and-carnation floral middle, is an unembarrassed profusion of all the animal scents — civet, castoreum, ambergris, leather, and musk — supplemented with, of course, oakmoss and patchouli, both marvellously earthy, as well as a sizeable dose of that honey note from phenylacetic acid that some people read as urinous. This human-as-dirty-animal quality is the entire point of the scent, and it is profoundly sexual.

Parfum de Peau sounds like kind of a hell-brew, and I know that for some people it is: I had to get rid of my bottle not long after buying it, because Jim objected, not because he thought it was gross but because it caused him actual olfactory pain. (He's put up with a lot from me scent-wise in the last quarter century: if he really hates something, I'll just ditch it with no questions asked.) But if you are not bound to the modern conception of a fragrance as a way to prove to the world that you are clean, if you are open to the very old idea that a scent can be something erotic, a prelude to things to come, then vintage Parfum de Peau is something to treasure.

The scent is still being marketed, but, and it pains me to have to keep repeating this, it has been reformulated. The real thing is worth hunting down, and you will know it's the real thing because the cobalt-blue box will have Montana's scrawl across the front, as in the image above: the remake has a sketch of the bottle in bright yellow-orange, and maybe it's good in its own way but it cannot possibly have anywhere near the quantity of animalic notes that it used to, which is just another way of saying that it is no longer Parfum de Peau.

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