One Thousand Scents

Friday, October 25, 2013

Pot Luck: Four Solid Perfumes by Pacifica

Five and one third years ago I talked about the Lush solid fragrance Potion, or more specifically my own tin of it, which said on the bottom

Made on 15 OCT 07
Use by 15 DEC 08

I promised to notify you all if something inexplicable or disastrous happened on 16 DEC 08, and I need hardly tell you that nothing did. Eventually something milder did occur: I mislaid my little tin of Potion.

Until yesterday, anyway, when, cleaning up, I discovered it again (it was in a box of papers, an object not in short supply in this household). I am pleased to report that it is exactly as I left it: powerfully fragrant, richly carnationy, and as unyielding in texture as a marble countertop.

I don’t love solid perfumes, but they do have their upsides: they’re portable with no chance of spillage and you can apply a very tiny amount without any risk of offence. The main downside is that they are as a rule uncomplicated things: the waxy matrix that holds the scent has a way of damping a lot of the notes, so a solid version of even a complex composed scent is going to be simpler than the alcohol-based version.

Still, maybe you want something uncomplicated, and you could do a lot worse than to check out the Pacifica line, which has at last count 23 solid fragrances. I tried out a bunch of them — maybe ten? — at Asakichi in San Francisco last month, and they were a mixed bag indeed: some of them were kind of awful (Mediterranean Fig) and some that I assumed would be naturals for me just didn’t work (Mexican Cocoa and Spanish Amber). I ended up buying four, three of which were exactly as their names imply and one of which was just a fraud, but this is what happens when you buy a perfume without putting it on your skin and letting it breathe for a while.

Island Vanilla is a warm rich patisserie vanilla; that’s just about all that can be said about it, and that’s plenty. Unless you demand that your vanilla be something besides gourmand, it's an excellent all-purpose vanilla scent.

Indian Coconut Nectar is coconut buttercream frosting and it smells just delicious. The tin says, “ A warm blend of sultry fresh Coconut, delicate Vanilla and creamy Vetiver,” which leads me to wonder if the copy-writer has actually ever smelled vetiver, which is the opposite of creamy in every possible way: if that was the list of adjectives they had at hand, surely they meant “ delicately sultry Coconut, creamy Vanilla, and fresh Vetiver.”

Persian Rose is very rosy, which means it has some of that contained fury, that thorniness, that roses proudly bear. The tin promises “notes of violet, myrrh, oakmoss and cardamom,” and there’s a spicy note so I’ll buy the cardamom, sure, but I don’t notice the other notes: this is all roses, all the time, and it works perfectly.

I bought the tins expecting to be able to mix the scents, and sure enough, the three of these worn simultaneously are very, very attractive, the vanilla trimming the thorns off the rose and the coconut adding a splash of heat-wave sunshine.

The fourth that I bought, Tuscan Blood Orange, is nothing like what you would expect, and the only explanation I have for having bought it is that my nose was completely fatigued at that point and I somehow didn’t notice that while it does have a cheery citrus top, it smells mostly of bright, synthetic raspberry, of the sort you encounter in candy aimed at the younger market. It’s actually rather horrible, to my nose, and I guess I’ll have to find someone to palm it off on.

Pacifica solids are somewhat creamy and nowhere near as stiff as the Lush solids, especially if you swirl your fingertip around on the surface a little and let your body heat melt the wax a little: they’re solid, but they’ll take a fingerprint with no pressure at all. (Lush is largely Japan wax, which comes from sumac trees and is used as a substitute for beeswax, which it strongly resembles: Pacifica uses coconut oil and soy wax.) As you can see from the pictures, they come in tiny metal tins (a third of an ounce per) with rolled edges (the top of the Lush tin has a surprisingly sharp and potentially dangerous unrolled edge) packed in nice little cardboard boxes with slide-out drawers, probably great for storing little objects in (although I jettisoned mine).

I paid $8 each and with the exception of the fake raspberry orange, I got my money’s worth. These go everywhere with me, and if I’m feeling a little underscented or under the weather, well, what did that advertising line say — “A little dab’ll do ya”?

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Friday, October 18, 2013

Free Association: Cocoa Tamarind by Voluspa (eventually)

Have you seen "Gravity" yet? I saw it last Thursday, and it haunted me so much that I went to see it again on Saturday. You really need to see it, on the biggest screen possible and preferably in 3-D.* It's virtuoso filmmaking, terrifying and exhilarating. I figure the only excuse to not see it is: if you are inconsolably horrified by the idea of being stranded in the middle of an infinite ocean, like Pip the cabin boy in "Moby-Dick" or the two hapless tourists in "Open Water", then you had probably better avoid this movie, because bobbing around untethered in the ocean is peanuts compared to bobbing around untethered in the universe**. Otherwise, just go. Trust me.

Speaking of attempting to heave yourself off the surface of the Earth for a while, have you seen this clip from the British show "Airline"?


I feel kind of bad about laughing at her, but the way that fretful voice just keeps ratcheting upwards until it's in dog-whistle territory is hilarious. And her excuse just doesn't hold water: she thought the flight was later than it turned out to be and her cab was twenty minutes late. I don't care. If making the flight was as important as she claimed, then she should have planned to be at the airport at least two hours early. I can't work up any sympathy for people who miss flights due to their own negligence. Jim and I always plan to be at the airport at least ninety minutes before departure time, and for international flights, two to three hours: neither of us has ever missed a flight***. If you're a busy person and there's work to be done, you can do it at the airport: who nowadays doesn't have a portable computer of some sort, and what decent airport doesn't have wireless Internet?

Speaking of people missing their flights, one of the things you are likely to hear at an airport, particularly if you are there a couple of hours before your flight, as we were at the San Francisco airport when heading back to Canada last month, is final-boarding-call announcements requesting that one or more passengers head to gate whatever. And then five minutes later, another final boarding call for those same passengers. And then another. So: the first two were not really that final, were they? But how rude of those passengers to wander off to the bar or whatever and hold up the flight for everyone else.

Speaking of public-address-system announcements at the San Francisco airport, I swear to you I heard the following call over the PA: "Norma Stitz**** to the courtesy desk, please. Norma Stitz to the courtesy desk." I told Jim, who hadn't heard it but immediately got that it was a prank (whether played on or by the announcer I have no idea): a few minutes later, the same announcement was made (Jim heard it this time), and then again, and then a fourth time. I don't know what kind of nerve it takes to go up to some innocent airline employee and ask them to page Norma Stitz or Robin Banks or Phil McCracken, but I do know that I don't have it.

Speaking of misleading names in San Francisco, I went to a tiny, tiny incense shop in Japantown called Asakichi where I sampled a bunch of Voluspa scents in their slender one-ounce bottles and ended up buying one called Cocoa Tamarind. Now, with a name like that, you are going to be thinking that it smells like, oh, cocoa and tamarinds? And it does, a bit, at first: it's all top-loaded so if you smell it in the store, you think you're getting a delicious chocolate-orange scent with a bit of exotic fruit thrown in. Bait and switch! After ten minutes of this, it starts to shift, becoming interestingly musty, which chocolate scents can sometimes do, and then all of a sudden it turns into a full-blown gardenia scent. Just bang, just like that.

I am not necessarily opposed to a gardenia scent: vintage Cartier Panthère is a dark oriental awash in gardenia and it's pretty amazing. But this is a gardenia pretending to be something else long enough to trick someone (i.e. me) into buying it, and that seems kind of low.

Still, having said that, I should note that I've been wearing it for the last four days, around the house, to the gym, and to work, and it is really something. It's not a pretty white floral: the gardenia is ripe and complicated, with a mushroomy-dirty facet and a cheesy undertone. No doubt this is going to sound (and smell) vile to some people, but it's fascinating; not everything has to be beautiful (although the base is a lovely, if generic, vanilla-scented musk). Cocoa Tamarind is not what I thought I was getting, but I'm glad I got it.

* Even if you're the kind of person easily moved to vertigo and nausea by spinning cameras and the lack of a frame of reference, you can make it through this movie: Jim did, and as a rule he gets queasy very quickly when the camera is unmoored and whipping around. (He says he avoided nausea during such scenes, which aren't that numerous, by focusing on whatever wasn't moving, such as the Earth in the background.) Such things never trouble me: I find the jitter-cam moviemaking style to be annoying but not vomitous, and I love roller coasters.

**Although in fact that is exactly what we are. We wander around under the comfortable delusion that we are more or less fixed in place, but in reality we are gravitationally pinioned to the surface of a small silicon-dioxide spaceship hurtling endlessly through an inconceivably vast universe. Really, it's best just not to think about it too much.

***I did come close once when the bus I was on broke down completely on the way to the Pearson Airport in Toronto. Luckily, the company eventually sent a replacement bus and I got to the airport with minutes to spare, back in the days when going through security wasn't a half-hour undertaking.

****I suppose I should point out without posting any pictures — it's the Internet, you can look them up for yourself — that there is a lady named Annie Hawkins-Turner who goes by that alias for photographic purposes: she is in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the largest natural breasts in the world and she seems like a very nice person, judging from her interviews. The fact that she exists makes it just barely possible that she was in the airport at the same time we were, but I think the prank call is a more likely bet.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Carried Away: Encens Lavande by Compagnie de Provence

Not that you could tell from my until-now-punctual postings, but I have been away for a few weeks. What follows is part travelogue, part what-we-bought, and part exhortation for you to buy some stuff, too. In a complete reversal of the way I usually do these things, I'm going to start with the review, so if you like, you can just read that and ignore the rest rather than having to scroll all the way to the end. You're welcome.


One of the things I bought on the trip was a bottle of Encens Lavande (Incense Lavender) edt by Compagnie de Provence. They make two other scents, Jasmin Noir and Anis Patchouli, both of which I found not to my taste at all (I thought they were kind of gross, to be honest), but Encens Lavande is very me.

Serge Lutens makes an Encens et Lavande, one of the Exclusive scents that you can buy in Paris and hardly anywhere else in the world: I tried it in a somewhat evaporated and therefore likely compromised state, and even then I liked it very much, but it is not better than the far less expensive Compagnie de Provence version.

Encens Lavande opens with a little sparkle of citrus notes and an expansive, soapy lavender, burning down into sweet sandalwood incense. And that is really just about it. What makes it wonderful is its strangely polymorphic personality: while staying true to itself, it seems to keep presenting facets that are by turns sudsy, gourmand, thick, attenuated, herbal, dry, hazy, and dense. It's a kaleidoscope of scents packed into a very small olfactory space. It reads as masculine — a barbershop in a Buddhist temple — but obviously that is not going to stop women from snagging it, too.

I paid $69 Canadian for a 100-mL bottle, and for niche that's a bargain, but you can probably do even better if you shop around: I saw the line in the US for I think $46, and online it's €25 or so.


This time last year we were getting ready to head off to Tokyo: it was our twenty-fifth anniversary, and I chose the destination, so this year, my fiftieth birthday, I said to Jim, "You get to choose this time. Anywhere you've ever wanted to go." And after a day's mulling, keeping in mind the cost and the time restrictions we were working with, Jim said, "San Francisco." And so it was.

Big cities like London, New York, and Tokyo are — if you love big cities — immediate: they grab you by the throat and force you to experience them head-on. You don't really have a choice. San Francisco, on the other hand (and compared to those), underwhelmed us at first, but after a couple of days we began to understand that instead of seizing you, it took you by the hand and gently guided you into its mysteries. By the end of the first week, we said the same thing we have said of any number of cities: "Yeah, given enough money, I could live here."

We did all the usual touristy stuff: Alcatraz (self-guided audio tour, very cool), riding the cable cars (UNBELIEVABLY cool), the California Academy of Science and Golden Gate Park and the Aquarium and Fisherman's Wharf and The Castro. And we just walked around and drank it all in. The weather was nearly flawless, only a few hours of rain one morning.

We walked a lot. Most of San Francisco is uphill from wherever you happen to find yourself, and people who think Halifax is a hilly city are in for a bit of a shock at just how diagonal SF is. I think if you lived there and walked everywhere, you would develop a terrific lower body, because just getting from A to B is a workout. Jim actually lost weight on the trip, despite the fact that we were eating kind of a lot: they are very proud of their sourdough bread and you are not going to get out of the city without having some, perhaps repeatedly. (I maintained the status quo, weightwise.)

The Golden Gate Bridge, though, is, I am sorry to say, a massive disappointment: yes, it photographs well, and yes, it was a marvel in its time, and yes, I expect this is heresy, but as an object it is a very dull thing. We took a bus across and walked back, as we like to do, and it was drudgery: even the vaunted view of the city didn't lift our spirits. The Brooklyn Bridge is glorious: crossing it is like walking through an enormous cathedral. The Millennium Footbridge in London is a magical piece of pontine architecture, like walking along a giant spiderweb. The Golden Gate, on the other hand, is just a bridge. If you're going to do a tour of Bridges of the World, I would honestly have to suggest you skip that one.


And now, the shopping.

If you don't knit or otherwise work with spun fibres you can also just skip the next bit, which is going to go on, but I can't help it: there is a place in San Francisco called Artfibers (for the time being 266 Sutter Street, 3rd floor, mere blocks from our hotel, although they're closing up shop in January and selling only via the Internet) which has the most astonishing yarns, and you are doing yourself a disservice if you don't visit them in person (if possible) or go to their website (of course that's possible — you're on the Internet).

Like most retail in SF — we didn't understand this at all — it opens at 11 a.m. instead of the usual-in-Canada 9 or 10, and what you will find when you walk in at or after that late hour is a huge, airy loft illuminated by a wall of windows (it may not surprise you to learn that San Francisco has a lot of natural light) and what seems like a mile of slanted display shelves bearing hundreds upon hundreds of knit swatches that you can fondle, arranged by weight, lace-fine to rope-bulky, atop bins of thousands of cones of irresistible yarns.

The yarns are sold by the yard (they're wound onto heavy cardboard cones), and non-yarn people may not recognize just how amazing this is: it's as if perfumes were sold by the millilitre, and you could just have as much or as little as you wanted in serviceable little bottles instead of having to buy a whole 100-mL flask of something. The prices are beyond reasonable: everything's on sale right now, with some yarns going for as little as 3 cents a yard, and $3 for a hundred-yard skein is no more than you'd pay for many craft-store yarns. But these are nothing like what you'd find in a craft store.

They have a yarn, Man Ray, that is 30% stainless steel: objects knitted with it have a weight and a slinkiness that you have never experienced before. They have yarns made of nylon paper, of silk ribbon, of recycled jeans. They have chainettes, bouclés, slubs, vrillées, and everything else you can imagine and some things you can't.

In the end I bought eight cones of yarn, all between 200 and 300+ yards, and all in a fine weight suitable to make gloves, because I love to knit gloves for myself: I have about fifteen pairs and in the next six months I expect I am going to have six or eight more. And would you like to know what yarns I bought? Go on, say yes.

The number-one find was Shush #4 (smoke grey: the colours are numbered rather than named), a blend of mohair and Lycra, and you glove-knitters, just order some for the love of god. Stretch mohair! And super-stretchy at that! It is going to make some soft, comfortable, warm gloves that fit like gloves ought to. It'll be awesome. Knit double, this yarn would also make a pretty spectacular hat, because it would fit so snugly and it would be so warm.

Yaqui #5 (inky greens, blues and purples) is yak down; Camuse #3 (coloured like the Yaqui only brighter) is camel hair and cashmere; Carezza #1 (blue-black) is merino/alpaca/silk and OH MY GOD PEOPLE SO SOFT. And, let's see: granite-coloured Peruse #8 is half alpaca, half cotton (what? really?); ink-black Tsuki #9 is mohair and silk (luxury, and I am going to knit it so tightly); sapphire-blue Sylph #7 is silk and mohair (the same thing with the emphases reversed, nearly triple the weight of the Tsuki for the same yardage, and SO SQUISHY); and Tantra is 100% silk (probably nothing but trouble when it comes to gloves, but the green-and-ochre colour, #13, seduced me).

Nobody is paying me to say that Artfibers is pure fibre bliss, just the most sublime, gorgeous, wonderful yarns, and you need to check them out right away: even if you don't knit, maybe this will make a knitter out of you, and if it doesn't, find a grandmother or a co-worker to make something for you. These yarns will make you so happy.


Jim needed some heavy felt for a project, so we went to Britex Fabrics one day, and HOLY COW. I don't sew and I don't have any real interest in learning how, to be honest, but if I did, I would probably spend all my available time and money there. THE LAST THING I NEED.

Jim and I both like to write things down, and if you're going to do that in any kind of style, you need the right pen and ink and paper. If you are completely out of control, then you need a lot of inks (every colour tells its own story) and pens (one per ink, ideally) and papers, and as a consequence, we are both very fond of stationery stores, of which San Francisco has a few. Flax Art and Design is a massive art-supply store with a lovely selection of pens and inks: the young woman who served us both times we were there works only in that section, which means selling people pens and inks is her job, and can I just say that it sounds like a dream job to me? Jim is very, very particular about his writing instruments: one of our quests in Tokyo last year was to find the perfect ball-point pen, and it took almost the entire two-week trip but we did find it, the Pure Malt pen

made of wood from decommissioned whiskey casks (yes, really). Earlier this year I found the matching mechanical pencil online, so he has that, too. The only thing he didn't have was the perfect fountain pen, but we found that at Flax: the Faber Castell Basic Carbon

which is made partly of carbon fibre and looks like a tactical weapon. I can hardly exaggerate how excellent this pen is: perfectly balanced, weighty, smooth-writing. If he hadn't bought it, I would have.

And Maido is a small chain that specializes in Japanese stationery items, of the kind we saw all over the place in Tokyo. Still an essential visit.


After San Francisco we spent a few days in Montréal, and uh-oh: STATIONERY STORES. One in particular: Nota Bene (3416 Parc Avenue). Their website is a travesty which doesn't do them justice; I thought they might be the kind of "stationery store" that mostly does greeting cards and scrapbooking paper, but they carry hundreds upon hundreds of different kinds of journals and notebooks, in addition to terrific inks and pens and so much more. A pen store called Stylo has many, many pens and inks, and I would be embarrassed to tell you how many of each I bought there, or on the trip as a whole, so I won't (except to say that among other things I got some awesome, inexpensive Noodler's flex-nib pens

and plenty of Herbin ink cartridges);

a small chain called Essence du Papier is likewise well-stocked with everything a diarist could need, and they got some of our business, too.

The fragrance department at The Bay on St. Catherine Street is kind of astonishing. In SF I went to Macy's and Nordstrom and Bloomingdale's, and I was so bored by the fragrance departments I could hardly stand it. The Bay, on the other hand, has a department the size of any two of those put together: it is massive, and the scope and scale are very exciting.

Nevertheless, I didn't buy anything at The Bay because in the end it's mostly mass-market stuff, very little niche, and what niche there is not that interesting, to my mind. But I naturally ended up at Ogilvy, because they sell Serge Lutens; they don't have a huge selection, but it's a good thing I don't go to Montréal that often, because I can hardly ever walk out of Ogilvy without getting something Lutens, which is exactly what happened.

Among the dozen or so things I sniffed was Serge Noire, which I have already reviewed, and not in the most positive way. But here's the thing: Lutens himself has revealed the dirty secret of the perfume industry, that scents are reformulated on a regular basis, his own not excepted, and I am quite, quite certain that the Serge Noire of five years ago is not the Serge Noire that I bought a couple of weeks ago. When I smelled it at Ogilvy, I was struck by its leatheriness, something I didn't detect before. It still has that incense brutality and that Lutens sidewaysness, but now it's much more interesting than I once found it. I find Cuir Mauresque kind of boring, but Serge Noire is now a terrific, manly kind of leather scent that I am happy to own.


We took the train back home from Montréal, because I love train travel and it is becoming increasingly likely that we will never be able to do this again: train service in Canada has long been a tricky proposition because, unlike the spiderweb hubs of the UK, Canada is mostly stretched out in a straight line (a very long straight line), and with flight being so comparatively fast and airfares becoming ever cheaper, train service is ever more cut back.

We had supper before we boarded but ate breakfast on the train: the breakfast consisted of orange juice, toast, an "omelet" which was really a block of cooked eggs studded with what might have been red and green peppers, a heap of leaky salsa, some undercooked potato chunks, and two slices of dry bacon, the whole of it unseasoned and flavourless, every bit as tempting and nuanced as a ream of typing paper. "Airline food," Jim sniffed, but he was wrong: it was worse than any airline food I can imagine — by far the worst meal I have ever eaten in a vehicle. I don't expect a four-star meal on a train but surely they can come up with something better than this wreckage.

However. The train car we were in was apparently a European model with ten double bedrooms, and each one has its own shower. The bathroom is tiny, no larger than an airplane's lavatory, and when you shower, everything gets wet and you have to towel off the walls and the floor before you can use the other facilities and even then it's all still kind of damp. But still, you get to have a shower before reaching your destination so you arrive all clean and fresh and happy, and how cool is that?


In between San Francisco and Montréal we stopped off in Toronto, and we managed to avoid buying any pens, ink, and paper, thank god, but I did find myself at a skincare-and-fragrance store called Jacob and Sebastian, and I was not going to buy anything, but dammit, I did anyway. Two things, actually.

One was a tube of Marvis toothpaste in Amarelli Licorice, and yes, $11 is a ridiculous price to pay for a 75-mL tube of toothpaste, even if it is imported from Italy, but two things: 1) it is so yummy you could eat it with a spoon, and 2) you need only a tiny little pea-sized squib to get your teeth shiny and fresh. I may never use any other, although they do make some other intriguing flavours, such as Cinnamon, Ginger, and Jasmine, and I will probably end up trying those some day. If they made a Rose toothpaste I would be lost.

The other thing was the Encens Lavande, which brings us back to the beginning.

And now we are home and I am SO not buying anything else for a long time: we have to pay off this trip and start saving for the next one, wherever and whenever that might be.

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