The Fragrance Wheel and the Limits of the Model

by Sunday, January 25, 2015 Permalink 1

fragrance wheel:vika palatova

(photo lifted from Vika Palatova)

For visual diagrams, we have traditionally relied on two dimensional forms. Diagrams aren’t direct visual translations, but representations, devices.  They are models, and however rudimentary, they are intellectual constructs.  They have rules and, like all description, they seek to reduce an object or restrict a concept to a set of identifiers.  Diagrams can’t quite be said to have an intention, but by the nature of their rules, they have implicit goals.

Much of the trouble with the wheel, and the genres of fragrance that we discuss, is their premise that ‘notes’ are a mirror reflection of materials.  The implication is that a rose note signifies scent of a rose. Rose is the principal value, the constant and the other materials refer to it.  Damascenones and ionones are chemically similar members of a family of aromachemicals but don’t strictly smell alike. Where the chemical system of classification groups them together, the wheel would not.  Is only one accurate? If you and I sniff a perfume together and you say that it has a rose note and I say otherwise, is either of us correct?  Geranium, palmarosa, rose oxides and damascones all smell rosy.  So where does the note lie?

the-fragrance-wheel-1

In addition, notes are considered objects rather than experiences.  Objectifying a note traps it and limits the possibilities. Take five notes, imagine them as five stones placed on a table.  You can place them in many different configurations. You could even place them on different tables so as to suggest another three dimensions. But you’re never merging the stones, or putting two or three together to make an entirely new object.

Replace the three stones with three aromatic substances: bergamot, oakmoss, labdanum. On the table in separate containers, they adhere to the ‘stone-model’, remaining apart like objects.  Combine the three into one bottle, and all bets are off.  The chypre isn’t three things.  It isn’t even simply three things together. The “chypre” is the effect created when three specific things interact. You’ve reached a limit of the ‘object’ model. It doesn’t allow for the interaction of mixing and therefore excludes the outcome of synergy.

One inherent problem with the wheel is that it posits that aromas are experienced like colors in the spectrum of light. The ‘geography’ of the wheel says that notes blend into each other the way light and sound move alongs frequencies.  It doesn’t account for the fact that fragrant materials follow a chemical-sense model like taste.

The greater problem of the wheel is its relationship of notes to materials.  It works with a notion of ‘nature’ that belongs in the 19th century.  It supposes a perfumery of mimicry that was sufficient for perfumes that used ethyl-vanillin in lieu of vanilla bean essence and synthesized coumarin by chemical process rather than harvesting it from fermented tonka beans.  These chemical were still tethered, albeit tentatively, to a supposition of an essential, irrefutable “nature” as found in botanical and animal-derived materials. The cracks in this ‘natural world’ view of perfumery were apparent by the time Fougère Royale and Jicky were made, but the fallacy of perfumery recreating nature has been recycled over and over again in perfumery, its most current iteration today in the less sophisticated iterations of natural and artisinal niche perfumery. (This is not to say that botanically-based perfumery is either naive or mistaken.  There are many artistically deliberate and/or ethical-based perfumers who do sophisticated and well-concidered work.)

An important point is that this diagram was created by the industry, for the industry.  I question its accuracy for perfume producers, but it is their model. Its aim, its implicit goal is to identify scents and pin them down by establishing groups (families) that link them.   I imagine there is research that provides evidence of its effectiveness for what it does.  In fact, it could be argued that it is a viable attempt to help communicate our interactive experience of the olfactory.  Still it doesn’t offer the perfume consumer  much help in the discussion and supports notes-based marketing that places ‘floral’ and  ‘rose’ next to ‘sea-glass’ and ‘serenity’.  My experience of perfume has never been found inside a one-size-fits-all diagram and Michael Edwards’s Wheel doesn’t do much to square the circle.

So what do we do with these models?  I don’t have an answer for how we use them to communicate, but I do have a working model for myself. I employ them when they’re effective, I disregard them when they’re not, and I look closely to see why they don’t work. Then I try to learn from what I find.  I guess my approach is simply not to hold too tightly to them.

stray thoughts on the fougère, part 2 for Claire

fougère:Claire

(photo lifted from Philip-Lorca diCorcia)

Stubborn.  Masculinity in perfumery seems to come out of nowhere. If you accept the premise, as I do, that no fragrance is implicitly gendered, then the questions are:  1) How do fragrance and gender become matched?  2) What characteristics of gender become associated with a fragrance and how?  3) How does this model sustain itself over time?

Question number one I can’t find an answer to no matter how hard I try. Perhaps the coumarin-lavender pairing smelled similar to something else that had already been associated with masculinity.  Perhaps it was arbitrary.  Question number two has a large set of answers, and it’s probably the implicit question that I am considering  whenever I write about perfume.  Think of the neck tie and the scarf standing in for the fougère and the chypre.  Both could be called silk accessories worn around the neck.  Yet each is so charged with gender significance that wearing the one in the wrong context and around the wrong people could get you beaten or killed.  Flaunting the laws of gender has consequences.

As to number three, I’m baffled.  How is it that from the late 19th century into the 21st-century, the fougère remains the province of men?  Men and women to at least some degree have shared the chypre genre, the Oriental and even the floral. Tobaccos, leathers.  All of these genres have been accessible to both men and women, either simultaneously (Chanel pour Monsieur and Balmain Vent Vert) or at different periods of time (Caron Tabac Blond and Serge Lutens Chergui.)  With very few exceptions, the fougère has been steadfastly in the men’s camp.

Social mores, family structures, economic systems, language itself. Nothing except the fougère has remained impervious to gender in the past hundred 50 years.  The fougère might well be the Y chromosome itself.

I suspect that some of this endurance can be attributed to the classic hetero binary of gender.  Men and women marry.  Baby boys wear blue, baby girls wear pink.  Homemaker, breadwinner.  Gatherer, Hunter.  You know, all the little stories we like to tell ourselves.  The fougère has been the masculine counterpart to many feminine fragrances. Most often, the chypre, but at times it was the counterpart to the Oriental, the leather, the tobacco. Even as recently as the past couple of decades, Angel is the feminine counterpart to the masculine Cool Water.

So, in strokes so broad that I’m not sure I believe what I’m saying, given the conventions of gender in western society, mainstream genders have tended to support each other along the male female axis. Accept this however you care to, vague truism, working model, god’s word.  The next logical step is, let’s fuck with it.  And here I have two thoughts. If the fougère remains reluctantly masculine, let’s at least focus on the homoeroticism of it.  If not, let’s share.  The dykes of the 1980s showed us the way when they appropriated Guy Laroche Drakkar Noir.  Let women take the fougère for a while.  I bet they could show us quite a bit about it.  And after all, I wear Miss Balmain and Private Collection.  Why shouldn’t my sisters wear Paco Rabanne pour Homme and Rive Gauche pour Homme?

stray thoughts on the fougère, part 1 for Kevin

fougere misc
The New Man of the 1970s, or how Paco Rabanne pour Homme maintained the psychic stability of society.

 

Paco Rabanne, 1973.  Perfumer Jean Martel.

The 1970s in the United States was one of the faster moving and more interesting eras in the history of gender.  Some entrenched notions of masculinity, femininity and how they relied on each other had been shattered in World War II. Practicalities of wartime production and supply-chain necessities meant that women entered the workplace on a huge scale.. The American proletariat took on a face that wore lipstick, but managements and board room changed little.  The realization that women were in capable of doing “man’s work” exploded.  When the war ended new understandings of gender were put away and the old breadwinner/housewife bit was re-instituted.  Is it any wonder that that the simmering feminism of the 1970s actually had its direct antecedents in the regressive conservatism following World War II?  Though the men had seen Paris, as the expression goes, the women had seen the future and had had it taken away from them. The 1950s, with its Disney-like surface and a deep well of dissatisfaction starting inches below, couldn’t last.  Women seem to have a better understanding of the disproportionality of this situation. Feminism landed on fertile ground. Men on the other hand tended to bury their heads in the sand, mistaking the privileges of their gender for something as basic as air or gravity.

However it came about, by the early 70s, masculinity teetered on a tight rope. The men who had considered playboy magazine as pertinent as the New York Times or TIME Magazine were startled to find the perks of their gender slipping away.  Masculine vanity took refuge in the fantasy of the singles bar, the swingers scene, and the leisure suits. And eventually, in the aromatic fougère.

Given the cognitive dissonance of the man of the 1970s, thank God they had the fougère, even if only as a point of reference.

Facetiousness aside, the fougère played an role in positively maintaining the self-esteem of the men of the time.  There already were some fantastic, accessible choices for men, from the drugstore to the department store. I think particularly of Caron pour un HommeAramis by Aramis, Old Spice and Christian Dior Eau Sauvage.  Despite the newness of Paco Rabanne pour Homme and Azzaro pour Homme, the middle-aged men of the 70s knew this style of fragrance from the 1950s and even the 1940s. They might not have known the names, but they were “barbershop” fragrances. Even as men were forsaking the barber for the stylist, the scent of the barbershop allowed Homo-Nuevo, this new species of man, to maintain a bridge between what they were taught about masculinity when they were young, and the dramatically different experience they had as adults.  We can argue about the functions of fragrance, memory and meaning until the cows come home, and I probably will, but this olfactory nostalgia and the associations that we make with fragrances can be sources of strength.  Where the 1970s suave guy marched forward with bluster and false bravado into a new world of gender, he could be comforted by the fougère, his tie to the masculinity he was implicitly promised as a boy.

Here is the genius of Paco Rabanne pour Homme. It’s thoroughly a fougère, barbershop sensibility and all, yet it’s also new. The recognizability of this fragrance was just enough to soothe and reassure, yet the same time it had a novel and contemporary tone. This wasn’t your father’s fragrance.  The elements that distinguish it from older barbershop fragrances scents were exquisitely calculated for the time. Evergreen notes suggests the outdoors.  The Colorado Rocky Mountain High,  and the appearance of outdoorsiness was important to the new  liberated 1970s man.  Herbalism, from cheap shampoo to Clinique Aromatics Elixir to Earth-Mother cultural feminism, was a topic of the liberated women of the 1970s.  Paco Pour Homme provided an entrée into the new discussion of gender for the 70s man.

Paco Rabanne pour Homme, intentionally or by happy accident, intertwined with socio-gender flux as much as Caron Tabac Blond did in the 1920s and Aromatics Elixir did in the 1970s. Paco Rabanne pour Homme was generally associated with straight men.  But look closely at the ideal: rugged, out-doorsy, undeniably beautiful.  Imagine Paco Rabanne pour Homme worn with 501 jeans, workboots and flannel shirts.  Paco fit well with these components of the Castro/ West Village clone look and identity.  It was an archetype of my people, the late 20th century queer men, who were unaware of the horror about to strike them.

To this day, I find Paco Rabanne pour Homme bracing, beautiful and very specific. The current formulation is perhaps less than it used to be, but is still striking.  There’s very little else like it on the market.  Of the many fougères of the 70s that provided an on-ramp to the men’s power fragrances of the 80s, Paco Rabanne pour Homme is the one I would compare to any power frag, from Antaeus to Kouros (a fougère ‘cousin’) to Krizia per Uomo to Quorum.  Any perfume used to bolster gender is as much a fantasy as it is a fragrance, but Paco Rabanne pour Homme was the fragrance for men who wanted to highlight their masculinity. It was affable, proportionate, and suggested a well intended interaction with the world.  By comparison, Antaeus looks like something a would-be model poser might wear and Kouros implied that studied casualness of a haircare product that allows for just one perfect lick of hair out of place.  And these two were the best of the power fragrances!

Parfums Retro Grand Cuir, 2013

!HUSTON 1608-28A

(Image lifted from Helmut Newton)

Perfumer Hugh Spencer.

Parfums Retro Grand Cuir is framed for you before you even try it.  Putting the expectation right out front is an interesting strategy.  The name tells you it will be a backward-looking, stonking leather perfume.  While the name is not an outright fiction, it’s a ruse.  Grand Cuir is a leather perfume, but it plays rough with genres and assumptions.  If you take the name as a suggestion rather than scripture, the perfume speaks for itself and the fun starts.

Grand Cuir refers to the big, androgynous leathers of the early 20th century, the smoking and drinking party girls and boys such as Caron Tabac Blond, the various Cuirs de Russie, Schiaparelli Shocking and Lanvin Scandal.  It is formal but rakish in that unbuttoned tuxedo, end of the evening style.  It also links to the whopping aromatic fougeres of later in the 20th century with herbal, soapy facets that smack of loud shower-singing. The references might be retro, but its genre-blurring was current when released in 2013 and the huskiness of the floral leather notes matches a pendulum-swing away from sheer suede/leather notes and toward smoky, peaty leather tones.

Like the early 20th Century Shalimars, Emeraudes and Tabus with their dress up, play-acting orientalism, the art deco-era leather perfumes had a bit of costumey amateur-theater to them. The aromatic fougère of the mid-20th century was equally burdened with drama, in this case the overstuffed props of a wounded masculinity.  Grand Cuir takes the stage but does it with a wry, comedy-of-manners-style that suits the project.  The irony is smart and never reaches into sarcasm.  Grand Cuir simply lives in a world of props and set-dressing appropriate to the genres.

Grand Cuir plays with olfactory tones as much as it plays with genres.  Soapiness is common to both floral-leathers and fougères and Grand Cuir uses it to modulate the tannic woodiness of the leather and scratchy herbal qualities. The perfume balances tones of voice that typically would be dissonant. The hissiness of the orange blossom-leather pairing sits easily next to the barbershop quartet of the fougère. Grand Cuir is a big broad perfume and holds these differences in place without them seeming shoehorned into the same bottle.

Taken seriously, lightly or laughingly, Grand Cuir is a potent but nuanced perfume. Its opening gives a picture of the journey of the next 12 hours. The details, though, are nicely calibrated and the sites that you see en route are delightful.

Andy farms Voltaire’s garden and Everything’s Coming Up Roses, or, The Tauer Roses.

tauer -rose

Perfumers are often associated with a particular genre or style.  Instead Tauer takes a flower and makes it his focus.  He uses it to find his way through and around a number of identifiable genres. He uses rose to play with the notion of what a “note” is.

With each of the perfumes, we’re questioned.  Is rose a material?  Is rose a note?  A set of notes?  Is the rose of Noontide Petals the same rose you smell in PHI?  The question isn’t, are the rose oils in the various perfumes from different sources?  It is, what is rose?  Is a rose conceptually the same in each of the perfumes?

We can skirt the topic a little bit by relying on the generosity of the rose.  Rose materials, botanical and aromachemical, contain a large range of olfactory qualities.  Any single rose material can be used to make a soliflor, a chypre, a floriental, a woody floral.  As with  lemon, many aromachemicals and botanicals smell of rose. Rosewood, rose geranium, palmarosa, damascenones, geraniol, rose oxides.  In perfumery, the question ins’t so much what is rose?  It’s, what is rosiness?  What are the denominators of rosy aromas?

 

tauer incense rosé

Incense Rose (2008)  Spiced rose.

Tauer’s first rose perfume places rose at the center of an East meets West dialogue.  As a bright citrus rose, it follows the canons of traditional European composition.  As a resinous, spicy incense perfume, it alludes to the balsamic, dark woody roses of Arabic perfumery.  Rose bridges the two traditions and is the effusive and logical sequel to the spiced floriental Le Maroc and the citrus /resinous Incense Extreme.

 

 

tauer rose chyprée

Une Rose Chyprée (2009) alludes to genre without being trapped by it. It’s an interesting answer to the looming  question: post IFRA restrictions, can a true chypre still be made?  With Une Rose Chyprée Tauer not only plays with the concept of the rose, he laughs at the genre and those of us who fret over it.  Une Rose Chyprée has all the complexity and glamor of a chypre, but none of the austerity.  The amber of the chypre triad becomes the dominant presence in the perfume and it could just as easily be called an ‘oriental’ as a chypre.  Tauer hints at the genre in the name of the perfume, but the perfume is less a literal chypre than a figurative one.  Une Rose Chyprée manipulates the attributes of a chypre more than the notes themselves.  Tauer works from his strengths as a perfumer and folds ambery, resinous rosy notes into a voluptuous wet kiss of a perfume.

 

 

Tauer rose vermeilles 2

Une Rose vermeille (2010)   Rose confection.

Une Rose Vermeille is a particular slice of rose, amplified.  In lieu of the green, lemony wafting quality of a rose on the bush, Rose Vermeilles creates a sweet rose-berry confection.  It alters the proportions of rose the way a Manga cartoon plays with the geometry of a face to give it a doll-like appearance.  At first sniff, Une Rose Vermeille might seem like the most conventional of Tauer’s roses. After all, it is fruity-floral.  In fact, the sweetness is accented by a touch of spun sugar that lifts both the berry and rose notes about half an octave higher than their normal ranges.

The transition from the top notes to the heart notes captures the overall tenor of the perfume. The sweetness of the topnotes attenuates and the topnotes fold in on themselves and coalesce into a papery, cardboard-like backdrop. Sweet, yet matte. The pixie-dust sparkle of the topnotes fades but the jamminess of the berry/rose intensifies like a reduction.

Une Rose Vermeille is surprisingly the most subversive rose in Tauer’s repertoire.  Unlike the others, it lands squarely in an identifiable genre, the fruity floral.  Fruity floral perfumes are fairly obstinate. They tend to be linear and say the same thing at 30 paces that they do at cheek-kissing distance.  They are meant to convey an affiliation, and inclusion in a group, and therefore are intended for the audience, not the wearer.  Une Rose Vermeille, a rose in three acts, performs for the benefit of the wearer.   If those around you are uncomfortable with ambiguity it might be confusing.

 

 

tauer PHI

Une Rose de Khandahar/PHI (2013)  A portrait of a note.

PHI is also a fruity floral, but it couldn’t be more different than Une Rose Vermeille.  Tauer deflates the expectations of the genre and PHI is in fact his least sweet rose. Not syrupy, not juicy.  The rose is dry and  the apricot is waxy, not fully ripe.  It has an objective, removed feel.  Wearing it is like viewing a portrait and the experience is more about reflection than being taken on a ride.  Taking in a portrait is a contemplation of the subject, the artist, the observer, and the connections and distances between them.  This sort of engagement, whether with a portrait or a perfume, is extremely satisfying.  PHI suits me.

 

 

tauer noontide petals

Noontide Petals (2013) takes on the aldehyde, a love/hate note-genre. The floral-aldehyde genre is burdened by identifiers: soapy, feminine, retro, sparkly.  It is readable even to non-perfume wearers. In the hundred years or so that they’ve been used in perfumery, aldehydes have come to have the most narrow and closed set of connotations. Even a person who has never smelled Joy or No. 5 will, on smelling it, pronounce it,”Old Lady Perfume. “

Tauer steers us away not from aldehydes, but from our associations with them.  In this case not the technical, olfactory definition, but their shared emotive and cultural meaning.  No. 5 and Joy have been marketed to women for decades and consequently the floral aldehyde has become synonymous with ‘femininity.’  As a note, if not as a set of materials, aldehydes are for girls.

But Noontime Petals states otherwise.  It suggests state and mood but remains abstract.  It doesn’t so much overthrow the old assumptions as broaden horizons. The beauty of the floral aldehyde is available to any man who would wear it without quite the gender-crossing of wearing the Chanel or the Patou.

 

 

tauer rose flashRose Flash (2104) The dare.

Rose Flash is the joker of Tauer Perfume’s roses.   Only briefly available online.  No notes listed.  Green, sweet, resinous, effusive.  It smells more specifically rose-like than the other Tauer roses, but it also smells like much more than rose.  It’s more enigma than contradiction.  Most commentary I’ve read about Rose Flash discussed its sweetness, its gourmand categorization.  I don’t doubt its ambery tone, but I find it green and tart. It’s the balance point between resinousness and piquancy.  It leans in many directions, but doesn’t fall into any one category.

Edmond Roudnitska flipped perfumery upside-down and made the first true perfume manifesto with Diorissimo.  Rose Flash might not be such a statement of revolutionary intent, but by sidestepping the preliminary mention of notes as a the lead-in to understanding the perfume, Tauer calls us out.  He throws the gauntly et and probably laughs a bit.  It’s classic block-box theory.  It’s you and the perfume.  No story, no list of imaginary notes to guide you.  What do you make of it?

 

 

Andy Tauer talks about his work and his blog is a low-hype view into his process.  His PR is mercifully free of typical marketing hyperbole and his blog is an ongoing open letter to those who take an interest in his work.  In fact, it’s almost cunning the way he doesn’t tell you ‘about’ his perfume.  That task is left to you.  His Roses are like a trail of breadcrumbs that take you into a garden-forest.  Turn around and the crumbs might be gone, but there you are.  And what a great place to be lost.

Still, as a particular body of work, Tauer’s roses can be interpreted and throw some light on the perfumer’s understanding of perfume.  The subject (the rose) might be common to all of the above perfumes, but the investigation of the topic allows the wearer to speculate on the thinking behind them.  The perfumes inform each others and Tauer gives us a brilliant opportunity to ponder the meaning of perfume. They also can be worn at face value and are a remarkably satisfying set of perfumes to wear.

Parfums DelRae Amoureuse, 2002

amoureuse

Perfumer Michel Roudnitska

I grew up with a specific flaw in my understanding of history. It has to do with over-valuing the present. It’s like a child’s understanding of history and can be described as a misunderstanding of the expression, “There’s no time like the present.”  American exceptionalism leads to a hubris of the moment where the exceptional is always manifest in the present and therefore every moment is the best ever.  It’s exhausting.

As a result of this skewed view, my bias is to regard contemporary trends as separate from history.  Cultural trends are a break from tradition, a break from history, not a continuity.  Amoureuse is my lesson in continuity.

It’s easy to refer to certain perfumes as traditional, old lady perfumes, retro… and therefore value style over composition and intention. That is to say, a perfume is characterized and then dismissed based on it’s superficial qualities.  Amoureuse isn’t strictly ‘old-school.’  It’s successful for the same reasons that the better perfumes from the mid-20th century were so good.  The canons of perfumery might appear obscure due to the historical secrecy of the perfume industry but the practices of perfumery are codified and precise.  Classical technique isn’t a stab in the dark. It is a methodical and successful means of achieving an artistic goal.

Amoureuse points out an important distinction between style and intent.  Post post-modernism, it’s easy to see belonging to a particular artistic school (ie. minimalism, expressionism) as merely a matter of style.  A brief that calls for a simple or accessible perfume doesn’t imply minimalism.  It describes the desired end product.  It might have a simplistic goal (eg. a sweet berry perfume with notes of rose) but lead to a complex formula. Minimalism, in the other hand, is a doctrine, or a working set of principals that links concept, method and product.  Minimalist Jean-Claude Ellena makes perfumes such as Terre d’Hermès and Jardin sur le Nil by distilling concept and formula to as few working parts as necessary to express his ideas.

Amoureuse is a gorgeously lush perfume, and is about as minimal as a Bernini sculpture or a Transformers movie.  Applying traditional compositional methods to an unconventional mix of notes (Lily, cardamom, tangerine) gives an unexpectedly tropical bent to the flowers. A spiced lily with a creamy citric base underlines the ripeness of tuberose and jasmine and gives the perfume a languid, heady feel. It’s similar to the lay-in-and-be-seranaded-by-the-sirens quality of Patricia de Nicolai’s other-worldly Odalisque. Histoires de Parfums 1804 shares Amoureuse’s sensibility of a prim French person on vacation in the Pacific tropics.

These three perfumes demonstrate the value of a trained, classical approach.  Assured technique, a slightly unorthodox mix of materials and a creative mind lead to something new and fresh.

One way to create something new in perfumery is to take a new aromachemical or a new technology and to build a perfume around it.  Advances in science have always made for changes in perfumery, from coumarin and vanillin to nitro musks and ethylmaltol.  When the impetus is not a new chemical but a new idea, the perfume is a particular thrill.  Amoureuse isn’t earth-shaking, and it doesn’t rewrite the rules of perfumery.  But it is a joy and a pleasure that is perfectly suited to the personal scope of perfumery.

Balmain de Balmain, 1998

by Wednesday, January 14, 2015 No tags Permalink 0

Perfumer Antoine de Maisondieu

Balmain de Balmain is best viewed as a part of the Balmain lineage rather than as a part of the trends of its time, the late 90s-early 00s.  Perfumery and its audience were still wrestling with the extremes, unable to find a balance.  The 80s power fragrances, notoriously large and tiresome, took ethylmaltol as a cue and went from loud to shrieking.   At the other end sepia fragrances of the early nineties, in their search for penance for the cocaine-style perfumes of the 1980s, reconceptualized water and air as scents.

Balmain de Balmain makes little sense among its cohorts.  But it takes its place in the Balmain line easily, matching up logically with its prececessors:  Vent Vert (brisk and crisp), Jolie Madame (sharp and pitchy), Ivoire (another perfume out of step, out of time.)

The chypre genre is a large and unhurried one.  B d B isn’t earthshaking.  It’s hardly even novel, but it is a very good perfume and has all the attributes of a chypre: evolution, complexity and the feeling of engaged poise.

balmain de balmain 2

 

We chypre fans love to split hairs in sub-categorizing chypres and I’d call B de B a floral chypre.   A heavy hand with blackcurrant can tip a perfume back and forth between piquant and pissy.  Balmain de Balmain steers clear and has a long arc from starchy, stem-snapping coolness to a mossy/ambery finish over a period of 10-12 hours.

1998 was actually an interesting year in mainstream perfumery.  It produces a number of perfumes that stood apart from the 80s-90s dilemma I mentioned  above (Bvlgari Black, Feu d’Issey, Kenzo Jungle, Guerlain Coriolan, Cartier Declaration) and heralded some solutions on the horizon.  Balmain ran head-first into the chypre genre and comes out with a gorgeous little black dress of a perfume.  A smart choice any year.

 

Serge Lutens Fille en Aiguilles, 2009

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filles en aiguilles

Perfumer Christopher Sheldrake

I’m from a small town in Connecticut.  Not, Suburban-New-York-Connecticut.  New-England-Connecticut. In my 1960s-1970s, the New England countryside was a place of wonder and democracy.  The woods were a frame of mind as much as they were a location.

Though I never thought of anything local as particularly exotic, pine was the scent of local magic.  Pine was the scent of outdoors and the change of seasons.  It was omnipresent and always welcome.

Fille en Aiguille’s pine is bittersweet for me. It is 30% sense memory and 70% longing.

I now live in Southern California in a climate that I struggle with every day for nine months out of the year.   Its climate is almost universally loved, but is unbearable to me and anathema to my pale Celtic body and spirit, a reality that is inexplicable to those around me.   Fille doesn’t offer me a solution to my dilemma.   It doesn’t give me relief from the heat or an alternative to the deathly brightness.  It triggers memory, remembrance, beauty from an an arcadian past.  It reminds me of the magic. And if there’s magic, there’s hope.

But mostly there’s just longing.

Amouage Lyric Woman, 2008

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lyric woman

Amouage Lyric Woman, 2008.  Perfumer Daniel Maurel.

Rose is a flower in the same way that sandalwood is a wood, and vanilla is a spice.  Each is so definitive of its category, that it supersedes the classification.  With this star quality rose tends to be difficult to hide.  The only reason this predicament isn’t a problem is that nobody wants to hide the rose.

But if you are a perfumer, there is another nagging problem with the rose: the Beauty Dilemma. The scent of rose is beautiful. So what?  What do you do with it?  After the the soliflor, the rose chypre, the bouquet, the amber-rose, the rose-oud, the thorny rose–what do you do?  Lyric Woman finds a new role for rose and it’s not just the same schtick with a different costume and a new score. Rose isn’t the star. In Lyric, rose is the narrator.

Lyric has an awful lot packed into it, yet it doesn’t come off as overburdened. The Rose serves to temper the experience from the fireworks of bergamot in the topnotes through the spicy heart to the resinous-rose finale. The rose mediates the huge cast of other notes, and the perfume feels lighter than you would expect.  No less potent, just not so demanding.  The basenotes are a pleasant surprise. The rose-frankincense pairing apparent from the very start of the perfume remains to the end, but there’s a savory, nutty quality as well that suggests sandalwood or saffron.  Exciting ride, soft landing.

From a land of a multi-millennial tradition of rose-incense pairings come this little twist. We’ve seen all the ingredients before, but it’s a new recipe.

Oud Wood

Perfumer Richard Herpin

Oud tends to be the gorilla in the room in a fragrance. Oud being both potent and distinctive, the challenge is how to make an oud-centric perfume fundamentally different than any other.  This is a problem for all perfume producers, not just Tom Ford.  Oud is the It-Girl still, and here lies the other problem.  The oud trend has been going on for long enough that its moment is getting a little long in the tooth.  The smart niche companies that were touting oud for the past 4-5 years are moving on, but the high end designer lines (Dior,Versace, Armani) and the niche lines (Killian, Kurkdjian) missed the memo.  My point is not at all that the perfumes are bad, but that seeing the trend as a function of marketing, the glass house of exclusivity and taste is looking a little fragile. All the $200-$500 exclusive ouds are competing with each other, but they’re also competing with much less expensive, well-made oud perfumes also available.  Exclusivity is a fiction that style-merchants are constantly busting their asses to maintain, and the market is famously fickle.  My bet is that the oud star is falling. (see photo)

A large part of the above scenario is price.  Rare Vietnamese oud, ancient Cambodian treasured oud…  You’ve never heard anyone refer to rare ethylmaltol, and for good reason.  Where is all this oud coming from?  Oud isn’t quite ambergris, whose formation is measured in decades to centuries, but you don’t plant it one season and harvest it the next.  As with every other quality of smell that we refer to in perfume, oud, the note, and oud, the material are not the same thing.  A product that is much more expensive than its direct competitors (a $400 by Killian perfume v. a $100 Parfumerie Generale perfume) require a certain justification, and whether the company is Chanel or Whole Foods, the rare sourcing of botanical components is the contemporary grail of sophistication among the consumer.  Ivory, gems, elephant skin, milk fed veal.  The exclusivity of Empire has given way to exclusivity AND ethics.  ‘Please don’t spill your acai martini on my ipe wood floor and cause a stain.  Though it’s sustainably grown, I’ve spent years monitoring the webcast of the organic, high altitude farm where I commissioned its growth.  Don’t put me through THAT again.”

And here we have oud.  All the sophistication of ambergris, none of the ethical indecision.  We’re perfect prey for the oud-mongers.

Tom Ford’s Oud Wood starts out much like many other eponymous oud perfumes I’ve smelled, but from the very outset has a quality of softened edges and rounded tones. [Caveat:  I don’t have much of a nose or mind for dissecting the notes in oud, although I’ve smelled many oud perfumes.  I’ve even had the opportunity, thanks to a friend sharing his stash, of doing a comparison sniffing of a number of quality pieces of Vietnamese and Cambodian oud wood whose very specific provenances were know by the person who collected them.]

This is a perfume that makes me question the difference between modulating something very particular and strong (oud), and going mainstream.  At all points in Oud Wood’s progression it reads as within normal limits, not low and not high.  Within normal limits: is that the goal?  If so, it’s achieved.  This fragrance would appeal to a large population, perfume fans and otherwise.  Normally I would deride a goal of normalcy-above-all-else, but Oud Wood is wonderfully constructed, and despite the oud name, is a principally woody fragrance that modulates sweetness, smokiness, firmness and softness.  It’s blended but specific, and smells like an imagined wood in the way that an abstract floral fragrance like Heeley’s Ophelia or the classic Patou Joy suggests an idealized flower.

Does Oud Wood have all the brutal smokiness, bitterness, and slap-in-the-face often associated with oud?  No, but I find this modulated quality refreshing given the ‘my oud’s bigger than your oud’ competitiveness that characterized some oud fragrances released around the time of Oud Wood (2007).  Perfumer Richard Herpin pushes oud more to the center of the stage than this, but applies moderation deliberately to the composition and gives us the subtle but forthright Oud Wood.