Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle Musc Ravageur, 2000

musc ravageur-mock caravggio incredulity of st thomas

Image after Caravaggio The Incredulity of Saint Thomas,  source unknown.

Perfumer Maurice Roucel.

L de Lolita defined my fear of the gourmand genre. Thick scents of chocolate dessert are coupled with musks and ambers, both of which are known for their fixative properties.  Amber ‘fixes’ the gourmand quality of L de Lolita the way concrete shoes ‘set’ in a mafia fable before you’re thrown in the river. 

Wearing L de Lolita could well be a Catholic-school lesson on the sin of gluttony and the threats of eternal hell.  The anticipation draws you close, the titilation makes you give in, the satisfaction is the pleasure you’ve been denied.  Then you continue to eat, unable to control yourself, long past the point of nausea and revulsion.  Jaques Guerlain gave a seminar on the line between plenty and excess when he took Shalimar close to crème brulée, but then pulled back.  The value of gourmand notes is in the suggestion or the temptation, not in the pudding.  L de Lolita demonstrates the lesson by failing it and falling into the more-is-better trap. 

So if L de Lolita (2006) is a sin against god, does Musc Ravageur (2000) have a more original sin?  

I experienced Roucel’s trio out of sequence. I first smelled Labdanum 18 (2006) in 2007, L de Lolita (2006) in 2008 and Musc Ravageur (2000) in 2015. I hadn’t known that the same perfumer made all three, nor had I known that the two 2006 perfumes were derived from Musc Ravageur.  Now I understand who’s who, or better, who’s the flanker. 

Musc Ravageur is the template. The other two variations were made by turning up and down the volume of specific notes of the original.  Labdanum 18 skips the aromatic topnotes but overdoses the sweet vanilla and powdery musk.  Without the loud aromatic topnotes of Musc Ravageur, Labdanum18 feels listless by comparison, yet is famously le Labo’s best seller.  If Labdanum was made by subtraction, L de Lolita relies on the addition of chocolate and maple syrup to distinguish itself.  The classic vanilla ‘oriental’ is given the chocolate-steroid treatment and the bergamot topnote of Musc Ravageur is twisted into a candied orange.  Piling a maple syrup/imortelle/fenugreek note on top of the chocolate makes L de Lolita a Frankenstein-Gourmand and poster-child for the excesses of gourmand perfumery. 

L de Lolita is so egregious that having smelled it a number of times seven years ago it tainted my experience of Musc Ravageur.  This week (2015) I wore Musc Ravageur for the first time.  I wore it  three days in a row, haunted by the anticipation of recognition that wouldn’t come. While distracted, the flashback to L de Lolita struck me in the gut and having made the connection, there’s no turning back.

How might I have experienced Musc Ravageur if I hadn’t first been affected by L de Lolita?  We all arrive to a perfume with our bags packed, but the recycling of ideas across different lines without marketing the subsequent perfumes as flankers muddies the waters.  Maybe I’ve been damaged by the Lolita perfume association and have made the jump to Nabokov’s Lolita.  With its effusive barbershop masculine reference and smarmy musky-amber sweetness Musc Ravageur reads like the perfume a stereotypical dirty old man would wear. 

(Please don’t take my ‘kitchen sink’ quibble with Musc Ravaguer as a blanket criticism.  I’m all for excess in perfumery generally and in Roucel’s work specifically.  He’s used it to great success in Guerlain Insolence,  Hermès 24, Faubourg, Missoni by Missoni and Gucci Envy.)

Narciso Rodriguez Narciso, 2014


Image from NAM collective, Hiroshi Manaka / Takayuki Nakazaw.

Perfumer Aurélien Guichard.

Notes are a fairy tale in perfumery.  Believe them as you would believe in the Sugar Plum Fairy or Tom Cruise.  They’re ‘real’ but not actual.  Aurélien Guichard doesn’t refute the notion of notes but he rephrases them.  He separates aromas (floral, green, fruity, musky) from the other tones that the nose perceives (roundness, velvet, opacity.)

Slicing and dicing notes is nothing new in contemporary perfumery.  Notes and materials have long been picked apart and shuffled around. Deconstruction and recontextualization are the classic two-step of post-modern art, a relic that perfumery has taken and run with.  The next step, the rebuilding, the creation of a new picture is harder to achieve and is largely missing in contemporary perfumery.

Narciso is abstraction in its fullest.  The separation and identification of the parts is thoughtful, but Narciso reconceptualizes perfume more credibly than you’d expect find in a designer fragrance. Guichard manipulates his materials so that the broad qualities, not the notes themselves predominate.  There is not so much a clear magnolia note as there is a sultry luster.  It is less specifically woody than it has the feel of an iron fist in a velvet glove.

Materials and notes aside, Narciso smells balanced and synthetic in the artistic sense.  It doesn’t attempt to recreate aspects of “nature” as in the solifor and it has none of the smugness that can accompany avant-nichery.  It’s a perfume made with an eye on aesthetics and ideals. Its indelible trait is an ambience, a spherical quality that feels like an additional dimension has been added to musk.  The tone is both pervasive and subliminal.  It surrounds you but it subverts the whistly, woody-amber persistence of many contemporary woody-musky perfumes.  It is less radiant than evenly distributed.  There are no seams showing, no bumps in the ride. If I could read a perfume formula, I suspect this one would have some sort of dimensional trickery like an Escher drawing. Impossibility made probable by screwing carefully with perspective.

Narciso’s commitment to aesthetics feels almost Greco-Roman in its classicism.  Like many classical works, Narciso has a designed imperfection, a distraction that keeps you from falling into a beauty-trance.  Narciso’s blemish is its whiff of paint.  Sniffed from the right angle, Narciso has the wonderful smell of a fresh can of exterior paint.  It might  seem odd at a cursory sniff, but it is perfectly placed and enhances the overall purr of the musk.

Bruno Fazzolari Lampblack, 2013

lampblack-philip lorca dicorcia  d

Image from Philip-Lorca diCorcia.

Perfumer Bruno Fazzolari.

There is nothing new in Lampblack.  Then again newness is overrated in perfumery.  ‘Unconventionality’ is code—camouflage for a lack of nuance and uninventive composition.  Niche perfumery is the boy, novelty is the wolf.

Better than novelty, Lampblack has a point of view. Consideration and creativity are more valuable than gimmickry, and let’s call Lampblack what it is.  It is a perfume that uses known materials and compositional tools.  But it manipulates otherwise recognizable facets of the materials to offer a new perspective.  It is a thoughtful piece of work.

Bruno Fazzolari is a visual artist who has chosen perfumery as another medium for the investigation of ideas. His crossover to perfumery disproves the axiom that the medium is the message.  It also points out that artistry and technical training are not the same thing, a point that vocational schools such as Givaudan and ISIPCA may or may not recognize.

There is considerable buzz around Fazzolari’s perfumes, Lampblack in particular. The problem with buzz it that there’s always the next new thing to capture it.  Fuck the buzz and forget the flavor of the month, but try Lampblack if you have the chance.  It is remarkable not for the hype, but its thoughtfulness and exploration of ideas.

Hermès Eaux de Cologne

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Hermès Eaux

(Image lifted from Loretta Lux.)

Jean-Claude Ellena’s work for Hermès is sorted into lines.  They are as much clusters of flankers as sub-brands. They provide as many doors into the world of Hermès as possible and serve to inculcate the buyer to the taste and values of Hermès’s style of luxury.  Sophisticated?  Cynical?  Both, really.

I avoid writing about perfume as a matter of opinion for a number of reasons, which I can summarize as, who cares about anyone’s opinion of a perfume?  There are more interesting ways to talk about perfume.  Still, by attempting to shape sensibility and taste, Hermès implicitly elevate opinion.  

The Jardin fragrances are watercolor eaux de toilette with a moist, fruity-vegetal tone.  They are an entry level to the conservative allure of the brand, balancing modesty with identifiability.  They serve the same function as the Hermès scarf did 50 years ago: affordable entry to the world of Hermès. 

Ellena took Eau des Merveilles, which Hermès launched just before his arrival, and turned it into the most flankerly of the Hermès perfumes.  Eau, Elixir, Parfum, Ambre…des Merveilles.  Similar names, even more similar bottles.  They become hard to distinguish even before you even smell the perfumes.  Ditto 24 Faubourg.  There are so many versions it’s tough to know if they are separate perfumes or the same perfume with differently decorated bottles.  (See 24, Faubourg Édition Limitée Jeu Des Omnibus Et Dames Blanches.  Yes, really.)

The various Terres d’Hermès for boys, Jours d’Hermès for girls and Voyages d’Hermès get the Hermès name on the shelves of Sephora, department stores and online stores. 

The Hermessence line is the highest priced line of the brand and accomplishes the dual goals of assuring  in-boutique exclusivity and buffering Hermès against the niche barbarians at the gate.

The ‘classic’ perfumes of the brand range from from Guy Robert’s Doblis to Olivia Giacobetti’s Hiris.  They serve as the pedigreed backdrop to all of the Ellena lines.  The classics now all share same bottle with differently-colored labels, forming a line after the fact.

Ellena has also produced a line of Eaux de Cologne for Hermès, and here is where my opinion leads me.   Ellena released a pair of eaux de cologne in 2006 (Eau de Gentiane Blanche and Eau de Pamplemouse Rose) and another pair in 2013 (Eau de Narcisse Bleu and Eau de Mandarine Ambrée).

Each pair is an innovation on the traditional EDC, framing the genre as both cool and dry (Gentiane Blanche, Narcisse Bleu) and warm and snug (Pamplemousse Rose, Mandarine Ambrée).  Each pair also presents an interesting juxtaposition.  Where citrus is typically seen as the bright, fresh portion of the eau de cologne, in the case of Pamplemouse Rose and Mandarine Ambrée, citrus is used to emphasize the cozy side of cologne.  They reflect skin warmth and snugness.  In Gentiane Blanche and Narcisse Bleu, the crispness and chill don’t come from citrus, but from herbal and leafy notes.

Gentiane Blanche is rooty and bitter/powdery on the axis of iris root and violet leaf.  Narcisse Bleu is green and and milky, more stem and crisp flower. The distinctions between the two are pronounced when compared side by side, but their similarities are more apparent than their differences.  They share a matte, cool tone and a blue-greenness that seems neither watery nor grassy, but suggests a dusky hue.  They both find the crisp tone that defines a cologne, but achieve it with vegetal tones and without the musky finish a classical Eau de Cologne has. 

While they are both reinventions of the eau de cologne, they also play with the bone-dry, citrus/violet leaf hiss of Grey Flannel.  They smell similar to Grey Flannel (especially Gentiane Blanche) without seeming derivative.  Grey Flannel’s violet leaf and wood dryness is an interesting basis for reconsidering the EDC.  Jean-Claude Ellena’s infamous minimalism and rigorous editing find perfect application in these two colognes that capture the qualities of the genre while sidestepping all the clichés.   

Guerlain Chamade, 1969

Chamade-gregory crewdson-12

Image, Gregory Crewdson.

Perfumer Jean-Paul Guerlain.

Chamade captures the olfactory gestalt of Springtime like no other perfume. It smells like fresh stems, flowers, moisture, soil and rot. Succulence and indolence. More than a summary of notes, though, it smells like the sensations of Spring. It combines the acceleration of exploding growth and the leisurely pace of a world thawing over time.  The rush of hyacinth pushing against the constraint of snow and pollen exploding from flowering trees convey the good-natured horniness and impatience of youth, yet the rebirth of the season is a free pass to young and old alike. The juxtaposition of the cool, crisp greenness and the burnished languor of the base, create a tension, an indeterminacy.  It comments on one season but refers to the cyclical nature of time, posing questions without offering conclusions.

Springtime is classically the season of potential and therefore, expectation.  It suggests wide-open horizons and dreams of love and success, but a crocus blooms only  briefly and not all the chicks that hatch survive.  Spring is equally passionate and cruel.

And I thought opera was melodramatic.

Chamade expounds on all of the above better than I could ever hope to.  I avoid describing artwork as great because the ‘greats’ are usually a tally of opinions and ‘musts’.  Greatness is held out as a threshold, a line to be crossed.  Still, greatness in art has precedent.  Great works are perennially rediscovered by individuals and generations because they are significant and remarkable.  They express the meaning of their times at the same time that they offer advice to future generations. 

Chamade is a great perfume and it can be read on many levels, another attribute of great work.  Its meaning for you could be Springtime, the story and the era of the novel after which it is named (Francoise Sagan’s La Chamade) or the excellence of its composition. Most ‘great’ perfumes are cited for the measurable effect they had on the state of the art. Chamade didn’t spawn movements and artistic trends in that way that Fougère Royale, Mitsouko, Shalimar and other iconic perfumes did. Its lasting influence is its capacity to frame broader meanings through expert composition. 

I know that my take on Chamade comes off like a litany of cheap platitudes, and I apologize for that.  I’ve tried to write about Chamade numerous time, each time throwing out what I’ve written as it never seemed to capture the pertinence of Chamade.  I still don’t do Chamade justice, but I’ve changed my goal from understanding it to acknowledging it.

Chanel Coromandel, 2007

Coromandel 2Coromandel 1

Perfumer Jacques Polges.

A house like Chanel has to play a few different angles at once if they want to sell their products.  With Cormandel they tie together a few different narratives that target a number of key demographics simultaneously. It’s an odd dance that Coromandel performs seamlessly. 

Coromandel is a Hippy Patchouli and it’s an Old Lady Perfume.  It’s for the old guard and the debutantes.  It’s stuffy and it’s boho chic.  And it does it all without compromise.  It starts with an explosion of citrus, flowers and bucketsful of bright, cold patchouli.  There’s not a doubt in the world that Coromandel is a Patchouli Perfume, but it’s a clever one.  It’s similar in concept to Guerlain Shalimar.  It plays patchouli in just the way that Shalimar plays vanilla.  In each perfume, the material is the undisputed center of the composition, but not a solo act. Neither uses the material like a flower in a soliflor or a single-note hippy shop oil.  Still, if you miss the vanilla in Shalimar or the patchouli in Coromandel, Jacques Guerlain and Jacques Polge have miscalculated. 

If you don’t like the scent of patchouli there’s little likelihood that that you’ll warm to Coromandel.  But if you take the plunge you’ll find every aspect of patchouli is played to maximum effect. I’ve been looking for a Patchouli-patchouli perfume.  You know, a perfume that is earthy, icy, green, powdery, camphorous and potent. The whole package.  But it must be a perfume, not some headshop oil or sledgehammer perfume without thoughtful composition.  Coromandel is precisely what I’ve been looking for.  It’s a spectacular combination of all the facets of patchouli without compromise.  The patchouli is fleshed out with incense, amber, vanilla and god knows what else, but it never feels heavy or overburdened.  Oh, it’s enormous.  It verges on rococo, but it works without ever teetering and has an unrestrained charm that is the key to its wide appeal. 

Old ladies, hippies, spoiled rich kids and fumies can all come together on this one.