Thursday, November 30, 2006

Nicolaï Pour Homme

I first became interested in this one when Victoria of Bois De Jasmin compared it to No. 3 / Third Man / Le 3èmme Homme de Caron. The latter is probably my favourite scent from the surpassingly great Caron men's collection. Like my preference for the male Carons, I have found the men's fragrances I have tried from Patricia de Nicolaï more interesting than her beautifully composed but sweet female perfumes.

Nicolaï Pour Homme is the sort of striking, enigmatic scent that has you using up your sample and then mournfully sniffing the vial for days afterward. Released in 2003, it contains galbanum, orange, lentisc, China mint, Grasse lavender, geranium, jasmine, moss, amber, spruce, cedar, tobacco, benzoin and labdanum. It begins in a strange, chaotic fashion, which seems to be typical of de Nicolaï creations; like in New York, there is an opening moment when all the notes that will be highlighted later during the long, complex development sound at once. There is the bitter bite of galbanum, a freshness from the mint and lenstic/mastic, an airy, floral lavender, the smooth sweetness of amber, tobacco and benzoin, powdery moss, the orange's zest and a green transparency from the geranium and jasmine. But then, as in a B52 - Bailey's, Grand Marnier and Kahlua?! How is that ever going to work? - Nicolaï Pour Homme finds a surprising harmony, picking up and amplifying sides to notes you'd forgotten about: oh yes, mint is an herb!; You can compare apples and oranges!; woods can be both solemn and boozy etc.

Without smelling much like Third Man or sharing its confident, boutonniered spirit, Nicolaï Pour Homme has a similar development to the Caron scent. The Third Man is a dandy, a bit off-kilter, an independent thinker and devil-may-care cosmopolitan, like Orson Welles in the namesake film or our late, great pirouetting Prime Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Nicolaï Pour Homme is a more subtle scent, sober, contemplative and almost melancholy. Some have accused it of being chilly, but I don't find it so; as in Third Man, the sweetness of the warm oriental base notes disrupts the shaded cool of the traditional fougère structure. It is perhaps even more unisex than New York. My extremely scientific survey of the data from MUA and Basenotes indicates that women are more enthusiastic about it than men, but it actually lacks the vaguely effeminate feel of Third Man. It is the scent of autumn orchards, of walks by yourself, of finding your favourite wool sweater perfumed with last year's woodsmoke, or an old love letter from your spouse.

I was going to review Dior's Midnight Charm tomorrow, but I'm having trouble working up any enthusiasm. It's not all that terrible, but these are the listed notes: "Green Holly Leaves, Frosted Bergamot, Lychee Pulp, Red Jasmine, Fresh Snow Drop, White Rose, Iced Chestnut, Cashmere Musk, Golden Amber." It's not even the icing and frosting... it's the gratuitous descriptors. The pulp of the lychee, you say? When I read "lychee" I thought it was going to be smoked, powdered lychee rind.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Rive Gauche Pour Homme

I am embarrassed by the fuss made over me at the men's fragrance counters. It has been suggested that many scent companies are noticing the unisex use of their carefully segregated products and are governing themselves accordingly, but you would never be able to tell from the workers in the trenches. Female sales assistants, in particular, seem almost offended that I might be purchasing a cologne for myself. Why, they seem to be asking, would I waste my time? The fact of the matter is that I often flee to Y-chromosomed offerings because I'm tired of non-descript fruity-florals and vanillic musks, and there are an unusual amount of bargins on the men's side of the store.

Take, for example, Rive Gauche Pour Homme. A classic, almost meancingly suave fougère in the 1970s style, this was released in 2003 under Tom Ford's direction of YSL and is pretty much the cheapest option at my local chichi department store. With the characteristic fougère balance between soap and lemon-pepper steak seasoning, it is a purely abstract scent that somehow manages to smell like the Platonic ideal of a heavy autumn mist. Despite the smokiness of the lavender, vetiver and gaiac wood, it smells airily clean. The packaging is a ready-to-go, black-and-silver striped metal canister, like a travel shaving foam. Stealth, campy-conservative, and insinuatingly virile, it is the perfect Christmas gift to give the no-nonsense, business-minded father who has worn Brut deodarant for his entire adult life and holds no truck with electric shavers (*ahem* that would be mine.) It is also the perfect gift to give yourself, because I am informed that it is - breathe deeply now - being discontinued in Canada to make way for the sweeter, trendier YSL L'Homme. Sob.

Check in tomorrow for my swooning review of another essential men's scent, Nicolai Pour Homme.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

L'Artisan Fleur De Narcisse

It seems I am almost the last to review this one; if you haven't already, please check out the excellent reviews by Marina, Marlen and both Patty and March at Perfume Posse.

The very first moments are the only ones that smell to me like living plant: there is an initial peppery, greenish tickle. My husband claims this phase smells like the inside of a milkweed pod - the milky sap, the down, the seeds - and he is usually good at these comparisons, but I have not smelled any milkweed in many a year, so I can't comment. The blackcurrant bud lends a little sweetness to the top and heart notes of the composition, which is nicely countered by the occasional waft of spicy green hyacinth. There is a touch of soap-scrubbed skin. Mostly, however, there is the scent of leather, hay and smoke. The leather is oily, like well-conditioned tack. Hay is one of my favourite notes, with its balance between rich sweetness - almost floral, like good pastry - and mustiness or dry rot. Here, these two "stable" notes (haha) are overlaid with a very airy smoke. As March writes, it is "distant, like a chimney a half a mile away", a very atmospheric smoke.

The scent overall, actually, conveys distance and atmosphere; it is a perfume with is its own weather system. Fleur de Narcisse is like a taking a deep breath of country field air as you zip by in your car with the windows down. It reminds me of the scene in E.B. White's Charlotte's Web where Avery and Fern (wonderful, capable Fern!) are jumping from the Zuckerman hay loft with a swing made from a knotted rope and flying dizzily in and out of the buzzing summer air. It is a lovely scene that brings back the giddiness of being outside as a child, the smell of warm breezes, fresh-picked berries, baked dirt, rope and very purposeful leisure. For all that, I have no remorse that I can't afford Fleur de Narcisse. It is precisely the sort of scent that blooms magnificently on me, and it certainly suits me better than the wistful, dainty beauty of Fleur D'Oranger. Somehow, though, it does not hook me the same way, say, Nicolai Pour Homme does (more on this later...) I shall leave it to those with deeper pockets and keener senses of nostalgia for those sunburnt days. (I was a nerdy, indoorsy sort of child.)

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Sample Extravaganza!

All my samples and long-awaited decants showed up today. It seems I often have to suffer through a mail dry-spell before everything arrives at once and the carrier is forced to cram a bunch of packages into our tiny box. Tune in this week for reviews of L'Artisan Fleur de Narcisse, Dior Midnight Charm, Nicolai Pour Homme and Caron's Parfum Sacré. Or not. Maybe we'll do some old favourites...

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Heart of Glass

This week I ran into an antiques dealer in my local bakery/café. She had spent some time in Quebec as well as France, and eventually I steered the conversation around to perfumes. She was truly startled to discover that I had any interest in the vintage juice; to her, the only reason anyone would be excited to find grandma's crystal amphora bottle of Diorissimo would be, well, the bottle itself. Later the same day, I went to an exhibit at the Glenbow Museum on art of the ancient Mediterranean world and found a display of perfume bottles. One specimen, of cast glass intricately patterned with fired threads of precious metals and minerals, was particularly striking. It looked like it could be one of the pieces for sale at the annual upmarket art and crafts show going on across the street in the Convention Centre, and yet it had been found in a tomb sealed in 783 B.C. While I was stunned by the artistry of this treasure, I must admit that I found my mind wondering from the artifact itself to its former contents. To play off Gray: What perfume had in solemn darkness slept unseen/ To waste its sweetness on the desert air?

I am one of those perfume addicts for whom the bottle matters very little. If I like the scent, a great bottle is a bonus. Usually, though, I only notice the bottle in so far as it annoys me. If it is tall and slender, like Yohji Homme, or narrow at the base, like Iquitos, I am going to knock it over. Many have neat designs - like Bvlgari's Black hockey puck or the Christmas ornament in a can of Histoire D'eau Topaze - but the spraying mechanism is weak or dysfunctional. Often the heavy elegance of a bottle is topped with a cheap, feather-weight cap. I don't own any full-sized fragrances in whimsical novelty bottles - Lolita Lempicka or Betsey Johnson, for example - but I have been tempted by Kenzo's Amour abstracts and Bond no. 9's Chinatown ginger jar, both of which my husband has pronounced "hideous". Regardless of who is right, the bottles would live in the darkness of a cupboard anyway (I don't have a tomb). By not displaying my bottles, I protect the juice - for future generations, really, as I'll never make it through them all. Because of my needs, then, I like spare, utilitarian packaging of the Federic Malle sort. If I ever own a Lutens bell jar, it will be for the contents.

It is hard to deny my childish pleasure in a good mini, though. I own a 3ml Annam (Tan Giudicelli), the discontinued and long-lamented comfort scent that smells like Martha Stewart baked a theme custard for an Ikebana article. The bottle design won a Fifi and is supposed to be a beautiful, tactile pleasure. A poster on Now Smell This commented that it looked like a hearing aid, however, and the mini's size, of course, only strengthens this comparison. It looks like nothing so much as a slightly oversized, futuristic sound-amplifying device. My hearing is fine, but I can barely keep from putting it in my ear.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Douce Amere and Diversity

Serge Lutens' Douce Amere has been haunting me lately. It seems like a personal failing that I have not bought a full bottle of this fragrance from the export line. Released in 2000, and created, as usual, by Christopher Sheldrake, it is described as a "fresh oriental", a category that seems to be gaining some currency. (Bvlgari's Omnia is similarly labeled, and has a similar combination of bright topnotes and creamy drydown.) Douce Amere contains absinthe (artemisia absinthium), anise, cinnamon, lily, jasmine, tiare, marigold, tagette, cedar, vanilla and musk. Now Lutens and Sheldrake took some heat early on for creating "just bases", perfumes that did not follow the neo-classical development and therefore have the "finished" feel of the greats of old. This argument seems to me to miss a crucial point: who else on earth could have ever made such a devastatingly wonderful perfume out of that mess of ingredients? The answer, it seems to me, is nobody else. (If you are looking for a profoundly odd but great dessert, however, you can count on Heston Blumenthal of London's The Fat Duck. Check out that Firmenich reference.)

Douce Amere starts with absinthe's trademark bitterly green bite, preposterously dusted with cinnamon. The opening moments are sharp, and I am going to (atypically) recommend using a light hand. Things settle quickly, though, and a heart of near indecent creaminess is revealed. In an odd way the tiare is prominent, but the scent remains cozy instead of tropical. It is like a creme brulée from Iron Chef Sakai during a Good 'N Plenty battle.

Why should I own this fragrance? Well, besides the fact that it is stunningly good... I don't own any other anise fragrances. Wait, can this be true? I check. Discounting samples and decants, I currently possess 44 fragrances (40 bottles, three minis and one oil). The weird thing I notice is that there is very little overlap. Somehow, without consciously willing such a thing, I have diversified my perfume portfolio. Only Yohji Homme and L'Eau du Navigateur, two masculines featuring coffee, can be said to share much ground at all. I have only one real amber, one true leather, one white floral. There is a floral chypre and a fruity chypre. I have a floral musk, an aldehydic floral, a green floral, a floral gourmand. One fragrance evokes the desert, while another evokes the beach. There is one fragrance each based around immortelle, lapsoung souchong, fig, iris and sandalwood.

Initially, I am absurdly pleased with my unintentional system. But then the choices I have made begin to bug me. Why, oh why, did I settle for Knize Ten when I should own Cuir de Russie? Will a purchase of Andy Tauer's L'Air du desert marocain cut into the territory of both Chergui and my amber? What about the Parfum Sacre that should arrive in the mail tomorrow? Will it intrude upon the rose-and-vanilla comfort scent space owned by Tocade? I start coming up with ridiculous sub-categories. Is this an overly elaborate form of buyer's remorse? And do any of you suffer with me?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

And in this corner...

On my left, in white and black, Diptyque's Tam Dao. And on my right, the challenger, in black and burgundy, The Art of Shaving's Sandalwood.

Tam Dao: (2003) Goan Sandalwood, cypress, myrtle, cedar, rosewood, ambergris, vanilla, musk. This one comes out swinging early with heavy cedar, extremely nutty in the L'Artisan Bois Farine style, and a sharp, almost fuel-like haze of something which may be an unusually biting cypress, and then again, maybe not. Like many out of the Diptyque outfit - and in particular, one of my other favourites, Virgilio - Tam Dao is a clean fighter, a technician, with light but precise footwork and no wasted energy in the middle rounds. As it loosens up, this one is very, very smooth, and finally does what a sandalwood is expected to do: warm, comfort and ground. There is a praise-worthy restraint to its back-to-basics simplicity. Tam Dao does not have particularly good reach, but it does have legs enough for a well-executed, floury drydown.

The Art of Shaving Sandalwood: (2004) Mysore Sandalwood, eucalyptus, jasmine, fir needle, myrrh, patchouli and vanilla. A very fresh opening approach, with eucalyptus and pine combinations - this one dominates the beginning of the match. The mentholated and peppery bite of the initial blast blends surprisingly well with some more conventional, but effective, core sandalwood work. Now the fighters are looking quite alike and they're getting tangled up in one another - some very smooth, resinous and musty-sweet work here from both, although The Art of Shaving still looks a little cooler. But wait, Sandalwood is flagging some; I think the cool/warm combinations are proving difficult to sustain. The drydown has a pleasant, almost minty tenacity, but there is some wear showing. Still, you have to admire the daring of this one.

And the winner, by split decision, is Tam Dao. (A spring/summer rematch may be in order, folks.)

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Ford Fragrances

With the release of Black Orchid, I thought it time to do a tribute to Tom Ford, the man with one of the longest hitting streaks in fragrance history. In addition to a brief review of the new scent - unfavorable I'm afraid - I thought I'd share some thoughts on my favourite Fords.

Envy for Women: (1997) Hyacinth, magnolia, green notes, jasmine, lily of the valley, violet, iris, woods, musk. Another classic created by Maurice Roucel, this Queen of the Greens is a demonstration of Ford's genius for top-down design. The name, the bottle and the juice were perfectly positioned to resurrect the ailing Gucci. (The print ad campaign, however, was, in my opinion, ill-handled. The photos of models snacking on each other do not match the scent and the black-and-white shots look confusingly and yet boringly like Calvin Klein images.) The scent is both uncompromisingly sharp and accessibly sheer, conveying the chill of a floral fridge: water, steel, greenery and white petals. The watery freshness is masterful, somewhat Roudnitska-like, with none of the awkward, tack-on quality of the aquatic/marine or ozonic notes in so many other compositions of that decade.

Rush for Women: (1999) Gardenia, freesia, coriander seeds, jasmine, rose, vanilla, patchouli, vetiver. Created by Michel Almairac and famously chosen by Ford in seconds, Rush is the abstract masterpiece of the last two decades of perfumery and an easy addition to my own top ten list. You can just ignore the released notes. Rush is a seamless piece of work, so weirdly and evocatively solid that it never bores. As usual, it is impossible to top Luca Turin's description: "This thing smells like a person. To be exact, thanks to the milky lactone note, it smells like an infant's breath mixed with his mother's hair spray... What Rush can do, as all great art does, is create a yearning, then fill it with false memories of an invented past." (Emperor of Scent, 42). This reminds me of something a friend of mine once said about Linklater's Dazed and Confused: "It gets better every time you watch it. After a while, it's just there, a party happening in your rec room. I wasn't a teen in the seventies, but I somehow got invited." I feel a similar sense of gratitude and pseudo-nostalgia for Rush.

Gucci Pour Homme: (2003) White pepper, ginger, bay, papyrus wood, orris, amber, vetiver, olibanum/frankincense, leather. Ford's (and Almairac's) tribute to the men's classics of the seventies, this one is so heavy on the chin stubble that I think it is ridiculous worn by anyone but a woman. It is absurdly virile, of a piece with Ford's own personal style, which seems to consist entirely of chesthair. A few have complained that Pour Homme is too sweet, but I think the dryness of the pepper and incense notes had to be balanced somehow. The whole thing has a cheesy/sexy vibe, like Indiana Jones and his legion of successors (James Spader in Stargate, that nerd from Relic Hunter, etc.)

Azurée Body Oil: (2006) Tiare, gardenia, orange blossom, coconut, sandalwood, myrrh, vetiver. The Youth Dew Amber Nude revamp left me a little cold - it seemed well-executed but safe - so I was glad to love this update. It is the beachiest scent I know, retro and cheeky. There was no need for Bond no. 9 Fire Island - this *is* the smell of "premium Euro-sunscreen" (whatever that might be).

Black Orchid: (2006) Black truffle, ylang-ylang, gardenia, bergamot, mandarin, black currant, jasmine, lotus wood, floral (orchid?) notes, patchouli, incense, vanilla tears, vetiver, balsam, sandalwood. I suppose the fun had to end sometime. This is very, very pretty but there is little va-voom to it, no matter how many times the advertising copy mentions dramatic, decadent sensuality. It is sad how hard everyone seems to have tried, though. The truffle almost lends some earthiness, the fruit is almost overripe, the patchouli almost threatens to misbehave, there is almost a daringly weird marine moment late in the drydown. It's going to sell like hotcakes - but I have never liked hotcakes (aren't they just flat soggy bread?)