Friday, January 30, 2009

Smellscapes: A Whiff of Corruption

“Ipoh, the first major stop on the Kuala Lumpur run, has a station hotel, a late-Victorian Gormenghast with long windows covered by somber curtains. The brown drapery hangs in thick folds, keeping out the breeze and preserving the heat, which is paddled around the dining room by ten slow fans. All the tables are set, and the waiter, who might be dead, is propped against the wall at the far side of the room. It is fairly certain there is a suicide upstairs waiting to be discovered, and the flies that soar through the high-ceilinged bar are making for the corpse of this ruined planter or disgraced towkay. It is the sort of hotel that has a skeleton in every closet and a register thick with the pseudonyms of adulterers. I once walked into the station hotel at Ipoh with my little boy, and as soon as we crossed the threshold he began to cry. His innocent nose had smelled what mine couldn’t, and I rushed away with him, relieved, savoring the well-being of deliverance.”

-- Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar, 1975

This passage is from Theroux’s classic book about real travel. It's about a trip he took, by rail, from London to, well, London, by way of the Near East, India, Asia and Russia. “After all,” he says at the end, “the grand tour is just the inspired man’s way of heading home.”

Sunday, January 25, 2009


I shop for groceries at an international farmers’ market. Their spice section takes up an entire wall, and unlike the American couple-of-tablespoons-in-a-can supermarket product, their spices come in containers of four ounces or more. And they’re reasonably priced; sensory travel at bargain rates!

One spice I hadn’t experienced much before I discovered this place is cardamom. They sell lots, because my city has a large Indian population. A most exotic and exalted flavoring, it is one of the most expensive, too – only saffron and vanilla pods cost more.

In my exploration of perfume notes, I come across cardamom all the time. It’s in Ormonde Jayne’s “Man” and “Woman,” two of the most gorgeous fragrances out there. Jean-Claude Ellena used it in his India-themed Un Jardin Apres La Mousson of course, but it’s also in his Eau Parfumee au The Vert. It’s in L’Artisan’s Timbuktu and Chanel’s Pour Monsieur, Donna Karan’s Chaos and Malle’s Cologne Bigarade. Basenotes lists 331 scents that use it (and I’m sure there are more).

A little research opens all the history books, which is so often the case with spices. Cardamom, a member of the Zingiberaceae (ginger) family, is hugely ancient, so ancient that its root word is hard to define. The early Egyptians used it as a dentifrice. In Asia, it’s still used medicinally, for problems of the mouth, throat and lungs. The Vikings brought it home from Constantinople, where it is now a key ingredient of aquavit. The Arabs called it an aphrodisiac, and it’s still brewed with coffee throughout the Middle East. The Greeks and Romans made perfumes with it.

There are three forms: green is the most common, and is harvested in India. Not much makes it out for export, because it’s so common a food ingredient there. What we get in the U.S. is usually grown in Central America. The black form, which is a little more smoky and camphorous than the green, is part of garam masala – and also shows up in Dolce & Gabana’s “D + G By For Men” and Paco Rabanne’s “Black XS.” There’s also a white form, used mostly in Scandinavia for baking. And it’s a common ingredient of the spiced tea masala chai.

So what does pure cardamom smell and taste like? Primary research time:

The pod, when chewed, is papery and tough. I can see why it was once used as a toothbrush. The black seeds inside contain the flavor. I chewed some of them There’s sweetness, quickly eclipsed by bitter lemon rind-like taste. Then comes menthol and camphor, a greenish Eucalyptus, and a slight numbing of the tongue. Smelling the crushed pods and seeds reveals the camphor, and when deeply inhaled it cools the nasal passages.

I left the crushed pods out overnight. Their scent this morning had a fruitiness that wasn’t there initially. It had mellowed, become more aromatic, but without the overwhelming Vicks Vap-O-Rub-like camphor of the just-crushed seeds.

It was Eau Parfumee au The Verte that renewed my interest in fine perfumery, which had been more or less dormant for years prior to that. I had no idea what the ingredients were and no desire to find out then; I just knew I loved the perfume. Smelling it now, with a mortar full of crushed cardamom pods alongside, I think: of course. Cardamom.

Perfumery is where we rediscover the world.

For a dessert from “Gourmet” that features cardamom as well as other perfume essences like oranges, bergamot, black tea, dried fruit (and vanilla, if you serve it over ice cream) called “Oranges and Prunes in Cardamom Tea Syrup” follow this link:

Cardamom photo by Kelly Cline.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


It occurred to me recently that I’d never tried a pure musk scent.

Musk was associated with Jersey, disco, too-tight jeans etc., back in the day, so I never cared to smell Jovan Musk or the others. But a scent I’d seen around the boards called “Egyptian Musk” intrigued me. It sounded so down. I noticed that a large decant of Ava Luxe’s version of it was for sale on a decant site, and thought, well, it’s Ava Luxe, I’ve wanted to try their line anyway, so I ordered it.

It wasn’t that it was bad. It’s that it …wasn’t. Meaning, when the package arrived, I eagerly ripped it open and sprayed some on my hand and…nothing. Like water.


I sprayed some more. And then some more. Finally I was able to detect the faintest suggestion of…wax? Just plain wax, like an ordinary candle? Perplexed, I put it aside. When my husband came home, I sprayed on some more and asked him, “do you smell this?”

“Yes,” he said, “Yes, I do. Now go wash it off please.” It was very strong, he said. And he said some other things I won’t go into here.

Aesthetic judgments aside. It suddenly occurred to me, a dim memory of something I’d read; musk molecules are huge. So huge, in fact, that some people can’t smell them. They’re too big to fit into the smell receptors.

Once again, I hit the books.

There are, as anyone who has read the books by or about Dr. Turin knows, competing theories of how smell works. One area of general agreement is musk. Some can’t smell it. Others can’t stand it. There is also variation between people as to which musks can be smelled and which cannot. This appears to be a function of the “phenotype,” which is the physical manifestation of genetic coding.

In a 1996 experiment performed by Drs. Avery Gilbert and Sarah Kemp, 32 subjects were evaluated for musk hypernosmia. Twelve of them were hypersensitive to all the musks used. Sixteen were insensitive to all of them. Four of the subjects, however, were sensitive to some but not others. Through various statistical analyses, Gilbert and Kemp concluded that there appears to be a genetic coding for “presumptive odor receptors,” as they relate to the musks used in the study. Ultimately, they speculate, this may be similar to color-blindness; a phenotype.

Now I’m wondering: am I anosmic to all musks, or just some?

I’ve always had a sensitive nose, especially for malodorous substances (for example, I can tell long before my husband that it’s time to take the garbage out.) But…could it be that I haven’t even been smelling what other people have been? Especially if the perfumes contain musks?

Say it ain’t so, Joe!

What molecules does Ava Luxe use? If they’re the same ones used in the older mass-market musks, maybe I didn’t smell those either: oh, horrible thought, maybe I missed a big part of the Seventies because I didn’t smell them!

I have samples of "Muscs Kublai Khan" and "Musc Ravageuer" and others of that ilk. But what was I really smelling?

Looking at reviews of "Egyptian Musk" – and there aren’t many – uncovered generalities like “a nice skin musk,” whatever that is. One mentioned roses. One person (of two MUA reviewers) – a long-lost relative of mine? – couldn’t smell it at all.

I’d like to get some feedback on this. Dear readers: Have you had this same anosmia to a particular musk? Some of them? All of them?

Inquiring blogger wants to know.

For anyone who would like to look at Gilbert and Kemp’s study entitled “Odor Perception Phenotypes: Multiple, Specific Hypernosmias to Musks,” the link is

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Mistress Balmain

There are few images from the history of this particular art that are more memorable than those of perfumer Germaine Cellier sniffing the crotches of recently removed runway models’ knickers in order to commit their essence to her memory. This reportedly took place at Robert Piguet’s 1944 couture show, in which the models also brandished accoutrements of war, like pistols and knives. Cellier’s resulting composition was "Bandit," one of the benchmarks of the leather family.

What exactly constitutes “leather” in perfume is sometimes mysterious. It’s everything from birch tar to castoreum to the synthetic isobutyl quinoline. Identifying a “leather” fragrance reminds me of that senator’s statement about porn: “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” Leather fragrances are like that. I know ‘em when I smell ‘em. Oh, and one more thing about leather: it’s not something you wear to the eighth grade prom. Leather scents are now and always have been made for assured and grown-up women.

This makes "Miss Balmain" a little odder and more interesting than I thought it would be.

First, there was Balmain’s “Jolie Madame,” Gertrude Stein’s signature scent, also from Cellier. The scent of the EDT I have, which is of some vintage, is parabolic: the butchest, darkest leather base imaginable, topped off with violets so sweet a little girl could wear them at Easter, and not much in the middle. That this scent was released in 1953, when American media was mounting its Herculean effort to return WWII factory women to their kitchens, is remarkable. (Consider Donna Reed, who won an Oscar playing a cynical whore in 1953’s “From Here to Eternity” and ended up spending the Fifties behind a stove on television.) It seems so symbolic of its time.

And then there’s “Miss Balmain.” This perfume was released in 1967, at the height of what Diana Vreeland called the “Youthquake.” (It was composed by one Harry Cutler, about whom there is no other information I can find.) In a way, this perfume could be Jolie Madame’s hip little sister, but in no way does it resemble the drugstore florals that generally characterize the late Sixties.

If Jean Shrimpton wore English Lavender, I suppose Faye Dunaway (as Bonnie Parker from 1967’s “Bonnie and Clyde”) could have carried off “Miss Balmain.” It is more floral and lighter than Jolie Madame, but, according to Ozmoz, the basenotes are the same. The most glaring difference in the two is the use of aldehydes. Perhaps those were added to give the scent some Sixties effervescence, and they did. Miss Balmain is Jolie Madame without the violets, but with its era’s flowers and fizz.

I appreciate Bandit – even reformulated, who doesn’t appreciate Bandit? – but find the violets in Jolie Madame to be cloying. For actual wearing, I prefer “Miss Balmain.” Even in modern formulation, it’s all about the leather, but approachable, too, more available than some of the older leathers, and much more reasonably priced.

And, best of all, it’s impossible to imagine Paris Hilton wearing it.

According to Perfume Shrine’s “Scents Famous People Wear” Faye Dunaway actually wears Norell.

Notes for “Bandit” include galbanum, artemisia, neroli, ylang-ylang, jasmine, rose, tuberose, carnation, leather, vetiver, oakmoss, musk and patchouli.

Notes for “Jolie Madame” include gardenia, artemesia, bergamot, coriander, neroli, jasmine, tuberose, rose, jonquil, orris, patchouli, oakmoss, vetiver, musk, castoreum, leather and civet. (Oddly enough, these do not include "violet," although the scent, which is usually synthetic, is obvious and is commonly listed as a note in Jolie Madame.)

Notes for “Miss Balmain” include gardenia, thiyone (whatever that is), coriander, aldehydes, jasmine, narcissus, orris, carnation, patchouli, castoreum, leather and vetiver.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Habanita and Regret

In the days before air conditioning, well-bred Southern ladies covered themselves with dusting powder after each bath. This was applied generously with a large puff, while humming “Dixie” and dreaming of gentleman callers….uh, probably not! My guess is that you didn’t make it from the tub to the towel without breaking a sweat.

Most of the dusting powder became exactly that – dust. I can still remember my very un-southern mother complaining about having been expected, as a young wife, to clean sinks, mirrors, floors and bedroom furniture thickly coated with dusting powder after her mother-in-law’s baths.

This very Blanche du Bois-like scene comes to mind whenever I smell vintage Habanita. It is a perfume out of time. Released in 1921, it was invented to scent cigarettes, so that they would smell more feminine; at some point, the daring smokers began applying it to themselves.

There is a bitterness to the vintage Habanita. It is thickly powdery, and opens with a scent that reminds me of cherry cough drops, but it morphs quickly into that bitterness with very little of the aromatic tobacco note Habanita is supposed to have. (I’m not sure how old my bottle is. From the way the gold foil peels off the sprayer, and the engraved, not stickered, bottom of the bottle, I’d say it was surely pre-Eighties.)

I have a modern decant, too, and it is a little different. As it opens, the powder is there, but in the background, and there are other notes: florals, and an aromatic note that I suppose is the tobacco. On the drydown, though, the powder eclipses them -- just not quite as much.

I thought I’d love vintage Habanita. As soon as I smelled the modern version, I began looking for an old bottle. I found it and (never underestimate the power of cognitive dissonance) and set about convincing myself that I loved it. I also found some vintage extrait, in a strange, squatty little gilded glass bottle, and grabbed that, too.

Of the three, the vintage extrait is the most appealing. The tobacco is very much out front, and the powderiness is less obvious even at the end. Was this how Habanita originally smelled? Without a visit to a fragrance museum, I guess I’ll never know.

The truth is, though, that Habanita is a relic.

I say this as someone who loves and wears vintage perfumes all the time. I even wear Coty Chypre, as its austere quality speaks volumes. Fracas is lush, Bandit bitter, Ma Griffe spinsterish and strange. But Habanita, to me, is oppressive, as oppressive as coating yourself with powder lest anyone see you sweat.

This is what you learn by doing. Reading about painting isn’t painting; reading about travel isn’t traveling; reading about Habanita isn’t wearing Habanita.

I wish it was.

Notes for Habanita include bergamot, orange blossom, galbanum, oakmoss, jasmine, rose, ylang ylang, heliotrope, amber, leather, sandalwood, benzoin and vanilla.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

More at Random

What is the deal with romance novel reviews on Perfume Bloggers anyway? Aren’t there enough romance novel review sites? Sorry, but perfume seems to me a higher art than soft-porn-for-women.

I gotta get out of this place. Somewhere without a cat box.

Saw Peter Bogdanovitch’s film about Tom Petty on Sundance over the weekend. In case you think Tom’s a dumb Southern cracker, remember this: he took on MCA Records. Twice. And won. Definitely worth seeing.

Just finished Rob Walker’s book “Buying In” about stealth marketing. Apparently there are many people willing to act as buzz-agents for products like…sausage? And they don’t even get much free sausage!

I’m sniffing my way through the Rosines. Aahhh, bliss. More later.

Even notice how the kid in the comic strip “Brewster Rockit” gets hurt a lot? He’s obviously based on Wesley in “Star Trek: TNG.” Funny stuff.

I never liked that kid anyway.

Speaking of “Star Trek: TNG” my husband screwed up and taped the “Borg Queen” episode over our wedding video.

I thought this was funny. No, really! I did!

Speaking of stealth marketing, isn’t it interesting how Fragrantica gathered all the perfume blogs together and…hmmmm.

Big news from the Art World: people are buying cheaper paintings. Really?

Ray Pettibon. Any other fans? I used to have a bunch of his Black Flag flyers. Threw them out by mistake when we moved. Now he’s on the cover of “Art in America.” Oh well.

Wore some Coty Chypre over the weekend. Man did it smell good. Made me think of Joan Crawford in her shoulder-pad days.

“Big Love” starts up again on HBO soon. In two seasons, it morphed from snickering schoolboy joke about a guy trying to satisfy three wives to…something else, complete with extended whack-job Mormon families, business problems, the neighbors…I can’t wait.