Monday, April 27, 2009

What does an elephant smell like?

Sometimes I come across scents that make me wonder.

“Breath of God” is one such fragrance. Anything that gets a five-star review from Tania Sanchez gets my attention; this one did. Even without the five stars it still would have, simply because of the over-the-top-ness of the name.

I got a sample in a swap, eagerly ripped off the tape and sprayed it on the back of my hand. I thought, immediately, WTF? Gasoline and sticky candy? And then I thought, “Breath of Dog.”

It just came to me. The scent smells nothing like the breath of a dog, of course. The opening is actually a nose-tickling vetiver and something really, really sweet, and it’s so volatile that there’s a bitter residue on my lips after sniffing it.

Most of the time, when I smell scents either made for the Japanese market or by companies in Japan, they’re tooth-decaying, diabetes-inducing sweet. Far be it from me to even attempt to analyze modern Japanese culture, but this makes me wonder. I’m thinking that this scent, if it is not already targeted to that culture, really should be.

Tania Sanchez says in the winter ’08 Guide newsletter that Breath of God has the “sweet biological rot of compost below and dry air touched with woodsmoke above.” (Let’s call that one “Breath of Bog.”) Wow. If it smelled like that, I’d probably buy a bottle! “Surreal combinations,” she also says. That’s more like it.

I wonder sometimes if any of us are smelling what the others are.

Remember the legend about the eight blind men and the elephant? One grabs the trunk. “An elephant,” he pronounces, “is like a snake.” Another feels the elephant’s leg and declares, “No, an elephant is like a tree.” And so on.

More than anything, I detect in “Breath of God” a shrill note of God-knows-what.

But if you are patient, and I mean very very patient, you will be rewarded with a lovely dry-down, close to the skin, a little floral, a little musky, a little grassy, like a hundred other scents. Is it worth the wait? IMHO, no. So what do I know? I’m still a noob, it seems.

Sometimes, though, I think we get caught up in the rush toward fragrance-as-art, because, as I’ve mentioned here before, perfume as art doesn’t get a lot of respect, at least not yet. You’ll hear in, say, November that some Lutens or Malle or some niche strangeness is IT, and rush to buy or sample it and two months later see that it’s being written about as “mushroom compost mixed with Vicks Vap-O-Rub.”

So it could easily be that Sanchez is at a level of connoisseurship I haven’t approached yet, not even come near, may never. Or it could be that the elephant is very like a tree.

At any rate, is it that I don’t like “Breath of God,” or don’t understand “Breath of God” yet?

Have any of you had similar experiences? As when an esteemed critic loves something and you’re left scratching your head and wondering, hunh?

Something tells me I’m not the only one.

Tell me by Wednesday, May 6th, Midnight US EDT, and I will do a drawing, and send one of you a 1 ml (roughly) sample of “Breath of God” so you can decide for yourself.

“Breath of God” is made by “B Never Too Busy To Be Beautiful.” The perfumer is Simon Constantine.

I have no idea what “Breath of God’s” notes are, other than vetiver. Do you? If so, please tell me in your comment!

An administrative detail: before my old junker laptop crashed a couple of weeks ago, I had a “blind copy” mailing list with the names of a number of other bloggers and perfume people on it. I lost it. If you’d like to be notified by e-mail when there’s a new post on “Olfactarama,” please send me a note at pborow at comcast dot net and I’ll recreate one.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Madame X

“A portrait,” said the celebrated American painter John Singer Sargent, “is a picture in which something is wrong with the mouth.”

A generous swapper sent me a sample of Ava Luxe’s “Madame X.” I knew nothing about this scent, so, when I opened the vial, I was surprised at its richness. It reminded me of vintage Bal a Versailles, but drier, a little more leathery in the opening. It also had an unmistakable animal note, a molecule of seductive ripeness, and powder -- nearly as much powder as Habanita.

The name fits beautifully. The subject of Sargent’s infamous-for-its-time painting was an expatriate American beauty, Virginie Amélie Avegno, who was born in Louisiana, groomed by her mother to marry up (and did) and ultimately became the subject of a fierce scandal. As Madame Pierre Gautreau, wife of a wealthy Parisian banker, she was free to behave as she pleased, or so she thought. She kept designers in business making her luxurious gowns, painted her face and reddened her earlobes -- a detail that Sargent noticed -- tinted her hair and even, it was whispered, ate bits of arsenic to maintain the pallor of her white skin, which she then dusted with lavender-tinted powder.

It was inevitable that Sargent would paint her. At the time, his work was rendering the rich. True also to their time and place, his well-placed subjects made no attempt to disguise their view of the portraitist as a highly skilled servant (this is the source of Sargent’s remark).

Sargent complained to a friend that Madame Gautreau was difficult, lazy and fidgety; the many preliminary sketches for the painting, of the lady in widely varying poses, illustrate this. When the portrait was finally finished, it was debuted at a Salon show in Paris, 1884. (It was in a slightly different form then. One strap of her gown had fallen from her shoulder in seductive dishabille.) That errant strap cost the painter and his subject their reputations.

Sargent eventually regained his. Madame Gautreau didn’t. She fell from belle of Paris to its laughingstock. The Gautreaus refused to buy the painting. Ultimately, Sargent painted the fallen shoulder strap back into place, and in 1916 he sold the painting to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Madame Gautreau never recovered. When her celebrated looks began to fade, she became a recluse, living out her seclusion in a series of homes without mirrors.

In the hands of a less talented painter, this might have been a portrait of a vain and silly 19th-century Frenchwoman. In Sargent’s, it was a masterpiece.

I have been somewhat amiss in these pages. I haven’t written much about the perfumers, the artists who create the fragrances. In the narrowing world of the modern perfumer’s art, I believe that it is more important than ever to write about them, especially the niche, the self-taught, the independents. “Madame X” was made by Serena Ava Franco, whose line of scents (and there are many) is known as “Ava Luxe.” Ms. Franco is a jeweler as well as a perfumer in San Diego, California. Her line includes many perfumes with tantalizing names like “Madame X.” Others -- I intend to try them all eventually -- are Chypre Noire, Loukhoum, Incense Tibet, Film Noir and Firewood. There are many more.

In the lushness of the fragrance “Madame X,” I can envision the powdered white skin of Madame Gautreau, who must have perfumed herself as lavishly as she lived. The name of this perfume could not be more perfect.

“Madame X” contains notes of coriander, acacia, farnesiana, new-mown hay, jasmine, rose, labdanum, leather, incense, patchouli, oakmoss, civet, amber, castoreum, sandalwood, musks and vanilla.

It is generally called an “animalic oriental.”

Monday, April 20, 2009

Special Edition: Winner!

The winner of the drawing for 3 mls each of "O de Lancome", "YSL In Love Again" and "Silences" is: Charlotte Vail!

All contest winners are chosen using

Charlotte, you have until May 3rd (midnight, US EDT) to get in touch with me at olfactarama at gmail dot com. If I don't hear from you I'll pick a second-place entry.

Thanks for entering, everybody!

Photo by Keith M. Borow. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The death of vinyl -- an allegory

Reminder: deadline for the O de Lancome, YSL "In Love Again" and Jacomo "Silences" samples drawing is Sunday, April 19, midnight US EDT! Leave a comment to enter.

Gather round the fire kiddies, and grandma will tell you about something they used to call the “record business.”

Once upon a time -- Caleb! I told you! Stop setting your sister on fire! -- music was “sold.” There were places called “record stores” and the clerks in them were cool. What those clerks really wanted, though, was to someday work at a “record company,” which was a building filled mostly with balding fortyish men with little ponytails who yelled into the phone all day long.

One day the VP of Filling Up Warehouses walked into a marketing meeting at the coolest record company of them all, holding a little silver disk. (Yes, kiddies, your grandma was there.) It would last forever, he said. You could smear peanut butter on it and it would still play, he said. And the music sounded so much better, he said!

Soon everybody in what we used to call The Industry fell all over themselves trying to get rid of the big, clumsy, heavy “records.” Why, they told us and we told distribution and they told sales to tell the customers, would anyone want something that could develop a skip in it? Everybody knew that the silver discs -- CD’s, they called them -- never would, because you could smear peanut butter on them and they’d still play. And besides, records were expensive to warehouse and CD’s -- well, they were lighter, and you could print the booklets cheap -- no more overindulged “artists” demanding embossed covers with big pictures on them -- and they could close half the warehouses and save some serious cash that way and man, could they save big bucks on shipping. And it wasn’t like anybody wanted to see pictures of those “artists” anyway. Most of them were ugly, and besides, all those big jackets were expensive to print. And, best of all, you could charge twice as much for the CD’s, because they were cool!

Well, kids, your grandma had some doubts. What about the packaging, she said. The portraits you could see, the liner notes, the sense of ownership of something tactile and real? Got into a few arguments with the boys that ran $ales. Lost.

The retail people were thrilled, though. You could actually get people to buy their entire record collections all over again! Cash registers rang out all over the land, and life was good. The party went on.

But it didn’t take long for the “market” to figure out how to get the music for free. (Hey, that’s why they call it the “free market!”) Turned out it was real easy to steal digital music. Generation after generation after generation with no loss of quality! It was a counterfeiter’s dream. Music could be made and sold anywhere, by anybody, ready or not. And then came digital downloads. And then Napster. And pretty soon the party was over, as sales went down and down down until the record companies got gobbled up by big corporate sharks a.k.a. “The Suits.”

Then an odd thing happened. Vinyl became cool again. Well, not to everybody, but to the people who actually liked music.

It turned out that there was something, well, authentic about these big clumsy scratchy heavy records. That those grooves contained something that came to be called “analog warmth.” That people actually did want to see photos of the artists that were bigger than “postage stamps.” Pretty soon all the coolest bands were releasing their music on vinyl again.

You see, kiddies, the record “business” had screwed up. In this mad rush for happy bankers and a big ole bottom line, they had underestimated their customers. Just a bunch of baboons with greasy “cash” in their grubby palms and yeah they’ll buy what we tell ‘em to buy, because we are the coolest of the cool and we know what’s what.

Guess not, eh?

Now, most of those former “buyers” get their music cheap. Nobody’s paying $20 for a whole CD’s worth of music any more; not when you can download the one song you really want for free, uh, 99 cents; oh, wait, $1.29, which is roughly what a “single” cost in oh, 1970 or so.

They say if you live long enough you’ll see everything.

In other words kids, the “record business,” like your great-grandpa used to say, shot itself in the foot.

But we all know: nobody’s that dumb now.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Random: What a way to spend Easter!

Remember to enter the drawing for O de Lancome, YSL In Love Again and Silences samples! Leave a comment to enter. Deadline is Sunday, April 19, midnight US EDT.

Oh, go ahead and host an Easter egg hunt for the neighborhood kids. Just don’t, you know, put out any eggs.

Configuring a new computer (my old one crashed). This one is a Mac. I keep waiting for it to jump up and make me coffee but so far it just sits there being all white and shiny and cool and everything.

Wait a second. I have a husband for the coffee thing.

Wow! Macs sure are cool!

SL Nuits de Cellophane sample arrived! (sniffing sound) ...and?

Rosine Rose d’Homme. If there was such a thing in the U.S. as a man willing to wear this I’d follow him down the street. Oh, wait a second....that’s me!

....and Habit Rouge. I’ve read that it’s the signature scent of one Keith Richards, the very pinnacle, the summit, the alpha and the omega, of wasted, pre-embalmed grandeur.

Q: What will survive the Apocalypse? A: Cockroaches, and Keith Richards.

Narciso Rodrieguez for Her EDT: There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s pleasant. But you know what? I just don’t like musk.

“Skin scent?” Hunh? If you want to smell like skin, don’t wear scent.

Remember how rich in olfactory phenomena the average American household was once? We’d dye Easter eggs and the kitchen would smell like vinegar for a week.

Somehow I can’t imagine that happening now. It would be exhaust-fanned/house-fanned/filtered/Lysol’d/Plug-In’ed right off this mortal coil, chop-chop.

Iris Silver Mist. I tried. I mean, I really tried. I really, really did. No, really! I did! I swear to God!

Look for my sample (with a generous amount left) under “Olfacta” on MUA.

Should we be stocking up on vintage perfumes now?

I’m going to miss the Chypres. The real ones. You know, the ones that’ll kill you.

Paraphrasing Gore Vidal on Bill Maher’s show: (when asked by a quivering-with-admiration Bill about religion in a mixed marriage):

“It’s simple. One week you don’t go to her church. The next week, you don’t go to yours.”

Happy Easter/Pesach/Passover/Greek Easter/Oestre, everybody!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Art vs. Commerce: a new look

Reminder: deadline for the Silences/O d'Lancome/In Love Again samples drawing is midnight, April 19th (Sunday) U.S. EDT. Leave a comment – any comment – and you’re automatically entered!

This was a very early entry I made to "Olfactarama" when I first became aware of the IFRA regulations brouhaha. I believe even more strongly now that the perfume industry should take a look at the art supply business as a possible solution to this problem. Not that they will. But they could. Not that they will.

Here's what I wrote, edited somewhat, back in the dark ages of last September: (edits bolded)

"I’m trying to sort all of this regulation/restriction stuff out.

I’m a painter as well as a semi-noob perfumista. Hmmmm.

Art supplies. Well, let's see. We could start with the solvents, like turpentine, and then delve into heavy metals – the cadmiums, cobalts – don’t forget manganese, chromium oxide, or mediums like stand oil (which is given to spontaneous combustion). Then there are the easily inhaled dry pigments; pastels, varnishes…the list goes on and on. So I’m going to look at one ingredient: white lead. And two industries: perfumery and art supply.

Lead is toxic. But the white it makes is incomparable. In painting, especially of skin, nothing else even comes close. It’s warm in tone, opalescent when thinned, with an almost-crumbly texture when thick. There are substitutes, the most common being Titanium White, a pastelike goo that chills everything it touches, turns green to mint and red to Pepto-Bismol pink. Many painters use it because of lead’s bad rep. But you can still buy flake white in any well-stocked art supply store. Why is that?

Is it because it’s better? Produces better work? Or is it because the art supply industry is willing to let us decide for ourselves?

So you want to use flake (lead) white? You use a barrier cream.You never, ever “point” (suck) a loaded brush, and you dispose of everything that's touched it at a hazardous waste facility. You don’t smear paint all over yourself, eat it, eat while using it, or let the kids use it. In other words, you are a thinking, responsible grown-up.

Even the Consumer Product Safety Commission in the US exempts artists’ paints from lead restriction. Compliance is voluntary, but you’ll see a caution label on all artists’ paints that contain lead, or any toxic pigment.

So now let’s talk about oakmoss, which will be banned entirely as of January 1, 2010.

Apparently, the main problem here is that two chemicals found in oakmoss and treemoss, atranol and chloroatranol, can cause a dermal reaction – in other words, a rash. There is a long list of other suspect ingredients, too. The current standard for the two above is 100 ppm; there’s talk of reducing that to 2 ppm; and then no ppm.

I don’t claim to be an expert on this. The EU Cosmetics Directive appears to be behind it, along with something called the Scientific Committee on Cosmetic Products. (Funny, I think of Europe as a sort of laissez-faire place and the US as the country of protecting-us-from-ourselves, but maybe not.)

Can we talk about peanuts on planes, cigarettes (we know they kill us, so why are they still being sold?) Booze, wine and beer? Air pollution? Dust mites? Prescription drugs that seem to have more side effects than effects? (Hey, just ask your doctor for a reason to take it!)

So what’s a little oakmoss, hunh? Couldn’t they just put a caution label on the bottles, as they do on tubes of flake white paint? Or do a niche sideline (like “Classic Coke”) of perfumes containing these supposedly hazardous substances, for people who prefer the smoothness, richness and longevity that oakmoss and its ilk provide? Who are willing, and would pay more, to risk death by oakmoss? To live dangerously, that is, over 100 ppm?

(Hmmm...maybe that's not so desirable in corporate perfumeland. Hmmm...better for the bottom line to have to spray yourself all day long, use up your bottle and have to buy more)

I smell a rat.

I’m wondering exactly how expensive it is to harvest oakmoss. I mean, it can’t be easy. It’s a lichen. It grows in lots of different places. My guess is that obtaining it might involve dealing with temperamental small-time suppliers in the boonies, weather, blights, fluctuating prices, fluctuating availability, the hassle of extracting it, shipping it, customs paperwork, etc. etc. Why not just synthesize it in some sleek lab?

But apparently, that’s not so easy. Oakmoss is not a simple substance to replicate, or so I’ve read. I wonder how difficult the other ones on the EU no-no list might be. Bet all that allergy testing costs big bucks, too. Hmmmm. Wonder where that cash is coming from?

In the world of art and painting, flake white is a “niche” product. It’s toxic, yeah, but they let us judge. They warn us, but we can get flake white if we really want it.

I could be wrong, but this issue of “dermal sensitization” seems just a little too convenient."

It's pretty clear that perfume lovers are not going to win this battle. Business is business, the stakes are high, and we're a tiny little group in the great big world. But how many painters are there? How many who paint in oil and insist on the highest-quality ingredients? There can't be that many.

Perhaps the art supply industry, with its full range of available materials, just values its own history more than the fragrance industry does. And that's a shame.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Three for spring that won't break the bank (and a drawing!)

Spring? Huh, you say? Spring? It’s snowing/raining/flooding/freezing. But don’t fear, my pretties, it will come. Trust me on this.

I’ve been shopping. Stocking up on all those “Eaus” our usually hot springs and miserable Georgia summers demand. In big bottles, too. Here’s what I’m thinking: once the Burghers of Brussels are successful in removing any ingredient that might cause a rash in one of ten thousand of us, such as hydroxycitronell (are they joking? Hydroxycitronell?!) as well as oakmoss and who knows what else, many of our beloved summer scents are going to smell like a melting popsicle and probably last about as long. So I’m hitting the online discounters for (I hope) their older stock in full bottles. Some of these are surprisingly inexpensive. Here are a few:

O de Lancôme: suggested by Helg from Perfume Shrine. I asked on Perfume Posse if anyone knew of a citrus that might last. After the laughing stopped, Helg suggested this one, among others, as a lemony citrus with a little green bite. This has been around since the early Seventies, although it has been reworked. (Bottle purists be advised: it does come in a hard acrylic bottle, which I assume has to do with the low price.) And it does last, especially for a citrus, even on me. I’m thinking: work, gym, walks, lunches, wear it wherever I want. A decant in my handbag, as with all of these: the modern equivalent of smelling salts on a July day. Notes include the usual citrus fruits plus petit grain, jasmine, honeysuckle, basil, rosemary, coriander, oakmoss, cedar, sandalwood and vetiver. On me, the citrus notes predominate.

In Love Again (YSL): Okay, this isn’t news. It’s a Jean-Claude Ellena, from 1998, relaunched in 2004, and I’ve heard it described as a rehearsal for Un Jardin sur le Nil. But the surprise, at least on me, was the drydown. I sprayed it on a T-shirt, went to sleep in a cloud of sweet grapefruit, and work up in a garden of subtle berries and flowers. Okay, the name is kind of dumb, but the fragrance is really nice! Notes include grapefruit rind, grapes, bilberry (which I believe is from Australia), tulip tree flower, water lily, blackberry, sandalwood and musk.

Silences (Jacomo) Read Helg's review here. I can’t add much to it except to say that this is one of the most unusual scents I’ve ever experienced: mossy, dark, intense bitter green. Helg says that this one came out just before the release of Opium, and, as all the other companies fell all over each other trying to duplicate Opium’s success, it was mostly forgotten. I’ve never tried the vintage Vent Vert, unfortunately, but I bet this one is in the same ballpark. My husband describes it as “sultry.” If you like dark greens, get this while you still can; it’s ridiculously inexpensive on the online discount sites.

(Note: there is some confusion about the versions; there was a reformulation at some point. The most recent version features, according to Jacomo's site, narcissus absolute, iris “from Florence,” rose, blackcurrant absolute, galbanum, calendula, Bulgarian rose, lily of the valley, oakmoss, ambrette, sandalwood and vetiver.)

If you’d like to receive samples of these three, three mills of each, in a sprayer (c’mon, I’m not going to tell you how inexpensive these are and then send you a lousy 1 ml vial) leave me a comment and I’ll do a random drawing. Deadline is Sunday, April 19, midnight US E.S.T.

Narcissus photograph by Keith M. Borow. All rights reserved.