Friday, October 30, 2009

Samples: Trick or Treat!

Like many of you, I've been amassing samples lately. Swaps, freebies, kind ' know. And it's not as though I haven't wanted to try them. I mean, I have tried some of them. At night, before going to sleep...and in the morning I'm thinking, now what did that one smell like?

It's just that Olfacta has been distracted lately. Taking a course that actually requires outside reading and work. Not that anybody else actually does much, but hey, I always was the kid in school that showed up each September with a spanking new notebook and a handful of sharpened pencils. Anyway it's almost over, so.

If you do a lot of swapping, then you know that it's Basic Swap Etiquette to throw in a couple of "extras." Add that to the free-with-purchase handful you get from the niche sellers and you're talking about a very fine candy haul. So, I did a customized trick or treat. I put them all in a bag and picked five at random (no peeking, honest) and am having myself one fine little Halloween party.

Remember, though, how you'd trade the Halloween candy? For example, a peanut butter cup for your brother's miniature bar of chocolate? If I could trade one of the five, which one would it be? So here goes: my random candy.

Parfums Del Rae Amoureuse: This reminds me of Stargazer lilies, a flower I often see at Christmas, with its creamy white petals, red dots, orange stamens and heavy, hammy fragrance. Amoureuse opens a little sharp with tangerine -- a difficult note for me -- but drifts into an unusual floral mix. It's notable for the skill with which perfumer Michael Roudnitska used the divas, jasmine and tuberose, but somehow kept them from knocking the rest of the cast off the stage. The meaty note I detect must be from the ginger lily and, especially, the honey. I'd call this a honey fragrance. And, honey, it ain't shy. Not an office scent, but who cares?

Juliette Has a Gun Citizen Queen: I'm playing corporate wife at the company's holiday party. The boss's (third) wife approaches. "Ummm, you smell good," she says. "Is that Chanel?"

"No, it's Juliette Has a Gun."

Um, forget it.

The point is that unless this sample is mislabled, I don't get the brand's danger-gal imagery here, because this is appropriate for a Queen of the noble variety, or any variety. It's a lovely floral, a "modern chypre" (a term which usually reminds me only of what we've lost) with rose, and amber, a little musk, a little powder, some aldehydes, a little violet. Ok, it is not a background scent but, applied sparingly, it could be worn anywhere, by anyone. Perfumer: Romano Ricci.

Parfums de Nicolai Cologne Solange: A most serviceable, if not unique, summertime cologne, with the usual suspects: neroli, sandalwood, grapefruit, lemon verbena, Sicilian bergamot. On me, the neroli predominates, which makes it a little sweeter than, say, 4711. What's not to like? And it's relatively inexpensive. The perfumer is Patricia de Nicolai.

Miller Harris L'Air de Rien: Have you ever bought a vintage sweater and realized that, once you've worn it for a few hours, it's exuding the scent of somebody else's B.O.? Not rank old sweat, just someone else's...essence? Not necessarily bad, but not yours? The "official" notes don't tell this story (French oakmoss, Tunisian neroli, sweet musk, amber, vanilla). C'mon, MH! This is a sweet and dirty lowdown musk. It's really captivating, if you like that kind of thing, but be warned. Perfumer: Lyn Harris.

Ormonde Jayne Frangipani: OMG. This is a cool lei around your neck on a hot Hawaiian day, made of linden flowers, white frangipani, a few's a green-tinged, just-this-side-of-plum tropical floral, but there is nothing cloying or heavy here. Other "notes" include magnolia, lime, rose, tuberose, water lily, amber, musk and cedar. Mixed with consummate skill. The perfumer is Linda Pilkington of Ormonde Jayne.

Of all of these, I suppose I'd be most likely to trade the Cologne Solange, because, nice as it is, it's not a standout. But for someone who doesn't already have five or ten citrus-based summer scents, this just might be The One.

Full disclosure: The Ormonde Jayne Frangipani sample was part of a set I got courtesy of Ormonde Jayne after "Olfactarama" appeared on Fragrantica.

"Horror Girl" photo copyright Konstantin Sutyagin, used under license from

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Hold Your Noses!

Every so often, as I bemoan living in a red state filled with wingnuts and Jesus freaks, something happens that lifts my mood, makes me smile, quashes the “How did this happen?!” blues, and, once again, I’m filled with joy. Saturday’s Little Five Points Parade was such a moment for me.

Little Five Points is Atlanta’s bohemian neighborhood. Close to downtown, it’s filled with head shops, vintage clothing ships, offbeat clothing shops, bars, clubs, funky restaurants, derelicts, panhandlers and self-defined millennial hippies. So far, the area has done a pretty good job of resisting the gentrification that moves into such places like a rash. So far.

This was the best parade I’ve been to yet. Atlanta stalwarts The Abomnidable Feed and Seed Marching Band, leading off a twisted conga line of zombies and aging majorettes still twirling like it’s 1965! Floats full of horror-movie beauty Queens (girls too), pelting the crowd with Tootsie Rolls! Rock and roll and bluegrass bands on flatbed trucks driven by zombie aliens! And a whole troupe full of dancing, air-guitar playing, gender-bending Angus Youngs! (See photo - those of you who aren’t familiar with such things should know that Angus Young is the elder of AC/DC, still rocking in his schoolboy uniform.)

So we’re about half-way through the parade and suddenly I become aware of the foulest -- stench -- a smell hell itself could hardly produce -- you know sometimes you’ll be walking down the street in an old section of an old city on a hot day and will step over a sewer grate and there’s this...miasma? The Swamp Gas of Hades? It was like that. Only worse.

All around me people were holding their noses, eyes tearing up, choking. I see this white van coming down the street, and on the side, it says “Marty The Plumber.”

I’m thinking, oh, no. They wouldn’t.

Well, they would. The van passes us. It’s a stealth olfactory attack. People are reeling from the awful stench. Both of the van’s back doors are open, and inside is...a toilet. Not just any toilet, though. An unspeakable toilet, filled with facsimiles (I hope) of what you’d expect to find in an unspeakable toilet, overflowing, on the floor, everywhere, topped with a grinning death’s head spewing noxious vapor.

This was more than a float. It was an installation. It was Olfactory Art.

How did they do it? How did they produce that stench, in such quantity, with such strength, and such authenticity? Is Marty a chemist? Or is he simply so intimately familiar with such things that he can recreate them from common industrial gases?

People gripe about what plumbers cost. I never do. I figure that we can’t pay them enough. But to celebrate mount a rolling tribute to sewer gases...oh, I was so impressed.

(I also felt sorry for the float that was behind the van -- rather a long distance behind -- but maybe the gas masks helped.)

Turns out that Marty the Plumber is one of the parade’s sponsors. Next time my plumbing backs up, I’ll know who to call.

Marty, we salute you!

I didn’t have my camera, and haven’t been able to find a photo of Marty the Plumber’s van. My guess is that no one could handle being close enough to it to take one.

Above photo of the Angus Youngs by Jamie Gumbrect for For more of Gumbrect’s great Little 5 Points Parade photos, go here.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Falling in Love: Scents and Treats for Fall

I’ve had the honor of being asked to participate by Perfume Shrine in a group blog about autumn; autumn scents, autumn treats. My favorite season is a sensory delight, so here are some impressions. (There are links to the other contributors posts at the end of this one.)

Autumn has left the building, and I really miss it. But they say there is no inspiration like longing, so here goes.

Here in North Georgia, we usually have beautiful falls. Our hardwood trees -- maples, hickories, dogwoods -- burn like torches in orange, red and gold. Our sky is deep cornflower blue. The air is still warm, except for the frosty mornings when dew crystallizes the grass, and it crunches underfoot. Soon, someone will have their first fire in the fireplace, and the smell of wood smoke will perfume the neighborhood and...well, dream on.

It started raining about five weeks ago and, essentially, it hasn’t stopped. Parts of Atlanta flooded. Little creeks became rivers, and roads washed out. The streets are full of pits and potholes. It hasn’t gotten cold, just soggy, and everything is covered with mildew; green stones, green tree trunks, green fences, green sidewalks.

Our beautiful autumn leaves? Going green to brown and falling off. Our warm dry sunshine? Hah. There’s so much water in the ground that, for the first time I can remember, we’re having a humid fall. Some say this is nature’s way of equalizing after years of drought; the lakes are full and the farmers’ livelihoods are saved for one more year. I guess I shouldn’t complain.

So, I’m going to remember past autumns. And cross my fingers. The sun will come out tomorrow.

Here are some things to love about autumn, and a few of the fragrances that remind me of them.

Burn piles -- oh wait. Those have been banned for years here. Too smoky or something. Take a deep sniff of CB I Hate Perfume’s “Burning Leaves.” I remember.

Amber perfumes; Serge Luten’s Ambre Sultan; thyme and maple. I wonder how maple syrup would taste infused with thyme.

Ginger gold apples. An early variety of Golden Delicious, available only for a few weeks in September. Sweetness, and the slightest hint of ginger. These make the perfect apple pie.

Oh, and Cezanne's paintings of apples, too.

The porch pumpkin. Right about now you buy a pumpkin, put it out on the porch, and carve your jack-o-lantern from it when Halloween comes.

Cooking with butter, knowing you’ll work off the calories in the yard.

Braising and roasting instead of steaming and grilling.

Roasted vegetables with garlic.

Returning to extrait after the colognes and EDT's of summer. Vintage Bal a Versailles, worn on the first cool night.

Nutmeg. Grating it over vegetables.

Indian corn, affixed to the front door, from September until Christmas season, when it’s replaced with a wreath.

Candied and caramel apples at the county fair.

More fair food: sweet fried dough with powdered sugar ("funnel cakes").

The dusty smell of the furnace, the first time you turn it on.

Crispness: crisp air, crisp fruit, cold cider, crisp leaves on the ground.

The smell of dirt as you prepare garden beds for winter.

Putting on my leather jacket for the first time.

A wool scarf, scented with a heavy winter perfume. (Amouge’s Lyric for Women comes to mind.)

Regional autumn: my region anyway, the American South.

The Day -- the first day you realize that the humidity is gone; go home and break out the early fall fragrances; Nuits de Hadrien (Annick Goutal), vintage Woodhue, Vol de Nuit EDT, sprayed generously on clothing.

Mountain festivals with lots of fiddle music. I can’t help it. I love fiddle music. Listen to John Anderson’s song “Seminole Wind” for some of the best.

Sorghum syrup, made from boiling grasslike mountain cane. This was the sweetener for the Appalachian poor, for whom sugar and even honey were out of reach. Mitsouko reminds me of it, in some ways.

Livestock barns at county fairs. That warm animal smell. L'air de Rien (MPG) or Rien, from Etat Libre d’Orange: unsweetened animalics.

Fried apple pie, sold at apple farms. These are a sort of empanada, like a samosa or turnover but with apple-pie filling. Ambre Narguile.

Apple butter, sold in home-canned jars at apple farms. All about cinnamon. Serge Lutens Rousse, pure cinnamon, but it’s in many other amber perfumes.

The resinous smell of pine needles as you walk on them. Parfum d’Empire’s Wazamba, CDG’s Zgorsk. As kids we would scrape pine sap from the trees and roll it into balls -- the stickiest substance on earth, impossible to wash off, but such a wonderful smell.

The rattle of falling nuts and acorns as you walk in the woods; abundance, and survival, for the squirrels and chipmunks.

The perfect gold of hickory leaves and dark brown bark against a blue blue sky.

Big bags of South Georgia pecans for baking, local-grown and reasonable.

Maker's Mark Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey, neat: it’s own perfume.

Piles of hickory nut shells on our stone patio, where the squirrels come to crack them.

The Southern Thanksgiving: corn-bread dressing (never called "stuffing") full of celery, onion, pecans and thyme.

My sweet-potato Thanksgiving casserole with a praline crust (pecans, brown sugar and butter).

Bright red hot peppers, still on the plants.

Mexican hot chocolate with cinnamon and a little heat (and maybe a little brandy, too): Dawn Spencer Hurwitz’s Chocolate Pimient.

Bags of pine bark mulch to spread over garden beds to warm them in winter.

For other autumn treats take a look at these:

The Non-Blonde

Under The Cupola

Mais que perfume

Ayala Smelly Blog

Savvy Thinker

Notes from the Ledge

Ars Aromatica

Mossy Loomings

I smell therefore I am

Tea Sympathy and Perfume

Perfume Shrine

photo by Olfacta; all rights reserved.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Notes (Not)

There are quite a few fragrance bloggers out there. Many -- well, most -- of them can rattle off “notes” like the rest of the world would make a grocery list. One delicate and refined sniff and...yes, there it is...helional!

I am lousy at this.

It’s not because I haven’t tried. I have. I even have one of those kits which contains a hundred little vials of aromachemicals and natural essences and so forth. The vials are labeled, and alphabetized, and grouped by name in a ceramic chest designed for spices. I was very excited when I got this kit. Finally, I would be one of the Refined Ones, who can tell natural orris root butter from cheap snythetic “iris,” and can also sniff out real ambergris -- not that I ever have; well, maybe I have.

In my brain anyway, this appears to be a retrieval error. It’s not that I don’t know what I’m sniffing. It’s one of those tip-of-the-tongue things. Wait...don’t tell me...damn it, I know what this is, just give me a minute! (Sniffing through the left nostril helps, some. This is, after all, the more verbal side of the brain, the one that likes to go around sticking labels on everything.) Often, I’ll get it after what feels like a century but is probably more like 3 or 4 seconds. Sometimes, though, it takes much more time and sometimes I just can’t get it at all.

This causes me great consternation, because, after all, I’ve been writing this blog for nearly a year and a half and I’m supposed to know what I’m doing.

So, brought to you from the land of cognitive dissonance: (insert sound of trumpets blaring): Maybe it doesn’t matter.

A well-known smell scientist once left me a comment, the gist of which was that olfactary research now is more about the whole picture, the Gestalt if you will, of fragrance, than its deconstruction into “notes.” Well, that was a relief. (Of course, if you’re about to buy perfume, and you want to know more than that stingy little spritz onto a paper strip can tell you -- will it remain a pleasant floral or morph into an elevator-clearing monster? -- then you probably will want to have some idea of its composition; musk, civet, ambergris and tuberose is probably not going to be an office scent. )

You see the same “notes” listed over and over again in the databases. After all, there are only so many fixatives, so many citruses, and so on. It interests me that you can have two perfumes, side by side, with the same notes, and they won’t smell exactly the same. Similar, but not the same. This brings me to the artistry of perfumery. And its comparison to pigment. Ultramarine blue is ultramarine blue, right? Well, no.

It depends on where it was mined, or how it was synthesized; it depends upon the medium in which the pigment is suspended -- polymer resin is very different from oil, and the refractive properties of types of oil vary too. There are “shades” of the blue (rather like flankers in perfume; “red” shade and “green” shade, neither of which is needed -- save your money, painters)! It depends on the whiteness or other color of the background, the ratio of pigment to medium, the brand and dozens of other things. Finally, formulas are proprietary. The manufacturers aren’t going to tell you everything.

Same with fragrance, really.

Now, after all this time of study, I can say, oh, yeah, that’s a musk. This one’s an herbal leather and this one’s a floral leather. Here’s a fougere, a rose soliflore, an old-fashioned civet monster and here’s a jasmine-based floral. And then of course there’s patchouli, which I’m pretty sure I could detect in a lake.

But if someone handed me a scent strip and said “tell me what the first ten ingredients are” I couldn’t do it. Maybe in another, oh, five years or so. It took that long to learn -- really learn -- color.

Many of the memory issues associated with the aging brain are retrieval difficulties. The information is there, but surfaces only with difficulty. It may be that, for me anyway, chasing after “notes” is a waste. But, truth is, I’d rather imagine than deconstruct.

How about you?