Monday, May 24, 2010

Book Review: "Perfume" by Susan Irvine

I tend to do things backwards. For example, I flip through magazines right to left. In college, I often took upper division courses before the survey ones. I learned to cook from complicated recipes long before mastering the simple techniques that are the real building blocks of that art. It works for me, usually. So, the first book about perfume I read was Chandler Burr’s “The Emperor of Scent,” about Luca Turin and his vibrational theory of olfaction, complete with complicated molecular diagrams and lots of ten-dollar chemical names.
 I should’ve read this book first. 
“Perfume” came out in 1995. I have no doubt that many of you have already read it, but because it is an old book now, some may not have. If you haven’t, it’s worth the effort to track down a copy. Because if I was to suggest one book to perfume newbies, one volume that gives the reader a clear, comprehensive and accurate background, this would be the one. 
I’ve always thought that perfume and cultural anthropology walk in tandem. How could they not? Even in grade school, we were taught about the spice routes of ancient trade. This is where the book begins, with a generous nod at scent and the sacred. Various types of incenses were thought to alter consciousness, used in ritual much as psychedelic plants were also used as gates to the other world, whatever, wherever, that world might be. This simply obliterates so many modern cultures’ thinking about fragrance, that it’s all about the crass come-hither. Far from it!
Irvine explores the West’s nineteenth-century obsession with deodorization in a way that rings with echoes. A reaction to the licentiousness of the eighteenth and, to some extent, the seventeenth centuries; a pendulum swinging and then swinging back; a mania for sanitation and the concept of personal space, that invisible zone whose borders musn’t be breached, even by someone else’s scent -- sound familiar? And that what took a century then might take, oh, a mere thirty or so years now? 
This explains so much.
Without going through a list of chapter titles (see notes at the end of this post for those) I can tell you that much was finally clarified for me. For example, what is the exact difference between Rose de Mai and Rose Damascene? And, uh, ok, there IS such a thing as Florentine Iris -- I’d thought that was marketing-copy b.s.  How, exactly, is frankincense obtained? How do the various jasmines differ from the gold-standard Grasse jasmine? There is a clear, and fair, discussion of synthetics vs. naturals, and the fragrance families, too, with a fragrance “wheel” that (finally) makes sense.
Other topics are fashion, and how -- and why -- the visual world of the designer and the more mysterious olfactory world of the perfumer became so solidly linked in this century, and of the coutiers most influential (her discussion of Chanel is fascinating, in this light). How history became eclipsed by marketing, how fragrances are made, how they’re sold, how the “spin” came to be so much more important than the perfume itself; all true, perhaps more true now than ever before.
Ultimately, for me at least, it is her speculation about the future of this art that makes me feel a little sad. She speaks of “aromachology,” and how there seemed, at the time, to be a burgeoning of fragrance as a spiritual “mood-drug” for the masses, something like its use in the ancient world. Of possible innovations like scent delivered by skin patches activated by touch. Of biotechnologies used to recreate, and then produce cell-by-cell the scents of flowers or other essences. If any of this has come to pass, it’s news to me.
 But lots of things are, when I really look at it.
More than anything, this book humbled me. I’ve been studying and writing about fragrance and the fragrance arts for over two years, pretty obsessively at times, and there are still the big blank spots, things I probably should’ve known, and, guess what -- the inescapable conclusion: I’m still a noob. 
In a way I guess I’ll always be one, because this is a big, no, a monumental subject, incorporating art, science, history, spirituality, sociology, psychology, biology, business, fashion: you name it. It’s worthy of years of study. A lifetime of it.
In “Perfume,” not a single word is wasted.
“Perfume,” subtitled “The Creation and Allure of Classic Fragrances” was written by journalist Susan Irvine, and was originally released in 1995. The ISBN is 0517141590. A hint: it’s available from used book sites such as alibris and other online booksellers, for widely varying prices.
Here are the chapter titles: The Mystery of Perfume, Making Scents, Bottling Allure, Fragrant Fashion, The Sensual Sell, and The Scent of Things to Come.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

and the winner of the Liz Zorn samples is....


Please send me your postal information at olfactarama at att dot net, and I'll send your samples out posthaste.

As always, the winner was chosen using

Thanks for entering, everybody!

Monday, May 17, 2010

One from the attic: Old Lady

The contest for the Liz Zorn samples ends tonight, Monday, May 17 at midnight US Eastern Daylight Time. Leave a comment to enter! I will choose the winner randomly and announce it tomorrow.

(Please note: the original Dec. 2008 comments aren't eligible for the new contest, so if you commented then, please comment again to enter.)

In the meantime, here's another old post from the archives, originally published in December 2008.

Are you an old lady?

I might be one, but judging from my fragrance preferences, I’ve been old since I was twelve. Of course, I didn’t know about the ultimate pejorative perfume phrase then. I just thought that the classics smelled like a world that didn’t fit me, yet, but I couldn’t wait to grow into.

Then I began reading the forums and the blogs.

“Smells like the inside of an old lady’s purse.” “Mothballs.” “Grandma’s bathroom.” “Fusty.” “Dusty.” “Musty.”


Here’s what. Older women scare people. Not all of those people are men.

I have to admit that, when I was young and dewy, forthright older women scared me. They laughed too loud, and their throaty laughter hinted at a whole lot of stuff I didn’t know (yet). They had deep voices, often from years of smoking. Occasionally, they regarded me with quizzical glances. Sometimes, I sensed a resentment of my youth; always, an amusement at my innocence.

These old ladies were my aunts, great-aunts, my mother’s friends, teachers or professors, older women I worked with. Some of them tried hard to disguise their aging with too much everything; makeup, manicures, helmet-hair, the works; some of them had even had work done. Others regarded that sort of thing with derision. All of them represented a very different concept of femininity from the glammed-out, platform-shod, tanned and shiny-haired ready-for-anything ideal of my time.

The epitome of the scary old lady is Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard.” Hiding in a rotting mansion, her face a stretched and made-up mask, paying a younger man for his time and his services. She’s terrifying. Imagine the bravery it must have taken for Swanson to play a grotesque version of an aging star much like, well, herself in those days. That’s the kind of chutzpah I’m talking about. The kind you don’t have until you’re forty, and then only if you’re lucky.

Here are some of the scents I’ve heard called “old lady”: Miss Dior. Chanel No. 5. Youth-Dew. Dioressence. Aromatics Elixir. Paloma Picasso. Mitsouko. Ma Griffe. Madame Rochas. Cabochard. That’s only a few. There’s a long, long list.

Most are Chypres. It would seem that the classic Chypre is the likeliest candidate for old-ladyhood in perfume. Is it the oakmoss? Could be. Powder? Maybe. Big mixed florals? Probably. So why does Mitsouko come out on top of all the perfumistas’ lists, year after year? It can be difficult and challenging…hmmm, wait a second. Maybe that’s the point?

As for the young ladies, what choices have our times given them? An endless parade of celeb-scents: Britney, Paris, Jennifer, Hilary, Sarah Jessica, Jessica Simpson. I guess that makes sense too. A couple of these, I’ve heard, aren’t too bad. I have trouble getting past the imaging, though. I hear they’re all pretty and easy; fruity, floral, synthetic.

If I was a young lady, I’d be insulted. But perhaps I’m not placing this within the proper context.

Let’s see what else these times have to offer. Hmmmm. Polyester baby-doll dresses. Tiny little sweaters worn with low-rise jeans so the bare belly hangs over them (this alone makes me glad I’m not young.) Brazilian wax jobs. Anorexia. Athletic pants with the name of the “designer” emblazoned across the behind, like a brand. Texting instead of talking. Facebook. Awful concoctions like the “chocolate martini.” Tattoos. The word “hottie.” Binge drinking. Hooking up. Endless reality shows. Celeb-worship magazines.

Nice, huh?

Do you know a young lady? Do her a favor. Give her an “old lady” perfume. Tell her what “classic” means.

She’ll probably go “eeewww” now, and thank you one day.

Photo of Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Blvd." from a fan site.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Bal a' Versailles -- A Look Back

This week and next, I'm going to be busy with relatives and/or away. Hence two reprints from the early days of Olfactarama, which you might have not read. Hope you like them!

Don't forget: the drawing for four samples of Liz Zorn's Soivohle fragrances ends Monday, May 17th, midnight US Eastern Daylight time. Leave a comment to enter.

Below is my very first post, about Bal a' Versailles.

"In 1978, I visited Andorra with my parents. Andorra was, and I’m sure still is, one great big duty-free shop. I remembered something I had read in a fashion mag, or maybe God-forbid, Cosmo, about a certain perfume. It was the pinnacle, they said. The best. So of course I wanted it. I found it in one of those big-box duty-frees and brought it home, a tiny round bottle enclosed in a brocade pouch.

It became my signature night scent for many years. I was just past college then, and no one I knew had ever worn perfumes like this. So, I thought, it distinguished me as worldly and complex; uptown, different in every way that mattered from the patchouli-wearing sprouts-eating no-makeup post-hippie girls I knew at school.

It would bitch-slap you silly with that first flat note, that definitely-not-American slam. And then it would quickly bloom into florals, jasmine and rose. But it wouldn’t leave you comfortable there. Under all those sweet and pretty flowers flowed the heavy, musky, unmistakable note of...what was that, anyway? I didn’t know the words then. Civet, musk, ambergris – and, in the Seventies, they were all real.

It smelled so foreign! I wore it whenever I went out, not sure of what might happen (as in anything can.) Of course, I reserved my ladylike Chanel No. 5 for work. But when the sun sank, out came the little bottle I'd bought in Andorra.

I've been through a number of them since then. Even now, when it feels like it's going to be an interesting night, I wear it. Sometimes, I wear it to sleep, too.

The expert Luca Turin has called it “circular,” I've read, explaining that it settles, then rolls back and forth between the sweet and dirty, the florals and the civet, what they call "skank" now. Another perfume writer called it “comforting.” In a way it is.

I guess I could call myself a semi-perfumista now, with many bottles and even more samples, some niche, some corporate, all recommended. But the Bal is still special. It makes me feel more...well, let's just say more. And there's a bottle of the vintage, coming in the mail."

Monday, May 3, 2010

A Study in Contradiction: Four by Liz Zorn

It has occurred to me in recent months that I really should spend more time with the real niche fragrances. I tend to shy away from them for personal use, because I have yet to meet a “natural” perfume that lasts more than an hour on my skin, and they’re expensive. Thick, scent-gulping skin requiring constant reapplication and big-bucks outlay usually don’t mix in my (check)book, but whatever -- there are always samples. I had read about Liz Zorn’s Soivohle perfumes on other blogs, and was intrigued. 
Zorn is an artist who seems to work in every discipline; a painter, musician, writer, perfumer. That’s one of her paintings. It’s a word-image piece, and to my eye looks nothing like what I’d expect from a natural perfumer: it’s rough, full of texture, monochromatic and primitive. The image looks like it was scratched on a cave’s wall with a piece of burnt firewood, as the cave paintings at Lascaux and Altamira were. What did I expect, flowers?
Well, um, yeah. Because “SOIVOHLE” is an acronym: “sending out inspired vibrations of healthy loving energy” and if that’s not new-age wackadoodle I don’t know what is. Then I look at the painting, and some of her other work (references below) which have a directness that is almost brutal. There have to be some interesting contradictions here.
I chose four samples from her line, hoping they’d be representative. 
The first one I tried was “Grand Canyon.” It reminds me a bit of an Andy Tauer fragrance , with the generous use of resin, particularly myrrh. The notes list orange flower, but it’s well-hidden. The fragrance is a little sweeter on my skin than on paper, but it’s not a sweet scent, at all. This is an imagined Grand Canyon. The real one smells like piƱon pine, wood smoke and dust. What I smell here is bergamot, with the slight bitterness of citrus rind, and the herbs and woods and, later, the vanilla. Notes from the website are orange flower, citrus, herbs, myrrh, black pepper, laurel, vanilla and woods. A great unisex, it’s one of the “Signature Naturals” line, and is priced at $50 for 4.5 mls (parfum).
“Lilac Heliotrope,” a new offering from the “Moderne” (naturals and synthetics) line, was not my favorite of these. I didn’t grow up in a region where lilacs are common, so have no scent-memory attached to them; as a result, lilac smells like soap to me. That’s just a personal preference. If you like lilac, my guess is that you’d love this. The heliotrope anchors the lilac with its characteristic sweet heaviness, and although my sample was the EDT, it seems to be lasting as well as the stronger ones on my skin. My guess, without knowing Zorn’s entire line, is that this scent is a nod to accessibility; this is reinforced by the more reasonable price of $65 for 12 mls (EDT strength). Official notes are white and purple lilac, orchid, “hint of” rose, mosses, musk and benzoin.
“Cordovan Rose,” also from the Moderne line, opens dark, dark red -- like one of the “black” rose cultivars (actually more of a deep burgundy color) you can buy now. Truth is, I smell very little rose in here. This is another Tauer-like fragrance, heavy on the base notes of “woods” and “spice.” It’s not a leather in the way we usually speak of leather, either: not fleshy-aromatic, or tobaccolike. It’s much woodier. The notes list “full ripe plums” as well. Plums are a difficult fruit. I’d say this “plum” is more like the fruit’s skin, dark and dense, although it’s not unpleasantly so. I would readily recommend this as a true unisex rose, a rare thing! Half an ounce of the EDP is listed on the website at $50.
And now we come to “Love Speaks Primeval.” Does it ever. 
This is the one I’d most associate with Zorn’s paintings. I’m just going to say it: it opens with the strongest cat pee note I’ve ever smelled, but that just lasts seconds, and then it begins to mess with the mind. This is a concept scent. Can we tawk here? It is the muskiest, most realistic, most shocking well-used-knickers perfume I’ve ever tried, ev-ah. And, faithful readers, you know I love the skank, and am not easily shocked. But: Oh my heavens! Where are my smelling salts?
Wait a few minutes. It’s great. Better than the real thing. It’s called a “natural floral chypre” on the website (um, right) with notes of "rose-dominant," violet, pink lotus, jasmine, labdanum, patchouli and “soft warm woods.” This rocket ride is what a niche perfume should be. Perfume strength, from the “Signature Natural” line, it’s priced accordingly, at $70 for 4.5 mls, $180 for half an ounce.
The trip from “Lilacs Heliotrope” to “Love Speaks Primeval” is as contradictory as Zorn’s paintings are to the visual art I’d expect from a natural perfumer. (Yeah, yeah. I know. It’s a stereotype and should be beneath me.) But I enjoy contradictions. 
Btw, the samples they send out aren’t what I’d call generous. But they’re big enough so I can decant some of each -- enough to try -- for one interested reader. Leave me a comment. I’ll pick one winner at random, to receive these four scents. Deadline is Monday, May 17th, midnight U.S. Eastern Daylight time.
Reference: interviews and representations of Zorn’s visual art are here and here.
The photo of the Liz Zorn painting “Brevity” comes from a 2003 article in “The Tear,” referenced above.

Full disclosure time: I bought these samples from the Soivohle website.