Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Garden Ramble: Tuberose

What with the tuberose clamor this spring and summer and all, I decided to grow some. Pictured is my first tuberose bud, ever. Pretty, isn’t it? 
Let’s see. Eighteen tuberose bulbs -- I had to plant twice...hmmmm...with shipping, probably around $40. None of the first batch came up, perhaps eaten by squirrels, maybe soil too cold, ordered the second batch and planted them. Waited. And waited. Finally, a little shoot emerged from the ground. And another and another. As of this weekend I had six plants, until one was rudely yanked out of the dirt by a lawnmower or edger; five plants.
No pampered scion has ever received more care than these plants. Not enough sun? I moved them. Other, less esteemed plants crowding them? I pulled the annoying peasants out. And waited some more.
A gardener must be two things: 1.) Patient; and 2.) Ruthless. Patient, because the natural world has its own schedule, thank you, and ruthless because plants will live long and prosper if you get rid of the stunted ones early -- but Nature’s real business is survival/reproduction and it will generally go about that business with or without you.  A field full of giant weeds, covered with pollinating insects, is nature’s proud handiwork, that’s right: weeds. We choose the more visually appealing specimens and call them “our gardens.” No gardener is quite as ruthless as Nature. But I digress.
The un-named flowers surrounding my paltry five tuberose plants came as a “bonus” in a big bulb order I placed ten years ago. I think there were six of them. They have replicated. I don’t even know what they are, just that they are hugely vigorous, having adapted quite well.

The tuberose? A little puny.  Nevertheless, this year’s star. Because I don’t believe I’ve ever smelled a real tuberose blossom. Oh, I’ve tried lots (and lots) of perfumes purporting to be that, but how would I really know? 
I am at the moment studying natural essences, essential oils, absolutes and attars. Some of these smell nothing like their lab-made molecular-dupe synthetic substance reproductions used in commercial perfumery, for example, gardenia -- a perfumery simulacrum if there ever was one. This is in preparation for my participation in the “Mystery of Musk” group blog. 
Most people think that modern perfumes are still made from flowers and resins and so on. They’re shocked when we say “Not.” Flowers, resins, seeds, synthetics, patented “bases” -- it’s all part of a difficult business.
My gardens have always been about the visual or the culinary. For the first time, this year, I’ve begun to plant with the olfaction in mind. Old roses instead of the showy hybrids that smell of nothing. Varieties of four o’ clocks whose blossoms are more fragrant than others. Creeping thyme between my stepping-stones. It’s a small space, so I don’t have much leeway, but there’s a little. Enough for five tuberose plants in (I hope) bloom.
 I’ll let you know.

Photo © Keith M. Borow, all rights reserved.

Monday, June 21, 2010

A Risky Business

Recently, I’ve been looking for a small “bat” bottle of vintage Shalimar perfume. I guess this means I’ve become a collector, as I seem to need it. I have a pretty good vintage perfume collection now. Not having Shalimar is sort of like not having “Blonde on Blonde” in any respectable vinyl collection. But these prices!

So I’ve been going to estate and garage sales. My utter lack of success at these has made me wonder. How often do good perfumes really turn up?
I posted the question on a couple of fragrance forums. I asked readers if they had ever “scored” big at a tag sale, and, if so, how many sales did they attend before that, as a number or as a percentage. Perhaps naively, I expected lots of responses.
The answers -- and there have been few so far -- were enlightening. People listed in detail the perfumes they had found. Other forum members oohed and ahhed over the treasures listed. Some suggested asking the host of the sale. Although there were vague references to going to sales “for years,” no one got specific about how many such sales they’d attended. 
While certainly not a scientific sample, I thought these results were interesting. I began to wonder if people who frequent estate sales regularly just don’t want to admit it. Kind of like playing the lottery: the big winners tend to be the daily ticket-buyers, reflecting simple laws of probability. But you’d be hard-pressed to get anyone to admit that they’d spent the milk money that way.
My own experience with estate sales has been gloomy. Some old lady dies, and leaves behind a house full of stuff. Once the heirs have taken what they want, an estate sale company comes in and picks over what’s left. After pigeonholing the valuable items, or so I’ve heard, they put the bleached bones on sale to the public. Nothing, it seems, is sacred. The first time I saw used lipsticks with price tags on them, I started calling this “the vulture culture.”
The estate-sale proprietors here in the South are unfailingly well-groomed and well-spoken, polite even to the gentlemen coming through asking if there are any guns to be had -- I saw that twice in one day last week. And I know that you can't take it with you. This is where much of the merchandise in flea markets, antique stores and  ebay comes from. In a way, by paying their markups, I’m paying for the privilege of not having to do this myself.
As I wander through these houses, I wonder about the people who lived in them. At some, like one I went to last year, there are few secrets. At others, there are many. Childrens' rooms, in particular, bother me. What happened to the kids? Why was a little girl living with an obviously older -- you can usually tell by the amount of home-health care stuff for sale -- lady? What happened here? At one particularly disturbing house I saw, it looked as though the whole family had simply evaporated. OK, I know I’ve got a too-fertile imagination, but I kept wondering about that one. Was there a car crash? A plane crash? Or was this house kept as a sad shrine to offspring that had grown up and moved on? A hundred houses, a hundred stories.
Maybe I don’t need that Shalimar after all.
And so I put the question out once more: do you go to estate sales? (You don’t have to say how many.) What have you found at them? Do you end up buying stuff other than what you were looking for? (I bought a nifty brand-new western styled leather daypack for twenty bucks at one last week. See, even me. I “scored.” What is this compulsion to brag all about, anyway?)
Maybe this. Maybe we boast about our finds because it makes walking through these spooky houses easier. Makes the experience less horrifying. It diverts attention from what none of us want to think about, namely this: someday, this could be my stuff.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Haul

I’ve never much liked miniature anything, but I seem to have amassed quite a little collection of “minis” -- ‘fumefreakspeak for those amusing little bottles used mostly as promotional items. I don’t know exactly how many I have, maybe 100 or so now, and I say “now” because I just bought a “lot” -- fleabay for quantity -- of those darling functional li’l minis.
You don’t always know what you’re going to get, with these collections. I look for vintage and cross my fingers. Besides the dreaded 100 ml bottle with 1/4” of cologne left in it, the vintage mini is the most likely to be “off.”  Unless it has been stored in one of those duty-free boxes with those little custom cut-outs. I’ve always thought of those as the guilt gift -- daddy went to Paris on business, done some stuff he shouldn’t oughta have done but is bringing home French perfume (which he bought from the cart as the plane began its descent into wherever he lives) and for God’s sake there’s even a drawing of the Eiffel Tower on the box! These coffrets usually contain stuff no one has ever heard of or ever will, but I digress.
So anyway I “won” this collection of minis -- auctionspeak for “snagged the privilege of paying more than anybody else” -- around 25 of these, including five mystery bottles, a couple of real treasures and a few dogs. About average, I’d say, for a typical lot. 
 (Does anybody know what “Replique” in perfume is supposed to smell like btw? This is an actual 1/4 oz. perfume bottle, sealed, but the juice looks and smells like Jagermeister mixed with patchouli cough syrup. Um, anybody?)
So let’s see. Here we have 5 mls of vintage 80’s “Joy,” and it’s fresh. Score. Two minis of “Ysatis,” vintage also. Five mls of “Ombre Rose,” a soft and powdery rose.  A good-sized “Norell,” which smells green like money. “Amariage,” which didn’t deserve the drubbing The Guide gave it -- it’s just an in-your-face tuberose blend. “Fendi,” possibly the original version and my favorite of these, which smells like a modern niche woody/amber. 
But then…"Bill Blass," the dreaded synthetic-pineapple smell, probably developed in the wake of “Giorgio.” A tiny bottle of “Ma Griffe,” which has turned to nail polish remover. The aforementioned “Replique,” unless it’s supposed to smell like that, and it may be, for all I know. “L’Interdit,” which has turned badly or is the reformulated version -- here’s that pineapple again and a fleeting, ruined violet. Kenzo’s “Parfum d'ete,” one of those watery 90’s things that might make a pretty bathroom spray. Nice leaf bottle though. 
The most interesting item, at least to me, is one of the five “mystery” scents. It smells like Bal a’ Versailles. I wonder if somebody filled some cute little bottle with Bal, or if some lab did a pretty good job of replicating it. The others, well, they’re forgettable. Who knows what they are. This lot, like most, is all about the bottles. Even the Mystery Scents are. It’s fun, though, to try to identify them. One is the Halston bottle, and the juice smells like “Halston Couture” -- if so, a score. Stenciled on two of the tiny bottles -- I had to get out the jeweler’s loupe to read them -- are the words “Parfums International, Miami.” Uh-oh. Dreck. Destined for a duty-free cart in the sky?
In the photo, the mystery bottles are the five in front and the ones that get their very own photo. Anybody care to try?
Which brings me to my point. I’ve been doing Nose Calisthenics to prepare for my participation in the Mystery of Musk event, presented by the Natural Perfumers Guild, in which bloggers and forum participants will evaluate a dozen musk-based scents developed by natural perfumers. Another blogger and pal, Carol of Waft...what a fragrance fanatic thinks  is asking some of us to evaluate some mystery scents she scored in a haul I can only dream about: a professional perfumer’s estate collection.
Well good heavens, I’m going to be in some high-cotton company here! I’m honored, a little surprised, and a lot apprehensive, because my nose knows but sometimes my brain takes awhile to catch up, and I still revere those who can pull off a quick and delicate sniff followed by reciting a list of notes. I’m getting better though. Last night I actually identified some iris -- the flower even!
So yeah, I’ll be ready -- I hope.

Posting schedule change: After this week, I'm switching from Monday to Tuesday, except for special events like group blogs. Usually the post is up by 11 am or so.
The “Mystery of Musk” group project is being presented by Anya's Garden and Perfume Shrine.
The bottles pictured are from a lot I bought at auction on Ebay last week.
Photos © Olfacta, aka Pat Borow. All rights reserved.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Off the Cuff -- Nuit de Tubereuse

“Reluctantly, Pan lowered his big monkey lids, whereupon Kudra doused him with enough patchouli to stampede a herd of elephants. His eyes flew open like the hatch covers on an exploding ship, and he commenced to sniff at his extremities, as if he were wildly in love with himself. A kind of disorientation seemed to seize him, causing him to walk in circles, repeatedly crossing his own path….” 

And then he speaks:  “ ‘Tis true, thou homers do have a magic of their own, the gods have always known that, known it even better than thee….Sniff sniff.”
These lines come from “Jitterbug Perfume,” by Tom Robbins, published in 1984. (Incidentally, the gods here refer to humans as “homers” as an insult to Homer, who dared hold the comical belief that we might share certain traits with them.) I’m about halfway through the book.
For some reason, I thought I’d read this book before. I remember Robbins as a sort of stoner writer, like George Carlin as a stoner comic or, forgive me, Cheech and Chong (but c'mon, admit it:  they were funny in certain circumstances.) Like Robert Crumb, the cartoonist, whose work is just now beginning to be appreciated properly. Like Big Daddy Ed Roth, whose Kalifornia-kar-kulture Rant Fink icon portended lowbrow art by decades. And, like, you know, and so on from the decades of Vaguely Remember.
But I don’t think I actually read it. Maybe I just hallucina thought that I did.
Anyway, this isn’t a book review, because I haven’t finished the book. (Not that that matters to some book reviewers.) It does to me, because I don’t know how it ends. Fellow fragrance freaks, you may have read it too, back in the day, before you discovered olfactory phantasmagoria but hey, trust me, you haven’t. 
I actually had no idea as to what I would write today. I’ve been busy, distracted, and so on, all the usual excuses. So here we are, having just arrived in real time. All of this rambling is occasioned by my sampling, over the weekend, L’Artisan’s “Nuit de Tubereuse.” 
It turned cartwheels on my wrist. I actually think that Pan probably would have liked Amaranthigh, uh, Amaranthine, better, because it’s so much more direct in terms of its massage message, but y’know, Nuit de Tubereuse is purty damned good. I’m not going to rattle off notes here, as you will easily find those in any of the ten to a hundred or so fragrance reviews that either have come out or will, except to say that I love that spice that sneaks in pretty quick, and that the tuberose is sweet but not too sweet, darkish and earthy but not, um, mushroom-y, and yet it’s not all SHRILL like most, and let’s face it, there are some real horror-movie tuberose re-creations out there.
(I’m actually growing tuberose. Trying to anyway. Let’s just say that if the rose is, say, Her Serene Highness Princess Grace, then tuberose is Princess Stephanie before she calmed down. I will let you know how it goes.)
Here’s the other thing. It seems to me that L’Artisan has done this just right. In all my (two) years blogging about perfumes, this launch has been the best, has taken this world, we who are led by our noses , who know what Pan was talking about, seriously.  We have responded in kind -- but the product has the goods. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell, with Those Who Are Not So Easily Fooled. 
So here’s what I’m going to do, between attempting to photograph some paintings, trying to keep my cat from eating that roll of blue ribbon -- most assuredly the only blue ribbon this particular cat will ever see -- sharpening my pencils, painting the stair railing and, oh, yeah, coddling my tuberose plants. I’m going to generously scent one of those little strips of watercolor paper I use for testing fragrance (yeah, yeah, I do it on skin at the same time, too, okay?) with "Nuit de Tubereuse."  And use it as a bookmark in my tattered old copy of “Jitterbug Perfume.”
Oh, alright already! Notes for “Nuit de Tubereuse” include tuberose, cardamom, pepper, clove, citrus, tuberose, orange blossom, ylang-ylang, rose, mango, angelica, gorse, sandalwood, palisander, musks, benzoin and styrax.
Penhaligon’s Amaranthine, also composed by Bernard Duchaufour, include green tea, white freesia, banana tree leaf, coriander, cardamom, rose, carnation, clove, orange blossom, ylang ylang, Egyptian jasmine absolute, musk, vanilla, sandalwood, condensed milk and tonka bean.

Disclosure time: I bought samples of "Nuit de Tubereuse," and had some "Amaranthine" from a bottle split I did awhile back.
“Jitterbug Perfume,” by Tom Robbins, is available in paperback or hardcover, in all the usual places.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


Finally beginning to plow through the cigar box full of samples. My testing procedure: Two drops of the fragrance on a strip of watercolor paper. (Watercolor paper is far superior to the premade strips usually used. It’s designed to hold particles of pigment, forever. It holds perfume molecules for weeks, and allows you to really evaluate the base notes.) Concurrently, apply to skin. Sniff skin/paper alternately.
My skin burns through a scent at least twice as fast as paper, and sometimes the scents are completely different, especially in niche/artisan fragrances. (I know, I know, this isn’t exactly what you’d call news, is it.)
Anyway, here are a few, grabbed blind from the cigar box:
Coze (Parfumerie General ): Opens with a slight tang and a little confusion. A green note, or is it something else? (Offically, this is built around a seed oil exclusive to PG, Canapa Sativa. Maybe that’s it.) Then it becomes what so many of the niche scents become now: woody.  A little research reveals wood, coffee, pepper, smoke, a little cocoa. I smell the wood; coffee wouldn’t have occurred to me; no pepper, no smoke, so far. It smells like many other niche scents I’ve tried.
However, on my skin this opens very differently. A nutty warmth. Wood right away. There’s the pepper, and I think it’s black pepper.
After a few hours (blotter only) I can smell the coffee. It reminds me of the coffee note in Ineke's Field Notes from Paris. There’s a little bit of cocoa, too. The next morning, what’s left on the paper is a slightly musky wood. A nice scent, nothing wrong with it, but nothing really new, either. Perfumer: Pierre Guillaume.
Orange Star (Tauer Perfumes): Opens on paper a little soapy, and more like orange soda than orange blossom. The fruitiness continues on: orange orange orange. 
Howevah: This is why perfumes must be tested on skin. It’s very different. The bases come up much faster, and they’re needed. In this race, skin wins; the fruity orange, which is a little off-putting to me, fades much more quickly as the resins bloom into a recognizable Tauer fragrance.
I think we need a holiday perfume to replace Caron’s Nuit Noel, the old war horse that has held this role for decades. This could be the one. It reminds me of a pomander, with all the orange and spices. 
Hmmmm….(a quick perusal of Perfume Shrine's review reveals that the idea came from a soap Tauer makes and gives to his friends at Christmas -- I didn’t know this, honest! My nose must be improving, some. “Official” notes include a “fresh citrus accord” lemon grass, orange flower, an ambergris base, tonka and vanilla. There are spices in there too, though, hence the pomander comparison.
The next day, on the blotter, the spices and ambergris note persist, with a hint of orange blossom. This is where Orange Star really, uh, shines. Perfumer: Andy Tauer.
L’Ombre Fauve (Parfumerie General, Private Collection): Roughly translated: “brown wild beast.” On paper: This one reminds me a bit of Shalimar, but it’s not nearly so polite. What rough beast -- very well-named.
On skin: an odd opening, some more-bitter-than-usual citrus, over in a flash.  Morphs almost immediately into a chocolately incense-y amber underlaid with animalics, most notably an in-your-face musk. Woods, vanilla. Patchouli, definitely. A Shalimar/Habanita for the new millennium. Dries down heavy patchouli. 
The next day, on paper, it’s all vanilla and that heavy, slightly catty musk -- I’m wondering; is it real, a real animal musk? Is that possible?
A quick visit to the website; to gain access to the “Private Collection” area, one has to submit a username and password (which doesn’t actually get submitted, so you’re locked out, SoL. If this isn’t a broken link, then it’s just silly; who do I have to know to...never mind.) 
Very limited distribution. A fall/winter scent, imho. Perfumer: Pierre Guillaume.
Coming soon: Agent Provocateur (what a surprise!) and Parfums di Nicolai’s Eau Turquoise. And, finally, Nuit de Tubereuse.
Full disclosure: I bought these samples from LuckyScent.

photo © Sazykin, used under license from Dreamstime.com.