Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Day

The light begins to bend differently around mid-August here. It’s still hot, with bugs and humidity, but I’ll be driving somewhere and will suddenly notice that the trees look different. The sun’s position has changed (okay, to be perfectly accurate, the earth’s has). There is more refraction, longer rays of light bending toward the yellow end of the color spectrum, and so the leaves reflect a warmer green.
 “The Day” is what I call that first breath of autumn, an afternoon when I realize that the humidity is gone and won’t be back for awhile, when the winds stop blowing moisture up from the Gulf and start blowing cool air down from Canada. Not much is certain these days, but this is. 
Not too long ago, a commenter here mentioned seeing a lot of “ennui” on the perfume blogs and forums. It is true that there haven’t been many great releases lately, and the new Bleu de Chanel has disappointed several reviewers I follow, with its apparent pandering to the men’s mass-market (can you say dihydromercanol? No? Me neither.) I wonder what similar delights are coming next. Times like this send me back to the back of my cabinet. I’ve noticed that I’m not the only one. I’m seeing lots of classics and forgotten treasures on the other perfume blogs. It’s a welcome development, I believe. There is so much out there that deserves attention, and certainly isn’t getting any from the popular press.
Exploring the glimmers deep inside my own perfume cabinet, I found three scents that seem perfect for this time of year. Two are fairly obscure and one is really obscure. 
Opium Fleur de Shanghai: This one is discontinued, which is good news. I love discontinued. I know it’s going to be an older, or maybe even the original, formula; no chance that I’ll encounter another disappointing reformulation. This is a 2005 “special release,” designed for warmer weather, full of magnolia, a bit of star jasmine (which is subtle) and mandarin, which gives it a slight fruit note. The Opium base -- carnation/clove, myrrh and patchouli -- is there, but it’s a whisper. I’ve heard that Opium EDT -- the real thing, not the new one -- can be a good summer fragrance, but I can’t imagine wearing it in our July humidity. In this fragrance, though, the florals and earthy base balance each other perfectly. Not too sweet, not too heavy, comes in a big bottle, designed to spray lavishly: the perfect September fragrance. Best of all, there seems to be plenty to go around. I bought my 100 ml bottle for less than $40, on fleabay. I have not been able to find out who the perfumer was, but the house is Yves St. Laurent.
Rose d’Homme: OK, so it’s a men’s fragrance. And? Perhaps there will come a day when American guys feel secure enough in the ol’ masculinity department to wear a rose-based scent. In the meantime, I’ll continue to hijack this one. It’s one of those that thrill me when I smell it. Lots of bergamot up front, and the notes from Rosine’s website mention vetiver, a “lavender base,” tangerine, herbals and leather. I get a woody, patchouli-laced rose, and it is divine. It’s a perfect late fall scent, more November than September. Not for patchouli-averse though; I’d say that, in the drydown, patch is the dominant note. The perfumers are the Rosine team of Marie-Helene Rogeon and Francois Robert. Not discontinued, but certainly not commonplace. Not exactly a bargain, but I’ve seen 50 mls for less than $75 online. I bought my bottle from LuckyScent, last year. From Les Parfums de Rosine.

Halston Couture: This is a very obscure and challenging fragrance. Of all the perfumes I’ve ever tried, it is by far the driest, the boniest, the mossiest. Do you like galbanum, that cracked-green-leaves essence? It’s here, along with a ton of oakmoss. There’s musk, too (not much), and bergamot, and, although the notes list jasmine, I don’t smell any. I do smell the marigold and carnation, though. This is a take-no-prisoners spicy, bitter green chypre. The closest relative I know of would be Jacomo’s bitter green “Silences.”  This is Silences on steroids.
I’ve started experimenting with this fragrance, using it as a base for oils that might just be a little too cloying, or florals that are too sweet, to construct a chypre with floral notes. I think it would be a great man’s scent, too -- although, for all I know it might have been one. Perfumer? Who knows? Released in 1987 or 88 (indexes vary) It comes in the Halston bottle -- the off-kilter, Elsa Peretti one -- except that the glass is frosted and the top is silver, which tarnishes, so we know it’s real. Discontinued of course -- this much oakmoss would make the entire IFRA faint -- but widely available on fleabay, usually for less than $30, which is how I got mine. Perfect for early fall, when it’s often still hot. Strong. Lasts. Not for the timid. 
A few other transitional scents that seem “right” to me in fall: Eau de Rochas, with its unlikely mix of citrus and patchouli; Nuits de Hadrien (Annick Goutal) with its peppery ginger opening, and Anya’s Garden “Kewdra,” with its spice and warmth. What are yours?
I’m curious: do you layer and mix a lot? It seems that the transition seasons bring out the tinkerer in me. A little of this, a little of that; sometimes mixed, sometimes just applied on different places; do summer scents layered with winter ones equal autumn? What do you think? Let me know in a comment. I’ll pick a winner at random and announce the results in two weeks, on Tuesday, Sept. 14th,  for a generous sample of each of these fragrances.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

From The Archives: Three from the Mass Market, at random

I'm taking a couple of weeks off to work on another project. In the meantime, here's another post from Year One. Back with an original, next week!

Today I went to the dentist, where I was told that I'll need several root canals soon, oh, joy. So I decided to go to a nearby Ulta  for some perfume therapy, and to check out the scents of the mass-market world.

I'm no niche snob, at least not yet. I think most perfumes, when you get right down to it, smell pretty good. (I mean, what’s not to like?) But now, I'm a budding perfuminista. I've wondered lately how my own attitudes toward all these focus-grouped, product-managed, M.B.A.-analyzed fragrances might have changed.

So I walked up and down the aisle, picking up bottles, spraying and labeling those handy little strips. (I wanted to collect some samples, too, for skin testing later on. But even though I had the vials with me, the lone SA acted as though I had asked to leave a vial of, oh, anthrax, with her.) So no go on that, missy! ) These scents were tested, as is the modern custom, on paper.

Came home, threw the dozen or so strips like the I Ching (see picture,) closed my eyes and picked up three of them. The lucky winners were:

L’Eau de Issey by Issey Miyake. Nice. Floral. Safe, wouldn’t offend anybody. Hmmm, tuberose and…is that freesia? Or gardenia? Maybe violet?

So off I go to the blogs and discount sites, only to find the most maddening array of sound-alike shelf-space taker-uppers…ever. I mean there’s Summer and L’Eau Bleue d’Issey Eau Fraiche (andpour Homme) and L’Eau de Issey Pour Homme, and, ok, now I’m confused. I guess they do this because, if you like one of them, you’ll simply have to have them all…and also for your spouse or partner or whatever? And there won’t be room on the shelf for anybody else’s product? Yeah, that could be it.

“L'Eau d'Issey for Women has notes of green leaves, rose water, freesia, neroli, blackcurrant, lily of the valley, peony, tuberose, and parma violet.” – Now Smell This. 

White Linen by Estee Lauder. I’ve heard this described as “clean sheets and money.” It’s got that perfume-y Estee Lauder quality, for sure. Certainly, it’s the most challenging of the three. Lots of aldehydes, and I can smell a little rose and some greens and violets, but it reminds me, more than anything else, of a really first-rate laundry detergent. Well-named.

The notes include: Bulgarian rose, jasmine, mugnet, violet, orris, vetiver, and moss.

Voile de Jasmin by Bulgari. By the time I got this home, it was gone. (And we are talking maybe one hour.) I remember a bit of an undertone characteristic of the other Bulgari scents I have. WTF?

Well, I’m pretty sure it had some jasmine in it anyway. Notes (from Now Smell This) include: “living jasmine sambac, bergamot, orange blossom, rosewood, ylang ylang, living mimosa and living rose.” (Italics mine.)

Hunh? What’s this mean, “living” jasmine sambac, rose, mimosa? More marketing? I give up.

Conclusion: all the ranting and raving about the way perfumes are marketed in the U.S. now is perfectly illustrated in this one twenty-minute stop I made. Think I’ll stick with online for now.

And you know what? Yatagan’s not so bad.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

From the Archives: Smelling on the Right Side of the Brain

I'm taking a couple of weeks off to work on another project. I'll be back with a brand-new post on Tuesday the 31st. In the meantime, I'm putting up a couple of my old favorites you might not have read, hence:

From the archives: originally posted on Nov. 30, 2008:

Awhile back, I was evaluating perfumes, using smelling strips.  (A hint: make them from a good-quality watercolor paper; it’s thicker, the base notes last longer, and you’ll get many hundreds of strips from one sheet.)

I noticed that the scents I tested seemed much stronger and more pleasant when I covered my left nostril and smelled only with my right. I have a slightly deviated septum on the left side, so that pathway is a bit smaller on me, but I began to wonder: is smell more a right-brain function than a left-brain one?

For years, it has been an axiom that the left side of the brain is, let’s say, the “Lawyer:” verbal, analytical, somewhat condescending (well, not really) – the brain’s Cop, in other words. The right side is the “Artist” – chaotic, spatial, creative, impractical. Assuming that this is true, I began to think that perhaps it wasn’t so much my narrowed sinus passageway as general neurophysiology that resulted in the difference I perceived. So I decided to do some (very) primary research.

By cutting narrow enough smelling strips, I was able to get closer to the olfactory nerve endings by on that side by, well, the rather gross procedure of, um, introducing…oh all right, shoving…the strip further up that nostril than the other one.

I thought, hmmm…left brain…from what I know about hemispheric dominance, it should be easier to identify the “notes” using that verbal, analytical side.

Guess what; it wasn’t.

I hit the books.

It appears, from a number of scientific papers I examined, that the right nostril is somewhat dominant in subjects with intact brains. I say this because brain researchers just love to use people whose brains have been “resectioned” – as is sometimes done to relieve severe epilepsy – when doing this kind of research. The crossover networks that make the two hemispheres communicate are, to grossly oversimplify the procedure for brevity here, cut. Therefore, when using FMRI – “functional” MRI, which shows imaged patterns of brain activity as they occur – they can see the two hemispheres’ activity with less interference from crossover circuitry than they would in a normal brain.

My own brain is reasonably intact, so it would be reasonable to assume that my right nostril would be the preferred one for scent evaluation, and it is. There simply is a bigger, more pleasurable sensory experience; when I close off the right nostril, the experience of smelling only with the left one is, well, puny by comparison, even with the scent strip placed closer to my olfactory nerve endings.

The research on this is not perfect, as with most research. Complicating factors include handedness – left-handed people do better in odor discrimination tests (analyzing/classifying the scent) when the odor is introduced into the left nostril, whereas there’s little difference in right-handed people. (I’m right-handed; interesting.) Women are better at “naming” than men, as women tend to be better at anything verbal. Re-test reliability is somewhat uncertain. Subjects tend to be college students, as with most research of this type. And so on.

What we do, meaning us perfume fans and bloggers, is experience scent, then analyze it. We classify, identify and label its components. We’re familiar with the ingredients of perfume; in this research, that’s called “priming.” They put you through a practice run, and test you again later; semantic, or verbal, memory therefore crashes the party. This kind of memory does not appear to be right-brain dominant.

Perfumistas “prime” ourselves all the time. It’s what we do. Is that jasmine, or tuberose? Hmmm…does it smell more like “A La Nuit” or “Fracas?”

My own guess is that, as we develop the olfactory sense with all of this “priming,” we establish better crossover patterns from right hemisphere (olfactory perception) to left (olfactory analysis). Also, it appears that neural activation patterns develop after repeated presentations of complex odors, which could be part of the process, too.

As a semi-noob, my crossovers aren’t all that great yet. But they’re getting better.

Want to do an experiment? Smell a perfume you’re not familiar with, using your right, then left, nostril. Write down your impressions, and what you think the “notes” might be, with each. Then ask a friend who is not a perfumista to do the same.

Let me know what happens, eh?

PLEASE NOTE: The comments are from the original 2008 post. This one is not connected with any drawing or contest. But if you want to leave a new comment, feel free!
For anyone who would like the read the scientific papers and abstracts I based some of this entry on, contact me in the comment; I’ll send you a list.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

And the winner of the Agent Provocateur is:


Send your postal details to olfactarama at att dot net and I'll get the stuff out to you, posthaste. Congratulations!

(Winner, as usual, was chosen using Random.org)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Sacred Earth, Infinite Sky

This Thursday, August 12, midnight US Eastern Daylight Time, is the deadline for entering the drawing for 3 mls of “Agent Provocateur.” If you haven’t already commented, leave a comment here and you’ll be entered. I’ll post the name of the winner by 11 a.m. Thursday morning.

I have always loved Rosine’s Rose Kashmire. To me, it is the essence of a bohemian oriental floral; lush and opulent, bringing to my mind long hair and scarves, and skirts made of bright Indian cottons and silks, but is it really as exotic as all that?

This kind of thing brings out the the experimenter in me. I had heard about Tigerflag Attars on Perfume Posse back in June. I hadn’t delved into attars before, partly because of their expense. But this importer offered samples for a very reasonable price. My interest in exotic ingredients had been piqued by the natural perfumes I sampled for the Mystery of Musk event, so I began to peruse the online catalog.

Right away, I noticed something I have never heard of before, and, yes, found the concept a little hair-raising: “Mitti,” distilled dried mud from the Ganges riverbed.

Now that’s interesting. Distilled sacred dirt. Haven’t seen that one before.

I continued on down the list: Saffron Mitti Shamama. Saffron, the cultivation, harvest and trade of which paints a portrait of human history. Mitti, a rather -- oh, go ahead, admit it -- scary idea to a westerner such as myself.  Shamama, a mysterious mixture of unnamed plants, spices and woods.

The proprietor was kind enough to send sample strips of many of the essences he sells and, believe me, a sample strip of any attar, placed upright, is enough to scent your nightstand for days. One was for a pure Mitti attar. What a surprise --  it’s a lovely scent, rich, earthy, and slightly floral. The Saffron Mitti Shamama is all that, plus whatever is in the Shamama mixture, plus the bitter, medicinal saffron. I can’t remember ever having smelled anything like this. It’s dark, not sweet, slightly vegetal, as different a perfume concept as anything could possibly be to a Westerner. Come-hither has nothing to do with this.

When layered with rose attar, from the same vendor, it becomes more what we think of as a perfume, an accord. The rose sweetens the bitter saffron, and it all mixes with the mitti and the shamama to create something half-remembered, half-familiar; the world of perfumery is so much richer, more diverse, than I ever knew.

The Rose Kashmire holds its own, though. There is something truly uplifting about this scent. A quick look at the ingredients reveals many of the ingredients we’d expect to find in a modern fragrance, but one of the base notes caught my eye: “Grass from Nagar Motha.” That’s the Hindi name for a type of sedge, grown in several provinces in India. (In the West it’s called Cypriol.) It has been used as a folk medicine to treat a wide variety of ailments, and, like patchouli, to scent the clothing of Indian women.

Saffron links these two. In the Rose Kashmire, it makes what could be just one more rose-vanilla-amber scent different, heady, expansive, special. There is also a base note of camphor, which appears from time to time; the Nagar Motha? My research into this essence reveals that cypriol often has a camphor note. I’m wondering if that is present in the shamama mixture, too. I wouldn’t be surprised.

The Rose Kashmire excites and lifts the mood. The Saffron Mitti Shamama soothes and induces a slight meditative state, in me anyway. I wonder how they’d layer? How they’d be, mixed? This deserves much research. As do other attars and shamamas.


Full disclosure: I paid for the samples. The scent strips were free.

I’ve mixed the attars I received in with jojoba oil in a 5:1 ratio. I’ve also experimented with using perfumer’s alcohol to rinse the vials, for a strength probably around that of an EDT. The oil is better. It just is. The regions that use attars use them in oil bases.

Notes for the Rose Kashmire, from Le Parfums de Rosine’s website, include Saffron, Bulgarian rose oil, Coriander, Sicilian bergamot;  Chinese peonies, Absolute rose of Damascus, Resin of Myrrh; Grass from Nagar Motha, Vanilla, Vetiver, Sandalwood, Gum Benzoin, Ambre Gris. Perfumer: Francois Robert.

For a comprehensive look at the history of saffron and how it relates to perfumery, visit Perfume Shrine’s Saffron Series.

Photo by J. Horning, © 2000 - 2010 Dreamstime, all rights reserved

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Scents of the Mediterranean, The World Over - A Group Blog

Leave a comment -- you'll be eligible to win a generous sample of "Agent Provocateur" (see last post for details)

The Mediterranean, you say? The Mediterranean region is where the rest of the western world was born.
Greece, Italy, the coast of France; the coast of Spain (as far as Gibraltar, technically) -- North Africa, too. What unites all these regions besides their proximity to the Mediterranean Sea? The sun. All of them bake in unrelenting sun and the arid air it produces. That dry air concentrates aroma and flavor in just about everything. The heat forces you to slow down and notice.
I haven’t been to Greece or Italy in a long time, but spent many months traveling around the Mediterranean area as a student. I felt instantly comfortable there, much more so than in the damp Northern countries, and remember the foods most of all -- feta cheese, soft fat olives and their green oil, crimson blood oranges -- that we would buy at the street markets, as we didn’t have enough money for restaurants. I realize now that we were fortunate, going from one stall to another selecting culinary jewels. Just-baked breads, a hundred cheeses from which to choose, perfectly cured meats -- this taught me, an American raised on white bread, how to eat. How to love inky local wine and coffee you could stand a spoon in. I do it to this day, shunning supermarkets for farmers’ markets.
The smells I experienced in those travels were those of the streets -- not always pleasant but certainly memorable. Old sewers, diesel exhaust and dust in the cities; wild herbs and aromatic plants while walking in the hills in Greece. I realize now that these herbs and resins form a basis of modern perfumery; labdanum, opopanax, lavender, thyme. Serge Lutens “Ambre Sultan” reminds me of those walks, as it combines the resins with the herbs and is sweet but a little sharp, too, like thorns. I’m also a fan of are “Labdanum 18,” from Le Labo, and Anyas Garden’s “Pan,” a natural perfume of unsweetened resins, tincture of goat hair -- the original labdanum gathering method was by combing the hair of billy goats to obtain the sticky resin -- patchouli, and lavender from Seville.
A.k.a. Sevilla. (Spain is the one Mediterranean country I know well. My parents lived there for a long time, and I would go and live with them, and have been back since then.) You might think, Seville, oranges, but not just those. One of my favorite foods there was the traditional “Espinacas con Garbanzos,” served as a tapa or a ración (larger than a tapa, smaller than dinner) in the tascas, the cafe-bars. Like perfume, it contains much history. It’s spinach (my guess is that the earliest versions used bitter wild greens) combined with fried chickpeas, originally from North Africa, along with a paste made of toasted bread crumbs, garlic, vinegar and salt -- straight from the Romans. Vinegar, crushed bread, garlic and almonds formed the first gazpachos, too. (Tomatoes, a new world vegetable, came later.) You can still get almond-based white gazpacho at a few places in southern Spain.
 Spain has it’s Myurgia, but what I remember most about daily life scents was simply known as “limón.” In the sweltering Madrid summers, it was everywhere. The subway reeked of limón and old sweat. Limón was sweeter and cheaper than 4711, which I still use to cool off. My current favorite citrus, O de Lancome, adds herbs and clean musk. (My favorite after-dinner digestif, by the way, is the Italian cure-all, Limoncello, the bottle kept in the freezer for warm summer nights. It’s like drinking citrus cologne.)
“Femme,” especially the current version, reminds me of Oloroso sherry. That’s the sweetest, darkest kind, drunk after dinner. It’s most definitely not the fortified “Cream Sherry” Spain exports by the ton. It’s hard to find sometimes, but the good ones have a plum/prune note, like Femme, as though they share some kind of history. 
As for saffron, that’s a whole other post. I have some saffron attar, which I plan to write about. Even mixed 10:1 with Jojoba oil, it’s hugely strong and, well, not all that pleasant; mix it with jasmine, or rose, though, and it blooms. Rosine’s “Rose Kashmire” expresses that idea in a high register, “Agent Provocateur” in a lower one, Donna Karan’s “Black Cashmere” in an even lower one.
Food, too. Paella, really, is no big deal. In Spain, it’s what you eat at the beach. Here is my paella base: 1 red bell pepper, 1 sweet onion, chopped and sauteed in (lots of) olive oil; chicken broth and rice (3 cups broth to one and a half cups rice) and ground saffron threads, about 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon. Add the uncooked dry rice to the vegetable and oil mixture after the vegetables have softened; saute until it is browning and smells nutty. Add the saffton to the broth, and pour over it and stir. Then you can put in whatever meats or seafoods (add those at the end) make you happy. Or nothing -- this is good as a special side dish.
Finally, opopanax. Many of the amber based fragrances feature this tree resin, also known as sweet myrrh. Diptyque makes a room spray called  -- you guessed it -- “Opopanax.” It comes in a great big relatively inexpensive bottle and, sure, you can use it to scent a room, but also to scent your clothing, bed linens and you. (Thank you Elena!) 
I know I’ve barely scratched the surface of Mediterranean scents. Maybe a 50-volume encyclopedia? Yeah. That might do it.
Good thing all these other fine bloggers are involved!
Thanks to Ines and Elena for putting this together. Be sure to visit the other participating blogs, which are: