Monday 30 June 2008

Olivier Durbano: Mineral Magic.

There is a long history in perfumery that has seen many high-end jewelers launch lavish perfumes for the well-heeled (and not-so well-heeled). Tiffany's, Cartier, Chopard and Van Cleef & Arpels are amongst the big names that have capitalized on their established brands to bring us opulent fragrances in breathtaking flacons that shimmer like faceted gems. With millions spent on advertising, these names are synonymous with style and elegance. One can quite easily draw parallels between the exquisite craftsmanship of a Bvlgari pendant, and an exceptionally crafted scent - something heavy with uncommon white florals and hypnotizing musks. So, in a global market driven by consumerism and excess, I find it refreshing to find a distinctive fragrance released by jeweler-turned-niche-perfumer Olivier Durbano - a scent that is not inspired by priceless gemstones; but rather one of the most common, unassuming minerals known to man. 
Rock Crystal is the first in a series of seven perfumes or "stone poems" that explore man's link to precious or primitive stones, and '... serve as contemporary talismans to offer in a world of pureness, harmony and serenity'. What I find truly remarkable about this unisex release, is that it is strikingly true to its name and creates an aura that is both natural and elemental. It opens with a contradictory "wet dryness", much like the moist trapped air one imagines fills cavernous halls deep beneath the earth's surface. It is both earthy and airy, and hot and cold. A sharp, transparent orange accord plays over fragrant woods, husky frankincense, spices and vetiver. The result communicates a sense of primordial familiarity... as though somewhere in the dark recesses of our DNA, we might once have smelled this before.

This scent seems to have a personality all of its own... deep, unpretentious, mysterious, and yet somewhat fragile - much like the long glassy shards that blossom beneath the earth in brittle stone florets over the millennia.
Durbano's interpretation of natural quartz crystal has impressive persistence, and, to my mind, is an absolute triumph. The understated bottle is simple and effective, and the small stone crystals floating at the bottom is a very nice touch. But the true treasure is in the juice itself.

Similar in nature to Tauer's L'air du Desert Marocain, Rock Crystal is a scent to be celebrated.

Olivier Durbano produces exceptional hand-crafted jewellery. Visit his website (access upon request) at:

Friday 27 June 2008

Vetiver Extraordinaire: Very extraordinary Vetiver.

Frederic Malle's Editions de Parfums comprises 16 individual fragrances which can be attributed to the collective efforts of some of the world's most accomplished perfumers. The register of contributing creators reads like royalty... many of whom are responsible for some of the most successful perfume releases of all time. These ultra exclusive scents demonstrate the staggering technical proficiency and years of experience that each of these 'noses' has acquired in developing their craft. To my mind, Vetiver Extraordinaire, the work of Dominique Ropion, is the stand-out scent from this collection.

Until my first exposure to Vetiver Extraordinaire I didn't care much for vetivers. I had never really found one that communicated the aromatic qualities that I had longed for: deep, semi-sweet, semi-green, earthy, woodiness.  As a native perennial grass to India (but also cultivated in the tropics), I sought the kind of scent redolent of its homeland. And I believe Ropion has succeeded here.
Vetiver Extraordinaire is a scent with exciting contrasts that flitter between bitter and semi-sweet, green and arid, earthy and ethereal. It is enhanced by light citruses and a very desirable sprinkling of spice: specifically nutmeg. The unusual blend however, almost conjures a ghost-like whisper of cumin that shifts beneath the surface.

I find it an inspired creation: very wearable, earthy, and grounding. It is understated and refined, and mercifully, has remarkable persistence. Beautifully crafted, and a joy to wear. It would take either a genius or a madman to create a vetiver that is more accomplished than this.

Thursday 26 June 2008

Designer V/S Niche

Since 'niche' or boutique fragrances have become more accessible via the internet, they are swiftly gathering favor with serious fragrance aficionados. More and more people are seeking exclusive releases that are created by small teams in artisanal studios, as opposed to the major designer brands that can be found in retail outlets the world over. 

'Niche' devotees argue that boutique perfumes offer the consumer the opportunity to reward oneself with a scent that is both uncommon and individual. Many would reason that 'niche' equates quality; in that greater attention to detail has been given to the construction of the perfume; and that components are of the highest calibre. Most would open their purses to pay top dollar for the privilege of not smelling like someone's ex, brother or aunt.
But the designer brands also have an edge. What they lack in terms of exclusivity, they make up for with mass appeal - the consumer buying into the lifestyle these designer brands represent. If you can't afford the Versace, Ralph Lauren or Boss lifestyle, you might as well smell like you can! With companies spending millions on advertising, global promotion and 'free gift' paraphernalia, the customer really can't lose.

The Fragrance Foundation (FiFi) once categorized fragrances 'niche' or 'mainstream' based on the number of 'doors' they were supported in (that is, the number of retail outlets stocking a specific scent or brand). Nowadays that definition is changing, so the term is less easy to determine. Quite possibly, production and distribution are key factors.
However, with the retail world getting smaller due to increased use of the internet, and as tastes shift toward the exclusive and the rare, I ask the question: at which point does niche actually become mainstream? At some stage, in time, the internet retail market will also become saturated with the L'Artisan's, the Trumper's and the Malle's. When does the line blur so much so, that it is no longer possible to determine which is which?

Whatever the case, as consumers, we are the winners here. We can enjoy the best of both worlds. Those that love the designer brands have an appreciation for their affordability, accessibility and general appeal. Many would turn their nose up at the creative (and somewhat avant-garde) offerings from the niche world. By the same token, with a certain degree of aloofness, many niche admirers state they could "never go back" to mainstream releases... but this is bollocks to me. Why would you want to deprive yourself of enjoying the offerings of 2/3rds of the global fragrance market?
The debate continues to rage and the industry remains divided. And I humbly call for balance

Wednesday 25 June 2008

Perfume: Transcending the Gender Barrier.

I wear women's perfume. Sometimes, the 'masculines' on the market simply don't come close.
The first female purchase I made was Black Orchid. Who could fault Ford's exceptional scent that brimmed with exotic oils both rich and rare... the perfume itself is a beguiling blend and the bottle and packaging; exquisite. With hands trembling and a brow slicked with sweat, I approached the cash desk with my Tom Ford coffret in hand, feeling completely as though all eyes in the store were ON ME. I was aware of the sound of blood rushing in my ears, and my heart was racing like an out-of-control tea-trolley rambling down an office corridoor.
"A lovely choice, sir", the S.A said as I placed the perfume on the counter. "Who's the lucky lady?", she asked with a casual smile. My blood froze. "Errrr, I am", I replied without thinking - rather wishing I hadn't. The S.A looked at me carefully and shot a sidewards glance at her colleague, who turned on her heel swiftly and busied herself in a drawer. "Indeed", the assistant answered, before processing the sale with clinical movements and utter silence. She handed me the bag without making eye contact. "Enjoy it", she said. As I walked from the store I heard the two women talking in whispers. I felt their eyes looking me up and down, painting me with their judgements, using broad paint strokes.

The point is, I adore this fragrance. Not only did I want to smell it on my wife, I wanted to smell of it... to enjoy this rapturous cloud of aromatic molecules that followed me around all day. 'Just a one-off', I reasoned, because I liked it so much. I spritzed for many weeks, and compared and contrasted how different it smelled on my body versus my partner's. In social circles, when we wore the same scent, I seemed to be collecting more compliments than she. It made us both laugh... we joked about it; and then it became the norm. Black Orchid worked well with me. I was fascinated. I began to stroll into the women's scent department with increased regularity... sniffing from caps and scooping freshly-sprayed molecules from the air with a sweeping hand. Unswayed by the curious stares of fellow customers, I embarked upon a challenging and rewarding expedition into women's perfume, and emerged - many months later - with not only an increased appreciation of the art; but also a stronger sense of self. With broad training and experience in the fragrance field, I was always an advocate of promoting perfume as a non gender-specific commodity. I understood that the division between the sexes in perfumery was a relatively modern ideal, and basically existed as a means to sell more perfume to more people by playing to their insecurities. But I had rarely ever taken the time to truly stop and smell the roses and gather my own insights into wearing fragrances for the love of the scent, and not the gender it was marketed towards.

In the past, my wife and I have reserved our two top dresser drawers for storing perfume; mine in the left drawer and hers in the right. We'd squabble over the classic colognes and "unisex" scents which would ultimately shift between the two, as their ownership was far from 'cut and dry'. "Where's my Eau de Campagne?", I would demand, or "Have you pinched my Eau d'Orange Verte again?", she would say.
Nowadays, however, we've both ventured beyond the limitations of our gender (and our own drawer!) and poured our enthusiasm and passion into the nature of the scent itself. On any given day you might find the Mrs. sporting my S.T Dupont Noir, and I, her Paul & Joe Blanc. I think its high time we combined our collections and shifted our scents to the more spacious second drawer down, and returned our underwear to the top. And gentlemen, if you're reading this... don't be ashamed to step outside yourself and truly explore fragrance from both sides of the fence. No-one is asking you to wear a tarty bra and panties and a crooked lipstick smile. 
After all, only a real man could confidently carry off the wonderful Lauder release: Bronze Goddess. You know that could be you.

Monday 23 June 2008

Perfume Sales Assistants: Behind the Scenes

Its said that if you experience good service, you're likely to tell a friend; and that if you experience poor customer service, you're likely to tell ten of 'em. Good call.
I constantly read posts on online forums that tell of unsatisfactory retail experiences whilst shopping for fine fragrance. Whilst I recognize that 8 times out of 10 the S.A. is likely to be at fault, I also believe that there is often a degree of expectation and haughtiness on behalf of the customer that may ultimately cause their own undoing. How do I know...? you might ask. Well, because I've been there and done that. After almost a decade of fragrance consultancy, I would like to lift the lid and put to rest some common misconceptions with regard to your average sales rep. Here's how it works...

Department stores and large retail chains employ representatives from diverse fragrance houses. For instance, L'Oreal (responsible for Armani, Ralph Lauren, Cacharel etc) will put a S.A in store to promote lines from the L'Oreal portfolio. Similarly, B.P.I or Beauty Prestige International will place a S.A who will promote "their" scents (Gaultier, Miyake, Rodriguez). With the number of fragrance houses on the market, there is no wonder there are many reps on the floor at any given time. ALL BUT FEW of these reps are employed in this manner. They are paid a wage to sell you a brand which their house represents. This is chiefly because their knowledge is greater for these scents, than those that other houses release.
Contrary to popular belief, no-one works on commission anymore - however sales incentives are sometimes offered. (Eg: if there is a launch or refocus on, for example, Versace fragrances, the S.A's from the company representing Versace will need to sell a particular quota in order to win a prize or cash reward). These incentives are not that regular, however, again, with the number of houses represented (and thus S.A's on the floor promoting their lines), it can easily be understood how many customers can feel overwhelmed and pressured to buy.

The key to avoid awkward stand-offs with assistants is to observe the following:

1. 90% of the time, they will offer you scents from their houses. This is because their knowledge of these scents is greater than for others. If you feel you are being unduly swayed to purchase something you're not completely sold on, simply ask the question "aside from the fragrances in your company's portfolio, what else can you show me?"

2. Always be polite and don't expect the worst from your S.A! Many customers go into stores with the outlook that they are going to be "poached and preached to", and build a defensive wall around themselves. This wall is impossible for even a good S.A. to penetrate.

3. Keep in mind there are good S.A's who do wish to help, despite their loyalties to their companies. Seek them out, and hold on to them for dear life!

4. External promotional companies hire staff to promote a wide range of products from alcoholic beverages to event tickets to perfumes. Often, fragrance houses will hire promo staff from these agencies during a launch or promotion to increase the brand's in-store presence... keep in mind these people have almost no knowledge of the scent, nor the industry. This is not through ignorance - rather lack of training and experience. Don't get mad when they fumble or give you questionable information, and try and hold your tongue if you know better. Simply thank them and move on to a staff member who seems to be a permanent fixture in the store, or one who appears to know what they are talking about. Chances are, that when the promo person's shift is over later that day; they are unlikely to ever return to that store for that same event.

Bottom line: keep a level head.
There is always a certain degree of snobbery in fragrance circles which really is almost a part of the fragrance culture. Don't be an upstart, just for shits and giggles. It will get you nowhere.

Friday 20 June 2008

Citrus Paradisi: Citrus done well...

Generally speaking, I am a devoted fan of citrus. My mediterranean complexion seems to provide an efficacious canvas upon which it will - more often than not - cheerfully blossom.
Therefore, I have ample scents in my wardrobe with accords that run the gamut from Tunisian bergamot to blood orange, zesty lime and Sicilian lemon to piquant kumquat. But recently I came across a citrus that broke the "clean and fresh" citrus mould.
Citrus Paradisi, the extraordinary eau de toilette released by Czech & Speake of London, is a welcome deviation from the citrus norm. It is both modern and traditional in style. Its opening accords are vibrant and lush, brimming with shimmering grapefruit; but almost instantly one is lured down into the dusky heart of this fragrance where rich patchouli lurks alongside odiferous oak moss. There is a lively shot of black pepper beneath which lends a prickling warmth to the anatomy of this scent. Citrus Paradisi manages to rouse the senses with its shrill, vivacious grapefruit; but also murmurs in one's ear with hushed, tranquil tones. 
It is a 'mature' citrus: one that is contemporary for today, without losing a loyalty and sensitivity to yesterday. Often overlooked, but undeniably one of the best of its class.

Thursday 19 June 2008

The Westernization of Oudh.

Some years ago, my partner and I were laid-over in Dubai International Airport whilst traveling onward toward Europe. I was overwhelmed with the desire to get a feel for - if even for a short while before we boarded the next plane - the mystique and allure of the United Arab Emirates. But, as with most international terminals, I experienced the "watered-down" version instead... the glamorous East meets West facade of towering pillared halls peppered with bustling retail outlets touting their european designer clothes, middle eastern gold jewellery and asian electronics.But one element in that enormous retail environment stood out for me... and that was the perfume. Anyone who has travelled through the middle east will have encountered exquisite cut-crystal flacons that hold countless fragrant juices both precious and rare... their hypnotizing colours and superb craftsmanship have an almost tranquilizing effect.

But the juice these bottles contained both horrified and appauled us.
Our noses wrinkled and faces contorted as we introduced priceless oudhs and attars to our ignorant noses. As far as the fragrance world is concerned, it was baptism by fire.

Oudh oil is obtained from the Agarwood tree that grows in abundance in India and south-east Asia. The trees are frequently attacked by a fungus, which in turn causes a rich and dark resin to form within the heartwood. This process can take hundreds of years, but the result is the very rare and precious oudh which, when distilled into an oil, is highly prized and valued the world over. Through the millennia it has thus attained a spiritual and esoteric value as it has been used in medicine, incense, has been traded in dowries, and has even been referenced in the Bible. Its fragrance can only be described as "confronting" to the amateur palate, but it is said that with time, one can appreciate deep balsamic, ambergris, woody, accords. It is astonishing to me - with it being so highly prized in Japan and the Middle East - that until recently it has been practically unheard of in the West. 

Yves Saint Laurent was amongst the first European design houses to tap into the appeal of Agarwood for use in the mainstream market with their men's fragrance M7.  Since then, we have seen a growing appreciation of oudh emerge in niche and mainstream fragrances... though, on the whole its interpretation and use is still largely Westernized. One might argue that the introduction of oudh to the mainstream market may somehow depreciate its value. Could the heavyweight design houses like Tom Ford be exploiting this rare resource purely with profit margins in mind? Possibly. Or, perhaps there exists a genuine desire to bring this etheral component further onto the world's stage. Whatever the case, one must first develop a nose for this unique ingredient. Perhaps the Montale's and the Private Blends are a good entry point for the layman enthusiast.
I have recently been given the opportunity to revisit natural non-synthetic oudh for the first time since wandering the terminals in Dubai. It is therefore with much excitement and some trepidation that I await my exotic (and expensive!) oil samples to arrive. 
So, watch this space...

Wednesday 18 June 2008

4711 - Yesterday and Today

Several weeks ago I came across a sealed vintage bottle of 4711 - Echt Kölnisch Wasser at a local fleamarket. Impressed by its voluptuous cut-glass flacon, I snapped it up for less than a latte.
One of the worlds oldest and most recognized brands of cologne, it seems at one stage or another, everyone's great aunt, grandfather or big brother once had a small bottle of this elixir stashed in a draw or standing on a dresser. Zesty and herbaceous, 4711 has stood the test of time, and besides being an all-purpose refreshing splash for more two centuries; has become a design icon in its own right. The ornamental gold and blue-green label is extraordinarily eye-catching, and if you visit the 4711 website, you'll note its contemporary appeal. 
Imagine my surprise then, when I learned via an email exchange with a contact at HQ in Köln, that my fleamarket purchase is likely to be of a 70 year vintage. Whilst Nike shoe designers borrow inspiration from Echt Kölnische Wasser for their 2007 retail season, (and charge $170.00 a pair),  I can't help feel blessed somehow that I stumbled upon a 150ml 1930's original... for a measley $2.00. 

On Luca Turin

I am an active member of several online fragrance communities. Much discussion and debate has ensued following the release of Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez's book Perfumes: The Guide. So, I decided to see for myself what the fuss was all about. Here is an excerpt from the published book description:

"...a definitive guide to the world of perfume. Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez are experts in the world of scent. Turin, a renowned scientist, and Sanchez, a longtime perfume critic, have spent years sniffing the world's most elegant and beautiful as well as some truly terrible perfumes. In "Perfumes: The Guide," they combine their talents and experience to review more than twelve hundred fragrances, separating the divine from the good from the monumentally awful. Through witty, irreverent, and illuminating prose, the reviews in "Perfumes" not only provide consumers with an essential guide to shopping for fragrance, but also make for a unique reading experience..."

So, I had high hopes.

I was disappointed.

After reading Chandler Burr's "Emperor of Scent", one can't help acknowledge that Turin's understanding of perfume from a molecular and biological perspective, is staggering. In terms of my own edification, I learned much from EOS, and found it a very compelling read. Burr's dynamic writing style in particular, paints a portrait of Turin as a man whose eccentricities and, at times outlandish work practices were often overlooked because of his natural drive and academic aptitude. Thus, one can't help feel Turin is revered as somewhat of a demigod in his scientific profession.
But this unfortunately does not ring true for his abilities as an author or a critic. In fact, I find the majority of the reviews in THE GUIDE self-indulgent, slap-hazard and extremely inconsistent.
I think when one - whose knowledge is revered by a great many - fails to deliver dependable, penetrating insights across the board, and instead, favors wise-cracking remarks or insubstantial criticisms to flesh out the pages; then its best to leave well enough alone. Turin's efforts I feel, are best spent in the laboratory, or out in the field - not between the pages of a book.
To my mind, Tania Sanchez's insights are, more often than not, equally as redundant. I don't feel that simply having a love and appreciation of fine fragrances endows one with the shrewdness and practical knowledge required to consistently write credible, objective, critical appraisals. Her evaluations are peppered with tongue-in-cheek humor and flippant declarations that I feel don't always win out over the sensitivity with which some of these scents deserve to be treated. Comedic one-liners do not make for illuminating reading.
It would also appear that in Sanchez & Turin's world, Cool Water seems to be the yardstick against which all men's commercial scents that have followed, are measured. In addition, I often found myself "tut-tutting" where criticism of a scent was overlooked in favour of criticism of the wearer. Also, whilst certain scents were being reviewed, many others were referenced... very few of which actually made it into the pages of the book! It's precisely this kind of inconsistent subjective claptrap that I find hard to swallow in The Guide.

OK, kudos to them both for upping off their asses and getting out there and walking the walk. No one can deny Turin's passion and contribution to the science, but to the total sum of their "insights" in The Guide, I will absolutely not subscribe.

Tuesday 17 June 2008

L'air du Désert Marocain: Visions of the Maghreb

There has always been a timeless romance associated with the Moroccan desert. One can't help but feel a sense of majesty when one imagines the mysterious nomadic peoples that have thrived there for millennia. The impact of the desert wind on its shifting sands fashions a non-permanent landscape, where orange earth kisses lapiz skies. 

One can therefore understand the 
inspiration behind niche Swiss perfumer Andy Tauer's creation aptly titled "Lair du Désert Marocain". Created in true artisanal fashion, it is a scent that pays hommage to the mysterious Maghreb with sensitivity and panache. From first spritz one is overwhelmed with the radiant hotness within... its dry, husky cedar takes center stage while exotic cumin, petitgrain and coriander spices scuttle over it, as would a scorpion on the desert sands. This fragrance has a vintage quality - as though it has permeated from the pages of an old Agatha Christie novel, where British archaeologists dab their brows with pressed handkerchieves, and caravans of desert nomads roam the dunes. It is both romantic and robust, and, much like the desert itself, unrelenting. The parched and arid amber has an aura of equatorial warmth, and is juxtaposed carefully with soft jasmine and rose. The transitory notes and dry-down are so remarkable - one can't help but feel oneself transported to another far-flung landscape at dusk, under a rising Moroccan moon.
Just one of a number of scents created for both men and women whom have an appreciation for unique niche perfumery, this could quite possibly represent my idea of perfume perfection.

Andy Tauer is always willing to engage in discussions with regard to his craft. You can order samples and fragrances online at his official website, and he maintains his own perfume blog here.

Monday 16 June 2008

LPNo:9 - Penhaligon's - Top hats and tails.

These days, it is with enormous restraint I sparingly spritz the last remaining milliliters of my beloved LPNo:9 for Him.
Just over a year ago, I learned that my fine fragrance Holy Grail had been deleted from the Penhaligon's perfume portfolio. Launched for Valentine's Day in 1999 along with it's female counterpart, LPNo:9 for Her; this unique men's scent is distinctly British. And it is a scent with some dramatic contrasts.

Shimmering citrus top notes veil deep, rich, spicy heart and base accords... zesty bergamot, lemon and mandarin merge with a humming blend of rosemary, black pepper, warm cinnamon and smokey amber - the total sum of which tends to prickle at the back of your nose. The opening sensation is rather like inhaling the aroma of scotch and dry ginger ale. But with time, one can detect the delicate blend of warm clove, mint-like geranium, dry vetiver and fragrant sandalwood. This is a scent to be cherished as something timeless, sophisticated and elegant.

One cant help but feel transported back to Victorian England when wearing this abandoned treasure... dressed in top hat and tails, stepping out of coal-black carriages with white gloves and silver-tipped ebony canes; Love Potion No:9 hanging in the air overhead like a shiny black raven. Sadly, with time, this scent will also vanish, much like those vivid Victorian years.

As a result, I am on the hunt for ANY LPNo:9 cologne, samples, candles and bath oil. Kindly contact the author if you can help.