Wednesday 30 July 2008

Amber: A perfume myth

Living in Denmark, I suppose I can call myself fortunate in some regards. It is true that Denmark is a country shaped by the extreme weather and the harsh winds blowing in from the the North sea. My delight is in learning that with the wind, the sea unearths prehistoric treasure in the form of vegetal amber. Amber is the name given to the fossilised deposits of resin created by trees, that have hardened over tens of millions of years. The golden lumps of amber that one can easily find scattered along the beach after a storm, indicate that vast forests of pine once flourished where the sea now lies. 

Contrary to popular belief, however, amber - when used in perfumery - is not of this vegetal variety. It is considered almost impossible to extract a scented oil from this ancient resource, and attempts at doing so are highly destructive and yield minimal results. It would be much like trying to extract the odour of a stone. So, why do so many perfume houses reference amber as a key component of a new scent? Well, basically, the term 'amber' is loosely used to describe a quality in perfume that is warm, rich and honeylike, and also somewhat powdery, oriental and earthy. In perfume, synthetic ambers are often created and patented by the large manufacturing houses to emulate the opulent golden warmth of the fossil. Otherwise, oils taken from modern resins and tree gums such as benzoin and labdanum are obtained for their warm spicy qualities, and are often cut with other oils such as vanilla, clove or patchouli to further enhance their aroma. Fragrance companies that claim they have created a "true amber" perfume are simply writing a poem to lull and entice the consumer.

Nonetheless, I do enjoy the qualities that "amber" lends to perfume, even though it can only be a modern interpretation borrowed from this petrified remnant of the past. As the focus of many myths and legends, I will continue to trawl the shoreline after a winter storm in the hope of snagging a sizeable lump of this extraordinary gemstone.

Monday 28 July 2008

Eau Noire - Dior

French-Armenian perfumer Francis Kurkdjian never ceases to amaze me. At such a young age, he is already the recipient of the coveted Francois Coty Prize for Lifetime Achievement as a perfume creator, and has numerous global fragrance triumphs to his credit, including Gaultier's retail smash Le Male, and the much adored Narciso Rodriguez for Her. Now at the helm of his own atelier, Kurkdjian continues to demonstrate his extraordinary talent whilst designing scents for international design houses and bespoke perfumes for the well-heeled.

Arguably one of his finest achievements to date, is the oriental fougere created in 2004 for Dior, named "Eau Noire" (Black Water). This scent for men and women, is one-third of the Couture Collection trio of colognes, available through select retail outlets and Dior boutiques. It can only be described as "inspired" - pushing the envelope by meshing the fougere (fern) perfume classification together with a rich oriental. The result is a harmonious blend that is as lush and succulent as an emerald New Zealand forest, and as thick and mysterious as an oriental bazaar. Clary sage, violet, lavender and cedar ripple over a strumming heart of helichrysum, caraway, leather, bitter coffee and smooth vanilla. Olfactory chiaroscuro is at work here... there are contrasting lights and shadows at play... rich spices and dark woods are stippled with bright, creamy vanilla and tranquilizing lavender. It offers welcoming familiarity with its honeyed warm hues, and also an uncharted greenness which begs to be explored. The juxtaposition of accords is genius, and the overall impact is velvety, comforting and engaging. Eau Noire remains earthy, natural and grounded. It has reasonable sillage and can be detected up to 8 hours after initial application.

I will be the first to recommend this fine Kurkdjian creation, which serves to represent just one of his many present successes.

Wednesday 23 July 2008

DEMETER: Singular Scents

An interesting little company that is on the international rise is Demeter... the US firm that manufactures 'singular scents' of everyday things. The concept is a clever one... by measuring the molecular structure of different odours in a laboratory, Demeter can re-create any one of them - and in doing so, they have built a Library of Fragrance which holds almost any single scent you can think of. 
Love the smell of fresh baked bread, cut grass, thunder storms or pina coladas? Then you'll be sure to find it here. There are literally hundreds of odours on the Demeter homepage that run the gamut from the divine to the downright dreadful. If Mildew, Turpentine and Beetroot are not your style, then perhaps you can be tempted by Cinnamon Bun, Creme Brulée and Sex on the Beach.
What is immediately striking about this comprehensive series, is how true they are to the original source. Whilst one can't truly imagine wanting to smell like a laundromat or earthworm, I have to give Demeter kudos for their meticulous accuracy. Whilst I wouldn't say many of these are particularly wearable for every occasion, I do have to make mention of one that has made a grand impact on me... Gingerale. I am astonished at how Demeter has captured the sparkling effervescence of the true carbonated drink. It prickles at the back of the nose with a familiar dryness. Packed with rich clove and zesty lime, this is an appealing feel-good fragrance that has done well in turning heads (in a good way, of course).
Everyone tends to have their own "favourite smells" which may have been influenced by past recollection or modern fixation, but whatever case may be, Demeter is more than likely to have catalogued it. For use as either a room freshener, a gag gift, or a personal cologne, I am confident Demeter will have something that will appeal to you too. Visit their website here.

Monday 21 July 2008

Sisley: Eau de Campagne

There is something to be said about the royalty of family. Whether it be aristocratic or otherwise, there is a sense of strength and power evident when one is aligned with kin. In history, the preservation of one's name and one's bloodline was of paramount importance... and whilst today we seldom war for this purpose any more; there is still a proud feeling of sovereign interconnectedness between parents and offspring that all strive for a common goal.

The d'Ornano family of France founded the French company Sisley in 1976, and for three generations, this family business has pioneered research and development of aromatherapy and phytocosmetology. Sisley is a company built by a father, mother, son & daughter team whose perfectionism and drive has made Sisley one of the most prestigious brands in the industry. 

With three exclusive fragrances to their credit, the delightful Eau de Campagne is brimming with vitality and freshness. Favoured by both men and women, Eau de Campagne is a shimmering blend of lush green tomato leaf, freshly-cut green grass and sparkling citrus. Its herbaceous quality is instantly uplifting, and the elegant composition oozes sophistication - much like their tasteful advertising images of rolling green hills, opulent gardens and welcoming retreats. It is audacious and dynamic, and serves as a bracing feel-good tonic which sharpens the mind and refreshes the body throughout the day. One can immediately detect quality here. Perhaps, if in reality you are not of royal blood or aristocratic descent, a few drops of this luminous fragrance may do very well in suggesting you are. For this, is the verdant nectar of nobility.

Friday 18 July 2008

CoSTUME NATIONAL: A Design Institution

I've always been a fan of lean silhouettes cut close to the body... a hallmark of Italian fashion powerhouse CoSTUME NATIONAL. CN founder and designer, Ennio Capasa, has led his brand from strength to strength since the doors opened in 1986. His work embodies the marriage between modern sophistication and timeless Italian tailoring. His extraordinary vision favours dark and natural tones, and materials that have been researched with meticulous detail. Passionately interested in all aspects of the industry, Ennio takes an active part in the design of his garments, retail spaces, fragrances and flacons. The brand carries his fingerprint.
In 2002, Costume National launched a trio of fragrances. Capasa teamed up with IFF perfumer Laurent Bruyere and together they created perfumes that were designed to fit the body as competently as the clothing line. The flagship fragrance aptly named "Scent" was flanked by a lighter 'sheer' version, and the incredible Scent Intense - a compelling, concentrated eau de parfum.

Wearing Intense is like wearing a theatrical mask - its initial impact is unanticipated and ambiguous, but beneath lies something familiar and inviting.  Jasmine tea, hibiscus and amber play key roles in its composition, all of which cartwheel across fragrant woody accents. Sensuous, exotic, mystical, intense
For a designer release, it does not conform to the "mainstream" norm; rather, it is as bold, as edgy, and as striking as the fashion itself. Dark, refined, enchanting. 

Despite it originally being created for women, Scent Intense is also well-loved by men as a daring and avant garde creation. Every time I have worn Scent Intense to a gathering, I have been asked what I am wearing without fail. I rarely reveal the name. This one is best kept for those with an acute appreciation of the CN ethic, and of course, the art of modern perfume.

In late 2007, Costume National launched a new scent named "21" - a unisex fragrance composed of 21 accords, and celebrating 21 years as a fashion house. This is yet to be reviewed, and I am excited.

Thursday 17 July 2008

Chartreuse, Capri & Carthusia...

God love those crazy monks of the Carthusian Order. Dedicated to a life of solitude and holiness, in 1605 they still managed to invent the alcoholic liqueur Chartreuse from 130 herbal extracts. (Things must have become pret-ty rowdy at the monasteries on occasion). I suppose we can collectively thank them for sobering memories of our teenage introduction to the greeny-yellow demon drink, which - more often than not - either resulted in somebody getting hurt, arrested or violently ill.
Fortunately, their contribution to the finer things in life does not end with this kermit-coloured elixir.

Centuries before the cloistral distilleries were producing alcoholic beverages, the monks of Certosa San Giacomo in Italy are credited with the creation of the first perfume of Capri in 1380. In celebration of a visit by the Queen Giovanna d'Anglio to the monastery, a huge bouquet of locally grown flowers was arranged in her honour. Days after her departure when the flowers were thrown away, the prior noticed that the water had acquired a unique perfume. The scent was then re-created, and became the basis for several perfume formulas which were later uncovered in 1948 and revived by a small chemist in Torino under permission from the Pope. The tradition is being continued now by the niche house, Carthusia. Creating scents for both men and women, I am particularly fond of their creation Carthusia Uomo. Irresponsibly and flippantly reviewed by Tanya Sanchez in The Guide, this is a scent that deserves a closer look.

Uomo opens with a distinct marine-like quality. For a crushing millisecond your nose wants you to believe that you've smelled this creation before, but this sensation is only fleeting. Moments later, it is as if it's single marine accord blossoms into flower and each separate accord can be identified and accounted for: citrus, rosewood, seaweed, violet. Imagine a "standard" masculine oceanic scent, and then try to recreate it in your mind using 10,000 flowers... in this way, Uomo has a spectacular complexity. It is proudly masculine in nature - and distinctly Italian - but the complex and varied individual accords are delicate and soft - almost like muted building blocks that all amount to a boldly refined and elegant whole. Perhaps the most enjoyable quality of this fragrance is its very pleasurable dry-down. When warmed by your skin, rich animalic/musky accords emerge that are not the least bit unpleasant. A fine balance has been struck between the sharp and crisp accords, and the velvety dark ones. 

One wears Carthusia Uomo like a time-worn monk's robe. It is both modest and costume-like; revealing much about oneself, whilst at the same time, fostering an air of secrecy.

Wednesday 16 July 2008

Hermés: Eau d'Orange Verte

Eau d'Orange Verte is, in my opinion, the jewel in the crown of citrus fragrances.

Created in 1979 by perfumer Francoise Caron for the house of Hermés, L'eau de Cologne Hermés was later re-christened Eau d'Orange Verte in 1997. 

This is a rousing blend whose topnotes sparkle with acidic lemon and zesty mandarin. It is instantly embracing, offering one of the finest bursts of citrus goodness on the market. There is a beautiful herbaceous greenness and delicate florals that allow this scent to truly blossom on the skin. It is deep and rich... layers of fragrant wood and patchouli beneath form a beautiful base upon which this composition rests. It is also vivid and dynamic... inspiring harmonious visions of warm Meditterranean days with the sun blazing overhead. One can imagine diving into a bottomless emerald lake surrounded by dense orange trees that are all releasing their energising perfume on the air.  
Part of Ed'OV's success lies with its old timeless, elegant charm. It is a scent which is both remarkably simple, and yet surprisingly profound.

Sadly, Eau d'Orange Verte (the original eau de cologne version) has disappointing persistence. Thirty minutes after application, little remains. But, for my money, those bracing luxurious minutes relished right after spraying, are well and truly worth it. In 2004, an eau de toilette version was created, named Concentrée d'Orange Verte, but as far as Im concerned, it falls well short of the original. What the concentrée makes up for in terms of longevity, it lacks in the integrity of the composition. It introduces an odd spearmint-like creaminess, that I feel detracts from the pristine clarity of its predecessor. The dry-down is also a little too synthetic, to my nose.

Hermés in-house 'nose' Jean-Claude Ellena  has contributed enormously to reviving the brand's fragrance profile. But he has big shoes to fill if he is ever to fabricate a scent that is as timeless and as lavish as this. Are you up to the challenge, Monsieur Ellena?

Sunday 13 July 2008

Another flea market find...

I'm beginning to turn into one of those people I used to point and laugh at a lot as a kid. Those types that would be up at the crack of dawn just so they could be amongst the first to trawl through other people's crap in the hope of finding a small trinket of some monetary or sentimental value. But living in Denmark has opened my eyes. If there's one thing the Danes do well - its flea markets!

Yesterday it just so happens my wife and I found ourselves in such a place. She was looking at old wooden furniture, and I was perusing tables covered in psychedelically-glazed pottery pieces and tarnished antique silverware. Then my eyes fell upon this charming little perfume bottle... a weighty object, gilt in gold and enamelled in vivid colours. Five dollars. It was mine. I opened the bottle in the hope I could smell the residue hiding within, and discovered it 70% full with a beautiful perfumed oil... something rich and mysterious. Something from the East. It was a fortunate find.

Then this got me thinking. I recalled the times in the past that I've come across countless flacons and vintage bottles of scent in various markets, antique stores and auction houses. I've previously purchased Worth's Je Reviens, Chanel's No. 5, Lanvin's Arpége, Arden's Bluegrass and Rochas' Madame Rochas for a fraction of their value. How did they come to leave the hands of their owners? I've always wondered. Deceased estates? Lack of love? Need for money?
I've been amazed at finding full, untouched bottles that perhaps had been put away for "good" - possibly an extravagant gift from a hard-working husband, somewhere back in time... one that never got worn because it was just far too precious. ...And here I am - decades later - faced with the same choice. Do I open these bottles and lavish these scents on my loved ones and allow all to experience their timeless richness and charm? Or, do I keep them sealed and preserve these aesthetically appealing and historically important objects from yesteryear? A tough decision to make. Whilst I contemplate, the collection, stored in a dark draw away from temperature and light; continues to grow.

Thursday 10 July 2008

Paloma Picasso's "Minotaure"

Pablo Picasso is a name permanently etched into twentieth-century history. To this day, the Andalusian-Spanish painter/sculptor is one of the most widely recognised figures for his distinctive body of work and his contribution in co-founding the Cubist art movement of the early 1900's. As a Spaniard, the bull and bullfighting made an early appearance in his work, and, in the 1930's, Picasso's works chiefly featured Le Minotaure - a half man half bull figure appended from Greek mythology. In Picasso's mind, and in his art, this ancient beast takes on various behaviours and roles. Sometimes begging compassion and sometimes the violent aggressor, the Minotaur emerged as the dominant figure in Picasso's works during this period, and many affirm that the beast represented the artist's alter-ego.

Much later, prior to his death in 1973, the artist's daughter Paloma Picasso featured in many of her father's works. In the following years, Paloma moved into the field of jewellery and fashion design, and created her eponymous perfume in 1984 - an opulent feminine chypre. In 1992 Paloma Picasso resurrected the Minotaur theme from her father's work and launched her first men's fragrance Minotaure.
To me, this IS the embodiment of the Mediterranean, in an unrestrained, virile manner. Its tangy blood-orange citrus head is swiftly underlined by radiant geranium and then warmed by smouldering sandalwood and spices. But at the heart of this beast is a very rich leather that can't be beaten. Raw, brawny and sexy, it has the provocative smell of a napped leather motorcycle jacket that has been warmed by a man's body - like a beating heart laid upon honey-like amber and soft musks. Much like her father's alter-ego, it is both tender and untamed.
This fragrance epitomises the feeling of a warm southern European night. It is an entrancing creation that will draw people in closer.
A work of art.

Tuesday 8 July 2008

The rain in Spain falls mainly...

 As a kid, I grew up in New Zealand where I would witness torrential rain persist for weeks on end. Swollen, heavy droplets would fall from the heavens and dapple the ground. The aroma of the deluge was magical. There was something beautiful about the earth as it came alive with shimmering pools and silver rivulets of water.
Nowadays, as an adult, living in Scandinavia is not much different. The reality is that we get about 8 weeks of fine weather each year, and for the remaining ten months, we contend with grey skies, brisk winds and recurrent downpours. It can be disheartening and inconvenient. But on some occasions, I still like to stand at the windows of my sitting room and just watch the might and majesty of the rain. Water can be truly awe-inspiring. 

In perfumery, the element of water or l'eau is often reinterpreted by perfumers who seek to produce a scent that is sparklingly refreshing. Many of the world's finest noses have tried to capture the essence of water through olfaction. Surprisingly, the virtually unknown Australian boutique fragrance house Renée have made a regal effort in achieving just this. Simply titled L'eau, Renée offers an ethereal blend of spearmint, basil and mint - which is as crisp as fresh spring water - over a heart and base of rose, violet, nutmeg and dewy oakmoss. The result is a tender scent that is somehow both enlivening and calming. 

I find this an interesting study of the 'water' concept. Perhaps one might say that there is no truth to this perfume... that its components are diverse and arbitrary and nothing has been "appended" from the true elemental source. But water, ultimately, is odourless. So, with unabashed artistic freedom, I believe that L'eau embodies the true poetry and romance of a real summer thundershower.

L'eau is an eau de parfum, available in handy 10ml and 50ml sizes. Visit for more information.

Friday 4 July 2008

Middle Eastern Perfumery

It is said that the trade routes in the Middle East for fragrant goods are believed to have existed as long as 4000 years ago. In the millennia since, with access to different herbs, spices and woods, Islamic cultures have contributed enormously to modern perfumery in perfecting extraction and distillation techniques. Perfume eventually made it to Europe around the 14th century, in part due to Arabic influences and expertise.
Today, perfumery in the Middle East is a colossal industry. Countless distilleries and distributors exist whom have perfected the art of raw material cultivation and oil extraction. In the arid desert sands, and across parts of South-East Asia, these companies dominate the global market with their production of rare concentrates and priceless oudhs.
Palatial retail outlets house exquisite flacons of cut crystal, semi-precious stones and rare metals that are designed and crafted with meticulous care so that they might hold a precious extract that is deemed fit for a king.

And we, in the West are more or less oblivious!

So you can imagine my excitement when today, my much anticipated oudh samples arrived in the post. The typically blonde Danish postman looked at me queerly when he handed me the envelope that contained these few precious drops of oil. We were both conscious of the heavy aroma that had engulfed his bicycle. He looked displeased. (Considering the number of times my mail had been misplaced or posted in my neighbour's box in error, I actually thought it was kack-funny).

I swiftly returned to my home office to smell the oils from each of the vials in turn. Bold, heavy, fecal, animalic. I had expected as much. The plastic pocket that housed the five vials emitted a collective odour that was thick and ripe... a collision of smells. But then, I discovered that each individual oudh presented something phenomenally different than the last. Amber, incense, musk, wood, green. Each vial hummed with a profoundly rich and distinctive aroma. I put the tubes back in the bag and tucked them away in a drawer.

I will delight in the occasion where I choose to anoint myself with a tiny pinprick of one of these precious oils. Hm, perhaps I'll just wait until the postman comes past...

Thursday 3 July 2008

Gaultier: It takes two...

Gents, let me ask you... have you ever worn a kilt? Despite the obvious associations with women's skirts and William Wallace wannabes, I can't tell you how liberating the experience is! 
I can say this now in hindsight, but a few years back when I was first offered my promotional uniform for the launch of Gaultier2, I was less than thrilled. When fashion maestro Jean Paul Gaultier unleashed his first unisex scent onto the world stage, he obviously wanted to do it with all the flamboyance and flair for which he is renowned. Gaultier2 was all about people coming together... succumbing to the magnetic attraction within. But for me - a man who faced public humiliation with hairy knees exposed - all I could focus on at the time were my jeering male colleagues, and pervy granny shoppers wielding hooked umbrella handles. But somehow, over the course of launch week, I managed to avoid a small army of skirt-chasing girls - and guys, - and grew to appreciate this incredible scent.

Gaultier2 (to the power of two) features three basic accords: amber, vanilla and musk. Though its relatively linear composition doesnt evolve much from first spritz to final wisp on the skin; it does shift somewhat between these three featured accords. Amber is the main star here - deep and resinous and warm. It melds on the skin like thick molasses and, when heated by your body, amplifies tenfold. The accompanying vanilla radiates this warmth and creates titanic sillage - imbuing the air with a honeyed incandescent warmth. The underlying musk is not overtly animalic - but is ever-present to suggest something distinctly organic... the overall experience being like the heat of two bodies pressed together and the friction between them... tempestuous, fiery, tender.

G2 is not everyone's bag, but it does do exceptionally well that which it was originally intended to do... to illustrate and intensify the magnetism and volatility of attraction between two people, irrespective of gender and age. 
Though initially luke-warm, the response to this fragrance has since seen a steady increase in its admirers. It is very appealing.

And, just for the record; by the end of launch week when the kilt was dry cleaned and returned, I don't know who was more disappointed to see it go: myself or the Mrs.
Or perhaps those salacious senior citizens!

Wednesday 2 July 2008

Recommended Reading: The Perfect Scent.

More often than not, I tend to have 5 or 6 books on the go at once. Right now, I currently have an unfinished 'to read' stack comprising two novels, one anthology, and one (rather compelling) esoteric journal. I browse through any one of them before bed or on lazy sunday afternoons on the sofa, whilst the typical Danish weather turns miserable outside.
Seldom do I find a book which is moved briskly to the top of the pile - one that takes precedence over all others - but in the case of Chandler Burr's "The Perfect Scent", I happened to make an exception.

Chandler Burr is the in-house perfume critic for the New York Times, and is revered by many living stateside as the 'guy in the know' where fine fragrance is concerned. Though I seldom share his opinions, I do enjoy his captivating style of writing. Professionally, Burr always makes a point of staying informed, and in this book he reports on the perfume industry by spending a year inside a New York perfume giant, and a Parisian powerhouse. 
Burr lifts the lid on the industry and follows the creation of two new scents: Un Jardin sur le Nil by French luxury house Hermés, and Lovely, the celebrity scent release by actress Sarah Jessica Parker for Coty. He does so with a keen eye (and nose) and a fine-tuned sensitivity to the industriousness of both houses. It makes for fascinating reading. Burr doesn't hesitate to name names and divulge sums as he delves into the cutthroat world of competing firms, secret perfume formulations, global successes and embarrassing failures. I devoured it whole in just a couple of afternoons.
I would strongly recommend this reading for anyone even remotely interested in the fine fragrance world. It does well to open ones eyes to a $26 billion dollar a year industry that must constantly find a balance between modern attitudes and centuries-old tradition.