Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Ornaments of scent

There seems to be a bit of a (esoteric and semantic but perhaps more interesting in the wider context and not just for perfume enthusiasts) debate on whether fragrance (or at least ''fine fragrance'') is an art. And if it's not an art, what is it, and if it is art, then is it fine art or applied art. The alternative to ''art'' is ''design'', which to me sits indistinguishably near ''applied art''.

This dictionary problem has been occupying me for quite a while now, and inevitably led to attempts to define ''art''. And I think that people who believe that perfume is art simply (or not so simply) have a different working definition of art to those that think of it as ''merely a design''.

Art can be understood as a creation of beauty, something that evokes emotions or brings aesthetic pleasures. Thus defined, a lot of ''design'' has at least an element of art, even if this aesthetic aspect is functional/applied and subordinate to function of the object. Thus defined, perfume is definitely (applied) art.

In fact, one can argue that perfume is more of an art than for example architecture, a lot of ceramics, clothing, furniture or interior design. Sure, it's functional, but its essential function is ornamentation. It's decorative. It doesn't provide expression, commentary or reflection of socio-historical realities, human condition or spiritual experiences. It has no content as such. It doesn't tell a story, and it doesn't transmit ideas, as such. Any possible (and generally fairly thin) content in the art of perfumery is derived from context, not from the object (fragrance) itself. But it can - and sometimes it does - provide new ways of seeing, or rather new ways of smelling.

This is not a mean thing. One could argue that a lot of visual art is just like fragrance. And so is a lot of instrumental and at least some vocal/vocal-instrumental music.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Two roses (Tea Rose & ELDO Eau de Protection)

I like rose scents. Rose is odd, because on one hand it's an epitome of all that's sweet and feminine and lovely, oh so lovely, and yet it's one of the most unisex florals out there, and when woven into proper fragrance composition, can go pretty much every way, while still being, well, rose.

These are my two favourite roses at the moment, with ''the moment'' being defined as last ten years.

Tea Rose by Perfumer's Workshop 

Tea Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. A huge rose, very rose-y indeed, and as some reviewers mentioned, with a hint of the leaves and stalks and even thorns. It lasts and projects. No more and no less. You get exactly what you pay for and you don't pay much at all.

I have a slightly ambivalent relationship with florals, not because I don't like certain flowers' scents but because "floral" fragrances are often awful. Or really, really sweet. Or both. Still, I do love some specific florals, particularly jasmine, rose, neroli (and iris though I don't think of it as floral ;)

At the same time I was reading the Luca Turin book for the first time ever (2008? 2009?) I was also slightly obsessed with rose notes. The proper floral rose, just as it grows in the garden, not rose jam or rose-based fragrances. And so I was on a search for a rose soliflore, trying to get the desired effect from rose essential oils and testing various fragrance (Bvlgari and Paul Smith were two that proved somewhat thin and unsatisfactory). When I'd read the Guide's notes claiming that the PW's Tea Rose is "huge painted in watercolour and has the species name written below it in cursive" I thought it was worth a try. I discovered that it was available really cheaply from American eBay, I bought three (THREE!!) of those giant 120 ml bottles and drenched everything in that scent for as long as it lasted.

It didn't put me off, though I got my fill for a few years I guess because I didn't replenish for a few years. I got a new bottle at the very beginning of re-establishment of my current ''collection'' few months ago and it's all still very much there. A rose that's a rose that's a rose that's a rose.

Fragrance wise, it reminds me most of those little folksy-painted turned wooden boxes that housed a small bottle of Bulgarian rose oil that one occasionally came across growing up in the 1970/80's behind the Iron Curtain. Fabulous as far as roses go and brilliant for layering.

Rossy de Palma Eau de Protection from Etat Libre d'Orange

I was reluctant to buy this as I have a thing (a Bad Kind of Thing) about celebrity fragrances but Rossy de Palma ain't Paris Hilton or even that horselike woman from that TV series, after all. So after a sample vial made its way to me somehow, I bought more, and used it, and decided that just as the Tilda Swinton ELdO one, this was a clear winner and as for now probably my favourite "proper fragrance" (i.e. not a plain one-note soliflore) rose.

The official notes are as follows:
Top: ginger, bergamot, pepper
Middle: geranium, jasmine, rose
Base: frankincense, patchouli, cocoa and benzoin

For a change, the official notes reflect what I can smell pretty well, though the rose is present throughout, not just in the middle.

But it starts truly gloriously, in some dry and warm place where citrussy green of bergamot meets a small roadside rose bush and they roll on a ginger bed for a while.

So it's all lovely, but after few minutes geranium raises its weird, cloying head. Luckily, not for long and what happens next, and what remains for the next ten hours (I did apply LOADS, though, because I couldn't get enough of that first accord) is an aromatic, not-at-all sweet yet not-at-all sharp or jarring rose: peppery, incensey, warm yet not cloying.

The non-celebrity part of the name, Eau de Protection is well chosen. This scent has quite a talismanic, even battledress of sorts, feeling for me. Maybe it's the incense lurking at the base, maybe I'm being influenced by the blurb, the name and the colours. But maybe it is the composition.

If the Tea Rose by Perfumer's Workshop is a rose to lounge on a veranda to, all chintz and Earl Grey, Eau de Protection is one for when you need to kick ass - or just feel more together.

Oh, and I agree with the Fragrantica reviewer that this is indeed a rose-based floral for someone who wears a tattered leather jacket and jeans. I do.

Try it if you like rose scents at all. Actually, try it even if you don't like florals unless you hate rose because it might offer a moment of epiphanic conversion.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Sweet and clean

I have been trying to figure out what bothers me about the modern trends in fragrance fashions, and no, it's neither the oud obsession nor the unreasonable idolisation of vintage scents.

It's not even the sad rise of sports ''fragrances'', mostly among the masculines. These are simply boring, but I am not fond enough of classic masculines to be bothered, and anyway there are still some pretty good ones to be bought easily and cheaply, from Aramis and Polo aromatic fougeres to the Old Spice.

Before I go on, here is a picture:

And, to put a very candied cherry on an already thickly iced cake, here is another picture:

These are both screencaps of the voting screens of the 2017 Fragrance Foundation Consumer's Choice. I don't know how the shortlist is determined. It might be done by sales (FF is an industry organisation, even if it claims to be passionately devoted to increasing the awareness and appreciation of fragrance in all its forms) but if it is based on sales than so should be the winner, just the same way charts work.

And the interesting thing about all these fragrances, both the 2017 five and the Hall of Fame candidates is that, apart from the only ostensible masculine on the Hall of Fame list (Calvin Klein's Eternity For Men) which is a cheap and cheerful, youthfully aspirational aromatic fougere, they are all the same. So, of the nine nominally feminine fragrances on these lists, nine are are the same.

Before someone (if there is anyone out there reading this, which I sincerely doubt at this stage) starts to accuse me of ignorance, I will freely admit that I haven's tried all these scents. But I did look up the ones I didn't know and really, I didn't need to. The names would have been enough.

They are all sweet and clean. Or rather, they are all clean and sweet.

Yes, even Pleasures, which (incidentally to the subject of this rant but obviously) stand out from the others in a towering manner as a historical monument to a certain style of fragrance, not even style but a certain message, and which I personally don't like much, firstly because that particular message is not what I usually want to either explore or transmit, and secondly because it smells close to a lily of the valley soliflore on my skin.

Now, as much as I might personally dislike ''clean'' in its feminine expressions (which usually seem just too buttoned up for me), I can appreciate it (see below). I also don't object to ''clean'' as such, and for example classic barbershop masculines are an excellent expression of that, as are straightforward citrus colognes. From Azzaro Pour Homme to 4711 and Hermes' Eau d'Orange Verte (the latter available mega cheaply at least at the moment so one can literally douse oneself in it).

But I have a huge - HUGE - HUGE - problem with ''clean and sweet''. When the sweet part is figurative and manifests as prim florals evoking either d├ębutante virginal muslins and pale pink bedrooms, or a scrubbed and douched to perfection vibe of a soccer mom who hasn't found her inner MILF yet, I can appreciate it even if  I don't like it.

But the modern sweet is fairly literal and often distinctly food-evoking, as in all the gourmands spawned when Angel somewhat incestuously deflowered the original Lolita Lempicka (I reluctantly but undoubtedly like both of these). Honey, chocolate, vanilla and candy, red berries covered with mountains of icing sugar, vanilla, hazelnuts, caramel, latte and did I mention vanilla?

Now, I love vanilla and chocolate and berries. With some spices it's just about a perfect way for a house - especially kitchen - to smell and sweet, spicy warmth is one of my primary reason for loving classic and not so classic orientals. Shalimar and Hypnotic Poison are among my favourite scents.

But c'mon. These are not clean scents. Sugar and all things related is one of the key categories of dirt in the life of even a semi civilised human. Ask anybody who ever gave a chocolate bar to a toddler and had to clean up the fallout. Sure, sweet dirt doesn't have the naturally repulsive characteristics of organic waste, human, animal or vegetable which we have evolved to avoid as it promoted survival (there is a very good reason why the vast majority of people are disgusted by the smell or even the idea of faeces, vomit, rotten animal flesh, to a lesser extent rotten vegetables, and to even lesser, rotten fruit, and it's not merely the social training we undergo in childhood). But sweet dirt attracts insects (with their danger of bites and contamination) and because it's very sticky, it attracts other types or dirt, not necessarily as innocent as smears of chocolate, caramel or jam. So there might be something in it even from the most wanky ev psych perspective.

Sweet is not clean. Sweet when fruity (i.e. with sour and floral notes woven in) is sticky, juicy and can be heady. Sweet when non-fruity (as in vanilla, honey, chocolate, various sugars raw or burnt) is sticky, oozy, creamy and heavy. In the so-called nature, in ''real life'' outside glossy mags and design offices and possibly outside shopping centres too, sweet is dirty.

But mass-market (which includes large swathes of ''designer'') feminine fragrances nowadays, while maintaining the sweet factor sky-high, also insist on being clean, on invoking the idea of cleanliness as it was so well discussed by Bryan in this post on the meaning of ''soapy''. Those two current prerequisites for a feminine fragrance with a reasonable popular appeal seem to be tad contradictory to me and yet countless scents seemingly manage (as in the FF voting shortlists above).

The result is a weird kind of sweetness, a sugar-free sweetness which I would call ''chemical'' or ''synthetic'' if these poor words weren't abused enough as they are. What I mean is an artificial, kind of fake sweetness (the cleanliness has to feel real), a sweetness that is an olfactory equivalent of aspratame: it is there, it's undoubtedly sweet, and it generally tastes all right, especially in combination with other strong flavours, but it isn't quite the same. It might be sweet enough, very sweet, too sweet even, but it's not sticky.

The success of Angel, and the fact that in all its monstrosity, it is a wonderful fragrance miles above most of followed it, lies partially in that it isn't clean.

The choco sweetness goes hand in hand with (earthy = dirty) patchouli, and the initial outpouring of fruit is neither horrid nor trite. There is a solidity about it that's surprising. Angel is like a woman who seems like a bimbo with a boob job but who turns out to be not just a decent human being but not stupid at all. And amazingly, she also has a sense of humour. So few fragrances laugh but rather remain full of themselves and dead serious, but Angel has this dirty belly-laugh that means you can forgive it the Barbie heels and berry-pink lipstick. Unlike its aspratame sisters and daughters.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Big white teeth and big wavy hair (Giorgio Beverly Hills Yellow)

It seems like many of the ''G'' fragrances are classics, or at least have been around for many years. This one is pretty famous, or rather infamous, for having been banned in some Californian restaurants in the 1980 due to its loudness and the fact that every Beverly Hills wannabe apparently wore it.

I didn't grow up with this, and when an opportunity presented itself to buy it cheaply as an iconic fragrance ''for the collection'', I did.

A huge tuberose-centred white floral that flashes its huge, perfectly white American teeth, sauntering into a room on high heels with huge wavy hair.

It's funny how it's impossible to review some fragrances without the accompanying memes. Well, as I said I DIDN'T grow up with this, my late teens and my late 1980's were marked by Opium, Kobako, Cafe and other mostly French loud orientals. So I approached Giorgio  without prejudice when it was given to me as a gift mid-1990s by a friend who herself favoured Pleasures, Beautiful and Allure - the clean and somewhat buttoned up scents. I'm not sure if this was a comment on my style or behaviour, and I remember wearing it happily but without elation.

But this post is based on my more recent experience, though. Despite not having historical memories I did get influenced by the packaging. The box is stripy. A yellow and white zebra of a sun awning I guess. And then, a strangely old fashioned bottle, I suppose intending to evoke the Beverly Hills idea of class and quality.

Olfactory-wise, Giorgio is in the same family as Amarige if a little less tuberosey. The notes as listed are:

  • Top Notes: Apricot Orange Blossom Peach Bergamot
  • Middle Notes: Tuberose Gardenia Orchid Jasmine Ylang-Ylang Rose
  • Base Notes: Sandalwood Amber Chamomile Patchouli Musk Oakmoss Vanilla Cedar

For me, the scent emerging from all that is basically a big (I mean, BIG) white floral with a very in-your-face tuberose heart. There is a dryness about it, and a sunny and bright quality that doesn't appeal to me as it evokes high-rise hotels, tan-lines free bronzed skin and summery designer high heels. To me, the heavy florals in Giorgio seem sanitised and designed for display, not for touching, tasting and feeling.

This is a fragrance that flashes its whitened and straightened to perfection American teeth and saunters - always saunters - into a room on high heels, swishing its big wavy hair. It drinks cocktails and would never date an unemployed man. Tanned. Doesn't smoke. Has had a boob job.

Not ugly by any means, in fact there is something compelling here, but not quite my thing.

Sources (1)

I'm not sure if I read the (in)famous Luca Turin book before, after or just at the time when my interest in fragrances switched up a gear. But without any doubt it was a seminal influence on me. before you go away tutting in disgust, let me assure you that I don'ty take The Guide as a bible. Or, since I am not of religious persuasion, I don't take it as an equivalent of a Rough Guide.

But the whole thing is delightfully readable, entertaining and honestly informative if idiosyncratically opinionated. And it made me realise that it is possible to write - and think- about fragrance in a way that goes beyond, and occasionally entirely bypasses the whole notes/chemicals part.

Also, I do like Luca Turin. I often don't agree with him (not just on perfume - I read a collection of his very enjoyable columns whose half had nothing to do with perfume ) but both his style, and his GENERAL sensibility, if not necessarily his particular preferences appeal to a part of me. There is another part of me that thinks he's a pretentious wanker with head up hiss ass, but then the same part of me thinks that the first part of me is a pretentious wanker with head up my own ass.

Turin writes about perfume the way the best music reviewers write about albums, or the way Jane Grigson writes about fruit: with knowledge and with love, treading a precarious path between technically accomplished, analytical criticism and impressionistic playfulness. The scents are described in a heady combination of technical perfumery terms, real-world references, pop-culture analogies, high-culture metaphors and personal associations. Turin manages to capture the essence, the idea, the sheer soul of the perfumes he reviews. He's opinionated and clever, but most of all he is fun. The short hatchet jobs are devastatingly effective while the longer eulogies will make you want to go and buy one (or two, or five) now. Sometimes, though, the history and eulogy takes over the description, and I ended up with many words that told me nothing about the scent itself. I forgive the good Doctor because he is intensely passionate about fragrance: he accepts no holy cows and seem to have no prejudices either, doling out scathing criticism to weaker offerings of the most esteemed brands and unafraid to praise the unexpected (including even some - admittedly very few - celebrity fragrances). His personal taste is extremely diverse and sluttily promiscuous and he gives an equal attention and admiration to the loudly vulgar and to the subtly elegant, provided both are made well.

You might notice that I focus consistently on Turin here. It's not an ellipsis but a conscious choice. In a book like this, the personal click, the imaginary rapport one develops with the columnist (excuse me, the reviewer) is crucial. And for some reason, I can relate to Turin's notes much more than to Sanchez's ones. I know that they claim they agree on the star ratings. But I don't really care that much about star ratings (of which in a second)|. What I do care about is the impression of the fragrance I get from the few words or few paragraphs, and while Turin's mostly do it for me, Sanchez's don't.

It's not that they are not entertaining to read -- they are, even if a tad too bitchy for my liking (and that's the positive ones), or maybe bitchy in a way that doesn't appeal to me -- but it's more that I don't seem to share Sanchez's emotional and cultural vocabulary. She writes of notes as well, if tad differently, than Turin, but it's in the around-scent, associative realm that I don't quite get her. It might be as simple as the fact that Sanchez is American, and a few years younger than I am, which together probably create an equivalent of something more like a fifteen-year gap. It's interesting, though, that absolute majority of the five-star reviews in the Guide are Turin's.

Still, as uneven and crap as it might be as an encyclopaedia, The Guide is a tremendous source of inspiration. Witty, lyrically creative and honest, this book doesn't claim to be a reference volume or even really a proper guide to the olfactory delights of modern perfumery but it's an immensely entertaining collection of set pieces that can't fail to both amuse and inspire.

Do I have any qualms, aparat from the fact that some highly rated fragrances are still not described and that I prefer Turin to Sanchez? Well, no, not really. The star ratings are subjective, as any star ratings, and Turin and Sanchez don't claim anything else, so I don't have a problem with them.

I suspect that even if you disagree with their judgements, you will find reading the reviews stimulating. Personally I ended up feeling smugly satisfied that nearly all of my favourite scents were given four or five stars. And many a time I looked something I felt distinctly ''meh'' about in The Guide and it was there with two or one star.

Still, it's worth remembering a few things in addition to the essential subjectivity of ratings.

Both Turin and Sanchez like originality bordering on weirdness. This applies particularly Turin: Sanchez is a bit more concerned with actual wearbility. This actually isn't an issue for me. In fact, I can't think of any fragrances they gave five stars (or four, of the ones I tried) that I thought were carp, even if some were not for me.

But as a consequence they both despise clones or uncreative ''versions'' and derivatives. They down-grade ''me-too'' scents almost as a rule. A more casual user might be perfectly happy to wear a me-too of the original scent, which The Guide rated 2* simply for its lack of originality not original,

The corollary of the above is that they are passionate about perfume which means they - particularly Turin - rate high for artistry and construction, which are not necessarily usability criteria. and they certainly rate some very controversial scents as 5* ones. The fact that I personally ''get'' this, and can imagine spending money on them, is neither here nor there. Although Turin talks about the ''must smell good'' imperative, I feel that ''must smell original'' he holds in as much esteem.

Having said all that, I still consult my copy of the dog-eared Guide on a nearly daily basis and I really wish Turin started to write about fragrance again!

A manifesto. Of sorts.

I've promised myself that I would not join the ranks of the "Fragrance Community", religiously sticking to the pennies that my slapdash fragrance reviews earn on Ciao.

Well, I failed, or I am about to (though it' possible that nobody but nobody will come and read any posts here, so maybe I will end up just talking to myself which won't necessarily be a bad thing).

But for now, here we are, or here I am.

As nobody will read this particular post, I can use it to state what I am planning to do here and moreover, what I am NOT planning to do.

I am planning to write about, but, paradoxically, more to the point, also around fragrance, more or less fine fragrance but likely with trips to other olfactory regions, and probably sometimes non-olfactory too.

I will probably ''review'' fragrances, but I am NOT planning to write reports that describe fragrance's arc of development in minute detail in 1000+ words. Firstly, because I think these descriptions are really boring to me. secondly (and perhaps not unrelated to the first), because I can't. I'm less than a dilettante in this stuff and although I am learning (on and off), I veer more towards impressionistic and fanciful descriptions that note-by-note breakdowns.