Thursday, June 9, 2022

Return from the Crypt

This may just be a short Zombie moment. After spending 2019 with virtually no eyesight due to retinal issues I had to reorient myself jobwise in the middle of that pandemic you might of heard of and perfume took a back seat. In fact, it disappeared in the trunk. Things are still rather unsettled, but falling ill first with Covid and then suffering from Long Covid effects has ironically given me time to revisit the perfume world and my own collection. Not sure there's an audience left I'd be writing to, but perhaps this can serve as a public diary recording my thoughts on what I smell. So, let's fittingly start with a lost fragrance, good old Sienna by Crabtree & Evelyn, a firm that did not survive the Amazonification of consumerism and changes in taste in brick and mortar form and which is largely a virtual shadow of its former self these days.

Contrary to its retro Anglo image, Crabtree & Evelyn was actually born in the late Sixties in Woodstock, Connecticut from a hobby pursued by film distributor Cyrus Harvey and his wife. Harvey, the son of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania and Poland, had started Janus films in 1956, based on his love of French cinema which he discovered during a short stint in Paris at the end of WWII. The Cambridge, Mass. outfit ran the Brattle theater and with his partner Harvey imported and distributed European auteur/arthouse films, introducing American audiences to the likes of Antonioni, Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa. He sold Janus in 1966 and moved to Connecticut to devote himself to gardening, breeding corgis and other English gentlemen's pursuits, but from the fascination with the hip stores he'd helped establish underneath the cavernous Brattle was born the idea to import soaps rather than movies. The venture, a home business at the beginning, was given an Anglo vibe and soon Crabtree & Evelyn became a brick and mortar store and ultimately a successful chain, marketing beauty products, foods and accessories in a hip country style. When Harvey sold C&E in 1996 there were 160 outlets in the US alone.

This backstory is well reflected in Sienna, perhaps the best cologne C&E ever made (besides the mythical original Sandalwood). To me it very much feels like a wonderful fantasy of an old school, old world men's cologne as it could only be dreamed up by a romantic American. Stilistically, it is firmly placed in the "more-is-better" era of the 80s, a typical green leathery chypre that touches base with many scents of that time and their complex DNA of citrus, galbanum, artemisia, clary sage, clove, floral accords, patchouli, amber, leather, oakmoss and more. It's not surprising that Sienna evokes Tuscany as well as Jermyn Street, it has an iridescence reflecting "italianità“ no less than "Britishness", reminiscent of men's tailoring with it's Anglo-Italian cross-references. The common denominator is, of course, gentility.

Siennas creator is unknown, my original 1990s bottle was made in England, however and that almost makes me wonder whether it might not have been John Stephen of Dukes of Pall Mall and Czech & Speake fame, this secret Elgar of 1980s English perfumery. It's feasible, considering that, while it was not expensive, Sienna is marvelously well constructed and rises above the field by the clever use of beeswax, which provides a gently sweet warm glow buffering the greens and the leather. It really does add an olfatory sienna note to the skin akin to a Tuscan evening sun dipping houses and fields in a golden ochre. And that, in the end, is the image Sienna evokes to me: a Europhile American taking a photograph of an English painter creating a canvas of a Tuscan evening. Sounds postmodern, smells beautiful.       

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Patou pour homme

So, is it the greatest men's fragrance of all times? That would almost be something of a backhanded compliment in a business where the all-time classics are almost entirely "pour elle" - the L'Origans, Mitsoukos, Shalimars, Tabac Blondes, Chanels. Let me thus boldly state that Patou pour Homme ist one of the greatest perfumes of all times, period. And this is not a question of subjective preference - the near mystification of this fragrance is for once justified, for Jean Kerléo truly created an aesthetic and conceptual masterpiece for the ages, a dazzingly beautiful and technically mindblowing astrolabe of scent in which the spheres of Fougère, Chypre and Oriental are entwined in perfect harmony, a miniature cosmos with an invisible and inexplicable mechanism.

Looking at the construction plan, i.e. the scent pyramide, in its most explicit and, I believe, accurate version from the "H&R Duftatlas," one first notices the plethora of materials: Lavender - Hay (Coumarin) - Moss form the Fougère-Axis; Petitgrain, Patchouli, Moss and Leather, that of Chypre; Cinnamon, Jasmin, Sandalwood, Olibanum, Castoreum, Ambergris, Vanilla and Tonka make up the Oriental. Added to this are clary sage, basil, carnation, geranium, vetiver and spruce.

In the beginning Fougère appears on the horizon, a tartly herbaceous lavender, almost strenuous by today's standards. But soon a spicy sweetness rises in the background and a three-dimensional scent-space opens up as the astrolabe magically unfolds. Patou pour homme becomes more accessible now and the cinnamon planet becomes increasinghly potent over the next twenty minutes, accompanied by jasmin and carnation. What an olfactory "sight": Fougère lighting up the sky and oriental waxing beside it and rather than interfering beginning a beautful cosmic pas de deux. But it doesn't stop there: the mediterranean herbs have already gently heralded the chypre (the petitgrain will have done so as well, but is probably weaker now than it was when the juice was young) which now rises on its green orbit, supported by vetiver and spruce, as a patchouli-moss complex (and yes, some components spritely jump between the genres or connect them. Amazingly, instead of growing thicker with increasing complexity, the masterpiece gains in transparency, it remains an aerial ballet. Ètonnant! Monsieur Kerléo, how did you do it?

When Patou pour homme is frequently identified as either a fougère, chypre or oriental, it is so classified by the famous blind wise men each touching one part of the elephant, by astronomers who can only see their segment of the heavens - but Kerléo's creation is the cosmic whole, an unfathomable transformation of the aesthetic brutalism of the powerhouse era with its sometimes excessive "everything but the kitchen sink" attitude into masterful harmony. I do not believe this has ever been achieved before or after with such grace and today it would be well-nigh impossible due to the unavailability of certain raw materials alone, not to speak of regulatory limitations. I doubt that most contemporary perfumers trained on post-modern fragrance aesthetics would even be able (or willing) to create such a perfume or even just copy Kerléo's formula. It borders on alchemy and one is tempted to embrace a Robert Johnson-like narrative, in which the ability to weave this masterpiece required a deal with the devil. But for that to be true Patou pour homme is too much the embodiment of a divine order of the fragrance world, which perfume adepts must and should admire and enjoy both with awe and deepest pleasure. For this is the ultimate of its achievements: that with all its amazing clock-work-like complexity and sublime artfulness, this weave of scent projects seamless, effortless perfection,which, moderately applied, will even smell agreeable to an unschooled 21st-century nose.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

And if you are a rose, I am a rose shadow


I am usually not shy with words, but I long hesitated to review Annette Neuffer's Per Fumum: A Sanctified Rose, probably my personal favorite in her portfolio of exquisite natural perfumes. Let me begin by saying that to me, in one way, it is primarily an incense scent, as the name suggests: aspects of olibanum dominate, noticably flanked by ever more palpable balsamic notes of benzoe, opoponax, beeswax themselves entwined with gentle woods and vanilla - typical of Neuffer's gracefully complex handwriting, every scent is woven into the others like in a fine calligraphy. As Luca Turin noted about Avicenna texture and structure become one in a finely honed design. Labdanum plays and important role, but it, too, blends perfectly into the whole rather than sticking out like a dusty black thumb, as is often the case - aesthetically intended in the stark Vendetta pour homme, for example, and somewhat more ineptly in a number of House of Matriarch fragrances.

Per Fumum is a truly impressive work of ornamentation as purpose that reminds me of the visual beauty of noblest Persian art and architecture and one would need to approach it all to closely to recognize the stunning fine detail, while its grandeur and unity is only revealed from a distance.

Alas, one questions remains: where is the sanctified rose? It is unmistakeably present, at the heart of it all, to be sure, and yet more like a silhouette borne of the many entangled lines and figurations than as a presence of its own.  "And if you are a rose, I am a rose shadow" wrote Sufi Master Rumi. No image, but a (more perfect?) circumscription, that is the secret of Islamic art. In the contemplation of this deeply fragrant beauty woven from nature and artfulness, like a temple in Isphahan (place of roses) words and pictures are not amiss, becoming superfluous. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

"Grand Opening": popping a vintage rosoli flacon of Johann Maria Farina Gegenüber dem Jülichsplatz Eau de Cologne

Acquired cheaply on ebay, this rosoli flacon harks from the 1950s, when Johann Maria Farina gegenüber dem Jülichsplatz, the city of Cologne's and thus the world's first and oldest Eau de Cologne producer was recuperating from WWII and a long era of 20th century decline. Eau de Cologne had lost its status as the paradigmatic fragrance, acquired in the Rokoko era, during the Belle Époque, when modern perfumery was born out of the confluence of technical and chemical innovation and the rise of a new white collar middle class that frequented urban(e) department stores, engaged in conspicuous consumption, and whose females were invited to reimagine themselves as Geishas or oriental seductresses via consumer capitalism.

Eau de Cologne became an industrial mass product,used for refreshment rather than refinement and 4711, a drugstore product, was soon better known than the venerable Farina it had once imitated (including name theft). By the 1960s Farina was apparently going into steep decline, as suggested by efforts to revamp bottles, change formulations from the zesty-dry bergamot to a sweeter 4711-style neroli and finally the sale of a controlling interest in the company to a Swiss low-end cosmetics manufacturer. When the firm was brought back under full family control in the 1990s the formulation was adapted to contemporary tastes and it now contains a healthy dose of ionones and other synthetics  which make it smell quite different from its original form - which, at this point can only be experienced if one manages to pick up a 1950s bottle. Full pre-war flacons seem to be virtually nonexistant, but ever so often 250th anniversary Rosoli flacons from 1959 that survived their owners - hidden away in the back of a drawer or cupboard, forgotten unwanted gifts - make an appearance on ebay.

Here, now is a small rosoli flacon from that era, which was perfectly filled - no evaporation. These flasks were covered with an aluminum cap fortified with what appears to be a very hard textile-cardboard-like covering. In this case, it did an excellent job of preventing evaporation and oxidation. After opening the flacon and decanting a small amount of Eau de Cologne I treated the bottle with a nitrogen gas sprayer normally used for wine preservation. The Osmothèque uses the more expensive argon for the same purpose - the heavier gas displaces the oxygen over the surface of the fragrance and thus prevents the perfume from turning.

Spraying some vintage Farina on my arm was delightful - this is the best preserved bottle I have ever smelled. It begins with a zesty-bittergreen burst of freshness - picture a gin tonic with a spritz of bergamot (and whiffs of  orange and lemon zest). This persists for some minutes, while hovering below is a faint suggestion of rose, sandalwood  and (nitro?)musk. A wonderfully elegant, light, but by no means trivial composition which clearly inspired aspects of Guerlain's Imperial cologne. File under "genteel blast from the past" and  "they don't make them like this anymore" - though vintage Farina would today easily pass as a stylish minimalist superniche scent. 

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Roaring Radcliff. A Film by Ken Loach

Raddy always headed straight to the next Tesco after collecting the dole. He bought four packets of rum flavoring, three bottles of vanillin and two pounds of sugar in the baking aisle and the cheapest bottle of gin available. At the Boots next door he grabbed a £ 2.99 bottle of obnoxious aftershave. Returning to his filthy one-room flat in Whitechapel he lit a fag and started stirring everything together in a rusty old pail. As the dazing fumes rose around him he began singing old military tunes, while nestling himself into a ragged tassled polyester smoking jacket he'd bought years ago at Marks and Sparks. Finally, he raised the pail above is head and poured the juice all over himself; then, puffing and blowing, he began to march around the room, chanting, ever louder and at last screaming at the top of his lungs: I AM THE RIGHTFUL LORD RADCLIFF, I AM THE RIGHTFUL LORD RADCLIFF, I AM THE RIGHTFUL LORD RADCLIFF...
As always, the neighbours started knocking on the walls, then the police arrived, and, finally, an ambulance. Holidays in Bedlam seemed inevitable. They knew him well there already, old "Roaring Radcliff."

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Fragrant Remebrances of the Belle Époque

Renoir, La Loge (1874) Source: Wikipedia
"When I think of this time of my childhood in the Seventies, it  appears to me in the form of half-faded images of beautiful women and their now oh so historical costumes: romantic cumulations  of ribbons, frills, lace, poetic exaggerations of the aethereal here and the carnal there, by virtue of  mysterious billowings from which wasp waists artfully burgeoned, leaving little to view of the reality of the female body, but all the more confusing and enchanting. And also the perfumes, which gently wafted around these apparitions, are engrained in my memory; perhaps more clearly even than the dim portraits of their beauty: Brise des Îles and Origan, Rose du Soir, Chypre, Souvenir de la Réunion - their exotic names I learned later, but the distinctiveness which every woman lent them through the scent and the sultriness of her skin, I learned to distinguish, when I was still lead from out of the nursery to kiss this hand or that."

Harry Graf Kesseler (1868-1937), Gesichter und Zeiten. Erinnerungen [Faces and Times. Memories]. Berlin: S. Fischer Verlag, 1962 [1st. ed 1935], p. 10. Translated by the Duke of Pall Mall.   


Friday, June 1, 2018

Against Power - Brecourt's Contre Pouvoir

Ceci n'est-ce pas une power scent
Contre-Pouvoir means counterforce, but I read the name of Brecourt's 2011 release (which - intentionally? - omits the hyphen) as meaning "against power," the rejection of force, the triumph of subtlety over power. Contre Pouvoir succeeds through what may appear as weakness.
It is true the ad copy relies on stereotypes of male power, the Club, cigars, leather armchairs, but really there is little of this to be found in the scent. It is not so much a powerhouse as a Dandyesque fragrance in the strict Brummelian meaning of that term: not exalted baroque but rather inconspicuously elegant, to the nines. It is from this characteristic that I find Mme. Bouge's creation to be less of a fall or winter scent but quite perfect for hot summer days, when it serves as an effective shield againt sweat and stench, as it gently but persistently radiates its irridescent aura of exotic citrus-spice and sweet woody powder, thus ennobling its wearer in ignoble circumstances. This strategy of a masculine skin scent appears more successful than many an attempt at camouflaging one's heat-induced odors by means of shrill aquatic-citrus-fabric-softener sledgehammers.

It is also a pleasure to observe a perfumer not overdosing on ambrox, for once, but using it as a soft-focus lense and diffuser; in fact, despite the modernity of the notes, this Eau de Toilette's feel harkens back to the classic era  - the interwoven construction rather than blatant singularities, balance rather than a front-loaded firework; though there is only a subtle development in the scent. It aims at linearity, the citrus component proving to be quite persistent, and the most prominent notes, cardamom in the top, licorice in the heart, and a modern vetiver component at the base being deeply embedded and intertwined in the ambrox-diffusiveness noted above. Sweetness and spice, tartness and powder, beautfully entangled. In terms of its general appearance (including price) this fragrance thus appears to me less like your typical algorithm-spawned "niche" of the day, but more like an update of the kind of quality designer scents of the old school; the Van Cleef & Arpels, Cacharels, Jil Sanders and other pour hommes and Mans of my youth and young adulthood.I, for one, found myself pleasantly surprised and quite taken.