Friday, July 29, 2011

Eau de Beeb, the trilogy's conclusion

Somewhat belated due to a vacation break, here are my thoughts on the final episode of BBC 4's documentary Perfume. In juxtaposing a relaunched, ancient ultra-niche "family" perfumery with the market research done in Brazil for a new Axe (Lynx for Britons) product this episode picked up where episode one's Guerlain/Hilfiger contrast left off, though with higher stakes and less cliché. Though some perfumistas apparently thought of the Axe segments as a waste of time, viewers learned the significant lesson, that low-end perfumery and functional fragrance are actually the big money makers for scent and flavor producers such as Givaudan. Moreover, as exemplified by a lower middle-class Brazilian product tester, it is floor cleaners and washing-up liquid that contribute immensely to our scent socialization, not necessarily fine fragrance, and even they have an aspirational function, as in putting distance between yourself and the stench of the favelas. Finally, who would have guessed that Brazil is one of the largest and the fastest growing markets for scent in the world, and thus, like other economically fast-paced threshhold nations a key market for Western conglomerates, who will happily adapt to local fragrance culture if it only moves product. This time around, the marketing people, i.e. Ann Gottlieb, came across as a lot more competent, as well and I assume the two "young male" focus groups portrayed in the film were only representative of many more interviewed in reality. As Axe was peddled to Brazilians, so the Grossmiths were taking their wares to the Middle East, a culturally ironic offering of Victorian orientalism to actual Sheiks which gives postcolonial notions of the "Empire writing back" another turn of the screw. It was a charming and a well-engineered contrast to the ace New York PR folks in Brazil, to see Mr. Grossmith, new to perfumery and selling (but apparently guided by the marketing-savvy Roja Dove) pedaling his high quality 1001 night fantasies of yore to wealthy Bahrainis and the personal luxury assistant of the head honcho himself. Certainly this episode provided some insight into the wide economic and cultural spectrum involded when it comes to matters fragrant and while many more issues could have been addressed (especially of the kind obsessed over in perfume forums, such as IFRA, reformulation, obscene profit margins - OK the last one's just me), Ian Denyer's trilogy was a pleasure to watch and surely an eye- , or rather nose-opener, to the previously uninitiated average scent-consumer. More of this would be most welcome  

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Morroco's Scented Treasures - Ecologically Certified

Prof. Dr. Jalil Belkamel talking Morrocan essential oil
There's a wonderful exhibit right now at Frankfurt's Palmengarten, a beautiful botanical garden in the heart of the city with numerous stunning tropical and other climate-zone hothouses, rose gardens and many other attractions. It is my favorite spot in the city and offers something for everybody in the family, children included. The current exhibit, called 1001 oils deals with the history, extraction and uses of plant oils, waxes and fats in medicine, craft and industry, and of course cosmetics and perfumery. As part of the exhibit there was a Moroccan week in July featuring food & drink,  music and dance, craft and touristic PR, and of course Moroccan oil prodcuts. The delicious and healthy Argan oil, the best of which is hand-produced by Berber women in the country's south, where the world's last significant population of trees exists, comes at a high price but its unique nutty flavor (from roasted nuts) is exquisite, as are its properties as a (neutral, unroasted) carrier oil for aromatherapeutic blends or massage oils. Of course Morocco is also a significant producer of neroli, as well as Mediterranean oils such as lavender, rosemary, thyme and many others. All this was explained in detail by Prof. Dr. Jalil Belkamel, one of the heads of Nectarôme, an organic producer of essential oils and cosmetics from the village of Tnine Ourika near Marrakech. Combining old herbal knowledge and traditions, contemporary aromatherapy and wellness approaches targeting Western markets, while practicing sustainable and socially responsible agriculture, this looks like the kind of model operation required to bring vital economic impulses to North Africa with its persistent poverty and lack of perspective for young people, both at the heart of much of the political unrest and massive migration to Europe, and to which simplistic modernization schemes provide no answers. For example, the mechanization and industrialization of Argan oil production proved nearly fatal to the business and to the people who had been living off of this trade for centuries, as quality deteriorated and factory owners siphoned off the profits. The Moroccan government thankfully realized this and together with a Federal German development agency managed to create an effective network of women's cooperatives that now produce the only traditional high-end Argan oil and sustain the craft of its production and the families engaged in this traditional labor.
a wild, fragrant meadow at Palmengarten
Besides enjoying the Nectarôme talk in the beautiful Berber tent pictured above, I tried some of the products and found the neroli, lavender and rose to be of excellent quality. They do not sell to the perfume industry, but I suggested they should - or develop their own natural perfume line. Well, it was a great afternoon trip to Morocco and its wonderful fragrances, flavors, sights and sounds. Now I want to go there for real.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Eau de Beeb - BBC 4's perfume documentary Part Two

Entitled "Bottling the Memory", part 2 of Ian Denyer's documentary trilogy "Perfume," continued with a transatlantic perspective, but managed to leave the clichés of the first installment behind. Focusing on several levels - two maverick perfumers, a teacher and his apprentices, a bespoke client and simple users reveling in perfumed memory, the hour was well used to convey insights into the technical, philosophical and artistic-aesthetic principles of perfume making. We saw Hermès in-house perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena pondering over a new creation for the Jardin series, inspired by the beautiful rooftop garden of the Paris boutique, working away in his Gropius-style house/lab in Southern France. We got to now Christopher "I Hate Perfume" Brosius in his Brooklyn studio and in London, researching a bespoke scent for an anglophile client (tie designer Sean Crowley) seeking the smell of "Old England." And we met Jean Guichard of the Givaudan Perfumery School (Givaudan is one of the big four scent and flavor producers) and his small band of apprentices, who dreamt romantically of creating beautiful scents, but were busy in the school of hard knocks identifying various molecules (but also strolling through lavender fields to get close to "the real"). What came across beautifully was how scent is so intimately linked to both place (Brosius talking of the specific smell of English books due to the humidity) and time (how the smell of London has changed, as leather taxi seats, smoking in pubs and phone booths with paper phone books have disappeared) - and how therefore smell and memory are often one as an encapsulation of a specific place and time. This was nicely conveyed by snippets of two women talking about their scented memories, the younger of her mom dressing up for a night out (glamor, romance), the elder about precisely such nights on the town after WWII, wearing a signature scent. Brosius and Ellena also shared fascinating memories and philosophies of scent and with such a cast of interesting characters (I think Quentin the sensitive-romantic apprentice will become a great philosopher-nose one day) the episode flew by and became a rich memory itself.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A Desert Rose Lost in Time - Paco Rabanne's Ténéré

Ténéré, a 1988 scent marketed to men composed by perfumer Pierre Wargnye, who more recently created YSL homme and Viktor & Rolf Antidote, is a beautiful failure, a risky venture undertaken at the wrong time. Naming it after a desert could not conceal the fact that this is a distinctly floral-green fragrance, something male consumers in the West tend to keep away from. Despite the strong tradition of floral aspects in gentlemanly scents to this day (sartorial scents such as Green Irish Tweed, Grey Flannel, Kiton Men still feature violet notes), the problem of male heterosexual insecurity regarding scent was still an issue in the 1980s. Moreover the metrosexual trend that would thereafter evolve sailed on acquatic unisexism rather than explicit florality. Still, Ténéré might have been seen as a bold avant-garde statement, if it weren't for the fact that it's forward-looking florality was tied to a retro-masculine vibe in the form of a notably Paco Rabanneish fougère aspect: a soapy green mediterranean masculine "trad" feel based on lavender, artemisia, tarragon, perhaps galbanum, which clearly pulls the fragrance in the direction of the Seventies. Add the animalic-indolic component in the form of honey and jasmine and this challenging fragrance, launched of all times at the dawning of the age of Cool Water's aquatic hegemony, was bound to fail.
The intact vintage bottle I own, contrary to a previous flawed miniature, is not excessively urinous, as has been said of Ténéré, but in fact balances all components quite well. From a 21st century perspective there is nothing even remotely girlish about this scent, despite the notable presence of rose and muguet. It smells debonair, distinguished, romantic - and decidedly unmodern due to its green-herbal complex. The base is high quality, a powdery melange of masculine wood and spice with soapy florals. Ténéré never was and never will be a popular fragrance , but I believe it could be the signature scent of the most interesting man in the world.

top: bergamot, cassia, green notes, grapefruit, lavender, rosemary, lemon
heart: anise, artemisia, tarragon, honey, orris, jasmine, muguet, carnation, rose, cinnamon
base: amber, leather, musk, patchouli, vetiver, cedar