Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Dukes of Pall Mall - Greetings from the Victorian 1980s

Some people would say I have a Dukes of Pall Mall fetish. I can only reply that these perfumes justify it.
Dukes of Pall Mall comes across as a venerable gentlemen's establishment in the style of Trumper's, and as much is suggested by the little accompanying leaflet, which states, in carefully chosen words, that "Dukes of Pall Mall continue to compound toiletry preparations for private warrant...based upon these original formulae" of the Regency period. In fact it would seem the enterprise was launched in the 1980s with a faux patina. The company was incorporated on July 21, 1982 and in 1983 Country Life magazine announced the launch of the only two known product ranges by the firm, Cotswold and Belgravia, a town and country pair of scents clearly evoking the traditional style of English perfumery by name as well as by their composition. I am aware of cologne, after shave and after shave balms under these names and from what one occasionally reads on shaving fora they aqcuired a good reputation amongst the small circle of Anglophile traditional shaving aficionados, though the firm did not hold out very long. By 1989 the company was held by one Terence Revill who operated from his home. I acquired versions of both colognes from this era through ebay (recognizable by the Harrow address, rather than the 46-47 Pall Mall of the old flacons) and the quality was noticeably inferior. My first encounter with Dukes had consisted in the blind purchase of a number of bottles of Cotswold aftershave through online beauty discounter direct cosmetics (from whence harked my first Crown perfumery scents, as well). I was stunned from the moment I smelled this beautiful juice, a quintessential old-fashioned citrus-floral that blows most of the other "traditional English" survivors out of the water due to the incredible quality of its ingredients. That, for some time, has been a problematic issue with houses such as Floris, Penhaligon's or Taylors of Old Bond Street (of which only the latter commensurately offer their products at a bargain price), who frequently sell fragrances related to their original formulations only by name and are of vastly inferior quality. Dukes, however went all-out on top-notch ingredients, something that admittedly was a lot easier to do in 1983 than 25 years later. A lovely citrus top (bergamot, lime, verbena?) is followed up by an utterly beautiful accord of jasmine and ylang that never fails to entirely captivate my senses - particularly, for some reason, in the Aftershave version. It is so stunning that the light woody-musky base remains a mere afterthought. Cotswold is a sublime perfume which could not possibly be bested as the fragrant complement to a fine country suit, or even a blue chalk-stripe city outfit, but in today's perfume context it would equally well adorn a dandy. 
Belgravia is supposedly based on a formula from the 1860s, but it is in fact a classic and beautiful fougère with a 1980s vibe. I cannot get over how close it comes to Penhaligon's recent Sartorial - if you subtract the modern ozonic elements from the latter and imagine it done with really good raw materials. Both are orientalized fougères, featuring lavender, floral notes, patchouli, spice, moss, coumarin and most characteristically a wonderful warm spicy-sweet heart (of beeswax in Sartorial and oppoponax in Belgravia). I do not actually find it particularly urban(e), but nearly romantic, though it is unquestionably sophisticated, elegant and never gets loud. In the context of 1980s powerhouse extremes it would perhaps seem lean and clean. The quality, if perhaps not the complexity of the composition, I find to be on par with the famed Patou pour homme - whoever created these beauties was a master of the art who knew his or her stuff. In fact it appears that none other than John Stephen of Czech & Speake fame authored Cotswold and that certainly makes sense. 
It is a shame that more perfume lovers with a taste for vintage styles cannot smell and wear these lost Victorian treasures of the 1980s. I will let slip here, though, that I have lately smelled a new version of Belgravia, but that's all I can say for now. As for the unknown entrepeneur who launched Dukes of Pall Mall with a sense of history and quality, if not enough good fortune (hello, Gobin-Daudé), here's three cheers and a royal salute for creating two gems of English perfumery.     

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

almost summer: atelier cologne

I have always been fascinated by Eau de Cologne, which in its apparent simplicity is a great challenge to any perfumer. As his correspondence and notes show, the inventor of Eau de Cologne, Johann Maria Farina, was obsessed with the quality of raw materials and oils, their distillation, blending and maturation and I believe it still holds today that in no fragrance genre is quality, and a reliance on the best naturals in particular, more important. I was quite excited to read about Atelier Cologne, which appeared on the scene in 2009/10 in the wake of the Eau de Cologne renaissance which has seen houses great and small coming forth with classic or modern waters (many of which I found to dismally fail the "Farina test"). The concept behind Atelier is to build on classic Eau de Cologne types, but increase the perfume concentration, so as to provide the desired freshness and lightness without compromising on longevity (thus avoiding Napoeleon syndrome, .i.e. dousing yourself with 20 bottles of EdC daily). This is a wonderful and challenging idea which has a few predecessors, such as Eau Sauvage (classic EdC plus Hedione), Eau de Guerlain, and a number of very accomplished scents by Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier's scents (e.g. Pour le Jeune Homme is a classic neroli cologne amped up to EdT status). But Sylvie Ganter and Christopher Cervasel are the first to build an entire house around high powered Eau de Cologne and it seems they are doing well. The fact that they are cooperating with quality suppliers Mane and Robertet, known for first rate naturals, increased my excitement. 

The free samples I graciously received were beautifully packed with postcard still lifes visualizing each scent and a brief prose fragment adding words. A great idea, the photography is well done, while the prose (in the English version) could use a little improvement in my opinion (but those are fine points).

The fragrances themselves,I feel, promise more than they deliver - but I must add that what I seek in an EdC, contrary to other perfumes, is not so much art, but a perfect referencing of nature. That's one reason why I feel the EdCs by Chanel and Lutens are monumental failures, apart from the fact that they smell like cheap bathroom products. But on to Atelier Cologne's foursome:

After a hesitant start, perfumer Ralf Schwieger's Orange Sanguine blossoms into a zesty, mouth-watering, true-to-life blood orange, but a pasteurized-juice feel soon catches up on this beautiful moment and when the florals set in, it becomes pure hotel soap, slightly reminiscent of Roger & Gallet's Extra-Vieille, in fact. That's nice, if you like it, but not what I seek in an Eau de Cologne and also not good enough for the money charged.

Top notes: Blood orange, bitter orange
Heart notes: Jasmine, geranium from South Africa
Base notes: Amber woods, tonka beans, sandalwood

Trèfle Pur: A limey-citrus green with dusky notes. It lacks the purity of something like the body-splash like Extract of Limes by Geo. F. Trumper and will inevitably remind some folks of washing up liquid.  It quickly veers into shampoo or beauty-product terrain. I simply expect more from niche, though I know I rarely get it. 
Top notes: Bitter orange, cardamon, basilic
Heart notes: Clover absolute, violet leaves, Tunisian neroli
Base notes: Patchouli, moss, musk

Grand Néroli is nice, as most nerolis are, but a bit too musky for my taste. The drydown has some smokey-amber which works well, but the scent is not convincing, becoming too intrusively synthetic as it progresses. Doesn't hold a stick to Xerjoff's Kobe quality-wise, but then virtually nothing else does in my book. Of the four sampled Ateliers, it is nonetheless my favorite.

Top notes: Moroccan neroli, chilled lemon, Sicilian bergamot, petitgrain
Heart notes: Persian galbanum, moss, birch leaves
Base notes: Clean musk, white amber, vanilla from Madagascar

Bois Blond is so extremely faint I suspect I am anosmic to some key ingredient. I smell pure spirit at the outset, and then a weak synthetic dark wood note. It just doesn't happen.
Official pyramid:

Top notes: Tunisian neroli, pink pepper
Heart notes: Moroccan orange flower, incense
Base notes: Blond woods, musks, vetiver from Haiti

The Atelier colognes include some nice notes, but it is not one note that bryngeth summer - or maketh good cologne. The feeling of a really high-end, refreshing, natural Eau de Cologne isn't there, while the intensity and duration is not all that great in turn. The idea is great, the esthetic is accomplished, but I feel these scents will only satisfy, if you're looking for rather conventional fragrances on the light, fresh side. Personally, for the genuine Eau de Cologne experience, I'll stick with the classics and a few all-natural scents.

Friday, August 12, 2011

confessions of an anglophile

This was going to be a jovial little piece of perfume writing on the defunct house of Dukes of Pall Mall, the origin of my blog moniker and a bit of a fetish of mine - not just because their two perfumes, Cotswold and Belgravia, were indeed amazingly well-made, high-quality fragrances, but because I harbor an irrational fondness for the faded culture of the English gentleman and chap. A figure which could still instill hatred and mockery in the 70s as a principal symbol of British classism (Monty Python's upper class twit sketch would be a classic example)  but has meanwhile become so marginal it can actually now serve as a position from which to satirically and self-ironically observe the new inanities of  cool Britannia - witness chap hop. As London is once again burning, and a whole lot of other places, I started to wonder to what extent the inflexibility of the class system, in which the insignias of gentility from Savile Row suits to a shave at Trumper's were vital cultural capital, has contributed to the current malaise - Britain taking last place among all developed nations in terms of social mobility is a telling fact. What I didn't wonder about for a moment, was the extent to which 30 years of unbridled neoliberalism, whether of the Tory or New Labour variety, have turned much of the sceptere'd isle into a social wasteland of consumerist zombies (a fact the brilliant Shaun of the Dead made abundantly clear in the most hilarious way possible). In fact, these emotionally numbed mobs destroying their very own communities, armed with blackberries, apolitical, antisocial, narcissistic to the core, with nothing on their mind but loot, since their value system exclusively revolves around generating self-worth through sporting vaunted consumer goods (cultural capital!) are simply the underclass version of city bankers, brokers and hedgefund managers who have torched thousands of communities and wrecked innumerable businesses while piling up bonuses. These rioters are not rising up against the system, they are emulating it with the available means at hand. City bankers and Croydon wankers, tearing apart society from both ends.
Back to perfume (sort of): I say this not in self-defense of a personal favorite: but the old-fashioned classism embodied by Dukes of Pall Mall looks almost quaint beside the shallow and vain "American Psycho" consumerism of "luxe pour luxe" vanity, represented, for one, by the inanely priced Clive Christian fragrances, and the niche perfumery business as a whole, which, let's face it, has fed heavily upon the massive redistribution of wealth from the many to the few which has been going on in the US and UK for decades under the guise of free markets, deregulation, tax cuts for those who don't need them and other Chicago School oddities. Those with less and less money keep up the facade of middle-class affluence by piling up debt and the ones with nothing will evidently smash windows.   Economically, socially and psychologically, the hyper-consumerism of postmodern capitalism has become a dead end. Replacing communities (public space) with shopping malls (consumer space), self-improvement with self-gratification and emotions with commodities is turning people (and then their neighborhoods) into burned-out wrecks, self- and world-loathing sociopaths or, at best, alienated shopping junkies.
Is a new asceticism the answer? Hardly. There's plenty of drabness in Tottenham already. Apart from the political necessity of restoring true social democracy, i.e. a society sincerely aiming to include, to meet out social justice and ensure true equality of opportunity through education and public services, we need to turn to enlightened hedonism, to indulge in pleasures that put us in touch with ourselves rather than providing surrogates for real life. I'm not saying that Utopia will be achieved by way of Guerlain. But if you can learn to see the beauty of a perfume, rather than its worth as cultural capital, perhaps you can also learn to see the beauty in yourself, rather than accepting the S&P rating you're stamped with by society. And people who can accept themselves as they are have no need to vent an inner rage on others, or establish their worth through symbolic consumption, whether as shopaholics or looters. Stop burning down houses, start burning credit cards, then go smell some roses.        

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Sharif Giveaway - and the winner is...

Thanks for all your comments on  the ideal contemporary oriental and for participating in the first state of the [car]nation prize draw. From the 17 comments (not counting mine) one was drawn by using the services of And the happy winner is Mikael, the last commentator. Congratulations on winning a truly fabulous fragrance - you have been contacted on basenotes :).
To everyone who played: the best of luck for the next giveaway! I hope you'll be dropping in now and then, there will be more reviews, reflections and draws coming! 

Fragrare aude! (Dare to smell good)
The Duke of Pall Mall

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Sharif - a new fragrance by la via del profumo and a bottle giveaway!

Anyone with an interest in natural perfume will be acquainted with Dominique Dubrana aka AbdesSalaam Attar and his perfume house La Via del Profumo located in Rimini, Italy, but known to most of us through the Internet. Apparently it was a Dubrana's perfumes that converted Luca Turin from thorough skepticism about natural perfumery to appreciating its possibilities - no mean feat. Since synthetics are what provides bone structure in modern (i.e. post 1880) perfumery to the natural oils' "flesh," natural perfumes often come across as spineless hodgepodges failing to bring any kind of artful arrangement to notes, that would transform them from at best smelling "pleasant" into works of true beauty and refinement. Dubrana's creations, however, are characterized by a crystalline clarity that reveals a meaningful order among the blended essences and generates images and ideas in the mind, as a great perfume should. At the same time they benefit from the aesthetic advantage of natural perfumes - the avoidance of the shrill redundancy which now characterizes far too many perfumes which wear their synthetic nature on their sleeve, all bones, like anorexic fashion models.  His last fragrance, Mecca Balsam already showed how well suited this approach is to the oriental genre, which can so easily decline into a brash affair of sticky florals, screaming amber and wood synthetics and nose-numbing Yankee-candle vanillin. The new release, Sharif, which initiates a series of oriental-themed fragrances aimed at Middle-Eastern tastes, confirms it.
"Sharif is the scent of a noble Arab Sheik who chose the supreme elegance instead of the show of wealth, kindness and seduction instead of arrogance. In the pure tradition of the Middle East, Sharif consists of intense notes of leather and aromatic woods with the delicious aroma of amber scents of the East, and sweet almond," the perfumer tells us. It is, first of all, a wonderfully pleasant perfume and an ideal entry into the world of natural perfumery, as it is much more accessible than the starkly meditative, distantly elegant Mecca Balsam. The latter requires study before you can deeply appreciate it, while Sharif provides pure pleasure even before you begin investigating its complexity. There is a perfect harmony of spice and sweetness, dryness and deftness, of clarity and density, the slender elegance of a minarett and the opulence of a plate of Arabian sweets. The dry craggy resins of Mecca Balsam's pilgrimage are here enveloped in smooth delicious amber. Imagine yourself being entertained in the golden tent of an Arab nobleman, the scent of fine resins rising from incense burners, eating honey and almond cakes while a pipe rests by your side and a distant smell of leather saddle and noble horses wafts over from the stables. You are at peace, but you feel energy brimming inside you. New deeds of your own choosing await, but for now, you enjoy the tranquil flow of life and its pleasures.

Since words will never do such a beautiful fragrance justice, here is your opportunity to smell Sharif for yourself. Courtesy of AbdesSalaam Attar, state of the [car]nation is giving away a 32ml bottle of Sharif which is not only worth over €100 but might also seriously transform your perceptions of the oriental genre of perfumes. All you have to do to enter this contest, is to write a commentary below this article in which you outline your vision of "your perfect 21st century oriental fragrance." The winner will be drawn at random from all such entries. Please make sure you leave a contact in your comment that will enable me to e-mail you in case of winning. The contest will close a week from now on Tuesday at 16.00 CET and the winner will be announced and notified a day or two later. Have fun!