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.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Dior Sauvage: The Black Hole of Perfumery

"But anything natural which has not been absorbed into utility by passing through the cleansing channels of conceptual order-the screech of  stylus on slate which sets the teeth on edge, the haut-goût which brings to mind filth and corruption, the sweat which appears on the brow of the diligent - whatever is not quite  assimilated, or infringes the commands in which the progress of centuries has been sedimented, is felt as  intrusive and arouses a compulsive aversion."

"That is why smell, as  both  the  perception  and  the perceived - which  are one  in  the act of olfaction - is more expressive than other senses. When we see we remain who we are, when we smell we are absorbed entirely. In civilization, there­fore, smell  is regarded as a disgrace, a sign of the lower social orders, less­er races, and baser animals. The civilized person is allowed to give way to such desires only if the prohibition is suspended by rationalization in the service of practical purposes, real or apparent. One is allowed to indulge the outlawed drive if acting with the unquestionable aim of expunging it." 

Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, "Elements of Anti-Semitism," Dialectic of Enlightenment. Philosophical Fragments (first published 1949)

"I believe this is a very nice clean soapy scent. It may not conjure images of exotic far off places or rare ingredients from such places but it makes you feel enveloped by a squeaky clean aroma. [...] This is so nice and comforting and not cheap smelling. Great when you're in great looking casual clothing."

"Sauvage is an odd scent; it’s both generic and discordant at the same time. [...] It’s clearly a low-budget affair, yet it’s technically accomplished; it riffs on several mainstream cliches, then smashes them awkwardly together; it’s discordant and somewhat ugly, yet it’s primed for mass-consumption.

Reviews of Dior Sauvage on Basenotes,

Something went unnoticed upon the release of Dior Sauvage in 2015. It marked and absolute end point of creative perfumery, a singularity of algorithm-driven commodification free from human interference, from culture, thus. It transcends aesthetic judgment, because that is not its domain. It smells, but it is not perfume. It is the signature scent of the self-disciplining neoliberal worker-drone, the expunging of smell by smell as described by Adorno and Horkheimer in the Dialectics of the Enlightenment (amusing to think they might have had Moustache by Rochas in mind, that urinous masterpiece worthy of Marcel Duchamp [double pun there]).

That so many people like it (in the way you like stuff on facebook, i.e. without any desire for exploration, reflexivity, depth) is no less a commentary on our civilization than the election of Donald Trump. Small fissures and fractures in overlooked places can also be telling.So what to do, when you encounter such an anti-matter miasma, a 21st century version of the plague? You do what they did back then, wear olfactory medicine - I suggest Ma'ai by Bogue.          

Friday, May 18, 2018

A Natural Gourmand for Gourmets: Chocolat Irisé by Annette Neuffer

How you perceive, classify and evaluate scents fundamentally depends your broader socio-cultural and personal biographical scent socialization. There is no doubt my high sensitivity towards monomolecular synthetic aromachemicals is owed to the abscence of most functional perfumery in our household: for decades we have only used unfragranced detergents, cleaners etc. and only naturally fragranced cosmetics and soaps. As a result I perceive much of the world and people around me as regular synth-bombs reeking of dihydromyrcenol, calone, ambroxan, ethylvanillin etc., all of which they seem hardly even to register. At such moments I sympathize with perfume prohibition in the workplace, though that will not eliminate the fascinating phenomenon of long-unwashed clothes still exuding „april-fresh“ wafts of fabric softener scent. Many of my fellow citizens, children and adults alike, seem completely desensitized when it comes to this olfactory overkill, while at the same time finding the natural smell of a body to be completely inacceptable and "unhygienic." I ask myself sometimes: what should be the consequence of the fact that all humans are principally entirely and intuitively capable of differentiating between monomolecular and complex natural scents, between phenethyl alcohol and rose oil? Considering, as a legendary Slow Food experiment showed, that children not exposed to unprocessed foods tended to prefer the synthetic aroma of strawberry yoghurt to the challenging complexity of a real strawberry, a sign of gustatory and olfactory impoverishment, of a brutal sensory limitation to engaging the complexity and sensory reality of the world. This is not so much an immediate health issue, but one of aesthetics and of aisthesis (humans as sensorily perceiving bodies) ; it raises fundamental questions about the nature of our being-in-the-world. Perhaps it is time to consider the question of naturals and synthetics (a difficult differentiation, but if you prefer: complex naturally sourced scents and monomolecules) in perfumery from this vantage point, rather than the misleading debate about allergies (which are just as likely to be caused by natural oils with hundreds of secondary and tertiary components than by synthetics).

Soooo....As Chocolat Irisé has once more proven to me, the fact that I detest with a passion the great majority of gourmand perfumes has nothing at all to do with the genre as such, but with its consistent cultivation of artificiality grounded in massive monomolecular overdosing. A good crème brulée can only be made with real vanilla pods, not vanillin flavouring, and a good gourmand requires a high percentage of natural oils with a complex olfactory spectrum. Sure, Jacques Guerlain's Shalimar contained vanillin, but it also brimmed with tonka, iris, 30% (!) bergamot, as well as jasmine, rose, birch tar, patchouli, sandalwood and more and more and more. The beauty of unobtrusive complexity!

And so we come to Annette Neuffers take on the oriental gourmand, Shalimar naturelle en cacao, so to say. The absence of synthetics and the quality of the natural raw materials means that balance and complexity reign sovereign here; the perfumer's talent ensures that the chocloate-vanilla soufflé does not collapse into olfactory porridge; and the all-natural compositon prevents outré displays of sillage and intensity. It is, in sum, wonderful. The opening is powerfully citric-floral, I get stronger „orangey“ impressions from the tangerine over the tart bergamot and more white-floral aspects than rose (which, however, rises a bit later). Cocoa notes come into play very quickly and prompt associations of old fashioned hot chocolate made from the real thing rather than industrial powder. A wonderful olfactory baldachin of floral notes unfolds supported by the cocoa-vanilla scaffold, with the gentle iris building a bridge between florality and vanilla sweetness. The smokey earthiness of patchouli also gently holds hands with that aspect of the oh so multifaceted vanilla, the rest of the base remains softly at the back. Close to the skin you can cherish the lusciously complex exotic pod that our culture has so unjustly turned into a signifier of blandness. The whole composition settles down after about half an hour to a wonderfully woven skin scent with a gentle aura - gentle in no way connoting feminine here, but really a unisex quality. I actually feel it is the nose-searing loudness of synthetic gourmands tha project a sort of misguided hyper-femininity of the worst sort.

Chocolat Irisé is true to its name, a beautiful, classy, but easily worn pleasure scent recommended to all lovers of Guerlinade and traditional hot chocolate, friends of natural sweetness and spice, and those who have wondered why the can't handle gourmands, even though they love a fine dessert.