11/29/13

Written Into The Light: The Blog-Driven Rise of The Zombie Perfumes




I have been saying for years now that fragrance blogging, fragrance writing, and internet fragrance forums are largely responsible for the discontinuation and resurrection of perfumes. My position has been met with some critical acclaim, and many suggest that I am mistaken in thinking that the power of the written word extends that far, but lately there is evidence, circumstantial as it may be, that I am right. Several perfume brands have, for reasons that are murkier than squid ink, randomly decided to re-release long-discontinued perfumes. Three of these "zombie perfumes" are quite interesting: Patou Pour Homme, Yohji Homme, and Pascal Morabito's Or Black.

Jean Patou is a French brand that was acquired by Proctor & Gamble about ten years ago. People believe that the Patou fragrance line fell apart because P&G mishandled the brand, not knowing what to do with a semi-niche designer name. That's speculation, and I think it flies in the face of P&G's rather good record of managing large company portfolios. Without stepping directly into that argument, I will simply point out that Thomas Fontaine, the man tasked with Patou Pour Homme's revival, has only been given permission to recreate three of Patou's classic perfumes: Chaldee, Patou Pour Homme, and Eau de Patou. Classics like Adieu Sagesse, Divine Folie, Invitation, Le Sien, Moment Supreme, Nacre, and a little talked-about masculine called Voyageur all remain extinct. In the three years since Designer Perfumes, Ltd acquired the Patou brand, only three Patou perfumes are slated for re-release. Why?

On several internet forums, and in the blogosphere, Patou Pour Homme has achieved a mythic cult status. On June 26th, 2012, "WilliamVargas" wrote on Fragrantica:
"Finally got around to getting a small sample of this juice, and it is marvelous. I was afraid of this, dammit! But just looking around for curiosity's sake, it is like people are holding this fragrance hostage . . . it is truly an amazing fragrance, just beautiful in every way."
Sentiments like this abound, with wistful connoisseurs wishing they could simply hop onto the internet and buy a new bottle of Patou Pour Homme without spending an arm and a leg on ebay. One full year before William's review, Tony "Grottola" wrote,
"For me, Patou Pour Homme is an extremely rich and decadent oriental fragrance for men. It opens up on my skin with noticeable lavender and tobacco (yes, I smell tobacco) notes complimented by spices, pepper, and a cooling petitgrain note. The oily tobacco note reminds me of Havana by Aramis, sort of. There's also a dark leather note thrown in the mix. Overall, the feel is sort of like a big, oily, masculine Mitsouko (crossed with a resinous leather chypre like *vintage* Hermes Bel Ami). There are no unpleasant or "pissy" notes to turn people away - just raw, strong masculinity at its finest . . . It's my favorite masculine fragrance ever, and of course it's discontinued."
Tony's review roster is long and accomplished, and unlike many writers, he is balanced in his praises and criticisms, and remarkably well-versed in the language of notes and scent profiles. Presaging his opinion by three years, writer "Knightz" says,
"It's a shame Patou pour Homme was discontinued, it got nothing but positive reviews everywhere. Looking at the notes, I think I would have liked it as well."
No doubt this sort of thinking was fueled by many positive opinions written on the internet, which is currently the only place for people around the globe to opine on their favorite "lost gems." In 2009, Aromi Erotici wrote on his terrific blog, Il Mondo di Odore:
"For me, it is the best overall designer scent I have ever had the pleasure of owning and wearing . . . It's this quality, coupled with the fact that it's discontinued, sought-after, and commanding outrageous prices that makes me love this fragrance and hate it as well."
And "The Non-Blonde's" husband (who is called "The Blond") wrote on her blog:
"Jean Patou Pour Homme is the essence of comfort, calm and understated elegance . . . Sadly, Patou Pour Homme and its brother, the “Prive” version from 1994, are both discontinued and are extremely hard to find, so keep an eye open in yard sales and antique stores as prices on eBay are a bit insane."
You get the idea. Patou PH is widely loved. And out of over thirty-three perfumes, virtually of which are discontinued, and almost all of which are under-publicized, the most beloved of Patou's eighties masculines sees a reissue in 2013. It has, in effect, been written back into the light. It now walks again.

The same goes for Yohji Homme, which for a time in the nineties was owned by Jean Patou as well (its discontinuation, due to the brand's sale, followed Patou's own). Jean Michel-Duriez's licorice-lavender fougère was highly praised with five stars in Luca Turin's Perfumes: The Guide, and from 2008 to the present, has received nothing but high praise on the internet, with Turin's book the only high-visibility print publication to mention it. That Olivier Pescheux was tasked to reformulate and recreate the scent can only be based on the scads of praise it received during its intermission. "Grottola" wrote in 2011,
"The good: Yohji Homme is the crème brûlée of the fragrance world. The bad: Yohji Homme is discontinued and getting harder and harder to find."
The Non-Blonde wrote:
"The discontinuation of Yohji Homme by Yohji Yamamoto is one of those weird mysteries of the perfume world . . . Yohji Homme is fun, edible and sexy without losing its urban edge. Too bad the general public didn't get its charm on time."
In 2012, Clayton of What Men Should Smell Like wrote:
"It was Luca Turin’s glowing review of this extinct fragrance in his 2008 Perfumes Guide that encouraged me to find a bottle."
Dane on PereDePierre wrote:
"This scent shouldn't really appeal to me at all...I'm not crazy about licorice or anise, I generally don't like gourmande/foody scents (although technically its more of a Fougere), and you know how I feel about the bottle. Given all that, its hard to deny YH's beauty."
You can see how Turin's praise for Yohji Homme spurred bloggers to investigate it - the power of the printed word is not as surprising to behold - but it takes some cultural acumen to acknowledge the combined forces of perfume bloggers with good things to say about this odd fougère. This year saw the reissue of Yohji Homme, and Turin re-reviewed it, demoting it slightly to a four-star scent, but heralding it all the same. Why was Yohji Homme reissued at all? Why not just let it languish on ebay as an eternally discontinued perfume? The answer is clear: people wrote that they liked it. One of those people was Luca Turin. Back comes Yohji Homme.

Now comes the news that Pascal Morabito's discontinued Or Black will make a return in 2014, with a picture of the new bottle posted on Morabito's web site. I won't labor through all of the positive reviews of this one, but will settle on saying that nearly 100% of the attention is good, and it all bemoans its discontinuation. Simple phrases like "an amazing fragrance," "a fragrance for people who actually like fragrances," and "a true masterpiece" abound. This was also a Luca Turin favorite, and if not for him, probably would never have been discovered by anyone in the blogosphere. Virtually all online forum reviews come after 2008. Yet Morabito is reissuing Or Black. Again, the positive online attention since Turin's initial probe of this fragrance has, without a doubt, been the motivating factor in the company's choice to revive the scent.

What other perfumes will the internet community bring back into the light? We will see in the year to come.








11/26/13

Antihéros (Etat Libre d'Orange)



I have no problem with the fragrance. I do, however, have a big problem with its price. Antihéros is an abysmal perfume for a few reasons, not the least of which is its contrived approach to lavender, that most-volatile of minty herbs. With real lavender essential oil, you are lucky to glean thirty minutes of enjoyable wear, and more likely to get about ten or fifteen minutes before it simply evaporates into thin air. Twentieth century perfumers have found ways of extending lavender's lifespan beyond the half-hour mark, and into the two or three hour range, without compromising its delicate freshness. A good example is Caron Pour un Homme, which pairs a very bitter-herbal lavender with a cool, clean metallic note, to carry the feeling of dawn-frosted rawness through a few extra innings. The wearer is aware of an unnatural durability to the note, but not at the expense of its smell. If you want lavender, then you get it, and you get it for a time longer than the actual bud could ever offer.

Antihéros doesn't attempt to render lavender buds, but aims for cheap lavender-scented soap instead. It smells a bit like Yardley's English Lavender bar soap. Yardley's can be found at drugstores for a dollar and change. It smells good, but it's gone when the shower's over. If catching heady whiffs of synthetic lavender suds for nine hours straight is appealing to you, this little niche offering by Antoine Maisondieu might float your boat. I'll hand it to Antoine - the stuff never loses its faux-lavender edge. It's strong. It's loud. It lasts forever. A little goes a very long way. But movement-wise, where does the scent actually go? Fake herbal lavender on top for about twenty minutes, then bar-soapy lavender for five hours, then lavender-scented laundry-grade musk for another four hours, and then just a fuzzy hint of white musk at nine hours, and counting. Yikes.

Let's cut the bullshit and not pretend there's any cedar, or moss, or flowers, or anything but two or three massive lavender-like synthetics smooshed together in Antihéros. Yes, it's a likable smell, yes, it smells good for hours, and yes, it's something I wouldn't mind wearing, if Caron PuH didn't already exist. And therein lies the rub: Caron sells for eight dollars an ounce online. Antihéros is about fifty dollars an ounce. Sorry Free Orange State, but once again, I ain't falling for it. If your lavender actually smelled like natural lavender buds for ten hours, my money would already be yours. Your lavender smells like that Yardley soap I get at the dollar store. For ten hours. That means I should find bottles of Antihéros next to Yardley's bar soap. At the dollar store. You get my drift.







11/24/13

French Lover (Frederic Malle)


French Lover has been on my radar for one reason: it's by Pierre Bourdon. I happen to be a Bourdon fan, and expected this Malle perfume to smell amazing. Pretty much everything by Bourdon smells amazing, from his stoic Cool Water, to his variable Féminité du Bois, and with the exception of his relatively unknown work for Romea D'Ameor, Faberlic, and Ulric de Varens, French Lover marks an endpoint in his career, the last of his "blockbuster" fragrances. It's hard to say that anything niche could be blockbuster, but I was around and paying attention in 2007 and 2008, when this Malle scent was brand new. I'm here to remind everyone of just how excited they were when it hit the world stage. It wound up being one of Malle's most successful fragrances, something that put the brand on the map, and for a short time was a basenotes and blogosphere darling. People love this stuff. They should - it smells good.

I happen to like it, but not love it. It reads as a very minimalist composition on my rather dry skin, a simple combination of notes, namely bergamot, black pepper, angelica, vetiver, and cedar. It smells wispy and transparent - not what I expected - and focuses its energies on vetiver and cedar in the drydown, losing most of the astringent citrus and peppery angelica after an hour. For a good five or six hours, French Lover is a slightly grassy cedar, loosely resembling stale cigar smoke, and at the six hour mark it fades away. This tends to happen with popular niche scents that I try for myself - the expectations are high, in large part because of the hype. Then I wear the fragrance, and inevitably think to myself, "Okay, this is very nice, but if it were by Ralph Lauren and sold at Macy's, it would already be forgotten." Ditto for French Lover.







11/18/13

L'Eau Bleue d'Issey Pour Homme (Issey Miyake)



Discovering olfactory doppelgangers is loads of fun. Finding something for $30 that smells 90% like something for $300 is even more fun. Enter L'Eau Bleue d'Issey Pour Homme and Amouage Epic Man.

The other day I blind bought a bottle of L'Eau Bleue at a steep discount. Normally it's priced at $45 here in CT, but this bottle had been sitting around for a while, and found its way to the discount rack, priced at just under $30. Issey Miyake's fragrances are generally of high quality and usually smell pretty good, so finding a large bottle at this price isn't bad. I vaguely remember trying the original L'Eau d'Issey PH many years back, so long ago that I can't even write a review of it, but I know it smelled good. Something fresh, herbal, and citrusy, but how fresh, how herbal, how citrusy? I'd have to revisit it to tell you. One interesting factoid about L'Eau Bleue is that it's actually Miyake's second masculine fragrance, right after the original L'Eau. There was a L'Eau flanker called "Lumieres d'Issey," which was released in 2002, two years prior to L'Eau Bleue, but I don't think that one caught on, nor do I think it really qualifies as a serious entry in the line, given its flanker status (it's probably been discontinued anyway). L'Eau Bleue marks an interesting new direction that the house went in after their Japanese-lemonade debut in 1994.

I sprayed L'Eau Bleue on my arm, waited a few seconds, and took a deep whiff. Immediately, before the fragrance molecules even had a chance to filter through my nose hairs, I exclaimed out loud, "Epic Man, but no oud!" The resemblance is uncanny. Actually, it's Epic that smells like L'Eau, since Miyake's scent came first. What's even stranger is that L'Eau Bleue smells good, and Epic is just so-so. There's the exact same camphoraceous green accord, loaded with a very naturalistic rosemary note (rosemary smells a bit pine-like), juniper, cedar, and an anisic element, possibly fennel. Vick's VapoRub comes to mind, as it did with Epic. The difference is in how L'Eau Bleue's weird, balmy notes accompany rosemary, pink pepper, and patchouli, smelling like a fresh, watery accent to very literal renditions of herbs and spices, instead of sneeze-inducing muscle rub. The absence of oud proves that this sort of woody-chypre structure needs no extra medicinal qualities - the combined forces of juniper, rosemary, ginger, cypress, and pepper are medicinal enough.

There's also a prominent "fresh-fruity" note in the mix, which becomes increasingly apparent as the fragrance dries down, and I'm wondering if Jacques Cavallier dumped a thimbleful of plain old Calone into the formula. If so, it works. Its breezy sweetness permeates the base, and balances the oddness of the scent's earlier stage. It's a nice denouement for what could have been a disaster; L'Eau Bleue's pyramid is chock full of difficult notes, and it could have very easily crashed into a disgusting essential oil bar-soap mess. There's still a soapiness about it, but its herbal and woody elements remain prominent throughout the lifespan of the scent, and it never fuzzes out into something cheap. After four or five hours, it just fades away.

If Epic Man smelled more like an expensive, Creed-ified L'Eau Bleue - in other words, like itself, but with higher quality ingredients, and without any oud and frankincense - I might be tempted to buy it. I think there may be a combination of herbs, and even a geranium note that unifies these two and makes them so similar, and it's not even like Epic Man is loaded with oud. I think there's more frankincense in there. But in Epic, the camphoraceous/herbal accords smell uninspired and cheap. In L'Eau Bleue, they smell revitalized, streamlined, freshened, and very good. Miyake made this idea a versatile scent profile. They also made it a very rich scent profile, full of lushness and dimensionality. I think it's pretty mainstream, and not mind-bending in any way, but well conceived and quite memorable. If you like Epic Man and want to wear an improved version of it "on the cheap," L'Eau Bleue is for you.






11/13/13

Vince Camuto for Men (Vince Camuto)



One of the great mysteries of our time is why in the living hell an upscale fashion and accessories designer would choose to skimp on his brand's perfume. Granted, a $500 suit isn't considered an "expensive" suit in the world of suits (you're probably looking at $10K - $25K per outfit to earn that label), but it's pricey enough to figure on a well-made fragrance, made with above average materials, and packaged in a classy bottle. No such luck - Camuto's signature masculine smells inexpensive and uninspired, another aromatic afterthought in an ugly jug from a lazy brand.

Harry Fremont is one of those wildly successful Firmenich perfumers with a few dozen titles under his belt - Kenneth Cole Black for Men, Halston's Catalyst for Men, and Polo Sport to name a few - and his middle-of-the-road pedigree shows in abundance with VC for Men. The scent is actually quite pleasant, a spicy fougère with a fairly common scratchy-woody accord that people call "leather" nowadays. VC for Men has become somewhat ubiquitous as of late, with leather-wrapped bottles appearing everywhere, and I attribute that to broad distribution and a wide market net, not popularity. This is an inoffensive and safe office scent that no perfume enthusiast would need for any reason other than to have an inoffensive and safe office scent on hand.

I wish I could say more about it, but Vince Camuto for Men is about as boring as it gets. Smelling the fragrance makes me want to avoid the brand's clothing, which looked dull to begin with. Mr. Camuto obviously holds perfume in low regard, or he would have asked Firmenich to custom-design something interesting for him, and to not pull a ready-made formula off the "Harry Fremont" shelf. Try harder, Vince.








11/11/13

Grand Cuir (Parfums Retro)


My sample of Grand Cuir is courtesy of Jeffrey Dame. Two fragrances come to mind whenever I smell Grand Cuir, and it's, well, curious. The first is humble old English Leather by Dana, a cheap citrus chypre with a dry, woody-floral base. The second is none other than Mitsouko. I'll explain.

First, a little background info: Jeffrey Dame and Hugh Spencer founded the house of Parfums Retro, and Grand Cuir is its first offering. Mr. Dame has informed me that a sandalwood scent will follow it up next year, which is something I look forward to, as GC is quite nice. Its top accord of citrus - namely bergamot, lemon, and an astringent (non-sweet) lime immediately calls to mind the current version of English Leather, with its similarly piercing citrus notes. But Grand Cuir is far more sophisticated than this, and its bergamot eventually dominates, bringing the classical chypre fashion, via Mitsouko, to mind. A bitter splash of oakmoss further bolsters the allusion, and although it's a very IFRA-compliant accord, you'd think there was nothing holding Hugh Spencer back. Subtle hints of pine needles and sage add their own green complexities, and elevate the experience into something very pleasant indeed.

As the hours pass, GC's floral heart unravels, revealing an incredibly dry, austere pyramid. What I like about GC, which is also what I hate about Mitsouko, is that its freshness smells fresh, and never slips into Mitsy's flaky old-paint effect. Spencer uses the lemony freshness of geranium to introduce a dry rose and carnation element, and here an amazing feat is accomplished: I am given an olfactory impression of real, animalic leather. That almost never happens! If I didn't know better, I'd say there's some castoreum and/or civet neatly tucked between the organic compounds, but I think this is really an achievement based on a skillful balance of woody materials, including vetiver and an inkling of sandalwood. Everything is smooth, congruent, relaxed, and rendered in an impressively effective manner. This fragrance is a pleasant surprise.

Grand Cuir is a beautiful perfume, and it's beautiful because the ingredient quality is very good, but more importantly, the ingredients are used in a natural, even-handed way. There are no "synthetic" accords, just one languorous, incredibly stark leather. If the brief read "Make us a beautifully stark leather," then it's a mission accomplished.





11/7/13

Vermeil For Men (Vermeil Paris) Part One




This fragrance is a bit of a mystery. The whole Vermeil brand is a mystery, actually. Who is Jean-Louis Vermeil? Where did this brand come from? Who really produces its fragrances? Where are they really located? Someone out there may have answers to these questions, but thus far I haven't been able to unearth any of them myself. I have a suspicion about who is behind the Vermeil line, and I'll elaborate on that in Part Two of this post. This part is a straightforward review of the fragrance itself.

I read a review on Parfumo.net that compared Vermeil for Men to the original Davidoff fragrance, which is long discontinued. The reviewer called Vermeil "Davidoff Lite." Because I love Davidoff's masculines, and can't find a reliable sample of their original masculine, I figured trying the dirt-cheap Vermeil would be the next best thing, given the reputation of the reviewer, who tends to be spot-on in many of his assessments. Complicating matters further, another little birdie whispered in my ear that "Vermeil Pour Homme" is actually much more similar to Davidoff's Relax than it is to the original Davidoff. That intrigued me, because I have a mini of Relax, and I'm familiar with its rendition of tobacco. Internet opinions unanimously hold Vermeil to be a very good tobacco scent. Relax has a subtle tobacco note, and it's decent, but it's nothing much to speak of. I happen to really like Relax, but not enough to spend two hundred dollars on a large bottle. Show me something close to it on the cheap, and I'm all in.


One would be inclined to assume that Vermeil is strictly a masculine - it comes in a bottle ingeniously shaped like a lighter, its color scheme all browns, blacks, and faux brass, and it just feels rather "manly" to look at and hold. Plus, it says "Vermeil for Men" in small print on the box label, which is slapped on as a barcode sticker, like an afterthought. The fragrance is a burly herbal tobacco, with a beautiful bergamot, basil, thyme, and geranium top note, framed in little brackets of lavender and vetiver, and followed by a delightfully simple and eerily realistic tobacco leaf, with some sandalwood and animalic musk. It's safe to say it's a masculine perfume, and it's a piddling point, but it's not actually called "Vermeil Pour Homme." I guess it's supposed to be called "Vermeil for Men," judging by what is printed next to the barcode, although nowhere on the bottle or the rest of the box does it say that. When I think about my life, I realize that I've encountered far more female smokers than male, and the smell of tobacco, no matter how aggressively presented, is not exclusively the domain of men. I had a four-year relationship with a girl who was a walking chimney, for crying out loud. She might have plenty of use for Vermeil, if she didn't already smell like it (and if gender marketing hadn't convinced her to buy a silly pink bottle of liquid candy).

What you need to know, if you're looking for a good, solid tobacco frag, is that Vermeil for Men delivers. My only complaint is that longevity on it is relatively poor, at around four hours with modest application. I guess that's where the super-low price tag comes home to roost, but while it lasts, it smells amazing. That said, the tobacco note is pretty natural, and doesn't try anything fancy. It lets the simple beauty of pure tobacco leaf speak for itself. Furthermore, this scent is VERY similar to Davidoff's fabled Relax, minus the bright mint top note, with a much, much stronger and clearer tobacco note, and with some of Relax's sweetness shaved off the end. Both scents share a near-identical sandalwood/musk accord, and to me it smells like "Relax 2.0" The Davidoff treatment of florals, precious woods, and musk is heavier-handed in comparison (in many ways, it's an attenuated-but-intensified variation of Zino), which makes it harder to wear. I prefer Vermeil's treatment, because it's airier, more relaxed, a little less conspicuous and demanding, but not at the expense of quality. If you love the smell of dry tobacco leaf, please make it a point to buy this and wear it. It's very cheap, so if you hate it, no biggie. It's rare to encounter a well-made fragrance in a cool bottle for less than the price of a Zippo.












11/3/13

Gold Man (Amouage)



Gold Man is my favorite Amouage fragrance. I have decants of six masculines from this brand, and Gold is the one that stands out the most. Actually, despite their obvious quality and originality, the other five Amouages aren't products I would ever purchase and wear. If someone told me I absolutely had to buy an Amouage, Gold would be the one I'd drop coin on.

This is an old-school fragrance, through and through. The first thing I think of when it hits skin is none other than Royal Copenhagen (by Swank or Five Star). I think it's telling that Luca Turin compares Gold to Mouchoir de Monsieur in The Guide, because MdM has a prominent lavender note, and so does Royal Copenhagen. Thus, I must say that a powdery lavender note (and equally powdery mimosa) is responsible for the pop of freshness from the top of Gold Man, which aligns its scent profile ever closer to the ever cheaper RC. Adding to the stark beauty of the top notes is the sweet funk of civet, which emerges in the first thirty seconds, a natural-smelling animalic twist that puts a smile on my face every time I smell it. I happen to love civet, and don't encounter it enough in contemporary masculines. Here it is very satisfying.

What ensues is hard to describe. There is a listed jumble of notes that supposedly inhabit Gold's structure, but few of them will reach out at you during a full wearing. Gold is powdery, but I wouldn't say it's a powder bomb. It's just very, very dry. Almost too dry, as if Guy Robert were trying to bottle the essence of the Sahara desert when he crafted it. Many guys flock to Amouage to experience the brand's signature rendition of frankincense, and Gold showcases incense better than the rest of the range. After about twenty minutes, the incense note appears, smelling incredibly crisp, cool, and downright silvery, despite the composition's namesake. It pushes past a condensed barrage of clipped florals, mostly rose, jasmine, and muguet, with hints of mimosa and heliotrope. The floral accord, which persists throughout the lifespan of the scent, is what really accounts for Gold smelling so close to Royal Copenhagen, because both fragrances exhibit the same dessicated, pressed-in-book bouquet.

Accompanying the incense is a strong muguet-infused greenness, with just the barest hint of fruit, possibly peach. This effect comes and goes, but it all leads in the far drydown to a soft amber, comprised of equal parts spiced myrrh, powdery patchouli, and genuine sandalwood oil. Of all the Amouages in the classic lineup, Gold is by far the most masculine, and begs for a suit and tie. This is a diplomat's scent, something to be worn by men who keep apartments in New York City for downtime between speeches at the U.N. It's expensive, it smells expensive, and it's made expensive using good raw materials on a seemingly unlimited budget.

I think the real key to Gold's success is the nose behind it. Guy Robert is responsible for several masterpieces, including Dioressence, Gucci Pour Homme, the original Calèche, Èquipage, and Doblis, and Monsieur Rochas. He was one of those rare talents that always took purity and elegance to a higher level, and you can be sure that the understated exoticism of Gold has its rightful place in his esteemed list of masterful accomplishments. This scent is one of the greats.





11/1/13

The Notable Differences Between Natural-Smelling Scents And Synthetic-Smelling, Pre-Fab Perfumes



I think of perfume as being similar to wallpaper. Every wallpaper is different, with pricier patterns, like the one pictured above, costing an arm and a leg, and simpler monochromatic themes costing much less. Sometimes, depending on brand, the price range is quite small. It all depends on who is making the paper, who is distributing it, and who is buying it.

When I consider a perfume to be natural in its overall scent profile, I don't think of it in terms of all-natural perfumery. I've never tried an all-natural perfume, though I've read mixed reviews about them. I'm not sure I understand the people who strongly dislike all-natural perfumery, guys like Luca Turin and Chandler Burr. Their position seems to be predicated on the false notion that perfumery is an art form, and therefore must, by all measures, be a labor of artifice. I think perfumery should be held as a practice of combining safe ingredients, any safe ingredients, in a manner that results in a coherent, congruent product, which subsequently smells better than its constituent parts. Some might complain that "better" is a vague and subjective term. Human beings have reference points for everything, but when you consider man-made materials, you also have to consider the hemisphere in which those materials are commonly known. Truly universal materials are of nature. Therefore, from Seattle to Moscow, Toronto to Cape Town, the fragrances of citrus fruits, flowers, and woods are known and appreciated, with many also doubling as flavors.

Let's argue for a moment that the wallpaper above is one of the cheaper patterns in a relatively inexpensive line. It's not dirt-cheap, mind you, but you could easily afford a roll or two for fifty or sixty dollars. You feel that the white birch wood pattern has a pleasantly retro, nineteen-fifties orientalist character, which would go well in your den, and perhaps on one wall of the master bedroom. When you look at the wallpaper, you know you're not seeing real woods, but a commercially designed rendition of woods. You know this is a two-dimensional space, and that if you walk into these woods, you'll break your nose on sheet-rock. Yet it's tempting. There's something about this pattern that is natural in feeling and ambiance, like the greyest woods of November somewhere in New England. Ultimately it's mostly synthetic (although paper is derived from nature), yet it provides customers with a kind of satisfaction from having a "natural" or "Earth-bound" aura in a living space.

Now take a perfume like Halston's Z-14. When you look at the bottle, you see an earthy brown and dark umber tone in the glass. Spray its contents on skin, and there's a rush of citrus and spice, with clear notes of lemon, citrus aldehydes, cinnamon, pine, woods, and moss. Its dry starkness is arresting. It's a very good smell, suggestive of freshness, earthiness, things from nature. Smelling Z-14 is like taking a stroll through the woods on a cold day in November, except you're well aware that you're not actually taking that stroll. The effect is superficial, a commercial product, a subjective rendition of something using the objective odors of many natural, and some synthetic materials. If Z-14 were wallpaper, it would probably look something like the paper shown above.

While smelling Z-14, it's impossible to not notice the cinnamon, which jumps out at the nose. It's just as difficult to miss the strong, almost tarry odor of birch and pine, and if your nose is a bit more experienced, the moss as well. These notes smell like specific things from nature. They don't smell like the hand of man, as much as the hand of God. I'm not suggesting there's anything divine about the perfume. I'm simply suggesting that, as a partial work of nature, it's something that owes its success to the nuances of the land, with man upholding the rest. Clever chemistry resulted in this interesting structure of citrus, woods, muted flowers, and moss. The clever part isn't the composition, but the choice of materials. These materials were obviously chosen to impart a very specific kind of texture, one where notes can separate and be recognized. This is a natural-smelling fragrance.

On the other side of the wallpaper aisle are geometric patterns in pastel and neon colors, mostly manufactured and sold for contemporary interiors. These papers are anywhere from forty to a hundred dollars per roll. When you look at these bright, hard-lined patterns, you think of all the TV themes of the last thirty years. See a squiggly triangle and a neon square? Does it make you think of the patterns shown during the theme song to Saved By The Bell? And what about those gaudy stripes? Fruit Stripe gum, anyone? The connotations are seemingly limitless, except for one crucial little limit: they're all about mankind's devices. TV, movies, architectural movements, fashion trends, whatever it may be, it's not of nature, but of man. Some would argue that anything from man and of man is natural, as man is a product of nature. A worthy opinion, but we need to segregate ourselves from the raw biological patterns that surround us. We can be self-referential, but not in the same context as oakmoss and orange zest.

Think of perfumes like Armani Code and Bleu de Chanel, and ask yourself whether they possess the same earthy, kinda-sorta dirty qualities of things like Z-14, Quorum, Azzaro PH, and Paco Rabanne. Ask yourself if clear lavender, citrus, and spice notes are easily separated from Code and Bleu. Better yet, take a truly abysmal fragrance like Luna Rossa and compare. But wait, there is no comparison! And with Code, I smell a weird, synthetic, pre-fabricated "vanilla gauze," a semi-sweet, warm-fuzzy texture that smells like fancy Airwick. The entire fragrance smells like room-freshener chemicals. You see splashes of latex paint colors when you smell Code. You don't see dark, gnarled trees on a foggy day. Same for Bleu. Yes, Chanel attempted to place a designer-grade grapefruit and ginger note on top of a massive, bittersweet woody amber accord. Sure, one could argue that the citrus and ginger notes are easily detectable and fairly lucid. The problem is not in the choice of things rendered, but in how they are rendered - Bleu's fruits and spices smell needlessly cheap, with the same "fuzzy" aerosol quality of Code.

The funny thing about this is that classical old-school scents like Z-14 aren't "natural," but are just as synthetic as most of the designer stuff of today - and generally they're much, much cheaper! The difference between the natural-smelling and the synthetic rests in how connected to nature these scents are. With Z-14, Azzaro, Paco, we smell herbs, woods, and musks. Many are synthetic, true, but they are rendered to smell literal, and placed within a composition. Their combined strengths make the perfume. Code and Bleu are from places not connected to nature, but to concrete and metal foundations. They hearken from a mindset of crunching numbers and reaping profits. Their notes are what the Leffingwell and Michael Edwards might have referred to, twenty some-odd years ago, as "fantasy" notes. If I recall correctly, that classification was reserved mostly for "fresh" and "aquatic" perfumes, but in this case, if asked to re-label everything, I'd say a perfume like Bleu de Chanel deserves a "fantasy" tag, simply because anyone who thinks they smell like a pleasant combination of fruit and wood notes is living in fantasy land. The rest of us are wishing we didn't have the deodorant aisle at the drugstore as our reference point in the matter.

In the end, we all use wallpaper at some time in life, and many of us use perfume. We are living in a time when human beings automatically disassociate from their natural surroundings for safety and comfort. We dwell above the soil and grass in abodes built of stone, wood, metal, and plastic. Our interiors are decked out in the same materials. We come in contact with plastic more often than petals, rubber more often than stone, particle board more often than wood. We remember nature, and when we encounter wallpapers like the one in this post, we think of it fondly. The same occurs when we smell a natural-smelling fragrance. It is just the way of modern mankind.