Black Antlers (Garner James)

I want to thank perfumer Jim Gehr of Garner James for personally sending me five extremely generous samples of creations from his artisanal niche line. Jim contacted me recently as a fan of this blog, and I was excited to receive his care package, but I will be totally honest here - I didn't know what to expect. In the internet age, with open access to sites like perfumer's apprentice, anyone can buy materials, throw them in a bottle, shake, stir, and call himself a "nose." 

I've had a few people offer me their hand-made creations in the past, and I usually politely decline the offer. It's not that I don't want to smell new and interesting things. It's just that the likelihood of my giving honest positive write-ups of everything new and interesting are very slim, and I'm not into hurting the feelings of amateurs with my own amateur reviews.

Needless to say, things with Jim have been different on a few levels. First of all, he is not an "amateur." I don't really know what his training is, or whether it falls under the designations of "formal" or "informal," but it doesn't matter. His fragrances are, without exaggeration, amazing. Their quality of materials, carefully fine blending, and rich parfum concentrations speak to the painstaking craftsmanship of luxury products that ought to be outselling much of the mainstreamed nonsense out there today. 

He uses generous amounts of both naturals and synthetics (I suspect the naturals outweigh the synthetics in a few of the samples I received), and his style is apparent in every piece. These perfumes are made for men and women who seek versatility and appreciate wearability, but also value innovation and the avant-garde. I feel that his perfumes conjure strong associations to specific places, always positive associations, and his skillful handling of notes in Black Antlers achieves that effect.

Black Antlers takes me back to my beloved Ireland, where I spent a few years of my life. It opens with a mildy camphoraceous kiss of green woody notes, a tight accord of galbanum, lemon, cedar, artemisia, and anise. As it begins to dry, the woodsier notes step forward and become slightly Drakkar Noir-esque, while the mentholated anise re-balances itself to provide a cool canvas for invisible brushstrokes of firmer notes. 

By the middle of the day, a crisp cinnamon and labdanum heart accord emerges, its fizzier texture playing off of the scent's inherent smoothness. Transparent patchouli, creamy sandalwood, and a hint of musk comprise the base, the perfect denouement to this little masterwork. Jim will send me an ingredients list (he does not go for the typical marketing note pyramids), and I expect it will detail the usage of several expensive naturals. Black Antlers is like a stroll through the Irish countryside after the rain, with the ephemeral magic of spotting a "Giant Deer" in the trees.

For more information on how to acquire bottles and samples of Garner James perfumes, you can contact Jim on basenotes - he goes by "Wooznib," and you can also contact his brand's Facebook page, which I linked to above. If you are someone who appreciates complex, gentlemanly niche compositions with excellent note clarity and separation (lovers of Montale, Malle, and Creed take note), you're wasting time if you're not already messaging him.


Encre Noire (Lalique)

Iso E Super is just another synthetic aroma chemical, no more or less evil than the lot of them. Like most chemicals, it gets misused, but it is also used very nicely. A clumsier treatment can be found in Bleu de Chanel, where the material smells like olfactory overkill in a high-strung woody amber. Cartier's Déclaration is a vastly better fragrance that uses the stuff for a typical "buzzy" wood effect, which elevates the prominence of other notes in its composition instead of filling in for them. What's the difference in quality here between these two fragrances? It's splitting hairs, but BdC relies heavily on that "buzzy" sheer wood effect to act as a note (it depends on Iso E Super), whereas Déclaration benefits by using Iso E Super as a bit player in an otherwise independent composition that could work quite well without it. Jean-Claude Ellena seemed to feel that the material added a useful degree of texture and depth to woody and spicy accords, and I think he was right.

Nathalie Lorson must have harbored a unique philosophy about this approach when Encre Noire was composed. One thing that is obvious about this Lalique scent is that the perfumer recognized the cog-like purpose of Iso E Super, and mated it to several dry, saturnine woody notes. 

Yet unlike other scents in the same vein, Encre Noire's composition reverses the paradigm by allowing the chemicals that resemble "natural" materials (vetiver, cypress, black pepper, cashmere wood, birch tar) to complement Iso E Super. Under most circumstances this probably would not work very well, but going "whole hog" with the dark and smoky angle is what makes it smell so appealing. Its full-bore dryness is reminiscent of Arden's Sandalwood for Men, minus the lavender and patchouli, and with vetiver and "precious woods," which is really just Cashmeran, dialed up to the max.

The Iso E Super pushes through these dour notes like moonlight through tree branches, and the "buzz" is quite welcome for a change. Its transparent energy lifts and swirls the hyper-masculine pyramid through a gamut of inkiness, leatheriness, and even a decidedly agnostic incense note, and guess what? It smells great. Despite being relatively cheap, Lalique's vetiver-themed fragrance comes in a lovely bottle (we would expect nothing less), its contents akin to the papery rootiness of Guerlain Vetiver, the clean woodiness of Terre d'Hermès, the shadowy starkness of Chanel Sycamore, and the sheer radiance of Malle's Vetiver Extraordinaire. I've read questions asking where to find the best contemporary vetiver. To me, this is a top contender for that title. It draws on the seriousness of the old-school, but imparts a casual, sophisticated air, thanks to an enduring tension between traditional woody-chypre elements and contemporary synthetics.


B*Men (Thierry Mugler)

B*Men smells like something Annick Ménardo would have thrown together in the nineties, its synthetics playing off each other quite nicely in a Xeryus Rouge-like fashion (it does not smell like XR, though), their harmony sweet enough to make you forget that very few of the scent's many facets are from nature. There's also quite a bit of licorice/anise to be found in this Mugler creation, which for me is a plus and a minus; anisic notes are fine by me in moderation, but balance is key, and B*Men's anise seems a bit heavy-handed and, well, heavy. In other words, I get the licorice elements loud and clear, but I don't smell any contrast in the structure. There are no prominent sweet notes (the caramelized milkiness of A*Men is too subtle here), and that ghastly tarry patchouli accord from A*Men is nowhere to be found. B*Men is simply a blast of anise over a polite, kitchen-spiced cedar/rhubarb/vetiver/patchouli accord, the notes of which wedge tightly, but quietly.

Yes, I do smell a bit of a rhubarb-like note in B*Men, which is a unique feature of this fragrance. You don't find rhubarb in much, and when I smell B*Men, I'm immediately reminded of the strawberry rhubarb pies my friend's mom would make when we were kids. It's a nice association, and I have to wait out the licorice-over-damp-Maxwell House top note to get to it. B*Men's top is nice, very crisp and cool in an unassuming way, and unlike its predecessor, it smells balmy and inviting. This fragrance is nothing if not extremely wearable. Hazelnut makes an appearance about forty-five minutes into the drydown, and from there the usual suspects assemble on my skin - transparent (not dirty) patchouli, and a pleasant woodiness via cedar and rooty vetiver. The overall effect is strangely unorthodox and familiar, the paradoxical interplay of unconventional notes in a painstakingly "Macho" composition that recalls typical powerhouse ferns and chypres of the eighties and early nineties.

Yet B*Men isn't really "Macho" in any way, due to its politeness. The volume here is firmly entrenched five or six stops beneath Spinal Tap eleven. You can apply B*Men with a generous hand and not kill your co-workers. Type "A" personalities gravitate to the aggressive gravitas of A*Men; type "B" personalities, those who consciously underplay their role in life, may prefer the understated B*Men by a wide margin. I have to hand it to Thierry Mugler here - the two are related to each other by having a few of the same notes, but each one was made for the person who actively dislikes its counterpart, and they truly are polar opposites. If you hate A*Men, B*Men stands a good chance with you. I happen to love love A*Men, and guess what? B*Men is not for me. Am I a type "A" personality? Not really, except in regards to perfume. When I wear something, I want you to know it, and the sooner the better. While it is certainly no shrinking violet, B*Men says, "Hold that thought, and smell me later."


Royal Water (Creed)

My original review of this fragrance was based on smelling a counterfeit, and was the only time I've ever been conned with a fake Creed. I find it interesting that the counterfeit was competent enough to fool me. The bottle was in the older Royal Water style, a frosted, grey-colored glass, but the markings and atomizer all looked correct. The scent was a fresh, sparkly lemon cologne with brief citrus notes, and an even briefer musky drydown. Longevity clocked in at about an hour, and it had absolutely no throw at all. I thought it was pretty abysmal. If it had been any other middle-shelf designer brand, I would have felt differently, but weighed against Creed's best work, the composition and its performance on my skin were incredibly disappointing.

Then I gave it a second chance, using a sample from a trusted source supplying from a boutique-purchased bottle. The difference could not have been any starker. The fragrance did not resemble anything I had read online about it. Its longevity was terrific. And it had plenty of throw. So what happened here? My critics would say that I was just not discerning enough, but I've studied the intricacies of counterfeiting Creeds down to the letter (see my Green Irish Tweed authenticity post), and I can't say that there were any signs of trickery on the bottle or box. But what many "grey market" Creed buyers don't realize is that perfectly legit bottles can be opened and filled with swill, resealed, and resold. I'm pretty sure that's what I was up against.

This fragrance is another gender-bender. Sharp citrus (bergamot, lemon, lime) begins the proceedings, and rapidly leads to an oddly ambery peppermint/basil accord, which smells very herbal, but also very bland, almost intentionally so. Peppermint oil can either be pert and mentholated, or warm and honey-like. Creed opted for ambery peppermint, which I think was a mistake. It wouldn't been better to use a lighter rendition. Juniper berry balances it out with some fruity sweetness, and a sour mixture of ambergris and powdery musk finishes it off. The bitter citrus and basil feels starched and masculine, and the bittersweet perfumey base leans more feminine. I got eight hours from Royal Water, and I'd say moderate application gives you a sillage radius of about three feet. This is a good scent, but Acqua di Genova Colonia is better (review pending).


Aqua Velva Ice Blue (Vintage) & Frost Lime

As with Old Spice, my belief that vintage isn't always "better" than current stuff was further bolstered today when I happened across two vintage bottles of Aqua Velva by Williams. I was at an open house in Bethany, viewing a 250 year-old former inn with an interest to buy, when I discovered two small bottles in an otherwise empty bathroom. I've encountered vintage Ice Blue before but for the life of me could not remember what it smelled like, and I can't say I've ever smelled Frost Lime. Here was my chance.

Put simply, Ice Blue has not changed one iota in the last fifty years. The labeling of Ice Blue matched that of the Frost Lime above, dating it to the sixties or early seventies. To my astonishment, the fragrance is identical to what they're selling today. The only notable difference is that the old stuff is much shorter lived, gone within two minutes, whereas the current lasts about ten minutes before fading into a barely-there skin scent. I vaguely recall Luca Turin's review of the current Ice Blue, in which he said something like, "The smell is nowhere near as good as it was." I beg to differ. Time and memory have played a cruel trick on the Good Doctor.

Frost Lime was actually a bit more pleasant than the original fragrance, and had a crisp sweetness that only somewhat resembled actual citrus. I think what's really there is a super-sweet musk, which endures for a solid hour after application. I doused my hand ninety minutes ago and can still smell a faint muskiness. Oddly enough, the liquid stained my skin bright green. It's safe to say that owning and using vintage Frost Lime is pointless, unless you're looking for a Saint Patrick's Day substitute for face paint. Very nice, both of them, but users of today's aftershave should fret not and take comfort in knowing Combe preserved the fragrance quite well.


Orris (Tauer)

When I first smelled Orris, I immediately thought of Malle's Une Rose, a fungal vinyl-rose perfume known for stretching the traditional rose concept across a darker terrain. Lipstick Rose sits next to it for Malle fans who can't meet the challenge. Andy Tauer's composition (a special edition for his blog's readers) contains a similar spongy rose note, due to a preponderance of Bulgarian rose absolute, which smells at once wine-like and rubbery. Hints of damascenone add some red color, powdered over by an ethereal iris and lemongrass accord. It's like water under frozen reeds on a foggy morning.

The rubbery rose note soon evolves into an extremely direct leather, dominated by a massive dose of birch tar. Within an hour, Orris warms into a rich aura that transcends the typical perfumery narrative. Tauer's use of birch tar, cinnamon, and a thankfully agnostic incense blends into something that resembles sweaty, sun-parched skin, suggestive of how a native girl might smell after a dip in the local oasis. All the elements conspire to bring this natural and slightly fetid odor to the center, sandwiched between an intense rose/orris, and two types of natural sandalwood, Indian and Australian. As time passes, the resinous woody notes become more sandalwood-centric, burned by smoky vetiver and oud.

Orris peeks into a fantasy realm of Earthly delights, its imagery brushed with strokes of flowers, resins, tars, precious woods, and grasses on a rhetorical canvas of unwashed human skin. The skin seems unwashed, until you realize it might belong to someone who considers a skinny-dip in a mineral-rich lagoon the ideal cleanse. She bathes with her friends and soaks up some late afternoon rays on a sandalwood slat, before trekking home through fronds of vetiver and lemongrass, little pieces of plant material flecking her moist body along the way. I'd make love to that girl, but as there are no dirty natives around, I'll settle for wearing Orris, which is as good as the real thing, and just as hard to come by.


Noël au Balcon (Etat Libre d'Orange)

Somebody at Bond could learn something from Antoine Maisondieu's Noel au Balcon. My main problem with the Bonds I've tried is that they acquire a potpourri or Yankee Candle effect, which is the ultimate hex in niche. Despite the number of expensive aroma chemicals or talented noses you put behind it, a fragrance that resembles potpourri will defy the odds and smell cheap. Why? Because rarely does any one element stand out in potpourri. Its smell is usually quite spineless, a mere assemblage of abstractions, essences of woods and mashed florals converging into a bland miasma, a sort of featureless olfactory cloud. Yes, it may smell rather nice for five minutes, but eventually one of two things happens: your nose tunes it out, or you get a headache.

What distances this ELDO scent from that bad association is Maisondieu's balancing act between sugar and spice. The pyramids at Giza come to mind. They are built in two layers, granite and limestone. One is radioactive, and the other insulating. Together they form a mysterious machine. Maisondieu's electrical core is a super-aromatic clutch of patchouli, chili, labdanum, neroli, caraway, and cinnamon. Alone, these materials would likely go well together, but would "bind" into a formless odor of no distinction. The fresh sweetness of neroli, cinnamon, and labdanum would not rise above the vibrating patchouli, chili, and caraway, and the result would be formless energy.

But with an outer insulating layer of animalic sweetness and fresh fruit, suddenly NaB becomes a lovely fragrance. The natural skankiness of honey directs and contains the flow of the spices, while the bright juiciness of peach harnesses the florals. The result is something immediately gratifying and truly timeless, a technical triumph of perfumery. This brand tends to irritate me with their gimmicky and overly-synthetic fragrances, but wearing this one has been a pleasure.


Iris 39 (Le Labo)

Before I die, I will own a bottle of this. I remember my first wearing of Dior Homme quite well, applying it and thinking, "This is not how I want my iris to smell." Despite knowing what I didn't like, I had a hard time figuring out what could have been done differently. Was it too sweet? Too "fruity?" Too much labdanum? Not enough iris? Today I'm wearing Iris 39, and those questions are intersecting with something an acquaintance told me about it: "It's better on men." Sure enough, this is an iris composition that should knock Dior Homme off the shelf and smash it to bits. Once you experience it, you realize there's just no comparison.

It is simply beautiful. The top accord of ginger, civet, iris, and patchouli is even and penetrable, its balance perfect, its rafters of spice, skank, powder, and herbal earthiness second to none. Hailing from Firmenich, Frank Voelkl displays incredible skill in his work here, leading me to believe his relatively obscure portfolio is the only thing keeping him from being a household name. He is responsible for Zirh's Ikon, a somewhat well-known masculine of designer-grade quality that holds its own against better things, and hey look, he even sold a formula to Guerlain! Ultimately his work for Le Labo will be his calling card, and Iris 39 is not as easily overlooked.

What I love about it is how its arresting top notes sidle gently into a plush blend of super-powdery iris and discreetly-sweet violet, a seemingly interminable glow that becomes warmer, rosier, and even more expansive with time. It becomes obvious throughout the day that a pert lime peel note was also integrated to maintain lift, and keep the potentially dead-weight iris from dragging. There's true genius to be found here, but wearing this isn't a tiring intellectual meditation. It's just incredibly enjoyable, a sense of calming elegance that any self-confident man or woman can embody, if their minds and noses are open to it.


Yohji Homme (Yohji Yamamoto)

I suspect the ad above is for the re-release of Yohji Homme, but my review is for the original formula, which unfortunately is all I could get my hands on. It's unfortunate because time has worn away much of the scent, and I think I can only smell about a quarter of what used to be there. Those with the new version may not identify with the descriptions I give, so my apologies if this review confuses you. You're probably better off with the new version, as you are with most reissues and reformulations.

This fragrance gets a lot of hype, which of course started with Luca Turin. To read his review, one would think Yamamoto's fougère is a real "game-changer" in the fragrance industry, and incomprehensibly beautiful to behold. I'll agree with him that this fragrance is worth most of its hype, as it is unique and very well made, with thoughtful precision put into its peculiar and affecting arrangement of anise, lavender, geranium, carnation, coffee, and coumarin. As with fragrances like Cotton Club and Azzaro Pour Homme, I'm sure the box of Yohji lists ingredients like linalool and coumarin in succession. Oddly, it reminds me of the aforementioned scents. The coumarin shows up early and adopts a malted tone, while lavender and anise are hard to pair without conjuring Loris Azzaro's masterpiece.

For fans of coffee notes, Yohji delivers. The note is very lucid and a little burnt, but also very subtle and discreet. It never attempts to dominate the proceedings, like the one in A*Men does. That makes it a little more enjoyable than any other coffee note I've ever encountered in perfumery. Sadly, none of this lasts on my skin. Within thirty minutes the fragrance is overtaken by a lithe arrangement of musks, most of which I'm anosmic to. Either that, or their dosage is so meager that it would take a pint of this fragrance's base for anyone to smell it. For people crippled by chemical sensitivities who cannot smell lavender and coumarin notes, I recommend staying away from this fragrance (and Cotton Club and Azzaro PH, for that matter), but the rest of you should give it a shot.