Drakkar Essence (Guy Laroche)

I can see it now, the entire arc of Drakkar Essence's lifespan, encapsulated in the blink of an eye. This relatively mundane, shampoo-like designer offering is welcomed briefly by North American and European consumers, who find it competent enough to stand beside their bottles of Bleu de Chanel and Bvlgari Aqva, until it is all used up. Then the majority of first-time purchasers decide not to become second-time purchasers, and Laroche's sales figures for this product nosedive dramatically in the fourth quarter. There are some in the fragrance community who actually do like the stuff, and go to buy back-up bottles of it, mostly Guy Laroche completists whose girlfriends wear Fidji on special occasions, but when they get to the department store perfume counter, uh-oh, just kidding! Drakkar Essence is discontinued, sorry.

A couple months go by, and the threads on the online boards have by now lit up with some mild chatter about the scent's fleeting presence on the legit market of "authorized retailers" (in most cases, Macy's), and some wonder where they can still score a bottle at a reasonable price. That's when the grey market retailers on the internet catch wind of the scent's limited availability, and the hawks swoop in to buy up whatever stock remains. Those that are late to the party network on it non-stop until they have at least a few dozen bottles to sell. But of course, when these bottles are posted, their price has been increased forty, sixty, eighty percent. Then one hundred percent. Then two. Those who are actually familiar with how Drakkar Essence smells see the gouging and tell themselves, "You know, it was nice enough, but not worth these prices. Guess I'll have to pass on more Drakkar Essence." Oh to be a unicorn breeder . . .

But those who haven't smelled it yet and who have money to burn - real money to burn - pony up. They take one wearing of the stuff out on the town and decide they wasted their money, so they attempt to turn the loss around on Ebay and, just to sweeten the deal for themselves, jack their asking price about twenty percent higher than what they paid for it. The same hawkers that had a go at it the first time snatch up these second-round rejects, and the number of Drakkar Essences that sell on the Bay appear to be terrific, at exhorbitant prices. Two hundred and twenty-five bucks for three ounces? Sold. Of course, by this point the buyers are just people looking to resell at an even higher mark-up. Like many discontinued perfumes, the sales are between sellers, a fragrance trading hands. The sparse fan base for this fragrance dried up long ago. It's a stunningly mediocre and uninspired arrangement of synthetic mint, citrus, lavender, cheap woods, and white musk, little more than a shower gel at Walmart. But it's discontinued, and it's a successful brand name. You may never score another bottle of Drakkar Essence again. It must be worth a mortgage payment.

Having smelled it, I can save everyone the trouble: it isn't.


Revisiting "Silver" By Al-Rehab

In 1995, the house of Creed broke new ground by creating a perfume that defied classification. It was neither fern, nor oriental, nor chypre, nor cologne, nor aquatic, nor even a hybrid of any of those genres. It was simply a "fresh" fruity scent with strong whiffs of green tea, bitter berries, an odd, blatantly synthetic "ink" note, and clean musks, and its name was Silver Mountain Water.

Another thing SMW defied was gender branding. This isn't a big deal in the post CK One fragrance world however, and Creed considers it a unisex perfume. It's not even alone in Creed's unisex range, either - there's also Original Vetiver, Royal Water, Virgin Island Water, and a few others. Like RW however, SMW is unique in smelling strange and hard to describe. Because of its unusual note pyramid, and its remarkable combination of bitter and sweet, SMW is different enough to spawn a whole group of imitators. These include Hamptons by Bond no 9, Casamorati 1888 Mefisto by Xerjoff, and a little three dollar cheapie called Silver by Crown Perfumes/Al Rehab.

I've not tried the others, but I've owned a 6 ml roll-on of Silver for a couple years now, and used exactly a third of it, I think mostly to testing (I've worn it as my SOTD two or three times). My primary issue with it is that it's ungodly strong and difficult to apply. I actually put the roller on a shelf in the sun in the hope that time and light would degrade it a bit, and recently returned to find it has indeed grown weaker, but not by much. Out of curiosity I spent eight bucks on 43 ml of the stuff in atomizer EDP form, both a travel sprayer and a one ounce bottle. I was interested in finding out if the spray smells different than the oil.

The answer is most definitely "yes."

The oil to me smells much more like SMW than the spray does. Maybe it's the concentrated nature of it, but I get a firmer top accord of citrus, blackcurrant, and metallic "fresh" from the oil, whereas the atomizer is mostly alcohol in the first three seconds, then an overbearing, olfactory fatiguing citrus, and a paler, "inkier" berry note, all infused with an odd, musty smelling musk. The spray is more muted, overall. The biggest divergence is in concentration, with the spray seeming more diffuse and even a bit powdery, while the oil is sharper. I get three hours of noticeable sillage from the spray, before the scent becomes much, much tamer.

What strikes me most about the spray is that it resembles Royal Water more than SMW to me. If you asked me to identify what this scent is a clone of in a blind test, I would sooner guess RW after smelling the spray version. Its bitter, musty, herbal, and powdery characteristics are better aligned to RW's strangely hissy citrus, basil, and juniper berry blend than SMW's brighter tea and currant accord. Royal Water is also incredibly gender neutral, and in some ways I think it should have been called Silver Mountain Water instead of something as tacky as "Royal" Water. It actually smells like silver right out of the atomizer, and continues to smell bitter and a little dirty for hours. Its juniper manifests as a distinctly sweet(ish) purpley note, much like Silver's atomized currant note, but it's not nearly as sugary. All told, despite what might seem like drawbacks to fans of the oil, I like the faded aspect of the Royal Watery Silver better than the roll on by a considerable margin. Maybe I'm just biased against oil.

I definitely wouldn't classify the spray as a viable replacement for SMW, but the oil could easily do the trick if applied judiciously in hot weather. The spray replaces Royal Water though, obviously. The thing that merges all of these fragrances is an acutely synthetic vibe. None of these frags smell even remotely like anything in nature. SMW has that metallic tang to it, and Royal Water has its own metallic note, and a distinctly "perfumey" aura that Silver's spray mimics well. Whenever I consider buying a bottle of RW, the thing that holds me back is its perfumey feel. I'm not sure I want to wear a Creed that smells generically like unisex, somewhat feminine perfume. Doesn't that defeat the purpose of owning a Creed?

But then I smelled Silver again, and realized that the unisex gender-bending potential outweighs that con. There's something fascinating to me about a smell that seems masculine in some ways, and overtly feminine in others. Luckily I don't have to drop a Benjamin on a Creed to attain that level of sophistication (if you could call it that) - all I have to do is wear Silver. It should keep people guessing just as effectively.


Cuir de Russie (Creed Private Collection)

Leave it to Creed to create a dry Russian leather perfume that smells just as fresh and sparkly-clean as Acqua di Gio. When I think of leather, I think of animalic, dusky, dark notes, dusty accords found in old-school classics like English Leather and the original Chaps. What doesn't typically enter my imagination is the idea of "freshness." For fresh, people don't buy bottles labeled "leather." They usually go for those pale blue things with breezy names that every guy and his cousin wears. So it was very surprising to find that Creed put such a concentrated effort into making their own classic leather smell of salty ambergris and sea spray, evocative of a sailor in a leather coat, and the smell of his garment after many hours exposed to rough weather. Not what I was expecting at all.

I consider this fragrance to be styrax heaven, its gloriously smooth, understated animal hide constructed with additional notes of bergamot, pine, neroli, and birch, most of which are evident in the first hour of wear before melding into an inseparable slating of salty dryness. The Russian incense analogies elicited by the heavy use of natural benzoin resins are taken out of church and into the wild, thanks to ambergris and salt notes, yet Cuir de Russie isn't a fragrance I would reach for before a sailing trip or a walk on the beach. While its references to wind and waves are obvious, its woody green notes are very starched and conservative, and the composition reads as a brisk formal scent for uptown dinner parties and executive board meetings. It's fresh, yes, but also quite serious.

Nevertheless, like the aforementioned Armani bestseller, CdR is easy to wear, loud enough to be over-applied, and not entirely "natural" in tone or effect. This is a postmodern leather. Its unisex appeal, quality craftsmanship, and enduring reputation as one of the better Russian leathers to hit the niche market make it worth seeking out if you're a fan of this sort of thing. I was never much for leathers (I'd sooner wear something with strong tobacco in it), but if I were to spot a flacon of this perfume in a store somewhere, I would inquire about it. It's good enough to spend a few hundred dollars on, that's for sure.


Ca' Luna (Acqua di Biella)

When Jim Gehr sent me his perfumes, he also sent me a slew of samples from his extensive catalog of raw materials and synthetics. This has been helpful in familiarizing myself with the intricacies of his work, and the works of others. Above is a snapshot of just some of the materials, which include champaca CO2, cistus labdanum EO, orris root CO2, Omani frankincense resin, jasmine CO2 (one of my favorites), wild Somalian frankincense resin, Palo Santo EO (Bursera Graveolens/heartwood), artemisia EO, civet, Mysore sandalwood EO, Mysore sandalwood SCO2, and New Caledonian sandalwood EO. There were also a handful of synthetics, including alpha isomethyl ionone, bois ambrene, synthetic agar, cis-3 hexenol, coumarin, "Timbersilk," a type of Iso E Super, and a few other marvelous things. My education in understanding these materials has been, put simply, a lot of fun.

The Italian firm of Acqua di Biella is one of those obscure European niche-makers that comes to America pre-prepared with a long, drawn-out history lesson, detailing through decades of narrative how something like Ca' Luna came to pass. Unlike Creed and Penhaligon's, there aren't any palaces of the Legion of Honor, archaic royal courts, or bloody world wars in their story, but rather a typically Italian portrayal of tradition being passed down from nose to nose. After reading its note pyramid, I expected this scent to be exotic, complex, perhaps hard to wear. I wondered if my being of Italian descent would make it a must-have, regardless of its pedigree. I ended up a bit stumped.

All the recognition of notes and accords and quality of oils used could not prepare me for this ghostly, waif-like bastard child of Green Irish Tweed and Fahrenheit, a meager quibbling of post IFRA violet ionones, bare leaf alcohols, and synthetic sandalwood chemicals. The Fragrantica pyramid lists ivy, galbanum, and elemi resins as the top three notes, but I just smell alpha isomethyl ionone, cis-3 hexenol, and whatever clever synthetic sandalwood reconstruction was used in Cotton Club by Jeanne Arthes. Having recently enjoyed Jim's Black Antlers, Pandit, and Nature Boy, I unconsciously developed a gold standard for expensive niche, and a Mendoza line (the line was forged after smelling Guess for Men a couple years ago).

I'm of two minds with this scent. On the one hand, I dislike its synthetic simplicity. For a dollar a milliliter, this stuff should be using a whole variety of 10 carbon alcohols, rich coumarin, octyn esters, and real sandalwood EO. This would make it a smooth woody masculine from the late eighties/early nineties mold, and something I could possibly love. But on the other hand, its sparseness is easy on the nose, and seems to create a subliminal message for the wearer, heard sporadically throughout his day. Its quiet tones make it a pleasantly fresh little thing that wafts up gently through a shirt collar, to remind the wearer that a fragrance is being worn, without ever overpowering anyone at the table.

If you're wealthy enough to afford a bottle of Acqua di Biella, and you buy and wear it on regular occasions, you're the sort of person who doesn't mind splurging on an "after-shower scent" that simply connotes cleanness and good grooming, without getting into the personality of a full-bore perfume. You're probably in your mid thirties or early forties, just old enough to remember Dior's Fahrenheit when it was new, and appreciate that kind of line-cutting individualism, that starkly modern masculinity that embraces sweet floral tones and throws caution to the wind. Yet you prefer to be seen and not smelled. So you wear Ca' Luna, and everyone assumes you're a regular man's man, simply because you smell of almost nothing at all.


Vettiveru (Comme des Garçons, Series 4)

I have a niggling, nagging, persistent issue with high-end vetiver fragrances. Most that I've encountered take the "traditional" road by rendering the note in a crisply rooty, papery manner. They tend to ensconce vetiver's dry linearity in a familiar variant of fresh, citrusy/soapy accords with subtle hints of kitchen spice. That's all fine and well, but quality of materials notwithstanding, it's a style culled directly from Guerlain Vetiver, the gold standard for all things vetiver. Sure, I can get a little extra dazzle out of Malle's Vetiver Extraordinaire, and a heap of additional quality and complexity from Garner James' Nature Boy, but if I want a straight-up old-school vetiver, Guerlain's is nearly impossible to top, and Encre Noire has the market cornered for a good contemporary alternative. Guerlain and Lalique offer the added benefit of being about twenty dollars an ounce without smelling cheap, which is also nice.

My general personal preference is to be engaged by more than two demure notes, but to also limit the unpredictably changeable excitement of complex compositions by finding scents that inhabit a suitably interesting-but-comfortable middle ground. Vettiveru is too conservative for my taste, with a linear drydown that only lasts about ninety minutes before becoming a skin scent. At its price point, it's a tough sell for me. The bright citrusy top is fizzy, fresh, and five minutes later it's gone, the vetiver note having arrived to steal the show. It's a basic, dry, papery vetiver, not significantly different from Guerlain's. So I ask myself, for this sort of thing, why not just wear Guerlain Vetiver? 

In fairness, Comme des Garçons went ahead and switched up the accompanying accord, inserting a very good combo of black pepper and clove where Guerlain has tobacco and musk. It's not enough, really. In the end, the tobacco works better. This is labeled a cologne, so I guess I can't get too worked up over the poor longevity, but I don't see myself buying a bottle.


Manoumalia (LesNez)

In the film Manon 70, Sami Frey, innocently shaving at the bathroom mirror, stumbles into a classic bedpost notch argument with his passive-aggressive lover, played by a lovely Parisian woman with sad eyes, who happens to be taking a bath. In an American film, this battle of the sexes trope would lead to a full score of strained, sarcastic dialogue before collapsing into tired Disneyland kissing, with just enough bare shoulders and soap suds to warrant a PG-13 rating. In a bid to appeal to adults and gain the coveted R rating, the director would ask one of the actors to say "fuck" at strategic intervals that would render the editor helpless. People arguing in a bathroom? The F word? Kissing and the unseen implication of sex in a tub? The only thing that could make us feel even smarter would be for Jim Jarmusch to direct and film the whole thing in faux 16 mm black and white, with the requisite faux graininess intact.

The French have a different view of sophistication. Instead of boring sarcastic witlessness and Hallmark card smoochies, why not have the argument between the two become curt and raw? Why not have the heroine act slighted and angry at Mr. Frey, which would naturally make her irresistible, and draw him to her like a bug to a bulb? Then, just when the idiots across the pond would cue the fake consensual romance, why not shoot a rape scene? Have Mr. Frey push and pry against her resistant body until the sheer pressure of ceramic against flesh forces the helpless woman to submit? Stateside, this would have the ratings board condemning the picture with a triple-X label, to be viewed by perverts only. Perhaps in the hands of a less talented French writer, such a scene would falter in Europe also, but not in Manon 70. When the subtly violent sexual encounter is finished, Deneuve glows in a halo of intense satisfaction and says, "Swear I'm the first woman you've ever raped." End scene.

Manoumalia is basically the olfactory equivalent of such a scene. Its indulgent ylang-ylang explosion is decadent but focused, shrewdly upheld by a gaggle of quieter white floral tones after Anaïs Anaïs by Cacharel. For perhaps two hours, LesNez's perfume seems like a one-trick pony, a gorgeously tired trick, the sweet white soliflore. As the day progresses, the nuances play out, and the complexity of the structure reveals itself, rife with cinnamon, peppery spice, vetiver, sandalwood, lily, and musk. Anaïs Anaïs is perhaps the more American of the two, very direct, sweet, and clean to a fault, but Manoumalia aggresses, overtaking the senses with a rich headiness before tapering down to a resilient sigh. The late Sandrine Videault was a beautiful, charismatic woman, very much a talent of the world, and much like those unforgettable French flicks of yesteryear, her work here haunts imagination and memory.