10/1/22

Polo Earth? A Quick Thought on the Natural Perfumery Trend



Recently I read an article by Ítalo Pereira, in which he discusses the differences between "synthetic" and "natural" perfumes. Synthetic perfumery boils down to two things: formula stability and olfactory clarity. Natural perfumery boils down to one thing: murky instability. 

I've noticed the recent trend of natural perfumes hitting the market over the last two years, and find myself wondering what's behind the commercial push to "natural." It's clear that natural perfumery is a thing, but how much of it is tied to a cause? I happen to like the idea of my fragrances containing more natural materials, because "natural" has positive connotations. Want a neroli fragrance? Which would you prefer, the one that contains synthetics, or the one made with real neroli distillate? The latter is obviously preferable!

But what if a fragrance is more complex than that? What if we're smelling a composition with several tiers of floral materials, blended with woods and spices? Is it beneficial to go all-natural? As Pereira points out, not really. Synthetics are usually isolates of molecules that occur in nature. If you want a rich sandalwood note, you must examine what molecular components of sandalwood smell good, and which smell interesting, but not exactly desirable. It is then beneficial to separate out the best components, study their molecular structure, and convene in a lab to replicate them. 

The pushback against Pereira's article is notable. The comments are pretty rigidly on the side of "natural is better." But I notice that most of the commenters are posturing. They claim to be capable of discerning the differences between synthetic and natural materials, but can they? One person says, 
"I just don't like synthetic notes. I find they flatten the scent, make it dull and sort of 'expired,' meaning a weak, plasticky vibe . . . Naturals give depth, sillage, and staying power. Synthetics smell kinda trashy and not refined to me."

The opinion is written as if its author can actually smell the differences between these two worlds, but I have my doubts, as no specifics are offered. The same person reviews Bvlgari Jasmin Noir, which is clearly a synthetic fragrance, with the following:

"Very elegant and sophisticated. Smells expensive. It has character and depth which is captivating. Perfect for a gala or late night event." 

This individual also fawns over Dior's Hypnotic Poison. So clearly the whole "natural is better" schtick is just baloney. But there were many reviewers with similar hypocritical stances, by parsing their comments and reviews. Why is the public's perception of "natural" materials so biased, when they clearly prefer synthetics? What drives this overwhelming urge to ditch the lab and just use rough distillates and extractions, with all their un-sanded edges and off-notes? 

Polo Earth is probably the kind of product that gives this demand a voice. It's not really a fully natural product, and it's produced by a major conglomerate superpower with scads of synthetic frags in its portfolio. But it looks mighty chaste! Its simple, clear bottle. Its simple, clear name. The reliance on some degree of natural neroli oil, which gives it street cred. But if I buy it and wear it, am I making a statement, or just indulging in a chemically minimalist experiment? 

I tend to think I'm just being a tool. Regular Polo has been popular for almost fifty years, and never once has anyone asked that it be reformulated to be one-hundred percent natural. A "natural" flanker popping up in 2022 isn't going to change my view of Ralph Lauren, or its legacy. It shouldn't change yours, either.  

9/13/22

Does Aramis Have a Future?




In a recent Fragantica article by Eddie Bulliqi, he questions in pointed language whether the original masculine Aramis scent will be discontinued, and says,
"Aramis is not a 'believable' scent in the sense of evoking the personality or character of real people. It doesn't aim at verity or verisimilitude, neither in the presentation of its materials nor its subject matter. What you get instead is the pomp, drama, and theatre of olfactory allegory, in which the symbolic man of supreme might and unparalleled competence is represented by austere, almost aggressive component parts that convey harshness, aloofness, vitality, force, standoffishness, almost danger. 2020s perfumery, by contrast, can largely be thought of under the larger umbrella of the inviting and candour with its main branches of the delectable (sugary, edible), safe (clean, citrus), comfortable (musks, creams), and natural (green, field-fresh)."

I noticed a bit of sarcasm in his description of the "symbolic man" with terms like "supreme might" and "unparalleled competence," and that he ascribes negative traits to the scent itself, things like "harshness" and "aloofness." Positive traits like "vitality" are buttressed by negatives like "force" and "standoffishness," and he even takes "danger," the one thing that is often sexually exciting, and neuters it with "almost danger." According to Eddie, who sounds like he harbors some "almost danger" himself, Aramis tries to be exciting, but doesn't quite make it.  

His pairing of Lauder's scent to American Westerns, which he says (in an over-generalization) suffer from "stilted dialogue and farcical action," suggests his bias against Hollywood's romanticization of the West also feeds his opinion of the saddle-soap and chapped-leather scent by Estée Lauder, which is a bizarre comparison. He never mentions that Aramis was named after one of the heroes in The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, and conspicuously excludes any reference to how the fragrance's leathery nature alludes to the swashbuckling and horseback-riding done by Aramis in those novels. That would pin the origins and appeal of Lauder's concept for the fragrance on something European, and we can't have that! Better to shift the focus to twentieth century Westerns, which have nothing to do with the Aramis name. 

It seems the author decided to test the waters and see how far he could push the idea that a classic masculine chypre should go extinct for the great sins of being classic and masculine. One could argue that it's a legitimate viewpoint, and if it had been posed with less obvious disdain, I would entertain it on its merits. But Aramis exists because men still buy it. Perhaps some day it will be discontinued, as all things are eventually, but many of the feminines in the same cast have been dc'd for many years now. The extinctions of global trends always follow their own lines of capitalistic reasoning, and invariably boil down to dollars and cents. Brands yield only to their bean-counters. 

Aramis will, in my estimation, continue to enjoy production for at least a few more years, and will likely survive on the market even if it's discontinued, much like Zino does (dc'd for twenty years, and still dirt cheap and readily available). Leather scents, dry citrus chypres, and any combination of those genres has always harbored fans and detractors, and I see the argument that they're somewhat timeless in style -- maybe dated, but not out-dated. Sure, when I smell Aramis, it conjures up images of Alain Delon (must be the Western thing) and sixties malaise, but then again I generate olfactory parallels with traditional riding materials, leather saddles, oils and soaps, and the weirdly dirty-clean world of those in the distant past who used only horses for transportation. Time only outdates itself as far back as yesterday, not the day before. 

Aramis is a product of its time, first and foremost, and the sixties in America was a period in the country's history when the gender roles of men and women were under new strain, thanks in part to the invention of the birth control pill. In a push against any cultural perception of unseated male virility, companies like Lauder catered to the Alphas in the pack. So rather than ask, "Will Aramis Be Discontinued," the author might instead pose the question, "Will Classic Masculines Be Discontinued?" I have no problem with that question, phrased honestly. Just be straight about asking it. 

8/27/22

Cabochard Eau de Toilette (Grès)



Few fragrances have endured more criticism than Bernard Chant's Cabochard (1959). It's a midcentury animalic chypre that has seen sixty-three years of shifting social values and cultural norms, yet it remains on shelves. In my opinion, it still smells good. 

Cabochard sits somewhere between Balmain's Jolie Madame (1953) and Guerlain's Chant d'Arômes (1962), but it's most compared to Chant's own Aramis for Men (1966). What do I think it smells like? To me it resembles Jacomo's 1978 feminine, Silences, a super-green floral chypre, but mixed with a hefty splash of Aramis. Silences is largely forgotten, which surprises me because there aren't many perfumes that are greener or eerier. It's evocative of a foggy lakeside morning in April, full of green tall grasses, mosses, and bittersweet wildflowers poking through the verdant murk. Cabochard is suprisingly green and ever-so-slightly more floral, but it's brightened with a massive bergamot, lime rind, and lemon juice accord brushed with Chant's signature fizzy aldehydes. It's nice stuff, and in keeping with the unofficial tradition of old-school feminines, it's eminently wearable for men. 

Has reformulation ruined it? Well, I haven't smelled the original (few people have), but I find little fault with this bowtie EDT version that I'm reviewing. Sure, longevity is brief (five hours), and it's no longer de rigueur to wear it, but it smells like it was made in 1959, and that's good enough for me. Look for either the EDT or the EDP. 

8/9/22

Introducing My New Blog!

Photo as taken by DRs Kulturarvsprojekt


In the past few months I've been tackling a project concerning what is truly my first love in this world, movies! I would like to introduce my new blog of movie reviews, Fontaine's Film Wipe, link here. I fully intend to maintain both blogs in the years to come. Spread the word: I also review movies now, both new and old. 


8/3/22

Deauville pour Homme (Michel Germain)


Deauville pour Homme is one of those inexpensive fragrances I've seen a million times on discount shelves, and never thought to buy because it just seemed too cheap to bother with. But the fragrance has seen a revival in popularity in the last few years, due in no small part to The Scented Devil's review, which is an interesting essay on the historical context of Michel Germain's 1999 masculine release. People have come around to DpH, and I join them in finding it to be a sleeper hit. Customers must be buying it in fair numbers for it to remain in production, with exclusive flankers, twenty three years on.

This fragrance is a remarkably beautiful composition for appreciators of powdery-soapy barbershop masculines in the Le 3ème Homme and Chanel Pour Monsieur Concentrée tradition, i.e., dandified floral fougères with orientalist touches. Its brisk lavender and clementine citrus salvo greets the nose in a rush of astringent freshness, tempered by a warmer undercurrent of sage, nutmeg, and cinnamon on the outermost fringes of perceptibility. These notes coalesce around a thyme-like creaminess that gradually gets airier and grayer, until the overall aura emits an abstraction of iris and tobacco, with the sweeter accents of the latter elevating the somber propensities of the former. Lavender survives the opening melee, as it is wont to do in compositions built on fougère accords, and retains a peripheral presence into the far dry-down, as hints of coumarinic duskiness undergird the scent's iris heart. It's all very smooth and easy to read. Deauville never feels abrasive or synthetic, and keeps its expensive shaving foam feel through to the woody-tobacco and talc base five hours down the line.

While I largely agree with SD's review, I diverge a bit in my perception of Deauville's pedigree relative to its competition in the designer realm: I don't find it to be "entry-level" in the least. Quality of materials is as high as those in my Carons, and while the composition is simple, it's just as deft as anything I've smelled by Jacques or Olivier Polge (and better than something like Platinum Égoïste), while the durability of the scent over a day's wear is admirable, with nothing "fuzzing out" into vanilla-crème cliché. I don't find the use of synthetics objectionable if they manage a coherent message. The one Deauville sends says, "I'm a clean-shaven man, and I'm ready to get to work." 


8/1/22

Hummer (Formerly Riviera Concepts, now by AB Diversified Fragrances)





I bought Hummer on the basis of Luca Turin's review in The Guide. He gave it three stars and wrote it's "not bad," and "the random gods of perfumery struck again." He describes it as "a sweet woody lavender," which is exactly what it smells like to me. This is one of the simplest fragrances I've smelled in a while, composed of three discernible notes: lavender, sweet amber, and oakmoss. The amber smells like an extension of the caramellic-grade lavender being used here, and takes the toasted biscuit end of the herb into a sugary direction, without straying into gourmand territory. Whatever moss is in the mix (real or synthetic) gives it a powdery and woody dry-down. 

The most surprising thing about Hummer is how classy it smells. The lavender is reasonably natural, although it's obviously bolstered with synthetics. It isn't loud at all, and wavers in and out of perceptibility, with moments where I smell it on the exhale after failing to detect it on my skin. There's no sclarene or other amplifiers involved. The note is soft, dry, rounded, and warm. Its sweetness gives it a Skin Bracer and Brut-like feel, and overall I associate the profile of Hummer with "barbershop." The nearest thing to it in my collection is Ungaro pour L'Homme II. Avon Tribute is in the same neighborhood, as is Jovan Sex Appeal. They're all more complicated, however. Hummer is far more basic, but this makes it more appealing to me. Good lavender scents are hard to find. 

7/22/22

What Does a 280 Year-Old Book Smell Like?




One of my
great passions is antiquing. I enjoy finding new shops and poking around forgotten treasures in search of that one thing that is actually worth something, and genuinely "antique" (100+ yrs old). 

Last Sunday I was at a massive indoor market in Bridgeport, and happened across a bookseller's stall, way in the back. It was manned by a middle-aged British woman but stocked by a guy who was likely enjoying his weekend on a yacht somewhere. I scanned the shelves quickly, my eyes programmed to find one thing: calfskin binding. They had a hit in under a minute, but it proved to be a nineteenth-century book, which is a big thumbs-down for me. Nineteenth century books, though real antiques, aren't old enough. I kept scanning, scanning, and ten seconds later, hit number two. This one was entirely calfskin, not just a partial with bare boards like its Victorian neighbor, and I knew as soon as I pulled it that I'd hit the jackpot. The Brit didn't know how to read Roman numerals (a little weird), and when she called the owner, he didn't know what she was talking about, and just threw a generic $100 price tag on it. Sold!

The book is an original Dublin edition of Jonathan Swift's letters to the people of Ireland, compiled by George Faulkner in 1742 (several letters in the book are separately dated as having been published a year earlier.) It contains his famous protest against William Wood's copper half-pence, penned under the pseudonym, M.B. Drapier. Faulkner was a friend of Swift's, and had several editions of his letters published over the course of the eighteenth century, but few are as ornate as mine, which is full of intricate wood cuts of bucolic scenes gracing the chapter pages. Although the title is worn off the spine, the condition of the binding and pages is otherwise flawless. Holding the book, it almost feels like it's brand new, which is bizarre, given its age. The only things suggestive of antiquity are the shape of its spine and the light scuffing of its leather. Someone told me it might have been recently rebound, but its front cover has a library stamp bearing the name and family crest of Jonathan Lovett, Esq., of Liscombe Park, Buckinghamshire. It was in his collection, and still bears his crest -- and he died in 1770!

Aside from its condition, the thing I love most about the book is its smell. Its calfskin cover is gamey and a little sweet, its note of barnyard mixed with something like dry leather, and its laid-paper pages are so musty that I catch whiffs without even opening them. Part them ever so slightly and rest your nose in the valley, and it's just heavenly old paper and woodblock ink, an aroma that I doubt could be replicated in a lab. The unique smell of an eighteenth century book is one that predates the Industrial Revolution, and conjures images of men in small shops with panel after panel of woodcuts, and with letters shuffling everywhere as they align text by hand. My 1792 edition of Hugh Blair's sermons, which was published in America (different spine and binding technique) looks its age, but smells equally good, save for the chemical leather glue the idiot that sold it to me used in a rushed patch-up job. These books smell of the sands of time, and it takes a seasoned nose to appreciate that. To many folks they probably just smell of mold.

My aspiration is to find a seventeenth or sixteenth century book for a reasonable price. Once you pass the 300 year point, it gets significantly harder to find quality. Most of the books that predate 1701 are in rough shape, with loose pages, loose and detached cover boards, and god knows what going on in their spines. Ebay is a surprisingly good place to look, with a few obvious counterfeits here and there, but also a significant number of real articles in varying states of decay. Schilb Antiquarian is another (much pricier) place to browse. If and when I get lucky, I'll keep you all informed.

7/21/22

Nicole Miller for Men (Nicole Miller)

There are a few versions of this fragrance floating around out there. That's the bad news. The good news is that people generally feel the same way about all of them. The funny news is that nobody feels any iteration of Nicole Miller for Men is any great shakes. 

My bottle is a four-ouncer I grabbed at Burlington for ten dollars, and at that price I don't expect much. Released in 1994, NMfM has been through at least five formulas, from the original (presumably under Miller's brand), to Riviera Concepts, to Parlux, to Luxury Brands, to the bottle I have by Sheralven Enterprises, distributed by Kobra International. Naturally everyone calls Sheralven's version junk, which would mean something if you ignore the reviews of the last thirteen years.

People have been complaining about this one as far back as 2009, claiming its longevity stinks and its notes collapse into a cheap blur. I think going back that far takes you to the Parlux formula, and complicating matters further, it was manufactured in both the USA and Canada. The USA version gets lambasted, while the Canadian stuff is praised. This all falls in line with expectations of how old (and relatively outdated) "vintage" masculines should be discussed in the wider fragcomm. 

Anyway, my bottle is brand new, and how does it smell? It's surprisingly good. I get a sharp burst of honeyed red apple in the top note, which quickly mellows into a highly-blended woody-amber, through which are bits of dry lavender and wood notes, vaguely similar to sandalwood and very stale pine. There's a hint of sweetness, which I guess is the vanilla note, but I get the familiar hay-like buzz of coumarin in there as well. 

It smells like a fruity "fougeriental," graced with a deceptively simple structure: a lucid apple note on top, a basic and very dry woody-amber with a subtle lavender anchor, and a musky/woody foundation. I get whiffs of a pleasant, woody-sweet base a couple hours after application, so I'm happy. It reminds me most of Cigarillo by Remy Latour, although that one is richer and noticeably better. Still, I've encountered pricier frags that are less agreeable than this.  

Nicole Miller's signature masculine was released at a time when trends for the men's market were shifting away from the eighties tradition of woody orientals, but it smells like a holdover from that era. Sniff it, and be instantly transported back to a decade when people still used rotary phones and lunched at Sbarro. 

7/1/22

Wildbloom Vert (Banana Republic)

Some "green" fragrances evoke another color, something like flamingo pink, or a cross between an equally flamboyant pink and chartreuse. Wildbloom Vert's packaging suggests the fragrance is a bitter-green wildflower affair, when in fact it's a very fruity shampoo floral with a couple of juicy, borderline gourmand notes, and a handful of soapy pink floral whatever-ness. Given this, you'd think I'd be pretty "meh" about it. Not so: I like it.

Wildbloom Vert is the second flanker of the original Wildbloom, and was released in 2012, a year after the debut. I haven't smelled the other Wildblooms, but assume they're all a variation on this pedestrian theme of artificial froot-flavor notes. This fragrance reminds me of Cabotine, almost as if that scent were updated, and is almost a pass, yet for some reason its crisp delicious red apple note and the whole rosy bushel of chemical nonsense under it wins me over. The sweetness of the apple, which is mated to a massive pear note, and with a bow of vaguely green sappy notes around them, just feels happy and approachable. It's by far the least impressive Banana Republic fragrance I've encountered, but it still hits the mark it aims for and smells comfortably familiar and forgettable.

That said, this is a feminine I'm not inclined to wear. If I want pink and grey floral tones, I can wear Peony & Peppercorn or Chelsea Flowers. Those are a bit more focused on the floral, and less so on the fruit. But consider this the perfect gift perfume, something so mainstream and attractive that few women would reject it, and most would probably enjoy it and seek out more bottles. There's plenty of room in the world for challenging frags, but likable fruity-florals like this one have their place, too.

6/22/22

Cool Water Sea Rose (Davidoff)


Davidoff is a quality brand with several masterpieces under its belt, many of which are on the masculine side of the aisle. Most of their feminine offerings are simply not as good. Cool Water Woman was a tepid fruity-floral that was amiable enough in 1996, but now smells a little cheap and flat. That it garnered many flankers is unsurprising, but Sea Rose (2013) is arguably the most banal of them all. 

It smells rather like the original CWW in the first minute, an overexposed and very shrill accord of sour citrus and super-synth pear, which is blended into the familiar "aqua" notes of Calone-like nineties molecules that no longer interest people. Think of any shampoo. It takes about five minutes for the off-notes to dissipate, and then the fruitiness resolves into something akin to rosy peony. Frankly, I find it a bit weak, dry, and nondescript, like a unisex sport fragrance. But heck, the pink packaging is as girly as it gets. 

At the eight hour mark the floral element vanishes, and all that remains is a laundry musk that leaves your shirt and skin smelling clean. So, yeah . . . boring. I can appreciate what Aurelien Guichard was going for here, and imagine his perfumery brief had a very limited budget. But Sea Rose is the olfactory equivalent of an airplane movie: mindlessly amusing, forgotten immediately upon landing.  

6/16/22

Metal Rain (Banana Republic)


Banana Republic will go down in history in ten or twenty years as being the last great designer perfume house, thanks to its Icon Collection. So far everything I've smelled from the line has been terrific. Metal Rain, an elusive fragrance retail-wise, is no exception. 

Many liken it to Silver Mountain Water, but it's closer to Millésime Imperial. Metal Rain reminds me of Club de Nuit Milestone. It uses Symrise's highly diffusive Ambrocenide, a sister chem to Ambermax, also comparable to Firmenich's potent and ambery Norlimbanol, and it emits a fruity-melon vibe paired with a woody-violet thing, like a "lite" version of GIT, only it's damper, darker, wetter. It's a kaleidoscope of muted pinks, purples, and greys on an overcast day. Its stark drydown makes me wonder if some perfumes are designed by men, for men, to appeal to men, and not appeal to women. Food for thought.

However, in keeping with the SMW tradition, much of the emphasis is on a tea and (pissy) currant accord which is deceptively difficult to do right, though Banana Republic manages it by dint of having good materials. Where other clones get fixated on sweet berry, Metal Rain is more nuanced, and all the better for it. The nose behind it is a mystery, but whoever it was did a great job. Now, if only I could find Grassland . . . 

6/7/22

Palo Santo (Cremo)


In 2022 it has become clear that spending hundreds on niche fragrances is passé. It's not that the quality isn't there, because it is. It's that you can get close to the same level of quality at a fraction of the price, and the general public won't notice or care about the cost differences. If you poke around you can find a $25 EDT that closely resembles a $200 EDP, and is actually easier to use and more desirable for being so inexpensive. Such is the case with Palo Santo by Cremo, the brand's dupe of Le Labo's Santal 33.

With a brand like Cremo, which targets the men's drugstore shaving and grooming demographic, one expects a middle-ground standard to be met. Their stuff should smell good enough, but there isn't a high expectation that the grade will transcend your premium shampoo with its material quality or longevity. I'm not predisposed to liking anything Cremo has to offer; a few years ago I tried one of their shaving creams and found it to be the most obnoxious chemical goop I've ever had the displeasure of using. Not only did it do a poor job on skin, but it also clogged my sink. It was with trepidation that I tried Palo Santo, which is currently the only Cremo EDT on sale at my local Walgreens. I am pleasantly surprised by it, as it's a decidedly worthy "niche alternative."

Cremo was smart in making Palo Santo. Instead of resorting to a more mainstream precious wood like sandalwood or guaiac, they opted for the lesser known holt of the South American Bursera graveolens tree. It's harvested from naturally-felled branches, often used as incense and in witch doctor remedies, and smells like a cross between Australian sandalwood and most varieties of North American pine. It possesses a distinct lemony-piney quality, but also has an underlying smoothness. By centering the scent on this complex woodiness, Cremo was able to take two excellent halves and conjoin them into something genuinely pleasant and easy to wear. There's the crisp-woody astringency of papyrus, the brightness of lemon juice, and a surprisingly lucid traditional vetiver accord in the first minute of wear, reminiscent of Guerlain Vetiver. Very good indeed.

The vetiver hangs around for at least thirty minutes before opening up and becoming much more expansive, with accents of pine, sandalwood, and eventually palo santo wood, albeit in a hushed tone in concert with the rest. Eventually the fragrance adopts a creamy quality, and a subtle gardenia note is detectable in the far dry-down. Palo Santo smells surprisingly natural for something at this price point, and its vivid nature bears five hours before tapering off into a light skin scent (budget constraints were mercifully limited to concentration, not composition). Classy stuff, and perfect for summertime.

6/1/22

Qaa'ed (Lattafa)

The funny thing about frags from the UAE is that there's usually a Western connection to their more popular stuff. They seem fond of copying and spinning off successful designer fragrances from Europe and America, which makes it difficult to distinguish the quality offerings from the drone clone crowd. In the case of Qaa'ed, the dilemma is especially ironic: this is ostensibly a clone of a clone, a variant of Icon Absolute, which is a variant of Oud Wood. Fortunately I'm not familiar with either of those two, and can interpret Lattafa's scent through my own lens. (It's possible Lattafa merely copied Dunhill's packaging.)

Qaa'ed is one of the best gourmands I've ever smelled. This is a sweet spiced oriental, but it's extremely well made, and I can't find anything wrong with it. It's known for its heavy reliance on cardamom, and indeed there's a buttload of natural cardamom in the top and early drydown, but to me the prominent note right out of the gate is vanilla - thick, rich vanilla. Hovering over it are soft layers of cinnamon, saffron, and sandalwood, but I also get a clear frankincense note and Catholic church vibes, which tempers the sweetness and imbues Qaa'ed with a mystical feel. The blend of incense and charred vanilla creates an olfactory illusion of a strange fruity flavor, almost like nag champa bubblegum, an effect most noticeable in high heat. It would all be too much for me if it weren't so well composed. Note separation is pristine, yet everything coalesces into a silky-smooth and carefully balanced accord. It's skillfully done, there's no arguing that. 

Eventually, at around the four hour mark, the smoky candy shop vanilla with its edge of burnt caramel overtakes the spices, and the far drydown is an aromatic vanilla experience that feels timeless and exotic. Echoes of cardamom and incense hang in the background, reminders of the beauty that preceded this comfortable base. Everything about Qaa'ed is good, and the materials used are excellent. Where other spicy orientals lose clarity and muddle out, Lattafa's creation retains its dry beauty for the duration. Lattafa succeeded in making Qaa'ed about ageless elegance, no easy feat for any brand. This is a great all-season fragrance, and I look forward to trying more from this house in the future.

5/14/22

Fresh (Dunhill)



Can you believe I've been writing this blog for ten years now and have yet to review a single Dunhill fragrance? That review happens today, with Dunhill's Fresh. For whoever was waiting for it all this time, here it is. Be glad, because this is an interesting fragrance. 

There are many reviews written for Dunhill Fresh. Many of them address the same points, from various angles. This is Fahrenheit's kissing cousin, this is a "fresh" fragrance (truly shocking), this is a "green" fragrance (also shocking), this is an aquatic (not really), this is dull, safe, synthetic, etc. I agree there is a bit of Fahrenheit here - a good bit, actually. I like it a little more than Fahrenheit because there's a much lighter gasoline note, and it's less dense than Dior's composition. Yes, it's fresh. Yes, it's grassy-green with all that mint, sage, lavender, and coumarin. Yes, it's a bit familiar, and it's synthetic, because really, let's get crucial here, this is a derivative masculine.

To quibble a bit with the average assessment, I'd point out that Fahrenheit has a tightly-knit accord of honeysuckle and hawthorn, both of which add to the high-pitched petrol note that made it famous. Fresh shares only the honeysuckle, and eases out on the throttle, leaving no exhaust behind. It also shares something in common with Creed's original Silver Mountain Water. While one can wax poetic for hours on the myriad possible notes in the base of Dunhill's scent, I think it prudent to note that the woody violets that own the dry-down are the same or similar to the aroma chemical that smells of printer ink in SMW. Kinda has a glossy magazine paper vibe. Its far dry-down yields something akin to a blend of Cashmeran and Iso E Super, with maybe a hint of Ambroxan in there as well. A smooth and slightly buzzy woody smell that is far nicer than I expected in a cheapie like this.

But the review that I agree with most is by basenotes member chet31:
"I get a bit of a barbershop vibe from this, this scent would not have been out of place with one of my Dad's old aftershaves. There is a bit of Bengay to it on dry-down, but I don't find it objectionable. I don't hate it, don't love it, a sideways thumb seems fair. 

I agree with this assessment almost to the letter, although I admit I haven't used Bengay in years and wouldn't know its smell if it slapped me. Despite the similarity to Fahrenheit, Dunhill Fresh smells like a very good minty-green aftershave with an intensely watery violet leaf base. It's like a failed flanker of Fahrenheit, like if Dior had reinterpreted the acetylenic esters aspect into an Aqua Velva top, upheld by an oddly murky green-woody foundation. This inhabits an alternate universe in which Fahrenheit is what men splash on after morning sessions with their Gillette Techs. 

Still, it leaves me wondering what they were aiming for, because obviously it wasn't the barbers chair. When you name a scent "Fresh," it leaves little to the imagination, except the word on the box seems tinged with irony. Actually, I'm wondering what the brand is aiming for in general. The main reason I haven't gotten into Dunhill is that its eclectic selection and spotty reputation make it difficult to know which fragrance represents the house. Is it the retro-mod ambery 51.3N? Is it the apple cognac of Custom? The more obviously barbershop Dunhill 2003? The dusky woods of Dunhill Pursuit? The fruited tobacco-vanilla of Desire? 

These fragrances have ambition, but never quite reach any of their goals due to Dunhill's tight-fisted accountants. I like to joke that a Dunhill frag costs the same as a pack of Dunhills. There are tons of favorable reviews for their masculines, but I've done enough reading to notice that a sizable percentage of reviewers find ample use for adjectives like "cheap" and "safe." Dunhill Fresh does little to cut against that, but hey, it smells good enough for regular wear, isn't unforgivably cheap (quality of materials is fair), and is modeled after an institutional masterpiece by an upscale designer. Maybe I should leave the hypotheticals for another day, and just stick to this one: got a light? 

5/8/22

Black Pepper & Lime (St James of London)

I guess I haven't learned my lesson, because I'm back to review another British fragrance. For those of you who are new here, I wear it pretty visibly on my sleeve: I generally dislike English perfumery. Their stuffy and excessively dandified style is anticlimactic. There's no passion, no romance, no danger. They like their starched citrus and spice colognes, those Brits, and God Save the Queen. Their dull-as-dishwater citrus and spice goes well with their bubble and squeak, and it's gone by the last bite.  

St James of London is a midcentury barbershop house that was recently revived when someone bought it and retooled its range for twenty-first century sensibilities. There's the requisite nod to environmentalism; every fragrance is alcohol-free. There's the spiffy packaging, all blocky color fields and clean lines, with regal fonts on embossed boxes, as safe and "classy" as it gets. And there's the fragrance names, which simply tell the buyer what they will smell like. St James has opted for the "natural" approach, boasting of aromatic oils and earthy blends. So Black Pepper & Lime should be, by their metrics, a simple pairing of the two notes, with both smelling as realistic as possible. 

I expected the composition to be pepper-forward in the top notes, with the spice easing back after a few minutes to reveal a woody lime. I hoped the lime would hum along for an hour or two before fading into a woody (zesty?) musk. Maybe it would get powdery, or maybe it would just disappear completely. To my surprise, the polarities are reversed; BP&L begins with a blast of lime, very bright and acidic, and that lime note is all there is for a while. Great, except it doesn't really smell like lime. It smells lime-like, yet there's an unnecessary and nondescript sweetness undergirding it. This scent is supposed to be barbershop, yet manages a very non-barbershop lime. Strange choice.  

Just when I'm beginning to think the carrier oils are the source of the sweetness, the fragrance reveals its true nature to be that of a generic woody amber. The citrus fades off and the black pepper appears, smelling better than the first act did. Fair enough, but the amber gets stronger when the pepper fades, and after an hour I'm left with a very cologney-baloney and contemptible blah. The smell of Mr. Blue Jeans. Of a mall island with a half-asleep Pakistani guy reading a newspaper. Of a fraternity open house at three in the afternoon. I can achieve this effect by blindly grabbing any random discount masculine off one of the lower shelves. I don't need to spend forty dollars on it. 

5/4/22

Elie Tahari Eau de Parfum (Elie Tahari)


Occasionally I happen across an inexpensive fragrance that is as good as any luxury perfume, and it raises the question, how? As in, how can something that costs less than twenty dollars square off with a two hundred dollar scent? What happened in the marketing maelstrom that sent this piece of gold to the bottom? How does a forty-five year-old brand succeed in every way except in capturing the intended audience? Or was the target demographic really everybody and anybody? 

I'll never know. What I smell is a well-conceived tea floral that is better than Creed's Asian Green Tea and a far better bang-for-buck than Tommy Girl, with materials and accords that are on par with Acqua di Biella's Ca' Luna, Goutal's Duel, Lauder's Beyond Paradise, and altogether reminiscent of Biehl Parfumkuntswerke's criminally forgotten pc01. When I think of "tea floral perfumes," I think of the diversity in the world of tea. There are so many different teas that one is hard-pressed to fully understand how much this genre encompasses. It's made a bit easier by the simple fact that market testing has its upsides, and most companies know that people are unlikely to recognize anything that isn't a blatant spice monster chai, a delicate gunpowder green, a citrusy Earl Grey, a smoky oolong, or your run-of-the-mill orange pekoe brown leaf. Fully two-thirds of tea fragrances aim for bagged Lipton, and Elie Tahari opted for 3-5 minute green. No surprises there. 

What is surprising is the synergism the fruity-floral notes share with the tea. Take pear, a note that is a mere click away from apple in most frags, yet in Elie Tahari's scent smells of Doyenné du Comice, that prince of pears. With the delicate papery greenness of tea, the two notes adopt a warmth inherent to neither on their own. Their magic is carried on a saccharine breeze of magnolia blooms, peony blossoms, a whisper of violet (not obvious), and a musk drydown like picnic satin covering green grasses underfoot. Everything is separable, yet when I relax my breathing it all coheres into a lovely bouquet that radiates without feeling loud or synthetic. Reader, you don't know what you're missing.

5/1/22

3 AM (Sean John)


There are some notes in perfumery that are inextricably associated with specific time periods, and fig is forever linked to the nineties. It's difficult for me to smell fig in fragrance without thinking of Tyra Banks, Honda Preludes, Jewel songs, and late night reruns of The X-Files. The familiar smell of woody sweetness just takes me there. 

Ilias Ermenidis, the nose for Givenchy's long-discontinued Greenergy, Halston Catalyst, and Tommy Bahama Very Cool for Men, was tasked with a fig brief that would consciously sidestep the nineties and embrace the current age, and in this regard I think he succeeded. Where something like Ferragamo pour Homme laces a sweet fig note into burled woods, the same accord in 3 AM is treated with the deft light-handedness of an effervescent classical citrus cologne. Where Dune pour Homme aimed for the artistry of Postmodern installation, 3 AM aims for the spartan architecture of Greek revivalism. Where Good Life strove for cushy clouds of sweetness, 3 AM aims for minimalist spice. Any recollection of the pre-9/11 world has been carefully sanded down and interrupted by a newer 2015 angle that is itself rather retro and pre-Covid at this point. 

3 AM's reputation precedes it; I've been reading that this is a surprisingly good fragrance, and was inclined to find a smaller bottle for a blind-buy. I concur with the accolades - this is a good fragrance. Its fizzy top accord of synthetic petitgrain, geranium, bergamot zest, fig leaf, coriander, and pink pepper is green and kinetic and pleasing to wear. An interesting feature of this fragrance is that it doesn't really change, but rather it transitions in intensity and segues into a more relaxed chord of cardamom, fig leaf, fig fruit, geranium, petitgrain, and soft woody musk. The only "top note" is the pink pepper, which scales back drastically after the first few minutes, leaving all the other players intact and fairly linear. Two hours in, and the echo of fig, petitgrain, geranium, and musk remain, humming softly (i.e., weakly) from skin, and perhaps a bit more noticeably from fabric. It behaves like an after-shower summer scent, a "modern" cologne composition that isn't meant to extend through a workday or compete in a nightclub. Its gentle unisex nature is welcoming and cheerful. There's nothing to hate here. Its light earthiness even makes it a worthy alternative to your typical minty aftershave, and lends it a barbershop quality. 

Don't expect 3 AM to be a longevity monster or sillage beast, as it would take half the bottle to wring any more than four hours out of it, but if you're fine with a sheer reinterpretation of 18th century woody-citrus splashes, it fits the bill. Also, don't expect a blatant citrus "freshie" here. The bergamot is dry, pithy, and outweighed by other green notes, so the tedious convention of the usual citrus is absent. In fact, I find the pink pepper is "juicier" in nature than the actual fruits. The whole thing smells reasonably natural, doesn't "fuzz out" and lose balance, and is sure to be a crowd pleaser. Women love stuff like this, for better or worse. Last point: 3 AM has the best atomizer in the business, one that behaves like the gas cans of the fifties. A little weird, but I'm not complaining!

4/23/22

My Thoughts on Scent Beauty's Purchase of Preferred Stock & Stetson



At some point last year (or was it the year before?) Coty sold two of its legacy brands to a relatively unknown Firmenich affiliate company called Scent Beauty. Interestingly, it was the Preferred Stock and Stetson portfolios that transitioned, and are now available on Scent Beauty's web site at newly-elevated price points. 

From what I've been reading online, it appears Firmenich was tasked with reformulating both fragrances, and also creating a new Stetson cologne called Stetson Spirit, which is apparently some sort of citrus-woody scent. The whole lot has been issued at prices that reach about ten dollars above what they were when they were made by Coty, so still quite affordable, but no longer "budget." A 2.5 oz Preferred Stock is now $35. That's quite a hike. I bought the same size for about $25 back in 2013, and that was when it was still offered at Walmart - on the shelf, not behind glass. 

But let's revisit Preferred Stock. This is a fragrance I don't wear very often. In fact, I haven't worn it in at least five years. I'm leery of using it up because I've viewed it as a fragrance that could go extinct and vanish altogether. I never trusted Coty with it. And now my suspicions have been realized! The Scent Beauty reformulation has changed the scent into a more citrus-forward woody variant of its former self. I haven't smelled it yet, but believe what I read in this regard. It's likely the heads at SB wanted an "updated" version that would appeal to younger buyers without putting off veteran buyers, and wound up with something similar but different.

Naturally this will send the price of Coty's formula to the unicorn stables on eBay, which means even my partially-used old bottle will increase in value. I gave it a sniff this morning, and can still smell it on me this afternoon as I write this. When I sprayed it I knew immediately that it had macerated in the bottle since the last time I smelled it, roughly 2016 or 2017. The wormwood top note was arresting in its depth and clarity, the lavender had grown dark and "dusty" in feel, and this dry woodiness extended into the heart, where notes of sage, cypress, patchouli, oakmoss, and vetiver combine to form a sort of "autumn leaf pile" smell with just a hint of green sweetness thanks to a soft brushing of chamomile in with the patchouli. The whole affair is surprisingly crisp, loud, complex, with very good note separation, and a discreet woody drydown that lingers for five or six hours after the opening act. Very impressive for a drugstore fragrance, and even more so after nearly ten years of sparse usage. I wish I could wear this all the time!

But what does it mean when a brand that also owns Amouage and Montale buys Preferred Stock and Stetson? It's strange, but smelling my bottles today, I realized it makes sense. These two drugstore classics have spent decades suffering from being grossly mis-marketed by their parent company. Coty never knew how to pitch them, with their upper-tier designer quality belied by their lowbrow commercial image. Preferred Stock was given a flimsy colorless box and an equally dull looking bottle, and Stetson was forever tied to its schlocky cowboy schtick with only slightly better packaging. When you look at them on a shelf together, it's almost impossible to get a "feel" for what kind of fragrances you're looking at. One is dyed grey and the other is a plain amber, and they both have cheap plastic caps. Preferred Stock is especially nondescript, to the point where any attempt to describe it to someone unfamiliar with it is impossible. "It's the one that looks like isopropyl alcohol, only it smells way better." 

Inexplicably, Coty chose to use good materials for both fragrances. My splash bottle of Stetson cologne is a bit older and has been growing noticeably darker in color year after year, with the powdery woods and bright jasmine note increasing in richness. It smells like an old-fashioned Parisian feminine with an Art Deco flair to its orientalism. The intriguing thing about my bottle is how the jasmine and white floral notes "bloom" in the drydown, becoming more sheer and expansive with time. Coty didn't cheap out with this stuff, yet they were insanely miserly with how they positioned the fragrance, opting to give it a blue collar pickup truck driver image, which is forever puzzling. I almost wish Scent Beauty would discontinue the Stetson brand and revive the formula as a completely new luxury feminine. And side note: I still have a nearly-full bottle of Stetson Sierra, which is just as well made and closer in character to Preferred Stock than its namesake is. 

Hopefully Scent Beauty is able to keep these fragrances alive and well as we head into the twenties. I plan on holding on to my bottles of PS and Stetson, though my break from wearing the latter this past winter means I'll likely use it more next season. I also have a bottle of Red for Men, which is similar in overall feel to PS, and also macerating in the bottle, so I expect to enjoy that one from October onward as well. 

4/14/22

Old Spice Cologne (Shulton, 1950-1955 Vintage), & Some Incorrect Notions About Old Spice That I've Been Reading For Years


I'm glad I could get to this cologne, because I've been wanting to write about it for a few weeks. I used a long wood nail to push the fragment of stopper all the way into the bottle, and rescued the goods. I finally freed the liquid from my Korean War-era bottle, and decanted it into my 1955-1963 bottle with pipettes I found at Michaels. The whole thing took ten minutes to accomplish, from start to finish. 

I was grateful that the contents were genuine, and not generic label Old Spice and/or colored water. My fear upon receiving the eBay purchase was that the seller had scammed me by breaking the stopper in its neck to discourage any attempt to recover its counterfeit contents. Fortunately this was not the case, and I'm happy to report that the cologne is real, and it's shockingly fresh. This bottle was barely used, and smells newer than the "newer" vintage formula I just finished. Pretty astonishing. 

Luca Turin once commented that Opium by YSL smelled "green" to him, like "jade" or something (I'm too lazy to get up and look at the review in The Guide). I remember reading this and thinking it was interesting because I rarely associate the color green with oriental fragrances. My thoughts always sway to amber, that abstract golden color of resins and precious woods. The late Dan Mickers seemed to connect with Turin's color-coding when he remarked that Old Spice's current P&G formula has a green "pine needle" note, which seemed strange when I heard him say it, but makes sense now that I'm smelling this seventy year-old version. It's not pine needles. It's resins blended with nitromusks, and P&G's attempt to replicate this effect with cheaper chems translates to a sharp and borderline terpenic effect. 

But it gets weirder. Shulton apparently had two formulas in the fifties. From 1956 onward, the nitromusks were amped up, along with the vanilla and powder. Pre-1956? The fresh citrus sparkle and sweeter spiced carnation midsection of P&G's current formula, and the dusky eugenol-fueled transition to a subtle musky powder base are all revealed to have been exactly the same, using slightly better synthetics. This early fifties formula is so similar in overall effect to the current American "Classic" formula that if I hadn't seen the orange color of the juice, I'd wonder. I decanted some into an atomizer (also Michaels) and let it "breathe," like whiskey in a snifter, and the biggest giveaway that this is truly deep vintage is the base. I can smell the nitromusk notes, and there's this interesting woody-resinous element that weaves through the powder, although everything smells lighter and more balanced than the late fifties/early sixties formula. 

What I'm trying to say is that the formula from 1950 to 1955 smells very similar to P&G's current formula. How is this possible? I have a theory. First, let me address the differences. The citrus in vintage is muted. I attribute this to the typical time-erosion effect on top notes, which happens to nearly all citrus tops within ten years. Mind you, the citrus note in current OS isn't exactly in your face. This isn't a citrus cologne, it's an oriental, and the notes are sweet (orange/mandarin) and brief. In the current stuff you can sense a hint of orange citrus hanging in the periphery of the other notes during the drydown, the mark of well-blended synthetics. The same is true for vintage, although again it's to a lesser degree.

Another difference is the sweetness and "natural" feel of vintage vs. current. This old blend is definitely sweeter, with a bit of cinnamon-sugar fizz and sweeter musk in the drydown. Contrary to sentiments online, P&G's blend isn't particularly sweet at any stage. It's overtly "masculine," with emphasis on burly clove and peppery carnation, and with a dusky dryness that bullhorns to wearers that flowers and sweets are for little girls. While I appreciate that aspect of the new stuff, the more affable saccharine element in vintage is easy to like and wears very nicely. With wet shaving in mind, it's not hard to see why Old Spice was popular in the forties into the fifties. Women would appreciate this on their husbands' faces. 

One of the biggest differences is in which notes are employed, and how they shape the overall scent profile. Let's talk about what kind of oriental P&G's formula is. When Proctor & Gamble bought the brand, they streamlined the formula into an inoffensive spiced carnation powder. You had the bright pop of cinnamon and clove, the vaguely rosy-spicy carnation element, a hint of vanilla, and a big dusting of talc powder in the base, which is what men were left with ninety minutes after application. Their 2000s reformulation was a reimagining of that carnation midsection, with carnation's eugenol properties accentuated and the powder infused with a bit of citrus freshness. But this early fifties vintage employs a clear note of allspice, which is the dried and crushed berries of the Pimenta dioica plant. 

Allspice is a wonderful note to employ in an oriental composition because it encompasses analog smells for four other spices (hence its inclusive name): cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, and clove. You can tell the difference between allspice and an ordinary melange of those four notes by the quietly sweet woodiness that accompanies it. With straightforward spice notes, you get a spice rack. With the singular allspice note, you get the same rack but with the feeling that it's "fused" by that distinct sweetness. I get this in spades in this vintage, and it's a dimensional, lucid note. 

My theory on how the old and new formulas smell so alike is simply that P&G drew from this formula to make their own. It makes sense when you think about it; nitromusks were a bit pricy and they've been banned for forty years, and rich vanilla notes were deemed feminine at some point in the late seventies. The heads at Proctor & Gamble would have been reluctant to use the formula from 1956 to 1970 because that would require some heavy synthesis of nitromusks, and an uncomfortable degree of vanilla in a 2000s men's fragrance. So they opted instead to mimic the less musk-heavy, less vanillic pre-1956 formula. It was probably easier, significantly cheaper, and more in line with Old Spice than American Cyanamid's formulas were. 

I haven't smelled Creed's original Viking, but I've read endless articles about how people suspect it was inspired by Old Spice. This is likely the case; Olivier is quoted in an interview in 2013 as stating that midcentury colognes like Old Spice and Agua Brava are very good fragrances. Creed is known to take familiar fragrance ideas and reinterpret them in its own house style (usually padded with small quantities of natural essences on the front end and a shave of real ambergris on the back end). If we referred solely to the current P&G formula, I'd have difficulty seeing how Creed could have worked it, but wearing this deep vintage formula gives me a clearer idea of how rich and comparatively luxurious Old Spice was. There are articles out there that suggest real ambergris was used in Shulton's earlier formulas, and I swear I get a tickle of it in the heart of this stuff. Heck, it's not far-fetched. One lump of ambergris, used correctly, could last a brand like Shulton thirty years if used simply for enhancing effect. 

My phrase "slightly better synthetics" refers to the fact that today's synthetics are fortified by years of R&D, but they're usually 100% chemical, with no direct connection to naturals other than whatever molecular synthesis was developed to make them in a lab. Yesterday's synthetics had much of the same kind of R&D, but the idea was to use them to fill out whatever naturally-derived chemicals were also in the mix. These were materials that had facets to them, things like nitromusks and fruity esters. You could tease out floral and spicy elements when integrating them correctly, and the animalic-woody element of nitromusks adds complexity to the overall feel of what would otherwise be a fairly simple structure. Ambergris added in a tiny amount would create a dimensionality of weirdly salty-sweet earthiness in the periphery, and the fact that this exists in this formula has me suspecting it was used throughout the forties as well. It smells fine-tuned. 

The allspice note is the biggest draw, however. This leads me to address one of the things I've been reading through the years about Old Spice. There is no "pimento pepper" note in this composition. It's not a "hot pepper" or "red pepper" element. It's not "pimento." It's pimenta. It's allspice. 

Another thing that irks me is that there are people out there who insist on saying that Old Spice is just a bay rum by another name. This is a slow-drip problem. Every few months (and years) you get someone who calls Old Spice "bay rum" like established fact. It isn't. Old Spice is not, and has never been a bay rum. Examples of this offense culled from basenotes read as follows:

"Grottola" in 2010:
"The best take on bay rum ever - my favorite bay rum. Well, that's what it is!"

"bokaba" in 2008:

"The new version by Proctor and Gamble is garbage and nothing more than an overly synthetic bay rum." 

"tvlampboy" in 2006:

"Bay rum with little to no lasting power. Big whoop. Burt's bees bay rum and Royall bay rum are SO much better."  

There are a few other instances on basenotes and Badger&Blade, but I won't bother to post them here. Old Spice is an oriental fragrance from top to bottom, with no bay oil, no bay note, no rum note, and no bay rum accord at any stage of its development. Many bay rums employ a distinct clove note, and this is the only note OS shares with any them. That's certainly not enough to call it bay rum. How and why people insist on claiming it's a bay rum is beyond me, and I wish they would stop.

The last thing I want to mention concerns the incorrect notion that Shulton produced Old Spice until 1990, when Proctor & Gamble finally bought the brand. People gloss over the fact that American Cyanamid bought Shulton in December of 1970, and owned the brand for twenty years prior to selling it to P&G. From 1970 onward, Old Spice wasn't really being made by Shulton. This is evidenced by the fact that 1970s Old Spice is markedly different from the versions that preceded it. 

If you really focus in on how that formula develops, there's a noticeably musky aspect of the base that amps up the powdery vanilla notes. The sweetness of the spicy top is also amplified, with that sweetness getting slightly animalic in the base, an evolution that makes sense given the musky profile. Then in the 1980s that musky quality receded and was replaced with a fizzier cinnamon-spice quality that to my memory wasn't especially tenacious. This eighties version seemed to cross over into the nineties, growing gradually weaker and less obviously powdery with each passing year.  

When American Cyanamid took over they offered Shulton employees and shareholders $0.96 for every $1 of Shulton stock owned. This helped retain Shulton staff and keep the train running on time. But it's worth noting that this change of share value signifies an indisputable change of hands, with the Shulton brass officially stepping away from the main controls. Yes, subsequent generations of OS bottles bore the "Shulton, Inc." mark on them, but much as Colgate-Palmolive puts "By Mennen" on bottles of Skin Bracer, this was AC's way of keeping brand recognition alive. After all, "American Cyanamid" doesn't have the same ring to it. 

It should also be noted that American Cyanamid operated under slightly different rules that were written in a slightly different world. Back in the 1970s there was value associated with maintaining brand recognition in as many ways as possible. Back then people weren't satisfied with keeping the glass bottle with the logo and typeface on it. They wanted to keep the maker's mark as well. Proctor & Gamble's haste in putting their name on the bottles (and completely discarding Shulton's) was a sign of the times; by 1990 companies as large as P&G wanted consumers to identify old classics with their portfolio alone, and routinely made the cynical calculation that buyers wouldn't care. 

Sadly, they were correct. Today, thirty-two years after the final sale, P&G's products and marketing have all but erased the Shulton legacy. I read all the time about how P&G "saved" Old Spice, and to a certain extent it's all true. But look how they did it. This wasn't a repositioning of the brand in an ever-expanding men's grooming market. This was the total annihilation of the modest small-brand dignity which Shulton had maintained, and which American Cyanamid had preserved. Things called "Bearglove" and "Swagger" aren't manly or tasteful, but hey, teenagers will buy them! Who cares if forty year-olds are turned off? We still make the "Classic" for them! 

4/2/22

Gardenia & Cardamom (Banana Republic)




This is an interesting perfume. Banana Republic's Icon Collection fragrances have so far been total bullseyes in both quality and value, and Gardenia & Cardamom retains their winning streak in my book. At twenty bucks, you really can't beat this. I know I've said this before about their other frags, but I'll repeat myself - this could easily be priced at a hundred dollars, and nobody would complain. If you'd told me ten years ago that Banana Republic would release some of the best fragrances of the late teens and early twenties, I would have laughed in your face. It goes to show that brands can surprise people!

Gardenia is well known for being next to impossible to do perfectly, chiefly because it's a flower from which very little natural essence can be extracted, much like lilac and lily of the valley. Thus all attempts at it are usually reconstructions, i.e., accords built of ten or more chemicals that smell very similar to the gardenia flower when blended in the proper amounts. As a tropical white flower, gardenia notes are popular in feminine perfumes, but are often rendered very loosely, which is the polite way of saying they only smell of gardenia for a few minutes before other similar white floral notes take over. It's a typical bait and switch; inexpensive (non-luxury) brands like Jōvan and Dana have gardenia perfumes that they market as soliflores, but they're actually just tuberose and/or jasmine accords with enough embellishment to briefly push the eponymous note into the buyer's imagination. Chanel's rendition was lambasted by Luca Turin as being a trashy airport toilet floral, and it's an expensive fragrance, so most mainstream brands shy away from showcasing gardenia nowadays. 

That's not to say the note can't be done, because it certainly can! W.A. Poucher's formulas demonstrate that gardenia reconstructions are relatively complex, and include bergamot oil, ylang oil, jasmine and tuberose bases (in hefty amounts), and methyl phenyl carbinyl acetate, for a sturdy "green" quality that is useful in upholding the expansive sweetness of the accord. Things like orange flower, methyl anthranilate (essential in Schiff bases), and indole are necessary also. Headspace analysis of living gardenia would bring a perfumer closer to the biochemical template, and with an unlimited budget and equally unlimited attempts, I would wager that a highly skilled nose could assemble a photorealistic gardenia note that would last a few hours. According to Jarubol Chaichana's 2009 study, Volatile Constituents and Biological Activities of Gardenia Jasminoides, headspace breakdowns revealed the presence of farnesene, cis-ocimene, linalool, cis-3-hexenyl tiglate, methyl tiglate, hexyl tiglate, and methyl benzoate, among several other things. 

Of interest among those, to me at least, are the cis-3-hexenyl tiglate, and the other tiglates. The profile for cis-3-hexenyl tiglate is fresh, green, sweet-floral, with similarities to the smells of banana and gardenia. Farnesene and its compounds are associate with fruit skins, usually green apples, and methyl benzoate has a fruity/minty aspect. The danger of relying on every headspace element is that many of them are merely extant in organic materials without providing any distinct character to their odor. In other words, you can miss the forest for the trees and get wrapped up in trying to include things that are present in something, but which don't effect its overall scent profile. I imagine that this is the challenge for any perfumer faced with a gardenia brief and a limited budget. He or she is tasked with building a space with perhaps only the most essential materials available, and excluding several dozen materials which might help the outcome to varying degrees. 

This must have been the case for Vincent Kuczinski, who also authored Peony & Peppercorn. In that scent he used whatever fruity-floral material(s) are present in the dozens of Silver Mountain Water clones floating around these days, and merely extended those fresh-sweet qualities in a distinctly floral direction to achieve a typical modern feminine. But with Gardenia & Cardamom the job was a bit more complicated. Based on what I smell, Kuczinski was interested in heeding Poucher's ideas in his reconstruction, because G&C's top note is a bracing orangey-bergamot note, with just enough sweet 'n sour juiciness to catch my attention. It's a surprisingly warm note, lucid and measured, and doesn't come across as overbearing, screechy, or cheap. Simply a wet citrus juice effect, which rapidly (within twenty seconds) morphs into the only stage where I smell what seems like a 70% successful reconstruction of gardenia, a lush, sweet, almost overripe white floral tone, with just the right balance of richness and creaminess. There's even more evidence that Kuczinski has read up on his Poucher when the gardenia begins to resemble ylang in its intense sweetness. 

It doesn't last, however, and by the five minute mark it is clear that he was asked to do a white floral bouquet instead of a gardenia soliflore. The gardenia's delicate balance gives way to a more obviously fleshed-out tuberose and jasmine accord, and then the jasmine gets all creamy and powdery and summery, and suddenly I'm only two clicks away from suntan lotion territory. I'm reminded of Vanilla Fields, although the jasmine here is far better (not quite as woody) and doesn't smell nearly as chemical. But what about the cardamom? It's there, unlike the pepper note in Peony & Peppercorn, but it's very subtly integrated into the bouquet, and it's a bit green, only hinting at woodiness. This greenness seems rather obvious to me, and makes me wonder if methyl phenyl carbinyl acetate was used in a lithe dose to bring out the greener facet of these three white floral notes. Tuberose tends toward rich buttery, jasmine towards coconut creamy, and gardenia toward sweet green. Yet the retrohale on G&C evokes a soft hint of a green grape-like flavor, so methyl anthranilates seem to have been incorporated also. 

How does all of this translate to the nose? After the citrus pop at the start and the initial five minute gardenia effect, the whisk of tuberose and more enduring creamy jasmine, all tied together by a slight green-woody cardamom seed, present as a very modern white floral. It's not going to blow your mind artistically, and it isn't the least bit challenging beyond the usual trappings of gender norms (again, are there any guys wearing this?), but at no stage of its drydown does G&C smell cheap, chemical, overly simplistic (no fuzzing out of notes, no gauzy-sweet musks), or juvenile (it's sugar free!). This presents are simply a basic white floral, with your familiar triad of mainstream players, all touched by a twist of non-spicy, subliminally green cardamom. I think it's a little more unisex that Peony & Peppercorn, and will have no trouble enjoying it this summer. 

4/1/22

Roses, Roses Cologne (Avon)





When you take Route 8 North through Waterbury, Litchfield, Torrington, you eventually reach the end of the road in the form of a T-junction. Turn right and take a picturesque drive to Massachusetts. A left brings you to a massive antiques warehouse with about a hundred vendors and no air conditioning. Xanadu. 

Tucked amidst the trinkets and overpriced crap are some cool pieces of furniture, old books (usually late nineteenth, early twentieth century), and if you're really committed to picking through the rubble you can find an interesting cologne or two. I happened across a shelf of Avon bells from the seventies, and bought two of them for ten bucks each, the Liberty Bell men's cologne, and the women's Hospitality Bell. They were unopened, in excellent condition, and priced well. What the heck.

The Hospitality Bell reminds me of a short story by Robert Arthur, The Rose-Crystal Bell, probably because it's heavy glass filled with rose cologne. Rose crystal, also known as rose quartz, is unlikely to be fashioned into a bell, a verity which is probably the least unlikely element of Arthur's memorably bizarre story. Still, the fact that the bell comes with a detached clapper makes it nearly impossible to not think of that little horror story.

Anyway, I expected Roses, Roses to be sickly sweet garbage, but it surprised me. It's a simple but decent soliflore, similar to Perfumer's Workshop Tea Rose. This type of basic soapy rose is just a lemon aldehyde built up with various rose ketones (damascones, damascenones). The interesting thing about this one is that the quality of the materials used here is clearly good, given that they've survived the decades without turning sour. The fragrance has held up for over forty years, and contains a bit of real rose oil, but it isn't very deep. Its drydown arrives quickly, and it's a simple floral tone that could probably double as an aftershave. Can't complain for ten bucks.

This is an instance where a crapshoot on vintage worked out. I've said it a million times before, and I'll say it again: roses are unisex. Sure, Americans aren't tuned into that, but a shave, a splash of Thayer's Rose, and a slap of this stuff works. A guy can pull it off pretty easily, given how light it is. (Longevity, however, isn't bad - three hours.) For those curious about why men have "rose" as a shaving scent option, there's volumes written about it; history books posit that Edwardian Englishmen considered it "Gentlemanly" to smell of woody florals, and roses fit the bill. It's also always been culturally popular with Middle Eastern men, usually paired with oud, something I don't love. 

My history with notes like rose, fruits, white florals, has been fairly neutral. We're living in strange times, when Victorian and Edwardian trends have come full circle. Pre-war men lived with green flowers in their alcohol splashes, plenty of lavender, lilac, and rose, but by WWII the conscripted considered any scented product beyond perhaps Skin Bracer and Old Spice "girly." Then the 1960s hit, hippies took over the world, and by the 2000s our sense of humor had returned. Few people comment when I wear rose.

Can you find a Hospitality Bell today? They're all over eBay, with the "Moonwind" scent enjoying an edge in availability. If you're interested in a cheap rose cologne to follow a shave, here's something in a bell-shaped bottle to consider. Just don't try ringing it.

3/28/22

What Fragrantica (And Everyone) Gets Wrong About Creed's Success Story

Ghost Perfume

I've been fairly tight-lipped about Gabe Oppenheim's new "tell-all" book, The Ghost Perfumer, a light exposé of the true geniuses behind Creed's perfumes, and the strategic commercial underpinnings of the brand's questionable marketing tactics. 

To be frank, I find the subject boring. It's no mystery that Olivier and Erwin Creed aren't the real noses for the brand. It's no mystery that Pierre Bourdon and people associated with him are the real noses for the brand. And it's really no mystery, and no surprise, that Creed uses blatantly exaggerated historical claims to sell their wares. The topic of The Ghost Perfumer is a bit of a bland non-starter for me. 

What I do find interesting is Elena Vosnaki's recent editorial on Oppenheim's book, and on Creed. She pursues a line of reasoning about Creed that I've seen everywhere, one that has become a pet peeve of mine when lurking around protracted internet discussions about the brand. Vosnaki acknowledges that Oppenheim's contentions are well vetted, and she does well in casting herself as fervently opposed to and skeptical of the brand's ongoing practice of associating its perfumes with historical figures. But her article crafts a narrative that I find to be just as dubious as Creed's. 

In order to contextualize my sentiments about her sentiments, you should know that I find it distasteful when an attempt to discredit something brings little more than cynical language to the party. For example, in describing Creed's historical lineage, Vosnaki fails to connect Creed's commercial image to any perceived lies, and sidesteps the familiar "Creed started in the seventies" argument: 
"Creed has always claimed to hail from 1760, 'from father to son,' but there is only factual evidence of a tailoring business under the name, and not as far back as that. In fact, Olivier Creed burst onto the fragrance scene in the 1970s . . . It was in a Lille shop called Soleil d'Or where Olivier is said, going by the memoir of the daughter of the shop's founders, to have introduced his line in the 1960s. On page 41, she claims the first three perfumes 'he [Olivier] had them made to his own specification,' clearly alluding to outsourcing." 

Her suggestion that Creed's heritage is "only" a tailoring business that doesn't really date back to 1760 is directly contradicted here by professors Daniel James Cole and Nancy Deihl, who wrote in their 2015 book The History of Modern Fashion:

"Both [Queen] Victoria and [Empress] Eugénie favored riding apparel from the British tailoring firm of Creed, which had served men since 1710." 

I'll give both Oppenheim and Vosnaki the benefit of the doubt in their casual dismissal of the brand's provenance, and chalk it up to the forceful tide of social media sentiments, but I'm bothered by the obvious lack of research on Creed. Surely experts in fashion, now holding respectable posts at an American university, are trustworthy sources on the topic? Creed served Queen Victoria and the wife of Emperor Napoleon III. Who believes there weren't perfumes offered by Creed to such clientele? Sports apparel of the time was often associated with the trappings of country-clubby hygienic products, and fashionable riding tack connects pretty neatly to something like Royal English Leather. 

That a family member associated with Soleil d'Or said that Olivier "outsourced" his perfume line in the 1960s isn't news. Should we believe that Olivier created a bunch of niche frags by himself? Does anyone know how difficult it is to source materials? Long before the internet, and before social media, this relatively unknown fashion maverick mustered the funds to pay third party perfumers. They followed his "specifications" and handed over the results to Olivier so he could parlay them into a perfume brand.

How does this dent his credibility, exactly? 

Vosnaki goes on to assert many other things about Creed, but eventually lands on the main point of contention for me, something that I'm likely guilty of purveying myself at some time or another in the not-so-distant past:

"The timing was crucial, because despite Creed's claims to historical heritage, and the unhistoric claims of famous patronages wearing what is olfactorily surely modern stuff, realistically it was Aventus that catapulted their skyrocketing fame to the average perfume buyers with a (seeming) penchant for showing off." 

To which I say, well, no - I sigh. What can I say to this? Aventus isn't what brought up Creed, nor is it what let them sell out to BlackRock Private Capital. Green Irish Tweed was what put the brand on everyone's map. I was wearing GIT long before Aventus. My college friends were wearing GIT long before Aventus. Here in Connecticut, the "nutmeg state," whenever I mention Creed to anyone I know who has an interest in perfume, the words "Green Irish Tweed" are inevitably what they say. 

Men worshipped GIT. From the mid-eighties onward, GIT was the cult favorite. Cool Water was the affordable EDT version, the alternative that most men preferred to drop coin on, but twenty-five years of GIT on the market bought Creed the wherewithal to create Aventus. It's true that Aventus was the biggest thing after GIT, and it's also true that Aventus, released when social media was really taking off, was a huge sensation, but we shouldn't get too absorbed by the narrative here. Let's remember what really happened with Aventus when it was released - it was lambasted.

I was there in 2010 when it was released, a member of basenotes avidly reading the forums. I was there to see member after member call it all kinds of names - it was "designer," "mall juice," "generic," "fruity," and "disappointing." Basenoters only changed their tune on Aventus when the fragrance was appropriated by an army of immature guys who claimed (immaturely) that Creed was a sexual good-luck charm.

The same army then pretended to know a thing or two about perfume by obsessing over "batch variations" of Aventus, which led to YouTubers getting in on the conversation, and before you knew it, a bunch of people were experts on Aventus. Mind you, these early YouTubers weren't buying their bottles. They were given their bottles. Much of their discourse led to a backlash, by which the troops were given to retracting and recanting. Merely five years after its release, Aventus was overexposed in the newly-formed social media bubble of the fragcomm, and people were eager to distance themselves from all the silliness, the Aventus "hype machine," and any suggestion that this was their favorite fragrance, or even their favorite Creed. 

My point is that Aventus has had a convoluted reputation in the world of fragrance enthusiasts, and drawing a straight line from the first bottle to Creed's BlackRock sale is ill advised, in my opinion. Sure, the fragrance has benefitted from a wider market of more buyers at untethered prices, which is simply a sign of the times. But Creed was building that success slowly, over many decades, and with many earlier and better releases.