Sunday, 31 January 2010

Mystery mocha

I had the misfortune, last night, to be stuck in a tube carriage with a woman wearing one of the most sickening fragrances I've encountered: a chocolate/coffee nightmare which forced me to press my scarf to my nose and breathe through that for the duration of the journey. Does anybody know of such a fragrance? Whatever it is, it has replaced Angel as my very least favourite scent.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Les Nez: Parfums d'Auteurs

Les Nez is a new(ish) perfume house. It comprises two noses, both female - Isabelle Doyen and Sandrine Videault. I like their playful, crazy fragrance names, but they attach textbook examples of wanky, pretentious copy to their packaging, so awful that I almost couldn't bring myself to smell them. Let's compare their descriptions to mine.

The Unicorn Spell

If by dawn still linger on your skin mixed scents of leaves, frost and violet blooms, and that relentless yearning for stellar sights, you will know that, at night, you felt the milky breath of a unicorn.

Smells of ancient ideals of honor and fundamental goodness. The "Joan of Arc" of perfumes.

Parma violets.

Let me Play the Lion

Scents of dusty trails,
Of lightly sweetened ochre,
Of sun-weathered wood,
Of silence swept
by mild breezes,
Of skies open like an endless
azure cut oozing signs
of the coming storm.

Like watching incense smoke curl lazily through a sunbeam as it wafts, disappears, and returns.

Lemon and aniseed to start with; very sweet. Quickly fades to absinthe, but SO bitter. So bitter that I made the Orange Face (i.e. the face I made, the other day, when I tried to eat a whole orange, peel and all, because I heard it was a good cold remedy. I hadn't really predicted how bitter it was going to be. So bitter I nearly threw up). Dries down much better though - spicy and cold, certainly dusty as it claims. Pretty good all in all.


An invisible ink that leaves a trace,
Foreseen rather than felt,
Yet whispered,
Like a creased bed linen scent
wandering along your curves...
Performs a series of understated scent tricks and olfactory maneuvers that bypass security and sneak in through the back entrance...

Oh god, I really want to hate this. Fact is, when first sprayed, you can't smell it at all. I was hoping to be able to write something about the bloody Emperor and his bloody new clothes. You are selling people water, for god's sake, and writing stupid poetry about invisible ink! But coming back to it after a few minutes and... I like it. I do. It doesn't smell like a thing. It smells like things all around us; it smells like people. The Scented Salamander puts it very well:

It smells like the inside of a leather bag, a familiar coat, a favorite scarf, half-abandoned well-used gloves, a presence and the sum of one's experience of life. It smells as if for years and years this perfume had scented familiar objects around you. It could perhaps even be the smell of your house...

This is precisely correct and I have to admit that it's a very clever scent. I'm not sure I'd buy it as I think it's too subtle for me, but it's definitely the most interesting of the three. Oh, and can I please add: 'back entrance'. Huh huh. Huh-huhh huh.

Sample frenzy

I honestly have no idea how five months have passed without posting; I suppose we've all been busy with work and life and other stuff. I have amassed vast numbers of tiny perfume samples, so I thought I'd attempt to blitz through them all in one session. Here are the results of my tests, accompanied by quick notes, typed as I go.

Many thanks to the man in Liberty who picked up fistfuls of samples and chucked them into my bag, much in the style of coal-shovelling.

Citron Citron from Miller Harris

We start with a kick of lemon and bergamot which reminds me of Eau d'Italie from Le Sirenuse; soon we get other fruits and herbs and now it's even more like Eau d'Italie. Actually, I'm starting to wonder if there's some kind of copyright infringement going on. Not sure which scent came first; I love them both.

Fleur du Matin from Miller Harris

Great big hit of lily and jasmine which fades very fast to a kind of powdery, underwear drawer feel. Not very interesting and not really my thing, to be honest. I can't really imagine why you'd wear it unless you have a great longing to smell like generic hotel soap.

Crystal d'Ambre from Keiko Mecheri

Wow, amber and a bit of sweet patchouli to start; very oriental with frankincense and sandalwood. I'm a sucker for orientals but this ends up a little dull and almost lavendery; not as interesting as some of the alternatives (Alamut by Lorenzo Villoresi, Lyric by Amouage). It's not generic hotel stuff, though, and I will use up the rest of the sample bottle.

Rose d'Homme from Les Parfums de Rosine

Lots and lots and lots of rose, very sweet and not hommey at all. Slight strawberry flavouring topnote which (thankfully) fades quickly, leaving patchouli and leather. Definitely better than it started, but crikey, it smells exactly like pot pourri. Old pot pourri. Dusty and dull.

Gypsy Water from Byredo

This is more like it. Lovely, citric green to start with, and an amber/sandalwood base which is warm and woody and lovely. There's incense too, but not the smoky high church oriental frankincense - it's a much lighter resin, copal I think, perhaps benzoin. It puts me in mind of an old, warm library. Superb.

Passion from SpaceNK

AaaaaarrrrrrgggGGGGHHH get it off get it off jesus christ! Like if you wanted to remove varnish from a chair equipped with nothing but the raw power of jasmine. After a few minutes it smells almost exactly like white wine vinegar. I hear it has been discontinued already, though. Phew.

Winners: Gypsy Water, Citron Citron
Losers: Passion, Fleur du Matin

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Perfume poisoning in Texas

A woman in a Texas bank sprayed "strong perfume", according to the BBC. Two people complained of chest pains and headaches. An announcement was made that anyone feeling ill should leave the building; 150 people did, and twelve were later taken to hospital by ambulance, complaining of dizziness and breathing difficulties.

Now, my feeling is that the vast majority of the 150 were simply grabbing a chance for a few minutes off work, and in general I think the EU's fussing about the allergenic potential of, say, oakmoss is blown completely out of proportion. Nonetheless, I have sympathy with the original two complainants. Because some perfume, while not necessarily allergenic, is just so foul that a person of nasal sensibility cannot put up with it.

It's not a question of "strength", which is a misleading term. Personally, I would find someone wearing the pure parfum of No 5 or Mitsouko unobjectionable, and, in fact, entirely pleasant to be around. Meanwhile, the eau de toilette of many celebrity perfumes – or even something so mild as Lynx/Axe or Impulse body spray – can seriously gross me out. It's a question of quality, and that comes down to composition, ingredients, and intent of the perfumer.

Most perfume is sold in Duty Free, department stores or chemist shops, and this is the key to the problem. In those enclosed spaces, the environment quickly fills up with a high-level chemical hum, which obliterates any subtle notes. To sell, a perfume or body spray must stand out from the crowd. One way to do this is to make it incredibly aggressive. After smelling, say, five or ten similar scents, most buyers are so confused and exhausted that something which smells powerful and different will appeal.

The results are obvious, and probably the reason so many people claim to dislike perfume. I can see where they're coming from: I dislike at least 90% of perfumes. I have on more than one occasion had to move tables at a restaurant on account of somebody else's bad perfume. I've had to scrub bad perfume off my own arms. As Beverley Sutphin has observed, being stuck with bad perfume on a flight is intolerable. Just last week, I was stuck at a restaurant between two women, both of whom were wearing different bad perfumes: the combination was particularly dire, and actually put me off my food. I concur entirely with those people who claim a noseful of something offensive may have a physical effect.

The real question, though, is what perfume caused it? The reports give no clue, but there are so many possibilities! The ones I've had to move away from or scrub off include, of course, Angel, Amarige de Givenchy, a revolting and shockingly overpriced perfume by Lalique once sprayed on me in Roja Dove's shop at the top of Harrod's, and Cinema by Yves Saint Laurent. And the obvious culprits could include Giorgio Beverly Hills – allegedly banned by some shops and restaurants in the 1980s – or the famously wrecking-ball fragrances of Poison or Opium.

Any more guesses? What perfume might make you evacuate the building and call in a HazMat team?

Sunday, 26 July 2009

On Pretension

New perfumes! New perfumes! Let's get unwrapping and see what we've got.

Lovely. Rose Noir, Eau de Parfum, nice classy white box. No problems there other than it's huge compared to a bottle of perfume. What's inside?

Er... another box. Good good. With some symbolism. A crown, and a Trivial Pursuit counter, and a thing that's a bit like an aleph with an extra bit. Now we have to break two seals to get in.

Bottle, excellent. What's that on the right?

Oooh, a tiny envelope! Maybe it's ingredients? That would be boring. Or a nice little message from Gorman? Perhaps thanking me for buying his lovely fragrance, like you get with Amouage?

The text reads:
The edges of its petals begin to blacken, and yet the classic damascene rose is no less beautiful--its scent no less evocative. But of what? Not of innocence, nor prurience. No, it's something subtler, something sophisticated yet animal, the aura of Baudelaire. The rarest flowers mingling their fragrance. The Oriental splendor, might whisper: restraint and order, bless; luxury and voluptuousness.
Oh, for god's sake, what the hell is that all about? Why is it that, so often, people writing about perfume descend into rubbish (and slightly illiterate) fifth-form poetry? It's not even poetry, it's faux poetry - fridge poetry, the Vettriano of poetry. It is utterly pretentious and awful. I can just imagine the copywriter staring dreamily at the Lady of Shalott poster above their desk and composing their horrible prose. "It smells of roses... no... too abrupt. It smells of the scent of roses carried on the breeze... much better! What kind of breeze? Oh... It smells of the scent of roses carried on the breath of lovers... wonderful! 'Smells' is clumsy... how about... It resonates with the scent of roses carried on the breath of tragic lovers... I'm a genius."

So much writing about perfume is packed with these kinds of adolescent flights of fancy which tell you nothing whatsoever about how the bloody thing smells. I'm not suggesting that we should replace all perfume writing with dry lists of ingredients, but that we should use comparisons that have meaning - does it smell of libraries? Does it make you think of the sea? Does it remind you of a walk in the woods in the summer? Maybe. Does it whisper 'restraint and order'? Is it evocative of the aura of Baudelaire? I doubt it. I hate it when I spot a piece on perfume and discover, upon reading, that it's nothing about perfume at all, but rather a piece of GCSE-level free association with all the sophistication of My Chemical Romance lyrics.

Let's see how Frédéric Malle does it, shall we?

A black box. With a bottle in it. Full marks to Monsieur Malle.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Green Tea Madness

As I was walking up the stairs towards the dentist's surgery, the other day, I wrinkled my nose in response to a dullish, dank smell. My instant assumption was that the building had developed a problem with rising damp or mildew since my last visit and that something should be done to prevent it from falling down; but, half-way up the stairs, I realised my fears were unfounded. On the first landing, on which the damp smell was overpowering, sat a little bottle filled with sticks, bearing a label that read "Green Tea and Cucumber Room Fragrance".

'Eurgh,' I thought, 'it smells of pondwater.' And then I stopped to wonder why anybody thought it would smell any other way. Who actually likes the smell of green tea? Or, to make the emphasis more clear, who actually likes the smell of green tea? Who lifts a cup of green tea to their lips and thinks, 'Wow, what a wonderful fragrance, I'd love to smell of it'?

I'm thinking nobody, and a quick and highly scientific Google experiment demonstrates my point. A search for "I love the smell of green tea" yields 10 results; but compare that to 392 for "I love the smell of strawberries", 2,140 for "i love the smell of roses" and a tied 4,900 for each of "leather" and "petrol". And yet these ludicrous green tea products sell like pondwater-scented hot cakes. There's not only the room fragrance sticks: there are green tea bubble baths, green tea scented candles, green tea incenses, green tea bloody everything.

Why, then, if nobody actually likes the smell of green tea, do these things sell so well? If people don't like the way they smell, they must be buying them for - well, some other reason, and unfortunately I think the other reason is disappointingly obvious. Fragrances don't sell because of the way they smell; they sell because of the image with which they're associated. Green tea makes people think of health, detoxification, airy white rooms, yoga, freshness, clarity, simplicity; in short, green tea represents a lifestyle, not a scent.

Of course, most fragrances attempt to associate themselves with a lifestyle to some extent: this is why perfume adverts are vastly more likely to feature Nicole Kidman posing on a red carpet in slow-motion than any kind of description of what the fragrance actually smells like. But at least the rubbishy celeb fragrances are honest about their shamelessly simplistic associations with Britney Spears or Jennifer Lopez. These endless green tea fragrances are pulling exactly the same trick except that their attempts to associate themselves with the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna are dishonest, underhanded and unofficial; and, for these reasons, I have significantly less respect for them.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Bond No. 9 boutique, 9 Bond Street, New York

There are a lot of clichés about American perfumery. Americans like to smell clean, while everyone else in the world likes to smell dirty; American perfumes are all about things you can eat, mostly fruit but occasionally coffee, chocolate or cake; the United States produces a lot of smells, but has yet to produce a truly great fragrance house. Bond No. 9 aims to challenge all of these.

But does it succeed?


I spent a long time in the flagship store, fighting off some supercilious assistants, all armed with that overtrained, po-faced, robotic sales patter that some American corporations seem to think the customer would like more than talking to an actual responsive human with a personality, a sense of humour and some opinions.

Bodes badly, right?


I see the Bon-Bon Box (above) in the window, What a lovely thing! How shiny! Lots of little smells, beautifully packaged! An ideal gift for Violet, Beverly or Mr Atrocity! I sally forth to the testing counter to poke my nose into their business.

Chinatown is supposed to be Bond's truly great scent, so that's where I start. And, yes, it's good. A complex, intelligent peach'n'patchouli oriental that manages to be elegant and pleasing at every stage. But that's it. Pleasing. I am pleased. There's nothing about Chinatown that challenges or surprises me. It is chic and polished, and as it progresses goes through a formal, controlled, unobjectionable sequence. It's a lot like the sales assistants.

It's good, all right? And there's something alluring about perfect poise. But I can't find it in my heart - or, for that matter, my nose - to love something so very orderly. So very safe.

Next I try Andy Warhol Silver Factory, one of a range inspired by the artist. Again, it's good. A smart, careful balancing of Warhol's favourite smells: violet, incense and woods. It dries down to something nice. It is nice. I am pleased. I might be even more pleased than I was with Chinatown. And yet my heart rate is unchanged.

I look bored. "This is our bestseller," monotones the assistant, spraying me with a cloud of something purple called The Scent of Peace. Horrific name, and horrific... at last! Something that produces a reaction! Unfortunately, that reaction is sneezing, because I'm being drowned in grapefruit! Look, if I wanted to smell like The Body Shop, I wouldn't have to spend $130 on a bottle. And that's the small size. (They vary. Silver Factory comes in at a whopping $230.)

I plead for something less like bath gel, and a succession of spicies is paraded in front of me: Nuits de Noho (vanilla/patchouli), Great Jones (cedar), Wall Street (lavender/vetiver), HOT Always (cinnamon/bergamot). They're all fine. Great Jones is very fine. I sniff it again. Yes, very fine. I am pleased.

It's very hard to object to any of them. Except they're so... thin. There's no body, no sensuousness, no emotion.

Tom Wolfe, in that quintessential New York novel Bonfire of the Vanities, describes a certain type of socialite women. These women are ageing but heavily into artificial preservation, rail-thin, perfectly blowdried and manicured: simultaneously satirising their appearance and their brittle vapidity, he calls them "social X-rays".

I bet the social X-rays love Bond No. 9.

I stumbled back on to the street, outwardly pleased but inwardly disappointed, my wallet no lighter. Bond No. 9 makes a very tasteful range of well-produced scents. If you wear one (pretty much any one, apart from that horrible Peace thing), you will project an aura of immaculate luxury, and you won't offend anyone.

That's just not what I'm after in a perfume. But, then again, I am a European.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

L'Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella

朝聖大廳, originally uploaded by Alanmei.

Like everything in Florence, L'Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella is massively, almost painfully over-decorated with frescoes, statues and patterns. Officially founded in 1612 - although in production from 1221 - this is one of the world's oldest pharmacies, housed in a stunning 14th century monastery on the Via della Scala. The Dominican friars concocted potions using herbs grown in the monastery garden, for use in the infirmary, and thus the pharmacy was born.

The pharmacy is gorgeous beyond compare, with room after room, each more glorious than the one before, crammed with bell jars and flasks and distillation equipment. In glass cabinets sit countless bottles of lotions and potions: a rose tincture for tired eyes, a vinegar ('Vinegar of the Seven Thieves') for fainting fits, an infused water for hysterical women (incidentally, they've changed the label on this one. It just says, mysteriously, 'Santa Maria Novella Water'). There are soaps, incenses, foot lotions, mouthwashes, candles and pretty much everything else, none of which seems to have been updated since the days of mediaeval medicine.

The colognes themselves number about fifty, and I would have tried them all were it not for the typically aloof Florentine staff. The bottles aren't out on display so you have to ask for each fragrance individually by name, and the staff tend to go and serve somebody else between each sniff. Having asked, in broken Italian, to try about ten fragrances, I started to feel a bit awkward and like I should really buy something. Which is, presumably, exactly what they're aiming for. I found the majority of the scents a bit boringly single-note: the rose smells like rose, the violet smells like violet, the vetiver smells like vetiver. I assume these products started out as medicinal extracts which would explain why they haven't been blended, but it can be a little disappointing to smell the topnote and realise that nothing else is coming. Exceptions to this were Amber and Hay, both of which we ended up buying. The Amber starts like a combination of tar and a warm hearth after a wood fire, eventually maturing to amber and then to formaldehyde; the Hay is a lovely, rosy green scent, like a meadow in spring.

If you find yourself in Florence then make sure to visit L'Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, but maybe buy the fragrances from one of their other shops around the world. Preferably from a shop that lets you get at the bottles.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Perfumes: The Guide

I've just ordered a copy of what is, to me at least, the most exciting smell book ever, Perfumes: The Guide, by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez.

I've been a huge fan of Mr Turin's since reading Chandler Burr's biography of him, The Emperor of Scent, a few years ago. It was the way he wrote about perfume that inspired me to start writing about it myself.

I'll post something on the book when I've had a chance to read it. In the meantime, here is a link to its website:

If you subscribe to or download the newsletter, you'll get a preview of the sort of thing that will be in the book. The review of Knize Ten is a great place to start, even though it's just ruined my morning by telling me that Tabac Blond is no more.

Thursday, 17 July 2008


Ajwa calls itself as a 'Muslim clothing and perfumes' shop, although that description doesn't capture the shop's pleasingly eclectic nature. Shop dummies in long robes nestle in among stacks of colourful children's books with such wonderful titles as 'Allah Gave Me a Nose to Smell', and the window is filled with dozens of elegant, glass-stoppered perfume bottles, filled with thick, dark, heavily-scented oils, glowing like stained glass.

The specialities here are musk and oudh (agarwood), of which there are a dozen varities apiece from all over the world. The man in the shop will decant 3, 6 or 12 millilitres of your chosen scent into a little glass bottle for you; he will also wait patiently while you sniff your way through his entire stock, providing a jar of coffee to clear your nose when required. Prices range from three pounds to 50 for the 3ml bottle.

I asked him to recommend a really heavy, dark musk, and he pointed me towards a bottle of something resembling molasses, labelled Japanese Musk. The smell was extraordinary - the darkest of the dark, with amber, frankincense, sandalwood and burnt sugar notes. It made me go 'Phwooaaaar!' and cost me five pounds. And it's even better on skin.

If you find yourself in the area I couldn't recommend a visit to this lovely shop more highly. Best of all, it's right by the spectacularly good New Tayyabs Pakistani restaurant, so you might as well get a curry while you're there.

Ajwa Retail
58 Fieldgate Street
London E1 1ES