Other People’s Perfume Part I: Smoke
When I first fell in love with perfume I was shy about my new affair, but since then I have become a perfume nerd-evangelist, offering up my wrists to all and sundry, and preaching adventure and free samples to the willing
Inevitably, my friends want to know what I think of that one perfume. It’s a delicate question, requiring tact and grace, so of course I’ve generally run for the hills. Recently, though, I broke with my tradition of cowardice and gave one of these treasured scents a serious trial run. I learned a lot from the experience. So much that I’ve decided to tackle a few others and share the results with you all in a little series I’m calling Other People’s Perfume. Cross your fingers for my social life.
And off we go, with Valentino’s Very Valentino pour Homme. Basenotes lists the following as the notes—
Top: Sri Lankan Nutmeg, Crisp Sage, Anise
Middle: Virginian Pipe Tobacco, Coriander, Thyme
Base: Indian Sandalwood, Amber, Musk
—to which I can only say, you wish, Valentino. Or rather, I wish, because this sounds like a really striking perfume and I’d like someone to make it and deliver it to my doorstep. I feel a little uncertain about where the anise fits in, but anything with nutmeg, tobacco and sandalwood in it has got my vote.
Alas, it is not what I smell. What I get instead is a bright, herbal opening that just might have something to do with…let’s just say it’s the coriander, shall we? And maybe, just maybe, the “crisp sage,” whatever that is. (If I were Chandler Burr I’d be regaling you with long, impossible-to-remember chemical names, for this opening wears its synthetic origins proudly.) It’s a traditionally manly opening. Not in a chest-pounding sweat and big muscles way, just a lot of freshly showered glad-handing: “Nothing to see here folks. No weirdness, nothing too pretty, just crisply ironed shirts and a new haircut. Move right along.”
And so we do, after about twenty or thirty minutes, when the brightness mellows and bits of woody-sweet, dry tobacco come forward under the green, at which point I start to like VV much better. By the time the coriander/sage fades into the background (it never completely goes away) and the dry, transparent vanillic amber of the base emerges, I start thinking about the great-looking square, cobalt blue glass mini bottle of VV I’ve seen on **bay. It’s nothing earthshaking, but it’s delicious. The tobacco and coriander keep it from getting too sweet or foody, and the gentle sillage wafts around me for hours. I’d love to smell it on a man at this stage, but it’s happily unisex in a cashmere sweaters, leather boots and well-worn courdoroy blazer kind of way. I find it comforting, and just a little sexy.
So much for my opinion. It was interesting getting to know a perfume I never would have picked up on my own, but the real fun began when I went for a walk on a hot, muggy July 5th morning. The heat and humidity made VV much more diffusive and sped up the opening considerably, and I was suddenly surrounded by the most beautiful combination of its bright top mellowed by smoke. I was very puzzled—how did I miss this bit?—until I realized that the smoke was hanging in the air, a combination of someone’s just-begun pit barbecue project and the gunpowder aftermath of the 4th of July (I do live in Texas, after all). It just got better and better as the development sped along and I was sniffing deeply and thinking about what sort of smoky thing I could send to my friend to layer with VV when I suddenly realized: a) that wouldn’t be necessary and b) why VV worked for him in the first place.
He’s a smoker, of course. A serious, dedicated one, of the sort who seem to be increasingly rare these days. He doesn’t smell of cigarettes—which is how I managed to forget that factor in the first place—but clearly smoke is part of the palette of his skin. When I last saw him we tested Osmanthe Yunnan together and it was lovely and deep on him, the tannic smoke of the tea present right from the beginning, when it was still all stewed apricots on me. I will, of course, want to factor smoke into any future recommendations for my friend, but I also found myself thinking more generally about how the shave-and-a-haircut tonic freshness of many classic men’s colognes comes from a time when smoke was everywhere, and how much better they would smell on men redolent with cigarettes, pipes, and cigars, not to mention good shoe leather and wool coats rich with the scent of smoke-filled bars and city streets. I thought about how smoke might marry with various of my own perfumes (it’s an occasional indulgence for me) and how some of my favorites—Coco for example—seem to imply I have already been smoking without my ever having to light up. And then I went into a sort of daydream about the scent of cigarettes and perfume swirling past me in cold winter air from the hair and coats of grown-up women in a dimly remembered or imagined past…
I also thought, with some embarrassment, about how I would have to pay much sharper attention for the next round of testing Other People’s Perfume. Smoke is easy. What about those less tangible factors that make a perfume beautiful on someone—timing, place, attitude, love?
Note: After I had finished this piece I came across a link to Luca Turin’s August NZZ article about his nostalgia for smoke in public places and the way some classic perfumes seem to call out for a background of cigarettes. He confirms my feeling that Etat Libre’s Jasmin et Cigarette is more nostalgic than provocative—the perfect perfume for an increasingly smoke-free world.