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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Other People’s Perfume Part I: Smoke

By Alyssa

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 victims friends who volunteer for a sniffing session. Along the way I’ve developed a small coterie of enthusiastic converts. Some of these folks started from ground zero I-hate-perfume territory, but most wandered over from stage left, where they were hoarding a small collection of essential oils, or scented candles or that one bottle. You know. The one they bought on a whim, or were given by a fondly remembered lover or stole from a roommate and have been wearing off and on for years, or that they stopped wearing but couldn’t bring themselves to throw away. The bottle you probably had before you tippled over into a world where having ten or more bottles makes perfect sense. That one.

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.

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Blogger Aimée L'Ondée said...

nice post, alyssa! i think about that too: how the various accoutrements/smells/habits that we don't get as much of anymore affected the development of perfumes. you've put it very eloquently! and btw, i love Jasmin et Cigarette! another smoky perfume, imo, is the new Diorling edt. it's more smoke and jasmine than leathery. I'd love to compare it directly with jasmin et cigarette, but I will have to get my hands on a sample of the latter first.

8:56 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lovely post. I think I saw some of that Valentino at TJ Maax a couple of months ago, but didn't buy it -- I should have.

Cigarettes! Have you seen the AMC series "Mad Men?" Where everybody smokes like chimneys, all the time? Just watching it makes me want a cocktail and a Marlboro -- and I don't smoke.

I love the smoky note in Habanita, especially the vintage.

And Chanel's Sycomore, at least on me, is very smoky. It must use the same smoke molecule used in CB's Burning Leaves and Andy Tauer's Lonestar Memories. But it's not a tobacco smoke note -- it's more like the acrid smoke of leaves burning. It's a very interesting scent.

10:08 AM EDT  
Blogger Alyssa said...

First off -- can I just say that I'm very surprised to see my own post up here after Marina announced a week long break? Lucky I hit the wrong link in my browser! :-)

Aimee-- Thank you. And I will definitely have to check out that Diorling. And--hey!--I live in Austin and I'm a recovered (ing? does it ever end?) academic too! Should me an email if you're interested in some local sniffage and swappage. You should be able to click on my name.

Olfacta--Thanks! I'm dying to see Mad Men... I keep a mini of Habanita around and sniff it every now and then, waiting for the baby powder to go away. Alas.

11:44 AM EDT  
Blogger Alyssa said...

That would 'shoot' me an email, of course. I swear the more I type online the worse my typos get...

11:46 AM EDT  
Blogger ScentScelf said...

Alyssa, wonderful post. Like so many things requiring context, I think you are spot on in suggesting the need for considering fragrance reception the same way...including "environmental layering."

Btw, on me, the cigarette always trumps the powder when I'm wearing Habanita. :)

12:29 PM EDT  
Blogger Alyssa said...

Scentself -- lucky, lucky, you on the Habanita. Someday my tobacco will arrive...

12:42 PM EDT  
Blogger chayaruchama said...

Maybe you need to drown in vintage Tabarome, my love !

Great to see you here.

Smoky is a favorite- have you tried AL Kretek ?
Shisha ?
The smoke in those should appeal...
No baby powder there, baby .

5:58 PM EDT  
Blogger Unknown said...

Dearest Chaya, my tobacco of choice is vintage Tabac Blond. I only have it in the EDC, but a girl can dream... I enjoy my little sample of Shisha. What is AL Kretek?

6:11 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a really nicely written piece; thanks for sharing it.

The sweet pipe-tobacco heart of VV sounds delicious, I must admit that I am "very American" only in my total loathing of cigarette smoke, although I do have the tiniest bit of nostalgia for the memory of a somewhat stale smoke (I think it was from my grandfather's occasional cigars) that permeated the upholstery in the home of my grandparents back when. I do not share Turin's lament, but I can see what you're saying about tobacco smoke lending a certain base to all types of perfumes -- I'm sure my mother being a smoker lends a depth to the patchouli-based scents she still loves, and they just wouldn't smell the same on anyone else.

And Chaya is right -- Ava Luxe's Kretek is quite delicious, as is Shisha, but then again that perfumed hookah tobacco is a whole different category, more akin to the lovely fragrance of pipe smoke.

12:01 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post; just a few days ago I found myself thinking about what scents layer nicely with cigarette smoke. Azuree, Grey Flannel, Derby, and Le Rose Maroc Pour Elle are a few I've noticed that somehow work. J et C is great and I've got a decant of Sycomore on the way that I'm stoked about. I really enjoyed your post.

BTW, lucky you, you live in Austin; what a great city!

2:07 AM EDT  
Blogger chayaruchama said...

Kretek is a clove-scented Indonesian cigarette- a la Harvard Sq., or Washington Sq. in 1960-70, my sweet.

Just a lovely thing.

Love to you , from Boston to Austin.....

6:33 AM EDT  
Blogger Perfumeshrine said...

Very interesting experiment Alyssa!
Thank you for recounting it, as soon as I saw the theme on the aggragator I knew there was something intriguing to look for.

Although cigarette smoke odour is unpleasant to me (both as a remnant on clothes and as a cold unlit stick), pipe tobacco on the contrary is very alluring. I wonder if the older perfumes had more of the multi-dimensional tobacco nuances ingrained and they exploited them to fill in the missing elements of plain cigarettes (for instance: sandalwood's facets)
And warmth certainly opens the "bouquet" so to speak.
(btw, Diorling and Sycomore are highly recommended by humbly yours)

On another note, isn't it so depressing how so many fragrances just aim at making the wearer blend in? *shudder*

9:16 AM EDT  
Blogger Unknown said...

Joe, thank you. You know, I tend to go to extremes, and for years I was a virulent anti-smoker, couldn't stand the smell of it, thought it was disgusting, etc, so I do know how you feel. (But you also make me want to put on some patchouli based perfume the next time I'm around some of my smoker friends!) Part of it was the difference between smoked tobaccos--my Dad was a pipe smoker when I was young and I was always disappointed that cigarettes didn't retain the wonderful scent they had in the package once they were lit...

11:06 AM EDT  
Blogger Unknown said...

MattS--those all sound great! I adore Austin, but I find that my adoration needs to supplemented with regular trips to NYC.

11:10 AM EDT  
Blogger Unknown said...

Helg -- you know I've often wondered whether cigarettes themselves used to smell better, use a higher quality tobacco, and in general be closer to pipe smoke, which I also adore. I'll have to do a little research one of these days about what makes cigarettes, cigars and pipe tobacco smell so differently when burned. But I love your point about the sandalwood and so on...

11:14 AM EDT  
Blogger Unknown said...

Ah Chaya! I swear I can smell The Square just as you describe it, in spite of the fact that I was just barely an idea in my parents' minds... Love right back atcha'! I do adore the smell of clove cigarettes from a distance. I don't think I would smoke them myself these days.

11:16 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was a great story you told us all and specially your experiance about all those perfumes. I think all that sniffing stuff would had given me a cramp atleast.

Outsourcing Solution in BPO

2:19 AM EDT  
Blogger carmencanada /Grain de Musc said...

Alyssa, I live in Paris, I hang with artists and writers mostly, the majority of whom are smokers (cigarettes, cigars, pipe in one case), and I smoke as well (as do, as a matter of fact, quite a number of old-school perfumers).

I've noticed that the environment does indeed have an impact of the perception of scent, a deepening: I'm wondering whether it's not one of the reasons why I tend to prefer classics, or classically composed fragrances, which *did* factor in the smoke.

That said, I think that when you are used to smoke you filter out the smell (as it's a constant stimulus) when testing fragrance.

2:56 AM EDT  
Blogger Unknown said...

D--that's so interesting, that question of "filtering out" or "taking account" of smoke in the composition or testing of a fragrance. Do you think it would be possible to do both at once? That is, the smoke is there, but you (or other smokers) don't think about it anymore than I would think about, say, the effect of all the hot peppers and garlic I eat on the basic scent of my skin, yet all of this matters in what feels right and good and delicious to us in a perfume... And didn't a version of this happen with me and my friend? That is, I knew the Osmanthe Yunnan was different on him (better!) but I didn't register the smoke, per se.

8:13 AM EDT  
Blogger Unknown said...

Thank you for such a fascinating post! I'm an ex-smoker, and I do miss that aura of ashtray; you're so right about it adding another dimension to perfume. There are even subtle differences among cigarette smells -- the pale, ashy scent of American cigarettes versus the dark, powerful reek of Cuban or French smokes...

As for tobacco actually IN perfume, Tabac Blonde is vile on me, but I'm loving my new sample of Jasmin et Cigarette... I just wish I could stick a bottle in a time machine and send it back to my 15-year-old, Marlboro-smoking, too-cool-for-school self!

11:04 AM EDT  
Blogger Unknown said...

Oh, Natalie. Good perfume isn't the only thing I wish I could send back to my 15-year-old self... I love your point about French and Cuban smokes. Will have to seem some out in the name of, er, research.

11:50 AM EDT  
Blogger carmencanada /Grain de Musc said...

Alyssa, I think the filtering out is partly brain mechanism (as you filter out the sound of your own heartbeat). So it's not really conscious or deliberate. I don't know what more to say at this point! Just that the smell of smoke is almost certainly, at the same time, factored into the effect of fragrance. Not making myself any clearer, am I?

5:21 PM EDT  
Blogger Unknown said...

Oh you're quite clear! And I think we are absolutely in agreement. It's one of those of those spots where mind and brain meet up -- the psychology or what we notice vs. the physical mechanism anosmia.

5:27 PM EDT  
Blogger marchlion said...

Re: your musing on the smells of various unlit cigarettes -- "natural" cigarettes like American Spirits smell better (lit and unlit) than regular cigarettes, and unfiltered is even better.

Um, no, don't ask me how I know this. ;-)

Yes, those old time perfumes in my opinion smell just that much better with a smoky background. Your vintage chypre is begging for a smoke-lit canvas. Thanks for a lovely post.

8:49 PM EDT  
Blogger Unknown said...

March -- yes! the unfiltered ones smell almost like pipe tobacco to me. Alas (or fortunately) I am limited to sniffing other people's hand rolled cigs. They make me dizzy...

Do you have any, um, experience with Cuban cigarettes?

10:53 PM EDT  
Blogger Unknown said...

Cuban cigarettes smell more like good cigars -- dark and resinous. Part of the difference is blonde vs. black tobacco (Cuban cigs contain the latter), and probably the amount of processing too; regular American cigarettes also include a ton of additives, which might change the scent as well.

As for my 15-year-old self, I think she could have pulled off J et C with perfect aplomb -- I'm not sure I'm cool enough for it any more!

11:52 AM EDT  
Blogger Unknown said...

Ah! Black vs. blond tobacco. That's very interesting. I can see that I will be adding a good old-fashioned smoke shop with knowledgeable proprietors to my list of places to visit on my next NYC trip.

1:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Unknown said...

Try Nat Sherman, on the corner of 42nd and Fifth -- as far as I remember, they sell only their own brand, but they're very nice and knowledgeable!

4:26 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Alyssa, such a lovely piece about perfume as memory, one of my own favorite themes. I also love the smell of pipe smoke, and almost any tobacco before it is burned. (An exception would be any and all cigars, which make me very ill.) I have fond recollections of people and places involving smoke even though I have never been a smoker. This post made me think of several of them with a secret smile. :-)

12:21 AM EDT  
Blogger Unknown said...

Mmmm, Flora, I love those delicious sorts of smiles...thank you for bringing me one of my own.

7:59 AM EDT  
Anonymous Buy Women Leather Skirt said...

nice post, alyssa! i think about that too

3:21 AM EST  

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