Too good for this world

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Apple’s Jony Ive once said that people are very good at sensing how much care went into making something. The trouble is, care isn’t nearly enough. Even very carefully made products so often arise from an exploitative spirit, from the shabby way contributors are treated to the cynicism and parsimony demonstrated to the audience. There do exist in this weary world those brave souls who will give the customer a fair shake, people who charge less than they might and deliver more than they could. In the world of perfume, these companies are rare. As niche perfumers drive prices sky high, the big brands have followed suit, charging more for cruder, shoddier compositions. Never has it been possible to spend so much on so little.

Which is why smelling Nicolaï’s New York Intense last week actually brought me to tears. Patricia de Nicolaï didn’t have to put such lovely materials in the formula. She didn’t have to polish the stuff until it positively brimmed over with warmth and generosity. But, she did. And that generosity, that sensation of not just care but of being cared for, is what makes her one of the most valuable artistic voices at work today. I imagine Mme de Nicolaï making perfumes, not for an abstract customer or market, but for a friend, and for someone to whom she holds herself accountable.

Of course, it smells great, too. I’ve always thought of New York–in any formulation–as the most comforting fragrance I know. No showy flashes. No modern cleverness. Just a fantastic melody played on keen instruments, its sumptuousness derived from de Nicolaï’s diligent tuning and counterbalancing. Unlike other master technicians–Dominique Ropion comes to mind–every choice, every careful turn adds up to delight. As I smell it I can feel my whole body relax.

The curmudgeons among us might say that she just happens to be really, really good at her job. That exemplary creations naturally create the effect of sentience, and thereby intention. But I’m an optimist. Her work is not just great but personable, making easy terms for those who would seek it. Her work is not challenging, but it is, in every sense of the word, satisfying.

Perhaps people like Patricia de Nicolaï were always meant to come scarce, but I think not. For those who listen, she can remind us to demand more and deliver better. I for one am paying attention.

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I hate your soap

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Public bathrooms are a dicey affair. So rarely are they well-appointed enough to be comfortable, by the time you get to the sink, you’re just glad if there’s enough soap left for a good scrub. Generally, the soap smells fine. Or at least it’s inoffensive and gone soon enough.

Then there are those bathrooms–stocked by some batty, misguided fool–that contain, not just soap, but Soap. Imagine the olfactory equivalent of being followed around by a close-talking Ethel Mermen. If you’re trying to enjoy a meal, forget it! You’ll be stuck smelling that fruity/floral nonsense every time your hands get near your face. Dear IFRA, when you’re done “eliminating allergens” from our favorite classics, you might turn your attention to the real problem: compulsory hand soap smell tattoos.

Here are the few praiseworthy outfits that get it right…

Dr. Bronner’s

Their standard stuff with the blue label is my favorite. It smells exactly as soap should, with a jolt of peppermint. There’s a depth to the low end notes that remains ideally crisp, even as it fades. The hunt can end here, my friends.

Hospital soap

Sure, it smells chemical and industrial. It also isn’t trying to pretend to be anything else. If you’ve just had to hunt for your keys in a sewer drain or cope with a burst trash bag only this smell will convince you that your hands are now good and clean. And really, shouldn’t the smell of hand soap only ever serve as proof that you’ve washed properly?

Southwest Airlines lavatory hand soap

This one blew my mind. I was having a stressful visit to the airplane lavatory–timed just before the turbulence got bad enough to get me forcibly pinned to my seat–that I smelled something familiar. From the tiny steel sink came wafting a sweetly aldehydic smell not unlike Lutens’s La Myrrhe. Yes, it’s a bit like hearing Wagner coming out of a flip-phone, but it’s also a good bit of fun at a fraction of the cost.