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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How to (not) smell like a dude

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The first perfume I wore was my dad’s bay rum. Like every other boy, I put on way too much. People near me must have perceived a brownish aromatic cloud with a tall mop-haired boy at the center, gleefully unaware of the smell-carnage in his wake. Some years later, at a department store perfume counter, I picked out my very first fragrance: Versace Dreamer (1996). By then, I already knew how I wanted to smell, and it was nothing like those droning, barbershop perfumes with a horn section that I can only describe as Wagnerian.

If the idea of a Wagnerian perfume conjures up the image of a florid, puffy-chested man with small eyes and a big, fancy watch, you’re not alone. These were not the men I wanted to emulate. When I bought my first perfume, I wasn’t looking for something for the boardroom or the bedroom. I was looking for something that felt luxurious and sophisticated. Something just for me.

Revisiting Dreamer (or at least a version of Dreamer; it may or may not have been reformulated), it doesn’t exactly hold up. But it does take me right back to college, when a little puff from that bottle with the frosted medusa head was all it took to make me feel like the proverbial million bucks. While it doesn’t smell especially classy or romantic to me now, it is miles away from the sporty dreck you might smell in a locker room. Dreamer is a smell to curl up to, its sweet muskiness neither bracing or boastful. It is a perfume for pleasure.

I still look first for that physical pleasure in perfume. Doubtful though I was at first, I regularly put on No. 5 when I need a little extra comfort. Nothing was ever that lovely and just plain gobsmackingly beautiful. I’m not advocating a splash of that famous lady for everyone out there, least of all the men, but it does make me wonder what other men want from their perfume. It’s fine to want to smell nice. I’d even acknowledge the value of smelling nice to impress someone. But doesn’t it sound much nicer to wear perfume for that moment of eye-rolling, posture-melting pleasure that only the best of them provide? It’s out there, gentleman, and it’s not too late to look for it.

In America, at least, how you smell seems to be an embarrassing topic. No matter what I wear (and I’ve worn Secretions Magnifiques to the office, my friends) no one ever comments on it. It seems most people would rather forget that you smell like anything than face the fact that you may be wearing something strange, interesting or–perish the though–beautiful. Perhaps that’s why so many men opt for the blustery male enhancers, which proclaim virility and no sense of humor. If smell, let alone perfume, is to be an uncomfortably intimate subject, then a man’s perfume must speak loud and succinct enough to end the conversation.

These days, I wear mostly feminine perfumes. I’m not willing to give up their inventiveness and romance just to play it safe. I won’t be shutting up about Sarrasins any time soon. Joy (the pre-2010 version) is probably the most generally satisfying perfume I know. Sofia Grojsman’s 100% Love is a mysteriously wonderful combination of the alien and the familiar. Jasmin et Cigarette (just like the name says) is a brilliant idea executed beautifully. All of them pack a hefty wallop of what I’ll call the swoon factor. But what about masculines? Isn’t there something out there to make all you straight-laced dudes weak in the knees? Of course. The few below are a great place to start.

Patricia de Nicolaï’s New York is probably the warmest and friendliest masculine perfume ever. Even in its current reformulated state it still makes me sigh with pleasure. Like all of de Nicolaï’s finest, New York exudes and generosity and approachability that would be plenty satisfying if it weren’t far surpassed by the inventiveness of her compositions and the richness of her materials. She’s one of the original niche perfumers, and she still does the majority of the composition and production under one roof. If you want class and old world style, look no further.

Chanel was late to the game in releasing a “boutique” range of fragrances in 2007. But no one minded when they trotted out the six original bottles in the Exclusifs range. The first Exclusifs masculine Sycomore contains a serious dose of vetiver, but like nearly everything in the Chanel range, that most distinctive of ingredients is transformed into exquisite abstraction. It smells exceptionally natural, with vetiver and sandalwood running the show, but there are far more pleasures under the hood. Then again, you’ll probably just want to kick back and let it wash over you. Let no one say that pleasure is hard work.

Amouage aren’t known for their masculines but Lyric Man is among the best out there. Composer Daniel Visentin cooked up a curious mix of opposites and contradictions. Lyric Man is at once bracing and quiet, spacious and intimate, fresh and humid; and that wondrous central accord of rose, sandalwood, and frankincense is both comforting and odd. Like its sister Lyric Woman, Lyric Man turns the unsettling into the radiant. You may not fall in love with it as quickly as Sycomore or New York–creative director Christopher Chong famously said that his perfumes don’t reveal themselves on the first wearing–but once it gets under your skin it’s there for good.

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