my smellnifesto: or, now I know how the vegans feel

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At a party, or a job interview, or on a dating app, or any random venue for perfunctory small talk, someone will ask me what I do for fun. I mumble something about biking and swimming (both true), about reading and writing (true-ish), but when pressed I’m forced to admit that my real gig is perfume. Who knows exactly what people think when I say that. Maybe they imagine something untoward, like this silly movie (Ben Whishaw’s contributions to hotness and acting, notwithstanding). Or something just plain creepy, like a besotted Mark McGrath having nosegasms in the aisles of Sephora.

Occasionally, I’ll get a pitying look that says, “oh bless your heart, but couldn’t you have picked a more impressive hobby?” More often, people just get plain confused, and behave like my mother would if you mentioned that you just got really into BDSM. (For the record she’d be really polite, and stiffly but sweetly say things like, “Wow, you make it sound so fulfilling!” and “It sounds like a very supportive community!”)

It can get a little lonely. Not only do so few people care one jot about perfume, fewer still want to talk about it. Among that handful probably two or three really can jam. To be fair, I’m super picky. I don’t get too far into the weeds picking out notes*. I don’t care about silly gimmicks or stories that some overeager PR intern shoehorned into the press release. I don’t care where the ingredients were sourced. I don’t necessarily care who composed it. I’m a tough crowd. A tough crowd of one.

What I do care about is the ideas. Luca Turin (who should really be considered more a cultural theorist than a perfume critic, at this point) refers to it as a “message in a bottle”: the full piece and what it ultimately means. Every smell has a meaning. When you smell a blooming flower or a rotting apple that smell is a message, encoded into what we perceive as smell, telling us to come closer or stay away**. When you add up a bunch of smells you either get incomprehensible mud or something that means more than its parts. Only decent perfumers, working with evaluators and artistic directors, can create a cogent story. Far fewer can create something important, let alone something that moves you.

That’s why I get so excited when I smell something great. Not only is it rare, but it’ll set me alight like nothing else can. Unlike music or books or even traditional art, perfume rides the highway straight past my brain and into my heart***. The best stuff illuminates and awakens. (Take Sarrasins, which, with no intended overstatement, is like an ancient poem transcribed by modern means.)

It can get awkward. You’re not going to make any friends bugging out in the aisles of Neiman Marcus. (Or I haven’t yet at least. I don’t know who hires their sales associates, but I never quite feel welcome there.) Not long ago, a friend and I breezed into a Cartier store, and inquired after L’Heure Perdue. The sales associate looked shocked. As we holed up in the cramped back corner where they chucked some of Mathilde Laurent’s finest, we were watched over by a bewildered security guard, who I caught casting us glances as we geeked and proclaimed.

But looking back, I don’t think I’d change a thing. Those of us who get it are like astronauts. And so few people have been to space. A few lonely hours on earth are certainly worth it to touch the veil. And that’s what this life is like.


*Most perfume geeks love digging around for individual notes the way that turtlenecked oenophiles do with wine. It’s not the same. Perfume is designed to be perceived as a single voice, in the way that a painting or a really good burger is a single entity, containing–in the best cases–multitudes.
**Yes, I’m the guy walking around working my nose like a dog. Every smell has something to say.
*** Contrary to what Tania Sanchez would have us believe, connecting our nose to our brain is not the problem. Who ever wanted to “think” more about art? Blech.
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Am I crazy?

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Whether you know it or not, you probably already have an opinion of Edouard Flechier‘s godzillian Poison for Dior (1985). I smelled it on plenty of people growing up. I even remember waiting for my mother in the back of a yoga class while at least one attendee radiated Poison’s plummy tuberose right up to the ceiling. Not so long ago, it was so popular and so reviled that it was banned from restaurants. But thirty years later, amid louder, loucher faire, I was almost tempted to dismiss it as quaint.

The opening is furious and huge, like a jolly purple explosion. And yet, no one tells you that Poison is also intensely tart and woody. I once smelled a freshly cut eucalyptus tree, and it was so sharp and insistent that it smelled sad, like a single note in a minor key sustained on a violin. Poison carries some of that woody lament, employed to offset both the tone and the density of the fruity florals. That juxtaposition rang a bell somewhere deep in my associative memory: I had smelled something very like it before.

The connection struck me from the most unlikely of places: Serge Lutens. While not known for his quiet perfumes, Lutens seems demure and taciturn next to Poison’s day-glo Fran Drescher swagger. Still, there’s no denying the parallels between Poison and the candied woody florals that put the Lutens line on the map. Start by featuring a prominent tangy cedar, sometimes dry, sometimes syrupy sweet and add in a dose of rich florals, amber, fruit, or vanilla as the case may be. That fabulous cycle of fragrances that began with Femininité du Bois (Shiseido, 1992) and included Bois de Violette, Un Bois Vanille, Bois et Musc, Bois Oriental, and Bois et Fruit all spring from that same theme.

In particular, I’m thinking of our old friend Sarrasins, Queen of Moonlight. I’d even wager that Poison directly inspired Sarrasins, with its potent clash of sweet florals (especially the osmanthus core) and balsamic woodiness. It’s as if Sheldrake and Lutens transcribed that unforgettable melody of Poison into a new key and time signature, thereby rendering it practically unrecognizable. Of course, Sarrasins rounds off the composition with that impeccably swoony leather base. It’s also refined, elegant, and mysterious, where Poison has all the subtlety of a Gallagher act. Imagine if Björk admitted Cyndi Lauper taught her everything she knows. Or if Hillary Clinton took public speaking cues from W. Bush.

In the end, the association comes to benefit both Lutens and Flechier. Lutens because he sussed out a brilliantly portable idea in such a distinctive composition, and Flechier because that distinctive (and great) composition has proven to be more influential than we thought. Not just because it paved the way for so many other lovely loudmouths like Angel (also 1992). Unfortunately, Poison is so laden with memories and associations that it’s harder to pull of these days, especially on a man. Still, what’s the point of playing the game if you can’t break a few rules? I wear the Poison eau de toilette from time to time, until I can find an affordable bottle of the pure parfum. If you’re ever in San Francisco, visit Tigerlily in the Mission. They have a wall of vintage formulas, including Poison parfum. For a smell nerd like me, it’s practically worth the whole trip.

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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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The Golden Goddess

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I’ve never known anyone who wore Chanel No. 5. My mom wore L’air du Temps. My grandmother wore Opium. Plenty of my mom’s friends wore Poison. I grew up mostly unmarked by probably the most famous fragrance of all time. That’s probably why I have no trouble wearing it. Sure, the smell of aldehydes (those soapy sparkles in the top notes) and jasmine on a 6’2″ bearded dude is a bit of a stretch. But with something this good, it’s definitely worth the gamble.

No. 5 now comes in four different concentrations: eau de toilette, eau de parfum, eau premiere, and parfum; the parfum being the closest to Ernst Beaux‘s original formula. I recently scooped a vintage bottle of Jean Patou’s Joy, which I like to think of as The Rolling Stones to No. 5’s Beatles. Both Joy and No. 5 are quite abstract, although No. 5 probably more so. But while Joy has a notable dose of civet and a crisp tang that promises danger, No. 5 is serene, demure, and utterly pleasurable.

In the past, I’ve had little use in my collection for “comforting” perfumes. Jean Claude Ellena’s Osmanthe Yunnan kicked that door open for me and it wasn’t long until I was completely under its spell.  No. 5 offers a similar sense of uplift, both heartening and optimistic. It’s also devoid of the funk and filth that I usually seek out in florals (see Joy, Sarrasins, you name it). And I wasn’t sure how well that creamy pillar of refined femininity would jive with my Lebanese man funk.

Surprisingly, I found No. 5 completely wearable. Daubing a few drops on my arm from that exquisite glass stopper I fell prey to complete bliss. Never have I smelled anything so heartbreakingly beautiful. Familiarity with the excellent eau de parfum and even the peerless eau de toilette concentrations had failed to prepare me for the dizzying loveliness of the parfum. Luxury never felt this good.

The No. 5 parfum feels more complex than its siblings, the similarly luscious Bois de Iles and the strapping Cuir de Russie, all of which were composed by Ernst Beaux and debuted in the 1920s. The aldehydes in No. 5’s opening are undeniably lovely, but in the parfum they are rendered smoother and more seamless than in either the eau de toilette or eau de parfum, adding sparkle to the rest of the composition’s golden form. No. 5 is a real presence in the room, never overbearing or distracting, but fully real. I recently smelled it in passing and felt that familiar sense of comfort and delight. Some things are so beautiful that they make you feel more alive. No. 5 is one of them.

Leather in Moonlight

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Sadly, Serge Lutens’s dark beauty Sarrasins is hard to come by. A scant three or four stores in the US carry it, and while it may be easily scooped online, actually smelling it is out of reach for most people. Even among the Lutens collection it’s a bit of an outlier. Its wearability and abstraction recall Chanel, which uncoincidentally is where its composer Christopher Sheldrake spent the mid 00s hard at work launching the Exclusifs collection. Incidentally, that initial launch of 31 Rue Cambon, Coromandel, 28 La Pausa, Eau de Cologne, Bel Respiro, and No. 18 occurred in the same year as Sarrasins, a slew of work which could respectably comprise an entire CV.

Based on the internet consensus, diminished distribution isn’t needed to ensure the scarcity of Sarrasins: very few people actually admit to liking the stuff. Generally, even the aficion seem to prefer Lutens’s A La Nuit, which Luca Turin rightly dubs “death by jasmine.” Far be it from me to tell you that the juice you love is crap, but far be it from you to tell me that Sarrasins, one of the most gobsmackingly beautiful, inventive, and thought-provoking perfumes I’ve ever smelled is anything short of genius. (And if you are one of those unfortunate people who laments the overuse of the word genius, I apologize. I think you people should use it more.)

Sarrasins opens with an explosive jasmine, certainly lifelike, but also powerfully evocative. I even imagine a fresh dusting of sparks as the opening settles. The scent eventually morphs into a slightly sweet leather with tangy balsamic facets. Indeed, even the woody notes in Sarrasins are powerfully suggestive, aching and keening like the smell of a freshly cut tree. It is important to note that while some (even Luca Turin) describe it as a “floral leather,” that descriptor is misleading. Sarrasins is decidedly not the obvious floral with a leather base. Instead, it progresses from floral to leather, suggesting some kind of transformation. The effect is like watching jasmine undergo a metamorphosis, from flower into a leathery skin.

Here the simple idea of jasmine into skin begins to take on a poetic resonance. Metamorphosis is a provocative theme, and Lutens uses it to show a surprising connection between two materials which on the surface could not be more different. This kind of didactic trick was accomplished at least once before by Lutens and Sheldrake. Their La Myrrhe moves seamlessly from choking aldehyde fireworks to crisp, sweet myrrh: a perfect marriage of the chemical and the mystical.

However, in Sarrasins Lutens’s poetic message is even sharper, more coherent, and more insistent. The composition feels streamlined and incredibly refined, with all arrows leading in one clear direction. In the words of Stephanie Zacharek (speaking about Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth), Lutens “pulled off the difficult feat of using pure sensation to make us think.” Consider me converted.