Arabia Felix

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Of all the classic perfume genres orientals are probably the most flexible. Most chypres have that instantly recognizable bitter tang. Fougères smell more or less like something your dad would wear. Florals pile on the requisite flowers and woods the requisite woods. But orientals are a dizzyingly diverse crowd, from spicy/sweet earthbound ambers (e.g Ambre Sultan) to boisterous oddballs like Thierry Mugler’s Angel. Many of them are painfully boring: you smell one, you’ve smelled them all. Orientals are the dance music of the perfume world. Among the bubble-headed dreck and perfunctory crowd pleasers you’ll find a growing list of innovative fragrances using the basic oriental blueprint to achieve wonderfully strange results.

Cartier’s L’Heure Perdue by Matilde Laurent may open with sweet, powdery loveliness, but things get weird quickly. The main accord smells like some combination of balloon rubber and gluey, pulpy paper. In other words, like no natural material I know. And yet the fidelity suggests a top-quality natural material. You’ll also find an overripe fruit smell (à la Amouage’s Lyric Woman) adding a spooky dimension to an already odd fragrance. But while Laurent’s brilliant composition strikes out for brave new territory, it is always comforting. The plush sweetness helps the strangeness go down easily and provides a sturdy backbone on which to hang the more peculiar flourishes.

You can’t talk about orientals without mentioning Serge Lutens. There’s the landmark Ambre Sultan, my favorite straight-up “amber.” And Borneo 1834 which does magical, evocative things with patchouli. The real heart of the collection, however, lies in the mystical and semi-mystical compositions, including La Myrhhe and El Attarine, which practically vibrate with mystery and suggestion. (More on El Attarine in a future post.) The melodies may be simple, but they cast a big shadow.

And then there’s Amouage, purveyors of some of the biggest, loudest and most complex perfumes I know. The majority of the collection falls firmly in oriental territory, but the best examples are so big and ambitious that they transcend the genre entirely. Take the inimitable Ubar. Calling it a floral oriental (which is not inaccurate) is like calling Kanye West a rapper. Like Mr. West, Ubar is decadent, complicated, and loud. But precious few perfumes holding forth at this volume have something so enchanting to say. It’s the smell equivalent of  a shimmering golden sandcrawler, blasting Mahler from top-range speakers. It’s also packing a glorious dose of ambergris: salty, musty, and deliciously skanky. If you’re looking for grand splendor look no further. The prices are steep, but rest assured, there’s nothing else like Amouage on earth.

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Don’t Forget to Save the World

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Without realizing it, I got stuck in the deep end of “serious art.” In a rush to fill in the gaps in my perfume knowledge–and collection–I focused on the essentials, the masterpieces, and the great works. It led me to the door of some amazing places. I recently rediscovered Ubar, and the bigness and strangeness of that rare beast reminded me in seconds why perfume is so great.

But sometimes, you need to lighten up. Amouage and Lutens may make you swoon, but you might feel silly wearing them to a comedy show. Or to a cookout. Then I remembered Etat Libre d’Orange, that defiantly idiosyncratic, occasionally bawdy, usually provocative french line with over 30 bottles in their range. They lay claim to probably the most reviled fragrance on the market with Secretions Magnifiques, but also put out one of the most comforting (Like This). On the surface they may seem irreverent and campy, but below the ludicrous ad copy and the goofy drawings of ejaculating penises, you’ll find brilliant artists and top-drawer perfumes.

The best stuff in the line can be thrown on as easily as a t-shirt. Plus, it’s got the complexity and quality (owner and mastermind Etienne de Swardt swears that they spend more than $300 a kilo on their juice, more than 10x what the stuff at Sephora usually costs) to last you through the day. Somehow they’ve managed to include all the fun of the low brow with all the satisfying richness of lofty, haute parfumerie. Certainly, they have their high-concept works (e.g. the aforementioned Secretions Magnifiques), but generally they manage to be both strange and wonderful. That balancing act alone is no small feat. Their great successes–Jasmin et Cigarette, for example–make it seem natural and effortless.

Most of all, the whole line exudes a spirit of discovery and delight, as if they can’t quite believe they are getting away with it. Which makes sense, since Etienne de Swardt seems to be simultaneously daring, reckless, and rigorous. I include Etat Libre d’Orange in a short list of perfume companies (see also Knize and Parfums de Nicolai) which ask so little and work so hard to please. Add to that fresh lashings of gleeful adventure and you’ve got one of the most charming, satisfying, and accessible niche lines out there.

Etienne de Swardt is fond of saying “frivolity will save the world.” Ironic or not, tongue in cheek or not, the poetry of that statement hits home. De Swardt is the odd bird with a host of big ideas and a light touch. Sure, he can talk like a philosophy major, but clearly he’d rather let his hair down at the concert. For those about to rock, I salute you.