This year I had a “gift exchange” with a friend. We sent each other a bottle of perfume, and the one I received was Sogno Reale. I had acquired a sample of it a few months ago, and I must apologize, I didn’t pay much attention to it after dabbing some on my skin. (I also did not enjoy testing samples from little vials.) I had just received too many samples that month, and not many perfumes grabbed my attention for they didn’t have a distinct voice or a “catchy” top note.
Now that I have a full bottle with a sprayer, I have changed my view on this perfume completely. Smelling it develop on my skin was very interesting – the first few seconds (yes, the first few seconds, and it is quite enough for most people to lose interest if it isn’t attractive enough) gives me the impression that it’s a weak perfume. But as it develops, it has a slow fizzy effect, almost like you are watching an effervescent tablet dance and dissolve in a glass of water. Or like watching a “tea bomb” blossom in a glass teapot, but with a caveat – I have no idea what’s in the tea bomb and the flavour is like nothing I have smelled before.
That’s because I didn’t check Fragrantica. I didn’t do any research on this perfume because it’s a gift. I just sprayed some on with no pre-conceived idea what kind of story it was supposed to tell me, and also I didn’t understand the Italian title of the perfume. I had been guessing what notes were in the perfume the whole day and I was clueless. It smelled a little powdery, a little uplifting (aldehyde, maybe?), a little sweet, maybe a little floral, a little ancient, like there’s some mysterious mild-smelling herbs or resins stored in a jar an archaeologist had dug up from a tomb and decided it’s quite safe to consume. In other words, it’s very well blended, completely mysterious and alluring.
I gave up, it’s a puzzle I could’t solve, and I looked it up in Fragrantica. (Spoiler Alert) it has hyrax, styrax, olibanum, rum, tuberose and sea notes, if they are important to you.
“Oh this is Tobacco Vanille? No way I am going to wear it! It smells like my grandpa! And who is Tom Ford?”
That’s probably what your grandkids will say 50 years from now. They will say the same thing about all the oud perfumes and the expensive brands that we die to have at the moment.
After smelling different perfumes from different eras, (Lanvins, Carons, Guerlains, Diors, Tom Fords, Le Labos, etc.), I have come to an easy conclusion that perfumes are like fashion – the older the style, the more awkward it is to wear them (unless they are really, really classics). Torn jeans from the 90’s are still acceptably hip in 2015 but gigantic shoulder pads from the 80’s and bell-bottom jeans from the 70’s are now completely comical. It is occasionally fun to wear a vintage piece, but if you are wearing them everyday, people may think there is something “awkward” or “wrong” going on with you.
Perfumes, on the other hand, are more “forgiving” because it is not visual, but still, in the most abstract way, people somehow can tell if you are wearing an old-style perfume, just like my coworkers love to say that Chanel No.5 is horribly grandma-smelling. (Disclaimer: I wear whatever perfume I like.)
My first sniff of Roads’ Graduate 1954 at a department store brought me a big smile and I thought, “This smells like some hand-me-down perfumes from someone’s grandma who has just passed away, or a mysterious no-label perfume you found in a flea market.” What’s more ironic is that the packaging of this perfume house is uber-modern and minimalistic – making it more obvious to me that this scent wants to pay homage to vintage perfumes. In this case, I guess, perfumes from the 50’s.
There is also a revelation after smelling Graduate 1954, and it is that vintage perfumes don’t smell old because the contents have deteriorated; instead, they just smell that way because it was trendy at that time, like how a lot of perfumes from the 2010’s smell of synthetic oud, amber and caramel candies. In the case of Graduate 1954, I suspect the combination of rose, muguet, heliotrope, clove and moss/patchouli gives you a soft, feminine, and slightly uneasy scent, for the florals are ambiguous and the clove and heliotrope are having an odd interaction. It also represents the smell of a bygone golden era that I am not familiar with. It is amusing to see that it is a colorless synthetic perfume delivering such feelings instead of a dark ambery juice made out of real perfumery ingredients and aromachemicals that had not yet been banned.
[I want to write about some of the perfumes that have influenced and led me to the creation of my perfume brand, Zoologist Perfumes. They have sparked ideas and given me new understanding about niche fragrances and the marketing of them.]
Pt. VIII. Synthetic Notes in Perfumery – Guerlain’s Mitsouko
A fish that was thought to have gone extinct 66 millions years ago was discovered in 1938 on a local fishing trawler. Nicknamed the “Living Fossil”, coelacanth has no close relations alive, and was thought to have evolved into roughly its current form approximately 400 million years ago. Many scientists believe that the unique characteristics of the coelacanth represent an early step in the evolution of fish to terrestrial four-legged animals like amphibians.*
That was a major discovery in the world of natural history, but my “living fossil” discovery in the perfume world was Guerlain’s Mitsouko (1919).
A perfume created almost 100 years ago and is still in production, Mitsouko is a resilient survivor in the vast sea of perfumes. I can walk into any major department store and buy a bottle of Mitsouko, and I do not need to worry too much about it getting discontinued any time soon. Perfumistas, especially die-hard Guerlain fans, regard Mitsouko as a classic, and if you meet one, they will probably yap about it. Well, I only knew about Mitsouko through reading Luca Turin’s perfume review book. When I first started exploring perfumes, I was overwhelmed by the amount of perfumes out there, had never heard of the brand Guerlain, and got obsessed with testing out Le Labo and L’Artisan Parfumeur samples, and sniffing Byredos and Tom Fords.
To be honest, I am never too crazy about Mitsouko. I think it’s an acquired taste. I remember just before smelling it the very first time, I stood in front of the Guerlain counter, looking at the French-toast-shaped bottle, and thought, “This is it. This is the legendary perfume.” I had such high expectation for it and my mind was all prepared for the most amazing scent ever, and when the scent hit my nose, I didn’t know how to react. I was stunned by something so unexpectedly non-contemporary – it’s not exactly floral, not exactly powdery, not exactly sweet, not exactly fruity, not Chanel No. 5-style aldehydic… if all the perfumery keyword words were represented by circles in a Venn diagram, Mitsouko fell right outside of the chart, not belonging to any category. (That’s because I was a newbie and didn’t know what a chypre perfume was, but again, if you ask me to show you a typical chypre now, I wouldn’t not pick Mitsouko but Estee Lauder’s Knowing.)
So getting acquainted with Ms. Mitsouko was a valuable lesson for me, as if I had got a “vintage perfume vaccination shot” – bring it on, I can love all vintage perfumes! (Hugging Lanvin’s Arpege so hard till she says let go of me.)
One interesting tidbid of information about Mitsouko that I learned from reading Roja Dove’s “The Essense of Perfumes” was its first use of Aldehyde C 14 in fine perfumery. Mitsouko is quite famous for its peachy note, and it is Aldehyde C 14 you are smelling. I haven’t seen anyone complain about it but praise it. On the Internet I have seen quite a few people who think that a perfume must smell better if natural ingredients are used instead of synthetics. I used to think that way too, but Chris Bartlett, the perfumer of my perfume Beaver, wrote in an interview** that he thinks that synthetics are very important in modern perfumery because if a perfume is all natural, the smell couldl easily turn “muddy”, and a modern fragrance needs an artificial skeleton to support it.
A lot of niche perfume companies like to emphasis the use of uncommon or hard to harvest natural ingredients and charge a hefty price, while I am sure they bring something special to the perfumes, but look at Mitsouko, a relatively simple perfume (according to Roja Dove), archieving the classic status with the use of a brave new synthetic note of the time and masterful perfumery skill.
When I first saw Penhaligon’s Tralala (2014), only one thing had come to my mind: this outrageous packaging is going to be discontinued in a hard way, for it is so fancy, the different factories that made their boxes and crazy ribbons may not have all the parts available when Penhaligon’s decides to make another batch later down the road. It’s just my collector’s gut feeling, I could be wrong.
So I blind-bought the perfume because of the packaging. Penhaligon’s, you win. But the actual surprise, is the perfume itself. Tralala, I have decided, is the perfume of former-glory. It’s a black and white photo that has turned yellow, a showgirl retiring from Moulin Rouge, a neglected face that uses a trowel to put the make up on, an unsatisfying life that needs whisky to resuscitate. I am sure that’s not the mood Bertrand Duchaufour (nose of L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Timbuktu) wants you to feel, but this is the mood that I get when I am smelling it. (You might find it marvellous and uplifting.) In fact, the creatives of Penhaligon’s said it in an interview, ” I wanted the perfume to be heavy and old fashioned, I wanted it to smell glamorous. I love the idea of perfume dominating the space it fills and as a glorious sensory barrier between you and the World, like a deep velvety aura.”
Don’t get me wrong, I like the scent, and I am happy to own this bottle, but it smells delightfully depressing. Whisky, saffron, leather, incense, vanilla, myrrh, all the warm and moody notes paired with some aldehyde who has just lost its stock portfolio. Let me apply some now, I need drama.
Sorry I didn’t write any new post for the past few days because I was busy launching my perfume webshop. That’s right, Zoologistperfumes.com is now open! Please come in for a visit! Also, please like the facebook page www.facebook.com/zoologistperfumes for latest news and updates!
What’s the most probable reason why a perfume house discontinues a perfume?
Certain ingredient(s) is no longer available
It is no longer profitable to make such perfume
Their line up is too big and they want to prune the ones that don’t sell
It smells so out-of-this-world that you constantly see people telling you so on the Internet, and the perfume house wants to disappoint all the fragrance lovers who have not bought it yet by yanking it from the market maliciously so that everyone loses
I was looking at a bottle of Mitzah at a Dior store in Hong Kong, dumbfounded. Why was it still available? Wasn’t it discontinued and people who had a bottle constantly bragged about it? What’s going on? It had to be a trap. In fact, the reason why I was in that shop was to get a bottle of Amber Nuit. A scent that I thought was ok when I first sniffed it, but turned out to be a carpet-riding awesome scent after I took a sample home and got the time to evaluate it properly. But I only had the budget to get one bottle and I would be flying home soon. I picked up the bottle of Mitzah, took a sniff, and thought, it’s ok. A honey-based oriental spicy perfume. It’s not unique, it even smelled a bit sour, but it’s smooth. Actually it reminded me of Serge Lutens’ Ambre Sultan. In fact, a weaker version of Ambre Sultan. If I wore it to work, people in the office probably would tell me that I smell like an old man and get back to work watching Youtube. Did I really want it? I could sense a sales person walking slowly towards me and ready to offer his generous help. His blurred out silhouette was slowly getting focused. This was my last chance – would I be selling my first-born son to win a bottle of Mitzah on eBay later if I don’t get it today? Reason #4 was the only logical answer and I shouldn’t let it happen. The sales person said, “Good choice, we don’t have many bottles left because it’s our bestseller.” Liar.
Smelling Aesop’s Marrakech Intense for the first time had brought back memory of eating Terry’s Chocolate Orange for the first time – I felt puzzled. Was I eating a slice of orange or a piece of chocolate? Obviously chocolate, but the orange flavour was very over-powering, so I guessed it’s not very good chocolate? Or was I missing the point? May be it was supposed to be just a fun treat? Look at that cute orange-shaped chocolate ball that opens up into segments! Honestly, my brain probably was bored and had decided to over-analyze things. I really should not hesitate when it comes to chocolate, so I smothered my brain with a pillow and ate the whole damn thing, problem averted. I digress. Similarly, Marrakech Intense was supposed to be a Moroccan city inspired oriental perfume – sugar, spice and everything nice, but the opening had some very apparent bergamot citrus scent, which usually belonged to fresh colognes, making it strange for me, but may be that’s the beauty of it – it gives this warm, spicy and resinous scent a twist. Again, I shouldn’t have hesitated, I should just spray and enjoy.