Grossmith’s Saffron Rose (2012)

Grossmith's Saffron Rose (2012)
Grossmith’s Saffron Rose (2012) © Victor Wong
A perfume boutique owner once told me a story of a customer who wanted to give himself a “surprise” – he asked to be left alone to sit in the corner of the shop so to read all the promotional materials of the perfumes that the shop carried. An hour later, he stood up and made a purchase based on what he had just read.
 
I wonder if he has got himself a pleasant surprise or a disappointment? Most people on the Internet are against “blind buying” perfumes, and the reasons are obvious. Even by studying the perfume notes breakdown, it is still of little use – you don’t know the proportion of each ingredient in the perfume. When a perfume says it has rose and patchouli, you might get a rose perfume with a hint of patchouli, or a patchouli perfume with a hint of rose.
 
Last week I played a round of “Wheel of Fortune – Perfumista Blind-Buy Edition.” The stakes were quite high, for I saw a few slices of “Bankrupt” on the wheel.
 
“Are you sure?” my friend who worked at the boutique worriedly asked.
 
“Yes. I have asked a friend who has smelled all the Grossmith perfumes and he said this one was the best,” I replied.
 
“Ok,” and the credit card was swiped, my neck bled a little, and irreversibly the cashier iPad displayed the message, “PAID, sucker.”
 
You may wonder why didn’t I smell the testers in the shop first? Well, the shop actually didn’t have Grossmith testers. I don’t know if Grossmith simply don’t provide or sell testers or this particular shop didn’t buy testers from Grossmith. Anyway, this purchase was a pure shopping-therapy kind of indulgence.
 
I tore open the shrink-wrap, and carefully took out the bottle and sprayed some on my wrist, took a sniff, and let her take a sniff too.
 
“Oh my, this is amazing! It smells very warm.” she exclaimed. (Remember that she had never smelled any Grossmith perfumes before this.)
 
I believe that was a sincere expression. However, in my head, I thought, “Oh shit, oh shit, this was not what I expected. Where’s the rose? Where’s the rose?”
 
I had this reaction due to the fact that 1) I expected it to be a rose perfume, 2) I had never smelled a perfume with this much saffron (real or not) in it. Stronger than sniffing a bottle of real saffron before I stingily put just a little in a Spanish paella, it was medicinal, but moist, rich, warm. So much so, as if the valve of the awesome dispenser broke and awesomeness couldn’t stop spewing out like a rainbow – I was a little dumbfounded.
 
As I was about to reach home, it was half an hour since I had sprayed one spray of Saffron Rose on my wrist, and I sniffed again. Damn, this was Le Labo Rose 31. The dry down of Saffron Rose was actually Rose 31, the whole perfume, but better – spicy, woody, powdery, tobacco-y and of course, with some saffron and rose. C’est la vie.

L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Piment Brûlant (2002)

L'Artisan Parfumeur's Piment Brûlant © Victor Wong
L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Piment Brûlant © Victor Wong

Back in 2013, I tested a bunch of L’Artisan Parfumeur’s samples and I could clearly remember my reaction to smelling Piment Brûlant (Burning Pepper) – “Oh, it’s a bell pepper perfume? How peculiar! Definitely not for me though…” A few months later I traveled to Europe and one of the stops was Hungary. Hungary is a major exporter of paprika peppers to the world (or pimento peppers, but some people say they are not the same), and their cuisines are famous for incorporating this spice. Not to my surprise, I saw many beautiful, glossy air-dried paprika bunches hanging inside souvenir shops in the tourist area. It’s only when I returned home and started organizing my photos then I realized Piment Brulant was a perfume that featured the paprika note.

It’s very clear to me that Piment Brulant isn’t L’Artisan Parfumeur’s bestseller. I occasionally visit their site to see what’s new, what get re-released, but I don’t ever recall seeing Piment Brulant on their site. I assume it has been discontinued and the public interest for that scent is not strong. The reason is quite simple in my opinion – it’s a fine fresh scent, almost like a cologne, but infused with  pepper oil. Not white pepper, black pepper or pink pepper, but fresh fiery hot pepper that you use for, say, a Vietnamese dish, and if you’ve touched the seeds and touch your eyes accidentally, you die.

I imagine mad genius perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour couldn’t stop at a perfectly fine cologne and looked around his lab frantically for something to enhance his creation, and a poor paprika walked by the window and he grabbed it and stuffed it in the flask and yelled “Viola”. Despite the craziness, the amount of pepper oil used in this creation is perfectly fine-tuned so that it doesn’t overwhelm, but yet I am able to detect traces of it from the beginning to the end. Bored with cologne but only wear cologne? Give this one a try.

Lanvin’s Famous Perfumes from the 20th Century, Part 5 – Crescendo

Lanvin Vintage Ads and Crescendo Extrait © Victor Wong
Lanvin Vintage Ads and Crescendo Extrait © Victor Wong

Over the many months of continuous searching for vintage Lanvin perfumes on eBay, I had come across many Lanvin’s perfume ads and posters. For more than 20 years since late 1930s, Lanvin had been grouping “My Sin”, “Arpege”, “Rumeur”, “Scandal” and “Pretexte” together in their printed ads, almost like a frequent reminder that those were their best perfume offerings. (They were. Lanvin had had other perfumes released throughout those years, but they were never a big hit.) In 1958, Crescendo debut. (Some sites say 1965, which I think is incorrect because periodicals from 1958 already mentioned of Crescendo.) It seemed to me that Lanvin was trying to make it another hit to join the “classic five”, but it had never succeeded. The big wave crests that Lanvin wanted Crescendo to make turned out to be ripples in a quiet pond, and in 1969, Lanvin discontinued it.

Compared to the “classic five” Lanvin perfumes, Crescendo is a decidedly more floral one (but it’s still an oriental spicy perfume), and it smells more interesting to me because of the ingredients used that had never* appeared in any of the “classic five” perfumes – hyacinth, linden blossom, marigold, honey, heliotrope, just to name a few. (*If my memory serves me right.) My only bottle of Crescendo is almost 50 years old, the aldehyde note is mostly gone, and with typical mid/base notes such as carnation, iris, incense, oakmoss, sandalwood and spices trying to run the show. But something is different in Crescendo if you pay a bit more attention to its floral part – it’s sweeter, more tender and creamier, and a bit more uncommon and interesting. I think it’s the hyacinth and ylang-ylang that set it apart. (I thought they were a bit more exotic for a perfume released in the 1960s, but Houbigant’s Quelques Fleurs in 1913 had all the flowers mentioned above. Bitch please.)

Overall, I think Crescendo is one of the better extraits that Lanvin have ever produced, despite its short-lived glory.

Bond No. 9’s I Love New York for Marriage Equality (2011)

Bond No. 9 - I Love New York for Marriage Equality (EDP, 100ml) © Victor Wong
Bond No. 9 – I Love New York for Marriage Equality (EDP, 100ml) © Victor Wong

“I Love New York for Marriage Equality” is an odd smelling perfume. I don’t love it, and I don’t hate it. I don’t wear it often, because when I do, I will be constantly guessing if people around me are wondering what they are smelling. It really took me some time to understand what this perfume was about, or find a label/category for it, but now I do, and it’s quite amusing – it’s a nutmeg perfume. It’s not a rose perfume, not a fruity perfume, not a woody perfume, not an amber perfume, although it shares traits of all those perfumes, but mainly, it’s a spicy perfume that features nutmeg and cinnamon. I’d say it’s a fall/winter perfume, and it would be nuts to wear this perfume to Gay Pride when the summer temperature is high and everywhere full of rainbow beams deflected by pecs and abs.

My “review” of “I Love New York for Marriage Equality” ends here. I blind-bought this perfume because I am gay and I knew US would eventually pass nationwide same sex marriage, and I wanted to own a “gay perfume”, a little historic emblem, before it got discontinued for being an “outdated topic”.

I must admit I am extremely lucky to live in this special period of time and in Canada, which allows same sex marriage since 2005. I have been living with my partner for 15 years, and we never feel we need to get married. To me this is almost a minority civil right luxury that I couldn’t imagine we would have twenty years ago – choosing not to get married.

My gay friend came out to his mom when he was a teenager almost 25 years ago. Her reaction was, “this is a pity, because life is so much more complete when you have a spouse to share with, but gay men can’t get married.” A few years later she died of brain cancer. Who would have thought both their sorrows were gone when he married his true love twenty years later.

Civil rights, keep marching forward!

Etat Libre D’Orange’s Like This (2010)

Etat Libre D'Orange's Like This © Victor Wong
Etat Libre D’Orange’s Like This © Victor Wong

If anyone wants to know what “spirit” is,
or what “God’s fragrance” means,
lean your head toward him or her.
Keep your face there close.

Like this.

The above verse is taken from the poem “Like This” by Rumi. Rumi is a 13th-century Persian Islamic poet, and his work has been translated into many of the world’s languages (source: wikipedia). If my interpretation is anywhere close to his idea of a “God’s fragrance”, that fragrance would be the human pheromones, the scent of attraction, the scent of the living. I think that’s absolutely ingenious, insightful, open-minded and unexpected.

So what does “Like This” smell like? Is it as poetic as Rumi’s “God’s fragrance”? Well, it turns out it smells like a slice of pumpkin pie. Next time when you host a Thanksgiving dinner, wow your guests by offering them a chance to smell “God’s fragrance” inexpensively – “Close your eyes, now take a sniff.” When they open their eyes, they see a spoonful of pumpkin pie filling you just scooped out of a can and placed under their noses.

Of course, “Like This” smells much more than a slice of pumpkin pie; the pumpkin pie smell is actually part of the dry down of the perfume. The opening is a sweet, vegetal, fresh ginger scent that guarantees to wake you up. But shortly after, the awakening notes turn warm and cozy (rose, pumpkin, sweet immortelle, musks) and it begs you to go back to bed or hug something. Look around, nothing good in sight? Hug yourself. “Like This” is a homey, cuddly scent, but you need to know if the one you want to snuggle with likes pumpkin pie, because I had once served someone a slice who did not like the smell of pumpkin spice but too polite to say no, and he looked like he had just dropped an egg on the kitchen floor every time he took a bite.

Nina Ricci’s L’Air du Temps (1948)

Nina Ricci's L'Air du Temps Vintage Flacon © Victor Wong
Nina Ricci’s L’Air du Temps Vintage Flacon © Victor Wong

For people who study or collect vintage perfumes, it’s almost impossible to miss the famous two-dove flacon bottle that houses Nina Ricci’s L’air du Temps (The Air of Spring). Released in 1948 after World War II, it was a huge hit and became Nina Ricci’s most famous perfume. Nina Ricci has never ceased the production of L’Air du Temps (although continuously being reformulated) and this perfume can be found everywhere perfumes are sold.

Now I cut to the chase: L’Air du Temps sucks. Well, I am just referring to the modern version. Actually, when I first smelled it in a department store, I thought it smelled good. I was very tempted to buy a bottle, but I didn’t. Many months later I bought a mini 30ml version in a local drugstore at a discounted price. (Man, that bottle was so flimsy and cheap looking.) I have spent some good time smelling the perfume and come to this conclusion: I can tell this perfume used to smell wonderful but now it isn’t because of the cheap and synthetic ingredients that they used. The feeling is similar to eating cakes made with synthetic vanilla and fake jam (I eat that all the time when coworkers leave the company); you know how they could be better if you have eaten cakes made with real buttah and good ingredients.

So I started hunting for a vintage version of L’Air de Temps on eBay. Actually, it was no challenge at all because they were so popular. I found one that was sealed and never seen the light. As expected, the difference between vintage and reformulation is huge. But what I didn’t expect was that they smelled like two different perfumes, not one with better ingredients. The modern version does fit the title “The Air of Spring”; it’s floral and light and full of aldehyde, but it’s so pale and bleached like a poster that has been tormented by the sun for years, most of the colors are gone, all you see are images of pale yellow and cyan. The vintage version on the other hand is a full-color classic chypre with focus on carnation and spice (particularly cloves), so much so that it almost smells metallic. The perfume should be named “The Air of Fall” or “The Grandmother of Opium”. Sadly, I am not a big fan of both versions. If the modern version uses higher quality ingredients, I will choose to wear it.

I recently talked to a local perfume shop owner and she complained that the evergreen perfumes no longer sell as well as the previous years. Her conclusion, “People who are loyal to those classics are mostly seniors, maybe they are now dead.” It’s sad that perfume companies choose to serve water downed version of their waning products instead of keeping the quality that brought them riches. Or May be they are doing a service to the retirees that don’t have much to spend but still want to wear their favorites? I don’t know.

Thierry Mugler’s B-Men (2003)

Thierry Mugler's B-Men © Victor Wong
Thierry Mugler’s B-Men © Victor Wong

I was pretty late to the fragrance party, by the time I bought my first bottle of A-Men, they had already released over 10 A-Men flankers. Recently a sales person showed me their newly released A-Men Ultra Zest and I told him it smelled just like A-Men with orange. Really I should have kept it to myself, but I couldn’t resist, and the sales person couldn’t resist either, and politely hinted to me, “What did you expect? It’s a flanker.”

Last week I blind-bought B-Men because I thought it might smell completely different from A-Men, but also it was in its first edition acrylic box (just like my bottle of A-Men), and I associated that to a more potent fragrance. (I’ve read stories that A-Men’s potency has gone much weaker over the years.) As it turned out, through a bit of research, B-Men was A-Men’s first flanker, and it flopped, I guess, but if it didn’t, the marketing department might have a hard time introducing C-Men for guys.

The more I wear B-Men, the more impressive I find the whole line of A-Men flankers has become – I can still recognize the sharp silhouette of A-Men no matter how much Thierry Mugler’s perfumers change/adjust/mutilate it to give it a new flavor or character for the new flanker. On the contrary, Guerlain has released tons of Shalimar flankers and people complain that they don’t smell anything close to the original.

In 1967 Andy Warhol created a pop-art painting named “10 Marilyns”. It has 10 identical Marilyn head shots, except that each one receives a different color palette treatment. (In Photoshop, it’s called “Hue Shift”.) No matter which one you isolate, people can still tell it’s Marilyn, that’s because Marilyn is so iconic. So who is great here? Marilyn or Andy Warhol? To me, it’s both. What Thierry Mugler’s perfumers did here was their own painting of “10 A-Men”, and B-Men is one of the A-Men in the painting, except it smells spicy (spice and licorice) and tart (rhubarb), instead of milky and super sweet, and the industrial strength patchouli is always there.

Juicy Couture’s Dirty English (2008)

Juicy Couture Dirty English © Victor Wong
Juicy Couture Dirty English © Victor Wong

“A perfume smells better when it gets discontinued.” – Plato

Recently I have read some posts saying that Juicy Couture’s Dirty English has been reformulated and the packaging has changed from awesome to awful. The metal chain that wraps around the original bottle cap is now cheap plastic, and the little trinkets that tied to the bottle cap with a leather band are all gone, and worst of all, the fragrance smells much weaker. For the longest time, my local perfume shop sales lady had been urging me to get a bottle because she really liked it. (Not really a factor.) I really liked the packaging, it’s thoughtful and thorough, but the reason I held off getting a bottle was that I had a negative association with the brand’s couture – I really don’t like seeing people wear their pink jogging pants with the word Juicy printed on the back on the butt – often the word gets epically distorted and the letter “i” sometimes gets fallen through the cracks.

Last time I visited the store I saw a bunch of Dirty English bottles getting a massive discount (from $90 to $40). I thought this was the time to get one… but I looked at the bottle and knew it was the new version. I asked the sales lady if she still had the old stock, and she did, but the last bottle, and it’s $90. I asked if she could give me the same price $40 and suddenly she switched to the Arabic language channel – she and her boss had a conversation for about a minute and the boss said $50. I asked why didn’t you give me $40? She replied why didn’t I buy the new version? What a… cunning businesswoman. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I was getting an old version with the original packaging, but I took the chance. Damn Plato.

Yes, it’s the original version. Whew.

Dirty English smells very manly and well-blended. It’s woody and leathery, spicy and warm, and dry. There is a little bit of “dirtiness” and that probably comes from vetiver, cypress and a tiny little bit of synthetic oud. It doesn’t smell animalic, but carefree – and the guy wearing it definitely is not driving a Fiat mini car.

Interestingly, Dirty English reminds me of Gucci pour Homme (2003, discontinued, and highly sought after) but not as smooth and sophisticated – if you have a tight budget, Dirty English is still a bad boy smooth operator.

But wait, there’s more! I just said Dirty English smelled like Gucci pour Homme, but Gucci pour Homme smells like another perfume – Rochas Lui (2003)! Lui smells simpler, probably due to fewer ingredients, but all the ingredients are amped up and it’s delicious and sexy. If I get to rename it, may be I would pick “Easy French”. It’s definitely amusing to see both Gucci pour Homme and Lui were released in 2003, and five years later Juicy Couture released a slightly water-downed version, trying to lure all the dirty English wannabes.

Diptyque’s L’Autre (1973)

Diptyque L'Autre © Victor Wong
Diptyque L’Autre © Victor Wong

The opening of Diptyque’s L’Autre (1973) is so absurd that it makes me laugh. Almost like watching a hippie missing a front tooth in a tie-dye shirt walk onto the stage on a talent show, it’s quite hilarious – the mean judge immediately frowns and shakes his head, the teenage girls in the audience make an “eww” and the women start whispering to their girl friends’ ears. To me, the opening is so un-perfume like it smells of muscle ache rubbing cream, or may be Tiger Balm (my mom used it many years ago and I vaguely what it smells like.) Some people say it smells like armpit, or a hairy man after a round of boxing, but all I smell is the combination of spices (cardamon, nutmeg, pepper, and caraway seeds) and fresh coriander. It doesn’t smell B.O. to me at all (contrary to Serge Lutens’ Arabie).

The audience calms down and Mr. L’Auture starts singing the Song of Dry Down. The voice is sweet, exotic, a bit mellow, a bit fresh and carries a Thai accent (coriander). It’s quite beautiful but half of the judge panel decides to push the “Not For Me” button. I keep on listening. Suddenly a revelation comes… it resembles a Serge Lutens perfume, only that L’Autre was released much earlier than any SLs. The sweetness of L’Autre reminds me of Fille en Aiguilles (dried fruits/spice/vetiver/pine) except it is not as sweet, and of course, without the pine. I can’t say I love L’Autre 100%, but this is definitely a bottle to keep for show and tell.

Finding an occasion to wear this perfume is tricky; oh I know, I should take a hike.

Serge Lutens’ Arabie (2000)

Serge Lutens Arabie © Victor Wong
Serge Lutens Arabie © Victor Wong

If you watch Captain Arabie The Movie in reverse, you see the chamber door closes on the super buffed-up and half-naked Captain Arabie, the machine starts sucking the golden juice out of his body, passes through the body odour enhancement system, and the essence goes into a flat and thin rectangular serum bottle. The mad doctors, Serge Lutens and Christopher Sheldrake then take it out from from the system and walk backwards out of the lab with a goofy look.

As you know, Captain Arabie really likes curry, he spreads curry Nutella on toast for breakfast, eats curry chicken for lunch and curry lamb for dinner. He fights his enemies with his famous headlock, but really, he doesn’t need to flex his arm, the B.O. from his armpits can kill most weaker enemies in the room and who can survive when your nose is so close to his odour emitting glands in a headlock situation.

Serge Luten’s Captain Arabie, or simply, Arabie, is the essence of our super hero except the B.O. has been filtered out. Every time I look at the perfume, the sparking yellow juice reminds me of the curry-infused oil that floats to the top of my curry chicken dutch oven pot. This golden juice, is so sweet (amber, dried fruits, figs, dates), spicy (cloves, caraway, nutmeg), aromatic (sandalwood, benzoin, myrrh) and beautiful, it’s irresistible. But please, don’t wear it when you have a body odour problem, because you will become Captain Arabie and you don’t want to kill anyone by entering a non-ventilated conference room on a hot day.