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L’Artisan Parfumeur Dzongkha

April 16, 2016

I’ve struggled with L’Artisan Parfumeur Dzongkha for a long time, and even now, three, four years on, I admit that I’m perhaps only halfway towards understanding this brilliant and sometimes frustrating fragrance. Part of my old problem with Dzongkha is that it smells so little like perfume that I am always wrestling with the question “What the fuck am I smelling right now?” Because, depending on the day, the hour, it’s always something different.

I don’t know what I’m smelling, so my mind defaults to the nearest recognizable object.

Most of the time, Dzongkha smells like the steamy aromas caught in the wool of my sweater when making chicken stock – pepper, chicken fat, bones, celery, salt. It smells intensely savory, almost salty, metallic, and most definitely vegetal. On other days, I spray it on, and it is obviously, immediately a very rooty iris, smelling of nothing so much as potato starch or hospital disinfectant. Other times, my nose shortcuts to a glass of whiskey or to the smell of a wet newspaper, its ink running down my fingers, about to disintegrate into mush.

But then again, sometimes the smell of paper is dry and rustling. Sometimes, there is a fiercely pungent boot polish note, as iridescent and blue-black as a bluebottle’s shell. Sometimes, the iris shows me a petrichor side, similar to the flat mineralic smell of drying rocks and tarmac after a rain shower that features so heavily in Apres L’Ondee.

In the background, there is always a strain of green tea leaves, dry-roasted over a campfire, a waft of incense, and a totally puerile-smelling, soapy overlay of fruit and flowers, faint and smudged like the waxy, wet residue of the bottom of a bar of cheap hotel soap left to fester in a dish. There is a purple cheapness to the floralcy here, a cleaning product whose scent nobody has given much thought to other than the brief to contain a smell that is “like a flower” and “opposite to poo”. The first few times I tried Dzongkha, I remember being shocked at the florid, purple floral smell more than any of the weirder stuff.

At some point in Dzongkha’s development, a rubbery, dry leather note emerges and takes center stage, and it puffs on in this mode for the rest of the duration, sweetening and softening quite a bit along the way. It even starts to smell, well, nice. Slightly more like perfume and slightly less than the collected smells of a household.

People are fond of saying that Dzongkha is like Timbuktu but with iris added, but I don’t really get that. For me, Timbuktu is a deceptively simple smoky woods and incense fragrance, with all its magic and power tied up in its uncluttered nature. I wear it to reset my clock when I am feeling upset or out of balance – I find it calming and far more spiritual than any of the acclaimed church incenses out there.

Dzongkha, on the other hand, packs an awful lot of weird stuff into one tight space, and is clearly a Hieronymus Bosch to Timbuktu’s naïve art. When I wear Dzongkha, it distracts me. My mind is agitated, feverishly trying to mentally place all of the odd little flourishes in this library of smells I carry around in my brain. Whether this proves to be stimulating or just plain annoying depends on what kind of day I’m having. So you better believe I think twice before spraying this on.

But still, I spray this on. It’s interesting – it’s art.

There was a thread recently on Basenotes that posed the question of whether L’Artisan Parfumeur was going out of fashion, and there were a fair few people who wrote in to say that, yes, the house was irrelevant and that most if not all of its perfumes could happily disappear off the face of the earth for all they cared.

Well, get a load of you, you bitches. Before you all slope off looking for the most chemically-powered hard leather bombs with which to blow your smell receptors out or the latest , achingly-cool melting glass bottles that won’t stand up full of liquid that smells like fish eggs, or toner ink, or glue, or whatever niche decides is new and shocking these days, take a moment to remember the Grandmaster Flash of them all, the weird-before-it-was-cool-to-be-weird Dzongkha. And maybe don’t be so quick to dismiss an entire house with quite the back catalog of conversation starters and pot stirrers.

You can’t even throw that tried-and-tested (and true) complaint about L’Artisan Parfumeur’s fragrances – weak longevity – at the head of Dzongkha. It is not quietly radiant as Timbuktu, it is just as strong and as dense as a brick. This stuff lasts 10-11 hours easily. Of course, whether you’ll want it to or not is another matter….

Floral Oriental Hay Incense Review Violet

Amouage Opus III

March 1, 2016

One day, I was coming out of the Book Centre and he was coming out – both of us with our respective friends, and both of us in our Catholic school uniforms. As we passed each other, our eyes met, and I swear to God, we both turned full circle to take a good long look at each other.

I had never before done anything so brazen in my life. We both walked backwards to keep staring at each other as our respective groups pulled apart, and if a movie crew had been there to catch the moment, it would have gone down in history as the most romantic moment in my shabby little life. I was 16. Back at our respective schools after lunch – boys and girls attend separate schools in Ireland – we both busied ourselves with the business of asking around. Who is this person? What do we know of their people? Their pedigree?

The intelligence on him came quickly back – nobody to bother about. I had a certain amount of capital to expend, being reasonably attractive, popular, and brainy, whereas he was an unknown quantity, and certainly not popular.

Didn’t matter – I had to have him. It also didn’t matter that it ended badly, two years down the line. I will never forget the romance of that moment. The first and only time I’ve ever fallen in love on the spot.

Amouage Opus III gives me a similar feeling. I don’t know how it happened, but there’s been a coup de foudre. Our eyes met and I did a full twirl on my heels. So I now send out feelers into the community – is this a worthy one? The early reports are not encouraging. Nice, they say, but save your money. You can do better.

If I were to distill a whole Internet’s worth of reviews of Opus III into two phrases, it would be “overly complex” and “nothing special or notice worthy.” I don’t argue those points – in many ways, Opus III is both overly complex and not at all groundbreaking or original. But – and it’s a big but – it has a lilting, slow-moving beauty to it that spins my heart off like a leaf on an eddy. It’s like being at a crazy party and discovering at the last minute that it’s really the big, silent farmer in the corner that you want to go home with. Opus III has a solid heft that makes me want to curl up inside it.

Reducing it to a category, I’d say that Opus III is a massive violet floriental. But as others have pointed out, the combination of notes is so complex that it’s hard to pick out individual notes. The best I can do is point to the various phases that the fragrance moves through, managed through a series of small, barely perceptible shifts and transitions.

Violet is the moving force here and is present in each permutation. First, we have the violet-hay-earth opening, where the bitter, dirt-covered hay of broom is balanced out by a wet, candied violet accord that comes off like Apres L’Ondee on steroids.

Welling up behind this dewy, bittersweet opening is a bank of mimosa flowers with their fluffy yellow, bitter almond scent. When the mimosa meets the violet, the fragrance shifts from wet hay-violets to a dusty pollen note that makes one think of the yellow dust that covers your fingers when you crumple a buttercup or some other cheerful yellow wildflower.

There is also a dusty heliotrope note here that makes me think of Farnesiana or L’Heure Bleue, but this lacks almost completely the fruity and pastry-like tones of those fragrances. There is a similar weight here, though, like a piece of blue velvet folded over many times.

A tiny accord is hidden here and I catch glimpses of it only sometimes – a dove-grey iris note that colludes with the violets to produce a faint (very faint!) cosmetic undertone. Not exactly lipstick, not exactly powder, but something a little bit frilly.

Under the earth-hay violets and the meadow-pollen violets and the iris-violets, there is another violet combination brewing, and it turns out to be the definitive one – violets and ylang. Ylang introduces a fruity, plasticky edge with a banana-like note to the mix, and when it merges with the violet note, its creamy banana custard voluptuousness becomes corrupted with a strange boot polish note. Could be tar, could be nail polish remover like some reviews mention – I don’t know. But it is a little strange, and more than a little addicting. It’s what draws me back to my sample time and time again, like a druggie.

The spicy orange blossom and jasmine are secondary players here, but they too form their own little pairing with the violets, and add a slight indolic languor to the violets’ dewy, childlike presentation.

Opus III winds up in familiar Amouage territory – a daub of frankincense, dry woods, amber – and while the base is not wildly new or exciting, what it does do is provide a dry, un-sweet landing for the rich floral combinations swirling around the violets. The base is what makes Opus III perfectly unisex, and takes it further away from the two fragrances to which Opus III is most commonly compared, namely L’Heure Bleue and Insolence EDP, which are far more obviously feminine.

Having mentioned the Guerlains, I must mention that I find Opus III to be far more satisfying than either of those fragrances, and more beautiful. I love the rich, earthy hay of the broom, the yellow pollen feel from the mimosa, and the unctuous creamy ylang. It combines – to my nose – the best of L’Heure Bleue, Samsara, and Insolence, and cuts away the fat and the excess fruitiness of those scents.

Opus III smells wholly natural and of this earth – and although it lasts a long time, is longevity is due to a certain richness and heft of fragrance oils rather than muscular woody synthetics. It wears on the skin like a rich, comfortable old velvet cloak.

I rather love it – can you tell? This fragrance moves me. But like any coup de foudre, I’m suspicious of the strength of my feelings. Practically everyone notes that Opus III is not an unusual or extraordinary fragrance in any way. Does that mean that my tastes are pedestrian? Am I a bit of a pleb? Well, probably, and more than just a bit. I can’t quite bring myself to care, though. I want to wear this, and so by God I will.

Hey Opus III! Yeah, you, the hefty farmer with the big red face in the corner! Get your coat – you’ve pulled! Let’s hope this doesn’t end too badly. My judgment in these matters is famously terrible.

Amber Animalic Incense Leather Oriental Resins Smoke Tonka Vanilla

Guerlain Shalimar

November 22, 2015

Ah, Guerlain Shalimar, the ur-Oriental. Sitting down to write a review of Shalimar kind of feels like looking up at the top of Mount Everest and wondering how the hell even to begin the ascent. It seems to cover (in one single bottle) a lot of the themes and notes people go looking for in separate perfumes – you want vanilla, it’s the textbook example, you want smoke and incense, well you got that too, you want amber, it is the mother of all modern ambers, you want animalics and leather, ditto. If you also happen to be the type of person who is interested in freaky notes, like baby diaper, burning tires, tar, and slightly rancid butter, then, why yes, Shalimar also has you covered.

It’s not an easy perfume to love right off the bat. Don’t get me wrong, Shalimar is easy to love, but the actual falling in love bit is not immediate. It took me ten days of wearing it before I could even tolerate it, let alone love it, but I got there and in end, it clicked for me, and that was it. Pure love. The everlasting kind. Whenever I see someone saying, oh I just don’t get Shalimar, or oh Shalimar hates my skin, you know what I am thinking? You’re just not trying hard enough. Put your back into it. If you can’t commit a week or ten days out of your life to understanding Shalimar, then not only are you cheating yourself out of experiencing one of the best perfumes ever made, you are also missing the opportunity to “get” most orientals that came after Shalimar.

For, once you unlock Shalimar, you start to see that Serge Lutens’ Ambre Sultan is just a snapshot of a portion of Shalimar (principally the amber and herbes de provence) blown up 150% and turned sideways. Etro’s Shaal Nur is an abbreviated essay on the incense and opoponax in Shalimar. Mono di Orio’s excellent Vanille is a modern take on the woodsy vanilla of Shalimar. You can spot echoes of Shalimar in Chypre Palatin (vanilla and animalics), Fate Woman (bergamot and powder) and Bulgari Black (vanilla, rubber, smoke). Whether perfumers are aware of it or not, most of today’s grand orientals refer at least in part back to the ur-Mother Oriental herself.

Forgive my wittering on. For all of that, Shalimar smells absolutely wonderful, grand, lush, smoky, sexy, comforting, and warm. The opening, as I’ve mentioned, is jarring to the nth degree, especially if you’re not used to it. I don’t know whether it’s the particularly stinky grade of Bergamot that Guerlain use, or the way it clashes with the vanilla, but the top notes smell curdled and rancid, like when you pour lemonade into cream. The vanilla itself smells tarry and burned, like rubber tires piled high and set on fire. Somehow, somewhere underneath all of that, there appears a slightly horrifying note of soiled diapers, or at least baby powder that has been caked into the creases of a baby’s bottom. It smells sort of unclean, and is pungent enough to singe your nose hairs off.

Here’s the odd thing – after you get used to Shalimar, you start to actively crave the weird opening. When you begin to go “Mmmmmmm” rather than holding your breath, this is a sign that you’ve crossed the line. Welcome! It’s like a Shibboleth for hard-core fans of Shalimar – we’re all over here at the other side of the line, and everyone else is pressing their noses to the glass, shaking their heads and saying, “I think you have Stockholm Syndrome”

After the “horrific” first half hour (for which you may want to refrain from sniffing your wrists if you are smelling it for the first time), it is an easy ride from there on in. Sweet, smoky vanilla poured on top of a long, golden, powdery amber, with accents of leather, smoking resins, and animalic musks. It has this neat trick of smelling comforting/familiar and yet ultra-sexual at the same time. It lasts all day and, in my humble opinion, is just fantastic in whatever concentration and vintage you wear. Yes, the vintage parfum is the deepest and smokiest, but we can’t always be wearing that (for reasons of finances as well as time and place), so it’s good to know that Shalimar is still recognizably the same Shalimar in the weakest EDC as it is in the parfum – thinner, yes, but still, you wouldn’t mistake her for anybody else. For me, it is true love, and a top five perfume forever. It is like my second skin.

Incense Scent Memory Smoke Spice

Comme des Garcons Black

September 18, 2015

I left Ireland for Bosnia when I was 22, without so much as a backwards glance. Over the following 16 years when people asked me if I missed home, I would always be startled and say yes – automatically – but it wasn’t quite true. I just never thought of home as being anywhere other than wherever I was right then.

I never realized that the gene for “home” was carried deep within my DNA until one dark night when I stepped out of a snow-stalled car into the deserted crossroads of a tiny village in Bosnia and was hit in the solar plexus by a waft of smoke from a coal fire.

Not just one – dozens of coal fires. All sending plumes of sweet-smelling smoke into the black, starless sky. In my mind’s eye, I could see walls covered with centuries of soot, men huddling round the heart smoking cigarettes, and the fingers of women putting more coal on the fire.

My mother’s fingers, black with soot. In that moment, every cell in my body ached to be back home, watching the familiar sight of her white fingers gingerly placing another coal on the flames, egged on by her always-cold children. Was she sitting beside her fire now, thinking of her first child, wondering if she was cold?

Comme des Garcons Black is the smell of home to me. It smells of coal dust, sweet woodsmoke, frankincense, dry cedar logs, licorice, and finally, in its dying moments, a salt-encrusted leather belt. Not of these things directly but of these things burned on a fire and sent out into the crisp, cold air of a Northern night sky as a single curl of smoke. Every time I spray it on, I experience a joy like that of launching into a sudden run.

If I were being picky, I’d say that the projection and longevity and projection of Black leave much to be desired. But I’m content with this in a quasi eau de cologne format. I’d be afraid that any attempt to make Black stronger would compress all the air out of its airy weightlessness. I like that Black takes the form of coal dust mites, shifting as you move; acting as your own personal force field.

I’ve long been looking for a smoky, woodsy birch tar fragrance that hits this exact spot – the coal-fire-in-Bosnia spot. I love Le Labo Patchouli 24 for coming close, but the vanilla syrup makes me pause, and Bois d’Ascese is far too dense and acrid. Memoir Man does smoky, charred woods and Frankincense beautifully, but it has a somber, sulky feel that might prove difficult. Black, to me, is what you might get if you were to put all these perfumes through a Photoshop filter and apply a filter to reduce the density by 70%. Black does indeed smell truly “black” but it’s more a sheer wash of color rather than a thick daub of oil.

I love it. It’s the first Comme des Garcons perfume for which I’ve been able to locate a heartbeat. I admire their modernist approach but something in their stripped-down aesthetic usually leaves me cold. Here there’s both an emotional core and a minimalism that’s entirely in keeping with the house signature. Maybe the heart bit is all me, but I do feel there’s something warm and human about Black.

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