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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.

Fougere Leather Masculine Musk Patchouli Review Vetiver

Charenton Macerations Christopher Street

October 6, 2015

I don’t know what it is about these small, indie perfumers in America these days, but they are somehow taking what is a traditionally European structure – the classic citrus cologne ‘smell’ – and beating us at our own game. Not only beating us, but sailing past us with a cheeky wave and a grin. The opening notes of Charenton Macerations Christopher Street are a sort of turbo-charged version of the citrus, herbs, and aromatics one smells in the (all too brief) top notes of European eaux de colognes such as Eau de Guerlain and Acqua di Parma. In Christopher Street, the bergamot, lime, and bitter oranges come at you like a huge wall of sound, fizzing and snapping at you like electrical wires cut loose in a storm. It’s explosively sour, like those lemon and lime sweets you bought as a kid and sucked until they corroded the lining of your mouth. Truly exciting stuff and a memorable opening.

The roiling citrus and aromatics here are like a skin on the fragrance, always present, but fitted tightly over a dark, damp undergrowth of woods, patchouli, leather, tobacco, and moss. There is something slightly mineralic, grey, or metallic in the center of the fragrance – possibly the listed incense. Mostly, though, what I sense is the pleasantly moldy patchouli and a sort of spicy, sweaty thin leather accent. The musky and leather in the base turns the dry down of Christopher Street is a long, protracted affair that feels pleasantly solid, like a good, old-fashioned fougere or leather bellwether. In fact, fans of the modern version of Bel Ami (me among them), with its transparent, spicy clove leather smell might like Christopher Street an awful lot. I don’t find it to be very animalic, though – just pleasantly skin musky in the way that some masculines smell on male skin by the end of a long, hard day. An intimate, lived-in skin smell.

But Christopher Street smells infinitely crisper and more modern than a mere pastiche of the masculine fougere genre. It is as if a small part of a traditional men’s fougere or leather fragrance has been folded up and hidden inside the structure of a citrus cologne. I like and admire it a lot, and think it really stands out as an achievement in independent perfumery.

Animalic Gourmand Leather Masculine Patchouli Review Tobacco Tonka

Sammarco Bond-T

October 6, 2015

Men – step away from the A*Men and your L’Instant de Guerlain Pour Homme Eau Extreme, and pick up a bottle of this little beauty instead. This is sexy stuff. Sammarco Bond-T is just the type of release you hope to see coming out of indie perfumers on their first outing – a smart re-thinking of common tropes, in this case the hyper-masculine patchouli-cocoa-tonka bean combo.

This one does everything right. It pairs a brown, dusty cocoa note with a dirty, castoreum-driven leather – and manages to come off as its own beast. Although it shares similarities of tone with Serge Lutens’ wonderful Borneo 1834, there is none of Borneo’s oriental richness. Rather, underneath the cocoa-patchouli skin of Bond-T there beats a heart of what smells like a wad of fruity, slightly fermented tobacco leaves and grimy leather. It smells rich and tannic, and just off-putting enough to stop it from being fully gourmand.

Further on, the scent dries out, and I start to wonder if it’s tobacco I smell, or instead black China tea. It is astonishing – at this stage, the perfume really does smell as if I put my nose into a tin of the blackest tea leaves from China – those utterly matt black, loose-leaf ones. Tea leaves do have some of the bone-dry, tannic qualities I get from tobacco leaves – and a sort of leathery, smoked flavor.

Of course, there is no tobacco or tea or even leather listed as notes in Bond-T. All those notes have been conjured up by the leathery castoreum, and maybe even the osmanthus, which in China is commonly used as a flavoring for tea. Either way, I really like this dry, leathery tobacco smell, and find it similar to the effect that Tabac Aurea from Sonoma Scent Studio achieves – a full arc of notes ranging from wet and fruity/fermented to bone-dry, tannic, and almost dirty.

At the end, a nice surprise – the tonka and vanilla smooth out the earthy patch notes, leveling it off into an incredible “malted chocolate powder” sort of aroma. At this point, it smells more like Ovaltine than a full-on chocolate patch. Longevity is pretty great, too.

I don’t hesitate to say that although a woman (including this woman) would have no trouble in wearing Bond-T should she wish, it is a very masculine take on the cocoa-patch quasi-gourmand theme. I like it on my own skin – but I can’t help thinking that this would be very sexy on a man’s skin.

It could be summed up a little lazily as a cross between Borneo 1834 and Tabac Aurea (with a teeny bit of Mona di Orio’s Cuir thrown in for good measure), but I think I will just say that men who have been looking at stuff like Dior Privee’s Feve Delicieuse, A*Men (original), A*Men Pure Havane, and LIDGE might want to consider this as a great alternative in the patchouli-tonka-cocoa field.

Chypre Floral Oriental Leather Oriental Tobacco Tonka Woods

Molinard Habanita

September 18, 2015

Molinard Habanita is a giant in a field of gnats.

But man, it took me ages to understand it, let alone enjoy it. At first, I was repulsed. It smelled harsh to me. Indistinct and muddy – like a fistful of wet, mulched leaves. There was a sticky grey -brown cast to it that lent it a slightly glum feel. Who the hell wants to smell like this, I thought to myself.

But something kept making me want to wear it, and now, with time, I’ve come to love it. And I don’t mean love it from a distance. No, I actually wear Habanita once a week. Coming from a gal with as many perfumes as I have, that should tell you something.

I think I’ve got a handle on what makes Habanita tick now.

At the heart of Habanita lies a soft, worn leather note that recalls the smell of the inside lapel of a well-loved leather jacket. It is an intimate smell, a beat-up leather mixed with twenty years of human skin rubbing up against it. It’s not a leather with aspirations to luxury, like Chanel’s Cuir de Russie, or leaning towards unbearably animalic, like Montale’s Aoud Cuir d’Arabie. It’s just a low-down, rough-copy leather, a smell with history, and aware of its humble beginnings as a liquid used to perfume cigarettes.

The leather note at the center reminds me somewhat of Onda by Vero Profumo. They don’t smell alike, really, when taken as a whole. But the more I wear Habanita, the more I understand that Onda is the core of Habanita extracted, shaken clean of the powder, tonka, and the flowers, and reshaped as a gaspingly harsh leather chypre. The core accord in both is a grainy, grimy leather with a slightly unclean, carnal feel – a half-urinous, half-honeyed tobacco-like smell. There is also a whiff of floor disinfectant. Whereas this is what had repulsed me to begin with, I now find this very sexy. It’s a lived-in, intimate kind of smell. This combination of honey and tobacco or vetiver that works for me in a few of my other favorite fragrances as well, such as Serge Lutens’ Fumerie Turque and Jardins D’Ecrivains’ George.

There’s a lot more going on in Habanita than in Onda, though. Whereas Onda is all about that fierce, dry honey-vetiver-leather, Habanita wraps it all up in a thick blanket of baby-powder florals (rose, heliotrope, and jasmine) and submerges it in a base of sandalwood and vanilla. I also get a buttery almond-like smell akin to the cherry tobacco smell of an unlit pipe, so perhaps there is tonka in there too (I’m convinced there is).

But despite the complex list of notes, I have to say that Habanita maintains its rather singular identity all the way through. It never smells overtly floral (although there are tons of flowers) or incense-y (although it has resins). Even the vanilla and the vetiver don’t smell like vanilla and vetiver – they meld so completely with the honey, flowers, woods, and resins that their separate identities are completely consumed. What they give birth to is a new form – that nutty, dry leather core of Habanita.

I own three versions of it – the modern Eau de Parfum (inexpensive), the vintage Eau de Toilette (costs a fortune and is increasingly difficult to find), and the vintage-ish pure parfum (discontinued, I believe). They are all three essentially the same when it comes to the core accord that makes Habanita Habanita, although there are some slight differences.

The modern EDP is plush, deep, and more intensely powdered than the vintage EDT, and has a gummy, lemon-green mastic note at the start that is missing from the other versions. The vintage EDT has a sharp petigrain note at the start and more of a spicy, clove-y character, but it dries down to the basic scent profile as is found in the EDP.

The pure parfum goes straight to the leather-tobacco core of Habanita without any of the harsh, wild green opening notes of the other two versions – it is altogether quieter and more buttery. It is also the version with the most smoke, which I enjoy very much. All three versions last on my skin for an eternity. But I wouldn’t necessarily feel that you have to hunt down the pure parfum or the vintage EDT unless you were really a hardcore Habanita whore like me. The modern EDP is a rare instance where a beloved classic was not only preserved but also maybe a little improved. Plus – and when do you ever get to say this about a favorite perfume – it is democratically priced.

Leather Review The Discard Pile

Naomi Goodsir Cuir Velours  

June 30, 2015

There is always something a little off-balance to me in Naomi Goodsir’s fragrances. Not artistically off-balance – but something sticking out like a sore thumb and throwing the whole thing off.

While I admire the daring of Bois d’Ascese, I find the crackling dry woodsmoke to be overwhelming. It drowns out the creamy, spiky elemi in thick billows of black soot, and makes it very difficult to perceive anything else that’s going on with the scent until the far drydown, when it becomes a 50-50 mix of great-quality frankincense and woodsmoke. Then I can enjoy its mysterious, austere smokiness on my scarf for days afterwards. But up until the dry down, I am choking through a fog of unremittingly bleak, black smoke.

Or du Serail has a beautiful, honeyed tobacco leaf at its core. But unfortunately, it gets drowned in a fruity, sticky mess of mango, rum, coconut, and ylang, giving somewhat of an impression of a day-old tropical fruit cocktail left out in the sun to develop a ‘bloom’. It is also unbearably sweet. Ambre Narguile does the fruit-cake-and-honey tobacco thing so much better that I wonder why anybody felt this was necessary. And to be honest, if I wanted a complex, syrupy tobacco fragrance then Histoires de Parfums’ masterpiece 1740 satisfies me on all levels.

Or du Serail is an ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ kind of scent where everything is thrown at tobacco in the hope that something sticks. Don’t get me wrong – it is pleasant to wear and technically ‘yummy’ in that round, sweet, bland way of another of Duchaufour’s misses, Havana Vanille. But as in Havana Vanille, Or du Serail contains unpleasantly sour, discordant off-notes like mould on a piece of bread, or rot beginning to set in on a piece of fruit. Or du Serail makes a lunge for that fine line between edible and inedible, and just misses the mark.

Somehow, I had high hopes for Cuir Velours. I love fruit-suede fragrances like Visa and Daim Blonde, and am slowly coming around to the idea of Traversee du Bosphore. Indeed, there is something in the fruity, syrupy heart of Cuir Velours that reminds me of the cherry-pomegranate-apple syrup in Traversee du Bosphore, and also something of that pink-grey powdered suede with a thick dusting of icing sugar on top. To say that Cuir Velours has something of a lokum feel to it would perhaps be going too far. But there’s a familial connection, and it’s interesting to me.

Maybe 75% of Cuir Velours is attractive to me – in particular that hushed, plushy suede and spiced fruit compote note. The immortelle is nicely folded in, and I can only pick up that strange, savory syrup note in the heart of the fragrance, where it adds a necessary point of interest.

But two things throw Cuir Velours way off track – the overwhelming sweetness and the burnt-woods aromachemical lurking underneath, which is most definitely Norlimbanol. Believe me, I know my enemy well. And it is he. To me, it sticks out like a sore thumb and I don’t understand why a perfumer would think it necessary to use such a brutal material in what is essentially a plush-toy sort of fragrance. Another Naomi Goodsir fragrance written off for the sake of one element that just doesn’t work for me.

 

 

 

Leather Review Scent Memory

Chanel Cuir de Russie

June 25, 2015

I grew up riding horses. Chanel Cuir de Russie is the archetypal Proustian Madeleine that hurtles me back through the corridors of time to the simple pleasure of resting my face against the neck of a sweaty horse. It is THE classic floral leather. We grew up in a family with lots of kids and very little money, so I begged, borrowed, or stole horses to ride on whenever I could. I did hard labor on a farm in exchange for rides on a fat, bad-tempered pony, and when I outgrew him, my dad drove me to the nearest racing stables and volunteered my services.

Now, looking back, it might not have been the safest or wisest of things to glibly offer your thirteen-year-old daughter to a working racehorse stables in Ireland. Those places are rough and the horses are dangerous. I would sit precariously perched, knees up near my ears, on over a thousand pounds of fast moving horseflesh as they galloped 35 miles per hour around a muddy track or down the beach…..looking back, it makes me shudder. But then again, my dad taught all four of us kids to swim by picking us up and throwing us into the Irish Sea and yelling “Now SWIM, you little feckers!” so maybe I shouldn’t be that surprised.

Anyway, there was this wonderful, quiet moment every morning that I would cherish – after racing the horses on the beach, we would take their saddles off, throw the reins over their heads and lead them into the sea to cool their legs down. There, I would lean in and rest my face against the flank of the horse, dark and wet with sweat. Often, the sweat would lie in creamy rings looping around the flesh where the English saddle had been, so your nose would be taking in the smell of leather and sweat at once. I loved that moment, and now I wish I could get that simple sort of peace again – the sort of exhausted peace that exists between two animals who have taken exercise together. At home, I would often have no time to get ready for school, so I would just wash my arms, neck and face with Imperial Leather soap, and head off to school.

Cuir de Russie smells like me and this moment in time – horsey, vaguely dirty/sweaty in a clean sort of way, creamy soap, warm horse flank, and the underside of English leather saddles freshly lifted off a horse who has run five kilometres up and down a beach in County Wexford, Ireland. No more, no less. I can’t identify or dissect any of the notes in this beyond the soapy aldehydes and the soft, vaguely floral leather, and I can’t for the life of me imagine how you go about reconstructing a horse in such 3D glory using the simple list of notes I see for it. In fact, I would rather remain in ignorance for fear of breaking the power it has to conjure up that memory, just like I imagine Proust didn’t bother asking his housemaid what type of butter and what type of flour went into making his Madeleine. I am simply glad that this exists in the world.

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