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Diptyque 34 Boulevard Saint Germain

June 29, 2015

Diptyque 34 Boulevard Saint Germain is one of the reasons I am glad I don’t have access to many new perfumes where I live. It was greeted with such dismissal in the blogosphere – a collective sneer or a collective yawn depending on which blog you read – that it might well have colored my judgment had I been able to test it there and then. Instead, as always, I came to this perfume several years after it was released and with absolutely no expectations one way or another.

I first smelled it in a department store in Dublin in August 2013, heavily pregnant and making a mad dash around the shops to collect “essentials” before my two-year-old son awoke from his nap. We had left him in the car with his grandmother, whom I absolutely insist volunteered for the job (no matter what she says). It was my first real crack at a well-stocked perfume department in years, because, as I think I’ve mentioned, I live in Montenegro, which is about ten thousand kilometers away from the nearest niche perfumery.

Anyway, on that occasion, I walked out with Tam Dao, purely because that’s what I’d walked in to get and I’m a stubborn cow. I had never smelled Tam Dao before, but all the reviews mentioned a calming wood scent, and I was in desperate need of some calm. Honestly, I wasn’t that impressed with it, but I bought it anyway. But I also sprayed some 34 Boulevard St. Germain on a silky cardigan I was wearing. I thought it was sharp and woody, almost like a men’s aromatic fougere, and I filed it away under the mental category “for men only”.

Hours later, I caught a whiff of the most gorgeous and entrancing aroma of rose, grapefruit, blackcurrants, green leaves, woods, and cinnamon wafting up from my cardigan. As a total smell, it beat the relatively plain and linear Tam Dao right out of the water with a big ole stick. I wore the cardigan for the next few days, to keep enjoying the scent. It was our last night in Ireland before returning to Montenegro, so I knew I had missed my chance to get it.

Over a year later, when I had discovered that the Internet could be used for far more than reading The Guardian (and the Daily Mail, for, you know, balance), I ordered a small decant of 34 Boulevard St. Germain. I had not been able to wipe it from my mind, even though I knew I might feel differently about it, after all that time. No need to worry – I still loved it. I soaked myself with my small decant, again and again, day in and day out, until it was all gone and I knew that I needed a full bottle of it.

I’m glad it happened this way, because I think sometimes the rush to analyze something new and place it in the wider context of a house’s releases or the forward momentum of perfumery in general can obscure a very basic question: does the perfume smell good? Does it please us? Does a perfume always have to be moving the genre forward?

For me, a perfume doesn’t have to necessarily say something new or revolutionary. It’s enough if it’s beautiful. And 34 Boulevard Saint Germain sure is beautiful.

The complaint at the time, among critics, was that, with 34 Boulevard, Diptyque were basically doing a rehash of all their early perfumes rather than something new, and that as a house, it was somehow failing to live up to the artistic boldness of their earlier releases. Well, I have either owned or tried most of their early releases, and I personally find 34 Boulevard St. Germain is actually far more complex and accomplished than most of them.

Maybe it’s because this perfume is abstract, rather than an essay on just one or two notes together, like many of Diptyque’s most famous perfumes. To my taste, early favorites were either too linear (Tam Dao), watery/pungent (Do Son), or screechy (L’Ombre Dans L’Eau). Far from the feeling of breaking through to a star-lit sky as promised by Luca Turin in The Guide, Eau Lente choked me with cinnamon sticks. I got the impression that most of them would work better as room sprays than as personal perfumes. They were bold and natural-smelling, true – but personally, I found them too crafty, unsubtle, and not sophisticated enough.

34 Boulevard smells better to me, because it feels like a more fully-fleshed out perfume than its predecessors, and at the same time does not lose sight of the house signature, which is a sort of a very natural, almost botanical approach to perfume. Like an old apothecary selling all manner of dried herbs, flowers, and spices to cure what ails you. But this is apothecary style a la Parisian chic.

The idea behind the perfume was simple but genius: create a perfume that recreated the odors seeping out of the wood panels in the Diptyque boutique on 34 Boulevard St. Germain in Paris – a sort of mélange of the scents from the various perfumes and candles in the store.

By all rights, it should have been a hot mess. But despite being made up of bits of other Diptyque perfumes, it turns out to have a lively, definite personality all of its own. The top notes are a clever re-working of the best bits of L’Ombre Dans L’Eau – the tart berries and vivid, snapped-stem greens of the opening (without the lurid raspberry rose jam), and the milky green fig leaf of the luscious Philosykos. Quickly joined by a faintly urinous grapefruit and soft pink rose, the fig leaf, blackcurrants, and green notes seem to glow like rubies against a backdrop of woods and resins. The top notes and early heart have this energizing sourness to them that really quenches my thirst for something zesty and alive-feeling on a warm spring day.

The heart is rose and grapefruit, insistently spiced with either clove or cinnamon (hello Eau Lente!). Thankfully, unlike Eau Lente, it doesn’t make you think of Red Hots. There is even a faint, watery tuberose note in the heart that may be a reference to Do Son. The base is woods and resins – the wonderfully natural Diptyque cedar, and an almost creamy, lavender-inflected oppoponax.

And oh, that cedar. Only Diptyque and Serge Lutens do cedar this well. I mean that it smells like fresh, sappy wood, and is utterly free of the insistent radiance of Iso E Super or Norlimbanol. Because the woods don’t have their life not extended by synthetic boosters, the longevity on 34 is average at best. Never mind – we can’t have it all, can we?

I should mention that 34 Boulevard St. Germain doesn’t move me, particularly. But I find it so pleasing to wear that I can’t begrudge it a spot in my wardrobe. Unlike other perfumes that cause a lump in my throat when I wear them (Une Fleur de Cassie, Lyric Woman) or distract me with their bombastic sexiness (Red Aoud) or make me lose hours me wondering how it is made (Jubilation XXV), I get the feeling that I will wear the hell out of 34 Boulevard St. Germain instead of letting it sit, gathering dust in my perfume cabinet. It’s a great little everyday performer that I don’t have to think too much about. I know that I’ll smell great wearing it, and that’s all that matters.

Scent Memory The Discard Pile White Floral

Acqua di Parma Magnolia Nobile

June 29, 2015

Acqua di Parma Magnolia Nobile follows the same pattern set down for Iris Nobile, which is to say: citrus + white flowers + light musk/woods base. Instead of iris, we have magnolia, which in real life smells like bright lemon notes, mixed with sweet whipping cream. In the Balkans, where I live, every yard has one single magnolia tree, planted there as a sign of welcome. Or at least to say “We will pause before taking out the shotgun.”

Magnolia Nobile dials up the citrus notes of the flower, and so the opening positively fizzes with snappy lemon and sweet orange peel. I like the opening a lot – the cream of the magnolia petals needs to be cut somehow, and this does the job. In fact, I wish the uplifting freshness could hang around a little longer. I’m not so keen on the creamy aspect of the flower that forms the heart.

To me, magnolia always smells a little too sweet and soapy. Unfortunately, in this particular example, it reminds me of an Impulse body spray I used when I was 19. Or a hand-soap, or a shampoo – I wish I could recall exactly. Either way, the smell association is there. Magnolia Nobile ends up smelling – to me – like a banal soap or shower gel or body spray that I used to buy in Marks and Spencers on Fridays with the money from my student grant that I hadn’t spent on booze and cigarettes. Boring and juvenile, therefore, to a nose that is at least two decades past that awkward stage.

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.