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Tauer Perfumes Attar AT: A Review

November 20, 2017

I hadn’t understood how big a role that cultural misappropriation, or rather the perception of cultural misappropriation, played in the evaluation of attars until I read a comment on a Basenotes interview I did with JK DeLapp of Rising Phoenix Perfumery, which read as follows: “Looking forward to trying it and appreciate the perspective on Attars, but also giving the side-eye to another American appropriating an other’s work and culture and claiming he knows better and can do better.”

 

Funny gif aside, he is making the point that only people of Eastern culture (Indian, Far East, of the Islamic or Hindi faiths, etc.) truly understand how to make an attar, and that Westerners doing it is either a cynical cash grab or a case of cultural misappropriation.

 

This comment, whether founded or not, raises the crucial question of how attar perfumery is perceived in the West. I have noticed a certain awestruck tendency towards attars by Westerners, a kind of mass reverence for the genre, as if all attars and oils hitting our shores were uniformly possessed the magic of the Orient simply because they originated there. This is rubbish, of course.

 

First of all, speaking as someone who has tested hundreds of attars and mukhallats from almost every major brand from Amouage to Surrati, I can tell you that there is as much dreck coming out of the East as there is from the West. I’d estimate the percentage of truly sublime attars or mukhallats at about 5-10% of the mass, which is roughly equal to the hit rate in Western perfumery. Unfortunately, because these oils carry mysterious names, come in a little gold bottle, and are from an exotic-sounding house like Rasasi or Al Haramain, the consumer is psychologically primed to find them amazing even if they’re aren’t. Even Amouage has attars that are dull, nasty, or just plain unimpressive.

 

Second, it’s not the where (the East) that counts, it’s the who. The best quality attars out there are not being made by the big Gulf or Indian brands in the East but by small-batch artisans with a mostly Western background and upbringing. Sultan Pasha, Ensar of Ensar Oud, JK DeLapp, Al Shareef Oudh, Russian Adam, Dominique Dubrana, and now Andy Tauer – these are all people who, no matter whether they are Muslim or not, are Western by birth, location, or background.

 

I mention this because although some people seem to think it is the exclusive preserve of Easterners to make attars, these days it is actually mostly Westerners that take the care to distill oils in the old manner, hand-blend and macerate formulas, and source the purest raw materials. I like to think that they are taking a certain Western propensity towards precision, authenticity, and attention to detail to bear on an old tradition of perfumery.

 

And now Andy Tauer, himself an artisan in the genre of Western perfumery, has joined this elite group. In a way, it’s a natural fit: Tauer already mixes everything for his perfumes by hand (in a similar fashion to blending an attar) and as a longstanding user of resins, sandalwood, and jasmine, he would have all the necessary contacts in the Middle East to source the materials needed for this.

 

Attar AT is excellent work. It succeeds both as an attar and as an atmospheric set piece in the Tauer manner; it contains exotic raw materials but somehow conjures up more of that tough old Americana (cowboy boots, pilgrims, vast open spaces of the American plains) than it does the East. It opens up as an extract of pure boot leather, with a dense wall of fuel-like jasmine, birch tar, and castoreum-driven leather hitting the nose all at once.

 

But despite the tarry creosote-like tone and the fact that Tauer has used materials like this before, mainly in Lonestar Memories and L’Air du Desert Marocain, Attar AT does not make me think of his other perfumes. The leather, although smoky, is smooth and dark, and, crucially, completely free of competing notes like amber or citrus. There is no Tauerade. It is powerful and concentrated at first, but soon becomes very quiet and almost linear. A rubbery jasmine appears just past the opening notes, relieving, albeit briefly, the almost matte darkness of the leather accord.

 

As an aside, it’s funny how noses differ: my husband smelled this and immediately said that there was jasmine in this, as well as a little bit of oud. I, on the other hand, can only smell the jasmine briefly (it is similar to the phenolic jasmine used in the topnotes of Anubis by Papillon, for reference), and the impression of oudiness is only a background one, playing second fiddle to the leather. However, at a distance and at certain points of the attar’s development, it has something of the leathery, fermented smokiness that I associate with oud oil. In general, I think it’s fair to say that Attar AT genuinely has an oud-like tone to it at times, but that it in no way dominates.

 

Perception of sweetness seems to be subjective, but I’d peg Attar AT as being un-sweet, which is not to say that it is piercingly dry or sour. It is more a question of lacking sweetness in the form of amber or a syrupy floral note; if you know the sappy, sooty darkness of perfumes such as Heeley’s Phoenicia or Le Labo Patchouli 24, then you will know what I mean – an unsentimental, un-sweet darkness that nonetheless possesses so much texture and energy that it never tires the nose. Dusty, dark woods in the base only confirm this impression. There is no creamy sandalwood or welcoming amber in the drydown to placate the sweet tooth, only a continuation of the main accord of dark, smoky birch tar leather.

 

As an attar, Attar AT starts off very strong and dense, but soon loosens up into something much softer and quieter. It wears close to the body and doesn’t project much. However, longevity is excellent. So far, so standard for an attar. But people will want to know if there is anything of Tauer’s synthetic signature in Attar AT: my take is that it doesn’t feel synthetic to my nose at all, but be aware that birch tar in high concentration can have a bitter, metallic sharpness to it that some noses may interpret as synthetic. The only hint of something unnatural comes when you try to wash it off, and then (only then) something synthetic does linger on the piece of skin you’ve just washed.

 

Masculine? Yes. I’d even go so far as to say that this is super-macho, especially during the first couple of hours when the leather is blazing streaks across the sky. Attar AT is more evocative (for me) of the landscapes of the American West than of the deserts of the East; something about it celebrates the good-natured but tough manliness of the men who had to conquer large stretches of the American West on horseback, hungry and alone. This is a theme that seems to course through much of Andy’s work.

 

Having said that, there are plenty of women who like this sort of dry, unemotional scent, and I count myself as one of them. Overall, this is a great *masculine* attar for a very reasonable price, and also yet another addition to the attar genre that proves that you don’t have to be Muslim or be located in the East to make an attar that smells authentically, genuinely good.

 

Notes:  animalic leather, birch tar, Java vetiver, dark dry woods, sandalwood, hints of Jasmine, cistus, and castoreum

Aldehydes Dominique Ropion Jasmine Rose Vetiver

Superstitious by Dominique Ropion for Frederic Malle

May 7, 2017

Superstitious is like a woman that walks into a party wearing a gold lame dress that plunges to her navel. Like everyone else in the room, you think she’s gorgeous, but you’re not sure if she’s really your kind of people. I’m not sure I understand her yet, so I’m going to circle this interesting creature a little bit longer while I try to figure her out.

 

People are citing all manner of classic perfumes as reference: Arpege, Gold, even Portrait of a Lady. But none of those references help me place her in my mental pantheon of smells. Superstitious strikes me as more a modern cyborg than something classical or referential. And it certainly has nothing to do with Portrait of a Lady. Actually, I find it comes at me from slightly beyond my frame of reference, and thus my footing is unsure.

 

Something that takes me aback is the astringency of the opening: it’s as metallic and bitter as a mouthful of pennies, sluiced with the acid of unripe fruit. Sensation-wise, it reminds me of biting into a persimmon that’s two weeks away from becoming perfect, ripping all moisture from my mouth.

 

I’m starting to understand that not aldehydes smell or feel the same. Some feel loose and creamy, like those at the top of Chanel No. 22 – the fizz of a can of Fanta mixed into a pot of Pond’s Cold Cream. Some feel tight and lemony, like Tauer’s Noontide Petals. The aldehydes of Superstitious, on the other hand, are extremely fine-grained and waxy, like a bar of green soap put through a microplane grater and blown up your nose. It reminds me somewhat of the opening to Seyrig by Bruno Fazzolari. The onslaught is aggressive, and slightly mean.

 

What’s amazing about this fragrance – and I say this even before figuring out whether I like it or not – is how the clean, chemical bite of the aldehydes have been balanced out by the dirty, botanical impression of flowers. Even in the first onslaught of the perfume’s harsh, soapy green fuzz, you can smell the slightly unclean jasmine – wilting and browning, as if about to drop off a vine and into your lap. This produces an effect that is half synthetic, half naturalistic. You can almost imagine the perfumer muttering to himself as he works out the formula, “a little bit from the lab, and now a little bit from the garden”.

 

The quality of the florals is amazing – there is a Turkish rose, jasmine from Grasse, and a hint of dry peach skin a la Mitsouko in the later stages. But put aside expectations of sweetness, or even density. Even with the late addition of the peach, things stay dry, leathery, and slightly sour, like the inside of the strap of your watch after a long hot day, or the taste of a very dry, metallic white wine on the back of the tongue.

 

Which is a way of saying that although all signs point to lushness, this is not a particularly lush perfume. Being a longtime fan of Alber Elbaz and his work for Lanvin, I had expectations of something with as many dangerous curves as his midnight blue and flesh-colored dresses for this house in the 2008-2009 period. Alber himself is round; is it weird that I was expecting a perfume with his name on it to be round too? But Superstitious turns out to be as chicly angular as one of his models.

 

The drydown is a slightly smoky, raspy base of vetiver and woods that somehow reads to my nose as incense. It is slightly sweeter, or at least, less tart in the far reaches of the scent, and I find it comforting.

 

Superstitious is a very interesting, beautiful, and somewhat challenging perfume. It is perhaps easier to admire than to love, because a certain bitchiness inherent in its character suggests that this is a perfume that might not love you back. But despite a certain lack of easy access here, I really do like Superstitious, not least because it turns my expectations on their head. Expecting lush and sweet, I get angular and tart. Expecting classic, I get modern. Most of all, I admire the perfume’s sublime balance between its metallic, chemical shimmer and its unclean, slightly earthy flowers and fruit – and it’s this last aspect that might move me towards an eventual purchase. Some day.

Aromatic Celebrity Incense Review Vetiver Woods

Sarah Jessica Parker Stash  

November 14, 2016

I read somewhere that Sarah Jessica Parker wanted her new perfume to smell like contraband, hence the name Stash. But the first image that jumped to mind when I heard it was the abbreviation of “mustache” and the association has stuck. The mustache association turns out to suit the perfume perfectly – it’s as sexy and androgynous as a pretty girl dressed in drag for the night, fake mustache included.

Stash starts off as dry as a bone, with a bitter, peppery cedar dressed up with a sinus-clearing sage note. There’s a faintly watery-milky green note floating around in there that reminds me somewhat of the green violets in Santal 33 and the minty fig leaf in Santal Massoia, but the green note doesn’t direct any of the focus away from the dry, masculine woods. Add in some frankincense and what emerges is a creature in the same mold as Kyoto by Comme des Garcons – a stripped-down, minimalist cedar-incense with a tinge of something green and resinous.

My feelings about this are mixed. On the one hand, I think that Sarah Jessica Parker has succeeded in making a fragrance that is as anonymous and androgynous as Santal 33 and Kyoto – perfect for that low-key sexy vibe that Manhattanites go nuts for. It shares that same intimate, but at the same time oddly room-filling woody radiance that makes people wonder if you’re wearing perfume or if it’s just your skin and clothes that smell so good. The sage note, in particular, gives that witchy impression of a good, cleansing smoke-out to drive away djinns.

But the flip side of that premise is that Stash is a perfume that smells better at a distance than up close, on the skin. It’s a more of a scent of an ambiance – a gift to other people in your vicinity – than a pleasure for your own nose. None of the elements here truly work for me – I am unenthused about the bitterish cedar (mostly because in recent years, cedar has come to be synonymous with Iso E Super and Cedramber, even when the real stuff has been used, as here) and the dry sage, vetiver, and pepper make me think of dreary generic masculines.

I will give it this: somewhere in Stash’s development, all the dry, woody elements coalesce into a sweet, creamy finish that reads – at a distance – as sandalwood. Sometimes, days later, I catch a whiff of it on my sweaters and I fall in love with it. So I spray it again and am disgruntled, all over again, by the weak, bitter cedar and watery green notes that I find so bony and unsatisfying. Fast forward a few hours, and I am entranced by the creamy cloud that now surrounds my person. I smell warm, approachable, and ready for a hug.

In the end, I also struggle a bit with how to evaluate Stash fairly. It’s like talking about the smart kid who’s eons ahead of his classmates in Grade 1, but bump him ahead to Grade 3, and he struggles a bit. Stash is clearly head and shoulders above other celebrity perfumes – it is cool, sexy, androgynous, and not at all sugary or dumb. Bumping it up into the niche category, among whose brethren Stash really should be evaluated, and I find that it still holds up pretty nicely against similar stuff like Santal 33, Santal Massoia, Kyoto, and Tam Dao. It doesn’t stand out in that company. But it doesn’t fall too far behind either.

I’ve been wearing it a lot. It’s a perfect little thing for autumn – slip it on, forget all about it, and go kick over some leaves.

Price-wise, Stash is a much better deal than any of those androgynous, woody-incense perfumes in the niche category, and so I recommend it thoroughly to people who are into this type of scent but who want to achieve the same effect with less money. I paid €32 for a 30ml bottle, shipped over to me free from the UK Superdrug. I just found out that you can buy it in Boots, but you pay €45 for 30ml. God, people in the Republic of Ireland get completely shafted on price – better buy direct from the UK, if you can.

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.

Smoke Vetiver Woods

Bruno Fazzolari Lampblack

October 6, 2015

Bruno Fazzolari Lampblack is exhilarating and deeply satisfying experience from beginning to end. I like the name ‘Lampblack’ – like Lumiere Noire, it tells you to expect a juxtaposition of light and dark elements. And the perfume definitely delivers on the promise of its name, smelling like you just dug your fingernails into a bitter grapefruit and sprayed its volatile oils across a matte, black chalkboard. But what I most appreciate about Lampblack is that it achieves its aims in an elegantly simple way – no unnecessary bells and whistles you sometimes see laid on for effect in ‘daring’ niche perfumery. Yes, admittedly it does contain the rather questionable note of ‘shadow’ in its listed notes, but the perfume itself is so good that I am inclined to forgive it its one small moment of bullshit.

The sour and juicy grapefruit notes that hit you straight out of the can are somehow – miraculously – sustained in their effervescent intensity throughout. Usually, citrus oils are so volatile that they disappear from the skin in under an hour. I don’t know by what trick the effect has been extended here, but it strikes me that Lamplack may just have solved the problem of traditional, citrus-based eaux de colognes. Perhaps it is because the grapefruit notes are overlaid on the inky, matte black base of vetiver and what smells to me like black rubber or tar – it is possible that the dark base simply acts as a fixative for the volatile citrus notes. The grapefruit has, as is its wont, a slightly urinous aspect to it that lends a pleasant (but light) touch of animal warmth, and any potential sharp corners here have been sanded down and made warm by a thin blanket of benzoin.

Oh and by the way, I hate vetiver, but not when it’s done like this. Void of any saltmarsh, rooty dankness, the material used here is matt black, crisp, and smoky. Actually, infused with the smokiness of cypriol, the base of Lampblack reminds me strongly of Timbuktu, minus the incense and pulp fruit notes (mango, davana). Like Timbuktu, Lampblack uses cypriol oil, or nagamortha, in a restrained and elegant way, allowing it to imbue the scent with smoke and air and radiance. Nagamortha is used way too heavily in most niche perfumery these days, especially to imitate a dense, woody ‘oud’ base or to blast the scent out at decibels that make dogs flinch. Bruno Fazzolari shows us the difference that the hand of a skilled perfumer can make.

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