[A guest post by Duncan…]
Although my scent tastes have obviously been molded from day one by Ginza and I now share many of his olfactory foibles and phobias (distaste for synthetic sandalwood (‘scandalwood’) and buttery musks, for example), our olfactory territories, meaning our signature scents, are actually very distinct. In fact, in the past two decades together, it occurred to me, we have almost never shared a bottle. Although this may not seem particularly surprising to you, actually, given the number of phials that have been in our possession during that period (…the mind boggles), I’m surprised there hasn’t been more overlap!
In the early days, we both frequented JPG Le Mâle, that flamboyant kiss curl cacophony of Cocteau-esque mid-90s euro-camp! An extravagant modern confection that nevertheless resolved sensuously and (importantly) lived up to the delectable JPG/Pierre et Giles packaging and the designer’s l’enfant terrible repute.
(Aside: In the late 90s, Ginza delved even deeper into this riotous genre with Jungle L’Elephant by Kenzo and Pi by Givenchy, until his rind could take no more. These powerhouse ‘fumes are not for the faint of heart or delicate of peau!)
At about the same time, we double-doused with the beguiling, cavernously masculine, Ungaro I, the scent equivalent of seduction in an outsized sunken bath! Yet, there is something slightly ectoplasmic hovering over the marbled luxe and machismo of the seduction scene. Perhaps it’s the lavender which, in the context of that ambery base, hints of at a ghostly presence? The hunk’s pile is defo haunted, but perhaps this element of supernature is no small part of his allure.
In the noughties, I guess, we did vie over stately Racine by Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier. I definitely coveted that redoubtable number and wanted sole dousing rights. I would file it wishfully in my section of the perfume cabinet (nestling up to L’Artisan Parfumeur Navigateur and Rocco Barocco Vetiver) — something that Ginza was having none of! We may have argued about it even (‘You have so many bottles, surely you can spare one!’ ‘But it suits me more!’ ‘It does not!’ etc. etc.).
But to my knowledge those three scents, Le Male, Ungaro 1, and Racine, are the sum total of any overlap!
Of course, Ginza’s scent territory is vast – from coconuts to carnations, heady orientalia to matronly oud, encompassing Cossack leather, oceanic ozone and citrus spritz; the whole gamut, really, from primordial animalic soup to apple-white ethereal (the scarcely perceptible scents of his workplace)!
My scent range is certainly very narrow by comparison (though impeccable, obviously!). Much as Ginza is always trying to have me in some floral olfactory get-up (he partially succeeded this summer as my Japanese sun screen was plumeria-scented), I best like scents with sunlight and a dry rustle in them – aromatics that blend vetiver (above all, vetiver!), tea, tobacco, pepper, pine, cedar, with Silk Road spices and a handful of dust. The kinds of scents where sun-baked rock melds with Mediterranean herb, where moss kisses bark, and stubble-field ash mingles with the salt sea air, like pine-smoked lapsang souchong…
Here are the scents that I currently wear and love.
QUINCE, MINT AND MOSS by Union (2012)
When I was a child, fruit picking was a summer institution. My brother and I would cycle to a strawberry field, which had an opening onto the main road, to pilfer punnets for dinner (and sometimes to earn a bit on the side, too, by selling them on). We weren’t supposed to but the field was too tempting and no one ever said anything. Others in the know could be observed loading up, too.
One day we clocked some miniature pear-like fruits on a tree by the opening to the field and assumed they were crab apples. I’m sure we must have had a nibble for we took a few back home for identification purposes. My parents realised these were quinces and could be stewed and served in pies and crumbles (though in truth, suburban people weren’t that much given to cooking with them by the 80s!). This bygone ‘pome’ hadn’t really crossed my mind since that summer (have never seen it in Japan – and have missed the last decade of UK artisan emporiums with super-posh conserves)… hadn’t crossed my mind, until I read the name of this scent: Quince, Mint and Moss. What a lovely idea.
Apparently, since antiquity, quince has been used as a breath freshener, owing to its sweet perfumed aroma. Brides chomped on it to create a pleasing oral first impression. Meanwhile, Edward Lear’s owl and pussycat took rhyming slices of it with their mince!
In this scent, a lighthearted, tangy feminine quince note certainly softens the mint, which is scarcely detectable making this a more rounded and honeyed scent than mint and moss alone might have been (mint can, after all, be bracing – take, for example, Dirty by Lush). Conversely, I suppose, the mint keeps the quince from becoming overly cloying and mead-like. Juniper suggests the civilized clink of ice in a summer cocktail (yum), while the mountain ash and soft mossy lower reaches are lovely, too, adding just enough earthy depth without flattening things out.
A little bit of this elixir goes a long way and smelling it after a couple of hours I am reminded faintly (because of the lime leaf perhaps and a lingering lilt of quince?) of the gorgeous lemon grass accords of Thai cuisine.
All in all a fabulous piece of work. Well done Union. (Rather a shame about the packaging, but there.)
EAU DE GLOIRE by Parfum D’Empire (2005)
This elegant scent was inspired by the cologne-loving Napoleon Bonaparte. Knowing this, you will definitely feel like you are striding out, assuming a perfumed mantle that is imbued with the complex dignity (and arrogance) of one who was statesman, militarist, despot, lawmaker, lover, emperor, and exile… so fasten ya scent belts.
Smelling this in the bottle, I am vaguely reminded of Rectoverso Man’s Tea Tobacco, which I have always liked, though Eau de Gloire, obviously, is more nuanced. A mildly medicinal quality at first, with lavender, bergamot, tangerine and myrtle… scents of herb and citrus carried on a breeze over the Corsican promontory.
Freshness fades and a velvety, amorous core is revealed. I like the persistent aniseed note, suggesting the intoxications of power (mingled with bittersweet wormwood mortality). It’s a heady parabola, that includes liquorice, and what goes up, must come down to earth: the law of gravity, the patient pull of the grave.
The final chapter is deliciously dry and dusty with leather, oakmoss, tobacco and incense. And so with dark delicacy the scent fades. A dignified olfactory epitaph.
(NB, meanwhile, was denied the dignity of comfortable confinement and had to live out his days in dank and meagre circumstances on Saint Helena, allegedly slow-poisoned by his captors, or his wallpaper, or both. Spared the gallows or the guillotine, though.)
POIVRE SAMARCANDE by Hermes (2004)
Something about Poivre Samarcande is just beyond reach. This scent is perfectly suave but it keeps you at arm’s length. It’s silvery and masculine, sexy but cerebral, with a strong aura that loses tangibility the closer you get.
Samarkand was a central station on the fabled Silk Road trading route and so it has as brilliant and chequered a history as you might expect, with marauding Mongols and mendicant monks aplenty, a mess of religions and rulers, and a rich culture of commerce and architecture. Here, the dominant colour of buildings is said to be blue, a colour once associated with warding off evil, and with life-giving water, so precious in a desert kingdom.
Poivre Samarcande starts with a riveting pepper note (paired with chili). This is underpinned by oak and cedar. Chinese moss and musk smudge the cool minimalism of the peppery wood palette. A mysterious kid glove effect.
I am very drawn to this scent and for me it conjures those refined young aristocrats painted by Titian with their grey green eyes and impeccable mien. Worldly. Slightly adrift in reverie. Untouchable in their way.
FEMINITE DU BOIS by Shiseido (1992)
I have appropriated a small bottle of the original Christopher Sheldrake parfum that I use sparingly. I love the strong plum note in the opening (trumpeting, almost black forest gateau-rich) and the tinge of peach-stone bitterness (a tad medicinal, cherry brandy-soaked). The warm woody dry down (including cedar and sandalwood) keeps things spicily elegant. For me, the balance of fruit, spice, wood and musk delicately hints at chocolate liqueurs and yuletide mirth, mercifully avoiding the wretched headache-inducing marzipan effects that sometimes smother lesser accords (dire Dolce e Gabbana Pour Homme, for example!). Fruity and sensual in its final stages.
JICKY by Guerlain (1889)
Of all the Guerlains, this and Aqua Allegoria Lavande Velours (see below), are the only ones I frequent. I am certainly often drawn to perfumes with lavender in them (true to my Norfolk roots, perhaps?). I like the way lavender contrasts with other notes, how it can seem ethereal or earthy depending…
The opening of Jicky is beyond my power to describe! So many notes vying for attention. It is only after the scent settles that I can feel the harmonies come together. Rose, lavender, jasmine, iris, orris, various citruses, leather, spice, civet, patchouli, amber, vanilla, and so on – a very fine and complex roster of notes. I am reminded of traditional laundry scents, together with something equestrian (saddles? oiled leather?). There is something very powdery sweet going on; then again, a fresh complexity that persists delightfully; one minute coppery and metallic, the next boudoir bodily…
I doubt I will ever understand Jicky but I love to wear and admire it. It has amazing staying power, too.
AQUA ALLEGORIA LAVANDE VELOURS by Guerlain (1999)
Aqua Allegoria Lavande Velours is the ideal eau de toilette with which to scent a handkerchief! For this scent offers a serene voluminous powderiness that could mask the stench of an eighteenth century cobblestone street – one strewn with horse crap, the contents of emptied chamber pots, rotten refuse, and putrid entrails. It’s dreamy but somehow simultaneously muscular and no-nonsense.
The lavender/violet combo is tremendously effective. Violet gives space and blanches out the initial sourness of the lavender, while lavender keeps the melancholy ethereality of the Viola grounded, with practical herbal substance and wisdom. Traces of iris, sandalwood and vanilla provide a gentle support.
Foppish and above it all. Flute sonata in a walled garden. Not much truck with the world beyond those walls.
BLACK ANGEL by Mark Buxton (2009)
Black Angel is an evocative name. My first thoughts are of leather, Lucifer, motorbike gangs, Charles Manson, the erotically charged torsos of Mapplethorpe. And then upon further reflection, a flip side to the equation: the black Virgin icons of Medieval Europe and Mexican Catholicism, multi-culti murals, and Elizabeth Welch singing ‘Stormy Weather’ in Jarman’s The Tempest!!
Nothing of the sort! At least not on my skin.
This scent has naught to do with fallen archangels, cults, homoerotic fetish objects, Catholic relics, cultural inclusion, or campy sequences in art flicks – well as far as I can tell it doesn’t. I don’t find dark sensuality or light sanctity in it myself.
Rather this is ginger fizz, a cola bottle chew, a Pepsi spritz – a surprisingly tenacious mood-booster. Ginger and coriander make for a very striking opening, and yet there is something a lot more citrus and airy about it than this may sound. The first impression is modern and extremely optimistic.
There’s a Peter Pan lightness that feels pleasingly devoid of conscience and history, but very replete with memories of childhood in an immediate, present tense kind of way, of the Friday night miniature paper bags of treats that my dad always brought back from the newsagent – cola bottles, sweet bananas, pink shrimps, lime chocolates, flying saucers – our excitement, every time! And also of my grandfather’s drinks cabinet, whiskey, eggnog, ice bucket, tongs, mixers, wooden bowls for peanuts! This scent is full of the optimism of TGIF, of the young weekend ahead! Certainly perfect for cocktail-fuelled capers in summer night cities.
Tipsiness, silliness, banter, flirtation. You have to follow wherever Black Angel takes you, leaping off into the night like the Baby Sham bambi. (‘On and on and on,’ as the song mischievously says, ’til the night is gone…’)
The drydown may have something woody about it, but compared to what I’m used to (much more pronounced woody aromatic numbers), it seems beside the point, which to my mind is buoyant, mercurial charm.
‘Black Angel’ is very well-made, with the clean immediacy and instant appeal of a deft logo! And it makes a nice contrast to my usual gentlemanly aromatics.
So when you need to marry the night (and meet the dawn), do so with Black Angel. Amen.
Honorable mentions: Sultan (a light woody oud Ginza picked up in Java – layers beautifully with…); … with Laguna by Berlin’s superb Harry Lehmann brand (Ginza adds lime essential oil for extra zing – the Harry Lehmann range are perfect scents to layer with others – they are also ridiculously under-priced! in any other city they’d be bloody expensive); Tea for Two by L’Artisan Parfumeur (nutty, cigar box, a bit trad jazz, a bit gap-toothed wideboy!); Cuba by Czech and Speake (powerhouse tobacco cuba libre! – not to be confused with the buttery Santa Maria Novella number – my idea of horror with its hideous musky drydown); Navigateur by L’Artisan Parfumeur (I never quite pulled it off but I still mucho admire it – Moorish Spain – intense sunlight – strong coffee – gorgeous and unique); Yatagan by Caron (I have to finally shelve out on a bottle – clearly brilliant); and my new kid on the block (birthday present from Ginza last week): Sartorial by Penhaligon’s (another gentlemanly lavender number with intriguing depths – we’ll see…); …plus too many vetivers and citrus colognes to mention here!