I sometimes find myself craving a particular scent, completely out of the blue. Then, to my amazement, stumble upon the very same perfume almost directly afterwards, for a song, at vastly reduced price in a Japanese ‘recycle’ emporium, almost as though I had been directly wishing it into existence. Or else, as if the scent, abandoned and unwanted by its first owner, were already there, waiting impatiently on the shelf, and knowing I want it, that I need it, it calls to me. This is a delightful phenomenon that magically happened to me again recently as the words ‘Diptyque L’Eau’ popped into my mind out of nowhere, my nose brain suddenly craving the smell of cloves, rose, and cinnamon in that beautiful and precise combination that was achieved in Diptyque’s first scent from 1968, but, which, reaching for my bottle from my shelf that day, I found to my dismay was down to its very last dregs. Just one spray left, and an old and gone-off one at that.
This is a bottle with a particular story. Originally my friend Helen had been given it by her sister as a birthday present, but though Julia always smelled divine in a fur coat in Opium and could always rock the spice, Helen just wasn’t made for perfumes with such fervent notes (sorry H, but you know you always smelled absurd in a spiced oriental). I, of course, am quite the opposite. And I came along, one day, smelled it there on the bedroom shelf, and was immediately hooked on that intensely aromatic blend of cloves, geranium, sandalwood, and cinnamon. I claimed it. I wanted it. And Helen generously, and guiltily, let me have it, a perfume seemingly not entirely designed for the human body (the blend was apparently based on a 17th century Jacobean pomander recipe, and is just so potent; “industrial strength”, according to Duncan, who always found it too much whenever I wore it). I suppose we all did. The scent is gorgeous, but like its inspiration, it does admittedly smell almost more suited to the exterior ambience, as a room fragrance, a mood enhancer than a perfume. It is gorgeous and extravagant when used in that way, taut and concentrating; pointed; rich, wintry, almost melancholic. Like a burnt out fireplace and the icy, twisted birch forest beyond; crows in the trees, the warm, embery glow of the internal dream home.
My bottle began, then, as a gift from Helen’s sister, and then, ironically, my own sister, most irritatingly, stole it from me when she found the bottle back home at my parents’ house ( I say ‘steal’, but we do have a family tradition, in fact, of ‘commandeering’ each other’s possessions, at times, with semi-impunity. Things get ‘re-located’, find new ownerships, usually without too much fuss, although I must say that there was a ruckus, recently, when my brother nicked my dad’s Molinard Patchouli from the bathroom in Birmingham and took it with him down to London. My mother was having none of it and was barking down the phone line for him to bring it back, which he did, sheepishly, eventually).
In around 2005, Duncan and I had been planning to actually leave Japan, worried we would never leave unless we did it then, while still in our thirties. Japan has a tendency of attracting and trapping certain dreamy and discontented foreigners, wide-eyed flies in its exquisitely made web, and so, with great inner strength, we had actually begun the process of deracinating ourselves from this painfully addictive land by sending boxes of books and perfumes, CDs and the like, back to England. We were going to Seville, would get some new qualifications, and then, we thought, would take it all from there, not quite ever sure what to do with our futures (the perennial trauma of the vocationless arts graduate). We took the bulls by the horns, bit the bullets, grew some balls, and decided that that was it. And thus, painfully, began the depressing process of sending back possessions in boxes; perfumes I wanted; books that I treasured; all sent by expensive mail to our parent’s houses back home in Birmingham and Norwich. It suddenly made it all seem finite and real. Scary. We were leaving.
And then one evening we were sitting in the kitchen, both depressed, with a deep silence and heaviness in the air, and, wanting to be definitely sure I eventually just said:
” Duncan, do you actually want to leave?”.
He thought for a few minutes, sat quietly, and said:
” No, I don’t think so, no”.
And that was that. And I remember feeling quite deliriously happy and relieved. We shelved our plans, stopped sending back boxes, and, yes, here we are, ten years later, still happily and unhappily mired in the neon, zen temple dream; still familiar strangers in a weird and compelling country that will never really accept us. Willing outsiders in a dark land of bright smiles. The very essence of perversity. And some of our possessions, including perfumes, are still there in the garage at my parents’ house, just there malingering, and when I go home I get them out, old Diorellas, Chanel Pour Monsieurs, and rescue and commune with them. And, sometimes, I bring some of them right back here to my house in my homecoming luggage.
My sister had come upon the Diptyque L’Eau one day at my parents’ house, and thought it fit to use that stylish and lovely chunky bottle of spice as a toilet spray in her London flat. Enraged when I saw it there, lowly and dejected and out of its element next to the water closet, down to its final sixth, I indignantly grabbed it back and brought it back with me to Nihon, where it probably, in truth, was also mainly used as a house spray when guests were coming, in winter, to dinner parties; this scent really does gives just the most warming, delightful, festive bite to the air. The atmosphere becomes enlivened and tasty, and only rarely, I think, did I actually wear that scent on my skin.
With their original formula, though, Diptyque did with cinnamon and cloves what Chanel N°5 did with jasmine and rose: created something that was far more than the sum of its parts. In that seminal and eternal creation, Ernst Beaux alchemised those two flower essences so that they became undetachably, dreamily united: when you inhale that perfume you can’t smell either rose or jasmine individually; they have become something new and unprisable. With L’Eau, there is also an amalgamation of spice that just smells like nothing but itself: a scent with it its own, thoroughly unique identity. Of the two spices, I must admit that am personally far more clove-oriented than cinnamon, a spice I can find a bit fatty and sickly, in your face, somehow, on occasion. Cloves (ah, Caron Poivre vintage extrait, how I love you!) to me, are spiky, difficult, poetic and diffident: on the melancholic and spiritual tip, certainly, and I love blending them with woods, patchouli, rose, violet. Cinnamon, though delicious and comforting, is a bit more vulgar, somehow, too easy, unchallenging, too cinnabon. I do like it, and often add it to rooibos tea at night with some nutmeg for a pleasurably soothing brew, but wear it as perfume only rarely. However, L’ Eau does the brilliant trick of imbuing the sweet and potent tree bark of cannelle with the elegant gnarl of clove, and this marriage then enriches them both: the cloves are wavered and expanded, the cinnamon endowed with a dose of dignity, and… voilà! you have what I consider almost the perfect spice accord.
L’Eau de L’Eau, part of Diptyque’s collection of colognes that were launched in 2008, was a scent I had sniffed once in passing, recognising the essential L’Eau accord – just a more citric and lighter version perhaps, inessential – and then I didn’t give it a second thought. It is often that way with flankers – we don’t even give them the time of day, don’t investigate their new details. But this new version is in fact by a different perfumer – Olivier Peschaux (the original was by Diptyque co-founder Desmond Knox-Leet), and is, as I have found to my utter delight, a quite different beast.
As I said, I was craving this smell. And then, the next day in Yokohama, in one of the many thrift emporia I frequent like a lumbering scent detective, when I have naughtily absconded from the office for an AWOL couple of hours (you can get away with murder as a foreigner here), there was a beautiful, almost full 200ml bottle of L’eau de L’Eau for the equivalent of twenty dollars hidden there at the back of a glass cabinet that I simply had to have. Shame the lid hadn’t been screwed on the bottle properly though, as half way through the evening at the school I was teaching in there was suddenly the unmistakeable smell of Diptyque wafting out from somewhere – MY BAG, naturally. No one said anything, of course, but though embarrassed by the spice attack that was thrumming the air, I was also fascinated by that unmistakeable heart that I knew so well, that in that particular context smelled practically indistinguishable from the original. Still, that was the scent I had been craving, and to my strange contentment, now I was being rewarded by smelling it in huge, leaking doses.
On the skin, though: wow. This is a New Neil perfume par excellence, I can tell you. Duncan was wild for it one very amorous weekend in Tokyo when we missed the last train and had to stay in a hotel a couple of weeks ago; I can’t remember the last time a scent has elicited such a positive response. The lady in the fruit shop round the corner keeps commenting on it (‘mmmm….kankitsukei….citrus’), and a Japanese colleague of mine who I have started doing piano and cello duets with, said : “Neil, I love that smell, so sweet……, different from what you wear at work. I love it “. No perfume wearer is averse to compliments, no matter how rebellious they may be in their choices, and in any case, I have really loved how L’Eau de L’eau smells on me as well. It is divine. The central theme has been preserved intact, but has been freshened and lifted with green mandarin, grapefruit and lemon; with pimiento and orange blossom geranium, and a touch of lavender in the heart, and crucially, with a skin-caressingly sensual accord of tonka bean, benzoin and patchouli in the base.
In practice, the citric theme in L’Eau de L’Eau is unobtrusive and short-lived, but it does a great job of diffusing and enlightening the essential theme; freeing it from its unyielding iron lady of cloved severity. You spray (and lord, how I have sprayed: I have got through about 100ml in three weeks, and will simply have to get another bottle); you have the refreshing sensation of smelling sparky and new; the kind of thing you can spritz on before heading out the door to buy the milk you have forgotten for your tea . What is great, though, is that, surreptiously and gradually, the scent then silently turns into the most perfect amber, at least on me. I have always loved les ambres, ever since I fell in love with Obsession For Men at the age of 17, but despite this, I never wear any of the famed Ambers any more : Ambre Sultan, Ambre Russe, Ambre Precieux, (although a tiny spritz of Ambre Narguile smells AMAZING in tandem with L’Eau de L’Eau because of the cinnamon connection, I must say). Generally, though, all those ambers, they bother me somehow – too thick and unrelenting: too self-proclaimed, mudgy and sweet. This secret amber scent ingeniously embodies that classic amber base, in a much lower dose, but it is done with an impeccable, but long lasting, subtlety. Like the blond, downy of hair on a beautiful young Swedish man’s neck in the late sunlight of afternoon, it settles on the skin and becomes a nuzzling, inviting gorgeousness. It creeps up on you, unannounced, and you think to yourself- what is that delightful, ambery smell? It lingers on clothes, there are no nasty musks, fake sandalwoods or synthentics, just a delicate, refined, and almost provocatively sexy smell. Ladies and gentlemen, this, I must say, is most certainly a rave review.
Another spiced cologne of great import for me, and one that is imbued with many memories and associations, is the beautiful Comme Des Garçons Cologne, released back in 1994. This was the first perfume I ever bought Duncan, a scent he always smelled divine in but which I had long stopped remembering until a fortnight ago when I discovered yet another treasure trove of second hand goods in Hiratsuka, the yakuza infiltrated, run-down city I work in on Wednesdays that I always enjoy going to somehow as it feels slightly removed from the usual bourgeois, diaphragm-sucked-in, keeping-up-of-appearances that exists elsewhere in most of this prefecture and that can make me often feel like exploding. I can breathe much more easily in less uptight places, and Hiratsuka is such a place; curious, with wider streets, far fewer people (it sometimes feels almost deserted); strange old bars and coffee shops, and a distinctly old-fashioned atmosphere of bygone days. Over the years, this city has really grown on me.
It was with great surprise, then, that I came up the escalators in a crappy, greying old department store to the fourth floor two weeks ago not long after my great L’Eau discovery, and suddenly found this huge emporium of recycling, Wattman’s, that I had no idea existed. Bags, clothes, odds and ends, crockery, electronic equipment. And then, suddenly, there it was before me in a locked glass cabinet: that familiar bright orange box, unopened, wrapped in cellophane, the memories of meeting Duncan twenty years suddenly flooding back as I stood there. ..
This is why I just adore finding cheap perfume so much. Ordinarily I simply wouldn’t have the cash to splurge on every last scent I had the whim to smell again, but for 20 dollars I will. Of course. That same extraordinary packaging. The same strange green tinted liquid. And, upon spraying it, that same, distinctively unusual and beautiful smell.
Like L’eau De L’Eau, Comme des Garçons cologne was based on an earlier, original creation, in this case the almost ridiculously spicy eponymous scent release by the iconoclastic company in 1992 that smelled just like HP sauce, that was whipped up by the fashionistas in no time, and that smelled as weird and innovative as Angel or Kenzo Pour Homme – truly new and groundbreaking 1990’s scents. It was, however, to my nose at least, almost unbearable. I can remember sitting with a friend’s modish and overdressed friend in Rome one night, thinking no, you smell entirely wrong, that scent is just cloying up on you, and the air around you as well. It totally dominated the entire evening. In its incensed, spiced intensity, the original Comme was amazing in a way, designed as a healing elixir for founder Rei Kawakubo, but for me, there was just no room to move within all that dry, overpacked suffocation.
The cologne was an entirely different matter. Though still undoubtedly sensual (I tried it on my own skin the other night and it was filthy; almost excitingly so, but ultimately beyond my own limits of propriety. I am a base note exuder through and through, and on me, the salacious ending of labdanum, styrax and honey just smells very rude). On Duncan, this sensuality is also very apparent, and on a hot day I do remember that it could sometimes veer into something overly blushful on an asphalt London August afternoon, but, on the whole, the scent’s delicate equilibirum – incense, coriander, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, hay, cardamom and Turkish rose – is maintained perfectly within the cologne version, just given an important and delicious lift with mandarin and lime, D’s favourite note.
I felt strange having this scent again. Twenty years have passed since D first had it, a palimpsest of his current and his younger selves. We are older. I wondered, as I held the bottle on the train back home, if it would seem wrong to be trying to return to his younger self, if it would still work.
But in fact it did. Perfectly. It smells gorgeous. Even better, possibly, and more indelibly sexy than it used to, like a handsome Moroccan in white robes passing by you, catching your eye on a hot day at the souk. A heart racer. Get the dosage right, just a few sprays in the right places, and this spiced cologne is suggestive, seductive, stylish, and beautiful.