Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Niche Spotlight: Montale

Montale is niche to the niche-est.  There is just one Montale boutique, tucked in the ritzy and elegant Place Vendome, which opened less than 10 years ago.  You can walk by it a dozen times and not even notice it - which in fact I've done.  Walking into the store is overwhelming - Montale bottles its perfumes in a special aluminum bottle in shiny gold, pink, white and black, and the boutique is packed wall to wall with these shiny, ultra-modern bottles.  Secondly, because Montale focuses heavily on the use of aoud (or oud, or oudh), which has a very intense smell, the store is fairly dense with fragrance.  In fact, sitting here with just a handful of test strips from my visit to Montale almost 12 hours ago, my nose is filled with aoud!
credit: www.montaleparfums.com
Place Vendome. credit: perfume rookie

The first thing I thought at Montale was that I wasn't going to like any of these perfumes. I'm not flashy or shiny and so far I haven't enjoyed musky or particularly strong fragrances.  At the same time, the Perfume Rookie isn't just about what I like - it's about exploring the world of perfumes.  So I was determined to give Montale a fair shake.

Montale has many, many different perfumes.  In the aoud category alone, there are over 26 scents.  Black Aoud is one of their classics, and while I don't think I could wear it, it is certainly a distinctive smell.  It smells like a shuk in the Middle East, like something earthy and raw and sensual. I much preferred White Aoud, which captured some of the earthiness but with a much lighter take.  Not surprisingly for my tastes, White Aoud involves amber and vanilla, which seem to be a recurring theme in smells that attract me. But there's also some floral notes in there, and the scent lasts a long time - at least on the test strips, both Black Aoud and White Aoud are still going strong.

Golden Aoud is somewhere in between the two - not as intense as Black Aoud but somehow spicier than White Aoud.  White Aoud is something you could wear on a Tuesday morning - Golden Aoud has more of an edge, more of a drinks-on-a-Thursday feel. 

Moon Aoud and Dark Aoud are the newest aouds, launched last year.  Moon Aoud seems aptly named - there's a lot going on, and at times it almost seems unearthly but not unpleasant.  I asked the girl helping me what was in it, and she had no idea (minus points for the boutique!).  But in what turned into a great perfume moment, the girl stepped out from behind the counter, looked up, and said, "Qu'est-ce que dans le Moon Aoud?"  And a woman's voice from above floated down, "Saffron. Sandalwood."

Unfortunately for the Perfume Rookie, the salesgirl helping me was a bit of a dud.  I tried to ask many of my usual questions - which is the most popular, the best seller, which do Americans prefer - and whether I asked in French or English, she had not a clue. 

Two non-aoud scents that I really enjoyed were Sandflowers and Sunset Flowers.  The latter was the first one I was shown, and its bright freshness makes me guess that Americans (or at least, white Americans) like me gravitate toward this scent, which brings to mind summer evenings and polo shirts among other things.  Of everything I smelled, Sunset Flowers smelled the least like anything else from the Montale line. Happily, it seems to have the longevity of the aouds. 

Sandflowers was a surprise for me.  At first whiff, I didn't like it.  It was too...sandy.  It almost smelled gritty.  After a few minutes, however, the sand settled and the sea was there. It was crisp and a little spicy, like some kind of eastern breeze carrying scents from the tress and flowers.  I read a review of this perfume that described it as "what Sandflowers was meant to evoke...an oasis in the middle of a desert. A small ocean paradise in the midst of a vast dry sandy wasteland."  Absolutely.  This is a scent that transports you.

I've been told that Montale perfumes as particularly popular with Middle Eastern women - and in fact I watched one woman in her hijab and voluminous robes shop in the store with her husband. Aoud of course comes from the Middle East (well, technically a tree in India, but the scent is Middle Eastern/Arab in origin), so this makes sense.  But one lesson I learned from my visit to Montale is that you can't judge a perfume line by its shiny intimidating bottles and moronic salesgirls.  These are sophisticated perfumes that can be enjoyed by many. And I didn't even get to smell the chocolate scent! 

Friday, February 24, 2012

Fragonard's Museum of Perfume

Near the gorgeous Paris Opera, steps from the fabulous department stores of Printemps and Galeries Lafayette, and mere blocks from Cartier, Dior, and Laduree, is Fragonard's Museum of Perfume. Parfumerie Fragonard opened in 1926, named after the famous painter Jean-Honore Fragonard who hailed from Grasse, which is basically the capital of French perfume.  In the 1980s, they opened this museum which offers free guided tours on the history of perfume.

To be fair, I did not take a guided tour as there were several large groups of Russian tourists present and no English tour was being offered. I don't speak Russian.  I also often have little patience for guided tours and was happy to escort myself through the small but nicely done museum, which also allowed for some illicit photo taking (officially, no photos allowed).

The heart of the museum is the collection of perfume holders from throughout the ages.  There are Egyptian and Roman artifacts, elaborate Louis XVI flacons, and delicate vials from the 19th century.

Louis XVI Perfume Container

I believe that the museum is supposed to give you some of the basics about how perfume is made, but without a tour guide, this is one aspect that was not self-evident.  There is an interesting "perfume organ" that is dated in the 20th century, showing how a perfumer would have an array of extracts/synthetics in front of him as he worked.  By the end of the 20th century, however, this was certainly out of date.
18th-19th century perfuming kit

20th century perfume organ

Not surprisingly, the museum takes you directly into the Fragonard shop. Which I have to say is soulless and catering entirely to foreign tourists. I smelled a few things - perfume, shower gel, soap - and was less than inspired.  A polite shop employee asked if I needed help, and I attempted to ask my basic questions.  She seemed shocked that I asked anything and ran away as quickly as possible.  I'm not sure my visit to the Fragonard Museum of Perfume helped me in my quest to learn about perfume, aside from seeing some interesting antiques.  It may be worth a visit if you actually go on the tour but if you're really interested in perfume, there's much more to be learned from simply conversing with knowledgeable people in the higher-end perfume shops. 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Niche Spotlight: Annick Goutal

One of my favorite perfume store women to date works at the Annick Goutal boutique on Rue de Castiglione.  She is kind and serene and more than happy to engage in a long conversation about different scents, not only at Annick Goutal but other perfumers as well.  This is actually the best part of this perfume exploration I've set out on - meeting other people who love fragrance, and who are not only knowledgeable but willing to share that knowledge.

I knew that Annick Goutal is considered a niche perfume that has become more widely available - there are seven Annick Goutal boutiques in Paris alone, as well as stores in Lyon, Marseille, Strasbourg, Belgium, and the UK.  Annick Goutal, who sadly died in 1999 at just 53 years old, launched her first perfume in 1981.  This scent, Folavril, is really "something special" in the words of my Goutal employee friend.  And it is.  It is fruity and floral, and the unusual ingredient is tomato leaf.  I don't know that I could or would wear it well, but it smelled fresh and new and different.

The first scent that really piqued my interest was Eau d'Hadrian, which actually was Goutal's second scent.  It is right up my alley, with citrus and grapefruit, bright but also sophisticated.  You can almost hear lemons being squeezed as you smell it. On a completely different end of the perfume spectrum was Ambre Fetiche.  I read a review that described this as overly sweet, but that wasn't my experience.  I find it rich, creamy, a little spicy, an amber with a hint of edge.  It's warm and inviting, sultry without being tawdry. The clerk told me that she often chooses to wear Ambre Fetiche with Vanille Exquise precisely because she finds Ambre Fetiche unsweet, and the vanilla fragrances sweetens it up.

As always, I asked about trends in perfume purchases - which are the most popular, whether different scents are more popular with particular nationalities.  I was told that Eau d'Hadrian is probably the most popular, and is particularly popular with Americans and Brazilians.  American women are also partial to Gardenia Passion, which is floral with a hint of warmth and very, very feminine.  Japanese women lean towards Un Matin D'Orage, or rose scents like Quel Amour or Rose Absolue. Arab women like amber and musk, such as Musc Nomade, Ambre Fetiche or Myrrhe Ardente.  There is no judgment involved in these stereotypes - this is just what I'm told, and I find it interesting to see cultural trends in fragrance.

After Annick Goutal's death, her daughter took over the house, working closely with Isabelle Doyen who I'm told also worked with Annick.  I also learned that Annick carefully considered the design of the perfume bottles, selecting the flacon godron and always pairing it with a bow in order to maximize the femininity of the product.  The store itself was designed by Annick to "feel like a boudoir" - the whole experience really feels like a celebration of the feminine.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Classic Spotlight: Creed

Honestly, I am not sure whether Creed is considered classic or not.  I'm putting in that category because it's an old perfume house, started in 1706 in England and moving to France around the 1830s.  Maybe it should be considered niche, although I think in my head "niche" means it must be more recent.  Perfume rookie strikes again, but let's not miss the point here.  There are some beautiful, fabulous fragrances to be found at Creed.

(credit: joshuakennon.com)

The Perfume Rookie also learned the value of chit-chat with employees.  The girl working at Creed the day I stopped by was young (though, I guess, so am I, ish), had only been there a few months, and is "very passionate" about all things perfume.  Her colleague went to lunch while I was there, taking my sweet time smelling different fragrances.  At the end of my visit, I asked whether they have samples, and she gave me FIVE free samples - Love in White, Spring Flower, White Flowers, Jardin d'Amalfi, and Sublime Vanille.  "Our little secret", she said.  Score for the Perfume Rookie!

(image taken from creedboutique.com)

But onto the scents themselves.  I found Creed a very love/hate experience. If I liked a scent, I really liked it.  If I didn't like it - ahem, Love in Black - then I hope to never smell it again.  Love in White was my first crush of the day.  It starts off bright, and settles into something truly lovely, that feels like a little secret haven you're wearing on your skin.  When I first smelled Spring Flower, I wasn't turned on.  Too pretty, too girly - maybe its the peach in the top notes, I don't know.  But when I came back to the touche five or ten minutes later, the fragrance had settled into something fun.  The first impression of teenage girl turned into something more sophisticated, and I was sold.

I had thought that I would love Fleurissimo, the scent that was created for Grace Kelly to wear at her wedding. The salesgirl made the claim that Kate Middleton (excuse me, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge) wore Fleurissimo at her wedding as well, and I let her make that claim though I knew it was false.  That honor went to the elegant and stunning White Gardenia Petals from British perfume house Illuminum.  Apparently a French magazine reported that she wore Fleurissimo, and the rumors went from there.  In any event, Fleurissimo felt old to me.  Grace Kelly was amazingly beautiful, and this perfume is too, but it felt like something from another era.

Royal Exclusives is the newest line from Creed, featuring four scents - Jardin d'Amalfi, White Flowers, Sublime Vanille, and Spice and Wood.  These perfumes are offered only in 250ml bottles that are definitely gorgeous - and definitely expensive, at 300 euros per bottle.  In truth, that's not that expensive, it's just that they're only sold in such a large quantity so as to make it expensive.  I didn't smell Spice and Wood, but the other three are really very nice.  I'll blog more on them after playing with the samples I snagged.

(image taken from creedboutique.com)

The Perfume Rookie's take on Creed is that there is more to be explored in this perfume house with such a proud and storied legacy.  It's amazing that the business is still privately held, with a Creed family member (that would be Oliver Creed) as the current master perfumer. And while its been a French company for almost 200 years, it still feels a bit British which makes it a different experience than visiting other French perfume houses.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Niche Spotlight: Divine

Divine is a breath of fresh air.  The shop on Rue Scribe is bright and light, with simple decor that is more understated elegance than minimalist.  And the fact that the line offers just 5 scents for women, 1 non-gendered scent, and 3 scents for men means that you can really get a sense of the whole line in one visit.  The woman who works at the Divine Paris store has an extensive background in luxury goods, including perfume, and she is quite willing and easy to converse with - which is certainly not a given in Paris.

In 1986, Yvon Mouchel launched his first perfume, Divine.  This classic scent remains Divine's most popular and best-selling fragrance.  It was 14 years later that Divine began to develop additional perfumes, and the year of creation of each scent is proudly displayed in the store and on their website.  Overall, my impression of Divine is that these are absolutely perfumes for today's woman.  They each have something classic in them, but they offer a fresh interpretation of perfume fundamentals.  There is something familiar yet new in each scent.  L'infante, for instance, which is my favorite of the line, is a classic pure floral.  But it is not overpowering, and it is not sweet.  It is feminine and elegant, perfect for a summer cocktail party, a romantic dinner, or just a walk in the park.  L'etre aime gives you a hint of spice, bringing to mind that first glass of vin chaud as the weather chills.  And Divine, the original - it is not my type of perfume.  But it is a beautiful perfume.  It smells like I imagine perfumes have smelled for a long time, but it's not an old lady smell.  It's a businesswoman, a mother of three, a woman of confidence.  The original scent is available in two forms, traditional eau de parfum and pure parfum.  I was able to try the pure parfum on my skin and it is really something.  The pure perfume is just incredibly rich and deep, and just infuses into your skin in an extremely luxurious way.

Divine pure parfum

I didn't smell L'ame Soeur, which is the most recent scent (although this most recent release is actual an update of the original L'ame Soeur), because it's a powdery scent and I just never like powdery scents.  It's apparently quite popular with Asian tourists.  Americans, like myself, lean toward L'infante.  French women favor Divine.  I asked whether they are currently developing any new fragrances and was given a vague non-answer about how it takes a very long time for a scent to be constructed.

L'inspiratrice is a great night-out fragrance

Another plus for Divine is that the prices are quite reasonable.  For instance, you can purchase 30ml of eau de parfum in a refillable spray can for 55 euros or 50ml for 79 euros. Even a 100ml splash bottle (eg, no spray) is just 95 euros.  I particularly love the 30ml concept.  It's not a size I've seen before, but seems like a good amount if I'm not planning on wearing the perfume regularly.  I almost bought L'infante on the spot but walked away in the end.  Fortunately for me, I live about 20 minutes away so I have easy access to this great niche line.   There are six other Divine boutiques, all in various cities around in France (Lyon, Toulouse, Caen, Nantes, St Malo, and Dinard).  Mouchel, the perfumer and creater of the line, often hangs around the St Malo store, I'm told, and loves to speak with people about perfume.  Will have to add St Malo to my to-visit list!

The Perfume Rookie is making progress. I'm feeling more comfortable with perfume jargon, and I'm finding that at most stores, simply explaining that I'm really interested in perfume is enough to open the conversational gates as the women working in these perfume boutiques seem quite passionate about fragrance themselves. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Classic Spotlight: Guerlain

To many, Guerlain is synonymous with French perfume.  This isn't much a stretch, given that the house started back in 1828.  Pierre-Francois Guerlain, the founder, achieved real fame in 1853 with the development of Eau de Cologne Imperiale for Napoleon, thus catapulting him to the status of "His Majesty's Official Perfumer."
Still available today

But what is Guerlain today?  I visited the flagship store, La Maison Guerlain on the Avenue Champs-Elysees.  This isn't the true original location - that was down on Rue Rivoli. The Champs-Elysees location was added in 1914, and revamped in the mid-2000s.  It is gorgeous, and most certainly French.  From the sculpture overlooking the entrance to the chandelier, the store itself is both classical and modern at the same time.  Which, arguably, is what Guerlain today is all about.

One of the most impressive parts of Guerlain's perfumes is that their most famous, quintessentially Guerlain-y scents are old.  Like a century old.  Apres L'Ondee, for instance, which smells just like what the name says (after the rain shower) was created in 1906.  And it can still knock the socks off many "modern" perfumes.  Shalimar is Guerlain's most well-known and well-loved fragrance, and dates back to 1925.  Today, Shalimar is still Guerlain's best-seller, and certainly is the top seller at the flagship store.  Of course, there's also Shalimar Eau de Toilette and Shalimar Parfum Initial, but these aren't the same.  The Eau de Toilette is actually quite close to the original, but lighter (I prefer it, in truth).  The Parfum Initial is quite different, and much more recent.
Most exciting at the flagship store are the exclusive collections that are only available in the Paris stores (well, and potentially at Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus, according to Google).  One scent only available here, according to the girl I spoke with, is La Cologne du Parfumeur.  This is a newer scent, developed by Thierry Wasser who now runs the house.  She also told me that this is currently her favorite scent to wear, which sparked a conversation about how its nice to wear bright, fresh scents in the winter.  At least I think so - I put on my Bigarade Concentree and I instantly feel like I'm walking through an orange grove somewhere warm.   And this is how La Cologne du Parfumeur makes her feel.

I appreciated that they were happy to let me take as many photos as I wanted, and largely left me alone for the 20+ minutes I was there.  I'm still figuring out how to tackle a place like this with so many scents.  And I know I want to smell "landmark" scents, like Jicky.  This was one of the very first, if not the first, scents to incorporate synthetics in addition to natural materials.  Today perfumes are largely synthetics, for lots of reasons I'll not go into here.  So Jicky was a huge moment in perfume.  I was totally excited and then all I could think after I smelled it was, "Jicky...Icky."

Where I finally got really pumped was when I sniffed Angelique Noire.  This is part of the exclusive L'Art et La Matiere line.  I smelled about half of them and was unimpressed - Iris Ganache was okay, cool but sweet, and Cuir Beluga was just sticky sweet vanilla.  Angelique Noire, on the other hand, is definitely up my alley.  It's a little seductive, very little black dress.  It's soft but not wussy.  Angelique Noire is, for me, one sexy perfume.  Naturally I like the perfume that is super expensive - $235 USD!  So I won't be acquiring that anytime soon. I mentioned something about the cost of this perfume to an employee at another Guerlain location in Paris a few days later, and she asked if I knew about the most expensive perfume available through Guerlain. "No," I told her, eager to her more.  Apparently, for the wealthy elite intent on having their own true signature scent, you can work with the Guerlain perfumer to develop your own perfume.  This work, plus 2 liters of your personal perfume, can be yours for 50,000 Euros.  Yes. That's right.  That's more than $65,000 USD.  I asked if she knew how many people actually do this, and she said thinks maybe 3 or 4 that she's heard of.  Regular Guerlain employees do not get to smell these personal perfumes, though the formula is maintained so that the buyer can purchase more if she (or he, I guess) so desires.

Guerlain is a beautiful store with beautiful perfumes.  There's real homage paid to the tradition of the house, which shows in the displays and in the physical bottles themselves. I'll have to go back, which is easy as there are many Guerlain stores throughout Paris!  Apres L'Ondee is really the scent remaining in the my nose and my thoughts right, despite my fervor for Angelique Noire.  Maybe because I grew up somewhere with a lot of rain (the Pacific Northwest) but the way that perfume captures that feeling when the sun first peeks through after a mild rain shower...1906.  Incredible.
Perfume is the most intense form of memory.  Thanks Guerlain.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Book Review: The Perfect Scent

I'm a sucker for journalistic narratives of quirky topics, like Michael Lewis' The Big Short or Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven.  Or even not-so-journalistic, such as the fun and flighty Bringing Home the Birkin by Michael Tonello.  Understandably, then, I jumped right in to Chandler Burr's informative and captivating book The Perfect Scent.

Published in 2008, this book kept my interest despite flaunting more chemical compounds than I've seen since my unfortunate encounter with organic chemistry more than 10 years ago. It is actually two stories in parallel - one, Hermes hiring Jean-Claude Ellena as their in-house perfumer and the development of Un Jardin sur le Nil; and two, the creation of Sarah Jessica Parker's fragrance Lovely.  The first story takes place in France, the second in New York.

It is probably not a surprise that I preferred the Jean-Claude Ellena part of the book. One, I already know a bit about him and own one of his perfumes. Two, that part takes place in France and since I'm currently living here, I'm just partial to those parts.  Finally, there is something romantic about the idea of the perfumer sitting in his lab, carefully, purposefully putting specific molecules together, tweaking and finessing until finally capturing the ephemeral idea of whatever challenge has been laid before him.  Chandler Burr not only takes you inside Hermes' meetings and Jean-Claude Ellena's lab, but practically inside Ellena's head.

What I got from the SJP part of the book is that one, SJP has eclectic tastes in perfume and two, SJP was actually involved in making her perfume unlike most celebrity perfumes.  Great.  I haven't smelled Lovely, so maybe that would bring the story full circle.  But it wasn't particularly captivating, not like the journey involved in creating Un Jardin Sur le Nil. It's possible that some of my preference for the Jardin portions of the book is a result of, as Burr points out more than once, Ellena's astounding ability to talk about perfume in a way few people do or can.

Burr gives us some fantastic lines from Ellena. "Picasso said, 'Art is a lie that tells the truth.' That's perfume for me. I lie. I create an illusion that is actually stronger than reality."  Another great one is: "There are two great poles of perfumery. Latin and Anglo-Saxon. Seduction and hygiene. The Latin wants to seduce; he says, 'See how sexy I am, I'm coming to you.' The American says, 'See how clean I am, you can come to me.'" And this last one helps bring some of what attracts to me to perfume into focus: "They say cooking is an art and pastry is a science. Perfume is a math, specifically an algebra."

For the perfume rookie, The Perfect Scent is a wonderful introduction to the industry as well as to the artists.  There is commentary on so many perfumes - while sometimes it made me think, "I get it, Chandler Burr, you know a crazy amount about perfume. So stop showing off!", at other times I appreciated the references as it has helped inform my ever-growing list of perfumes to track down and smell. I also finished the book with a smile on my face, a desire to visit Grasse, and a feeling of anticipation for continuing to learn more about the world of fragrance.

Next up on the reading list: Essence and Alchemy, Mandy Aftel.