The Sniff Box – Perfume In Plain English

Tagged With ‘2005’

Guerlain

Derby

DerbyWhat a great perfume this is. Rich and complex yet totally wearable, Derby smells of old-fashioned luxury and style. It’s the kind of perfume that should have been name-checked in The Great Gatsby (surely the worst-written major novel of the 20th century), and yet it was first launched as recently as 1985, when electropop ruled the airwaves and shoulder-pads the size of aircraft carriers filled the pages of the fashion magazines.

It was created by Jean-Paul Guerlain, the last member of the family to run the brand and a great perfumer in his own right: his other triumphs include Habit Rouge, Chamade and the fantastic Vétiver. Derby smells like crushed aromatic herbs when you first spray it on: rosemary and lavender with a hint of mint, but mixed with more exotic things like patchouli and sandalwood. Mace and pepper add a tiny touch of spice, while oakmoss, leather and vetiver give it extra depth and staying-power. After a while it smells more leathery than anything else, though still with herbs and spices mixed in – the scent of a Greek mountainside in summer.

For a long time Derby was quite hard to track down, which added to its mystique, but in 2005 Guerlain relaunched it as part of its Parisiens collection, at which point is was probably (though of course perfume companies never tell you these things) slightly ‘tweaked’ to change some of its ingredients (such as oakmoss) to comply with EU legislation. In 2011 it was repackaged in what I think is a rather cheap-looking balsawood frame, and its price went up as well: today it’s one of Guerlain’s most expensive fragrances, which I think is a shame, as it deserves to be widely worn.

Paco Rabanne

Black XS for Men

Perfumes can suggest many things. They can be uplifting, outrageous, disgusting, sexy, hard, delicious, warm, cold, luxurious, even sad. It might seem a bit far-fetched to describe a perfume as silly, but that’s what I think of Black XS by Paco Rabanne, and it’s also why I like it.

Created by Oliver Cresp (co-creator of Thierry Mugler’s love-it or loathe-it Angel) at perfume powerhouse Firmenich and licensed to fragrance multinational Puig, Black XS was launched in 2005. Its black-glass flip-top bottle originally came in an outer slip-case with a shirtless photo of the English model and amateur boxer Will Chalker, which added to its charm.

Packaging aside, its appeal is pretty simple: pump the spray button and you get an unexpectedly fruity blast of ripe strawberries – sweet, girly and completely at odds with the rather Gothic / Twilight-style design and lettering of the bottle. It’s not what you’d call a complex fragrance, but occasionally it’s fun to forget about trying to be cool and sophisticated: perfumes, like people, can sometimes take themselves too seriously, and there’s a silliness about Black XS that makes me smile every time I spray it on.

What’s really funny, though, is that Black XS doesn’t actually have any strawberry in it at all – at least it’s not among the official list of ingredients. What it does have is lemon, calamanzi (a kind of orange native to the Philippines), sage and what most perfume sites describe as ‘tagete’, which I’m assuming is an illiterate corruption of Tagetes, the Latin name for marigold.

The Mexican marigold, Tagetes erecta, is the source of an oil used in perfumery because of its attractive appley scent, and I wonder whether it’s the combination of orange, lemon and apple that fools my nose into thinking that what I’m really smelling is strawberry? If the effect is intentional it’s dead clever, but it’s the kind of thing that professional perfumers do all the time. Personally I think it’s magic.

 

Christian Dior

Dior Homme

rsz_guerlainWe all have blind spots, and Dior Homme has definitely been one of mine. I was, very kindly, given a bottle some time ago, and I admired its clear glass-and-lucite design, but as for the perfume inside – I just didn’t get it. It had excellent reviews, and it obviously sells well, so I thought I’d better give it another try.

Still no luck, I’m afraid. It’s not horrible (which is a rarer attribute than you might expect), but neither does it make me go ‘WOW!’, which is the response I’m always hoping for. There’s a hint of something in it that I really don’t like, which it shares with a lot of other men’s fragrances today – a slightly metallic, chemical smell, which might come from dihydromyrcenol or perhaps from ISO E Super, both (ab)used with gay abandon by contemporary perfumers.

So why the brilliant reviews? Am I just completely missing something? Actually, I suspect not. Although it was only launched in 2005, it seems that the original scent might well have been tinkered with and reformulated (quite possibly more than once), meaning that the bottle I have probably smells very little like the much-admired original. Which is a shame, as it did sound very appealing, not least because it was created by the talented Olivier Polge, son of Chanel’s legendary in-house perfumer Jacques Polge.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the version I have and the original do seem to share at least one interesting quality. I’ve pointed out before that in itself perfume is genderless – how can a liquid be ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’? But there are definitely some ingredients and effects that, at least historically, have been more closely associated with women or men. Vetiver, for example, is considered a classic ‘male’ smell, while iris is widely regarded as and ‘feminine’ and ‘floral’ (even though the scent is extracted not from iris flowers but from its roots).

As its name far from subtly suggests, Dior Homme is aimed squarely at men, yet its main smell, even in my rather synthetic-smelling version, derives from iris; compare it with Chanel’s superlative 1932 and you’ll see what I mean. Either this shows that contemporary men are more sophisticated than some might say, or they’re dumb enough to believe anything they’re sold. I like to think the former, but maybe I’m deluding myself; what do you think?

 

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