The Sniff Box – Perfume In Plain English

Tagged With ‘“Eau Sauvage”’

Acqua di Parma

Colonia | Colonia Assoluta

Acqua di ColoniaBefore I start, I have to admit that the Acqua di Parma colognes have never really floated my boat, but very kindly the company have sent me some samples to try, and as it’s one of the most popular men’s fragrances I wanted to explore why that might be.

There are lots of things to like about Acqua di Parma Colonia. Its packaging, for starters, is wonderfully elegant: a golden-yellow, linen-textured cardboard tube, which splits exactly in half to reveal the bottle tightly nestled inside.

The bottle itself is a beautifully judged design, in plain glass with gently flared shoulders and a chunky black cap to match. And the typography is lovely: effortlessly stylish, with something of the 1920s about it. The whole package is an object lesson in how to make a product that says ‘classic’ and ‘quality’.

So what about the scent inside? Again, it’s classic and simple – perhaps a little too simple for me. The original Colonia was launched in 1916, and I’m presuming it was always a fresh, citrussy eau-de-cologne, though like pretty much every long-lived fragrance on the market it will almost certainly have been reformulated over the years.

That’s not always a bad thing, and today’s version may well smell more sophisticated than the original; Agua de Colonia by the Spanish brand Alvarez Gomez, for example, may conceivably have been less tinkered with, but by comparison it smells quite crude and harsh.

Not that Colonia has a particularly complex character: it’s intensely lemony when first you spray it on, but as the sharpness of the lemon fades into the background you get the clean, herbal smells of rosemary and lavender. So far so classic eau-de-cologne, but what makes Colonia different is the fact that it’s also blended with rose, which adds an unobtrusively feminine touch – a bit like the artificial jasmine scent at the centre of Eau Sauvage, though not nearly as striking in its effect.

The rose (I think) also makes Colonia smell rather talcum-powderish, which is pleasant enough but comes across as somehow rather old-ladyish – I guess because we associate powdery perfumes with an older generation. It certainly smells clean and fresh, in a soapy kind of way, and perhaps that explains its popularity among men for whom smelling clean and fresh is the main (and often only) purpose of perfume.

Personally I want to smell a bit more interesting than fresh laundry, and my other problem with Colonia is that it doesn’t last: within an hour or two I can hardly smell it on my skin. Again, that may be part of its appeal for men who are a bit nervous about wearing scent of any kind, so horses for courses, I suppose.

After its glory days in the 1920s, the Acqua di Parma company limped along until 1993, when it was bought by three rich Italian businessmen whose money came from Ferrari cars, Tod’s shoes and La Perla underwear. They launched scented candles and the like, but it wasn’t until after the luxury conglomerate LVMH took a stake in 2001 that the Colonia range was extended.

First came Colonia Assoluta in 2003, followed by Intensa in 2007, Essenza in 2010 and Intensa Oud in 2012. I have all of these versions apart from Intensa Oud, and I have to admit that, though I thought I had a fairly sensitive sense of smell, the differences between them are so subtle that I find them almost impossible to tell apart.

Colonia Assoluta was formulated by two of the best-known perfumers around today: Jean-Claude Ellena (creator of Vétiver Tonka, among others) and Bertrand Duchaufour (creator of many unusual fragrances, especially for L’Artisan Parfumeur), which is a bit like getting Debussy and Ravel to compose a duet. The results should be extraordinary, but these two great talents seem to have cancelled each other out: Colonia Assoluta is discreet to the point of invisibility, like a plain grey Hermès jumper.

What Duchaufour and Ellena seem to have done is shuffled a few of the ingredients of the original Colonia about a bit – changing the lavender for jasmine, for example – but it’s all so carefully balanced that the overall effect is almost identical, though you can smell a faint difference after an hour or two. Their work is certainly very subtle and clever, like Gus Van Sant’s frame-by-frame remake of Psycho, but you could argue that it’s equally pointless.  

The same conjuring trick, if it’s fair to call it a trick, seems to have been achieved with the Essenza and Intensa versions: in each of them the ingredients are slightly different, but their smell is even less varied than their packaging (Essenza comes in a black tube, but is otherwise, ahem, a carbon copy).

Brilliant or bonkers? Delicious discreet or disappointingly dull? I’ll have to let you compare them for yourself. Maybe my nose isn’t as super-sensitive as it should be, but I’d be interested to hear what other people think. All the same, thank you to Acqua di Parma for letting me give them a try: they certainly look very handsome on my perfume shelf.

 

Sex and scentsibility

Are you man enough to wear Chanel No. 5? Or woman enough to splash on Azzaro Pour Homme? I have to admit that I’ve never been a great fan of cross-dressing, but it makes about as much sense to talk about ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ fragrances as it does to talk about ‘male’ or ‘female’ art, music or food. The fact that we divide perfumes into men’s or women’s fragrances has less to do with logic than it has to do with marketing, packaging and conventional thinking – and if you look back it’s not even that old a distinction.

Once upon a time, perfumes were perfumes, and there appears to have been little in terms of a gender divide until the early twentieth century. Men wore fragrances which today we’d regard as outrageously effete: both Napoleon and Wagner were famous for drenching themselves in scent, and Victorian gentlemen favoured sweetly scented floral perfumes alongside the ubiquitous eau de cologne. Even the words themselves – fragrance, perfume, scent – are genderless: the daft male-only term ‘after-shave’ appears only to have been dreamed up in the 1920s as a marketing wheeze. Though the expression may have made perfume sound a bit more butch and manly, all too often (in the days before male moisturiser became acceptable) it also left the more literal-minded chap with a burning face and peeling skin.

I’m not suggesting that male readers should rush out and purchase the olfactory equivalent of a pair of pink frilly knickers. Some scents (naming no names) are so insanely sweet and girly that it would be hard for even the most rugged male to get away with wearing them, but then they also tend to be the kind of perfume that smell as terrible on a grown woman as they would on any self-respecting man.

Beyond those parodies of perfume, there are remarkably few fragrances that, if you trust your nose and can brace yourself to ignore everything you’ve been told by breathless adverts and terrifyingly made-up sales assistants, are so incontrovertibly feminine or masculine as to be completely unwearable by either sex. Take one famous example. Christian Dior’s Eau Sauvage was launched in 1966 and quickly established itself as a hugely popular men’s fragrance. It’s stayed on the best-seller lists ever since, and I think most men would agree that there are few more bracing, fresh and (above all) masculine fragrances around.

I couldn’t agree more, but if you’re a fan of Eau Sauvage, next time you’re in a well-stocked perfume store, wander over to the women’s-perfume counter and have a smell of Diorella, launched just six years later and designed by the same perfumer, the legendary Edmond Roudnitska. The first time I smelled it I thought, ‘But this is Eau Sauvage!’ And it is, give or take some extra fruitiness which, you could say, gives it a slightly more girly character – though perfume guru Luca Turin regards it as ‘a perfected Eau Sauvage and one of the best masculines money can buy’.

In many ways it’s even easier the other way around, and women seem always to have been less inhibited about adopting fragrances that were originally intended to be for the opposite sex. Eau Sauvage is a classic example: whether they smelled it on their boyfriends or discovered it for themselves, women quickly recognised it as the masterpiece it is, and those in the know have been wearing it ever since. Guerlain’s superb Vetiver is, to my mind, one of the most archetypically masculine perfumes in existence, yet it, too, has long been a female favourite – the olfactory equivalent of an Yves Saint Laurent tuxedo.

More striking still are those fragrances that have crossed the gender divide more or less entirely. When Aimé Guerlain launched Jicky in 1889, it was initially bought by men; at the time its sharp, slightly catty smell was considered too overtly sexual in character for respectable women to risk wearing it. By the 1920s, though, liberated by the rise of female emancipation, women started using Jicky too, and gradually it became a ‘female’ fragrance – though a few self-confident men (Sean Connery being the most often-cited example) continue to wear it today. Chanel’s super-plush Cuir de Russie followed a similar trajectory, though it would be hard, even now, to define it as either masculine or feminine in character.

Visit the standard-issue perfume store and you’d be forgiven for thinking that we were still stuck in a world where men were men and women were women and never the twain should meet, as if history – in the world of perfume at least – had got stuck around 1955 and all the social and sexual revolutions since then had never actually happened. But society, of course, has changed, and there are encouraging signs that at least parts of the perfume industry have begun to realise that dividing fragrance along crude gender lines is a weirdly outdated thing to do. A handful of future-looking perfume brands, such as Byredo, Comme des Garçons and Escentric Molecule, already offer ‘genderless’ fragrances, and there is a growing trend for imaginative retailers to follow their lead, stocking perfumes by brand instead of dividing them into men’s and women’s scents.

Perfume customers are changing too. The majority of people may continue (for the moment at least) to accept the status quo, but for the small but growing band of perfume-lovers who are happy to think for themselves, choosing perfume on the basis of its supposed masculinity or femininity has come to seem increasingly outmoded. The trick is simply to follow your nose: to choose the perfumes you love, like the people you love, regardless of what other people might say.

Serge Lutens

Féminité du Bois

Féminité du BoisFéminité du Bois was launched in 1992 for Shiseido, the Japanese beauty company for which Serge Lutens created many striking ad campaigns, and which backed him in the launch, the same year, of his super-chic Salons du Palais Royal. It was in its original incarnation that I first encountered Féminité du Bois, and what first caught my eye was the design of the bottle – a lovely teardrop-shaped glass container, designed by Lutens himself.

Sadly that style of bottle disappeared in 2009, when Lutens left Shiseido and set up in his own name; the perfume went with him, repackaged in his signature bottles – a tall, slim, rather flat rectangular design, stylish in its own right but not as poetic as Shiseido’s original.

Recommending a perfume called Féminité du Bois to men might sound like a rather capricious (not to say perverse) enterprise, but many great fragrances transcend the gender associations that their names, and their marketing, impose on them, and this is one of the most beautiful fragrances I know.

Floral scents may be thought of as quintessentially feminine, and it would take a very confident man to wear something that smelled predominantly, say, of jasmine or of rose. Yet some of the most popular men’s perfumes have flowers in them – violets in Grey Flannel, for example, or jasmine in Eau Sauvage.

Féminité du Bois is, if you like, a mirror image of these kinds of men’s fragrance: a nominally female fragrance made more, rather than less alluring by the addition of elements that are generally associated with the opposite sex. The master stroke, in this case, is the combination of sweet, rather girly smells – violets and plum (the fruit rather than the flower) – with the masculine, pencil-shaving smell of cedar wood.

It’s one of those combinations that works so well that you wonder why nobody had thought of it before, but I guess that’s the mark of genius – in this case the genius of British perfumer Christopher Sheldrake (who worked on many of the Serge Lutens fragrances before getting snapped up by Chanel) and the legendary Pierre Bourdon (Cool Water, Kouros and many others).

The first time I tried out Féminité du Bois my reaction was ‘This smells exactly like Bel Ami’. Which is to say, like pencil shavings, which is the main – and very appealing – impression you get from the classic Hermès scent. But moments later you realise that there’s more going on inside the woodiness, and the warmth and slight sweetness of plum, violets and spices blend with the cedar to make an effortlessly satisfying whole.

Luxury can mean different things to different people: for some, bling is the thing, but for others luxury means high quality and discretion – and that’s the kind of luxury Féminité du Bois suggests to me. It’s neither brash nor overpowering, which makes it eminently wearable, but nor is it faint or feeble. Try it for yourself and I hope you’ll see what I mean.

 

Christian Dior

Eau Sauvage

Eau SauvageHow did I get this far without reviewing Eau Sauvage? And now that I’ve finally got round to reviewing it, how am I going to do justice to such an iconic perfume? OK, I’ve covered Eau Sauvage Extrême, but that’s a dreary spin-off and bears little relation to the glorious real thing. So, deep breath now, and here we go.

Created by the legendary perfumer Edmond Roudnitska, Eau Sauvage was launched in 1966, and it’s deservedly regarded as one of the greatest men’s perfumes of all. Roudnitska’s took the idea of a classic men’s cologne, packing it full of fresh, zingy, clean-smelling bergamot-orange oil from southern Italy, but then he did a brilliant thing, by blending it with an equally strong dose of a recently patented chemical called Hedione.

Hedione smells of jasmine – as well it might, since it was discovered by chemists during the process of deconstructing the molecular bits and bobs that, collectively, create natural jasmine’s heady, narcotic scent. Hedione’s real name is methyl dihydrojasmonate, and it was first isolated in 1958 by Dr Edouard Demole, who worked for the giant Swiss perfume company Firmenich.

Methyl dihydrojasmonate has a light jasmine smell but also something citrusy about it, giving Edmond Roudnitska a jigsaw piece that fitted into both the bergamot orange of a man’s cologne, and also had something – but crucially not too much – of natural jasmine’s sumptuous, powerfully floral scent, which most men would have considered far too feminine to wear.

To this Roudnitska added lavender – another floral scent, though this time one whose herby, faintly sweaty character had made it a long-standing male favourite – as well as a range of other, less pronounced ingredients including oakmoss (originally extracted from a lichen that smells of forests after rain) and patchouli, which in small amounts, I’m guessing, enhances the dandified character of Eau Sauvage without pushing it over into full-on let-it-all-hang-out hippiness.

A great perfume is one thing, and an all-too-rare thing at that, but it’s rarer still for a brilliant perfume to be supported by great marketing and presented in a great bottle. And here Eau Sauvage struck lucky again. Christian Dior died in 1957 of a heart attack, but under Yves Saint Laurent and then Marc Bohan, the company commissioned a series of sexy, tongue-in-cheek yet effortlessly elegant posters from René Gruau, arguably the greatest fashion illustrator of the 20th century. They certainly added to Eau Sauvage’s masculine appeal.

Few of us think a great deal about the bottles that contain the perfume we use, though they do have their collectors (most of whom, oddly, seem to have lost interest in the perfumes they contain). But some bottles repay a second glance, and Eau Sauvage is one of them. It was designed by Pierre Camin, who worked for Baccarat and created many of the bottles for the perfumer François Coty, and its chic silver cap, embossed with a pattern of tiny overlapping scales like a freshly-caught mackerel, is said to have been inspired by the silver thimble that Christian Dior always had to hand. The diagonally ridged sides of the bottle itself, meanwhile, are supposed to resemble the regular pleats of a Dior dress, though that seems a bit of a stretch to me.

I could go on, but in the unlikely event that you’ve never smelled Eau Sauvage, or think of it as a tired old dinosaur, I’d rather you headed out and tried it for yourself. Just be careful, though, as Dior have experimented with different versions over the years, and what’s now called Eau Sauvage Extrême (which you’d think would just be a stronger version, as indeed it used to be) is now a completely different fragrance, pleasant enough in a dull way but far less exciting than the original.

My last words, though, go to Edmond Roudnitska, not only because he was a perfumer of genius, but also because he also had something so important to say about marketing that it should be tattooed on the forehead of every perfume-company PR.

‘The choice of a perfume,’ he said, ‘can only rest on the competence acquired by education of olfactive taste, by intelligent curiosity and by a desire to understand the WHY and the HOW of perfume. Instead, the public [is] given inexactitudes and banalities. The proper role of publicity is to assist in the formation of connoisseurs, who are the only worthwhile propagandists for perfume, and it is up to the perfumers to enlighten, orient and direct the publicity agents.’

Here’s to the day his dream comes true.

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