Lemon Aid

Lemon-Slices

-  a review of Tauer PerfumesCologne du Maghreb

Certain things are a given in summertime. You can reasonably expect to survive the heat of July with a) a few mosquito bites, b) by moving from one shady spot to the next if you’re anything as fair-skinned as I and c) last but never least, by rejecting most of the contents of your perfume cabinet in favor of lighter, flirtier scents, unless of course you’re also like me and suffer a fit of heatwave-induced contrariness and roll out what my friend Ms. Hare calls ‘bombs’; those take-no-prisoners odes to opulence that do wonders for your mood if not for your 12+ hour sillage trail.

Today, dear readers, will not be one of those days. For today in my garret in Niflheim, it is an already warm, blue summer day with the promise of more heat on the way. It won’t be long before I turn on the fan and place it on the floor to the delight of Hairy Krishna and Janice Divacat. All my windows are as open as they can be with two cats under a rooftop, the blinds are down to keep out most of the heat and as I type these words, my hair is up in a clip and my iPig is blaring a favorite baritone. I am wearing precisely one item of textile since it’s far too hot for anything more – a tissue-thin A-line rayon dress that won’t make the mailman blush too hard should he arrive, but it’s the coolest item of clothing I own and I have no air conditioning apart from my fan.

Today is also the day I reach for a small vial I’ve been meaning to review for quite some time – Andy Tauer’s recently re-released Cologne du Maghreb, which was originally a 2010 limited edition he has now made part of his permanent collection.

You could argue that the European perfume industry as it exists today owes everything to the cologne – that refreshing if fleeting blend of citrus, flowers and herbs that has been applied to everything from skin to hair to babies, and even used as a mouthwash since Giovanni Maria Farina hit upon a lucky blend in 1709 and named it for his new hometown of Cologne in Germany, an homage also to the local belief that the waters of Cologne cured everything that ailed you, bubonic plague included!

If this eau de cologne by the great Andy Tauer (one of my Primeval Forces of Perfume) is another panacea for all things heat-related that plague me, then it can’t possibly hurt to try.

Famous last words!

If colognes – at least, the ‘classic’ variety embodied by brands such as Roger & Gallet or 4711 – strike you as uncomplicated, somewhat linear fragrances to mindlessly revive your melting self beneath a molten sun, then I have news for you.

Cologne de Maghreb is not one of those. Surely, we perfume diehards hoped for no less from the august Andy Tauer?

And just as we hoped, dear Andy delivered. For his Cologne du Maghreb is neither simple, uncomplicated nor linear in the slightest, yet it is very much a cologne, meaning it is as invigorating as a dip in a cool swimming pool (I can dream!) yet also every drop as sophisticated as all his perfumes.

It begins, like so many great perfume tales, with a blinding bright sunshine burst of lemon and bergamot. And I do mean… lemon. Lemon with a capital L, lemon with all its zest and juice and joie de vivre intact, a lemon that must be a close relation to one of my own heatwave standbys, namely homemade lemonade.

But under that citrus-y sunshine lies a verdant bite of herbs and an earthy, shady vibe from the Atlas cedar that on my skin is apparent from first to last. As it softens and fades, I detect a seamless aura of neroli and orange blossom (never, ever a bad thing in my book), a whiff of background rose and a whisper of lavender, but they’re very hard to tease apart unless I close my eyes and concentrate.

As it evolves and moves forward, the lemon stays in the background like a heartbeat in tandem with that luscious cedar, and it becomes greener and earthier when the vetiver and labdanum arrive treading softly, adding a touch of sunset amber to the greenery.

Unlike most Tauers I’ve been lucky enough to try, Cologne du Maghreb doesn’t last much more on me than approximately three hours or so, which is still quite impressive for a cologne.

I have generally speaking – apart from a vintage bottle of 4711 I acquired in a thrift store for reference – tended to avoid true colognes (as opposed to eau de cologne concentrations of certain perfumes) precisely because they’ve seemed a bit too simplistic, fleeting and linear for my personal tastes. In some hard to articulate way, they’ve failed to scratch my perpetual itch for Slaying Them With Sophisticated Sillage.

Now, with Cologne du Maghreb, Andy Tauer has upended all my preconceptions of what a true cologne can be, by making a cologne for the rest of us perfumista diehards. It is not boring, not simple, not clichéd or trite in the slightest.

Instead, it is the closest thing to bottled air conditioning I’ve tried all summer. While I very much doubt Cologne du Maghreb will cure bubonic plague like those famous waters of Köln, it certainly cures any summertime heat blues I might have. I’ll be buying a bottle as soon as I possibly can.

Perhaps I should just call it…

Lemon Aid.

Notes: Lemon, bergamot, clary sage, rosemary, orange blossom, lavender, neroli, rose, Atlas cedar, labdanum, vetiver and amber.

Cologne du Maghreb is available from First in Fragrance and Luckyscent.

Disclosure: A sample was provided for review by Andy Tauer, for which I can’t thank him enough. Also special thanks to Jeffrey Dame and to Andrew Millar, who suggested a cure for my long and debilitating case of writer’s block.

The Hidden Art

- Is it… the art of perfume or perfume as art?

Whiling away a dismal Sunday November afternoon can be a most perilous undertaking. For one thing, I have been known to wade my way through all the internecine happenings on blogs, magazines and online newspapers I might have missed out on during the week. For another, this sudden surfeit of information overload has been known to cause something much, much more dangerous to my mind.

It makes me think. Watch out, world!

No kidding, there I was in my usual Sunday demeanor of microwaveable death-warmed-over beneath several layers of ratty wool and a cozy cloud of a favorite perfume, when my Facebook newsfeed alerted me to an item that somehow had managed to pass me by.

Chandler Burr, perfume writer and author of ‘The Perfect Scent’ as well as curator of Olfactory Art at New York’s Museum of Art and Design, has created an exhibition called The Art of Scent, the first major exhibition to highlight perfume as an artistic medium of expression in its own right, and to focus on how perfumes have evolved since the 1889 ground-breaking game changer that was the addition of synthetic coumarin in Houbigant’s Fougère Royale and Guerlain’s Jicky, the latter included in the exhibition itself.

You will find no iconic bottles, no advertising, nothing to distract you from the experience of the perfume itself, inhaled through specially designed snifters created expressly for this exhibition. In other words, not unlike Burr’s recent OpenSky experiment, where decants could be bought in plain bottles of the scents he chose to include, devoid of all marketing mystique.

But is it art? How can it be in an age that provides so many opportunities for redefining sensory artistic expression that relatively few exhibitions have focused on that most atavistic, primitive sense of all – our sense of smell?

After all, scents travel that little-understood information highway from our nasal receptors straight to our memories, emotions and associations, and completely bypasses that neocortical off ramp to language – just like another and not unrelated art form – music. And while no one will argue that an artist isn’t equally artistic in whichever medium he or she chooses whether it’s paint, Carrara marble or decomposing pork carcasses, the idea that perfume is every bit as valid as an expressive medium raises a few eyebrows among many non-perfumistas, simply for being such an unorthodox idea – or is that for turning a much-needed spotlight on the least-understood of all our senses?

Can it be that perfume straddles that great divide between ‘artistic medium’ and ‘artisanal product’, being not enough of one and too much of the other? In which case, perhaps it’s a good thing Mr. Burr chose that loaded headline-grabber for his exhibition…The Art of Scent, for no other reason that it brings us – the audience – to question and maybe even to redefine what we name ‘art’.

I haven’t seen the exhibition, so I can’t say anything you can’t already read in the press release. What riled me up and made me think, however, was Alyssa Harad’s take on Chandler Burr’s intiative, since her excellent blog post echoed many of the thoughts that ran through my own overheated Sunday afternoon mind, and Denyse Beaulieu’s own blog post did not much more to prevent me chewing on my nails.

I’m in no position to argue whether or not perfume is an art form in its own right and with its own merits – and limitations. For one, you could say I have a vested interest.

I’m a perfume writer, and perfume happens to be one of my own personal passions. To me, perfume is a means of artistic expression as valid, as rich, as rewarding, as challenging and as complex as any painting, sculpture or piece of music. To my fellow perfumoholic friends and acquaintances, I rattle off the names of famous perfumes and perfumers as easily as I can reference works by Titian, Gentileschi, or Alexander Calder. These liquid epics and novels, these allegorical redolent poems and metaphorical operas in magic, however, all exhibit a few characteristics in common no painting or sculpture can claim.

For one, I take issue with the general perception of ‘art’ (you insert your own definitions here) as a mode of creative expression that exists in a vacuum, outside any context or touch points with our ‘real’ lives. Art as a means of cultural expression  – in the sense of being ‘fine art’ – often ends up on private hands and out of reach to the general public or in the museums and art galleries who can afford to lend or buy them whereupon they exhibit them as ‘works of art’ to accentuate whatever statements the museum – or the curator – is trying to make. Art to me is something much more inclusive and dare I write it – quotidian. It is whatever enriches your life, makes you appreciate beauty, makes your personal horizons wider and maybe takes you somewhere out of yourself and into a place you would otherwise never know.

Perfume, on the other hand, is a democratic, inclusive art form. It is an instant mode of transport and mood elevator available for the price of a bottle for anyone who can afford to buy it. You can and often do take it with you anywhere and everywhere you go. It exists in a physical, concrete form in the bottle as a chemical concoction of ingredients both ‘natural’ and/or synthetic, yes – but the true story, the true art, is written on your skin every time you wear it, and no two wearings will ever be entirely alike, depending on such factors as your genetic makeup, your diet, your very mood, weather and so on.

You may have been seduced to buy it by the story of its inspiration, by the aesthetic considerations and heritage of the perfume house behind it, but as any perfumista and not a few perfumers know, the ‘story’ is nothing but a marketing ploy to lure you in, and the real story – and my own test criterion of a truly ‘artistic’ perfume – is what happens in that sublimely seductive, intimate space above your skin where it blooms. Not in whatever abstract or elusive inspirations the perfumer/creative director chooses to share with the world to sell the juice.

You may buy into the perfumer’s aesthetic, but the real reason you buy it and love it as you do is what it does to you and for you – in other words, how that perfume sings in its infinite variety…to you alone. Your family and friends, your colleagues and even total strangers can define or explain you by your choices in clothing, hair, and general demeanor – but that hidden art form, that art that may trail behind you and explicate you when you’ve left – that is the true art…of perfume.

In other words – also as Alyssa Harad stated – perfume art is ephemeral art. It exists only in the moments it breathes its wonders on your skin and invents new, untold stories of you, of its materials, of its very existence and the spaces the perfumer chose to give expression.

Even the very language we use to evoke that art form somehow lacks the ability to crack through the fourth wall and open the doors for our readers to perceive it. Which is why the best perfume writers have a large reference frame of history, literature, art and last, but not least, music to call upon. It’s no accident at all that perfumes are often described in notes, whatever Chandler Burr might argue to the contrary.

I applaud Chandler Burr’s decision to create an exhibition around the Art of Scent. I can appreciate his endeavor to create a neutral, association-free space in which to approach it anew, from another, more radical and perhaps more abstractly intellectual, unbiased angle. The question is, if perfume is an art form, is there such a thing as a lack of bias?

And yet. And yet. I look to my little sea grass basket full of wonders, signed by the perfume world’s Titians and Caravaggios, Francis Bacons and Lucian Freuds and Magrittes, the Afteliers, the Jacques and Aimé and Jean-Paul Guerlains, the Dawn Spencer Hurwitzes, the McElroy/Karls, the Tauers, the Kerns, the Lutens/Sheldrakes and the Duchaufours, the Chong/?s,  the Shoens, the Orchids and the Harts and the Morrises too, and I shake my head at such marvelous ideas and laugh and laugh.

Perfume is indeed a form of art, a medium of artistic expression, a story unfolding its unique and ephemeral pages. And as it does, as we who love its art as we do, redefine those stories each in our own individual ways, every time we wear it and every time we breathe it.

Caravaggio’s works should have been so lucky.

For an entirely different take, I can highly recommend Legerdenez.

With thanks to Legerdenez, Lucy Raubertas, Alyssa Harad and Denyse Beaulieu.

Image: ‘La Dame et Le Licorn’, ‘Smell’, late fifteenth century Flemish tapestry, from the Musée du Moyen-Age, Cluny, Paris

The Emotional Engineering Society

-  some further D-list thoughts on brands, bloggers and buyers in the world of social media

Some things I’ll never get used to. Such as…posting what I thought would be a pretty innocuous if slightly polemic blog post only to find some hours later that no less an august personage than Andy Tauer had picked up my topical baton where I dropped it, and in a certain manner of speaking both of our blog posts as well as Undina’s had touched a very live nerve on a very passionate subject.

Therefore, before I incriminate myself any further than I already have, I’d like to state a few things. First of all …there is no controversy, at least as that word is usually understood. My original blog post was prompted by nothing more than my own preoccupations in the world of perfume as well as several informal phone conversations with close friends who share my passion.

Last, but not least …despite my love of the focus of this blog and the people who make those epiphanies possible – fans, friends and perfumers alike – sometimes, I like to think out loud in public and point to what I see as pink elephants in the room. To be honest, the idea of never writing anything BUT perfume reviews (and my profound respect and admiration to those who do!) would bore me to tears and sometimes does. It makes me feel like a broken record, hauling out the same metaphors and the same similes and simply changing the order around, which does me no favors as a writer and is a disservice to the concept I’m trying to grasp with my nose as well as to the mind(s) who conceived it.

Before the perfume blogger, before the social media identity, and sometimes even before the woman lurks an iconoclastic, post-punk catastrophe writer, and if the blogger is to dance on this virtual page, then that writer needs to exercise her train of thought and her vocabulary. I didn’t mean to step on any toes or ruffle any feathers, but karmic law decreed otherwise.

The thing is…there IS a pink elephant in the room. No one wants to know about it, never mind even think about it, other than in hushed sotto voce whispers to very trusted friends. And as Andy Tauer rightly pointed out, no one is talking about it, very few are aware of it, but then, the iconoclastic post punk catastrophe began to think. Caveat lector.

Who is to say that a perfume blogger – even such a grade D entity as yours truly – can’t write about some of the other things happening on Planet Perfume? Well, no one, actually. Except I found two things very telling about this hot-potato topic. One, two people – one a rockstar-level perfumer herself –  commented on Andy’s riposte to my own blog post. Two, quite a few more than two commented back to Undina’s own thoughtful post, many of whom did not comment on my own.

Draw your own conclusions.

So many relevant points were brought up however, that it seems a bit pointless to go comment by comment, when I should have a) been a bit clearer about my intentions and observations and b) been a bit more precise in my argumentation.

Andy wrote that he didn’t consider social media to be relevant to any discussions about perfume because the medium IS…the message, as Marshall McLuhan famously said in that innocent, Pliocene age before Facebook, Twitter and other hazards to our collective sanity.

Andy, you’re absolutely right. It’s not. And it is. And the medium is less a point in itself as it is a platform and a Wild West free-for-all land claim for the message its users are trying to get across. I’ll be getting back to that.

Second, my blatant and purposely provocative use of the term ‘niche’. Yes, there is indeed a vast difference between big, corporate-backed ‘niche’ brands, independent perfumers and artisanal perfumers. There is a difference in the way these businesses are operated and maintained, there is a definite difference in terms of distribution and customer reach, and above all, there is a marked difference in the business philosophies of all three entities. I’m not even mentioning how new launches are conceptualized or executed, since from where I’m standing, that’s one distinction between them.

My point is…whichever category a perfumer/brand might belong to, and I’m so very sorry if I burst any bubbles…it’s still…a business. Money makes the world go round, money makes it possible to keep a company afloat whether they’re a one-man band or a whole olfactory orchestra of magical elves.

Perfume, that most ephemeral art, is costly to produce, at least at the level I’ve become accustomed to. Sourcing a consistent quality and supply of raw materials, manufacturing the juice or outsourcing your production line, bottling it up, finding the appropriate packaging, producing – or outsourcing –  the PR to go with it – all these things take a considerable amount of a brand or a perfumer’s time, and just as in any other business, you’re only as good as the reception on your last product. As an artisanal perfumer, if your juice doesn’t sell, you’re not going to remain a perfumer for too long if you also like to eat.

Now consider this – in 2011, more than 1400 new perfumes were launched. Some of those were struggling, artisanal brands with very limited distribution – if at all – and most of those 1400 launches came out of the great corporate conglomerates. How many of those will survive the end of this year? How many of those will be reviewed or remembered? How many will distinguish themselves to such an extent, they will still be bought and talked about five years from now?

In a market economy, wouldn’t that depend on not just the quality of a given perfume and the concept behind it, but also on things like…exposure, availability, trade-show schmoozing, word-of-mouth, editorial coverage, and the general conversation in the perfume community? In a world of ever-increasing olfactory noise and with the backlash to prove it, how else will any new and curious perfume buyer even know about it?

Enter the beast that is…social media. The casual Facebook user might not think too much about these things, but you do have to wonder…what are we doing there?

Posting cutesie Photoshopped animal pictures, commenting on other pictures and clicking links and sharing – or even oversharing – everything from intimate details of our private selves and offlline lives to inadvertently delivering a marketing executive’s wet dream of a demographic analysis in the process for free. Posting our SotDs and declaring our undying loyalty and love of a given brand – or forty – commenting back on other SotDs in happy-hour cocktail-party fashion… “Oh, I love that one, I have that one, that one didn’t work for me, have you tried X, Y or Z instead?”

If the medium is the message, then the message here is…despite all our high-minded efforts, despite the opportunity and the platform to engage in meaningful discourse in all sorts of Web 6.0 ways with anyone we damn well please, perfumers and/or brands included (I mean, they can’t see you blush as you type your shy ‘hello’ to a rockstar perfumer, or see you bang your head against your keyboard with your likes), we’re still interacting on the same principles that grease the wheels of human concourse anywhere in the world.

“Nice weather we’re having lately!”

Why? Because the point of Facebook, or Twitter, or Pinterest is not…a philosophical discussion about the creative process or the concept behind a concrete idea. In fact, it’s not about discussing much at all. It’s about the daily reinvention of ourselves as individuals in an increasingly crowded world. It’s about staking that claim and drawing those lines of distinction. This is who I am. This is what I like. This is me…today, this week, this moment in time.

No, Andy, it is all too true and you are all too right…there really isn’t, despite all efforts to the contrary, a hell of a lot of ‘meaningful discussion’. Because this really is a brave new world and we’re all taking our baby steps as we walk this brave new media landscape of 24/7 virtual life, being brave or not as we go.

Why not? Ah…

Well, I’ll venture that the vast majority of perfume consumers simply don’t have the vocabulary for it. Francis Kurkdjian landed in hot water when he claimed that bloggers or even layman critics as a rule don’t know what the hell they’re writing about, since they have so little knowledge of the technical skills of perfumery. This is very true. We don’t. And if you ask me at least, I don’t give a flying, since I don’t buy juice to determine the artistic use and technical merits of this or that aromachemical, this olfactory riff on a material. Even if I did, it still wouldn’t sell the juice to me.

That’s not why I love it, that’s not why I buy it, that’s not why I dream about it and that’s certainly not why I write about it. I do all of it…con amore. I’ll wager my D-list status here (about to be demoted, any day now!) and venture that isn’t why any other blogger – or at least the ones who are capable of articulating that passion to any extent – does it, either.

We articulate our inordinate passion for perfume artistry for no other reason than what it does to our selves, to our moods, and to our daily real-life reinventions. We articulate it to inform, to entertain, if only to inform and entertain ourselves, to make our readers agree or not with our assumptions, and all along, we know damn well we’re charting virgin territory in the process, since articulating a wordless, emotionally fraught art is very, very hard. Poets, writers, artists and dreamers have been trying to convey the inarticulate with words for millennia. But in the end, the nose…knows what the word can’t say.

Not everyone has the depth of cultural knowledge, the passion, or the psychological insight to participate in any meaningful discussions about perfume. And there are no troll-free zones to do it in, either, unless it’s an option to moderate comments on a blog.

Does it take away from the mystique, the whole romantic aura of perfume to know something of the process that goes into its creation? Maybe it does for some, maybe they can’t be bothered to be informed on such a level, maybe they just don’t care to know anything other than what their acute, discerning noses tell them.

What about bloggers? What are they doing, thinking, planning? Is it true that some bloggers have an inside track on certain brands, new launches, new hotly anticipated moments in perfumery?

Yes. And if we didn’t (I’ll freely confess to being one of them, and I’m obliged by US law to state it every time it happens), how would a lay perfume customer even know? They don’t have access to trade magazines, wouldn’t know unless they read perfumer’s blogs or editorial write-ups, and even those do come from other sources than press releases. In the case of indie perfumers and artisanal brands, they don’t have an advertising budget, or much more to go on but determination and dedication. Some of them are internationally renowned, some of them not at all. My point is…a blogger receives a sample because a perfumer would like that spin on their creation, to see what a blogger’s interpretation might be. And any blogger worth his or her weight in bottled bribes knows full well there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Any artist in any medium knows that once a work of art is finished, you have opened up the gates of Hades to pass it on to the world. You want feedback, accolades (it is to be hoped) or alternatively, at least a certain level of creatively stated antagonism.

That doesn’t mean you’ll get it.

Not one blogger that I’m aware of does this for a living. In most cases, we have very full and overflowing lives that entail things like spouses, children, pets, families, day jobs and laundry baskets. There are only so many hours in a day. I’ve been known to knock out big reviews in an hour and thirty-seven minutes, and several others that took me days or weeks. Yet I have very few truly negative reviews. Why?

It’s the conspiracy of silence. Negative reviews – or simply reviews of stuff you loathe – are too much trouble to write. Why be bothered to forgo an evening with friends, an extra bedtime story, a nosedive into a book, a full night’s sleep, if you have to write a review of something you hate? For that matter, why waste time on what doesn’t move you? I don’t bother with people I can’t stand, why should I do it with perfume? Life’s too short. Better to just…pass it on, pay it forward by sending off a sample to a friend who might love it better, write about it better, cherish that idea you were unable to grasp.

Undina said it beautifully in her post – perfume experts don’t buy perfume. Laymen do. They buy with their hearts, their passion, their noses and their burning plastic, People like you, people like me, people like the perfumers who inspire us and the brands we love – or love to argue about, in that fragrant corner of the dog-eat-dog world of social media, we could call – with some justification, to continue the Huxley reference…the Emotional Engineering Society.

With many thanks to …Persolaise for the interview with Francis Kurkdjian, Andy Tauer, Lucy of Indieperfumes, Undina, Bloody Frida, Susan and the two dear friends who burned my ears this week about this very topic.

Original image: An installation by Brooklyn artist Ebon Heath.