My most cherished scent memories as a child were in the library experiencing real books which created a world of wonder and exploration. Living now in a technological world filled with iPads, Commodity Book takes you into the New York Public Library to recapture the experience of yesterday; turning the pages and breathing in the smell of dry paper mingling in with the open fresh air.
That's a quote from Ketrin Leka, the perfumer who developed the fragrance Book for niche brand Commodity. How could I resist, right? I love reading more than almost anything else, and I do as much of my reading as possible from actual books, and the Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library's 42nd Street branch is one of my favorite places in the world.
Given my paired bibliophilia and aromaphilia, you'd think I'd fall hard for Book. Did I? Not really, for two reasons. First: it doesn't smell anything like a book. If you're a book-lover, you know that books — especially old books — have a unique smell. Earlier this year, Bois de Jasmin alerted me to a Guardian article about a recent scientific study conducted at University College London's Institute for Sustainable Heritage. Researchers had analyzed the aromas of books and created a “historic book odor wheel” to describe the results — including notes of grass, vanilla, musty wood, and much more.
So, how does Commodity's Book smell? Its official description lists top notes of cedar, rosewood, eucalyptus and bergamot; heart notes of cypress, amyris and amber; and base notes of musk, sandalwood and velvet. To my nose, Book begins with something unexpected that smells like a freshly sliced cucumber. The bulk of its composition is a blunt cedar-and-sandalwood duo that stings my nose a bit and lasts for a couple of hours on my skin. It's androgynous and a little rough around the edges. The dry down is a sweeter, muskier rosewood-and-sandalwood blend with a very light hint of creamy white florals, less masculine than the woods of the heart notes. Book has very good lasting power, and its sillage is intense for the first hour but then turns more subdued.
Within one wearing, a second cause for ambivalence dawned on me. Not only does Book not smell like a book, but it smells uncannily like another perfume that I detect all-too-frequently on my fellow New Yorkers, on the subway between Manhattan and Brooklyn, in upscale clothing boutiques, in cocktail bars. . . yes, you guessed it: Le Labo Santal 33.1 Looking back at Kevin's review of Le Labo Santal 33 (from 2011!), I catch certain phrases that could also apply to Book: "some entangled cedar and sandalwood with a dash of turpentine...a weird, but not unpleasant, dill-like note...an inexpensive-smelling, candied, slightly floral musk aroma."
Is Commodity Book intended as a Santal 33 dupe? I can't prove it, but there are one or two commenters on Reddit who would agree that there's a bizarrely strong similarity. I'm also noticing that Commodity's website includes black-and-white photographs of all the perfumers who have created its scents. That, plus the silhouette of the Commodity bottle, reminds me of yet another niche perfume house that's been around for most of the twenty-first century. And, of course, CB I Hate Perfume, long known for its storytelling approach to fragrance, has offered a scent called In the Library since 2005 or so. (Says Christopher Brosius: "So much of who I am, what I've discovered and what I know began with a book. Indeed even becoming a perfumer started in the main reading room of the New York Public Library.")
Basically, not much about Book (or Commodity in general) feels new to me, but I suppose I'm not the target consumer. Once again, I'm just getting cranky when I see ideas being appropriated and recycled for a new audience. Well, I'll be all right. It's nothing that a cup of tea and a good book won't fix.
1. Also see Olivia Fleming, "That Perfume You Smell Everywhere is Santal 33," The New York Times, November 15, 2015.