5 perfumes: Great Moments in Top Notes

blood orange

As a Now Smell This reader, you likely view top notes differently from the average perfume consumer. A perfumista like you has learned to appreciate design in fragrance and to heap scorn on the scent that snares with a few fleeting bits of flash. You are shocked and dismayed when, mere moments after the sales assistant hands over a blotter, a time-crunched husband or brand-loyal shopaholic announces: “Wrap it up!” You would like to warn this impulsive stranger. You know this purchase can only end in heartache, a heartache wreathed in a pale floral laundry musk. You are a specialist, though, and you understand your message is complicated. Perhaps you should draw a fragrance pyramid on the back of this napkin you found in your pocket, or scribble down a quick glossary? Suddenly, you are assailed by the memory of that time a friend mentioned wearing Marc Jacob Daisy — “Is that a good perfume?” — and you forgot yourself somehow and ended up giving a short lecture on strawberry doll-head accords and the volatility of certain esters.1 (“I like the bottle,” your baffled friend replied.) Okay, so you’re probably not going to make much headway here.

The flip side of our suspicion of a great top note is… well, everyone likes a great top note. Many of us fragrance fans carry about atomizers or sample vials, so we can reapply and get that glorious hit of green/citrus/spice/fruit/skank again…

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5 perfumes for: a Desert Sun-seeker

desert

Like many kids — including, currently, my daughter — in elementary school, I dreamed of becoming a marine biologist. We lived in Steeltown, Central Canada, but my parents humored me by giving me books on whales and sharks. Then, when I was ten, we moved to the Pacific Northwest, to live within walking distance of the ocean, and my mother realized humoring me now was going to involve keeping tanks full of weird, wet, smelly sea things in our laundry room. She was a good sport about it. Eventually, I went away to do half my double major in biology as an undergraduate and in the meantime, my parents had moved to the other coast. I spent two university summers living with them, working for an Atlantic fish conservation agency, and those months spent in hip-waders, prying errant eels out of fish ladders and tagging traps, cured me of the childhood career dream. But my love affair with the ocean has not wavered.

For a while after I left home, then, I was suspicious of any vacation destination or employment opportunity that lacked access to saltwater. Once I was married, though, my husband coaxed me into moving to Alberta. After I got over the nosebleeds, I found I enjoyed the famed high blue skies of the west, and day-trips to the badlands to the north and in Montana suddenly appealed. Again, I started reading, desert stories like The English Patient and Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, books about Mexico, Wilfred Thesiger, the Battle of the Little Bighorn and, oddly, Los Alamos. The reading led inevitably to vacation plans and traveling, trips to New Mexico, North Africa and to the arid edge of the South American altiplano…

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5 perfumes for: Foodies

Ice cream cones, Jordi Roca

Recently, I re-watched El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, Gereon Wetzel’s very scrupulous, very German 2011 documentary about one of the final years at the restaurant many food followers believe to have been the most influential of the last two decades: elBulli, brainchild of rumpled Catalan genius Ferran Adrià. Besides falling in love again with both the mad scientist menu and Adrià’s right-hand man, dashing chef de cuisine Oriol Castro, the thing I really noticed on this viewing was how familiar the scenes might seem to our readers. Adrià and sommelier David Seijas discuss what families scents fall into and how to emphasize notes from individual ingredients with other ingredients. Adrià, Castro and Eduard Xatruch go to the market, and are frustrated by the variable qualities and availability of the raw materials they need. In the lab and kitchen, there are endless “mods”, sampling and editing sessions and passionate discussions about the time-lapsed impressions a product gives. Everyone sniffs, and then stares thoughtfully off into space.

Of course, if you’ve been following perfume in the news, none of this will be a surprise. Chefs and perfumers have long recognized their mutual interests. Cooks have used essentials oils in recipes since the thirteenth century, and medieval cuisine included dishes like ambergris pudding, rose and almond milk pottage, candied calamus root and marigold (calendula, or “pot marigold”) stew. Perfumers, meanwhile, have always sought to make their creations mouth-watering, and a few contemporary ones, like Christophe Laudamiel, started on the flavorings side of the trade. It certainly seems, though, that both fragrance and food industry spokespeople have recently become more vocal about publicizing collaborations, particularly on the luxury ends of the markets…

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Top 10 Summer Fragrances 2013

LandArt Engel Angel

Having appropriated most American technologies, cultural tics and lifestyle choices, Canadians feel we know a lot about our neighbors (neighbours!1) to the south and we tend to be quite sensitive about a perceived lack of knowledge on the other end. Canadian comedian Rick Mercer, a national hero of sorts, came to prominence with a series of television clips called Talking to Americans, where he poked gentle fun at this relationship by interviewing ordinary Americans on the street — in addition to people like George W. Bush2, David Hasselhoff and a Harvard Professor of International Relations — and getting them to do silly things on camera: to congratulate Canucks on converting to a 24-hour clock (from a 20-hour one)3, to sign a petition trying to stop the planned polar bear slaughters in Toronto, or to sing along with a completely fabricated Canadian national anthem. Once, I had an encounter in Buffalo, NY that felt like a Mercer moment: I struck up a conversation with the gentleman beside me at the mall, who turned out to believe that Canadians did not experience summer. “But I live an hour or so away from here,” I kept explaining to him. “We have summer! We have the same climate as you do!” I could not convince him.

If you live in the southern U.S. — let alone in Australia, Southeast Asia or the Middle East— then you may not believe that people in Buffalo experience summer weather either. In truth, neither Buffalo nor Toronto (where I live, unmolested by polar bears) suffers from frequent Louisiana-level humidity or the week-long 100°F heat waves of Houston. Although I love classic citrus colognes and refreshing splashes, my perfume collection gravitates towards scents with enough heft to stand up to cooler temperatures. Still, we get our share of urban jungle here, normally from June until September, and though I’ve never done a Top 10 Summer Fragrances post before, I’ve written previously about my preferred remedies for when the heat is on (here and here). Below are ten more of my favorites for the swelter season; please comment with your own…

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5 perfumes: At the Discounters

Kenzo Ca Sent BeauGeoffrey Beene Grey Flannel

Before I collected fragrance, my “hobby” (read: single-minded fixation) was used books. When I first started buying perfume, my husband rather encouraged the interest, because he thought it might distract me from my bibliophilia: he was tired of hauling dozens of very heavy boxes full of my dusty, smelly, fragile purchases each time we moved, and besides, how much perfume could one bluestocking wife buy?1 HA!

We still have many, many books about the apartment, including the out-of-print literary fiction and back issues of The Paris Review of those times. Reading the acknowledgements and writer interviews, I’ve noticed there are some authors so frequently mentioned as “underrated” that it’s a wonder how anyone manages to overlook them. Occasionally one will reach a critical mass of “underratedness” and then a clever publisher will reissue a handsome series of books from his or her back catalog, hopefully while the writer can still enjoy the attention and royalties. Just as I was starting this post2, I found out one of my favorite authors, Evan S. Connell, died in January, in Santa Fe, New Mexico; if you know his work, you’ll join me in a moment of silence for a great literary stylist who long toiled in relative obscurity. Luckily, in recent years Connell had his revival and much of his fiction and non-fiction has been reissued, including a book I think would find an appreciative audience here, The Connoisseur. While I was delighted to see Connell recognized with glossy new editions, there are some books best encountered among the overflowing shelves and random piles of a good used bookstore, and The Connoisseur is one of them. Any fragrance nut will recognize the path to obsession charted by Connell’s recurring protagonist Karl Muhlbach: the chance find of a fascinating thingy, the curious way time and space collapse as the new interest is researched and money is spent, and the hungry and vaguely alarming welcome one is given by more experienced collectors…

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