Patterns of Thought (at First Sniff) – May 2020

A challenge for myself, in line with my prior post that addresses a modus operandi of sorts. Here I discuss three fragrances that I’ve worn during the month, letting my thoughts about them brew in the unconscious, and then emerge spontaneously. Therefore, the entirety of this post is written in one sitting: from conception to publication – there is virtually no active premeditation whatsoever. All of my opinions are, naturally, mine, and are accurate at the time of writing, but are also subject to revision. This is an exercise in flexing my olfactory skills, including articulation and expression. Honesty is primary, and I hold no allegiances whatsoever. Hopefully these snippets will inspire you, capture a shared thought, or at the very least rouse something in you.

Insolence EdT (2006) – Guerlain

You just can’t deny how wonderfully outrageous Insolence (EdT) is. This 2006 alien floral from Maurice Roucel is a fantasy picture of strange purple florals grown on moon rock and soil consisting of space dust. Insolence is a semiotic shakeup.

Take all that you expect from iris and violet, and find that the natural referent reemerges with a huge intensity – from natural to hyperreal – they’re set in a neon highlighter glow of fruity raspberry shampoo and hairspray that should be the trashiest thing ever. And yet, despite the synthetic fuzz that saturates this fragrance (which becomes quite addictive), it’s the base that keeps it anchored to the ground so it doesn’t float off into the mysterious void of space. With a brilliant support of resins, tonka bean, and a blanket of white musk, Insolence has an ultra firm base, a glossy hypercharged futuristic top, and a nonexistent middle that could explain the sort of saccharine vacuousness that is apparent prima facie … but Insolence is the kind of work that is so ridiculous that for this to be a happy accident is a ridiculous notion. Honestly, it’s quite hard to explain – but I am a fan.

Björk in an Alexander McQueen dress for Homogenic (1997)

If you want to understand what Insolence smells like, listen to Björk’s Homogenic (1997). Like Homogenic, Insolence conjoins together (and keeps all cracks, spikes, and jagged edges intact) chilly strings and warm yet scratchy electronic beats (where you’d imagine it to be the other way round). It’s like a picture of nature rendered in 16-bit graphics, or some other effectively perverse juxtaposition of nature and technology.

4.5 / 5

Jersey EdP (2016[2011]) – Chanel

I have always admired Jersey, but have never felt that it warranted a full bottle purchase. Usually this doesn’t matter in a review, but here I think it is a worthwhile exercise to meditate upon what it is that stops me from taking the plunge, in order to then uncover what stops the scent gaining immediate covet status.

Here you’ll see me in tension (cognitive dissonance par excellence) – and that makes for an entertaining read. For I quite like Jersey, and I think its upward shift in concentration has done it good (EdT -> EdP). It smells like a serious lavender, but it will never escape its lavender confines. And herein is the problem. It’s an expensive lavender; and so it becomes a hedonistic purchase to me. But it has some cognitive merit, yet I am forced to ask just how cognitive a lavender soliflore can be. It feels perfect, and with that, I refer to cocktail terminology: perfect is equal parts sweet red vermouth and dry white vermouth. This is perfect lavender: there is a prominent freshness that could almost be described as stemmy and green, and there is a present warmth also, like the smell of lavender baking in the sun.

To complement all of this, there’s heaps of vanilla, tonka, and white musk, together in perfect harmony without falling into custard territory, but rather, a step before that: chewy caramel. I chuckle. The connection is made: jersey caramels (fudge/toffee), French butter caramels, all that. Jersey has the most amazing texture. I want to sink my teeth into it. And as I am about to do so and indulge in the delight of pure elegant sugar (that sweet spot when sugar isn’t sickly sweet), I return to the semi-astringent herbal green of lavender and probably some other supporting florals, all in a cloud of soft powder – I stop myself. This goes on and on, and I never grow tired of it.

This is the most elegant lavender I’ve ever encountered, with a few tricks (including a gauzy sparkle of aldehydes) that make it charmingly delightful, but there is no mystery to this work. No aesthetic pull. And because of this, it remains a curio.

4 / 5

Bal a Versailles Parfum (1962) – Jean Desprez

Big florals, very much of the sort to be encountered in a work like this, have a noteworthy tendency to fall so far into abstraction that I find myself tasked with trying to explain what I’m smelling, and to assess it no less. I can never quite do it to a degree of personal satisfaction.

There is a tendency to fetishise the big floral: not the sort akin to an 80’s powerhouse, but earlier florals of the no-expense-too-expensive sort. Joy by Jean Patou revels in its mythical history. Clive Christian and Creed make themselves out to be part of this realm as modern equivalents (who are just plainly obnoxious really), but that is beyond what matters. I smell Bal a Versailles on my wrist. This is an old vintage, so, there’s no concern there. I notice the deep melange of indolic hues ranging from yellow to orange, purple to brown, indicating that there’s a whole lot of floral in here. The civet catches my attention. It is rendered well, rolled in sweet ambery balsamics. I can trace this fragrance developing over a short slice of time – that’s sure to excite any fragrance fan (look ‘Ma! Drydown in action!).

But why does Bal a Versailles just not move me? There’s something sugary about this scent (orange blossom), but even that enters into the dimension of plastic doll’s head with the faint aroma of vanilla essence about it; and I even find a sort of ineradicable trashiness to it – such gluttony welcomes that, surely?

Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles.

I think further, perhaps that is the very point of Bal a Versailles. But I remain firm: in its promise of lascivious behind-the-curtain ballroom fumblings, and an image of semi-washed Europe in the liminal phase of the civilising process (vis. Norbert Elias), I fail to detect any of that in any meaningful sense, and have before me nothing more than a big floral with some pleasantly stinky streaks, and a leathery base that reminds me of Piguet’s Bandit. I do not find this to be elegant in any proper sense – rather, this features an indelible mark of someone who comes to elegance, only knowing it in its popular en masse manifestations, who have no idea of restraint (the ‘take one thing off’ mentality) – for even maximalism needs to be mindful of what’s part of the equation, careful about what’s in as much as what’s out.

But I cannot deny that this transparent writing is the very purpose of this blogging format, as I continue to raise my wrist to my nose and my thoughts erupt from me, transferred from those less-than-gentle taps on my keyboard to the screen, … and each sniff I discover little facets here and there. For instance, that line about Piguet’s Bandit I only added much later. Must I sit here and smell it further? Somewhat. But perfume is living, just as much as I am. We move together, a chiasmic entwining of two living things, never again in the same position. Bal a Versailles continues to unfurl – it is much better now. My thoughts shift. I conclude without issuing a score, in order to interrupt that all too common process of restricting equivocity. I merely mark this scent as something to return to; and acknowledge that I have enjoyed the process of discovery.

? / 5

2 thoughts on “Patterns of Thought (at First Sniff) – May 2020

  1. You write beautifully and I totally agree with your statement “But perfume is living, just as much as I am. We move together, a chiasmic entwining of two living things, never again in the same position”. To me, fragrances are very much a living/breathing facet of ourselves that vary each day dependant of mood/season/activity. One day a fragrance can smell glorious and another that same fragrance can smell dreadful. Therefore one’s review of a fragrance can be quite tumultuous and we keep coming back to that same fragrance to (hopefully) discover different facets. A love can become a dislike and vice-versa. I have tried to love Jersey EDP but I’m afraid we just did not get on – not bottle worthy for me at all.

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