Wednesday 28 April 2010

The Scent Crimes Series: No 8 - 2.5ml Glass Atomisers With Plastic Tops

I have been decanting for a year now, mostly as part of the MUA swap scene, and after Christmas I thought it would be nice to upgrade my 2.5ml size atomisers from all-plastic to those with a glass base and a plastic pump mechanism/top. So I invested in a pack of 50 from the online retailer from whom I have very happily bought most of my previous decanting supplies. Imagine my dismay when the pack arrived and I found I couldn't get the top of the atomiser to fit onto the bottom. Okay, okay, the word "crime" in the context of an ill-fitting bit of plastic is perhaps a little excessive, but I was - and still am - very exercised by this problem.

I immediately fired off a perplexed email to the company's customer services:

"I recently ordered some decant supplies, including 50 x 2.5ml glass atomizers with plastic sprung atomiser tops/closures. I have wrestled with the top and the bottom of several of these today and I don't think they are meant to go together - the plastic ring will not engage with the glass base at all, the way a plastic dipper closure would have done - the sort you shove in, rather than an atomiser top. The 5ml ones I have ordered before are all in plastic and the top screws into the bottom fine. With this mix of glass and plastic, there is no thread for the top to screw into the base, if you follow me.

Please advise, as I cannot get any of these to fit together, though I am familiar with atomizer mechanisms of various kinds."

The company replied promptly to my plea for help:

"You are not the first person to have problems getting the pumps to seat in those -- myself included.

If you look at the 2.5ml Glass Atomizer on the webstore and scroll to the bottom, there are photos and instructions on how to get them to go in. Everyone reports that after they get one seated, they have no more problems. The bright side of this is the tight fit means they are less likely to fit (sic - a Freudian slip? - FS). I would recommend doing one without perfume in it and then wiggling the pump to remove it and repeating this a few times. You should be a pro by that time.

Other than this problem, hope you are having a great day on that side of the pond."

Well, that was a nice, helpful email! And there is indeed a detailed page of instructions on the supplier's website, including close up photos of how the atomiser should look before and after closure. The bottom line is that what is required to make the top fit into the base is SHEER BRUTE FORCE APPLIED BY A HEAVY OBJECT.

I had a go using a variety of heavy objects that came to hand - a fat book, an earthenware mug, a rolling pin - but the one that worked best was that familiar household utensil, a geode! You think that is a strange choice of weapon? Ah, but my dear, late mother used to tenderise steaks with a lump of amethyst, so geological implements clearly run in the family... The geode was unbelievably heavy and the top of the vial did eventually snap in after a few failed attempts - it required extreme force to be applied whilst holding the base perfectly upright on a non-slip surface.

So far, so good, and I informed the company of my progress to date:

"I have managed that now but it was quite hard work, trying a variety of techniques/solid objects to get both the pump and the collar to go down properly. I am apprehensive about doing it with a perfume in the vial at the time, though as you say, with practice it should get better! It does look like a good fit - it is just getting to that point that is a bit of a black art. : - )"

Notwithstanding this successful test run, I could see trouble ahead. For it was all very well ramming the atomiser into an empty vial, but what on earth would happen when there was perfume in said vial? Surely the very action of depressing the atomiser to "set" it in its base would activate the pump and simultaneously deliver perfume - multiple times, if the geode didn't do its masterful business on the first attempt.

Reader, it did deliver perfume, again and again, as I was trying to decant a spot of Cuir de Lancome for Gblue the other day. Within seconds I had been hit in the eye, the neck, the elbow - I was covered in the stuff. And my trusty tool was also impregnated with the scent. This may be the first - and hopefully the last -time anyone in the history of the English language will utter the words: "My geode reeks of Cuir de Lancome".

Should I have first taped up the hole in the nozzle with duct tape before forcing it in the base? But wouldn't the pump have sprayed anyway, and just wetted the inside of the tape? And holding my finger over the hole wouldn't have worked, any more than the little Dutch boy plugging the dyke. Maybe that isn't a good analogy, as he did manage to stem the flow, didn't he, at least for a while?

Can anyone help me? I have about 46 of these things left and urgently require a reliable MO! Tips on removing odour from geodes would not go amiss either.

Monday 26 April 2010

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit: Penhaligon's Orange Blossom EDT

When I started this blog I pretty much decided that I would not routinely review newly launched scents, leaving that job to the many other reviewers in the fragrance blogosphere endowed with more expert noses than me. As a rule, I have felt more comfortable reviewing less well known or offbeat scents I wish to bring to wider attention. However, every so often a new perfume is launched that is just too lovely for me to let it pass without comment... Ormonde Jayne Tiare was one such, and Penhaligon's Orange Blossom EDT (a new release in its Anthology Collection) is my latest "squeeze" (no pun intended).

Yes, those nice people at Penhaligon's happened to enclose samples of Orange Blossom and the new Eau de Cologne in the same package as Elixir, and it was love at first sniff. The fact that Orange Blossom is the creation of my "secret correspondent", Bertrand Duchaufour, in no may predisposes me to favour this scent. Oh okay, maybe just a little. Though it didn't work with Havana Vanille - or not yet, anyway - though HV is awaiting a retrial.

As for the reference in the title to Jeanette Winterson's Whitbread Prize winning novel, whilst shamelessly opportunistic on my part, is not wholly without foundation, for Penhaligon's Orange Blossom (from here on in POB for short : - )) also contains lemon-cedrat, peach flower and pink berries. Which is a bit of luck... I never thought I would be so quick to embrace berries of any kind in a composition, but there you go.

Neroli, Violet leaf, Bergamot, Lemon-cedrat, Cardamom absolute, Pink berries
Orange absolute, Egyptian jasmine absolute, Tuberose absolute, Rose essence, Peach flower, Orchid
Sandalwood, Virginian cedar, White musk, Vanilla

So how does POB smell, apart from beautiful? These are my thoughts, without reference to the other reviews of this scent which have already appeared - I have purposely not studied them in case they influenced my own response.

Well, creamy and vanillic and a little spicy would be words that spring to mind. There is a citrus twist, but it is soft and muted. Is this a sort of Amaranthine treatment of orange blossom, you may be curious to know? Well, there is definitely a nod in that direction in terms of overall vibe, but POB is more demure, and there is absolutely no whiff of thigh here, nor is it as tropical as Amaranthine, or as creamy, or spicy, or (arguably) as sweet!

I would say POB has a lot in common with Serge Lutens Fleurs d'Oranger, of which it is a sanitised version. By that I mean that it enjoys a similar depth and creaminess, but is quieter, with no indolic twang from the white florals. This being a good thing in my book.

Here are the notes of the Serge Lutens, which have several key elements in common with POB - I promise I didn't peek at these before the comparison occurred to me!:

Orange blossom, white jasmine, Indian tuberose, white rose, citrus peel, hibiscus seeds, cumin, nutmeg

I have additionally conducted several side by side tests with Jo Malone Orange Blossom, which also comes across as indolic - soapily rather than skankily so, if that makes any sense at all. At the same time the Jo Malone is sparklier and brighter and more in-your-face than the Penhaligon's, and lacks its creamy depth. Can a perfume be simultaneously soapy and sparkly, I hear you ask? Well, if a washing up liquid can, I don't see why not. If JMOB was a handbag it would be all spangles and sequins, while POB makes a quieter statement in brushed suede.

Top notes - cedrat, green notes and clementine leaf.
Heart notes - orange blossom and water lily
Base notes - orange blossom and lilac.

So, in summary, the new Penhaligons is a sort of de-skanked Fleurs d'Oranger or an Amaranthine that has been "tango-ed" in a demure way. And just as oranges are not the only fruit, nor does POB smell like the whole orange. And is the better for it.

And if a single reader gets my drift, I will eat the bow of the bottle I hope to buy some day...

UPDATE: Since this review was published, Penhaligon's has very kindly sent me a bottle of POB, so if the above imagery is in fact less than totally impenetrable, I may have soeme serious bow-eating to do! And it looks quite thick material....

Saturday 24 April 2010

Wearing The Trousers: My Induction Into Men's Designer Scents

Not a week goes by when I don't visit my local branch of a well known UK high street chemist. It dominates fragrance sales in the UK, capturing a third of the market in the latest published stats I could find (admittedly from 2004!). If there is a new scent tester on display, I will usually give it a squirt in passing, on my way through to the water filters or the paracetamol.

But all that pales by comparison with the fun I had on Thursday in a large out of town store down south, where my friend Gblue (from Basenotes) works as an SA. It was a warm, sunny day, so the footfall was correspondingly light, and in the two and a half hours I hung out with Gblue, at the merest hint of the hovering form of a potential customer I would melt into the background. Well, not completely melt, if I am truthful, as several people asked me if they could pay for their purchases at my till. But before getting into the nitty gritty of what we tested, I just wanted to say for the record that NO SALES WERE LOST IN THE INDUCTING OF THIS PERFUMISTA.

Indeed, I even made a modest purchase of my own: a bottle of Yardley Geranium EDT for my Swedish friend (the owner of Penhaligon's Elixir featured in a recent post). This is a simple, pretty, slightly sanitised geranium soliflore with most of the earthiness stripped out, yet it stays the right side of twee. By contrast, the Hyacinth EDT in the range was sweet and twee to my mind, while the Orange Blossom was bizarrely oily, like comminute. (I used to market fruit juice in another life, and for anyone unfamiliar with the term, "comminute" is the ground up pith and rind which forms the basis of orange squash). So when a label reads: "Made with whole oranges", they really do mean "whole", just as chicken nuggets are reportedly made with "whole chickens"... : - )

But I digress...

Here is a list of the men's scents we sampled: in each case Gblue was able to talk me through their general style, key notes, and other designer fragrances they resembled. And whilst I did not like everything I smelt, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there is stuff out there amongst mainstream brands that is far removed from what Tania Sanchez dubbed the "Saddam Hussein School of Perfumery", meaning those shouty, astringently citrussy, hairy chestwig types of cologne that refuse to sell out to the "hint of" school, with its metrosexual penchant for the muted and discreet.

Paul Smith Man - carroty iris: am thinking TDC Bois d'Iris and MH Terre d'Iris!

Gucci pour Homme II - one of the standout scents of the day: notes of bergamot, violet leaves, cinnamon, pimento, black tea, myrrh, tobacco leaves, white musk, and olive wood - soft and elegant.

Armani (original) - rather like Eau Sauvage: bold but not quite brash, classic, but a little dated.

YSL Nuit de L'Homme - too coumarin-y, so pass! Prefer the original L'Homme.

Hugo Boss Elements - honking hedione note, one of those vapid ozonic numbers, but not offensive.

Dior Homme Sport - completely mad ginger beer opening, but mutes down to a pleasant tingle.

Armani Code For Men - quiet woody / milky scent. Improvement on the sticky orange mess that is Code for Women!

Paul Smith Summer Man - intense lemon and lime like a really pleasant washing up liquid. Sorry, Gblue - I know you like this one!

Paco Rabanne Millionaire - peculiar sickly sweet, rather foody scent. Apparently a huge seller! I disliked it so much I didn't even keep the blotter.

Dior Dune for Men & Gucci Envy for Men - liked these quite a lot, but for the life of me cannot remember why...
: - )

The following I know I either disliked or was fairly indifferent to, but again cannot recall the specifics:

Euphoria Intense, C K In2U Heat, Armani Diamonds Summer for Men (no raspberry note, at least!), Dior Fahrenheit Absolute, Paul Smith Extreme.

Other things of interest we smelled in our sniffathon - from the women's range -included Chanel Chance Eau Tendre (Daisy-like grapefruit opening, musky iris drydown), Coco Mademoiselle Parfum (rather pretty), Chanel No 5 Parfum (No 5 on steroids) and old and new Opium (no discernable common DNA whatsoever!). There was also a new women's fragrance that smelt exactly like Jammy Dodgers, but sadly the name of that escapes me too.

And my favourite scent out of all those tested? Bvlgari Eau d'Ete - marketed as a feminine, but we both agreed it had unisex potential. Reminiscent of Jo Malone White Jasmine & Mint. Very cool and fresh. It is apparently aimed at a younger audience, but I don't think it has any obvious age connotations.

Notes: mint, Italian lemon, amber, iris, cinnamon, benzoin and fir balsam

So, that was a very enjoyable and instructive afternoon - with a bit of a blue theme, you might say, in terms of my host's screen name, and the scent highlights of the day! Yes, I would like to thank Gblue for taking the time to show me everything, and for his gift of a goody bag full of samples for me to take home.

Finally, I can't resist mentioning that on the day Gblue wore a name badge bearing the name "Nathan".

"But you're not called Nathan." I protested.

"I know, but I have to wear a badge when I am working. And mine has gone missing, but there were a couple of spares - it was either this or Wilma..."

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Scent Trail Sudoku

When I tell people that I am fascinated by perfume, spend all my free time smelling the stuff, or reading and writing about it, I am often broadsided by the question: "So okay, then, what perfume am I wearing?" The gauntlet is thrown, a defiant and faintly sceptical smile playing around the mouth of my challenger. I shuffle a few steps nervously, shunting the gauntlet an inch or two, before picking it up gingerly between my forefinger and thumb, and holding it with outstretched arm at a safe distance from my body.

" is the bit I'm not very good at, actually."
I detect a flicker of a smirk from the other party.

"I mean I have smelled loads of perfumes, but it is harder to identify them from cold - you know, without anything to go on, apart from the smell, that is."

"Well......?" The question is accompanied by an interrogative eyebrow and a broad grin - or is it a rictus?

"Okay, then...I'll go for Coco Mademoiselle." (When olfactorily befuddled, pick a UK best seller with very short odds.)

"Noooo - it is Paloma Picasso/Light Blue/Daisy/Chanel No 5!/Ysatis!!" (Or substitute any other well known designer brand that also smells nothing like my wild stab.)

This is my Achilles heel, you see. I am absolutely rubbish at this, the most popular party trick of them all for any self-respecting perfumista...

Except in the case of Mr Bonkers' mother. I am sharp as mustard there. I know instantly if she is wearing Coco Chanel or Burberry Women. This is because she only owns two bottles of perfume, both of which I gave her. And yes, I suppose that is the scent decoding equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel...

Thus I was particularly proud of myself the other day in T K Maxx. I was peering at the shoe fixture, deciding whether to buy a pair of wedgey Mary Janes in an unknown brand. I couldn't make up my mind whether they had that "artisan/geek chic" look, or were just plain nerdy. I bought them, and today they went back, which I think answers the question.

Anyway, as I was inspecting ankle straps and T-bars and such like, I suddenly caught a whiff of something familiar wafting from the general direction of the shopper next to me: a lady of a certain age, with white hair and unremarkably dressed - what is known round here as a "tidy woman" - connoting someone unassuming and fairly conventional, who doesn't really stand out in any way. Apart from her scent: a bold, spicy oriental.

Before I could stop myself, I was in there like the proverbial ferret up a cardboard poster tube.

"Excuse me, but are you wearing Coco?"

"No, it's - what's that one called again...?"


"Opium, that's it!" Adding helpfully, after a pause: "By Yves Saint Laurent."

"Aha!" I replied, bursting with glee: "Same general idea. They are both spicy orientals, you know."

"Right" replied the lady, with a humouring smile, before scooting hastily round to the aisle with the 6-7s. This may have been a ruse to avoid the random bonkers person who just accosted her. I prefer to think she had oddly sized feet.

Whatever, I was happy with my work. This was true "guessing in a vacuum", even if ballsy spicy orientals only count as entry level in this game of scent trail sudoku.

There is in fact an official term for something that enhances mood in this way: an SSRI. It stands for "Selective Sillage Recall & Intercept". It's a game I hope to play again, and maybe I will nail it next time...

Monday 19 April 2010

The Unsung Hero Of The Swap Scene - Electrical Insulation Tape

I am starting this week with a severe case of "Julie Andrews déjà vu", but I have greatly enjoyed reading the synchronised "Scents that Sing Spring!" picks (why, that is almost a tongue twister). Aside perhaps from the "vermiposting" dimension to ScentScelf's piece, with its disturbingly graphic imagery of writhing worminess aka annelids...

Anyway, in the light of this comprehensive coverage of the spring scent theme, I thought the blogosphere probably doesn't need any unsolicited suggestions from my side (Ajne Printemps! - sorry, that just slipped out). Instead I am going to sing the praises of a humble, utilitarian, yet vital accessory in the armoury of any perfumista who is serious about swapping: PVC electrical insulation tape.

I had just finished the roll I bought when I first got into swapping on Makeupalley. Twelve months on, and some 60-70 swaps and RAOKs later, I needed to restock. As it happens, right next door to my local post office is a neighbourhood hardware store. It has a large sign over the doorway, which reads:


I pondered why the shop decided that it would focus on these three lines in particular. Could they really be best sellers? It seemed unlikely. Perhaps they are amongst the slowest moving products, and the proprietor reckoned a bit of shop frontage advertising would give a much needed filip to sales. Hmm, that seems unlikely too. Musing on this, I went inside and noted how sparsely filled the shelves were. Some of them were so empty that they could have doubled up as (rather uncomfortable) bunks.

Rather than jump to the conclusion that there had in fact been a run on cable glands, cavity wall anchors and boat varnish, with fresh deliveries expected any minute, I got the feeling that the store might be running stocks down. Clearly they had missed my patronage since last April's 99p purchase! I hurried to the till with a roll of insulation tape - £1.19 this time, but it looked bigger. Should I buy two? Will they be here next year if I don't? My sense of philanthropy didn't quite rise to the occasion, and I came away with one roll.

As anyone engaged in swapping perfume knows, this tape is the vital membrane that protects the precious liquid cargo from the ravages inflicted on packages by unsuspecting postal workers and their machinery. Plain old Sellotape (or Scotch, as it is known in some parts), is nowhere near as effective for sealing the tops of decants. Anyone using common or garden sticky tape would be a pariah in the MUA community - or at the very least branded as semi-pro.

I have only ever seen black in my hardware store (local demand probably wouldn't support a rainbow palette), but I have noticed that the tape used by Canadian and US swappers is often yellow or green. From such subtle cultural differences we may deduce that North American electricians are cheery, upbeat souls.

What else can I tell you about this workhorse sealant? Well, for starters it is resistant to biting. Also, very fastidious swappers may use it to seal up the hole in the nozzle before putting a second layer around the top to secure it to the body of the atomiser. NB This requires a very fine gauge of tape and very nimble fingers. If I attempt this double seal stunt, I dismally fail to get the top back on over the trussed up nozzle.

I would be lying too, if I gave the impression that insulation tape is infallible, even when applied with practised dexterity. I had a parcel leak only the other day, causing one label to flirt off completely and the lettering on another to blur.

But for the most part the tape performs very well in its unusual (and covert) calling, given that the sending of perfume flies in the face of many countries' postal regulations. It is our partner in crime, our sticky-fingered friend.

And if you were very strapped for cash - and exceedingly shortsighted - you might just be able to pass off a roll of tape on your dressing table as a bottle of Bvlgari Black.

Friday 16 April 2010

Rising Damp! The Flight of The Flacons - II

Ever since acquiring a beer chiller to "curate" the key bottles in my collection, I must confess to feeling rather virtuous for taking such pains to care for my perfumes, keeping them in their optimum temperature controlled environment of 10 degrees C - well, except for the citrus ones, that is, who allegedly prefer it a little chillier - but I refuse to pander to minority groups.

Any feelings of smugness have been gradually eroded of late by the appearance of icicles on the inside roof of the fridge, which gradually lengthened, their sharp tips grazing the top shelf bottles. Perfumes may like it cold, but they do not like it wet.

Then this week - an odd one meteorologically speaking, what with this volcanic dust cloud and all the downstream aviation chaos it has wreaked - I realised that the icicles had now all melted and dripped through the fridge interior, forming puddles on boxes and depositing droplets of condensation on dozens of decants.

There was nothing for it but to evacuate the bottles for the second time and defrost the fridge properly. So once again, there was a sprawling refugee camp of perfume migrants on the bedroom floor. I closed the curtain to prevent the spring sunshine from inflicting any more damage. Having wedged a towel into the fridge to soak up the moisture, I set about examining the boxes to see what state they were in. Well, sadly there were about half a dozen, including PG Brulure de Rose and Creed Love in Black, that have water marks and some warping. And Ferre by Ferre is positively undulating, to the point that the lid no longer fits! So bendy indeed, that the Downward Facing Dog would be an absolute breeze for it. I'll call that Warp Factor 9. But mostly the damage was around the 3-5 mark, and it was the matt cardboard boxes rather than the glossy ones (Bvlgari Jasmin Noir, EL Sensuous) that were worst affected (packaging designers, please take note!).

Now, the other day I burned an indelible brown ring onto the kitchen work top in two very visible places, so in the grand scheme of things this is not a big deal. And Mr Bonkers is being very supportive about the kitchen disaster: "I hated that pattern anyway!"

I have learnt from this that keeping perfumes chilled and dark is easy (a fridge), dark and dry is easy (a drawer), but chilled, dark AND dry presents more of a challenge.

Wednesday 14 April 2010

Penhaligon's Elixir - Pulpit or Pulling Scent?

The day I was in Zürich on my solo sniffathon, specifically when I was in a branch of Starbucks above a bookshop, peering at the price list to see what exorbitant sums they wanted for a cup of Tazo tea (with milk!), my mobile rang. It was a Swedish friend of mine, who was spending a few days in London and felt an urge to call me from a branch of Penhaligon's to tell me she had just bought a bottle of Elixir.

Well, my first reaction was puzzlement, as I thought I knew the whole line, but Elixir was a new one on me. My friend described the notes to me over the phone, and I have since found the whole list on NSTperfume:

"eucalyptus steam, cardamom, orange blossom, cedar, Turkish rose, jasmine, cinnamon, mace, rosewood, benzoin, tonka bean, vanilla, incense, red sandalwood and guaicum wood."

It sounded like a woody oriental, and is in fact a masculine, which may explain why it wasn't on my radar. The perfumer is Olivia Giacobetti, she of the enviable cheek bones and creator of minimalist ethereal beauties like FM En Passant, Diptyque Philosykos and L'Artisan The pour un Ete. That said, she is also the nose behind Idole Lubin, which is a scent with boozy, spicy heft.

The SA apparently positioned Elixir to my friend as a "pulling scent", and I was very excited about this, as I already consider several woody-incensey orientals to have that important property (important in an altogether theoretical way in my case, you understand): Ormonde Jayne Ta'if, Kenzo Flower Oriental and Tauer's L'Air du Désert Marocain to name three.

So I rang the Penhaligon's mail order line and they kindly sent out a sample of Elixir, plus one each of their new Orange Blossom EDT and Eau de Cologne (which deserve their own review).

On Saturday, to motivate me to double dig the flower beds and de-dandelion the drive, I applied Elixir for the first time. In the opening I got a dusty, spicy note that reminded me very much of SL Femininité du Bois and a little of DSH Nourouz (the scent formerly known as Tamarind Paprika). This quickly morphed into straight up church incense, but a very soft version of same - like DKNY Black Cashmere but less piquant, or like Etro Messe de Minuit, but mercifully devoid of its foetid flagstone note. A bit like Heeley Cardinal even, but without the Lemon Cif riff. And the whole tone of Elixir is even quieter, even more zen-like and meditative than any of those mentioned above.

Today I tried Elixir again. Now it may well be that the perfume was understandably apprehensive about my forthcoming review, for it decided to show me a few more facets this time. Today I get the incense still as the dominant note, but it is partnered with more woody notes and the rose. I would be lying if I said I got any jasmine or orange, mind.

On balance, it is still a little too incense-y, but it is very beautiful in a bone dry, austere, Simeon Stylites kind of a way. Could I pull someone wearing this? Hmm, if I was on one of those retreats where burnt-out business people go to detox, paint, learn reiki, gamelan drums and generally how to be their Best Possible Self, then I would say most certainly.
In Stafford's local nightspots, frequented by gaggles of 20-something girls with exposed midriffs and vertiginous heels, I am not sure it would quite cut the hair gel. Beyonce Heat or Britney's Midnight Fantasy might be nearer the mark.

Me, I will happily continue to wear Elixir whenever I want to escape the hurly burly of the working week. It is a fragrant way to achieve inner calm without having to focus on my core breathing or contort myself into a Downward Facing Dog.

Monday 12 April 2010

Secret Message From Bertrand Duchaufour!

Okay, so that is a shameless example of tabloid journalism if every there was one, right up there with sensationalist headlines like: "My daughter grew another head", "I gave birth to a mummy", "The woman with a 14 stone tumour", and my all-time personal favourite: "Freddie Starr ate my hamster". For I guess this isn't so much a "message", as an inscription. And not so much a "secret" inscription either - as in surreptitious or clandestine - as merely overlooked.

Regular readers may remember that I was fortunate enough to meet Bertrand Duchaufour at the launch party for Penhaligon's Amaranthine. I described it as one of my Transcendental Experiences of 2009, partly because he sniffed me wearing his creation, but also because he dedicated my bottle to me in silver ink, with his best wishes - or "estime" in the original French.

At the weekend, whilst making up a decant for Ines, I happened to flip the base of the box up and noticed - for the first time in the six months since the event - that BD had written a second inscription on the bottom. This read:

"A une szande fou de parfum"

Only of course it said no such thing. "Szande fou" sounds like one of those new industrial eco-zones in China, just along from Guangzhou. After some considerable head-scratching, and flicking through my Harrap French Shorter dictionary, it dawned on me that the message must read:

"A une friande fan de parfum"

Which translates as something like: "To a keen fan of perfume". "Friande" is a versatile word in French, with connotations of both enthusiasm/fondness AND gourmet taste - "friandise" meaning a delicacy or titbit - sometimes even a specific type of pastry or cake. And we are not talking a greasy slab of apple turnover from Greggs the Baker or a sticky Bath bun the size of the new head the daughter has grown, but rather something infinitely more dainty, and by inference, elaborate and intricate.

So what may I take from this newly discovered dedication? That the great man thinks I am Bonkers about Perfume. That much is clear. And given the provenance of the perfume on which this is written, and the nuances of the word "friande", I am also going to infer that he thinks I have discerning taste.... : - ) Or a "fine gueule", as the French might say: an appreciation of the finer things in life, whether olfactory or gustatory. Did I just write "gustatory"?? Ah well, the word doesn't get out much, so please let it go.

Interestingly, on the Penhaligon's website there is a fragment of an old perfume formula written by William Penhaligon himself. It looks no less tricky to decipher than BD's handwriting (not helped by the silver pen, in his defence), but clearly demonstrates the usefulness of a magnifying glass on these occasions.

Friday 9 April 2010

The Bonkers Road Trip - Part Three: Solo Sniffathon in Zürich

So there I was by the end of week two, holed up in a hotel in Wildegg, its foyer steeped in the ambient testosterone of the Serbian U-17 football team. The players may have been young, but they were very tall for their age. And every time I came downstairs, another one would be demanding gluten-free breakfast cereal from the receptionist in an imperious mixture of English and Italian.

Time to break out, I thought, so on Saturday morning I took the train to Zürich, which cost over £20, but it was less stressful than driving (I surely needed one day a week off!), and I managed to persuade myself that the parking would have cost as much.

Zürich has numerous associations for me: hotels on the Limmatquai with geranium-filled window boxes, woozy cheese fondue, banking secrecy, my home and contents insurer - and of course lately the city has become the European capital of voluntary euthanasia.

My first impressions on this occasion were of the North Face of the Eigeresque prices (£1.50 to use a public toilet, £1.50 for a picture postcard, £7.50 for 30 mins' Internet time!) I could tell early on that this was going to be a window shopping kind of a day and resolved to sniff freely, but resist all temptation to purchase anything more than essentials.

My first stop was a branch of Import Parfümerie in the Bahnhofstrasse. A native Swiss perfumista might not give this discount chain a second glance, but for me everything was new and different and interesting. Nothing remotely approaching a bargain, mind you, even in the promotional bins, and after testing a fairly forgettable Issey Miyake (Fleurs de Bois), I headed on to Manor, a mid-market department store, and Marionnaud, the (French?) specialist beauty chain run on similar lines to Douglas.

In Marionnaud I sniffed the new Prada Infusion de Tubéreuse. It really didn't strike me as being much like tuberose at all, but at least it didn't mug me and leave me for dead like its disappointing stablemate, Infusion de Fleurs d'Oranger. I later read Robin of NST's review of this scent, which she dubs "Infusion de Fleur Nonspécifique", which amused me no end - and frankly I couldn't agree more.

Next up was Hermes, where a friendly SA let me have a sample of Voyage d'Hermes - the only sample I scored all day, haha! Sadly it was rather sharp and overly limey - the J-C Ellena equivalent of a "Friday afternoon car", as they say in the motor industry.

I popped into Chanel, and tried to blag a mini of Beige, but no samples were forthcoming. Indeed they didn't even have one of their distinctive square blotters saying "Beige" on it, and I was blowed if I was going to walk out with Beige sprayed on a piece of card saying Coromandel, when I know perfectly well what Beige smells like anyway - I was just on the scrounge.

I also made a detour to the Moroccan-themed book shop - Le Maroc - in the Spiegelgasse, which inspired Andy Tauer to create Le Maroc pour Elle. It was a veritable Aladdin's Cave of books and sumptuous greetings cards featuring arty photos of Marrakesh and the surrounding area. Sadly, they started at 5 SFRS! Just inside the doorway was a homely display of Andy Tauer's scent range - I say "homely", because the tester bottles were tied loosely to the table they stood on with garden twine. Extrapolating from the greetings cards, I didn't even bother asking how much they were, much as I aspire to own L'Air du Désert Marocain some day.

Back in the Bahnhofstrasse, I spent quite a while in a very good branch of Douglas - very good because it had an extensive range of Micallefs, which I had only ever previously come across in an independent perfumery. I sniffed my way through quite a few:

Printemps, Ete, Automne, Black Sea, White Sea and Royal Musk

Printemps and Ete were surprisingly designer-ish to my nose, Automne was spicy but not pleasant, Black Sea was weird in that "push the envelope-loft dwelling-perfumisto" kind of way, White Sea was like a cross between a nice CDG such as White or 3 and one of the dodgier Platinum Life Threads - I am thinking Silver might be the one I mean. Royal Musk smelt of musk and was not the least bit objectionable.

The highlight of the day was my visit to Osswald's, one of the most high end independent perfumeries in Europe, at a guess. On a par with Hyazinth, or slightly better, owing to its Guerlain corner. It was a highlight, but strangely also a low point, for I felt so poor, both in relation to the prices and the well heeled clientele happily shelling out 180 SFRs and up at a rate of several every five minutes. Now I was wearing my good work trousers, a designer padded jacket and Ecco boots (from an outlet store and T K Maxx respectively, but no matter!), and yet I still managed to feel scuzzy and tramp-like, in a way I hadn't at Hyazinth. Maybe it was having the company of three stalwart perfumistas on that occasion that made the difference. It was certainly nothing the Osswald SAs said to me. They more or less left me to my own devices after one or two initial inquiries. I don't know what didn't click exactly, but I didn't feel at all comfortable, and tested less that I would have liked - though still managed to cross off quite a few things from my "to sniff" list:

L'Eau de Serge Lutens (unremarkable, inoffensive cologne)
Guerlain Les Secrets de Sophie (bit too ylangy-musky - almost trashy, which really took me aback)
Guerlain La Petite Robe Noire (elegant, dry, can't remember much else about it)
Guerlain Tonka Imperiale (overly rich vanilla - to retry!)
L'Artisan Havana Vanille (overly rich tobacco vanilla - to retry!)
Miller & Bertaux Shanti Shanti (too rosey, too much patchouli)
Humiecki & Graef Askew (good masculine, bit sharp?)
Humiecki & Graef Geste (unisex and beautiful in a way I am at a loss to describe)
Van Cleef & Arpels Lys Carmin (very pretty lily with added welly)
Van Cleef & Arpels Cologne Noire (pleasant cologne - not groundbreaking, but nice)
Van Cleef & Arpels Orchidee Vanille (sickly sweet mess on me)
Van Cleef & Arpels Gardenia Petale (too sweetly indolic)

Next stop was the department store, Globus, where I lingered for a good while - I would rank it above Manor in its market positioning - the Neiman Marcus to Manor's Macy's perhaps. Or Selfridges to Manor's Debenhams/John Lewis (for British readers).

In Globus I had a Vol de Nuit edt epiphany - it was soft and powdery, comforting like a mole's fur, but with a slight frisson of static electricity.

I also retried Ninfeo Mio (just as sharp off-fan!), Daim Blond (not as sweaty loafer as I recall, but not especially good on me), Tom Ford Grey Vetiver (why did I do that? I am not a vetiver fan particularly, though if you are, that is a pleasant example of the genre). I sniffed Michael Kors on paper at a distance of several feet from my body, and tried Bond No 9 New Haarlem aka "My Gingerbread Hell" rather too close to it. I also sampled Paris by Balenciaga on skin and found it exactly as expected in terms of scent - low key violets and greenery - but wasn't expecting it to be so powdery. It could have taken a "leaf" out of Patou Vacances' book and been a bit fresher for my money...

After Globus I was wandering pretty aimlessly by this stage and quite by chance stumbled across a department store whose name I cannot even remember, though the logo had a black background and there may have been a "j" in the name. Jelmoli? Jellyroll? More important than what it was called, it stocked the Tom Ford Musk range!!! I eagerly sniffed them all, and was predictably disappointed by Pure Musk, Urban Musk and Jasmine Musk, and re-bonded with White Suede on a prime skin site, my sample of which having long since been exhausted. "How much is the 50ml?" I inquired of the heavily made up SA, as optimistically as I could muster. "240 SFRS" (£160). Jeepers! That is £60 more than in the UK as far as I can recall. I asked if they happened to have a sample, so that I could evaluate White Suede at greater leisure. "Why would you need to do that?" came the blunt reply. "You have got it on your skin already." There was nothing for it but to make a sharp exit.

My energy levels were flagging by now, and my search for a cheap bar of chocolate led me to a branch of the Coop department store. I was feeling pretty jaded and disorientated, as evidenced by an impulsive trial of the new Avril Lavigne - that rocky "fruitchouli" number - Black Star? Not my demographic is putting it mildly. It was clearly time to go home.

So in summary, the three standout scents of the day were: Guerlain Vol de Nuit (bergamot, galbanum, petit grain, jasmine, jonquil, spices, woods, iris, vanilla, amber), Humiecki & Graef Geste (soft amber, musk, soft violet petals, soft fir resin) and Van Cleef & Arpels Lys Carmin (Lily, Pink Peppercorn, Ylang Ylang, Vanilla and Sandalwood). Which is about a 1 in 10 "love" hit rate. But given that they say you have to kiss 125 frogs before you meet your prince, that really wasn't a bad day's work...

Tuesday 6 April 2010

The Bonkers Road Trip: Part Two - Meeting The Swiss Perfumistas

I have been travelling abroad on business for over 20 years now: always driving, and always on my own. I might take a couple of paperbacks along for company, and on longer trips I have been known to sneak a small soft toy into my luggage: a rat called Maxim being the companion of choice because he is extremely slim and bendy, fitting snugly into the smallest interstices of your car, such as the ashtray or the cubby hole where I keep coins for the Dartford Tunnel.

On this trip, however, I had an uncharacteristically sociable time, thanks to several hook ups with perfumistas in Basel, Switzerland. Basel is a cosmopolitan city with a large expat community, and our mini-gathering of perfumistas from Basenotes represented no less of a melting pot, comprising:

1 x Welsh (Wordbird)
1 x Slovakian (Alicka61)
1 x Swiss (Potiron)
1 x Northern Irish and just visiting (me aka VM I hate civet!)

On Wednesday 24th March, following my two morning meetings, I took the tram back to the market square where the other three were already standing outside our meeting point, Brasserie Baselstab.

The Swiss perfumistas had had some prior contact with one another through the Internet - and I had myself done a swap with Alicka61 on MUA - but none of us had ever met before in person. To have got together with one fumehead in Switzerland would have been exciting enough - suddenly to be greeting three at once was almost emotional overload!

Introductions over, we sat at a table outside and enjoyed a leisurely lunch, only slightly marred by the waiter's signal failure to bring cold milk for my tea. He first brought boiling milk, which is as good as no milk in my view. I requested cold milk, but none was forthcoming. Shortly before we got up to go, the waiter informed me that they were in fact clean out of milk - fresh out of it, even. Or perhaps they were only out of discretionary supplies of the stuff that could be spared for cantankerous foreigners. Anyway, it didn't much matter, for by this point I had long since drunk my glass of tepid black tea.

But not even a serious beverage irregularity could dampen the ebullient mood of our party. We chatted away about our jobs and families, and our likes and dislikes on the fragrance front, pausing every so often to rummage in the pile of samples in the middle of the table. For shortly after we had sat down, Wordbird and Alicka61 had upended their handbags and encouraged us all to help ourselves to the resulting carded sample sprawl. It was like a leisurely version of supermarket sweep, or perhaps like a swinger's party - where (I believe) you toss your car keys into a bowl. On balance, going away with a clutch of new scents rather than someone else's husband probably offered less potential for emotional discombobulation.

All the more so in my case, because I scored a sample of Sonia Rykiel's Women Not For Men from Wordbird and promptly fell in love. A full bottle is currently on its way to me following a lucky break on Ebay. I may do a separate review of this dreamy comfort scent one day, but here are the notes to be going on with.

Pink Pepper, Violet, Date, Jasmine Petals, Solar Flowers, Bulgarian Rose, Black Pepper, Olibanum, Agarwood, Leather, Amber.

After lunch, we repaired to a high end perfumery, Hyazinth, and proceeded to stand chatting and sniffing in the perfume section for the best part of two hours, clearly displaying not even the merest hint of a purchase intention. To their credit, the sales assistants tholed the clogging up of their store by such time-wasting customers with dignified stoicism.

I was in such an excitable state in the store that I did not systematically note down all the lines carried, but Hyazinth had a most impressive selection, greater even than that of Les Senteurs, I would say. This list is by no means exhaustive, but I recall seeing The Different Company, By Kilian, Byredo, Parfumerie Generale, Heeley, Rance, Etro, Divine, Ulrich Lang, Mark Birley, Les Parfums de Rosine, Annick Goutal, Bois 1920, The Party, Bond No 9, Floris, Penhaligon's, Keiko Mecheri, Mark Buxton, Les Parfums d'Empire, Biehl Kunstwerke, Ineke, Parfums 06130, Balmain, and several ranges featuring the prefix Profum-!

I ended up trying the following (on a mixture of card and skin):

By Kilian Back to Black (strong and honeyed, but not as cloying as I had feared)

The Different Company Oriental Lounge (lightly spicy oriental reminiscent of Penhaligon's Malabar or the quiet vibe of Prada L'Eau Ambree overlaid with spice)

Ineke Field Notes from Paris (soft orangey number, that somehow smelt more foody orange than perfumey orange, but then I have been left deeply traumatised by my experiences with Boss Orange and Prada Infusion de Fleurs d'Oranger, so I may not be best placed to judge)

Il Profumo Musc Bleu (perfectly pleasant straight up musk)

Annick Goutal Ninfeo Mio (This scent was wafted under our noses on a fan, but not even such a delicate delivery system could mask its offputting astringence)

Rance Eau Royale (green foresty vibe, a bit like Miller Harris Fleurs de Bois)

Profumu Roma Ichnusa (don't rightly recall, but it was nasty)

Now that doesn't sound like a whole lot of testing given that we were in such a fabulously stocked temple to fragrance, but to be honest I felt a little awkward about running amok with the testers. I got the impression that the SAs would rather direct the customer's sampling experience rather than let us ransack the fixture...

Sadly, Potiron had to leave us to go back to work while we were still at Hyazinth, and finally, after our indecently long stay in the store, we moved on to a branch of Douglas, where we felt less overlooked, though even here we were periodically interrupted by SAs asking if we needed any assistance. This was a good branch of Douglas as far as I could tell, carrying some of the Serge Lutens range, which would be unheard of in Boots, if one were to take the nearest Douglas-equivalent.

I tried a few more things here, while staying just the right side of sensory overload:

Sisley Eau du Soir (classic old school chypre - with skank!)

Jil Sander 79 (classic old school chypre - without skank!)

Jil Sander Sun (strange sun cream number - it is to Ambre Solaire what Clinique Simply is to Johnson's Baby Lotion)

Prairie Life Threads (Silver, Platinum, Gold: didn't care for any of them, but Platinum seemed to be the least worst, and Gold was particularly gross in a Poisonesque kind of way)

Alexander McQueen Kingdom (not the groinfest I was eagerly anticipating - only the merest dusting of cumin to my nose)

Alliage (another green classic)

By 5.15pm, after a solid three hours of fixture scoping and sniffing, we were starting to feel a little jaded, so we wandered over to the Barfüsserplatz, where I jumped on a No 14 tram to Pratteln to pick up my car, while the others headed for the railway station.

It had been such an enjoyable afternoon that we agreed that we must do it all again sometime. Meanwhile, I managed to meet up with both Wordbird and Potiron again during my trip. I rendez-vous-ed with Wordbird on the shores of Lake Zurich the following Monday, where - after a token trip to the lilliputian branch of Manor (a local department store) - we headed for elevenses and some surreptitious at-table sampling at a picturesque cafe. Yet again there was a lamentable failure to bring milk with my tea - any kind of milk - but a small catering portion was finally secured after a bit of pointed staring and slightly less pointed pointing.

The next night I met Potiron back in Basel for dinner in an Italian restaurant and some more discreet at-table sampling. Thanks to her I discovered the woody delight which is Rance Laetitia Milliseme. Unlike the Rykiel, it is unlikely to turn up on Ebay any time soon, and after loitering without intent for hours there the previous week, I wasn't brazen enough to go back to Hyazinth and blag a sample...
All in all then, the Swiss leg was definitely the highlight of my trip, for I made new friends there - and new scent discoveries. And next time I am over, Maxim Rat may well be out of a job...

Sunday 4 April 2010

Back From The Bonkers Road Trip! - Part One

Well, I am back from my four country trip, and pretty bonkers it was too: 2840 miles (4545 km approx for metrically minded readers) in 19 days, and I have a very sore lower back to prove it, offset by a not inconsiderable sense of achievement. It was good to be working again, and everything felt very familiar: the aggressive tailgaters on the Autobahn, the old boys supping beer at cafes at 9.30 am, the women of a certain age with spiky hair dyed a startling shade of scarlet, and the thunderously stern corporate types sporting incongruous comedy ties.

Then on the food front there were the breakfast eggs that are always either hardboiled and warm or softboiled and cold, and the cups of tea served with hot milk, condensed milk, or no milk at all. Not forgetting the dark and worthy breads, the fruit salad that is mostly apple by the time I get to it and ever so slightly fizzy, the holey cheese and the glistening curls of smoked ham.

Sleep often eludes me in these parts, for the duvets are invariably too thick and the pillows too thin. You have to fold them in two - or better still, nick the one from the other bed, having first consumed the small packet of Gummibears or the single square of Lindt chocolate that adorns it.

Then, after twenty years of doing such trips, there is always something new to catch you out: this time it was the revolving door that moved in the opposite direction to that indicated by the arrows painted on the floor. "It's an initiative test for all our visitors!" explained my respondent brightly. "Some of them have been wandering about the building for years." I was also royally foxed by a petrol pump with a touch screen display that failed to obey the frenetic stabs of my forefinger, and on another occasion I spent an anxious quarter of an hour trapped by my GPS in a perpetual loop around Ludwigshafen railway station, 11km away from where I needed to be.
Other oddities included a man performing cartwheels and back flips in the middle of a busy road in Brussels - fortunately when the traffic lights were on red - and the hotel in Switzerland which I shared with the Serbian U-17 football team and its entourage of reserves, trainers and minders. Fortunately only two of their party had remembered to bring swimsuits, such that I didn't have to share the hotel pool with more than one of them at once - their butterfly stroke was very splashy.

The sat nav was in my bad books this time not just for its moments of intermittent madness, but also for "English Kate's" disgracefully sloppy pronunciation. She pronounced "Cologne" as "Callen", to rhyme with "Fallen", and once I went down the motorway in the opposite direction, thinking she had said "Solingen". Heidelberg came out as "Arschenbeck", and "Geneva" as "Shenf", but by then I had got the measure of her mangling.

Over the course of the three weeks I crisscrossed Switzerland so many times I developed "tunnel vision", and every time I passed through Bern, I couldn't help but smile at the sign for the "Wankdorf City" retail park...

The worst thing about the driving was the potholes - oh my goodness - the EU should set up a disaster fund to sort out the roads as a matter of urgency. If I had a quid for every sign saying "Chaussée déformée" or "Route dégradée" I could have afforded a light lunch.
Oh yes, that is the last thing to mention - the incredibly strong euro and Swiss franc, making my money go not very far at all. To give you an idea, a picture postcard cost £1.50 in Zurich, as did their public toilets. So obviously I all but gave up fluids while I was over there.

Mr Bonkers kept the home fires burning in my absence, and did a surprising amount of his own laundry. He liked the fact that the house smelt only of last night's chip papers and Indian take aways. He was able to rinse out his empty beer bottles in the kitchen sink, unimpeded by the presence of half a dozen metal funnels soaking in soapy water. And when he went into the bedroom, it was refreshing for him not to crunch plastic bags of sample vials underfoot.

As well as the work, there was a strong perfume angle to the trip: I met assorted nationalities of perfumistas from Basenotes - two of them twice! - and had a full day's solo sniffing in Zurich's finest perfume emporia. The perfume related aspects of my travels will be fully documented in Parts Two and Three...though not quite as fully as I would have liked, as my camera bit the dust on the first day.