Sunday 9 November 2014

Cupolas and cobblestones: biehl. parfumkunstwerke mb03 review and a tale of two halves...

Source: Hypoluxe
First half

Twenty-five years ago today, I was alone in a hotel on an industrial estate in Hannover. I was feeling upset and disorientated, having just been thrown out of a meeting. This was the first of only two occasions in my career where this has happened to me - the other is detailed here - and the only time it has occurred before the meeting had even started. I was working on a market strategy study (aka 'spying' mission), and had shown up for my appointment with the second biggest manufacturer in Germany of a type of industrial fastener. Unfortunately, the respondent took one look at my business card - which had a distinctive owl motif on it - and promptly showed me the door. It seems that only the week before, my boss had 'broken down the door' of the company's French office, and interviewed a Product Manager there. Evidently this chap had been rather too forthcoming with information about his sales, market share etc, and news had got back to the sister company in Germany that these owl people were bad news. Thus it was that a quarter of an hour later, I was back in my cramped hotel room staring bleakly out of the window and wondering whether I might have bitten off more than I could chew with my rather unorthodox career choice.

I could see the motorway from my window, and as the day wore on, I remember noticing a lot of cars streaming west - hundreds and hundreds of them, almost all of them Trabants, a budget East German make famously - but quite falsely - reputed to be constructed out of cardboard. A good deal of the vehicle was fashioned out of Duroplast, a hard plastic akin to Bakelite and made from recycled materials, so environmentally you could say that the 'Trabby' was in fact ahead of its time. Well...if you disregard its smoky exhaust and high levels of pollution, that is. So yes, there were Trabants pouring along the A2 as far as the eye could see. My first thought was whether it might be some kind of a rally - like those conventions of Morris Minor or Mini owners, say - but on the face of it it seemed unlikely that so many East Germans would be able to attend such an event in the West. Plus there were an awful lot of them. By teatime, I had switched on the news, and the momentous, epoch-making penny finally dropped. Okay, so I may have 'run into a wall' in terms of my project, but any lingering sense of personal failure or disappointment was banished by this extraordinary news of the jubilant dismantling of a far, far greater barrier. And so I sat on my bed, mesmerised for hours by the unfolding TV coverage, till sleep overcame me.

A Trabant on a pole near Neurueppin

Over the years that followed, my work took me back many times to Germany, both the West and 'Former East', as it was known for a transitional time. People also talked about the 'alte und neue Bundeslaender' ('old and new federal provinces'), which was another way of drawing the distinction between the two. For a while after reunification there were still many tell-tale signs that you were crossing into the East: for even in the absence of an actual border, many of the old control towers still stood broodingly where the frontier used to be - eg on the A2 near Helmstedt. The countryside also looked subtly different to my eye - farm buildings tended to be more ramshackle and dour, and everywhere in the East there were more cobblestones.

Source: Wikipedia

But gradually, gradually, as investment poured into the 'neue Bundeslaender' as surely as the Trabants had poured out that fateful day, the two landscapes and their people knitted themselves back together - differences were slowly blurred, to the point one day of being almost imperceptible. Shiny new shopping centres and industrial parks sprung up; the whole country seemed lighter and brighter and more affluent. As I write, I am wearing a favourite pair of trousers bought in Schwerin, a town with a fairytale palace on an island in a lake. Post-reunification, I had a lot more opportunity to visit the whole of the country, and especially liked the fact that on days which would be a public holiday in the West - Fronleichnam, I'm looking at you! - companies in some provinces of the East were still open for business. Why, you could even pop into a council building and do a bit of photocopying (for a small fee), which felt almost decadent. ;)


Second half

So to mark this great occasion of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I decided to feature a perfume from the large collection of perfume house biehl. parfumkunstwerke, the brainchild of Berlin-based Thorsten Biehl. The word 'Kunstwerke' means 'art works' in German, and Biehl also speaks of 'Art in a flacon' and his 'Olfactory Gallery'. He has engaged the services of six perfumers - three 'Young Savages' and three 'Modern Classics' - who were encouraged to go forth and follow their creative muse, free from the usual commercial restraints of 'market research, marketing or maximising profits'. (No really, the lack of market research is completely fine by me....!)

Now I am only familiar with the 'Young Savages' sub-group - Jeffrey Dame of Hypoluxe kindly sent me a set of all eight scents...ooh, about a year ago now - the Bonkers wheels grind very slowly, as you see. There are three each by Geza Schoen and Mark Buxton, and two by Patricia Choux, who are respectively tagged as 'rebellious', 'provocative' and 'unconventional'. The perfumes are identified only by the initials of their creator plus a two digit numeral - eg mb03, gs01, ps02 etc.  As Biehl explains: 'My focus is always on the artist and work behind it.' Such a purist approach has admirable motives I am sure, yet speaking as a punter I can't help feeling a little shortchanged by the pedestrian monotony of the nomenclature. For I like the name of a perfume to conjure up a little ambience - either through its literal meaning, wider connotations or the sheer euphony of the word(s). As for the whole 'perfume as fine art' debate, famously championed by Chandler Burr in his Art of Scent project, I am at best ambivalent on this point. But neither of those aspects of the biehl. parfumkunstwerke concept detracted from my enjoyment of mb03, the standout scent to my nose in the Young Savages collection.

Source: Fragrantica

Plus it seems fitting on such a day to pick a scent by one of the 'more German' perfumers in Thorsten Biehl's stable. Well, Mark Buxton was born in Derby to an English father and German mother, but moved to Germany with his parents at the age of eight, later training as a perfumer at fragrance company Haarmann & Reimer (now Symrise) in Holzminden. To complicate matters further, for the past 20 years or more, Buxton has been based in Paris, and when fellow blogger Sabine of Iridescents (a full-blown German!) met him at a perfume event in London, they quickly lapsed into English after initially striking up conversation in German. For the purposes of this post, however, I declare Mark Buxton to be 'quite German enough'.

And so to the perfume itself. True to Buxton's 'provocative' moniker, mb03 lacks a head note, and cuts straight to the chase of the 'radiant spicy elements' in the heart of the composition.

Heart notes: Roman chamomile, pink pepper, elemi
Base notes: cistus, kashmir wood, styrax, ambergris, musk, incense, sandalwood, patchouli

As it happens, Katie Puckrik is another fan of mb03, explaining in one of her penpal exchanges with Dan Rolleri: 

'Yes, I own and love mb03, and find it completely necessary. I suppose it's my "summer Avignon".'

Source: Luckyscent

The Avignon Katie references is Bertrand Duchaufour's exploration of Catholicism in Comme des Garcons' Series 3 Incense collection. I have to say I find mb03 'completely necessary' too, and agree that it is lighter and more accessible than Avignon. Avignon for novitiates, if you will. As ever, I can't truthfully distinguish any individual notes in the composition: my nose never gets past the soft curtain of frankincense. But no matter - mb03 is meditative and calming, reassuring the wearer that a bad day at work is just a bad day. It makes me think of cupolas on various Berlin buildings - not all of them churches, mind, and not all of the churches Catholic.

Berlin Cathedral ~ Source: Wikipedia

Yet at the same time the slight pricking sensation of the incense reminds me of the tingle of mizzling rain falling on paving stones (some of them cobbled!), and on my face; of dank cold days spent killing time on industrial estates, with not even the garishly lit but warm haven of a McDonalds for shelter. Mb03 is grey days and wet roads, windscreen wipers at full pelt and cold that gets in your bones. But there's a hotel with a hot shower at the end of the murkily unspooling Landstrasse, followed by a flinty glass of Grauburgunder with my favourite dish of Zanderfilet and Salzkartoffeln.

Yes, after all this time - and many more meetings that took their course in a completely normal way ;) - Germany feels like a second home. And I for one am happy that it finally became reunited with its other half. Or rather that - to be mathematically correct about it - it became 25% bigger* on this day 25 years ago...


* in population terms


Tara said...

Great post, V. That was quite a day! Loved how the momentous event was heralded by a phalanx of Trabants.

I tend to glaze over at mention of biehl perfumes however, I'm a bit less befuddled now you've explained what the letters stand for at least.

A perfume that you and Katie consider "necessary" makes me very interested indeed. I loved your "hot shower and nice meal after cold" metaphor of it too.

Now, what's your favourite dish? It looks like fish and potatoes.

Carol said...

I saw on the news yesterday that from space, you can tell east from west Berlin due to the different color streetlights!

I am happy too that you explained the naming of the perfume - my eyes usually get glazed over when this perfume line is talked about.

That one in particular sounds tempting!

Vanessa said...

Hi Tara,

LOL at 'phalanx of Trabants'. For a long time I must admit I also tended to tune out to this range - which I often used to come across in Germany perfumeries indeed - as there were rather a lot of them in similar bottles, and the names gave no clue as to how they might have smelt. Being sent the sample set prompted me to investigate further, and I am glad to have found this Mark Buxton, which really speaks to me on my current incense kick. I would say it is 'church incense for wimps', if you like.

Oh and yes, that is pike-perch fillet and potatoes - it never disappoints!

Vanessa said...

Hi Carol,

That is quite something about the different coloured streetlights being visible from space - I hadn't heard that!

Yes, I understand the naming system of the perfumes now, but it still leaves me feeling short, as I say. I like a bit of connotation with my names, I do!

Unknown said...

Thanks for the mention my dear. I remember the days of the Mauerfall in a slightly different way. As a young West German, the idea of reunification never really occurred to me. I was used to the two states and thought it to be a logical consequence of WWII. Plus, it was usually revanchist and ultra conservatives who questioned the status quo. All this flag waving and Germany Germany screaming was deeply unsettling for me and most of my friends. I was suddenly living in a very different country and not sure I liked it all that much.
The Biehl's and their approach to naming perfumes strikes me as very German. Efficient, but not terribly charming. I do have a sample of the mb03 somewhere, obtained from a lovely little perfumery in Berlin Mitte. You've described it well, with the wet and grey. It is very Lutheran sort of incense.

Asali said...

The Biehls are some of the few niche perfumes around here. I'm not entirely sure, but I think I tried them all, and don't remember any of them to be FBW, but perhaps I was hasty and should try the one you mention so favourably again :-) maybe the 'Kunstwerke' Part puts me off a bit...
I remember the morning after so well. Waking up to the news, I thought I might still be dreaming. In the German class that day we talked of little else, and our excellent German teacher immediately arranged a day trip to Rostock, where incidentally I bought my first *real* perfume. Teatro alla Scala.

Asali said...

Should have read 'available around here'

Vanessa said...

Hi Sabine,

I am not surprised that your own experience of the Mauerfall was more conflicted. I am aware that the East was seen as a bit of a drain on resources and that there were cultural tensions between the two states as the integration took its course. The picture I painted in my post is of my superficial take as a business visitor on two states becoming one - I was almost coming at it from a 'Candide'-type perspective. Suddenly my work takes me to new areas, many with beautiful scenery, albeit even the countryside did look rather forbidding in the immediate aftermath - and some of the towns. I remember going to Chemnitz in the early 90s and finding the local architecture very utilitarian to put it mildly.

Then I liked your comment about the Germanic character of the Biehl naming system! It is very logical for sure, if a bit soulless. And yes, if Avignon is 'Catholic incense', mb03 can be the Lutheran equivalent, hehe.

Vanessa said...

Hi Asali,

I can't speak for any of the Modern Classics series, but I wasn't especially taken with the others in the Young Savages collection. I thought I might love one of the Geza Schoens, but was surprised to find that they didn't really jump out at me. Then one of the Patricia Choux scents was an unusual candy floss number, but it was the mb03 that exerted anything approaching a visceral pull. And you might still find it quite tame!

I was also interested to learn what you were doing on that historic day. And how fitting that you bought your first real perfume in Rostock. Rostock featured hauntingly in a book I studied for A-Level - Sansibar oder der letzte Grund - I have yet to go there though I have been several times to its splendidly bleak coastal neighbour, Wismar.

Suzanne said...

Vanessa, this was a beautiful and poignant post. I'll always remember the fall of the Berlin Wall because it coincided with my moving back to Pennsylvania after leaving an abusive relationship ... finally doing my own sort of dismantling of a wall, so to speak.

I'm not familiar with this perfume or any of the Biehl's at all, but I love your description of the "soft curtain of frankincense" - a description that recalls how I feel about the incense in Coromandel.

Vanessa said...

Hi Suzanne,

Thanks for your kind comment - writing this post did stir up vivid memories, for it was such a peculiar day of professional humiliation yet public celebration! I am glad that it resonated with you in terms of embarking on a new, more positive chapter in your personal life.

Thanks too for reminding me of Coromandel, of which I have a little sample. It must be that time of year again for its bewitching blend of spices, incense and patchouli. ;)

Odiferess said...

Hi Vanessa,
I'd love to smell these scents, I am relatively virginal in my consumption of German offerings.
As for Mark Buxton, the poor chap seems to be stuck in a blogger time trap. As you have had your sample for a very long time, I too have been storing some lovelies from Mark's own brand for about a year or so. At the time that I got them I'd been writing about several hedgerow/outdoors/borderline pagan olfactory interpretations. When I smelt 'Sexual Healing', my favourite, it immediately struck me as another delicious whiff for witches. Hence, I could not write about it straight away. I will though. Mark, if you read this, I will, it's brilliant, it's not you, it's me...

Vanessa said...

Hi Odiferess,

I have to say that I am also relatively virginal in my consumption of German offerings - I have tried April Aromatics, but there are a number of other German ranges hovering round the margins of my consciousness - and that's despite going there quite regularly, albeit sometimes more in music than perfume mode.

How funny that Mark Buxton's samples are also languishing in your review tray? I can see a good case for you featuring witches fairly regularly, so I am sure Sexual Healing will get its well deserved 'exposure' on Odiferess before too long. I haven't tried that one, though Emotional Rescue was a little tart for me.

Asali said...

I do remember the candy floss one, not very favourably though... And felt the need to clarify that I bought the perfume on the ferry on the way back, not *in* Rostock, I don't know if they even had western perfume brands in former East Germany???

Anonymous said...

Ah, what an interesting read, thanks Vanessa! I didn't mean to spurr you...

I live in a happy Ossi-Wessi marriage, I am the Wessi part from Bavaria and my husband is the Ossi part from Thruingia (we live in Berlin for quite some time, now) but funnily that was never an issue between us, I mean mentality wise.

So you chose biehl.parfumkunstwerke! The brand is available here at Kadewe but I haven't tested it, yet. I like Sabine's assumption concerning the number thing, to me it feels a bit like 12-Ton-Musik from Arnold Schönberg, cerebral and exerted, but after reading your review of mb03, I'll dismantle my stupid prejudice and catch up on the line, sometimes it's good to get a shove. (I particularaly loved your windscreen wipers association).

And yes, Zanderfilet with Salzkartoffeln and some mint leaves on top - what a wonderful dish, one of my favorites, too!

Have a nice evening,

Vanessa said...

Hi Anka,

No, it was good! - I need a bit of spurring from time to time.

I was so interested to hear about your 'mixed' marriage - and what lovely parts of the world you and your husband come from. Re Thuringia, I have been to Erfurt and Weimar and Eisenach - and had a lovely weekend once in Friedrichroda, visiting the copper mine there. And Bavaria's charms are well known. ;) Whereabouts exactly are you from if I may ask? I have a friend in Ingolstadt I used to visit when my work took me to Munich.

I think the numbering system of the Biehl range is rather 'cerebral and exerted' - that is a very good way to describe it. I have no insights as to Modern Classics range, but the Young Savages collection wasn't really 'savage' at all to my mind, so it would be interesting to know how you get on with it. I also saw the range in Galeries Lafayette, opposite the Sahling concession.

Vanessa said... Munich - or to Audi, indeed! They have little lockers for your mobile phones the likes of which I have never seen anywhere else. ;)

Vanessa said...

Aha - thanks for clarifying the bit about the ferry - Rostock had just shot up even further in my estimation as a possible perfume mecca, quite apart from the Alfred Andersch connection. ;)

Anonymous said...

Ha, I come from a city very close to Munich and spent much of my live in Munich! I still feel connected to Bavaria, above all to the Alps, the beautiful lakes around the town and the slightly hedonistic way of life. I guess it would be much easier to find fellow perfumistas in Munich than in Berlin. Here, some very nice SA's are the only real people I can share my passion with. (But virtual people are great, too, of course!).

My two favorite cities in the East of Germany are Görlitz (Saxony) and Naumburg (Saxony-Anhalt).

Vanessa said...

Hi Anka,

Speaking of lakes close to Munich, I have had some happy times on the Starnberger See. But you can't go wrong with Bavaria - Bamberg is another favourite spot. Then east of Munich there's a great perfumery in Wasserburg am Inn that I chanced upon, who were very forthcoming with samples, including a sizeable mini of a Micallef. ;)

I haven't been to the two places in East Germany that you mention, though, so they can go on the bucket list!

blacknall Allen said...

I remember that little Hypoluxe packet-and as I recall it the Patricia Choux didn't stay with me long because my Mother in Law claimed it pretty quickly. MB03 which I still have, reminded me inexplicably of a Bond Villain, Blofeld I expect although minus the cat. MB03 was wonderfully sinister.

Vanessa said...

Hi Blacknall,

I did think of you as I wrote this, as I remembered that one of the Patricia Choux's had caught your attention - the greener one, now I think of it.

Amused by your comparison of mb03 with a Bond villain. Will have to look that chap up. I must say I found this scent more calming than creepy, hehe, but I can imagine how an incense perfume could go in various directions, including darker ones.

Anonymous said...

PC 01 is a lovely summer scent. I would never have even tried it, much less bought it, if I hadn't been at the perfume Shoppe where Naz said, "Try this" --AnnieA

Undina said...

Vanessa, I loved your story. You've described it so vividly that it felt like I was standing next to you and looking out of the window.
That year we had so much happening in our country that the event in Germany had barely registered in both my and A.'s minds (I've just asked him and he confirmed). But looking back I realize it was an important step in post-socialism development in Europe.

With perfumes from biehl.parfumkunstwerke I feel cheated: I don't believe in all that "art" BS, I think they are just too cheap to register/TM real names. And for $195/bottle perfume I expect more. Including a nicer bottle and a real name. I tried four of them and found them all "nice but nothing special." And definitely not $195 nice.

Vanessa said...

Hi AnnieA,

That's the one Blacknall liked, but which was claimed by her MIL...;) And would Naz by any chance be Naz Tps, whose birthday it is today?

Anonymous said...

The very same! --AA

Vanessa said...

Hi Undina,

Hey, thanks, glad you liked it...I was interested to learn that the wall coming down in Germany didn't really register with you at that time because of the turbulent goings on in your own part of the world.

I had no idea that the biehl.parfumkunstwerke range was so expensive! That is steep, albeit they appear to be 100ml bottles at least. But of course as we have said many times, no one wants 100ml - or not your average perfumista, certainly. I must say I struggle with the olfactory art aspect of the brand - as I do with Chandler Burr's take on perfume as art. For while I feel that a perfume may well be created by someone with 'artistic sensibilities', for it to count as 'fine art', say, in my book it mustn't have a practical function. By the same token, I don't consider Tracey Emin's bed to be fine art, because you could in theory sleep in it (though you probably wouldn't want to. ;) ). But I know many people's definitions of art are more fluid, and debates have rumbled on about the topic on various blogs as you know.

Vanessa said...

Small world! ;)

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post, V. I really enjoyed your first-hand observations of the east/west differences and the transition period. Having only visited Germany many years after reunification, I've seen fewer evidence of differences, but some of those subtle shifts you describe seem to remain (but I suppose this may only be because we look for them?). What do you think about the "ostalgie" phenomenon? - Natalie

Vanessa said...

Hi Natalie,

Great to hear from you and glad you enjoyed the post. Always pleased when people say they have been to Germany, as it doesn't really feature as highly as it should on people's touristic bucket lists - well, Berlin maybe, but generally as a country it is underappreciated as a holiday destination I would say.

Then I don't really have a view about the 'ostalgie' phenomenon, though I probably have been a bit touched by it myself. Well, in terms of loving those Ampelmann traffic lights, say. I also have friends who stayed in the Ostotel, a hotel decorated entirely in spartan Ostbloc style. They loved it, and are also quite left leaning to be fair, whereas my own interest is purely aesthetic.