Saturday, April 26, 2008

Adventures in fragrance

I'm wearing Hermes' Un Jardin en Mediterranee on my right arm, Un Jardin en Nil on my left, Dior's Miss Dior Cherie on my right hand, and Chanel No. 5 on my left.  The first two are because I needed to know what Jardin en Nil was like: when last week I fell in love with J. en Mediterranee, I felt like I'd picked the wrong one.  Karen, the Nordstrom fragrance consultant, told me that a book had been written about Nil, that everyone loved it.  I breezed right by it to Med, bought Acqua di Parma's Arancia di Capri (still my top choice) instead, and second guessed myself on the Hermes.  

Meanwhile, I bought Perfumes: The Guide, which has been a great way to learn more about what fragrance is really about.  Before heading to Nordstrom today, learned how to say "chypre" so I could ask for a fragrance that had it; I studied the guide's top fragrances and researched which I'd be able to find there.  Ten days ago I barely had a vocabulary, and all the names I knew were Chanel No. 5 and Obsession, Poison, White Diamonds -- things that remind me of Elizabeth Taylor.  Now I know the top fragrances, the top chemists/designers and perfume houses -- particularly, thanks to the guide, in a historical context.

So I went to Nordstrom with bare arms and the dual purpose of resolving my conflict about the two Hermes fragrances and of trying Chanel No. 5 (apparently one of the greatest fragrances of all time) and perhaps a Dior or Guerlain.  

The woman who sprayed my forearm with Nil raved about it, said it was her favorite.  As soon as Med hit my skin I knew I liked it better.  When I went back later to ask to try No. 5, she must have thought I was nuts.  On the way out the door I spritzed Miss Dior Cherie, which the guide gave four out of five stars.

The verdict: Miss Dior Cherie doesn't deserve as many as four stars.  It's strawberry and patchouli, mostly strawberry from beginning to middle to end.  

As for No. 5, I would have fled from it if it wasn't so important to get to know it.  The saleswoman pointed out to me that (as I had read in the guide), it was the first aldehydic fragrance.  The guide defines this as, "Characterized by the smell of the straight-chain alephatic aldehydes C10, C11, and C12, first used prominently in Chanel No. 5."  Reminding us that fragrance can really only be expressed clearly through analogy (fruity, spicy).  Suggesting that No. 5 would be over my head.

It was.  My initial reaction to it was that it didn't smell like anything I knew: I had no language to describe it, so I figured I was experiencing the aldehydes.  I certainly didn't like it.  I supposed that the marvel of that fragrance -- which was created in 1921 -- was that it did smell so abstract.  If Arancia is Renoir and Med is Matisse (and I think that's right), No. 5 is Pollack.  I look at a Pollack and I understand that something is going on, but I am not sure why I'm looking at it.  (OK, bad analogy: in Pollack you can immediately see passion; I didn't even get that far with No. 5.)

Unlike a painting, we're dealing with something that evolves.  The No. 5 on my hand has gone through many scent stages, which has kept me interested.  It eventually softened into something I could at least identify as "feminine," floral, and became more consciously pleasurable to me;  and six hours later is still around (probably another way it is marvelous) as a faint, sweet powder.  I can understand at least that this is intriguing.  

I now understand how complex a drydown phase can be.  I think the bit of Nil I can still smell is actually wonderful.  My right hand smells like old towel, which is either a really bad drydown from the Cherie or because I've been doing dishes.  Sadly, I think it's the Cherie.  

The salesperson gave me a sample of No. 5, and I'm going to continue to try to get to know this fragrance, to teach myself what aldehydic means.  Then on to the other classic, reference fragrances.  Next stop: Guerlain's Mitsouko, which is indeed a chypre.

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