Pierre Benard Challenge Continued: Ice, Ice, Baby

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It wasn’t until I was 22 that I first encountered ice through weather. I had lived in Florida my entire life until then. At grad school in Georgia I walked out to my car one morning. I started it up and turned on the windshield wipers to remove the dew on the windshield. Except it didn’t move the wipers skidded uselessly over it. Of course my Florida trained mentality leapt to the right conclusion. I thought someone had put white spray paint on my car window. As the edges began to melt the actuality came through. There was ice on my windshield. After almost forty years in the parts of the world where ice is a part of the natural order of things, I am more used to it. It has now evolved to the way the ice on my lawn and trees smells.

The smell of freezing precipitation has always fascinated me. just like a summer rainstorm presents itself in ozone and petrichor the colder version does the same. This past week we have had a lot of ice freezing on surfaces in Colognoisseur HQ. As I watched the dogs in the backyard the scent of the world was like a giant ice cube. A little more liquid as the icicles had a drop of water on the ends. What also stands out is the way the ice adds a barrier to all the other natural odors. The only thing I smell is this crystallized humidity.

We’ve also had some snow. That has a different profile to my nose. There is an apocryphal tale that Eskimos have 50-plus words for snow. When it comes to my perception of the world covered in snow there is just a chilly sterility with crunch. As I walk through it the auditory sound of my boots along with what I breathe in seem to go together. The snow doesn’t add as perfect a barrier as the ice. It allows some of the woods to join in.

There are two excellent perfume equivalents to the way I think of snow. One is Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle L’Eau d’Hiver by Jean-Claude Ellena. This is a breathy whisper behind mittened hands in the snow. The other is the more recent Maison Crivelli Absinthe Boreale by Nathalie Feisthauer. She captures the crunch of the snow as I sip absinthe while watching the aurora borealis.

It might be easy to think of snow as odorless. Reality and perfume have taught me differently.

Mark Behnke

Under the Radar: i Profumi di Firenze Brezza di Mare- Aquatic from the Flood

When I started widening my fragrance horizons, I had some stupid rules. One of them was I didn’t want to try any aquatics. Through the nineties and early oughts that seemed to be the only masculine style mainstream brands were interested in. During these early days I became a regular at the perfume purveyors in Boston. One of my favorite sales associates was Roberto at the Copley Place Barney’s New York. I liked him because he paid attention while also nudging me towards things I wanted to ignore. He also knew I liked hearing the stories behind the brands. One afternoon he showed me i Profumi di Firenze Brezza di Mare and my dopey rules became moot.

The story behind the brand is fabulous whether it is true or not. The tale begins with the once in a century 1966 flood of the Arno River in Florence. After the waters receded brand founder and perfumer Dr. Giovanni di Massimo began looking through the wreckage. He found in a sealed basement the perfume recipes of Caterina de Medici from the 16th century. Dr. di Massimo would take one of those recipes and release the first perfume named after Sig.ra de Medici. For over twenty-five years the brand has been making excellent fragrances.

Brezza di Mare managed to break through my resistance to the aquatic genre despite using one of the keynotes of it. Dr. di Massimo overwhelms that Calone in enough other attention getting notes I didn’t mind its presence.

One of the hallmarks of my favorite aquatics is a heavier concentration of the ozonic sea spray notes. Growing up on the beach the scent of my sun-warmed skin with a crust of salt from the dried sea water is where I want a perfume to go. Brezza di Mare begins with that. It always makes me smile when I wear it because of it. The Calone comes next but not by itself. A full bouquet of white flowers come along for the ride. Calone usually has a strong watery melon quality. Because of the white flowers that is swept up in their exuberance. It attenuates the things I am not fond of while letting the things I do predominate. From here it takes a warm turn with vanilla and white musk forming the base. This is what really makes this so appealing. As the vanilla finds the white flowers it turns those typical aquatic pieces into something cozier. It isn’t so deep as to become gourmand-like. It is just enough different sweetness to resonate with the florals.

Brezza di Mare has 8-10 hour longevity and average sillage.

If you also are down on aquatics give this a try. I would also urge anyone who is intrigued by the history of the house I described to also put it on your radar. It is one worth spending some time with.

Disclosure: this review is based on a bottle I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds: Boss Number One- A Perfume Blazer

When I got my first job in 1984, I wanted to upgrade my wardrobe. One piece of clothing I always wanted was a great fitting blazer. I wanted that male version of a little black dress which I could wear on any occasion. When I went shopping, I found a Hugo Boss version which was just what I was looking for. That blazer traveled everywhere with me for years until the lining began to fall apart.  It was as much a part of my wardrobe as my current Hawaiian shirt and fedora are now.

This was also the early moments of the expansion of my perfume collection. I was in Macy’s one day in the mid 1980’s waiting for something. I was killing time at the men’s fragrance counter. The sales associate brought over a new one called Boss Number One. When I sniffed it, I realized this was in line with the scents I was trending towards in those days. I felt it had to be the cologne which would go with my blazer. Back in 1986-ish I just like the way it smelled. I now know a little more about why I liked it so much.

Pierre Wargnye

One of those reasons is it was perfumer Pierre Wargnye’s second perfume after the amazing success of Drakkar Noir. I was never one of those who gravitated towards that even though I recognized its quality. There were too many people wearing it I wanted something different. Boss Number One was a more nuanced style of fougere over his first one. He would add in a lot of grace notes through a central axis of herbs, honey, and tobacco.

The top accord seems to be the perfume version of one of those spice blends. I can pick out rosemary, cardamom, sage, and nutmeg most prominently. There are others on the edges, but it is those which form a green opening. A thread of rose winds its way though which is followed by the sweetness of honey. There is a lot of honey here and it is in the amount where on some people it will smell urine-like. On me it is all slightly animalic sweetness. The tobacco waiting to join it makes a satisfying duet. In my old bottle, a real chypre accord of patchouli, oakmoss, and vetiver form the foundation. For this review I got a small current tester, and it is here where the chypre has been mostly replaced with a cedar, patchouli, and vetiver accord which is an acceptable substitute.

Boss Number One has 12-14 hour longevity and average sillage.

Almost as much as my Hugo Boss blazer my bottle of Boss Number One was in my travel bag. That’s because it was as versatile as my jacket.

Disclosure: this review is based on my original bottle and a newer one purchased this year.

Mark Behnke

Flanker Round-Up: Armani Code Eau de Parfum and Yves St. Laurent Y Le Parfum

If there is a masculine counterpart to the ubiquitous spring rose it is lavender. I have noticed that more of the spring men’s releases rely on this floral recently. I received two flankers where its addition is a positive.

Armani Code Eau de Parfum

Ever since its release Armani Code has acted as a cash cow for the brand. They would pump out releases which were uninspired copies. Something changed a couple years ago as the last couple of Armani Code flankers have been much more interesting. Some of that might have something to do with Antoine Maisondieu being involved or maybe being given the ability to color outside the lines. The New Armani Code Eau de Parfum benefits from whatever the reason is.

What is nice is at every phase there is a substitute for the original. It starts as lemon replaces grapefruit. This is a very warm lemon instead of bright. The floral herbal piece of this Eau de Parfum version is lavender and rosemary. Each is a change from the original while still cutting close enough to feel like part of the family. The base accord has a higher concentration of tonka bean which adds in another warmer ingredient. Overall it confirms that warmth a parfum version would likely have. I also think this is a good choice for the spring and fall.

Armani Code Eau de Parfum has 10-12 hour longevity and average sillage.

Yves St. Laurent Y Le Parfum

I have been mostly disappointed in the last few years at YSL. The original release of Y Eau de Toilette is an example of fragrance by focus group. It works for people who don’t really like perfume. Just like Armani Code, YSL has cranked out multiple flankers all of which retained that lack of ingenuity. By featuring lavender among many other changes, perfumer Dominique Ropion has made the best version of Y yet.

The opening is a collision of tart fruit in grapefruit and green apple. The tartness is a nice opening for the lavender to walk through. The floral is kept more on its herbal side with a little sage making sure of that. It closes on a sweetly woody accord of cedar and tonka bean.

Y Le Parfum has 8-10 hour longevity and average sillage.

Disclosure: this review was based on samples provided by the manufacturers.

Mark Behnke

Dead Letter Office: Mystere de Rochas- The Art of More

As I look around the Dead Letter Office considering what to write about there is a shelf which seems overpopulated. The label there reads “Rochas”. It has some of my favorite perfumes on it. I always look as I wonder how it can be the perfume is grand while they missed the consumer. Ever since the post-war release of Femme the brand has flailed about trying to find something which would share the popularity of that. It has led to a few eras over the past eighty years. One of them occurred in the late 1970’s early 80’s. It started with Mystere de Rochas.

Rochas has been a brand which has regularly relied upon in-house perfumers. Especially back then it was a crucial piece to developing a brand identity. Even though nobody but the professionals knew who was behind any fragrance. During this time, the nose in charge was Nicolas Mamounas. As he was working to give Rochas a new identity he was also looking around at what was popular. He made the decision to work on popular styles but to metaphorically pump up the volume. I am unsure what the reception was back in the day. I guess since all four perfumes made during this period are in the Dead Letter Office, I have my answer.

Nicolas Mamounas

What I find kind of sad is how well M. Mamounas did at the art of giving us more. These are super intense versions of well-known styles. Mystere went for the popular style of the time, chypre. The ingredient that made chypre at that time was oakmoss. Mystere is awash in it. M. Mamounas forms a green perfume so deep it almost becomes black.

The lore of the perfume is along the lines of others which touted the “hundreds” of materials to be found. It might be so, but it spins on an axis of three primary ingredients of narcissus, patchouli and oakmoss.

It opens with a familiar hiss of aldehydes and galbanum. This sets the stage for the greening of things to come. Narcissus forms the core of the floral accord. M. Mamounas unfurls an assertive version of this which would be too sharp if left on its own. He expertly weaves in a bouquet of other florals to form an ameliorating wreath of mostly white flowers. We then come to the base where the classic chypre accord is present in patchouli, oakmoss, and a woody accord of cypress and cascarilla wood. Usually the wood is sandalwood, but this choice is much lighter in effect. I think it is so the oakmoss can just coat everything in a velvety soft green blanket. The patchouli modulates the earthiness present in the oakmoss. Whenever I need a reminder of why I miss oakmoss Mystere is a good reminder. It flows in a gorgeously textural way as it sweeps up the narcissus in its embrace.

Mystere has 24-hour plus longevity and above average sillage.

Mystere arrived in 1978 and after Rochas was acquired was reformulated. That 1989 reformulation dumbed everything down. It is the only confirmation I have that even though M. Mamoulas perfected the art of more the only place it lives on is in the Dead Letter Office.

Disclosure: This review is based on a bottle I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Under the Radar: Eight & Bob- The Story is Good the Perfume is Better

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I am not sure if the European Grand Tour is still a thing among a certain section of affluent society. What it consisted of was after someone had finished their studies before starting their first job they took a tour of Europe. It was a rite of passage. Back in the mid 1980’s it was still a tradition. A new colleague had returned from his. He would tell us lovely stories of his travel. The one that has stuck with me was of an evening in Rome when he and his host lost track of time. My friend was going to be late. His host told him not to worry as they hopped into his Ferrari Spyder. They arrived at their destination in a breakneck ride across Rome. After my friend got out of the car his host flipped his scarf around his neck saying, “Always trust the King of Rock and Roll.” Then he shifted into gear and roared off. When it comes to perfume there aren’t that many stories with that much panache, except for one; Eight & Bob.

When I first tried this perfume upon its release in 2012, I found the story attached to it as engaging as my friend’s. The way it goes is in the 1930’s another young socialite was on his European Grand Tour. He would also make the acquaintance of a man of roguish charm, Albert Fouquet. As they ran around the Cote d’Azur the young American was taken in by M. Fouquet’s scent. Of course there was a story. M. Fouquet had been traveling in South America when upon a hike in the Andes he discovered an indigenous plant called “Andrea”. The polymath Fouquet was also a perfumer and he took some Andrea home and designed his own cologne around it. This was what our Grand Tourist smelled. He cadged M. Fouquet into sending him some. Asking for eight bottles, and one for Bob, the future President JFK would create the name for the perfume.

The perfume is better than the story. M. Fouquet has made a sophisticated cologne meant to be worn on special occasions. He achieves this without resorting to the classic formal tropes of lavender or rose. There is a floral here which I presume is the winsome Andrea but it isn’t lavender or rose.

It begins with a spicy citrus top accord of lemon, cardamom, and ginger. This has a zestiness which makes me think of my friend’s Ferrari ride across Rome. There is a lilting floral in the heart which reminds me of a cross between violet and iris. Both might be here, but it is unobtrusive. It ends with a trio of woods, guaiac, cedar, and sandalwood. Some vanilla and patchouli provide depth to the woody base accord.

Eight & Bob has 12-14 hour longevity and average sillage.

Eight & Bob sits on the shelf I reserve for the events where I must dress up. It conveys a worldly sophistication commensurate to the story behind it. I always wonder if it will send me off on my own grand adventure in a Ferrari or on the Cote d’Azur.

Disclosure: this review is based on a bottle I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Pierre Benard Challenge Continued: Vanilla

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One of the reasons I have enjoyed writing these pieces is because it allows me to access my earliest connections to scent. I think I was drawn to what my nose detected in the world before I ever wore a perfume. If there is a through line from these it is my childhood experience informs my adult perception of a specific ingredient. I always write about how I think of vanilla as a comforting odor. It can give me an inner warmth which is particularly appealing in these winter months. I was thinking back to whether there was something which set this association in my head. A local baker gave my brain the nudge it needed to allow me to remember.

Out here in farm country we have a lot of small-batch bakers. It is one of the things I have grown to appreciate about living here. We made an order of treats from our favorite. Inside were these white glazed cookies. I asked her what they were, she called them “super vanilla drops”. Right there my brain got a cue. As I brought one to my mouth that took me the rest of the way.

When I was seven my paternal Grandmother came to live with us. I loved having Gaga in the house. Through her I learned a love of reading as I would read to her before she would go to sleep. We also baked together.

We were blessed by a neighborhood Cuban-American market which had an extensive spice section. Whenever it was baking time we would walk down. Gaga and Sr. Lopez the store owner would consult over what he had in stock. There was a day when he held up a glass tube of gnarly brown strands. I thought they looked like dried up baby snakes. My grandmother broke into a smile and haggled a price for a few of them. As we walked home, I asked her what they were. She told me they were vanilla pods and it was unusual to get them. There was a recipe she had been wanting to use them in.

As we got set up in the kitchen, she took a sharp knife to the pods scraping out the insides with the point. She then diluted it down and it was then the room filled with the smell of vanilla. She strained out the seeds and we used the extract in the making of vanilla drop cookies. The seeds would be incorporated into the glaze we dipped them in.

I don’t remember ever making them again, but the smell of the fresh vanilla was enveloping. It was a scented embrace of my grandmother. I was safe and warm with Gaga which is what vanilla takes me back to.

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds: Van Cleef & Arpels First- Playing Telephone

One of the difficulties of writing this column is deciding when a perfume from the past has been reformulated in a way that it is worth pointing out. If I think the original is awesome but it is because of banned materials like oakmoss and nitro musks, it causes a problem. Then when I try the currently available version I must see if it retains enough of the character to write about it as it exists today. One of the things which happens infrequently is the current version surpasses the original as has happened in Van Cleef & Arpels First.

I own an original bottle of First because it is one of perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena’s first. Released in 1976 it is a typical big floral. It is fun to smell something like this and think how M. Ellena will become famous for the antithesis of it. Lots of “to be banned” materials abound. It is exactly what a mid-1970’s floral perfume smelled like.

I was digging in the discount bins a year ago around the Holidays when this nice green chypre hit me from someone spraying it nearby. I went searching to see what it was. I probably picked up everything on the tester shelf but First because I thought I knew what it would smell like. When I finally figured out it was First, I was floored. Mainly because I liked this better.

I’ve spent the last year trying to find out who was responsible for this version. It is a thankless job that no one at the big brands will admit goes on. Tracking down the perfumer was going to take more effort than I was willing to exert.

One of the things I did do was track down some of the iterations that have been released between 1976 and now. What I found was a perfume version of the party game telephone. The way it is played is the first person is given a phrase which they whisper one time only into the ear of the person next to them. This repeats until it gets back to the person who started it. What generally happens is it has been changed in a funny non-intelligible way. Rarely it ends up with a new phrase which is related to the first one.

That is what happened with First. In a 1990-ish bottle the base has begun to be changed as the musks seem to have been changed. In an early Y2K version the floral heart has gone much greener as the overall early moments have dialed back the rose and jasmine power. Then we arrive at what you can buy now.

The current version starts off with some mandarin on top of a green accord of blackcurrant bud, narcissus, and muguet. Hair spray-like aldehydes add some sparkle. The rose and jasmine are still here but they are using one of the more expansive synthetic jasmines. It allows for more space for the narcissus and muguet to expand into. They become the primary counterpoint to the rose. It moves to a modern chypre base where sandalwood, amber, clove, and some synthetic musks form it. It fits ideally with what is here now.

All of this refers to the Eau de Parfum version. The current version has 12-14 hour longevity and average sillage.

I think this game of “perfume telephone” has ended up in a better fragrance at the end of the chain. It can be found for less than $25/bottle at many discounters. If you remember the old First give the new one a try you might be surprised, too.

Disclosure: This review is based on bottles I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Dead Letter Office: Sikkim de Lancome- Late to the Trend

As we have covered multiple times through this series some perfumes have a shelf life. Not due to their materials going bad. But because trends shift away from them. One of the more frustrating parts of looking back is when a really great version of a style which is in its final days puts out one of its best examples. That is the story of Sikkim de Lancome.

Lancome has been producing perfume since 1935. They have consistently been in front of trends instead of following them. 1969’s O de Lancome, 1971’s Magie Noire or 1990’s Tresor. Especially the latter made a name for the brand. One of the earliest releases was Cuir de Lancome. This was a traditional birch tar cuir de Russie style of leather. In the 1930’s this was the trend. By the late 1950’s early 60’s leather chypres had become the rage. Somewhere inside the creative team at Lancome the decision was made to join in.

Fresh off composing O de Lancome perfumer Robert Gonnon was asked to make one for the brand. He would design one of the driest leather chypres ever. He would also hit the market too late as it released in 1971. The sun was setting on that style, rapidly.

It is that arid intense green quality which sets Sikkim apart from its contemporaries. The general style was for florals and/or stone fruits to add some softness to the animalic chypre foundation. It was thought to make them easier to wear. M. Gonnon was going to go the other direction with very dry top and base with only a bit of floral relief in the middle.

2005 Reformulation of Sikkim de Lancome

The opening is a severely green galbanum. Sikkim is one of the perfumes which made me adore this ingredient in high amounts. M. Gonnon adds aldehydes which orbit the crystalline galbanum like fizzy comets. There is an herbal component which is listed as artemisia but if it is it is one of the driest versions of that ingredient. Whatever is present adds a dusting of green herbal dust to the shiny galbanum. It moves to an abstract gardenia heart accord. M. Gonnon does not want the inherent green of actual gardenia to interfere with his galbanum. To anyone smelling this it is gardenia just a sweeter deconstructed one. We then come to the leather chypre base. M. Gonnon moves everything to the dry side of the spectrum. The leather feels skanky, old, and crackly. The chypre accord vibrates off the herbal galbanum. Together it forms an excessively sharp experience.

Sikkim in its original formulation has 14-16 hour longevity and above average sillage.

Sikkim in its 2005 re-released version has 10-12 hour longevity and average silllage.

Sikkim was originally discontinued within ten years. It would rise again as part of Lancome’s 70th anniversary as part of “La Collection”. That version was hampered by being unable to use some of the ingredients of the original. I’m not sure who oversaw it, but they did a creditable job at retaining the desiccated greenness in a slightly different way. If you can only find the reformulated version, it still hews to many of the themes M. Gonnon expressed in the original.

I think Sikkim de Lancome is right up there with the greatest of the leather chypres. It is just too bad it came too late for others to decide that for themselves putting it in the Dead letter Office.

Disclosure: This review is based on bottles of the vintage and reformulated versions I purchased.

Mark Behnke

The Perfumers Who Saved Christmas

Back in March when I wrote an editorial on “Perfume in the Time of Coronavirus” I was enjoying the quarantine. I expected it to end in a few months. I was taking the opportunity to enjoy my favorite perfumes with abandon. Each one gave me a shot of needed joy.

As we got to the summer and I was still inside I needed a different kind of booster through fragrance. That came as I spent ten days participating in the Pierre Benard Challenge. This was a big change in perspective for me as I hadn’t examined my connection to scent as deeply. I’m always looking for new things to try. For two weeks I stopped and smelled the world.

Then we got to the fall and the end was not in sight. It was wearing on my mental state. I felt like things would never return to normal. Then a magical thing happened courtesy of some of my favorite independent perfumers. They got me out of my funk because their new releases connected with great memories of my past. I was no longer hemmed in by the four walls of my house.

Frassai El Descanso reminded me of my first cross-country drive as I experienced the wheat fields of the prairie.

DSH Perfumes Tea and Charcoal brought me back to when I discovered a coping mechanism as a child.

Aether Arts Perfume Dia de Muerto had me trick or treating on a tropical S. Florida night.

Maher Olfactive Orris Forest had me hopping over rocks on a hike through the forest.

DSH Perfumes Adrenaline and Scorched Earth put me back on the hiking trail in Yellowstone.

Maher Olfactive Tempo Rubato reminded me of a music lesson in a St. Louis jazz club.

Masque Milano Le Donne di Masque Madeleine had me sitting at a tearoom with cakes and hot chocolate.

Imaginary Authors A Whiff of Wafflecone had me in a specialty ice cream shoppe

DSH Perfumes Couverture d’Hiver had the Florida boy remembering his first New England snowstorm.

All of these and more took me out of my quarantine and into the world through the trigger of perfume. It isn’t the design of a perfumer to make their customer find joy through memory. Although it isn’t an undesired side effect.

Now that we do see the beginning of the end, I am full of hope for the next year. If it weren’t for Irina Burlakova, Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, Amber Jobin, Shawn Maher, Fanny Bal, and Josh Meyer this would have been a dreary Holiday season. They were the perfumers who saved Christmas for me.

I extend my wishes to all my readers for a Merry Christmas. That I have you is another reason this Season remains merry for me.

Mark Behnke