Sunday, September 21, 2014


"The core of the seen and unseen universe smiles, but remember smiles come best from those who weep. Lightning, then the rain-laughter". - Rumi

Just in time for the much-delayed school year in British Columbia - the rainy season is upon us. Most Vancouverites don't welcome this type of change in weather, but I do. In places plagued with drought, such as my other homeland, the first rain signifies not only the changing season, but also determines the well-being of crops, and predictions for precipitation in the year to come.

In Hebrew, there is a special word for the first rain - "Yoreh". It has a special smell, and an air of excitement about it as Jews welcome the new year and begin the fall harvest season. Many stories have been told about tzadikim (sages or saints) that have saved the country from drought with vigils, fasting and prayers for rain.

In my many years of providing customized fragrance creations and matching scents to personalities, I've received countless emails describing people's faourite scents. The smell of the first rain in all its many permutations is one that comes up most frequently: rain on hot pavement, thunderstorm, wet earth after rain, in other words - petrichor...

The word was coined in 1964 and comes from the Greek petros (stone) and ichos (the liquid that flows in the gods' veins). It's exact definition accodring to the online Wiktionary is "the distinctive scent which accompanies the first rain after a long warm dry spell".

The main reason for the appearance of petrichor is a molecule called Geosmin, a metabolite of bacteria that lives at the top layer of the soil. You might also detect a bit of it in raw, unpeeled beetroot. Combined with the unique flora of the place graced with rain, the scent will have nuances of various roots and dried plant matter. This is why the scent each person associates with petrichor is unique to their homeland.

When I first moved to Vancouver, nearly 16 years ago, the only thing I missed more than my family and friends was the scent of the first rain in autumn, falling on the thirsty dry earth. It’s a scent one can’t describe to someone who never experienced it. And the occurrence of dry earth in British Columbia is a rarity. The closest I was ever able to explain it is that it is wet, musty, dusty and fresh.

The scent of spikenard essential oil comes very close to this (although the whole sensation of the clean air and the wetness is lacking from the experience of sniffing an oil from a bottle, rather than the outdoors). In 2001 I tried to capture that scent, and the result smelled ironically of the Pacific rainforest after the rain instead. The rainforests rarely go dry, but have a constant mysterious wet fresh smell about them, a mingling of all the conifers, moss, lichen and dead leaves rotting on the ground. The forest earth itself in fact layers of compacted woodchips, conifer needles and rotten leaves, which might explain why it does not quite smell like petrichor... So I decided to name it Rainforest instead.

Aside from spikenard, other natural raw materials that might remotely resemble petrichor are attar mitti - a baked earth attar that is produced from fragments of clay pots, distilled into sandalwood oil; and patchouli, with its dry, earthy, musty aroma.

Perfumes that have a distinctive petrichor or geosmin-like notes are Forest Walk by Sonoma Scent Studio, Demeter's Dirt and Neil Morris' Dark Earth.

How would you describe the smell of the first rain? Do you have any favourite perfumes that have that note?

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

NARCISO eau de parfum

First impressions from NARCISO - a confusingly named fragrance (wcich is why I'm using the upper case) that due to officially come out in October, but is already available at The Bay downtown:

From the get go, it appears the Narciso Rodriguez brand aimed to create a similar cult following to their original, with a few variations: the black rectangular bottle has been replaced by a white cube. The musk was replaced by ambereine accord and a sheer, crystalline amber. The synthetic orange blossom floral theme was replaced by a nondescript gardenia-rose that to my nose smells more similar to a Madonna lily, actually. What remains consistent with the original Narciso Rodgriguez For Her is a clean, woody vetiver - only a little amplified here, and paired with patchouli, of all animals. And that's what made me take notice.

NARCISO is a little too sweet at first, but with a cleanliness that does not weight it down. For reference - the opening and up until the vetiver makes an appearance, this is similar to scents such as DiorAddict, tinged with a touch of Pure Poison and a hint of inky, murky violet notes, not unlike Kisu. The vetiver makes it more balanced and interesting, along the lines of Eau de Merveilles of all things. Who would have thought that could happen? So all in all, an ambery-woodsy vetiver with hints of violet and vague white flowers. It evolves on the skin more than the musky For Her does.

Similarly to Narciso Rodriguze For Her, the idea is not exactly original*, but the execution is what made it exceptional. The perfectionism of the bottle design and the simplicity of the campaign made it stand out in the crowd. Add to that an addictive scent that is an slightly more sophisticated formulation of street vendor variety of Egyptian Musk and a stark packaging design - et voila! A cult fragrance was born.

NARCISO needs to compete with an even larger crowd, and with an already cluttered collection of fragrances from this designer, which includes two or three sequels of For Her, one masculine fragrance, and the glass mirror reflection of "essence". Not an easy task, and indeed simplicity was the only ticket to success. And I foresee this to become as successful as For Her as it could possibly be (which is impossible, because whatever this brand creates will always stand in its solar-musky-shadows).

Bottom line: The ambery-woody version of Narcisso Rodriguez For Her. Well done overall for a mass-marketed fragrance. But why oh why did they need to already come up with a sequel? NARCISO MUSC is already on the designer's website, and I'm already confused...

Top notes: Citrus, Bergamot
Heart notes:
Lily, Gardenia, Rose, Violet
Base notes: Amber, Vetiver, Musk
, Cedarwood, Patchouli, Vanillin 

* As a point for reference: NARCISO reminds me of a little bit like Obsession, a tad like Prada Ambre Intense Pour Homme, and a lot like Tocade. These three perfumes seemingly have very little in common; but they all share similarities with NARCISO. 

Labels: , , ,

Monday, September 15, 2014

Provencal Protest in the Lavender Fields

Finally, French farmers have had enough with EU regulations, and have taken to the fields to protest the discriminatory European regulations that are due to come into effect in 2018. If we sit around and let the EU bureaucrats continue ruining perfume's historic and cultural uses and heritages, the beautiful lavender fields that are an iconic site in Provence will be no more. In addition, traditional herbalism and aromatherapy are also going to hurt as a result, if the fragrance industry's demand for lavender will tumble down. Article and image via AP.

"Lavender has been used for thousands of years," said  Francis Vidal, honorary president of APAL, an organization of lavender essential oil producers. "We never heard of any serious problems. Instead, we know that lavender oil helped save tens of thousands human lives."

How can a plant that saved and healed thousands of lives can now be considered a "chemical hazard" and require red & black warning labels by 2018? EU regulators got their priorities backwards. And their facts. As long as they have their little bureaucratic jobs, they will keep the lives of growers, distillers, aromatherapists, manufacturers, perfumers and consumers a s difficult as possible.
I'm sure it makes them feel self-importance and worthy. But this has got to stop. Southern France will not be the same without lavender, and neither will the rest of the world!!!

Please share widely, and support the Provencal lavender farmers!

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Book of Scented Things

When the curators of The Book of Scented Things initially contacted me about their upcoming book, I immediately said yes, expecting a reference book of sorts, with poems by Rumi and Baudlaire. Wouldn't it be nice to have all these poetic quotes under one's fingertips?

A couple of weeks later, a book arrived in my mailbox. A mat-black paperback, with a texture reminiscent of faux nubok. As I was leafing through the pages, I realized right away that I could have not been any more wrong about this anthology. It has exceeded my expectations, and not only because the element of surprise. This book is an unusual collaborative project of 100 poems written by 100 American poets, and inspired by 98 different perfumes selected carefully for each (except for one). Jehanne Dubrow and Lindsay Lusby are the editors - but I feel that the title "editors" does not describe what they've done as well as the word "curators". They have selected a fragrance for each one of the poets, based on their life experience and poetic obsessions (often interrelated), and sent it to them in the mail, to spark a response in the form of a poem. The result is a most unusual collection of poems - some thoughtful, some full of emotion, others very personal and enigmatic, while others read like a perfume review.
 There are many ways to approach the book and read these poems. But inevitably, I feel that many of the poems can't stand alone without knowing what perfume inspired them, and preferably having smelled it before. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage. It definitely makes it more intriguing for perfumistas to read such a book, and cross-reference it to their own experience. Some might even make the reading into a bit of a game - guess which scent inspired the poem (and find the answers at the end of the book). Some might find that knowledge to spoil the mystique of the poems themselves. One thing is for certain - it gets you thinking about the relationship between the muse (in this case - the perfume) and the poet.

As to be expected from an anthology of such breadth, it is quite diverse. The book begins with poems that are rather cerebral, exploring the meaning of scent, and relating to the peculiar experience of anticipating the arrival of a scent in the mail. With titles such as "On His Reluctance to Contribute to This Book" or "Receiving a Perfume Vial in the Mail" - the book stroked me as being too cerebral and specific to perfumistas at first glance. I hope that I will be proven wrong, as nothing would make me happier than knowing that a book like this encouraged readers to explore perfumes beyond the fragrance counter.

Which brings me to another topic - the selection of fragrances themselves. There seems to be a common thread among the perfumes chosen, and that common thread is very many scents coming from the same handful of brands. My guess is that because many of these scents have a rather simple, unassuming name, they would create a more neutral canvass upon which pure emotions can be extracted (rather than preconceived notions about the tone, intention, feelings, etc. that some names are more likely to invoke). You'll find plenty of fragrances that simply have a name of an ingredient or two (or three) in there - with a predominance of fragrances from Jo Malone. I highly doubt it had anything to do with sponsorship or with affiliation; but more so with the seeming neutrality that such plain names such as "Nectarine Blossom & Honey", "Blackberry & Bay" or even "Oud Wood". The few exceptions to this rule were "Narcisse Noir", "Ophelia" and "Oranges and Lemons Say the Bells of St. Clement's" - which almost reads like a poem without any additional help... A pleasant surprise was seeing several poems inspired by the wonderful work of my colleague Charna Ethier of Providence Perfumes.

I've been savouring these poems throughout the summer, and can't say I have read more than 25% of the poems. I'm enjoying the process of putting together the little pieces - which poem belongs to which perfume. And I'm reading them in no particular order that would make sense to anyone. Some have intriguing titles; while others I've picked because they were inspired by a perfume that I really like.

I could not help but notice that it was itself scented. A subtle scent of violets mingled with leather and an abstract representation of ink. That alone is enough to win my heart.

Read other reviews of this anthology on Bois de Jasmin and Sabotage Reviews. It is due to come out in October, and will be available via and

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

The Modern Sage: A Case Study

Sampling Wood Sage & Sea Salt this weekend instantly reminded me of Fig Leaf & Sage. The new limited edition offering from Jo Malone inspired me to bring up the topic of sage: an herb that is near and dear to my heart. Growing up with it, it has been used in my household to treat any ailment you can imagine - from sore throat and upset stomach to mouthwashing and hair-rinsing. Therefore, I never cared for it so much as an herbal tea - it has too strong of a medicinal association for me in that format.

Another story altogether is safe as fresh or dried leaves in the wild, as well as its uses in cookery (sage leaves in butter, anyone?), or even baked goods (sage & blackberry thumbprint cookies are now a family tradition). I remember the first time when I had sage inside a pasta sauce. It was at a wedding of one of my mom's cousins, who owned a catering company at the time. Her brother asked me what I thought about it, and I was kinda cynical... It's just like the herbs on our mountains", I said. "We drink it all the time". I did not enjoy it at the time, but years later, sage has become a staple herb in my kitchen, both dried and fresh, to give more depth to simple roasted vegetables (butternut squash, potatoes) or pasta sauces. It just takes those dishes to the next level... Personally, I find the whole leaf is a little more complex and intriguing, and somehow bypasses the medicinal association.

Ditto for its use in perfumery. It is one of my favourite accessory notes, actually. Thank God my mom's herbal medicine practices didn't ruin it for me completely... Sage is an integral part of some of the perfumes I'm most proud of, especially from the Chypre family: Ayalitta, Autumn. I also fell in love quite late with Clary Sage (but that's another story). When done correctly and artfully, what sage does to a perfume is something that's inexplicable. It normally does not really smell like sage at all - but rather creates a full-bodied smudging effect, akin to smearing your fingers forcefully over a thick line of pastel crayons. It has a bold presence, but it does not really come across as an attention seeker. Rather, brings out the brave voices of otherwise demure notes such as jasmine, rose or amber.

Now, there are several types of sage, but the one discussed here is the common sage, Salvia officinalis. It grows wild in the Mediterranean region, and has a very warm, earthy, herbaceous scent. According to Julia Lawless' Encyclopedia of Essential Oils, the principal constituents are thujone (about 42%), cineol, borneol, caryophyllene and other terpenes. Borneol is an alcohol that gives it a camphoreous character, and cineol is another alcohol, characteristics of eucalyptus and rosemary - camphoreous but also a little warm or even spicy if you will.

Thujone, on the other hand, is a ketone and a monoterpene, and its scent is well known as white cedar, yellow cedar or arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis), and is native to the northeastern parts of Canada and the USA. It is not a true cedar, but actually belongs to the cypress family (Cupressaceae). in wormwood (especially in Artemisia absinthium), and also in juniper, mugwort, tansy and oregano.  Thujone is controversial in aromatherapy and liquor preparations: It is a GABA receptor inhibitor (or antagonist). It can cause side effects such as anxiety and insomnia. In high doses, it's toxic to the brain, liver and kidney, and can causes convulsion, and can even be lethal. The are liquor regulations in Europe and North America that control the level of thujone in liquors such as Absinthe.  However, when used cautiously and in moderation (for example: as an herbal tea, or in very low dilutions within an essential oil such as common sage), it can help strengthen the immune system, and help in situations such as colds and viral infections.

Now, the reason I discussed thujone so much here, is because in the three modern sage-centred fragrances I am testing today, what I'm really smelling is thujone, not so much sage. Thujone has simultaneously a fruity but also a strong and quite sickening woody-coniferous smell on its own. And indeed, sage has that effect of creating an illusion of fruitiness in a perfume, as you shall see. 

Fig Leaf & Sage by Kiehl's is an original yet approachable, marketed as a non-committal cross between a scented ancillary product (body spray) and perfume. Fig Leaf & Sage is simultaneously fruity yet not exactly sweet, with an herbaceous-dry sage notes and a certain tart, almost green undertones reminiscent of green figs (perhaps not quite ripe yet). It's certainly a duet, at least for the first hour or so of wearing - tilting between green figs and sage like an airplane that hasn't decided yet where to land. I find this to be quite an unusual fragrance; but I also find the drydown to be way too musky and synthetically ambery scent to my taste. Nevertheless, I keep coming back to it, so I won't be surprised if a small sized bottle will end up joining my ever growing collection of fragrant marvels...

Wood Sage & Sea Salt Cologne by Jo Malone smelled at first just like how I remembered Fig Leaf & Sage. Must be the thujone. It really comes across strongly at first. As expected from this brand, it's a lot more tame, and also a lot more transparent. And also about 5 times the price. It last only a couple of hours on the skin (and not much longer on the scent strip). At first, there is a burst of musky, fruity sage-ness; but paired with very light citrus notes. And marine notes. And also a reminiscence of their Black Pomegranate - kinda fruity, dark yet transparent woody-leathery note that is I suspect the modern answer to isobutyl quinoline, and a rather insipid answer I'm afraid - lacking the depth and intrigue of the former, and leaving you high and dry with a flat, sterile smoky-wood finish. While sweet at first, it dries down rapidly, if I may emphasize my point. And there is a coconutty, yet also fake marine-like quality in there that is not appealing at all to me (though much more pleasant and creamier in the matching body cream).

Lemongrass Sage Hand & Nail Cream is not a perfume per se, but it's the scent of this product that I like, and the first one of this type of "sage" scent that I came across (while killing time for a connection at SEATAC airport). Again, the thujone is more dominant than it is in actual sage oil. And it's slightly fruit-like ketone quality added a lot to the lemongrass - an oil that often smells dull, as it is too commonly distilled from the dried leaves instead of the fresh ones (and sometimes not the freshest quality either).

Labels: , , , , , , ,