May 20, 2008

Booksmart: Get a whiff of the best scents out there

Perfumes: The GuideManufactured scent is the last thing we need to be thinking about in our greenhouse-gassed, war-ravaged world, right? Are you kidding me? We need escape. Turin and Sanchez do for the universe of fragrance what Robert Parker did for wine. They divide it; they classify it; they make it easy to understand by comparing bottled aromas to elements outside the purview of aromas. As a bonus, Turin is more wickedly funny than anyone holding a doctorate in biophysics deserves to be.For the reader seeking further evidence that the authors know of what they speak, consider this: Certain perfume companies refuse to send them samples of their wares, so fearfully do they cower from the withering pen of condemnation that Turin and Sanchez can wield. If a reviewer wrote this about your product — “fragrance equivalent of a Motel 6” — would you send along any more free samples? The book is dedicated to “the perfumers” — i.e., not to the perfume industry and not to the marketing machinery that propels it. Nor does the price of a given perfume determine its worth. Some extremely expensive numbers come in for a sound tongue-lashing, while other quite affordable ones earn high starrage.“The Guide,” after introductory essays by each author, is set up alphabetically according to fragrance name, with each fragrance receiving a star rating from 1-5, followed by a description whose length depends upon what the perfume under consideration merits. Some celebrity perfumes, which tend to remain on the market an average of six months, do not even merit full sentences (e.g., Paris Hilton’s signature scent is a “depressing woody-fruity-floral aimed at ditzes”), while other classics (either those with a long history or whose qualities are so enticing as to induce rapture, even in prose) go on for a page and a half. The average entry is a single, easy-to-read paragraph telling you exactly what you need to know, including key ingredients and whether the scent will make others want to run and hide, throttle you or jump your bones. At the back of the book are handy Top 10 lists for each of the main scent categories in the reviews (florals, chypres, orientals, best feminines for men, best masculines for women, etc.). Although in the authors’ judgment there are far more three-star perfumes than anything else, they insist that the one indisputable best five-star perfume of all time is Mitsouko by Guerlain, first released in 1919. It is, for Turin, “a masterpiece whose richness brings to my mind the mature chamber music of Johannes Brahms.” A complex, heady perfume such as this one has, respectively, top notes, heart notes and base notes. Its true nature will not reveal itself all at once, but gradually, sometimes over a period of hours. Think of the way the best Bordeaux ages in the bottle and then releases its properties when decanted.I became so bewitched by the description of how Mitsouko was created and launched that I drove one afternoon in near-tornado conditions to a local perfume store in order to smell the stuff. I was already wearing Calyx (a clean-smelling “guava rose” scent, also awarded five stars by Turin and Sanchez) on my left wrist. Inside the store, I did exactly what the authors advised. First I sprayed Mitsouko on a sample card and took a whiff. The saleswoman said, “Is that, like, the sexiest smell on the planet?” I thought, OK, she probably says this about everything that gets sprayed in the store, even insecticide, but, whoa, yes, this is hot. I spritzed some onto my right arm and waved it in the air. I caught almost immediately that whole thing Turin claims goes on in the Mitsouko “dry-down”: how the bergamot-oakmoss-amber resin is softened by a milky peachiness, thus balancing what could have come across as bitterly masculine with the hint of something so soft you almost miss it. I went outside and walked around to give it some time. I kept sniffing it. I asked myself, “Is this too much? Is this too, I don’t know, ancient-smelling?” Then I remembered the Calyx on my other arm. I have always loved Calyx the way you love the first whiff of honeysuckle in the springtime or the top of a baby’s head after a bath. But suddenly, oh my God, I couldn’t believe it, suddenly, Calyx seemed hopelessly naïve and girlish. I bought the Mitsouko. I’ve since read the description of it at least 25 times. Every word of it is exactly right. Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com