I had fully intended to use my once-in-a-lifetime trip to Andalusia to do some extreme perfume reviewing. In the end, I suppose I did. It just didn’t turn out as expected. And that, I suppose, is the fundamental beauty of Spain. Nothing ever goes as planned.
When I bought L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Séville à l’Aube at Barney’s New York last year, it was a special buy-two-get-a-book-free deal. Only it wasn’t just any book – it was a signed copy of Denyse Beaulieu’s perfumed autobiography, The Perfume Lover. Given that said book – which had not even been released in the United States at the time – was at the top of my need-to-read list, I jumped on the opportunity without hesitation.
So, having carried a nice little atomizer of said juice, all the way to Spain, along with a digital copy of the book on my iPhone’s Kindle app, it was my intention to wear Séville à l’Aube in Sevilla itself, while reading the story, to see if I could get myself fully into the feeling, the passion, and the backstory of the fragrance.
But – of course – that’s not how it turned out. Except for letting my wife wear the fragrance one day (she loves it), and reading a third of the way through the book, I never got the chance to follow up on my intentions. The day we planned to stroll about the calles and avenidas of Sevilla never came. On the one day that we did come closest to Sevilla – when we visited the Roman ruins of Italica outside the city – I wore something that would fare much better and wear much cooler under the extreme daytime heat which typifies the Andalusian summer afternoon.
So let’s start there. Let this report be a collection of my surprised impressions – both fragrant and otherwise – when I went to Spain and found what I was looking for, but in all the wrong places. Call it a “rambling manifesto”, if you must.
And with that, let’s ramble.
For the Costa del Sol and nearby interior regions, my workhorse fragrance was supposed to be Creed’s Virgin Island Water. I wanted something cool, water-reminiscent, distinctive but discreet, and not so common that everybody was wearing it. For the last year or so, Virgin Island Water has been my go-to summer fragrance. I did wear VIW on a couple of days, and it was quite nice. My only problem with the fragrance came as I was leaving Spain, via the airport in Málaga. The Spanish security officer – a cute lady with a not-so-cute attitude – didn’t recognize the standard CREED® atomizer, conveniently sized somewhere between a 20-millimeter shell and a small grenade. I do have to admit that it looks like some kind of royal trouble – particularly when you choose the silver metallic finish and don’t take the lid off. In any case, I made the mistake of not offering her a spray of the stuff, and she penalized me by making me open up my backpack and forcing me to pull out all of my electronics. By the time I was done with the whole exercise, we were nearly late for our plane, and I couldn’t find my passport anywhere, forcing me to completely unpack and repack yet again before boarding.
If I said, under the circumstances, that I would never set foot in Spain again, I take it all back. I do plan to return, albeit with one of those idiotic, spring-loaded, jumping snakes in my CREED® atomizer.
So what was the big fragrance for this trip, if not Virgin Island Water? What was it that I wore on that scorching-hot day that we visited the Roman ruins of Italica, in Santiponce, right outside of the now rather busy and – in the large – unromantically industrialized city of Sevilla?
Oh, yeah, baby. Acqua di Giò Essenza, by Giorgio Armani.
OK. This may take a little explaining.
I have always contended that Acqua di Giò is one of the true classics of fragrance. There is a reason that this fragrance is so popular, and so beloved, despite the fact that everybody and his brother is wearing it. If you take some time to sniff the Giò, meaning the EDT – and I mean REALLY sniff it – you will discover that there is some wonderful complexity, quite near the surface, but still down under the waterfall of pseudo-aquatic citrus freshness. It’s the olfactory equivalent of rocks just below the surface of a swiftly flowing mountain stream. There are woody, floral, and tobacco notes that are extremely pleasant, and which show great craftsmanship. But despite their beauty, they are never really showcased. They remain in the background, out of focus. They contribute – humbly – to the overall beauty of AdG. But they never really demand to be noticed.
I had wondered quite often – what would it be like if these notes were brought to the forefront? What would people think if they didn’t have to work for this beautiful, semi-secret, heart of di Giò? Would people love it? Even more importantly, would *I* love it?
The answer is yes – I do love it. And I think that many of the more discriminating perfume lovers WILL love this fragrance.
Aqcua di Giò Essenza is strong, persistent stuff. Two or three sprays will last you all day. Three or four sprays are going to give you some serious sillage for an hour or so. The first time I wore this out for a full day, I could sense that my fragrance was whipping around the sidewalk café, making people look around with interest, to see where it was coming from. Which, thankfully, is not a sin in Spain. More about that in a moment. The point is, Essenza is good stuff – and it is significantly stronger than the EDT. But strength does NOT mean that Essenza is simply AdG with the volume turned up. No, no, no. It’s something new, and different, and very interesting to this former AdG wearer – who got very tired of the original AdG a long time ago. In fact, stylistically, I would say this effort is much in the same vein as Eau Sauvage Parfum – something which clearly bears a relationship to its classic and less concentrated namesake, but which is carefully crafted to bear scrutiny and stand on its own at the higher concentration.
I have no idea what the perfume community thinks of Acqua di Giò Essenza right now, and I’m both happy and sad about that. My disconnection with the community is both liberating and lonely. On the one hand, I am not currently getting that worthy input and feedback that I crave to get from my fellow perfumistae. On the other hand, I’m free to not be prejudiced by it.
I’ve never felt so free to like or dislike fragrance so honestly. I suppose I should thank the circumstances of my absence. Which I don’t really want to talk about, and which I don’t really like. Ah, yes – there’s the rub. Fragrance means not caring about the world. That’s where it gets its honesty. And it seems to work. For a while. Until you wake up and find that the world has spun into a different space and time. Where other things you care about are in trouble. You can pretend that fragrance is all that matters, but that wouldn’t be honest. So fragrance stays honest, but you don’t.
Where was I? That’s right. Spain. And part of the reason I was there, was to get some intuitive bearings on the Spanish Civil War.
The Spanish Civil War is an excellent demonstration of the problems associated with too much change, too fast, and the price which is then paid for pushing a living organism – the People – against its own will. It’s easy to blame Franco for the coma that he put Spain into – to lay the fault for decades of artistic and social stagnation at his doorstep. Clearly, the man was the last true vestige of Nazism on the planet, and it was more than a relief to see him gone. But to simply blame Franco for Franco does nothing to prevent him from happening again. Maybe in some place like – oh – you know – the United States. Because unless you really look at why a man like that arises, then you don’t stand a chance of getting in front of the curve that sets him up – the function that creates him.
Data. I needed data. And my trip provided that opportunity. But this is about fragrance. And not the other stuff.
Now, where was I?
Spain. That’s right. I brought along my Bleu de Chanel, too. Didn’t use it. Not really sure why I didn’t. But that brings me to Tom Ford Sahara Noir and the Alhambra.
You can’t really go to the Alhambra and not wear perfume – it would just be wrong. On the other hand, you really want to take in the smells of the Alhambra itself – to take IN the olfactory information from the extensive plant life, and the beautiful gardens.
There were some red roses in the Generalife Gardens [note: pronounced “hay-nay-rah-LEE-fay” – not “general-life”] that – I swear to Name-Your-Deity – smelled like the best red wine in the world. Actually, they smelled better. I don’t think I’ve ever smelled such an amazingly rich and perfectly balanced presentation of 2-phenylethanol in all my days. Combine that with one of the most scenic venues in the world, and you can understand why the Alhambra gets all the raves. And that’s the “free” part of the Alhambra – the part you don’t have to queue up in front of to get into.
Spain is a wonderful place to contemplate Christianity and Islam, and the successes and failures of both. I know that in order to look intelligent, you’re supposed to lament the passing of the glory days of Islam in Andalusia, and their replacement by mean old Christianity. We have to remember that “reconquista” is a bad word, unless it’s being used against “white” people in the southwest United States. Which has really gotten confusing since the invention of the “white Hispanic”. Or maybe we should have never invented “Hispanic”.
Just an odd thought.
Where was I? Oh, yes. Andalusia. Al-Andalus. Whatever. The outback of the Roman Empire, or the Arabian Empire, or the European Christian Empire, or the Napoleonic Empire, or the EU, or the Russian tourism industry, or whoever else is claiming ownership.
It’s hard for me to have anything but mixed feelings about Islamic rule in Spain. On the one hand, there is simply no denying the greater religious tolerance of that period, relative to what happened afterwards. I was fortunate enough to run into a few Spanish Jews on our trip, but they are really, at this point, only a token presence in Spain. You have to wrap your head around the times BEFORE the Inquisition, to realize that there actually was a time when Muslims provided a superior environment for a thriving Jewish minority.
But invasion is invasion, as places like Iraq and Afghanistan have pointed out – repeatedly – over the millennia. It always ends badly. Spain never really “belonged” to anybody but the people with the courage to actually live there. The Basques are easily identifiable as true natives, but Spaniards as a whole also seem to have a certain quality that shows layer upon layer of peoples – those who had already lived there, and those who would be marrying into the club. Invade all you like, but what you do in the end is sort of the opposite of eco-manners. Take your pictures of perfect government with you when you go, but leave your genes in the pool, please.
Sahara Noir struck me as the perfect fragrance for the Alhambra. It’s not authentically Middle-Eastern, and neither is Spain. It’s just “influenced”. And that’s the way things should be. In the modern era, you need to win by mindshare and ploughshare, not by the sword. Sahara Noir recalls something – Middle-Eastern perfumery – that it cannot be and never will be, just like the “ruins” of the Alhambra recall an era which will never return. With time, it will surely become clear – even to the most fundamentalist of Islamists – that it’s not Islamic rule per se that makes people look back fondly on the glory days of the Alhambra. It was the fact that people with iron maidens and the rack were NOT ruling. “Don’t be evil” worked for more than just Google. And likewise, its eternal relevance will surely be rediscovered.
Because no trip to the Alhambra, the cathedrals, or any of the other historical sites is complete, without a trip to one of the small-town museos, where you can find relics of “man’s inhumanity to man” in the various exhibitions dedicated to the Spanish Inquisition. True, not all of the items are from the Spanish Inquisition per se. Some are apparently – no pun intended – from the Enlightenment. But until one has stood – all alone – before a real and very functional rack, garrotte, pendulum, or knee-splitter, one hasn’t really gotten to the point of understanding why there is such a thing as crypto-Jews on this planet.
Sahara Noir is a bit dry for my taste. The dry olfactory sensation of incense resins is a very useful artistic tool, particularly in desert-themed fragrances, but it gets old. I’m really unable to work up the passion for a bottle of the stuff. I think it’s one of Tom Ford’s most innovative fragrances, and one of his best, but I just can’t see myself wearing it all that often. Kudos to the man or woman who buys it. However, in the end I think I’ll just side with one of my Middle-Eastern friends who simply loves Armani’s Onde Mystere, no matter how “inauthentic” it may be as Middle-Eastern fragrance. We love what we love. Why argue?
Now – what fragrance-centered trip, or even somewhat-fragrance-influenced trip, would be complete without BUYING something new? And no need to buy Acqua di Giò Essenza, since I brought it with me. Had we gone to Barcelona, I would have considered paying a visit to the perfumery of Ramón Monegal, or dropping into a store carrying his complete line. But given that we were much further south, and that this was mostly my wife’s trip, any extended niche hunts were quite out of the question. However, with a little patience, my opportunity came, as my wife finally ducked into a perfumeria in the beautiful and cosmopolitan sea-side city of Marbella, looking for some sort of Chanel cosmetic she had left at home. Which left me with almost nothing to do except look at fragrances.
I tried to err on the side of stateside unavailability – starting with Chanel. I momentarily thought about getting Bleu de Chanel deodorant, or an Antaeus body product, and I gave very strong consideration to Pour Monsieur EDT (not the Concentrée), which is very hard to find in the States, and which is highly touted by the colognoscenti. But given the facts that (a) I can get BdC deo online, (b) Antaeus body products are the fragrant equivalent of bouncing the rubble, and (c) it turns out that I don’t actually like PM EDT – well, it was time to move on.
That’s when I decided to get my first Loewe. The quintessentially Spanish brand was not yet in my collection. What better place to buy one, than in Spain?
There was a 40th anniversary, limited-edition bottle of Esencia Loewe, which tested very nicely, and which I really should have gotten. However, my wife didn’t like that one as much as Solo Loewe, which I also liked quite a bit. A quick check of the newer Solo Loewe Platinum showed that it was merely more mainstream – yet another flanker to be ignored.
And that’s when I lucked out. Unbeknownst to me, when I grabbed the freshest-looking bottle of Solo Loewe, what I actually grabbed was Solo Loewe Absoluto, which was sitting right next to it. The first spray back in the hotel room was a revelation of more than just my technical error – this flanker has the modernity of Solo but the assertiveness of Esencia. Proof that not all flankers are a downgrade. And for comparison – albeit an inadvertent one – I had bought the deodorant spray of the original Solo Loewe to go with it. A nice combination, they are similar enough to go together well, but different enough to produce a nice olfactory stereo effect.
There is a certain Spanish quality to Solo Loewe Absoluto. If you wander the streets of Spain, particularly in the morning or evening, you smell perfume all along the sidewalks. Not just cheap, fresh, mainstream American stuff. I mean good stuff. Stuff like perfume used to be. Guerlains and Diors and things we now call classics. Stuff with spice to it. And Solo Loewe Absoluto has that quality. When the heat of the afternoon warms your skin, it kicks up spicy whiffs that smell both familiar and unfamiliar. Something with the unrecognizable character of a new fragrance, and the familiarity of an older style.
I picked up an interesting book – some fragrance-related fiction – at the Alhambra bookstore. I look forward to reviewing that. Time to brush up on my Spanish. I think I’ll leave the rest as a surprise.
So what else did I sniff? Ah, yes. The Duty Free. Gotta talk about that.
Let’s get Hermès out of the way first. They’re not really part of the Duty Free, but their standalone stores are still located right there, and are obviously part of the scheme. I guess I’ve been missing a lot in the fragrance world, because I was shocked to discover that Hermès now has TWO new eaux.
First up was Eau de Narcisse Bleu. The first sniff impressed me. I don’t think this fragrance is “me”, but I think it’s good. Simple, distinctive, and not shy. It reminded me a bit of Eau de Gentiane Blanche in style – a single, surprisingly prominent accord floating in front of a very pleasant cologne. That accord seemed novel to me – yet very much like the work we expect from JCE. Neither feminine or masculine, I thought it might interest my wife, but sadly no. I’ll try again, but if I buy this, it will probably be for myself.
The partner release, Eau de Mandarine Ambrée, was also quite interesting. I expected this to be “my style” and it was. The citrus and amber were very perky, but faded quickly, and my immediate wish is that it was stronger. I need to spend more time with this one. I’ll have to finagle samples of these two fragrances, because I think that I may be getting one or the other at some point. And possibly both.
I got a chance to sniff Habit Rouge L’Eau, which I’ve sampled before thanks to a friend, and I enjoyed it, but my wife did not. Honestly, I think she was just in a hurry to go, and was preventing a buy. I’ll have to keep working on her.
I sniffed a lot of fragrances in the duty-free, but nothing really made an impression.
Paco Rabanne Invictus.
You have to hand it to the folks at Paco Rabanne. As a company, they know how to spot a winning concept, milk it completely, and make some coin. When Creed’s Aventus launched to instant but somewhat unexpected acclaim, grabbing Napoleon’s laurels out of the hands of Green Irish Tweed, I figured there would be some imitators pretty soon. But Aventus isn’t an easy fragrance to bring to the masses – at least, not as a total, complete, money-winning concept. There have been some subsequent mainstream fragrances (Gucci Guilty Intense, for one) which took the gray, fruity/smoky quality of Aventus, and turned it into something marketable to the masses. But nobody seemed willing to take the idea all the way. So when I saw the four-page, 2.5-color ad for Invictus, with muscles, tattoos, a goddamn trophy, and two B/W angels, staring back at me in Air France magazine – well, let’s just say it was good for a laugh.
I love the way that Paco Rabanne keeps their stuff on the knife-edge between seriousness and jaw-dropping parody. Yes, it appears that they’re REALLY staging some kind of reality-show competition with seven good-looking dudes from around the world. Who all look surprisingly Gallic, but whatever. The bottom line is, Paco is taking the fragrance-world-acclaimed “panty-dropper” and bringing it to the real world.
Or something kinda like that.
Seriously – of all the fragrances I smelled, Invictus was the one I remembered. And Invictus doesn’t let you forget it, either. The persistence of the stuff on paper is astonishing. I’ve been back for a week, and I can STILL smell it on the blotter.
Not even sure if I can buy this stuff. The bottle is hideously tacky. I refused to buy Paco Rabanne’s recent 1 Million out of a combination of eye-rolling disgust at the bottle concept, and allegiance to the ghost of Black Elk, who was never exactly a fan of gold bricks. That, despite the fact that both 1 Million and Lady Million were surprisingly good fragrances.
UGH. Just. Plain. UGH.
So now you see where I am. I go off for a high-brow vacation, to read fragrant literature, and ponder the works of Denyse Beaulieu and Bertrand Duchaufour in Andalusia. And what happens? I end up walking around CDG Paris with a trophy-shaped blotter up to my nose, as I not only sniff but enjoy Paco Rabanne’s latest travesty.
As I sit here pondering what happened to my plans, I come to a certain realization. Whether we seek our fragrant pleasures at the high end, the low end, the noteworthy end, or the mundane end, there is something special that we have in common. I can almost put my finger on it, but not quite.
As I stood in line for my Air France ride back to America – on which I ended my trip with a 5-star meal on a plastic tray – I saw this ad at the departure gate. Somehow – in some weird way – it gave me hope, and made me smile. Maybe it’s Thierry Mugler. Maybe it’s France. Maybe, it’s simply the fact that, as a perfume lover, I’m not alone.
Whatever it is, I realize that being in Spain, physically, doesn’t matter. Sniffing the world’s most artistic fragrance in the world’s most ideal place doesn’t matter. All of the mistakes and tragedies of history don’t matter. As long as there is one place in this world where fragrance matters without question, then mankind will surely be saved from the consequences of all its more logical mistakes.
I think I’m going to finish that book after all.
PS. Some things never change.