Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Stop the Clock! I Have Seen a Great IDEA

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Just before Valentine’s Day a set of recommendations were presented to the European Union (EU) by the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) to ban or restrict 23 fragrance raw materials. A few days after that I wrote an editorial about the lack of scientific rigor that was applied to that decision and asked for a real scientific clinical study with appropriate controls to be performed to truly determine the real potential of these materials to produce an allergic effect. About a week after that editorial I was pointed to a website called IDEA (International Dialogue for the Evaluation of Allergens) and once I spent some time reading what was there much of my concern for the future of raw materials has been alleviated.

IDEA was formed in May of 2013 and has had four separate workshops since then about how to classify, test, and unequivocally determine which materials are allergens. Their Annual Report (click here to read it) was released a week after the SCCS made their recommendation to the EU. While the SCCS recommendations caused a lot of people, I included, to exercise our best Chicken Little impressions. After spending the last couple days reading the IDEA Annual Report I am no longer worried.

IDEA has representation from every stakeholder in this; IFRA, SCCS, EU, the big perfume firms, the big perfume producers, and particularly important dermatologists and clinicians. They have been spending this first year doing workshops with participation from all involved and they are evolving an action plan which will once and for all determine in a scientific and statistically sound manner whether any specific material is an allergen. This is what any of us who have looked at this data from a scientific point of view have asked for and it is now happening.

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I also spoke with a few of my contacts within the industry and they all seem to think that if the EU takes any action at all in May, when the 90-Day comment period is up, it will be increased labelling. Something which alerts a consumer to the presence of a potential allergen without making it seem like the Surgeon General’s warning on a pack of cigarettes.

A month after I was busy running around yelling “The Sky is Falling!” it looks like the solutions are all in place to make sure that only the best scientific data will eventually determine which raw materials will be banned or restricted and that is the best outcome I could have asked for. Which leaves perfumery, like Mark Twain, to say, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

Mark Behnke

Boot or Reboot: Yohji Homme 1999 & 2013

It seems like some of the greatest discontinued fragrances have been reformulated in the last twelve months. Much like the reformulation of Patou pour Homme I approached the new version of Yohji Homme with some concern.

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The original Yohji Homme was released in 1999; it was signed by Jean-Michel Duriez just at the moment Proctor & Gamble had acquired Jean Patou. When I smelled Yohji Homme I was swept away with this spicy licorice and lavender concoction. It was clearly not a success as it would disappear from shelves within three years. In that endless internal conversation about the best masculine perfumes ever Yohji Homme is right there in the mix. Late in 2013 the newly reformulated Yohji Homme was released with perfumer Olivier Pescheux taking on the task. He consulted with M. Duriez but this was a difficult task because a few of the ingredients had been restricted by IFRA regulations and a couple others were from the resources M. Duriez had while at Patou.

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Jean-Michel Duriez

The 1999 version of Yohji Homme started with one of the best lavenders I have ever encountered in a fragrance it is so close to the real lavender that grows outside my house. It pushes right to the edge of being unpleasant because of its strength. M. Duriez then wraps this intense lavender in strands of black licorice. It is a bold beginning and it becomes even bolder as coriander and cinnamon are joined by geranium and carnation to form a spicy floral heart which slithers underneath the lavender and licorice insinuating itself within the slight olfactory space available to it. After about an hour on my skin these notes combine to produce a singular accord like nothing else in my experience. If that was all there was Yohji Homme would have been great but the base adds in a rum-soaked leather and things take a quantum leap forward. It never fails to be a fascinating ride and a perfume which delivers time and again.

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Olivier Pescheux

M. Pescheux in the 2013 version of Yohji Homme is really trying to do this with one hand tied behind his back while jumping on one foot. Because of the lack of availability of the restricted and proprietary ingredients M. Duriez used in the original, M Pescheux was forced into Hobson ’s choice time and again. When it comes to the lavender used it is in no way close to the quality from the original, the same goes for the licorice. The leather is tamed instead of wild. The cinnamon lacks the same bite. The same progression as the original is there but the new version sort of lurches through its transitions. I almost smell an audible clunk as the less strident lavender and licorice seem to just get out of the way of the spice and florals in the heart. By the time the base notes of leather and rum show up they seem too polite. This new version feels like recreating the Eiffel Tower in wood. It looks like the same thing but it lacks in majesty and power.

It is obvious that the Reboot comes nowhere near the Boot and that’s a shame because it feels like in 1999 the perfume world was not ready for Yohji Homme but in 2013 it is less of an outlier. If you had never tried the original I think many will be enchanted by the new version as all of the important beats are there and it is still a unique fragrance. M. Pescheux did a great job considering the straitjacket he was bound in. One other difference between the two is the original is a powerhouse which lasts all-day the new one barely made it through the workday. The new Yohji Homme has been exclusive to Selfridge’s in the UK and is expected to be released wider by the end of 2014.

Disclosure: This review was based on bottles of both versions of Yohji Homme I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Creed 101- Five To Get You Started

The House of Creed is one of those perfume producers which elicits strong opinions for and against. What is not up for debate is it is one of the best-selling niche fragrance houses in the world. Creed is many perfumista’s entrée to the world of niche perfume and it instills an unusual loyalty to those who admire the brand. One of the things detractors point to is the reliance on the celebrated history of the Creed brand and unashamedly talking about the trendsetters who have supposedly worn the brand over the years. Olivier Creed is the current head perfumer the sixth generation to have that position. He is also currently training his son, Erwin, to become the seventh generation, assuring the continuance of the brand for years to come.  Creed perfumes are easy to find but because of their popularity there are many counterfeits out there. If you are going to dip your nose into Creed it is best to start by trying from a reputable source.

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Olivier and Erwin Creed

Green Irish Tweed was released in 1985 and could be said to be the fragrance which would begin this current phase of popularity Creed enjoys. It really lives up to the green in its name especially in the early phases of development as lemon, verbena, and violet leaves combine to form a clover soft accord. The heart is a much understated orris which is more opulent than floral. This leads to what is pretty much a signature base note accord to many Creed fragrances with ambergris and sandalwood. Green Irish Tweed is a quiet fragrance and often when wearing it I will think it is gone only to have someone comment on how nice I smell. Of anything I own Green Irish Tweed is one of those few which elicits spontaneous compliments.

In 1987 Bois du Portugal was released and it is one of my very favorite woody lavender perfumes I own. Creed says in their press release that this was Frank Sinatra’s signature fragrance. Whenever I wear it I always get a very 60’s vibe to it. In my imagination this is the fragrance I expect Don Draper of “Mad Men” to be wearing. It is simple as bergamot and lavender are the opening notes and the Creed ambergris and sandalwood base is tweaked with a healthy addition of vetiver. Bois du Portugal is a great perfume and very close to my favorite in the line.

Love in White was released in 2005 and the very first bottle was gifted to then-First Lady Laura Bush; the current occupant of the White House, Michele Obama, is also said to wear this. This is a fresh bouquet of three of the best floral ingredients of orris, jasmine, and rose. They are kept light and not as bold as they can be in other fragrances. The base is, again, the Creed ambergris/sandalwood signature with a bit of vanilla and cedar to complete this variation.

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Millesime Imperial was released in 1995 as aquatic perfumes were ascendant. Millesime Imperial shows a pedestrian genre like aquatics can be infused with a bit of class. The citrus opening of Millesime Imperial is lemon and orange and each of these notes is distinct in the way they display themselves. The overplayed ozonic notes, which exemplify the aquatic, is swathed in a decadent orris. It could have come off like putting designer lipstick on a pig; instead it is like draping a tuxedo jacket over a t-shirt elevating the common to something less so. The base is the same as the others before but with a bit of musk to add a bit of animalic growl to the signature sandalwood and ambergris.

In my opinion Creed has been on a bit of a roll over the last three years or so. With the release of Aventus in 2010 that roll was just beginning. Meant to evoke the life of Napoleon Bonaparte, Aventus has a unique progression of notes. An unusual fruity opening of blackcurrant, apple and surprisingly prominent pineapple are combined in a very pleasant olfactory fruit salad without ever getting out of control. The heart of jasmine rose, birch, and patchouli twist the floral stalwarts with traditional woody contrast. The base is not the Creed signature as ambergris is there but this time oakmoss and musk round out the final phase. Aventus breaks the Creed mold in every way and that has continued over the last few releases.

Creed is such a popular house becase the great majority of their perfumes smell great and whether you buy the PR or not I know I always feel a little more elegant when I’m wearing Creed.

Disclosure: This review is based on bottles of these perfumes I purchased.

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Suleko Albho, Vy Roza, Djelem, and Baba Yaga-Tales of the Russian Woods

When there is a close relation between creative director and perfumer, working in tandem, is often when magic happens. At the recent Elements Showcase I found another example of this thesis to be true. I am a big fan of perfumer Cecile Zarokian and believe 2014 is poised to be a breakout year for her. When I met her at Elements she introduced me to Anastasia Sokolow the owner and creative director of Suleko. Together they told me the story of creating four fragrances to reflect Mme Sokolow’s Russian heritage and one for each season. When I was talking with both of these talented women and hearing their description of each fragrance it struck me how this was a true match of equals. Each brought their passions to bear and together have created a beautiful collection of four special fragrances.

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Anastasia Sokolow

Albho represents winter and the name comes from the Indo-European root for the Russian word for swan, Lebed. The concept for Mme Zarokian was to evoke “strength and power, but at the same time calm and gentleness”. When I tried Albho on a strip at Elements it didn’t show off all of those charms but I had a feeling once I wore it there was a chance I would feel differently. Albho captures the feel of that icy inhalation on a winter’s morning, if it is adjacent to a stand of sentinel pine trees. Mme Zarokian begins with that frigid pairing of mint and eucalyptus. It is vaporous and frosty as the eucalyptus in particular sets the winter milieu. Then a frigid pine note arrives. By framing this pine note in cedar Mme Zarokian makes it feel separate, much as smells in the cold feel detached. The eucalyptus and pine form a winter’s breath accord that lingers for a good while. Eventually one has to warm up and the base notes of benzoin, labdanum, and tolu balm provide the olfactory heat.

Vy Roza comes from Pushkin’s novel, Eugene Onegin where the heroine Tatiana is referred to as “Vy Roza belle Tatiana” (You are a rose, beautiful Tatiana). Vy Roza is meant to evoke spring and it does so be being a “beautiful rose”. Mme Zarokian surrounds the central rose with some other spring-like floral compatriots and finishes back in the woods. The opening of Vy Roza takes lilac and muguet which form a slightly green very fresh floral duet. The rose combusts to life like a phoenix rising as it takes over and dominates. Vy Roza ends with a series of woody notes but it takes hours before you notice anything but the rose.

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Cecile Zarokian

Djelem refers to the name of the song which became the anthem of the Gypsies in 1971. Mme Sokolow wanted the fragrance to capture all of the freedom loving proud impulsive pride of the gypsy spirit. To do this Mme Zarokian created a fragrance which captures a summer night around a gypsy fire. As you sit down you smell the hay field around you freshly threshed. Then the music of spicy carnation is deepened even further with cloves and made slightly sweet with a bit of immortelle as it begins to swirl around. The base is the ambery warmth of the fire as only glowing embers are left. Djelem seems as persistently variable as a gypsy song, at turns joyous and solemn. It felt like it was in constant motion during both days I wore it.

Baba Yaga is the Russian child’s boogeywoman. She is the witch of the forest, all that makes up the darkness. When I think of storybook witches I think of a swirl of cape with a lot of flying about accompanied with magical gestures. The witches of our dark tales always seem to have a physical power equal to their magical ones. Mme Zarokian captures that feel of power waiting to be unleashed with a gesture and a cackle of glee in Baba Yaga. When I tried this at Elements the kinetic nature of the notes swept me away. Baba Yaga opens with a furious rush of red berries, cinnamon, nutmeg, and pepper. All of these notes seem to orbit and fly past each other as you sense the berries, then the pepper, then the cinnamon, then the nutmeg. Like gathering the strands of a spell that just won’t come together. In the heart a core of darkness arises with a deep patchouli trying to form a focal point as you sense the earth in the dark forest. Finally the base notes of leather, cade, and moss combine to form a powerful completion to this olfactory witches’ brew.

All four Suleko fragrances had above average longevity and above average sillage.

The ceramic sculptures which hold the atomizers for each of these fragrances were designed by sculptors Joelle Fevre and Alain Fichot. They add a very unusual visual element to each of these fragrances.

This collection truly does carry through the thread of Mme Sokolow’s Russian heritage with a seasonal aspect. Mme Zarokian listened carefully and skillfully translated the words into perfume. Baba Yaga is my favorite for all of its kineticism but Albho really runs a close second for all of its chilly charms. Taken together this is another example of creative director and perfumer working together on the same wavelength to produce beautiful olfactory music.

Disclosure: this review was based on sample provided by Suleko at the Elements Showcase.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten

I was very fortunate when I started my first job, in Connecticut, to have one of my best friends from college, Joe, living in Manhattan. I was able to spend numerous evenings and weekends in New York City experiencing much of what the big city had to offer. One of the things both of us enjoyed was great food. Our birthdays are eight days apart in October and we would celebrate on the weekend in between by working our way through the four-star restaurants in the City. Whenever we talk about the best meals we ever had we always agree that our 1989 birthday dinner at the Lafayette Hotel was probably the best of them all.

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Alsatian Baeckoffe as served at Jojo in 2012

Earlier that year, Joe told me when I arrived on a mid-week night we were going to try some Alsatian food at this restaurant around the corner on Third Avenue called Brandywine. Brandywine was an aging NY Steakhouse and was undergoing a menu overhaul to start serving Alsatian food. I ordered the classic Charcroute which is a traditional dish of sauerkraut and various meats. What I had served to me was something so above what one would expect from sauerkraut. It was crunchy and tart and the meat was lamb, pork, and veal. It was luscious. Towards the end of the meal a man in chef’s whites walked over to us to ask what we thought. In my usual effusive way I gushed at how fresh the sauerkraut was and how do you make it not mushy. I received a smile and an explanation along with an introduction to Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten who was consulting on the menu revamp for Brandywine. A few months later we would be sitting at a table in his four-star restaurant in the Lafayette Hotel and he dazzled us with the tasting menu. This meal was full of the things he has come to be known for. Fragrant broths, poaching in juice, and herbal concoctions. It transformed traditional French cuisine into a comprehensive sensual experience.

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Peekytoe Crab Tempura at Jean-Georges

The use of lighter alternatives to traditional sauces add a visual component of vibrant color. Then, fragrance fans, it is the aroma of these dishes that was really enhanced by the use of these preparations. There was a cloud of culinary sillage wafting off every dish which was put in front of us. Sweet juice cut with herbal contrasts all blended as skillfully as our most accomplished perfumers. There is no chef who uses ingredients that perfume the air above his dishes as adeptly.

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Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten

Since that meal in 1989 Chef Vongerichten has become one of the Emperor Chefs who has exported his way of cooking to a number of restaurants world-wide under his imprimatur. The flagship restaurant in New York City is the eponymous Jean-Georges which is one of seven restaurants in NYC to receive three Michelin stars. Even though it has been twenty five years since the meal at the Lafayette Hotel the cuisine at Jean-Georges remains as exciting and evolutionary as it was then.

If you want a meal which is satisfying to both palate and nose look for a restaurant that Jean-Georges has opened up, near you or in a city you are visiting, and treat yourself to a singular aromatic culinary experience.

Mark Behnke

Wetshaving: The Three T’s

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Every morning I go through three levels of fragrance. The first is the soap or shower gel I use. Knowing what perfume I am planning to wear influences what I choose in the shower as I try to match one of the base notes of my upcoming scent of the day. The second level of fragrance comes between my shower and applying my perfume.

Around ten years ago I made switch away from the commercial multi-blade shavers and returned to the traditional double-edge shaver my dad taught me to shave with. As I discovered the joys of what is called wetshaving I also embraced the joy of adding a new fragrant phase to my morning routine with the shaving cream I would use.

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Part of what I like about wetshaving is the reminder to slow down a bit in the morning and take care of yourself. Even though I can go pretty fast now it still takes longer to make four passes with my single edged blade than it would to do one pass with a multi-blade razor. I have learned to relax and breathe in the scent of my shaving cream and enjoy the feel of the brush lathering up my face.

When it comes to which shaving creams to use there is a simple rule to start with, “go with the three T’s”. Just like midtown New York perfume shoppers know the three B’s; Bergdorf’s, Barney’s, and Bendel’s; wetshavers usually start with the creams of Geo F. Trumper, Taylor of Old Bond St., and Truefitt & Hill. I have three that I use in heavy rotation although all of the creams from these three producers are great places to add a bit of extra fragrance to your day.

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Geo F. Trumper Violet Shaving Cream is probably my favorite of all the creams I own. It is a deep purple solid in the pot which lathers to the very faintest tinge of lavender as I apply it to my skin. The smell of violets surround me and it is as good as any violet fragrance in a perfume bottle. It wasn’t until Atelier Cologne Sous le toit de Paris that I found a fragrance which matched this perfectly. When I want to have a violet day it is this pair which is my go to combo.

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Taylor of Old Bond Street Avocado Shaving Cream is one of the most uniquely smelling shave creams I own. One characteristic of all Taylor’s shaving creams is their exceptional lathering ability. With the Avocado version it is so rich I often think I’m slathering white guacamole on my face. I use this as a companion to a lot of my lighter fragrances and as a base to slumberhouse Pear + Olive, the connection is sublime.

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Truefitt & Hill Sandalwood Shaving Cream is the most fragrant of the three T’s especially the Sandalwood version. The creamy sweet woodiness feels like it seeps into my pores. Even when I’m rinsing it off I feel like it has lingered longer than most of the other shave creams I own. I always shave with this before wearing Diptyque Tam Dao or Chanel Bois des Iles. It lays down a bit of sandalwood foundation for those fragrances to build upon.

Even if you don’t want to go full wetshave and still want to use your modern multi-blade definitely meet the movement halfway by adding a tub of one of the three T’s and a shaving brush to your shaving routine. If you love fragrance it truly adds an extra bit of it to every morning.

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Providence Perfume Co. Samarinda- On Nose Across Borneo

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One of my favorite books is Eric Hansen’s “Stranger in the Forest: On Foot Across Borneo”. In the book Mr. Hansen describes his eight months of crossing the large Island of Borneo back and forth. Throughout the book his experiences with the indigenous Penan people who were his companions on his trek through the dense rainforest added a wonderfully distinct contrast to the modern civilized way of life. After reading the book I worried that the pace of modern expansion would destroy the more primitive civilization that was happily flourishing without the rest of the world interfering. Mr. Hansen painted a vivid portrait of his surroundings and often I felt I could feel the humidity and smell the jungle, which of course I couldn’t.

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Charna Ethier

Perfumer Charna Ethier of Providence Perfume Co. has also been inspired by Borneo for her latest release Samarinda. Samarinda is the capital city of the Indonesian province of East Kalimantan. Borneo also contains two Malaysian states, Sabah and Sarawak along with the tiny sovereign state of Brunei. The slow creep of deforestation described in 1988 by Mr. Hansen has continued apace and Ms. Ethier is donating 5% of all proceeds to the World Wildlife Fund for the protection of the indigenous and endangered species in Borneo.

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Choya Distillation Vessels

Samarinda continues a trend in Ms. Ethier’s perfumery begun with 2012’s Moss Gown and continued with last year’s Branch & Vine. She has dramatically expanded her palette of notes to work with and during that expansion she is taking thoughtful time with each of these unusual notes to bring out the best in them. For Samarinda the unusual note is Choya Nakh which is the smell of roasted seashells. If you’ve ever walked a beach which has a lot of shells drying in the heat of the day you know what this smells like. It can be overwhelming and in less assured hands it would have thrown everything out of balance. Ms. Ethier knows what effect she wants and spent a year on Samarinda perfecting it.

Samarinda opens right away with a lush intensity as a full juicy orange, sheer piquant pink peppercorn, and a cardamom made rawer by the pink peppercorn so it is less smooth and more unrefined. This is how we enter Ms. Ethier’s trek into Borneo. A combination of heliotrope, carnation, and orange blossom advance the tropical vibe but there was a hint of sun scorched earth underneath and that must be from the coffee note listed. I can’t distinctly pick it out but it is the only thing that could be responsible for it. This is the smell of tropical flower garden but it also carried a bit of humid weight as well. It is high noon in the rainforest heady and beautiful. The base is where the Choya Nakh comes in as we leave the jungle behind and walk towards the ocean. The floral part of the jungle is over our shoulder, not gone just diminished. Now a scotch leather layover and rum ether add a bit of boozy diffusion while vanilla and a tincture of jasmine rice add a soupcon of ethnic food to everything. Underneath all of this is the Choya Nakh as an exotic underpinning precisely balanced with everything else. It is the signature note to tie this entire olfactory journey together.

Samarinda has all-day longevity and average sillage.

Ms. Ethier is becoming one of those perfumers for whom I can’t wait to see what is next. There is a dedication on her part to composing with the outliers in the pantheon of notes. Like playing with the less used colors in a big box of Crayola crayons. What she is slowly gathering is a signature style combining exploration and artistry into completely unique fragrances. Samarinda is as good, and maybe better, than Moss Gown; time will tell. What I do know is I will go anywhere with my nose that Ms. Ethier wants to lead me.

Disclosure: This review was based on a sample provided by Providence Perfume Co.

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds: Rochas Tocade- Maurice Roucel’s Turkish Delight

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Maurice Roucel is one of our greatest perfumers and he just as easily produces a fragrance for Victoria’s Secret, 2012’s Simply Gorgeous; as he does for Frederic Malle, 2000’s Musc Ravageur. There is a broad spread to the perfumes he makes. From a gourmand like 2004’s Bond No. 9 New Haarlem to a fruity floral like 2006’s Guerlain Insolence there is always a dashing sense of style underlying all that he creates. M. Roucel feels like one of the last of the old school perfumers just turning out things that smell good. One of my favorites by M. Roucel is also one of the best perfume bargains you can find, one of the best perfumes you can buy; Rochas Tocade.

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Maurice Roucel

M. Roucel created Tocade in 1994 and it was one of his earliest forays into what would eventually become the gourmand style of perfume. For Tocade which translates to “whim” he centers the perfume on two notes, rose and vanilla. Vanilla had been used in a more restrained way with rose in many previous fragrances but the change here was to really up the vanilla and that in turn makes Tocade feel like an olfactory version of Turkish Delight. It is a typical Oriental and in that way it carries a heft to it appropriate for the confection it imitates.

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Tocade opens with a bit of light green aspects from bergamot and geranium. It gives way to a transparent rose which is given some structure with iris as support. Through the first few moments, all of this is fairly traditional pretty rose. It all changes as the vanilla makes its presence known. M. Roucel pulls off a fabulous effect with his vanilla as it never tilts into a pedestrian kind of vanilla. It never seems to get sweet and buttery, or saccharine and sugary. Somehow it straddles a knife’s edge of balance between the two. Because of the translucence of the rose it comes off almost watery. It is difficult to say M. Roucel has a signature move but if there is one this watery sheer floral effect is probably it. Once the vanilla rises fully Tocade feels like a beautiful sticky piece of Turkish Delight. To further deepen the comfort aspects amber and benzoin add a softly sweet resinous complement while a bit of musk adds a twinge of animalic contrast.

Tocade has average longevity and above average sillage.

Tocade has survived the ravages of reformulation pretty much intact for twenty years. I picked up a 1Oz. bottle for $9.99 at my local TJ Maxx to compare to my original bottle and the only difference is in the very top notes as the new bottle feels a little brighter for those first few minutes; which is probably to be expected. Once Tocade gets down to its rose and vanilla business my mid 1990’s bottle and the 2014 bottle are identical on my skin. As I mentioned above this perfume is easily obtainable from a number of sources for less than $20/Oz. I think Tocade is one of the great perfumes of the last thirty years and the fact that it isn’t more well-known is a shame; the price certainly shouldn’t be a barrier. This is an example of a master perfumer fashioning a simple construction which contains subtle shadings and brushstrokes to take it far above being a simple rose and vanilla perfume. For $10 how can you go wrong?

Mark Behnke

Olfactory Chemistry: Ionones, Irones, and Methyl Ionones- Purple Rain

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Two of my favorite notes in perfumery are violet and iris. The molecules which provide the smell of both of these notes are from a family of closely related molecules called ionones and irones. As you can see below the structures are amazingly similar:

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By just adding the CH3 group (in red), what we call a methyl group, to the ring of ionone you get alpha-Irone. If you add the methyl group to the end of the string of atoms to the right of Ionone you get alpha-methyl ionone.

The ionones, irones, and methyl ionones are arguably the second set of synthetic molecules to mark the beginning of modern perfumery. The use of synthetic coumarin in Fougere Royale in 1882 is the acknowledged beginning of modern perfumery. The three molecules above would be isolated in 1893 and have formed the building blocks of many of the synthetic aromamolecules in the 121 years since their discovery.

The olfactory differences in these three molecules are dramatic considering the tiny change in their structure. Alpha-Ionone gives off a woody violet quality with a bit of raspberry to it. Alpha-Irone is the smell of iris. Alpha-Methyl Ionone is softer and imparts the powdery quality to iris. If it was just these three molecules that would be more than enough but the reality is far richer as you can see below by just moving the double bond in the lower half of the molecule you create a new set of molecules called beta or gamma-Ionones and the analogous irones and methyl ionones.

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Beta-Ionone has a fruitier and woodier quality compared to the alpha-Ionone. Gamma-ionone is the standard violet you find as an aromachemical.

This all leads to a discussion I had on one of my Facebook perfume groups. One of the members asked about the difference between orris and iris when listed in the perfume notes. The difference is orris is a natural source of irones. Orris is the dried root of iris and contains six of the Irone variations described above. The idea is that the combination of all six naturally occurring Irones present in the root together forms that complex iris effect so prized by perfumers. Because of the need to dry the root for five years after harvest makes orris one of the costliest ingredients in all of perfume. This is why you will usually only see it on the more expensive niche brands note lists. It provides a singular effect but at a high cost. As a result when a perfumer wants a bit of iris character in their fragrance without breaking the budget they will turn to the isolated synthetic molecules like alpha-irone and use that as it is much less costly than orris concrete or orris butter.

In the past thirty years these molecules have been the starting point for the discovery of numerous synthetic molecules which have seen widespread use like Norlimbanol and Iso E Super.

So when you smell a bit of purple in your fragrance it is likely due to one of the molecules related to the ionones, irones, or methyl ionones.

Mark Behnke

The Eastern Paradox

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A number of perfume companies have looked to the Asian markets of Japan and China as the next growth opportunities for their brands. As a result you have seen the niche companies also follow that lead, trying to establish their own beachhead in those territories. I know my first impression of the difference between the way Japanese and Western tastes were different came from a 2005 column by Chandler Burr for the NY Times magazine. Where he described a culture where perfume was frequently given as a gift but never worn. This also went along with an anecdote from a sales associate where test strips were left out next to their bottles so that top notes would be gone because according to the article “apparently the Japanese dislike top notes”. The article also touched on other market forces in the Japanese market which were tied to luxury brands like Bvlgari where the jewelry image has a halo effect on the fragrance.

Beijing perfume counter

Beijing Perfume Counter (Photo:Alan Chin/NYT)

The Chinese market is much less understood but it does seem like the same considerations that are good for the Japanese market are also good for the Chinese market. The overall beauty sector in China has been growing consistently year-by-year. By Kilian and Serge Lutens, among others, have made series of fragrances meant to target these potential fragrance consumers. It seems the agreed upon design aesthetic is for something which is lighter in nature than typical releases from those lines. They also seem to be designed to not last as long as the other releases. What I don’t understand is why the great majority of these fragrances I have tried to date have been so disappointing.

I am also suspicious of the hypothesis that this aesthetic truly exists. At the Elements Showcase two years ago I was intorduced to a perfume line called Kaze which is created and sold in Japan. As I stepped up I expected to find a collection which matched my assumptions. I couldn't have been more worng and I kept saying over and over, "these sell well?" The only apparent eastern influence was the use of particular indigenous ingredients.

I am a big fan of perfumes with a lighter touch. Le Labo’s Tokyo exclusive Gaiac 10 seems to be the pinnacle of the kind of perfume which should be successful in Japan if the above assumptions are true. Comme des Garcons X Monocle Scent One: Hinoki is another example of this desired aesthetic. I know both of these fragrances are widely appreciated by the western fragrance community.

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This is contrasted with the Asian Tales collection from By Kilian which feels like it was so calculated in design that somewhere along the assembly line it lost its joie de vivre. What has really brought this point home for me is the third of the Serge Lutens’ L’Eaus which has just been released. The newest one is called Laine de Verre and after sniffing it on a strip and a patch of skin I just can’t bring myself to wear it for a couple of days to properly review it. It is wan and anemic and yet has some irritating sharp aspects to it as well. I am completely flummoxed how two of my favorite perfumers in Calice Becker who did the By Kilians, and Serge Lutens’ Christopher Sheldrake can miss the target so completely.

I haven’t been able to get any current sales figures on these markets but the blog Kafkaesque recently published a very comprehensive worldwide economic review of the fragrance sector using the best available data to the public. In that article there is a very sobering statistic she reported from a Euromonitor study of the Chinese market, “No remarkable changes have been seen in consumers’ acceptance of fragrances – the Chinese account for 20% of the world’s population, but only contribute 1% to value sales of fragrances.” This seems to indicate that despite all of the targeting by adhering to a, perhaps, non-existent Asian aesthetic the perfume houses are making no headway.

That is the source of this Eastern Paradox, instead of trying to design a specific fragrance for the market; try and just design a good fragrance. I believe the free market principles will let the brands be guided by what sells in those markets. The idea that you can cobble together a fragrance for Japanese or Chinese markets which will make a culture of people who don’t wear perfume all of a sudden start wearing it seems like something out of a novel. As I sit here disappointed in yet another attempt to create this magical Eastern Elixir I just hope for a little less focus group thinking and more free artistic expression from these brands I like so much.

Mark Behnke