Discount Diamonds: John Varvatos Cologne- Best in Class

Designer fragrances are a dime a dozen; most ending up not being worth a dime. It is why when there is a designer collection which stands out it really stands out. That is the case with the fragrance side of John Varvatos.

John Varvatos is an American fashion designer known for his rock and roll aesthetic. In 2004 he wanted to branch out into fragrance. From here the story usually goes this way; brand name turns over creative control to big cosmetics brand who produce an insipid fragrance. When there are successes within the designer area of perfume it almost always comes because the name on the bottle gets involved in the creative process. Mr. Varvatos was one of those. That would lead to some other anomalies to the way John Varvatos developed as a brand. The most important is he worked with the same perfumer, Rodrigo Flores-Roux, exclusively for the first fifteen perfumes. This kind of partnership is common in the niche community; much rarer in mainstream. Over the years they have developed one of the very best fragrance collections you can find at the department store. They have been at it so long that the early releases are now easily found in the discount bins. While I whole heartedly recommend almost everything released by Mr. Varvatos and Sr. Flores-Roux for this month’s Discount Diamonds I’m going to start at the beginning with John Varvatos Cologne.

John Varvatos

At that time for men’s fragrance they made a couple of interesting choices. One to eschew all the fresh and clean competition. Second to work with some unusual ingredients. In that first press release they would tout four ingredients being used for the first time.

Rodrigo Flores-Roux

John Varvatos Cologne opens with the sweet dried fruitiness of medjool dates. This provides a unique kind of sweetness which is kept from getting to be too much by using rosemary and tamarind leaves to wrap it up in notes of herb and vegetal forms of green. The herbs continue into the heart with clary sage, coriander, and thyme. At this point there is a lot of similarity to the stewed fruit accord which would become popular in niche perfumery. In the base they use a couple of woody synthetics, Eaglewood and Auramber. This gives an intensely woody accord with an amber finish.

John Varvatos Cologne has 10-12 hour longevity and average sillage.

What you see above would be repeated time and again as Mr. Varvatos and Sr. Flores-Roux seemingly improved release after release. It has been one of the most remarkable collaborations in all mainstream perfume.

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

Mark Behnke

Under the Radar Thirdman Eau Contraire (Eau Nomade)- Midsummer Refresher

It should not come as a surprise that a blog named Colognoisseur has an affection for cologne. As I began writing about perfume there was a concurrent re-interpretation of the lowly cologne. Over the last ten years the style has been given new life by many brands and many talented creative teams. One of the earliest brands to re-imagine cologne was Thirdman.

When Thirdman came onto the scene in 2012 they wanted to create a sense of mystery to go along with their colognes. Creative director Jean-Christophe le Greves centers the campaign around the first three releases with the query; “Who is the Thirdman?” I along with many others lauded the first three releases and wondered who the perfumer was. Thankfully M. le Greves gave up that secret with the release of the fourth Thirdman perfume Eau Nomade. The perfumer behind it all was Bruno Jovanovic. Before we get too much further, I must clear up the confusion on the name. When it was released in 2013 it was called Eau Nomade. Some years later it was changed to Eau Contraire which is how you will find it available now. With either name on the bottle it is the same cologne inside.

Bruno Jovanovich

The Thirdman aesthetic was to stick to the classic citrus and spice cologne recipe but to use higher quality ingredients. For Eau Contraire the choice was blood orange and cardamom. There are a couple of other ingredients, but this is a cologne primarily about those two. It provides a cologne of the desert much as its original name portended.

It opens with lemon providing the sun high in the sky. This sets the stage for a high concentration of cardamom to take its place. There is a clever shift of actual citrus fruit to the lemon-tinged spice in the early moments. Blood orange comes next. In most fragrances the blood orange can get lost. When it is the featured player it gives it the opportunity to show off its richer facets. It creates a fantastic harmonic with the cardamom. In the base a set of white musks create a more expansive accord over the final development.

Eau Contraire has 6-8 hour longevity and average sillage.

Eau Contraire has become my midsummer Mad Dogs and Englishmen cologne. I keep a small decant in the refrigerator as a fragrant refresher. I’m not sure why M. le Greves hasn’t followed up with a new perfume in over four years. Because of that it is easy to understand why Thirdman Eau Contraire is Under the Radar.

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

Mark Behnke

Antoine Lie 201

There are only a few perfumers who ask those of us who wear perfume whether it must smell nice. As one who believes perfume is an art form my answer is obviously no. One perfumer who has asked that question more than most is Antoine Lie. From his first perfume for niche brand Etat Libre D’Orange he has made perfumes which color outside the lines.

When Etienne de Swadt was creating his niche line Etat Libre D’Orange, in 2006, he wanted the first perfume for the brand to be one only a few would like. He turned to M. Lie to create Secretions Magnifiques. The resulting perfume captures a panoply of human fluids none of which are pleasant smelling. What it does is also challenge the notion of perfumery. M. Lie makes a fragrance which has stood the test of time as one of the great masterpieces of perfume.

In 2010’s Comme des Garcons Wonderwood M. Lie, under Christian Astuguevieille’s creative direction, would ask the question, “can there be too much wood?”. M. Lie would describe Wonderwood as a mixture of five real woods, two woody notes, and three synthetic woods. This came out at the height of the popularity of the synthetic wood. M. Lie showed that even pushed to the extreme there was wonder to be found within that much wood.

Nu_Be (One of Those) Oxygen was part of the debut collection of this elemental line. M. Lie chose to interpret oxygen in its supercooled liquid form. For Oxygen he blended many of the ingredients within perfumery one would describe as “sharp” to create that chilliness. The mixture of aldehydes, vetiver, and white musks can be too cool for many. I find it one of M. Lie’s most compelling creations.

Jan Ewoud Vos wanted Puredistance Black to convey a mysterious effect. Asking M. Lie to create it turns out to be a brilliant choice. Black is a perfume of darkness with tendrils of fog swirling throughout. M. Lie combines accords to form that stygian depth. I get lost in its enveloping effects every time I wear it.

Barbara Herman went from blogger to creative director for Eris Parfums Night Flower. When Ms. Herman wanted to create a line of perfume which re-captured vintage ingredients in contemporary ways M. Lie was her choice as the perfumer she wanted to do that with. Night Flower is the most successful at doing that by taking three ingredients of classic perfumery; birch tar, leather, and tuberose. Together they make Night Flower one of the best Retro Nouveau perfumes to be made.

Disclosure: This review is based on bottles I purchased.

Mark Behnke

My Favorite Things: Ambrette

The sources of most musks in perfumery are derived from animal sources. Those musks have a presence to them which sets them apart. There is a source of musk in fragrance which does not come from animals. It comes from the seeds of the ambrette plant. Particularly over the past few years it has become one of the more interesting musks to use. One reason is it can be used as part of a top accord. It can substitute for the heavier musks when a lighter touch is needed in a base accord. It also is the musk I most enjoy wearing in warm weather because it is lighter. Here are five of my favorites.

The perfume which probably put ambrette on the map is 2007’s Chanel No. 18. A mixture of ambrette and iris this is one of the most lilting Chanel perfumes. One of the interesting aspects of ambrite is it has tinges of green and fruit to its scent profile. Perfumers Christopher Sheldrake and Jacques Polge take advantage of all the nuance available from the ambrette as they wrap it around a luxurious iris. Most perfume lovers had never heard of ambrette prior to this. After this I never forgot about it.

The reference standard musk perfume is 2009’s Serge Lutens Muscs Koublai Khan. Most people remember it for the combination of rose and the animalic musks. What few people realize is perfumer Christopher Sheldrake uses a high concentration of ambrette as the interstitial tissue between the rose and animalic musks. The ambrette is what makes this the king of musk perfumes.

One of perfumer Christine Nagel’s last perfume for Jo Malone was 2014’s Wood Sage & Sea Salt. Working with creative director Celine Roux they wanted to make a different aquatic. Mme Nagel uses ambrette in the top accord in place of the typical ozonic notes of most aquatics. It is the ambrette that brings the fresh to push back against the briny mineralic accord. This is a great example of how flexible ambrette is in the hands of perfumers.

In 2017’s Parfum D’Empire Le Cre de la Lumiere perfumer Marc-Antoine Corticchiato uses ambrette as the sole ingredient in the top. He takes advantage of that by teasing out the threads of subtlety he wants to use. Most importantly a powdery aspect which entwines around a similarly styled iris. This forms the most beautiful opaque globe of light musk and iris which get a rose tint before it is done. A gorgeous fragile piece of perfume.

In 2017’s Frassai Verano Porteno creative director Natalia Outeda asked perfumer Rodrigo Flores-Roux for a perfume of summer nights in Buenos Aires. The opening is a beautifully realized air of night flowers on the breeze. In the base he uses ambrette to form a lighter musk accord by combining it cleverly with mate tea. It is just the right partner to add some edge to the ambrette without it taking over.

Disclosure: This review is based on bottles I purchased of each perfume.

Mark Behnke

Dead Letter Office: Tom Ford Private Blend Lavender Palm- Too Contemporary?

Ever since its debut in 2007 the Tom Ford Private Blend collection has been one of the most successful expansions of luxury niche perfumery into the marketplace. They represent one of the defining brands of that style. They were the first perfumes I would review where I would be asked, “Are they worth it?” The answer to that is always an individual choice. What was undeniable was the collection was representing some of the best-known ingredients in high quality forms where the difference was noticeable.

Tom Ford

Tom Ford and Karyn Khoury creatively directed each perfume to provide a singular luxurious experience. That so many of them are on “best of” lists show their success. They have been so successful that there is debate to whether they should even be referred to as niche anymore. I think they still retain a niche aesthetic while having a wider distribution than most other fragrances referred to with that adjective. Over the first three years of existence they cemented their style over 21 releases. Then 2011 happened.

Karyn Khoury

This is conjecture on my part, but it seems like they had tired of hearing how “safe” they were. If you were to try the three releases from 2011 it feels like they wanted to have the word contemporary be part of the lexicon when describing Tom Ford Private Blends. Jasmin Rouge, Santal Blush, and this month’s Dead Letter Office entry Lavender Palm succeeded. What separated them from the rest of the collection was they took the keynote in their name off in very different new directions. All three have been among my favorites within the entire line. For some reason Lavender Palm was discontinued after only two years. I’ll provide my hypothesis for that later.

Yann Vasnier

Lavender Palm was released early in 2011 as an exclusive to the new Beverly Hills Tom Ford boutique followed by wider release a year later. Perfumer Yann Vasnier was asked to capture a Southern California luxury vibe. He chose to use two sources of lavender wrapped in a host of green ingredients.

The top accord uses the more common lavandin where M. Vasnier adds citrus to it. The whole opening gets twisted using lime blossom which teases out the floral nature of the lavender while complementing the citrus. This is an opening with snap. The heart coalesces around lavender absolute. Here is where things take that contemporary turn. M. Vasnier uses clary sage, aldehydes, moss, and palm leaves to form a lavender accord that is at turns salty and creamy. It seemingly transforms minute-by-minute. It remains one of the most unique lavender accords I have experienced. A soft resinous base is where this ends.

Lavender Palm has 6-8 hour longevity and average sillage.

Lavender Palm became widely available in the beginning of 2012 and was discontinued by the end of 2014. I think the reason might be this was the only one of the three 2011 releases which unabashedly altered the previous style of the collection. There aren’t many Tom Ford Private Blend releases to be found in the Dead Letter Office; Lavender Palm might have got there by being too contemporary.

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

Mark Behnke

Flanker Round-Up: Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue Sun and Marc Jacobs Daisy Love Eau So Sweet

When a trend begins to filter down into the flankers, I presume that means it has been a best seller. Over the past two years transparent floral gourmands have become a persistent trend especially on the mainstream side of the fragrance world. For once this is a trend which I am fully behind as it isn’t an area where a lot of perfume has been created. It doesn’t feel to me like we’ve had that great version which will be the benchmark within the genre yet. In the meantime this style continues to expand and in this month’s Flanker Round-Up I look at Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue Sun and Marc Jacobs Daisy Love Eau So Sweet.

Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue Sun

Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue was launched in 2001 and has been one of the best-selling perfumes since then. This year’s summer flanker Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue Sun tweaks the formula a bit more than the typical flanker without going too far away from what works. Perfumers Olivier Cresp and Alberto Morillas team-up to find a way to insert a gourmand element into the Mediterranean feel of the original.

The citrus top accord has always been a part of the Light Blue DNA the perfumers add in a crisp apple note to add a snap to it. Then a very light use of coconut inserts itself between that focused top accord and the jasmine in the heart. This is where the floral gourmand comes to life as the apple and citrus along with the coconut and jasmine form a summery accord at just the right intensity. The base is bit of vanilla sweetened cedar also kept light. One note there is also a Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue Sun pour Homme. This is not a review for that.

Marc Jacobs Daisy Love Eau So Sweet

Here is the insanity of flankers as Marc Jacobs Daisy Love Eau So Sweet is the flanker of 2018’s Daisy Love which is a flanker of 2007’s Daisy. I can’t even keep up. Perfumer Alberto Morillas was there in the beginning and is here for Daisy Love Eau So Sweet. Last year Daisy Love went for floral gourmand territory, but it left the transparent part out. For Daisy Love Eau So Sweet M. Morillas adds that back into the mix.

The same berry top accord is back from Daisy Love but pitched in a much lighter shade of fruitiness. The floral heart is also equally expansive. Then as the fruity floral accord settles in; a wash of sugar and white musks adds a whole new level of expansiveness. It does it so ingeniously that it goes from being sugary sweet to almost fresh in the way it rises off my skin. It is just this happy sugar coated fruity floral bubble to spend a summer’s day within.

Disclosure: This review is based on samples provided by the manufacturers.

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds: Liz Claiborne Curve for Men- Perfume in a Can

When I first started diving into perfume I wanted to know as much as I could. I was also willing to ask someone what they were wearing if I thought it smelled good. This opened so many interesting doors for me. I was at a professional conference taking a short course and the man next to me smelled fantastic. I was well-acquainted with the more popular perfumes at the mall and this wasn’t one of those. Towards the end of the day I inquired what he was wearing. He told me, “Curve”. I filed it away for my next shopping trip to the mall. Except I encountered it much sooner when I was filling a prescription at the drugstore. Killing time while waiting I was browsing the locked fragrance cabinet. My eyes landed on this lime green colored can. I focused on the name and there it was Liz Claiborne Curve for Men. It was really well-priced; I summoned the keymaster to unlock the case and pull out a can for me. That was twenty years ago. Curve has been one of my favorite warm-weather perfumes since then.

Liz Claiborne was a perfume brand which existed primarily in drugstore fragrance cases. In 1996 they released a pair of new perfumes, Curve for Men and Curve for Women. In that time period the desired consumer was a young person who wanted to smell good. If you need a current equivalent it would be the person who buys Axe body spray. What sets Curve for Men apart is there are the earliest examples of ideas which would be improved upon in some of the best niche perfumes years later. Perfume Jean-Claude Delville put together a classic fougere with little touches here and there which make it more than the sum of its parts.

Jean-Claude Delville

M. Delville opens with a set of green grassy notes and fir. This is a refreshing cool opening. The coolness is added to as cardamom breezes across the top accord. There is a sharpening of the green as it becomes more crystalline. Lavender arrives to provide the floral heart. It becomes a traditional fougere at this point tinted a bit greener. Sandalwood provides the keynote in the base around which a pinch of black pepper and vetiver swirl.

Curve for Men has 8-10 hour longevity and average sillage.

Curve for Men is one of the perfumes I wear which almost always does for me what it did for my colleague at the short course; garners a compliment. There is an easy-going quality to Curve for Men which seems to draw people in; even if it is a perfume bottle in a can.

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

Mark Behnke

Under the Radar: Maison Martin Margiela Untitled- Layers of Green

I have always been interested when a fashion designer I admire ventures into fragrance. It can be difficult to translate an aesthetic from the runway into a perfume. Some brands eschew it altogether defining a fragrance aesthetic apart from the fashion one. The ones I like best are the ones who take this problem on. This month’s Under the Radar choice did just that; Maison Martin Margiela Untitled.

Nowadays Maison Margiela, the Martin has been dropped, is known for the very good, and popular, Replica collection. This is where they divorced themselves from trying to mimic the fashion. In 2010 when they were entering the perfume sector Untitled was trying to capture the asymmetric layering of M. Margiela in a fragrance. The perfumer they chose was Daniela Andrier.

Daniela Andrier

Somewhere along the line the vision of Untitled became layers of green; focused, diffuse, and subtle. The creative team added in fascinating grace notes to each of these layers as if they were detailing a fashion design. It has always been one of my favorite spring perfumes to wear because it captures green as a concept so well.

The first layer of green is a crystalline galbanum glittering with verdant intensity. This is a powerhouse of an opening and if you are not fond of galbanum you will be put off immediately. I adore this kind of concentrated effect especially with what Mme Andrier does with it. She takes a harmonic of bitter orange to come alongside the galbanum. It focuses the green effect while softening it slightly with the citrus beneath. The second layer comes as the galbanum becomes more diffuse. The crystal matrix implodes as it is speared by an indolic jasmine. The indoles keep this from becoming a comfort scent. It retains some of the green edginess of the top accord. This then ends on a green cedar focused base accord. Mme Andrier uses the inherent greenness of cedar while swirling it among incense and white musks. It ameliorates all the early green into something subtle by the end.

Untitled has 14-16 hour longevity and average sillage.

As mentioned above the opening moments are challenging for those who are not fond of galbanum. I can’t even advise you to wait it out because while it gets less intensely green it is still intense hours in. Untitled is a perfume for those who enjoy an unapologetic galbanum. As spring gives way to the heat of summer this is one of my favorites because the layers of green are so good. Next time you’re checking out the new Maison Margiela Replica releases at the mall give the first perfume from the brand a try.

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

Mark Behnke

Calice Becker 201

They say the test of time is one of the measures of great creativity. They also say that vision is instinctual. The memorable artists have it from the moment they take their first steps in their chosen form. Perfumery has more than a few for whom these statements are true for. One of them is Calice Becker.

Ever since perfumers have become more known Mme Becker has been the quiet rockstar perfumer. She continues to advocate for the future since she was named the head of the Givaudan Perfumery School in 2017. Her twenty-plus years as a perfume has seen her create pillar perfumes for some of the largest mainstream brands while finding a willing partner in creative director Kilian Hennessy to allow her to explore the niche perfume side of things. That partnership has produced some of the greatest niche perfumes, ever, since they started working together in 2007. She is a consummate professional who has produced some of the best that perfume has to offer. For this month’s Perfumer 201 I’m going to focus on the pillars of her career, as I see them.

The first commercial brief for Mme Becker was Tommy Hilfiger Tommy Girl. Tommy Hilfiger wanted a perfume to capture his All-American fashion aesthetic. It always makes me smile that he turned to a perfumer of French and Russian heritage. The perfume shows what will become one of Mme Becker’s signatures; exquisitely balanced accords. The top accord here is of a vast green lawn of freshly cut grass. Spearmint is used to provide an expansive quality to the heart of the grassy accord. A fresh floral accord of honeysuckle gives way to a clean cedar and sandalwood foundation. When you smell this today it needs to be said this was one of the first perfumes of its kind when released in 1996. By a perfumer who was unafraid to follow her instincts to produce something different for the brief she was given.

If anyone was inclined to think that was a fluke, she would follow up three short years later with another blockbuster of a fragrance; Dior J’Adore. This time the green in the top is a sinuous ivy. It leads into a brilliant floral accord in the heart of champaca, jasmine, and rose. To this she adds an “orchid accord”. So often in one of Mme Becker’s compositions there is a linchpin which snaps things together. In J’Adore the orchid is that. It provides the stitching together of the floral leads while also providing subtle dewiness which makes it memorable. She then grounds it with a set of fruits, Damson plum to add a juicy tartness with an accord of blackberry and an animalic musk. This is what every fruity floral since J’Adore has failed to achieve.

Mme Becker would burnish her reputation for trendsetting mainstream perfume with 2003’s Estee Lauder Beyond Paradise and 2009’s Marc Jacobs Lola on which she worked with Yann Vasnier. Like many of the mainstream perfumers of the time as we crossed into the 2000’s they wanted to jump aboard the niche perfumery trend. Mme Becker found the right place for her to make that leap.

By Kilian Back to Black would be the sixth perfume Mme Becker would make for creative director Kilian Hennessy’s luxury niche brand. To this point M. Hennessy had only worked with two perfumers for his brand. Mme Becker has mentioned in multiple interviews how difficult it is to get a realistic version of a natural effect using just the essential oil. The building of accords is what can provide the nuance which captures what is missing. Nowhere is this more evident than in the tobacco accord she assembles in Back to Black; without a drop of tobacco essential oil. It is one of my favorite party tricks to spray some Back to Black on a strip and ask people to smell it hours later. It is only then that the components have begun to unravel enough to understand that the lush slightly mentholated tobacco you smelled earlier was an olfactory illusion. I have always considered this to be the best perfume in the entire By Kilian line.

Mme Becker’s work for By Kilian has shown her creativity is boundless. In 2014’s By Kilian Intoxicated she produced a coffee gourmand that was compelling. Her inspiration was spice laced Turkish coffee. To her rich coffee accord which captures the oily bitterness along with the roasted nature of coffee she mixes in a sticky green cardamom. Nutmeg and cinnamon arrive soon after but Intoxicated is the dark coffee accord and green cardamom. You won’t find it at your local coffee shop, but it is one of my favorite coffee perfumes.  

Technology moves forward and Mme Becker moves with it. Givaudan came up with a new technology called Freeze Frame. This is where they take a source, like lime, freeze it in liquid nitrogen, then as it thaws do a headspace isolation. What this produce is an HD version of lime to place at the center of Ralph Lauren Collection Lime. Because the new technology has supplied her with what she usually created through accords she only uses two additional ingredients; bergamot and lavandin with the Freeze Frame lime. It is a simply marvelous near-photorealistic lime as perfume.

Disclosure: This review is based on bottles of all the fragrances mentioned I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Am I An Influencer?

4

For all that I miss not attending Esxence this year for once I was okay with it. Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones took priority over perfume in the Colognoisseur home office. That didn’t mean I wasn’t aware of what was happening in Milan. When I am not able to be there, I have a lively conversation over the internet with those who are. The previous times this has happened the back and forth has been entirely about perfume. This year it changed. Based on some of the other reports and videos coming out a week later this was something which seemed to show up largely, for the first time, this year; “the influencer”.

For those unfamiliar with the term an influencer is a person who does videos and/or writes on a subject in such a way that their audience is energized to seek out the product being featured. In the larger worlds of fashion, video games, cooking, and motherhood there are acknowledged people who have an effect on their audiences. Which of course means brands seek these people out because they have proven themselves. It is where the term was coined as brands called them influencers. What has happened more recently is anyone who posts a video or writes a blog post calls themselves an “influencer”. They are probably not. This year at Esxence the behavior of some of the self-named “influencers” was horrendous bordering on unethical.

Because I Say So!

I heard of many of them only agreeing to meet with brands if they would give them a full bottle. This was the least of it. One brand had a price list shoved in their face over what they would get for what they were charged. As I was reading texts the whole exercise seemed like a giant scavenger hunt to see who could score the most free stuff. That impression has only been reinforced by early videos highlighting just how much perfume they came home with. I will note that in a couple of the videos there isn’t even a mention about the perfume just the glee at having scored a full bottle.

When the brands asked me what to do, I told them to make them prove their audience listened to them. Tell any of them as a start to ask their audience to e-mail the brand and they would receive a sample. If that showed the brand there was a level of support, they could discuss where to move from there. When the price list “influencer” was given this as a proposal they walked away. That is the crux of the problem very few of the self-named influencers know if they have any impact at all. They assume it but they have never measured it.

I have never measured any supposed influence I have because I don’t care. I write about perfume because it is fun. I have an audience of readers who share that with me. I have never asked a brand for a full bottle of anything. I only request samples because that is enough for my needs. I have received bottles because there are brands who are that generous. As a reader you know when that happens because everything I have ever written has a Disclosure line above my signature at the end where I mention the size and source of the perfume I am writing about.

This does not mean that there are not people in the perfume world who I don’t think are influencers. In general those aren’t the people who have to tell you they are. Those are the people who have proven over time through their actions that they are. The fragosphere is better for their participation. If you have to tell someone you’re an influencer you’re probably not.

I am on the flip side of that I am not an influencer and happy to be just a writer about perfume.

Mark Behnke