Discount Diamonds: Bvlgari Black- Still Enough Edge

As the concept of perfumes which didn’t necessarily have to smell pretty took hold simultaneously with the rise of niche perfumery there arose several trendsetting fragrances. One of the boldest was a mainstream release for Bvlgari called simply Black.

When I came upon this sometime around its release in 1998 I remember the salesperson at the department store warning me, “It’s edgy!” Thinking to myself, “How edgy can it be?” The answer was quite a bit. Perfumer Annick Menardo created a fragrance reveling in the smell of rubber. It would be like going to S&M night at the local leather bar. Edgy, indeed.

Annick Menardo

Mme Menardo fashions a powdery rubber accord around black tea, musk, and sandalwood. In an odd juxtaposition jasmine is used as contrast. Leather intersperses itself and this is where it feels like a bar as smoke, rubber, leather, and a hint of floral combine for that milieu. For the first few minutes of wearing Black it is all of this. Then before it can get truly subversive Mme Menardo reels it all back into familiarity with the olfactory version of a safe word, vanilla. Lots and lots of vanilla. It doesn’t not work as the leather and rubber have sweet facets amplified by the vanilla. But it does turn something challenging into something vanilla.

Black has 12-14 hour longevity and average sillage.

There has always been a part of me that was surprised at how successful Black has been. I would hazard a guess that it is because it allows perfume lovers a chance to walk on the wild side for a short period before going full comfort mode. I still think that opening 30-45 minutes is as good as perfume got back in 1998. Especially mainstream perfume. You can find the distinctive hockey puck shaped bottle for $20-25. Nowadays Black has become mainstream as all that was edgy back in 1998 is now almost quaint. It doesn’t mean its any less of a Discount Diamond it just means there is still enough edge remaining to make it memorable.

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

Mark Behnke

Under the Radar: Costume National Homme- Cutting-Edge Comfort?

There have been many designers who have entered the niche perfumery category. They all looked to be the next Comme des Garcons. I can safely say that nobody has come close to that record of success. In the early 2000’s there was an interesting contender which had some similarities; Costume National.

Costume National was also a fashion line appealing to a young trendsetting clientele. The founder Ennio Capasa carried that slim silhouette from working in Japan at Yohji Yamamoto fusing it with Milan details. In 1986 it was a sensation which put it on the map. They would become known for a cutting-edge aesthetic which they wanted to spread out into accessories. Starting after the turn of the new century Sig. Capasa added fragrance to the brand portfolio. The very first release in 2002, Scent, was a brilliant encapsulation of the brand. Working with perfumer Laurent Bruyere they would follow that initial triumph with a collection of Scent with five flankers over the next three years. Each was interesting with Scent Intense being the best of the bunch. Just when it seemed Costume National was ready to accelerate they pumped the brakes. Releasing two new perfumes over the next four years. It is that 2009 release Costume National Homme which is my choice for this month’s Under the Radar.

Dominique Ropion

For this release Sig. Capasa changed perfumers from M. Bruyere who had done all the Scents to Dominique Ropion for Homme. I would also venture that Sig. Capasa had tired of being risky because while there are some hints of the aesthetic which runs throughout the Scent Collection it is greatly attenuated. If this column was on creativity it would be one of the Scents which was its topic. Instead it is about one of my favorite cold weather comfort perfumes.

M. Ropion has most of his recognizable signatures on display in Homme. Sandalwood, spices and resins do what you come to expect in one of his perfumes. The twist here is there is an odd synthetic oily accord which oozes through the familiar. That’s what ends up making it Costume National.

A brief flare of citrus via grapefruit and bergamot open things up then cardamom combines with cinnamon to provide a typical spicy top accord. It is here the oily accord appears. The best description I have seen of it was from a Basenotes reviewer “rogalal” who thinks it smells like fake movie theatre butter. I’m not fully in agreement but I don’t have a better shorthand for describing the accord. Once you get underneath that the labdanum, cloves and thyme add a spicy resinous accord which is very comforting. Patchouli and sandalwood are the base accord.

Homme has 10-12 hour longevity and average sillage.

Homme is much more comforting than a perfume from Costume National ought to be, except for the oily accord in the middle, it never challenges. Nevertheless, this has been a winter staple ever since I bought a bottle in 2009. If you’re looking for a new brand to explore or need a new cold weather comfort scent, try Costume National Homme.

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

Mark Behnke

My Favorite Things: Hibiscus

Having grown up in South Florida I was not wishing for a White Christmas. I was happy with brightly colored flowers instead of snow. I recently saw a picture of a hibiscus wreath which reminded me how we took the traditions and gave them a tropical tweak. Hibiscus as an ingredient is not one of the most popular choices. It has a similar sweetness to jasmine which makes it a frequent partner to that flower. It also is most commonly encountered as hibiscus tea which has been mimicked, too. This month’s My Favorite Things looks at five perfumes which show off hibiscus at its best.

Hibiscus Holiday Wreath

Acca Kappa Hibiscus is as close as there is to a hibiscus soliflore. Released in 2004 it takes the sweet floral keynote and supports it with magnolia, citrus, and heliotrope. Amber comes along to warm things up at the end. This is a great casual scent which is when I use it.

Demeter Hibiscus Tea does what perfumer Mark Crames does so well; create a perfumed simulacrum of the name on the bottle. The hibiscus is carried to your nose on steamy clouds of green tea. It is simply beautiful.

As I mentioned hibiscus is used along with jasmine. My favorite version of this is Costume National Scent. Perfumer Laurent Bruyere uses equivalent amounts of jasmine and hibiscus in the heart. It is laid on top of sheer woods and amber. Scent is a luminous floral perfume. Interestingly, M. Bruyere will take the same ingredients and alter the concentrations to make a darker version called Scent Intense. The hibiscus is more secondary in that one but that is also one of my favorites.

The most unambiguously tropical version of hibiscus comes in Creed Virgin Island Water. Most focus on the pina colada quality of the lime, rum, and coconut. But what seals the drinks with umbrellas vibe is the floral accord of hibiscus and jasmine reminding you that it is the Virgin Islands you’re in.

The most artistic use of hibiscus comes from perfumer Olivia Giacobetti and her IUNX No. 4 L’Eau Azteque. The botanical musk of ambrette comes from hibiscus seeds. Mme Giacobetti combines ambrette and musk into a foundational sun-warmed skin accord over which she lays hibiscus and pear. This is a fantastic fruity floral which captures indolent days in the sun.

If you’re looking for a mental trip to the tropics as we head further into the colder temperature months give these five a try.

Disclosure: This review is based on botlles which I own.

Mark Behnke

The Scent of Christmas Past

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One of the things those of us who love perfume talk about are “scent memories”. The concept that a smell can connect with a memory and bring an entirely personal subtext to fragrance. One ingredient which does this for me is gardenia. My grandmother had fresh-cut gardenias floating in bowls of water spread throughout her gardenia bush-surrounded Florida pine house. I can’t smell a good gardenia without hearing her voice and seeing her face.

Then this summer, as part of a project I am working on, I was going through vintage formulas of different Guerlains. When I hit the late 1950’s version of Mitsouko Eau de Cologne I had something more than a memory wash over me. I was transported fifty years backward so strongly it felt like a virtual reality had settled over me. What I was remembering so vividly was getting ready to go to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve sometime in the late 1960’s. It was so vital I stopped what I was doing and wrote it all out before it faded away. Even thought it was the middle of July I realized I had written my Christmas Day 2017 post.

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I stood at the doorway to my parent’s bedroom. In my hand was my first real tie. My excitement on attending Midnight Mass was making my fingers fumble the perfect Windsor knot. As I looked in my mother was seated at her dressing table. She had some candles lit while she peered into the halo of electric light around her mirror. For a moment I was watching her without her knowing. My mother was always one of the most assured people I knew. She made decisions without ambivalence. She also stood up and took responsibility for poor choices. As I had a few seconds to look at her I felt like she was thinking deeply about something. She was coming to a conclusion about something. Before the process completed she looked up.

All children will tell you the smile of a parent happy to see you is a joyous thing. On Christmas Eve that smile feels like a gift. As I received this present I held out my hand with the tie. The smile widened a bit and she said, “Let me finish here and I’ll help you.”

She was still in her pink terrycloth robe and I had caught her at the end of her preparation. All that was left was adding her perfume. My mother only wore two perfumes for as long as I’ve known her. Guerlain Shalimar and Guerlain Mitsouko. She owned the round “bull’s-eye” bottles; red for Shalimar and green for Mitsouko. They had crystal pointed stoppers which were picking up the candlelight behind them. As she reached for the one with the green circle she tipped it, so it would get some on the stopper. She pulled the stopper. On the end was a drop of liquid picking up facets of flame and filament. She drew it to the hollow of her neck where that drop spread onto her skin. She rubbed the stopper against both wrists then returned it to its resting place in the neck of the bottle. She closed her eyes while taking a breath. When they opened a smile accompanied it. She beckoned me over.

She sat me on a stool in front of her chair as we looked into her vanity mirror. She leaned forward as we drew the tie around my upturned collar. I was surrounded by the love of my mother and the scent of Mitsouko. My turn to close my eyes and breathe in.

My mother could have tied the tie for me but instead she carried me through it with her voice. I got it right on the first try. With a final smile at me in the mirror she sent me off to wait for her to finish getting dressed. While I was waiting I realized a bit of the Mitsouko from her wrist had made it onto the tie. It seemed perfect.

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That’s what came from my Mitsouko fever dream. I loved going to Midnight Mass with my family. The smell of the incense off the censers. The fanfare from the trumpets. The Latin words said in such a rhythm I knew what was being said without knowing the language. Underneath it all I would be sitting on my knees in the pew under my mother’s arm surrounded by Mitsouko most of all.

This is what makes me continue to love perfume.

Mark Behnke

‘Twas The Night Before Christmas: The Last Flacon

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My Christmas Eve tradition over the last eight years has been to put a perfumed point atop Clement Clarke Moore’s “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”. Two years ago, I was inspired by the recent Star Wars release to make a kind of quest out of it. This year I am again inspired by this most recent Star Wars entry and imagine a perfume to be the spark which lights the fire.

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

Episode VIII

The Last Flacon

It is Christmas Eve in Poodlesville.

Colognoisseur has lost his mojo.

He has found his inspiration in scented things to be at an all-time low. He knows he is just one brilliant perfume away from finding the way back to his joy. As he looks to the skies with a silent plea he heads to bed….

Walking through the silent house I looked at the stockings, hung so neatly. As I turned off the bubble lights on the Christmas tree I smiled at the poodles curled up, breathing deeply. Mrs. C sleepily adjusted her kerchief. I had just removed my fedora wondering if there was something out there which would return my passion to me; when an incredible racket was heard outside.

I rushed to the picture window to see a silhouette pass across the full moon. I rubbed my eyes because it couldn’t be what I thought it was. All doubt disappeared as a hearty voice called to the reindeer pulling the sleigh. Scent Nick called out, “Now Shalimar! Now, Fracas! Now No. 19 and Chergui! On Rose 31! On Caravelle Epicee! On Mugler Cologne and Sel de Vetiver! Head for the roof!”

The Last Flacon

As I heard the hooves settle on the roof, I looked at the fireplace. Scent Nick whooshed into existence in front with a balsamic air about him. He was dressed as expected in a red coat and pants trimmed with white fur. The pack on his back seemingly was full of bottles as they tinkled against each other. His eyes sparkled like the finest jasmine. His dimples were as merry as lilacs in May. His cheeks were twin spots of Damascene rose. His nose a ripe raspberry. He looked at me with a smile surrounded by a beard as white as snow.

Hope was rising within my battered soul as he pulled the pipe from his mouth and let out a belly laugh which pulled from the tips of his toes to the top of his cap. He was saying “Ho, ho, ho!” but my ears were hearing “Eau, eau, eau!” As our eyes connected I could feel magic thickly swirling around us. He reached into his pack and pulled out a simple crystal flacon which hummed with potential. My eyes looked at it with hope.

Was this it? Was this The Last Flacon? The perfume to bring me back? He swiftly dashed the stopper off and poured it over my head. I was surrounded by hints of every perfume I’ve ever loved in a scented whirlwind of joy.

We hadn’t said a thing and before I could break the silence he was gone up the chimney. With a whistle the reindeer launched into the air. I watched them fly away. Then before he disappeared completely he exclaimed, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!” With a heart filled with joy I laid down next to Mrs. C happier than I had been in a long time.

First, there is nothing about the malaise in this story that is true. My daily writing for Colognoisseur continues to be one of the great joys of my life. My interactions with readers fill my heart on a near daily basis. As I finish my fourth year I am more grateful than I can ever express.

As always to everyone I wish all of you the most magical of Holiday seasons. If you’re finding yourself in need of a little lift keep an ear peeled for Scent Nick he might have a Last Flacon for you, too.

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds: Stetson Sierra- Christmas Tree Shopping

There is that moment every Holiday season soon after Thanksgiving I find myself in a Christmas tree lot. The act of picking out a tree is one of the pleasures of the season. Part of that is the simple smell of the scene. The rows of trees with sap coating the cut at the end on a cold night, breath steaming, is intrinsic to my scent memory of Christmas. The reason I have a real tree is to transport this smell, in a small way, back home. There are lots of great choices out there to capture this as a perfume. I thought for this month’s Discount Diamonds I might remind you of one hiding at the back of your drugstore fragrance case; Stetson Sierra.

Sierra was the fourth release from Stetson in 1993. It was the follow-up to two of the most popular drugstore perfumes, the Original Stetson and Preferred Stock. There was a sense that this brand was trying to be an all-American style full of masculine tropes emblematic of the cowboy who wears a Stetson hat. In these early days creative director Elizabeth Marrone really had an idea of what a “Stetson Man” should smell like. She would work with perfume Rene Morgenthaler to create a fragrance which is, “a breath of fresh air that takes you to Big Sky.”

Rene Morgenthaler

M. Morgenthaler goes for an herbal accord as the primary accompaniment to the fir balsam keynote. It captures the scent of the needles on the trees as rosemary, sage, allspice, thyme, and cumin are artfully blended into a rough accord which captures both the rawness of the sap with the softness of the pine needles. Right here is the smell of lots of pine trees leaning against saw horses with price tags affixed to them. It is subtler than most drugstore styles. The subtlety is removed in the later phase as a load of synthetic woody aromachemicals mix together in a typical base accord.

Stetson Sierra has 12-14 hour longevity and average sillage.

If you find yourself stuck in line at your local drugstore on an emergency Holiday run; look at that fragrance case. If you see a green bottle for about $15 with Stetson Sierra on it. Grab it and make believe you’re out shopping for Christmas trees instead of waiting in line.

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

Mark Behnke

Under the Radar: Caron Nuit de Noel- The Ghost of Christmas Past

Just over my fifty-eight years of life I have watched the Holidays become more casual. Gone are the days of my youth when I wore a new suit for Christmas. Gone is going to Midnight Mass and seeing the congregation dressed up and sparkling in the church. It isn’t just the Holidays it is a general societal shift; one which I don’t truly disapprove of. Although I do sort of wish there was a day when we all agreed we would get dressed-up as one; like a grand Throwback Thursday. I think that is why I enjoy the older perfumes because they still feel like they want to be worn under formal clothing. This is especially true of the early Caron perfumes composed by perfumer Ernest Daltroff. One of them is meant to be that touch of elegance which is missing from modern-day Christmas; Nuit de Noel.

Nuit de Noel was the fourth perfume released under the Caron name by M. Daltroff. It was meant to be a Holiday perfume as the name suggests but every time I wear it I wonder what the Holidays were like in M. Daltroff’s world in 1922. Nuit de Noel is wall-to-wall elegance combined with the use of the Mousse de Saxe base M. Daltroff created. It is the sense of a party where the brightest young things in the world are celebrating the Season.

This Christmas Night opens with a starburst of jasmine; deeply floral and indolic. M. Daltroff blends rose as support. There are many times I consider this to be the star on top of the tree because what comes next is a sturdy trunk of sandalwood and amber. A creamy, slightly spicy, wood. This is where Mousse de Saxe arrives wrapping this fragrant tree in garland. This classic base is comprised of geranium, leather, licorice, and vanilla. It falls somewhere between chypre and leather itself; occupying a necessary middle ground especially in the early days. It is this base which makes Nuit de Noel the masterpiece that it is.

Nuit de Noel has 10-12 hour longevity and average sillage.

In truth the entire Caron collection and M. Daltroff are emblematic of the concept of this Under the Radar column. If you love perfume you should make the effort to seek the brand out it remains one of the Grand Maisons in all of perfumery. When it comes to Nuit de Noel it does feel a bit like the Ghost of Christmas Past because this era of elegance at the Holidays doesn’t exist anymore. Even so, there is nothing wrong with having a drop under your ugly sweater or pajama top to remind you there was a different style a hundred years ago.

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

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds: Montblanc Legend Intense- Second Bite of the Pineapple

On my latest scavenger hunt at the discount store I was surprised to see the subject of this month’s column, Montblanc Legend Intense, on the shelf. I had always seen this perfume as correcting all the flaws I found in the original Montblanc Intense which deservedly has been in the discount bin for years. Most of the times flankers are either cynical seasonal editions or complete re-workings. Montblanc Legend Intense was something different.

Montblanc Intense was released in 2011 by perfumer Olivier Pescheux. It was a wan attempt at a fruity fougere using pineapple and apple. The whole composition felt thin like it was missing something in support. It wasn’t anything I was going to remember until a couple years later while walking through the mall and being handed a strip. As I sniffed I thought this is very good, I asked the sales rep and she showed me the Montblanc Legend Intense bottle. I realized that this was the new and improved version of Legend. Now all the empty spaces were filled in to create something to remember.

Olivier Pescheux

In the original the opening of pineapple was given no help by the addition of coumarin and verbena. For Legend Intense M. Pescheux switches those out for cardamom and Pepperwood. What these notes do is lift up the pineapple into a crispness which was never apparent in the original. For the heart apple is again the keynote. This time M. Pescheux again goes for a crisp effect around the fruit using cedar, and the rose-apple aromachemical Pomarose. Everything about the opening is better it has clear delineated structure around a set of two fruit notes. The base is even better for the changes. This time M. Pescheux goes all in with a mixture of the most powerful woody aromachemicals mixing a potent cocktail of Ambroxan, Karanal, and Okoumal. These combine to form a long-lasting woody foundation.

Legend Intense has 16-18 hour longevity and average sillage.

I always think of Legend Intense as M. Pescheux’s second bite of the pineapple. I certainly believe it is a much better perfume in every way that I can quantify that statement. I had thought it to be a perennial best-seller but perhaps its days at the mall have passed. So much the better because it makes Legend Intense a Discount Diamond.

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

Mark Behnke

Under the Radar Comme des Garcons X Monocle Scent One Hinoki- A Lemming is Born

One of the fun things about the gathering of perfume lovers that the internet spawned was when lemmings were spawned. The typical life cycle for this was for someone to stumble over a press release describing a perfume to come which sounded amazing. The next stage was a general amplification of desire as it was imagined what it would smell like. Then the first people would get the chance to try it. If they came back and reported it was as good, or better, the stampede was initiated, and we rushed headlong to the cliff…um…I mean the store. The final stage was a kind of post-coital languor as we all talked about how good it was. In 2008 one of the largest lemmings ever born was Comme des Garcons x Monocle Scent One: Hinoki.

Comme des Garcons had serious perfumista cred in 2008 as creative director Christian Astuguevieille had defined what it meant to be a niche fragrance. Merging that aesthetic with a non-fragrance brand was another interesting step. Monocle was a lifestyle magazine founded by Tyler Brule in 2007, Besides lifestyle there were also international affairs stories in between the sleek furniture and cutting-edge fashion. The sensibilities seemed like a good match.

Towards the end of 2007 it was announced that the first perfume from this collaboration was going to be called Scent One: Hinoki. Perfumer Antoine Maisondieu was going to bring the juice to life. Scent One: Hinoki was meant to evoke a soak in a hinoki wood tub amidst a pine forest in Japan. What was great about this perfume when we were in the imagining what it would smell like phase of the lemming cycle was the inclusion of this top note, turpentine. Turpentine? You mean mineral spirits? Lots of debate on whether that was going to be good or not. It, plus another challenging note, would become the acid test on whether it was worth the chase.

Antoine Maisondieu

That other note is camphor and along with the turpentine that is what you get at the start. It is challenging in a nose wrinkling kind of way. When I first tried it on a paper strip it put me off in a big way. When I finally put some on my skin it was completely different as the challenging aspects became more diffused on my skin. Then the camphor and turpentine turn into a raw wood accord. If you’ve ever worked with green wood this is the smell of that. As that fades a more finished wood appears; cypress and pine are the choices. Green is introduced via vetiver, thyme, and moss adding back some of the rawer character lost with the more refined woods ascension. In the base the incense burning just outside the tub swirls over it all.

Scent One: Hinoki has 6-8 hour longevity and average sillage.

During 2008 I was tracking what the most reported scents in the Scent of the Day thread in the forum were. On the men’s forum Scent One: Hinoki was one of the top 5 for the year. The really final stage of a lemming is it is forgotten as the crowd chases the next one. Scent One: Hinoki is good enough it shouldn’t be forgotten or found Under the Radar.

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

Mark Behnke

Dead Letter Office: Trussardi Python- A Fine Chocolate

I’m starting this edition of Dead Letter Office a little bit differently. In the almost four years I’ve been writing on my own at Colognoisseur I am very happy that certain columns connect with specific readers. This usually leads to delightful conversations via e-mail or chat. One big fan of this column has decided to move beyond that. Over the past year I can count on seeing a chat pop-up the next morning after a Dead Letter Office piece. This reader has a crazy collection of discontinued fragrances. At the beginning of the summer I was asked how many more Dead Letter Offices I had in me. I responded that I was getting to the end of my list that I own. I was asked for my address and a few weeks later the most amazing surprise arrived; a box full of samples of discontinued gems. There was a little note which accompanied it, “this should keep you busy”. I’ve asked, I’ve pleaded, I’ve begged for the reader to allow me to name them. I feel like I should be able to call this the “Person’s Name Collection” when I write about it. For now, it will remain an anonymous random act of kindness.

Louise Turner

When you get something like this there is a giddy moment of colognoisseur in the rare perfume store. I wanted to try everything. As the temperatures were cooling there was one which I had heard about which was purported to be a “perfect chocolate gourmand”. I felt like that was where I wanted to start, with Trussardi Python.

Trussardi is an Italian fashion design house which began by selling leather goods in 1911. Over the next seventy years the brand would expand into accessories of all kinds. In an interesting turnabout the fragrances which bore the brand name came before the clothes. In 1982 they would release their first branded fragrance; the women’s ready-to-wear collection would come a year later. The rest of the 1980’s would see a dramatic worldwide expansion for all things Trussardi.

Nathalie Gracia-Cetto

As they reached the turn of the century they decided to jump on the fledgling gourmand perfume trend with Python. At this point in time Thierry Mugler Angel had spawned multiple follow-ons. To stand out perfumers Louise Turner and Nathalie Gracia-Cetto decide to create a photorealistic chocolate accord and serve it up on a sandalwood platter. It turns out to be all of that.

The perfumers raise the curtain with a raucous fanfare of orange, jasmine, and rose. It is loud and proud to be on your skin. Soon enough the chocolate comes forward as it seems to kick the florals to the curb while embracing the orange. The perfumers pull a neat effect by using plum to add depth to the chocolate. This then allows cardamom and nutmeg to gently spice the overall accord. The base is all sandalwood in overdose. It is sweet and creamy and kept there with a little vanilla.

Python has 14-16 hour longevity and average sillage.

The chocolate in the heart of Python is not an abstraction in any way. The perfumers successfully present the smell of a fine chocolate bar. Evidently the abstract fireworks of Angel were preferred by the segment of consumers who wanted to buy a gourmand perfume. Which meant Python would join many other early gourmands in the Dead Letter Office.

Disclosure: this review is based on a sample supplied by a reader.

Mark Behnke