Sunday, February 24, 2008
How to describe the "musky, dirty idea" that turned into Lovely, the surprising fragrance inspired by Sarah Jessica Parker?
The scent, which includes notes of lavender, cedar, mandarin, rosewood and white amber, surprises by being both light and dark, writes journalist Chandler Burr.
"Lovely is the lightest olfactory party dress of powder and sweet ... It reveals the scent of the skin of the shoulders below, the scent of a clean, warm very human body that might be walking energetically up Bleecker Street past Goodfellas and Ovando toward Greenwich Avenue."
Burr is the scent critic for the New York Times and he has a way with words. He reviews new fragrances the way movie critics rate Hollywood's latest offerings. Last year, between writing reviews for the Times' T Magazine and its blog, the Moment, he penned "The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York" (Henry Holt, $25).
There may be an anti-fragrance movement growing, but those in the pro-perfume camp should find Burr's book a good read.
He tells an entertaining tale of the creation of Coty's Lovely and Un Jardin sur le Nil (A Garden on the Nile) by Hermes by contrasting the proper French perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena with the open, All-American Parker. The reader meets the executives who make the rules in this multibillion dollar industry. For the wonkier reader, there's also plenty of molecule-speak, which comes easily to Burr, a former science journalist for the Atlantic and a specialist in Japanese economic policy.
It was only a chance encounter a few years ago with a perfume fanatic that caused him to fall into the world of scents and led to his first book on the subject, "The Emperor of Scent," published in 2003.
"Perfumers are deeply strange people," Burr writes in the current book, "simply because their sensorial perception of the world is so highly trained. The educated olfactory capacity makes spending time with them not unlike spending time with talking Labradors."
Burr is quite talkative himself, chatty and friendly during a quick visit to San Francisco last week. Tall, lean and clean cut, he was in fine preppy form in khakis and a charcoal V-neck over a deep-blue shirt. He's 44, travels a lot for the job and has had enough of being single already. "This job is wreaking havoc with my life. I don't have a boyfriend; I want to get married and have kids," he says with a laugh and a sigh.
Burr tests six to 10 perfumes a week for the Times. He dabs four to six scents along his forearms and wears them for at least 24 hours. He gives out five stars only rarely. San Francisco perfumer DelRae Roth hit the top note with Bois de Paradis in an October 2006 review. The review boosted sales for the niche perfume company. "Needless to say, it was thrilling," Roth said last week. "Your heart stops. It's such a challenge to be in this business when you're competing against companies with enormous resources at their disposal."
But at the end of the day, he's scent-free. "I don't wear fragrance at all. For me, wearing perfume is work."
When it came time for lunch the other day, he waved off the white tablecloth idea in favor of the cafeteria-like ambience of House of Nanking in North Beach.
During a stroll through Union Square, he stopped in at Saks Fifth Avenue, which carries an extensive selection of scents, and schmoozed for what seemed like days. Then it was on to the nearby Salon des Parfums, a private viewing room for the all-natural Henry Jacques fragrance line from France.
Burr did not hide his skepticism, admitting that he hates all-natural perfumes and thinks they have "limited olfactory range." But after an hour inside this old-fashioned parlor with its mint-green walls, antique armoire and round walnut table, he comes away with a broader view. (More on that later).
All commercial perfumes contain plenty of synthetics blended with naturals, and the two in the book are expertly thought out examples, he says.
Parker was a savvy, hands-on celebrity creative consultant who knew exactly what she wanted. In a nutshell, she wanted Lovely to smell like skin, like sweat. Burr sat in on the planning meetings with the very feminine Parker, who most people would pigeonhole as a sweet-scent lover. But, she much prefers "dirtier, darker" smells.
"She disliked florals, intensely disliked the girlish sweets, and hated the traditional feminine constructions," Burr writes. "She shrugged her shoulders at aldehydes, those conventional powdery molecules and was indifferent to pretty fresh things like lemons and the fresh-cut-grass scent of cis3-hexenal."
"What did she like?," he continues. "Well, first there was body odor. She liked dark scents, mustiness, slightly serpentine complex greens."
But in the end, after the Coty suits had their say, the perfume ended up "less aggressively body odor," Burr says, "and more traditional, a little sweeter, more accessible."
It worked. Lovely was a massive hit with the public when it arrived in the stores in the fall of 2005, and still has staying power. (In San Francisco, about 2,000 people came to see Parker when she promoted the perfume at Macy's West that September.)
Meanwhile, in the spring of 2004, Hermes' Ellena was busy creating a new scent to add to the company's River series. Inspired by a summer trip to a grove of mango trees on a little island in the Nile, it took Ellena six months and five major samples (or "modifications") to come up with the final "juice," which contains about 30 natural and synthetic ingredients.
Burr takes the reader into Ellena's lab and his obsessive search for the magic. The final product is a green and woody scent with notes of green mango, grapefruit, sycamore wood, frankincense and lotus. It, too, was a hit with consumers when it came out in 2005.
"It is a perfume," Burr writes, "that smells like early evening on an island where it is always summer. It is the smell sunlight makes coming out of a blue sky, the air scented with the tang made as the light warms the smooth, unblemished peel of the greenest mangoes hanging from the branches of the young trees, just out of reach."
Some scents don't provoke such pretty words. Some scents offend the hell of out the author, who has great fun insulting them.
"The deepest pit of hell," Burr writes, "is reserved for the suits slaving over the Hugo Boss brand." Take its fragrance called Number One:
"Fascinating. If a cat had morning breath, then ate kibble, then licked its anus, then licked your hand and if you then smelled your hand, it would smell like this."
One wonders how long it takes Burr to come up with sentences like these, but during his visit here to Salon des Parfums, one sees he can do it on the spot.
The door is opened by saleswoman Veronica Klaus, in a gray '50s-style Kim Novak suit and white gloves. She arranges a dozen small bottles of fragrance in front of her guest. Local fans of the Henry Jacques brand, says Klaus, include Tatiana Sorokko, Christine Suppes and Daniela Fabiola.
Burr sniffs a selection of rose blends. "Way too strange," he says of one. "Spectacular and unwearable," he says of another.
Then he smells CHJ 1995 - a natural blend of white flowers, grapefruit and woody notes. And he's off:
"You're in a beautiful pine forest and it's summer and there is a vegetable garden next to it, and you've plucked a huge, ripe, deep-red beefsteak tomato and sliced it open, and there are fallen needles all around and you've taken the leaf of the tomato plant and crushed it in your hand."
Or, if you'd rather not smell like all of that, there are certainly thousands of other scents to choose from. Most people already know where they lean: florals, spice, fruits or fresh. Find one fragrance salesperson you like and work with him or her.
Never mind if it's labeled feminine or masculine. "That's just so heterosexual men will feel comfortable buying scent," Burr says.
Find a sample you like, then "wear the scent at least twice for a full day each time and smell it from time to time," Burr advises. "Is it stable? Does it disappear after 30 minutes or evolve into something harsh or sickly, or does it last and diffuse like a Swiss watch ticks? And the subjective: Do you like it as much at minute one as at hour 10? With that, make your choices."
E-mail Sylvia Rubin at email@example.com.
This article appeared on page F - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle