Thursday, October 30, 2008

Perfumer Yann Vasnier Captures the Scent of Baudelaire

A whiff of perfume can resurrect the past for those who've lived through it, but it can also recreate that time, offering a token of bygone days to others. Many of the poems in Les Fleurs du Mal, a Baudelaire classic, reference the sense of smell. “Le Flacon” (The Perfume Flask) is particularly intriguing as it traverses shadow and light in the author’s imagination while he explores the paradox of life and death through his quill. For a fragrance lover, the spirit of the poem begs the question; what would a perfume inspired by Baudelaire’s “Le Flacon” smell like?

Perfumer Yann Vasnier had an answer that came in the shape of a fragrance formula created less than 48 hours after Glass Petal Smoke asked. His olfactive interpretation of “Le Flacon” plays on the imagery in the poem and is expressed in complementary contrasts of freshness and decay. The perfume is not at all fetid, which Vasnier attributes to the use of Patchouli and Cedarwood in the base (the two ingredients have a history of being used in perfumery and as natural insect repellents). Le Flacon Parfum has the animalic nature of Miss Dior, a quality of fruitiness similar to Guerlain's Mitsouko and a unique drydown that faintly echoes the style Vasnier applied to Keiko Mecheri Cherie Gourmandises.

In analyzing the raw materials and proportions used to create Le Flacon Parfum, the reader is permitted entry into the world of fragrance creation from the perfumer’s point of view. To fully experience this effect, begin by reading “Le Flacon” and allowing the words of Baudelaire’s poem to draw pictures in your mind. Once you have a sense for the poem’s meaning you can examine Vasnier’s formula, which includes descriptors for each raw material to help the reader imagine the scent. The act of going through this process is a synesthetic exercise in olfaction; it conjures the act of smelling through literal and imaginative acts of seeing.

The Perfume Flask
by Charles Baudelaire

All matter becomes porous to certain scents; they pass
Through everything; it seems they even go through glass.
When opening some old trunk brought home from the far east,
That scolds, feeling the key turned and the lid released —
Some wardrobe, in a house long uninhabited,
Full of the powdery odors of moments that are dead —
At times, distinct as ever, an old flask will emit
Its perfume; and a soul comes back to live in it.
Dormant as chrysalides, a thousand thoughts that lie
In the thick shadows, pulsing imperceptibly,
Now stir, now struggle forth; now their cramped wings unfold,
Tinted with azure, lustred with rose, sheeted with gold!
Oh, memories, how you rise and soar, and hover there!
The eyes close; dizziness, in the moth-darkened air,
Seizes the drunken soul, and thrusts it toward the verge —
Where mistily all human miasmas float and merge —
Of a primeval gulf; and drops it to the ground,
There, where, like Lazarus rising, his grave-clothes half unwound,
And odorous, a cadaver from its sleep has stirred:
An old and rancid love, charming and long-interred.
Thus, when I shall be lost from sight, thus when all men
Forget me, in the dark and dusty corner then
Of that most sinister cupboard where the living pile
The dead — when, an old flask, cracked, sticky, abject, vile,
I lie at length — still, still, sweet pestilence of my heart,
As to what power thou hast, how virulent thou art,
I shall bear witness; safe shall thy dear poison be!
Thou vitriol of the gods I thou death and life of me!
— Edna St. Vincent Millay, Flowers of Evil (NY: Harper and Brothers, 1936)

Le Flacon Parfum by Yann Vasnier

Top Notes:
Methyl Linoleate (linseed oil) 5
Galbanum Oil (old classic, green, oily) 0.2
Melonal (rancid flower, macerated petals, melon) 0.1
Aldehyde C6 (rancid, green, apple, sharp) 0.5 @10%
Ambrette Seed (burpy orris, oily, fatty) 0.5 @10%
Nutmeg Oil (dusty, spicy, dry) 1.9
Blackcurrant Bud Absolute (feline urine, sulfurous fruity) 0.5 at 10%

Middle Notes:
Rose de Mai Absolute (classic French rose) 5.5
Rhodinol (dusty rose, verbena) 5
Pêche Pure (dusty, fruity, peach kernel, plum) 1
Jasmin de Grasse (classic French jasmine) 5.5
Orris Butter (powdery, waxy, oily, fatty) 1.1
Cedarwood Virginia (dusty, wood shavings) 10.0
Indonesian Patchouli (woody, dusty, camphorous) 8.0
Isobutylquinoleine (dry, woody, leathery) 0.1

Base Notes:
Oakmoss (old, woody, chypre) 2.0
Civet (classic, animalic, fecal) 0.5
Ambergris Infusion (classic, dry, honey, tobacco, hay, animalic) 1.0
Vanilla Infusion (powdery, vanilla, chocolate, caramel) 40.0
Musk Tonkin Infusion (fur, dried blood, dusty dirty cotton) 1.0
Musk Ketone (powdery, soapy) 10.0
Beeswax Absolute (honey, dried fruit, moss, tobacco) 0.6

Article Notes:

Yann Vasnier is a perfumer at Givaudan. In 2007 he was interviewed by the editor regarding his favorite pastry, kouign amann. When asked to describe “Le Flacon” as a pastry, Vasnier said, “It would be a rose and raspberry macaroon I brought back from Paris and kept so well hidden that I found it years later when I moved out of my apartment.” With his cookie escapade behind him, Vasnier has resumed his favorite pastime; reading biography and history books. Leonie Frida’s Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France is one of his favorites.

One cannot read Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil) without encountering the sense of smell in its pages. Rife with romanticism, sensuality and debauchery the work is, in Baudelaire’s words “clad in a cold and sinister beauty”. Les Fleurs du Mal can be read in its entirety on The poems are available in the original French and a variety of English translations.

To research the natural materials use in Le Flacon Parfum, visit Bo Jensen’s Guide to Nature’s Fragrances . To research the aroma molecules use Givaudan’s Fragrance List.

On April 24, 2009, this story received a FiFi Award Nomination from the Fragrance Foundation and took third place in the "Editorial Excellence in Fragrance Coverage" category. The award is historical as 2009 was the first year that blogs were included in the "Editorial Excellence"category.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Lipstick Queen: Black Lipstick for the Living

Black lipstick is nothing like “the little black dress” essential to every woman’s wardrobe. After observing customers gathering around the Lipstick Queen island at Barney’s I came to the conclusion that women have an instinctual reaction to the idea of black on their lips; they adore it or abhor it. Personally, I am of the latter camp and find that black lipstick looks good on models that project enchanting images as strutting cadavers or goths that buy their fragrance at Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab. I was wrong—dead wrong.

Poppy King has taken the element of surprise and molded it into the perfect black lipstick. When used alone Black Tie Optional makes lips look slightly darker than their natural color, adding dimension to your pucker. When used in combination with another lipstick, Black Tie Optional intensifies the existing color. Remember that drawer full of lipsticks that looked better on you in the department store than they did when you arrived home? A few alchemical experiments with Black Tie Optional might turn the lipstick you were ready to ditch into a keeper.

I wonder if Poppy King, the brains behind the Lipstick Queen brand, would consider dabbling in the fragrance equivalent of Black Tie Optional. Imagine a perfume that would change an existing fragrance ever so slightly, a perfume that would enhance the character of what you were already wearing, making it more beautiful. In a sea of unimpressive fragrance releases that might be too much to ask for, but hey, a Perfumista can dream…


Black Tie Optional can be purchased for $18 at the Lipstick Queen online store and at Barney’s. A gloss version, in Lipstick Queen's Shine line is also available for purchase at Barney’s and retails for $22.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Scent of Election Day: Go Away Evil

Go Away Evil. The name says it all. A single aerosol can that not only has the power to freshen the air, but delivers olfactive magick and conquers all things dark, dangerous and foreboding. I discovered Go Away Evil at a botánica a few blocks away from International Flavors and Fragrances’ labs and it seemed both fitting and timely. Hell’s Kitchen never delivered a kitschier product, or for that matter, a more purposeful one as there is an election coming up that will determine whether or not our country can get down to business and answer a variation on Dorothy Parker’s burning question, “What fresh hell have we gotten into and how do we get the hell out?”

Regardless of which side of the fence you’re sitting on, get your derrière out of the house pull the red voting lever on November 4th. In the next three weeks the Republicans and Democrats are going to attempt to take control of your mind. It will be scarier than Halloween and you’ll wish you had a can of Go Away Evil just to get your head screwed on straight.

When the election is over it will be up to every individual to make the changes and adjustments necessary to improve conditions in our country. Leaders can motivate, but citizens are agents of change. May the perfume of your deeds make this world a better place after November 4th—so we won’t need cases of Go Away Evil.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle: Dans Tes Bras

Most perfumes that are touted as smelling like “skin” are often poorly constructed fragrances that have more in common with The Emperor’s New Clothes than the art of perfumery. Not so with Dans Tes Bras, the latest fragrance from Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle. Add perfumer Maurice Roucel to the mix and something rare in the landscape of fine fragrance creation emerges; a beautifully constructed perfume that sculpts the air and turns the wearer into a work of art.

Dans Tes Bras is different from Musc Ravageur (2000), Roucel’s first creation for Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle. Musc Ravageur is the scent of intent, the magnetic stare that compels when sexual appetite smolders and the object of desire is within reach. Dans Tes Bras (French for “in your arms”) is the glance of the beloved when you aren’t looking, the sensation of connection when eyes meet and you know that you’re exactly where you belong. Where Musc Ravageur pounces Dans Tes Bras lingers. Though attributes of spice, wood, musk and incense are clearly present, the fragrance is softened by floralcy that is gently ambrosial and sensually fresh. The ingredients (Bergamot, Clove, Violet, Jasmine, Sandalwood, Patchouli, Incense, Cashmeran®, Heliotrope and White Musk) are only part of the story. In the brochure for the fragrance Malle writes, “We hoped to capture the deep and lasting odor of warm skin, with all its salty hints and rich, intimate overtones.”

The application of Cashmeran® in Dans Tes Bras involves calibrated overdosing (something perfumer Pierre Bourdon did with dihydromyrcenol when he created Davidoff Cool Water in 1988.) Cashmeran® is a molecule with a musky, woody and spicy odor profile that was discovered by IFF scientists 40 years ago. When smelled on its own it’s hard to believe that a single molecule can have so much character and it’s this very quality that has rendered its timeless appeal to both functional and fine fragrance perfumers. Thierry Mugler’s Alien boldly lists Cashmeran® as an ingredient, but most perfume companies that include the molecule in formulas use fantasy names such as Kashmir Wood or Bois de Cashemire to describe it. This approach elicits an emotional response from the consumer, as opposed to educating them on the beauty and variety of the molecular palette.

So what is the theory behind overdosing? Malle tells Glass Petal Smoke, “There are two ways of overdosing. One can use a raw material and build the rest of the fragrance against it, like a painter would put a big mass of red on one side for instance, and compose the rest of his work to counterbalance it. The other way is to overdose a texturing raw material like Iso E or Galaxolide® as a base (almost like alcohol) and dilute the rest of the composition into it. By doing so, some raw materials like the two I just named, which were originally designed to be back notes, work during the entire evaporation. One can also say that the products that we choose to overdose are often complex enough and almost interesting enough to be perfumes of their own.” (Perfumer Geza Schön, of Escentric Molecules, brings attention to Iso E Super® and Ambroxan molecules by creating fragrances based on each raw material and complementing the singular compositions with a sister fragrance that utilizes the molecule in combination with other ingredients. It is an architectural approach that is at once scientific and emotional.)

A raw material in Dans Tes Bras that is not listed in the brochure is Michelia alba, a variety of Magnolia that has served as Roucel’s muse and has appeared in all of his fragrance creations since 1993 (it was christened in Tocade). Perfumistas who follow Roucel’s work and have a keen sense of smell will detect his signature even though Michelia alba is very lightly dosed. When asked why the expensive raw material wasn’t mentioned, Malle replies, “The list of ingredients can generate emotions, but they are often unrelated to the fragrance, as the list of ingredients doesn’t disclose the dosages. It is also a means to manipulate people that marketing companies employ, something that I refuse to do, as I believe that only the final result counts. We make fragrances, not recipes.”

Wittingly or not, Frederic Malle owns the recipe for success in niche fragrances. An intrepid pioneer, he promotes the art of perfumery and has proven what every true perfume lover knows; that the real celebrity in the business of fine fragrance is the perfume itself.


Dans Tes Bras will be available at U.S. counters in November.