Sunday, July 26, 2009

Readers Write: Hermes Bel Ami

People who know me or meet me for the first time often request fragrance recommendations. I take these inquiries seriously as fragrance is an intimate experience that affects the senses of the wearer and those in their immediate vicinity. After a few lifestyle and fragrance history questions, I can intuitively meet the seeker’s request. There are occasions when one fragrance begs to be worn and no other will do. When Steve Carroll, a fellow Metro North commuter, made his request, the perfect match was instantly clear; Bel Ami by Hermès.

Steve Carroll has a no-holds-barred attitude. He is quick-witted, well-read and can be absolutely hysterical while maintaining a straight face. Steve also has a serious side, which as a woman, I key into quickly; it’s an endearing quality that lives under a tough exterior. He is one of the few married men I know who loves to shop and dresses impeccably. His collection of hats is renowned and they complement a few pairs of rather fabulous boots (a personal weakness on my part, but we’ll save that for another blog post).

I’ll never forget this encounter. I was on the 5:59 Hudson line train and just a few short stops from the town of Hastings-on- Hudson, where I live. The train was traveling against a colorful summer sunset when suddenly someone from the back of the car exclaimed “Michelle Krell Kydd, I love you!” I was a bit perplexed and slightly embarrassed because I could not see the face behind the voice. I live in a small town in Westchester. These sorts of things can quickly lead to rumors.

I looked behind my seat and saw Steve’s telltale hat a few aisles away. Those who know him would not start rumors, I thought. Those that didn't, well, suffice to say I felt an undeserved scarlet letter “A” beginning to burn on my chest. The fact that I accepted a ride in his PT Cruiser convertible after the fact was probably not the smartest thing I ever did; grist for the rumor mill. What ensued for the duration of the ride was a non-stop love letter to Bel Ami by Hermès. Steve found a part of himself in the bottle and it was obvious that the scent was a perfect fit.

It’s been at least three years since that charming incident. The memory recently resurfaced when I received this email from Steve:
“Remember me...Steve Carroll...lover of the dulcet tones of your voice...fascinated by any words that come out of your mouth? Anyway, hi! How are you? You've ruined my life. Remember you turned me on to Hermès' Bel Ami? Well, it’s my favorite scent and I always bought it discounted online. Well now it seems Hermès is limiting production so the only way I can get it is to pay the full $120 freight either direct from Hermès, or at Neiman Marcus etc. which as a frugal man with great taste and common sense I cannot do. (I would usually pay $40 to $55 online.) So I need you to be a perfume expert and look at the notes that comprise this delicious scent and tell me what is similar out there. Can you do that for me? I look forward to your incredibly informed response”.
I did not want to encourage another gray market purchase and contacted Hermès with regard to Bel Ami’s availability. I responded to Steve prior to receiving a response from Hermès:
"Let me see what I can find out. In the meantime, I can recommend that you smell something that is, unfortunately, at the same price point as Hermès' Bel Ami, however, it is one of the best composed fragrances I have ever smelled. The key ingredient is Vetiver. Extremely seductive, so if you are thinking about having a second child (or just going through the motions) you might enjoy it. Encre Noir by Lalique. P.S. No gray market on this fragrance, which means very few men in the vicinity of your scent trail will be able to touch its magnificence and compete with your indefatigable mojo.”
As it turns out there are no issues regarding Bel Ami’s availability in-store, which is a sign that the brand has a tighter reign on distribution and quality. Gray market product, though less expensive, can be old, improperly stored or counterfeit, so I never recommend it (it’s also why you don’t see Google ads populating the pages of Glass Petal Smoke). A true luxury company respects the heritage of its brand and the products it creates under its namesake. Case in point: Hermès returned to the house perfumer model before the notion was retrofitted by other fragrance companies.

In 2005, I met with house perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena at Hermès’ offices in New York City and still treasure this precious moment; looking at the formula for Un Jardin Sur Le Nil that the perfumer had written in an orange Moleskin notebook on a plane ride home. It’s a moment I will never forget and the reason why Glass Petal Smoke is of the opinion that Hermès deserves to be supported financially because they support the art of perfumery; something that has been forgotten by many major perfume brands.


Steve Carroll is currently in possession of a genuine bottle of Bel Ami by Hermès, courtesy of Hermès. He might be persuaded to try Encre Noir by Lalique; a sample of this is now available to him, courtesy of Aedes de Venustas.

This article about Jean Claude Ellena appeared in the New Yorker on March 14, 2005. It’s a great read and offers insight into the perfumer’s world.

According to the Hermès website, the notes in Bel Ami include, "An audacious mix of cardamom, amber, patchouli and leather." Glass Petal Smoke's nose also detects Vetiver.

Bel Ami was inspired by Guy de Maupassant's second novel. It has the flavor of a detective story and can be found here. Bel Ami means "beautiful friend" in French.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Kiehl's Vetiver Essence: A Case Study for Countering Hyper Regulation?

This month I received a bottle of vintage Kiehl's Vetiver Essence from Regina Joskow. (Regina is the daughter of Aldona Joskow, the subject of the post Perfume Memories: Mitsouko). The two of us grew up together and were perfumistas before the word ever passed between anyone's lips. We reconnected over dinner at Salam, a setting befitting our passion for fragrance as perfume was born in the Middle East. Despite the passage of time each of us can still rattle off a list of every scent we have ever worn or purchased. Two ingredients remain perennial favorites; Vetiver and Patchouli.

When L'Oreal announced it was buying Kiehl's in 2000, Regina bought every single bottle of Kiehl's Vetiver Essence she could get her hands on (she may have single-handedly wiped out any remaining stock available online). The genie is still in the bottle she gave me. The Vetiver has grown rich and earthy over time, maintaining a distinctive, sweet grass-like character that turns me into jelly every time I smell it on myself or a man (dark chocolate and saffron have the same effect so if the three are ever combined I will be a slave to the provocateur). Kiehl's Vetiver Essence smells like a combination of Bourbon Vetiver (leathery) and Haitian Vetiver (smoky); the same combination that is used in Lalique's Encre Noire (created by Firmenich perfumer Nathalie Lorson).

In the days of yore, Kiehl's packaged all of its "Essences" in a sealed plastic bag with a warning that never stopped shoppers or gave lawyers a reason to fear litigiousness:

The susceptibility of persons to pure essences varies from individual to individual.

From time to time, susceptible individuals can experience a rash, desensitization, or a temporary discoloration of the skin areas where the pure concentrated essences have been applied.

Sun exposures greatly increases this sensitivity of the body towards certain essences.

We therefore wish to advise users of pure essences to determine their own sensitivity by using the pure essences in unexposed areas and in very small amounts until each person finds and is satisfied with their own tolerance level.

Anyone can be sensitive, and in the case a sensitivity is noted, please discontinue use until the reaction returns to normal, or sun exposure is minimized, or in the case of extensive sensitivity, discontinue the use of the concentrated essence totally.

Colognes or perfumes are far less concentrated and should not cause any such reaction. However, always be alert for any such skin reaction at all times.
With the EU and IFRA's hyper regulation of raw materials, one wonders why this type of warning cannot be included on all fragrance products. Warnings appear on a variety of consumer products and encourage safety and enjoyment in the product experience. Glass Petal Smoke believes that warning labels will not stop fragrance lovers from indulging in the art of perfumery. Ignorance and hyper regulation will.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Olfactive Oakmoss Exhibition at Cabinet in Brooklyn

The hyper regulation of oakmoss in fine fragrance makes this event/exhibition too good to miss.

Date: July 18—August 8, 2009
NY Gallery Hours: Tuesday to Saturday­, 12-6 pm, & by appt.

Opening Reception: Saturday, July 18, 6-8 ­pm
Artist Talk: Saturday, July 18, 5-6 pm

Cabinet is pleased to announce the opening of Recent addition to the permanent collection, an invisible modification of the Cabinet event space by Nadia Wagner that invokes change, decay, and prestige via the use of a signature of the scent of oakmoss.

Oakmoss (Evernia prunastri) is a natural lichen which has a very lovely, smooth, and slightly musty odor. Highly sought after as an ingredient in perfumes in the nineteenth century, the use of natural oakmoss declined after 1898, when a single part of its odor profile, Evernyl, was isolated and synthesized for the first time and became an ingredient in a range of famous 1920s perfumes and, via the vagaries of cold war fashion, 1970s men's colognes.

Oakmoss itself is no longer easily available in commercial quantities. It grows chiefly in old stands of oaks, moldering slowly in very still groves. It has been close to unobtainable since 1986, as many of the best remaining natural sources are deep in the Ukraine, around a small town called Chernobyl.

Evernyl, for its part, remains a staple of the flavor and fragrance industry. Also known as Mousse Metra, Veramoss, or more rigorously, methyl 2,4-dihydroxy-3,6-dimethylbenzoate, the scent of Evernyl was described in Stephan Jellinek's classic technical text Perfumery: Practice and Principles with a single, oddly untechnical word: "dusty". He elsewhere classifies it as erogenic, in accordance with his unusual application of Freudian theory to the sense of smell.

For her installation at Cabinet, Nadia Wagner will be bombing the building with Evernyl, a scent that is much stranger and more persistent than the landlord has been led to expect.

In her artist talk preceding the opening, Wagner will be presenting and explaining a library of ninety scents, some attractive—such as Cis-3-Hexanol, the smell of fresh cut grass—and some less attractive, such as Skatole, the smell of feces, and Costus, the smell of dirty hair.

Cabinet kindly requests that patrons refrain from wearing any perfume or fragrance to this exhibition.

About the Artist: Nadia Wagner is researching the classification of odors, the relationship between odor and space, and its applications to architecture and design. Her article, “Notes on Scent,” on the problem the sense of smell poses to description, appeared in issue 32 of Cabinet Magazine. She teaches at the College of Fine Arts, the University of New South Wales, Sydney, and has also exhibited her work in Beijing, Edinburgh, and Berlin.


Invisible Architecture: Experiencing Places through the Sense of Smell by Anna Barbara and Anthony Perliss is a must-read for anyone interested in the relationship between scent and architecture.

The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses by Juhani Pallasmaa is also highly recommended as it emphasizes how visual dominance in our culture can prevent the appreciation of spaces in architecture.

Oakmoss is an ingredient in fine fragrance that defines the chypre category of fine fragrance. Fragrance bloggers and their bretheren are of the opinion that hyper regulation of oakmoss is to has led to the destruction of the chypre category. Many classic fragrance formulas have already been turned into shadows of themselves, lacking character and substance. Glass Petal Smoke riffed on this subject in a post titled "I Smell therefore I Blog".

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Scent Culture: In Search of a First Fragrance

I receive emails regularly from readers looking for scents from their childhood. It is a privilege to be on the receiving end of these inquiries as they remind me why the sense of smell is so important. Though we are living in a culture that is predominantly visual, the culture of scent is on the rise. The reason is deceptively simple. When the economy cycles down the desire to live an authentic life rises. The image we have of ourselves can no longer be masked by things we aspire to, but cannot afford. We question who we are, where we come from and where we want to go. Taking steps to play an active role in our life story is what the journey of life is all about. Reading JM’s letter offers a glimpse into the powerful process of self-authentication that scent plays in our lives.

“After reading your blog for the better part of a year, I realize that you are the person I should ask for help. Years ago, there was a VERY down-market cologne for men, made by British Sterling, called "Bitter Lemon." It was so down-market, in fact, that it made a suitable gift to a boy as his first bottle of cologne, the boy being me.

Since scent is hopelessly tangled in memory (or is it vice versa?), I have tried to find this cologne without success for years, never caring that if I were to find it at all, it would be on the shelves of a convenience store or pharmacy. I can still remember the feelings attached to it, and even the books I was reading at the time, almost twenty years ago. I've been drawn to citrus scents ever since, especially in the summer, but have never found an analogue.

Do you have any suggestions for available products, now, that might be close?” Many thanks in advance –JM”

I love this letter! JM is sharing a life “first”. People remember their first fragrance in the same manner they recall learning how to ride a bike or tie their shoes. The reason is that wearing scent is a way to express identity and emotion; it’s how we self-authenticate. Fragrance allows us to travel in the past, present or future. In other words, it tells us who we were, who we are and who we want to be. In America hero worship is a part of the culture. There is nothing wrong with being led by people who have achieved greatness, but in truth, we are each a catalyst of greatness in our own lives. Our choices determine the path we will follow and the rest depends on the intermingling of chaos and coincidence. Scent allows us to use the familiar as a foundation with which to explore the unknown. This is not a theory; it is a fact. Try a new fragrance and see what happens as you decipher your feelings and memories.

In his letter, JM shows that he is looking at who he is as an adult (in the present) through the lens of childhood (the past). Though I don’t know JM, I would venture to guess that he is in a period of transition. He is in touch with memory and looking for meaning. If he finds British Sterling Bitter Lemon, who he is today will mingle with who he was as a boy. The result will be an enlightening and comforting insight that he could not discover without his sense of smell.

When we are young we are attracted to things without complication. We do not analyze things we are drawn to because layers of life experience do not burden us; we are simply happy to be in the presence of an object that gives us joy. If you look at this more closely, you will see that love is no different. Perhaps this is why romance is the foundation of many fragrance fantasies.

British Sterling Bitter Lemon was manufactured by Dana. Though the company is still in business, it no longer makes the scent (as evidenced on the Dana Classics website). From JM’s description British Sterling Bitter Lemon sounds like a classic Eau de Cologne with a twist. The best modern interpretation of an Eau de Cologne is Cologne by Thierry Mugler (2001). Cologne was co-created by Thierry Mugler and Alberto Morillas, the renowned perfumer at Firmenich who won the Prix François Coty in 2003.

Cologne has a sparkling citrus character and an addictive musky drydown. The composition includes Bergamot, Neroli, Petit Grain, Orange Blossom, Green Sap, and White Musk. I’ve recommended Cologne by Thierry Mugler to JM and hope that it serves as a foundation for new memories anchored in what is obviously a charming past.


Cologne by Thierry Mugler is available at select stores, including Sephora. Sephora is currently offering a limited edition .8 oz. spray at a $28 pricepoint. Demand is high and stock is limited.