Monday, 26 September 2016

My scented week: from zero to hero (Aroma M Geisha Noire!) via some musty old books

In last week's post about my recent brush with allergic contact dermatitis I mentioned that I don't believe fragrance is a contributory factor. I still don't, yet at the same time, I haven't felt much like wearing perfume lately, whether during the flare ups or the fragile periods of quiescence in between. When the double decker oedemas strike, my whole focus is on calming my skin down, not adding other chemicals to the mix. And when my skin is in a good phase, a bit of me doesn't want to tempt fate on the remote offchance that fragrance might be a trigger. But mostly I have gone scentless in recent weeks because as with make up I have simply got out of the habit. Though I have worn the odd dab of Lancome's La Vie est Belle from my newly acquired miniature, and can report that I do like it as much on me as I did on my friend L's friend S in France. ;)

Then this week wasn't actually free of dermatological incident in any case: I had a bad reaction to raw garlic and/or onion on Tuesday evening while engaging in a rare bout of cooking. That'll teach me! Turns out they are poisonous plants, to dogs at least, so go figure. Luckily, thanks to a timely tip off from Lisa Jones, the immediate deployment of a couple of new weapons in my skincare armoury from the Avene range - specially formulated for 'peaux intolerantes' - had things back under control by the middle of the next day.

Two days later saw the installation of a new dishwasher, seven weeks after the polystyrene cube was deposited by the delivery men in the middle of the dining room floor. The excitement I felt to see the appliance in position at last triggered a completely out of character five hour flurry of kitchen cleaning.  One cupboard leads to another, you know how it is... And in the course of this operation, my hands inevitably came into contact with a wide range of powerful cleaning agents, as I didn't wear rubber gloves consistently throughout. Cue flare up No 2! Cooking, cleaning...why, I have only myself to blame. ;)

Friday saw the visit of an antiquarian book dealer, who had come to appraise a small selection of my late father's enormous collection of theological and devotional books. We holed ourselves up at the dining room table for a couple of hours: I passed the lady each book in turn, which she examined with professional care, noting the type and quality of paper, the lie of the ribbon marker, the pattern of end papers, the clasps, the binding - no aspect was left unturned. She was also looking for any rips or tears, missing pages, faded covers, brown stains or foxing, loose stitching, defacement in the form of underlining / annotations / colouring in(!) by lost generations of Victorian children - and most pertinently in the context of this post, she put the books to her nose and inhaled deeply, on the look out for any which had a musty smell.

For as with old clothes in a wardrobe, a musty smell is not a desirable aspect in an old book, and detracts from its appeal, and ultimately also its value. I watched rapt, as the book dealer conscientiously sniffed each volume. Humidity is the main culprit in causing books to go mildewy, and some cursory research on the Net has unearthed a surprising number of strategies for removing this unpleasant odour, including baking soda, cat litter(!), coffee grounds, charcoal briquettes, clothes dryer sheets, newspaper, and something called 'MicroChamber paper', incorporating zeolite molecular traps, whatever they may be. Unfortunately, my father's books run into the thousands, so the logistics of submitting the mustier volumes to one or more of these ingenious remedies make this pretty much a non-starter.

Then by Saturday, my skin was in a holding pattern of good behaviour, and at a gig that night, I risked both makeup and perfume for the first time in a while. My SOTE was the very addictive Geisha Noire from Aroma M. I shan't attempt a full review of it, as I couldn't possibly top The Silver Fox's glorious paean here. I will just say that Geisha Noire is a smouldering, furrily sensuous, ceremonial cupcake of a scent that did not feel out of place in the atmospheric venue, a converted church, partly dating back to 1270. Interesting factoid - one of the 49 rectors to have officiated in St Mary at the Walls (as it was called in its consecrated days) turns out to be the grandson of Thomas Twining, founder of the tea company of that name, whose 'Everyday' tea bags are standard issue in the Premier Inn where we were staying.


I had several unprompted compliments on Geisha Noire from other audience members, and one of the band pronounced it 'sweet', before adding: 'It's nice', in case I might construe that as a criticism. I am afraid I completely forgot to sniff any of my friends - including Caryne, the diehard Lush fan, and Andy, whom I introduced to Ormonde Jayne. I did at least chat about perfume to my Swedish friend Louise. (Check out this post for the lowdown on Stockholm's perfume trail during my stay with her in 2009.)

Courtesy of Louise Bodin 

As we strolled though the churchyard during the very noisy support act, Louise told me about her recent perfume purchases in a British branch of T K Maxx: L'Artisan Parfumeur Timbuktu and a Penhaligon's whose name escaped her, except that it began with 'z'.  (That was easy to check later - my money is on Zizonia!)

And speaking of Penhaligon's, the band played 'Stick Your Hand Up if You're Louche', with its reference to Tralala mentioned in a recent post. As you can see, the bass player took this opportunity to come clean. We were in a church, after all.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Quick (and slow!) skincare fixes: Part 2 - 'The eyes have (had) it': my brush with allergic contact dermatitis (aka eyelid eczema) prompts toiletries triage and cosmetics cull

Me, on a good skin day, dressed up for a wedding - but scroll on...!
I had been planning to do a post sometime on my overall skincare routine, having spent a couple of years now concertedly experimenting with various high end serums, night creams, eye creams, acid toners etc, and generally trying to up my game in terms of taking care of my skin, albeit very, very belatedly. But since the ill-fated day in April where I needed a quick fix before a gig for dark circles under my eyes, my whole dermatological regime has been thrown into total disarray and is only now starting to fall into (a very different) place...

For as well as buying that Clarins concealer mentioned in that post, in order to qualify for four free handbag sized items and a sponge bag to put them in, the sales assistant talked me into buying another skincare product, and I opted for a cream cleanser with gentian in it. I had forgotten to pack my usual Micellar water, which had actually started to sting a bit lately, so I was on the lookout for other eye makeup removing products that were suitable for sensitive skin. To the SA's credit, she said that this cleanser wasn't formulated specially for eyes, and might irritate some people, but that I would probably be okay. I was so keen to qualify for the goody bag(!) that I recklessly took a punt. 'It's Clarins, how bad can it be?' I thought to myself.

That night I took my make up off with this supposedly 'gentle, water-free formula for oily skin', that offered 'optimum comfort' and promised to leave my skin 'gently refreshed', albeit not necessarily my eyes, though there were no overt warnings not to use it on the eye area.  Well, as the next day wore on, my dark circles may have been history, but I swapped them for swollen eyelids that were both red and weirdly crepey - so-called 'lizard eyes'. It was a scary transformation, and not something I would have expected to happen while using such a premium brand.

Now you don't tend to see pics of women looking like s*** in any of the women's magazines, or even in some actual adverts for / articles on eczema products. Here is an image from an article in Allure magazine on the subject - she really has it bad as you can see...

But thankfully some of the beauty bloggers who suffer from eczema are brave enough to post pictures of themselves to raise awareness of the problem and its possible causes. Some have been lifelong sufferers, others, like me, have only started to have problems in later life.

So here goes - I would like to get the word out that some of the ingredients in so called 'dermatologically tested' and 'gentle' products are anything but. Or they can be for some people, say.

Moreover, this was not the first time I had had a bad reaction to a cleansing product, but over two years had elapsed, and I was fervently hoping the previous occasion was a one-off. I was down in Norwich, also at a gig(!), and had bought some 'emergency' cheapo, Spa brand 'cleansing eye makeup remover pads' the day before, prompting an identical flare up of the red, swollen, wrinkly variety described above. I spent half the evening hiding in the toilets at the venue, but at the end of the night when the lights went up there was no hiding place. I had warned the band of my dermatological crisis, and one of them, on seeing me, tactfully observed: 'You just engraved?' And trust me, that was being kind.

Spa?!?! Not as relaxing as it sounds

So while I was free of incidents between January 2014, and April of this year, I was starting to be aware of my skin's growing sensitivity in general. And now, since the Clarins 'do' in April, I have had frequent though intermittent problems, including one or two that were so bad friends said they wouldn't have recognised me! (Not that I left the house much at those times.)

I have now been 'under the doctor' since the beginning of August, and have had good results with a very mild hydrocortisone ointment. I know it has form for thinning the skin, but in a sufficiently low dose (0.5%) and used for a finite amount of time (two weeks), it really did help. But I did have a minor recurrence after I came off that, so the doctor put me on an immuno-suppressant called Elidel (pimecrolimus), also for two weeks.

It hurt like hell for the first week, as it is known to do, but my face got used to it after that and the cream has really made a difference. If anyone ever finds themselves in this unfortunate position, and is prescribed Elidel, I can definitely recommend persisting with it. The idea is that the medication turns off the allergic reaction to the affected area.

Irritating preservatives

Meanwhile, the doctor asked me to see if I could possibly identify what ingredients I might be allergic to, although I will also be going for patch tests at some point. Eyeballing the ingredients on the cheap wipes from 2014, my eye immediately lit on 2-BROMO-2-NITROPROPANE-1, 3-DIOL, a formaldehyde releasing microbial preservative, which is also in Simple wipes, would you believe? I have used those a lot down the years, but they were starting to bother me, now I think of it.

Then the Clarins cleanser has a controversial preservative in it called METHYLISOTHIAZOLINONE - that I can actually spell now without looking it up each time! I note that people suffering from an allergy to this have their own Facebook page, and it isn't pretty, like that pic of me below. The European regulations changed in 2005, allowing a much greater concentration of this chemical in beauty products, and dermatologists are witnessing an epidemic of cases of allergic contact dermatitis, especially in the past two years - perhaps these things have a cumulative effect, and are now just reaching a tipping point?

Here is a sobering article on the matter - I am that soldier, no question!

Truly shocking 'double decker' scenario - don't remember me this way!!

Now of course I don't know for certain that these are the two offending ingredients, but having done a triage of toiletries that have made my skin sting and those that don't, the pile containing one or other of these ingredients tells its own story. Yes, all unwittingly over the summer, I had regularly been using a hand wash (by The White Company!), a shower gel (by Molton Brown!), a supposedly nourishing shampoo with argan oil and a Micellar water, ALL with MI or some kind of formaldehyde-releasing chemical in it. Anything with 'urea' in the name is a giveaway of the latter. 

I also learnt in my reading up on the subject that there is a distinction between so-called 'leave-on' products (creams and to a degree also cleansers), and 'rinse off' products like liquid soaps, shampoos etc. The latter should be less of an issue in theory, as the residue is meant to be washed off your skin. In practice, however, I ain't so sure, plus there is the risk that you might inadvertently rub your eye with a finger that has just touched something really quite aggressive - which shampoos are as a rule. 

Very elderly shower gel on its last gasp

I should also say that my problem may not just be caused by preservatives in cleansing products, though they were definitely triggers. I sense that I may be guilty of contributory negligence of every stripe over the years, creating an underlying climate of intolerance which has finally blown! The other two villains in my triple pronged campaign of skin abuse may well be:

Using old makeup / skincare products

Hey, I have blogged about this more than once, have even been proud of myself for not being wasteful, and defiant in the face of the dire warnings of bad reactions to bacteria-ridden mascaras. Well, that was flagrant and chronic hubris on my part for which I may now be paying!

Using too many products at once

Certainly in the past two years, I have been testing and trying out loads of products in every skincare category imaginable, toggling between 2-3 serums or eye creams or toners in any given week, complicating my beauty regime to such an extent that my skin may not have known if it is coming or going! Goodness knows how Korean women get away with it, with their 21 step routines - but I think my skin was very possibly registering a protest vote...

After extensively reading blogs by fellow sufferers, I have now switched to a new set of skincare products, which also retains a few tried and tested favourites:

Facial cleanser / makeup remover - La Roche-Posay Toleriane and Fushi Organic Sweet Almond Oil (I also have their Coconut Oil, but have yet to try it.) I cannot speak highly enough of the Toleriane cleanser - it is totally bombproof, however sore my face is feeling.

Daytime serum - Olay Regenerist Daily Regenerating Serum (several years in, and counting!)

Daytime facial moisturiser - Nivea Light Moisturising Day Cream with SPF 15 (on cloudy days) and Paula's Choice Resist Super-Light Daily Wrinkle Defense with SPF 30 (for sunny days ;) )

Body lotion - Fushi Organic Virgin Unrefined Shea Butter. I would probably use most things, as it is only the face that is sensitive, though I would wash my hands well afterwards.

Shampoo - Dr Organic Vitamin E shampoo

Hand Wash - Marsiglia BioOliva with olive oil liquid soap, but anything wholesome-looking from T K Maxx will fit the bill

Night cream - either The Fushi Organic Sweet Almond Oil above or Dr Organic Manuka Honey Rescue Cream

Washing up liquid (for my dishes, I hasten to add!) - good old Ecover

And that's it so far, but I might gradually - and very tentatively - try to introduce a few other things at some point. Also, I don't think soap is the problem, nor perfume - oh, I do hope not! Nor parabens or SLS or other additives that often come under suspicion. I am just being really careful while I try to figure out if my hunch about the preservatives is correct.

Trusty staple Nivea has never been anything other than benign

And even now, I can't be sure if the dermatological demons were just resting on shoulder for a while or have dug their forks in for the long haul...But with my new armoury of truly gentle products, a policy of wearing only new-ish makeup, and not too often at that, I am least doing everything I can to keep them at bay.

Me today, not a scrap of makeup - first such photo on here in 7 years!

And the good thing to have come out of all of this? The fact that I have had to wear no makeup almost all summer. Unthinkable, really. And to my astonishment, I have still been served in shops and some friends have said they didn't even notice - whereas I thought I looked completely different. I haven't not worn makeup since I was 18. So the summer has been character building, and a real eye opener in a good way, as well as harrowing and depressing at times.

Have you suffered from eczema of any kind? Do share your own tips and remedies in the comments!

Monday, 12 September 2016

My Bonkers blogging bunker: proper post postponed in 'office move'

Well, I seem to have got into a bit of a routine of blogging on a Sunday, and had every intention of doing so yesterday, when the day took a completely unexpected turn...I have been troubled by my glasses for about a year now: one of the arms fell off and the optician replaced it with some random arm from another pair they happened to have lying around at the back of the shop. (To give you an idea of how random, my glasses are a sort of toffee colour, while the arm was two-tone black and lime green. I was still most grateful to have any kind of 'prosthetic', and amazingly no one called me out for this flagrant mismatch of colour schemes in a single pair of specs.)

Now the arm was never tight to start with, and progressively worked itself looser and looser, and in doing so dragged the overall fit of the spectacles sideways and down my nose, making for an unfortunate skew-whiff look and less than optimum vision. Compounding this, I am 'under the doctor' at the moment, and applying a special cream for the eye area, which has a tendency to sting and make your eyes water. To top things off, I realised that the bright light shining through the window directly behind my computer may have been causing additional eye strain, because for some weeks now I have been reading the screen with one hand permanently glued to my forehead to shade my eyes from the glare. Which is no way to carry on!

My even older broken glasses with nifty tape bond 

So just as I was sitting down to start a blog post on a proper subject, I had a rush of blood to the head and decided to turn my desk round, so that I was only receiving lateral light at least.

Some five hours later, which saw the relocation of the camp bed some readers may remember(!), much untangling and reconfiguring of cables, the removal of dead flies from those tricky interstices you find at the intersection of carpet and skirting board, a bit of touching up with paint of scuff marks on the wall, a spot of hoovering and rug dragging, and a good deal of weeding of box files and folders of old papers, this is how the room looked! The nerve centre of Bonkers HQ - now facing the wall rather than the window.

My wardrobe-cum-filing-cabinet

And for anyone who wasn't reading back in 2012, here is how my office looked like shortly after moving in.

I had it all to buy - and do! - as they say. Two months later, it had got this far...

I do feel that the way I have it arranged now is more conducive to working or writing of any kind, and this morning I have at last sent off my broken glasses to a repair company, who promise to turn the job round in a matter of days, compared with several weeks from the labs used by the optician. (Who would of course much rather you bought new ones!)

So for now I am making do with an even older broken pair from about six years ago, which my friend Gillie kindly bodge fixed by sticking a bit of tape over the bridge where the specs had sheared into two. Weirdly, my prescription may be going backwards now, as I can see a lot better with these than when I tried them a year ago. So I should certainly be able to manage for a few days.

All being well, normal service (or whatever passes for 'normal' on here) will resume shortly!

Look - no cables! (Almost)

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Loose Women: a tale of three perfumistas and a bottle of Penhaligon's Tralala

Ever since it came out, I always knew I was going to need a bit more than a purse spray size of Penhaligon's whisky-laced 'comfy jogging bottoms' scent (copyright @Tara of A Bottled Rose), Tralala, which I reviewed around the time of its launch. Not least because I quickly drained said spray and had to make do with sniffing the vestiges around the nozzle. So when 'suddenly last summer' Tara herself kindly offered to buy a bottle of Penhaligon's Tralala and split it three ways with Asali of The Sounds of Scent and me, I jumped at the chance. Nick Gilbert was still working there at the time, and Tara liaised with him to make her purchase, before decanting 25ml bottles for the two of us.

But in July, before my share was despatched, I happened to be at a northern gig've guessed it!...The Monochrome Set. Over a curry beforehand, one of the band piped up: "So what perfumes are you into at the moment?", whilst being fully aware that whatever answer I gave was most unlikely to ring any bells with them. So it proved, only my answer was unintentionally even more baffling than they bargained for.

"Ah, well I am looking forward to getting a split of Tralala."

The table promptly erupted into merriment, and I was asked to explain this impenetrable comment forthwith, which I did.

"That would make a good lyric for a song actually", observed the singer,"either that or whatever it was you said back there about Uttoxeter."

This was a reference to an earlier remark I had made about being quite happy to pay my way at the restaurant, having expressly been to a cash point on the way up...although this actually came out as:

"It's fine, I got wedged up in Uttoxeter." Which of course I also had to clarify.

Fast forward, and my split of Tralala duly came, courtesy of Tara. Now I could spritz with impunity and abandon. Fast forward some more and The Monochrome Set's 13th studio album, Cosmonaut, is poised for release on September 9th. And one of the tracks - called 'Stick Your Hand Up If You're Louche!' - whose arcane and oddball lyrics are a talking point amongst the critics who have reviewed the CD already, contains the line:

"Do you daub your body with a split of Tralala?"

To be fair that is about the only lyric that makes any sense to me - it's a very odd song indeed, which probably would not reward further attempts at deconstruction. But I feel chuffed to have contributed even in such a very minor way to its overall opacity and "stylishly warpedness". And I could not have done it without the good offices of Tara and Asali...'it takes two to tango' as the saying goes, and a minimum of two to three to split. ;) So thanks, both!

You can listen to an extract from the track here - it is the second song down and fourth line in!

And here is a review from Mojo, and one from Louder than War, both singling out 'Stick Your Hand Up If You're Louche!' for special mention. This one from Uncut even lobbies for 'Louche' to be released as a single, with its own video.

"If Tapete don't issue a 7" of Louche with a supporting video and live dates, there's no justice in this cruel world."

Obviously, I can recommend the album unreservedly. ;) Val CQ Sperrer is also a fan of the band, forsooth, should you require further endorsement.

(Oh, the Uttoxeter quote ended up on the cutting room floor due to insurmountable rhyming issues.)

Monday, 29 August 2016

'La vie est belle': thoughts on 'Lancôming' home to Limousin, and a curious confluence of perfume and porcelain - Part 2

It is to Birmingham airport's credit that the whole of Part 1 of this post ended up being dedicated to my wanderings in its duty free section, but the time has come to move on to the visit to France itself, which took a surprising number of unexpected fragrant turns. Though not before I report on my unlikely baby epiphany on the plane! Yes, longtime readers may be aware that - possibly thanks to my travelling status as 'single woman of a certain age who if she doesn't already have children must surely want them' - the seat planning alogrithm of all the budget airlines never fails to randomly assign me a seat beside an infant. Beside or in the row in front or behind, say. Very definitely within proximity and earshot of its inevitable sustained bouts of wailing during the flight. Now I have a certain amount of sympathy for the babies in question: I was young once, and I understand the thing about engine noise and ear pressure - it must be quite scary for them.  But I really don't think it is fair that I should attract babies like iron filings on every flight. Sometimes also a young child who delights in kicking the back of my seat while keeping up a stream of aviation-related 'Why?' questions.

And on the way out to Limoges, not only was there a baby on its mother's lap on the seat next to me, but a bonus baby across the aisle and one row back. I was in for some serious stereo grizzling, I thought. But then two things happened to make me completely revise my opinion on the matter. Firstly, as its mother came down the aisle and spied the seat they had been allocated, she immediately exclaimed: 'Oh, I am sooooo sorry!', which predisposed me to like her from the off. Why, the baby in her arms had yet to emit a sound!, and thanks to the mother's cunning plan of breastfeeding her (for she turned out to be a four month old girl, and to have the exact same name (and middle name!) of the friend I was visiting) for much of the flight, she was as good as gold, quietly feeding until she eventually dozed off, A model baby, no question. There were adults on the plane with loud voices, complicated drinks orders and no small change who were considerably more annoying. Moreover, it turned out that the baby's mother and I had a ton of things in common in addition to the spooky coincidence of the baby's name: we had both worked in waste management(!) and for part of Unigate, and we both had a close relative who had undergone the same cutting edge medical procedure.

Sightseeing on the 'Route des Noix'

So between the well stocked duty free perfume section at the Brum end, and having my faith in babies - or specific babies and their mothers - restored, that was a jolly good start to the holiday you could say. My friend L was waiting in Arrivals at Limoges' Lilliputian airport (which is a rare treat for me), and we drove back to her village, just over an hour away by car. I immediately fell in love with L's mid-18th century stone townhouse and en suite barn(!). The previous owners, two elderly sisters, had died some time ago and the house was sold with a number of their beautiful pieces of furniture thrown in.

To kick off the scented aspects of this report, check out L's dressing table in her bathroom, with its artistically arranged perfume bottles and jewellery. (Yes, I know the photo is quite small.) On a side note, L wishes she had bought the new rose scent from Acqua Nobile, the Iris one being a blind buy, and famously not very iris-like. Iris Nobile was one of the first three niche scent purchases I made - all in the space of one impulsive day in Paris in 2008 - and I too lived to regret it. And offload it.

And then there was the piano, with its amazing smell of incense-impregnated wood. Perhaps it had lived some of its life in a church, I don't know. I closed my eyes and pressed my nose to the gleaming curved cover. You could so easily fancy that the meditative scent it yielded was some high end release by Armai Privé. Suggestions of names welcomed!

Then my bed - a cunning improvisation of two inflatable mattresses stacked on top of each other - was the most comfortable one I have lain on in a long time, and even though I am noted for not liking lavender in perfumes, I was touched to find a sprig in a little organza bag on my pillow. I don't seem to mind the stuff in nature, plus I was predisposed to like everything about L's quirky and venerable house: the hydrangeas in milk churns, the toilet rolls in plant pots, the beautiful silver name plate on the boiler.

Oh, and this account would not be complete without a special mention of the orange blossom-scented gentle shower gel in my bathroom, from the brand Le Petit Marseillais. Despite its cheap and cheerful packaging, it smelt decidedly high end and felt benign on my increasingly jumpy skin (of which more in another post).

The next significant crossing of paths with perfume on this trip was on our way back to Limoges the next day, to visit the Bernardaud Foundation, Bernardaud being a brand that is synonymous in France with very upmarket porcelain - the kind that ends up as a bespoke dinner service in a luxury hotel such as Claridge's, for example. L's friend S, a long time resident of the village and a ceramicist herself, came along with us for the day, and I was immediately struck by how pretty her perfume was, and how well it suited her. It turns out that S was wearing La Vie est Belle by Lancôme, which I would never have placed, and may never have smelt, or only hurriedly in an airport somewhere.


Jessica of Now Smell This describes La Vie est Belle as a 'gracefully composed' and 'very wearable' 'fleurmand', describing its drydown as 'a polished and long-lasting harmony of cocoa and soft patchouli and white floral notes'. It has vanilla too, I see, which always tends to reel me in. I will definitely have a spritz of this the next time I am in Boots.

The Foundation visit had two memorable perfumed aspects, in addition to felicitous wisps here and there of S's sillage: the Bernardaud house line of scented candles, which I sniffed in the gift shop - all were well done with delicate and subtle fragrances - there was even a candle that made a very good fist of capturing the scent of porcelain!

So there was that, and then - most startlingly - there was a further perfumed twist to some artefacts in an exhibition of contemporary Korean ceramics, with which our visit happened to coincide. For we stumbled across a series of vases that were made from soap and varnish - and perfume. Whoever would have thought that it might be a good idea to make a vase from soap? The scent of each was quite pronounced - we had to stand on tiptoe to smell inside some of the works on display, though a few were too tall even so!

Another surprise scented object was a walnut windfall, a number of which we came across while walking through an orchard on the second day of the trip. About the size of a green plum, with a leathery aspect and incipient wrinkles, I can confirm that a walnut pod smells oddly herbal, like sage maybe?

And the final perfumed aspect to the trip - for in case you were wondering, there was no duty free at Limoges airport, or even a cafe for that matter! - was a chance encounter in the local 'brocante' (secondhand shop) with a number of retro perfumes: several colognes specific to local French pharmacies, and one or two other curiosities, including a violet perfume from Toulouse.

I didn't buy any perfume, though I did pick up a kitten saucer, a French missal from 1920, and an antique print of a collection of eggs. I could have come away with a stuffed owl or squirrel, but resisted.

However, what I may be less able to resist is the lure of France itself, specifically the area where my friend lives. Okay, the very village. The sense of wellbeing I felt while out there bordered on the transcendental: the gentle pace of life, the simple pleasures of bread and cheese and paté eaten outside on a warm summer's evening...the comforting solidity of the house also felt nurturing, as did the charming selection of vintage tableware and glasses the two sisters had left behind.

As it happens, I collect mugs and egg cups and crockery generally, in addition to being bonkers about perfume...and knitting, and cats. Yep, I love porcelain and bone china and earthenware - and with a bit of time could come to appreciate vases made of soap. And I live within spitting distance of The Potteries, Limoges's opposite number in Staffordshire. So downsizing and retiring one day to France, where houses can still be picked up for a relative song, is only a twinkle in my eye at the moment, but it is one that I think is set to grow...

Truffle, guarding her walnut

Sunday, 21 August 2016

'La vie est belle': thoughts on 'Lancôming' home to Limousin, and a curious confluence of perfume and porcelain - Part 1

I have just been away for a few days to France, visiting my friend L, who recently bought a house out there. Much of the travelling I do these days is gig-related, so it was unusual for me to go to a place where not only was no music involved, but where I was struck by the profound silence that reigned at night, though her village was also pretty peaceful by day. Lying in bed, the snuffling of barn owls in the eaves of the house opposite and the occasional gurgle of vintage plumbing were pretty much the only sounds I could make out. Ironically, I found the silence so extreme that I wore ear plugs anyway, to recreate more normal sleeping conditions. ;)

I left home on Wednesday morning, having managed to conceal the whereabouts of the suitcase from Truffle right up until the moment of departure.  From the baleful look on her face as I said goodbye I think she may have known all along anyway, the constant transferring of clothes and other assorted objects from room to room over several days in the run up to my trip being a bit of a giveaway.

I caught the train to Birmingham without incident, and had a luxurious amount of time to kill at the airport. Now that my hobby is in its 'mature' phase, I tend to walk straight through the perfume section of the Duty Free, but my resolve weakened at the sight of a bottle of Narciso Rodriguez Poudrée. I had been curious to try Poudrée ever since reading Ines of All I am a Redhead's glowing review, and it was as lovely - in that dreamy, cold creamy, and finely milled powder kind of a way - as I had expected.

Source: Fragrantica


Heartened by my favourable take on the Narciso, I decided to pop to the Chanel Exclusifs section to retest Misia. I also got my first sniff of Boy, and had a spritz of the already familiar Coromandel and No 22 for good measure. I am still not sure about Misia - it reminded me of a rosier version of 1932, and there was something slightly suffocating about its stereo cosmetic powderiness - from both the violets and the iris/orris. I also thought I got a hint of lavender and heliotrope, but maybe it was the tonka bean playing tricks. I guess it is not a good sign if you even think you smell notes you don't care for in a scent. Plus it didn't have half the staying power of Coromandel, not that that really warrants a black mark in my book.

I also had a quick whiff of Boy on card, which struck me as a refreshing, faintly fougèristic, broadly unisex cologne with a lavender(!) twist, that didn't seem to bother me unduly. I would like to give it another go, as I was distracted by my Misia musings.

And to be truthful, the most memorable part of the visit was chatting to Kelly, the very helpful and knowledgeable sales assistant, about their (I think relatively new?) porcelain 'dipper sticks'. If anyone knows the proper technical term for these, please do let me know in the comments!

Some readers may be aware of my longstanding interest in perfume sample delivery mechanisms - I can only find this post (on the subject of 'olfcartophiles'), but there have been several. Over time, I have detected a gradual evolution from giving physical samples away to encouraging people to make do with cards, blotters, lengths of ribbon, Frédéric Malle-style walk in fibreglass Tardises, IUNX- and Mugler-style trumpets, bell jars and so on. This was my first encounter with porcelain dipper sticks, mind, and as I was about to board a flight to Limoges, the ceramics capital, the Stoke-on-Trent if you will, of France - or do I mean the Dresden? - I took a lively interest in this novel and niche application. They are white tubular things, thicker at one end, and looked ever so slightly like a certain feminine accessory that enables you to play tennis, swim and canoe, even if you have never previously engaged in such active pursuits. Or perhaps like a deeply disappointing satay skewer. Anyway, they certainly did the job here.

I asked Kelly how long the dipper sticks sit in their little wells before the scent is refreshed - it turns out that they are redipped once a week in small screw cap bottles that live in a cupboard behind the counter. Well, I thought, that is interesting. Kelly also showed me her tray of raw material miniatures, which guide clients through the process of choosing a perfume by enabling them to discover which notes they are drawn to - like the Ormonde Jayne Perfume Portrait idea, but without the blind sniffing aspect. And there was also a table with samples of the complete Chanel range laid out on it, organised by fragrance style, to help the customer narrow the field further to specific perfumes that might match their olfactory leanings. Here it is, together with the examples Kelly gave me for each - or rather at least one that I managed to jot down:

Citrus - Cristalle
Green floral - Bel Respiro, No 19
Light floral - Chance (make that dull, insipid floral for me!)
Intense floral - No 5
Aromatics - Bleu
Soft woody - Bois des Iles
Intense woody - Sycamore
Enveloping oriental - Coco Mademoiselle
Oriental - Coromandel

Now I was tickled by the idea of an 'enveloping oriental', however for my money the categories are transposed and I'd call Coromandel the true enveloper of the two. I mentioned this to Kelly and we went on to discuss the ubiquity of Coco Mademoiselle, which is now the biggest selling perfume in the world, you won't be surprised to learn.

Finally, Kelly mentioned the imminent launch of No 5 L'Eau, a lighter version of No 5 aimed at a younger market, or anyone who finds the original a bit aldehyde-heavy. I was quite happy for Eau Première to fulfil that role, but am intrigued to try this new interpretation.


After Chanel, I spied a display of Armani Privé scents, which was definitely new since my last visit. They favoured the 'bell jar' system of perfume dispersal, and I dutifully picked them all up and stuck my nose inside. What really caught my eye though were the geologically lifelike bottles of Rouge and Vert Malachite. Well, I say that, but to be honest the green one reminded me a bit of Shield deodorant soap from the 70s if anyone remembers that. No, seriously, they did have the marbling and sheen of an actual geode of malachite, but there was also a fake and plasticky aspect to the bottles that put me right off the scents - though if you ask me what they smelt like I would be hard pushed to describe either.

I certainly wouldn't have recognised Rouge Malachite from the company's oddly capitalised PR blurb, for example, which I found on Now Smell This:

'The singular meeting of an opulent, voluptuous and carnal Tuberose and a wild Sage along with the surprising vibration of AmberXtreme.'

I have resisted the urge to put a comma in after 'Sage'! Actually, come to think of it, Rouge Malachite was a little like a more demure Coromandel, and I note that both scents have a big white floral, amber, and benzoin in them, albeit Rouge Malachite is more about the tuberose to Coromandel's jasmine, plus there is a shedload of patchouli in the Chanel. I did like Rouge Malachite though. And I didn't mind Vert Malachite, but my inability to classify it in any way whatsover rather spoilt my appreciation of how it smelled. (Ooh, there's a meaty behavioural topic for another time!)


Next up, I swung by the Tom Ford fixture, drawn by the blingy ribbed allure of the bottles of Orchid Soleil and Velvet Orchid. As I was spraying one or other of these on a blotter - yes, blotters are still with us!- a man came up behind me and asked: 'Are you looking for something for yourself or your husband?' And he didn't even work there. ;) Yep, he was just another punter, who reached for the tester of Noir and pronounced it not 'Extrème' enough. 'I only really like the Extrème' he added, deftly reinforcing his he-man credentials, before vanishing as suddenly as he had appeared. Maybe he should have given Rouge Malachite and its AmberXtreme a spin(!) - the pair are unisex after all.

On a side note, the number of Tom Ford scents with 'Orchid' in the name is spiralling out of control if you ask me, like the whole sorry busy of confusing Stella flankers, which I elevated to the status of a 'Scent Crime' in this post from 2009. My nose had sort of had it by this stage however, so I shan't attempt to describe my impressions, which would have been sketchy at the best of times...And now I am scratching my head about another perfume by Tom Ford that was discontinued, and that I thought was also called Velvet Orchid - it contained a notorious blue cheese-inflected gardenia note and oozed a general aura of sex and depravity that was straight out of John Fowles' The Magus. Like a more complicated and corrupt version of Versace Crystal Noir perhaps...Velvet Gardenia, that was it!! So 'Velvet' may be shaping up as the new 'Orchid' in terms of irritating iteration.


Nasal fatigue notwithstanding, I couldn't walk on past the Jo Malone concession, yet another niche-ish line to have popped up at Birmingham airport in the past year. They didn't have any long porcelain dipper sticks, but they DID have short white porcelain cork-like stoppers adorned with black ribbons, also resting in scent wells. So obviously I had to ask the assistant how often they refresh / redip the stoppers in the perfumes, and the answer is every day! Make of that what you will - there may be a correlation with the relative evanescence of the Jo Malone range versus the Chanel Exclusifs in terms of adhering to the porcelain surface, or something to do with how the scent wells are designed to minimise evaporation - or it may be an arbitrary frequency on the part of each brand!, I don't know. I would be interested to sniff a Jo Malone 'cork' that has not been redipped for six days, say, to see if you can still smell the perfume in question or not. (And in case you were wondering, I failed to ask about the receptacles in which the dipping supplies are housed. ;) )

The assistant, whose name I also didn't catch, allowed me to smell a tester of the upcoming September release, Basil & Neroli, which is billed as a more modern take on the bestselling Jo Malone classic, Lime, Basil & Mandarin. As with the latter, I sense that Basil & Neroli may work beautifully on the right skin; but even if I had the right skin, I don't care for basil in a perfume, though I love it on the plant and in the mozzarella and tomato salad, so I was destined not to like this. The neroli gives the basil a good old run for its money, mind. To be honest, the basil seemed more sage-like to my nose, though I am not big on sage either. Anyway, please don't be put off by my lack of enthusiasm - if you like herbal citrus compositions it may be just the ticket.

After all of that, there was just time to grab a takeaway tea and rush to the gate as instructed, only to be kept waiting on the steps down to it - and in the bus to the plane - for a further 40 minutes or so, as you do.

PS Interesting factoid about Narciso Rodriguez!....My friend's niece, whom I met at dinner the other day, used to work for Kenneth Green Associates, which has Narciso Rodriguez in its marketing portfolio. During her time there she had the job of pre-spraying the ribbons-in-lieu-of-samples with perfume, and also did a stint of promotional work. Her top tip for clinching the sale was to give the ribbon to a small child, assuming there was one available, from whose possession the ribbon would eventually get transferred to the mother's handbag, who would marvel at this lovely smell wafting up from its interior when they got home, and go back to the store to buy a bottle! This lady is also one of the world's top experts in voodoo culture (no kidding), so she clearly knows a thing or two about making stuff happen...