Saturday, September 19, 2009

Two Scents

twoscents.png How can I possibly begin to describe the genius of Jo Malone’s fragrances? What started out as fascination bloomed into unabashed infatuation. I’ve loved the incomparable Orange Blossom scent for years. It comes in cream, lotion, cologne, body oil and even spectacular giant tri-wick candles.

The Red Rose makes YSL’s Paris seem artificial, if you can imagine that.

Vintage Gardenia, which ordinarily makes me think of little old society ladies with powdery hair, takes on a fresh authenticity which is anything but old-fashioned.

At first I didn’t do the whole “fragrance combining” thing. I would layer the scent, but combining Jo Malone’s astonishing creations, regardless of how contemporary the process may be, I thought, seemed unnatural and ruined the simplicity and beauty of her pure natural scents. That was before I met Fragrance Stylist Michael Hernandez, Jo Malone Counter Manager and Beauty Advisor at Saks Fifth Avenue, San Francisco.

This dashing man greeted me at the Jo Malone counter to educate me on “fragrance combining,” a completely unique way of interpreting scent. My resistance to the idea was promptly shot down when Michael started spraying multiple scents on a touche. (The little paper bookmark that fragrance people spray the fragrance on is called a touche.)

My favorite single-note fragrance is Orange Blossom, and it was going to be hard for me to give that up. “Try it with Vintage Gardenia,” Michael said, passing the touche my way. The floral notes of the Orange Blossom mixed with the delicate gardenia taking on a new life. “And then if you want to lighten it up a bit, add a little Nectarine & Honey over it,” he said, as the sweet mixture merged into a delectable potion of complexity that is hard to describe.

“I’m all about lotions and potions,” Michael told me, “and the beauty of Jo Malone is there are no wrongdoings.”

One touche became two, and three and four, until at last Michael was holding in his hand a bouquet of six slim paper bookmarks of intoxicating mixtures. “Now smell them all,” he told me with a wry smile. And as he waved them under my nose, I realized then and there that Jo Malone’s 22 unisex scents are ripe with literally endless possibilities and they are unlike any fragrance line in the history of scent. Like a lush symphony, the mixtures harmonized without a single discordant note.

The imaginative blends contain no synthetic ingredients, not one. According to Michael, only pure essences from flowers, roots and spices are used. Which may explain why the Vintage Gardenia doesn’t make me think of little old ladies with powdered hair, and why the Red Rose instantly transports me to another place and time, a fond memory from my childhood.

But the gardenia and rose are a mere introduction to the incredibly imaginative blends, all of which have a story behind them, like the Amber & Lavender, created by Jo Malone as an anniversary present for her husband and business partner Gary; the Nectarine & Honey, inspired by a sorbet and honey mixture she had on a breakfast tray; and my favorite Orange Blossom. Imagine Jo Malone herself, in the Los Angeles Hotel Bel Air, struck by the scent wafting into her hotel room from the garden outside, and a best-seller was born.

“The Pomegranate Noir was inspired by a dinner with a friend who was wearing a beautiful red gown, and as the light struck the dress, Jo Malone said, ‘I have to capture that in a fragrance,’ and that’s how the Pomegranate Noir was created,” Michael said.

“We did a House Party,” Michael continued, “and as I went through the House Party I talked about the stories behind the fragrances and I would spray myself. At the end of the night I was wearing all 22 fragrances from Jo Malone. The women in the party were shocked, but they also loved it, and so did the men. And that is the beauty of Jo Malone’s world: There are no rules.”

If only the scents came in perfume form, I thought, I would die a happy person. But Michael explained, “Perfume is too heavy for fragrance combining…Spray one scent on your wrist, let it dry, and then layer on another,” he said. “Don’t rub your wrists together,” he cautioned. “It bruises the scent.”

Like perfectly ripe fruit, I guess perfume can also bruise, and whatever that means, after meeting Michael Hernandez I will never do it again.

“This is one of her trademarks,” Michael told me about Jo Malone. “Spray the front of your body with one scent,” he said, walking through a waft of White Jasmine & Mint, “and the back of your body with another,” as he backed up through the Nutmeg & Ginger. “When you walk into a room, you will smell like something. And when you leave, you will smell like something else. That is one of her trademarks.” What a great idea, I thought. Jo Malone has elevated smelling good into an art form.

You can also combine one scent in a shower gel with a different scent of lotion or cream, topped with one or more scents in the cologne.

Malone, who pioneered fragrance combining twenty years ago, has her share of imitators but not one comes close to capturing her imagination and authenticity. Even the packaging, simple square bottles topped with a silver ball lid, are identical within the line, and uniquely her own. The ecru linen boxes, wrapped simply with a black grosgrain ribbon, are emulated but never duplicated.

With age I have learned that people like what they like, and for some, conventional or synthetic fragrances are preferred. Personally, having experienced Jo Malone’s simultaneously delicate yet bold world, l never want to leave.

Conventional perfumers do not mix scents. Layer, yes. But combining is completely different. When you walk out of the department store, there is always the likelihood of smelling like someone else.

“Who wants to smell like their friend?” Michael challenged me. “I can have three girls come in and buy the same scent, but how they combine it with the other fragrances is up to them.”

As I listened to Michael, I realized that the favorite perfumes of my life—Chanel º5, First, Escada, Paris, Ysatis, Shalimar, Fracas, Hanae Mori—were more limited in range despite their complicated design, and are beautiful in the way that a classic earns itself to be. I will never forget them. Jo Malone, however, is a fragrant revolution. I still love the Orange Blossom, but I know that I have permission–even encouragement–from Jo Malone, and Michael Hernandez, to make it my own.

As Pablo Picasso said, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” And Jo Malone, stealing scent after scent from nature itself and harvesting them in unparalleled ways, is truly an artist who wants you to be one, too.

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