So I’m doing this once—and maybe never again. Today I’m nesting a review about a perfume that is packaged without scent notes within a rather lengthy thought piece on hype and criticism in perfume marketing. It occurred to me that marketing a perfume without scent notes is like putting up a blog posting without pictures. If a picture is worth a thousand words…. Well, you can see that left to my own devices, I can write a lot. Reviewing “Diamond Water” is only for the true fume-heads, anyway, so if you know what I’m talking about, read on.
So, what up with Chandler Burr spending all his time at the perfume counter at Barney’s? I mean, sure, he’s the reviewer for the New York Times, so it makes sense that he’s got a hometown focus and an urbane sensibility. But really. Come on! That is just not achieving relevancy for most of us. (Actually, I should tread lightly. A Barney’s opened up in Union Square here in San Francisco a few years ago, so I can and actually do go and try those niche scents any time I can muster up the courage. But I’m on a rant here—don’t bother me with details.)
That’s why finding the lovely ladies at theperfumedcourt.com was such a revelation: the opportunity to try and spend time with and truly get to know little tastes of scents that I’d never otherwise smell or smell under great duress at a perfume counter. I consider them to be doing the rest of us an enormous favor—they are the great equalizers. Money, geography, status, grooming, and other barriers to access melt away with help from the hugely democratic institutions of the Internet and the U.S. mail.
Issues of access could not be more relevant than when considering the famously exclusive JAR line. American-born, Paris-based jeweler Joel Arthur Rosenthal (hence “JAR”) has turned perfumier. Having a crack at his perfume line is a whole event in and of itself, since it is only sold in person in two places on earth: a shop in Paris, and in the basement of Bergdorf Goodman’s in Manhattan. JAR is famous for a few other things: a strictly structured sampling “experience”, where a highly-trained nose guides one through the scents. Seven globe jars with linen doused with scents wafted under one’s nose in order. Then, once all seven have been demonstrated, one may ask to be sprinkled. (No free-style spritzing here!)
Furthermore, the scents are presented without scent notes, so one’s impressions are one’s own.
(A quick aside here: I have a mixed reaction to that. On the one hand, I think there is way too much emphasis on notes in both trying to direct how a scent should be received, as well as selling meaningless connotations of luxury. On the other hand, I think you have the right, as a consumer, to know what it is you are smelling. And, as someone who is frequently tongue-tied by the initial experience of scent—I have to go away and ruminate for days about some smells before I know what I think—I can just only imagine how excruciating it would be interacting in real time with an unctuous, besuited, know-it-all scent dispenser: “Peony?” I can see myself serving up, desperate for validation. “Narcissus,” he would say, dismissing me with the slightest shrug. I would be crushed. )
Since my perfume budget doesn’t afford a plane ticket to New York or Paris (!!), I’ll let those who have actually been there speak to whether this regimen adds value to the smell. (Read here and here.)
But it can’t be surprising to anyone that all of this jumping through hoops has the desired effect, creating allure and mystique surrounding the House of JAR. When I started to learn more about niche perfumes, “Diamond Water” came up again and again.
A high-concept sales pitch made me want to try it. The cost made me sit up and pay attention: $9 for only .25 ml., making it twelve times more expensive by volume than your run-of-the-mill luxury scent sample. Several influential taste-makers made me spend way more time with this scent than I would have had it been a back-bencher one-out-of-a-dozen Annick Goutal bottles lined up at Bloomingdale’s. But having high expectations, as well as spending extra time (and money) on this scent didn’t help me to understand or appreciate it any more than my initial set of impressions:
Straight out of the bottle, about a 5 saturation on a scale of 1 to 10. An unimpressive muddled opening—flirting with a burned rubber smell on my skin, but within 30 seconds or so, the two main features snap quickly into place: a true, strong carnation, ringing like a bell (I swear you can smell the wax from the stems) and Tiger Balm. Well, actually super-sharp clove and nutmeg, juniper berry, camphor, and some smoky/leathery notes below. No sweetness, no softness. On paper, the petals are more pronounced.
Now. I am no fan of carnation. If you asked me to start a list of flower scents I do not like, it wouldn’t take me long to get to carnation. Carnation sits squarely in a group of flower scents like peony, iris, and narcissus which have that slightly bitter smell that perfume pushers call “clean.” I can understand “clean,” since it smells to me like soap tastes, but I don’t use the term “clean” that way. I call that property, completely arbitrarily, “yellow.” I’m not fond of the “yellow” smell.
Next, Tiger Balm. I don’t need to drop serious coin to smell like Tiger Balm—the stuff is pretty cheap. (And Heeley’s “Esprit du Tigre” is more dynamic and fun-- as my dear friend Karin put it, “it’s like the best Tiger Balm you ever smelled.”) Put these two things together, and the effect is, well, slightly alarming.
This scent goes through several distinct phases on my skin—first the carnation and Tiger Balm glare at one another for a while. Then, after about 20 minutes, the two elements achieve a crystalline balance, and the connotation I made the first time I encountered it reoccurs every time I apply it: I’m in Chicago a few years back, in January. It is a fiercely bright sunny day, not a cloud in the clear blue sky; there is snow on the ground; the trees are black. I step outside. When it is 14 degrees out, there is no moisture in the air. The cold cracks my lungs. That is the sensation of “Diamond Water”: bright white, sky blue, dry cold, light everywhere. Ok. I’ll give you diamond water, although it seems strange to get there through “warm” elements like clove and camphor.
The scent breaks down after a while; the carnation softens and smooths out, balanced by the leather element, the little pricks of spices seem more playful now. But then the true drydown phase, which, at least on me, smells remarkably like Vaseline Intensive Care lotion which my mother used extensively when I was a child, and it is a smell I cannot abide. “Diamond Water” drydown is only moderately better. The scent is frumpy and slightly medicinal. On paper, the drydown is spicier, less lotiony, and it keeps its austere, almost architectural structure until only the hot spices remain.
Rating “Diamond Water” presented a raft of conundrums. On the pro side, it is a superb carnation—I can imagine recommending it to a friend who said s/he liked carnation scents. On the con side-- I don’t like carnation.
It certainly has a strong point of view—it is distinctive, a quality I rate highly in perfumes, and it generated a powerful scent memory image: that smell and that January day in Chicago will forever be linked in my mind. But, did I mention carnation… and Tiger Balm?
Then there’s the whole JAR “thing”, which is a fun story to tell a friend. But it’s a story to set up sharing a scent that I’m ambivalent about, and in so doing, I’m perpetuating the hype.
And here is where I really got bogged down. Do I downgrade it for its (self-generated) reputation? Can I really dock points off a scent for its ends-of-the-earth efforts to present itself as high-end, when there’s a vast universe of scent to compete with? Part of me, I have to admit, gets a secret kick out of the chutzpah it takes to get away with the whole only-at-Bergie’s-and-Paris-in-a-certain-order-no-scent-notes shtick. After all, luxury and excellence is something I’d like to think I am paying for when I purchase perfume—I’d essentially be punishing “Diamond Water” for giving me what I’m asking for. But something about the whole JAR routine has gone too far. I can accept a sales campaign that says “We’ve made a dreamy smell, and you will experience something wonderful when you smell it.” But when the message becomes “We’ve created a dreamy smell—can you prove that you’re worthy to smell it?” I get really mad.
“Diamond Water” challenged me to answer some core questions about what it means to be a perfume critic. It made me conscious that if a scent had a marketing campaign that was overtly racist, for example, it would be easy for me to say “There is just so much good juice in the world—these people don’t need your business. Take your money elsewhere.” On the other hand, the whole luxury industry is so fraught with subtle racism, (or not so subtle—ask a woman of color if she sees herself favorably reflected in the beauty industry), misogyny, impossible standards of beauty, and punishing notions of heteronormativity, that if you were to only smell fragrances from PC houses, you’d essentially have nothing to smell. So that’s the sea we all swim in.
But class is a funny thing in our society, and the intersection of class, taste, and money can be quite slippery and relative. Folks can and do, all the time, become educated and achieve privilege above their parents’ status. One can earn a fortune, or marry it, or win the lottery. Feeling like you belong sniffing pricey scented linen strips at Bergdorf’s is not just an accident of birth in America.
And besides that, aren’t the luxury-shilling perfumer and the excellence-acclaiming critic two sides of the same coin, anyway? We’re both trying to grapple with subjective notions of exceptionalism and taste, one by producing a product, the other by judging it. We’re both saying “Out of all the scents in the world, this is the one you should try/buy.” So I recognize that I am a (tiny) part of this whole circus.
I’m not a communist. I don’t believe fancy smelly water should be handed out for free, and it’s not a right like universal health insurance. JAR is there to make perfume and to make money. So they sell an aura of snobbery I don’t like. Fine. I’ve decided that my job is to rate the scent for itself, and not the story. “Diamond Water” is not a fragrance that I’m crazy about, but it is distinctive, reaching for something strange and beautiful. It earns two “weird but worth it” stars. The hype surrounding it: weird and not worth it.