Thursday, January 21, 2010

JAR “Diamond Water” **

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 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.


  1. I love how you slipped it that it's a right to have health care!! :)

  2. Really thought provoking piece. Ultimately you've made me want to try the fragrance as it sounds very interesting from your description.

    I agree with you on a lot of the points about marketing and hype too.

  3. Really interesting to read this. And I have thought about the same thing... During fall I was invited to a perfume expo on Milan, Italy. This will take place in end of march and I was so thrilled about the whole thing and really wanted to go there. But then come Christmas and there after a HUGE electricity bill and I realised that I wont afford to go to Milan after all.

    Anyway, all I could think of before I realise I couldn´t afford it was what to wear! I have no elegant clothes from fancy brands. Or shoes! Or super chic haircut (I cut my own hair)! I have an alternative style both outside and inside... and I am not the kind of person that rocks a show all by myself... So if I ever go to a perfume expo I guess I will be the ugly duckling. I guess neither me or you are the targeted audience for most niche perfumes.

  4. Rita -- Thank your for this in-depth review, and especially for your frankness regarding the shtick and gimmickry surrounding fragrances like this (be they good or bad fragrances). Oh yes, it looks like this particular fragrance line has reached new levels of snobbery. For a really, really exceptional scent, one is willing to forgive just about anything; because, after all, it is about the scent in the end, not the bottle, not the hipster behind the perfume counter with all the attitude, not the hype. So anyway, I'm glad you've presented us here with what your nose tells you, along with all the marketing surrounding the scent (and the lack of information -- something that bothers me about the Nasomatto line as well, despite the fragrances like Duro or Black Afghano being so good).

    Back to the issue of perfume counters: Isn't it awful that some places and people exude a vibe that is just such a turn-off? Even if I myself feel perfectly comfortable in the swanky boutiques of Florence, Milan or Paris which I find myself in whenever I travel, I also see the attitude being flipped to people who maybe don't feel so comfortable, and I hate that. So I can perfectly understand anybody who'd rather not stop by the perfume counter; a great perfume should not have any connotations of duress and intimidating salespeople, right? It should be about pure enjoyment and satiating one's curiosity. So, yes, thank goodness there are options for avoiding the bad vibe of some salesfloors.

    OK, time for my Saturday errands. (Unbelievably, shops are still closed everywhere in Germany on Sundays -- yes, including supermarkets!)

    All the best, Rita. Your write-ups really are wonderful!


  5. ~Bloody Frida Yeah. Sick about that whole circus this week, I really am...

    ~SS That's one huge reason why I value the blog community so much-- individual opinions and impressions mean so much more to me... (Is that what you mean by democracy? The blogosphere certainly gets it's vote on what's worth smelling and what's a stinker...)

  6. ~Rebella Sorry to hear you feel excluded-- I HATE that aura of elitism and exclusion that so much of the luxury/fashion industry promotes. I'm actually probably, at least demographically speaking, perfectly positioned for much of the hype: white, college-educated (overly educated, let's just be plain...), upper middle-class by any other standards in the U.S. but the Bay Area & Manhattan. But I rarely feel glamorous "enough" when going into department stores.

  7. ~Michael May I just say right now, you seem like the nicest man, ever!! I hope you *are* living La Dolce Vita, because your sweetness just oozes through the blogosphere!

    I should say that I've tried both "Duro" and "Black Afgano" on your recommendation-- "Duro," I must say, appropriately enough, was "hard" for me to like. Maybe I need to smell it on a man to get the full effect?

    "Black Afgano," however, smells just like hashish, and I liked it a whole lot for it's sticky, resinous sweetness. I could easily see that becoming addictive...

  8. This was a fascinating article, to which I could relate, having ended up buying a similarly exclusive (though not similarly expensive) scent by IUNX in Paris. It was presented along much the same lines: in the first instance it could be smelt down an 18" tall metal cone, and spritzed on your person "by application only". By application to the SA, I mean, not by yourself on skin without first clearing certain protocol. I think I bought it because I badly wanted not to look poor by leaving empty handed. How weak and shallow is that?

    Oh, and I do agree with you about the charmlessness of carnation...

  9. Thanks for dropping by my blog. Interesting piece you've written here. Yes, there can be a rather dubious undertone to so much of the luxury goods marketing, including perfume. I'm rather intrigued now by Diamond Water and will have to seek it out.

  10. This was a really thought provoking read. I come from much humbler roots than I am likely to experience over the course of my life (knock wood) but I also tend to recoil from overtly classist marketing. If I won the lotto tomorrow, I don't think I'd ever be able to beat the velvetta cheese sandwich and cream of mushroom soup casserole out of me....

    The review was interesting, but the rant was valuable reflection. Thanks!

  11. Although I enjoyed reading your lengthy and very entertaining review of Diamond Water, I would have stayed away due to it's name anyway. Diamond Water? Sounds like wannabe luxury.

    Can't say I can recall the scent of a carnation. I suppose I never paid it much attention, so... However, when/if I find myself in Paris or Barney's I know I'll hunt down this Diamond Water stuff by JAR (luxurious sounding too) just to see how unimpressive it really is and secretly hoping to be impressed.

  12. ~FlitterSniffer Oh, thank you for that confession. I, too, have bought things, useless, horrible things at makeup/perfume counters that I knew I didn't want even as I was buying them, in order to appear... I don't know what? Not cheap? Knowledgeable? Able to find something that pleased me? I dunno.

    I've gotten better at that-- not buying things just to look like I belong, in past because I'm trying to buy less stuff in general.

    One detail of your story did intrigue me, however-- what up with the metal cone? Did you have to buy that too in order to apply it to yourself? How pretentious is that?!?!?

  13. ~Hi there, Beautiful Things!! (New blog about perfume alert, all!!) I'm wondering if JAR's time has come and gone yet-- I don't think I've seen anything more about it for months now. Big splash, no ripples, perhaps?

  14. ~Diana I, too, am now enjoying a life of comfort miles above a semi-impoverished upbringing. You bring up an excellent point: I think some of the anger and unease that I experience in snobby settings is the realization that while I may be invited in NOW, there was a whole era of my life when I, my family, my friends, would have been actively excluded. It's though I'm feeling the shaming of an earlier time, even as I appear to belong. I'll have to do some more thinking on that.

  15. ~Princess Glee (I wish there was an emoticon for royalty!!) Carnations aren't the showiest smelly flower, but there are folks out in the perfume world who are huge fans.

    As for trying it yourself, it's at Bergdorf's, as I read it, not Barney's (Or Bloomies.) ;) And you might just try it and be impressed-- as in, it leaves a dent in your head, if nothing else.... :-0

  16. Just to clarify on the IUNX line, the metal cones were fixtures in the store, like the ones you get with the Mugler Miroir range, but a good foot and a half tall, and not sticking out of the bottles as such - though clearly they must have been linked in some way to a Scent Source!

  17. ~Flittersniffer Well, I'm still a neophyte-- I've never sniffed into a cone before... But thanks to you, if I ever encounter one in the future, I can appear knowledgeable. Cheers!

  18. I read this one right after you posted it, and I've been thinking and thinking about it ever since.

    I do *love* carnation; I *love* those cold winter days when the air crackles with static electricity; I've never smelled actual Tiger Balm, but based on the list of ingredients it must smell an awful lot like Porter's Liniment Salve, which anointed my childhood scrapes, and which I *love* the smell of. You'd think Diamond Water would have my name written all over it.

    I won't be testing it. I'm happy for other people to make the choice to explore uber-high-end niche houses, but *I* ain't gonna. Probably that's a knee-jerk reaction to the exclusivity said houses promote. Exclusivity annoys me - it a) violates my sense of egalitarianism and b) seems a useless waste of resources. I understand that exclusivity functions as a marketing tool, but isn't perfume expensive enough? Particularly when people are dying of AIDS in Africa (and all over the world), starving in Haiti, and homeless on American streets? I do make sure that my charitable giving far outweighs my perfume purchases, and that helps. Some.

    Okay, so I have issues with my own perfume involvement, and this carries over into my reviewing. I don't see myself as being a perfume critic - I'm a reviewer. That means I get to review what I want. Frequently that means I'm reviewing vintage and discontinued scents; sometimes that means I'm talking about the drugstore junk that I used to think was all I could afford. I'm glad somebody else is reviewing the super-niche stuff; I'm happy to read the reviews. But as for my reviews, I'm... specializing.

    As I'm commented frequently on other blogs, *I* am the one who gets to decide where I spend my limited perfume bucks, and I absolutely refuse to play the d*&n snobbery game. I will not do it. If a travel bottle of By Kilian Beyond Love comes within my reach at $20 for 8ml, I'll snap it up (actually, I just did), despite my curled lip over the little locked boxes. Good juice, minimum hoopla - that's the formula that makes me want to buy stuff. I know that a lot of people want the whole luxury package, and that may be legitimate for them. Fine. I don't condemn people who respond to that marketing... okay, maybe secretly I do... I think that choice should be available. It's just my choice to turn on my heel and walk away from houses like JAR.

  19. ~Mals86 I took some time to digest what you wrote-- then I didn't get back to you!! Ack!! Sorry!!

    I think you and I are in a similar place-- it's hard to take this hobby/obsession out of context for me. You talk about all the other troubles in the world-- yes!! I struggle with that all the time. The only place I arrived at with that is that pleasure, art, sensuality-- these are all things that make us human-- and, as the popularity of the blogosphere makes clear, then, as humans, we want to communicate all that we experience!!

    The bloggo world is far more egalitarian-- and supportive, as I'm sure you've noticed!!-- than the snoots that sell perfume. Maybe someone will catch on to that some day?

    I'd love to hear more about your ideas of what sets apart a critic from a reviewer-- perhaps you'll post on that some day?

  20. Ooh, the difference betweena critic and reviewer! I smell some good posts coming!

  21. All The Pretty Things-- Welcome!! Thanks for dropping by.

    Hop on over to visit Mals at Muses in Wooden Shoes: "Critics vs. Reviewers." It's a terrific, thought-provoking post