Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Dolce and Karma: The Squeaky Wheel Gets the Grease

Sometimes, the simplest perfumes are the most attractive to me. They don't dive deep into my skin and my imagination, charting unknown depths of sensory pleasure. They don't smell impossibly rich or impressively complicated. They don't boast a provenance tangled up in Grasse Royalty, and in fact are created by people I've never heard of, who might have worked on the last Celine Dion fragrance for all I know or care. Instead, they're unusually strong, forthright, and accessible. They state their intentions right from the start in bold, declarative language.

A good example is Coty's Exclamation. This fantastically garish rose is like a starter perfume, a back to basics beginner's floral by Sophia Grojsman, and a perfectly good illustration of the way a brilliant perfumer can work on all levels of commerce, from the niche company (100% Love) to the Prescriptives counter at the mall (Calyx) to the bargain shelf at the drugstore (Exclamation, Diamonds and Rubies).

Karma, by the Lush cosmetics company, and Dolce, by Michael Marcus cosmetics, are recent favorites. I reach for Dolce, in particular, every day, if only to smell it. One reason it gets my immediate attention, like Exclamation, is its staying power. I love L'Artisan. I love Guerlain. And if I have all day to sit on the couch and smell them, knowing they're nearby and can be reached for and renewed when they fade, I'll grab them. I'm on the couch enough, but I do have a job and get out in the world too, and though I admit I carry at least two perfumes around in my backpack, there are times when I'm not able to spritz or switch. I want something, like Dolce, which will be there two hours from now.

Dolce couldn't be less complex, though it isn't really linear, either. It starts off with the biggest blast of lavender and lavandin you've ever smelled. No graceful Pour un Homme business here, no soft bed of lavender drizzled with vanilla and doughy cake. Dolce lacks the subtlety of Pour un Homme or other lavender-inflected fragrances like, say, Cafe Noir by Ava Luxe. But it speaks very clearly and you know exactly where you stand with it. Apparently, lavandin is a hybrid of lavender officianalis and lavender aspic or spike lavender. It's heartier and grows at higher elevations. Most of the pictures you see are lavandin, or so I've read. Lavandin is much more camphorous, "louder", as one online description put it. Dolce adds to lavandin a blast of rosemary, just to make sure you know it's serious, I guess.

This initial astringency segues into a deeper, more even-keeled stage of of chocolate, vanilla and musk, but the rosemary and lavandin are in for the duration, which redeems the fragrance for me. I'm not a musk fan. Nor am I a chocolate lover. The herbal qualities of Dolce steer it just enough from gourmand overkill that you forget you're actually smelling chocolate. The pyramid on Michael Marcus' website lists geranium and orange. I'm not saying those aren't there. But who's going to notice a violin in the corner when a big band is in full swing front and center? The tune Dolce plays is catchy and upbeat, and plays indefinitely. It's an eminently likeable composition which hits all the right notes, fulfilling the simple needs we bring to an old standard. It repeats the chorus enough to satisfy.

The Marcus counter displays five perfumes. None besides Dolce particularly appealed to me, proving just how hard it is to compose that catchy tune. The others were so unmemorable that I couldn't begin to describe them to you. I smelled Dolce four times before buying it. When I did buy it I returned it a few days later. I think I did this because its appeal made no real sense to me. I think I probably returned it out of snobbery. Then again, Exclamation doesn't cost 100 bucks. What's to reconsider? All of Marcus' scents are 100 bucks for 100 ml. At the time and in theory this seemed ridiculously presumptuous of them. Yet it starts to make sense when you consider how long Dolce, at least, lasts, and how pleasing it is. I returned to the mall several times, sniffing Dolce as I passed that section of the store. Ultimately I bought it again and have enjoyed it thoroughly ever since. When I looked Michael Marcus up online I discovered he's done a lot of magazine work. It seems as if he might have made his name doing Paula Dean's make-up. For this alone he should be drawn and quartered.

Speaking of orange, there's Karma, another fragrance whose easy appeal I struggled with. Did I want it? Did I like it as much as I seemed to? How could I, when it seemed so...basic? Finally, as with Dolce, I decided that gravitating toward it again and again in the store was all the indication I needed. The decision was made the first time I sniffed it. I just chose to be in denial. Karma isn't for everyone. Like Dolce it starts out with a pretty blustery flourish. In Karma's case, that means a sunny citrus disposition, the clearest voice in the room. To some (to me, even, the first few times I smelled it) it would seem that such a clear, penetrating orange might never go away. And essentially it doesn't. It sticks around, like the lavandin in Dolce, presiding over things. But the more you smell Karma the more you recognize its subtle strategies. Karma is a catchy song played with unusual instruments, producing a curiously familiar but unusual effect.

The orange is complicated and intensified by an incense accord, pine oil, and patchouli. Lavandin makes an appearance here as well. Like Dolce, Karma lasts and lasts, playing out its song on the skin.

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