February 7, 2014:

Suzanne's Perfume Journal

Puredistance BLACK was composed by perfumer Antoine Lie and contains 25% perfume oils (making it a rich parfum extrait). It can be purchased from Puredistance.com, as well as from LuckyScent.com, where it is currently priced at $198 for a 17.5 ml bottle; $330 for a 60-ml bottle; or $590 for 100-ml. My review is based on a complimentary spray sample I received from the company.

Please note that Puredistance is not divulging fragrance notes for BLACK, so those that I mention in my review are purely for descriptive purposes. In other words, they are scent elements that my nose perceives and not a factual reference as to what is in the actual perfume.

Puredistance BLACK: Old-School Charming with a Twist

Credits: film stills of actors Michael Douglas (playing Professor Grady Tripp in the 2000 film Wonder Boys) and, further down on the page, Peter O'Toole (playing Professor Harry Wolper in the 1985 film Creator) can be found numerous places online; bottle images of Puredistance BLACK stolen from LuckyScent.com.

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In the early 80s when I was a sophomore in college, I took an Introduction to Literature course that won me over in a big way—changing the way I viewed books and stories thereafter, both in terms of my tastes and the way I actually read a literary work. Falling in love with literature made me slow down and read a book with one ear trained on the story and the other on the way it was written; it made me “listen” to a story in the fullest way possible, as if I was following it with one ear to the ground, like a tracker stalking not only his quarry but the psychology of that quarry: the reasons it zigged here and zagged there, and not vice-versa. Considering that my declared field of study was the straight-forward, no-frills writing path of journalism, I’m not sure why I was swept away in this direction, but the professor who taught the course accounted for a good part of it: I was already in love with fiction, and his teaching took that love to a higher level. Naturally, I fell in love with him too, in the innocent way that a shy young woman at an idealistic time of her life comes to have a crush on an older man. I never pursued him or made overtures—that thought never crossed my mind—and I’m pretty sure I never fantasized about him in any kind of sexual way. I had a steady boyfriend in college who occupied my thoughts thusly. But this professor did become someone I thought about and admired to the point that he became a romantic ideal. His overall presence was a mixture of intelligence and heavy-lidded, dreaminess: he had dark hair and chocolate-brown eyes that were full of calm patience, yet twinkled when he was amused; he had laugh lines, a kind mouth with full lips, and a thick beard and moustache that was the pièce de résistance of his appearance because it imparted the “distinguished older man” look that I’ve always found attractive. In addition to his looks, his syllabus, and his scholarly love of his subject matter, he had style. British style. Nothing trendy, but the classics (as is befitting of a literary prof): wide-whale corduroys in beige or navy or hunter green; denim shirts faded to the perfect shade of blue; tweed jackets and sweaters with leather elbow patches; and a handsome pipe that he smoked in the quiet confines of his Hobbit-hole office and which accounted for the cherried and wooded scent of tobacco that followed in his wake.

I dated a number of men after college, none of whom resembled my professor. Not that it mattered, because the assorted flavors of men that I did meet were, with a couple exceptions, pretty delicious. Even so, the romantic ideal set by him was never extinguished, and once in a blue moon I’ll catch what I call “a whiff” of my perfect man in the coming and goings of the real world and, more frequently (though it’s still a rare occurrence), in the fictional world of television and movies. He’s not always a professor, but he has that vibe; for example in the 80s he took the form of Trapper John MD, the compassionate and erudite surgeon played by actor Pernell Roberts in the television series of the same name. Proving what a great decade it was, he also turned up in the 1985 film Creator, where he was at his dapper best in Peter O’Toole’s portrayal of the sublimely eccentric professor, Harry Wolper (not a role the actor will be remembered for, but he made this quirky little romance shine). In more recent years, he surfaced in the 2000 film Wonder Boys (based on Michael Chabon’s novel) where he went by the name of Grady Tripp and was played by Michael Douglas in all of his flawed perfection. In truth, Professor Tripp was more unlike my professor than like him: both a professor and an acclaimed writer, at the start of the film his life was as messy as his unfinished second novel. His (third) wife had just left him, he was smoking pot and driving a questionable car, and he was having an affair with the Chancellor of the University, a woman named Sara (Frances McDormand) who also happened to be the wife of Grady’s department head.

“Whenever I wondered what Sara saw in me—and I wondered more than once—I always came back to the fact that she loved to read,” Grady Tripp observes near the end of the film. “She read everything, every spare moment. She was a junkie for the printed word. And lucky for me, I manufactured her drug of choice.”

In essence, that’s exactly what made me idealize my college professor (and why I “see” him in Grady Tripp). I’m the same kind of junkie Sara is: I love stories, words, ideas and eloquence, and I will take them in whatever package they come in, but somehow I only really trust them when they arrive in a quietly thoughtful package. And somewhere along the way, I developed specific notions about how that package would look, feel and smell. Tactile and sensual without being flamboyant; charismatic without cultivating drama; and uplifting without the need to be entertaining.

These very qualities are what I smell in the latest offering from the Netherlands-based perfume house, Puredistance—a fragrance called BLACK. Its name, accentuated by its spelling in all-capital letters, appropriately conveys how striking this fragrance is but might lead one to assume that it’s a bold scent or (just the opposite) a weirdly obtuse one, when, in fact, wearing BLACK is akin to getting a whiff of my professor. It’s an olfactory study in the classics, with the emphasis on the word “study.” What do I mean by that? I'll start by stating that there is nothing trendy or risqué about BLACK—it’s a fragrance that favors the iconic over the iconoclastic, built on recognizable scent elements that are hallmarks of a polished and mannerly men’s scent (and yes, it leans in the masculine direction though it possesses every shade of nuance that makes it easy for a woman to wear). There’s a geranium-like air of barbershop that is a nod to grooming; a lightly camphorous accord reminiscent of fine sweaters that have just come out of storage; a tobacco richness that adds depth and texture more so than aridity; and a wood accord that achieves a fugue effect, repeating itself in shades of oud and cedar that echo back and forth, creating a sense of movement. Reminding me of classical music lightly bouncing off wood-paneled walls, or the wooden rocking chair in my professor’s office, which he never sat in but which I have filed in my mind under the heading “cadence,” another thing I associate with him.

These iconic elements—along with the balanced way they are presented—establish BLACK as being timeless and tasteful in the way that good manners and well-crafted materials never go out of style. Yet when I say that it is a study in these things, I'm suggesting that BLACK also incorporates contemporary elements that impart uniqueness and ensure that it's striving to be more than a reproduction of a vintage fragrance. What keeps this composition au courant is, firstly, a piquant cardamom-like accord that lifts the heavier notes of the perfume and freshens it, preventing it from listing towards the stuffy end of the scent spectrum. Like an embellishment of gilt against a dark frame, it adds golden illumination and, even more than that, a sense of levity that reminds me of the spark of amusement in my professor’s eyes. Secondly, there is the oud-resembling note that, while being familiar to seasoned perfumistas and a material that is the farthest thing from new in middle-eastern countries, is nonetheless a “modern” addition to western perfumery. It makes total sense to me to include this oud-like accord in BLACK, ensuring that “old school” can be built on something new—that, in fact, it’s necessary to do so, to keep it from smelling dated.

Thirdly, there’s a cypress-like green thread that weaves in and out of BLACK—its smell of pine trees and brisk air incorporated in such a flickery way, it’s both a surprise and an enigma. BLACK is a scent that fully speaks of interiors, of rooms where a cultured man can be found: the barbershop, the wood-paneled office or den, or the soaringly grand (but still contained) gilt-framed halls of the university. So what to make of this thread of pine that enters the scent like an accent mark, alighting here and there? I’m not sure it’s real or just a figment of my imagination, but when I catch it, I’m reminded of the Latin phrase, Mens sana in corpore sano, (“A sound mind in a sound body”). A statement about balance that makes sense in any kind of setting. Given that BLACK has a foundation in the classics, who am I to question it here?