The last day of 2011 was marked by an unplanned, unexpected purchase and a happy trip to childhood. It was Tom Ford Urban Musk, from the Private Blend Collection, which at 175 euros for 50 ml (I’ll do the shameful math for you, 3,5 per ml) is past my “worth testing” benchmark, let alone “worth buying”. I now feel in need to apologize to myself for having spent all that money on perfume but actually I didn’t pay for the perfume: I paid for the memory and for getting a glimpse of how (my) mind stores, categorizes and recalls olfactory memories.
Memory 1. The filmstrip projector. It was there in my home when I was growing up in the 70’s. It was a heavy, bulky, metal projector and I used to have filmstrips with children’s stories that I loved to “watch” – stills with subtitles. It pretty much looked like the one in the photo.
OK, I know this looks like something from a Flintstone’s story, no I am not that old! In my defence, the thing was in the house before me. I do not remember much else from this thing other than smell. When I lifted the lid to fit the roll of film strip the warmest, almost numbing smell would fill the room. The memory faded with the years but apparently remained archived in the hippocampus.
Memory 2: In September 2009 Tom Ford released the White Musk Collection. I must have sprayed casually on skin or on paper all four of them at some point in one of my walk-through’s in Attica department store in down-town Athens. I remember doing this. I don’t remember anything remarkable about them and the price tag is just ridiculous. The fact that you pay 3.5 euro per ml for the 50ml bottle and a far more reasonable 1.6ml for the 250ml decanter makes things more outrageous.
Stimulation 1: At some point during late 2010 or early 2011 I was out for a drink in Cantina Social, a small bar in down-town Athens and a box exactly like the one that came with my old filmstrip projector was part of the decoration. A bright purple box with black and multi coloured rays. The memories of childhood started to resurface.
Stimulation 2: In Autumn 2011 while I was walking home from work I started smelling the exact same smell that was bringing be back to my childhood. I could smell it every time I walked past a recently closed down shop that used to be a mobile phone dealership. Day after day that smell was creeping into me and together with the visual reminder of the projector box started haunting me. I had to find this machine and re-smell its exhalation.
Stimulation 3: In November 2011 I found this post on Bois de Jasmin about “Good Bad Smells”. About things that in general are considered as smelling foul but still have an attraction for some people. My favorite from this category is mildew or humid basement smell. I commented on this post and then I thought this would be an excellent place to ask if someone has ever smelled the odor of this projector and eventually help me find one on e-bay. So this is what I wrote:
“I have another strange smell and I would appreciate it if anyone could help me identify the source. Back in the 70’s when I was a child(…..) we had this grey heavy projection machine. It would take films of celluloid but it was projecting stills, not movies, and of course no sound. We had rolls of films with cartoon stories. There was a button on the side that you had to turn to get from one still to the next.
The smell of the inside of that machine was amazing. The other day I was walking past an abandoned shop and this smell hit me again and reminded me of my childhood. It is like some sort of clean, urban (as TF would put it) musk. Anyone knows what I am talking about?”
Final association: On the last day of 2011 I was in the halls of Attica department store once again. Standing in front of the Tom Ford Private Blend collection I saw a tester of Urban Musk. Immediately I remembered the words I used in my comment to describe the elusive smell. I had used them as a simile and never actually thought of why I chose these words and why the Tom Ford release came to my mind. So I picked the tester up and sprayed. And it was the exact same smell. The exhalation of the filmstrip projector.
Obviously I was moved by the fact that I was revisiting a childhood olfactory memory but more than anything else I was in awe of the way my nose and memory already knew the answer to the question I was asking, before I did. The memory of the projector and the memory of testing Urban Musk had obviously crossed their neuronic pathways inside my hippocampus and they had recognized themselves as relatives. I couldn’t make the connection because the two memories where very far apart in time. When I saw the box the memory of my childhood started to resurface. Smelling a similar smell in the street obviously triggered my subconscious to dig into my repository of perfumes I have tested and the search engine of my personal memory discovered a true match for the smell of the projector in Urban Musk. The connection was made but remained in my subconscious. I even wrote about it without realizing that “urban musk” was not just a simile that I found appropriate but the actual name of a perfume that smells identical. I made the connection only when I saw the bottle with the words written in bold capital print.
The perfume itself is the most interesting of the White Musk collection. It opens with a strange note that oscillates between wood and halitosis. Now the idea of smelling like bad breath and liking it is something that has most of you frowning in disgust already, but it is not just me. Kevin of Now Smell This has reviewed all four from the White Musk collection and he also reports the “bad breath” note and agrees with me that Urban Musk is the most interesting of the quartet. I cannot quite explain how this note can be attractive in a perfume. All I can imagine is that it feels warm and alive. I smell the same note in the opening of Le Labo Oud 27. In the opening of Urban Musk it is more restrained and has a woody quality. Film strips contain lignin which is a form of cellulose, the sugar that gives rigidity to plants. Pyrolysis (a heat mediated reaction) of lignin yields guaiacol, and yes, this is the connection between the smell of my projector and perfume. The heat of the projector lamp slowly turns film lignin to an aromatic derivative usually isolated from guaiac wood and palo santo tree. I do not know how all this connects to halitosis but the fact is that both Urban Musk and Oud 27 have been accused of this association. The opening of Urban Musk feels grey and woolly. This doesn’t last long. Ylang-ylang and musk add familiarity, sweetness and warmth. The musk is slightly dirty and animalic but in an elegant way. Honey and benzoin added in moderation increase the balmy sensation but they never impose on the composition. The overall effect remains airy and velvety. The drydown is powdery. Although iris is not listed in the semi-official lists of Fragrantica and parfyym.pri.ee there is a striking similarity with L’Homme de Coeur, a stellar iris perfume.
Is this worth the 3.5 euros per ml? Probably not. I didn’t consider it remarkable the first time I tried it. Is it worth the 1.6 euros per ml of the large decanter? I think yes but this means that you would have to find someone(s) to split the huge bottle with and this will not be very easy as Urban Musk was not received with an ovation. Some people report a fecal note. Lignin is the culprit for this and I do not have to explain to you the connection between cellulose aka hay and manure. Others do not get the “urban” characterization. I think it is definitely urban because I associate it strongly with a machine.
Buying Urban Musk was an unforeseeable expense but also a very moving experience. The last day of 2011 was a bridge to my past that I have been looking for a long time to cross over to times of innocence. And at the same time a keyhole into the mechanisms of my memory.
Notes from parfyym.pri.ee: pepper, carrot seeds, white honey, jasmine, plum, musk, benzoin
Notes from my nose: halitosis, ylang-ylang, musk, honey, vanilla