Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Bulgari's Black

I've always dug Pitchfork Media's description of Massive Attack's 1998 album Mezzanine as so dark, subterranean and bass-heavy that it "absorbs light". The same could be said of 1998's Bulgari Black, a hypnotic, sloe-eyed riff on vanilla and musk buffeted by hints of black tea, jasmine, woods, and rubber. Composed by Annick Menardo, mistress of the dark and weird (Dior's Hypnotic Poison and Le Labo's Patchouli 24 are among her divine creations), Black seems to occupy a realm apart from other fragrances of its ilk, operating on a different spectral plane; making its presence known when you least expect it, and disappearing into the abyss again just as quickly. It's downright ghostly.

The oddness begins at first spray: Black dispenses with the traditional top-middle-bottom olfactory pyramid, springing forth fully-formed from the bottle. From there, it hovers between four distinct states: smoky vanilla, woody jasmine, tea/rubber, and powdery musk. Depending on the time of day, the weather, your mood, or any combination of the above, one facet of Black will make itself known more forcefully than the others. Then, about half an hour in, it will probably disappear. This is a trick. Do not be fooled; Black is having you on, lulling you into a state of ennui: "Well, that's not so exciting. Vanilla and musk, big whoop." But for the next few hours, you will be struck at random moments by a lovely, warm, dense, smoky essence surrounding you. Black is the consummate "aura" fragrance, the kind that wraps you in a subtle but noticeable cloud of scent without projecting for miles or screeching loudly to passersby. Four hours after spraying Black on my neck, I still get wafts of it when I shift position or turn my head, and each time it smells familiar but ever so subtly different.

Now then, the rubber. Easily Black's most talked-about aspect (at least on the fragrance blogs and fora) is its unmistakable rubber accord, which has been compared to the smell of tires. Leave it to a master perfumer like Menardo to add a seemingly discordant note to a composition and not only make it work, but make it shine. The rubber in Black is both intriguing and perfectly harmonious, never jarring or self-consciously avant-garde. Along with the inedible, smoke-laced vanilla, the rubber keeps things just off-kilter enough that Black doesn't slide into a snoozy "comfort scent" mode. It holds your attention as long as you want it to.

Black is that rare thing among mainstream scents: A fragrance that is its own creature, plays by its own rules, and isn't afraid to contradict itself. It is light and yet dense, fleeting yet ever-present. It's warm and cool, comforting and austere. It's solid one minute, ephermal the next. It absorbs light. It's ghostly.

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