"Nombre Noir" By Luca Turin
Disregarding market laws, in 1994 I wrote that Shiseido’s Nombre Noir was the best fragrance ever. At about the time a friend walked off with my bottle, Shiseido took it off the market and all known stock was destroyed. Perfume collectors took notice; soon I could not afford it even at eBay auctions and lost one for $800, an insane sum, to a Swiss buyer. My entire stock consisted of the dregs of an eau de toilette bottle that had been badly stored. I had lately given up and tried not to think about it.
Last week, after a twelve-year drought, on successive days two friends showered me with enough Nombre Noir to last several lifetimes. The first gave me in a plain atomizer a generous decant from her personal stock. The second was Evan Izer. He lives in Brooklyn, in a spotless loft filled with objects he has amassed over the years, mostly ‘fifties, none showy, all solid, every one embodying the optimistic nobility of great design. He collects vintage perfumes on eBay-not with the sporadic excitement of the beginner or the jaded lust of the rich expert, not because they are rare, not because of the bottles, but because the genie they imprison has the power to make the air he breathes more beautiful.
He never spends large sums on them, and in fact almost every one of his finds is ludicrously cheap. Like a seasoned hunter, he tricks his quarry, typing in search words with mistakes like Gueblain (a misreading), Hicky (a mistyping), indicators of the careless, inexpert seller. He asked me over for tea, which he served in a beautiful black Wedgwood service that took him a decade to put together, and talked about his finds as if they had mysteriously appeared by his bed while he slept.
He first produced a huge four-ounce crystal bottle of perfect Emeraude from the ‘fifties, bought for $60. After a long pause, he averred that he seemed to find himself in possession of four unopened half-ounces of Nombre Noir parfum. He said “four” in the tone of a person who keeps hamsters and is concerned at the rate at which they breed. These came from a basement in the United Arab Emirates, which must have been air-conditioned, because they were perfect. Graciously pretending not to know what it meant to me, he gave me one: the Sainte Chapelle stained glass in liquid form.