Flora Bella de Lalique (Lalique)

In her preface to Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, Tania Sanchez comments on the tendency of fragrance consumers to get stuck in self-inflicted style ruts. Many of us instinctively opt out of perfumes that seem to run contrary to our existing identity ("serious", "playful", "romantic", "outdoorsy" et.al.). In Sanchez' opinion, the risk-free road leads to boredom, "like obsessively matching your shirt and socks every day." She suggests occasionally wearing the absolute opposite of what we think suits us, to see if it shakes things up a bit.

I thought this was very sound advice, until I remembered that the absolute opposite of what I think suits me is that hyperglycemic fruity-floral genre that makes everyone smell like they're six years old and armed with a lollipop. The next closest thing would be a straight floral, but what kind? Solo or bouquet? Domestic or exotic? Jasmine and tuberose strike me as too syrupy; muguet and lilac as too piercing. Iris and rose wouldn't count, since one can find them in just about everything. My challenge was to find a flower I could commit to.

While paging through Perfumes, I found myself lured by Sanchez' take on Lalique's Flora Bella, a "sleepy little greenish violet" made interesting by icy notes of milk and helional. To a lifetime disciple of warm Spice Road orientals, Flora Bella sounded like one hell of a stretch. Yet I returned time and again to reread and ponder that oddly compelling description.

Normally, if I want to sample a fragrance, I purchase a decant-- a small (1.5mL) spray vial good for several wearings and inexpensive enough not to sting too much if the fragrance proves a poor match. But my usual decant source doesn't carry Flora Bella. I scoured the internet, finding numerous citations (including an article on "perfume astrology" by Abigail at The Posh Peasant suggesting that Flora Bella was ideal for Aquarians like me). But no available samples.

The scarcity of a thing can make it seem more precious to the seeker. The fact that I didn't even know what Flora Bella smelled like had begun to seem immaterial. The more it eluded me, the more I HAD to have it.

Finally, a breakthrough: Amazon (of all places!) had in stock a brand-new spray bottle of Flora Bella in sealed manufacturer's packaging. Granted, it was 100mL -- by far the largest bottle of perfume I'd ever bought, and probably way more than I'd use in a lifetime. But it wasn't terribly expensive, and I had some leftover birthday money to spend-- all in all, a small risk. If Flora Bella and I didn't jibe, maybe the Perfumed Court would want to add it to their collection in exchange for a couple of decants...

True to its icy nature, Flora Bella arrived during a snowstorm. I restrained myself from opening it immediately, figuring that if I'd married myself to this total stranger in haste, I might as well repent in leisure.

And you know what? It's been wedded bliss ever since.

The opening -- an assertive chord of lilac, narcissus, and honeysuckle -- misled me initially into thinking this might turn out to be a smiling springtime bouquet. Then I became aware that these sweet floral notes were suspended in something crystal-clear and infinitely cold. It held them aloft and separate, preserving their scent without allowing it the slightest expansion. Flowers in an ice storm: merciless.

After an entr'acte of fresh cold cucumber and approaching snow, we launched into Scene Two: an extraordinary accord of heavy cream in a stainless steel bowl that has been placed in the freezer to chill before whipping. No extraneous flavors and very little sugar mar this milky, opalescent semifreddo. It only sweetens as it dries down, but in a taunting sort of way-- deliberately retreating beyond your grasp just as your hunger for it grows.

What is extraordinary about this cream accord is its familiarity within an unexpected context. With Flora Bella, Bertrand Duchaufour arrives at the exact same destination as Olivia Giacobetti's Safran Troublant, albeit by a completely different route-- one that is cold instead of warm, remote instead of comforting, and infinitely more troublant.

Flora Bella is truly a lunar phenomenon, unsettling and alien. Its glow is akin to the adularescence of moonstone, the satiny chatoyancy of polished selenite, or -- most appropriately -- the frosty blue-gold-pink aura trapped within vintage pieces of Lalique glass. It stops you in your tracks like a long, cool stare from a beautiful stranger's eyes. It holds you at arm's length, its allure increasing as the distance between you grows.

Aloof, elusive, maddening. Typical Aquarian!

Scent Elements: Mandarin, bergamot, pink pepper, daphne, frangipani, tuberose, vanilla, white musk, amber

Jaïpur (Boucheron)

Here in the Mid-Atlantic states, we've been pummeled all winter long with snowstorms, white on top of white on top of white. Occasionally comes a sunny day to taunt us with a brief thaw, then it all firms back up into a slush that penetrates even the most water-resistant duckboots. Friends left and right are withering from lack of sunshine, and the sensation of being warm and dry (both at the same time!) is becoming something to brag about.

Every time I see the snowflake armies on the march again, I reach for Jaïpur-- a fragrance which tricks the mind into believing there's no such thing as bad weather.

If Jaïpur were a garment, it would be a warm silk brocade jacket with a high Mandarin collar to keep out the chill. Granted, it also be hideously overdecorated as befits a product of the early 1990s, when the "power suit" gave way to idiosyncratic "ethnic" wear weighed down with beads, bells, sequins, paste jewels, and gold-braid passementerie. But let them stare at you in the supermarket! Only you know how perfectly this jacket fits-- or how much courage it seems to give you when you wear it.

If Jaïpur were a blanket, it would be queen-size and made of felted wool (Alpaca, perhaps, or merino). This is the sort of blanket for which fireplaces, bear rugs, low-slung sofas and sleepy winter evenings were made-- so dense and indestructible, you'll almost certainly be able to deed it to your grandchildren; so soft and cozy, who's worrying about the future?

If Jaïpur were a dish, it could only be dessert. Having heard about its famous apricot-and-plum theme, I expected a healthy serving of mouthwatering fruit accords right up front. But unlike other perfumes which start juicy and end dry, Jaïpur has a few tricks in its apron pocket. Its first stage was one of dessicated rose petals and acacia wood, arid and hazy-- and dry as a bone. (Quick cut to Liz Lemon at a fancy dinner: "Is this potpourri or chips? Because I’m going to try and eat it.")

After about ten minutes, the pie was finally out of the oven-- a buttery confection containing all the delicious fruit and syrup I'd been promised, spiced with mace and curling with steam. I should have known: it would be an odd sort of banquet that served the sweet before the savory. As the drydown evolved into something even sweeter and softer, it occurred to me that this was dessert eaten backwards-- crisp crust first, succulent filling next, creme Chantilly last. Logic? Who needs logic?

As with any sweet, Jaïpur is best in small amounts. Not because it's rich or fattening or pricey... but because you'll want to make it last. Save it for a snowy day. There's plenty more of them coming.

Scent elements: Plum, apricot, peach, violet, rose, locust-tree, heliotrope, peony, iris, white musk, sandalwood

New York (Parfums de Nicolai)

While going to art school in Manhattan, I lived in a claustrophobic railroad apartment on 43rd and 8th -- the heart of good old seedy pre-Disney Times Square. The apartment (an illegal rebuild in a building zoned strictly for business) belonged to an artist and her filmmaker husband. In exchange for room and board, I nannied their delightful two-year-old and stretched endless painters' canvases in the upstairs studio, where I could actually see the sky.

Only the width of 43rd Street separated my tiny bedroom from that monument of sleaze, the Times Square Hotel. The room right across from mine housed a young drag queen who often sat in front of her dressing room mirror, smoking slender cigarettes and examining her exquisite face for flaws. In this cold and ugly city, we were two loners connected only by the view from our windows. Yet in the hours I spent watching her watching herself, I felt a sense of wordless connection to this lovely, remote stranger. She was my New York.

That winter, every plywood wall around every construction scaffold in the city seemed to be plastered with posters advertising Rattle and Hum, the documentary film chronicling U2's Joshua Tree tour. As a longtime fan needful of distraction from the grey city streets, I went to see it in the theatres two or three times. Its iconography - deserts, highways, endless stretches of open sky -- proved a potent consolation for a small soul stranded on a hostile urban planet.

The first time I sampled Parfums de Nicolaï's New York, I was sharply startled by the inconsistency between its name and its aim. What, if anything at all, does this painted-desert fantasy have to do with the city? There's no sagebrush, no sweetgrass there. No space. Then I remembered that when I lived in Manhattan, hemmed in all sides by concrete and stone, I longed for nothing more than to be airlifted to Joshua Tree or some similar wide-open landscape in the American Southwest. In fact, I doubt I could have understood this perfume if I hadn't lived there and been desperate to get out. New York the fragrance is not meant to provide a portrait of New York the city, but rather an olfactory mirage of the sort all city-dwellers dream about-- sky and land that stretch all the way to eternity, and no damn buildings in the way.

The best way to describe this unisex fragrance is "L’Heure Bleue Pour Homme”. It encompasses many of the same notes (citrus, carnation, vanilla) and special effects (that ineffably soft focus! those melancholy shadows!). But just as Guerlain arrived at Mitsouko by marrying a fresh peach accord to a pre-existing chypre, his descendant Patricia de Nicolaï took the supremely feminine L'Heure Bleue and Americanized it with a dash each of tumbleweed and testosterone. The results shimmer with desert heat-- but a desert of the sort ruled by Priscilla the Queen, elegant, tough, tolerant, embracing all genders, generous to a fault with her great, big, wide-open heart.

When I wear New York, I think of my New York-- a boy teetering on the cusp of womanhood, hiding her tender young heart beneath the brittle exterior of a grand courtesan. I wonder where she is, what window she looks out of now, what she sees in her mirror. If I could, I would go back in time, take her out of that dark little hotel room in the city, and give her all the skies in the world to play beneath. I'd tell her: forget the mirror. You're perfect, you are.

Scent elements: Lemon, petitgrain, bergamot, lavender, artemesia, pimiento, pepper, patchouli, cedar, vanilla, leather, amber

Anaïs Anaïs (Cacharel)

My younger sister and I have always cultivated more thorns than roses between us. Since childhood, our relationship has been fraught with rivalry, resentment, and distance; many times it has threatened to end up on the rocks altogether. We try and try, striving to meet in the middle and always seeming to miss.

During our mid-twenties, I had this grand idea of presenting her with a unique gift, one that would simultaneously express all my unspoken admiration and heal the scars of our past. I knew what that gift would be the day I happened across a tiny, cluttered downtown shopfront that housed a bespoke perfumer. Inside sat my miracle worker-- a bird-boned elderly woman dressed all in black, wearily doling out essential oils into tiny bottles, drop by precious drop. Here was the person who would convert my difficult emotions into legible form, who would facilitate communication between two warring sisters using the peace offering of scent.

Leaning back in her chair, she fixed me with tired, bloodshot eyes and commanded me to describe my sister in five words or less. "Feminine.... confident.... artistic...." I stalled. Then, out of nowhere, the last two words leapt to my lips: "Anaïs Anaïs!"

As a teenager, I explained, my younger sister pledged herself to this perfume so thoroughly that even her bedroom color scheme -- apricot, sage, and forest green -- mirrored the Anaïs Anaïs package design. This might have smacked of safe conformity during the 1970's, but for a high-school girl in 1988 it amounted to a revolutionary manifesto. While all her friends subscribed to the horrid, clean-cut, sporty stylings of Colors of Bennetton, she shimmered in a cloud of archaic sandalwood and vintage powdery rose, all the while managing to stay safely conventional. It was an interesting form of social camouflage that hid a slightly subversive heart.

The perfumer rolled her eyes as though she'd heard it all before. "Thirty dollars. Come back in a week," she said.

The finished scent came bottled in the pretty pressed-glass phial I'd picked out. It contained many of the elements of Anaïs Anaïs (rose, neroli, vanilla, ylang ylang) but smelled somehow bloodless-- soapy, safe, devoid of counterculture. I felt disappointed, less in the perfume than in myself. I'd had this one chance to express how I felt about my sister, and like so many times before, it hadn't come out right. And whatever ambivalence the perfumer had picked up on, she'd poured it right into this bottle.

My sister gave her bespoke perfume one sniff, restoppered the bottle, and never touched it again. So profoundly indifferent was she to its olfactory message that when she moved out of my parents' house, she pointedly left the bottle behind.

When my parents moved a few years later, I found the bespoke perfume still sitting on the abandoned dresser in my sister's old apricot-and-green bedroom. My well-meant gesture, my peace offering-- unwanted, unclaimed, grimed with dust. If I didn't take it, it would be thrown away. I decided on the spot to rescue it. It stayed with me through three separate moves, packed and unpacked and occasionally opened for a quick sniff. It smells nothing like Anaïs Anaïs, of course. Just like my relationship with my sister, maybe I just have to accept it for what it is-- imperfect yet sweet, flawed yet hopeful, a mistake sincerely meant, but a mistake nonetheless.

Scent Elements: Orange blossom, hyacinth, rose, ylang ylang, lily, jasmine, amber, sandalwood, incense

Safran Troublant (L'Artisan)

When I awaken from a night's sleep that scarcely qualifies as rest, drag myself out of bed only to rediscover gravity (ouch), chug down three cups of coffee without the slightest diminishment of my brain fog, and face the day feeling like a frantic hamster on a treadmill, there is only one perfume for me: L'Artisan Parfumeur's Safran Troublant.

Troublant means "disturbing"-- an ironic adjective for so benevolent a scent. I much prefer L'Artisan's translation-- "saffron spell". With elements of rose, vanilla, and (of course) saffron, perfumer-cum-good-witch Olivia Giacobetti has concocted a masterpiece of aromatic sorcery capable of turning the dross of everyday into gold.

Today, for example, I knew right from the start that I'd need all the moral support I could lay my hands on to make it through to five o'clock. I assembled my ammunition: a favorite pair of jeans, my most comfortable shoes, a certain necklace that never fails to bring a feeling of protection-- and Safran Troublant. All day long, I felt myself enfolded in an invisible cloak of goodwill that warmed me against the chill and insulated my tender self against the sharp corners of the world. Whenever my courage began to slip, I raised my wrist to my nose and breathed in-- and discovered new stores of strength.

How can a mere perfume provide so much consolation?

Personally, I think that what makes Safran Troublant so effective as a mood-elevator is its gourmand quality. It deliberately evokes rich exotic desserts such as Persian rice pudding or Punjabi gulab jamun (cream fritters soaked in cardamom-rose syrup), delicacies which double as comfort foods. With such role models, Safran Troublant doesn't have to apologize for being high-calorie when it does so much for the spirit.

Yet a perfume's earnest promise to "fill you up" does not necessarily spell sincerity on the part of its creator. When a fragrance brief reads like a Ruth Reichl essay, you can be sure that some faceless corporate entity has fully calculated the profit in pushing your hunger buttons. Most "foodie fragrances" do so cynically, offering you a feast of edible-sounding ingredients but ultimately leaving you empty and unsated. Not so Safran Troublant. I believe it exemplifies the elusive element that renders butter and cream so satisfying to the palate. It makes you feel FULL-- contented and complete. It speaks mystically to the human desire to "eat, pray, love". In short, it feeds the soul.

So leave it to the lab-coated neurochemists to dissect the subtle effect of its molecules on your limbic system. All I know are the results-- and all I can say is A-Mmmmmmm-en!

Scent Elements: Saffron, rose, vanilla, sandalwood

Polo (Ralph Lauren)

Perfumery, like all other art forms, is subjective. What makes an individual prefer one fragrance over another is largely a matter of personal association. If a scent reminds us of things or people we cherish, if it pushes our unique "happy" buttons, we like it. And if it doesn't, we don't. Nothing personal. It is what it is.

Less common -- but just as powerful -- are fragrances that tap into our bad, sad, or angry frames of reference. In such cases, prejudice overrides all attempts at objective logic. We know that a scent is just a scent. It's ephemeral; it can't hurt us. We grasp the concept behind it, appreciate the creative skill that brought it into being, and agree that the end result is a success.

And still, we hate it-- and nothing is going to change our minds.

I first encountered Ralph Lauren's Polo in 1982, the Christmas before my fourteenth birthday. At the annual family gift swap, my uncle (an executive with Ralph Lauren Corporation) handed out identical canvas-and-leather gym bags stuffed with Polo promotional swag: perfume sample cards, lotions, soap-and-shampoo sets, bath towels, zippered makeup cases. We could never afford these items ourselves, and our uncle knew it. His real gift to us was this vicarious glimpse of the high life, a taste of luxuries beyond our grasp.

To us, my uncle and his family inhabited Mount Olympus-- a stratosphere high above our messy, mundane world. Way up there, grownups knotted pastel cashmere sweaters over their shoulders and drank chilled white wine year-round. Their clean-cut junior-preppie offspring dropped references to "lessons"-- ballet, voice, flute, French horn -- in tones of upper-class boredom and reserve. We envied and idolized and found it next to impossible to relax around them.

That year, the family Christmas party was held at our cramped suburban home. My cousins responded to our generic mall-bought gifts with polite, detached thank-you's. Then came the Polo gym bags, handed around with indulgent smiles. They stood back and watched us coolly as we erupted with excited delight. Here was something we could flaunt in front of our peers, tangible proof that we were better than they thought we were (or than WE thought we were-- a subtle but important distinction). I combed through the contents of my fancy gym bag, opening, sniffing, squeezing, sampling. By the end of that hour, I reeked of Polo from head to toe. Later that evening (after the cheese and Triscuits but before the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding) one of my posh cousins voiced the opinion (not to me of course, but to someone who would dutifully trickle it down) that I was a freak. The verdict was definitive; the gods had spoken.

Not too long afterward, my uncle accepted a corporate position with Proctor & Gamble and moved his family to the Midwest. Almost three decades have passed; I can count on half of one hand the number of times I've seen my cousins since. And Polo? Can't stand the stuff. Call it transference, if you will. But disillusionment, like despair, like fear, has a scent. For me, that scent is Polo.

Don't get me wrong. The objective portion of my brain thinks that Polo is a fine work of perfumery-- crisp, enlivening, reminiscent of the deep woods on a late spring morning. If it had been honest and unpretentious, if it had not put on airs -- and who knows, maybe if my cousin hadn't called me a freak that winter's day -- I might have even grown to like it.

But no. I loathe it. It steals the forest primeval and plants it in the center of a gated country club that will never admit me as a member. It brings back to me all that was elitist, excessive, and nauseating about the Reagan Era. It holds all the missteps, disappointments, and embarrassing moments of my awkward childhood. It makes me feel bad about myself, for no very good reason. As a result, I will always, always hold it at arm's length.

To paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, no person can make me feel inferior without my consent. Why should a perfume be any different?

Scent Elements: Pine, chamomile, artemisia, basil, thyme, cumin, coriander, patchouli, oakmoss, vetiver, leather, tobacco

Arabie (Serge Lutens)

In her 2007 memoir, The Scent Trail, journalist Celia Lyttelton describes her global quest to visit the homeplace of every ingredient in "Reminiscent", the signature fragrance created for her by bespoke perfumer Anastasia Brozler. Her odyssey includes stops in the Near East, Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Mediterranean... yet when she returns to sample the finished fragrance, Lyttelton discovers that its heart rests in a scent from her own childhood. This scent is what transforms her bespoke perfume from a mere collection of exotic ingredients into a deeply emotional and personal experience. "Reminiscent" becomes a mirror to her soul, reflecting the deepest associations of her being.

Arabie, for me, is one such phenomenon. More than a perfume, it is a vicarious journey of the heart, each scent element another page of personal travelogue. I almost feel as though Christopher Sheldrake has taken a peek in my diary; this could be my own bespoke scent.

Arabie's first notes of orange peel, caraway, cumin, and anise evoke the aromatic and colorful mixture of roasted seeds, spices, and rock sugar served as a palate cleanser after a satisfying Indian feast. Brief notes of nigella (black caraway) and honey usher in a tranquil, long-lived sandalwood chord that is strongly reminiscent of those slightly cluttered metaphysical shops where boxes of incense are stored on top of silk scarves from Bhutan. Eventually this settles into a drydown of the softest patchouli imaginable, mingled with a powdery vanillic accord which recalls handmade paper so old it crumbles to dust in your hand.

It is said that the mind is a mansion in which every memory occupies its own room. Often, we happen upon a door whose lock has rusted shut; in such cases, a stray sensation -- a particular slant of light, the touch of a certain fabric, or a perfume -- can act as a skeleton key, freeing what is imprisoned within and facilitating a rush of reconnection.

Arabie reunites me with memories of adventures I've had that have been lost in my subconscious for years. It reaches in, sets them free, and places them side by side for me to see in a new light. Where I was, who I was with, and how I felt in that moment-- all fresh, and right at my fingertips. I feel a sense of deep joy and tranquility, and I realize that it takes a rare perfume that can unlock these kind of reactions.

Arabie is that perfume... and time and again, I am grateful for its magic.

Scent Elements: Cedar, sandalwood, fig, date, mandarin, nutmeg, cumin, clove, bayleaf, tonka bean, benzoin, myrrh, labdanum

L'Heure Bleue Eau de Toilette (Guerlain)

"I'm looking for L'Heure Bleue by Guerlain," I tell the perfume counter employee.

She sets down the BabyPhat gift pack she was about to place on top of the display pyramid and squints at me. "Girr-what?"

"Guerlain," I repeat. "One of the world's oldest and most famous perfume houses."

"Well, I'VE never heard of it," she says, waving me over to one of her colleagues.

"I'm looking for L'Heure Bleue by Guerlain," I tell the colleague.

"Guh-who?" she says, gripping the edge of a table bearing a ziggurat of Ed Hardy for Christian Audigier, as if for moral support.

I point to the glass display case behind her, where a lonely bottle of Shalimar gathers dust. "Guerlain."

"Oh! Gwer-layne!" For a moment her face brightens. Then: "Is, um, what you said... Lurr Blur... is that a new product?"

"Actually, it's almost a hundred years old, but still in production today."

"Oh.... let me get my manager."

The manager, a fiftyish woman with a leathery tan and mascara clumps on her starry lashes, waves a gold-bangled hand at my request. "Leer Bloo? Maybe in the city, dawling. But we have Joocy Coo-toor-- that's kind of French."

Call me a snob, but I believe that every perfume counter ought to invest in a single bottle of L'Heure Bleue as an educational tool. Let corporate write it off as a training expense-- that little bottle will provide a reference baseline against which all other fragrances may be compared. For once you have tried L'Heure Bleue -- no matter which side of the counter you stand on -- "good" will become a fixed definition in your mind.

The fabled "blue hour" begins with a sunset. The landscape is drenched in dying light, a haze of evanescent pink, orange, and lemon yellow that fades even as you focus your mind on it. The last of the earth's heat causes the evening air to shimmer. Shadows that seemed stark and black in full sun now appear as shifting veils of deep purple and periwinkle blue, against which the first fireflies begin to paint their fluorescent calligraphies. You settle back in satisfaction, relaxing into the beauty of the evening... only to realize with a start that the air has turned slightly chilly and damp. The day has died away; twilight steals over the scene... along with an undefinable sense of loss and regret.

This melancholy is what L'Heure Bleue famously evokes. Other perfumes before it sought only to assemble a list of ingredients in the interest of providing a good time. Jacques Guerlain took the same ingredients -- neroli, carnation, iris, musk, and vanilla -- and opted instead to convey a human emotion, and not an easy or happy one. There is an unmistakable salty tang to L'Heure Bleue's drydown that brings tears to mind (if not to one's eyes). Are they tears of joy or sorrow? The answer is left to the wearer.

Many modern perfumes shriek confidence in a way that makes you think there's a "positive thinking" clause in the contract. The tales they tell are those of conquest, self-promotion, and overweening optimism, in which the wearer always wins. But L'Heure Bleue dares to confess uncertainty, vulnerability, and a certain ambivalence about the future. Its story contains sad scenes of cherished things coming to an end-- a day, a way of life, a love affair. In an ephemeral world, it has the audacity to remind us of the eternal price one pays for fleeting pleasure.

Some perfumistas label L'Heure Bleue an "old lady" scent. Of course-- it's the old ladies, not the young, who have loved, lost, and lived to tell about it. To paraphrase Jim Morrison: the girls don't know, but their grandmothers understand. And in the simple terms of quality, if more first-time perfume buyers had the opportunity to experience L'Heure Bleue right out of the gate, the Baby Phats, Harajuku Lovers, and Juicy Coutures of this world would never stand a chance.

To this day, L'Heure Bleue voices a challenge to our preconceptions. In a language both archaic and timeless, it says: Forget what you think a fragrance ought to be-- what it should smell like, how long it should last, what it should say. I am from another time, another world. And once you have heard it speak, all other tongues seem impoverished by comparison.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, aniseed, carnation, neroli, orange blossom, iris, violet, jasmine, heliotrope, ylang-ylang, Bulgarian rose, tuberose, vanilla, benzoin, tonka bean, incense, musk

Eau de Fleur de Soie (Kenzo)

There is a tree, stunted and scoliotic, that can be found trailing its wispy foliage over the front yards of suburban South Jersey. This is the Persian silk tree -- Albizia julibrissin, AKA mimosa -- a leguminous native of Asia that has found new vitality in the Pine Barrens' sandy soil.

Neighborhood children derive endless delight from stroking its leaves to watch them snap shut (a self-protective trick botanists call seismonasty). Its papery seed pods can be written on with berry ink and passed as love notes; if the receiver doesn't care for the message, he or she can crumple the pod to powder in one hand. And during the summer, the silk tree produces spectacular clusters of finely tasseled coral-pink flowers. These make wonderful fantasy powderpuffs for little girls, but they seem to offer precious little in the way of natural perfume.

This seems to be the idea behind Fleur de Soie, the 2008 chapter of Kenzo's Eaux de Fleur serial. Fleur de Soie uses a flyaway silk tree blossom as its totem image, to great dramatic effect. But in reality, Fleur de Soie is all show and no scent.

Can a perfume be seismonastic? As I sprayed it on the inside of my arm, Fleur de Soie disappeared almost immediately, as if it could not bear to be in contact with skin. I had to spray several more times to build up enough fragrance to analyze, only to find it saccharine and faintly metallic, self-effacing, a non-smell. Now, I know that perfumers love to claim the most exotic natural materials for their inspiration... but with all the world's botanical references to choose from, couldn't Jean Jacques have picked one whose primary instinct isn't to shrivel up and hide?

Most people have no idea what a silk tree blossom smells like. But even in fantasy -- no, ESPECIALLY in fantasy -- a flower ought to smell, well, if not good, then like something, anything. Why not make it smell like heaven-- or hell, if that's your whim? Instead, this "silk flower" is the sort you buy in a craft store. In this context, its lack of fragrance makes perfect sense. But even a fabric flower glued to a plastic stem is capable of evoking romance. Isn't it?

Alas, the only thing Fleur de Soie evokes is a glass of fruit punch so diluted with ice cube meltwater that it's lost all color and taste. No matter how sticky-sweet or artificially-flavored the full-strength beverage might be, it's GOT to be more fun than this.

Scent Elements: "Silk flower", plus some fruity-floral chemicals. The Kenzo website claims that the ingredients of its Eaux de Fleur are "picked from Japanese trees", which is plausible only if these trees are grown in a laboratory.

Premier Figuier (L'Artisan)

The faculty of scent is said to be rooted in that part of the brain where our most indelible memories are stored. I understood this the first time I sprayed a perfume on my wrist and saw a ghost.

The perfume was L'Artisan Perfumeur's Premier Figuier, and the ghost was that of my father's sister. To my knowledge, she is still among the living, but she hasn't spoken to any of us in decades, so I can't be certain. When I knew her, Premier Figuier did not yet exist. But somehow it brings her unerringly to mind, a hologram built out of random scraps of memory.

I remember her clearly: a young widow, tart-humored, her natural ebullience tinged by heavy and untimely sorrows. Her house was filled with velvet-upholstered antiques that smelled of lemon furniture polish and church frankincense. To me, it was a museum full of treasures; to her, it was a cage-- every paint chip and creaking floorboard a reminder of the husband she'd lost and the children she'd struggled to raise alone. She tried to escape its bars by moving cross-country, but everywhere she and her antiques went, so did the cage.

The day she realized that her cage was other people, she acted quickly to cut them all loose-- even going so far as to tell her grown children, You no longer have a mother; leave me alone. She retreated from the world of phone calls, family reunions, and messy relationships as a nun withdraws behind the cloister wall. To everyone else, her actions seemed incomprehensible-- a string of lunacies committed by a bitter, possibly even ill woman. But I know that she was as sane as a brick. And somehow, through this perfume, she is restored to me.

In this bottle, we're meant to find an entire fig tree: leaves, fruit, bark, sap. Instead, I find something much more suburban-- the scent of privet hedges in summer. Glossy dark leaves, tiny white blossoms humming with bees, a sickly, sap-green fragrance that only sweetens after several bitter minutes. Rather than be disappointed at the absence of promised exoticism, I am charmed at discovering a cherished smell from a childhood world.

Yet somehow I know that this was the very world that my aunt was anxious to escape. I envision her once again in the suburbs, chafed by the mundane, hemmed in by all the hedges, unable to bear fruit.

The word perfume stems from the Latin pro fumum, "through smoke". Through the smoke of burning incense, people could send prayers to heaven, encounter gods, seek prophecies, sanctify each breath, and experience visions of those long gone.

Scent Elements: Coconut milk, sandalwood, dried figs, fig leaf

Breath of God (B Never Too Busy To Be Beautiful/LUSH)

There’s a painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art that simultaneously haunts and infuriates a friend of mine. No matter what special exhibit she's bought a ticket to see, she invariably ends up in the permanent collection wing, fuming in front of this one work of art. She loves it. She hates it. She marvels at its audacity. She grits her teeth at its arrogance. She claims she’ll keep going back to look at it until she finally understands it... or rips it off the wall in frustration.

So it is destined to be with me and Breath of God.

My decision to obtain a decanted sample of it was based on two prompts-- Tania Sanchez' enraptured five-star review of it in Perfumes: The A to Z Guide (in which she described it as "a triumph, a walk through an autumnal landscape in shades of pencil gray instead of painterly gold...") and the heads-up that LUSH's B Never Too Busy To Be Beautiful division would soon B Going Out of Business*. If Breath of God really was so astounding, I wanted to experience it before it vanished for good. So I ordered a sample sprayer from The Perfumed Court and readied myself for a religious experience.

A trip through a circus funhouse would be more like it.

As soon as the perfume hit my skin, I was struck by the scent of... something burning. Seriously, I thought I had left a dishtowel on the stove. Before I could reach for the extinguisher, this scent suddenly morphed from house fire to fruit salad to Old Spice. I believe I may have actually uttered “Fuck!” out loud.

Muttering and shaking my head, I sat down on the couch and received a whiff of honeydew melon from the region of my bosom. At the same time, the pulse points up under my jaw were radiating mesquite as if I’d marinated myself in Liquid Smoke. So to recap: my wrists smelled like aftershave, my chest smelled like the produce section at the grocery store, and my throat smelled like a Kansas City barbecue. What kind of alchemical funny business was going on here?

Five minutes elapsed, and we suddenly entered upon a bizarre medicinal phase. All the aforementioned disparate odors came together and turned into BenGay on my skin. I stuck my wrist under my husband’s nose, and he expressed a hope that I would feel better—or at least take another shower—soon. Moments after the words left his mouth, the whole shebang geared down into a fresh men's deodorant scent-- woodsy, musky, almost affable; in other words, MILES away from where it had been a moment before.

Now it is evening, and I'm still muttering, "What the...?" I feel exhausted, put-upon, vaguely duped. Yet -- god help me -- I'm interested.

Damn you, Breath of God! In twelve hours, I've gone from planning to offload you onto the first passerby, to vowing to never ever let you go. My rating has veered from top marks to no marks and back again, and still hasn't come to a complete stop. I think I'll wear you the next time I accompany my friend to the art museum. She'll stand in front of her painting, and I'll keep sniffing myself and cursing under my breath, and together we'll create what I secretly suspect you already are: an amazing piece of performance art, alienating, confusing, off-putting, and impossible to deny.

*2012 UPDATE: Though BNTBTBB announced that it was calling it quits in 2009, parent company LUSH absorbed the line and relaunched it in 2011 as the "Exclusives" collection under the new Gorilla Perfumes label. Breath of God remains its familiar, weird and brilliant self, priced affordably and in ready supply. Bless the Constantines, père et fils!

Scent Elements: Neroli, lemon, grapefruit, melon, jasmine, rose, ylang-ylang, vetiver, sandalwood, cedar, cade, black pepper, amber, musk