Habit Rouge (Guerlain)

"Smell this." I hold my wrist under my husband's nose.

He inhales deeply, then shrugs. "It's okay."

"Just okay?"

Cheerfully: "Mm-hm."

This scene occurs daily at my house, with very few deviations from script. I would say that ninety percent of the perfumes that have undergone this test rated an "okay". One (Breath of God) received a "weird", another (Idole) a furrowed brow and a muttered, "Where is it?" and still another (Muscs Koublaï Khän) a resolute "No!" On the plus side, Sacrebleu always gets an enthusiastic thumbs up, and Safran Troublant a blissful nuzzling at the nape of my neck. "Mmmmmm.... that's nice...."

Little does the man know, this time I'm not asking on my own behalf.

In the years that we have been together, my husband has never worn any kind of fragrance on purpose. The idea of an "aftershave" other than plain cold water makes him shake his head. Owing to sensitive skin issues, he has built a personal regimen involving Ivory Soap, Gold Bond Powder, Nivea Sensitive shaving cream, and "plain" therapeutic moisturizer-- all of which, in concert with his personal scent, happen to smell fantastic. But although he has reacted with mild interest to the masculines in my collection, he has never made a single move toward swiping one for himself. I would never presume to choose a fragrance for him, but if he were ever to pilfer my sample of Habit Rouge for daily wear, I would ratify his decision with all my heart.

Looking back over the evolution of men's fragrances, one sees certain categories -- fougères, leathers, woods, and aquatics -- lording it over all. Habit Rouge belongs to none of these. It's classified as an woody oriental, but is no less masculine for its lack of chauvinism. Bear in mind that in 1965, when Jacques Guerlain formulated HR, the definition of masculinity itself was in flux. Beginning with the Mod style movement of the early 60's, men had begun to struggle free from the previous decade's buttoned-down definition of manhood and to explore (gingerly, of course) a more "feminine" interest in fashion, art, and self-expression.

By 1966, lavishly pattered flowing shirts paired with hip-hugging flared trousers and Cuban heels would be considered the cutting edge of male fashion in psychedelic London. An outre "new Edwardian" aesthetic waited in the wings, all velvet and brocade-- to this cultural style revolution, Habit Rouge acted as the huntsman's trumpet call.

It kicks off with a fantastic sour top note, unashamedly floral yet not at all delicate, a hearty handshake of a scent like neat camelia oil on good leather. It then rapidly kaleidoscopes through a hundred sunset shades of citrus, with raspy wood notes gently shouldering their way to the fore as if to reassure you of HR's core masculinity. No need to overstate the obvious here, as so many overtly hairy-chested fragrances do at a shout. HR is perfectly comfortable with its identity; its manliness goes without saying and can survive a bit of dandifying.

It ends where very few masculine fragrances have ever dared to end-- in a faint, talcum-powder shimmer laced through with orange blossoms. This explains why so many men have lost their bottles of HR to wives and girlfriends-- but don't draw the wrong conclusions, gentlemen. It's not that HR is for ladies. It's that ladies love HR, no matter who's wearing it. Why not you? (Still not convinced? Be advised that Sean Connery has sworn by Habit Rouge for years. That's right-- 007 wears it, so calm down, big boy.)

"Smell this." I hold my Habit Rouge-sprayed wrist under my husband's nose.

He inhales deeply, then shrugs. "It's okay," he says. Then he takes my wrist in his hand and smells again.

"Hm," he says.

Hm, indeed.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, lemon, rosewood, basil, sandalwood, carnation, patchouli, cedar, cinnamon, vanilla, amber, moss, benzoin, labdanum, olibanum

1740: Marquis de Sade (Histoires de Parfums)

My maternal grandfather, a gruff London-born Irishman with a deadpan sense of humor, preferred for his teatime a particular sweet known as the Garibaldi biscuit-- or as he called them to our delighted disgust, "fly sandwiches".

A direct descendent of Dublin gur cake, the fly sandwich consists of a layer of sticky, sweet filling between two layers of rather dry glazed pastry, which is scored before baking so as to be easily broken into pieces. Without hot liquid to soften it, the "fly" part of the sandwich adheres to teeth like cement, so one must subject it to a lengthy soaking in tea or coffee before cramming the whole delicious shebang in one's mouth. Indelicate, yes-- but one of life's minor pleasures.

The traditional filling for fly sandwiches is a puree of dried fruit-- currants, dates, figs, apricots, raisins, or sultanas. The fruit is soaked in water, mixed with spices, and cooked down until it compacts itself into a sweet, tarry sludge. Were you to analyze its scent molecules and base a perfume on them, you'd end up with Histoires de Parfums' 1740.

The first time I wore 1740, I couldn't keep my wrists away from my nose all day. Rare is the perfume that divests you of shame to the point where you're compulsively sniffing yourself in public. I actually rushed home from work to reapply it just so that I could experience it all over again from the top. Not that I really needed to-- 1740 possesses formidable staying power -- but each stage of its development held so much of my attention and interest, it was impossible not to want to prolong our time together.

1740's dried-fruit aspect -- dark, sticky, almost chocolatey in its intensity -- may come across as a little high-calorie on paper, but the welcome addition of astringent wormwood and burnt-bitter immortelle save it from Sugarplum Fairy territory. The heart of 1740 is all lush suede and coffee notes, and the drydown bears enough of an odd resemblance to the opening chords of Muscs Koublaï Khän to make me think that some experimental layering might be in order.

Still, just as with 1805: George Sand, I find myself groping to imagine a plausible explanation for Gerald Ghislain's choice of perfume mascot. The Father of Sadism is the absolute last person this ultra-homey, cozy-kitchen perfume summons to mind. Leather? The fruit kind, sure. Cruel? Not even close. Addictive? Absolutely.

Scent Elements: Immortelle, bergamot, artemisia, patchouli, cardamom, cedar, elemi, leather, labdanum

Encens Flamboyant (Annick Goutal)

There is a perfume she will never wear, in a vial she keeps locked away. She takes it out occasionally when she is alone, and opens it to breathe it in. But it never touches her skin. It can't; she won't permit it.

She keeps this perfume not for personal adornment, not for pleasure or an anodyne from pain. She keeps it because she lost the key to that industrial-sized padlock on her heart. This lock might otherwise rust shut forever if she doesn't break it open every once in a while. She could do this easily with a cigarette, if she still smoked. But the doctor told her she'd done enough damage to her heart with smoking, so that road is closed to her now.

For a brief period -- eight months, a year at most -- she'd smoked Nat Shermans, either Hint of Mint or Touch of Clove. To get them, she had to travel to one of two tiny independent tobacconists situated half an hour in opposite directions from her house. They came twenty to a box for eleven dollars plus tax. To her logic, both the prohibitive cost of these cigarettes and the difficulty of obtaining them worked in her favor, acting as built-in deterrents to the development of a more serious habit.

It's too bad she exercised less restraint where other attachments were concerned, but that's neither here nor there.

As it was, she allowed herself one smoke daily (two, tops, if the day had been particularly rough). She only smoked outside or in her moving car with the windows rolled down. At home, she'd stand on the second-story apartment balcony and take long, satisfying drags while staring at the trees. Then she'd go inside and wash her hands and face with soap to remove every last trace of smoke.

Her husband of seven years -- not a smoker himself -- hated this late-appearing habit of hers. With characteristic good grace, he tolerated what he couldn't understand, hoping that it was just a temporary aberration.

She had a friend whom she cherished in a way best termed complicated. Her friend and his girlfriend and his brother were her tribe. Her heart was tangled up in theirs, and she adored them beyond wisdom and without reserve. Her husband, though congenial, couldn't see what she saw in them or feel what she felt for them. But he saw her, and he could see how she felt. So he made an allowance -- the sort that only love can make -- and took these friends' presence in their lives in stride.

She remembers one night in particular with her tribe. They drank wine, played music, danced and sang along to it, unembarrassed in front of one another. They laughed and laughed. Outside in the chilly night, they stood in a circle under the tall scrub pines in the front yard and passed one of her cigarettes around. The smell of pine sap, the icy still air, the tobacco smoke, the tiny fire making its way around the circle, her friends' beloved faces in the dim porch light: she remembers these things. Sometimes she wishes she couldn't.

That night, gripped by the moonlight, her friend's brother let out a war cry and climbed the big pine until he hung from its swaying branches twenty-five feet over their heads. A gallant, dangerous gesture, full of life, defiant of death. Hearts full, all she and her tribe could do was look up at him in awe.

It was one of those acts which -- despite what ought to be its transparent and obvious foolishness -- carries a heartrending significance, both in reality and in memory. You might never be able to say why you did it, but it was somehow crucial that you did. Something inside you made you take the risk, believing that if you proved to the universe that you weren't afraid, it would reach out and catch you in its arms at the last minute.

But it didn't; not for her. When her time came, she fell and fell until she hit the ground.

There have been emails, some written in grief, some in denunciation. There has been silence and darkness and unknowing, deliberate detours taken to prevent paths from crossing. She has not seen her friends for several years now, and may never again.

The perfume she keeps locked away was born the year friendship died. From time to time -- always when she is alone, always when she is at her loneliest -- she takes that little vial from its hiding place. She pries it open to directly inhale its contained fragrance, or else places a single drop on a small piece of paper from which its scent radiates for days. She sits and closes her eyes, breathes in the smell of pine, of night, of cigarettes shared in a circle. She thinks of her friends, who are her friends no longer.

And then she stoppers the bottle and hides it deep inside a drawer, angrily wipes her eyes, and walks back to the parts of life that are still alive.

Scent Elements: "Vieille église" frankincense, pepper, roseberry, cardamom, sage, nutmeg, mastic, balsam fir

Hawai'ian White Ginger (Avon)

This morning, in honor of the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day, I reached instinctively for a random floral to wear for the day. The winner: Santa Maria Novello's Mughetto. As that deep-green, dewy aura settled around me, its freshness and candor reminded me of the very first perfume I owned: Avon's Hawai'ian White Ginger. (And why would a muguet remind me of Hawai'ian White Ginger? Because Hawai'ian White Ginger bore as much of a resemblance to real white ginger blossoms as I do to Angelina Jolie.)

Created in 1965, Hawai'ian White Ginger was Avon's most popular young ladies' scent until its discontinuation approximately thirty years later. Olfactorally speaking, it was hands-down the lilyest lily in the whole goshdarned valley-- a white floral without blemish for good girls without baggage.

Just the other day, I spoke those very words in mockery of HWG, capping it off by characterizing it as an "Avon trash fragrance". Of course, I hadn't smelled it for years.... and obviously, it hadn't been all that bad, if the flimsiest reminder of it could turn me all misty-eyed. As an adult, am I really so jaded that I have begun to disparage things I loved without reservation as a child?

Back in 1980, I couldn't have asked for a more perfect Easter gift. That globe-shaped cut-glass bottle filled with aqua-tinted liquid and capped in matching plastic thrilled me beyond words: my first grown-up perfume! My older sister recieved an identical bottle with a yellow cap; this was Avon's Honeysuckle, another discontinued classic. Owing to her tender age, our younger sister received a Miss Kitty Pink and Pretty decanter in the form of a white lady feline in Gibson Girl finery executing a ballroom-style pirouette. What little girl could want more?

I confess I looked at my bottle of HWG more than I wore it. I often uncapped it for a rapturous sniff inbetween more typical tomboy activities such as fort building and skateboarding. I certainly never used enough of it to empty that pretty bottle out. When we moved, it was among a group of items (including my stamp collection and my mother's jewelry) which mysteriously went AWOL after the movers clocked out. I didn't miss it; by then I had graduated to hippie ambers and patchoulis and wouldn't have been caught dead in something as babyish as HWG.

If the Hawai'ian White Ginger of my memory was truly like Mughetto, then it must have been delicious, airy, and feminine. The girl who wore it was innocent but not naive, cheerful and fun-loving, the furthest thing from cynical. Was I really that girl once? Please tell me it's so. I need to know her again.

Scent Elements: Unknown, but most certainly a muguet.

It's oh, so quiet...

They call them "workplace perfumes"-- scents that stick close to the skin, thereby refraining from rudely asphyxiating one's cubicle-mates. Perfumistas might question whether their favorite fragrances really warrant an anonymous tip-line call to OSHA, but recent arguments on the scent-free workplace debate floor suggest that it might be wise to choose your on-the-job juices carefully.

Here are two from Histoires de Parfums that pass managerial muster....

1725: Casanova (Histoires de Parfums)
A mild, mellow, and unobtrusive citric-anisic cologne, as well-bred and gentlemanly as a spotless pair of kid gloves. 1725 speaks at a whisper (very appropriate, as Casanova was a librarian) but its voice carries that touch of quiet danger which identifies a smooth operator. Imagine the Vicomte de Valmont dabbing on some of this before heading off to torment Madame de Tourvel. The good lady's anxieties might find comfort in its dove-grey, licorice-lavender aura... but her wifely virtues would be whittled away to nothing by that virile woody drydown. Poor thing hasn't got a chance....

Scent Elements: Bergamot, grapefruit, licorice, star anise, lavender, vanilla, almond, sandalwood, cedar, amber

1826: Eugénie de Montijo (Histoires de Parfums)
1826 starts off with an bright, brief essay on the orange tree -- wood, blossoms, peel, pulp, and juice. This optimistic prologue is quickly bogged down in graham-cracker-piecrust territory, where it gradually disintegrates over the course of the day. Had its creators borrowed from another Napoleonic bride's book and laced 1826 with a Joséphine de Beauharnais-sized dose of musk, they might have ended up with a fragrance that could stand on its own two feet. But as it is, no one around you will be filing any grievances.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, mandarin, violet, ginger, cinnamon, patchouli, incense, vanilla, amber, musk

1804: George Sand (Histoires de Parfums)

The subjective nature of scent can override even the most detailed fragrance brief. Gérald Ghislain can explain to me six ways to a Sunday why 1804 is a portrait of George Sand. I will nod and smile and not budge one inch from my belief that it's really about Paul Gauguin. I am not the only one to reach this conclusion-- but as my father used to quip come household chore time, This ain't no democracy, honey.

I'm not sure why Ghislain would associate Sand with tropical fruit, but I concede that if I had to smell like fruit at all, tropical would be the way to go. In fact, all my memories of living on Maui seem to feature fruit-- bountiful and everpresent, in all the colours of a Fauvist rainbow.

In our little upcountry town, my housemates and I had only to step outside each morning to pick fresh bananitos (apple bananas) for breakfast. Going for a walk, I might freely pluck an avocado or a handful of lilikoi (passionfruit) from a curbside tree if I felt peckish. Staggering numbers of ripe clementines glowed like tiny orange lanterns in a neighbor's tree; he welcomed us all to invade his front yard and pick as much as we liked. Nature was generous-- why not he?

Generous, too, was the produce manager at the health food market where I worked. Island farmers arrived daily to bring him locally-grown organic fruits and vegetables, and each new shipment called for an impromptu taste-test. We sampled sweet pink "strawberry" papayas as well as the yellow-fleshed, bilious native variety. We nibbled slices of mellow cherimoya, carambolas (starfruit), and kiwi, and let guava and tamarillo juices run down our chins. I looked wistfully on as Jeff passed around cubes of fragrant fresh mango, to which I've always been severely allergic. As for lychees, I didn't know until I ate my first one that I'd have to chase it with six Benadryl in order to keep breathing. (Those few minutes before my throat closed over? So worth it.)

One of our vendors was an elderly Japanese couple who grew the most astonishing pineapples-- tiny, hand-sized honey grenades bursting with golden nectar. They sold us only one crate at a time, each flawless fruit carefully nestled its own bed of straw. One day I plucked up the courage to tell them (in the only Japanese I knew, since they didn't speak one syllable of English) that their pineapples were dai ichi (number one, the best). Faces creased with pleasure, they selected a single gemlike pineapple from their crate and presented it to me with a bow. Believe me, my bow was deeper still.

Though pineapples are not native to Hawai'i, they thrive in the rich loam of this volcanic archipelago. Each fruit is a self-contained chemical laboratory where acid (citric/malic), sugar (fructose/glucose), ester (ethyl butyrate) and enzyme (bromelain) create miraculous harmony. When subjected to heat (on a grill, or at the ground floor of an upside-down cake), the sugars in pineapple readily caramelize, breaking down all boundaries between tart and sweet and revealing the fruit's syrupy, liqueur-like attributes.

This melting quality figures large in 1804, a fragrance suffused with equatorial heat. Mitsouko subjected the simple peach to a flamebroil; 1804 ups the ante by adding pineapple and a shot of Charbay vanilla rum for a full-on, righteous flambé. If this sounds a bit de trop, be forewarned that it will segue into a dewy gardenia chord designed to hypnotize you into a state of hammock-swinging lassitude. This is not the perfume to wear when you've got a lengthy to-do list waiting. (If, however, your plans include a two-hour nap on a shady lanai....)

But all this leads me once again to question the logic of this perfume's name. No writer as mercurial and rigorous as George Sand would have endorsed so heavy-limbed a name brand-- and no one as enamored of male privilege would have wished to give the game away with so blatantly femme a scent. I imagine her instead roaming through the park at Nohant whilst wearing a stylish fougère, or a brisk West Indian bay rum appropriated from her estranged spouse...

On the other hand, Paul Gauguin -- grandson of Sand's frenemy, the feminist Flora Tristan -- filled canvas after canvas with worshipful images of the Polynesian feminine ideal. To him should go this soft, rounded, luscious perfume-- and to Sand, maybe a bottle of YSL Kouros?

Scent Elements: Pineapple, peach, gardenia, jasmine, lily-of-the-valley, cloves, sandalwood, patchouli, benzoin, vanilla, musk

Yatagan (Caron)

This week is National Library Week, so today's perfume comes with a library story attached. (Due back in two weeks, please call to renew.)

Some years ago, I earned my daily bread behind the circulation desk of a midsized urban library. Beset by social strife, our workplace felt at times like the Wild West. To face down the daily parade of crooks, crazies and town characters required narrowed eyes, a mouth set like stone, and cojones of tempered steel. Soft hearts could not find purchase in this place. I learned that to my own cost.

Still, one could occasionally find oases of calm and reason amid the general chaos. I discovered one embodied in a natty little man with a taste for high-end periodicals. Fiftyish, slender, forever sporting a cashmere scarf and wool beret, he'd stroll in every day like clockwork to peruse the newly-arrived magazines. He possessed a certain erudite sophistication that hinted at time spent in bigger fishbowls--- New York, London, Paris. (And he never brown-bagged Aqua Velva to drink in the library like some patrons did, so color me impressed.)

Every day, I looked forward to exchanging pleasantries with "my gentleman" over the latest issue of Art in America or the London Review of Books. And then I'd return to the desk (to check in books splashed with tomato sauce, cooking oil, or gasoline) and my coworkers would whisper, "Jesus Christ, he smells."

This was true. In fact, he reeked. His was a very distinctive odor, like nothing I'd ever experienced before-- a urinous mixture of juniper berries and pine needles that came like a punch to the solar plexus. Was this some interesting hygiene custom he picked up on the Continent, or did he have a bona fide medical condition? It was impossible to tell.

As repulsive as his odor seemed to me at first, eventually I grew used to it-- and even came to regard it as a harbinger of good conversation. Since I could smell him before I saw him, I knew from one whiff that my gentleman was in the house and might share some lively insights about art and literature with me. I began to associate his odor with our ongoing exchange of thought, and ceased to find anything remotely unpleasant about it.

One day, I was shelving some books when I noticed him seated right in front of me. I hadn't even seen him come in. More to the point: I hadn't smelled him. Several more visits confirmed that we'd sniffed the last of my gentleman's signature scent. Apparently, he'd changed brands for something more socially conventional. Now he smelled like everyone else-- like nothing.

My coworkers breathed a deep sigh of relief, but I felt disoriented, even vaguely let down. It wasn't that my gentleman and I would cease to share our thoughts about life and culture and the world beyond our Wild West town. But for me, something was missing from the experience-- and it was the very thing everyone else rejoiced to be rid of.

Recently I received a decant of a scent I'd never sampled before. I was sure it would be a novel experience, but as soon as I put it on, I recognized it in a flash. And though I haven't seen nor heard from him in years, I now know my gentleman's secret-- he'd been wearing Caron's Yatagan.

Yatagan smells like a pickled lemon. No-- a pickled lemon is too juicy, too wet; start again. Yatagan is what you'd get if you made a old-fashioned pomander out of a lemon instead of an orange. Take the greenest, hardest, sourest, most unripe lemon you can find (forget limes; limes are too sweet) and instead of cloves, stick it full of evergreen needles-- pine, fir, rosemary. It'll take thousands of them, and months for you to finish. Now bury it in the Salton Sea for, oh, twenty or thirty years. When you're certain it's completely mummified, exhume it. The finished product will smell exactly like Yatagan: biting, forceful, bristling with sharp points, and unrelated to any other scent convention in existence.

Yatagan is so sour that when I applied it to my wrists, I actually tasted it on my tongue a minute later. (Universal solvent, anyone?) It tasted like a Sour Patch candy caked in citric acid, or a fresh juniper berry dipped in salt. If such a thing existed as a limoncello-gin-aquavit margarita, it would boast a flavor like this. You could dab it on your pulse points while drinking it, if you were so inclined.

In Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, Luca Turin describes horrified Parisians doing double-takes in the Caron boutique, responding to Yatagan with something very near outrage. It does strike me as a scent that might be worn by a person who hankers for distinction, even of the negative variety. Other people will certainly not overlook you when you're wearing it, but they might very well leave you the hell alone.

And still, there's something civilized about Yatagan -- something not quite for barbarians or berserkers, but rather for the lawfully wild, like Clint Eastwood's serape-swathed Man With No Name. Turin characterized its tone as that of a snake's hiss, but I find it to be more like the sssssssshhhkk! of a steel blade leaving its scabbard-- appropriate, as Yatagan was named after a type of Turkish longsword. And like a real yatagan, you strap this fragrance on to feel a sense of recklessness and machismo that no other scent will give you.

In short, Yatagan is for badasses.... including the quiet library kind.

Scent Elements: Petitgrain, lavender, geranium leaf, pine, fennel, basil, artemisia, oakmoss, musk, patchouli, castoreum, labdanum, styrax

Après L'Ondée Eau de Toilette (Guerlain)

I didn't really want it in the first place. Does that sound awful? It does, I know.

You see, I really wanted the other two, but the deal was that you had to pick three, and out of the remaining choices this was the only one I'd heard anything about. So I chose it over several lesser-known perfumes that might have made me happy, simply because I recognized its name. (What a snob I am! I ought to be ashamed of myself.)

What did I know about Après L'Ondée? That it was one of the venerable old greats, with a long and illustrious pedigree. That it occupied a scent universe light years apart from the heavy spice-market compositions I usually go for. (Is it possible to be both a snob and a barbarian at the same time?) That I really ought to choose the vintage pure parfum, but would instead receive the eau de toilette, palest of the pale. (Is it Jacques Guerlain's fault that I picked the wrong concentration? Of course not. To blame him would be absurd.)

Look, I admit it: I bought into the mystique. I've heard all the hyperbole about how Après L'Ondée is pure angel tears in a bottle, the parfum version of Monet's Waterlilies, et cetera, et cetera. I've witnessed enough people getting all moony-Juney-swoony about it to want to see for myself what all the fuss is about. But maybe all those myths and legends led me to expect more.

God's honest truth? It smells like Palmolive. I mean exactly. You could walk into the kids' section of the local dollar store, buy a bottle of hot pink bubble-blowing solution, dab it on your wrists and enjoy the exact same fragrance. For a dollar.

That early promise of a bitter almond note? Broken right off the bat. That rainbow soap-bubble effect? Burst almost immediately, as bubbles do, leaving behind nothing but a sad tickle in my nose. For one heartening millisecond came a blast of anise and violets-- a sort of distress signal from the H.M.S. Necco Wafer, which promptly sank, never to resurface. I kept waiting for the sun to come out from behind those fabled rain clouds, but all the rest was dish detergent.

Lesson learned: when you want Monet's Waterlilies, you go stand in front of it at the museum. You don't buy the desk calendar version and then cry when it doesn't blow your mind.

Scent Elements: Aniseed, heliotropin, rose, violet, hawthorn, almond, iris

Mitsouko Eau de Parfum (Guerlain)

Have you ever sliced a fresh ripe peach in half, pitted it, arranged the halves cut side up in a baking dish, filled the hollows left by the peachstone with lumps of brown sugar, placed it under the broiler until the top is seared and the juices are running and the brown sugar is bubbling like crème brûlée lava-- then taken it out, sprinkled it with a really good, dark, syrupy balsamic vinegar reduction, let it cool just enough to pick up a peach half in your bare hands, and devoured it like a wild animal with the nectar running down your chin because you simply couldn't wait one more minute?

That's Mitsouko. I would write more, but my mouth is watering.

Scent Elements: Peach, bergamot, neroli, rose, iris, jasmine, clove, cinnamon, vetiver, oakmoss, labdanum

Esprit du Tigre (Heeley)

Years ago I worked in a New Age shop owned by a socialite with alimony to burn. She ran the shop as if it were the entrepreneurial equivalent of vanity license plates-- her name on the business cards; otherwise, as little involvement as possible. She didn't seem to expect much effort from me, either. Every day I came to work, lounged around, read metaphysical books, played Loreena McKennitt CDs, and sampled the perfume oils that filled the tester racks.

Most were predictable New Age fare-- patchouli, sandalwood, vanilla, musk. But there was one tester that excited me from the moment I unscrewed the cap: basil essential oil. Expecting the scent of the fresh green leaf (or possibly even a murky pesto accord), I was startled to discover instead the distinct cinnamon-wintergreen scent of Italian ribbon candy. I promptly purchased my own bottle, which I still own today.

Have you ever eaten ribbon candy? Not me. It's bulky, sharp-edged, painful to chew, and attracts a diabolical amount of dust if left to sit in an open candy dish. On the other hand, it comes in dozens of gorgeous jewel-tone colors, looks fantastic piled high in a cut-glass bowl, and smells divine. It may be hard to justify a candy that exists only for appearance and aroma, rather than for eating. Yet ribbon candy seems so eager to please that it's difficult to hold a grudge against it-- and so it's one of my favorite things. Even today, the sight and smell of it seem to me like emissaries from my childhood.

Aside from the candy dish -- and that surprise encounter in the New Age boutique -- I never expected to stumble across that reminder anywhere else. Imagine my surprise, then, when almost two decades later, I opened a sample vial of "serious" perfume and found my childhood inside!

I'd been given to understand that James Heeley's Esprit du Tigre drew its inspiration directly from Tiger Balm, the Chinese traditional remedy famous for its quaintly attractive packaging. I happily use Tiger Balm liniment myself, so despite warnings about EdT's medicinal qualities, I went looking for its magic. Did I find it? Without a doubt. Tiger Balm? Maybe just a touch. Ribbon candy? Scads of it.

Remembering my last encounter with this beloved scent, the only thing to do was to fetch my bottle of pure basil oil and conduct a two-arm simultaneous scent test. The verdict: a stunning counterfeit of nature. Esprit du Tigre contains no basil oil (and neither, incidentally, does Tiger Balm). The accord I interpret as basil is a hologram artfully constructed of everything but the real deal. Yet James Heeley has taken that girly-pink, confectionary accord far beyond its natural, linear limit. Esprit du Tigre tempers basil's piercing sweetness with hot, earthy spices, adds a touch of camphor to keep it sparkly, then grounds it with the earthy salt-musk tang of vetiver-- in essence, lifting it out of the candy dish and recreating it as a grownup pleasure.

Such differences may be subtle, but they are also significant. I welcome the chance to discover what new memories, connections, and illusions Esprit du Tigre will unlock for me.

Scent Elements: Camphor, peppermint, cloves, cinnamon, pepper, vetiver

Knize Ten (Knize) & Cuir de Russie (Chanel)

1924 is, as they say, no year for old men. The death of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin cues Josef Stalin's first bid for absolute power over the Soviet Union. In Italy, the Fascisti win two-thirds of the popular vote, enabling Benito Mussolini to solidify his dictatorship. Adolf Hitler cools his heels in Landsberg Prison, composing Mein Kampf while awaiting parole. And in Berlin, a 28-year-old amnesiac with wide, pained blue eyes is shuffled from sanatorium to safe house and back again whilst a succession of crowned heads decide whether or not she is the lost Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia.

"Grand Duchess" in Russian is
Великая Княжна--Velikaia Knazhna. Knazhna derives from kniaz, or duke, the Czech variant of which is spelled kníže (and pronounced "k'NEE-zhuh"). In 1924, Knize -- haberdasher to the the Imperial Court at Vienna -- contracts perfumer Vincent Roubert to create an olfactory accessory to its new prêt-à-porter line of men's suits. Not to be left out of the craze for Russian leather, Parfums Chanel puts its big gun Ernest Beaux on the scent, as it were.

The results: Knize Ten and Cuir de Russie.

A comparison between Cuir de Russie and Knize Ten provides an illustration of the historical dividing line of the Russian Revolution. Cuir de Russie, of course, is solidly antebellum -- a fragrance rich with royal privilege and idle luxury -- while its contemporary Knize Ten is the Brave New World's fragrance komissar.

Like an adaptation of a popular tune, CdR's citrus and aldehydic notes are perfectly recognizable as Beaux' own masterwork, Chanel No. 5. Here, the familiar champagne fizz is pinned to earth by an impeccable layer of smoky birch tar and ylang-ylang, a buttery floral with a pronounced animalic bent. The outcome would be perfectly suitable for a sybaritic Romanov of either gender, sipping prestige cuveè in an Imperial train car, or reclining in a mahogany deck chair aboard the Polar Star.... but say goodbye to that fantasy, because its days are numbered.

Knize Ten is the new Soviet era in perfume form: butch, brutal, smartly uniformed and armed to the teeth. Whereas Cuir de Russie evokes the smooth, pliant leather of an Imperial officer's boots or the cushioned interior of a deluxe automobile, Knize Ten smells like new black patent-- aggressively shiny, cheerfully manmade. A toothsome note of cherry pipe tobacco rides up top, and a slightly menacing touch of machine grease lurks underneath, all encased in a plasticky aroma like a new toy fresh out of its packaging. It all stays very smart and industrial until the bottom half of the drydown, when a pleasant amber shows up to convince us that Knize Ten is really just an old-fashioned gentleman under his bandolier.

As the great-granddaughter of Jewish immigrants who fled Mother Russia in the wake of the 1905 Winter Palace massacre, I must admit it is a novel experience to wear these two "Russian" perfumes, one on each arm. I'd layer them, but I fear a bloody insurrection would break out. In any case, they've outlasted the world that produced them, as surely as I've outlasted the worlds that produced me. Whatever earth had to be shattered to get us here, I'm glad we all made it in one piece.

Scent Elements: Birch tar, jasmine, rose, ylang-ylang, orangeflower, bergamot, mandarin (Cuir de Russie); bergamot, lemon, orange, petitgrain, rosemary, geranium, cedarwood, cinnamon, sandalwood, musk, moss, amber, castoreum, vanilla (Knize Ten)

Muscs Koublaï Khän (Serge Lutens)

According to famed fragrance chemist Luca Turin, most people are anosmic to at least one or two of the many varieties of musk molecule. Perfumers typically include half a dozen musks or more in each formula in the hopes that every wearer will detect several (if not all) of them. This explains why a single perfume can seem to have an entirely different character depending on the wearer. One will deem it pleasantly floral; another, appealingly (or appallingly) animalic. To me, it smells sexually arousing; to you, innocent and squeaky clean.

And to someone else out there... positively revolting.

For all the furor it causes among perfumistas, Muscs Koublaï Khän might well contain every synthetic musk known to man, along with an entire herd of musk oxen and half a dozen live civet cats. One finds online reviews couched in the language of the apocalypse. Dirty. Sweaty. Fecal. Rank. Stale. Gamey. Raunchy. Disgusting. Repulsive. Rotten. Nauseating. Dreadful. Unwearable. A scrubber. And the funny thing is, only half of those reviewers actually mean it. The other half are quoting the first half's adjectives for the sole purpose of refuting them one by one.

Me? I'd use all of those adjectives, but only to describe what I want more of-- and what I think Muscs Koublaï Khän falls short on. So while this review defends MKK, it almost didn't-- because to tell the truth, I don't think MKK goes nearly far enough.

TMI: I adore body smells. Olfactophilia or osmolagnia, call it what you will-- to me, natural human odors are what catnip is to cats. I view them (as I do perfumes) as a highly personal identifying mark, not to mention a form of self-expression, the riper the better.

The year I spent on Maui living among deodorant-shunning hippies was one of the most blissful experiences of my life. With the ocean so close at hand on all sides, many people opted to take their daily bath in seawater and nothing more. Consequently, they smelled like human beings-- which is to say, like primates. No one worried about offending anyone else. Smell took on an equalizing tribal quality-- we're all mammals here -- yet each broadcast his or her own unique signature scent, built of body chemistry, diet, habit, and pheromones. After awhile, one could learn to recognize by smell whether another person felt relaxed, energetic, fearful, or sad. It's hard to describe how vital these unspoken signals are to a community, or how much of a bearing they have on compassion and fellowship.

Could this be why the East Coast seems so unfriendly to me, even though I've lived here most of my life? Here, the social approach to B.O. practiced on Maui would be considered anathema to our zero-tolerance pong policy. The obsessive layering of soaps, shower gels, antiperspirants, and body sprays creates a composite portrait of desperate urban alienation: Can they smell me? Will I smell them? What if I smell? Oh god, DO I smell?

It is, as my grandmother would say, a shondah.

So when I first read about Muscs Koublaï Khän, I confess I got all teary-eyed. You mean I wasn't the only olfactophiliac in Perfumeland whose silent plea for pong had been acknowledged? Who was this Serge Lutens and how did he manage to pick the lock on my psyche? I immediately added MKK to my decant wishlist and thanked my lucky stars.

Two weeks later, while unpacking my newly arrived shipment of samples, I discovered with dismay that the vial containing Muscs Koublaï Khän had leaked inside its protective little Ziploc. Oh well, I thought. No chance like the present. I extracted the bottle with its remaining half-inch of perfume and set it aside, then carefully tore the bag open along the side seam, saturated my fingertips with its contents, and ran them through my hair.

What happened to me next is comparable to the passage in Tom Robbins' Jitterbug Perfume in which the god Pan receives his first application of fragrance:
(Pan's) eyes flew open like the hatch covers on an exploding ship, and he commenced to sniff at his extremities, as if he were wildly in love with himself. A kind of disorientation seemed to seize him, causing him to walk in circles, repeatedly crossing his own path.
What did I smell? Not anything dirty, sweaty, fecal, rank, stale, gamey, raunchy, disgusting, repulsive, rotten, nauseating, dreadful, or unwearable. Aside from the faintest suggestion of roses and cuminseed, what I smelled was nothing more than intensified me-- my hands (warm, clean, with a trace of salt and skin oils); my hair (slightly less clean -- I'd awoken late that morning and decided to go without a time-consuming shampoo -- but still not unpleasant). I could not actually say that I smelled a perfume. And yet I clearly experienced a physiological reaction -- quickened breath, widened eyes, emotional excitement -- to whatever it was that I did smell.

Oddly, I noticed then that the perfume I'd had on since earlier in the day -- a scent with excellent persistence, traces of which had still been noticeably present on my wrists moments before -- had vanished. I recalled reading that musk molecules are the largest our olfactory receptors can accommodate; at that moment, my receptors must have been inundated with big, fat musk molecules crowding like commuters around a subway turnstile at rush hour.

After about ten minutes, a scent finally, positively began to develop on my skin. The best description I can offer for this scent is that of a sucked thumb (not that thumbsucking is a habit of mine, but skin + saliva + a touch of "morning mouth" is roughly what I'm getting at). Too squicky? How about this: the clean scent of a young cat's freshly-licked fur-- or even better, the parts it can't reach with its own tongue, like the downy spots right behind its ears. A warm smell. An agreeable smell. Possibly even a lovable smell.

But not the grand pong to end all pongs.

Let's say this: Muscs Koublaï Khän makes you smell like a mammal. You are one already, so what's the problem? Your body is a pretty musky thing to begin with; MKK merely amplifies what you've already got going for you, so whether you're dirty or clean, you'll simply smell MORE SO after you put it on. Depending on the tastes of the people around you, this will make you either the most popular person for miles around, or the loneliest.

So play around with it. Experiment. Bathe before applying, or quit showering for a week. Layer it with other scents (though I'd advise applying it with the tip of a toothpick, since the tiniest amount persists for years and years). Or keep it in the bottle, leave your skin bare, and get to know your own scent in all its raw, personal glory before you go adding any others.

Me? I'm planning on getting a sample of the notorious Miel de Bois and mixing it with my Koublaï Khän. Miel et Musc: a new Frankenstein's Monster of reek. I'll know I've succeeded in reaching my ideal when the neighbors converge on my front yard with torches and pitchforks....

Scent Elements: Civet, castoreum, costus, cumin, labdanum, rose, ambergris, ambrette seeds, beeswax, vanilla, musk, patchouli

A bouquet of flowers.

I think there's an angel working at Aedes de Venustas-- one with the power to change my life through perfume. You see, when you request a fragrance sample that's out of stock, a substitute is chosen for you at random-- or is it? There seems to be a divine intelligence behind the extras in my last shipment. The celestial being who filled my order apparently decided that I am way too stuck on moody spice-and-wood blends for my own good. Universal balance could only be restored by tucking a couple of straight-up cheery florals into the box -- thereby uprooting me from the doldrums of winter and replanting me squarely in the sweet springtime.

Bless you, gentle angel. I imagine you humming "Ode to Joy" while printing out the packing slip, and murmuring under your breath, "This'll fix her little wagon..."

Lavanda Ambrata: Lavendar Amber (Santa Maria Novella)
I feel like a total philistine for having never heard of Santa Maria Novella-- either the basilica or the adjoining farmaceutica whose specialty is acqua di colonia in a variety of garden-flower themes. This one combines a refined lavendar with a somewhat vegetal amber that carries an odd (yet not unpleasant) undertone of extra virgin olive oil. As this acqua is apparently based on an original mediaeval formula, the anachronistic green olive oil note seems contextually proper and deftly links the lavendar to a very light musk drydown that otherwise might have seemed tacked on at the end. Nicely done.

Scent Elements: Lavendar, amber, musk.

Gelsomino: Jasmine (Santa Maria Novella)
Though a full-length feature post on the subject of scatalogical perfumery (AKA Muscs Koublaï Khän) is in the works, I'd like to take this opportunity to say that Gelsomino is ten times raunchier than MKK any day of the week. It may be a mere eau de cologne, but its jasmine component is 100% full-fat. Hypnotic, liqueur-like, with a soapy-clean sparkle up top and miles of deep dark indoles underneath, it muddles the senses before it even touches the skin. Once you put it on, heads will be turning for miles, so a light touch is absolutely necessary. This one is not for splashing on at abandon. Let the abandon come later, as it surely will....

Scent Elements: Jasmine soliflore