Tumulte (Christian Lacroix)

Christian Lacroix's Tumulte is a big, glitzy raspberry rose occupying the same general universe as Patricia de Nicolaï's Balkis-- only instead of Levantine finery, she's wearing a trendy tracksuit in eye-punishing hot pink. In brief, she's AbFab's Edina Monsoon suited up to hawk Pop Specs in Morocco (Season 2, Episode 4).

If I didn't know better, I'd think that CL designed this expressly with Eddie in mind. Not exactly high street (but far from low), Tumulte is crass, fashionable fun in a charmingly déclassé bottle that looks like it fell off the back of a truck. It kept calling to me from a shelf in my friend Jennifer's thrift store until I could no longer pretend I was deaf; I bought it to shut it up. I am not sorry.

If you can grit your teeth and wait out its trendy burnt-vanilla-sugar beginning, a nice jammy rose starts to peek through, generously dosed with lashings of raspberry musk.  As Balkis taught me last year, there's something about a raspberry rose that takes the chill out of winter... and while Tumulte's brashness made me cringe a little at first, by day's end I was apt to regard it as very good company indeed.  

So it's not haute couture.  Who cares?  Tumulte's tacky, happy glitz suits all the minor red carpets and runways of this world.  Plus, it's Lacroix, sweetie!  Lacroix!!

Scent Elements: Mandarin, freesia, rose, orris, heliotrope, tonka bean, patchouli, musk

A fragrant zashiki.

When I was three, my favorite object was a battered ukiyo-e calendar belonging to my father. It combined classic woodblock prints of geisha with contemporary posters advertising the Kyoto Odori (dance festivals). Completely entranced, I carried around the rolled-up calendar like a security blanket. I wanted to enter each picture physically and become a sister to these glamorous beings.

Finally, I could hold out no longer.  I grabbed scrap paper and pencil and scrawled my first drawing of a maiko. Biting my lip in concentration, I splotched dabs of watercolor to represent her "falling wisteria" hair ornament, then filled in the colors of her ensemble-- an eye-shocking orange obi against a kimono of kelly green.  Thus began my career as an artist-- and my lifelong obsession with geisha.

Over the years, I've amassed a tidy collection of printed Japanophilia.  Our shelves abound with books on kimono, traditional textile motifs, modern Japanese design (especially the FRUiTS Harajuku fashion series), Shintō, Zen, tea ceremony, ukiyo-e and shunga (Japanese woodblock prints)... and, of course, geisha culture.  My "geisha section" contains memoirs by Iwasaki Mineko, Masuda Sayo, and Komomo, sociological studies by western anthropologists Liza Dalby and Leslie Downer, and a treasured volume of Jodi Cobb's marvelous candid photographs of Kyoto hanamachi life.

This Christmas, my husband found an imaginative way to add to my geisha collection:  perfume!  Paying an online visit to Aroma M -- the Manhattan-based perfume house headed by artist/aromatherapist Maria McElroy -- he ordered the Geisha Collection, a set of eight all-natural perfume oil samples inspired by traditional Japanese scents. I spent my holiday after-dinner hour uncorking vials and cooing helplessly over their contents. (Deepest, sweetest, and most loving thanks to my husband for satisfying so many of my mania at once with this opulent holiday gift-- and to Aroma M for making it incredibly easy for a tentative spouse to dip his toe into the scent-buying world.)

Geisha have a saying: Ichigen san kotowari ("first-timers are strictly refused"). This roughly means that no one may enter a zashiki (geisha banquet) without the formal sponsorship of a trusted patron. I haven't been a customer very long.... but this party is too wonderful to miss! Consider this your invitation to join Aroma M's fragrant zashiki as my guest of honor!

Geisha Green

Toulouse-Lautrec, among many other European artists of the fin de siècle, harbored two obsessions: absinthe and Japan. Geisha Green would have knocked him flat.  Its absinthe note is sharp, authentic, and utterly bewitching, reminding me strongly of Pastiglie Leone assenzio pastilles, those tiny, pale-green sugar pellets that have been addicting the multitudes since 1857.  Aroma M marries this scent to a smooth licorice-musk accord with herculean staying power.  Seven hours after application, Geisha Green was still going strong-- and still producing new notes to enchant me. (As a side note, it's worth mentioning that Geisha Green's cassis is a rosy-cheeked, sparkly little flirt.  In Thierry Mugler's Angel, she came across as a hard-eyed carny, but here, she's the toast of the Rokumeikan.*)

Scent Elements: Absinthe, cassis, mandarin, violet, amber, tonka bean

*The Rokumeikan (Jap. transl. "Deer-Cry Hall") was the pleasure palace of the Tokyo elite at the height of the Western-influenced Meiji period (1868-1912).  Clad in the latest European formalwear, high-ranking Japanese officials and their wives attended Belle Époque-style balls and recitals alongside visiting Western diplomats.  Though it predated the Moulin Rouge in Paris by six years, the Rokumeikan's menu of "foreign" entertainment scandalized traditional Japanese society-- on the surface, at least.  Their fascination with our aesthetics -- and ours with theirs -- resulted in a slow and steady cross-cultural fusion that continues to this day.

Geisha Rouge

When this young lady was a child, she didn't yet comprehend the allure of scarlet satin. As she matured and became more experienced in matters of the heart and body, she began to appreciate deeper colors.

This passage from a 17th-century kimono pattern book illustrated by Hishikawa Moronobu and translated by Liza Dalby accompanies a picture of an extravagant red silk robe. To "appreciate deeper colors" (iro no konomite) is a sly euphemism for sexual pleasure. The specific color referenced is kurenai, a pigment derived from safflower (Carthamus tinctoris, AKA "bastard saffron"). A multitude of meanings -- celebration, desire, sexual availability -- are encoded in that warm, bright hue.

The young lady who wears scarlet means to indicate that she is ready to bestow her favors. However, her social identity -- and that of her lucky partner -- depends heavily on where the scarlet is to be found on her person. If her scarlet is worn in the form of an ornate uchikake robe, our subject is most likely a demure bride joined in traditional matrimony to a thoroughly respectable husband. But if kurenai appears on her lips or deep within the folds of her costly kimono, she is someone less conventional -- a maiko, geiko, or tayu (courtesan). Instead of a husband, she has a danna-- an official consort who pays huge sums to help her maintain the gay life.

In the language of scent, spices -- cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, mace, and pepper -- project much the same sexy connotations as kurenai. I guarantee that you will seldom meet with more spice per droplet in a perfume than you will in Geisha Rouge. With YSL Opium in a sad decline following a tragic collision with cost-cutting accountants, a successor to the role of Spice Queen is wanted-- could it be that Geisha Rouge is the pretender to that imperiled throne?

Strong and sensual, the spice accord that dominates Rouge reads as "warm"-- yet it also conversely infers the cold of wintertime, when skin-to-skin warmth is sometimes the only antidote to both boredom and chill. An aloof anise note provides the sort of erotic tension that will have you biting your knuckles-- but fear not; this Geisha will not leave you out in the cold. As for the tonka bean drydown, I'm convinced that I've finally found the source of that strange "halitosis" note I crave so much in a perfume. Is it a coincidence that every fragrance I've ever found to possess that quality contains coumarin? I think not.

In the color ciphers by which geiko live, kurenai is an invitation to joy. Geisha Rouge promises no less.

Scent Elements: Cinnamon, star anise, clove, sandalwood, tobacco, vanilla, tonka bean

Geisha Marron

One of the sexiest smells in the natural universe is the perfume of kuri no hana, or chestnut flowers. Filling the humid summer air with a sweet, cloying odor likened to that of human sexual fluids, chestnut bloom stirs up erotic passion and prudish embarrassment whenever it happens to be in season. Other trees such as linden, elder and Chinese ailanthus have been similarly accused of inciting lust among the populace, but kuri no hana outstrips them all, so to speak.

Here, the randy chestnut blossom dallies with rich magnolia and delicate muguet. The former hardly needs help to be sensual, but the latter (normally reserved for prim springtime perfumes) benefits hugely from a bad-girl makeover. The resulting ménage à trois goes on for hours, to the mutual satisfaction of all. If you work all week in an office where buttons must stay buttoned and eyes must remain demurely downcast, I strongly discourage you from wearing this-- at least until 5:01 on a Friday night.

Scent Elements: Chestnut flowers, magnolia, lily-of-the-valley, bergamot, mandarin, grapefruit

Geisha Noire

To the Japanese, the color black (kuro) suggests formality, mastery, and responsibility. A maiko (apprentice geisha) wears childish kimono in bright, preposterous colors until her erikae (graduation ceremony), when she switches to a formal black kimono called a de. With its low neckline, trailing hem, and figure-hugging cut, the de offers visual proof of the new geiko's transition to full sexual maturity.

For such a momentous occasion, Geisha Noire would make the perfect scent accompaniment. Spicy and long-lasting with a pronounced animalic quality to its drydown, Noire is a sophisticated scent for a worldly woman serene in her knowledge of "the scheme of things". There's a husky timbre to its olfactory voice which hints at experiences far beyond what a young girl could comprehend. The wearer has tasted the joys and sorrows of womanhood and gained the strength to stand behind her choices. If Geisha Noire is one of them, she'll have no cause for regret.

Scent Elements: Mixed spices, amber, tonka bean

Geisha Pink

Going by the description, you may assume this fragrance mirrors the Japanese infatuation with all things kawaii (cute or precious). Be forewarned: Gogo Yubari, the flail-wielding schoolgirl assassin of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill universe, was as kawaii as they come.

Geisha Pink promises sugarplums but is dominated instead by a strong hard-candy butterscotch note with the emphasis on butter-- touched here and there with the scent of (believe it or not) grilled pink grapefruit. This smells far better than you might think, and with Geisha Pink recently crowned as the very first niche fragrance to be featured on QVC, I expect it will become the gateway fragrance for newcomers to independent perfumery.

Ganbatte kudasai!

Scent Elements: Plum, orange, vanilla

Geisha Violet

Strange that this fragrance spoke nothing of violet to me... at least not of violet flowers. Instead, Geisha Violet plays the Midori to Geisha Green's Pernod, serving up a translucently-thin slice of ripe honeydew melon (at room temperature, since refrigeration would dull the sweetness of its nectar). Painted entirely in washes of jewel-toned watercolor, it evokes the geisha's ukiyo ("floating world")-- a realm of mannered sophistication, fleeting pleasure, and concealed heartbreak.

Pale, poignant, melancholy, and quite memorable, this is a sweet one for the shoegazers.

Scent Elements: Violet, lilac, lotus, cacao

Geisha Blue

The inclusion of German chamomile (Matricaria recutica) justifies Geisha Blue's name, since this wildflower produces an absolute of unusual deep cobalt hue. But in truth, this is a straightforward jasmine tea floral in the modern style, crisp and enlivening, with hardly any detours into the edgy-honey scent of chamomile.

It's a pity, for had chamomile been more prominently featured, Geisha Blue would be downright unforgettable. As it is, there's nothing here to offend-- but also nothing to really rock your world.

Scent Elements: Chamomile, green tea, jasmine

Geisha Blanche

A traditional Japanese woman wears a white kimono on only two occassions: her wedding and her funeral. If Geisha Blanche is supposed to fill the role of "bridal perfume" in this collection, I'd warn the bride-to-be that the honeymoon is doomed. For only ten minutes after applying this self-effacing white floral to my skin, it vanished completely, leaving behind the faintest trace of what smelled like scented guest soap.

Overshadowed by its Geisha sister scents, Blanche is clearly the underachiever of the okiya. It would make a terrific ladies' handkerchief scent, if you happen to carry one... but to smell like a real live woman on your wedding night, you'd do better to wear Geisha Marron.

Scent Elements: Jasmine, hyacinth, lychee

La Nuit de l'Homme (Yves Saint Laurent)

Being into fragrance mostly for the sake of experience rather than acquisition, I'm generally content with small samples.  If I love a perfume, I seek out larger decants of it, but I rarely buy new bottles of anything.

Of the nine full bottles I currently own, six are vintage. I purchased four of them secondhand-- two (Coty L'Aimant and DiBorghese) slightly used, and two (Coty Paris and Givenchy L'Interdit) never opened. The remaining two vintage bottles (Fendi Uomo and Lanvin My Sin) came to me as gifts from kind friends seeking a good home for fragrant family heirlooms.

This leaves three bottles, all contemporary. One (Philosophy Pure Grace) was offered by a friend after she discovered she couldn't wear it herself. One (Lalique Flora Bella) I bought new and online on a sort of self-imposed dare. (Having committed to it unsniffed, I count myself lucky that I ended up adoring it.) And the final bottle is Yves Saint Laurent's La Nuit de l'Homme-- the only new bottle I've ever deliberately sought out because I found I couldn't live without it.

I first encountered La Nuit on a magazine scent strip. While scent strips never truly tell a fragrance's whole story, what I smelled charmed me enough to impel me towards the nearest retail perfume counter in search of a test bottle. (I promise you that the advertisement -- which featured French actor and director Vincent Cassel impeccably shod and fairly dripping with women -- had nothing to do with it.) Owing to the presence of calone, I'd given La Nuit's predecessor (2006's L'Homme) a pass-- and to be quite honest, my first spritz of La Nuit raised concerns, as its opening note of bergamot seemed harsh, metallic, and overbright. But once that dissipated, the whole thing opened up like a pop-up storybook, and my fate was sealed.

The best fougères evoke two worlds: the complexity of the living forest, and the clean, warm scent of a man freshly showered-and-shaved. Having grown up next to a nature reserve, I can certify that Le Nuit de l'Homme presents a true-to-life olfactory snapshot of cedar and pine trees footed by lush green ferns, with lemony sunlight trickling down between the boughs and cicadas buzzing in the midday heat. But its lush fernwoods character is nothing compared to the warm, wiggly, mammalian things it achieves on skin. The rich, moist, polleny effect of the fougère broadens into a delicious aroma of humanity-- clean skin and hair, shaving lather, the personal scent of one's own clothes pulled fresh and folded from the bureau drawer to be worn soft against the skin. There's a hint of morning coffee in the form of a certain roasted note common to some fougère lavenders, as well as an allusion to the comforts of home in the enveloping warmth of coumarin.

In short, here we have the scent of a leisurely Sunday morning spent relaxing with a cup of fresh-brewed java in one hand and a week of possibilities stretching ahead. If you're looking for noir, look elsewhere-- La Nuit de l'Homme is designed to enfold the wearer in the optimism of early morning light.

The blue sky's the limit... what will you do with the day?

Scent Elements: Cardamom, bergamot, cedar, lavender, coumarin, vetiver

Dreaming of a blue Angel.

I almost overlooked it-- partially because it was so tiny, partially because I never expected to encounter such a thing on a thrift store shelf.

The sight of the silver foil peeling off its molded plastic cap brought a self-righteous smirk to my lips. Beneath a scrap of masking tape marked “25¢” in grease pencil, that star-shaped hunk of glass -- tacky and cumbersome even when brand new -- carried a tragic coating of grime. Irony: that a high-end perfume modeled after that most low-rent of locations (the carnival fairway) should meet a fate every bit as tawdry as its stated inspiration.

Oh ho! how the mighty have fallen! I thought, then walked away.

Five minutes later I was back, staring at that tiny glass star and feeling inexplicably gloomy. What's an Angel like you doing in a place like this? I whispered... then reached out my hand.

As I've expressed before, my opinion of Angel is not high. It still isn't. Granted, its first minute on skin is a taste of pure Heaven-- but where it goes from there, in my humble opinion, is straight to Hell. Yet the sight of this little Angel languishing unwanted and unclaimed on the shelf dried up my schadenfreude at its very root. Twenty-five cents, you say?
Your mama never told you
how you were supposed to treat a girl
Your papa never told you
now you're all alone out in the world
Sirens come screaming
Inside, the winding sheets are pale
The devils are dreaming
dreaming of a blue angel

Now I lay me down to sleep
but troubled dreams are all I find
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
I pray so I won't lose my mind
Streetlights come streaming
On wings tonight I'll soon set sail
The devils are dreaming
dreaming of a blue angel

Your mama's gonna take it hard
You always were your mama's boy
Now you're lying in the graveyard
Now you're not your mama's joy
Silence is screaming
I'll bat an eye and cast my spell
The devils are dreaming
dreaming of a blue angel

--"Blue Angel", The Squirrel Nut Zippers

It's witchcraft.

A few years back, while I was active in an online creative writing network, it came to my attention that the internet was crawling with imps. Not gremlins, goblins, or troglodytes-- imps.

The dread overlord responsible for the global imp invasion was called BPAL-- a name universally pronounced in tones of glaze-eyed awe. From what I could gather, mighty BPAL boasted control over an army of obsessed acolytes who lived to spread his dark gospel. They haunted every corner of the known internets, swapping, begging, boasting, urging imps on unwary travelers and gloating at every successful conversion. What kind of cult was this?

Eventually, I came to understand that BPAL stood for Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab and the "imps" in question were imp's ears -- those 1/32 oz. glass sample vials we all know and love so well -- filled with various perfume oil samples. Now, this was a form of worship I could understand! However, a glance at BPAL's website left me dizzy. Sure, I enjoyed the "gothic carnival" visual aesthetic and the allegorical approach to perfume design. But with so many scents to choose from, how could I ever know which were best? And with new ones being issued every ten seconds or so, how would I ever keep up?

A trip to the BPAL forums didn't help. There, all communication was conducted IN CAPITAL LETTERS WITH WAY!!! TOO!!! MUCH!!! PUNCTUATION!!!!! It was like being stuck in small space full of needy, shrieking Beliebers; I kept a fixed smile on my face and backed sloooooowly out of the room.

This past week, under far safer circumstances, I finally had the opportunity to take the BPAL plunge. In exchange for some samples from my collection, a friend gave me some imps from the Illyria, Wanderlust, and Bewitching Brews series. As she carefully explained, she hadn't disliked the BPALs, but highly concentrated perfume oils tended to trigger her asthma. I sent her on her way with some light, fresh Kenzo, Etro, and Annick Goutal samples that I hoped she might wear without incident.

The swap provided me with a motive to revisit the BPAL site, which I found to be no less disorienting than it had been before. Yet touches of hipster humor turned up occassionally, providing relief from all the high-gothic seriousness and suggesting that perhaps the masters take a more relaxed approach than their adherents. "Terms used on this site such as 'brimstone', 'saltpeter', 'opium' and the like are intended as descriptive copy and are not literal translations of the ingredients of our scents," warns the webmaster, adding "Srsly."

The thing is, most of BPAL's stated ingredients seem equally imaginary, with few fragrances smelling anything like how they're described. So, lacking all proof or faith, I've left scent elements out altogether and stuck strictly to empirical observation. Is there more to BPAL than meets this skeptic's eye? A sniff or two (or eight) would tell all.

Talk about indulging one's inner child! This strange, hypersweet purple grape accord laced with chocolatey indoles is at once embarrassing and affecting, like a nostalgic childhood memory surfacing at the most inappropriate moment. I'm not sure I could ever wear Hermia in public... but if my appointment book had a column for scheduling playdates at the sandbox, I know what fragrance I'd choose.

Titania (Illyria Series)
Both in the bottle and on skin, this "nocturnal bounty of fae dew-kissed petals and pale fruits" stuns you with the force of its sweetness. Its basic accord (something halfway between watermelon-flavored Jolly Ranchers and candied canteloupe) made me smile, though I'd be hard-pressed to think of any reason for a woman in her forties to wear it. If it had a color, I'd say it was "pinky-yellow"-- an appellation coined by a delightful four-year-old of my acquaintance who would no doubt love this fragrance to little bits. Well, at least until she started doing her own income taxes, anyway.

Ophelia (Illyria Series)
"Wistful and vulnerable", says the website. Really? All I'm picking up on is a bizarro sugary tomato rose with extremely odd notes of melted butter and cardamom. Now, that sounds like an excellent concoction to throw under the broiler some September evening-- and it might even have worked here, if the perfumer had laid a note of roasted heat over this mixture. Sadly, the focus is once again on "sweet", and the composition suffers. Ophelia tries her level best to be interesting and succeeds by a hair's breadth. But that doesn't mean she smells good.

Lysander (Illyria Series)
Despite the fact that I can't detect a single note from the official composition list, this is my favorite of this batch-- a helichrysum-and-purple-plum wonder with a warming touch of cuminseed. I half wonder if the existent note list is a brilliant ploy on the part of BPAL to trick its fan club into trying something outside of the customary sweet zone. If so, bravo! Bolstered by a hint of pepper and smoothed over with honey, Lysander wears well all day long and has decided unisex appeal. I'd call that a success-- even if BPAL had to resort to subterfuge to arrive at it.

Hanging Gardens (Wanderlust Series)
Described as "an interpretation of the Hanging Gardens by night, based on further accounts of its fruit and flora", BPAL's ode to the Babylonian wonderland boasts a list of notes (ebony! fir! quince! fig!) that I wouldn't mind encountering in one fragrance. Unfortunately, that fragrance is not Hanging Gardens. Illustrative of the fact that some perfume briefs read better than they smell, Hanging Gardens opts instead for a regulation spicy-sweet patchouli differentiated from a hundred others by a single, hard-to-identify bite (black pepper? grapefruit peel?). Unless they've been added in infinitesimal, almost homeopathic amounts, I truly can't find any of the listed notes (date palm! pomegranate! exactly two pears and three gardenias!). One suspects they're included strictly to support the allegory-- but that doesn't mean BPAL couldn't have tried harder. If Ginestet can do it with Botrytis, there's no excuse, is there?

Machu Picchu (Wanderlust Series)
"Sweet tropical fruits burst through deep, wet rainforest boughs, enormous steamy blossoms, over thin mountaintop breezes, mingled with the soft, rich golden scent of Peruvian amber." I wish. Instead, Machu Picchu kicks off with a queasy gardenia complete with a funky, foetid mushroom note and a stomach-churning dose of bubble gum. On skin -- both luckily and improbably -- this mixture somehow expands into a handsome limoncello-pine accord. Neat trick-- but I prefer the second act to the first any day of the week.

Ephemera (Bewitching Brews Series)
An ugly-pretty smell, maddening in its refusal to identify its parts, Ephemera is billed by its makers as "(t)he scent of loss, love, and the echo of time without end". Nearly nauseating at first, it shifts abruptly into something balsamic-- and suddenly all its flaws are forgivable. I suspect there might be some spruce bud oil in there, and perhaps some cedar and lilac; if it really contains any of the notes BPAL lists, I'll eat my hat. What a mercurial mess... and what an endlessly interesting scent! Hooray for contradiction and paradox!

Ozymandius (Bewitching Brews Series)
"Desolation. The remnants of an empire, shivering with forgotten glories, a monument to megalomania, sundered power, and colossal loss. Dry desert air, dry and hot, passing over crumbling stone megaliths and plundered golden monuments, bearing a hint of the incense of lost Gods on its winds." Oh, honey, hush. You're a perfectly lovely fragrance, and you know it. Mystra to Lysander's Marrakech, your combination of celery seed, black pepper and bay leaf is fresh, dry, and startlingly animalic. So quit your sulking, and take your place in the sun.

Boisé Vanillé (Montale)

Automatically tacked on to all things boring and bland, the word "vanilla" is shorthand for "inability to shock".  This holds true in perfumery as in sex. The glut of kitsch vanillas on the fragrance market suggests a widespread belief that inside every vamp, there's a Suzy Homemaker just bursting to bake cookies for the local Little League.  "Danger" is not her middle name.  Heck, it isn't even her married name.

But not all of us can be Madonnas, playing it safe.  With a bump, a grind, and a saucy wriggle, Pierre Montale's Boisé Vanillé tips its own primary note's virginal reputation -- upsydaisy! -- on its rear.  Dirty, boozy, and delicious, it manages to wrest vanilla from the deathgrip of the 'nice' and reclaim it most decidedly for the naughty.

Lured to anticipate gourmand coziness by the resemblance of its name to Serge Lutens' Un Bois Vanille, you won't expect Boisé Vanillé to turn so ferocious, so fast.  But it does-- ditching the kitchen for the bedroom in twenty seconds flat.  It accomplishes this transition using the ripest, most powerful morning-breath tonka note outside of Guerlain's Jicky.  I'm talking full-blown halitosis, richly laced with the flavors of cold black coffee, clove cigarette smoke, and last night's desperate stairwell kisses.  For some, this odor outstrips all the musk in the world for sheer, immediate sexual imperative.  It overrides even the most upper-case NO.

With Jicky and others of its class, the inclusion of this note suggests the confidential presence of a lover one implicitly trusts.  Boisé Vanillé, on the other hand, is the thrilling stranger you find between your sheets amid extremely sketchy memories of the night before.  You're not sure how she got there.  But as she stretches and smiles up at you bleary-eyed, why she landed there is pretty clear.

You still want vanilla?  You'll get it, all right-- smooth as silk and spiced up nicely, bolstered by robust caramel and coffee notes and a touch of light, acidic lemon peel.  But it comes with a hefty shot of hooch-- most likely bootlegged, still redolent of the wooden cask in which it crossed the border, and lately kept in a flask tucked between a black lace garter and her warm and creamy thigh.  As she takes a swig and passes it to you across the rumpled pillow, it goes without saying that the lady may well pose you some danger.  Between you in the morning stillness lie hidden risks that promise to land you broken upon the rocks.

What will you do?  What can you do?

Probably what I did, which was to say "Oh, fuck it"-- and pounce.

Scent Elements: Lemon, bergamot, lavender, geranium, cedar, allspice, iris, patchouli, tonka bean, vanilla

Arpège Vintage Parfum Extrait (Lanvin)

I have a friend, a woman in her seventies, who wills herself into an out-of-body experience every time she has her teeth cleaned. As soon as she settles back in the dentist's chair, she unmoors herself from her body, floats up to the ceiling, and cheerfully watches the proceedings from a pain-free vantage point.

Having done this since childhood, my friend assumed that everyone had the power to do it. Not me. My dental care providers know there isn't enough Oraqix gel in the world to keep my ass in the chair once the pointy instruments make their appearance. The minute I walk in the door, they ready a syringe full of sweet, sweet Novocaine. It normally takes five shots to subdue me-- which is why last Thursday was a black day. Trapped in construction traffic out on the Parkway, the dentist (who is the only one authorized to administer the Novocaine) wouldn't pull into the parking lot for another hour.... in other words, far too late for my date with the teeth-cleaning demons.

The dental hygienist did her best to stall. She took a full series of X-rays, painstakingly measured my gum levels top and bottom, double- and triple-checked my contact information, and practically read a brochure on flossing out loud to me. Both of us kept glancing nervously at the clock. Then we started joking about glancing nervously at the clock. But after half an hour, the joke was over. With a sigh, she opened a fresh package of Oraqix, and I gripped the armrests until my knuckles turned pale.

As multicolored fireworks burst behind my closed eyelids in rhythm with the picking and scraping, it seemed strange to me that all I could envision was an ivory-colored presentation box blazoned with a royal blue satin ribbon. I saw it weeks ago at the secondhand store, curiously pristine beneath a brittle layer of cellophane. Sealed within, its contents were a mystery to which only two gold-embossed words -- Arpège Lanvin -- provided any clue.

Up to that moment, I hadn't even seriously considered it. I'd only seen the box once, and then only its exterior. How could I even be certain there was anything worth smelling inside? But at that moment, as I sat in that dentist's chair, the thought alone had the power to keep me from hitting the ceiling. And as the clock ticked and the hygienist picked and my nerve endings exploded in pain, the thought flowered into a full-fledged resolution: When and if I get out of this goddamn mess, I'm going to buy me some vintage Arpège.

Covered in beautiful ivory laid paper, stamped in gold, the presentation box watched me from the computer desk as I paced back and forth across the living room, trying to build up the courage to breach the shrink wrap. Honestly, you'd think live snakes might come out, the way my heart was thumping. Was it the aftereffects of Novocaine-free dental work, or the reckless decision to buy perfume without even smelling it first?

Pipe down, a little voice inside me huffed. You deserve this. In fact, after everything you went through this morning, you EARNED it. It cost only a fraction of the Novocaine, so stop pacing and start unwrapping.

Once freed from the cellophane, the box's hinged lid opened smoothly to reveal an interior of flawless deep blue velveteen paper molded to fit two columnar glass flacons, one large, one small. Each fluted cylinder sported a flared black plastic cap surmounting a gold collar which formed the base of the spray mechanism. (Oh, speaking of that: the box contains two tiny brochures explaining the brand-new, innovative Natural Spray pump design-- "patent pending" as the fine print declared. If I can find the date of that patent, I'll know exactly how old this perfume is; for now, I'm guessing late fifties/early sixties.)

Affixed to each flacon's black cap, a gold medallion displayed the famous stylized motif of French haute-couture designer Jeanne Lanvin and her daughter Marguerite, for whose thirtieth birthday Arpège was commissioned from perfumer André Fraysse. Invited to name her signature fragrance, Marguerite -- an opera singer -- instinctively characterized it in musical terms, deeming its waterfall of notes an "arpeggio". Whether or not the arpeggio would still play awaited discovery.

The larger of the two flacons was empty, its contents (identified by a label on the vial's bottom as "Arpège Eau de Lanvin") evaporated, leaving behind only a few darkened traces of residue. A wave of disappointment crested in my throat-- but not for long. I turned my attention to the smaller flacon, one-fourth full of a rich amber liquid. At its base, a small black label caught my eye. In gold print so small I had to hold it up to the sunlight and squint to read it: Extrait Arpège.

I pried off the cap and positioned the sprayer over my wrist. It dispensed exactly two drops of thick, oily liquid onto my skin. I pressed my pulse points together once and quickly, drew the insides of my arms down over my hair-- and lost my powers of speech.

It's not that I'd never smelled Arpège before. My mother once had a bottle of it, as did several older female relatives-- but in eau de parfum concentration, never extrait. I certainly wouldn't characterize the scent of that Arpège as prim or retiring. Rather, it was "lovely"-- in the same sense that an old-fashioned young lady whose manners, comportment, and dress are perfectly conventional might be called "lovely". Take, for example, its aldehydes. In other perfumes, they provide a certain sparkle that alludes to a river of champagne-- and the type of woman who delights in taking the plunge. In Arpège Eau de Parfum, the aldehydes are primmer, colder, protecting the floral notes' modesty as a sheer tulle tucker might shield the bare shoulders of a virginal Old New York debutante.

Arpège Extrait keeps the tulle tucker but loses the ballgown, and the petticoats, and the corset and stockings and all that jazz. She stands before you bareassed and proud, a New Amazon of an aggressively modern mold. The layer of tulle wreathing her form only accentuates its nudity; the femininity of her flowers only emphasizes their power. Unveiled, her indolic neroli and jasmine, leathery ylang-ylang, and creamy sandalwood notes confront you with serene self-possession. All the old definitions fail to apply.

Simply put, this Arpège is an entity apart-- spicier, richer, more liquid and curvaceous than any descendant traveling under the family name. Two tiny drops was all it took for me to meet her in the full flesh-- and for all other versions to be obliterated, left for dust.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, neroli, aldehydes, honeysuckle, rose, jasmine, iris, ylang-ylang, sandalwood, patchouli, vetiver, vanilla

Opium (Yves Saint Laurent)

Opium was once described by Luca Turin as a perfume suggestive of "a past that would take some time to explain". The first time I smelled it, I felt the weight of that history. The original Opium boasted the greatest specific gravity of any fragrance I'd ever smelled; accustomed to more ephemeral fragrances, I simply couldn't get over its dense dimensionality. It filled space like a solid. It towered over you, mountain high. Though its cinnabar-lacquer bottle was designed to evoke imperial Japan, it could have been carved from a block of pure hematite and inscribed, "Product of Jupiter"-- the only planet whose gravity halfway matched it.

In the wrong perfumer's hands, a brief like this could spell Armageddon.  But Opium's composition is so well-judged and perfectly tuned, it might have sprung from Jean-Louis Sieuzac's genius like Athena from the brow of Zeus:  already whole and complete.  Sure, he shoehorned a hundredweight of spices into every molecule-- but the right spices, and in all the right proportions.  The resulting fragrance slips on like twelve layers of heavy silk Heian kimono, and from its clove-heavy kickoff to the smooth vanilla smoke of its last moments on skin, it makes a woman feel like an Empress.

Though I have always adored Opium, for many years I felt too immature to wear it.  In my late '20's, for instance, I received a mini bottle of the parfum from an older woman who acted as a friend and mentor to me. I believe she meant me to absorb its message of bold self-confidence, but instead I wore it almost in secret, believing myself unworthy to carry that formidable mantle of scent on my shoulders. 

Perhaps at that point in my life, I did not have enough of a past.  Now I do... and I mean to wear Opium, the ten-ton, mile-high mountain of scent that I remember.

Preferably before it disappears forever.

5STARS Small

In the dystopian 1982 film Blade Runner, a young woman named Rachael struggles to convince a police detective that she's a person just like everybody else. She shows him a family photograph from long ago and begs him to recognize her humanity. But the photograph is doctored; the family history is a lie. There is no "long ago". Rachael is a replicant-- fully synthetic, manufactured rather than born, possessing no more human nature than an electric toaster.

And though she denies it, she knows.

Rachael's creator explains that while replicants lack human sentiment, most are smart enough to find the absence of a remembered past disturbing.  Without prior experiences from which to draw an identity, many shut down-- or go rogue.  The solution?  False memories.  Rachael has been outfitted with a computer program which provides her with a fully fabricated personal history.  It keeps her on an even emotional keel and helps her to tolerate the burden of being "human".  

Rachel looks, walks, talks, and cries like the real thing.  But there is an emptiness in her gaze, a flatness to her affect that no implanted history can erase.  Encased in its beautiful container, her self is a cipher writ in thin air.

There is much about the 2010 reissue of Opium that reminds me of Rachael-- not least because it's a replicant.  It tries hard to convince us that it's the real thing; it makes all the right gestures and strikes all the prescribed poses-- and then, by a hair's breadth, it fails. 

When I first encountered the newly redesigned bottle (with its strange little black lamp wick dangling down into the juice) I gave the tester a cautious sniff.  All the notes seemed right; all the neocortical synapses that have Opium's name engraved on them tingled-- just as I expected.  But perhaps in my haste to "recognize" an old friend, my perceptions rushed things a bit-- leapfrogging over glaring discrepancies and engaging in a bit of olfactory matrixing. Because when I sprayed the new Opium on my wrist, I knew within seconds that I had been deceived.

How can I explain?

It's lost weight-- that's the first thing.  I anticipated that familiar wall of solid immutable scent, and instead I received something depressingly sheer and wobbly on its feet.  All the expected notes are there, but with empty space between them where none used to exist.  One imagines a group of labcoats whittling the original formula down to its simplest expression, trimming all that rich complexity away like so much unnecessary fat and pumping it full of air to make weight.

The notes themselves have acquired a synthetic harshness that is anathema to the Opium I remember.  Even worse, a distinct (and ugly) whiff of petroleum becomes apparent about ten minutes into the perfume's progression, blending tones of plastic and kerosene with the more familiar sandalwood and plum.  This effect didn't fade, either -- not for hours.  For the first time ever, I entertained the notion of scrubbing this beloved fragrance off my skin.

Overall, the new Opium says the same thing as the old Opium, but at a thin, unmusical pitch.  You can't say it's different; it's just... diminished.  The proportions, the mass, the volume, at one time heroic, monolithic-- and now?  In the same way that Blade Runner's Rachael is human in every detail but not in fact, Opium 2010 has everything the original Opium had, except that tiny, pesky thing called a soul.  Once noticed, this deficiency can neither be forgotten nor pardoned. 

We may learn to live with the imposter, but always at arm's length. She will never fool us.

Scent Elements: Mandarin, bergamot, plum, peach, jasmine, lily-of-the-valley, carnation, rose, orris, coriander, cloves, cinnamon, pepper, West Indian bay, myrrh, labdanum, tolu, opoponax, musk, coconut, benzoin, vetiver, incense, cedarwood, sandalwood, vanilla, amber, patchouli, castoreum (1977) / Mandarin, plum, cloves, coriander, carnation, lily of the valley, rose, myrrh, opoponax, castoreum, cedarwood, sandalwood (2010 Reissue)

Titania and Oberon (Webber)

Their real names, according to their creator, are concise to the point of severity: Mossy #1 and Mossy #2. One is a chypre as deep and green as the forest primeval. The other is a smoky leather with a spare touch of dry lichen. When I first made their acquaintance via Carol of WAFT, I instinctively felt (as I do only rarely with fragrance) that their genders were inbuilt, deliberate: goddess and consort. I jokingly nicknamed them Titania and Oberon and set them aside.

Over the last few days, in a way difficult to explain, I've felt myself strongly drawn back-- compelled to wear these two fragrances both separately and together. It was as if they'd tolerated my neglect long enough and chose the New Year to exert their full will over me. In so doing, they revealed their true natures: they are, without a doubt, a mated pair. Marriage on skin, I am convinced, was their intended destiny; I can no longer imagine wearing them separately, though for the sake of this review I will describe them as such.

Titania is the Emerald Forest in a bottle-- a deep green, profundo chypre laced with ripe, dark sloes overhead and fruiting blueberry shrubs in the underbrush. (Research indicates that Mr. Webber worked in New Jersey at one time. Is this his tribute to the magnificent Pine Barrens? Some part of me begs for a "yes".) Fertile, mysterious, a little savage, with good staying power. Her dry and virile Oberon is a regal pine-and-moss construction graced with more than a touch of leather. His masculinity cannot be missed; yet he is no barbarian. On skin, Oberon dissolves into incense and woodsmoke. If I were limited to one adjective, I would call his effect "benevolent".

I am back to calling the pair 'Their Majesties' in tones of profoundest reverence. I can no longer tell which one dominates me more; I only know I am their loyal and submissive subject.

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
If you pardon we will mend.
Else the Puck a liar call.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

Scent Elements: Oakmoss, labdanum, and birch tar with all the trimmings.

DiBorghese Vintage Cologne Vivant (Princess Marcella DiBorghese)

My friend TJ (she of Evening In Paris) contacted me last November to inform me that her local charity boutique had just received a full, boxed bottle of DiBorghese perfume which they intended to sell at their next fundraising event. Did I want an early shot at it?

I'd never heard of DiBorghese, but some rudimentary research soon cured my ignorance. Marcella Fazo DiBorghese (1911–2002) was a bona fide principessa, wife of the Prince of Sant’ Angelo di San Paolo and founder of Italy's first modern celebrity cosmetics line (approved by no less than Pope Pius XII). In 1956, Revlon adopted her line and launched her signature parfum. A few wistful paeans to its glory days remained, but no information about its scent elements. When Georgette Mosbacher acquired DiBorghese in 2000, the perfume did not fit into her vision of a contemporary spa line and was summarily discontinued. Since I despise Georgette Mosbacher, I perversely figured DiBorghese and I might hit it off-- the enemy of my enemy, et cetera, et cetera.

My first glimpse of DiBorghese (huge clumsy bottle, unforgivably cheap "silver" cap,  jus of a hideous cooking-sherry hue) did not inspire confidence. Naturally, I expected some poisonous floral horror à la Giorgio, but one spray on paper challenged me to reconsider my misgivings. Granted, you'd really have to like galbanum to embrace DiBorghese-- but I do, so I did. Aside from galbanum, I detected oakmoss, sandalwood, a very light dry patchouli, and enough rich, bready iris to sink a battleship. The clincher: a birch-tar leather drydown, always a solid favorite with me.

But that bottle! Ugly gumball-machine design aside, it suffered from a defective pump mechanism which dispensed three times more perfume than needed with every spray. Resembling the uprush of carbonation that issues from a dropped seltzer bottle, a sputtering fountain of scent would emerge from beneath the metal valve cap and trickle down the sides of the bottle every time the sprayer was deployed. I imagine this is why its previous owner gave up on it-- and why the charity shop wanted only one dollar for it. (Little did any of us realize that DiBorghese is apparently a desirable property among perfumistas. The Perfumed Court describes it as a "discontinued, very rare, and hard to find scent" for which they ask $10 for half a milliliter. I've also happened upon several $400+ eBay listings for identical bottles in original packaging... which I imagine to be equally explosive.)

This week, I finally tackled the daunting task of decanting DiBorghese. At the risk of breaking the bottle (no big loss) I attempted to remove the metal valve cap with a pair of pliers. It refused to budge. Next solution: spray-decanting DiBorghese into a sterilized glass bowl, then transferring it via pipette to waiting glass vials. Sounds easy? Hardly. Despite wrapping the bottle in several layers of absorbent paper towels beforehand, once I began to pump the spray button, a startling amount of perfume began gushing out from under the valve cap. It soaked the paper towels through in seconds, coating my hands in full-strength scent.

At this point, let me pause to remark that while I sincerely enjoy DiBorghese, I neither want nor need to wear an entire bottle of it all at once. I can also state that whereas I previously was uncertain of DiBorghese’s exact contents, I am now pretty damn certain it’s got civet out the wazoo. Also, the color of this juice is like nothing found in nature—and yes, it stains fabric, so watch out!

I decided to continue without the paper towels, positioning the bottle so that runoff would (I hoped) end up in the bowl. After some experimentation, this seemed to work fine. Once the bottle was emptied into the bowl, I took a sterile pipette and set about apportioning DiBorghese into new sample vials until the bowl was empty. Whew!

Before a dedicated round of full-soap hand washing restored me to normal scent levels, I rather enjoyed traveling in a cloud of DiBorghese. It smelled like the soft, sueded interior of a lady's opera-length leather glove. The perfume on her wrist (a rich classic chypre), the salty sweat of her palm, the nicotine on her fingers, the fruity acetone of her nail polish, traces of Florentine iris dusting powder and aldehydic AquaNet, the severe scent of black kid leather. And civet-- did I mention the civet? It contributes a heretofore-unrealized element of sweet delicious skank to the total DiBorghese experience. You may tell yourself you don’t like skank… but under certain circumstances, you simply can’t do without it.

The result is a hologram of a Manhattan socialite à la Holly Golightly-- stylish, urbane, idiosyncratic, a little bit shady, secretly downmarket under her polished exterior but possessed of a heart of gold (at least in the movie version). She almost certainly owns at least two 20" black lacquered cigarette holders -- one for everyday, and another for when the first one's in the shop -- because nothing becomes a queen quite like her scepter.

Scent Elements: According to The Perfumed Court, DiBorghese is "a Floral Oriental with top notes of greens and moss followed by heart notes of jasmine, hyacinth, lily of the valley, and narcissus. Finally, base notes of amber, sandalwood, and spices finish it off. This is a discontinued, very rare, and hard to find scent."