Tunisian Frankincense.... then, now, and always.

New Year's Eve in Perfumeland has its own thrilling countdown ritual. As all my favorite bloggers post their "Best Of" lists, I feel like one of the happy drunken hoi polloi packed into Times Square-- content to stand here on the ground in Articwear and silly hat, cheering with all my might while the glitterati onstage do what they do brilliantly and best: shine!

Here at Parfümieren, fifty paces shy of the pulse, the zeitgeist is an infrequent visitor. I confess I haven't yet sampled most of the hot new releases of the past year... and I probably won't get around to them next year, either. Largely due to my horror of retail light and noise, I gravitate more towards the dusty secondhand shop than the fragrance counter at Neiman-Marcus. Consequently, I'm more likely to reach for (and review) the old than the new. But for the kindness of several friends supreme, I might seldom come into contact with the truly au courant-- and even then, much like Mrs. Baxter Pennilow in The Age of Innocence I often tuck such gifts away until the blinding newness of them fades to less intimidating levels.

Time, I trust, is on my side.

Though we like to break it down into manageable segments with clocks and calendars and New Years, I like to think of time as a river-- an uninterrupted current from which things emerge, into which they disappear, and from which they may surface again. The world of perfume is also like a river, stocked with thousands of scents of all hues and habits and lifespans. We can't catch them all, but it's fun to try. We hope -- particularly if we have encountered and grown to love them -- that they stay reasonably unaltered as they (and we) travel downstream together.

Attar Bazaar's Tunisian Frankincense was one of the very first perfumes I ever bought for myself. I have been wearing it for a very, very long time. My loyalty to this essence has spelled the demise of dram after dram after dram, purchased in various head shops, New Age boutiques, and heath-food grocery stores. As I deplete one, I buy another-- and over ten years' time, this full-bodied soliresin oil has remained blessedly unchanged in the most important particulars.

Color, I have learned, is one such factor. While it's questionable whether this frankincense hails from anyplace so romantic as Tunisia (more likely it comes from Ethiopia or the Sudan, locations which lack sex appeal for Western consumers), its greenish tinge identifies it as African/Near Eastern rather than Indian, which tends towards a yellow-gold hue. Each time I've gotten a fresh dram of TF, its vitreous beryl color eloquently proclaims a fresh beginning. My newest dram is more of a sea-glass green-- cooler, more blue. As many of Attar Bazaar's perfume oils are vividly tinted, I can't be sure if this is natural. But past experience tells me this is the real deal, and I'm willing to allow for fluctuations in harvest quality so long as the oil's other characteristics cleave true to form.

On to consistency. Again, I find African frankincense oils to be lighter and more mobile than the thick, sticky, slow-flowing subcontinental variants. But no matter where it comes from, true frankincense oil can be relied upon to separate and resolidify over time. Every single vial of TF I have ever owned has displayed that tell-tale layer of creamy-white silt at the bottle of the bottle-- evidence of its authenticity.

Finally, we come to scent. While Indian frankincense has a powerfully resinous "church" smell, African frankincense is characterized by notes of tart citrus peel and raw tobacco (leaf, not smoke-- a distinction I learned when my sister complained that another frankincense brand made me smell "like a used ashtray"). In time it matures like a fine Sauternes, growing mellower and more honeyed over several years of storage and use. I have always found the quality between drams of TF to be very consistent, although my most recent dram seems ever so slightly enhanced by an improving touch of orangeflower. In the drydown, it sings as mellifluously as ever. Sweet, smoky, fruity, elegant, eminently wearable. Perfect.

A vintage Cadbury's Cocoa ad proclaims, "East, West, Old Friends Are Best". Though you may never have experienced Tunisian Frankincense for yourselves, it's for you -- my fragrant friends -- that I write this ode today. It comes with a wish: as we move into a new year, may time and change always bring you more pleasure than pain, and may that which you love best forever prove worthy of your faith.

Sudanese Coconut and Medina Musk (Attar Bazaar)

Every hippie perfume oil collection worth its sacred sea salt must include a black coconut and a white musk. Thus are the sarong-clad ocean deities that preside over all littoral bonfire sing-alongs appeased.

Sudanese Coconut, a straightforward, salty-sweet member of the beach-fragrance species, fulfills its duties quite respectably for an admitted replica of nature. It evokes summer without smelling too much like suntan lotion and promises to make a pleasant companion during the winter months, when July is but a faraway dream. Or is it? I apply it to my wrists, and suddenly I'm baking on a white-sand beach, the sky overhead a cloudless azurite dome, my breathing synchronized with the rhythmic rush of the surf...

The pale greenish-blue liquid called Medina Musk looks like a cross between ocean water and laundry detergent, but get ready for a curveball. Lemony-tart at first, it catches me off guard by throwing in some of those strange, fizzy aldehydic effects noted in Egyptian Shalimar. Wait-- when did I order champagne? “Compliments of Monsieur,” says the waiter, gesturing toward a darkened corner. There slouches a sloe-eyed gent wearing a white linen three-piece suit and crimson fez. As he approaches my table (thank GOD this lamé evening dress fit into my saddle bag after all!) he slips a slim gold case out his breast pocket and offers me a hand-rolled cigarette. As we lean toward one another over this tiny Café Américain table, French-inhaling some marvelously dry tobacco-chypre fumes in unison, it occurs to me that this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Hina (Attar Bazaar)

The production of the Indian attar known as hina involves practically an entire apothecary cabinet. According to this wonderful White Lotus article, the average hina recipe can include turmeric, spikenard, yew, cardamom, juniper berry, nutmeg, mace, clove bud, ambrette seed, laurel berry, valerian, galangal root, cyperus root, cinnamon, and patchouli, all hydrodistilled drop by drop directly into a powerhouse base of oakmoss-infused red sandalwood oil. To this mélange, lashings of finished choyas and single-note attars (including mehndi or gul hina attar made from henna flowers) are added. What sounds destined to be a hellish brew emerges from the cauldron as heaven in liquid form.

With all this botanical life-force packed into every drop, it's easy to imagine hina as a cosmic heal-all-- transcendental medication; the original Ben-Gay as worn by Gautama Buddha. Attar Bazaar’s Hina is all that, plus -- forgive me! -- Buddha’s loincloth just prior to laundry day.

I'm used to experiencing hina as a purely spiritual scent. But add a raunchy dose of oud to the sacred recipe, and holy crap! Something new strolls into the temple-- a distinct note of dirty drawers, half-sexual, half-scatological, ripe enough to make a courtesan blush. Squirms of embarrassment follow, along with many other hard-to-describe emotions, most of them mortifying. I imagine this opening salvo could be a deal-breaker for some-- at the very least, it might lay bare some secret bodily-function fears that we'd prefer to keep well-buried. Thankfully, the discomfort doesn't last too long-- five minutes? Ten? Then Hina modulates briefly into a mild wet-cardboard note, and thence into Nirvana.

Claustrophobic warmth is usually the name of hina's game, as typified by patchouli and sundry other suffocating aromas. Here, a refreshing mint note sends an unexpected February breeze swirling through to clear a bit of breathing space around the wearer. (I'm reminded of an elderly relative's customary dictum: "You kids go outside and let the wind blow the stink off ya!") Once you've cooled off, a dense sandalwood knits itself up snugly around you, hugging you close like a lambswool sweater and soothing away the last of the icky feelings. This latter phase is paradise itself-- long-lasting, entirely satisfying, something to be craved once it ends.

Wrapped in such nurturing comfort, you may forget Hina's weird bits enough to want to wear it again from the top. (Is there oxytocin mixed in with this oud? It's got everything else!)

Scent Elements: The kitchen sink, some filthy bits, and a world of warm fuzzies.

Arabian Sandalwood (Attar Bazaar)

5:00 am: I roll out of an uneasy sleep straight into an ongoing migraine. Opening one bleary eye, I greet the pain with weary familiarity: Oh. It's YOU again.

7:00 am: I yelp like an injured dog when my husband turns on the living room light. (That's three rooms away from where I am, just so you know.) Duly warned, he closes all the curtains to protect his hissing vampire bride from the dawn.

7:20 am: In response to a deafening commotion in the kitchen, I moan, "What is that UNBELIEVABLE RACKET?" "Rice Crispies and milk," replies my husband. (Gonna be like that, now, is it?)

8:00 am: I'll say one thing for winter: it's good curtain season. These double-thick drapes are tops for migraine light-level management! Later, I'll be able to measure the progress of my condition by whether or not I scream like Nosferatu upon opening them. But right now -- nauseous, dizzy, blind as a bat -- I call out from work in a whisper and crawl back into the cave-dark cocoon of the bedroom.

11:00 am: Finally, vertigo releases its death grip! Walking down the hall no longer requires me to lean against the wall the whole way. I eat some plain yogurt, take a shower, start feeling cocky. Maybe I will make it in to work today. Maybe I've got that old jackhammer-in-my-cranium beat!

2:00 pm: Yeah. Right.

9:45 pm: Seventeen hours after my migraine commenced, I feel better-- at least insofar as I was able to eat dinner (sort of), sit in the living room with the TV on (at lowest volume), and wear the meekest, mildest fragrance in my Christmas stocking for all of an hour. Go, me!

Since genus Santalum appears nowhere on the Arabian peninsula's tree list, I suppose Arabian Sandalwood is the equivalent of W.P. Kinsella's "left-handed glass stretcher"*-- a rare object of questionable origins and spurious purpose, which nevertheless harbors enough magic to coax leaps of faith from the gullible. Such am I in my weakened state, and I must report that Attar Bazaar's left-handed glass stretcher does the trick. At a moment when anything stronger-smelling would probably send me over the edge, this pale, sweet Danish butter cookie of a fragrance sits quietly on my wrists, politely declines the invitation to produce sillage, and deploys its own mute button without being asked. I want to smooth it onto the places where it hurts the most and listen to the hornet-buzz of pain miraculously die away to swansdown silence.

10:00 pm:  "Apply directly to the forehead"? With pleasure.**

*Mentioned in his incomparable 1982 novel Shoeless Joe (popularly known to moviegoers as Field of Dreams).
** Remember those awful "HeadOn"commercials? No? Then the HeadOn obviously worked!

Scent Elements: The milk of human kindness, interspersed with a tender mercy or two.

Egyptian Shalimar (Attar Bazaar)

One of the great charms of Attar Bazaar is their custom of offering four free perfume oil samples with each mail-order purchase from their catalog. They let you choose your own, which is a nice touch, as it allows you to satisfy your curiosity without feeling stuck afterward with a fragrance you don't especially favor. When my husband ordered my Christmas attars, I included Egyptian Shalimar among my samples because the name struck me as so irresistibly loopy. Thousands of miles separate Cairo from the Shalimar Gardens-- and Attar Bazaar (much as I love it) could not possibly mean to emulate Guerlain. What gives?

Well, as predicted, this doesn't smell one bit like Shalimar. The shocking news: it smells exactly (and I do mean EXACTLY) like vintage Arpège extrait.

What? Was this a hallucination, the result of imbibing too much of a Sam Adams Holiday Sampler? For comparison, I scrambled through my scent cabinet to locate my precious few milliliters of the real article. And then like Mia Wallace in PULP FICTION, I said GODDAMN. Goddamn. Goddamn.

Have you ever squealed and hugged yourself the first time you wore a perfume, wondering, Could this be real? I mean, this was Arpège right down to the golden, liqui-glo aldehydes. (Aldehydes? In a hippie perfume oil?) Perhaps its bergamot-and-neroli was a touch more honeyed; perhaps its leather lay buried just a centimeter deeper in the mix. But as the darn thing progressed from a gorgeous, powdery-sweet sunrise to a slinky, skanky dusk (civet? In a hippie perfume oil?), my grin just grew wider. What a fabulous, fabulous fake-out-- and at eight dollars a dram, how could I not upgrade to full size?

Trust me: this may be the first time false advertising ever paid off so well for the consumer.

Scent Elements: Unknown. Attar Bazaar never lists notes for its proprietary blends, but stare really hard at your nearest bottle of Arpège until it talks.

Riverwalk (Soivohle)


Biodiversity is defined as "the degree of variation of life forms within a given ecosystem". Under unique conditions, hundreds of species may achieve symbiotic harmony within a single square mile.

Following this example, a good natural perfume is a tiny ecosystem in a bottle, thrumming with life force. Every essence used to construct the perfume is composed of many more molecules than its synthetic counterpart.  With the realization that each molecule conveys an encyclopedia's worth of data to the nose, the art and science of natural perfumery is revealed in all its grandeur and complexity. Not every perfumer possesses the technical skill to splice together all that information. But when one drop causes entire forests to spring open before the senses, the work of a virtuoso must be recognized.

I know that Riverwalk is woven from a dizzying array of botanical elements. I am also aware that I have yet to meet them all. From time to time something new, feral, and graceful strays across the footpath, and I stop-- wide-eyed, heart pounding, trying to remain still so as not to frighten it away. Feelings of exhilaration and danger pervade this enterprise; I wonder if I am properly equipped for it. Wearing this perfume is the equivalent of walking into the wild: the fewer encumbrances you carry, the more direct your communion with the divine.

What have I encountered so far?
Silver-blue balsam fir boughs.
Plum yews heavy with violet-brown drupes.
A mighty cedar trunk split by lightning strike to reveal its fiery heart.
Sun-saturated fern beds.

Songbirds heard from a distance.
Tides lapping a shoreline out of sight.
Pokeberries glowing like garnets against yellowing late-fall leaves.
The ashen remains of old campfires, replete with echoes of lost songs.
A breath of sea air carried over the grasses of the salt marsh.

It goes on and on. I could spend all day and all night out here.  There is so much to explore, so many off-path adventures to pursue.  To be absorbed, even for a time, into this environment spells out endless joy and restoration to me.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, lavendar absolute, French lavender EO, star anise, galangal root, petitgrain, balsam fir absolute, rectified birch, choya loban, geranium leaf, geranium concrete, aged patchouli blend, patchouli absolute, cassis absolute, hay absolute, cedar blend, cocoa absolute, tonka bean tincture, Indonesian vetiver, benzoin Siam absolute, brown oakmoss, vanilla absolute, rosewood, linaloe, ho wood, ambergris

Oudh Laos / Oud Lacquer Parfum Absolutes (Soivohle) Heart/Agarwood


When we consider the heart of a tree, we instinctively summon the image of a mighty trunk's cross-section-- hundreds of concentric rings, each proving another year of health and growth. The subject of rot, on the other hand, repels us. So strong is the personification impulse that the notion of a tree decaying from the inside out gives rise to profound discomfort-- as if we, and not the tree, had been assigned this fate.

And yet death brings a last flare of beauty. We see this in autumn, when declining sunlight prompts a self-preserving chlorophyll shutdown and results in bursts of brilliant leaf color. We also see (or rather smell) the same process in Aquilaria wood invaded by the Phaeoacremonium parasitica fungus. To surround and subdue the infection, the tree's immune system kicks into overdrive, producing large amounts of sublimely-scented volatile resin: oud.

From illness comes transcendence. Taken as a natural pairing, Liz Zorn's Oud Laos and Oudh Lacquer offer a potent dual meditation on this phenomenon. Oud Laos -- a pure agarwood essence unadorned by supporting notes -- provides the memento mori aspect of the theme, hitting you early on with a breath straight from the crypt. In reaction to a searing blast of what smells like black mold, the throat constricts, the eyes water, and an urge to scrub (nay, disinfect!) descends. Hold firm; this fear-factor moment soon passes, leaving in its wake a warmly medicinal scent like that found in the depths of an antique apothecary cabinet.

For a soliresin, Oud Laos packs plenty of complexity-- but it pales in comparison to Oudh Lacquer, which adds a choir of seraphim to the equation.

According to Zorn's website, time is of the essence in the production of Oudh Lacquer. It enjoys a "year-long infusion process" founded on the use of a specially aged tincture of oud in which each additional element is set like a gem in filigree, a sort of olfactory plique-à-jour.  Its darkness -- a rich, indolic ganache with an unsettling element of fruit fermented in animalic honey and the subtle funk of mushrooms -- is balanced by the merest touch of effervescent tilleul and Thai lime leaves, inferring a joyful green-gold dazzle on the surface of muddy waters.

If Oud Laos is the "Lacrimosa" movement of Mozart's Requiem, Oudh Lacquer marks a poignant shift into something lighter, brighter, more modern and optimistic:
Let go, jump in, oh well
What are you waiting for?
It's all right because
there's beauty in the breakdown
So let go, just get in, oh
It's so amazing here
It's all right because
there's beauty in the breakdown

--Frou Frou / "Let Go", from Details (2002)
Scent Elements: Wild-harvested agarwood absolute (Oud Laos); agarwood oil blend, aged agarwood tincture, kaffir lime, linden blossom absolute, cacao absolute, cepes, anise, orange, orange blossom, aglaia, champaca, iris, cinnamon, clove, honey, woods, balsam Tolu, styrax, patchouli, benzoin, tonka, vanilla, angelica root (Oudh Lacquer)

L'Eau Guerrière (Parfumerie Générale)


With a caution partly due to this fragrance's somewhat ominous name, you advance into the jungle. At any moment, you expect a surprise ambush sans merci. Instead you find yourself confronting an improbable figure: a khaki-clad, pith-helmeted explorer offering a canteen full of quinine water.

Cinchona bark -- the source of quinine, not to mention that delightful bitter flavor that's jazzed up gin-and-tonics since Noel Coward flung out his first bon mot -- is a pharmacologist's dream. Muscle relaxant, antipyretic, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic, it has played the role of malaria specific for over three centuries. I myself drink one liter of sugar-free tonic water every day to alleviate the involuntary dystonic muscle spasms caused by my neurological condition. Although the amount of quinine in your average glass of tonic water is so negligible as to almost be considered homeopathic, it really makes a difference to me. For proof, consider that if I drink less than half of my daily dose or forget it altogether-- bam! I wake up in the middle of the night, knotted up like a dystonic human pretzel.)

Cinchona's uses extend beyond the hospital: "red Peruvian bark" (Cinchona succirubra) appears on ingredient lists as a flavorant and bittering agent (not to mention an anti-dandruff constituent in hair-and-skin care products). Its fragrance is described as "woody, botanical, rooty" with a maple edge-- yet it rarely (if ever) appears in perfume.

L'Eau Guerrière is the only fragrance I know which awards cinchona a central role. There may not be enough of it in L'Eau Guerrière to make it fluoresce under black light, as will a glass of Schweppes; nevertheless, something about this fragrance glows with preternatural life.

L'Eau Guerrière opens with an strongly herbal accord recognizable to all you midnight tokers out there. It combines the sharp green of tomato vines with an amusingly goatish manger-straw scent, and it only lasts long enough to count as a sort of perfumer's in-joke. If you want it to stick around, I recommend Dupetit's Cannabis-- but I guarantee you'll be too taken by the next act to pursue it. A recognizable tonic-water accord -- bitter and silver-blue, barely disguised by a spoonful of sugar -- reaches the nostrils next, lifted there by the shimmering carbonated fizz of dry aldehydes and sealed with a mild oud as buttery as santal. It may disconcert the wearer to go from the suggestion of a "warrior scent" to a verandah table at Raffles Hotel Singapore-- but the company scintillates, and G&Ts keep arriving by the score.

Why not stay for the season?

Scent Elements: Cinchona bark, aldehydes, frankincense, oud, musk

Tabu Vintage Extrait (Dana)

It may just be me. But in the recent act of decanting this beauty, I felt the earth wobble ever so slightly on its axis.

I'm not saying the last days of our dear planet are nigh (even if the fateful year 2012 is just around the corner). I'm merely stating that this fifty-year-old extrait (purchased for two dollars I said TWO DOLLARS, would somebody PLEASE give me an amen) is the stuff which governs the path of planets around the sun.

After extracting from the flacon a few milliliters of parfum and transferring them into a sample vial, I happened to set my pipette down on a piece of paper, which immediately absorbed a droplet of that precious jus. That droplet proceeded to send up a Hosannah! clearly discernable from three counties away-- yet delectably smooth, judging from the parade of strange cars that began to pull up unannounced at my curb from that moment on. (If you spill it, they will come.)

And while the prospect of becoming a hoarder normally instills the fear of hell into my everlasting soul, I have yet to throw that piece of paper out.

Again, it may just be me. But something tells me that if I set this down on the shelf next to Absolue Pour le Soir, we may witness a sexy space-time singularity of End Times proportions.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, carnation, coriander, basil, neroli, orange, clove bud oil, clover, jasmine, narcissus, rose, ylang-ylang, amber, benzoin, cedar, civet, oakmoss, patchouli, sandalwood, vanilla, vetiver, resins, musk

Absolue Pour le Soir (Maison Francis Kurkdjian)

This decant was sent to me by Sweet Suzanne. It came via starship, and that starship was flying a funky freak flag. Maybe I'm craaaaayzaaaay... but I strapped on my superstacked platform shoes and saluted.

Oh my goodness gracious yessssss.

Scent Elements: Siam benzoin, cumin, rose honey, ylang-ylang, atlas cedar, sandalwood, incense absolu

Tiare (Ormonde Jayne)

It strikes soon after you land. Some conspiracy of sunshine, geothermal energy and mana seizes you, and you start to grow, change, evolve. Locals call it 'the quickening'-- a term which lends it an air of established legitimacy, even desirability. This is something you want to happen. Don't you?

Others do. Look around you. From all coordinates on the globe, they've made their way to the Hawai'ian islands, these naive flowerbuds eager to be forced open by the skillful hand of Spirit.  What miracles no one else could work, Maui can-- or so they trust.  No guarantee of enlightenment awaits them, just a vague hope. Even before their bags have cleared the airport luggage carousel, they're sending up a silent cry, Choose me, choose me.

And this island -- the summit of a sacred mountain concealed by a fickle sea -- obliges.

The quickening hurts. No one warns you beforehand. The Spirit pries you open, roots around to find that one thing buried deepest in the nacre -- a secret, a misdeed, a razor-sharp memory -- and cruelly exposes it anew. Then it leaves you amidst a mockery of rainbows and waterfalls to stanch the flow of blood alone. Pain is never sharper than in paradise; on this rock, the cognitive dissonance makes or breaks you.

During your time on Maui, you will meet three dozen self-styled gurus, two 'interdimensional star-beings', an Ascended Master disguised as a batik importer, and at least one old-fashioned robe-wearing wizard. These are the walking wounded, casualties of the fabled quickening. Like you, each of them carries deep historic hurts; unlike you, they allowed Maui to unmoor them. Adrift in the Pacific on a volcanic raft with no escape except by charter plane and all their life's agony staring them in the face, they spin the most outrageous backstories just to make captivity tolerable.

Strangely, you envy them. Being alive, pretending at normality is hard. It would be so easy to give up, let go.

Cue the burning of the cane fields.

You wake up one morning to a smell halfway between toffee and tire fire. Danger-- mind and body instinctively assume a full-alert stance. Volcano! is your first thought. But no, Haleakalā hasn't issued so much as a wisp of steam in three hundred years. All is quiet. How?

Even before you walk two blocks, you see it: a tower of apocalyptic black smoke that filters out the sun. The air, tinted a crazy sepia-tone, smells at once appetizing and poisonous. Breathing it feels ill-advised, a promised lungful of some vile sticky-candy version of tar. Never mind: whatever this is, it's big and real, a shock to the senses after months of bland tropical fantasy. You have to get closer to it.

A local farm wife gives you a lift in her pickup to the highway, where quite a crowd of spectators has already gathered. Here, you survey the coastal plain for the end of the world.

What exactly is going on down there? What are they doing? you ask a nearby old-timer.

Torching the sugar, he says. Burns off all the leaves, makes the cane easier to harvest. You go out by Kīhei today, it'll be snowing ash.

For some reason, the thought makes you shiver.

Back in town, all the gurus and star-beings seem unusually quiet, restored to sober reality by the conflagration below and the ceiling of sugar-soot above. You, too, feel subdued. Your throat nags for water; your eyes smart. The very exhalation of hell manifested itself in the center of heaven today. The sight of your own front yard makes you want to cry.

Standing by the fence, you bury your nose in an island gardenia, still dewy from the last hour's rainfall. What an odd contrast the acrid smoke of the cane field makes with the lush scents of upcountry rainforest! It battles the heavy perfume of the gardenia for primacy, and very nearly wins. The truce between them -- tender white petals and caustic phenols -- leaves you unsettled. By rights, no natural accord between flower and fire ought to exist, in your opinion.

And yet the flower -- vulnerable as it is -- pays the flame no mind, you think.

In that moment -- quickening completed -- Maui smiles upon its newest kama'aina.

Scent Elements: Mandarin, neroli, Sicilian lime, tiare, freesia, water lily, jasmine, iris, ylang-ylang, cedar, vetiver, sandalwood, patchouli, moss, musk

Aomassaï (Parfumerie Générale)

It's impossible to resent Aomassaï, the adorable little sister of Arabie and Un Bois Vanille. Precious, high-spirited, and harmless, she makes a charming addition to their group-- a wide-eyed miniature version of themselves to pet and spoil and show off.  True, she is a scamp; in moments when one is supposed to be grave and dignified, she can't help but break the silence with peals of irrepressible laughter.  But sometimes her brio is the perfect diversion from the weighty matters that so often press upon mature nerves.  All forms of pardon can be granted one so sweet, don't you think?

Aomassaï  has a lot to learn.  She may never seem quite in the same league as her elegant older siblings.  But as far as they're concerned, the little one can tag along anytime.

Scent Elements: Bigarade, caramel, hazelnut, spices, vetiver, incense, liquorice, wengué, balsam

Cuir Mauresque (Serge Lutens)

Billed as a sweetly spiced Arabian leather, Serge Lutens' Cuir Mauresque surprises me by turning up in red Doc Martens Mary Janes with vintage Bakelite cherries pinned to its hat. Well, would you look at that: it's a girl!

Her leather is patent, smart and modern, like Knize Ten; her fruit is red, bold and glistening, like Égoïste. But you'll find neither Knize Ten's rigid martial spirit nor Égoïste's childish candy-aisle temper tantrums here. Cuir Mauresque is loose-limbed, fancy-free, independent and generous of heart. Christopher Sheldrake must have been humming "Georgy Girl" on the day she was born... and drinking Shirley Temples to boot.

Back to the cherries. Do you smell them? I do!  I know they're a mirage -- a playful conspiracy between mandarin and spice that makes my nose believe it perceives a whopping big bowl of Bings -- but since it's Christmastime, I don't mind being haunted by the ghost of these red-and-green beauties.  (While we're on the subject of Yule, I should mention here that Cuir Mauresque is a gift that keeps on giving.  More than once, just when I've thought that it has faded, it revives on my skin to send up one more whiff of jubilee delight. I wonder if it would last Twelve Days?)

So call her Cerises Mauresque for a joke if you like, or even Cuir Maraschino.  The bottom line:  she's a pip.

Scent Elements: Orange blossom, mandarin, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, cumin, cedar, amber, musk, oud, styrax, civet

Gardenia Royal Eau de Parfum (Mistral)

My pal Anna -- a fan of airy, minimalist scents in the Issey Miyake mold -- offered me this carded sample after deeming it too overwhelming for her tastes. After wearing it once, I understand why: it's powerful stuff, like one of those super-concentrated fragrance oils marketed as an additive for home-made soap.  Hey, there's an idea! Soap!

Too late. Luxury soapmaker Mistral -- a nice outfit with an aesthetic halfway between California and Caswell-Massey -- already manufactures a Gardenia Soap, Body Lotion, Hand Cream, Bubble Bath, and Glass Candle. But with Bath & Body Works issuing a new product every 2.8 seconds, I suppose smaller savonneries must super-size to compete -- hence the obligatory Eau de Parfum (2009), which simply puts in a bottle that which previously came in a bar.

Highly coveted botanicals, exotic woods and spices, rare flowers, and essences of ripe fruits contribute to the many notes of these fine fragrances, reads the ad copy, sagely adding, Flammable until dry. Do not swallow. A litany of chemical names follow, many marked with asterixes to indicate "Natural Origin Ingredients".  Mistral's small-print website copy assures us that these are formulated for us in Grasse. An additional footnote asserts the finished product is not tested on animals-- well and good.

But even after all this, the perfume itself doesn't seem appropriate for neat application on skin. It's far too powerful, far too sweet, and -- despite Mistral's 'all-natural' marketing line -- smells plainly synthetic.  There's more jasmine in here than anything else, and while they don't list it, there also seems to be an insistent white musk base that won't allow my mind to drop the image of a cake of soap.

And actually, that's exactly the form in which I might prefer this hypersweet dynamo:  a nice savon de bain.  Trapped and weighted down by almond oil, shea butter, lanolin, glycerine, what-have-you, those overly powerful molecules of scent might be kept under control.  Whatever of them I don't need, the hot water of my shower would wash away, leaving just a sweet dream of inoffensive white blossoms behind.

Scent Elements: Gardenia, jasmine, orange blossom, greens, cedarwood, vanilla

Odalisque (Parfums De Nicolaï)

There's a scene in The Extra Man in which an inexperienced client asks his world-weary dominatrix if -- rather than proceed with their scheduled spanking -- he could please just kiss her instead. It's obvious no one's asked her that for years. She acquiesces with a show of scornful eye-rolling, but clearly, the proposition melts her with delight-- deep inside, where vulnerability and first kisses still count.

At first, Odalisque feigns the same hard surface, the same jaded outlook. Bitter greens dominate its opening; it will not give itself up to you for nothing. A fair amount of leather and skank follow. Odalisque knows what you're thinking -- muguet ought to be sweet! -- and looks away, angry, steeling itself for judgment. When at last it offers up its flowers, the gesture itself savors of impatience: Fine, take everything, what do I care.

It might sooner slug you than let you kiss it on the mouth.

But if you first said please...

Scent Elements: Bergamot, mandarin, lily-of-the-valley, jasmine, iris, galbanum, oakmoss, musk