Design (Paul Sebastian)

Debuting in 1985 on drugstore shelves everywhere, Paul Sebastian's Design Eau de Parfum for Women struck a chord with high-school-age Jersey girls eager to blow their first paychecks on something "classy".  You could come home from your after-school job at Mickey D's, scour away the smell of aging french-fry grease in a fiercely hot shower, and emerge in a cloud of Design, ready for anything.  (Add a huge off-the-shoulder sweater, skinny jeans tucked into WigWam cheerleader socks, and a barrel of Dippity-Do to keep your big hair vertical-- and you're set to cruise the Mall until the store security gates go down.)

Beguiling sweetness... Narcotic opulence... Dreamy... Dangerous... Insinuating.  The ad copy for Design still manages to steam up the windshield, evoking those lightly smutty novels we kyped from our mothers' bedside tables to read on the sly.  Scruples. Mistral's Daughter.  Sweet Savage Love. Bibles of feminine wish-fulfillment, populated with impossibly glamorous characters in impossibly glamorous situations, designed to appeal to girls and women whose lives never strayed an inch toward such extremes.

Twenty-five years (and hundreds of new perfume trends) later, Paul Sebastian Design is (nearly) unchanged.  It may have undergone the usual cheapening process of reformulation -- a sobering thought, as it was so cheap to begin with -- but it's just as plentiful and affordable as it was back in high school.  However, its glory days are indeed gone.  If the market is to be believed, today's young women don't want sophistication; a regression into pink sugar-coated childhood is what they crave.  Accordingly, five out of ten Basenotes correspondents give Design a thumbs-down; of those five, three liken it to "bug spray" and one humorously envisions the Design wearer as "the woman... (who) routinely sports nude stockings with cream-colored heels."  Oh snap!

I can see why they object.  Design is neither safe nor cute nor clean nor cutting-edge.  It's a big, dirty, liquored-up gardenia-tuberose riding atop a gargantuan monster truck of a base-- musk AND civet AND cassis AND jasmine.  You can feel it before you see it; it makes road signs quiver and traffic lights bounce and small animals run for cover.

All things being equal, and cheap items being just as capable of beauty as the insanely expensive, Paul Sebastian Design is still a sight better than the vanilla-and-corn syrup travesties crowding the shelves of every Target, Walmart, Macys and Rite Aid today. Perhaps in its day, it was representative of a trend that stretched from Giorgio to Poison all the way up to Amarige. And perhaps in the future, Britney Spears' Fantasy and Kimora Lee's Fabulosity will be described as vintage classics (though 2012 is coming, and humankind might be spared that catastrophe).

For now, Design seems to me a solid piece of work, more likely to fall among the blessed than the damned once a thousand years have elapsed. It may be middle-of-the-road... but only because it's way too big to fit in one lane.

Scent Elements: Tuberose, orange blossom, gardenia, honeysuckle, lilac, peach, jasmine, carnation, ylang-ylang, rose, blackcurrant, sandalwood, musk, civet

Sun Moon Stars (Karl Lagerfeld)

I find the tiny, cobalt-blue, globe-shaped bottle sitting in a birdcage.  Not a real one-- just a miniature birdcage originally designed for a Lolita Lempicka mini.  The bottle itself is a cut-rate pressed-glass tribute to Worth's Dans la Nuit, but it seems right at home perched plumply upon the little dais inside the cage. The antique dealer must have thought the arrangement looked charming-- and despite its irregularity, so do I.

Karl Lagerfeld terrifies me, but Sophia Grojsman does not, so I take the time to smell it.  It is a light, cheap, and cheerful version of Jaïpur, peach with a slug of pineapple and Grojsman's signature intense rose, and I like it just fine. I remember how much Jaïpur sustained me through last winter, and I smell snow in the air, so I shell out a few bucks for it and take it home along with the birdcage. I am not sorry.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, freesia, neroli, pineapple, peach, rose, muguet, carnation, heliotrope, cedar, sandalwood, vanilla, musk

La Myrrhe (Serge Lutens)

A black Jaguar with tinted windows pulls up to the curb.  No sooner is the parking brake deployed than the chauffeur launches himself out to open the back door.  From it steps a tall man in a razor-sharp Savile Row suit-- so hard you could strike sparks off of him, so cool he appears to have emerged fresh from a cryogenic chamber.  As he approaches your table, you notice a Smith & Wesson high security briefcase-- twelve-gauge steel, brushed gunmetal grey finish, digital keypad combination lock -- handcuffed to his wrist.

His face is perfectly impassive as he places the case on the tabletop.  A quick and complicated salvo of numerals punched in with one perfectly-manicured finger, and the briefcase springs open.  Neatly, silently, the man in the suit spins it to face you so that you can inspect its contents. 

Nestled within a chrysalis of custom-molded shockproof foam is a massive, bullet-shaped chrismatory-- titanium, from the looks of it, seamless and polished to a mirror shine.  Laser-engraved on its surface are the words LA MYRRHE.

You glance at its bearer. With the merest flick of his chin, he motions to you to lift it out of its foam cradle.

It is heavier than you imagined, and so cold the pads of your fingers adhere slightly to its surface, forcing you to toss it from hand to hand until it warms up.  Its precision-fit screw cap spins smoothly counterclockwise with minimal prompting.   What engineering, you think-- a split second before all thought becomes impossible.

What rises from the mouth of the chrismatory is not what you were led to expect. When you think of myrrh, you think of spicy, warming balsamic oils enclosed in amber glass vials glowing in a pool of candlelight.  What you get with La Myrrhe is a deathly-cold gust of aldehydes fronting the hissiest, greyest-blue ghost of a scent you've ever smelled -- like the first morbidly sweet exhalation of air from a newly-opened tomb. You recoil, return, recoil, and return again to this olfactory memento mori in your hands.    It stares you in the face, harsh and merciless, its fluorescent-white intensity obliterating all shadow.

Never again will you be able to forget the etymology of the word myrrh:  Aramaic for "bitter".

The man in the suit touches a button on his high-tech earpiece.  "Balthasar to Headquarters," he intones curtly in a voice as smooth and hard as a block of lucite.  Two seconds later: "I've made the drop."

Scent Elements: Myrrh, bitter almond, woods, pimiento berries, sandalwood, honey, jasmine, amber, musk, spices

Bois d'Encens (Armani Privé)

The custom of burning frankincense to sanctify and sweeten the air had already passed its 3,000th birthday by the time baby Jesus celebrated his first.  Due to its very antiquity, certain personages in the frankincense story are destined to remain shrouded in obscurity.  Whoever thought to nick the Boswellia shrub with a knife, or collect the fragrant sap that flowed from the cuts, or toss the hardened tears of resin into the fire-- these are the anonymous geniuses whose praises we sing.  (We'd send them a thank-you card if only we knew their names...)

For lack of a firm mailing address, we can always thank Giorgio Armani instead.  Bois d'Encens (like its other brethren in the Privé line) is a tour de force of minimalism-- Beethoven's Ninth attempted by a one-man band, the Mahābhārata published as a two-by-three-inch stocking stuffer, the Hallelujah Chorus arranged as Quaker plainsong.  The simplicity of its starting formula (at least three ingredients, no more than five) belie the jaw-dropping majesty of the end result.

While Comme des Garçon's Avignon captures the effect of frankincense smoke filling unlimited space, Bois d'Encens moves in for an extreme closeup on the individual frankincense nugget as it blisters, sizzles, toasts and melts atop glowing coals. If Avignon is dry, light, and cool, Bois d'Encens is liquid, heavy, and lava-hot. So truly does it cleave to the reality of frankincense that I would identify it as a soliresin in the same sense that a single-flower oil is called a soliflore.

But just as the coal consumes the incense, time consumes Bois d'Encens, and far more quickly than the precious substance which inspired it. Its most glorious moments are those least sustainable on skin (though the cedar-vetiver accord that remains is certainly hale and handsome). Still -- guided, perhaps, by those nameless ancient experimenters responsible for bringing us frankincense in the first place -- I'm driven to seek a solution. What would a triple layer of Bois d'Encens, Avignon, and Encens Flamboyant smell like?

Something tells me you might be able to see it from space-- or, on earth, at least from afar, twinkling like a star on the horizon.

Scent Elements: Frankincense, cedar, vetiver

Divine (Divine)

As brutal, bitter winter readies itself to pounce, one envies the creatures who simply pack it in and hibernate until spring.  The rest of us wander around chilled in body and spirit, a quart low on both vitamin D and optimism, suffering for want of a beauty we can embrace without fear of frostbite.  At this time, two things strike me as gifts worth their weight in gold:  fresh flowers and sunshine.  In the bleakness of winter, no panacea could be more miraculous than a bouquet of rare blossoms, or a flood of benevolent light and heat just when your weary bones need it most.

Authored by former L'Oreal exec Yvon Mouchel and promulgated worldwide from a tiny village on Brittany's Côte d'Émeraude, Divine brings to December what we most desire: both flowers and sunshine in abundance.

Every super team needs a heroine.  If the Magi were the Mod Squad, Divine would be its Peggy Lipton.  This glorious blonde of a scent -- goddesslike in stature but gentle and yielding at heart -- wins us outright with an armful of ambrosial flowers, sweetened to perfection.  Now, while gardenia and tuberose lend dewy moisture to a floral, they also lower its temperature, trapping it in the blue light of perpetual deep shade. Mouchel corrects this tendency by applying warm tones of vanilla, peach, and rose to the overall picture so that it glows with golden light. The effect is that of masses of petals, soft as charmeuse, still warm from the sun.

There are no thorns in this bouquet; nothing hidden, no mysteries.  Divine lays all her charms out on the table for us to take what we will.  Only a goddess could provide such celestial riches-- and only a woman could delight so in giving it all away.

Not in a silver casket cool with pearls
Or rich with red corundum or with blue,
Locked, and the key withheld, as other girls
Have given their loves, I give my love to you;
Not in a lovers'-knot, not in a ring
Worked in such fashion, and the legend plain—

Semper fidelis, where a secret spring
Kennels a drop of mischief for the brain:
Love in the open hand, no thing but that,
Ungemmed, unhidden, wishing not to hurt,
As one should bring you cowslips in a hat
Swung from the hand, or apples in her skirt,
I bring you, calling out as children do:
"Look what I have!—And these are all for you."

-- Edna St. Vincent Millay

Scent Elements: Peach, coriander, gardenia, tuberose, rose de Mai, oakmoss, musk, vanilla, spices

Crosseyed and painless.

I'm spent.

My Christmas shopping is complete. My bedroom closet is full of gifts, duly tagged and bagged, the hard-won spoils of an arduous hunting season. My skin is blotchy. My feet are killing me. I feel as drained and ill-used as though I've been on a six-month safari with Ernest Hemingway. I might willingly commit a crime if it meant never having to listen to "Feliz Navidad" ever again.

Yes, this is the season of giving... and the season is giving me hives.

The irony is that I actually enjoy Christmas now more than I ever have in my life. But I had to learn to like it... and it sure wasn't easy. Years of Christmas seasons spent in retail customer service had turned my holly-jollies into heebie-jeebies.  Even after leaving the service (so to speak), the ghosts of Christmases past followed me everywhere...

Ten-to-sixteen-hour days facing down crowds of increasing volume and hostility, with no escape except to the backroom under the pretext of replenishing stock. A quick cry behind a stack of boxed inventory, or -- if your supervisor's the sympathetic type -- a cigarette smoked at top speed just outside the emergency door. For sustenance, a handful of junk food hastily crammed in one's mouth (no mall worker worth their salt wastes their lunch half-hour languishing on line at the food court). Then back out into the fray, where thinking and breathing are for people with too much time on their hands....

For years, the mere sound of jingle bells was enough to trigger my seasonal panic attacks. Fortunately, I've accumulated some Christmas-shopper coping skills which have reduced my annual bouts of in-store hyperventilation by a huge margin:
  • Never shop alone. Bring a friend, a coworker, a comrade-in-arms. You can hold one another's packages, swap objective opinions and wisecracks, and keep each other on an even keel.
  • If compelled to shop alone, bring audio distractions. An MP3 player or iPod loaded with your favorite sounds can provide a sense of security and personal space amid the chaos. I recommend Skullcandy earphones, which block out ambient crowd noise like a charm.
  • Pack for the long haul. Load your purse or knapsack with blood-sugar-boosting protein snacks, cough drops and tissues, bottled water, a small pad and pen for keeping gift lists and notes, and a pocket-sized sprayer of your favorite eau de cologne (to use as a refresher when you start to wilt). Imagine whatever items you'd appreciate if you were trapped in an elevator-- and bring them.
  • Make frequent escapes. If you have a car, periodically ferry out bags and packages so you can continue shopping unencumbered.  Each time, breathe in as much fresh air as possible before you plunge back into the shopping pool.
  • Practice random acts of kindness. Let someone ahead of you on line. Cede the last item on the rack to a fellow shopper. Bring a treat for the clerks at your favorite store-- coffee gift certificates are usually welcomed with tears of joy. Every small beau geste you make increases the real holiday spirit-- a thing quite different from that which appears on your credit card statement in January.
  • Remember that enough is enough. It's tempting to buy until you reach symbolic perfection, but honestly, don't try to condense everything you feel for the people in your life into material goods. Give them something nice to unwrap-- but remember that presents can't take the place of love. If you find yourself slipping into a state of fear, panic, anxiety or failure, stop what you're doing and step outside. Get away from the lights, signs, ads and sales pitches (all of which are designed to induce a sense of inadequacy which leads to hysterical spending). Think about the people you love who love you back-- and recalibrate your pace. You're allowed to pass up sales, overlook chances, stop short the quest for the perfect gift and say, "That's enough for today".
  • Treat yourself. I know this sounds crass, especially since we're supposed to be focused on pleasing others during this season. But don't neglect your tired, cranky, frantic self. Remember that airline safety lecture about putting on your own oxygen mask first? Somewhere in the middle of your busy shopping schedule, allow yourself some small, gentle, and reasonable expression of self-care and comfort.
For me, that last tip found fulfillment at Sephora, of course. During a recent bout of mall shopping, I nipped in to request a couple of samples on the fly. Both fragrances I chose are ones I've encountered and loved before... but walking away with those teeny spray bottles in my pocket revived my spirits as much as a double latte to go!

Euphoria Eau de Parfum (Calvin Klein)
Color me surprised by this plum-and-persimmon confection touched with incense and dusted with caster sugar. So strongly does this fragrance remind me of Japan that I half feel the weight of a padded-silk winter kimono settle over me moments after spraying my wrists. The color of this garment would of course be murasaki (violet-purple), perhaps accented with kurenai (safflower-pink) or kōbai (plum-pink) in the Heian style. If I close my eyes, I further envision a low lacquered table upon which has been placed a single branch of flowering plum and a bowl of azuki (red bean) ice cream, notable for its pale mauve coloration, delicate sweet taste, and novel interplay of starchy-milky-glutinous-delicate-rich. A second bowl is filled with sugarplum candy, deep purple and sparkling with sugar crystals. Curls of incense smoke issue from a hidden censer. Outside, snow falls in silence.

Scent Elements: Pomegranate, persimmon, "lush green accord", lotus blossom, champaca flower, black orchid, black violet, amber, "cream accord", mahogany

J'Adore Eau de Parfum and L'Eau Cologne Florale (Dior)
Have you ever eaten Bananas Foster? This decadent, New Orleans-born dessert consists of ripe sliced bananas flambéed in white rum, brown sugar, and butter, served bubbling hot over vanilla ice cream. The ice cream (usually of the French custard variety, yellow with egg yolks and speckled with black flecks of vanilla bean) instantly and voluptuously collapses wherever the hot rum-caramel lava touches it. J'Adore exactly recreates this experience, from the silky-wet texture of bananas and cream to that instant of sensual surrender when everything melts and flows together. Champaca -- a heady flower with relatives in the indole-rich magnolia, ylang-ylang, and plumeria species -- permeates J'Adore like a golden aura, augmenting its sense of irresistable, tropical warmth. The Cologne Florale is a different animal altogether, light and sparkling with citric good humor and a welcome touch of hyacinth. It is conceivable that one could wear the EDC to work and slip a layer of the EDP right over it for nighttime. Brilliant.

Scent Elements: Mandarin, champaca flowers, ivy, African orchid, rose, violet, Damascus plum, amaranth wood, blackberry musk (EDP) / Hesperides, lemon, neroli, bergamot, magnolia, ylang-ylang (EDC Florale)

La Rose Jacqueminot (Coty)

In my house, changes of season are most accurately gauged by the shifting of my "special interest" bookpiles. In spring, it's all Vikings-- I pore over sagas, Eddas, and thick tomes of Norse mythology. Summer brings a resurgence of interest in shamanism and botany. During the fall, I'm most likely to be found with my nose in a book about geisha. And as winter sets in, my thoughts bend inexorably toward the Romanovs.

As the first snowflakes fall, I ritualistically reread Robert K. Massie's classic portrait Nicholas and Alexandra, as well as other well-worn titles by Peter Kurth, Edvard Radzinsky, and Andrei Maylunas. The big coffee table book on Fabergé comes out of hiding, as do the full-color museum catalogs of Romanov artifacts. My visits to the Alexander Palace Webring increase, as does my file of photographs of Tsar Nicholas' four daughters, for whom I feel a special affinity.

In her memoir of palace life, The Real Tsaritsa (1922), Imperial lady-in-waiting Yulia "Lili" Dehn describes the toilette of the young Grand Duchesses:
A large room, divided by a curtain, served as dressing-room and bathroom for the Grand Duchesses. One half of the room was full of cupboards, and in the other half stood the large bath of solid silver. The Grand Duchesses had departed from their mother's simple ideas, and, when they bathed at night, the water was perfumed and softened with almond bran. Like their mother, they were addicted to perfumes, and always used those of Coty. Tatiana favoured "Jasmin de Corse"; Olga, "Rose Thé"; Marie constantly changed her perfumes, but was more or less faithful to "Lilas", and Anastasie never deviated from "Violette".
Of the named perfumes, only Tatiana's Jasmin de Corse (1906) is absolutely certifiable as a Coty fragrance. Anastasia's "Violette" may be tentatively identified as La Violette Pourpre, also released in 1906. Lilas Blanc followed in 1910, followed by Lilas Pourpre in 1914; either could be Marie's choice.

This leaves Olga's Rose Thé-- which is not a Coty fragrance at all.

According to the Perfume Intelligence database, fragrances named "Rose Thé" were produced in 1880 by Savonnerie Maubert, in 1898 by Eugene Rimmel, and in 1910 by Lubin Parfumeur. It is possible that Rose Thé could have been obtained from one of these sources-- particularly the latter, a supplier of scents to the Russian Imperial Court for well over a century.

Yet Lili Dehn states very clearly that the Grand Duchesses "always used those (perfumes) of Coty"-- and within this sorority of four, singularity was an alien concept. The sisters dressed in identical outfits, swapped personal items such as jewelry and ikons, and rarely appeared outside of one another's company. "They were together so much that they even thought of themselves collectively," observes Edvard Radzinsky (The Last Tsar, pg. 113). Olga, the eldest, exhibited the greatest tendency towards individualism-- but the authority against which she pitched her battles was parental, not sororal. Would she have deviated from her sisters' Coty brand loyalty? Difficult to imagine-- but still possible.

Unless, of course, Lili Dehn mistook the name... and Rose Thé was actually La Rose Jacqueminot.

If you have access to a copy of Judith Miller's Perfume Bottles (Dorling Kindersley Ltd., 2006), you will find therein a photograph of a Coty luxury coffret dating from the first quarter of the 20th century. Designed by Rene Lalique, this cunningly-designed presentation box contains twelve different Coty fragrances in Delpinoix glass sample bottles. La Rose Jacqueminot is the second bottle from the left in the front row, three bottles down from Lilas Blanc. An identical coffret predating World War I appeared this past September at Harrod's Perfume Diaries exhibition. Among the perfumes included were Jasmine de Corse, Lilas Pourpre... and once again, La Rose Jacqueminot.

Could the Grand Duchesses have been the recipients of a Coty coffret? It would certainly explain their group fascination with Coty perfumes-- and the neat division of the spoils, scent by scent and sister by sister.

One envisions the presentation box's arrival in the Imperial nursery at the Alexander Palace. Tatiana -- or "The Governess" as they call her -- superintends its placement on the tea table and smacks away Anastasia's curious hands.  There's a flurry of excitement as each bottle is unstoppered and passed around; cries of delight and declarations of ownership as one fragrance after another fills the air.

Over and over, Olga -- the eldest, quietest, and most studious of the sisters -- returns to one bottle in particular.  The heavy, exhilarating attar of roses it contains reminds her so of her beloved Livadia Palace and languid summers in the Crimea, where the air itself is perfume. She reminisces about her first full-dress ball last autumn, when she turned sixteen. A pink silk haute couture gown, gauzy layers as thin as wisps of cloud... pearls and diamonds... a thousand miles of dance floor traveled in a neverending waltz...

And banks and banks of roses....

A dab or two on her skin veils Olga in flowers and something more-- a thrilling amplification of the scent of her own warm skin, carrying with it the unmistakable essence of womanhood. The thought excites and discomfits her.  It's like being uncovered, the private self she keeps carefully contained now made disturbingly public, en décolleté.

At the same time, the temple architecture of La Rose Jacqueminot's notes seems distinctly ceremonial, made for a high priestess uttering sacred prophecies in some fluid, archaic tongue.  It's a slow, wise, knowing language, neither innocent nor demure, and though she'd never admit it to anyone, Olga thinks she might actually understand a smattering of it--

"Darling," Maria exclaims.  "What is that?  It smells so rich and heavy.  Would Mama approve?"

Undoubtedly not.  But then, the Empress' idea of fragrance is verbena eau de toilette -- a faint green shimmer on skin, like dew dissipating from a blade of grass -- and Atkinson's Essence of White Rose, which she prizes chiefly because it is so very "clean".

La Rose Jacqueminot is not clean.  It is animalic, heated, pent-up and ready to spill over.  It is all the flirtations and stolen glances of summer reduced to a dangerous distillate.  It is the decadent weight of the heaviest satin or the thickest sables.  It is a color richer than any Olga has ever worn. She dabs again, and the atmosphere around her fairly turns cerise.   

No, she thinks to herself, Mama would most certainly not like it. 

Out loud, she says, "This one belongs to me."

Scent Elements: All the roses in Bulgaria, oakmoss, civet, and an array of Oriental hard spices.

I recently had the enormous good luck to read her marvelous review, and the even greater luck to be randomly chosen to receive a sample of the object of her affection. It could not have come at a more significant time, as you can see. Thank you, Olfacta, for this opportunity to encounter a classic fragrance... and to explore a well-loved topic in an entirely new light.

How I learned to love the 'Bomb.

When I first encountered Viktor & Rolf's Flowerbomb, the name, the bottle, and the marketing campaign all led me to expect the perfume equivalent of Frida Kahlo as assessed by Andre Breton: "a ribbon around a bomb". No such luck. Flowerbomb is a straight-up sweet vanillic floral-- nothing earth-shattering, risky, offensive, anarchic, or original. My disappointment in discovering it to be a mild, staid floral prompted me to quickly write Flowerbomb off. I called it a competent fragrance to wear to weddings, family birthdays, and garden parties, and declared, "The apocalypse is years away."

And yet...

Months and months have gone by. I've had plenty of time to think it over. When a friend left a foil-pull sample of Flowerbomb on my desk earlier this week, I figured the time was ripe to reassess. The results? My original opinion stays the same, but with a suffix: I no longer feel let down by Flowerbomb. Freed from expectations, I am at liberty to like it. It may not have been what I was hoping for, but it is pretty-- and in a cynical world full of rank odors and dashed hopes, that must be good for something.

Perhaps Andre Breton's summary isn't quite appropriate, but let Diego Rivera supply the similes. Flowerbomb, like Frida, is "acid and tender, hard as steel and delicate and fine as a butterfly's wing... profound and cruel as the bitterness of life."

Scent Elements: Bergamot, tea, jasmine, freesia, orchid, rose, patchouli

Uomo (Fendi)

Towards the end of the Talking Heads' concert film Stop Making Sense, David slays Goliath. It's surprising how easy the giant goes down.

As the band revs into "Girlfriend Is Better", a titanic silhouette -- fifteen feet high and almost as wide -- looms over the stage. At first it's quite menacing, but soon its tiny head begins to bob like a chicken, helpless to resist the beat.  A few tottering steps forward, and the giant is revealed to be a Dondi-eyed geek upon whose skinny frame hangs the biggest, goofiest, most ridiculous damn suit you've ever seen.

Now, during the 1980's, the suit was king-- icon of Wall Street power, badge of the moneymaker's dignity and might. But as David Byrne performs a herky-jerky, rubber-limbed dance, something magical happens. Flapping, flopping, jiggling and wiggling, the suit sheds its pride and its power to intimidate.  It ceases to be the uniform of The Man and becomes a banner of gentle satire.  And by the time the song's over, David has brought down the decade's Goliath-- not with a slingshot full of rocks, but with a gleeful shimmy-shake.

Loud.
Macho.
Vulgar.
Boozy.
Abrasive.

Aggressive.
A powerhouse.
A monster.


These words -- found scattered across the fragrance forums -- sum up the popular verdict on Fendi Uomo.  Apparently, it's Gordon Gekko in a bottle.  Or Caligula.  Or Hannibal (Carthage or Lecter-- your choice).  But as David Byrne and countless Bugs Bunny cartoons have taught me, the scariest shadow on the wall invariably belongs to the mildest-mannered nebbish.

It's how he's lit that makes all the difference.

Uomo contains all the requisite ingredients that would normally make it a right bastard of a fragrance.  Cruel leather?  Check.  He-manly woods?  Check.  Musk?  (You want musk?  Get over here.  Yeah, I'm talking to you.)  Then it startles you with some of the most gorgeous, romantic "feminine" notes in any perfume-- powder-soft carnation, blushing cyclamen, fresh anisic angelica. And yet, as incongruous as these seem, they mesh so well with the leather and woods and musk that Uomo seems crafted all of a piece, true through and through. This tough guy knows how to tango, and I mean really tango -- with wit and good humor and a flower in his teeth, even -- and he doesn't care how it looks.

After a minute in his arms, neither do you.

Like Patricia de Nicolaï's New York and Bertrand Duchaufour's Timbuktu, Uomo owes a greater debt to early 20th century feminine fragrances than to any modern power juice of the übermensch genre. In other words, it's more L'Heure Bleue than Or Black. It may begin with a fulgent blast of citrus and follow with a chaser of bitterest birch tar, but all this is nothing but the rattling of sabers before the Hundred Years' Peace. All the warnings about criminal overapplication seem exaggerated; a little goes just the right distance without ever committing the least misdemeanor.  As Uomo changes over to dusky twilight tones, the thought that some people are terrified of this fragrance becomes more and more inconceivable.

The real badass to fear, I'm convinced, is the Fendi PR genius who engineered the spin on Uomo-- not to mention that fifteen-foot-tall shadow it casts over all posterity. Whatever he or she did to make this refined gentleman appear like Attila the Hun qualifies as a career masterpiece.

Just as the perfume does, for the perfumer.

Scent Elements: Lemon, bergamot, lavender, coriander, angelica, marjoram, cinnamon, carnation, cyclamen, patchouli, musk, birch tar, vetiver, cedar, amber

1969 Revolte (Histoires de Parfums)

Having 1969 for a birth year is no picnic, I'll tell you. Even after four decades, the words "nineteen sixty-nine" trigger an entire slideshow of Time/Life images, each more iconic than the last. Moon landing! Chappaquiddick! My Lai! Charles Manson! Woodstock!  Stop me before this turns into a Billy Joel song.

Can I count how many times I've heard, "Born in '69, eh? Did you go to Woodstock?" Answer:  no.  And even if I had, I wouldn't remember it.  Being a mere eight months old that fateful summer, I was chiefly preoccupied with drooling and watching the pretty colors and lights all around me...

Wait, that sounds an awful lot like Woodstock. Maybe I'm wrong! Maybe I was at Yasgur's Farm!  They say that if you remember the sixties, you weren't really there.  Brothers and sisters, I don't remember a thing.

In common cultural parlance, 1969 equals hippies. Not that I dislike hippies (heaven forfend!) but there were other, equally compelling social movements happening that year.  The flower-child phenomenon was only the most marketable-- and continues to be so. Each year a brand new generation discovers tie-dye, crushed velvet, nag champa incense and jam bands; each year "hippie" gets more shrinkwrapped and fake, like a mass-produced Hallowe'en costume.  To amend the proverb: Everything old is used again. At least we're recycling, right?

When I pick up a perfume named "1969", the cynic in me braces itself, expecting an entire gallon of patchouli condensed into a few lethal drops.  How refreshing it is to find instead this sweet, nubile thing, cheeks fresh-scrubbed and clothes nicely pressed; so presentable, so well-put-together, so clean.

Bless you, Gérald Ghislain. Bless you.

What's simplest is best, and 1969 Revolte follows a simple path to beauty. It launches with a fanfare of peach and apricot notes, plaintive and sweet.  What a glorious switch-- peach for patchouli!  What a stroke of genius!  I am instantly reminded of a particular shade of lipstick my mother wore the year of my birth: a pearlescent hue halfway between tangerine and apricot, made to delineate the lips by a mere frosted shimmer that stood out only barely from one's complexion.  There was, after all, some subtlety in '69-- and not at the expense of individual quirk.

Before this peach accord's bell-toll has vanished from the air, it's joined by a lambent floral accord that manages to project an air of neatness even as it distributes a goodly dose of indoles around.  These lead the way quite naturally to a long-lasting base of rich, spicy chocolate musk.  Interestingly, that original peach note continues to peek out mischievously from behind the chocolate accord for a good while-- recalling pêche au miel millefleurs, a confection described in Joanne Harris' novel Chocolat as "a slice of peach steeped in honey and eau-de-vie, a crystallized peach sliver on the chocolate lid".  Delicious!

I debated inwardly for a long time over what rating to give 1969 Revolte.  It clearly and joyfully demonstrates a certain contemporary spirit that a cousin of mine, for lack of better terminology, dubbed "K&E" -- kicky and eclectic.  Its cumulative effect is that of a thoroughly modern Mitsouko, minus the latter's stateliness (and perhaps its foundation garments as well-- who could be K&E wearing a girdle?)  But did I dare give it five stars, as I had Mitsouko? 

Why not?  On the thin basis of a crystallized peach sliver, it must inevitably bear comparison to its elder sister-- but by dint of its K&E attitude, 1969 Revolte is in a league of its own.  And even if my initial impulse was to give it only four stars, it earned that last star by proving that not everything blazoned with the 1969 cattle brand needs must run with the herd.

Scent Elements: Peach, rose, white flowers, cardamom, clove, patchouli, cacao, coffee, musk

Ambre 114 (Histoires de Parfums)

Ever seen Grey Gardens? There's an early scene in which Little Edie Beale models one of her signature ensembles-- a plain scarf headdress fastened with an "important" brooch, pantyhose worn over short pants but under a safety-pinned sarong (which, Little Edie explains, can be converted into a cape at the whim of the wearer).

"This is the best costume for the day," she cheerfully declares. "I have to think these things up, you know!"

Ambre 114, I believe, is the best costume for every day. A soft amber with an appealing touch of herbal green, it's "serviceable" in the best possible connotation of the word. One could wear it to the grocery store or a gala opening night with equally happy results. Like the perfect guest, it offers its charms at all the right moments and then discreetly melts into the background-- never pushy, always polite, as graceful an amber as anyone could wish.

To all of these recommendations, add the fact that Ambre 114 goes with just about everything-- battered jeans, flowing chiffon, your husband's old flannel shirt, your mother's vintage silk blouse, twin-sets and pearls, that Indian-print hippie frock you've had since forever (so well-worn and well-loved you can practically see through it)... or hell, pantyhose worn under the skirt but over the pants.

As Little Edie would say, YOU understand.

Scent Elements: Thyme, nutmeg, rose, geranium, patchouli, sandalwood, ceder, vetiver, amber, vanilla, tonka bean, benzoin, musk

Like This (État Libre d'Orange)

Today I am wearing two special items: my traditional Irish ruana and État Libre d'Orange's Like This.

The ruana is a long handwoven wool mantle with a wide scarf of the same material attached to the nape. The body of the mantle is worn draped over the shoulders so as to hang evenly fore and aft like a serape, with a penannular pin to fasten it at the collarbone. The scarf can be wound around the neck or pulled up over the head like a deep cowl. Wearing my ruana makes me feel like Morgaine in The Mists of Avalon-- mysterious, sacred, bound ceremonially to the old ancestral folkways.

The word ruana is often misidentified as Spanish, derived from the Latin ruga, meaning "crease" or "fold".  However, its true linguistic roots grow much closer to home.  The Irish Gaelic word ruaimneach (pronounced, tellingly, "ruana") denotes something made out of hair-- for which sheep's wool certainly qualifies. A clóca (cloak) or cába (cape) can be made out of any material... but a ruana can only be fashioned from spun wool.

Interestingly, the term itself is linked to a few significant others. In Gaelic, rua means "red-haired" with a side connotation of "foxy", evoking the auburn fur of the red fox (Vulpes vulpes, Ireland's largest wild predator). On an island where red hair is not only genetically prevalent but symbolic of Irishness itself, ruas (ruddiness) is an important seed-word. My ginger-haired grandfather's family name, Russell, derives from rua sáile, "luxurious red growth". (Appropriately, the Russells' crest features a rampant lion, full-maned and flame-red.)

My ruana contains threads of many hues.  One, of course, is ruddy: a dark honey-gold the color of aged mead. In concert with threads of slate, indigo, and twilight blue, it produces a unified tone of deep purple-- a color which, in ancient Éire, only royalty could wear. Though not of noble blood, I feel quite regal wearing my purple ruana... and its color sets my long chestnut-red hair on fire.

To explain why Like This --Tilda Swinton's signature fragrance by État Libre d'Orange -- seems destined to be paired with my ruana requires a long reach. Deliberately composed of "warm-hued" aromas (pumpkin, mandarin, neroli, everlasting flower), it ought to be accorded similar color values (amber, sherry, burnt orange). Why then, when I step back from it, do I so clearly see purple-- rich, deep, and imperial, with highlights of powdery blue like the satiny skin of a ripe blackthorn sloe?

Perhaps it's a matter of suggestion. Like This implies heat and light so strongly that the mind can't help but envision the antithesis.  Just as yellow and orange sit opposite to blue and purple across the color wheel, the hearthfire I picture at the center of Like This can only be complemented by the profound violet of a corresponding twilight. Without the latter, the former lacks comfort; without the former, the latter lacks mystery.

The dichotomy between home and wilderness, inside and outside, is the secret energy source of Like This' copper-top battery.  As Tilda Swinton explained to journalist Mike Vilensky of New York Magazine, "I thought about how great it would be if I could have a smell that would keep me at home wherever I was." With perfumer Mathilde Bijaoui, she set out to weave random sensory threads into a unified fabric.  Into the warp and woof went images of blazing fires, kitchen-comfort scents like winter squash, sweet potatoes, and baby carrots, mystical poems by Rumi, and Swinton's own identity as a red-haired Celtic woman.*  One might fear that a brief this crowded would result in nothing more than cacophony.  But Like This is an utterly integrated perfume-- indeed, almost linear but for the slightest modulations of tone as you carry it with you through the day.

You may not recognize Like This' pumpkin element, since it isn't drowning in pie spice.  That seasonal mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, mace, and ginger is what we Americans most associate with pumpkin, pie being our primary use for this native winter squash.  (That is, if you don't count aromatherapy candles, room sprays, potpourris, body lotions, or Hallowe'en jack-o'lanterns.)  Mathilde Bijaoui opts instead for garam masala flavor in the form of immortelle, which combines the savory heat of turmeric with the amber sweetness of maple syrup. The "pumpkin curry" theme shifts the expected locale of Like This from the New World to the UK and parts east. Little is left of the notion of pie filling save its uniform silken smoothness.

Running through this fragrance like glimmering threads of pure color are its minor scent elements:  rose, ginger, and citrus.  Against the solid and earthy backdrop of Like This' base fragrance, they surface, shine, and recede continuously-- ever subtle, never intrusive..  I found the rose note particularly sweet, bearing memories of midsummers past.  Golden citrus (in both fruit and flower) lend a sunny aspect to the autumnal motif, evoking a crystal-clear blue October sky.

Overall, Like This was far subtler than I expected-- an impression which worked entirely in its favor. (Prior to this, my only experience of a "pumpkin" fragrance was Harvey Prince's Eau Flirt-- an experience only total amnesia can remedy.)  What truly struck me was how blanketed in warmth I felt as I wore Like This.  It's not by any means a sexy perfume, made to adorn revealed skin or to enslave the object of one's desire.  It is a perfume crafted solely to enclose the wearer in a sense of boundless contentment.

And yet, there is indeed an element of Swinton's iconoclasm in it... because you'll want to wear it for yourself and no one else.

*Throughout Europe, where ancient superstitions remain comfortably embedded in modern prejudice, red hair continues to provoke a distinct sense of unease.  "Gingers" have been branded as changelings, burned as witches, teased, harrassed, and accused of everything from homewrecking to thievery.  Tilda Swinton's red hair attracts as much comment as her unconventional lifestyle-- often in the same breath.  That the courage it takes for her to live so openly and unapologetically would be found, almost by contradiction, in the safety and comfort of home makes perfect sense to me.

Scent Elements: Yellow mandarin, Moroccan neroli, ginger, pumpkin, immortelle, rose, vetiver, heliotrope, musk

Chimère (Prince Matchabelli)

Come here, little one. I won't hurt you, I promise.

See? My hand is out, waiting for you to take it. Don't be shy, poor little lamb. You're safe here.

I was so mean to you, I know. The thing is, I just didn't understand. Your former owner put you in a nasty little splash bottle; all I could do was dab-- that's where the problem lay. I simply couldn't see you for who you are.

I said terrible, horrible things about you. Scientifically speaking, a chimera is a creature built out of the genetic material of several distinct species, displaying features of each in fantastic conglomeration. Its mythic allure is undeniable, as are the profoundly uncomfortable reactions it provokes. So it is with Chimère by Prince Matchabelli. It's an amber. It's a floral. It's a chypre. It splices a jarringly sour citrus top note to a disarmingly tasty ginger heart, then grafts on a disturbing, sweat-sock-like cuminseed drydown for good measure. To be sure, it's got its moments-- but they're bracketed by other moments so weird, so puzzling, and ultimately so incompatible, that the sum total is an olfactory monster.

Oh, despicable me!

But now that I've got you in a spray bottle, everything's going to be different-- no, better! Better than you ever dreamed, little one! Your citrus and ginger are going to sort themselves out, and that strange aquavit-like cumin-caraway note is going to suddenly collapse into a soft, sweet labdanum, the way it should.

Dry your tears, little Chimère. Everything's gonna be party streamers and birthday candles from here on out-- you just see if it isn't.

Scent Elements: Nigel Groom's Perfume Handbook identifies Chimère as a "Chypre (floral-woody)"; oakmoss is a sure bet. Beyond this, it's anyone's guess.

Tea time.

My friend and colleague GW is a scent fanatic of the first order. She collects everything from samples and minis to entire lines and can ransack a Sephora like a five-star general. (I would pay good money to see her take on Sniffapalooza NYC. Some day... some day.) After months of listening to me natter on about the joy of decants, she finally decided to see what all the fuss was about.

Her limit: $30. Her criteria: Light and fresh scents incorporating tea, florals, and fruit (especially citrus), and NO VANILLA. The choice: all mine.

Now I could add a new official title to my name tag: personal shopper.

Acting as GW's ambassador to The Perfumed Court was nerve-wrackingly fun. I felt a great responsibility-- not only to choose well for her, but to let my choices reflect whatever arts of discernment I've personally acquired in Perfumeland. Though GW most enjoys Estée Lauder, Burberry, and Hermès (Eau d'Orange Vert was a favorite), I was determined to shop outside of those lines and perhaps (did I dare?) sneak a dark horse into the running. Thus armed, I bravely sallied forth.

First order of business: obtain some Guerlain Eau de Cologne Impériale. GW had tried some of mine and took to it like a duck to... well, eau. Since its inclusion was non-negotiable, I decided to orchestrate the full Guerlain eaux experience for GW and threw in Fleurs de Cédrat and Eau de Guerlain as well. The easy part was over: on to the real challenge.

Using TPC's handy-dandy scent-note tagging system, I browsed florals and citrus perfumes for something new and inspiring-- but without results. Only when I ventured into the tea category did I begin to feel a heightened sense of excitement. Good old Hermès was represented well here via Jean-Claude Ellena's "Eaux Parfumées au Thé" series. I chose Vert (Green) and Blanc (White), eliminating Rouge (Red) due to an instinctive fear of rooibos. (Am I the only one who thinks it smells like garden mulch?)

Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert (Bulgari)
As exuberantly green as matcha, as fresh and thrilling as the first breath of spring after a long, cruel winter, this is one gorgeously bracing brew. The interplay between green tea leaves and oakmoss convinces me that this is a perfect, even obvious, combination. "Jamaican pepper" is exotic shorthand for allspice, which (along with cardamom) gives Au Thé Vert a certain scrubbed-clean masculine vibe. Very enjoyable, and understandably a classic these twenty years.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, neroli, cardamom, Jamaican pepper, Bulgarian rose, jasmine, green tea, oakmoss, tonka beans, beeswax

Eau Parfumée au Thé Blanc (Bulgari)
An amiable (but somewhat less able) sibling of Au Thé Vert, Au Thé Blanc suffers from an unfortunate soapy note which possibly stems from the use of the wrong musk. Hibiscus, itself an ingredient of many tea blends, is put to good use as a means to cut through all the soapsuds. Finally, an absinthe-like artemisia lends a crispness that saves Au Thé Blanc from drowning in its own bathwater at the eleventh hour.

Scent Elements: Artemisia leaves, white tea, hibiscus, white pepper, ambergris, musk

Sometimes the creative solution to a problem is to approach it from a side angle rather than head-on. Having already obtained a pair of refined tea fragrances for my friend GW, I wanted to find her scents that were compatible rather than identical. What would go with tea without being tea?

It wasn't until I poked my head into the Perfumed Court's osmanthus category that I truly started to feel a sense of excitement. Stumbling across Badgely Mischka, I recalled Tania Sanchez ranting on for pages about her grand love affair with this red-berry/osmanthus floral. Seldom will a reviewer expresses a wish to MARRY a perfume, but Sanchez spoke of hiring a caterer, which seemed like a pretty positive endorsement overall. Done and done!

You know me:  normally I flee from cassis as a benighted Oklahoman farmwife flees from an advancing Depression-era dust storm.  But things of pure loveliness cannot be denied, and Badgely Mischka gets no dissent from me. Simply put, this is Thierry Mugler's Angel as it would have been if its glorious first five minutes had been extended into eternity, and all the nasty parts excised.

Badgely Mischka's osmanthus-tea note is impeccably crisp, propelled toward the stratosphere by a biting hint of redcurrant mixed in with the aforementioned black. It won GW's strongest approbation from the very first spray, and her praise for it has only grown with each passing day-- as has mine. I shall merely add that this fragrance is fully as graceful and elegant as any gown created by its two namesake designers: it ripples and flows without a single break in the lines.

Scent Elements: Red and black currants, peach, osmanthus, peony, jasmine, sandalwood, amber, patchouli, musk, caramel

The experiment was almost over; GW's thirty dollars were now used up. But another scent caught my eye-- irresistible not only for its theme, but also for its name and the notes it held in common with those we'd already explored.

I understood Hermès' Osmanthe Yunnan to be Jean-Claude Ellena's sequel to his own Osmanthus for The Different Company-- incorporating smoked black tea and milky notes in place of Osmanthus' citric oolong, but retaining the mellow, peachy floral quality for which GW had loved Badgely Mischka. How could I resist the perfection of coincidence? I'd been wanting to try this fragrance for so long, there could be no other outcome: I added it to my own basket with a resolution to share the wealth.

Osmanthe Yunnan (Hermès)
If your local Chinese restaurant (notice I said 'restaurant' and not 'take-out counter', implying that you will take your meal seated at a table rather than home with you in your car) serves smoked tea as a matter of course, award it with your loyalty forever. Smoked tea (AKA lapsang souchong) is a variety of black tea that is traditionally dry-roasted over resinous pine-bough fires, picking up a delicate sooty flavor in the process. Here, Jean-Claude Ellena plays with the peach-tea-floral accord of Osmanthus by swapping its mild golden accord for the ash-grey austerity of lapsang souchong. Moreover, whereas Osmanthus was served up neat, Osmanthe Yunnan incorporates a lactonic note that suggests tea with milk in the British style (and hints tactfully at the historic travels of tea from East to West).

If all this sounds intense, never fear-- Osmanthe Yunnan is actually lighter, gentler, more elusive than its predecessor. Is it addictive? Why worry? You know you want to ride this dragon.

Scent Elements: Osmanthus, orange, tea, freesia, apricot

Omnia (Bulgari)

Scarcely a week and a half ago, I made the statement that all saffron perfumes ultimately smell alike. At that time, I had yet to run across one that did not smell good. This, I regret, is no longer the case.

Composed by Alberto Morillas in 2003, Omnia is a sour woody saffron that reads like a bad adaptation of Olivia Giacobetti in every particular. It dutifully wedges tiny pieces of her entire catalog into a disorderly, ramshackle format similar to a video clip-tape of sports-season highlights. Sure, it's got its moments. Unfortunately, they all belong to someone else's perfumes.

In my imagination, the Omnia brief was authored by a Bulgari executive with a secret yen for all things Olivia Giacobetti.  Having failed to secure the niche princess for his own kingdom, he commissioned Alberto Morilla to compose a single perfume containing all of Olivia's most thrilling perfume moments.  Ever obliging, Morilla slapped together a grab-bag of all-purpose Giacobettisms, and thus was Omnia born.

That sarcasm springs from disappointed hopes, I've never been more certain. What I wished for from Omnia is exactly what I wished for from Après L'Ondée-- a delicate, dreamy cloud made as solid and dense as a block of alabaster, backlit and glowing, cool to the touch. What I got instead was a confused and unpleasant flicker of notes whizzing past like playing cards dealt from a huckster's deck.  Among them, I caught a thin note of egg custard (Safran Troublant, 2002),  a wet-cardboard saffron (Dzing! 1999), a smattering of chai spices (Tea for Two, 2000), traces of fruity fig (Philosykos 1996), and a shadowy smudge of wood ash (premonitory, since Omnia preceded Idole by two years). Every single one subtracts from my goodwill column and adds to the sum of my scorn.

Still -- despite being its Frankensteinian creator -- Morilla should not necessarily be held accountable for the monster.  The job of the professional perfumer is to convert the client's desires into saleable product.  One does not always have the liberty (or luxury) to edit the spec-sheet.  In Morillas' case, obedience to the brief has produced many more hits (Estee Lauder Pleasures, Yves Saint Laurent M7) than misses. But there is always room for failure, and here it looms large.

Omnia completely lacks the sincerity, depth, and spark of life possessed by the bona fide article-- and that's how you know it's a forgery.  In its attempt to cram in all the hallmarks of authenticity, its bareness and poverty are revealed.  Instead of Omnia (everything), they should have called it Nihilum (nothing).

Or maybe they should have just called it Olivia.

Scent Elements: Ginger, mandarin, orange, saffron, pepper, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, almond, tea, lotus, sandalwood, tonka bean, white chocolate accord, guiac wood.

Caravelle Epicée (Frapin)

Once upon a time, my fourth-grade teacher assigned the class a project on the Age of Discovery.  With a modest hoard of art supplies and unfettered access to my mother's spice rack, I turned the assignment from show-and-tell into show-and-smell.

First, I painted a map of the world on posterboard, using watercolors to tint it a blotchy sepia like a relic from the days of Magellan. (I included various sea monsters for authenticity.) Next, I crafted dozens of tiny packets out of Saran Wrap and filled them with sundry spices, whole and ground. These I stapled around the map's border, inscribing the name of each spice next to it. Last, I glued a length of yarn from each spice packet to the location on the map whence it originated. Swirling calligraphed letters at the top read, THE SPICE TRADE.

The colorful and aromatic finished product earned me an A+ and survived several years of non-archival-quality storage in my bedroom closet. I threw it out only when it ceased to produce a thrilling whiff of exotic fragrance whenever I opened the closet door.

(Grades? Who needs grades? Really, I'd only done it for the scent.)

At one moment in history or another, all of the spices included in my project traveled aboard a caravel-- the speedy, versatile sailing vessel favored in Iberia since the days of the Moors. Two out of three of Columbus' New World fleet were caravels, the Niña in particular proving herself eminently swift, safe, and seaworthy. In the decades of oceanic commerce that followed Columbus' legendary transatlantic run, the nimble little caravel sped from point to point around the globe, ferrying (among many other treasures) the exotic spices which so enriched the development of human cuisine... and perfume.

One would imagine that the scent of a caravel below decks would be overwhelming. Frapin's Caravelle Epicée is not. That it consists of a eye-opening mixture of hard spices and resins, I admit without demur. Yet I find the resulting fragrance to be sedate rather than bold, homely rather than ceremonial, more like that cheerful scent that wafted out of my bedroom closet thirty-odd years ago than something destined for a temple censer. The complexity of its formula is not apparent from the single, resonant chord struck by all its varied aromatic constituents.  It plays that chord but once, and the experience of wearing Caravelle Epicée is a matter of listening to that chord die out slowly over the course of the day.

Yet, what harmony; what happiness that single chord contains!  Next to it, a full-fledged symphony would seem almost ill-mannered.

Scent Elements: Coriander, nutmeg, cayenne, black pepper, thyme, guiac wood, patchouli, amber, tobacco, sandalwood

Ginseng NRG (Jōvan)

Fans of television advertising (and beer) know that The Most Interesting Man in the World drinks Dos Equis (when he drinks suds at all, which is when he's not drinking 150-year old scotch out of some lady's Jimmy Choo).  But what cologne does this magnetic man-of-the-world wear? Montale Oud Cuir d'Arabie, perhaps-- or some little untitled thing cooked up just for him by Armani Privé?

Me, I like to think that he wears Jōvan... just for the silly of it.

Before it was absorbed whole by the Borg (AKA Coty), Jōvan once claimed its own fame with Musk, the fragrance titan of the hairy-chested post-hippie '70's. From the start, its advertising campaigns dripped pure, unapologetic testosterone. "Sex appeal... now you don't have to be born with it," read the copy. "Get your share." Consumers responded with zeal, sending Jōvan profits soaring into the stratosphere. In 1981, the Rolling Stones actually sold advertising space on their concert tickets to Jōvan, effectively turning the Tattoo You tour into one big kick-ass commercial for Musk.

But oh, how the mighty have fallen! Whereas the old Jōvan never had to prove its virility, the new Jōvan is sadly unsure of itself. Its ad copy still recycles the same claims of sexual irresistibility, but the tone has grown a mite desperate-- understandable, since the product being hawked might actually kill rather than double the consumer's erotic appeal.

Ginseng NRG is a weak ginger-vetiver something-or-other marred by a tepid musk unworthy of the name brand that rolled with the Stones. The first spritz on skin -- gingery, spicy, and warm -- seems promising, and may even lure you into adding a second spritz.  This would be a mistake.  For Ginseng NRG conceals a ton of calone, modern shorthand for hyper-clean manliness-- but anathema to the stubble-chinned Jōvan we knew and loved.  As it heads into a sad cheap-cedar-pencil-shavings drydown, Ginseng NRG's calone acts to extend the bummer indefinitely.  Twenty-four hours after I sprayed it on a test strip, it's still sending up a noxious, eye-watering chemical bouquet that bleats, "I'm a man!"  (Baby, if you're going to quote John Lee Hooker, you'd better have the balls to back it up.)

When used to describe a fragrance, the word "aspirational" normally comes off as an insult.  With Ginseng NRG, the insult isn't even veiled.  This cologne WISHES it could aspire to the use of the word "aspirational"-- that's how bad things have gotten in the land of Jōvan.  

"Get your share"?  You might want to think twice about it.

Scent Elements: SD Alcohol 39-C, Fragrance, Water, Propylene Glycol, Benzophenone-2, Ginseng Extract, Glycerine, FD&C Blue No. 1, FD&C Yellow No. 5, FD&C Red No. 4.  No, really.  It's right on the label.

Fahrenheit (Dior)

Created in 1988 by Jean-Louis Sieuzac of YSL Opium fame, Fahrenheit made its debut with a daunting mission: to provide an alternative to the aromatic fougères of the day.  At first I could hardly imagine how a scent so introverted could be considered revolutionary. But then I remembered that Fahrenheit followed that olfactory bitchslap known as Drakkar Noir, and everything fell into place.

Fahrenheit is a tawny, amiable citrus-cedar fragrance with undertones of sandalwood and soap (or both together, if you prefer; I'm thinking of Murray & Lanman Sandalo, a bar of which sits in my soapdish as we speak). Dusty-spicy, warm, and exceedingly muted, this is the sort of fragrance that hugs the skin so closely that others won't know you're wearing it unless they sit in your lap. And after the abuses inflicted upon us by Drakkar Noir, I imagine Fahrenheit kept many a man's lap cozily occupied by grateful delegates of the opposite sex.

After a marvelous initial burst of bergamot, Fahrenheit reverses direction in midair and flows directly into an clear-toned cedar accord. It looks like a challenge but is really a retreat-- executed with face-saving style, like a matador theatrically flourishing his cape while taking a step back from the bull. From there, Fahrenheit soft-pedals into an autumnal leather-and-wood accord-- warm-blooded in temperature, sotto voce in tone, more dirty than clean, with the buttery scent of lanolin that emanates from an Aran wool sweater your lover has worn all day long.   The overall portrait is that of the quiet, shy, bespectacled guy who is secretly the son of Zeus, capable of moving mountains with the subtlest flick of his finger-- a power he uses but infrequently, and only for good.

In a world of attention-seeking men's fragrances designed to slap your face with "freshness" or "attitude", Fahrenheit's non-dominant sense of restraint proves enormously encouraging.  Its lived-in aura approaches the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi:  humility, acceptance of the ephemeral, grace in the midst of erosion.

After all, not everyone can be a hero.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, honeysuckle, hawthorn, sandalwood, nutmeg, violet, cedar, patchouli, tonka bean

Mysore Sandalwood and Sumatra Vetivert (Attar Bazaar)

Among its more fantastical offerings, the Attar Bazaar apothecary includes a small but respectable repertoire of natural, sustainably-sourced essences for aficionados seeking an adulterated scent experience. Among these, one finds Mysore Sandalwood-- a rarity anywhere. The verdict? Radiant, forceful, complex, magnificent-- and weird as hell. For a Western nose accustomed only to trace amounts of sandalwood in a perfume, the full-strength majesty of raw heartwood freshly axed and rasped is almost enough to knock you over. This scent rings like a church bell, shimmers in the air like heat from a bed of embers, catches in the throat like smoke. I'd recognize it anywhere as the base of my favorite hina attar--but now that I've smelled it undiluted, I can hardly imagine burdening it with extraneous aromatics. Owing to the increasing cost and rarity of unadulterated sandalwood essence, this sample vial came only 1/3 full-- and knowing that India's sandalwood forests are endangered, I do not think my conscience would permit me to seek out more than this small amount. But it is enough. Oh, so very enough.

When one lives in New Jersey, Sumatra should not qualify as "close to home"-- yet Sumatra Vetivert comes very close indeed to a scent of home that stirs up powerful emotions and memories. Autumn-leaf bonfires have been against the law in our fair state for almost as long as I've been alive-- but my goodness, I do believe that scent is somehow encoded on my DNA. When I opened this bottle, I almost cried. Here is a November day in all its sombre, smoky beauty, evoking a hundred bonfires-- or even more to the point, that singular tree on your street whose foliage is on fire in tones of thrilling crimson long after the rest of the neighborhood has succumbed to November's grey. What makes this most astounding is that vetiver comes through as a mere wisp of smoke in so many perfume compositions-- but here, in concentration, it's enough to sweep your feet out from under you. Like Mysore Sandalwood, Sumatra Vetivert is nature's glory distilled to its greatest potency.

As the song goes: Oh, hear me, this is powerful stuff.

Cašmir (Chopard)

It is not my intention to be a snob about perfume. Beauty comes in so many forms and awaits discovery in so many places, it seems silly to filter it according to its provenance.

Accordingly, I'll give just about any fragrance you can name a chance. First I open it.  If what emerges doesn't take my head off, I dab or spray it on my skin-- and then sniff and sniff again.  I may wear it several times under different conditions before I formulate a final judgment. And I always leave myself room to change my mind.

But when it comes to the behemoth currently operating under the name Coty, I feel somewhat less flexible.  Because of them, the world is full of sugar-encrusted, vanilla-iced, pink-tutu-clad toxic chemical cocktails masquerading as perfumes.  I know that Coty's not the only company that makes them, but they are all Coty seems to make-- and because of this, I can't bring myself to cut them any slack.  With the exception of Sarah Jessica Parker's Covet, I've yet to meet a single contemporary Coty fragrance that I didn't want to flush down the toilet tout de suite.

I have no idea if Cašmir (1992) predates Coty's takeover of Chopard's fragrance division. I guess it doesn't really matter, since Cašmir dovetails seamlessly with  Coty's candy-counter scheme of perfumery.  This unbelievably de trop treacle-fruit concoction is for the woman who wants to smell like fourteen different kinds of jam all at once, with an entire bottle of Bols Crème de Banana poured on top to show she isn't kidding.  I suppose it's both a surprise and a mercy that Coty didn't reformulate it, heaping mounds of buttercream frosting, dulce de leche, and candy sprinkles on top to bring it up to code. 

Seriously, Cašmir makes Cacharel's LouLou look as though she graduated from Radcliffe still a virgin.  I can't think of a single occasion on which this perfume would be appropriate.  If one exists, I'm not sure I want to know.

Scent Elements: Mango, coconut, peach, bergamot, jasmine, geranium, lily-of-the-valley, amber, musk, sandalwood, vanilla, patchouli

Azurée (Estée Lauder)

One of my most enduring memories from an early-1970's childhood was the scent that all adult women seemed to emanate. It was a blend of liquid foundation, hairspray, lipstick, nylon pantyhose, knee-high leather boots, tight-fitting elbow-length gloves, menthol cigarettes, and a sharp, green, insistent scent like fresh ivy or wild ferns.

It was, I imagined, the secret of womanhood.

Though female, I did not yet possess this elusive perfume. It scared and thrilled me to think that it would someday be mine. To win it seemed to involve some arcane initiation rite which, for six-year-old me, was a long way off; I lived in awe and envy of those who had already undergone this transformation. Come the sixth grade -- when all of us girls gathered in a darkened classroom to watch an instructional film about our "budding femininity" -- I wistfully watched that symbolic flower open in slow motion onscreen and thought: That must be where the perfume comes from.

Only later -- when I had already earned my right to it -- did I realize that it came from a bottle.

Azurée (1969) is that essence of femaleness. Whereas some chypres broadcast dreamy, nature-girl indolence, this one radiates the formidable strength of a goddess-- namely Estée Lauder, a woman famous for her self-confidence and feminine allure. Tough, sexy, urbane, it delivers an animalic wallop of leather and incense that may be the butchest thing ever made for a woman to wear. If Pascal Morabito's Or Black had a dominatrix on the payroll, Azurée would be it.

Breathing in her dry, dark, smoky scent, I find myself humming "Venus in Furs", the Velvet Underground's 1967 paean to masochism. Listen as our long-suffering manservant Severin finds liberation in the lowest places:
Kiss the boot
of shiny, shiny leather
Shiny leather
in the dark
Tongue of thongs
The belt that does await you
Strike, dear mistress
and cure his heart.
Also in 1967 appeared Luis Buñuel's Belle de Jour, starring Catherine Deneuve as Séverine (aha!) the original desperate housewife who relieves her boredom through freelance sex-for-hire.  Azurée's ironic, decadent, and slightly cruel overtones fit both Séverine and Severin to a T.

Yet it's Nico -- Lou Reed's sibling rival within the hierarchy of the Velvet Underground -- whom I keep thinking about.  A melancholic poet trapped in the body of a career supermodel, Nico spent her short life struggling to reconcile her complex inner self with the world of glossy surfaces. Expected to sing, she concealed the fact that she was deaf-- thus becoming one of the 20th century's greatest chanteuses almost by accident. Ordered to be beautiful, she dressed in mannish suits and refused to crack a smile-- and left behind an enduring iconography of style. Anyone who hears her deep, wistful voice becomes acquainted firsthand with her vulnerability, her strength, and the timeless scope of her experience... just the same as anyone who wears Azurée comes to understand that fabled secret power of womanhood.

Of course you do, honey. It's your own.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, gardenia, aldehydes, jasmine, cyclamen, ylang-ylang, galbanum, orris root, patchouli, leather, oakmoss, musk, amber

1876: Mata Hari (Histoires de Parfums)

In my perfume travels, I have found to my dismay that all saffron perfumes smell alike in the end. What seemed extraordinarily novel the first time I encountered it (in Olivia Giacobetti's Safran Troublant, to which I remain imperishably hooked) now seems as uniform as if die-stamped by machine.

Time and again, saffron is paired off with the same old partners -- rose, cardamom, steamed milk, sandalwood -- only to end up carrying them all on her broad back. I'm certain she gets weary of these arrangements, but is too mild-mannered to say so. Like a superhero recruited not to some global justice league but the local PTA, she gamely offers to run the next bake sale, knowing full well she'll end up saving the world.

What if saffron took a holiday?

1876 Mata Hari is one of the best saffron perfumes I've ever smelled that doesn't have a lick of saffron in it. All of her usual dance partners have gathered in one place to scratch their heads at the saffron-shaped vacancy in their midst. Where is she? they're thinking. Not me: I'm getting too big of a kick out of watching the gang sweat bullets at the prospect of doing all the heavy lifting.

Luckily, everyone pitches in and gets this baby off the ground. Rose and sandalwood know all the steps, and lychee provides the fresh perspective of a newcomer to the scene. Substitute cumin for cardamom? Yes, please-- it makes for a slightly more ballsy drydown in place of the usual oeufs à la neige. All together, 1876's components do such a good job of filling in for the missing piece that you'd swear she was present and accounted-for the whole time.

Now, about the theme. If Guerlain's Oriental Brûlant is our antiheroine all dressed up in her stage costume (beads dripping, headdress sparkling), I'd have to say that 1876 is Mata Hari in civilian clothes. To be sure, they are beautifully cut, perfectly proportioned, and wildly expensive as befits the wardrobe of a demimondaine-- but they are subtle and unobtrusive enough to allow her to pass through society without attracting too much attention. So skillful is 1876's air of olfactory misdirection that, applied with a light touch, it could make the wearer damn near invisible.

But perhaps that is exactly what you want. After all, a good spy does well to remain incognito.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, orange, lychee, rose, iris, violet, carnation, cumin, cinnamon, vetiver, guaiac, sandalwood

Dazzling Silver (Estée Lauder)

Last weekend, my husband and I stopped by the local Target to see how a recent renovation effort had paid off. The good news: in addition to a new grocery and a greatly expanded electronics department, they'd established a dedicated fragrance aisle. The bad news: 100% celebrity crap. J. Lo, Britney, Celine, Beyonce, Mariah, Kimora Lee. You know it's bad when you start wishing for some Axe Body Spray just to offset all that estrogen.

For kicks, I went down the row of testers, sniffing spray nozzles with growing disbelief. My nose is fairly fatigue-resistant, so I'm pretty certain I wasn't hallucinating. But every single one of them smelled, without exception, exactly the same: like vanilla cotton candy, fresh-spun and warm. This may be your idea of heaven if you're nine years old. But I'm not.

And it depressed the hell out of me.

Yesterday, my friend GW brought her collection of mini perfume bottles to work for an impromptu sniffing party. I fumbled in getting the cap off of Dazzling Silver by Estee Lauder, and a single drop of it landed on my denim-clad knee. Immediately I was surrounded by a penetrating vanilla scent, remarkable because it was cold. So used am I to warm and cozy vanillas that the concept of tamping down this note's natural friendliness via refrigeration startled me silent.

Dazzling Silver calls to mind a granita of vanilla-infused milk crystallizing in the freezer, or a cup of Hawai'ian shave ice flavored with mauve-colored syrup of orchids. Though Lalique's Flora Bella came much later in the game and (in my opinion) offered a slightly more refined take on the concept of frozen/sweet, this fragrance has undeniable appeal. It teases you with the familiar, growing sweeter the longer it's on your skin (or your jeans), but it never quite warms up. The chill of its hauteur makes your mouth water and your skin prickle with goosebumps for hours and hours.

I still prefer my beloved Flora Bella-- but I can't deny that all that afternoon, I kept sniffing the air and smiling. Just like a nine-year-old.

Scent Elements: Lilies, orchids (including vanilla orchid), lotus blossom, passionflower, rose, magnolia wood, helional

1873: Colette (Histoires de Parfums)

This is supposed to evoke Colette?

In what sense? By whose authority?

Come on, now-- what's the joke? I want to get it, but I don't

Exactly what are we meant to understand from this bilious, syrupy pink grapefruit disaster? That Colette was a girl, and girls like pink, so girls will like this-- whether they like it or not?  And Jesus, what's with that throat lozenge note, a sour medicinal undertone so reminiscent of bronchitis remedies it compels me to turn my head and cough? Is it shorthand for 'complexity of character'? Or did the real Colette suffer from croup?

To be fair, grapefruit is a fickle fruit.  Being rich in sulfur, its nature is apt to turn devilish in the wrong proportions-- a compelling reason to avoid it, unless it's time for breakfast. In 1873, the acrid sulphurous scent of its peel winds in and out of an unpleasant, miasmic odor evoking flower stems left too long in stagnant vase water. Inexplicably and to no good end, these are paired with musk and milky caramel; a more hellish combination I cannot imagine. Breathing in this mess, I am flabbergasted-- not least because all the rest of the Histoires de Parfums line is so consistently superb.

But this? This?

I would rather smell Parisienne, Pamplelune, and a dozen other grapefruit perfumes all at the same time than smell 1873 Colette by itself. Hell, I'd take half a grapefruit in the face a la Mae Clarke in The Public Enemy sooner than wear this perfume again.

As for Colette, I cannot imagine her countenancing this fragrance for one second. No one, however notorious, wants to go down in history as a stench.

Scent Elements:"All the citrus fruits from sunshine countries", orange blossom, lily-of-the-valley, lavender, vanilla, musk, caramel

Lonestar Memories (Tauer)

Recently (and for the fourth or fifth time, I admit) I watched Catherine Breillat's breathtaking film Une Vieille Maîtresse (An Elderly Mistress, misleadingly translated as The Last Mistress for American audiences who find finality more palatable than age). Based on Barbey d'Aurevilly's scandalous 1851 romance, Une Vieille Maîtresse concerns an anomalous ten-year liaison between a young Parisian rake and a Spanish divorcee some years his senior. If you suspect that this is Cheri all over again, think twice. The love (if you can call it that) between Ryno de Marigny and La Vellini is, as she herself puts it, "une liaison singulaire".

Described by one lover as "a capricious flamenca who can outstare the sun", Vellini is neither young, beautiful, nor especially personable-- but she certainly is singular. When Ryno is first introduced to her at a masquerade party, she is dressed in a frivolous costume at odds with her sober expression. When asked, "Are you dressed as a she-devil?" Vellini doesn't miss a beat. "No-- THE Devil," she replies artlessly. "I hate anything feminine."

The cinematic convention of the "meet cute" -- in which future lovers start out on the wrong foot with one another but slowly fall into step -- has no place in Une Vieille Maîtresse. Ryno dismisses Vellini as an "ugly mutt"-- then falls hopelessly in love with her. She instigates a duel between her husband and Ryno-- then realizes that her spouse is superfluous, since she and Ryno can easily carry out their feud without a middleman. For ten years, the pair remain steadfastly by each other's sides and at each other's throats. Not even Ryno's betrothal to a fresh young heiress can put them asunder; betrayal just adds an extra soupçon of pathos to their frequent, erotic "final" goodbyes. Theirs is an eternal combat without a clear winner, and no truce in sight.

Vellini may pretend to roll with the changes, but her easy arrogance conceals a deep, melancholy, and self-sacrificial fatalism. True, she despises Ryno before, during, and after their affair (with good reason, as he appears to confuse making love with making her miserable). But as he is her fate, she refuses to abandon him. He can come and go as he pleases; she'll always be his-- for worse if not for better.

The bond between Ryno and La Vellini is a strange one, based more on mutual anguish than delight. Yet every so often, Ryno manages to bring a smile to the edges of Vellini's mouth, transforming her eyes into supernovas of celestial light and her storm clouds into very heaven. In these moments, there is no doubt in my mind which perfume La Vellini personifies.

How do I know? Perhaps it's that succession of gigantic rose peonies with which Vellini adorns her jet-black hair-- neon pinks and reds radiating the intensity of a desert sunset. Or the combination of vulnerability and bravado that broadcasts itself through the eccentricity of her dress (Vellini switches from jaunty men's breeches to Levantine harem-wear to black lace mantillas faster than her mood can swing, which is pretty bloody fast). She smokes cigars, plays cards, and rides horses like a man... but she breaks, as the song goes, just like a little girl.

That's why I believe that Andy Tauer's Lonestar Memories is right on Vellini's wavelength. Take L'Air du Désert Marocain and whittle it down to its base of labdanum, jasmine, cedar, and vetiver. (Works best if you're chewing on a stalk of sweetgrass.) Swap out its coriander and cumin for sagebrush and carrotseed; then substitute geranium and birch tar for its petitgrain and ambergris. Bookend it on one side with smoky phenols, and on the other with a dusky carnation of deepest cerise. Now beam the whole thing right smack into the middle of the pampas, where it will lounge by the campfire with a flower between its teeth beneath the starry night sky. Cue Pete Seeger yodeling "Way Out There"-- and you realize that never did a human voice sound so plaintive, so lonesome, echoing in all that endless space.

Petulant, tender, melancholy, fearless, the Señora and this scent both get me right in the throat. And they can make bold with my heart all they want to: I'll stay faithful to the bitter end.

Scent Elements: Geranium, carrotseed, clary sage, birch tar, labdanum, jasmine, cedarwood, myrrh, tonka bean, vetiver, sandalwood

Osmanthus (The Different Company)

Two things indispensible to every Russian household: the domovoj (домово́й) and the samovar (самовар). The domovoj, or “man of the house”, is the protective spirit of the ancestral home. In exchange for daily offerings of juniper, pipe tobacco, and kasha, this small but powerful genius loci works tirelessly to shield the house and its occupants from ill luck.

The samovar, on the other hand, provides a more immediate service to those chilled by the Russian winter: hot tea, and lots of it. An imposing metal urn heated by charcoal, the samovar contains reservoirs for both tea concentrate and boiled water with which to dilute it. If the care lavished upon it by the lady of the house is any indicator, the samovar is a V.I.P. whose pride of place is proven by the high gleam bestowed by daily, almost religious, polishing.

Samovars vary in size to serve everything from peasant hovels to imperial palaces, but no Russian structure could be deemed fit for human habitation without one. One might say that the Russian people could do without the Tsar, but never the samovar-- in fact, even the Tsar bowed to its supremacy.

Here is a description of afternoon tea in Tsarskoe Selo during the reign of Nicholas II:

At four, the family gathered for tea. Teas at Tsarskoe Selo were always the same. Year after year, the same small, white-draped tables were set with the same glasses in silver holders, the same plates of hot bread, the same English biscuits. Cakes and sweetmeats never appeared. To her friend Anna Vyrubova, (Tsaritsa) Alexandra complained that “other people had much more interesting teas”. Although she was Empress of Russia, wrote Vyrubova, (Alexandra) “seemed unable to change a single detail of the routine of the Russian court. The same plates of hot bread and butter had been on the same tea tables [since the days of] Catherine the Great.”

Pg. 128, Nicholas and Alexandra, Robert K. Massie (1967)
Doubtless Alexandra -- a minor German prinzessin raised to consider herself thoroughly British -- found this inflexible ceremony somewhat puzzling. In truth, the Russian afternoon high tea bears more of a resemblance to the Japanese cha-no-yu tea ceremony than to the cozy four-o'clock refreshment native to Britain. Strict customs govern everything, from the style of drinking vessel (glass, never china) to the mode of sweetening the tea. For a time, it was de rigeuer to hold a sugar cube between one's teeth whilst drinking-- but an easier (and far more delicate) method is to follow each sip with a tiny spoonful of sweet jam.

Jam and tea: so simple, so appealing. This is the spirit of Osmanthus, composed by Jean-Claude Ellena for The Different Company before he moved on to Hermès. Osmanthus brings together the woolly astringency of strong black tea with the plangent sweetness of preserves, with great and comforting effect.

The osmanthus has long been a popular shrub, both for tea lovers and perfumers. Its foliage smells somewhat like the leaves of Camellia sinensis and can be blended with both green and black versions of the same for a pleasant and fragrant brew. But osmanthus also smells like fruit-- apricots and peaches to be exact, a fact on which Ellena skillfully capitalizes for an original take on the Russian tea table. Berry jams and cherry jams may be more traditional, but this cheerful honey-gold concoction is infinitely preferable.

What ties it all together? Bergamot, naturally-- what could be better? Firmly linked to both the world of tea (as in Earl Grey) and perfumery (where it appears in the ingredient list of almost every fragrance ever made), bergamot possesses both dry and sweet angles that dovetail neatly with tannin and apricot, drawing them together and providing a segue so sensible that it's hard to imagine any other note being tapped for this task.

Luca Turin has claimed that he carries a bottle of Osmanthus with him whenever he travels. "I use this wonderful fragrance the way some people carry familiar objects to set up in hotel rooms and make everywhere feel like home. There is a protecting genie in its little travel bottle which hasn't failed me yet," he says.

A domovoj in the form of a perfume: brilliant.

Scent Elements: Orange, mandarin, bergamot, osmanthus, peach, rose, musk.

Thrifting through history.

Autumn seems to be the time for bargains. Within the last month, I've visited countless thrift stores, antique shops, flea markets, garage and yard sales, and charity events to "poke and pick", as my beloved spouse puts it. Fragrance scores keep placing themselves in my path-- some good, some bad, some vintage or hard-to-find, and all cheap as sin. Here are two of my best recent finds in the land of secondhand:

L'Aimant (Coty)
When Chanel No.5 creator Ernest Beaux left the Grasse fragrance firm of Chiris in 1922, his successor -- the equally great Vincent Roubert -- was charged with composing replacements for Beaux's departing formulae. Exercising his lordly prerogative as head nose for Coty, Roubert took his sweet time. Five years later, he brought forth L'Aimant-- an aldehydic floral so close to Chanel No.5 that a lawsuit could have been filed.

The bottle jumped out at me right away-- pre-1980's old-school with a real metal crown cap and angular goldtone lettering proclaiming the perfume's name. This L'Aimant is a "parfum de toilette", an appellation which (according to Turin & Sanchez) denotes an EdP concentration. Its first order of business, once the cap is removed, is to rear back and deliver a smart aldehydic slap across the face. Don't underestimate Her Ladyship: that blow stings but good.  But L'Aimant quickly poultices the hurt with a golden citrus-amber floral that impersonates Chanel No.5 so successfully it could hire itself out for parties. It's a touch sweeter and more vanillic, perhaps; close enough to put you in mind of No.5, but distinct enough to merit its own fan club.  Apparently, thousands of women shared this view; Jacques Guerlain's wife even preferred it to her own spouse's work. Who am I to argue?

Scent Elements: Aldehydes, bergamot, peach, strawberry, neroli, jasmine, rose, geranium, ylang-ylang, orchid, vetiver, sandalwood, cedar, vanilla, amber, tonka bean, civet, musk

Chypre (Coty)
This the one that started it all... well, not exactly. With its white plastic cap and hippie-Edwardian label design, this isn't vintage, strictly speaking. Reissued in 1986 and rechristened as the "Chateau Collection", Chypre, Les Muses and Rose Jacqueminot once again became available in both EdP and EdT. While the EdT came in a much fancier bottle, I'm glad to have the EdP no matter how plainly packaged.

The 1917 Chypre has been described as impossibly magical, a fey green spirit straight from the ancient wildwoods.  The modern incarnation I hold in my hand is doubtless a quart low on both oakmoss and civet; perhaps it is only an anorexic shadow of that Great Goddess worshipped by such 20th century dynamos as Dorothy Parker and Clark Gable.  But hot damn, it's good-- heady and rich and as green as could be. It may be low-cal by its own ninety-year-old standards, but by modern criteria -- which have turned its sister Emeraude into a tragic self-parody -- it is a gem of unparalleled opulence. If this is an impoverished facsimile, then the real thing would kill me.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, oakmoss, sage, labdanum, patchouli, civet

Parfum d'Été (Kenzo)

It sat on a table marked “Everything Must Go”. Amid old sunglasses, ratty used bolo ties, and chipped ugly Corningware, it glistened—a single frosted-glass leaf with a dew drop nestled amid the tracery of its veins.

I picked it up, weighed it in my hand. It was nearly half full of a pale, yellow-green liquid. Passing by, the owner of the store spoke: “Whatever it’s marked, take seventy-five percent off.”

It was marked two dollars. I paid the fifty-cent ransom and rescued this princess from oblivion. Everything must go, and so Kenzo Parfum d'Été went... home with me.

It's been a long time since they made it like this-- nearly twenty years.  The "dew-drop leaf" design denotes the original, by now considered vintage.  I've never smelled the current, reformulated version in its sleek, modern, clear glass bottle.  I’m not convinced I need to. What’s in this bottle is beauty enough.

Were I a blushing bride (was I ever?), I would nominate vintage Parfum d’Éte as the ideal wedding-day fragrance. This is a light-green chypre, nectarlike and decidedly vernal, perfect for a tender young thing dressed all in white. A bridal bouquet of flowers -- cyclamen, freesia, lilies of the valley -- is presented first, followed by a hint of fruit, but only in the mildest, sweetest sense of the word. Imagine the thinnest imaginable slice of ripe cherimoya on an opalescent milk-glass plate—no stronger or more definite flavors (or colors) need apply.

A tiny touch of musk reminds us that there’s a real, live, warm-blooded woman beneath these yards and yards of snow-white tulle. An even tinier touch of wood (mahogany and sandal) tells us that this gal is not short on backbone. And that tobacco note? As soon as the photographer’s finished and the limo pulls around, she is SO going to smoke a cigarette-- five-thousand-dollar wedding gown or no.

Just don’t tell her mom.

Scent Elements: Galbanum, peach, hyacinth, peony, cyclamen, freesia, jasmine, ylang-ylang, lily-of-the-valley, rose, narcissus, iris, sandalwood, amber, musk, oakmoss, cedar

Eau d'Hadrien (Annick Goutal)

The perfume realms mapped by Annick Goutal are broad and far-flung. Admittedly, I’ve barely begun to traverse them. I love Sables to shreds, cry with nostalgia at Encens Flamboyant, and shrug congenially at Gardénia Passion—but beyond these three, I’m a babe in the woods.

So when I picked up this minibottle from a tea-tray display at the antique barn, my yelp of delight reached the rafters. How did I miss this? Though my sample wish list is as long as my arm, here was a Goutal I seem to have overlooked. (And eight whole milliliters of it, too!) I knew absolutely nothing about Eau d’Hadrien, but felt that Goutal’s name was collateral enough that the risk would surely pay dividends.

Was I still kvelling after I brought it home? Absolutely—though at first sniff I thought, Damn-- a lemon fragrance three weeks too late. For of course summer was already over, and who wears lemon fragrances except in the summertime?

Eau d’Hadrien could compel me to break a rule or two. Peppery, angular, and penetrating, it’s a composition in acid sans alkaline, with sharp grapefruit zest playing counterpoint to optimistic lemon and biting green cypress. Sprayed on skin, its drydown approaches the sun-roasted warmth of immortelle, though apparently it contains none. Nor does it contain anise, though my husband swore up and down that it was somewhere in there, it had to be. I couldn’t argue—I was too busy puzzling over that ghostly wisp of wild dog rose I kept detecting on the October wind…

All in all, I found Eau d’Hadrien to be a lovely thing—but not everyone agreed with me. I passed some small (1ml.) decants around to five of my fellow perfumistas at the office. One tried hers immediately and pronounced it wonderful. Another accepted her sample, but never voiced an opinion on it either way. A third said she liked it and might visit it occasionally if I kept it at my desk, but she felt no real need to take it home. And the remaining two – JC and Nan, to be exact – handed it back immediately. Both declared – separately, with absolutely no knowledge of one another’s opinion, and almost verbatim – that Eau d’Hadrien reminded them of a perfume that sat on an older relative’s dresser in a past they did not wish to revisit. (Hm!)

Having witnessed these two ladies exhibit an uncanny level of fragrance telepathy once before, I marveled at this intersection of perfume and the paranormal. But as to their opinion, I simply couldn’t concur. Facets of Eau d’Hadrien may echo perfumes of the past, but overall, its spare profile fits the whole modern “clean citrus” genre to a T—even more so when it is sprayed rather than dabbed. Something about it evokes for me that point in history when the sinuous curves of Art Nouveau gave way to the hard, clean, pure lines of Art Deco, or when blurry Impressionist landscapes yielded the floor to sharp-edged Cubism….

However you paint it, Eau d’Hadrien is well worth holding in reserve until Memorial Day. I fully expect it to stir up other debates, contradictions, and scent phantoms when I bring it out of storage next June.

Scent Elements: Sicilian lemon, grapefruit, citron, cypress

Missoni 2006 (Missoni)

Luca Turin once described the layers of a Sophia Grojsman fragrance as "so intense and well-judged that the perfume felt as if it came out in stripes". Grojsman may have achieved that happy result by accident. But in Missoni's 2006 eponymous perfume, Maurice Roucel aimed for it from the very start.

Stripes of color -- the traditional motif of Missoni's knitwear designs -- are, in fact, the core of this perfume's concept.  And just as Missoni's choice of unusual (and often dissonant) hues engendered what is now an instantly-recognizable aesthetic, Roucel's layering of contrasting scent elements produces a perfume as warm, comfortable, and stylish as a vintage Missoni floor-length autumn-weight sweater dress.

So what's the "color scheme"?

The Giallo (Radiant Yellow) Accord consists of Italian bergamot, magnolia blossoms, and nespole (loquat).  The loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) is the sweet, plumlike fruit of an Asian evergreen tree grown throughout the Mediterranean.   Consumed in large quantities, loquats are known to have a sedative effect-- as does the heavy scent of magnolia bloom when inhaled on a summer night.  Lively bergamot proves a wise choice to counteract the soporific potential of Missoni's giallo.

The Rosa (Magenta Pink) Accord incorporates deep pink peony, rose, and daylily elements to lend a floral edge to what is otherwise a thoroughly gourmand fragrance.  This is the most retiring of all the color accords, paling in the face of more assertive ingredients.  Like a demure silk slip, it keeps well out of sight; only the wearer is truly conscious of it-- and grateful for the touch of gentle femininity it brings.

The Arancio (Intense Orange) Accord consists of mandarin, bitter orange, and persimmon.  This warm, expansive accord lends an optimistic air to counterbalance the heavier sections of the fragrance.  The persimmon note is of the ripe-fleshed rather than acerbic variety and does much to mellow the sharp bitterness of the bigarade.

The Gianduia (Chocolate Brown) Accord is a mellow, rich mixture of chocolate praline and vanillic amber.  As you can imagine, here is where Missoni's center of gravity can be found-- and boy, is she full-bodied.

Does one of these accords resonate for you above all others? You're in luck. Two years after the release of Roucel's composition, Missoni followed up with the Colori Collection, in which each separate "stripe" of the quartet -- Giallo, Rosa, Arancio, Gianduia -- could be purchased separately. (Heck, if a coffret of all four colori plus the full perfume existed, I might be persuaded to hand over my eyeteeth for it.)

Luca Turin gave Missoni five stars. I like to imagine that he awarded one star to each of the four composite accords, plus an extra, purely for personal reasons. Sadly, I have to stop at four stars-- and not because I lack appreciation, affection or flat-out lust for this fragrance. Simply put, Missoni didn't last long enough for me. The only remedy I can think of would be a full bottle with a backup travel sprayer on the side, so that I can reapply liberally just as Missoni starts to flag.

The original Missoni (released in cooperation with Max Factor in 1982) was apparently a fruity floral with a chypre base. I've never tried it myself, and while it may be useful to seek it out, the presence of cassis in the mix triggers all my apprehensions. The new Missoni (launched with help from Estée Lauder) gives me no such qualms. This glorious gourmand proves perfect for an equally glorious autumn season, enveloping one from start to finish in shimmering satisfaction.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, mandarin, bigarade, loquat, persimmon, magnolia, rose, peony, lily, cacao, hazelnut, amber