My next big decant purchase being slated for June -- and not a moment before, as I promised my spouse -- I've taken to sniffing magazine perfume samples to quell my insatiable hunger for scent. None of these perfumes happened to be on my wishlist, which consists mainly of niche perfumers' works.  But in the interest of democracy and broad horizons, a dip into the commercial-success pond is good exercise. I'm gaining quite the education in pop trends missing in Niche-land. What have I learned so far?

1) "Sickeningly sweet" is in. The corn syrup we vilify in our food products has found a new home in our perfumes. Result: EDP's that smell like blatantly like candyfloss, cake, fondant, and frosting. Apparently, the mark of a successful modern fragrance brief is its ability to induce tooth decay on the first read-through.

2) Puerility in perfumery = also in. If we can't look like Harajuku Sweet Lolitas -- kneesocked, frilly, beribboned, cute -- we need to smell like them (see #1). Pink rules, as does the everpresent peony. Grown women who prefer complex and mature compositions are relegated to shopping in ever more remote frontiers.

3) If you can fit it, add a tea accord. Green, black, herbal, you name it-- it's in everything, even in blends where it neither fits nor belongs. On the bright side, tannin's dry bite might be the only thing saving us all from a sugar headache.

4) I really, really, really, REALLY dislike fruity-florals. I mean, I knew that before. But now it's cruelly clear to me that I'm missing the essential microchip that would allow me to appreciate the current fruit-salad trend.

5) Mainstream perfume ad copy is hilarious. Notes described as wet, frozen, golden, sensual, or forbidden (as well as enhanced, drenched, frosted, or dappled by various naturally-occurring phenomena such as sunlight, moonlight, or dew) are found laced, entwined, or wrapped around a panoply of fictional accords ("Night-blooming day lily"? Really?) in combinations which are then deemed tempestuous, alluring, irresistible, and of course, couture. Dame Barbara Cartland, eat your heart out.

Juicy Couture (Juicy Couture)
Spokesmodel: Doe-eyed supermodel wearing a pink cotton-candy fright wig like a carnival version of Marie Antoinette
Scent: Horrifyingly sweet, unrelentingly cheerful, appallingly plucky-- the Little Orphan Annie of perfume. No wonder Mrs. Hannigan favored the prohibition of little girls. And what's with that website copy? "Heart notes of couture tuberose wrapped in wild rose with sophisticated princess lily and creamy tuberose"? Tuberose wrapped in tuberose? If one more half-literate PR hack describes a perfume note as "wrapped in" some other perfume note, I am going to wrap someone around a damn doorknob.

Scent Elements: Watermelon, mandarin, passion fruit, marigold, green apple, hyacinth, tuberose, rose, lily, caramel, vanilla, woods, patchouli

Couture Couture (Juicy Couture)
Spokesmodel: Same doe-eyed supermodel as last time, only now joined by an Iggy Pop impersonator and a metric ton of glitter
Scent: "Juicy girls don't have to do what they're told. They break the rules with style," reads the website copy. "Do the don'ts. Spoil yourself." In other words, buy our product, which smells just like its predecessor only with added sugar cookie. So childish, it makes Hello Kitty look like a bitter, aging cougar. I simply can't believe any grown woman would want to smell like this, and I desperately want to credit young girls with more sense. Was feminism all for nothing?

Scent Elements: "Pink grape accord", orange blossom, mandarin, "blushed plum", honeysuckle, sandalwood

Burberry Brit (Burberry)
Spokesmodel: Aggro rich girl sneering at all lesser mortals who wear off-brand raincoats
Scent: You can always tell an aspirational perfume by the adjectives tagged on to its scent elements. Burberry Brit's pear is "icy", its almond "sugared", its woods "mahogany". Just plain ingredients are not enough; the anxious wearer of Burberry Brit needs extra assurance that hers are special, unique, rare-- or at least nominally distinct from those which comprise all the other "luxury goods" perfumes that smell remarkably similar to Burberry Brit. That is to say, like the color beige, with a dash of saddle soap and lavender water.

Scent Elements: Lime, pear, almond, peony, amber, vanilla, tonka, woods.

Burberry Sport (Burberry)
Spokesmodel: Squeaky-clean Caucasian co-eds, as alike as brother and sister right down to their identical scowls
Scent: Like a flipbook containing photos of random objects, all white, this fragrance hits every modulation of the word "clean" one right after the other: hand soap, white wax, lanolin, ceramic tile, talcum powder. If only someone had thought to add just one dirty note-- I'm certain one could have been found that would not have proven too dissonant. After all, aren't the flowers that produce indoles also white?

Scent Elements: Mandarin, ginger, magnolia, honeysuckle, calone, cedarwood, musk

Vera Wang Princess (Vera Wang)
Spokesmodel: A gauze-draped and butterfly-crowned Zoe Kravitz, bellyflopped on what has to be the creepiest looking striped mattress I have ever seen. If there had a been a stack of such mattresses as high as the ceiling a la The Princess and The Pea, we would have gotten the joke. Instead, we get The Lovely Bones. Grimm? No. Just grim.
Scent: Vanilla cake layered with guava jelly, coated with triple-thick buttercream frosting, and topped with masses of candy roses and sugared violets. One bite, and they send for the crash cart. Insulin, please.

Scent Elements: Apple, waterlily, apricot, guava, tiare, tuberose, chocolate, amber, and woods, plus "mandarin meringue", "vanilla chiffon", and "pink frosting". Just typing that gave me sugar shock.

Vera Wang Bouquet (Vera Wang)
Spokesmodel: A moody-looking girl with dishevelled hair. I'd look angry, too, if they got me out of bed at 4 a.m. for this.
Scent: "Alluring. Modern. Romantic," reads the ad copy. I get only weak tea and wet begonias. Still, better by far than Princess.

Scent Elements: "Dew drops", bergamot, blackcurrant, narcissus, honeysuckle, lavender, musk, cedar, iris

Flora (Gucci)
Spokesmodel: A Mischa Barton clone flapping about in a gauze muu-muu
Scent: Orange jelly candies encrusted with sugar; so sweet it actually causes pain. Honestly, positively, simply awful, unless you are four years old or anosmic. At some point, grown women must rise up and overthrow those in power who believe this is what we want -- or worse, deserve -- to wear. ¡Viva la Revolucion!

Scent Elements: Citrus, peony, rose, osmanthus, pink pepper, sandalwood, patchouli

Daisy (Marc Jacobs)
Spokesmodel: Pale, milky supermodel Irina splayed out near-nude in an wheatfield, grimacing under the weight of a massive bottle of Daisy that has been placed on her chest
Scent: There's a cat litter product which contains blue "odor control" crystals that smell horribly unpleasant even before use. Cat urine's bad enough without the addition of floral bleach, don't you think? If you're not quite sure: Daisy by Marc Jacobs.

Scent Elements: Strawberry, pink grapefruit, violet, violet leaf, gardenia, jasmine, musk, vanilla, white woods

SJP NYC (Sarah Jessica Parker)
Spokesmodel: SJP herself... or is it Carrie Bradshaw? Whoever it is, she's wearing one hell of a loud-ass dress.
Scent: The inspiration for this fragrance is said to be fictional human coat hanger Carrie Bradshaw, but a closer match would be Strawberry Shortcake. How does a celebrity with such strong opinions about perfume get railroaded into adding another faceless, juvenile fruity-floral nightmare to the pile? To heap insult on top of injury, SJP NYC comes in an unredeemably hideous bottle that resembles a dollar-store can of air freshener. Why not spray paint instead? It don't get more Noo Yawk than a tagger's cannon-- plus, they could have invited someone kick-ass like Lady Pink to design it. But Lady Pink, I believe, has better taste and more sense.

Scent Elements: Mandarin, osmanthus, strawberry, gardenia, honeysuckle, mimosa, rose, sandalwood, vanilla absolute, rum absolute, musk

Very Hollywood (Michael Kors)
Spokesmodel: A blinged-out Hollywood honey on the red carpet
Scent: Cloying white flower concoction, oversugared and overbearing, with zero pretensions of being classy. Its one-dimensional vulgarity actually works in its favor. Only in Hollywood!

Scent Elements: Mandarin, "iced" bergamot, "wet" jasmine, ylang-ylang, raspberry, gardenia, orris, amber, moss, vetiver.

Sensuous (Estée Lauder)
Spokesmodel: A sleepy-eyed model in a borrowed men's tuxedo shirt
Scent: Imagine a churro dough made with orangeflower water, saffron, cardamom, and vanilla. It sounds appetizing until you confront the sizzling hot vegetable oil it's to be fried in. You can't pick and choose which of these odors will cling to your clothes, but rest assured the vegetable oil will have the last word. Here, it's readily apparent, along with a hint of black pepper that lends a surreal dimension to a powdered-sugar finish. A prime example of how gourmand notes can intersect badly and cause difficulties for an otherwise well-meaning perfume.

Scent Elements: "Ghost lily accord", magnolia, jasmine petals, "molten woods" (the last time I noticed, woods BURN, not melt), amber, sandalwood, black pepper, mandarin, honey

Versense (Versace)
Spokesmodel: A greasy-haired girl in an evening gown, bleary-eyed on a beach at dawn. Wasn't senior prom a blast? I can't remember, either.
Scent: The pale green-hued liquid in the angular clear-glass bottle is supposed to suggest some kind of healthful herbal tincture, I'm sure. But its scent -- cleaning fluid mixed with corn syrup -- catches in the throat like a chemical spill.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, green mandarin, citrus, prickly pear, fig, cardamom, jasmine, cedar, sandalwood, olive wood, musk, and something improbably called "sea daffodil"

Miss Dior Cherie Eau de Parfum / Eau de Toilette (Dior)
Spokesmodel: Jean Shrimpton 3.0
Scent: Start with a harsh fruity-tea-floral base and a keen contempt for womankind. For the EDP, add a note of Hot Tamale candy. For the EDT, a slug of cucumber. Serve in a cutesy-poo bottle with a frosted pink plastic bow for ninety-odd dollars a pop. Rake in the bucks from college girls who don't know any better. Insulting.

Scent Elements: Mandarin, strawberry fruit and leaf, violet, jasmine, "caramel popcorn" accord, musk, patchouli (EDP); the EDC adds freesia, lily-of-the-valley, orange blossom, tuberose, and vanilla.

Cashmere Mist (Donna Karan)
Spokesmodel: Milla Jovovich, dreaming her little dreamy dreams in the shower. I wish it was as sexy as it sounds, but Milla looks as though she's thinking about her income tax return, or maybe that missing dry-cleaning receipt.
Scent: Imitation vanilla. Easter babka. Overripe banana. Egg yolks. Candle wax. Poppy-seed lemon cake. Plastic. Orange circus peanuts. Classroom paste. Feel free to stop me anytime.

Scent Elements: Lily of the valley, suede, bergamot, ylang-ylang, jasmine, sandalwood, orris, amber, vanilla, cedar, patchouli, musk.

Evening In Paris Vintage Eau de Cologne (Bourjois)

An email from a dear old friend: Would I be at all interested in a bottle of Evening In Paris cologne, 1950's vintage? Would I!

What did I know about Evening In Paris? I knew it by sight, most definitely. Certain perfume bottles seem pre-encoded on feminine DNA: Shalimar, Chanel No. 5, Schiaparelli Shocking. Along with these, Evening in Paris' distinctive cobalt-and-silver bottle remains instantly recognizable as a ladies' dressing-table classic.

I also knew that it had been wildly popular among my grandmother's generation-- not only for its beauty, but for its reasonable price. In 1928, Bourjois (a cosmetics firm owned by Coco Chanel's partner/frenemy Pierre Wertheimer) hired Chanel No. 5 creator Ernest Beaux to design an inexpensive fragrance for the average American woman. No perfume brief ever proved more serendipitous, for the Great Crash soon wiped out all but the tiniest increments of expendable cash. All throughout the Depression and the subsequent World War, women found themselves constrained to pinch every penny and stretch every dime. Yet for under a dollar, one could walk into any Grant's or Woolworth's and leave with a bottle of "real French perfume"-- which, coincidentally, smelled like a million dollars.

So to recap: I was about to encounter a perfume billed for over 80 years as "The Most Popular Fragrance In the World", whose fans were legion and fiercely loyal, and whose scent -- for an entire generation -- symbolized feminine triumph over everyday adversity. The prospect of meeting this "grand old dame" filled me with ancipatory jitters. Would I like her? (Would she like me?)

The day it arrived, I studied the bottle carefully. A flat, lenticular glass phial three inches in height and midnight blue in color, with a pointy, fluted black hard plastic cap. One side of the phial bore traces of glue where a rectangular label (now missing) had been affixed at a diagonal. This confirmed it as a 1950's vintage, as Bourjois switched to a chevron-shaped label as of 1960. The bottle was nearly full of a clear amber liquid that appeared deep green viewed through the blue glass.

My friend had expressed concern that the fragrance might have diminished in potency over the years-- it seemed to fade from her skin awfully fast. This didn't worry me, as eaux de cologne typically contain only 2-5% perfume oil by volume, compared to the 15-20% of parfum. But what if the issue was not one of persistence, but of damage? After five decades, had it remained true-- or would it have "turned"?

Here's where that cobalt blue bottle comes into play. In a clear glass bottle, alcohol (whether perfume or wine) tends to "cook"-- with tragic results. But in dark blue, amber, or green glass (or even better, opaque stone, as the ancients used for their alabastra) a perfume can remain sound for millenia.

How do you test a vintage perfume to see if has survived the decades? Dab it on the back of your hand and wait ten minutes. Often, the initial whiff is sharp, sour, acetonic. Don't panic-- you're only smelling the volatile top notes, which exhibit the greatest tendency toward instability over time. Once these dissipate, you're left with the heart and base notes, which are composed of sterner stuff. The truly patient are rewarded with the soul of the perfume-- those sturdy and stable molecules responsible for all the ecstasy.

This is precisely what I discovered when I opened Evening In Paris. Fifty years had not degraded its sorcery; on the contrary, it had developed in the bottle like vintage wine.

A sparkling fountain of aldehydes rose up to meet me like a cheerful "Why, hello!" (Enchantée right at you, ma'am.) On its heels came a veritable parade of notes dressed in bright harlequin colors-- a wonderful fiery bergamot, a fresh-mown clover so green I could taste it, a delicious dewy violet, and on and on. When jasmine showed up-- "sweet without sentiment, sweet without effeteness, sweet without compromise", as Tom Robbins once described it -- I made ready to applaud, to gather up my playbill and exit the theater...

But it was no more over and done than a wedding is when the flower girls are finished strewing petals en route to the altar. The cheerful peals of the fairground organ faded away to a single, soft chord, and all the carnival colors melted into a single vision in white. Here at last was that honey-scented marvel-- the fabled linden flower, true soul of Evening In Paris.

The tree from which this wonder blossoms is known by a variety of names, all depending on where you happen to be standing. If in America, call it a basswood (after the "bast" or inner fiber of the bark). If in England, call it a lime (which -- along with linden -- stems from the Anglo-Saxon lenda, "yielding"). If in France, call it tilleul (after the genus Tiliaceae, from the IndoEuropean pteleia, "broad-leafed"). And if in Paris... call it magic.

When new-blown, the linden flower pervades the air with a heady fragrance that variously recalls raw honeycomb, chamomile, ozonic spring rain, and good Sauternes. Tilleul concrete (derived from the dried blossoms) adds a nose-tickling element of pollen dust and prosecco to the above. But rather than overpower, it introduces a surprising and unforgettable voile effect to floral perfumes, diffusing their overbright glisten like a sheer chiffon curtain in front of a sunny window.

According to herbal practitioners, a tea made of dried linden flowers acts as a gentle nervine calmative, providing swift relief from anxiety and insomnia. Evening In Paris' tilleul accord seems similarly, pleasantly narcotic. Remembering the lingering effect of the Joy spilled in my aunt's bedroom, I sprinkled a few drops of Evening in Paris on the surface of my bedside table and rubbed it into the wood with a soft cloth. Ever since, the sleepy languor invoked by its scent has made bedtime the haven it ought to be.

By its aldehydic sparkle and powder-soft drydown, Evening in Paris (like Chanel No. 5) is recognizable as a classic Beaux creation. Both perfumes are flighty, romantic arrangements-- but where No. 5 employs a full symphony orchestra, Evening in Paris makes beautiful music with a modest chamber quartet. Though it may sound odd at first to modern ears attuned to newer keys, Evening in Paris' song is an undeniably lovely piece of nostalgia, full of memory and melancholy.

While writing this essay over the past week, I felt compelled to listen to Nick Cave's extraordinary album The Boatman's Call. To look at this black-clad, cadaverous old proto-Goth, you'd never believe he could sing torch songs -- spooky, gorgeous, shivering-with-emotion, honest-to-god torch songs -- but he does, like nobody's business. The following lyrics in tribute to a linden ("lime tree") grove are among the most beautiful he has ever written-- and, I think, the best way to bring this piece to a close:

the boatman calls from the lake
a lone loon dives upon the water
i put my hand over hers
down in the lime tree arbour

the wind in the trees is whispering
whispering low that i love her
she puts her hand over mine
down in the lime tree arbour

through every breath that i breathe
and every place i go
there is hand that protects me
and i do love her so

there will always be suffering
it flows through life like water
i put my hand over hers
down in the lime tree arbour

the boatman he has gone
and the loons have flown for cover
she puts her hand over mine
down in the lime tree arbour

through every word that i speak
and every thing i know
there is hand that protects me
and i do love her so

--"The Lime Tree Arbour", Nick Cave

Scent Elements: Violet, bergamot, tilleul, clover, lilac, rose, jasmine, vetiver, styrax

Puredistance I (Puredistance)

It has always existed, in a blinding variety of forms. It goes by many names, as if to confuse the seeker. It can be found everywhere, but only if you're looking.

If you travel to Polynesia, you will hear about mana, a spiritual quality found in people and objects of power. At Findhorn Garden in northern Scotland, they'll tell you about the tutelary deva that inhabits each flower and tree. The earthy and plainspoken Vikings knew it as vættur (wight) or álfr (elf)-- both personifications of a nameless, vital energy.

In ancient Rome, philosophers called it numen, ineffable presence; the Greeks called it a eudaimon and believed it responsible for conferring happiness on all mortal beings. In Japan, it is addressed as Ō-kami, honorable great being, and is reckoned mighty enough to shake the foundations of the earth.

Incarnated in this tiny bottle, it is called Puredistance I.

I came by it humbly, in a sheer lucky break. Over at Eiderdown Press, Suzanne had posted an intriguing set of photos showing twelve identical snow-white boxes nested together like hatchlings in a larger box. She'd just received samples of PI and announced her intention to hold a random drawing.

I almost didn't enter, to tell you the truth. The dreaded words "hint of cassis" jumped out at me from the official list of scent elements-- and as blackcurrant is one of my primary bugbears (see Angel), my first instinct was to back away niiiiiice and slow. But the review.... oh, the review. Written in the hush of awe, it seemed to describe a personage more than a perfume-- someone extraordinary and maybe even half-divine. Suzanne had met this being and walked away deeply affected by the encounter. I found myself longing to do the same.

So into the drawing went my name-- and Suzanne drew it. Serendipity? Kismet? I'll thank them both-- plus the Fates, the Norns, and my Fairy Godmother, just to be on the safe side.

It looked innocuous -- a glass vial full of rosy-amber liquid, enclosed in a clever white box which unfolds like a reliquary and snaps crisply closed as though it concealed a tiny, hidden rare-earth magnet. And it probably does. Billed as one of the most exclusive perfumes on earth, full-bottle PI comes in packaging so deluxe that I probably couldn't afford it even if it came without the perfume. Sheathed in a protective block of Swarovski crystal as if to shield it from the world's contaminants, it is clearly meant to be perceived as a precious, even powerful substance, needful of careful containment. (If this were Pandora, the atomizer and cap would be made of pure unobtainium.)

Getting the vial open posed a challenge, as the plastic stopper appeared to operate on a flexible ball-and-socket principle, ballooning slightly within the rim to create a hermetic seal. Obviously, if I wanted to gain access to the elixir inside, I would be forced to work for it. My hands trembled during the procedure-- partly from effort, partly from terror. What if I should fumble and spill it? Would this be Joy all over again?

Finally the stopper slid through, and I held the vial under my nose.

I suppose I've been conditioned to expect an aloof attitude from people and things of luxury-- a snobbish stance that questions my right to partake. But what wafted up to meet my nostrils was so friendly, so glad to greet me, I wondered if I was imagining things. This was Joy all right; not Jean Patou's version, but the real thing. Who was I to argue?

I placed my fingertip over the mouth of the vial, tipped it, touched the perfume to the base of my throat, restoppered the vial, and waited to see what would happen.

Over the next fifteen minutes, PI entered my aura and just-- proliferated. From a single point of contact on my throat, it seemed to expand, multiply, fill my etheric body like helium. Sounds hippy-dippy? I agree. But I can't deny what it did for my energy. I have experienced the same effect when I've worn a particular quartz crystal next to my skin-- a thrum of electricity all through me, as if I've just plugged into a hidden power source. Although my morning had begun with various anxieties and tests of my patience, I now felt calm and grounded, all my tiny pinhole leaks repaired.

You may be as incredulous as I was. But there it is. So synchronized did I feel to Puredistance after half an hour that I forgot I was simply -- what do you call it? -- wearing a perfume.

Yet PI is a perfume. And what a perfume-- one of the loveliest I've had the pleasure to meet. Beginning with an awe-inspiring virtual sunrise composed of citrus-blossom notes, it wends its way slowly and meditatively through a garden of cream and butter-yellow flowers before coming to rest on a tender chord of white musk. And the cassis? Irreproachable. PI contains blackcurrant the way a properly-mixed kir cleaves to the ratio of one-tenth crème de cassis to nine-tenths dry white wine. The result: crisp and sparkling, yet graceful and restrained. The implied presence of the round, ripe, glossy blackcurrant is far more effective than any crass surfeit of the fruit. (Got that, Thierry Mugler?)

Works of art perform many useful services for mankind, the greatest of which may be to liberate our emotions. Rare may be the perfume that accomplishes this feat; once encountered, it forces a shift in belief. I might have held PI at a skeptical distance if I had not experienced it for myself. Now, like one who has met the Buddha on the roadside, I understand why such great lengths have been traveled to present this fragrance to the world. It is precious. It is powerful. It goes beyond mere perfumery and enters the realm of the numen, the mana, the eudaimon. It's the tiny 'YES' which Yoko Ono pasted to the ceiling and which John Lennon climbed a tall ladder to see. That 'YES' changed his life. This one might change mine.

Scent Elements: Tangerine blossom, cassis, neroli bigarade, magnolia, rose wardia, jasmine, mimosa, amber, vetiver, white musk, and a mystery substance known as "parmenthia" about which I have been unable to find any information whatsoever. (Being an Avatar fan, I like to think parmenthia only grows on Pandora, and is the "active ingredient" that fills this perfume with Eywa.)

Eau Flirt (Harvey Prince)

The other night at ye olde reference desk, a coworker and I got to chatting about perfume. She told me she'd recently purchased a fragrance rumored to "do the flirting for you". This novel claim appeared in a Cosmopolitan review which cited "scientific proof" of the perfume's ability to sexually attract males. Being young, hip, and adventurous, my colleague decided to give this wonder juice a whirl, reckoning that even if it failed to deliver on the menfolk, its scent elements (pumpkin and lavender, yum!) justified the risk.

"So how did it smell?" I asked.

"Like butt."

"Like what?!"

"BUTT. Seriously, I'm not exaggerating-- it smelled like someone's rear end!"

"I wonder if it contains civet," I mused. "What did you say is the name of this stuff?"

"Something-Something Flirt."

Curiosity piqued, I did what I always do when I hear about a new perfume: I got to Googling. I learned that this potion's full name is Eau Flirt, and that it was created by the same outfit responsible for Ageless Fantasy, a so-called miracle "age-defying" fragrance that's supposed to shave precisely eight years off a woman's age. (Please let me know if you've tried this "bestseller"-- because I don't know a single person who has, or at least who is willing to admit it.)

Anyway, through exhaustive research and clinical trials, the creators of Eau Flirt determined that the scent which most aroused male passion was a blend of lavender and pumpkin pie (though in my husband's opinion, bacon also has its charms). The road to discovery included the administration of penile cuff tests to a pool of thirty-one volunteers (ages 18-64) culled from among the listeners of classic-rock radio stations-- which struck me as an altogether sad way to arrive at any women's perfume.

Next, I went looking for reviews. And if things didn't already seem a little off -- excuse me, did you say penile cuffs? -- here's where they really went askew. When I research a perfume online, I'm accustomed to seeing certain websites, forums, or individual blogs pop up. But for Eau Flirt, all I found was a bunch of sites I'd never seen before, authored by an army of "just plain moms" with prolific (and nearly-identical) writing hobbies. Each of these women had been magically invited to review Eau Flirt by its maker, who magnanimously supplied free samples to give away to lucky readers, who unanimously proclaimed Eau Flirt the Single Greatest Perfume They Had Ever Experienced. Envision a bunch of people desperate for grocery and gas money calling the phone number on those "Earn $1000 A Week From Home!" flyers taped to telephone poles, then finding themselves compelled to carpet the internet with stealth-marketing astroturf for Eau Flirt. That's about where things stood.

The deeper I dug for citations, the thinner and thinner the pickings. For the most part, I found product announcements devoid of editorial opinion and most likely copied-and-pasted from a corporate press kit. At least Cosmopolitan actually assigned real live staffers to the case, but it was difficult to take their rave review at face value. The perfume forums offered little further elucidation. With every passing minute, Eau Flirt was starting to smell more and more like good old-fashioned snake oil.

Everything else aside, the Eau Flirt enigma really boils down to whether it a) smells good, and b) works as advertised.

Does it smell good?

I've smelled better. I've also smelled worse.

Eau Flirt opens with a fresh sap note, intense and fleeting, like the fabled "green flash" that occurs on the horizon at the moment of sunrise (a hue also suggested by the new-leaf color of the perfume). Close behind follows an odd accord juxtaposing a delicate green-tea note against a sweaty, burly, big-shouldered musk, the olfactory equivalent of a muscular lumberjack wearing a darling little chiffon number to dinner. All this dries down to a cloying, indolic, chocolate-powder smell that seems to get stronger the longer it stays on your skin. Neither my colleague nor I (nor a third coworker we pulled in as an experimental control) detected even a particle of pumpkin or lavender. But all three of us agreed that Eau Flirt smells like ass. Which might be your idea of heaven, if you're 64 and still listening to classic rock radio.

Does it work as advertised?

No. When I held my wrist under my husband's nose, he jerked his head away. I asked him to honestly describe what he smelled.

"Cheap candy."

What kind of cheap candy?

"Bad chocolate and those hard-candy necklaces little girls like."

What sort of woman could he envision wearing Eau Flirt?

"The type who trowels on way too much makeup just to go to the mall."

Did Eau Flirt make him want to do the nasty?

He didn't answer, due to a sudden, piercing headache.

I asked my colleague whether or not Eau Flirt delivered men to her doorstep as promised. No, she replied-- but it had stirred up so much hilarity and debate amongst her female friends that it ultimately paid for itself. So there you have it: Eau Flirt is a great conversation starter for you and your gal pals. Buy one for fun and share it amongst you; no real need for more. Wear it while you flex your intellect and hone your conversational skills. For attracting men, there are no surer bets.

Scent Elements: According to the website, EF contains notes of pumpkin, cassis, raspberry, plum, apple, black licorice, jasmine, ylang-ylang, "creamy florals", amber, sandalwood, vanilla, and musk. The official FAQ adds lavender, mango, orange, "ozone/melon" (calone?), lemon, lime, pear, cinnamon, gardenia, and freesia to this list, while the fact sheet throws in nutmeg and "rare woods"-- all totalling up to one hot mess.

Sel Marin (Heeley)

Memorial Day is close upon us, bringing waves of tourists from all over the world to the Jersey Shore. The season interjects such a range of obstacles, conflicts, and indignities into beachgoing that many of us residents never go near the ocean all summer long. To stew in bumper-to-bumper traffic, battle for a parking space miles from sight of the water, lug heavy beach gear for blocks to the crowded beach entrance, fork over five bucks to a sullen teenager in exchange for a one-day-only beach badge, then roast in the sun while drunk'n'disorderly twentysomethings from "up north" play out their Beachtowel Named Desire dramas at maximum speed and volume as far as the eye can see.... thanks, but I'll just wait until after Labor Day.

What if we could have the beach in a bottle instead? Silly question-- we'd rather have the real thing, preferably all to ourselves, with no other soul in sight except the seagulls. But if a virtual beach is better than no beach at all, James Heeley's Sel Marin makes a convenient substitute for land-locked shoredwellers.

The hologram is a little wobbly and thin in places, but all the requisite elements of a beach experience are here. Lemon and bergamot provide your daily RDA of sunlight, while salt and vetiver contribute a natural ozonic shimmer that veers close enough to sea air to evoke a pleasurable startle response. For interest and surprise, a touch of birch essence wedded to a low-key cedar drydown proves reminiscent of a clean wooden boardwalk (sorry, Seaside Heights).

But what really makes Sel Marin special is the algae. That's right: the slimy green stuff. More than sand, salt, or (god help us) low tide, algae lends the touch of biological reality that defines the littoral bouquet. Heeley's inclusion of algae extract in this composition is at once novel, logical, and appealing, transforming what could have been a run-of-the-mill seashore cliche into a feat of parfum vérité.

This natural approach is a departure from the usual "fresh marine" genre, which largely depends on calone for its oceanic effects. Calone is a fearsomely powerful synthetic which broadcasts a cool, silvery aquatic accord for light years around. It's utterly linear, deathlessly persistent, and pitched at a frequency capable of making dogs howl. I generally go out of my way to avoid it, both in the bottle and on other people-- so when I heard that Sel Marin achieved organic salinity with no calone, I jumped for joy.

Unfortunately, I was not airborne for long... and neither was Sel Marin. What it gained in authenticity by eschewing a chemical boost, it lost in radiance-- dying down to a dim mumble after only ten minutes.

Here, I find, is where Sel Marin most faithfully parallels reality. I know firsthand how it is to live "at the shore" yet never see the beach, to fill my lungs every day with salubrious salt air but never be able to get close to its source. Sel Marin is a true-to-life breath of wind from a salty emerald sea-- experienced as a sadly diminished allusion from far, far inland. Whatever beach Heeley modeled it on must be paradise-- I simply can't see it from where I live.

I understand what Sel Marin is reaching for, and what it comes just short of achieving. Initially I felt that it might trump L'Eau Serge Lutens in the "fresh" department, but actually, it's the other way around. Calone may make me wince, but I almost found myself wishing for a drop -- just a drop -- to fill in the missing puzzle piece.

The good news is that Sel Marin's seaweed-and-salt accord has a curious 'Iceland spar' effect on other perfumes, whereby it refracts and magnifies scents layered underneath to double their impact. I tried it with a touch of Etro's Vicolo Fiori, and boy, did those flowers pop! A pairing with the aforementioned L'Eau Serge Lutens also produced some interesting ripples. I'm planning on layering it with just the barest trace of Hugo Boss Pure to see if its sweet music is enough to tame that savage beast.

And if it fails? At the very least, I'll still end up with a fragrance that sends the tourists packing... and clears the beach just for me.

Scent Elements: Lemon, bergamot, sea salt, algae, vetiver, birch, cedar

Joy (Jean Patou)

Believing firmly that more equals merrier, I recently invited my friend KV to join me in a decant spree. She pored over the Perfumed Court website in search of a likely first-time scent adventure, finding one in the "Old Hollywood" sampler-- three perfumes of your choice, each linked to a famous big-screen glamour girl. Among KV's selections: Jean Patou's masterwork Joy, the favored perfume of Vivian Leigh and Olivia de Havilland.

Created in 1930 by Henri Alméras, Joy condensed twenty-eight dozen roses and over ten thousand individual jasmine blossoms into every golden ounce of parfum. In its day, there was no perfume in the world more expensive to produce, and while costlier (and more conspicuous) fragrances have since arisen, few remain so indelibly linked to the mythos of luxury.

According to PerfumeShrine's list "Stars and Scents: What Famous People Chose", Joy has been cherished by Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Josephine Baker, Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren, Elsa Maxwell, Jacqueline Onassis, Joan Rivers, Julia Roberts, and no less a personage than Queen Elizabeth II. (Anjelica Huston? Not so much. "Joy never did it for me," she remarked in a a recent New York Times Magazine article. Her preference: Jean Patou's 1000-- "Mille", as she properly and affectionately calls it).

Stoked by these tales of Joy's glamorous history, KV and I waited breathlessly for our package to arrive. And when it did, you could tell for miles around.

Now, I've had perfume samples leak before -- notably Muscs Koublaï Khän -- but never have I experienced such a stab of uncontrollable panic as when I thought that KV's Joy had burst open in transit. Its appearance in my mailbox was accompanied by a fanfare of jasmine-- immediate, unmistakable, and thoroughly discomfiting. A frantic examination showed no sign of breakage or seepage; simply put, Joy would not be contained-- not by the most tightly-sealed vial, not by the most careful packaging. I should have heaved a sigh of relief and enjoyed the free olfactory sample. Instead, my terror took at least a half an hour to shake, as I kept checking and rechecking for signs of a leak. Later that day, when I handed the vial of Joy over to a delighted KV, I felt as relieved as if I'd managed to pass off a bottle of pure nitroglycerine.

Why all the fuss? Once again, fragrance had unlocked the warehouse of memory and pulled a long-forgotten incident into the light. I will tell it to you as I told it to KV, and hope this puts it to rest.

In my essay about Ralph Lauren's Polo, I wrote about my uncle's family and the ambivalent memories I retain of them. One such cringe-worthy memory involves the bottle of Joy De Luxe Pure Parfum my aunt kept on her bedroom dresser. I can't say whether it was the sparkly, cut-crystal bottle or its mysterious contents that drove my five-year-old brother to investigate; all I can tell you is that he knocked it over. A single ounce of the world's rarest extrait -- a fabled field of roses, a veritable jungle's worth of jasmine -- dribbled across the polished wood and spilled onto the carpet, sending hosts of hypnotic scent-tendrils spiraling in all directions. The disaster smelled heavenly and brought all the adults running. (It also stripped the finish clean off the dresser -- which says much about the strength of ten thousand jasmine blossoms.)

Paralyzed by terror, my mother stood trembling in the hallway. How could she afford to replace it? Not the dresser, not the carpet-- the Joy! Three hundred dollars! Who (besides my uncle) had three hundred dollars to throw away on a single ounce of perfume? She -- who bought her Jean Naté off the shelf at McCrory's -- burst into horrified tears.

My aunt reacted with an unperturbable grace indicative of the natural aristocracy of her spirit. She shrugged, embraced my mother warmly, told her that wouldn't hear of us replacing what had been lost. Artie will just have to buy me more for my birthday, she said with a sly grin. Doesn't it smell wonderful? Now I can enjoy it all the time.

She wasn't kidding. For years, one could stand in the doorway to her bedroom and smell the ghost of Joy. And thirty years later -- even though my brother had knocked it over, not I -- the merest hint of this scent clinging to the outside of a sample bottle was enough to trigger an irrational feeling of culpability in me, as if I had committed some unknown, unseen trespass.

I recently expressed my unease with jasmine to a friend, confessing that in the past I have summarily rejected perfumes that listed "jasmine absolute" as an ingredient without even giving them a try. I've characterized the scent of this innocuous white flower as "cloying", "syrupy", "overbearing", even "raunchy"-- all to justify a baseless aversion which, if truth be told, is nonexistent. Because I love the scent of jasmine. I really, really do. That this love comes mingled with shame and mortification has not diminished it. No-- on the contrary; it's made it more powerful, almost to the level of a superstition. I believe it all stems from that spilled bottle of Joy when I was a child. Could it be that a three-decade-old family embarrassment has prejudiced me against an entire botanical genus? Will I ever be able to let go of my fear of this flower?

Putting all talk of childhood olfactory trauma aside, I will say now -- as I probably said then -- that Joy is gorgeous. It's the perfect marriage of heaven and earth, animal and floral, light-hearted optimism and down-dirty sensuality. I can see why someone would bankrupt themselves for one tiny ounce.

Most perfume notes conform to a simple pyramid structure: top, heart, base. Joy, on the other hand, employs a clever fulcrum-and-lever system to launch a jasmine note as big and dense as a planet into space. The tools needed to lift such an object must be formidable in their own right-- and so they are. Ylang-ylang, tuberose, and civet form a sturdy indolic base, while the lever -- forged out of a peppery-sweet rose otto -- fits exquisitely into an orris-root fulcrum.

And the elbow grease? An unusual green note attributed to the calyx-- that leafy structure which encloses the unopened flower bud and cups the full-blown blossom at its base. Its crisp, vegetal astringency gives the whole equation a strongman's boost, effortlessly launching that jasmine giant into the air as if it weighed no more than a beach ball. As it rises, you finally notice the sparkle of aldehydes in its wake-- the factor I believe most responsible for the "joy" in this equation.

The only useless reminiscences are those that spoil our forward view. Perhaps one day I will learn to love Joy unalloyed by the burdens of the past. It asks no more of me, and offers no less in return than the gift of beauty, which possesses the power to right every wrong, even in retrospect.

Scent Elements: Rose de Mai, jasmine, ylang-ylang, calyx, peach, orchid, tuberose, lily-of-the-valley, civet, orris, sandalwood, musk, aldehydes

1828: Jules Verne (Histoires de Parfums)

The tallship has just crossed the equator. A junior sailor, newly initiated into the Court of Neptune, descends into the cargo hold. His line-crossing ceremony took place only this morning; his skin is still salty from repeated baptismal drenchings with ocean water. Just for tonight -- as officers and crew celebrate with glasses of port and tankards of rum in their respective mess halls -- he has the run of the place and can go where he likes.

Here is where he likes to go.

In the darkness below deck loom crates of lemons, limes, and oranges, barrels of rum and
aqua vitae, bundles of Virginia tobacco, and cedar caskets full of spices. The wood -- already fragrant on its own accord -- has been permeated by the scent of nutmeg and black pepper, producing a wholly new and curious fragrance which lifts the sailor's heart.

His apprenticeship before the mast has been toilsome and often doubtful. Years from now, skin calloused by work, heart hardened by defeat and sorrow, he may well become as jaded as the toothless, wizened old-timers who barked in laughter at his initiation. But tonight, he belongs to this ship, and it belongs to him. Everything about it -- its crew and cargo, the wide sea upon which it sails -- is beautiful.

Curled up in a coil of rope in the full-laden hold, at peace with life's vagaries, he closes his eyes. It comes to him, seconds before sleep descends, that he has never known pure happiness until now.

Let the wind and waves rise...

5STARS Small

Perfume, like any art form, is a form of storytelling. Every vial of fragrance contains layers upon layers of narrative to be guessed at by the wearer. Sometimes the perfumer's brief provides clues to the plot; other times, it's left to the imagination to interpret all.

1828 is dedicated to the French author Jules Verne, whose fascination with technology and mechanical innovation paved the way for modern science fiction writers such as Philip K. Dick and William Gibson, and has been a primary influence on the steampunk movement. Transportation is a particular fetish of Verne's; submarines (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), transatlantic steamships and cross-continental trains (Around the World in 80 Days), cannon-propelled spaceships (From the Earth to the Moon), and lighter-than-air craft (The Mysterious Island) all symbolize the quickened pace and boundary-breaking spirit of 19th century life.

Oddly, the perfume named in Jules Verne's honor is neither sleek, fast, nor futuristic. Rather, it is a nostalgia piece, an evocation of an era predating that of the great author: the age of tallships, of Horatio Lord Nelson and the Napoleonic Wars.

Up until 1810, Myristica fragrans -- the tree from which nutmeg and its sister spice mace are derived -- grew nowhere else on earth but Banda, a tiny volcanic island chain east of Indonesia. For nearly 200 years, the Dutch occupied Banda, maintaining a complete monopoly of the nutmeg trade worldwide. But once the British Royal Navy managed to wrest control of the island from the Netherlands, transplanted nutmeg trees began to dot the globe.

To the modern-day nose, the scent of nutmeg still evokes quaint colonial comforts. It's a resolutely anachronistic smell -- and although it would seem to have little to do with the ocean, a nutmeg accord properly embedded in a marine composition will "read" like a Patrick O'Brian Aubrey/Maturin novel.

But where is Jules Verne's place in all this? It's in the clockworks, the gears, the mechanical accoutrements that set 1828 to humming. The trick that this perfume pulls off -- superbly -- is to place a wonderful piece of old-timey scrimshaw in a spare, minimalist, and thoroughly modern setting so that one can no longer tell what century (the 18th? the 26th?) it hails from.

A breezy citrus top note greets the nose first, paired with the smallest touch of eucalyptus to make it fly. A strong middle section of straightforward wood notes lulls you into thinking that perhaps the liveliest moments are over, but at last a radiant nutmeg accord sets in-- rich, cool, weighty, and smooth. This is a scent both Horatio Hornblower and Captain Nemo could wear. (Heck, throw in Morpheus from The Matrix while you're at it. What is the Nebuchadnezzar, anyway, except a supermodern Nautilus adrift in dystopia?)

When a perfume has the power to set all sorts of mental plotlines into motion, you might as well make yourself the hero: steely-eyed, soft-hearted, and guaranteed a new adventure at every latitude.

First, though, you must hear the call of the wind. I heard it for myself in a review written by Suzanne of Eiderdown Press. When I speak of perfume being the province of the storyteller, I refer to Suzanne-- a diva assoluta of the English language and a Scheherezade of perfume. Her lyrical and sensitive essays skillfully plait together life memories, personal impressions, and some of the most luscious fragrance descriptions you will ever lay eyes on. Every visit to her perfume journal inspires me to persist with mine. Check it out and discover what Suzanne and Jules Verne inspire for you.

Scent Elements: Grapefruit, citrus, mandarin, eucalyptus, pepper, nutmeg, cedar, incense, vetiver, pine

Sables (Annick Goutal)

Recently, I engaged in a happy email debate with an online friend by the nom de parfum of Montmorency. (Look up her insightful and funny reviews on Basenotes sometime-- you'll wish, as I did, that you'd met her sooner.) Our burning question: What perfumes did Edith Wharton wear?

Having read of Wharton’s sojourns in Northern Africa, I proposed a spicy attar purchased as a memento of the Tunisian souks. In contrast, Montmorency suggested “a sparkling cologne with the hot herbs of the garrigue... something, in any case, that would sort with her outwardly brittle and aspersive manner and severe prose style; with the wish for fresh water in the cut flowers each day in order to have the bubbles clinging to the stems…” With this gorgeous image in mind, I conceded that the author of Italian Villas and Their Gardens would have more likely leaned towards florals-- and would have exhibited a fierce and exacting discernment in her choice.

As for Wharton's fictional characters, we opted not to limit ourselves to era-specific perfumes. For Undine Spragg (Custom of the Country’s aspirational butterfly), Montmorency recommended the very virile Tabac Blond or any contemporary pairing of “icky girly candy-floss and man-eating chypre”-- most likely blazoned with Paris Hilton’s name. She went on to say:
…not only would (Undine) have… preferred the celebrity brand to the actual scent, but would herself have BEEN one of those celebrities… perhaps her fragrance would have been marketed as 'Quinze Minuits', to signify the evanescent and meaningless Town Topics fame for which she is so eager. She might even have been Warhol's muse in a different decade…
Interesting food for thought. Undoubtedly, she and Warhol would have been helpless in the face of each other's gravitational pull. (And I, for one, would pay good money to witness the first meeting between Undine and Ondine-- catfight!)

Like most after-the-fact Factory fans, I regard the magnificently doomed Edie Sedgwick as the fifteen-minute Idol Supreme of that time. But Edie turned out more along the lines of Lily Bart-- a tragic heroine bred to be rich and ornamental, but condemned to failure by the total absence of real-life coping skills. Undine Spragg would be too clever to fall into one of Edie's bottomless pits. I envision her as more the Angela Bowie type-- shrewd, opportunistic, perennially on the make. I briefly considered Jicky for her, but something tells me she’d be flat-out furious to be stuck with a fragrance that “everyone wore”. (Would Clive Christian’s No. 1 suffice? It’s got a real live diamond on the bottle!)

Arriving at Ellen Olenska, the game grew more serious—quite in keeping with its subject. Montmorency wrote:
Did she (Olenska) remain in essence a nice Old New York girl and continue to wear something freshly innocent and of the New World (Newland associates her with a bronze-yellow rose, so perhaps something in that line); or did she go over to the dark side when she began to consort with her count and his raffish mittel-europa set?
My reply:
Ellen…would definitely have been influenced by her husband’s set… but she may have given such things up when she fled back to the safety & predictability of New York society. Perhaps a Turkish rose attar would be her sole souvenir of the old life—and might have subconsciously prompted Newland’s gift of yellow roses.
However, my first thought for the Countess' signature scent (and my last, since it continues to linger) was of immortelle-- helichrysum, or “everlasting flower”. Warm, caramelized, vaguely melancholy-- ideal for a woman who survived the fire and has the aching heart to prove it.

I've read any number of reviews comparing the scent of immortelle to maple syrup. (Which grade? Dark amber? Grade C Non-Commercial?) Some liken it to fenugreek seeds-- which, coincidentally, are used in the production of artificial maple flavoring. (The mysterious pancake-breakfast smell that wafted occasionally over Manhattan several years ago was eventually traced to a fenugreek processing plant in North Jersey). Add to this a powdery, ground-spice quality which evokes dried blossoms on long, silvery stems, collecting a century's worth of dust before their fragrance fades to nothing.

Above all, immortelle exudes the smell of burnt sugar-- smoky, unsettling, and inedible. If you heat simple syrup past the moment of caramelization, it turns black and tarry in the pan. At that point, you will find that there is no sweetness left in the sugar at all. It is bitter as hell and (when cool) brittle enough to cut your tongue, with an odor at once venomous and addictive.

Which brings me to Sables by Annick Goutal. I have been given to understand that Goutal formulated Sables as a tribute to her husband, but its combination of tenacity and delicacy perfectly suits Countess Olenska, a woman both prized and excoriated for the virile independence of her nature.

Sables has an antique quality to it, like a piece of amber crushed velvet taken from a costume of the Belle Epoque-- something which sits softly on the skin and reminds you of its presence only in whispers. However, all that softness and luxury hides one mother of a backbone. Those looking for dessert in a spray bottle must look elsewhere: Sables is a resolutely bitter scent with no ameliorating sweetness, unadorned by peripheral notes that might detract from its charred majesty. Less is more: Annick Goutal did well to let immortelle stand on its own.

A word must also be said for Sables' staying power. Rarely will one find a perfume with such welcome tenacity. (Usually, it's the ones that make your gorge rise or your eyes water that refuse to go away.) Sables exhibits amazing persistence, lasting all throughout the day (or night) with no need for second applications. And yet, at no time does its scent become boring or tedious. Honestly, I could wear this every day for the rest of my life and never, ever tire of it.

Scent Elements: Immortelle, cinnamon, Mysore sandalwood, Indonesian and Madagascar pepper, smoked tea, amber