Comme des Garçons Incense Week / Day Three: Zagorsk

Today, the oppressive heat which has been plaguing the Midatlantic states finally broke. We all awoke to find ourselves gifted with a cool and cloudless morning awash with sun and Nature's sympathy. In retrospect, I find today's Incense fit the general theme of respite to a T.

Zagorsk opens with a frank, fresh, true-to-life birch-bud note bookended on either side by green cypress and fruity cayenne. In the heat of summer, it's as crisp and energizing as a lash from a vihta, the ritual bundle of water-dipped birch boughs with which Finnish sauna-goers lightly flog themselves to achieve health and purity. I found it invigorating from the get-go.

It doesn't last long after that first startling moment; there's a flicker of lemony frankincense, but (despite the cayenne) not enough heat to melt it. Still, it's an interesting essay: incense unburnt; an ancient cedar box full of loose and dusty nuggets of pale yellow resin. I have held such riches heaped in the palm of my hand, breathed in its placid scent, and been reminded of its unreleased potential...

Despite its lack of staying power, Zagorsk still intrigued me more than than Ouarzazate. What good is persistence, however impressive, if all one has to voice is a platitude repeated a thousand times before? Zagorsk may be a monosyllable, but it at least it is a highly original one.

I'm listening, Evelyne Boulanger. With Jaisalmer still awaiting, I want to hear more of your voice.

Scent Elements: Birch, pine, frankincense, cayenne, violet, cedar, iris, cypress

Comme des Garçons Incense Week / Day Two: Ouarzazate

Every day's a gamble, isn't it? You win some, you lose some. This morning I decided to randomly choose my next Incense, not knowing what I was going to get....

As soon as I applied Ouarzazate and stood within its aura, I felt... disappointed. That a perfume which takes its inspiration from the land of harissa, za'atar and ras al hanout should smell so humdrum surprised me. Its accord of nutmeg, musk, and black pepper has appeared before in other perfumes, with much the same results. It's pleasant, likeable, and thoroughly clichéed. Pair it with the right auxiliary elements, and it redeems itself in spades. But perhaps perfumer Mark Buxton found himself so disinterested in Ouarzazate that he abandoned it right at the starting line. There it still stands, alone and exposed. Such neglect, believe me, is not salutary.

It's been on my skin now for two hours, and I feel bored to sobs. It's like watching an ensemble cast reunite for their twelfth blockbuster movie. However comforted I might feel by all those trusty familiar faces on the screen, I can't help but notice recycled dialogue, old gags, and a plot line depressingly similar to that of the last film, and the one before that, and the one before that....

What could have been done differently? Oh, so many things. The nutmeg-musk-peppercorn trifecta could have been introduced to some new and startling playmates-- hyssop, spikenard, honey, fenugreek, just to name a few. But no. Clearly no one had been feeling adventurous the day this perfume was created. Its fruity, almost citric peppercorn tries hard to be perky, and the dry, lemony bite of clary sage lends a pale bit interest, and then... whatever.

There's no courage here, no innovation, no daring. The least -- and the most -- I can say is that Ouarzazate smells nice. But nice just isn't enough.

Scent Elements: Clary sage, black pepper, nutmeg, musk, vanilla, labdanum, incense, woods

Comme des Garçons Incense Week / Day One: Avignon

With a busy week stretching between now and the holiday, I've recognized that I'll have precious little time to do much blogging. But since I MAKE time every morning to choose a perfume for the day, it seems reasonable to take a moment more and devote a paragraph (or two) to that essential daily decision.

Having just received samples of Comme des Garçons' Incense Series, I find the decision's practically been made for me. As I wend my way through the week, I'll be discovering -- and writing about -- this fragrant quintet in "real time". Enjoy!

I made Avignon my first choice strictly out of curiosity. As one-third part of the fabled self-blended concoction Sarah Jessica Parker whips up for her own particular use, it's described by Chandler Burr as "smoky, heavy, dark, perverse, slightly brutal" (The Perfect Scent, pg. 80). With those sort of adjectives, I expected to be smote senseless like Paul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus the minute I opened the vial.

Luckily for me, Avignon is a merciful and forgiving angel rather than a force majeure. Instead of wrestling me into submission, it won me over with its impeccable crispness and quiet, meditative character.

If you've ever spent time in an enclosed space with a salver of burning frankincense, you know how overwhelming it can be. The trick Bertrand Duchaufour plays in Avignon is to open up a vast virtual space -- an invisible cathedral, reaching as high as heaven -- into which to release those towering clouds of smoke. The result is an extraordinarily dry, expansive perfume that lifts from the skin as light as feathersdown. Austere, silvery, majestic, and bright, it's the truest church frankincense I have ever smelled outside of my home parish. And just like the sacred incense that inspired it, I find Avignon greatly calming and conducive to deep thought.

Should I wear Kyoto tomorrow to enjoy the merits of another Duchaufour, or should I choose at random? With the Incense series off to such a wonderful start, I trust that whatever I pick will be an eye-opener!

Scent Elements: Frankincense, myrrh, vanilla, Roman chamomile, patchouli, rosewood, ambrette

Anné Pliska (Anné Pliska)

Historically, the definition of "woman" has undergone so many tweaks, tuneups, and makeovers, I'm surprised the dictionary entry doesn't run to three pages. Virgin, whore, maid, mother, crone, diva, devil-girl, cougar-- the litany goes on and on.

Today, I'm thinking about the Sweet Pea. The Sweet Pea is a young woman who rejects adulthood by adopting the appearance and mannerisms of a little girl. Adorably clad in shapeless jumper-dresses or the odd vintage frock, beguiling us with wide, innocent eyes, she conceals herself behind an infantile aesthetic in order to ward off both responsibility and conflict. I'm harmless, her behavior assures us. I won't get in your way. Even her voice -- breathless, halting -- is too cute to be believed.

The Sweet Pea is nothing new-- in a way, she's always been in fashion. During my lifetime, Mary Quant and Biba juvenilized her in minis and bib dresses, while during the '80's, designers sent her back to kindergarten in saggy-assed cotton jumpsuits and Jellies. For a brief moment during the '90's, Courtney Love threatened to turn her into a Babydoll-From-Hell, but during the last decade, she reasserted herself (if it could be called that) in the form of "quirky girls" like Zoey Deschanel in nearly every movie she's ever been in.

To sustain the axiom that honey attracts more flies than vinegar, this year's crop of Sweet Peas require equally sweet fragrances. Today's market is flooded with princess perfumes that smell candy-coated, syrup-soaked and smothered with buttercream frosting. There is nothing sophisticated or mature in this trend. In a manner of speaking, it's no country for old women.

I know, I know... I'm supposed to be 'young at heart', or indulge my 'inner child', or somesuch. But as long as admitting to age is not admitting to defeat, I'll say it straight: I'm no kid. I have no stomach for all this sugar.

It's sad to think that Anné Pliska might be responsible in part for today's candy tidal wave. Horrors like Gucci's Flora (which uses the same orange-candy accord, then unloads a dump truck full of extra sugar on top) had to get their inspiration from somewhere. But part of me believes that the sins of the daughters shouldn't be visited on the mother... and at least Anné Pliska wasn't the first fruity floral. That would be one hell of a legacy to live down.

Launched in 1987 -- the year I turned eighteen and entered this fragrance's target audience -- Anné Pliska is a very conventional vanilla amber with a huge orange Kool-Aid heart. I don't spend enough time around children to claim total familiarity with their tastes. But I was a child once, and I can state with confidence that orange flavoring in anything -- soda, candy, cereal, ice cream, popsicles, juice drinks, gum -- tends to go over like gangbusters with the pre-adolescent set.

Anné Pliska's orange note is nothing found in nature. It's not the fruit; it's not the juice; it's neither the peel nor the flower. It's a plateful of orange jelly candies, the kind that come encrusted in a sparkling layer of sugar. Artificially-flavored though they may be, they taste wildly optimistic at any age-- but never more so when you're eight or nine and haven't yet endured the dentist's drill. To combine this note with amber may not be a first, but provided you pull it off, it's no crime to be unoriginal.

Anné Pliska is a pleasant, inoffensive fragrance for girls of all ages. It's undoubtedly an oriental, but its Orient is the local theme park version -- a set piece of gauze and sequins, with a sunset crudely painted in big, enthusiastic swathes of color. While it gives most headshop ambers a run for their money, it's modest enough not to cross the finish line too far in front of the pack. It's good, but not brilliant-- nothing wrong with that. And yes, it's kid stuff. But isn't kid stuff happy and uncomplicated?

If I could, I'd wrap this scent up in ribbons and present it to all the little girls I know. I think it may satisfy their present Sweet Pea cravings while contributing to good choices later in life. If they can figure out for themselves the difference between a humble, well-crafted fragrance like this and the bottled liquid glucose Vera Wang and Juicy Couture pass off as perfume, that abstract entity known as quality might take root in their lives.

Of course, when they're grown, they'll look back on Anné Pliska with fond forbearance and scoff, "Oh, that? When I was that age, I suppose I liked it..." But the truth, I believe, will be found in the fragrance they're wearing while they say it.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, amber, patchouli, geranium, musk, vanilla

Anice (Etro)

If I were to write a language of spices in the same manner as a Victorian flower dictionary, licorice, anise, and fennel would all signify "mother". These being three of my own mother's favorite flavors, I grew up surrounded by evidence of her cravings.

Mom grew anise and fennel in her garden, both for their seed umbels and for their cool, juicy bulbs, which appeared on the dinner table sliced raw in salads and sauteed over pasta. As for licorice, she kept boxes of Pearsons Licorice Nips stashed in every conceivable drawer and cabinet, compulsively buying new boxes each time she hit the grocery store. When Nestle absorbed the Pearsons brand and discontinued the licorice flavor, she was devastated -- but had at least a year's worth of Nips squirreled away for consolation.

Personally, as a child I detested the taste of licorice candy. Nips, Allsorts, Good'n'Plenties, Callard & Bowsers-- all were lost on me. I preferred to get my fix straight from my mother's spice rack, from which I shamelessly kyped pinches of fennel and aniseed to eat on the sly. In later years, this habit found a less secretive outlet in mukhwas, the sugar-coated mixed-seed candy central to my appreciation of Punjabi cuisine.

What I never denied was my love of the scent of licorice, anise, and fennel. On one occasion, this love went too far.

In my callow early twenties, before I had properly absorbed the science of botanical chemistry, I thought it would be a swell idea to scent my bathwater with some pure aniseed essence. I imagined myself drifting to heaven on clouds of anise-scented bubbles... I almost went airborne, all right. Within thirty seconds of submerging, my entire body felt as though I had doused it with kerosene and set it alight. I rocketed out of that bathwater so fast I took half of it with me. A horrified glance south confirmed that every inch of me below the breastbone was on fire with contact dermatitis. I sprinted to the kitchen to grab a gallon of milk from the refrigerator, then returned to the bathroom where I stood weeping in the now-empty tub, pouring cold milk over my scarlet self.

For the next two decades, I scrupulously avoided aniseed oil in all cosmetic forms. Instead, I contented myself with its culinary incarnations-- anise biscotti at the coffee shop; springerle covered in rainbow nonpareils at Christmastime; ouzo, pastis, and Sambuca. (I never drink anisette, owing to its reputation as a "spirit for spirits". For many years, I always kept a glass of anisette on my home altar in tribute to whatever entities might stray past.)

When my forays into the world of fragrance became more serious, I knew I might encounter licorice in my travels, since it's a mainstay of the aromatic fougere genre. I knew, too, that I would encounter perfumes described as "anisic"-- but there is a difference between "anisic" (an adjective indicating a particular olfactory effect) and "made with anise". To be honest, simply on account of the acknowledged irritant factor -- my trusty Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential Oils identifies the culprit as anethole -- I never expected to run across actual anise in a perfume, ever.

Was I wrong! In my library/wishlist alone, there's 1725 Casanova (Histoires de Parfums), Aimez-Moi (Caron), Anisia Bella and Après L'Ondée (Guerlain), Douce Amère (Serge Lutens), Drôle de Rose (L'Artisan Parfumeur), the great L'Heure Bleue (Guerlain), Le Troisème Homme (Caron), and Tea for Two (L'Artisan Parfumeur). And then there's Anice, an elegant fragrance by Etro, available in all concentrations from parfum to eau de toilette. I own the latter and find the idea of seeking out higher concentrations worthwhile, for this is a very fine scent.

Anice is exactly as advertised: anise pure and simple, with a touch of musk to anchor and extend what is naturally a volatile and evaporative essence. Like a classic Hollywood couple who captures the world's imagination with their decades-long romance, anise and musk happen to be one of those "meant-to-be" matches that make so much sense once you smell them together that afterward it's hard to imagine them apart. They turned in some quiet work in Casanova 1725, but in Anice, they yank that sense of scholarly mystery out into the sunlight and slap some color into its pale cheeks.

But let's distribute the credit a bit: Anice owes the sum of its effect to a skillful arrangement of many and varied parts. I enjoy the caraway and dill seed notes (the latter being exempt from my proclamation about dill in perfumes, which I only meant to apply to the foliage). I also admire the warm and dusty rasped-rosewood heart. Iris performs its duties shyly but well, as usual, and the vanilla used here does not try to insert itself between you and the object of your infatuation: that stunning anise, which leaves bare skin smelling as if one has been dried by the sun and wind after a dip in the salty ocean.

The drawbacks? In Anice, I detect a hint of inflexibility in its optimism, of hardness in its smile. Wearing it, I feel cajoled into cheerfulness, talked into a sense of ease that may or may not be genuine. If I may invoke the spectre of synaesthesia, I'll say that Anice feels like a garment made out of purple-dyed suede. It possesses the buttery, supple softness I expect in suede, only in a color never found in nature, which takes me slightly aback. Its very frivolity reminds me of Columbine in Edna St. Vincent Millay's Aria da Capo, trilling "A macaroon, I cannot LIVE without a macaroon!" She's an odd mixture of charm and hollow artifice; you're entranced by her-- but you wouldn't trust her as far as you could throw her.

Still, so long as the overall effect is pleasing, I am willing to refrain from asking this beauty too many questions. Instead I'd say: Try it. It's fun. What more does anyone need?

Scent Elements: Anise, bergamot, Brazilian rosewood, caraway, iris, jasmine, dill, amber, musk, vanilla

Botrytis (Ginestet)

Serendipity's a funny thing. Sometimes a chance conversation is all it takes to draw two seemingly unrelated elements together and to arrive at an exciting new equation. Case in point: a casual meeting between Christian Delpeuch (director of the Ginestet collective of Bordeaux wine producers) and Gilles Toledano (head of the Parfumeur Société Florescence à Grâce) led to a recognition of the similarities between their two chosen art forms. What better fraternal tribute than a vineyard-inspired fragrance?

Try three of them, each representing a distinct aspect of Bordeaux winemaking: Sauvignonne (Sauvignon blanc), Le Boisé (after the oaken casks in which wine is aged) and Botrytis (Sauternes). The press release for the series includes a charming pair of juxtaposed iconic images-- two women, one breathing in the bouquet of a glass of wine, the other meditatively sniffing a perfume test strip. The captions -- "Wine Taster" and "Perfume Taster" -- speak volumes about the attention to small details each discipline demands.

Botrytis is a honeyed eau de toilette inspired by a very unusual branch of viticulture. It is named after Botrytis cinerea, a powdery grey fungus better known to winemakers as 'noble rot'. Noble rot feeds on the nectar of infected grapes, shriveling them down to raisins which contribute unparalleled sweetness and flavor to wines such as Sauternes and Tokay. (In Latin, Botrytis cinerea means "ashen grapes", an accurate description of the grapes' appearance after they have been reduced to the desired state.)

While it may seem rather eccentric to christen a women's fragrance with the name of an admittedly hideous fungus, it is worth knowing that to the growers of Bordeaux, noble rot is one of nature's most celebrated phenomena-- and one of her most feared. If the weather following an crop infection is too wet, noble rot turns into 'grey rot', which spoils the grape entirely. Conditions must be exactly right for the fungus to merely dessicate the fruit and concentrate its sugars rather than destroy it whole. Overall, botrytization is a risky venture intolerant of failure.

But when the vineyard wins, it wins big.

Intense and liqueured, Ginestet's Botrytis begins with a sweet, fermented grape note reminiscent of a glass of Tokay warmed on a firelit hearth. Over its surface, other notes play-- a wood note to remind one of the cask from which this elixir was drawn, a quince-jam note as sunny as it is syrupy. From top to bottom, this perfume's personality is golden and autumnal. You won't find many shadows here, only a promise of joyful intoxication under a harvest sun.

The raisin note is one that I already love (as in 1740 Marquis de Sade). In Botrytis, it's less burnt and more boozy, reminding me strangely of that brown-sugar raisin sauce that simmered in its own miniature chafing dish on my mother's Easter table. According to Ginestet's free-verse press packet, pain d'epice "whispers sweet nothings" in the heart of this fragrance; luckily, this isn't just a poetic device. It really is here, all ginger-tobacco-allspice, rich but not overbearing. Traces of the liqueur accord continue to wend their way in and out of awareness throughout a soft amber drydown.

While Sauternes is the name of this perfume's game, honey lovers will not be disappointed. In keeping with the liqueur theme, Botrytis incorporates a mead note that, through fermentation, has been liberated from all the queasy, animalic traits of honey-in-the-raw. But that's not to say this honey has been stripped of its power to intoxicate. Authentic Viking mjöð occupies a galaxy apart from the pale Chablis-with-honey-flavoring that most Americans mistake for mead. It is, for lack of any better word, profound -- in color, in flavor, in alcoholic content (one wineglassful of properly aged mjöð can knock you on your ass) and, of course, in bouquet. Rich, lingering, ambrosial, it could be pressed into service as Freyja's personal jus. Not for nothing is mead called the nectar of the gods!

Except for the fearless, Botrytis might prove too heady for the humid summer months. I most look forward to wearing it in the autumn, when the weather is dry and cool and the sun's beams achieve a kinder, gentler slant.... but who knows? I wouldn't be the first person to find courage in a bottle.

Scent Elements: Vanilla, honey, sauternes raisins, quince, white flowers, amber

Portos (Aramis for Estée Lauder)

This is a tale of how a fragrance can lead you toward one conclusion, only to surprise you with what's really in its heart. When the ending turns out to be a decoy, the lesson in the bottle is this: if you think you've got a perfume sussed out, step back. Give it a chance to tell the rest of the story. You won't regret it.

If you've ever stood in a pine forest while the trees release their pollen, you know the meaning of the word spectacular. Here in South Jersey, late May is the time to witness this remarkable phenomenon. All over the Pine Barrens, trees respond to the slightest breeze by opening their anthers and releasing vast plumes of neon yellow dust into the wind. The result (drifts of sticky pollen on every conceivable surface for miles) can be vexatious, particularly for the allergy-prone. But the event itself -- equivalent to a fireworks show held in broad daylight -- is magical, and worth seeing at least once in your life.

A recent sampling of Portos (a vintage fragrance now discontinued from Estee Lauder's Aramis line and kindly sent to me by Carol of WAFT) recreated this marvelous scene exactly for me. All the elements were present: fresh evergreen needles, cedar twigs, saltwater breezes, the sharp, oily scent of fresh raw pollen, the penetrating warmth of the midday sun....

But there was something else here-- an elusive manmade element distinctly out of place in the deep woods. Oleoresinous, faintly industrial, it gave off the high gloss of Knize Ten's plastic-patent-leather note, except cast in a somber rather than cheerful light. But what was it?

Being unable to put my finger on it bothered me. I sprayed, sniffed, pondered, frowned. And then I turned to my most trusted source for second opinions and offered him my Portos-laden arm.

My husband was as stumped as I was. Like me, he sniffed, thought about it, sniffed again, and sighed in frustration. He agreed that the basic jist of Portos was 'evergreen forest'. But when I asked him to guess, just guess, at the identity of the mystery note, he said, "WD-40?"

Obviously that couldn't be it. But if not, then what?

I waited, sprayed again, smelled again, frowned again, closed my eyes....

With the distractions of the surrounding room temporarily blotted out, an image both unexpected and familiar swam into focus. I saw a studio strewn with all the colorful rubble of an artist's life. Coffee cans full of brushes, dented tubes of oil paint scattered across a wooden worktable, rags imbued with eye-popping smears of pigment, and glass jars of--

"I've got it," I told my husband.


"Linseed oil and turpentine."

Distilled from the resins of various evergreen trees (including pine, fir, and the terebinth tree from which its name is derived), artists' turpentine is far superior to the mineral spirits which comprise lowly household paint thinner. It evaporates rapidly when combined with oil-based pigments, earning it the loyal affection of every painter whose least favorite hobby is to watch paint dry.

However, turpentine's volatility has a downside: its vapors are toxic in too many ways to name. A shame, because they smell so good-- bright, sharp, camphoraceous, with medicinal overtones that hint (not inaccurately) of old-fashioned patent curatives sold out of a peddler's suitcase.

Cold-pressed from mature flax seeds, linseed oil is a natural polymer which hardens to a transparent varnish upon exposure to air. Its odor is rich, vegetal, and musty-- a saturating stink that only intensifies with oxidation. Many artists find it irresistable, but others consider it stomach-turning. The good news is that however objectionable it smells in concentration, linseed oil produces a relatively pleasant, ambery odor when reduced to a trace amount.

Nature seems to have designed these two substances to be married for more than one purpose. True, together they make a painting-- but they also make a perfume, albeit a highly unconventional one. In combination, linseed tones down turpentine's sharpness, and turpentine lightens linseed's two-ton weight. Together they produce a scent with implicit function and meaning and promise, a stepping-stone to something beautiful.

Pine, cedar, fir, and rosemary clearly comprise the turpentine on Portos' palette. What is its linseed oil? Labdanum resin (a primary constituent of perfumery "amber") in its pure form has been elsewhere been likened to linseed putty; while amber bases can have extremely varied characters (from vanillic to fruity to woody to incense-like), I speculate that the vegetal, oily amber used here is wearing a linseed disguise. As for pigment, Portos' primary ground is moss green, upon which a rainbow-spectrum of pelargonium bloom surfaces and explodes like bright hot fireworks.

But what's the painting about? Whom does it portray? The only way to see the picture clearly was to wear Portos for a day.

It was a typical South Jersey summer morning -- humid, already hot, with the pleasant scent of honeysuckle and mulberries in the air. After my bath, I sprayed each wrist with Portos and pressed it to the inside of the opposite elbow, then sprayed the nape of my neck and used my fingertips to smooth it forward to my pulse points.

Instantly, the art-studio hologram appeared all around me, glowing with late-Rembrandt sepia, umber, and burnt-sienna tones. Ghosting behind the canvas-laden easels, that linseed-amber accord smelled sweeter and less saturnine to me today, reminding me of the alluring scent of a brand new box of Caran d'Ache oil pastels. In all, the aroma of that imaginary room delivered an instant invitation to dream, to draw, to create.

Yes, please!

Over time, as Portos calmed, I noticed a pronounced woody-incense quality developing within its evergreen heart. I thought of the parish churches of my childhood: the smell of frankincense and good pine-oil soap, the wooden pews lovingly buffed to a high shine, the soft glow of candlelight on polished glass and brass. As an artist myself, I did not find the leap from studio to place of worship at all illogical. Art being a religion of sorts, the artist's atelier is the center of intense devotional activity. Within that sacred space, every artist -- or writer, or inventor, or perfumer -- is a high priest or priestess of creativity, offering up sacred artworks to an array of very personal deities.

At length came the drydown, a soft cedary amber. All day I had felt subtly bolstered by Portos, upheld and strengthened. Now it let me down ever so gently, depositing me a million miles from where I began, completely invigorated and full of ideas.

So who is Portos? He (or she, for this is most certainly a unisex fragrance) is an artist -- naturally -- with pigment under his fingernails and a bottle of cognac next to the brushes. Enigmatic and reserved, he prefers solitude to company and silence to empty talk. His inner turbulence is tempered by a cool and taciturn nature; he would rather say nothing at all than commit his thoughts to posterity. He's accused of being many things: a fauve, a sphinx, a son-of-a-bitch. Lover after lover has admitted defeat. He's married to his work, they say-- and it's true; he reserves the best of himself for the canvas and paint. He lives in absolute earnest, without apology or shame.

He may be a difficult bastard. But he is himself. And it's good.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, rosemary, lavender, geranium, pine, cedar, vetiver, moss, fir, patchouli, musk, labdanum, tonka

Body Kouros (Yves Saint Laurent)

This being Father's Day weekend, I'm inspired to write about two Dads-- my own, and my mother's. It would take a lifetime to enumerate all the values they instilled in me, so I'll stick to the one they had in common: their loyalty to the Volkswagen Beetle. How on earth, you rightly ask, will this tie in with YSL Body Kouros? Buckle up and sit tight, passenger. We'll get there when we get there.

Dad's Beetle was tan with one red door, the result of a passenger-side collision in a supermarket parking lot. (Before the auto yard came up with the red replacement door, Dad merely duct-taped some newspaper over the dent and wrote "OUCH!" in black marker.) My childhood memory bank is filled with recollections of roadtrips in the OUCH!mobile. Crammed up against one another on the sticky back seat, my siblings and I roasted in the summer heat as if riding in an EZ-Bake oven on wheels.

Eventually the driver's side floorboard wore through until Dad could glimpse passing pavement as he drove-- at which point he retired the "Bug" for a nice leased Toyota. Not to worry-- my older sister and I both cleaved to family tradition by selecting used VW Bugs as our first cars. Hers was a '73, sun-yellow with one blue door and a creaky but operable sunroof. Mine was a '71, light blue with one orange door and no sunroof. (Undaunted, I covered the inside domed ceiling with glow-in-the-dark stars and planets. Who needs a sunroof when you can have the entire galaxy overhead?).

My grandfather's Beetle, on the other hand, mirrored his British passion for orderliness and decorum. It was all-white, spotless, with the original doors attached (Popop was a careful driver, and considered two-toning rather slack). He maintained its mint condition for decades until the car accident that first heralded the approach of Alzheimer's. He came to live with us then, and was present when both my sister and I proudly brought home our "new used" Beetles.

When Popop deeded me his frayed copy of John Muir's 1969 classic How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot, I felt as though I had been handed my birthright. From its stained pages, I culled the rudiments of DIY Beetle repair-- no despised task, since the tomboy in me loved to get engine grease all over her hands. I learned how to check my own oil and fluids, strip and reconnect wires, and reset by hand that tiny timing gear that used to cause me to stall coming out of first.

The sense of intimacy one develops with a VW Beetle -- from learning to drive stickshift to knowing exactly how high to turn up the heat before one's shins begin to roast -- offers a satisfaction unlike any other in the realm of car ownership. I named my VW Henry, and loved him like a brother.

For engine problems I couldn't solve myself, I took Henry to the local VW garage, a dilapidated old structure on a winding back country road. There, the aging hippie mechanics unfailingly called me ma'am even though I was clearly a 22-year-old punk. Vintage VW mechanics are a unique lot, because they love their subject just as much as their clients do. Where other mechanics might speak condescendingly to a female car owner or even try to bilk her, VW mechanics recognize the engine grease under your fingernails as a sort of fraternity signal. And when they see your copy of Muir in the back seat, the floodgates open. They'll stand with you for hours, speaking honestly and passionately about that quirky little automobile you both adore.

Something about leaving Henry at the garage amidst a yard of other Beetles (red with one blue door, yellow with one purple door, silver with both doors in apple green) made me happy-- as though I was dropping him off for a playdate with his friends. I think it made him happy too, because when I returned to pick him up, he purred. The mechanics would stand outside and wave goodbye as I puttered down the street. In the rearview mirror of hindsight, I still see them clearly: men like my father, like my grandfather; the salt-of-the-earth kind on whom you can "absotively posilutely" rely.

And today -- a bright, cloudless summer day blessed with cool weather, perfect for a drive -- I'm wearing Body Kouros in their honor.

5STARS Small

If you've ever personally been acquainted with an auto mechanic, you know that even when they're off duty and in civilian wear, the faint, discreet odor of engine grease and motor oil hovers over their skin. If you're like me, you find this aroma extremely pleasant-- evoking, as it does, the satisfaction derived from worthwhile labor. To me, Body Kouros says one thing, simply and cleanly: job well done.

It starts off simultaneously tart and soapy, shimmering with a bright overlay of something close to gasoline fumes. (If this doesn't appeal to you, don't worry-- it evaporates quick enough, though not so quickly that it evades the notice of female gearheads.) The clean soapy quality is soon joined by a pleasantly dirty licorice-cedar accord, as if our dream mechanic came home reeking of an honest day's work and is now towelling off after a quick shower. Hints of Lava Pumice Soap and shaving cream still cling to his skin, mingling with his own natural musk and creating the air of a healthy masculine specimen.

As the drydown approaches, a note of mace finally begins to assert itself. Mace and its sibling spice nutmeg share many olfactory traits, but temperature is not one of them. Where nutmeg lends a certain coolness to a fragrance, mace offers a sense of low, steady heat like a lit charcoal pastille-- at first glimmering like an ember in the background, then catching on and increasing by degrees to a fiery red glow. (Perhaps our mechanic is a little sweaty, even after his shower; he's heading out to the shady backyard to relax in the hammock with an ice-cold bottle of beer.)

This mace note is one that I admire immensely. It's everything I love about nutmeg, only more so-- amped up and ramped up, holding firm with no shimmy at fourth gear. It radiates animal contentment and self-confidence, and at the same time, harmonizes with that motor-oil note to keep it nicely in check.

Body Kouros is a perfectly serviceable fragrance, free of pretensions or frills. It doesn't mean to be deep or serious; it conceals no secret layers. Yet it projects a dependability and steadiness of character that are far more valuable than so-called elegance. Above all, Body Kouros is classless in the best sense of the word-- egalitarian, unconstrained by matters of status or appearance. This is the trait possessed by the person Jack Kerouac called "the natural tailor of natural joy": Neil Cassady, poet, raconteur, Merry Prankster, and (coincidence?) mechanic, whose love of life and unashamed physicality set the tone for all men of my Dad's post-Beat generation.

In fact, now that I think of it, I bet that ole Neil would have delighted in Body Kouros... a second skin for those who are supremely at home in their own.

This review is dedicated to my father Richard Ingraham, who always smells reassuringly of shaving cream, and to my late grandfather Bernard Russell Edwards, who smelled of pipe tobacco, Postum, Brach's caramels, and good earth from the garden.

Scent Elements: Incense, eucalyptus, cedarwood, mace, camphorwood, benzoin

The Unicorn Spell (Les Nez)

Once upon a time, a man and his wife* uncovered an ancient method of turning a goat into a unicorn. There was no magic involved. All it required was a simple and largely painless surgical procedure, performed when the animal was in its infancy. The result was recognizably still a goat. But since it now possessed what everyone knows is the single most important feature of a unicorn's physique, this lowly goat qualified for unicornhood by the merest horn's breadth.

The little unicorn's public debut touched off a firestorm of angry criticism. People felt cheated, swindled, duped. This was no unicorn! Obviously this was only a goat, and a vandalized one at that! However, the general outcry held a startling bit of insight about human psychology. That the unicorn turned out to be sham isn't the surprise-- it's that people thought unicorns existed at all. In order to call something counterfeit, you need to be able to point to the genuine article. So if this was a "fake" unicorn, where was the "real" one?

Still, not everyone was immune to the little unicorn's magic. There were those who viewed him as a living, breathing miracle-- a legendary creature straight from the lands of mystery. They did not want to know his creation story, the truth of his bio-engineered beginnings. It was the myth they loved... and at the sight of the little unicorn standing before them real and solid, they were satisfied.

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You hear things. That's how it starts.

You hear about the most insane top note ever to hit Perfumeland: ice-cold raw green beans. What? They did NOT just say that, you think. Oh, but they did.

Person after person on blog after blog waxes eloquent about this one note, the greenest green thing that ever grew on Jack's famous beanstalk. Some (including its creator) are passing it off as an icy violet; others swear up and down it's a springtime iris. But like the Jolly Green Giant, that verdant bean note looms over the critical landscape, casting its shadow across opinions far and wide. Reactions range from flowery to flummoxed, cooing to condemnatory. At times, you feel as though you're reading reviews about a hundred completely different perfumes. Perhaps the real Unicorn Spell is concealed somewhere within this maelstrom, as elusive as its namesake... a legend in the mists.

Finally you get to try it. And there it is: the rawest and most plangent vegetable note you've ever encountered in a perfume, greener than tomato leaf, juicier than a cucumber. Pert and acerbic, it sits halfway between haricots verts and green bell pepper, with the stems, foliage, and sap of the mother plant included. The impact of it is indescribable-- like seeing a person you know very well suddenly appear before you wearing green face paint. It's the familiar placed in an unexpected context, and it knocks you for a loop.

Given such a shocker for a first note, you could reasonably expect something just as mindblowing to follow. You sit back, waiting to be wowed.

Exactly three seconds in, a fresh and fleshy rose note creeps in, and not just the petals-- the stems, calyx, and leaves as well. This lasts-- oh, a second, maybe two. Immediately following that comes a black pepper accord reminiscent of L'Artisan Parfumeurs's L'Eau de Jatamansi, sharper and perhaps less lovely, but still quite likable. You smile as if you're at the circus, watching perfume notes cartwheel across the ring. And then.... and then... nothing. Kaput. Finito. All gone. As if it had never touched your skin. The lights come up, the janitors start sweeping the aisles, and the ticket-taker scolds, What are YOU still doing here?

It's not as though you skimped, heaven knows. You splashed that stuff on like it was bathwater. But from application to AWOL, the entire Unicorn Spell experience lasted less than five minutes. (Did you ever think in a million years that you'd find yourself longing wistfully for Jatamansi's staying power, or congratulating Eau de Fleur de Soie on its tenacity?) The worst part is that it smelled GOOD. You really wanted more of it, but for one reason or another, it simply couldn't deliver.

Broken promises have a way of sharpening dull disappointment to a keen edge. You want the excitement of discovery back -- the chase after that monumental green bean note -- but now that you know the truth, it will never be the same. The myth has taken on a layer of tarnish. You curse yourself for being gullible, and vow never to be taken in again.

But you probably will. Because a wishful heart never stops wishing... and somewhere out there in the mist, the REAL unicorn is still waiting.

*Timothy "Oberon" Zell-Ravenheart and his wife Morning Glory, cofounders of the famous bohemian/pagan Church of All Worlds. They really, honestly, sure-as-shootin' bred unicorns.

Scent Elements: Violet and iris is all Les Nez are admitting to, but there's got to be more to it than that. Or less.

Aria Di Capri (Carthusia)

Some months ago when Facebook still had me in its sinister clutches, a coworker commented on one of my perfume rants with a tale of long-lost love. Many years ago, a relative of hers had visited Italy and brought back a bottle of perfume. It was, she said, the most beautiful thing she had ever smelled-- an extravagant floral, pure springtime in a bottle. Its name was... Flora Capria? Flowers di Capri? She couldn't quite remember, and she despaired of ever finding it again.

Some online research turned up a "Fiori di Capri" by Carthusia-- a name familiar to me from Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, wherein Luca Turin waxes eloquent about another Carthusia fragrance called Aria di Capri, comparing it to herbal bitters and crediting it with the power to bestow the "invigorating sensation of increased clarity". Onto the wishlist it had gone, to be forgotten until my colleague told her sad story. I found and emailed an image of the Carthusia label to her. Did it look at all familiar? It did! Now we had a dual mission: to reunite this lady with her favorite perfume, and to gain a new favorite of my own. I duly ordered decants and used the intervening wait time to read up on their history.

Carthusia was founded within a religious cloister on Capri a full two hundred years before Florence's Santa Maria Novella. Its exclusive line of perfumes incorporated essences derived from island-grown rosemary and carnations, resulting in a true local product. According to official apocrypha, production had slacked off over time until even the original formulas were misplaced. After World War II, the monks "rediscovered" the formulas and applied for a papal dispensation to have them analyzed by a chemist. Their cooperative efforts resulted in the relaunch of the Carthusia fragrance line-- five hundred years after its inception.

Alas, sometimes things die for a reason.

Aria di Capri started off crisp, clear, and cool, a benevolent floral-creamsicle accord a la Viccolo Fiori that turned warm and vanillic as it developed on my skin. I could have forgiven it for being nothing like the promised licorice-bitters accord if only it had stopped there-- but odd things started to occur, the first being a sudden twitch of the steering wheel that sent Aria di Capri into braunschweiger territory.

You heard me: my wrists suddenly smelled like liverwurst.

Lest I be accused of making this up, please know that my husband was offered a sniff of both the opening notes and this latter phase, and his verdict was the same as mine. And while our shared experience with Breath of God's smoked-meat phase proved amusing and edifying, there was nothing here to tempt us into thinking we were having a good time. For no woman wants to smell like the dourest of all lunch meats-- and no man, however enamored of a good sandwich, wants his woman to smell like it either.

But I'm not done. When the liverwurst accord (what IS it? what combination of scent elements is to blame?) was over, a dill accord kicked in. (Pickle with your sandwich?) Now, I like the scent of dill as much as anyone else, and no one likes it better than my cat, Newman. He is a veritable hog for fresh dill. We buy it by the bunch, and the beast positively trembles with desire whenever we bring out a sprig to feed him as a treat. So when he woke out of a sound midday nap and looked at me expectantly, I knew I wasn't dreaming that smell up. It lasted just long enough for me to decide for posterity that dill does not belong anywhere near perfume. Period.

By the time Aria di Capri reverted back to something presentable on skin (the original floral accord, only wan and unenthusiastic), I'd had about enough. Clearly, whatever Luca Turin was drinking, it was more pickle juice than lavorato. And that wasn't the Duomo in his line of sight-- it was a delicatessen.

Later, I received an email from my colleague. She thanked me for Fiori di Capri but stated that it was nothing like she remembered. I understood then that no matter how let down I felt by Aria di Capri, at least I had not known it as any other scent than it was when it came to me. She'd known a better Fiori di Capri, once-- and never would again.

Et in Carthusia ego....

Scent Elements: Mimosa, iris, jasmine, laurel, licorice

L'Air de Rien (Miller Harris)

L'Air de Rien wears a embroidered sheepskin Afghan coat with long, curly blonde fleece festooning the collar and cuffs. Stained from long travels, softened by hard wear, it reeks of cigarette smoke, incense, patchouli oil, lanolin, and the accumulated body odors of she who has worn it -- largely without the benefit of soap and water-- for six weeks straight.

And what an eventful six weeks it's been! Tangiers, Marrakech, the Atlas Mountains, fueled by hashish and mint tea from morning to night... Remember the souk in Fes, spices by the sackful lined up on the paving stones? Remember sleeping on the beach at Essaouira, to be awakened at dawn by children selling fresh dates wrapped in palm leaves? Then there was that midnight camel ride under a sickle moon... was that still Morocco? Or Algiers? (Or Paris; they have camels and moons in Paris, don't they? All that bourbon can make a girl forget things...)

Anyway, Paris: pastis and cigarettes on the balcony of Jagger's suite at the Hôtel de Crillon. He was in rare form that night-- and L'Air de Rien's got the bruises to prove it. This Navajo silver-and-turquoise bracelet? Mick gave it to her, naturally... for services rendered. (But the black leather bullwhip? Well... it wasn't exactly given so much as taken; a souvenir, you understand....)

Other souvenirs housed in the coat's infernal pockets: ticket stubs, phone numbers, unpaid traffic citations, Gauloises Bleues, pot seeds, licorice cough lozenges, tear-stained love letters, soiled panties, stolen hotel room keys, a Barretta (loaded), a hash pipe (empty-- je suis désolée!), and silk-tasseled mala beads worn shiny by repeated caresses between perfumed fingers...

She shows up on your doorstep at two a.m., bleary-eyed and laughing, pushing her way past you without further invitation. You'll let me crash here, won't you, love? Ravenous from weeks on the road, she empties out your refrigerator for an impromptu feast-- and leaves a mountain of dirty dishes in your kitchen sink. She seems to smoke just to show off her French inhale, and to wear clothes just to theatrically remove them while you watch. When she's gone, your sofa cushions smell of her for weeks-- the rich and musky scent of an outlaw life, replete with unbrushed teeth, unwashed hair, and the wood smoke of a thousand bonfires.

It could be as people say-- L'Air de Rien is Muscs Koublaï Khän's spoiled little sister, coasting around the world on the last fumes of a much-abused trust fund. But you don't believe everything you hear, do you? Better to take the word of her spiritual mentor, Edna St. Vincent Millay: L'Air de Rien is one of those "gypsy souls following false paths in search of camping grounds that cannot be on earth, thirsting after poisoned springs, singers of forbidden songs, insatiable..."

Scent Elements: Oakmoss, neroli, musk, amber, vanilla

LouLou (Cacharel)

LouLou is what you'd call a stand-up broad. Bluntly honest, frankly sexy, she knows exactly who she is and what she's all about, even if you don't. She's hard-eyed but soft-hearted, knows how to keep a secret, and is slow to smile (though when she does, you can be sure it's genuine) . She possesses the courage to speak truth to power, and the sangfroid to leave a lover flat. You imagine her as your plaything, but all the while, she's playing you. (How could you tell, with that poker face?)

LouLou is a walking wardrobe malfunction. When she's around, bra straps fail, buttons magically pop loose, and stocking garters plain give up. You think she cares? A little free show never hurt business-- and make no mistake, that's all it is to LouLou. Go pin your romantic illusions on some other girl. LouLou's been around the block too many times to waste a second on hearts and flowers.

LouLou's got a sister named Anaïs Anaïs. (Did their parents repeat everything twice?) These two couldn't be more different, or more at odds. One's upright and uptight; the other plays it fast and loose-- and never the twain shall meet, if either can possibly help it. It's been remarked that both roll their eyes in an identical manner... and there's that one word they pronounce exactly alike*... aside from this, you'd have to dig deep for proof that these two are even related.

Anaïs Anaïs, prim and dry-humored, is embarrassed to be seen in public with LouLou. She always makes such a spectacle of herself, she sniffs. You simply can't take her anywhere. In turn, LouLou calls Anaïs Anaïs a square, a dud, a stick-in-the-mud. I can't help it, she cramps my style, she drawls around the cigarillo hanging from her ruby-red lips. If bookish Anaïs is the proverbial wise virgin, LouLou's played the fool-- but under certain circumstances, it can't be denied that fools have more fun. And anyway, who are you calling a virgin?

When you're with LouLou, the air is imbued with the color purple. Everything's low-lit, soft and cushy; you don't know whether you're in a speakeasy or a whorehouse-- maybe a bit of both. All things are possible. Your mind shuffles through a deck of pouty-mouthed girl-women captured on '70's celluloid-- from the innocent (Violet in Pretty Baby) to the cynical (Iris in Taxi Driver) to the downright hardened (Addie in Paper Moon). Even Cabaret's Sally Bowles flashes before your eyes, creamy-pale with great dark eyes and an endearing display of baby fat peeping through the gaps in her racy stage costume. (Divine decadence, darling!)

But none of them will do. None possess that killer combination of nubile grace and emotional reserve that make LouLou stay with you long after she's gone.

Finally you hit upon one who might come close: Tallulah, Jodie Foster's wisecracking chanteuse from the film Bugsy Malone. Even LouLou's name could serve as a fond diminutive of 'Tallulah'-- not that she's the type to suffer endearments. Gazing coolly at the audience, unconcerned about the curious impact her detachment has on their hearts, she sings:

My name is Tallulah
My first rule of thumb:
I don't say where I'm going
or where I'm coming from.
I try to leave a little
reputation behind me,
so if you really need to,
you'll know how to find me.

How will you find her? By the wake she leaves-- an overpowering sweetness of jasmine tinged with wine and grenadine syrup, a dusky vanilla-plum aura that trails behind her for a city block, upsetting the neighbors and disturbing the peace.

She won't stick around forever, this LouLou. One minute, your head will be filled with nothing else; the next minute, she's a faded, rueful memory. Like Fantine in Les Miserables, "she goes her ways, she endures you and she knows you not". If you mistake her tolerance for affection or -- worse yet -- need (oh, please!), she's apt to change not only the rules of the game but the field it's played on. Want her to stay? Just make her laugh every once in a while, and keep her cigarettes lit. She might -- might -- decide you're worth hanging around for.


Scent Elements: Jasmine, mimosa, orange, tiare, iris, sandalwood, vanilla

Drakkar Noir (Guy Laroche)

Drakkar Noir came out in 1982, the year before I became a freshman. This means it had three hundred and sixty-five days to infiltrate the halls of my high school before I even set foot in the building. Once there, I was obligated by various authorities to stay until I graduated. That gave Drakkar Noir approximately 1,460 days to scorch my nasal passages and permanently scar my psyche.

To be a girl in 1983 was to be perpetually under siege by an army whose stench heralded its approach hours before it actually hove into view. For in those days, boys didn't just wear Drakkar Noir. They bathed in it-- slapping gallons upon gallons of it on their necks, chests, underarms, and god only knows where else. It blended with the acrid output of their overactive adolescent glands until their very sweat smelled like napalm.

The boys who liked Drakkar Noir the best wore tight-fitting sharkskin slacks, torso-hugging cashmere sweaters, Italian leather loafers, copious amounts of hair gel and gold jewelry, and facial expressions of the most consummate blankness. They all lifted weights -- not in the gym after school, but at night in the local sports club -- and they all seemed to be named Anthony. Each placed a proprietary hand adorned with a monogrammed ID bracelet on the small of his girlfriend's back when ushering her through the halls. The girls -- big-haired and short-skirted, with mascara applied in big Cleopatra swoops -- never spoke except to get into screechy, jealous catfights with rivals guilty of imperfect custody of the eyes. If these young ladies wore perfume, no one ever knew. Their boyfriends' killer cologne drowned out every other odor within five hundred feet.

But the Anthonys were not the only centurions in the Drakkar Noir army. ALL of the boys signed up for it-- even the mohawked and combat-booted ones who would have otherwise pinged big-time on my punk-rock radar. Adopting a hardcore "straight-edge" ethos (no drinking, no drugs, no meat, no smoking, and above all, no sex) was shockingly easy with Drakkar Noir around. This phase lasted all the way into my twenties, when CK One finally slew the dragon with its sword of lemony-freshness.

If you are so lucky as to never have smelled Drakkar Noir, drop to your knees and offer thanks right now-- for even the angriest and least forgiving god showeth more mercy than this fragrance. Drakkar Noir doesn't give you time to figure out whether it's a fougère, an Oriental, an aftershave, a cologne. Just like the steroidal bullies who wear it, it skips straight to the finger-breaking part, smirking silently while you scream uncle. Seldom have so many innocuous fragrance ingredients been recruited for the purpose of violence; if one were to choose a signature scent for a sociopathic date rapist, Drakkar Noir would dominate the list.

And yet, to this day, Drakkar Noir unaccountably retains its reputation as a full-on chick magnet. From the bottom of my heart, I cannot understand this. I would like to think that any young person with the smallest sense of self-preservation would avoid it (and its wearers) like the Black Death-- but who am I to argue with success? Somewhere on earth, Drakkar Noir is still a best-seller. And sadly, that place is where I live.

Even so, I must lay credit where credit is due. I believe that Guy Laroche is the major reason I became an artist-- for while his unholy creation spread its miasma over every other classroom in my high school, the art studio alone seemed immune to the stench. There, I met boys who preferred "sensitive" smells like Clinique Aromatics Elixir-- hell, they could have worn Brut and I would have loved it. I subsequently put my name down for every art class I could find, even earning independent study credits during lunch hours and after school, all to obtain sanctuary.

Years later, when I first bonded with my future husband over a pile of Pete Bagge comics, I leaned in and smelled... him. Just him.

"I know this may seem like an odd thing to ask," I said. "But did you ever in your life, even for one day, wear Drakkar Noir?"

He looked at me as though I had lost my mind. And that was how I knew it was forever.

Scent Elements: Lemon, tangerine, lavender, rosemary, artemesia, basil, lemon verbena, bergamot, coriander, juniper, cinnamon, jasmine, leather, fir, amber, sandalwood, vetiver, cedar, patchouli, oakmoss