Or Black (Pascal Morabito)

The joys of the cinema are legion; surprises of all sizes abound. I like mine on the wee side -- under five foot six -- and green-eyed, thank you kindly.

In the 1998 Scottish indie film An Urban Ghost Story, a family living in a Glasgow housing project copes with two unwanted entities: the poltergeist that haunts their tiny flat, and the loan shark who menaces them for monies owed. The latter is played by Scottish actor Billy Boyd, best known as Pippin Took in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings. If you have only ever seen him as a harmless hobbit, Boyd's performance here will chill you in an unexpectedly big way.

Tersely described in the screenplay as "a small young man in an expensive suit", the Shark is a titan of rage held in check only by impeccable custom tailoring. His personal deficiencies (he's short, he stutters, he can't seem to shake this vexing head cold) are balanced by an inimitable fashion sense and a comprehensive lack of human emotion which renders him the ideal man for this line of work.

And that voice! Soft, compelling, caressing the ear like a freshly-honed straight razor sheathed in velvet... Even as the Shark instructs his henchmen to "Chuck the wee bitch off the fucking balcony", I'm transfixed. What poltergeist on earth could possibly outdo the menace of this tightly-wound little man?

While reaching for metaphors to describe Or Black, I found that the Shark kept coming to mind. Far bigger heavies abound in cinematic iconography -- Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men), Victor the Cleaner (La Femme Nikita), Beatrix Kiddo (Kill Bill), almost all of the Inglorious Basterds. But only the Shark -- cool, remote, concentrated, unreadable -- seemed fit to personify this saturnine scent.

In their common use of scent elements such as bergamot and oakmoss, chypres and fougères straddle the same fence-- but the side on which they choose to touch ground makes all the difference. On one side, it's the enchanted forest, moist and cool and dappled with dew; on the other, harsh and arid badlands stretching as far as the eye can see. If Or Black had wished to take up residence in the former territory, it might have incorporated some soothing lavender or verdant spruce. Instead, it opts for black leather, drier-than-dry vetiver and sage, and an oakmoss so bitter and caustic it practically dessicates one's sinuses to powder. After a good long stretch of this -- during which the less hearty may find themselves begging for mercy -- a smooth, shaving-soap tonka accord with vanillic overtones provides a kind of consolation prize.

The Or Black man may be a distant cousin of that masterpiece of iconoclasm, the Yatagan man-- only smooth-shaven and obsessively clean. Rather than inhabit the sere desert, it inhabits him, deep inside where his soul used to be. His weapon is a sardonic smile-- or, even more powerful, the calculated withholding of it. Yet for all he leaves one feeling bruised and ill-used, one cannot help but come back for more.

Why? Perhaps it's that eternal, perverse infatuation so succinctly captured by Sylvia Plath: Every woman adores a Fascist/The boot in the face, the brute/Brute heart of a brute like you.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, black pepper, leather, sage, benzoin, labdanum, vetiver, amber, tonka bean, musk, oakmoss

L'Eau de Jatamansi (L'Artisan)

When I arrived home this afternoon after a long day's work, I felt in need of quick refreshment-- something peppery, something prickly, something that would only last a moment and not tax me for attention all the rest of the evening. I knew just the thing.

After washing my face, I filled the hollow of my palm with the last of my Eau de Jatamansi, slapped my hands together, and ran them swiftly across my forehead, down the front of my throat, and through my hair.

My husband frowned slightly when I presented myself to him for a kiss. It seems he did not like my perfume. I told him not to worry. All he had to do was wait five minutes and all would be put to rights.

And sure enough, it was.

You would think a fragrance containing the fabled ingredient spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi) would stick around as long on skin as it has in human memory. After all, spikenard is a member of the Valerianaceae tribe of plants, the most prominent member of which is (natch) valerian-- a tall plant with showy pink blossoms and roots that reek to high heaven, which explains its nickname according to the Greeks: phu.

Spikenard is similar to valerian in structure and appearance, but instead of a foetid stink, it produces the approximate scent of paradise. Musician, artist, and amateur perfumer Brian Eno cited his first encounter with this transcendent fragrance as a significant moment in his love affair with scent. "(A) woman I met in Ibiza gave me a minute bottle containing just one drop of an utterly heavenly material called nardo..." he once wrote; even in eight-point magazine typeface, his awe and gratitude are evident.

Long used in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine as a remedy for persistent pain and grief, spikenard has also been identified as the "costly oil" with which Mary Magdalene anointed Christ as he rested in the house of Lazarus. According to the Gospel, Judas Iscariot argued that the perfume (being "of great price") could have been sold, and the funds distributed amongst the poor. At that time, one pound of pure oil of nard cost roughly 300 silver denarii. To put this price into perspective, one denarius represented a single day's wages for the common Roman soldier. Mary Magdalen therefore blew the equivalent of a healthy trust fund on a single vessel of perfume. Needless to say, this makes me feel a whole lot better about my own fragrance budget.

L'Artisan's L'Eau de Jatamansi will not set you back quite so far as all that: $155 for an 8.4 oz. bottle. It contains only natural essential oils from certified organic sources-- no synthetics. On the plus side, this means a clear conscience as you lay down your cash. On the minus side, this is an eau de toilette whose scent life is shockingly brief, requiring frequent reapplications to keep it alive on skin. As extravagantly as you're meant to splash it on, you eventually might find that it has cost you the modern equivalent of 300 denarii to keep up your supply.

Is it worth it? That first splash will decide you.

L'Eau de Jatamansi kicks off with a wonderful top note of spikenard and black pepper which segues into the scent of fresh carnations -- not the boutonniere variety, whose fragrance has given up the ghost in some florist's refrigerator case, but the tiny "pinks" that grow half-wild in tangled garden beds. When warmed by the sun, these blossoms send up a piquant odor that is a perfect triangulation between raw celery, powdered cloves, and dimestore candy hearts.

Sadly, this lovely phase is tragically cut short by an overpunctual drydown reminiscent of old-fashioned perfumed bath powder, which comes as a dry surprise after Jatamansi's juicy green heart. And just as you're coming to terms with it, even the drydown fades too soon-- does nothing about this perfume want to stick around?

I hear that Jatamansi's matching body oil and bath milk are even more weakly scented. If perfumer Karine Vinchon could rectify the existing persistence problem, or release this as an EDP, or even come out with an "extrême" version of the EDT, I'd buy it. But for my reluctance to commit to so fickle a scent -- regardless of how breathtakingly lovely -- I hope, like Mary Magdalene, to be forgiven.

Scent Elements: Himalayan nard, grapefruit, bergamot, clary sage, tea, Turkish rose, ylang-ylang, cardamom, saintwood, sandalwood, patchouli, vetiver, balm, incense, papyrus

L'Air du Désert Marocain (Tauer)

Today, I'm headed to an outdoor barbeque at my sister's house. It's going to be a sultry day in the mid-'90's-- not the type of weather for which heavy perfumes could be considered advisable. But the last drops of Tauer's L'Air du Desert Marocain are about to evaporate from the bottom of my spray vial, and I would rather carry them on my person than allow them to dissipate ignominiously into the void.

Something this precious cannot be squandered-- its sweetness wasted on the desert air, as it were.

L'Air du Desert Marocain was the very first perfume sample I ever purchased. It came to me alone, since I was not yet confident enough to place a larger, more adventurous multi-perfume order. I remember first spraying it on snippet of handmade paper left over from an art project because I felt too intimidated to wear it. I slept with that piece of paper next to my pillow for two nights before I felt my courage rise. I found its aroma entrancing, transcendent, but I wondered if I was worthy of it. At length I decided I was, and then our love affair began.

L'Air du Desert Marocain was also the first perfume I wrote about, though it wasn't the first entry I dared to publish here. Fully fourteen reviews of other perfumes had to pass before I felt that I could declare my love for this one to the world. I wanted to hold it inside of myself for as long as I could, fine-tune the words, perfect my declaration before exposing it to others' eyes.

For millenia, humans have recognized the power of scent to free the higher consciousness. Nothing seems to resolve the dichotomy between high and low, "inner" and "outer", mortal and immortal, than a beautiful smell. This smell need not even have an earthly origin: in Roman Catholicism, the "odour of sanctity" present at a saint's deathbed is perceived both as an ontological state of perfection and a real perfume-- one so heavenly it causes onlookers to fall to their knees.

For those who keep less exalted company, incense provides the equivalent in mystical atmosphere in a form more readily attainable than sainthood. From Japanese nerikō (kneaded incense), which incorporates dozens of ingredients precisely chosen and apportioned, to the simple sweetgrass braid or sage wand of the Plains tribes, incense infuses any occasion with an air of religious solemnity.

As a perfume element, however, incense can often prove difficult. What smells magical rising into air in a ribbon of smoke may translate as heavy and cloying on one's person. Compound this with the fact that the human limbic system is wired to sit up in alarm at the first hint of something burning. Incense is smoke, and smoke (to the primitive portion of our brains) equals danger. Only a fine line separates fire that lights, warms, and sustains from fire that destroys and kills.

The incense-maker's genius, therefore, is to actually lead us dancing along that line-- and the skill of the perfumer must amount to double that of the incense-maker in order to produce that most elusive thing: a wearable form of smoke.

Some years ago, I happened upon an incense blend that I'd soon come to claim as "mine": Shoyeido's Emerald, a simple marriage of sandalwood, fennelseed, cinnamon bark and cloves. Not content to breathe it in only during meditation or yoga, I wished for a way to bring this perfume with me everywhere, all the time.

Inspired by a passage from Lucia St. Clair Robson's The Tōkaidō Road in which a samurai prepares to pledge allegiance to his new master by perfuming his robes with incense, I decided to test this ancient practice by placing a single lit stick of Emerald in a fireproof censer on the floor of my clothes closet. Upon returning, I hoped to find my wardrobe imbued with the tranquil scent I loved.

Instead, everything ended up saturated with an acrid, greasy odor identical to that of a snuffed candle wick. I found this smell so unaccountably disturbing, so full of nameless dread, that I chose to re-launder everything in my closet rather than allow that threatening odor to fade on its own.

Since actual incense smoke proved disappointing -- not to mention ruinous to my laundry budget -- my next thought was to turn to the essential oils of common incense ingredients: frankincense, copal, myrrh, sandalwood, cedar, labdanum, styrax. Though each was appealing, of course none worked. Being raw rather than burnt, they provided none of the sought-after allusion to heat which I craved.

For a brief time, I found that allusion in GRASS, an inexpensive perfume spray released by The Gap in 1994. GRASS began with an intense top note of fresh green clover which quickly dried down to a muted, shimmery, smoky ghost. This latter stage reminded me exceedingly of my beloved Emerald, and I wore it happily until it was discontinued.

News of The Gap's recent reissue of GRASS sent me racing to the mall in search of my old friend, only to find her replaced by a Body Snatcher-style clone. Whereas the old GRASS was rich and fully dimensional, the new GRASS is a monotone, linear fragrance lacking depth or development. Those who loved the original only for its new-mown hay top note will be pleased; Version 2.0 is nothing but. It stretches that sunny green prelude into eternity, like the perfect endless summer-- nice, if you like that sort of thing. But it was the sombre shift into autumn come drydown time that I adored, and that's all gone-- neatly excised by some perky, optimistic focus group fresh out of high school varsity cheerleading.

It was not until I tried Andy Tauer's L'Air du Désert Marocain that I felt any satisfaction in my quest. Even before I had an opportunity to sample it, I felt drawn to the adjectives that kept cropping up in reviews. Purifying. Peaceful. Mystical. Divine. Ancient. Healing. Holy. L'Air du Désert Marocain is all of these things, and yet when I finally obtained some for myself, I found these human adjectives almost too heavy and earthbound for so transcendental a fragrance.

Your entrance into heaven is announced with an angelic three-part-harmony of petitgrain, coriander, and cumin-- three dry, slightly biting scents that awaken the senses and heighten the general sense of anticipation. As the perfume develops on skin, the heat begins to intensify, rippling and expanding upward and outward. Though frankincense is not listed among the scent elements, it certainly seems present, a slight blue haze reminiscent of woodsmoke hanging in the air on a still, clear, winter night. Somewhere in the darkness there is unseen shelter; all of its heat, light, comfort and welcome are encapsulated in L'Air du Désert Marocain's heart of pure cedarwood, which sheds its ruddy glow over several rapturous hours of drydown.

In her 2000 novel, The Tale of Murasaki, Liza Dalby describes an incense competition held between the ladies of the Heian imperial court. Each noblewomen has prepared her own variations on a selection of traditional nerikō blends which, having been permitted to age, are now ready to burn. We see the day of the competition through Murasaki Shikibu's eyes: "The chill air was still and held the burning scents as if caught in syrup." One of Murasaki's blends takes the top prize, but even more valuable to her than the contest stakes are the simple words of accolade by which the judges praise her winning scent: "tranquil... enviably so".

This describes L'Air du Désert Marocain precisely. Weightless, it rises, and you rise with it.

It is gone for now. But I know that I will seek this perfume out again. Other fragrances may come and go, play the role of the passing fancy and then take their bows on the stage. Not this one. This one's for life.

Scent Elements: Coriander, cumin, petitgrain, labdanum, jasmine, cedarwood, vetiver, ambergris

Amanda (Amanda Lepore)

Of all the celebrities in the world, I chose her. I could have had Britney, J.Lo, Maria, Fergie, Celine, or Elizabeth Taylor-- heck, even Tilda Swinton, if androgyny was so compelling.... But no. My first (and so far, only) choice of celebrity perfume comes from an aging transsexual socialite with a rampant cosmetic surgery addiction and four dance-mix EPs that can best be described as unlistenable.

Why her? Why Amanda Lepore?

For those not in the know, Amanda Lepore is the steely-yet-vulnerable, thoroughly unshockable, plastic-fantastic queen of the Manhattan night. During the legendary '90's, Amanda ran with the likes of James Saint James, Richie Rich, DJ Keoki, and the Club Kids' notorious Svengali, Michael Alig. Amanda's über-smooth, surgically-enhanced visage -- eyes pinned back in painful slants, cherry-red lips pumped full-to-bursting with collagen -- has provided photographer and lifelong friend David LaChappelle with decades of inspiration. On the other hand, it's also attracted a particularly nasty brand of social editorial, scathing in its rejection of the blurred gender line.

On the surface, Amanda's world is as far from my world as Pluto is to the sun. But I have been attracted to it all my life. I myself have walked the gender identity tightrope, as have many of my idols: David Bowie, Patti Smith, Nico and Candy Darling, Lili Elbe, Kate Bornstein, Charles Busch, Divine. I identify more with these outlaws of the gender frontier than I do with Britney & Co. any day. And because of all this, I desperately wanted Amanda not to fail. I longed to see her perfume blow away all the haters and baiters and nasty naysayers.

Due to its limited production (only 5,000 bottles released) and prohibitive price tag ($900+), it appears that precious few samples of Amanda ever made their way into the hands of reviewers. Most journalists, online and off, merely recycled the most shocking snippets from the office press release. Its bottle (encrusted with 1,000 Swarovski crystals!) and its preposterous ingredients ("red lipstick:! "steamed rice"! "a dash of real Cristal® champagne"!) set Amanda up to be a magnificent train wreck.

Yet Luca Turin swore up and down that the damned thing had merit. He raved about the marvelous job done by Christophe Laudamiel to harness and tame its sizable iris content (which -- more than any amount of tacky bling -- surely accounted for that massive price tag).

If this was the Holy Grail of trash fragrances, loyalty drove this kitten to undertake a quest. In the end I found a tiny decant listed at a 60% percent discount -- perfect for me, since naturally I don't have a month's rent to spend on a single perfume. What else could I do? I snapped it up.

While waiting for its delivery, I confess I began to suffer from buyer's remorse. Had I really stopped to consider what a former Club Kid's perfume might smell like? I envisioned sweaty cleavage encased in a cruelly boned corset, whose black organza and lace had absorbed an evening's worth of subway stench, cigarette smoke, spilled champagne and lightly toasted ketamine. (What can I say? I own a DVD of Party Monster.) Even worse, I imagined the smell of the corset's matching black lace panties. A boozy, sexy, sticky, spent-all-night-at-the-club-and-can't-be-bothered-to-shower-now sort of smell. An ANGEL sort of smell.

What the hell had I done?

When Amanda arrived, I sat staring at the spray sample vial as if it held Eau de Kryptonite. I decided to apply it after a shower, not bothering to dress in case I found myself forced to break a land-speed record to get back under the hot spray.

Please, god, please-- don't let it be a scrubber, I found myself chanting. Come on, Amanda....

The first note shocked me cross-eyed: rising bread dough. "Are you fucking serious?" I heard myself saying aloud.

Apparently, yes she is. Without a doubt, here was the delicate, delicious (and dare I say it, feminine) smell of a baker's "sponge"-- the mixture of flour, yeast, and warm water that forms the basis of all good homemade bread recipes. After expecting to be clocked in the head with a disco ball, to be ushered instead into Mom's warm and homey kitchen was near about the limit. But Amanda wasn't finished with surprises.

Next up: the steamed-rice accord. When I first read those words in the press release, I'd thought it was a joke. But what now rose from my wrists was a remarkable facsimile of steamer-cooked Japanese short-grain brown rice, bran-rich and faintly woody. A mandarin note rode atop it, veiled as daintily in curls of steam as Lady Godiva in her long golden tresses. (Again, Amanda: are you fucking serious?)

A faint hint of fruity plastic -- the so-called "lipstick" accord -- followed, tailed by a tinge of something alcoholic. Cristal®? More like Gekkeikan. Yes, it was the unmistakable scent of warm plum sake. What was Amanda trying to tell me-- that she likes Japanese cuisine? The repast she'd set before me would surely have been right at home in a traditional kaiseki restaurant: simple, impeccable, refined.

Just as long as there's no sashimi involved, I thought. Raw fish would be just too surreal.

After ten minutes, the iris kicked in. The scent of iris shares so many olfactory characteristics with the notes that came before it -- bread, rice, gluten, wood, even plastic -- that I found myself whispering, Yes, yes, of course, I see it! Iris! It's not listed, but I trust my own nose and that of Luca Turin: it's in here, all right. (In fact, I think it alone creates that "steamed rice accord".)

After an hour, I was still fully engaged with the interweave of Amanda's three main accords: iris, rice, mandarin. At any given moment, one seemed more prominent than the others-- but a moment later, it gracefully ceded the foreground to another. I kept expecting a hostile takeover by something loathsome a la Angel, but it never came. Over and over, eternal, tranquil, they braided closely around one another - iris, rice, mandarin.

The watershed moment came when my spouse came home from work. I'd warned him that morning that my pulse points would be the staging area for an experiment-- possibly hazardous. Now I held my arm out to him. Correctly gauging the smile on my face as a green light, he leaned in cautiously to inhale, then nodded.

"That's really nice; what is that?" he said.

"It's Amanda," I replied.

"It's quieter than I expected," he said. "Pleasant."

"A keeper?"

"A keeper."

That night I wore it to an art gallery opening. With my husband by my side and Amanda on my skin, I felt as though I was in the best of company. How does that song go?

Well she's all you'd ever want;
She's the kind you'd like to flaunt and take to dinner.
Well she always knows her place;
She's got style, she's got grace-- she's a winner.
She's a lady...
and the lady is mine.

--Tom Jones "She's A Lady"

Scent Elements: Iris, mandarin, strawberry, woods, cucumber, "red lipstick", "steamed rice", and "champagne" accords.

Le Mâle et Ma Dame.

Here's the thing: I really dig Jean-Paul Gaultier. I first came to admire him for his retrofabulous costumes for Jean-Pierre Jeunet's La Cité des Enfants Perdus; my admiration continued upon seeing the superfuturistic Gaultier ensembles featured in Luc Besson's The Fifth Element. I only seem to be able to tolerate Madonna when she's wearing wearing one of his marvelous, witty structured corsets.

And I really liked Le Mâle. A sassy licorice-lavender fougère with a pronounced top note of cinnamon Red Hots that comes in a bottle shaped like the rough-trade version of Schiaparelli Shocking? Hell yes! Many find the cartoon aesthetic of the ad campaign tacky or questionable, but I confess to loving those Tom-of-Finland-style sailors in their signature Gaultier striped tank tops and kiss-me pouts. Betty Boop reincarnated as a boy? Yes, please!

But truth be told, I'm not really keen on Gaultier's more recent choice of muse. Damned if I can tell you why Agyness Deyn gets my goat. Perhaps it's that perpetually smug look on her face, like a cat that's found a way to get into the cream. Perhaps it was that ludicrous commercial for Ma Dame, in which Ms. Deyn rebelled against the heavy penalties of being a grossly overpaid and pampered top model by slicing at her hair and clothing with a pair of shears. Yawn.

So here I am, expecting Ma Dame to rear up out of the tester like a roller derby queen and hip-check me straight into next Tuesday. Instead, what do I get? I get pied. As in a pie in the face. A lemon meringue pie, to be exact-- soft, sweet, creamy, and knee-slap hilarious. I'm actually laughing as I wipe lemon filling out of my eyes. Why you little... I think. Ahhhh, Jean-Paul. I can't stay mad at you.

Now that I've gotten down off my high horse (or rather been knocked off it by this marvelous confection), I have to say I love being wrong. Or more to the point: I love this fragrance for taking the piss out of me. It's not high art, or one hundred percent original, or even remotely serious about itself. It's simply FUN-- a scent meant to make you giggle, wriggle, dance, and play. (Why did I think it would be so standoffish, so aggro? Have I misread Agyness Deyn completely? If this fragrance was inspired by her, then make no mistake-- she's Pippi Longstocking and that's final.)

Ma Dame starts off all in-your-face lemon, which sounds like it could hurt-- but if you don't tense up before it hits you, it turns out to be a gooey-pudding pleasure. The lemon-herb-cake accord of Balenciaga Paris may be a minor homage, but the major difference is in the surprise note-- the "prestige" we'd call it if perfume could be spoken of as a magic trick. In Balenciaga Paris, it's a stainless-steel note, coldly glimmering in the background. But Ma Dame wants to say one word to you, just one word.

Are you listening?


When my sisters and I were kids, we shared an adorable see-through vinyl bubble umbrella with a lemon-yellow stripe around the bottom. The umbrella fit right down over you like a space capsule, but its transparency allowed for unimpeded vision as you walked through the rain. The sensations it offered were oddly juxtaposed, even mutually exclusive-- exposure and protection, confidence and concealment. Skipping down the street, you could see exactly where you were going. And if you ran into someone, it could only be on purpose... with mischief in mind.

Ma Dame smells exactly like my childhood umbrella. Is it strange to love it so much for that?

It smells like other things, too. On my hair, it smells strongly of roses and geraniums. In the air around me, it smells like stretch latex and petroleum jelly, slick and cheerful and synthetic. After an hour or so, an interesting rosemary scent begins to thread its way through the latex, as does a high-and-dry vanilla-and-eggwhite meringue note. But it's the lemon-pie part that's so compulsively sniffable-- softer than soft with just the right amount of edgy, kicky, cheerful garçonne attitude.

It's only when you look up the scent elements and realize there's no lemon in this thing that your eyes get wide with wonder. There's no vinyl in it either-- but your senses, like mine, may tell you the exact opposite.

Ma Dame (like its big brother Le Mâle, and like Eau Noire for Dior) was composed by Francis Kurkdjian. I'm beginning to believe this man is the Willy Wonka of fragrance. He exudes freshness, flippancy, childlike fun, a touch of danger, a love of the absurd, and the anarchic trappings of a first-class surrealist. (In fact, I'm waiting for the perfume in which the snozzberries really DO taste like snozzberries.)

Scent Elements: Mint, artemisia, bergamot, cardamom, lavender, orange blossom, cinnamon, cumin, sandalwood, vanilla, cedar, tonka bean, amber (Le Mâle); rose, orange, grenadine, musk, cedar (Ma Dame)

Lilith (Webber)

Carol named this one Lilith... and Lilith's a tricksy one, all right. (Is she related, by any chance, to Robin Goodfellow?)

The first time I wore her, I positively disliked her. She began with a sweet-and-sour camellia note which normally wouldn't have put me off, as I have a longtime fondness for camellia. But thereafter she devolved first into a soapy white-flower accord, then into a strange, indefinite woody-amber blah that (to my nose, anyway) resembled cardboard saturated with Elmer's glue.

What a difference a day makes! The second time I wore Lilith, two elements -- previously shy -- became bolder: a blue-green pine-needle note tucked in among the white flowers, and a restful white musk overtaking the drydown. Why had I not detected them the first time around? Wrong phase of the moon? Nevertheless, these two notes ensured a smoother transition between top, heart, and base notes, bringing all the seemingly disparate elements of Lilith together in harmony. Pine and white musk separately spell "clean" to modern noses; I felt deliciously so even at the end of a long day wearing this scent.

Not bad for the perfumer who composed the modern Pine-Sol accord!

Scent Elements: My guesses are tuberose, camellia, leather, pine, oakmoss, incense, and musk.

What's in a Naim?

In Arabic, the male given name Naim ( نعیم‎) indicates happiness and peaceful contentment. When referring to a class of attar, it seems to refer to a fresh, clean, soapy effect that is undoubtedly responsible for that aforementioned sense of well-being. If Attar Bazaar's two Naims (Tunisian and Arabian) can be considered representative, the freshness comes from white flowers and citrus laid upon a base of lemony frankincense. Lovely!

Arabian Naim is a simple and pleasing tuberose-gardenia accord which shifts seamlessly into a tart, greenish frankincense, with just a touch of incense smoke drifting atop it for interest. This is an office-friendly fragrance veiled with a touch of Oriental mystery, perfect for casual everyday wear. If an olfactory transition into evening is required, Tunisian Naim offers the ideal attention-getting boost. Brighter and more acidic than Arabian Naim, with less frankincense and more lime peel, it plays treble to its peninsular cousin's mezzo soprano-- and the song it sings is designed to stand out against the blue-velvet shadows of twilight.

Worn separately, each Naim is an able soloist-- but dabbed on together, there's a delightful harmony in their respective notes that makes me think these two were created expressly for a duet. I look forward to my next opportunity to hear them in concert.

Scent Elements: Frankincense, tuberose, gardenia, hesperides

Oriental Kush and White Opium (Attar Bazaar)

There's almost no avoiding the hippie-stoner connotations of most perfume-oil lines. In fact, as a 'fume purveyor, you'd be doing yourself a disservice if you didn't cater in some way to the way-out among us, who willingly spend their countercultural cash on "kynd" fragrance and other happy frivolities. Attar Bazaar has long positioned itself to appeal directly to hometown Bohemians, with tiered sample displays in every quality head shop and health food store. Whatever your level of experience (and I DO mean that in the Hendrix sense), the Bazaar has an attar for you.

For beginners, there's Oriental Kush, a benzoin-frankincense-and-myrrh blend that strikes me as very pretty, though to a more experienced nose it might read as naive and oversimplified. Still, amber/incense is a scent genre long honored by hippiedom, and Oriental Kush is a sight better than anything the local East Meets West carries. If this fragrance managed to introduce a newcomer to the possibilities beyond the mall, they'd be in good hands-- guaranteed.

For those who have been around the Rainbow Gathering campgrounds more than once, White Opium is the scent you'll want for that last closing-night festival bash, when you wear your best sari-silk babydoll frock and lay on an extra layer of kohl. There's not much here of either the narcotic poppy juice of notoriety, or of Yves Saint Laurent's spicy reimagining of Tabu. Instead, it's a meaty lily-gardenia accord with a comely touch of cardamom-- exotica with a sense of ease. The most "evening-wear" selection from Attar Bazaar's catalog, White Opium is romantic and mysterious without breaking any laws. Perfect for a full-moon night out howling with your tribe.

Scent Elements: Frankincense, benzoin, amber, myrrh, gardenia, lily, cardamom

Jannat Al-Ferdous (Attar Bazaar)

In Islam, Jannat Al-Ferdous is the highest plateau of heaven that any mortal can attain; those who aspire to reach it must walk the road of kindness, right action, generosity, and faith. This pale-green perfume is said to approximate the scent of that distant paradise.

It kicks off with a heavenly chord of orange and lime blossoms, then rapidly fades to a pale powdery mist, a la Evening in Paris. Just when you think it will disappoint you by heading toward old-ladyville, you suddenly realize it's changed into an understated but thoroughly unmistakable leather. The transformation is nearly imperceptible, occuring so quietly and nonchalantly that you most likely will miss the moment.

But like paradise, you will know it when you get there.

Scent Elements: Orange blossom, linden, leather

Nour and Blue Nile (Attar Bazaar)

The idea of perfume oils, and indeed of the entire Orientalist aesthetic, is one that many find suffocatingly heavy and warm. Yet somewhere in these resins, woods, and spices, there must be a modicum of respite for desert-dwellers. Nour and Blue Nile are two cooling attars at odds with the Western concept of the sun-baked East.

Even if it wasn't colored a preposterous green, you'd know at first sniff that Nour is all about the lemon-lime. Certain types of frankincense have a lemony character which dovetails well with citrus accords... but what sets Nour apart is that its lemon-lime is 100% Kool Aid. I haven't smelled an accord this blatantly artificial since the last time I ate a green Fla-Vor-Ice freezer pop. But in a corner of perfumery known most for its overweening solemnity, how often do you find an attar as lighthearted and humorous as this? Even if it is a prank, Nour's lemon-lime is no less fun for being utterly fake. It made me break into a big grin, and I hope it does the same for you.

As for Blue Nile, they're not kidding when they say blue: the liquid in this vial is the color of Windex, implying that a harsh, overpowering fragrance is in store. But Blue Nile's subtlety turns out to be far more striking than its color. What begins as a musky, husky tuberose is lightened by a mild marine note that turns it into the ideal refreshment for hot and humid days. In the midst of July's inescapable sunshine, this is blessed shade in a bottle.

Scent Elements: Frankincense, lemon, lime, tuberose, musk and marine notes

Safia and Sharif (Attar Bazaar)

It seems to be the nature of the world to arrange things in compatible pairs. Why not perfume?

For Her: Safia
Like a classic song of which the listener never tires even though it's been covered by a million different bands, the chypre tradition is evergreen. Because all chypres share a common, irreducible formula, one must rely on small details and flourishes to distinguish one from another. In Safia, the difference is in the hint of juniper (foliage, not berry) that rests atop the chypre structure before sliding tactfully out of sight. Afterward, all is predictable-- which is to say very pleasant. Who cares if it's unoriginal? It's got a great beat, which is really all that matters.

For Him: Sharif
It cannot get easier than this. Nutmeg and orange peel: nothing more, nothing less. Instead of complexity (where pretension abounds), the perfumer in his or her wisdom strove instead for simplicity and self-restraint. This is why Sharif is a delight: the no-frills approach yielded an fragrance as melodious as it is macho, as tranquil as it is tough. If you can talk the man in your life into anointing himself with oils, this is the one to press on him. If he's not having it, wear it yourself. Absorb its cool blue aura and breathe easy: Sharif's got your back.

Scent Elements: Incense, juniper, amber, oakmoss, nutmeg, spices, orange, bergamot

Persian Shafayat (Attar Bazaar)

Founded in 1981, Attar Bazaar is a California-based aromatherapy company offering traditional perfume blends from India, Egypt, North Africa and the Middle East. Its cofounders (a husband-and-wife team) resided for many years in India, where they became fascinated with the traditional art of attar-making. I've been using their fragrances for years, and have always appreciated the spirit of generosity which appears to be their institutional ethic. It aptly reflects AB's affiliation with the Chishtī Order of Sufis, whose humanistic philosophy of peace and tolerance has drawn adherents for over 250 years.

Western perfumes typically consist of precise amounts of pure, isolated essences combined according to a set formula and diluted with alcohol in exact ratios, for unvaryingly consistent results. Attars, on the other hand, require dozens of raw aromatic substances to be steam-distilled together in an enclosed vessel known as a deg. The resulting composite essence travels through a hollow bamboo channel to a second vessel called a bhapka, which is filled with sandalwood oil. The actual blending process takes place within the bhapka; the attar-maker neither controls nor interferes with it. Attars, therefore, are a product of both skill and blind trust. No two attars are exactly alike, and recipes are a tribal affair, zealously guarded from outsiders.

Because Attar Bazaar's production methods cleave to modern, Western models (including the use of latter-day aromachemicals), their perfume oils are more consistent from batch to batch. Each is a blend of safe synthetics and natural aromatic substances; while none are organic, all are alcohol-free and cruelty-free. And though they may not be true attars by the strict definition, Attar Bazaar wares faithfully follow Eastern scent templates. Affordable and accessible, they offer beginners a wonderful introduction to the attar aesthetic.

Shafayat ("The Healer") is a blend of six formidable base oils, including amber, frankincense, sandalwood, and (from what my nose tells me), a healthy dose of myrrh. Despite all this heavy ballast, Shafayat manages to come off as airy and light; the cheerful bite of ginger root evident in its heart certainly contributes to the general buoyancy. According to AB's website, this attar was the "private blend" of their founder and invests the wearer with positive self-confidence. I certainly felt uplifted by Shafayat's warm and illumining presence as I went through my day. It seemed to affect me on a heart-deep level, blunting those unavoidable moments of tension and prompting me to treat others as kindly as my perfume was treating me. It's rare to find a scent that offers such a benefit, not only to the wearer but to all those around her.

More Attar Bazaar reviews will follow. Their catalog is vast and varied... but if you're looking for a place to start, let Persian Shafayat open the door.

Scent Elements: Amber, frankincense, myrrh, sandalwood, ginger, spices

Unlocking an unknown: Mr. Webber's 6T

In the realm of the perfume enthusiast, a lucky find takes on the luster of recovered deep-sea treasure. Example: a few weeks ago, Angela at Now Smell This reported scoring a bottle of Amouage Gold at her local Goodwill Store. The comment thread lit up with expressions of envy and amazement (a GOODWILL store?)eventually compelling Angela to post a follow-up article on how it's done. (I wish her tips worked for me. The only item of interest I've ever found in my Goodwill's cosmetic section was a bottle of Karo Corn Syrup. With the current trend of gag-me candyfloss fragrances, I theorize that someone mistook it for perfume.)

Certain finds go further, acquiring an air of legend on a par with that of the Staffordshire gold hoard. About a month ago, Carol of WAFT visited an estate sale which featured a staggering array of vintage and contemporary perfumes. The magnitude of the find compelled her to return to the sale the next day to make an offer. It was accepted, and now Carol is the proud owner of the Webber Collection-- a veritable museum of perfume history.

To call this score "unheard-of" is no joke. Many of these perfumes are one-of-a-kind works created by the late Mr. Webber during his career as an aromachemist. (As the estate manager told Carol, Webber apparently composed the evergreen accord that scents modern Pine-Sol products.) Unnamed, unlabeled, these treasures represent a newly-discovered country of scent waiting to be mapped.

To this end, Carol chose one parfum in particular -- a formula identified only by the code "6T" -- and invited a group of fellow perfume-bloggers to review it. I found myself fortunate to be among their number, and waited with pent breath for 6T to arrive by post.

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It seemed so unassuming at first-- this square, frosted-glass sample bottle with a fitted stopper and a tiny navy-blue emblem printed on the front. (I like to imagine Mr. Webber back in the good old Mad Men days, giving these anonymous bottles away to his firm's clients. Does your wife wear perfume? Perhaps she'll enjoy this. What is it? Oh, just a little something I cooked up to amuse myself...)

First sniff out of the bottle: the usual nail-polish scent of a perfume fresh out of storage, quickly dissipating. A very fresh citrus note waited behind it, followed by flowers and aldehydes. So far, we were on familiar ground.

In the same sense that students of fine art are expected to copy works by the masters, 6T appeared at first to be Mr. Webber's hommage to both Ernest Beaux and Jacques Guerlain-- faithfully reproducing the sparkling dryness of the former and the amber-nectar sweetness of the latter. As of yet, nothing original-- but a very fine tribute.

Still, there was more experimentation to be done. I decided to split the perfume, transferring one half into a new spray bottle via sterile pipette, and leaving the rest in the stoppered vial.

Test #1: dabbing. Using the stoppered vial, I applied 6T to my pulse points on the morning of a business meeting. It proved very taciturn on skin, barely seeking my attention as I went about my day. From time to time I caught little scent-missives rising from my skin-- sweet citrus, amber, aldehydes, a definite animalic note in the heart, and crisp, dry sandalwood as it geared down. At this point, 6T seemed to resemble Chanel No. 5 in one of the lower concentrates, like eau de toilette. Its manners were impeccable, unobtrusive and quiet; it offered almost no evidence of sillage and left only a pleasant powdery shimmer behind when all was said and done.

Test #2: spraying. That same evening, my husband and I had a date for dinner at a friend's home. Around five o'clock, I reached for the spray bottle and gave my pulse points a spritz.

Whooosh! What a difference!

A deep, resonant, emerald-green note -- unnoticed earlier -- changed the profile of this perfume from a standard and staid citrus to an ultra-fresh chypre with disco strobe-light effects. As a kaleidoscope of notes flew past -- fresh lime zest, cedar foliage, a hint of jasmine -- 6T shed its neat and boxy little wool Chanel suit and reappeared in a diaphanous, off-the-shoulder Halston, ready for the dance floor.

As the evening flowed onward, I marveled at a side of 6T that the dab test never would have revealed-- namely its heart, a fabulous cinnamon-bark and ginger-root accord with plenty of aldehydic sparkle. Those animalic and sandalwood notes seemed even more prominent and self-assured, touched with a certain hip hauteur imported straight from Studio 54. The extreme end of its drydown (a very soft and agreeable moss) was still on my wrist seven hours later. (Who would have thought that under its demure facade, 6T would be a fragrance tailor-made for stumbling home happy at midnight?)

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I realize now that it was wrong to write 6T off entirely as an artist's copy. Spraying brought out all of its personality, and now it's plain to see that it's a composite work. Envision three sketches -- Chanel, Guerlain, Webber -- printed on transparencies and layered so that when viewed from above, a single image of marvelous charm is revealed. Like a Warhol silkscreen, 6T's colorful strata work together to make the composite vision sing.

Since then, I've transferred all of 6T into the spray bottle and worn it on several occasions, growing happier and happier with each wearing. I've applied it at eight-thirty in the morning and found it still lingering around my pulse points at quitting time, behaving itself as gently as a lamb. All day long, I may have been the only one aware of it, but I was grateful for its presence.

What's left to say? Only this: as names go, "6T" is a little too clinical. While musing about alternative monikers, I hit upon Entrechat-Trois-- the ballet maneuver in which a dancer leaps, beats their feet together rapidly three times, and lands all in one smooth, uninterrupted motion. To pull it off requires a certain easy nonchalance, which I believe Mr. Webber demonstrated in full with his mysterious masterwork.

Wazamba (Parfum d'Empire)

With more than 7,500 varieties of apple in the world, you'd think there would be more than only two strains of apple fragrance: "fresh green" and "spiced red". The "green" is crisp and invigorating; the "red" is warm and comforting. Tweak them with vanilla and white flowers, cinnamon pie crust and fresh berries, and the result is always the same: a dead bore.

Don't get me wrong. My heartstrings are as susceptible to apple's homey connotations as anyone else's. No one would deny that a fruit-laden orchard in autumn is a splendid sight to behold... or that a freshly-baked apple pie makes a house smell more truly like a home. Yankee Candle Company knows it. Bath and Body Works knows it. Donna Karan knows it. Even I know it. ¡Ya basta!

Some perfumery notes (like jasmine and musk) whisper of erotic possibilities, others (like oudh and leather) tell of danger and adventure. But apple seems to speak only in cheerful platitudes, predictable and banal. Like an old plate illustration from a Dickens novel, it drips with manufactured sentimentality. If Milan Kundera's concept of kitsch needed a poster child, a shiny ripe red apple would do capitally.

Until now.

Back in March, I experienced equal measures of enchantment and disappointment in Serge Lutens' Fille en Aiguilles. I thought its notes picture-perfect, but its staying power piss-poor. In Parfum d'Empire's Wazamba, every promise that Fille en Aiguilles reneged on is finally fulfilled-- and all of the old apple prototypes are tossed into the fire.


Fille en Aiguilles is a sedate little open-air campfire deep in the friendly woods-- pine knots popping, whippoorwills calling, crickets chirping. Wazamba is the same forest 15,000 years ago, with dire wolves and sabretooth tigers stalking the underbrush. The lodge fire is more than a happy gathering point for the tribe; it's the very guarantor of life, light, and salvation from the bone-chilling cold of the Ice Age. And as fires go, it's huge. It doesn't snap and crackle politely. It ROARS.

That fiery aroma at the outset? It's not the sooty, clinging smell of old smoke, nor the lively smell of new smoke, nor the nostalgic smell of smoke carried on the wind. It is the overpowering crimson glow of a banked fire pit that backhands you across the face with the immediacy of its heat. And the apple? It's neither crisp and juicy-fresh nor laden with syrup and spices. The apple is IN THE FIRE-- cast into it whole almost as fuel, or as a sacrifice to the gods. Juices sizzling, tender skin blackening, it shrivels and pops in the flames. (Good lord, what kind of cookout IS this?) Cypress and fir feed the inferno for hours, reducing all unhappy memories of Fille en Aiguilles to windblown ash. Twelve hours after application, I am still raising my wrist to my nose and smiling a toothsome smile.

Not since Breath of God have I found myself this disturbed, stymied, and intrigued by a perfume's progression. This is a savage smell, a threatening smell, a VIOLENT smell. Whatever apple it contains came straight from the larder of Snow White's evil stepmother. Its sorcery dominates the senses immediately; it strips away the notion of propriety in perfume and inspires both outrage and romance. I would wear this, and not much else, to Burning Man-- and I would be the best-dressed savage baying under the moon.

Scent Elements: Incense, myrrh, sandalwood, opoponax, cypress, apple, balsam fir, aldehydes

En la botánica.

You don't have to travel to Paris or Milan to obtain good scents. Here are a couple of Western Hemisphere hits (and misses) that can be found in your local bodega or botánica, or believe it or not, your local supermarket. God bless America!

Violetas Francesas Splash Cologne (Violetas Francesas) / Royal Violets Eau de Cologne (Agustin Reyes)
Why buy: Violetas Francesas is is a charming (if resolutely juvenile) violet-and-talcum accord, squeaky clean and quite lovely. All it requires of you is that you turn a blind eye to its extremely disturbing label, which features a chubby toddler bizarrely clad in a midriff-baring bra. By contrast, Royal Violets' package design is appealingly retro-- as is the fragrance it contains. Modern young things might not elect to wear it, but a bottle to sniff from in times of trouble might prove as reassuring as a hug from Grandma.
Don't buy: Corlys Violet, with its dubious claim of "Real Violets". You'll end up with a bottle full of suspiciously orange liquid that smells nothing like violets, and everything like an elderly lady's underpants drawer. When the first words a perfume brings to mind are "crotch rot", consider yourself warned.

Agua de Florida (Murray & Lanman)
Why buy: Ah! you think. The New World version of 4711 Echt Kölnisch Wasser! But really, it's so much more. An original product of the Americas continuously in production since 1808, this magical citrus elixir is the essential component of all Santería and Vodoun asperging rituals, replacing Christian holy water as an agent of sanctification. (Sprinkled on one's pillow before bedtime, it is especially effective against bad dreams.) It's as inexpensive and plentiful as the air you breathe, so buy a gallon's worth and splash it on without reserve. Bonus feature: gorgeous label design, if you can overlook the plastic bottle.
Don't buy: Vahine Agua de Azahar. This cosmetic-grade orange-blossom water is also cheap-- but it's weak and has a faint metallic undertone, as if it had been improperly stored in an aluminum vat. Once it dries, it leaves skin smelling curiously dank. For good orangeflower water, try the Moroccan culinary section at Wegman's instead.

Superior 70 Bay Rum
Why buy: Because it's fantastic, cheesy plastic bottle notwithstanding. This is an authentic Puerto Rican bay rum, distilled from the West Indian bay tree and spiced with copious amounts of cinnamon bark and cloves. Tradition invests bay rum with all sorts of antiseptic, astringent, deodorizing, and demon-quelling properties, so this multitasking product certainly gives consumers their money's worth. Its high alcohol content enables it to wick readily from skin, cooling the wearer quickly in hot weather. Transfer it to a mist bottle for a refresher-to-go or to keep at your bedside for relief on sultry summer nights.
Don't buy: Anything else. Why would you want to? At less than two dollars a bottle, Superior 70 is an unimaginable steal, and fully as qualified to please as any other, more costly bay rum. (However, please note that it comes in regular and mentholated versions; check the label carefully before you wipe out your local bodega's supply.)

Balkis (Parfums de Nicolaï)

Today I used up my very last remaining drops of Parfums de Nicolaï's Balkis. Balkis was among the first batch of decants I ever obtained, and I'm not surprised that I finished it first. I'm sure there were perfumes that startled, delighted, and captivated me more. But none comforted me quite the way Balkis did... and for that, I am profoundly grateful.

Back in December -- just on the cusp of a barrage of snowstorms which kept the Eastern seaboard paralyzed for months -- I was diagnosed with hemidystonia, a brain-based movement disorder which causes involuntary spasms in the limbs on the left side of my body. The pain and dismay caused by my condition, paired with the frustration of seeking a solution in the medical labyrinth, proved exhausting and debilitating. By February, my energy was at low tide. Recognizing that my spirits were beginning to stray into dangerous territories, I knew I needed to take constructive action. So I created this blog and began posting reviews. Writing about perfume assuaged my distress over a body I no longer fully controlled, and offered me something besides my physical predicament on which to focus energy.

During this time, I often found myself craving Balkis. This is not something I could have said of any other rose.

If I could get my hands on both a time machine and a portable "headspace" analyser, there's a few flowers from my mother's old garden that I'd love to meet again on a molecular level. The four-o'-clock shrub that smelled of vanilla beans... the sharp-bitter turmeric scent of daylily pollen... the improbable lemon meringue pie odor of the datura flowers that threw dinner-plate-sized shadows over the driveway.  And then, of course, there were the roses-- the best in the neighborhood, particularly the Peace roses, cream edged with salmon pink.  The scent of Mom's roses on a warm summer breeze was, I thought, one of life's greatest felicities.

But roses in concentration?

Once, I had the opportunity to sniff a real attar of roses straight from Istanbul. The perfumer insisted on holding the bottle while I bent my head over it-- possibly because it cost hundreds of dollars per dram, or else she thought I might pass out from the heaven of it all. I understand that in saying this I am committing heresy and will be burnt as a witch, but what met my nose -- a combination of formaldehyde, black pepper, and cheap dishwashing liquid -- shocked me. All Orientalist visions of rose harvests à la Rudolph Ernst fled before the advancing army of stonk.  I hated, hated, hated it.

How rose perfumes pass themselves off as dainty and feminine, I will never understand. They're the exhibitionists dreaded by all partygoers-- the ones whose booming voices and shameless antics send humbler guests scrambling for their coats. Even as bit players, they can derail an ensemble piece by turning inexplicably vulgar or sour. There's no predicting until the drydown hits whether you'll be soaring through a sweet pink paradise or swimming in a vat of old-lady vinegar.

So why do we keep trying? Because the rose -- the real one, fresh and dewy -- is what we're thinking of while reaching for the sad facsimile. We want that gorgeous thing, and will keep striving toward it no matter how many bad sprays, lotions, soaps, and Yankee Candles burn us.

If I'd stopped after reading the description, I'd have written Balkis off without a thought. Rose AND raspberry? To me, "fruity florals" in and of themselves signal danger. Raspberries figure large in this genre -- usually as unpleasantly as possible -- so I fully expected a great, big, sticky, Jolly-Rancher-flavored slap in the face.

Instead, the first note was a rosemary terpene, astringent and evergreen. I sat up straight. After this palate cleanser came the dessert tray-- but again, the usual sickening syrup was nowhere to be found. Instead, roses and raspberries had been cooked down to a concentrated jam, fused together by slow heat into something as dark, potent, and honeyed as Persian pomegranate molasses. Once this faded (thankfully not too soon) I found myself cozied up to a straight-up oriental rose: friendly, uncomplicated, powdery, and soft, as if headspaced right off of a living blossom still nodding on the vine. Balkis offers almost zero sillage -- unusual for a rose -- but having this scent stick close by your side is hardly a drawback. Above all, there's not a single trace of nasty guest-bathroom soap smell or any of the other demons that plague this genre.

Finally, a rose without thorns!

I cannot stress enough how much I welcomed Balkis' optimistic theme on those chilly, pre-dawn drives to the hospital imaging center.  It warmed me during long passages motionless in the MRI chamber-- and cheered me during those anxious days while I waited for the verdict. Perhaps I didn't realize how often I was wearing it-- but now that the results have come back, I can guess at the underlying reason.

I have since tried my best to adapt myself to the new twists and turns that hemidystonia imposes on my life. So much a fixture of my day-to-day life has it become that I no longer feel that terrible, urgent desire to hide and be comforted. As a result, wearing Balkis today seems anachronistic, even redundant to me. Back then, I asked it to absorb some of the sadness I was feeling, and it generously complied. And now, I no longer feel as sad or needful of succour. Life requires movement, and I am moving on.

Still, sadness -- like winter -- always comes back around. Before it strikes again, I think I will replenish my supply of Balkis as an anodyne to strengthen my soul against the darkness and cold.

Scent Elements: Raspberry, Turkish damask rose, black pepper, coffee extract, iris, benzoin, vanilla

Eau Noire (Dior)

Due to the return of hot, dry weather, I woke up today craving immortelle. Something about that golden, arid scent conjures up the mirage-ripples of August heat.

But it's only July 3rd, you say. True. But by tomorrow, it will feel like August-- ninety-five degrees in the shade, so I'm told. By then, I'll want to wear something lemony, crisp, and cool. But today it was immortelle or nothing.

I'd been warned beforehand that Eau Noire smells of curry powder, and sure enough, it does. If curry makes your mouth water the way it does mine, Eau Noire will pose you no problems. It emphasizes immortelle's savory aspect over its usual maple-syrup sweetness and ends up smelling wonderfully spicy-dusty, like crushed bay leaves or turmeric powder.

What you may not be expecting is the smell of figs-- not the fresh-fruit-and-foliage of Philosykos or Premier Figuier, but the dark, concentrated sweetness of dried figs. In this it's quite similar to 1740 Marquis de Sade, but again, more savory than sweet. It called to mind a recipe for bay-infused figs I tried once, with very satisfying results. Here it is for your enjoyment-- and have a hot and happy Fourth of July tomorrow!

Heavenly Figs

Make a cup of strong black tea and pour it over a dozen dried, whole, and unblemished Calimyrna figs. Cover and let sit overnight. Transfer liquid into a saucepan and add 3 tbsp. maple syrup, five whole bay leaves, and the juice of half a lemon. Bring to a boil and cook for two minutes until reduced. Add figs to saucepan. Simmer over low heat for 15-20 minutes, basting the figs from time to time. Transfer figs onto a plate, bring syrup back to a boil, and whisk in a small amount of cornstarch-and-water mixture to thicken it into a sauce. Pour over figs, let cool, and serve with crème fraîche.

Scent Elements: Immortelle, lavender, cedar, vanilla

Ambre Russe (Parfum d'Empire)

There is such a State in Eternity: it is composed of the Innocent civilised Heathen and the Uncivilised Savage, who, having not the Law, do by Nature the things contain'd in the Law. This State appears like a Female crown'd with stars, driven into the Wilderness; she has the Moon under her Feet.
--William Blake
I once had a friend -- let's call her Eve -- who liked to sort people into categories. Rather than individuals, she preferred "types"... and she was determined to fill her social circle with one of each.

Because I am an artist, she dubbed me the "Crazy Bohemian". In her limited view, that's what all artists were. Whenever I did or said something overly logical or normal, it subtly disturbed her. Deep down, she was not comfortable viewing people as three-dimensional; she felt everyone should stick to the script.

When Eve got married, she bought each of her bridesmaids perfume-- matching each girl to the fragrance that best expressed her given "type". The Athlete received a fresh ocean-breeze fragrance. The Incurable Romantic received a dewy spring floral, while jasmine went to the Sexpot. The Scholar found herself holding a bottle of prim Victorian rose scent. And I -- the resident Crazy Bohemian -- ended up with amber. (Don't we always?)

But the Athlete was a closet romantic; the Sexpot was secretly rather prim; the Scholar had a wild side, and the Romantic-- well, she liked the beach. For all these gifts were meant to show how well she had us pegged, Eve only succeeded in proving how little she knew us at heart. Rumors abounded of a clandestine midnight perfume-swap-- but I wasn't in on that plot. I alone liked the perfume I'd ended up with.

And though she was the one who'd bought it for me, Eve positively loathed it.

She'd been with me when I purchased my very first amber. I found it at Now & Then, a celebrated head shop which sprawled along the banks of the Delaware a stone's throw from the New Hope Bridge. Amid the Indian-print wall hangings and cases of blown-glass one-hitters, my amber awaited-- a sweet and smooth elixir in a one-dram brown glass vial. Of course it wasn't really "amber", such as washes up from the Baltic Sea to be made into jewelry. What perfumers call "amber" is an artful blend of benzoin, labdanum, patchouli, sandalwood, vetiver and vanilla. It may be enlisted as a fixative for other fragrances, but amber is already a complete perfume with a character all its own.

Can a perfume convey an ideology? I think perhaps it can. I would say that amber evokes for me all the color and chaos of the modern gypsy lifestyle paired with the sacredness of ancient days. There is something at once subversive and ceremonial about the act of anointing one's own body with fragrant oils. It's pagan. It's countercultural. It marks one as a metaphysical outlaw.

Which is precisely what Eve feared and despised. She'd abstained from even setting foot in Now & Then that day, opting to stand scowling out on the sidewalk while I wallowed in exotica. Afterward, she recoiled from my amber-daubed wrist. Why (she wondered) did I want to smell like a dirty, greasy hippie, when everyone knew that hippies take drugs? As far as she was concerned, every single threat to her way of life was distilled into that tiny glass vial. One sniff -- she warned me -- and you were headed down a road to irredeemability.

Obviously there were greater conflicts in our friendship than this one, but somehow our fundamental differences had found a symbol in this bottle of perfume. She couldn't understand why I liked it. I couldn't understand why she hated it. Experiences must at least have a common border in order for a middle ground to exist-- and here we found the first of many divides too broad to cross.

I haven't spoken to Eve in years, but occasionally I still wear her gift amber. As far as amber fragrances go, I find it adequate, if rather on the weak side. I suspect that these are the precise attributes for which Eve chose it, the way one settles on the least of numerous evils. What I truly prefer is, I'm sure, beyond her pale.

Ambre Russe is a sweet, rich, opulent amber with the density of a Medjool date and the elegance of fine pipe tobacco. I wouldn't call it shy, or its manners at all refined. So powerful is Amber Russe that it fairly leaps out of the bottle before you've even gotten the cap off. Radiant and imperious, it announces itself basso profundo and scatters some bad-ass sillage around to show you who's in charge. It lasts just this short of forever on skin, and just when you think it's taking up permanent residence, it transforms into an unanticipated (and perfectly scrumptious) cinnamon-chai tea drydown. If I had to marry one amber for life (and I hope I'm never forced to make that choice!) it might well be this one. I adore its defiance, its up-against-the-wall attitude, and the core of melting tenderness it hides.

I might venture to guess that Eve would run screaming from Ambre Russe as if chased by the Cossack hordes, but no matter. To each his own philosophy. An old proverb states, "Keep at three paces distant the man who dislikes music, bread, or the laugh of a child." For me, the true acid test is the scent of amber: I simply cannot trust the person whose heart it cannot lift.

Scent Elements: Cinnamon, coriander, tea, frankincense, amber, leather

Comme des Garçons Incense Week / Day Five: Kyoto

Here I am at the end of Incense Week... and what a sensual sevenday it's been. I'm grateful to have finally gotten to test-drive this legendary series by Comme des Garçons; it has definitely supplied me with incentive to check out the rest of their fragrance collection. If I had to give a rating to the overall experience, it would stand between three and a half and four stars-- mostly pleasurable with minor wobbles balanced by very bright spots.

Composed by Bertrand Duchaufour, Kyoto is a gorgeous cypress-and-cedar fragrance with warm, fruity components. Its family resemblance to Aedes de Venustas and Avignon is clear, but its emotional tone is quite distinct from its counterparts. Shadowy, clean, spare, and tranquil, it suggests a still point in the midst of life's hurlyburly, a meditative oasis for the weary traveler. Between the earthiness of Aedes and the lofty heights of Avignon, Kyoto takes the peaceable middle way.

It opens (at least in my mind) with the tannin-tinged astringency of unripe persimmons-- a fitting association, since persimmons (kaki) are beloved throughout Japan. Eschewing blatant sweetness, this fruity note is a welcome alternative to the much-overused citrus, and segues smoothly into a cypress accord notable for its green freshness. From there, it settles into a muted cedar and patchouli blend with no need for unnecessary embellishment.

Kyoto's mixture of the sacred and mundane is clearly inspired by the city for which it's named-- a place where ancient temples border on flashy tourist attractions, and geiko hurry through residential neighborhoods en route to their nightly zashiki. In such a place, everyday life takes on a gloss of high ritual, without ever losing its pragmatic grasp of the facts.

In the same way that the soul of a nation may be encountered in its customs, or a visual artist may develop an aesthetic recognizable from two hundred paces, Bertrand Duchaufour's body of work creates an unmistakable impression that, once identified, can never be missed. That his signature is so obvious does not detract from the beauty and mystery of the fragrances he authors. One recognizes the handwriting of the master.

Scent Elements: Cypress, cedar, vetiver, coffee, teakwood, patchouli, amber, immortelle

Comme des Garçons Incense Week / Day Four: Jaisalmer

A hectic day off to a breathless start-- unexpected crises, appointments both planned and unplanned, blood pressure on the rise, a night shift awaiting me at the library. I'm using a lull in the action to piece together this review, finally grateful for my idiosyncratic preference of typing above all other forms of stress reduction.

In Jaisalmer, Evelyne Boulanger takes the elements that appeared in Zagorsk and forces them to swap places. Zagorsk: frankincense in a cedar cigar box. Jaisalmer: a mighty cedar forest with a scattering of frankincense tears hidden in the underbrush.

But what's this-- no cedar listed in the formula? A cedar accord achieved without cedar? Nonsense. So clearly, definitely, indubitably cedar is Jaisalmer that my incredulity refuses to be silenced. No, I think, no, you cannot fool me; I know what I know. That this may all come down to chemical sleight-of-hand infuriates me-- and, like all well-executed magic, makes me long for more.

I wish that I could say it lasted, but like Zagorsk, Jaisalmer did not seem inclined to linger. Still, I don't feel inconvenienced by the prospect of reapplying, the way I would with other fragrances -- so it's back to the forest I go for a second helping.

Scent Elements: Cardamom, incense, cinnamon, amber, benzoin, chili, guiac wood, ebony wood