Derby (Guerlain)

A story, possibly apocryphal:

A drifter comes into a small town on foot and is arrested for vagrancy. The police don't know what to do with him. He doesn't match any missing or wanted persons in the database; what's more, he hasn't got a shred of ID on him and refuses to tell the processing officer his name. They call in the FBI: same story. They bring in a psychologist: no dice. The mystery man remains a mystery. Sitting calmly in his six-by-eight jail cell as policemen and federal agents and social workers and newspaper reporters buzz all around, puzzling and scratching their heads, this holy fool smiles a beatific smile.

"I already know who I am, kind sirs," he tells them. "If you want to know, it's your job to find out-- not mine."

identity (ī-dĕn'-tĭ-tĕ) n., pl. –ties. 1. The condition or fact of being a certain person or thing and recognizable as such. 2. The condition or fact of being the same as something else: sameness. 3. In the social sciences, a person’s conception or expression of group affiliation (i.e. national or cultural identity). 4. In psychology, a person’s conception or expression of self (as in gender or individuality). M.Fr. identité, from L.Lat. identitat-, identitas, prob. from Lat. identidem “repeatedly”, contraction of idem et idem, literally “same and same”.

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Perfume defines identity. This, we know. At this moment, at least a hundred people are sniffing their wrists and thinking, This. This is the one. Forget the others. This one is ME. Whoever and whatever "me" is, a fragrance can help us decide. It says for us in shorthand what would take too long to explain to every person we meet: who we are, what we stand for, what we're all about.

Perfume declares identity. Like most social animals, we broadcast scent to be recognized and accepted by our peers. Without the proper olfactory calling card, membership in certain circles would be difficult, if not impossible. As a million teenaged girls might tell you, a bottle of the "right" perfume is part of the admission ticket to one's chosen strata of the human race.

Perfume contains identity. Unless they're knockoffs or flankers, the juices themselves have individual characters. Certain resemblances may exist between members of a perfume brand (or even more so, within a perfume "family" such as chypres or marines) but in the best of cases, each perfume is nonpareil; just like a person, it demands to be met on its own terms.

In this, Derby is no different than ten thousand other fragrances. It is what it is. But like the drifter in the story, it also dares and defies you to tell who you think it is. And it doesn't give away hints for free.

One of the first things we learn as children is to identify others by gender. Does fragrance have gender? Ought it to? Whenever we're not certain, we call a perfume "unisex"-- but can this empty word so beloved of marketers and ad-copyists encapsulate what is so truly, resolutely, gloriously genderqueer about Derby?

It opens with a sweet-and-sour green bergamot and jasmine accord which misleads the hearer into thinking the path ahead is all mapped out. But within mere seconds, a handsome accord of birch tar, pepper, and vetiver steps into view and catches hold of the floral's hand. As they stand side by side, one notices every point of complementary difference (and more than a few points of harmony). Between these fraternal twins, a field of electricity crackles, welding them together, keeping them apart.

Here, in essence, we have two perfumes occupying the same space: one a chic and feminine floral chypre, the other an adventuresome masculine leather. Before you make any prejudicial assumptions, understand that the chypre is his and the leather is hers... and these two share everything.

Derby is the Plato's Symposium of perfume.

Strongly akin to Habit Rouge (only drier and less sweet), it features at its heart an intriguing, illusory cinnamon-stick accord that sits at the junction of about five other scent elements-- mace, patchouli, and black pepper being among them. Artemisia and vetiver shine throughout the drydown, a shimmering dry-herbs accord almost incense-like in nature, reminiscent of Bertrand Duchaufour's style. Yet this arid note does not cancel out what is dewy and green about Derby. It just transplants it to another neighborhood and somehow makes it thrive. If you've ever seen a jungle of happy houseplants prospering on a seedy Lower East Side fire escape, you know what I mean.

If one did choose Derby as the perfume to define, declare, and contain their identity, I would imagine that this person had already come to an acceptance of all the different facets of self that comprise them as an individual-- the male, the female, the inbetween. But as a moniker, "androgynous" is too often used to describe surfaces, visual cues, appearances. Since a fragrance possesses none of these, what word can one use?

I'm tempted to say that Derby is two-spirited, hoping that this term will hint somewhat at its aura of serene self-possession. It's not masculine; nor is it feminine. It's not the city, and it's not the country. It's both; it's neither. It's everything; it's nothing. It's what you perceive it to be, and it's not. It is what it is.

And it's beautiful.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, lemon, artemisia, peppermint, pimento, rose, pepper, mace, jasmine, leather, vetiver, patchouli, sandalwood, moss

Arrivederci, Mughetto....

Today is what's called a "soft" day-- cloudy, cool, the air filled with mist not quite coalescing into rain. Lawns which for weeks have been steadily growing crisper and browner have come out in a blush of pale, new green dappled with white gems of accumulating dew. You'd think it was April... if August hadn't already done its worst.

Though I store all my perfumes properly enclosed -- first in tightly sealed vials, then boxes kept in a cool, dark place -- my sample of Santa Maria Novella Mughetto (Lily-of-the-Valley) has undergone a mysterious slow drop in volume over the last four months. Though I have only worn it twice, this morning I found only an eighth of an inch left in the vial. A faulty stopper? Natural evaporation? Fairy interference? No way to know. But dewy Mughetto seemed the only thing to wear today, so I wore it all, right down to the last drop.

I've often thought that muguet presents an odd combination of girlish innocence and bulldozer force. It's amazing how heavy-handed these ladylike little blossoms can be-- pinning you up against the wall only to breathe a song of sweetness in your ear. But among these little ballbusters of the floral world, Mughetto is truly sui generis-- green, intensely dewy, and about as dainty as a dominatrix. Like Carol Kane's sociopathic Ghost of Christmas Present in Scrooged, it comes out of the bottle like gangbusters, sweetly trilling lalalalala before belting you right upside your fool head. If you don't mind being roughed up by a delicate flower, you'll enjoy yourself. Me, I found few reasons either to wear it or to contemplate buying more-- not least because it seemed a scent best reserved for little girls and virginal types, of which I am neither.

But who am I to make this judgment? The muguet wearer is only as old as she feels.

Textbook example: my former coworker, Mim. When I started at the library, Mim (short for Miriam) was 92 years old. Having launched her library career in her early forties -- quite a brave and unconventional move for a wife, homemaker, and mother in the pre-feminist 1950's -- she'd been working there for five consecutive decades by the time I began. She knew every one of our birthdays by heart, redecorated her work station every month with special seasonal figurines and tchotchkes-- and daily wore the most delicious lily-of-the-valley perfume I had ever inhaled.

I asked Mim about it once. She told me she'd been wearing lily-of-the-valley since her late teens and claimed it helped her to "catch" the man who became her husband. What was good enough for him would thereafter be good enough for generations-- children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and all of us who worked alongside her and viewed her as the library's cornerstone. Her perfume seemed to me to represent the breath of invincible youth she carried with her everywhere. I know that most of that vitality came from Mim and Mim alone... but though she passed away years ago, Mughetto brings her back to me today.

(Mim, was it you? Were you helping yourself to your favorite perfume? If I thought it could be true, then I'd definitely replace it-- and reserve it for your own particular use.)

Mouchoir de Monsieur (Guerlain)

There's really not much to say about Mouchoir de Monsieur that hasn't been said -- loud and clear and for 121 years -- by Jicky. Being a blatant retread launched fifteen years after its more famous sibling, one could almost call Mouchoir de Monsieur a Jicky flanker. Or "Jicky pour l'homme"... if only l'homme hadn't already been hitting Jicky for years.

But each new wave scorns the shibboleths of the previous generation; the vanity of youth demands fresh tributes of its own. One imagines an army of arrogant young things, bored with their parents' fusty old fragrances, clamoring for a signature scent-- something new, edgy, just for us! (And what did Jacques Guerlain do? Supremely indulgent, he handed them the exact same juice... only in a different bottle. New boss, meet the old boss!)

When two perfumes share so many of the same traits, one must look for clues to tell them apart. Both Jicky and MdM hang their Belle Époque finery on an identical lavender-vanilla armature with a unisex silhouette. But much as one can tell a man's coat by the positioning of the buttons, certain subtle details act as fragrance shorthand for gender. A double-dose of civet and an emphasis on bergamot over lemon or neroli helps to situate MdM firmly on the masculine side of the scale, rendering it less floral, less rococo, drier and more leathery than its sister scent. As for Jicky's weird, compelling halitosis note, MdM amps it up to the fragrance equivalent of a tomcat's yowl-- hitting the bullseye between sexy and aggressive to which he-men have aspired for centuries.

Why, then, does feminine Jicky still come off as the more virile of the two perfumes?

The answer may be a matter of... well, cumulative life experience. Jicky's been around the block so many times, she can't help radiating placid self-confidence from top to bottom. If Mouchoir de Monsieur radiates anything, it's the fitful, uncertain energy of the adolescent. Frankly speaking, there's an obvious parallel to be drawn between MdM and your average male twentysomething: both come on strong, but fizzle out quick. In the immortal words of Nick Lowe, here comes the 20th century's latest scam: half a boy and half a man.

If Jicky is Léa de Lonval, it stands to reason that Mouchoir de Monsieur is Chéri-- that petulant prettyboy with the heart of darkness. As frivolous as a kitten, as decorative as a doll, Chéri possesses exactly as much beauty as he lacks manners. (In an early scene, he informs Léa that she ought to give him her pearls since they look so much better on him. Saucer of cream, table one!) His tongue is expert at spite, but true love renders him mute; he has an instinctive grasp of luxury and fashion, but is clueless about his own heart. Snotty, sullen, callow, vain -- and in spite of it all, deeply appealing -- Chéri is Léa's exact match and perfect mate, a twin soul born years too late.

So what truly differentiates Mouchoir de Monsieur from Jicky, besides fifteen years' difference in age? A faint five o'clock shadow? The tiniest punk-rock snarl? These might count for something when he's preening in front of the mirror... but one sniff of her perfume, and fifteen years are no more than a heartbeat...

Scent Elements: Lavender, bergamot, verbena, rose, jasmine, neroli, civet, patchouli, vanilla, iris

Vol de Nuit (Guerlain)

From the annals of experimental science:

Day One
Applied vintage Vol de Nuit to various pulse points. Odor resembled sweet talcum powder with very slight hint of celery seed-- soft, extremely reticent, and vaguely familiar. Two hours later, Vol de Nuit entirely gone.

Day Two
Applied vintage Evening In Paris to left wrist; waited four hours. Applied vintage Vol de Nuit to right wrist, and immediately took turns smelling each wrist. For the life of me, could not tell the difference between the two. Two hours later, Evening in Paris still detectable. Vol de Nuit, once again, entirely gone.

Vol de Nuit starts exactly where Evening in Paris leaves off. In other words, it is Evening In Paris in the late drydown stage, after absolutely all the fun has died away. And since it delivers only half of what EIP does, it receives only half of EIP's stars.

Scent Elements: Hesperides, narcissus, galbanum, oakmoss, woods, iris, vanilla

Eau de Fleur de Soie: a second reckoning.

The other day, desiring a break from Guerlainapalooza in general (and the fatty excesses of Attrape-Coeurs in particular), I decided that I needed a "low-cal" perfume. I selected Kenzo's watery Eau de Fleur de Soie and sprayed it on... and almost passed out.

This fragrance, which I had previously experienced as light, pale, quiet, and weak-almost-to-the-point-of-nonexistence, nearly knocked me over now with the intensity of its bouquet. For the first time, Eau de Fleur de Soie seemed to have actual, detectable notes. And what notes! Bergamot screaming at a glass-shattering pitch... overbrewed black tea, harsh and bitter... an acid red fruit accord (pomegranate? raspberry? I was too scared to peek)... a white floral of migraine magnitude. Echoing Dorothy Parker, I wondered, "What fresh hell is this?"

Then I realized: it was that phase of the moon.

Scientific studies have shown that women's senses of smell fluctuate dramatically throughout their hormonal cycles, with hyperosmia (increased sensitivity to odor) coinciding with ovulation and menstruation, when progesterone is low and estrogen is high. When I reached for Eau de Fleur de Soie, I had just passed the latter of the two signposts and was heading toward PMS-town, where everything smells... more so.

My husband claims he can always tell when I'm nearing the danger zone when I start worriting about smells that only I seem able to detect: onions, bleach, carbon monoxide, mildew. Most often these "phantoms" have some basis in reality -- a single shred of onion at the bottom of the kitchen garbage bag, a work shirt imbued with car exhaust buried deep in the hamper -- and at any other time, they'd hardly register. But twice a month, they become so strong, so immediate, it's as if I'm wearing their source like an odiferous albatross around my neck.

So why am I adding an extra star to Kenzo's Eau? Because once the nausea wore off, I quite liked what I was smelling. All those overintense notes resolved into a less amplified composite of themselves, a hybrid cocktail of black cherry cola and brisk iced tea aromas with a good amount of dry seltzer fizz. And now that I know to wear it only at precise points of the month, I can say without regret that I may have misjudged Eau de Fleur de Soie on the first go-around.

Even a broken clock is right twice a day. Or in my case, twice a month.

Attrape-Coeurs (Guerlain)

With so many gourmand perfumes on the modern fragrance menu, it's difficult at times to describe a perfume without sounding like you're ordering dessert. Blog posts like this don't make it any easier-- but lord, how they give you ideas for ways to spoil your dinner.

In the reimagining process, certain fragrance types evoke very specific forms of confectionary. Citrus and herb colognes, for instance, seem destined for sorbet- or granita-hood; fruity florals lend themselves more to preserves, gelées, or Turkish delight. Some perfumes hint at high cream content: if tending toward the warm side of the temperature scale, they conjure baked custards or panna cottas; if cool, semifreddos or gelatos. And for the vast family of Orientals, one reserves the adjectival big guns: bready, brandied, candied, spiced, syrupy, caramelized, rich, and well- (or over-) egged.

Were I to assemble a virtual dessert tray based solely on my own modest perfume collection, I reckon the selection would bring Julia Child back from the hereafter for "just a tiny taste". It would run the gamut from baked goods to frozen treats, stopping at every Viennese coffee house, New York gelateria, Turkish bazaar, and Euro-pâtisserie along the route. Each treat would be offered in reasonable (read: tiny) portions so that one could sample broadly-- a little here, a little there -- without feeling swamped.

But certain menu items, merely by dint of their overwhelming richness, would stop the smorgasbord cold. The smallest bite would ruin your appetite for anything else, including more of the same. Of course you'll want to try it once... but once may be enough for all time.

If what they say is true -- that in cosmetics, women can enjoy every food indulgence that they normally deny themselves -- then Attrape-Coeurs spells definite trouble to dieters. This heavily-gourmand Oriental features an unusually rich nut-butter note that lands it in a category all its own: the tahini treat. If Safran Troublant is a dish of creamy rasmalai, and Oriental Brûlant is a trim, dry square of honey nougat, Attrape-Coeurs is a thick slab of sesame halvah glistening atop an oil-saturated paper doily. One beholds it with a kind of fascinated awe, hungry for it but slightly repelled all the same.

I'm not saying that an oleaginous quality in a perfume is a terrible thing; I've admired it in certain other scents, notably Nuits de Scherrer-- or "Nuts de Scherrer" as I jokingly called it after accepting a spritz from my pal JC's bottle. The main difference, once again, comes down to portion size. Scherrer's fragrance is a delicious, warm almond-and-amber composition with just the right admixture of vanillic and toasted notes. The job given to its buttery component seems very clear-cut-- to smooth the other ingredients' rough edges and boost their longevity on skin. It carries out this task judiciously and well, because it has been served up by a sparing hand.

Not so Attrape-Coeurs: this thing lays it on like Paula Deen. Wherever I spray it, I half imagine a faint greasy sheen riding my skin like a coating of Pam. Wearing it actually makes my hips seem inches bigger; I feel uncomfortably full and vaguely guilty, as if I've just engaged in a marathon binge. No matter how much I like the other notes Attrape-Coeurs puts on the table -- a comely floral, a smidge of sandalwood -- it's hard to find them through a slick of full-fat gravy.

Originally named Guet-Apens (Ambush) -- a name perhaps too assaultive for such a confection -- Attrape-Coeurs (The Heart-Catcher) shares the French-translation title of J.D. Salinger's masterpiece, "The Catcher in the Rye". The implied message is that this fragrance will capture your heart. Once caught, however, you may feel more like an insect trapped in amber with no rescue in sight and nothing but centuries stretching ahead.

Scent Elements: Iris, geranium, sandalwood, vanilla, rose, amber

Chamade (Guerlain)

For many years during my turbulent twenties, I dreamt at night about a drum that flew. I'd turn it upside down like a great animal-hide curricle, climb inside, and hold on to the cross-brace for dear life. The drum would rise into the air and whisk me at top speed to an inner landscape as strangely familiar as it was magical. There, I would encounter mysterious, symbolic fauna and flora which remained vivid in my memory long after waking.

But while recurring dreams of spirit travel are viewed as a call to shamanhood by the world's tribal peoples, mine simply reflected an all-consuming desire-- to drum.

In my growing-up days, girl drummers were few and far between. Then -- as now -- drumming was viewed as a masculine pursuit, martial and aggressive, requiring physical strength and stamina (not to mention unladylike sweat). Parents and music teachers conspired to urge us girls toward more acceptable instruments such as the piano or flute. (My older sister -- who worshipped Jacqueline du Pré from an early age -- bucked tradition and insisted on a cello. Horrors-- an instrument you hold between your legs!)

I deferred my dream of drumming until my early thirties, when I purchased the first of several drums-- a ten-inch Remo with a real hide drum-head, really almost a tambourine minus the jingles -- at the now-defunct Song of the Sea in Bar Harbor, Maine. Fired by this acquisition, I purchased my bodhrán (Irish frame drum) a year later-- hand-shaped rosewood frame, goatskin head with the hair still attached, measuring 18" round and glowing like a full moon.

The bodhrán is one of the only drums in the world that is played wet. In a procedure which plays out like a pagan ritual, the bodhránai (drummer) turns the drum striking-side down on her lap so that it resembles a winnowing sieve. She pours a small amount of spring water in, then rolls the drum around, rubbing the back of the hide with the palm of her playing hand until the goatskin fully absorbs the moisture. The water-impregnated hide will then produce the deep, dull booming sound from which the Gaelic name for the drum (bodhrán = "the deaf one" or "the deafener") is culled.

I learned to play my bodhrán in the traditional Kerry manner-- propped on my left knee, tucked under my left arm, left hand pressing the drumhead from behind to alter its pitch, right hand striking the skin with the two-headed carven wooden beater known as a cipín or tipper. The simple rhythms of the jig and reel became a form of meditation. Eventually (and with long practice), I moved on to strathspeys, hornpipes, and the punishing polka, which leaves a bodhránai purple-faced, gasping for air.... and exhilarated.

Flight was no longer a dream-- in broad daylight, the bodhrán became the magical steed of my musical journeys.

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The chamade is one drumbeat I never learned-- possibly because the notion of organized surrender is foreign to the bodhrán's progenitors. (Traditionally, the Celts beat drums in battle not to signal maneuvres, but merely to fill their enemies with abject, pants-wetting terror.) Technically, the chamade is a rapid drumbeat used to signal a desire for parley with the enemy side. Colloquially, to battre la chamade means to yield or surrender unconditionally. (Fook tha', I hear my ancestors muttering.)

When Guerlain came out with Chamade in 1969, Jean-Paul Guerlain claimed that his new release evoked the fast-beating heart of a person yielding to love. I wonder if he was aware of the physiological process known as entrainment, whereby the human cardiac and respiratory systems adjust their own rhythm to mimic that of an external source, such as a drum (or a jackhammer, or bad dance music, or another person's speech patterns). Love seems to require the same-- a synchronization akin to surrender -- so the name proves apt.

Chamade is the most animalic Guerlain I've smelled so far, mammalian and comfortable. Ylang-ylang and musk work together to produce a warm suede-like backdrop for a spring-floral bouquet containing plenty of green sap. Call me subjective, but within the first ten minutes of wearing Chamade, I envisioned my bodhrán filled with fresh-cut arum lilies-- the delicate, slightly sour smell of the juice exuded by their thick stalks mingling with the complicated animal scent of the leather. My heart did beat a little faster upon registering this odd combination... or was it the knowledge that blackcurrant lay in wait?

As detailed elsewhere in this blog, my history with the cassis oeuvre has not always been idyllic. Having enjoyed Chamade immensely thus far, I tensed up in expectation of some horrendous red-berry beast to come crashing through the underbrush. But Chamade's blackcurrant proves not to be the usual funk I've grown to fear. Here, its fruit-preserves aspect is brought to the fore, freed from acidity and cheerfully smelling for all the world like the contents of a high-class jelly doughnut. Its inclusion makes a marked difference to the composition as a whole, balancing this perfume's oddly astringent opening in a most appealing way.

Best of all is the drydown. Where most perfumes in general grow thinner and less distinct as they age on skin -- and where Guerlain's perfumes in particular seem to fall back invariably on the carnations-in-soft-focus accord native to "Guerlinade" -- Chamade keeps getting sweeter and sweeter. After such a virile start, being reminded in this fashion that you're a girl is not unwelcome or unpleasant news. Sisters, we really can have it all.

Scent Elements: Hyacinth, jasmine, ylang-ylang, blackcurrant bud, rose, galbanum, vanilla, woods, balsam, musk

Samsara (Guerlain)

Today I'm writing about two separate but related Samsaras -- the Buddhist principle and the French perfume. The idea that one thing follows another in logical, predestined order seems to be the jist of the former-- but as I shall presently relate, it is not absent from the latter by any means.

In Sanskrit, the term saṃsāra (संसार) translates as "continuous flow". Buddhist philosophy describes saṃsāra as the endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth which all living beings undergo with scarcely any awareness of their plight. To live is to suffer-- but this is not to say that living (and suffering) may not be at times extremely sweet. Joy follows pain; pain follows joy; the wheel as it turns has no fixed beginning and no end save in the moment of enlightenment. Only as we awaken and achieve nirvana do our transmigratory wanderings come to an close.

Guerlain's Samsara is an object lesson in the principle of saṃsāra's turning wheel. Its notes succeed one another effortlessly, but there appears to have been a considerable amount of thought given to how they should unfold, above and beyond the expected progression of a perfume. It's rare to encounter a commercial fragrance that offers ugliness along with beauty, or 'teachable moments' along with sheer indulgence. But Samsara seems to have something to tell us... if only we clear our minds and listen.

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Here's a scenario:

You have just received (unexpectedly, and from an anonymous donor) a florist's box full of the most sumptuous and rare blossoms. You are startled, charmed, taken off guard. You spot a tiny vellum envelope tucked inside the silk grosgrain ribbon binding the flowers' stems. You open it. On the card inside -- written in romantic copperplate, in scented ink -- are the words, "ALL THINGS DIE."

Pleasure immediately exchanges itself for horror. You are unsettled, stunned. What kind of prank is this? It's awful, inhuman! You wonder what you could possibly have done to deserve it, or at least prepare for it. The illusion of being lucky dissipates, and your day -- which had seemed so full of promise before you opened that accursed florist's box -- lies in ruins around you.

And all the while, the memento mori's perfume fills the air, as sweet as ever, perhaps even more so, now that you know what you know....

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Samsara begins by serving up a hypnotic feast of white flowers: jasmine, narcissus, ylang-ylang. Like a length of heavy satin, this is a floral with weight and drape but virtually no texture; utterly smooth, it flows against the senses without snag or catch. One feels ego-stroked, enfolded in luxury and complacency.

But perhaps Samsara offers this breathtaking beauty only to create a greater sense of shock when it strips the veil away. For with white flowers, come indoles; you cannot have your sweet bouquet without a hearty helping of those specialized molecules that spell out organic decay. Thus the wheel turns, and Samsara lands next on an aroma of flat-out rot.

At first, you're not sure if you're dreaming. The scent rising from your wrists can be identified as one of only two things, distressingly similar-- either pure chocolate ganache, or (do you dare to say it?) fresh shit. At this moment, you start to sweat and look around you nervously. You can't walk out of the house smelling like this! People will think that you stepped in something, or that you're slack in the personal hygiene department, or that your adult diaper is long overdue for a change. The scent of ordure is that rich, that thick, that three-dimensional.

And the weird, embarrassing, unspeakable truth is.... you LIKE it.

But while you stew over whether or not to scrub, the wheel continues to turn. Through the manure, you begin to detect the pleasant scent of cinnamon-dusted biscuits. Spicy, buttery, not too sweet; the sort of thing that goes well with a mug of ice-cold milk. After hitting you with a volley of quick-flash meditations on beauty, decay, and the indignity of bodily functions, Samsara has now settled on the topic of hunger. From disgust, you segue into interest-- and perversely, you may even start to feel a little peckish.

In a moment, all memory of shit is gone. You're back in childhood, where milk and cookies represent the simplest of pleasures. (Now who's more changeable, Samsara or you?)

At the very last comes the sandalwood, with a touch of vanilla to transform what could have been a dusty and dry accord into something tender and caressing. The cookies are gone, the milk has been drunk, and you sit happy, safe, and secure in Mother's warm kitchen. Your journey from illusion to disillusion to peace is over. You're back at the starting point... ready to begin again at any time.

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But this is ridiculous, you're saying. Isn't Samsara one of those awful, clichéed stonk-monsters from the '80's that get you banned from restaurants? And even if it weren't, it's still just a perfume. How could I possibly attain enlightenment from that?

In answer, I offer up a scene from Tom Robbins' Another Roadside Attraction (1971). Counterculture raconteur Marx Marvelous has arrived at Captain Kendrick's Memorial Hot Dog Wildlife Preserve to beg a job from husband/wife co-owners Amanda and John Paul. Annoyed at Marx's relentless over-intellectualizing, Amanda seeks to stopper his thought-faucet with an olfactory plug:
Amanda withdrew from her bosom a black silk handkerchief bordered with gold braid. Passing it to (Marx) Marvelous, she said, "Hold this to your nose."

Marx hadn't expected a girl as healthy as Amanda to carry smelling salts, but he followed her instructions. From the handkerchief there came a subtle waft, an effluvium of sweetness. Even while he sniffed it, however, its perfume became gradually stronger, then musky, then barbarically acrid. He was about to yank the fabric away from his nostrils when yet another odor emerged, this one spicy and primordial. In turn, that fragrance also passed and in its place oozed an aroma of lanolin and leather, a rich animal funk flanked by a mineral smell as dry as ash.

Smiling at Marx's befuddlement, Amanda said, "That handkerchief has been dipped in a jar containing the accumulated odors of twelve years in Tibet. I had planned to send it to Nearly Normal Jimmy, but perhaps he won't be needing it."

...Blinking, Marx Marvelous returned the handkerchief, but throughout the day, as he helped Amanda wipe tables and counters, as he poured juice, memorized a short lecture on San Francisco garter snakes and learned how to direct fleas in chariot races and ballets, there lingered in his nasal passages certain odors of lotus blossoms, yak butter, prayer wheels-- and one exceedingly stimulating fragrance which Amanda would identify only as Mom's Tibetan peach pie (pp. 184-85).
THAT'S how.

Scent Elements: Jasmine, ylang-ylang, narcissus, sandalwood, tonka bean, iris, vanilla

Vetiver (Guerlain)

In the vial: clean, crisp, silvery, like a chilled martini in a spotless glass. On skin: Après L'Ondée EDT with a sad, diluted trace of vetiver, like watered-down tea. I would not say it is an unmitigated bore, because that would imply that it stuck around long enough for me to form an impression. If you sincerely enjoy the odd pairing of boozy and metallic, you will bemoan Vetiver's short life. Not I: I count it as a blessing.

For real vetiver, try Breath of God. As a matter of fact, I'm going to go put some on right now.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, lemon, mandarin, neroli, coriander, vetiver, cedar, tobacco, nutmeg, pepper, capsicum, tonka bean

Three Eaux de Cologne (Guerlain)

Tomas -- the cheerful philanderer of Milan Kundera's novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being -- adheres to a self-written code of ethics when arranging his many liaisons. "The important thing," he claims, "is to abide by the rule of threes. Either you see a woman three times in quick succession and then never again, or you maintain relations over the years but make sure that the rendezvous are at least three weeks apart" (pg. 12).

Tomas breaks his own rule by remaining with (and even marrying) the tormented Tereza-- but the woman who "understands him best" is Sabina, an artist with whom he shares a bond untrammeled by jealousy or possessiveness. While Tereza represents all that is heavy and serious, Sabina personifies the weightlessness of freedom from attachment. Over time, her ephemeral quality proves contradictory to both Tomas and Tereza, for while she slips in and out of their lives, they cannot forget her-- nor she them. There is something about Sabina which lingers in memory, if not in actuality.

If Sabina were a fragrance, could she be anything but eau de cologne?

When something lovely, brief, plentiful, and refreshing is called for, eau de cologne is the obvious answer. Other fragrance compositions are "heavy" -- complex, deliberate, meant to be taken (and worn) seriously. Cologne is "light" -- a fleeting pleasure intended for impromptu use.

Yet for all its transience, eau de cologne can make a deep impression on the psyche. Many perfume wearers I've met tell of the indelible mark made in their memories by a certain fragrance worn by an older relative. More than half the time, that fragrance is an EDC. The paradox inherent in eau de cologne is that one enjoys so brief a time with it-- but once the bond is established, loyalty lasts a lifetime.

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The first eau de cologne released by Giovanni Maria Farina in 1709 set a new standard in fragrance composition and usage. The rules were simple: take a base of orange blossom, peel, and leaf essential oils. Combine them variously with other citrus oils (lemon, lime, mandarin, grapefruit, bergamot), herbs (rosemary, thyme, lavender, artemisia), and florals (usually indolic white flowers such as jasmine or narcissus). Dilute the result in a disproportionately large amount of alcohol (up to nine parts out of ten). Lose the inhibitions, and start splashing it on.

Guerlain's introduction to the eau de cologne playing field came fairly late in the game (1853), by which time the genre was well-established. Guerlain's contribution was the use of stronger aromatic fixatives such as musk and cedar, which preserved the airiness of the classic EDC format while extending its life by a crucial heartbeat. Aside from Farina 1709 Original, 4711 Kölnisch Wasser, and Lanman & Murray Florida Water, the Guerlain series of eaux offers about the best introduction to the eau de cologne aesthetic that I can think of.

Over the last two weeks -- during which the East Coast became a veritable EZ-Bake Oven and the B.O. factor among the public I serve reached an all-time ascendancy -- I've thoroughly enjoyed flitting back and forth between Impériale, Fleurs de Cédrat, and Eau de Guerlain. If breezy, fresh, and fruity is the antidote to summer doldrums, I never needed it more than now.

Created in 1853, Eau de Cologne Impériale is the oldest of Guerlain's colognes. It kicks off with an intense lemon-lime accord, vibrant and exuberant, before revealing its beautiful-but-brief verveine-and-orange-blossom heart. Of course it lasts no longer on skin than it has taken me to type these words, but it's not meant to. One only needs a momentary boost to avoid slipping into a hot-weather case of the vapours.

Eau de Fleurs de Cédrat requires a little more time to appreciate. This one's a sorbet, creamy in texture but not milky in the slightest, with the dryness of powdered sugar and a mild animalic element which keeps it on skin somewhat longer than its counterparts. Its name is a subtle play on words, touching on cèdrat (citron) and cèdre (cedar), both of which it contains. Whether one is more prominent than the other appears to be a matter for the weatherman to decide. On a cooler day -- if you want to call 90°F "cooler"! -- I found much more orange blossom filling the air around me. During a scorcher, the emphasis is on cedarwood. Either way, enchantée.

What can be said about Eau de Guerlain that could possibly further embellish its well-deserved reputation? In descriptive terms, one could call it a delicious lemon-creme and herbal eau de cologne, and stop right there. Who needs more?

Well, I do.

Having never really tried my hand at layering before, I enlisted the Guerlain eaux within the last week for a running experiment in this time-honored perfume practice. Impériale and Eau de Guerlain were close enough in temperament so as to seem destined to be together, while Fleurs de Cédrat -- while playing well with others -- did just as well on its own. I would like to say that nothing could beat the three eaux layered together, one on top of the other. But as it happened, a bottom layer of Tauer's Lonestar Memories propelled the trio into a new and unexpected paradise. Who knew that Guerlain could benefit from a touch of the dude ranch?

Sabina, maybe. At the close of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, she too has migrated toward the setting sun-- settling fitfully on the West Coast, where she continues to create despite the alien quality of life around her. Upon learning of Tomas' and Tereza's demise, she writes a will stipulating that her cremated ashes be dispersed to the four winds, so that she may "die under the sign of lightness".

As she has lived, so Sabina will live on-- faithless, free, and true to her inner nature. She would, says Kundera, be lighter than air.

Elixir Charnel Oriental Brûlant (Guerlain)

Today over at Now Smell This, the weekend open poll declared a celebration of Mata Hari's birthday and asked: What scent suited the occasion? As August is Guerlainapalooza for me, earlier this morning I'd reached into the Guerlain pouch to make the day's random selection. My fingers happened to close around Elixir Charnel Oriental Brûlant.

Did the ghost of Mata Hari guide my hand? As it happens, ECOB and Mata Hari make a heavenly match. Each emerged from a solidly Western matrix with a heartfelt yearning to be reborn in the East; each exemplifies in its own way the Oriental aesthetic romanticized and reinterpreted by the European mind.

In the bottle, ECOB is tinted pale mauve, a hue historically associated with a number of contradictory social conventions. Invented in 1856 by Sir William Henry Perkin, "mauveine" dye became popular as a half-mourning color for women in transition from a state of bereavement. By the Gay Nineties -- dubbed the "Mauve Decade" by social essayist Thomas Beer -- the color had amassed a following among artists, poets, and mystics whose social and sexual mores ran counter to those of the establishment. Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, Aleister Crowley... and of course Margaretha Geertruida Zelle MacLeod, an unhappily-married young Dutch-born bourgeoise stranded in colonial Java.

Forcibly transplanted to the Far East by her philandering husband, Margaretha immersed herself in traditional Indonesian dance as a means of coping with disappointed hopes. Against all expectations (perhaps even her own), she began to thrive due to her terpsichorean zeal. A local dance troupe proved supportive-- as did one of her husband's fellow Army officers, with whom she gladly absconded from her marital prison. In 1897, she renamed herself "The Eye of the Day" and freed herself from domestic bondage for once and for all.

Today, we remember Mata Hari as an infamous World War I double agent. But back in the day, she was hailed alongside Isadora Duncan, Loïe Fuller, and Ruth Saint Denis as a pioneer of modern dance. Fusing traditional and tribal choreography with contemporary self-expressive movement, she elevated Oriental dance to an art form in the Western canon. Her life may have ended in front of a firing squad, but Mata Hari's impact on modern multicultural fusion is still going strong. (Without her, whither Fat Chance Belly Dance?)

Does Elixir Charnel Oriental Brûlant succeed at bridging cultures through scent as deftly as Mata Hari did through dance? I would say yes. At once simple and sumptuous, caressing and comfort-minded, ECOB is the equivalent of armchair travel-- Oriental enough to satisfy cravings for exoticism while European enough to feel soothingly familiar to the Western mind.

ECOB begins with a dense sweet top note that says "vanilla" in as many languages as it can. As it progresses, it becomes more transparent, ascending from deepest plum to the aforementioned misty mauve, where it seems to pause and hold its breath. There it remains for hours and hours-- comforting, reassuring, never cloying or annoying. I would call it Guerlain's version of an Olivia Giacobetti fragrance, insofar as it achieves the same milky-woody tones as Idole-- but the cumulative effect is mystical rather than spooky, and undeniably feminine rather than vaguely gender-neutral.

Inasmuch as Spanish jijona turrón, Italian torrone, French nougat, German marzipan, Czech turecký med, Israeli halvah, Turkish loukhoum, Indian halwa, Japanese yōkan, and American fudge all lie on the same confectionary spectrum, one can trace the path of a single idea spurred by common hunger across a hundred national boundaries in its quest for manifestation. And actually, candy isn't a bad metaphor for ECOB, which smells exactly like an imported sweet concocted from honey, orangeflower water, and almond paste, studded with buttery roasted cashews and layered between fragile sheets of edible rice paper. It's an uncommon dessert of the high-calorie variety. It may be an acquired taste for some, but not me-- I was charmed by it from the first.

Scent Elements: Tonka bean, almond, vanilla, styrax, clementine

Jicky (Guerlain)

Léa de Lonval -- the wise heroine of Colette's 1920 novel Chéri -- has this to say about the primacy of style over propriety: "Naked, if need be... but squalid, never!" Being a celebrated courtesan, Léa knew quite a lot about being naked. And that she wore Guerlain's Jicky is a given-- for Jicky is her beloved Belle Époque in liquid form.

There is plenty that's naked about Jicky, but certainly nothing squalid. It is neither mad, bad, nor dangerous to know, despite the company it has kept. Colette elle-même; Sarah Bernhardt; Anita Ekberg and Brigitte Bardot; not one but two 007's (Sean Connery and Roger Moore). Jane Birkin wore Jicky before switching to L'Air de Rien, which amounts to a step down in the world for Jane. And Jacqueline Kennedy dabbed it behind her lovely ears, which may be construed as a step up for Jicky.

We cannot know if Alice Keppel -- Edward VII's discreet and congenial maîtresse déclarée -- ever tried Jicky. In Diana Souhami's biography Mrs. Keppel and Her Daughter, Sonia Keppel is quoted as saying that her mother exuded 'a certain elusive smell, like fresh green sap, that came from herself'. She did not say -- as Virginia Woolf did of Katherine Mansfield -- that her mother reeked 'like a civet cat that had taken to street walking'. If she had, Jicky would have undoubtedly been to blame.

Still, Jicky has more in common with Mrs. Keppel than a first glance might tell. Like "La Favorita", it's the perfect mistress, at once frankly suggestive and marvellously well-behaved. Assertive, heady, and rich, its comportment on skin suggests years of tutelage amidst the best society-- and nights whiled away between the finest silk sheets. Finally, in its capacity to charm perfume-wearers of all genders, ages, and classes, Jicky employs the same "gift of happiness" attributed to Mrs. Keppel: "She resembled a Christmas tree laden with presents for everyone."

Jicky begins with a thousand acres of Provençal lavender concentrated into one crystalline drop. It stays there for exactly sixty seconds before transforming into the most remarkable olfactory hologram of a lover's body this side of-- well, the bed. Here is the intimate aroma of the one you adore. He or she is the person with whom you share your life, your heart, your secret inner self; you sleep together every night and reach for one another first thing every morning. With them, your secrets are safe as houses-- and before them, to paraphrase Millay, you are at liberty to "spread like a chart your little wicked ways".

The warm, animalic phase of Jicky's development is due largely to the generous amount of civet with which Aimé Guerlain anchored this composition of sparkling citrus, leather, and herbs. The result is a sinuous beast, delicate and decorous, who enters the room on tiny feet, lashing its tail. Close behind it comes its master -- a jovial, barrel-chested shaving-soap accord, rich with birch tar and vanilla -- who promptly pulls up a chair and offers you a piece of his mind. While he dominates the conversation (and a scintillating one it is, too), our civet sits silent and attentive, every so often yawning or giving its glossy fur a nonchalant lick. It never begs for attention-- but it also never quits its master's side. Caught in the nexus between filthy and clean, you sense that you're the victim of a formidable tag team-- and you marvel at their effortless powers of persuasion.

Despite its embrace by the so-called "souls" of that age, Jicky did not debut during the fast-and-loose Edwardian era. It is solidly a product of Victoria's reign-- a fact which turns the entire concept of Victorian prudery on its ear. The Queen herself, though straitlaced as any monarch must be, is said to have adored perfume-- particularly Houbigant and Creed, from whom she commissioned Royal Scottish Lavender in honor of her beloved Highlands. The only thing separating Royal Scottish Lavender from Jicky is the sensual frisson of civet-- a distinction which also sums up the fundamental differences in character and taste between the duty-minded Queen and her sybaritic eldest son. In short: same genes, but considerably more sex.

If, while sporting Jicky, you likewise experience an uptick in "action", do not be surprised. By the same token, do not believe for an instant that by accepting said "action", your standards have been lowered by one jot. Wearing Jicky does not diminish one's dignity; nor does it deny one's essential pleasure-loving nature. It merely clothes the mammal with art.

Whatever else you choose to wear -- or not wear -- is entirely your business.

Scent Elements: Lemon, mandarin, bergamot, lavender, rosewood, orris, jasmine, patchouli, rose, vetiver, leather, amber, civet, tonka bean, incense, benzoin

Nahéma (Guerlain)

Some roses smell pink and pretty. Some roses smell rich and velvety. Some roses smell honeyed and intoxicating. Some smell vinegar-sour. Some smell like black pepper. Some smell like red wine. And some smell -- I'm sorry, but it has to be said -- like the toilet bowl cleaner used in cheap freeway motels.

This one smells like a hothouse tomato.

Believe me, I'm not saying it like it's a crime. It isn't the first tomato rose I've come across, and I wouldn't call it the worst. When you hail from the Garden State, such distinctions take on particular significance. After all, our tomatoes -- and our roses -- have a reputation to uphold.

Though a bit dry and lacking in nectar, the flesh of Nahéma's tomato is firm and salmon-pink. It stays in one piece when you slice it; it doesn't fall apart or turn to grainy mush. More acid than sweet, more vegetable than fruit, it was clearly plucked while still green and did time in a refrigerated freight car on its journey east from a California megafarm. It might not stand up to one of New Jersey's incomparable vine tomatoes, ripening in the sun like a living ruby. It certainly wouldn't dare to show its face on an antipasto platter, pillowed on the milky bosom of homemade mozzarella or heroically garlanded with wreaths of fresh basil. Let's say it's good enough to end up on a Jersey diner burger deluxe, and leave it at that.

For a tomato, not too shabby. But for a rose...?

The more I smell Nahéma, the more it seems to me that its problem is not rose, but passionfruit. I do not doubt that the word "passionfruit" adds interest to a brief (imagine how lilikoi , its native name, would fascinate perfume-buyers!) but I would not put the actual passionfruit into a perfume any more than I'd put papaya or durian or a dozen other tropical curiosities. Real-life passionfruit are mouth-searingly tart. This accounts for Nahéma's overacidulated quality, but just because it's exotic doesn't guarantee it will help the overall composition. In short, whatever good one might have gotten from Nahéma's rose is cancelled out by the weirdness of the note chosen as its conveyance. Less would have been more-- and novelty, while appealing to the imagination, is not always appealing to the nose.

What is left? Luckily, a lot. After the whole tomato phase dies away, Nahéma gives in to a smooth and buttery floral-suede accord that edges it (for me, anyway) just over the border of the leather category-- lending it a virile-sportswoman feel without ever becoming the least bit butch. (I'm reminded of a snippet I read about Elisabeth of Bavaria, the high-strung and tomboyish Empress of Austro-Hungary, who loved to conceal supple, skintight doeskin leggings under her überfemme crinolined skirts.)

This may sound strange, but for me, Nahéma truly does make a mark-- only for all the wrong reasons. It's the first perfume I've ever worn in which I could absolutely, positively do without everything except the drydown-- and the drydown I can't do without at all. If that alone could be bottled (and maybe it already has, somewhere, somehow) I'd be one hundred percent on board. Until then, it's simply a matter of scheduling: if I apply Nahéma approximately an hour before I really want to smell it, all I have to do is sit, hold my breath, and wait.

Scent Elements: Rose, hyacinth, peach, passionfruit, sandalwood, patchouli