Organza Indécence (Givenchy)

The first time I tasted orange creamsicle punch, I marveled at both the casual simplicity of the recipe and the calculated splendor of its end result. Blocks of vanilla ice cream and orange sherbet melted together haphazardly in a punchbowl of sparkling ginger ale, slowly transforming into a fizzy, fruity, milky nectar of the gods. Once tasted, this heavenly compromise between rich and refreshing offered a pretty good idea of what might be served at birthday parties on Mount Olympus.

Organza Indécence drops the ginger ale and substitutes burned butter. Fpr some, either way, that may be all I need to say.

Let me be clear: I like orange sherbet. And I like beurre noisette. I can imagine circumstances in which they might appear as flavors in the same menu, if not the same recipe. I am promptly reminded of the ice cream pies my family used to make for holiday get-togethers. We'd fill buttery baked pie crusts with various flavors of melted gelato, freeze them until the day of the feast, and then festoon them with showy mounds of whipped cream.

Delicious, yes. Spectacular, yes.

A perfume, no.

Well, let me rephrase that. I have encountered each of Organza Indécence's two main accords in other, separate fragrances-- always paired with light and zingy scent elements (such as the aforementioned ginger) ostensibly chosen for their power to imbue heavy formulas with an ameliorating lightness. But together in one fragrance, without any contrast or relief, these two heavies weigh as much as the Death Star, and exert as much gravitational pull. One feels caught in an inexorable tractor beam-- but instead of Darth Vader's gloom and doom at the other end, there's the contrived cheerfulness of a failed birthday party, complete with stomach ache.

To my nose, Organza Indécence is proof positive not only of the incompatibility of certain aromas, but of the inadvisability of building perfumes out of nothing but heavy bricks. (I'm reminded of another tradition of my birth family, the so-called "Ingraham Pyramid". In an Ingraham Pyramid, objects of increasing size, weight, and density are piled atop the smallest and most fragile item available. Shock and outrage ensue when the entire structure topples, as it has no choice but to do. And people actually pretend to be surprised upon finding the bottom item shattered or crushed.)

While it wasn't necessarily intolerable, Organza Indécence left me feeling by turns stymied and unsettled. As it developed on my skin, I honestly felt as though I were watching the desperate, incomprehensible antics of a not-very-talented but extremely enthusiastic mime. What is it GETTING AT? I kept thinking. What does it WANT?

I'm still not sure. But such was the well-meaning spirit of this experiment that I may discover myself spending more time with it in an effort to extract the answer-- stomachache be damned.

Scent Elements: Cinnamon, palisander wood, plum, patchouli, amber, vanilla, musk

Wild Country Cologne (Avon)

I spy it amidst the jumble on the thrift store's cosmetic shelf, sitting next to a nearly-empty bottle of Tova Borgnine's Tova Signature. To be quite honest, my first thought centers on which fragrance will make a better punchline. Naturally, I reach for the Tova-- and just as naturally, Tova reminds me of Windex diluted with water to a 1:5 ratio. Conclusion: someone who liked smelling vaguely of clean windows used most of this bottle before generously donating it to the needy. (As Christian Bale might scream, Oh, good for YOU!)

Back to the Avon product. Despite a couple of dents and dings, its packaging is original, intact, and in fairly good condition. In retro ink colors still clear and bright, the box graphic depicts a natty, garter-sleeved barber taking a break from shaving a customer so that they can sing a duet. ("Lida Rose"? "Good Night Ladies"? So many possibilities-- most of them with book, music, and lyrics by Meredith Wilson!) One need not make a special point of reporting that both gentlemen are wearing spats.

If ever society indulged itself with the little pleasantries of life, it was during the Edwardian Era... when even functional grooming devices were fashioned with meticulous attention to comfort and craftsmanship. So a text panel informs us, before launching into the history of the badger-bristled shaving brush. For a perfume label, it's practically a doctoral thesis. I find myself impressed by its scholarly bent. Who knew the Avon Lady was a bluestocking?

Finally I get around to opening the box and extracting the fragrance. It is housed in the height (or that depth?) of Avon kitsch - a bottle shaped like an old-fashioned shaving brush. An amber-glass bottle molded to resemble the brush's cylindrical handle is surmounted by a hard plastic cap shaped like a tuft of silvertip badger bristles.

A quick squint reveals that the bottle is full, but a slight residue of gummy dried fragrance pooled at the base of the cap suggests that it was opened at least once or twice. Out of curiosity, I turn the box over and inspect its bottom flaps for a date code. Sure enough, I find one which identifies 1976 as the year of vintage. Thirty-five years old and hardly touched-- not a promising sign.

My husband, fresh from checking out the thrift store's magazine box, comes up behind me. "Whatcha got?" I show him the bottle, then open it so that we can take the plunge together. A blast of acetone ripples in the air over the bottle's open mouth. This quickly subsides to a soapy, root-beerish nutmeg aroma laced with a manly dose of synthetic musk.

Perhaps it's because he's spent more time in barber shops than I have that my spouse finds more to recognize (if not admire) in this bottle. "I'm getting talc..." he muses. "And that blue liquid the barber soaks the comb in. I'm guessing that's alcohol."

"Absolutely," I reply. "What's that stuff the barber rubs on his hands and then works into men's hair after a haircut? Pomade?"

"No, that's a wax. The liquid stuff is called hair tonic."

"Hair tonic, then. I'm picking up some of that. Plus that lubricant they put on the blades of the clippers to keep them in working order."

So far, we've hit on every cherished myth of the barbershop. Price as marked: $2.00. How can we pass this up?

Back at home, I glean a few facts about Wild Country Cologne from the internet. It's still in production, its most current incarnation described by Avon as "a rugged essence with a vibrant mix of grasses, spicy coriander, and powdery tones... masculine with aromatic freshness of lavender and oakmoss." I get none of this from the bottle in my hand-- but a survey of eBay confirms that 1976 was indeed the year that Barber Shop Brush made its debut. It also reveals that there are a ton of people out there eager to get rid of full (or nearly full) bottles of this stuff. Asking prices range from the desperate ("$6.99 and free shipping!!!") to the delusional ("$29.99...Buy It Now!")

It is worth noting that not a single bottle of Barber Shop Brush Wild Country Cologne on eBay -- no matter how reasonably priced -- appears to have attracted a single bid.

They say that fortune favors the bold. Clearly, the only way to find the truth about this fragrance would be to slap some of it on myself. Which is exactly what I did-- over the kitchen sink, just in case.

The verdict? Nauseating Edwardian skank with mid-1970's Burt Reynolds chest hair. I could not possibly scrub it off my arm fast enough, and yet I laughed the entire time I was scouring. What can I say? I knew it was crap going in-- it is, after all, Avon. And no, I don't want my two dollars back. In terms of comedic value, I got back every penny of my investment.

Vintage Avon Wild Country Cologne makes Old Spice seem like Armani Privé-- a thoroughly unsurprising fact in just about any light you'd choose to view it. But if you have two dollars to spare, need cheering up, and feel a deep desire to experience this treasure for yourself, do let me know. And remember.... free shipping!!!

Scent Elements: According to the label, "S.D. Alcohol 40-B, Water, Glycerin, Fragrance, Benzophenone-11, Color." I hear 1976 was a banner year for benzophenone-11.

Labdanum de Séville (L'Occitane)


L'Occitane Outlet Store, yesterday afternoon. OLENSKA and her HUSBAND enter and head directly for the fragrance wall. Having sampled L'Occitane's Labdanum de Séville Eau de Parfum several months ago and found it pleasant, she wants another sniff. He is there to offer a second opinion. Enter SALES ASSOCIATE-- thirtyish, wide-eyed, perky, with all the combined pep of the entire cast of "Glee" and a voice made to carry across a football stadium. As OLENSKA reaches for a test strip, the game commences.


OLENSKA: (politely) Just browsing, thank you.

She sprays the test strip with Labdanum, holds it to her nose, and closes her eyes. Her reverie does not last long.


HUSBAND: She's just browsing.


OLENSKA: Just sampling.

She reaches for the tester, sprays her wrist, and raises it to her nose, once again closing her eyes. Three beats elapse, and then:


HUSBAND: (rather more severely) We are JUST LOOKING, really. But thank you.


She isn't kidding. She plants herself literally eighteen inches away from OLENSKA and her HUSBAND and stands at attention, eyes burning two holes into the side of OLENSKA'S head. OLENSKA sighs, pockets the test strip, and motions to her husband.

OLENSKA: That's enough. (Together they begin to exit)


HUSBAND: (sotto voce) Not fucking likely, lady. (CURTAIN)

Spotlight on OLENSKA as she reappears on stage.

OLENSKA: Labdanum de Séville -- a limited-edition parfum from L'Occitane's Voyage en Méditerranée series -- is a pleasant, ambery fragrance with a citrus tang and no surprises up its sleeve. Inspired by the arid Andalusian garrigue as well as the colorful city of Seville, it incorporates a range of Mediterranean scents, from rock rose to sweet oranges. It stays close to the skin, has moderate persistence, and would make a perfectly suitable fragrance for everyday and workplace wear. Too bad you have to go to L'Occitane to get it. My advice? Stick to mail order.


Scent Elements: Citrus, spices, labdanum, benzoin, vanilla

Vetiver Dance (Tauer)

While working as a live-in nanny during my art-school year in NYC, I slept in a former broom closet. This alcove (5' wide, 7' deep, with a doorway so slender one passed through it sideways) accommodated a single-sized bedframe with two built-in drawers underneath, and absolutely nothing else.

An elevated plywood shelf above the bed provided the sole storage space, but I lined my books up on the tiny, grimy windowsill instead. Why? Because the shelf was just large enough to house my one true treasure: a hand-sewn pouch of gold-embroidered sari cloth, bordered with dozens of brass bells and filled to the brim with khus (vetiver). I'd loved khus ever since first lifting the lid on a certain bulk-herbs bin at Aphrodisia. Exotic, earthy, and profound, the scent of dried vetiver is a dark and addictive form of magic. The smallest trace intoxicates; once enslaved, one can never get enough.

My employers expressed amusement at the fact that I gave my pouch of khus the place of honor, but they understood my reasoning. In such a small room, there were few ways to personalize my space. Through vetiver's sanctifying scent, I'd found a way to make these thirty-five square feet my own.

One dawn before the morning alarm went off, I drifted up from sleep to find a scruffy young stranger standing over me. We stared at each other -- he in street-grimed denim; me nude as a Rubens nymph under the bedsheets -- each of our faces a mirror of the other's speechless consternation. His hand darted out to seize my little bag of khus-- and before I could take a breath to scream, he was gone.

As sunlight began to trickle through the grimy windows, it became clear just how lucky we were. All of us were safe, sound, shaken but unharmed. A stairwell door accidentally left unlatched had provided our burglar with his opportunity, but he'd left our wallets, purses, checkbooks, jewelry and cameras untouched. Whether he'd been too scared or too desperate, it seems he had only stolen one item: a bag of khus worth, at most, ten dollars.

"Probably thought it was dope," my employers joked. "And now the poor guy's trying to either smoke it or sell it."

Who knows? Maybe somewhere in the city at this very moment, there's a pauchy middle-aged barfly wearing a fancy pouch of roots like a voodoo albatross around his neck, wishing he'd grabbed the stereo instead.

5STARS Small

Choosing the five perfumes that would make up my Tauer discovery set was simple. Two of the five would be L'Air du Désert Marocain-- one for home, and one for work, so that I would never be without. Incense Rosé and Incense Extrême -- both of which had been on my wishlist for ages -- would come third and fourth. And the fifth could be nothing other than Vetiver Dance.

There seems to be a tradition among perfumers that, in addition to the wholly nonpareil work that they do, they must turn out fragrances to fill a predetermined menu of genres lest their collections be viewed somehow as incomplete. Thus, every perfume house has its rose, its white floral, its fruit-salad and spice-market numbers, its bridal bouquet, its "fresh" sport fragrance, its sunny citric eau. I could take or leave any of these (well... truth be told, the spice market always exerts its pull) but the mention of a vetiver is not so easily ignored.

I acknowledge that it would probably take me decades to exhaust all variations on the vetiver theme. It could begin and end with Molinard's Habanita, if one preferred to travel strictly from one's armchair. But storm those barricades I shall, even if I die trying. And Tauer's Vetiver Dance is a mighty fine place to launch the assault.

Does anyone remember Tri-Ominos? This clever takeoff on dominoes, using triangular game pieces that must be matched on three sides, debuted in the 1970's. We usually forgot the rules of the game and used the tiles instead to build pyramidal structures, like crazy houses of cards. Vetiver Dance treats its main ingredients much like these game pieces, tripling them after a pattern that bolsters each element's natural tendency best.

Start with a base of vetiver, naturally. Aside from its native cold earthiness, vetiver also possesses sharp/acidic, prickly/peppery, and herbal/haylike qualities. Grapefruit peel extends the first, rose and peppercorn boost the second, and the triumvirate of sage, cedar, and muguet mirror the third. Once arranged around the base, each can be drawn upward to a pyramidal point and the seams where they meet cemented with labdanum and ambergris. Give the whole structure a final polish with tonka bean to smooth away all those sharp edges, and the whole thing rolls like dice.

The result is a solidly beautiful fragrance by any definition, as well as a respectable addition to a very well-established oeuvre. A million vetivers may come and go; this one does the category (and its creator) proud.

Scent Elements: Grapefruit peel, black pepper, clary sage, rose otto, lily-of-the-valley, vetiver, ambergris, cedarwood, tonka bean, labdanum

Black Coconut (Kuumba Made)

Have you ever had a wish unawares, a craving of which you were not even conscious? Apparently I've been wanting -- no, needing, no, BEGGING FOR-- the perfect pure coconut fragrance, a mythical creature I thought I'd long since given up hunting.

Aside from the fact that it's easier to find coconut-scented shampoo, body butter, or suntan lotion than perfume, Cocos nucifera generally plays a minor supporting-cast role within bigger ensemble pieces-- the trashier, the better. When made the headliner of the production, coconut generally heads in one of three directions: 1) Sex Wax, 2) tropical cocktails, 3) pie. One imagines a lowly chemist in some functional fragrance lab dreaming of room service at Sandals Montego Bay.

Sadly, such fantasies almost always fall short, as most coconut-scented products prove. For example, Auric Blends' Black Coconut Perfume Oil smells harshly synthetic and over-the-top, a Saint-Tropez cliché writ large for the tourists. Bath and Body Works' Coconut Lime Verbena Lotion appealed to me until I remembered that as grownup, I could have a real piña colada-- with rum, in a glass, even. Worst is the Body Shop's Coconut Perfume Oil and its companion piece, "Noix de Coco Beurre Corporel"-- typically chemical, awful, and loud. (Imagine the Ghostbusters Sta-Puft demon built out of Manischevitz macaroons instead of marshmallows, and you have an idea of where the stonk is heading-- uptown, to destroy the metropolis!)

Where coconut fragrances attempt to be quirky and unique is where they prove most fallible. A jolt of sticky vanilla? An oily touch of citronella-lime? A burned, smoky quality like that issuing from a sugarcane processing plant, or a tire fire? Oh, the mistakes are legion... when really, all you have to do is leave coconut the hell alone and let it do what it does naturally: smell awesome.

The best coconut perfume I ever had came from Aphrodisia, that mighty bastion of herbs, roots, and natural essences on Bleecker Street in the Village. It was coconut unadorned -- mellow, tranquilizing, sexy, and so natural that it crystallized in the bottle whenever the weather turned cool. Alas, Aphrodisia eventually stopped carrying this wunder-essence, so when my supply ran out, I was up a coconut palm without a rope ladder. My efforts to find an acceptable replacement never quite hit the target... until now.

What do I know about Kuumba Made? Not much. I'd never heard of them before last week, when I stumbled across a display of testers at my local health store. Among headshop standards such as ambers, musks, "opiums", and sandalwoods, I spied Black Coconut. Upon first sniff, I found myself swaying with eyes closed and a dopey grin on my face, transported to a Blue Lagoon state of bliss.

Kuumba Made's Black Coconut is an essay in real, freshly-harvested coconut meat, which is not the least bit sweet. Salty, milky, buttery, robust-- yes. But not sweet. Already richly perfect, it has no need to be larded with unnecessary ingredients. This seems to be Kuumba Made's jist: less is so much more.

And in more ways than one! Few perfumes evoke so readily an Edenic state of nakedness-- of salt water, wind, and sun on bare skin. Lutens' Borneo 1834 comes close, but Black Coconut loses the sarong completely, along with every inhibition. This is perfume in which to fall asleep bareassed on a remote island beach, couched in a sense of security and wellbeing a mile thick. (I speak from empirical knowledge, by the way; they don't let you live on Maui without getting nude in public at least once. It's fun, particularly when drums and bonfires are involved.)

Kuumba Made's range of perfume oil roller-tops includes a few original attar-style blends, one or two of which are standouts (notably Persian Garden). The quality is decent, the scents are pleasant, and at $8 a pop, there's little to lose. Picking up some perfume when you're out shopping for soymilk has never been so attractive a prospect.

Scent Elements: Sudanese black coconut essence.