Cococabana (Parfums de Nicolaï)

Where does a fragrance fail-- on the wrists, or in the marketplace?  Looking at Cococabana by Parfums de Nicolaï, it's hard to tell.  It made its debut in 2006, but cannot be found today on the PdN website-- not even as a historical footnote.  Its creator, Patricia de Nicolaï, appears to have completely disavowed it-- and she is not alone in her ambivalence. 

All over the Web, perfume blogs and forums echo the general vote-of-no-confidence towards Cococabana.  Bois de Jasmin points out that it smells better on paper than on skin.  Perfume Smellin' Things reports that it might have had a fighting chance if only Annick Goutal's Songes had not emerged at the same time.  Commenters on Basenotes and Fragrantica -- usually so eloquent with both praise and derision-- have remained strikingly mum about this fragrance.  And on Makeupalley, where hypersweet scents reign supreme, there's precious little love to be found. 

It didn't help that Bath and Body Works beat PdN to the punch with Coco Cabana, followed by the mega-bestselling Coconut Lime Verbena-- and it doesn't matter that Cococabana is far more sophisticated (read less sweet and weighty) than either of these fragrances.  The answer is in the economics:  CLV Eau de Toilette costs only $26.50 and can be found by the caseload at any mall in America, while a comparably-sized bottle of Cococabana costs $80 and requires you to hunt it down like an endangered species. 

No wonder de Nicolaï made Cococabana disappear-- with odds stacked like this, why bother?

I'll tell you why:  because Cococabana is a perfume of undeniable quality.  That it was born at the wrong time or offered up to the wrong audience is no one's fault.  Perhaps, like many a great idea, it simply wasn't meant to be. But that doesn't mean it was never worth getting to know.

Cococabana opens with a tongue-curlingly sweet piña colada accord fresh from the resort swim-up bar.  This is easily its low point, and it's over quickly.  The rest is an odd, appealing composition of figs and raw coconut, moist and cool, like a tropical sweetmeat artfully wrapped in a fresh, rain-dappled green leaf.  Tuberose extends the life of this theme considerably, emphasizing its air of tropical languor.  When it reaches a refined tonka-bean drydown, Cococabana seems to achieved a 180° turn from the beachy, trashy note that kicked it off.

I wonder if this is, in fact, the problem.  You see, when a woman spends money on a tropical perfume, most likely it's because she can't afford an actual trip to the tropics.  She wants something smells like the next best thing: either high-end tanning oil, or a fancy blended drink with a tiny paper umbrella in it.  Cococabana's tropics are bona fide; its offer of coconut milk straight from the freshly-macheted husk is sincere.  Yet the average consumer remains unmoved.  Having grown up believing that cherries taste "red" and grapes taste "purple", she prefers her aspirational fantasy to your parfum vérité anyday. 

Which is probably why she shops at Bath & Body Works.

Would it be different if Parfums de Nicolaï kiosks were standard to every shopping mall? Probably not. Patricia de Nicolaï would have to alter her approach to fragrance design and marketing in order to compete, and Parfums de Nicolaï as we know it would cease to be.  For the sake of integrity, she relinquished the playing field to Bath & Body Works and L'Occitane-- and rightly so. 

Still, it's a shame about Cococabana.  Whether it knows it or not, the world would have been better off keeping it around.

Scent Elements: Coconut, bigarade, ylang-ylang, tuberose, cedar, palm, tonka bean

Chantilly (Houbigant/Dana)

When I found it at the antique dealer's, I would never have guessed in a million years that it was Chantilly. The Chantilly I knew from my youth was nasty dimestore swill that made young girls smell like old ladies and old ladies smell like embalming fluid. That this elixir could be that horror-- impossible.

History, however, has many twists, turns, and tangles. Composed in 1941 by French Society of Perfumers founder Marcel Billot, Chantilly began life as a premiere fragrance for the prestigious house of Houbigant. Then -- like hapless royalty deposed and sent into a humiliating exile -- it spiraled south from upmarket to down, landing at last in the lower plane of hell-- AKA Renaissance Cosmetics, Inc.

In 1995, Renaissance acquired the once-respected Madrid perfume house Parfums de Dana, progenitor of that mother of all spicy-oriental sledgehammers, Tabu. Dana had already obtained from Houbigant the Chantilly name and formula, which Renaissance duly subjected to an olfactory lift-and-tuck. The resulting product flooded the drugstore market, netting thousands in profit for its new owners.

Only problem: this wasn't Chantilly. Not by a mile.

Chantilly in its original vintage is a delightful confection built of alternating layers of intense chypre and citric-vanillic amber, with aldehydes lending shimmer up top and a powdery drydown below. Like a petit-four, it isn't very filling, but its appearance on the table signals a joyful occasion. It's frivolous in the best sense of the word: serious fun with no strings attached. In the late drydown stage, Chantilly could be accused of harboring a grandmotherly air... but only if your grandmother is sexy as hell and reserves her frilly apron to wear with absolutely nothing else but a pair of stiletto heels.

The surprise of learning that this phial of delight was the dreaded Chantilly -- or at least its venerable ancestor -- underscored for me the fact ( happy or sad, depending on your taste) that no work of art is truly final. Fragrances, like images or snippets of song, can be co-opted, repurposed, altered and given new meaning. And if they change, so, too, can they change back...

All in good time.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, neroli, lemon, carnation, jasmine, ylang-ylang, rose, tonka, birch tar, musk, benzoin, oakmoss, vanilla, sandalwood

Pure Grace (Philosophy)

Normally, it's only in my dreams that people walk up and offer me full bottles of perfume. This week, the dream became manifest when my friend Nan handed me Pure Grace by Philosophy.  The gift did not come out of thin air.  A born story weaver, Nan had shared with me the tale of this beloved fragrance that she was unable (though not unwilling) to wear. 

"It seemed like the perfect perfume," she says. "It had that just-scrubbed-and-showered smell I wanted-- but only on other people, not on me. On my skin, it just went... wrong. It would start off fine, but as it lingered, it turned from clean to something that reeked like dirty laundry.  You know?  All day long I'd be thinking to myself, Do I need to take a shower?"

The answer, of course, is no.  Nan smells just fine.  But I think there's logic in the idea that a person and a perfume can be a bad match.  Depending on health, mood, and what we had for dinner, our body chemistry differs widely from hour to hour.  It follows that the scent molecules in a perfume may interact strangely with the hormones, trace minerals, and other chemicals exuded at any given moment by our pores.  In this sense, our sweat contributes as much to a perfume's progression as any of its fancy ingredients-- albeit in a less controllable and predictable form, and often one that does not prove entirely pleasing.

But what if it's the perfume itself?  Certain fragrances make no bones about heading straight for Skankville; some (like Angel) cruelly misdirect us with a few pretty notes early on before delivering the coup de grace.  Conceivably, Nan could have been the innocent victim of a sadistic olfactory prank.

But why would a perfume whose entire raison d'etre is "clean" do such a terrible thing? 

What was Pure Grace's "dirty" secret?

First impression: nice bottle, clean and square and heavy in the hand.  Minimalist labeling, mostly in lower-case Times-Roman, stating:
(T)he clean smell of soap and water, the memory of fresh air woven into a set of crisp, white cotton sheets, the one white t-shirt that feels better than all the rest.
An alluring description.  But as I was already wearing my daily allowance of perfume, I did no more at first than twist the cap off and sniff the sprayer.  Just as Nan and the label promised, it smelled soapy-clean and thoroughly inoffensive.  Narrowing my eyes, I thought, Oh really?  We'll see. 

While running an errand later that afternoon, I stopped to see JC (she of Nuits de Scherrer fame).  She rose to give me a hug, and couldn't help but notice her wonderful perfume-- a warm, sparkling-clean, musk-and-soap scent such as might emanate from a laundromat in heaven.  It jogged my memory to tell her about Nan's gift.

JC's eyes went wide.  "Get OUT!" she said.  "I'm WEARING Pure Grace this very minute!"  From that point, caution be damned-- I couldn't wait to take it for a test drive.

When first sprayed on skin, Pure Grace blossoms briefly into an intense tea-floral accord reminiscent of Tommy Girl, only without the cloying sweetness.  Then it settles back into a cool, white soapsud accord that I found marvelously addictive.  Here is the sweet-smelling warmth and voluminous airiness of cotton garments emerging fresh from an extended tumble in the dryer-- pure comfort devoid of friction or static. 

I get absolutely no jasmine or lavender whatsoever from Pure Grace, and only the merest hint of bergamot in the form of an Earl Grey tea note that fades in and out like an elusive radio station.  As for "water lily", I feel certain this is ad-copy shorthand for heliotropin, whose pale, glowing, aqueous quality puts l'ondée before l'après.  (Speaking of which, Pure Grace performs on skin for hours like a more diligent version of Après L'Ondée Eau de Toilette. I realize I may be committing an irreversible heresy here by comparing a lowly Philosophy fragrance to the great Guerlain, but there it is-- suck it up. I'll pick the steady workhorse that does the job over the nervous, flighty thoroughbred any day.)

So what about musk?  It's here-- lots of it, enough to give Pure Grace a half-life.  (Honestly, even after a second shower, I can still smell it in the crook of my elbow.)  Appropriately, Pure Grace's musk bears more resemblance to those which scent laundry detergents than the wildebeest kind adored by Serge Lutens & Co.  Nevertheless, musks are mammalian by nature; it's only a matter of time before they show their funky animalic side.  I wonder if the dirty off-note that Nan perceived following that initial period of restful clean can be traced back to this source.  If so, she may be hyperosmic to the musk family of molecules.  (I personally have no problem with them-- but then, you know me.)

Now here's the thing: part of me refuses to view Pure Grace as a bona fide perfume.  I can absolutely imagine using it as an everyday scent, a sort of base over which to layer other perfumes like garments.  I also see the worth of pressing it into service as a mild mood remedy for harried times when one feels a bit less than fresh.  But the knowledge that it was inspired by a hygiene product tempts me to accuse it of lacking poetry.  Clearly, it's more functional than lyrical.

Or is it?  All throughout our time together, Pure Grace kept bringing spontaneous remembrances to mind-- visions of a boy I once loved who always carried this exact elusive smell on his person.  It could have been the love talking, or maybe just the laundry detergent his mom used-- but he smelled like home to me.  We wanted to be together, but whenever we ended up there, our chemistry was all wrong.  A bad match.

You know?

Pure Grace is the scent of soap and water.  It isn't fancy; it may not be art.  Simply put, it smells wonderful-- a feat which half the perfumes in the world cannot achieve for all their artistic pretensions.  I appreciate it for being exactly what it claims to be-- a joy, no more, and no less.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, lavender, water lily, jasmine, musk

Incense Rosé (Tauer)

I was thinking today that all of Andy Tauer's perfumes are roads to the Mystic Medina. L'Air du Désert Marocain makes the journey by night across the Levantine dunes. Lonestar Memories saddles up and rides solo over the lonesome prairie. Incense Extrême follows the line of the seashore. And whatever rhythm it is that Vetiver Dance shimmies to, it's heading in the direction of the souk.

This one gets there by way of a cup of tea. A really, REALLY good cup of tea.

It begins with an intense, juicy, acerbic top note that clears out your sinuses and brings your vitamin C levels up to code. This blossoms into a lively, expansive heart of rosehips, hibiscus and Eastern spices. At this point, I defy anyone who wears Incense Rosé to expunge from their mind the vision of a fresh, succulent orange slice afloat in a piping- hot mug of Red Zinger tea.

This gorgeous sunset of a perfume lasts a wondrous long time before the drydown sets in-- a soft, somber woody-ashy affair that brings with it a touch of melancholy, as when the last fiery evidence of the sun's rays disappears from the far rim of the horizon and cedes to a grey-blue twilight. Such a sight stirs the heart just as much viewed from one's suburban backyard as from the vast Sahara... but it may make you all the more glad to be at home.

There's not a single moment of Incense Rosé I would not extend indefinitely if I could. I kept reapplying it compulsively, needing the experience to keep going and going. If it were a book, I would have worn the covers half off by now. Yet this is no grand, epic saga that spans decades and continents, stretching the mind beyond its natural borders. It's a cozy novelette, a quick, feel-good potboiler. It's The Ladies of Missalonghi devoured on a rainy afternoon while curled up the most comfortable old chair in the house.

It's a cup of tea... exactly when you need it most.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, clementine, cardamom, rose, iris, incense, castoreum, cedarwood, vetiver, balsam, myrrh, patchouli

Nuits de Scherrer (Jean-Louis Scherrer)

Perfume is a pleasure made to be shared. This has come home to me over the course of this year, which began with me decant-shopping and scent-blogging all on my lonesome-- then led me inexorably toward community. I am inestimably grateful for the perfume-lovers' dialogue I've found here in blogland... and delighted to find friends in everyday life eager to hike into unknown perfume territory with me.

My pal JC has always embraced the adventure of scent, but now that she's joined me on excursions into Decant Land, we each have a partner with whom to share our findings. Over the summer, she and I took advantage of a Perfumed Court inventory reduction sale to lay claim to a few fragrances we might have passed up at regular price. For me, this meant Amanda by Amanda Lepore; for JC, it meant a partial (80% full) bottle of Nuits de Scherrer EDT -- both at an insane discount. When NdS arrived, we both took a spritz... and fell into immediate raptures. 

NdS starts off with a big lilac note, spicy and languid, evoking cascades of purple flowers against dark-green glossy summer foliage.  One can almost hear the low, constant hum of honeybees in the background.  A more delicate flower might be crushed under the weight of a typical oriental fragrance, but lilac is one of those hardy blossoms that won't be knocked down easily.  Next to jasmine and ylang-ylang, it ranks as one of the top floral heavies of all time-- amber can't drown it; vanilla can't subdue it; castoreum cowers in its shadow. 

Next, a buttery gourmand accord of toasted almonds and creamy sandalwood enters the scene.  Along with the bees buzzing and the lilacs drowsing in lambent afternoon sunshine, there's a tea table in the shade, or else a picnic blanket festooned with delicacies arranged on china plates.  I find myself dreaming of frangipane tarts-- not frangipani the flower, but that delicious, silken almond patisserie cream most often found cradled in shells of pâte sablée and adorned with glazed fruit.  (My favorite is kiwi sliced thin and arranged in overlapping concentric circles under a shimmering layer of gelée.)

All this sounds lovely-- unless it's July and 98°F in the shade, as it indeed was at the time we were sampling Nuits de Scherrer.  (Can you fry an egg on the hood of your car? If yes, it is no time for rich florientals.  Stick to Love's Fresh Lemon and remember to push fluids.)

Eventually, the mercury dropped to a cool 65°F, and JC generously allowed me to decant some NdS for my own use. My nose did not deceive me: having crossed the line drawn in the sand by the autumnal equinox, it was now truly ready to take in Nuits de Scherrer. All the scent elements I remembered had assumed an extra depth and richness well-suited to the turn of the season.

As is my wont, I leapt straight into research.  I learned that NdS was originally launched in 1994 under the name Nuits Indiennes; whether the name change came with a reformulation or was merely done to boost the designer's name (and hence, sales) remains vague.  Its list of scent notes include bergamot, mandarin, peach, rosewood, jasmine, lily-of-the-valley, lilac, heliotrope, cedarwood, sandalwood, vanilla, benzoin, tonka and -- wait, what?  Civet?  There's civet in this?  Color me befuddled.  This was a note I never once detected, let alone suspected-- not then, and not now.

In many fragrances, civet comes across as aggressive and forthright, pouncing the moment you spray. If it actually roamed these woods, where on earth was it hiding? I decided to apply some and lie in wait, like a safari hunter stalking a big cat.  After an hour -- about halfway through the heart-note phase -- civet made its appearance in true feline style, strolling ever so diffidently across the olfactory veldt. Its temperament, rather than that of a vicious beast, resembled more closely that of a housecat which one scarcely notices until it suddenly appears purring on your lap. It remained quietly into the drydown, setting my teeth ever so slightly (and pleasurably) on edge.

As I wore NdS, I thought about reviewing it.  And as I thought about reviewing it, I thought about the many little adventures JC and I had shared in the course of discovering it. As I said, perfume is a pleasure made to be shared-- we could share the review as well.  So here, transcribed from email, is our conversation. (If an air of synaesthesia seems to dominate it, please note that both JC and I are heavily involved -- both personally and professionally -- in the arts. Music, color, texture, rhythm, and visualization pervade our everyday language to its deepest roots.)

Me to JC:


Thanks again for this marvelous scent! I want to write a review, but couldn't imagine doing it without you. If you're willing, I thought maybe we could start messaging about it, then repost our dialogue or something. What do you say?

JC to Me:

Sure. Although, I doubt I have much to add after you. I don't have my finger on the scent pulse in the way that you do. I can identify tones and primary ingredients but can't break down the subtleties.

What I can say is how Nuits makes me feel... I feel like Edith Piaf, in a long sparkling gown singing in a Paris Cabaret. Or Nina Simone in a New York nightclub. It takes me to another place and time. I can't imagine any scent being deeper or richer yet not overwhelming.

It is definitely not a summer fragrance. Certainly it should be worn in fall and winter. In a soft black sweater and silk scarf with pearl or diamond earrings. I'm inspired now. Can't wait for a special occasion to wrap myself in this.

Me to JC:

RE: Edith Piaf and Nina Simone - oh yes! Deep emotion in a single spotlight, center stage. :) Definitely a perfume for nightlife.

I couldn't agree more that fall and winter are the time for this fragrance. It IS like a wrap -- warm, soft pashmina maybe? Oddly enough, I am put in mind of Yves Saint Laurent's "Russian" collection of 1976 - billowy, layered, draped, embroidered, inspired by Cossack/Tartar folk costumes, with high suede boots and fur hats. Exotic, but definitely for cold weather.

Visual images while wearing it: Byzantine ikons, Gustav Klimt's gilded geometric patterns. Lots and lots of gold!

But still no civets.

On the other hand, while putting the finishing touches on this review, I dug up this article about Jean-Louis Scherrer, about whom I knew nothing before reading it. It identifies him as a contemporary of Yves Saint Laurent and describes him as "not a maker of trends, but of refined deluxe versions of trends". The author continues:

A prime example of Scherrer's hallmark "exotically pampered appearance" was a lavishly embroidered coat in mink-bordered beige cashmere, hooded, reminiscent of Anna Karenina and following in the footsteps of Saint Laurent's revolutionary Russian-inspired looks of the late 1970s. Scherrer, in fact, often borrowed exotic details from the East. Chinoiserie and Mongolian-inspired coats and jackets frequently appeared in his collections. At the apex of 1980s opulence in couture, Scherrer indulged in pearl-decorated rajah jackets, tunics, and trousers. In a spirit of Arabian Nights fantasy much like Paul Poiret's, jeweled and feathered turbans completed the ensembles.
Exactly the ensemble to wear with Nuits de Scherrer.

Scent Elements:Bergamot, mandarin, peach, rosewood, jasmine, lily-of-the-valley, lilac, heliotrope, cedarwood, sandalwood, vanilla, benzoin, tonka, civet

Cuir Pleine Fleur (Heeley)

Perfume-sampling, in its own way, is rather like speed-dating. You don't have to spend very long with any particular person to figure out whether they're your type. Some dates are an instant turn-off; others quickly become indispensible, provoking a desire for the conversation to go on and on...

And then there are the nice guys, the ones so ingratiating and self-effacing you never get a sense of who they really are. There isn't a single thing about them you can find to despise-- but nothing distinct enough to remember. Their manners are perfect. Their features are proportionate and regular, everything exactly where it belongs. They say and do all the right things; they're careful not to make a single misstep. 

And they bore you. Oh god, they bore you.

Cuir Pleine Fleur is just such a specimen.  If the Heeley line's main defining trait is soft-spokenness, this fragrance barely cracks a whisper. More than this: it mumbles, which is more annoying than if it shouted. Christ, I find myself thinking, if it would only SPEAK UP! But my frustration finds no outlet, and it seems caddish to complain.

Because Cuir Pleine Fleur is so nice.

So perfectly, pleasantly, endlessly, relentlessly nice.

It seems to me that temperature is the source of the problem-- Cuir Pleine Fleur is running the exact opposite of a fever. All its primary notes (violet leaf, heliotropic hawthorn, crisp birch) are cool, watery, and wan. Its incidental notes waver between neat vodka and the cold, moist, rooty scent of white sugar beets. (Not for this bloodless recipe the hearty red variety!) The resulting fragrance is comely, yet paler than pale, with nary a vital sign to be found. (If teenage vampire-novel fans want a perfume...) Everything fits, and everything ripples smoothly-- but it lacks the warm, solid feel that characterizes something living, let alone something that advertises itself as leather.

Don't get me wrong. I liked Cuir Pleine Fleur just fine-- and it's a matter of utter indifference to me whether I ever smell it again. Like a mediocre date, I've forgotten it already.  And it hasn't even completely faded yet.

(Maybe we should introduce it to Mauboussin.  There's a match made in speed-date heaven.)

Scent Elements: Violet leaf, bergamot, acacia, hawthorn, suede, vetiver, birch, Atlas cedar

Tom of Finland (État Libre d'Orange)

Touko Laaksonen (1920-1991), AKA Tom of Finland, almost single-handledly dominated the genre of homoerotic art over his four-decade career as an illustrator. No matter what compromising situations they find themselves in, his lusty leatherboys exude an air of joy and equanimity that I find immensely cheering. And Tom's exquisite prowess with a simple lead pencil sets him among the all-time greats of illustration history.

Granted, fans of the real Tom of Finland (among whose number I count myself) may be disappointed if they expect any badass behavior from this sweet little cologne. It might possibly be the last fragrance a strapping Scandinavian with a taste for assless leather chaps would ever wear-- but I suspect that's part of the joke. One need only read down the names of État Libre d'Orange's fragrance catalog to deduce that someone's tongue is planted firmly in cheek; to call this pussycat of a perfume after the artist who put the "rough" in "rough trade" takes -- so to speak -- balls.

If Gaultier's Ma Dame had a bookish metrosexual brother, it would be this affable mixture of saffron and lemon custard, smooth as satin and quiet as a church mouse. So bashful is Tom of Finland for its first half-hour on skin that you might forget you're even wearing it. Rather than fading, however, it plays the surprise trick of growing stronger and more definite with time... and when it finally does go, you remember it and crave its return.

Scent Elements: Lemon, birch, pine, saffron, cypress, galbanum, geranium, pepper, vanilla, tonka bean, iris, vetiver, styrax, ambergris, musk

Mauboussin (Mauboussin)

Mauboussin is a perfume for fans of Mitsouko and Jaïpur. So clearly derivative of these earlier (and better) perfumes is Mauboussin that I can scarcely imagine it having fans of its own. I think that if I ever met any, I would be compelled to ask them: For godsake, why not just wear Mitsouko and Jaïpur?

It can't be a question of taste. At worst, Mauboussin could be billed as a next-gen replacement for Mitsouko and Jaïpur; at best, it might pass as an hommage. But anyone who has a nose can tell that it's neither. It apes, but does not improve on, its predecessors. In fact, its mediocrity lessens their stature-- proving that imitation is not always the best form of flattery. 

It can't be a question of supply. All three fragrances are still available-- if not in stores, than on the web; if not in full bottles, then in expertly-prepared decants. One does not have to buy Mauboussin because there is nothing else.

It can't be a question of economics-- at least not from the consumer's side. A 3.4 oz. bottle of Mauboussin costs $80; the same amount of Jaïpur costs $100. At the risk of sounding irretrievably snotty, I'd venture to say that if you have money to waste on perfumes in the first place, a twenty-dollar price upgrade isn't unmanageable-- and it makes all the difference where quality is concerned. Jaïpur is better-designed from top to bottom, and (amazing feat for an eau de toilette) it outlasts Mauboussin on skin for a cool three or four hours. For only ten dollars more, you could have a 2.5 oz. bottle of Mitsouko, one of the most rapturous fragrances ever created. Hell, if you're short on cash, an 8 ml. decant of either perfume will cost you less than $30 from Perfumed Court... cost of shipping included.

Given these facts, if a person continued to voice a preference for a facsimile as weak as Mauboussin, I'd be forced to chalk it up to willful perversity.

Mauboussin, like Jaïpur and Mitsouko, is a rich, spiced-fruit-in-syrup fragrance with a knob of butter melting away up top. What differentiates it from Jaïpur and Mitsouko are its flaws, which are serious, and which have nothing to hide behind. Its top notes of peach, plum, and tangerine are unpleasantly boozy, like fruit salad that has gone off in the midday sun. Its midsection suffers from a strange, queasy, vitamin-pill note that tempts the wearer to scrub but lacks the conviction to really talk them into it. There's a pretty moment somewhere in there, in which Mauboussin seems about to light up like a Christmas tree, but it loses its nerve, jumping straight to a nondescript blah of a drydown.

If a perfume can be personified, Mauboussin is the pretty stranger at the office holiday party, the friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend who exudes charm and mystery until she's had a few drinks-- at which point she reveals that she is just another embarrassing, sloppy bore. You spend the evening with your eyes glued to her mouth -- perfect, gorgeous, glossy with triple-coat cherry-red lipstick -- only to discover that your dream girl has absolutely nothing of substance to say.

Scent Elements: Yellow plum, bergamot, mandarin, peach, jasmine, ylang-ylang, Turkish rose, amber, patchouli, sandalwood, cedar, benzoin, vanilla

Équipage (Hermès)

He seemed to fill the room. Not over tall but of tremendous bulk... a big, wide, solid, hard-looking man. From the middle of a pleasant, blunt-featured face the most magnificent pipe I had ever seen stuck forth shining and glorious, giving out delicious wisps of expensive smoke... I had a final impression of a beautifully cut dark suit and sparkling shirt cuffs as he held out a hand.

-- James Herriot describing his first impression of Granville Bennett, "All Things Bright and Beautiful" (1974)
Say the words "English countryside", and a number of images spring readily to mind. Anne Elliot at Uppercross in Jane Austen's Persuasion. The shooting-party scene in Gosford Park-- all tweed jackets, mink stoles, and bloody Marys. Frogmorton Hall, the bucolic country house central to Susan Colling's marvelous 1955 children's novel, Frogmorton. J.R.R. Tolkien clad in a houndstooth jacket and warm wool waistcoat, relaxing with a pipe beneath an ancient oak tree.

But for me, the most potent specter of the English countryside is Granville Bennett, James Herriot's larger-than-life colleague/nemesis in All Things Bright and Beautiful. This monolith of a man naturally dominates the North Yorkshire veterinary scene ... and does so with effortless style. His highbrow tastes and generous impulse to share often leaves Herriot flummoxed, juggling unsolicited gifts of top-notch pipe tobacco and shirts of incomparable fit.

Unluckily for Herriot, Granville's appetites run as large as his personality-- and he expects his drinking partners to keep pace. On more than one occasion, this most affable of tyrants forces his colleague to tackle terrifying quantities of whisky and ale -- before AND after gargantuan meals. To Granville, there is no such thing as low-key enjoyment. But neither is there embarrassment at living at such a height or pace. Granville simply knows what he likes... and is absolutely certain you'll like it too.

This selfsame quality of unselfconscious ease pervades Hermès Équipage. It is not so much an abstract scent, but a litany of little luxuries-- leather, cognac, tobacco; a scent as comfortable as a custom-tailored set of tweeds.  Add a hint of woodsmoke from the fire crackling in the ancestral stone hearth and a touch of creamy-sweet vanilla from the shaving-soap dish, and you have a tangible portrait of a "man of parts"-- deeply secure and self-satisfied, confident without being arrogant, a natural aristocrat whose nobility is inborn, unconferred by any other.

Wearing Équipage this chill, rainy morning did not result in a break in the clouds, or a miracle change of mood.  It simply gave me an awareness of my inner resources-- the poise, the posture, the cool that I might tap into if I just relaxed, threw back my shoulders, and wore it like I was born to it.

Scent Elements: Rosewood, bergamot, lily-of-the-valley, carnation, jasmine, pine, tonka bean, vetiver, patchouli

Incense Extrême (Tauer)

Here on the central Jersey seacoast, one often encounters the blended scent of salt air, pine, and cedar-- a perfume naturally formulated where the Pine Barrens front upon the ocean. To this, add the smoke of numerous driftwood bonfires dotting the coast at dusk, and you have -- in abridged form -- the relaxing scent of summers at the shore.

As summer ebbs away, Incense Extrême does a manful job of keeping its spirit alive. Here is the essence of fresh, living evergreen, as deep and yielding as a bed of longleaf pine needles, intertwined with the scents of salt air and smoke, and overlaid with a resinous, sunshiney gloss. Simple, unpretentious, and not in the least extrême.

So attractive is this fragrance that I'd love to bask in it much longer than it allows. But like summer, Incense Extrême is not built to last. Its middle phase suffers from a regrettable short-windedness; it peters out just as your affection for it takes root and is soon replaced by a gorgeous ghost of a drydown, a sort of condensed version of the whole season so lately faded away.

My advice? Buy lots. Your addiction will commence with the first spray, and you'll want to keep starting over from the beginning.

Scent Elements: Coriander, petitgrain, incense, iris, ambergris, woods

Marrakech and Mystra (Aesop)

Founded in 1987 by Dennis Paphitis, Aesop is an Australian cosmetics company aspiring to be the 21st century answer to the mediaeval apothecary. Blending solid science with good old-fashioned botany, Aesop's skin and hair care products promise personal luxury with an earth-friendly, spiritual edge... and they come in some of the most attractive containers imaginable. (Let other companies reach backward in time toward a faux Victorian snake-oil aesthetic; Aesop's modernist package designs belong in chemistry labs, art studios, photography darkrooms, and orbiting space stations-- wherever the future is imminent.)

To date, Aesop has produced only two perfumes. Each is named for a city of the ancient world-- Marrakech (2005) after the great medina of Morocco, and Mystra (2006) after the capitol city of the Byzantine Pelopponesus. Aesop's website describes these two forays into fragrance as an "incidental treat"-- a little oasis of pure art in a sea of functional cosmetics. Rather than trot out a new fragrance (or flanker) every year or six months, Aesop continues to present these two -- and only these two -- as their final word on scent. That takes confidence, and luckily, Marrakech and Mystra back it up beautifully.

For each of its perfumes, Aesop admits only to three ingredients. Marrakech's triune of scent notes are clove, cardamom, and sandalwood; Mystra's is frankincense, labdanum, and gum mastic. Period. Citing Vogue France, Now Smell This adds patchouli, ylang-ylang, jasmine, neroli, and rose to Marrakech's short list-- but I'll be damned if I can smell any of them. Instead of a heavy Oriental, Marrakech presents a fresh herbal bouquet garni of celery, angelica, and parsley notes embellished with a sharp citrus-peel accord suspended halfway between lime and grapefruit. I found it strikingly similar to L'Artisan's Eau de Jatamansi, only (thankfully) much longer-lived. Marrakech and Jatamansi happen to intersect on sandalwood and cardamom, which presumably work together to produce this zesty pale-green illusion.

Now, Mystra. It's the oddest thing. In Marrakech, Aesop took three warm, brown ingredients and produced something unimaginably verdant. Here, they take three incense resins and produce a fifth of Patrón Silver. Is this some sort of Surrealist take on alchemy-- or a joke? No matter. Whatever it is, I like it.

Mystra represents some aspect of incense resin I have never before encountered-- a glittering, vitreous, silvery quality like grappa in a spotless crystal glass, or moonlight reflecting on a hard, cold, polished surface. It goes on high and bright, giving off etheric vapors of pine-infused alcohol, then calms quickly to a smoky shimmer that barely registers from more than an inch away. In this rarefied atmosphere, one can commune with Mystra's mysteries in private-- and they are many.

Most exciting was Mystra's strong resemblance to my tincture of breuzinho-- verified by my spouse in a sniff test after dual wrist applications. Mystra, being the finished ideal, of course had better longevity (being composed solely of fixatives, it had better). But if Aesop's fables prove true, a full-fledged perfume CAN be made from only three ingredients without lacking dimension and heart. I feel hopeful that, set among proper complementary scents, my lowly breuzinho might be elevated to beauty.

If ever a perfume might light my way, I think Mystra's the one.

Scent Elements: Clove, sandalwood, cardamom (Marrakech); gum mastic, frankincense, labdanum (Mystra)