Caravelle Epicée (Frapin)

Once upon a time, my fourth-grade teacher assigned the class a project on the Age of Discovery.  With a modest hoard of art supplies and unfettered access to my mother's spice rack, I turned the assignment from show-and-tell into show-and-smell.

First, I painted a map of the world on posterboard, using watercolors to tint it a blotchy sepia like a relic from the days of Magellan. (I included various sea monsters for authenticity.) Next, I crafted dozens of tiny packets out of Saran Wrap and filled them with sundry spices, whole and ground. These I stapled around the map's border, inscribing the name of each spice next to it. Last, I glued a length of yarn from each spice packet to the location on the map whence it originated. Swirling calligraphed letters at the top read, THE SPICE TRADE.

The colorful and aromatic finished product earned me an A+ and survived several years of non-archival-quality storage in my bedroom closet. I threw it out only when it ceased to produce a thrilling whiff of exotic fragrance whenever I opened the closet door.

(Grades? Who needs grades? Really, I'd only done it for the scent.)

At one moment in history or another, all of the spices included in my project traveled aboard a caravel-- the speedy, versatile sailing vessel favored in Iberia since the days of the Moors. Two out of three of Columbus' New World fleet were caravels, the Niña in particular proving herself eminently swift, safe, and seaworthy. In the decades of oceanic commerce that followed Columbus' legendary transatlantic run, the nimble little caravel sped from point to point around the globe, ferrying (among many other treasures) the exotic spices which so enriched the development of human cuisine... and perfume.

One would imagine that the scent of a caravel below decks would be overwhelming. Frapin's Caravelle Epicée is not. That it consists of a eye-opening mixture of hard spices and resins, I admit without demur. Yet I find the resulting fragrance to be sedate rather than bold, homely rather than ceremonial, more like that cheerful scent that wafted out of my bedroom closet thirty-odd years ago than something destined for a temple censer. The complexity of its formula is not apparent from the single, resonant chord struck by all its varied aromatic constituents.  It plays that chord but once, and the experience of wearing Caravelle Epicée is a matter of listening to that chord die out slowly over the course of the day.

Yet, what harmony; what happiness that single chord contains!  Next to it, a full-fledged symphony would seem almost ill-mannered.

Scent Elements: Coriander, nutmeg, cayenne, black pepper, thyme, guiac wood, patchouli, amber, tobacco, sandalwood

Ginseng NRG (Jōvan)

Fans of television advertising (and beer) know that The Most Interesting Man in the World drinks Dos Equis (when he drinks suds at all, which is when he's not drinking 150-year old scotch out of some lady's Jimmy Choo).  But what cologne does this magnetic man-of-the-world wear? Montale Oud Cuir d'Arabie, perhaps-- or some little untitled thing cooked up just for him by Armani Privé?

Me, I like to think that he wears Jōvan... just for the silly of it.

Before it was absorbed whole by the Borg (AKA Coty), Jōvan once claimed its own fame with Musk, the fragrance titan of the hairy-chested post-hippie '70's. From the start, its advertising campaigns dripped pure, unapologetic testosterone. "Sex appeal... now you don't have to be born with it," read the copy. "Get your share." Consumers responded with zeal, sending Jōvan profits soaring into the stratosphere. In 1981, the Rolling Stones actually sold advertising space on their concert tickets to Jōvan, effectively turning the Tattoo You tour into one big kick-ass commercial for Musk.

But oh, how the mighty have fallen! Whereas the old Jōvan never had to prove its virility, the new Jōvan is sadly unsure of itself. Its ad copy still recycles the same claims of sexual irresistibility, but the tone has grown a mite desperate-- understandable, since the product being hawked might actually kill rather than double the consumer's erotic appeal.

Ginseng NRG is a weak ginger-vetiver something-or-other marred by a tepid musk unworthy of the name brand that rolled with the Stones. The first spritz on skin -- gingery, spicy, and warm -- seems promising, and may even lure you into adding a second spritz.  This would be a mistake.  For Ginseng NRG conceals a ton of calone, modern shorthand for hyper-clean manliness-- but anathema to the stubble-chinned Jōvan we knew and loved.  As it heads into a sad cheap-cedar-pencil-shavings drydown, Ginseng NRG's calone acts to extend the bummer indefinitely.  Twenty-four hours after I sprayed it on a test strip, it's still sending up a noxious, eye-watering chemical bouquet that bleats, "I'm a man!"  (Baby, if you're going to quote John Lee Hooker, you'd better have the balls to back it up.)

When used to describe a fragrance, the word "aspirational" normally comes off as an insult.  With Ginseng NRG, the insult isn't even veiled.  This cologne WISHES it could aspire to the use of the word "aspirational"-- that's how bad things have gotten in the land of Jōvan.  

"Get your share"?  You might want to think twice about it.

Scent Elements: SD Alcohol 39-C, Fragrance, Water, Propylene Glycol, Benzophenone-2, Ginseng Extract, Glycerine, FD&C Blue No. 1, FD&C Yellow No. 5, FD&C Red No. 4.  No, really.  It's right on the label.

Fahrenheit (Dior)

Created in 1988 by Jean-Louis Sieuzac of YSL Opium fame, Fahrenheit made its debut with a daunting mission: to provide an alternative to the aromatic fougères of the day.  At first I could hardly imagine how a scent so introverted could be considered revolutionary. But then I remembered that Fahrenheit followed that olfactory bitchslap known as Drakkar Noir, and everything fell into place.

Fahrenheit is a tawny, amiable citrus-cedar fragrance with undertones of sandalwood and soap (or both together, if you prefer; I'm thinking of Murray & Lanman Sandalo, a bar of which sits in my soapdish as we speak). Dusty-spicy, warm, and exceedingly muted, this is the sort of fragrance that hugs the skin so closely that others won't know you're wearing it unless they sit in your lap. And after the abuses inflicted upon us by Drakkar Noir, I imagine Fahrenheit kept many a man's lap cozily occupied by grateful delegates of the opposite sex.

After a marvelous initial burst of bergamot, Fahrenheit reverses direction in midair and flows directly into an clear-toned cedar accord. It looks like a challenge but is really a retreat-- executed with face-saving style, like a matador theatrically flourishing his cape while taking a step back from the bull. From there, Fahrenheit soft-pedals into an autumnal leather-and-wood accord-- warm-blooded in temperature, sotto voce in tone, more dirty than clean, with the buttery scent of lanolin that emanates from an Aran wool sweater your lover has worn all day long.   The overall portrait is that of the quiet, shy, bespectacled guy who is secretly the son of Zeus, capable of moving mountains with the subtlest flick of his finger-- a power he uses but infrequently, and only for good.

In a world of attention-seeking men's fragrances designed to slap your face with "freshness" or "attitude", Fahrenheit's non-dominant sense of restraint proves enormously encouraging.  Its lived-in aura approaches the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi:  humility, acceptance of the ephemeral, grace in the midst of erosion.

After all, not everyone can be a hero.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, honeysuckle, hawthorn, sandalwood, nutmeg, violet, cedar, patchouli, tonka bean

Mysore Sandalwood and Sumatra Vetivert (Attar Bazaar)

Among its more fantastical offerings, the Attar Bazaar apothecary includes a small but respectable repertoire of natural, sustainably-sourced essences for aficionados seeking an adulterated scent experience. Among these, one finds Mysore Sandalwood-- a rarity anywhere. The verdict? Radiant, forceful, complex, magnificent-- and weird as hell. For a Western nose accustomed only to trace amounts of sandalwood in a perfume, the full-strength majesty of raw heartwood freshly axed and rasped is almost enough to knock you over. This scent rings like a church bell, shimmers in the air like heat from a bed of embers, catches in the throat like smoke. I'd recognize it anywhere as the base of my favorite hina attar--but now that I've smelled it undiluted, I can hardly imagine burdening it with extraneous aromatics. Owing to the increasing cost and rarity of unadulterated sandalwood essence, this sample vial came only 1/3 full-- and knowing that India's sandalwood forests are endangered, I do not think my conscience would permit me to seek out more than this small amount. But it is enough. Oh, so very enough.

When one lives in New Jersey, Sumatra should not qualify as "close to home"-- yet Sumatra Vetivert comes very close indeed to a scent of home that stirs up powerful emotions and memories. Autumn-leaf bonfires have been against the law in our fair state for almost as long as I've been alive-- but my goodness, I do believe that scent is somehow encoded on my DNA. When I opened this bottle, I almost cried. Here is a November day in all its sombre, smoky beauty, evoking a hundred bonfires-- or even more to the point, that singular tree on your street whose foliage is on fire in tones of thrilling crimson long after the rest of the neighborhood has succumbed to November's grey. What makes this most astounding is that vetiver comes through as a mere wisp of smoke in so many perfume compositions-- but here, in concentration, it's enough to sweep your feet out from under you. Like Mysore Sandalwood, Sumatra Vetivert is nature's glory distilled to its greatest potency.

As the song goes: Oh, hear me, this is powerful stuff.

Cašmir (Chopard)

It is not my intention to be a snob about perfume. Beauty comes in so many forms and awaits discovery in so many places, it seems silly to filter it according to its provenance.

Accordingly, I'll give just about any fragrance you can name a chance. First I open it.  If what emerges doesn't take my head off, I dab or spray it on my skin-- and then sniff and sniff again.  I may wear it several times under different conditions before I formulate a final judgment. And I always leave myself room to change my mind.

But when it comes to the behemoth currently operating under the name Coty, I feel somewhat less flexible.  Because of them, the world is full of sugar-encrusted, vanilla-iced, pink-tutu-clad toxic chemical cocktails masquerading as perfumes.  I know that Coty's not the only company that makes them, but they are all Coty seems to make-- and because of this, I can't bring myself to cut them any slack.  With the exception of Sarah Jessica Parker's Covet, I've yet to meet a single contemporary Coty fragrance that I didn't want to flush down the toilet tout de suite.

I have no idea if Cašmir (1992) predates Coty's takeover of Chopard's fragrance division. I guess it doesn't really matter, since Cašmir dovetails seamlessly with  Coty's candy-counter scheme of perfumery.  This unbelievably de trop treacle-fruit concoction is for the woman who wants to smell like fourteen different kinds of jam all at once, with an entire bottle of Bols Crème de Banana poured on top to show she isn't kidding.  I suppose it's both a surprise and a mercy that Coty didn't reformulate it, heaping mounds of buttercream frosting, dulce de leche, and candy sprinkles on top to bring it up to code. 

Seriously, Cašmir makes Cacharel's LouLou look as though she graduated from Radcliffe still a virgin.  I can't think of a single occasion on which this perfume would be appropriate.  If one exists, I'm not sure I want to know.

Scent Elements: Mango, coconut, peach, bergamot, jasmine, geranium, lily-of-the-valley, amber, musk, sandalwood, vanilla, patchouli

Azurée (Estée Lauder)

One of my most enduring memories from an early-1970's childhood was the scent that all adult women seemed to emanate. It was a blend of liquid foundation, hairspray, lipstick, nylon pantyhose, knee-high leather boots, tight-fitting elbow-length gloves, menthol cigarettes, and a sharp, green, insistent scent like fresh ivy or wild ferns.

It was, I imagined, the secret of womanhood.

Though female, I did not yet possess this elusive perfume. It scared and thrilled me to think that it would someday be mine. To win it seemed to involve some arcane initiation rite which, for six-year-old me, was a long way off; I lived in awe and envy of those who had already undergone this transformation. Come the sixth grade -- when all of us girls gathered in a darkened classroom to watch an instructional film about our "budding femininity" -- I wistfully watched that symbolic flower open in slow motion onscreen and thought: That must be where the perfume comes from.

Only later -- when I had already earned my right to it -- did I realize that it came from a bottle.

Azurée (1969) is that essence of femaleness. Whereas some chypres broadcast dreamy, nature-girl indolence, this one radiates the formidable strength of a goddess-- namely Estée Lauder, a woman famous for her self-confidence and feminine allure. Tough, sexy, urbane, it delivers an animalic wallop of leather and incense that may be the butchest thing ever made for a woman to wear. If Pascal Morabito's Or Black had a dominatrix on the payroll, Azurée would be it.

Breathing in her dry, dark, smoky scent, I find myself humming "Venus in Furs", the Velvet Underground's 1967 paean to masochism. Listen as our long-suffering manservant Severin finds liberation in the lowest places:
Kiss the boot
of shiny, shiny leather
Shiny leather
in the dark
Tongue of thongs
The belt that does await you
Strike, dear mistress
and cure his heart.
Also in 1967 appeared Luis Buñuel's Belle de Jour, starring Catherine Deneuve as Séverine (aha!) the original desperate housewife who relieves her boredom through freelance sex-for-hire.  Azurée's ironic, decadent, and slightly cruel overtones fit both Séverine and Severin to a T.

Yet it's Nico -- Lou Reed's sibling rival within the hierarchy of the Velvet Underground -- whom I keep thinking about.  A melancholic poet trapped in the body of a career supermodel, Nico spent her short life struggling to reconcile her complex inner self with the world of glossy surfaces. Expected to sing, she concealed the fact that she was deaf-- thus becoming one of the 20th century's greatest chanteuses almost by accident. Ordered to be beautiful, she dressed in mannish suits and refused to crack a smile-- and left behind an enduring iconography of style. Anyone who hears her deep, wistful voice becomes acquainted firsthand with her vulnerability, her strength, and the timeless scope of her experience... just the same as anyone who wears Azurée comes to understand that fabled secret power of womanhood.

Of course you do, honey. It's your own.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, gardenia, aldehydes, jasmine, cyclamen, ylang-ylang, galbanum, orris root, patchouli, leather, oakmoss, musk, amber

1876: Mata Hari (Histoires de Parfums)

In my perfume travels, I have found to my dismay that all saffron perfumes smell alike in the end. What seemed extraordinarily novel the first time I encountered it (in Olivia Giacobetti's Safran Troublant, to which I remain imperishably hooked) now seems as uniform as if die-stamped by machine.

Time and again, saffron is paired off with the same old partners -- rose, cardamom, steamed milk, sandalwood -- only to end up carrying them all on her broad back. I'm certain she gets weary of these arrangements, but is too mild-mannered to say so. Like a superhero recruited not to some global justice league but the local PTA, she gamely offers to run the next bake sale, knowing full well she'll end up saving the world.

What if saffron took a holiday?

1876 Mata Hari is one of the best saffron perfumes I've ever smelled that doesn't have a lick of saffron in it. All of her usual dance partners have gathered in one place to scratch their heads at the saffron-shaped vacancy in their midst. Where is she? they're thinking. Not me: I'm getting too big of a kick out of watching the gang sweat bullets at the prospect of doing all the heavy lifting.

Luckily, everyone pitches in and gets this baby off the ground. Rose and sandalwood know all the steps, and lychee provides the fresh perspective of a newcomer to the scene. Substitute cumin for cardamom? Yes, please-- it makes for a slightly more ballsy drydown in place of the usual oeufs à la neige. All together, 1876's components do such a good job of filling in for the missing piece that you'd swear she was present and accounted-for the whole time.

Now, about the theme. If Guerlain's Oriental Brûlant is our antiheroine all dressed up in her stage costume (beads dripping, headdress sparkling), I'd have to say that 1876 is Mata Hari in civilian clothes. To be sure, they are beautifully cut, perfectly proportioned, and wildly expensive as befits the wardrobe of a demimondaine-- but they are subtle and unobtrusive enough to allow her to pass through society without attracting too much attention. So skillful is 1876's air of olfactory misdirection that, applied with a light touch, it could make the wearer damn near invisible.

But perhaps that is exactly what you want. After all, a good spy does well to remain incognito.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, orange, lychee, rose, iris, violet, carnation, cumin, cinnamon, vetiver, guaiac, sandalwood

Dazzling Silver (Estée Lauder)

Last weekend, my husband and I stopped by the local Target to see how a recent renovation effort had paid off. The good news: in addition to a new grocery and a greatly expanded electronics department, they'd established a dedicated fragrance aisle. The bad news: 100% celebrity crap. J. Lo, Britney, Celine, Beyonce, Mariah, Kimora Lee. You know it's bad when you start wishing for some Axe Body Spray just to offset all that estrogen.

For kicks, I went down the row of testers, sniffing spray nozzles with growing disbelief. My nose is fairly fatigue-resistant, so I'm pretty certain I wasn't hallucinating. But every single one of them smelled, without exception, exactly the same: like vanilla cotton candy, fresh-spun and warm. This may be your idea of heaven if you're nine years old. But I'm not.

And it depressed the hell out of me.

Yesterday, my friend GW brought her collection of mini perfume bottles to work for an impromptu sniffing party. I fumbled in getting the cap off of Dazzling Silver by Estee Lauder, and a single drop of it landed on my denim-clad knee. Immediately I was surrounded by a penetrating vanilla scent, remarkable because it was cold. So used am I to warm and cozy vanillas that the concept of tamping down this note's natural friendliness via refrigeration startled me silent.

Dazzling Silver calls to mind a granita of vanilla-infused milk crystallizing in the freezer, or a cup of Hawai'ian shave ice flavored with mauve-colored syrup of orchids. Though Lalique's Flora Bella came much later in the game and (in my opinion) offered a slightly more refined take on the concept of frozen/sweet, this fragrance has undeniable appeal. It teases you with the familiar, growing sweeter the longer it's on your skin (or your jeans), but it never quite warms up. The chill of its hauteur makes your mouth water and your skin prickle with goosebumps for hours and hours.

I still prefer my beloved Flora Bella-- but I can't deny that all that afternoon, I kept sniffing the air and smiling. Just like a nine-year-old.

Scent Elements: Lilies, orchids (including vanilla orchid), lotus blossom, passionflower, rose, magnolia wood, helional

1873: Colette (Histoires de Parfums)

This is supposed to evoke Colette?

In what sense? By whose authority?

Come on, now-- what's the joke? I want to get it, but I don't

Exactly what are we meant to understand from this bilious, syrupy pink grapefruit disaster? That Colette was a girl, and girls like pink, so girls will like this-- whether they like it or not?  And Jesus, what's with that throat lozenge note, a sour medicinal undertone so reminiscent of bronchitis remedies it compels me to turn my head and cough? Is it shorthand for 'complexity of character'? Or did the real Colette suffer from croup?

To be fair, grapefruit is a fickle fruit.  Being rich in sulfur, its nature is apt to turn devilish in the wrong proportions-- a compelling reason to avoid it, unless it's time for breakfast. In 1873, the acrid sulphurous scent of its peel winds in and out of an unpleasant, miasmic odor evoking flower stems left too long in stagnant vase water. Inexplicably and to no good end, these are paired with musk and milky caramel; a more hellish combination I cannot imagine. Breathing in this mess, I am flabbergasted-- not least because all the rest of the Histoires de Parfums line is so consistently superb.

But this? This?

I would rather smell Parisienne, Pamplelune, and a dozen other grapefruit perfumes all at the same time than smell 1873 Colette by itself. Hell, I'd take half a grapefruit in the face a la Mae Clarke in The Public Enemy sooner than wear this perfume again.

As for Colette, I cannot imagine her countenancing this fragrance for one second. No one, however notorious, wants to go down in history as a stench.

Scent Elements:"All the citrus fruits from sunshine countries", orange blossom, lily-of-the-valley, lavender, vanilla, musk, caramel

Lonestar Memories (Tauer)

Recently (and for the fourth or fifth time, I admit) I watched Catherine Breillat's breathtaking film Une Vieille Maîtresse (An Elderly Mistress, misleadingly translated as The Last Mistress for American audiences who find finality more palatable than age). Based on Barbey d'Aurevilly's scandalous 1851 romance, Une Vieille Maîtresse concerns an anomalous ten-year liaison between a young Parisian rake and a Spanish divorcee some years his senior. If you suspect that this is Cheri all over again, think twice. The love (if you can call it that) between Ryno de Marigny and La Vellini is, as she herself puts it, "une liaison singulaire".

Described by one lover as "a capricious flamenca who can outstare the sun", Vellini is neither young, beautiful, nor especially personable-- but she certainly is singular. When Ryno is first introduced to her at a masquerade party, she is dressed in a frivolous costume at odds with her sober expression. When asked, "Are you dressed as a she-devil?" Vellini doesn't miss a beat. "No-- THE Devil," she replies artlessly. "I hate anything feminine."

The cinematic convention of the "meet cute" -- in which future lovers start out on the wrong foot with one another but slowly fall into step -- has no place in Une Vieille Maîtresse. Ryno dismisses Vellini as an "ugly mutt"-- then falls hopelessly in love with her. She instigates a duel between her husband and Ryno-- then realizes that her spouse is superfluous, since she and Ryno can easily carry out their feud without a middleman. For ten years, the pair remain steadfastly by each other's sides and at each other's throats. Not even Ryno's betrothal to a fresh young heiress can put them asunder; betrayal just adds an extra soupçon of pathos to their frequent, erotic "final" goodbyes. Theirs is an eternal combat without a clear winner, and no truce in sight.

Vellini may pretend to roll with the changes, but her easy arrogance conceals a deep, melancholy, and self-sacrificial fatalism. True, she despises Ryno before, during, and after their affair (with good reason, as he appears to confuse making love with making her miserable). But as he is her fate, she refuses to abandon him. He can come and go as he pleases; she'll always be his-- for worse if not for better.

The bond between Ryno and La Vellini is a strange one, based more on mutual anguish than delight. Yet every so often, Ryno manages to bring a smile to the edges of Vellini's mouth, transforming her eyes into supernovas of celestial light and her storm clouds into very heaven. In these moments, there is no doubt in my mind which perfume La Vellini personifies.

How do I know? Perhaps it's that succession of gigantic rose peonies with which Vellini adorns her jet-black hair-- neon pinks and reds radiating the intensity of a desert sunset. Or the combination of vulnerability and bravado that broadcasts itself through the eccentricity of her dress (Vellini switches from jaunty men's breeches to Levantine harem-wear to black lace mantillas faster than her mood can swing, which is pretty bloody fast). She smokes cigars, plays cards, and rides horses like a man... but she breaks, as the song goes, just like a little girl.

That's why I believe that Andy Tauer's Lonestar Memories is right on Vellini's wavelength. Take L'Air du Désert Marocain and whittle it down to its base of labdanum, jasmine, cedar, and vetiver. (Works best if you're chewing on a stalk of sweetgrass.) Swap out its coriander and cumin for sagebrush and carrotseed; then substitute geranium and birch tar for its petitgrain and ambergris. Bookend it on one side with smoky phenols, and on the other with a dusky carnation of deepest cerise. Now beam the whole thing right smack into the middle of the pampas, where it will lounge by the campfire with a flower between its teeth beneath the starry night sky. Cue Pete Seeger yodeling "Way Out There"-- and you realize that never did a human voice sound so plaintive, so lonesome, echoing in all that endless space.

Petulant, tender, melancholy, fearless, the Señora and this scent both get me right in the throat. And they can make bold with my heart all they want to: I'll stay faithful to the bitter end.

Scent Elements: Geranium, carrotseed, clary sage, birch tar, labdanum, jasmine, cedarwood, myrrh, tonka bean, vetiver, sandalwood

Osmanthus (The Different Company)

Two things indispensible to every Russian household: the domovoj (домово́й) and the samovar (самовар). The domovoj, or “man of the house”, is the protective spirit of the ancestral home. In exchange for daily offerings of juniper, pipe tobacco, and kasha, this small but powerful genius loci works tirelessly to shield the house and its occupants from ill luck.

The samovar, on the other hand, provides a more immediate service to those chilled by the Russian winter: hot tea, and lots of it. An imposing metal urn heated by charcoal, the samovar contains reservoirs for both tea concentrate and boiled water with which to dilute it. If the care lavished upon it by the lady of the house is any indicator, the samovar is a V.I.P. whose pride of place is proven by the high gleam bestowed by daily, almost religious, polishing.

Samovars vary in size to serve everything from peasant hovels to imperial palaces, but no Russian structure could be deemed fit for human habitation without one. One might say that the Russian people could do without the Tsar, but never the samovar-- in fact, even the Tsar bowed to its supremacy.

Here is a description of afternoon tea in Tsarskoe Selo during the reign of Nicholas II:

At four, the family gathered for tea. Teas at Tsarskoe Selo were always the same. Year after year, the same small, white-draped tables were set with the same glasses in silver holders, the same plates of hot bread, the same English biscuits. Cakes and sweetmeats never appeared. To her friend Anna Vyrubova, (Tsaritsa) Alexandra complained that “other people had much more interesting teas”. Although she was Empress of Russia, wrote Vyrubova, (Alexandra) “seemed unable to change a single detail of the routine of the Russian court. The same plates of hot bread and butter had been on the same tea tables [since the days of] Catherine the Great.”

Pg. 128, Nicholas and Alexandra, Robert K. Massie (1967)
Doubtless Alexandra -- a minor German prinzessin raised to consider herself thoroughly British -- found this inflexible ceremony somewhat puzzling. In truth, the Russian afternoon high tea bears more of a resemblance to the Japanese cha-no-yu tea ceremony than to the cozy four-o'clock refreshment native to Britain. Strict customs govern everything, from the style of drinking vessel (glass, never china) to the mode of sweetening the tea. For a time, it was de rigeuer to hold a sugar cube between one's teeth whilst drinking-- but an easier (and far more delicate) method is to follow each sip with a tiny spoonful of sweet jam.

Jam and tea: so simple, so appealing. This is the spirit of Osmanthus, composed by Jean-Claude Ellena for The Different Company before he moved on to Hermès. Osmanthus brings together the woolly astringency of strong black tea with the plangent sweetness of preserves, with great and comforting effect.

The osmanthus has long been a popular shrub, both for tea lovers and perfumers. Its foliage smells somewhat like the leaves of Camellia sinensis and can be blended with both green and black versions of the same for a pleasant and fragrant brew. But osmanthus also smells like fruit-- apricots and peaches to be exact, a fact on which Ellena skillfully capitalizes for an original take on the Russian tea table. Berry jams and cherry jams may be more traditional, but this cheerful honey-gold concoction is infinitely preferable.

What ties it all together? Bergamot, naturally-- what could be better? Firmly linked to both the world of tea (as in Earl Grey) and perfumery (where it appears in the ingredient list of almost every fragrance ever made), bergamot possesses both dry and sweet angles that dovetail neatly with tannin and apricot, drawing them together and providing a segue so sensible that it's hard to imagine any other note being tapped for this task.

Luca Turin has claimed that he carries a bottle of Osmanthus with him whenever he travels. "I use this wonderful fragrance the way some people carry familiar objects to set up in hotel rooms and make everywhere feel like home. There is a protecting genie in its little travel bottle which hasn't failed me yet," he says.

A domovoj in the form of a perfume: brilliant.

Scent Elements: Orange, mandarin, bergamot, osmanthus, peach, rose, musk.

Thrifting through history.

Autumn seems to be the time for bargains. Within the last month, I've visited countless thrift stores, antique shops, flea markets, garage and yard sales, and charity events to "poke and pick", as my beloved spouse puts it. Fragrance scores keep placing themselves in my path-- some good, some bad, some vintage or hard-to-find, and all cheap as sin. Here are two of my best recent finds in the land of secondhand:

L'Aimant (Coty)
When Chanel No.5 creator Ernest Beaux left the Grasse fragrance firm of Chiris in 1922, his successor -- the equally great Vincent Roubert -- was charged with composing replacements for Beaux's departing formulae. Exercising his lordly prerogative as head nose for Coty, Roubert took his sweet time. Five years later, he brought forth L'Aimant-- an aldehydic floral so close to Chanel No.5 that a lawsuit could have been filed.

The bottle jumped out at me right away-- pre-1980's old-school with a real metal crown cap and angular goldtone lettering proclaiming the perfume's name. This L'Aimant is a "parfum de toilette", an appellation which (according to Turin & Sanchez) denotes an EdP concentration. Its first order of business, once the cap is removed, is to rear back and deliver a smart aldehydic slap across the face. Don't underestimate Her Ladyship: that blow stings but good.  But L'Aimant quickly poultices the hurt with a golden citrus-amber floral that impersonates Chanel No.5 so successfully it could hire itself out for parties. It's a touch sweeter and more vanillic, perhaps; close enough to put you in mind of No.5, but distinct enough to merit its own fan club.  Apparently, thousands of women shared this view; Jacques Guerlain's wife even preferred it to her own spouse's work. Who am I to argue?

Scent Elements: Aldehydes, bergamot, peach, strawberry, neroli, jasmine, rose, geranium, ylang-ylang, orchid, vetiver, sandalwood, cedar, vanilla, amber, tonka bean, civet, musk

Chypre (Coty)
This the one that started it all... well, not exactly. With its white plastic cap and hippie-Edwardian label design, this isn't vintage, strictly speaking. Reissued in 1986 and rechristened as the "Chateau Collection", Chypre, Les Muses and Rose Jacqueminot once again became available in both EdP and EdT. While the EdT came in a much fancier bottle, I'm glad to have the EdP no matter how plainly packaged.

The 1917 Chypre has been described as impossibly magical, a fey green spirit straight from the ancient wildwoods.  The modern incarnation I hold in my hand is doubtless a quart low on both oakmoss and civet; perhaps it is only an anorexic shadow of that Great Goddess worshipped by such 20th century dynamos as Dorothy Parker and Clark Gable.  But hot damn, it's good-- heady and rich and as green as could be. It may be low-cal by its own ninety-year-old standards, but by modern criteria -- which have turned its sister Emeraude into a tragic self-parody -- it is a gem of unparalleled opulence. If this is an impoverished facsimile, then the real thing would kill me.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, oakmoss, sage, labdanum, patchouli, civet

Parfum d'Été (Kenzo)

It sat on a table marked “Everything Must Go”. Amid old sunglasses, ratty used bolo ties, and chipped ugly Corningware, it glistened—a single frosted-glass leaf with a dew drop nestled amid the tracery of its veins.

I picked it up, weighed it in my hand. It was nearly half full of a pale, yellow-green liquid. Passing by, the owner of the store spoke: “Whatever it’s marked, take seventy-five percent off.”

It was marked two dollars. I paid the fifty-cent ransom and rescued this princess from oblivion. Everything must go, and so Kenzo Parfum d'Été went... home with me.

It's been a long time since they made it like this-- nearly twenty years.  The "dew-drop leaf" design denotes the original, by now considered vintage.  I've never smelled the current, reformulated version in its sleek, modern, clear glass bottle.  I’m not convinced I need to. What’s in this bottle is beauty enough.

Were I a blushing bride (was I ever?), I would nominate vintage Parfum d’Éte as the ideal wedding-day fragrance. This is a light-green chypre, nectarlike and decidedly vernal, perfect for a tender young thing dressed all in white. A bridal bouquet of flowers -- cyclamen, freesia, lilies of the valley -- is presented first, followed by a hint of fruit, but only in the mildest, sweetest sense of the word. Imagine the thinnest imaginable slice of ripe cherimoya on an opalescent milk-glass plate—no stronger or more definite flavors (or colors) need apply.

A tiny touch of musk reminds us that there’s a real, live, warm-blooded woman beneath these yards and yards of snow-white tulle. An even tinier touch of wood (mahogany and sandal) tells us that this gal is not short on backbone. And that tobacco note? As soon as the photographer’s finished and the limo pulls around, she is SO going to smoke a cigarette-- five-thousand-dollar wedding gown or no.

Just don’t tell her mom.

Scent Elements: Galbanum, peach, hyacinth, peony, cyclamen, freesia, jasmine, ylang-ylang, lily-of-the-valley, rose, narcissus, iris, sandalwood, amber, musk, oakmoss, cedar

Eau d'Hadrien (Annick Goutal)

The perfume realms mapped by Annick Goutal are broad and far-flung. Admittedly, I’ve barely begun to traverse them. I love Sables to shreds, cry with nostalgia at Encens Flamboyant, and shrug congenially at Gardénia Passion—but beyond these three, I’m a babe in the woods.

So when I picked up this minibottle from a tea-tray display at the antique barn, my yelp of delight reached the rafters. How did I miss this? Though my sample wish list is as long as my arm, here was a Goutal I seem to have overlooked. (And eight whole milliliters of it, too!) I knew absolutely nothing about Eau d’Hadrien, but felt that Goutal’s name was collateral enough that the risk would surely pay dividends.

Was I still kvelling after I brought it home? Absolutely—though at first sniff I thought, Damn-- a lemon fragrance three weeks too late. For of course summer was already over, and who wears lemon fragrances except in the summertime?

Eau d’Hadrien could compel me to break a rule or two. Peppery, angular, and penetrating, it’s a composition in acid sans alkaline, with sharp grapefruit zest playing counterpoint to optimistic lemon and biting green cypress. Sprayed on skin, its drydown approaches the sun-roasted warmth of immortelle, though apparently it contains none. Nor does it contain anise, though my husband swore up and down that it was somewhere in there, it had to be. I couldn’t argue—I was too busy puzzling over that ghostly wisp of wild dog rose I kept detecting on the October wind…

All in all, I found Eau d’Hadrien to be a lovely thing—but not everyone agreed with me. I passed some small (1ml.) decants around to five of my fellow perfumistas at the office. One tried hers immediately and pronounced it wonderful. Another accepted her sample, but never voiced an opinion on it either way. A third said she liked it and might visit it occasionally if I kept it at my desk, but she felt no real need to take it home. And the remaining two – JC and Nan, to be exact – handed it back immediately. Both declared – separately, with absolutely no knowledge of one another’s opinion, and almost verbatim – that Eau d’Hadrien reminded them of a perfume that sat on an older relative’s dresser in a past they did not wish to revisit. (Hm!)

Having witnessed these two ladies exhibit an uncanny level of fragrance telepathy once before, I marveled at this intersection of perfume and the paranormal. But as to their opinion, I simply couldn’t concur. Facets of Eau d’Hadrien may echo perfumes of the past, but overall, its spare profile fits the whole modern “clean citrus” genre to a T—even more so when it is sprayed rather than dabbed. Something about it evokes for me that point in history when the sinuous curves of Art Nouveau gave way to the hard, clean, pure lines of Art Deco, or when blurry Impressionist landscapes yielded the floor to sharp-edged Cubism….

However you paint it, Eau d’Hadrien is well worth holding in reserve until Memorial Day. I fully expect it to stir up other debates, contradictions, and scent phantoms when I bring it out of storage next June.

Scent Elements: Sicilian lemon, grapefruit, citron, cypress

Missoni 2006 (Missoni)

Luca Turin once described the layers of a Sophia Grojsman fragrance as "so intense and well-judged that the perfume felt as if it came out in stripes". Grojsman may have achieved that happy result by accident. But in Missoni's 2006 eponymous perfume, Maurice Roucel aimed for it from the very start.

Stripes of color -- the traditional motif of Missoni's knitwear designs -- are, in fact, the core of this perfume's concept.  And just as Missoni's choice of unusual (and often dissonant) hues engendered what is now an instantly-recognizable aesthetic, Roucel's layering of contrasting scent elements produces a perfume as warm, comfortable, and stylish as a vintage Missoni floor-length autumn-weight sweater dress.

So what's the "color scheme"?

The Giallo (Radiant Yellow) Accord consists of Italian bergamot, magnolia blossoms, and nespole (loquat).  The loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) is the sweet, plumlike fruit of an Asian evergreen tree grown throughout the Mediterranean.   Consumed in large quantities, loquats are known to have a sedative effect-- as does the heavy scent of magnolia bloom when inhaled on a summer night.  Lively bergamot proves a wise choice to counteract the soporific potential of Missoni's giallo.

The Rosa (Magenta Pink) Accord incorporates deep pink peony, rose, and daylily elements to lend a floral edge to what is otherwise a thoroughly gourmand fragrance.  This is the most retiring of all the color accords, paling in the face of more assertive ingredients.  Like a demure silk slip, it keeps well out of sight; only the wearer is truly conscious of it-- and grateful for the touch of gentle femininity it brings.

The Arancio (Intense Orange) Accord consists of mandarin, bitter orange, and persimmon.  This warm, expansive accord lends an optimistic air to counterbalance the heavier sections of the fragrance.  The persimmon note is of the ripe-fleshed rather than acerbic variety and does much to mellow the sharp bitterness of the bigarade.

The Gianduia (Chocolate Brown) Accord is a mellow, rich mixture of chocolate praline and vanillic amber.  As you can imagine, here is where Missoni's center of gravity can be found-- and boy, is she full-bodied.

Does one of these accords resonate for you above all others? You're in luck. Two years after the release of Roucel's composition, Missoni followed up with the Colori Collection, in which each separate "stripe" of the quartet -- Giallo, Rosa, Arancio, Gianduia -- could be purchased separately. (Heck, if a coffret of all four colori plus the full perfume existed, I might be persuaded to hand over my eyeteeth for it.)

Luca Turin gave Missoni five stars. I like to imagine that he awarded one star to each of the four composite accords, plus an extra, purely for personal reasons. Sadly, I have to stop at four stars-- and not because I lack appreciation, affection or flat-out lust for this fragrance. Simply put, Missoni didn't last long enough for me. The only remedy I can think of would be a full bottle with a backup travel sprayer on the side, so that I can reapply liberally just as Missoni starts to flag.

The original Missoni (released in cooperation with Max Factor in 1982) was apparently a fruity floral with a chypre base. I've never tried it myself, and while it may be useful to seek it out, the presence of cassis in the mix triggers all my apprehensions. The new Missoni (launched with help from Estée Lauder) gives me no such qualms. This glorious gourmand proves perfect for an equally glorious autumn season, enveloping one from start to finish in shimmering satisfaction.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, mandarin, bigarade, loquat, persimmon, magnolia, rose, peony, lily, cacao, hazelnut, amber

Égoïste (Chanel)

In her authoritative biography of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, author Hayden Herrera portrays Kahlo's inability to have children as one of the defining miseries of her life. Art became her birthing process, and her vibrant, psychologically taut paintings stood in as substitutes for living children. However, every chapter of Hayden's book offers ample evidence that Kahlo did in fact mother a child. His name was Diego María de la Concepción Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodríguez -- Kahlo's 6'1", 300 lb., incurably self-absorbed and charming infant of a husband.

Page after page of anecdotes illustrate Rivera's unique combination of virility and puerility. A self-proclaimed Communist with the firm sense of entitlement that only an affluent upbringing can bestow, he indulged to the fullest each and every appetite -- for food, drink, women, or drama -- that poked up its head. With a palette in one hand and a pistol in the other (both fully loaded!) he cut quite the figure of machismo in conservative, deeply religious Mexico. Yet Rivera depended utterly on Kahlo for coddling and ego-stroking, even resorting to shameless baby talk when an appeal to his wife's maternal instincts might work in his favor.

Among the many self-portraits Rivera executed during his long career, one strikes me as most telling. In the 1948 mural "Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda", he appears as a chubby, wide-eyed youngster in short pants, clutching the skeletal hand of an Aztec death-goddess. Just behind him, a watchful Kahlo hovers, ready to spring to her little boy's aid. For someone cozying up to "La Pelona", Rivera looks remarkably self-satisfied and complacent-- due, perhaps, to a very recent glut of sugary snacks. One can almost feel the sticky remnants of cotton candy on his plump little fingers.

One sniff of Chanel's fruit-leather confection Égoïste summons an exact hologram of Rivera in this moment: cheeky, infuriating, spoiled rotten-- and adorable.

From those original television commercials -- in which a series of angry ladies screamed out of their open windows -- I figured Égoïste must be one badass of a fragrance. Ah, the follies of youth! Now that I have sampled it, the mystery surrounding all those enraged ladies is solved. Égoïste -- nominally a fragrance for men-- is really designed for little boys who have never grown up.

I don't normally go for sweets, but this saucy floral charmed me with its honeyed stickiness, so reminiscent of childhood treats that I caught myself longing for a red-lacquered candy apple and a fistful of helium balloons. Égoïste's blend of soapy, fruity, musky and sugary notes sound an undeniable clarion call to the inner child that drowns out any attempt to appear badass (or, at the very least, mature). It can strive all it wants for a tough-guy attitude, but its infectious smile will always ruin the effect.

And so what? If the world wants a man in a bandolier, it already has Knize Ten. Égoïste must content itself with being the Peter Pan rather than the Captain Hook of perfumes. After all, as Frida's Dieguito undoubtedly knew, you catch more flies with honey.

Scent Elements: Sicilian tangerine, rosewood, coriander, damask rose, sandalwood, vanilla, ambrette

Antonia (Puredistance)

At the beginning of September, I received a friendly email from Ninja Andritter-Witt of Puredistance Master Perfumes. Writing from their headquarters in Groningen, Netherlands, Ninja wished to know if I might like to preview Antonia, Annie Buzantian’s new fragrance for Puredistance. She expressed regret that with production still underway, all she’d be able to send was a 1ml. sample vial. Would I be at all interested?

At this, I had to grin. My tiny sample of Puredistance’s first fragrance has become one of the most cherished items in my scent box. If Antonia were anything near as divine, one milliliter would be the equivalent of a solid gold ingot. Truly, size is no object!

Accompanying Ninja’s email was a PDF of a beautifully-designed press booklet which described Antonia as “full of character… clearly present, but never overwhelming… redefines the word ‘sweetness’.” As with Puredistance I, Antonia contains a strikingly high concentration of perfume oils – 25% by volume – but what ingredients comprise it, Puredistance declined to say. As the booklet stated, “We choose not to zoom in on the ingredients. We rather leave the personality of this perfume ‘intact’. Just as a composition of Chopin needs not to be divided into individual notes in order to be enjoyed.”

What? No hints? No clues? No notes? Were they serious? Did they honestly expect me to judge Antonia “cold”—purely on its own merits, with no scent-pyramid data to guide (or sully) my expectations? Yes. Yes, they did.

This approach – along with many other factors of the Puredistance philosophy – seems to me quite singular. A list of scent notes is practically mandatory to the marketing of a new fragrance.  While most perfume houses lard their press releases with flowery descriptions of improbable accords, Puredistance dares to refrain.

A bold stroke—or an evasive maneuver?

I decided to call their bluff. I’d accept their challenge, both the letter and the spirit-- but I’d take it a step further. Not only would I set aside Puredistance’s own promo copy, but I’d solemnly vow not to read a single review of Antonia until I’d worn it myself. Not a solitary syllable would prejudice or sway me; not the tiniest Google factoid would light my path. Deprived of other opinions (and even of facts), I would free-associate my way to the truth. Je serais plus royaliste que le roi!

Less than two weeks later, the treasure arrived, packaged in the same cunning little white box as Puredistance I. Unlike its tawny-colored predecessor, Antonia was as clear and pure as water inside its vial. Strange how even this detail prejudiced me: I found myself struggling to quell a suspicion that Antonia would be another fatuous bridal muguet. (Anything more assertive would have a definite hue—wouldn’t it?)

A phrase from the press booklet nagged at me: “(Antonia) gives the wearer a nice feel of gentle, sweet attractiveness…” Nice? I hate nice! Nice is bland, wishy-washy, weak; nice is average. After the transports of Puredistance I, it would kill me to discover that Antonia was merely nice.

And then, like Pandora, I opened it.

When left blind in the dark, one is forced to resort to naked instinct in order to move forward. Liberated from the responsibility of analyzing separate notes, I experienced Antonia from a place outside the jail of my own intellect—and was immediately confronted with the thought that I’d become cynical about the very perfume I’d made my hobby. Like the Linnaeus-spouting Madame Lincoln Rose Goody of Tom Robbins’ novel Another Roadside Attraction, I’d become so stuck on Latin nomenclature that I’d ceased to appreciate the beauty of the butterfly fluttering alive in front of me. For this was Antonia’s immediate impact: beauty pure and simple, a challenge to logic and language.

Over the next month, I wore Antonia to not one but two gala art exhibit receptions (both of them mine!) as well as to work and (once) just to putter around the house. Rather than the immediate effect of Puredistance I, Antonia exerted a slow and cumulative influence on my subconscious, as evidenced by the notes I took during this period. At odd hours, in odd places, in fits and starts, I scribbled random impressions in a small moleskine notebook. These words seemed to come to me straight from the stream of consciousness, channeled through my ballpoint pen as though through a spiritualist’s planchette:
Manzanilla: both the herb (chamomile) and the spirit (sherry).
The concentrated sweetness of late-harvest apples.
The scent of honey and pollen.
The glow of sunset.
Autumnal where you are expecting spring; burnished copper and gold where you are expecting bridal white.
Antonia is young, lovely, lovable, approachable, yet somehow ancient and universal. A
puella, a kore, radiating the bounty of this earth—the quality which monastics deride as “mundane”, but without which life is lifeless.
Her pleasures and virtues are physical, temporal, rather than ethereal.
Her reward is here and now, not later and in some other heaven.
Sophia, infinitely wise, who hides behind the world’s sacred geometries, tantalizing the faithful with signs and ciphers, always with us but forever just out of reach.

Ave formosissima
gemma pretiosa
ave decus virginum
virgo gloriosa
ave mundi luminar
ave mundi rosa
Blanziflor et Helena
Venus generosa

(Hail, most beautiful one, precious jewel! Hail, pride among virgins, glorious maiden! Hail, light of the world! Hail, rose of the world! Blanchefleur [White Flower] and Helen, generous Venus!)

--CARMINA BURANA, 12th Century
How can a mere perfume inspire such worshipful outpourings?

First, it has to smell good—and Antonia, as you may have guessed from the above, smells good. Damned good.

Second, some inkling of its creator’s intentions must be discernable in its structure. If this is true, then perfumer Annie Buzantian is pulling double duty as both perfumer and priestess of the old religion-- a sibyl transmitting the will of a whole pantheon of perfume deities, long may they reign.

Third, the wearer has to be open to such heavenly transmissions as might result from the wearing of such a scent.  (Would it be safe at this point to call myself a disciple?)

I don’t know what effect these fevered rantings will have on you, dear reader. As they hardly constitute a proper review, I don’t expect them to persuade you; whether they impart anything at all of substance about Antonia is debatable, for Antonia speaks for herself. Advice? Seek her out. Wear her. See what she tells you. (And let me know what she says to you.  I long to learn whether Antonia speaks in tongues.)

Scent Elements (revealed much later by Puredistance): Jasmine, rose essence, ylang-ylang, iris, green ivy, galbanum, vanilla, vetiver