Tunisian Frankincense.... then, now, and always.

New Year's Eve in Perfumeland has its own thrilling countdown ritual. As all my favorite bloggers post their "Best Of" lists, I feel like one of the happy drunken hoi polloi packed into Times Square-- content to stand here on the ground in Articwear and silly hat, cheering with all my might while the glitterati onstage do what they do brilliantly and best: shine!

Here at Parfümieren, fifty paces shy of the pulse, the zeitgeist is an infrequent visitor. I confess I haven't yet sampled most of the hot new releases of the past year... and I probably won't get around to them next year, either. Largely due to my horror of retail light and noise, I gravitate more towards the dusty secondhand shop than the fragrance counter at Neiman-Marcus. Consequently, I'm more likely to reach for (and review) the old than the new. But for the kindness of several friends supreme, I might seldom come into contact with the truly au courant-- and even then, much like Mrs. Baxter Pennilow in The Age of Innocence I often tuck such gifts away until the blinding newness of them fades to less intimidating levels.

Time, I trust, is on my side.

Though we like to break it down into manageable segments with clocks and calendars and New Years, I like to think of time as a river-- an uninterrupted current from which things emerge, into which they disappear, and from which they may surface again. The world of perfume is also like a river, stocked with thousands of scents of all hues and habits and lifespans. We can't catch them all, but it's fun to try. We hope -- particularly if we have encountered and grown to love them -- that they stay reasonably unaltered as they (and we) travel downstream together.

Attar Bazaar's Tunisian Frankincense was one of the very first perfumes I ever bought for myself. I have been wearing it for a very, very long time. My loyalty to this essence has spelled the demise of dram after dram after dram, purchased in various head shops, New Age boutiques, and heath-food grocery stores. As I deplete one, I buy another-- and over ten years' time, this full-bodied soliresin oil has remained blessedly unchanged in the most important particulars.

Color, I have learned, is one such factor. While it's questionable whether this frankincense hails from anyplace so romantic as Tunisia (more likely it comes from Ethiopia or the Sudan, locations which lack sex appeal for Western consumers), its greenish tinge identifies it as African/Near Eastern rather than Indian, which tends towards a yellow-gold hue. Each time I've gotten a fresh dram of TF, its vitreous beryl color eloquently proclaims a fresh beginning. My newest dram is more of a sea-glass green-- cooler, more blue. As many of Attar Bazaar's perfume oils are vividly tinted, I can't be sure if this is natural. But past experience tells me this is the real deal, and I'm willing to allow for fluctuations in harvest quality so long as the oil's other characteristics cleave true to form.

On to consistency. Again, I find African frankincense oils to be lighter and more mobile than the thick, sticky, slow-flowing subcontinental variants. But no matter where it comes from, true frankincense oil can be relied upon to separate and resolidify over time. Every single vial of TF I have ever owned has displayed that tell-tale layer of creamy-white silt at the bottle of the bottle-- evidence of its authenticity.

Finally, we come to scent. While Indian frankincense has a powerfully resinous "church" smell, African frankincense is characterized by notes of tart citrus peel and raw tobacco (leaf, not smoke-- a distinction I learned when my sister complained that another frankincense brand made me smell "like a used ashtray"). In time it matures like a fine Sauternes, growing mellower and more honeyed over several years of storage and use. I have always found the quality between drams of TF to be very consistent, although my most recent dram seems ever so slightly enhanced by an improving touch of orangeflower. In the drydown, it sings as mellifluously as ever. Sweet, smoky, fruity, elegant, eminently wearable. Perfect.

A vintage Cadbury's Cocoa ad proclaims, "East, West, Old Friends Are Best". Though you may never have experienced Tunisian Frankincense for yourselves, it's for you -- my fragrant friends -- that I write this ode today. It comes with a wish: as we move into a new year, may time and change always bring you more pleasure than pain, and may that which you love best forever prove worthy of your faith.

Sudanese Coconut and Medina Musk (Attar Bazaar)

Every hippie perfume oil collection worth its sacred sea salt must include a black coconut and a white musk. Thus are the sarong-clad ocean deities that preside over all littoral bonfire sing-alongs appeased.

Sudanese Coconut, a straightforward, salty-sweet member of the beach-fragrance species, fulfills its duties quite respectably for an admitted replica of nature. It evokes summer without smelling too much like suntan lotion and promises to make a pleasant companion during the winter months, when July is but a faraway dream. Or is it? I apply it to my wrists, and suddenly I'm baking on a white-sand beach, the sky overhead a cloudless azurite dome, my breathing synchronized with the rhythmic rush of the surf...

The pale greenish-blue liquid called Medina Musk looks like a cross between ocean water and laundry detergent, but get ready for a curveball. Lemony-tart at first, it catches me off guard by throwing in some of those strange, fizzy aldehydic effects noted in Egyptian Shalimar. Wait-- when did I order champagne? “Compliments of Monsieur,” says the waiter, gesturing toward a darkened corner. There slouches a sloe-eyed gent wearing a white linen three-piece suit and crimson fez. As he approaches my table (thank GOD this lamé evening dress fit into my saddle bag after all!) he slips a slim gold case out his breast pocket and offers me a hand-rolled cigarette. As we lean toward one another over this tiny Café Américain table, French-inhaling some marvelously dry tobacco-chypre fumes in unison, it occurs to me that this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Hina (Attar Bazaar)

The production of the Indian attar known as hina involves practically an entire apothecary cabinet. According to this wonderful White Lotus article, the average hina recipe can include turmeric, spikenard, yew, cardamom, juniper berry, nutmeg, mace, clove bud, ambrette seed, laurel berry, valerian, galangal root, cyperus root, cinnamon, and patchouli, all hydrodistilled drop by drop directly into a powerhouse base of oakmoss-infused red sandalwood oil. To this mélange, lashings of finished choyas and single-note attars (including mehndi or gul hina attar made from henna flowers) are added. What sounds destined to be a hellish brew emerges from the cauldron as heaven in liquid form.

With all this botanical life-force packed into every drop, it's easy to imagine hina as a cosmic heal-all-- transcendental medication; the original Ben-Gay as worn by Gautama Buddha. Attar Bazaar’s Hina is all that, plus -- forgive me! -- Buddha’s loincloth just prior to laundry day.

I'm used to experiencing hina as a purely spiritual scent. But add a raunchy dose of oud to the sacred recipe, and holy crap! Something new strolls into the temple-- a distinct note of dirty drawers, half-sexual, half-scatological, ripe enough to make a courtesan blush. Squirms of embarrassment follow, along with many other hard-to-describe emotions, most of them mortifying. I imagine this opening salvo could be a deal-breaker for some-- at the very least, it might lay bare some secret bodily-function fears that we'd prefer to keep well-buried. Thankfully, the discomfort doesn't last too long-- five minutes? Ten? Then Hina modulates briefly into a mild wet-cardboard note, and thence into Nirvana.

Claustrophobic warmth is usually the name of hina's game, as typified by patchouli and sundry other suffocating aromas. Here, a refreshing mint note sends an unexpected February breeze swirling through to clear a bit of breathing space around the wearer. (I'm reminded of an elderly relative's customary dictum: "You kids go outside and let the wind blow the stink off ya!") Once you've cooled off, a dense sandalwood knits itself up snugly around you, hugging you close like a lambswool sweater and soothing away the last of the icky feelings. This latter phase is paradise itself-- long-lasting, entirely satisfying, something to be craved once it ends.

Wrapped in such nurturing comfort, you may forget Hina's weird bits enough to want to wear it again from the top. (Is there oxytocin mixed in with this oud? It's got everything else!)

Scent Elements: The kitchen sink, some filthy bits, and a world of warm fuzzies.

Arabian Sandalwood (Attar Bazaar)

5:00 am: I roll out of an uneasy sleep straight into an ongoing migraine. Opening one bleary eye, I greet the pain with weary familiarity: Oh. It's YOU again.

7:00 am: I yelp like an injured dog when my husband turns on the living room light. (That's three rooms away from where I am, just so you know.) Duly warned, he closes all the curtains to protect his hissing vampire bride from the dawn.

7:20 am: In response to a deafening commotion in the kitchen, I moan, "What is that UNBELIEVABLE RACKET?" "Rice Crispies and milk," replies my husband. (Gonna be like that, now, is it?)

8:00 am: I'll say one thing for winter: it's good curtain season. These double-thick drapes are tops for migraine light-level management! Later, I'll be able to measure the progress of my condition by whether or not I scream like Nosferatu upon opening them. But right now -- nauseous, dizzy, blind as a bat -- I call out from work in a whisper and crawl back into the cave-dark cocoon of the bedroom.

11:00 am: Finally, vertigo releases its death grip! Walking down the hall no longer requires me to lean against the wall the whole way. I eat some plain yogurt, take a shower, start feeling cocky. Maybe I will make it in to work today. Maybe I've got that old jackhammer-in-my-cranium beat!

2:00 pm: Yeah. Right.

9:45 pm: Seventeen hours after my migraine commenced, I feel better-- at least insofar as I was able to eat dinner (sort of), sit in the living room with the TV on (at lowest volume), and wear the meekest, mildest fragrance in my Christmas stocking for all of an hour. Go, me!

Since genus Santalum appears nowhere on the Arabian peninsula's tree list, I suppose Arabian Sandalwood is the equivalent of W.P. Kinsella's "left-handed glass stretcher"*-- a rare object of questionable origins and spurious purpose, which nevertheless harbors enough magic to coax leaps of faith from the gullible. Such am I in my weakened state, and I must report that Attar Bazaar's left-handed glass stretcher does the trick. At a moment when anything stronger-smelling would probably send me over the edge, this pale, sweet Danish butter cookie of a fragrance sits quietly on my wrists, politely declines the invitation to produce sillage, and deploys its own mute button without being asked. I want to smooth it onto the places where it hurts the most and listen to the hornet-buzz of pain miraculously die away to swansdown silence.

10:00 pm:  "Apply directly to the forehead"? With pleasure.**

*Mentioned in his incomparable 1982 novel Shoeless Joe (popularly known to moviegoers as Field of Dreams).
** Remember those awful "HeadOn"commercials? No? Then the HeadOn obviously worked!

Scent Elements: The milk of human kindness, interspersed with a tender mercy or two.

Egyptian Shalimar (Attar Bazaar)

One of the great charms of Attar Bazaar is their custom of offering four free perfume oil samples with each mail-order purchase from their catalog. They let you choose your own, which is a nice touch, as it allows you to satisfy your curiosity without feeling stuck afterward with a fragrance you don't especially favor. When my husband ordered my Christmas attars, I included Egyptian Shalimar among my samples because the name struck me as so irresistibly loopy. Thousands of miles separate Cairo from the Shalimar Gardens-- and Attar Bazaar (much as I love it) could not possibly mean to emulate Guerlain. What gives?

Well, as predicted, this doesn't smell one bit like Shalimar. The shocking news: it smells exactly (and I do mean EXACTLY) like vintage Arpège extrait.

What? Was this a hallucination, the result of imbibing too much of a Sam Adams Holiday Sampler? For comparison, I scrambled through my scent cabinet to locate my precious few milliliters of the real article. And then like Mia Wallace in PULP FICTION, I said GODDAMN. Goddamn. Goddamn.

Have you ever squealed and hugged yourself the first time you wore a perfume, wondering, Could this be real? I mean, this was Arpège right down to the golden, liqui-glo aldehydes. (Aldehydes? In a hippie perfume oil?) Perhaps its bergamot-and-neroli was a touch more honeyed; perhaps its leather lay buried just a centimeter deeper in the mix. But as the darn thing progressed from a gorgeous, powdery-sweet sunrise to a slinky, skanky dusk (civet? In a hippie perfume oil?), my grin just grew wider. What a fabulous, fabulous fake-out-- and at eight dollars a dram, how could I not upgrade to full size?

Trust me: this may be the first time false advertising ever paid off so well for the consumer.

Scent Elements: Unknown. Attar Bazaar never lists notes for its proprietary blends, but stare really hard at your nearest bottle of Arpège until it talks.

Riverwalk (Soivohle)

Foliage/Evergreen

Biodiversity is defined as "the degree of variation of life forms within a given ecosystem". Under unique conditions, hundreds of species may achieve symbiotic harmony within a single square mile.

Following this example, a good natural perfume is a tiny ecosystem in a bottle, thrumming with life force. Every essence used to construct the perfume is composed of many more molecules than its synthetic counterpart.  With the realization that each molecule conveys an encyclopedia's worth of data to the nose, the art and science of natural perfumery is revealed in all its grandeur and complexity. Not every perfumer possesses the technical skill to splice together all that information. But when one drop causes entire forests to spring open before the senses, the work of a virtuoso must be recognized.

I know that Riverwalk is woven from a dizzying array of botanical elements. I am also aware that I have yet to meet them all. From time to time something new, feral, and graceful strays across the footpath, and I stop-- wide-eyed, heart pounding, trying to remain still so as not to frighten it away. Feelings of exhilaration and danger pervade this enterprise; I wonder if I am properly equipped for it. Wearing this perfume is the equivalent of walking into the wild: the fewer encumbrances you carry, the more direct your communion with the divine.

What have I encountered so far?
Silver-blue balsam fir boughs.
Plum yews heavy with violet-brown drupes.
A mighty cedar trunk split by lightning strike to reveal its fiery heart.
Sun-saturated fern beds.

Songbirds heard from a distance.
Tides lapping a shoreline out of sight.
Pokeberries glowing like garnets against yellowing late-fall leaves.
The ashen remains of old campfires, replete with echoes of lost songs.
A breath of sea air carried over the grasses of the salt marsh.

It goes on and on. I could spend all day and all night out here.  There is so much to explore, so many off-path adventures to pursue.  To be absorbed, even for a time, into this environment spells out endless joy and restoration to me.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, lavendar absolute, French lavender EO, star anise, galangal root, petitgrain, balsam fir absolute, rectified birch, choya loban, geranium leaf, geranium concrete, aged patchouli blend, patchouli absolute, cassis absolute, hay absolute, cedar blend, cocoa absolute, tonka bean tincture, Indonesian vetiver, benzoin Siam absolute, brown oakmoss, vanilla absolute, rosewood, linaloe, ho wood, ambergris

Oudh Laos / Oud Lacquer Parfum Absolutes (Soivohle) Heart/Agarwood

Heart/Agarwood

When we consider the heart of a tree, we instinctively summon the image of a mighty trunk's cross-section-- hundreds of concentric rings, each proving another year of health and growth. The subject of rot, on the other hand, repels us. So strong is the personification impulse that the notion of a tree decaying from the inside out gives rise to profound discomfort-- as if we, and not the tree, had been assigned this fate.

And yet death brings a last flare of beauty. We see this in autumn, when declining sunlight prompts a self-preserving chlorophyll shutdown and results in bursts of brilliant leaf color. We also see (or rather smell) the same process in Aquilaria wood invaded by the Phaeoacremonium parasitica fungus. To surround and subdue the infection, the tree's immune system kicks into overdrive, producing large amounts of sublimely-scented volatile resin: oud.

From illness comes transcendence. Taken as a natural pairing, Liz Zorn's Oud Laos and Oudh Lacquer offer a potent dual meditation on this phenomenon. Oud Laos -- a pure agarwood essence unadorned by supporting notes -- provides the memento mori aspect of the theme, hitting you early on with a breath straight from the crypt. In reaction to a searing blast of what smells like black mold, the throat constricts, the eyes water, and an urge to scrub (nay, disinfect!) descends. Hold firm; this fear-factor moment soon passes, leaving in its wake a warmly medicinal scent like that found in the depths of an antique apothecary cabinet.

For a soliresin, Oud Laos packs plenty of complexity-- but it pales in comparison to Oudh Lacquer, which adds a choir of seraphim to the equation.

According to Zorn's website, time is of the essence in the production of Oudh Lacquer. It enjoys a "year-long infusion process" founded on the use of a specially aged tincture of oud in which each additional element is set like a gem in filigree, a sort of olfactory plique-à-jour.  Its darkness -- a rich, indolic ganache with an unsettling element of fruit fermented in animalic honey and the subtle funk of mushrooms -- is balanced by the merest touch of effervescent tilleul and Thai lime leaves, inferring a joyful green-gold dazzle on the surface of muddy waters.

If Oud Laos is the "Lacrimosa" movement of Mozart's Requiem, Oudh Lacquer marks a poignant shift into something lighter, brighter, more modern and optimistic:
Let go, jump in, oh well
What are you waiting for?
It's all right because
there's beauty in the breakdown
So let go, just get in, oh
It's so amazing here
It's all right because
there's beauty in the breakdown


--Frou Frou / "Let Go", from Details (2002)
Scent Elements: Wild-harvested agarwood absolute (Oud Laos); agarwood oil blend, aged agarwood tincture, kaffir lime, linden blossom absolute, cacao absolute, cepes, anise, orange, orange blossom, aglaia, champaca, iris, cinnamon, clove, honey, woods, balsam Tolu, styrax, patchouli, benzoin, tonka, vanilla, angelica root (Oudh Lacquer)

L'Eau Guerrière (Parfumerie Générale)

Bark/Cinchona

With a caution partly due to this fragrance's somewhat ominous name, you advance into the jungle. At any moment, you expect a surprise ambush sans merci. Instead you find yourself confronting an improbable figure: a khaki-clad, pith-helmeted explorer offering a canteen full of quinine water.

Cinchona bark -- the source of quinine, not to mention that delightful bitter flavor that's jazzed up gin-and-tonics since Noel Coward flung out his first bon mot -- is a pharmacologist's dream. Muscle relaxant, antipyretic, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic, it has played the role of malaria specific for over three centuries. I myself drink one liter of sugar-free tonic water every day to alleviate the involuntary dystonic muscle spasms caused by my neurological condition. Although the amount of quinine in your average glass of tonic water is so negligible as to almost be considered homeopathic, it really makes a difference to me. For proof, consider that if I drink less than half of my daily dose or forget it altogether-- bam! I wake up in the middle of the night, knotted up like a dystonic human pretzel.)

Cinchona's uses extend beyond the hospital: "red Peruvian bark" (Cinchona succirubra) appears on ingredient lists as a flavorant and bittering agent (not to mention an anti-dandruff constituent in hair-and-skin care products). Its fragrance is described as "woody, botanical, rooty" with a maple edge-- yet it rarely (if ever) appears in perfume.

L'Eau Guerrière is the only fragrance I know which awards cinchona a central role. There may not be enough of it in L'Eau Guerrière to make it fluoresce under black light, as will a glass of Schweppes; nevertheless, something about this fragrance glows with preternatural life.

L'Eau Guerrière opens with an strongly herbal accord recognizable to all you midnight tokers out there. It combines the sharp green of tomato vines with an amusingly goatish manger-straw scent, and it only lasts long enough to count as a sort of perfumer's in-joke. If you want it to stick around, I recommend Dupetit's Cannabis-- but I guarantee you'll be too taken by the next act to pursue it. A recognizable tonic-water accord -- bitter and silver-blue, barely disguised by a spoonful of sugar -- reaches the nostrils next, lifted there by the shimmering carbonated fizz of dry aldehydes and sealed with a mild oud as buttery as santal. It may disconcert the wearer to go from the suggestion of a "warrior scent" to a verandah table at Raffles Hotel Singapore-- but the company scintillates, and G&Ts keep arriving by the score.

Why not stay for the season?

Scent Elements: Cinchona bark, aldehydes, frankincense, oud, musk

Tabu Vintage Extrait (Dana)

It may just be me. But in the recent act of decanting this beauty, I felt the earth wobble ever so slightly on its axis.

I'm not saying the last days of our dear planet are nigh (even if the fateful year 2012 is just around the corner). I'm merely stating that this fifty-year-old extrait (purchased for two dollars I said TWO DOLLARS, would somebody PLEASE give me an amen) is the stuff which governs the path of planets around the sun.

After extracting from the flacon a few milliliters of parfum and transferring them into a sample vial, I happened to set my pipette down on a piece of paper, which immediately absorbed a droplet of that precious jus. That droplet proceeded to send up a Hosannah! clearly discernable from three counties away-- yet delectably smooth, judging from the parade of strange cars that began to pull up unannounced at my curb from that moment on. (If you spill it, they will come.)

And while the prospect of becoming a hoarder normally instills the fear of hell into my everlasting soul, I have yet to throw that piece of paper out.

Again, it may just be me. But something tells me that if I set this down on the shelf next to Absolue Pour le Soir, we may witness a sexy space-time singularity of End Times proportions.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, carnation, coriander, basil, neroli, orange, clove bud oil, clover, jasmine, narcissus, rose, ylang-ylang, amber, benzoin, cedar, civet, oakmoss, patchouli, sandalwood, vanilla, vetiver, resins, musk

Absolue Pour le Soir (Maison Francis Kurkdjian)

This decant was sent to me by Sweet Suzanne. It came via starship, and that starship was flying a funky freak flag. Maybe I'm craaaaayzaaaay... but I strapped on my superstacked platform shoes and saluted.

Oh my goodness gracious yessssss.

Scent Elements: Siam benzoin, cumin, rose honey, ylang-ylang, atlas cedar, sandalwood, incense absolu

Tiare (Ormonde Jayne)

It strikes soon after you land. Some conspiracy of sunshine, geothermal energy and mana seizes you, and you start to grow, change, evolve. Locals call it 'the quickening'-- a term which lends it an air of established legitimacy, even desirability. This is something you want to happen. Don't you?

Others do. Look around you. From all coordinates on the globe, they've made their way to the Hawai'ian islands, these naive flowerbuds eager to be forced open by the skillful hand of Spirit.  What miracles no one else could work, Maui can-- or so they trust.  No guarantee of enlightenment awaits them, just a vague hope. Even before their bags have cleared the airport luggage carousel, they're sending up a silent cry, Choose me, choose me.

And this island -- the summit of a sacred mountain concealed by a fickle sea -- obliges.

The quickening hurts. No one warns you beforehand. The Spirit pries you open, roots around to find that one thing buried deepest in the nacre -- a secret, a misdeed, a razor-sharp memory -- and cruelly exposes it anew. Then it leaves you amidst a mockery of rainbows and waterfalls to stanch the flow of blood alone. Pain is never sharper than in paradise; on this rock, the cognitive dissonance makes or breaks you.

During your time on Maui, you will meet three dozen self-styled gurus, two 'interdimensional star-beings', an Ascended Master disguised as a batik importer, and at least one old-fashioned robe-wearing wizard. These are the walking wounded, casualties of the fabled quickening. Like you, each of them carries deep historic hurts; unlike you, they allowed Maui to unmoor them. Adrift in the Pacific on a volcanic raft with no escape except by charter plane and all their life's agony staring them in the face, they spin the most outrageous backstories just to make captivity tolerable.

Strangely, you envy them. Being alive, pretending at normality is hard. It would be so easy to give up, let go.

Cue the burning of the cane fields.

You wake up one morning to a smell halfway between toffee and tire fire. Danger-- mind and body instinctively assume a full-alert stance. Volcano! is your first thought. But no, Haleakalā hasn't issued so much as a wisp of steam in three hundred years. All is quiet. How?

Even before you walk two blocks, you see it: a tower of apocalyptic black smoke that filters out the sun. The air, tinted a crazy sepia-tone, smells at once appetizing and poisonous. Breathing it feels ill-advised, a promised lungful of some vile sticky-candy version of tar. Never mind: whatever this is, it's big and real, a shock to the senses after months of bland tropical fantasy. You have to get closer to it.

A local farm wife gives you a lift in her pickup to the highway, where quite a crowd of spectators has already gathered. Here, you survey the coastal plain for the end of the world.

What exactly is going on down there? What are they doing? you ask a nearby old-timer.

Torching the sugar, he says. Burns off all the leaves, makes the cane easier to harvest. You go out by Kīhei today, it'll be snowing ash.

For some reason, the thought makes you shiver.

Back in town, all the gurus and star-beings seem unusually quiet, restored to sober reality by the conflagration below and the ceiling of sugar-soot above. You, too, feel subdued. Your throat nags for water; your eyes smart. The very exhalation of hell manifested itself in the center of heaven today. The sight of your own front yard makes you want to cry.

Standing by the fence, you bury your nose in an island gardenia, still dewy from the last hour's rainfall. What an odd contrast the acrid smoke of the cane field makes with the lush scents of upcountry rainforest! It battles the heavy perfume of the gardenia for primacy, and very nearly wins. The truce between them -- tender white petals and caustic phenols -- leaves you unsettled. By rights, no natural accord between flower and fire ought to exist, in your opinion.

And yet the flower -- vulnerable as it is -- pays the flame no mind, you think.

In that moment -- quickening completed -- Maui smiles upon its newest kama'aina.

Scent Elements: Mandarin, neroli, Sicilian lime, tiare, freesia, water lily, jasmine, iris, ylang-ylang, cedar, vetiver, sandalwood, patchouli, moss, musk

Aomassaï (Parfumerie Générale)

It's impossible to resent Aomassaï, the adorable little sister of Arabie and Un Bois Vanille. Precious, high-spirited, and harmless, she makes a charming addition to their group-- a wide-eyed miniature version of themselves to pet and spoil and show off.  True, she is a scamp; in moments when one is supposed to be grave and dignified, she can't help but break the silence with peals of irrepressible laughter.  But sometimes her brio is the perfect diversion from the weighty matters that so often press upon mature nerves.  All forms of pardon can be granted one so sweet, don't you think?

Aomassaï  has a lot to learn.  She may never seem quite in the same league as her elegant older siblings.  But as far as they're concerned, the little one can tag along anytime.

Scent Elements: Bigarade, caramel, hazelnut, spices, vetiver, incense, liquorice, wengué, balsam

Cuir Mauresque (Serge Lutens)

Billed as a sweetly spiced Arabian leather, Serge Lutens' Cuir Mauresque surprises me by turning up in red Doc Martens Mary Janes with vintage Bakelite cherries pinned to its hat. Well, would you look at that: it's a girl!

Her leather is patent, smart and modern, like Knize Ten; her fruit is red, bold and glistening, like Égoïste. But you'll find neither Knize Ten's rigid martial spirit nor Égoïste's childish candy-aisle temper tantrums here. Cuir Mauresque is loose-limbed, fancy-free, independent and generous of heart. Christopher Sheldrake must have been humming "Georgy Girl" on the day she was born... and drinking Shirley Temples to boot.

Back to the cherries. Do you smell them? I do!  I know they're a mirage -- a playful conspiracy between mandarin and spice that makes my nose believe it perceives a whopping big bowl of Bings -- but since it's Christmastime, I don't mind being haunted by the ghost of these red-and-green beauties.  (While we're on the subject of Yule, I should mention here that Cuir Mauresque is a gift that keeps on giving.  More than once, just when I've thought that it has faded, it revives on my skin to send up one more whiff of jubilee delight. I wonder if it would last Twelve Days?)

So call her Cerises Mauresque for a joke if you like, or even Cuir Maraschino.  The bottom line:  she's a pip.

Scent Elements: Orange blossom, mandarin, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, cumin, cedar, amber, musk, oud, styrax, civet

Gardenia Royal Eau de Parfum (Mistral)

My pal Anna -- a fan of airy, minimalist scents in the Issey Miyake mold -- offered me this carded sample after deeming it too overwhelming for her tastes. After wearing it once, I understand why: it's powerful stuff, like one of those super-concentrated fragrance oils marketed as an additive for home-made soap.  Hey, there's an idea! Soap!

Too late. Luxury soapmaker Mistral -- a nice outfit with an aesthetic halfway between California and Caswell-Massey -- already manufactures a Gardenia Soap, Body Lotion, Hand Cream, Bubble Bath, and Glass Candle. But with Bath & Body Works issuing a new product every 2.8 seconds, I suppose smaller savonneries must super-size to compete -- hence the obligatory Eau de Parfum (2009), which simply puts in a bottle that which previously came in a bar.

Highly coveted botanicals, exotic woods and spices, rare flowers, and essences of ripe fruits contribute to the many notes of these fine fragrances, reads the ad copy, sagely adding, Flammable until dry. Do not swallow. A litany of chemical names follow, many marked with asterixes to indicate "Natural Origin Ingredients".  Mistral's small-print website copy assures us that these are formulated for us in Grasse. An additional footnote asserts the finished product is not tested on animals-- well and good.

But even after all this, the perfume itself doesn't seem appropriate for neat application on skin. It's far too powerful, far too sweet, and -- despite Mistral's 'all-natural' marketing line -- smells plainly synthetic.  There's more jasmine in here than anything else, and while they don't list it, there also seems to be an insistent white musk base that won't allow my mind to drop the image of a cake of soap.

And actually, that's exactly the form in which I might prefer this hypersweet dynamo:  a nice savon de bain.  Trapped and weighted down by almond oil, shea butter, lanolin, glycerine, what-have-you, those overly powerful molecules of scent might be kept under control.  Whatever of them I don't need, the hot water of my shower would wash away, leaving just a sweet dream of inoffensive white blossoms behind.

Scent Elements: Gardenia, jasmine, orange blossom, greens, cedarwood, vanilla

Odalisque (Parfums De Nicolaï)

There's a scene in The Extra Man in which an inexperienced client asks his world-weary dominatrix if -- rather than proceed with their scheduled spanking -- he could please just kiss her instead. It's obvious no one's asked her that for years. She acquiesces with a show of scornful eye-rolling, but clearly, the proposition melts her with delight-- deep inside, where vulnerability and first kisses still count.

At first, Odalisque feigns the same hard surface, the same jaded outlook. Bitter greens dominate its opening; it will not give itself up to you for nothing. A fair amount of leather and skank follow. Odalisque knows what you're thinking -- muguet ought to be sweet! -- and looks away, angry, steeling itself for judgment. When at last it offers up its flowers, the gesture itself savors of impatience: Fine, take everything, what do I care.

It might sooner slug you than let you kiss it on the mouth.

But if you first said please...

Scent Elements: Bergamot, mandarin, lily-of-the-valley, jasmine, iris, galbanum, oakmoss, musk

Intrigant Patchouli (Parfumerie Générale)

Joining L'Air de Rien, Muscs Koublaï Khän, and Ambre 114 in the hippie-pong party aisle, Intrigant Patchouli stands out as the brightest beacon shining through the purple haze.  It bears a resemblance to any number of other hookah-den fragrances, but its raunch is arguably the most cheerful of the lot.   All the gravity inherent in its animalic notes is offset by some amazingly buoyant naughty bits which boost those mood-altering effects through the stratosphere.   So while MKK smoulders silently in a bean-bag chair and L'Air de Rien dreamily twirls her hair around a henna-daubed pinky, Intrigant keeps the records spinning, the dance floor grooving, and fingers snapping all over the joint.

With a wink and a wiggle, this hostess knows how to heat up a happening! 

Scent Elements: Ginger, lemon, citron, mandarin, patchouli, Mysore sandalwood, civet, castoreum, benzoin, amber, musk, honey, vanilla

Century (Odin New York)

If Luca Turin's proposal is true -- that a multi-perfume collection released by a single house can only contain one standout -- perhaps there's an equal and opposite corollary for really good collections that contain one dud. Of Odin New York's original trio of fragrances, Sunda and Owari were extremely pleasant. Extending the luck, Petrana (Odin's fourth) is a marvel.  I haven't tried number five (or is that 06?) Amanu yet, but maybe the law of averages has already been satisfied by Century. I sincerely hope so.

As far as wobbles go, Century's not an utter disaster. I mean, it doesn't cause screaming fits, facial tics, or uncontrollable impulses to scrub. It's too vague for any of that-- a weak smell like scented hand soap, leaving no definite impression behind. In a word, it's forgettable-- which (all things considered) is not so bad a status. To be so terrible that no one can scour you from their memory is, I imagine, a fate worse than forgettability.

Scent Elements: Birch, cypress, mint, vetiver, myrrh, patchouli, musk, oakmoss, amber

Vanilla with a vengeance.

Vanilia (L'Artisan) and VanillaVille Demi-Absolute (Soivohle)

Here we have two smooth motherfuckers, one mellow and one manic. When they arrive on your doorstep, you might think you're in for a round of Good Cop/Bad Cop... but appearances mislead, and the law is nowhere in sight.

Don't let his bad black suit decieve you: the first gentleman has the beachy-clean soul of a California surfer, all Sex Wax, cocoa butter, and soap-on-a-rope. Sure, he carries a MAC-10 with a silencer, but in terms of Five Dollar Milkshakes, he's one hundred percent Rowan & Martin. You wonder how on earth he could ever have been mistaken for a heavy. This sweet guy? Surely it's all a misunderstanding.

But then you meet his partner. Ten seconds with him and you're sure of one thing only: unless you stay calm and cooperate, there is no way you're getting out of this alive. He starts off bold and hearty, with back-slapping pleasantries all around. Little by little, you notice that his friendliness is just a touch aggressive. Seconds after you ask yourself, Why doesn't he ever blink? you shiver to recognize the glint of apocalypse in his eye. By the time he starts shouting, "And you will KNOW my name is the LORD when I LAY MY VANILLA UPON YOU--" you may wish you had Mr. Mellow on your side again.

But there ain't no Mr. Mellow here, Jack. Both of your visitors are equally armed and dangerous, and they are here to do serious business. You want to get off easy, civilian? Get thee to the drugstore and buy some Vanilla Fields. That's one gun guaranteed not to be loaded.

Scent Elements: Vanilla and ylang-ylang absolutes (Vanilia)/ Leather, tobacco, sweet fennel, pink pepper, spices, birch tar, sandalwood, amyris, tarragon, orange flower, rose, jasmine, benzoin Siam, toasted almonds, vanilla absolute, vanilla tincture (VanillaVille)

Amber Pour Homme and Amber Pour Homme Intense (Prada)

Fougère, amber, cologne, leather.  Four accords, all rock-solid institutions within the world of fragrance. Prada's Amber Pour Homme (2006) welds them into one. On paper it seems a most improbable algebraic equation, inspiring little confidence that it could reckon true. But relax. Amber Pour Homme isn't exactly Fermat's Theorem. It's more of a little play on words-- but its punchline rewrites the whole language.

How so? Well, Amber Pour Homme includes notes symbolically representing each of its four flagship accords -- fougère, amber, cologne, leather.  By substituting a less prominent note for the one most associated with each genre, perfumer Daniela Roche-Andrier has knowingly altered its parlance-- played with its "language", so to speak. For her fougère accord, she uses patchouli rather than lavender: fair enough, and hardly controversial. For leather, a soft, chamois-like saffron note appears instead of birch tar:  again, well within bounds.  But the happiest surprise is found in the cologne accord, where Roche-Andrier employs South American cardamom in place of the more conventional hesperides as shorthand for 'fresh' and 'cool'. (Two hundred years of spice-laden Caribbean colognes can't be wrong.)  Together, these three notes achieve a hushed elegance, neither masculine nor feminine, simply handsome.

As for the eponymous amber, it's just that-- labdanum served up the no-frills way, unsweetened and unpretentious, drying down to a nice muted woody accord which sticks well to the background.  And really, the background is where it's at, for Amber Pour Homme is no extrovert. None of its component notes scream for attention. Imagine a choral group devoid of soloists, an assemblage of modest team players who subordinate themselves to the project and combine their quiet voices in glorious mass harmony. So cooperatively do they mesh that the sum of their efforts almost appears separate from its own parts-- a phantom tone, perfectly legible until you concentrate too hard on its origin. The challenge is to resist doing so-- and then you hear it in all its loveliness, unbroken.

This is why the notion of kicking it up a notch -- ostensibly the purpose of APH Intense (2011) -- seems redundant. It's the same fragrance, only sweeter and more custardy, as if someone convinced one or two of the choir members that they really could go solo if they wanted it bad enough. All they had to do was to burst out with some hot Beyoncé-like vocal folderol right smack in the middle of "Simple Gifts" just to show everyone how it's done.  Is it a disaster?  No.  Is it really necessary? Again, no.

Just give me the original any day.  Its quiet speaks volumes to me.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, mandarin, neroli, pelargonium, patchouli, cardamom, myrrh, amber, vanilla, labdanum, tonka bean, saffron, sandalwood, leather

Winter Star Eau de Parfum (Michael Storer)

Seasonal depression, to paraphrase Allen Ginsberg, is "the total animal soup of time". When you are really in it, how desperately you wish for the justification of a hibernatory period, a recognized biological phenomenon on which to pin your surliness and sleepiness and therefore be released from the penalty box with no demerits.

Today the world is foggy and dark and feels to me like the bottom of a cellar. I need the smells of warmth, home, butter, wool, hot candle wax, bed, blankets, skin, breath, secrecy, safety. A retreat back into prehistory, a time before language, a time before time.

I wish I didn't have to take it to go. But I must, and I can, so I do. Here sits a full and seemingly unused bottle of Winter Star which I purchased at local thrift store. I sense it may have been consigned there in atavistic terror because it out-musks Muscs Koublaï Khän. MKK at least pitches a ger for you and lays down some hospitable felted rugs; Winter Star hands you some ochre-in-bear-grease for self-decoration and shoves you closer to the communal fire.

Which, as it happens this very minute, is where I long to be.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, lavender, carnation, oakmoss, balsam Peru, balsam tolu, labdanum, benzoin, musk, civetone, helvetolide

Owari (Odin New York)

Today, simplicity and silence are my only objects; therefore, Odin New York's Owari is my flavor du jour. Its low-key citrus and cubeb harmony surrounds me like a protective presence, an impermeable zone of influence. Yet despite its strong arm, it's also wholly unobtrusive; it will never distract me or tax my patience with unnecessary noise while it escorts me around town. The professional silence it maintains while on the clock is profound and admirable. Give that man a raise!

When so much intrudes upon our daily quiet, clamoring for our attention, to say of a thing that you "think nothing of it" is the greatest praise. By that definition, Owari is the best bodyguard money can buy. I can count on it to get my back when things heat up... and to keep its mouth shut afterwards.

Scent Elements: Mandarin, bergamot, grapefruit leaf, cubeb pepper, amyris, neroli, cedarwood, amber, musk

Honey Coconut and Gin Blossom (Love & Toast)

This past week my husband and I celebrated his birthday with a road trip to Princeton. We'd both been hankering to revisit this favorite destination since our last jaunt in June. His mission: to prowl and pounce on amazing DVD finds at the Record Exchange, the best damn independent new/used audiovisual store in the state (indeed anywhere, in our opinion). My mission: to return to Mandalay Trading Company, the site of my first fateful encounter with Love & Toast's Honey Coconut, and just maybe a likely source for a full bottle of Tokyo Milk Arsenic.

As I wrote back in June, I'd passed up on Honey Coconut for some extremely stupid and superficial reasons, now deeply and bitterly regretted. My decision haunted me all summer; now it would be set to rights. First order of business: snag a "Little Luxe" mini-bottle of Honey Coconut right away, with no hesitation and no excuses. While I was at it, I tossed a mini of Gin Blossom into my basket. I'd learned my lesson -- if you like something, just get it already and quit dithering.

While the Love & Toast and Lollia collections were well-represented in Mandalay, I saw none of the hoped-for Tokyo Milk perfumes. At checkout, I summoned the courage to inquire about their absence. My questions evoked a glance of panic from the college-aged clerk. I could almost hear her thinking, I'm only part-time, am I expected to know this? I instantly felt a rush of retail sympathy for her and joked my way to a less challenging stance, at which point she relaxed a bit and began to joke back ("Wow, those Dark perfumes sound edgy! We're pretty family-friendly around here, so I don't know..."). She pledged to look into adding Tokyo Milk to the store order list, and I left Mandalay a happy lady.

Laden with a shopping bag full of choice cinema, the Birthday King met up with his delish-smelling Queen and decreed the next stops on the itinerary: early dinner at our favorite restaurant followed by a movie (Paranormal Activity 3: shriektastic!) and a bakery-fresh chocolate cream pie with candles at our own cozy kitchen table.

The perfect conclusion to a perfect day.

Honey Coconut
The morning I first met Honey Coconut, I'd just been released from a grueling three-day medical test during which I'd been forbidden to bathe. The moment I was free, I naturally flung myself into the longest hot soapy shower in recorded history and doused myself with all the fragrance I'd been denied. This left me unable to skin-test Honey Coconut properly. Still, I fell ass-over-teakettle in love with it from a mere bottle sniff-- a testament, I thought, to its worth. On skin, it's just what I remembered... but it is also more, a burnt bitter complexity of sugar and heat so much more profound than the pretty little thing I thought I apprehended as I leaned over the open mouth of the bottle that day so long ago. I've been wearing it for three days straight now and have no desire not to. Nor does my husband wish me to switch. We both notice new things about it (rum, immortelle, pineapple, coffee) with every wearing. It's become our favorite guessing game, the cipher lighting up our married-couple motherboard even as the clock turns back and the day goes dark an hour earlier. No exaggeration: the contents of this tiny bottle make us feel like we're engaged to be wed all over again, future full steam ahead.

Scent Elements: Honey, vanilla, violet, sandalwood

Gin Blossom
Seeing as how Honey Coconut magically jumped from three stars up to five, this may not be the last I'll have to say about Gin Blossom-- or any other Margot Elena creation, for that matter. They are all so CONTENT-RICH -- packed with goodies, puzzles, entertainment, images, learning -- that it seems impossible to opine about them in any truly final way. About Gin Blossom, I'll say this: it metamorphoses from a sweet honeydew-melon-juice scent to a herbal lemonade scent to a clean, soapy white musk scent to an unexpected flower-butter scent, all so nonchalantly that I feel as though I'm watching a really skillful juggler ply his art. Right now he's juggling three stars. I bet you anything he'll be juggling four before too long-- and maybe even a flaming torch or a chainsaw or two.

Scent Elements: Citrus zest, "spring dew", mandarin blossom, verbena leaves

Someday (Justin Bieber)

What it is: A fragrance designed for a twelve-year-old girl, fronted by a seventeen-year-old boy she will never meet but whom she wants so bad it causes her to emit siren-like wails of heartbreak, prompting her parents to spend any amount ($18-$55) to stem the flood of pubescent caterwauling that issues nightly from behind her glitter-glue-bedecked bedroom door.

Where it is: Macy's, Nordstroms, Ulta, etc. I sniffed it in Sephora, which has an exclusive purse-sized rollerball wand version of the EdP for under $20-- a mercy, considering that Bieber's target audience is dependent upon parents' largesse and the odd babysitting gig for its expendable cash.

What it contains: "Juicy" pear, "wild" berries, "creamy" florals, "warm" vanilla, and "soft" musk. Undoubtedly all of these qualifiers were supplied by the focus group who answered the question, "What five words best describe your dream date and/or Justin Bieber?" It's probably a good thing they didn't ask my age cohort, or they would've ended up with "emotionally stable" pear, "steadily employed" berries, "responsible" florals, "no criminal record" vanilla and "not a total asshole" musk.

What it smells like: Not all that horrible, to be honest.  So many prestige fragrances mirror the piercingly shrill vocal stylings of the celebrity divas who promote them, I suppose you could do worse than the dulcet tones of El Bieber, here rendered in a PopTart palette of pearberry and vanilla frosting. But we have so many of these already, my brain weeps. So, not all that great, either.

What it looks like: I know I'm not the first to notice that the perfume bottle proper bears an uncanny resemblance to Marc Jacobs' Lola and Oh Lola.  Still, every time I see it, I think to myself, Ohjeezus that bottle designer is gonna be in SO much hot water.  Five points to Bieber for not attempting a facsimile of Bang.

What the ad copy says: "(Someday) is a personal gift straight from (Bieber's) heart, a scent that drives him wild and makes the girls who wear it totally irresistible. So go beyond the music and journey deep into a world of possibilities... be close to Justin, everywhere you go." Holy mo. Imagine that being read through a Vocoder. Wouldn't you file for a restraining order?

What my inner critic says:  To paraphrase the old Creedence song, someday never comes... because in this case, it's already been and gone.  Everything about this fragrance seems borrowed and recycled from prior sources, right down to the bottle.  There's nothing especially "new" or "now" to be found in its play of aromas.  The nascent hope encapsulated by its name is cancelled out by the depressing déjà-vu-like sense of overuse that haunts everything else about it.  That a fragrance could so proudly claim to be "anything but ordinary" while never being anything but ordinary is a masterpiece of marketing cynicism.  It makes me sad to think of kids falling for it-- heck, even Bieber himself.  In several years, there will be too much testosterone rumbling around in his lower registers for any of this candy-sweetness to seem even remotely comfortable-- what then?  At that point, maybe he'll borrow a tip from his remix pal Usher and start issuing stylish colognes for smooth young gentlemen like himself.  Or maybe he'll do something even more daring, risky, and artistically liberating.  We'll see.  Someday. 

The thought that lingers:  After one's insecure adolescent years pass, it becomes less important what others want you to be and more important what you ARE, or could become. As kids' identities develop, their tastes become more highly individuated.  Bieber's fans may not mind being told how to look/act/buy/smell now, but eventually they (and he) may resent it.   He and his fans will mature together.  But Someday is the sort of fragrance that begs an impossibility of both wearer and spokesperson:  stay sweet and harmless forever.

Scent Elements: Pear, mandarin, red berries, jasmine, musk, vanilla

Blood Cedar Demi-Absolute (Soivohle)

What's in a name? Billed as a woody oriental, Blood Cedar had me envisioning the gothic backwoods of my childhood, where creeks tinged a hue halfway between rust and rooibos tea flowed in eternal silence under shadowy canopies of evergreen. From my own extrapolations, I expected Blood Cedar to smell powerfully woody and feral; hence my surprise when confronted with the feather-light aroma of vanilla meringue.

The scent of raw cedarwood is warm and intensely balsamic, but imagine it at a more muted level, carried to you via a linen dinner napkin. Kept tissue-wrapped with its mates in a hand-carved hope chest, it now lines the serving basket in which a batch of freshly-baked macaroons awaits its ride to the table. The spun-sugar-and-egg-white aroma of the macaroons mingles with the light, dry scent of the cedar-stored linen, carrying with it a promise of plenty-for-everyone.

Nominally, Blood Cedar may sound like a prime Grand Guignol experience, but you may be surprised by how shyly and softly it speaks once you get past those first introductions. It unfolds itself with minimal fanfare but maximum generosity, revealing sweet hidden treats designed for the pleasure of all.

Scent Elements: Virginia cedar, citrus, tonka, sandalwood, labdanum, vanilla

No. 5 Vintage Pure Parfum (Chanel)

Some perfumes pair naturally with fashion, their characters best expressed in the language of fabric and texture. If Bois des Îles is warm velvet, Chanel No. 5 is cold slippery satin-- but the first time I wore it, I was dressed in a cheap polyester men's suit.

I got it (the suit, not the perfume) for eight bucks at the local Goodwill. An experimental art event I was co-hosting required several costumes -- one being 'Secret Service Agent' -- and I needed disposable threads fast. The suit was an off-the-rack JCPennys number designed to tide a budding salesman over until his first paycheck justified an upgrade in business armor. Ill-fitting and laughable though it may have been, I hoped to transform it with Doc Martens and black wraparound shades into something reasonably hip. A look in the mirror told me I was close, so close-- but not quite.

Then I sprayed on the Chanel No. 5.

Cue the opening chords of Tomoyasu Hotei's "Battle Without Honor or Humanity". Suddenly I was a member of the Crazy 88 -- the nonviolent graphic arts chapter, anyway -- self-assured, sharp, and lethally cool.

Throughout the turbocharged hours that followed (during which my fellow artists and I rocketed around an auditorium lassoing onlookers into interactive creative games and handing out free artworks as prizes) No. 5 kept my path paved with pure, shining gold. I eased on down that road like a Wiz, stopping halfway to swap my Secret Service garb for a gorgeous 1960 crinolined robe de style in eye-popping azure-and-green floral satin and vintage heels. No. 5 didn't even flinch. As it had made the suit über-cool, it gave added grace to the gown-- and by god, it did more that afternoon to spread the gospel of creativity than all of our efforts combined.

Since then I've pondered whether it's not the fashion, but the art with which No. 5 is paired that brings to life.

In the ten months since Suzanne sent this decant of vintage pure parfum for my husband to tuck in my Christmas stocking, I've worn it to any number of art events-- formal, informal, contrived, improvisational, absurdist or merely absurd-- conscious in each instance how very much No. 5 seems to belong there. If a perfume could ever be termed sentient, capable of expressing its own wishes as to where and when and with whom it should be worn, No. 5 seems to ask for nothing more than a gift subscription to ARTnews and a MetroCard. It begs to be unleashed in galleries, museums, outdoor art fairs, rooftop receptions, basement happenings, black box theatres, and graffiti slams. I believe that it would make its way into the art, if it only could. (A No. 5-imbued Naples Yellow oil paint would be a Dick Blick bestseller.)

Today I have an exhibit installation to preside over.  I'll  be lugging ladders, hanging hardware, riding service elevators... and wearing No. 5.  Thinking ahead to the future, if New York's Museum of Art and Design gets around to launching its Chandler-Burr-curated Art of Scent exhibit as promised before the Sephora Sensorium closes at the end of November, you know who'll be there.

Hint: I'm her ride.

Scent Elements: Aldehydes, bergamot, neroli, lemon, jasmine, rose, lily-of-the-valley, ylang-ylang, orris, vetiver, sandalwood, cedar, vanilla, amber, musk, civet

28 La Pausa (Chanel)

Was Bob Dylan boasting when he sang that all he had was "a red guitar, three chords, and the truth"? This perfume has only two notes -- iris and vetiver -- and look what it can do. It brings tears to my eyes and a tremble to my lips, shakes my edifices, rattles my windows, dusts off my karma, restores my faith in the universe, and strips me of at least three of the seven veils. If Dylan ever smelled 28 La Pausa, I think he might find a fragrance that would collect his clip, buy his animal, straighten out his bird, commission his bath, sell him to the cigarette, animal his soul, knit his return, bathe his foot, and collect his dog.

I swear to you I am sober.

If you like the combination of iris and vetiver, now's the time to cry Oh happy day! But why stop there? If you also like the scent of wet earth and tree roots, of spring rain on newly-blown tulips, of tequila and salt in plentiful supply, of ice-cold raw green pepper or arugula on a blistering day-- lord, what a treat is in store for you!

Being an EdT and therefore a naturally time-limited pleasure, 28 La Pausa makes an ideal extravagance for a quickie summer vacation.  Be forewarned that you will need to use ridiculous amounts and reapply like a maniac to keep its refreshing chill in sight-- but if you are faithful and lay in extra supplies, you can have an olfactory aurora borealis in hues of pale violet, green, and tawny gold undulating across your inner sky for as long as you choose your summer to last.

Ride it all the way to paradise.

Scent Elements: Iris, vetiver

Sycomore (Chanel)

She is neither pink nor pale,
And she will never be all mine;
She learned her hands in a fairy-tale,
And her mouth on a valentine....


--excerpt from "Witch-Wife", Renascence, 1917
Sycomore is a perfume with a single, unholy talent: it continually manages to lose itself at the precise moment that I go looking for it.

When I didn't need it, there my sample sat, conspicuously innocent-- but if I developed the sudden notion that I wanted it, it simply vanished as if gremlin-possessed. Perfumes have many tricks to play, but they usually save them to play on skin. Not Sycomore: as it disappeared from one bag and surfaced in another, went AWOL from my scent cabinet only to show up on my bedside table, I began to wonder if it had any other surprises, or just the one.

There was only one way to find out: capture it and wear it all at once before it could escape again.

In so doing, I discovered that Sycomore is an evergreen vetiver not terribly far removed from Comme des Garçons incense territory. I found it to be hale, pleasant, crisp, outdoorsy, and completely unextraordinary, given all the trouble it put me to. If I happened to be feeling sore, I'd say that it was overly linear, short-lived, too standoffish for its own good. And if I really had an axe to grind, I'd declare that I like Sycomore better lost than found. But then I'd have to admit that the runaround it gave me amounted to more excitement, problem-solving, and cardiovascular exercise than I get most days, so I oughtn't to pretend it wasn't worth it.

Somehow, though, an absent prankster is always more attractive than the one who is fickle right to your face. And when Sycomore takes its leave of you, it doesn't mess around. It forbears to fade gradually, giving you the length of a drydown to get used to the idea. It goes out like a light-- leaving you in the dark, wondering which way is the door.

Scent Elements: Vetiver, sandalwood, cypress, juniper, pink pepper

31 Rue Cambon (Chanel)

...by her obstinate energy, by the way she faces you and listens, by her guarded stance, which sometimes kind of blocks her face, (she) is a black bull. Her dark hair is curled, the privilege of the bull calf. The tufts reach her forehead and cavort whenever she moves her head....

I read on her face what is so legible-- two long black eyebrows that she doesn't pluck, despotic, ready to shoot up, to be lowered, quivering when the dancing tufts of hair annoy them. From the eyebrows one's attention concentrates on the mouth, but there I hesitate because at moments of concentration or irritation the center of her face seems to become cupped, drawn in, withdrawn under the eyebrows' overhang, under the black vault of her hair. Only for a moment, a kind of fierce retreat, an ephemeral immobility from which the mouth suddenly escapes-- pliable lips with sad, impatient, obedient corners, punished by cutting teeth.
That's Colette dishing about Coco Chanel in 1932's Prisons et Paradis, but honestly-- couldn't she just as easily be describing Frida Kahlo?

It's not just the eyebrows. Two artists of such rare intensity and determination would surely have struck sparks from one another. One imagines a classic "meet-cute" charged with typical instant loathing. Chanel-- a poor foundling striving to be a fine lady -- is all cold reserve and terse dismissals; Kahlo -- a bourgeois girl eager to appear the brawling revolutionary -- lets loose with an avalanche of Mexico City swear words. At some point, each sees through the other's swagger. One slow smile or a particularly irresistible twinkle of the eye, and in no time those two "black bulls" are stampeding through Paris side by side.

God help the fool who strays into their path!

As I planned out this week's Chanel series, pairing each fragrance with an appropriate feminine icon from the 1920s posed a nifty challenge. I wanted each lady's personality and style to be reflected somehow in the scent chosen for her. It took some creative tailoring, and it didn't always result in a perfect fit... but from the very first, no one but Frida Kahlo could represent 31 Rue Cambon. Perhaps it was the vision of this frank, vivacious, firm spirit housed in so delicate a frame. Or perhaps my reasons can only be deciphered by my own convoluted logic. Let's just say that once the connection was made, it was stubborn-- just like its subject.

It could be due to the fact that 31 Rue Cambon reminds me of Parfumerie Générale's Iris Oriental (née Taïzo), which in turn has always reminded me -- inexplicably and perversely -- of a bitter cup of xocolatl. This in itself is a mental mystery. Why my cerebral cortex insists on converting the Japanese temple referenced in Taïzo's name into an towering, blood-speckled Aztec sun-temple remains something for the neurologists and their fancy equipment to figure out. But I digress.

Whatever Iris Taïzo did, 31 Rue Cambon does too, but better, fiercer-- and with greater openness of heart. Its iris blooms forth more vigorously; its spices flaunt greater virility-- but these are balanced with an emotional generosity and humor that saves all this machismo from being nothing but empty show. It is never sullen, as Iris Taïzo always appeared to be. Perpetually transforming on skin to offer up new little gifts, it demonstrates a joyfulness and eagerness to engage that sets it apart, not only from all other Chanels, but from most other fragrances in general. Seldom have I worn a perfume with so much awareness at every moment that it was really, truly speaking to me-- or that everything it said was so important that I'd actually shush others around me to catch more of what it had to say.

When you find yourself thrusting your wrist under random people's noses and blurting out, "Listen!" only to be rewarded by recognition of the wonder widening their eyes, it's hard not to feel caught up in something-- a fervor, a fever, a movement, a revolution of the senses.

A friendship, new and intoxicating.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, jasmine, narcissus, iris, black pepper, patchouli, ambrette seed, vetiver, sandalwood, labdanum

No. 18 (Chanel)

Many accuse the rose of smelling musty and old-ladyish, like Grandma. This is because they have never met the Big Bad Wolf. She (you heard me!) would never be caught dead in Granny's nightdress-- not when Little Red's riding hood suits her so much better. Thus disguised, this devastating louve-garou plays herself off like a regulation Rose Red-- but even those who have misplaced their monocles (I'm talking to you, Jakob Grimm) can tell the difference through their noses.

This rose, first off, appears to enjoy a good cigarillo now and again. A rich tobacco leaf scent clings to her satiny red petals-- a suggestion owed to the predominance of ambrette in No. 18's formula. Ambrette seeds are produced by the Abelmoschus moschatus, a fine upstanding plant formerly of the Hibiscus genus but lately incorporated as its own separate botanical hamlet. (Beware the alternate-side parking ordinances!) In the good old days, ambrette took the lead among tobacco flavorings, so it works here as a broad hint even in the absence of an actual fat cheroot.

And the skin scent!  No flower on earth could possibly smell so animalic, could it? From time to time, as you lean in close to pull apart those tightly-layered petals, something gorgeously mammalian springs out, blowing Big Bad's cover to pieces. Again, it's the ambrette at work-- musky, but also salty, like fresh sweat; sweet, but also acid, like sarcasm from a lover's tongue. But truly it's the roses (those cliches of delicate womanhood!) that provide Big Bad's best disguise. They act as a lure to the unwary, drawing us in so that this lithe huntress can pick us off at her leisure.

Watching the she-wolf play among the showy blossoms is a hypnotic pleasure, to be sure. She charms with her frisky energy, her sleek warm-blooded femininity. But fascination at times verges on infatuation. This masquerade is fun, but enough's enough, you want to say. Come out, come out, wherever you are. You find yourself following, going further and further to pick up her trail, losing yourself in her wilderness...

Better bring breadcrumbs. You know how these stories tend to end.

Scent Elements: Ambrette seed, iris, rose

Bel Respiro (Chanel)

In Italian, bel respiro means "deep breath". Of all the Chanels I'm reviewing this week, I chose Bel Respiro on purpose yesterday because I had a rather nerve-wracking doctor's appointment lined up, and I knew that many deep breaths would be required to get through it.

Whilst sitting in the waiting room, I prepared myself not with timelines of my condition or litanies of questions in need of answers, but with mental snapshots of the salt marsh near my childhood home. There, graceful in their attitudes of acceptance, head-high fronds of pliant horsetail grass bent to the prevailing air currents-- then sprang joyfully and proudly upright as each breeze passed on by.

I leaned forward, elbow propped on knee, resting my chin in my hand. To other patients, I may have appeared deep in thought, but I merely wanted to inhale Bel Respiro from my wrist a few more times before my turn with the doctor came. A bouquet of calming herbs met my nose-- it could as well have been carried there by steam from a cup of tisane, homely and unpretentious, made only with my health and tranquility in mind.  When at last I heard my name called, I felt calm, centered, ready to confront my fate. Bel Respiro had done its work quietly and well, fading at a rate commensurate with the diminishment of my anxieties.

The news the doctor had to offer was better than anything my fearful brain had whispered to me at midnight, when I had lain awake and troubled by all that could be possible. As I left his office, a different voice altogether whispered: Erleichda. Lighten up.

Good advice.

Scent Elements: Green tea, rosemary, thyme, rose, lilac, hyacinth, aromatic grasses, myrrh, leather

Coromandel (Chanel)

It is said that cherished objects absorb strong emotions, often retaining them long past the limit of their owners' lifespans. By the time of Coco Chanel's death in 1971, the empress of haute couture possessed no fewer than thirty-two Chinese coromandel lacquered folding screens... or did they possess her?

Chanel purchased her first coromandel screen in 1913 as a gift for her lover, Arthur "Boy" Capel. Capel had put up the money that enabled her to open her millinery shop on the Rue Cambon in Paris; business was now thriving, ditto their relationship. As a favor, she offered to redecorate his Avenue Gabriel pied-à-terre. Coromandel -- with its quaint scenes delineated in gold leaf and mother-of-pearl against ebony or cinnabar-colored lacquer -- formed the central motif of her home design. "God, how beautifully you live!" exclaimed a visiting friend upon seeing the result.*

It was all thanks to a dynastic upheaval halfway around the globe that this rising young entrepreneuse could indulge in Chinese antiques. Thrown into chaos after their Emperor's abdication, the nobility of Beijing had been forced to sell off their priceless furnishings and ancestral objets d'art. These eventually landed in Western showrooms, where fledgling collectors like Chanel benefited greatly from a buyer's market. Each acquisition represented a happy triumph for the high bidder... but like all remnants of fallen Empire, such treasures carried entire histories of sorrow undetectable to the naked eye.

The ghosts trapped in the coromandel screens did not haunt Chanel at first. Initially they represented joy-- particularly that which pervaded her love affair with Capel. Together they took pleasure-- first in choosing the screens, then in living as a couple amidst their splendor. But when Capel died suddenly in 1919, Chanel’s enthusiasm darkened into obsession. She continued to purchase screen after screen as if to build an inviolable carapace for her shattered heart. She hid her grief behind a hardened expression, a dressmaker's mannequin-- and escaped behind a wall of coromandel.

The thousand lacquered layers of Chanel's Chinese screens give mute witness to both her highest love and her most abysmal grief. By all logic, the fragrance named Coromandel should emanate the same extremes of feeling. But no. It simply offers consolation-- the thing most needed at the very moment one finds it most impossible to ask.

Impermeable shelter from all the world's sorrow would be a bit much to ask from an eau de toilette, but Coromandel is naturally woven of stern stuff. Sheer it may be, but in feng shui terms, an overdose of wood has made its personality strong. As has been noted elsewhere, it bears a distinct resemblance to Serge Lutens' Borneo 1834, particularly in the cacao-dark timbre of its patchouli. This is assuredly a natural phenomenon, as Christopher Sheldrake is the co-author of both fragrances. By substituting sweet, light, airy-powdery benzoin for heavy labdanum, he and Jacques Polge reframed the profound Borneo 1834 as a sort of wistful eau légère, with tremendous success.

Would Coco wear it? I think she might-- whenever she felt lonely and nostalgic and in need of a gentle balm to apply to her sorely tested heart. And should her old friend visit her in her lacquered fortress, he would undoubtedly declare, "God, how beautifully you smell!"

*pp. 56-60, Chanel: A Woman of Her Own, Axel Madsen, 1990, Henry Holt & Co., New York

Scent Elements: Frankincense, benzoin, patchouli, amber, woods

Bois des Îles Eau de Toilette (Chanel)

Bois des Îles may be eighty-five years old, but there is nothing antique or fusty about it. It smells of sleek expensive fabrics sold by the bolt, their newness implied by a bright "finish" of aldehydes which wears off quickly, revealing something plush and infinitely more comfortable underneath. I have the very outfit in mind: a set of lounging pajamas in deliciously soft and weighty panné velvet, tailored to drape just so and pool softly around a body at rest.

As a textile, velvet possesses numerous inherent contradictions, all of which favor the wearer. Even as it traps precious body heat against the skin, it feels cool to the outward touch, ensuring a fine-tuned microclimate that never seems to edge over the point of discomfort. Even when its basic hue is warm (flame-red or chocolate, please!) its silvery highlights suggest a touch of frost... or perhaps light glinting off very dense fur. And yet it flows like water, shimmering, never static-- "inviting interaction", as a gentleman once remarked about my favorite lime-colored bias-cut velvet skirt.

I'm grateful he only wished to interact with his eyes. If I had been wearing Bois des Îles, his hands almost certainly would have been tempted into the fray.

When the time and place and gentleman are right, all this is just fine-- but Bois des Îles seems more conducive to nights spent at home alone, curled up on the divan with a big bowl of cherries and a good novel, wearing those famous pajamas accessorized with one's eyeglasses on the tip of one's nose.

Who's looking?

Scent Elements: Aldehydes, coriander, bergamot, neroli, peach, jasmine, rose, lily of the valley, iris, ylang-ylang, vetiver, sandalwood, benzoin, vanilla, musk

Ladyboy (LUSH)

There is an unknown land full of strange flowers and subtle perfumes, a land of which it is joy of all joys to dream, a land where all things are perfect and poisonous.

--Oscar Wilde, letter to Harry Marillier, 1885
Ladyboy is beautiful, but he won't let me say so. He -- this weirdly, wonderfully uncompromising creature -- flat-out forbids it.

But I'm only trying to compliment you, I protest-- to which he coolly replies, You mean pigeonhole me in a nice safe little box? Honey, you're supposed to bury me after I'm dead.

This is a standoff I'll never win. The criterion of beauty to which I, a mere mortal, must fall back on is too terrestrial for Ladyboy's taste. Clearly he would much rather be called ugly than have to wear so mundane and gentrified a label as beautiful.

Violets? Where? Maybe Ladyboy is sitting on them. He'd love that-- holding court on a bed of petals. Doubtless we'll discover them later, crushed under skin-tight velvet, clinging desperately to the backs of those whippet-thin supermodel thighs. (Do you think His Majesty will ask us to brush them off for him? Oh please say yes.)

Chamomile? Could that be the bitter and prickly element in Ladyboy's personality, or is it something buried deep in his shady past? He's not talking, though the way he smokes a cigarette -- with quick, purse-lipped inhales like a series of angry kisses interspersed with narrow-eyed, smoke-obscured glares -- belies a deep impatience with convention. (Don't ask; it will only get him started.)

Banana? Yes, of course. Fresh? Depends on how you define the word. Let's just say it's been around the farmer's market a few times. A few venomous detractors have gone so far as call Ladyboy's banana note "rotten", but everyone knows that the closer it pushes the envelope toward decay, the sweeter a banana gets. When it interacts with the chamomile, you get this strange, bitter, ghost-of-cuminseed accord that slices through the cloying fruity sweetness like a old-fashioned stiletto letter opener in the hands of a disgruntled personal assistant. (Not that I'm complaining, Ladyboy. I live to serve!)

Seaweed absolute? A trace of odor as saline and funky as-- Hush your mouth!

Look, if speaking the word "beautiful" aloud would mean banishment from the Imperial Presence, I'll keep it safely locked in my head. I'll put up with the sullen looks, the catty comments, all the times I have to fetch and carry and bail him out of jail. I'll sign his name on stacks of 8x10 glossies and never breathe a word of where he disappears to after midnight.

Just let me go on worshiping this lovely space oddity... forked tongue and all.

Scent Elements: Violet, violet leaf, chamomile, banana absolute, seaweed absolute, labdanum, oakmoss

Sample tucked inside a lovely package from a certain Canadian dame who plumes under de nom of JoanElaine. She knew this discontinued treasure had been on my wishlist for eternity... and now I am indubitably hooked.

2012 UPDATE: Ladyboy -- along with the rest of Mark and Simon Constantine's original B Never Too Busy fragrance line -- has been resurrected as the "Exclusives" collection under LUSH's new Gorilla Perfumes label, which boasts its own ample wonders. Oh frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

Maharadjah and Maharanih (Parfums De Nicolaï)

Here's a pair of perfumes so intertwined, it's hard for me to think about, write about, or even wear them separately. Though fraternal rather than identical, these twins seem destined even by their given names to stick together throughout eternity.

Both Maharadjah and Maharanih make use of a common proprietary base (shall we call it Nicolade?) of cinnamon-and-carnation-enhanced sandalwood (I recognize it from Sacrebleu; do you?) customized with lavendar and patchouli. From this baseline, Patricia de Nicolaï simply tweaks the thermostat-- cooling Maharadjah with a hygienic mint-clove accord and warming Maharanih with sweet orange and lingering civet. The wearer must decide for themselves which olfactory garment of the two best suits the climate of the day-- but whichever they choose, they can't really lose, as they're getting the same basic (and very hospitable) perfume either way.

Wearing Maharadjah and Maharanih together proves the biggest treat and elevates the pairing to a new level.  The admixture of Maharadjah's minty-herbal notes and Maharanih's mellow citrus-amber produces (to my nose, anyway) a hologram of Richardson's Butter Mints, those adorable little pastel pillows of creamy-chalky delight that make their appearance in a cut-glass bowl at the end of a good restaurant meal.  Symbolic of satisfaction, their scent transferred to one's wrists is a very happy thing...plus, no indigestion as you struggle to calculate the tip!

Scent Elements: Lavender, carnation, cinnamon, patchouli, sandalwood, mint, coriander, clove, vanilla (Maharadjah); lavender, carnation, cinnamon, patchouli, sandalwood, bigarade, sweet orange, rose, amber, civet (Maharanih)

Praliné de Santal (Parfumerie Générale)

With a name like Praliné de Santal, Parfumerie Générale's third-from-latest fragrance ought to be fairly oozing with caramel-drenched hazelnuts. Instead, I find it on the dry side-- and I like it. Synesthetically speaking, all of its elements favor the dusty-sandy-gritty end of the textural spectrum, a phenomenon offset by the weighty richness of their combined scent. I am reminded of polvorones, those tiny, unassuming cakes made mostly of ground nuts and butter, which explode into sweet-salty crumbs when bitten. Who could guess that something so unsubstantial could be so down-deep satisfying?

Polvorones

Beat together ½ cup unsalted butter and ½ cup shortening until creamy. Add 1½ cups confectioner's sugar, 1 tsp freshly grated orange zest, and 1 tbsp. milk. Set aside.

In a separate bowl, combine 2 cups all-purpose flour, 2/3 cup finely ground nuts, ¼ tsp. salt, and ¼ tsp. ground cinnamon. Add this mixture to the butter/shortening blend a spoonful at a time, stirring well until it has been fully incorporated and the dough is crumbly. Roll the dough into long cylinders about 1" in diameter on sheets of waxed paper and refrigerate for several hours before using.

Preheat oven to 325°F. Cut half-inch thick medallions of dough and place them one inch apart on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. (If desired, roll them into balls first, pressing slightly to flatten the underside as you place them on the cookie sheet.) Bake on the center rack of the oven for 10-15 minutes until pale brown around the edges. While the cookies are still hot, transfer them into a bowl of confectioner's sugar and roll them around quickly to coat them. Brush off excess sugar and place on a wire rack to cool.


Scent Elements: Sandalwood, heliotrope, hazelnut, Virginia cedar, cashmeran

Jeux de Peau (Serge Lutens)

In a 1938 photograph taken by Roger Schall, the great French novelist Colette sits at a rustic dining table buttering a slice of bread. To be more precise, she's solidly paving it with thick shingles of fresh butter-- and quite a job she has ahead of her, too, since the slice she holds is itself the length of a house brick. An expression of intense concentration dominates her face; she caresses the rough-textured surface of the bread with both her eyes and the rounded point of the knife, seeming to note with rapacious delight each place where she might first choose to sink her teeth.

Yes, Colette surely knew on which side her bread was buttered... because she wouldn't dream of delegating that task to anyone else. But Colette did not just eat her good buttered bread. She also thought about it-- and wrote on the subject at length.
La mère et le fils venaient de prendre ensemble leur petit déjeuner et Chéri avait daigné saluer de quelques blasphèmes flatteurs son “café au lait de concierge”, un café au lait gras, blond et sucré que l’on confiait une seconde fois à un feu doux de braise, après y avoir rompu des tartines grillées et beurrées qui recuisaient à loisir et masquaient le café d’une croûte succulente.  (Mother and son had just finished breakfasting together, and Chéri had condescended to praise with an oath his cup of 'housemaid's coffee', made with creamy milk, well-sugared, with buttered toast crumbled into it and browned till it formed a succulent crust.)

--CHÉRI (1920); translated from the French by Roger Senhouse (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1951)

There is in Chéri a reference to a “café au lait de concierge” that has aroused -- and I choose my words advisedly -- a hungry curiosity, which I have until now left unsatisfied. A concierge once gave me this recipe for a breakfast guaranteed to dispel the shivers on winter mornings.

Take a small soup tureen -- the individual soup tureen you would use for a
soupe gratinée -- or a sturdy bowl in fire-proof china. Pour in your milky coffee, prepared and sugared according to taste. Cut some hearty slices of bread -- use household bread, refined white will not do -- butter them lavishly and lay them on the coffee, ensuring that they are not submerged. Then all you have to do is place the whole thing in the oven and leave it there until your breakfast is browned and crusty, with fat, buttery bubbles sizzling here and there on the surface.

Before breaking your raft of roasted bread, sprinkle on some salt. Salt counteracting the sugar, sugar with a faint taste of salt, that is one of the great principles of cooking that is neglected in a number of Parisian puddings and pastries, which taste bland simply because they lack a pinch of salt.


--Article authored by Colette for Marie-Claire, January 27, 1939; excerpted in Colette: A Passion For Life by Genevieve Dormann (Abbeville Press, 1985); translated from the French by David Macey
Serge Lutens has also thought about bread a good deal-- not to mention the lait gras that best accompanies it. In Jeux de Peau ("skin games"), he and Christopher Sheldrake have wedded together notes of creamy comfort and roasted warmth to recreate Colette's café au lait de concierge for the wrists rather than for the breakfast table.

Though a yeasty, sweet quickbread loaded with toasted pecans is the main dish here, I can't overemphasize how great an effect this fragrance's milky element has on me. If the first thing you learned as a child in the kitchen was to properly scald milk for béchamel, then you know well the curiously maternal aspects of this process-- tending the flame with an anxious eye, taking the milk's temperature as solicitously as one would a child's (except that in this case, a fever of 180°F is considered no cause for alarm).

Then, of course, there is the skin-- a thin film of protein which collects on the surface of heated milk. Known as kajmak throughout Eurasia, paneer or malai in Southeast Asia, Devonshire or clotted cream in Great Britain, and natas de leche among the Basques of Spain*, it possesses an intriguing texture and sweet, creamy flavor worthy of its round-the-world following. "Skin games", you say? Serge Lutens surely is teasing us with his knowledge of this unique treat.

In fact, amongst the children of the above cultures, it's agreed the best destination for it is -- what else? -- a slice of toasted bread.

If you are looking for spiritual nourishment (or simply a barrier against winter's chills and ills), I suggest you avail yourself of some Jeux de Peau.  Spray it on your wrists and wear your sleeves long.  When needed, lower your nose into the protected warmth of your cuff and breathe in the golden scent of succor.

*Read this wonderful blog post for cultural reminiscences and recipes.

Scent Elements: Milk notes, coconut, licorice, osmanthus, apricot

Ma Griffe Eau de Toilette (Carven)

Yesterday at the antique barn, I shelled out one dollar for a glass atomizer containing about five milliliters of Ma Griffe EdT. There are some who might say I grossly overpaid.

Designed in 1946 when Jean Carles' anosmia had already taken hold, Ma Griffe (like Balmain's Vent Vert) was lauded as a groundbreaking galbanum. Vintage Ma Griffe parfum is supposed to be pure emerald heaven-- but lighter versions in latter days have not received the best of press. From what I've heard, the most recent version of Ma Griffe is so tooth-grindingly godawful you'll wish you were anosmic after smelling it. (I wonder if this is the version said to contain asafoetida, which smells like rancid garlic.) Clearly, time, reformulation, and changing tastes have not been kind to this classic.

Being unfamiliar with the evolution of Ma Griffe bottles -- all that perennial green-and-white striped packaging makes me dizzy! -- I had absolutely no idea which vintage this one might be. Whatever its date of issue, it had certainly been well-loved and well-used. A quick spritz reassured me that we weren't dealing with a demon here (and also served to keep a few curious late-season wasps at bay-- seriously, it really IS a barn). I figured I'd take it home and transfer the juice into a smaller clean spray bottle, not least because the bottle itself (pictured below) is pure Seventies hideous.

In keeping with my usual luck with secondhand sprayers, getting Ma Griffe out of the bottle proved a wildwater adventure. Atomiseur, stated the label. More like rocket launcher. Rather than spray-decant the perfume with a few reasonable and rhythmic pumps, I found myself power-washing the inside of the vial with fragrance so highly pressurized it actually shot back up and out, drenching both my hands. My foyer (where I happened to be carrying out this operation) now smells totally Ma Grifftastic-- as do I.

So how's that working out for me, you ask? Surprisingly, pretty well. This Ma Griffe, whichever one it is, appears to be limited even in its letdowns. It's no mighty galbanum goddess by any stretch of the imagination; anyone seeking a green epiphany here would be disappointed. But in its pale way, it is verdant-- a half-strength jade floral, tart in a Granny Smith apple sort of way, set against a lactonic backdrop ever so mildly touched with spice (by which I do not mean asafoetida, thank god).

In the interest of conducting proper research, I still feel it would be necessary to track down other Ma Griffes (older, younger, different concentrations) for comparison. But this one is feminine, inoffensive, rather retro-- in short, not a bad way to waste a dollar.

Scent Elements: Gardenia, galbanum, citrus, aldehydes, clary sage, jasmine, rose, sandalwood, vetiver, orris, ylang-ylang, styrax, oakmoss, cinnamon, musk, benzoin, labdanum

Sunda/Nomad (Odin New York)

Are you one of the many who misses Mandarin Santal by Victoria's Secret with all your earthly being? Lucky mortal: as near as my nose can claim, the fragrance formerly known as Nomad is as close to a replica of our much-lamented lost Parfum Intime as we could dream.

Everything's in place: that sweet, succulent citrus top note (which here lasts and lasts), that narcotically rich and buttery sandalwood, that enfolding sense of cozy-dozy warmth and satiny comfort, that incredible longevity. But you expect things such as richness and longevity from an EdP like Mandarin Santal. What do you say when you receive them from an EdT? For Sunda to accomplish these feats at its lower concentration moves its achievement into a new class deserving of slightly higher marks. So even if Sunda and Santal smell exactly the same... Sunda gets the extra star.

While still in circulation, Mandarin Santal cost $55 for 50ml. Sunda keeps the exchange rate even at $110 for 100ml.  And this time it's for everyone who wants to smell delicious... not just the Victorias amongst us.

Scent Elements: Juniper berries, cedar, bergamot, black pepper, heliotrope, tonka bean, sandalwood, musk

Virgilio (Diptyque)

'Things snowball', they say. Legends, reputations, expectations... and disappointments.

The first citation of Virgilio I saw mentioned only 'basil and herb notes'. That was on Basenotes. Fragrantica expanded on this somewhat terse list, adding caraway, cedar, 'woodsy notes', and vetiver. The more I read, the more herbs joined the recipe -- mint, basil, savory, parsley, rosemary, tarragon, thyme, oregano. Virgilio started to sound like one of those monastery gardens laid out like a patchwork square, with a tiny corner for every conceivable herb. By the time Tania Sanchez playfully threw in a leg of lamb in Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, I was already fretting over my wine pairings and choice of china pattern... and Virgilio had blown up in my mind into a sort of Babette's Feast for the nose.

The reality: a sort of powerfully herbal "fresh scent" cleaning fluid, the sort that usually comes tinted pale blue or green to demonstrate how pure and natural it is. While far from unpleasant, it would be more explicable if I happened to be sponging it on my face with cotton pads in pursuit of tighter pores.

From this aggressively clean beginning, how Virgilio could end up smelling so urinous on skin must be either a cipher, a prank, or an unfortunate miscalculation of what happens when all those aromatic herbs end up stewing in one pot. Of course, this might be the disappointment talking-- but I do believe I've lost my appetite.

It doesn't please me to say this. I've enjoyed the three Diptyques I've tried thus far (Philosykos, L'Ombre Dans L'Eau, and L'Eau de L'Eau). And Virgilio is only the first of a passel of Diptyque samples (L'Eau, Oyedo, Tam Dao, Eau Lente) on the dock waiting to be worn. I pray they're all more satisfying than this.

Surely Virgilio is proof that I shouldn't believe everything I read. Oh, but I wanted to... so, so very much.

Scent Elements: Basil, caraway, cedar, vetiver

Fumerie Turque (Serge Lutens)

When ill winds blow and incense supplies are low, a few grains of demerara sugar on a lit charcoal disk will do in a pinch. As it sizzles and pops, the sugar produces a copious cloud of medieval-smelling smoke powerful enough to dispel the imps of melancholy, but sweet enough to coax an acolyte to add just a grain or two more to the thurible.

Sugar alone, however, is not exactly an incense. One could make a blend of it: add dried flower petals, powdered resins, flakes of golden tobacco, salt-cured juniper berries-- but why go to all that trouble when the smoke's already been bottled? Save your tender fingertips some nasty charcoal burns and spray some Fumerie Turque instead. Simply put, your demons will scatter with hisses of dismay, while good spirits congregate to inquire what smells so gosh-darned good.

To which you might answer: Holy smokes.

Scent Elements: Honey, beeswax, jasmine, Turkish rose, chamomile, tobacco, juniper berry, tonka, patchouli, rum, vanilla, redcurrant, styrax, suede

Back to the future!

Certain perfumes of the golden Fifties and Sixties exemplify the use of "effect" synthetics to convey a sense of top-speed, sound-barrier-breaking futurism. However, to a sensitive nose, the "future" can seem like an awfully scary place-- even when it's already fifty years old.

Observation over the long term has led me to the insight that my husband does not care for fresh aldehydes. Whenever I test-spray a vintage perfume and hear him yelp, I know two things: a) this fragrance is packing some blunt-force chemicals, and b) I will never be able to apply it in his presence. It's a shame, really, because he otherwise loves vintage nostalgia from the Mad Men era. If I swanned around looking like Joan Holloway on a daily basis, he'd be a happy man indeed. I'd just have to be extraordinarily careful about which scent I selected to accessorize my ensemble du jour.

When that boss chick Joan Elaine scored a retrofabulous coffret of vintage Max Factor fragrances earlier this summer, she generously sent me samples of Golden Woods (1951), Primitif (1956), and Hypnotique (1958). All three fragrances pack quite an aldehydic kick, of course-- but once they calm down on skin, they reveal their talents at expressing everything from fresh-scrubbed cleanliness to gauzy soft-focus sensuality. This, Hubby likes-- so all I need to remember is to wait ten minutes after application before requesting permission to enter his airspace.


Golden Woods
As its name suggests, Golden Woods is a softly radiant scent composed of powdery resins and sweet balsams layered in pretty, autumnal drifts. From this, I gather that its crisp, cold aldehydic intro is meant to stand in for a cobalt October sky-- a very nice detail. So seldom do aldehydes get paired with incense in perfume that it's easiest to imagine the combination resulting from a laboratory mishap-- something akin to those old Reese's "hey-you-got-your-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter" imbroglios. Just as in those commercials, everything ends on a tasty note of satisfaction, all honey and amber. A minor detraction: that hint of soap in the drydown, which spoils the afternoon-stroll fantasy by planting a hygiene reminder in the middle of the footpath. Still, a negligible fault in an otherwise lovely fragrance.

Scent Elements: A bit of a mystery, as few published lists of notes can be found. I detect labdanum, benzoin, vanilla, honey, small measures of sandalwood and cedar, and a hint of clove-- your regulation spice Oriental, but with a splash of superchilled aldehydes riding up top.

Primitif
In its first thirty seconds, Primitif smells retroactively futuristic, like a chrome-plated spaceship with Cadillac fins speeding toward the year 2000, or one-piece play outfit in aqua-tone Lurex, which is what we'll all be wearing next summer... on Mars. Once the whizzing atoms settle, however, Primitif transforms sensibly into a plum-and-woods chypre, simple and wearable. Its "primitive" aspect springs from a nice, slinky animalic base, which balances out the chemistry-set top notes and lends the overall fragrance a bebop-jazz physicality. So put on your black beret and ballet flats and wear this one to the next campus free-verse hootenanny. You dig?

Scent Elements: Again, lost to the mists of time. Surely there's the usual oakmoss-patchouli-vetiver action going on; perhaps some sandalwood and a touch of fruity damasceone for body; civet and musk for oomph, plus a rocket-booster's worth of aldehydes for the wannabe astronaut in every hipster.

Hypnotique
This easily contains the most aldehydes of the lot-- so much so that it's hard to discover what lies beyond them. I keep sniffing deeply in the hopes that I'll detect a hint of something else (flowers? leather? oakmoss?) but every time I think I'm close to a breakthrough, a piercing cold pain between my eyes stops me in my tracks. I've read that snow samples gathered at high altitude points north of the Arctic circle have been found to contain aldehydes. After encountering Hypnotique, I believe I better understand why. I half admire it for being so unyielding in its insistent broadcast of one solitary note-- and when August heat comes back around, it will be no match for this frosty beauty.

Scent Elements: Aldehydes and more aldehydes, and some powdered sugar, and then some aldehydes.