Ligea La Sirena (Carthusia)

...we were having a Fishers Island picnic at Isabella Beach-- one of those picnics where the consommé and vodka came in thermoses and you toast the idyllic summer days with plastic cups. Edie had disappeared. It was a bit spooky. Someone said, "We saw her go swimming." But she was nowhere in sight on this beach. Then somebody else said, "Is that her? Way, way out?"... (A) little dark head (at) such a distance... She seemed to be going under and then surfacing again. I could see the shine of her legs as she dove... She was playing... totally natural and involved in the element of water; she was like a porpoise. First there was fear for Edie: "She's in trouble." Then it was, "Why, she's playing! Edie's having fun." She seemed only to exist freely in atmospheres that were removed or enchanted... in a particular space that she liked. Most people are happy swimming by the shore; she was happy out there.

--John Anthony Walker, remembering Edie Sedgwick in EDIE: An American Biography (1982)

A few weeks ago, while pawing through a bowl of random perfume samples at the antiques barn, I came upon a decant of Ligea La Sirena ("Ligeia the Mermaid") by Carthusia. After my last (and until recently, only) experience with this Italian perfume house, I never expected to dip my toe back in those waters. Who could predict I'd be found there once again, only now splashing about with the happy abandon of a liberated selkie?

At first sniff, Ligea La Sirena reminded me strongly of old-school Jean Naté, that wonderful, cooling citrus splash of which our mothers made lavish use on Sunday mornings. Depending on how you feel about the smell of plastic, a pronounced note of this material either embellishes or mars the top notes.  I happen to enjoy it.  If you don't, worry not-- it dissipates quickly, clearing the way for a mischievous, creamy-sweet lemon floral in the Etro Vicolo Fiori mode.  Opoponax (AKA sweet myrrh) adds a sweet vanilla-balsam note that lasts well into the drydown.

The longer I wore Ligea La Sirena, the more bewitching I found it.  Nonetheless, its spell did not take immediate hold on me. I kept waiting for it to suddenly go all horrid, as Aria di Capri (that Charybdis of a fragrance) had done. But Jaws never pulled me under, and I made it to shore unscathed-- and exhilarated.

Carthusia, all is forgiven.

Scent Elements: Mandarin, lemon, wild rose, opoponax

Duc de Vervins (Houbigant)

"Elegance distinguishes a men," reads the sample card copy. "A distinguished an long lastin fragrance, this warm, yet fresh scent is truly for a man with innate and exceptional taste."

But no spellcheck, evidently. Worse yet, imagine the above speech coming at you through a vocoder set to maximum robotic creepiness.  That's what you get with Duc de Vervins:  a fragrance for the man who requires a pool of shadow in which to be interviewed on Dateline.

Labeled by Luca Turin "the worst fougère of all time" (at least until Coty Avatar came along), Duc de Vervins occupies the same 'bullyboy' category of fragrance as Drakkar Noir. Being that I believe that DN has been flogged to death, you'd think I'd be happy for something to take its place.  I'm just not convinced that Duc de Vervins is the lesser of two evils.  True, it isn't nearly as egregious as DN; its basil-leaf top note offers appealing freshness without the brutality of calone, and it behaves itself by staying far closer to the skin.  But this very civility is what makes me nervous-- because Duc de Vervins is still awful.  Its good points coerce you into trying it on, and then its migraine-inducing bad points appear like magic.

If Drakkar Noir is the obnoxious, boastful alpha-male who sinks fourteen tequilas and starts pinching women's asses, Duc de Vervins is the viper-quiet charmer who watches the party all night from a carefully-chosen strategic corner.  He certainly appears more clean-cut and WASPy than his gold-chain-wearing counterpart, but therein lies the danger.  Duc de Vervins is all handsomeness and no heart.   Underneath that crisp, yuppie exterior, he's a sneaky, persuasive bastard on the hunt for your weak spots.  You'll only notice his flat affect and cold eyes when it's much, much too late.

Luckily, you'll smell anyone wearing Duc de Vervins from so far away that avoidance should be a snap. If you catch a whiff of him on the breeze, sister, don't take any chances. Run. Run like the wind and never look back.

Scent Elements: Basil, cinnamon, hesperides, citronella, coumarin, clove, oakmoss (Evernia prunastri), treemoss (Evernia furfuracea), rose geranium, lily-of-the-valley, and a tanker truck full of trouble.

Cannabis (Dupetit)

Let's get one thing straight right off the bat:  I inhaled.  Deeply, frequently, and thoroughly.   So I speak from experience when I tell you that Cannabis smells like its name-- at least for the first three seconds, which counts as a healthy toke.

Rare is the perfume that startles you into raucous laughter on the very first spray.  I found myself giggling helplessly, remembering the day my mother learned that those strange little hybrid seedlings scattered amid her prized tomato vines were my brother's budding pot farm.  Naturally, she didn't think it was all that hilarious, but how could we not laugh?  She was a Certified Master Gardener, for godsake-- the least she should have known how to do was tell Cannabis sativa from Solanum lycopersicum!

Actually, hindsight reveals why it was so difficult for Mom to make that distinction.  The essential oils contained in those spidery green pot leaves smelled so similar to the acrid green scent of tomato stems that Mom actually pinched them back without suspecting a thing.  Similarly, as Cannabis' top notes of grapefruit peel, citronella oil, herb-of-grace, and catmint coalesce into a hologram of a big phat sticky bud, you may not be able to hold back a round of applause.  Righteous, man!

Fortunately, others will be just as clueless as Mom about your fragrance of choice if you apply it far enough in advance. Cannabis is an eau de toilette, ergo not very tenacious; it sticks around just long enough to impress you with its resemblance to the chronic, then melts into a very nice, muted allspice-and-tomato-jam fragrance that won't make your colleagues in Human Resources nervous.  Still, you might not want to wear this while driving the company van... and for godsake, go easy on the application.  Drug rule #1: Know your limit.

Scent Elements: Cannabis flower/seed absolute (THC-free), petitgrain, neroli, clove bud, Sambac jasmine, patchouli, hesperides, and many other herbs, spices, roots, barks, and mosses-- all natural, all earth-friendly, all kynd.

Rose of Cimarron (Tambela/Bellyflowers)

I grew up on the Prairie... not literally, but literately. Discovering Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books at age eight blew my little-kid mind wide open and triggered a lifelong thirst for the frontier. From scholarly books like Frontier Women: Civilizing the West to Tom Spanbauer's achingly beautiful revisionist romance The Man Who Fell In Love With the Moon, from PBS' Frontier House to Dances With Wolves and beyond, I've never been able to resist the call of Manifest Destiny-- particularly where it concerns perfume.

I'm well aware that only saloon whores and madames used actual perfume in those days-- when they could get it, which was most likely seldom.  But I'm certain that frontier life had its own fragrance: sagebrush, sweet grass, woodsmoke, stove blacking, Murphy's Oil Soap, manure, and good honest sweat.    A woman probably smelled no different than a man, for all the hard work she put into homesteading.  Yet a feminine touch might be detected in small, homely details:  a handful of fresh-picked clover in a jelly jar, bunches of dried wild coneflowers hanging from the eaves, little things to shield the vulnerable self from the ordeal of carving a domestic life out of an inhospitable terrain.

In its egalitarian blending of 'tough' and 'tender' scent elements, Rose of Cimarron -- an all-natural perfume by Elise at Tambela/Bellyflowers -- attempts to capture this spirit of  contradiction.  At first, this hale, virile incense accord dressed up with flowers seems as nifty a way as any to express the frontier's true democracy. But when holes start to wear through the romance, interesting truths are revealed.

Opening with a huge chord of sage, smoke, and turpentine, RoC lets its flinty side expend itself early-- but the experience is memorable, perhaps too much so.  As it segues into a soft, fruity, forgiving rose, I can't help but wish for that rugged quality to return.  In fact -- since we've already mentioned the Little House saga -- I remember liking Laura Ingalls best in her stubborn adolescent years, when she was "a little piece of leather well put together".  The minute Half Pint started blushing and stammering over Almanzo Wilder, I lost interest.  In perfume as in literature, the spunky tomboy is always more likable before undergoing the requisite girlish makeover.  Afterward -- newly demure and dewy -- she's lost her charm along with her chutzpah.  (A recent study suggests that insecure people are more attractive to potential mates-- but why should that uncertainty leach into their perfume?)

By my reckoning, RoC's latter three-quarters (though pretty as all get-out) enjoy considerably less success than its first ten minutes.   I could live with that initial blast of incense forever, but it quickly dims into what almost seems like a room fragrance... a nice one, of course, but I wish the two could be separated.  That way, I'd have something to spray on the curtains for a hint of the Big Sky Country... and something to wear when greeting weary travelers at the door.

Scent Elements: Pink pepper, black pepper, pandanus, rose absolute, wild rose absolute, jasmine absolute, labdanum, patchouli, angelica root, ambrette seed, blond tobacco, amyris

Amazing (JoAnne Bassett)

In the parlance of my punkrock youth, bands played either "loose" or "tight". Each adjective had its merits. A band who performed "loose" played each song like the world was about to end, with wild, chaotic, who-gives-a-crap fervor and total indifference to mistakes. Conversely, when a band played with ferocious concentration and discipline -- in such perfect synch that they didn't even need to look at each other for cues -- you'd say, "Man, that set was tight."

Amazing is tighter than tight. It has got its shit together.

To a crisp ginger-citrus heart (in which yuzu plays a graceful starring role), perfumer JoAnne Bassett has married a succession of green notes ranging from minty-cool (basil) to fresh (violet leaf; galbanum) to sylvan and shadowy (oakmoss). For contrast, all this lushness is bracketed on either end by a top and base so extra-sec it will set your teeth on edge. You will find yourself wishing (as I did) that it lasts longer. But like a regulation punk song, Amazing lasts three minutes and then it's out the door-- leaving behind a faint, delicious trace of citrus smoke.

Stylistically, Amazing cleaves to a classic mode of structure, but it inserts its own flippant attitude into the spaces. Smitten and searching for a parallel, I find myself reaching for my DVD of Sophia Coppola's Marie Antoinette to hop-skip around the film song by song.  I want to hear Gang of Four's Jon King snarl over the opening credits:
The problem of leisure?
What to do for pleasure...

I want to hear Windsor for the Derby's haunting "Melody of a Fallen Tree" deliver the hapless young Archduchess into the hands of her fiancé's family; I want to see the now-Queen of France hurry breathlessly from drawing room to boudoir to the tune of the Strokes' "What Ever Happened?"

I want to be forgotten
and I don't want to be reminded
You say "please don't make this harder"
No, I won't
I want to be beside her
She wanna be admired
You say "please don't make this harder"
No, I won't

Amazing is the pair of battered, beloved, baby-blue Chuck Taylors lying in a heap on the floor of the Dauphine's shoe closet.

As Bassett describes on her Etsy site, Amazing contains "all things outrageous...out of control". The result is paradoxical: a precise symphony of scent, every note ringing distinct and true, but in the most modern fashion.

In other words, a must.

Scent Elements: Oakmoss absolute, cassie, cinnamon leaf, vintage jasmine grandiflorum, lemon verbena, centifolia and damask rose ottos, muhuhu (African sandalwood), galbanum, bergamot, ginger, yuzu, rhododendron, benzoin, violet leaf, and 17 other mystery ingredients

Daphne (Lord's Jester)

Why do you follow me?—
Any moment I can be
Nothing but a laurel-tree.

Any moment of the chase
I can leave you in my place
A pink bough for your embrace.

Yet if over hill and hollow
Still it is your will to follow,
I am off;—to heel, Apollo!

--"Daphne", Edna Millay, 1922

Daphne by Lord's Jester is like no fragrance I have ever smelled before.  It leaves me dizzy and puzzled, certain only that I -- being no more than mortal -- lack the vocabulary to describe divinity.

This inadequacy might stem from the fact that my nose has been made lazy by its contact with synthetics. Manmade aromachemicals express in the least number of molecules what natural essences take hundreds of molecules to say.  When one has mostly been exposed to snappy one-liners, hearing an epic sung aloud by a multitude can be an overwhelming experience. So it goes with Daphne. I breathe it in and am rendered dumb.

The difference between synthetic and natural goes beyond molecule counts. Daphne's creator, Adam Gottschalk, explains on his website that natural aromatics contain measurable life force. Daphne is his proof: teeming with biological wisdom, it throws off a field of energy that has to be experienced to be believed. It emanates presence in a way few perfumes ever will.

Around every corner, a new fascination awaits. Brandied fruit notes melt into smoky leathers; prickly floral notes wind through virtual forest glades.  This may be the closest I come to walking on mythical faery ground; when it wears off, I half expect to find that fifty years have elapsed in an eyeblink.  But Daphne comes with its own inbuilt loophole.  Almost twenty-four hours after application, its sweet eldritch song still plays-- morphing, changing, never repeating itself.   This spell shows no sign of wearing thin.

A fragrance can be described as well-rounded, multi-faceted, or many-layered without ever allowing you beneath the surface.  Impossibly rich and complex, Daphne pulls you into another dimension, more inner than outer and filled with a universe of detail.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, tangerine, mandarin, grapefruit, cypress, ginger, tagetes, immortelle, frangipani, magnolia, jasmine, rose, oakmoss, benzoin, labdanum, vanilla, tonka, pine needle, styrax, ambergris

Eleganza Luminosa (Linari)

In the realm of perfume, there may only be a finite number of scent combinations. Of these, only a tiny percentage stand alone, each the sole example of a category built for one. All the rest -- the copies, dupes, flankers, and smell-alikes -- cheerfully crowd the retail shelves, differentiated only by bottle shape, color, bling level and price tag.  In this territory, how is quality defined? 

Take the currently-ubiquitous caramel floral. Pushed in the direction of refinement, its buttery character may read as crème brûlée and other high-end delights. In the opposite direction, you're heading toward a pool of that salty, synthetic yellow oil that coats tubs of popcorn at the cinema. Between these two points, all sorts of stops can be identified: hard toffee, hazelnut syrup, Brach's milk caramels, bread pudding.  Few of these modulations are gold-medal worthy, and none are complete failures.  When it comes right down to it, the caramel  floral genre is so easy to embrace that there seems to be no overarching reason for any one fragrance in its ranks to strive for greatness.   Together, they typify the Golden Mean.

Amidst a sizable throng of similar perfumes, Linari's Eleganza Luminosa hardly distinguishes itself.  It lands squarely mid-arc on that great spectrum of  butter-and-spun-sugar aromas, smelling like the steam rising from a plate of competently-made French toast.  (There's also a glass of fresh-squeezed OJ on the side, but you expect that with breakfast.)  All in all, this dish is pleasant, tasty, and filling, but not made to stick in your memory as the most brilliant meal you've ever ordered.

Eat hearty, but remember: bigger, more serious meals await you later in the day.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, lemon, orange, rose, jasmine, freesia, iris, lily-of-the-valley, cedar, sandalwood, white musk, patchouli, ambergris

Tabu Vintage Cologne Spray (Dana)

Beethoven: Music is a dreadful thing. What is it? I don't understand it. What does it mean?

Schindler: It exalts the soul.

Beethoven: Utter nonsense! If you hear a marching band, is your soul exalted? No, you march. If you hear a waltz, you dance. If you hear a mass, you take communion. It is the power of music to carry one directly into the mental state of the composer. The listener has no choice. It is like hypnotism. So, now-- what was in my mind when I wrote this? A man is trying to reach his lover. His carriage has broken down in the rain. The wheels are stuck in the mud. She will only wait so long. This is the sound of his agitation. "
This is how it is," the music is saying. "Not how you are used to being. Not how you are used to thinking. But like this."

The above dialogue from the 1994 film Immortal Beloved takes place at a rehearsal of Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 9 in A Major, also known as the Kreutzer Sonata. Its composer, in his obstinately veiled way, is telling Herr Schindler how he lost the love of his life-- and how he subsequently converted his grief into art. Alternating between frenzied impatience and melancholy resignation, the Sonata indeed mirrors a psyche in upheaval, struggling to express its loss to the world at large.

With something of a literary wink, Beethoven's soliloquy  is largely borrowed from Kreitzerova Sonata, Tolstoy's 1889 novella inspired by the musical composition. Aroused to homicidal rage after watching his young wife play a duet with another man, the protagonist attempts to blame his crime on music. If (as he argues) a melody has the power to provoke ungovernable impulses, then no one is responsible for their actions, however destructive. They are merely obeying the sirens' irresistible call.

The moment in which the wife succumbs to her own personal siren song achieved immortality in a 1901 painting by René François Xavier Prinet. Executed in sepia-tinged monochrome, the painting is sensuous, titillating-- and a premonition of pure regret. The viewer knows that nothing good will come of this moment. Yet who can tear their eyes away? How ironic that in three short decades, this doomed embrace would be known by the swooning tag line, "The longest kiss in history"...

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For many years, I only knew Tabu as a ghastly stench sold at a perpetual discount in drugstores. I could never understand why older women sighed its name in such tones of rapture; did they really think that shit smelled good? Gradually, I realized I was the victim of more than simply a generational misunderstanding. Their Tabu was magic; ours was crap-- why? Thus did I learn of the dread beast known as reformulation-- and tasted in full the bitterness of being a perfume lover.

Tabu (1932) was the debut fragrance of the House of Dana, founded in Spain by former Myrurgia director Javier Serra. Not counting a brief discontinuation during the mid-1970's, Tabu brought in solid profits, enabling Dana to purchase the proprietary formula of another classic, Houbigant Chantilly. Dana marketed both as prestige fragrances until 1995, when Renaissance Cosmetics, Inc. entered the picture. Renaissance's corporate mission: to acquire the licenses to dozens of vintage fragrances and reintroduce them to the mass market. This process -- which involved some necessary cheapening and corner-cutting -- continued when Renaissance became New Dana Perfumes Company in 1999.  In 2001, NDPC commissioned Sophia Grojsman (a perfumer not exactly known for her subtlety) to treat Tabu to an overhaul. The result, in its black-and-white neo-Art Deco packaging, is the fragrance I knew and loathed. (Sorry, Sophia.)

On a visit to a local antique shop this past autumn, I spied a familiar liplocked duo emblazoned on a vintage cardboard perfume box. Curious, I asked to take a closer look, ascertaining first whether the proprietress would mind me opening it. She didn't, so I did. From its shape, typeface, and outer packaging, I guessed the bottle's age to be about thirty years old. Strictly for a lark (and fully expecting to gain nothing from this encounter but a pair of red and watering eyes) I pulled the cap off, took a sniff-- and received a revelation.

The first surprise: I recognized that scent instantly. A basso profundo patchouli edged with incense and vanilla, it must have permeated my life from such an early age that I had no idea it possessed a proper name. It was the scent of every antique store, curio cabinet, Victorian museum, used book emporium, and metaphysical shop I'd ever set foot in-- tripled. I was instantly hooked.

However, I would not be swayed so readily. Some stubborn part of me refused to admit that the old ladies were right. What was Tabu, really, except an old bottle of perfume that no one wanted anyway? It returned to its place on the display case shelf, where I cruelly forced it to sit for several months more.

Still, even under lock and key, Tabu's hold on me remained firm. Every two weeks or so, I stopped in and asked to smell it again. Each time, the proprietress obliged this little ritual with evident good humor... but at some point, her patience with me finally reached its natural limit. The next time I crossed the antique shop threshold, she sagely disappeared into a back office- - leaving me to fume in frustration in front of the locked display case, where my treasure sat just out of reach.

The trick worked. Within days I returned, dark circles under my eyes-- and cash (at last!) in hand.

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Where other patchoulis content themselves with sketching neon scenes of Haight Ashbury during its heyday, vintage Tabu (like its descendents, Borneo 1834 and Noir Patchouli) is a candlelit Rembrandt, a chiaroscuro essay painted in moody shades of umber and sienna. Even in the bottle, it seems impossibly heady, almost winelike; seduction can be found in its notes, but also plenty of nostalgia and regret. The reformulation I'd so despised in the drugstore had clearly excised these very qualities from the formula. This, one cannot do-- for Tabu's weighty sadness is part of its soul. Omit it, and only emptiness remains. Someone should have told Sophia Grojsman that tabu in its original sense means both "sacred" and "forbidden". Certain things must not be adulterated.

I imagine that the modern perfume consumer for whom Tabu was defanged and declawed would be horrified at Javier Serra's original brief.  "Un parfum de puta (a perfume for a whore)" might have attracted quite a different clientele-- yet it seems to me that perfumer Jean Carles got it exactly right. A puta, while provocative, is also a human being-- one more entitled to her melancholy, perhaps, than the average sheltered bourgeoise. Accordingly, Tabu is a fragrance of many shadows. Full sunlight is not for this wandering star.

Scent Elements: NowSmellThis lists bergamot, coriander, neroli, orange, clove bud oil, clover, jasmine, narcissus, rose, ylang-ylang, amber, benzoin, cedar, civet, oakmoss, patchouli, sandalwood, and vetiver; Cleopatra's Boudoir adds basil, carnation, resins, precious woods, musk, and vanilla to this already impressive roster of notes.  For once, the hype seems reasonable: I believe Tabu contains them all.  It's how Tabu manages to juggle all of them and still remain coherent, even authoritative, that is the miracle.

Idylle (Guerlain)

All perfume, in a sense, is aspirational.  When you put it on in the morning, you're already thinking ahead to what sort of day you'll have.  You hope that it will be a positive one-- and that the fragrance you've chosen will enhance the experience.

I know full well that I am in charge of my own good mood; the day is what I make of it.  But this morning, when I tried on Idylle for the first time, I felt my spirits sink.  In the space of three swift spritzes, my optimism quit on me and I went from raring-to-go to can't-possibly-go-on.

Thierry Wasser, Idylle's creator, would hate to hear me say this.  He effusively describes his composition as "a subtle yet incisive freshness, balanced by sensuality... an ode to life and love... an ambiguity of feeling... a comfortable, intimate, physical sensation... tender and ethereal, sensuous and romantic, fleeting and eternal."  Really?  I smell pissy honey and damp cardboard, and that's about it.

Idylle is none of the things Thierry Wasser wants it to be.  Neither is it terrible and cruel.  It never resorts to brute force to win you over-- instead, it hangs around your neck like a limp albatross and annihilates you with boredom.  What little it has to say is delivered in a weak, namby-pamby whine that wears you down after mere minutes. You can't say it isn't sweet, but what good is sweetness when there's no character to go with it?

You think I'm kidding?  Ponder this: my Mennen Speed Stick deodorant gave me more jollies today than my fancy French perfume.  Few confessions could be sadder-- but there it is.  I'm off to lather up with some Ivory Soap.  If I faint from the intensity, call the paramedics.

Scent Elements: Bulgarian rose, patchouli, white musk, lily-of-the-valley, lilac, peony, freesia, jasmine

Eau de Calandre (Paco Rabanne)

Sometimes, swamped in obligation and routine, you get stuck in a rut. Nothing's better to boost you out of it than a mystery, an enigma, a choice little brain-teaser.  So today I put on Eau de Calandre, a perfume about which I know next to nothing... except that I like it. Is anything more required?

I mean, I know about Calandre proper-- how Paco Rabanne (he of the chainmail-and-paillette minidresses) conceived of a futuristic fragrance that would celebrate the new space age in all its metallic glory, then named it after the radiator grille of an automobile.  But I only know these things from reading about them.  There is no direct experience of Calandre informing my encounter with its complementary Eau-- and therefore nothing to prejudice me one way or another.  I am ignorant, and content to remain so.  For once, I want to enjoy a thing without dissecting it.  Is that so bad?

Eau de Calandre is a musky little vetiver with the dazzling cold quality of daylight reflecting off of a clean pane of glass or an object made of highly polished metal.  It's modern, unisex, attractive, long-lasting, and slightly alien in the style of the Maschinenmensch from Fritz Lang's Metropolis.  It's everything that Guerlain's Vetiver wasn't (at least in my opinion).  I could wear it anywhere without anxiety.

If a woman without perfume is a woman without a future, I'm not worried.  I'm good to go.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, lemon, geranium, rose, lily-of-the-valley, jasmine, ylang-ylang, iris, vetiver, oakmoss, cedar, sandalwood, amber, musk

Essence of Vali Eau de Parfum (Essence of Vali)

Today being Valentine's Day, I'm busy pondering the Boy With the Bow and Arrow.  How is it that one civilization after another has ascribed something so earth-shattering as love to the marksmanship of a chubby toddler?  The Greeks had Eros, the Romans had Cupid, the Hindus had Kāmadeva... obviously, the idea of entrusting both romance and weapons to a mischief-making kid with poor impulse control is one that transcends all cultural barriers.

But Cupid isn't all cuteness and candy hearts.  The Norse god Váli (Old Norse: "wailer"; note its similarity to "Valentine") was an adorable infant hit man brought to life by Óðinn solely to exact revenge on his enemies.  According to myth, Váli carried out his first 'job' within 24 hours of being born.  (That's one motivated baby!)  Clearly, Váli is not Eros, Cupid, or Kāmadeva; he doesn't exist to spread joy or romance.  The Boy With the Bow and Arrow has a dark side. 

In first encountering Essence of Vali, I knew that "Vali" referred not to some junior Norse badass, but to Valerie Bennis, the founder of this Manhattan-based aromatherapy firm. On her website, she describes EOV Eau de Parfum as her "masterpiece blend", one that compels total strangers to demand, "What are you wearing?" One sniff tells why.  This is an arresting scent, complex and clearly designed to override all one's defenses.  Like its mythical namesake, it aims, shoots-- and pierces the heart clean through.

The first notes that rise to greet the senses are sharp, bright, and hot-- pelargonium and palmarosa laced with the lemony bite of tropical verbena (Litsea cubeba).  Neon pink and scarlet blossoms swim before the mind's eye, their intense hue provoking something halfway between rapture and pain.   But they're a mirage, as becomes clear when clove and rosewood take over.  All that is light gives way to darkness; flowers make way for spice; fiery pepper and citrus notes cede to a deeper heat.  Think of it as an evening that begins with a bright bouquet and ends with passion in a room lit red by the glow from a banked fire.  Is this hell?  Or are there more forms of heaven than are dreamt of in your philosophy?

Bennis characterizes her proprietary blend of eight essential oils as one intended to "give the wearer the pleasure of a beautiful fragrance and the benefit of aromatherapy".  But what makes Essence of Vali astonishing is its slightly cruel, merciless edge.  Love isn't always kind, and romance is what happens before lovers' eyes are fully opened.  Sensual and sadistic, EOV captures the moment when things get real. 

Scent Elements: Lavender, cedarwood, rosewood, patchouli, palmarosa, geranium, litsea cubeba, clove

Yohji Homme (Yohji Yamamoto)

Do you want to smell a miracle? Try this one. It launches itself from the skin in a swirl of dry herbs, then ushers in a lighthearted lavender, smiling and ready to dance. Previously, lavender had promised all its waltzes to a small but predictable pool of suitors -- bergamot, lemon, oakmoss. But when coffee and rum arrive at the ball, that dance card makes its way into the punchbowl quicker than a chaperone can say, "Well, I never."

As the orchestra leader signals a two-step, coffee takes lavender by the hand-- and Yohji Homme umbrellas into a mouthwatering accord that seems like a distillate of virility itself. What a wondrous thing it is when an idea's time finally arrives! Yet at no time does Yohji Homme get cocky or overstate its brilliance. There's a natural humility worked into this fragrance's formula; it speaks its genius softly, but rest assured-- the right people always hear.

Scent Elements: Coriander, bergamot, anise, lavender, licorice, rum, coffee, cinnamon, leather

Pour Un Homme (Caron)

Who's the homme? Well, I can tell you who he's not: Mouchoir de Monsieur. That pampered pretty boy has never worked a day in his life. Sitting in the back of the limousine, pursing his lips, being driven here and dropped off there-- what does he know? Pour un Homme's the one with his hands on Jicky's wheel.

Our man's looking sharp in his chauffeur's uniform, kept stored in lavender and pressed with the hottest of hot irons. During downtime, while Madame et le p'tit M'sieur dine at Maxim's or take in the Trocadéro, he sits in the car, smokes Egyptian cigarettes, chews L'Anis de Flavigny and stares stony-eyed into the middle distance. He keeps a sprig of rosemary from his mother's garden tucked inside his jacket-- not that he's soft or a mama's boy, you understand; only because Marseilles smells so much better than damned rotten Paris.

Madame likes the rosemary, too. Occasionally she looks at him and sighs, "If I'd known you earlier and had better sense, I'd have chosen you instead of... well..." But Pour un Homme never bats an eye. He simply moves his toothpick to the other side of his mouth and mutters, "You gave me the keys, didn't you?"

Pour Monsieur (Chanel)

Between its initial blast of crisp citrus and its muted mossy drydown, there comes a moment of pure magic in Pour Monsieur.  Notice I say only "a moment". Pour Monsieur isn't the sort to stand for silliness; built on rock-solid conventions and locked up tight, it lets no drafts in, nor much light. But in the few seconds that elapse before the front door swings open and shut, a bright herbaceous green note flashes past your nose, here and then suddenly gone. The latch clicks shut and you blink, shaken from reverie. True, the rest is all handsome woody notes with a touch of good scotch-- but your thoughts keep straying helplessly back to that lissome green note. Like the only daughter in a house full of menfolk, she stands out, cherished and unique against a uniform backdrop of masculinity. You keep looking for her, hoping she will reappear. She never does... though you can hear her high, sweet voice faintly echoing through all the rooms of the house.

Scent Elements: Neroli, lemon, lemon verbena, petitgrain, cardamom, coriander, basil, ginger, cedar, oakmoss, vetiver

Noir Patchouli (Histoires de Parfums)

When you were a child, which did you prefer-- the attic or the basement?  The answer to this question depends on whether your house had one, both, or neither.  Ours had a basement, but a "finished" one, ruined by bad 1970's wood paneling and wall-to-wall shag. A kid could find little mystery or joy there. My lucky cousins, on the other hand, lived on Staten Island in a WWI-era house with both attic and basement.  I quickly discovered which I'd choose-- and have continued to choose it all my life thus far.

Cold, shadowy, and chthonic, my cousins' basement was a wonderland of cobwebs, tree roots, and the smell of damp slate. Being sent down there to retrieve a can of condensed milk or an empty laundry basket was an adventure akin to spelunking through the Paris Catacombs.  There always seemed to be some portion I'd never stumbled across before-- an alcove, a sinkhole, a tiny forgotten room filled with dusty relics.  I felt certain that if I searched long and diligently enough, I'd find a screaming skull, an Indian burial ground, the remains of a walled-up nun or (who knows?) Jimmy Hoffa.

Just as every antique wardrobe leads to Narnia and every attic conceals little orphaned Sara Crewe's "magic", underground places have their own peculiar literary mythos.   Many were the hot summer days I spent down in the cellar depths, barricaded behind shelves of jelly jars and piles of fraying paperbacks, imagining myself to be Bilbo Baggins trapped in Gollum's shadowy lair.  Remembering the Villeré family cave à vin in Frances Parkinson Keyes' Once on Esplanade, I'd wrap dusty cobwebs around my fingers and pretend to be little Marie-Louise waiting for her brother Georges to return from a duel at dawn....

There may be no basement where I live at present, but Histoires de Parfums' Noir Patchouli brings all those underground days back to me.  This deep, dry patchouli carries with it the curious musty-dusty smell of those basement corners I loved as a child (sans mildew, mold, or live spiders).  Where other patchouli fragrances brim with midday heat, Noir Patchouli is cool, earthy, cloaked in shadow.  Nevertheless, it protects the wearer against chill much like the sweater Grandma always made you wear to go "downstairs" in search of an old hatbox or a ball of twine.  And when you least expect it, it produces treasures-- a scent of dried rose petals without a discernable source, the powdery vanilla scent of paper turning slowly into dust.

Like many treasures that only live below stairs, Noir Patchouli has an indelible air of anachronism.  Its classic structure and impeccable craftsmanship are presented in soft focus like an aging film star seen through a Vaseline-coated camera lens.  Still, one need only look close to recognize its worth-- and anyway, some of us like the romance of shabby chic and buried treasure.  Wear it, and when they ask you if you get anything out of it, whisper like Howard Carter at the mouth of Tutankhamun's tomb:  Yes, wonderful things.

Scent Elements: Patchouli, coriander, cardamom, juniper, musk, vetiver, oakmoss, vanilla, birch tar

Scent (Theo Fennell)

Today, I feel hemmed in by my own head. I am dogged by a persistent sensation of claustrophobia, as if everything (walls and ceilings, the dimensions of my desk, the people around me, my own internal thoughts) is too close, crowding in on me. I'm given to understand that this feeling has a basis in physiology: PMS causes water retention, which causes increased swelling; the brain is not exempt from that incoming tide. I imagine my poor brain surrounded on all sides, pressed against the walls of a suddenly-too-small cage, crying out for release.

If you've ever spent time staring meditatively at a mandala or the rosace of an old cathedral, you know that radiating patterns of color can induce a sense of spiritual deliverance. The center point becomes the proverbial needle's eye through which the soul passes en route to paradise. That's what I need today: a portal, a window, anything to get outside of myself. In lieu of an actual escape hatch, I'm wearing Theo Fennell's Scent and waiting for the sound of angels.

Scent lays a sensual white floral like a heavenly mantle over a profound green accord that glows like a peridot held to the sun. For a perfume this kaleidoscopic, a comparison to stained glass is not implausible; as Scent sends tiny bits of colored light spiraling around your perceptions, all you need to do is sit back and let your mind ease into the patterns. The effect is synaesthetic-- and oddly prayerful.

Scent joins Divine and Puredistance I on my list of "goddess" scents. On days like today, when I'm stuck in short-term solitary, I know that I can call out to these fragrant "mothers of mercy" for liberation.

ADDENDUM: Three weeks after I wrote this, I suffered my first simple partial seizure (in a jam-packed restaurant during the lunchtime rush, natch). Because of this event, the brain tumor which had likely been growing on my frontal lobe for some time was at last discovered. I had thought that strange experiences such as the feeling of claustrophobia described above were anomalies, but no.

Scent Elements: Saffron, cardamom, cumin, cinnamon, lily, rose, orchid, jasmine, neroli, patchouli, tonka bean, labdanum, benzoin, sandalwood

Black (Bulgari)

In an October 2010 article for ÇaFleureBon entitled "The Human Nose Can Get Used to Anything", guest editor David Lincoln Brooks pointed out the "automotive" qualities of both Dior Fahrenheit and Bulgari Black.  The former, he claims, includes a gasoline note which for the life of me I can't detect.  But then I live in New Jersey, home to many an oil refinery-- and you know what they say about people who live next to waterfalls.

Still, the idea of a category of "gearhead" perfumes tickles me.* Wherever cars travel, so do their emissions and odors-- impacting local noise levels, infiltrating our lungs, and coloring our creative visions.  If art truly does reflect environment, it's only natural that industrial and mechanical smells should nourish new exploration into the avant-garde.

Leading the motorcade is Black by Bulgari, justifiably famous for its "rubber tire" accord.  Though mellowed somewhat by conventional notes of amber and vanilla, that odor -- bitter, acrid, and undeniably manmade -- forever redefined popular conceptions about what smells good when it first appeared back in 1998.  Thereafter, odors of tar, petroleum, plastic, vinyl, creosote, and phenols became acceptable facets of personal fragrance... the modern equivalent of aldehydes for a new century of perfume.

Fahrenheit, too, contains these notes-- but while it may have appeared first (1988), its stated aim was to deliver a men's fragrance of floral rather than herbal origins.  Under those terms, any gasoline additives must be presumed accidental.  Black, on the other hand, is unabashedly deliberate in its automotive sympathies.  Ultramodern, powdery, and dark, its vulcanized rubber note is the brainchild of a mother most deliberate in her tastes.  Annick Ménardo did, after all, compose both YSL Body Kouros (with its ripe, macho "motor-oil" note) and the evocatively named Diesel Fuel for Life.  (Closet gearhead?  Someone check her traffic records.)

Fahrenheit and Black smell remarkably similar.  I'm currently wearing one on each wrist, and to be honest, I actually forget which wrist is which.  But the primary distinction between them, I find, is not what they smell like-- but how disturbed you feel smelling them.

Both Fahrenheit and Body Kouros center on an essentially friendly image:  an adult man, healthy and active, indulging in his favorite leisure-time interest (here, it's automobiles).  With unsmiling, subversive stealth, Black dismantles this image piece by piece.  First, being unisex, it blurs the wearer's gender identity.  Fair enough: a woman can be healthy and active and into cars, can't she?  Not if Black subtracts those adjectives and supplies its own:  nihilistic, neurotic, perverted, sinister.  Finally, it does away with all thoughts of wholesome hobbies by tweaking that powdery rubber accord in the deathly direction of brimstone.  Apply it and enjoy a slideshow of mental images, some clean, some dirty, all menacing:  latex hospital gloves, junkyard tire fires, Neoprene fetish wear, a fresh new body bag... should I go on?  No?  Why ever not?

That Black achieves this vision of subterranean noir using such an economical menu of scent notes is one wonder.  Another is that an outfit as conventional as Bulgari chose to launch this olfactory Little Bastard onto the fragrance highways.  But most astounding is the audacity of Annick Ménardo in committing Black to the bottle.  Even if she never composes any fragrance as bleak, dark, or startling as Black, she'll be remembered for it forever much as David Lynch is remembered for Eraserhead.  It was his first film, done on the cheap.  He'd move on to bigger projects, bigger budgets, bigger stars.  But Eraserhead is the one sitting in the National Film Registry's archive of films deemed indispensable to our culture.

Come over to the dark side.

*I would like to propose adding Body Kouros' macho motor-oil accord to Brooks' list, as well as the new Opium, whose classic spice-Oriental structure has been postmodernized with a disconcerting touch of diesel.  What "automotive perfumes" would you add?

Scent Elements: Lapsang Souchong tea, bergamot, jasmine, cedar, sandalwood, leather, amber, musk, vanilla

Iris de Nuit (Heeley)

There are fragrances that immediately call out to you, hurtling over all the checkpoints of rationality to land squarely in the center of your heart.  And then there's Iris de Nuit.

If you're anything like me, it's not for lack of trying that you stand here now scratching your head.  You  held on -- clung, really -- to the thought that Iris de Nuit would eventually reveal its secrets to you, as it had to so many others.  Months later, it remains exactly what it was the first time you met:  an extremely faint iris-tobacco scent with oddly juxtaposed nutty and soapy overtones-- at once oily and heliotropic, like a person eating a peanut butter sandwich while wearing Après l'Ondée. You've even tried to think of that as "fun"... and failed.

Like Heeley's Cuir de Pleine Fleur, Iris de Nuit is a nice little scent that does absolutely nothing to merit devotion.  Its points of interest, few as they are, barely stick around long enough for you to form an opinion about them.  It's proof that top-notch ingredients are not enough; nor is talent, nor audacity, nor innovation.  The whole gamble has to pay off, first and foremost-- or else it needs to fail in such a spectacular manner that one remembers it forever.

Scent Elements: Angelica seed, ambrette, orris root, carrotseed, violet, ambergris, white cedar

Love Story (Arabella Stuart)

I picked this up at the same consignment shop whence came Garden Lace, and for the same price. I should have asked for a quality discount. This mediocre amber finds no relief in any of the notes claimed in its own formula, largely because they're nonexistent.  Apply it to skin, and it merely sits there-- flat, dull, spiritless, and even a mite sour.  Luckily, it's so flimsy that it ought to be easily masked with other, better fragrances.  Warning to the wise:  in its heart-shaped bottle, Love Story might look like the perfect Valentine's Day present.  Buy it for your sweetheart only if a) you feel the romance has run its course, b) the gas station has run out of "Panty Roses 3 for $5", or c) you're looking to get your ass kicked.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, hesperides, magnolia, rose, amber

Breath of God at the one-year mark.

One year ago today, I posted my first perfume review on this blog. In that time, I've encountered dozens of scents ranging from heavenly to horrific, with many points of joy and ambivalence between. But few fragrances have struck me as being as singular, as capricious, as downright bizarre as the first one: Breath of God, the perfume that kicked off Parfümieren.

I'm wearing Breath of God right now, and I can attest that even after prolonged exposure to its kaleidoscopic mood swings, it still startles me. This is a Grand Guignol opera in scent-- composed by Nick Cave, staged by David Lynch, sung by Diamanda Galas, and filmed by the Brothers Quay. It thrills, terrifies, tortures, and transcends, all within the first minute-- and it then lasts for hours. It smells, quite frankly, like a five-alarm house fire in the tropics (and if you don't think a person ought to ever smell like that, get some and see for yourself how wrong you are). I compare every single perfume I smell to Breath of God. Most, through no fault of their own, come up short.

I'm down to my final few drops, a predicament which (despite my acute skepticism about Breath of God one year ago) I now find intolerable. In March, I will be free to resume my decant-buying schedule. I am fully aware that five milliliters of this will burn up my entire budget for the month... and I don't care.

Breath of God, it's been a long, hard, vicious fight. You win.

Garden Lace (Princess Livia)

I found it in a display case at a local ladies' consignment shop: a slender tablet of transparent pale-green glass surmounted by a milky celadon cap.  Though unfamiliar with the brand, I could tell from the white Madonna lily imprinted on its face that it was grade-A bridal material.

I prepared myself to be bored off my tits.

"Lily white florals envelop you like a veil of delicate lace..."  So runs the descriptive text offered by Princess Livia's parent company, the Chicago-based beauty corporation Cosmetíque.  I'm sure the symbolic import of the color white carried a different weight back when brides actually were virgins, their innocence enforced by the twin authorities of God and Good Breeding.  But these are obsolete standards to which few modern women subscribe.  What does "lily white" mean today?

In Garden Lace, it means green, green, green.  Green is the color of growth and fertility, and I admire the makers of Garden Lace for choosing the spectrum's most fecund hue over the predictable purity of white.  A woman is not a pillar of cloud, after all; rather, she's far better off emulating the primitive Eve described by Stella Gibbons in Cold Comfort Farm: "as close to the earth as a bloomy greengage". In a similar spirit, Garden Lace's green is fresh, sappy, and slightly bittersweet, like the sticky juice produced by broken flower stalks.  I'm not certain it's bona fide galbanum -- there's something a little too tinny and synthetic about it -- but it acquits itself honorably as the dark, shady background against which this sweet spring floral can pop.

Speaking of flowers, I'd say there's more lilac than lily in Garden Lace-- but again, this is not a drawback.  Lilac plays well with others, mingling here with a subtle spice dimension that further erodes the vision of bridal purity.  I only wish it had been given more playmates, in the form of one or two anchoring resins.  (Styrax or benzoin leap to mind-- lighter than amber or labdanum, and powdery enough to counterbalance that sticky sap element.)  The drydown is a mild, lactonic thing as opaquely milky-minty as that plastic cap. Not bad for an Avon wannabe!

I doubt I would have deliberately sought this perfume out, but as a chance acquisition, it's pretty decent.  (The price -- $1.50 -- even more so.)  If you stumble upon a similar bottle at a flea market or yard sale, give it a chance to exceed your expectations. 

Scent Elements: Lily, violet, lilac, peony, jasmine, rose