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) 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, 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?


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.

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.

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.

Bottega Veneta Eau de Parfum (Bottega Veneta)

Before you read anything else, read this. Absorb it "slowly and meditatively", to borrow a snippet from the classic American novel to which it pays both reference and tribute.  If you aren't lying in a boneless swoon by the time your eye lights on the phrase "suede, ocean air, and sea-foam taffy", someone might want to check your pulse to see if you have one.

The divine Suzanne, who authored this evocative poem-in-prose, mailed me a sample of the fragrant muse in question along with several other olfactive stunners. True to its forthright, slightly childish personality, Prada Candy shoved its way to the front of the line-- and of course its scampish behavior won immediate pardon. Believe me, no matter how flippant I may have sounded in my review, I sincerely adored it. In two days' time, I nearly sprained my spray-pump finger dispensing it in every conceivable direction.  If my husband and cat had held still long enough, both would surely have ended up Candy-coated.

But Bottega Veneta would not be deferred for long.  Suzanne's wordsmithery made certain of it. Come the dawn of a brand new day, it was time to put away childish things and take up a mature new love.

There's little for me to add to Suzanne's story, either of the perfume or of the Countess, except perhaps a touch of violet water which Nastasia (that loyal lady's maid) has used to freshen the contents of her mistress' steamer trunks. Olenska chose this holiday destination precisely because not a single soul she knows -- either from Old New York or vieille Paris -- would ever dream of setting foot within Atlantic City limits. Here, where the hiss and roar of the tide seems a god-given device to hush up gossip, a lady may tread the Boardwalk in blessed anonymity. Provided veil and parasol remain in skillful play, she may appear in full daylight in the company of a gentleman to whom she is neither related nor married-- an 'old friend', of course, but not 'of the family'; her own.

And she may take her gloves off in public for candy.

Bottega Veneta does indeed recall Serge Lutens' Daim Blond, but with distinctions.  Its suede is dyed a very feminine pinkish-mauve*, a detail emphasized in its slightly fruity-powdery candy opening edged with faint citric acid.  (Do you like SweeTarts, Pixy Stix, Chowards Violet Mints?  I always have-- and was surprised to find how well their scent combines with that of good leather.  Spill them in your handbag sometime and see.) Whatever of Daim Blond's weirdness it eschews, it compensates for in the smoothness and quiet of its leather-- no bumps, no rough patches, no hard seams.  This fragrance makes a point of being easy on the nerves.  (And on the wallet-- 1.7 ounces of beauty for only $95.  For real?  For real.)

As I reveled in Bottega Veneta's cloud of sweet suede and (to borrow Suzanne's delectable choice of words) "silky candy", others reveled too. Having not seen me for a week, one colleague embraced me and caught a trace of Bottega Veneta in my hair. "Oooh!" she exclaimed. "You smell SO good!" As soon as she stepped back, others moved in, curious and eager to discover what she meant.  "Oooh!" came the cry again and again.  "It smells like my fantasy closet!" one woman confided.  In other words, a room-sized walk-in stuffed with high-end fashions, Italian leather shoes and handbags, upholstered boudoir chairs and sweet-smelling sachets-- dream acquisitions seemingly dear to the imaginations of all women but often out of reach in real life.

Not this time.

*The same shade chosen for the bottle's suede collar, described as "skin-colored" on the Bottega Veneta website.  Speaking of which, I found it interesting that BV devotes a greater amount of descriptive copy to their bottle design than to the actual perfume.  Normally, this kind of nonchalance would raise a red flag, as bottles only tend to be the focus of PR copy when the juice inside is substandard.  But Bottega Veneta's diffidence comes from sheer, justifiable aplomb.  Their debut perfume is excellent; they  have every reason to be confident in it-- and it's a very nice bottle, by the way.  Congratulations!

Scent Elements: Bergamot, pink pepper, sambac jasmine, oakmoss, patchouli

Shalimar (Guerlain)

There is no one and only Shalimar, either in pleasure gardens or in perfume. Mughal Emperor Jahangir and his son Shah Jahan built no fewer than three "Abodes of Love"* during the 17th century, proving that even a park can have flankers. As for the fragrance, one can sample new and old vintages in extrait, EdP and EdT concentrations as well as Shalimar retreads in every shade from légère on up. (I count at least six.) And if it's bottles you like, you can track down Shalimar in bouchon cœur, habit de fête, parapluie, quadrilobe or discus flacons in addition to the ever-iconic fan-topped crystal urn produced by Baccarat.**

That, my friends, is a whole lotta love.

Throughout its ninety-year history, the Shalimar Mythos has been chanted by so many voices, one is left feeling that there's nothing to do but chime in on the next chorus when it makes its way back around the room. Yet one is also keenly aware that this saga of ageless romance is a fantasy painstakingly composed by a modern corporate entity. It stirs and swells the heart because it is specifically engineered to do so.

During the first quarter of the 20th century, Orientalism -- the Near East-influenced aesthetic movement popular since Napoleon's abortive conquest of Egypt more than one hundred years previous -- had received a jolt of energy from its collision with Art Nouveau and other contemporary schools of design. Though the '20's and '30's may have witnessed Orientalism's last gasps, these came in a fierce blaze of color, emotion, and bold lyricism that lit up the modern age like fireworks.

While its swan song lasted, this curious exoticism could be found everywhere: in popular illustrations by Maxfield Parrish and Erté, in haute couture designs by Paul Poiret and Mariano Fortuny, in Leon Bakst's costumes for the Ballets Russes, even in print ads for Djer-Kiss brand toiletries. The public bought up copies of T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922), The Prophet by Khalil Gibran (1923), and The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, and lined up at cinemas to swoon over The Sheik. It would be lunacy if Guerlain didn't capitalize on this trend-- and so, crowned in sapphire and veiled in PR romance, Shalimar made its commercial debut in 1925. The world sighed-- and has continued to sigh ever since.

Divorced from its Orientalist trappings, would Shalimar the perfume have sold so well? Based on its throat-gripping beauty, I would say yes-- but my goodness, what a little moonlight can do.

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Stop me if you've heard this one before. Guy goes into a chemistry lab, dumps an entire vial of synthetic chemicals into a vat of finished perfume. Pure genius ensues.

The tale of how Jacques Guerlain arrived at Shalimar by overdosing a batch of Jicky with ethyl vanillin varies according to the drama lent to the retelling... as well as to the level of conscious intent ascribed to the story’s pivotal act. Some versions have Guerlain pouring in the vanillin "suddenly", as if wracked by an uncontrollable whim. Others portray the deed as accidental, hearkening to a similar anecdote regarding Chanel No. 5's aldehydes being mismeasured by an inept lab assistant. Add that bottle-smashing klutz François Coty, and perfumers come out sounding like Jerry Lewis-style bumblers to a man.

Guerlain didn’t do it accidentally, of course. He added the vanillin on purpose—coolly, calmly, probably by tiny degrees, taking reams of notes and measurements between droplets and conducting scores of tests on the results. He wasn't tossing together an impromptu batch of ratatouille, after all. This was his life's work, one for which he was superlatively skilled.

And not just as an artist-- as a scientist as well. Every day, he entered a nice, clean, modern laboratory and made a series of highly rational and conscious decisions. Only when he had put the finishing touches on yet another masterpiece did he hang up his lab coat and begin (invariably) to speak of visions, ideals, emperors, empresses, gardens, poetry, love.

Plainly put, these things sell perfume. Science does not.

It strikes me as odd that fragrance is the one industry where cool, careful, and deliberate production methods are viewed as a total mood-kill for the consumer. What irony: that something which takes thousands of precise calculations must somehow look effortless, as if it suddenly appeared ready-made out of the mystical blue. I'm sure that if Shalimar had been discovered flowing like spring water from a crevasse in the high Himalayas, ready to be bottled directly at the source à la Perrier, the Guerlain PR team would have fainted with joy. But that was never the case.

Behind the overlay of eternal passion and starlight glimmers a room of sterilized glass and steel. Not exactly a Mughal emperor's garden-- but an honest place, and real. Here, and nowhere else, is Shalimar.

Is it any less beautiful for having been born from a test tube?

Is its impact on the heart one jot diminished?

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Of all the possible permutations of Shalimar, I own two: a wonderful 60-year-old parfum which my friends DC and CC shared with me (and which we recently decanted, hallelujah!) and a boxed 5ml. mini of the modern eau de toilette. The latter ended up serendipitously in my hot little hands on a visit to Ye Olde Antique Barn, when the owner urged it on me as lagniappe. I suspect her generosity may have been prompted by the fact that I was taking the infuriating Mystery Minx Flacon off her hands-- but I could be mistaken.

As one might expect, the parfum is grandly hypnotic, potent as all get-out, with a deeply affecting rasp in the lower registers as when a contralto reaches deep down for a low note and instead brings up (to her surprise as well as ours) a sob. At the very same time that its florals transport the wearer with a sense of heart-brimming euphoria, its combination of civet, ambergris, tonka, and that powerfully smoky vanillin catch palpably in the throat like a long-buried emotion. I find I can only handle a drop or two without feeling overwhelmed.

Thank heavens, then, for that sweet, windswept EdT! Though quite recognizable as a daughter of this historic marvel (right down to the suggestive breath of civet hiding behind the fresh bergamot top note), it's understandably less complex-- and maybe better for it. A girl can't have mascara tears running down her face 24/7, can she? An interesting note: the EdT’s smoky facet (which I imagine now has to be added in to maintain the authentic “feel” of the old vanillin) has a modern powdery-rubbery quality most wonderfully reminiscent of Bulgari Black. How appropriate to the times—and yet it mingles with the vintage parfum without a hint of complaint on either side.

Still, when I wear either Shalimar, I don’t think of love or romance, of emperors or empresses, of a peacock’s echoing cry through a garden at moonrise. I think of science. I marvel at the wonders of chemistry; I sing the praises of atoms and molecules, of terpenes and esters, of alembics and pipettes and thermometers. I give thanks for the human impulse to take things apart and reassemble them in new combinations-- and to keep doing so until the end result is perfect.

Shalimar is perfect. Thank you, Jacques Guerlain, you emperor in a lab-coat, you.

*Located in Kashmir, Lahore, and Delhi respectively. Shalimar #1 and #2 were built to please the wives (me, I get a big bag of Smartfood all to myself when I've been good) and #3 served as a sort of Imperial-grade highway rest stop. Romantic, no?

**Thanks to Cleopatra's Boudoir and Sorcery of Scent for the lowdown on Shalimar bottle variety and history, and MonsieurGuerlain for writing the prose that makes me want one -- no, TWO -- of each.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, lemon, rose de Mai, iris, jasmine, vetiver, patchouli, sandalwood, opoponax, tonka bean, balsam Peru, benzoin, vanillin, civet, ambergris, castoreum

Pure White Linen (Estée Lauder)

Having been woefully sick this past week, I've been struggling with brain-fog-fueled feelings of disarray extending into nearly every arena of my daily life. My appearance: lank and lifeless. My diet: uniformly beige (yogurt, strained chicken broth, brown rice, and buttermilk). House clutter: fast piling up around my feet. Panic: rising.

Yesterday a doctor read me the riot act, declaring that if I would just stay in bed for one blessed day like any person with half a brain, I might find the strength to surmount all of this and more. I admit I do not quite understand her logic. How on earth am I supposed to get all this laundry done from bed?

Answer: Estée Lauder's Pure White Linen. Spray it on, close your eyes, and your entire world undergoes a fabulous refurbishment complete with masses of sparkling soapsuds towering like cumulonimbus clouds on all compass points. The stalest sickroom air gets treated to fluffy tumble in a big, shiny chrome front-load laundry drier that's been stuffed full of flower petals to cushion all the bumps. (Note: the location of this drier is in HEAVEN.) You come out galloping, full of energy, willing (if not quite yet ready) to be well again. God Him/Herself shakes you out and folds you up, getting all your corners lined up just right.

So while I may not be able to effect total change around me at present, I myself feel subtly changed already, thanks to Pure White Linen. Healing is set to happen from the molecules up.

Scent Elements: Grapefruit, mandarin, "iced rose tea", raspberry, pear, apple, greens, lily, freesia, heliotrope, tulip, rose absolute, honeysuckle, gardenia, tuberose, jasmine, iris, osmanthus, ginger, cardamom, white cedarwood, patchouli

Candy (Prada)

You mean I can get Uncle Serge's Un Bois Vanille at the MALL now? And without having to sell a kidney? Hot damn! Hand me my car keys!

Scent Elements: Caramel, benzoin, musk, size DD knockers

La Bohème v. La Bourgeoise.

Though we've been well-acquainted for years, only recently did my mother-in-law and I discover that perfume makes a great après-dîner family activity. Once the dishes have been cleared away from the table, out come the bottles and decanting supplies, much to my long-suffering spouse's amusement. He habitually retires to a TV-equipped safe zone, leaving us to spritz and label and discuss fragrance news-- such as the fact that my niece (a chic sixteen-year-old) has been a stalwart Tabu fanatic since grade school. (I've made a mental note to try some vintage Youth Dew on her, stat. If it's the classics she digs....)

At our last convocation, my mother-in-law (hereafter to be known as Mickey) produced Hermès 24, Faubourg from her overnight bag. (How essential is that comma? The actual address of the Paris store is written out as '24 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré', so I wonder.) Not two days before, a coworker and I had been discussing our mutual ignorance of this 'modern classic' and our determination to get wise, so its sudden appearance in my home seemed proof of the psychic network that perfumistas seem to share. Mickey and I both admired the square flacon with its delicate Romanesque traceries. Then we sprayed it, and its familiarity immediately set me at ease.

"Mmmm," I murmured. "Spring flowers."

"Lilac?" she suggested.

I inhaled again deeply, then ventured, "I'm thinking maybe a bulb flower. Daffodils? Hyacinths?"

"Ahhh, hyacinths-- after a rainshower."

We went online to check the scent notes. Hyacinths it was! My husband smiled indulgently at our cackles of triumph.

But something still nagged at me-- an odd sense of déjà vu that went beyond recognizing one particular note and expanded to include the entire fragrance. I knew this perfume. I'd smelled it before-- and not on a passerby. I had worn this perfume. In fact, I owned this perfume.

I opened up my scent cabinet and began to scrabble around, feeling as though I were playing the fragrance version of Hūsker Dū. After an intense bout of ferreting, I produced the proof of my suspicions: my bottle of Les Muses, the 1986 slightly-rechristened reconstruction of Muse, Coty's smash hit of 1946.

One spritz = bingo!

Perfume history being a tree-like affair of influences and legacies, one often finds younger fragrances taking after their elders, carrying inherited tendencies forward like banners into an aromatic future. One expects families to share genomes, so when a Guerlain of today resembles (even tangentially) a Guerlain of a hundred years ago, no one wonders. But when "the bull jumps the fence", so to speak, it provides fuel for speculation about the nature of inspiration in the art of perfumery.

Les Muses and 24, Faubourg are not the same fragrance...are they? Fifty years separate them, but the similarity between them is patently obvious. Both are warm florientals descended from Mothership Shalimar; both utilize the same structure -- a fruity, honeyed gardenia plane intersecting another composed of dewy springtime blossoms, with a sweet vanillic axis running through the center to unite them. One could spray these two fragrances on opposing arms until the cows came home and suffer not a moment of dissonance between them. In fact, if Les Muses hadn't been discontinued, Coty's lawyers might have had good reason to come knocking on Hermès' front door.

You know, the one at 24 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré.

So the similarities were easy to identify. What of the differences? I admit this task had me groping around for similes and parallels until I reconnected with my colleague, who had at last smelled 24, Faubourg for herself. She declared it to be "middle-class and middle-aged"-- and I experienced a sort of epiphany: What if Les Muses and 24, Faubourg were the same woman, viewed at two points along the continuum of a lifetime?

Let's envision a youthful Bohemian: free-spirited, optimistic, a sprite of the open road. You can find her in the footlights, at the masked balls, in the cafes and painter's studios-- sometimes all in one day. An avid devotee (to varying degrees of talent and success) of every one of the arts the muses patronize, she possesses the kind of resume that positively bans her from the typing pool. She never knows upon waking exactly where (or with whom) she'll pillow her head by nightfall, but the daily journey from pillar to post is colorful, chaotic, and sweet.

Fast-forward fifteen years, and the change is quite startling: here is our wild young thing tamed by marriage into money. We find that she's traded "artistic" dress for a sleek patrician uniform and taken to writing fat checks to the ballet corps as a substitute for dancing. Civilized, languid, and chic, she is untroubled by material woes and very pleased with where her cat's instincts have landed her.

Connecting our lady's two selves -- here proudly exposed, there demurely concealed -- is a native assurance that the world is built of romance, that everything's a chapter in a grand adventure, even the tragic bits. If the crash came tomorrow, the Bohemian inside the Bourgeoise would reassert itself with insouciant ease. As for that vast and riotous collection of fringed scarves that used to bedeck her from head to toe, it's buried in a bureau drawer of which she alone knows the precise location. What's important is that she never threw them out-- and never shall, for she may need them yet.

All front doors, lofty or lowly, open onto the endless road.

Scent Elements: Lily-of-the-valley, gardenia, tuberose, jasmine, ylang-ylang, peach, aldehydes, labdanum, vanilla, benzoin, styrax, sandalwood, musk (Les Muses); bergamot, neroli, sweet orange, peach, hyacinth, elder blossom, gardenia, jasmine, iris, patchouli, sandalwood, vanilla, ambergris (24, Faubourg)

Coeur de Fleur (Miller Harris)

There are days when one cannot bear anything so rich as roses, when the most flagrant vagary is by far preferable to all things cut and dried and clearly defined. Coeur de Fleur suits the mood of such a day. It locates itself in the elusive "heart of the flower", yet is the least floral thing I can name. It smells of milk, sap, honey, spice, all in dilution; it makes not the slightest promise and so delivers not a single disappointment. I rather like its noncommittal attitude. After all, a flower's heart by definition must be a fickle thing, designed as it is to wither and fade. So is this fragrance, and it makes no bones about it.

It is not forever. But while it lasts, all things sweet are gathered in its light-fingered grasp.

Scent Elements: Sweet pea, mimosa, raspberry, peach, Florentine iris, Madagascan vanilla, Egyptian jasmine, amber