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)