"Divers, et ondoyant..."

Once upon a time, I told the tale of my introduction to Flora Bella de Lalique. It's only a few days shy of two years since I first related my story, yet it seems to me as though its main character has been a part of my mythical landscape for decades. The love I bear for Flora Bella -- paired with my dependence upon its ability to neutralize all manner of the blues -- has led to a dangerous sort of complacency: Run out of Flora Bella? Impossible! There's PLENTY!

I admit I've been extravagant -- encouraged, to be sure, by my naive belief that 100 ml. is a practically inexhaustible amount of perfume. I've lost count of the number of decants I've shared with friends, not to mention the many "extra" spritzes I've applied to my own self with the blithe justification that "there's tons of it left!"

But there isn't. The level of perfume in the bottle declares an unavoidable truth. And what cost me an almost unthinkable $28 on Amazon two years ago now (due to discontinuation and dwindling supplies) commands a good deal more.

How does perfume become personified in our minds? From the very first, I have envisioned Flora Bella as a naiad: fluid, fickle, evasive. I have privately referred to her as "the mermaid perfume" and worn her on vulnerable days when I wished to absorb some measure of her alien, Aquarian untouchability. The sea-change seems to occur as readily as that which I undergo with Jolie Madame (tough-talking career gal in ten seconds flat!) or Arabie (silent temple-keeper treading the labyrinth) or Puredistance Antonia (sacred kore joyfully gathering flowers for Persephone). This cannot just be my imagination. Whether by chance or by design, these spirits must reside in the perfume.

And like the vættir of old, their motives often lie beyond mortal understanding.

In the best tradition of the selkie, Flora Bella will consent to remain in my company only up to a point. Eventually she must return to the sea; we both know it. One day soon, to the tune of my tear-stricken, utterly futile pleading, she will up and vanish... the path of her departure erased by the remorseless surf.

Farewell, sea-creature rich and strange.

En la botánica otra vez.

Cities have their bodegas and botánicas; the suburbs have Super World Class ShopRites. The term "world class" may be debatable -- it isn't exactly Les Halles, and not even nearly a Wegman's -- and the grand opening of a deluxe grocery store in the neighborhood usually doesn't fill one's noggin with dreams of perfume. But as I described in a previous post, fragrance is where you find it. Thanks to our vibrant multiethnic community, local retail stockists make sure to order products which truly reflect diverse cultures and tastes. A sweeter-smelling world is the result!

Colonia Canela (Crusellas)
If it is your life's dream to possess the irresistible magnetism of the Cinnabon kiosk at the mall, look no further. For approximately three dollars, you get 7.5 fluid ounces (221 ml.) of mouthwatering cinnamon-vanilla-orange deliciousness that plays out the whole spectrum from spicy to buttery to sweet. Despite the sunny warmth of its aroma, it is pleasantly cooling when applied to skin, with a mild drydown that delivers satisfaction in every season of the year. The tall and tacky plastic splash bottle in which it is sold does not do it justice. Transfer it into something decorative (preferably a good refillable purse sprayer, so you can carry it everywhere) and spritz, spritz, spritz away! I guarantee that people will line up and take a number merely for a breath of you.

Colonia Flor de Naranja (Murray & Lanman)
I can't pinpoint the moment in my history when the scent of orange blossom became inextricable from the feeling of limitless innocence. When I smell it, I am skyrocketed back to age four, when everything was simple and life's minor virtues (playtime, a good bowl of oatmeal, my favorite book) meant the world to me. Whereas Sanborn's Orange Blossom smuggles in a sexy skin musk among the blossoms (and whereas my forty-odd year-old self fully embraces the little frisson which that brings), Murray & Lanman's Colonia Flor de Naranja offers only the pure blue sky of youth. I cast my eyes heavenward, feel the exquisite heat of the sun on the tree's topmost blooms, and -- for as long as it lasts, which (like childhood) isn't very long -- I am deeply, truly, unreservedly happy.

Colonia de Rosas (Murray & Lanman)
Tinted an extravagant pink, Colonia de Rosas looks like bubble-blowing solution and smells like floral plastic, which is not the worst thing I (who am not fond of roses as a rule) could say. At least it smells better than the rosewater-pomegranate granita which I once made for a New Year's party, and which no one -- not one person -- touched. Each confessed that while its gorgeous flamingo color made them long to try it, its fragrance seemed to forbid it to be eaten. I wonder if they would have consented to dab it on their wrists instead?

Colonia de Pacholi (Murray & Lanman)
The only real dud in the bunch, Colonia de Pacholi smells very little of the patchouli I know, love, and fear, unless its inclusion is at some homeopathic proportion. This is a pale and weak tincture of another herb such as oregano or marjoram-- some denizen of the spice rack which I imagine some high-school student attempting to roll and smoke. Even a considerable quantity poured over my hands failed to make them smell anything like the supposed main ingredient.  Avoid if you like patchouli... but not if you like pizza.


For the longest time, I didn't know who was to blame-- violets or me. We tried and tried, but ours was a relationship destined to stall straight out of the gate.

Sure, I liked the idea of violets -- a mysterious carpet of deep purple and green velvet silvered with morning dew. But the reality of violets as a perfumery note left me feeling frustrated and (truth be told) ever so slightly swindled. Après l'Ondée, Cuir Pleine Fleur, Bois de Violettes, Iris de Nuit, The Unicorn Spell... each offered up a scant few seconds of pleasure, then vanished like the aforementioned dew. Yet every time I'd threaten to walk away, some violet femme fatale like Jolie Madame would sashay through the door like trouble on court heels... and damn if I didn't find myself right back at square one.

I can think of at least one other young woman for whom Viola tricolor became an obsession. With the expert assistance of her gardener, Lady Mary Elizabeth Bennet learned to cross-breed these small, colorful violets to produce larger, showier blossoms with a distinct bearded "face". After Lady Mary publicly introduced her hybrids in 1812, the pansy (from the French pensée, 'thought') rapidly became a favorite among gardeners. Though not scented as prominently as the Viola odorata used in fragrance and confectionary, live pansies have their own shy perfume that smells as good as any fragrance in a bottle... at least for a second or two. And therein lies the rub for this entire species.

I'll let this guy explain it:
A key component of the flower’s scent is a compound called ionone (C13H20O), and in fact it, and the closely related methyl ionones, have been used extensively in perfumes for about a century. But the weird thing is that supposedly ionone temporarily desensitizes the receptors in your olfactory epithelium... so that the smell of a violet weakens after the first sniff. So you can sniff and sniff, but you never smell it any better…
In essence, the violet is Nature's drug dealer. It offers you that all-important first taste, then cruelly withholds the goods. Forced to sniff deeper and more desperately to get your ever-diminishing dose of sweet thrills, in no time at all you're gone, wasted, strung out... on an teenytiny ittybitty flower.*

If there was a support group, a methadone program, a sobriety chip for violet junkies, I'd be twelve-stepping like mad. But cold hard science just keeps enabling me. Here are two violets so dangerous, the DEA should interfere!

Purple Love Smoke Absolute (Soivohle)
Sadly listed as 'no longer available' on Liz Zorn's website, Purple Love Smoke takes bushels of tender blossoms and throws them atop a mountain of lit charcoal briquettes. If you've ever stood over an old-fashioned cast-iron hibachi at the height of August, you know the heat of which I speak. But unless you've seen a flower evaporate in the flame's embrace, what I have to say here simply may not translate. We're talking about a scent that undergoes purgatory for you-- veering between intense sugar and acrid resin for hours on end. When its trials are complete, the perfume that emerges is sweet and pure, all its earthly tethers converted to ash so that it may soar free. As will you.

Scent Elements: Violet leaf and flower, "earth" accord.

Violets & Rainwater (Soivohle)
At first, it really is just what it says it is: a cool, moist scent, almost vegetal, like a pale-green root steeped in nectars from a spring flower's innermost heart. Simple, yes? But after this phase passes, Violets & Rainwater becomes mindblowing. Balsamic smoke from unseen censers fills the air; you might even imagine that you've strayed into a no-man's land between Lutens and Tauer territories, so exotic and austere is the fragrance that envelops you. Against its towering sand dunes, that original "wet" accord is thrown into even higher relief-- and to a desert, rainwater is more precious than gold. They certainly believed so over at ÇaFleureBon, where Violets and Rainwater was voted the Favorite Spring/Summer Scent of 2011. I vote that it remains so for 2012!

Scent Elements: Parma violet, violet leaf absolute, "fresh-turned soil" accord, "rainwater" accord, iris, rose centifolia, patchouli, white musk, labdanum absolute

*If something more official is needed, here's a study conducted by the USDA which showed that the inability to detect β-ionone is fairly common. An estimated one-third of the population can't get past that first sniff; our physiology is no match for a flower's molecules. Well played, you wee purple bastard!

Drôle de Rose (L'Artisan) and Aimez-Moi (Caron)

These two darling debutantes came out in the same year (1996).  They share an olfactory palette (rose-violet-anise), and if they could, they'd choose the same shade of blush pink for their ballgowns. Their accents and mannerisms make them seem like twins; I'm guessing that they both attended the same finishing school.

How do you tell which is which?

Well, Aimez-Moi seems to be the "innocent" one of the pair, a little girl in no hurry to grow up. She comes off as more confectionary, with a powdery-chalky feel like pastel candy confetti; the overall effect is charmingly vintage and lacking in guile. Drôle de Rose, on the other hand, harbors some sticky-sweet romantic aspirations that demand a veneer of sophistication if she's to achieve her aim. Questioned about her powder and lipstick, she swears Mother let her out of the house that way-- but surely Grandmother would have spied that hint of cleavage and kept her home!

As the song goes, Drôle de Rose and Aimez-Moi are 'sixteen going on seventeen'-- more assured of their own allure than anyone else might be. Neither of them is going to be mistaken for a full-grown femme fatale anytime soon; despite all their boy-crazy squirming and sighing, they're really just kids-- young enough to get away with wearing the kind of short, ruffled babydoll dresses which no adult woman would be caught dead in, yet which makes them look just adorable.

But give them time. Torn fishnets, smeared mascara, and ankle-breaker heels are right around the corner.

Scent Elements: Rose, aniseed, orange blossom, white iris, violet, almond, honey, leather (Drôle de Rose) / Violet leaf, anise, freesia, bergamot, mint, caraway, magnolia, cardamom, jasmine, peach, iris, heliotrope, tonka bean, cloves, amber, musk (Aimez-Moi)

Essence of Vali: Redux and New.

Have you ever read Colleen McCullough’s The Ladies of Missalonghi? Its protagonist -- a turn-of-the-century Australian spinster -- longs for nothing more in life than a scarlet dress. Languishing in a dusty backwater town with nothing to wear but workaday khaki, she figures a gown dyed “lairy” red might be her ticket to bigger and better destinies.

Is it ever!

Most of us keep just such a life-changing fantasy outfit hanging in the closet of our imagination, amidst neatly-folded potentials and freshly-ironed dreams. I first spied mine draping the shoulders of a grimy plaster mannequin in a SoHo shop window. Crimson taffeta changeant into midnight blue, with a sweetheart bodice fitted tightly to the waist and a tulip-petaled skirt concealing a riot of blue crinolines, it didn't exactly go with my Doc Martens 1460's-- but ah, love. Every day, on my trek to procure a sooty slice of neighborhood pizza, I passed that window and renewed my vows. Granted, most days I barely had enough cash to take the subway, let alone shop for frivolous formalwear.

But in my imagination, that dress and I were mated for life.

Since first encountering it last winter, I have often turned to Essence of Vali EdP when my psyche required a more tangible "red dress" than the one hanging in my mind's wardrobe. Indeed, whenever I wear this flagrantly gorgeous geranium perfume, scarlet -- the color of female strength, power, passion, and protection -- leaps up in my imagination like an imperishable flame. At times of sadness or uncertainty, EOV behaves like the Norse god Þór's mythical belt Megingjörð, girding me for battle. It warms me like a bonfire, energizes me like a triple macchiato,  and lends me the courage of ten warriors.

Women warriors.

But every warrior dreams of laying down her arms, if not in capitulation to a stronger foe, then in sweet surrender to peace itself. I never thought of EOV as a peaceful perfume -- it seemed too vibrant, too full of "action". But with her new Essence of Vali Bath and Body Oil, perfumer and aromatherapist Valerie Bennis brings a languorous dimension to the perfume I already love. Its heart -- that fiery geranium, stoked with litsea cubeba, clove, and palmarosa -- has simply been transferred full-strength into the smoothest and purest of jojoba oil bases, resulting in a product that is both sumptuous and sympathetic on weather-stressed skin. Hello!

Here is my familiar, beloved "red dress"... only now floor-length and made of deliciously heavy glacé satin that brushes the floor with every step. Wearing it, I still feel encouraged spirit-deep-- but my god, what a delight for my external layer, which always finds wintertime awfully trying. My skin is smoooooth. I smell gooooood. At last, I can lay down my sword and shield.

EOV Bath and Body Oil is now available on the Essence of Vali website, alongside the EdP (which has elevated itself to five stars in my estimation and affection). It can be added to the bath, applied neat to the skin, or massaged into your willing and recumbent self by the Valentine of your choice. (Wink-wink, say no more! )

Scent Elements: Lavender, cedarwood, rosewood, patchouli, palmarosa, geranium, clove, litsea cubeba. For the Eau de Parfum, the extrait is blended with corn alcohol and water; for the Bath and Body Oil, it is combined with 100% pure jojoba oil.

Dune (Dior)

A Short Film Script Treatment
(with apologies to Frank Pierson and Sidney Lumet)

A municipal parking lot at noon. OLENSKA and her friend JC are hanging around the central meter-- wild-eyed, disheveled, making civilians nervous.

OLENSKA: (scratching obsessively at her arms) I'm on my last drop. My last drop, I'm telling you. I don't know if I can deal with this. I got the weekend coming. (shrieks at passerby) WHAT?! WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT?

JC: (raises eyes slowly from contents of purse which she has dumped out haphazardly out over pavement and is currently pawing through on hands and knees. Her face is a mask of rage) Are you holding OUT on me?

OLENSKA: Jeez, what, no, I would never, you don't think I'd--

JC: (scary quiet) I heard you say you have a drop. Do you have it or not?

OLENSKA: (scratches even faster, avoiding eye contact) No, c'mon... not even.  HALF a drop, maybe, if that.  Probably gone by now, it's so hot out, you know? The way the heat dries things up--

JC: (muttered with narrowed eyes) I'll dry you up.

She continues to scrabble desperately through the paper clips, receipts, mascara tubes, and other miscellany while OLENSKA paces back and forth, gibbering like a manic monkey.

OLENSKA: You know DC, right? DC took me to Walgreen's where they were having some kind of big perfume blowout sale, right? Everything half off, she says. So we go in, and there's ALL THIS DUNE, baby, SO much of it, just staring me right in the face, but ALL LOCKED UP, see, and none of it, NOT A SINGLE BIT OF IT is on sale. So I'm all ready to storm the barricades, right? Set it FREE, right? Like they've got MY Dune-- (stops at seething look from JC) -- I mean OUR Dune in PERFUME PRISON and I'm gonna help BUST IT OUT--

JC: (Holds up a crumpled bill, excited) AH! (Uncrumples bill, then sags, crestfallen) A single. A rotten, lousy single.

OLENSKA: (overcome with enthusiasm, starts shouting and pumping fists as pedestrians scatter) AT-TI-CA! AT-TI-CA! AT-TI--

JC: (leaps up and claps both hands over OLENSKA's mouth from behind) ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR SKULL?!

OLENSKA: Mmmmph! Mmmphhphffh mff MMMMM-phhfffh!

JC: (hisses) Everyone's looking over here! You're gonna blow the whole goddamn thing for us! Now SHUT YOUR PIE HOLE! (She lets up on OLENSKA's mouth and gives her a shove with both hands)

OLENSKA: (tearful) I'm sorry. I'm so confused anymore.

JC: Jesus Christ, just get it together, will you?

OLENSKA: (itching arms again) I just-- I can't-- it's so good, you know? I feel like magic when I've got it, but when it's gone.... I just don't know if I can make it. What are we gonna do, JC? After this, we ain't GOT NO MORE.

JC: (straightens up as a parking lot patron approaches) Don't be so sure. Keep quiet and follow my lead. (Addresses patron in clear, calm, and professional voice:) Good afternoon. We're with the Parking Authority. The electronic meter is currently malfunctioning, so we've been sent down here to collect parking meter payments in person. That will be five dollars, please.

PARKING PATRON Isn't it usually twenty-five cents an hour?

JC: Municipal floating holiday. Triple tax clause. I don't make the rules, sir, I just enforce them.

As the man shrugs and extracts his wallet from a back pocket, OLENSKA stifles a giggle and starts to bounce up and down on the balls of her feet, hugging herself in ecstasy.


Another Short Film Script Treatment
(this time with apologies to Gus Van Sant)

A suburban living room, late morning. JC and OLENSKA sit collapsed against the cushions of the sofa. Both appear completely intoxicated. A brand spanking new 3.4 oz bottle of Dune sits on the coffee table in front of them, catching the sunlight. A scratchy recording of Anita O'Day singing "Sweet Georgia Brown" at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival plays in the background.

OLENSKA: (after considerable effort) ....ohhhhhhmaaaannnn.

JC: (dragging her eyelids open) ...what?

OLENSKA: (head lolling) I said.... um.... ummmmmm.... what?!

After a beat, both women burst into uncontrollable giggles. This continues for at least five minutes and is broken only by a loud knock at the door.

OLENSKA: (instantly alert) Shit. Oh shit.

JC: Just stay cool.

She grabs the bottle of Dune and wrestles it back into its box. OLENSKA starts cleaning up all traces of the perfume fix they have indulged in-- waving at the air with a magazine, scrabbling for a can of Linen & Sky Febreze and spraying it madly around. The knocking at the door continues.

JC: (loudly) Uh, coming!... be right there!...

She rushes over to the bookcase and jams the box of Dune out of sight behind some books, then approaches the door. OLENSKA follows close behind, pointing the can of Febreze at the door as if it were a loaded pistol.

JC: (looking through the peephole, then heaving a relieved sigh) It's just BB.

OLENSKA: (whispering) What's she doing here?

JC: Guess. (Loudly, without opening the door) What's shakin', BB?

BB: (muffled voice) Hey, hi, JC, hi there, how's it going, whatcha doing, what's going on, can I come in?

JC: (wearily) Jeez.

(She begins to undo the multiple deadbolts and chains on the door and motions to OLENSKA to keep the can of Febreze up. As JC opens the door, BB -- young, stylish, but visibly jittery -- steps inside. When she sees the Febreze pointed at her, she instinctively puts her hands up.)

BB: Whoa, hey, JC, c'mon, we're all friends here!

JC: (all business) You know the drill. (She spins BB around and subjects her to a quick pat-down, discovering something of interest in her jacket pocket. It is a bottle of Chanel Coco.) Well, what have we got here? You still jacked up on this Neiman Marcus crank?

BB: (insinuatingly, itching her arms) Well, I wouldn't be if I had something to take the edge off, bring me down easy... word on the street is you got a shipment in.

JC: Ooooh, a shipment! (Sarcastically, to OLENSKA) You hear that? I got a shipment in. Yeah, that ol' LuckyScent wagon pulled out of the driveway not two minutes ago! It was like Christmas, Hanukkah, and my birthday all rolled into one! (gestures around the empty room) I mean, YOU see all the perfume bottles, don't you?

OLENSKA: Heheheheh, yeah, you tell her, JC!

BB: Aw, cut it out, wouldja? I KNOW you're holding, I can smell it for miles!

JC shoots a stern glance at OLENSKA, who gives the Febreze trigger a nervous squeeze.

JC: (to BB) Okay, look. It may actually have been my birthday recently... (BB starts hopping up and down in ecstasy, itching arms double-time in anticipation) You get ONE hit, and then you're outta here.

BB: (ecstatic) Sure thing, no prob! I'm a ghost, like you never saw me!

JC wearily holds out her wrist. BB grabs it, jams her nose up to it, and inhales enormously.

JC: (long-suffering) Weekend tweakers.


DISCLAIMER: This review is a parody written strictly for the sake of entertainment. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious; any resemblance to real Dune junkies, living or dead, is purely coincidental. However, care has been taken to portray Dune withdrawal in a realistic light. Addiction is no laughing matter. Olenska and JC have never shaken down total strangers in the street for perfume money, so obviously we are not that far gone and can quit anytime we want (except for JC, who -- after long patience and yearning -- really did recieve a fresh supply of Dune for her birthday and is now completely strung out on the stuff). BB is every bit as well-dressed as herein implied, and she is not even remotely hyperactive, which is how you know this is all just for fun. I can totally do without Dune (Note to Walgreens: I am patient. You'll have to mark Dune down eventually. I CAN OUTWAIT YOU.) No Linen & Sky Febreze was used in the making of this teleplay. In real life I wouldn't touch the stuff, though I am totally curious about the "Moroccan Bazaar" line. Ginger and nutmeg-scented room spray? Sure! Say... you holdin'?

Scent Elements: Aldehydes, bergamot, mandarin, peony, broom, jasmine, rose, ylang-ylang, lily, wallflower, lichen, carrotseed, vanilla, patchouli, benzoin, sandalwood, palisander, ambergris, labdanum, oakmoss, musk

Daring (Isabella Rossellini for Coty)

Rummaging around in a cluttered bureau drawer, you uncover a perfume-imbued letter, creased and forgotten. It's not so terribly old that the paper has utterly crumbled into powder; though muted by time, neither the ink nor the scent (papery, sweet, subtle) has entirely faded. The words it contains (written in an energetic, deeply slanted scrawl) and the thoughts they convey are still legible, still charming-- and promise the recipient far more prose than poetry.

Delightful to see you Sunday, it reads. I'm sure you know you left your jacket. Enjoyed the pockets' contents enormously. Of course I do. Next weekend as always, if you can.

There's no drama to be found in these short sentences, which suggest neither hopeful beginnings nor tragic ends. Reading them, you can allow yourself to be amused and objective, because you already know how the story ends. The surprise in the jacket pocket was your grandmother's engagement ring, which she (shouting with laughter) slipped onto her finger the moment she found it. As suggested, the addressee came back that weekend with a wide grin on his face-- and stayed a lifetime.

No surprises, no passion, no sentiment; only good humor and continuity, the promise of companionship until death did them part.

Scent Elements: Coriander, daphne, apple, jasmine, peony, honey, musk, sandalwood, styrax

Solstice Demi-Absolute (Soivohle)

In my memory is a basement room full of orchard apples -- Cortlands, Jonathans, Winesaps -- spilling over the tops of brown paper sacks. Come a bright Saturday, we'd ferry it upstairs to the kitchen, where Mom had set out the tools of transformation: stainless steel apple corers, the ancient and dented Foley food mill that had belonged to our grandmother, and the giant pot (black enamel with white speckles) where all this cellared bounty was headed. As the hours slipped past and the sun fought (and failed) to crest the winter treetops, the spiced apple pulp turned darker and more honeyed over the low, slow heat of the stove burner. Standing on a stepstool with a wooden spoon in hand, one imagined oneself to be An Dagda presiding over the cauldron of neverending plenty.

One might wonder which Solstice of the two this perfume is designed to honor-- until one wears it, and then there is no doubt. Marked by long shadows, early dusk, and hearthside magic, this is no summertime feast of the senses. Yet though Yule is long past, the spirit of the wassail -- that traditional nog of hot strong ale, beaten egg yolks, roasted apples, honey, and spices -- finds itself stirred back to life. Carried from house to house in a maple bowl, the wassail is offered along with a song:
Here's to thee, old apple tree,
Whence thou may bud,
Whence thou may blow,
Whence thou may bear
Sweet apples enow!
Hatsful, capsful, bushel sacksful,
And my pockets full-- wassail!
Something about its plaintive sweetness suggests that Solstice also comes with a song. Perhaps, like me, you have to close your eyes to hear it-- but leave it to the heart to carry the tune.

Scent Elements: Omani and Somali frankincense, myrrh, iris, patchouli, balsam of Peru, white pine, rose, jasmine, violet, acacia, clove, sandalwood, agarwood, rosewood, amber, tuberose, moss, ambrette, vanilla

Secrets of Egypt Collection (DSH Perfumes)

In one of her many incarnations, my friend JC served as a special exhibition curator for a major art museum. She recalls the singular experience of receiving a traveling exhibit of ancient Egyptian artifacts:
The most fragile and precious object was the mummified remains of a child, a young girl who was in no condition to make the journey. While two of us could have lifted her up and into the display case, there were six of us just to be certain no harm came to her. We felt very strongly that she should be pulled from the show. The exhibit coordinators appreciated our input... but said that some of the major funding they received hinged on the fact that at least one mummy be included.

Over the years I had been alone in the Gallery at closing, with the lights out, on numerous occasions. However, when I found myself alone with the ancient objects of the Nile, it was somehow different. I sensed a presence. I wasn't necessarily frightened, but I didn't feel the desire to linger, either. The first time that I encountered this feeling, it really took me by surprise because it was palpable... never had I been so struck by the power of seemingly inanimate objects. There was weight and energy and power... almost a smoky essence in the air. It was as if the collective history of all of the objects formed a powerful force that commanded reverence. In that respect, I wasn't alone.

I've held great works of art in my hands over the years. Rembrandt, Warhol, Dali. I've held Walt Whitman's famous hat and a first edition of Leaves of Grass. So many beautiful and awe-inspiring things-- but nothing compares in my mind to the objects from Egypt. They were the real deal.
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Waiting at the root of every journey into fragrant history is ancient Egypt, where perfume pervaded all aspects of life, death, and afterlife. For its 2010-11 exhibit entitled Tutankhamun: The Golden King & the Great Pharaohs, the Denver Art Museum commissioned perfumer Dawn Spencer Hurwitz to interpret four notable formulae of the time period: Susinon, Metopion, Megaleion, and The Mendesian. To these, Hurwitz added reworkings of two fragrances from her extant catalog: Arome d’Egypt and Cardamom & Khyphi. Samples of all of these (with the exception of Susinon) were gifted to me by the enormously kind Queen of the Vial, JoanElaine.

From my armchair travels as a history reader, I was somewhat familiar with kyphi, arguably the best-documented fragrance in pharaonic Egypt. At once perfume, incense, and medicine, kyphi began as a thick paste of raisins, honey, and pulverized aromatic resins macerated in red wine. Mastic, myrrh, frankincense, pine resin, and bdellium (Commiphora wightii, a relative of myrrh also known as gum guggul) were all used in various ratios to build this mighty base. After several days of aging, a variety of aromatic substances were ritually added in a prescribed order. These included sweet flag (Acorus calamus), papyrus (Cyperus papyrus ssp. hadidii), camel grass (Cymbopogon schoenanthus or African lemongrass), aspalathos (a shrub tentatively identified by experts as either caper bush or broom), saffron, spikenard, cinnamon, juniper berries, mint, cassia, cardamom, pine nuts, balm of Gilead buds, cedar, seseli (a flowering member of the carrot family), and bitumen (a naturally occurring black tar used to bind incense mixtures). One can imagine a finished product that smelled formidable, perhaps even overpowering—as befitted the divine rulers who made use of it.

We know about the composition and production of kyphi and its companion fragrances because of historians such as Galen, Rufus, Dioscorides, and Plutarch. Due to their careful recordkeeping, a modern perfumer seeking to recreate these signature scents is not left at a disadvantage. It's entirely possible to compound a "reasonable facsimile" of kyphi and even give it a contemporary, personalized twist. But missing from the written recipe is power -- a spiritual significance that takes centuries to accumulate, remains tangible for centuries more, and is impossible to synthesize.

In confronting the challenge of recreating Ancient Egypt through scent, I imagine that Dawn Spencer Hurwitz might have felt a bit like JC cradling the precious, delicate remains of that tiny child-mummy. A perfumer cast in the role of curator, she brought to project the all the knowledge, zeal, and faith of a duly-deputized priestess of old. But when the end result needs to be marketable in a museum gift shop... the millenia must weigh awful heavy.

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In the Secrets of Egypt museum set kindly gifted to me by JoanElaine, only Susinon (here called 1000 Lilies) is absent. It's just as well; I admit I may not be ready for the essence with which Cleopatra perfumed the sails of her royal vessel, rendering the winds "lovesick" with scent. Instead, I reach first for Keni (The Mendesian), an interpretation of the cinnamon-myrrh accord for which the Delta city of Mendes earned its fame.

Experienced on one axis, Keni certainly does smell like an ancient unguent: hale evergreen and mint notes steeped in a precious chrism. On a second, intersecting axis, I find a burst of modern candy scents -- basil ribbons and cinnamon red-hots, spicy and bright. This is fitting. Drug stores and candy counters share a common ancestor in the apothecary, where medicine and comestible might be one and the same. Owing to my dual love of weird liniments and old-fashioned sweets, Keni (like Heeley's L'Esprit du Tigre) seems right up my alley. But in less than an hour it vanishes, leaving behind only a trace of faint waxy perfume, like that which clings to a candy wrapper once the treat inside has been devoured.

While we travel together, I truly like where Keni is headed. I just wish the trip lasted longer.

Next up: Megaleion. Taking its name variously from a Syracusan perfumer named Megalus and the Greek word megalos (“great”), Megaleion is described as an infusion of cinnamon, cassia, myrrh, and charred frankincense in balanos, an oil derived from seeds of the Balanites aegyptiaca tree. Its preparation is an interesting exercise in alchemical give-and-take. The oil must be kept at a constant boil for days before it is judged ready to receive the aromatic ingredients, whose properties it greedily devours. It remains at a boil for several days more, its scent seeming to diminish as it is stirred. Only when left alone to cool thoroughly does it relinquish all of the fragrance it has absorbed.

Yet it's not cinnamon and cassia I detect most from DSH's version of this age-old accord. Lemongrass and pine conspire to summon up the ghost of juniper berry, one of kyphi's most oft-cited ingredients. The evergreen cypress trees which produce these tiny, blue drupe-like cones originate from Greece, but their presence in Egyptian tombs implies that they were prized across borders and on both sides of life's threshold. In this floral-resinous fragrance hides their appetizing sourness, their astringent bite, and all the implied powers of purification that a Western mind may connect to them.

But the conundrum is this: they are not there. The nose tells lies, and the mind grasps at a ghost.

Antiu (Metopion) confronts the wearer with no such phantoms-- unless you count the galbanum which the name "metopion" is said to signify, and which here goes nearly undetected. Then again, Dioscorides opines that the best Metopion showcases almond over galbanum-- in which case Antiu wins this round. With its notes of fresh carrot-root and pine needle atop a sweet almond foundation, it's a simply pleasant and pleasantly simple fragrance-- sort of a palate cleanser for the challenging course to follow.

When Greek and Arab invaders chiseled their way into ancient Egyptian tombs, they discovered that all of the scented resins, natron salts, and beeswax used to embalm the occupants had mixed with... well, the occupants themselves, biologically speaking. The resulting petrified goo, erroneously labelled pissasphaltus (pitch asphalt), was used to manufacture a range of ancient pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, including a rather esoteric perfume called mūmiyā’. It's said to have smelled like heaven itself-- presumably once you got over the gag factor.

So it is with Arome d'Egypt. A sweet opening marred by a sudden fetid note of wet wood and mushrooms reminds me of spikenard's close relation to that monster of stomach-turning stonk, valerian. Believing myself the possible victim of a primordial scourge, I thrust my arm under my husband’s nose. He takes one sniff, and together we simultaneously intone the solemn incantation against ancient evils: "Eeewwwww!"

Our rough magic works. Shortly thereafter, Arome d’Egypte transforms into a warm, penetrating cinnamon incense with a drydown graced by the cozy, animalic presence of ambrette. I feel at once favored and spared, brushed by a curse and visited by a blessing. Thank the gods!

I'm tempted to preface my final review by saying something conciliatory like “While Cardamom & Khyphi smells very nice indeed…” I mean, it does. A powerful citrus-spice potpourri cozily couched in nougat, it's a fragrance damn near anyone would love to wear. It incorporates enough classic kyphi ingredients (juniper berry, mastic, myrrh) to justify both its name and its place amongst the other Secrets of Egypt. But here's the catch: leaving it until last makes me think less of it. It smells too much like a "DSH fragrance" for me to suspend disbelief and imagine that it's an authentic reproduction of a great and ancient sacred perfume. I mean, I like it-- just as I liked Mata Hari for smelling like the ultimate holiday candle. But when I expect to be Nile-bound, I don’t want to end up back in the Christmas village. You know?

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So how to sum up this trip back in time? I keep returning to JC's phrase about a "force that commands reverence". Which of the Secrets of Egypt possesses it? None, to be honest. For a moment, Arome d'Egypt -- with its fear-and-trembling initial salvo -- comes very close. But it's ultimately too sweet-mannered to command or enslave me. These are all fine creations, and I sincerely got a kick out of wearing them. But in a strange (and possibly silly) way, I wanted (no, needed) to feel the uncanny breath of some antediluvian entity on the back of my neck... brushing me with a chill right where I applied the perfume.

Still, who knows? I have yet to encounter Susinon/1000 Lilies. Perhaps when I do, the hand of Isis herself will extend one of those thousand blossoms my way.

Scent Elements:

Keni (The Mendesian):
Bitter almond, cardamom, cassia, cinnamon, sandalwood, benzoin, fragrant wine accord, Atlas cedar, myrrh, pine

Cardamom, cassia, cinnamon, fragrant wine accord, lemongrass, sandalwood, balm of Gilead accord, spikenard, Turkish rose, balsam copaiba, balsam Peru, costus, myrrh, frankincense, pine, sweet flag

Antiu (Metopion):
Bitter almond, cardamom, fragrant wine accord, galbanum, lemongrass, sandalwood, rose otto, balm of Gilead accord, honey/beeswax, balsam copaiba, balsam Peru, mastic, myrrh, pine, sweet flag

Arome d’Egypte:
Spikenard, cassis, rose, jasmine, labdanum, sandalwood, Virginia cedar, cinnamon bark, amber, benzoin, balsam Peru, frankincense, myrrh, ambrette

Cardamom & Khyphi:
Cardamom CO2, cardamom seed absolute, clove bud, plum accord, sugar date accord, sweet orange, honey, juniper berry, labdanum, mastic, myrrh, frankincense, patchouli

NOTE: Sacred Luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy, and Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt by Lise Manniche (Cornell University Press) consulted for accuracy. This terrific website shows side-by-side comparisons of historical kyphi formulae. Last but not least, heartfelt thanks to both JoanElaine for the scents and to JC for the story.