Tabac Aurea (Sonoma Scent Studio)

Ezili moves in an atmosphere of infinite luxury, a perfume of refinement, which, from the moment of her arrival, pervades the very air of the peristil and becomes a general expansiveness in which all anxieties, all urgencies, vanish.

--ethnographer Maya Deren, quoted in Phyllis Galembo's Vodou: Visions and Voices of Haiti (1998)
The Yoruban goddess Oshun is the orisha (divinity) of rivers, pleasure, and love. Coquetry is her art, and beauty her obsession; feminine strength and dignity are her sacred charge. In Brazil she is known as Oxum; in Cuba, Ochun. In New Orleans they address her as Maîtresse Erzulie, and in Haiti, she is called simply Ezili-- though she is anything but simple. She is, in fact, an entire family of goddesses -- dozens of them, each with her own personality and tastes. Learning what each Ezili likes is a major component of worship... and all the Ezilis adore perfume.

According to the hounsis interviewed by photographer Phyllis Galembo, Ezili Fréda -- the flirtatious loa (spirit) of love -- favors Anaïs Anaïs above all other fragrances. This is mainly due to Cacharel's romantic package design, misty pink flowers on milk-white glass. Ezili Dantò, the protective mother of all who suffer, prefers the orange-blossom bouquet of agua de Florida-- that is, when her supply of Piver Rêve D'Or runs low. The formidable loa of female rage, Ezili Jé-Wouj (from yeux rouges, 'red eyes') likes only three scents: gunpowder, rhum Barbancourt, and blood. (Finally-- a use for the Blood Concept line!)

But just as all roads lead back home, all Ezilis return to Oshun-- and the great goddess' tastes are very particular. Her sacred color being the pure golden yellow of polished amber, most offerings made in Oshun's honor fall on a color spectrum ranging from pale gold to deep, burnt orange. Her vever (sacred symbol) may be drawn with ground turmeric, cinnamon, or bee pollen; gold dust might not be asking too much. She feasts on lemons, clementines, persimmons, yams, and saffron rice, and would not dismiss a glass of Goldschlager if you poured one for her. American Ifá priestess Luisah Teish recommends "fixing" a jar of honey for the Goddess by stirring in quantities of whole cloves, nutmeg, and allspice-- proof that Oshun is the mother of all spice girls.

And of the many perfumes I'm sure she'd adore, I would offer Oshun nothing less than Tabac Aurea.

With its notes of honey, suede, and tabaco rubio, there is something about this fragrance that expresses itself as golden yellow, penetrating and powerful. This is a sun scent without doubt. Though strong, its cedar and tobacco notes are also impressively smooth, polished to a high shine. Clove and patchouli -- both 'dark' notes capable of subtle intrigue -- meld into an accord reminiscent of spice-imbued ceremonial wine. And whereas Annick Goutal's Sables projects burnt-bitter austerity in its pairing of immortelle and lapsang souchong, Tabac Aurea's panoply of sweet and mellow notes radiates a merciful lovingkindness most apropos of Oshun. However intoxicated one might become while wearing it, its benevolence promises to hold a faithful serviteur aloft.

As Luisah Teish states in her marvelous book Jambalaya, "When Oshun perfumes Her skin with honey no one can resist Her; so give in, surrender to Her passion." Substitute Tabac Aurea, and make yourself and the Goddess glad!

Scent Elements: Cedar, sandalwood, blonde tobacco absolute, leather, vetiver, patchouli, clove, labdanum absolute, tonka bean, amber, vanilla, musk

Papyrus de Ciane (Parfumerie Générale)

"Green" perfumes don't have to be terribly original or unique to satisfy the nose; whatever their name, maker, or era of introduction into the perfumosphere, they blur together into a haze of pastoral pleasure. With its sleepy tapestry of verdant notes, Papyrus de Ciane evokes a whole slideshow of historical emerald beauties-- yet I don't mind, because it refreshes and gladdens me in the present moment.

It's evergreen: enough said.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, neroli, galbanum, armoise (muguet), genêt (broom), lavender, vetiver, mousse de Saxe, clove, incense, hedione, musk

Back to Black (By Kilian)

The year she saved my life, her voice was the only straw I could clutch.

Every morning, day in, day out, I cued up "Rehab" as I put my car in reverse. The final chorus of "He Can Only Hold Her" would sound the moment I pulled into the parking lot at work. As the echoes of her voice grew faint, I sat silent behind the steering wheel, inwardly psyching my lead-heavy self to wade through another eight sad hours.

it's OK in the day, I'm staying busy
tied up enough so I don't have to wonder
Where is he?
Got so sick of crying, so just lately
when I catch myself I do a one-eighty

At five o'clock I'd reverse the process, with one difference: a stop at the liquor store for a large bottle of wine, which by bedtime would be drained to the dregs.

For months and months and months, this was my routine. Without it, I wouldn't be here now. It sounds stupid, I know-- who thanks the quicksand for a lovely time? But there was solid ground waiting at the other side, and one voice leading me to shore. It took everything I had to fight my way there... and hers was one of the hands that pulled me up and out.

Four years later, one year ago today; same quicksand, but no helping hands; she herself went below--

over futile odds
and laughed at by the gods
and now the final frame:
love is a losing game.

Posthumous honors tend to reek of kitsch-- but a tribute received during life somehow rings more true and sincere. Commissioned of perfumer Calice Becker by Kilian Hennessey after he'd listened to a certain album "a lot", 2009's Back to Black is a better trophy for Amy than any that came after the sad fact. I can easily imagine her wearing it with a little, secret smirk-- and refusing to hand it back.

In its marriage of pain d'épices with black-cherry-scented tobacco, BTB at first suggests a tenuous kinship with Kenzo Jungle L'Elephant. It certainly is as potent, as plangent, as ripe... but was L'Elephant ever this unabashedly carnal? A totally disarming musky sweetness, animalic and divine, flows from the heart of this fragrance. If it doesn't direct your thoughts south, nothing else will-- but you might want to keep your eyes up here, mister.

She stares you down from across the tiny hotel room. The air smells of cigarettes and sex-- her sex. She does not care what you think of it or whether you approve. A sketch of lush femininity begins to take shape in your mind-- but then she slings one slender leg over the armrest of her chair and kills your story with a deadly machine-gun quip. (You didn't forget, did you, that she has a brain to go with everything else?)

This interview is over, she says. Then smiles.

Intoxicating and unapologetically dark, BTB paints a portrait of femininity more edgy than you might be prepared for. Like Amy, it's a beautiful, nervy, powerful thing. Wearing it today does not feel in the least bit maudlin. On the contrary: it's a perfect day to leave off mourning, to turn our backs on black for good.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, raspberry, cherry stones, blue chamomile, geranium, cardamom, coriander, nutmeg, saffron, honey, cedar, tobacco, patchouli, olibanum, benzoin, cistus labdanum, tonka bean, ambergris, vanilla

Exceptional...Because You Are (Exceptional Perfumes)

I once worked for an PR guy who fancied himself a neuro-linguistic programming guru. Half self-help method, half übermensch cult, NLP was the hot pseudo-science of the corporate 1980's-- inspiring the Greed Is Good generation to weasel-talk its way to the top.

My boss embraced NLP like old-time gospel religion. Hypnotic "trance phrases" and "trigger words" peppered his speech like a sprinkling of Quaaludes. He practiced mirroring others' gestures and speech patterns to manufacture rapport-- then ruined the effect with a spooky Rasputin stare. Most of the time, he saved these scintillating techniques for his clients… but as his involvement in NLP deepened, he started using it on me. As you might imagine, this did not exactly create a friendly work atmosphere. The day my boss attempted to "mind-manage" me into wearing shorter skirts to work, I figured it was quittin' time.

It's been two decades now. I have no idea what became of my old boss. But I just encountered a perfume that summons him up before me like a devil in Prada… PR doublespeak and all.

Exceptional...Because You Are is billed as "a distinctly feminine fragrance featuring a crisp and elegant introduction, a lightly spiced floral heart and a sensual drydown". In point of fact, it is a cardboard-flat Febreze floral, indeed almost too dull to merit description. The only thing “exceptional” about it is its name. Equal parts flattery and bribery, that little tagline unites perfume and wearer in a slippery symbiosis that transcends simple aspiration and tiptoes into marketing mindfuck territory.

In NLP, the word "because" is an extraordinarily potent coercive tool, implying rock-solid authority and reliability. It magically links concepts together, legitimizes commands, and lends verity to stated facts. In NLP parlance, "because" language has the power to circumvent the listener’s natural skepticism and resistance. It wins obedience, as if by magic.

Exceptional...Because You Are uses it in a very wily manner. Obviously, a perfume's inherent quality is not determined by (or proportionate to) the quality of the person wearing it, or vice versa. But rather than produce a better perfume, its creators choose instead to aim a little linguistic barb at the wearer’s self-esteem.

This fragrance is exceptional because you are. You ARE exceptional, aren't you? Well then, so is this fragrance. If IT is not, then maybe YOU are not. Ever think of that?

And then you try it on and find that it’s a cynically cheap little nothing of a scent, and perhaps you can admit that you were suckered—but perhaps you can’t. The product itself secures your shamefaced silence. Sure, the sample card doubles as a coupon for $20 off your next purchase, but even that comes off as vaguely insulting. It’s as if the Emperor -- fully aware that he's wearing no clothes – is offering to buy off anyone who spotted him naked.

But don't worry—this fragrance won’t get far on its own. The only trick up its sleeve is that clever name. It has no other arguments to make, and it washes off skin with almost embarrassing ease. If Exceptional... Because You Are were smarter, it would give the consumer something to think about, or at least remember. But when she decides that she’s done with it, she need never, ever look back.

Scent Elements: Lalique Flora Bella plus blond woods but minus tenacity, personality, and class.

Messe de Minuit (Etro)

This fragrance is as close as I've ever gotten to midnight Mass-- which is to say nowhere near. Roman Catholicism was to my adolescent self what a steel cage is to a wild timber wolf; once I reached the age of independence, I left the church to go howl deliriously at the moon. But I still vicariously enjoy the scent of the incense smoke that settles on the coats, scarves, and hats of more devout friends at Christmastime. It blends so beautifully with the scents of wool and frigid, crystalline December night air. Borrow one of those garments, and that cozy, intimate aroma enfolds you in such a friendly way. No rambling sermons, no clumsy hymns, just beauty-- enough to soften the blow of having to give the scarf back.

ADDENDUM: I found Messe de Minuit very muted, but my coworker and friend Rachel did not. Though anosmic as the result of an allergic condition, she can detect the faintest aromachemicals in the air by taste alone; stronger chemicals cause her to have allergic/asthmatic reactions. Now, Rachel has never had a problem with any other perfume I've worn to work-- she used be a fragrance SA herself before anosmia struck, and she's always extremely supportive of others' fragrant adventures. But literally minutes after I applied Messe de Minuit, from clear across the office she reported that her lips and tongue were swelling! Contrite, I immediately scrubbed and went to plug in the portable electric fan. From now on, out of respect and fondness for my office mates, I'm going to refrain from open spritzing at work. At least if I do it from home before leaving, my sillage will have calmed down by the time I arrive!

Scent Elements: Bergamot, lemon, orange, citron, petitgrain, incense, myrrh, labdanum, galbanum, patchouli, musk, spices

Encre Noire (Lalique)

First off: the melancholy scent of blank paper.

Next comes the ink: barbed characters written in bitterest vetiver.

The pen, by definition, must be poison-- but the poetry is divine.

Scent Elements: Bourbon vetiver, Haitian vetiver, cypress, cashmere woods, musk

I bought a sample from the Perfumed Court, wore it for one day, realized I COULD NOT LIVE without this scent (which is indispensible to vetiver lovers). I then proceeded with terrifying haste to buy a full bottle on Amazon. I could wear Encre Noire every day of my life (well, every OTHER day-- alternating Flora Bella, Breath of God, and Cabochard for the remaining days). I am not kidding. If they ask me what my blood type is, I'll tell them Encre Noire.

Borneo 3000 Artisanal Oud Oil (Oriscent)

This afternoon, I applied a single drop of Borneo 3000 Artisanal Oud Oil to my wrist.

Less than an hour later, a towering thunderhead -- easily the height of a Manhattan mega-skyscraper, and spitting lightning -- appeared over my town. A massive cloud bank brought up the rear with torrential rain and deafening claps of thunder.

Coincidence? I ain't saying a word.

The entire time I watched the storm from my window, the sacred scent of the best oud on earth surrounded me like a mantle of divinity

I wonder if Borneo 3000 is lightning-proof.

Scent Elements: Oud, oud, oud.

Un Jardin sur le Nil (Hermès)

I forget how KV and I got onto the subject. We were both manning the reference desk, and the topic cropped up during a momentary break in the action. KV confessed she had a favorite, something a friend had blind-bought for her as a gift some years back. In a stroke of luck, she'd happened to adore it from the very first sniff... but its name remained maddeningly on the tip of her tongue.

"It's... hm. French. Something about the Nile," she said.

"OH!" I exclaimed-- much louder than I ought have, given my profession. (You'd think quiet would reign supreme at the library, but this is not so. I have to shush myself all the time.) In a lower tone, I continued, "Is it Hermès Un Jardin sur le Nil?"

"That's it! How did you know?"

"You won't believe this, but I just read an entire book about it!"

Well, half a book, anyway. Fifty percent of Chandler Burr's The Perfect Scent focuses on the development of Lovely, Sarah Jessica Parker's ode to eternal girlishness. But the portions chronicling the trials and tribulations of Jean-Claude Ellena over the composition of Un Jardin sur le Nil offer (in my opinion) a far more compelling read.

"So tell me about it," I encouraged KV. "What do you think of le Nil?"

"It's beautiful, so soothing, comforting-- I just love it! I've used up almost the entire bottle. I have no idea what I'll do when it's gone-- what a sad day that will be!"

But luck really seems to take KV's side where scent is concerned. Not long after this conversation, another library perfume pal flagged me down. "I have a bottle you might be interested in," BB said. "An Hermès-- I forget which one." She explained that the perfume, though lovely, just didn't quite fit in her scent wardrobe, which favors warm, ambery Orientals (Chanel Coco) and chic white florals (Elie Saab Le Parfum). She'd bought it, sprayed it once, and never touched it again. Would I be interested?

Sure thing!

Imagine my delight when the bottle in question turned out to be Un Jardin sur le Nil! I turned right around and gifted it to KV, who allowed me to extract a decant first, then happily cuddled the remainder. That day, scent serendipity handed us both a treat!

When I wear Un Jardin sur le Nil, I see why KV loves it so. A cooler, smokier, more serene green scent I can't imagine (unless we're talking Bertrand Duchaufour's Timbuktu, which seems almost like the god to le Nil's goddess). I have never seen or smelled an unripe mango in person, but there is a hint of crisp, raw rind in here which I suppose is meant to represent that pleasure. Even more, there is the presence of river grass-- reminding me instantly of the salt marshes I lived near as a kid. There, bulrushes, cattails, horsetails, and spartina rustled and bowed in the salty breeze, their roots lapped by cool water, their aerials glistening in the sun. Occasionally, one might find the charred remnants of an illegal campfire on the nearby tidal strand-- a hint of smoke lingering like a telltale phantom over silvery piles of ash, blending with the sun-on-grass aroma in the most beguiling way.

I'm sure Jean-Claude Ellena would not have elected to come to New Jersey instead of Egypt to do his research.... but you never know. Like baby Moses, someday he might find himself drifting. He won't find any burning bushes here*... but he will find several very grateful fans.

*Unless you count the famous neon eagle sign on top of the Anheuser-Busch brewery in Newark-- a beloved landmark which serves as a beacon to travelers far and wide.

Scent Elements: Green mango, blue lotus, calamus, grapefruit, sycamore wood, frankincense

Fougère Bengale (Parfum d'Empire)

I do still envy you dreadfully having been there and seen it all when I was not allowed to go when I wished it so very, very much. Queen Alexandra of England wrote these words to her son and daughter-in-law, the newly crowned King George V and Queen Mary, after the Imperial Delhi Durbar of 1911. The subject of the complaint was India-- a lifelong dream (and disappointment) for the dowager Queen.

Alexandra's resentment -- nursed silently but bitterly for decades -- began in 1875 when she was barred from joining her husband, the Prince of Wales, on an eight-month diplomatic tour of the Subcontinent. Having dreamt for years of seeing India, she begged to be permitted to go. But Queen Victoria deemed it cruel of "dear Alix" to contemplate abandoning her children for so long; Parliament concurred, allocating only enough funds for one Royal to travel on. The worst hurt came directly from "Bertie" himself, whose eagerness to leave her behind struck Alexandra as obscene. His many infidelities she could tolerate... but a tryst with her India? He could not have wounded her more deeply had he taken her closest friend to bed.

If Alexandra had sniffed her husband's collar upon his return home, the telltale scent of his grand dalliance with India would have smelled very much like Fougère Bengale. The mingling of India's exotic fragrances with the very patrician (and British) aromas of lavender and shaving soap would have rendered her speechless with fury. Only the most pitiless of smooth operators would flaunt the proof of this rendezvous under his princess' nose!

Alexandra lived out her life without ever setting foot in the land which had called her Empress. She never rode an elephant, witnessed a tiger hunt, or woke to the plaintive cry of wild peacocks. She forgave her husband many things, but never this. Perhaps it's a good thing Fougère Bengale did not sit on his dressing table... for it might have ended up dashed to royal smithereens.

Scent Elements: Lavender, geranium, patchouli, tarragon, Assam tea accord, gingerbread accord, blond tobacco, hay, oakmoss, tonka bean, vanilla

Indochine (Parfumerie Générale)

Indochine is a genteel fragrance inspired by a reference photo of colonialism. The year is 1920; a teakwood paddle steamer travels slowly down the Mekong at dawn. The crisp linen suits and drop-waist dresses of a few early risers have already begun to wilt in the tropical heat. Languid in their deck chairs, these masters and mistresses of a land not theirs sip iced nước mía and watch the opaque milk-tea waters roil uneasily past...

And the river, that sullen deity who forgets and forgives nothing, carries them on its back towards the sea.

The sweet and delicate balsam that lies so softly on my skin is meant to encapsulate this downriver ride. Perhaps. I do not think that the colonial years were so soft for everyone, but to the victor go the spoils-- the fruits of the tree, plus its spices, its sap, its very heart. The story of its appropriation is his to tell. Naturally, he relates it in the tongue of the ruling class.

And this makes me more uncomfortable than anything else, for I understand every word.

Here on the water, all is lovely and serene. Life (which smacks of plunder and privilege) is very satisfactory indeed. Settled comfortably in our deck chairs, we face the sunrise without a care in the world. But the difference between upriver and downriver is more than a matter of which way the water's heading. Downriver is the path of least resistance; ease and luxury flow with the current. But to go upriver is to fight against complacency, to reject effortless gain, to create art that cleaves to the bone. Dodge the heart of darkness, and the life that follows is safe-- but hollow.

Who knows what Indochine we might have found if we had been traveling upriver instead of down?

Scent Elements: Siam benzoin, Cambodian pepper, Burmese thanaka, Laotian honey, cardamom, sandalwood

Istanbul, not Constantinople.

Soivohle Ankhara and L'Artisan Traversée du Bosphore are two hazy Orientals which promise a sumptuous Eastern feast. Though really very lovely, they were nothing like what I really wanted. I yearned for something bold that would take me in its grip and transport me directly to Byzantium. In both cases, I got something as gauzy, sweet, and fleeting as a dream-- a featherweight feast of divinity, meringue and Turkish delight that left me unsated.

It is difficult to be divested of my illusions. Like most Westerners, I am afflicted by a longing for (and misunderstanding of) the East; it exaggerates itself in my mind so that I can never see it straight. But I hope yet to reach that fabled territory, destination of the west wind. Until then, I will seek consolation in these delicate veils of scent and stave off my hunger pangs with a few cherished fictions...
The atmosphere of the room was so different from any he had ever breathed that self-consciousness vanished in the sense of adventure. He had been before in drawing-rooms hung with red damask, with pictures “of the Italian school”; what struck him was the way in which Medora Manson’s shabby hired house, with its blighted background of pampas grass and Rogers statuettes, had, by a turn of the hand, and the skilful use of a few properties, been transformed into something intimate, “foreign,” subtly suggestive of old romantic scenes and sentiments. He tried to analyse the trick, to find a clue to it in the way the chairs and tables were grouped, in the fact that only two Jacqueminot roses (of which nobody ever bought less than a dozen) had been placed in the slender vase at his elbow, and in the vague pervading perfume that was not what one put on handkerchiefs, but rather like the scent of some far-off bazaar, a smell made up of Turkish coffee and ambergris and dried roses.

--Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence, Book 1, Chapter IX (1920)

Every little girl can easily imagine what an extra good time she had diving into a sea of treasures and fishing up one pretty thing after another, till the air was full of the mingled odor of musk and sandal-wood, the room gay with bright colors, and Rose in a rapture of delight… (S)he had stuck a purple fez on her blonde head, tied several brilliant scarfs around her waist, and put on a truly gorgeous scarlet jacket with a golden sun embroidered on the back, a silver moon on the front, and stars of all sizes on the sleeves. A pair of Turkish slippers adorned her feet, and necklaces of amber, coral, and filigree hung about her neck, while one hand held a smelling-bottle, and the other the spicy box of oriental sweetmeats.

--Louisa May Alcott, Eight Cousins: or, The Aunt-Hill, Chapter V (1875)

And now of course you want to know what had happened to Edmund. He had eaten his share of the dinner, but he hadn’t really enjoyed it because he was thinking all the time about Turkish Delight—and there’s nothing that spoils the taste of good ordinary food half so much as the memory of bad magic food.

--C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Chapter 9 (1950)

Scent Elements: Coffee beans, frangipani absolute, sweet fig, pomegranate, amber, musk, leather (Ankhara); apple, pomegranate, saffron, leather, iris, rose, pistachio, almond, tobacco, musk (Traversée du Bosphore)

Venezia Original Eau de Toilette (Laura Biagiotti)

In Shanghai Love: Courtesans, Intellectuals, and Entertainment Culture 1850-1910, Professor Catherine Vance Yeh explains the statutes governing colored garments in Imperial China. As set out in the Imperial code, class status, occupation, and personal intent were expressed through prescribed textiles and dyes. Only courtesans, to whom the law did not apply, could subvert this social color code. A seasoned ming ji (renowned beauty) might shock the populace by robing herself in crimson, a conspicuous hue normally reserved for virginal brides. To heighten the imbroglio, she could let slip a glimpse of her undergarments, dyed in the sacred ceremonial color of men: wong-shi, or gardenia yellow.

The forbidden golden pigment our courtesan favored came from the reddish-orange fruit of Gardenia jasminoides (also called G. florida or G. grandiflorum). According to The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia (1911), this fruit "contains crocin, apparently identical to that from saffron, and dyes silk or wool without a mordant". The same fruit factors into Traditional Chinese Medicine under the appellation zhi zi, said to remove heat, cool the blood, and restore peace-- not exactly qualities traditionally associated with an aphrodisiac.

Leave that property to the flower.

In The New Perfume Handbook, Nigel Groom states that Venezia -- the original 1992 floriental by Laura Biagiotti -- "is built round the scent of the Chinese Wong-Shi flower, used in the Far East, it is claimed, as a love potion and valued as such in mediaeval times by the Venetians" (pg. 343). Venice having been a major textile trade center connected across the miles to the Silk Road by Marco Polo, wong-shi dye (and perhaps even zhi zi medicine) might have been known to the medieval Venetians. But the gardenia flower and its ineffable perfume did not reach Western Europe until the 18th century-- the era of Casanova, one of Venice's most infamous sons. (I can easily picture the great seducer including that sensuous white flower in his amorous arsenal.)

A true and natural gardenia perfume is a rarity, since gardenia concrete is difficult both to produce and to find*. Tahitian monoi -- made by macerating fresh tiare (Gardenia taitensis) blossoms in pure coconut oil -- comes closest to that soliflore ideal, but the discernable "suntan lotion" scent of the oil always manages to overwhelm its floral aspect. Most perfumers use synthetic gardenia accords, adding whichever aromachemical elements will best approximate the dank, fungal note that makes an "authentic" gardenia. (Without the mushroom element, gardenia's just jasmine topped with a pound of hard sauce.) The other option is to pair gardenia with jasmine, ylang-ylang, or (best of all) its trusty partner tuberose, and let the ensuing wave of white-florality sweep away all misgivings.**

I had the opportunity to see for myself when I stumbled across a full vintage mini of Venezia in a local antique store. I paid three whole dollars for it, only to find that it's going for $50 on eBay. Described by the Perfumed Court as "one of the harder-to-find cult fragrances... gorgeous, classy, and very feminine", it's included in their list of hard-to-find, rare, or reformulated scents "every perfumista should smell at least once". Here goes!

Venezia tucks its so-called "wong-shi flower" (and its jasmine, and its ylang-ylang) into a compote of sweet fruits in spiced honey. Frankly speaking, I'd call it more fruitiental than floriental; either way, it's dessert. Even its buttery sandalwood base note smells a bit like pastry. Whenever I wear it, a parade of similar confections (Boucheron Jaipur, Paul Sebastian Design, Mauboussin) marches across my mind. But something about Venezia's comely delicacy keeps me coming back for another opinion.

Earlier this year, Venezia was reorchestrated and reissued-- apparently with a vengeance, according to Krista of SOTD's considered opinion. After I sent her a sample of the original, she emailed me the following assessment: " is better than the reformulation, although now I can see what they were trying to do. It has the same vanilla/plum heart, but the older one has a great smoky-amber base that the new formula is missing."

A great pity. It makes you wish that wong-shi had remained a forbidden element, off-limits to the formula-trimmers of this world.

Like a scene painted in tiny brushstrokes on a silk fan, Venezia seems to offer up heretofore-unnoticed details each time I wear it. Not that I would carry a silk fan around with me every day-- I'm just not that kind of girl. But if I wanted to pretend I was... this is what I would wear.

*If you haven't already, read this excellent essay on the subject by Glass Petal Smoke's Michelle Krell Kydd, and this DuftNote by the great Luca Turin. Both concern the work of Trygve Harris to restore the perfumery gardenia to a natural state.

**I know "florality" is not a word. But I flat-out refuse to use the word "floralcy", which makes even less damn sense.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, cassis, plum, peach, mango, osmanthus, wong-shi flower (Gardenia jasminoides), geranium, carnation, jasmine, rose, ylang-ylang, iris, sandalwood, cedar, cinnamon, tonka bean, vanilla, civet, ambergris, musk

Bliss Eau de Toilette (Bliss)

Great and mighty Þór, it's hot. A parade of rambunctious thunderstorms has passed through our county, bringing torrents of rain and deadly displays of lightning, but no respite. Yesterday evening, the sky turned an ominous yellow, and the terrifying sight of mammatus clouds appeared above-- both indicators of dangerous (possibly even tornadic) weather. Sure enough, a violent tempest descended, blowing out electrical transformers and leaving us in the dark to stew in our own juices overnight.

This morning promises another breezeless and oppressive day. Luckily, I've got a remedy: Bliss, the eponymous signature fragrance of the NYC day spa. Its premise couldn't be simpler: iced cucumber water in a tall glass trickling with condensation. It cools everything-- your fingertips, your lips, your parched throat, even your eye as you admire its sparkle and glow. It isn't a terribly complex scent, but then, complexity is not required in these circumstances-- just relief, which it provides in abundance. With excellent longevity, the effects of Bliss outlast the heatwave and enable you to keep it cool... real cool.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, "dewy greens", "sunny blooms", cucumber, lily, ylang-ylang, violet, musk

Light refreshments.

Google the words "eau de cologne". In thirty seconds, almost six million results await your perusal. It tickles me to think that if computers had existed in 1709, the same search would have generated only one result (but millions of page views) as Giovanni Maria Farina's revolutionary magic potion became a runaway hit.

By now familiar almost to the point of negligibility, the structure and character of eau de cologne are instantly recognizable-- and endlessly replicable. One spray of Farina Echt Kölnisch Wasser, and a hundred thousand younger fragrances sit up and say "Mama!" Yet this mater familias is the self-sacrificing type, content to let her progeny improve upon her fine example. Chalk it up to proper home training-- most of them do her right proud (hence the photo above of the Bennet girls, whose mother ONLY wanted what was BEST for them...)

Cologne à la Française (Institut Très Bien)
Cologne à la Française is one of a trio of geographically-themed EdC produced in 2007 by a now-sadly-defunct perfume house called Institut Très Bien. With its emphasis on lavender, Cologne à la Française comes dangerously close to Jickyhood but is rescued by the pairing of grapefruit with magnolia-- the bitter and bright juxtaposed against the sticky and sweet. It's not the most original cologne in the triad; nonetheless, it smells pretty and should serve to attract attention to its more interesting siblings.

Scent Elements: Magnolia, grapefruit, lemon, citron, bergamot, lime, lavender, rosemary, verbena, neroli, benzoin, iris

Cologne à la Russe (Institut Très Bien)
Indolence, insolence, elegance-- basically, Cologne à la Russe is Felix Yusupov in a bottle. Possibly the twentieth century's first (and most unapologetic) metrosexual, this infamous Slavic princeling combined a dandy's sense of style with the dedicated misbehavior of an entire Brat Pack, condensed and multiplied. More darkly floral than its siblings, with touches of masculine herbs and a rich note of ambrette in the base, Cologne à la Russe faithfully recreates the sullen sensuality that was Yusupov's stock-in-trade during his charmed and misspent youth. Perfect for the enfant terrible in your life.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, citron, lime, orange blossom, rosemary, verbena, lavender, neroli, amber, benzoin, iris, ambrette

Cologne à l’Italienne (Institut Très Bien)
In America as in the old country, different levels of formality distinguish Italian dining establishments, starting with the casual pizzeria (where paper plates and hand-held food are customary) and culminating with the ristorante, where old-world etiquette reigns supreme. Only once have I dined 'at the top', and I will never forget a digestivo of chilled limoncello di Sorrento served in tiny cordial flutes so deeply chilled my fingertips adhered to the crystal. The understated elegance and simplicity of this offering made a deep impression on me. Ever since, when I wear any lemon fragrance, I want it to evoke that precise moment. Cologne à l’Italienne does so as if it had been there, taking notes in busy (and bilingual) shorthand. With a cool, rooty iris chaser built in, Cologne à l’Italienne is wondrous indeed. It makes me weep that what I have on hand is likely all I'm ever going to get, since Institut Très Bien seems to have cut its product line down to two -- literally, two! -- scented candles. (But I have a suspicion those two candles are extraordinary!)

Scent Elements: Lemon, bigarade, citron, orange blossom, neroli, iris, benzoin

Die kleinen Prinzessinnen and Incense Pure.

The obsession has struck me out of season. Suddenly (in the heat of summer, mind you!) all my tastes run to sables and pearls, and my nightly dreams include top-speed troika rides across the frozen Neva. For though wintertime is the traditional setting for my forays into the glory and grit of Romanov history, an anomalous surge of interest has surprised this reader's royal progress with a January in July.

This time around, all my fascination centers on the Romanov brides-- minor Germanic princesses offered up in matrimonial sacrifice to the Tsars. Bidding farewell to their tiny home palaces, forswearing eternally those nursery suppers of baked apples and rice pudding, one by one these kleinen Prinzessinnen traveled 1,100 miles to be devoured whole by St. Petersburg. Their choice: to surrender, or to tame the ravenous beast with charm, cunning, and magnums of champagne.

One might question the heaviness of the task. After all, this was Russia-- a fairytale land where people set out bowls of raw sapphires and rubies for the idle, toying fingers of house guests. How dizzy the Prinzessinnen must have felt, confronting such extravagance for the first time! But they acclimated fast, these hungry-eyed girls-- gauche lumps of coal eager to be changed into glittering diamonds. Relaxing into their newfound privilege, the faces above those rows of pearls soon grew smooth, complacent, coolly surveying the world as if it were just another trinket from Cartier.

Balancing (and sometimes enhancing) the sumptuous wealth of Empire was the Orthodox Church, to which conversion was a standard requirement of "marrying in". Whether they came to it early or late (in Maria Pavlovna's case, thirty-four years after the wedding), the Prinzessinnen found comfort in the powerful emotionality of Orthodox ritual. Several took their devotion to the limit-- most notably Ella, the widow of the assassinated Grand Duke Sergei, who parlayed her mourning straight into holy orders. (No hairshirt for her, though; designed by Nesterov, her nun's habit was haute couture.) Ella's sister Alix, the Truly Believing Tsaritsa Alexandra Feodorovna, largely scorned Court luxury in favor of her prie-dieu. But most found a way to reconcile themselves to Russia's extremes-- the sacerdotal and the sensual.

Which brings me to Incense Pure.

Most incense perfumes emphasize austerity above all other virtues, drawing the mind's eye upward to vaulted cathedral ceilings, where columns of holy smoke rise to kiss heaven. Ostensibly, the objective of the flight is to leave material reality behind-- to disavow the body and its imperfections in pursuit of a higher ideal. Incense Pure is one of the few which does not demand this sacrifice. It provides the soul with the hoped-for power of flight, but it also welcomes the body along for the ride.

Never before (except maybe in Michael Storer's Winter Star) have I encountered an incense perfume so sensual or rich. The very volume of resin in every drop is an extravagance, as if the perfume itself had money to burn. I imagine Imperial Russia smelling exactly this way -- like God and gold, like exaltation and ease -- and the Prinzessinnen, resplendent in their gowns by Worth and Madame Brissac, smiling indulgently as if to say: This?  We breathe it every day.

Scent Elements: Frankincense CO2, myrrh EO, labdanum absolute, cistus oil, natural oakmoss absolute, aged Indian patchouli heartnote fraction, sandalwood, cedar, ambergris, orris, angelica root absolute, elemi EO, vanilla absolute.

My Big Fat Romanov Reading List

Azar, Helen (2014). The diary of Olga Romanov: royal witness to the Russian Revolution. Yardley, Pennsylvania: Westholme Publishing.
Bokhanov, Alexander (1993).  The Romanovs: love, power, & tragedy.  London:  Leppi Publications.
Carter, Miranda (2010).  George, Nicholas, and Wilhelm: three royal cousins and the road to World War I.  New York: Knopf.
Chavchavadze, Prince David (1990).  The grand dukes.  New York: Atlantic International Publications.
Crawford, Rosemary & Donald (1997).  Michael and Natasha: the life and love of Michael II, the last of the Romanov Tsars.  New York: Scribner.
Finestone, Jeffrey (1981).  The last courts of Europe: a royal family album 1860-1914.  New York: Greenwich House/Crown Publishers, Inc.
Erickson, Carrolly (2002).  Alexandra: the last Tsarina.   New York: St. Martin's Griffin.
Faber, Toby (2008). Fabergé's eggs : the extraordinary story of the masterpieces that outlived an empire. New York: Random House.
Forbes, Christopher (1989). Fabergé: the imperial eggs. Munich: Neues Publishing Company.
Gelardi, Julia (2011). Born to rule: five reigning consorts, granddaughters of Queen Victoria. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Gelardi, Julia (2011). From splendor to revolution: the Romanov women, 1847-1928. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Habsberg-Lothringen, Geza von (1994). Fabergé: imperial jeweler. New York: Abrams.
Habsberg-Lothringen, Geza von (1994). Fabergé in America. San Francisco: Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.
Hill, Gerard, Smorodinova, G.G., and Ulyanova, B.L. (1989). Fabergé and the Russian master goldsmiths. Moscow: International Federation of Artists/Beaux-Arts Editions.
Iroshnikov, Mikhail P., Shelayev, Yury B., and Protsai, Liudmila A. (1991).  Before the revolution: St. Petersburg in Photographs 1890-1914.  New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
King, Greg (1996). The last empress: the life and times of Alexandra Feodorovna, Tsarina of Russia. New York: Citadel Books.
King, Greg (2010). The resurrection of the Romanovs: Anastasia, Anna Anderson, and the world's greatest royal mystery. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
King, Greg (2006). The court of the last Tsar: pomp, power, and pageantry in the reign of Nicholas II. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
King, Greg and Wilson, Penny (2003).  The fate of the Romanovs.  Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Khrustalëv, Vladimir M. and Kozlov, Vladimir A. (1997). The last diary of Tsaritsa Alexandra. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Khrustalëv, Vladimir M. and Steinberg, Mark D. (1997). The fall of the Romanovs: political dreams and personal struggles in a time of revolution. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Kurth, Peter (1985).  Anastasia: the riddle of Anna Anderson. Back Bay Books.
Kurth, Peter (1995).  Tsar: the lost world of Nicholas and Alexandra.  Boston: Little, Brown & Company.
Lincoln, W. Bruce (1983).  The Romanovs: autocrats of all the Russias.  New York: Anchor.
Lovell, James B. (1995).  Anastasia: the lost princess.  New York: St. Martin's Griffin.
Mager, Hugo (1998). Elizabeth, Grand Duchess of Russia: a biography. New York: Carroll & Graf.
Massie, Robert K. (1967). Nicholas and Alexandra. New York: International Collectors Library.
Massie, Robert K. (1995). The Romanovs: the final chapter New York: Random House.
Maylunas, Andrei & Mironenko, Sergei (1997). A lifelong passion: Nicholas & Alexandra, their own story. New York: Doubleday.
Maylunas, Andrei & Prince Michael of Greece (1992).  Nicholas and Alexandra: the family albums.  London: Tauris Parke.
Perry, John Curtis and Pleshakov, Constantine (2002).  The flight of the Romanovs:  a family saga.  New York: Basic Books.
Radzinsky, Edvard (1993). The last Tsar: the life and death of Nicholas II. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell.
Rappaport, Helen ((2009).  The last days of the Romanovs: tragedy at Ekaterinberg.  New York: St. Martin's Press.
Rappaport, Helen ((2014).  The Romanov Sisters: the lost lives of the daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Richards, Guy (1970).  The hunt for the Czar.  New York: Doubleday.
Richards, Guy (1975).  The rescue of the Romanovs.  Old Greenwich: Devin-Adair.
Rounding, Virginia (2012). Alix and Nicky: the passion of the last Tsar and Tsarina. New York: St. Martin's Press.
State Hermitage Museum and State Archive of the Russian Federation (1998).  Nicholas & Alexandra: the last Imperial family of Tsarist Russia.  New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
Yemifova, Luisa V. & Aleshina, Tatyana S. (2011).  Russian elegance: country and city fashion from the 15th to the early 20th century.  London: Vivays Publishing, Ltd.

Plus absolutely everything at The Alexander Palace Time Machine, the best digital archive of photographs, resources, and historic texts about the Romanovs that I have ever seen. I would MOVE there, if they would give me a corner to pitch my virtual army cot.