Centennial (Soivohle)

Certain movies stop us in our tracks. Some emotion -- love, disgust, self-recognition -- compels us to stop our channel-hopping, kick off our shoes, and see these stories through to the very end. Jefferson in Paris (1995) is one such film for me. At least three other Merchant-Ivory productions (Howard's End, A Room With a View, The Golden Bowl) perch high on my top-20 list of favorite flicks, but I can turn them off any time I want to. Not so Jefferson in Paris. No matter at what point in the story I blunder in, I end up helpless, completely transfixed until the final credits.

Even I find this strange. After all, Jefferson in Paris really isn't Merchant-Ivory's best film. Lukewarm reviews greeted its original release; even today, it merits only a mournful rating from Rotten Tomatoes. For once, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala did not have the granite solidity of E.M. Forster or Henry James upon which to lean; she had only the shifting ground of history, alternately magnified and minimized by the imperfect perspectives of those who lived it. Their flaws are deep; their words and actions are at times reprehensible-- yet they command my attention and sympathy, as does their tale. I have yet to tire of it.

Insofar as a perfume also tells a story, that vast genre known as "chypre" has the same effect on me as Jefferson in Paris: I'm always open to a replay. After eau de cologne, this classic compound of oakmoss, bergamot, and labdanum is perfumery's most stable cornerstone. Perfumers may add to it (patchouli and vetiver for an aromatic effect, floral notes for sweetness and grace, animalics such as ambergris, musk, or civet for sensuality) or toy with the idea of substitutions (lemon for bergamot, styrax for labdanum) and overdoses (patchouli). But they cannot take away a single element of the triumvirate and honestly call the result a chypre.

Sadly, this does not stop them from trying-- and not because they want to, but because their hands are tied. The ingredient most targeted by IFRA is ironically the one most crucial to the definition of the chypre: oakmoss. Its restriction is a petty economy forced first upon the perfumer, then upon the consumer. Many a newfangled chypre is now introduced with assurances that we will hardly miss the moss. But we do... if we know what we're looking for.

Will future generations of emerging perfumistas understand what I'm talking about? It hurts to think that they may not. My own evolution as a perfume lover benefited in no small degree from access to ready reference samples. Every vintage fragrance encounter fed my understanding and love of oakmoss and dozens of other endangered scent elements. Will the perfumistas of tomorrow recognize them at all? If not, it will be an injustice -- to perfumery, to history, to the richness of human experience. And until a revolution against the tyranny of IFRA erupts, it's up to us to stockpile yesterday's treasures, spread the gospel via decanted samples, and rally behind independent perfumers who keep the chypre flag flying.

Taking its inspiration from a historical formula, Liz Zorn's Centennial is as grassroots as a chypre can get. There's a classicism to its structure, a purity to its olfactory profile, that could easily trick the senses into believing a true-blue vintage fragrance is in the air. Between the sexy, slightly melancholic chypres of the Dorothy Parker era and the dry sophistication of the discotheque '70s, it achieves the perfect balance; all of its elements sing in harmony, with nary a dropped note or discordant tone.

Although I know that chypres were unknown to women of Thomas Jefferson's era, I find myself speculating who might wear Centennial best. Certainly not Jefferson's bitter, neurotic daughter Patsy, whose clandestine dreams of taking a Catholic nun's vows would forbid unseemly scent altogether. It would take a woman of knowledge and openness, someone with broad experience of the big bad world and awareness of all her own faults and follies, to wear Centennial. So let's award it to Mrs. Cosway, the older and wiser woman... not necessarily happier for all that, but possessed of a history worth hearing again and again.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, orangeflower, jasmine, rose, patchouli, oakmoss, labdanum, musk