A Rose for Beacon Free (Soivohle)

Intense, determined, soft, velvety. These four adjectives have been used by Liz Zorn to describe her sweet feline friend Beanie, whose extraordinary story is well-known to Soivohle fans. Cat-parents of all stripes (and mackerel spots, and tortoiseshell patches) can relate to the love that compels Zorn to pay tribute to her kittyboy. A Rose For Beacon Free is that tribute, and quite a charmer it is-- much like its namesake, no doubt!

Zorn has explained that there have been several versions of ARFBF since its initial conception three years ago. Each incarnation has utilized the signature Soivohle amber base as its launchpad and an intense red rose as its theme. (The original version relied on Bulgarian rose; Zorn has since switched to rose de Mai.) Laced through these foundations are a garden's worth of flowers and spices, the sum of which is a perfume that takes the common rose in an uncommon direction.

My husband's preference in rose perfumes runs to the gourmand; he wants them liberally laced with raspberries, vanilla, chocolate, caramel, or some combination of the above. Of the two of us, I alone like the leathery, smoky, aromatic, WEIRD roses-- that is, when I like roses at all. This one I like, but not for a reason to which my husband can relate. He calls ARFBF "mothbally". I reply, "And the problem is...?"

Beacon Free's rose is one of the driest, most brilliantly fluorescent roses I've ever come across. It has the head-clearing aromatic quality of rosemary or tea tree, and the icy-bright quality of camphor or mint. It's so crisp it almost hurts. I find myself reminded strangely of the fresh red rose which our high school science teacher dipped in liquid nitrogen before our eyes. She then whacked it against the desktop; to our consternated delight, it shattered exactly like a fallen icicle, scattering in glittering flecks of rose-colored frost all over the classroom tile.

The two samples of this fragrance which I now hold -- one gifted to me by sweet lady Lisa, the other coming directly from Soivohle -- smell very individual, but related through that "mothbally" rose in the background. Wearing one on each arm, it's easy to detect the differences. Liz's sample has a more distinct hawthorn note, a sweet, powdery almond-heliotrope that combines with the rose heart to evoke a sugar-dusted square of rahat loukhoum. Lisa's sample, on the other hand, emphasizes jasmine and contains an interesting thread of something spicy and aromatic that made me think of kümmel, my favorite sweet caraway-seed liqueur. So: both gourmand, but definitely in a "specialty" vein; each cushioning its respective rose's prickles with complex layers of sweet-soft-spicy scent.

It has taken a number of consecutive wearings to discover that I can't decide which ARFBF I like best. I suspect it may not really matter, because ARFBF is a story not yet drawn to a conclusion. It has changed before; it could change and change many times more. But rather than reformulation, this is evolution-- and it's amazing that we get to watch it stage by stage.

Keep this rose growing!

Scent Elements: Bergamot, apple, red berries, Rosa centifolia, Rosa damascena, carnation, warm spices, frangipani, hawthorn, orchid, jasmine absolute, caramel sugar, balsam Tolu, balsam Peru, labdanum, benzoin, oud, vanilla, ambrette, orris, brown oakmoss accord

Hansel and Dreidel (Smell Bent)

Who doesn't like the scent of a fresh-baked loaf, a moist slice of cake still warm from the oven, a tray of buttery shortbread or a savory pie cooling on the rack? Answer: the demon who whispered the formula for Challah Atcha Boy in Brent Leonisio's ear. I suspect that little hellraiser (the demon, I mean; not Mr. Leonisio) never set foot in a bakery in all his immortal life. It's too bad. He might have been diverted from his diabolical errand by a single sugar-glazed bear claw... or a sniff of Hansel & Dreidel, the long-lost honeybun scent of my dreams.

Now, I'm not making the converse claim that an angel was responsible for Hansel and Dreidel. Perhaps it was another divine force-- some nameless sweet sprite of the perfumer's workshop, commandeering Leonisio's other shoulder to do some whispering of its own. Perhaps it told him a tale of whole grain and honey, as strong a partnership in myth and Märchen as in the kitchen or chem lab. And for once, the perfumer didn't get all smirky and ironic-- he just faithfully took divine dictation.

Hansel's honey is the same big ol' beast found in Après Soleil-- a rich miel de sarrasin mixed with chunks of honeycomb, so potent and fudgy it could be described without hyperbole as fecal. Scared? You should be: there is no pretty jasmine to shield you here, meine Kinder. Instead, this honey's been baked into a dense, sticky malt loaf or pain d'épices; loaded with spice, it's the size of a house-- and the witch who lives here is extremely persuasive.

Can you resist her? Do you even want to?

Having encountered a not-so-hot version of sandalwood in HoX3 and Après Soleil, I half expected this fragrance to crash in the drydown. But it didn't-- possibly because the sandalwood is hardly detectable under that enormous spiced honey accord, which simply floods the senses forever. I love it so much, I don't care what other notes are trapped in it like flies in amber, unable to escape. Like Hansel and Gretel gorging themselves on gingerbread and icing, I just want more and more and more.

Danger be damned... this is Happily Ever After... at least until this limited edition holiday sample runs out, at which point I'm lost in the woods without a breadcrumb to save me.

Scent Elements: Wheat absolute, honey, baking spices, sandalwood, hiba, musk

Otter Luvr (Smell Bent)

In Elizabeth Marshall Thomas' Ice Age novel Reindeer Moon, the ghost of a young mother observes with joy that her sons have done well without her. One is being properly raised by human relatives; the other (who died with her in childbirth) was reborn as an otter. In her eyes, the latter has the clear advantage. Otters, she's noticed, tend to thrive despite all obstacles. It eases her mind considerably to see that her child has joined such a lucky and lighthearted tribe.

On the other hand, certain indigenous tribes fear the otter for its ability to filch souls from living people. In shamanic cultures, the problem of soul loss is solved by persuading the errant anima to quit the spirit realm and return to its rightful body. However, first you have to catch it-- not an easy task when it's trapped inside a lithe otter swimming lickety-split downstream.

Of all the Mustelidae, the otter takes top honors for sheer exuberance. I've always had a special fascination for these sleek river creatures, with their extravagant whiskers and mischievous mien. As totem animals go, you couldn't ask for a friendlier guide through the swift-moving current of life... and if a shape-shifting paramour were to be desired, I can imagine nothing more satisfying than a lithe otter lover. He might be slippery, maybe even a little disreputable, but he gives himself freely and joyfully-- taking little and leaving no melancholy memories behind.

Otter Luvr is a supple leather chypre suitable for lotharios of both mortal and mythical origins. Against a backdrop of cozy mammalian pongs produced by castoreum and musk, one finds a playful baked-apple sweetness offset by the faint, bitter heat of turmeric. As incompatible as gourmand notes mixed with animalics may sound, this perfume pulls it off in a style reminiscent (dare I say it?) of the ultra-luxe Puredistance M. What sets it slightly apart is an intriguing metallic coldwater note that answers the question: What's an otter without a river to swim?

One mild quibble: for once, the nomenclature could have used more tongue in its cheek. May I suggest Loutre Moi-Même (My Otter Self), a send-up of l'autre moi-même (my other/hidden self)? Or L'Outré Loutre (Over-the-Top Otter)? Or how about just Significant Otter? (I know I'd like Otter Luvr to be mine!) Whatever you call it, Otter Luvr performs beautifully, warms the heart, and lasts forever-- just as you wish all your lovers would. But hold on to what you have, because Smell Bent has already dispatched Otter Luvr to the spirit world-- more's the pity.

Scent Elements: Bay, oakmoss, algae absolute, natural ambergris, castoreum, sweet resins, musk

Jasmine festival!

Here's a jazzy trio of Smell Bent perfume oils ranging from heady to head-shoppy and hitting all the octaves to which a white floral can aspire!

HOx3 is a serviceable start-up jasmine-- fairly light, not overly sweet, and as faux as paste gems on a costume bangle bracelet. Its soapy synthetic quality is ameliorated by a nice fruity rose heart and enough patchouli-incense to nominate it for queen of the joss-stick wall at the local East Meets West. Towards the end it veers back toward artificial, radiating a slightly headachy rich sandalwood that bears no resemblance to real anything. But so what: it's nice that this fragrance doesn't ask to be taken seriously, because that would be impossible. A total beginner to the jasmine note might run shrieking from Jean Patou Joy, but not from this. As usual, too bad about the name.

The jasmine in St. Tropez Dispenser is supposedly a bona fide absolute; it can certainly benchpress about a hundred pounds more than the "jasmine" in HoX3, so maybe it's telling the truth. What a shame that it's been paired with a coconut so thick and oversweetened it could only have come in a can, ready to use in cabana-counter pina coladas. What makes St. Tropez Dispenser interesting is a phantom touch of cigarette smoke which hearkens back to the days when they used to let you smoke on public beaches. Think of it as a mashup between monoi tiaré Tahiti and Jasmin et Cigarette -- tacky, toking tiki fun!

Now Après Soleil is Jasmine with a Capital J-- getting down and deliciously dirty with honey and leather. The bad news: it uses the same sub-par sandalwood as HoX3 and the same gag-inducingly thick coconut-cream accord as St. Tropez Dispenser. The good news: the indoles in this thing have reached maximum chocolate-mousse density, inducing a handy retrograde amnesia when it comes to Après Soleil's less-successful aspects. And yet for all that weighty richness, this sleepy scent just floats up from skin as if it never heard of ballast. Of all three jasmines sampled here, Après Soleil is the one I simultaneously like best and wouldn't dream of wearing out and about. This is definitely a jasmine made for staying home and pulling down the window shades. What the neighbors don't know won't hurt them.

Scent Elements: Jasmine, rose, cumin, patchouli, sandalwood, musk (HOx3); jasmine absolute, coconut, aloe vera, vintage nitro musk (St. Tropez Dispenser); jasmine absolute, honey, coconut, leather, sandalwood, vintage nitro musk (Après Soleil)

Challah Atcha Boy (Smell Bent)

In Neil Gaiman's Good Omens, Famine (he of Four Horsemen infamy) is a corporate executive who greenlights the production of MEALS™-- fat- and sugar-laden but nutritionally worthless filler disguised as real food. The idea is that you eat, grow fat, and somehow still die of malnutrition. If Famine ever decided to introduce a spritzable flavor booster for frustrated dieters, he could use Challah Atcha Boy as a model. Smell Bent describes it as "our favorite egg bread in a spray". If by "egg", you mean "sulphur", and by "bread", you mean "rubbing alcohol", and by "favorite", you mean "family of skunks knocking over my trash cans", then it will not disappoint you.

Me, I hated it. I hated it so much I shouted curse words after spraying it, because I realized I couldn't take it back. I hated it so much I accidentally-on-purpose threw it in the trash... and then fished it back out so that I could have a reference sample of everything that is wrong with the world. Challah Atcha Boy is one of the worst things I have ever smelled, which is different and/or more than merely one of the worst perfumes I've ever smelled. I'm sure there's some sort of prize I could give it for this achievement-- but for lasting a full minute with this gourmand tear gas on my skin, I believe I deserve that prize more.

Scent Elements: I don't know, and I don't WANT to know.

Mirrorball (Smell Bent)

We awakened this morning to two inches of snow glittering in early morning sunshine. Due to frigid temperatures, the snow is granular, as fine and weightless as talcum powder; the slightest breeze lifts great sparkling clouds of ice crystals high into the air. All morning long, the world has seemed filled with mica-dust; we all feel as though we're living in a snowglobe or vintage greeting card.

To extend the magic, I'm wearing icy-hot aromatic Mirrorball. Its mentholated resins and pine sap freshness possess the trick of smelling cold while making me feel very warm indeed. To boost the temperature, I'm wearing gorgeous lime-green wool socks hand-knitted by Bloody Frida and listening to Radiohead on my lunch break. Ice Age coming, Ice Age coming, sings Thom Yorke. Really? Bring it on.

Scent Elements: Incense, woods, hyacinth, jasmine

Walk of Shame (Smell Bent)

A cartoon woman, barefoot and buxom in a skintight green dress, a pair of platform shoes dangling limply from her hand.

This is the predictable graphic chosen by Smell Bent to represent their Walk of Shame. Cue the sniggers and smirks of derision, the Stupid bitch! hissed under the breath. Of course, a man just as well as a woman could make that trek through the streets at dawn-- and either gender could do it without shame in this day and age. Couldn't they?

The landscape through which we travel smells pretty industrial to me-- its acrid/sweet, chemical vapor reminiscent of that hazy vista of landfills and refinery yards found in North Jersey or Staten Island. Avoiding risks, we sleepwalk our way down the safe routes where "bodega blossoms" bloom, presumably at all hours. (Supposedly there's also "morning-after musk" in this mix-- but possibly we left it behind on someone's bed table by accident.)

I strain to detect any hint of naughtiness, fresh or stale, in this odor. That in itself is the worst thing about Walk of Shame. I do not doubt that this is what shame smells like-- but if we're going to made to feel bad about ourselves, shouldn't there be a tiny suggestion of the enjoyable act which put us in the penalty box?

In other words, shouldn't we smell not only a hint of the eternal hell to which we're going, but also one of the heaven from which we've come?

Scent Elements: Whatever's in Bulgari Black, only half as much.

Sunshine (Smell Bent)

At first, I took Smell Bent for a joke. Who wouldn't? Those pun-laden perfume names; those cartoonish graphics, as puerile as ballpoint scrawlings on a bathroom wall... what else could it be but a juvenile prank?

It's not as though I lack a sense of humor. And I won't pretend the fragrance descriptions never aroused my interest. But like some hellish hybrid between BPAL, État Libre d'Orange, and the Jerky Boys, Smell Bent (as evidenced by its manner of merchandising) seems bent on one thing: making folks uncomfortable.

Consider the mission a success. Whenever a new Smell Bent collection appeared on NowSmellThis (every ten minutes, what?) I'd grit my teeth and inch that much further away. If Colleen (she of the wonderful blog Too Young to Know Better) hadn't sent me a passel of assorted SB samples, I honestly doubt I'd ever have pursued them myself.

Am I eating crow at this moment? Not precisely. But I might end up eating my hat.

The nine samples Colleen winged my way range from eyebrow-raising in the best possible sense to one so sickening I almost threw it against the wall. (I'll tell you which was which later this week.) Sunshine falls about in the middle of those two poles, so it seems like a good fragrance to kick off this week's scent explorations.

At first encounter, Sunshine smells exactly like Tang -- that strange multivitamin concoction that is supposed to taste like orange juice but carries a queasy, metallic... well, tang. Still, it's sweet (think Sunny D!) and vaguely healthy (think Flintstones Chewables!) and definitely designed for childlike appeal. Just when you think it's going to out-candy Anné Pliska, a meaty marjoram-like note sneaks in, followed by a bizarre (but incidentally quite successful) butterscotch accord. I think the latter may be the outer edge of the wall of sandalwood which dominates Sunshine's drydown. By the time it appears, I'm persuaded that I might -- MIGHT! -- be able to ignore those awful jokey names and crude clumsy doodles.

To be entirely free of them, I guess I could "untitle" these nine Smell Bent sample vials Chandler Burr-style-- to wit, strip them of their names, relabel them ('1', '2', etc.) and then confront them purely as SMELLS liberated from conceptual-marketing ballast. That might prove disappointing to SB's Brent Leonesio, who seems to sincerely want us to get the joke, even when the joke gets in the way of his own product. He's no comedian, that's for sure.

But if what I'm smelling is accurate, there might be a damned decent perfumer inside that clown costume.

Scent Elements: Blood orange, sandalwood, vanilla, incense, musk

India Gulab (Attar Bazaar)

Alma Hatch's body was sarsaparilla or hard candy in a dish or an all-day sucker. Something so sweet and pink and sticky you got it all over yourself. Something once you started in on you couldn't stop til you made yourself sick. Always smelled of roses, too... Pink roses. Not white, red, or yellow-- pink.
With these words in lieu of a eulogy, Shed -- the two-spirited Shoshone who narrates Tom Spanbauer's groundbreaking Western epic, The Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon -- remembers his late friend and fellow prostitute, Alma Hatch. Alma comes to Excellent, Idaho in the year 1880, drawn there by the promise of a whorehouse painted entirely pink. The fact that this young widow is a former Bible saleslady matters not a whit; within twenty-four hours, her good reputation is history.

"Best whore in the state," boasts madam (and town mayor) Ida Richilieu. "What makes Alma so good is that she looks like a rose, smells like a rose, and then fucks your thorns loose."

Having abandoned theology, Alma keeps only one book by her at all times: a leatherbound, gold-tooled, lavishly illustrated folio edition of Ornithological Studies in the Pacific Northwest. Rumor has it she joined the Audubon Society and the circus in the same week. On the subject of winged creatures, she is wont to expound endlessly; even when she makes love, plaintive bird cries issue from her throat.

Always and everywhere, an intoxicating fragrance wafts from Alma's skin like the fabled odor of sanctity. Even when old age strips other memories from his mind, Shed (like most of Excellent's townspeople) can never forget her devastating aura:
...I just couldn't get the smell of her, the smell of roses, and the taste of her out of my way... (H)er words were left... becoming my new language.
If Shed had smelled India Gulab, he would have burst into tears.

Have you ever heard tell about rose-tanned leather? It's a rare cordovan that has been cured with pure rose otto instead of oil and tannin. So unthinkable is its cost that Alma Hatch would never have come within a mile of it-- not on whore's wages. She would have had to improvise her own. I imagine her lovely fingers, still wet with rosewater, caressing the morocco-red covers of her favorite tome until it becomes imbued with an essence both pink and prickly. The combination is fitting: at her core Alma Hatch is the proverbial "li'l piece of leather well put together", beautiful and giving but as feisty as all get-out. She's not one to be easily taken down, petals all pulled apart.

When I wear India Gulab, I feel myself stand straighter-- shoulders back, hands on hips, eyes direct, and tongue saucy. In olden times, they might have deemed me "full of the old Eve". Alma Hatch paid for dearly for possessing this quality, and if I keep wearing India Gulab, no doubt so shall I. This is a leather-bound rose with beauty and backbone-- as perfect for speaking in heavenly tongues as it is for getting yourself arrested.

You can always tell the police officer it was totally consensual. But he'll never understand you if you insist on singing like a canary.

A trio of roses.

In perfumery, rose rules over its own hereditary kingdom. It never had to fight to win this throne from another; royal status was conferred upon it by the moment it blossomed. Given its eminence within the world of Eastern fragrance, it's no surprise that Rose gets its own dedicated category in the Attar Bazaar catalog. Out of seven available roses, I've tried four; three I will present today, and the last -- it's a doozy! -- I'm saving for the weekend. You may be sure the remaining roses from Attar Bazaar's garden will bloom on this blog in the future!

Night Rose
According to AB: "Extracted from very dark ruby red rosebuds, this particular scent is a nighttime delight: flashingly exciting, to captivate the body, mind, and soul. One drop is sufficient for the whole night."
According to me: At first I got all excited. Up top, Night Rose smelled like sweet orange peel and dry rose petals with a touch of bitter almond. But then it went all Murphy's Oil Soap and lemon disinfectant on me, and I started to fret over the sorry state of my kitchen linoleum. Many people adore the odor of a freshly-cleaned house, but unless your house actually IS in perfect condition, a scent like this can make you feel like a total housekeeping failure. I hate being guilt-tripped, and this perfume does so in a tart and unpleasant tone of voice. Sorry, but for me, Night Rose is a definite "no".

Persian Rose
According to AB: "Sweet, light, and pink in color. Will transport you to a garden of ancient beauty, filled with soft breezes. A very elegant and feminine rose scent. One can easily fall in love while wearing this fragrance!"
According to me: When Attar Bazaar colors a perfume oil some wild, distracting hue (like Blue Nile or Nour), it usually signals fun times ahead. Tinted a preposterous, girly pink, Persian Rose surprises me by smelling entirely natural-- almost photo-real. Peppery, crisp, dewy, and very fresh, this fragrance could be wafting directly from the center of a rose growing in that "ancient garden" described in the brochure. It never goes sour, and provides a compelling reason for me not to write roses (OR girliness) off.

Sudanese Black Rose
According to AB: "Sudanese Black Rose is available again!! Same sultry mysterious fragrance we have missed for so long!"
According to me: I didn't know much about Sudanese Black Rose except that it had been temporarily discontinued. I imagine it must have been pretty well-loved to be welcomed back from retirement with such fanfare; yet skepticism marred my initial opinion of this 'classic' AB fragrance. Black Rose opens with the same household cleaner effect as its cousin, the soapy-sour Night Rose. Had a sink been nearby, I might have scrubbed it off-- never realizing what a mistake this would be. As it modulates ever so slowly into a deep, dark Rosa damascena tinged with allspice, honey, and bitter chocolate, Black Rose assures me that good things take time. Because it ends much closer to my liking than where it began, I choose to place my trust in it. Perhaps in the course of another professional hiatus, it might succeed in ditching that unfortunate top note-- and then I shall never again be tempted to throw Black Rose out with the bathwater.

Ambrette Absolute (Attar Bazaar)

In his 1867 Book of Perfumes, the great scent impresario Eugène Rimmel divided all perfumery materials into twelve classifications: animal, floral, herbal, andropogon, citrine, spicy, ligneous, radical, seminal, balmy, fruity, or artificial. Several of these terms mean something slightly different than what the modern reader might infer. 'Radical', for instance, refers to scent-producing roots (iris and vetiver)-- not revolution, baby. A 'balmy' ingredient isn't one that's warm in temperature, but resinous in composition (myrrh, benzoin, styrax). Rimmel therefore classifies ambrette (Abelmoschus moschatus) as 'seminal' in reference to its being (like anise, cumin, caraway, dill, and fennel) a seed.

What a disappointment for those of us whose minds happily occupy the gutter! But before we all shout Dammit! and throw our copies of Rimmel across the room in protest of a lost opportunity for smut, let's open up some ambrette and give it a good sniff.

Hmmmmm. Hmmmmmmmmmm.

If 'seminal' meant what I think it should mean, ambrette would join musk, civet, and ambergris in the animal category. Rimmel must have been assailed by thoughts along the same lines, for he cannot help but toss off (YES I SAID IT) a reference to ambrette during a discussion of animal musks. True, he does so only to state (rather testily!) that vegetable musks never pan out properly, and ambrette smells much more like civet, in his opinion.

Time for another sniff... nope. Smells pretty durned musky to me.

Sweet. Rich. Warm. Floral. Nutty. Fatty. Spicy. Leathery. Animalic. Erogenous. Complex. These (along with "musky", excusez-moi Monsieur Rimmel!) are some of the descriptors that repeatedly shimmy to the surface when one sifts for intel about ambrette. Taken all together, they paint quite a picture, don't they? Oh yes. I can't think of a single reason why anyone -- no matter how pathologically modest -- would object to that parade of adjectives following them around for life.

Add one more adjective: exalting. Nice word, that; smacks of spirituality, of perfume-as-religion. (It is, isn't it?) 'Exalting' was first appended to ambrette by Steffen Arctander in his 1960 self-published tome, Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin. According to Arctander, 'exalting' fixatives are those which carry and fortify other scents, causing them to blossom outward with greater intensity.

One more sniff? Well, since you asked nicely...

The glove fits. Ambrette IS exalting-- and also exalted, and also exulting. I truly cannot think of a better skin scent than this essence. The minute it's on my wrists or behind my ears, I feel uplifted, boosted, confident, joyful. All this glory from one little seed-- amazing!

Imported from India, Attar Bazaar's Ambrette is presented as a natural absolute-- a clear liquid of palest gold, ever so slightly viscous, and remarkably tenacious once applied. It bears a blue label to keep it separate from the pink-and-white-labeled perfume oils (which include synthetic aromachemicals) and the russet-labeled "Connoisseur" line (natural, high-end single oils and attar blends). Is it pure and true, the genuine article? Is it 100%, or has it been diluted in an oil base? I have no idea. With 1.5ml of artisanal ambrette CO2 going for $40 a pop on Perfumer's Apprentice, I may have to wait until after tax season to undertake a comparison.

Or not. Because this stuff smells FANTASTIC. It's got the adjectives; it does the trick. Twentysome dollars wins you a full dram which will last for ages, seeing as how the tiniest drop persists near about forever on skin. It'll layer with anything on earth or stand on its own, proud and-- um, seminal. I'm getting everything I hoped out of it, including (I believe) a bargain for the price.

I'm happy.

That's a good adjective, yes?

Scent Elements: Just what it says on the label.

Ylang Ylang (Attar Bazaar)

Some say ylang-ylang's name stems from the Tagalog for "rare". Others misinterpret it to mean "flower of flowers"-- true in spirit, if not in strict etymology. However you source it, it's a strange one.

A member of the Annonoceae family, ylang-ylang counts as its cousins a whole basket of fruits (atemoya, cherimoya, guanábana, sweetsop, pawpaw, biriba) with flesh like sweet, silky custard. Ylang-ylang alone bears fruit of less than ambrosial character-- unless you're a bird, in which case those shiny black, fibrous, sharp-tasting berries are the very diet of paradise.

While ylang-ylang may not provide sustenance for the stomach, it outdoes itself (and the rest of its tribe) in nourishing the nose. According to chemist Bo Jensen's Small Guide to Nature's Fragrances, "(t)he rest of the Annonacean family usually has flowers with a moldy or putrid smell, if they have any smell at all." But ylang-ylang emits a most unique and beautiful fragrance that more than compensates for its relatives' deficiencies. It's hard to describe this fragrance without name-checking a number of others. Banana, jasmine, saffron, shoe polish, plastic...

I TOLD you I was freaky,
ylang-ylang says.

A touch of ylang-ylang imparts a moist, cool quality to a perfume, invoking images of Polynesian mountain rainforests. Effortlessly refined, it rounds off the edges of other scent elements and adds a high, smooth surface shine like a dappling of rain on a glossy taro leaf. As a auxiliary to leather, ylang-ylang lends a supple, delicate animalic quality reminiscent of blonde chamois suede. But served up neat, ylang-ylang is a wilder ride: tropical languor glimpsed through a caul of fiery fumes. For this reason, it strikes me as the most unisex of tropical blooms-- something men as well as women can enjoy. (And enjoy they have, for at least two centuries-- ylang-ylang was the principal aromatic agent in macassar hair oil, the Dippity-Do of Victorian manhood.)

Attar Bazaar's Ylang Ylang can most definitely count a volcanic slope in the Pacific as its birthplace. Sweet though it may seem, it will not let you forget that it hails from the Ring of Fire, where wisps of acrid smoke spiral up from cracks in the fertile earth. Smoky syrup, leather liqueur: this is the fragrance of neither fruit, nor flower, but fantasy. I reapply endlessly, savoring the everchanging nature of this nonpareil.

Scent Elements: Ylang-ylang, plain but not simple.

African Violet (Attar Bazaar)

Have you seen that commercial in which a spooky-cute toy-store clerk tells her customers to "Have a SUPER SPARKLY DAY!" Well, she does work at Happy Princess Wonderland. And if she doesn't wear sweet violet perfume, I'll eat my tiara.

Violets are the ultimate Pretty Princess flower... and Attar Bazaar's African Violet is the ideal Pretty Princess Purse Perfume. It's inexpensive enough for even the most rock-bottom budget... and is it sweet? (Quoth my husband, "Smells like Kabooms!") Similar to The Unicorn Spell, African Violet starts off green, so fresh it snaps-- but unlike Les Nez's violet, this blossom does not cop out. It shoots up like Jack's beanstalk, getting bigger and sweeter and girlier with every passing minute, a vast adorable flower face looming over the countryside like a full purple moon. It gets so big it scares me... and then suddenly it shrinks back down to pocket-sized proportions, ending on a nice violet-pastille scent:  easy, demure, and very, very lovely.

I thoroughly enjoyed the African Violet ride and I'd queue up for it again, even though I suspect I'd have to be twenty-five years younger (or 75% less cynical) to rock it properly. If you're a hip gothic Lolita with a not-so-secret soft spot for the Disney dolls of her youth, give this little sweetie-pie a try.

And yes: have a super sparkly day.

Scent Elements: Candied violets and MAGIC.

Magnolia and Pearl Musk (Attar Bazaar)

The magnolia -- that great icon of the languid South, one of the oldest flowers in existence (predating even honeybees!) -- signifies dignity and nobility in the language of flowers, though its scent speaks quite clearly of baser sentiments. Its fleshy tepals (no typo there; flowers possess tepals, sepals, or petals, and sometimes all three) feel like the softest skin and give off the scent of idealized sex: sweeter than honey, deeper than midnight, and redolent of a thousand petites morts.

Without a faint hint of organic decay -- those odd notes of fungus, feces, carrion, and other earthly delights that simultaneously lure and disturb -- the scent of white flowers would honestly be nothing more than sugar and soap. At first, this is all one seems to get from Attar Bazaar's Magnolia, a white flower so sparkly-clean you could eat off of it. The longer it remains on skin, an arresting green note begins to peep through, lending the semblance of dimension-- but not enough.

Clearly Magnolia needs help; a white musk would not have been my instinctive first choice. It would be silly to expect something so patently clean to provide the touch of dirt that Magnolia needs. But Pearl Musk Original possesses a faint marine-salt tang that lifts it above the usual 'laundry soap' and restores the organic angle to Magnolia's arsenal. The resulting skin scent is a most attractive phenomenon, only arrived at via a combination of forces.

I don't know that I would wear Pearl Musk on its own; it's too subtle and reticent to hold my attention. But layered with Magnolia, it magically summons the pellucid, sleepy haze of a tropical beach... and all the trouble one might get oneself into there.

And if you can't think of a few ways to make some of that trouble, you need more help than Magnolia.

Scent Elements: Magnolia and white musk.

Spice (Attar Bazaar)

Today is Tjugondag jul, the last day of the Scandinavian Yuletide season. The tree and all of its ornaments have been packed away; we've finished the very last of the Christmas candy (it was rough going, but it had to be done). I'm wearing an attar called Spice-- a very wintry fragrance which just makes it in under the Yuletide wire.

Originally prefaced with the word "Holiday" (presumably to leave no doubt which season it belongs to), Spice is a rich, satisfying fragrance located exactly at the junction between gourmand (vanilla, cinnamon, sweet orange peel) and Oriental (frankincense and myrrh). Basically, what this boils down to is a deliciously gooey baklava syrup for your wrists-- a warming and appetizing scent that extends the cozy Christmas season (at least olfactorially) for as long as your inner child wants it to last.

(Now where did I squirrel away that 'spare' marzipan?)

Scent Elements: Cinnamon, frankincense, myrrh, vanilla, and other blended attars

Opopanax (Les Néréides)

Yesterday I tasted a revelation.

We'd gathered in the conference hall for our department winter-holiday party. Each of us brought a dish to the communal table. Most of the librarians I know are foodies, so the menu alone made our mouths water: Lobster Bisque. Spanish Rice with Sausage. Mushroom Quiche. Lemon-Rosemary Cookies. Fresh Berry and Beignet Kebabs.* I opted to bring my Merry Monte Cristo-mas Strata... but what I really was looking forward to was the dish our newest librarian planned to bring.

Being somewhat of a fanatic on the subject of bread pudding, I make all my comparisons with a fervor born of lifelong obsession. Show me any bread pudding variation, whether sweet or savory, and I'm a goner. I love the standard recipe, with its rich egg custard, plump raisins, and lashings of cinnamon sugar. I retain a strong partiality towards Mexican capirotada, drenched in clove-imbued piloncillo syrup and studded with nuggets of molten queso fresco. I'm also highly susceptible to a pan of good ol' American turkey stuffing moistened up with rich stock and a truckload of butter. (This qualifies, surely?)

But I've never had anything like Shazia's bread pudding. It defied all definition.

First of all, missing (at least to the naked eye) were the standard, uniform cubes of bread. This bowlful of opalescent cream -- garnished solely with a minimalist sprinkling of slivered almonds -- resembled a straightforward vanilla pudding arrived at by cooking sieved breadcrumbs in milk, no more than that. The result appeared homogenized and perfectly smooth; expecting blandness, I spooned some up...then had to either sit down or fall down.

Satiny, bewitching, and unbelievably sensuous on the tongue, possessed of a mild yet enthralling flavor (orange-blossom water? cardamom?)-- this food seemed worthier of the gods than of a mere mortal like myself. Its texture and weight was undeniably delicate; yet it both filled me up and fortified me. Barely half a cup left me spoiled for any other sweet on that table. (Okay, except maybe the Lemon-Rosemary Cookies, of which I enjoyed two.) And when the party ended and we all headed back to the office, I kept accosting coworkers to demand, But the bread pudding! Did you try the bread pudding?

Remember when I likened Eau Lente by Diptyque to angelfood cake on a white plate and declared that I preferred the more flavorful fare promised by Shalimar or Sacrebleu? I still would, if you handed me Eau Lente. But if you hand me Les Néréides' Opopanax, all bets are off.

Yesterday I tasted a revelation. Today, I wear one.

Scent Elements: Citrus fruit, opoponax, amber, benzoin, vanilla, sandalwood

Sensuous Noir (Estée Lauder)

Sensuous Noir is a reminder to me never to dismiss a flanker just because its predecessor didn't speak to me. I disliked the original Sensuous because its amber had a sluggish quality that I just couldn't ignore; to me, it smelled like fried churro dough, and I promptly turned my back on it forever. When Nude and Noir followed, it never occurred to me to explore the line in search of something different or better. I arrogantly assumed that it would be a waste of my time.

But I've changed my mind, and I have my pal (and fellow Garden State resident) Blacknall Allen to thank. She and her delightful mother-in-law met me for lunch not too long ago in the Jerseyest setting imaginable-- an Italian restaurant at the shore. (My memory's hazy, but there may have been a candle stuck in a Chianti bottle present.) Over plates of linguini carbonara and mozzarella en carozza, Blacknall handed me a sample of Sensuous Noir, promising me that whatever composite image I'd formed of the impeccable Estee Lauder catalog thus far, things were about to get dirty.

Bwuh? I had no idea Estée Lauder could DO dirty. Most of their fragrances are thoroughly patrician in nature, wrinkle-free and well-appointed; even the spicier orientals seem to have a stock portfolio or two tucked demurely away. In my opinion, the closest Lauder ever got to "sexy" was Tuscany per Donna, a fabulously zaftig honeysuckle that just burgeons over the top of everything-- the bottle, its bra, your boundaries. It stuck out like a sore thumb from the rest of the Lauder oeuvre until Sensuous came along, but the latter seemed to me less sexy than grease-spattered-- a pretty girl trapped all day in front of a deep-fryer.

Nevertheless, I took the plunge-- and Sensuous Noir surprised me by being, well, scrumptious. Like Sensuous, it's an ambery lily with a good sprinkling of spicy black pepper. But across the boards, perfumer Annie Buzantian seems to have given the ingredients a salutary tweak. All the ballast has been shifted from amber to patchouli in this formula, and both are better for it. The amber is now creamy, sweet, and vanillic instead of merely viscous and oily; the volume and bass have been turned up on the patchouli, whose vibration now reaches clear down to your feet like a good, soul-satisfying musical beat. There's still black pepper for those who love it-- and there's that gorgeous lily, still extravagant and carnal, but now relegated to the background... and somehow even sexier because it is more subtle.

Not nearly as restrained is Estée Lauder's description of this scent-- god, I love perfume PR-speak! They employ adjectives as if deciding to unload an entire linguistic arsenal in one go: feminine, intensely rich, mysteriously seductive, fluid, exquisite, subtle, velvety, narcotic, spicy, tempting, enticing, sleek, unique, luscious, captivating, smooth, earthy, elusive, hypnotic, glowing, luminous, mystifying. (Someone in corporate might want to invest in a dictionary; that last one actually means bewildering or perplexing, and sometimes -- depending on its context -- deliberately intended to commit deception.) As for ingredients, we are offered such conceptual marvels as "melted woods nature print", "creme noir accord", and "patchouli prisma". I have no idea what any of those things are, but I know what they do-- they WORK.

How do I know? When I wear it, it's not men who can't help themselves, but other women. They lean closer to breathe in my scent and whisper tremulously in my ear, "Oh, you smell so good-- what IS that? You HAVE to tell me. PLEASE."

To paraphrase Nancy Mitford at her most congratulatory, "Fantasia, fantasia!"

Scent Elements: Rose, jasmine, lily, black pepper, woods, patchouli, benzoin, honey, amber

Intimate (Revlon)

She was our angel, the sweet angel of sex, and the sugar of sex came up from her like the resonance of sound in the clearest grain of a violin... a very Stradivarius of sex, so gorgeous, forgiving, humorous, compliant and tender that even the most mediocre musician would relax his lack of art in the dissolving magic of her violin.
A bit much? Well, that's Norman Mailer for you. He packs all this and more into the first two paragraphs of his 1973 Sexy Book of Sexy Sex "novel biography" of Marilyn Monroe. Here's another snippet:
...when the sexual immanence of her face came up on the screen like a sweet peach bursting before one's eyes, she looked then like a new love ready and waiting between the sheets in the unexpected clean breath of a rare sexy morning... so curvaceous and yet without menace... "Take me," said her smile. "I'm easy. I'm happy. I'm an angel of sex, you bet."
Of course, Mailer describes only Marilyn Monroe's effect. Her self -- internal, inscrutable, remote -- regarded the act of sex as frustrating, a cipher she could not crack. "I don't know if I do it the right way," she lamented to a close friend. (Recently unearthed recordings Monroe made with her psychotherapist reveal that she was unable to experience orgasm until her mid-thirties-- a startling insight into the life of a "sex goddess".)

In truth, perhaps Monroe's temperament was best suited to the icy abstractions of Chanel No. 5 or the prickly-crisp propriety of Floris Rose Geranium. (Six bottles!? That's devotion!) Even in her artless, hip-wiggling way, she possessed too much innate dignity and caution to wear the perfume I'm here to discuss.

Yet Mailer's racy paean to her still has its uses. Simply change all the pronouns, and we have a ready-made review of Revlon Intimate.

I knew nothing about Intimate until I read this post on Pink Manhattan. While watching Ciao! Manhattan, Sali Oguri spied a bottle of Revlon Intimate sitting on Edie Sedgwick's cluttered vanity table. Sure, it could have been mere set dressing, scooped up by a hurried prop master and tossed like a grenade into the cinematic chaos. But when you're good and truly obsessed with something -- as I most certainly am with Edie* -- any fresh factoid seems like a gem of new insight.

Conventional wisdom claims Fracas as Edie's fragrance of choice. That monumental tuberose could certainly have been the source of the "sweet but somewhat sickly smell" which exuded from her body during sex-- the only thing her lovers seemed to find memorable about the occasion. They described her (rather ungallantly, I think) as a clumsy child, "boring and uninteresting" in bed. Like Marilyn Monroe, 'La Sedgwick' could not deliver on the powerful promise which she unconsciously broadcast; her detachment disappointed those who thought they had a right to sexual fireworks.

What kiss-and-tell secrets could Intimate whisper about her?

An opportunity to discover the answer came when DC scored a vintage bottle of Intimate Perfume Spray at a local yard sale. She came to my house for a decanting session which turned into a bit of a wild ride. So insanely effervescent was Intimate, bursting out of the spray nozzle like a champagne rocket, that we couldn't even cap the decant vessel for almost an hour. We spent that time watching silvery bubbles of carbonation spiral upward through the golden liquid... and breathing in its scent from our own hands.

Within Intimate, we found rich florals, chypre-embedded woods, the strange fungal rot of gardenia petals, and a patchouli so fudgy it had us licking the tips of our fingers. But we also found something else-- that racy, raunchy factor composed entirely of animalic elements (civet, musk, castoreum) and popularly known as skank. Frankly put, Intimate smells like female genitalia-- so much so that it left us uncertain whether to giggle or blush. (Naturally, we did both.)

Once the floodgate opens, there's no shutting it. Since then, I've lucked into no fewer than three additional versions of vintage Revlon Intimate. A quarter-ounce mini of Eau de Toilette came packaged in a pink-and-black sample box emblazoned with the words, "A Gift From Your Beautician... Cherished as One of the World's Seven Great Fragrances!" A partial spray flacon of the Eau de Cologne turned up at a local antique store, followed by a tiny bottle of Perfume Oil Drops ("For the Body"-- no kidding!). I've worn them all.... and in the course of doing so, have pondered long and deeply on the significance of skank.

skank \ˈskaŋk\ n. (slang): a person and especially a woman of low or sleazy character.
--The Free Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
(underscore mine).


As a word, skank is somewhat of a lightning rod. The tone in which it's pronounced reveals volumes about the speaker's attitude toward womankind in general. I myself have used it to describe a number of feminine perfumes that I really like (DiBorghese, PdN Odalisque, Paco Rabanne La Nuit) and one masculine that I hated. Yet even when I apply it out of admiration, there's a touch of sarcasm in my delivery-- as if I hoped to distance myself from whatever damning implications might accompany its usage.

Though I admit to ambivalence about my own gender, I won't forsake it; I know firsthand how self-conscious and vulnerable our own bodies make us. Women are mortally afraid of being judged vulgar, of attracting mockery or inspiring disgust; what is most natural about us is what we work overtime to hide. If the basic currency of skank consists of feminine aroma -- that which author Tom Robbins worshipfully dubs your salty incense, your mushroom moon musk, your deep waves of clam honey breaking against the cold steel of civilization... (drawing) our noses to the grindstone of ecstasy -- to accept and embrace it is empowering.

Oh these things were made to be loved! Robbins proclaims. More than Norman Mailer, he's right.

So when I wear Intimate, I think of Edie, of Marilyn, of every woman who projects sex and magic, who struggles to maintain something inviolable within herself-- and then breaks just like a little girl. Carnality blended with sunny benevolence, sex without tangles or tears: this is someone else's wishful thinking. We are not these things, though we wear them like disguises.

No word of single syllable can sum us up.

Scent Elements: Aldehydes, bergamot, rose, coriander, gardenia, jasmine, iris, sandalwood, cedar, patchouli, amber, oakmoss, castoreum, civet, musk.

*I've occasionally let slip here what a total sucker I am for all things Edith. That includes Wharton, Bouvier Beale (Big AND Little!), Piaf, and Minturn Stokes (AKA "Fiercely"), Edie Sedgwick's great-aunt and namesake. (And by gum, we WILL count the middle Crawley sister on this list of Ediths or else burn it for kindling!)