Revisiting Ankhara.

On occasion, I will extend a second chance to a fragrance that didn't exactly rock my world the first time. On occasion, I will then find myself stunned at some new dimension of beauty heretofore unappreciated, and I will be forced to completely reevaluate my earlier opinion.

This is not one of those occasions.

Ankhara is a mirage of the East writ in dollops of whipped cream and jam. If that sounds like the dessert known as trifle (or better yet fool), the parallel is quite appropriate. Its notes list (coffee, fig, frangipani, pomegranate, leather!) led this perfumista to imagine a fetching bit of fragrant drama, infused with smoke and honey and grenadine. To get plain old puddin' instead is a keen letdown.

Perhaps the Soivohles which preceded Ankhara spoiled me-- expressed as they were in Liz Zorn's bold, adventurous style. Even if Ankhara's story were different, I expected to hear it told in more or less the same voice. I admit I approached it with open arms and inflated hopes; I suppose I talked myself into a frenzy even before that sample vial crossed my threshold. The rest is history. And history, of course, repeats itself.

At least Ankhara's second chance was a thoroughly informed one; I did not expect much, and as a result, I did not lose much. Ankhara remains what it was on all previous wearings: a nice fragrance, nothing extraordinary. Three stars: just desserts.

Ambre Rayonner Demi-Absolute (Soivohle)

We picked up one excellent word — a word worth travelling to New Orleans to get; a nice limber, expressive, handy word — "lagniappe." It is the equivalent of the thirteenth roll in a "baker's dozen"... something thrown in, gratis, for good measure.
--Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, 1886
Even as far from the mighty Mississippi as central Ohio, the custom of lagniappe is kept alive by Liz Zorn, who tucks lovely samples of brand-new or soon-to-debut fragrances into every shipped purchase. My last few orders have yielded such delightful extras as the sparkling Rose for Beacon Free and the profound Anubis. Now comes Ambre Rayonner (Radiant Amber), described by Liz on her blog as being lighter, brighter, and more floral than the "wintry" incense-heavy Amberene.

Several wearings in, and I'm already inclined to credit Ambre Rayonner with being one of the most unique ambers I've ever met. Thanks to infusions of lemon zest and ambrette alongside the usual resins and woods, it is less sweet and more lighthearted than Amberene, with an ozonic quality reminscent of Dior Dune. Linden blossom tickles the nose with an uplifting champagne-fizz effect; if this makes you think of aldehydes, so will a certain smoky/waxy character embedded in Ambre Rayonner's heart, evoking freshly-polished church pews sitting in floods of windowpane sunlight. Zorn tweaks this divine vision along with a touch of frankincense, included (she says) to prevent the fragrance from become "too dark or murky". As if!

Is Ambre Rayonner full-bottle-worthy? If I keep returning to the sample vial as often as I've been doing, there's definite peril of it becoming so. If I time it right, perhaps my lagniappe will be a sample of the "darker version... (a) sequel or part two" of Ambre Rayonner that Zorn has promised. Speed the day!

Scent Elements: Lemon, bergamot, mango, linden, plum, rose, Parma violet, angelica, guaiac, hiba, cinnamon, cardamom, pimiento, rosewood, balsam Tolu, balsam Peru, ambrette, benzoin, labdanum, tonka, frankincense, vanilla, musk

Bottleneck Blues (Soivohle)

That white flowers smell of sex is a given.  That they also smell of black rubber and blood and death and mystery continues to surprise.  Gross? Yes. Strangely compelling? Again, yes. A thing can't be called a 'guilty pleasure' unless the guilt and the pleasure are democratically distributed.

Syrupy and overpowering, Bottleneck Blues pins me down like an overenthusiastic lover, burying me in the satiny weight of sugar-encrusted petals. This would be divine if not for the furtive odor of unwashed feet that rises from the bed sheet depths. His or mine? I don't know, and I don't care.  If there's an olfactory equivalent of 'turning a blind eye', now's the time for it.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, lilac, magnolia, rose, tuberose, jasmine, oakmoss, hay, earth accord, labdanum, woods, vanilla absolute, ambergris, musk, castoreum, tonka

Perfumes for the physician's office.

For today's medical appointment, I chose Orris Ochre as the fragrance most likely to achieve two very important goals. First, it's unobtrusive-- a crucial consideration when visiting a neurologist's office. Orris Ochre would leave no traces behind in the examination room to disturb the doctor or his other patients, many of whom might be experiencing olfactory sensitivity related to their conditions. Secondly, it soothes and comforts me, bolstering my sense of security and confidence, without which it would be difficult to scale this medical mountain.

Next week, I'm scheduled for both an EEG and a brain MRI. What to wear (besides no metal)? In past days I opted for Parfums De Nicolaï Balkis, but that was during the depths of winter. August demands that I eschew stronger Orientals for something more like a cologne-- light, invigorating, and above all, sheer.

I'm thinking that the crisp, hesperidic Mäurer & Wirtz 4711 might be a front-runner, with Voyage d'Hermès a close second. To ward off the chill of the MRI chamber without sacrificing summer aesthetics, Yves Rocher Vanille Noire or Hermès Ambre des Merveilles would be ideal. If a lotion is preferred, Voyage d'Hermès Lait Parfumé Pour le Corps provides fleeting fragrance and transparent coolness. On the warm side I'd reach for Paintbox Soapworks' Englishman (an exceptional leather-and-Earl-Grey-tea body cream) or just the smallest touch of Clinique Aromatics Elixir Body Smoother for the feeling of lying on a bed of moss in the summer shade...

Or perhaps I'll just wear my beautiful Orris Ochre again. After all, in a pinch, it's wise to stick with what works.

Alpha Musc (Soivohle)

Musk is a strange and solitary molecule. When it appears on the horizon, other scent elements tend either to flee precipitously or fade into the underbrush, leaving the fell beast to dominate the scentscape. Usually it does so quietly-- although if you're hypersensitive to musk, the olfactory din it raises out there in the darkness is enough to make you stay up all night, with a Bible in one hand and Grandpappy's old Winchester in the other.

Me? I wish that musk would howl louder.

Bashful reticence is a problem I've never encountered with civet (whose subtlest purr raises the hair on the back of my neck) or castoreum (which produces an almost tangible sensation of slippery-smooth fur against one's palms). Ambergris reliably evokes the wrack and heave of the life-teeming tide; costus really does smell like warm, unwashed human hair. Honey? I drip for it. But musk (or at least what passes for it in the chemistry lab) has disappointed me many a time; it is seldom mammalian enough, skanky enough, dirty enough for me. I want the Big Bad Wolf in a bed of wildflowers; too often the scenery comes sans wolf.

Alpha Musc does not smell lupine, or like lupins; it does not even smell like musk. It smells like aged Parmesan cheese. In a scientific study of cheese characteristics sponsored by Kansas State University's Sensory Analysis Unit, panelists chose the adjectives "nutty", "sweaty", "pungent", and "goatier than other cheeses" to describe Parmesan. I suppose if I really wanted my cheese to be animalic, I'd know what to reach for. But Alpha Musc is perfume, and I'd like to keep the line between my fragrance and my fromage clearly demarcated. Sure, it offers alluring little whiffs of ambrette and flowers along with the old Parmagiano-Reggiano; I'm sure it was built to please somebody's taste. But like the song says, the cheese stands alone.

Scent Elements: Musk, frankincense, "beach amber accord", "warm woods"

Palomino Eau de Parfum (Soivohle)

...cowgirls need something to do with their mouths while riding herd, and this is what they do: they stick a butterscotch LifeSaver in one cheek and a clove in the other. They seldom suck and never chew, but just concentrate on the mixture of juices that drips onto their tonsils from the LifeSaver and the clove, in a steady drip like rainwater running off the candied rooftops of Fairyland.

Now aside from being calming and occupying, requiring no spitting and no assistance from the hands, a butterscotch LifeSaver and a clove give a person the most interesting breath in the world.

It's no wonder the Rubber Rose ladies were always kissing on each other, although what a cowgirl does with her mouth once she's back at the bunkhouse shouldn't really concern us students of Western lore.

When there were thirty or more cowgirls riding for the Rubber Rose, sometimes the wheatgrass and the hills and the whole wide sky itself would start to smell like butterscotch and clove.

--Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues
Scent Elements: Clary sage, juniper, cabreuva, galbanum, clove, cinnamon, amber, vanilla, frankincense, dry white wine, pomegranate, cedarwood, sandalwood, musk

Delicious to the core.

Today I used up the very last drops of Solstice, Liz Zorn's apple-sans-apple fragrance of which I scored a manufacturer's sample two years ago.  Over that stretch of time, I've carefully eked out this beautiful sweet/smoky perfume molecule by molecule, enjoying its play of notes across the seasons-- from May bloom to summer quickening, from autumnal haze to winter hearthfire.

Wearing Solstice today for the final time gave me a combined sense of pleasure and nostalgia-- sweetness in the here and now; sweetness from the memories of past wearings.  I'm going to miss it... but if I find that my bereavement becomes too keen to bear, I could always head over to Liz' clearance sale, where a bottle of Solstice sells for a very kind $30 per eleven milliliters of demi-absolute. 

Under those terms, I do believe I can cope.

Quan Yin (Soivohle)

Purple the sails, and so perfumed, that
The winds were love-sick with them...

--William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra
After taking several days' break from Quan Yin, I resumed our rendezvous... and all previous doubts disappeared like morning mist. Once more I find myself captivated-- and the fact that I have dreamt resolutely of roses in the intervening time is, for me, the chief surprise. There are many other flowers I would be inclined to choose over the rose: immortelle, geranium, carnation, magnolia, iris.  Whenever genus Rosa came to my attention in the past, it was chaperoned by another, usually gourmand note: raspberry, chocolate, caramel. But this soliflore has joined a select society of fragrances (La Rose Jacqueminot, Fleurs de Bulgarie, India Gulab) capable of talking me around to a tête-à-tête with rose alone.

Radiant, airy, honey-sweet and wild, Quan Yin brings me a message from a far-off, less cynical realm where beauty's aim is not to deceive or manipulate, but to bring simple joy. I doubted this beauty at first, expecting it to mislead me, to turn sour, to let in darkness instead of light. But it holds firm, wearing after wearing; it does bring me joy, without trick or trap.

The only thing that can disappoint me now about Quan Yin is its limited supply. What I own of it is all I shall ever have... and when it is gone, traces of it will linger like the Nile breeze that swelled Cleopatra's sails, perfuming memory long after she has passed.

Scent Elements: Rose absolute, carnation, geranium, plum, oakmoss, amber, woods, musk

Love Speaks Primeval (Soivohle)

Today's Soivohle, Love Speaks Primeval, is perfectly suited to a hot, thunderous day in South Jersey. Vibrant as only living things allowed to flourish in sun and fresh air can be, it burgeons with biological liveliness, as if the thrum and buzz of the cicadas outside had been captured in scent. I'd say more, but a storm approaches from the west, pushing ahead of it the unique, balsamic fragrance of the Pine Barrens-- and that's the perfume that captures my attention above any other today.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, Bulgarian rose concrete, centifolia rose absolute, Rosa bourbona absolute, violet, pink lotus, jasmine, labdanum, oakmoss, patchouli, and woods in an alcohol custom-infused with phlox, hyacinth, apple, and Mexican vanilla

Massive Patchouli Eau de Toilette (Soivohle)

You're expecting a god, a towering titan, all muscle. Instead, this pretty, petite creature sidles up to you. Are you waiting for Massive Patchouli? she lisps.

Impatient, you look her up and down. She's a twee little wide-eyed thing, a real pipsqueak, totally adorkable. Most likely she's here for Massive Patchouli's autograph. I hope she realizes I got here first, you think.

Wait! Are those footsteps? Is it the Big Guy, finally making his grand entrance? Excited, you straighten up and start craning your neck for a glimpse. The footsteps pass. Deflated, you sigh, check your watch.

Thumbelina clears her throat to get your attention. She smiles tentatively, tilting her head and turning her toes inward like a bashful schoolgirl.

Hi, she says.

Finally it dawns on you. No. NO, you think. You have got to be kidding me.

But she isn't.

Scent Elements: Aged Indonesian patchouli, bergamot, cedarwood, vetiver, oakmoss, woods, musk, vanilla

While I'm ahead...

...I've quit wearing Quan Yin. This morning, just before I sprayed it on for the fourth day in a row, it struck me that if I persisted in this mad course of action, I'd be in real danger of reaching the tipping point. You know what I mean-- the instant in which familiarity topples over into intolerable boredom.

From this came the realization that while I truly, truly love Quan Yin, there's still a core of uncertainty at the center of my love. My belief in this fragrance -- or in myself -- is not rock-solid. Some fragrances leave no room for doubt; Quan Yin is not one of them.

And yet I can't bear to view it with a jaded eye. So I put Quan Yin back and reached impulsively for Orris Ochre instead. I'm so grateful to have made this choice, for it resulted in the discovery that Orris Ochre blooms like mad in extreme heat and humidity. Previously so ephemeral on my skin, it asserted itself today with heretofore unrealized confidence and character. Its iris seemed richer, its suede thicker and more plush, its violets sweeter, liqueur-like and far from demure. I feel as though I have just encountered it for the first time and to the very fullest.

At least about one of these two fragrances, I harbor no doubts.

Chrysalis Demi-Absolute (Soivohle)

Derived from the Greek chrysós (χρυσός, "gold"), the word chrysalis is used to describe the hard (and often gold-flecked) chitinous casing in which a butterfly pupa undergoes metamorphosis. From this tiny, gemlike sarcophagus the wingéd imago struggles to be reborn. Once it emerges, its shape will never again change. Butterflies do not grow or moult; they retain their beautiful final form to the end of life and beyond.

Liz Zorn's Chrysalis is quite another specimen. It performs all of its transformations after it leaves the confines of the bottle. These changes range from startling to deeply unpleasant; I would be hard pressed to find beauty in any stage of this perfume's life. I derive this conclusion from not one but two samples, obtained at different times from entirely separate sources. I applied perfume from only one vial at a time and took notes. For the sake of due diligence, I endured the entire testing process twice for each vial and scrubbed inbetween. Then I combined the contents of the two vials in one sprayer and tried again. (Is that enough testing for you?) Each time, Chrysalis developed on my skin in precisely the same way, following the same progression, and ending in the same displeasure.

STAGE ONE: Boozy fruit. Presumably a combination of the fig, cognac, and absinthe notes, this thick, sweet top note made me feel queasy-- but it was nowhere near as ghastly as what followed.
STAGE TWO: Decaying garbage. I am not kidding. The gush of rancid juice that issues from the back of a fast-braking sanitation truck in stop-and-go summer traffic: this was the jist of Chrysalis' heart. My instincts blame tuberose, jasmine, and that so-called "butter tincture" for this hellish accord, which I never wanted to smell again after the first whiff. Mark, if you will, that I wore it four more times to make sure.
STAGE THREE: Maelstrom. Elements of Stage One kept bobbing to the surface of the effluvium described in Stage Two, which sort of made them both worse. This went on for almost an hour, then was suddenly supplanted by...
STAGE FOUR: Incense. What?

Strangest of all was the utter predictability of these modulations. I applied the perfume in a prescribed manner -- left wrist, left inside elbow, right wrist, right inside elbow -- and while the first application had just broken through to incense, the last would still be roiling in landfill fumes. The only moment of pleasure occurred when all four application points had reached the incense stage, but from that point, the fade-out happened quickly, and I felt too riled and put-out to argue.

As a devoted fan of Zorn's work, it's by no means easy for me to say it. But while I'm positive that she gave Chrysalis every ounce of the care and forethought she brings to her very best perfumes, it remains what it is-- an immature creation, untimely born, incapable of flight.

Scent Elements: Absinthe, Calimyrna fig tincture, watermint, white magnolia leaf, cinnamon, jasmine absolute, marigold absolute, tuberose absolute, carnation absolute, opoponax, white amber, frankincense, sandalwood, orris butter, musk seed, cognac, tonka bean, butter tincture

Jhango Bay Eau de Parfum (Soivohle)

After a purging of long-accumulated poisons, I feel the need to sanctify my space. Being a New World woman, I remain strongly partial to the house-clearing techniques of this continent: sea salt, dried sage, Florida water, and of course, bay rum. A traditional preparation of Pimenta racemosa (West Indian bay) combined combined with various citrus peel essences and oils of clove and cinnamon, bay rum has the proven ability to right the most enduring wrongs. Sprinkled or spritzed to the four corners of each room or applied as a cooling mist to overheated skin, it readily dispels negativity in all its guises-- real or imagined, spiritual or corporeal.

My favorite bay rum is Superior 70, which has a mellow, honeyed character, an assertive clove note, and a price tag of merely two bucks a bottle. Just now, I've sprayed clouds of it all around the house to restore calm and clarity after this rocky week. Each volatile puff flares like a magician's smoke pellet, then dissipates on the air, leaving behind a scent so familiar and native to me, I feel as though I've breathed it all my living days. Demons of all shapes and sizes flee from it hissing, back to their benighted realms.

On my wrists, I've lavished what little I own of Liz Zorn's Jhango Bay, a jasmine take on the traditional bay rum theme. The swooping segue from tropical flowers to Caribbean spice to aromatic woods in this fragrance exhilarates the senses, like riding the pirate ship at an oceanfront amusement park. Thanks to a subtle touch of ambergris buried deep in Jhango Bay's base, there is even a trace of the salty ocean air one breathes at the apex of the ride. Though heady, it's not heavy; I feel cleansed in a rush of wind, returned to childhood innocence by the penetrating warmth of the sun.

Scent Elements: Jamaican bay rum, citrus, spices, rose absolute, jasmine absolute, cedarwood, sandalwood, natural musk, ambergris

Wild Ginger Chai (Soivohle)

Sometimes the measure of a fragrance isn't the number of words you can assemble to express your feelings about it. Sometimes those feelings have little or nothing to do with the fragrance's inherent quality; on close examination, its good features might be outnumbered by its flaws. But if you use it -- over and over, day after day, refilling the decant sprayer THREE TIMES IN ONE WEEK because you're spraying it around so much -- then perhaps the word love is not too far-fetched.

Wild Ginger Chai is not the fanciest fragrance in the world. But in the same manner that I only reach for actual chai tea when I'm feeling poorly and need momentary comfort, I have been wearing Wild Ginger Chai all this difficult week. If pressed to explain what it does for me, I might just end up spraying its smoke and spices in your direction. You might understand. You might not.

But when your crisis comes... ask and ye shall receive.

Scent Elements: Tea, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, honey, caramel, hazelnut

Anubis Absolute (Soivohle)

In Tom Robbins' novel Jitterbug Perfume, a time-traveler strays into a celestial way station where human souls are assigned new fates. She witnesses a ceremony in which the hearts of the deceased are weighed against a mere feather; immortality is only awarded to those whose hearts are equally light (pg. 421). The inspiration for this passage derives from ancient Egyptian mythology, wherein Anubis -- the god of embalming and burial -- greets the newly dead with a similar challenge involving a feather. A heart made heavy with sin, regret, or rage disqualifies its owner from paradise.

This in itself is a catechism for living: Lighten up.

Here in the New World, Anubis and his assistants have resurfaced as the Gédé-- a family of spirits representing the ancestral dead. Their leader of this "bones brigade" is Bawon Samdi (Baron Samedi, or Saturday). By turns jovial and menacing, this loa of resurrection enjoys a unique exemption from the rules and boundaries of social decorum. Eccentric, unpredictable, provocative, he transcends all limitations in both this world and the next-- as if his very proximity to death releases him from all fear of it.

Le Bawon is an exceedingly snappy dresser. Professor and Haitian vodou scholar Donald J. Cosentino justly deems him "chic". Whenever possible, his serviteurs wear natty black suits and top hats, accessorized with dark Ray-Ban shades. Sartorially speaking, le Bawon fits right in with the subcultures of ska and 2-Tone, who clearly owe their lookbooks to him.

But what, pray tell, would he choose for a fragrance? Anubis Absolute would be a good start, for this winning combination of immortelle, oud, myrrh, and chypre elements certainly makes the heart feel feather-light.

You can't wield immortelle with too heavy a hand without all the air for ten feet around turning into syrupy liquid smoke. Nor should you lay on the oud too thickly, for the rich, chocolatey quality of this particular wood can quickly turn musty at overdose proportions. When exacerbated by indolic white flowers, the effect could be disastrous-- truly reminiscent of le cimetière. But with the light, crisp freshness of fennel and the honey-sweetness of citrus as allies, Liz Zorn treats the nose to a lovely surprise: the scent of resurrection.

For those who deem any portrait of Anubis incomplete without his embalming resins, there's enough mellow, cool sweet opopanax in the mix to quiet the classicists. And for those who prefer dirges with happy endings, the deep, spicy chypre note on which this fragrance ends is a worthy epitaph to the whole.
Papa Gédé bel garçon!
Papa Gédé bel garçon!
L’habille tout ennui!
Pou’l monte au palais!


Papa Gédé is a handsome man!
Papa Gédé is a handsome man!
He is wearing all black!
And he is going to the palace!
Scent Elements: Immortelle, oud, earth, tuberose, jasmine, carnation, wild oranges, sweet fennel, rose, patchouli, sweet myrrh, amber, moss, musk

Orris Ochre Demi-Absolute (Soivohle)

Now and again, Liz Zorn creates a fragrance on the fly, centered on a rare substance of which she has obtained a finite supply. The iris butter in Orris Ochre is one such ingredient-- and despite the gravitas you'd expect of such a risky and expensive undertaking, Zorn uses it as an opportunity to play. In her hands, the unapproachable iris reveals a light and friendly heart. Sumptuously couched in violets and pale suede like Bottega Veneta, it could easily take up residence on the Via Monte Napoleone. But its true and humble home is in a woodland bower, where the air is spicy with the scent of raw cedar and ferns, and where no one in their right mind would wear Italian leather. Orris Ochre is as evanescent on skin as it was in Zorn's repertoire, lasting but an hour. Even so, I have no intention of hoarding it in a closet for hard times: this buoyant, pretty fragrance demands to be loosed upon the open air.

Scent Elements: Orange, iris, honey, narcissus, violet, cedar, muhuhu wood, rosewood, suede

Heat treatment.

At half past three in the afternoon, the outdoor temperature gauge reads 104°F. Blistering sunlight pours through our southwestern windows (of which we suddenly seem to have nothing but); even with each shade lowered and every curtain drawn, that radiant menace outside is a palpable presence within. Despite air-conditioning, we're spent, yet restless. Even the cat can't sleep. There's little to do but lounge, eat, push fluids, and dream of nightfall.

Today's Soivohle is a combination of Blood Orange Vetiver and VanillaVille, two seemingly incompatible fragrances which (out of housebound boredom) I paired up to see if they'd get to talking. The conversation thus far has been fairly heated, with much gesticulation, booming voices, and maybe one or two expletives thrown in for effect. BOV's titular citrus smells uncomfortably like cough syrup in the heat, but it soon evaporates, leaving vetiver, vanilla, and coconut to hash things out in their resounding style. All in all, I don't regret making the introduction-- and even if I did, I'm the only one who would mind. Without sillage, this argument takes place only on my own skin; a little cabin-fever secret.

Riverwalk, renewed.

Mid-week holidays are a bitch. The return to workaday productivity after a breakout July 4th celebration is a leaden affair for most of us, made doubly difficult when the memory of fireworks and barbecues is still fresh. After magical hours spent chasing lightning bugs through the indigo summer dusk, who can Get Serious?

The strength to don my nametag this morning came courtesy of Liz Zorn's Riverwalk. This rich evergreen scent, woven of many aromatic threads, served as a sort of camouflage that I could draw around myself to conceal my distracted ambivalence. From the outside, people would only encounter its beauty; on the inside, I could feel protected and separate from whatever workplace chaos happened to unfold.

Good thing I own not one but two bottles. For medicinal purposes-- you understand.

Riverwalk and I go way back. One year before Hurricane Sandy, a friend sent me a sample from the Perfume Pharmer Summer of Patchouli Love Challenge. I adored it completely, awarded it five stars, and included it as the keystone review in my submission for the O Tannenbaum! group blog project. When the last drop of Riverwalk was gone, I thought there would be no more, and I mourned it.

Then in November 2012, Liz announced a Small Business Saturday sale to clean out Soivohle's back catalog. When I saw that Riverwalk would be included among the offerings, I leapt up as if stung by a thousand hornets. So low had I felt after the horrors of the hurricane that I took Liz's advertisement as a sort of divine text message, urging me toward self-comfort.

I realize that it's for this same reason that I've stockpiled enough Youth Dew to choke the proverbial horse; ditto Private Collection, Flora Bella, and Essence of Vali. Riverwalk is just one of a pantheon of fragrances that complete my Emergency Kit. In the face of disaster and uncertainty, there's nothing like the sense of blissful security one derives from one's comfort object in a time of need.

What would I do without it? I never want to find out.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, lavendar absolute, French lavender EO, star anise, galangal root, petitgrain, fir balsam absolute, rectified birch, choya loban, geranium leaf EO, geranium concrete, aged patchouli blend, patchouli absolute, cassis absolute, hay absolute, cedar blend, cocoa absolute, tonka bean tincture, Indonesian vetiver, benzoin Siam absolute, brown oakmoss, vanilla absolute, rosewood, linaloe, ho wood, ambergris

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

Le Rivage des Syrtes (Parfums MDCI)

Inspired (though don't ask me how or why) by Julien Gracq's 1951 dystopian novel of the same name, Le Rivage des Syrtes was composed by Patricia de Nicolaï-- a fact apparent immediately ere I smelled it. "Oh, fun!" I blurted. "Odalisque upside-down cake!"

I stand by my words. For this is de Nicolaï's galbanum-leather creation dished up with a syrupy side of canned pineapple. I like it, although in all honesty I liked the dry green Odalisque more. I also suspect that I would have liked Gracq's tale better than the description provided by LuckyScent:
(A) lonely sailor... travels far from home-- from island to island and along the shore to gather precious plants and exotic olfactory substances, which he stores carefully in a chest to bring back to his beloved... With the precious fruits secured as cargo, the search continues. Our hero gathers an abundance of heady florals... and tucks them into a basket he has lined with grasses in order to protect them. Finally, the sailor’s attention turns to the most precious and rare essences -– musks, incense and ambergris -– eternal mementos of his exotic travels and worthy of none save the one who waits for him alone, praying for his safe return.
So when is Fabio scheduled to shoot the cover of this paperback?

Scent Elements: Orange, pineapple, Iranian galbanum, ylang-ylang, tuberose, orange blossom absolute, incense, amber, vanilla, musk

Spicebomb (Viktor + Rolf)

As one who firmly believes that scent is genderless, I find the notion of labeling perfumes 'masculine' or 'feminine' for the most part moot. I pride myself in being an equal-opportunity wearer; I steadfastly refuse to believe that male pride is threatened by an extravagant ballroom floral, or that a woman can't carry off a macho fougère (except for Drakkar Noir, which no one but NO ONE should wear). And yet even here in neutral territory, I'm not immune to playing with the idea of gender-- at least insofar as my imagination (that willful sprite!) invariably attempts to invest the soul of each scent with a body.

Sometimes, the form this tutelary spirit takes surprises me. But sweetness almost always follows.

The dun-colored liquid known as Spicebomb comes in a fearsomely aggro bottle shaped like a hand grenade. Its sibling Flowerbomb occupies an almost identical (if slightly rounder and cuter) vessel. Because it is a "women's perfume", Flowerbomb's contents are tinted a girlish peony pink. It does not look half as menacing as Spicebomb-- and it does not smell even one quarter as pretty. How's that for a conundrum?

I'm not saying Spicebomb would smell better on a woman. I'm saying it would smell better on everybody. The more people -- male, female, sylph, faun, old, young, innocent, knowing -- we can talk into wearing this gorgeously tender scent, the lovelier by default our world will become. Explain to me how a daily dose of saffron, cinnamon, and sweet hypnotic narguile smoke could not make your life exponentially better, and I will regard you with limitless forbearance, because you so obviously need it.

Go on. Pull the ring. You know you want to.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, grapefruit, pink pepper, elemi, cinnamon, vetiver, tobacco, chili, saffron, leather