Celtic Fire (Union Perfume)

Union Perfume calls its smoketastic Celtic Fire an "ode to wode". This is the second instance (after Boudicca Wode) in which a perfume house has tapped the Pictish warpaint for inspiration... and then blithely misspelled it. But I suppose "wode" looks sexier on paper than "woad", a root word so ancient that it has only ever been used to describe two things: a specific flowering weed and the blue dye it produces.

Woad (Isatis tinctoria*) is one-third of a great ancient triumvirate of plants wild-gathered by tribal people to dye their homespun fibers. The highborn enjoyed access to saffron, Tyrian purple, cochineal, and kermes scarlet. But woad, weld (Reseda tinctoria) and madder (Rubia tinctorum) provided the primary blue, yellow, and red pigments with which humble folk proudly identified their tribal lineage.

What would a band of roving Keltoi smell like? Union Perfume posits a blend of peat fire, evergreen boughs and well-worn leather fortified with the yeasty, bittersweet aroma of freshly-poured stout. Fair enough, says I. But this fragrance is really nothing more than a great, smoky vetiver... which sounds rather less British than 'wode', but is still bloody fan-freaking-tastic.

I won't pretend that the rites of Samhain or the Battle of Bannockburn cannot be imagined to exist in Celtic Fire. If I took it down onto the street and conducted a series of vox populi sniff tests, someone would almost certainly propose a round of Guinness or a caber toss in due time. But I get no peat, pine, leather, or Marmite from this thing-- just a ton of delicious, rich, autumnal vetiver. And because I adore vetiver, I don't mind Union's tricksy use of suggestive language to evoke a more mythical vision.  Surely someone kissed the Blarney Stone en route to launching Celtic Fire-- but with this marvelously long-lasting fragrance on my wrists, I'll be damned if I complain.  Give me glamourie over glamour any day!

*Was Givenchy thinking of woad when it named a perfume Ysatis? It may have nothing to do with that plant's indigo dye, but woad flowers are the purest golden yellow... rather like Givenchy's jus.

Scent Elements: Peat, oak, fir, pine, birch tar, myrtle, Marmite

Ma Griffe Vintage Parfum (Carven)

Working in a reference library, I've helped many an amateur genealogist launch their own family-roots expedition. Most begin the journey into "days of yore" with a healthy, playful sense of adventure. They end much the same way: satisfied with the few gems they find and content to let all the rest go.

But there are some who traverse the past as if chased by an army of angry ghosts. Dead ends and dry wells that would scarcely break the stride of other, happier conquistadores cause them to burn with a feverish frustration that only more facts can soothe. In these weary travelers, I glimpse a reflection of certain perfume aficionados for whom the question of vintage is something to gnaw and worry and scrap over like an everlasting ham bone. They fixate on infinitesimal details of box, bottle, and label-- all leading, of course, to the debate over whether (and how much for the worse) the jus itself has changed over time. This, they are willing to debate until Armageddon. In fact, I am reasonably certain they may ultimately be the cause of Armageddon... at which point they will start arguing about whether their brimstone is synthetic or naturally sourced.

Me, I'm the worst kind of perfume heretic: I just like to wear the stuff. Reasons, excuses, and apologies are unnecessary. Whether it's old or new, niche or mainstream, famous or obscure, currently in production or discontinued decades ago, fragrance provides me with adventure, diversion, and stimulation. Believe me, I enjoy the historical anecdotes and apocrypha that build up around it as much as the next perfumista. But nothing excites me as much as the wearing of it. E'en be it blasphemy, I just cannot manage to get myself all worked up over production lot numbers.

That being said, I did wonder about the two miniature bottles of Ma Griffe parfum and eau de toilette I recently snagged. The one with the "spiral C" stopper smells a whole lot like my previous eau de toilette sample (and makes use of that same funky '70's font). The other is a gorgeously brisk extrait whose greenery strikes the ideal balance between bitter and milky before mellowing down to a swoon-inducing sandalwood. It came to me in a gorgeous, diminutive green-and-white striped box precisely fitted to the square bottle, on whose base a gold label indicates "Jacqueline Cochran New York" as the distributor.

But what year? Machete in hand, I set out to bushwhack my way through the encyclopedic underbrush. It didn't take long to discover a trail.

Founded in 1946 by Mme. Marie-Louise Carven-Grog (birth name: Carmen de Tomasso), the Parisian fragrance house known as Parfums Carven was acquired in 1966 by Shulton, an American cosmetics conglomerate of which Jacqueline Cochran had become a subsidiary the preceding year. According to "The Story of Shulton", a corporate prospectus published in 1967, Cochran thereafter became Carven's official worldwide distributor. By 1984 Ma Griffe belonged to the Beecham Group; from this I deduce that my parfum is anywhere from three to four and a half decades old.

At that age, I'd call it vintage. Wouldn't you?

Moving onward, Beecham ceded Parfums Carven to Worth in 1992. It passed to Daniel Harlant in 1998, then to Groupe Jacques Bogart in 2010. (I can't even keep count of the number of bottle redesigns it went through-- more costume changes than a runway model at New York Fashion Week.) At the moment, Carven is the property of SAS & Company Limited, the UK outfit which markets 'fumes for Justin Bieber, Rihanna, One Direction, and other bastions of the fickle youth market. Nothing wrong with that... right?

So it's clear that Ma Griffe is a genealogist's dream. From a single seed, its tree has branched out to all horizons, and its foliage continues to flourish. Still, a recent article has me somewhat confused as to whether the 2013 relaunch version of Ma Griffe is a true descendant. Thomas of Candy Perfume Boy ascribes it with "motherly softness". SOFTNESS? Holy cow. This brings new meaning to "not your mother's Ma Griffe".

Scent Elements: Gardenia, galbanum, citrus, aldehydes, clary sage, jasmine, rose, sandalwood, vetiver, orris, ylang-ylang, styrax, oakmoss, cinnamon, musk, benzoin, labdanum

Lys Fume (Tom Ford)

Today I wore Lys Fume and experienced a kick in the balls similar (in impact, if not in particular details) to the one I received when I wore Jivago White Gold and subsequently had to put on Hindu Kush to regain my self-respect. I didn't guess ahead of time that either the perfume or the potshot was going to have this effect, so I shouldn't really be so hard on myself. But if you smell like a wimp, people will treat you like one. Lesson learned.

Bring out your torches and pitchforks, motherfuckers, because tomorrow it's Union Celtic Fire.

Scent Elements: Mandarin, nutmeg, pink pepper, turmeric, davana, lily, ylang-ylang, dark rum, oak, cistus labdanum, styrax, Madagascar vanilla

Cabochard and Mephisto: A pas de deux.

Having a brain tumor is indeed a danse apache. Instead of a Montmartre pimp for a partner, I have Mephisto-- the chickpea-sized lesion that presses deep into my left frontal lobe like an accusing fingertip. I demonstrate for him daily every ounce of my fury and contempt, tossing my head and turning away in purest defiance from his rough, unwanted overtures. And what does he do? He hauls me back, bends me this way and that, flings me down and yanks me to my feet-- all the while remaining invisible, untouchable, devoid of remorse. From his magisterial throne safe within my skull, he calls all the shots. Ah, la chienne de vie!

But I have hit upon a way to tame my inner demon: copious amounts of vintage Cabochard. Something in this farouche herbal leather brings the little fiend to heel. In fact, Mephisto himself must be directing me on the day I head out in blind search of vintage perfume... and come home with a lifetime supply of his favorite.

I'd heard rumors that the antique store where DC and I uncovered our first bottle of Cabochard had just reopened after months of renovation. Could that faceless, magical vendor from whom I'd bought Cabochard, Réplique, Shalimar, Jolie Madame, Joy, and my precious vintage Crêpe de Chine extrait still be consigning there? The answer: hell no. The Point Pleasant Antiques Emporium has transformed itself from a chaotic treasure attic to upscale "home accents gallery", all spartan whitewashed walls and modern ceiling fans a-twirl-- and no room nor use for perfume. (Bastards!)

Discouraged but not yet defeated, I walk two blocks over to the Point Pavilion Antiques Center on Arnold Avenue-- another place where my Fairy 'Fume-Mother has been known to consign. Again, nothing. Now feeling positively grim, I get back in my car and just start driving. No goal, no aim; I just want to clear my head. But Mephisto, in his usual domineering fashion, begins turning the steering wheel toward Red Bank. That town having been perfume-dry for months, I naturally think him deluded-- but he's the boss, applesauce, so I do as I'm bidden.

There will be (he assures me) ample time to thank him.

No sooner do I walk down the center aisle than a chill of realization hits me. In front of me sits a quaint carved-wood vitrine-- familiar, yet curiously out of place. Of course it is-- for it used to sit in the Point Pleasant Antiques Emporium, dispensing scented delights. I look closer. Sure enough, through its glass panels I glimpse a most distinctive bottle, adorned with a bow tie of taupe velvet ribbon under a frosted-glass stopper embossed with a G. Right next to it sits a full and unopened vintage flacon of Guerlain Chamade extrait, as casual and companionable as you please.

Aha, says Mephisto.

Store employees direct me to an elderly man, recognizable as the gentleman from whom my pal JC had purchased a rare amethyst-glass hobnail vase two years ago. I point out the perfume bottles, and he beams. With much arthritic key-fumbling, he manages to extract Cabochard from the vitrine. I carefully pull the stopper out and inhale deeply. Mephisto concurs: it's perfection.

"Oh, can I?" the old man says. I hold the stopper to his nose. "Yes... yes. These are my wife's," comes his rusty murmur. Inside me, Mephisto sends a tingle across my scalp. Could it be...?

"She has so many perfumes, consigned here and there, all over the place," the gentleman (my Fairy 'Fume-FATHER?) continues. "She hated to give them up, but they're more than she could ever wear herself..."

"I think I've ended up with some of them over time," I tell him carefully. "Every single one has been so perfectly preserved; they are among the best I have ever had. Please thank her for me, and let her know these are going to a very appreciative home."

"Oh, she'll like that."

Driving home with both precious bottles paper-wrapped beside me on the car seat, I think of my other passenger-- Mephisto, with whom I so often find myself engaged in a pitched battle. Is it possible that he is the source of that sixth sense I've described which pulls me unerringly like a dowsing rod in the direction of things I cannot see? Is this what happens when I stop fighting against him and just let him lead?

May I have my reward now?
he asks.

Smug little fucker. I make him wait until the car is no longer in motion to dab more Cabochard on our wrists.

Breathless Vintage Eau de Toilette (Parfums Charbert)

The 1933 debut fragrance of Parfums Charbert -- a Manhattan cosmetics company established to serve the "middle market" -- Breathless lagged one graduating class behind Tabu and preceded Shocking de Schiaparelli by a full four years. Clearly, popular culture had picked up on Tabu's down-and-dirty strategy and decided to storm the goal post. How better to achieve this aim than by populating the playing field with an entire team of smell-alikes? Hut-hut!

If one counts Tabu as the kickoff and Shocking as the final spectacular touchdown, Breathless is the quarterback who gets tackled only seconds after the snap-- and on his very first play, too! But don't consign this rookie to the sideline bench just yet. With a nice slug of skanky civet, a hint of moss murmuring in the background, and a yummy cream-soda finish, this pleasant little patchouli rose isn't exactly a game-changer. But it wears its varsity letter with pride. Go, team, go!

Scent Elements: Dear god, I have no idea. If I had to guess, I'd mark down patchouli and civet as certainties, with theoretical appearances by rose, benzoin, and musk.

Vamp à NY (Honoré des Prés)

I would have worn this sooner if I had not read a fellow blogger's assessment of it as "vile". In the comments thread, a crowd gathered to applaud her before adding their own epithets to the pile. I love that you HATE this, one crowed. Blech, shuddered another.

They're all right, of course; this is not a good perfume. It's simultaneously cloying, sweet, short-lived, and boring-- essentially Kai on an austerity budget. It does absolutely nothing to overturn my dislike of tuberose. And for such a "futuristic" perfume (Honoré des Prés founder Olivia Giacobetti's word, not mine), its drydown smells like sun-spoiled Youth Dew, or Granny's tatty old underpants. I wore it today; I won't wear it again. There are mistakes one never makes twice, unless one is a fool.

Scent Elements: Tuberose, rum, vanilla, benzoin, balsam Tolu, balsam Peru

Femme Jolie (Sonoma Scent Studio)

At long last, October has gone on record to declare summer officially over. This morning -- wet, cold, blustery, forbidding -- I thought I might attempt to wear one of the many yet-untried samples that glare daggers at me every time I open the Scent Cabinet. But truth be told, I felt so weepy and out-of-sorts that I couldn't bear to spend the day with a stranger. I needed some kind of warm, soft, and (above all) familiar fragrance that would cushion my heart against breakage.

Without question, Femme Jolie makes an ideal protective covering for thin-skinned days. Ever since Patty introduced us at Sniffapalooza, I have found this gracious pashmina shawl of a perfume to be the very embodiment of merciful lovingkindness. I agree with all who have already remarked upon its kinship to Serge Lutens' Féminité du Bois, but I find Femme Jolie's plum-and-sandalwood to be warmer, more buttery and enfolding, laden with certain humble consolations absent in its august predecessor. And oy, that base-- a musk-incense-labdanum mélange so luxuriously warm, the chill of fear or anxiety cannot penetrate its golden aura.

If my angst gets worse and my urge to hibernate outpaces me, I'll certainly reach for Michael Storer's wondrous Winter Star (which is almost nothing but musk, and appropriately low-down-and-dirty besides). But while my strength holds out, I will dress myself in Femme Jolie and cling to the hope that its gentleness will rub off on me.

Scent Elements: Ginger, cinnamon, clove, plum, peach, orange blossom, violet, cedar, sandalwood, vanilla, musk, labdanum

Champs-Élysées (Guerlain)

Are you ready? Dig this.
The perfume bursts forth with a crystalline laugh: The transparency of rose with frosted petals softens the rise of tender, crushed mimosa leaves. In parallel, the light, acidic tempo of cassis berries harmonizes with the subtlety of almond tree flowers. The supremely refined and delicately sensitive heart palpitates with the silky shudder of mimosa flowers. These minuscule suns catch fire and lend the skin unexpected sensuality, a buoyant, dancing light that illuminates Buddleia, that enchanted tree known as the butterfly bush, which each spring welcomes clouds of butterflies that flock toward its spellbinding, lilac-accented scent. This long caress becomes pure voluptuousness when the dry-down blends carnal accents of hibiscus seed with the softness of almond tree wood.
"The silky shudder of mimosa flowers"? "Carnal accents of hibiscus seed"? Shut UP.

Well, at least the fragrance is nowhere near as egregious as the promotional copy, no matter what Luca Turin says. I can see how he might object to smelling like a Tokyo pop tween, but so far as "youthful" fragrances go, a kid could do worse. Not so the mature woman: at the age of forty-odd, I feel like mutton dressed up as spring lamb wearing Champs-Élysées. I imagine it was even worse for my mother, who requested and received a gift bottle at the age of sixty only to find that it made her smell literally like the supermarket candy aisle.

Moral of story: be careful what you wish for, because you might just get 75 ml. of it.

Scent Elements: Peach, cassis, melon, mimosa, almond, heliotrope, violet, anise, peony, lilac, muguet, rose, sandalwood, cedar, benzoin, ambrette, vanilla

Lei Flower (Providence Perfume)

Composed in 2010 by Charna Ethier, Lei Flower smells like no lei flower I ever encountered during the whole time that I lived in Hawai'i. Blossoms commonly used for such floral tributes included plumeria, jasmine, and carnations-- none of which smell like the immortelle that clearly dominates this fragrance. I hardly smell anything else, but then, that's the nature of immortelle-- it forces every perfume it inhabits to become a soliflore by default.

The tiniest -- and I mean TINIEST -- bit of coconut can be found buried in this vast burnt-sugar ocean, but that really seems to be all the variety or dimensionality Lei Flower is prepared to offer. It's extremely linear, remaining just as it is from beginning to end; its life on skin being fairly brief, it seems to have scant time for transformation. I don't love it as much as Annick Goutal's monumental Sables (or Love + Toast's mercurial Honey Coconut). And yet I really do like this fragrance-- enough to have put a fairly sizable dent in the purse sprayer that Lisa sent me a year ago.

Lei Flower may not have much to do with flowers, but it does have something to do with Hawai'i, if only tangentially. It reminds me of those days on Maui when the sugarcane fields were burning, and a hazy shroud of molasses smoke tinted the very sunlight as sepia-brown as a pair of old-school aviator shades.

Scent Elements: Yuzu, orange, cassis, jasmine, frangipani, ylang-ylang, bitter almond, coconut, chamomile, tarragon, cocoa, patchouli, vanilla

Pierre Cardin Pour Monsieur (Pierre Cardin)

I have to admit that I'm not feeling very motivated lately-- either to wear unfamiliar perfumes or to write about them. My source of inspiration seems both damned and dammed. So I'm reaching for a reliable fallback fragrance in the hopes that it will draw a trickle of creativity forth from the depths.

About Pierre Cardin Pour Monsieur (1972), I can state matters very simply: it smells really, really, really good. It always has, and probably always will. The ancestors of this coumarinic soft floriental are Habit Rouge, L'Heure Bleue, Bellodgia and Florida Water; its descendents include PdN New York, Tom Ford Noir, and Fendi Uomo. That's a genealogy I can certainly admire-- and a family tree I feel no fear in climbing.

If you don't pay too much attention to the Basenotes wolves who snarl and scrap over production years and batch-lot numbers, you can relax into just about any vintage of PCPM, safe in the knowledge that you're in the hands of one of the nicest, most laid-back scents in the biz. My bottle is marked "Shulton © 1974" on the bottom, which might mean something to someone. Me, I'm only interested in what's inside the bottle and what it does on my skin and for my mood. The answer: it works wonders.

As for the "Pour Monsieur" part, don't you ladies fret. Like Cardin's iconic late-'60's fashions, PCPM possesses a cheerful genderless quality which makes it universally wearable by all. And if anyone at Basenotes tries to tell you that it's only for the hairy-chested... bark right back at 'em.)

Scent Elements: Lemon, orange, lavender, basil, bergamot, carnation, geranium, leather, oakmoss, patchouli, sandalwood, tonka bean, amber, benzoin, vanilla