Kouros Vintage Eau de Toilette (Yves Saint Laurent)

What I'm about to say might cause a platoon of fragrance chauvinists to swallow their tongues. For them, YSL Kouros is the genius loci of an inviolably male precinct, a sacred scent with whom no mere woman may traffic. The idea of me rocking their filthy-dirty stonking wunderfume would be purest anathema-- and yet I'm doing it as we speak, and the words that come most readily to mind are "big ol' cuddlebear".

Cue the falling-upon of swords!

All right, look. I won't emasculate Kouros entirely. This 1981 monolith deserves all the he-manly epithets with which the decades have graced it. It IS raunchy. It IS racy. It's hung like Liam Neeson and has a half-life that rivals vanadium. But everything about it that could be overwhelming (the brisk face-slap of aromatic wormwood, the whiplash sting of civet-soaked leather) is tempered by something remarkably benign (rosy florals, ozonic amber, the scent of Chinese five-spice). Mad, bad, and dangerous to know? Like fun. This is no angry deity, but a gentle, downy-cheeked, smiling youth of the sort immortalized in a thousand Tom of Finland illustrations. He knows how much further a soft word will get him than a growl; that macho pose is just the icing on some very, very sweet cake.

So here's to the boy who cleans up nice and plays well with girls. He'll never need to twist my arm. (Hear that, Hugo Boss?)

Scent Elements: Aldehydes, artemisia, coriander, clary sage, cinnamon, bergamot, carnation, iris, jasmine, geranium, patchouli, oakmoss, vetiver, honey, leather, tonka, labdanum, ambergris, musk, civet, vanilla

Ambre Noir (Sonoma Scent Studio)

I once knew a young man whose natural body scent was so divine it bordered on narcotic. Musky, sweet, distinctive, it acted as a pheromonal lure to people of all ages and genders, who died like moths in the flame of his beauty. He did not want their attention; in fact, it made him painfully self-conscious. In an effort to repel his followers, he would deliberately go for days without bathing, washing his hair, or changing his clothes. Alternately, he attempted to hide behind cheap aerosol drugstore scents, applying layer after layer of flimsy camouflage. It never worked. That extraordinary scent could not be vanquished-- and its mystifying effect on others continued to trouble him.

All this he confessed to me face to face, in the midst of a close embrace. We had been friends before we became lovers; the quirks and turnings of his soul were well-known to me long before I experienced the heaven of his body. I loved to follow the silken ribbon of his voice as he whispered his secrets to me. Our shared candor was a disarmament, a mutual letting-down of our guards. He could confess his perplexity at the power of this quality to which he himself was insensible... and I could confess to him without penalty that I was as besotted by it as anyone.

A photograph or recording can sometimes startle us into thinking "Is this how I really look? Do I sound like that?" But can we ever know our own smell as others know it? If my friend had come upon his own aroma by accident, would he recognize himself the way I still do?

Ambre Noir both raises and answers this question every time I apply it to my skin. The sweet intimacy of its notes summons up a pale hologram of my erstwhile lover, from whom I have been estranged for years. I loved him, and I loved his scent; I thought both were proof of a goodness to which no foul thing could lay claim. There was a time when I conflated his story with that of Laure Richis -- the beautiful victim of Patrick Süskind's Perfume, whose fragrance makes her the unwitting target of other people's illusive desires. But Ambre Noir has introduced the disturbing thought that perhaps his vulnerability had been the illusion all along-- a mirage to hide a monstrous darkness that I only glimpsed when it was much too late.

Scent Elements: Labdanum absolute, amber, rose, olibanum, myrrh, vetiver co-distilled with mitti (earth), oakmoss absolute, aged Indian patchouli, Texas cedarwood, sandalwood, clove, castoreum

Wood Violet (Sonoma Scent Studio)

When it's as instant and as galvanizing as this, love tends to shut language down. I can't find a detour, and I won't return the way I came, so I pull over and just sit-- hands limp, eyes unfocused, car keys tossed aside on the passenger seat. What else is there to do?

If other violets have passed you by and left you stranded by the roadside, this will be the one that stops for you. Finally.

Scent Elements: Violet, plum, cedar, cinnamon, clove, sandalwood, violet leaf, musk

Champagne de Bois and Vintage Rose (Sonoma Scent Studio)

Scentwise, yesterday proved an odd and pensive day. I'd deliberately eschewed fragrance the day before to restore my nose to its original factory settings. When I put on Champagne de Bois (described by many as a Bois des Îles-esque aldehydic sandalwood with impressive sillage and persistence), I expected to be knocked flat on my ass.

Hm.

When I think of champagne or aldehydes, I envision a whizz! pop! sensory effect, sparkling and buoyant. When I think of sandalwood, I expect the sweet-buttery-sleepy scent of warm skin. Champagne de Bois left me disappointed on both counts. This is one of the most undemonstrative aldehydics I've yet to encounter, not to mention one of the chilliest sandalwoods. After an initial burst of chemical coldness and something that smelled like lemony frankincense, it was as if I'd never put on perfume at all-- at least to my own nose. My husband and my pal JC seemed able to smell Champagne de Bois, if only fleetingly in the close quarters of a hug. Most tellingly, Champagne de Bois did not even seem to trigger my husband's superhuman hypersensitivity to aldehydes. I mean, he can detect that stuff from ten miles away-- but his meter's needle barely twitched. What gives?

Growing ever more puzzled about its disappearing act, I reapplied Champagne de Bois twice during the day, with similar results. I started feeling lost and bereft, as when I go scentless by accident, with no backup fragrance in my purse to remedy the oversight. As soon as I got home from work, I pulled out Vintage Rose (the next sample in my Sonoma Scent lineup) and went to town. Wrists, inner elbows, throat, nape, cleavage... the works. You could smell me from space.

Now it's the morning after, and Vintage Rose's plummy, assertive damascenones are still going hella-strong. I'm enjoying them, but not really more or differently than I enjoyed Rose Musc after the cacosmia wore off. It's funny-- I can connect this rose's tomato-herb quality to that of Guerlain's Nahéma, but it is evident that the latter perfume benefited from a superior sandalwood and thus was saved from its own acid tang. Whether Laurie Erickson's sandalwood isn't powerful or plentiful enough, one thing is certain: it doesn't compete.

Still, her perfumes are essentially friendly ones-- and a nice, accessible scent is better than no scent at all. Champagne de Bois may have left me cold, but Vintage Rose brought me back from hypothermia. After a delightful hot shower, I'll be trying out Wood Violet-- and owing to violet's notoriously reticent nature, I'll wager that this final Sonoma Scent experiment may seem like even less perfume than Champagne de Bois.

Scent Elements: Aldehydes, jasmine, clove, sandalwood, labdanum absolute, vetiver, amber (Champagne de Bois); rose, plum, amber, labdanum absolute, sandalwood, cedar, vetiver, tonka (Vintage Rose)

Winter Woods (Sonoma Scent Studio)

I probably would have liked Winter Woods better if I hadn't already encountered its extraordinary sister, Incense Pure. Had I never crossed paths with Michael Storer's Winter Star -- a fragrance which states a similar premise in bolder olfactory language, and in tones less plaintively sweet -- I may have found myself more smitten. But for another wearer, who knows? Winter Woods could conceivably serve as a gateway perfume, providing clues to what one might enjoy if only one possesses the fortitude to delve deep.

And anyway, Winter Woods is still a lovely thing-- as cozy as a mink toque and muff on a frigid day. If Incense Pure strikes me as the scent of a Tsarevna in full court regalia, Winter Woods laces up her ice skates and sets her to twirling on the frozen Neva.

Girls (even princesses!) just want to have fun.

Scent Elements: Guaiacwood, cedar, sandalwood, birch tar, cade, oakmoss absolute, castoreum, amber, labdanum absolute, vetiver, ambergris, musk.

Rose Musc (Sonoma Scent Studio)

A rather distressing symptom related to brain tumors and seizure disorders is phantosmia, otherwise known as olfactory hallucinations or 'phantom odors'. Even a lovely smell can provoke anxiety when you know damn well that it's coming from nowhere... and that a blinding migraine or even convulsions will almost surely follow. In its most unwelcome form, phantosmia morphs into cacosmia-- the perception of a rotting, rancid, decaying, or burnt (yet utterly nonexistent) odor. The brain dredges up its worst scent memories (dead fish, scorched rubber, raw garlic, fresh shit) and tosses them out there for reinspection. Gee whillikers; thanks!

The first time I wore Rose Musc, I had a simple partial seizure (completely coincidental, of course). That day, I'd been operating under a double whammy of insomnia and ovulation, two potent precursors to an intracranial fireworks show. For about five minutes, I marveled at how lovely Rose Musc was-- so rich, so red, so leathery-animalic -- and then the sulphurous scent of raw onions overran everything. For half an hour, I kept asking my husband, "Come on, level with me; you can't NOT smell that," and he patiently maintained that I must be having a heavy burtation*. Steadfast in my desire to blame it all on the perfume, I went and took a shower. But while under the spray, I suffered a brief but startling auditory hallucination; it lasted only seconds and sounded like a fire alarm in volume and intensity. Most importantly, it succeeded in getting poor Rose Musc off the hook. Clearly, my very own brain -- and NOT Sonoma Scent Studios-- was responsible for my woe.

I'm wearing Rose Musc again today. I do not smell any onions, thank god, although now that my neural pathways have cleared, I do notice that the rose essence used herein has a somewhat savory quality. It falls about halfway between Guerlain Nahéma's tomato-rose and the strangely foccaccia-like Zephir by Parfums de Rosine-- and it lands farther from India Gulab or Fleurs de Bulgarie territory than I'd originally gauged.

So it's not bad... but not entirely all in my head, either.

*Which I have rather frequently, in case you think I'm making fun of this poor reporter.

Scent Elements: Rose petals, ambergris, labdanum absolute, skin musks

Fig Tree (Sonoma Scent Studio)

Lately I've felt reluctant to try perfumes that are unfamiliar to me. I keep reaching for those that have already earned my trust and in which I know I can find complete security. I never reckoned I might stumble upon an approximation of this feeling in unexplored territory, but Laurie Erickson's perfumes lend me confidence. I may be wary of many of my sample vials, but not of hers.

Capturing the scent of real figs is a standard exercise among perfumers, who use oximes and lactones to construct their facsimiles. The scent of fresh figs blends reliably well with a fixed menu of other, mostly gourmand elements (tea, blackcurrant, peach, apricot, coconut, cedar, sandalwood, musk) but the perfumer is by no means limited to these. Fig is paired with fresh aquatic and saline notes in many masculines and at least one feminine-- Thierry Mugler's Womanity, in which the fruit finds itself shipwrecked on a desert island in the company of caviar and vetiver.

But what's simplest is best with Ficus carica-- and Erickson knows it. Her Fig Tree is a minimalist masterpiece: bitter greenery, milky sap, syrupy fruit, fragrant wood. No whistles and bells, no buffet tables full of extraneous ingredients. It is exactly what it says it is -- a fig tree -- and in the setting sun, its fruit-laden branches seem dipped in liquid gold.

Scent Elements: Green fig, vanilla, cedar, patchouli, tonka, musk

Interlude Man (Amouage)

Basically Viktor + Rolf Spicebomb with more oud, less longevity, and literally three times the price tag ($225/50ml as compared with Spicebomb's $75/50ml).  Color me as surprised as you. But in all respects -- olfactorially as well as economically -- I find the downmarket Spicebomb so much more pleasurable to wear than this uptown stuff.  The moral: money talks; Amouage walks.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, oregano, pimiento, amber, frankincense, opopanax, labdanum, myrrh, oud, patchouli, sandalwood

Interlude Woman (Amouage)

"...in the heart of chaos and disorder, this floral chypre fragrance reveals an interlude moment of unity and sentiment..."
This is why I distrust advertising. Told to expect "chaos" from Interlude Woman, eight out of ten reviewers did just that-- even making that word the very theme of their assessments. I've since read so many reviews alluding to the tohu-bohu of Interlude Woman's scent elements, I ought to consider it a foregone conclusion, too.

But I smelled it before I ever read the promo copy, and my first impression was of something far simpler and more innocent than "chaos". In fact, upon my return from Sniffapalooza -- and before any outside opinions could influence me -- I boiled it down to six words: Odd but compelling floral Play-Doh.

In a manner similar to Jacomo Art Collection #2, Interlude Woman smells like the contents of a grade-school art studio-- a place of promise where crayons, oil pastels, and tubs of bright-colored polymer clay give off a rich, waxy scent conducive to creativity. This is the spirit of childhood distilled and bottled to be worn by adults-- brighter and more spirited than Art Collection #2, but still redolent of the peaceful, happy hush that accompanies the act of making stuff.

I can't smell half the individual notes listed in the scent elements, mostly because they've been woven so compactly into one another that there's no picking and pulling them apart. Of the few that I do detect, dulcet orange blossom, spicy marigold, and piquant rose predominate-- blended together beneath a whispery haze of powdered suede. There are no sharp edges here; all angles, lines, and planes have been softened to an artful, lovely blur.

Playful without being childish, nostalgic without being melancholy, this fragrance packs just the right amount of adventure in its pencilbox. I may not be able to locate one smidge of the "chaos and disorder" with which it's is supposed to be invested. .. but the "unity and sentiment" part, I do get.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, grapefruit, ginger, marigold, rose, jasmine, orange blossom, immortelle, opopanax, sandalwood, frankincense, coffee, kiwi, honey, oud, vanilla, amber, benzoin, oakmoss, leather, tonka, musk

The Mémoire Liquide Reserve Edition (Mémoire Liquide)

It takes no special powers of perception to note that the fragrance industry, both mainstream and niche, cranks out new releases at a lunatic rate. The bottom line (rather than creativity or originality) motivates this effort. Perfume houses want to make money, and lots of it. Profit -- lovely stuff! -- is driven by brand visibility, which in turn is secured by as many perfume launches as you can shoehorn into a calendar year.

Look closely, and a couple of different modi operandi make themselves plain. First, there's the time factor. Established corporate houses such as Chanel, Coty, and Estée Lauder can afford to be more sanguine about their launch schedules, floating a gentle succession of flankers and limited-edition reissues downstream between major new launches. But niche houses -- particularly brand-new ones -- tend to go for broke straight out of the gate, blitzing the market with oversized multi-fragrance collections that leave consumers stunned. If one were to compare perfume with intravenous drugs (and who hasn't?), Coty & Friends clearly favor the slow IV-drip delivery method, while niche tries to pack it all into one fateful syringe. That's how overdoses happen-- not a pretty way to go.

Secondly, there's theme. Some collections (such as A Dozen Roses) are variations on a single note. Others cleave to the box-of-chocolates format, offering "one of every flavor"-- a bridal orange blossom, a sex-goddess tuberose, a citrus-tea cologne, a gourmand vanilla, and the obligatory oud. (One senses the artistic director's panic lest any potentially deal-breaking genre be omitted.) If nothing really matches, just link it all together with a series of evocative names the way Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab's been doing for years. Their Ars Amatoria collection consists of more than fifty (!) perfume oils all connected by the most tenuous of premises... and knowing BPAL, all fifty probably smell like a Jolly Rancher Jumbo-Pack.

Thirdly, there's presentation. One often sees identical bottles, each filled with a 'fume of a different (but complementary) hue, arranged as if in a police-station lineup (as here and here). If there are enough of them, they may come numbered à la Odin New York, Tokyo Milk, or CB I Hate Perfume. If it's a male/female duo launch, the bottles can be identical, but the selection pour femme should always be prettily pastel (as here). Easy-peasy, right?

Finally, there's the consideration of usage. Does each fragrance in the set stand alone as a finished product? Or is the consumer meant to use them as "ingredients" to mix up their own clumsy potions at home? (If Jo Malone represents the high-end neighborhood of the DIY model, Demeter Fragrance Library surely occupies its working-class suburbs.)

While it's challenging enough to navigate a coffret that comes from a known and trusted source (i.e. Christian Dior's Collection Privée; Cartier Les Heures de Parfum), confronting a massive multi-launch from a newcomer is a near-Herculean trial. Who can keep up? Not me, I tell you what. I find myself spent before I even toe the starting line. This may explain why I have yet to review these Mémoire Liquide samples I got at Sniffapalooza over a year ago.

Oh, God, I thought to myself both then and now. Another drop in the bucket.

I'm given to understand that Mémoire Liquide first emerged in 2006, debuting with no fewer than one hundred and fifty essences, all grouped in twee little categories comprising a vast mixable-matchable "bespoke bar". Just reading about it makes me crave a Centrum Silver and a nap. The Reserve Edition of five EdPs (Encens Liquide, Fleur Liquide, Soleil Liquide, Vacances Liquide, and Amour Liquide) marks its maker's foray into prêt-à-porter. Clearly, they've been cut using existing industrial patterns, one size fits all.

So here I am, trying to be fair and give these fragrances a chance... and I just feel tired. TIRED. Nothing's been left to chance-- and when I say that, I mean not only that every expected mark has been hit, but that absolutely no risks have been taken in the process. Even the color-coded-but-otherwise-uniformly-identical packaging of these samples deflects all curiosity. Nothing to see here, people; move along, move along...

Encens Liquide smells like a sweeter, wetter, cheaper version of Ambre Sultan. Fleur Liquide is a regulation orange blossom; Soleil Liquide a by-the-book "fresh" hesperides. Vacances Liquide is Parfums De Nicolaï Cococabana back from the dead. Amour Liquide is every single ethylmaltol-vanilla gourmand you have ever, ever smelled. Oriental: check. Bridal floral: check. Eau de Calone®: check. Cabo San Lucas vacation for two: check. Shit that smells like candy: check.

The worst thing? It's knowing that there are so many other boring collections out there just like this one... and you'll never know just how mind-deadening they are until you try them. Honest to goodness, it makes you want to cry.

Scent Elements: Amber, tea, white musk, hinoki cypress (Encens); orange blossom, mimosa, jasmine (Fleur); Madagascar vanilla, tonka bean, incense (Amour); grapefruit, tangerine, blood orange, neroli, sandalwood, white musk (Soleil); tiare, coconut, Tahitian vanilla, marine accords (Vacances)

Silences Eau de Parfum Sublime (Jacomo)

I've been on a severe galbanum kick lately. Ma Griffe, Via Lanvin, Chanel No. 19... if it's mean and green, I'm first in line.

I'm sure this craving is due to the fact that I'm experiencing serious ambivalence about my job-- not a comfortable prospect, having already sunk thirteen years of my life into it. Every day brings eight hours of anger and humiliation; every night the tears I've held in come pouring out. I tell myself I'm doing it for my husband, our kitty cat, our cozy home, the almighty pension... but wearing galbanum? That's for me. Its crisp, cold, standoffish quality helps me to maintain the necessary distance to tolerate (as Ian Curtis put it) the day in, day out, day in, day out.

However, during off-hours, one needs to gear down into a slightly more forgiving frame of mind-- otherwise your spouse, cat, and home (not to mention the pension) will never be as happy as you'd like. If the galbanum featured in the original 1978 Silences is a bit too brutal for home wear, the new(ish) Silences EdP Sublime offers a touch of sweetness along with sanctuary.

The combination of cassis and galbanum always totals up to a triumph in my book. In Silences Sublime -- as in another great green cassis, Missoni Original -- the mutual sharpness of these two notes are displayed to best advantage in contrast to a third, much sweeter note. In Missoni, it's honey; here, it's a nectary pear. The wearer has all the benefit of galbanum's edginess without its accompanying froideur.

By Wednesday, when this four-day weekend is over, I may well be back in Ma Griffe. But for now, I'll take the kinder, gentler route. If you knew me, you would thank me for it.

Scent Elements: Aldehydes, cassis, galbanum, pear, rose, iris, narcissus, lily-of-the-valley, vetiver, sandalwood, musk