Rubi Extrait de Parfum (Vero Profumo)

All right-- first of all, the name. As printed on my sample vial (not a decant; it hailed directly from Vero Profumo), it's Rubi with an 'i'. According to Birgit of Olfactoria's Travels, Vero Kern elongated the 'i' into a 'j' to avoid a sticky trademark infringement. Fair enough. But what's really derivative about Rubi is not its name, but its smell-- a Pixy Stix fruit-sugar accord that some people, for some reason, find utterly original. Me, I just think it's an upmarketed Flower by Kenzo-- louder, more expensive, and way harder to get.

I can hear you now: And your point is? Look, I loved Kiki... but only because I love Jicky and Mouchoir de Monsieur. I also loved Onda... but only because I love Cabochard and Jolie Madame. Do you see where I'm going with this? When the scenery is no different and the destination exactly the same, why go that extra mile for what looks like a typo?

Scent Elements: Moroccan orange blossom, Egyptian jasmine, musk

The Preciousssssssss.

Every thrifter has a 'big fish' tale about the score that defied all odds. I once found a pair of brand-new Doc Martens maroon-leather Mary Janes in just my size for only three bucks. I wore them for years -- in fact, I wore them out -- and then I found another pair exactly like them. Same size, same style, same color, same price, same thrift shop. Of course I bought them-- who wouldn't, when the Thrift Gods make their wishes so clear?

That pair of Mary Janes wasn't my only Doc Marten triumph. I once spotted a pair at a yard sale-- black greasy leather 1460s, the selfsame model I'd been wearing for decades, sized to fit. A lovely young woman with a baby on her lap smiled when I asked her the price. "One dollar," she said.

Wait, WHAT?! Was she serious?

 "Absolutely," she beamed. She explained that she'd never once taken them out of the box, having developed swollen feet as a side effect to a somewhat risky first pregnancy. She held her fine, fat, bright-eyed son aloft. "He was my prize," she said, eyes shining.  "The Docs will be yours."

And every time I strap those 1460s on, I bless that young mother and her miracle child.

In my thrift-hunting life, I've stumbled across so many super scores, cool coups, vintage victories, and amazing finds. But one of the most memorable was the one I very nearly missed, and yesterday's post about sandalwood fragrances reminded me all over again of my great good fortune.

It was a mellow October, aflood with abundant sunshine. My husband wisely lured me away from the computer and out into a waiting car. Our destination: Green Acres Antiques, an estate-sale and antiques complex located on a private farm in the Pine Barrens. At the end of a long, winding gravel drive, it spread out before us: a beautiful farmhouse surrounded by a graduated series of wooden outbuildings stocked with antique furniture and culminating with a two-story red barn crammed with a thousand objects of desire.

"Ye Olde Antiques Barn" (as I irreverently nicknamed it) has since become one of my favorite sources for vintage fragrance, but on that first visit I was frankly surprised to find any at all. Sure, you'd expect to find old rocking chairs, Depression glass, and vintage Coca-Cola collectibles in such a place-- but perfume? Not hardly. Yet here, one of the first things I spotted was a fancy dessert tray crowded with mini-bottles, the whole shebang perched atop a velveteen hassock.  "Go ahead," my consummately-tolerant husband said, nudging me toward it. "I'll catch up with you later."

For a good twenty minutes, I sat happy as a clam on the floor, opening and sniffing one tiny bottle at a time. The owner (a wiry little lady with a fanny pack strapped around her meager hips) happened past and cheerfully called my attention to a SECOND bottle-laden tray on the shelf of a nearby hutch cupboard-- a vision that would have left me weak in the knees if I hadn't already been sitting down. It was in this cupboard that my eye caught a glimpse of real treasure.

It sat half-lost amid the jumble-- a one-dram amber bottle full of perfume oil. I picked it up, turned it around to read the ancient, flaking label, and felt my hands start to tremble. Sandalwood Mysore, it read. Cautiously, I twisted off the lid and inhaled. Sweet gods of perfumery, it was the genuine article-- buttery, rich, radiant and emphatic. I could hardly believe it.

"How much is this?" I asked, holding the vial up for the owner to see.

She shrugged. "Fifty cents." I almost swallowed my tongue. Mysore sandalwood being not just a rarity now, but an impossibility, she could have said fifty DOLLARS and I would have forked it over without question.

My husband met up with me again, and we continued to drift around, finding attractive curiosities in every corner. Secretly, however, I was grappling with excitement so strong it took all my wherewithal to keep it concealed. I felt certain that if I let it show, that fifty-cent price tag on that vial of Mysore sandalwood would magically balloon a hundred times in size. Sure enough, the owner caught up with me about ten minutes later. "You know, I'm really giving you a deal on that perfume oil," she said. "It's actually worth a lot more than what I quoted."

"Oh, er... really?" I replied in my best clueless voice. "I just thought it smelled nice."

"Well, you're the only person who ever asked about it, so that's something. Hell, I've been running this place for years, and I didn't even know it was here-- or who consigned it in the first damn place. So fifty cents and finders keepers."

"Wait here," I told her.

I ran back to the dessert tray and gathered up a handful of miniatures: Houbigant Chantilly, Annick Goutal Eau d'Hadrien, Prince Matchabelli Chimère, and Estée Lauder Private Collection. I knew they would cost much more than the sandalwood, but at that moment, it seemed to me that karma itself had demanded this gesture.

In the end, we were both delighted-- the owner for having instantly increased her profit to a cool ten dollars; me for walking away with a classic all-season scent wardrobe... and a lifetime supply of the rarest and most coveted essence in the world.

Sandalwood writ small and large.

After you've spent time in the perfume blogosphere, you notice that certain writers favor the play-by-play method of perfume criticism-- exhaustively describing every single note's appearance, performance, and departure as if timing the whole production with a stopwatch. Others save up their hyperbole for the gestalt of the thing-- rapturously detailing each subjective swoon and flutter experienced in the wearing. Both methods are fine, though sometimes I wonder at the perfumes which merit the analysis. You know what I'm talking about: fourteen paragraphs for something that can be summed up in one sentence.

Therefore, let me keep this brief: Serge Lutens' Santal Majuscule seems pretty miniscule to me. I'm hardly the first to say so, but the jibe practically writes itself, doesn't it? There aren't enough dimensions here to require the use of a dictionary. I shall merely remark that perfumer Christopher Sheldrake is entitled to his off days, and leave it at that.

To cheer ourselves up, let's put on some Victoria's Secret Mandarin Santal-- the "Silk" of the lingerie-themed Parfums Intimes quartet. Everything in this perfume is clearly and perfectly stated-- written in bright fire as it were, so that there is no misunderstanding. Sweet tangerine, smoldering wood: say no more, mere mortal!

Scent Elements: Sandalwood, cacao, Damascene rose (Santal Majuscule); sandalwood, mandarin, mimosa, honey, musk, woods (Silk: Mandarin Santal)

Un Crime Exotique (Parfumerie Générale)

The crime? That this fancy-schmancy French jus smells similar but not even nearly as good as some stuff sold by the plastic bottle at my local supermarket. I kid you not. Colonia Canela by Crusellas & Co. packs every bit of Un Crime's cinnamon-spice wallop, sets you back only three dollars, and is under no threat of imminent discontinuation. You can snap up enough of it to last you years and never have to skimp on application. Get you some, and forget all about Pierre Guillaume and his ugly mug. (FYI, I'm totally kidding about that last part. He may only be a middling perfumer in my book, but clearly those hours he spends in front of a mirror primping and posing his handsome self have paid off for us all.)

Scent Elements: Ginger, osmanthus, tea, cinnamon, star anise, vanilla, yerba mate, sandalwood

Dazzling Gold Eau de Parfum (Estée Lauder)

Dazzling Gold debuted in 1998 alongside Dazzling Silver, its fragrant fraternal twin. Both perfumes commence with a squeaky-clean helional mirror-shine, but only Silver stays the course-- remaining cold and unearthly to the end, its alien charm powered by an unsettling vanilla-milk heart note. Granted an essentially identical synthetic start, Gold stumbles over its choice of a balmy tropical destination. Grafted onto that aggressive metallic opening, its J'Adoresque banana-tinged floral amber seems woefully incongruous, cheap without concealment or relief.

Overall, the impression Dazzling Gold offers is that of a concept second-guessed. I suspect that the perfumer nailed it with Dazzling Silver but then received mixed messages from some Doubting Thomas of a corporate creative director, who bade her return to the lab for a fresh round of tinkering and tweaking. Or was it the other way around? Did Gold come first, making Silver the vastly improved redux? All I know is that the world only needed one Dazzling fragrance-- and now both have been discontinued, a fact apparently greeted by inequal levels of dismay by consumers, who knew the better bet all along.

Given that Silver was a far superior fragrance, one can speculate that it might have survived more easily on its own, unencumbered by the dead weight of its tragic sibling. Indeed, when one compares the two, it's difficult not to give audience to the thought that Gold brought the value of Silver down.

Scent Elements: Passionflower, fig, orchid, lily, plumeria (frangipani), sandalwood, vanilla

A little something.

In their first editorial meeting at Vogue, Grace Mirabella and Diana Vreeland found themselves at loggerheads. As recounted in Empress of Fashion (Amanda Mackenzie Stuart's tour de force profile of Vreeland) Mirabella attempted to impress her new chief with a scholarly market forecast complete with racks of the latest wool jersey frocks. Vreeland broadcast her boredom with impassive, deadpan silence. Was there a problem? Mirabella wondered. Yes, now that you mention it, Vreeland admitted there was.
"Well," she said, "I wasn't looking for a market report. I thought you were going to give me a little something."

"Like what?" I asked. I thought I had given a good deal.

little something." She said, "A dream."
I can think of no better way to sum up the difference between Les Nombres d'Or Vanille and Tonkamande. Both are semi-sweet gourmands built on a foundation of vanilla, coumarin, and sandalwood. Both possess a cozy quality alongside Oriental flair. Both were conceived by talented perfumers whose rather evident vanity is (or in di Orio's sad case, was) balanced by considerable personal charm. If all things were equal, one could call these two fragrances pretty evenly matched. But the distinction between them, once experienced, is clear: Vanille has a dream to offer, and Tonkamande does not.

How else to explain it? Unfortunately I cannot channel Diana Vreeland, whom I suspect would know the very phrase to sum it all up and sort it all out. All I can say is that Tonkamande lacks a little something. It does not reach; it does not touch; it does not try.  Its congeniality is undeniable, but so is its complacency. Indeed, that is the problem with many Parfumerie Générale fragrances-- in their bland certainty that you will be easily satisfied with the minimum, they rarely rise above the level of mild-mannered sent-bon.

But Mona di Orio kept going. When she could have stopped short with full honors, she pressed on. Instead of a recipe-card gourmand, she offered up a twisting, turning bit of melancholy beauty which intrigues more than it comforts. Unworried about your satisfaction, she pleased herself-- and thereby reached what Diana Vreeland called "the myth of the next reality"-- that marvelous, maddening thing that you want without even knowing what it is, or why you want it, or why you never even noticed it before.

Scent Elements: Orange, rum, cloves, tonka bean, amber, ylang-ylang, vanilla, guaiacwood, vetiver, sandalwood (Les Nombres d'Or Vanille); aldehydes, almond milk, tonka bean, wheat, sandalwood, vanilla, amber (Tonkamande)

Rose 31 (Le Labo)

We were waiting for the matinée to start when the stench overtook me. I couldn't be sure what it was -- dirty theater-seat upholstery? Aged Cheez Whiz? My own feet, shod in admittedly weathered hippie sandals? I furtively sniffed the air, my collar, my underarms, my wrists. And then I sank down low in my chair, appalled at the realization that that smell was my perfume.

In Rose 31, Le Labo reaches for an ideal of "voluptuous and qualified femininity... disturbing ambiguity... a disconcerting sense of mystery." I am not in any position to evaluate whether the end product accurately mirrors its creator's hopes and dreams. All I can tell you is what I myself perceive, to wit: A) a blunt Piper nigrum accord clearly meant to suggest a peppery rose in that flower's actual absence; B) cumin at its sweatiest, C) a fetid, goat-cheesy, toe-jammy musk encountered before in Soivohle Alpha Musc, which I wore once disastrously and never wore again. I assure you that Rose 31 will meet the same fate.

Now, how about a brand new pair of Birkenstocks?

Scent Elements: Rose, cumin, frankincense, cedar, amber, guaiac, labdanum, musk

Ma Liberté (Jean Patou)

It's a rainy Independence Day here with Hurricane Arthur roiling far offshore. As torrents of rain veil the world outside our windows, echoes of Superstorm Sandy reverberate in our memory. But today, we are lucky to enjoy the greatest liberty: freedom from danger. (Honestly, in comparison to what we endured two years ago, what's the cancellation of a few municipal fireworks displays? Small shakes, indeed.)

Right now I'm wearing pajamas and Patou Ma Liberté-- not a very domestic scent for this all-American holiday, but hear me out. Back in high school, my peers and I were dazzled by the sophisticated demeanor of the foreign exchange students in our midst. Though we all shared the same youthful enthusiasms, European girls demonstrated a quiet self-confidence that my peers and I could never quite match. In its own way, Ma Liberté lays claim to the same subtle, hard-to-define allure. Composed by Jean Kerleo in 1987, it reminds me strongly of Estée Lauder's sweet-spry Cinnabar. Both perfumes feature a spicy citrus juxtaposed against soapy amber, with a heady millefleurs bouquet at the heart. But while Cinnabar is unabashedly playful, Ma Liberté wears its charms with a certain 'grown-up' self-possession -- not better, just different.

I regret recently depleting my supply of Cinnabar-- a two-wrist comparison would have offered some cross-cultural fun. But I'm glad to welcome Ma Liberté as an ally to these shores-- the second Lady Liberty for which Americans must rightly thank the French. Merci, mes camarades!

Scent Elements: Lemon, heliotrope, lavender, jasmine, rose, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, patchouli, vetiver, sandalwood, cedar, vanilla, amber, musk

Cool Water, both ways.

Every time we go thrifting, my spouse and I marvel at the hot trend items that end up crowding the secondhand shelves, priced at fifty cents apiece. Yesterday's rejected fondue pots have been replaced by entire sets of the Tim LaHaye Left Behind series. Multiple copies of Fifty Shades of Grey intermingle with rolls of unused wallpaper depicting geese in blue gingham poke bonnets. If you look closely, you might even discover a steady influx of Justin Bieber fan paraphernalia-- no doubt unceremoniously ditched at the back door in the dead of night.

Once viewed as indispensable must-haves, these relics of a former age have depleted both their cultural meaning and everyday usefulness. I always wondered when Davidoff Cool Water might join their ranks. I don't have to wonder any more.

Recently, my friend Mary scored a handful of perfume minis for me at a local church thrift shop. She didn't know what I might like, so she bought the entire lot for a flat, rock-bottom fee. Among some real finds (Shalimar, LouLou, Eau de Givenchy, and Van Cleef & Arpels' stunning First) there was also a little gentian-blue bottle whose name was printed in distinctive gold Edwardian script. I quickly suppressed a smile. The day that many have long feared has come at last, I thought. Then I realized I sounded like a Left Behind character and snapped out of my apocalyptic reverie just in time to prevent a malevolent MWA-HA-HA-HA! from escaping my lips.

Would you blame me, though? I've been forced to smell Davidoff Cool Water for nearly half my life-- thanks to its overwhelming popularity among a male fan base with seemingly no sense of boundaries. Such men you can smell at a hundred paces, if not from deep space. They routinely appear on Basenotes advising newbies to use cellblock-firehose methods of application (nine to twelve sprays of Cool Water distributed between the arms, neck, chest, upper back, stomach, groin, and shirt). They argue endlessly with one another over the true classification of Cool Water (aromatic or aquatic?), its reformulation (original or reboot?), its provenance (blatant Creed Green Irish Tweed ripoff or vice versa?) and its superiority to all other fragrances (SUCK IT HATERS!!!). Naysayers get slammed here, there, and everywhere. I don't think I've ever seen a single product excite more chest-thumping rage than Cool Water. No wonder I've detested it for twenty-five years: I like my peace and quiet.

Strangely, peace and quiet is exactly what Cool Water offers in low doses-- something I never realized, since no one I've ever encountered wearing it ever heard of restraint. Limited to one or two sprays at most, the dihydromercenol is almost what you'd call tolerable. I actually went so far as to dab, and the scant drop that adorns my wrists has lasted hours with no loss of clarity, power-- or pleasure. For the surprising truth is that I like what I smell. From mint-marine opening to aromatic herbal heart to sweet-woody drydown, this fragrance never screams as loud as the aficionados who defend its honor. Does its honor even need defending? No. Cool Water just wants gentle handling-- something most he-men would never admit about themselves.

Having said that, I'd like to add an afterword regarding Cool Water Woman, designed (like its male counterpart) by Pierre Bourdon. I received a bottle from a friend who had received it in turn from someone else. Obviously neither of them wanted it-- and after mistakenly unleashing one spritz of it in my house, I didn't want it either. Forget all those non-existent notes like quince and peach and lotus; here we have an industrial-strength mixture of el cheapo muguet, pure calone, and that oily lemon-peel accord from Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue. It basically smells like institutional floor cleaner and is shrill enough to take your head clean off even in the smallest increments. THIS -- and not the masculine version -- is the one people should be lobbying Town Hall to ban by local clean-air ordinance.

Scent Elements: Lavender, coriander, peppermint, rosemary, apple, orange blossom, neroli, jasmine, geranium, oakmoss, tobacco, sandalwood, amber, musk, cedar (Cool Water for Men); citrus, honeydew melon, quince, pineapple, peach, lotus, lily, rose, jasmine, muguet, iris, vetiver, sandalwood, vanilla, musk (Cool Water Woman)

First (Van Cleef & Arpels)

There would be no First without there first having been Chanel No.5. But Jean-Claude Ellena's inaugural fragrance is not so much a tribute to No.5 as a vastly improved reincarnation of it.

If No.5 was the first lungfish to heave itself out of the primordial soup onto dry land, First is that creature's fully evolved and upright descendent, walking confidently forth on its own two legs, an Eden's worth of flowers woven through its hair.

And if First is any proof of the efficacy of karma, then I would have to say the sins of Coco Chanel must be forgiven-- otherwise No.5 would have transmigrated straight into a bottle of Paris Hilton Can Can.

Scent Elements: Aldehydes, mandarin, cassis, peach, raspberry, hyacinth, rose, jasmine, narcissus, lily-of-the-valley, carnation, orchid, tuberose, iris, amber, tonka bean, oakmoss, sandalwood, vetiver, musk, honey, civet.