Aromatics Elixir (Clinique for Estée Lauder)

On a September morning twenty-eight years ago, my best friend and I celebrated the first day of high school with an embrace so intense and inappropriate that it gave everybody within fifty feet of us hives. We hadn't seen each other all summer, what with him busy counseling campers in the Berkshires and me moving house twice during August. Consequently, we ritualized our reunion as only teenagers can: by climbing one another like trees. Seriously, we hugged one another so hard and close, we almost ended up wearing one another's clothes.

But all good things must come to an end, preferably before some concerned citizen pulls a fire alarm. In the midst of audience catcalls and scandalized noises, we eventually let go of one another-- but not before I realized something. My friend smelled good.

Really good.

UNBELIEVABLY good.

I have described before the odor given off by all the other boys in my high school. Thank heaven, the aroma radiating from my bestie's epidermis was nothing like. Complicated, herbal, savory, with traces of artist's linseed oil, saltwater and broken-in leather, it made him smell not like a chemical in a bottle, but like a warm-blooded animal, full of vitality. I had to know where That Amazing Scent came from.

Answer: his sister's bathroom vanity. Upon departing for Barnard, she'd left behind a bottle of Clinique Aromatics Elixir. If she really cared about it, wouldn't she have packed it? my friend argued. He had a point. And of course it would be a shame to let all that Elixir go to waste.

But there were still several layers of subtext underpinning my friend's act of pilferage. I immediately set about interpreting them between deep huffs of the skin of his collarbone. I knew he revered his sister, but that bottle contained a thing of power-- a scent so rich, so compelling, so nuanced, it was like wearing a Rembrandt, a Beethoven, a Grand Canyon, a Renaissance. How she -- a rather shy beauty with a personality as diffuse as aerosol -- ever shouldered it, I have no earthly idea. But it suited her extroverted brother to a T. He knew it, I knew it, and presumably his sister also knew it when she came home for Thanksgiving and failed to get that bottle back.

Composed in 1971 by Bernard Chant -- he of Cabochard (1959), Aramis (1966), Azurée (1969), Alliage (1972), Halston by Halston (1974), and Cinnabar (1978) -- Aromatics Elixir plays so insanely dirty, I'm surprised it didn't get tossed from the game. Four-plus decades of perfume wearers have responded with mixed devotion and disgust to its monolithic presence, which casts a glimmering chiaroscuro sunset for miles and miles around. Like Calvin Klein's Obsession, it forces everything to live in its shade. Whether you agree to do so depends on how much you love patchouli, labdanum, and those murky herbal syrups found clinging to the insides of old-time apothecary bottles. It also depends on how comfortable you are with a scent that transcends all the usual fetters of gender and situation and establishes brand-new rules of its own.

Victoria of Bois de Jasmin posits that Bernard Chant must have drawn inspiration for Aromatics Elixir from Edmond Roudnitska's Diorella, with "dark and medicinal" results. If Diorella smells as Luca Turin describes it -- to wit, like "herbs (and) vitamin B" -- then I would have to agree with both assessments. For at its outset, Aromatics Elixir is more than a little reminiscent of riboflavin (B2), the source of that schoolbus-yellow pigment which tints all multivitamin formulas and makes them smell both healthy and jaundiced in strange simultaneum mixtum. From here, it descends into a deep, shadowy valley inhabited by thrilling beasts, tangled mosses, arcane roots. Bring torches and a good compass; you might never otherwise navigate your way through.

"I had no idea Estée Lauder could DO dirty," I once proclaimed over Sensuous Noir. Obviously I did not see the forest for the trees. True, the corporate entity known as Estée Lauder is a porcelain Clean Queen-- but the woman herself was no stranger to spice, leather, or moss, as evinced by Youth-Dew and Private Collection. So fangirlishly did she champion Bernard Chant's work that he composed no fewer than five stunners for her fragrant stable. You can pick them out easily-- these highly-individual, dark-complected brunettes amidst a herd of Aryan blondes. Azurée's the one in butch black leather, her eyes rimmed in feline mascara; Alliage drips with mountain lake water, having just emerged from her morning high-country ablution. Cinnabar presents a luxurious picture clad in dusky-hued satin and silk; Aramis -- the singular male in this pride of panthers-- prowls in suede borrowed from the sexiest recesses of Jim Morrison's closet.

And Aromatics Elixir? You can't miss her. She's La Gioconda-- umber draperies, inscrutable smile, River Styx and all. Like her namesake, she's immortal... and she's been stolen more than once.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, aldehydes, rose, jasmine, lily-of-the-valley, orange blossom, geranium, carnation, ylang-ylang, tuberose, iris, verbena, chamomile, palmarosa, coriander, clary sage, rosewood, patchouli, vetiver, amber, labdanum, frankincense, civet, musk, sandalwood