Caru (Fragrances of Ireland)

Every once in a while, my friend Toni visits me at work, bearing gifts of perfume from her collection. Some, like Avon Ariane, are wonderful. Others, like anything made by Tova Borgnine, are horrible. This one, I regret to say, qualifies for the Tova category.

Fragrances of Ireland is one of those touristy outfits beloved by armchair travelers yearning for their own square of Emerald Astroturf but lacking the means or wherewithal to get it at the source. Caru is not the first Fragrance of Ireland I've encountered; Toni has wafted both Inis and Inisfree under my nose, and a coworker once palmed off a carded sample of Inis Moonlight on me as a dirty rotten trick. All struck me by the unrelieved cheapness of their aromachemicals-- proof of corporate unwillingness to spend a little to get a little. Or, in the local parlance, an lámh a bheir 'si a gheibh.

According to FoI's website, caru is an ancient Gaelic word meaning "to love". This is true, if you're Welsh. In Irish Gaelic it's grá, which is understandably no name for a perfume. FoI goes on to tell us: When creating CARU our minds were filled with thoughts of the last days of summer; rich aromas of harvests and the last blooms of summer scenting the breeze... Copy like this convinces me that the gift of blarney is real; otherwise, how could those Irish ad men sleep at night? Maybe they never actually smelled this stuff, and in that, I'd say they had their heads on straight.

For Caru is bad-- so bad that words can't do it justice. It clung to the surface of my wrist like an oil slick, sending up a ghastly chemical odor that I suppose was meant to read "raspberry clafoutis" but only succeeded in evoking Perth Amboy in high summer. Having no illusions that Caru would "develop" -- and at the same time fearing that it would -- I scrubbed immediately and without a particle of regret.

I do wonder about Toni, however. If she'd liked Caru, wouldn't she have kept it? And if she didn't like Caru, why on earth did she give it to me? For the sake of our friendship, I won't ask her. Má tá tú ag lorg cara gan locht, béidh tú gan cara go deo.

Scent Elements: Lychee, raspberry, rose, freesia, muguet, vetiver, cedar, patchouli, amber, vanilla

Trompe-nez.

Confession: I don't get trompe-l'œil. I know that many people consider this art form the greatest thing since soup in a can (Campbell's OR Warhol's). But for some reason, trompe-l'œil makes me fume like Willem trying to see the sailboat in Mallrats. What do people find in it? I just don't know.

Maybe it's the feeling of being in on a prank, rather than its target. Like Doctor Who, P.D.Q. Bach, Ayn Rand's Objectivism, and punning, trompe-l'œil is a cultural phenomenon that confers intellectual superiority upon its fans (who may have been teased about such tastes in the past). The desire to retreat into connoisseurship -- a realm of preference occupied only by a select few -- is understandable. We all wish for a salon that will admit the likes of us to its inner circle. I've experienced that wish myself, with Monty Python, hardcore punk, the Church of the SubGenius, the Illuminatus! trilogy, and of course fragrance. But the allure of trompe-l'œil remains hidden to both my eye and my mind.

Because I am an artist, I often use visual terminology to get closer to other abstract concepts. In perfumery, for instance, there's the dupe-- a complex note-for-note reconstruction of an extant (or extinct) perfume composition. To my mind, dupes are similar to reproduction artworks. Some are Sistine Chapels carefully and lovingly restored by experts under the behest of the proper legal authorities. Others are classroom exercises, copied out for practice-- clumsy, yet legitimate. Then you have your crass forgeries-- whose perpetrators are to the original perfumer as Han van Meegeren was to Johannes Vermeer.

The perfumery equivalent of trompe-l'œil is the smellalike-- an aromachemical facsimile of a real environmental odor such as rain or funnel cakes or axel grease. Unlike dupes, they are not abstract compositions. For the most part, they're not meant to be blended, layered, or worn (though you can certainly try). Unless incorporated into a candle or room spray, they can't even properly be considered functional. All they do is sit in a bottle and wait to wow you with how "real" they smell. This is their sole charm... if you wish to be charmed.

The best-known purveyor of smellalikes is Christopher Brosius, founder of both Demeter Fragrance Library and CB I Hate Perfume. From the former, I have samples of Rye Bread, Condensed Milk, Fiery Curry, Fireplace, Dirt, Saddle, Pipe Tobacco, Paperback, Thunderstorm, and Hershey's Special Dark. From the latter -- which appears to host Brosius' slightly more fleshed-out conceptual works -- I have samples of November (based on a Tove Jansson children's book), In the Library (vanilla, leather, and paper), and 7 Billion Hearts (vanilla and more vanilla).

I like them all. They're a ton of fun. I never wear them. I hardly ever take them out and smell them. I certainly don't view them as an art form, let alone a point of reference. Why should I, when I can easily find the real thing?

What I find interesting about smellalikes is that they are NOT geared toward perfumistas, who know that the essences used to create fragrance often smell radically different from their real-life sources. Basil essential oil, for instance, smells nothing like a fresh basil leaf in the hand. But then, we're not necessarily looking for the smell of a fresh basil leaf in the hand. Maybe basil essence (which smells like minty candy) combined with rose otto (which smells like black pepper and camphor) and ambergris (which smells like salty mammalian sex fluids with a hint of lightning-strike ozone) creates a wholly original and unexpected scent, and THAT is what we are looking for.

For those who want just the fresh basil leaf, there's Demeter. Or, you know, the farmer's market. À chacun son goût.

Cabriole (Elizabeth Arden)

In April 1975, Queen Elizabeth posed for a highly formal portrait by her Court Photographer, Peter Grugeon. Resplendent in the Grand Duchess Vladimir Tiara and her great-great-grandmother Victoria's pearls, the forty-nine-year-old monarch looked forward to her upcoming Silver Jubilee, when she would celebrate the 25th year of her reign with a loyal and adoring nation.

Or perhaps not so adoring. Once Situationist designer Jamie Reid got hold of the Royal portrait, he added one minor detail: a common safety pin piercing the Queen's lip. God Save the Queen, a scrawl of text declared. She ain't no human being. Silk-screened in two colors on cheap white cotton, Elizabeth II's vandalized visage would fly off the racks at a certain King's Road boutique run by punk impresarios Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood.

Jump forward fifteen years, and you'd find Westwood -- who once described herself as "messianic about punk (and) seeing if one could put a spoke in the system" -- traipsing pantyless through Buckingham Palace en route to collect an OBE from the very woman whose face made her a legend. Jump forward once more to 2006, and you'd see her there again-- still sans knickers, a pair of tiny silver horns sprouting from her temples to celebrate her ascent from Officer to Dame Commander. Hail Britannia!

Vivienne Westwood is now 73 years old. I hope she rocks those horns for years to come (though I'm glad she stopped dyeing her naturally-white hair that preposterous Virgin-Queen-meets-Campbell's-Tomato-Soup orange). A rebel soul eternally free to adopt new dimensions, she will (I am certain) accessorize the trappings of the "dignified years" with her tongue firmly in cheek. She'll pair pleather with pearls, tailored tweeds with fetishwear, support hose with glam platform heels. Heck, she may even don a pair of underwear now and again-- just for shits 'n' giggles.

But even she would draw the line at wearing Elizabeth Arden Cabriole.

You'd never know it by smelling it -- it certainly fooled me! -- but Cabriole debuted the very year that Westwood started pairing "God Save The Queen" shirts with tartan mini-kilts and vinyl bondage gear. Even if it had debuted two decades earlier, Cabriole would have seemed old for its age. Despite the acquisition of a Second-Wave-Feminist backbone courtesy of a Charliesque slug of galbanum, this is the same old sour, pinch-lipped fragrance Elizabeth Arden had already been retailing for half a century. How could it ever hope to survive a world inhabited by Vivienne, Malcolm, David, Lou, Iggy, Joey, Johnny, Sid, Patti, and Chrissie?

I suppose what I'm trying to say is that I find it extraordinary that some things (and people) never grow old, while others seem geriatric from the get-go. It startled me to discover that Vivienne Westwood was nearing forty when she founded SEX with Malcolm McLaren. By the exacting standards of youth culture, that's ancient. Her own generation vowed never to trust anyone over 30, but she did her best work after passing that milestone. When she received her OBE, she was only five years older than I am now-- and still putting "a spoke in the system" with that cheeky smirk on her face. I simply can't imagine Elizabeth Arden embracing age with the same sense of humor, when her entire business stood as a bastion against it. Yet all of the conservatism of age -- its stereotypical horror of change and loose morals and, yes, SEX -- imbued her personality from the start. (Clarification: by 'age', I don't mean 'time period'. Not when Elizabeth Arden was born the same year as Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the original youthquaker.)

Cabriole comes across as a marketer's afterthought, as though someone hoped to disguise the Elizabeth Arden we already knew in a trendy, up-to-date outfit. But underneath, she is wearing panties... and those panties are for grannies.

Sorry, Your Majesty.

Scent Elements: Aldehydes, galbanum, bergamot, anise, apple, peach, pineapple, rose, jasmine, carnation, violet, beeswax, cedar, sandalwood, amber, oakmoss

Les Heures de Cartier XI: L'Heure Mystérieuse (Cartier)

Hm. I'd characterize this as the offspring of L'Heure Fougueuse (also by Mathilde Laurent) and Francis Kurkdjian's Absolue Pour le Soir. It's got the almost-oily lusciousness of the latter overlaid with the edgy, crisp, electric quality of the former. But does L'Heure Mystérieuse work? Well, the kid's a fine second-generation version of her parents... but being a grownup myself, I suppose I prefer their dry, sophisticated repartee to her artless teenaged gushing. Why should not be a mystery.

Scent Elements: Jasmine, patchouli, coriander, elemi, incense, nutmeg

Anima Dulcis (Arquiste)

The legend: "November 1695, Mexico City. Deep inside the halls of the Royal Convent of Jesus Maria, a group of reverent nuns prepares a Baroque recipe of spiced Cocoa. The brew is infused with an assortment of chilies that tempt rapture, and the air is rich with the scent of exotic spices. After centuries of safe-keeping within this closed world, their secrets are finally revealed to the senses."

The truth: Google "Royal Convent of Jesus Maria Mexico City" (or Real Convento de Jesús María Ciudad de México) and you'll find that most of the results refer to Arquiste Anima Dulcis. Despite this snippet supposedly on file at Columbia University, it appears to me that the Royal Convent is more likely a construct of Carlos Huber's ripe imagination than an actual landmark. Furthermore, Arquiste's fanciful depiction of the nuns' "secret" seems more like turgid convent fan fiction than an accurate portrayal of contemplative life. Noble-born virgins transplanted to the New World to grind endlessly away at their metates in a state of sensual transport? ¿En serio? If this were Catholic school and I was a parent, I'd wonder exactly where my tuition money was going. As it is, my adolescence spent shilling boxes of candy door-to-door to raise funds for a new altar places me squarely in the midst of the skeptic's camp. The Catholic Church did not invent chocolate; it merely turned it into a long con. Real xocolatl is almost four thousand years old, a thoroughly pagan ritual food still found today on every home altar south of the border. Go ahead. Google it... or ask your abuela.

The reality: A commonplace amber with a sheer film of cocoa powder riding on top; nothing at all memorable, let alone sacred.

Scent Elements: Cacao absolute, Mexican vanilla, cinnamon, chili

L'Accord Code 119 (Caron)

Going on four and a half years ago, I described Angel as if it were Tolkien's Shelob, "(deploying) a stinger full of venom in the form of a blackcurrant note so boozy I thought I'd been teleported back to 1987, when the candy trend for high-school girls was fancy French cassis pastilles in collectible tins filled with powdered sugar. When you were done with the pastilles, you emptied out the sugar and used the tin to store your cocaine. And when you were done with the cocaine, you drank most of a bottle of cheap Leroux's blackberry brandy in a desperate attempt to come down. Then you puked yourself dry and promised God and your sainted grandmother never, ever, EVER to do it again."

Oops.

Scent Elements: Cassis, blackberry, jasmine, heliotrope, patchouli, black pepper, amber, musk, vanilla

Rose Kashmirie (Les Parfums de Rosine)

I want so much to have something nicer to say, better to believe, more positive to report. If I could only make a different claim than this one: life is as indifferent, bland and predictable as this perfume. I can do one of two things: wait for it to fade, or swap it for something closer to my dreams.

Scent Elements: Ambergris, saffron, rose, coriander, bergamot, myrrh, peony, vetiver, cypriol, sandalwood, ambrette seed, benzoin, musk, vanilla

Tabac Blond Vintage Pure Parfum (Caron)

Five years shy of its 100th birthday.
Basically Farnesiana shaking out its leather jacket after sneaking a smoke break out by the loading dock.
Used to cover up the scent of tobacco-- but strangely enough, contains none itself.
Verdict: close, but no cigar.

Scent Elements: Leather, carnation, tilleul, iris, ylang-ylang, vetiver, patchouli, cedar, vanilla, amber, ambergris, musk

B (Marie Saint Pierre)

In August's brick oven, it's not exactly intuitive to reach for a caramel-covered wood such as Marie Saint Pierre B. But oh, can't you imagine B being nice in any weather? I remember C, its fraternal twin, being a cozy cashmere saffron perfect for the dank rainy days occurring in cooler quadrants of the year. But B gives an arid August midday a much-needed touch of syrupy humidity and more-- there's comfort and intimacy in its snug, satin-lined embrace. Who cares if it makes you fan yourself or ask for extra ice in your lemonade?

Scent Elements: Bergamot, Turkish rose, beeswax, violet, caramel, cedar, sandalwood, cardamom, cinnamon, vanilla, maple sap

Sipario (Hilde Soliani)

In old-school serial thrillers, the phrase "It's curtains for you!" is generally uttered to the rope-bound, pleading maiden as a locomotive chugs around a distant bend in the track. The saying refers to the theater, where fancy proscenium draperies descend to signal end-of-story. In Italian, that wall of red velvet is called the sipario-- a name perfectly suited for the stage, if not exactly the perfume shelf.

Designer Hilde Soliani's 2008 series Teatro Olfattivo Di Parma (Scent Theater of Parma) comprises a group of odors symbolizing the world of the theater as experienced by both performer and audience member. This, I think, is where Ms. Soliani loses me. I lived and worked in that world, albeit as a lowly stagehand. I find all my memories skulking in the wings, where coffee and cigarettes (Bell'Antonio) mix readily with greasepaint and face powder (Vecchi Rossetti). But melon (Mangiami Dopo Teatro)? And tomato (Stecca)? And beachy piña colada pineapple (Sipario)? Is this what the stage looks like when viewed from the house? It sounds more like a farmers' market.

Honestly, all of the above odors seem so wildly mismatched, and their justifications for inclusion so flimsy, that Soliani most likely didn't create them with any predetermined theme in mind. Rather, I suspect she needed a pretext, a banner under which to release this motley collection together... and in this case, the bolt of red velvet came up a couple of yards short.

Scent Elements: Rum, pineapple, coconut, vanilla

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

Sikkim Girls (LUSH)

Peculiar and powerful, nag champa is a traditional Indian fragrance which juxtaposes moist, buttery frangipani against a backdrop of dark, ashy wood notes. If you've ever encountered cheap nag champa, you'll recognize its olfactory sketch of head-shop hippiedom in all its patchworked splendor. What may not be readily apparent at first sniff is this scent's basic charisma. Properly administered in small doses, nag champa reveals a subtle, spicy character said to cause delirium in excessive amounts. Consider yourself warned!

Even thus cautioned, I've hit my sample vial of LUSH Sikkim Girls fully four out of the last six days. What can I tell you? The yin/yang contradiction-and-balance of its notes has put me in a trance. Combine creamy frangipani with the vanilla shaving-lather effect of coumarin; spice it up with geranium and clove, then cool it down with cardamom. Neutralize the threat of soapiness with the delightful fraîcheur of lemon zest-- and then, when no one's looking, hit the wearer squarely with a wallop of deliciously fatty jasmine. Think you stand a chance?

I dare anyone to remain indifferent to this fragrance's straightforward beauty... but then again, for all the fight I put up, I'm one to talk.

Scent Elements: Jasmine, frangipani, tuberose, carnation, geranium, mimosa, clove, lemon, lily-of-the-valley, vanilla