MARTIAL “LOL

All the fragrances discussed on the Perfume Nationalist through “Season 2,” starting with the three most important and proceeding alphabetically thereafter.

Starring

  1. Aromatics Elixir

    Gloved hand at steering wheel holding Aromatics ElixirSmelling Aromatics Elixir on a strip and especially in the air following a string of “modern” fragrances is like watching Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep after 12 episodes of Cheers. The thing fills the room with such a confident presence that it is hard to countenance the fact that Bernard Chant was using the same fragrance materials as everyone else. In his hands everything becomes larger and lighter than life. His trademark structure of a bold herbaceous-patchouli-floral accord buttressed by a chiaroscuro of dozens of related balsamic notes produced very sultry, grown-up fragrances…. It works even better when done in the bright, fresh, herbaceous, almost medicinal manner of Aromatics Elixir. AE achieves at once salubrious radiance and luxurious dusk, a balancing act to my knowledge only attained since by Patou’s Sublime. A masterpiece.

  2. Yatagan

    Caron is home to both one of the most reassuring (Pour un Homme) and one of the most disturbing (this one) masculine fragrances of all time. In the lovely Caron corner shop on Avenue Montaigne in Paris, I witnessed more than one customer recoiling at the smell of Yatagan on his hand, while the sales assistant suavely explained that it was “big in the Middle East,” as if some sort of perfume heresy had taken hold in partibus infidelium.

    The truth, of course, was that this 1976 creation and its mysterious Levantine fan club were 30 years ahead of their time. Considered as voices, many masculine orientals try very hard to be warm and husky. More Kaa the Snake than Baloo the Bear, Yatagan goes for a uniquely strange, high-pitched, hissing tone, with odd, borderline sweaty-sour notes of caraway and sage up top, and a dry, inky wood structure below. Respect, or possibly neglect, has spared Yatagan the largely disastrous recent reformulation of Caron fragrances. Rush to buy it before they screw it up.

  3. Youth Dew (consistently pronounced ambiguously on the Perfume Nationalist [its name consists of the two words shown here]; Estée Lauder)

    Something has happened to me, or something has happened to Youth Dew. I remembered this 1953 fragrance as an old-fashioned bludgeoner of a spiced-amber oriental, better as the bath oil it originated as, hopelessly dowdy in a little ribbed brown bottle that looked dusty even when new, and with a name that sounded like a euphemism for some unspeakable bodily fluid. Then today I opened the familiar mint-and-white Lauder box of eau de parfum only to find a wildly adorable bottle in curvaceous opaque baby blue, with small, elegant brown ’50s lettering: retro fabulous.

    On skin, it smells like a lighter Tabu, brighter up top than I remember, more floral in the middle, lively and filled out, with a sweet nutmeg charm – a bit like an animalic cola. It smells terrific, top quality, sophisticated, and easy to wear. I don’t usually stoop to point out such things, but, ladies, I must add that, at this writing, the standard retail price for a 2.2-ounce bottle is $28, which means Youth Dew remains true to Estée Lauder’s genius idea of making a fragrance for women to buy as an everyday luxury and not a costly occasional pleasure. It’s the scent that put Lauder (and American fragrance) on the map.

Guest-starring

  1. Angel (Thierry Mugler)

    The first time I smelled Angel, a flamboyant 6′3″ salesman with the shoulders of a linebacker encased in a baby-blue zoot suit leaned over the counter and sprayed me. I recoiled. “Is this a joke?” I thought of it, for years, as possibly the worst thing I had ever smelled….

    Although Angel is sold as a gourmand for girls, spoken of as if it were a fudge-dipped berry in a confectioner’s shop, it’s all lies. Look for Angel’s Adam’s apple: a handsome, resinous, woody patchouli straight out of the pipes-and-leather-slippers realm of men’s fragrance, in a head-on collision with a bold blackcurrant (Neocaspirene) and a screechy white floral….

    Many perfumes are beautiful or pleasant, but how many are exciting? Like a woman in a film who seethes, “He’s so annoying!” and marries him in the end, I returned to smell Angel so many times I had to buy it.

  2. Antaeus (Chanel)

    I have it on good authority that the fragrance was christened by the great publisher Dan Halpern, who at the time ran a literary magazine of the same name, during a conversation with Chanel’s owner, Jacques Wertheimer. I confess I missed the point of Antaeus when it first came out in 1981, partly because it became the first gay masculine fragrance [sic] and several years had to pass before the guys learned to use less than half a bottle per day. In retrospect, it is the best of the cigar-box woody fragrances of the time (Krizia Uomo three years later was another). It feels a bit dated and would probably fare better on a woman than on a man today, but still smells really good.

  3. Aramis [900]

    Aramis, still touchingly encased in the same burl-walnut-veneer-effect box I remember from my adolescence, is the Rock of Gibraltar of masculines, around since forever (1965) and, for some reason, largely undented. Aramis and Brut were the first fragrances that ordinary young men like myself actually thought about, as opposed to merely splashed on. It had an aura of sophistication, and the girls liked it. and several years had to pass before the guys learned to use less than half a bottle per day. In retrospect, it is the best of the cigar-box woody fragrances of the time (Krizia Uomo three years later was another). It feels a bit dated and would probably fare better on a woman than on a man today, but still smells really good.

    I always loved Aramis, and found out today who composed it: Bernard Chant, he of Cabochard (1959). I immediately had a belated epiphany, embarrassingly obvious in hindsight: Aramis is none other than Cabochard slimmed down for masculine use. Now that Cabochard has been damaged beyond repair, you might as well get Aramis if you want a leather chypre. [Covered on two episodes]

  4. Azurée (Estée Lauder)

    Why is it that, in my years of collecting and talking about fragrances with other people passionate about the stuff, nobody has ever mentioned Azurée? All those connoisseurs love leather, love pre-’80s perfumery, complain that the classics have been debased by lousy substitutions with cheaper stuff. They weep that Cabochard has had its complicated, stormy bits removed; they mourn the streamlining of Jolie Madame; they cry that Caron has tampered with their Tabac Blond; they sigh that an era has passed.

    Meanwhile, Estée Lauder, faithful keeper of one of the most consistently high-quality lines of fragrances ever created, falls prey to the usual notion that only the new is worth mentioning, and hides the old stuff under the counter like contraband….

    Azurée is a grand, confident leather from 1969 by Bernard Chant…, with some of the surprisingly persistent lemony-woody sunshine of Monsieur Balmain and a soft, dusty, almost grimy leather-chypre heart as comfortable as an old work glove, a fragrance now as good as it’s ever been and just about as good as it gets.

    (Misrendered, as one would expect, as Azuree in RSS, because the Perfume Nationalist is not the kind of enterprise that can reliably render a single diacritic.)

  5. Beautiful (Estée Lauder)

    It is. With Bernard Chant (Cabochard) and Max Gavarry (Dioressence) contributing to its creation, this rich, tobacco-tinged rose from 1985 has a classic profile. You can smell, underneath the very ’80s intense sweetness (YSL Paris uses a similar powdery, liqueur-like rose), a mossy chypre base of more depth and complexity than usual, pairing sweet amber with an intensely vegetal green. But it also has a very modern feel, with a bright, herbal, woody radiance that broadcasts an attractive low hum all around. This said, it smells unfortunately dated, the way many things from the ’80s smell dated now: heavier and less legible than current fragrances, but with up-to-the-moment synthetics preventing it from smelling older. Someday it may smell fresh again.

  6. Boucheron

    Gloved hand at steering wheel holding Boucheron A very solid if unoriginal citrus chypre in the Chanel Monsieur style, with a pleasant aldehydic-waxy note and a powdery drydown. Careful with the dosage; this one is loud. [Some sibling fragrances elided]

  7. Brut (Helen of Troy Ltd.)

    Last time I looked, Brut was a Fabergé fragrance in a glass bottle with a cute chain around it. It now looks like mouthwash, comes in a plastic bottle, and belongs to a hilariously named outfit (had Helen been properly limited, Troy would have an airport). It smells sort of like the original, though the original itself had had several bits surgically removed over the years. It used to be a glorious sweet fougère that smelled at once clean and dirty and went on forever. Is it still Brutish enough for nostalgia? Only barely. But it costs almost nothing, so buy some, look in the mirror, narrow your eyes, and picture yourself with hair.

  8. Calandre (Paco Rabanne)

    Some years ago, the French perfumery world, distressed by the resemblance of Molinard’s Nirmala to Angel and the impossibility of copyrighting a (usually secret) formula, tried to set up a commission of experts that would decide when a perfume was a copy. The idea foundered on the Rive Gauche problem: RG came a year after Calandre (1969) and smelled sufficiently similar that even a perfumer could briefly mistake their drydowns in isolation. Nevertheless, RG was in many ways an improvement on Calandre, richer, darker, more complex. Inexplicably, while perfumers were unanimously positive about Rive Gauche, opinions on Calandre went from disparaging (a mess) to fulsome (brilliantly simple). Events have, in my opinion, worked out in Calandre’s favor. The Rive Gauche reformulation(s) have slightly obscured the structure that made it memorable, whereas it remains entire in the less ornate Calandre. Buy lots of it before someone messes with it too.

  9. Calyx (Prescriptives)

    Sometimes, while reviewing yet another middling batch of perfumes and looking in vain for their reasons for being, I wonder if the problem is me, if critical thought has obliterated pleasure at last and my days as a hedonist are through. Naturally, the next bottle is always a stunner. Like all Sophia Grojsman’s best works, Calyx is built out of a bold, simple structure: fruity (with a high-profile role for the deliciously garbagey, overripe smell of guava) plus floral (powdery rosy) plus green (neroli and oakmoss). From top to bottom, Calyx maintains its perfect balance between clean crispness and rosy sweetness without ever falling into either camp completely.

    Grojsman has a knack for getting an idea absolutely perfect: there’s nothing you could add or take away here, like a perfectly tuned choir out of which you cannot distinguish any individual voice. Furthermore, I can’t remember another green fragrance so friendly. Chanel’s Cristalle, for example, and Gucci’s Envy never escape a narrow-eyed bitchy effect. For a scent of the ’80s – 1986, to be exact – Calyx also manages to smell incredibly fresh and modern, perhaps because it helped inspire the next generation of fruity clean florals, although none have really improved on it. It’s one of those rare fragrances you could wear your whole life.

  10. Chanel No. 5 parfum

    Fragrances very occasionally achieve a compelling 3D effect, as if you could run your hand along them in midair. The original Rive Gauche and Beyond Paradise are relatively recent examples, but they are still recognizably florals, made of soft, perishable matter. No. 5 is a Brancusi. Alone among fragrances known to me, it gives the irresistible impression of a smooth, continuously curved, gold-colored volume that stretches deliciously, like a sleepy panther, from top note to drydown. Yes, it contains rose, jasmine, and aldehydes in the same way that a perfect body contains legs and arms. But I defy all who smell this to keep enough wits about them to worry about the parts.

    (“Chanel No. 5” is clearly its own indivisible lexeme.)

  11. Charlie! (Revlon)

    A huge hit in the ’70s, Charlie! [exclamation point sic] was the most popular of that era’s inexpensive fragrances for the new working woman, promoted by the first perfume ads to show a woman wearing pants. Whatever it smelled like then, today it smells like the latest reformulation of Vent Vert – a crude, sour white floral with some galbanum gamely trying to stand in for class. You can’t expect a gal to fork over hard-earned money for this.

  12. CK One (Calvin Klein)

    CK One is not so much a perfume as a chemical time machine. Most fragrances happily operate on a logarithmic time scale, each successive phase occupying a span ten times longer than the previous one: six minutes of top notes, an hour of heart, and the rest of the day for drydown.

    But CK One takes a different tack, by stopping time altogether. In the ’80s, this used to be called linear perfumery, and was usually applied to big-hair contraptions that, alas, froze the clock at 11:00 on a Saturday night. The rest of the time, they worked like heels and a gold lamé dress on the morning train to work. Instead, CK One takes a soapy, fresh top note and fleshes it out with a skin-toned ensemble of middle and drydown materials. Every one is picked for radiance, so the chord can be heard just as clearly thirty paces away as up close. The mix in the air is unvarying, and time forever stands still at 8:00 a.m.: the frozen morning of a day full of promise.

  13. Dune (Dior)

    Forget suburban-gothic names, forget all the phony “noirs,” from Angélique to Orris. True, menacing darkness is not to be found in upset-the-parents Alice Cooper poses, but in this disenchanted, ladylike gem. Loosely inspired by the excellent Venise five years earlier (Yves Rocher, 1986), Dune is a strong contender for Bleakest Beauty in all of perfumery. It is clearly headed from the very start toward that peculiarly inedible cheap-chocolate drydown that made Must, Allure…, and a thousand others, though Dune’s is the best of the lot, dissonant but interesting.

    But the way it gets there is extraordinary, with a beguiling transparency, even freshness, particularly in the anisic carrot-seed top notes. It is hard to pin down what makes Dune so unsmiling from top to bottom: it’s as if every perfumery accord had become a Ligeti cluster chord, drained of life, flesh-toned in the creepy way of artificial limbs, not real ones. Marve[l]lous.

  14. Eden (Cacharel)

    I wrote this long ago: “A rare instance of finely tuned coherence between the celadon-coloured packaging and the opalescent green smell. Love it or hate it, Eden is one of the most distinctive perfumes in recent years, with an extraordinary raspy-suave, peculiarly stagnant start, little or no evolution in time and tremendous tenacity. Owning it makes perfect sense, but wearing it is another matter. Eden is undoubtedly a brilliant, cerebral exercise in perfumery, but who wants to smell like wet cashmere?” […]

    Eleven years later, I walked into my local pharmacy looking for plastic atomizer bottles and caught an unmistakable whiff of Eden in the air. Sure enough, the tester was on the counter. Now, instant recognition can be a clear sign of fondness for a tune, voice, face, [or] of course perfume. And, with the help of hindsight, serendipity, and ten years of ever-sweeter masculine fragrances, I managed at long last to answer the question I asked at the end of my old review: I do.

  15. Égoïste (Chanel)

    I remembered Égoïste as a beautiful but slightly watery pastel confection of candied fruits and low-key woods, and this one surprised me. I’ve never smelled Bois Noir, from which Égoïste was derived, but I suspect this is closer to the original. This is now the most Guerlain-like of all the Chanels, full of thyme, lavender, and other herbes de Provence, a sort of Jicky spiked with Antaeus and rounded off with Bois des Îles in the drydown. A perfect alternative to Mouchoir de Monsieur, sprightlier and less dandified. Go easy when wearing it, though: this is strong stuff.

  16. Fantasy (Britney Spears)

    (I once had a fantasy of meeting Britney at a party, explaining the principles of feminism to her, and watching her thereafter dedicating her life to fighting the scourge of child brides around the world, or something like that. End non sequitur.) This is like spraying Glade on strawberry-flavored cotton candy. Liberace would have found the packaging a bit over the top.

  17. Hanae Mori “Butterfly”

    Hanae Mori’s eponymous fragrance from 1994, with a terrifically trashy cotton-candy idea lifted straight from Vanilia, uses today’s popular, cheerfully bright berry notes (a deliciously natural-smelling cassis plus a rosy strawberry), but places them in an unexpectedly classic woody-floral setting rather than the Kool‑Aid-colo[u]red body sprays they’re used to. More exuberant and richer than the similar Hot Couture by Givenchy, but more subdued than its rose-vanilla cousin Tocade, HM is a bombshell gourmand, incredibly rich and strong, projecting far distances and intensifying with time. Go light on the spray.

  18. Happy (Clinique)

    The peculiar thing about Happy is how unhappy it appears: on the box, the lower-case type with the full stop brings to mind Droopy Dog with his tented, saggy face intoning, “I’m happy.” The press agent at first seemed reluctant to send a sample, asking me anxiously when I requested it, “But what do you do if you dislike a fragrance?” At that point, I fully expected it to be terrible, but it isn’t. Happy is a lovely, mild floral with soothing, milky tones of papaya against the hale, clean musks from Pleasures: nothing brash, nothing too manic, but I suppose people wouldn’t buy it if it were called Sedate.

  19. Iris Silver Mist (Serge Lutens)

    Long before everybody started doing irises and (mostly) pseudo-irises, Lutens had commissioned an iris to end them all from Maurice Roucel. The story goes that Lutens pestered the perfumer to turn up the iris volume to the max, and Roucel in desperation decided to put in the formula every material on his database that had the iris descriptor attached to it, including a seldom-used, brutal iris nitrile called Irival. The result was the powderiest, rootiest, most sinister iris imaginable, a huge gray ostrich-feather boa to wear with purple dévoré velvet at a poet’s funeral.

  20. Ivoire (Balmain)

    Released in 1980, Ivoire was the first, and remains the best, of a clutch of dense, creamy, soapy florals that made it big just before the Poison–Giorgio 18-wheeler trend ran these prim fragrances over. Ivoire has a classic, slightly nondescript, downmarket French chic about it, and comes in a pleasantly dowdy bottle. Balmain’s new owners are reputedly looking hard at the whole line, so stock up in case they discontinue it.

  21. Jicky (Guerlain)

    Jicky is the oldest perfume in continuous existence: since 1889, the year of the Eiffel Tower, the Exposition Universelle, the first centenary of the French Revolution…. Such durability cannot be a mere matter of luck: Jicky brought something new to perfumery, and that something still matters today, partly because much that has happened in between is far from good news.

    By the standards of postwar fragrance, Jicky is a marvel of simplicity, an object lesson in perfumery. The basic idea is lavender and vanilla. Lavender, then as now, was steam-distilled and not wildly expensive. Vanilla is another matter. When Jicky was being conceived, synthetic vanillin made by the Reimer-Tiemann process was just coming onstream, and the firm of De Laire in France had got the license on the patent. The first synthetic vanillin wasn’t just cheap, it was different from the natural stuff, far sweeter and creamier.

    Aimé Guerlain wisely chose a mixture of synthetic and natural, one for power, the other for bloom. But De Laire’s yellow vanillin was peculiar, because the German process left a small amount of cough-mixture guaiacol and other smoky phenols in the final mix, which is why Guerlain continued to ask for this special impure grade when the process was improved. Nowadays they just add a touch of rectified birch tar to get the effect. That effect is what Ernest Beaux hankered after when he complained that his vanillas always turned out like crème anglaise, and Guerlain’s like Jicky….

    My guess is that what made the old Jicky smile were the irreplaceable nitro musks, most of which disappeared from European perfumery years ago because of alleged neurotoxic and photochemical problems. The modern Jicky is perhaps a touch smoother and cleaner than it really should be, but still a towering masterpiece. And one more thing: lest anyone think that unisex perfumes are a modern invention, this one was worn by both women and men ten years before an electric car, the Jamais Contente, broke the world speed record and hit 100 km/h.

  22. Jōvan Musk for Women

    Coty’s answer in 1972 to the hippie fashion for single-note oils (musk, patchouli, or sandalwood, generally) was Jovan Musk, a composition masquerading as a standalone material. It’s actually quite floral, in a pretty lily-of-the-valley way, but the musk is nevertheless the main event: a hard-to-resist smell that broadcasts warm, friendly vibes all around. Still cheap, still cheerful.

  23. Joy (Jean Patou)

    I have it on completely trusty authority that no changes whatsoever have been made to the formula of Joy and Joy EdP save the inevitable adjustments that all fragrance firms make to deal with batch-to-batch quality fluctuations in natural raw materials. […] However, perfume lovers, take note: what is sold today as Joy EdP is the old Eau de Joy, a different formula from Joy parfum, and this was always so. The EdP uses lighter, fresher qualities of both jasmine and rose and more aldehydes. To my nose it comes across as more citrus-rosy, less abstract, and less dark than the parfum. This said, it is wonderful.

  24. Jules (Dior)

    The little-known Jules (jules means something like “main squeeze” in French) is one of the most adventurous, reckless fougères ever put together. Its top note of sage on a background of cedar will either delight or shock depending on whether sage smells aromatic or urinous to you. But it’s not that simple: to me sage smells urinous and that is precisely why I love Jules. Like Caron’s Yatagan and YSL’s Kouros, it feels like you know your lover well enough to no longer bother closing the bathroom door.

  25. Kenzo Jungle L’Éléphant

    Féminité du Bois was the first of this new breed of transparent, fruity cedar orientals, and Dolce Vita gave the idea a more classical orchestration. Kenzo Jungle dropped both the sleek modernism of the Shiseido and the luxury plush of the Dior and made it fun, by using a heavy hand with the clove and other spices, and amping up the fruit considerably. That fruit was the popular base Prunol, sold by the company De Laire and used for decades in moderation to give things like Jolie Madame and Coco a touch of raisin, before Kenzo Jungle poured it in with abandon. Like an Opium for the ’90s set, Jungle is loud but lively, prickling with good humor all around.

  26. Knowing (Estée Lauder)

    Of all the big fruity roses from the ’70s and ’80s, Knowing is perhaps the most polished and most wearable. At the time, synthetic fruity rose materials like damascones and damascenones had changed the landscape of rose perfumes, making them bigger, brighter, stronger, practically glow-in-the-dark. The great idea of the rose chypres, beginning with the now-discontinued Sinan, was to set these intense materials against a classic resinous mossy base – rubies against green velvet – to make these mutant roses seem more civilized and less like the rose that ate Tokyo. The results were striking but sometimes exhausting in their power. Knowing (1988) came late in the game and learned the lessons of its ancestors: it piles on the mossy, woody stuff and lets the pink simply peek out. Worn in small doses, it’s just right.

  27. Kouros (Yves Saint Laurent)

    27 years after its release, the structure of Kouros is still so novel, so immediately recognizable, and so impossible to imitate that it is probably a sporadic case in perfumery. It smells like the tanned skin of a guy with gomina in his hair stepping out of the shower wearing a pre-WWI British dandified fragrance: citrus, flowers, musk. It has that faintly repellent clean-dirty feel of other people’s bathrooms, and manages to smell at once scrubbed and promissory of an unmade bed. The fact that all these images are conjured up by a fragrance in itself so consummately abstract is a testimony to the brilliance of its creator, Pierre Bourdon. Such things happen not by accident but only as the work of genius.

  28. L’Autre (Diptyque)

    Observe two strains of gourmand orientals in fragrance: first, the Shalimar school, lush and sweet, based on amber and joined to exotic fantasies that said more about the mind of Europe than the life of Asia; second, the postmodern school of the original Comme des Garçons fragrance and other recent niche creations, based on the smell of import shops and the cuisine of actual Near Eastern friends and neighbors. While the Shalimar strain, as a perfume daydream with no debt owed to reality, has flourished, producing a long line of beautiful fragrances, the latter strain can seem hobbled by a desire for authenticity.

    Féminité du Bois L’Autre dates from 1973 and shows both the strengths and weaknesses of this hippie style: on the plus side, it smells both new and ancient in its combination of appealing resinous smells, emphasizing the pine-and-lime facets of coriander and cumin, and on the minus side, it does rather make you smell like a chutney. A fine but too-literal-minded effort.

  29. L’Eau (Diptyque)

    Many fragrance brands, in their search for classiness, aim for an ancient apothecary æsthetic – Italian and English brands are especially fond of this schtick, which always seems costumey, like new mahogany-stained furniture trying to look old. Yet Diptyque manages to pull it off by being completely modern about it. L’Eau is their first fragrance, dating from 1968, and the first of their efforts to bring an English style of perfumery to France…. [T]he medieval-minded L’Eau is a fine argument for the case because it truly sent bon, like an ideal potpourri. It includes no sweetening amber filler or ballast, as it would if it were feeling French, but never ends up smelling fusty and characterless like actual potpourri laid out in gift shops. Instead, it centers around a rich accord of citrus, clove, and a fresh green angle related to orange chypres everywhere, and continues to smell beautiful in this newfangled old-fashioned way for hours.

  30. La Vie Est Belle (Lancôme)

    What distinguishes this Lancôme offering from all the ever-so-slightly more dismal competition is the inclusion of an iris note. The reason iris is now included in discernible amounts in a mass-market fragrance is that it has become radically cheaper in recent years, due to novel rapid-aging methods. Sadly, this instant iris has none of the rich, melancholy refinement of the real thing. In fact, it smells flat, sour, and yeasty, like rye bread or the exhaust of a brewery. Lancôme mixes it with a touch of vanilla and sugary maltol, adds just enough jasmine and orange flower to distinguish it from toilet-bowl cleaner, and launches it into the world portrayed by the gaunt, megadontic face of Julia Roberts. I wonder who actually recognizes themselves in a fragrance like this? Or is it simply that by now the field has been so thoroughly leveled that this tiny molehill towers triumphantly over the atomically smooth landscape of fruity florals? I hope the latter.

  31. Lauder for Men

    A small subset of masculines (Jules, Yatagan, possibly Kouros come to mind) contain materials, like costus, that basically smell of wet hair and skin oils and hover at the extreme edge of decency. Lauder for Men is one of them, a strapping citrus fougère with a stentorian baritone voice, which tapers down to an animalic tobacco note. Anyone who is not anosmic must surely find it irresistible. Loud but wonderful, likely great on a woman.

  32. Magie Noire (Lancôme)

    Magie Noire (1978) and… its exact contemporary Mystère by Rochas were the last of a stylish breed before the tidal wave of syrup of the ’80s started darkening the horizon. These were dry, woody aldehydic chypres with a serious mien and great bone structure. The raw materials have suffered at the hands of accountants in the intervening 30 years, and this has turned Magie Noire into a perfectly respectable masculine in the Or Black mo[u]ld, but less grand.

  33. Mitsouko (Guerlain; chypre defined herein)

    On every occasion when I am asked to name my favorite fragrance, or the best fragrance ever…, I always answer Mitsouko. This elicits, broadly speaking, three types of responses: perfumers yawn, beginners write the name down, and aficionados decide I am a staid sort of chap…. It is, as has been said countless times before, an improvement on François Coty’s Chypre, released to huge acclaim two years earlier. Chypre in turn was based on a three-component accord so perfect that it remains unsurpassed and fertile in new developments ninety years later: bergamot, labdanum, and oakmoss. They smell respectively citrus-resinous, sweet-amber-resinous, and bitter-resinous. Picture them as equal sectors making up a pie chart, sticking to each other via the resin. The resulting genre, now called a chypre, has two fundamental qualities: balance and abstraction.

  34. Opium (Yves Saint Laurent)

    Opium illustrates better than any other fragrance the peculiar phenomenon of love followed by rejection, known as fashion. It is unquestionably one of the greatest fragrances of all time, not only in terms of phenomenal success, but in having deserved it. Yet I would hate it if anyone wore it near me today. Why?

    Suppose you wrote down the basic requirements for a great fragrance: top of the list would come distinctiveness, then radiance, then (to keep out Amarige-like mutants) some sort of working relationship with natural smells. Opium has the first two in spades and passes muster on the third. But so do Shalimar, Chanel No. 5, and a host of other greats. What is it that makes Opium so dated, when fragrances 50 years older are fresh as paint? I believe the answer hinges on the faults of its qualities.

    The comparison with its almost exact contemporary and involuntary twin Cinnabar is instructive: both were inspired by the same vision, right down to country (China) and color (vermilion, aka cinnabar). There is something peculiar about spicy orientals: being made almost entirely of drydown materials, they lack time evolution, the arc of a fragrance that gives it life, and feel like broken wristwatches perennially stuck around 10:00 p.m. There the resemblance ends. Cinnabar was rich, warm, and fuzzy. Opium said one thing and one thing only, with tremendous force. While this was the most cogent statement ever made by balsams, one does tire of it. This, and not the quality of its raw materials, is what made Opium smell so fascinatingly solid in 1980 and now makes it smell tiresome.

  35. Paloma Picasso

    Though the herbal-jasmine-spice-oakmoss structure of Paloma Picasso (1984) is derived from previous sleek, green, serious chypre fragrances like Cabochard and Givenchy III, part of its considerable appeal is that it smells wonderful while still smelling confidently cheap – there’s no effort to throw in an extra pound of butter or more egg yolks in the cake. Instead, it gives an overall impression of one smart gal – comfortable, breezy, sharp, and fizzy in the jasmine section, and terrifically mossy-patchouli in the drydown, put together perfectly without making much fuss.

    By any reckoning, that’s the worst-written review in this collection.

  36. Parfum de Peau (Montana)

    Released in 1986, this was one of the first fluorescent woody roses, and (together with Sinan) it took the world, especially the Middle East, by storm. What made PdP different from tamer interpretations of the same theme, such as Lauder’s Knowing, was Édouard Fléchier’s use of an animalic, almost urinous top note. It puts this fragrance in the same category as Rabanne’s La Nuit and Fléchier’s later Une Rose: unpresentable florals. Garish and excellent.

  37. Paris (Yves Saint Laurent)

    To this day many people believe they hate perfume because they only remember the Poisons, the Opiums, the Giorgios, and Paris, the zenith (or nadir, depending on how you look at it) of the perfumer’s rose [from the ’80s]. The word on this fragrance is that it is a rose composed of ionones, those wonderful materials that smell fruity, powdery, and woody all at once. Spray Paris on paper and it exhales an intense, rich, wine-like breath….

    An hour in, you have room to breathe at last, and find, in the cloud of sweet and woody notes, long streaming sections running through it like alternating pink and green silk ribbons: a tender powdery mimosa and a piercing fruity green. The great Sophia Grojsman (Yvresse, Trésor, Eternity, Calyx) put this one together, and it marks the absolute end of this particular road, the point beyond which it is not possible to make a louder, bigger, more complicated rose. From here on, it is only possible to innovate by taking away, not adding. A brilliant, beautiful monster. I sprayed it on thoughtlessly the first time I saw it in a department store and knew I had made a social misstep when I saw people cringing away from me in the street and on the company elevator. Buy it, but put it on at your peril.

  38. Poison (Dior)

    Reviewing Poison is a bit like road-testing an Abrams M1 tank in the evening rush hour. People just seem to get out of your way, and if they don’t, you just swivel that turret to remind them you’re not kidding. This is the fragrance everybody loves to hate, the beast that defined the ’80s, the perfume that cost me a couple of friendships and one good working relationship. It is also unquestionably the best dressed-up, syrupy tuberose in history, and in my opinion it buries Amarige and the first Oscar de la Renta in the “make it a night he’ll never forget” category. Every perfume collector has to have this, but please never, ever wear it to dinner. [Covered on two episodes]

  39. Polo (Ralph Lauren)

    A friend of mine reported that the girls at his high school were so fond of Polo that they poured it in their laundry in an attempt to smell it endlessly every day. While I think that’s a rather expensive substitute for fabric softener, I can see their point: this stuff smells fantastic. A sleek, grassy-patchouli, mossy-woody scent, dry and smoky from one angle, sweetly resinous from another, Polo has a relaxed, expansive feeling in a comfortingly conservative way, like short hair combed neatly in a straight side part on a fellow otherwise charmingly shabby. No wonder some men have worn it all their lives.

  40. Pour un Homme (Caron)

    My dad wore this. The ’50s ads for it used to describe it as un parfum stimulant et pénétrant, which is hilarious considering the supposedly sedative virtues of lavender claimed by aromatherapy. It is, quite simply, a lovely lavender with a touch of vanilla. Lavender possesses, on either side of its herbaceous core, stray notes that tend toward either the minty or the caramellic, sometimes going so far as to be reminiscent of fenugreek. I prefer minty lavenders, but Pour un Homme shows that you can skillfully blend a caramellic lavender grade with a discreet but warm oriental base…. Probably the best lavender perfume around.

  41. Private Collection (Estée Lauder)

    Even snobs who turn up their noses at any perfume originating outside continental Europe must give this classic from 1973 its due. It smells to me like a bridge between the French tradition of rich floral chypres and Lauder’s own very American soap-powder-bright White Linen. Private Collection was supposedly solely Lauder’s personal fragrance until admiring friends convinced her to sell it. If true, it’s proof the lady had good taste: it manages to offset exactly an intensely powdery, rich, sweet, floral bouquet with a handsome, dry, woody style, which reminds me of my rule for dresses, such that the more frou-frou the print, the less frou-frou the cut should be. Thus you get your girliness and you get to be a grown-up too. Beautiful, sunny, and confident, with both radiance and tenacity, this fragrance sits easily next to the big French classics on the shelf. If you’ve never tried a Lauder perfume, this is a good place to start.

  42. Red Door (Elizabeth Arden)

    Really, this fragrance could be called Opium Paris, since the bottle design borrows the chinoiserie from the former, and the juice is a thinner version of the latter’s dense rose liqueur, set against a drier spiced-woody backdrop. But then Arden would have to pay YSL royalties. A handsome bludgeoner in high-’80s style, Red Door (1989) was among the last of a big-boned kind.

  43. Rien (État Libre d’Orange)

    Smelling Rien (Nothing) makes you realize that there is currently no other unsweetened civet leather out there, a strange omission given the current niche interest in both categories. I love leathers, always find them too sweet, was crazy about Bandit because it was bitter, but would have preferred it undressed, i.e., with the chypre houndstooth tailleur dropped to the floor. I guess I’m the ideal customer for Rien.

  44. Rive Gauche (Yves Saint Laurent)

    Probably the best floral aldehydic of all time, Rive Gauche was composed in 1969 by Jacques Polge of Chanel fame and overhauled in 2003 by Daniela Andrier and Jacques Hy at Givaudan. I have no idea why YSL messed with it, and on principle I regret any change or modernization of such a masterpiece. The balance between citrus, rose, and green notes set against a dark resinous background in old RG was wonderful. I have an old (circa 1980) sample and the new one. Comparison is made easier by the fact that the beautiful light-proof metal atomizer is the best possible container for long-term conservation. Old and new diverge right from the start: old RG has a strong tarry note up top that sets the dark, dramatic tone for the whole composition. The heart is very similar in both, and the “form,” as Edmond Roudnitska would have said, is unchanged.

    New RG is lighter, brighter, fruitier. Some of this may be due to instability of the citrus aldehydes over time in the old version. The perfumes converge for about an hour. Old RG has some weird, plasticky off-notes in the heart, and the new one doesn’t. Thereafter, all the way to the drydown, they follow parallel tracks a small distance from each other, and in my opinion the new one keeps level. If I had to describe the difference in overall effect, I would say old RG was more medicinal, the new one more edible. Both are excellent.

  45. Sarrasins (Serge Lutens)

    Sarrasins (Saracens) starts with a tremendous blast of properly indolic jasmine. Just when you are finished saying “Very nice” and are beginning to form the thought “Where is this white floral going next?” it briefly modulates to what you think is going to be a dark, minor-mode leather note and immediately afterward startles you with a refulgent blast of apricots. The leather-apricots accord smells to me like osmanthus, and the duet with jasmine then carries on satisfyingly for hours.

    I’ve been a Lutens fan from day one, but of late had trouble liking several fragrances that felt oddly loud, even crude. This one is in a completely different league in both intent and execution, an ambitious, abstract, large, rich, sweeping thing of beauty that smells fantastic on skin, is devoid of any overt orientalism, and could just as well have formed part of the new Chanel collection.

    A minor word of caution: the fragrance is colored an intense purple and stains paper and fabric almost as wine would.

  46. Sécrétions Magnifiques (État Libre d’Orange)

    Stupendous secretions! The Dada name had me drooling. The fragrance is both less and far more than I expected: It is not an animalic (supposedly) raunchy thing that works on the assumption that we collect soiled underwear or frequent the same nightclubs as cats and dogs. It is, however, an elegant fresh floral in the manner of Parfums de Nicolaï’s Odalisque, given a demonic twist by a touch of a stupendous bilge note, which, my vibrational nose tells me, can only be a nitrile.

  47. Stetson

    Gloved hand at steering wheel holding Stetson bottleHow often does a perfume make you giggle uncontrollably? Stetson, bottled since 1981, is plainly for men. The box is a sober, manly box in two stony, manly colors. There are pictures of manly cowboys lassoing (manly) horses. The manly promo copy on the manly back says “The legendary fragrance of the American West. A rich, masculine blend of rugged woods and spice.”

    Well, shine my spurs, this is a masculine? I could’ve sworn it was a crisp, classical feminine oriental in the style of Tabu and Youth Dew, with that classic Coca-Cola brightness, an animalic jasmine to fill it out, and powdery, leathery balsamic woods to finish: an old-fashioned structure that still works a treat. It’s gorgeous, as rugged and masculine as the lingerie level at Saks Fifth Avenue, and about ten bucks per ounce. I’d truly love a man who wore this, but in the absence of one, I’ll gladly wear it myself.

  48. Trésor (Lancôme)

    I once sat in the London Tube across from a young woman wearing a T-shirt printed with headline-size words “ALL THIS” across her large breasts, and in small type underneath “and brains too.” That vulgar-but-wily combination seems to me to sum up Trésor. Up close, when you can read the small print, Trésor is a superbly clever accord between powdery rose and vetiver, reminiscent of the structure of Habanita. From a distance, it’s the trashiest, most good-humored pink-mohair-sweater-and-bleached-hair thing imaginable. When you manage to appeal to both the reptilian brain and the neocortex of menfolk, what happens is what befell Trésor: a huge success.

  49. Une Rose (Frédéric Malle)

    Édouard Fléchier is a top-class perfumer currently at Guerlain, but Une Rose was composed when he worked with the distinguished natural-materials firm of Mane. In a corner of Mane’s Art Deco factory high on a hillside above Grasse is a special stainless-steel still where Rose DM is made in very small quantities. DM stands for distillation moléculaire, a pompous name for high-vacuum, low-temperature distillation.

    Treating roses gently pays dividends: Rose DM is a heady, liqueur-like material seemingly devoid of the heavier notes of steam-distilled rose oils, with a top and heart like no other – dry, silken, peppery….

    The first time I smelled Karanal, it was odorless, while now even a touch feels strong. Then there is the fact that Karanal smells urinous, not ambery, to a small subset of women. Undaunted, Fléchier adds what he calls a “truffle” accord, a soft, earthy-creamy base to complete this odd, cantilevered structure. The result is a remarkable, angular, uncompromising fragrance endowed with the alarming beauty of an angry Carmen.

  50. Vol de Nuit (Guerlain)

    VdN (Night Flight), released two years after its namesake – Saint-Exupéry’s superb 1931 novel about mail flights to South America – is by Guerlain standards a somewhat shapeless perfume, lacking a legible structure. But it gives me the pleasure, the tickle of anticipation, the feeling of unobstructed space and pinpoint clarity I get when I settle into my seat at an orchestral concert and hear the players practi[s]ing. Almost all other fragrances, when compared with VdN, sound like they’re being played through the sort of radio people hold up to their ear not to miss the ballgame. God bless Guerlain for still doing this stuff.

  51. White Diamonds (Elizabeth Taylor)

    This is a soft woody floral in the classic mo[u]ld, slightly low-budget but pretty good – lush, creamy, and sweet, with a tropical white-flowers accord smelling slightly like ripe bananas, all bolstered by some of those big, powdery musks you’ll recognize from your laundry soap. Seems designed to waft up from cleavage.

  52. White Linen (Estée Lauder)

    Say “aldehydes” in a conversation about fragrance and everyone thinks of Chanel: the groundbreaking No. 5 and the even more aldehydic No. 22. If the aldehydic floral of aldehydic florals, White Linen, done in 1978 by the great Sophia Grojsman, doesn’t spring to mind, that is an injustice, but perhaps understandable given that White Linen is neither French nor prohibitively expensive. You simply might not see it, the way you might not see your glasses sitting on top of your head. Lauder’s personal favorite (according to the company) is a canonical expression of the American ideal of sex appeal: squeaky clean, healthy, depilated and exfoliated, well rested and ready for the day.

    Its sharp, biting aldehydes are bright and soapy; the soft musks and woods are a richer version of your favorite fabric softener; the roses are rich, green, and a touch peppery; the whole thing is comfortable and well lit, like a warm spot on the floor where the cat sleeps. (The parfum is softer and more floral than the eau.) I think of it as having a maternal, protective aura, and it reminds me of Thomas Pynchon describing the smell of breakfast floating over World War II–era London as “a spell against falling objects.” Guys and gals could both wear it when the sun shines.


Not wanted on the voyage

These perfumes and perfumers (renderings vary here as elsewhere) were not found in the reference works.

  1. Absolue Pour Le Soir

  2. Animale

  3. Aoud Cuir d’Arabie

  4. Baby Soft

  5. Byredo M/Mink

  6. Comme des Garçons EdP; Giorgio Beverly Hills (too ambiguously specified)

  7. Drakkar Deceivers

  8. Eau de Protection

  9. Féminité du Bois (because it lives on in other fragrances; mentioned above)

  10. 4711 (mentioned above)

  11. Frédéric Malle Portrait of a Lady

  12. Incense: Avignon

  13. Jean-Louis Scherrer (parfumier)

  14. JHL by Aramis

  15. Knize Ten (“The first and still excellent masculine was Knize Ten [1924], composed by the astonishing team of François Coty, who invented chypres, among other things, and Vincent Roubert, whose Iris Gris is probably the greatest fragrance ever”)

  16. Montale Black Aoud

  17. New West

  18. Niki de Saint Phalle’s Daddy

  19. Norma Kamali Incense

  20. Pheromone

  21. Pinaud Clubman

  22. Rumba

  23. Santa Maria Novella: Pot Pourri; Peau d’Espagne; Marescialla

  24. Serge Noire

  25. Slumberhouse Vikt

  26. Tête-â-Tête by Novaya Zarya

  27. Thierry Mugler Womanity

  28. Wrappings

  29. Zoologist Tyrannosaurus Rex

Credit cookies

Identify Bryan Fry’s perfume (seen here basket-adjacent):

Gloved hand at steering wheel holding deep-red perfume bottle with gold bow

See also

Michael Malice Booklist ☞

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