A Sybarite’s Dilemma: Everything is my Favorite
The world of luxury goods has changed immeasurably since I first realized how much I loved perfume and began to learn about the fine fragrance houses of the world and what each had to offer. In the days before the Internet, the only sources of information were fashion magazines and department stores, unless you were aware of industry publications (I certainly was not) or had inside information. My first bottle of Guerlain’s masterpiece Nahema was from a discount mail order cosmetics catalogue; when it as first released it was considered a commercial failure, so it showed up in a mass mailer along with press-on nails and gigantic tubs of hair gel. (Yes, really.) It was only because I had a little extra money that I took a chance and bought it for a song. Later I purchased Comptoir Sud Pacifique’s Tiare from the same source; they were just getting started back then. Today Nahema is almost always sold out at every online discounter I visit, and the Extrait is almost mythical in its elusiveness. How times have changed! I was fortunate to get a solid education in the classics at my local perfume shop, but I never could have foreseen the explosion of both new perfumes and perfume makers as well as the wealth of information in every area of life, including perfume/beauty blogs, the plethora of Internet merchants, and online communities such as Basenotes and Makeup Alley that can make or break a product when it is introduced. I used to get all my fashion and beauty tips from Vogue and Cosmopolitan, but anything that gets printed in a paper magazine is old news by the time it hits the stands. What are we to do with such an overwhelming amount of data?
I realized a long time ago that I could never keep up with all the new things, both for lack of time and a limited budget, and that most of them were forgettable anyway; time and time again I go back to my beloved classics when I feel disappointed in the mediocre fragrances being pushed at today’s consumers from all sides. It seems that the poorer the quality, the more frantic they hype. I don’t recall ever seeing anything more than a restrained and elegant print ad for anything by Caron, yet the media would have us think that a cheap, garishly boxed perfume from Britney Spears is more desirable. Needless to say, I disagree. Of course, it’s not all about the cost – some of my favorite perfumes are very inexpensive, such as Coty’s Sand & Sable, possibly the best mass-market drugstore scent of all time.
But how does one sift through all the noise to find the best of everything? That is my problem, you see; I truly love so many fragrances that I will never live long enough to wear them all, and this applies to other areas of life too. My friends and family laugh at me because I am always saying “Oh, I just love this one, it’s my favorite!” The trouble is, I say it all the time, and about a lot of things. Everything is my favorite at the time I am experiencing it, and I believe in taking the most pleasure as possible from what life has to offer.
I do have my standards of course. What I say the color green is my favorite I don’t mean pea soup or olive drab, I mean the rich shimmer of the Emerald City in the Land of Oz, a silk velvet gown in deepest viridian or the soothing blue-green of a spruce tree. When I say that lobster is my favorite seafood, I don’t mean a sadly overdone surf & turf platter at a chain restaurant, I mean a freshly caught Maine lobster boiled in seawater and eaten with both hands, on the actual Maine seashore. When I proclaim lilies to be my favorite flower, I am not thinking of those poor over-chilled bunches of buds in the supermarket case, I am dreaming of moonlit stems of trumpet lilies swaying in the evening breeze and spreading their heavy perfume all over the garden, calling the moths from miles around to drink their ambrosial nectar. (Then I smell a fragrant rose, and that’s my favorite flower.)
So where do I start with perfume? Do I have a favorite? Yes and no; it depends on the time of year, and what mood I am in, whether I am feeling wistful or hopeful, strong or vulnerable, romantic or playful. Perfume allows me to celebrate my sensual side in a way that may not be obvious to the casual observer. Wearing a little bit of something really sexy like Lelong pour Femme, Bal à Versailles or Nahema is rather like putting on slinky lingerie under a business suit – it’s your little secret unless you choose to share it by getting close to someone. (That sort of under-the- radar approach really appeals to me, as I have never been the type to be obvious in public.) Fragrance can be a journey to faraway places as well as a comforting blanket when solace is required. Each one speaks to the wearer in the language that is required at the time. Let me share a few of the scents that have stood the test of time for me along with some new ones that have risen above the crowds. Every one of them is my “favorite.”
I will always have a special place in my heart for the house of Jean Patou. The classic perfumes of Patou (pre-acquisition by Procter & Gamble, of which I still cannot bear to think too much about) speak to me in a way that few others ever have. Of course I love Joy, that perfect marriage of roses and jasmine, and if asked to name the finest woody floral perfume on Earth, I would not hesitate to name Patou’s 1000. My ardent admiration also applies to the scents of Ma Collection, the reissued set of twelve Patou vintage perfumes that is now gone again. I fell in love with the profoundly woody Normandie, named in honor of the great passenger ship of that name. The tropical hedonism of Colony evokes both sex and mystery, and above all there is Vacances, the finest green floral in all of French perfumery and a symphony of unequaled beauty that celebrates the heartbreakingly fleeting essence of spring.
Caron is my other favorite line (see, I can’t stop!) with its unparalleled line of refined and original perfumes. This house makes my beloved Muguet de Bonheur, the best version of lily-of-the-valley that I know of, its only rival being Christian Dior’s Diorissimo, which I also adore. Caron’s Tubereuse is so good that I nearly wept when I tried it. The floridly romantic Bellodgia is the gold standard for a carnation bouquet scent, and the darkly carnal Narcisse Noir has never been equaled. Speaking of carnal, Yatagan is the most ahem, elemental masculine scent I have ever smelled, leaving no doubt as to what its mission in life is. If nothing else I worship Caron for bringing out Parfum Sacré in modern times, a perfume that captivated me instantly when it was released in 1990 and is considered to be one of the true greats by many experts as well as one of the greatest of all “memory” perfumes. This ingenious blend of rose, black pepper and incense is like a magical love potion on the skin and I hope I never have to be without it. Even more recent is the soft and feminine Lady Caron; so soft is it, in fact that it garnered a special award for being the softest fragrance ever produced by the French perfume industry. I love it peachy silkiness as much as I worship the fierce beauty of Narcisse Noir.
Many years ago I smelled the great Rochas Femme for the first time, and it changed the way I saw perfume forever. So that’s a chypre, I thought; where do I find more of those? Alas the great Femme has been reformulated, although it is still beautiful, but I did find a worthy chypre to fill that niche, the eponymous Scherrer by Jean-Louis Scherrer, a magnificently green and mossy modern chypre (1978) that could easily be from decades earlier when real women wore real perfume. I also loved Shocking by Schiaparelli; though the newer version is not quite the same as the vintage it’s still really good..
I cannot list my favorites without paying tribute to my beloved white flowers. What do I love more, Robert Piguet’s Fracas or Annick Goutal’s Gardenia Passion? Serge Lutens, one of the few modern houses to come close to the greats of the past, has gained my loyalty by creating the chilly perfection of Un Lys, the knockout jasmine perfection of A La Nuit and the narcotic, swampy danger of Datura Noir. I hope I never have to choose just one of them.
Other modern perfumers have garnered my heart as well. As soon as I tried my first Montale Aoud perfume I was hooked like an addict. If I must choose among them I might go with Aoud Queen Rose with its luscious candied heart, but I also love the cool austerity of Greyland, with not an iota of Aoud to its name. Like so many others, I fell hard for Andy Tauer’s fragrances right away, especially L’Air du Desert Marocain. I also jumped on the Editions de Parfum Frederic Malle bandwagon with my first sniff of the splendid Carnal Flower and the ethereal and otherworldly En Passant, which actually brought tears to my eyes with its exquisite lilac breath. Finally, the quality standard continues to be borne high by the house of Amouage, whose marvelous Gold for women and the inimitable Ubar (aka: sex in a bottle) are two of the best modern perfumes of the last several decades. (My definition of modern is roughly defined as “after I was born,” which was actually quite a while ago; Christian Dior was still alive.)
There are so many others too of course, both familiar and long gone. Nettie Rosenstein’s late and much lamented Odalisque smelled exactly like old money, by which I mean wealth, and JAR’s Golconda is the epitome of fiery clove carnation, though its price is beyond my reach so it way as well be out of production. A vintage Russian formula commissioned by the Romanov family (created by a French perfumer, of course) was as close as I could ever hope to find to my Holy Grail and I did have one precious bottle of it long ago before it went away forever. Don’t ask the name, for I never did get an accurate translation of it, but I will never forget its shimmering green beauty. Great fragrances come and go all the time, as evidenced by the great upheaval the industry is going through today with both the global recession and the new IFRA guidelines threatening the classic perfumes we all love so much. I do know of one constant, however. All of us who love perfume will keep falling in love with them over and over, and they will be old and new, classic and avant-garde, expensive and bargain bin. We just can’t help ourselves when we find one we love, and it ‘s destined to become our very favorite – until next time.
So what’s your favorite? Do tell which perfume(s) you simply cannot imagine living without. Maybe I can add them to my list too…
Image credit: The Caron and Patou counter, or “shrine” as I prefer to call it, at The Perfume House in Portland, Oregon, perfumehouse.com. This is my favorite place to buy perfume, for obvious reasons