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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

A Sappy Story That Ends Well: Max Mara

By Donna

This is the saga of a department store perfume that ended up being surprisingly good. Some time ago I was on the lookout for a summer fragrance, but not one so light that it would disappear in fifteen minutes. I like citrus scents but I have to be careful with them. Sometimes grapefruit can turn “catty” on me if you know what I mean, and orange fragrances must be tempered with something else to avoid smelling like orange spray cleaner on my skin. In addition, some citrus scents are so dry and austere that they can seem quite masculine, such as Guerlain’s Eau de Cologne Imperiale – I love it, but it is not playful or feminine at all. I wanted something light-hearted but grown-up as well, something I could wear to the office that would still be professional, but also something fun and a little bit soft for casual wear. I did not want to spend a lot of money either. Was that too tall an order?

I looked at a number of scents in this quest for just the right one. I loved Hermès Un Jardin en Méditerranée and Un Jardin Sur le Nil but they pretty much disappeared on me right away and I thought that for those prices they should last longer. The latter one I would like to have around when it’s too hot to wear anything but a glass of iced tea and a smile, but not for everyday use. The same was true of L’Artisan’s La Chasse aux Papillons – it just did not last well on me, though it was truly wonderful while it lasted. (If I had known that there was an Extreme, i.e. EDP for version of this, things might have been different.) My current summer standby Ines de la Fressange (1999) is very nice, but it has a spicy undertone from the carnation and I wanted something that was really sheer and refreshing. Besides, who ever said you only need one summer perfume?

As luck would have it, I was passing through my local Nordstrom store one day and I saw something new. I was drawn to the chunky but curvy modern bottle design of Max Mara, and hoping that the juice inside matched the looks of the package, I stopped to take a closer look. When I sprayed it on, I knew right away it was going to be a keeper. The initial burst of citrus was nothing short of delightful, sparkling fresh and just sweet enough to be more like fresh lemonade than just a lemon. But something else was making it extraordinarily pleasing that I could not quite put my finger on. I asked the very helpful sales associate to look up the notes for me. (At Nordstrom, they are actually willing to DO this, you see.) The mystery note was: sap! I have no idea what kind of sap, as the note is only listed as “sap” or “plant sap” in the places I looked it up, but nonetheless sap happens to be a favorite thing of mine. You see, I grew up in New England, and every spring we tapped our Sugar Maple trees to make maple syrup. The sap from the trees has only a gentle sweetness, and must be boiled for many hours to be turned into thick syrup. I used to like to drink the sap straight from the tree, as there is no purer form of water to be found in Nature than that which has been filtered by the roots of this grand tree. It tastes of the natural sugar of the maple tree and sometimes has a slightly “barky” character from coming into contact with the tree’s exterior as it runs out of the tap. When sugaring season was over, we could store the syrup all year if it lasted that long, but the sap was a fleeting pleasure confined to the few short weeks when it sweetened the spring air as it flowed out of the roots and swelled the tiny buds of the maple trees. In the fall, when those same trees turn scarlet and orange, their brilliant leaves smell of burnt caramel sugar in an echo of spring’s sweet elixir.

The SA made up a sample of it for me so I could wear it at home. I used it up very quickly, as I could not get enough of smelling it. It lasted pretty well, though I would like a little more longevity from an Eau de Parfum. It really does not fade as much as change, however– it gets a somewhat candied feel as the top notes gradually give way and then that is a constant presence for quite some time. One reason for this is the presence of sugar cane, which I also love – have you ever bought a piece of fresh, crunchy cane at a market and chewed the sugary juice out of it? It’s rather like a bamboo shoot in texture only woodier, and it’s very refreshing on a hot day. It’s sort of like sap itself, if you think about it – it’s the essence of the plant, the lifeblood if you will, and we also boil it down into something thick and sweet.

I liked it more the longer I wore it, and here is why. The listed notes are as follows: Ginger, Sap, Sicilian Lemon, Magnolia, White Lily, Orchid, Sugar Cane, Musk, Exotic Woods, Cashmere (the wood, not the wool!). Well, I am a lover of all things Lily and Orchid, and who does not like Sicilian Lemon? The Magnolia is also a soft, almost watery note but very sensual too. The sap note is especially endearing, as it has an effect on the entire spectrum of the scent’s development. It lends a fresh almost rain-like feel to the whole thing, soft as a breeze but never too sweet. It never gets sour or acidic or “turns” on my skin like so many other citrus-based fragrances do.

As it reached the dry down stage, it reminded me of something else and I thought about it for a while but could not come up with the association. I finally figured it out after seeing a photo of Sophia Loren, believe it or not – it smelled like the flavor of a dessert I made a long time ago. A newspaper printed the recipe for a favorite Italian dessert that she made at home for her family called Ricotta Pie, a very lemony cheesecake-like confection with candied citron and Sultana raisins in it, among other things. It was really good and I received high praise for it. It was one of those things where I surprised myself by how well it came out. Don’t get me wrong, this is not really a foody scent, but the lemony goodness is so very appealing to me that I can only call it delicious!

The perfumer for this 2004 release was Daphne Bugey of Firmenich, but I cannot find out much about her other than a list of fragrances she has done over on Now Smell This. She did three critically acclaimed scents for Le Labo and also collaborated with Olivier Cresp for the award –winning Kenzo Amour, so I know she is very talented. The Max Mara fashion label is the creation of Milan designer Achille Maramotti, who died in 2005. I understand that the company released another fragrance in 2007 for the line, called Silk Touch, which is very different in character (a fruity-floral) but is also by Daphne Bugey. I hope this does not mean the end of the first one. What will I do for the perfect summer perfume if they take it away? (For now, the original Max Mara EDP is widely available at online perfume merchants and department stores – I found the large 150 ML bottle at TJ Maxx for under $30.00.) It also comes in a body wash, body cream and a lotion containing silk protein called Lifting Body Serum. I may have to have some of those products for summer. But oh, have I mentioned this; I like this one so much that I have decided it’s not just for summer anymore, and I will have to resist the temptation to wear it so much that I will need another bottle by the time warm weather comes around again.

Image credits: Max Mara Perfume bottle from Maple branch from


Blogger bt said...

Have you tried Acqua di Parma's Blu Mediterraneo Arancia? A wonderful rendition of sweet oranges.

3:36 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This sounds lovely. Lemon is one of the few citrus notes that I usually like & I extra really like it in summer. And see, now you've made me need to taste sugar maple sap. I'll probably be able to find me a sample of Max Mara but how on earth will this NYC girl ever taste maple sap? I tell you, perfume blogs are the mother of all longing ... ;)

7:58 AM EST  
Blogger Beth Schreibman Gehring said...

That...was wonderful! I lived for over 20 years in a place called Burton , home of the oldest county fair in Ohio and the oldest sugaring industry in the state. The smells every February were magnificent and if I could only add one thing to your description it would be the fresh wood smoke and snow mixed with the boiling sap on a midwinters day! I still go out there to get fresh syrup several times a year. One of the true joys of my life was finding fresh sugar maple water for sale last year at Whole Foods, at a premium price to be sure but worth every penny that paid for it, so fro all of you who now long for the experience, it can be had!I am now going to try to find this one.....your beautiful description of this (and I would probably have just never looked at it!)was just what I need to perk up this so grey winters day!That picture was truly yummy too.....

8:25 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After reading this, I realize I don't own any lemony perfumes, which is strange considering that as a teenager I went through entire bottles of Love's Fresh Lemon every summer.

Since it's been rather summer-like here for the past two days, maybe I'll go on a hunt for something lemony. Will check out our TJ Maxx to see if they have this scent -- your description of it has me intrigued.

9:10 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I very much enjoyed this one, also. I picked up a 3.4 oz bottle at TJ Maxx early last fall for about $20 and agree that it's a very nice casual/weekend option. I hope its presence at TJ's doesn't mean it is being discontinued.

10:51 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love it when fellow fans unearth things I've never even thought to sniff. Thanks to you, Donna, I'll remedy that.

12:29 PM EST  
Blogger tmp00 said...

And I love it when the sniffable unearthed are so reasonable- thanks Donna!

1:50 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

BT, no I have not, but I must try it! I am determined to find an orange I can wear - orange blossom is very good on me but it's the fruit I have trouble with.

Divalano, Vermont is not that far from NYC...and yes, perfume blogs are the Great Enablers, yet we go so willingly into their clutches..... ;-)

Beth, thank you so much! I also love the smell of a sugarhouse in the spring. We made ours on the stove in small batches, but we always made sure we went to a commercial sugarhouse to get the full experience and stock up for the year - there is just nothing like that smell in all the world!

Suzanne, it's softer than Love's Fresh Lemon, but I liked that too. I wonder if you can still get it.

Teri, I still can't believe what a bargain this stuff is, considering that is it really a very nice fragrance that should be more popular than the celebutante releases right next to it in the department stores.

Leo, glad to oblige! It took me a long time to find it too. There is so much out there that it's tempting to dismiss unheralded department store frags as just another flash in the pan. I must try it ALL I guess, just to make sure I am not missing anything good.:-D

Tom, no one loves a bargain more than I do!

4:11 PM EST  
Blogger priscilla said...

Lovely post Donna...I am now wondering where I can get some tree sap to drink!

Seriously, this fragrance sounds right up my alley. I'll have to try this the next time I'm at Nordstrom.

7:33 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Greeneyes, I am craving me some maple sap right now! Alas, the season is 2 months away and I am no longer in New England. :-(

1:07 PM EST  
Blogger ForTheLoveOfPerfume said...

I like this one quite a bit too! I love the reference to the Ricotta cheesecake dessert. That really does capture the drydown. I too wear Max Mara year round and I'm still working on my first bottle. In response to your post, I'll be pulling it out tomorrow!



8:28 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tamara, I am glad to know there are others who have discovered this! And equally glad that I am not imagining the lemon cheesecake part. ;-)

3:52 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having read your post, I'm just aching to try the Max Mara perfume... though I am wedded to my signature scent, it doesn't harm to have a little dabble at the perfume counter, eh? I've never heard of this one before though... so thanks for not being greedy and keeping the secret to yourself ;)

3:12 PM EST  
Blogger Cranium Spillage said...

I'm so glad someone likes this. I have two bottles that will never be used because I just can't get past the sugarcane. It's so cloyingly sweet on me. I was given a duty free box that contained two 1.7 ounce bottles of it and I'm really glad the bottles are pretty, because I won't ever wear what's in them. I do much better with sensual, slightly oriental florals. I love L'Heure Bleue (Guerlain), and on me it smells amazingly complex and sexy and I can clearly smell that "play doh" heliotrope tone. Some might not like that, but it's heady when combined with the other notes. Ever wonder why kids like to smell and even EAT Play Doh? (yeah, probably getting too weird here). I don't get the "powdery old lady" effect that some women refer to. It smells anything BUT that, on me!

MaxMara, though? Icky on me. I feel like I could ice a cake with it and still have enough sugar left over to decay the teeth of a dozen hard-core candy-eating children!

11:21 AM EDT  

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