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On the Scent: The Forbidden Fruit Note

When something is at the height of its commercial popularity, it is also at its critical nadir. Take chardonnay: When big, buttery, oaky California chardonnays were all the rage in the ‘80s, wine snobs rejected them as gauche. But fashions run in cycles, so now the bourgeoisie turns its collective nose up at chardonnay and orders (comparatively flat and tasteless) pinot grigio instead, while the snobs are back on board with (usually French-style) chardonnay. But the grape isn’t actually getting better or worse; it’s our perception and collective taste that are changing.

Currently, fruity florals are riding out their moment in the sun, which means they get no love from “perfumistas.” Fruity fragrances are considered “ditzy” and unchallenging by perfume reviewers and bloggers, belonging to the realm of cheap body sprays and celebrity scents and suitable only, if ever, on tweens.

The question of age appropriateness is central to the matter. Classic perfumes smelled like flowers, exotic spices and resins, rare mammalian effluvia. They were often dry or powdery or sharp. Since our mothers and grandmothers wore these perfumes, they smell to the contemporary nose, by association, “old.” Yes, trite as it sounds, the prevalence of the fruity floral genre is related to our general obsession with youth. And the genre’s unpopularity with critics is partially a defensive measure—they hate to see their vintage favorites dismissed as “old lady” perfumes that smell like “something my grandma would wear” if not downright “gross.” (“My grandmother certainly wouldn’t be caught dead in Hidden Fantasy,” is the typical retort. The word “classy” might be invoked.)

It’s true that the mainstream market is flooded with fruity florals, a great number of them boring and generic, not to mention fleeting. (I’m reminded of that old joke about the two ladies complaining in a restaurant; one says the food is terrible, the other nods and laments, “And such small portions.”) Nonetheless, I am compelled to defend the fruit note against perfumistas in the same manner they defend their classics against the teens and twenty-somethings shopping at Sephora.

Because the thing is, I like fruity scents, provided they meet the same criteria I expect from any fragrance—ideally, a perfume should be original or, if it alludes to existing or vintage scents, at least distinctive; it should be long-lasting and have some projection (I shouldn’t have to touch my nose to my skin to smell it); it should be layered and have an arc or an evolution over time on the skin. And on top of all that, it must smell good. Most fruity florals fail to meet these standards, but so do most perfumes of any flavor.

I also think the critical distaste for fruit in fragrance is fashion itself and will pass. The same critics who decry fruity scents as sugary and cloying and claim they don’t want to smell like dessert have no problem with smelling like vanilla or spice cake. Wearing celebrated sweet, spicy orientals like Organza Indecence (orange vanilla), 5 O’Clock au Gingembre (gingerbread), and Hypnotic Poison (root-beer float), you’re still verging on dessert territory. Likewise, a fruit note needn’t be syrupy-sweet. The primary effect can be crisp (as in apple or peach), woody and green (fig), sour and even sulfurous (grapefruit), or tart (pomegranate or currant).

Now that the cultural baggage has been firmly established, let’s take a sniff at a few fruity numbers.

Hanae Mori

Hanae Mori’s eponymous fragrance, sometimes referred to as “Butterfly,” is not only fruity but a gourmand—probably the third most reviled genre after fruity florals and “fresh”/“marine”/“sport” scents for men. “Gourmand” refers to scents that smell like food, with sugary notes like chocolate and caramel, often containing ethyl maltol or related sweet aromachemicals. Somewhat hilariously, the odor of this molecule is described in the Perfumer’s World product list as “sweet aromatic burnt cotton sugar candy jamy [sic] strawberry note.” (Walk into any Sephora and smell Pink Sugar to get a taste. It’s a straight-up cotton-candy fragrance very popular with tweens and some adults. I recently read about a woman who was wearing this and overheard a passing child say, “Mommy, that lady smells like Six Flags.”) The gourmand trend was probably set off by Angel, a love-it-or-hate-it chocolate-berry-patchouli scent released in 1994.

Much subtler and more complex than Pink Sugar, though not as complex as Angel, Hanae Mori (1996) is an extremely pretty oriental gourmand, a little crème brulée of a scent so ultra-feminine from top to bottom one thinks of geishas and pajama parties. It lacks the patchouli facet that gives many fruity gourmands their masculine edge. The list of notes includes strawberries, bilberries, black currant, Bulgarian rose, jasmine, ylang-ylang, sandalwood, almond, and praline, but the floral notes are barely noticeable. The other popular mainstream scent with a big strawberry note is Miss Dior Cherie, which is supposed to smell primarily of berries and patchouli (plus “caramel popcorn”!), but there’s something else in the top notes (aldehydes?) that makes it smell to me exactly like cheap beer in a can—specifically, Coors. I’ll pass.

I tested Hanae Mori arm to arm with Badgley Mischka, one of the few fruity florals to get top marks from Perfumes: The Guide. (Calyx is another.) Its notes are “red wild berries,” peach, cinnamon, osmanthus, white peony, jasmine, musk, sandalwood, caramel, amber, and patchouli. Initially the Hanae is much sweeter, with lots more caramel (or praline, if you prefer the French) and more berries, while the Badgley Mischka has more of a peach tone. However, after 45 minutes or so, they prove strikingly similar. Both fragrances have a softly woody base that suggests vanilla without smelling literally vanillic. If you love the smell of Hanae Mori but feel silly buying it, try Badgley Mischka—or wear Hanae Mori and tell anyone who asks it’s Badgley Mischka.

To sum up, this smells good, though I realize not everyone wants to smell like butterscotch and strawberries. The eau de toilette concentration is not as potent as you’d imagine from first spray, with rather soft sillage and only moderate lasting power. For more waft, get the eau de parfum.

L’Ombre dans L’Eau (Diptyque)

When I was a kid, fruit roll-ups were probably my favorite food. So my affection for the central tangy accord of L’Ombre dans L’Eau is probably due to my perceiving it as the fine fragrance analog to fruit leather. LOdLE at first spray is a bright green lungful of crushed grass and leaves. On fabric, this sharpness lingers; as it sits on skin, it variegates into deep green and deep pink red, the latter courtesy of black currant. (If it’s been a while since you were intimate with a box of crayons, pink red is more red than pink.) This is the only perfume I know of that smells chewy. It’s somehow both dense and fresh, as though the taste of fresh berries were transposed onto the texture of jam.

Diptyque would have you believe that the only notes present are black currant leaf and Bulgarian rose. There’s a rose in here somewhere, but it’s buried under sorbet. In fact, L’Ombre dans L’Eau does smell cool—though not chilly or aloof in the manner of some green florals—as it seems to lack base materials that typically provide warmth, such as resins, vanilla, or musk. Nonetheless, this scent lasts a pretty long time at a low hum; after the initial green blast settles down, there’s little to no evolution, so some wearers may get bored.

Ninfeo Mio (Annick Goutal)

Ninfeo Mio, released in 2010, straddles the line between a garden scent and a gourmand. The complex opening combines grassy green notes with lemon and orange and a creamy fig. It seems that citrus and fig get a pass in perfumery, escaping the ridicule of other fruit notes, but I fail to see why—they are fruits after all. It may be that citrus and fig are more commonly used in masculine scents as opposed to fruity florals. In fact Annick Goutal markets Ninfeo Mio as a unisex scent, but it’s distinctly sweeter and reads as more feminine than Diptyque’s Philosykos, both a drier and more straightforward fig. Both scents employ woody and leafy notes to evoke a fig tree, but Ninfeo Mio also makes you think of tea and cookies. The notes include lemon, citron, petitgrain, bitter orange, galbanum, lentisk, lavender, fig leaf, and lemon tree wood. Lentisk, or mastic, is a resin from a Mediterranean shrub in the cashew family, and may be responsible for a slight nuttiness.

The first time I tested this, I found it basically pleasant, but ultimately inferior to Philosykos, which despite being less sweet doesn’t sacrifice an inch of creaminess, almost approximating coconut. On a subsequent test, having recently sniffed Philosykos on a favorable chest, Ninfeo Mio verged on unpleasant, with way too much Newton in the fig, and as it dried down I got weird olfactory illusions ranging from milk chocolate to freezer burn to cat piss. The problem may be that citrus and fig notes aren’t typically given the gourmand treatment, so the sweetness feels out of place here in a way that it doesn’t in Hanae Mori.

David Yurman

I was suspicious of this fragrance, because a saleswoman pushed it on me at Saks, describing it as a fruity scent, and the women on the floor at the perfume counter tend to push the newer, less interesting things. Also, it doesn’t have any buzz on the perfume blogs. Also, David Yurman is not a perfumer but a jewelry designer. Still, I allowed her to spray me and then asked for a sample. In the final analysis, I think it’s pretty good. David Yurman, launched in 2008, doesn’t hit you over the head with its fruitiness. There’s a green tartness to the opening that reminds me of L’Ombre dans L’Eau, with mandarin swapped out for currant, but it seems intentionally blended so that it’s difficult to pick out individual notes. From the few reviews I’ve read, the consensus seems to be that this smells “expensive,” though I wonder if the brand, bottle, and price tag don’t prime you to experience it as such. (David Yurman is $120 for 50 ml, not atypical for niche or luxury perfumes but a tad rich for my blood.)

What makes this different from other fruity florals is a sourness, akin to grapefruit juice, that I imagine would turn some people off. But I like sour and tangy flavors in food, and enjoy those facets in this perfume. The orangey green aura lasts a long time, eventually drying down to a vanilla-inflected woody-musky scent (similar to the tail-end of Parfum D’Ete by Kenzo) that retains a slightly sour edge. The sour quality must account for its being categorized as a chypre, a classic genre built around citrus, florals, and oakmoss. Chypres have fallen out of favor, partly because sweeter scents are the current vogue, and partly because of restrictions on the use of oakmoss, which has been flagged as a potential allergen. (The list of restricted ingredients gets longer every year and is a hotly contested subject among perfume lovers, who would prefer that bottles bear a warning label rather than their favorites being drastically reformulated, generally without warning, for compliance reasons.) Contemporary chypres usually contain patchouli instead, but the patchouli in David Yurman is not detectable to this nose. Other notes include black currant leaf and petals, peony, water lily, rose, woods, and musk. David Yurman isn’t dramatic, but it’s unusual enough to be a signature scent. Not mine, but someone’s.

Daisy (Marc Jacobs)

Daisy is what I think of when I think of a blah fruity floral. The top notes are supposed to be red grapefruit, violet leaf, and strawberry, but they combine to make me think of one fruit only: banana. This is a best-selling fragrance, so I can only assume that most people don’t get the banana association, because who would want to smell like bananas? Additional notes are violets, gardenia, jasmine, musk, vanilla, and “white woods.” Young ladies aren’t big on flowers, so per usual, the floral notes are apologetic. In fact it seems calculated to avoid any risks—it’s not so sweet that women over 30 would be embarrassed to buy it, and it doesn’t commit to any note enough to turn off those who avoid perfumes dominated by violet, say, or citrus. This mostly smells nice, sweet, and clean. It reminds me of the kind of poem you’d read at a wedding: pleasant and forgettable, designed to offend no one. After an hour or so, I could barely smell it at all, but nota bene: A companion sniffed my wrist and said it smelled like kerosene.

Missoni

This is truly strange: The top note of Missoni is—I’m not kidding—Tootsie Rolls. For a good ten minutes, the “gianduia” (as in Nutella, but I’m telling you, Tootsie Rolls) and orange and persimmon notes conspire to smell like the bottom of the plastic pumpkin two weeks into November. The effect, you can imagine, is a bit cheap, but at least, not uninteresting. Over time the Halloween candy accord fades and it morphs into a warm, sweet, musky, ambery floral (supposedly magnolia, peony, and rose, though I would have guessed orange blossom) like a foodier Narciso Rodriguez for Her, or a lighter version of L de Lolita Lempicka (also composed by Maurice Roucel). At this stage it seems perfectly suited to lounging in bikinis on the beach. How you feel about Missoni will depend on whether you find the opening amusing or disgusting. Falling somewhere in the middle, I’d wear this, but I’m not sure I’d buy it.

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Elisa Gabbert is the poetry editor of Absent and the author of The French Exit (Birds LLC) and Thanks for Sending the Engine (Kitchen Press, 2007). Her latest chapbook co-written with Kathleen Rooney is Don’t ever stay the same; keep changing (Spooky Girlfriend Press). Recent poems can be found in Colorado ReviewThe Laurel ReviewPuerto del Sol, and Salt Hill.

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Perfumers interested in having their scents reviewed can send inquiries to elisagabbert [at] gmail [dot] com.