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On the Scent: The Smell of Money

When I was 12 or so, my grandmother gave me a mini bottle of Chanel No. 5. I kept it in a drawer and would occasionally smell it or dab some on. I knew it was supposed to be good, even fabulous, and I assumed it must be fake or old, because it smelled so wrong—not like flowers or anything else I expected—but I had nothing to compare it to. My mom didn’t wear perfume at all, and my grandmother didn’t wear Chanel No. 5.

Some years later, I smelled it again in a department store and was surprised to recognize that same pungent offness. And recently, having read multiple critics and bloggers rave about its timeless beauty, its unimpeachable perfection, I smelled it again, and again was surprised to find I still don’t like it. If you’re a perfume person and you don’t like Chanel No. 5—probably the most famous and most celebrated perfume of all time—you have two options: learn to like it, or act perversely proud of the fact. I know my tastes aren’t crystallized yet, so I’m practicing the latter while working on the former.

The classic French perfume houses of Chanel, Guerlain (Shalimar), and Jean Patou (Joy), along with a few others such as Hermès, were long considered the best—the go-to sources if you wanted to pamper yourself or, more likely, to impress. But in the past couple of decades, they’ve been unseated somewhat by a growing group of niche perfume lines that take luxury and exclusivity to new levels. Today, a full-size (50 ml) bottle of Chanel No. 5 eau de parfum costs about $80 and can be found at most department stores and even at Sephora. The less concentrated, and therefore arguably more desirable in this sillage-phobic era, eau de toilette formulation would run you $65. Smaller bottles are available for smaller budgets.

On the other hand, a 50 ml bottle from the Editions de Parfums line—a sort of fantasy line of cost-is-no-object scents composed by renowned perfumers, “curated” by Frederic Malle—costs about $140, and is only available at the firm’s Paris and New York boutiques and in select Barney’s. The New York–based Bond No. 9 line is similarly priced. A 50 ml bottle of a By Kilian fragrance (Kilian Hennessey of the Hennessey fortune) is $165. A 30 ml “travel size” bottle from the Creed line is $130; a full-size bottle at 75 ml is $230. A 50 ml bottle of Amouage Gold—Amouage “draws inspiration from its birthplace of the Sultanate of Oman”—costs 200 pounds, or about $300. From there, things just get stupider. Clive Christian No. 1 is supposedly the world’s most expensive perfume at $2,350 per ounce.

In 2007, in a rather obvious attempt to keep up with the Joneses, Chanel launched the “Les Exclusifs” collection: “a virtuoso collection of 12 rare fragrances created by CHANEL Master Perfumers,” available in select stores only and sold in large (200 ml) bottles for a premium of $200. (On a per-ounce basis this is not exorbitant, but since this is the smallest size available, it prices many people out.) This meant Chanel could continue to bank off aspirational teens with mall stuff like Coco Mademoiselle and Chance Eau Fraiche while still appealing to a moneyed elite.

So what, exactly, does paying more get you? As with wine, watches, shoes, and anything else available at both bargain and luxury price points, cost correlates with quality only to a degree. At a certain point, quality seems to level off while the cost curve can climb almost indefinitely. (A $100 champagne is not twice as enjoyable as a $50 champagne.) To an extent, paying more for your perfume may buy you better-quality, more natural-smelling ingredients (though not necessarily all-natural materials); a higher concentration of perfume, giving you better lasting power; and a more interesting or unusual scent, since high-end perfumes are more likely to be composed by talented individuals (versus teams that must answer to focus groups). You also get the signaling effect of the prestigious brand and the placebo effect of having laid out more cash.

Of course, if you’re a suspicious contrarian like me, this effect may work in the opposite direction—I tend to enjoy expensive perfumes less, knowing how dear they are per wear, and having higher expectations about performance. Somewhere around $100 per 50 ml, the added pleasure of a higher-quality perfume is simply not worth the added cost. In some cases, quality is not perceptibly higher or is in fact perceptibly lower than in reasonably priced perfumes. Quality aside, there’s a pleasure inherent in scoring a deal. Of the bottles I’ve bought this year, my two favorites were purchased unsniffed from discount stores for under $30.

With these economic principles in mind, I looked at low-end, mid-range, and high-end scents from similar families to pick out the differences and determine when (for this buyer at least) paying top dollar is worth it. Below, in addition to the perfume and the house or brand, you’ll find the price of the smallest available bottle (not counting minis) as well as the cost per milliliter for that size.

Chypres

Paloma Picasso
$47.50 ($1.58 per ml)

It’s amazing how you can suddenly “get” a scent you didn’t like or fully understand, a reminder that one’s mind is never made up about anything (that goes for food, music, and all other matters of taste, too). One day the sun dawns on Marblehead—some facet, some reference or intention or other layer of depth, becomes apparent, and you can’t believe it was missing before. I bought a bottle of Paloma Picasso for twenty bucks at Marshall’s, never having smelled it, as my collection at the time was lacking a chypre. The chypre (pronounced “sheep-ruh”) accord—basically bergamot, floral notes, and oakmoss, with variations—is a bit hard to like at first, to the contemporary nose, anyway. It smells like perfume, to be sure, but it also smells bitter and a bit dated compared to the fresh, fruity florals and gourmands that are popular now.

Paloma Picasso by Helmut Newton

Paloma Picasso (Helmut Newton)

The first time I smelled Paloma Picasso, on paper, I found it intriguing and mysterious, fuzzy and forest-like. The first couple of times I wore it, it seemed unpleasantly sour, as well as too rich—like cream curdled with lemon juice—and I ended up layering it with other scents, the way you add sugar to balance a vinaigrette. Then one day I sprayed it on to compare with another scent I was reviewing, and it felt utterly different: sweet with honey and full of jasmine. Previously, when the chypre accord was more unfamiliar to me, that was all I could see; I couldn’t smell around it. Now the chypre section has receded to its proper spot in the background (though it’s more supporting actress than bit part). In the end, Paloma Picasso still smells a bit cheap and synthetic—and some days, wrong all over again—but I see what it’s getting at. It’s a nice throwback to the Dynasty/Dallas era, when women smelled like women, and a little bit like men.

Jour Ensoleillé (Sonoma Scent Studio)
$34 ($2 per ml)

Jour Ensoleillé is Paloma Picasso in a dream, everything exaggerated and more beautiful: deeply skanky white flowers (jasmine and tuberose), thick green woods, the bitterness of real oakmoss (as an independent perfumer, Laurie Erickson needn’t comply with restrictions on the material). It’s also hugely powerful—I’ve only dabbed this on, and I imagine a full spray could punch out a coworker in the next cubicle. I fear that Jour Ensoleillé, in its unbridled richness, verges on unwearable by contemporary standards—that is, if you live and work around people, with their panoply of prepared complaints. But if you have some privacy, it’s a marvel and a time machine. It is most striking in the first hour, after which it converges with some of Erickson’s other woodsy scents. I’d love to see her do a rose chypre. (Note that larger bottles are often more cost-effective; the cost per ml drops to $1.61 in the 34 ml size.)

Rose Barbare (Guerlain)
$235 ($3.18 per ml)

Rose Barbare is a sweet-tart rose with a fruit-punch top note and a pleasantly muted background of fuzzy, woody patchouli. Like Spiritueuse Double Vanille, also from Guerlain’s exclusive L’Art et la Matiere line, it’s somewhat boozy—it reminds me most of a fruity beer, somewhere between a raspberry lambic and an apricot ale. This must be due to a touch of aldehydes, which, in small quantities, smell both effervescent and slightly fermented to my nose. (I only recently made the connection between aldehydes—a range of organic compounds that occur naturally in some substances but are mostly synthetic in perfumery—and formaldehyde, when I remembered that it was hard to tell where my eighth-grade biology teacher’s perfume ended and the frog corpses began.) Rose Barbare is similar to Agent Provocateur (which came five years earlier), but sweeter and darker, with a more authentic rose. I prefer Rose Barbare, but not so much as to justify the upgrade, especially with so many other good options for rose.

Une Rose Chyprée (Tauer Perfumes)
$75 ($5 per ml)

This smells nothing like other rose chypres I know, with their high-frequency pink bite. Rather, Une Rose Chyprée is deep, rich, and smooth. The opening is rather foody, with a striking orange note that’s both bitter and juicy and a spicy-herbal accord (cinnamon and bay leaf) that veers toward the masculine. The rose is comparatively quiet at first, but begins to peek through after ten minutes or so, powdery, sweet, and still heavily inflected with bergamot. Like Jour Ensoleillé, this is a powerful fragrance (possibly better dabbed than sprayed) with a classic feel. I find it not merely beautiful but intriguing, and I’m not sure I’m quite equal to it yet; I’ve been wearing it in the evenings, as I’d feel like a pretender wearing it to work. Maybe in a couple of years I’ll have the stature, and the dry-clean-only wardrobe to match, for this to enter my regular daily rotation. Though it’s the most expensive perfume (per volume) I’ve reviewed here, Une Rose Chyprée passes for good value, because the teensiest bit has noticeable sillage and lasts all day (or all night, as the case may be)—the materials are evidently high-quality. It’s an artful, distinctive, unisex scent for the rational aesthete more ballsy than I.

Citrus

Sel Marin (Heeley)
$148 ($1.48 per ml)

Sel Marin opens with a crisp, alcoholic note like cucumber vodka, then settles into a nautical citrus—mostly clean, pleasant lemon, with an oddly realistic saltwater thread that comes and goes, like the whiffs of sea air you get while eating lunch on a dock. I like it well enough, and would like it even more on a leather-faced Italian in a neck kerchief, but you’ll never catch me spending this much on wearable club soda.

Voyage d’Hermès (Hermès)
$90 ($2.57 per ml)

Voyage d’Hermès is a unisex scent launched earlier this year by Hermès, a purveyor of luxuries along the lines of leather goods, perfume, and silk scarves. In effect, it’s similar to Sel Marin: a summery citrus scent to wear with rolled up khakis and loafers with no socks. In execution, it’s a bit more blunt—the top note is overtly gin-like juniper berries; the heart combines lemon, bergamot, woody notes, and a thick, sweet musk in a way I find surprisingly heavy and indigestible. It’s like being served lemon ice cream when you were expecting sorbet. Although it’s missing the dried fig section, it reminds me of Annick Goutal’s Ninfeo Mio, another unisex fragrance that seems designed for hot weather but ultimately isn’t refreshing. Voyage d’Hermès is the work of Jean-Claude Ellena, who is known for light, evanescent compositions (like the Jardin line from Hermès and Bulgari’s green tea scent, which was big in the ‘90s) that some people think of as anti-perfumes. Being pro-perfume, I’m sort of anti-anti-perfume. Between this and Sel Marin, I prefer the less expensive (per volume) Sel Marin, but neither is something I’d bother with myself.

Funny! (Moschino)
$50 ($1 per ml)

In cooking, lemon is an accent, but grapefruit is a food unto itself. This may explain why I find grapefruit more interesting as the star of a fragrance than lemon. Funny! is a juicy, convincing grapefruit from top to bottom; though it’s built out of orange and black currant and peony and a tea accord, I mostly get grapefruit, that perfect cheery balance of sweet, sharp, and sour that sticks below your nails after you peel one. Citrus notes tend to be fleeting, but the effect here is long-lasting and pleasantly radiant. The name, of course, is terrible—punctuation in a brand is so controlling, refusing you the freedom of your own intonation (you must shout I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!, you must ironically emphasize the “R” in Toys “R” Us, probably with air quotes). Funny! doesn’t smell expensive, but it does smell good, if slightly on the young side. You’d have to go out of your way to buy this at full-price; you can easily find a 100 ml bottle from an online discounter for under $40.

Bal d’Afrique (Byredo)
$195 ($1.95 per ml)

The notes on the card that came with my sample of Bal d’Afrique might lead you to believe it’s a chypre. It isn’t. It opens on a candied citrus note—not sharp, bracing bergamot as advertised, but brown-sugared grapefruit, or Orange Julius—and something else that isn’t exotic or spicy, but which I’ve convinced myself must be the cardamom. The base is the light, clean, sweet patchouli common to David Yurman and Rossy de Palma, which it took me a while to even recognize as patchouli. (I made the connection after smelling days-old Coco Mademoiselle on a dress, mistaking it for Rossy de Palma.) It has a relatively short lifespan on skin; spraying it on fabric, though, can prolong the citrus notes. Bal d’Afrique is a fun, happy scent without complications, something I’d happily pay $30 for so I could spray with abandon. The actual price tag turns my smile upside-down. Nowhere near worth it.

Orange Star (Tauer Perfumes)
$120 ($2.40 per ml)

For the first four to six hours, Orange Star is a basically a two-player game: oranges and aldehydes. For once, the aldehydes actually feel fizzy—it smells remarkably like orange soda, though still perfumey and not syrupy sweet; it would have to be a fancy “natural” soda. Like Une Rose Chyprée, this is potent stuff with plentiful sillage (that’s a good thing!). The impression of fizziness and the juicy orange aura persist all day, though other elements become apparent as it dries down—in the middle, light florals (orange blossom of course), light vanilla, a bit of sour lemongrass; a good 12 hours later, I get to the real base—more vanilla and a slightly smoky amber—and here it’s at its most delicious.

Andy Tauer

Andy Tauer

Orange Star works not because the concept is ingenious but because the materials are so good. I’m indifferent at best to orange and aldehydes as notes in perfumery—I prefer lemon or grapefruit for citrus, and I’m probably hyperosmic to aldehydes, meaning they smell stronger to me than they do to the average person—but this is a pleasure to smell regardless. If I like this, I’ll probably like almost anything Andy Tauer does.

Aldehydic Florals

White Linen (Estee Lauder)
$49.50 ($0.99 per ml)

I’m not sure if it uses a different kind of aldehydes or just uses them more judiciously than typical aldehydic perfumes, but White Linen doesn’t have that same voluminous feeling I associate with heavy aldehydes (picture the fragrance emanating from your skin like cartoon puffs of smoke from a choo-choo train). Instead, White Linen smells like really good soap—a funny trick of history. Aldehydes were used so often to scent perfume and soap that they smell to us now like perfume and soap. But the paradox of White Linen is that, beneath its utterly clean white veneer, it smells, like most Lauders, a little dirty, thanks to a bit of honey and civet in the base. It’s that musky, animalic edge, like a clean sweat, that makes this a real, full-bodied perfume, as compared to the popular Clean, which smells like tile cleaner. There’s something a bit costumey about White Linen, like all recognizable scents, but that’s part of the fun of perfume. I also like that it smells feminine without smelling sweet, or like any particular flower. White Linen was born in ‘78, the year before me. It was my first perfume, and I can easily imagine wearing it off and on until I die.

Haute Couture (Hanae Mori)
$55 ($1.10 per ml)

In Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, Tania Sanchez compares Haute Couture to a “New World sauvignon blanc.” I’ve been partial to sauvignon blancs from the Marlborough region of New Zealand for years, ever since tasting one in a college wine course that very nearly approximated my favorite childhood drink, Five Alive—a blend of orange, lemon, grapefruit, tangerine, and lime. Haute Couture really does smell like white wine; it even looks like it, pale yellow in a pretty frosted glass bottle. This is basically jasmine dressed up with lots of poufy aldehydes and some fruit notes. The citrus comes at you the same way it does in wine, indirectly. In other words, this has a juicy character, but it doesn’t smell like juice. I found my bottle online for something like $15. By no means a classic, and not as good as Hanae Mori’s eponymous perfume, but Haute Couture is a pleasant cheap thrill.

Blanche (Byredo)
$195 ($1.95 per ml)

What is it about aldehydes that makes perfumes smell like beverages? The first time I tried Blanche at Barney’s, I thought it smelled just like dessert wine, like late-harvest Riesling. Now its character seems less definite, and less good. It smells like violet soda, if there were such a thing—aldehydic, vaguely floral, almost grapey. There’s a powdery aspect too, but more powdered sugar than talc. At these prices, utterly dismissible.

Gourmands and Orientals

L (Lolita Lempicka)
$47 ($1.57 per ml)

L is a rare thing: a summer gourmand. Gourmand scents, as the name suggests, are designed to smell like food, but those foods are almost always comforting desserts like rice pudding and chocolate cake. Accordingly they tend to be heavy and warm and better suited to chilly weather. Light, refreshing perfumes based on citrus or fruit or tomato vines are never called gourmands. (And savory gourmands are, for the most part, uncharted territory.) L opens on an orange marmalade note, with the slightly bitter bite of the peel. Behind that, you can smell orange blossomy white flowers; vanilla; a little Mexican chocolate, the kind with cinnamon (with none of the Tootsie Roll effect of Missoni, thank God); and—the key to the whole structure—a salty, musky amber base, clearly meant to evoke ambergris (a digestive byproduct of sperm whales—yum!). In concert, all this smells more like suntan lotion on sweat-beaded skin than any kind of food, so it goes more with sundresses than cashmere sweaters. (For the record, this is nothing like the original Lolita Lempicka, a sweet, anisic floral that smells green and purple, whereas L smells orange and tan.) I regularly see L at discount stores; I snagged my 30 ml bottle for $17.99. This is by Maurice Roucel, the most fun perfumer I know of. For my money, a beachy masterpiece.

Jitterbug (DSH)
$65 ($2.17 per ml)

Jitterbug is billed as a “vintage-style” oriental perfume “like the ones from days gone by,” and it does have a sort of old-fashioned, musty feel to it, like the dark brown contents of a flacon your grandmother kept on her dressing table for years. It’s sort of ugly-sexy—the opening is an enjoyably dissonant combination of rose, peppery clove, citrus, and tangy, slightly overripe fruit (according to the website, the top notes are bergamot, lemon, and blackberry). For a few minutes, it’s hard to tell where Jitterbug is going—it actually seems jumpy and jittery. Then it starts to settle down into a smooth, subtly spicy and quite masculine scent. The base notes (amber, benzoin, frankincense, labdanum, musk, and patchouli) are beautifully blended and not at all too sweet. In fact, it’s got a lot in common with Une Rose Chyprée. A great choice if you like incense or are interested in all-natural scents.

Coromandel (Chanel)
$210 ($1.05 per ml)

The fumes emanating from my sample vial of Coromandel—part of the aforementioned Les Exclusifs collection—when it arrived were pure, rich, sweet patchouli. Sprayed on skin, it smells, from a few inches, like a very soft, pale green patchouli. Up close, it’s vaguely citrusy-herbal, almost leathery, and quite harsh—an effect I assume can be attributed to a synthetic woody amber (what Chanel somewhat laughably calls “an amber vibrato”). I think it may be the same woody amber that’s in Citizen Queen, drowning out the other notes and inducing a headache when I try to sniff around it—whatever it is, I’m clearly oversensitive to it. It eventually fades or I become inured to it enough to appreciate Coromandel for what it’s intended to be—a nice, refined patchouli with subtle vanilla, orange, and chocolate facets—but enough sticks around that I probably wouldn’t want to wear this myself. Also, I wish it weren’t quite so refined—why wear patchouli if you don’t want to clear the air a little? I wanted to love this, but at $210 for a bottle, I guess it’s better I don’t. (If you like patchouli, a more accessible option is the down-market Coco Mademoiselle, though there you get some candy-sweetness in the top notes.)

Spiritueuse Double Vanille (Guerlain)
$225 ($3 per ml)

I’ve mentioned in past columns that vanilla-heavy fragrances aren’t my thing. It’s not that I don’t like sweet scents, or even that I don’t like the smell of vanilla—I’m pretty sure it’s universally liked. It’s more that straight vanilla usually seems boring and too easy, sort of like wearing black to a party. So I didn’t expect to like Spiritueuse Double Vanille, but I do. It really smells like vanilla extract—not vanilla beans and not dessert, but the heady, boozy, direct smell of bourbon vanilla. It triggers vivid olfactory memories of baking in my grandmother’s kitchen, where the sweetness of cookie dough or cake batter was always paired with the burning smell of her old electric hand mixer, which she worked while I held the bowl. This too smells a little off-limits, like some grown-up’s abandoned drink. The rumminess and hints of tobacco and licorice keep it interesting. I find it hard to accept, however, that you have to pay this much for a good vanilla fragrance. (I did pony up $20 for an 8 ml decant.)

Un Bois Vanille (Serge Lutens)
$120 ($2.40 per ml)

I was expecting a lot of bois (wood) and a little vanille, but this goes on like the vanilla truck crashed into your house. It’s extremely sweet—don’t let anyone tell you niche perfumes are more subtle. Thankfully, within minutes other elements begin to come into play—first liqueur-like licorice, then a deliciously smoky wood, like marshmallows toasting over a campfire. The smoke really makes this, though at times Un Bois Vanille approximates the experience of burning a nice candle, and the effect is cheapened. I suspect that if it were drier it would be really great. It’s good nonetheless, but again—can’t someone pull this off affordably?

Tuberose (Imogen Cunningham)

Tuberose

Beyond Love (By Kilian)
$225 ($4.50 per ml)

Beyond Love isn’t particularly complicated. It’s just a big, fresh, utterly gorgeous tuberose soliflore, a tropical paradise in a bottle and probably what I’d choose to wear to my wedding if I were a wedding type of gal. Some perfumers choose to highlight the flower’s more challenging, off-putting characteristics (notably, camphor and meat), but Beyond Love is merely beautiful, the platonic ideal of tuberose. The only noticeable addition is a perfectly judged coconut accord, which gives it a luxuriant creaminess but no unnecessary sweetness. This green, coconutty aspect does for tuberose what Diptique’s Philosykos does for fig. If you can afford it, it’s worth it.

Tubereuse (DSH)

$65 ($2.17 per ml)

DSH’s Tubereuse opens on a surprising herbal note—first cooling spearmint, then, remarkably, parsley stems. I always thought parsley was a weird choice for a default herb in cooking; the dried version is virtually tasteless, but fresh flat-leaf parsley is sharp enough to be something of an acquired taste—I had to learn to like it. This is the first time I’ve ever smelled parsley in a perfume. Oddly enough, it blends quite organically into the tuberose heart, and in fact the herbs are probably facets of the tuberose materials rather than intentionally added notes. After a few minutes, the greenness of the opening recedes, and the honey and woods in the base become more apparent over time, along with a slightly soapy effect. Compared side by side with Beyond Love, Tubereuse is more of a morning scent, crisper and less creamy and even less floral, but quite good nonetheless. You almost have to go niche for a good tuberose soliflore (Beyond Love, Carnal Flower from the Editions de Parfums line, and Serge Lutens’s Tubereuse Criminelle constitute the big three of niche tuberose perfumes), and this is one of the more affordable options.

Kim Kardashian
$35 ($1.17 per ml)

Where did I read recently that tuberose makes for “badonkadonk” florals? Kim Kardashian is definitely that, a perfume built around an obvious idea of sexiness and seemingly made for girls who describe themselves as “curvaceous.” Like all celebrity scents, it’s marketed at teenagers, and it’s got a little more body than the usual fruity floral, but it is nonetheless a fruity floral. On top of the bodacious white flowers (in addition to tuberose, you get honeysuckle, orange blossom, and jasmine, a typical sultry, gardenia-in-your-hair mix), there’s a lactonic fruitiness that smells mostly of apricots—a nice choice, but rather overdone. (The apricots end up beating out the flowers.) It’s similar to Bond No. 9’s Saks Fifth Avenue en Rose, which itself is related to Dior J’Adore, but, lacking rose, less pretty and refined than either. It also differs in the drydown, a surprisingly sweaty musk. Kim Kardashian is definitely not for tuberose purists, but it’s not bad.

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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 Review, The Laurel Review, Puerto 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.