Pompous names, bizarre ads, hundreds of new scents a year—the multibillion-dollar business of fragrance has long resisted understanding. At last the first critical—and critically acclaimed—guide to perfume illuminates the mysteries of this secretive industry. Lifelong perfume fanatics Luca Turin (best known as the subject of Chandler Burr’s The Emperor of Scent) and Tania Sanchez exalt, wisecrack, and scold through their reviews with passion, eloquence, and erudition, making this book a must-have for anyone looking for a brilliant fragrance—or just a brilliant read.
Cool Water (Davidoff) * * * * * aromatic fougère
This beautiful 1988 composition made Pierre Bourdon famous and was imitated more times, I’ll wager, than any
other fragrance in history save Chypre. The problem with successful masculines is that you associate them with the
legion of aspirational klutzes who wore them for good luck. Trying to assess CW without conjuring up the image of
some open shirted prat with hair gel is a bit like the Russian cure for hiccups: run around the house three times
without thinking of the word wolf. This said, unlike Chypre, CW belongs to the category of things done right the
first time, like the first Windsurfer and the Boeing 707. Countless imitations, extensions, variations, and
complications failed to improve on it or add a jot of interest to this cheerful, abstract, cheap, and lethally effective
formula of crab apple, woody citrus, amber, and musk. Now let women wear it for a decade or two.
L'Air du Désert Marocain (Tauer) ***** incense oriental
The sweet, resinous smell of amber, the smell of the classic perfume oriental, has long been weighed down with vanilla and sandalwood ballast, decorated with mulling spices, bolstered with musk, made come-hither, ready for its closeup, and we are quite used to it—but this is not amber's first life. Perfume, as has been pointed out many times, means “through smoke,” named for the fragrant materials burned to clean the air and therefore the spirit. Since the angel Metatron sees fit to deliver his messages to the world nowadays via the guitar of Carlos Santana, it only makes sense that the as yet unnamed angel of perfume chooses to speak through an unassuming Swiss chemist from Zurich with a mustache and a buttoned shirt. L'Air du Désert is talented amateur perfumer Andy Tauer's second fragrance, after the rich oriental rose of Maroc pour Elle; one hale breath of Désert's vast spaces clears the head of all the world's nonsense. There is something about the ancient smell of these resins (styrax, frankincense) that on first inhalation strikes even this suburban American Protestant with no memories of mass as entirely holy, beautiful, purifying, lit without shadow from all sides. Even without the fragrance's name to prompt me, I would still feel the same peace when smelling it that I've felt only once before, when driving across the Southwestern desert one morning: all quiet, no human habitation for miles, the upturned bowl of the heavens infinitely high above, and the sage and occasional quail clutching close and gray to the dun earth. Each solitary object stood supersaturated with itself, full to the brim, sure to spill over if subjected to the slightest nudge. Wear this fragrance and feel the cloudless sky rush far away above you. TS
Eternity for Men (Calvin Klein) * * * mandarin lavender
An interesting twist on the perennially pleasant citrus-lavender accord using the (musically speaking) flattened note
of mandarin rather than straight citrus, or the corresponding sharp of lime. This is a very skillfully composed and
likable fragrance, but I wish more cash had been spent on the formula. It smells good but cheap, which would be
fine if the overall structure were unpretentious as in Cool Water, whereas it is distinctly aspirational.
Spellbound (Estée Lauder) * medicated treacle
Powerfully cloying and nauseating. Trails for miles. Frightens horses. Gets worse. TS
Tommy Girl (Tommy Hilfiger) * * * * * tea floral
No fragrance in recent memory has suffered more from being affordable than Tommy Girl. It’s as if it were deemed
less desirable for being promiscuous. Despite all the historical evidence to the contrary (Brut, Canoe, Habanita, and
the first J-Lo), the world is still crawling with naïve snobs who’d rather believe their wallet’s loss than their nose’s
gain. Tommy Girl’s origins were explained to me by creator Calice Becker, who was brought up in a Russian
household, with a samovar always on the boil and a mother with a passion for strange teas. At Becker’s instigation,
the legendary chemist Roman Kaiser of Givaudan sampled the air in the Mariage Frères tea store in Paris to figure
out what gave it its unique fragrance. From this a tea base was evolved, in which no one showed much interest. The
idea waited several years until Elléna’s excellent but only remotely tea-like Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert (Bulgari) came
out in 1993. Its success made it possible for Becker to submit a tea composition for the Hilfiger brief. She won it,
eleven hundred formulations later the perfume was finalized, in collaboration with a brilliant evaluator who went on
to study philosophy. Tea makes excellent sense as a perfumery base, since it can be declined in dozens of ways, as
flavored teas will attest: Soochong, Earl Grey, jasmine, and so on. In that respect it could serve as a modern chypre,
a mannequin to be dressed at will. Tommy Girl clothed it in a torero’s trafe de luces, a fresh floral accord so
exhilaratingly bright that it could be used to set the white point for all future fragrances. Remarkably, late in the
project, Hilfiger’s PR firm asked Becker to give them so e reason to label the fragrance as typically American.
Quest’s resident botany expert was called in, and to everyone’s surprise found that the composition fell neatly into
several blocks, each apparently typical of a native American botanical. So it goes with projects whose sails are filled
by the breath of angels. LT
The composition miraculously turned out to fall into accords typical of native American botanicals? Put me on
record as skeptical. Tommy Girl smells great, though, and has been copied relentlessly. TS
Beauty Rush Appletini (Victoria's Secret) * Jolly Rancher
Victoria's Secret has determined that its customers need (1) cleavage and (2) to smell precisely like dime-store
candy. You may discern an implicit insult to the male mind in this pair of facts. TS
"Ravishingly entertaining. . . . Its blend of technical knowledge and evocative writing is exemplary in the strict sense: people who write about smell and taste should use it as an example."
-The New Yorker
"As vivid as any criticism I've come across in the last few years, and what's more a revelation: part history, part swoon, part plaint."
-Jim Lewis, Slate