Remember the film “Moscow on the Hudson,” about a Soviet-era musician who defects to the US and moves to Manhattan? (Hint: played by Robin Williams.) A fair amount of treacle, but one truly great scene: he goes to an American supermarket to buy coffee. Directed to the coffee aisle, he stands, astonished, staring at the hundreds of brands and roasts and cans and bags. Unable to choose, he has a sort of fit, muttering “Coffee, I only wanted coffee!”
I used to feel like this when trying to choose a new shampoo, for example. Fifty, a hundred, two hundred kinds, when all I wanted was clean hair.
Now, it’s samples, and decants and even bottles. I had gotten so backlogged with samples, from swaps and "gotta try this" purchases and so on, that I began to avoid them. After all, it’s nine a.m., and I just want to smell good. But I also need to experiment, contrast and compare, and, well, keep up (and have something to write about). What to do, what to do.
Here’s what: I put them all in a gift bag. Here’s the new routine: reach in and retrieve a sample -- no putting back, now, I am bound by honor to try it, whatever it is. Pour the entire vial’s contents into the palm of my hand. Apply to the usual places. Wear until gone. Take occasional notes. Rate on the following scale:
5 stars: Help me somebody!
4 stars: A near-swoon
3 stars: Special
2 stars: A decent everyday wear
1 star: I wouldn’t pay for it
0 stars: celebrity skin
This method, while not exactly “blind,” -- the samples are labeled -- is a great way to try things I might otherwise avoid. And, while I don’t expect to ever really reach the bottom of the grab bag, I’ll at least make progress, and we’re all about progress, are we not?
So here’s the first batch, exactly in the order retrieved, and my impressions.
Serge Lutens Vanille: a nice boozy caramel vanilla. Very foody. Made me hungry. A vanilla milkshake with brandied caramel in the bottom. Lasted about 4 or 5 hours. 3 stars
Fracas: Applied a 1/2 ml vial to my wrists and chest this morning. So far it's been about seven hours and it's still going strong. I wore it to the grocery store a little while ago. Sometimes you can tell people are smelling you, you know? I think I was cutting a fairly wide swath down that aisle. But in a good way. And the checker was nicer than usual.
Tuberose/rubber/heat. It speaks in a high voice, although I was expecting a low growl. Just Not Me. 2.5 stars.
Back to Black by Kilian: A combination of pipe tobacco, cherry syrup (maybe cherry pipe tobacco?) and vanilla. After 2 or 3 hours only vanilla; after six it's a generic heliotrope/vanilla with a slight Play-Doh note. I don't know what all the fuss was about. 2 stars.
Nuit Noire by Mona di Orio: This has the most compelling final drydown but it is unidentifiable as any particular flower or vanilla. I think it must be the civet. Truly delicious and sexy. Opening: 1.5 stars (too fecal) Drydown: 4 stars.
Ambre Extreme by L'Artisan: At first I thought the vial was mislabeled. It opened with lots of vanilla. Then the amber kicked in -- or was that just my expectation? Time will tell...3/4 hours later: yes, it’s tree resins. Opoponax/labdanum and/or synthetics, + vanilla. 6:30 pm: can still smell it. But it’s beginning to fade an hour later. Still a very nice amber. 3 stars.
Habanita by Molinard (modern formula): I put this on by mistake on a very cold night (I thought it was My Sin.) I’d written negatively about the vintage formula last year, saying it was all choking powder. But this smelled fantastic. One spray on a sweater lasted all through the evening. It is a dark scent for dark nights, a tobacco-based oriental, very out of time, and it made me feel even more a femme fatale than the My Sin does (and incidentally, the two layer well.) Winter only. 4 stars.
Patchouli 25 by Le Labo: It’s true! Smoke and leather and a little, tiny bit of patch. Put on around 10:25 a, about 1 1/2 mls. 2:45 - smokiness only. 5:30: ash. (How do they do that?) Ends with a vague vanillic smokiness. I think this is a man’s scent. A real good one, but not for me. 2.5 stars.
New York by Parfums de Nicolai: Amber and orange, and opens with a wonderful citrusy blast, reminding me of the old “L’Eau de Hadrien.” Which then turns toward orange. Longevity only medium so far on skin though. Very pretty and powdery in drydown. This was a swap; I’m wondering how old the bottle was, as it’s rumored that the PdN’s have been reformulated. This formula: 3.5 stars.
Parfum Sacre by Caron: Pleasant. Just pleasant, rosy but mostly powdery with only a tiny bit of the bitterness at the very beginning. Short-lived too. This was an old 1 ml sample from a swap. I wonder what the vintage would be like. 1 star.
L’Aimant Cologne by Coty (vintage): This is one for spraying all over yourself. A pretty light aldehydic floral followed by a gentle powderiness. I think this would be perfect in warm spring weather or for the gym. Can be pumped up nicely by using the perfume with it. 2.5 stars.
Cartier Les Heures du Parfum XIII La Treizieme: New sample. Opens with black tea, Lapsang Souchong, very pungent and smoky. I used to call this “barbecue tea.” Later: tea. Later: tea. Later: (after some perspiring): tea. I like tea, but not enough to go around smelling like a chest full of it. 3 stars for special-ness, 1 for the possibility of actual wearing.
Parfums de Rosine La Rose: Sample, about a year old. Sprayed whole thing on. At first I thought this would be a rose soliflore but it’s not -- not rose anyway. Opens with a bergamot or citrus and maybe aldehydes, and then begins screaming “Violet! Violet! Violet!” I think this is a perfume for a well-off well-coiffed French grandmother. Maybe a violet cologne from the era of Napoleon smelled like this. Reminds me of the elderly French woman in the 2nd class train compartment with us in southern France who said riding backward made her ill, and insisted on switching sides with us every time the train changed direction.
Hours later: still screaming, except now there’s some choking too, from all the powder. Tried to wash it off with witch hazel but only got part of it. 0.5 stars.
Five hours later: it’s still here, aaarrrraguuuhhhh!
Much later: finally the violet is beginning to recede, but much too late. 0 stars.
...and there you have it, a dozen opinions; nothing more, nothing less.
Illustration © Georgios Kollidas|Dreamstime.com