When I was in my late twenties, I lived next door to an older Englishwoman who worked the perfume counter at Saks in Beverly Hills. She would feed my cat salmon croquettes, so I usually knew where to find him -- at her back door -- and she would bring me samples of all the latest perfumes.
It’s hard to imagine this now, but there was a time when perfume companies actually gave out samples of extrait. I think back on some of the stuff she gave me. Diva, Moschino, Nahema -- Chanels, Balmains. You get the idea. I still have a few of these, but they’re cooked. I didn’t know back then that you weren’t supposed to let perfumes sit in bright light. I kept them in a silver bowl on my dresser, which was next to a south-facing window. The horror!
Anyway, she gave me a big sample of Le Must de Cartier Parfum. I made it last.
The modern version of Must that Luca Turin called “cheap Russian chocolate” is a sort of generic, overly sweet amber which hardly resembles the original at all. It was one of the first decants I ordered, when I discovered decants, and that was when I also discovered that some perfumes weren’t quite the same. All I knew about Must back then, and it was all I needed to know then, was that it made me feel like a messy, luscious early-eighties femme fatale. That’s powerful stuff.
People who don’t wear perfume fail to appreciate one very important thing. It’s not about smelling this way or that way to others. It’s about feeling, and projecting, a certain persona. If you feel beautiful and alluring, it gets out there. Others pick up on it. It’s the real reason for perfume.
The Must, to me at 28, smelled like a night spent in bed, not alone. So I’d wear it when I went out, which I did a lot, because I worked in the music business and had to keep up with the new. I had a taste for the underground, too. (Last night, “Less Than Zero” was on and I watched it for a few minutes. Remember the scene where the couple combs late-night L.A. , looking for their coke-addled friend? All the speakeasy clubs and so on? Uh-huh; I recognized every one of them.) But if I knew I’d be going to a place where all the women would be wearing black, I’d sometimes wear white -- and Must. Look like an angel; smell like the devil herself.
In one of those strange synergies, I’d been expecting a package from a reader who had seen a comment I’d left somewhere about the original Must, and offered to send me a mini -- of the perfume! I forgot to pick up some mail, but remembered this morning, and there it was. (Thank you, Sharon! Your generosity overwhelms me.)
Alright, already, what does it smell like?
Galbanum. Musk. Amber. Leather. Tobacco. Vanilla. More.
The torn-leaf galbanum hits first, and then the leather. It’s not a bitter overdose of isobutyl quinoline, but something smoother and deeper. There are ambers, but they’re not sugary. Musks, deep down. Opopanax. (I’m still not the greatest at identifying “notes.”) But I can tell you that it’s a rich, not sweet, complex, dark, after-midnight scent, similar to vintage Shalimar but with a smoother ride. I guess if I had to classify it now, I’d call it a leathery Oriental.
Of course, back then I just knew it smelled goooood...and made me feel, well, I already mentioned that.
I’ll wear this the next time I go out, with my husband, to whom I’ve been married nearly twenty years. I was wearing Must the night I met him.
Happy Valentine’s Day, everybody!
(Check here Tuesday, Feb. 15 after 6 a.m U.S. Eastern time, when I’ll post the name of the winner of the Barbara Bui and Miller Harris samples.)
The painting is “Love on the Lookout” (some sources say “Cupid on the Lookout”) by William Adolphe Bouguereau, 1890. Image in Public Domain, from WikiMedia.