As a Now Smell This reader, you likely view top notes differently from the average perfume consumer. A perfumista like you has learned to appreciate design in fragrance and to heap scorn on the scent that snares with a few fleeting bits of flash. You are shocked and dismayed when, mere moments after the sales assistant hands over a blotter, a time-crunched husband or brand-loyal shopaholic announces: "Wrap it up!" You would like to warn this impulsive stranger. You know this purchase can only end in heartache, a heartache wreathed in a pale floral laundry musk. You are a specialist, though, and you understand your message is complicated. Perhaps you should draw a fragrance pyramid on the back of this napkin you found in your pocket, or scribble down a quick glossary? Suddenly, you are assailed by the memory of that time a friend mentioned wearing Marc Jacob Daisy — "Is that a good perfume?" — and you forgot yourself somehow and ended up giving a short lecture on strawberry doll-head accords and the volatility of certain esters.1 ("I like the bottle," your baffled friend replied.) Okay, so you're probably not going to make much headway here.
The flip side of our suspicion of a great top note is... well, everyone likes a great top note. Many of us fragrance fans carry about atomizers or sample vials, so we can reapply and get that glorious hit of green/citrus/spice/fruit/skank again. ("Didn't you just put that on an hour ago?" your baffled friend asks.) As a group, we're taught to praise holistic engineering, the perfume with all its gears meshed and rotating, a fragrant astronomical clock. But who is immune to that first peal of bells? For me, a breathtaking beginning is always worth smelling, even if that initial promise is frustratingly unfulfilled over the next few hours. Please find below five brief thrills, and feel free to fill me in on your favorites.
Amouage Memoir Woman: This starts with one of the most mouth-watering accords ever, a vivid bloom of mandarin orange, pepper, cardamom and lambskin leather, syrupy yet oddly delicate, like the love child of Fendi Theorema Parfum and Hermès Osmanthe Yunnan. Unfortunately, as in many of the mid-period Amouages — the Interludes and the first handful of Library Collection perfumes come to mind — the thread of the thing eventually gets lost, and instead of symphonic richness, you get improvisational jazz played through stadium speakers. Incense smoke! Fenugreek! Now, a rockrose solo with distortion! Those first ten minutes were what deserved elaboration.
Dior New Look 1947: Part of La Collection Privée Christian Dior, New Look 1947 begins with a beautiful caress of white petals, tuberose and jasmine mostly, both on their most ladylike behavior. Kissed with raspberry, peach and violet notes and set against a soothing, cold cream touch of ylang-ylang, this bouquet is perfect and tender. Very shortly after, though, you are left with a powdery vanilla murmur. Oh well. Rewind.
Hermès Elixir des Merveilles: At the risk of alienating most of you, I will admit I never quite caught the brilliance of Hermès Eau des Merveilles. The orange opening sparkles better on paper, in my opinion, and the salted skin scent dry down is too fugitive for me. Wearing the original, sniffing around, I feel a bit foolish. Aha! There is the ambergris. No wait, that's... me. Oh, and this sweet bit over here is my Aveeno hand lotion. Hmm. The Elixir flanker, on the other hand, starts with a glorious burst of sunny orange, a opening hook for the compulsively spray-happy. The intensity soon fades, of course, and the dry down is a caramel-colored vaguely amber thing. But that orange!
Chanel Bel Respiro: Other than Bel Respiro, there are relatively few contemporary perfumes that start with a fortepiano. The Different Company Bois d'Iris is comparable: a big earthy chord of iris root, immediately followed by some delicate violet shading. (Bois d'Iris shares an interesting, honey-like late dry down with the Chanel, too.) Such fragrances probably require a good dose of natural floral materials. I always thought Chanel should do a Parfum version of Bel Respiro to highlight both the greenery and the rosy glow of the top notes, but then again, an Extrait might be less gentle and affecting.
Donna Karan DKNY Be Delicious: I don't own a bottle, but every time I go by the green apple bottle of the original Be Delicious at the mall, I have to spritz a juicy cloud into the air.
1. Not that this has ever happened to me, but I'm guessing you shouldn't bring up how you once researched the commercial uses of methyl-cinnamate. It's the kind of thing that gives you a reputation around the office.