My Life in Fragrance
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My Life in Fragrance

A decades-long tale of love, lust, and infidelity.

I've managed to remain faithful in marriage, but in matters of fragrance I am a total tramp. I've always wanted a signature scent, one that smelled so good on me people would remember me by it. But I wound up with a bedroom full of bottles, every single one of which I promised to love forever and eventually jilted. Love was divine while it lasted. I'd indulge in public displays of affection, sniffing my own wrist when I thought that nobody was looking. But sooner or later, I'd run off with something new.

As with men, there's a type I usually fall for, and that type has its roots in my youth. My mother loved the classic Guerlain scents, which were at once fresh, sweet, powdery, and sensual -- a sparkle of bergamot at the top, then (it was said) rose, jasmine, iris, vanilla, and tonka bean. Guerlain fragrances differed greatly from one another but they all shared that combination of notes, like one fascinating actress appearing in many plays. And, like plays, good fragrances had plots: They would start out with a shot of something fresh and surprising and then, depending on your skin chemistry, develop into something else entirely. I think it was this drama that hooked me. You could assume a new identity with just one spritz.

A piano teacher I was especially close to in my teens wore Vent Vert, a Balmain fragrance so green and clear it rang out like sweet reason in a time of idiocy. It was everything a signature scent should be: absolutely the wearer's, and unlike anything else. Its intensity came from the plant resin galbanum, the grand daddy of all green notes. This was in the '70s, when sweet, spicy orientals were in vogue; my college dorm smelled of Shalimar and pot. But I wanted to be the kind of woman who wore something less sweet and more sophisticated. When Halston (a green/floral/woodsy chypre) came out in 1975, I fell -- and fell hard.

Must we speak of the '80s? The big hair, the huge shoulder pads (dented unbecomingly by purse straps) and, yes, the "power" fragrances -- big, fruity florals and floral orientals -- that could knock you over at 30 paces. Giorgio Perfume, by the Beverly Hills designer of the same name, was among the most popular. (I remember a sign in a New York City restaurant that read "No Pipe Smoking and No Giorgio.") This was the decade when I ran for cover, literally, from those department store vultures who would swoop right in and spritz you. I wore Pheromone by Marilyn Miglin, which was pretty strong but wonderfully green, clean and resin-y.

The early '90s were tough for me because of the popularity of the ozone fragrances, which smelled like sea and sun to everyone else but like insect repellent to me. There were also a lot of fruity, melon-y scents that smelled like candy or shampoo; I began to feel like an old crank. But the '90s also saw the rise of small, adventurous fragrance houses like Annick Goutal and L'Artisan Parfumeur, and suddenly I was back in that childhood world where every fragrance was its own little drama.

Today there are so many perfumers with interesting things to say that I can go to the fragrance counter, ask for the notes I love and choose from dozens of new scents -- the best kind of speed dating. Prada, a designer whose clothes I can neither fit into nor afford, makes perfumes I can live in. I can go to Jo Malone for freshness, Serge Lutens for adventurousness, and yes, Guerlain, for new takes on the woodsy orientals I've come to love. The thing is, I haven't found one scent I can commit to. I'm still ready to wake up with someone new.

Good Fragrances Tell Stories

Read on for the plotlines of nine of our fall favorites.

Celine Dion Signature, $33.50
The plot: A willowy chanteuse takes a break from her show on the Vegas Strip to create an olfactory avatar for her fans because...well, because you loved her. Supporting cast: mimosa blossom, guava, jasmine, and sandalwood.

Lancome Paris Tresor Midnight Rose, $44
The plot: Like werewolves and vampires, you have your own circadian cycle: As the lights go down, your inner gamine comes out, and woe to any unsuspecting man in her path. Supporting cast: raspberry, jasmine, pink pepper, rose, and vanilla.

Heidi Klum Shine, $35
The plot: As the days get shorter, your skin paler and your pajamas cozier, a Teutonic fairy godmother brings you bottled summer sun to awaken your dormant, gossamer-clad nymph. Supporting cast: mandarin, pear, lily of the valley, mimosa, and more.

Avon Step into Sexy Eau de Parfum, $28
The plot: You discover that -- much like twirling in place turned Lynda Carter into Wonder Woman -- spritzing this on turns your tame self into your devastatingly sexy alter ego. Supporting cast: black raspberry, freesia, and rosewood.

Calvin Klein Forbidden Euphoria, $80
The plot: The Good Girl turns Girl Gone Wild after experimenting with this mood-altering substance. Supporting cast: mandarin, tiger orchid, jasmine, patchouli, and musk.

Oscar de la Renta Live in Love Eau de Parfum, $98
The plot: A certain debonair designer scours the gardens of his Dominican Republic and Connecticut estates for the makings of a love potion that's equal parts freshness and seduction. Supporting cast: ginger orchid, bergamot, hyacinth, and orange flower.

Yves Rocher Moment de Bonheur, $58
The plot: As the English subtitle (Moment of Happiness) would suggest, this one's a parable about stopping to smell the roses. Supporting cast: rose (duh), geranium, cedar, and patchouli.

Vera Wang Lovestruck, $68
The plot: You're innocently going about your business when out of nowhere a little winged dude seems to be pointing -- is that an arrow? -- at you. Suddenly, texts from your husband produce an inexplicable flush. Supporting cast: angelica flower, tuberose, guava, and sheer musk.

Tom Ford Violet Blonde, $100
The plot: A demigod of the fashion firmament descends to bestow opulence and elegance on whosoever shall sample his elixir. Supporting cast: violet, iris root, jasmine, and more.

-- Abbie Kozolchyk